It was my last day at Ho Chi Minh city. I was at a bus stop, talking to two Australian girls, Terry and Lane, whom I had just met. We were all going for the Cu Chi War Tunnels tour. A third girl stood a little behind, looking away.
The tour bus was close to full when I got in. I wanted to sit next to Terry, but as luck would have it, there were no seats left in the back. I sat alone in the front, opposite to the driver.I looked back from time to time. There was non-stop chatter, and I wanted to be part of it. I felt fidgety. There was only one person sitting quietly amid all the chatter in the bus. She stared out of the window as if to find some meaning there. The third girl. It intrigued me. After an hour, the bus stopped at a factory. Victims of the American war worked there. Sufferers from the Agent Orange gassing, most of them had either skin diseases or deformities or blindness. Tourists were brought to the facility in the hope that they would buy some of these artifacts. We walked through the small corridors, looking at the paintings. Some stopped and spoke to the workers. When they said they did not know English, smiles and eyes spoke the best language known to mankind. The girl still kept walking alone. I knew I had to speak to her. After about twenty minutes, I walked out to the garage where our bus stood. The girl stood there, lost in her thoughts.
Right. Classy opening line, come to my head now. Every time I try that, God sends me the lamest ones. But she looked up, and we started speaking. “Where are you from”, she asked me then. It is the most common line that initiates the conversation between two travelers. I had asked and been asked that question a hundred times already on this trip. I had developed my answer, though. “Where do you think I am from”, I said widening my eyes in mock exaggeration. Her eyes twinkled for the first time right about then. She studied my face and looked at the bandana, the stubble, and the boots.
When I told her I was from India, she insisted that it was going to be her first guess. I politely asked her to take a hike. Her hair and eyes were brown. Her skin was tanned and not pale. Where could she be from? Every guess I made turned out to be wrong. Most of the people had now come out. As we boarded the bus, I asked her with all the casualness I could muster, if she would want to sit with me in the front. She agreed. We chattered a lot. Nadine, to me then, seemed like a person on her guard. She had been travelling for some time, but she had not started to trust her environment, and it showed in everything she did. She had wanted to travel as a backpacker through Asia when she left Germany, but all her friends and family thought she was mad in doing so. It made her feel all the more adventurous, all the more rebellious, and she craved for the liberation of it all. She left for the airport one day, happy knowing that she was going on to take on the world, and life, on her terms. I saw so much of an Indian kid in her. But Nadine was not going to find it as easy as she had thought. The most valuable thing one can learn about solo travelling is to let go and to surrender to the environment. To let a moment come to you, and not try to search for it. It is an enviable quality, to be absolutely free in your heart and soul, of worry, of time.
So though Nadine had gone to Thailand and Cambodia and had now entered Vietnam, she could not shake off some of her worries while travelling. She was still living in a hotel and paying 25 dollars for a room every day. She still held on to her purse and belongings tightly, worried that somebody might steal them. And when she had walked out into the street earlier in the morning, someone did try. It is but ironic that when we are most guarded, how the universe preys on us.
“I am half German, half Tunisian. My name’s Nadine.”
“Nero.” We shook hands.
She was still searching for freedom, but there was something about her.The bus stopped at the gates of our destination. All of us filed out and then stood in a circle around our guide. At 26, Tom was what every guide should be. He was funny, he knew a lot, and there was much mischief in his eyes. We all trooped behind him. He stopped several times in front of openings in the tunnels. The first time we did, he asked for a volunteer, and I ran to the front. The hole was small, and I had to wriggle my way down into the underground passage. Some of the Australians and Europeans could not even fit inside, so small were the tunnels. We walked on. One tunnel that ran for several kilometres was so small and narrow that even I could not sit in it. To just be there, I had to lie down. It was so claustrophobic that I was breathless within a minute. When Tom told us that the Viet Kong soldiers, young men and women, their families, their kids, had lived in those tunnels for 7-10 years, had crawled through them, ate, drank and lived there for ten years, there was a hushed silence. It was impossible to imagine how they had survived, of their rat-like existence for years at a stretch, their bravery, their absolute lack of choice. Whenever Tom spoke of the gruesome war, his voice dropped, and the mischief disappeared entirely. It was one of the most beautiful tours I went on, in my one month trip. Go for the Cu Chi Tunnels Tour if you ever go to Ho Chi Minh City.
After three hours, we were ready to board the bus. I went to get a coke for myself, and by the time I returned, two German boys had sat beside Nadine. Right.
I plonked myself behind the driver and looked out of the window. As the bus moved, the breeze hit my face. I kept thinking about what Tom had told us, about the injustice of the war. Later, I looked at Nadine. They were all talking in German, so I could not join in at all. It was alright. My journey is one of a solo traveller. I meet people; I talk to them, and sooner or later we find other interesting people to talk to. Nadine had just met some more.
“Hey Nero, would you like to have dinner later tonight? ” she suddenly asked.
I looked at the two boys. A couple of years ago, the Indian football federation had invited Bayern Munich to play a match with the Indian national team in honour of Baichung Bhutia’s farewell. They trounced us 4-0 in Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, New Delhi.
I nodded my head at her. “Indiaaa, Indiaa” my head stupidly said. Baichung, it is alright, you can thank me later. When I dropped her at her hotel, it was close to 7 pm. We decided to meet sharp at 8 pm. “I am German, Nero. We are very punctual people. Don’t make me wait.”
“Please, I am the most punctual man on the planet. Of course, I shall be on time.”
I reached at 8:10 pm. Not my fault. They were serving free beers in my hostel. And now I was late. She wasn’t there. I asked the hotel manager if he knew where she was and he shook his head. I asked her if I could go to her room, and he refused. I waited in the lobby for some time, but she never came. At 83:0, I left and walked to the main road. It was okay for her not to wait; I had broken the deal after all.
She was sitting there in the first shop, talking to two old men. She told me that since I had not come, she had decided to wait at the first shop on the main road. The two old men looked on at us, sad that I was taking this lovely little creature away from them.
The backpacker street in Ho Chi Minh is one of the most vibrant places in Vietnam. On both sides of the road, there is a line of shops selling fast food and beer. But they don’t have any seating inside. Locals, tourists, backpackers all flock to the street and sit on the pavements. The food and alcohol are served right there, on the pavement. It is an amazing sight. Hundreds of people sitting on the pavement, talking to their friends, strangers, playing cards, spilling beer, eating chicken, screaming in the din. In one such small spot, did Nadine and I occupy a little space for ourselves.
We spoke, and we spoke a lot. From time to time, someone would bump into us, and everybody would laughingly apologize. We ordered beers, and we ordered food. It was her last night in Ho Chi Minh City too. Somewhere, she told me she had a boyfriend back in Germany. That she would see him in a fortnight’s time in Korea. That she had never spoken to someone as much as she did to me since she had left Germany. She asked me if I still wanted to spend time with her, knowing that she had a boyfriend. We kept talking. It was close to 1 am. We walked back on those streets, to the music of the bars. A few prostitutes came out and asked me to join them, and the two of us just laughed. The road was wet, and we jumped over the puddles. Impulsively, I announced that I wanted to stay an extra day in the city. I had less than a week left on the trip, and with that statement, I had just said goodbye to one extra day in Cambodia. Anybody who has been long enough on the road will tell you that travel at the end of it all is not just about the sights, but about the people you meet along the way.
As I dropped her outside her hotel, all that we could hear was the loud silence of the street. Somewhere a clock chimed one. I looked up from my feet, and we smiled at each other. She said that she would like to stay another day as well. As I walked into the night, to my hostel in the adjoining street, I hopped and kicked a few empty cans into imaginary goals.
“Nero, I’ll come to your hostel at 9 am alright? Don’t keep me waiting. I am German."
“Please. I am the most punctual man on the planet. I shall be there in the lobby at 8:50 itself.”
So, it was no surprise that the next morning I woke up late. As I scurried and brushed and washed and tumbled down the stairs to the reception, she had already been waiting for ten minutes. Grinning is my usual way of getting out of trouble. “So what are we doing today?” I asked her. She told me she had seen a French movie once, and it was set in this city. That it was a beautiful romantic story where the girl had met the guy in Chinatown and that she would love to see that place. I nodded my head.
As we walked out into the street, I noticed that Nadine looked much happier. She was wearing a dress, and though it was still sober, it was a marked difference from the formal shirt and trousers she had worn for dinner. I could not stop laughing the previous evening when I saw her in that, and she had stood out among all the backpackers sitting on the pavement in their shorts and vests and sometimes even topless selves. “Schoolteacher”, I had been teasing her.
The bus took us to Chinatown, and there wasn’t anything romantic about the place. It was just an ordinary market, and we walked around in the heat and noise of it all. But Nadine, she was still happy. She had also stopped thinking. The previous day, she had been very nervous about the traffic. Today, she just kept talking as we crossed the streets. Worse, she neither looked at the cars nor the traffic lights. As we decided to go to the cafe across the street, and I moved ahead, she came hopping behind, and a bike narrowly missed her.
“Why the hell are you not looking at the road?”
“You are there to do that.”, She said smiling. Truth be told, I did not have any cocky answer in reply.
Nadine was finally learning to let go. The German was now trusting a foreign country. A girl was now letting her soul take her decisions. I don’t think there was as much love, as there was comfort in the air. We took the bus again. We spoke of her country and mine, her dreams and mine. We missed our stop. As I realized that and rushed forward to tell the driver to stop, she laughed and asked me to come back. That it did not matter. It was hot. We stopped at a park and sat on the benches. We watched kids playing. An old man, eighty or more, came to us and asked if we would play with him. I looked on as Nadine, and he played, kicking and laughing, not having a common language but just using signs.
We waved him goodbye after an hour and left. Later that evening, we walked around the city. Somewhere I became quiet. I asked her if she would leave with me for Cambodia the next day, and she said that she had just come from there. She asked me if I could go with her to Dalat and northwards and I told her I had just come from there. I had only four days left on my trip, after which I was to fly back home from Bangkok.
I do not remember where we had dinner. It was mostly quiet. As I dropped her outside her hotel, all that we could hear was the loud silence of the street. Somewhere a clock chimed one. I looked up from my feet, and we smiled at each other. It was but time to say goodbye. She said that she would come to India some day. I asked her to have fun in Korea. If she cried, I did not see much of it, for I was staring at my shoes hoping to find something fascinating in them. Somewhere we hugged lightly, and I left.
My journey is one of a solo traveler. I meet people, I talk to them, and sooner or later it is time to part. To stretch a moment would be to fight the environment. Sometimes, letting go is just more beautiful.
This post was originally published on My "Experiments" with Truth.