Location: Vientiane, Laos
This whole situation is too surreal for me to properly process. People keep telling me I’m in shock when I calmly explain that in the past week I’ve been in a motorcycle crash, almost watched a man die, been detained, and that my friend’s passport is being held by the Laotian police until the Australian embassy can figure out how to get it back - which may involve paying a large sum of blood money.
But here I am, elbows propped up on a pillow, typing this out on a hotel bed in Vientiane where we’re staying until things get sorted. That corny, feel-good Julia Roberts movie, Stepmom, is playing on HBO, the only English channel we have, for the second time in three days. As the ticker across the top of the screen flashes that Notting Hill is coming up next, I hear Baby groan from his spot on the bed beside me.
“Not again…” Baby says. This is the third time Notting Hill has come on this week.
“I’m impressed by the size of HBO’s Julia Roberts boner.” I say.
“Whoever is in charge of HBO’s movie choices here needs to get fired.” Cody says.
It’s just another day in Vientiane, waiting.
We’ve spent more than our fair share of time in this hotel room. It’s been three days since Cody, Jack, and I were released from the police station and bused back to Vientiane. But it wasn’t until today that Jack even had a meeting a representative with the Australian Embassy. The ambassador, Jody, basically told him they couldn’t help until the weekend and public holiday (International Women’s Day) had passed. Everything in Laos was currently closed. Jody had actually come to visit Jack on her day off. We weren’t even sure if Jack’s passport was in the Nakam police station or one in Vientiane.
Everything we know about the case revolves around government bureaucracy and corruption. We’ve learned the tourist’s lesson of cultural divide the hard way: even if one of the locals runs you down with his moped and gets injured because his helmet isn't on securely, it’s your fault. The reigning mindset is that if you weren’t in the country, the accident never would have happened. Police don’t want to handle investigations, but if it comes to that, the process could take months and you’d probably be found guilty anyway because of your status as a foreigner.
No one has mentioned the exact figures for compensation, but it’s not looking like there’s a way around paying it, whatever it is. Jack’s also been in touch with his travel insurance, but they’re refusing to pay out because, as they stated several times to him via email and over the phone they "don’t support government corruption.” If Jack was injured or if he was actually at fault, they’d cover him, but since he was a pedestrian and technically the biker should be at fault, they aren’t liable. It’s all just a big, mind-fucking loophole.
Every few hours or so I find myself unzipping my backpack and slipping my hand into the fitted pocket where I've tucked away my own passport. Just running my fingertips over the plastic-cloth cover, holding the weight of that little blue book in my hand, comforts me. Watching Jack sweat over the fate of his own international identification document these past few days constantly reminds me how lucky I am, that it could have been me that stepped out into the road.
And luck has been with me recently. Yesterday, after a flurried, breathless search and the help of several kind Laotian strangers in the maze of Vientiane’s morning marketplace, I was able to meet up with the Laotian woman who we’d hitchhiked with to Nakam and in whose pick up truck I’d left my Samsung Galaxy III. When we found each other in the market and locked eyes, I threw myself at her in an utterly un-kosher hug, which she embraced with open arms. She refused to take any payment for keeping my phone safe and bringing it back to me. That little lady will forever remain my Guardian Angel.
From the corner of my eye I can see Baby flicking through messages on my phone, its shiny ruby-red plastic cover glinting in the afternoon light. He’s checking the ad we put up for his motorbike, which he rode back from Vientiane the day we spent at the police station. The bike actually broke down on his way back, leaving him stranded in another teeny village. It took him hours to find a mechanic that could understand him and he ended up spending almost $50 replacing the entire engine before it was road-worthy again.
Fortunately, the ex-pat blog we posted the ad on has had a steady stream of hits. He’s hoping to sell the bike to a Portuguese guy later today for $150. I actually wrote the ad the night we stayed in Nakam and, for obvious reasons, felt obliged to leave out our recent accident and short-term ownership of the bike itself, so I fibbed that Baby was on the way to Thailand and just didn’t need it anymore. Now, the potential buyer wanted to pay half in Baht, the Thai currency.
Baby shoots me another dirty look as he replies to message. “What am I supposed to do with Baht?” He grumbles. I chuckle to myself.
Cody is lying on his back on the other side of me; he hasn’t been able to do much more than shuffle down to the nearest street food joint over the past few days. He carefully clicks away at his Chromebook’s keyboard, the first draft of his novel filling out across the digital page. The wounds on his knees, forearms, and palms have kept him mostly bedridden. His blanket is stained with a nauseating mixture of iodine and pus. But both he and I have been cleaning and sterilizing our scrapes on a daily basis and so far neither of us seem to be suffering from infection.
When I peer out the window, I can see Jack, Jody, and the Australian film crew for the show, The Embassy, at the French cafe across the road. Jack signed away the rights to his story this afternoon, and the events of the past few days will soon be edited into a segment of the “banged-up abroad” style series. It’s strange knowing you’ve taken part in an event so out of the ordinary that people think it’ll make good TV. But Jack’s fifteen minutes of fame have helped distract all of us from the seriousness and monotony of the past few days and I’m glad for the excuse to laugh as the film crew does what seems like the seventh take of him and Jody shaking hands, re-enacting their first ever meeting, again.
Jack wanders back into the room as Julia Roberts’s character's hormone-addled, adolescent stepdaughter confronts her with one of the most overused lines in films and shows about step-family relationships.
“I don’t have to listen to you, you’re not my mother!”
Julia, in her oversized, colorful 80’s garb, her posture, hair, and manicure perfect (as a young stepmother’s always is), doesn’t miss a beat with her own selfish, stereotypical line.
“Thank God for that!”
Jack shuts the door and I peel my eyes away from overplayed scene. “Is it okay if The Embassy films us all playing cards or something, tonight? They said they’ll buy us a round of beers if we do.”
We all kind of nod, half-interested. There’s nothing on television, anyway.