Thursday, January 29, 2009

Teetering on the Edge of the Page

Dear Dawn,

One of my earliest memories is of listening to you read aloud the entire series of Little House on the Prairie books, a set of texts that has, weirdly, begun to come back to me in vivid detail ever since I came to Cambodia. (The maple candies they made in the snow, the leeches clinging to Laura’s legs in the creek bed, the way her aunt and uncle looked at each other at the Christmas dance, and even the bookmark of red and green braided yarn that you placed between the pages—do you remember?) And then there was the local library where I would come to visit you in the summers, the explosion of possibility that was the children’s room—endless shelves of Encyclopedia Brown and Boxcar Children, and I would read them all, I was certain, because even at six, seven, eight, I valued intellect above all else, and besides that, my big sister worked in this place, making it at least partly mine.

All of this is to say that I don’t really remember learning how to read, but I have to think that you were at least partly responsible, and for that I am grateful to you. For most of life, my affair with books has seemed a gift. But I regret to report that here, in Cambodia, reading is more problematic. It highlights all my eccentricities, draws out my hermit-like qualities. Is it possible that books, our old friends, are responsible for turning me into a social misfit?

Before I left New York, one of my coworkers asked me which three books I would take to a desert island. This is an impossibly difficult question for any true reader, but he had developed some rules to guide me. Rahul had spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, and he insisted that when I packed for Cambodia, at least one volume needed to be one of impressively beautiful and intricate language. “Because let’s face it,” he said. “You’re going to eventually get tired of being around people who can’t speak English very well.” Cambodia and its pidgin English has not turned me into a book snob; I have always been one. But it is true that the list of people here who can carry on a conversation about a book is very short, resulting in the double wallop of both superiority and guilt that I feel when I am, say, reading an E.L. Doctorow book on the porch while a crowd of people follow a garbage truck up the street to pick through my neighbors’ trash. No matter how many strides Cambodia makes in the next fifty years, those people will never be reading Doctorow, and who knows how many generations will pass until they get his equal who writes novels in Khmer. That was the first ominous sign—the inevitable gap that reading puts between me and the culture I currently live in.

But there is more. The sight of our rickety rattan book shelves has begun to fill me with despair, not because of what’s there, but because of what’s not. Let me be clear—I am nowhere close to running out of things to read. Jason and I agonized over which volumes to bring, and, taking up an inordinate amount of luggage space with our choices, humped many pounds worth of books through the Bangkok airport, down the coast to Sihanoukville, north again to Phnom Penh, and then onward to their current home in Siem Reap. I have not made it through even half of them yet. Plus, our roommate has a taste for the classics, and I’m sure I could spend much of the remainder of my stay finally reading Don Quixote. There are also many secondhand bookstores (though these are subject to the dubious tastes of Western backpackers—I typically avoid these shops, afraid that I will not be able to resist the urge to chuck the extensive Jodi Picoult and Robert Patterson collection into the street). So it is not books that I miss. What I miss is the freedom of not knowing which book I am going to read next. I miss Barnes and Noble, I miss the Strand, I miss having an address that Amazon can actually find. I miss the children’s reading room of the Lexington Local Library.

So far I have been talking about things which are merely a shame or an inconvenience, but we are now about to veer into the territory of questionable mental stability, because more than ever before, it seems as though the authors of the books that I read here are speaking directly to me. I almost wept while reading the preface (the preface, for Heaven’s sake) of Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. “Yes!” I wanted to tell her. “I am shy, too! I am bad at talking on the telephone, too! I, too, like drinking gin!” For the past five days, Joan has been soothing me, talking to me about my family, my failures, my neuroses, my departure from New York.

That happens to be a book of nonfiction, but fiction is even more capable of cutting to the quick. There is something about Cambodia, be it the quantity of time I spend in my own head writing or the primal fragility of the life around me, that seems to strip away artifice and make my psychological simplicity painfully obvious. I am as transparent as a character in a novel with an omnipotent narrator. It is me that Naeem Murr is describing when Lew needs someone to hurt more than he hurts, it is me that Donna Tartt is describing when Harriet can no longer see life through the windshield, but only through the rearview mirror. Who but John Steinbeck could understand that I have the repressed anger of Tom Joad, the wounded optimism of Rose of Sharon?

And all of this, you might say, is not a bad thing, simply a deeper connection to the written artifacts that have always mattered to me. The problem is that it has resulted in a revulsion at the flesh and blood, particularly that of Western origin, that surrounds me. These authors seem so much more real to me than the hordes of volunteers and tourists I brush elbows with every day. Unlike most Khmer, they could read Wallace Stegner if they wanted to, but most opt for sudoku instead. Have I always been such a snotty misanthrope? Was it just easier to hide in America? I can’t remember. All I know is that I want and need to have more in common with Joan Didion (even if it is a version of Joan Didion that only existed thousands of miles and forty years away from the here and now) than I have in common with that German girl at the next table who is dangling a pedicured foot over the back of a chair while she eats breakfast and thumbs through a guide book.

What has our brainy bookishness earned us, sister o’ mine? E.L. Doctorow doesn’t live in Siem Reap, Denis Johnson doesn’t take me out for drinks on Friday nights, not even J.K. Rowling is interested in Khmer karaoke. No one told us in elementary school that a spot in the highest reading group would come at a price. Because any time you excel, any time you separate yourself from the rest of the pack, you are also learning to isolate yourself.

And yet all of those pages, Little House in the Big Woods to The Grapes of Wrath and everything that came between, are so much a part of me that it is hard to imagine, let alone wish for, any alternative. Nothing I have said here changes the fact that I need books now more than ever; it is no small feat for printed letters to provide the kind of purpose and beauty that they have for me. It’s just that it’s lonely out here on the prairie sometimes, and I wish that Laura Ingalls Wilder was around to keep us company.

With love,

Friday, January 23, 2009

Re: Inauguration Night


Dear Ted Turner and Robert Pittman,

I am writing the two of you not because I think you will necessarily agree with the following opinions, nor to blame you for Frankenstein developments that have been out of your hands, but because I feel that you, as early speculators in the new horizons of the Media Age, might have the historical insight to find these thoughts interesting.

I am a 31-year-old American who now lives in Cambodia. In third grade I sat on the cafeteria floor and watched on the school’s only TV the Challenger exploding. Standing in my grandparents’ living room three years later, I watched a joint USA-USSR glasnost youth event in which Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora played an acoustic Wanted Dead or Alive before the camera cut to a Soviet rocker in glossy red stretch pants strutting across the stage. In high school, I was not interested in the primitive multimedia component of a Billy Idol album a friend showed off on the office computer after Chorus, and the next year I used paper stolen from school and a xerox at my job to print-up handmade ‘zines. In college I went online and discovered quick-and-easy porn and by the time I graduated, Napster was at its last gasp. As a young man, I watched on TV as the Twin Towers collapsed two miles from my apartment. As I grown man I subscribed to the Sunday Times out of tactile nostalgia, and now in Cambodia I read most every day. When I was born there were three TV networks and PBS. Three decades later, I can watch hundreds of channels on a pocket-sized telephone. The whole world – the world beyond the world – is now coded for anyone.

That’s quite an evolution in one young life, as profound as the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution, and not nearly finished yet. The changes have helped countless lives in countless ways, expanded our definitions of ourselves, made some visionaries like yourselves very wealthy, changed the very tides of our brainwaves. I cannot help but notice, however, that as our definitions of who we are as Humankind expand, the communion between the world and our individual selves narrows in some important ways. Allow me an example:

I moved to Asia when the 24-7 scrutiny and passions surrounding the 2008 election became too much. I couldn’t get out of bed without hearing, reading, seeing some pointless bit of candidate minutia analyzed like it carried the weight of D-Day. With the rumblings of our shaky economic foundation in my ears and resentment of our District of Columbia caste in my gut, I left for Siem Reap, where I watched Obama’s victory speech and felt the heartbreak you only feel when, after years of emotional triage, the ground beneath you is suddenly alive again and you are finally safe enough to truly experience just how painful it is to watch your home cut away at all that is good within itself.

Thus it was with great excitement – with anticipation of even greater Heartsong – that I looked forward to Inauguration Day. On the 19th, I settled into an internet cafe and, lured by the headline Inaugural Celebrations Could Last 10 Days, read that five of my favorite people in the world played the Lincoln Memorial during the previous day’s kickoff event. There are few artists as dear to me as the four members of U2 and Bruce Springsteen. They are strong forces for good in the world and I am loyal to them in a way only surpassed by my loyalty to family and tribe. And yet...

The youtube thumbnail I double-clicked to open Bruce’s performance was titled We Are One. U2’s thumbnail included the same because the event was an Event, a planned performance that needed a brand name. When the opaque screen retracted along the base of the Memorial to reveal a red-robed church choir and Bruce in his motorcycle boots and acoustic, my heart leapt. In the other Firefox tab I had open, the canyon-echo shuffle from Edge primed me to be swept up into the grandness of this historical moment. And all of that was a problem.

It was a problem because, “Free at last, they took your life, they could not take your pride; in the name of love,” sounds to me like a decree. “Sky of longing and emptiness – dream of life – sky of fullness, sky of blessed light” is comfort and relief and defiance. I am possessive of these things; on record they have elevated me through innumerable trials and I treasure them. But beneath Lincoln – a place of which I am also possessive, a place where man’s brotherhood to fellow man is stated eloquently and in stone – Bono and Bruce left me deflated. It wasn’t just that The Rising needs its bass and drums as much as its choir. It wasn’t just that Bono’s strutting Missionary of Love-routine was unusually clumsy (“This is for you.....Joe Biden!”) and particularly overblown (“Forty-six years ago Martin Luther King had a dream. And in two days...that dream comes true!”) The problem was that everything – from the day’s Official Title to Obama’s awkward attempts to nod along with Bruce to the way the crowd, already happy, turned completely ecstatic when they noticed the camera swooping down on them by crane – all of it was expressly clear: I was being told to be stirred in my soul. The laws of the Media Age made sure I understood: This is a tremendous day. Look, we are at the Lincoln Memorial. Look, the colors of America are gathered around the reflecting pool. Look, we are all one! We Are All One!!

King’s dream has come true? Not reeeally. But the packaging needs that. It needs to ensure a certain level of meaning or else it’s not worth packaging, can’t stand up to the all the other packages. So our reactions to the world, the communions between ourselves and these very real things that would stir our souls, are not allowed to develop on their own. We don’t have the opportunity to be moved as our individual, idiosyncratic selves because a professionally-designed Proof of Profound Purpose roots preemptively in our eyes, then our brains, then our hearts.

The pre-gaming on the day of the Inauguration was, of course, defined by the same laws of the All Media-All the Time! world. I arrived at an American-owned bar in downtown Siem Reap at ten o’clock (the oath was taken at midnight Tuesday, our time) and the news ticker at the bottom of the screen was clicking furiously:

NOW: VIPs arrive
NEXT: Representative Feinstein’s opening remarks
LATER: Joe Biden takes VP Oath of Office

A talking head is using as many words as possible to tell us that this is the first time Chief Justice John Roberts will give the oath of office. Anderson Cooper nods sagely and then the ticker tells us that only seven oaths of office have been taken on this, the west side of the White House. Anderson Cooper disappears and on the TV screen Dustin Hoffman mutely mouths to someone off camera, then a brief few questions with Steven Spielberg, then half a glimpse of the back of Jimmy Carter’s head. The Bush Srs walk down the red carpet and George looks near-dead in a neck brace, then the Carters, both looking younger, healthier, happier. The ticker at the bottom reads: There are 58 different federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies involved in this inauguration, then a female voice from somewhere says that Obama will lay his hand on the bible last used by Lincoln, then Hillary Clinton shows up and a male voice from somewhere makes sure we all remember her own candidacy, then Ted Kennedy teeters by in a hat almost worthy of Andre Benjamin...

Wait, wait, what?...DC’s not even a state...And who cares which lawn we’re looking at?...And when did entertainers replace artists replace men and women of philosophy and thought and learning? Why the hell am I looking at John Cusack?

I bet you were in there yourself, Ted. You might not be as camera-ready as John Cusack but I’m sure your checks were at least as generous.

So the Siem Reap bar is selling shots of blue curacao, red grenadine, and whipped cream at two bucks a pop and the place is packed to the gills and the ticker now reads:

NOW: President Bush takes his seat
NEXT: Joe Biden takes VP Oath of Office
LATER: Barack Obama takes Presidential Oath of Office

...and we watch a variety of unknowns in suits and dresses pass through unknown doorways accompanied by unheard narration from unseen CNN anchors and now, now Dubyah emerges to jeers from the bar and the ticker tells me:

A ‘Hail to the Chief’ being played for
C President Bush for the last time

...and WHO CARES?! TELL ME THE COLOR OF HIS SHOES, WHY DON’T YOU, THAT I SHOULD BRUSH THREE TIMES A DAY, WHATEVER YOU GOTTA TO FILL THE TIME, MAN?! Can’t I just watch, can’t I just feel, can’t I just process on my own, with my own juices flowing and the room for my own synapses to fire, free of chatter chatter, every little sneeze an earthquake? White space, time to think, a bit of silence, these are good things, yes? These help keep us ourselves. And so I think how I hate this Jabbering Age but how I can’t let it stain this moment for me, it is the world we live in after all, only life after all, and then...a woman’s voice, a talking head.

“More people,” she says, “will watch this event than any other event in all of history.”

I believe it.

And that’s a profoundly good thing, another result of our media empires. The world can see proof of our return to some of the best parts of ourselves and that, as a friend of mine’s English father once said, “Sometimes it takes them a long while, but the Americans usually get it right.” And then, although part of me had been sad to miss being in the bosom of all of this hullabaloo back home, I realize that I am on the other side of the planet watching and hearing the same thing as my fellow Americans stateside, save those lucky few crammed onto the Mall.

So I wonder: do I lament the homogenization of experience and feeling driven by the Media Age, or am I grateful for the age’s power and hope most of it rests in the hands of the just? Not that what I think makes a lick of difference. I just know youtube can’t change the way I feel about The Unforgettable Fire and Darkness on the Edge of Town and that I read in the paper today of the opening of the Obama Barbershop in Sudan. I know that crammed into that bar, when the Man declared “Science will retake its rightful place” a woman let forth a cry as if some hungry dream had been boiling inside her for years, needing to be freed. I know that the eyes of the men were naked like some part of childhood still lived inside them and still believed in the Great Thing inside ourselves that we all think has been shut away in our journeys of years.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Stealing Time

To an object of brief infatuation during my eighteenth year:

I think, perhaps, that we have mostly forgotten about each other. Not the other’s existence—you know that I am here in Asia and I know that you are leading a life both familiar and foreign to me, with a mortgage and a spouse and even some offspring. It’s the rush of details that has faded a little, that overwhelming tidal wave of puppy love which I swore I’d never forget but which has ebbed, of course, with the passage of a decade. Moments come back to me still, though, and lately it has been a note that you scribbled on the back of a poster, a gift to me. “I hope this is not a stolen season,” it said, cribbing a little from the Bard for the sake of young romance.

Stolen seasons. It seems to me that we spend our whole lives trying to avoid them, skirting one while simultaneously backing into another. Six months ago it felt like time was something stored in a square but shoddy box, leaking minutes from every crevice. I would run to the New Brunswick train station, fleeing office hours with surly freshmen, only to find that the train was running forty-five minutes late. Life was a pattern of rushing and waiting, a halting race toward something difficult to name. Surely, I thought, it would be different in Cambodia. I would wake with the sun, I would eat when hungry, I would sleep when tired, and time would return to some kind of blessed natural order.

That is not what happened. If anything, travel makes us more obsessed with time than ever. Our recent trip to Vietnam reinforced this. Reminders of time are everywhere—train schedules, hotel check-in times, the speed of a motorbike racing the sun. The Vietnamese like rules and the tour guides were full of useful benchmarks. “If you can get a good photo in the next five minutes, you will have five minutes to use the toilet.” And New Year’s Eve, which I spent in Hanoi watching lighted Chinese lanterns rise as if by magic and drift slowly through the skies above Hoan Kiem Lake, is the ultimate reminder of time. If it has been a bad year, we try to seal off its damage; if it has been a good one, we mourn its passing.

Back in Siem Reap, it is really no different. I watch the numbers change on my laptop clock, waiting to rack up another hour of freelance work. Even unpaid work becomes about time—if I can just force my mind to concentrate on this story for two more hours, surely, surely, something good will come of it. But it is more than these counted hours and minutes and seconds. Everything we do is under the looming expat deadline of when the sand in the hourglass will run out on this adventure. “You’ll be home in no time,” my grandmother says on the phone, her voice quavering. “You’ll be back safe before we know it.”

The last English literature class that I will likely ever take was a dry seminar called “Time and the 20th Century Novel.” The syllabus was packed full of philosophers, everyone from St. Augustine to Husserl to Heidegger telling us what time is and what we should think of it. But it’s fiction that provided the template that made the most sense: Proust’s rope of memory, descending out of the dark to rescue us from unconsciousness. But a rope, a tether, can be restriction in addition to a safety line. When I wake up in a strange Southeast Asian hotel room, feverish and panicked with dreams, the first thing I want is to be able to see my watch and yet the position of the hands never seems to satisfy me.

Will we ever escape this cycle of stolen seasons, my bygone sweet, or has everything since our moment of puppy love been wasted hours? Will I ever do what I want, write what I want, before time inevitably runs out? If I could give you anything, it would be time enough to be the people we dreamed of being under Midwestern skies full of stars. Please return the favor. I can use all the help and time that I can get.

With fond nostalgia,


Thursday, January 8, 2009

American Jungles

Dear Marf,

I just bought 450 milliliters of beer for 63 cents plus a serious shot of local rice vodka for the same. Eyeballing it, I’m guessing 450 milliliters is around sixteen ounces. I don’t really know. I just know this vodka would take rust off your tricycle. Shannon’s reading The Grapes of Wrath and I’m taking a break from Denis Johnson’s new one, Tree of Smoke. The book is 800-some-odd pages and will branch into, I’m guessing, a deranged autopsy of the American war in Vietnam filtered through the lenses of characters’ Bible Belt-assuredness, bureaucratic indecencies, and substance abuse-induced trauma. Parallels to the globe-arching lens on our current military cash-suck clusterfuck seem inevitable. It seemed an appropriate read.

It’s doubly appropriate because I’ll need something to do on the roughly 48 hours of bus ride we begin tomorrow. My 31st birthday will be spent on the road, with a bed in Saigon the hyphen between the two halves of the journey back to Siem Reap. At some point in the future – probably at many points in the future – I intend on raising a finger into a conversation and proclaiming, with a blur of booze at the edges of my tongue, “When I had my birthday in Saigon…” It’ll be awesome. Most any sentence that begins, “When I…,” and ends with “Saigon” is bound to carry some weight. Different kinds of weight depending, yes, but...

We’ve taken to renting motor bikes and driving all over Hell and Gone. At times I feel great and at other times like the H.S. Thompson-adolescence inside is grappling for the handlebars, still others like I’d better clench those brakes tight because we’re so high we’re looking down at clouds and there ain’t any guardrail between this loose-gravel asphalt and the edge where Air meets Cloud over Nothing. This is all an interesting test of will against impulse. Not to get too symbolic, but…

One of those moto rides was up and over the mountains north of a town called Sapa, the mountains that separate it from another town called Lai Chau, an ugly place surrounded by sublime (Lonely Planet’s word but still the best one) countryside that butts up against the Chinese border at Yunan. Sapa is the tourist hub of the area and the saving grace of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. There are fifteen Hill Tribes and they are the poorest of the poor. They could compete with Cambodia’s poor. They age young, make lots of babies, die young. Aside from rice and opium farming, they’ve got no lifeline but that coming from the pockets of Sapa tourists, that money used to buy the brilliant and surprising textiles the tribes’ women sew, the explosions of gaudy color sold for pennies. Most prominent among the tribes are the H’moung - -

I have to take an aside here to say that the man bringing us our drinks is rocking the solo ‘stach and has the most beautiful smile, and I wonder at the sources people call upon to keep not just smiling but actually open to humanity, regardless of Life’s firepower leveled against them, and at the exquisite power of beaming that to the world like they are radio towers of nothing but Summertime Singles, kind enough and full of promise enough to be intimidating and inspiring.

-- The H’moung and the mountains. Okay. So we took the motor bike off the beaten track outside of Sapa, fled the mini busses and tour groups and ended up descending the mountain into pyramidal terraces of rice paddies, around and around, and ultimately trekking by foot along a narrow path, followed at the heels by two H’moung girls. Ma is eleven and Tsu is fifteen, and soon we were long, long gone from the Actual Path, wandering through bamboo forests that wash everything green, over waterfalls, up the sides of more mountains where we gave clementine oranges to a band of five snot-nosed kids (all the hill tribe kids were snot-nosed, sick) the youngest two and the oldest not beyond five, no adults even in echoing distance. We broke out of the jungles onto the crest of another mountain and half-a-dozen villages were spread up and down the elevations of the land beneath us, spread so far beneath us that people could not even dream of being specks, and then the endless rice terraces, the endless rows of indigo plants tracing the terraces, clouds cascading down the slope, then blown gone, and it was all so beautiful – too beautiful – and so I have to note My American Studies Friend, my friend who sees the world’s cogs and wheels as I do, that I looked off to my left, up away from those terraces testifying to Man and Woman’s place in the land, and I saw as clear as day in my Mind’s Eye all of it erupt in fire, tilted my head back to the sun and watched jet fighters scream overhead, played in my brain Jesus-man Willem Defoe and Dana Delaney, Mathew Modine grinning like a cat and that dude from Wings scalped on Hamburger Hill, whomever wants to be there, clasping hands, all Outcast Niggers ‘cause it’s real man! and you don’t know! and they’ll never feel lit like you do back home…etc.

It is, I guess, real that the gap between jungle predator and the folks by the living room TV must have been the whole Pacific Ocean. But I only know that from what has been presented for me to devour on the big screen and the tube. Ron Kovic himself couldn’t compete except for the fact that Tom Cruise played him. Tim O’Brien has stuck it out but I don’t see over the jungle the things he details on his pages. There I was, in the actual jungles of NVA territory, and though I myself could process the beauty of the land spread around me, I could not escape the mythical place Vietnam occupies in the American rearview mirror when it came to intellect, emotion, the way my own boots fit against the dirt and stones.

The thing that doubles the weight is that the Vietnamese obviously see me through a similar lens. No, maybe it’s that they see me through the same instrument of devastation, but the lenses we each use are irrevocably incompatible, mine shaped by artists’ interpretations of a world only a director or a creative consultant knew, the Vietnamese lens shaped by real life. And then what of the lenses of those middle-aged American men who sit off by themselves while their wives bargain at the market with H’moung women, who wait for their turn further south, touring the DMZ? The weights brought to bear on an American sentence ending with the word Saigon are spread so wide across our culture. They are many varied weights and are not all equal, yet they all feel like burdens. It’s…is it a shame? Can a person say something that broad and have it mean anything? I know it must sound na├»ve and useless to say, but the unpassable chasms between one people and the next make me very sorry and, when high above the clouds looking down on Man and Earth, very sad. Adulthood is accepting the lost possibilities in the world. Righteousness is finding new ones.

Much love to you and V. Miss you.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

These Pants Were Made for Walking

Levi Strauss & Co.
1155 Battery St.
San Francisco, CA 94111

To Whom It May Concern:

I wish to inform you of an exciting new business opportunity. Levi Strauss, long an established and respected leader in the casual clothing industry, has yet to move into the couture sector of the marketplace. I have developed a failsafe plan to change this. Why not offer your customer a garment with a life of its own, with a story to tell?

Here is how it will work: you will send me two pairs of standard Levi’s 501s, one for me and one for my travel companion. We will then wear them on far-flung adventures and write up a detailed report of how travel has matured the pants into entirely new and one-of-a-kind garments. You will then be able to sell them under a special label (called perhaps Jeans Beyond Borders or maybe simply Passport, Please) for no less than $800 per pair.

During a recent trip to Vietnam, I prepared two prototypes for you. Both pairs of blue jeans were put through the most rigorous of aging processes. Over thousands of kilometers and two and a half weeks of non-stop wear, they have been meticulously shaped into objets d’art. Here are a few descriptive details that will hopefully capture the kind of exemplary craftsmanship you can expect from us.

-small stain on one knee from the juicy drippings of a freshly-wrapped spring roll dipped in fig-green banana-peanut sauce

-splotches of mud along the shins from Sapa, where we followed two Black H’moung adolescents on a hike through terraced rice paddies and bamboo forests

-grime and slight fraying along the cuffs from a rainy day of walking through the ruins of the Imperial Enclosure in yesterday’s capital, Hue

-wear below the back pockets from leaning against a tree at a mammoth outdoor Catholic Christmas Eve mass in today’s capital, Hanoi

-minor fading on the thighs from a damp kayaking foray among the limestone rock formations of Halong Bay

-deep and musky smell from the hours spent at markets and street stalls eating noodle soup and drinking Bia Hoi and apple wine

-front pockets ragged and ink-stained from the constant poking presence of note-taking pens

-sagging around the knees and hips from too many successive days spent on outmoded buses and rickety sleeper trains

-small tear (on the calf of male garment) from a wee motorbike accident that ended in a heap of dirt at a rural construction site along the mountain pass to Lai Chau (This is actually a fib. There was, indeed, such an incident, but the tear is from some heedless grappling with a guardrail during an attempt by the wearer to take a leak by the side of the road. This lie should not undercut our authority, but merely prove to you our commitment to both dramatic flair and your own subsequent financial gain.)

I am even willing to throw in a few extras to add to the air of authenticity:

-one $2 replica of a VC issue belt bought from the army surplus market in Saigon

-one map of Cuc Phuong National Park, home of a 1000-year-old tree, the Silver Palace cave, and a primate sanctuary for special breeds of Vietnamese langurs that look like they’re wearing sporty Bermuda shorts

-a random assortment of Cambodian riel and Vietnamese dong stuffed carelessly into the front pockets, totaling approximately 66 cents in US currency

We will, of course, split any profits with you, enabling our next pant-weathering excursion. I am pleased to inform you that I have also met a number of travelers who are willing to be employed by you in a similar capacity—sweet young French Canadians, exuberant students from Singapore, Australian geneticists, and many more. An enthusiastic workforce and a boost to your bottom line are yours for the taking. I await your reply and anticipate a long and profitable business partnership.


Shannon N. Dunlap