Don’t stop and Never Run

26 08 2011

Part IV: Sand, Smiles and Anaphylaxis

I laid in bed speculating what friends and family would say about me after I was gone. Who would read my eulogy?

In case it has yet to reveal itself, the time I spent in Vietnam was defined primarily by an over-zealous attempt to see the entire country in one week.  In retrospect this was a horrible idea. I clearly underestimated the size of the country, and the length of time it would take to get from here to there. Just as soon as we got to Honoi, it was time to leave. I put on my heavy backpack and headed for the road. Our next stop was Da Nang, the third largest city in Vietnam.

Centrally located, Da Nang is famous for its international port and pivotal role during the Vietnam war.  For being such a large city, Da Nang was surprisingly quaint and cheery. For the first time on our trip I felt like maybe I could call this a vacation. The sand was fine and white, the ocean breeze cool and fragrant. The beach was framed by a wide sidewalk lined with palm trees wrapped in colored lights. Instantly refreshing, not just the climate, Da Nang’s vibe was noticeably cooler. It was less crowded, quieter, and people were smiling. We arrived late in the evening without a clue as to where we would stay. But by now I had loosened up a little, and wasn’t imagining myself toothless and begging for change. Blindly, we pointed to an address in my notes, and off we went.

Our beach hotel was perfect, directly across from the ocean, ten dollars a night felt like grand larceny. The next morning was decidedly a full-blown beach day. I was so excited to sit and do nothing that I barely remembered to put sunscreen on. I suggested we go early, because I was sure that such a pristine looking beach would crowd quickly. But as we took our sandals off to walk barefoot on the silk sand I realized we were all alone. Where is everyone? Other than a few people scattered further down the beach we were the only people enjoying the lounge chairs and sun. Mike was a bit disappointed. Where are all the girls in bikinis? I felt like a celebrity on some private oasis. Shut up Mike. The water felt like a freshly drawn bath. I had never felt ocean water that warm before; I didn’t brace or slow as I walked further into the deep. I put my head under the waves and tasted the salt on my lips. I felt every muscle in body relax, every worry lift away, as I floated on my back listening to the muffled sound of the South China Sea in my ears.

I feel asleep on the sand in-between reading chapters of my book. When I woke, the sun was beginning to set. Only when the sun started to go down, did the sand and ocean begin to fill with people. It was a wonderful sight to behold. Families. Groups of teen boys and girls. Grandparents holding hands. Beautiful. Quickly I started to feel several eyes on me. It’s my hair! It’s got to be my wild, curly light-brown hair! I was the only westerner as far as I could see in both direction.

Out for a swim, I watched some young boys testing their strength by swimming as far out as their manhood dared. I thought it would be fun to play along. So I swam as far as I could, until I could no longer feel the soft floor, or see Mike’s head bobbing up and down. One boy called to me and came quickly over. He wanted to race. We swam further out than anyone else, all alone, out until we exchanged a look that silently acknowledged a tie. Apparently, I’m not the only one  concerned about riptides and man-eating sharks. Back on the shore I rested and watched the beach continue to fill with people. The carless ease with which they embraced the beach and ocean, paying no mind to proper swim wear or looking hot, was special, as  they continued to shyly smile at me, curiously passing by several unnecessary times.

Cruising long the twisted walkway that edged the beach, I was attracting a lot of attention. Groups of people on the sand, under trees, riding bikes or picnicking, were looking up and staring. An old man tapped his friend on the shoulder and pointed. Behind my dark sunglasses, they were unaware of  my gaze, as they whispered and locked onto me. At first I was uncomfortable. Da Nang was clearly a vacation spot, the beach was beautiful, more hotels than I could count ran up and down the water front. So why did it seem like these people had never seen a westerner before? Some cafe menus had English in small print, so I figured it wasn’t that I had stumbled into some forbidden Vietnamese only beach club. But still. Scoping out the restaurants for a late dinner, we passed a group of middle-aged woman sitting around a large table under an umbrella. They watched me from a distance. Why are they staring like that? Mike was pretty sure they were checking him out. I waved at them. Maybe it was just harmless curiosity. They lit up in smiles. Covering their mouths in laughter and waving back, I knew that I had nothing to fear from this feeling that had been eating me all day. And the sky became dark.

I’m still not sure why there weren’t more foreigners in Da Nang. But I found that waving and smiling at the curious onlookers was a pleasant solution to my exaggerated anxiety. Sometimes I forget to smile, even when I’m in a good mood. My mom use to tell me that I wear a hard look, even when I don’t mean to. Sharing the beach in Da Nang was a needed reminder that universal power exists in our simplest expressions. It costs nothing to smile, and we get back so much in return. But on the second evening of our stay in Da Nang, I received much more than I’d smiled for.

During our beach day, we made chit-chat with several people lounging about the sand. Two of them happened to be staying at our hotel. So when they saw Mike and I in the lobby, they approached us with an invitation to dinner. We were all for it. Our new friends, two Vietnamese women, spoke exceptional English and were just as eager to learn from us what we wanted to learn from them. They were on holiday, escaping their home in Hanoi. Hanoi was so much fun!-I lied. It was wonderful to be in their company, people who could help navigate a menu; shed some much-needed light on the things we had experienced to far.

Sitting outside at one of those miniature-plastic-tea-part-tables I told you about, our hosts asked us what we would like to order. Seafood was definitely on the menu. Inside the building I could see the colored tubs and glass tanks that were keeping dinner alive. Anything. I trust you. Mike was a bit more apprehensive, but he went with it. You wouldn’t believe the spread they ordered. Barbecued squid, fish in chili sauce, steamed prawns with lemon and blue colored crabs. I was excited. Mike looked like he was going to pass out. It was a messy ordeal, but I enjoy the slow and delicate process of working at shellfish. One of the women showed Mike how to tear apart a blue crab and get at the meat. This is too much work!

I woke up. I can’t breathe. My throat. Something is wrong. I was in serious pain. My throat was on fire, my tonsils were the size off golf balls. I couldn’t drink. Mike ran to the front desk to find some help, while I laid in bed speculating what my friends and family would say about me after I was gone. Who would read my eulogy? I wonder if all my ex-boyfriends will come. Mike barged in the room. He had tracked down  the women we had been to dinner with, and one of them was willing to come with us to the hospital. Get up. Get dressed. I was so tired and uncomfortable, all I wanted to do was sleep, but Mike pushed me along and into the waiting taxi.

The rest of the morning and most of the day I don’t remember. I know I went to a clinic, and I know they gave me all kinds of instructions, like: when to take this, and how many of these, and only after eating… Yeah. Okay. Whatever. I popped a green pill the size of a horse tranquilizer into the back of my throat and choked as I tried to push it down with water. The woman from the hotel was genuinely concerned; she did most of the talking. I paid for the medication, which was dirt cheap, and headed back to the hotel to eat and start the first round of my new drug regiment.

I could hardly eat, my throat had almost completely closed up. But fortunately I was in Asia, where soup is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I let the scolding broth pour down my inflamed throat. It felt amazing. I took a colorful assortment of pills and hoped for the best. I was experiencing anaphylaxis: an inflammatory  reaction to the shellfish we had enjoyed the night before; well, I’m assuming that’s what caused it, which is strange because I’ve enjoyed many crustaceans and never come close to death. I guess my attempts at strengthening my immune system had failed. I’m going to stop washing my hands when I get back to Korea.

Maybe it was the lack of food in my belly, mixed with God knows what they gave me, the horse tranquilizer was a mild steroid I learned, but I was in a medicated haze for the rest of the day. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t remember where I had put anything. Mike was clearly irritated that I had become an adult-sized 4-year-old, but I couldn’t help it, and he understood. All I could do was sit quietly and stare, off into some space that may or may not have existed. And that’s pretty much what I did for the rest of the day, when Mike wasn’t dragging me around, getting us where we needed to go; watching to making sure that I didn’t wander into the street accidentally, chasing a butterfly.

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