Laos

As I was crossing the Nonk Khiaw bridge, two days after, in the morning, I was wondering whether, by any chance, I would have found there the half smoked cigarette I had laid upon the handrail of the bridge, two days before, at night.
I am not a smoker. The few times I smoke are sporadic occasions by which I decorate some valuable time I am sharing with a friend, but that night I had smoked alone, as I was trying to photograph the Laos’ starry sky and as the humidity was falling over me, sliding inside right away, through clothes and skin.
Under the sun, though, the humidity of that night was just a distant memory. And despite the odds were against me, I couldn’t stop picturing the cigarette butt standing there, still waiting, loyally (and maybe also a tiny bit resentful for the abandonment). I couldn’t help it but imagine myself spotting it, grabbing it and finally breathing that last puff of smoke: rich, savory, embellished by all the scents and the stories happened over the Nong Khiaw bridge, north of Luang Prabang, Laos, after that night.
I was walking and walking, counting the mullions sliding off by my side, dryly. If only I had had one mullion more for each tribe, village or ethnic group of Laos, how further the end of the bridge would have been. Seems like there are more than 50 ethnic groups in Laos, the main of which is the Lao’s of course. Such a hard life for ethnographers!
Laos is a mainly Buddhist country, but there are few stubbornly animist groups still surviving… so charming: nature here is still a living entity that rules, protects, condemns.
And could it be otherwise? Life in Laos is strictly connected to natural cycles: the harvest, the sunset and sunrise, the rain that gives and takes away, the rooster, the river that breathes and snores.

The ribs of the bridge kept on sliding past me, like through the window of a car, while, beneath my feet, the Nam Ou river flew in a discrete but constant motion, soothed by the favorable season.
By then, I had grabbed the strainer of reasonability and really few of my unrealistic expectancies of finding the cigarette butt could seep in through that strainer’s fine weave. The wind, the people passing by, the children playing, the vacuous substance of the cigarette itself… too many burdens, my hopes were definitely shrinking down.
For sure (I promised myself) if I had miraculously retrieved the cigarette, I would have blown life back into its scorched head and then I would have breathed up its last heart beat in a religious silence.
I was still riding the bridge when I recalled a sentence used by French colonists to describe (and maybe belittle) Southeast Asia’s peoples: “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow”. This sentence, despite its initial intent, is a perfect symbol of the quietness and of the attitude to simplicity of these people, no matter the influence of tourists and foreigners.

I retain a really nice memory of our guide, Muen, with whom we chatted long hours about his country, as we sipped the Lao Lao (local fermented rice wine) and as the fog fell indiscriminately over our thoughts and over the jungle. A neon light trembled discretely, painting long shadows over the stained walls; it was really a perfect fit with the old transistor radio (similar to that from which my grandpa listened to the football matches, or to the political speeches… I can’t remember). It’s a nice memory to recall, it will be for a long time.
Unfortunately Laotians are not very familiar with English, so it’s not easy to interact with them. That’s why I will always be grateful to Muen for showing me an aspect of his culture I would’ve not caught otherwise. I still remember, for example, the hand gesture representing the three Buddha’s writs Laotians are so attached to: no war, no envy, no lies. Fair enough.
I was still thinking about Muen and about the sadly hurried goodbye we said, while the bridge’s deck slid off under my feet, like a moving walkway. Felt like, now, the whole Nong Khiaw village was bowing as I walked by, gently pushing me forward: the long waiting had been quite too long, the ending was summoning me.
But my brain kept on sneaking off, chasing the magic trail of an “Elephant ear”, that is how locals call the Caladium (a wild plant growing in the jungle). It has really peculiar features: it’s used to make a medicine whose taste reveals, in a very strange reaction, the type of disease; itchy means nor serious or alarming, whereas a sweet, sugar-ish taste might correspond to malaria. Nature finds its own ways to talk to us.

Before I could even tie that last bow to the long tress of thoughts I was unrolling behind me, the grumbling muffler of a motor-scooter, like a hand dispelling a reflex by shaking the water, brought me back to the present, just to brutally reveal that the cigarette butt had flown somewhere else. Assuming it had not granted that last puff to a less distracted mouth than mine.
The past doesn’t wait; it slips out, in a physiological attitude to settling down to the bottom of our existence. If it pulls us down, like a burden, it is because we couldn’t take care of it when it still was “present”.

I took part to the Tak Bat, the Alms giving to Buddhist monks, taking place every morning at dawn in the streets of Luang Prabang. The waiting, before sunrise, shields part of what, I guess, was themystical, unifying, protecting power of this ritual. When the orange tunics of the monks show up announced by the drums, though, and they start spreading out along the city, among the wats (temples), like honey drops slowly sliding away, a horde of ravenousants leave their hidden dens and start teeming around them. They devour the drops of honey in a hectic assault of bites, made of flashlights, selfies and hands that by touching violate. A surreal silence stands for the last hint of respect towards such an ancient ritual that testifies the duty of charity every Buddhist should fulfill.
I can’t and won’t say I found authenticity neither in the ardor of (most of) the devotees, nor in the offering baskets sold (almost imposed) along the streets, containing sticky rice and pre-packaged snacks. I only took few, reluctant photographs. Nothing I value. I didn’t feel like joining the teeming ants for just few (possibly) good shots.

Laos still has so many gems I couldn’t explore: the Northern territories for example, with their colored tribes, among the most harshly hit by American bombings. The UXO (unexploded ordnance) still claims victims among the population. The bombs hit Laotian villages at first, in the attempt to interrupt the provisions travelling through “Ho Chi Minh trail” towards South Vietnam; then many of those villages were hired as mercenaries to fight against the Vietnamese army. As sign of gratitude for their support, Laotians were allowed to grow their own opium, until, in recent years, it became illegal again. The direct result of such inconsistent policy is a severely weakened national economy and an insidious legacy of addiction to drugs.
Nowadays, UXOs and the souvenirs carved out of them are a sad metaphor of a colonist policy that not only failed, but also struggled to disarm itself, generating poverty and pain.
My time in Laos slipped away so smoothly, like a wings flap that too quickly brought me back to Luang Prabang’s airport gate, where I found myself staring, helplessly charmed, at the awe by which the airline company’s staff knelt down as other monk’s orange tunics passed by. I was leaving Laos, already: the company was the Bangkok Airlines, a different world, a different culture, a different way of perceiving life… a new page I will definitely lay down upon the bottom of my history.
As I was getting ready to say goodbye, I recalled all the people I had the chance to meet along my journey: the Laotians who continuously smiled at me, often because they didn’t understand what I was saying, other times because they did understand; those faces that helped me to slow down, trust, value the waiting, even when it is endless, even when you lose the patience, because I was also seeking that lesson after all: to enjoy the silence; all the fellow travelers I’ve met and with whom I shared a, small or big, part of my journey: beautiful, open-minded, smiling, helpful people… because I believe travelers are the stitches of a world desperately trying to fall apart; my brother, who travelled by my side with a patient (and often laconic) spirit… because travelling with a photographer is like a sidecar ride: you end up following a trajectory someone else traced (for this, thank you Alessandro).
I like to think I entrusted the best part of me, instead, to that bridge, in Nong Khiaw, where the cigarette butt I never said goodbye to is still waiting for me. The same bridge I watched from a kayak at sunset, in a moment I only share with myself and that I will caress forever.

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