Sometimes being in a foreign place can overload
one’s senses – the new sounds, strange smells, exciting
sights, confusing streets, the feeble attempts to carry on a simple
conversation or order food – once in a while it all gets
to be a bit much. The first time I witnessed this I was in Spain
with a group of friends for 3 weeks. We’d been having a
great time learning the culture and language and consuming copious
amounts of delicious food and wine. One night during our last
week we were walking through a very crowded square full of Spanish
locals when in the distance behind me I could hear our friend
letting out a slow and exasperated scream, the result of several
weeks’ bottled up frustration, “Whyyy is ev-er-y-one
speaking Espanooool? Speeeaak Ingleeeees!” He’d obviously
reached his limit (he hadn’t traveled much previously) and
although he wasn’t laughing at the time, the rest of us
had a good chuckle. He was ready to go home.
Well, today it happened to me. Don’t
worry; I’m not ready to go home yet, but I did need a break.
We had set out from our hotel to go to Binh Tay Market in Cholon,
Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown. The Chinese population had
long since been forcibly removed (in 1975), and I was interested
in seeing what affect this had on this part of the city. Plus,
we had heard that we could get some delicious and cheap Chinese/Vietnamese
food there, and I’m always a sucker for a good meal (see
vietnam: food, glorious
food!). We hopped in a taxi and began our normal routine
of trying to convey our desired destination to the driver, and
then trying to figure out whether he’d take us on the more
“scenic” (read “expensive”) route or not.
After showing him the name of the market, pointing at a map and
some consultation between him and another cab driver, he punched
the meter and we were off - good start.
We drove a few meters and Grace fell asleep
(which is often the case). This meant that I was solely responsible
for keeping an eye on the cabbie. Well, the cabbie wasn’t
doing so well. He drove in circles for a bit and kept pulling
over to ask people where this market was. If he was trying to
con us out of a few bucks by faking being lost, I was convinced.
After a few more kilometers he said (somewhat randomly, it seemed)
that it would be another 6 kilometers to the market. That made
me suspicious since the whole city is really not that big. At
that moment Grace woke up and we turned down a half dirt/half-cement
road jammed up with big piles of dirt, motorbikes and a cement
truck. Our meter was running up and I didn’t have a good
feeling about the situation so we paid and got out.
We walked down the street for a bit, supposedly
in the direction of the market, even though we couldn’t
find our location on our map. I turned to Grace and said, “Toto,
we ain’t in Kansas anymore.” There were no tourists,
no taxies and no cars in sight. I wondered if we would be able
to get home. The rocky road had led us to a small, gritty market
(not the one we were aiming for) selling animals and grains to
locals. Luckily we had learned to say the name of our target market
in Vietnamese from the cabbie and some reluctant locals pointed
us in the direction we were already going. So, we kept walking.
We passed through a depressing street market along a polluted
canal where short piles of candies and notebooks were stacked
neatly on the dirt. The stalls were covered in blue tarp, barely
wide enough to walk through and not tall enough to stand up in.
The heat generated from the sun and the people inside was stifling.
These living conditions for the people here were bad. After navigating
through the market and a few (even smaller) streets we finally
stumbled onto what we guessed was the market we were aiming for.
By this time we were sweaty and dirty. I was exhausted and a bit
shaken by what we had seen, but we had finally reached our destination
so we plunged in. Bad idea - I was instantly overwhelmed by the
billions of vendors yelling at me, the convoluted maze of aisles
and the strange, pungent smells. I had to get out. I felt trapped.
But, as usual, we were lost inside and we weaved back and forth
between vendors desperately trying to find a way out. We finally
emerged out on to the street and into the daylight – me
inordinately harried and Grace somewhat alarmed by my state. He
asked, “What’s wrong? Are you okay? Where do you want
to go?” I didn’t know what I was looking for either,
but after quickly surveying the bustling street, the answer came
to me in a flash of red, white and blue and I shouted, “KFC!”
(that’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, for those in other parts
of the world that might not know). Grace responded, “Seriously?”
I was already making my way across the street and up the stairs.
Inside, the familiar smell of fried chicken warmed my heart and
I walked up to the English speaking counter person and ordered
the biggest 7-up they served. I sat down looking on to the street
(from above – this was a deluxe 2-story joint) and felt
like I was in a safe haven. I think I just temporarily needed
a familiar environment, even if it was a fast food restaurant.
I don’t actually eat at KFC back home nor do I particularly
like it but I’ll never look at it the same way again. 20
minutes and 2 large sodas later I felt rejuvenated. I bid the
life-size plastic Colonel adieu and headed back into the wild,
crazy world, knowing that from now on, he’d always have
a special place in my heart.