The mystery of the missing popcorn factory was hell on my feet.
The town of Hsipaw (pronounced See-paw) isn’t known for attractions. Mainly a starting point for trekkers, we’d gone there just to go. The popcorn factory stuck from a list of attractions that ranged from interesting to time killing, so it was on the road leading out of town, the temperature nearing 40 Celsius, when I began walking toward hell.
We’d inadvertently arrived the day of the Full Moon Ceremony, and after a night sleeping under our guesthouse stairs (the last affordable accommodation), we’d found transportation (a cross between a jeepney and a tuk-tuk), made it to a field massed with merchants and tents and a temple, ridden the one ride, toasted with rice wine, and, in my case, wandered off into a temple for some “peace of mind.”
Excluding the tastes of trekkers, who eventually don socks, flip flops are as much a part of the backpacker uniform as could be said to exist. They accommodate the Southeast Asian heat and cluster wherever there’s comfort—the legs of veranda tables, hostel entrances, beach eateries and bars.
For the past months, I’d sported a slick pair of flip flops I’d bought the first summer in Korea. Cloth-thonged with smooth black soles and an imprint of Africa (a reminder, I told myself when I overpaid for them, of where not to forget to go), they marked the rare occurrence of successful shoe-shopping in Asia, particularly for someone whose feet have been compared to those of clowns.
They were also the only pair of flip flops I’d ever owned, despite living in Southern California, where flip flops aren’t so much a uniform as the symbol of a state of mind, one I’d never been able to share (what with the Thursday to Sunday jaunts to another city or campus to see someone, some band, something, crashing on random floors, leaving before the sun came up or way too long after, or, later, splitting class with two jobs and always being on the way to somewhere else—a lifestyle accommodated by the close-toed and laced, forget slipping shoes on and off, I slept with them on), so my buy brought with it the lame feeling of late acceptance. Anyone who knows me (or read the other guest blog post) knows that stuff isn’t a big part of my life, but the right stuff can make a big difference.
Back in Hsipaw, someone stole my shoes at the temple while I watched people lather Buddha with gold. You leave your shoes at one of the entrances of the temple, and I circled every one looking for the only pair of over-sized, black and red flip flops that could be at the festival. Then I walked back through the festival, hailed a jeepney/tuk-tuk, made my way through town, found my friends, had dinner, and retreated up the stairs into my room, barefoot.
I had, of course, been lucky till then. Four countries, and I’d not lost my shoes or had them stolen. This was uncommon. The fucking things are so popular because they’re so cheap, dispensable, replaceable. Drunk people confuse their shoes and take the wrong pair. I’d sat with people while their flip flops were literally taken from under, swiped from the pools of shoes at restaurant entrances.
Most Westerners shoe-shopping in Asia run into a problem at some point. If you’re in a small town, you might be out of luck finding your size. People have this problem in Korea, in China, in Taiwan, and I was in Myanmar, whose imports seemed to come mainly from Thailand and China. The biggest shoes were too small, and so began not only the hell but a cycle of loss and compensation constantly falling short.
The popcorn factory had apparently shuttered for good. The only person who knew this and spoke English was a local monk. In consolation, he said that it had been a small operation and not much to see.
A couple weeks later, I left Myanmar. By then, the cheap plastic of the thongs had steadily and surely gashed my feet, scabbing the sides and the space between the big toe and its neighbor, red and blood melting with sweat and dirt air, and they continued to gash and tear at the scabs, reopening and gashing again and again.
That pair was stolen in a hostel in Taiwan the night before my flight. Broke and needing to compensate, I stole (or, karmically, traded for) a sleek black pair from the rack that turned out to be smaller and older. It not only continued the work of its predecessor but was also too short at the back and scratched the soles of my feet on the rough streets.
That pair made it through Songkran, the Thai New Year, where the streets flowed with water and clay washed off peoples’ faces and where this mud washed over the scab and gash (I thought of a friend who’d almost had her foot amputated when a foot wound set dirt into her blood). They were stolen from the pool of flip flops by the guesthouse door a few hours before my flight home.
So I compensated yet again, the same way I’m sure people are still compensating and have been and will continue to. After three flights and 13 hours or so of planes, the immigration officer’s “Welcome back” was a nicety paled by the pair of over-sized, almost comically large flip flops my ride put before me. There is some truth when people say that the little things are what matter in life. In my case, they scarred my feet.
If you’re hard-pressed to find my point, it might be because there isn’t one or because shoes and, more to the point, feet aren’t the stuff of stories. Over a fairly short period (4 months), I used various transport, and what stayed with me most was the feeling whenever you disembarked whatever plane, ferry, riverboat, skiff, random chunk of metal/wood with motor attached, bus, minivan, jeepney, taxi, tuk-tuk, motobike, elephant or horse-cart. In the end, you’re back to just standing there, knowing that you have to choose a direction and walk.