Boating with the Buddhists

“Believe me, my young friend,” said the rat, “

there is nothing – absolutely nothing –

half so much worth doing as simply messing

about in boats.

In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter.

Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it.

Whether you get away, or whether you don’t;

whether you arrive at your destination

or whether you reach somewhere else,

or whether you never get anywhere at all,

you’re always busy,

and you never do anything in particular;

and when you’ve done it

there’s always something else to do,

and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.

Look here!

If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning,

supposing we drop down the river together,

and have a long day of it?”             

~from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

I’ve been spending, as anticipated, plenty of time ‘messing about on boats’ on this trip. The Mekong has had its place front and center for much of the time, its massive presence one that can’t be avoided in these parts. And I’m glad for it – to have been in and on it, I’ve gotten to witness life as it’s gone on for generations and generations. It’s been comforting in some ways to see that with all of modernity, life still moves at the pace of a river, with its people doing what they’ve been doing forever. I’ll return to the might Mekong when I head back to Laos and I’ll be happy for the return!

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world

and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,

and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

~Langston Hughes

Ahhhh, rivers. From my years as an early adult, I recall my love affair with moving water. I remember, in my early 20’s, one of my first week-end camping trips some place in upstate New York with my then-boyfriend, Mike Salina. (How did my mother ever allow that, I wonder?!) We were with another couple, Jack and Barbara; and I clearly recall the day we spent hiking through the riverbed, enveloped in a deep forest as we slipped, waded and swam our ways through the silence and beauty of the natural world. It was refreshing, exciting and I loved being immersed in the cool water. And it was the beginning, I think, of my life-long love affair with rivers.

Fast forward several decades to my life with David and our passion that was ignited when we discovered white water river rafting – and explore it we did – we rafted almost every river in the Western United States, including 14 days on the mighty Colorado through the Grand Canyon (truly one of the top experiences of my life) and another 14 on the Tatshenshini and Alsek in Alaska. Rafting through glaciers has also got to be one of the most awesome adventures I’ve ever had.

While I haven’t white-water rafted in some years, my passion for rivers has hardly waned. It’s quieted down a bit, for sure, in that I don’t feel so drawn to Class V water anymore (a near-death accident brought those pursuits to a dramatic halt), but still I simply love being on the river, any river. Nowadays, the lazier the better; although all it would take is a slight nudge to get me back on white water, I’m sure of that!

Fast forward again to my time here in Vietnam, specifically the gorgeous countryside of Ninh Binh with rivers running through the rice paddies and the towering limestone karst formations. Beautiful rivers. Quiet rivers. All they took were bicycle or motorbike rides to access them and then hopping on a boat for a few hours of an afternoon. My time there was so relaxing and rejuvenating. And one day was a special treat of boating with the Buddhists.

I was headed to Trang An, a less busy place than the more touristy Tam Coc and one more frequented by Vietnamese tourists. I had forgotten it was a Sunday, so the place was filled with those local tourists. So be it – I was there and eager to float down the river for the day. I found my way to the ticket booth, paid my fare and headed toward the dock. The boats were simple, row boat sort of vessels with no motors and narrow wooden planks for seats, way narrower than this ample body would prefer, clearly more suited to the tiny Asian body. But still I wasn’t put off – I would be comfortable enough.

There were scores of people crowded around, yelling like they are known to do here and gathered around in nothing anywhere closely resembling a queue. As seems to be what I am routinely manifesting out here, there was no other Westerner in sight. The problem arose when I approached a boat and they mimed that I needed another person to board. “No one here but me,” I said; and sat down on one of the steps leading down to the water. I thought this might require a bit of a wait until they realized they could just put me on a boat with another group. As I looked around, the boats kept filling up with already-made groups of Vietnamese tourists and no one seemed to be paying any further mind to the white girl. So there I sat as I watched boat after boat of people take off, heading down river.

Not far away I noticed a group of Buddhist nuns and monks walking towards the boats. “Hhmmm,” I thought, “I want to be in that boat.” They boarded and still I sat. But before they took off, one of the ticket takers came up to me (I hadn’t been overlooked after all!), took my hand and directed me to join their boat. Yippee – I was going boating with the Buddhists!

There were actually two boats of their group and it appeared there were some ‘civilians’ with them, too. One of their boats had four people in it, a nun, a monk and two men; the other had two nuns and two women. And I, in all my good fortune, got to go with the women! They scooted over, made room for the Amazon, and we were off! They were all smiles, all friendliness and spoke, like most people in this country, not a word of English.

I got to sit next to the older woman, “the old lady” I would say. And for much of our hours on the water, she cozied up next to me, resting her arm on my leg and giggling at me. I loved her sense of comfort in touching me so casually and I found myself taking care of her and letting myself do so with my arm around her or holding her hand. It all seemed quite normal and natural.

Lunch time came and they were prepared. I hadn’t brought anything to eat, having eaten before I got there, so all I had was my ever-present bottle of water. Before I knew it, I was a part of the feast as they brought out one food item after another, none of which I had seen or could identify. (It’s in these moments that I’m glad I hold my foray into primarily vegetarian eating so loosely – I truly had no idea what was in the balls and rolled-up mystery squares!) I tried to politely refuse their recurrent offers, but there was simply no refusing. So of course, I accepted, with my almost one and only Vietnamese word, cam on, which is said like ‘come on’ and means, of course, thank you.

I was taken with the nuns, of course; and in no small part with their haircuts, having just recently come close to a similar one myself. One of them, we figured out how to express, was in her 40’s; the other one was 19. They were dressed in the typical, flowing robes that I’ve seen the Buddhists wear. These were more muted, though –  the younger one wore chocolate brown (similar to my pants, I’m sorry to report); the older one a brighter orange, but still dull in comparison to the bright saffron-colored ones I had come to see everywhere in both Laos and Cambodia. But I didn’t care; these were the first nuns I had seen and now we were boating, laughing and eating lunch together!

They marveled at my tattoo, rubbing along its entire length, mesmerized with its peculiarity. There are no Vietnamese women with tattoos – it is simply not done; a few Vietnamese men, but hardly something so bold and obvious as mine. They smiled and touched it some more. I felt nothing like a judgment coming from them, just curiosity and warm friendliness.

As other boaters passed by, they acknowledged the nuns with reverence and put their hands together in the prayer position, bowing their heads. I was pretty sure it wasn’t directed at me! They did, however, look quizzically at me, wondering how I fit in to this group. I didn’t have any such wonderings, but relaxed into a sense of comfort and gratitude that they had so generously welcomed me into their group. It’s what women do, yes? And I guess it’s what Buddhists do, too!

Ohyes, and the river! What scenery! Tall, limestone formations jutting everywhere, only the sound of the oars plodding the water and the loud merriment of the boaters. And caves! We must have boated through eight of them, some of them quite long and pitch black – the old lady held onto me even tighter and I comforted her with a pat and a held hand. This here, this experience, I thought, is the beauty of solo travel – these moments of being included and welcomed into lives I might not otherwise be able to share.

They chatted away together and I busied myself with taking in the landscape and shooting photos. And then their posing began. Seems they wanted their pictures taken and I was only too happy to oblige! Each time I showed them the pictures I had taken, they giggled with delight and signaled for me  to keep on shooting. So I kept on.

As our boating time was coming to a close, the older nun took out a piece of paper and wrote down her email address. Then she handed it to me and sign languaged that she wanted me to send her the photos – then she signaled that she wanted my email address, too. I was only too happy to give it to her. But as I’ve come to do with other people I meet on this trip, I didn’t include my blog address this time. Seems like even with all the exposure I’m determined to give my writing, I wasn’t yet quite ready to let the nuns see me! The photos are on their way to her; and for today, that is enough.

All in time,  my dear grrl, all in time.

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