Interloper

I step out into the yard and peer through the angled slats on the gate

They’re still hard at work. The crew down the street has been loading wheelbarrows and shovelling sand for the better part of the day. Their voices carry, jubilant, unified.

Vietnamese do not shy from work.

I head back towards the house when I spot movement through the grass

Lizard

I think

Wait

This lizard is bigger than I’m used to. Maybe a meter long.

And it doesn’t have legs.

Visual cortex catches up to language processing and the name of this creature reaches my brain

Snake

For some reason she strikes me as female (I don’t know how to determine the gender of snakes and am pretty sure I won’t be getting close enough to find out). But even from a few meters away, she’s beautiful. Bright green scales cascade into orange-red tones nuzzled near those unblinking, deep-pool, all-seeing eyes.

She nuzzles her way into the narrow bed, sneaking behind the cover of leaf. Edges to the left, then to the right, tongue extended, scoping out this novel territory. She attempts, unsuccessfully, to slide up the smooth facade of the cement wall. Then, finally, comes to a stop.

Hidden. Invisible, honestly, to all except me, and only because I happened to be paying attention.

There’s a snake down here

I call up to Rhino

Where?

Down here. In the garden.

Looks like it’s trying to find its way out of the yard.

For whatever reason, I’ve never feared snakes. They’ve always been more of a curiosity to me. I read a book when I was younger emphasizing that they really want nothing to do with us, and I was satisfied, all good.

But here, it pays to be cautious.

Our scaly interloper remains secluded behind the bright purple and green leaves of the ground cover, unmoving.

And so very, very silent.

As if in solidarity,

I keep still

And silent

And the world around us seems to stop


I spend the better part of a minute waiting for her to move, to slide out, to head for the hills.

But apparently her first instinct is to hide. Be still. Wait for dark.

My first instinct, conversely, is to call down the street. Locals will definitely know whether this slither is a venomous one.

I use the moment of standoff to search for venomous snakes Vietnam on my phone. Thankfully, the first four hits look nothing like our new friend.

A Non La pokes its way above the fence. The lady in charge of trash removal is busy on the other side.

I call to her – after a quick translate –

Có một con rắn trong sân, bạn có thể giúp đỡ?

There is a snake in the yard

Can you help?

She wanders around the pillared gate and peers at the bushes. I’m confident she has some sort of local wisdom or charm to keep us all safe

She gently nudges her trash bag into the flower bed.

No movement.

She mutters a few words

And eases backward out of the gate, crossing her arms in the universal body language for

You’re on your own, mister.

To which I reply, in my head

No

I’m not

I’ve got someone to keep me company


Quito

I’m sleeping better tonight.

It’s been a rough few weeks for sleep. Bad habits combined with stress compounded by Covid and a dash of post-nasal drip will do that.

I’m finally turning a corner.

I had almost forgotten what a night of uninterrupted sleep will do to a person.

Sharp. Alert. Patient.

Human.

It all follows.

I’m sleeping better tonight.

That is, until I receive an unexpected visitor. Unexpected, and uninvited.

My dream is of a journey. Making my way somewhere – by bicycle, maybe a concert? There’s a plane circling overhead, I think it’s looking for something.

Or someone.

I look up, shielding my eyes, tryiing to focus on the craft. It’s blurry, distorted. But I can hear its engine fade in

then out

and in.

Weird

That’s not the only thing about this engine that’s not quite right.

It’s the pitch.

Not the constant jet shhhhhhhhhhh of a commercial airliner, nor the buzzy marrrrrrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrrrrrr of a smaller prop plane.

This engine is uniquely high-pitched.

Exactly like a…

mosquito

crap

A few years in West Africa and a harrowing battle with malaria has made my subconscious reaction swift.

I shake out of my dream and sit up while simultaneously whapping my ear repeatedly.

It’s the rudest of awakenings.

I slowly exit my dream fugue and remember where I am.

It’s hot

I shake off the cover and stumble over to plug in the fan

And as I do, remember the African proverb:

If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in a dark room with a mosquito

The truth of this resonates deeply, tonight.

And, as I mumble and stumble my bleary wreckage over to the WC, I take solace in one thought

At least I’ve got something to write about.

Hawker

150k, we take you around

No, thank you.

It’s beautiful trip, we take you for one hour

No, thank you. We’re ok.

I give her a smile with my eyes and a gentle wave, and we continue along the promenade.

There’s so much to see.

It’s our first time here, and this UNESCO Heritage site does not disappoint. The river walk is glowing, vibrant lanterns and colours everywhere

And few, if any, tourists in Hoi An at the moment.

From what I’ve heard this is unusual. A unique moment, we may not see again.

My mind wanders over the past 24 months. These Covid times are surely a challenge. But they offer unforeseen benefits.

The good.

And the bad.

100

Oh, are you still here?

She must have continued to wander with us. Our pace has been slow but she’s like a cat.

Lithe, ready to pounce.

Very beautiful ride.

She pulls out her phone to show a photo of what must have been the perfect trip. Lanterns, colours shine through. The couple in the photo lit just so, happiest pairing in the country.

Definitely one of her favourite pics, doing its best to entice.

She’s a seller.

The thing she’s not ready to hear, though, is that tonight, we’re not buying.

Just a walk. And a talk.

No hawk.

Wrong Turn

No motorcycle!

The man is uniform

All sandblasted khaki and exuding authority.

He lives for this, I can tell.

I imagine the flow of his day. Chatting with friends, the shopkeepers, trinket hawkers, street food merchants.

No doubt these days they bemoan the lack of tourists, foot traffic,

income.

Things are quiet in Hoi An these days.

Which, for him, no doubt translates to boredom. A lot of sitting back, slowing down.

I cruise the streets on this new-to-me yet familiar bike in a helmet that doesn’t fit quite right.

Starting to get a headache

I’m caught in the space between knowing where I want to go and chasing random discovery. I take a left because why not, then a right because yeah, it makes sense, then realize I may have missed out completely.

I’m wayward.

Lost, but the stakes are low. I’m in no rush, no timetables this afternoon.

The wooden archway denotes an entrance to a temple. The carts arrayed along the lane means this is a street for pedestrians, not cars. And, for the third time today, I hear

No motorcycle!

I gotta stop making wrong turns

But in making these wrong turns

Feel like I maybe made his day.

Fowl Play

I’m not sure where to go.

Our homestay host said turn left. So I do.

It’s early, the boys are slumbering, and I need to eat before zooming into the day.

Gotta be a pho place around here

I get maybe 20 meters down the lane when I see the man and his rooster.

And reader, let me tell you

This man knows how to care for a rooster.

The yard is not atypical. Fenced off with wire, plenty of dirt and chicken droppings decomposing together in a poopy stew. A collection of chickens peck and scritch their way around the yard. An unassuming home, breezeway housing a couple bikes and drying laundry.

So, business as usual, nothing much to see here.

Until I see him, and him.

He’s crouched down, squatting in front of some sort of fowl.

Is that a turkey?

A rooster?

Can’t be.

I’m really not sure what to call it until he lets it go. But before he does, I notice him tending with utmost care to his fowl feathered friend. Picking a nit here, smoothing a ruffled feather there.

The two of them sit, oblivious to the world.

One, the most intent, present caregiver.

There’s a lot of love there.

The other, a trusting, loved, meditative soul.

I don’t know much about rooster care. Do all rooster owners spend the morning meticulously hand grooming?

If so, I need to know more.

This is a relationship that has been cultivated, nurtured. These two know each other. And I feel as though I’ve stumbled into a morning ritual, an intruder who can’t help but stare.

I continue down the lane and sneak a look back over my shoulder as the groomsman continues his work. And make a mental note to try to swing by tomorrow.

I’ve still got questions.

Squeezed

Elephant is big on limes.

Maybe it’s an elephant thing.

Are elephants known for a love of limes?

I make a mental note to find out.

We have a couple different pho joints that we haunt, and he’s always about the limes.

The soup, though.

Quick, easy, healthy, inexpensive.

Like, ridiculously inexpensive.

It checks all my culinary boxes.

I message a fellow noodlist back home with the deets

Today we’re at an expensive place

I run the numbers

The two of us are eating for $3.40

To get what’s arguably a perfect meal

The steamy, seasoned just so broth, accented perfectly with a mix of greens, gentle shards of meat, a touch of chili sauce and pickled garlic. A couple spicy chili peppers for that added zing

And for the final zest

A squeeze of lime

Or three

Or six.

Elephant loves limes.

As we sit down today though, there isn’t the usual fully stocked ceramic jar filed to the rim with sliced greenies. Today, at this table, slices only two.

Papa, ready to squeeze!

He grabs his allotted slice, but for whatever reason this one is slick

This is an uncooperative lime

Bit too much zest in the nest

Bloop

Augh

I look up and his lime has made a perfect landing straight into the steaming broth

It floats, indifferent.

And he now has a mission.

He fishes around with his chopsticks in an attempt to salvage

You gotta be careful

I say, matter of fact

He really needs to exercise greater lime care

I muse.

He’ll get better at it as he grows. More like me.

As I begin to squeeze my lime and peer at his bowl and earnest rescue maneuvers

My fingers slide together, lightning quick, unintentionally.

And my hint of lime makes a perfect arc

Through the sky

More like me

And lands squarely between the flip flops of the gentleman waiting in line.

Whoops

He looks me in the eye, grasping this unexpected and limeless moment, bright eyed and fully awake.

And we giggle together at this sudden turn of events.

Left to Write

It’s a slow morning

The energy has been making its way back

I’m not sure when I’ll be at 100

For now, I’m happy to be upright and mobile.

My achy left and crackly right push across the keys.

The dehumidifier quietly plies its trade, the birds outside the window are not nearly as active as they were this morning

And my afternoon brain is not nearly as active as it was this morning

Bird brain, eh.

The sounds of construction continue unabated

A lone dog growls and barks

The frogs in the local pond sing to me

Get to work

We’re busy over here

I remember to step outside of my Magic Picture Box to be a parent and ask down the stairs

R, are you in your zoom?

Yup

S, did you get started?

Not yet

Ok, get to it in the next break please.

They’re doing okay, honestly. Often I feel like they’re better at this than I am. Young, malleable cortexes, all synapses firing, all the time, making sense of what to me still so often feels foreign.

And if they’re okay, then there’s nothing left for me, except being left to write.

So I start

From left to right

With my left, and my right

Until there’s no more write left.

Raffled

I noticed his rings first.

Splashes of gold, one with a gemstone appointed in the middle, all blue and forceful, the other more subtle and angular, alit upon his thumb.

You here to see the doctor?

Yes, 9am appointment

Mr. Thuong doesn’t remember me but I remember him.

He’s lost the full scrubs in favour of what seems to be Tuesday Casual? Just an N-95 surgical mask and shower cap lining his tightly cropped hair. A golf tee in forest green and white, Raffles Medical embroidered across the back, and a pair of 30×30 Levi’s 501s.

I notice the jeans because I used to wear them exclusively, way back in the day.

That’s my size

He turns his back and that’s when I notice the inky colours tracking just above his elbow, the polo shirt belying what is definitely more ‘more’ up above. I squint to make out the image but it’s not quite clear. I’m left to wonder

Why’d he get it there if nobody will see it

I realize the answer: t-shirts must not be his thing

He’s a tank topper, to be sure.

You need to take rapid test first

Oh, I didn’t know that, I would have come earlier

I plead, hopeful that they’ll accept my test from last week

So many ducking tests

I reluctantly waddle into a seat in the white testing tent and breathe out, deeply

Why in the world didn’t Zoom call them outbreak rooms?

I wonder, then answer my own question.

The irony of her asking me to take a deep breath is not lost. Pushed it a bit too hard on a post-Covid bike ride my lungs weren’t quite ready for and have had some patches of wheeze, of discomfort. Shortness.

You’ll be fine

I reassure myself.

I try to decide whether it’s the act of visiting the clinic or the distraction of being out has calmed my nerves

Which have been thoroughly wracked

Ok, please remove your mask

Wasabi

My mantra for getting over the discomfort.

She snakes the tiny brush into the nasal cavity

That’s probably far enough

Nope

She means business

Wasabi

For whatever reason this is a particularly thorough test. She slides it a touch further, twists, and then

Leaves it there

Wasabi wasabi wasabi

And just as slowly as she pushed it in

Inexorably pulls it out

Made that one count eh?

I say to her, cracking wise in perfect, fluent Vietnamese

That part never happened. Instead I quietly thank her

I wanna say it’s all mundane at this point

The nose normal

And usually it’s no big deal, a necessary hassle and a spatter of mild pain for the greater good

It’s not real pain. An inconvenience, a discomfort.

Suck it up.

But today the sushi was a bit stronger than I’m used to.

How to Feel Young

I was never a motorcyclist.

The gravel road stretched out in front of me. I was alone, with the bike. A 50CC mini that, even being the shortest kid in school, was my speed.

Or should have been.

I still to this day don’t know why I was the only one around.

No lesson, no experience, no idea. And my only one thought was that my cousin had made it look so easy.

How hard could it be

So, without a helmet or a clue, I started the bike, gently revved, released the brake and clutch.

And in a flash, the bike revved, sputtered, and flew out from under me, out of my hands, and into the ditch.

And that was the last time I tried to handle a motorbike.


Fast forward 36 years and I find myself swimming in an endless school of bikes. 

It is the preferred mode of transport

And, somewhat paradoxically, it keeps me young.

People go slow here. Traffic has its own gentle chaotic logic. Go with the flow, keep things moving, head on a swivel, beep away, and never, ever betray a hint of rage.

It’s just how we roll.

Traffic laws are often suggestions, hints. People travel the wrong way, helmetless, 4, 5, even 6 passengers astride.

My first days spent gripping the bars in terror

Knuckles pasty

But, as one does,

you power through, push beyond fear.

Gotta get home somehow

And with time, seemingly and sudden

There’s a level of comfort, the adventure becomes the norm.

And that skinny white-knuckled teen who abandoned the bike

Makes the most of a second chance.

Brake

We ease the bikes to a stop and hop off onto the wide sidewalk. I attempt to catch my breath.

Sorry buddy, just need to go easy today

Stop apologizing, there’s nothing to worry about. It’s just been great for us to get out and ride.

We’re about 5k into our spin and I needed to pause. It’s the first exercise I’ve gotten in weeks and it shows. And feels.

It’s been a spell since we’ve had a chance to catch up and there’s been a lot to tell. So we ride, and chat, and ride, and chat. It’s our usual routine but for some reason (I know the reason) it’s been a bit harder today.

He’s patient, though, and humours me as we sit on the river’s edge.

The sludge-toting barges are out in full force today. This waterway is a main through-fare and we spot at least ten fully laden ships making their way in either direction. Lean, long, flat. They cruise just above water level, playing the part of crocs, skimming the surface in search of prey.

This city is so cool

Yeah, just gotta turn where it makes the least sense

He points down a side street

Let’s go that way next

Cool.

I pause to sip some water when the man on the motorbike pulls up, black coat unbuttoned, glasses slightly askew, phone in hand.

He is already started into his question before he looks up. I catch maybe a word or two of his cavalcade of ideas, something about directions to…?

I hold my hands up in capitulation as if to say

I give up

Can’t help you, sorry.

That’s when he finally, really looks over at these fish clearly out of water, and realizes he’s barking up the wrong kickstand.

He gives a sneer, a derisive nod, and with what I imagine is a

well, that was a waste of my time

continues on his way.