Thursday, February 18th, 2010

When the King asked the Gods to protect him from the Chinese fleet, they sent a family of dragons, but the invaders shot them down.   Where they fell into the sea, they turned into islands and rocks which confused the army and wrecked their ships.  Ha Luong, or so we were told, means ‘dragon fall down’. 

We were exporing the cave in one of the 1,956 islands in the bay.  Our guide pointed out the stalagtites and stalagmites with his laser pen.  ‘You have to use your imagination.  There are lots of animals here.  Look!  There is an elephant.  See his trunk.  And here is a dog trunk.  And over here, a bear.  And there, a cockerel.  And look up here on the celing.  See the back of the dragon and there his tail.  And what’s that over there?  Yes, it’s the King.  And just by it, the three brothers.’

Now I want to ask you an embarassing question.  OK?  We paused, shifting our feet.  This was all getting too cringeworthy.  ‘When did you have your first kiss?’  He translated the answers.  ‘5 years ago; good.  Fifteen years ago; very good.  Fifty years ago; let me shake your hand.  Now look over there’, he said pointin g with his laser.  ‘That is the longest kiss in the world; over ten thousand years’. 

We climbed up to the next chamber, secretly wishing this would end.  There, confronting us was an image that left little to the imagination.  The women giggled.  Back lit by a reddish yellow light and supported a mass of rock at its base, a pillar of rock extended proudly upwards at an acute angle from the main fused stalagmite.   

‘That is the finger pointing up,’ he announced earnestly. 

Another cock and ball story!

I am sitting on the pavement at the entrance to a restaurant/store at the side of the road just outide of Ha Long waiting for the bus that is supposed to take me to Hanoi.  It’s dirty, dusty and cold!  People ebb and flow around us, hawking and spitting, shouting to each other in staccato bursts of language that is impossible to understand.  Youths playing foot shuttlecock in the dirt.  A dog slinks furtively between the legs of the crowd.  Some women are holding up strands of pinkish imitation pearls.  Minibuses came in and out, but they all look the same.  I feel anxious.  How will I recognise the bus?  How will they know who to look for?   How will they know where to take me?  What if I need to pay again?  Do I have enough cash left? This is the downside of the trip.  It is hardly mind broadening.   It’s more about survival.  Surrounded by threat in an infinitely strange country, we restrict our imagination and try to keep panic away. 

Such a contrast from the previous few days.  ‘You can’t go to Vietnam without taking a cruise around Halong Bay’,  Susanne had told me.  I was suspicious.  I hate tourist traps, but the propaganda sounded wonderful.  ‘Swim in the warm emerald green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin,  explore deserted islands by kayak, see spectacular caves, visit isolated fishing villages, meet the people, relax on the sun deck, wake up with the sun rising between the islands and enjoy an evening drink under the stars.   After an arduous trek in the hills of Northern Laos, this sounded a wonderful opportunity to rest before returning home.  

I should have realised that we wouldn’t get what was written on the tin.   You can never account for the weather, of course, but   Susanne might have pointed out that even though Hanoi is in the tropics, it can be cold here at this time of the year.  It was; not only cold but misty.  I huddled up, numbed by the cold and the neverending tape of ‘popular’ western tunes,  in the darkened cabin of our ‘authentic’ wooden Chinese junk as it drifted between misty shapes that looked for all the world like icebergs.   There was no swimming or kayakking, no romantic nights under the stars, and no sun ever came up like thunder from China ‘cross the bay.  In fact there was no sun at all.  And it was the Chinese New Year.  Lights twinkled on the tangerine trees.  Banners and balloons decorated the cold, half empty dining room, as smiling waiters in fancy Chinese dress, one hand held behind stiffly their backs, processed in bearing unending courses of nouvelle cuisine, deep fried sea food, while wishing they were elsewhere.  This was no living death for all concerned, to be endured rather than enjoyed.   

For travel to broaden the mind, you have to engage with the culture, gain a feel for the way people live.  Only by understanding others can we understand ourselves and gain a better appreciation of the human condition.  We cannot do this is we are encapsulated on a cruise boat, viewing the world through the double windows of the state room, surveying souvenires displayed on the tables,  feeding on excessive quantities too much the sort of food we might get at home.  Such passive indulgence is deeply dissatisfying.   Cruise passengers are infantilised,  patronised, entertained, treated for all the world like spoilt children and suffering all the deprivation of being spoiled.  The prevention of any engagement deprives experience of any real meaning and leads to a numbing complacency and enduring disappointment.     

Human beings are curious, sociable animals.  They need the stimulation of engaging with new experience, new peoples.   Package tours, cruise holidays can take this away.   Our guide in the spectacular Surprise Caves was more interested in quizzing us about what animals we could visualise in the rock formations that in explaining how such an amazing maritime limestone archipelago was created.   And our visit to the isolated fishing village involved being rowed in convoy past the houses and back.  We could not question our ferryman nor find out how people could lead such lives on their village of rafts, though clearly a voyeuristic tourism  plays a major part.  They were commodities to be exploited and so were we. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.   Lea, a bright eyed 81 year old women from Gotke, 100 miles eat of Helsinki, had been travelling since she was 60, when, tired of her way of life, she left her husband and children and set off to explore the world alone often by local bus and staying in hostels, which she organised after arriving in a country.   By engaging with the world, she had clearly extended her meaningful life and gained great joy of experience.   I experienced the same joie de vivre by trekking through Northern Laos and staying with the villagers, but more of that later.     

Yes, travel can broaden the mind, but as with everything else, it takes courage.