In the morning all was forgotten and we went for a coffee at the Morning Market. Outside the huge structure, along its western side, there were three big eating areas catering to the public. The southern one was across the road from the main bus terminal. First we stopped at my preferred stall, the only one serving coffee at the central food plaza and then at the southern one, which had several coffee stalls. The recognition and greetings of the sellers needed no translation.
"I think that you are addicted to the coffee here – everybody knows you," Adi said.
"You see, I’m just a popular, veteran coffee drinker in Laos."
While we were drinking the coffee, he offered to pay for it. Besides the needed amount, he took out of his wallet two brand-new one hundred Kip notes, which had been out of circulation for at least a couple of months, much before his alleged arrival to Laos.
"Where did you get the one hundred kip notes? This is your first visit here and they’re not in use anymore," I asked, surprised.
"I don’t remember, maybe I got them from the bank. Take them from me. If you collect five of those you will be able to exchange them at the bank for a five-hundred note."
"Well, I can give you the ones I own."
"I don’t think so. I’m leaving tomorrow and I won’t have time for that," he said, disclosing his departure time. I had been careful not to comment about mine so maybe he was trying to extract an answer from me about my departure date and time.
"Keep them as a souvenir," I said.
"No, no," he added with a sudden loss of interest, realizing that I wasn’t going to take the bait.
On our way out, I walked him to the central mail office, which was located in front of the market. I wanted to see how he would react so I told him, "If you are leaving, why don’t you send a postcard to your family? I’m sure they would like to see a stamp from Laos."
He was reluctant but I insisted, even offering to pay the insignificant amount of money. He bought a postcard of Patuxai’s Arc de Triomphe, filled it out and showed it to me. It was addressed to a post box in Haifa, to a woman he claimed was his mother. The only problem I could detect was that her last name was one belonging to an Oriental Jew, while he obviously was from European descent and had already commented that he knows Russian. Although I noticed a small glitch in the system, I said nothing.
From there we went for a more substantial breakfast of baguette sandwiches. All along the way, both inside the market and outside it, Adi entered shops and asked about the cost of the merchandise until he found something he wanted. To purchase his gifts, he handed the woman a brand-new twenty thousand Kip note, a denomination which had appeared only a short time before, and asked for change. The locals were still suspicious of these notes so when the woman refused to accept it, he turned to me and asked for change. Once again he was offering me a new note, as twice before he had offered me candies. To be on the safe side, I declined.
While eating the baguettes filled with pate au foie de porc, he took out his wallet and showed me that besides the two one hundred notes I had already seen, he had twenty, thousand Kip notes, and again he asked for change. I refused. After finishing the quick meal he gave me one of his twenties and asked me to pay for him, so he could get smaller notes.
"You could do that by yourself," I remarked while taking the note from him and handing it to the vendor, who was intently watching the strange foreigners. I gave Adi his change of three fives.
Laughing, he said, "You gave it away so quickly!" I didn’t know what the point of this was, but I knew from then on that I should never carry something that a fellow traveler asked me to carry. Afterwards I might be surprised at customs, or face some other problem of an unexpected nature. Were these notes marked? Could they be traced? I didn’t want to find out.
As we returned to the dormitories, we walked through the Namphou Fountain, where he asked me about the Scandinavian Bakery. Instead of telling him about my preferred restrooms, I pointed to a well-known beggar there, and said, "You see the beggar? I’ve known him for a long time. He never asks for money and is the only beggar allowed to stay in this prime location. It means that he is a police informer."
"You see the Japanese girl sitting at the stairs talking with the tuk-tuk driver?"
"What about her?"
"She is buying drugs from him. My point is that I am a veteran here. I know the people around here very well, the same as in other cities in Southeast Asia. I am just living in a place that I like and I’m doing nothing wrong." He didn’t answer.
Later at the guesthouse, after I gave him an antiseptic for a small problem he had on one of his feet, he tried to give me half of his package of talc, a thin white powder in a plastic box, claiming that I walked too much and my feet needed it. I thought about the headlines: "Israeli caught smuggling drugs in Laos." I was tired of his tests to fill my backpack with unwanted stuff, but Adi was enjoying himself despite the fact that he kept using the same ploy over and over. "Redundancy" was their middle name; it made them recognizable.
Next morning, I left early, picked up my passport from the Chinese embassy and returned before Adi woke up. The evening before, the satellite TV signal was of low quality and this morning it was still bad. Therefore I assumed that a strong solar storm was disturbing the satellite signals; later I could confirm that on the internet. I applied some extra sun lotion to my face, wore my big brown hat – marked Angkor 2001 – put on my sunglasses and began walking with Adi to the market for the usual coffee.
"The TV signal is still bad," I commented as we left the guesthouse.
"Do you think that there is a little machine doing it? Isn’t that a bit paranoid?" he said, chuckling.
"Don’t be silly, there is a solar storm today. You should put on sunglasses and a hat if you want to avoid skin cancer."
On the way, behind the fence of a government building, out of my reach, was a photographer with very sophisticated equipment, very unusual in Laos. When he saw how I was dressed, unrecognizable except to my closest friends due to my precautions, he stood up slowly and moved away, with the movements of a trained sniper.
"He was trying to photograph me," I told Adi, who was looking at him as we passed near him, separated only by the fence.
"Come on, aren’t you being a little too suspicious?"
"He had professional equipment. I know what I have seen. Maybe it’s time for me to leave Vientiane," I added, hinting for the first time about my departure.
"Did you notice the equipment? It had an optical zoom of forty times."
Following my silence to this remark, he turned to me. "Look I can only tell you that you should be more careful while crossing roads," he warned me, a few days too late and hinting at the Udon Thani event. Then he added in a lower voice, "Keep moving, don’t stop." After the coffee we said goodbye and he left. I had befriended a watcher. I had no way to reach them and explain their error in a way they could comprehend. But at least I had received a warning.
(Excerpt from Chapter 70. Last Coffee in Vientiane)
The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions.