The Last Days in SE Asia

  • By Daniel
  • 2009-07-29 20:07:00-0700

I woke up to an oncoming silence created by the absence of electrical power on Tuesday morning. This was a good way to get an early start because I couldn't sleep without the fan protecting me from the mosquitoes and cooling my body. I took a shower and headed out for breakfast with Tien. We went to a new place that is near the internet cafe we frequent, right next to the lake by the river in Long Xuyen.

At breakfast Tien told me that she'd talked to the principle of the school where she works and he had reminded her that she had employment obligations that last through September. This meant that she couldn't travel with me because she would have to resume teaching in less than a week. We had planned on either moving to Saigon to work or more preferably to travel a bit, probably back from Bankok down through Malaysia where we could see all those beautiful beaches that we missed out on last time. Now this was not going to happen because Tien would be busy. The only reasonable option for me was to return to America on my scheduled flight which left the next night. Even though this was an option that I never wanted to have to pick, it felt nice to finally have a final word on what would happen.

When we got home there was still no power. We decided to go to Saigon that day and stay over night. Tien got on the phone and found us a bus leaving at 4pm while her mom and sister fixed some food for us. Tien told me a story about being attacked by a wild dog near her house when she was in Jr. High. She was outside playing with her puppy and some crazy wild dog ran up and started to attack her and her puppy, so she picked up the puppy and ran but the dog chased them. Some local folks saw what was happening, found some bamboo sticks and killed the wild dog. At the end of this story we realized we didn't have enough time to catch the 4pm, so we shot for the 5pm and began packing.

Tien and I went to the market to get some gifts for my family and friends. Her family kept wanting me to take more and more stuff, not realizing the restrictions that come with living your life out of a backpack. I simply couldn't take a lot of what they wanted to give me because I didn't have the room and I was already heavy laden. On top of that, the food and liquid restrictions are so tight these days that you can't really take either of those products. That was a shame, I was hoping to bring back that bottle of CK Entirety.

I said my goodbyes to the family that had so graciously taken me in two months ago, feeding me and clothing me and giving me all that they could to make me comfortable, and had then become my own family. Saying goodbye is hard when you don't speak their language though. How do you convey the details of the small things you really appreciated? I did my best and then four of us got on two scooters and headed to the Long Xuyen bus station. I had a new energy, the energy that comes with having a plan and putting it in motion. I was happy to be doing anything, and more so happy to be on my way back to the USA where my family and friends were waiting, my car was waiting, and I still had the freedom of unemployment. I was so caught up in thinking about how great it would be that I forgot that Tien wasn't coming with me, and when I remembered this my heart sank a bit and something felt not right. There was nothing I could do about it though.

It was harvest time in her village and I saw a man on a cart pulled by two water buffalo heading off through the waters of a tracked up rice paddy. Many people were out moving big bags of rice from vehicle to larger vehicle.

Back on the bus to Saigon for the last time of my trip, I thought about how I'd be traveling in a few days in my own car with my GPS guiding my way, 80mph across the open highways of western America. That style of travel is so different from the way people travel in Vietnam and I was really grateful for the American ways that I had taken for granted. The automobile and the highway truly were and are avenues of freedom and an opportunity that millions of people do not have.

I put on the Samurai Champloo soundtrack and kept thinking about my old familiar ways, the joys that I had given up when I left America. I was really looking forward to getting back. I had a sore throat though and my stomach was still a little upset. Tien was on my arm, visibly upset but not falling apart, just looking up with those worried eyes that she gets when something is not right.

When we arrived at the bus station most of the ground was under about 1 foot of standing water. We once again found a taxi to take us to ye olde Ruby Star where I got a larger room than usual, complete with a bath tub. I got a beer, drew a bath, and relaxed. Then I got online and began pinging a bunch of people in America and planning what I'd do when I touched down. That night I slept deeply.

Wednesday morning we woke up to the sounds of big engines, small engines, and honking. Our larger room came complete with a double window that was partly broken and created a hole where the sounds of Saigon could assault our sleeping bodies. We did have to get a move on though, so it was probably for the good. Tien got a phone call from FedEx and while I was in the shower a courier showed up with some gear from Joby. They asked to use a photo of mine on their page and sent out some gear as a thank you. I had planned to use this while I was in Asia, but here it was arriving hours from my back to America and I now had to pack this unused gear in my bag with all of the gifts. To top it off, the shipment came from Santa Cruz California.

We hurried out for breakfast at a usual spot, then came back to the hotel where I managed to pack most of my things into my backpack. I gave some of the left-over stuff that I wouldn't need to Tien to take back to her house. We checked out and left our bags with the hotel receptionists. We're in pretty good with them since we stay at that hotel so much, and we trust them, so it was a good alternative to carrying our bags around in the mid-day Saigon heat.

We headed out to find a book store. Tien had finished the tiny book we'd bought for her to read and were looking for something significantly more challenging and intellectual. We asked a cyclo and scooter taxi driver if there were any bookstores nearby, but they said not for 2 km and offered to take us there. We declined and found store selling books about 200 feet away. It was basically a media piracy store. We picked up 1984 and a DVD collection of Tom Cruise movies, a strange dose of western culture for Tien to digest before she (hopefully) gets to America in a few months.

We were hot and parched by then so we went to find a coffee shop. We found a really western style cafe with a bunch of backpackers hunched over laptops and pay terminals. We sat at the cafe and talked for a while, tried to figure out what to do with an empty day in Saigon. I couldn't think of much except shopping but Tien didn't want clothes or jewelry or shoes or any of that stuff. Instead we went to the store where I bought my LX3 and looked at laptops. They had a decent selection, but we weren't really happy with any of them. The Acer netbook was nice feeling but I didn't trust its quality. Plus, I had forgotten my wallet back at the hotel so we couldn't buy it outright anyway.

We ended up grabbing our bags and having a taxi take us to a little street where there were numerous computer shops. We looked around a bit and although I was able to find an Asus netbook, it was more than I had on me. We settled on a Benq Joybook. Interestingly, the one we bought did not come with Windows but ran a derivative of Fedora 8 called Linpus. At first I was thinking this would be bad, but on second thought I decided it could be good. Desktop linux is pretty usable now, and it would do pretty much everything Tien needed, so I decided to take a slight risk and get it. Worst case we could load Windows on it later...

There was a cafe nearby called Jazz Cafe where we went to camp out for a few hours, play with her new laptop and kill some time. They weren't playing Jazz. The laptop was pretty good, a standard current netbook with a decent build, light weight and slightly hot. The screen was nice too. Unfortunately the OS was ... lacking. I decided that rather than trust some one-off distro of Linux I'd load it up with Ubuntu. That is something I'm familiar with and could help her with if there were problems. On top of that, i just happened to have a USB key that had a bootable Ubuntu 9.04 install on it. How geeky is that? I was worried that I'd mess something up and not have time to fix it, but 30 minutes later we were up and running on Ubuntu with no hiccups.

While the OS was installing it finally hit me that I wasn't going to be with Tien much longer. I explained to her that I have this third person mode that I go into that detaches me from the emotional effects of the things I need to do and that I wasn't just unaffected by the pending geographical separation and time apart. I was worried she'd think I didn't care, which I did, but I've found in my life that worrying about inevitabilities is wasteful, even if it seems insincere.

Eventually it was time to go, so we found a taxi to take us to the airport. There was a TV screen inside the taxi that was playing a video of people rollerblading down the Great Wall of China. It then turned to something about Michael Jackson and showed a video morph of what MJ looked like from when he was young to when he died. I realized that the King of Pop died a long time ago and all that remained was a plastic ghost. I wonder if MJ's body has even begun decomposing yet or if it's still as fresh as a McDonalds french fry.

At the airport Tien's mom and sister Thule met us. I went to check in for my flight and when I got to the checkin area it looked like everybody was moving to another country. Everybody in the whole line had at least 3 suitcases stacked on carts. Some had several boxes. I couldn't believe all of the luggage this entire group of people had, and they weren't even together. Luckily a woman motioned me over to some premium super-duper megastar member high speed lane that I did not deserve to be in and I checked in for my flight in about 2 minutes.

Tien's family and I found a little cafe area to sit at while we waited for the last hour before my flight. Tien translated a few things but mostly we just enjoyed each other's company. Tien and I were trying magic tricks with a Malaysia .20 piece and I made a syphon out of two bendy straws to mix Tien's apple juice with my Sprite. I went to use the bathroom and there were two girls in there, a mother and an attendant. At first I wondered if I was in the right bathroom, and I was. I thought about San Francisco and about an Erasure concert I went to, sometimes there just is no gender separation in the bathroom. Another odd thing about this bathroom was that one wall was a huge window that looked out into the parking area, so all of those scooter parking folks could watch you urinate. This was no different from watching men urinate on the side of the road everywhere else in Vietnam, so that too wasn't really uncomfortable. On the way I went to use the hand drier but decided against it when I saw that people had used it for an ash tray.

Before long it was time to leave Tien and her family. I had already said goodbye to Tien's mom and sister a few times, so this was just another goodbye for them, but Tien was in a trance. I thought at first she was trying to translate some stuff in her mind, but realized that she was just overwhelmed with emotion. I thought she fell apart when I embraced her, but she kept herself together. It was only after she was out of sight that I finally felt the effects of realization that I wouldn't see her for a long time. Passport control went quickly, there was a short wait at the gate, and soon I was sound asleep in my seat flying away from Vietnam.