24 May Things You Collect While Traveling
Seashells, foreign currency, maps, tickets, a hand-drawn picture of myself. As we travel, we collect all sorts of things; memories, experiences, souvenirs, stories. Littered throughout my house are small reminders of the people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and the places I have been fortunate enough to explore. Many of them have slowly started to blend into the background, no longer demanding my attention or forcing me to relive a moment. There is one that I haven’t been able to tuck away in one of my many storage boxes. One ‘souvenir’ that I just can’t seem to forget.
My husband, Aaron, and I were on a walking food tour through Saigon, Vietnam. We visited a handful of street vendors and open-air restaurants to sample the local food. The tour lasted a few hours, guided us through a neighborhood lacking any other tourists, and introduced us to exotic foods we probably would never have tried. The whole experience has gradually started to fade into one long evening. Though, there are a few parts that managed to cement themselves in my memory.
I still distinctly remember turning right down a poorly lit back alley and looking inside the front door of a small home on our left. Two men sat on the floor with large pieces of cardboard underneath them. They were covered in blood. Each was holding a large machete and each had a dead animal lying on their lap – well what was left of the animal. They were breaking down a skinned cow. Sitting right there on the ground a few feet from me. It was 9 o’clock at night and I was watching two guys chop the legs off a cow and toss the pieces into the corner. I’ve witnessed similar events in markets and butcher shops, but those are generally expected and my mind had a chance to prepare for the gruesome scene. Stumbling on this type of front room meat processing caught me off guard and painted a very distinct image that I won’t soon forget. The locals, on the other hand, didn’t even notice.
This beef would be sold at the local street market that we passed a block or two back. Large slabs of raw meat would be strung on giant metal hooks and hung along the street, waiting from someone to request a specific cut. The beef vendor setup across the walkway from the fish monger, the chicken vendor next to him. If dangling cuts of cow, or a freshly plucked chicken didn’t get your appetite growling, you could visit the fish vendor. There you can find large buckets of water filled with the day’s catch of seafood, still swimming of course.
The first time you see a street meat market in a third world country, it tends to be a bit shocking. In the West we are used to health codes, prepackaged everything, and headless meat. And while this was an unforgettable part of the food tour, it wasn’t the experience I catch myself thinking about every now and then. It isn’t the thing I have a picture of hanging on my wall that I see everyday – the same thing that I tuck in the back of my journal when I travel.
Nearing the end of our tour, we stopped in a tiny restaurant that was also the owner’s home. There were two tables inside and a few child-sized plastic lawn tables on the sidewalk. While we were enjoying a just-picked coconut, a young girl came up to us and smiled so big that we couldn’t help but smile back. She shook our hands, said “Hello” and continued to stand there smiling at us. A few moments later, her eyes lit up. She turned, ran to the freezer, took out an ice cream cup and handed it to Aaron. Then she started collecting other candies and snacks she could find and bringing them over for us. She tried to talk to us in broken English, told us about what she was learning in school, and was adorably infatuated with Aaron and his red hair. She was shy. She would talk to us for a few minutes, smile real big, put her hands over her face, and run away. A few moments later she would return with another treat for us to try.
As we were getting ready to leave, she ran back up to us one last time. She gave us both giant hugs and handed me a small piece of paper. She had drawn a picture of me as a gift. I hugged her again and couldn’t help but get a little choked up. She was so sweet, and incredibly smart, her family sold coconuts for pennies, and their living room was also their kitchen and the public dining room. I remember hoping that she was happy, healthy, and that she had access to all of the things she needed. I tucked the picture in my journal, gave her tiny little hands a squeeze, and said goodbye.
That picture not only reminds me of our food tour in Saigon, but it reminds me of the people in Vietnam. It reminds me why traveling is so important and how powerful it can be to see how the rest of the world lives. I often find myself staring at the picture, thinking about how sweet and shy she was… wondering if she remembers me.