Yesterday: Navigating Through the Traffic
I made it. After a harrowing taxi ride through a flurry of scooters six-deep in a road designed for two lanes of traffic, I was dropped off at Ms. Hay’s Vietnamese Community Volunteering (VCV) Centre. I was late for the meet-and-greet lunch date in the Nam Tu Liem business district of Hanoi, Vietnam. The traffic lacked any rhyme or reason to it in a haze of pollution that was testament to the almost eight million people that lived here. My driver pointed me in the direction of a tall grey cylindrical building. He seemed relieved to be rid of me because he did not speak English and could not answer my questions.
I was left to wander apprehensively with the address in hand, until a security guard sitting outside of a bank took pity on me. He walked me to another building where one of the ESL teachers, Jackie from Texas, met me. She was a tall, curly-haired girl with the look of a well-seasoned traveller, and she moved with ease around pedestrians and traffic in this urban high rise jungle while telling me all about VCV. We headed up to the 5th floor of a run-down office building where I was met by the aroma of ginger, garlic and fish sauce. A small group of lean travellers were huddled over a kitchen table. When we arrived, they stood up to welcome me like I was a long lost friend.
“You made it!” Ms. Hay grabbed both of my hands with her wet ones that she had just pulled from the sink of dishes. She quickly introduced me to everyone who became a blur of tanned faces. “This is Natalie from Calgary, Canada that I was telling you about. She is a teacher.”
I nodded and smiled, hungover from my jet lag. Everything felt surreal and I attributed it to hunger and some shock at my recent and sudden decision to leave my job and everyone back in Canada, in particular, my boyfriend Kyle. I pulled off my wet rain jacket and sweaty backpack and set them in the corner. I was immediately fit into the company of six people perched over steaming pho chicken noodle soup and spring rolls. Along with Jackie, who had proven to be a pleasant woman who excitedly told me about her life exploring South East Asia on her gap year, Cam was a retired military lieutenant from the States with balding grey-hair and bright blue eyes. A New Zealand couple, Emily and John appeared to be newly-weds because they held hands and giggled quite a bit. George was a quiet, middle-aged doctor from Sydney, Australia of East Indian descent. He looked eager to start eating.
Ms. Hay had a policy that anyone that came to visit the centre needed to be interviewed by the group. Because it was Northern Vietnam in a communist country, she could not afford to pay people legally to be instructors at VCV, given some of the work visa stipulations. However, she could provide room and board, wifi and other amenities that could make the “volunteering” experience affordable.
Cam, clearly the oldest in the group, explained that he had served in Vietnam during the war. “I love working here. I’ve been here for six months. I found out I had cancer a couple of years ago, and decided to come back and buy a place in Danang. I live there for next to nothing, and I work here for a few months at a time to help people out and to get to know new people from around the world. Also, Ms. Hay is an amazing cook.” Everyone agreed smiling appreciatively at their hostess while we slurped at their soup and sipped lotus tea. I could feel the energy of this group’s camaraderie as we visited and got to know each other. Relationships were often forged quickly when like-minded travellers of every shape, size and colour came together in unexpected ways. I had shared many evenings with globe-trotting hostellers in the common areas of kitchens, porches or living rooms, sometimes in guitar sing-alongs or competitive games of crib or chess. I found that solo travellers often connected in powerful and unexplainable ways as we shared, quite vulnerably, our experiences with people that we would likely never see again. This friendly gathering here in this fragrant, humble Vietnamese kitchen of mismatched plates, glasses and utensils, felt familiar to me, and I was immediately interested in becoming part of this community.
Vietnamese students ranging in age from 19 to 30 started pouring in the side of the kitchen. They chatted amongst themselves in broken English while we finished our meal. Ms. Hay waved them into the other room while we cleared some of the table. “We are taking the students to the museum today. We hope you will join us,” she said. The New Zealand couple, Emily and John added, “You didn’t think you would be thrown into the deep end today, did you?” The remaining dishes were left on the table with the explanation that everyone could tackle them later.
“Sure,” I was enthusiastic, but nervous. “Sounds like fun.”
“We will pair you up with one of the better scooter drivers, Nga.” Ms. Hay waved Nga over and introduced us. The student bowed slightly and laughed with me and everyone around her as I stammered out questions about riding a scooter. Her graciousness would normally have put me at ease, but the thought of jumping onto the back of one of these motorbikes terrified me.
Before I knew it, they were fitting me with a tight helmet. Once on the bike behind her, I held her slender body with one arm and used the other to clench the handle of the seat. The other dozen or so scooters coupled with students and some teachers, zipped by me giving me a thumbs up. I forced a smile and chided myself for carelessly agreeing to travel on the back of a stranger’s scooter, while also secretly wishing that someone would take a picture of me to prove that I had done it. George from Australia smiled as he passed by me on the back of another scooter, holding his seat with both hands. He appeared at ease in our buzzing swarm.
The afternoon passed easily with me speaking in English to enthusiastic adult students about the exhibits and artefacts in this small and out-dated natural history museum. I learned that they came to VCV once or twice a week to learn English from the international volunteers. George was animated with the many students that surrounded him as they snickered at his jokes. They were enterprising students describing dreams of building businesses in a communist world. One petite single mother talked about wanting to help her family get ahead in the family store. Another young male student who was my shadow the entire afternoon, explained that he helped with his father’s restaurant. He asked more questions than the rest of the students and wanted to see some pictures of Canada. At this point, George peeked over my shoulder while I flipped self-consciously through my photos. I shared a few key moments in my life over the past year of my house, my friends and family, and some Rocky Mountain hiking shots.
I fast-forwarded past pictures of work and my failed relationship, as I was not really interested in talking about it. Kyle was a very busy financial investment consultant, and was so distracted by his life of work that it became obvious that I would never be a priority in his life. He was rarely present with me because there was always something that he had to do, or somewhere he had to be.
George took quite an interest in my hiking. “I’ve always wanted to hike in Canada. I hear it is a lot like New Zealand.” His brown pupils dilated underneath thick black fringes. Intense eye contact always challenged me. I changed the subject and turned to the students, “Tell me how you would say this in Vietnamese?” and then pointed to a skeleton of a man. All of the students were more than willing to teach me Vietnamese as George and I rallied English back and forth with them.
We ended the museum tour in the museum cafe, drinking jasmine tea and re-living highlights of the afternoon. “Have you had a chance to see the show of the water puppets in the Old Quarter?” Jackie asked. “It features stories about the legends of Hanoi and Thap Rua Island in Hoan Kiem Lake. The performers operate the wooden puppets from behind a screen in the water and it has a very real feel to it.” Cam joined in to add how to find it, offering to give me his map.
While we enjoyed some satay chicken skewers, Ms. Hay expressed that she was eager to bring me on board with the group, most likely because I played the piano and music was a definite need in the program. “I am interested in joining your team for a month,” I confirmed and we worked out details of moving my gear from my guesthouse to their location the next day. In our rush to get to the museum, I had only briefly glanced at the large VCV dorm rooms for single teachers, and the private rooms for couples. They were basic and clean, and I was looking forward to the company of this happy group. I bowed out of their offer to take me back to my guest house today by scooter, but I accepted George’s offer to walk me home because I was still unsure of the city, my directions and navigating the traffic.
After some cheerful good-bye’s, George and I made our way through the busy streets back to the guest house past the magical Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake. Through the foggy, smoggy twilight, I marvelled at the classical red Rising Sun Bridge that spanned the water between where I stood on shore and the pagoda temple on the small Jade Island in the middle of the water. The thought of walking hand-in-hand here with Kyle, made my heart ache a little bit with the loss of our relationship. Whereas, George walked beside me with his hands solidly in his pockets. He was quite a bit taller than me, very tanned by nature, and fit, likely from hiking in Australia. Knowing that I liked to hike, we stopped a couple of times so that he could show me his iPhone photos of his Cape to Cape Trek in the southwestern corner of Western Australia. After that, he talked casually about the local culture, as he advised me of what and where to eat, and how to get around Hanoi. I found his company comfortable and undemanding and let him lead the conversation without feeling a need to participate much other than to nod and smile. I was exhausted.
When it came to crossing one of the main roads, I froze, uncertain of where to break through the steady stream of scooters as their focussed, masked drivers weaved around each other. There were no rules and few stop lights. He grabbed my hand, coercing me to follow him into the dangerous road where there was no intersection. “Just walk slowly and they will move around you,” he instructed. I hesitated at first, and finally agreed to let him lead me through this torrential traffic. At one point, we stood for several seconds in the centre of the flow of vehicles with no place to go as people drove around us like a stream parting for boulders. Drivers honked to let us know that they were aware of us until we finally saw an opportunity to run to the other side. “Oh my God!” I exclaimed as we reached the sidewalk. He let out a deep laugh at my terror and offered to buy me some ginger tea on the corner.
We sat quietly sipping the tangy golden concoction while perching on tiny little plastic chairs that reminded me of children’s furniture. It afforded us a chance to watch the frenetic world whiz by us in our little social bubble. Someone offered to clean my shoes. Another came up and showed me soft and colourful silk scarves. We enjoyed each other in companionable silence. The entire time, I was very aware of George’s steady presence without ever really looking at him.
Last Night: Sleeper Car to Chiang Mai
It had been difficult to sleep the first few days of arriving in Hanoi. I was 13 hours ahead of my home time-zone, and in this day and night reversal, my body was spinning upside down. As well, this busy street below me in this hotel, came to life at just about the same time that my circadian rhythms wanted to shut down. The fragrant beef and chicken bun and pho that the little restaurant served at the base of the stairs, tempted me. Regardless, I was determined after my busy day at the museum, to just go to bed. I washed the city dirt off of me in my room’s little electric shower. The large, hard empty mattress felt delicious to my sore body in this simply decorated room with only one painting adorning it of the famous Halong Bay. It took very little time for me to lose myself to sleep and the ensuing dreams that had been so viscerally present over the past few weeks.
When I inquired about the seat, a friendly looking Canadian in shorts and a T-shirt with a flag on his backpack, introduced himself as Bryan. He welcomed me to sit beside him on the sleeper train heading from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I was relieved to sit next to a friendly face. The aisle was narrow in second class and we were served tea by the steward who walked around to collect our 881 baht for tickets. “Where are you heading?” Bryan made small talk with me once I sat down and fit my backpack under the seat.
“Chiang Mai,” I answered, happy to be off of my feet.
“Me too,” he grinned. “We have quite a bit of sleeping to do before we get there. Have you travelled by sleeper train before?”
“Yes, in Egypt. I barely made it from Cairo to Luxor alive. The tracks were so rough. We stopped several times through the night. Will it be that way on this train, do you think?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Most of my friends told me that they drugged themselves up so that they could sleep. They had nothing bad to report though. I’m not really big on sleep medication, so it is bound to be a long night.” He wore a blue baseball cap and dark curls sprung out from underneath it fringing a freckled face. His eyes held mine for a few seconds as he seemed familiar.
“Me neither, although I can sleep through pretty much anything most of the time…trains, planes and automobiles. It’s a gift,” I joked nervously. I realized that despite having a fair amount of common sense, I was really just a lucky world traveller. So far, God had given me the grace of no muggings or worse. I relied quite a bit on intuition, and my gut was telling me that this guy was just another Canadian in between jobs trying to figure himself out on the cheap in South East Asia.
After sharing travel stories about Bangkok, he successfully dozed off, and I found my way to the shared bathroom for this car. The train was bouncing around like a bronco. I was careful to hold on, first, to the door, and then the bathroom walls while I attempted to latch the wooden door locked behind me. I grasped the sink as the train lurched sideways and caught my face in the mirror. My red curly hair had fallen loose out of its elastic that had attempted a pony tail and I was in need of some make-up to hide my pallor. Undoing my pants and then finally squatting over a tiny silver toilet seat without falling over was a major feat while the clattering of the tracks vibrated beneath my feet. I sat for quite awhile on the toilet seat, appreciating the privacy. Someone knocked at the door, and I gathered myself together for the wobbly trek back to my seat.
Later, the steward pulled down our bed assuming that we were married. We agreed to share a bunk because our stuff and each other would likely be safer in the same cubicle. “Blankets in between us, please.” He nodded in agreement, and raised his hand and three fingers in the “scouts honour” salute. For some reason, I trusted him. I had learned that when travelling, I had to evaluate in the moment the pros and cons of who to trust. In this case, we could help each other out as we both needed to sleep.
After the bed was lowered, and the window curtains were closed, the steward pulled the aisle curtain around us into an intimate cocoon, snapping it shut from the outside. Bryan laid on his back with his arms underneath his head. I turned to him, seeing the stubble on his chin, and let out an awkward laugh of us being complete strangers in this tiny bed together. He looked as shy as I felt, and was also smiling at our unconventional circumstsances. Underneath the blankets we were provided, I loosened and undid my clothing, and the gentle rocking of the train took hold of me. I curled up like a cat near Bryan’s warm body and slept.
My phone alarm jolted me awake to remind me that I needed to get ready for Ms. Hay to pick me up. The lubricious feeling of Bryan lying next to me in my dreams still lingered. I tried to hold the image of him in my mind, but the more that I grasped at it, the more he faded away and finally disappeared. Oddly, I had been having regular dreams about this same person over the past few months. These dreams were always set en route somewhere. In each dream he reintroduced himself to me as if we were meeting for the first time. Other times, he was very familiar. Once, in a dream, we had made love. One time we were married. Sometimes we were younger, and at other times, I caught grey in his hair and he was wearing reading glasses. This time, we were merely companions on a train, but the light freckles, the low timbre of his voice, and his energetic presence were the same in every dream. I had mentioned these recurring dreams to my girlfriend, Leanne, and she was fascinated. I explained to her that my grandmother had described similar dreams about my grandfather long before they had finally met. “Natalie, have you actually met this person somewhere before? Is this someone you have seen on television or a movie? How exciting it is to have a lover in your subconscious world. You should see a hypnotherapist and find out who he is. Maybe you can find him…”
Today: Moving to the French Quarter
The Internet connection in the guesthouse hotel was intermittent, and I could not download files, or upload pictures to my email or social media sites. I noticed nothing from Kyle in my messenger in-boxes, and I told him to “fuck off” in my head. “What an ass!” I thought of him busy at his work, ignoring the fact that his girlfriend had left him after several attempts at trying to reach him. After being ignored for a few days after his birthday, it inspired me to make a drastic decision. I gave notice to my surprised supervisor for a year’s leave of absence and booked a flight to the other side of the world. Kyle’s apathy of my feelings gave the term “negligence” a new meaning. It was obvious that our relationship had meant pretty little to him for him to drop me so easily. He was probably still caught up in the legal suit that he was involved in with someone from Ontario, but I thought that at least he would have noticed that I had left enough to acknowledge me or even to say good-bye.
George and Ms. Hay showed up at the front door, and helped me load my large backpack and satchel into their van. “Good morning, Natalie!” she pronounced my name with some difficulty. George came around to help me with my bags and held my hands tenderly with a slight bow. He was formal in his manner today and it gave me pause to wonder where our more easygoing conversation that had developed yesterday had gone.
“Are you ready to join VCV? Did you sleep well?” Ms. Hay asked in her endearing Vietnamese English.
“Absolutely,” I assured her, ready to move forward with a new day in a new life. George drove slowly through the chaotic Old Quarter while she explained some of the history of the area. Ha Noi could be traced back to the 11th century where King Ly Thai To decided to choose Thang Long (now Ha Noi) as the capital, and build his palace here in a walled city. It was also known as “36 Old Streets” referring to 36 member streets which was Vietnam’s version of the European guild community. Historically as artisans moved to the capital city to do business, they gathered together in this area to share their resources. As a result, many of the streets were named after the crafts sold on them. Pho Hang Bun (Vermicelli), Pho Hang Ma (Paper Product), Pho Hang Bac (Silver), etc. were examples of the streets carrying the name of the products sold on each. As we drove past one street after another, it was interesting to see the harmony of the colourful textiles juxtaposed against the loud people and tattered laundry hanging against a back-drop of run-down buildings. My senses were overloaded with this city’s sights, sounds and smells bursting through the open car windows.
“George has offered to show you around our area so you can get oriented and we will have you start working with students after the weekend when you are better rested. Does that sound good for you?” Ms. Hay inquired with a gracious smile, looking down at her phone. This culture was very plugged in to each other and I was learning to have conversations with the locals while they engaged simultaneously in their text conversations. Their phones were ever-present in everything that they did. I, on the other hand, was happy to be disconnected with no sim-card, and no real reason to stay in touch with anyone.
Once we brought my gear inside, I settled into my simple room on the VCV Campus in the French Quarter of Vietnam. It was a spartan space furnished with two bunk beds, a worn wooden desk, two mismatched chairs, and a clothes hanger frame for drying clothes. I would happily make this place my home for the next few weeks. The sun shone through the window creating a milky patch of heat on the middle of the hardwood floor, and I longed to lie down in it and rest. Fatigue had become my ever-present friend and I tried to remember a time when I had not been this tired.
In the kitchen, we enjoyed some spicy noodle soup for lunch, and the tea and conversation with John and Emily about New Zealand roused me enough to tackle the afternoon on foot with my travel guide, George. He sat quietly in the corner nursing Twilight of the Idols by German Philosopher Nietzsche, but he peeked up long enough to catch my eye. I asked Cam questions about the Vietnamese exchange rate. Jackie was glued to her phone, but they all quickly bounced into gear once the lunch-hour was over and some students started to arrive. We brought dishes over to Ms. Hay who took this responsibility in hand with happy efficiency. They had all discussed some plans to play language games in the large common area down the hall. Apparently, adult Vietnamese students enjoyed vocabulary games and especially when there were chocolate bars for prizes.
George gave me a bit of an itinerary for the afternoon that involved finding the local store, bank and laundromat. “Coffee is a national habit here,” he explained. “You’ll learn to love the specialty coffee over coconut ice. It is my favourite addiction and there is one cafe in particular nearby that does it perfectly.” What I was really interested in finding was an art gallery, temple and maybe a park. I needed to find the sanctuaries “far from the madding crowd”. Then, I would be able to handle the Vietnamese sensory overload.
He pulled out a map and a pen and started drawing stars on it for my reference. “It is easy to get turned around. The streets are all quite angular here without the grids that we are used to navigating. Lots of South East Asia is like this in densely populated cities. Have you been anywhere in South East Asia before?”
I shook my head. “No, but I really want to see Thailand and Cambodia.”
He nodded and continued, “There are many times where I have crossed an intersection or a round-about here, and found myself heading in the wrong direction,” he laughed. “Being from Australia, I’m not used to everyone driving on the right side of the road either, although everyone drives whichever way they want to here. I especially love it when they drive right at oncoming traffic.” I saw wrinkles cross his forehead as he laughed at his own sarcasm, and a few grey hairs defined his temple. He put his glasses on and looked back down at the map in concentration. “I will take you for a bit of a ride on the train as it is important for you to know how to get around the outskirts of the city and the local region. Does this all sound good?”
“And the local hospital?”
“Are you expecting to get ill?” he joked.
“No, but it could happen,” I was unsure of how the medical system worked here.
He took out his pen from his shirt pocket and added another star to the map and looked back up at me to confirm that he was listening. “No worries. I’ll email some links to you too so you can think of some things you might like to see,” he offered.
Two Nights Ago: Jumping Below the Surface
“Jump”, Bryan yelled. I was petrified to leap into the depths beyond the log where I stood agonizing about going into the water for the past few minutes. Giant tadpoles the size of my fist swam as freaky half-frogs in front of me below the surface. A pale white fish lingered just past where Bryan swam, luminescent in the foreground of this placid lake. The blue-sky water melted into the smokey grey-layered hues of the Coastal Mountains. I was never really interested in jumping into any body of water and finding out what lived beneath. However, I had promised him that this time I would get into the water. He was a true beach bum who loved to float for hours in his snorkelling gear inspecting the rocks or reefs; whereas, I was a prairie girl, contented to sit comfortably on shore or on a boat beside it.
Finally, I clenched my teeth, held my breath and pushed off of the rocks into the clutches of the fresh, frigid water. My senses were consumed by the immersion. Under the mirky water, I could not see, hear or smell anything beyond my body. I felt his hands grab me, and pull me towards him as the water bubbled into my ears. I gasped upwards, getting oriented with the air again. “You did it!” He sounded like a proud father. I tread in place and wondered what to do: swim to shore, or swim further out. The buoyant freedom of this cold black depth both scared and relaxed me. My body with a little belly starting to define itself, floated effortlessly. I kept my head above water, focussing on Bryan’s smiling face, not daring to see what might be lurking around me.
“God, it’s cold.” I said excitedly, swimming towards him. He teased me by kicking backwards so that I could not reach him. “Stop it,” I splashed him. I wanted to grab onto him.
His eyes were dancing mischievously as he popped up and down around me just far enough away so that I could not touch him. Our game of tag continued until we were far from shore and I felt a bit of panick. “Bryan. I am not sure I want to be out this much,” I admitted. He did not answer when I turned around in different directions to find him. “Bryan!” I called out a bit more frantically. He did not surface.
I could feel my body freeze when after a long wait, I started back to shore where I would be better able to see him from the cliff. Suddenly, like a spouting grey whale, Bryan breached upwards out of the water directly behind me and laughed loudly as he splashed me with his body. “Shit, Bryan,” I reprimanded him. “You scared me.” The fun had gone out of the swim for me all of a sudden. I breast-stroked through slimey lake grass, and then teetered over sharp rocks to climb out onto the hot, dry bluff.
“Sorry, Natalie. I was just goofing around.”
I grabbed the bright green sarong that I had brought back with me from Thailand. He got out and sat beside me on a driftwood log with his beautiful wet body gleaming in the bright sunlight. We sat looking out at the lake together, and after my breathing slowed down, I realized that I was not very fun lately. “Sorry. You scared me,” I was embarrassed by my over-reaction.
“I know,” he put his arm around me. “I’m glad you got in. I haven’t seen you swim since Thailand.”
He was right. It had been awhile with me having my feet too firmly planted on the ground, clinging to my shore of work and preparing to have a baby. “We’ve been busy,” I smiled. I looked back at the water wanting to prove to him that I could do it. Unexpectedly, I stood up and without announcement, slipped back into the water and then dove underneath with more confidence. As I swam under water for several seconds, I forced myself to open my eyes through the murky waters and saw rocks beneath me. I heard him hoop and holler as he lunged in behind me. At one point, I touched something with my feet and then push myself back upwards. Our bodies collided and he pulled me into a hug. I could still wrap my legs around his athletic body and he laughed into my wet hair. “I love you,” he said and kissed me. His wet lips mixed with the water on mine and I felt aroused by his touch.
A jolt shook me awake, reminding me that I was on the plane to Vietnam. The pilot calmly announced turbelance insisting that everyone needed to return to their seats and fasten their seat belts. The older woman from Denmark sitting beside me, told me that this rough ride was common flying into Hanoi. I leaned back into the seat, and wondered about my nocturnal protagonist. I could still feel him tracing my tongue with his. I could still feel the unusual stirring of having a little being forming inside of me where my stomach was now flat.
Everyone made a collective gasp as the front landing gear hit the runway twice. I decided that I was ready to start a positive, new chapter in my life working as an English as a Second Language (ESL) adult instructor in Vietnam. Working with adult students who really wanted to learn a language seemed like a welcome change from my day-to-day grind back home. Some might call it running away from my old life with a few uncomfortable conversations with landlords; my school district’s human resources department and subsequent paperwork; and then hiring a moving company to box and haul my stuff into storage. They were probably correct that I was looking for a quick exit. However, I was interested in transcending an old life, and building a new one. It felt good.
Two Weeks Ago: Looking Down from the Tower
I made reservations for us in the Sky 360 Restaurant at the top of the Calgary Tower. It was a revolving bar and restaurant with enormous windows that showcased incredible views of the city. As the evening progressed, restaurant patrons were never exactly sure of where we would end up. The restaurant movement, like the earth orbiting around the sun, was too slow to be truly noticeable in the moment. Every few minutes, I lost my reference points outside of the window and had to figure out directions. I remember being enchanted by it when I was a little girl, and my father had taken our family out for dinner here for the first time. I could not get over the fact that the floor moved. It was magical to me then, and still fascinating to me now. At one point, we could be looking over at the Rocky Mountains for which Calgary was famous. Later, we would see the curving Bow River with poplar and oak trees beside it; and finally, we would be enjoying the view of the Stampede Grounds coming to life beneath us as it did every June preparing for the beginning of July. After an hour, the views would circle around again, and each time they would appear in different light.
I had chosen this place to celebrate Kyle’s birthday because it was also where we had enjoyed our first date two years ago. Kyle was pleased when I told him where we would be meeting, and I reserved a seat directly beside the window. If we leaned over far enough on our tip toes, we could look down the dizzying 627 feet to the 9th Ave below us and watch the heads of people crossing the busy intersection at the base of the tower. It made me feel queezy, but I appreciated this bird’s eye vantage point.
We had not spent a lot of one-on-one time together lately. Kyle wore one of his pressed dress shirts without a tie. As always, he was clean-shaven and sharp looking with his dark, full hair slicked back. His piercing green eyes penetrated everything around him. He always turned heads, and I was both proud of it and a bit disconcerted by the attention he got whenever we went out. He always claimed that it was because he had me on his arm, but I was quite certain that I was the last thing that these women were looking at when we walked by them. We talked about his work at the firm, and his investment portfolios that he was juggling. He asked me about my last week of the school year after complimenting me on my new blue dress and red hair curled down long and soft like he liked it.
June was always mayhem for me wrapping up the school year with report cards and other end-of-year responsibilities. My heart had not been into it lately as the educational bureaucracy had lost its appeal to me. I was now at a stage in my career where I could go on auto-pilot with my year-end list. I got a few presents from the best and the brightest students, and a few parents came in to shake my hand and wonder about where their children would be placed next year. My principal came in and spoke with me briefly about the final meetings and asked me to do a staff meeting presentation on assessment after massaging my ego enough to get me to agree. “You are one of our most experienced teachers and you have a lot to share.” I considered the work involved in developing the media-presentation that would be required where I had originally planned to do a final re-stocking of my classroom cupboards. I had still not learned to say “no”. However, I was always conscious of my supervisor’s opinion of me because in the educational world, teachers are only as good as our most recent reference.
Kyle sighed and shook his head as I explained the story. “You don’t get paid overtime for all of this work you do. It is the end of the year, Natalie. Maybe you should call him tomorrow and say that you would like to bow out of it?”
I shook my head as he held my hand in his. “It’s just as easy to just do it as opposed to agonizing over not doing it. It is the last week,” I explained, and looked at him knowingly. “Besides, you will be working this week too…”
I could tell that I had hit a nerve as he promptly took his hands away from mine and grabbed his napkin to unfold it onto his lap. He did not look at me. “I don’t want to get into this,” he warned me.
There was nothing I hated worse than being pre-emptively shut down for something that he assumed I was getting into. I kept my tone quiet. “I’m not getting into anything. I am just saying that I will likely have time to work on this project because you will be busy too. You will be busy, won’t you?” I could feel my resentment about his busy schedule bubble up.
It was a sensitive topic for us, this matter of him being too occupied with work. There also seemed to be a double standard about our work schedules. Where Kyle’s work seemed to be essential, mine was often optional where things came up as “priorities”. He replied quietly, “I am taking on an important client at work this week. It could mean several million dollars for the company.” He spoke quietly as if by emphasizing it in a whisper, it was more impressive. He was missing the point that millions of dollars did not matter to me. They were not my millions, and I was getting absolutely no benefit from Kyle’s compulsive work ethic, and I was not convinced he was either. It did not seem to be my place to tell him this point over and over again. He acted like a gerbil on a treadmill chasing money, and I was not sure if he would ever get off of it. I was proud of his ambition and drive, but I saw the writing on the wall for us. I was just ignoring the inevitable decision that I would have to make with this relationship. He continued, “I also have to resolve this problem with this idiot from Ottawa. He is making a legal claim against me because one of his investments fell apart, and he is blaming it on me.”
I felt sympathy for him. I never liked it when disgruntled parents complained to me about their A students getting A-‘s , and I equated this feeling with what Kyle experienced when his Type-A clients were often panicking about their investments underperforming. “I’m sorry. Is it serious?”
“Kind of. I have a lawyer friend from school looking into it for me. I have helped him out a few times.” I worried about Kyle because he sometimes had anxiety attacks. He had one so badly when we first met that I drove him to the hospital thinking that it was a heart attack.
“Are you okay?” I was genuinely concerned, and his eyes softened looking into mine. He held my hand again. “I want you to be happy, Kyle. I want this year to be the very best year you can have. Maybe it should be the year that you take karate class, or go on that trip to Peru that you have been talking about.” He sat looking through me instead of really focussing on me which he always did when he was distracted. “Are you listening to me, Kyle? I am not lecturing you. I am just really caring about you. You’ve lost weight. You have stopped hanging out with your friends, and I just think that you are driving yourself too hard.” As soon as I said it, I remembered it was his birthday, and chided myself for saying too much. His phone rang, and he answered it and squeezed my hand before getting up and stepping away from the table rather too conveniently. I was beginning to think that his work was to him like alcohol was to my Uncle Jack. One sale and one drink were never quite enough.
He left me sitting there for almost a half an hour, and when I got up to look for him, he was nowhere to be found in the circular restaurant rotating on its axis. I stood by the window and looked down and waited. My heart felt sore and my hands felt numb. He had stood me up. I picked up my coat from the chair, and made my way to the elevator. I looked to see where we were at in this revolving world and was glad to see that we were back to looking at the beautiful mountains in the sunset. It was the longest day of the year tonight being summer solstice, and I was sad that I was choosing his birthday, and this beautiful night to be the one where I would finally walk out. I stepped onto the elevator and pressed the button down. It was a relief to get off of this merry-go round restaurant and the dizzy track of life where I had been stuck waiting. I counted down the floors that lit up as I descended. It was time to launch.
Today: Crossing Over
We walked forever down many streets leading to the French Colonial Opera House built between 1901 and 1911. As we explored around the impressive stone building with its regal columns in the front, I realized just how culturally diverse the Vietnamese history is embedded in strife and conflict influenced by the French, Chinese, Mongolians, Cambodians, Japanese, Russians and Americans. The Vietnamese were fierce survivors and despite the international aggression situated in and around their country, they held onto their independence. In the end, they had come out as a complex communist country growing and developing in exciting ways. This large building was a busy art centre hosting many events from dance through to opera. It was situated right beside one of the city’s busiest traffic circles with road signs that were confusing to both of us. On the map it was a circle with six roads coming out of it like spokes on a wheel. Even the competent George got turned around as we considered our next steps on a traffic intersection not really meant for pedestrians. We joked with each other as we passed the map between us. I finally grabbed it and turned it upside down so that the opera house was behind us and we were looking in the right direction in my opinion. He laughed at me, “How can you possibly figure out directions when you turn the map upside down?”
“Easy,” I looked behind me and considered the web of roads in front of us, each leading in completely different directions: Ly Thai To; Co Tan; Trang Tien Right; Le Thainh Tong; Pha Chu Trinh; and finally Trang Tien Left. “The Opera House is there,” I pointed, and we want to go that way,” I pointed across the scooters that noisily roared by us, beeping their whereabouts to each other.
He reached out to hold my hand. “Are you ready?”
I shook my head. “Can we drink a bit of water out of my backpack first?” He agreed and we made our way over to a bench underneath an ancient Sau Tree typical of the Old City. There was free Internet reception which was common in some public parks in Vietnam. Notifications started leaping out of my phone, alerting me to texts and emails. One stood out.
Hi Natalie. I just got your messages. I have been in the hospital. I had another attack, but this time it wasn’t anxiety. I can’t believe you just left and went to Vietnam. Really?! Where are you? Contact me, please. Kyle
I could feel the blood drain from my face, and I had to sit down. George inquired and I just waved my hand in front of me to show that I was upset. He sat beside me without further questions. The world slowed down and everything got quiet in my head as I digested what was happening. Kyle had not abandoned us. I had. I had assumed the worst and had acted on it impulsively, but now that I was here, I could feel a fresh start unfolding. It was exciting to me.
Eventually, we stood up and I looked at George. “I just got a message from home. It surprised me. I’m okay.”
His eyes were warm and compassionate. “Let’s get across this road to somewhere a bit quieter and we can talk about it,” he suggested. I nodded.
I flung on my pack and started across the road. I was getting braver and focussed on the centre garden monument marking the middle of the traffic circle as a goal for the first part of my crossing. It was best to think in one section of the road at a time before traversing the remaining part to the other side. In my nervousness, I moved into the traffic without George. He had stopped to pick up our map that had dropped on the ground. Once reaching the middle island, I turned around to see him stranded back on the curb behind me. He waved at me across several lanes of trucks and scooters, gesturing for me to stay put. I signalled back that I understood. The tornado of engines droned and honked around me, and I was caught in the vortex of an exhaust storm.
I jumped up on top of the garden edge to see my destination at the other side of the circle where I hoped I would escape, and spotted a familiar face. His curly black hair was hard to miss over a boyish splash of freckles. Tanned forearms underneath a large backpack reminded me of his lean strength. He was a traveller right down to his hiking boots, and I remembered him excitedly. It was impossible, but it was Bryan from my dreams. He appeared to be real. He was looking around him holding a map as if to get his bearings. He did not see me. I squinted to make sure I was not imagining it, only to confirm that it was him even though this possibility was confusing to me.
George was still trapped at the other side trying to see over a rickshaw that was being tailed by a truck. He was attempting to jog around it, but kept getting stuck between drivers. I turned back to see Bryan. I was tempted to wave, but I was not sure if he would recognize me. Had we shared the same dream with me? There was simply too much noise on this road to know what to do. None of this made any sense to me in the middle of the spinning motors.
My phone vibrated. I looked down and read a notification that pushed through to me.
Natalie. Where are you? I need to talk to you. Kyle
Part of me felt a twinge of guilt over having left Calgary so suddenly, but then, I had been contemplating changing directions for a long time. His behaviour had served as a catalyst for me to finally leap into another direction. As well, a week had passed and no one had thought to contact me about him being in the hospital. I was genuinely concerned about what had happened to him because it sounded serious enough to keep him from getting a hold of me. However, if it had been serious, why was I the last to know? His family, friends and work knew my different contact information. I was reachable. I had not run away to another planet. Or maybe they had tried to reach me.
I looked up from the phone, and noticed Bryan walking away. I kept an eye on his dark head as it slipped into the crowd. I heard George hollering more urgently from behind me, “Natalie!” I was torn between my phone message, and each man on either side of the road. I had to choose. Bryan’s head disappeared into the crowd. I did not want him to vanish again like he did every time I awoke from a dream.
“Bryan!” I sucked in my breath, and burst into the busy traffic, dodging a scooter and then another as I attempted to make it to Bryan’s side of the road. Being desperate to catch him gave me courage to tackle the stampede. A scooter with a family wearing exhaust masks swung around me to avoid a collision. A taxi driver yelled at me out of his window. A motorist clipped my backpack with his arm as he bumped past me. With a final push, I made a leap onto the sidewalk away from the traffic and then ran with crazed abandon into the people.
I raced down the street into a lane of clothing stores and past silk shops where I had last seen him heading. “Tôi xin lôi!” I apologized as I wove around people holding their shopping bags, and the hands of their small children. After a few blocks, I stopped to catch my breath as my adrenaline burst disappeared. After searching around me in all directions, I realized that I did not know where I had run. I did not see Bryan nor George, and when I looked down at my phone, I no longer had any wifi connection with Kyle either. “Shit!”
Guilt washed over me as I realized that I had left George behind wondering what madness had possessed me to run away. I would need to contact him, but in order to do so, I needed to find an Internet connection somewhere. My feet throbbed from running hard on the cement in sandals, and I longed to find somewhere to gather my thoughts. There were simply too many people pressing in around me and I felt rattled by my loss of direction.
I popped into a cafe-pub and found a table on the patio by the road. I took off my backpack and waved down the waitress for a tea, and a wifi password. I stopped to collect myself as my phone loaded new information and then I scoured through past emails to find George’s contact information. When I could not find it anywhere, I started to panic, realizing how rude I had been to him for just disappearing. He was likely wondering what to tell Ms. Hay and this was likely ruining any chance of me getting off to a good start with VCV. I opened my junk mail to see if George’s information had landed there, and found three emails from Kyle’s work email instead. Again, I was shocked at my oversight, but I rarely checked my junk mail. I paused wondering if I should contact him now.
A familiar voice interrupted me. “Do you know the Internet password?” I whirled around to see him. Bryan. My heart jumped as he smiled down at me. He had unwittingly stumbled across me and he scrutinized me intently as we made our initial contact. I thought I caught a glimmer of recognition in his eyes. His bottom lip quivered a bit deciding what to say next, and his eyes blinked quickly. His real life face was younger and more animated than any dream I had ever had of him. He set his pack beside mine, “Can I join you?”
“Sure. I can type the password in for you,” I offered. His soft fingers touched mine as he passed it to me. It was odd that he did not know who I was when I knew him so intimately from an alternate world. Serendipity, synchronicity, and part magic had something to do with this reunion between he and I. I caught him staring at me. I looked back directly into his eyes, willing him to recognize me. I motioned for him to sit down at the table. “Do you know Hanoi?” I asked.
He cocked his head in a way that suggested the he was still wondering about who I might be. I could feel the question on his breath, but he stopped and shook his head. “Not really. I just arrived.” He pulled out a water bottle and then ordered a Tiger Beer from the waitress, as she handed me my tea. He wiped his head with his bandana, and then his hand on his shirt and with a chuckle stuck it out to shake my hand in a sweaty introduction. “My name is Bryan. I’m from Vancouver Island, Canada. ” He pointed to the Canadian flag on his pack. “Where are you from?” He seemed very curious and he looked down at my bag only to see the peace sign patch that I had sewn on it when I was younger.
“Natalie. Calgary. I am here for work. I got a bit lost crossing that traffic circle back there.”
“Me too,” he laughed, and pulled out his map. “Do you know how to get to the Ngoc Son Temple?”
“That’s the problem. I’m a bit turned around,” I admitted, looking up into his friendly eyes. Life was always about changing directions and sometimes doing so in miraculous ways. “Why are you visiting Vietnam?” I was curious to hear him talk and to explain to me exactly who he was and why he was here sitting next to me.
“I have friends meeting up with me, but then they are heading back to Germany, and I’m going on to Thailand.” He was a sociology student working on his post-graduate studies. We talked for awhile over our drinks, and he explained his desire to do an ethnography up in the mountain villages along the Northern border close to the Golden Triangle. His eyes lit up with excitement as we talked about teaching and working overseas. Working visas were always tricky. We commiserated over the matters of currency rates. I observed his blue eyes as they crinkled at the corners, and how his long, tanned fingers played gently with the corners of his beer label. He had been travelling up the coast from Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi was his final stop before hopping on a plane to Bangkok. “What brings you to Hanoi?”
“ESL work. I am going to volunteer for a month at an English Language Centre.”
He nodded appreciatively. Our conversation was easy and I revelled in the profound connection happening between us. I was sure he felt it too by the way he leaned forward towards me to listen and consider my answers. There was a distinct flavour of déjà vu in our words. He finally asked, “Have you ever been to Thailand?”
“No, I have always wanted to see Thailand.” It was the beginning of a friendship that would start our story that had been laid out for us by something divine and unexplainable.
“So, tell me where you want to go in Thailand,” he inquired, asking the waitress for another tea and beer, and then shifted towards me with his chin on his hand as if to say to me that he was all ears. He was studying me. “Do you like backpacking?”
I grinned with relief at the certainty that I felt in meeting him. I would tell him what I knew about us later as my truth was baffling. Maybe he sensed more than he was letting on as well. For now, I wanted to enjoy meeting him for the very first time. I wanted to know who he was, where he was going, and if we were really intended to share something together like my dreams had suggested. Everything else that had seemed important to me an hour ago fell away as I sat transfixed in this moment. I reminded myself to breathe. “Yes, I love to backpack,” I answered. It was here where our journey began again.