Friday, October 22, 2010

The tap - Burma

Photo by malla_mi (CC)
The last supper in Pagan took place at a restaurant facing a dirt road, in the tourist district. Few customers, no apostles, just some fellow travelers that I recently met. But a Burmese Judas hidden somewhere in the kitchen had already betrayed me.
Fortunately the coach stops at a rudimentary filling station, a few more kilometers and I wouldn't have made it. The passengers are slowly getting off, they light up their cigarettes, stretch their backs, buy something at the small shop. In a downhill position I slide towards the toilet in the back. I shut the door with haste, nervously fiddling with the rusty bolt. I tear my pants away, rip up my boxers and squat over the toilet. I look at the wood of the door in front of me, its wide grains and its ruts polished by the years. It looks like the doors of the stables that I used to see when I was a child, during the weeks of summer holidays at the Southern Apennines. Impromptu thoughts of an uncomfortable position. This state of absent-mindedness is interrupted by a sound: like water gushing out of a tap and falling into a capacious or very deep container, causing an echoing sound. Actually there is a tap: it's supposed to be used to fill the bucket for the flush. But it's tightly closed right now: not even a drop is pouring out of it. How strange. I quickly look around but I cannot spot any other ones: then a very light sensation located somewhere near my lower back raises a surprising doubt. What the hell...the tap is me! This diarrhea is so watery and smooth that I can hardly feel it. The flow keeps going for a while, giving me the impression that I've become a full goatskin and that someone has just opened the nozzle. Then - all of a sudden, without reducing its speed first - it stops. When I stand up I look at the china and I cannot see any trace of the stuff. 
When I go out the drivers have just finished fixing some technical problem (there will be many more later on, and all the foreign passengers will get mad about it, except me, of course, for obvious reasons).
We stop two more times because of some other damage and I punctually open the tap and let go the pressure that is swelling my guts. 
Unfortunately the next attack doesn't match a mechanical failure. I hold on, clench my teeth, as the unwritten traveler's textbook says, but after a while I cannot stand it anymore. I ask the driver if he can stop the bus. He cannot speak English but an old monk helps me out. In a country of devote Buddhists like this, his words sound like an incontrovertible order and the driver stops the bus at the edge of the road. The crowd disperse over a large field, under the shade of some huge tropical trees. While everybody is looking for a trunk or a bush to pee, I find a hidden corner and re-open my valve. 
I've become a celebrity among the passengers, who have seen me talking with the monk. Back on the bus he recommends me to be careful when I choose where and what to eat. I am also approached by a Thai businessman who starts to whispers because he doesn't want to be recognized - the Siamese, even though a few centuries have passed since the devastating Burmese invasions, are still very suspicious - and tells me that some Burmese restaurants can be extremely unhygienic, as if this was actually a secret.
Halfway through the trip - which will last almost ten hours more than expected - all of a sudden I feel well again. I even manage to sleep, waking up in the middle of the night when the bus is parked once again and the driver is hitting some piece of metal with a hammer. The Burmese endure it in religious silence, the other tourists wake up and swear. Finally I can focus on this kind of details without having my attention jerked by my guts every five minutes: I turn towards the window, I look at the moon that light up the rice fields, the palm trees and the desolation of this service station, I lean my greasy forehead against the glass, I mist it up by breathing out a long sigh and then, without being noticed, I start to giggle with extreme pleasure.

Burma, September 2002

This post is part of the of the Saga of the runs, the other episodes can be found here

Monday, October 4, 2010

It's here, among us, all this - Northern Laos

The Plain of Jars is already behind us. The journey from Phonsavan to the main Vientiane-Luang Prabang route is many hours long. Actually it's only a short distance, more or less a hundred kilometers, but it will take a day to the Korean bus to cover it. These roads have not been asphalted yet, they are made of a clay that becomes a bog with the rain, and weave with curves and switchbacks in and out the mountain range that wrinkles the body of the country. The roadway is very narrow, like an ordinary lane that has to accommodate the traffic going both ways. Looking out of the window, on one side you're faced with the rugged wall of an excavated mountain, on the other your eyes can span across the landscape that dominates a steep and deep ravine. There is not any protection and it looks like the soil is going to yield at any time. When we cross another vehicle the bus is forced to proceed along the edge of the road, with its wheels dangerously playing between the rim and the air. The passengers often get off the bus, partly because they want to stretch their legs and partly because of the apprehension caused by the acrobatic maneuvers. Sometimes the bus drives so slowly that it is possible to follow it on foot at a normal speed. 
The aisle is jammed: sacks, bags, baskets and boxes are heaped on the floor. I'm sitting in the back and I'm thinking that walking all the way to the door is like advancing upstream on the rocks of a creek. I take a look around, I open the window, I climb up the seat and jump outside. We have to proceed side by side with a column of cars, bulldozers, trucks: the traffic jam will last for a while. Together with the other passengers I walk along some kind of path that runs along the flank of the mountain, one meter from the road. We chat, walk and look around. Only a few old people and a bunch of ladies are still on the bus. The driver is steering the wheel with care, just missing the other vehicles, utilizing the narrow space between metal, soil and slope, making the bus slide like an eel amid rocks. He manages to get past the difficult parts of the route without complaining or making faces, while he's eating a cucumber without even chopping it, as if it was a banana. The remaining passengers advance along the path with the same sort of fatalism. 
The sky is shiny, your eyes need to get used to the light before you can look at it right in the heart. Even the clouds are of a fluorescent shade of gray. The scenery helps to fend off boredom, which at any rate is - and must be - present as an excipient in the composition of traveling. 
Luang Prabang is still far, but Laos is here, among us, all this.

Northern Laos, November 2001