The next morning, Saleem and I had to wake up before the others because we were going to join a different tour. We had signed up for the three day, two night, while the others booked the two day, one night. We thought we were going to have a hearty breakfast, but it turned out to be a plate with about ten pieces of white toast and one fried egg. I have a serious aversion to white bread, but when I’m hungry I take what I can get and we’re in Asia, so I didn’t even ask if wheat was in the kitchen. We spread some frozen butter on our bread and downed our tea and off we went. We boarded the small boat that took us over to another ship that was anchored nearby. All the guests where just waking up and about to eat what looked like a delicious breakfast. I decided the best plan of action to escape the cold and my impending jealousy was to simply take a nap. I pulled my sarong out of my backpack, wrapped myself up like a burrito and curled up on the couch. I woke up a few hours later when I heard everyone moving about preparing to get off the ship at Cat Ba Island. I quickly stowed my sarong, grabbed my things and headed out onto the deck. I was helped onto the main land and immediately started following our new guide who was rushing us along.
After walking fifty yards I stopped in my tracks, yelled Saleem’s name and became increasingly alarmed as I realized the weight of my camera was not on my shoulder or in my purse. I didn’t even have to check my bag, I could just tell it wasn’t there. I turned around and started sprinting back to the boat and at the same time a nice middle aged man was running towards me with my camera in his hands. He laughed when he saw the look of relief wash over my face. In all honestly I wanted to kiss my camera and pull it in for a hug, but I restrained myself since there were already dozens of people watching the worried girl who just ran with a huge backpack on to the edge of the pier. That was the first time I ever left my camera somewhere. Sure I had times where I jumped and started patting my purse or my bag to make sure my camera was still with me, but in the past it always was. This time I almost left it on a boat headed back to Ha Long City. The entire day I felt this overwhelming sense of dread and irresponsibility at having almost abandoned my most prized and expensive possession not to mention my lively hood. My camera is like my baby. It took me a year to save for and it is the biggest purchase I’ve ever made for myself; it cost as much as my current car. When I was younger I broke and lost multiple point and shoot cameras, after about the third one my pop told me he wasn’t buying them for me anymore. He did break that promise by buying me my first DSLR camera, one that I didn’t lose or break, but all those lost cameras has taught me to be extra careful and protective of the one I have now. Leaving it on the boat, even if it was for three minutes, reminded me that I’m still capable of being a mindless idiot and that scares me a little bit. The camera episode left me feeling frazzled; I think it scared me so much it made me have to pee. Why am I telling you this? Because I want to show you the bathroom I walked into. I pried open the door and a horrible odor punched me in the face. I immediately set my bags down outside knowing this was no place for them. I did however keep my camera around my arm because let’s face it, it’s never leaving my right shoulder again. Once I stepped inside and looked down I shrieked. It was a gasp/shriek combo actually. I could believe what I was seeing because this is what I thought bathrooms in Thailand were going to be like, but I had never seen anything of this magnitude until right now. I hope you’re ready for this detailed description. The “toilet” was a traditional Asian squatter, but there was no porcelain to stand on, instead it was just ruts in the cement so you knew where to put your feet. In between the ruts there is supposed to be a hole for you to pee into, but the entire thing was filled with human waste. The hole was seriously full of shit and the bathroom floor was dotted with piles of feces. It was the most disgusting bathroom I’ve ever been in in my life. I kind of enjoy moments like this. Not moments in feces-filled bathrooms, but ones that are on one extreme end of the spectrum because it gives me a definitive moment in time where I can say “This is the best/worst… I’ve ever experienced” Like the time I went to Petchaburi and ate the best pineapple of my entire life, this thing was leagues above all other pineapples. So yeah, I like moments where I can brand my brain and force myself to remember the situation as a definite mark on one scale or another, but this, this was the worst. Sidestepping piles of poop and standing on your tip toes in between them just to force the door back open so one could escape the room, yuck. Once I did figure out how to successfully open the door without getting soiled myself, I decided to take a photo. As my readers I figured you would want to ride along on this journey. If you’re still interested, I ended up sneaking behind the building to pee instead of breathing in that air for another second. Whew, enough about that, sorry.
After that shitty bathroom we had an insufferable van ride to the middle of Cat Ba Island. When we switched groups we ended up being stuck with three really horrid girls. We definitely didn’t let them spoil our time, but really they sucked. They all taught French at a school in China. One was from Paris, another from Canada and another from San Francisco. I could go on and on about the ignorant things they said or demanded from the Vietnamese people, the endless complaints about our wonderful hike, or their mind-numbing conversations in both English and French, but I’ll spare you. The main reason I hate their company is because they just plain embarrassed me. Their attitudes and actions mortified me and to be in the same room and on the same tour as them made me feel somewhat connected to them when all I wanted was to be far, far away which is why Saleem and I quickly made friends with a sweet older couple from Holland. We first talked to Yon and Mary when I noticed them groaning about the three girls; we hit it off immediately. Instead of dwelling on the other members of our group we filled the time with conversations about traveling. Yon and Mary are my travel idols. They had traveled throughout Europe when Yon was working as a technical engineer for the army and when he retired they started going on longer international trips. This time their trip was 5 weeks long. They had just come from Laos where they had taken a boat all the way down the Mekong River from north to south. Then they came to Vietnam to explore and then they will head to Cambodia. Everywhere I wanted to go it seemed that they had already been. I’ve been plotting my next trip in my head for a few months now and before I blurted it out Yon started talking about it. They had taken a 3-month trip where they traveled by train all through Russia and then went down to Mongolia and throughout China. I yearn to go to Mongolia and since it is sandwiched between Russia and China it only makes sense to visit those two monsters as well. After talking to Yon and Mary about all their travels I would die to see their scrapbooks. He was taking photos every step of the way and I could just imagine their colorful commentary about each destination.
While I wasn’t chatting with Yon and Mary, I was hiking up a steep ridge in order to make it to a beautiful viewpoint on one of the island peaks. The hike was really short, a bit steep, semi-scary, extremely muddy and a bit dangerous. We had a guide who was a little old lady of at least fifty who was trucking her way up the slippery path and clapping her hands the entire time to make us hurry up. Most times it didn’t bother me, but when I was trying to concentrate so that I didn’t slip and fall to my death and I heard her clapping I kind of wished she would trip over a root, actually that’s not true, I wanted the three girls to hurry up so that she would stop clapping at them. Although the hike was really muddy it was also really enjoyable. I like when I have to concentrate on the climb and that’s exactly how the whole hike was. It was never boring because you were always paying attention to your footing and grips. Once we reached the top we climbed up an old metal tower. The people that were on it before us really hyped it up as being terrifying so Saleem and I prepared ourselves by gripping the railing and being determined to not look down. Once we were up a little ways we both agreed it wasn’t that scary. Saleem said something about having high expectations of being scared and consequently he wasn’t scared at all, so we came to the realization that maybe high expectations aren’t bad all the time, like they were at Erawan. Once at the top we looked all around us at the lush green peaks. You couldn’t see any of the jungle floor because the trees were so thick. It was a beautiful view especially since it was a misty morning, but unfortunately the photos don’t do it justice. After a couple of minutes we slowly made our way back down, but not before taking our first self-portrait. Everyone is always asking if we want a photo together and we also quickly say no. Usually whoever asks gets this weird look on their face after we say no as if we offended them or something. Sometimes people insist that we get a photo so we just smile awkwardly since we both don’t enjoy our photo being taken. People often mistake us for a couple because we are the only ones traveling together. Time and time again we have to explain that we are friends from college and blah, blah, blah only to explain it to someone else an hour later. It doesn’t get annoying, but I think it’s funny how no one asks if we are friends first, it’s always, “are you guys together?” Followed by our laughter and some response like, “Definitely not.”
After our hike we met up with our favorite couple in Vietnam, Yon and Mary. We chatted with them over lunch and then on the boat ride to Monkey Island. Monkey Island is another little island in Ha Long Bay that is home to, you guessed it, monkeys. Since I’m scared of those creeps I was hoping not to see any. I walked along the beach and followed an arrow that was painted on a rock. I had no idea where it would lead me, but I obeyed it anyway. After climbing a couple dozen natural rock stairs I came to the first vista. It overlooked both sides of the island. On one side sat a beautiful beach and on the other an inlet that was littered with trash from the boats. It was such a bummer to see bottles and bags swirling about in the beautiful bay. If I had a boat I would have scooped it up and out. It wasn’t that much, but enough to catch your eye and make you shake your head. After snapping a few photos we continued up the path. We scrambled up the jagged rocks until we reached the highest point on the island. It was a magnificent sight of the bay and the entirety of Monkey Island. I could see there were several bungalows on the opposite side from the one our boat pulled up to. Next time I come to Ha Long Bay it will be in the summer when I can swim and enjoy the beach. I think I’ll book a night or two in the bungalows too. After turning in circles a couple times, carefully since I was in a precarious position, I decided to find a semi-flat spot to sit and simply enjoy where I was. There are a lot of times when we skate through life at the speed of light. We are busy doing cool and exciting things, but sometimes we forget to stop and sit and think about nothing else, but how awesome that moment is. Lately I’ve been trying to stop and have moments like these because it is enough to live life, but when I stop and appreciate how I’m living it I feel even better. For a while I counted the islands in the distance, watched a big hawk fishing in the bay and tracked the path of moving boats. When it started to get crowed and loud on the peak I decided to head back down so that my memory of Monkey Island would be a tranquil one. While Saleem and I waited for the boat we combed through the piles of coral and shells looking for ones that caught our eye. I’m glad I left a little space in my pack for treasures like that.
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