We had just emerged from a lazy lunch at a French noodle bar when a pair of breathless tourists stopped us on the street in Saigon. “I wouldn’t go that way if I were you,” said the Englishman in khaki shorts, safari jacket, and tall black socks. “Unless you have a death wish.” His red-cheeked wife nodded in agreement. “There’s a riot happening,” she said in a shout-whisper. Read more
“Let’s go this way,” Chris said and folded the map.
We were supposed to be in District 1, the part of Ho Chi Minh City known for its luxury boutiques, white-tablecloth restaurants, and world-class people watching.
But the more we walked, the more obvious it became that we had gone the wrong way. Maybe it was all the bloody meat laid out for sale, or the squirming fish in buckets, but I felt pretty certain we weren’t about to stumble upon a Tiffany’s. Read more
On the way back to our hotel in Hoi An one afternoon, a young woman offered to pop my zit. The whole thing started with a long white string she held to my face as I tried to squeeze through a throng of sweaty shoppers at the outdoor market.
From her seat in the tuk-tuk, Nita held her palm above her eyes and scanned the roadside. She looked not unlike a game scout on safari. Out here in the middle of a large stretch of barren, dusty land, we could have been scouting for an oasis. The air smelled like spicy wood and baked dirt. The earth hadn’t had a satisfying drink in three long years. Even the fish cried for rain.
Despite our early start, we didn’t beat the heat. Cambodia was in the chokehold of a record-setting heat wave, and outsmarting it was laughable. As blasts of thick air and sand exfoliated my face in the back of the tuk-tuk, I thought of all the ways one might describe such a nauseating temperature—blast furnace, chicken roaster, Dante’s Inferno, Death Valley with a monsoon season, or maybe the innards of a Brobdingnagian steam machine.
As I pondered how long it could possibly take to find some kind of village near Beng Mealea, a pig whizzed by on the back of a man’s motorbike. Crusted in dried mud from hooves to spine, the animal was tightly trussed, upside down, alive.
Things could be worse, I reminded myself.
Two shots of rice whiskey and twelve hours of sleep didn’t help. My head and chest felt like pressurized powder kegs filled with snot. My throat like a cheese grater. I stuffed every pocket with face tissues, double-checked my supply of Advil, and hoisted my daypack over my shoulder.
“Let’s go before I change my mind,” I said to my husband, Chris. Blame my lack of enthusiasm on the respiratory infection I picked up in Saigon, but I felt like our side trip to Cambodia from Vietnam would be a lackluster exercise in checking off sites from someone else’s do-before-you-die list.
Back at my desk in Montana, I stare at the Rocky Mountains and try to remember the rooftop of the world. It seems like a dream to me now. All the waterfalls, roadside monkeys, misty valleys, rhododendron forests, and faces that felt familiar even though they belonged to strangers. I see them in my mind’s eye, but it’s like someone rubbed Vaseline on the lens. Sikkim seemed like a dream even while I was there.
In Italy it’s the Catholic churches. In India it’s the Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries. You can’t swing a squirrel without hitting one. Even though they are—each and every one—amazing creations of detail, artistry, and otherworldly inspiration, after a while they all start to look alike. The thrill is gone.
Once upon a time, there was an American socialite named Hope Cooke who longed to travel to distant lands. She was a lonely girl, orphaned by her young, romantic mother and abandoned by her ne’er-do-well father.
One might wonder why it’s easier to bathe a cat than it is to enter Sikkim. I certainly did. But when I asked Nidup about all the stamps and paperwork and military checkpoints, he just shook his head and said, “It is a very special place, Sikkim. Very significant.”
“Yes, I gathered,” I said. “But why?”