And no, I’m not exaggerating. I’ve had 6 showers today – all on the coldest possible setting, which wasn’t cold enough. And since it’s not quite bedtime yet, there may be another one before the night’s over. I don’t quite know what it is – surely it’s been hot at other times on the trip – I remember boiling in Angkor Wat and throughout southern Lao, Cambodia and parts of Vietnam. But now I simply cannot cope with the blistering hot heat. I don’t know what the temperature is, but I’m thinking it must be terribly humid too. There is also absolutely no air movement of any kind – no trade winds, no breeze, no nothing except sweltering humid, stale air. Whatever it is, it’s got me flattened and simply not able to do much of anything. Remind me again, what am I doing out here exactly?!
Meanwhile the Lao people walk around in long pants (sometimes jeans!), long sleeve tops, socks and closed shoes and sometimes even jackets on top of all that. And they’re looking, dare I say, cool as cucumbers. I look at them in shock and amazement – funny, I think that’s the same way they’re looking at me! Today I stopped under a tree checking my map and there sat a policeman in his perfectly starched uniform, all fresh and bone dry as I was drenched from head to toe.
After only a few short minutes away from any fan, I am dripping wet and feeling like I’m going to pass out. My entire body is soaked, down my back, my legs and arms and my hair – all wetwetwet. I’ve added two dresses to what can still only be called my mostly sad and hopeless wardrobe and the only thing I can say about them is that at least they’re not pants. They’re not my style exactly, but at least they work to have as little fabric against my body as possible (while still keeping my shoulders and knees covered!).
My two days here in Vientiane have consisted of hiding from the blazing sun, praying to the cloud goddesses to bring on the clouds (they’re not familiar with receiving requests from me, so it’s taking them awhile to get the hint), finding air-conditioned cafés to wile away the hours and for today, applying for my Thai visa. Doesn’t sound terribly exciting or exotic now, does it? Normally we don’t need a visa for Thailand; but they only give 15 days for overland arrivals and that won’t be enough time for me, especially with my beach plans. So I thought I’d go to the Consulate and see if I could finagle a longer stay.
Before I hit the street for walking, I thought I’d treat myself to a tuk-tuk taxi, but when I spoke to some tuk-tuk drivers, they wanted highway robbery kinds of prices, so I thought I’d take the gamble and walk. Big mistake. It didn’t look very far on the map, but well, you know how maps are. First I went to the Thai Embassy. Wrong. I needed the Consulate. That same map was not quite accurate again. And that’s when the heat really intensified. It was getting toward late morning now and the sun was blaring overhead. And then I got lost and lost and more lost. And then my shoe broke (no, not the one the dog ate, my other pair.) But still, I kept walking. After about an hour and a half of walking (which I would normally welcome but which today almost did me in – I thought at one point that maybe I would just slowly collapse in a heap on the pavement and reflected that it was good that I had my passport with me so they could identify my body – perhaps I was getting delirious!), I finally found the place.
Seems I wasn’t the only one interested in a Thai visa today. There were at least 75 people there – all ahead of me and all waiting. Outside. Fortunately there was a tent set up to be out of the direct sun, but still, it was boiling hot and now there was nothing to do but wait. And wait. And wait. Three hours later, I brought my paperwork inside and was asked for 800 baht. The man outside had told me I could pay in American dollars, which is all I had, but that wasn’t true. Now the man said only baht and told me, “Go outside and get some baht and hurry!”
Well, I had never heard the word “hurry” anywhere in Southeast Asia and I had no idea what he meant by outside. But I did just that – I went outside and I hurried, as much as I could in the sweltering sun. I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to hurry to – I thought maybe there was some exchange place or something to get Thai baht – ha! I walked around the block for 5-10 minutes with no exchange place in sight and began to think that this amount of time was not what he had in mind as “hurrying,” so I returned to the Consulate entrance. Suddenly several people approached me and offered to exchange money and I realized they were my only chance at baht. Their exchange rate was more highway robbery, of course, but I had no choice. I reluctantly and resentfully handed over $30, what should have been $25 and quickly realized I needed to get over myself and the stupid $5, ran back into the Consulate and gave him the money. He smiled and told me to come back tomorrow in the afternoon to pick up my passport.
The news didn’t surprise me, but somehow hearing it in that moment made me break out into yet another sweat. Really? I have to do this again tomorrow? Yep, that’s the rule, come back tomorrow. After 1 pm. Oh, perfect – in the real heat of the day. Excellent idea!
So I left, my wallet $30 thinner (way more money out here than it sounds to you reading this right now), and headed back to my neighborhood, determined to remember the way so I could have a slightly shorter walk tomorrow. I tried to remind myself that this day would fade in memory soon enough. I kept trying to remember the purpose of this visa – the beach that would make everything all right in just a week or so. Those fantasies helped. A little. But mostly the blistering sun was scorching me as I hid from it under every tree I could find.
I spent the rest of the day in an air-con restaurant and then back to my guest house where I showered a few times and then returned to my room to rest and recover. I was totally exhausted.
I had dinner with Donna, a lovely woman from Australia who I met here at the Mixay Guest House. We shared travel stories as I bemoaned the searing heat which wasn’t quite getting to her nearly as bad as it was befalling me. I figured maybe menopause was making it worse for me. Menopause is a convenient scapegoat for all the ills that bug me at any given point – heat, weight gain, crankiness – never you mind that they were present well before menopause came along. We had a great dinner at a local restaurant that employs disadvantaged and disabled youth – it was in a gorgeous old wooden building and was decorated with beautiful, local art work. We agreed it would be considered a hip place no matter where it was. But there was no air con! I had the fan blowing directly on me as I fanned my dress and sat cross-legged lest one of the Lao people think I was being inappropriate. And you all know how I don’t want to be thought of in that way! We ordered frozen drinks of hibiscus and fresh lime juice. They helped. But only a little.
After dinner, I would have loved to stroll the town with its tree-lined streets, which is the very quietest Southeast Asian capital city I’ve ever experienced. A walk along the Mekong also would have been delightful. But none of it was possible. Even at 9:30 pm, the night air was still too hot and too still.
I needed to get to an ATM to get more cash as I didn’t have enough for dinner and I needed to repay Donna who had graciously agreed to lend me some when I realized I was low on cash (getting close to the end of being in a country means whittling down the local currency as much as possible. I had whittled down a bit more than I had anticipated I would need.). We walked together a few blocks to an ATM and once inside, I realized I didn’t have my ATM card – yikes! I always keep it in the same place in my wallet; so the only thing I could think of is that I hadn’t gotten it out of the last ATM machine I had used, back in Luang Prabang some days ago. I’ve never before done that in my life, but it seemed I had done it now. Fortunately, ohso fortunately, I had brought a duplicate card with me just in case I lost one. Suddenly I felt a little odd with Donna – I didn’t think this looked too good to her, practically a stranger – no, really, I’m not swindling you here, I felt the need to explain – but she was fine and said she saw the look on my face when I opened my wallet and knew I wasn’t trying to pull a fast one!
So it was back to the guest house to pick up the other card and then back out for another walk to get the cash. All that walking I thought I wouldn’t/couldn’t do and here I was doing it. I made it back to the guest house, gave Donna the cash and went directly into the shower. And before long, I imagine I’ll be headed right back there again. The fan in the room is on full blast but still, it isn’t enough. I’m not doing anything except sitting here on my bed, but still, I am sweating like a pig (Do pigs actually sweat? Where did that idiom come from?!). Am I making myself clear about how agonizingly hot it is???
I wasn’t too worried about the ATM card since I figured that without my pin #, no one could use it. But I sent an email to my Financial Manager at Schwab just to alert him to it (I feel very sophisticated having a FM – la-de-da, so what that he doesn’t have so much money of mine to manage!). His response was not what I wanted to hear. He was concerned, he said, because the card could be used as a VISA card and told me I needed to call the general Schwab number as soon as possible. When I looked at the duplicate now safely in my wallet, sure enough, there’s a VISA symbol on it. Shit. But there’s no place from which I can make a call at this hour, so it’ll have to wait until morning. I’m hoping that in the mean time, someone is not out there having a night on the town at my expense.
Tomorrow doesn’t sound like it’s shaping up to be any more exciting or exotic than today was. First it’s about finding a place to make my collect call to Schwab – again, sounds easier from where you’re sitting than from where I am. There aren’t so many such places to make international calls anymore with everyone carrying cell phones these days, but I trust I’ll figure it out. I always do.
Then it’s finding someone to repair yet another broken shoe.
Then it’s back to the Thai Consulate in the afternoon to pick up my passport.
Really I wish I could be describing some wild and wonderful travel tales or at least some romantic ones right now. But no. Sometimes out here, just like at home, it’s about dealing with the mundane details of life. So deal with them I will. And I’ll try to do it with patience and who knows, maybe even muster up some pleasure! And humor, oh yes, plenty of humor! And I’ll find that air con café once more. But I think I’ll pass on the walk to the Consulate. No, I won’t pay those exorbitant tuk-tuk prices either, higher than any I’ve heard of in my entire trip. No, tomorrow I’ll take a bicycle – maybe I can find the slightest breeze from the pedaling action and even get there in less time!
I’d love to stay awhile and write some more, but really, I’ve got to get back in the shower – so, make that a 7-Shower Day!
Update: Now it’s the next morning. I couldn’t post this last night because for some unknown reason, the guest house turns off the internet connection at 11 pm and I was still writing away at that point. I slept in today, way later than usual – the heat tires me out, but I guess I’m beginning to sound like a broken record about it! So it was a later morning than usual and my first task was to make that call to Schwab.
I was told that I could make an international call from any internet café, which are plentiful. The only trouble was that none of them that I came across had such facilities. After about 15 minutes of walking, I said out loud that this couldn’t go on much longer – although it feels like it’s infinitesimally less hot (I originally wrote ‘cooler’ but that word did not fit by any stretch of the imagination, so I had to change it!), I could already see my skin beginning to glisten with sweat and feel the drip-drip-drip down my legs, breasts and forehead. Then one place told me about another place that was just down the road. In this case, it really was. It then took some doing to convince them that there was no charge for the call and thus I didn’t want to pay them anything – “sorry, Madame makes the call, Madame pays for the call.” I walked out.
Sure enough, there was yet another place next door where I again explained the collect call procedure. He was a bit more trusting and said he would check his account after my call – if there was no charge, no problem. He directed me to a glass booth where a telephone sat on a small wooden table. Then he closed the door and left me to it. In no time, I felt like I would explode in this hot box! I pulled the door open, gasping for air and let confidentiality be damned – at that point I didn’t care who heard my mother’s maiden name and my phone number!
The guy at Schwab handled everything perfectly, even my nervousness about the call really being collect. (It was.) I didn’t want them to cancel the card because Schwab, against their normal policies, issued me a second ATM card on that same account, which meant the cards had the same number – if they cancelled the lost card, I would lose access with my current one and that just couldn’t happen. So he came up with a better idea to limit all purchases/charges to $0 which is fine since I never use the card as a credit card.
An aside of a plug for Charlie Schwab – their customer service has been stellar ever since I opened an account with them. I originally did so because they refund all ATM fees on their checking accounts, no matter where you withdraw money and no matter the price of the fee. This is simply one of the best ways to access money when you’re traveling and especially internationally where the ATM fees really add up. I have since consolidated all my retirement funds into one place with them and have someone in Santa Rosa I can talk to about all that financial stuff whenever I want to. It feels like one of the wisest financial decisions I’ve made in some time! (Along with Capital One credit cards which charge no foreign transaction fees – another item that can add up quickly – think of it as another financial traveling tip for those who are taking notes!)
So I walked back to the guest house with a slight spring in my step, feeling pleased with myself and delighted that Item #1 on the list had been accomplished. It’s amazing to me how accomplishing the simplest things out here can bring such a sense of satisfaction and competence. These same things at home would mean almost nothing at all – big deal, I made a call to the bank and if I didn’t go crazy after having to slug through a 10-layer phone tree, that would be enough to make me happy.
Oooohhh, I just noticed the time and it’s getting close to the bewitching hour of my departure for the Consulate. So I better post this quick and be off to the next item on my list! Well, actually, the next item is a shower, of course, # 3 for today already!