map Laos, Interrupted

by Ilse Griffin

Published in Issue No. 267 ~ August, 2019

Warning: The author wanted to write a coherent account of her two years living in Laos, but a Russian hacker sent her a virus that made all of her word documents leap together like lovers. What follows are two different accounts of her two years in Laos- one from year one, one from year two- as she kept crossing the divide between confusion and confusion.

Laos, Interrupted

In the upstairs room of a French-themed coffee shop in Vientiane, Laos, a bizarre gathering of foreigners met weekly to discuss intense beliefs in discipline, fitness, and spirituality. This week, the topic is using various types of excel spreadsheets to plan every minute of your day so that you are as efficient and growth-oriented as possible. The speaker is German but not blonde. He is attractive but made wildly less so due to his chosen topic. He cares deeply about scheduling himself and looks older than his 30ish years. He is intensely earnest, that is true.

They exchanged words like currency.

With a bad exchange rate

For every 5 she spoke, it was 1 for him.

His audience sits scattered in a school-room fashion around him, in various stages of commitment to excel spreadsheets. “This is the ultimate vessel of productivity,” he says this, but it’s somehow not embarrassing, perhaps because of his German way of earnestly machine-gun firing his sentences. His audience: several hold notebooks, one is obviously hungover, and by inference, ambitious (it’s Saturday morning), the speaker’s girlfriend looks on confused (perhaps she doesn’t even keep a planner!), then there’s his comrade and co-executor of these meetings, also German, who gives frequent nods of approval. It’s not apparent whether he’s listening or not. His topic the week before was HIIT fitness. The hungover attendee is flying on a volatile kite of shame and the specific morning-after mental cocktail composed of adrenaline and wonder that can so easily swan-dive into despair.

Like the borders, they were born within

She was aggressive, like the dollar.

Like 4 quarters plunked on a counter.

His country produced no coins.

Money without weight

Fluttering pastel-colored papers

That fold into obscure & sweaty origami inside jean pockets

The speaker goes on, noting the half-hour blocks that compose his day and his life. At 7:30 am, he wakes up and reviews his schedule for the day, making any necessary adjustments. At 1:30 pm, he reads inspirational material and transitions promptly into kickboxing at 2:00 pm. The hungover attendee vomited at 1:45 am and slept until 8:45 am, making it to this coffee shop at 9:07 am, which is 7 minutes late. It’s confusing for her life narrative, to be in a foreign country listening to Germans drone on about seizing the day, and her brain is so muddled that she can’t pinpoint the conversation that inspired or promised her to attend such an event. She feels nauseous and irrationally worried about the speaker calling on her. She stops listening, “30-minute blocks are the golden….” and looks around at the other attendees.

This was their trade agreement:

He came over to make papaya salad

Swatting mosquitoes and a small fire for roasting peppers

The neighbors staring over the fence

Sometimes, he braided her hair.

His fingers coaxing frizzy hair to wind elegantly around her head

And dressed her up with belted skirts.

Starched pink shirts

What a horror show- western expats, living in poor, communist countries. The sample this morning was not unreasonable if one was curious to study the standard group that lives in countries like Lao. She thought about last night- a large group of barely compatible people converging upon the only gay bar in town. A large Australian woman who looked like a country singer clogged like an Appalachian farmer in a corner and two french boys made out vigorously in front of the only bathroom; she had to leave the bar to find a place to pee. Then, there were the very industrious foreigners who came here to Laos; they did minimal clogging but all the same, shared similar unnatural energy. They, too, mined this beautiful country for meaning. As if it were their birthright. She includes herself in this generalization, but not without hesitation.

And, she kissed him

They practiced English

Comma use, independent clauses

The speaker droned on. She realized, a sharp insight amidst the fog, that she neither understands the wisdom of his teachings nor the reason why she went out last night, nor whether she was happy. Maybe over-scheduling herself would help clear things up, after all? Perhaps emotional and life continuity was achieved through being in absolute control of your minutes. She was sure that the speaker never was left without reason for something he did.

All the while, they were thinking of the longevity of

Lovingly braided hair

And learning about adverbs

Of fresh papaya salad

On the banks of the Mekong.

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Ilse Griffin received her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing in 2009. Since then, she has been teaching English at home and abroad. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.