I flew into Luang Prabang, Laos, on a ATR prop plane in a violent thunderstorm. The plane wasn’t full, but a fair number of the passengers were being violently ill in the turbulence. The vomit didn’t stay neatly in the bags, but luckily there wasn’t all that much of it, because most people had wisely eschewed the box dinner provided on the flight.
Once on solid ground, we obediently lined up to obtain visas. At first they issued me a visa without blinking. The clerk behind the high wood counter wore an expression that tried for wary, but came off looking sleepy. But at the immigration booth, the two uniformed love birds, who I suspect spent most of their time doing each other between the arrivals and departures, decided that my passport offended them, since there was less than six months left to go to expiry.
This, it seemed, became an opportunity to look at me gravely, and shake their heads in unison. I offered them my virgin UK passport instead, but they wouldn’t accept it. Apparently, they have a preference for passports that are neither too full or too empty: and either of these offers them a fortuitous excuse to impose a ‘fine’. I am guided into a makeshift office that does duty most of the time, when no money is to be made, as a lunchroom. The old wood and glass cases that once might expect to overflow with wilted and flyblown official documents are host to haphazard piles of brightly coloured plastic crockery, and a few mangled aluminum utensils.
“We have a problem, Madame.”
“Really? What is it?”
“We must, I am sorry, impose a fine,” says the official in the ill-fitting olive uniform. He is making a great effort to look like this is causing him regret, but he fails. His gold incisor glints in the fluorescent overheads, the fraying gold braid on his epaulettes do likewise.
“What kind of a fine?”
“A two hundred dollar fine.”
Then he withdraws, and I am left to ponder my fate.The point of this is to allow the nervous traveler’s mind to be fertile. In the isolation of bureaucratic banality, one is expected to dream up numerous unpleasant scenarios that will, in the end, make handing over the ‘fine’ seem like a blessing.
During my life, I’ve been in a lot of rooms just like this one, at the mercy of a lot of petty officials like this one, and so I let my head roll back and close my eyes and catnap for the requisite period of time. At its most basic level, power is wielded in silence.
I already know I will hand over the $200. Although I’m fairly sure there’s no flight to Hanoi until the morning, and in truth, they’ve nowhere to send me, I don’t fancy spending the night on the ravaged wooden chairs in the immigration hall. I’ve done it before, out of stubbornness and principle, but I’m too old for that now.
On the other hand, if I hand over the money too eagerly, they will start to suspect there really IS something wrong with my passport. So I snooze with a certain smugness, knowing that it will annoy them just enough to process me a little faster, but not enough to really justify anything else.
I wake to hear the official scratching, pen to paper. He presents me with a humidity-warped exercise book on which he has written paragraphs in tight, cramped Lao. This, he explains, is the true account of my travel document transgression.
“Do you disagree?” he asks.
“Would it make a difference if I did?”
I smile coldly and hand over two ravaged $100 dollar bills. I know it’s childish, but it’s my parting gesture of disdain. I will not, under any circumstances, give him the crisp and clean ones I have in my billfold.
He fingers them with disgust. I smile apologetically. “Can I go now?”
“Of course, Madame. Do you need a taxi to the town?”
I lie and tell him the hotel has sent a car for me. My patience doesn’t stretch to furthering the fortunes of his taxi-driving family members.