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Archive for January, 2008

Jim’s article from the Livingston Enterprise

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

I wrote an article for my hometown paper, The Enterprise.  You can find this article on the Media page, but I thought I might as well post it here, too.

Published Dec. 26, 2007, in The Livingston Enterprise, Livingston, Montana

Bicyclists soak up China knowledge - literally

EDITOR’S NOTE: Former Livingston resident Jim Durfey, a 2000 Park High School graduate, has been bicycling through Asia with a group of friends. Below is an un update on their journey. The Enterprise will periodically post his accounts of the trek.

By Jim Durfey
For The Enterprise

CHINA - On our third day biking out of Beijing, the rain started. We stopped to spread waterproofing over our luggage and ourselves. I was already so soaked, I forewent my raincoat. The rain only pelted down faster. It seemed to rise up out of the ground and gush out of our fenders. We couldn’t ride behind each other. Earlier we had found a road built on top of a dike. The water pooled in the road. Cars passing us created wakes over a foot high. “Gosh,” said Drew, one of my fellow riders, “for being on a dike, we sure are wet.”
When my friends and I decided to bike from Beijing, China, to Paris, France, biking on a flooded dike wasn’t what we had in mind. We were hoping for knowledge. We wanted to know of Asia and its people what you can’t get learn from a book. We counted on surprises. But what continues to surprise me is the extent to which biking forces knowledge on you, whether you like it or not. After the rainstorm, I had soaked up so much knowledge about weather in Northeast China, my hands looked like I’d swum across the Yellow River.
Until we began the trip, we were unaware of the sorts of knowledge available for those willing to bicycle across a country. As we biked south, we ignored fluctuations in crops and harvest times at our peril. Fields alive with the excitement of harvest made for great views. But farmers spread crops like rice on the road to dry. Swerving around a pile of corn forces one to note details bus or train passengers might miss.
I have also ground up the muscle-burning hills of Southern China on a bike. Only Lance Armstrong and people using motor vehicles fail to notice hills. As we drifted south, the crops tended towards rice as the landscape tended away from flat. In Guangdong Province, in the deep south, banana trees and sugar cane greeted us. We knew we had successfully escaped snow.
Foreigners in China cannot escape becoming celebrities. At least they can’t if they travel in groups of five on heavily loaded bicycles to areas rarely visited by foreigners. Last week, I stood in front of a crowd of 500-some high school students. The headmaster of the school had asked that I come and speak. I have no qualifications to address such a crowd, but merely being a foreigner in China exposes one to such opportunities. Lack of credentials withstanding, I explained our reasons for doing the trip.

“We want to increase understanding between our two and other countries,” I said in English, and then translated into Chinese when the students claimed they didn’t understand.
I threw in a bit about not merely worrying about money when it came to goals in life. And so goes my public speaking career.
Everywhere we go, large numbers of people gather around us. School children mob our tables when we eat. They follow us back to our cheap accommodations for the night. Mostly, they’re curious. I often answer the same questions over and over again. However, with celebrity comes added hospitality.
In between the north and south, one Mr. Deng invited us into his house for tea. I was tired and wanted to go bed, but he made it hard to refuse. We sat down with him and drank Wulong tea. One of the finer brands of Chinese tea, Wulong tea leaves are pressed together after harvest, aged, and form hard chunks. A unique characteristic of Wulong tea is that the flavor becomes stronger the more times you steep it. As he poured it, Mr. Deng explained how the tea we were drinking symbolized friendship.
“At first,” he said, “the flavor is very light, just like when we first met we were reserved. But with each steeping it gets stronger,” he continued, “just like we open up and connect with each other the longer we know each other.”
Long-term relationships, unfortunately, are not facilitated by living in a different city, village, or rice paddy every night. My four friends and I have other plans for our lives. We can’t bike forever. But while the trip lasts, we will bike through Southeast Asia, India, and perhaps beyond. Whatever situation we find ourselves in, we will continue trying to extract all of its flavor in whatever time we have.
We will probably run into more tea and more rain. We’ll do our best to experience both fully and report back. But for the experience itself, we have only our bikes and our hosts to thank.

Former Livingston resident Jim Durfey, right, talks with Chinese people curious about his bike trip across Asia with friends. Photo courtesy of Jim Durfey (actually taken by Peter Ehresmann).

Subject FF

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

I am foreign female. Call me Ethina, short for ethnicity. I am from the land of diversity.  

Sometimes this land is so diverse, so small and unique, that it is unidentifiable by normal earthling computers at land borders, and it must be validated by passport, bank cards, expired driver’s permit, Japanese ID card, expired American E visa card, or any other official ID I might have to offer additional validation.  Sometimes it is necessary to take Subject FF into the upper room with mahogany chairs that shine their polished governmental varnish beneath the interrogation light, sit Subject FF down, and ask meaningful questions like, “Where are you going in Vietnam?” or “You worked in Japan?” or “Where are you from?”

 

After Agent Border Control has run out of meaningful questions, and Subject FF is sufficiently feeling like a single cell organism, she can be released to walk out into the light where she is free to join her American friends and enter Vietnam, stamped and all, like shiny happy people holding hands around a globe.

Leaving Vietnam was much easier than entering it. We peddled our hearts out 30 km up the jungle mountains that stretch between its long spindly leg, and

Laos. We wanted to get out. Fast. I’ve read that the North of Vietnam is far less friendly than the South. My trip to Ho Chi Minh City (in the South) in 2005 was full of fun moments between warmhearted streetvendors in the market who tended to my needs like Grandmami’s with fleshy warm arms. I remember joking in the market with women who didn’t want to go down on the price of fruit, and walking away with a bag of things I didn’t pay for. It was picturesque. It was harmonic. It made me choke a little.

 But this is memory, which always projects itself in vibrant, Broadway musical colors. This was also me as a foreign tourist traveling with Japanese Yen to burn for 3 weeks, looking for kicks and giggles. This was not biking for a year, trying to make my means last till the end of the year.

But its hard trying to explain that to a woman working for pennies, who doesn’t have the luxury of leaving her job for a year to see the world by bike, who has fantastical images of beautiful exotic rich foreigners on display boards hoisted up in all her countries’ cities, who equates all the foreigners she sees as better off, rich, able to live beyond their means.

So we peddled hard and fast to escape the jeering “hellos” and the hands held out from the motorcycles, accompanied by long lipped yells, “money, money,” which is exactly what we felt like. Money. People without identities. Foriegners that blended into the pale pink landfill of other foreigners who’ve passed through. How to tell the difference between one type of tourist from another?

They called me Feijoren or African in China. So often that, in the end, when we were close to the border, I started to say yes to get out of explaining.  I had bought a map early on to show people my little unidentifiable archipelago nation. I would take it out, and people would look, and sound it out: Ba-ha-ma.

I took efforts to explain that I wasn’t from Africa, meticulously drawing out the geography of my country:

“It is NOT near Thailand or Africa. It’s a small island country in the Caribbean, between North and

South America. Near

Cuba. Do you know

Cuba? See?

Cuba?” I’d point. 

 “Ahhh.

Cuba. Castro,” people would say.

“Yes. Castro.”

“She’s from Cuba,” they gestured at me, sweating from all the attention.

I would smile, exhausted and deflated, suffering from a feverish spell of deportation.

Over time, I realized that this emphatic explaining killed conversation rather than nurtured it, people would look and nod, and move onto someone else to wonder over. So, not wanting to miss out on the obsequious attention, (Subject FF, Ethina for short needs her kicks too), I tucked the map into the quiet pages of my GRE book, which I no longer have time to study.

But what is a person without a country? A color that blends into the wall, quietly screaming. A foreign devil. A dollar bill.

The Chinese are paranoid about size like I am paranoid about the name of my country. They’d sometimes ask us, “Which is bigger? China or America?” Which is a loaded question when you consider independent states, autonomous regions and indigenous peoples.

And really.

Africa is a big place. And I am from there ORIGINALLY, if we were to speak in terms of roots or neo-African, nu-soul, black pride movement. If we were to speak in terms of Vietnamese American, Vietnamese Australian, Vietnamese Brit. I mean, I don’t call myself African Bahamian because 85% of The Bahamas is black, but maybe I should.

I’ve never even been to Africa.  But I suddenly feel the need to take that repatriation boat back to the Ashanti tribe in modern day Benin, or join a Rasta Farian commune in Ethiopia.

I suddenly feel the need to nod heads with Nigerian and Cameroon immigrants selling Timberlands in Shinsaibashi, Osaka, or Shibuya, Tokyo, or Sanlitun, Beijing, or Kowloon, Hong Kong, with eyes smiling at the sides as they call me sister.  This is black pride movement coded in covert head nods and side smiles at checkpoints along an underground railroad to the North, like smoke signals, like expats-in-Asia that fish out other expats in disdain. I spotted a foreigner (the game most expats-in-Asia play) in Than Hoa, a small town in North Vietnam, and we both nodded at each other after being formally introduced by the restaurant owner. But nothing more. Meaning understood. Please forget you saw me.

But Vietnam doesn’t have a size complex. It’s small and that is all there is to it. And because it is small, its land border between Ping Xiang and Dong Dang towns, which mostly facilitates the passage of Chinese and Vietnamese people, and perhaps never before a Bahamian, it is unequipped to handle cases where new countries come up. And also, because it is small, most of it has been touched by foreigners. It has been mucked by travel. Its eyes, like our eyes, are desensitized, perhaps even hardened to the outside world that comes snooping and prodding.

Not many people have called me an African but have assumed I was American or Indonesian, or French, or Indian.  I am clumped in the foreigner pile, not set aside in the small country group as I was in China.

The country’s slender body has had more time to be infilitrated by foreign tourists than China’s closed borders would let.

Vietnam’s wars fought on its own soil has exposed it to the West. There are ATM’s with Visa and Mastercard signs in the small towns.  There are Western Unions set up in small towns where you are can’t send money, only receive it.

Doi Moi, Vietnam’s economic reform, has opened its markets to foreign investors and its shores to foreign tourists, gently urging its citizens to open their hearts to foreigners, to try and get along with the world for the benefit of the country.

And we bike sweatily through the dirt roads in the small towns desperately trying to avoid the bus usurping highway 1,dodging yippy “hello’s” and child laughter skipping across the road like pebbles from the sky. They know who we are. It’s like they can sense foriegners from a kilometer away. We must have a smell. Like old people’s children.

Unlike China, we have no camera crews stopping us on the road for impromptu interviews to be aired on local TV stations.  No one has invited us to the grand opening of their restaurant to draw the interest of American investors. No one fawns attentively at us.

Instead, we have to bargain hard for everything. Nothing has a set price. Everything is up to the whim of the stall keeper.  This is making us skeptical. We want to leave. We are paranoid of people’s intentions. These are not the innocent, pure third world country people that foreigners love. These are people with flaws. These are people who don’t give a damn about pleasing the doe-eyed foreigner.

But I have always been a bit paranoid, even in China, where people were wide-eyed lovely. Always a chip on my shoulder. These are the side effects of a black pride movement. These are the side effects of a struggle for identity:  Insecurity. Anxiety. Sharp ears.  These are the fist thrusting attributes of someone who wants to see their pen’s end, someone who wants to read their own writing, lost in the murk of ego and meaningfulness, lost in the mist of their own lofty soul searching points.

I killed a fly that crawled out from the sticky bottom of my beer mug, persistent to finish what I’d started.

So sometimes, not-so-pleasant experiences that are outside my realm of familiarity can turn ugly in my mind’s eyes. Experience is often so much built from expectation, which is often based on misunderstanding, our mind funneling out possibilities based on prior knowledge. Sometimes a person scowling is just a person scowling because they’re son came home late from school. Sometimes a woman cannot move because she is breastfeeding behind a counter. And sometimes, she thoroughly hates your guts.

But until we touch, until we communicate, break the skin of our mental glares, until we reach out past our own comfort zones, we won’t know and we won’t be able to do anything about a problem if there ever was one. We will also not see the kindness in some of the Vietnamese poeple who invited us into thier homes and asked us for nothing in return. We will expect something to linger beneath the surface, and walk away feeling a little jaunted and unsteady.

We will remain foreigners in the pink pail foreigner club undistinguishable from other foreign people, a sea of salmon. In which case, running from identity to identity, country to country, movement to movement, gets us as close as we can to the real deal: discovery. The travel bug has blessed me with a curse.

Revisting the justice in making US$1 million question

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

Ok, sorry to have overwhelmed you. It appears that my December post titled, “Is there a just way to make US$1 million,” having asked for comments, has received the least number of comments of any post on the site. I don’t want to scare you away. There are no wrong ideas or answers here. Since in Vietnam and Lao we continue to see major income gaps between rich and poor (brand new gold-tan Toyota Hilux 4-door pick up trucks for the have’s VS. dump trucks used as buses to move The People around), please allow me to revive the discussion:

From my original 3 questions, I want to focus only on #2:

Is there a just way to make US$1 million?

One of the ideas that came up in the discussion we here at Fueled By Rice had was authors. If one writes a highly successful book and makes US$1 million, that would probably be a just way to make that much money. Perhaps a central idea here is that as long as the money one earns all comes directly from the fruit of their own labor, it is just…assuming fair prices. I’m sure there are other possibilities and even arguments against this.

This raises questions about the justness of investments, banks, and the stock markets where one makes money from money by simply putting it in the right place at the right time. I’d be thrilled if someone could argue for the justice in earning money from stock markets and banking.  I myself am earning interest on a savings account for doing nothing but having put the money in the account. 

Any thoughts would be great.

Thanks,
Peter

Last week was miserable

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Last week was miserable, the type that can only be best described with a run-on sentence. 

 

The rain was falling steadily on an abandoned home in the northern Vietnamese country-side while I was lying inside it on the filthy uneven cement floor shivering and listening to my excessively loud heart-beat and moaning from fever on top of my sweat drenched sleeping bag with mosquitoes dive bombing my head contemplating if it was either malaria or dengue fever which was finally doing me in while trying not to hear the bat in the corner whom was making carnivorous barks at my stomach which was answering with slow deep and redundant growls of pain as I tried to remember how many days it had been since I had a successful trip to the outhouse while my short hollow breaths were seemingly running out of air.

 

For the first time on the trip I thought to myself, I do not want to be here.

 

As with any adventure in life ours has had its ups and downs.  Things had been adding up lately and it was putting me on edge.  I began to take things personally. When a truck horn would blow I would assume they were doing it irritate me.  When people would repetitively yell “Hello” at me loudly and mockingly then have a good laugh about it with their buddies I would let it bother me a little too much.  It is not possible to keep an attitude like this up on a trip of this nature; you will either end up going home or going crazy.  One must find ways to deal with all the nonsense.  Some scholars would probably call it something like refined optimism.  I think the air-force may use the term “the right stuff.”   

 

How did I solve my dilemma? Every situation has a good, a bad, and an ugly. The bad was that I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. The ugly was obviously me, although the beard has been improving my looks ever so slowly. And the good was found in a number of places.

 

One day on our way heading southwest in Vietnam towards Loa we were in the countryside far from any guesthouse, or tourist spot in any guide book thank God, and were looking for a place to camp.  While exploring the area around a lake a family invited us to stay with them, it turned into the my favorite home-stay experience.  Mr. and Mrs. Nguyom and their two Children, along with a whole gang of neighbors invited us to sleep, eat, and rest in their home and were in great spirits the whole time despite the inability to communicate through common language.  I wasn’t feeling the best and wanted to rest but Mr. Nguyom offered to take me fishing instead, an offer that could not go untaken. So we rowed around a pond in a small boat netting fish that he farms and then later ate the fish for dinner, spectacular. They would not accept any money from us.

 

The next day we arrived in Thai Hoa and found a inexpensive guesthouse so I could stay and rest since I was still feeling quite miserable, and because Jim was becoming quite miserable himself.  Here we met two English teachers who took us to eat and invited Pete, Nakia, and Andrew to their home.  Since Jim and myself did not feel like to going far from the guesthouse we stayed behind. The owner however cooked us dinner and made sure that we ate enough to feel better. Forcing your guest to eat a lot is a Vietnamese custom as I found out, and so is not drinking any tea or water with your meal so that you can fit more food in. Although I did not feel like eating as much as they had hoped I would it was a nice gesture all the same. 

 

Finding kindness, along with slowly recovering form illness, one can quickly change their paradigm on the world.  Here in Lao the weather is warm, people relaxed and extremely friendly, and the traffic low, all great factors for happy cycling. My experiences make me hope that next time things start to get miserable good will be found somewhere nearby.

Tall Trees

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

The ’s’ in Laos, like the Statue of Liberty and deep fried potato chunks, is another example of French opulence leading to unnecessary things. Let’s ignore it, shall we?

I have never seen old-growth forest in Asia. In China and Vietnam, rows of environmentally-friendly reforested trees marched up hillsides in perfect lines. Surely jungle areas creep and crawl with all sorts of growth, but huge trees one sees not.

In Western Laos trees of unprecedented height and girth spring up dozens of feet above the canopy. At their base they prove too wide for even two tall women to encircle in their arms. The trees ooze up rock faces, forcing nubbies of stump and bark into every nook and cranny, searching for purchase. They provide shade for whole seconds, even when biking past at high speed. Thank God the French were averse to logging this far inland. Hopefully the Lao government takes the “Preservation Area” signs seriously. In other areas clear cuts and slash and burn areas are apparent.

Big trees

Big trees and cut trees. Courtesy of Pete.

The people of Laos seem as honest as their trees are tall. I constantly confuse 20000s and 50000s with 2000s and 5000s. I always seem to get the correct change, though.

In the heat of midday, we bike in our own sweat, while villagers sit in the shade provided by their porches. Thatch huts raised on stilts always have significant porch space. Villagers lounging on the porches casually waft a “Sa-bai-dee” towards us. Sometimes they shake their heads and laugh afterwards. I taste the sweat dripping off my mustache, examine the ample shade provided by the big trees, realize I my idea of destinations is itself excessive opulence. I join the villagers in their laughs.

Smiles and people who won’t take our money

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

Once one gets past the screamed “Hellos!”, there is a quiet humor and ambition underlying the attitude of most Vietnamese. They always laugh. Women in colorful flower-adorned hats smile softly at my inability to say “seven”. Others hide crinkled eyes beneath their short brims. Sometimes the hats fall off. Women biking or motorcycling ahead of me swerve about in the road, chuckling on their way to retrieve their headgear.

Mr. and Mrs. Ngugom invited us into their home one evening. That day the wind blew harshly and dark skies promised rain. Mrs. Ngugom approached Nakia, who was asking about camping sites. She pointed at the sky, making a shivering motion. Nakia’s female status often causes people to view our group differently than they otherwise might. Men are impressed, women empathetic. This time we took advantage of our female connections to stay at the home of the Ngogom’s.

Adam, who almost drowned once trying to look at fish, soon had Mr. Ngugom trolling him about in the family fish pond. I finally explained to Mrs. Ngugom that I wanted to help wash dishes. She chuckled her carefree laugh. “Ah, help, help” she said correctly pronouncing the word I mispronounced, “fine, help!” She gave me a basin and a quick lesson and I was soon washing away.

Given our experiences of past Vietnamese homestays, we were nervous. How much would this cost? The couple seemed genuinely nice, but what would happen when we tried to leave?

The Ngugom's and FBR

Mr. Ngugom took me to register with the police. We went on his motorcycle, winding through dark forested trails I didn’t recognize. Coming around one corner he almost collided with another bike. “Hahaha,” he chuckled. I chuckled along.

The woman at the house we stopped at laughed when I showed her everyone’s passport. She asked if I was Peter, then gave me back all the passports. “Get up and go!” her gesture said. Allright! Too bad more registrations aren’t like this one.

That night we dined on freshly netted fish and, if I say so myself, extremely clean vegetables. In the morning when we tried to give the family some money, they wouldn’t take it.

Adam banged his head a smashing blow on the low-hanging eaves. Both Mr. and Mrs. Ngugom laughed big belly laughs. Usually I wouldn’t laugh, but their humor was infectious. I waited till I was facing away snortled into my beard. I guess when life is funny, you might as well admit it.

Now in Lao from Vietnam and its HOT

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

Whew. The first internet bar since Pho Chao in Vietnam…200km ago! 

The distance may look small on a map, but the difference between Lao and Vietnam is like night and day.  We entered Lao on Jan 19th, after climbing a long 5km mountain road to the pass/border.  Vietnam had been cloudy and cold in the previous week, contributing to Adam and Jim’s day-long illnesses.  The moutain pass seemed to be holding the clouds on the Vietnam side though.  As soon as we crossed the border and started going down the steep valley road, the clouds thinned and soon the sun was shining full force, warming us once and for all.  60km in, it became so hot that we can’t bike comfortably from 11:30am - 3pm due to intense sun.  Luckily the weather is dry so the shade is cool.  For the 5th time or so now, I think we’ve finally arrived in the tropics.  I’d be surprised if the cold caught up with us again.

Besides sunshine and warmth, the other thing we immdiately noticed in Lao were the huge trees, certainly old growth all along highway 8 from Vietnam to Lao’s main north-south highway, 13 (these two highways are two of only a couple more paved roads in Lao).  What an obvious difference in lumbering policy.  I’ve never seen such big trees in China or Vietnam, though given their populations, its understandible that their wood resources are strained.  With 30 million people in Vietnam, even the countryside has a dense population.  We found it difficult to get more than 100m away from a house for camping.  Lao on the other hand only has 4 million.  So even though we’re on the main highway, the traffic is very light compared with China and Vietnam.  I’d heard about bikers loving Lao due to light traffic on this good road, but I had no idea most of Lao feels like a national park with by far the cleanest freshest air and water I’ve seen on the trip.  This has opened up wonderful camping possibilities, though the night before last we stayed with a family (Vin) who invited us in when Drew stopped to ask about tire shops.

We’re resting today, but look forward to continuing our journey south to Cambodia through this beautiful country, where most people live in small villages mostly composed of wooden houses on stilts.  Unfortunately some things are more expensive than Vietnam since they have to be imported, but fortunately people seem more honest in their commerence with us.  Another pleasant difference here in Lao is that although children and adults still say hello to us whenever we pass by, nearly everyone says hello in their native language, “Sa-ba-dee,” with a tone that seems more genuine and less mocking.

We’ve left Kansas

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

We’ve left Kansas. 

The last 18km of China ran along a smooth highway with broad shoulders elevated above the actual road that sliced like a low flying duck through a valley. The road dipped suddenly then wound around a conch shell mountain only to exhale at the zenith onto a lumpy backstreet that hiked back up and through a gate.  What to do with this twisting shaking elation?  My peddling legs quiver. My hands grease the handlebars. This must be it. There was a man in green uniform staring straight ahead Queen Guard style.  I can hear my heartbeat.

 That was it. They stamped our passports out. They stamped our passports in.  We rode through into a cave of emotion built up over a week of expectation. Restaurant huts slumped with thatch roofs and patched sides that bulged out at the middle.  Dogs, bigger, Rin Tin Tin dogs, flopped their heads down on parched asphalt next to parked motorcycles mounted by men watching and yelling Chinese style, “Hello!” We’re here, aren’t we? 

It was sunny after a long stretch of rain and the cold that kept our emotions in check over Christmas and New Years. This was stepping outside and being free. As if China were our parent’s house.  This was like summer. I want a beer like now.

 

Lucky for me, they love beer in Vietnam. Within the first day of riding, before being comfortable enough to utter our first raw phrases of  pigeon Vietnamese, we see Bia Hoi (draft beer) signs hoisted above huts with chairs and tables stretched out beneath the brazing sun like tourists on a Bahamian beach. 

 

We are not in Kansas anymore. We are in freaking Vietnam!  And suddenly I feel lazier. Like I do when the plane lands in The Bahamas on a visit home, and the hot, heavy island air rests on me like the elbow of a large friend, and when I stand up to dismount the aircraft, my feet trudge as if through quicksand, as if gravity is more confident closer to the ground closer to the equator at Tropic of Cancer latitude.

 

They say that people from tropical countries are lazier because of the heat.

 

China is on the other side of a mountain.  Practically right there, bikable, touchable. Hyperactive frantic truck honkers. Factories smoking sulfur oxide pipes.  Little, barefoot children running up from behind hedges. Water buffaloes running to douse themselves in mud. We’ve impalpably switched countries: lo mien for pho bo, tea with meals for tea after meals, 645ml beer bottles with rice and dishes for draft beer served with peanuts at beer bars. The beer is just as weak. 3-4%. But it is sweeter, and cheaper, at 2,000 dong, or one quai or $0.10 (the cheapest ive ever paid) a mug And the people sit on the sidewalks to drink it like they do in Beijing’s hutongs.

 

 I sat and typed with a little espresso mug of Vietnamese coffee served with a French filter or phin and condensed milk or sua sitting unstirred at the bottom.  I am to let the coffee steep, then stir. The man who served it to me said that most people usually only have one cup because it is so strong. Foriegners might ask him to add water. This reminds me of the saturated coffee I drank mistakenly in full 200ml mugs in Spain. For my first two months there, I attributed an accelerated heartbeat to stress and change in atmospheric pressure. I thought I was going to have a minor heart attack.  I asked the Vietnamese man in the café  to kindly dilute my cup, which still left me wired until about 2am. I go mad over the sweet milk though.

 

The French left their charm.  Their ability to lounge delicately and enjoy a cup without looking gratuitous did not go lost on the Southeast Asian coconut trees that swing at the gentle folds in their waists and the lazy way people start their mornings with a mug of beer drunken with breakfast noodles, or the way women sit at restaurants at every time of day feeding children, waiting for kicks. This slowness pulls at our nerves, and we stride slower and shorter.

 

This is the tenderest way to travel.  To ease into a country, one road at a time.  We see only the road in front of us and the people we ask directions from and bargain with for food and shelter. Biking cuts out the stress of guidebook mustsees. It limits scope to the next town for lunch or rest. It ties our experience more to the connections we make with people we talk to, to the lands we must trek. A day contains so much for us because there are no moments folded into a bus ride, or a two hour bullet train. Vision is slow motion.

 

I forget speed. The adrenaline junkie jumping from kick to kick, text message to TV station, to music video, to dessert, to diet, to advertisement, to dancing on tables in dark clubs, to conversation topic, to shopping spree for candles, switched.

 

S   L   O   W      D   O   W   N  .  .  .  .

 

Notice: Motorcycles packed with three men warming each other’s hands in each other’s jackets or mothers with newborns curled up in sacs on their backs or little girls clutching pigs with fifteen chickens tied to their dad’s motorbike.

 

This does not seem odd to me. I panic that I am no longer surprised. What is experience if not shock? Is it all just muck? Treacherous annihilation? When all is well in the universe,  where is my irony? When all is equal, and we start on a clean slate in a new country where none of us speak the language nor have any prior history (except for a brief visit of mine in Ho Chi Minh City in 2005) where is there brooding space? Where is there a shadow from which to dispel myths and reveal hypocrisies? When all seems normal, and rolled out onto the scenery like a slow, winding road, where is there difference between the edge of my skin and the beginning of theirs?

 

In Hanoi, the tension of motorcycle speed and imminent danger raced beneath our skins as we road South from the Chinese border. They zoomed past, nipping small parts of our limbs, knuckles, wrists, leg hair, and we became nervous at this more agile danger that makes Chinese dumb trucks look like big stupid animals.

 

Yellow, the color of French colonial buildings, drooped dilapidatedly beneath weeping coconut trees onto the screaming streets. The unpreserved buildings bent their unmanicured backs hairy with smoke to the growling motored bikes like defeated relics bowing to their new, swifter masters. Doi moi, the country’s economic reform, has Asian and European investors pouring into Vietnam. They, like the Chinese are quick to develop. Rapid industrialization, urbanization, population growth and agricultural development has people fidgety to make a buck. It strains our communication because we can never be sure if people are trying to make a profit or be nice.

 

We don’t speak their language so we cannot build confidence or respect.  We can only smile and hope that  the smile in the crinkle of our eyes transmit feelings of friendship.  Sometimes, we are redeemed with mutual signs of friendship. A man paid for my dinner a few nights ago. Sometimes, we are treated like big companies with elaborate PR image management schemes.  Last week, a woman riding her bike next to mine, got off and asked me for money as calmly as if she were asking me for the time.

 

We’ve left Kansas. The homogeneity of hospitality and curiosity that followed all the way down China is variegated here. Statues of armed women and men with jungle hats reminiscent of famous images from the Vietnam war (the Vietnamese call it the American War) trickle through city parks. The fine arts museum in Hanoi was decorated with portraits of soldiers surrepticiously welcomed in clandestine villages where peasants rebandaged their wounds and restocked their food supplies. Huts hid beneath the shade of banana leaves where guerrilla units planned attacks against Diem’s government.

 

The Vietnamese like their freedom.  If China is known to the world for its Great Walls, Vietnam is known for its wars against the Chinese, the Japanese, the French, and the US. Our connections with them are more complicated because of this history. They do not fawn over us like the Chinese whose exposure to foreigners has been limited. We have to bargain hard for food and shelter.  For fruit. We ask a price for milk, eyes go up and roll around, and a price rolls out from the top of the head.  Little boys kick us out of their soccer games if we don’t make the cut.  Vendors kick us out of their alleyways if we linger too long without a purpose.

 

I sit and type slowly with the alcohol of midday beer rolling through my skull. Women are around me fondling their babies, pushing their 13 year olds towards me to translate. Fruit is peeled, sliced and put on my computer for me to eat. I am being motioned to come inside the house and eat lunch on the floor with a straw mat spread out beneath. I only meant to drink a beer and then leave. But men, liquored up from prior bar stops, keep motioning for my glass to be refilled as they ask me if I want to marry their friends. I’ve had three, and am about to have the fourth. I can’t keep this up. I am buzzing, typing through the buzz.

 

All the women in town have stopped here at one point or another and rubbed their hands through my locks. I write through it. It no longer phases me. I am sober cab. I have to be or I will get nothing done. Here comes a bamboo pipe with tobacco.  I tell myself the only polite thing to do is to smoke it. People swarm around me like flies, like whirring motorcycles on Highway 1A, Vietnam’s main artery, the road we’ve been avoiding for the last 5 days since Hanoi. Men, alcohol infested, old women with betel juice stained teeth, childbearing women, loud and catty, all try to talk to me, get a reaction out of me. But it is hot and I am tipsy and straining what is left of my brain to concentrate. It is difficult to write for longer than a two minute stretch but, I will not leave.

 

We’ve left Kansas. Things have slowed down. Life seeps through like coffee filtering through steel. When it is all on the other side, inside its proper cup, it will be right and strong, with a bitter sweetness like Angostura. Tasty enough to sip and brood over.

   

New media page

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

Why would anyone want to hear about us?  That beats us.  But we’re still here.  And to celebrate our incredulity, we’ve made a special page to feature other people featuring us. Sometimes it even features other people as they feature us featuring us.  Prehaps a bit narcissistic, now that I’ve put it that way, but go to the media page to judge for yourself.

Also, I think the links all work, but the computer I’m currently on is slowly self destructing, and I’m not hanging out in this net bar to fix them any longer. It may be a while before I see a computer again, so just email me and be patient.

-Jim

The terrible night of the broken trailer

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

To make a long story short, we were in a compromised situation.  The wheel of the trailer fell off.  By fell off, I mean the trailer was here, dragging across the ground on one side, and the wheel was over there, lying on the rocky road.  Generally speaking, this is not the way it’s supposed to work.  

Broken axel on trailer in Vietnam, Keng Ga

It was dark.  We were right next to a busy road.  We were stranded.  We couldn’t move the trailer further than walking distance.  As far as we could see in the dark, water-filled paddies stretched into the distance. 

I felt trapped.  Before, we could bike away from anything we didn’t like.  Now we were stuck.  Two kilometers back, the trailer had broken again.  At that time a family invited us into their home for dinner.  Because we were near a large tourist site, I was suspicious, but complied anyway.  One of their relatives took me to find a repairshop for the trailer axle, which had to be welded.  The family didn’t tell us they wanted money for the meal until afterward.  We ate an awkward but not unpleasant dinner with them.  The uncle did not eat with us, and afterward we left.  It was the tourist site away from which we were biking when the trailer broke.

Drew and I checked under a bridge under the busy road.  Piles of garbage and deposits from people who couldn’t wait surrounded water-filled holes.  Cars thudded along overhead.  “Well…” said Drew, “we could probably make it work if we had to.”

Drew and I climbed back to the group, empty handed.  “I would just like everyone to know I am thouroughly enjoying this,” said Pete, the perpetual optimist.  So cloudy was I, I at first thought an odd bit of sarcasm had escaped his lips.

We found a strip of land next to a dirt road  within walking distance.  People could see us from the road, but there wasn’t any traffic.  We rolled down the bikes, carried the trailer and set up the tents. No cars or motorbikes came down the road. 

We often sleep outside, but we usually find sites away from roads, hidden in the back country and viewable only by local houses, the residents of which inevitably prove welcoming.  This site was right by the road and across the water from a veritable village of houses.  We piled the gear close together and locked everything down. 

“Do you have the broken axle?” Adam asked me as he stowed his gear.  I was the last person to examine the break before we moved the trailer.  I realized I didn’t have it.  It would be difficult to have that fixed here, let alone have a new one made.  If I’d lost it we would certainly be at the prey of the tourist site indefinitely, unable to escape.  I tore through my gear and then ran up the road to where the break ocurred.  Thankfully I found it lying in the dust.   

I settled down that night by the side of the road alert but weary, oddly at peace with a night gone awry.  We had made the best of a bad situation, and it satisfied me.  Perhaps Pete’s perspective wasn’t completely ridiculous.

We awoke the next morning to propaganda blaring from a nearby village.  All of the gear sat just where we put it the night before.  Adam and I collected the axle and biked off in search of an arc welder.  The previous night the uncle guided me to a shop that only had an acetylene torch, which can’t weld as deeply as an arc welder.  We had no idea how difficult an arc welder would be to find. 

We had not even gone a kilometer on the main road when I spotted the thick coiled wires I’ve long associated with electical welders.  Eager to avoid paying the 100,000 dong we were charged the other night for the weld, we asked the man how much the weld would be.  “two something something” was what I heard.  We assumed it would be 20,000.  Great! I thought.  He welded it cleanly and ground it down. 

I tried to pay with a twenty-thousand bill, but the man wouldn’t take it.  He went into his back room and rummaged around, bringing fifteen-thousand in change and making me understand he simply didn’t have the additional three-thousand in change.  The weld had only cost two-thousand. 

Me and Mr. Bien

Me and Mr. Bien. Photo courtesy of Adam Wolf.

At that point we realized we’d been overcharged by about fifty times.  But that was water under the bridge.  So it goes with tourist sites.  The metal worker, a man by the name of Bien, invited us to sit down in his shop and have tea.  As we drank the tea, we communicated with gestures and the little of each other’s languages we knew.  We asked how old his child was (three), he asked us what we thought of Vietnamese women (beautiful).

As foreigners, we will inevitably run into people wanting to take advantage of us.  It comes with the territory.  However, once you break down a barrier, whether through smiles or odd welding requests at seven in the morning, you stop becoming a foreigner, an other, and most people value you as a person and not as a unit of wealth. 

Later, after we had installed the repaired axle in the trailer, we happened to drive past the shop of the man who had initially welded the part, and overcharged me by fifty times.  We decided to stop.  With the help of my phrasebook, I attempted to explain the source of my unsmiling condition.

The previous day, the man had made a good impression on me.  He had a great smile and huge friendly eyes.  Now he pointed up to the sky, seeming to say it was chance and god who had broken the trailer, it was fate, beyond his control.  It was clear he didn’t understand the situation.

Eventually a high school age boy emerged from the back.  After a few attempts at explaining in English, I wrote down the situation, and upon reading it, the boy proved much more helpful than the phrase book.  The welder and his wife had a lively discussion.  We exchanged a few more notes.  The man told me to sit down, and then handed me 20,000 dong, or a fifth of what I’d given him initially. 

Through the kid, the man explained that the uncle who had originally guided me to the place, had told him to cheat me and taken 80,000 dong of the money I’d payed the welder, but he was sorry and wanted to return the money he’d taken.  I took the money, and wrote out a note which was translated simultaneously by the boy.  The man looked me in the eye as the boy translated, and nodded emphatically at the key points.  In the last line, I said I knew the man was a good man, but was still sad at the situation.  The metal worker looked down and then back up at me, and nodded.

I stood up to leave.  We shook hands, and he made me to understand the boy was his son.  He was a proud father, as he should have been.  I shook hands with the boy.  We left on good terms, me much relieved.  It’s possible he wasn’t being completely honest, but at the same time, he didn’t have to give me any money to begin with. 

Perhaps the uncle (Uncle Slick, as Adam calls him) is a lost cause.  However, it seems that engaging with people almost always proves a more successful strategy to resolve conflicts. 

Like the uncle, we become conditioned to viewing certain people in certain ways.  For him tourists are there to make money off of.  By not fully employing my prejudices against people near tourist sites, I allowed him to cheat me.  Perhaps I would do better to be more suspicious.  Yet at the same time, I would have missed out on a valuable experience.  I do not often make myself vulnerable, but perhaps more vulnerability would enrich rather than hurt.  In any case, I hope the armor I usually deploy doesn’t make me so oblivious to my fellow humans as Uncle Slicks at tourist sites.