Il cucchiaio di legno

Mi è tornato in mente senza un vero perché di avere ancora un  cucchiaio di legno datomi da un uomo  che, a Ketambe, sull’ isola di Sumatra, aveva acconsentito a farmi da guida nella giungla, nonostante il fatto che il mese di Ramadan sarebbe finito di  lì a due giorni.

Di quest’ uomo non ricordo il nome, eppure conservo  ancora quel cucchiaio, che aveva intagliato nel pomeriggio del primo giorno, dopo che avevamo tirato su un riparo di fortuna per passare la notte, sotto la pioggia.

Eppure posseggo questo cucchiaio, uguale a tanti altri intagliati da un ramo spezzato trovato a terra, da usare un paio di giorni e poi buttare via.

Conservo questo cimelio donatomi da un uomo di cui non ricordo più il nome, che forse non potrei neanche più riconoscere se lo incontrassi di nuovo, cosa per me inusuale.

Eppure conservo un cucchiaio datomi da quest’ uomo, come in memoria delle emozioni che ho provato vivendo qualche giorno nella giungla.

Quando, invece, il modo giusto di onorarie la memoria di quell’ esperienza consisterebbe nell’ usare quell’ oggetto per la sua realtà, per il suo essere un oggetto utile, ed umile, che invecchia nell’ uso ma che viene vissuto, non sepolto in un piccolo personale museo di cimeli che siano lì a ricordarci di come siano entrati nella nostra vita e in che circostanze.

Aggrappandomi ad un oggetto umile perché non svanisca il ricordo di come ne sono entrato in possesso, dimenticando che i ricordi meritano la dignità di invecchiare per l’ uso, così come gli oggetti che usiamo quotidianamente.

Per non finire a vivere noi  stessi  in un museo del nostro io passato, contemplando quello anziché vivere quel che siamo ora.

 

Roma, 6 novembre 2013

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Luang Prabang, Laos

We spent five night and five days in Luang Prabang, a thousand years old city built on a peninsula formed by the bends of the Mekong river.

Apart from restaurants, guest houses and tuk-tuk drivers, the city is packed with Buddhist temples and monasteries, that also function as schools for the young monks, whose permanence varies from few months to several years. Sending a child to a monastery is also a way for poor village families to relieve their economic difficulties.

 

Th. Sisavang, the city centre main road, daily hosts a night market where stalls display an alternating assortment of allegedly handmade crafts, mass production souvenirs, like the omnipresent Beer Lao t-shirt. Among the stalls, makeshift restaurants offer grilled meat and fish.

The city, a Unesco site, is highly touristic, but the atmosphere is nice and relaxed. Street vendors and tuk-tuk drivers are many, but not aggressive – they can take a “no, thanks” without insisting, like probably nowhere else in Asia. Tourists are a lot, but generally not too noisy, although it eventually happens to incur in a couple of American bros who appear determined to display their bro culture at its finest, all the time, no matter what the context or the situation.

 

We arrived in Luang Prabang on the 19th, all the way from Sapa, Vietnam with Ilario and Orely, getting to know each other better.  We spent those days walking around the city centre and wandering around by bike under an inclement sun; at night, we would linger at the market. We visited countless temples, meeting and talking to monks. It was especially interesting to learn about the everyday life of teenager monks, who come to a monastery to study, and typically leave after four or five years.

There are a few, popular attractions nearby Luang Prabang, including elephant lodges, the beautiful Kuang Si falls, where there’s a also a shelter for bears rescued from poachers, and the Pak Ou caves, some twenty kilometers out of Luang Prabang. In here, there is a huge number of Buddha statues, that the king of Luang Prabang had to bring in, one every year, during a solemn ceremony.


Road to Laos

May 18, 2012

Last night in Sapa.

All considered, Sapa is a typical pseudo-alternative, mass tourist destination. The economy of this city, located in the mountains, yet quite easily accessibly, seems to completely depend on tourism: besides a school and the city market, all can be found are hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops. And tourists, everywhere. The general atmosphere is just like similar places, that happen to be discovered, invaded, chewed and digested by the tourism industry. The authenticity of the place is long gone, replaced by a mere counterfeit, so that Westerners can feel more at ease.

The landscape is truly amazing, though. Probably doomed to damaged beyond repair within few years.

We left early in the morning  towards Điện Biên Phủ, at the border with Laos. It was a long a tiring journey in a nine seater minivan where there were fourteen of us, plus everybody’s luggage, a few sacks of rice and a chicken, who tried to run for freedom during a toilet break. Overall, the journey has been memorable, on unlikely roads, across makeshift villages and the yards of a dam under construction, skirting the edge of seriously steep slopes, each one crushed to the other at every turn.

The scenery is well worth the discomfort: lush mountains surrounding the gorge carved by an endless muddy river; small villages, and single huts, and stilt houses made of wood, straw and mud; children playing naked nearby a rivulet of water that slowly flows on its way to the valley.

We started driving on a really steep uphill road, to go nip into a storm that  could have been out of a novel, to later go downhill, and be greeted by a scorching sun.

The only foreigners in the minivan were Valerie and I, Ilario, an Italian guy who we first saw in Ha Long, and Lili, a French girl with some sweet, naive look. We arrived in Điện Biên Phủ in the early evening, and we are all going to travel together again tomorrow, on a bus leaving at 5.30AM, which will take us to Laos.

The border is really close, we could probably just walk there. Điện Biên Phủ is a small border town, just a little more than a strip of houses, guesthouses and shops, mostly of cellphones. A rather big market, and a monument commemorating the spectacular defeat of French in 1954, during the last battle of the Indochina war, which led to the independence of Vietnam.

Apart from historical facts, the possibly only other interesting feature of Điện Biên Phủ is that here it’s possible to eat stew of sow uterus.

May 20

It’s 1 AM. We left from Điện Biên Phủ at dawn, and reached Muang Khuan, a small village by the river Nam Ou, some after noon, after crossing the border. We then had to wait around three hours before taking a bus to Oudomxai, from where we left to finally reach Luang Prabang, where we arrived around midnight.

The four of us, Lili, Ilario, Valerie and I had to try in a few guestouses, before finding one with a couple of rooms available. We spent twenty-five out of the last forty hours travelling. Covered by the dust of a thousands kilometers, we finally did it.


A visit to tribal villages

May 16, 2012

Sapa is daily visited by tribeswomen coming from the valley and the surrounding mountains. Dressed in their traditional clothes, they come to town to try to sell their handicrafts, but mostly to look for tourists to take for a walking tour to the villages, which typically includes some sort of bed&breakfast arrangement at their houses.

Those women are somewhere between 35 and 45 years old, albeit their faces talk about an older age, a premature seniority that doesn’t make concessions. All of them have young children, whom they take with them bundled up on their backs until they’re infants, or whom they leave at home all day when they reached five or six years old.

They are of gentle manners, they laugh, bargain with the patience of somebody who’s used to years of living in a harsh environment; for sure, no whimsical tourist is going to make them lose their temper. At the same time, they are selling themselves, their culture and people, offering to guide tourists through their villages as if wandering in a zoo. They have accepted the corruption that comes from selling their own dignity and identity to the tourist industry, turning their traditions into a performance, their living places into stages; a form of corruption which is tentacular and unrestrainable.

We met one of these women yesterday. She insisted gently but doggedly to convince us to go for a visit with her, and we agreed to go for 50 thousand đồng, some 2 and a half dollars. Next to nothing for us, but maybe a little fortune for her; at least enough to make the twelve kilometers walk from her village to Sapa worth it.

This morning, she was already waiting for us outside of our hotel, sitting by with two other women. We left for breakfast and to buy Valerie a pair of shoes, and then left with them some after 11.

The trail is relatively long, but easy to walk. For a short while, we walked on the main road winding from Sapa along the side of the hills, but we soon left it for a small footpath that cuts directly down to the valley to later ascend again on the hills at the opposite side.

We walked around seven kilometers, across the valley and various hills, along the terraced rice fields, before getting to the first of the three villages we planned to visit. Here, everything speaks of a primitive rural life: lean cattle, muddy rice fields, ingenious wooden irrigation systems, a few inns and modest bars. A couple of crafts shops. Small motorbikes everywhere, geese and tiny pigs wandering free together with invariably dirty, small, curious yet wary kids.

Nearly all women wear traditional clothing, while men seem to be more inclined to wear globalized, made in China, Western style clothing.

There’s an overall feeling of witnessing an intermediate stage of transformation.A farmer plows a paddy, immersed in mud up to his knees, few meters away from workers who violate the rocks with mechanical shovels and jackhammers, to make room for pipes of a meter in diameter. Urbanization and concrete advance, slowly gnawing the rice fields that must have been here for centuries, that make up the whole identity of these places.

Modernity is forcefully and suddenly entering into the daily life of these people, who must have been living in a time immutable until the last generation. To the eyes o these people, we are just another couple of vain tourists: we can’t avoid being aware that, with our visit, we’re contributing to the process, a phenomenon that seems irreversible. We didn’t start it, and we walk among these people in a way that is maybe more respectful than the other visitors we meet; still we are somehow part of it.

After some three hours walking, and around twelve kilometers, we finally reached the house of our guide, Dao. Leaving from Sapa that late was a mistake, because we ended up walking the last hour under a suddenly scorching sun. It has been a great relief to finally get rid of the backpacks, sit in the shadow, and admire the view right in front of us, the valley at our feet and the mountain to the other side. The two other ladies who showed up in the morning have been walking with us, and we ended up being surrounded by their and Dao’s children, two males and four females, aged between one and six. Their most dazzling feature is their sight: curious, like in all kids, but at the same time inscrutable, inaccessible.

Dao’s house has a bare concrete floor, a sloping roof and walls built with wooden beams. Inside, it is divided into three rooms, the entrance leading to the central one, a sort of living room. To the left, there’s a single bedroom with a king size bed where all the family sleeps, and to the right there’s a kitchen, divided from the living room by a thin wall. The kitchen is nothing more than a big square room with some utensils spread around on the floor, and a square hole in the floor center, at proper distance from the wooden walls, to use as a fireplace.

On both sides of the living room there is a mezzanine floor, accessible with a simple wooden ladder, where sacks of rice, tubers and other supplies are stored. In the living room, against the wall facing the entrance, there is a European style sideboard with a television on it. Together with a simple filament lamp hanging from one of the mezzanine floors, these are the only signs of modernity, of some sort of contact with an outside world.

As soon as we arrived, Dao got herself busy with starting a fire for making a lunch consisting of boiled rice, instant noodles and scrambled eggs. Valerie and I sat at a short, round table in the living room, with Dao and the two other women who walked all the way with us. Somehow, I got the impression that it isn’t customary for a man to sit together with women for a meal, but I couldn’t investigate, as our hosts didn’t speak sufficient English. Food wasn’t anything special, but abundant, and very well appreciated after the long walk.

After lunch, Dao served us tea, and at this point things took a turn for the worse, which we didn’t expect. The other two women started to take all sorts of handmade goods out of the baskets they carried all the way on their backs, insisting that we had to buy something from them while asking ridiculous high prices. When we refused to buy anything, since we didn’t have much money with us, they started saying that we had to pay them for the walk too, despite the fact that we only had an agreement with Dao to be our guide. The discussion went on for a good hour, with the three women getting more and more aggressive, and Dao claiming much more money than the amount we agreed on the day before, until we decided that is wasn’t such a good idea to stay there overnight anymore, as initially planned. I grew wary of spending the night in that house, I didn’t think it was safe anymore: while we could easily find the way back to Sapa on our own, we were alone among these people, knowing nothing of their customs and language.

We therefore decided to leave immediately and paid Dao more than double the price we initially agreed. Maybe because I felt tired, or because of a situation that I naively failed to foresee, or perhaps because of getting paranoid about Dao putting drugs in our food and tea, or simply because I felt responsible for Valerie and myself, but I didn’t want to stay any longer in that isolated house on the side of the mountain. If that misadventure had happened somewhere else, maybe closer to one of the villages and to other people, I would have felt more confident; but there, in that wooden hut in the middle of nowhere, at least two kilometers away from the closest neighboring house, I simply felt it was better to leave.

These kind of things happen when travelling independently, away from organized tours and all inclusive packages. In such a situation, it is important to be able to trust perfect strangers, to have the patience to bargain with people who’re only interested in squeezing money out of you; but it’s even more important, even crucial, to be able to listen to your own instinct, when it tells you to get the hell out of somewhere. I had learnt the importance of this skill way before this misadventure happened, and it never failed me.


Sapa

May 15, 2012

After spending some days in Ha Long City and visiting its bay and caves, we headed back to Hanoi yesterday, where we took a night train to Lao Cai. From there, a minibus took us to Sapa. We got again near  the Vietnamese-Chinese border, at around 40 km, but this time at the western side, after some eighteen hours.

We’re in the heart of Hmong territories, nearby Phan Xi Păng, the tallest mountain of Indochina, at more than 3100 meters.

After all the chaos, traffic, and the rudeness of souvenir vendors in the streets of Hanoi and Ha Long, the calmness, hospitality and smiles of people here feel like a blessing. The touristic vocation of this place is evident, from the amount of hotels, bar and restaurants. Here, up on the hills and among wide rice fields, it is possible to find establishments selling croissants, cappuccino, cocktails. The touristic presence is relevant, but the overall feeling is still nice. Tourists are those who keep the town alive, but they somehow manage not to bring a drastic change to the place.

We feel like staying here a bit longer; in retrospect, we’ve been almost running away from turmoil, and the peacefulness of this place is much welcome. We just hope for the rain to stop, and for the fog to lift. I suspect the landscape to be amazing, but we can only see as far as few meters.


Ha Long

May 13, 2012

When two bodies recognize each other, it takes short before they start longing for each other; and when they do get within reach, it’s almost as if they knew everything of each other already.

We’ve been staying in Hanoi until two days ago, spending the last hours there exploring other parts of the city we didn’t see yet, walking through street markets, the downtown alleyways; but, mostly, we spent those hours exploring each other.

 

We left for Ha Long City yesterday morning, reaching as far around a hundred kilometers far from China. Ha Long is a small seaside town, a holiday destination populated by few foreign tourists, and mostly by Vietnamese. A long strip of sand lapped by dirty water, and spotted all around stalls of rubbish made in China, cheap guesthouses one after one, and many small fish restaurants. At night, it’s possible to eat outside, at tiny makeshift tables in the middle of the street, eating oysters and other delicacies for next to nothing.

 

Taking a look around, the growing effects of the tourism industry are obviously visible. New hotels and guesthouses being built everywhere, urging novelty, skeletons of new, big buildings in a Western fashion that inexorably phagocyte the more humble houses of traditional Vietnamese design. The transformation is already quite visibly going on. This place will probably lose its original aspect within few years, adapting to the architecture, standards, taste and prices of a world far away from here.

 

May 14

Ha Long City has little attractions per se. The sea and the artificial beach, where the authorities brought sand from somewhere else to make it possible for tourists to sunbathe, are not particularly inviting.

The main attraction of the area is by far given by the possibility of visiting the bay on board of a boat. Panoramas are stunning, with rocks emerging vertically from the sea for a dozen meters or more, and the boats, when docking, clash into each other, causing thrill and fright into their passengers.

It goes by itself that a visit to the famous caves is included. The caves have big rooms with high ceilings, and impressive stalactites which are enhanced by the suggestive and skillfully placed coloured neon lights.

We visited the caves together with a few school groups. I soon found out to be quite popular among these teenager girls, who started to take photos of me, sneakily at first, manifestly afterwards, the more go-ahead of them even asking me to pose to take a photo together. It feels funny to be the object of so much interest and curiosity, just because of having the facial features of a Western person. Later during my travel I were to learn to consider it as normal.

The boat tour was one of those to typically designed for mass tourists, and therefore including a couple of stops at some floating platforms near the fishermen’s villages, where to buy souvenirs, so totally unattractive to me. In fact, Valerie and I didn’t even bother to get off the boat, being so not interested in buy anything. I still managed to get the best of the souvenirs, a sketch of the bay drawn by Valerie in my journal, by far more precious than whatever souvenir I could find at the platforms.


Hanoi

May 9, 2012

It’s almost midnight.

Valerie and I are in our room in small guesthouse, buried at the end of one of the countless narrow alleyways of Hanoi.

I began to become familiar with this city, getting to learn how to cross the roads. That’s way harder than it sounds.

Valerie and I, too, began to become familiar to each other. We got to share a bed, and it will only make the process easier.

You can’t expect much more from a first day. We managed to survive the crazy traffic the crowds the streets, and we’re slowly getting to know each other. The outset is promising.

May 10

6pm.

We’re in the bar of Hanoi Cinématique, a nice, cozy place that was hard to find, hidden in one of the thousand narrow streets that connect this city like a spiderweb. You never really know for sure whether you’re still on the street, or perhaps in the backyard of somebody’s house.

Besides the omnipresent chaos of a dense traffic of cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, bikes and carts, some sort of hidden, and highly interesting, side of the city is slowly appearing before my eyes.

May 17

I didn’t collect any particular impression or memory of Hanoi, where, after all, we only spent few days. We spent most of the time in the old city, especially around Hoam Kiem lake, during the day, and around our guesthouse at night.

I saw the thousand alleyways, the small restaurants at the crossroads of the streets, with dwarf-size chairs where locals sit to eat and play cards; village women selling fruits and vegetables that they carry on two plates at the two sides of a thick bamboo stick, like a libra; thousands and thousands of motorbikes, that are literally everywhere, at every time of the day, flowing in every direction, completely unaware of traffic lights, lanes, roundabouts and sidewalks, crossing each other in the most arduous way.

A travel always has to have a starting point, which is perhaps doomed to be unfavoured to the traveller’s eyes. You need to physically and mentally get in touch with the place, learn the many little customs and practices, get used to the climate, and get culturally shocked.

My impression was that Hanoi isn’t a particularly interesting city. With some places, we fall in love immediately, we cherish  memories; sometimes, we discover places we will wish to visit again, places that we part from, saying in our heart see you soon, see you soon again.

Other places cross our experience quite much like strangers who cross our path on a street, without almost noticing them. Hanoi has been like this to me, merely a passageway, a place which didn’t awake any emotions in me.

However, there’s maybe much more. Maybe it was due to my attitude and mindset, that I was unable to discover the most interesting aspects of Hanoi. Maybe it would have been different, if my travel didn’t start from there, and I were to visit it later, when I got used to Asian cities already.

But it doesn’t matter in the end. A travel isn’t about going to some place and having to like it, no matter what. A travel doesn’t even necessarily require to move somewhere. Travelling is all about getting disorientated, getting lost in order to find a new direction, a new placement; and even if the starting point isn’t thrilling, it’s still a start.


Day zero

May 9, 2012

5.20 in the morning, somewhere up in the sky, around 800 km far from Singapore, around an hour before landing.

Day zero passed by in getting dumbed down by the few available distractions on an intercontinental flight, in surrendering myself completely to the well designed feeling of being taking care of that is typical of economy class.

I’d have gone with anything rather than thinking how, despite my intentions, I left for this travel leaving behind – and inside of me – a situation which was way too complicated to handle; whereas everything should have been simple, hassle free.

I wanted to have all my dues paid and all business finished before leaving, but I left taking more than one with me.

I was only later to realize that it didn’t really matter.


Back to writing

I started this blog at the beginning of a long travel across a number of Asian countries.

A travel that I undertook with some sort of plan in my mind, which ended up by changing both my plans and my mind.

A part of my plan for that travel was to keep this blog up to date, but it soon proved to be impossible – I could either live those days, or talk about them. I actually had no choice but to live them, and neglect this blog.

Some weeks have passed now since I came to a temporary stop. I’m not walking now, so I decided to get back at my journals and photos, and share them. I originally wrote everything in Italian, but I decided to translate it all into English. I hope a few friends I encountered on my journey will enjoy it better that way.

For the sake of simplicity, I will follow the chronological order of my movements across Asia, but I’d like to point out that a travel is everything but a mere sequence of dates, places visited, or events. A travel goes far beyond mere temporal and geographical categories. Every travel is just a part of a longer journey, and even now that I’m back and not walking anywhere, that travel is still going on.

Among the photos that I’m going to publish here, there are many that are stunningly similar to those you can find on Blissful Trails. The reason is, Valerie and I shared quite some part of the travel, and we ended up influencing each other to a great extent. Personally, I got to considerably improve my photography skills thanks to her.

In any case, I am the author of all contents of this blog, unless explicitly stated otherwise. It goes by itself that before reproducing any  contents in any form, you are expected to ask my permission first.

Enjoy.


I’m not traveling to be able to tell family and friends “Look! I’ve been here!”, but to be able to say that to myself. But “here” is not where my legs go, but where my mind takes me.

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