Sunday, May 25, 2008

It's just a jump to the left...

After the sky-scraping, stiflingly hot, hectic buzz of Bangkok, it was a fantastic treat to slide across the border last weekend for a couple of days in Vientiane.

"There's noting to do there, y'know," they all told me, as they drew on their great tumours of fruit metastasising from ridiculous cocktails in the slick, marble-lined bars of Bangkok's fancy hotels. "It's like going back through time to a country town in the '50s". Sounded pretty interesting to me, and I was sure a town isn't dubbed "The Paris of the East" for nothing ... although I think that term may have been attributed to at least half a dozen other places I've visited in the last couple of years. Still, it was worth a squiz, so I donned my best 50s gear, slicked my donkey mane up into a great, greasy wave, and took to the open road.

The "highway" into Vientiane certainly checks out with the idea of a country town in the 50s. I remember seeing old photos of my parents' house, just after it was built in the mid '60s. It was on one of those new, outer suburban housing estates, and theirs was one of the first to be completed. I recall this one photo of my Old Man, wearing a pair of tight, checked bathing shorts, mutton-chop sideburns like a couple of dead possum carcasses hanging from a shed wall, and a grin from ear to ear as he proudly presents his own bricks and mortar. Behind him stands his beige-brick castle, and beyond that ... nothing. Apart from Mum and Dad's house, there was nothing but empty paddocks, as far as the eye could see.

Fifty years later, as my fat, Donkey ass was turning puce with each jolt of the rickety tuk-tuk, my occasional glimpse of the landscape outside revealed a copy of those old photographs. Something seemed wrong – Vientiane was a capital city, and my guide book told me it was a 30 minute ride from the border to the centre of town. We'd been travelling for 25 minutes by this time, and all I could see through the spaces between the rickety buildings lining the Friendship Highway, was paddocks. Surely we should have been in the outer suburbs of a great, Asian, urban sprawl by this time? Thinking I'd been conned like so many inexperienced tourists before me; that I was being taken on the long road via Mandalay, where I'd be bashed, raped and sold into slavery, an embarrassed rage leapt to my cheeks, and I began pounding on the window of the driver's cab, shaking my fist at him in fury.

The poor little fellow immediately pulled over, and was nearly crying as I threw a bunch of notes at him and stormed off along the road with my backpack.

By the time I had paled a little, I found myself walking along beautiful, tree-lined boulevards. Where these grand promenades began was not discernable; the rickety, paddock-backed shops simply vanished, to be replaced by moulding, but immense, stately homes. I panicked that maybe I had accidentally evaded a security check point, because it was clear I had wandered into an exclusive area in which vehicular traffic was forbidden. Later I learned that I had finally reached the centre of Old Vientiane; the driver had been doing the right thing after all ... but still, something was not quite right. Where was everyone?

And that's about the first thing you notice about Vientiane when you arrive – there's no one about. For the next twenty-four hours, I reasoned with myself, "Oh, it's Sunday, people must be inside relaxing" ... "Oh, it's only early on Monday, perhaps work starts late here"... "Oh, perhaps they don't leave their offices at lunch time, but eat at their desks", however by "peak hour" on Monday afternoon, there was no denying it – just like a 1950s country town, only a few vehicles exist in Vientiane, and the population is really very, very low.

But fortunately for Vientiane, and for a visiting Donkey, there are some really great things to remember about the '50s. For starters, one is able to walk right down the middle of the road, completely unmolested by traffic as one gazes into the canopy of overhanging elms (not yet cut down to widen the bursting arterials and to make way for electricity wires). You also get to sit in the open air at one of dozens of wonderful, alfresco cafes – say what you will about the French and their [lack of] manners – of course, I never would – but their culinary legacy is one to be applauded. For mine, sitting back at a gingham- clothed table on a neat little sidewalk while eating exquisite baguettes and sipping on the finest coffee in Asia is truly a delight in the literal sense of the word. And the best part of 1950s rural culture, is that they are unashamedly vocal about their hatred of foreigners ... especially Europeans, so you get all the joy of French cuisine, without the scowls, cigarettes and unwashed bodies. Magic!

But in case you needed just that little bit more evidence to convince you about Vientiane's time warp, allow me to share with you the contents of the laundry price list I found in my guesthouse bedroom. It looked much the same as any other laundry list, anywhere in the world, although very much at 1950s prices (did I mention that Laos is very cheap?). I scanned down; trousers, skirt, dress, shirt, t-shirt, safari suit, socks, underpants ... hang on, what? A safari suit? You mean to tell me that people in Laos still wear safari suits for events other than fancy dress parties or to play military board games and toy soldiers with their nerdy mates?

After two days of wandering around the quiet, but elegant "Paris of the East", I am prepared to concede that Vientiane is very, very much like a country town in the 1950s, not only in its appearance, but in its attitudes and its fashion. Of course, your urbane, cosmopolitan Donkey didn't quite fit-in with the quaint scene, but as soon as I get myself a pair of long, khaki socks, a pith helmet and a beret (the later to be worn on casual Friday) I'll be ready for an alfresco croissant extravaganza. I'll be oooh-la-la-ing with the best of 'em.
Have a look at the size of that baby! Vivre le France! Pic: Hagas

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Ever been to a UN meeting? They are a microcosm of a system gone wrong; a system which is representing us all … every day.

Yes, the United Nations; founded in 1945, with a mission to (and bear in mind that I am seriously paraphrasing here in order to support my rather distorted, and not necessarily accurate opinions), “…work together as a collective of nations, in order to strive for and achieve equality of nationhood for all the citizens of the world”. Or something like that, anyway.

Well I can tell you right here, that 60-odd years down the track, there’s still a lot of work to be done, not just in the world … I’m not even going there … but in terms of equality within the UN … hell, even the pissy meetings that Donkey gets to attend are shamefully inequitable.

Take today for example, the room was full of representatives from about 15 different UN agencies, and approximately 25 other organizations made up of non-government organizations (NGOs) and the press, and believe me, there’s a serious pecking order to these events. For starters, the latter two groups are distinguished from the UN bods because to work in the UN, it seems you have to wear an Armani suit to work every day. So right from the starter’s gun, every UN representative in the place is looking sharper than Sweeny’s razor and smells like the ground floor of a flashy department store.

By contrast, all the journos in attendance are haggard, chain-smoking, hard drinking types whose eyes (perhaps an effect of reporting from too many armed conflicts) don’t seem to be able to remain still for more than a quarter of a second. These men and women party every night like there’s no tomorrow, ‘cause for some of them that’s probably true … but bearing in mind that they turn up to these meetings each “tomorrow” morning, they rarely seem to have much to contribute; they are generally as unwashed and unironed as their clothes.

The NGO people are pretty freaky, too. Most obvious are the Frenchies. They are always blokes – so much for Liberty, Fraternity, Equality … you will hardly ever see a French woman at one of these meetings - it’s a damn shame, too, ‘cause while we’ve all heard that French birds are pretty hot … the evidence on show around here suggests that French men certainly are not! They are almost always unshaven, and their facial stubble is only slightly shorter than their unkempt crew cuts, giving their heads the ludicrous appearance of a rotting kiwifruit the size of a football. Their faces are long and haggard from incessant chain smoking (tautology?), and their sunken eye sockets have the uncanny resemblance of a recovering crack addict. To a man, they cannot iron a shirt to save themselves, and the only words we non-French speakers can understand from them (which we hear every couple of minutes) are, “But, it is not the way we do it in France!”.

The other NGO males in attendance (ie, the non Frenchies) look like a bunch of University students who stay up all night smoking pot and playing Xbox, and, after over-sleeping, rush through three different Starbucks on their way to the meeting – very wide-eyed and jittery. The girls (again, not French) are all hippy love-children, wearing fisherman pants and cheesecloth shirts, with dirty, matted hair.

The only exceptions to this stock of hard-core NGO workers are the Christians. Think colourful overalls with bright patches on the knees. Think, fresh, unblemished skin and pearly smiles. Think group hugs, back rubs and a tendency to pull out a guitar for a bit of Kumbayah during the breaks.

Clearly, the journalists and NGO people are quite distinctive compared with their well-dressed and groomed UN hosts, so it’s no wonder they remain oppressed and bitter about their lowly place in the International Humanitarian and Development pecking order. But even within the UN system, despite decades of “beating down the walls of inequality” (paraphrasing again), the pecking order between agencies is just as strong and deeply rooted.

Take the WHO reps, for instance. These are invariably stuffy, old, South Asian doctors with bushy moustaches and shiny pates (in stark contrast with their crimson, hennaed back and sides). Their huge, protruding bellies, which rest on the groaning desks before them, are only slightly larger than their arrogance, which is exercised every five minutes by talking over the top of whoever’s speaking (unless it’s one of the token men - yes, always a man - who regularly seem to be visiting from Geneva, in which case they will fawn and kowtow like a favoured head-boy before the principal, and will not speak unless spoken to).

The token guy from Geneva is usually French or Swiss, fat and sporting a Super Mario moustache. He is often wearing an ill-fitting brown suit, and always seems to fall asleep with his mic on. It is truly a special sight, I can assure you, to watch the bulging temple arteries of these UN officials as they try to get through a one hour meeting while Fat Fritz snores and slobbers all over his desk at 300 decibels! These are people whose intolerance for insolence or incompetence (real or perceived) would normally provoke a sharp, verbal, public dressing-down, and their anger and disdain is almost palpable, but what else can they do but strain to keep a lid on their boiling resentment? He’s from Geneva, after all!

Then there’s the UNDP and UNESCO people … these seem to be the agencies that allow women into the mix … and they have to be real, hard-arsed bitches to bust through that thick, bullet-proof glass ceiling. They often hail from African countries, and with the exception of their amazing, beaded hair dos, they wear straight-up-and-down, black or navy suits with E-N-O-R-M-O-U-S shoulder pads. It’s possible that these women would have some useful things to say, but because this is the UN, I guess we’ll never know.

And it goes … the UNAIDS people have nicotine-stained beards; the FAO mob are uber-trendy Italians; UNHCR seem to be long, thin and drawn and UNIFEM are all lesbians (not really … I just thought I’d say that ‘cause I was running out of descriptions and I thought it might get some noses out of joint).

And the entire show is run by a debonair, European gentleman who is all polite smiles and condescension, who looks like he’d be pretty keen to wind the whole fiasco up and retire to his office with The Guardian under his arm and a nice, thick-bottomed tumbler of single malt in his fleshy hand. He is ably assisted by the most stylish, young Englishman since the stem cell people mastered the Colin Firth and Hugh Grant graft. His snide, offhand dismissal of just about everyone suggests he grew up at a place called Longbourn*, and was the thirty-eighth generation in his line to lead the First VIII at Eton. I guess he’d have to be … no one that young reaches those heady heights in the UN without a decent boost from a substantial, royal lineage.

And that’s how it is … at every meeting. Everyone has a place. Everyone is mutually polite on the outside while they seethe with loathing beneath the surface; frustrated that although they hate everyone from every other agency, they’d gladly denounce their colleagues for a leg-up the ladder to join them. And these are the people, appointed by our own elected statesmen and women, to represent our nations’ interests in working together in harmony to promote equality amongst all the nations of the world.

Would I wanna be a part of that? You betcha! Get out of my way, you French, female, journalist scum!

* One for the girls there - just trying to make up for that UNIFEM comment before.

It's the Christian NGO workers that you really gotta watch out for. Pic: