Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Walking with myself
Today is the 4th day (is that all??!) that I've been on my own here, figuring out where and what to eat, eating alone, dong managing (that's the currency, but, oh, I never tire of the puerile jokes), filling the hours of the day, and holding back tides of anxiety that make me feel like I should always be doing something more or other than I am. One voice in my head says, you should be out there, in there, EXPERIENCING stuff all the time. But the other voice says, no, that's the tourist impulse, to collect and fetishize experience, to skim across and sail around the daily rhythms of life in a place that is, after all, to the people who live here, ordinary, home. There's no avoiding the sensation and the fact of being strange, of course, and I can't make myself at home here, but I can try, well, to live deliberately, to be both self-reliant and alert to the moments of connection that come unbidden and pass so quickly. But unlike Thoreau, I want right now less to get away and more to come back, to be a little less in my head: I want to be a swinger of birches, not a hoer of beans.
And so I have been taking walks. The first day, down the hill, through the outskirts of town and into one small village after another, then back up into town the other way, men staring and some glaring, women smiling and waving, children waving and shouting "hello goodbye." See, that wasn't so bad? The next day, a little more courage is required to take the major road going the other way, following as it narrows and begins to climb into the hills. I pass a Hmong family and their pony: stares all around, and one shy smile. Where am I going so purposelessly and why am I not carrying anything? Why am I so sweaty?
The third day, a little more courage still. I stop at a cafe that says they have tourist information, but all they really have is a hand-drawn, 4th-generation xerox of a map, with three things in the legend: Bac Ha, the Hoang Yen Cafe, and The Road. Not helpful, but I take it anyway. I decide I can do the Ban Pho village loop, the walk that I did with Thanh last week and that all tourists do when they come here for their one day because I think I remember the way. But there will be no one else here this early in the week. When I get to Ban Pho I pass the turn that makes the loop and just decide to keep going a little bit, following the road as it begins to switchback up the mountain, opening views of terraced rice fields and small stands of corn on the high slopes. At the top of the pass where the road turns to mud there is a village of a few Hmong houses and a scary dog, so I turn back: about time anyway, as it's taken me over and hour to get here and I don't have much water. I keep thinking, I've always wanted to be the kind of person who can do this, but mostly I feel like I'm pretending -- or practicing? -- to be her.