Floating around

There’s a 5km loop that encircles our leafy neighbourhood of Thao Dien. I walked it earlier in the week, respite from my recent commitment to the medicinal effects of running.

Endorphins tend to surge me through my days and weeks here at the moment – a daily fix that usually means I can take on most things until the evening drinks are made.

I felt quite different on my walk, with the sun up high, and the pace slowed, from the typically high octane bounding about in the dark to which I’ve become acquainted on my early runs.

In the daylight I see the array of multi-coloured fabrics hung on washing lines, baking in the morning heat. I brush past a huddle of local commuters, their motorbike engines still running, waiting patiently for their Styrofoam containers of sticky rice.

The background blend of passing traffic, workman’s angle grinder and school children, mix with the distinct smell of street- vended food: grilled pork and fried eggs smoking off makeshift bbqs; chicken broth bubbling in deep metal cauldrons.

It’s clear today, but the muggy cloak of the tropics is always there.

Beads of sweat start to appear on my t-shirt and I wonder if, with October looming, we’ll finally enjoy some cooler times. No monsoon downpours each afternoon, the mercury hopefully dipping under 28 degrees, as opposed to creeping up to 38. These months to come are usually the best Saigon has to offer, bookended as they are between the constant swelter of March through to September.

Saigon has all the trappings of a modern city. Its ever accelerating growth, and gravitas as a regional player, something to behold, particularly knowing that, at heart, it remains a charming, country town.

You don’t have to skirt too far from the suburban centre to find rice paddies, and the zig-zag of water buffalos and wooden ploughs scoring lines through the dewy grasslands.

I wonder how Saigon will look a decade from now? Perhaps more like Bangkok, overrun with high rise buildings and chrome plated hotels, but still harbouring the charm and quiet of what went before.

Discreetly nestled down the backstreets and “hems” of Saigon, I’d like to think you’ll still find the lady who sells me sticky rice for my daughter’s breakfast, and who smiles warmly when we stop at her cart on our way to swim practice.

As I walk deeper into the labyrinth of narrow lanes, purposefully avoiding the 4x4s and the buses impatiently flashing past, I know I’m fortunate to feel as comfortable as I do, nodding and waving to some of the same locals whose front doors I’ve run past over these months of lockdown. A small connection is enough, I realise.

There are side streets here I’ll never manage to find and walk down. Inhabitant’s waves I’ll not now receive, let alone stories about their life I’ll never hear. The richness of each anecdote and perspective will always be lost to my foreign ears.

Imagine living through the American-Vietnam war and now, as the city’s sky train construction lurches into its 6th yearly cycle, you watch as your grandchildren travel and explore parts of the world of which you’ve no reference?

I think about Mr Nhi, who has tended to our unruly garden these past 4+ years, and with whom I can exchange just a few words.

At the best of times I’m speechless in his presence, from the sheer magnificence of how he holds himself. A man of little words, of smooth and simple actions, Mr Nhi is one of the most humble and impressive men I’ve ever known. I feel his wisdom just is. His sister passed recently and he barely mentioned it, save to inform us he would switch his days around. He conveys so much in everything he does, in spite of his actions being so subtle and unassuming.

How many other Mr and Mrs Nhi’s lie metres from our home? All too often eclipsed by the blur of frustration and fatigue that I carry around – particularly on those days when I don’t run – pontificating about the future, or wrapping myself in nostalgic memories from the past.

The promise of something new remains a glowing ember, in the fire of Covid. The promise of free movement again. All will come in good time, I am sure.

I stop by the river and watch another boat load of bright orange and blue containers drift by, off on their journey to ports and final destinations thousands of miles away.

At the back of the vessel is the cockpit, and outside this a makeshift washing line sways its black uniforms in the breeze.

In the boat’s wake bundles of lotus stems and driftwood, wrapped up in clumps, bounce along behind.

Casa Mitra

It’s hard not to drift into nostalgic daydreaming during the Nth month of Covid. Where the phrase “20:20 vision” conjures up clarity and focus, the year 2020 has flipped most of what we knew, or thought we knew, on its head. And left it there.

The upside down view of this brave new world is one with which many are struggling. Me included. Whilst Saigon is Covid free, the conversations had – out running at dawn or over drinks at dusk – are clouded by everyone’s exchange of perspectives on the pandemic, and the regaling of stories about work woes, or life crises. Me included.

I’ve found one good tonic to this malaise is spending more time with Florence and Martha. Back at school now these last 6 weeks, they are cruising along, their 4 months of “home based schooling” a distant memory.

They are swimming again, gossiping about their teachers, and playing on homemade water slides in our garden. Earlier in the summer we escaped to Hoi An with some friends, and the honest past-time of hermit crab catching became the order of the day, everyday.

I’m all too aware that ours is a somewhat sacred reality, compared to many families around the world, coping with alternative lock-down rules and regulations.

I wonder, too, how this year’s memories will manifest for the girls. Differently, perhaps, for their cousins in Australia, Italy and in the UK – who knows?

We are fairly powerless to direct how young people’s future memories resurface. The beauty and brilliance of the mind is, perhaps, just so because of the randomness of how we recall and re-imagine moments from the past so clearly.

Only yesterday, a wave of images crashed through my conscience. Triggered by talk of going on holiday, I was teleported for a full five minutes back to Lanzarote in the 1980s.

A part of the Spanish owned “Canarias,” Lanzarote is a volcanic island, lying off the coast of Morocco, which boasted at the time one main road connecting its scattered white-washed towns and villages. You can drive the length of it in two hours.

Following a successful family holiday of ours in Tenerife, before some further reconnaissance to Lanzarote itself, Mum and Dad bought a villa there, in the same complex as some of their friends, a mile up from a quaint fishing village called Playa Blanca.

Down on the southern most tip of Lanzarote, Playa Blanca was a humble spot to which to escape. There were three restaurants running along its harbour front, and a supermarket in the centre, whose dusty shelves we’d explore as kids, looking for beach balls and plastic spades.

Our villa back when we first took it on was renamed Casa Mitra – the house of the Bishop’s Hat? – and, for a good long while, we’d visit twice a year, coinciding trips with family friends over New Year’s and Easter.

My brother, Matt, and I quickly adjusted to this exciting phenomenon of regular holidays in the sun. Who could blame us? We’d have suntans each February half-term, and could order ham, egg and chips in Spanish before we’d left primary school.

It wasn’t long before we graduated from selecting off the child’s menus to choosing moules marinara and fillet steaks, much to the chagrin of Dad, footing an ever increasing bill.

As youngsters, we’d guzzle down half a dozen bottles of 7Up a day, having spent the lion’s share of it playing tennis, or throwing tennis balls at each other in the swimming pool.

I was then soon enough of an age where I’d be sloping up onto the roof of the villa to smoke cigarettes, whilst Matt, not so many years later, chose the beach of Playa Blanca to drop down onto one sandy knee and propose to his wife, Becks.

In many ways, Lanzarote ended up being an integral part of our family. Having lost our Grandma Edna (whose anniversary on 23rd Sept coincided exactly with my flashbacks yesterday) in 1983, it was only through her legacy that my parents had been able to buy Casa Mitra in the first place. We often spoke about how much Ma and Pa would have enjoyed being with us on these special holidays.

And then, not so long ago, Mum and Dad returned to Playa Blanca to rekindle the memories in person. Meeting up, quite incredibly, with the same brothers, Santiago and Pascal, who ran the local café all those years before. They were still running it, and it was still called Snoopy Bar.

When we first arrived in the Canaries we did some of the tourist things, exploring the volcanoes and watching as local guides launched tree branches down into the smoldering crevasses, only for them to instantly catch fire. The tree branches, not the guides.

As our visits evolved, however, we ended up sticking to a routine of frequenting our favourite eateries, and avoiding the tourists and the traffic jams in the capital.

The simple pleasures in life were all we required to curate the perfect day in Lanzarote. As kids, it was all about playtime. For the parents (as I can only now fully empathise) it would have been the frothy breakfast coffees at Snoopy’s in the morning, and their Tia Maria nightcaps in the evening.

We’d always hire a clapped out Seat Panda and drive up to the top of the island, through the idyllic village of Yaiza, past the more industrial capital, Arrecife, until we reached deep into the black mottled mountains surrounding Arrieta.

Here, we’d take a table outside a small restaurant, Bar Miguel, and devour calamari and salted boiled potatoes – I can taste them now – with the sea spray from the waves flicking onto the wooden table.

It was the ultimate local hangout, and we seldom missed a trip up to sample the day’s catch. Whilst Mum never touched the squid, their beers were icy cold (just as she likes them) so she didn’t hold it against us that we were forever driving up there.

We still reminisce about the evening Dad ended up eating only with Matt and I, following a few too many strong gin and tonics at a neighbour’s villa, resulting in Mum “just having a little nap in the car” whilst we, oblivious to why she’d choose to sleep so early on in the evening, tucked into our flambéed crepes.

Taking oneself back in time, in the spirit of nostalgia, is unavoidable. Particularly now. Deep in the recesses of my subconscious, these tastes and smells and foundational memories of Lanzarote still burn.

Remembering the feeling being sat, aged 12, on the scorched back seat of our Panda, my walkman plugged in, bounding up the island, is a feeling I’m sure helped at the time define for me the notion of travel, and of trying new things.

My eldest, Florence, turned 12 last weekend. Her carbon foot-print, by contrast to mine at her age (up until Covid struck) has been off the charts. The constant cycle this past decade of being an expat, and a “third culture child”, has ensured this.

Heading back to the UK for Christmas last year, and then being flown out of Heathrow with my parents to Sri Lanka to be met by me and Issy, before playing starring roles at our wedding, all involved a bit of planning – yet, for the girls, it was water off a duck’s back. In the end, it also turned into one of their most cherished flying experience, given “Grandma was constantly handing us sweets and treats!”

I would love to think that, one day, Flo and Martha’s recall from their formative years was as similarly heart warming and inspiring as mine remain. That their memories of travel and adventure and play are as prominent, and help shape their attitudes and perspectives.

Positive sentiments evoked by nostalgia are lasting, they can live through pandemics, and undercut the trouble and strife of adulthood.

Ironically, the girls will not appreciate, until much later on, just how empowering they continue to be for us adults, today. They are often that needed distraction and remedy to everyday angst, or to future speculations – a visceral antidote to that feeling we all share of being stuck in time right now.

The costs of this pandemic are being felt by everyone and are, as yet, to be fully understood. In the meantime, nostalgia can be a priceless commodity and, whilst we associate it with things past, it begins of course in the present.

My night out of Laos

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The Mekong River, Vientiane, 16th March 2020.

36 hours ago, after a day long workshop, and as part of a consultancy assignment for CARE in Laos, I had planned to visit my colleague and friend, Tanya, and her young family, for dinner. I’d a bottle of wine at the ready and Tanya was making chicken kiev. But it didn’t quite go to plan…

I always knew that taking a flight out of Vietnam, in these times of Covid-related travel restrictions, would be taking a calculated risk. However, this week I was to be headed to Laos – a neighbouring country with zero Covid cases reported, and I was in possession of the requisite existing Vietnam visa to get me back in.

So, my risk was indeed a well calculated one but, in truth, I was also too motivated to deliver the 3 day workshop for which I’d been hired to now cancel. My last occasion outside of Saigon on assignment was back in November.

I touched down in Laos on Sunday night and arrived at the office the following morning. The day came and went, a safety and security briefing, meeting the team, and preparing for the our time together. I took myself out that evening in Vientiane and enjoyed the fresh new surrounds.    Continue reading

The Sun House

The Sun House

A dark pink ginger petal
Curls round my wine glass stem,
It bends
As if to listen,
And I breathe in.

Frangipani trees watch,
As incense wisps through shuttered doorways,
Extinguishing inside on the
Scorched spines that stand in line,
Their perforations couching simpler times –

Joyce and Milton,
Sophocles and Ovid –
Mankind’s canon rests
Underneath these high ceilings,
And their enduring brocade.

A flickering breeze through palm leaf
Stirs,
At once a soothing balm and a fantasized being –
As I breathe out,
And place my glass on the table.

Feeling at home, far away from it

The weekend sun rising. Kuala Lumpur airport.

Pit-stopping on the way back to Saigon – Starbucks, Kuala Lumpur airport, no less – I’ve the usual frisson of excitement about walking back through our garden at home a few hour’s from now, picking up the girls (Issy is in Germany this week, checking out fashion trade shows) and flopping on the sofa.

After five days in Sri Lanka, to work with our Chrysalis team there (musings on which from earlier can be found over here) I don’t, in some ways, feel like I was away from ‘home’ much at all this week.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Sri Lanka about ten times since 2009. I’ve written about it quite a lot, and that, no doubt, underscores why it’s one of my favourite places to spend time.

Aside from the professional experiences gained from engaging with our team there, and the organisations and people I’ve met along the way, it’s the day-to-day flow of contact and the momentary interludes that weave through these trips, which I think bind each together in a way that feels so familiar and reaffirming.

Moreover, it’s the simple easiness curated by the people you meet which imbues such a comfortable backdrop.

Dropping down to Galle on a quick pre-wedding whistle stop reconnaissance earlier today, to check on bookings and inhale the ocean breeze, I learnt about the reality of the recent Easter Sunday attacks, in terms of their impact on the tourism industry.

Not unsurprisingly, many tourists canceled their trips in May and June as a result of the bombings, and some hotels had to close completely. July and August are typically low season months too, and so a few hoteliers I met spoke of the “double whammy” of the events happening when they did.

Bookings are picking up again now. And whilst there is heightened security evident, things seem to have settled down. The country just this week was elevated to “middle-income” status by the World Bank, and the high ranking top spot given by The Lonely Planet earlier in the year to Sri Lanka, appears to have been reallocated back to the country, even though most of Sri Lanka remains in a state of deep shock over the events of April 21st.

With such charming scenery, culture and opportunity for the visitor, let’s hope that a  positive trajectory of tourist bookings returns.

As my taxi driver, Mahinda, took a short detour this evening, on our way to the airport, to stop and offer me tea and bananas at his house, and the opportunity to meet his wife and daughter who was awaiting her ‘A’ level results, I was touched by the sentiment and the care he took to make me feel welcome.

I found the same hospitality and warmth earlier in the week when invited over to my Air BnB host’s living room, to share dinner with him and his wife.

Listening to Mahinda’s daughter talk about her plans for university, and for finding work somehow with her degree (biology) I couldn’t help hope that, in the future, not only will my daughters have the self-esteem and spark to be excited about a feeling of “doing my best” in the world, as this young woman did, but also that they – and beyond them, that I too – hold close that very core humanitarian embodiment of connection and understanding that I felt, sat with a cup of tea in my hand, listening to and being a small part of, this family’s time together.

The overwhelming feeling of being truly welcomed into their home, for a few precious moments, will stay with me forever.

Colombo at dawn.

 

 

Taking on Pu Luong

 

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Home from home. Annie, Lucca, Matt, Colm, Ivan, Issy, Jess, Phoebe, me and our terrific hosts, after completing the 2019 Vietnam Jungle Marathon https://vietnamtrailseries.com/jungle-marathon/ (photo by Sally!)

I woke before the shrill of my alarm clock. 12:50am. The wooden floorboards creaked as the weight of my body eased itself into a standing position, the fan above tickling my face. I excitedly purveyed the heap of running kit laid out on the floor next to my mattress.

Time waits for no man, and May 25th 2019 was here. It had been far off on the horizon when we’d signed up to run the 2019 Vietnam Jungle Marathon in Pu Luong. But, now, as I consciously took my first few breathes of the day and begun to get changed, that horizon was gone and this was starting to feel real.

I’d run one ultra marathon race before – https://definitelymaybe.me/2017/09/22/thoughts-on-motivation/ – and the memories of numerous painful moments during those 13 hours had gradually dimmed and vanished from my mind. This race was a 55km-er (so, 15km shorter than the one up in Sapa) but with plenty of steep elevation to conquer.

Although struggling with a heel problem since the end of 2017, I’d somewhat stubbornly set out and run 10kms a day on average since the beginning of January this year, and was determined to immerse myself once more in the comprehensive and full sensory experience that these events offer up.     Continue reading

By Lake Tanganyika

Under darkening clouds,
A dew-soaked earthen
Scent, cicada shrill,
Bicycle wheels drift on,
Whilst wood-smoke plumes
Hide Blue Band livery –
Oh, dawning hour of dusk.

The anticipation of tomorrow.

While You Were Sleeping

sunset
The finest hour I have seen, is the one that comes between, the edge of night, and the break of day, it’s when the darkness rolls away – Nanci Griffith.

While You Were Sleeping

Be still, my loves,
Let sweetly dreams of fancy unfurl you
Elsewhere, whilst
Outside
Clicked shut our iron gate and running free
Through Saigon hems,
Weaving versions of past night-time jaunts –
Familiar neon shop signs and
Fragrant food-cart smoke,
Snaking shadows beneath
Sprawling high-wire silhouettes –
Cocooned inside this secret urban labyrinth
– I glide –
The purr and putter of market produce scootering by.

Be still, my loves,
Soft respite gains on moonlit quilt,
As my strides quicken with the breaking dawn and
I reach the water’s edge.
Beyond horizon,
Past horizon further,
Others whisper fond farewells,
Their last small patch of glowing orb ablaze, setting,
To manifest and transfix now in front of me –
Yellow white sparkles dance like needle shards,
Bedazzling in the ferry’s wake.

Be still, my loves, be still some more.
Beyond this turning point,
Homebound,
Backlit with today’s first sunbeam,
I fear only this –
As deep a contour and familiar now as the
Creased faces of street-vendor –
That time is lost.

With fingertip precision,
The keystrokes of our waking hours
Consume and safeguard
Daily beats, to which we all adhere,
And for which our spirit harkens.
Around that corner, over this bridge,
One’s salt-lipped search for answers
Makes for another’s
Truncated journey
To a higher stratosphere of meaning –
A life’s trajectory that comes in all forms,
Restless, stirring make-believe.

Be still, my loves.
In the end, there is only this.