A Year of Being a Nomad in Asia
By Carlos Peñalba
The Year I Became a Nomad: A journey through Asia on a quest for freedom, love and happiness is a travel memoir about a 40-year old man who quits his New York life t
Carlos’ original plan would take him from Nepal to Japan, but unexpected circumstances force him to alter his route and extend his adventure to eighteen months.
After trekking high peaks, reaching remote cultures, having some interesting encounters, and taking up vipassana meditation, the end of his long journey brings him (where he less expects it) something much more important than a new career to travel through Asia for a year.
Although his main motive is to explore a continent almost unknown to him, he also intends to use his journey to fulfill his dream of becoming a writer and a travel photographer.
The Year I Became a Nomad is a travel memoir of two journeys: Carlos’s physical and philosophical voyage to the East, as well as his personal quest to attain a new and fulfilling life.
Excerpt from Motorbikes, Cafes & Communism chapter
The entrance to Saigon was spectacular, through a long avenue flanked by towering trees of naked trunks and rounded foliage at their tops dwarfing the surrounding buildings, and motorcycles dominating the streets, moving in droves to protect themselves from the increasingly present cars.
The latter had to adapt to the law of the majority and circulated carefully, honking to move through the swarming motorbikes whenever they found a breach. They moved like hippos surrounded by gazelles.
The van that brought me from Ben Tre finished its journey some distance from the city center, so I jumped onto a “gazelle” to take me to Pham Ngu Lao, Saigon’s backpacker area, where I intended to stay.
The driver deftly slipped his vehicle through the dense traffic. Accurate braking, lateral movements as smooth as unexpected, crossing recklessly in front of cars, left and right turns ignoring traffic lights. Riding on a motorbike in Saigon is an adventure that every visitor must experience.
The International Medical Center in Vietnam
I went by motorbike to the International Medical Centre, next to Notre Dame Cathedral. The waiting room was almost full. I had to sit on a stool with my back against the wall. While waiting to be called, I started reading Catfish & Mandala.
Its author, Andrew X. Pham, a Vietnamese who immigrated as a child with his family to the U.S. after the unification of Vietnam, recounts his experiences when he returned to Vietnam for the first time, with a plan to cross the country by bike, visiting the places of his childhood.
Viet Kieu is the name given to these exiles when returning to Vietnam; the Vietnamese consider them rich (they expect gifts from them), but also traitors for fleeing, and, of course, they are viewed with suspicion by the communist authorities.The glimpse of a woman’s long legs in blue jeans arriving on a motorcycle lifted my eyes from the book where I was sitting in sight of the door, which was open to the street. As she entered, I looked at her, she looked at me, turned left to go to the bathroom, and turned her head back to me as she walked away. She was not very pretty but had a great figure.
Back in the waiting room, she crossed it entirely to sit on the stool closest to mine despite others being free. Noticing the lump on my face, she said that maybe we had the same condition, and she showed me a slight swelling on the left side of her face. She seemed to suffer from an ear infection. She spoke English with a slight French accent. She was married, had a boy five years old and a girl of one. She didn’t work and devoted her time to her children’s care, but was studying English and French in order to compete with younger workers once she was ready to return to the workforce.
Hanoi More Traditional than Saigon
Her husband was engaged in the food export and import business, mainly rice and coffee. She was from Hanoi, where the rest of her family lived. She told me that there they were more traditional than in Saigon. Her parents, always thinking about saving for their children, didn’t even dare to take vacations.
Saigon is the city of business, Hanoi the city of political power. Southerners are more open, always ready to have fun and spend money, than the conservative northerners. Like many I met during my trip, particularly women, she was surprised I was traveling alone.
Don’t you get bored? Don’t you feel lonely? Don’t you have any friends? She’d be lost without her husband. When she learned I lived in New York, we talked about successful women who focus on their careers instead of starting a family, and how some end up alone, too late to conceive, making it difficult to get a life partner.
She said that thanks to the television series Sex and the City, she knew how some American women thought. She even knew a woman like that in Saigon.
She confessed she wanted her son to learn to play the piano, but he wanted to be a rapper. How difficult, sometimes impossible, to get children to inherit their parent’s dreams! The doctor called my name and she joked: “Shouldn’t women go first?” I enjoyed talking to her. She was friendly, interesting, attractive, honest, and with a good sense of humor. If she hadn’t been married, I would have asked her out without hesitation
A French Speaking Doc
The doctor was French and spoke a little Spanish. After listening to my explanation about the evolution of my infection, he sent me to see a maxillofacial surgeon at the Franco-Vietnamese Hospital without charging me for the brief consultation.
On leaving, I wished my waiting companion a speedy recovery before going to the hospital, of course on a motorcycle. The hospital was in the south of the city, a very modern hospital with a bright lobby accompanied by a charming cafe.
I checked in at reception and was given a patient card before seeing the specialist. How effective! The surgeon was Vietnamese and spoke French better than English, and like most of the staff, sported a blue, white, and red flag on his chest as proof of it (the hospital was founded by French doctors).
The surgeon confirmed the diagnosis of the infected cyst, prescribed antibiotics for four days, and scheduled me for Friday to remove it. The operation would take place under general anesthesia, and I might be ready to leave the same evening.
Then they took a scan of the lump and extracted a blood sample. I spoke to the anesthesiologist, also to the finance department to go over my insurance, and finally went to the drugstore to buy antibiotics. I had to put down a deposit to secure the operation and bed availability.
I spent almost the whole day there. My memories of the hospital in Kathmandu were still very fresh, and on the way back to my hotel my mood dived. My new obstacle was not as serious, and I seemed to be in a much better hospital, but the thoughts of the general anesthesia for a couple of hours, the chance of infections and complications, and the insurance paperwork didn’t lead me to feel euphoric.
At least Saigon seemed much more interesting than Kathmandu.
Carlos Peñalba is a Spain-based writer and photographer who lived in London and New York for 16 years working for a financial software firm.
In 2009 he quit his well-paying job to travel through Asia for 18 months with the aim of becoming a freelance photographer and writer. His photographs have been published, amongst others, by Doctors Without Borders, Macmillan Publishers, Garuda Indonesia, The Lovely Planet, The World Resources Institute and Business Insider.
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