Playing taxi in the highlands

from: Room 416. Thanh Thuy guesthouse, Sapa, Vietnam.

Julie and I escaped the bustle of Sapa's Saturday market astride a feeble Minsk motorcycle and had finished enjoying a peaceful picnic overlooking one of the beautiful valleys dotted with wooden houses and bright streams. As Julie packed up, I walked to the bike where I had spotted a tiny little woman in the traditional garb of the H'mong. With what must have been seventy-five years under her suitably ethnic belt, she was a granny used to getting what she wanted.

She patted the bike seat and pointed down the road. I furrowed my brow and stared. She patted the seat, pointed down the road and began strapping her huge open-basket backpack to the back. No, no I shook my head and pointed in the opposite direction. We were finished with our picnic and were low on petrol - we were turning back towards town. She patted the seat, pointed, I pointed. It seems that all I was doing was driving a hard bargain as she soon started rummaging about in the basket while I stood there flummoxed. She whipped out a small woven bracelet and before I could protest she had tied it around my wrist with a satisfied grunt. Julie arrived on the scene. There was another rummage and Julie soon stood looking bewildered beneath an embroidered skull cap.

Seeing I had no other choice but to reciprocate for the 'gift' I kickstarted the bike and motioned granny to climb aboard. She did so with agility, slipped the straps of her basket around her shoulders and shuffled back to the extreme end of the seat. She started patting the sliver of seat left between us and motioned Julie aboard. Julie, it seemed, preferred to stay where she was, taking pictures of this odd development.
"You have to pass here on your way back to town anyway, just pick me up."

So off we bounce, this odd combination of generations and cultures, on a little Russian motorcycle down this bumpy dirt road in the middle of nowhere. I'm wondering when I'll sputter out of petrol. She's wondering, with tiny filthy hands clamped firmly on my Buddha belly, how do westerners get so fat? I can't wait to see the pictures of this one, I thought, as I glanced back at her little legs. Thin as my arms they were hard, shiny and hairless, so wrinkled it looked like she had scales. In everything but color they reminded me of hen's legs.

Eventually giving me a squeeze to signal we had arrived at the dirt track that led to her home, she hopped off when we came to a halt. Someone was waiting for her and together they had a good discussion before smiling and waving good-bye to me. They turned and walked down the long path towards some wooden huts in the distance while I sped back down the road laughing out loud and admiring the little strip of fabric fluttering around my wrist.

It is odd which things our minds choose to remember vividly. Grand temples fade, names of hotels and museums slip through our grasp yet recollections of unexpected encounters and everyday scenes stay crisp in my mind. Like the texture of an old ladies skin one sunny day near Sapa.

~ Nigel



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