An Illicit Ride
The first 24 hours here were a bit of a blur. There’s not much organization visible around the village – not the way the kids expected, at any rate. Really, it seems almost impossible to have much organization at all – nearly pointless. The effort required to mind so many of these children requires single-mindedness and a sort of courage that renders any bunch of visitors fairly irrelevant. They are not here for us, is the first lesson of the day.
All of the “classes” are meditative, simple tasks. The children seem to follow their own obscure schedule, which expires when their patience expires. Then they chase after each other through the paths of the village. They’re laughing at each other and chirping around the sharp edged sounds of saw blades and the constant drone of commercial undertaking from the small town that surrounds us.
The town outside is a mystery for the first day. Given the importance of the friendship village to our visit, it’s overwhelming and natural. I can hear the normal life of exurban Hanoi outside and feel the dust from the unpaved road clogging my nostrils, but it’s hard to imagine the Friendship Village is not the source of industry – that the guy crouched over his disembodied axle with a spot welder is not happy, or feigning happy to see me.
there’ll be time for all that later, of course. For now our world is gently buffered by the shrieks and silent grins and gentle hand holding glow of the village. And that’s not so bad.
A day or two pass, and the walls no longer seem so absolute. Our understanding of where we are in space grows with the discovery of the local market and its display of headless dogs. Strange fruits start to appear on the tables at night and we begin to know the road will be silent as the grave after 10. Unless there’s an accident.
I don’t know if it is just the time of year in Hanoi for low slung clouds? The sky is pregnant, and every night after dusk the cloud cover dissipates just enough to let a breeze through and the rain holds itself back for another day. It’s comfortable weather now, maybe 25 degrees and the walls sweat, but I take comfort in knowing it’s raining like hell somewhere not far away.
It’s afternoon, and I’m sitting in the kitchen garden of the friendship village, watching some last noble bits of sunshine lift a haze off a flooded red river delta field. Lilies grow out of the green muck where the girls yesterday saw a yellow snake dip out from a tree limb while they were gardening. I can see the trail it disturbed across the water now.
This place must have been country once not long ago, but no longer. Columns of trucks belch fumes and dust up behind them on their way back from the building sites at night. Hanoi is hopskotching the stages between farmland and suburb with the brash self-confidence of central europe after the wall. Here there are still ancient temples with Han characters decorating the walls. Snakes fall from the trees and women walk back and forth from the market crossroad carrying inscrutable burdens in bizarre contraptions. Meanwhile, fields of duplex homes wait empty – glassless windows, empty eye sockets, empty garages. Where are all the people who will live here one day? There are thousands of these houses. Is it a government project to relocate the slums of Hanoi like the doomed Hutong of Beijing or is it some shady joint venture that’s a few months away from making a few men very rich while a vacant terracotta barracks crumbles waiting for an absent army to come cut the grass on Saturdays?
The kids decided that they wanted to try riding motorbikes today. I talked them out of driving by warning of the many complications of a clutch, but they couldn’t be swayed from the possibility of clinging behind a bunch of thugs on scooter taxis at 35km/hour. My driver grinned a gappy grin and patted the seat as the kids paired up and climbed on their rides. It was a potentially catastrophic bit of fun that I kept trying to convince myself was harmless. Mexicali Blues I was thinking, as Jerry peeled off into another guitar solo and my man gunned his tinny Dream to life.
Cherish well your thoughts and keep a tight grip on your booze…
We cruised past the market, cut left in front of a leaking old water truck that gushed canal sludge back onto the rutted dirt road and soon twisted out into open country (more or less). I pointed my camera wherever the driver pointed
Every few meters he’d spray a few words back at me, which I dutifully repeated until he stopped saying them. They were, I assume, the words for: cemetery, shrine, construction lot, satellite dish, there’s a huge bump in the road…
He sprayed it back, I wiped it off the side of my face and spit it back onto the dusty pavement. The wind caught his shirt and exposed a bit of scorpion tattooed on his shoulder in prison black and red. He pointed at my finger and sprayed something, then yanked his shirt down a bit further, showing off lines and strokes of Chinese script that spilled off like bits of pasta across a sink. This guy was serious, and I wished he’s just be more serious about steering the motorbike. “Ok, later,” I told him, hoping he got the idea. He seemed to. The spraying moved on to other topics and his shirt went back over his chest just in time to avert a potentially creative disaster involving a drainage ditch an old woman, a pig and a patch of gravel.
Is there anything a man don’t stand to lose when the devil wants to take it all away?
It’s a comfortable role for me, I realized, to allow just a little. The kids have relatively modest aspirations for mischief on this trip so far: they want to stay up late, they want to import snake wine, they want to sneak a beer here and there and they want to ride bitch on a goatsbreath motorbike, clinging to a gang of Vietnamese ex-cons. Some things are within my limited jurisdiction, after all. A couple of them bump fists up ahead and their drivers give it a little more gas. Paddies of neon tufts fly by and schoolgirls wave from their quiet bicycles, smiling from behind their masks, I imagine. Well alright.
The song was almost wound down and the sun was making another periodic comeback over the lily pond flats. I just finally saw the snake. There was a subtle shift of light on the broad-leafed water lilies. A dragonfly leapt to life and I spotted the snake’s sleek head poised up from the plants, taking me in. Watching me watching him. Then he was gone, just that fast, and it was time to eat.