(I just found this blog entry from July – that I never posted. So here it is. More to come, I promise.)
(Phoenix, Arizona) – When I’m tired or sad or just a little pissed, I judge those parents who let their kids watch iPad movies at restaurants. I judge those people who run with headphones. I judge the folks who talk to me with one ear bud in, one ear bud out.
But even in my the-whole-world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-digital-handbasket mindset, I know it’s not really about them. I don’t even really think they’re doing anything wrong. I’m the one who’s angry that I can’t turn my mind off.
I remember sitting at a table eight years ago. I was waiting for a class to start, and I was knitting a soft, purple scarf. I looked up and saw a guy I knew. And he smiled at me. And I was nervous, but I also felt at home. I didn’t know then we would never make out again, but maybe I did. For a moment, I was OK with it all. I still am. That smile of his is always going to stick with me, maybe because I was so present in that moment.
I regret nothing. Not the dudes I dated or the dumb things I’ve said or the times I tried to grab the reigns of a situation I should have just let be. I just wish I had been awake for more of it, less worried, less stuck in my head, not paralyzed into distraction by what could be.
I want to keep in touch with my friends better. I want to have three books going at once. I want to live each day with my heart and hands, not my head. I want to be running. Well, at least one I can solve this morning.
(Phoenix, Arizona) — Somewhere new, that is. It’s been so long since I’ve written, I know, and I don’t blame you if you haven’t stopped by in a while. But I’m crawling out of my skin to write something that is entirely my own. I never thought that would be the byproduct of no longer working in newspapers, but it is. For me.
After nearly eight years in print, I’ve moved to radio, you see. I love my job — love it — as a senior field correspondent (read: reporter who gets to do in-depth stories) at KJZZ, the NPR affiliate for Phoenix. My position is a mixture of observation, explanation and performance, and it feels so right. I have great editors, too, who are very hands-on, which is fabulous.
I must confess, though, that I miss the South, more than I thought I could. I quaintly believed when I started writing this five minutes ago that I missed newspapers, that I missed the Wild West attitude of the daily deadlines and dicey forays into small-town politics. There’s beauty in all of that, but that’s not really it. I miss Waynesville, North Carolina, the last town I lived before here. I spent two and a half years in those mountains, and it was not all puppy dogs and rainbows. But it was deeply satisfying and continually sweet, and I made more friends there than I’ve made anywhere in my life. I miss the potlucks, the contra dancing, the kind words from people who read my stories but had never met me. I felt embraced, and now as that feeling slowly leaves me, I’m reminded how potent it was.
Anyway, Phoenix is a melting pot, a vibrant place with more stories and people and food options than I could ever hope for. I’m as lucky as all get out to live here, and in my heart I always knew I couldn’t stay in North Carolina forever. Oh, but I miss it. I really do, and I carry it with me every day.
These are just words, though. Hopefully, the work I did there every day means more than this slim summing up. Like most things good, you just kind of had to be there.
OK, Phoenix. I’m here, and I’m ready.
(Hanoi, Vietnam) — Right now I’m hiding out in my hotel room as I escape the heat, motorbikes, aggressive vendors and endless ways to spend money that Hanoi is known for. This is by far my favorite big city in Vietnam, but it’s still better taken in small bites than giant gulps. I was out this morning, and I’ll spend hours out there this evening, but for now, it’s nice to be sequestered.
I officially have less than a week to go, and I’m in a funny place about it. Part of me is happy to get back to my North Carolina life, as I really cherish my jobs and friends there. Being here reminds me how special it is to feel included in something.
Another part of me, however, wants to ride off into the wild blue yonder. My mind keeps replaying the final moments of that early ’90s travelogue flick Captain Ron (really). The feather-light comedy follows a family sailing around the world. In the beginning, they can’t wait to get off their boat. But by the end, they find they can’t leave. When they reach their final destination, which they’ve been talking about the whole trip, they just keep on sailing — and continue farther off the grid. The movie probably isn’t anything to write home about, but I saw it when I was 9, and thinking about that ending tableau still makes me smile.
Please understand me. I’m not staying in Vietnam. But being here is a reminder that the world is so big. In my American life, the weeks and months blend together, but here every day is another reality. I love my North Carolina routine, but here I’m busted out of it, and it’s such a pleasure that I’m involuntarily biting my lower lip as I write this. I have this itch, this constant hunger to travel. Even here, I often feel better on a plane or a train than I do sightseeing. I love moving forward and constantly finding somewhere new. Sometimes I feel like I need that to live. I don’t know if that’s a gift or a disability.
Anyway, I recently returned from two spots: the mountain town of Sapa and the coastal getaway of Ha Long Bay. Both were fairly equal parts incredible and tiring, and at both I felt incredibly lucky, as I have nearly every day of this trip.
Tucked away in the far northern mountains, this remote spot was a real mix rustic quaintness and out-and-out touristy capitalism. For visitors these days, the thing is to go “trekking,” which basically means hiking through areas that aren’t completely geared toward it. On the way, you see a world of rice paddies and bright green terraced farming open up in front of you as women from the local villages plead with you to by their handicrafts. To make matters a bit more complicated, you absolutely need them as you slip-slide down slick, muddy hills. Then, when you reach the bottom, you’re so happy to be safe, that you kind of don’t mind spending more money than you should on embroidered purses, earrings and bracelets that you don’t need.
At least that was me. Sapa was one of those places I was hankering to see from the moment I spotted it on a map while on the plane, and I was so strangely pumped up about it that when I got there I couldn’t help but be let down by its introduction. That first morning, after an overnight train ride and a rough bus haul, I ate a mediocre buffet breakfast at my hotel and then was whisked down a steep trail to a little minority village. The place, which had concrete sidewalks and a gift store that blasted traditional music, felt more like one of those living-history villages that recreate the colonial times than a town where people actually lived. I felt sad and ultimately a little responsible for it all, and when our guide sort abandoned us on the walk back up, I didn’t even care.
The next day, however, the world was all new again during my soggy 6-mile trek. Maybe it was the sleep, but I felt renewed. My guide, named Shum, was sweet and hilarious, and she kept warning my group not to step in the “buffalo chocolate.” Perhaps best of all, I met Steph and Tyson, Australian journalists I would randomly run into again less than a week later in Hoi An. We talked for hours as we walked through the rain with our ponchos and rubber boots. The scene was so simple, really, just chatting and walking forward through mud and drizzle, but it might have been my favorite time on my entire trip. I can close my eyes and be back there instantly.
That night, we slept in a guesthouse in the middle of some remote village. I hung out with the group and listened to tales told by a retired Czech lady and her English husband and tried to learn a new card game. That was unsuccessful, but I did learn I can’t hold my rice wine. I ended up in my mosquito-net-festooned bed sicker than I ever have been. But, strangely, I was still in a good mood. I was in a haze but I still knew that my Vietnam experiences, nausea included, were all mine and would be mine forever.
Ha Long Bay
For me, doing nothing usually comes with a side of guilt. I’m not much for kicking back and taking it easy unless I’m in a heavy period of denial (not unheard of). So, I had gone back and forth about Ha Long Bay, a spectacular body of water dotted with craggy rock formations that tourists often use as a backdrop for heavy partying. I figured I didn’t need it, that I could leave that sort of laid-back thing to the folks who were better at it, or were at least looking for it. I thought I was immune to all that touristy relaxation stuff.
Like so many other times on this vacation and in my life, I was pleasantly proved wrong.
I ended up having a nice, decadent time on a nearly fancy junk I had booked sight unseen. I shared a kayak with an Irish doctor of a certain age and met an American college professor and his bubbly, sweet 12-year-old son. I delighted in the fact that my singleton suite had golden pillows, dark wood and a real shower (not just a shower head angled over the entire bathroom). I didn’t even mind that I had to put in earplugs to drown out the engine at night and that my bill for sodas and maybe two cocktails was $17. I was on vacation, and I felt it acutely.
The sole night I spent on the boat, there came a point when nearly everyone jumped off the second floor into the sea. I couldn’t pass that up. The brine was a comforting, almost-warm blanket, the perfect antidote to all the crowded streets and screaming motorbikes I’d been hearing for weeks. Lying back, I was in love with my salt water womb and the quiet darkness that surrounded me. People were talking and splashing not too far away, but I felt delectably alone.
For a few minutes, before all my mind chatter and worries returned, my head was wonderfully thoughtless. And I was just there, floating.
(Hanoi, Vietnam) — I don’t even know how to begin to explain this place. Hanoi is large, but it’s impossible to tell that as the streets are so tiny and dense with life that it seems impossible that they could go on for miles. I almost think it’s funny now that I found Ho Chi Minh City intense. Hanoi absolutely trumps it on that level. Here, on one little street, there will be bicyclists and pedestrians and a few small, pushy cars, not to mention people driving the wrong way on their motorbikes as they carry everything from their three children to a stack of mirrors (I saw the first instance, and someone told me about the latter). Every time I’m in the traffic, I marvel at how it works together so seamlessly, especially since people don’t use their brakes here. They use their horn instead. Near collisions are the norm, but surprisingly crashes don’t seem to be. I am in awe, even more than I was in Ho Chi Minh.
Must resist beautifully constructed tchotchkes...
The most exciting part about all this is that there is so much going on here that you get lost in the craziness. You are anonymous. I love it, and I had no idea how much I was craving that.
As a side note, last night I had to undergo a couple of painful, pricey rabies shots. They were ones I should have received seven days ago but was given bad advice at the time. Anyway, whatever. It’s all part of the adventure (and the part that will keep on giving for months — as I pay it off). The beautiful thing was how friendly and attentive the medical personnel were. One young guy talked to me about living in Colorado, where he did his studies, and when I asked him if he ever skied, he sort of brushed it off and explained it was too dangerous. When I told him the traffic seemed more dangerous here, he proudly said he’d never been in an accident. Again, the awe is kicking in.
It looks like this beehive will just be a stopover for me. I’m headed on a train to Sapa tonight, and when I get back I’m going to head off to Ha Long Bay for a few days. Part of me wants to sink into the craziness here, but I’ve got forces pulling me east and west. One of my doctors last night summed up Sapa by calling it “very beautiful and very weird.” I don’t really know what that means, but it sounds kind of perfect.
These kids looked like they were having a good time in Hoi An.
Well, I leave you with more pictures of Hoi An, my last stop. So far, that small town has been my favorite of the journey. It has a gentle feel to it, one that’s hard to describe but almost instantly palpable. One of the days I spent there I just rode a bike all across town, and that juicy bit of freedom was enthralling. I loved exploring little back alleys and small country roads and finding slices of life off the beaten path. I already miss the quiet, personal feel of the place, and I’m happy I’ll be there again soon.
Until I find another internet outlet, here are some more pictures of Hoi An.
This woman makes all kinds of pottery at her shop, a mile or so out of Hoi An.
I found this overgrown Chinese cemetery as I wandered around Hoi An on my rented bike.
This 90-year-old woman makes her living selling 50¢ ceramic animal whistles to tourists. Of course I bought a few.
These ruins at My Son (near Hoi An) were created by Javanese people centuries and centuries ago.
A couple looks into the ruins at My Son.