Why do I travel? I’m searching for those moments when I lose myself. When I stop thinking. When my brain shuts off. When I just notice what is around me.
I’m zooming around on my rented motorbike, observing the mountains outside of Bac Ha, a tiny town in northern Vietnam. The rice paddies stretch around me like layers of a cake. The contrast between the bright blue clear sky and the endless expanse of green makes me take a deep breath of gratitude.
Behind me, another motorbike zips round the curves of the mountainside. My friend Niko is driving, with Tessa on the back. Tessa is a dear friend from childhood who is doing a Southeast Asia loop with me. We just met Niko The Crazy German at a hostel in Hoi An and have been traveling with him for a few weeks. In the mornings, Niko and I head to the roof of our cheap hotel for exercise: he is teaching me boxing, and I am showing him yoga. All three of us are artists and musicians, and we often sing and draw together.
Over the din of my motorbike I can just barely hear Niko from his scooter belting out our favorite song, a catchy hip-hop song perfect for easy harmonies. Despite the breeze, it’s excruciatingly hot, and my sweaty shirt sticks to me.
We steer the scooters on the winding roads, stopping whenever we feel like it. I try to let my spontaneity take over, sometimes heading off the main road to see where the potholed dirt trails lead. On one of these diversions, we find a tiny village made of a few wooden shacks. We park our bikes and sit by the river, watching the water buffalo cool off. Niko starts beatboxing, and we laugh and laugh as we take turns narrating the water buffalo’s banal life in story and song. The villagers stare and smile at us like we are friendly space aliens. A man sells us popsicles from a decrepit looking cart and gives us a huge grin.
A few minutes later we are back on the road, and I see some women bent over in a rice field, wearing those triangular Vietnamese hats. Spontaneously I decide to stop and see if I can join them. When else will I have a chance like this?
I pull over, and Niko and Tessa stop behind me. I explain my intention, and they wish me luck. Tessa takes my camera to document my efforts.
Smiling and waving, I approach the women. I ask by gesturing if I can help them pick the rice. Giggling, they invite me to come try. I take off my shoes and step into the brown water. The squishy mud between my toes is an instant shock, and the water feels HOT!
The women show me how to gently but firmly pull up the green stalks, shake off the water and mud, and place them in a small bundle in the basket. For a few minutes I try to keep up with them, but they are at least 10 times faster than me! They don’t stop giggling, and I can’t stop smiling.
Zooming back down the road, a woman waves us over from the porch of her small house. She has a cup and kettle, it looks like she wants to offer us some tea. Niko and Tessa are in front this time, and Niko decides to pull over.
We soon discover it is not tea that she is serving. She is excited to share her hard liquor with us – I think it was rice whisky? – and very persuasively gets us each to take a shot.
Driving back slightly buzzed was perhaps not the safest idea, but it is a feeling that is forever entrenched in my memory. Up ahead I see my friends slowing down to avoid a small herd of water buffalo. A woman and two small kids ride on the back of one; they smile and wave at me.
I take a deep breath, look around, and see the world and its infinite possibilities stretch out around me. My mind feels fuzzy but alive. The world is in vivid colors, bright greens and blues.
Here I am on a motorbike in Vietnam, completely free, at a time in my life with no mortgage or kids or responsibilities… I am free, totally and completely, and am in the perfect place.
Now that I am home again in the USA, I close my eyes, and imagine the feeling of the wind on my face in the hot sticky day. I soul travel to a time when I was not thinking.