Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A new breed - Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Japanese bridge, Pai, by Fabio
September 2001. The Twin Towers collapsed a few days ago, as well as my prospect of a solid career, a secure job, promotions, a guaranteed salary, a pension at the end and all the things like that. When I say collapsed I mean that I tore it down with my own hands, not that it came down by itself or that someone else helped me to demolish it.
Let's not stray from the point though. September 2001, we were saying. I've just landed in Asia, determined to visit as big a portion of it as I can before my savings run out. The road that connects Chiang Mai and Pai is the same thin and winding path marked by the Japanese along the hills and the valleys of Mae Hong Son province during the second world war. Pai is starting to develop: there are a few guest houses, some agencies that organize trekking tours and rent bicycles, a number of restaurants and a couple of bars with Siamese cowboys playing live country and folk tunes. Waves of Thai tourists will start to flood this small town in a few years, for the moment only a few dozen foreigners a day arrive. And they do it by means of a run down micro-bus, probably built to accommodate baby midgets, gaudy colored and rusty, loud, burning-hot and full like a constipated bowel. The air-conditioned minivan service doesn't exist yet, let alone the small airplanes that land nearby nowadays. Unless you have a car or a motorbike the Playmobil bus is the only option available. The foreign passengers are mingling with a disproportionate number of Thais, who are not Thais in the real sense of the word, as almost all of them belong to the various minorities that inhabit the area: Shan, Karen, Akha, Lisu, Lahu. They are divided - or united - by sacks of rice, food, boxes of electrical appliances and utensils, poultry, fish and other mysterious objects. The one-and-a-quarter-person-seats are accommodating three-four people on average and the standard-sized foreigners have to find a way to handle the uncomfortable presence of their own knees. Others are sitting on a sort of big scorching bench that covers some mechanical parts of the bus, right next to the driver. The remaining ones are cramming the aisle.
I offer my seat to a woman overwhelmed with a huge basket that she carries on her shoulder as if it was a school-bag. Smiles and compliments are flooding me. It's low cost popularity, luxury that one can indulge on just in situations like this. After a while the bus starts to sputter, it slows down, then catches up, coughs again, jumps and halfway through a rather steep slope it finally comes to a stop. The driver is working hard on the ignition system and the starter is assisting him by screaming out loud, trying to wake the engine up, but there is nothing to do, the latter is deaf. We have to get off and considering the temperature, space and smell related issues none of the foreigners really take it badly. The locals, as it often happens in Asia, endure the events without any noticeable changes of facial expression. After half an hour though, the initial relief gives way to some puffs, that in a few minutes turn into outright restlessness. Then something happens. A Japanese pick up drives by, the only Thai tourist around (with hindsight I should call him a pioneer) stops it, asks for a lift and then waves to the bunch of people behind him. A dozen foreigners manage to find a place on the truck that a few seconds later has already disappeared behind a switchback. The ones who were left behind got the trick and are planning to stop the next car. I'm stunned by the heat and the cramps and I haven't decided whether I'm going to stay here or follow them. As usual I postpone the decision and I wait for something or someone to give me a cue. The oracle presents itself under the appearance of Makoto, a Japanese guy, all smiles, energy and clear ideas. Ten seconds next to him work better than a jar of Redbull. 
"I'm definitely gonna stay. Can you see how they are working hard to repair the bus and take us to Pai? I can't possibly leave them like this!" 
For a moment I don't react, then the power of the sentence and the purpose hits me like a Mike Tyson's punch. I think that it would be nice to start crying when facing this kind of demonstrations of humanity, but this doesn't seem to be the most appropriate situation, so I opt for a smile. 
"Well then, I'll stay as well. There's no hurry, nobody is waiting for me..." 
It doesn't take long to fix the problem and in a couple of hours we're already in Pai.
Normally, when we think of stereotypes, negative images tend to occur to us. Italians are cunning fellows, Germans are boring, French are snobbish, Japanese are credulous tourists who take photos of everything. Well, Makoto represents a stereotype of Japan that I'm crazy about. Sticking to an idea, to a principle, not necessarily related to politics or nationalism but, as in this case, to human solidarity, good manners, gratitude, understanding and compassion. Resisting temptations, avoiding easy ways, not making excuses, even when dealing with oneself. Maybe it's a legacy of the samurai culture, or at least that's how I like to think of it. And all of this is always accompanied by smiles and positiveness. That's why after five seconds of bewilderment I was almost moved to tears. 
The Great Makoto. We'll continue traveling together for a few days. He's the one who will organize a mini-party at a restaurant for my birthday, involving the waitresses who will contribute with a succulent and colorful fruit platter, free of charge. And he's the one who will make me laugh again when, on his way back from a rush to the toilet of a bus station, breathless, panting, the forehead covered with beads of sweat, holding his belly while his mouth was twisted in grimaces of pain, to apologize for the delay he will come up with: "Sorry was an e-me-ru-gen-cyyy!"
The Great Makoto, exceptional stereotype. Representative for South East Asia of a new breed of samurai.

Mae Hong Son province, Thailand, September 2001

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