Sunday, April 27, 2014

Traveling Light, Part 1

The regular tapping of the mallet against a chisel faded in and out as I passed by on the back of a motorbike on the road under construction between Nam Ban village and Dalat in Vietnam.  “I will never complain about my job again”, I thought to myself as the late-middle aged “easy rider” motorcycle tour guide carefully navigated through ruts of rich red mud and large yellow machinery.

The men squatted on top of 8 foot square chunks of beautiful granite, endlessly chipping lines into the slabs.  There hands were bare, but nearly all other parts of their body were covered.  The incessant labor yields about 10,000 Vietnamese dong (50 cents) per small rectangular brick.  The workers slept on bamboo slats surrounded by blue tarps, the square shanties set up on the side of the roadway, amid the rubble and slash of a new road.

I was making new inroads myself, albeit much less laborious.  This trip was the first time in many years that I traveled without an advance reservation upon a destination. It was also the first time to Viet Nam and the first solo trip in a couple of years.  The general itinerary was one week- three days in the Cat Tien National Park and three days in the mountain town of Dalat. It was a rough few weeks in advance of the holiday: staff distracted with the Khmer New Year holiday and my closest colleague moving on to a great new position.  It was time to go on vacation.  

As I got off the bus in Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh City) right in the middle of the city’s tourist district, I looked around to get oriented and headed in the general direction of where I knew there would be guesthouses.  I meandered down an alley and an old man gestured to a place, so I went in. It was a nice family-owned place. A basic room with aircon. Breakfast included. $14. The husband, a doctor, gave me a complimentary packet of vitamin C tablets because I sneezed when I ate noodles for breakfast.

This general approach- simply going with the flow of the events around you—was the hallmark of this trip.  I hiked in the deep jungle with a couple of British guys, biked all day with an American woman from the midwest and saw birds, wildlife and magnificent trees. I rode a sleeper bus for the first time, happened across another cheap, family run guesthouse,  bought a plane ticket in cash, walked for miles in the rain and got a great deal on an all-day motorbike tour of waterfalls, pagodas and organically processed (i.e. pooped out through the colons of weasels) coffee with a guy who barely spoke English.

This serendipity and positive flow, albeit relatively modest, felt like it reappeared after a long dormancy.  In the breaks between the intensity of seasonal work between 1990 and 1998, I often planned journeys that meandered. I explored new places, reading richly about the place, using paper maps and intuition to guide my way.
 I wrote a lot, met all sorts of new people/characters and was simply content in being myself in transition.  Naturally, I often longed for a travel companion, but frankly I was largely content to be on my own path and at the wheel of my trusty toyota station wagon.

Now, my packing system is very deft. light and utilitarian. I have a little more cash to invest in experiences and local guides. The internet is a tool that has changed everything.  My smart phone, journal, kindle and a small packet of paper logistics is all I need.  The unfettered flow of vacation amid natural places was a great antidote to the muscular paralysis of my day job.   My dream schedule  involves rigorous activity every morning, naps and reading in the afternoon, and a short walk and reflection at sunset.

Here are a few photos from the journey:

The mighty Mekong river.  The bus station was a teeming mass
of people waiting, streaming into bus doors and general mayhem
on the Saturday morning before Khmer New Year. 

The sleeper bus from Saigon to Cat Tien National Park, a nice way to stretch out.
Upper level is a bit nausea inducing. 

The guide scampered to the tree top to gather fruit. He was a member
of the tribal minoritysupported by the Ta Lai Longhouse ecotourism scheme.
Lots of great stuff on this half day hike, including
beautiful tropical plants that emitted red and yellow flowers through the root system. 

Vietnamese nun taking photo of her friend
 dressed up as royalty in Dalat's summer palace. 

Dalat's crazy house. An epic and bizarre architectural
tribute to humans and their relationship with nature.  

These old-growth bonsai are just remarkable. 

 Thank you monks for making it completely clear.
White people take heed. 

Elephant Falls. Stunning. A trampoline and a meager
 iron fence were the only things at the cliff at the top. 

My guide, Mr. Diaw, leading me down the
highly sketchy path to the bottom of the falls. 

One Buddhist diety at Linh An pagoda; interesting
to note the four faces as this is a key icon
in Khmer Buddhism. The second diety in this temple
 had similar hands, each with an item on the palm. That's
the image on my smartphone. 

Silk worms. 
Their cocoons are jumbled around in hot water to unfurl the threads
that are bundled on spools.

Spools woven into fabric.

“Live with intention.
Walk to the edge.
Listen Hard.
Practice wellness.
Play with abandon.
Choose with no regret.
Appreciate your friends.
Continue to learn.
Do what you love.
Live as if this is all there is.”