Location: Mui Ne, Vietnam
It’s early in the morning; the sun has just risen and Mui Ne’s usual blanket of muggy heat hasn’t descended quite yet. I’m sitting alone in an empty, outdoor bar at a wood table overlooking the ocean, listening to nothing but the wind and the waves crashing against the stone wall below me. I run my bare toes through the soft beige sand under my feet. A light breeze lifts my hair and I tuck the loose strands behind my ears with one hand before returning it to the gold Thai amulet hanging from my neck. I twist the talisman gently between my fingertips, feeling the smooth, worn engravings. My view is spectacular: all before me is just calm, cerulean sea stretching to the horizon, where it meets the steely-blue sky. It might be boring to some, but it brings me a special sense of clarity and calmness.
I was born and raised beside the ocean and seeing it like this, so big and endless before me, brings my thoughts to home. I haven’t been back to South Carolina in almost a year, which doesn’t sound like much to someone that travels often, but I haven’t spent more than three weeks at a time in my home state in over five years. That thought stays in my mind. I’ve been to so many places, met so many people, but how long has it been since I’ve made the effort to become reacquainted with my hometown, with my childhood friends and my family?
I wonder if it’s too late to reestablish those relationships. I just bought my plane ticket back to America last week, but not to South Carolina. I wonder if I should change it. The tugging in my stomach isn’t homesickness, but more the knowledge that I’ve seen so much and maybe it’s time to decompress, to take a moment to be comfortable and turn my thoughts inward. Maybe I’m ready for that. This is the first time in a long, long time that I’ve thought about going home as more than just a pitstop between adventures.
I’m so deep in thought that I don’t notice the woman until she’s standing across from me. I look up slowly, adjusting myself back to reality. She’s white, very thin, very tan, and she has short cropped blonde hair. Her eyes look too big for her face and they’re a peculiar teal color. She’s wearing blue jeans and a tank top. In one hand she’s holding a large red leather notebook that’s stuffed with papers and she’s clutching three smooth, purple-and-green, bell-shaped fruit in the other.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hello,” she says. She has a thick Russian accent. “Is that your diary?”
I look down at the notebook resting between my forearms.
“Yeah, um, it’s a travel journal.” I don’t know why it’s important for me to distinguish it from a diary, because that’s what it is really.
“This is my diary! I like to write out here in the mornings, as well.” She sits down in the empty chair across from me. “Where are you from?”
“How long have you been in Mui Ne?”
I think it’s a strange question. Everyone always asks how long you’ve been traveling, always assumes you’ve only been in each destination for a few days at most.
“Oh, I arrived yesterday. How about you?”
She smiles, leaning forward. I wonder if her huge, glassy eyes are weighing down her fragile neck.
“Four years,” she says.
“Wow, do you work here?”
“Yes, but I think I am ready to leave soon. Go back to Russia.” Her lips curl into a smile as she names her homeland. She shows me her passport. The pale, long-haired woman in the picture appears to be so much younger that I have to hide my shock. She has none of her present day wrinkles, her cheekbones don’t cut from her face so sharply, and her eyes fit her.
“That was me four years ago. Now, I am thinking I should go home soon. I came here with a boyfriend, but we wanted to travel differently. Now, I am here and he has gone home.” She stops her story for a moment and watches me. “He wanted to marry, but I did not want to go back to Russia. I want the big love. Not him, big love. And home.”
I nod and repeat her words. I like them.
“The big love.”
“Yes, you know! Full of passion and life and joy!” She smiles wide as she says this, throws her arms up to demonstrate how big the big love is. She’s so excited she reminds me of a child describing his favorite toy.
I’m grinning now. I can’t help it; her happiness in infectious. We talk for a while longer. She reads me passages she’s written in her journal, flowing descriptions of love and of the Vietnamese lifestyle. I don’t share my writing, but I don’t think she minds. She gives me the fruit in her hand, tells me there’s a market about a 15-minute bike ride away where there’s plenty of fresh produce. That’s where she just came from. She’d bought fruit and breads and given them to local street kids. I tell her the market sounds lovely and when she finds out I don’t have a bike to ride there, she offers me hers.
“It’s old but it works! Just bring it back here when you are done.”
When she leaves I’m still smiling at this random act of kindness, this overwhelming generosity of one stranger to another. I try the fruit; it’s crisp like an apple, but less grainy, thicker. The flavor is tart, almost sour. It’s refreshing.
I know her bike immediately when I step outside of the bar. It’s painted yellow with glitter and stickers everywhere and sparkling strips of plastic hanging off the handlebars.
At the market, I buy lots of fruit: three different species of red and orange mangoes, fat, squat bananas, and a bundle of rambutan. I get several savory treats as well: a cup of yogurt, fluffy pancake sandwiches filled with scallions and doused in spicy orange sauce, and a puffy taco-like pastry stuffed with seafood. I want to bring them back to the woman and share this feast with her, like she’s shared so much with me.
But when I get back, she isn’t there. I leave the bike, but I don’t see her for the rest of the day. I spot her only once at night at that same bar, and we wave and say ‘hello’ and I pour her some of my vodka-soda. She doesn’t seem as free-spirited as she did in the morning, just quiet and shy. There is no talk of big love or adventures.
That night, she leaves without saying goodbye. When I look around and notice she’s gone, I can’t shake the feeling that even though she has so much energy and love for life, she’s really lost and lonely.
I just hope she makes it home.