I’ve now spent enough time in South-East Asia to not be constantly amazed, startled or confused by the life that passes around me.
In some ways, it’s a pity. How incredible was that feeling I had in that first taxi ride from the airport in Saigon, the gateway to my first South-East Asian experience? What wild emotions transpired the first time I saw a beefy rat scamper across a restaurant floor, was asked for money from a man with missing limbs, or saw an elephant with her tusks cut off and a saddle on her back? And how blessed were the moments I first weaved through traffic on a motorbike without a helmet on, when I nearly choked on the strength of rice wine as I shot it back around a table full of unfamiliar faces who welcomed me into their family, or the first time a strange child smiled a full, white-teeth grin at me from a roadside?
What a shame that the more I see, the more comfortable I feel here, the less I feel.
But occasionally, things happen and I wake up to the wonder of it all. They are usually small things, subtle, odd, but made from the ingredients of the stuff that keeps me coming back for more.
One such moment recently occurred one evening when I was sitting in an open air bar in Mai Chau. I had arrived that morning after a three and half hour windy and overcrowded local bus ride from Hanoi. The Lonely Planet team was right when they said that Mai Chau is “rural living [transformed] into a real paradise”. And I caught the place at just right time. In the small village of Lac where I ended up, the karst mountains surrounded a valley of rice paddies full of folks planting tender, young grasses in the flooded fields.
But despite the quintessential beauty around me, I was feeling lonely.
Most tourists arrive in Mai Chau via an organized tour group, but I hadn’t done it this way. To be fair, it’s not that I am “too cool” for tours, it’s just that I honestly had no idea that this was an option. I had spent the last two and half week sharing a cozy, intimate time in June’s house and faking to be local, so when I found out that I was the only one staying in the big, homestay-style bungalow I had checked into straight off the bus, I was a sad little loner.
So there I was, sitting in the only bar in town and watching a group of Vietnamese teens play a rambunctious game of pool after eating dinner alone on my roll out sleeping pad, and feeling mighty sorry for myself.
Into my second beer, I looked down and choked back a scream. A small chicken had perched itself on the ground inches away from my feet. It was big-eyed, nearly fully plucked and looking like hell incarnate.
I was about the shoo the little critter away when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a man with net full of clucking, crying chickens slung over his shoulder.
I eyed back down at the little fowl and I swear: HE MADE EYE CONTACT WITH ME AND LOOKED STRAIGHT INTO MY SOUL.
In that moment, that half-naked chicken and I shared all of our loneliness and all of our vulnerabilities in a some inter-species phenomenon I had never experienced before.
I put my feet out to hide him from his stalking hunter. The chicken, somehow understanding my intentions, nuzzled closer to my legs and the threat passed by unaware of his lost bounty.
You are safe, I silently said to him. He looked back up at me again and oh, how damn terrible and miserable he looked, how little it would take to get him from here to a hot plate. But he would live to see another day, I telepathically told him.
When I finished my beer, he was gone. For a panicked few seconds, I scanned every tiny crevice of the bar to find him. But he had already scattered off to find a new hiding place.
I wished him luck wherever he had found respite, and hoped that when the end came, as it inevitably would, it would be fast, painless and make a poor, hungry family as thankful for him as I was.
(For those of you who might be worried that I am over here wandering around like a little lost puppy, or because I feel compelled to say that I am not, I ended up having a swell time in Mai Chau trekking through jungles to smaller villages nearby, eating some delicious food – no chicken – cooked up for me, and meeting some great new people to share my time with.)