A Chautauqua About Elephants Falling

If the strong tasty coffee we had at the hotel didn’t wake me up, the motorcycle’s growls on the rugged road and the wind on my face sure did. After about thirty minutes of driving out of town we stopped at a rose farm, where we got off the bikes and Nip told us about his life, and life in general. Nip had a strong roaring voice like his bike and he spoke passionately, with extreme facial expressions and wide gestures. Quan on the other hand didn’t have good English, so he talked flatly as he’s spreading syllables while he’s thinking about the next word. Nip spoke about the American war, the one we’re calling “Vietnam War”, and said they are a communist country since but it’s a matter of a generation or two before they become capitalist since that’s what the people reallt want. “Communist here” he said and pointed at his head, and then put his hand on his chest and whispered “But capitalist here”. He pointed at the flowers surrounding us and said that poor people care more about having food and clothing than to give flowers to their wives, and then told that his two sons are learning engineering and one of them wants to move to Hồ Chí Minh City and his wife is always crying because of that.

Afterwards we stopped by a large coffee farm with a field of tall coffee bushes and a pen next to it full of weasels, who cuddled together in a furry pile inside wooden rooms. When we approached they took out their tiny noses and sniffed the air, and went back to sleep. By the pen stood a few tables with the coffee beans after they went through the weasel’s stomachs, got cleaned and dried. Wooden steps led to a second floor, where they had a store and a cafe that served the fancy weasels coffee. Roni ordered for himself a cup of Moca beans coffee and I chose the Robusta, and we sat to drink it in front of the view of the farm. Each cup costs about 2-3 Dollars, which is five times more expensive than a regular one, and the coffee has a strong fresh flavour.

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The next stop was at a silk factory, where only women work. First we got into the room where they keep the hungry caterpillars and cocoons on a bed of strawberry leafs. On a second, larger room, there were big containers full of hot water and the miserable cocoons inside, each one with a fine string attached to some sort of loom. They showed us two kinds of cocoons – with one caterpillar or with two, which are called “Romeo and Juliet”. On one of the walls different kinds of silk sheets were hanged. At the end they fry the dead caterpillars with loads of lemon grass, a popular snack. It has a strong flavour of lemon grass and it’s crispy on the outside and mushy on the inside, and pretty tasty once you forget it’s a bug.

From there we went to the Elephant Falls, a big stormy waterfall. The bikers waited for us as we went down some stairs which led to a bridge, that led to more stairs. As we went down the air got cooler and the vegetation thicker, and the ground damp and slippery. We carefully climbed the rocks, passed some lizards and huge spiders and when we almost got to the best lookout point of the waterfall I flinched and couldn’t move forward because I was afraid of slipping on the wet rocks. A couple of Australian pensioners passed by, the man with a moustache and the woman with white hair tied in two ponytails, and the man helped me move on. It really was a great lookout, right by the point where the stormy waterfall meets the river and sprays water drops. We stayed there for a while to look at the river and the people around. Next to us a few women sat with fancy dresses on the muddy tree trunks for a strange fashion shoot, and a large group of Chinese tourists walked behind us. When they got closer we cleared the view-point for them and climbed back up. Next to where the bikers waited we met the Australian couple again, and they told us they loved traveling and mountain climbing.

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Before lunch we made a little stop at a Buddhist pagoda, a beautiful and quiet place. Nip told us about the monk’s lifestyle, different customs such as shaving their heads and chores they need to do during their trainings, and just as he said they eat only one meal each day my stomach began to growl and we went to eat. We stopped at a roadside restaurant where many trucks were parked, and Nip said that parking trucks are a sign for a good place. They ordered to the table chicken, pork, boar, fish, rice and morning-glory. We kept sitting there with the beers and talked for a while after we finished eating. I looked at a tall blonde woman who sat with another Easy Rider.

After eating we deviated from the highway to a dirt road that let into a small local farm. Some animals greeted us – aside of chickens and geese, a small dog ran towards us barking and growling but was too scared to get close. A few kittens were hidden inside a pile of bags with pig’s food and played with their tiny tails peeking out, and a nursing cat slept on top of the pile. A young piglet escaped into a pen with muddy ground and clumsily climbed into its cage, where it felt safe. The adult pigs woke up from their nap and got up heavily, sticking their curious snouts between the fences. Quan led us into a room where the family makes strong rice-wine and then move it into jars with conserved snakes. The room was loaded with big dark containers with flies buzzing around, full of liquid with a strong smell of yeasts. We said goodbye to the big family, and they gave us some of the rice-wine in a plastic bottle.

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Close to the farm there was a village, where most of the people and animals have already retired for their afternoon nap. We walked with Nip and Quan on the main street while they told us it was a Matriarchal village, where the women are dominant. At the end of the street stood a wooden house and a few women sat at the porch, their limbs spread comfortably as they’re chain-smoking, a habit that is usually maintained by the Vietnamese men. In the center sat a middle-aged woman who looked at us confidently and greeted us. A young toddler, the only male creature around, bursted crying and the women laughed, and told us he’s never seen Western people before. The mature woman, the alpha female, talked in Vietnamese and Nip translated. The men go to work and the women take care of the children, which creates a strong female community and the kids get their mother’s last names. It was a Sunday and the Catholic village had the quiet and sleepy vibe of a holiday. As the woman spoke she made more eye contact with me than with Roni, Nip or Quan. We said goodbye and went back to the roads.

During the long consecutive ride that came after visiting the village my mind wandered, to our country, to coming back home, to the future. I thought about a job Roni and I were offered when we get back home, an offer that was too perfect to be real. I imagined how I was going to do the job on the best side, without fear, being the best I could be. I ran it in my mind, like a movie, the day we will finish the trip with its beaches and roads and the wind in the hair, and on Sunday we will go to our new office for the very first time and work. And on the next day, and on the next one. But we will do something amazing, move forward, make money. And we will have an orginized schedule, with normal hours and weekends off and vacations in the holidays, unlike the jobs we used to have until than. And we couldn’t go to the beach on the quiet mornings during week days, but that’s fine, we will go on Saturday afternoon, when everybody else is going, and it’s not too bad since we’ll be satisfied of our job. There will be Winter days in the office, we will leave when it’s dark outside and work sitting above a table. The bike went through convoluted roads between the mountains and fear began to seep in, so I stopped thinking about it and thought instead about a dream I had one day, that a girl I knew has a large tattoo of a white elephant on her arm.

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We stopped for cold coffee at a tiny stop on the sides of the road where a young woman worked. She sat with me and said she’d learned English and wants to be a teacher, but there’s no demand for that. We stopped again on top of a high bridge stretching above a river, with houses floating on it, like in Hạ Long Bay. During the rainy season the river rises so the houses almost reach at the bridge. Nip said they once made a trip with some young Israelis guys that were after their military service, and they jumped into the river with a perfect dive. They served in a dangerous secret unit  in the navy where they learned how to jump into water from heights without being hurt – from the description I understood they were fleet forces. I wanted to say I was in the navy as well, but didn’t feel like thinking about the long days in the office back than so I kept quiet and watched the floating houses.

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The skies went dark and heavy rain began to fall as we arrived at a town and went into a tiny motel with heavy wooden furniture. Quan spoke to the owner and got the keys, and we settled in our rooms. I found out I forgot my phone on the sofa at the lobby in Đà Lạt when we had our morning coffee, but when Roni connected to the wi-fi we saw that Hien from the hotel contacted him via Facebook to ask where we’re going to stay in Hồ Chí Minh and send my phone there. It was nice to be phone-less. We showered, put our wet shoes under the air conditioner and chatted with the woman who offered us the job back home. We went outside to find a place to have tea at. It was utter darkness outside except for a tiny spot lit in yellow – some sort of shop, or a kiosk, or a cafe, where a few plastic chairs were spread. We sat there as the tall blonde woman we saw earlier at the restaurant tried to buy cigarettes and the people around laughed, since they were not used to women smoking, or blonde people, or tall people. Quan and Nip met us there and took us to a restaurant, that aside of the cafe was the only place that showed signs of life. We had a big satisfactory meal of noodles with bamboo leafs and vegetables, fresh vegetables, and duck stew. Together with the beer we ordered, Quan asked for four small glasses to which he poured the rice-wine we got at noon from that family. We sat there for a long while and talked, and drank from the strong wine. When we ordered some more food Roni, that used to be a cook before the trip, asked to look at the kitchen and the way the lady who owns the place makes the food. Lizards bustled around us and stray dogs nibbled on the bones on the floor, and I thought that I might miss working in restaurants. We payed and walked back to the motel, where I stayed up for a while to write about the long day.

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