Time machine: Northern Vietnam

Our path through the frontier.
The road through Ha Giang province.

There are few places in this world that still hold vestiges of the distant past, where you can imagine yourself transported, transmuted, transfigured by the landscape and people around you. The far northern region of Vietnam is one such place.

Ha Giang province borders China in the northernmost reaches of Vietnamese territory and is often referred to as “Vietnam’s final frontier” — rugged, remote, and scenic. This region is also home to the recently designated Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, a UNESCO World Heritage Site as of 2010.

The landscape is surreal: towering karst formations create a labyrinth of near-vertical cliffs and ravines, gaping caverns, and a few very sinuous roads. The steep hillsides are cultivated by colorfully-clad hill tribes such as the Tay and the H’mong people. While you might occasionally see the indigenous folk riding a motorbike to the market or making a call on an old cellphone, you will see no farming machinery here; water buffalo still pull plows, and tribespeople still tend every plant by hand. Continue reading

Upward, over the mountain

10945731_10205197762360014_7238558099522567804_nI always feel like ski lifts are cheating.

The prize of that view, that feeling that you are a giant, that in fact you might be a god, and the entire world stretches out before you, the snowy mountainside falling away beneath you and the solemnity of those dwindling pines at the treeline… I feel like these things should be earned. Perhaps these beauties should be more rarefied, the sole domain of those willing to struggle endlessly upward to attain them.

But here, in Breckenridge, I stand strapped into a pair of long, slender planks comprised of wood, carbon fiber, epoxy, polyethylene, plastic, steel and wax. I glide across groomed, domesticated snow (some of it probably man-made) with hundreds of other “outdoor enthusiasts”, queuing up in orderly lines for the ski lift. Jovial teenage boys scan the breast pocket of my jacket with a device that then produces the sort of fake laser noise you might hear in a 1980s sci-fi film, or maybe Star Trek. We all scoot along slowly and awkwardly (skis are meant for going fast, not slow), sort of like cattle in a pen, toward a row of electronic gates that open and close rhythmically. As my row of six skiers bursts through the gates and shuffles toward the loading line, the attendant delivers an oft-practiced speech about holding your poles up, looking behind you, grabbing the back of the lift chair… Continue reading

Home in the land of the homeless: Pacific Northwest

Then we’re home
Finally home
Home in the land of the homeless
Finally home

-Paul Simon, “Hurricane Eye”

Misty woods in Washington
Misty woods in Washington

I have always had a restless spirit. When I am grounded, I dream of taking flight. When I am flying, I look for solid ground.

It’s not that I am dissatisfied with where I am at. Not at all. It’s just that there is some ineffable force pushing me constantly onward, almost as if I am a fish and if I stop moving I will no longer be able to breathe. The specter of stagnation forever gnashing at my heels, spurring me to seek new surrounds.

Like I said: restless spirit.

All of this restlessness leaves me also with a perpetual sense of homelessness. I live in a dichotomous limbo between craving a sense of home and being compelled to continually refresh my surroundings. In short, I never feel truly rooted anywhere when I am always preparing to leave. And indeed it seems I am always either coming or going, returning or departing. I often come back to a place which harbors fond memories, strong memories (like Maine or Oregon), and my experience is an unsettling mixture of nostalgia and renewal. Like meeting up with an old friend who is now a stranger.

My summer travels brought this fact into sharp relief: none of us can ever go home. Not really.

Continue reading