The latest turn on the 20 Questions merry-go-round is Helmy Kusuma. He’s agreed to sit and answer all of my questions and not fidgit once in his chair!
Helmy! Stop moving!
Let’s get to it! Question One!
1.) Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Long time ago in a place far far away lived a boring young man.
He worked routinely from nine to five for ten long years.
One day a vacation fairy knocked his head with a stick, thus he went to a vacation.
He never came back.
2.) How long have you been writing?
I have been writing more seriously – files with meaningful names not just ‘note’ or ‘todo’ – about two years ago when the venerable vacation fairy started to harass me. I managed to avoid his stick until about a year ago where he had perfected the arcane style of poking one’s head.
3.) Do you have a preferred genre that you read? Is it the same as what you write?
Erotica but then the world tends to revolve around bed which is kinda boring, so I read all kind of stuff: Science fiction, fantasy, adventure, instruction manual, etc.
Well, Mementoes of Mai is Young Adult, but There Is Hope is science fiction.
4.) What is the title of your book and where can it be found?
Mementoes of Mai could be found here:
While There Is Hope is currently only on Smashwords
5.) Describe your novel in 15 words or less.
Mementoes of Mai is a story that take place long time ago in a place far far away where lived a boring young man. He worked routinely from nine to five for ten long years. Did you say 15 words?
6.) Where did the inspiration for your story come from?
I guess the said vacation fairy had stolen the stick from a certain novella fairy.
7.) How long did it take you to complete this novel from concept to published?
About 5 months.
8.) When you sit down to write, how does that process go? Do you outline or just let it evolve?
Fortunately, I managed to seize the stick from the fairy, so I just beat the fairy whenever he dozed off.
He is the perfect writing assistant. Who needs ghost writer?
9.) Are there any aspects of writing you struggle with?
Remember the stick? Yep. You’ve got my point.
10.) Are there any aspects that you simply glide through?
Describing situation and environment.
11.) What sets your book apart from others in the same genre?
The fairy wrote it. How many books are written by fairy? I mean, by me?
12.) What is the location of your story setting and why did you choose that place/time?
Experiences I was having are extraordinary to me and I want to share them to the world.
13.) Your main characters, tell me about them. What is their back story? How did they find themselves where they are now?
Well… Long time ago in a place far far away lived a boring young man. He worked routinely from nine to five for ten long years.
Do you still want to hear it?
14.) I’d like to know more about your book. Tell me all about it.
You asked for it, don’t blame me.
One day a vacation fairy knocked his head with a stick, thus he went to a vacation.
He never came back.
Mementoes of Mai is based on my experiences but of course it is written fictiously on some accounts.
15.) What do you want readers to take from your writings?
That life is too wonderful to be wasted inside a cubicle.
16.) Are more books to follow or is this a stand alone?
I planned to write another book from different angles using my mother’s tongue.
I might translate it into English.
17.) Where can readers find you?
In my room, of course. I currently stay in a boarding house.
Beside that, I could be found virtually at :
18.) What are 3 random things about yourself that readers might like to know.
I am a metaphysicist.
I am single.
19.) What do you do in your down time? For fun.
I like to sleep. A lot.
20.) How about letting me have a sneak peak at chapter one?
Saigon, mid 70s
Amongst clinks of glasses, blabber, hazy smoke clouding my sights, I saw her on the stage, singing. She looked expressionless, though I could see seeds of sadness in her eyes.
Our eyes met a second too long. She was a manifestation of beauty and elegance with her maroon dress just several inches below her knees. There, up on that stage, she was likened to a precious jewel people adored but could not get their hands on – a luxury only some could dream of.
I filled up her glass, which she sipped slowly, hesitating to finish it but downing it in one gulp.
Only occasional screams from the bar stools echoed in my minds. Han, my best friend, the bar owner, had courteously left us alone. I promised him I would not drink his bar dry.
“Have you heard..?” My sentence stopped as I saw today’s paper through the corner of my eye – it read “Heirs of Tycoons Announced Their Wedding”.
I could see her eyes glistened. I reached out and hugged her – only a slight push – and, she surrendered.
I cleared my throat. It felt dry.
“I tried to reason with my mother about us, but she just couldn’t understand us. She just kept going over and over about north and south…” She kissed me – sweet and bitter.
“Let’s run away, I will leave all behind and go with you.”
A split second of light emerged in her eyes, only that split second, but then everything was hollow.
We walked slowly, reluctant to reach our destination. Tonight was so empty, not even a single dog bark. We usually roamed these streets and now only our heels echoed.
Her tears were dropping on the basin as she carefully washed my feet.
Following the Fall of Saigon in April 30, 1975, many southerners were killed, and many were forced to leave the city.
“All begins with a single thought, a speck of imagination that rolls… rolls… until a
snowball of manifestation rushes toward you and engulfs you in its entirety…”
Chapter 1 – Beginning
Saigon, 23 May 2010 13:43
“Do you know what’s worth fighting for? When it’s not worth dying for? Does it
take your breath away, And you feel yourself suffocating?…”
Billie Joe’s echoed as we sat ourselves down on the upholstered couch opposite each other. We were on the second floor of a famous ice cream shop somewhere near 212 Nguyen Trai. The room was big with neatly arranged couches just like your dream living room equipped with TV and air conditioning. There was even an open area on the far right side corner of the room with a nice view of the intersection below, especially beautiful in the night.
Several couples were enjoying the lazy afternoon, cooing at each other; unsuspectingly, this place was ideal for romance. Oh, I had been here several nights before with my newly acquainted Polish and British friends. I remembered. Although the scene was indeed romantic, I had seen only families with their children and babies.
And there I was with Mai.
“So how was your day?” She sipped her chocolate. “Did you buy your souvenirs back in Ben Tanh?”
“Yep, I have managed to grab a few things yesterday. They’re all packed nicely.”
She threw a simper smile. “Oh God, I want to bring that smile home.”
“I’m sorry for being late; there were so many things I had to do at home.”
“Don’t worry. I spent a pleasing day with Mr. Andy and his family.” I said, while I shied a little at the white lie, as my eyes ruthlessly spoke of the truth: “I had been missing you…”, and my mind travelled through earlier events. Hours before I stepped out of my hotel’s lobby, hitched a xe ôm and haggled “twenty, no, fifteen, seventeen, ok let’s go” to meet with Mr. Andy, Mai’s colleague from Indonesia.
Saigon, 23 May 2010 06:05
I woke up in bed feeling detached from myself. Doubt crept from beneath the surface, long hidden in linens of ignorance. I sat there hugging my legs, pacing, still fresh from the dream and its impact.
I was going for dinner with an old friend of mine, Jean.
It was a very romantic dinner, candle-lit, glass reddened by the wine, white roses and waiters all around us waiting to indulge us in an unforgettable evening.
Soft music, piano and violin reminded me of scenes from a certain movie, which I could not and would not care to remember. All was perfect and we were spending one of those marvellous nights etched in your youthful memories until a man came, out of nowhere, charmingly introduced himself, sat at our table and invited Jean to a dinner! I was stunned.
As unbelievable as the scene and the invitation were, coming from the charming man, I did not react like a true gentleman. I ran away from her, from the table, from the waiters, from the music, from the gentleman and I hid. All this time, I had been trying to give her the best of my heart and right when that pinnacle of years of effort was drawing to a final conclusion, some bastard, brimming smiling bastard, took a swerve and whooped all my chips. I could not even stand the image. I ran and hid, but I somewhat recovered.
And the day after, I ran across that bastard again when I was walking to Jean’s home about to ask her out again, an apology for being such a coward yesterday, and never did in my dream – I was indeed in a dream – would I imagine that he had invited her to motor race that afternoon. He cordially invited me too, making me slip from some peak in the mountain into the abyss of the deep and with no ability to swim, I could only gasp and gasp and…
The Saigon sun peered through the moth-eaten veil and bit my skin a little. I took a deep breath. This was my last day in Vietnam after all, I did not want to waste it; so, I grabbed my towel and quickly showered. As no one else was in the room, I had all the time in the world to tinker with my mind.
Cold water drumming my head sure did me justice. Steadily, I gained my focus. I remembered my class on dreams – a year earlier I had studied metaphysics on-line – and began to unveil the meaning of my own.
As I munched on my breakfast – an additional $2.79 earned me a naked bánh mì , m_t (Vietnamese jam) and a scramble egg along with a glass of tea – a conclusion began to form in my mind.
I guessed my shower had washed away my doubts and my confusions and, oh, that baguette helped me gain a little energy I need to stop wandering in my mind and to start my day.
I knew today was the day. I had planned it all along since I left Hanoi. So, I decided that although I could not seem to find a perfect plan to create the defining moment it deserved, I would just deal with my doubts. I would face them and stare at them in their eyes.
I unlocked my phone, browsed Twitter and typed firmly.
D0:The end or the beginning?
I noticed my phone was blinking; I looked at the notification bar, and there sat one message.
“Hi Helmy. I have family things to take care of. See you after lunch!”
A thought flashed through. “Is she avoiding me?” I brushed it aside. Even if she was, it was the last thing to meddle with. I had more pressing things to think about.
“Okay! I’ll see you after lunch!”
“Now what am I going to do?” I tapped my fingers on the table. “Ah yes, I will contact Mr. Andy and say Hi. He already offered me his hospitality; I’d better meet him, at least on my last day.”
I dialled Mr. Andy and after three rings I heard a hello; he sounded like he was in a hurry.
“Hello Mr. Andy. It’s Helmy, we spoke several days ago.”
“Oh yes, Helmy. How are things?”
“Good, good. Mr. Andy, this is my last day in Vietnam. I am planning to meet you this morning.”
“Really? Of course. Look, my family and I are going to attend Mass at the Notre
Dame Cathedral. We’ll meet there; you are a Christian, right? There’ll be others from Indonesia.”
“Yes, yes that would be nice.” I curled my mouth a bit. “I will be there for Mass.”
“All right then! See you there! Bye!”
“It’s done. At least I don’t need to spend the morning poking around my head.
Church…. Mm, when was the last time?” I creased my brow a little bit and shrugged.
“Well, let’s go then for old time’s sake.”
I quickly finished my last bite, gulped down a whole glass and got up. “This will be my last baguette for quite some time.” Ironically, I suddenly missed this meal.
“Don’t forget to try those French breads while you’re there. They’re everywhere! And for breakfast! Couldn’t imagine that! Once is enough!” My friend’s words flashed and I smiled, “No, you are wrong my friend. I am already missing them!”
I drew a long breath and looked around, “I am going to miss this breakfast table.”
This was a small serene room beside the staircase, furnished by two tables with four chairs each, a humble desk with two magazines on top, and a wooden panel window – which is very common and just like my childhood’s window. You could peer between slits.
I remembered my first breakfast here, when I shovelled my head outside the window and saw a familiar scene a from Hong Kong movie. Houses were very compact – I guessed it was very expensive to afford a few more square metres – and were built vertically. And in the back alleys were places where you could feel the humane side of things: Children playing with their peers, mothers hanging half-dried clothes, restaurants staffs preparing meals, old timers smoking their puffs in shorts and dinkies and, of course, the occasional bike passing through.
There was a couple chatting excitedly; they were Indonesians.
“Hi there, my name is Helmy. Nice to meet you guys. You are the first Indonesians
I’ve met along this journey.” I raised my hand.
“Oh hello there, it’s the same here. You are our first Indonesian. I am Yayat and this is my wife Yani; we are on our honeymoon.” He giggled at his wife.
“Wow, what a wonderful way to do a honeymoon! I’d love to do that too. Maybe I’ll even honeymoon around the world!” Mai’s image flashed inside my mind, and I blushed.
“Yes you should do that. It’s a wonderful thing to go through this adventure together.” Yani kissed him on the cheek, “So Helmy, are you married?”
I smiled, “Oh no, no, but I do have my honeymoon plan ready.” I was trying hard to push Mai from my mind.
We all laughed.
“I am thinking about going to Hanoi two or three days from now. Do you have a suggestion beside the Ha Long bay?”
“Oh yes, we just got back from Hanoi last week. Let me see, “ Yayat pondered,
“You can go to the Perfume Pagoda. That is a bit of a surprise.” He winked to Yani.
“A bit of a surprise…?”
“Yes, we wouldn’t spoil the fun and, of course, you can go to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and, if you are up to more history, you can go to the Army Museum.”
“Well, I don’t have that much time. I will only be staying there until Friday at the latest.”
“Oh, such a short trip…! You can stroll around the neighbourhood; there are many interesting buildings and you can spend a day at the lakeside. There are two lakes in Hanoi.”
“Mm, that would be nice. Thank you for your information. I guess I’ll have to come back here again someday.” I grinned.
“Yes, you definitely should do that. We spent a month here. We have been going from Saigon all the way up to Hanoi and then back to Saigon, and today is our last day in Saigon. We are going back to Jakarta this afternoon.”
“Helmy nice to meet you. Have a good trip in Vietnam. We need to pack up soon.” Yayat shook my hand.
“Nice to see you, too… Here is my contact number.” I tore a paper and scribbled.
“Enjoy your flight home.”
Yayat wrote the contact. “See you Helmy!”
His words echoed in my mind and, with that, I said good bye to this breakfast room.
“I’d better hurry. Mass will begin at 10.”
I rolled and jammed all my clothes into my backpack, papers and documents to front compartments, bathing stuff and other things into the bottom of the sack.
“I am set. This packing drill seems easier now. Ugh! It’s at least 5 kilos more from before. It must be from those sweets and souvenirs.”
I looked around. Nobody…
“It’s a quiet good bye.” I grinned and trod downstairs.
“Hi, I would like to check out now but, could I leave my backpack here? I will come back in the afternoon and pick it up.” There was a sweet girl in the front desk. I forgot her name, but she was a big help on my first two days.
“Of course you can. You are going to go to airport this afternoon?” She took my key and checked the guest log. “Yes, you are set. Wait a minute…I’ll give you back your deposit.”
I took the dollars and shook her hand.
“It’s been nice to meet you, and this is a very decent place to stay. I will be staying here again when I come back.”
She smiled. “Thank you, please come back again.”
“Oh wait, I almost forget. If I take a xe ôm from here to Notre Dame Cathedral, how much should I pay?”
“Notre Dame is not far from here. Fifteen thousand dong should be enough.”
I bid her farewell and rode on the first motorbike I found.
“Phew! It’s very hot out here and they are doing their wedding photos in full outfits!”
As I stood outside in a park in front of the church, I could see at least three couples in their gowns and suits moving here and there followed by photographers and stylists.
“Will we end up like that? Boy, I think too far. What’s important now is I lay my plan before her and cross my fingers.” I shook my thought.
I glanced at my phone; there was no message.
“Where’s Mr. Andy?” For the tenth time I stuffed my mobile back into my pocket.
Sweat poured down my back; I could feel my shirt sticking to my skin. As the morning sun started to rise, all this heat started to become a little unbearable.
“I’ve been living in a tropical country since I was a child, but still this heat is outrageous.” Another ball of sweat trickled down my nose. I found out from Sarah Ng, a girl I had met on the flight from Hanoi back to Saigon, that these several days held a record for being the hottest week since several years. Global warming, some would say, but heck, I do not believe any of that propaganda; it is just the sun, as simple as that.
As people started to go inside, I decided to follow them.
“Ah, it’s better here.” I hurried between wooden pews and found a nice vacant one on the left side of the main entrance. I could feel the temperature had dropped a few degrees inside the church – a familiar feeling I got whenever I enter a church. I could remember back then, when I was a child, when conversations were just babbles made by grown-ups, that I used to play inside a church. I remembered a cool breeze inside, chants, vibrations and tones. I was once again being reminded of those feelings, except this time I was sitting dearly in one of the corners.
It was already full of people from the centre to the front, and I estimated around twenty to twenty-five rows, two pews on the left and two on the right. In my opinion, it looked just like a cathedral in Jakarta, except for one interesting thing: There was a small wooden door – about a metre high – that separated the rows of pews and plastic chairs. I guessed these plastic chairs were for an emergency situation in peak times like Christmas and Advent, and that door was really what separated the inner chamber – so to speak – from the outer chamber.
The church bells rung twice.
“Ah, Mass is about to start.” I noticed more people rushed inside with fancy dresses and suits; I looked at my polo shirt and knee pants; I could not help but feeling slightly out of place. I was tempted to go and wait for Mr. Andy outside of the church, but breezes from fan and air conditioning installed on top won me over.
I rose. ”How could I best present my plan? What would be the best opening line?”
I chuckled; it felt like years since I had felt this way. The first time around I was in my second year of junior high; there was a cute girl sitting beside me. I did not dare look sideways throughout the entire class and only did so when she asked something to me. I would pass days and days with this kind of feeling, until one day it became unbearable; it needed to be unleashed. I remembered how I journeyed back and forth to my telephone; it was like the most sacred thing back then and, when it suddenly rang, my heart just seemed to jump up to my throat.
I was bashful at how silly I had been, yet I could not help to feel I was like my fourteen years old persona.
“I am different now. I am more experienced and brave.” I winced.
I was drowned in my thought and my body just automatically followed the ceremony and soon Mass was over.
“Helmy what are you wearing?”
“I am wearing a red shirt and a red hat.” I looked around and found a nice shadowed spot next to the front door.
“And I am standing next to the front door.”
“Okay then, we’ll be there soon.”
I looked around and admired the view. The church seemed very old.
“This church is very famous, I guess. There are so many different people here. French.”
I felt myself like a secret agent searching for his prey.
I saw no sign of Mr. Andy.
I watched them as they were passing the front door, but still I could not see any Indonesian.
“Hello, Mr. Andy. I can’t see you.”
“Mm? We are already in the front door, the right one.”
“There’s a right door? Okay I am going there.”
I felt silly.
“Damn, I am too tense.”
I huffed and walked to the right side of the church.
“It’s nice to finally meet you. Here is my wife Maria.”
Mr. Andy was a bubbly and chubby man, in his forties, and his wife was tall and stern, a strong housewife, quite about the same age as him.
“Ow…and look who’s here. Hello kiddie.”
“Andrew. He’s one year old. Andrew, say hello to uncle.”
Andrew just stared at me with his big eyes, curiously. I swore he could see my edginess today, but soon went back to his bottle.
“Rud, this is Helmy. He is my associate’s relative from Jakarta.” Mr. Andy introduced me to Rudi, probably in his fifties; although he is shorter than me his eyes bored the sense of a seasoned businessman, hardened by competition.
“Hello, I am Rudi from Palembang. Nice to meet you, young man.”
“Palembang? I am from Palembang too. Name’s Helmy.”
“Oh, nice to meet you. It’s really rare to meet one of our own. Wong kito galo.”
“The pleasure is mine. Palembang is very different now, Uncle Rud. I haven’t gone back for two years, and suddenly there is a new international airport and lots of nice hotels now.”
“Oh really? Things have changed a lot then.” Rudi bemused. “Helmy, Uncle had come from Palembang back in the early seventies. Back then it was very quiet and countryside-like, and the Ampera Bridge could still be lifted in the middle to allow big ship to go under.”
“Let’s go; it’s hot out here. Let’s do the talking somewhere else.” A motherly woman, early fifties, bid us close. Mr. Andy turned to me. “Come with us. You haven’t eaten. Right?”
“I ate bread for breakfast, but I could have more.” I grinned.
“Rud, you will come with us. Ok?”
“Yes, let’s just walk to the shopping mall. It’s only ten minutes from here. This is Catherine, my wife.”
“Hi. Nice to meet you. My name is Helmy.”
Seen from a closer distance, despite her age, Catherine had a fresh look, giving contrast to this couple.
“Hello, nice to meet you. Is this your first day in Saigon?”
“No, m’am. This is my last day. I am flying to Jakarta tonight.”
“Oh, are you?”
Pedestrians were being pampered here, as we walked to the nearest mall, and as I noticed during my days in Saigon, pavements were broad, two metres wide at least, nicely covered with cobblestones, sometimes in cement. There were many tall trees, even in the urban area like this one close to the church – later on when I looked in a traveller’s blog, The Transcendental Tourist, I learned that these were teak trees. I love trees, and that is one of the reasons I felt so much in love with this city.
We reached a not-too-tall building, about 5 storeys high, neatly located in the corner. It was decent inside; modern department stores lined up on the left and right of a spacious aisle. To me, malls are all not too different from each other, from place to place, save certain unique identifiers, such as singing wall clock, fountains, etc., and this mall was a regular one with no outstanding niches.
I could see many civil guards here; however, they wore different outfits from those in front of the street located stores. I remembered that on my first morning I thought “Wow! There are so many guards here!” seeing one in front of each store, sometimes two.
The elevator had reached the fifth floor.
“It’s quite small compared to the ones in Jakarta.” I noticed one guard motioning to a foreigner who apparently stood too close to the railing.
“Yes, for us malls are just malls. We come here to eat and, occasionally, shop.”
“Agreed. I am not a mall-stroller either.”
As we reached the food court, I could sense a familiar scene; it was very similar to all food courts I had visited in Jakarta. Of course, the food here was different.
“Just look around and choose whatever you like. What do you want to eat?”
“Mm… I don’t know too much about Vietnam cuisine beside Phò.” I grinned.
“You should try a Vietnam roll then,” Maria pointed at the roll dishes, Phò, and some mixed rice with meat and vegetables. “There are not many people who could understand English, so knowing a word or two in Vietnamese is very helpful.”
“Yes, I used to do this.” I gestured my hands in the air and smiled.
She smiled. “Even when you have lived here for more than two years, like us, their language is still a bit troublesome. They used different kinds of pronunciations and diphthongs; so, even though we speak Mandarin, it is still foreign.”
“Really? I couldn’t speak Mandarin though.” I smiled bashfully as we walked to our table. “But it sounds very eloquent to my ear, very rhythmic just like my hometown dialect.”
“Dear, I was just telling our young friend here, it would be a good idea to learn a word or two.”
Mr. Andy grinned. “Yes, especially you should learn about money, so you can negotiate with sellers and xe ôm drivers.”
I remembered how clumsy it was just to buy juice at the street side outlet. “I know one word for sure, cám _n.”
“Mm… what’s this? Is this edible?” I took what looked like a circular transparent sheet.
“Oh, that is the wrapper. It’s made from rice. So here…” Maria took one, put vegetables and meat on top of it, rolled and dipped it into some kind of sauce, and took a bite.
I did the same and it felt like chewing a piece of raw paper at first, but once I came to the vegetables it tasted surprisingly good.
“Yum. This thing is really fresh and chewy. And this sauce is like the one I once ate in Jakarta, but I was eating rice noodles back then. So this is, kind of, like the special sauce they put on everything.”
“Try this too Helmy.” Catherine put some stuff in my bowl. It looks like fish cake.
“Mm… this one tastes almost like pempek, but of course pempek is better.” I grinned.
Rudi laughed. “Wong Palembang dak jauh dari pempek.”
“So Helmy, where did you go in Vietnam?”
“I went to the War Remnant Museum, but not the Tunnel, we were busy hopping from café to café.” I smiled bashfully.
“We? Are you not travelling alone?”
“Uhm… I have been going with Mai; she drove me from place to place.”
“Oh, Mai…” Mr. Andy turned to Rudi,“ Mai is my colleague. She is a nice girl.”
“Yes, she is.” I blushed. “And from Monday to Friday I was in Hanoi.”
Hanoi, 17 May 2010 15:23
Strolling around my hostel area, I could not help but noticing how smaller pavements here are, compared to those in Saigon. Blocks were more compact, with more curved corners and narrow streets, but there were more trees, and I got a sense of ancientness. To me, Saigon is more modern, amidst numerous architectures affected by seventies’ France, pagodas and temples.
I was very hungry after a two-hour flight from Saigon this morning and a one-hour ride from the airport and had not eaten any food after that meal during the flight.
“I want to taste local food.” As I walked by pizza, steaks and all fancy foods, I noticed several people here and there sitting on small plastic stools reminding me of old times when I was just a kid, when I used to see this kind of wooden stools in front of houses; parents and grandparents used to sit there, communing. Some of those people were eating, but I was not sure “Is that an outlet or just a family gathering?”, so I decided to walk around some more corners.
I saw one big boiling pan steaming hot, and so I stopped. “A…h ha… this is definitely an outlet!”
“_n gì?” A bashful looking girl, probably in her early twenties, asked me as I stepped inside.
“Oops! She doesn’t speak English!” I tried to muster a word,“ Phò Cây?”
She seemed to understand my words because she began to prepare my noodle.
“What is egg in Vietnamese?” I tried to remember my short lesson in the park, but I swear egg was not on the list, so I decided to try my lesson in body language.
“Egg?” I cusped my fingers and thumb together, and then I added, “I am not Vietnamese.”
She looked bemused. “You not Vietnamese? You look Vietnamese.”
I grinned at her words. “Yes, many people in Saigon say so.” There was one time, when I was waiting for Mai in front of my hotel, when a Vietnamese guy riding on his motor bike, apparently lost, asked me the way to a certain place. I could not reproduce the words he said, but it was very long and curvy. I just shook my head and lifted both of my hands in sort of “I give up” and said “I am sorry, I am not Vietnamese and I can only speak English.” He left.
My steaming bowl of noodles with an egg and a sprinkle of vegetables inside came.
“This noodle is so nice and I am very hungry.” I grinned and there she was still looking bemused. “I am from Indonesia.”
“Indonesia?” She did not register where Indonesia is.
I gestured a downward motion. “Below Vietnam.”
She nodded. “Have girlfriend?”
I smiled and shook my head.
“How so? You are so handsome.”
I blushed and laughed. I swore I would eat here again after I got back from the Ha Long Bay trip. This was my first laugh after leaving Saigon. “This is going to be a good trip after all!”
“Twenty thousand dong.”
I paid and bid her good bye.
“Come again mister!”
Hanoi, 17 May 2010 21:40
My room was big, three times more than the room in Saigon, and was located on the second floor of a three-storey hostel, very famous in this street, 48 Ngo Huyen. Just like before, I was staying in a backpacker hostel, dorm style. It felt very comfortable and exciting to share a room with you-don’t-know-who and from you-don’t-know-where; it was like an adventure in itself. Granted, snores were definitely kinks, but getting acquainted with various people from around the world was priceless.
Hours before, after I booked my Ha Long Bay tour, I got a chance to slither away in this hood, to pick up my daily needs in a not-so-nearby supermarket, and to get to know my way around. It turned out that, for me, it is very easy to get lost here; in Saigon there are equally grid-like squares, neatly parallel to each other, while here in Hanoi they are seemingly stacked like those in a jigsaw puzzle. I bet I could master this neighbourhood in one week or two, but in the mean time, I got lost often by taking a turn too soon. Frustrating at first, I soon enjoyed these wrong turns; they made me end up in surreptitious places.
I happened to stop by a very artistic looking restaurant just when I was feeling hungry. Chairs and tables were set up in a garden setting – two big trees in each side, and open rotundas for a more romantic setting. Overall it was very marvellous. There was a young couple having a romantic candlelit dinner, and I could not help but envy them. “I wish you were here Mai.”
I grabbed my phone. “Em kh_e không? I wish you were here Mai. I miss you already.”
I finished my unpacking and was ready to go on the Ha Long Bay tour next morning. It would be ‘the’ adventure; Ha Long Bay was my first reason to go to Vietnam and I had been very excited since I saw a shoot of the Ha Long Bay in a news article six months earlier. And not only that, I was here to understand about my past life, and Mai; I felt so destined to be here. My memory flashed into my dream about my past, and how it ended. “It’s going to be different this time around. I have my second chance here.”
My phone beeped.
“Em Kh_e. Anh Kh_e không? _ I miss you too.”
“Yep, this time it’s going to be different.”
I smiled and typed back.
Hanoi, 18 May 2010 16:14
“Hello, I am on the way to Ha Long Bay now.”
I had been trying to send the message for the third time. No success. There was no reception for my phone out here so I left it alone. I had been watching the water for about three hours now. The Chinese junk had three storeys and could accommodate from twenty to thirty people, and here on the second level it was a lot cooler thanks to the rooftop. The Gulf wind was mild this time around, not enough to blow my hat away, but managed to dry off my sweats. Usually close to year’s end, there are several strong winds and storms here in Ha Long Bay. Typhoons too!
My tour group was sunning on the rooftop; I could not understand how those westerners liked to burn their skins so much. I turned two shades darker just by sitting for an hour on the roof.
I was on my second day and one night on the Ha Long Bay tour, and it had been seven hours straight from my hostel; four hours to the seaport, another three hours to find a good spot. My companions? Seventy percent gappers – young graduates searching for adventures to fill their gap year before university – and the rest, older couples, late twenties.
They were just not my league; we chatted for the first hour or so, and the next three hours on the bus was just spent sleeping or watching the scenery. And now, here I was watching the sea. The ship crew was about mid-twenties in my estimation, and just like the lady in Phò shop, thought I was Vietnamese. By now, I had been used to their bemused looks.
“Ahoy! We’re here mates! Let’s get ready!” Jack shouted excitedly over roaring engines. He was in his early twenties, and quite sturdy, well suited for this adventure guide work.
“Here you go… everyone please wear a life vest. And if anyone wants to bring their cameras and other gadgets, please put them in this bag.”
Everyone was very excited, and two by two they boarded the available kayaks.
“I guess we are going to share our kayak, Jack.”
“Aye, you are Helmy, right?”
“Right on, nice to meet you Jack.”
It is not so hard, actually, to steer your kayak left and right, or to slow it down – it is very similar to rafting – but it is very tiring, not only because the paddle is heavy, but also due to small waves coming from the sea. I had to pause several times on our hour long journey to the cave.
“Gosh! I’d never imagined it would be so tiring!”
Jack laughed. “Take it easy, Helmy. You can rest a while. I have been doing this for quite some time now. I am getting used to it.” He winked.
“No wonder you are so muscular, Jack.”
We laughed and with each laugh I regained a portion of my strength. I started rowing again.
“So, Helmy, how long have you been in Hanoi?”
“This is my fifth day in Vietnam.” I puffed.” And my second day in Hanoi… I am going back to Indonesia this Sunday.”
“Oh it’s too bad. You should go with us to the island tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I guess I will be coming back again here some day, but this time I will pass the island. Damn! It’s really beautiful here!”
“Wohoo!” I raised my paddle and yelled.
It was a very liberating feeling – my second. Years ago, when I was still working with my second company, I went river rafting with my colleagues – my first direct experience, ever, with water in nature. I remembered when we got to the middle of the trip. In the body of the river where things were calm before a strong ruffle, I lifted my paddle and yelled, “Wohoo!”. It was just like now. I wondered what happened during those years in between.
Here, in the middle of Ha Long Bay, I was being reminded again of that exquisite feeling. It was so refreshing to my mind. Although my muscles were constantly screaming, I found it was really relaxing. I took a deep breath, and looked around; towers of lime stone seemingly emerged from the deep waters, covered with lichens in the bottom and green scattered all over its bodies from shrubs, trees, foliage. I felt dwarfed, engulfed in this magnificent vastness. I touched the emerald water surrounding us, cold and a little salty.
I was stunned.
Jack laughed,” You seem to enjoy yourself, Helmy.”
“You betcha Jack!”
I treasured this moment, rowing our kayak, tasting the splashing water every now and then, birds squawking on top of us, and trying to race the other kayaks. “It is so mesmerizing! I’ve never felt more alive than at this moment!”
“So, are you here on a school’s vacation?”
I giggled, “No, No. Do I look that young to you? I am already thirty-two, Jack.”
“Oh, really? You look so young, Helmy.”
“I guess it’s hard for you to gauge eastern people’s age.” I winked, “Same for me here, and you are about twenty-four, Jack?”
He laughed,” I guess it’s indeed hard. I am twenty this year, Helmy.”
We both laughed.
“Why don’t you continue your university years, Jack?”
“Of course I will. This is just a one-year-break for me and when money runs low, I take this kind of part-time job. It’s having fun while getting money in returns!”
“Nice. You are such a carefree person!”
The other kayaks were quite far from us, and they were increasing their distances; I felt a slight shame for not being able to row faster, and it just gave me more strength to row.
Water was splashing as I was rowing faster.
“You can chill out, Helmy. It’s not a race.” I could feel Jack was smiling.
“That’s okay, Jack. I just want to test my limit.”
“Do you have a girlfriend, Helmy?”
I stopped rowing. I thought of Mai. “No, Jack, but I am going to share my feeling with a girl in Saigon; she’s Vietnamese. She’s so beautiful and I feel very comfortable around her. I feel accepted.”
Jack laughed. “Way to go, Helmy! Good luck to you. I hope you get what you’ve wished for!”
“Thank you, Jack! Let’s catch up with the others!” I felt my spirit fly high just by thinking about Mai and it felt good when Jack gave his support; it kind of boosted my confidence. I was rowing like there was no tomorrow; soon, we were able to catch up.
We were the last to arrive at a cave entrance; everybody else was already waiting eagerly for Jack, our guide. Sitting on top of lime stone mounds, this cave was going to be my first experience, ever. Judging from stones levelling in the mouth of the cave, this cave was not virgin; efforts had been made to tidy things up. I could see several metres of stone pave way. A slippery stone pave way.
My first reaction to this was, “Oops, slippery. Should I just stay here?” which was beaten by my curiosity to know what was behind that dark veil; it looked bumpy and, granted, we soon walked and crouched, yes crouched, into an ascending and descending passageway – quite small. If you had a barrel belly, you would have to hold your breath to be able to slip through. This gut wrenching – literally – journey did not last long because this was just a small cave.
Soon we reached an opening to the centre of this lime stone mound – a pristine pond, jade coloured. It was not an exceedingly breathtaking scene, but somehow I felt like I had been given a gift, a hidden treasure, which could only be presented to those willing to risk a little bit more.
On journeying back we took a different turn and visited a large hollow inhabited by small bats evidently uninterrupted by us on their daylight naps. There were clusters of stalactites and stalagmites, a moment of horror story courtesy of our Jack, and a brief complete darkness. We stood in silence, turned off all our light emitting devices and, for that brief moment, I felt suddenly floating in an unknown universe with no reference to left, right, up or down. It was such bliss… no fears and no worries; in fact, all matters seemed to cease their existence, and I was completely sovereign of myself.
Kayaking back to our ship was twice the fun than the first time. I just could not get enough.
“Huzzah, I want to do this again, over and over!”
I checked my phone; there was still no reception.
Feeling exhausted from rowing and fed up by noon’s snacks, I felt heavy. In my last moment before finally kissing my pillow to oblivion, I entertained myself on event after event and made myself a note to tell Mai about this wonderful trip.
“Helmy.” Everybody was pointing at me.
“Uhm, I am from Indonesia.”
Jack twirled the bottle again.
“I am feeling a fantasia..a.”
“Down! Down!” Everybody trampled their foot.
Anne gulped her glass dry, “Damn, ‘Ah’ is hard!”
“Shark!” As Jack yelled, everybody was scurrying on top of their seats, and this time Steven had to finish his glass.
This was a very merry and crazy game, involving some devious rules which I could not remember clearly except that, when Jack cried ‘shark’ you had to stand on your chair; and there were lots of beers. After an hour or so, I managed to slip away and found myself on the third level, watching the stars. There were several couples here too; I guessed that game was for youngsters.
“Whoah…I couldn’t remember when was the last time I could see stars in the sky!”
Except for the jeering and the cheering below, here everything was so calm; winds gently rocked waters below and that was it, no roar of engines. Up there in the sky specks of stars filled it. I could not remember their names – I guess I should pay more attention in astronomy class – but our ancestors used to navigate; their lives depended on them.
Thinking that way, I was so blessed to be out here under these stars, I was glad I was alive.
“Yes, it’s truly remarkable, and we can’t see them here in the city where all artificial lights blind our sight.” Mr. Andy sighed.
Everyone nodded in agreement as, for in a second, we were all lost in our childhood memories, where stars greeted us every night.
“Ha Long Bay is very beautiful. Someday we will visit it.”
“Oh? You haven’t visited Ha Long Bay?” I was a little amused by this fact.
Mr. Andy laughed, “We are here, working, Helmy. We do eight to five, Monday to
Friday, in the office. Saturday and Sunday are our resting days. You could say it’s just like your working days back in Jakarta except we are here in Saigon.”
I nodded. “This office life is quite limiting, right?”
“Not just office life, Helmy,” Rudi offered, “We have to work throughout our life to satisfy our daily needs, whether working in an office or, in my case, an exporting business.”
“It’s true, or is it true? Are we supposed to live this hard life and just enjoy it once
in a while? Can’t we be free from this kind of work and just enjoy our life?”
Rudi’s statement echoed in my mind and I could see so many people, like him and Mr. Andy, spending their life in these seemingly endless gerbil wheels, and by that comparison, I seemed to follow a similar track. I felt uneasy and decided to keep this unforgettable dilemma for later scrutiny.
“What else did you visit in Hanoi?”
I grinned, “BBQ boat.”
“Barbeque boat? Where is it? We’ve never heard of it.”
Hanoi, 20 May 11:45
Yayat was not lying when he said there would be a bit of a surprise if I visited the Perfume Pagoda; I had been bathed in sweats for forty-five minutes now and it would be another thirty minutes or so before I reached land. Yes, I was on a barbeque boat – my tour guide was not joking when he told us about it on the bus; this was the boat, the trademark of this country. This kind of boat is made of iron, entirely, even its seats, and usually a woman controls it from behind using one big oar; there are variations, though. I saw one using two paddles.
I could only respect these women on top of admiring them. I could barely think of something in this heat while they manage to row their boats in a very graceful manner.
Their specific rowing movements: left water swirls, each time with precisely similar sizes.
If you have watched Rambo movies, you would probably know about swampy rivers here in Vietnam. This river leading to the Perfume Pagoda complex is not deep – I estimated around three to four feet maximum – and full of seaweed-like water plants which could easily detain the boat’s propeller.
“There are still crocodiles here in this river.” Our guide told us. “But they are diminishing in numbers.” He pointed some hollow in between trees. “There is one of their hideouts.”
“I saw nothing.” I said while trying to focus my eyes.
“Oh, we are glad about that!” A Dutch lady in her fifties exclaimed.
We all laughed.
“Do you see those elephant like hills on the left and the right? There are precisely ninety nine elephants looking forward and one elephant looking backward. Legend says that one elephant was waiting for his lover, so he turned back and they all were cursed into stones. If you look closely you can see its eyes, and there is water flowing from those eyes; they are crying.”
With a little imagination I could understand what he was referring to. These hills were massive and covered with foliage; they served like warriors guarding the rivers and pagodas scattered throughout the forest and mountains. In Vietnam, during New Year’s festival –Tet – this area is swarmed with people completing their pilgrimages, but during this time I could only see occasional boats rowing by, no more than five.
“Here we are. All please alight and don’t forget your belongings. We will continue our barbeque later.” He grinned.
I was relieved and I did not even want to think sitting there again going back.
“Phew, just hearing your stories makes me sweaty!” Maria grinned and swiped her forehead.
“Yes, imagine that, and furthermore it’s the only way to visit the Perfume Pagoda, besides helicopter I guess; so you have to ride back in the same boat!”
“Another hour and a half of hell!” Mr. Andy exclaimed.
“Well, unfortunately it was not. Maybe because my butt had already used to the heat, or because I had borrowed a piece of cardboard to cover my seat or because it was already noon and the sun had already begun to set. Anyway, riding back was a little bit more fun.” I smiled.
“But it was worth it in order to have the other experiences and besides, it was a unique experience.”
“The Perfume Pagoda?”
“Yes, the Perfume Pagoda was one of those experiences. We boarded a cable car to go to the top and from there we had to hike several steps to reach it.”
“It was situated inside a big cave, we had to climb down several steps, and locals said there are a hundred steps. This shrimp on sugar cane is good.” The shrimp had been converted into a paste, mixed with some flour and baked with sugar cane in the middle of it.
“There are more things to see behind the altar in the front of the cave, but I was not in the mood back then, so I just stayed outside. They said that during festival time, you could barely move a metre before stopping. But it was quite cool up there.”
“I have heard that the Perfume Pagoda exudes a certain fragrance. Is that true?” Catherine posed.
I shook my head. “I could smell some fragrances but they might have come from incense burning in the altar.”
“But fragrance or no fragrance,” I added,“ the fact that a temple is inside a cave is fascinating to me.”
Catherine nodded. “Yes, indeed that is some feat.”
I laid back and held my stomach. “I am sorry, no more could be put inside.” I grinned.
“You should eat some more, Helmy. You are too thin.” Rudi interjected.
I smiled. “But healthy. To me, health is more important than appearance.”
“So, you only visited the Perfume Pagoda?”
“No, we visited another temple carved with Chinese inscriptions; apparently they built this temple around the fifteenth century.”
My phone beeped once and hastily I took it out. It was Mai.
“Where are you Anh? Could we meet?”
My heart leapt; I felt like a five-year-old getting another birthday present.
“I am eating with Mr. Andy, near church. Have you eaten? What time do you want to meet?”
“I have already eaten. Let’s meet at 13:00? I will pick you up at your hotel.”
“Okay. See you there Em!”
“I have to get back to my hotel. Mai will meet me there at one fifteen.” I tried not to be too enthusiastic.
“Oh, why not ask her to meet here?” Mr. Andy asked.
“She told me that she had already eaten.” “Please, let it go.”
Mr. Andy somehow got my telepathic message. “Okay. So we’d better move now, because we want to shop for something before going home.”
“Where are you staying, Helmy?” Rudi nudged me, because I was somewhere in la-la land for a second.
“Oh, uhm, I am staying at Pham Ngu Lao street. Backpackers area. It’s convenient there.”
“It’s not far from here, about ten minutes by xe ôm.”
“Oh really?” I looked at my watch. 12:25.
I licked my lips and tried to hide my feeling of urgency as we stopped by some clothing outlets.
“So Helmy, what do you do in Jakarta?” Rudi stayed back while others went to look inside.
“I work at IT industry, uncle, as a consultant selling software licenses.”
“Good, good. I see the IT industry has been booming for quite some time now as every aspect of living is being penetrated by it.”
“Yes uncle. Even elevators need software. It’s truly a big industry. Well, I can say IT is a foundation nowadays, not just some sophisticated fancy tool anymore.”
“Yes, yes, but uncle is old now.” Rudi smiled nonchalantly. “Uncle has been using computers only for internet and emails.”
“Even that is quite rare, uncle.” I giggled “I know many people your age, and they don’t even know how to handle a mouse.”
Rudi laughed. “So uncle is quite sophisticated after all.”
“What are you exporting, uncle?”
“Various things, Helmy… Uncle has been working in many businesses trying to find the right one. Uncle wants to open a restaurant one day.”
“Wow. I am interested in opening a restaurant too. We can promote our culinary art here and make money, too.” I beamed.
Rudi patted my shoulder. “Good, young man. You work hard and then one day we can open a restaurant here in Saigon.”
“What’s so good about?” Mr. Andy walked to us bringing two big plastic bags.
“Our young man here wants to open a restaurant here in Saigon.”
“That’s good, Helmy, and then we can eat at your place.” Mr. Andy smiled. “You work hard Helmy, and fulfil your dream.”
I felt elated by their supports and believed that I could reach my goal, somehow, in no time at all. I glanced at my watch. 12:50
“Oh I think I’d better go now, or else I will be late.”
“Let me show you the way, Helmy.” Rudi gestured me to follow him.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you all.” I shook their hands and waved good bye.
“You take care, Helmy. Until we meet again someday!” Mr. Andy waved lightly.
Saigon, 23 May 2010 14:05
“…so uncle Rudi advised me on taking a xe ôm to get back to my hotel.” I sipped my coffee again to tame my nervousness. “These are my last hours in Saigon, so it’s now or never!”
“So, Mai, like I told you before I went to Hanoi last Monday, I really like you.” Her eyes were big and clear like pristine ponds. “And I want you to be my girlfriend.”
She spoke softly. “Helmy, I know that you like me. I like you too. But we barely know each other to be a couple.”
I was feeling a little nauseous. I was dreading what was coming. “Yes, but from all the girls I have met, you are different, Mai. I feel you are the one, Mai.”
“I don’t feel that way, Helmy. I am not the type of person that meets someone and then falls in love at first sight. I need to see and meet him everyday. I need to be close to him and whenever I need him I want him to be available.”
I was silenced by her words and I could not deny a sliver of truth she said.
“I feel comfortable around you, Helmy, and that is something. You are funny, kind and gentle. You can stay here, and then let everything grow day by day.”
I realized that I had not the answer for that. I tried to negotiate.
“We can do it little by little, Mai. I can visit you every now and then.” My voice
came a little too desperate.
“I am sorry, Helmy, but I can not do a long distance relationship. Long distance is not for me. I need to constantly snuggle.”
“But I love you Mai and…” Seeing her face I realised how firm her resolve was and suddenly I felt my world had been turned upside down, shaken like marbles inside a glass bottle, colliding with each other. My hopes and dreams, my anticipation and my planning, all were being ripped, crushed and twisted in uncertainties about my life. Out of nowhere the prospect of living the rest of my life alone sprang like a sprouted seed, infecting my mind with its growing possibilities.
I tried to move my mouth to speak, but no sounds emerged, only crackling of my teeth and bones. Suddenly Mai looked distorted to me, like a layer of transparent silk had been put in between us; I fought as hard as I could, but I could feel the corner of my eyes wet.
“I am strong. I can survive.” My words defied the sounds coming out of my mouth, trembling and shaking.
“Survive? Oh Helmy.” Mai looked worried.
“…When you’re at the end of the road,
And you lost all sense of control,
And your thoughts have taken their toll,
When your mind breaks the spirit of your soul…”
The song echoed in my ears, as it repeated itself for I do not know how many times. And suddenly in a swipe, as fast as it came, it had gone; replaced by a clearness of mind, my logic had surreptitiously taken hold. I was suddenly calm, my eyes clear. I looked at Mai and jerked my lip to smile.
“I am sorry. I was a little stunned. Don’t worry, Mai. I am fine and now I have plans to make this work.”
“Yes, I can start a business here and then we can see each other everyday, or I can find a job here and we can meet on weekends.”
“For starters I can begin my business back home and then spread here to Saigon. Oh, there are so many ways and I am excited to explore them.”
Mai smiled. “I am glad you are optimistic now, Helmy. You scared me.”
I jerked my mouth a little and sipped my coffee; this time it tasted just like water…like nothing.
“So what’s your plan for the future, Mai?”
“It’s, as a matter of fact, tied to chores I had to settle this morning. I am planning to open a restaurant with my mother; maybe a month or two after my brother’s wedding inOctober this year. That’s why I couldn’t see you yesterday, Helmy.”
I twitched. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“Since the death of my father, I have been taking responsibility for my family; afterall, I am the oldest. Did you remember a few weeks ago when I didn’t answer your message?”
I felt uneasy in my couch.
“I had to arrange for my father’s fifteen years ceremony and my mother had seen a vision of my father; so, we invited a psychic to tell us about the meaning.”
“Why didn’t you tell me these things earlier? I was worried sick, you know.” I inquired.
“I am sorry, Helmy. I was very close to my father and at that time I was very emotional and not in the mood to do internet. I was sure you would understand.”
I let out a bitter smile.
We just sat there, talking for hours. Mai told me her stories, a whole pile of them… It was as if she had held everything up and now all trickled down drop by drop. I listened, nodded and smiled but felt dazed; it was as if someone else was listening, gesturing and talking to Mai, while I was somewhere in limbo, trying to make sense of all this.
“…Something inside this heart has died,
You’re in ruins…”
I could hear the same song over and over again, it was like the player got stuck and it was.