City as a Lover

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Two flights, three airports, and 28 hours later, I landed in Vietnam, at the Ho Chi Minh City airport. I proceeded to the Landing Visa Office to show my visa papers and get the stamp in my passport. Paper forms, visa pictures, and a waiting line at the desk. The whole procedure lasted for about an hour. I picked up my luggage and headed towards the airport exit.

As I set my foot outside the door, the hot humid air surrounded me completely. I was dragging all my stuff around, overdressed in a sweater, long sleeve shirt, and even an under-shirt. I could almost feel my pores drinking the humidity of the heavy air as I spoke on the phone to my Vietnamese recruiter Rachel (not her real name), trying to locate her in the crowd. Finally she recognized me, we shook, hands, the manager helped me with the suitcase and we hopped into his car. They were nice and friendly, offering me food and drinks. We got out on the road, and this is when the reality started to settle somewhere inside my gut. I instantly became strongly aware of the moment.

We are driving through the streets of the city and the traffic is exactly as described everywhere online, in the travel blogs and tourist guides. How these people drive in the streets and manage to stay alive, I fail to comprehend, and I share my thoughts with my Vietnamese hosts. “Oh, but this isn’t even the rush hour”, explains my recruiter.

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They buy a SIM card for me, and then take me to my hotel, where I can finally take a shower and change my clothes.

“Don’t open your mouth, for god’s sake, this water is not for drinking”, I think to myself as I’m trying to relax under the hot splash of my hotel’s shower. Drinking only bottled water will be just one of many things I will have to get used to while living in Vietnam.

I am dead tired, but I want to see the city at least a bit before taking my flight to Thanh Hoa in the morning, so I accept Rachel’s invitation for dinner. We meet in front of the hotel, and to my utter horror, she is waiting for me sitting comfortably on her motorbike, smiling happily.

My guts churn at the thought of a motorbike ride in this chaos of traffic. As I head towards her, I know that saying “no” is not an option. I sit behind her and grab her backpack, she starts the motorbike, and suddenly we are in the middle of a crossroads, countless cars around us honking, and an even bigger number of motorbikes driving around in no predictable order whatsoever. Pedestrians simply crossing the road as if it were empty, everybody only minding their own business, acting like they are the only person passing through.

“Now THIS is the rush hour!”, says Rachel.

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I am terrified to my innermost core and I actually start praying to something out there, whatever there is, to let me survive this impossible ride. As we drive through the hectic streets, I am grabbing onto her backpack as if it were the most important thing in life, on Earth, even in the Universe. I am trying not to look at the traffic, glancing at the pile of seemingly random piles of buildings around us, and I am seriously considering closing my eyes to spare myself the stress I am going through approximately every 3 seconds, each time another vehicle comes way too close to us for comfort.

As we are cutting through another crossroads, I start closing my eyes, but something stops me.

I can hear that familiar little voice inside my head saying: “Just enjoy this crazy moment”. And so that’s what I do. I simply decide to relax and take everything in.

The traffic is impossible and chaotic; many people wearing masks while driving motorbikes through the invisible clouds of gas. Countless sounds around us, familiar and unknown, people yelling, cars honking, motorbikes roaring – it all creates a messy, but somehow beautiful cacophony. The inviting smells of delicious foods coming from the restaurants and street vendors are fighting the battle against the odors of gasoline coming from the countless vehicles on the road. The heavy humid air finally turns into a soft drizzle, and I can feel the first raindrops sliding down my face and my neck. The colorful city lights are blinking at me from every corner, from every piece of messy infrastructure cluttered with restaurants, bars, cafes and souvenir shops.

It is like a full-on sensory overload. As if the city is saying: “Come, try me out tonight. I will give you everything you’ve ever wanted, and everything you’ve ever feared, all at once. And you will love it all.”

My recruiter parks her motorbike in front of one of the countless small restaurants in the middle of a busy street, and we sit inside to relax and enjoy the meal. As I’m sipping on my coke, I am overwhelmed with a combination of food smells, most of which are still unknown to me. With time I will learn to recognize different meals according to their unique aromas, I may even be able to locate the best ones just by following my nose. For now, I just sit, looking around and marveling at everything that surrounds me.

My meal arrives soon, and I can tell it will taste good just by looking at it and smelling it. It is fish and vegetables in caramelized sauce, with rice on the side. I take my first bite slowly, and it transfers me directly to heaven. Or is it maybe hell where such an exquisite foodgasm for a palate comes from? It is a perfect combination of spices which make the sauce salty, spicy, and sweet at the same time, and the pieces of fish are so exquisitely soft that they almost melt on my tongue. And all this for just 3 dollars! I can’t hide my enthusiasm caused by the meal, and I finish it almost too fast, all to the last grain of rice.

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Rachel takes me for a walk through the backpacker’s street, where by some miracle the cars and motorbikes manage not to hit a single pedestrian in the crowd made of tourists, street vendors, tourist shop workers and waiters coming out of their restaurants offering their menus to us. The rain keeps drizzling slowly, but nobody really seems to notice.

The buildings look like a pile of different colorful boxes put together randomly next to each other. They are narrow and tall, with windows and balconies bulging out in no particular order. Each is different from the one next to it – some smaller, some bigger; some old and some new; some wannabe luxurious, others almost falling apart. Endless kilometers of wires are hanging in the walls and in the air between the buildings. All of this together, the diverse buildings and even more diverse people, it all creates an indescribable, but uniquely charming atmosphere.

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After a short walk and a few of my failed attempts to make a good photo in the night, surrounded by wet streets reflecting all the lights everywhere around us, we go back to the restaurant where we left the motorbike. This time I am not so scared of the ride anymore – I am even looking forward to it.

I hop on the motorbike behind Rachel again, and I let myself drown in the city streets. I let myself melt into it along with the drizzling rain. As the chaos and cacophony surround me, I realize that this is one of those moments. You know, those moments when you are really there, in that time, in that space, inside your body, fully present. Those moments that make you feel goose-bumps all over your skin and butterflies in your stomach. The moments when you feel you’re truly alive.

Here, on a small motorbike behind the woman who offered me a job in Vietnam and whom I have just met, driving through the crowded streets in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City, I feel the blood clearly as it runs through my veins. You know that feeling when you meet a person and you are just starting to fall in love with them? That is how I feel when the scent of new adventures tickles my nostrils, and spreads magically to all of my senses. That is how I feel when I finally decide to let go and enjoy the new exciting place and all it has to offer.

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Because that’s what places are for me – like people – some are family, some are friends, and some lovers. And Ho Chi Minh City is, for me, like a short term lover with whom you know you wouldn’t want to stick around for too long. And yet, it is so very different from any other place you’ve seen up till now – it offers so many great things, but it is so fucked up at the same time. And so you can’t help it, you can’t resist this perfect match of utter chaos and cacophony overwhelming your senses, at the same time seducing you with its rich aroma of food, people, and street life, mixed up deliciously with the heavy, sweaty air. You simply must fall in love with it; you must indulge yourself and have it, even if just for one night.

Back in my hotel, I sit on the bed and I write, and I write some more. I must put this overwhelming feeling in words now, before it escapes, before it becomes altered by distance of space and time. My lids are heavy after a long trip, but the need to write is bigger than the need to sleep. Tomorrow is a new day – tomorrow I will meet a new city.

What will it be like? Will I like it? Will I enjoy it?

Will it be a dear relative? A close friend? A fiery lover? Or a nuisance I will have to endure for one long year?

What kind of self-discovery will I encounter there?

Which part of myself am I about to meet?

 “This was how it was with travel:
one city gives you gifts, another robs you.
One gives you the heart’s affections,
the other destroys your soul.
Cities and countries are as alive, as feeling,
as fickle and uncertain as people.
Their degrees of love and devotion are
as varying as with any human relation.
Just as one is good, another is bad.”

Roman Payne, Cities & Countries
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One thought on “City as a Lover

  1. Pingback: The Year of Countless “First Times” | Chasing Latitudes

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