Grieving Miles, Two

Perhaps, he didn’t mean to leave us. Maybe, there wasn’t some higher purpose he had to fulfill. How burdensome, after all.

He just, went away.

It is easy to endlessly conjecture about why he had gone, or why he had been with us at all, in retrospect. Many times, we make the meaning we want to have, after the fact, not before it.

I want to believe that the cat we had just lost served us in some, divine sort of way, beyond comprehension. As if he were merely passing through, with a simple but necessary mission of unconditionally-loving his owners, offering them boundless joy, and inducing the most satisfying level of comfort they could ever ask for.

If so, then, mission accomplished. He left with the highest marks.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder the less rosy alternative – the ever-growing elephant in the quickly shrinking room – that, perhaps there was none of that, at all.

Only the reality, written in his eyes, that in what would be his final moments, he actually wanted to come back, too soon.

I struggle to write this, after having previously arrived at a far less bleak conclusion. Surely, this isn’t the alternative I want to believe. Not as the sort of person who believes in some kind of after-life, and some kind of Higher Being that knows ultimately more than we ever will. Being that sort of person, makes me, in turn, the same sort of desperate, finite figure in search for meaning, craving the truth of knowledge like a certain, tragic, being in a Garden, once did.

Perhaps if I knew the answers to the questions I keep asking, I wouldn’t actually want the truth. The version of Miles’ story in my mind, is good enough. In fact, all the details I have to work with, are more than what I could have ever expected.

It is fact that we never learned of Miles’ actual origins – only that he and his sister Madu were found in a box in a Starbucks by a German expatriate family, who then proceeded to leave the country and needed new owners for their newfound pets.

it is fact that Miles was always a clumsy cat (and much to our delight early on), never accounting properly for his own weight (and by weight, I mean belly) before pouncing upon, or jumping from, or leaping towards, anything.

It is fact that Miles stole his sister’s food, both secretly and blatantly. His appetite was insatiable.

it is fact that Miles slept, belly up, about as often as he did the way regular cats do, with limbs tucked in underneath and slight shoulder blades, protruding. Apparently, such a vulnerable posture from cats implies that they trust us completely.

That last fact might be my favorite thing about him, and in part, why all this hurts, too damn much.

I never would have imagined a cat be so, at ease. It was as if he had already, intimately known that precious lesson that eludes so many of us who are searching constantly for the next, best thing.

The best thing, is right now. This very moment. The present is the greatest of gifts.

Again, I project. I don’t mean to, but I do.

I have to make some sense of this senseless loss. I still just don’t understand why he had to go, so quickly.

Chances are, he doesn’t understand either. Life was pretty good for that cat. He lived on the 15th floor, in an ocean view apartment, and ate raw chicken meat, cut into little bite-sized pieces by his loving, doting owners mother.

She did it because we loved him, and he loved her back, and I never would have known why and how I’d ever love a cat as much as I did Miles, and I never would have known how a cat could possibly ever love us the way that he had.

There’s that old saying from Tennyson that comes to mind:

Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.

I hate latching onto cliches for the life of me, but this one, I hold onto, with every ounce of strength I’ve squeezed out of the fruit born from my grief.

I do so, because I don’t know if the meanings I’ve made of his loss, are as true as I’ve come to believe.

I don’t know the greater purpose he might have served beforehand, had he had one to begin with. I don’t know whether his “time was up” or he had done what he needed, and left when it was over.

And if I can’t find any solace from asking questions to which I’ll find no definitive answers, then I must look elsewhere to find the peace and comfort I need, now.

I mustn’t keep asking why he had to leave so suddenly. I mustn’t wonder why he had ever come at all.

I must only acknowledge how surprisingly wonderful, refreshing, and joyous it was to have such a lovable cat. I never would have imagined how much he’d mean to me, spanning the entirety of his life, before ever coming to terms with the finality of his death.

That’s the only meaning I can hold onto with the utmost certainty. I can’t afford to wonder what sort of purpose he had to have completed by the time he left us. It is enough to hold onto the pure innocence and goodness he exuded with the life he had actually lived.

It has to be enough, because he was blameless, all throughout.

I couldn’t possibly answer any of the questions that begin with “Why?” Frankly, I don’t really want to.

But I’m happy to return to the question with which my answer is sure.

What was Miles, to me?”

For a season, much like a breeze. At times, sudden and wild; other times, soft and gentle, but almost always, arriving unexpectedly. I couldn’t have predicted that he’d come the way that he came, that he’d leave the way that he went, and that he’d last just long enough for us to know that surely, his sweet caress, no matter how fleeting, we would never, ever forget.

Grieving Miles

It’s been a week since our dearest Miles had passed on.

Each day gets a little better. Or, perhaps more appropriately, each day of grieving feels a little less worse. The pain and the loss are never, not, felt. Only in doses a tad more tolerable.

Grief feels like much like medicine – the kind you know you need but hate to ask for. That bitter taste that lingers long on your palate implores you to hope that, somehow, at the very least, it’s working.

When my grandmother passed away several months ago, I had considered grief to be a gift. It felt, to me, the thing you choose for – that you’re willing to take on – when you lost something you loved.

I loved my grandmother, in part, because the integrity of her character required only such a response. She didn’t “earn” my love, per se. But she elicited it from me, in the quietest possible way. I could not, not, love her. Her kindness warranted so much of it, from me. From everyone.

I grieved her because I loved her. I grieved her because I missed the chance to keep loving her in her final moments. I could only love her from far away.

***

The loss I feel for my grandmother is its own, unique and personal loss. Her memory affects me, and inspires me to this day. Much of the pain, however, has passed, and for this I am thankful.

That which I feel for my cat, however, has not.

I caution myself from thinking that the loss of a relative, or beloved human being, ought to ever feel something more or less than the loss of any other thing.

All life is so, so sacred.

Sometimes the loss just feels far more severe, by proximity.

I had seen Miles nearly every single day since we had left for Malaysia. We received him and his sister, Madu, very early on during our move. Their presence made what we had here, immediately, a home.

Miles had a wonderful habit of letting us know wherever he was in the house. Meowing in empty rooms was his way of informing us that the party he was hoping to start was beginning without us, and we were cordially invited to join him.

I wished he had done the same that fateful morning, on the balcony. I wish he had let us know, ahead of time, where he’d be.

Unbeknownst to him, he went to the one place where we couldn’t join him, or protect him, and the rest, well, is the hard history we’re slowly trying to forget.

Proximity.

I remember exactly where I was when it happened, and I’ll always remember: In the kitchen, making coffee, my morning routine.

The loss is profound because, he was never, ever far away. That morning, he was simply out of reach. It was all too sudden, too soon, and too close to home.

Whatever home we had, feels as though he had taken it away with him.

***

There wasn’t a single, mean-spirited bone in his body. He never intended to hurt us so deeply. His absolute, unconditional love was far too great. If I could borrow biblical imagery, it felt “vast, beyond all measure.”

It is losing such a love that I had grown so accustomed to – and losing it so unexpectedly – that is the real cause for the pain. It isn’t him, it is the stark reality of life without him.

I had gotten so used to having him but an arm’s length away while I worked in my office, his fat, furry body sound asleep upon the red pillows. I hardly ever wondered where he was; my comfort came in knowing he was simply around, somewhere, nestled intently against whatever soft surface he could find. As if being encased in his own warm, softness weren’t enough. He needed more. Comfort was his idol if he ever had one, and I can’t blame him for that, either.

Asleep

Miles, falling asleep – one of his favorite things.

***

I don’t know when this grief will go. I pray to God that it leaves me be, hoping peace come quickly in its place.

For my grandmother who had passed some months ago, and even for my other grandmother whom I had lost long before her, I had the privilege of time.

In retrospect, time was the real gift, less so the grief, simply because we were all able to prepare. We knew what felt to be the inevitable. But the sting of the loss will always be. I know this because, during the memorial services for both my grandmothers, if somehow I had found the strength not to break earlier, the pressure to crumble was overpowering. The greatness of the loss, the sheer, burdensome weight of it, will win. It always wins.

But they say that time heals all things. Perhaps, this is true. Time also helps brace ourselves for that which we know to be coming, if indeed, we know.

There was no knowing, with Miles.

And now, there is no knowing when, and how, time will work its mysterious, ancient magic. How ever reliable its powers may be, I can only pray such powers are exercised soon, and dramatically.

Yes, somehow, grief is a hard, yet beautiful thing. To love something lost, so deeply, that causes memories to jolt back into being feelings I hadn’t realized were ever there, is a sacred and beautiful thing, indeed.

It is, also, far too fragile. Delicate, like porcelain. And when it breaks, it shatters – the sound of which, producing a most terrifying sort of music. And yet, you have for that moment, music.

***

These days, silence is my enemy.

I’d rather hear the whimpering cries of the cat I have remaining, perhaps even the heaving, child-like sobs welling up from deep within myself, than the sound of nothing at all.

I know, it won’t be, forever. I remember days when silence was precisely what I needed. When I couldn’t give anything more for that particular gift – the absence of noise to clear my mind, and mend the heart.

But for today, and perhaps for many days to come, noise is what I need.

The ambient sort that comes from mindless television. The whirring of multiple fans running simultaneously. The self-preserving purring from Madu. Little does she know, it preserves a little bit of me, too.

Sometimes, the grieving calls forth an ugly, unintelligble sound, a garbled enunciation of what were once words, or a piercing shriek of no words at all.

Sometimes, when I sense the silence encroaching, I just speak. I speak to Madu. Or to myself. Or to God, even. At the very least I know, one of the three is listening, though I’m hoping such, from all three.

I do not remember the sound from Miles’ fall. I only remember the sound from my wife, thereafter. I only remember the horrid curses that came out of me that morning. The weeping uncontrollably, I remember, too.

These sounds, I’m willing to part with, fast.

I want new noises – joyful ones. Those that remind me that there is still much life that remains within the walls of our home. Like the skittering, scampering steps from Madu when she chases after her precious twisty-ties. Or the soulful sounds emanating from our record player, inducing us to dance the night away. Or the laughter that can’t help itself from stirring awake, the moments when we remember Miles and his endless cycle of quirky noises – when he got up from bed, when he was hungry, and even while he was sleeping.

While it may feel as though he had, Miles couldn’t have possibly taken home away from us. He only meant to leave us, quietly. To walk away when his time was up, and not come back.

My wife imagines him leaving through the front door, pacing around a little, and then, simply going away. Gone for good, without a sound.

By then, the party would have already begun. My wife, dancing without a care in the world, Madu looking on without a clue, and me, trying to match her moves with my own deliberate awkwardness. By then, Miles would have slipped away, to a place where we couldn’t join him, having done what he came to do.

He always got the party started, that silly cat. It’s now on us to end it well.

Why?

Why I Write

Update: The Good Men Project actually decided to run my little rant =)

Sometimes, I just need a little prompting.

I keep up with The Good Men Project, and on their blog recently, it posed a question open for any of its readers to chime in on:

Do you write for yourself, or for an audience? Do you write to tell a story, or to change the hearts and minds of men?


 

I write because I can’t, not, be honest.

Otherwise, I’d be going up to random strangers, shaking them profusely, admitting with wide-eyed conviction some deep-seated guilt or expressing an epiphany like an enlightened being. (Or a creepy one.)

Writing feels like an emptying.

It is like having a jar of sand that I open, and the contents of which I scatter out on a surface and sift through hollow seashells and shards of glass and jagged rocks and little stones that were once sharp rocks, smoothed over time. But mostly I’d have a lump of damp sand, once so densely packed, that it made the jar heavy.

The more I pack into my little jar, the more burdensome it becomes to carry. So I spill some of it onto a page, or scatter traces of it on a public blog post. It needs some other place to contain it, outside of myself.

That’s a little bit of what writing is, and what it does, for me.

For me, and surely for many, writing is at first, self-serving.

It is therapy. It is catharsis. It is unapologetic self-absorption. It is the hoarding of all the best recollections of things. It is the setting free of all the worst.

But once the words are read by another, the writing morphs into an entirely odd and frightening beast. That which was, at first, a platform for the individual becomes a spark for conversation, a reason for dialogue, and an opportunity for community. And then, it gets scary.

But if it were to remain too private — if too carefully stashed away for any wrath or embrace to welcome it — well, wouldn’t that be a shame?

Maybe, of course, the only kind of honesty I know to practice is the messy, navel-gazing, endlessly questioning kind, revealing raw ideas and sleeve-worn feelings.

But it’s mine, the whole lot of it, and the writing — the public writing especially — gives my brazen words their audience.

My honesty wouldn’t realize its own transformative potential, were it not subjected upon the immediate whims and fancy of the public sphere.

It needs to know if someone on the other side of the world is listening and nodding. It needs to know — I need to know — that there are others saying, “Yes, me too.”

Ultimately, then, the writing becomes a remarkably humbling process — because with it comes the risk of bearing one’s soul so openly, without ever knowing for sure if it will be accepted, let alone, understood.

Regardless, after such a risk I can only expect, if nothing else, a profound relief.

By the River

It felt a fitting end that we spent our final evening in Vientiane, by the bank of the Mekong River.

Laos is a country bordered by rivers, but there’s something about the Mekong in particular that sets apart from the rest. I still don’t quite understand it myself – perhaps I’ve simply bought into the mythic kind of quality it possesses, or that I recognize it’s significance as a “lifeline” for so many.

Whatever the reason, I revere this river, it being the subject of so many books, it being the path upon which so many journeys have been taken.

My path, meanwhile, was simply to walk alongside it, along with hundreds of other locals who have it as a privilege to run, jog, and stroll on the newly paved road right by this body of water. Hoards of women have even taken to performing high intensity, guided aerobic workouts at sunset, a sight that, at first, a curious thing to witness, turned quickly into the one spectacle about this incredible gathering of locals by the riverside that interrupted the tranquility of the late afternoon transitioning to dusk.

The sunset was majestic. I’ve seen my share of incredible sunsets in my travels, but this one in particular will be seared into my memory for years to come. I think it’s because this one felt the least bit private. It was almost, communal, as though everyone had gathered by the river bank to witness something sacred together – the meeting of sun and river – and it implored stillness from my restless soul.

After a long walk, we met up again with a friend from Malaysia, Tommy, who is on an internship in Laos for a language program. We walked back the opposite way, basking in the waning moments of sunlight, meandering slowly through crowds starting to gather at the night market. Finally, we arrived at a bustling local restaurant, which felt more like an after-work drinks destination, mostly for locals looking to end their day with Beer Lao served with ice, a platter of steamed fish and vegetables, and a view.

Doing as the locals do, we opted for the same meal we saw on everyone else’s table, and sure enough, it didn’t disappoint. It was the right meal, for the right way to end the trip – simple and unceremonious, but supremely satisfying nonetheless.

We had a quiet evening despite the crowds becoming increasingly raucous by the river, and our night would end earlier than most other evenings we spent throughout our travels the past two weeks. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I wouldn’t have done any of our trip, any other way, for that matter. Not even the unbearably long bus rides through hills, and valleys, and hardly-inhabited rural towns. Nor the uninformed adventurousness of our street food sampling that likely led to several days worth of stomach pains. And certainly not having to walk, everywhere. That is, whenever we weren’t boarding a boat or bus or train. For me, the walking might’ve very well been, everything.

Surely, there are things I’d never do again. But I want to make a distinction between regretting what we had done, versus learning not to do those things again. Chances are, I’m never choosing to do an 11-hour bus ride again. Or an 8-hour one, for that matter. Or eating meat parts from a roadside stall whose origins were a little too ambiguous.

Never again, for some things. Glad, nonetheless, that at least, I had.

Luang Prabang, then, the Worst Ride Ever

Gone was the sensation of being on-foot while taking in the serenity of a riverside stroll, without minding the mild sweat building on my back and forehead. The glistening surrounding waters and preserved colonial-inspired architecture of many of the town’s guesthouses looked far too pretty to feel perturbed.

Instead, Shuli and I were back on the road, on what would amount to be the longest bus ride we’ve ever taken together.

Mostly, the languid pace which seemed to characterize much about Lao people and their culture had been the sort of charming quirk we’d find rather appealing, as we journeyed through quaint little towns like Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw, across Laos.

But the trip to Vientiane had reached a level of lackadaisicalness that was almost beyond bearable.

We bore through it because we had little choice. We were stuck in a bus filled with other sweaty tourists, foolishly expecting that it live up to the “VIP” class it had boasted when we bought our tickets.

What we got instead was a decades-old liner without any air-conditioning, run by a trio of guys who appeared determined to take up the entire, 9 hours the trip had promised, and perhaps longer – whatever suited their fancy.

I can understand traveling at a relaxed pace to get somewhere, but that should have no bearing on actual timeliness. Rather than promptly leaving at 8:30am, we actually left the bus station an hour later, already pushing our ETA in Vientiane back significantly.

This was particularly frustrating because Thongbay Guesthouse had been so comfortable for us and so accommodating it was a little disappointing to have to check out so early, only to depart so late.

We were off to a bad start, and we were at the mercy of guys who took tardiness to a whole other level when dozens of passengers were waiting, without explanation.

That should’ve been the sign to me that this particular leg of our road-tripping was going to be painful. I held out on the belief that the ride from Sapa to Dien Bieng Phu had to have been the worst. Shuli was convinced we had another thing coming.

Several factors contributed to making this part of the trip terrible:

1. No air-conditioning – I’d have preferred an all-or-nothing sort of scenario where it was either full-blast, frigid A/C or it was completely broken and we cracked open every single window we could on the bus and lived off of fresh air. Instead, the blower spewed out what seemed to be a very, very light stream of air that did nothing for no one other than tease them of how good, actual functioning “air-con” can be for, everyone.

2. 11 hours – 11 hours!!! We were told it would take 9, which would have been devastating enough. Further, as if we hadn’t already departed late, for much of the trip the driver insisted on driving at a speed reminiscent of that of a child in a sack race (Shuli told me I could’ve beaten him, on my bike, which, if you know my poor track record with biking, is saying a lot). And this doesn’t include the extra time it took to travel on a tuk-tuk from the bus station to the city center where we would be staying. Why not just round it up to 12, then?

3. The usual windy, bumpy roads – At this point, this was all too familiar, which, for that very reason, made them a bearable pill to swallow. That said, there were no shortage of stomach-churning turns to brace for, so getting sleep was next to impossible. Podcast bingeing as distraction was critical.

4. Music – I don’t really mind Lao music. Not even unbelievably loud Lao music. What I did take exception to, which, to no one’s fault really, was how so many of the melodies sounded so exceptionally…cheerful. They just didn’t fit the collective mood swelling in the upper deck of utter despair. Not a good match.

5. Unapologetic – Which really, was the worst. The guys running the operation simply offered no explanations for any of the delays, did next to nothing to make the trip more comfortable for us outside of opening the bus’ sun roof window, and didn’t bother telling us how long the journey would take until, I had had enough and tugged at one of their shirts, pointed at the time on my iPad, and did the best I could with vague gesticulations to ask when we’d arrive.

He took some time to consider his response, and finally, smugly, said, “8 o’clock.”

It would’ve a little better if he had been right. But he wasn’t.

The kicker came here:

It was already dark. My eyes were trying to shut to sleep but my body had gone beyond the point of sleepiness and settled instead on the terrible combination of hyper-alertness and weariness. A young girl dragged herself to the front of the bus carrying an inflatable neck pillow, plopped herself on the open two seats available, kicked up her feet, and reclined her chair. She had had enough. For her, it was just over.

It was as if she had finally confronted the possibility that this bus ride would simply never end, so she might as well make herself comfortable.

Something about witnessing her resign herself to our collective fate was both incredibly defeating, and strangely comedic.

I started laughing to myself, quietly. It had gotten to that point, where the misfortune of losing an entire day on the road had simply become another humorous footnote on an, otherwise, arduous series of travels, by water or by road, between Vietnam and Laos.

The real unfortunate thing was losing that sense of appreciation for what we had just had. It had become a quickly distant memory – taking our sweet time, walking through the night market without getting hassled by vendors to buy their ethnic handicrafts (which we bought anyway, since most everyone was so respectful about the whole exchange). It wasn’t that long ago that we had lay down on our balcony to feel the calm breeze emanating from the river, brushing our faces as we watched the sun go down just as quietly as the rest of the town had moved.

The bus ride, for its length and lack of comfort and lack of accommodation and hospitality, caused me to stop feeling good feelings. For stretches, it was as if I had been purposely ignoring the beautiful, lush, scenery that still surrounded us – jagged mountains that pierced the clouds and rolling, green hills that followed us closely as we ambled along.

At some point, I had a better idea about what one of our fellow travelers from the Netherlands had said, referring to an experience he learned from passengers taking a speedboat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.

I’m paraphrasing, but the essence of it was, “At the end of a trip like that, your body just feels…broken.”

Indeed, after this one, this 11 hour bus ride, it was. At some point, the appreciation of the natural beauty before us had subsided, replaced only with a faint, but lingering despair – the kind that comes over any weary traveler, I would imagine.

Perhaps, I was missing Luang Prabang and all its’ quiet comfort. But likely, I was starting to miss home, even more. Finally, it was catching up to me. The desire for the familiar – for my two gentle cats resting by feet, for the soft couch I could kick up my legs on while watching a long film, for the street food around the corner – became increasingly palpable.

I’m just a few days away from a plane ride home, and I’m caught between missing what I had just left, while longing for what’s ahead – Penang.

Hopefully, when the weariness subsides, when a strong cup of Lao coffee enters my body, and when my energy picks up from covering ground on my own two feet again, maybe I’ll remember to appreciate what’s still fully before me – Vientiane.

Recovering from the Road: Vietnam to Laos

Again, a late post. Currently in Luang Prabang, heading to Vientiane tomorrow. Photos soon.

I’m writing this in a hotel room in Muang Khua, a town not too far from the border of Vietnam and Laos. The Sannali hotel is the only hotel in town. Other lodging available are modest guest houses suited for backpackers. We’ve been backpacking as well, but this place, at this point of our trip felt most suitable for us.

Tomorrow we venture down the Nam Ou River. The water is the color of mud, and the current flows at a pace moving as languidly as the people seem to be in this quaint town.

There doesn’t appear to be a night life to speak of, and the local market when we visited it lacked the kind of frenetic energy I’ve grown accustomed to from the other markets I’ve visited in Southeast Asia.

I’ve read and heard that everything in Laos moves at a much slower pace. Such was the drive to here from Dien Bien Phu. Such is the steady, quiet flow of the river.

Perhaps there couldn’t have been a more appropriate easing in to Laos and the slow pace of life than arriving first at this tiny town by the river. There also couldn’t be better conditions for writing, when there isn’t much else to do but embrace the stillness.

———————

The last few days after Hanoi have been a strange combination of experiences I’ll likely never do again. Not that I’d hate to do them over, but realistically, they may very well be the sort of things I’m happy to have done, at least, once in my lifetime.

In sum, they went a little like this:

Shuli and I shared an overnight sleeper train car with a French couple from Hanoi to Sapa, a mountainous region in Northern Vietnam heavily populated by the Hmong people and other ethnic groups, famous for giving guided trekking tours through the indigenous peoples’ villages, valleys, fields, and rice paddies.

The trek, was at times, absolutely breathtaking. I found myself stopping, less so to catch my breath, but rather, to let it slip away, and make room for the awe to seep in more fully. I was surprised by my own feelings of envy, assuming that the families living off of their own harvest have it so much better than we do, being situated so remotely, in the midst of such lush greenery.

We opted for a Homestay with a Red Dao family deep in the mountains which we couldn’t have possibly have reached without our guide, Sang, a young, Black Hmong man who works for Sapa O’Chau, the locally-run trekking company that arranged our accommodations. They also run a school, through which Sang and many other Hmong have learned English. We hiked a total of 8 hours.

(Chances are, I’ll write more about the Dao – pronounced ‘zhao’ – family later. They were incredibly warm and welcoming, treating us even to a ‘medicinal bath’ of fresh herbs, and an inordinate amount of Vietnamese cooking for dinner, highlighted by a copious amount of homemade rice wine, followed by the worst headache I’ve had in a while.)

From Sapa, we arranged for a bus to take us to Dien Bien Phu. The bus failed to fetch us, so Sapa O’Chau had to hire two motorbikes to take us to the bus while it waited for us several kilometers ahead.

When we arrived, we found that the bus was actually a mini van, filled mostly with locals, except for a bright-eyed couple from The Netherlands – Ruth and Thomas – who stood head and shoulders over everyone else and occasionally posed for pictures for curious locals. Two of the young women in the van were incredibly scantily-clad, wearing overly tight dresses and high heels – which wasn’t a good sign. Other passengers were a mother and her young son who was transporting several bags of fruits, and an old woman belonging to a tribe I couldn’t identify, who said nothing to anyone.

Our motley crew of travelers experienced a flat tire not long into a trip, followed by the unfortunate episode of getting stuck in a muddy path and needing another bus to pull it forward. I volunteered my help to try and push our van, stupidly enough to get my running shoes absolutely immersed in their own puddle of mud. It was silly on my part, but we all had a good laugh about it once we got moving.

After we were halted a few more times along the way due to construction work on the roads, we finally arrived in Dien Bien Phu, to a throng of aggressive men jockeying for business at the bus station. I was just relieved the ride was over, but I feared a little for the two girls that got off at the station with us. They disappeared quickly. We were on the road for a grueling, absurdly bumpy, 8 hours. It was by far the worst bus ride I’ve ever taken. Our new friends from The Netherlands were in such good spirits, however, that we figured it best to stick with them.

This morning we crossed over from Vietnam to Laos, leaving at 5:30 am on a bus headed for Muang Khua. We hit the border in the middle of the morning, got our passports checked, fell in and out of sleep the rest of the way, only to wake and find ourselves deposited into the middle of town by 10:30. Another five hours on the road, finally over.

——————–

I’m finding that on this particular trip, I’m doing much of the “writing work” in my mind more than anywhere else. I’m taking mental notes of vivid scenes I want to jot down to unpack in depth later, or I’m snapping a quick shot or two on my phone for the situations that feel fleeting.

The actual writing I’m doing, when things have finally slowed to a deafening halt, is done primarily for the purpose of not forgetting. I’m writing for my own memory’s sake, really. Much of this trip has exhausted most of my mental capacity, if not for all the varied details I’m absorbing day to day, then surely due to all the seemingly endless hours spent on roads that are mostly, unforgiving.

And then we still have the boat ride tomorrow, down Nam Ou River.

Then another stop at another Lao town – Nong Khiaw – another small town which boasts a little more activity of the “eco”-variety. After which, Luang Prabang, a surefire haven for tourists visiting Laos…for better or worse.

But there I also expect to sleep soundly at a quiet, comfortable abode, riverside. For that alone, and for more strong Lao coffee, I have much yet to look forward to.

Scenes from Hanoi

Due mostly to unpredictable WiFi connections, this post was actually written about a week ago, and only going up now. Also, photos to come later.

I’m on an overnight train, leaving Hanoi, headed to a town further north called Sapa. I know very little about this place, other than having read it is mountainous and beautiful, and that the Hmong, and other indigenous tribes like the Dao, have made Sapa their home.

Truth is, I still feel I hardly know very much about the place I’m leaving.

Shuli and I have spent three days and two nights in Hanoi, sampling local dishes and sleeping in a run down “Homestay” operated by Pham and Hung, a husband and wife couple that had done their earnest in giving us a warm, comfortable welcome.

Pham looked like he’d much rather be by himself, though. It seemed as if being accommodating to strangers was learned behavior – a ready smile, a firm handshake, a quick offering of food or drink, a willingness to engage in small talk. Most of it appeared exactly as such, like willingness more than genuine interest. But perhaps much of his actual feelings about us, about his work as a budget hotel operator, were really lost in translation. I didn’t leave feeling disappointed by his seeming desire to just do his own thing – I just didn’t know if it was us that left him feeling disinterested.

I’m convinced that it was Hung who more than made up for Pham’s well-intended, but somewhat unnatural hospitality. Her smile was genuine and inviting. She had the sort of charm that seemed to soften her husband’s rather serious demeanor. She never undermined Pham’s rants on Vietnamese society, politics, or on the occasional bad review his Homestay might have received. She let him speak his mind, but whenever it was her turn, she always came across far more gracious, and even apologetic. I doubt that the warmth she exuded wasn’t the least bit contrived. But I could never really know.

What I do know is that Hung cooked amazing meals for us time and again, shared about her life as openly as she could, went out of her way to get us whatever we had requested, let alone, merely inquired about, and still insisted on giving us a parting gift of a free bag of Vietnamese coffee, and an accompanying filter.

Their home was our home for a few evenings, and they let us in on their story.

From Pham and Hung we had learned how property is really expensive in Hanoi, and they are lucky to even have a home, albeit a small one, to call their own. They gave us an explanation about how land was scarce after the 80s, which had inflated the price for land for many Vietnamese. We learned that many of the women carting around vegetables in the morning are, like them, from nearby provinces, who had come to Hanoi primarily to work and make ends meet.

I have no idea how they are really standing to make a profit. For a modest $15 a night, aside from room and board, we were treated to several generous meals a day – one evening included a feast of Bun Cha, essentially a mix of fresh leaves, noodles, and barbecued meats – certainly much more than what they had made it appear they would offer on their AirBnB listing. (I’m sure 15 USD goes a much longer way in Hanoi than what we might’ve done with it, but I can’t imagine they were saving that much of it given how much food they seemed to keep offering. I really don’t know.)

Another visitor at their homestay had confirmed the family’s incredible, genuine warmth and hospitality, telling us that the reason Hung and Pham weren’t around to properly check us out of their homestay was probably because they had taken out this visitor’s wife and kids for a swim at a local pool. We had to make our goodbyes over the phone.

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Everything seemed to move at such a frenetic pace in Hanoi, ourselves included. Walking slowly was a concerted effort on my part, as I found myself having to fight off feeling like I needed to move just as quickly as the motorbikes whizzing by us. Getting around on foot felt a lot like running for cover, at times. If we weren’t trying to dodge cars or bikes, we were still having to elude people.

People were everywhere. Sitting on little plastic chairs and low tables by what appeared to be these makeshift tea-drinking stations on the side of the road, sleeping on parked bikes, squatting on sidewalks, or peddling all sorts of items for sale, from tissue paper packets to cigarettes to the day’s leftover produce.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter was teeming with – well, everything. Calling what was before us (and behind us and surrounding us) a frenzy of motion and activity still doesn’t quite describe what it was like navigating its tiny streets. ‘Controlled chaos’ seems more appropriate. Never had the expression “method to the madness” felt more fitting than here, as if there was an order to the disorder that made perfect sense to the locals, and left the rest of us both bewildered and amazed by everything that was happening. Like I said, the Old Quarter was teeming, with everything.

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I’m tempted to go lengths describing the food but I’m afraid there are many other more seasoned “foodies” who have already done the due diligence of breaking down the unique flavors found on the streets of Hanoi. Besides, I’m perfectly satisfied leaving it up to the experts to differentiate between quality broths of pho.

Simply put, I enjoyed just about everything. I ate whatever was put in front of me, and more often than not, Shuli and I hardly bothered with a menu. We went to local joints that specialized in one or two dishes and gave our order as a quantity. “Two bowls”. Sometimes just holding up our fingers.

We had our fair share of bowls of pho that seemed to strike a delicate balance of freshness and fatty-ness – crisp vegetables served alongside heaping bowls of noodles swimming in broth infused with the fat from the chicken or the beef. The fish sauce was abundantly available, yet subtle enough when incorporated in dishes that it never felt so overpowering. Or perhaps my palate had grown so accustomed to the taste, that it had already changed. I’m not so sure.

I only know that I was surprised at my willingness to gnaw at what was clearly a pig’s hoof included in my Bun Bo Hue, or “choosing my own adventure” with spices whose power I couldn’t possibly predict until after my nose was immediately dotted with beads of sweat. If I refused to eat at a particular road side establishment, it was primarily because I didn’t really know how to make my order. Picking places that were populated with locals was a safe bet, and even better if they only served one dish.

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If I had it my way, (and it’s probably best that I hadn’t), if I had been traveling alone in Hanoi for a week, I’d have blown all my money just on coffee.

I still don’t have an explanation for the abundance of cafes (spelled ‘ca phe’) in Hanoi. The number of options to choose from is seriously overwhelming. I’ve lived in several cities that pride themselves in their “coffee culture” but I’ve never been to a city that’s taken it to the level that Hanoi has. Between the local coffee shops offering the standard “ca phe su da” (iced coffee with milk) to higher end establishments offering ‘Americanos’ and other espresso-based drinks, Hanoi is littered with options for the casual drinker to the caffeine junkie.

Me, I stuck mostly with the local Vietnamese way – incredibly strong, dark, coffee served with condensed milk and a single cube of ice.

I’m not sure anything else can really compete, in my book. The list of other caffeine-based drinks that are as consistently satisfying is a short one, and this one may very well be the runaway winner. The jolt I get from the very first sip is unmatched. The subtle sweetness of the creamy condensed milk mixed in makes for a nice contrast to the robust flavor of the roast. Vietnamese coffee is, in my opinion, well worth the patience it takes to prepare it well. It is not the kind of coffee taken, on-the-go, even if everything else around seems to be flying at that pace around you, as you take it. Something about the drinking of Vietnamese coffee requires a concerted slowness in intake to appreciate all its flavor. I just can’t get myself to “down it” if I had to. It would feel disrespectful.

Unfortunately, what I know is what I know. No one could explain why there was such a glaring proliferation of coffee establishments around the city. And no one could quite explain the magic behind a single cup of Vietnamese coffee, served simply, with a cube of ice. Sure, I could probably read about it somewhere, but that would just seem like I’d be doing myself a disservice to the experience. I’d rather someone walked me through it – someone wholly invested in the genuine look of pleasure on my face as I took my time with every sip.

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Shuli had asked me if I was ready to leave Hanoi.

The pace has certainly taken its toll. I wouldn’t mind an evening that wasn’t serenaded by the incessant honking of horns. Nor would I mind regaining the experience of crossing the street without thinking each stride was a matter of life or death by motorbike.

Truth is, I’ll remember how overwhelming everything appeared to be, but I’m not sure I’ll remember if I had actually felt, overwhelmed. The sense that I could’ve handled so much more of what the city offered, yet didn’t handle quite enough of it, makes me feel like, if I could, I’d at least want to give it another go. Just a little longer, for the next time – enough to actually feel ready to leave it behind.

Now, it feels like I’m leaving with too many questions still unanswered. But perhaps the lingering mystery will help me remember Hanoi with a distant sort of fondness – the kind you feel after having experienced too much without having much explained to you. The details might be fuzzy, but the feelings, even the ones I don’t quite understand, remain.

Barber

For whatever reason, my barber had employed some new techniques with me today. Mostly with my shave.

I do not recall him having used a brush to foam my face with shaving cream before. I always assumed he had been using his hands. I am never sure because my eyes are closed every time.

This time around, he also decided to provide me with a gentle face massage, rather than pounding my neck and back with his palms after my haircut — which always served as a welcome sign that he was through.

The barber shop I go to is a nondescript room, adjacent to a residential property along Jalan Sungai Kelian. It is not right alongside the road, but rather, further inside the property, at the end of a driveway leading into a house.

There are two swivel chairs in the room – the kinds with built in head-rests designed precisely for holding your head back for a shave. There is only one barber, however, so customers sit on the same swivel chair furthest from the door when receiving their cut. I’ve never seen anyone sit on the other chair.

There is only enough room for about four customers to wait their turn for a cut and shave. When I arrive today, an old Chinese man was already seated before me, ready for a trim. There was another man waiting, presumably Indian, with whom the barber was conversing. Between the three of them, I hardly understood a thing. Most of the conversation was either held in Malay or in Tamil. Naturally, I took out my phone.

When the barber had finished trimming the Chinese man’s hair, the man then paid him a little extra, and the barber took out a DVD from one of the drawers. Perhaps it is a side business, I had thought. I couldn’t get a good look at what sort of film he had handed him, but I stopped myself from assuming.

It was my turn. The barber already knows me, by face anyway, and so he gave me a welcome smile. When I come by, he usually attempts to guess beforehand what sort of haircut I want, which isn’t that hard to guess, since it’s almost always the same – short on the sides, long on top. He gets it right, usually – I’m the one that can’t seem to make up my mind on what I was hoping for.

Today I told him I wanted something different. Short on the sides, but higher, I instructed him, but leaving the top uncut. I mumble another direction, something to do with getting it blended in, but I mutter it mostly to myself, thinking neither he, or I, might really know what that even means.

This was a new cut for him, and me, and I figured to keep the expectations low. He started off with a bigger guide comb attached to the electric clipper and got it all even, all the way around the sides and back of my head. He switched down to a smaller guide comb to fade it in for a boxier look, and as I requested, he hardly touched the top. It was a quick cut, and reasonably good for the first time around. I felt relieved and satisfied, and he wore the look of something of a proud stylist, pleased with his own handiwork.

As is often the case with my visits, he assumed I wanted a shave. He was right — my facial hair had gotten scraggly and I was too lazy to give myself a close shave. I often am. It gets to be a messy, sweaty endeavor here in Malaysia.

I find shaving to be a rather intimate experience. When else is one examining his own face so closely. Is there not any sense of fear at the prospect of discovering features you hadn’t known existed? A mole here, a wrinkle there, a zit you forgot to pop until your razor brushes over it and the sharp pain of the blade scraping against your pimple feels like fire…

Shaving for me, is in large part, acceptance. It is the admission that my face continues to change in ways I cannot fully fathom, even though, in my mind, I feel as though I ought to be able to control. It is one of those activities that signal to me my own age – not simply the mere act of shaving as symbolic of adulthood, but rather, the residue of time, leaving behind its inevitable trail on my face.

Mainly, around my neck. Especially there. There I have all sorts of extra baggage, a true testament of time. I once had a jawline and I miss it dearly. I fear I may not ever see it again.

Only my wife caresses my face, and even with her, I feel a tinge of shame, for not having maintained the same sort of face she fell in love with years ago. My hope is that only I really think this, and she could really care less. The face she has before her is, close enough to the original thing.

But my barber – he gets special privileges. He’s the only other person who touches my face in ways no one else would. Today, he decided it best to pinch my cheeks repeatedly, after he had finished with the razor, as if they needed to be assuaged from the trauma of metal. That was a first, and a welcome surprise. It got my mind slightly distracted from the sting of the aftershave that would soon follow.

This is a man whose hands touch dozens of face shapes and head sizes throughout the course of the day. He is entrusted with a special task.

As his hands and fingers held my face and head, I sensed that, he too, has placed himself in a vulnerable position. His hands are exposed to our senses. We can smell what he might have had for lunch, as I did today – it was curry. We can see whether or not he had trimmed his fingernails before coming into work.

My barber gets to share time with me at my most exposed, and in turn, he too, exercises his own level of vulnerability. Perhaps, it’s all business for him, but I want to believe, that with time, he’d be just as willing to carry the burden of our secrets, as he would, cradle our heads.

I finally asked him for his name, which is a bad habit I have — always putting that exchange last.

He told me it was Jodhit, and how you see it is how I think I had heard him spell it. I had to ask him to. I learned that he’s been a barber for 24 years. In his current shop, he’s been cutting hair and shaving faces for 14 of them. The man has earned the right to be trusted. The least I could do is reward him with my loyalty – that he can trust I’d always keep coming back.

Singapore

It’s 8 a.m. here in Singapore.

I’m sitting outside on a balcony on the 16th floor of the Espada condominium in the Somerset neighborhood. From here I can look ahead and into other people’s property – that is, other homes in other luxury abodes surrounding me. There are at least a dozen within a two mile radius of where I sit of similar high-rise buildings exuding the same posh status akin to the one I’m staying in also represents.

According to my friend Ryan, with whom my wife and I are staying, many of his building’s residents are expats – and this particular neighborhood is well-populated with Westerners from around the world. Ryan is American, as are my wife and I, though we are all also Asian, which we all agreed, makes for many less-than-ideal introductory conversations surrounding “where we’re from”.

Ryan is placed here temporarily for work and he’s been put up handsomely. From his bedroom he has a panoramic view of the Somerset neighborhood at his daily disposal. Each room of his “modest” apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows, as if peering into other people’s places is one of the many understood perks of living in such residences at all.

If I had actually lived in this unit, I would likely be engaging in unhealthy amounts of people-watching and would probably indulge in my fair share of voyeurism (My wife acknowledged that she would probably do the same, and so I feel a little less alone in my admission).

Because it is still quite early in the morning, Singapore at its most bustling and buzzy is less apparent. It feels more like a quiet jungle interspersed with high-rise concrete structures darting up from the ground (Which appropriately, beckons the the “concrete jungle” saying).

To the left of the balcony is another development, the only blight to an otherwise, stunning view from above. It looks to be the beginnings of another residential building, still in the stage of exposed beams and rusted metal. According to Ryan, next to the development is a tiny residential building, which apparently, houses the migrant workers that have been hired to work on the development next door.

It is Sunday, today, and early, but I can already tell, these workers won’t be having today off.

Besides the rumored worker housing and the eyesore of early construction, there is little about this neighborhood that feels any less manicured into a self-contained sort of perfection. It looks like the neighborhood was built especially for their own residents to walk around in, to bask and delight in the magnificence of where they live.

I write this knowing full well that this temporary fantasy world of luxury will cease in the next 24 hours, as my wife and I will return to our humble abode on Penang Island, where we must downgrade to the 15th floor balcony view instead.

Where we live in Penang is far from shabby, as well. What we earn, however, is absolutely modest which requires us, in turn, to actually live modestly, as well. Still, we both value living simply and with unwavering commitment we hope to actually do so (Which makes having a partial ocean view from the 15th floor of our rented apartment already a slight compromise).

I told my wife last night, that I didn’t want, to want all of this.

What I mean is, I don’t want to have this festering desire to accumulate more than what my family and I need, simply because the kind of lifestyle around me seems to demand it. As if luxury, begets more luxury – which I believe, it would.

And to be clear, I mean this not as an indictment of my friend Ryan’s lifestyle. He was gifted with an opportunity to come to live in Singapore temporarily for work, and he’s genuinely taken to this little, powerful cosmopolitan city-state. He didn’t choose this way of living for himself – it was given. And if I were in his position, offered a chance to live in a safe, exclusive neighborhood, high above the rapid living below, there’s a good chance I’d take it in a heartbeat too.

But I’d want to be able to leave it all behind, just as easily, if I could.

I want to live with enough conviction to walk away the moment I felt a borrowed lifestyle consumed me more than my own integrity did. I’d much rather, still, the latter.

I can imagine the comfortable living here to feel, almost contagious. Like a kind of good-feeling disease people wouldn’t mind having, or sharing, for that matter.

I’m allowing myself a little room for judgment here, so I’m just going to say this: in Singapore, to have things, just seems so utterly, Singaporean. As if there isn’t another desirable way to live, than to accumulate wealth and establish comfort. That said, I want any Singaporean friends to show me something else. I invite any passionate sort of retort to my judging, American ways.

Had I had loads of cash at my disposal, I’m afraid I may have burned it all quickly on this short trip, as if I needed to purchase things I didn’t really need because purchasing things is exactly what people did here. Even those without much money, I imagine, still found things they could afford to purchase.

Perhaps I’m not saying anything particularly egregious when I say that this country reeks of rampant materialism (Though, I suppose, by saying it that way, I’m not exactly saying it, nicely either, even if it were true). I can’t help but imagine some thoughtful Singaporean citizens having already made this sort of a self-condemnation long ago, and often. I don’t imagine everyone is swept up by an uncontrollable desire to accumulate things, or to literally “rise up” into a luxury home. But I do get the sense that the pressure to want this for oneself, in a place like this, that beams with material success, is more than just palpable. The pressure might be boiling over, for many…

Though, maybe not for everybody.

When I see women sweeping the balconies of the apartments across from where I sit, I wonder what it is that they really want, living here. Or the men hired to build an apartment complex they likely could never afford living in in their lifetime – what do they desire? Or perhaps the maid pushing around the stroller behind the family with a newborn – what would she like to have for herself?

I’d hate to start assuming everyone wants the same things.

As I said earlier, for me, I wouldn’t want, to want any of this, really. Perhaps luckily for me, I actually get to leave it.

Video

Taste

“It’s going to take a while.”

I’ve listened to this snippet from Ira Glass many times over, and every time I do, I can’t help but feel a little encouraged, and a bit more hopeful.

Everything he says here, regarding the craft of creating stories is spot on.

Not only does it take time to feel like we’re creating something even close to our own ambitions, but it truly takes, a huge volume of work. Between the time, and the work, it’s the work that keeps me humble. The amount of work I will need to churn out, just so my writing can sound a little more like what I have in my head is daunting.

Time feels like a luxury. Sure, we take it for granted, too. But in my particular case, time is hardly the issue. I have loads of it. (I don’t manage it well enough to feel like I do, but I do)

It’s the work, though.

The commitment to churning out draft after draft of likely bad writing, again and again, until it looks a little less like a deformed mass of jumbled words and resembling more of a properly executed, carefully crafted story. Something beyond just well meaning, but poignant. Something actually worth reading.

I don’t fear the work. I just get tired thinking about what it will require of me. The demand is great, and the worker is few – me.

Now, about taste…

That’s the other thing in which I take some amount of solace. Actually, with regards to taste, there’s a little bit of pride.

I am not ashamed about what I like. I do not mind sharing the books I’m reading, or recommending films worth watching, or plugging the kind of music I’d want the rest of my small world to tune into (likely, it’s jazz, by the way).

What I like motivates me to create something that would, similarly, illicit a sense of pride – that I, too, can come up with something enjoyable. That I can move someone to action, or challenge someone to think differently, with my words, in the same way much of what I consume, much of my interests, move and challenge me.

Right now, the “taste” that Glass is talking about – that’s all I really have.

The body of work has yet to be built. The time to do so has yet to be managed.

But the taste, to me, is there. To me, it’s my beginning.

Things are likely to look a little different around here. It’s probably going to be a bit messier. I’m going to be testing a lot more out. See what sticks. My more manicured, professional self has its own, separate place – over here. But here…here is where the work, the real, grind-it-out, raw material, will once again gain its footing.

So pardon the mess ahead, but I have a lot of work still to do.