We were talking the other day about our lives this time last year. I'd recently spent the whole of the sunny Labor Day weekend inside transcribing tapes for a story that was set to be my big break, until the national women's magazine who'd wanted to publish it dropped it at the last minute due to "lack of space"---or, more likely, lack of interest.
The first day we arrived in Hoi An, we took a walk around the town to get our bearings. We've taken to doing this as soon as we set down our backpacks in a new place, because the bus will either drop us at an out-of-the-way hotel, hoping we'll choose to stay there so the busdriver gets his commission, or we'll become immediately disoriented by the vendors who jump on us as we arrive, trying to sell us all manner of things. Cigarettes? No thanks, we don't smoke. Fake photocopied books? No thanks, read 'em all. Two-for-one shots at Klub Krazy Apple?
Seeing an elephant when you're not expecting to see an elephant can come as quite a surprise. We were walking around a very deserted part of Hue's old Imperial City a few days ago, talking about something mundane---who bought the last bottle of water, perhaps, because this is what we seem to be spending our entire food and lodging budget on, damn this threat of dehydration, why can't we buy more Oreos instead?---when Sean suddenly looked up and said "Oh, wow."
It's impossible to prepare yourself for Vietnam. It's also impossible, upon arrival, to arm yourself with an eloquent response to Vietnam. I believe my own was "whoa, they actually do wear the pointy hats!" Sean's, I think, was "Dude. So many people!"
I've been in some fairly disconcerting situations in my 26 years. The time I bounced through a Thai thunderstorm at 30,000 feet while the flight attendants screamed and clutched each other springs to mind, as does the moment the man next to me---pre-9/11---suddenly got down on all fours on the subway in Barcelona and started wailing and praising Allah. And yes, there was, of course, that time those toothless drunk men crashed into the back of my car and then started telling me about the gun they had in the trunk.
The beauty of traveling in a foreign country where most people don't speak English is that you're free to discuss the workings (or failings) of your digestive tract in public without anyone around you raising an eyebrow. You should be sure, however, that when you accidentally slam your foot into a bicycle pedal and unleash a torrent of expletives hitherto only heard in a Sex Pistols interview circa 1978 that you're not standing in front of a tour group of bemused schoolteachers from Dayton, Ohio, who are hardly able to hide their mirth, but are neverthless impressed with your vocabulary.
So you may have noticed that my website just DISAPPEARED FROM THE INTERNET for a few days. My mother certainly did; I received a worried text message from her this afternoon that said "Are you okay? We can't read Nothing But Bonfires! Daddy is getting with withdrawal symptoms. How are you doing?" (My dad, by the way, is this site's biggest fan. He reads every post voraciously while eating his lunch at his office and he has his favorites among my regular commenters, some of whom he likes to discuss over dinner.
You've never been lost until you've been lost in China. After three hours on the train, we arrived this morning in Hangzhou---a place we'd only decided to visit because a man we'd met in a bar the night before we left Singapore called it "the St. Tropez of China," which, um, it's totally not---and promptly got on a bus going completely the wrong way.
I realized yesterday why people go traveling; there's something so gloriously alluring about getting to a place and a point where you don't understand a thing that's going on.