DIARY OF A COUNTRY BOOKSELLER
Letter from Laos
I have been traveling around in the company of the number-one pop star in Laos. Her name is Phonekaseumsouk Sengsourigna and her face is on many billboards, on television in commercials and in magazine advertisements.
She is beautiful and full of energy and whenever we step off a plane or get out of a car she is met by members of her fan club who give her a bouquet of flowers. Everybody bows and giggles.
She was traveling with me because the company I'm putting together has hired her to be its spokesperson. I believe she is famous because she is, of course, talented and also because she really hustles. She travels with an entourage fully employed selling CDs, posters, and videos of her movies. She likes being the center of attention although she is in no way stuck on herself and is awfully nice to everyone.
The whole of Laos is like one small town and everyone knows everyone else. I guess that means being famous here is not quite like being famous in the U.S. or in a more developed place.
Ms. Phonekaseumsouk Sengsourigna, for example, makes about as much as a school teacher does in Berryville and it looks like she spends most of it on her very extended family and all the people who work for her.
Fame by association
In any case, her fame rubbed off on me and I am afforded special status simply by association. Since I am the fattest, dullest, deafest and slowest person in the crowd I am deeply appreciative of any attention at all.
How a "spokesperson" works here was demonstrated when we held the grand opening of one of our clinics. Ms. Phonekaseumsouk Sengsourigna stood in front of the clinic door and made a speech welcoming the press and assorted dignitaries. Then she welcomed a covey of monks comprised of an ancient monk, an old monk, a middle-aged monk, and two adolescent and two child monks.
The ancient monk was in charge. He used a paste of some sort and drew symbols on the clinic door with his thumb while the other monks chanted. When he finished he gave Ms. Phonekaseumsouk Sengsourigna permission to open the doors and we piled in behind the monks who commenced to sprinkle everything and everyone with scented water.
I believe that there were about 15 to 20 print and television reporters on hand; they snapped pictures and scribbled in notebooks and seemed to pay attention as the Minister of Health, the Minister of Culture and Education, the Lao Ambassador to the United States, and the very bored Charge de Affairs of the American Embassy made interminable speeches about what I know not.
What I do know is that Laos has more political ministers than a dog has fleas; 40 percent of them now have "consulting" contracts with us.
Tact vs. tire irons
I enjoyed the monk fandango pretty well and was struck by how very similar their contribution was to Roman Catholic ceremonies of a dedicatory nature. I found the politicians barely tolerable and it is a constant job of work to keep slicking up to them while resisting the urge to belt them repeatedly with a tire iron.
The great political advantage we have in the United States is our available right and duty to name these grasping warthogs -- Chesterton called them Hudge and Gudge -- for what they are. And the great political shame of the United States is that we do not exercise that right and duty with any intelligence or consistency.
To the credit of the American embassy people here, they do not have their hand out -- nor do they extend it. The total U.S. annual aid to Laos is $15 million and change. About $11 million of that goes to support the embassy and its staff.
In light of the fact that the U.S. dropped more ordinance on Laos during the Vietnam War than all of the bombs in all of the wars in all of the history of recorded time combined, it strikes me that that is an awfully niggardly amount of aid. The Japanese spend $10 million a year in aid to Laos for bomb removal and detonation alone.
In any case, U.S. personnel assigned here know they have been given a backwater post of no importance and invested with no potential for shining the brass buttons on their dressed-for-success business suits. Consequently, they are pretty sour.
I imagine them as a collection of Graham Greene characters who have secret liaisons in one of the many "guesthouses" in town and smoke opium on Saturday nights. The reality, I am sure, is that they knit and addictively shop on Ebay.
I have received several e-mails from people laughing at me for my girlish response to the local cuisine and a few more from folks doing time in Africa whose fundamental message is "... oh yeah! Well in Mali we eat ..." followed by a lot of really scary adverbials.
In an effort to top those tunes, let me report that I was given a large plate of fresh cricket for breakfast this morning. Where do they get all these crickets? Jiminy! They have cricket farms in Laos!
In very general terms things are going well. I admit that traveling around with a pop star and handing out "consulting" contracts are bizarre strategies to employ for the purpose of assuring that mothers and infants get health care. But, I am a cat skinner and this is the cat we have been given. God bless.