To Bus or Not to Bus

I just finished a 24 hour journey from Cat Ba Island to Sapa, in the mountains of northwest Vietnam. The trip required a bus, a boat, another bus, yet another bus, a taxi, a six-hour layover, a train and a minivan. Despite all this, I have to admit, I love public transportation.

When I’m traveling solo, I rarely feel afraid. With a map, a little common sense and a home base, I’m free to explore, but when moving from one city or place to another, that is the time I feel most vulnerable. I’m out there, stuck between two worlds and have to negotiate systems or bargain with people who don’t speak my language. The possibility of being taken advantage of, or led astray, are my biggest worries. Public transportation is my safety net. I assume the bus (train) driver knows where he’s going, the prices are clearly stated and besides a whole bus load of people are not going to let him go off his route (let’s hope).

Also, because you’re sharing the journey with other strangers, you just might meet someone new. On this last trip, during my extended layover at the Hanoi train station, a little Vietnamese boy ran over to me, waved a toy bird, smiled and ran away. This game continued for several minutes, until his mom came over. She sat down and introduced herself (Ahn) in broken English. She was clearly curious about the lone American, and also, I think, wanting to practice English. We shared our stories (as best we could)…where we were from, where we were going, our families. While talking, I saw some older women (I later learned that this was her mother and other relatives), spread out a piece of plastic on the floor of the train station, I asked what they were doing. She said they were preparing dinner. After a bit she apologized and said she had to join them, but immediately came back and in very proper, but halted English, asked, “Would you like to share a meal with us?”. I couldn’t refuse, so I sat on the floor of the train station, and shared a dinner of rice, vegetables and fruit.

Amid lots of nodding and smiling, she asked questions about the U.S. and places I had gone. I learned her mother had worked teaching sewing in Hong Kong when she was young and this is where she had learned English. She talked about places she wished she could go…if things were different.

After dinner, she, her son and I walked around the night market pointing out fruits and vegetables in English and Vietnamese. I could see she wanted her son to learn English, to see, and maybe do the things she couldn’t. Afterwards we sat on the step of the train station, and paged through my Vietnam guidebook, her trying to read the English, and genuinely curious about what was said about her country. As her departure time got closer (and the grandmothers had enough of chasing her son), she went back inside the station and boarded her train.

I don’t know her last name, I will never see her or her family again, but I’m grateful for the kindness, the meal shared and the conversation…and for public transportation.

The Art of Conversation

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. – Freya Stark

Last night I left Bangkok on an overnight train to Chiang Mai. Honestly, I was looking forward to leaving the insanity of Bangkok behind - the traffic, smog, street vendors, the noise…it was a lot for my jet lagged brain to absorb, not to mention my small town sensibilities.

The central train station in Bangkok is a rather dismal place - overrun with feral cats, stray dogs, some unpleasant bathrooms and the requisite homeless outside. Needless to say, I wasn’t holding out much hope for the actual train.

I was booked in second class cabin with four sleeping berths. Somewhat to my surprise, it was clean, the porter was making up the beds and there were no animals in sight. I looked around and realized that trains seem to be the preferred mode of transportation for the 20-something backpacker set and native Thai. My cabin mates were no different, a french couple, barely 20, on a three month trip through Southeast Asia and Australia.

As they climbed into their upper bunks, talking together, it made me think about how different it is to travel alone. When you travel with someone or a group, the experience binds you together, but when you travel alone, it is a little like “when a tree falls in the woods…” You are the keeper of that experience and the only person it can or might change is you.

By nature, I’m a talker and tend to process what is happening by talking about it (and sometimes to) the people I am with. I think that is why I started writing - to have some place to put my thoughts, even when I didn’t have someone to say them out loud to.

When I woke up on the train and pulled back the curtain in my bunk, the landscape had completely changed. I was in rural Thailand - cows, rice fields, dirt roads, mountains…I looked across from me and somewhere in the middle of the night, a middle aged Thai woman had gotten on board and was now in the bunk across from me. She gave me a huge smile. She looked out the window with the same awe on her face I’m sure I had on mine. When our breakfast arrived, she cleared the small table and pointed at me to put my plate on the table with hers. We sat across from each other, alternating nodding at one another and staring out the window. A while later we arrived in Chiang Mai, as she left the cabin, she turned, put her hands together and bowed. I did the same.

I know we never said a word, but I think it was one of the nicest breakfast conversations I have ever had.