By Dipika Kohli
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Where are you from?” he wants to know. The tour guide. It’s 7:45AM and I’m rubbing my eyes in the morning in Dalat.
“Asia,” I say, mindlessly.
It’s a lifelong question, this sense of fromness. Identity, the search for “who am I?” all that existential angst that only recently is starting to settle. Aging, perhaps.
“Okay, but where in Asia?” he says.
“Just, in general.”
I’m back in Vietnam, oddly, two years after arriving in Hanoi and zigzagging Southeast and South Asia on a quest for “the village.” Who are my people? To which tribe do I belong? That. That village. A lot of learning since, getting lost a thousand-fold only to discover the village is where you are. A year on the road. Just crossed a one-year anniversary in Phnom Penh.
But how could I tell this to Duc?
That’s his name. Duc has given me his business card. Now that we’re halfway there, introductions and formalities. Guess this is how small talk works. You tell me a little bit about you. I tell you a little bit about me. But I’m quiet. Nod, smile. Definitely turning Asian. Just, in general.
But I keep my eyes focused on the hills.
We’re going to Pongour.
I saw a picture one time online, with a bunch of monks walking across the waterfall. The caption read: “Dalat, Vietnam.” That’s why I was going. Gut feeling that there was a clue out there about the thing I’m supposed to be doing next. With my life. Big questions, the kind you don’t really want to deal with until, well, you absolutely have to. Got offline for a week. Got to the mountain.
And now I’ll go and see what those monks were doing.
Duc is 32, he will disclose in no time. I notice he’s busy with his own internet connections, booking Nha Trang hotels and a Saigon-Danang train. I can hear some of these words and guess. His phone, one of those oversized varieties popular in Asia, has miraculous roaming capacities for internet and I can see he’s getting a lot done.
Grand stuff. He can work, and I can sightsee. I won’t even complain about it. How everyone is plugged into the ether, talking to faceless “friends.” I’ll just not say anything because this is the only day in my life I’ll see Duc, and I don’t want to be dogmatic about mindless consumption of pictures of froyo and ziplines that overwhelm matters of taste and quality. Nope. I won’t get into it.
Interestingly, and not my usual speed, but I’ve got a private jeep.
No one else was going, so I’d bought two tickets last night to make it worth their while. I was kind of expecting it when it came. The inevitable question: what the heck was I doing on my own? It’s Asia. India or Vietnam or Cambodia or Thailand, everywhere you go, they ask. He says: “Why you go alone? No husband or… friend?”
I let out a little laugh.
There are no further questions.
We get close and then enter the site for the waterfall, and I suddenly go all zen.
I get this overwhelming sense that this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, right now, today. Here.
Isn’t mindfulness about the present moment, and everything?
Entering into the space, below, stepping down, one foot at a time. Close now. The falls. I can hear them. What a sensation. And then it hits me: it’s sensing that’s what’s important here. This isn’t a vicariously consumed picture, like my first instance of seeing Pongour online. This is… real life.
Water and light are one fabric, a soft and misty kind like Connemara’s light or the jangle of twisted vines in strawberry fields where I grew up in North Carolina. It’s the same texture, the kind of material that enfolds you in a cloak and gives you the whisper you’ve been waiting for your whole life. You’re okay now.
I put my feet in the water.
I put my whole self in the waterfall, too.
There was this vague idea you could do that, but it had been abstract. Monks crossing, Dalat Vietnam.
Sound and the light, rocks, palms, the soles of your feet. Water, always water, fast here, slow there, and by that part, there!, a gush. The body remembers things, like climbs in national parks or detours in countries where there are rivers and friends who will bike you towards them, and there is the connection, a different kind of connectedness, to the earthen floor and the people who are there with you to walk it.
I took my time, there, at Pongour. Climbing up, and yet still up. It’s been three weeks since coming home to Phnom Penh. I didn’t know what exact item had compelled me to investigate my way to that specific waterfall, but now, I think I do. It has something to do with what I alluded to, with Connemara. Why do I know about the quality of light in the west of Ireland? Part of me is European, like. Just, in general. More about this, next time. (end)
Dipika Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.