Monday, June 11, 2012

Vietnam: Bike Wheels Past

I am humbled by the local's ability to live full and vibrant lives here. Vietnam faces infrastructure and educational deficits, poverty, and overpopulation. Over fifty percent of the country is under thirty, leading the ancient cultural to shift rapidly. Not to mention the heat, which is one of my biggest challenges (a few days ago it was 100° – perceived as 109°). Of course, this makes me feel guilty. My life is so easy. I am a 57-year-old family doctor working part time so I can take classes in the MFA program at Chatham University. That’s how I ended up here for two weeks, traveling with twenty-three of my fellow creative writing graduate students. Even where my life’s hard, it is a cakewalk compared to a day in the life here. The hardest thing I do physically is choose to take the hills on my daily walk in Pittsburgh’s Frick Park, or on a really big day, I’ll walk and do yoga. Still, surrounded by Buddhists (and travelers), I’m trying to be my best self in the moments I’m given.

That's not always easy. Today we have a bike trip to a rural farm on the outskirts of Hoi An, where we will help with farming and tour rice fields. As I wait in the precious shade to get started, I take a picture of the bikes. As if to sneak a peak at danger. At challenge. At dread. Nevertheless, I get on one. It has a classic bicycle bell that rings a little every time I go over a bump. I take that as a sign to stay present (gongs and bells are a call to attention, to meditation). Don't worry, I tell myself. You can do this.
When we start out, it’s wonderful. In Hoi An, merchants live in the backs of their shops and restaurants. They sit as families on the front sidewalk and share a meal at a low table with tiny plastic chairs. A father spoons noodles into his toddler’s mouth. He pays no mind to the passersby. We continue our ride though life in Vietnam as we navigate alleys and back roads. Aromas of open fires and breakfast food alternate with rotting fruit or magnolia blossoms. We pass large patches of golden rice as it’s laid flat to dry on the sides of blacktop roads and in front of huts and houses. With the city behind us, it’s refreshing to watch a water buffalo and her baby roll over in wet fields of rice or morning glory (a popular dish here, served sautéed with garlic). 

But it’s getting hotter by the minute and because I haven’t biked in years, my aching quadriceps muscles stop recovering during the few moments where I can coast. I stop enjoying the scenery because of my fretful and scattered thoughts: we’re only halfway there; I’ll never make it. Even if I do, how will I make it back in the mid-day sun? And what about the other students? We still have planting to do. Outside. In this heat. Two students have already come down with heat symptoms, and that was without exercising. (As a physician), I should know better. The best way to avoid heat-related illness is to avoid activity. It starts to seem crazy to me, risky. Unnecessary.

And then it gets harder. We leave the asphalt and bike on dirt roads. The paths thin out until there’s only a thin gully of dirt, thin enough for one foot at a time and ankle deep. Ruts from bike wheels past. These wind on tortuously on elevated mounds of dirt the between rectangular bodies of water – shrimp farms, they tell me. The mounds between the waters are the width and height of a trash truck. Plunge off one side or the other and I’m in shrimp water. It’s hard to keep my front wheel in the rut, and even when I manage to do it, I have to watch for divots and rocks. I almost fall multiple times, each time catching myself, but not soon enough to prevent the surge of adrenalin and the weakness and shaking that follow. Over and over. I am out of breath (and facing the fact that I’m not aerobically in shape) and oh, so hot. My cheeks burn. I pour water on my face, down my shirt. I’m grateful for the warm breeze – probably thanks to these small bodies of water, but my hat keeps flying off. As I try to adjust the strap, I veer off the path enough to create another near-fall. I fight back tears. I feel feeble and inadequate. Quit it, I tell myself. It’ll zap your limited energy. Just breathe and pedal and stay on the path.

I settle down for a bit, but the exhaustion, heat, and near falls persist. I think about my two sore knees. I’ve already fallen twice on this trip – once on the wet floor at the airport and another time on uneven sidewalk in Hoi An. While I’m distracted with my bruises, my front wheel catches the tall side of a rut and my bike drops sideways beneath me. I have to hop three times to avoid the fall. That’s it! I can't do this, I just can't. I curse out loud and nearly throw my bike in the water. 

Mary Jo, our tour guide, comes up behind me, shares her water (I am well out by now), and listens generously. I calm down, rest a little, and forge on.

As I try to fight self-pity I suddenly remember the war. The war. On this very land. In this climate. By boys my son’s age. Young and strong and for the most part, stoic. They had to dress in heavy clothing, thick socks and boots. They had to carry food and medical supplies and weaponry. They missed home. They performed and witnessed atrocities. Our boys feared the tricky Vietcong fighters, who themselves had to experience or create suffering and death. Then they all had to live with it later. It’s fleeting, the way I know this, but it gets me in the gut.

I remind myself that suffering happens when you want something to be different than it is, but right now, I sure wish things were different. Somewhere between facing my own discomfort and limitations (which pale pathetically in comparison to the wartime traumas), and worrying about what I’ll find in the way of heat-exhausted students when I get there, I find time to regret the past. The intense, and in my view, senseless, suffering of soldiers. All while navigating thin ruts in the road on an old bicycle. I wish I could say the ring of my bicycle bell brings me back, but it doesn’t. Somehow the past and future all roll into my present moment, and I indulge myself in a good cry.

After a few more breaks, and bringing up the rear, I reach my destination.  I’m wobbly as I park my bike with the others. As I turn, one of the students approaches me hurriedly. I must glance down or look away as she advances, because I notice she leans in and looks directly into my eyes, as if to get my full attention, or maybe to find something in me I don’t know about. She tells me another student is in a full-body shake. I scan the crowd on my way in. They are flushed and glistening with sweat, but they are all settled at tables in the shade. I somehow find a way to attend, if only briefly, to my overheated young friend. She is shivering and pale and tachycardic. They had doused her head, but she still has her shoes and socks on. I suggest she remove them. With that, and a little time, the shade, and some black-seed fruit juice, she does fine. And, having glimpsed my limitations and my strength, so do I. 

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