Summer, 1985: When D. was preparing for the bar exam, I decided the best place for me was the far side of the planet. With great solemnity, he warned he would be preoccupied all summer. I feared being a distraction, an annoyance, ignored, or all three. So, investing every penny I had, I did what any good girlfriend would do and decamped to China.
Travel to that part of the world at the time was not a simple thing and, without benefit of internet and by means I could not now recount, I somehow managed to locate a tour group going from a small mid-western women’s college, being hosted by a Chinese university, with a focus on the status of women, that was actually delighted to take me in. It was a congenial and diverse group and, perhaps not surprisingly, I was the only one that spoke any (that is: not much, but enough) Chinese. Group members might also remember me as the one that came down with chicken pox upon arrival in country, but that’s another story for another time.
By train, we zigzagged our way across the mainland for nearly six weeks and then visited Hong Kong (which was still a British dependent territory) and made a stop in Taiwan (where, upon discovering our Chinese visas, officials allowed us entry but refused to stamp our passports). We saw countries that no longer exist.
Much of The People’s Republic was closed to tourists at that time and we couldn’t disembark in many of the cities and villages through which we passed on those long train rides. In the summer’s heat and without air conditioning, we watched the countryside go by through open windows that funneled in the grit and dust of China’s then agricultural economy. When we stopped, I bought snacks from eager ad hoc vendors and chatted, haltingly, out the windows.
It was a remarkable summer – an extraordinary and unprecedented adventure – a profound departure from … everything. Part interlude, part intermission, an absolute disruption in the steady flow of my little American life.
Like China’s Great Wall, the summer formed a snaking boundary, tracing the ragged edge of my known universe, with schooling at its center, and the unfamiliar terrain of the adult working world to which I was to return.
Fall, 2015: Having absented ourselves from that “adult working world” as we had known it for the intervening 30 years, D. and I have spent this year forging new normals. We’ve been busy in novel and rewarding ways, breaking new ground; experimenting, exploring. Even still, a trip to Southeast Asia wasn’t really on our radar.
Then the invitation came: to visit my aunt in Viet Nam, to see the country she has loved and called home for much of her adult life, through her eyes and the eyes of her friends and colleagues. We know this much: opportunity knocks, you answer.
And so we decamped. Not only to Viet Nam, but to Laos and Cambodia as well. Why go all that way and not see Angkor Wat?
For nearly a month we visited towns whose names were familiar to me only from the horrific news coverage of my youth; traveled through countryside beautiful in its natural state, rich and fertile, yet in places already clearly overwhelmed by recent decades’ warp-speed development; muddled through transactions in languages that confound the Western ear, whose scripts are, to me, beautiful, mysterious and still impenetrable; felt the enormity of America’s imprint on the arc of lives lived half a world away.
In ways I did not fully anticipate, it was also a profound interruption. Not just because we hadn’t really planned for such a trip at this point in our lives, but because it discombobulated just about everything I thought I had figured out for myself. Not knowing if we’d have access to internet, I drafted and scheduled four weeks’ worth of blog posts – then wrote nothing for a month. On the road, part of a group, and inhabiting a long string of hotel rooms, my meditation and exercise routines fell apart. Some days were spent on our feet, but others only in transit – so much for walking 5 1/2 miles every day.
Months in cultivation, my routines are proving slippery things to reassemble, testing muscle memory and mettle alike. I’m having to reassert my commitment to and faith in each of them; they are testing my conviction in ways that simple momentum had not.
I’d begun to enjoy my growing writing muscle as this trip took form. And yet, while many travelers journal, I didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t. With the exception of the sketchiest of itineraries, I wrote not a word. There was just so much incoming, so much stimulation – visual, auditory, emotional – it was all I could do to receive and absorb. Processing would have to come later.
So the processing comes now. I am beginning to sift through the photographs and stories, trying to curate a cogent tale to share with friends. I marvel at the images I now call my own. It was all so different, such a break from all that is familiar. Some lovely, some disquieting, some simply, disarmingly mundane. All of it thought-provoking. What lessons can I extract from people whose tenacity and desire just to be — just left to their own devices — is so achingly strong, has been so historically, awfully, repeatedly violated?
Another extraordinary and unprecedented adventure.
Interruption, interlude, intermission. I like to think the trip will prove to be a point of inflection as well – a discrete instance in my life’s trajectory that proves influential, even important. The question is: how?
Pictures will come, I promise. Still sorting through all those images.