The Pocket Diplomat
Whatever our struggles with formal schooling, Z’s certainly learning a lot as we travel. And he sure does choose his moments to show it.
We are literally halfway between Vietnam and Laos, him ceremonially straddling the red line dividing the Laotian end of the (small) bridge from the Vietnamese end, about three stamps and five sets of uniformed officials into the border-crossing process, when he pipes up.
“Mum,” he says. “Vietnam and Laos are both communist, authoritarian states, aren’t they? Which one is worse?”
“Can we talk about this later?” I say.
“No, but seriously, Mum,” he says. I look around anxiously. Admittedly, no one seems to speak much English, but it would be sod’s law to hit the one border guard who did.
“Why is it that it is always the most dictatorial states that call themselves Democratic Republics? I mean,” he says, getting into his stride. “Look at Pol Pot. He called Cambodia Democratic Kampuchea. And it was a genocidal dictatorship.”
At any other time, this would have been a topic I would have enjoyed pursuing. “Darling,” I say. “Please can we talk about this later, once we’re over the border?”
“Why?” he says.
“Just because,” I say. “In single-party states it’s generally not a good idea to talk about the fact they’re single-party states.”
To his credit, he changes the subject. “Why do they have the red line down the middle?” he says. “Are the Laos worried the Vietnamese are going to invade them, like they did Cambodia?”
Ahead of our trip to the Burmese Embassy in Vientiane, which sits in a substantial suburban villa in a diplomatic quarter to the south of the city, I prep him vigorously on boo topics and my occupation.
“Well, I won’t say anything bad if you don’t,” he says.
We are insufficiently rested. Which translates for me as irritable and mildly neurotic, for him as an, erm, puckish sense of humour and more than normal volubility.
An amiable-enough chap, large muscles well-concealed under a stripy buttondown, pressed indigo jeans and loafers, greets us in an anteroom.
A Danish girl with enviable legs has been waiting there some time for visas that were supposed to be issued at 1pm, and is beginning to wonder whether her membership of the Facebook group Free Aung Suu San Kyi has counted against her.
Z sparks up his laptop, to continue his viewing of Star Wars: Episode I.
Our host asks me the purpose of our visit. Requests the four photos I have brought with me. Produces two sets of triplicate forms, two arrival cards with a scary disclaimer about facing the full consequences of the law should we interfere in the internal politics of the Union of Myanmar, a biro and a stick of Uhu.
“Look, Mum,” says Z. “There’s LOADS of wifi networks around here, and I reckon I can get on at least one of them.”
“Leave the wifi,” I say, concentrating on the forms, in particular how to describe our complexions, and my hair colour, which is still in flux.
“But some of them are unsecured!” he says.
The man looks at him askance. “You don’t steal other people’s wifi in a diplomatic neighbourhood,” I say.
“Why?” Z says.
“You just don’t,” I say.
I opt for “lightly tanned” for me and “fair with freckles” for Z.
Z takes up position behind our host, gurning and looking at his paperwork. I shoo him off. He turns his attention to the Uhu, winding it (and me) up to see if one or the other of us will snap.
Burmese children are famously well-behaved. With Z’s personal laptop and his lack of discipline, not to mention his single mother, he’s like a walking, prattling masterclass in Western decadence.
“Z,” I say. “I know you’re tired. But please can you just behave yourself?”
“Mum!” he says, puckishly. “Are you trying to deplete my sense of humour?”
“Just leave the Uhu alone, shut up, sit still and watch your movie,” I say.
I realise I have no idea how tall he is. Or how tall I am in metres. I write down 1m65 for me, and 1m35 for him.
Z switches over to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For some reason, presumably geographical, he believes his new Scandinavian friend will find the cod-Swedish credits about moose as hilarious as he does.
I hand the forms with the photos over to the man. He looks at Z piercingly. “How long have you been a soldier?” he asks.
“It’s OK,” I say. “He’s joking about the shirt you’re wearing in the pictures. We got it in Hoi An, Vietnam,” I say to the chap.
“We didn’t GET it,” says Z, his eyes on the Danish girl, who is very beautiful, but at least a decade too old for him. “It was CUSTOM-MADE. To my specifications. By a TAILOR.”
Our host starts to look through the forms. The reason for Z’s, err, resolutely independent behaviour stretches her long, tanned limbs.
“You have no address in Myanmar,” he says.
“Err, no,” I say. “Do I need to book a guesthouse?”
“No,” he says. “Just write ‘guesthouse’.”
I amend all eight forms.
The scrutiny continues. “He is a student,” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“At primary school?” he says.
“You need to write down the name and address of his school.”
I do so, in quadriplicate. “You are a graphic designer?” he says.
“Yes,” I lie.
Z has realised that moose aren’t quite hitting the spot, so is proffering Cambodia travel tips to the Danish girl in a preternaturally confident fashion. She seems mildly bemused by his attentions.
“Where do you work?”
“Write ‘Independent’,” he says.
I amend four more forms. He takes our passports. Rejects my first hundred-dollar bill. (It has the wrong serial number, and in Myanmar they are pernickety about this shit.)
He accepts my second.
The Danish girl realises she has missed her bus back to Vang Vieng. Z proffers some helpful advice about sawngthaews.
“Visas take four days. You come back on Tuesday. 1pm,” he says.
“Well, I’m not sure it will actually be Tuesday,” I say. “We’re leaving Vientiane for a few days. It will be more like Thursday or Friday.”
“We do not want to keep your passports here too long,” he says. The feeling is entirely mutual.
But, here we are, it’s Tuesday, and we’re in Luang Prabang. With a flight to catch out of Bangkok on Sunday.