on the gravity of people-to-people travel:

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It’s just been 24 hours into my third visit to Iran and I am reminded of why this lovely country keeps pulling me back again and again. The warmth, hospitality, and smiling faces of the people just overwhelms any visitor. You get invites from people you are standing in queue with to visit their homes, food stalls force you to take food (and refuse to accept payment), people go out of their way to help you. Everyone thanks you (with obvious sincerity) for visiting their country. The Iranians are heart-warmingly nice to visitors from an outside world that only treats them with suspicion.  - A. Chatrath

1. POMEGRANATES & CAVIAR:
I met Mr. Chatrarth in the mind-numbing heat of Ho Chi Minh City in May of 2014.  I had been traveling through Vietnam with the same group of strangers for 11 days, and now it was time to say goodbye to a few.  Farewells and hugs were exchanged over breakfast, my new friends becoming e-mail addresses and faceless pen pals.  You meet people and you say goodbye to those people and the world keeps spinning.

There’s a bus heading to Cambodia and we’re on it.  The friends we left behind replaced with new faces, I’m wondering how these new faces will fit into our already established cliques.  Listen, nothing brings people together like close-quarter-bus-travel in exotic countries and squat toilets.  We all became fast friends.  So it goes.  A week later Mr. Chatrath and I are staying up too late drinking beers at a rooftop bar in Bangkok, speaking about future travels, pre-eulogizing a life altering trip. The next morning were sharing a taxi to Suvarnabhumi Airport. I’m going home, he’s moving on.

Mr. Chatrath is from Delhi, a quitter and a wanderer, a traveler to the grave.  I don’t know him well, but I’m curious.  I think he’s in his mid-thirties.  His passport is packed with Visas Americans will never have to apply for.  We keep in touch.  He says he’s eventually going to go home to find a new job, but then he pops up in Ethiopia, I see a selfie from Patagonia, now he’s in France.  As I write this he’s finishing up his third trip to Iran.  Yes, that Iran.  That country seemingly populated by faceless terrorists that want to destroy the world.

His name is Anurag.  He has friends in Iran.  I met him in Vietnam and now I have a friend in India.  Where is everybody?

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2. NINETY MILES TO CUBA:
In the quiet early days of October 2012 I went to Cuba and it was everything I wanted it to be and it was everything I was told it wouldn’t be.  I had been dreaming about Cuba for years.  So close and romantic and dangerous and completely irresistible, it was just right there.  I thought about flying to Mexico and going illegally, my friend Paul and I wrote up a business plan to export cigars post-embargo, but I went on a people-to-people trip and I’m so glad I did.

I’m here in Miami, our gateway to Latin America.  Our long running embargo and diplomatic silence is mostly due to the political pull of the elderly Cubans that live here.  They’re in power and they get the votes.  Some of my friends here weren’t too happy that I went there, they were angry.  The trip I took was heavily regimented but it put me in direct contact with the people that actually live their lives there.  I came home from Cuba more confused and excited than before I left.  People-to-people travel works.

The vast majority of Cubans living in Cuba are perfectly happy.  We’re told it’s a prison island, but it’s not.  It’s just different.  Some build rafts and risk their lives searching for a better life in America, but most are completely content.  They don’t have money and they covet foreign goods, but they’re living full lives, doing the best they can.  There are actual humans in these countries we isolate. 

I went to Cuba with a group of endlessly curious Americans.  I saw everything I could see in 11 days.  I drank rum with the locals and I remember them all, I hope they’re happy and doing well. Where is everybody?

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3. MEETING PEOPLE IS EASY:
One long restless night in May of 2011 I drank a bottle of wine, blindly bought a ticket to Guatemala and promptly fell asleep.  That’s the night I woke up.  I was off on my first real trip.  Alone.

I met amazing locals and expats in the town squares and cafes of Antigua.  You can meet like minded people everywhere you go.  I felt safe.  Anurag has been to Pakistan and Iran, I’ve been to Cuba, we have friends there, friends we’ll have for life.  It’s the same everywhere you go, people are people.  We think about the governments of these countries and their skewed public personas far too much, we forget about the people, this is all about the people. If more Americans realized Iran is a country of 80 million warm-blooded humans and not 80 million hard line politicians, well…that would help.  The world would be a better place.

I’ve been to backpacker bars and I’ve stayed in nice hotels.  I’ve been alone and concerned, isolated and content, always surrounded by people.  Where is everybody?

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4. A SORT OF FERMI PARADOX:
At some point during a typical mid-work lunch in 1950 the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi turned to his peers and asked, “where is everybody?”  His lunch mates confused, he was talking about aliens.  The thinking being there’s been so much time, so many opportunities for life to happen.  It makes no sense that we have no evidence of intelligent life in the universe. 

There are all these countries and cultures out there, why are there none like us?  Is it our relative newness that makes us feel exceptional and isolated?  Why don’t more Americans have passports?

We’re violently brought into this world and we hope to leave it peacefully.  We have all this time in between to try to make it worthwhile and good.  Everyone is just doing the best they can.  That’s about it.  The world is not a scary place but it’s better when you have people around you.  It could be your wife, husband, sibling or friend – it could be someone you met on the road, a future pen pal, some person out there in the world that shares your belief that this planet is a big, beautiful place that demands exploring.

Where is everybody?  They’re right over there and they’re just like us.

Vietnam, day nine pt.1: apocalypse now

flight to saigon

Sunday, May 11th 2014:

What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better reexamine our reasoning. -  Robert Strange McNamara

Keeping your eyes gently closed, close your eyes tightly.  Wake up and eat your breakfast and get on the bus.  We’re on our way to Da Nang International Airport for the short flight to Ho Chi Minh City, it will always be Saigon to us.

The flight was delayed, five hours to kill.  Frankie and Kevin decided to leave the airport to catch a taxi to the beach, but I wasn’t in the mood to have to deal with security twice.  I ate some Burger King and milled about.  A coffee here, some souvenir shopping there, sleeping on the floor for an hour behind a closed ticket booth.  I’m an expert at wasting time at airports.  The flight is called and we’re on our way to Saigon.

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Let’s jump right in.  We collect our bags and get on a bus straight to the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes.  I’m not sure how to write about this.  I’m the sole American traveling with a group, we’ve just been plopped down in Ho Chi Minh City and our first experience is this.  On the short bus ride over I can hear some talk about the Vietnam war (known as The American War here, of course) and I’m feeling singled out.  The museum is fascinating.  It’s strange to be on the other side of history, I feel lucky to be here, I feel disgusted and ashamed.

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I’m walking up and down stairs looking at every exhibit. Photos, propaganda, war prizes, every image worse than the last…It’s a lot to take in and I don’t feel like getting into it, but I will say this: If you are an American you should seek out things that make you uncomfortable about your heritage.  It’s important to hear and see both sides, you’ll be suprised how gentle people are with you.  They’ll ask you how you feel.  Tell them.  They’re interested and only want to meet you.  The world is not a scary place.

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The next stops are Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica and  Saigon Central Post Office.  We’re in the middle of the city now.  Tree lined parks and French architecture, the whole history of Vietnam clashing with neon skyscrapers in the distance.  The Post Office is beautiful and I spend some time pacing around taking photos.  Out front a group of teenagers corner me asking me where I’m from…USA? Wow, can we practice our English with you?  I pose as some curiosity for photos and they ask me if I think Vietnamese girls are beautiful.  People cram in to the American coffee shop across the way, the park nearby is filling with students protesting China’s presence in the South China Sea.  This is a new Vietnam.

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I’m back on the bus heading to the hotel, the Family Inn Saigon.  It’s a perfectly decent hotel, but maybe the worst of the trip.  Prostitutes are lined up next to the bodega across the street, buildings blocking out any remaining sunlight.  Let’s take a minute to process where we are, let’s unpack and clean ourselves up, let’s go out tonight alone and see this corner of the world.

Vietnam, day eight: sweating in the south china sea

hoi an south china sea

Saturday, May 10th 2014:

Let’s pull ourselves out of bed.  There isn’t much on the agenda, but we only have one more day in Hoi An so let’s make the most of it.  I climb into the bathtub two feet off the ground and spend a good twenty minutes staring into the showerhead.  If I was home this would be a pajamas, Netlix and ordering Chinese sort of day.  There’s no time for that.  I’m downstairs, today’s buffet is by the pool.  Nothing is appealing.  I eat a banana and some pineapple slices, pour a few cups of scalding coffee past my chapped lips, and that’s it.  Splash some water on your face.  Let’s have some fun.

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I’m in an alley out behind the hotel filling a beach cruiser’s tires up with air.  It’s still early. Eight of us signed up for this bike ride to the beach.  We all slather on sunscreen while Kevin and Frankie put on their souvenir hats.  It’s hot and it’s only going to get hotter.  Testing the brakes, wobbling back and forth, everything seems all right.  We’re heading out to the quiet streets of Hoi An.  Everyone is starting to feel comfortable after a few minutes. The breeze feels wonderful.  The concrete gives way to dirt paths, the pho shops and hostels giving way to rice paddies and the horizon.  BOOM!  Matt’s rear tire gives out riding through a particularly rocky patch of road.  I’m thinking the worst, there is no way we’ll be able to fix this out in the middle of this desert.  Out of nowhere a man appears from a hut just down the road and he’s flagging us down, pumps and tape ready to help.  Welcome to Vietnam.  We sit in the shade sipping water waiting patiently for the repair.

hoi an south china sea

A few more miles of pedaling and we’re at Cua Dai Beach.  We lock up the bikes and walk over to the sand.  Everything seems quiet and slow, it’s about 94 degrees and rising.  A towel is set up as we throw down our backpacks, the guys all push back sweaty hair, the girls are pulling down jean shorts, expertly positioning towels, sliding into bathing suits.  Time to swim.  I forgot to pack board shorts so I run up to a tent near the street to look for one.  I point to the first size small I see.  It’s small and black and made of tissue paper and only costs about $3.  I walk over to the showers and pass an old woman some coins so I can change into it.  Rip my shirt off.  I’m running down the beach, splashing in the South China Sea.  It feels amazing.  The realization is better than the anticipation.

south china sea ho an beach

My legs adjust immediately, but it takes willpower to dunk my head under the water.  Once my body temperature is equalized…I’m loving this, wondering why I don’t go swimming in the ocean every day.  That’s when the first jellyfish swam past.  Then another swims past and I’m done.  I toss some more coins to the woman at the shower and change back into my clothes.  The shade under these palm trees is looking good to me now.  It’s time to buy a Tiger beer from a local’s cooler and do some reading, push my toes deep in the sand.  The Quiet American here on the noisy beach.

water buffalo hoi an vietnam

Back on the bicycles.  It’s about 10 miles to the freezing embrace of the hotel.  After about twenty minues Elaine is struggling behind me, her front tire keeps digging into the dirt path, she seems to be having trouble with the brakes.  It’s 103 degrees.  We all pull over and try to find shade as I slather on another layer of sunscreen.  The group splits up, Lam stays with her to wait for a car and I’m soldiering on back to the hotel with four others.  I’m in my room barely able to breathe.  I can’t remember the last time I had a sunburn but I can see one forming on my shoulders, my farmer’s tan creating a permanent t-shirt on my skin.

I need a minute.  I wake up from a nap sticky and smelling of coconuts, I’m exhausted and over it.  I’m walking down the street looking for an Indian restaurant I can’t find.  I sit back in a cafe near the hotel and order sauteed chicken with morning glory, a mug of fresh beer.  It takes forever.

artbook hoi an vietnam

I find a spot near my hotel room door that allows me to talk to Marissa for a bit on the telephone, she’s eleven hours back in time.  I’m two hours late for my fitting so I run downstairs and hail a taxi that can only take me so far.  I get let out near the old quarter, I have to walk the rest, no cars allowed.  I have a new pair of shorts for $15, exact replicas of the ones I bought for $80 in Miami.  I go looking for a quiet somewhere to wait out the sun.  I find Artbook, a really cool bookstore and cafe.  I buy a book and upstairs I talk to the owner about graphic design, he brings me a can of Tiger beer.  A waitress comes over and asks if she can practice her English with me, she looks about 12.  The sun is setting over Hoi An, I pay my tab, I go downstairs, I brush the sweat off my forehead, I take a photo, I’m feeling new.

hoi an vietnam

hoi an vietnam

I feel like walking.  Way too many photos are taken from the bridge of the sun setting over the river, of the fake flowers glowing for the Buddha’s birthday, of the motorbikes rolling by.  I begin the long walk home, buying a can of seaweed-flavored Pringles and a bottle of water on the way.  This is my dinner.  My eyelids flutter shut and I’m dreaming of Saigon.

Vietnam, day seven: the tailors of hoi an

dancers in hue

Friday, May 9th 2014:

6:00AM.  I feel good about this new schedule I’m on, all of a sudden I’m a morning person.  I’m in dirty clothes picked off the floor and carelessly thrown on, downstairs for breakfast.  I sit at a table by myself for a quick meal, I’m not ready for socializing.  Fried potatoes, various fruits and crude oil coffee.  I head back to my room for a pointless shower, the heat is here to stay, there’s no sense in getting primped for a long bus ride, but… I shove everything I have into my ever-expanding backpack and I’m in the elevator, ready to move on.  This is when things start to get hazy.  I stopped taking notes.  I’m piecing things together through photographs for the next two days.  It’s 8:00AM.  It’s time to leave Hue.  Let’s go to Hoi An.

beach on the way to hoi an vietnam

I’m comfortably content on the bus.  I have an entire row to myself, the air-conditioner clicks on and off and I’m constantly thumbing the vent.  I’m listening to Bob Dylan as my head rocks against the window to the beat of the bumpy road.  “It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away.”  After two hours of nothing the ocean comes shining meth blue through the left windows and we’re all wide awake.  We stop for twenty minutes at a desserted beach resort, everything is under construction.  Those chinese tourists are sure to come a few years down the line, right?  I walk down to the beach and kick off my shoes.  I just want to feel the water on my feet.  Now I’m in the shade ordering an espresso, excited about Hoi An, I’ve heard nothing but amazing things.  Let’s keep going.

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danang fishing boats vietnam

This bus could be a tomb.  We’re weaving back and forth through the hills, slamming on the brakes for passing cars, racing higher and higher into the mountains.  One misstep and we’d be tumbling down into the ocean.  That would be it, at least the view would be great.  Luckily the bus stops at Hai Van Pass, an overlook stretching over the Anaamite Range above the South China Sea, on the border of Da Nang and Thura Thien-Hue Province.  We disembark to a crumbling village of make-shift huts and aggresive souvenir hawkers, this is a busy stop.  I walk up to the highest point and I can see the ocean this way and that way and all around, it’s really incredible.  Concrete  gun emplacements riddled with bullet holes litter the mountanside.  It’s hard to imagine the war here, it’s so beautiful, but remnants of bloodshed are everywhere you step.  I take some photos and get back on the bus.  We have one more photo-op on the way to Hoi-An.  It’s just a quick stop to see the thousands of fishing boats clogging the harbor in the next town.  The stench of rotting fish is strong.  We’re getting close.

hot pot hoi an biere larue

street hawkers in hoi an vietnam

We finally roll into town in the mid-afternoon and check in to the Phu Thinh Boutique Resort & Spa.  It’s a lovely, beach town hotel.  It would fit in perfectly to any beach-side town in any country you placed it.  I walk up three floors to my room, throw my bags down, wash my face, take a sip of water, and we’re walking down the street to the old quarter for lunch, The Mermaid Restaurant & Grill.  They advertise themselves as being the first restaurant in Hoi An.  I have some Vietnamese seafood hot pot and a cold local beer.  I couldn’t be happier.

It’s time to get aquainted.  It’s a small town, streets in a grid, a river crosses through the busiest part making it easy to find your way around.  We check out a lantern shop and wait around to see a traditional music and dance performace.  I position myself on a plastic stool next to the closest fan, nodding off, the music echoes through my brain as the heat echoes through my blood.  (OOF.  That was a poetic stretch.)

buddhist temple hoi an vietnam

I’m trying to walk on the shadier side of the street, I can’t express to you how god damn hot it is.  We stop at a Buddhist temple for 20 minutes and I take full advantage.  It’s so quiet and relaxing, crazy spirals of incense create drifts of smoke that flood the hallways.  Mr. Phong sits at his desk doing paperwork, even Buddhist temples have their busy work.  Now it’s just a quick walk over to see the famous Japanese covered bridge, constructed in the early 1600s.  Let’s meet the famous tailors of Hoi An.  Everyone has been looking forward to this.  We have photos, drawings, measurements and plenty of cash.  It’s known that you can have anything made for cheap in Hoi An and it will be ready to pick up the following day.  I packed light so I get fitted for a pair of shorts at Yaly to replace the pair currently disentegrating around my waist.  Now it’s time to go back to the hotel to cool off, I’m drenched.

banh mi hoi an vietnam

lanterns hoi an vietnam

It’s dark.  I walk to the bar at the back of the hotel to have my first glass of wine of the trip. It’s hard to find good wine in this part of the world, this one is sugary and tastes like juice, but it’s welcomed.  I have an hour to kill before my friends are ready and waiting for me in the lobby.  I pass the time missing and texting Marissa.  We all meet up and walk back to the old quarter to Morning Glory Restaurant, street-style food in an upscale dining room.  Mango salad, a pork banh mi, and two giant Biere Larues.  I really liked this restaurant and I recommend it.

hoi an vietnam lanterns

It was getting late so everyone paid their tabs and went back to the hotel.  Kevin, Frankie and I decided to hang back and check out the other side of town. Children in conical hats sell lanterns to float on the water, motorbikes gently weave through the crowd across the bridge, Dr. Dre and A$AP Rocky blare from the tourist dives, the lantern stalls are all lit up.  We wanted to try Bia Hoi, a local specialty.  Fresh beer, brewed daily, about ten cents a mug.  We happily chugged down our pints as an old woman tried her hardest to sell us wooden whistles.  1 for $1.  2 for 1$.  5 for 1$. 10 for 1$!  Stumble back to bed.

Vietnam, day six pt.2: little don quixote

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Thursday, May 8th 2014:

The cross I carry is mine.  I found it in the dirt.  I don’t wear it on the southside, but I wear it where it hurts.  When I go back to Spain, with brains splat on my shirt…I’m going to change my name.  I’m selling all I own. - Stavros Polentas

Here I am.  The sun is relentless.  Sweat pours down my chest making grey salt deposits all over the front of my shirt, tiny maps appearing on my disappearing stomach.  Time to get back on the bikes.  I’m ready to be piloting my own now, for a moment I could just break away.  I would point it towards the Central Highlands, to Laos or Burma, dropping my backpack a mile down the road, lines of a well-lived-life quickly forming on my face.  I’m here on the back of this bike in Hue.  My driver weaves down narrow dirt paths passing palm trees and forest, we bend to the left and to the right, the wind whips past and I close my eyes, children run up to scream “HELLO!” and give high fives.  Every small farm house in the distance flies the flag of Vietnam next to the flag of the long gone Soviet Union.  I’m here, now.

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1:00PM.  We stop at a quiet Buddhist temple in the middle of nowhere for lunch.  Monks sit stoically in their saffron robes smiling for camera clicks as we file past to the open air dining room.  Puffy crackers dipped in a mushroom, lime, chili and herb mixture with shredded vegetables, carrot and pumpkin soup, fresh spring rolls, tofu curry with sweet rolls, fried rice and faux-pork, sticky rice sesame squares for dessert.  A completely vegetarian meal.  We all agree it’s the best meal of the trip as we scavenge the surrounding tables for seconds.  I lick sticky something-or-others off my finger tips and it’s time to move on.  Black storm clouds are quickly moving in, blotting out the sun.

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I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam – that a woman’s voice can drug you; that everything is so intense. The colors, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived.Graham Greene

The motor kicks on and I ride the bike out to the crowded, busy streets.  Everything begins to fade away at once.   One left turn and it’s a straight arrow to the countryside.  The world is being unwrapped before my eyes as the rice paddies multiply.  We pull over a few times to take photos of makeshift walkways and nothing at all.  The rain starts to come down and we stop for cover in a small village.

Under an ancient bridge beautiful, elderly women pull their legs up beneath themselves.  Conical hats, long poles balancing produce, wooden sandals, traditional dress.  We sit quietly for an hour waiting out the storm.  The rice fields just past the river are on fire; everthing coated in smoke.  Our drivers pull out ponchos and everyone gets suited up.  I decide not to wear one.  I feel like getting soaked.  We fly through the countryside, dirty water kicking up all over the back of my legs, past crumbling temples and past rivers full of rotting boats.  The city comes back in to focus and I’m back at the hotel.  I tip my driver and go up to my room.

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Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.Miguel de Cervantes

I take a shower, open the window, and drink a warm Huda beer from the minibar as the clouds begin to clear.  I take a 20 minute walk down to the river and cross the bridge to Dong Ba Market.  It’s a labyrinth of souvenirs, home goods, vegetables, fresh fish, and guts.  An old women grabs me by my arm and leads me to her booth, the same booth she’s occupied for decades.  This is what I want.  I want to be fed.

Everything is delicious.  Plate after plate, bowl after bowl, nothing but the most incredible, unknown flavors, the smells are indescribable.  She keeps bringing out food until I make the universal sign of being stuffed, rubbing my stomach and contorting my face like I’m about to pass out.  The last bite of mystery meat I eat tastes too foreign to me and I’m done.  I hand over a few dollars and leave, stopping for a minute at a bookstore on my way back to the hotel.  I want to Google “exotic meats vietnam” and eat some Pepto-Bismol.  There is nothing to worry about.  It’s 9:15PM and everything is wonderful.  Goodnight.

Vietnam, day six pt.1: king mark approximately

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Thursday, May 8th 2014:

If there is here revealed a capacity to shock, to startle the lifeless ones from their profound slumber, let us congratulate ourselves; for the tragedy of our world is precisely that nothing any longer is capable of rousing it from its lethargy.  No more violent dreams, no refreshment, no awakening.  In the anesthesia produced by self-knowledge, life is passing, art is passing, slipping from us: we are drifting with time and our fight is with shadows.  We need a blood transfusion. - Anais Nin, 1934

6:30AM.  The sun is peeking through the blinds so I rip them wide open, I’m awake with purpose.  I go down to the second floor of the hotel for a quick breakfast.  Boiled potatoes, watermelon, canteloupe, and coffee.  It could be any other day: wake up, eat, get to work.  But it’s not any other day, I’m further away from those other days than I’ve ever been, isolated on the other side of the world, surrounded by the immensity of it.  I go back to my room to pack some things in a tote: sunscreen & sunglasses.  I’m across the street buying a bottle of water.  I’m in the lobby ready for the day.  It’s 8:00AM in Vietnam.

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We take a walk down to the Perfume River to get on a dragon boat.  These aren’t the elegant dragon boats of the past.  No rowers, no intimacy with the river, there’s nothing romantic about them.  The word “TOURIST” is painted on the side of each.  We’re enclosed in glass, there are tables of souvenirs ready to be sold, the motor gently pushes us up river. We sit in plastic chairs as an elderly woman rocks gently in a hammock near the back, her caged bird sits silent, I can’t wait to disembark.  The boat docks and we walk up the stone steps to Thien Mu Pagoda.  It’s brutally hot.  I take a photo of some Chinese tourists taking a photo and move on to the Buddist temple directly behind it, getting away from the group.  There’s the car Thich Quang Duc, the famous Buddhist monk, drove on his way to self-immolating in protest outside of the Cambodian embassy in Saigon.  It’s displayed along with a plaque near the rear of the temple.  I find a tree to sit under for a few minutes, take a drag of water.  It’s completely silent, incense smoke wafts up around my ears, tucks in filling my nose and I don’t want to get away from it.  It feels peaceful here.

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This is no longer a vacation.  It’s a quest.  It’s a quest for fun.  You’re gonna have fun, and I’m gonna have fun… We’re all gonna have so much fucking fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles.Clark Griswold, 1983

It’s time to get on a motorbike.  We all knew this was coming, some of us were excited, the majority are hesitant.  There are 17 of us, 17 drivers, 17 motorbikes.  We pick keys out of a bag and find the corresponding bike.  Shake hands with your driver for the day.  I loosen the straps on my helmet to fit over my gigantic head and we’re off.

My driver stoically kicks the motor on and heads straight into traffic, my knuckles are already white, the left hand grabbing his shoulder, the right wrapped tight around the seat.  It’s a quick introduction, only about 5 minutes and we’re visiting a local incense maker.  I buy a bag of freshly rolled cinnamon-scented incense and I’m excited to get back on the bike.  I’m already loosening up, my left hand on my knee, my right on the handle behind the seat.  We swerve down narrow dirt roads to a lookout point 10 minutes away.   Here is the Perfume River.  This is how a creator would have wanted it to be seen.  Smoke rises from a distant rice paddy, wooden skiffs barely move down river, the trees greener than any green I’ve seen before, the brightness and contrast of actual life turned up to a cinematic level.  A path leads this way, a path leads down to the river.  Abandoned military barracks are behind me riddled with bullet holes washed to perfect circles from rain.  Local teenagers giggle and kiss.  Back on the bikes.

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The next stop is the tomb of Tu Duc, the fourth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam, reigning from 1847 to 1883.  It’s mid-afternoon, this is as hot as it will get.  We walk under the shadows of the walls, past the man-made lake, past Luong Khiem palace to the rear of the complex.  Here is his actual tomb, elaborate and exposed, no relief from the heat.  A local woman in a conical hat dries chili peppers in the sun.  Everyone buys popsicles and we eat them in the shade.  I buy a book about Ho Chi Minh from the gift shop.  Just resting now.  Time to cool down.