Monday, July 20, 2009

Adventure comes in small packages

This trip isn’t supposed to be about big adventure, though I keep finding myself writing about that. It’s supposed to be about small adventure: finding a place, staying here through good days and bad, though my mood whipsaws back and forth in intervals much shorter than a day. It’s about trying to live here instead of visit here. The exceptional moments become not the high mountain passes and motorcycle rides, but when people greet me on the street, when I’m invited to sit with their family for a meal.

Sunday market day comes around for the third time, and although I don’t have much desire to go back down into the bowels of it anymore, the pull is hard to resist: a flood of women in their best elaborate dresses, some sporting little high heels underneath, surly buffalo, ponies, men eagerly awaiting the day’s drinking and card-playing. I’m headed that way when I get pulled aside by a large-ish woman in a conical hat. I recognize her; she’s the woman who worked in the kitchen at the Cong Fu, older and more stubbornly more “country” than the other employees, she rarely said a word to me, only shaking her head at what I did or did not eat. Now she wants me to sit down at a table outside what I now realize is the Cong Fu Restaurant, around the corner from the hotel. So I do, and order a coffee. She wants to know if I’m alright, if it’s ok at the Sao Mai. I reassure her I’m fine and that the Sao Mai isn’t as nice as the Cong Fu but that I needed the internet in order to work. I don’t know how much of that went through, but it seemed to be the first step in healing from the slightly less than amicable divorce between the Cong Fu and me. When I ask her for extra hot water to lengthen my powerful Vietnamese black coffee, she just plunks the battered metal thermos on the table, as if to say, you know how to do this, you’re one of us, not some exotic bird who just arrived in town. Soon, on foot, motorcycle, and bicycle several other employees from the hotel come by to shyly say hello, even the manager, who’s brought the magical shield of his adorable daughter with him. Now I know I can stop by the hotel for tea and there will be no hard feelings. I smile and nod a lot like an idiot from a Flannery O‘Connor story, but it works.

Realizing I can get all the pleasures of the market from this perch without having to walk through the mud and smoke and smell and umbrellas poking me in the eyes (because I'm so tall!), I think I’ll just have another coffee, and when it arrives, two scruffy looking guys from the UK turn up and take seats opposite me at the long table. I’m so happy for the English-speaking company that I babble on and on, but soon we settle into a normal rhythm, and I learn that they are both doing year-long trips around the world, just seeing where it takes them. Ian, who’s older, close to my age, I guess, and more serious, has worked for years for NGOs in Africa, has so many interesting things to say about western interventions -- tourism or other forms -- in the developing world. I feel very much the country mouse in this situation; it’s almost unimaginable to leave my life behind and just go for a year. I know so little. Still, Ian is interested in how I’ve weathered my puny one-month experience. When he asks if I would do it again, I surprise myself by saying, yes, but if you had asked me three days ago I would have said definitely not. What’s changed?

I appear to have made friends, is what’s changed. At this café I help the seasoned travelers order their coffee and tea in Vietnamese, and when the hotel manager’s daughter comes up to me and smacks her hands on my legs, the guys say, wow, she’s very friendly. No, it’s that I know her, I say.

As hot afternoon turns to evening, I sit on my balcony and try to work a little, but there’s too much to look at: the tide of people from this morning reverses, having traded one load for another, families walk back up the hills toward home; tourists wander back to the hotel and wonder what to do for their remaining 12 hours in town. I can see into the Hoang Yen from where I’m sitting, and watch to see when they’ll put their family dinner on the table. If I go over now, I know they’ll invite me to join them, and I’ve already done that twice and don’t want to take advantage. I wish I knew which was more impolite: to just show up and be fed, or to be implicitly expected and not show up. What I’m doing -- sort of alternating -- is probably the worst strategy, but I don’t know what else to do.

I can see they’ve cleared the big round rice cooker and most people have gotten up from the table, so I head down the 4 flights of stairs and across the street. There’s an awkward moment when I walk in, and I realize that they could see me the whole time and must have been wondering what I was thinking. Did I not want to eat their food? It’s the opposite: I’m too embarrassed to accept more of their generosity.

By the end of the evening, an quiet equilibrium is reached. I’ve worked for an hour with Bon revising the draft of a list of their trekking services that he has amazingly produced, considering he has taught himself English from television and sheer necessity. I put a copy on my flash drive and tell them I’ll take it home and work on it. Nghe won’t let me pay for dinner, but he takes money for the beer. I promise to come tomorrow night to talk about it. They’re expecting me.

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