Singapore Adventure

Friday, October 27, 2006

Trekking Cat Ba
by venitha

Our trekking guide, Mat, smiles across the table at his four charges and tips his cigarette in greeting. He is slim, trim, and muscular, dressed in a and baggy khaki trousers. He's a bit too tall for my stereotype, and hey! Where's his green ? I, on the other hand, am playing my role to perfection, strongly resembling the too-many lumps of cheese, three cream-and-sugar coffees, and two crumpled almond croissants I had for breakfast. Slathered with sunscreen, doused in bug spray, and sporting overpriced branded tennis shoes, I am a vision of American tourist loveliness.

Mat, pronounced Mah in the nasally twang of sheep and durian hawkers, sets a fast pace on an overgrown path. I dismiss my nagging thoughts of landmines and quickly sack Jim's testosterone and its manly insistence on keeping up. Mat won't ditch us, at least I hope not, and installed in second place myself, I try to keep Mat in my sights while I breath more easily and enjoy views other than those of my filthy tennies.

When the path starts to climb, however, in the severe Asian we-don't-need-no-stinking-switchbacks method, my feet re-absorb my attention as I scramble for solid footing among loose dirt and wobbly rocks. Mat sprints effortlessly ahead, perfectly agile in his plastic flip flops. He pauses again and again to let us catch up, clearly oblivious to the mantra in my head: Slow and steady. That's fine with me, as it probably means he also can't hear the mantra it's drowning out: Follow the dink; you're in the pink. I listen for Mat's mantra, but hear nothing. The man's not even breathing hard.

At the top of a steep rise, Mat stops, arms akimbo, to watch us climb. I smile at him, he smiles back, but before I near him, he continues on. I nearly laugh aloud in admiration of this move I thought was mine. If only we were on skis and at altitude, buddy. And if only I had never moved to Singapore. Okay, that's not so funny. Plus it's really frickin' hot here. I think of Brian's favorite shop in Hanoi, Master Bake, and let the sunny light of juvenile giggles disperse the gathering storm cloud.

At our destination, a peak boasting stunning views of the limestone karsts of Halong Bay in one direction, the wild jungle expanse of Cat Ba National Park in the other, Mat crouches in a pose of which my body is incapable and lazily smokes a cigarette. He is completely dry, every hair on his thick dark head in place, while I am drenched - absolutely drenched - in sweat, a frizzy, smelly, dripping mess, wishing for nothing more than to be transported three hours forward in time, directly past the nine-course lunch awaiting us in the village, and to be deposited, already-sopping clothes and all, into the cool clear green waters of Halong Bay for the afternoon swim we've been promised.

As I follow Mat down the mountain, like countless Americans in Vietnam before me, I curse technology for letting me down. My current beefs: no time travel, no transporters, and, worst of all, no effective deodorant. Understandably, Mat keeps his distance, and again and again, he melts silently away. Just as I wonder which way to turn, I spy him through the trees, standing still, waiting patiently. He then saunters on casually, arms slung loosely at his sides, absent-mindedly twirling the silver watch fastened loosely round his wrist. I scramble after him, grabbing roots, trees, rocks, anything within reach that might stabilize my descent, and my wrist has swollen, my watch cutting off circulation.

Mat stops to assist us one-by-one through a steep, eroding drop, and I look at him as he reaches out for me. He is completely unaffected by our two-hour trek, and I smell neither his cigarette, which gave American troops away, nor nuoc mam, which gave the Viet Cong away. Smelling hugely terrible myself, like sunscreen, like perspiration, like over-consumption of dairy products, I quaver onto more level ground, check my balance, and let Mat's smooth brown hand slide from my sweaty grasp.