The Line and the Labyrinth
I sipped and siphoned every last drop of her noodle soup, devouring it like a starving child. She patted the dirt floor inviting me to rest. I put one of my packs down as a pillow but where my head landed was her awaiting lap.
She had seen me pushing my cart up the Hai Van Mountain pass, a sixteen hundred foot incline. As I approached the crest, she stood in the street in her classic Vietnamese bamboo hat and encouraged me with vocal cheering, applause and eventually grabbing my cart and walking a few feet till she parked it in front of her tin shack.
We didn’t speak a word of each other’s language. I still said thank you as she nodded in understanding and began to run her fingers through my hair. She massaged my temples, my forehead and ears. The tears running from my cheeks quelled me into a sleep for fourteen hours.
That night, sleeping in a tin shack looking out over another planet made of moss, mist and oceans, it would seem like I was a character in “The NeverEnding Story,” that it was all magical and perfect. And it was. Even though it was the night I contracted dengue.
After a week of walking sandwiched between rice fields and motorbikes, the landscape flattened and I entered the thick traffic and commotion of Hue. Before the fever set in, I was lucky enough to have reached a Nha Nghi (a cheap Guesthouse). I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and spent four days unable to move.
Now, besides the fact that the headache associated with dengue feels like your brain is playing a drunken game of Twister, there’s little room for thought and even less for feelings–unless of course, it’s the physical push of your bones attempting to excavate themselves from their fleshy restraints.
Loneliness cuddled me through the first night. But what happened in that dark room was something unexpected for me. Rather than trying to crab-crawl out of my skin to avoid the sensations, I willingly stayed with the pain while I followed my thoughts into deeper crevices of my mind. And what kept coloring my attention was my route.
When I was planning my route it was all about efficiency. The criterion was that it had to be direct and quick passages through the landscapes, Visa-friendly countries and if possible, routes that other walkers, runners or cyclists had used before. Because I had little experience myself, my motto was if they could do it, I could do it. Plus, there was a lot more information available on routes from people who had “been there, done that.”
It all mapped out to be a straight line around a spherical shape. My global trail was planned months before I took my first step.
Vietnam is the one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited and in a country that was devastated by American forces during the war, they welcome us with open hearts and arms. The presence here is one of forgiveness and curiosity. It is alive with welcoming tomorrow unconditionally and letting go of yesterday. It is a remarkable and inviting mysterious place but one that I no longer wish to walk across.
Puzzling the Curve
I am committed. And I am stubborn. While my brain continued with Twister, right hand on green, a voice echoed through the down of my sleeping bag, what’s the difference between the two?
And then a conversational memory, one with a close friend who shared many encouraging cups of coffee with me in the beginning stages of planning my walk, “So, is your map based on all the places you’ve always wanted to visit?” her eyes wide with excitement.
My reply was calculated because I had been asked this many times before. “No, it’s not a holiday. If I were to only go where I want to go, I’d be zigzagging all over the planet.”
Her deep brown eyes just stared at me. She knew I wasn’t interested in setting or breaking any record, but my parameters were identical to someone who was.
She coolly smiled,“Zigzagging. Sounds like fun to me.”
It’s important to have a plan. One doesn’t go walking in a thick forest without a map or trail to follow, unless they’re making a Youtube tutorial on wilderness survival skills and navigating using the stars, which I have watched, and none have given me the courage to try it.
If heat and sickness could cause me to waver in my commitment to this walk, I would have surrendered in the Australian Outback. But what I was discovering is that my heart wasn’t in Southeast Asia.
My proposed route was going to take me through the most populated areas of the planet. But I yearned for the Steppes of Mongolia and the Eagle-dense forest of the Altai Mountains. I was craving more nature and solitude.
The dengue wasn’t a problem, just an irritating setback and a catalyst for me to find my own inner compass.
Wasn’t the entire basis of my walk to follow my heart? To listen to where I’m being guided? “She walks the earth,” I had thought. She was Me.
The difference between commitment and stubbornness is that commitment has the ability to compromise. If commitment is the chariot, She, the soul of my heart, is the charioteer.
To think I know what it will look or feel like to get from point A to point B is a false sense of control. I had a plan. I had a straight line. And then it emancipated itself from my grip. The magic of the ineffable, delivered through the sword of a tiny insect, was a train derailing itself through my route.
EPILOGUE: I have since recovered from dengue and burned all my maps. I have left Southeast Asia for Northern Asia. I am now walking across Mongolia. It turned out not to be such a big hassle. I only had to buy a pair of snow boots.
In the know
Mongolian Steppes: It is interesting that they call it a steppe when referring to flat plains.
The Altai: The mountains that sit between the western corner of Mongolia and Kazakhstan in Russia. They are Russian territory and I will walk between the border points of Kaz and Mongolia through the Altai. I hear they have nomadic Eagle trainers that live there. Otherwise, it’s a desolate and beautiful mountain-scape.
Dengue: A painful and debilitating illness transmitted by infected mosquitoes. Symptoms can feel like a VERY aggressive flu.
*all photo credits: Angela Maxwell