Saturday, 27 August 2011

Charlie Don’t Scoot

Vientiane turned out to be a bit of a wash-out. Not because we had high hopes that we failed to realise, rather that it rained more or less constantly the whole time we were there. And this time, when I say rain, I mean downpours that sting your skin with the ferocity with which they fall to earth. The first rain started the day after we arrived. It eased off a bit thirty six hours later, but by that time the both of us had had a bad reaction to something we’d eaten and spent a listless day trying to put off the child’s demands for entertainment. A conversation with a backpacker from Jersey brought the horrors of monosodium glutamate to our notice. She reeled off a long list of undesirable side effects – “and they add it to everything”. We started to retrospectively wonder about the irregular headaches and those occasional listless days spent in mild reaction to something disagreeable. Then we noticed that most touristy western food places had notes on the bottom of their menus to the effect that they cooked with bottled water and without MSG. No smoke without fire – it must be a “bad” thing.

Pati raincoat

Frustratingly, the riverside park at the end of the street our hotel was on had a very well-equipped kids playground. Which was under about a foot of water. Oisin was undeterred, and when we arrived there in cabin fever desperation, wearing our Berghaus jackets for the first time since leaving the UK, carrying an umbrella and trying to get him to keep on the ridiculous plastic raincoat we had bought in Bangkok, he immediately stripped off to his boxers and joined the local kids in sliding down the plastic chute straight into a huge puddle. The screams of laughter were international – no translation was needed here.

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The impromptu dip in the kids playground led us to contemplate a visit to the local swimming pool. First, a swimming costume would be needed for the child (this wasn’t unpreparedness – the last one was left behind in Cardiff as he would have outgrown it by now). We did the rounds of the shopping centre (“the” shopping centre – I think they only have one. You gotta love these one party state socialists.) We finally found one little unit that sold sports equipment and I immediately got distracted by a junior set of strap-on wheels that convert your shoes to roller-skates. After foolishly spending a laborious 15 minutes getting Oisin into them, he was delighted. But there was no way they were going to fit into our by now over-stretched rucksacks. Pati watched, staring silently with that “you dug the hole, you get yourself out of it” look on her face. We were at a potential make-or-break point in father-son relations. After such a long time getting him into the skates, how could I deny him? There was only one way out of the impasse – gratuitous bribery. The son of the shop-owner zoomed into the tiny unit atop a small scooter and Oisin’s eyes lit up. Not only that, but the wheels of the scooter lit up as well when it was moving. He had a couple of trial scoots around the arcade, we had a quick haggle, and the deal was done. The skates were forgotten: we had a whole new piece of luggage to travel with us.

The swimming pool was open air. I think I can say with certainty that it’s the first time I’ve been for a swim where the hammer and sickle fluttered proudly from a flagpole at the entrance. That felt like it adjusted the historical balance after I grew up going swimming in the Robinson Centre in Castlereagh – named after a proto-fascist who was born too late for Mosley and had to masquerade as a democratic politician. Whatever happened to him? The pool was watched over by what I hoped was a lifeguard, sitting smoking in a small tower. Then the rain started again. We splashed around until it felt like it was easing off, dried ourselves in the socialist changing rooms, and tried to return to the hotel huddling under our tiny umbrella. Halfway back, a Laotian boy of about twelve leapt out into the pavement in front of us. We’d not been asked for money yet in Laos, and we were wondering what his script would be. The usual “hello!” and “what’s your name?” were hollered at us with unusual vigour. Then he ran on ahead before turning back with a stick in his hand, pointing it at us with stabbing motions. I’ve only been in one other one party socialist state before in my life, so I was feeling a little out of my cultural depth, and wasn’t quite sure what might be in store with this pointy stick encounter. Oisin was beginning to make finger pistols and his “pisshhooo” shooting noises in return, while the twelve year old was roaring with laughter. Struggling to match his interrogatorial skills, I shouted back “what’s your name?”. He stopped mid-stride, turned to us and shouted “Harry Potter Laos!” Waving his stick at us one more time he was gone.

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The scooter, it turns out, has been the best 18 quid I’ve spent in a very long time. Oisin happily exhausts himself up and down the banks of the Mekong while most of Vientiane’s promenaders stand and stare, and Pati and I get something approaching a walk. The next challenge is to impart some degree of road sense. There’s nothing quite like watching your son, about two hundred yards distant, deliriously oblivious to all and sundry on his new scooter, riding it straight into the heels of some unsuspecting Laotian couple. I’m not sure they’re keen on that sort of children’s behaviour in one party socialist states.