Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Window on Life

"Every place is a gold mine.  You have only to give yourself time, sit in a teahouse watching the passersby, stand in a corner of hte market, go for a haircut.  You pick up a thread - a word, a meeting, a friend of a friend of someone you have just met - and soon the most insipid, most insignificant place becomes a mirror of the world, a window on life, a theater of humanity." - Tiziano Terzani

     I wouldn't call Hoi An an "insipid" place, but my day there gave me insight as to exactly what Terzani was talking about in the above quote.  I'm all by myself on a steaming hot day, walking through the quaint streets of Hoi An.  Stopping at a local cafe on the banks of the  Thu Bon river to quench my thirst, and without anyone speaking English anywhere around me, I notice the vendors shuffling up and down the riverside road, shouldering their "quang ganh" (the poles with baskets on either end) in hopes of making a sale.  Usually, I only surreptitiously look at these peddlers as I walk past them, not wanting them to approach me for a sale. But as I sipped my Vietnamese iced coffee (Vietnam, btw, is famous for it's coffee and serves it iced with sweetened condensed milk) I had the luxury of studying them.  Usually women, these peddlers walk with a sort of shuffling lope, which I assume makes it a little easier to shoulder their burden.  Their baskets usually carry fruit, such as lychee or bananas, but I've seen them carrying anything from auto parts to stuffed toys in their quang ganh.  When I've casually passed them in the street I've always assumed that they were in their way to a destination.  But sitting out on the sidewalk I realized they must have a "territory" as I saw a few of the same ones trudging back and forth several times as I sat there.
Scenes along the Thu Bon River

Light skin is prized in Southeast Asia and with such intense sun skin cancer is a worry, so it's common to see women covered from head to toe like this, even though it's 100 degrees

      Two ladies in particular interested me.  They might have been mother and daughter, the mother with a face as worn and lined as a well-used baseball glove and the younger looking as though life had been a little kinder to her.  They seemed to be taking turns carrying the quang ganh, which was filled with bananas. They made a sale now and then, and I finally decided that 1) I wanted to talk to them, and, 2) a banana might go quite well with my iced coffee - so I waved to them.  They trotted over to me, happy to overcharge me for the banana I bought and to talk, though they knew zero English and my Vietnamese is limited to hello and thank you.  Those two words, and the fact that I paid 20,000 dong for a banana, did the trick though, and they smiled, chattered in Vietnamese, and posed for photos until I felt like I'd taken up enough of their time and let them bet back to work.
**Note:  Vietnamese money is crazy.  Their currency is the "dong" and it's hyper-inflated.  20,000 dong = 1 U.S. dollar, which makes it extremely confusing to buy anything of value because counting the zeroes on the currency becomes overwhelming.  For example, something worth $50 will cost ONE MILLION Vietnamese dong!  And they don't even use commas on the bills to help you keep the zeroes straight.

My banana sellers

Think about what this face has seen:  the French occupation of Vietnam, World War II and Japanese invasion, Communist revolution, "American War", and now, the tourist invasion

      But I wasn't yet ready to give up the people watching.  The hour I'd spent on the banks of the Thu Bon River had given me more insight and made me feel more connected to Vietnam than the days I'd spent there so far, getting herded on and off the bus with my fellow Fulbrighters.  I moved to a bench to take a photo of a woman standing up in a flat type of rowboat, paddling herself across the narrow river.  She was very picturesque but she was screaming at the top of her lungs (query:  why didn't I think to take a video of this?).  Then I realized someone else on the opposite shore was screaming back at her.  When her boat scraped up on the other bank, the man who'd been screaming at her hopped in her boat with a bundle of bamboo and helped her push off.  She paddled him across to where I was sitting and he disembarked, giving her some money.  She, too, left her boat and disappeared.  I let the minutes tick by, just enjoying the sun and the water flowing by.  Soon, a younger woman stood next to my bench and started yelling loudly, startling me.  My boat lady appeared from nowhere, hopped in the boat with the yeller, and paddled her across.  She was operating a ferry service!  On the other shore I watched closely - she walked up to where some buildings were and again disappeared. Strange thing was, there was a bridge not 50 yards downriver.  Seems to me that in a country with as much poverty as Vietnam people would walk down to the bridge and cross rather than pay this lady - but, on the other hand, maybe that was the community's way of keeping everyone employed.

The ferry lady

Notice all the eyes on the boats to keep away sea monsters

Why don't the people just use this bridge?  Maybe, despite all the yelling, they just like the ferry lady and want to keep her in business.

      Time was passing by, and in the back of my mind I was saying, "Sarah, you're in Vietnam and you only have a few days left.  Shouldn't you be out looking at a temple or buying souvenirs or something?"  But the truth was, I was feeling such a part of the country sitting on my bench waiting for the next ferry customer to come along that I didn't want to leave.  Briefly I considered how much fun it would be to start screaming across the river, "Hey, lady, come get me I want to cross the river!" and see what would happen.  Or maybe offer her some dong when she was on my side of the river just to take me for a cruise - I'd even help paddle!  As I'm typing this I'm thinking, "So, why didn't you, stupid???"   Once again in my travel life I find that the only things you regret are the things you didn't do.
I love all these river photos so much I can't decide which ones to post, so I'm basically posting them all!

     Later I was in the market (where they sell everything from clams to chopsticks to pig entrails) and it started to pour down rain.  With no umbrella, I huddled in the doorway which led to the market, wondering how long the downpour would last. Within seconds I was surrounded by peddlers trying to sell me Ritz crackers, live shrimp, bottled water, and a myriad of other things.  Normally in a market when this happens you just keep walking, avoiding eye contact.  With nowhere to walk to because of the rain I was trapped.  Oh, well, I could use some Ritz crackers and water for a snack later on.  Then I got talked into some coconut wafers and peanuts.  I wondered how much money I'd be pressured to spend before the storm was over but somehow after I'd bought these items I guess I'd earned my shelter and they left me alone.
It was sunny when I took this photo, but later a deluge poured down upon this market

Storm sweeping in from the South China Sea

This lady and I were taking shelter from the rain together.  She yelled at me when I took her photo, but then we both laughed and weathered the storm as friends.

That big spiky fruit being sold in the market is called durian.  It smells really, really, bad.  It doesn't taste as bad as it smells, but it really, really, smells.

Market butcher shop

Trying to cross the river before the storm hits

I tried to take a photo of the woman selling the shrimp and she scowled at me and yelled, "Baaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!" in a scary voice.  For some reason that made me laugh, and when I did she laughed too and let me sit down next to her on a plastic stool.  I saw the quang ganh peddlers hurrying in from the rain.  I saw the ubiquitous motorbike riders pull ponchos out and continue to drive like madmen in the rain.  I saw Vietnam - and this was the best day I spent in Vietnam.

The riverside cafe where I started to feel the rhythm of Vietnamese life

Vietnamese iced coffee