<By Ilaria Mazzocco>
When I left Italy at the age of nineteen I vowed to reject three rather specific things: Ancient Greek, criticism towards my excessively pale skin, and hair driers. You may think I was young and rash. But this is not a story about rashness, and seven years down the line, I think the resolution has served me rather well. Nightmares featuring sweat-inducing in-class Thucydides translations keep me from idealizing Italy just as effectively as unemployment rates. Also, whenever I feel like an outsider in some foreign place, I remember how people in my own country often suggest I go get myself a tan to mask the awful Nordic complexion I inherited from my American mother. Finally, having grown up in a country where blow-drying one’s hair is seen as a panacea for all diseases, nothing feels more like freedom than walking around with wet hair.
So you see, it was especially unpleasant for me to accept that—in the middle of Laos—I might be smothered at any moment by a huge backpack containing a hair drier. Of course, the fact that the pack was my friend’s only made it worse.
“Cazzo,” I muttered as the bus hit the second pothole in less than a minute causing my friend’s backpack to slide off the stack of baggage behind me and onto my head. The French guy who shared the cramped seats in the back section of the bus with me and the large backpacks exclaimed “Ah! Italiano!” He seemed delighted at my swearing. His girlfriend’s teeth glistened cheerfully next to him. How could they ever be so cheerful while sitting among backpacks that threatened to topple at any minute was a mystery. I smiled back as I elbowed the pack away from my neck.
Sweat was dripping from knees. I wasn’t sure what heat-strokes feel like, but I decided that if I breathed slowly enough I wouldn’t find out.
“I wish there were a window back here,” I remarked as casually as possible. They nodded understandingly and pointed at the sweat-stains on their shirts. I shifted uneasily trying to put some space between me and Serena’s pack. It was heavy with unnecessary objects—like hair driers. The French couple, on the other hand, didn’t know Serena and was happy to ignore her pack.
“..And is this your first time in South-East Asia?”
I nodded. I glanced outside the window onto the dusty road and the burnt fields. “You?”
“Ah, yes, we travel for.. troi week already? N’est pas cherie? Oui, three week. Cambodia, Vietnam, now Laos. But we do not want to stay here, we go to la Thailand.”
Ah, they are going to Thailand. Typical destination for Europeans. Not so cool, I decided. It was so hot on the bus I couldn’t move. I also couldn’t move because I risked making all the luggage stacked behind my head come tumbling down.
“You travel alone?”
“No, I have two friends, they are sitting over there. We go to Savannakhet.” I made a vague gesture with my hand towards Sara and Serena who were sitting several rows ahead of us.
After being delayed at the border, we had been lucky the bus hadn’t left without us. So, while Sara and Serena each sat next to an old Dutch man and a dorky-looking Australian guy, I was stuck in the back with the packs, the French, and the hair drier (thankfully this embarrassing detail was unknown to the French).
I guess I had known Serena was a hair drier kind of Italian when we became friends in Kunming. But in my mind it was one thing to bring a hair drier from Italy when you’re going to be living in China for a year, and another to carry it around in a backpack in South-East Asia. So, when I had found her casually drying her hair in the Hanoi hostel where I had joined her and Sara, I had not been happy.
“Who carries a merda di PHON to a country where the low is 45 C?”
“It’s very useful.”
“Madonna! How Italian can you get? ”
“I am Italian”
Serena nonchalantly dismissed my outrage along with my swearing. “You Romans. So melodrammatici! I’m Tuscan. I should be the one swearing all the time. Sara, did you know that Tuscans are known for swearing the most in Italy?”
Sara did not know.
“I am the one carrying the backpack, so if I want to bring a phon, it’s my business.” She had a point. I swear a lot in Italian. I also get outraged a lot—in all languages. Sara was too American to understand my hatred of hair driers, but she did find Serena’s hate for the French rather unsettling.
“We Italians hate the French. They are arrogant.”
“Ilaria doesn’t hate the French.”
“Well, Ilaria isn’t REALLY Italian”
Sara’s American common-sense made it hard to understand the subtleties of European national identity. I always told her she was lucky to be my room-mate. I didn’t complain about coffee and didn’t carry around hair driers. I also did not have any opinion about the French.
The French couple on the bus was extremely friendly. They were from Marseille. Was I excited that the soccer World Cup was coming up? Ah, when France and Italy play again. It was hot here. Could I believe this was the weather in February? They had met some Italians on their trip, but mostly French and British, and Australian, and some Americaìn. I sounded like an American, how was it I didn’t have an Italian accent? Ah, très interesting.
“So… you travel only ten days?” I knew that look, the backpacker’s moment of truth: measuring the other to see who was the toughest. I decided to drop the bomb.
“I’m on vacation for two weeks. I live in China.”
“Aah!” shock and respect. I had earned my position in the backpacker hierarchy. I was bored with Westerners and their coolness contests. So I stared out the window at some dirty children along the side of the road. They waved. I waved back. As I moved my arm, sweat dripped from my forearm and Serena’s pack slid closer to my head. I wondered if the French blow-dry their hair.
“China! What is it like?”
I smiled. He grinned, his girlfriend laughed. We all knew it was a silly question. I felt bad about snubbing them.
Outside the window some barefoot people watched us as we drove by their shed. They were burning something. The whole countryside was yellow from the dead grass. It reminded me of the pictures of the African Savannah from my grade-school textbooks. Smoke and dust filled my nostrils, along with body odor from inside the bus.
“Is it not strange, how the countryside changed from Vietnam? There, all green, all… terrace gardens? How do you say? Here… no agriculture, no trees. It is all burned?” I nodded in agreement. He turned to chirp with his girlfriend.
By the time we made it to Luang Prabang a week and a half later, I had grown to appreciate Laos. The more we went north the cooler it got. There were more trees, more water, more temples. But there, on the road from Hue to Savannakhet, there was only desolation, poverty, and the marks of deforestation. When driving across the border to Yunnan, a few weeks later, what struck me was how green everything looked north of the border. “Twenty years ago, China also was like Laos, now we reforested and we buy wood from Laos and Myanmar,” said the Chinese tourists I was traveling with.
I never got a chance to tell the French couple. I never saw them again after getting off the bus in Savannakhet.
Mainly a pit stop on the way to Thailand or Vientiane, there was little do to for tourists in Savannakhet. So, really I have no explanation for why we stayed. Maybe Vietnam, with its hordes of foreign tourists, had been too overwhelming. Maybe Lonely Planet’s glowing review of the Dinosaur museum convinced us there would be something to do aside from hiding in an air-conditioned internet cafe. Whatever the reason, while most of the people on our bus left early the next day, we stayed.
Savannakhet had some charm, we decided after a couple of days there. If Serena hadn’t fallen into the hole, we might have actually enjoyed its five decrepit French colonial buildings and the brightly colored motor-rickshaws, or tuk tuk, that constituted the main form of transportation in the city. Then again, if Serena hadn’t fallen into the hole, I might have never felt bad about being so strict about hair driers.
Obviously, we went to see the Dinosaur museum. Christmas lights and amateurish drawings decorated the large bones.“This was very inspirational. When I grow up I want to be a dinosaur,” someone had written on the guest book. I wrote something equally silly that seemed really clever at the time. Serena and Sara told me I was ridiculous and laughed.
The Dinosaur museum was astutely located next to the Thai consulate and a little cafe where a lady-boy served cold coconut juice and fried rice. Clearly, the people crossing the border to renew their visa to Thailand were a major source of business. We sat at the cafe for a few hours and overheard two men discussing their visa and life issues. The French man explained to the Irish one that in Thailand he lived off of an invalidity pension from France.
“Invalidity for what?”
Serena gave us a knowing look.
“The Francesi you see? They are insane.”
Sara burst out ranting about inter-European racism. I sipped my excessively sweet coconut juice and looked at the Mekong while Serena became red with indignation and the effort of defending her position in a foreign language. When they calmed down we walked along the side of the road for a bit. We drank fruit smoothies and watched the sunset on the Mekong. I pointed out some tall buildings on the other side of the river, in Thailand. Some guys on motorcycles stared at us and giggled. We giggled back.
That night we hand-washed our clothes in the sink. Serena blow-dried her jeans.
“You see? It is useful.”
I remained unconvinced.
The next day, she fell. I am not sure how it happened. After all, we had walked on that same street several times before. I was probably thinking about hair driers, or maybe about Italy. Whatever the case, Sara and I only turned around when we heard the scream, and by then it was too late. Serena’s head floated just an inch above the ground.
Neck-braces and surgery rooms haunted my mind as we rushed towards her. So I was relieved to see there was no blood and that she could move her upper body as we hoisted her out of the hole. Then, still speechless, she rolled up the jeans she had so carefully blow-dried the night before. To this day, I don’t understand why she was wearing long pants in that weather, but I guess that is not an important question. What did seem important was the white foam began frothing from a gash on her calf. Serena trembling pointed at a metal bar in the hole, indicating that it had ripped through her skin.
“Cazzo, Serena, did you get an anti-tetanus shot?” I knew I hadn’t.
“Clinic! Tuk-tuk!” a woman exclaimed and pointed towards the main road. Sara, who had been on the track team in high-school sprinted off after the two promised visions. I muttered a few swearwords, while trying to soothe Serena. By then, a crowd of Lao women had gathered around us. They started touching her, rubbing tiger balm on her skin.
As long as they don’t touch her wound, I thought.
Just about then a woman tried to put some tiger balm on the wound. The lady who had directed Sara towards the tuk-tuk slapped her hand before she could touch Serena’s leg and barked something. The crowd of women walked behind the tuk-tuk as it drove us off to the clinic–two blocks away. It turned out that the “clinic” consisted of two rooms; one for waiting and one for treating patients.
A few young, giddy nurses cleaned the wound with rubbing alcohol and placed ice on it. “The ice must be applied directly to the wound for 15 minutes,” the doctor explained when we asked if they could at least put some plastic or a towel around the ice. “Where did he read that? The internet?” whispered Sara–she didn’t care about being politically correct anymore. Serena gnawed her teeth. Sara told her she was a trooper and I explained what that meant to her in Italian. We laughed because by then it was clear that neither neck-braces nor surgery would be required.
After the pretty nurses dressed the wound, we bought medicine at the clinic’s entrance. I said madonna a few times in disbelief as the make-shift pharmacist spooned acetaminophen and antibiotics out of a large jar and placed them in two small zip-lock bags. Serena and Sara giggled.
When Sara asked the man to write the name of the medicine he wrote “antibiotic.” He was slightly annoyed when we requested he write the scientific name. This time Serena said ‘cazzo‘ as well. Suddenly, everything was actually foreign. We were hundreds of miles from home where antibiotics come in boxes and individually wrapped blisters. We weren’t so cool anymore, just silly girls in a strange place. We missed China where we spoke the language. We missed Europe and America, where more than just he language felt native to us. And I began to accept that a hair drier is just a hair drier.
On our way back, the lady who had stopped the other woman from touching Serena’s leg came up to us and inspected the bandage. She seemed satisfied. “A shot?” she gestured. “Pills” we gestured back. She seemed thoughtful and then nodded. I would have thanked her, but didn’t know how. We left the next day for Vientiane. After that, I carried Serena’s backpack—hair drier and all.