Saturday, January 16, 2016

Waiting to get sick.

For days now, I have had the same thought rolling around in my head:

I either have an iron stomach, the food I’m eating is not as risky as I thought…or I’m about to get really, really sick.

Harvesting lettuce barefoot.
It is customary in Vietnam to feed and water guests—no matter what time they visit, if they are hungry, or if the family can afford to part with the sustenance. Each farm I’ve visited has pulled out the stops to welcome a foreigner—slicing up fresh fruits from their garden, cracking open sodas and pouring them over ice they’ve just chopped up using a machete on the sidewalk.

Travel nurses caution—only drink bottled water and avoid all fresh things that can’t be peeled or soaked in a sanitizing solution first. But turning down offerings from a family living on prayers for good weather, cool temperatures and high yields—it just isn’t an option. It would be beyond rude.

Farmers in the Mekong Delta are extremely poor; that’s one of the major inhibitors for adapting to climate change here. Farmers who are worried about providing enough food, clothes and education for their families don’t have the time or resources to dedicate to environmental issues—that’s what all the researchers tell me. And if a researcher can’t guarantee that their new, drought-resistant model will work, or that there will be a buyer for the organic mangoes they’re trying to get farmers to grow, then farmers aren’t going to try it. It’s too big a risk.
Seventy-year-old Tran Khan feeding his pigs.

I met one 70-year-old farmer struggling to bring in roughly $62 USD a month selling fruit and pigs. That’s about $2 a day.

Christmas in Vietnam.
The farmer, his wife, two daughters and grandchild live in an extremely tidy, but small home outside of Can Tho City. They still had a tiny Christmas tree propped up on a table outside when I arrived—one of the few Catholic families in the area. I sat down in the open-air living room, pictures of Mary and Jesus staring down at me from the walls and a slew of brightly colored plastic toys at my feet for the 3-year-old. The farmer’s wife put a bowl of at least six milk apples in front of me. They were already sliced open, the mere act costing them the potential to make precious money for rice and other staples. I ate the oozing fruit with prolonged hums of contentment.

A life built on vegetables and prayers.

At another farm, several hours south of Can Tho, a woman harvesting lettuce met us in her field; she refused to talk until she’d showered. When she eventually emerged, hair dripping and earrings in, she cracked open four bottles of soda and poured them over ice. Before I’d even taken the glass of licorice-flavored fizz, the cubes were already melting. It was 90 degrees on the porch. The woman beamed at me as I took a big sip—front dentures gleaming between much smaller, much less white surrounding teeth.

At first my strategy was to drink the soda as quickly as possible, to minimize the amount of melted ice I’d consume. But as soon as I drank, the woman refilled the glass. Each gulp was costing the family more money. I watched the water level rise in my glass and forced myself to slowly sip.

When I was 19, I became extremely ill while traveling in India; the doctor said I’d picked up amoebas. His theory—eating watermelon or eating off of a still-wet plate did me in. Whatever it was, living with that one-celled organism was torture.

Sipping iced soda on the porch.
I distinctly remember a day in August 2009, after I’d been back in the states for several weeks. I was interning at an electric cooperative, sitting at my desk entering data about solar farms. And I was still sick. Every 20 minutes, I would become temporarily paralyzed by intense stomach cramps. I was light headed; walking and standing for more than five minutes was hard; I could barely focus. On that day, I remember truly believing that I would never be healthy again. During my lunch break, I called my mom and cried and cried, telling her I couldn’t do it anymore. It was just too hard.
It took nine months for me to get completely back to normal.

With each sip of soda or iced coffee, with each bite of fresh fruit, I remember India. I kept thinking, “This is it. This will be what finally does me in. I’ll be sick by morning.”

But many mornings have come and gone. And I’m still waiting.

I know it can take up to two weeks for parasites to affect the
body. But I don’t know if I’ll actually get sick on this trip. I’m of course hoping for a miracle, rooting for a stomach left stronger after India. Whatever happens though, I will never take stomach comfort for granted again. Ever. I will always be grateful for my health.

Monday, January 11, 2016

How to be alone 7,000 miles from home

These cows live on a farm on the way to the airport, an area that will likely be developed in the coming years.

I was prepared for the loneliness of traveling by myself. No one around to marvel at new foods with me, to lend courage when taking a new route back to the hotel, to just be there as an anchor through all of these new experiences. I expected that. But I did not expect the freedom that came with it.

Being alone has been the ultimate improvisation practice; I have been able to say “yes” to any opportunities coming my way. And I believe that may save me when it comes to my thesis.


Phuc is 18. Her name means "Happy". And it's very fitting.
Wednesday afternoon, I spent five hours with an energetic 18-year-old, clinging to the back of her motorbike while she showed me farms in a rapidly developing area of her province. She was extremely candid as she spoke about growing up in a tightly controlled society. She shared her thoughts about the future of the Mekong Delta, where her power to change things is rising in tandem with the sea. She told me about her desire to work in an environmental field and her parents’ worries for her.

Work for the government, they tell her, or in science or business. Work somewhere stable, that isn’t so hard.

“I’m stubborn,” she said. “I’m going to do it anyway.”

The more I listened to that ever-smiling teen, the more I thought, “I’m on the back of the bike of a change maker.”

On Thursday, I met a woman for the first time at 9:30 am. That afternoon I spent six hours with her, visiting farmers outside of the city, seeing the intense contrast between the haves and have-nots in Can Tho. Her only condition for taking me: Be a tourist. Not a researcher.

Farmers rely heavily on pesticides all over Vietnam.

Saturday night, I spent three hours having dinner across the table from a man who worked at an air force base during the war, alongside American forces. He was forced to fall back on farming, after spending two years in prison, following reunification in 1975.

Next to him at the table, sat a young German researcher, here for six months to study aquaculture. He was sweating from the heat of the chilly sauce in our soup; he wiped his brow with a paper napkin and added another spoonful of the delicious paste. The taste was worth the pain.
Granddaughters Quy and Tran pose with their 101-year-old
grandmother. I was never able to get a strait answer as to what
their grandmother's name is. But I know she was the second child in her

Sitting beside me, with her soup untouched, was a drunk 5-year-old. The following day, I would share a car with her for 7+ hours. She would have a rough trip, throwing up at least twice. But Saturday night, she was all class, pouring her beer into a tiny, china tea cup and sipping daintily as she swayed, propping herself against the table to stay upright. She eventually fell asleep, lying on the counter, tea cup drained.

Sunday morning, I was introduced to the oldest person I’ve ever met—a 101-year-old great-grandmother. She’s lived in the same house for the past 80 years and is as sharp as ever. When she looked at me, I felt as if she was peering into my soul. Really. I’m not just saying that for dramatic effect. She told me she can’t see well (via translation). Her eyes are barely visible underneath deeply wrinkled lids. But when I smiled at her from across the room later, she instantly reciprocated.

Perhaps she has mastered a different way of seeing.

Ngah is working to transition his chili fields to mangoes. The 
hot weather is increasing disease among his pepper plants.
That afternoon, I found myself on the back of a motorbike with a mango farmer, riding over deeply pocketed dirt paths barely wide enough for the bike. I had to keep ducking as low hanging branches whacked the top of my helmet.

Staring at a post card of Montana.
We arrived at an expansive field of squash—one of the only fields on the island not devoted to mango farming. (I was on an island near the border of Cambodia, home of the oldest Christian church in South Vietnam, and about 12km long and 7km wide). We disembarked and suddenly I was surrounded by six other farmers, staring intensely at me. We discussed the ever warming climate, pesticides and trade with China.

That evening, I visited an orchard where five children kept staring at me, laughing, running in and out of mango trees, peering at me, running away, darting back again. I learned I was the first foreigner they’d seen (at least in real life). I also learned they are studying English in hopes of going to America someday.

I’ve learned a lot in the past five days.

The women here have done more for me than I'll
ever be able to repay.
When I arrived January 1st, I had no idea what I was going to do. All my plans had fallen through. But since then, I have found myself busy from 7:00 am until midnight almost every day. Even half a world away, I’m the queen of filling a schedule. But I haven’t done it alone.

Since I have been here, the people who have made things happen for me are the women and the youth. Maybe that’s because, in a confusion-rooted society, women and youth often have to ignore the rules in order to get anything done. Whatever the reason, I have found that they are not a disempowered group, but rather a group with a subtler power—a resilient power that refuses to be denied.

They are water, constantly in motion, finding any outlet they can, and pushing ever forward. For whatever reason, they have offered me a life raft while I am here, gently keeping me afloat as they show me how to change courses fluidly.

I may have come here as a solo traveler; but I do not feel alone. I feel free.

Monday, January 4, 2016

When plans A, B and C fail.

A blank space, with Vietnam looming in the background. A metaphor for my life.


Before I had ever traveled to Vietnam, I was already planning my return trip. That’s how the game works: you go to a place once to see it, to hear, to smell it. Then you go back again to try and understand it.
My main sustenance the past couple of evenings.

I am now on the trip where I am supposed to understand things. The trip I’ve been planning since October 2014. But things seldom go as planned, and this trip has been no exception.

My final four days in the United States upset the previous 400 days of planning. I received an email from my primary Vietnamese contact informing me that he couldn’t work with me once I arrived. He said did not have the proper permission; and proper permission is everything in Vietnam.

That email came on Christmas Eve. Instantly all thoughts of celebrating were replaced by thoughts formulating plans B and C. I sent emails to everyone I could think of who might be able to help. Two phenomenal women from the University of Montana started pulling all of the strings they could think to pull—trying to get me on a research trip to the center of Vietnam, trying to figure out what was going on with my original contact, updating me every few hours on their progress.

A downward spiral captioned "Happy New Year."
Three days passed as I struggled to figure out what to do. Finally, three hours before my flight departed, another email arrived. A new round of approval had just been granted by Vietnamese officials and my contact said he would proceed with the original plan.

I canceled plans B and C and hoped for the best.

After days of traveling, I finally met my contact in person on January 2nd, over a glass of lukewarm tea. The schedule he’d drafted for me in November sat on the table between us. He read it as if he’d never seen it.

“Why do you want to go to the watermelon farm?” (Short answer: you suggested it.)

 “If you are interested in farming and education, you should just go with the Montana students on their field trip.” (No, that won’t work.)

“I don’t know if you will get permission to do that, but I will send a letter.” (I thought this was all approved two months ago.)

 “I will not be going to the farm with you. Wait, why did you schedule the visit on these days? I will actually be at the farm these days.” (That’s when you told me to go.)

I was baffled. I hadn’t wanted to eat since Christmas ever, and my distaste for food only deepened, along with the bags underneath my eyes.

January 3rd, I called my mom and did not cry. We discussed plans D and E.

These ladies have helped keep me sane.
That afternoon, during an exchange between local students and UM students, my contact announced that I would be visiting the farm the next weekend. As everyone turned to look at me, I plastered a smile on my face, knowing there was no way my request for permission had even been submitted yet.

During that same exchange, I finally met my translator—a 21-year-old savior in a blue button-down plaid shirt, sporting thinly-framed glasses. He beamed and told me that he would be free for anything I needed, any scheduling changes, any meetings.

He talked about how excited he was to learn with me. And the knot I my stomach loosened ever so slightly and I wondered if I was hungry for the first time since landing.

Over the next two days, emails flew between my contact, my translator and local officials. I was granted a meeting with the chairman of the local climate change office. And my attitude toward my contact softened. Perhaps he was just too busy to work with me, but did not want to tell me that, as it would be rude? Without him I certainly would not have been able to set up that meeting. 

So I tried to focus on gratitude, rather than anxiety.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that my original project will not happen. And that’s okay.
The power that idea once held has expired and I am ready to let it go. It’s not the story anymore. And I have precious little time to waste chasing it.

I am still not hungry, but I am working on rekindling that fire in my stomach. Each new door that opens adds a little bit of fodder, a puff of air to fan the flames. I may only come back with a slice of the bigger picture, and it’s a very real fear that what I produce will not be deep enough to earn me a master’s degree. But I will come back with something.

Until then, I’m going to eat. I am going to sleep. And I am going to learn every darn thing I can. 

But maybe I won't eat this...

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Buses, Bikes and the Beginning of a New Year

On the way to Can Tho.
Three thoughts describe my first day of 2016:

-I love motorbikes.
-Charades is more than just a party game.
-I have no idea how to navigate a Vietnamese bus terminal.

First, motorbikes. I love riding them. I love feeling the wind kiss my face and neck. I love feeling the heat and noise of the city roll away with each rev of the throttle.

A man I’ve never met, whose name I still do not know, parked his tan motorbike outside of the Lan Lan Hotel 1 at 10:37 am on New Year’s Day. I watched from the window of the lobby as he removed his helmet, tousled his jet black hair, and tugged at his red and blue plaid shirt. He walked up the steps to the hotel door and made eye contact through the glass. He pointed to me, Can Tho? I nodded yes.

And that was that.

I climbed on the bike, one backpack went on the man’s lap, the other on my back. Then we were off, weaving in and out of cars and other cyclists, dodging pedestrians. The reports about the dangers of riding the streets of Vietnam faded away and I beamed.

 I love motorbikes.

The man deposited me at a small bus terminal 20 minutes away and motioned me to one of the orange plastic seats. He went outside and lit a cigarette. A mini-bus pulled up, he motioned me on. The guards turned me away--not your bus. The man’s hand waved, go sit down. Another bus arrived, the dance was repeated. Go sit down. Third bus, this was me. I piled in with the other passengers; I looked out the window. The tan bike was already gone. I rode another 30 minutes across the city to the main bus terminal.

As we pulled through the gates at 11:48 am, it dawned on me, for the first time, that I had no idea how to find my bus.

There were 12 minutes until departure.

Destination: Can Tho.
With packs strapped on both sides of my body, I wandered toward the crowd surrounding half a dozen orange busses. I headed toward the first person I saw, an older Vietnamese man, donned a big smile, held out my ticket and asked, “Do you speak English?”

 “Yes.” Relief.

But he had no idea where I was supposed to go. He turned to the woman next to him; she looked at my ticket and pointed, “Go that way.”

I moved a hundred feet down the line and spotted a pair of backpackers: I smiled, ticket extended, “Do you speak English?” Fingers pointed further down the line, “I think you need to go that way.”
Next, a man in a uniform: smile, ticket extended. He points down the line. Five minutes until departure.

I started showing my ticket to anyone who looked official. Or knowledgeable. Or approachable. Or made eye contact. My smile was wavering.

A man in a tie stopped me and started to take my large backpack, pointing to the luggage hold. This must be my bus. I could see nothing about the giant orange vessel that indicated it was heading to Can Tho. But they let me board. So I got on.

A sleeper bus.
The bus was unlike anything I’d ever seen—a “sleeper” bus. All passengers had to remove their shoes before boarding. Gripping my smaller backpack, and grateful I’d decided to wear my blue and white ankle socks in the 90 degree weather, I entered what looked like a bunkhouse. But instead of cots, there were rows and rows of V-shaped, faux leather seats stacked on top of each other. I was definitely too big to gracefully navigation the environment. I got on my hands and knees and clumsily toppled into my assigned seat. I put my smaller backpack between my legs and looked around to determine how I was supposed to sit.

View from my seat.
My co-passengers were lounging, eyes closed. There was no way I was sleeping. Looking out the window has always been my favorite part of traveling. In order to see, though, I had to hold my back and neck at a 60 degree angle. I couldn’t sit all the way up or I’d hit my head. If I reclined to the 45 degree angle of the seat, the sky and the bunk above me were the only things visible.

We stopped an hour and a half later for a bathroom break. My neck was killing me. No one spoke English, so I didn’t know how long the stop was supposed to last. I just went as quickly as I could into the market-like rest stop. I really wanted to look around at all of the wares (gorgeous fruits and vegetables, strange pastries, Vietnamese fast food counters smelling of meat and fish). But I was not going to miss my bus.

Tombs in fields (sorry, cell phone pic).
If my calculations are correct, the stop lasted 24 minutes. But the driver was anxious to leave after just 12 minutes—and he sent his assistant into the terminal to start fetching passengers as he slowly crept the bus forward.

The next two hours I spent altering the hands were holding up my neck. I endless saw farms and small towns pass by. It’s tradition to build elaborate burial plots on the family land, so ancestors can remain at home. Outside the window I saw countless tombs on the corners of each field, with little family houses on opposite ends.

Bridge to Can Tho.
Finally, the big suspension bridge that marks the entry to Can Tho came into view. I was told by the ticket agent in Ho Chi Minh City that a free bus would take me from the Can Tho terminal to my hotel. But again, as we turned into the station, I realized I had no idea what the service was called or how to find it. I had the address of my hotel written on a torn piece of notebook paper and I clutched it as I was approached on both sides by taxi drivers.

I awkwardly pushed past them and made my way through the crowd to the main terminal office. I stopped and stared at all of the passengers waiting. I put my shoulders back, plastered another smile on my face and started showing everyone my crumpled little paper with the address on it. I found my way to an agent who spoke some English. “Just wait there,” he said, pointing to a seat.

The Mekong River, Can Tho.
So I waited. My eyes never left the man as he walked back and forth across the small station. At one point he became obsessed with an extension cord. He followed it across the length of the room to find out where it went. Then he followed it back to its origin. Then he moved the cord closer to the wall, trying to keep people from stepping on it. He went behind his counter, then leaned forward to check that the cord hadn’t moved. I started him down, willing him to remember I was there waiting.

A woman came from my side and grabbed my arm, motioning me outside. The man was still staring at the cord.

The woman ushered me into a gray mini-bus, crammed to the max. An amazingly kind Vietnamese woman looked at my clutched paper and told the driver where to take me. My smile came easily this time as I thanked her in my cringe-worthy Vietnamese.

I’d made it. Day one of the new year, and I’d made it. I hoped it was an omen for the rest of my year. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Art and motorbikes

Stained glass next to the oldest lift in HCMC.
Getting up at 5:30 am is like being gifted an extra day. Yesterday I slept through breakfast; today I was one of the first ones in the dining room.

The buffet that greeted me offered an amazing variety: beef sandwich wedges, pho (pronounced like “fun” without the “n”; it’s a brothy soup with a selection of meat, noodles and fresh herbs), spaghetti, steamed green beans, sticky rice, roasted chicken, meat balls, veggie egg scramble, fried bananas, fried shrimp rolls, a variety of breads, quartered pancakes, cereal, tomato slices and fruit.

I sat down with a plate of steamed veggies, shrimp and egg and a cup of steaming Vietnamese coffee. The black liquid that comes out of coffee urns here is unlike anything else—thick, spiced and wicked strong. It’s traditionally served with condensed milk, making the consistency like syrup.

Around the breakfast room were people from all different backgrounds. I heard French from a table of retirees across the room; heavy British accents from a young couple with backpacks on who said they were in a hurry; Vietnamese flowed between two mothers and two young sons; and contented slurping came from the table next to me, where two men sat with two steaming bowls of pho.

Where I was slow and sluggish yesterday, today I felt like lightning. Before the clock struck 8 am, I had eaten, checked my email, listened to the news and headed out onto the streets in a new direction. The strong caffeine coursed through my veins and propelled me past dress shops, food stands, nail salons and endless motorbikes.

Smells hit me from all directions: the reek of garbage and sewage from the night before mixed with pungent incense and roasting chicken. Exhaust from the passing motorbikes perpetually made breathing unpleasant. And horns sounded all around me as drivers signaled they wanted to pass.

I saw a sign for a travel agent and veered inside. A plump man with thick-rimmed glasses and a big smile helped me book a bus for Can Tho tomorrow. He told his friend will pick me up on his motor bike in the morning to bring me to the station. I told I have two backpacks. He smiled and said it will be easy, no problem, and I realized my concern seemed ridiculous. Everything fits on a motor bike.
"Hong Sau, a war correspondent," by Bay Tra.
I left the beaming travel agent, receipt in hand, and decided to hit up a Hindu temple a few blocks away. I don’t like pulling out maps when I’m walking around by myself…so I just sort of wandered in the general direction I thought it was supposed to be. I happened to glance across the street as I was scurrying past a soup stand, and there it was, barely noticeable with construction almost obscuring the front.

It was practically empty, with two worshipers praying in an inner ring of wooden fence surrounding the deities. All of the signs were in Vietnamese and I wasn’t sure where I was allowed to go and where I was supposed to take off my shoes. Rather than risk offending, I stayed only a few minutes, then headed back to the street.

Next on my list was the art museum. It was the highlight of my day.

Last year, I spent several hours in the War Remnants Museum, where gruesome pictures of battle, Agent Orange victims and torture instruments decorate level after level of the building. Visiting helped fill in the gaps I’d had about the war, especially as viewed from the Vietnamese side. But the museum is very journalistic in its coverage, very factual. There are personal stories, yes, but very timeline driven.

"Ba Son Shipyard's Defense," by Nguyen Sien.
The art museum, for me, filled in all the war museum could not—the feelings of the people who were there. Art is a way to understand thoughts, emotions and internal processes. Paintings, sculpture, theater—all give us a window into mind of the creator at the time the piece was produced.

In addition to more classical pieces, there was modern art pre- and post-1975. It was amazing. I spent over two hours just looking at the modern pieces; then I couldn’t absorb anymore and had to leave.

As I turned the corner away from the past, I looked up to see skyscrapers with “Citi Group” and “California Yoga” in big letters on the side. I passed a man selling used, metal forks sitting outside of Highland Coffee, with a Starbucks just a few blocks up. Then the old market came into view.
The city is a blend of developing and developed on every block.

"An emergency operation," Huynh Thi Kim Tien.
The rest of the day I spent getting things in order to leave tomorrow, writing and drinking more strong coffee. I was able to meet up with the University of Montana students at their hotel in the evening, and joined two of my classmates for a dinner of yummy stir fried veggies and rice in an open air restaurant with bright yellow walls, white shutters and flowing curtains.

Eating with them was the most I’ve talked in three days.

Outside the restaurant more and more motorbikes began to appear. The traffic exponentially increased each hour today, with New Year’s Eve patrons congregating for a night of celebration. If I had been here for a few more days, or if I hadn’t been up so early, perhaps I would have ventured to pursue midnight. Even with a mild effort to stay awake, I was out before 10 pm. I will embrace the New Year first thing in the morning.

With gratitude for an amazing journey in 2015:

Thank you for the new friends and families who have entered my life—in the lab, in school, as babysitting clients, as friends from countries all over Asia.
Thank you for a wonderful place to live, surrounded by hilarious and supportive people, with fresh chicken eggs every morning.
Thank you for my health and safety, for dance classes and singing.
Thank you for the challenges that make me cry and make me want to quit.
Thank you for clean water and climate control.
Thank you for a mother who always says “okay” when I tell her my next idea, my next destination.
Thank you for a life of so much opportunity.
May the new year bring us all more peace, more compassion and more love.

With affection,

The Plunge

Exploring the city is like easing into a scalding bath.

First, the big toe—the walk to the next block to buy a jug of water and sim card. Then both feet tentatively submerge; a stroll to a coffee shop almost half a mile away. Finally, the entire body sinks in, slowly adjusting to the heat; I enter the Independence Palace for a self-guided tour.

The architect intended to mix tradition with
modernity. Shadows are cast from the outside decor
meant to look like bamboo.
And so day one begins. The palace housed the South Vietnamese government when the country was divided into the communist north and American-backed south. When communist troops finally seized the building in April 1975, it marked the fall of Saigon, (now called Ho Chi Minh City), and the reunification of the country. The communist party has ruled ever since, though business was eventually privatized in 1986.

The palace with North Vietnamese troops out front.
More photos from the fall of Saigon at 

Wandering the halls of the palace 50 years later is like stepping back in time. There are plush red carpets and 1970s velvet chairs; pictures of President Nixon and McNamara adorn informative signs. The old war room touts faded maps and retro, green chairs.   
The roof of the palace with
a commemorative helicopter.

The painting behind the chair
is lacquer, a traditional Vietnamese
art form.
Years ago, I took several classes with a Vietnam Veteran turned professor, Dr. Byron Dare. He is a Marxist expert, political scientist and the most intense professor I’ve ever had. All of his lectures somehow found their way back to the Vietnam War. Even lectures on Plato and St. Augustine. Being here, I can't help but miss him.  

After an hour of wandering the halls, I finally begin to relax. Just like adjusting to the heat from the bath, what was first uncomfortable now starts to feel good.

I leave the manicured lawns of the palace behind and find myself on a familiar street, one traveled a year ago. My feet remember the path to the grocery store and I end up strolling familiar isles of unfamiliar foods; the place smells of fish and fruit. I buy yogurt, then leave.

A lot has happened since I last walked these sidewalks, but somehow my body remembers. I remember how to cross the street, becoming a tiny boat moving across a rushing river. I stay calm and steady as the current of motorbikes passes around me, never stopping.

On the way back to the hotel I am approached by a group of six students. They are in matching white shirts and navy slacks. They ask to interview me for an exercise in their English class. Of course I say yes. The main interviewer has large, thick glasses that almost obscure the top of her face.

We chat about the weather, the traffic, the city. Out of the corner of my eye I see a woman photographing me on one side and a man on the other. For 15 minutes, I am a celebrity. One student films the interview head-on, another records it on her phone. Photographs come from behind, capturing the bags I feel collecting under my eyes. I'm exhausted. We pose for a group photo. Then the students are gone and I am once again weaving my way through traffic.

Park surrounding the palace; also where
I met the students.
I need to get out of the bath; I’m beginning to overheat.

Back in my room I eat a blessedly cold kiwi and guava yogurt cup and drink copious amounts of water.  It's 90 degrees out and humid. Friday’s high is projected to be 97. I feel the heat and the pull of Mountain Standard Time weighing down my body.

I need to eat real food. At 6 pm I head out. There is a cafĂ© less than a block away and it’s a traveler’s paradise: cool, quiet and practically empty. Smooth jazz plays as I look around at retired cameras, rotary phones and records glued to the wall. Dried flowers decorate teal-painted window seals and the outlines of crows are stitched onto the pillows. I have yet to see a crow in Vietnam. This place was built for Westerners.

I devour tofu and mushroom curry with rice. A slice of pepper leaves me silently crying for several minutes and I’m embarrassed by my lack of spice tolerance. I'm eating alone, and too fast, the pepper harshly reminds me to slow down. It’s okay to be alone.

Dinner of rice (that looks like a waffle) and tofu, mushroom curry.

It's time to pull the plug and make my way back to my room. I change into shorts and dump my dirty clothes into the bathroom sink to wash them. I will draw myself another bath tomorrow. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The day before Day 1

Last January in Cape Ca Mau National Park with Dinh.
Three hundred and sixty-six days ago, I stepped off a plane in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam. I was looking to understand the lasting impacts of Agent Orange on local forests 50 years after the war. But after the first two days, I had forgotten all about that angle. Forest restoration was a side bar, an opening act to the main event: climate change and sea level rise. So I find myself back again, stepping off the plane on the same soil, among the same bustling streets full of motorbikes, trying to make sense of something daunting. I am only a few hours away, sitting on an airplane right now, and I am afraid.

Mekong Delta fashion, with Kelsie.
January 2015
Fear can be a crippling thing; a self-sabotaging force that can run away with me if I’m not careful. I don’t know why I was born so afraid. I’m not talking about the survival-instincts kind of fear; I’m talking about irrational, gripping anxiety. I’d like to believe no one is born this way, that we learn to psych ourselves out. But if that’s the case, then the irrational world got to me before my conscious memory begins.

Regardless of how the fear entered my body, it’s had a hold on me for as long as I can recall. I have a distinct memory of my mom sitting on the side of my bed when I was 7 or 8; I had red, plaid sheets and a pink comforter. It was dark out and I’d just started crying because in my dream, my dog was eaten by a shark. We lived in the middle of the woods in Colorado. I see her face vividly—half exasperated, half motivated—she recites an acronym: FEAR, False Evidence Appearing Real. And she tells me I need to get a grip.

Today, I have better control. But I hate the part of me that still sometimes gives in—that part that keeps me awake at night, wondering about the what ifs, pondering past failures, projecting future ones.

As much as I hate it, though, somewhere along the way I began to see the irrationality personified, as my personal villain. I am the girl in the red cape, seeking an anecdote for the kryptonite hanging around my neck

So here I am, feeling alone among a hundred strangers, 37,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, exhausted. I am sitting in climate-controlled darkness, illuminated only by my laptop and the movie screens playing “Hollywood Hits”. I am psyching myself up to find a cab when I land in Vietnam 11 hours from now. I close my eyes to visualize a smooth ride to my hotel. I see myself successfully walk to the grocery store in the morning, getting on the correct bus to Can Tho New Year’s Day.

My backpack, deconstructed.
I am mediating on making it to the heart of the Mekong Delta without incident. I will be stronger than my villain and its newest fodder, my master’s project.

My life is the book where each page allows the reader to choose the next step. I will have enough faith in myself to make those choices with clarity and peace.

 Stay tuned for the next page.