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

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