Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Nothing Stays the Same, Living is Changing - Part 2






Harvesting and Threshing Rice in Tavan, Vietnam

For our first dinner during our 36 hour stay in Hanoi, we took a taxi to one of our old favorite restaurants for pizza - Al Frescos.  Whenever the gang from the jobsite went to Hanoi, we invariably had a meal at Al Frescos.  After a short ride we arrived at Al Frescos - just across the street from St. Joseph Cathedral.  That was a little odd to me, of all the times that we had eaten at Al Frescos, I had never noticed the landmark cathedral.  We entered the restaurant and it looked very familiar even down to the upstairs dining area where most foreigners end up eating.  If there was any change, it appeared that the restaurant was a little bit smaller.  I ended up asking our server and found out that this was actually a new location for Al Frescos!  Yet another change from our previous visits to Hanoi!

The Asia Queen Hotel where I had a run in with a "rip-off" taxi driver on our last visit, is no longer in business as well as Trang An Hotel, where we typically stayed while in Hanoi, are no longer in business - even more changes.

On our second night in Hanoi, we took the overnight train to Sapa (Sa Pa).  We had taken the train seven years before.  Based upon our experience of sharing a roughly 5 foot wide by 6.5 foot sleeper cabin with two strangers along with their luggage seven years ago, I purchased all four beds in a compartment going and returning so that Duang and I could be relatively more comfortable.  This was a welcomed change for both of us!

Speaking of change - there is now a highway from Hanoi to Sapa (Sa Pa).  Buses and charter vehicles offer a six hour alternative to the overnight train.

On this journey to Northern Vietnam, we got to visit and experience the Saturday Market at Can Cau and the Sunday Bac Ha Market that we had planned seven years ago but did not achieve.  On Sunday afternoon after the Bac Ha Market we went to Sapa arriving around 4:30 P.M.

The weather in Sapa is and was very unsettled in early September - with rainy days and most days with some brief showers most days, in between the showers there can be low clouds, fog, and even some sunshine!  I had done my research and tracked the weather for over a month as our planned departure approached.

I was dealing with a dilemma - I wanted to photograph the golden rice terraces of Sapa region and I wanted to photograph people harvesting the rice - most importantly threshing the rice by hand.  From my extensive Internet research I had determined that the best time for what I wanted would be the first week of September - it appeared that the first week is typically when the harvest commences.  I believed that if I had made a mistake in the timing, I still would have great photographs of golden terraces filled with heavy heads of rice ready to be harvested.

Unfortunately early September is typically wetter than later in the month.  I do not particularly enjoy photographing in the rain but I can deal with it.  The problem is ... the rice can not be harvested in the rain.  The rice must be dry to be harvested.  The harvesting typically recommences 24 hours after the rain has stopped and  dried by a combination of sun and wind.

Upon checking in to our hotel, the extremely helpful hotel manager booked my choice of a trek for the next morning.  I expressed my concern about the weather - he assured me that if there was some rain it would be over by noon.  I told him that I was relying upon him to make it happen and I would hold him accountable.

Our Hmong tour guide, Pang, arrived 10 minutes early at our hotel the next morning.  We set off together headed west out of town along a paved road.  We had hiked along the same road seven years ago only under a sunny sky. For this trek, I had selected a tour that not many tourists take - I was excited about the opportunities that such an itinerary would present for capturing more realistic glimpses of typical life.

Not too long, perhaps 30 minutes, into our hike, it started to rain, not heavily but enough to merit wearing a raincoat and to wet all exposed parts.  In a short time we arrived at the guardhouse to the valley.  To enter the valley around Lao Chai, non-residents have to purchase a permit for a nominal amount - 50,000 VND ($2.25 USD) per person.

Duang Showing Photos On Her New Smartphone
We were met by two Hmong women near the guardhouse.  One woman was young with an adorable baby strapped to her back and an older woman.  They set off along the road and trail with us.  I was prepared for this.  On our previous trip we were accompanied, more like hounded and harassed, throughout our stay by Hmong women and sometimes Hmong children wanting you to buy whatever they were offering.  I do not necessarily enjoy this but if they leave after the third time that I decline I can accept it.  If they persist I then become sarcastic in my conversation with them to be followed by silence.  My annoyance is tempered by the realization that they have a much more difficult life than I have ever experienced and that they are just trying to make a living perhaps to just survive.

I realized that these women would tag along with us along our trek and at the end ask us, if not expect us to buy some things from them.  I was prepared for that and did not have an issue with that as long as they were not pushy ... besides they would be good models along the way.

We set off of the road to travel along an extremely rough trail through a forested area headed towards two small villages where tourists do not often visit.  The rain had picked up in intensity and forced me to place my camera back into my pack for protection.  My typical camera backpack weighs around 15 to 20 pounds.  For the trek I had pared it down to 15 pounds for the scheduled 8 hour tour.  Eight hour tour?  Haven't I heard that before?  The theme song to the television show, "Gilligan's Island" which starred Alan Hale?  Was this a forewarning?

The trail that we hiked along was very steep, in many locations a 30% slope, and extremely dangerous.  The trail was filled with ruts - just right for twisting ankles.  The trail had many loose rocks and stones which created many opportunities to roll an ankle.  There were many streams of flowing water on the trail softening up the surface thereby making it more unstable for footing. But most of all there was the mud - thin so as to not even providing some traction by getting your boots stuck in it, nice thin slippery as snail snot fine clay mud.  How slippery was it?  A couple of times I was standing still and started to slide down the slope.

Trekking the Rice Terraces of Lao Chai District

Very quickly I realized that things had changed over the past seven years.  Sure it was dry back then and it was very wet now.  However it became very evident and personal the thing that had changed most of all was ... me.  At 66 years old (67 years old in Thailand) I could no longer do what I had done 7 years ago when I was 59 years old.

I am not as stable now as I was back then - the problem being my knees.  Pang and the older Hmong woman realized my difficulty and distress.  Pang offered to carry my backpack which I finally relented to allow  her to do - not a matter of masculine pride but rather my policy to be solely responsible for any damage that could befall my camera equipment. In not much time of carrying it after my first refusal, it became very evident to me that the gear was at a much greater risk and that I physically was more susceptible to injury carrying it myself than having Pang do it.

Lysa
My humiliation was not over.  I had intended to buy a walking stick from the children that congregated at the old intersection of the main paved road and head of the trail that descended into the valley.  More changes - that route is no longer used and that jumping off point has been abandoned.  As for the children ... Pang told me that since it was Monday, all the children were in school.  We came upon a bamboo fence along the trail, we ended up "borrowing" a piece to be a walking stick for me - something to stabilize my gait and a device for me to lean on to resist falling down or to the side.  The walking stick definitely helped and I carried it for 3/4 of our trek.  However the walking stick was not all that I needed to safely navigate the trail and slopes.  The older woman who turned out to be 47 years old, Lysa, offered me her hand.  As it turned out we ended up holding hands for almost one-half of our trek. Lysa, several times, saved me from falling down or slipping over.  She was strong and most importantly very sure footed.  I know that without her help as well as Pang's help. I might have injured myself or even worse - damaged my camera gear.


Duang and the Others On the Trail
It was miserable and I suspect it was almost as bad for the others.  I saw Duang almost fall a couple times and we were all getting rained on.  I was furious and livid.  Without doubt Duang and our trekking companions were aware of this. I was furious and livid.  The weather? No.  The steep trail? No. The dangerous conditions? No!  I was furious and livid with the painful and fearful realization of the changes ... my changes that were making it so difficult for me to do what I had done seven years earlier, changes that now dictated and forced me to rely upon others along with the assistance of others. Perhaps I was also upset with the perceived loss of some independence and self-reliance.

I made it a point to convey to our fellow trekkers and ensure to them that I was not upset or angry with them but I was angry with myself.

We came to a fork in the forest and stopped.  Pang said that we could continue on the trails that we were on, or take an abandoned road that other tourists take for about another hour at which point we could continue with the remainder of the scheduled trek to Lao Chai Village and Tavan or at that point we could be met by a vehicle to return us to our hotel in Sapa.

I decided to take the road more traveled with the option of returning to the hotel being a very definite possibility.  We made it to the abandoned road and walking became somewhat easier.  Shortly before arriving at a small hut overlooking the valley but more importantly a place where you could buy ice cold drinks and sit under cover, the rain stopped and the sun almost came out.

The Girls At the Best Refreshment Stand In Sapa region
Goal #1 - Achieved, This is one of the photos that I had as a goal

After a nice rest at the refreshment stand, with no rain I was able to take photographs once again. I thought of all the people that I have known in my life who did not live long enough to be 66 years old let alone to be 66 years old and to attempt such a trek in such a beautiful place.  I thought about how few issues I do have and of those how minor they really are albeit annoying.  The more photographs that I took, the more fortunate I realized that I was.  My mood improved even to the point that I was able to joke ... "You know why not many tourists visit those villages?  It is too damn dangerous!"



There were more slippery and dangerous descents to survive before we reached the valley floor.  Although I was still resisting and not accepting the changes to my body, I was in a better mood helped a great deal by seeing people in their 20's and 30's with large mud stains on their bodies from where they had fallen.  I could not help but think that if they had used a walking stick and held the hand of someone like Lysa they would not have fallen.

The Trail to Lao Chai and Tavan

I decided that we would continue on with our scheduled trek especially the part about having lunch in the village.  The weather was manageable now.  The rain stopped around 11:00 A.M. almost as promised by our hotel manager! Things were literally and figuratively looking much better.



As we trekked along the river at the valley floor, I realized that I had chosen the right time to photograph the harvest.  The harvest had just started perhaps one week long that had been slowed by the weather.  The rice terraces were a bright gold from heavy headed rice stalks awaiting harvest.  Some terraces had been harvested and were quite ugly - denuded mud flats with short stubble of harvested rice stalks - not great main subjects for a photographic composition but a useful element, albeit a small element, of an interesting composition.  For me, the opportune time to photograph Sapa rice harvest is just before or just after the start of the harvest rather than later in the harvest.  We had hit the right time.





As we were walking along the flat road towards the village of Lao Chai, I told Duang that our travelling companions were going to ask us to buy some things that they were carrying in woven baskets.  I told her that we would not bargain with them because they had really helped us out and we needed to show our gratitude.  We entered the Hmong restaurant and were brought to a large table at the back of the restaurant.  We invited our trekking companions to join us.  Lysa and the young woman with the adorable baby on her back showed us some items for us to consider purchasing.  I had a certain amount of money that I thought was good amount for each of them and good for us.  We purchased sufficient items from Lysa and met my budget.  She, on her own, tossed in some items for free.  With the other woman we ended up spending a little more than Lysa and she also gave us some free items.  It was a good feeling to have paid what we were willing to pay and what we thought was fair and to get something from them as an expression of their gratitude.  I realized that we had purchased more from the young  woman who had not really helped us compared to Lysa.  I asked Lysa if she was satisfied and happy with what we had done.  She said that she was happy and her smile confirmed it.  The young woman said good bye and left.  Lysa and Pang left us to join the other Hmong eating their lunch at a long table at the front of the restaurant.

After a delicious and abundant lunch of 6 different dishes, we continued or journey to the village of Tavan.

Goal #2 - Achieved, This is one of the photos that I had as a goal


After 9 hours, we crossed back across the river to the meeting point for the vehicle to take us back to our hotel.  After a couple of nice ice cold Pepsi, our vehicle arrived.  We gave Lysa a ride up the road a ways where she got out to walk down to her house.

Handmade Clothing For Sale In Lao Chai
If an artist must suffer for their art, I was definitely in that category after a full day trekking.  However on the first full day of three scheduled days in Sapa, I had gotten the specific photographs that I had planned on and hoped for on this trip.  It was a great relieve to know that whatever happened in the next two days would be "icing on the cake".

We arrived back at our hotel to face the stairs up to our room on the fourth floor room.  I struggled up the stairway - my knees aching and my quadriceps screaming from the exertions of the day.  Duang had a cold and needed some medicine, so I made it back down the stairs to the ground floor in search of a pharmacy.  The desk clerk directed me down a flight of stairs to the restaurant, out of the building, down two flights of steps to a street below, and across that street to two adjacent pharmacies.  After painfully making may way back to the hotel, I stopped at the restaurant for a simple meal of a ham and cheese sandwich on a great fresh baguette and three Pepsi.  Duang stayed in the room for a simple meal of fruit and fresh cake provided each afternoon by the hotel for their guests.

The next day was a washout - literally and figuratively as well as thankfully!  It rained just about the entire day.  I could hardly walk.  Duang was exhausted.  We were content to stay in our room with the curtains open and watch the ever changing cloud formations obscure and revel the surrounding mountains.  I spent the day on the Internet - since we had an upgraded room, there was a computer in the room for Internet access.  I had vowed to be off the grid for our entire Vietnam trip, but the previous day's physical exertions changed all that.  I was happy to check up on the outside world as I contemplated all the changes in my current life.

After a great night's sleep, I was not all that accepting of the changes that prevented me from doing what I had been able to do seven years earlier but I was now determined to adapt to the reality of the changes.  I wanted to return to Lao Chai and Tavan.  As it turned out Duang wanted to return too.  Although she had been very busy taking photos with her new "Appo"smartphone, the day before she wanted to return to have lunch one more time at the Hmong restaurant - as good a reason as any to return!

I spoke with the hotel manager about hiring a taxi, if the weather was acceptable the next day, to take us to Lao Chai village and to return us to the hotel.  I knew that we could see and do everything that we wanted to do, by getting dropped off and hiking along the roads rather than hiking down the rice terrace trails to get to the roads. We would then meet our vehicle at the rendezvous point that we used two days before.  It was possible and the very helpful hotel manager made it happen for us - but that is all for another blog entry.

Those who follow me know that I have written about the Buddhist belief that all life is change and changing, along with the impermanence of things.  I have also stated that the ability to accept and adapt to changes is the key to happiness.  This is easier said than done, but not impossible.  I had to practice what I preached.  Knowing, if not quite fully accepting, the changes that prevent me from doing some of the things that I could easily do seven years earlier, I focused on adapting to the reality.  In the end our day with using a taxi and using roads much more travelled, we had a great day that exceeded all our expectations and made us both very happy.

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