I’m on a volunteering stint in Vientiane, and today I found myself on the crumbling campus of the National University of Laos. I was waiting outside for my boss when a middle-aged man stepped off of the road and began to speak English to me.
By his dress, accent, and features, I knew he had to be a traveler from Korea or Japan. This was quite unusual to me, as we were in Dong Dok, about eight miles from Vientiane's tourist center. And he was the first foreigner to actually talk to me. All the others hardly managed a nod or a response to my smile when passing me in the streets.
He was in search of the nearest restaurant and I was able to lead him to the cafeteria.
Once he had ordered his meal, I began to hear his story. His voice was so raspy and his intonation so oriental, I felt like I was having a conversation with Master Splinter, himself.
“I am one-man NGO,” he declared with a smile. NGO stands for non-governmental organization and the term is associated with poverty aid programs, environmental programs, and the like.
He explained that he was a retired Korean professional who received a government pension of $180 each month.
“$80 I spend on myself. The rest I give to the poor people.”
On that day, he had visited a nearby elementary school, where as I understood, he made balloon animals for the children. After that, he met a street vendor and offered to cut the man's hair. His offer was accepted and he gave the man a haircut right there on the sidewalk, using the kit he carried with him in his bag. He also mentioned occasionally distributing medicine.
“This is my duty,” he affirmed.
I looked at his bag. I imagined the balloon assortment, the haircutting kit, the unlabeled pill bottles. What else was in there?
He had come from as far as Sri Lanka, passed through India and who knows where else in between. He told me briefly about the tsunami-hit areas he visited: “No houses, just flat.” He extended his hand and cut a line through the air.
Despite the ambitiousness of his travels, I was under the distinct impression that he spoke no languages other than his native Korean and his endearingly choppy English. He confirmed this, and I quietly wondered how he got around a country like Laos. But he did, and did it blowing balloons and cutting hair all the way, it appeared.
But with much regret, I only spent those five minutes speaking with him. I had to return to my duties assisting the private school salesman. So there I left him to finish his meal and continue on his way. We hadn’t even had time for a proper introduction.
I wanted to go with him. To join him. I wanted to leave my little cage in Vientiane and watch him wander, to hear more stories. My mind played a video montage of my future adventures as his sidekick: trekking into a remote village and being greeted by a rapturous mob of barefoot children, blowing up balloons and handing them off to him for transformation into elephants and giraffes, listening to him introduce us with, “We are two-man NGO,” translating his halting English sentences into my halting Lao sentences. Perhaps once I would get ill after eating an exotic dish and then watch him dig deep into his bag for a magical Korean elixir. Oh, the times we would have!
After all, this roaming philanthropist was exactly the kind of person I had looked forward to meeting in Laos. Not offish, unshaven backpackers. Not my wannabe MBA boss running some crackerjack academy. Not the vendors and taxi drivers who saw me as a dollar bill with arms and legs.
But I didn’t go with him. It probably wasn’t a good idea. I wasn't wearing comfortable shoes. My shirt was too formal. I wasn’t carrying much money. I wouldn’t have made it very far before eventually returning to my room.
So here I am.
Meanwhile, somewhere, some delighted and confused Lao is holding a balloon and receiving a free haircut from the Korean One-Man NGO.