Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Stream: Getting There

^ The Stream

They often say when going someplace new that getting there is half the adventure. 

In the case of my recent trip through the Vietnamese countryside, I'd have to bump that fraction up to at least two-thirds. 

Which is to say, I had quite a wild ride. 

But let me back up and explain a few things. 

* * * * *

My daughter's Vietnamese boyfriend and his family offered to take my daughters and me on a day trip. "Let's go to the spring," Ky said. And I'm sure it was he because his parents don't speak a squeak of English. 

Of course, we gladly accepted their offer. It wasn't until much later that the three of us put our heads together and realized we knew almost nothing about the plan. There seemed to be swimsuits and a picnic lunch involved, which were certainly encouraging omens. So I just put my faith in Ky's family and went with the flow. 

Bright and early on the big day, we gathered at Ky's house on our motor bikes and prepared for the first leg of the journey. Mysterious bags of food were stashed into the seat compartments and riding partners were assigned: my third-born with her boyfriend, my second-born with his mother, and I would be riding with Ky's father. 

Who speaks, as I noted, not a squinch of English. 

Well, no worries. I was perfectly willing to cruise along in comfortable silence and enjoy the scenery. In fact, I was looking forward resting my overtaxed communication senses for the half-hour ride. 

So imagine my surprise when, just a few minutes into our trip, Papa began to speak. 

Wait. You're talking to me??

Yes, he most certainly was. I leaned forward, strained my ears, and used up a reasonable quota of "I beg your pardon?" -s before I sat back in confusion, mulling over this unexpected attempt at conversation and trying to make sense of his sentence. 

A full thirty seconds later, it hit me. My brain suddenly unscrambled the message and as clear as a bell, I understood. 

"I don't speak English."

Oh. Oh! That's fine

Relieved, I was sure that I grasped his point. "I won't be able to chat with you. Let's just ride in peace."

But I was dead wrong. 

For the next half hour, I clung to the back of my bike and turned my brain inside out as I tried everything in my power to decipher Papa's commentary. He pointed earnestly at the scenery, apparently punctuating his gestures with observations and backstories. I caught a few words here and there but honestly, I made precious little sense of his enthusiastic conversation.  

 * * * * *
We wound our way out of the city and along the shore of Da Nang Bay. Just as we began to climb into the jungly mountainside, Papa abruptly pulled into what looked like a Cold War-era transportation depot. The others soon joined us, our bikes were whisked onto an ancient flatbed truck, and we were deposited onto tiny red plastic chairs to wait. 

But what are we waiting for?

Eventually, I figured it out. Up ahead lay a long tunnel that led travelers from one side of the mountains to the other. But due to rough road conditions, motorcycles are not allowed in the tunnel. Our bikes would make the transit on the back of the truck, and we would be ferried through in an equally aged bus. 

Our stifling journey through the mines of Moria was soon accomplished and we came out to find ourselves in a mid-sized fishing village. Back aboard our bikes, Papa's monologue resumed as we made our way out of town. 

City streets gave way to country roads.

Asphalt gave way to packed red soil. 

Two full-sized lanes gave way to a cow path. 

On one particularly steep and gravelly grade, I had to hop off the bike and hike up the hill on foot. 

We passed grazing cattle ("Cow!" Papa pronounced proudly), Hindu cemeteries, and toothless old grannies who came out to pat my arms in amazement. Papa seemed to know everyone, waving and smiling to all the country folk who stood and stared at the white woman on the back of his bike. 

Curiously, every now and then, an improvised barrier would block our progress. Nearby, usually under a tarp in the shade, would be an unlikely toll collector, typically a woman with a flock of youngsters. After a flurried exchange of Vietnamese and the passing of a few bills, the handmade gates were lifted - often by the children - and our journey continued. 

Just when I thought we were about to fall off the edge of the earth, we came to a parking lot. 

Well. More like a bare patch of dirt at the end of what was now passing for a road. A mesh canopy provided shade for the fleet of forty or so motorcycles parked underneath. 

We gathered up our packs and parcels, and headed to the far corner of the parking space only to find - you guessed it - a barely discernible footpath leading off into the jungle. 

What in the world could possibly happen next?!

Despite every crazy moment of the journey up till now, I was not prepared for the answer. In moments, I found myself traipsing through a primitive and very busy cookhouse where a darling five year old girl chopped the head offf a live chicken before my very eyes. Papa negotiated the price on a block of ice then led us forth. 

At long last, the path gave way altogether, but we kept moving. Now we were scrambling over rocks - some the size of convenient step stones, others were massive boulders that required a two-handed heave-ho and some sure-footed climbing. 

I was so busy with this mountain goat routine that I didn't see our final destination until I literally stepped inside. 

We were in a tree house. Yes, literally, I stepped up onto a wooden platform, maybe 5 x 10 feet in size, built among the branches of a huge tree. A blue tarp created shade overhead; a simple woven mat lay on the floor. As my brain caught up with my eyes, I realized that there were dozens more of these platforms beyond ours, built into other trees and suspended over the boulders that toppled down the hillside. 

In the middle of this rustic village lay a series of pools, cascading down from one level to the next. And each pool was filled with cheerful swimmers, the air rent with the sounds of their splashing and Vietnamese chatter. 

Finally, our long, highly adventurous journey had ended and I now understood our mission. This, ladies and gentlemen, was The Stream. And  despite the fact that I had seemingly used up a lifetime's worth of drama, novelty and excitement in just an hour of travel, there was plenty more adventure yet to come. 

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