Intern Lydia vs. LaLa & His Hippie Goons
To ease the burden of the ambitious mystery-project I signed on to in April, an intern was to fly from New York to Bangkok and assist me in my affairs for one and a half months.
“I get a slave.”
“That’s not what you’re getting.”
“I. Get. A. Slave.”
“You’re getting an intern… The poor girl.”
“Mm. It’s like a slave.”
Tommy shook his head. “You don’t get it.”
But Tommy was wrong. I’d seen The Devil Wears Prada on a flight once; I knew all about interns. They were depraved college students who would do anything for a bullet point on their resumes. Absolutely anything.
Lydia was a bright and cautious Yale senior. While my superiors had assigned her project-related chores, it was implied that I could also make her produce coffee, carry my bags, or subject her to horrifying, impossible tasks for the sake of my entertainment.
But I wasn’t going to do that. I wanted to ensure that Lydia’s bullet points would be as dazzling as possible, because I am a good person. As such, her first assignment would be to build her own shelter and hunt her own food in the Laotian jungle. I figured this would be an impressive skill to show future employers, and would certainly make an interesting talking point.
“There are lessons to be learned in the jungle,” I told her. “You must embrace risk. Life is nothing if not a wild adventure, and adventure is nothing if not a lap dance with disaster.”
“This is a very bad idea.”
“No,” I explained to her, “It’s a good idea.”
“Huh,” she nodded. “It’s a miracle you’re not dead yet.”
I knew a guy who knew a guy named LaLa, an eccentric bar-owner who moonlighted as a ‘Survival-Trekking Guide.’ For a reasonable fee, LaLa could lead us deep into the Laotian jungle, demonstrate a few skills, and then allow us the opportunity to fight for our survival in the wilderness, equipped with nothing but the bare essentials—an AK-47 assault rifle and a bayonet duct-taped to a stick.
There is a motif in my life that the most amazing, perfect plans are doomed to blow up in my face. This is the story of one of those plans.
Intern Lydia, you are missed.
LaLa Land Bar was a cozy, glorified alleyway under a tin roof, a hotspot for rancid-looking hippies and a few sexually prolific stray dogs. Befitting this visual theme was LaLa’s British girlfriend Millz, who looked and dressed like an angry heroin addict.
LaLa slid a photo album across the bar, displaying a picture of him standing alone in the woods wearing a scuba mask.
“This is the trek,” he informed me.
I turned the page to a picture of him psychotically grinning with a bayonet, which was followed by an action-shot of him stringing dead squirrels from a tree.
“I’m already sold,” I nodded.
LaLa was an excitable, athletic Laotian whose perceptions of Western social conduct had been badly damaged by MTV. When he wasn’t building, climbing, or murdering something, his behavior was confined to happy interjections and every two or three minutes throwing up his hand for a round of high fives. Neither Lydia nor I could tell whether this was a character he put on for tourists, or if he was genuinely insane.
LaLa produced a laptop and selected a video of him beating a snake to death with a stick. “Awesome!” he cried.
“I want you to teach Lydia how to do that.”
“Yeah bro,” he beamed, “High five!”
“That’s not what I signed up for,” grumbled Lydia, powerless before my almighty will.
The night before our trek, LaLa abruptly tried to cancel on us, informing me that a Canadian guy had just booked him for the week. “He hired Millz and I to take him on a seven-day jeep tour to the 4,000 Islands. He already paid me for everything…”
“But what about our agreement?” said Lydia. “We hired you to take us trekking.”
LaLa shrugged. “Maybe if you talk to him, you guys can come too. We’re gonna visit some sick waterfalls. It’ll be fun!”
I considered this for a moment. I had no intention of visiting any sick waterfalls, but I wanted to demonstrate an important lesson for Lydia; that sometimes it’s okay to manipulate and deceive people if it means you get to shoot lizards and monkeys with an AK-47.
Lydia and I arrived to find Millz managing the bar alone, dividing her time between picking the dirt out of her fingernails and hissing at nothing. After an hour or so of waiting, a confused-looking Canadian stumbled in wearing a souvenir tee shirt and a regrettable pair of safari pants.
David Schneider was a young, wealthy real estate broker for Sotheby’s Montreal. I don’t know how he ended up vacationing in rural, third world Laos. Judging from his chronic expression of awe and panic, neither did he. David belonged on the pool deck of a Disney Cruise, or better yet, sitting in his study for a week, leafing through a Tommy Bahama catalogue and wearing a pith helmet. I could picture the dollar signs spinning in LaLa’s eyes like a slot machine.
David happily explained that he was paying five times more than what Lydia and I were paying but somehow receiving less. Apparently LaLa and Millz wanted to take a vacation to the 4,000 Islands and meet up with their hippie friends, so they convinced David to come along and subsidize it.
“They want us to go hang out with those guys,” David grimaced, pointing to a few greasy stoners frowning in the corner. Millz appeared and presented them with a towel wrapped around a stick, which they proceeded to soak in gasoline, ignite with a match, and then one guy in pajama pants started waving it around to a shitty synthesizer beat.
“My deepest condolences,” Lydia shook her head.
I put a hand on David’s shoulder. “You know, if Lydia and I came along, there’d only be enough room in the jeep for us and LaLa. Plus we’ll help you cover the costs for a few days.”
“Of course! But only if we can squeeze in a bit of trekking.”
“Like… in the jungle?!”
Lydia and I nodded.
“No kidding! In the jungle? Man—that’s such a hoot. Alright, I guess. Deal.”
I smiled and we shook hands. “Oh, by the way, while we’re trekking we also want to do some fishing.”
“I love fishing!”
“And also hunting. We’re gonna hunt our own food.”
“Also we want to build our own shelter.”
“Oh,” David frowned, nervously shifting his weight. “Man, that’s such a hoot.”
It was dark by the time we set off in LaLa’s ancient, soviet “Jeep”—a name he used to describe our bouncy, roaring death-box. To maximize space in the two-seater cabin, Lydia, David, and one of LaLa’s dogs were placed in the jeep’s tiny, shitty trunk, where they winced in the rain and pouted with profound unhappiness.
“How’s it going back there?” screamed LaLa.
“Great,” cried David with impossible optimism. “It’s like an adventure movie,” he said—referring to that one movie about characters pouting in a trunk.
“It’s like the Indiana Jone’s ride,” shouted Lydia. “Except fucking awful.”
Around dinnertime, we stopped at a roadside stall selling roasted bats, where a woman informed us that a mudslide had destroyed the road ahead—our destination was unreachable.
“Perfect!” I clapped, “So where’s the new trekking place?”
LaLa’s face fell for a moment and then abruptly warped into a grin. “Saisombum!” he cheered. “It’s a restricted militarized zone and foreigners aren’t allowed. But it’s totally cool.”
“What!” said Lydia.
“Hold on!” sputtered David.
“You’re joking!” I cried. “I was planning on taking Lydia there after the trek, that’s so convenient.”
Lydia let out an angry, squeaking noise.
I picked up the map. “But I thought Saisombun was the most heavily bombed place on earth. Aren’t all the jungles littered with landmines?”
“It’s totally safe!” chimed LaLa.
“Excellent!” I cried.
The turn-off to Saisombun was marked with a rusted, imposing Laos PDR gateway—beyond which, both the paved road and civilization met an end. Barbed wires and ramshackle barriers appeared as the rice paddies ripped upwards into jungle-clad hills, pockmarked with bomb craters, shrapnel, and yellow warning signs. A dirt path struck north through the forest, festering with potholes, carving treacherous turns through the vast minefield.
LaLa responded by leaning on the accelerator and smoking copious fistfuls of pot out of an apple.
“LOOK OUT!” shrieked Lydia.
BOOM! The jeep thundered off the road into a mud embankment, where the engine stuttered to a hiss.
We piled out and stared helplessly at the jeep for several minutes.
David broke the silence. “There’s so many butterflies,” he croaked. “That’s so cool.”
I looked around. We were deep in the jungle now, sun-streaked and flitting with hundreds of butterflies—which were splattered across our windshield in a glorious rainbow of carnage.
“Well, isn’t this a postcard?” said Lydia, stepping through the weeds. “Super duper.”
“Don’t stand there!” I shouted. “Jump!”
She froze. “What! Why?”
“Get on the track! Landmines. This whole zone is covered.”
“Fuck you Steve!” she shouted, leaping onto the track.
LaLa climbed into the jeep and fiddled with the steering wheel, which no longer held tension. He then ripped the paneling off the steering column, removed some colored wires, and cut them with his knife. “It’s broken,” he announced.
Shortly thereafter he lost interest in the jeep and began chopping a watermelon with his bayonet. When this lost its novelty, he wandered off into the jungle.
“Where are you going?” asked Lydia.
“I hear a waterfall!” he exclaimed.
“But there are landmines.”
“Maybe,” he nodded and vanished through the foliage, leaving us stranded in a rusty jeep in the middle of the jungle, in the middle of a restricted zone, in the middle of the world’s largest minefield.
Lydia frowned, “This is the opposite of fun.”
“It’s not so bad,” I said.
“We’re not seriously thinking about continuing this.”
“Why wouldn’t we be?”
“Aside from the obvious reasons? I think LaLa may be autistic.”
I turned to David, whose optimism had finally failed him. He was now completely withdrawn, standing in the middle of the road, blinking rapidly.
I explained to Lydia that I wanted to teach her an important lesson, that she should never be afraid to embrace risk.
“You only say that because you’ve been lucky so far. But you’re not invincible. This is going to end badly.”
“Don’t be such a defeatist,” I scolded. “Try to look forward. When you’re sitting in your bamboo hut, beating a monkey to death with a rock and eating its meat for sustenance, I think you’re going to thank me.”
At this, Lydia followed David’s example, falling into a silent trance, occasionally staring up to the sky in horror.
Hours passed. As the baking sun climbed higher, thirst and hunger set in. I realized that even if LaLa had left his rifle and bayonet, there would have been nothing for Lydia to shoot. All that remained in the jungles of Saisombun were orchids and butterflies and silence—deafening silence—broken only by LaLa’s soft, faraway footsteps. I strained my ear, waiting to hear his distant cry: “Woaah, sweet!” followed by a muffled boom.
But instead there came the roar of an approaching engine.
A white jalopy puttered into view.
“A CAR!” shrieked Lydia, leaping into the road and flailing her arms. The car slowed to a stop and the window lowered, revealing a pair of bewildered Laotians. “Our jeep is broken down, we need help!”
“Jao paak phaasaa… lao dai baw?”
“Our jeep! It’s broken! No work! Bro-ken! You don’t speak English.”
The Laotians stared in alarm.
LaLa reemerged from the forest and a moment later, a toolkit was removed from their trunk.
It was 10PM when we finally rolled into the nearest village, frustrated, exhausted, and soaked with rain. There were only two mechanics in town: one a greasy man who sat back smoking cigarettes and shaking his head, the other, his eight-year-old son.
LaLa had thought it wise to leave for the trip without bringing any cash, obliging us to pay the repair bill.
“I hate everything,” said Lydia.
“You’re wrong!” she cut me off, flaring her nostrils and turning a remarkable shade of red.
We’d wandered next door to a Lao-barbecue shack, where we sat on a straw mat drinking beer and picking through assorted animal parts. David had taken a business call and could be seen angrily stomping up and down the main road, waving his fists and growling into his Bluetooth, much to the fascination of villagers.
“Hungry?” I grinned upon his return. “They’ve got great local food.”
“Local food, neat!” he smiled uneasily.
I bit into a pig ear and pointed to the stall. “Go nuts.”
David waddled off and returned a minute later, looking horrified and clutching a bag of potato chips. “I’ve never seen this flavor chip before!” he exclaimed.
I looked at the bag. “Those are Lays-Brand. It’s just Paprika.”
David quietly opened his chips. “This place is pretty neat,” he muttered, then fell silent, casting nervous glances at the villagers.
LaLa appeared a minute later.
“What now?” said Lydia.
“This is all wrong,” LaLa shook his head. “I’ve spoken with Buddha. I think he wants us to go to the 4,000 Islands.”
I took a sip of beer. “You spoke with Buddha?”
“Where? In the auto-shop?”
LaLa thought for a moment. “Yes.”
“Are sure it was Buddha?”
“He wants us to go to 4,000 Islands–”
“This is bullshit! ” David shouted abruptly, tossing down his chips.
“Wow!” I clapped.
“No one is going to the 4,000 Islands,” he stammered. “This is my tour, I arranged it, and I get to make choices too. If you guys want to go trekking, fine, but tomorrow we’re going to turn around and drive back to Vientiane. You’re dropping me off at the airport. Fuck this! I’m flying to Phuket.”
We were twenty minutes away from the airport when the jeep broke down a third time, so we had to push it in neutral to the nearest gas station.
“I think I’m going to catch the bus to Vietnam tomorrow,” said Lydia.
“I thinks its really great that you want to waste all your money repairing this crappy jeep over and over again so you can eat rats in the jungle with a maniac. I know there’s a ton of life lessons and insights to gain in that, but… I’m gonna dip.”
“Well,” I huffed, “I wonder what story I’ll tell your future employers when you need a reference.”
“I can do all my assignments for you as long as I have Internet. Whenever you get to Hanoi I’ll meet you there.”
“Fine then, I guess I’ll just have all the fun and you’ll be sorry you missed out.”
Lydia sighed. “Just ask for a refund and call it a day. You don’t even know how to hold a rifle properly.”
In retrospect, I should have listened. But everything had been going great thus far. It wasn’t until after we dropped off Lydia and David that I noticed storm clouds on the horizon.
LaLa fell quiet and stopped offering me high fives. I knew Millz and his hippie gang were in town, so to ease tensions I invited him to bring them along for the trek. “I’ll pay for all the petrol,” I smiled. “It’ll be sick.”
Thirty minutes later, the jeep was overflowing with ponytails and hemp necklaces. That night we ate dinner at a hole-in-the-wall with plastic chairs, where I slammed beers and watched the rest of the group discuss trendy issues like pumpkin farming and Buddhism, pausing frequently to fiddle with their piercings. As the hour grew late, we piled into LaLa’s vintage jeep and cruised around Vientiane playing music, and we were all so cool and hip that The Lumineers would have vomited.
In the presence of his friends, LaLa was no longer wacky, but down-to-earth. He no longer seemed dopey, but sharp and deliberate. At first I found it refreshing, but as he pulled Millz aside to deliberate in hushed whispers, it occurred to me that I knew nothing about this man.
The next morning I awoke early and waited outside my hotel for LaLa and the gang to pick me up.
And I sat…
And I sat…
And I sat…
Seven hours passed before my denial cracked and I began plotting the demise of my backstabbing guide and his jabberwocky girlfriend.
Several of my belongings were still in their jeep, including my iPhone and an expensive rain jacket. I didn’t know where they were staying, but I remembered the name of their friend’s hotel, where a receptionist informed me that they’d already checked out—but had left their luggage.
If I couldn’t provide my readers with a survival story from the jungle, then I was ready to give them a revenge thriller set in the 4,000 Islands.
Detective stakeouts always seemed fun—a chance to wear cool jackets and chain-smoke in a car all night. But I didn’t smoke, nor did I have a car. So I hid behind a tree across the street in the rain, stealing sneaky glances at the hotel while pedestrians looked at me like I was some kind of idiot.
“What on earth are you doing?” came a voice.
It was Lydia.
“Don’t make eye-contact. I’m trying to catch one of LaLa’s hippie goons.”
“Of course you are…”
“I thought you were in Vietnam.”
“I’m heading to the bus right now. I spent the day sightseeing and then treated myself to a ninety-minute Thai massage.”
“Sounds funs,” I said flatly. “LaLa ditched me and took my iPhone.”
“And my jacket. And some other stuff… This was a bad idea,” I grumbled.
“Who would have guessed?” Lydia bit her lip. “Oh wait—me!”
“Don’t. There’s no need.”
She smiled. “If it would improve my reference, I could hold some of them down while you snip off their dreadlocks. I’d have to miss my night bus though…”
“I’ll see you in Hanoi,” I smiled.
We hugged and she walked off, leaving me standing alone on the corner in the rain, hiding behind a tree, feeling a little bit stupid.
I was ready to call it quits when LaLa’s jeep roared into view, brimming with hippies. They parked in front of the hotel.
For a moment I just stood there. I’d managed to locate them, but I’d never considered what I would do next.
“Asshole!” I cried, leaping out from behind the tree.
They squinted in confusion for a moment.
“Asshoollee!!” I repeated, charging towards them.
Millz and the hippies scampered into the hotel. LaLa jammed the key into the ignition, but I flopped into the trunk. A screaming match ensued.
“Give me my stuff! And give me back my money!”
“I TOLD YOU I DIDN’T BRING ANY MONEY!”
“Then take me trekking!”
“No! We’re going to the 4,000 Islands, bro!”
“First of all, BRO, how are you doing that if you didn’t bring any money? Second of all, YOU’RE AN IDIOT.”
“It’s too late!”
“Because everyone’s stuff is already packed.”
“I DON’T CARE.”
Millz appeared and began speaking on behalf of LaLa like some hatchety-faced representative.
They didn’t know what had happened to my iPhone. They also weren’t going to take me trekking, because all they wanted in the first place was go to the 4,000 Islands with their friends. I would receive no form of refund, compensation for the jeep repairs, or any ilk of apology. Here’s your jacket, fuck you, and thanks for choosing LaLa-Land Trekking & Tours.
“I wont leave this trunk!”
“Fine,” Millz shrugged. “Enjoy.”
With my back to the wall, I did as the jungle animals—I puffed out my chest and tried to appear bigger: “I’m a travel writer!” I growled, flashing my stupid business card. I began name-dropping companies involved with the mystery-project in a bid to sound important. “Give me my money or I’ll write the article!”
Millz screamed, “That’s blackmail!”
I waved my business card again. “I WILL END YOU.”
Millz agreed to give me a sixty-percent refund, under the stipulation that I don’t write a bad article about LaLa or use my infinite clout to doom their business. If Millz feels I’ve gone back on my word, well—perhaps that makes us even.
But this isn’t a “bad” story about LaLa. In the end, it’s not even about him. This is the story of a pigheaded plan that went awry—a story of an intern who demonstrated remarkable patience, bravery, and assertiveness in the face of my outlandish wrath—a story of lessons learned in the jungle.
For Pakistani shenanigans involving AK-47s, check out “Walnuts & Machine Guns: A Taliban Tale“
Or, for some wilderness survival, traverse the Gobi Desert in “The Long Road to Nowhere: A Hitchhiker’s Tale from Outer Mongolia”