Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bogged down - Muang Ngoi, Laos

American unexploded bombs, by Fabio
You set down a foot and control your muscles in order to be ready in case you slip. But you got it all wrong. The clay of Muang Ngoi streets is of an unusual type: after weeks of monsoon rain it turns into glue. A mixture that some chemistry laboratory - if they still haven't done it - should definitely analyze.
You don't have any problems when your sole touches the ground, as that slush clings to the rubber of your shoe like the almost dry concrete of a new sidewalk. At that stage your balance is guaranteed, your foot doesn't slide by a single centimeter. The situation changes when you take a second step and you shift the barycenter of your body to advance. Your head moves forward, your chest as well, your hips follow suit, your thigh and knee are also dragged along. But at ankle level something goes wrong. The first foot is anchored, stuck, welded, thermofused. You still don't realize how strong that bond is and you give a sharp tug, thinking that you can make it, as you have made it pretty much everywhere so far, with or without monsoon. The only thing that seems to yield though is the structure of your shoe: obviously its body is more likely to come off the sole than the latter is to get unstuck from the street. You fear the worst. You know that a violent move will leave you barefoot, so you try to keep calm while you carry out an outflanking maneuver, something that you learned long ago when you were lying on a dentist chair: a sequence of gentle circular pulls, hoping to loosen the grip before proceeding with the extraction. You already quit being afraid of looking ridiculous when you took a look around you a moment ago. You can't spot any Laotian stuck to the ground: either they are all at home or they have found out the way to skate on rubber cement. On the other hand the street is full of foreigners in the same situation as you. The scene makes you think of a museum hall where some kind of Blue Fairy by means of a few skillful touches of her wand has brought the statues to life, but has also played a dirty trick on them: one of their feet is still petrified, connected to the pedestal. All of them are flinging themselves about, maddened with joy for being finally able to move their limbs after so many centuries, but at the same time panicking for that last constraint that nails them down to the ground.
Finally you make it, the sole gets unstuck, you lift your foot and manage to take a step. You know that you won't go far though, that sooner or later the straps of your sandal will give in. Your intuition is confirmed by the footwear graveyard that lies in front of you: soles of other sandals, flip-flops, trainers and even trekking shoes appear here and there, thrust into mounds made of something that resembles home made chocolate ice cream, with a thousand times higher thickness and adhering power. 
I had already been in Muang Ngoi a few years ago, in the dry season: a completely different story. It's a little village built around few dirt roads, without any traffic, where you can only get by boat from Nong Khiaw, another small place not far from here. A little paradise, slightly spoiled by tourism maybe, but still retaining its charming atmosphere. Now it's unlivable. Hanging around the houses built with the American bomb shells is complicated and visiting the caves and the hills nearby is unthinkable. Tomorrow I'm gonna get on a boat and go back to Luang Prabang. 
By way of some grass paths and often walking barefoot I manage to reach a temple: some chicks are scratching around the yard and in a corner I can spot a gong-bell made with the remains of a bomb. I meet some nice guys from Bologna who manage to convince me to stay one more day. Alright, come to think about it with some nice company this place is not so bad.
The next morning after waking up I go and look for them to have breakfast together. They have already checked out of their hotel. I take a look around and all I can see is leaden clouds, leaves dripping with rain and a never ending expanse of quick-setting mud. Hard as I try I can't recall what the nice side of it that I could see yesterday was.
The next boat is leaving tomorrow, I'll have to stay here another day, bogged down in every sense of the word, with the only company of a book and a jug of coffee, while the Italians who convinced me to stay are enjoying the comforts and the French-colonial atmosphere of Luang Prabang. 
As for myself, the only French thing that is left here is a vaguely mocking saying: c'est la vie!

Muang Ngoi, Laos, August 2007

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