I awoke for the third and final time during the night at 5 a.m. Unable to sleep due to my jetlag as well as my frantic fits of itching the mosquito bites on my legs which have swollen over the past day, I decided to abandon my bed altogether and start the day early. I set out just as the red sky was peaking out through the smoggy clouds over the river. Locals were out jogging on the dusty paths along the riverside while others were just starting to set out their goods on the sidewalks. From every corner, tuk tuk drivers beckoned to me and to each one I offered a smile and fumbled over a response, to which one declared “exercise is good for you!”
The tuk tuk drivers are some of the most interesting people I have come across so far, whether they are laying in hammocks they have strung up across the back of their carts or eagerly questioning you in broken English — until you let on that you speak French and they open up and commence chattering about their lives. For instance this morning, I met a middle-aged man named Siem, who drove us from the morning market back to our hotel before we attended the days’ conferences. The wrinkles around his eyes crinkle when he smiles and his eyes light up when he talks about his children, a son of 16 and a daughter of 10. His wife died six years ago, a fact he divulges with sobriety but does not dwell on. He says he speaks French because he was educated as a doctor abroad before returning to Laos to work for the government. But the government, he said, did not pay enough and he is now retired from the doctor profession and a tuk tuk driver.
His living situation is somewhat unusual: he lives in a house purchased by a French couple for $40,000 in exchange for his labor. At the end of the week, the cost of his hours of labor is subtracted from the $40,000 total instead of him receiving the pay in cash. He remains essentially indebted to the French couple until he breaks even; it is unclear whether this tie will ever be ended and the arrangement reeked of servitude. But he does not complain of this, nor does he complain about the higher cost of living in or nearby Vientiane instead of further out into the countryside. He admits that this life is difficult, then he smiles and inquires about your own life back in America. It’s not until he turns around at the end of the ride to wish you “au revoir” that you realize he cannot look directly at you but instead stares at a point somewhere behind you, as if something incredibly fascinating is taking place there.
Talks like this with the Vientiane locals serve as reminders of the large socio-economic gap that continues to exist in this country, as well as in the world as a whole. Despite the streets heavily populated by brand-new SUVs, it is impossible to not to be reminded of this as you walk through the city.