Saturday, December 31, 2005

Be Aggressive, B-E Aggressive

“Why are Americans so aggressive and combative?” read the question on the list of FAQs for soon-to-be-departing southeast Asian students to the U.S. My director once headed up a scholarship fund, and this was one of the questions that came up repeatedly in pre-departure orientation sessions. He sent me and my assistant the list of FAQs for some humorous reading before a holiday weekend. “Do you agree that Americans are combative and aggressive?” I asked my assistant, pinning her on the ground so she couldn’t escape. Indeed, no one in the office seemed to have a straight answer, but all agreed that Americans could be hot-tempered at times.

This question continued to bother us as Duke and I waited in line at the airline counter to check in for our flight to Hanoi. For Christmas weekend, we decided to go to Sapa, which is a remote place in the northern highlands near the Chinese border. It is home to several minority ethnic peoples and one of only two minority sites that tourists are allowed to visit. I still couldn’t shake the question after yelling at the woman checking in passengers. My God, I thought, she definitely needed to be more organized. We were told to wait in a second line, since the first line, in which we had waited 15 minutes, wasn’t the correct one. And who knows, yelling and threatening to hurt her family might not have endeared her to help us either.

“Watch out for the guy behind us, he’s lurking,” I whispered to Duke as we queued up for the second time. Having lived in Uzbekistan and now Vietnam, I’ve become more than a little sensitive about mobbing and disregarding the sacred code of queuing conduct. Duke subtly turned his head to see whom I was referring to, and from then on the airport trip went from bad to worse. The old man behind us instantly snapped at Duke when he turned around. He said in almost unaccented English, “What are you looking at? What is your problem?” To which Duke replied, “Uh, I was just making sure you didn’t cut in front of us.” Now, clearly, the man behind us was a bit off, which was obvious from his excessive shaking and head ticking, so Duke should have simply said, “Sorry, nothing” and turned back around. Yes, as Duke himself often points out, it’s amazing how a functional illiterate like himself can get a PhD in our society. The man was not happy with Duke’s answer, of course, and let out a string of insults, which included, “white trash”, “jerk”, and “mixed…(inaudible)….piece of shit…(inaudible)…goddamn.” Amazingly, he did not end up next to us on the plane or even on our flight, although we saw plenty of him in the pre-boarding area.

We were two for two when we arrived to the train station in Hanoi, and got into a loud fight with a strange man who grabbed our bags and took them the ten feet to the other side of the station, holding out his hand for money.

Duke and I were getting so good at fulfilling the combative stereotype that we thought about creating our own show modeled after Russell Crowe’s ‘Fightin’ Round the World’ on South Park. We got into a fight with our luggage valet, however, before we could really develop the concept further.

After an eight-hour train ride, we arrived to Lao Cai, a village near Sapa, on Saturday morning. We took an hour ride to the top of the mountain to get to our hotel, eager to begin our Winter Wonderland Adventure.

But wait, where was our hotel? Where was the town of Sapa? Where were the mountains? The fog that had just settled in upon our arrival to the hotel was thick as clam chowda, making it impossible to see. Then came the rains. Our first two days of the trip, during which it stopped raining, em, not at all, we hung out around town, drinking cup after cup of hot chocolate. We also talked to other travelers, all of whom seemed compelled to tell us how beautiful the weather was the day before we arrived—clear, sunny and in the 60s. In addition to hearing how great the weather was, we also spent some time dodging the ethnic minority group gangs accosting travelers. In particular, we were followed by the Gang BlackH’mong Gang (it’s a Power Puff Girls reference, people), from whom we managed to escape only after I gave them some blankets covered in smallpox. When we tired of going out around the town, we played round after round of pool in the hotel lobby, then retired to our room, looking longingly at our tennis rackets (too foggy and wet to use), swimsuits (indoor pool was being fixed from the day we arrived until the day we would leave), and gym clothes (“gym” consisted of a rickety, rusted stationary bike, I kid you not a thighmaster, and a vibrating belt that you put around your waist ostensibly to whittle it down to Kate Moss size, according to the picture).

For our last two days, we decided to kick it up a notch and do some day treks in the rain and thick-as-chowda fog. On the first day, we hiked to the Su Pan and Ban Ho villages, and met some people from the Red Dao and Tay ethnic minority groups. We had lunch at the new Starbucks in town, then our guide took us up a “shortcut” to meet the car. The shortcut consisted of a steep, muddy path with what seemed like 40% inclines. Picture, if you will, a Slip ‘n Slide with flowing mud laid out on The Cliffs of Insanity, a la Princess Bride. Add some weary travelers and their bored guide. Throughout the trail throw in some disturbingly cute black pot-bellied pigs, CHICKENS! and water buffalo. For the finishing touch, add several ethnic minority children running up and down the path in sandals, dresses and (I cannot make this up, folks) large pieces of corrugated roof or baskets of heavy wood on their backs. The hardier ones had both roof and wood on their backs. Once in awhile, we’d also see the occasional elderly man out for a stroll on the perilous path with his umbrella. Salt to the wound, man, salt to the wound, as we labored up the hill with our walking sticks, gortex gear and $100 hiking boots. To be fair, this path would not be nearly as bad during the dry season—it would simply be tricky, rather than ludicrous, which is what we were dealing with. From time to time the mist even cleared enough for us to see what a truly magnificent landscape it was. The hillsides were terraced from top to bottom with silvery pools of rice fields, forming what looked like giant steps. Again, I’ll let the pictures tell the story, as waxing poetic is not my thing: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hochiminhtale/

The second day was much the same, however, we were able to see a very cool bamboo forest, a precipitous waterfall that our guide expected us to cross, and even more children hauling corrugated roofs and wood.

For me, the highlight of the day was trying to balance along the narrow ledges of the rice terraces, where on one side was a six inch-deep pool of water, and on the other was a six foot drop to another pool. If possible, the fog was even thicker this day, the Cliffs were somehow more insane, and we were attacked several times by pirates wanting gold and booty. Luckily, we had the gold and booty. We fell on our bums more than a few times, but the greater worry was that we would slide over the edge of the path and down the steep cliffs. As I mentioned, the local people have no problem negotiating the trails--they think our clumsiness and falling over is quite hysterical. At several points while I was considering whether a particular divot in the path would collapse under my weight or not, a woman and her children from the village below would saunter up and demand, “You buy pillowcase!” While I was grateful to them as there was no Bed, Bath & Beyond around (as far as I could tell through the fog, anyway), there is a time and a place for buying home furnishings—balancing on the edge of a precipice isn't one of them. I politely, but aggressively, declined. After all, I had a stereotype to fulfill.

The highlights of the trip included a very skinny Santa Claus giving out gifts at the hotel on Christmas Eve, everyone assuring us that Sapa, magical place that it is, had no avian influenza, and me yelling at our tour guide to make the rain and mud go away. Humph, aggressive American, my foot.

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