I don’t often take travel advice from my brother.
Or advice at all, for that matter.
For those who know him, those who have received accounts of walking up train tracks along cliff edges in Peru, or watching his friend stitch up his own leg in Cambodia, this is a pretty self-explanatory survival tactic.
For those who don’t know him, let me just explain something here: my brother is an idiot.
But there is one piece of advice that I picked up from him. It’s not something I remember him telling me directly, at any point, more of just a general guideline that comes across from his journeys. An aphorism for travel:
Just don’t tell mom and dad until after you’ve done it.
I love traveling alone. I love being able to decide exactly what I want to do that day. I love having no one to answer to if a particular road seems worth walking down for two hours, or if I just decide, on a whim, that I am not actually the least bit interested in an unmissable site or unforgettable museum. I love that if I decide to buy four yards of silk without an particular purpose in mind there is absolutely no one present to remind me to be sensible. There’s a bit in The Dud Avocado (a book that everyone who is young and stupid and abroad should read) where Sally says, ““Frequently, walking down the streets in Paris alone, I’ve suddenly come upon myself in a store window grinning foolishly away at the thought that no one in the world knew where I was at just that moment.”
It’s a feeling anyone who has traveled alone knows well. It is, I promise, pure magic.
But just because I love something doesn’t mean I should be allowed to do it.
Travel, particularly travel on your own, sets up a strange sense of value that’s hard to justify or explain. I will spend $30 on a marble knick knack I don’t want just to get a shop keeper to stop hounding me, but will get stubbornly attached to the idea that a taxi ride just should not be $20. Knowing I’ll be ripped off hardly helps. Buying a zippered bag that I keep close to my body was a waste of money – I can be robbed blind with all my possessions firmly in hand.
On my own, I have a habit of losing more and offending less. If the drink comes with ice, I’ll weigh diarrhea against awkwardness and almost certainly accept it. I’ll buy things I never wanted, pretending politely to be duped by every possible gimmick. It’s not that I don’t know I’m being taken, it’s just that it seems rude to point out a racket while I’m still being swindled. No one likes being called a scam artist. Not even a scam artist.
Within six hours of docking in Vietnam, for instance, I had handed over $40 for a taxi ride that should have cost $6. Which is really exacerbated by the currency – $40 is 800,000 Vietnamese Dong. I handed over almost a million for a taxi. A million! A million of what is hardly relevant here. It was a million, and I was quietly, shyly ashamed.
Maybe that’s what had me so defensive when I got to De Nang two days later. Or maybe it was the look of frank incredulity and mild pity on the face of the Australians who shared my train carriage from Hanoi when I told them how much I paid for the scarf I was wearing. Whatever it was, I was feeling young and naive and stupid. I was an idiot, and I was determined not to be taken advantage of again.
Stepping out of the station into the blinding, bleaching sun, a little sleepy and sore and disoriented from fifteen hours on an uncomfortable train, hungry as a result of a food cart that offered only duck fetus, I was faced with a crowd of touts shouting “taxi!”
I saw a man in a green shirt with the logo of what I knew to be a reputable company. I asked him how much to Hoi An and he told me “by the meter” – which is really the correct answer, all said and done. Yes, I said, but how much would that be? “About 400.” 400,000! That’s nearly half a million. Half. A. Million! Who cares of what!
From behind him I saw a hand shoot up and a voice called out: “is it just you?”
I thought of all the warnings I knew about admitting, publicly, to traveling alone: all the times I’ve worn a fake wedding band, all the “friends” I’ve had waiting for me “at the hotel.’ I took a deep breath.
“Yes!” I told him.
“I’ll do it for 200!”
Sold! Sold to the total stranger with no company!
And, it turns out, no car!
Mr Chien introduced himself and led me to his motor bike.
Now, I have a thing about motorcycles. They kill people, you know. I know people whose entire craniums have been painstakingly restructured because of accidents. I know people with permanent scars from exhaust pipes. Plus, motorcycle taxis are notoriously dangerous for single women. I thought about all of this, all the warnings, all the sensible reasons not to get on the back of a motorcycle with a total stranger who, I realized, had not even asked the name of my hotel yet.
But then I thought this: it’ll save you ten dollars.
There was a girl climbing onto the bike next to mine. She looked so confident. She told me not to worry, and then told me her name was Jane. I was practically raised by a woman named Jane. I got on the bike.
Five minutes later we were roaring down a highway at sixty miles an hour, weaving in and out of trucks, and my ill-fitting helmet kept bouncing on top of my head. Mr Chien still hadn’t, I noted, asked the name of my hotel. I leaned forward and yelled over the wind, “how long to Hoi An?”
“Less than one hour. I can go fast!” Mr Chien yelled back.
Jane may well have practically raised me, I realized, but that doesn’t mean she’s known for making wise decisions.
I was thinking about this rule of not telling until after, and the strange advantages of my willingness to be easily sold two days later, when I climbed off the back of Mr Chien’s motorcycle at the 11th century Champa temples of My Son.
Because of course he sold me on a day long motorcycle tour of the area. And of course I said yes.
It turns out Mr Chien is fascinating. Mr Chien is a vet who fought for the Nationalist army, with brothers who fought for the VC, and twenty years experience guiding returning American vets around the country. And when he came for the tour, he even brought a helmet that fit. We wound our way through back country roads, through tiny villages swarming with activity the day before New Years, and spent a few hours eating a lunch of chicken hot pot with fresh herbs in a dusty little roadside bar where Mr Chien held a tiny, girl dressed up for the holiday.
Finally, I hung that well-fitting helmet over the handlebars of Mr Chien’s bike and wandered up the quiet path to My Son. The jungle was thick on either side, and the air was soft and heavy – the wetness blanketing the chatter of men and birds. After ten minutes the path wound past a small store where two women ate noodles surrounded by silk scarves and post cards. Another two minutes on and the jungle parted. On the hill in front of me stood the moss covered ruins of My Son, Hindu temples made of carefully fitted brick with no mortar. To this day, they are like Stone Henge – no one knows, really, how they were built. The temples were ringed by a quiet river, clustered in a few small groups of towers and stones and heaps, with little white and yellow flowers sprouting between the bricks.
There were only a few other tourists meandering in little bands, speaking in hushed tones. I thought of all my friends who told me about the crowds in Angkor. I watched a dozen butterflies take off from a patch of moss on the edge of a temple mound.
After My Son we went to a farm where I made rice paper and saw chickens whose coops were old television sets at the house of an elderly woman who pointed to the wall and spoke quickly in Vietnamese. That shovel, Mr Chien told me, was used to dig foxholes for the Americans. We rode down through paddies (the land, Mr Chien told me, again and again, is remarkably fertile) and had coffee at a road side spot where the son of the family shaved while two women served me coffee, thick and sweet, mixed with condensed milk, and chickens pecked at my feet.
Finally Mr Chien took me to the marble mountains, giant monoliths of cold rock sticking out of the ground like Uluru. I climbed steps carved into the rock – right at the top was a Buddha, 20 feet high, carved of white marble. I climbed more steps and down some and through an arch carved in rock. A door led into the dark. I walked through and the damp, blanket of heat dissolved into a cool cave. A set of stairs led to the left, between four gods painted in red. Down below the cave opened into a cavern four stories high, still and dark. At the top of the cave two holes ringed in foliage let in shafts of light. One landed on a marble statue of a buddha, gender-less, time-less, cool and calm.
Twenty minutes later (after buying a piece of marble that, lets be honest, no one wanted) Mr Chien dropped me at the airport. My hair was full of dust, me legs were burned by the sun, and no one knew where I was just at that moment.