One who neither hates nor desires the fruits of his activities is known to be always renounced. Such a person, liberated from all dualities, easily overcomes material bondage and is completely liberated, O mighty-armed Arjuna.
Chapter 5, Verse 3, The Bhagavad Gita As It Is, Translation and Commentary by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
It was a visa run like any other, an overnight hop to Siem Riep on a Cambodia-Angkor Airways turboprop, back tomorrow. It was a late-ish flight and I plodded over the tarmac and rattled up the stairs an hour past my bedtime, threaded up to my seat, and hello, here’s a little bright spot: a pretty young Laotian woman in a traditional Laotian top and blue jeans in the seat beside mine.
She looked up at me with wide eyes as I stowed my yoga mat and daybag in the overhead. I gave her my standard-issue its-okay-I’m-no-threat smile as I moved to take my seat, and was rewarded with a shy little upturn at the corners of her mouth. Aw.
I settled in. She was nervous; I noted her staring fixedly out the window in my peripheral, and tension fairly hummed off her. I took her for an inexperienced flier, maybe even on her first trip out of sheltered, sleepy little Luang Prabang or something. I’ve lived in Vietnam more than long enough to pick up my share of Vietnamese prejudices, and Laotians are largely adored in Vietnam. They’re so honest, we’re heard to say. Lovely people. I wished I could reassure her.
Her anxiety ramped up as takeoff approached. The sounds of baggage stowage and engine start and runup procedures are louder in those small and venerable turboprops, and she wound tighter with every electric whine and mechanical thump. By the time we started to taxi, she had her left hand on the seat in front of her and her right on the cabin wall and her head was whipping back and forth from the cabin to the window.
Alright. I nudged her with my elbow, and when her gaze snapped over to me, I smiled and offered her my right hand, palm up. She snatched it in her left and gripped it until we’d climbed out of Da Nang and the flaps were up.
She relaxed a little in cruise climb, and let go of my hand, freeing me up to pull a sewing project from the seat pocket. I fished out a needle I’d secreted in an Altoids tin to avoid any tiresome conversations at airport security, and fumbled with the thread. She watched me intently until she couldn’t bear my incompetence any longer and took the needle and thread out of my hands to complete the task. Moments later, she snatched the nylon strap out of my hands and finished sewing on the D-ring herself.
As delighted as I was by her gesture, I didn’t particularly like her handiwork, so I didn’t proffer another strap and d-ring. We sat in companionable silence for the rest of the trip, and she handled the landing in Siem Reap like a vet. As the plane came to a stop, I stood up and reached into the overhead for my stuff, and noting the neon pink hard-shell case beside, I looked a question down at her. She nodded, and I yarded her case down for her, then strapped on my kit and wearily plodded in turn down the aisle, down the rickety stairs, and across the tarmac. A light went on in my head, and I stopped and turned back to see she was making it down the stairs just fine. Fine.
Into the airport, visa-on-arrival form counter, lineup to the visa application desk, sullenly disapproving of the visa official’s medal-and-braid-festooned confection of a uniform. My turn. Here’s the form, you imperious little twat. Yeah, I got a passport photo. Thirty USD, okay… okay… wait… um… I patted each pocket of my cargo shorts twice. Fuck. Front pocket of my daybag. No. Okay, I’m just gonna slide down the counter here and let you deal with the next guy while I unfuck myself.
I scrambled from pocket to pouch to compartment with a rising sense of alarm. Two or three thorough rounds settled the issue; my wallet wasn’t there. Again through my cargo shorts. Nope. What…
My head snapped up as it hit me, and I scanned through the arrival lounge. The long, bleary-eyed foreign-visitor lineups. The bored, lonely domestic-passports official at his desk, his work done for this flight.
She wasn’t Laotian. She was Cambodian. And she was gone. With my wallet. Thank you, God, for teaching me humility.
I propped my elbows up on the counter, rubbed my eyes with my palms, and wallowed in a long, low, groaning chuckle. Idiot. Helpless, drooling imbecile. Bumbling mark. Fool of proverb, stranded penniless at the visa desk of a Cambodian airport.
And stranded isn’t what really stung; I had a flight booked for the following day, and worst case would be a night in the airport. Even the loss of my wallet wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that I’d been had off page one of volume one of the playbook: damsel-in-distress. Gibbering jackass, dick-in-hand, fat pigeon sitting. God, I hoped the money was going to feed a pack of hungry little siblings and not to some bling-dripping Indochinese pimp.
I propped my chin in my hands and reflected, in my defense, that she was brilliant. Absolutely Oscar-caliber from start to finish, and I was a better man for knowing her, the bitch. She was magnificent, which was why she was plying her trade in the up-market environment of an airplane instead of a bus. Even now, the only thing I can fault her for is snatching at crumbs when she could’ve had the whole loaf. Next time I see you, sweetheart, let me take you to my hotel and put a baby in you. Then you got me for eighteen years, right?
Anyways. The visa douche was eyeing me suspiciously, and I told him I didn’t have my wallet. He pretended to misunderstand. “My wallet is gone,” I said. His mouth opened in poorly-feigned shock. I meditated on the urge to drop an overhand right onto his supercilious gob, and demurred to repeat myself a second time. He lifted his nose and flapped his hand contemptuously towards a nearby bench. It begins, thought I.
The next four hours brought no surprises. I snoozed uncomfortably, interrupted at intervals by a parade of officials ostensibly there to assess my case, but really just enjoying the opportunity to sneer at a hapless Westerner. I knew perfectly well that the official decision was already made, and that decision was go fuck yourself. I bore it all with the saint-like patience and humility for which I am renowned.
But to my surprise, there was one guy who evidenced sincere concern for my plight. A young civilian operations manager, whose name I won’t hazard to render phonetically, returned in tow with every new pompous official, and it was clear he was going pointlessly to bat for me, for some reason I never did learn. And at the end of all the pomp and palaver, he led me to the visa counter and paid my visa fee out of his own pocket.
Thirty American dollars may not sound like much, but this is Southeast Asia, and that probably represented between ten and twenty percent of this guy’s monthly gross. He told me it was a lot of money to him, and asked me to be sure I paid him back. And then, when that was all done, and he couldn’t summon a taxi at 3 A.M., he put me on the back of his Honda Dream and drove me into town to my hotel, almost half an hour in the opposite direction to his home. He offered to buy me dinner as we passed an all-night restaurant. He offered to loan me some money when he dropped me off. All of this. Just because. No reason to do it, and little enough reason to expect repayment. Just because.
The next day a message to my long-suffering mother netted me a Western Union transfer, and the desk staff at my hotel gave me an envelope to stuff with the visa fee, a week or two of gas money, and a note. I thanked him. I told him how humbled and inspired I was by his generosity. I told him without a whiff of hyperbole that I’d never forget it, and I’d be looking for opportunities to pay it forward, and that he and I wouldn’t get to know how many people would ultimately be impacted by his kindness.
When I checked in for the flight, the attendant looked at his computer screen and asked me if I had something for our friend. I handed him the envelope; he opened it, counted the money, read the note, smiled at me, then immediately deputized me to assist an objectionable young American couple who had just tried to check in without a visa approval letter for Vietnam (“But we’re American!” they’d protested when told they didn’t have the required documentation).
When I boarded the plane, I was doted on by the cabin attendants, who clustered around my seat and took turns with my needle until they had it threaded for me. I surmised that they’d heard the story. Two of them were gorgeous young women, and I devoutly hoped that they were so impressed by my buddy’s heroism that they’d spend every subsequent Siem Reap layover shagging his brains out.
And that’s pretty much the story. Just a little vignette about a guy who went who went way out on a limb to help some random, scruffily-dressed fuckup stranded in an airport, with no expectation of reward. You understand my need to tell his tale.
I have no reason to believe that my buddy has any knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita; Cambodia hasn’t been Hindu since the Khmer Empire converted to Theravada Buddhism in the 13th century. He didn’t exemplify the principle deliberately. He just did it. And I reckon that’s even more admirable.
And of course, I dedicate this post to him, and to the cunning little vixen who made it all possible. They’re both in my heart, and there shall stay.
It all made me think of my Dad, who in his early sixties got robbed by a Vietnamese femme fatale who cut him from the herd in a Vancouver casino. She, at least, had the decency to fuck him cross-eyed before she jacked him for about six hundred bucks. Even from his deathbed he spoke fondly of her.