Raderstorf World Wide Adventure

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Watch out for the Purple Lady and more

Here I sit at the beach in Hoi An, Vietnam, seeing a large body of water for the first time since the tsunami. It’s hard to say how I feel as I hear the tiny waves crash at the shore. The anxiety I’m feeling has more to do with the inequities I see all around me. This place is exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. Competition to sell to foreigners is so fierce and I feel like a walking dollar sign.

I have seen so much in a short time. The morning frenzy at the Central Market is my favorite. The market sits next to the river where small, wooden ferry after ferry arrives and departs loaded with 20 motorbikes, almost as many bicycles, passengers and their great variety of wares. It is an unbelievable site to see so much piled atop a small moving vessel. I am reminded of news broadcasts showing the Vietnamese boat people.

I envy the produce of such fresh quality and variety with its accompanying aromas. Food is beautiful, bountiful and affordable for everyone. Most of us seldom grow or eat food like this anymore in the US. The women in their conical shape bamboo hats, the quick pace—no one running, but everyone moving at an accelerated pace—is something I could sit and watch all day.

We met a couple of women from Colorado today in front of an elementary school, retired school teachers who seemed way too young to be retired. The woman I spoke to shared her husband’s story. He had been a helicopter pilot here in the Vietnam-American War. After two weeks here, he wrote to her that the war was a big mistake. He was shot down once, and later requested to be on non-combatant flying missions. When he returned home, he reacted as John Kerry did, discarding his medals. He died some years ago of cancer brought on by his exposure to Agent Orange. This was her first trip to Vietnam and she loved it, especially the people, the children. Her words filled with wisdom: she felt communism would have taken care of itself because the human spirit to succeed is too strong and if that didn’t do it, consumerism would have.

On the streets of Hoi An, passenger-ladened motorbikes and bicycles race down small lanes converging at corners in random chaos—a system that surprisingly works. At the few seldom-obeyed traffic lights, you can always count on a young moto-driver hitting the accelerator to reach maximum speed through a solid red light. In spite of this madness in the eyes of a Westerner, I have yet to see any kind of collision. (Knock on wood as I have a 4km bicycle ride back to our hotel.)

I was the only one interested in seeing the ocean this morning as the boys are not ready to hear the sound of the surf. For me the sound is strangely soothing after the emotion of the last ten days, seeing how hard people work and how little they are paid.

The nice young guy who runs the internet/travel agency two doors down from our hotel makes $45/month. He works seven days a week from 8 am until well past 8 pm. He has not had a day off in a year and found out he will not get the Lunar New Year off this year. He studied electronics in school and hopes to be employed by a government factory where he will earn $200 a month. He cannot quit his job at the internet café because it is too hard to find another. He can survive on his salary because he lives with his aunt and food and clothing is cheap, but there is no extra to consider getting married or to travel to Halong Bay. In spite of his situation, he is so happy and always smiling.

Just now on the beach, a young woman named Louise (her English name) came to sell me bracelets even though she knows I have no money with me. She is 18 years old and attending English classes. When she graduates, she can get a license which will allow her to get a job as a hotel receptionist. She used to work in a dress shop, but because she worked every day (all day) she had no time to study. Now she has a license from the government to sell on the beach every other day. She tells me that on Feb. 1st (tomorrow), it will be cloudy all day, as it’s the day when all the spirits in the burning incense will go up into the sky to report the events of the year and who will be lucky. She says it is cloudy every year, and if it’s not cloudy it will be windy all day and if not windy all day, it will be at 1am in the morning.

She tells me that some people might think she is only talking to me so that I will buy something, but she says she is not. Then she shares stories of people buying lots of bracelets after talking with her for awhile because they want to help her. And how she gives people bracelets and then picks the money up later when she is in Hoi An for English class.

For two days now, I have been hunted by the purple lady (today she is dressed in red) who wants me to come to her dress shop to have clothes made. She jumps out from every corner to give me a big hug reminding me that she will only be lucky if I come to her shop. Because I didn’t say “NO” immediately, I am a stalked woman. This experience has shut me down, and now I don’t want to buy anything from anyone. In the end, all I can do is wish Louise luck and give her my email address. She hides her disappointment because she did not sell me anything.

Some time ago in Boulder, I found myself wondering if we would end up in a world where we are all trying to sell each other something as I was trying to turn everyone into a political activist. It made it difficult to have an authentic relationship. Now I am in that world, but the difference is that for the people I have met it's a matter of survival.

Leaving Hoi An with a new custom-made wardrobe for cheap, cheap, cheap, I have no answers, only more questions.

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