Diaries of a burglar

The answer to the question “What’s life in Laos like?” is long and robust, which is what you get for asking me to describe my life with a nice, neat answer.

“It’s good.”


“It’s exciting.”


“It’s fun.”


“It’s an adventure.”


But there’s more.

About a week ago, Lauren and I left for the afternoon while our house-help (hereafter referred to as the mae ban) stayed behind to do her job with excellence (it feels important that I add that detail because she takes away the dirt and dog hair, and for that, I owe her this sentence). We knew upon leaving that she didn’t have a key to lock our gate because our old lock was cut off by someone else who had lost their key, and we hadn’t given her a copy of the new one. Thus, we had no choice but to leave the protection of the yard up to the dogs and our reputation of being safety conscious foreigners.

“Do you think she’ll worry about not being able to lock the gate?” Lauren and I asked to ourselves and each other.

“Nooooo. She doesn’t have a choice but to leave it unlocked. It’ll be fine.”

After several hours spent in a team meeting and dinner, we arrived home to find she had magically locked the gate. Baffled, I got off my bike and wiggled the key into the lock and twisted it in every direction. Still locked, I tried a different key with no luck. Several more keys and one redhead hoisted over our wall later, we discovered that the mae ban had found a spare lock and key and secured the gate so well that its own tenants couldn’t get in. Shame on us for assuming she’d leave the gate open!

We called several friends to see if they had bolt cutters, and no one did because we don’t really cut bolts in Laos. It was rounding 11 P.M, so we were short on options. Finally, we had the idea to drive to the bike mechanic on the corner who we ALWAYS take weird stuff from. Rolling up to the shop with our friend, Christa, we saw a group of younger people drinking beer and gawking at the two white girls who just pulled up on a bike to…drink with them?

“No. We don’t want to drink. But…” we explained the problem to them, and after offering a million sort of helpful suggestions, we’re like “we just want some bolt cutters.” Of course, the owner of the bike shop, they said, was gone, and they had no access to tools. Shoot. We then turned our attention toward another group of people across the street, similarly drinking beer and enjoying each other’s company. I realized I know these people, and the place I know them from is the bike shop. The place the owner went was literally 20 feet away, but 20 feet may seem like a mile when your vision and judgment are impaired by Beerlao?

“We need something to cut the lock,” we said to the shop owner after crossing the street. As helpful as ever, he and his wife opened the shop to start rummaging through their tools looking for something and ultimately gave me a hammer and a screwdriver. They pantomimed using the hammer to pound the lock open. Not satisfied with this option, Christa mimed back using bolt cutters, and after another minute of rummaging, we were shown a four foot long set of shrub clippers.

“I’ll take the hammer. I’m strong,” I said.

“Yes, yes. Very strong!” they all assented.


The lone picture from my days as a robber.

When we got home, Lauren saw the hammer and correctly guessed what I was about to pantomime for the last time. But as I placed the screwdriver into position and lifted the hammer up, we realized its trajectory was blocked by a handle and a pillar, so that I had only a foot of room to swing. It was time to show Laos what Emily Buikema was made of. Crappy swings, that’s what. Lauren tried from the other side. I tried. I cussed. We laughed.

After continual failed attempts, I spoke, panting. “I think (bang) we should just (bang) leave the bikes (bang) out here tonight, because (bang) my arm is getting (bang…click) Oh my gosh! Guys! We got it! We…we got it! WE GOT IT!!!!”

We cheered and applauded, Lauren and I hugged, and I threw the lock deep into the meadowy weeds, never to be busted open again. I slept well that night, not only because I physically exerted myself, but because our mae ban refused to leave our house vulnerable, even at the expense of our convenience. We gave her a new key today.

So what is life in Laos like? It’s good. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s an adventure. It’s being locked out of your own house, then breaking in over the wall, then enlisting the help of some teenagers and mechanics to lend you stuff I’m sure they’ve never lent anyone else. It’s feeling so cared for by people who don’t need to care about you or your gate. It’s pantomiming, always pantomiming. And way more work than it feels like it’s worth sometimes. But when that lock unlocks, you feel the stupidest sense of triumph that could only be felt here, you hug and high-five each other, and you mentally catalog this memorable moment under, “Things that made me feel awesome,” and next to a little asterisk in your brain, you write “Laos.”


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