Friday, April 29, 2005

Don't Bring A Knife To A Gunfight

There's a line from the Movie 'The Untouchables' when Sean Connery tells Kevin Costner: "When you go to a Gunfight, don't bring a knife." I learned that lesson the hard way here in Laos.
While Nee and I were Tubing down the Nam Song River, we stopped to do some diving with the Village children. I took off the Buddha Amulet that I got from my friends in Ubon Ratchithani, and hung it on a branch of a tree. It wasn't until almost an hour later that I realized I had forgotten it. I went to shore and ran back only to find it was gone. I talked to some of the townspeople who were just upstream from there and gave them the number for my Guesthouse. Sure enough, when I arrived, I was told that someone had found it and wanted me to come back for it. Chai, one of the managers of the Guesthouse, agreed to take me on his motorcycle. So off we went, speeding away to some unknown place in the dark.
We waited at an intersection and he called the number he had been given. We waited and he called again. Suddenly a crowd of children showed up and two of them took me by the hands and led me down some back roads to the back yard of a house where we waited for almost a half hour again. The suddenly, we were off heading to yet another back yard. Finally, an hour later we came to yet another house and I was invited in.
There were 20 people there waiting for me including three men who seemed to be Village elders. Leen, was the only one who spoke English. He had my amulet brought out and placed on a mat in front of him. Then in a very solemn tone asked me if I knew what it was. Now I thought that they were testing me to make sure I realized this was a sacred thing and not just some souvenir to be wearing. I began explaining that it was a gift from some dear friends in Ubon and that I considered it very important. Then Leen asked how much it was worth. I told him it was priceless. He asked: "How much did you pay for it?" "It was a gift." I replied. He said:
"My friend here went to a lot of trouble to return it to you. Perhaps that is worth one hundred dollars." I was stunned. I was thinking that they wanted to make sure I realized the value of the amulet. At the same time I felt it was unjust to use that against me to get money. I replied: "If you think it is so valuable I will give it to your village as a gift." and I began to hand it to him. Now I would like to tell you that I got up and left. I wish I had. But this is what really happened.
He said:"All day you were on the river, drinking beer and having fun. Maybe this village would like to have such enjoyment but we can't afford it. Is it too much to ask that you help us buy a case of beer. Fifty Dollars." I was feeling like I was being held prisoner here. And I resented his insinuation that I was some drunk on the river. In fact we had not had any beer. And these people weren't going to let me go until I coughed up some money. I said: "I don't have American money." Leen said: I was thinking maybe two hundred thousand Kip." I wish I had been able to calculate that into baht at that moment because it is about twenty dollars American. I kept thinking it was about one hundred and I was getting very nervous. I ended up reaching into my wallet and handing over one thousand baht, which is thirty-three dollars, Canadian; more than he was even asking for.
But my biggest problem was that I didn't want to dishonor Buddha by offering too little. So then everyone was happy. I took a couple of pictures and my Guesthouse driver and I left. It was only when we were on the road that Chai asked me: "how you feel?" I was actually feeling pretty proud of myself for how I honored Buddha, and I said: "Dee. Dee mah." He replied: "Too expensive. Only should pay 200 baht." Later that night, I told Nee about it and she replied: "Too expensive." Then she added: "In Buddhism there are 5 things not do. One is, no alcohol." At that moment I realized that my pride in trying to show how wise I was, is what cost me that money. If I had just let myself be a stupid Farang who wanted my necklace back it would have been easy.
When I got up the next morning after almost no sleep I realized what it was. That time when I was shuttled from house to house? Those men were busy figuring out how to take my money. I suppose I shouldn't feel so bad at being cheated like that. After all it only cost me one thousand baht and it took a whole town to figure out how to get it from me. I had fooled myself with my own vanity into thinking I was armed with wisdom and insight at that meeting. I thought I was at a Buddhist Ceremony while we were actually bargaining for a case of beer.

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