Thursday, January 20, 2011


The speed at which life can change is amazing. It seems we do not often pause to notice this, or the casual miracles that allow such alteration. Yet every now and then, we see with new eyes--what Shklovsky called defamiliarization--and these miracles are thrown into sharp relief.

One week ago, I was in California. One week ago, I put on rubber boots and a jacket to go outside, wading through icy mud to feed the horses, walk the dogs, gather kindling for the wood stove. At night, I hated have to pee because that meant crawling out from under my two down comforters, walking into the sub-freezing night, and standing on an icy deck in my underwear. And yet, I had adapted enough to the cold that this was preferable to putting on my clothes and grabbing a flashlight to head to the outhouse. I would go to sleep to the sound of the roaring creek; I would wake to the sound of birds (and occasionally dogs;) my nearest neighbors were a 5-minute walk away through the woods; the air was clean, the water pure, the night sky glowed with stars. One week ago, I had to drive for half an hour to get into town, and it only took ten minutes or less to drive all the way through town. A traffic jam might involve 20 cars--trucks, really--and extend that driving time to perhaps 12 minutes. Maybe 15, on a bad day. The town had two supermarkets, two drugstores, two bookstores, and one movie theater that played three movies, once per day. One week ago.

I flew halfway around the planet into a different world. Saigon is outside of my experience. I could see very little of it from the plane from my aisle seat, through back pain and spasms. Once in the cab, heading towards Dave's friend Sean's apartment, the city seemed endless and indivisible. No landmarks stood out from the endless ranks of shops and high-rise apartments--I cannot quite say tenements--nor could I see street signs through the endless boil of motorbikes, scooters, taxis, and trucks. I expected to see a fatal accident every half-minute, yet they weave in and out, ignore lights, cut each other off, pack ten bikes wide into two lanes, and generally behave as if traffic laws are something to give the finger to as you speed by..without a scratch or a pause. Traffic moves, here, though it looks as though every major street should be a parking lot until after Tet.

The city is crowded--14 million people unofficially call Ho Chi Minh City home. It is loud, it is dirty and chaotic and deeply strange. I am illiterate here; what signs I could see meant nothing to me. Worse than illiterate, actually, because I cannot begin to guess anything, not even sounds, from the combinations of letters I see. Every letter is buried in a salad of tone and accent marks, none of which mean a damn thing to me.

The differences are made all the sharper because of the ease and speed with which I accomplished the move. To cross the ocean in a day is a miracle of almost inconceivable magnitude--I was going to add 'a hundred years ago' but it still is miraculous. We don't look at it head-on, yet our scale of time, motion, space, and velocity as human beings is the same as it was. Machines don't change this, or at least planes don't; we see the end result, but we don't experience viscerally how fast and how far the plane really travels.

Except, sometimes, if we are lucky, we step off that plane onto the far side of the world, into a new and uncertain life, and we allow ourselves to understand once more how amazing it all is.

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