Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Getting From Point A to Point B in Viet Nam

Transportation in Vietnam is like a box of chocolates... 

After two days traveling further into the Vietnamese highlands on the rear of a motorbike, all I wanted was to chill and get to Hoi An. My butt needed a break, those bikes on those roads make for one good long vibration.

Back in Da Lat I took a leisurely last stroll around town after reserving a ticket on the 6pm bus to Da Nang – a reservation which means nothing if the bus driver decides to leave 45 minutes early. 'No problem, I put you on another bus' says the girl at the desk. She makes a couple of phone calls. I so wish I understood Vietnamese. Finally her eyes brighten and she hangs up. 'Okay, no problem. Only driver, you and one more person,' she tells me. ‘To Da Nang, you get off at Hoi An.’ Sweet I figure. Plenty of room to stretch out for the overnight trip.

To clarify – I’d been in Viet Nam long enough to know to always be suspicious – I ask the girl what kind of bus. First she tries to explain but that’s useless. So she pulls me out into the street and points at a passenger van parked (or possibly abandoned) at the end of the crumbling street. 'That one, same same but different' she tells me. Same same but different. I’d heard that one before.

I end up in a clunky red mini van with a guy named Home. There’s enough front seat leg room for a full-grown Chihuahua. At least I can tell him to stop when I need to pee. 'Da Nang?' I say, as enthusiastically as possible since it would pretty much be the end of any manageable conversation between us. 'Da Nang!' he says back, then proceeds to floor it across town to a gas station where a bunch of guys are climbing all over the boxes packed onto the back of this big truck with a tarp for a roof. 'Okay, you go them!' Home-boy says, pointing. This is my ride to Hoi An? It was so ridiculous I had to agree.

I take my bicycle apart (I was traveling by tandem – solo, which is a whole nother story) and a few of the guys heave it in three pieces onto the mountain of cardboard cartons. My panniers go up too, disappearing in a crevice among the cargo. I keep a firm grip on my waist pouch, making it obvious to twenty strangers where all my cash is. One guy slaps my shoulder and hands me a box and points at the truck. So now I’m part of the work force. I hand it up to some guy who’s laughing at me. Some woman in a mask (presumably because of the dust) comes up to me, demanding 200,000 Vietnamese Dong for whatever I’m getting into. No other apparent option, I pay.

An hour later I'm sitting in the front of this truck with one big driver and his pint-sized buddy; they speak English as well as I speak Vietnamese. We’re bouncing along in the jet black night, down some road that is paved, then not paved, marked with houses and storefronts then with nothing but the woods of Some Where, Viet Nam. Wondering when my companions are going to stop the truck and demand more money from me for not throwing me out the window, I offer them some of the dried sugared apricots I bought in Da Lat while my original bus driver was leaving without me.

Soon the little guy, shiftiest character I’d seen in Viet Nam which is saying something, falls asleep. My head bouncing rather violently against the window, I fail to doze off. When we finally hit the main road I think maybe I’ll get some shut-eye.

Until we come to a stop in some little town at who-knows-when-o’clock. A man emerges from a dark doorway. My friends pry a box off the back of the truck and dump it on the curb for him. And we drive off. Twenty minutes later, the same. At the next stop ten minutes later the little guy tells me to get down and help.

At 7am we pass a sign for Hoi An. I point, at myself and out the window. ‘Hoi An!’ Shorty nods and gets back to staring at the road. ‘Hoi AN!’ I say again. Junior waves a ‘shut-up!’ hand at me. I try again. ‘Da Nang!’ he snarls at me. ‘HOI AN!’ I yell back. We pull into this huge parking lot to unload some boxes at this outdoor market and it is all I can do to not take my friend by the shirt and start shaking him. ‘HOI! AN!’ He looks ready to rumble, Lord knows why he insists on keeping me hostage but he is bent on taking me all the way to Da Nang. Fortunately his driver friend enjoyed the apricots; he shakes his head at his little friend and throws a thumb at my bike.

My tandem parts and panniers come off the truck coated in dust. We’re ten miles past the sign for Hoi An. The town is another ten toward the coast. As I begin putting my bike together it starts to rain.

Hoi An, thank God, is a really nice place.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What Comes of Domestic Malaise

I was rather taken aback the other day to find out it’s been over two months since my last post – not that anyone else noticed but I still feel better making up excuses for these things. You’d think without a pesky job to have to bugger off to every day I’d have more free time than Bernie Madoff and would be able to tap into my bottomless reservoir of creativity and crank something out; stuff that, while perhaps not always worth the time investment on the reader’s part, will most likely never land me in jail (now that I’ve got that little copyright infringement thing straight). But my four year old son’s YouTube kick is now entering its fifth week, and every time I pry open the old laptop these days, no matter how quietly, he hears it over his eighteen month old brother’s shrieking (due to big brother also being on this rip-every-toy-out-of-little-brother’s-hands kick) and he comes running at me full-speed, launching himself across the room and landing stomach-first on my lap, simultaneously smacking the keyboard with both hands and screaming ‘Come on, damn computer!’ (no idea where he picked that up) even though he knows damn well ‘sesame street pinball’ doesn’t start with 'slafjhlenjflab'.

I can buy him off his video fix with promises of helping him find his Halloween candy again, but then I see how much booty he still has in that cheapo pumpkin bag we were hoping would split open on him, and I have to push on with Plan B for saving his teeth and helping him maintain his skin’s elasticity, which entails me eating a few of his bite-size 100 Grand bars for him when he’s not looking and thus obliterating any hope of productivity for the next hour or two. I mean really, who can think straight let alone create another literary masterpiece with bits of peanuts and chewy caramel hanging around the bicuspids?

I’ll brush my teeth (after getting my money’s worth on the candy-pilfering), but even if I can drag my son away from the pc I’ve got the sesame street pinball song in my head – which is worse than nuts and caramel – so until the creative juices make parole I have to resort to taking my son up on his enthusiastic pleadings for a round of Sorry or Bonkers, with the unrealistic hope that if I can totally destroy him a couple of games in a row he’ll get frustrated and go back to ripping toys away from his brother.

Honestly, I can never get a minute of true creative genius out of my day until the boys are finally in bed for good. (My son is presently on this week-long kick of coming down at 9:30 every night to tell me he can’t sleep because he has a song stuck in his head, surprise surprise). But even when the kids are finally face down in their pillows I am so wigged out from getting nothing done all day (aside from being an amazing father spending all that quality time with the boys) I need a few moments to dial down the weltschmerz.

This is how, after two decades of knowing his name, finally became acquainted with Garrison Keillor.

My sister gave my mom one of Mr. Keillor’s books back in early 1988; it’s pretty much been sitting on a shelf ever since. Bibliophage that I am, I always made sure I knew where it was on the off chance I ever found myself living at home and desperate for a moment's diversion. One evening last week, trying to erase the clinical urge to go find Cookie Monster and beat him over the head with a huge flipper so I could get back to staring at the incoherence of my latest novel, I took that book off its shelf and fell into it.

In short, Garrison Keillor did quite well for himself telling stories about, among other things, a fictitious place in Minnesota called Lake Wobegon. What interested me about this guy most was that he didn’t just write stories; he sat on a stool on a stage and read his stuff out loud, able, I assume, to hypnotize the crowd into paying him for it even though they probably already bought the book. On top of this he had a thirteen-year radio gig which, based on the book I started reading last week, likely involved not a single person who could be mistaken for a Kardashian. Which made me think (and I have a whole host of family members and fictitious cookie-eating monsters to blame for the potentially-ruinous idea) that I could find similar success by digging into my mental storehouse of travel stories, broad and varied and in complete disarray (and far removed from anything Kardashi-enne), and narrating them to slideshows of photos that look convincing enough though they may or may not be of the place I am actually talking about.

The idea so excited me that I took the most easily-accessible of my travel narratives and began putting my best Morgan Freeman voice to it. Quickly realizing the folly in that I drank some more water and blew my nose and went with the deviated septum delivery God gave me. I also cut the story length by a third to squeeze it into YouTube’s allotted ten-minute time frame, as well as to give anyone listening less time to fall asleep and kill their keyboard with their own drool. (I realize that since I’m back in the USA now I need to be wary about ticking off that litigation-bent sector of the populous.)

I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t be putting this out there at all. The following narrative, though good enough to win something resembling a travel writing award earlier this year, just didn’t seem to be translating well into spoken form. Plus Morgan Freeman said (okay his agent's National Geographic contact's producer's intern's fill-in said) he was busy and couldn’t do the voice-over for me. But my twisted scrap iron will and I forged on, because maybe there’s a parent out there hearing voices through their laptop, telling them to go throttle their kid’s Elmo doll, and any form of distraction - even this - might be good for everyone involved.

Particularly if there’s no more Halloween candy in the house.

1 - Get comfortable
2 - Turn the up volume on your pc a little
3 - Make sure you don't have to go to the bathroom or anything, and