People from the Mekong Delta are known in Vietnam as the friendliest anywhere in the country. Their reputation of being warm, generous and hospitable precedes them. I experienced no different in my time there.
Worshippers at the main sanctuary in the Jade Emperor Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. The statues in this temple are shrouded in a thick fog from the incense that burns around the clock and leaves a lingering scent of sandalwood and burning timber. It all adds to the sense of reverence and mystery as one enters the temple. Quiet and dark, one enters near a Chinese inscription that reads “The Light of Buddha Shines on All.”
Two men play Xiangqi, a traditional Chinese board game very popular here in Vietnam and in many places with large ethnic Chinese communities. Also known as “Chinese Chess.” You can’t walk around Saigon very long without seeing pairs of men playing this game out on the streets.
The beaches at sunset here are like family reunions everyday. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children and groups of friends together enjoying the last moments of light and washing away the day’s inequities with sea air and togetherness. A sense of community is woven into the very fiber of this place.
Charlotte and Marcus (known to some of us as Charcus or Marlotte) recently got married in a small village in the Pyrenees region of southwestern France. Marcus’ mum and dad retired to a beautiful farmhouse down a country lane in the village of Caubous, where one of the most charming and delightfully bucolic weddings I’ve ever experienced took place.
About 1.5 hours southwest of Toulouse are a cluster of villages lying in the shadow of the mighty Pyrenees mountain range. Forming a natural border between France and Spain, this mountainous corner of the country has all that you’d expect of a jaunt to rural France but is unspoilt by the crowds you’d find in more well worn parts.
The neighbouring village of Castelnau-Magnoac was the epicentre of pre-wedding festivities and guests descended upon it for morning rituals. The village ticked away as normal with the busyness of the morning market and villagers running their weekend errands. The square was occupied with stalls of fresh produce, cheese and baked goods and the cafes warmly welcomed us visitors in for pain au chocolats and cafe au laits. The fogginess of early morning eventually gave way to sunshine and newly energised from a quiet breakfast overlooking the village centre, guests readied themselves for the celebrations to begin.
The ceremony took place in the village church down the same lane from the farmhouse. Guests as well as locals piled in to see Marcus and Charlotte join hands in marriage and exchange their vows. As no one had gotten married in the village for well over a decade, this was certainly an event not to miss. Surrounded by loved ones, they became Mr. and Mrs. Littlejohns, and not a dry eye was found. The exit from the church to reception saw the entire wedding party walking casually in the warm afternoon sun towards the house.
From this point on you were in a dream. There was light music in the background being played by Charlotte’s talented musician friends, a lemonade station upon entry to the property, an aromatic hog roast greeting each passerby as well as mason jars filled with floral delights leading you up the gravel drive and into the back garden. Canopied by an old, blooming tree whose reach extended across the entire cocktail area, each guest nibbled on canapes, sipped champagne and thanked themselves profusely for having the good sense to RSVP “yes” to an affair such as this.
With atelier stations serving shaved jambon, smoked salmon, and other grilled selections all overlooking the surrounding countryside, the atmosphere was not surprisingly one of satisfaction, excitement and utter class. The evening carried on as entrees were served, wine was drunk and meaningful words were spoken. Music carried us into the night and joyful proclamations of our affection for them both were communicated with drinks in hand and songs in our hearts.
Marcus and Charlotte throughout the day were as they always are, present in the moment and the absolute picture of ease and contentment. Both from sporting backgrounds and years of experience managing athletes and the events that promote them, these two are usually more comfortable in the background. But for those that know them well, we’re aware of the paradox of this. Two people as highly intelligent, openly warm and generous, unendingly interesting in thought and conversation, exceedingly talented in life and work, and absolutely lacking in ego and self-importance, never successfully fade into any background. Their brilliance shines wherever they choose to stand. And standing together on this Saturday there was never a more perfect day put together to symbolise the internal and external converging of two synchronous souls and the celebration that should follow such a life-affirming occasion.
Lots of love to you both. It was a privilege. xxxx
I wouldn’t say that my life is significantly worse since I decided to give up caffeine. Kind of in the same way that I wouldn’t say my life is better now that my limbs have all fallen off. Though I now happily don’t get the shakes and an adrenaline-fueled surge that makes me feel like I’m either about to save the world from fire breathing dragons or have a nervous breakdown resulting in behaviors normally reserved for the second day of menses: fetal position, possible whimpering, definite consumption of over-the-counter-drugs. It just started to affect me in ways I couldn’t have foreseen in my 20’s. I fully blame the post-30 aging process. Not that I miss the occasional Diet Coke or Fanta. Those were always second-tier beverages for me. But coffee. Oh rich, aromatic, sometimes frothy but always life-affirming coffee. How I mourn thee.
I sat Shiva after the death of my relationship with coffee. I’m not Jewish, but formally devoting a whole seven days to my grief just seemed like the right thing to do. It was a long week. I eulogized its scent. I memorialized its taste. What would mornings even be now? Was it worth waking up to find out? Sunrise to me was now a reminder of my loss. The various coffee making devices I’d collected over the years, the mug shelf, the leftover Lavazza, even the milk carton. All painful reminders of a life that was no more.
I’d traipse down into the kitchen and suddenly the whole room was a foreign concept to me. Like crossing a border into unknown lands my kitchen had become a vast landscape of sights that no longer made sense to me. Everything’s purpose seemed to relate directly back to the consumption of coffee. The bread was for eating in between sips of coffee. The toaster for toasting the bread that was eaten in between sips of coffee. The spoons for stirring the milk that went into the coffee. The window for staring out of while sipping the first coffee of the day. The dishwasher was for washing the coffee mugs and the coffee-stained recipe books were almost too much to bear. My favorite room in the house had become my prison.
Several weeks carried on like this until I realized that I would actually have to confront the terrible truth of things: that I would be living a decaffeinated life. I used to judge this kind of “decaf” lifestyle. The people who’d forego the real stuff and instead settle for a lesser version of it, and in turn, a lesser version of life. Or so I thought. I didn’t want to extract the flavor out of my life! But I started slowly, sauntering down to the high street and carefully deliberating which café it’d be at that I sold my soul to a cup of decaf. I chose the least populated and therefore one with the least amount of witnesses to this crime of desperation. It was dreadful, of course, but it didn’t kill me. And that was a start.
I continued much in the same way for a year and eventually found the establishments in London whose decaf didn’t taste like home roasted tar. By the eleventh month I’d even begun to perk up at the thought of a hot cup of milky decaf. Things were going along swimmingly. I was tremble and anxiety free thanks to my new lifestyle and I had an extra spring in my step. Which was surprising, given the lack of caffeine and all. But then something happened. I moved to Vietnam. And all hell broke loose.
Coffee in Vietnam is as ubiquitous as Hipsters wearing flannel ironically in Brooklyn. You might say that coffee is ubiquitous everywhere nowadays, but as one of the world’s foremost coffee growing regions, this place simply doesn’t run without it. As Vietnam’s economy continues to grow and it races its way into becoming a middle-income country, the exhaust fumes it leaves behind are made of pure caffeine. Try asking someone in Vietnam for a Grande Decaf. Just try. I promise the look you’ll receive will be a mix of confusion and utter disdain at the thought of it. What the hell is decaf? Is what I’m sure they said to me in Vietnamese the first time I stooped so low as to ask. Decaffeinated simply doesn’t exist. Asking for decaf coffee in Vietnam is the moral equivalent of asking for a pint of Guinness in Ireland “but please could you hold the head?” The foamy head is its essence. Asking to remove it of its essence is an act of treason, an act of such crude and incomparable stupidity that you’d be lucky to escape a swift and uncomfortable deportation. It’s embarrassing, and you’re a disgrace for ever having uttered the words. That’s what it’s like trying to live a decaffeinated life in a proudly caffeinated place: Fraught with danger and the constant threat of accidentally shoving your foot into your caffeine-starved mouth.
Total abstinence from coffee-related products and non-caffeinated beverages (there’s only one, water) were my only options. Not only would I never know the pleasure of Vietnam’s world-renowned beans, now I couldn’t even moderately enjoy the fake stuff. So as not to feel too sorry for myself I started to compile a list of things I’m grateful for that I am allowed to consume, but I only got as far as 1.) Bagels with cream cheese and 2.) Bacon. But then quickly remembering that I no longer drink coffee and therefore no longer eat breakfast, in protest of the former, my list was redundant. With no concrete reminder of reasons in my life to carry on, I was back to being a very well-hydrated crybaby.
But then something else happened. Just as I was becoming the very worst version of myself and an utterly impractical kind of being that rests all of her life’s happiness on a commodity crop, another kind of drinkable plant species was placed before me. A coconut. Its shell expertly macheted off leaving a small hole on top from which to place my straw. I took its fibrous husk in my hands and brought it closer. It was full to the brim with its water. Cold and subtly flavored it passed through the straw and into my consciousness. It was refreshing, it was hydrating, it was energizing. And drinking it felt badass in a Katniss-Everdeen-meets-Bear-Grylls kind of way. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? It was sold on every street corner and was cheaper than even water. I could buy them in cafes and restaurants I could buy them on the beach. Things were looking up. No I couldn’t put it in a Styrofoam cup and clasp my cold hands around it during the Winter, but I was now living in Vietnam so who was I kidding. With 90% humidity and a mean annual temperature of 90 degrees, making the switch to a cold drink started looking a whole lot like self-preservation to me.
A month has gone by and Coconut Water has become my everything. Between that and regular ole’ water I am now the most hydrated person in Ho Chi Minh City, or perhaps, the world. My bathroom breaks are inconveniently often and sometimes carrying a large coconut shell down the road doesn’t feel quite practical, but it works. I still have moments of weakness, and sometimes when watching the condensed milk being poured by the barista into a steaming cup of Arabica beans I have to stop myself from running at full speed towards it mouth open and tongue hanging out. But those moments are becoming fewer and farther in between. Luckily for the baristas.
The way I see it, this is only the start of a sacrificial-themed thirties. The killing off of habits that once worked for me and now no longer do. The beginning of a long road of things I will need to either stop doing or start doing in order to improve my well being as I ease into this fourth decade of life. No caffeine. More exercise. Less ice cream. More night cream. Less Netflix. More burpees. It’s all happening. I’m still young but I’m not. Not really. Caffeine was only the tip of the iceberg. And my slowly aging body is the Titanic. I just hope Rose leaves me some damn room on the makeshift raft.
Sometime after I consumed my partially intact 3am La Bamba burrito off of the gum-littered pavement back in college was about the same time I began to discover the precarious nature of the intestine. Positioned cosily between the stomach and the anus, and resembling what might be the crossbred spawn of a rattlesnake and a fruit roll up, the intestine digests food while simultaneously destroying your dreams. No other organ in the body can be held responsible for such blatant disregard for one’s self image, except for perhaps the colon. Which is equally in cahoots to demolish your soul. The intestine cares only for the digestion of food and nutrient release into the bloodstream and has little regard for its host body’s psychological or emotional wellbeing. Bad timing is its most pronounced character trait and as it’s an uncultured and uncivilized biological structure, it unsurprisingly has zero interest in the refined art of subtlety.
Before one particular mammoth car journey from the city streets of Arusha to the far away Maasai villages of northern Tanzania, I decided an indifferent approach to the intestinal lottery was the most rational. Having spent the previous day within embarrassingly close proximity to the lavatory, and not feeling especially confident that the present day should be spent in any other way, I determined that I would face the predicament head on. Whatever would be would be, and if it decided to be, I would “let it be.” A pathetic philosophy for a traveller with stomach issues, so much for whispering words of wisdom, but I figured mainstream John Lennon credo was good enough for me and so on I went.
Three of us headed off on the journey in the seven seater 4 x 4 and it became clear early on that we were going to be filling the space. A fourth and fifth jumped in with two small bags of belongings and what started as a reasonably tame and spacious interior soon became quite social. Not having yet left the confines of the city we navigated our way around neighbourhoods and began to acquire more bodies and personal affects. Five people soon turned into seven plus a baby. The floor of the car was soon a hold all and the roof began to shake as items were chucked up and ropes were tied to steady the load. Soon, every square inch of available space was as valuable as Manhattan real estate and with our bodies now involuntarily molded into positions a contortionist would envy, we headed off into the bush. The first 30 minutes went by quickly. With the frenzy of urban activity going on outside staring out the window proved a most effective time travel. But by the time we’d reached the edge of the city and embarked upon more suburban-like pastures, my intestine made itself known with a few ominous groans. “Not promising” I thought, but distracted by the life outside the next hour passed uneventfully. By this point everyone had grown accustomed to the seating arrangement and were quite comfortable in the realization that for the next 9 hours their sweaty flesh would be pressed against anothers. Because of the time it took to round everyone up in the city we’d gotten on the open road quite late and I could gather from my limited (note: nonexistent) Swahili, it seemed everyone was anxious for an early lunch. As we piled out into a roadside hut for goat stew and rice it was quite obvious to me that by indulging in this early feast I was making a potentially mortifying experience ever more likely. But I was hungry, and over the past few weeks I’d rather grown to like the taste of goat. Logic took another backseat to food as it commonly does in my life, and the lunch was enjoyed with great gusto.
We finished up, repositioned ourselves in the car and as we waited to leave we clocked three more people approaching the vehicle from the other side of the road each with a shoulder bag, one with a baby, and another with a large sack of rice. “Surely not” I thought. “I mean how? Is it even physically possible?” The answer was yes. As the final 3.5 passengers liquidated themselves in order to fit into our miraculous clown car, we once again set off, stupefied as to how the laws of physical matter had been disproved right there before our very eyes. Once the shock wore off there it was again, a rumble. The intestinal kind. “Please, not now.” I couldn’t even get up and out of the car if I’d tried. With a sack of rice between my feet, camera equipment on one thigh and a baby on the other I’d have needed at least a fortnight’s warning to pry myself out of the ‘hotel on wheels.’ Not to mention we were in predator territory, making roadside squatting ever so slightly panic-inducing. And so, as humans do in times of despair, I began to beg. “Dear sweet beautiful intestine, if you behave yourself I swear to feed you nothing but organic fruits and vegetables for the rest of our time together. No processed sugars, pinky swear. I’ll even throw in some wheatgrass juice twice weekly and on special occasions.” But another rumble was its reply. Now the anxiety properly set in. With beads of sweat dripping down my temples I opened the window hoping the fresh air would improve my critical thinking skills. I still believed diplomacy and some hardball negotiations with my organ would be a plausible way out of this, but I was willing to try anything. I’d once read that if you firmly squeeze the fleshy area on your hand between your thumb and index finger you can get migraines to go away. Though my problem was located slightly further south, my knowledge of DIY acupuncture was unfortunately limited to just this one tidbit and so I began to desperately squeeze my hand in the hope that perhaps the trick had more of a “whole body” effect. Sadly, it did not, and the cramps continued to assault my insides. Just as I was beginning to sink into new levels of despair we screeched to a startling halt. For what reason I did not know. Until I saw them. Gliding delicately across the road one after one utterly indifferent to our presence was a tower of giraffes. They were silent and graceful as they put one long leg in front of the other and their necks moved back and forth as if independent from the rest of their gargantuan body. We sat and watched with our necks craned upwards and our eyes focused as these creatures went about their daily regime oblivious to how glorious a sight they were to us unsuspecting humans.
We carried on hastily into the countryside and found ourselves amidst the famed Serengeti plains. Galloping buffalo, inquisitive Zebra and a horizon sparsely dotted with Acacia trees greeted us as we sped towards our destination. Mere minutes must have passed but so too did the wrenching pain in my stomach. But I wasn’t so convinced at my apparent stroke of luck. I waited for the daggers to return. I listened for the rumble. Nothing. Had my lucky number come up? Was I being spared a lifetime worth of dark and shame-filled memories of the day I forgot to pack Immodium? It seemed so. I remained perfectly still for the next hour to assist nature in ratifying the peace treaty it had just negotiated with my bowels. Signed, sealed and nothing was delivered, thankfully.
Two hours passed as we rode through the undulating fertile hills of northwest Tanzania and I couldn’t believe my luck. I was out of the danger zone and on a flight out of the gastrointestinal warzone. I’d actually won the lottery. It was one of the most beautiful moments of relief a human being can experience besides surviving rush hour on the tube in central London on a Friday. Once again I’d crossed the psychological threshold of fear and ecstasy and lived to tell the tale, confidence intact. It was my crawling-out-of-the-sewage-pipe escape from Shawshank. It was my descent from the summit of Everest. I’d won the lottery and I hadn’t even bought a ticket.