Monday, September 01, 2008

Back home from Asia

It's hard to figure out where to begin to talk about our trip to Asia. I can't believe we were there; I can't believe it's over. After three and a half weeks the region lost none of the exoticism or mystery or romance that drew us there in the first place. We were only able to scratch the surface -- there was never enough time in any place we visited, not to mention the innumerable places we missed this time around.

Yet what we did encounter was tantalizing. The natural beauty was stunning, whether it was the view from Kho Tao, where our bungalow was perched on top of a pile of rocks, offering a view of nothing but the sun sinking into the calm uninterrupted sea; the islands of Halong Bay in Vietnam, where narrow mini-mountains jutted upwards from the green waters; the view from the peak of Fansipan, the highest mountain in Indochina, where the clouds were rushing up towards us and it felt as though we had reached the very end of the earth. The culture of the region: the calmness and sanctity exuded by the Buddhas we saw in temples throughout, whether made of wood or stone or gold or jade; the imposing temples of Angkor Wat, which possessed a grandeur and sheer power that seems to have only increased with time; the narrative of the Vietnam War we encountered at the Hanoi Hilton, where the story of those tragic years is quite different from the typical American version.

The element that nagged at me, though, was the ambivalence I often felt about our presence as tourists. Parents would teach their kids to rush up to Westerners, offering bottles of water or necklaces or pieces of embroidery, hammering us with questions: "Where are you from? What's your name? Will you buy from me now? Or when you come back buy from me later?" We grew a little less compassionate, with an uncomfortably thick skin, to learn to ignore their entreaties and keep going. In Angkor Wat indigenous villagers sell food, t-shirts, and water to visitors. As you approach the bank of vendors, women and their kids start rushing to you, keening for you to patronize their particular little shop -- I found I couldn't bear to decide who to buy from; I would look down and let L guide us to one in particular. How do you decide who gets your measly few bucks, for a couple of waters and some fried rice?

Cambodia was particularly striking. We stayed for a few days in Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, the country's biggest tourist attraction. I found the people of Cambodia to be the friendliest of everyone we encountered, yet as got acclimated to the rhythms of the town, the legacy of war and genocide that haunted this country became unavoidable and distinctly personal. Land mine victims would be playing music near a shop, or amputees would offer books for sale from a cart; mothers wheeled babies with horrible birth defects in strollers and the handicapped asked for alms in the shadows of the temples. We ended up buying more trinkets than we expected, just to put some money back into the community there.

Oftentimes I was very aware that we were extremely typical tourists: doing the same activities as everybody else, seeking the same photo opps and statuettes and restrooms, asking the same questions and wheeling our wagon through the well-worn tracks of others. Seeing how these towns had adapted themselves to the pleasure and comfort of Westerners seemed like some kind of international gentrification, and at times I felt guilty for participating in it. But if Westerners are going to come marching through town in our North Faces and Timberlands, shouldn't the locals be better off for it? I wrestled with this stuff a lot.

Throughout Cambodia, and especially among the temple ruins, kids would sell western books about their nation's history, deeply discounted and wrapped in plastic. After talking to a few kids who could say basic greetings in ten languages, I bought a memoir about the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s ("First They Killed My Father," by Loung Ung). On the plane home I finally unwrapped the book to start reading it, and found that it was not the typical American book it appeared to be; the text inside had all been xeroxed from some other copy, and even the cover and bindings were made of regular flimsy paper, rather than the sturdy material I expected. The book is perfectly readable and useful, but it's a little more fragile than I thought.

It was a lovely trip by all standards: I saw some amazing things, I learned a lot about a place I had never really considered before, and I got to slip out of the daily trials of life to enjoy a few exotic weeks alone with my wife. There were a lot of brilliant and strange moments along the way, episodes that merit their own short stories, which maybe I'll try to write in the next few weeks. In the meantime, though, I still feel as though my mind is back there still, and I'm still wrestling with the things I saw and learned, trying to figure out what exactly our journey meant. It's not an easy question.

1 comment:

Kim said...

Welcome home! I found an apartment on the UES, moving in on Thursday. We should hang out!