“I’ve had that kind of experience myself: I’m looking at a map and I see someplace that makes me think, ‘I absolutely have to go to this place, no matter what.’ And most of the time, for some reason, the place is far away and hard to get to. I feel this overwhelming desire to know what kind of scenery this place has, or what people are doing there. It’s like measles – you can’t show other people exactly where the passion comes from. It’s curiosity in the purest sense. An inexplicable inspiration.” – Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 (2011), p. 370
Cities, I’ve found, often look different from above than when immersed in them, walking their streets, at eye level. At night, from above, cities glow in a way that ground-walking men and women cannot understand – an image that is postponed to us until we are airborne. I looked down upon Tashkent in the evening and saw the various colored lights, wondering which ones had shone upon me previously. For some reason, I rarely remember leaving Seattle from the air, but I always remember arriving – the act of arrival. I remember the mountains and the city I know better than any other, tracing roads I’ve traveled countless times, recalling memories. Calcutta, I remember leaving – the Hooghly River winding through the city, the Victoria Memorial like a post-colonial stamp upon the city’s British-heavy history. Thinking of these past departures, I knew I would remember leaving Tashkent for the first time by air. I tried to find familiar roads and monuments but was unsuccessful in the stretching darkness. I didn’t know the city well enough yet, but I knew that I would feel as though I did upon arrival again in two-week’s time, if only to give myself a brief sense of pleasure. An old colleague of mine in Bangladesh once told me that a city never really feels like home until you return to it from somewhere else. While I have left Tashkent several times, I have not left Uzbekistan for the last three months. Perhaps it will feel more like home when I get back in two weeks. Perhaps not.
For some reason the airplane erupted in thunderous applause when we touched down in Bangkok. Were people not expecting to land? I’d never been on a flight that began clapping upon landing without a previous fear of some storm, turbulence or other airborne threat. In line to go through immigration, I opened Murakami’s gargantuan 1Q84. “If you really want to know what’s happening here and now, you’ve got to use your own eyes and your own judgement.” (p. 8) I looked up in line and saw vacationers in shorts, sandals and tank tops, ready for their beach getaways. A young girl in line next to me saw the size of the Murakami book and asked me what I was reading, an occurrence that was to happen several times throughout my trip. I told her what little information I knew of the author and book, trying to humor her and give us both a break from the mind-numbing tediousness of the forwardly-inching immigration line.
“Don’t you like English literature?” she asked, defending her state education.
“Sure,” I said, “but this author is really interesting.” She held the big book I handed her and almost dropped it, catching the attention of her mother standing next to her. “Do you like to read?”
“Oh yes,” she said, smiling. She pushed her glasses higher up the bridge of her nose. “I love English literature.”
“Very good,” I said. “What are you reading now?”
“Hard Times,” she said. “Dickens.” I thought about the title.
“Do you enjoy it?”
“Not really,” she confessed. We both smiled. The immigration officer called me forward.
“Nice chatting with you,” I said. “Enjoy Dickens.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said respectfully. I stepped forward and waited while Thai immigration looked me over. “I move, therefore I am.” (p. 41)
I was heading north, but first I needed to sleep for a little bit. I found some padded benches in the basement of the airport and crashed for a few hours, only to wake up and read a sign in red above me that read “Please no lying down on the benches.” I took the metro to the Mo Chit neighborhood where I caught a public bus to the bustling Mo Chit bus station. The stub the bus attendant gave me was smaller than a postage stamp and twice as thin. I wandered around the humming bus station for some time as I searched for the ticket office for Nong Khai. I was glad to be out of the international airport and far away from the tourist ghettos. The bus station was near howling with people coming and going, some sitting and chit-chatting, snacking on unfamiliar Thai foods wrapped in plastics. As I bought one of the last tickets for Nong Khai, the saleswoman told me that the bust might up to four hours late. That seemed really late, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t meeting anyone; I had no plans – I didn’t even have a hotel reservation.
“No problem,” I told her. “Things would simply take their course.” (p. 56)
I had four hours to kill so I sat down on what I found was the only available two square feet of free floor space in the station, nudged between a bag of trash and a concrete wall. I opened my book once more. “These people are your nameless friends for just a little while.” (p. 115) A boy sat down near me; his black duffle bag read: “Every day is Friday.” Today was, indeed, Friday. Aboard the bus, waiting to leave the station, a boy boarded and began handing out snacks on behalf of the bus company. Little stick-like crackers were trapped inside a tiny plastic sauce container, all sealed with an orange stripe that read “for you”. Fifty minutes late, the bus went backward before it went forward. While the bus plunged its way along the high overpasses of Bangkok, I looked out over the cityscape and again thought about cities at night and how things are less visible. It’s not that one can’t see a city at night – one just sees a different side or part of it. I thought about my last trip to Southeast Asia with my old roommate in Bangladesh and how we took night busses across Myanmar to save on accommodation costs, leaving us feeling restless and miserable in the surprisingly cold mornings. Given the ambiguity of our arrival time, who knew when we’d arrive to Nong Khai. In the middle of the night I woke to find a giant Buddha statue across the highway from a steamy refinery, puffing away, heaving heavy breath after heavy breath of smoke into the air. Buddha sat still.
The first glimpse of morning was a pink and orange horizon over a green canopy of trees and grass. It seemed bright compared to the dark night we had just driven through, but in reality, it was feint. Thirteen hours into the journey we passed a sign for Nong Khai, Thailand: 87 kilometers. After Udon Thani there was a red, octagonal stop sign on the road; written in Thai, it looked as though it read RUN backwards. Arriving into Nong Khai, I was bombarded by touts with “Hello Sir! Where you go? You go Lao? You Lao visa?” I ignored them and their offers for what may or may not have been a legitimate Lao visa. I jumped into yet another bus over the friendly-named Friendship Bridge and let the uniformed border guards put the visa in its place. In Vientiane, Laos, I met John, a 68-year-old western Australian who told me that his take on Seattle was that it was a city of high aspirations but low effectivity or efficiency. He said he thought the same principle applied to its people, so we chatted for a while. He’d spent seven years in India, ten in China and some time in Afghanistan, all years ago, so he had some stories. He had several empty tall bottles of Beerlao in front of him and a far-off look in his alcohol-infected eyes. “There were people in the world who wanted someone to talk to – about anything, no matter what.” (p. 217) It was nice to chat with John, even if just for a little bit, especially after I’d been, more or less, publicly silent for the last couple of days, aside from asking how to get from one place to another or where the toilet was. I was also glad to know that I would sleep in a bed that night and not a chair.
I liked Vientiane immediately. It was quiet, sleepy, interesting, warm, and just busy enough to keep a lone traveler occupied but not annoyed or overwhelmed. Paint scribblings on the wall of my room read: “Dream until your dream come true.” I looked at my outdated map of Laos and thought about dreams, then went for a walk along the boulevard adjacent to the calmly flowing Mekong River. Preparations were in place for the evening’s New Year’s celebrations, complete with waist-high explosives that would later propel applause-rendering firecrackers high into the night sky. No one was manning the control booth to which the explosives were connected. Couples and families were out, observing the pre-festivities, strolling with the setting sun. A lonely woman sat on the ground weaving together colorful string puppets and smiling little creatures that were no larger than a few inches long. I walked past booth after booth offering fresh fish, seafood and vegetables. The food looked inviting.
“Sabaidee,” a soft voice said to me. I turned to find a smiling young girl in a black shirt that read Sorry, I’m gay.
“Sabaidee,” I replied. She smiled. Both of our hands were pressed together lightly in respectful greeting.
“Please, weo-come,” she welcomed.
“Khop-jai,” I said, thanking her, but I had no plans of stopping.
“Bee-ah Lao,” she tried at last, advertising the nation’s lousy lager. I smiled and reflexively put my right hand over my heart, forgetting that I was no longer in Tashkent. Nearby, I found a working couple shin-deep in muddy water, plastic bags in hand, scanning the shallow Mekong waters for little fish. I passed by a temple with orange-clad young monks scattered about, sweeping, cleaning and doing various household chores. I felt out of place, almost intrusive, but then I realized that I was neither the first or last white guy to wander into a Buddhist Temple in Vientiane. I looked up and noticed the blue sky. “The air was startlingly fresh, and a stillness filled the surrounding space. It was a stillness so profound one had to adjust one’s hearing to it. The perfectly clear sky seemed to soar upward, and the warmth of the sunlight gently touched any skin directly exposed to it.” (p. 164)
“Excuse me,” one of the hairless monks said, “you English?”
“Namaste,” I said, gluing my palms together for a few seconds, “yes English,” I said, hoping for further conversation. It didn’t happen. Instead he simply showed me his Apple iPhone open to a Google Translate page. I looked at it. “We all find peace in the world,” it read; “some find it sooner than others.”
“Correct?” he asked.
“Sounds good to me,” I said. He smiled a shaved-headed smile, bringing out the brightness of his orange robe. “Photo?” I asked, touching my camera. He blushed then quickly stood to pose with two of his fellow monks.
New year’s was a loud affair with firecrackers blowing up in the streets, setting off car alarms with people dancing in circles like worshippers around nighttime bonfires. Santa-hatted Vietnamese girls bopped in the streets to poppy electronic dance music, their ball-ended, red and white Santa hats bobbing to the beats. I wandered around Vientiane the following day, not looking for anything in particular. I came upon one of many temples that scatter the small and walkable city. Its gates were open so I stepped inside. No attendants or dogs greeted me so I helped myself to walk around and enjoy its calm environment, stepping on large brown crunchy leaves that had fallen but had not yet been swept away. The bright colors of the temple walls, sides and railings contrasted sharply with the natural tones of the earth, the old trees sheltering statues of various Buddhas, some clothed in orange fabrics circling their waists. A school stood next door and I could hear the chatter of rambunctious children shouting and hollering in the nearby playground. Some were still in classes, though they seemed to be doing little. One boy was near the window and saw me approach. He ran over and said hello, waving a little hand. I said the same. He put up his hands in a respectful namaste, his arms and elbows resting on the window sill. His eyes peered out on either side of his clasped hands, giving the middle of his face a line that was soon torn apart when he ran back to class.
In Vientiane, I met Nuy, a friendly woman who had been working for the government’s Ministry of Science and Technology for ten years. She showed me around the city, pointing out some of Vientiane’s landmarks and places of interest, one of which had a sign on its green lawn: “no passing a grass”. We had coffee at a café near the city’s main boulevard, parallel to the Mekong River.
“Do you travelling to Laos?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, “It’s a nice place.”
“Ah, good you like.” We sipped our Lao coffees and discussed Luang Prabang, the old Lao capital. “Luang Prabang is nice. I like there and visited many times,” she said.
“Yes. You will like it. Small city. Peaceful and beautiful. People is friendly.”
“Did you book the accommodation? Any things I can help please tell me.”
“Oh thank you,” I said, “very kind of you.” I told her that I would probably just find something when I got there.
“Yes you can. Hope you have a good time and enjoy Luang Prabang.” If Laos had a friendly meter it would be off the charts.
My friend Dan described Vientiane as “a great place to lay low for a few days.” Lay low I did, reading, strolling, visiting temples and eating more than my fair share of delicious street food. But leaving Vientiane was bittersweet, too, though I was excited to continue north, my final destination still undecided. I boarded a sleeper bus to Luang Prabang with a sign that read “please don’t steal the blankets”. This was the first bus I’d boarded where everyone was required to remove their footwear before boarding. Little plastic bags were supplied upon entering so that passengers could carry their shoes and sandals on board, keeping the red padded floor clean and presentable. The sleeper bus seats reclined a near-180 degrees (165, I guessed), so they were significantly more comfortable than the chairs I rode in on. But ever since arriving in Laos I had been put in a rather euphoric state of mind. I would consider my situation and then this huge grin would immediately appear on my face. Sometimes I just couldn’t help it. It continued throughout my time in Luang Prabang, despite its being overrun by tourists. “She brought a positive attitude to just about any situation once she had made up her mind to do so.” (p. 409)
At 1am, the bus stopped at a roadside shack where passengers disembarked and fed on snacks, sodas and other empty calories. Dazed, I disembarked and stumbled toward the dwelling to see what was for sale.
“Sandwich?” I asked the apron’d salesman.
“No sandwich,” he said, “ice.” Did I hear that right? I furrowed my brow.
“Ice?” I asked, confused.
“Ice ice,” he repeated stubbornly, removing the grey metal lid from a steaming pot of rice. “Ice and soup,” he concluded.
“Oh, no soup,” I foolishly said as though I were the one selling it. I imagined the rest of the conversation in my head as I made my purchase: I’ll just eat a can of Pringles, instead. Thanks. There was water on the bus windows in the morning as we entered Luang Prabang, evidence that it had rained during the night. It was colder and cloudier, too – weather I hadn’t packed for. I met Paul, a lean German university student studying philosophy and economics who was on his way north to China. “It’s such an interesting country,” Paul told me, “and it’s so you-gh,” mispronouncing ‘huge’. We shared a tuk-tuk to town, followed by bah minh sandwiches and Lao coffee by the brown, slowly flowing Mekong River. The sun hadn’t risen and there was a kind of grey morning mist in the still air.
“Boat trip? One our-ah, two our-ah,” riverside touts touted one-hour and two-hour boat trips as we sipped our early morning coffees. It was 7am and the town was surprisingly awake. Paul and I shared simple pleasantries that travelers often share together, then we parted ways and I walked around town for a bit in an un-showered state, searching for accommodations. Physically, I’d call Luang Prabang a nice place, but I’d never come back during peak tourist season. Like locusts, tourists, such as myself, seemed to come in and consume everything in their path: coffee, noodles, space, time, cheap goods from China, etc. Aware of my participation in this consumption, I thought of the orange-robed monks who would walk the streets in the morning, collecting alms, carrying on the heritage and 700-year-long tradition that propelled the UN to knight this a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Did such labeling only further propel the tsunami of seasonal tourism? I wondered. I’ve heard that it’s the people that make up a place, not the place itself.
Florence was from Florence. An Italian woman of Nigerian descent, she lived in Paris and had been traveling the world for roughly nine months. We shared drinks at a café and asked each other questions about places of the world we had either visited, lived, or had hoped to. She told me about the northern town of Phongsali and the villagers she had met there – elaborately dressed Hmong with no shoes and nothing but dirt paths to traverse for their commutes. She introduced me to Colin #1 and Colin #2, two expats who worked at an organization called Big Brother Mouse, a strangely named organization that attempts to promote literacy and healthy reading habits among the local Lao population. I visited their center and got to speak with some young Lao students who held an impressive command of English, given the amount of time they told me they had been studying. I was inspired by Big Brother Mouse, as their mission seemed genuine and their approach intentional. Apparently former President Clinton had recognized the organization years earlier at the Clinton Global Initiative in Asia as a major change-maker in literacy promotion in Laos. I told a friend how impressed I was from just one visit to the center.
“So you’ll be moving to Laos?” she asked sarcastically.
“I don’t think so,” I chuckled. “Laos is great, but I couldn’t handle so many tourists all the time.” I was excited for Xam Neua as I hadn’t met anyone who’d been there before. Colin #2 said that he had always wanted to go.
Little wooden benches lined the platform of the Luang Prabang bus station. They were smooth from years of asses caressing their tops, polishing them in a way that only asses over time can. There were no buses in sight, so at first I thought I was in the wrong place.
“You be here three o’clock,” the bus station attendant told me, “then bus come I tell you, okay?”
“Okay,” I agreed with a nod.
Bad Top 40 music blared from across the street. Dogs with their noses to the ground pranced around the dirt looking for trash and other things to eat. One had a roll of duct tape in his mouth, but the top of the roll obstructed his vision, causing him to swivel his head constantly and crash into things. As had been my experience most of this trip, most of the people waiting in one place for more than five minutes were staring down at their phones, necks and backs hunched over like modern, 21st century human gargoyles. I was glad to escape the cultural clutches of the tourist-heavy presence in Luang Prabang. I’m sure it’s a nice quite place every other time of the year. A young backpacked kid next to me had on a stylish looking jacket that read, between the shoulder blades, “Even the devil, once and Angel”. I asked myself what it could mean. “These days, not understanding anything had more or less become the normal state of affairs for him. This was not a new discovery.” (p. 441)
I grabbed some grilled fish and rice before the bus journey. The fish sat open-mouthed, almost drooling into the hot smoking charcoal below, roasting away. I got up to pay for the meal and continue waiting in the open-air terminal.
“Ten thousand,” the sandal’d woman said. I began flipping through flimsy Lao Kip notes, numbered in their thousands, not so differently than Uzbek Som – roughly eight thousand to the dollar. The woman went to the back of the little shack and made some noise with pots and pans. She returned to take the money I was handing her.
“Fifteen thousand,” she said. I gave her my best flat-face and looked at her kid lying on a tattered lounge chair nearby, playing on a cracked phone in an Angry Birds t-shirt. He looked up and smiled a dentist-needed smile, soon laughing away. “The more I think about it, the less I seem to understand, like my brain is a tub of tofu past its expiration date.” (p. 1,006) Only northeastern Laos was in front of me.
The bus wasn’t a bus at all, but a minivan. I boarded after removing my shoes, putting them into a clear little plastic bag, and was immediately asked by the elderly woman sitting next to me, without words, to remove the plastic wrapping from the top of her water bottle. Her hands and fingers were so knobby from what looked like advanced arthritis that she couldn’t open it herself. I satisfied her request and tried to not pay attention to the crying baby on the lap of the young mother in front of me. The van wobbled back and forth as it exited the station and I thought about the white emergency vomit bag I swiped from Uzbekistan Airlines last week, knowing that the only words I would speak for the next fifteen hours would be “Xam Neua?” and “toilet?” “Not speaking for a long time makes the muscles around the mouth grow slack.” (p. 956)
I leaned my head back on the headrest and tried to enjoy the surprisingly moderately-volume’d (for now) traditional Lao music coming from over the van stereo system. At night, the only light visible was the passing street lights; otherwise, car headlights flashed and the dim glow of people’s faces, like moons, glimmered as they stared into the images reflecting off their lifeline-like phones. “All that was there was a feeling of being in motion…It didn’t matter when or where this was. All that mattered was this movement. Everything was fluid, and a specific meaning was born of that fluidity.” (p. 960) After having been banged around the back of a van for 4.5 hours, we pulled over for a break at 2am. Maybe the driver was tired of singing to himself to keep himself awake. Clouds were intertwined with the dark hills in the distance, creating the rather ominous landscape through which we had passed. Standing around the van, killing time, a woman said “tree more hours” to no one specifically. I hummed a reply. “Maybe four,” she added. At that point, it didn’t matter. It was the middle of the night and we were travelling the windy hills of northeastern Laos. All I could do was continue waiting, thrashing around the back of the van with every turn. “The flow of time wasn’t uniform anymore, the sense of distance uncertain.” (p. 1,067)
Fourteen hours after leaving Luang Prabang, we reached the very pleasant town of Xam Neua. “He wished he could just go to bed and be fast asleep. He could continue this process in the morning. No amount of additional thinking would bring him any clarity now.” (p. 798) It was dark and cold and I didn’t have any idea as to what the layout of the town was like, but I was glad to be there. While I didn’t like it immediately, I did like it in the morning after some rest and a shower. No one in my guesthouse spoke English; they didn’t have a map, and I had no idea where I was in relation to the rest of the city. It was great. “It is the place where he is meant to be lost.” (p. 574) I wondered out in the direction I was told the city was in and grabbed some soup. This was a much smaller town; I walked by the market and saw a sign that read “say yes to life and family and say no to drugs.” There wasn’t much going on in Xam Neua.
In the market, lots of little rubber banded plastic bags were lining the counters, all filled with the same contents: special spicy sauce only found in Xam Neua, I was told. I walked along the river and got more looks from locals than I had previously. No “taxi?” No “tuk-tuk?” No “boat?” Just screaming hellos from waving children from across the streets, some of them clutching their mothers on the backs of mopeds as they leaned into turns. The hills surrounding the town were draped in green, as if someone huge had laid down a thick green forestry carpet, covering the area. I walked back to the bus station on top of a hill to get a ticket to Hanoi for the following morning. Walking back, I was asked for money directly for the first time in Laos. A young guy came running after me down the hill in sandals shouting “ey!” I turned to see what was up. He started making all sorts of gestures, rubbing his belly, making it pretty clear what he wanted. I gave him a bill but he seemed to want more. I walked away and he didn’t follow. I passed a karaoke shack on a hillside where a screeching voice extended outside, echoing through the hills nearby. I looked inside and saw Laotians crouched on yellow crates of discarded Beer Lao bottles. The music was deafening. I stopped off for a Beer Lao at a roadside shack near the bus station. Watching the woman tending the shack, cooking chicken skewers over a charcoal flame, I realized that I’d be leaving Laos tomorrow. I sudden wave of nostalgia and sentiment swept over me. It had only been about a week, but it had passed quickly and I felt as though there was still much of this country unexplored.
I realized, remembering my bus trips in Himachal Pradesh and Assam, India, that I generally prefer traveling to rural areas. Rural life, often, is more interesting, in that it often gives better glimpses into what a country is like day-to-day, how much of the population lives – plus it’s often prettier from a scenic standpoint. While there was nothing to do in Xam Neua, I also appreciated it tranquility. In the evening, as the sun slowly set over the hills outside town, three little children hopped over a concrete barrier opposite the strangely named Many Cafe. One of the monstrous munchkins held a small fake plastic AK-47. They ran across the street towards me, checking for cars, and entered the café. Was this a fake holdup? They purchased some pastries and left. I sipped my coffee when Nuy messaged me from Vientiane.
“Good evening, John. How is there?”
“Hi Nuy, yes it’s beautiful here. How are you?”
“I’m doing well. Xam Neua must be beautiful and cold. I have never been there.”
“Yes it’s beautiful and rather cold in the evenings.”
“But better you have jacket. Take care and enjoy travelling there.”
“Thank you, Nuy. Nice to hear from you.”
That evening I had dinner at a place with a red napkin dispenser on the table that read “everything goes well.” “In the present situation, you don’t want to move from where you are now.” (p. 1,108) In the morning, I left my guesthouse without saying goodbye to the staff. “Goodbye,” she murmured, bidding farewell not so much to the apartment as to the self that had lived there.” (p. 532) I just put the key in a small wicker basket and walked up the hill to the bus station. Xam Neua was the first place I’d been where the bus station offered the best view in town. After the sun rose, I boarded the bus to Hanoi. I was the only passenger for some reason; the driver didn’t even shut the door as we left the station. We left Xam Neua. And I didn’t see any white people. “But a narrative takes its own direction, and continues on, almost automatically.” (p. 1,138)
We swerved through little village after little village with colorful laundry hanging out to dry in the damp, humid air. The scenery of northeastern Laos is really beautiful: hilly, green, not populated. On the bus, I thought about the relationship I often have with bus drivers as the only foreigner on board. They will remember me, but we won’t say anything to each other, really, except the name of our destination, followed by a question mark. If I had to give a moniker to the drivers on this trip they would be the following: “Short Tie”, “The Quiet One”, “The Singer”, and this one would quite simply be “Honky”. We reached the border about three hours after leaving Xam Neua. I handed my passport over to the woman manning the checkpoint, dressed in a green uniform, adorned with red pins.
“Hello,” she said without emotion.
“Hello,” I replied. She flipped through the pages of my passport with quick-moving, nimble, experienced fingers. I walked some fifty meters to the Vietnam entrance building down a kind of driveway.
“Hello,” another green uniformed man said.
“Hello,” I said. I handed over my passport again. This time they had computers. After some key-punching, the man seated behind the large wooden desk called out my name, even though I was the only one in the room.
“John Philip,” he said, computer-like. I stood up and received my passport. Leaving that office, another uniform asked to see my passport. I handed it over. He flipped through it, checking the stamp that was placed mere seconds ago.
“Okay,” he said.
“Toilet?” I asked. He pointed around the corner. Above two doorways were written WC Nam and WC Wu. There were no pictures. I walked into the one marked Nam, saw a urinal, and deduced that Nam was Man backwards. Outside, I got some food on a metal tray: tofu with something inside and white rice. After lunch I saw my bus mates smoking something out of a wooden bong-looking instrument. Naturally, I walked over. I thrust out my chin as to ask “what’s that?” No sooner had one bald man loaded a bowl and handed it to me, lighting it swiftly. I hit it. I assumed the brown bag of contents on the table was merely tobacco, it being at an international border checkpoint and all. It went straight to my head. I sat down, had some tea and waited for the bus while my bus mates listened to Lao news on their phones. It was hot. I watched a four-legged dog hobble around on three legs while other dogs fought in the rough gravel. The men sipped their tea and smoked cheap cigarettes. I flipped through my passport and found the Lao visa with a new stamp on it: USED. The roads on the other side of the border were immediately better: paved, smooth and much more functional. Honky took full advantage of the opportunity, flying around blind curves with a hand on the horn all the while. I decided to give the bus attendant a moniker too: Tonky. Honky & Tonky worked together as a team, addressing situations as they came up, like when the door would randomly open on its own during transport. Honky would shout to Tonky, who was often asleep or dozing off, then Tonky would jump up and shut the door with his bare feet, soon settling back to rest.
Coming down from the northwestern Vietnamese highlands, I looked across the bus aisle to see my bus mates staring out the window. We were all looking at the same scenery, the same beauty with a kind of mesmerized expression in our gaze. Even though we didn’t speak the same language and probably had very little in common in terms of our lifestyles, we all looked upon the majestic hills with similar awe, staring, as it were, into the simple beauty of nature. “I’m sure I’ll be able to understand the meaning and purpose of this incident sometime in the future, Tengo thought. What I have to do now, in order to make that happen, is to record this moment in my mind as clearly and accurately as possible.” (p. 683) “Don’t Fear” by Maps came on through my headphones as we passed the ill-named café “Cooffee New Star”. Hours later, we stopped at a small town where I was quickly whisked off the bus and directed to board another one. I was immediately confused. Was this bus not going to Hanoi as I’d been told? Honky and Tonky aggressively gestured for me to get on this new bus asap, so I did. It all happened so fast and unexpectedly that upon boarding the new bus I collapsed in exhaustion. We stopped hours later for a break where it was significantly colder. I ordered some food and foolishly sat down in a small puddle of red sauce waiting for me on a metal stool. I rolled into Hanoi with a big red stain on my ass, thirteen hours after leaving Xam Neua.
Hanoi was freezing – colder than any weather conditions I was expecting or prepared for. I exited the bus station to a windy night, soon to find a friendly guy in glasses smoking a cigarette at the city bus ticket counter. I held an address on a piece of paper in my hand and he looked at it. He repeated the street name to himself several times, as if recalling a distant memory. He walked over to the nearest bus that was parked nearby, rapped on the door and shouted the address at the shoe-less driver with his bare feet resting comfortably on the dash. They exchanged some words in Vietnamese and I soon boarded the dark bus and listened to the two men while they chatted. “So he always kept his mouth shut. He kept his ears open and listened closely to whatever anyone else had to say, aiming to learn something from everything he heard. This habit eventually became a useful tool.” (p. 990) The bus dropped me off less than two kilometers to my accommodations. The bus fare was six thousand Vietnamese Dong – less than a quarter.
The following day, I met Dung at Xofa Cafe. She was the owner and she said they had been operating for two years, 24 hours a day. She had a beautiful cafe and I told her as much. She blushed and said thank you, hoping that I would enjoy my stay. I commented on all the books she had on her shelves around the café and she told me to help myself. She said that she couldn’t meet with me right away as she had a work-related meeting. I told her that was fine as I had my book.
“Oh what are you reading?” she asked – one of my favorite questions. I pulled out the Murakami from my bag and gave it to her. “Oh Murakami!” she exclaimed, “I love him.”
“Me too,” I said. She had to go, but I enjoyed my coffee outside, despite the cold, where there was a feint whiff of marijuana nearby. I liked Hanoi for its craziness, but I also missed the peacefulness of Xam Neua.
I didn’t see as much of Hanoi as perhaps I should have; however, I seldom feel the need to see a place any more or less than any other person. I walked the streets, sipped the coffee, ate the food, saw the people, heard their words, dodged the mopeds and breathed the air. While I didn’t check off all the main tourist attractions on some make-believe checklist, I did enjoy my time. I enjoyed the tiny plastic street stools that looked like they were made for elementary school children. They reminded me of small, low hanging urinals in elementary schools that grown men have to awkwardly squat or bend down to use. Upon first glance, these stools would be assumed to be for children, yet adults sat in them day after day. The city reminded me of other big, dense cities: Calcutta, though the traffic was not of rickshaws and old yellow cabs but of masked moped riders, circling around each other ad nauseam. Mexico City for its density, the sensation that the city went on forever, though I knew this to not be true.
I wandered around the city for several days, eating its food, smelling its smells, hearing its sounds. But on my last night I couldn’t sleep. Perhaps it was the knowledge that my trip would soon come to an abrupt end. Perhaps it was because I’d wandered into a strange bar full of white people singing along to Toto’s 1982 hit “Africa”. Whatever it was, my journey was coming to a close. Hanoi is an amazing city. Traveling here from Bangkok overland by bus was well worth the journey.
On the Air Asia flight from Hanoi back to Bangkok, I looked around the cabin, noticing the clever slogans developed by someone clever, glorifying capitalism, consumerism and consumption. “Shopping is cheaper than therapy”, “Travel is the healthiest addiction” and “In shopping we trust”. I wanted to vomit. I finished the Murakami’s book just where I had started it two weeks earlier – Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. It wasn’t the ending I was expecting, but then again, neither was that of my trip. Perhaps that was the beauty of it – you had to get to the end of it to see what it was like, what was there. Flying back into Tashkent that evening, I was reminded of the beginning of my journey just a mere two weeks ago. From above, Tashkent looked the same. Its lights still shone, its layout hadn’t changed, and the Uzbeks on the flight around me all sounded as they did fourteen days ago. What had changed? Perhaps I had. With 1,700 kilometers, 1,300 pages, four buses, three countries, two weeks and one hell of a trip, I was finished.
“He knew, too, that it would take time for him to acclimate himself to this new world that had come upon him. His entire way of thinking, his way of seeing things, the way he breathed, the way he moved his body – he would need to adjust and rethink every element of life. And to do that, he needed to gather together all the time that existed in this world.” (p. 1,278)
After I got back to Tashkent I was asked, “So what would you have done differently?”
“Nothing,” I answered immediately.
“Really?” she asked surprised.