One of my favorite parts of traveling is the unexpected things that inevitably occur… The four frantic Jack Russell Terriers that came tearing out of a pub in Ireland, skittering across the winding road to my car, just at the point when I need a little extra merriment. A beautiful little girl running up to me at an orphanage in Zambia, telling me excitedly that her name was Katherine and then refusing to let go of my hand for the rest of the day. The bright spot of a mother’s love after an impossibly difficult day in Zimbabwe (involving a train wreck and a dilapidated hospital full of hundreds of scared and wounded people**). The friends made along the way, the surprising meals full of exotic ingredients, etc., etc.
The unexpected is already showing up on this journey – despite the fact that I have yet to leave the country. An everyday conversation on a hike with my friend Elizabeth (and her AWESOME dog Luigi) turns to talk of travel and she educates me about VPNs. Perhaps, you may think. not the most exciting of topics. But who knew that I needed to set up something like Hide My Ass in order to surf my favorite sites from afar. Not me! (NOT that I want to spend a great deal of time online during this journey … but I’m gonna need to chill out with a wee bit of Netflix from time to time.)
And other conversations with various friends that are leading me to all manner of fun – a private tour of a fish sauce facility on a remote island in Vietnam, a friend of a friend of a friend to dine with when I arrive in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and countless other connections.
Perhaps my favorite unexpected bit of joy in relation to this journey, however, is Babe the Water Buffalo. She didn’t come with that moniker … I bestowed it upon her the moment I saw her … thinking of Babe the Blue Ox who appeared in Fargo (one of my all time fave flicks). My Babe was a gift from, yup, a new friend I met because I decided to take this journey. Jeanne is a friend of a friend (they know each other through a “meat club” … god, how I love the Bay Area) who works for Buffalo Tours – a company specializing in customized tours in SE Asia. Along with the assistance of her sweet colleague Loan in Vietnam, Jeanne has been developing itineraries that are surpassing my wildest dreams. And we have, along the way, become friends. I think Loan might be a new friend as well … she has, apparently, referred to me as “the pleasant American lady.”
But back to Babe… Made by local women in Mai Chau, Vietnam, these colorful, enchanting water buffalo are commissioned and purchased by Buffalo Tours to help support the tribal people. The women use scraps of local clothing to make these magical creatures – each one exquisitely sewn and beautifully unique. The water buffalo is a symbol for steadfastness, loyalty and consistency in Vietnamese culture. It’s a very valued creature as it brings good fortune to all.
So I have decided that Babe is going to be my traveling buddy. I’m imagining a bit of a “Where’s Waldo” type of situation … Hopefully you’ll see her show up in various photos – hanging out by temples in Angkor Wat, in a tree house in the jungles of Laos and sunning herself on the white beaches of Bali. I’m just excited to have something that represents such beautiful qualities. Something made with such care. Something that will remind me of friendship … and the magic and joy brought forth by the unexpected.
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* * As I mentioned above … there was one especially difficult day in Zimbabwe ten years ago. It’s a story I think of often… I even wrote it out at one point but never shared it. So this seems like an appropriate time:
One day a bunch of volunteers was hanging out, waiting for lunch when one of the project leaders came rushing up. Two trains had collided outside of Victoria Falls and they needed help in town. We were asked if anyone had first aid experience. I tentatively raised my hand, explaining timidly that I had been a life guard years and years before (timidly because, really? A lifeguard?). They nonetheless eagerly accepted my offer and, along with my friend, Jen we scurried off – racing down the dusty hill toward town.
When we arrived at the hospital the gates were surrounded by hundreds of local Zimbabweans, hoping to learn news of their loved ones. Ambulances and trucks of every shape and size carried in the injured. As soon as our old VW bus came to a stop we rushed out toward the open door of the old hospital. It was chaos. We quickly slapped on some gloves and got to work, rushing gurneys into the hospital, attempting to help organize patients, trying to find anything useful to do.
A helicopter landed shortly after we arrived so we rushed over to take the survivors toward the emergency room. Then we heard the whir of another ‘copter so we hurried out with wheelchairs and gurneys. Once the rotors stopped, someone yelled from inside, “Only bodies.” The helicopter didn’t have any survivors, only three of the deceased. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so helpless as when I wheeled that empty wheelchair back to the hospital entrance.
We were soon distracted however with the duty of making sure the multitude of survivors, patients, doctors and nurses had water. As we dolled out cups of water and sadza (a simple maize porridge), the injured looked curiously at my white face, smiles erupting when the cup of cool water was placed in their awaiting hands.
In the middle of the mayhem, a woman who had been on the train and was waiting for a doctor grabbed my hand. She was convinced I had been on the train with her. I sat with her and held her hand, gently trying to convince her we had never met. She would have none of it.
Throughout the day, I checked in on her as she lay in the uncomfortable looking metal bed. She had a bit of a concussion and needed to stay the night and somehow, despite the fact that we didn’t speak the same language, asked me to contact her daughter. The hospital only had one working phone line, so I asked a priest who was walking by with an ancient-looking cell phone dangling around his neck to help out. I was thrilled that we were able to get through and alleviate her daughter’s concern – and the look of gratitude from my new friend was pure joy.
At the end of the day, I wandered into the ward where her small bed sat against the far wall. I told her I had to leave. She motioned for me to get the crumpled paper bag that was sitting under her bed and, once she had it in her hands, she pulled out three beaded necklaces. She tried to hand them to me, insisting that I take them to remember her. I tried mightily to resist – pleading with my eyes that she keep them. I knew she didn’t have much, that these necklaces were likely very dear to her. But I could not change her mind. I clutched them in my hands, wrapped my arms around her and embraced her, wiping tears away as I walked out of the room.
Before we headed back to the lodge, we were asked to help feed the patients in the maternity ward. The last patient had just given birth to a premature, three pound baby girl. The tiny nugget was the size of my hand, swaddled in simple white linens and wrapped in her mother’s arms. No fancy incubators here. When we entered the warm, cramped room and asked the baby’s name, the mother gazed at us, finally asking in broken English, “what do you think I name her?” There was quite a language barrier, so for a time we didn’t know what to say. “Precious,” I heard myself saying… thinking of the name of one of my favorite lion guides back at camp. “Maybe you can call her Precious?” She grinned widely, leading me to believe that she just might bestow this name upon her tiny daughter.