Of the unnerving experiences in my life—being shot at, riding an airplane through a cyclone, studying algebra—none quite matches leading a procession of children day after day through the narrow streets of a southern Italian hilltown, all of them shouting "Gesù Cristo, Gesù Cristo" at the top of their small lungs to mark my embarrassed passage.
I brought this on myself, I now realize. It was 1977, when most longhairs had long since retired into suburban careers, but I sported a mat much like the one cloaking John Barrymore’s shoulders in Svengali, and I stood out as an obvious mark. (It isn’t pretty what a town without hippies will do.) Still, the comparison to Jesus seemed strange. The village priest had presumably warned the populace that Christ would reappear only at the end of an exceptionally nasty string of disasters, and the great earthquake that devastated southern Italy would not hit for another three years; no new rough beast had taken to plying the Ionian Sea; and in any event I lacked the necessary glow.
I was accustomed to more secular criticism. Earlier that year, a Russian émigré filmmaker had studied me with a stern eye through his lens and pronounced, "Your hair is too big." But I liked my hair long, a symbol of remonstrance and repudiation in post-Watergate America, and I did nothing more than smile and forevermore nurse a loathing for his work, which never found a following outside one or two art theaters. Yet, after a week or two of enduring the children’s jeers and another three months left on the archaeological mapping project I had hired on to, I decided that the time had come to swallow my pride and join the ranks of the well-groomed.
The town’s one barbershop lay in a dark corner of the main piazza, across from the requisite Norman castle and a badly made statue of a Fascist general who had been born on a villa on the flats below. The barber opened his shop before dawn and did most of his business then, for, like farmers everywhere, the contadini of Basilicata province are hard at their planting and weeding and harvesting well before sunrise. My colleagues and I, busily mapping the southern reaches of the Appian Way, were also in the fields by five in the morning, but our workday ended at noon, when the townspeople had their big meal and then adjourned for a long siesta. The barber opened earlier in the afternoon than did most of the other shopkeepers, along about two-thirty, when the streets were empty, and the sounds of his stropping his razors were the only punctuation marks in the still, hot summer air. I decided to pay my visit at that quiet hour.
The next day I entered the dark portico, rattled through the doorway of stringed plastic beads in the manner of Lee Van Cleef, and bid the barber good afternoon. He looked up from his newspaper; his reply caught in his throat, and for long seconds he issued only a thin gargle. Finally he said simply, "Madonna," and motioned me to sit with the air of a man on his way to the gallows.
I explained that I wanted my hair cut back to a level that would disqualify me from further comparisons to the Savior, something not too short and reasonably stylish; perhaps a curl down the forehead, sideburns of middling length, a modestly daring descent of tress. Had I been to London earlier instead of later that year, I could have pointed to Joe Strummer of the rock band The Clash as my model, but then no analog came to mind. I gestured to indicate the rough angles at which the barber should proceed, while he tapped his scissors against his wrist and tugged at his gray mustache, studying the problem intently.
The barber, whose name was Tomaso, draped a worn cloth across my front, sighed, and set to work. "You have a jungle atop your head," he said, and I nodded in agreement. He was right. A few months before I had combed a dead honeybee out of my locks, it having been trapped there for who knows how long, unable to sting through the thick curls. Tomaso’s scissors gnashed about my collar, freeing a mass of hair eight inches in length and, by the relaxed feel of my spine the next day, ten pounds in weight.
That was only the initial slash-and-burn clearing. An hour later Tomaso was ready for work of finer scale. He was also exhausted and in evident foul humor.
"Aspett’. Wait," he said. "I need to rest. I need something to drink."
Tomaso retreated to the cavernous rear of the shop and returned with a huge bottle of black wine, encased in wicker. He poured out a large measure, drank it in one long draft, and refilled his glass. "Ecco. That’s it," he said. "Porca miseria." Piggy misery.
The shop began to fill with curious onlookers, for secrets are impossible in any small town in any part of the world, and the people of this ancient settlement reckoned it their right to know whatever happened within its limits. Tomaso brightened at the prospect of an audience. He drained another glass of black wine and, lifting his shears, broke into song:
O, lay dat peestol down, boys,
lay dat peestol down,
peestol packin’ mamma,
lay dat peestol down …
Eventually I recognized the source—"Pistol Packin’ Mama," a show tune by Al Dexter and His Troopers, which gave the Andrews Sisters, and later Bing Crosby, a hit during the Second World War. "I was a prisoner of the Americans," Tomaso explained, crossing his wrists in a symbol of confinement. I hoped that he bore no grudge against his captors’ progeny. He repeated the chorus in a cracked voice again and again, snipping away, while the deranged eel vendor we had for obvious reasons christened Gollum danced a wild jig across the pavement. The next-door butcher and the chief village idiot clapped in time, and I added to the cacophony with the first few verses of "Streets of Laredo."
The crowd had swelled by this time to what seemed to be half the village and had packed itself into the barbershop so tightly that Tomaso could barely operate. Whenever he got a clear shot at my head—an increasingly rare opportunity, for the mob was busily jostling one or the other of us—Tomaso leaned in for a quick snip, finally taking a tiny bit of earlobe with him. When he did, I called for a mirror.
The assembled villagers fell silent as I inspected myself through the spiderwebbed cracks in Tomaso’s glass. Parts of the haircut weren’t at all bad. The problem was that these parts were only very roughly contiguous and not at all symmetrical. On the right, my hair curled neatly to just above my collar; on the left, it was shorn to a point half an inch below my ear, lending me a lopsided appearance that we would now call protopunk. Some of the top stuck up in seeming tribute to Eraserhead, while the rest went off in all directions of the wind.
"Magnifico," I said.
Tomaso breathed a sigh of relief, smiled broadly, and poured another glass of wine, offering me one as well. I accepted and joined him in singing another round of "Pistol Packin’ Mama," still not sure whether Tomaso hated Americans after all. The crowd, in the meanwhile, disappeared with the setting sun, only to assemble again on the other side of the piazza for the evening passeggiata, the ritual stroll through town that affords everyone in Italian villages the chance to visit with everyone else.
I joined the procession, a gaggle of children to my rear. This time no one shouted. I was still an exotic creature from a faraway land, clad in Levis and hillbilly work boots and a full head taller than anyone else in town, but I now bore the aspect of a mere mortal being. The eternally feuding Fascist greengrocer and Communist housepainter across the road, who had previously agreed only on the point that my hair was too long, smiled in greeting and sat down to the table for an animated game of scopa. The Christian Democrat mayor tapped the brim of his Panama hat and invited me to dinner later in the week. The monsignor looked at me searchingly and then shook my hand. Things had changed.
Late that evening I called on a comely young hairdresser whose salon lay across the stone path from my apartment on the south end of town. One of the many local Red Brigades sympathizers had told me, when I first raised the subject of getting a haircut, not to go her place lest the villagers think me homosexual and thus a solid candidate for death by stoning or some other awful mischief, but by that time I didn’t care. Lucia, a spinster at twenty-five, set about undoing some of Tomaso’s efforts, talking happily of her impending trip to Paris. I listened, admiring her beauty, telling her of good meals I had eaten in the Cinquième Arrondissement, of cheap bars near the Place de la Concorde, while she worked her magic.
By midnight I was content. I was no longer the Messiah.
Copyright © 1997 by Gregory McNamee. All rights reserved.
I took a deep breath. ’I’d like to cancel my flight to Cambodia’.
Was I crazy? Did I really just abort my pre-paid, ‘once in a lifetime’ visit to Angkor Wat…
A slightly lost, photo heavy, confused Laos Travel Guide..story…thing!
It started with a bump, literally. Lao Airlines, who worryingly told me and the eight other passengers on our flight ‘we are ready to be a national carrier’ shuttled us up the runway of Hanoi airport. I wasn’t feeling overly confident.
But as we parted Vietnam’s skies and my smiles returned (Yeah, Vietnam. We have some making up to do) the beauty of Laos lay in front of my window. Mountains broke through the blanket of clouds which coated the country, lush green landscapes making their presence known in any gap. Too soon the flight had landed.
The charming white washed streets were broken up by the gold topped temples, Monks and novices donning shades of orange and stalls serving up incredible food at even more incredible prices. Well cared for dogs danced around children playing happily along the streets.
Sitting alongside the Mekong river, pristine and free of rubbish, Luang Prabang suddenly didn’t feel like Asia at all.
It is often refered to as the cutest city in Asia for this very reason. It seemed all most too good to be true. But was it?
It’s a bit of a nothing town for ‘must visits’, not to say that’s a bad thing. The town itself being the main attraction means wandering aimlessly, my favourite thing, was exactly how to kill the next few days.
Exploring Temple after Temple, the ornate gold patterns and purple flowers contrasting beautifully in the sun. Wandering the Mekong and crossing the bamboo bridges to the more real side of the river, where chickens roamed free, walls were not white washed and locals went about their day-to-day life without any need to entertain the tourists.
When sunset came we all ascended to the temple at the top of the tower. Crowded and wanting to find a better vantage spot I headed to the edge of the river. The boats were ferrying locals across to their home villages, the last lights of day danced merrily on the water and silhouettes highlighted a photographers dream.
I skipped sunset the next night and headed to Big Brother Mouse, a great charity which works with schools and writes school books. Each morning and evening they host a drop in session for other language speakers to practice with locals of all ages and help them with homework and improving their languages. I felt so privileged to be surrounded by a group of young people who genuinely had a thirst to improve their skills.
‘I want to learn better English so I can go to smaller towns and help them have better lives too’ replied one guy when I asked what he would do when he finished his studies. Someone with little aiming to help someone with even less. He didn’t want to be a Pilot, Spaceman or a CEO… Did we get it all wrong in the west?
Rising early for Sunrise I headed to witness the famous arms giving ceremony. To put it shortly, it is when the Monks collect their food donations for the day. I have seen it before in parts of Asia and always found it an uplifting experience.
‘The fucking Monk didn’t want a selfie with me’ declared a girl, in hot pants, to her group of travelling buddies after dashing up along side one of the Novices. Tourists pointed cameras in any face they could, jumping in whenever a great shot appeared. It felt like a circus act. I left my back seat view and walked off deflated.
By the end of my three days though I couldn’t help but feel I was in a Disney show. My love for the city on first arrival remained, but also now sat alongside questioning. I knew this wasn’t the Laos I was expecting.
I headed to bed. My mind made up.
I took a deep breath. ’I’d like to cancel my flight to Cambodia’. Was I crazy? Did I really just abort my pre-paid, ‘once in a lifetime’ visit to Angkor Wat…
I had no intention of leaving now. I would be able to extended by another week before my flight on to Australia which financially wasn’t an option to cancel. I can’t remember the last time a country made me change my plans so dramatically that I wrote of another one. But Laos had and I was not complaining.
Before heading South I ventured to the impressive and dream like waterfalls of Kuang Si nearby. The natural beauty shone through, only interrupted by the odd westerner in a bikini or shorts ignoring the local signs asking us, the guest, to be respectful of the countries ways.
‘Not to Vang Vieng?’ The tour office employee questioned me again.
I was skipping it, although it can’t be denied its beautiful to the eye I was after a different experience right now. I didn’t want to be near other back packers or tubing along a river. A few months earlier and I wouldn’t have been able to skip it though.
I learnt this year a really valuable lesson: You will never go everywhere, you will never enjoy everywhere and you should only aim to go somewhere you want to go.
Vang Vieng wasnt one of those places, and I have learnt it’s just ok to say that.
I somehow ended up having a three night vacation in a city that was a mere pit stop. I was too ill to face another night bus, nor was it fair to be snuggling up to a stranger in my current state (Yep, my 12 hour bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane was in a shared, tiny bed). So I booked an extended stop and relaxed.
This capital city is small with limited entertainment. A surprisingly good food scene coupling Asian with French cuisine on every street and the sun still on side I could have killed my days dining and wandering had my stomach not been telling me otherwise (See: Don’t eat salad)
It’s a dusty town, it felt less energetic than Luang, less keen to impress and more settled on just functioning. I felt the facade was going down, although still tidy the rubbish and dirt seemed more in line with its neighbours.
For all my illness I had a great time here. I achieved nothing other than losing weight, but there was a charm to this city I imagine so easily skipped on a stopover.
So it was time for another one of those bus Journeys. Pakse in the south was to be my next stop.
The Champasak Palace Hotel, a real palace of a day gone by. At first it appeared an eyesore, but on second glance I knew I had to spend a night here. The views from the balcony soothed the long night of no sleep laying next to a stranger.
The Palace itself in disrepair, too big with too little custom to manage the up keep. The rooms basic but adequate. But, who wouldn’t want to stay in a Palace?
Pakse felt more alive than Vientiane to me, focused around the main road running through it there seemed more energy in the air and more tourists than I was expecting. But it was just a mere stop as I was here to explore the Bolaven Plateau.
The Bolaven Plateau (Yep, we are still in Laos not South America)
The Plateau, an area with mountains in the clouds, waterfalls of all sizes and minimal tourists in sight is best discovered on Scooter/Motorbike.
With quiet and relatively good condition roads I hired my scooter. It wasn’t until the mud paths, back lanes and trying to find what I was looking for later in the journey did I realise I was too off path for my wheels.
I crashed in Laos, a sudden storm sent me flying off my bike. I was lucky, however I saw two others whilst driving who were not. The road had not been so kind to them that day and it is a tragic reminder that the safety on these roads can never be taken likely.
The further I drove the bike down dirt paths, past burning rubbish, children waving and parents looking on in a questioning fashion the more I knew I was getting nearer to the real Laos.
Taking rest in a local hut that sold gas out of water bottles and exchanging laughs with the family there about my soaked state they handed me a cup of coffee. A gesture that at the time meant more than any I had felt before.
I remembered why I was here. It wasn’t to take photos with a waterfall, it was to give something back. We couldn’t communicate, they couldn’t understand that I was asking for where a school was nearby.
I thanked them for the coffee, handed two books and a pencil to the children and bid farewell. I imagine my face would look the same if someone had handed me the controls of a spacecraft.
It took over two days to distribute the school books to three different places I found on way. People wouldn’t understand why I was there. A travelling salesman one lady thought as she tried to sign they couldn’t afford to buy them.
It was a little gesture I made and a selfish act. I needed to rebalance everything I had taken from this beautiful continent and Laos felt the right place to do this. Especially in the South, these areas untouched by Tourism on mass (as of yet)
Laos is a poor country and one which is still recovering from the damage of the Cold War. The uncountable number of unexploded devices still littering the country and causing disaster regularly is a troubling reminder of this. The little support from the west, the communist government and the financial state of the country making it hard to move forward.
But it will and us as visitors can support and help it grow as we have in much of Asia.
I left too soon still. I had learnt a lesson that so many travellers fail to grasp. Quality wins over Quantity every-time.
As a solo traveller I can pack my days as much as I like without upsetting anyone else. But I realised I had been the whole time. I had been effecting myself.
We must always remember to keep ourselves happy on the road. Listen to our guts and give ourselves what we need to enjoy, grow and learn from the experience.
But we should never forget to give back. No matter how little we can offer.