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My first man-date

Laos is even more lovely than I’d remembered. Immediately, it’s Sabaajdii (hello) and smiles everywhere I turn. We arrive in Vientiane, and my stomach is already aching from the prior day’s dinner of dog. So I am tethered to the toilet for the entire day. Guess this is my penance for dining on America’s most beloved pet. That evening, we venture out for dinner and I swear every Laotian dog is barking at me, like they could smell it on me!

We eat dinner at a restaurant that serves as a culinary training center for street youth. A regional NGO operates the restaurant and other programs for street youth, and my friend is considering being a major donor. The staff member explains the programs nervously to us, with large pauses from our questions. His stammering makes me smile inwardly, so glad to be out of philanthropy and making people nervous all the time!

The next day, my friend heads back to Seattle and I’m alone for the first time on my trip. At the encouragement of friends from the US, I go to COPE (www.copelaos.org) and am blown away. I have often heard about the secret war in Laos and the millions of landmines, but I had never been able to really wrap my head around the devastation. At the COPE Visitor Center, I learned the U.S. Airforce dropped 260 million bombs through 500,000 bombing missions between 1965 to 1975. There are an estimated 80 million unexploded cluster bombs in Laos. The rising cost of scrap metal compounded by poverty creates a lethal equation. A mere 2,000 kip per kilogram (12 cents/pound) is enough incentive, with almost half of all reported accidents from collecting scrap metal or salvaging explosives.

The artwork, installations, videos and photos are gripping and bring the big numbers to life through stories of local people. I watch a video and feel like I’m sitting with the family as they tell the story of their 9-year old son who was killed. Children are exploited by adults in horrible ways throughout the world. In this case, the adults use metal detectors and when they find metal send the children in to salvage the metal. The three children accidentally struck the bomb and it exploded. Villagers heard the explosion and summoned the parents. The parents hired a car to take them to a hospital in the city. When they arrived at the hospital, there was no blood or oxygen. They went to another city, and the second hospital also didn’t have blood or oxygen. So they brought their son home to die. This is the reality of the lack of infrastructure in Southeast Asia. I can hear countless statistics, buzzwords and jargon, but these are the stories that stay with me and make me want to change the world.

And for the people that do survive these accidents, COPE creates prosthetic limbs. The average prosthetic limb lasts two years, and only 6 to 9 months for growing children. Of course, in most of the rural areas people are devising their own limbs from wood, plastic, metal, anything they can salvage and using them for 30 years. I was so inspired by the stories of people who are now self-sufficient due to COPE.

The next day, I go to Luang Prubang, one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia. My first night there, I go to the night market and sit at communal tables while gnawing on BBQ chicken and sticky rice. The adjacent diner speaks to me in Lao, I look up and see the most drop-dead gorgeous man. I nonchalantly lift my jaw from the ground, and we exchange the usual pleasantries. He’s from Southern Laos, works for an NGO and is in Luang Prubag for one night. He’s with two friends but they are pretty quiet and aren’t as Engligh-proficient as their friend. They invite me out for a drink, and I decide to stay open to this adventure and go with them. We promptly lose his two friends in the night market and he calls his friends. They promise to meet up with us later, and I never see them again. So suddenly, I’m on a man-date – lounging on cushions in a private cabana nestled in a bamboo grove next to the river. At first, I give him pat answers to his questions, but it doesn’t take long for me to open up and disclose more – I’m a recovering alcoholic (why don’t you drink?) and a lesbian (why aren’t you married at 40?). I also tell him my latest journeys in Southeast Asia have opened me up to the possibility of being with a man. We talk and laugh for hours, and he tells me I have the heart of a man, and I’m immediately struck by his keen observation. He asks me how I will know when I will be with a man, and I honestly reply that I don’t know. As the night progresses, it becomes clear to me how I will know, or rather how I know when it WON’T happen.

The moon is out and it’s a sultry Southeast Asian evening. This guy is devastatingly handsome and I’m enjoying his company. At first, it’s amusing when he tells me we should try to make the impossible happen tonight. But as he walks me home, he starts to get pushy and aggressive and in an instant I know that tonight I won’t end my 18-year streak of not kissing men. After I firmly reject his offers to return to his hotel room, he tells me he thinks I’m afraid of him. This is the most hysterical statement to me. Even though I’m walking with a stranger at night and alone in a foreign country, I don’t have a hint of fear. I am a strong confident woman, and am in control of myself and the situation. I don’t feel a tinge of regret when we say good night, and I wonder where my next man-date will take me.

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