Vietnam: Sept 18, 2020 – May 11, 2021 | Da Nang, Saigon, & Hoi An
May 11, 2021 @ 3pm – Hoi An, VN: My body has been tied in knots for about the last 10 days. It’s culminating in this moment – one that I never expected but slightly envisioned. We’re feverishly flipping through our phones and painstakingly penning every place we visited over the last 14 days. This is the reality of life and travel during the COVID era in a South East Asian country.
Just three days ago I had no idea I would even be in this city. And less than 3 months ago, I signed a 3-month lease for an apartment in Saigon. But things change. Feelings change. Such has been my life over these last 8 months in a place I had sworn never to stay in again for little more than 8 days.
For all the reasons I wrote “Good Mourning” 8 months ago, I hope that what happens in these next few minutes will allow me to have a good afternoon and bid bonsoir to my extended sojourn in Saigon. The preceding days have been stressful, filled with increasing uncertainty, slow drips of anxiety-inducing announcements, and the feeling of the gates being drawn up around my sense of freedom and movement.
It feels much like the initial days of the COVID pandemic in South East Asia back in early 2020. And yet, here we sit 15-ish months later feeling the same pains and strains that arise when your basic freedom of movement is being dictated by the reactions of others to a seemingly invisible yet deadly threat.
As it has seemed to happen without notice nor intention many times over these last 15 months of COVID confinement, my eyes drift off into the distance and my mind enters a fog – perhaps as a means of self-defense – filtering out any additional mental noise at the moment and re-envisioning simpler times gone by:
Da Nang, Vietnam – August 2018: “Standing there, overlooking the sea, hearing the rush of the waves, as the sky turned purple, orange, and then bright blue – I closed my eyes and thought about shooting free throws. The sound of the waves crashing sounded just like the “swish” the ball makes after leaving my hands for the perfect shot. If I closed my eyes and listened long enough, I could feel like I stepped to the line and [had] taken a series of shots, all perfect and all to reset myself – my perspective.” – Shooting Free Throws From the Rooftops in Da Nang, Vietnam
All I’ve wanted for the last couple of weeks in Saigon was to be able to return to the beach and the sand to reset myself after one of the most challenging, emotional periods of my adult life. Yet, a series of recent events pervading the country have crushed that dream – for now.
Instead, I sit – sweating, shaking, and filled with nervous tension – outside something that seems like a health ward in a once-bustling but now sleepy town in central Vietnam, hoping to be granted access to simply leave my apartment for an afternoon bike ride through the rice fields. A ride to reset self, but also a ride to put into retrospect the last 8 months I endured in the pit of my personal purgatory.
A Storm’s A’Comin’
Sept 18, 2020: They say a storm’s a’comin’ but they don’t know what I’ve already been through. A little over a week ago, I sat on the beach and shed bricks of tears realizing that I was heading towards in a fork-in-the-road of life. Things were said, as our feet shifted along the sand, just days after being released from a nearly 50-day second wave COVID lock down. Now, here I was just two days before uprooting my life and comfort to depart one storm, only to head into another.
But Tropical Storm Noul wasn’t the only storm I’d deal with it in this time. No…Noul was just a tropical depression by the time it shocked me from my sleep at 4:30am this Friday morning. Depression – such an interesting choice of words. As what can sometimes start as a storm, can evolve into a depression, and depression is something I’d spend the next several months staving off at every turn.
Now as I stand in the living area/kitchen listening to the winds, the crashing rain against the walls, I’m frantically flinging towels around trying to soak up all of the water flooding in from the poorly insulated windows. It feels like we are in the rinse cycle of a washing machine and unsure of how much time is left before the spin cycle begins. Again, my mind slips away to a prior moment in time that elicited a similar response in a seemingly simpler time:
Illinois, USA – August 1992: I’m just 12 years old and I have a rumbling fear of storms. It’s not the thunder and lightning, so much as the wind and the possibility of tornadoes. I’ve seen the news reports of local towns, like Plainfield, just get decimated in minutes and it’s always on my mind in these midsummer months. But I’m also home alone – mostly – except for my dog JP who is in the backyard under the house patio. My fear rises as the storm brews. The sky darkens and then the wind hits. The fence breaks, blows down, and now JP is outside of the fence, scared and running around. I think back to the night our other dog, Brandie (JP’s breeding partner), got out late one night and was later found lying breathless on the nearby highway. My fear immediately shifts from the storm to the thought of losing JP and my succeeding actions in the midst of a midsummer, Midwestern storm – alone – both save my dog and strengthen my resolve.
I return to looking out of the window here in Da Nang, as the storm starts to move farther inland, over the Ba Na Hills, and slowly starts to dissipate. Within hours, it feels like it almost never happened – perhaps much like many storms in life once you’ve been through them. You do what you can to survive in the moment and once it’s passed, usually, the weight feels less with each passing hour. And 48 hours is all we have left in our “4th place” before we depart south to Saigon to separate at the fork-in-the-road of life – both roads leading to stormy skies.
This entire day has felt odd. For starters, it’s the first time I’ve been on a plane in 6.5 months, which for me is the longest period of my life over the last 25 years. It’s also our first flight since arriving into Da Nang before the COVID-19 gates went up around the world.
The airport was eerie, quiet, nearly empty, and everyone was distant and seemingly uneasy. It’s understandable given that we’ve all just been through a nearly 50-day lock down and are eager to get out. But we are also quiet, feeling empty, and a bit on edge. Six years ago on this day, we said “I do” for the second time, but the first in front of family. Yet, once we reach our destination, we’ll say “adieu” and go our separate ways. Only time will tell if it will be temporary or “por siempre.”
Riding across the city to our final destinations, we start to feel like strangers sharing a cab – strangers who have shared ten years together but who are now sheltering off to prepare for their own internal storms. Mine – in both life and this tortuous city – is summed up well in a book I just began to read over this past month:
“Freedom, though it has brought [man] independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.” – Escape from Freedom (Fromm, 1941)
After leaving the cab, saying “adieu”, and taking the short 5-min walk to my new one-room palace in District 4, I begin to think about my plan for surviving in these next few weeks in the pit of my personal purgatory. Though I don’t know it yet, these words and many others from the same book will whisper to me as I fine tune my own, natural escape plan – one that has shaped every part of my existence and always forced me to focus on escaping to freedom rather than escaping from the burden of it.
Hard Rock Halloween
Oct 31, 2020: I’ve been in this city for a little over a month and I’ve done well to find my groove. I have my spots, my routine, and, for the most part, I’m maintaining self even though it’s a constant struggle. I’ve never quite been comfortable here, specifically in this city. We have a love-hate relationship and there’s no in-between. There are simply some things that I will not compromise in my existence and, here, there are far too many interactions that are the complete opposite of how I wish to exist in the world.
To maintain balance, I carve out my paths and places in the city. Places where I can “just be”, enjoy the things I love about the city and minimize that which I despise. During the days, I try my best to enjoy walks to various cafes and restaurants to savor the flavors and survey the flocks of city folk enjoying their city without the hordes of tourists that usually seize the areas where I saunter.
The Running Bean Café has become one of my usual evening spots on the weekends, near a few of my favorite foodie spots, and always full of people to watch as I sip my Kenya AA hand-drip coffee, and dive into my weekly reads. I don’t usually interact too much with those around me, although I did enjoy an impromptu afternoon conversation recently with a guy from Albania. I thought he might have been Italian, since he was drinking a true single shot espresso, and lo and behold my assumptive question turned into an hour-long discussion about travel, history, and a little tiny bit about politics.
Yet, tonight I sit alone, off in the distance of this crowded café – lost, emotional, and trying to hold it all together. It’s been nearly 7 days since I’ve heard anything from the only two people in this city that I have any real relationship with. I sensed that they both needed space and had their own things going on, so I let the days pass without a ping. Now after 7 days of silence, it starts to bite away at my balance. As I peer around between my sips of coffee and my empty attempts to concentrate on my book, I feel the emotions build inside and the bricks that fell on the beach in Da Nang bubble to the surface.
I hold off for as long as I can, but eventually I pick up the phone and dial the only person at the time who I know is both available and able to help me in this moment.
Chicago, IL – Early 2000s: I’m not sure how we got here. It seemed like we were having a good time all night hanging out in downtown Chicago. One of the many times we’ve enjoyed this city together. But something is off…something I’ve never seen in him before. Now, here I stand in a bathroom in the Hard Rock Hotel looking at a grown man but hearing the hurt and pain of a child. The emotions are raw and the pain is deep…but it needs to be let out. This soul needs to be liberated from these feelings to be able to regain balance and become the opposite of that which caused this pain. All I can do is listen and do what comes naturally to me – find ways to shift the focus away from that which is lost to all that has been gained.
That unforgettable episode in Chicago turned out to be an investment in a friend that is also paying off in self all these years later. For now it is I who am on the verge of an emotional breakdown, in the middle of a crowded café on a Saturday night, and need someone to listen, someone to help me find balance and become the opposite of that which is causing my current pain.
I come to recognize in this moment that this is the deepest I wish to go in this current emotional storm and something needs to change. I need the release, the listening ear, but I also need to become “tired of being tired.” It’s at these moments when my perspective and energy shift, and I once again begin to plot my escape to freedom – mental, emotional, or otherwise.
“Each step in the direction of growing individuation threatened people with new insecurities.” – Escape from Freedom (Fromm, 1941)
Warning – Un Abbraccio Che Farmi Crollare
Nov 12, 2020: Man, I can’t believe how good this book is! I also can’t believe the ease with which I’m reading it. Though the title is in English, the book is Italian and I’m digesting it like it was in my mother tongue. The story is easy to follow, given that it’s an autobiography written by one of my most entertaining tennis players, who happens to be married to one of my favorite female tennis players of the last era. I read her book too, years ago, one of my first in Italian. And now reading his, feels like I’m getting the behind-the-scenes view of that original story.
Seven stories above the city, I sit with book in hand peering out at the city’s skyline, escaping to my own freedom – a freedom that threatens me with new insecurities. Since my sentimental Saturday evening just two weeks ago, I’ve re-balanced and redesigned my days to focus on feeding my soul rather than the subtle ways that were starving it into submission. Like shooting free throws from the rooftops three years ago, I focus on the fundamentals. I simplify my days down to just four things each day – work, exercise, eating well, and simple pleasures that give me energy – in this case, reading.
Oftentimes, I find that books call to me, as if they are whispering wisdom in my direction. This book is no different. I only found out about it by accident. Yet, as I sit in this pool deck chair feeling the flood of emotions expressed in this personal recount, I’m overtaken by the following lines, and those bricks below my eyes start to bubble up again:
“Flavia mi si avvicina all’orecchio e mi sussurra: «Mi sei mancato». A quel punto mi sciolgo, le passo le braccia intorno alla schiena, faccio aderire il mio corpo al suo e forse è il primo vero abbraccio della mia vita. Sono felice che sia lei a darmelo.” – Warning (Fognini, 2020) [Google Translate]
This time, I can’t hold back. The words have turned from whispers to screams, forcing that which bubbled up below my eyes to flow out in streams. I can feel exactly what he felt in that moment and I feel how much I need it back in my life again. I know it was there before, because it’s what made me realize I had found the right arms to hold me when I truly need them.
San Jose, CA – May 2011: As the sun sets, I sit in the arms of a new love. I just returned home from an emotionally draining encounter, something that resembled that last scene in the movie, “Break Up.” We hadn’t seen each other in 3.5 years, yet she finally needed closure. So I sat and listened, and allowed her the time and space to make her peace. She was my first real love but I knew 3.5 years ago that I needed to let her go. It was best for both of our lives. And as I sat there in the Peet’s Coffee on University Avenue in Palo Alto, CA, I looked at a past love who seemed to be a shell of the person I once knew. Two hours later, we said goodbye and one hour thereafter, I laid in those new arms recounting the emotional events of the evening. As my tears flow, from the pain that resurfaced this evening and from 3.5 years ago, I feel comforted and at ease. I know I have found the arms I need.
Damn it, I think I left my phone at home! The whole point was to bring it with me today so I could spend time writing at Starbucks after my early Saturday morning “Critical Thinkers” Meetup. But now looking back, I realize that I left it charging on the table at home. At least, I hope I did…otherwise, it may have slipped out of my pocket in the cab ride here.
Ah, I knew it…I left it here charging. Maybe I should grab it and head out to a café. I really don’t want to sit here and write what I need to say. I feel like I don’t want this space to be tarnished by the emotions I need to convey. Instead, I lie down on the sofa for a bit and the thoughts begin to emerge almost without delay.
Minutes later, the words escape my soul as if in a purge. They flow out in streams, like the tears that flowed out while I was reading those powerful lines from the book just two days ago. The words are so poignant and the emotions so raw, I can barely type the words fast enough in my phone to match the deluge pouring out of my soul. The words have become tears and I trying my best to finish before I fall apart.
I put the phone down just minutes later, realizing that I’ve expressed exactly how I feel, and yet, I can’t bring myself to hit [send]. Every time I think, “it’s time”, I simply ball up and break down into tears. Two hours in and I’m still paralyzed – unable to stop the tears, unable to hit send, and unable to move from this emotional ball that keeps bouncing from the sofa to my bed. I try to dial the one person in the world who I know might still be awake and able to help me in this moment, but he is not available.
I constantly reflect back on that moment in San Jose in May 2011 and how the reasons I let go the first time aren’t the same as now. But I also think about the lines from that book that screamed at me for how much I ache for the feeling of those comforting arms again. I’ve written a letter – a poem, really – that I cannot yet send. I need more time…time to truly know if this is the end.
Both Sides of Freedom
Dec 24, 2020: I really don’t want to go tonight but I feel like I should. When I paid my rent the other day, my landlady handed me an invitation to the Christmas pageant at her church. Yet, we’re still in the middle of pandemic, though you’d barely know it moving around here in Saigon. And I don’t feel comfortable in crowded places, especially with a bunch of people singing. Isn’t that how they had an initial spread earlier this year in Korea?
I’m hoping it’s more of a temple than a church. That way I can show my face, stand outside (with my mask on) away from others, and partake in the festivities for a half hour or so. It’s the least I can do, since she is such a nice person.
Walking along the streets of this city in the evenings, I’ve never been comfortable. It’s not that I feel unsafe, I just feel uneasy. It’s busy, loud, raucous, and that’s on a normal day. Tonight, on Christmas Eve, it’s especially bustling, with everyone heading out for their holiday dinners, drinks, and other activities of merriment. Yet, I walk alone.
“…the structure of modern society affects man in two ways simultaneously: he becomes more independent, self-reliant, and critical, and he becomes more isolated, alone, and afraid. The understanding of the whole problem of freedom depends on the very ability to see both sides of the process and not to lose track of one side while following the other.” – Escape from Freedom (Fromm, 1941)
Since arriving here in this city, I’ve become more isolated and alone – mostly, by choice and some by circumstance. As a way to maintain sanity, I’ve limited my social interactions and focused inward on those fundamental things that bring me balance. In an effort to maintain health in the midst of this pandemic, I’ve kept my distance – doing my best to limit the exponential opportunities by which to catch this debilitating disease. So here I walk alone, along these bustling streets to an event I don’t wish to attend on loneliness eve of my life.
Christmas is never really a big deal for me and I’m usually not around family on the holiday. But tonight feels especially somber. It feels much like that night I had on Halloween two months ago – the feeling of being alone in a crowded place. This is even more unusual for me since being able to see/feel both sides of freedom have been easy for me throughout my life. I usually find comfort, balance, and strength of being independent and free in a crowded space. It’s what’s aided me around the world as I explored self and new places.
Madrid, Spain – Dec 2008: It’s almost 4:30am and I’ve spent the last several hours out barhopping with people I’d only met hours before. I just arrived to Madrid less than 24 hours ago to celebrate my Golden Birthday (29th) and to spend a week exploring culinary and conversational delights of Spain. I don’t know anyone in this country and yet I’m completely at ease. I’ve been speaking nothing but Spanish, eating endless tapas, and partying it up with hostel mates from all over the world. I’m here by myself in a crowded place but I do not feel alone…I feel independent, self-reliant, and free. I feel I’m the epitome of being me.
Yet, this night…in this city…I do not feel the epitome of being me. I feel alone in a crowded place and even more so because of the day that it is.
I reach the church and realize that it’s not a temple. Entering would require me to walk inside, upstairs, and sit amongst the crowd. It’s quite obvious that I will not be able to show my face, listen to a few songs, and leave – I’d stand out like a sore thumb. Instead, I stand outside for a few moments to listen to the carols on the loud speaker and then I begin my somber trot back to my one-room palace to spend the next 40 hours alone.
I want to call someone but I can’t. I shouldn’t. It’s Christmas and the last thing I want to do is tarnish the holiday of others simply to soothe my sting. The one person I had hoped to hear from only sent a text today asking if I was okay. I said I was fine and told her to enjoy her day.
Slowly the silence once again begins to grow into a scream and I realize that now “it’s time” to finally hit [send] and truly say what I mean. But not today, it’s Christmas, and that wouldn’t be fair. I’d rather wait until tomorrow when it may be slightly easier to bare. Instead, I spend the loneliest Christmas of my life and in a city that has never loved me back, and wait for the hours to pass, so I can take the necessary actions to get my life back on track.
Don’t Hold Back
Dec 31, 2020: It’s New Years’ Eve and in just this last week so much has changed. I hit [send] to say that I what I had to say, and then I received a text, and I sensed a whisper that there might still be a way. Words were said, tears were shed, and realizations were made. It’s amazing how fast things can change when you are finally willing to walk away.
Sitting here in this café bakery in a place that I never knew existed, within a part of town only two days before I had visited. It wasn’t by plan but totally by surprise – a birthday that left me speechless, spent with my two favorite people in this city that I sometimes despise.
I’ve spent the entire day in this part of town on the last day of this hellish year. Now in between bites of dinner, I’m having endless reflections of moments that led to this place and the renewed feelings I now feel. But there’s something about this area that I can’t quite place. It’s whispering something to me that I cannot yet feel. Yet, when I leave the café, walk the down the short steps, and turn right, I look up and see a symbol of something that whispered to me from the past, only later to be revealed.
I continue to walk the grounds, not ready to leave. I feel comfortable here in a way that I haven’t in this city for months. But it’s New Year’s Eve and I should head out soon before the crowds come and the traffic gets crazy.
On the cab ride home I feel like I’m getting farther and farther from a place of comfort. The area I’ve called home for these last few months, now feels like a strange, distant place. As I’m on call with my cousin (who’s more like a little sister) I’m reliving moments with each sip of wine and bite of cheese saved from that overwhelming day. The call ends, I get up to clean my plate, and three simple words come to mind – perfect words to start a new year after ending one that hasn’t been so great.
Chicago, USA – 2004: Almost every Saturday, rain or shine, I walk to this Starbucks in Downtown Chicago to enjoy an iced vanilla Frappuccino and dream. It’s a block away from my graduate business school and a few blocks down the street from my beloved symbol of Chicago – the Sears Tower. I never had any intention of attending this school for my Master’s. I only found out about it by accident. I happened to visit the school on a summer day a handful of years ago with friend surveying the law school. The flyer I picked up that day and the feelings I felt within the walls of the building, whispered something to me. Now I sit here with my iced drink, peering out the window at the building that is helping me create my future self. A self that has decided to not to hold back, listen to the whispers, and run towards its dreams.
January 23, 2021: Twenty-three days into the New Year and a hundred things have changed. From the moment, I told myself “don’t hold back” on New Year’s Eve, I put myself on a different path. Within hours, I found an apartment in the newer part of town and in less than two days, I had moved. I needed the change and I needed new energy in the New Year. I now had a place where I could walk, I could breathe, and I could escape each afternoon to the simple pleasures that gave me freedom.
I was also now sharing the area, the apartment, and my carve outs in the city. We had decided to move back in together to focus less on what was lost and more on what had been gained. The weekends were once again filled with exploring the culinary and coffee delights of the city, while diving back into delicate discussions needing to be addressed.
Today, in between our pedestrian exploits, we stop off at a café. It’s one I’ve wanted share since I found it during my days of solitude when I needed to get away. But today is special; it’s my father’s 79th birthday. I decide to honor his day by re-reading “The Two Musketeers” – a tribute to our collective journey of becoming pilots.
On my birthday, just three weeks ago, I re-read the final chapters of the book to reflect on one of the biggest personal accomplishments in my life. This afternoon, I’m re-reading the book (in full). And though I know the various endings, some of the details feel new again. They hit like bricks, at times, bubbling up tears of appreciation that had been buried years before. But they also put back into focus simple shifts in perspective that have altered my path of existence.
Lansing, IL – May 2008: The final phase of flight is all feel and I just wasn’t feeling everything…because I was focused too much on doing one piece of it well. But while focusing on one piece, like speed, I would not focus on maintaining directional control. My father, serving as my flight instructor, could see the same thing happening. He also knew that I had an unproductive tendency of not wanting to pull the power on the aircraft until the absolute last second. Recognizing of all this, and my natural ability to control the plane while in the sky, he simply said, “just try flying the plane to the ground.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Oftentimes, when we are challenged in life, we tend to focus on what has been lost versus what has been gained – we focus on weaknesses rather than strengths. After surviving these last 4 months in this city, separated, and somber (at times), I am determined to begin this year, and this new phase of the relationship, not focused on doing everything right but, rather, focused on doing everything I can to move in the right direction. By having a clearer direction and finding balance within self, it’s easier to understand and communicate balance within the relationship – any relationship – because most relationships need to be renewed at some point.
“I don’t know what you need to say to them, but I’m telling you that if I don’t see some sense of movement to show they want to keep me around, then we’re done.” These were the exact words that I just uttered a few minutes ago before I ended the call and took a pause to stare out towards the Saigon skyline the morning of the first Saturday in March. I wasn’t expecting this last call nor the disposition taken. Yet, it’s clear to me that something needs to give.
Just a couple of days before my father’s birthday, I submitted my annual renewal and now six weeks later, I’m being told to continue, as is, but with a bit chopped off at the knees. This is just one of my many clients but one of my longest relationships. And as I stare out towards the skyline, I think perhaps this is the end. If it’s the case, then I’d be fine with it, since I know my direction and I know my boundaries.
At this point, the ball is in their court and they need to decide if they want to take a shot or want to take a pass. Either way, I’m moving in the right direction. Minutes later, the phone rings again…they decide to take a shot. It’s funny how fast things change when you have the freedom to walk away.
April 16, 2021
“Goddamn it…I’m sick of all of you MF’ers! I can’t stand none of y’all!”
I wish I had only said it in my head but these were the words that actually came out of my mouth. We just wrapped up a good, productive exercise session at the local park and as soon we returned back to the apartment building, I got hit with a trifecta of incidences, all in the same moment, that were the epitome of my discontent and disconnect with this city.
The thing is, I’m just not accustomed to holding the door for people and them simply passing through it. I’m not accustomed to people walking through me as I’m holding the door for others, nor am I accustomed to people walking onto an elevator and looking pass me (the only other person in the elevator) without some sense of acknowledgement. I’m simply not used to being in a place where people are so caught up in their own worlds that they simply don’t acknowledge the presence of another human being in their space. Their phones, their plans, their superficial natures seeped in insecurity, are more salient in their minds than another being sharing space on this planet. I try not to take it personal because they don’t just do it to me. I watch them all day do the same to each other. It’s just the way of being in this city.
I’ve lived in other big cities around the world and I’ve lived in many other parts of this country. What I see and experience here is on another level and something that has always affected my time in this city. It’s the reason why after traveling here for the last 5 years, I had decided that I’d only ever stay in this city again for no more than 7-10 days. But it’s running on 7 months and my patience is thin. I’ve tried as best as I can to make it work and hold as much as I can in. Now it’s clear with these words that I just damn near screamed out in the lobby this afternoon that I need to get out because it’s affecting me from within.
It’s now a week later and we just finished another workout outside with friends. I take some pictures and record a few videos to survey my form and my progress. I’ve been spending the last few weeks and months leveling up some of my strengths and skills. To be honest, it’s been one of my fundamental escapes during this entire COVID ordeal.
Sitting at home and reviewing my results, I’m shocked. Less than two weeks ago, I had just started working on this new skill and the progress I made in such a short time seems unreal. But my inner feeling is disjointed and seems a bit off. I’m shocked at my progress but also feel a bit lost. Empty, perhaps is a better word.
I sit and ponder why I feel like it’s not a big deal. I should be ecstatic and elated at the progress I’ve made and yet, I continue to look at the two pictures bemused and staid. I sense something is happening inside that is robbing me of pure joy and appreciation. Then another picture appears to remind me of the reason why I workout as I do and why I should focus less on the pictures and more on why I feel subdued.
Bangkok, Thailand – Oct 2019: I’m not even supposed to be here. I am supposed to be on a plane heading back to Chiang Mai after this absolutely last minute, unplanned 5-day trip down to Bangkok. But I have decided to stay an extra day and the thing I want to do most is be here – in Benchasiri Park near sunset – doing a workout. In between sets on the pull-up bars, I grab my phone and snap a few pictures. I want to capture this moment and let it sink in later. Off in the distance, I see a random guy in red shorts. We never met, but in this mere moment of being, his presence inspires me in a way I’ll never forget.
The guy in the red shorts, in a place I never planned to be, in a moment that wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s the epitome of moving in the right direction and being balanced within self – balance that I am losing the longer I stay in this city. The fact that I’m starting to lose my center in everyday situations and am unable to feel the joy in moments and harness the appreciation, tells me that I need a change. While I can continue to focus on the fundamentals that allow me to escape to my freedom, the efforts are growing thin. I’m doing everything I can, not to submit to this place but it’s slowly breaking me down from within. My only way to escape to freedom is to recognize that I must now escape from the burdens of being here.
Rumblings of the Fourth Wave
May 8, 2021
“What time you thinking for lunch?”
“So, I was trying to think of how to tell you, but I’m at my friend’s in District 3 and I got locked down, because there’s a potential case on the floor.”
I’ve been in bed all morning, most unusual for me, but by mind and body needed the rest. It’s been a stressful week. I just checked in with a friend for our lunch plans for the day, since it’s 30 minutes past noon and I hadn’t heard from her yet. We are supposed to be having perhaps our last lunch together before I leave this city in 3 days.
Ironically, I’m still unsure of where I’ll be going but suffice it say, I won’t be sleeping in this apartment in 3 days. We have a 3-month lease but decided to end it three weeks early. That was before the 4-day national holiday and before the start of this fourth coronavirus wave.
Just days after I decided that I needed to escape from the burdens of being here, we agreed it was time to get back our “4th place.” At that time, the plans were easy to make and every thing made sense. But sense I did that something might change and now here I sit in this apartment, alone, anxious, and emotionally drained.
The day after the holiday weekend, the cases started to emerge again – mostly in the north but also in Da Nang (our 4th place). For the last three weeks, all I’ve wanted was to return to the beach, the sand, and get back to feeling the balance that over these last several months I did everything I could to keep it from slipping out of my hands. By Tuesday, Da Nang slid into a sharp lock down, a week before our intended arrival. We shifted to thinking about Plans B, C, and D, but knew that given the situation we had to wait until the weekend to see how things would proceed.
Friday afternoon, I finished a tiring work session for multiple clients and decided to go to one of my favorite cafes to decompress – my second living room, I often called it in jest. While sitting there, I felt the walls around my freedom began to move in. The nearby gym was setting up to close at 6pm – indefinitely – and the café where I spent many of my afternoons was seizing up for socially distanced seating. In the one place where I’d usually go to escape to my freedom, I felt that freedom slipping away in every direction.
I’m trying my best to stay calm and relax; recognizing that the one thing I never wanted to happen here might be slowly emerging around me. Being stuck in this city during an outbreak is something I’ve feared even before we came down here back in September. And though we made the decision to get out weeks ago, it seemed like life was testing the limits of my latitude. Every day, there’s more news about cases, closures, lock downs, and limitations. It’s like a slow drip of increasing anxiety mixed with unrestrained uncertainty. It reminds me of the first time I felt this way after everything seemed in place but soon made no sense.
Chiang Mai, Thailand – Jan 2020: We finally did it. We finally have it all sorted out. We’ve been circling the globe for the last four years and finally feel like we have our spots. Spain was the first and Chiang Mai the second. Then came Montreal in the midsummer months, and finally, Da Nang, our fourth spot to keep it all connected. For the first time, we have all our apartments booked from January 2020 – March 2021. It feels nice not to have that recurring stress again.
Needless to say, a week later a whisper in Wuhan turned into a scream, eventually throwing all of those plans out of the window. And now as I stare out over the city on this gloomy Saturday, I’m trying my best to deaden the screams of anxiety cycling in my head.
I can’t make a decision. Not at the moment. Too much can change in a minute and I’m also spending this weekend alone. Unable to spend the last moments in this city with a friend who has been a neighbor, an exercise buddy, a café confidant in two countries and three cities over a little more than a year. She’s being detained for an unknown amount of time – such is the way of life being in South East Asia during the time the coronavirus is running wild.
I’m also alone because my other half is away for the weekend on an island, celebrating her final days with friends. Given the events of the week, my mind tries not to think about the possibility of no return due to ever-changing restrictions that may prevent her from getting back in. So I wait and try not to let the days and hours consume me. I avoid the news and I avoid being in public places. The last thing I need is to go somewhere and get locked down for 14 to 21 days simply due to chance.
“No más de regresar aquí – a tú casa,” a friend in California says while we conduct our monthly calls in Spanish. I try to explain that for a variety of reasons, it’s not that easy to go back “home.” For weeks, I’ve labored to understand my disconnect with this city and the angst I feel the longer I’m here. And it occurs to me…this is their home and how they exist – it’s not mine. My home is not a place but a pattern…a collection of places during different seasons. The cycle, the change, that is my freedom, my comfort, and it’s how I dream. My anxiety is raised this week knowing that my comfort is lost. Lost because I can’t dream…which is my one true desire in life.
Sunday arrives and she returns. Now it’s time to make a decision. We fret and we weigh, all the possible outcomes if we go or if we stay. Though our hotel in Da Nang is still open, they are locking down streets and apartment buildings in the area, quarantining residents caught in the way. It’s doesn’t make sense to go into that fire but in this city we no longer want to stay. We’ve mentally shifted to realizing that this is our time to get away.
We decide to take the flight to Da Nang but stay in a different place – one that’s outside the city and will give us time to decompress while things dissipate. But even that’s a gamble since so many factors are unknown. We will be able to leave the city on Tuesday? Will they cancel the flight? If we get to Da Nang, will they allow us to leave the city given that it’s now a red zone? We will have a random coughing fit or temperature spike the day of the flight, get tested, and end up in a quarantine facility for 14 to 21 days?
We’re driving up to a roadside checkpoint and the anxiety returns. So far, the day has gone smoothly but everything can change on a dime. Our check-in and flight were nearly flawless and the airport was mostly empty. And so far, our ride out of town seems straightforward. That is, until we have to pull over and get out with our passports.
We walk pass the first table – temperature check. Then they yell out that we need to grab some forms and go to another table. The process is organized chaos, like everything else in this country. And the form is like all others we’ve have filled out over the last 24 hours. Personal information, symptoms, and cities visited over the last 14 days.
Luckily, none of the places we visited up until now have been flagged, except the one we are in now and that’s when the hammer falls. “Everyone arriving into Hoi An from Da Nang needs to self quarantine for 14 days.”
Reflections in the Rice Fields
May 11, 2021 @ 2:45pm
“They say we have to self quarantine here for the next 14 days.”
“What? You shouldn’t have to. You just came from Saigon.”
Yeah, that’s what we thought too but the officials at the provincial checkpoint said otherwise. Now, we wait and figure out the next move. The hotel doesn’t want to check us in because they aren’t set up to provide such services. And given that Hoi An just went into lock down the day before we arrived, no other hotels in the area are accepting new arrivals. So we wait. Wait for the receptionist to dial whoever she can to get more information and see if there are other options.
When we left Saigon this morning, there were only 3 confirmed cases in the city. Three cases and yet my friend was still in lock down in a random apartment only after visiting a friend for breakfast on Saturday. We never got a chance to say goodbye.
But Da Nang has nearly 100 cases and, even though we only stepped foot in its airport and made no other stops in city along the way here, we were being lumped into the same pool of punishment as everyone else in the region. It’s okay though – we figured this might have been a possibility.
It’s been nearly ten minutes but it feels like thirty. The receptionist finally signals that we need to follow her and take our passports. We trot along the side streets of this now sleepy town in Central Vietnam, sniffing the embers of rice crops being burned and readied for the next harvest season. After just a few minutes, we reach something that seems like a vacant health ward with a tent outside and those typical red chairs you see at Vietnamese sidewalk food stalls.
It’s the middle of the afternoon and even under this tent, we are sweating – from the heat but also the anxiety. We’re completing the same forms we have filled out multiple times today and multiple times in the last week. But this time, we’re being asked to write down every place we visited (date/time/address) in the last 14 days. This is how they try to trace and contain the virus in these parts.
We hand over the papers and wait. What seems like an hour is just a handful of minutes. Minutes to figure what level of freedom we’ll be granted for the next two weeks. The receptionist and health official are speaking in the distance and neither is indicating any sense of relief. As the receptionist walks back over to us, in her eyes it seems she’s trying to think of the best way to tell us the news.
Never in my life have I been this happy to stand here in the middle of a half-burned rice field. Though it’s bone dry all around me, my soul is flooded with memories. After everything we have been through in this last hour, the last few days, last few weeks, and everything I endured in these last 8 months, I’m finally here. While I wanted to get back to the beach and the sand, I’ll take the rice fields. I needed nature, I needed space, I needed to get back as close as I could to our “4th place.”
I think about the storm that started in September and carried over internally in me through the spring. I think about that emotional night I spent out in the city on Halloween. The books, the words, the tears, and seemingly endless amount of nights thinking about what it all means. That lonely Christmas in a city that has never loved me back and all that occurred so quickly after I decided not to hold back.
“…in our effort to escape from aloneness and powerlessness, we are ready to get rid of our individual self either by submission to new forms of authority or by a compulsive conforming to accepted patterns.” – Escape from Freedom (Fromm, 1941)
It would have been easy to succumb to the feelings of aloneness and powerlessness at every step of the way throughout this period. The easy way out – to escape from the burdens of freedom – would have been to submit to city and the situation. Give of myself and conform to the contrived comfort of other’s ways of being. In doing so, I would have lost myself, lost my way, and lost everything about my nature that brought me to this day.
Instead, I held on and held off. Held on to the memories that made me who I am and held off the rising tides of others with the sustained resistance of a dam. I focused on escaping to freedom while recognizing all the new insecurities that it creates. That’s been the story of my life every step of the way. In essence, true freedom means sometimes being okay with being alone – being okay with recognizing your limits – and feeling free and confident enough to move on. In the end, always striving to be the epitome of self – subtly serving as an inspiration to everyone else.
Behind the Pen: Writer’s Notes
To date, this is by far the longest and most complex blog post I’ve ever written. I’ve thought many times about how and when to tell this story but eventually waited until the numerous pieces of inspiration all fell into place.
Guided by the remarkable and very unique writing styles of the books, “Colibrí” and “Pedro Páramo” that I read during this time, I tried to take the reader on a journey – not just during this period but also throughout a lifetime.
Using insights and reflections, I desired to paint a picture with as little color as possible. Allowing the reader to fill in the gaps, while also leaving them open to questions. Things to ask themselves and, perhaps, things to ask me at a later time to tie it all together. It’s not easy to be this open, hence why I wrote parts of the story in a bit of an abstract fashion. I can only hope that telling my story inspires others in ways they may have never imagined.
Inspired by conversations with the various friends who supported me through this recent journey, the four books I read during this period including the two cited herein, Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm, and Warning by Fabio Fognini, as well as Colibrí by Sandro Veronesi and Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. Also inspired by the marvelous writings of “Tianna Bee” (World Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist in Track and Field – Long Jump), and the songs Closer and Seasons from Aso, Stormy Weather from Toranpetto featuring Farnell Newton, and Photograph from Air.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.