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The Rainy Season: “Lao-style”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

Sleep came, eventually, but it was fitful and foreboding as my thoughts and dreams had too many visitors—and none had been especially pleasant. I wore my Birkenstocks sans socks—or as my oldest niece would say, “the way God intended”—and left the hotel at first light to explore Pakse on foot and dry ground. Pete was already on mechanic duty beneath the front portico. He had borrowed tools again and was tinkering with his bike-with-a-motor.

“Everything okay?”

Pete shook his head. “No English.”

“Bo-ben-nyung?”

Pete grinned. “Bo-ben-nyung.”

The sun was reddish-orange on the distant horizon. It reflected brilliantly against turbulent waters that were once again confined to the Mekong. How long it would stay that way was anyone’s guess, but for the moment it was beautiful and serene.

Lao-style.

The kind you could get used to in a hurry.

Laos is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Communists with a totalitarian mindset rule the tiny landlocked nation, and its people are isolated geographically, politically, and economically from the western world. Or said differently, the nearest Starbucks is in Bangkok. But I found Dao Coffee just up the street from the tourist hotel. I had my favorite breakfast—croissants with strawberry jam and English breakfast tea—and did my best to ignore the French architecture and ambiance. One street over I found the morning market with its stalls of fish, spices, fruits and vegetables. It was barely six a.m. but whole families were hard at work—dads, moms and kids. Cows, goats, dogs and chickens shared the streets with motorbikes, tractors and bongo trucks that ferried goods from the river.

The people were friendly.

I’d heard that about Laos, and it seemed to be true. Kids chased after me in the street, waving and yelling, “Hello! Hello! Hello!”

They mimicked Soukpa’s O when I said, “Sabaidee.”

A girl who might have been eleven or twelve was wearing sandals and shorts and an Angry Birds tee shirt like the one I’d seen in Lucy’s cubbyhole. The girl said, “Mister, you buy fruit. Okay?”

I thought about how long today’s journey would be, and I said, “Okay, show me.”

Her eyes lit up. “Here!” she said, and then took my arm and pulled me into the market. Some vendors had stalls with tables, while others sat on the dirt floor with blankets—but the girl led me to a corner near the back of the market where an older woman sat in a plastic lawn chair.

The woman stood and said, “Sabaidee.”

“Sabaidee,” I replied.

An assortment of fruits, vegetables and spices were in neat piles on a blanket. The girl asked, “How much you want?”

“Enough for three people on a long boat ride.”

“What kind you want?”

“Surprise me.”

The girl laughed, and then she filled three shopping bags with enough apples, strawberries, grapes, bananas and tangerines to feed Noah and his family for forty days and forty nights.

“How much?” I asked.

The girl held up a calculator. It read: 15,000.

“Fifteen thousand kip?” That’s roughly one dollar and eighty cents. I gave the girl 50,000 kip and said, “Khawp jai deuh.”

The girl smiled and said, “Thank you, nice American.”

I noticed a beat-up motorbike against the wall. It was close cousins with Pete’s wheels. “Is that your motorbike?”

The girl nodded.

“How old are you?”

“Fourteen.”

Older than I thought. “You know the tourist hotel beside the river?”

“I know it.”

I offered her another 50,000 kip and asked, “Can you deliver?”

Her eyes got big. “Take fruit hotel?”

“Yeah. Can you do that?”

The girl smiled and said, “Doi, doi, doi.” Half-a-beat later she had fired up the motorbike. The girl bleeped the horn, Indira-esque, and then she began to sway left, right, left through the crowded market. She bleeped the horn again and disappeared into the street.

I nodded to the older lady and said, “Khawp jai deuh.”

“Nice day,” she replied.

On the other side of the market I saw a small boy with a bamboo yoke across his shoulders. His arms were outstretched, like he was hanging on a cross. He used the yoke to carry baskets made from banana leaves and filled with fish.

I didn’t need a fish.

But I bought one anyway. A second boy had a rusty scale. My fish clocked in at one-point-two kilograms and it stank worse than putrid water. The boys wrapped it in paper, secured it with twine, and tied it off with a loop for a handle. Maybe ten years old and yet they’d already been doing this for a lifetime, with no end in sight.

I thought about Jakarta.

This area wasn’t as forlorn as the slums in Jakarta’s third ring, but it had a desperate feel nonetheless. I would have labeled it third ring, except I hadn’t seen a first or second ring. But maybe my view was too narrow. Pakse is the only “large” city in Champasak Province—and I write it “large” because its population is 80,000 give or take (Jakarta proper has ten million residents, and if you count Jakarta’s greater metro area—which includes places like Bogor—that number jumps to twenty-plus). Pakse doesn’t have Grand Hyatt, Tiffany’s or Gucci … but everything is relative. If Pakse was more economically viable than its surrounding areas, then Pakse was the first ring. If so, then the villages surrounding Pakse would be the second ring. You would need the river to reach the third ring. It would be the island villages downriver, near Cambodia, where Soukpa and Pete lived with their dying father. It was with that somber thought that I returned to the hotel and found Soukpa and Pete ready to go.

Pete’s bike-with-a-weed-whacker-motor was in a sullen and uncooperative mood. Pete yanked the pull cord and the motor spit a plume of misty, pitch-black smoke. He yanked the pull cord a second time and the motor whined for a beat and then quit. Pete was winding up for a third crack at it when the first men began to appear. They wore sandals and cotton slacks and frayed tee shirts like the ones my dad used for rags when he changed the oil in his old pickup truck. I have no idea where they came from. Pete’s shaved head glistened in the early morning light. Incessant rain yesterday, incredible heat today … that’s the rainy season, Lao-style.

Soukpa gave me a “what can you do” smile. “Sorry.”

“Bo-ben-nyung.” The men heard me and laughed in ways that would have made Indira proud. I asked Soukpa, “What does doi mean?”

“You learn new word? It mean yes.”

Pete yanked the pull cord one last time. The motor spit and whined and came to life, and then it quit. Pete and Soukpa had a short conversation, after which Pete took a length of rope and fastened one end to Soukpa’s motorbike. He climbed onto his bike, and held on tight to the other end of the rope.

“We pull him,” Soukpa said, needlessly.

I thought about Tosh.0. I said, “Okay.”

Soukpa laughed. “I think you really surprise what you see in my country.”

I thought about the dirt roads, pickup trucks and gun racks ubiquitous to backwoods Florida where I spent my childhood, and said, “It feels like home.”

Soukpa donned her gloves and mask, and then secured her helmet. “Today you see my home. You ready?”

I straddled the seat behind Soukpa, and said, “Doi, doi, doi.”

“I love fish,” Soukpa said. “Really good idea.” Eel-lee.

We sat on upside down buckets, but my backside had it good compared to the fish. Soukpa had stuck a metal skewer down its throat and out its butthole, and now it was being cooked over an open fire pit on the freighter’s deck. “I think I’ll stick with the fruit. Maybe some rice.” Soukpa had a basket of sticky rice. Whether she’d brought it from home or bought it in Pakse, I had no idea.

“You see mountain?” Soukpa indicated a picturesque peak to our right.

“I see it.”

“Is Thailand. My father family come from that mountain.”

“Your father is Thai?”

Soukpa nodded.

“And your mom was Christian.”

She laughed.

“Anything else I need to know?”

Soukpa thought for a moment, and her face grew serious. “My village is poor.”

“Yeah. I know. I’m sorry.”

“I think you believe me, but I not mean poor like Jakarta.”

It rain soon.

It’s been raining this whole time.

“Worse?”

“Doi.”

“Okay.”

The air was hazy and humid, and dense. Not stupid, but suffocating. The river wended its way through jungle canopy and sleepy villages with Thailand on one side and Laos on the other. Its waters were clear and cool in the Tibetan Plateau, but in these treacherous floodplains its currents were muddy, dark, and with the sun at a certain angle, blood red.

Herons, egrets, pheasants, pelicans and even a falcon made their presence known. Someone had brought a dog onto the freighter, and the birds sent it into a frenzy. It was a golden mutt—a mix of lab and something I couldn’t identify—and it ran back and forth, bow to stern, barking and leaping at birds that were a hundred meters away. Beneath the surface was nearly one thousand species of fish—including dolphins, snakeheads, stingrays, perch, featherbacks, bass and catfish that tip the scales at seven hundred pounds. The Mekong has created two hundred millionacres of biologically diverse habitats and is home to twenty thousand plant species, twelve hundred bird species, eight hundred reptile and amphibian species, and more than four hundred species of mammals—including elephants and the largest tiger habitat in the world.

I kept my feet in the boat.

Something I don’t always do in Florida.

The freighter delivered bulk cargo up and down the river. It was like a long haul trucker, with daily runs up and down I-95—but it also served as the Mekong’s version of a local courier service. The ship’s captain would sound a loud air horn and maybe thirty seconds later a canoe would sprint out from the shoreline and pull alongside to collect items someone had “ordered” from Pakse’s morning market. Money and small bags of goods were exchanged, and then we’d be on our way. Today the freighter had only seven passengers: me, Soukpa and Pete; a diminutive old man in bare feet, cotton drawstring pants, and a tattered tee shirt that billowed in the breeze; and a young mother who looked exceedingly sad, maybe mid-twenties, with her children, a boy and a girl.

Soukpa blanketed an area on the foredeck with banana leaves. She peeled tangerines and bananas and then used a bottle of water to wash apples, grapes and strawberries. We could’ve been on a beachfront lanai in a tropical paradise, that’s how spectacularly she arranged everything.

“It looks great,” I said.

Soukpa was as radiant now as Indira had been that night beneath the Chinese lanterns. “I really like food.” Then she used a knife to flake the fish meat into a woven basket. She got every bit of meat, and then went to work on the rest of the fish. Nothing edible was wasted.

“You cook every day?” I asked.

“Doi.” Soukpa laughed and added, “If I not cook, my family not eat.”

“Is this a good fish?”

“Really good.” Eel-lee. Soukpa placed the fish and sticky rice in the center of the banana leaves, then she gave me a big smile, and said, “Okay, we eat now.”

Pete had been tinkering with his bike. He used a ladle to draw water from a large barrel beside the enclosed cabin and washed—well, rinsed—his hands. The old man was asleep beneath an awning. The young mother sat quietly a few feet away. Her kids were playing with the dog, but they had also been watching us anxiously—hungrily—as Soukpa cooked the fish. Soukpa gathered the children and helped them rinse their hands. She woke the old man and spoke with the mother. The old man stood and stretched and rubbed his belly. The young mother hesitated at first, but finally she relented.

Soukpa asked me, “You can sit Lao-style?”

“I thought the bucket was Lao-style.”

Soukpa laughed. “Like this.” Think butterfly stretch from grade school gym class. Only Soukpa pulled her right leg so it was tucked in tight behind her—one leg in front, one in back.

I thought, this is gonna hurt. I said, “Easy.” I sat beside Soukpa and contorted my legs until I had one in front, one in back.

Soukpa made the big O. “You do good!”

I grimaced. “I love Lao-style.”

Soukpa laughed again, and then caught me completely off-guard. “We pray now.” She held out her hands the way my family had always done at Thanksgiving dinner. We joined hands, all seven of us. Soukpa spoke solemnly, “Thank you God, you give everything we need.” For a long beat everything was still and quiet. Even the river seemed to pause. Then Soukpa let go of my hand, and said, “American-style, right?”

“It is where I come from.”

Pete took our conversing as a green light and reached for the fish. Soukpa popped him in the shoulder. The old man laughed, Indira-esque. Pete shrugged rather sheepishly, and let the young mother and her kids go first. The girl grabbed a fistful of sticky rice, and I thought about Lucy.

The mother said, “Khawp jai deuh. Khawp jai deuh.”

Soukpa said, “Doi, doi, doi.”

Pete finally got his turn with the fish. I was the only one not eating.

Soukpa smiled at me. “You are surprise?”

I nodded.

But I didn’t say anything else. If I had tried to speak again, I wouldn’t have been able to stop my tears.

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The Rainy Season: “give me money and I will teach your student”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

Ask Uncle Google for “Korean Peninsula at night” and you get eerie satellite images that show South Korea all lit up while North Korea sits in the dark, literally. Jakarta has that same feel. Central Jakarta is lit up and vibrant, but the third ring is dark and even the air feels thick, heavy and desperate.

Indira warned, “This place is not safe.”

I thought, in general or only—

“For everyone. Muslims also,” she said, apparently reading my mind.

“Any radicalized madrasahs?”

“A few.”

“Wallach’s driver should be picking him up right now. It’s not too late. Make a phone call. Get him dropped off.”

“Oh come on Mr. Strange, how do you know I am not doing that to you?”

I glimpsed the Monas in the distance. It was built to memorialize a hard-fought war for independence, but here on a decaying street littered with rubbish it seemed impossibly far away. On this street the people were still at war.

The motorbike hit a pothole and we nearly found out who was right. God or Allah.

“Sorry,” Indira said. “Up ahead. You see green wall?”

“Yes.”

“We stop here.”

It was a T-intersection. Turn right, left, or crash into a green cinder block wall that was maybe ten meters across and two meters high. A roll of razor wire was strung along the top. Alleys ran at obtuse angles from either side of the wall. Indira jumped the curb and drove into the alley on our right. The wall continued on our left, running deeper. On the right side of the alley was a decrepit graffiti-rich building. Up ahead a steel barricade on wheels was ensconced into the wall. A gate, I guess. Indira killed the engine and called out in Bahasa. I heard movement on the other side of the wall, and then someone wrestled free a chain and very quickly the gate rolled open.

“Hurry,” Indira said. “Go inside.”

A young girl had opened the gate. I climbed off the motorbike and brushed past her. Indira pushed the motorbike inside and then the girl rolled the gate shut just as quickly as she had opened it.

It took a moment to process everything.

In truth, I hadn’t expected much … but some sort of building, surely. Instead I found something akin to a campsite. Or flea market stalls. In the center of the compound was a rectangular pavilion-type structure. It had a few columns made from cinder blocks. The four corners were supported with wooden posts. The roof was aluminum. It was built low and flat. The pavilion was partitioned horizontally and vertically with plastic sheeting to create stalls that might have been four meters deep and five meters across. Inside the stalls were people.

Families.

They used car batteries for electricity and fire pits for cooking. They sat on benches made from cinder blocks and two-by-fours. Clothes were strung on lines. Trash was strewn about. No sign of plumbing.

The young girl stared at me.

I thought she might be eleven or twelve years old. She wore shorts, tee shirt and sandals. Her hair was long and simple. I gave half-a-smile and said, “Hello.”

The girl took a step back. Afraid, I thought.

Indira said, “Her name is Rose. She never see foreigner before.”

This time I smiled with effort. “Hello, Rose.”

Rose bowed slightly and then ran off.

Indira said, “Follow her.”

The pavilion ran north to south and was partitioned lengthwise straight down the middle, with four stalls facing outward to the east, butted against four stalls facing outward to the west. A well-worn path made an oval track around the whole structure.

Rose went right, and we followed.

At the top of the oval a mother was outside bathing with her kids. They used ladles and urns and were unashamed to be naked. But I felt ashamed. On the west side of the pavilion was a small courtyard area. Maybe courtyard is the wrong word though. A fire burned in a steel drum. A few men sat around it, smoking cigarettes. A few tarps were secured to wooden posts and people slept beneath them. A step down from the stalls, as if such a thing was even possible. In the same area a handful of kids chased after a soccer ball. They saw me and were startled. Maybe they’d never seen a foreigner either.

Rose darted into one of the stalls.

It had a tarp draped from the roof for privacy. I could hear excited voices, but all I could see were furtive shadows against the tarp. A small group of men and children gathered around us. The men were just curious, I hoped.

“Is there a plan?” I asked, because I had no clue what was going on.

“We already talk plan. I give you to radicals,” Indira said, straight-faced. Then she smiled and added, “Trust me. You will see the plan. Okay?”

The tarp opened like a tent and a woman emerged from the stall. Unlike the men that had gathered around us, this woman had put considerable effort into her appearance. As if she’d been expecting company. She wore a modest dress and a hijab. Petite, attractive, maybe early forties. She smiled demurely and it felt familiar somehow. She folded her hands together and bowed, and then she embraced Indira. But Indira was much, much taller, and the woman had to stand on her toes.

Suddenly, everything clicked.

“Indira?”

Indira turned to me with a grim smile.

“Maya’s sister is named Rose.”

Indira nodded. “We go inside now.”

I used the word stall, but in fact this was Maya’s home. Maybe two hundred square feet, with a tin roof overhead and a tattered rug to cover the dirt floor below. “Is Maya here?” I asked.

Indira shook her head. “She stay my home.”

Tian and Faye were Maya’s parents. I shook hands with Tian. He was wiry, with coarse hands and dark skin from long days laboring outside. Rose was Maya’s only sibling. A family friend was here as well. Her name was Istira. Fortyish, I thought. Modestly dressed with a white hijab … but she was also pensive, and stressed. The adults sat on the rug and Rose served us tea.

“Terima kasih,” I said, to a chorus of oohs and aahs, as if an American learning exactly one expression of gratitude in a foreign culture was an impressive feat. Rose didn’t offer to serve any food. I was grateful for that as well. I didn’t want to take from people who had so little.

A radio blared from an adjacent stall. K-Pop. Weird, that I could understand the chorus. Kajima, kajima. Don’t go, don’t go. Weirder, that it was playing on a radio station in Jakarta. A lifetime ago I’d gone to see a Korean pop concert. I hadn’t understood a thing, and not just lyric-wise. The gyrating, rave-ish nature of it all had been lost to me. But now I longed to be in that time and place again, when the rapidly growing fascination with upbeat nonsensical millennials had been the greatest threat to American culture.

On the floor, I sat facing in, not out—and I felt anxious, exposed. A thin tarp was all that separated me from the curious onlookers who still hovered three steps away, but there was nothing I could do about it.

We sipped tea and made light conversation with Indira translating. It was interrupted when someone in the stall opposite Maya’s took a hellacious piss. He made tall arcs that hissed back and forth, beating hot contrails into the plastic that split the pavilion lengthwise. It left a pool of urine that seeped into Maya’s home.

Nothing I could do about that, either.

Istira held out a framed picture.

Indira said, “She would like you to look. Then she will tell you a story. I will translate for you after she finish.”

I nodded at Istira. “Sure.” I took the photo and listened as Istira told her story in Bahasa. I’d seen a thousand same-but-different photos. You have too. Your own, or your kids. Probably both. I found Maya pretty quick. That shy smile hadn’t changed. She was in the front row, because the back row is always for the tall kids. The photo was dated September 2003. Maya would have been thirteen back then. The teacher had been a very young woman. Mid-twenties, I thought. Like Chyka. I counted forty-three students, and I knew one of them had belonged to Istira. Some things are easily understood no matter the language.

Grief, for example.

Istira trembled as she spoke. I listened carefully. The words were lost to me, but I understood the pain. Istira took the frame again, and then showed me her daughter. Second row, third from the left. A tiny smirk, a bit confident, like she knew something no one else did. A beautiful girl, really. Istira finally grew quiet, and then Indira began to translate.

Istira’s daughter was Danisa and she had been missing since November 2003. But the story of how she went missing begins in 1997, with the crippling financial crisis that hit Asia—the same crisis that had led U.S. based flag carriers to discontinue flights to Seoul and made my first overseas assignment a no-joke GSL. Indonesia, Korea and Thailand had been the hardest hit countries. The Indonesian currency was in free fall as world markets dumped rupiah for U.S. dollars.

Until the crisis, one dollar bought 2,600 rupiah. In only a few weeks that same dollar bought 14,000 rupiah. Or said differently, 2,600 rupiah had been the equivalent of one American dollar—but now it was worth nineteen cents.

In real terms, everyone in Indonesia was getting poorer. And the crisis was exacerbated by the fact Indonesian companies with foreign debt had to repay loans using American dollars. Imagine if all your debt increased five-fold overnight. Essentially that’s what happened to Indonesian companies, but it was the people already living in poverty that suffered the most. In an effort to stabilize the rupiah, won and baht, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued $35 billion in “financial support … for adjustment and reform programs in Indonesia, Korea, and Thailand.” Another $85 billion was pledged from “multilateral and bilateral sources.” All total, nearly $40 billion went to Indonesia—but in less than a year the rupiah lost sixty-five percent of its value.

The Indonesian Bank governor lost his job, and President Suharto was forced from office. Suharto’s home had been one of the first stops on tonight’s itinerary. Apparently it hadn’t been random.

Emergency stores of food—including rice—were delivered to Jakarta and distributed throughout the country. But with IMF and foreign aid came mandated reforms and oversight administered by western officials from predominately “Christian” nations. For a Muslim populace already in political and societal upheaval, to label such oversight as “unpopular” is a vast understatement. A multitude of crises—inflation, failing banks, food shortages, catastrophic unemployment—made Jakarta a breeding ground for extremism and ripe for recruiting young jihadists.

Terrorist bombs hit Central Jakarta three times in 1998 and early 1999. A shopping center and the Istiqlal Mosque were among the targets. Then in August 2000, a terrorist bomb killed two people outside the official residence of the Philippines ambassador. Only six weeks later, fifteen people were killed when the Jakarta Stock Exchange was hit by a car bomb. Most of the dead were Indonesian chauffeurs waiting to drive their bosses home for the night.

Then came al-Qaeda.

That same year a coordinated attack against churches in Jakarta, Bandung and other cities left eighteen people dead on Christmas Eve.

In October 2002, Jemaah Islamiyah—a radical group affiliated with al-Qaeda—killed more than two hundred tourists in Bali, including seven Americans.

The JW Marriott was hit for the first time in 2003.

The list goes on and on. Self-detonating radicals. Car bombs. IEDs. Bombs at concerts, hotels, nightclubs, markets, shopping centers.

“The big one was of course your country,” Indira said. “I will not lie to you. I told you a man come to the mosque to celebrate what happen. It is true, my father ran him away. My father forbid the man to return. But it is also true the man was not alone. I am very sorry to say it, but I will not lie. Many people were happy to see your country suffer. I tell you what I think. I am strong Muslim. But the men who do this Nine-Eleven are in hell. They will never see paradise. And the men who take our innocent children in the name of jihad? There is a special hell just for them. I hope they will burn in it forever.”

“Is that what happened to Danisa?”

Indira nodded angrily. “Yes. She was taken. Danisa was Maya’s best friend since early years in private school. It was not the best school, but it also was not the worst. Then the money crisis and IMF make everything change and people could no longer afford private schools. Danisa and Maya had to go to public school. It had only one teacher for every seventy students. Can you believe it? Sadly it is true. How will they teach? How will the student learn? You know what the teacher tell the parents? ‘I cannot teach everyone. Would you like your student to learn something? Then give me money and I will teach your student.’ She do this because the teacher salary is nothing. The teacher is also poor. But the parents cannot pay. If the parents had money they would not send student to this school in first place. Many students just quit school because there is no reason to go. But Danisa and Maya go school every day.”

“Until they were thirteen.”

Indira nodded. “Then the imam come.”

“Imam? From where?”

“Hell,” Indira hissed.

Ten Things I Learned on the Other Side of the World

Half-a-lifetime ago I boarded a Delta flight to Tokyo with an official passport as a U.S. government employee and a pamphlet titled “Good American, Ugly American” that I’d been instructed to read during the fourteen-hour journey.

I hadn’t even left U.S airspace yet when I had my first strange cultural encounter: footprints on the toilet seat. My pamphlet had a section on squat pots, but it never occurred to me that someone might not know what to do with a western toilet.

Since then I have visited schools in more than twenty countries and four continents, and along the way I’ve had more than a few strange cultural encounters. Here are ten things I learned on the other side of the world.

  1. “New York City taxi drivers are the best.” You might disagree, but consider: I fell asleep in a taxi in Seoul and woke up at the morning fish market as my driver was loading the trunk with the morning catch … and my luggage was in the trunk. In Jakarta, my taxi driver stopped at a mosque for evening prayer … and left the meter running. In Tashkent, my driver picked up multiple passengers, ran a few unrelated errands … and then delivered everyone in random order.
  1. “Ants cost extra.” In any American restaurant, if you find ants in your soup you’ll get a sincere apology and a free meal. In Laos, you have to pay extra if you want ants in your soup. Seriously.
  1. “Please do not stand on the toilet.” If you see this sign, then you’re probably in Central Asia. I think most travelers know it’s a good idea to carry a tissue supply and multiple bottles of hand sanitizer … but you might be surprised to learn that as tourism has opened up in Central Asia the number of western toilets in hotels and restaurants has also increased. Thus necessitating this sign for locals.
  1. “You need a passport for everything.” And I don’t mean the tourists. In many former Soviet republics the citizens are still unable to travel freely and they literally need a passport for even the mundane and routine: take a train? stay in a hotel? legally exchange money? visit the hospital? You need a passport. Many of these same countries also have “disputed” territories where citizens can’t go regardless of their travel documents—Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan to name a few.
  1. “Run from the police.” I was taught to trust teachers and cops to help me if I was in trouble, and to be afraid of them only if I’d done something terribly wrong … but in many countries the only reason people strive to become police officers is so they can extort money from impoverished citizens.
  1. “Motorbikes are not allowed.” I think the word “ubiquitous” was formed just so we’d have a fancy way to talk about motorbikes in Southeast Asia where they are a necessary part of everyday life. But it’s a different story in Central Asia, where many cities have banned motorbikes because they’re too dangerous. Maybe that sounds reasonable, but instead of a cheap and convenient form of transportation the people are forced to flag down strangers in passing cars. These unlicensed cabs usually have unlicensed and unskilled drivers, who navigate haphazardly on poorly maintained roads with little or no regard for pedestrians, traffic laws or other vehicles. That’s much safer.
  1. “Welcome to the Land of the Not Quite Right.” King’s Burgers. Old Army. Veronica’s Secret. Lucci. CFC (Colonel’s Fried Chicken). Five-dollar Polo shirts. Three-dollar RayBans. There’s a reason the DVD you bought from the guy on the corner only cost thirty-five cents. It’s because every time someone stood up to get popcorn the guy filming with his Sony Handycam couldn’t see the screen.
  1. “Let’s grab lunch sometime.” I was visiting an orphan school in rural Vietnam and the teacher said “okay everyone let’s grab some lunch.” Some students ran into the fields, while others went to a nearby pond. They came back with potatoes and turtles, and the teacher made everyone soup. I think I learned to appreciate American schools a bit more than I used to.
  1. “Customer service hasn’t quite caught on yet.” In the heyday of the Soviet Union, people stood in long lines at the market to buy even the most basic items. Somehow the command economy mindset hasn’t completely let go in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Fun fact: some stores in Armenia still reserve prime parking spots for employees. In many former Soviet republics the currencies are so weak that coins are non-existent, bill denominations start at a thousand, and workers have little or no incentive to be customer-centric. A cashier who rings up your groceries and takes your money is doing you a favor. Would it surprise you to learn that some of the governments in these same countries use Gmail for their official e-mail accounts? I didn’t think so.
  1. “You can buy hepatitis-on-a-stick.” Seoul, Jakarta, Bangkok … find a market, and then find a street corner. Someone will be selling mystery meat. Maybe it’s chicken or beef. Maybe they just call it chicken or beef. But regardless they’ll cook it over hot coals on wooden skewers, and then sell it very cheaply to passersby. The people will eat it, and then very naturally they’ll drop the skewer sticks on the ground … so why do you suppose you never see skewer sticks on the otherwise rubbish-filled streets? But hey, you recycle at home, right?