Life and adventures from a high school perspective
An avid cyclist, rock climber, and all around adventurer, Francis Davis is taking to the internet to share his stories of cycling, climbing, and adventuring.
For the last three days the class has been staying in a rural Tay ethnic village in northern Vietnam, staying with a host family. The students stay on. The second floor, in an attic of sorts. It has been about 80 degrees during the day, but cools down nicely to about 60 for sleeping every night. The house is really fascinating. It is decently large, and actually built around a large boulder Falling Water style. I’ve been particularly enjoying embracing some of the differences from Western style living. The patio, bathrooms, and kitchen are all barefoot environments. In the kitchen, there is a two burner propane stove and a perpetually burning hearth with cooking pots of rice, a smoky aroma lingering in the air. The bathrooms themselves are also interesting. Apparently in Asia the “wet bathroom” is commonplace. Basically there is no separate shower area. There is a shower nozzle hanging over the toilet. The entire bathroom gets wet. It’s very simplistic, and very interesting. I’m not sure that I prefer it to the western style, but it is certainly entertaining. These bathrooms, as well as the bathrooms in Hanoi utilize a water “bum gun” for the post going to the bathroom cleaning. I’ll leave that one up to your imagination.
These physical differences are interesting, but I’ve appreciated more studying the lifestyle differences of our host family. They have lived in this village for a long time. The accepted culture here is to stay and build on the family wealth / land, not to leave and make your own way in the world, a more western notion. These people work incredibly hard too. Over the past three days, all of the students have had the opportunity to labor in the family field. On day one, we harvested tapioca root and cleared brush. In the afternoon we used hand powered rotating machines to grind the tapioca into shreds and then spread it on the roof to dry. Some of this is used as fodder for the family’s animals, and some is sold at market. It took 18 of us nearly 3/4 of a day to get this done. It’s absolutely staggering for me to think of just the husband and the wife doing this. In the evenings, the wife weaves at a loom her husband made for her for about an hour. To try and grasp the economic benefit of her efforts, we asked her how long it took to make something and how much she could sell it for. A scarf takes over 10 hours, and she can sell it for ~$9 US or about $200k Vietnamese. That is absolutely astounding. Yesterday, it took us the entire day to rotate the soil in the field by hand. I’ve got a few blisters on my hands to speak for my efforts. Today we are going to plant corn.
Out of all of this I have found a deep respect for these people. I am unaccustomed to such hard work, day in and day out. Speaking for myself and those in my social network, we are accustomed to a 40 hour workweek with two days off. We whine on Sunday night when we have to return to school or work, dreading the next 5 days in class or at a desk. Our host family does not take breaks. While we stopped to drink water and rest in the shade, our host mother toiled away. While we take plenty of time to eat dinner and enjoy each other’s company, she is working at the loom. They are up before us to prepare our breakfast and prepare for the day. Out of this experience the greatest lesson is realized. I find myself more thankful for my life of relative comfort. When contrasting my life with the life of these people, I cannot help but be grateful for the opportunities automatically given to me. I really hope that I will never lose this sense of gratitude.
Today was another big day, involving a visit to the John McCain memorial, a crashed B52, the Women’s Museum, and a visit with one of our tour guides grandmothers. But I really want to dive in on the visit with Viet’s grandmother.
Throughout the trip, breaking bread or sharing a drink has taken on a new meaning. I have always felt the value of sharing a meal or beverage with each other, but in the language barrier magnifies the experience. When you can’t speak directly with one another, food becomes the point of connection. When 18 of us were crammed into Viet’s grandmothers small salon drinking tea, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company, I really felt this connection. To jump forward a few days at our first home stay, we had a similar experience, (sorry I’m jumping around a bit, at the time of writing I don’t have internet.) Our host family serves us three meals a day. We sometimes help cook and clean the dishes. Every time, I feel that the barrier between us is diminished. Food knows no language.
Today was a big day. Starting with breakfast, a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mosoleum and living area, the Hanoi Hilton prison where John McCain was notably held, the Confucian literary temple, an interview with a prolific North Vietnamese veteran and author, and an exploration in a night market spent eating greasy donuts and haggling for ludicrously cheap wares. I’d love to write about each of these in more depth, but for now, I’d like to share a more overarching reflection.
Hanoi is truly magical. It seems that the city possesses a liveliness greater than the sum of its parts. That was evident to me walking through today. The traffic is truly like nothing I’ve ever seen. Cyclists, pedestrians, motorbikes, and cars surge onto the road, operating on a vague level of teamwork and respect. There are no traffic laws,no speed limit, no crosswalks, and few lights. And yet everything seems to mesh together into one cohesive unit, the blood in a circulatory system that moves the people and the goods throughout the body. The streets are filled with life. Throngs of people moving about their daily lives. Sitting on scooters, smoking, conversing, making and eating food, waving. The sounds and smells are immense. I feel like I am in a place that is unfiltered and authentic. This city does not have anything to prove to anybody. The result is spectacular. Cigarette smoke, food aromas, and engine exhaust mix to form into something truly unique, the essence of Hanoi. The air is abuzz with laughter, discussion, foot movement, the varying sounds of scooters whizzing by, and invariably, the horns of motorists. Hanoi is alive. I am alive.
I feel alive in this place. Darting across the street is an endeavor in and of itself. Check both ways takes on a new meaning as you scan both directions for mostly scooters coming from all sides and at all speeds towards you. Then there is the odd car, pushing everything in its path out of the way. The crossing pedestrian must be aware of these hurtling metal machines. And yet, there is a sense of vigor to it. In the US we wait for the LED man to come on to tell us we can walk between painted lines towards the other side. Here, your life is in your own hands. The sentiment is the same in the night market. Wading through masses of people, competing voices break the auditory haze. There is no order, or at least that is not how it appears. The citizens mix on the streets, dodging trash piles and discarded food. Somehow, the experience is not cheapened by this. It is the stark difference from the U.S. that makes Hanoi so magical. Finally I go to bed thinking what tomorrow will bring, what I can ponder, learn, and realize about the benefits of the unfamiliar. All in the streets of Hanoi. Of course, some favorite pictures from the day below.
We are currently 1:05 minutes away from landing in Taipei. I’m already tired, my only salvation being the copious amounts of weak and milky coffee on the airplane. We’ve been traveling for exactly 23 hours. It seems already so far away that thirteen other students and I set off from Hawken in a charter bus towards Toronto, bright-eyed. I gaze across the cabin now looking at these same people, eyes now weary and fatigued. It‘s a 16 hour plane ride from Toronto to Taipei, followed by a 4 hour layover and finally a 2 hour flight into the northern Vietnamese city of Hanoi. The traveling is long but I am certain worthwhile. It keeps me going right now, imagining the beauty of Vietnam. Right now I am envisioning my first bowl of pho on the ground in Vietnam, the luscious steam enveloping my senses and the warm broth inviting me in for more. But right now it’s back to the drudgery of the airplane. It’s honestly not awful. The plane is awesomely large. There have been three meals, orange and apple juice, tea, coffee, and aromatherapy mists in the restrooms. It is not these creature comforts that will be memorable on this trip, but it’s worthwhile to mention it in the interim.
I’m more excited about being without the creature comforts, without the control that I am so accustomed to. Being lost in a busy Vietnamese market, unable to communicate and hungry, but being OK. Perhaps that is what I’m most looking forward to, developing my resilience to the unfamiliar situation. I predict that this will be Vietnam’s greatest gift. Besides that, I am enthusiastic about immersion in a new culture with different customs, ways of living, food, and societal structure. As well as Facebook, I will try to provide updates here periodically, with pictures, of course.