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A day or two after we settled into our villa nestled against a green cow pasture in District 2 of Saigon, I decided to explore our new neighborhood on foot. I hadn’t yet rented a scooter, so hoofing it was my only option for exploration. Though Handan and I had just spent a year broiling in Afghanistan (at least in the summer – the winter was frigid!), I wasn’t prepared for- or acclimated to- the oppressive humidity that choked Southern Vietnam for much of the year. Taking this into consideration, I planned a short walk up Lương Định Của (approximate pronunciation: “Lung Dun COO-ah”), the main street through our section of District 2. I was eager to see the vendors and shops and to feel the pulse of our little slice of Saigon. I set out with flip-flops on my feet, an empty pack on my shoulders and adventure in my heart. What I didn’t set out with was a water bottle.
I marched past the villas in our neighborhood, all different shapes and sizes and colors. I waved to the elders who eyed me curiously as I passed. It wasn’t every day they got to see a beluga whale galumphing down their lonely road, and they flocked out onto their stoops and patios to take in the show. I half expected them to start tossing fish heads at me to see if I would do tricks. I considered jumping up and down a few times, but it was pretty hot outside, so I thought it best to conserve my energy. I cleared my blowhole and carried on towards the intersection with Lương Định Của.
A small guard shack sat on the corner of Lương Định Của and our villa road manned by a two small men in small plastic chairs. Between them, a game of cờ tướng (Chinese chess) was unfolding on a cheap plastic table. They looked up, and I waved. The guards found Handan and me as strange and entertaining as the neighborhood ancients did, but they always greeted us with a smile and a wave. At night, they lowered a gate across our road. I never thought of Vietnam as unsafe or crime-ridden, but most little neighborhoods and enclaves like ours had similar security checkpoints. I was still pretty naive then, and I always preferred to see the good in people and situations. It was the same way in Turkey. Handan told me just how unsafe it was, and I could see the evidence – every ground floor window in the country was protected by stout iron bars – but since I’d seen only kindness from the few Turks I’d encountered, I tended to see them all as good.
I walked by the two men and their pitched battle of cờ tướng and turned left onto Lương Định Của.
I adjusted my pack and started up the street against the sea of scooters whizzing past. Lương Định Của had dirt shoulders, and that is where I walked, but I had to keep an eye out, especially during the rush hours when the road was clogged with scooters. When traffic was heavy, the only way to merge a scooter into it was by getting a running start down the shoulder and then finding a small opening to merge into. Pedestrians complicated matters considerably. But as with all things in Vietnam, a natural order emerged from apparent chaos. Scooter riders and pedestrians found a way to share the shoulder with very few accidents where, by all appearances, there should have been daily or hourly casualties.
I knew that Lương Định Của intersected with another fairly major road somewhere up ahead. The area around that intersection was filled with little shops, and I wanted to check them out. It wasn’t too far up the road. Or…at least, I didn’t think it was. I wasn’t sure, but I knew I’d reach it eventually. There wasn’t much to see on the stretch that I walked.
I started to feel the heat and humidity almost immediately, and my body responded as it always does: by opening the flood gates and letting loose a deluge of sweat. I hate humidity. I don’t think I could ever get used to it. I’m not even sure it’s possible to acclimate to humidity. Some bodies can handle it, and some can’t. Mine most certainly can’t.
Back in 1999, I had accepted a position with a company called Archipelago. It was a small electronic stock trading platform back then, but would later go on to merge with the New York Stock Exchange. I was in sales, and before I moved to California to start the West Coast office, I would travel all over the country from their headquarters in Chicago. One such trip in July or August of 1999 took to me to New York City during a heat wave. There are few places on Earth more miserable than The City during a heat wave, especially if you need to travel by subway. For reasons I will never fathom, my co-worker and traveling companion, Sam, insisted that we take the subway from our first appointment in midtown Manhattan to our second appointment down on Wall Street.
Have you spent any time in a sauna? Did you like it? Have you tried sitting in a sauna in a formal dress or in a business suit? That is what the New York City subway system is like during a heat wave. It is a hellish steaming oven that would probably bake a beautiful and crispy baguette if you were to travel from Harlem to Queens with a rope of bread dough around your shoulders. And this is how Sam wanted to traverse the city. I begged him to reconsider, to let us take a taxi, but he was resolute. And perhaps a little mad.
I remember that nightmare ride – gasping for air, every pore fully open and evacuating all the liquid from my body in a vain attempt to cool my rocketing core temperature. I wore a wool suit over a sopping wet dress shirt. We arrived downtown, and if the Meatloaf Express weren’t bad enough, we still had to walk several blocks to reach our next appointment.
We arrived at the air-conditioned offices of our appointment on the 101st floor of one of the Twin Towers (I don’t recall which one). The thing about exercise is that you don’t just sweat while you’re doing it. Ever taken a shower after a workout, and then keep sweating for the next 20 minutes? Well, that’s what happened on the long elevator ride up into the stratosphere of Manhattan. Somehow, my body was able to tap into some emergency reserve liquid, which it then heartily dispensed into my clothing. I was wishing terrible things upon Sam. His decision had put me in the invidious position of quite literally stewing in my own juices, but not being able to cool myself, because if I removed my suit jacket, I would look like a drowned rat and surely frighten the poor souls (and potential customers) we were about to meet. I kept myself wrapped like a spicy burrito, my only relief coming from the evaporative cooling happening on my forehead.
That miserable slog through the fetid swamp of New York was on my mind as I trudged farther up Lương Định Của. It was hotter and more humid in Vietnam though. Much more humid. I took small comfort in the fact that I was not stuffed into a woolen suit, but as the sun continued to hammer me, that small comfort evaporated, unlike the sweat pouring down my face.
Jesus, what was I thinking not bringing water?
I walked past our neighborhood temple and realized that I hadn’t gone very far and that there was no way I was going to make it to the intersection with all the shops.
I walked a little farther until I came to a bridge over a hyacinth-choked stream. My shirt was soaked, my hair was plastered to my head, and I was feeling a little dizzy. There were no stores ahead that I could see. I had to give up and turn around. I spun on my heel and started for home. I was so hot, so thirsty. I just had to get home.
My vision got a little funny. Everything was really bright and unfocused. My head started to throb in time with my heartbeat. And my heartbeat – it was accelerating. I put two fingers to my neck to feel my pulse. Way too fast. I was getting nervous. I’d never felt like this before. I was gulping down air and trying to calm my rushing heart. I looked at my skin. My arms and hands were splotchy red and white. My hands felt clammy and weird.
Holy shit. This is where I die.
What would Handan do? Could she get my corpse out of Vietnam or would they plant me here in this swampy soil?
I stumbled forward, one foot after another. I was panicking, and I thought of flagging a scooter or a car. But what could they do? I couldn’t speak Vietnamese, and they likely didn’t understand English. I just kept walking, hoping to find water or relief.
Step, step, breathe, check pulse.
I looked up and squinted. What was that? I wiped the sweat from my eyes and tried to focus. Yes, there, on the side of the road! There was a woman! She was selling something! I approached and saw the pineapples she had on display. I walked towards her on unsteady legs, and I can’t imagine her fright at seeing such a splotchy grotesque stumbling at her. She must have thought I was an angry spirit come to torment her for some past transgression. With shaky hands, I reached into my pocket and grabbed some Dong (get your mind out of the gutter – I’m talking about the local currency) and waved it in the small woman’s general direction. She jabbered at me in Vietnamese – probably condemning me back to the netherworld of ghosts and spirits. I thrust my Dong at her head, and she recoiled in horror from the white devil. I pointed at a pineapple, and waved my Dong furiously.
“Ahhhhhh…” She picked up a large knife – more of a machete, really – and renewed her yammering.
So this is how I would go, then. Not from a roadside heart attack, but from a roadside knife attack. She meant to rid herself of this hideous apparition. I squinted my eyes and awaited my fate, but instead of running me through, she snatched up a pineapple with one of her tiny hands, and with deft movements that would have impressed any top chef, she proceeded to peel the fruit and slice it into rounds. These she thrust into a clear plastic bag, then she spun the bag, knotted it, and held it out to me. I felt my first glimmer of hope since I’d aborted my walk. I accepted the bag and its precious contents and then gave her the Dong. The pineapple probably cost the equivalent of ten cents or so, and I think I gave her the equivalent of one or two dollars, holding up my hand for her to keep the change. As I turned to walk away, she was smiling and saying the one phrase I understood in Vietnamese, “cảm ơn” – thank you.
I spared her a wave and then tore into the bag. I’d never felt such a primal need for sustenance. I crammed piece after piece into my mouth. The juice ran down my face and down my arms, but I didn’t care. It was glorious. It was life. Passing scooterists looked aghast at the shuffling white horror shoveling yellow fruit into his face like a zombie feasting on brains. I ignored their terrified looks and continued gorging.
Now, the thing about pineapple is that it’s pretty damn acidic, with a pH of 3.2. That’s more acidic than many industrial acids! When I lived in San Francisco, my friend Rich and I once tried to make pineapple wine.1 This required the peeling, slicing and juicing of about twenty pineapples. I didn’t know back then what I know now, so I merrily peeled, cored and sliced those pineapples with my bare hands. Not halfway through, my fingertips started to hurt. By the end they were throbbing, and after I washed them off in the sink, blood started to flow from under all of my fingernails. The acid in the pineapple had eaten away at the soft skin under my nails. It was a miserable day before the pain subsided enough to use my hands again.
I knew about pineapple’s danger, but I couldn’t have cared less. I stuffed every last acid-filled chunk into my mouth on that walk home. By the time I finished the bag, I was approaching the guard shack again. I was feeling much better. My heartbeat had slowed, my headache had abated, and I no longer felt like I was going to die. But my lips burned like someone was holding a match to them. The acid had done its work.
The guards looked up from their game of Chinese chess and waved. I waved back and smiled, and my upper lip split wide open.
1 The wine was horrid. There’s a reason you don’t see pineapple wine at your corner boozatorium. Once all the sugar fermented to alcohol, all of that hideous acid was on full display. It was like drinking battery acid. Pineapple wine could work as a dessert wine – the sweetness would nicely balance the acidity. But as a dry wine? You’re better off guzzling a cocktail of lemon juice, vodka and hot sauce.
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