Faraway Faces At The Village
Unbelievably, six days have passed. The heap of rubble that used to be houses T3 and T4 is no visibly lower, but the trucks continue to tear in and out all day and night. The people who work on the heap, mouths bandaged against the dust, watch us with a sort of curiosity that hinges on pity. Maybe they think we too are damaged, to want to come here to the back of beyond to hang out with these children. We have come thousands of miles. We wear expensive shoes to play football on a concrete lot. We drag camera shops along with us to record every successful shit we take. It’s not hard to imagine why they would question us and, in this case, we can enjoy the blessing of not being obliged to provide an answer.
After a week, all of our kids are settling in to a routine. Actually, it’s not fair to call them kids. The older ones, high school juniors, are of the age that they recognize their own ability to influence things around them. They know where they sit – kings and queens of the hill, despite their own relative hardships and challenges, they sit square on top of the hill. They’re all enjoying that first look around. Diplomat’s sons, like the song says, but they’ll do far better still than their parents.
Adriano and Arash are starting to look at what the town has to offer. They seem overwhelmed by the difficulties faced by the children here – in awe of their own power to help and yet to remain an unaffected “normal”. They’re very well grounded, all things considered: the place, the heat, the complete absence of any “safe”, quiet sanctuary that is wearing on all of us. Everything in Vietnam is contagious – the way all liquid in the lavatoryturns to piss when you’re taking a piss.
Kristine, Eva and Patti seem to have formed their own action unit, despite appearing to be three different takes on oil and water. They each possess that disarming awareness of their place in the world and how to work it to their best advantage. Like the guys, they somewhat miraculously value their ability to be positive over their ability to get what they want at any cost. Their generation will bring us another Freya Stark and another Rebecca West, despite being weaned off the nylon tit of YouTube and indie rock. Sad to think I’ll possibly be too old and grumpy to enjoy their unique truths when time gives some perspective on their laying out.
Lucie and Louisa, the youngest two on the trip, have their very own dynamic that nearly defies description. It’s like a feedback loop in a Beach Boys song, that starts off saccharine and melodic, but turns nebulous and fantastic at the drop of a hat. All day long they patiently, quietly observe the world around them go by. They take photos, they peer round corners, poke at the meatflys and they take it all in. At night, they retreat to their room, turn the music on and turn into teenagers again. Not one time have any of us heard a cynical or complaining word come from either of them. I wish, thinking back to when I was their age, that I would have had the guts to do half of what they have done on this strange trip. More likely, the courage to even get on the plane would not have entered my mind. Where these two are headed is a mystery that rings out and gleams.
Then, finally, there’s Lucy and Mai, her cousin who joined us at the airport in Hanoi and has been an integral part of our gang ever since. These two have such undeniable energy and natural leadership – they are both patient and good and sweet, and without them none of us would be here. Lucy is the kind of girl that everyone is happy and proud to know – not because she will probably be the president of one country or another someday (which she will), but because her goodness is infectious. She gathers people around her with a smile and they can’t help but stay and listen to what else she has to say.
It’s impossible with this gang to pick favorites or talk in circles. They’re all whip-smart and funny enough to take seriously at every word.
Our last day was so painfully slow. The clock hands must have gone round a thousand times before breakfast. Sitting there, we were all imagining – what was going on right at this instant that we were missing? What had happened just before that? Would these people really notice our absence? Would bonds endure and could we call these moments the seeds of friendship? Eggs sat untouched and pomelos sat untouched. Even the epic hairy dog seemed put upon by some massive weight. Of course, dogs always do.
Today is the culmination of all the planned activities and I feel particularly as though I haven’t made enough effort to shoot the really meaningful bits of what has happened here. The camera was always on my knees, staring at the pleather walls of the minivan stupidly. I hope it’s just my own nerves. In the eight tapes thus far shot, there has got to be something worth the watching. I truly hope there is, because we’ve all come so far and given so much. I am afraid because there’s not yet been that stand-out moment so far. There’s usually something that slips through the viewfinder and attached itself to the inside of your brain, but this trip has been full of surprises so far, and there’s bound to be one or two more. We’ll see if one is hiding amid the ones and zeroes once back in Prague.
Somehow, we all managed the leaving. Hugs and tears, gifts and fist bumps, exchanges of emails.
There seems to be quite some will to return here. The children battered our sorry pinata with the woven willow strands Czech village people use to train the butts of their young women every easter. It’s a truly incongruous, weird sight to see – all these sick, damaged, ecstatic children flailing away at our shapeless pinata with pomlazky, bits of crepe paper flying through the air. Finally, Thuon, the sweet, hyperactive, deaf little boxer who normally clings to me like peanut butter runs up to the misshapen thing, rips it out of the bizarre rope sling the kids have hung it in and kicks a hole in the center of it for the waiting gang of candy-starved kids. Why we couldn’t have given them some healthy mandarins, bananas or figs is beyond me, but live and learn. This gang is going to be wired for a week after all the sugar we’ve given them.
The sun started to go and the van was waiting. Airport time. I saw the gang off, got left back in the center of Hanoi – one last kindness of Lucy and Mai’s amazing family – and again, all of a sudden, I was on my own, with the silence of a foreign language fluttering around my ears.
The next day I sorted my ticket to Hoi An before 8 a.m., leaving a whole long day for wandering around. After lunchtime, I stumbled into a garden courtyard just off sword lake. It was “Madame Hien”, a restaurant started by Didier Corlou, the head chef of the world famous Metropole hotel. I splurged 400 CZK on a 5 course lunch that would have cost thousands in Prague, had there been anyone in the city capable of preparing it. The restaurant is on 15 Chan Cam, Hoan Kiem in Hanoi, and if you are in town for a week – check it out. It you’re in town for a day, check it out. If you’re in town just long enough to race from the airport to meet with the president and then back to catch the next jet out, skip the old bugger and check it out. Mr. Corlou has built a shrine to Hanoi’s street food.
Somehow I managed to shovel myself onto the 7pm train, stuffed, exhausted and ready for the long sleep of the conquering hero. I kicked off my not-so-new-anymore Meindls and squirmed up onto my berth just in time to clear the path for the chattering family of four who were to share my cabin.
I hopped down to say hello and greeted the kids with a friendly ease that surprised me most of all. They were smiling, laughing, bouncing, whining, NORMAL, bratty little kids and within an hour we were famous friends. The parents relaxed while Jonathan and Rachel pulled on my ears, slapped my high-fives and paid play tolls to run up and down the corridor – much to the dismay of the Bavarian weight loss club who occupied the rest of the car.
Everyone I’ve met thus far here who has seen Bara and I together or seen her picture tells us we should have kids. This is normal in most places of the world, but it’s somewhat more elaborated here. I was confused by the insistence and asked Thai – the young train attendant in charge of our car – about it. It was later on at this point. Simon, the dad, was busily trying to trick the kids into going to sleep and I was trying to do my part by crouching out in the corridor with my iPod (Grizzly Bear) until I received the all’s clear.
“She’s beautiful,” Thai explained, pointing to Bara’s picture in my wallet. “You make beautiful baby, make the world beautiful.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
“How much?” he asked, pulling at my headphone cables. “How much dong?” I must have slept at some point.
The next day, I stepped out of the taxi in Hoi An and was on my own again. The demanding chatter of the kids faded behind me – the slamming of the ashtray in the back of the Toyota, the call and response of brotherly taunts and sisterly howls. I got ripped off for a mandarin – 10,000 dong (enough for a bag full of them) at the edge of the old market – but I couldn’t care. I smiled at the woman selling the things and peeled it greedily, tossing green bits of skin onto the ground impatiently and tearing into the fruit. Its juice ran all down my face and hands. I ate like a pig, the way we do after a herculean bike ride or a long day of working out of doors. The juice dried like lightning in the hot air, bits of pulp stuck to my fingers. I walked to the edge of Bach Dang street where the market hovered right up to the rippling edge of the Hoi An river. I’ve seen good water like this before, I realized. Milky with the silt of miles and miles of farmland run unstoppably down countless hillsides, through myriad ditches on the plains, effortlessly past the labour poured into hoes and spades, poured into the land that gives rice and garlic and cucumbers and ngo. And that land goes into the water and becomes the mother of other land.
I knelt down on the edge of the river and rinsed my hands in the milky flow of it as the market women and xe om drivers and others watched me and thought about who cares what. Then I splashed my face with it and walked off to look for a hotel, refreshed.
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