Wednesday, 22 October 2014

On the road to and from Sapa

Co-written by Yvonne and Michael 

On the road to and from Sapa ...
I am getting used to the noise of scooters, the motorized successor to the bicycle and therefore somewhat of a cousin, as they pass by.  They buzz whereas cars whoosh so I can tell in advance who is coming.

I am getting used to seeing scooters with giant piles of sticks that measure the same width as the opposite lane of the road gliding down the mountainside to deliver fuel to the larger towns.

I am learning that if you are a female scooterist who would like to protect yourself and your fancy clothes from the polluted air and harsh sun you will need: a face mask, a plastic coat (preferably with a hood and hand flaps), a pair of sunglasses, and a leg blanket wrap.  With your purse tucked behind you, you can still ride with decency and style even though you're thoroughly unrecognizable because we can all still appreciate your impossibly tall high heels.  

I am discovering that if the road simply descends for the next 10 kilometres it is better to switch off your motorbike and let gravity silently guide you down the mountain.  It also gives you more time to stare curiously at those Westerners on bicycles, and you can even say hi if you want.

On the road to and from Sapa ...
I am getting used to seeing large slate-coloured oxen with horns that hook back behind their heads like scythes and which look equally sharp, but I just wish they'd choose a lane when parading down the street.

I am discovering that chickens are the mountain goats of Asia as they scramble along the steep banks at the side of the road with numerous chicks running frantically in all directions behind them before they dive into a hole in the bushes.

I am learning that pigs, whose busy snouts rummage tirelessly through the gutters that line the highway, will eagerly devour a banana peel that accidentally slipped off the back of your bike, while you laugh in amusement on the other side of the rear wheel.

I am discovering that birds are the overwhelming pet of choice and that having just one is not an option.  Six birds in that motorcycle rental shop so small that the cages practically touch each other is the norm.

On the road to and from Sapa ...
I'm getting used to short conversations that start with, "Hello!  Where are you from?" and continue with a lot of nodding and smiling.  

I'm getting used to children staring at me wide-eyed, getting up the courage at the last second to shout out, "Hello!" and then breaking into a huge grin.  But I was still surprised in one village when they all shouted, "Goodbye!" instead.  A different language teacher.  

I'm discovering that outside of Sapa, I will be charged reasonable prices for my pho, my com rang gĂ  and my bananas.  The countryside is much kinder than the city.

On the road to and from Sapa ...
I'm getting used to four post beds with white lacy canopies, pink bows and blue rosettes that turn a mosquito net into a celebration.

I'm getting used to passing simple one story wooden homes that come complete with a billiards table under the front alcove.

I'm learning that the largest, most modern and best kept structure in a village is probably the school, painted pale yellow and decorated with multi-coloured triangular flags and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh.  

I'm discovering that $10 will find you a very comfortable hotel room in which to pass the night and $20 will get you a night in luxury.  But in both cases the shower will still drain into a corner across the bathroom floor and a lizard will take up residence on the ceiling.  

On the road to and from Sapa ...
I'm getting used to being surrounded by towering mountain peaks.  From a distance they appear to be covered in overly springy moss but when I get closer I realize that the lush tree canopy soars to the sky on improbably steep mountainsides.

I'm getting used to going past terraces that coat the hillsides, climbing upward until you find a little hut perched on top.  And I wonder aloud to myself "Do they also have satellite tv over there like the hut made from sticks and tarps that I just passed?"

I am learning that seeds - of a plant still beyond my knowledge -  are best dried on a tarp in direct sunlight on a six-lane wide socialist highway.  Although if you live in the countryside you'll have to make do with your front yard, a stand-alone fan, and a bowl, with which you aerate the seeds by hand.

I am discovering that people grow corn in this region, but for what purpose I still don't know,   although Yvonne bought a corn on the cob the other day from a lady on the roadside and paid four thousand dong (20 cents), which made the woman smile so wide that it was clear that we had grossly over-paid.  Apparently, it was delicious.

I'm discovering that su su, (or chayote, according to my Vietnamese-English dictionary) is in season, a pale green vegetable that resembles a pepper in shape, but isn't hollow, making it much heavier and harder.  It grows on vines supported on stakes like grapes and is sold in huge piles on the roadside.  I think about the huge diversity of food worldwide - here is a vegetable that I've never seen before!  But then I see that it is growing next to a field (or rather, a small strip up the mountainside) of corn, and that chayote itself is an import from Mexico, and I think instead of the incredibleness of globalization and how quickly the world changes.  

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