Dateline: October 2, 2010, day 25 of 49, in and around Hue, where it is raining. By the time you read this it will probably still be raining. It's been raining since I got here, though not absolutely continuously. Sometimes it stops for ten minutes at a time and everybody runs out to try to get something done. Then it rains. Occasionally it pours and three or four times a day it gets absolutely serious about it and falls as an air-water mix that's got to be upwards of 33% water. Some of the streets are almost up to the sparkplug on the bike, so you keep going and your bow wave keeps the solid water off the critical point, where the wire meets the plug. I haven't killed her yet, though I thought I should, the water seemed deeper than in that ford that drownded her twin sister two years ago in Laos. Some people of course get a bit too enthusiastic about it and hit the water a little too fast and if nothing else, everyone else on the road gets a great shower bath. You wonder just what was running down the ditch before the street flooded, though truth to tell, Hue is a very clean city and I doubt I'll catch anything too interesting. Enough of rain. I just checked the weather in Vientiane and Louang Prabang (Laos, where I should be in oh, five or six days. It doesn't look as wet there. According to my very careful (ha!) pre-trip planning, the wet season should have just ended over there. Let's hope, this much rain all in one place at one time has made my work a little tough.
Speaking of work (this is just a sidebar, doesn't really belong in this post), I saw a gang of six men yesteray finishing off a new cell phone tower, raising the steel by hand, 200' in the air. They used a 3" diameter pipe gin pole 30' long and a two-man hand powered winch to hoist the sections. The winch was tail-holded to a concrete deadman that looked adequate, but the grommet of used wire they'd braided to hold it looked a little light. No matter, they got the tower up and guyed off in just the one day, hand cranking all the way. They needed 4 men on the ground ,two to grind the winch and two to hop the heavy end of each section along as the hoist wire lifted the upper end. The fellow up in the top of the steel would shout when he felt the gin pole was flexing too much and they'd hop the bottom again. It made it easier on the winch men too, not having to drag the steel across the sand. They finally got it plumbed up and lofted and then it was just a matter of grinding on the winch handles until it got up to the top where the two men working high could stuff the bolts and torque them up. The top section was a cantilever, no guy wires, but the lower sections had a three-way guy every other one, down to pre-poured concrete footings. It was actually almost halfway kosher, in a 1960's sort of way. When I was a young man it would have just about made it to our safety standards. No hard hats, and everybody wearing flip flops. . .that's flunking, but they were using the same sort of back-breaker belt and lanyard we used to call "fall protection" and actually tied off when they got into position to work. Total cost to erect the tower probably didn't come to $50.
But that's not what was on my mind. I've been enjoying some of the contrasts hereabouts, though you can find most of the same contrasts anywhere you have people. On the road, what, three days back, at lunch time, or a little late for lunch really, I stopped and got out of the rain at a little roadside restaurant in the tail end of a small town. I realized I'd passed one restaurant of a sort already and could see the "end of town" sign coming up not far ahead. So I stopped. My motto is "eat when hungry, sleep when tired" on these trips and I was well past just "hungry". The lady of the house fixed me a very nice baguette with various sorts of things in it and red peppers and fish sauce on top. . .a just fine sort of lunch on the road. But while she was doing it I drew quite a crowd of twenty-somethings and one of them had a good deal of English and was a perfect horse's ass. I suppose there's a niceer way to say that, but this is a good time for economy of speech. Now, Viet Nam, particularly in the cities, is a crowded place and the notion of "personal space" extending out for a matter of feet in all directions from your center is simply not practical. You just accept that people tend to stand fairly close to you to make room for everybody else. In the country that's not necessary though and it's almost never necessary to lean on somebody and yell in their ear. So, way out in the country as we were, in a very small town, I was a bit surprised when it happened, but not entirely. That sort of behavior is uncommon (thank goodness) but not unheard of. The thing that is fascinating about such circumstances is that the villain of the piece (the horse's rear in this case) is clearly trying to impress his friends and neighbors with his command both of the English language and his contempt for foreigners. Everybody else, in the normal course of things, is appalled by his lack of manners and stands around looking embarassed. BUT NOBODY DOES ANYTHING ABOUT IT. Well, what did I expect? Maybe they'd pick him up and carry him off? I wouldn't have minded of course or they could just have told him to be quiet. . .but no, not yet. I took the sandwich in under the sheetmetal roof out of the rain and settled down to eat it with all due deliberation and polite forbearance. The whole entourage followed me in and filled the rough plank picnic table to groaning, with my horse's behind sitting right next to me and lighting a cigarette. I was hungry mind you and wanted that sandwich inside me, but was beginning to think in terms of breaking heads instead of anything more reasonable. About then the lady of the place who was clearly more than just mortified told him to behave in no uncertain terms. One for my side! He actually apologized, "I sorry, I sorry
Yesterday, caught by a deluge anyway, I pulled off the road near the edge of Hue at the finest coffee shop I know of anywhere in Viet Nam. It is more a garden with koi ponds winding through the flowers and trees and statues, and just, as an afterthought, the most exquisite building imaginable in the middle of it all and the river flowing by behind. Coffee there costs 80 cents instead of 40 or 50, but. . .well, you don't get to drink such coffee in such a place every day of your life. I ordered the coffee, sweet and white, with ice, and a pot of hot flowery tea and sat in complete peace and quiet watching the bright fish in the dark water. Graceful young women in fine silk dresses brought the drinks and left me, came back later to collect the crockery and ask if there was anything else I'd like, posed for their portraits (though the light was poor and I didn't do well at it) and took my money very carefully with two hands (it's not respectful to just reach out with one hand and take money from a customer, except maybe in a noodle stand during the breakfast rush. . .).
Taking refuge from a downpour in an upholsterer's shop on a side street on the way out of town toward the coast I sat on a hard plastic chair that was way too short for me and watched while the young man tidily added an inch of new foam under the contoured seat pad of the bike. My saddle sores demanded something and this seemed like a direct approach with some sort of promise. (Keep in mind that I'd just finished a total run of 4000 odd km in about 19 days. . .on a lightweight 110 cc bike with mighty stiff springs and not much padding. . .). In the home behind the workshop the kitchen was an open air affair, with the hearth against one wall and a heavy canvas tarp shedding the rain away from the fire. Its stark shape against the light on the old whitewashed walls made a striking picture. A very old woman was puttering around the fire, putting lunch together for the household, stooped and slow, but steady. You can just see her in the shadows. No doubt she was young and beautiful too, not so long ago.
I stood on the crest of the sand dune at the top of the beach overlooking the sea, the angry gnarly sea, in fact, searching the shore among the beached fishing boats there just above the reach of the surf, looking for somebody to show me how to rig the sails on the little sailing boats that used the beach. But there was no one there, no eyes but mine on the surf, they'd had a good enough look earlier no doubt and realized there would be no profit in fish if they broke the boat or drowned the fishermen trying to catch them, so it was a deserted beach, not even a dog sleeping under the boats out of the rain. But I rarely stand anywhere alone in Viet Nam, or at least not for long. Soon I was explaining what I needed to a small committee of idle fishermen who'd materialized from the houses back below the crest of the dune. . .I stand out, with my beard and my belly and my bald head. While I continued to struggle with my lack of vocabulary (fortunately I know the words for both "sail" and "boat") one of the original committeemen returned, leading an older gentleman carrying an exquisite sailboat in his hands. It was a perfectly proportioned model of the boats behind me on the beach, the big ones, diesel powered these days, but not the model. . .it was the sailing grandfather of the boats on the beach now. I bought it of course, though I couldn't have it. It needed its varnish and its stand and even its sails and oars, so I'd have to come back for it tomorrow and that would be today. I've been and fetched it and boxed it up and carried it off to the post office and sent it hopefully off on a very long voyage indeed. But I couldn't just carry it off. It was a special day of some sort there, with a feast set out on a table on the porch in front of another table that was clearly an altar to ancestors, with many sticks of incense burning, neighbors milling around, people wearing nice clothes, and gift wrapped empty boxes to burn on the edge of the street. They seemed almost shy as they asked me to eat with them. They sat me down on the edge of the bed in the corner of the room with the model makers and one other old man. (Actually, there were two of them and they can make one of the boats in two days, working together, they must have a ready market for them in a gift shop somewhere in Hue.) The young men of the household, twenty-sometbings, brought us tea and boxes of cigarettes (this IS Viet Nam), and when they held out the full tea cups for me with their right hand, carefully held their right wrist with their left hand, perfectly polite. When we sat around the feast, now moved to the mat on the floor of the living room (the ancestors having had their fill), those same young men, shyly, off and on, one, then another, would reach across the mat and put some particularly nice bit of food in my bowl and smile. It was a fabulous lunch, all of it delicious, stuffed squid, fish, pork, chicken in soy sauce, tomatoes sauteed with green beans and onions, vegetable soup with clear noodles, heaping platters of really good rice. . .When I left (they knew I had to get to the post office so that I could send their boat away and leave for Laos in the morning) the young men as well as the old hunted around to find my rain cape and my helmet (which the women had picked up and put away), pulled the cape clear of my pack (with the boat wrapped up inside, masts, oars and rudder carefully removed and stowed below) and stood in the rain to wish me good bye and that we should meet again.