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Jim Durfey’s Second Enterprise Article

No, not the intergalactic spaceship, but rather the newspaper in Livingston, my hometown.  They’ve agreed to publish articles I write about the trip and I post them here so the blog readers get them as well.

(Published in The Livingston Enterprise Jan. 31, 2008)

A fever friends and a feast while biking throughVietnam

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

By Jim Durfey
For The Enterprise

In the Vietnamese town of Thai Hoa, I awoke to a feverish heat. Sweat soaked my shirt and my skin burned. As I contemplated the prospect of a midnight visit to a hospital in the countryside of a developing nation, I took my temperature. Forty degrees Celsius: I knew it was above normal, but I don’t know the Celsius system to know just how high the fever was.
        A simple equation I used often at Park High converts Celsius to Fahrenheit. I tried to do the math. I even wrote it down, but my mind muddled the figures. Eventually, I decided to simply try to cool myself off. So long as I was conscIOUS and had friends close by, my situation wouldn’t be too dangerous.

‘Now we are all friends’
When my bike group arrived in Vietnam, we were immediately faced with many challenges. Aside from a few mispronounced phrases, we couldn’t speak Vietnamese. In China we knew prices for rooms and food. In Vietnam we were clueless. We also didn’t know what the Vietnamese would think of us. The Chinese unfailingly love foreigners, especially Americans. Relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, on the other hand, have been normalized for only a dozen years or so, and it was not so long ago we were at war with each other.
On our first night in Vietnam, we rented out the attic of a couple in their early 60s. Pictures of our male host decked the living room walls. Here he stood, chest gleaming with medals, shaking hands with an officer. There he stood in the battle dress uniform of the North Vietnamese Army. Most certainly, he had been in the army while the war ravaged his country. Yet he sat with Americans in his home, cordially serving us the strong tea he probably missed on the battle front.
Mr. Quan, a quiet young man who helped us find our attic that night, sat with us and drank tea. We discussed his job in a city far away, his effort to teach himself English, and his girlfriend. He made a passing reference to Vietnam’s history of conflict with France and the United States. He quickly laughed nervously, saying, “But it is no problem, now we are all friends. We don’t care so much about the past.” It seemed the Vietnamese didn’t want to dwell on the war any more than Americans did.
I wanted to focus only on accomplishing daily tasks. Ordering food, finding the bathroom, and getting directions at first all required creative gestures and much mental exertion. However, more difficult problems yield more fulfilling results, or sometimes more delicious ones. After a couple of days, I knew the price of a bowl of pho, or rice noodles, and how to flavor them with fresh mint and a squirt of lemon.
A friendly feast
Though still communist by name, the Vietnamese government began a policy of economic liberalization in the mid-80s. The following flurry of foreign investment and development significantly raised the Vietnamese standard of living. New houses, narrow but deep and tall with distinctly bright colors crop up everywhere. Motorbikes and scooters crowd the roads. Young Vietnamese clothe themselves stylishly in Western fashions. The development has also affected hostel standards and prices.
Eager to extend the financial life of our trip, we chose to camp more often. One afternoon we searched for a site in dreary weather under clouds that promised rain. A jovial woman in a raincoat rode up to us on her motorbike. We explained we were looking for a campsite. She shook her head and feigned a shiver. It’s too cold to camp, she seemed to be saying.

        As an alternative, she brought us to her house. We sat inside one of the cozy wooden buildings that composed her residence while she served us tea. Soon she began preparing a meal. I wound up in a boat with her husband, who trolled around his fish pond, laying nets and harvesting fish.
The Ngugom’s, as we learned the family was called, served us a feast of fish, soup, vegetables and rice. We ate sitting on the floor with them and their two children, communicating without language and laughing at our different eating styles. That night they put us up, and the next morning refused to take the money we offered.
I wondered afterwards how many Americans would do the same for foreign travelers in the U.S. Then I remembered the summer a couple dozen Latvians descended on Livingston. After the jobs they were promised fell through, the community came together to help them find host families and work. Perhaps the most significant differences between Vietnam and the U.S. are not the most important.
On the road again
With the help of a damp rag, I found that my fever came down nicely. I was out of danger. Due to other symptoms, I couldn’t begin biking immediately. About those other symptoms - well, let’s just say my toilet paper consumption increased by several hundred percent. Thankfully, I was back on the road and back to normal (in the most important sense of the word) after a short recovery period.
Biking or traveling isn’t always easy. Things break, people fall ill, and sometimes one simply cannot communicate. However, I find it’s always easier to fall into an outhouse than a rut. Every day I see the sun rise on a different horizon. The scenery, people and food all change. Perhaps the challenges make me tougher, but the sense of achievement suffices for satisfaction. If the accomplishment also results in successfully ordering some food or a smile, I’ll consider it icing on the cake.

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