Halliburton is a funny guy, writing in a rather purple style to make
fun of his own overblown romantic notions of adventure—and yet, though
he mocks himself, he’s serious, too. For this young Princeton grad, the
lands across the sea beckon with a siren song full of promise and
mystery and adventure. His writing reminds me of L.M. Montgomery.
By the time he and his college roommate finally land jobs as
entry-level seamen (having first been forced to grow out their sharp
Ivy League haircuts and lay hold of some scruffy clothes, salting their
speech so as to pass for actual sailors—albeit with a "hire these kids"
letter from the president of the shipping co in their pockets, just in
case the disguise fails), the girls and I were hooked.
We are still only just getting started, but Richard and his roommate, Irvine, have made it across the Atlantic and, after a bicycle journey from Hamburg, have decided the first Big Adventure on their agenda is the scaling of the Matterhorn. Never mind that they have never climbed a mountain before, nor that the mountaineering season is over, nor that they have no equipment. The same confident air that allowed them to charm their way onto the sailing vessel described above lands them a couple of Swiss tour guides who don’t realize they’ve got total newbies on their hands until halfway up the mountain.
The wind caught me as I clutched the rope, blew me like a pendulum away from cliff wall and over the sheer five thousand foot precipice. My eyes went blind; my arms ceased to exist; my head swam in half-consciousness. Once more Adolph had to come to the rescue…
Amazingly, they make it to the summit. Halliburton, breathless from his exertions and near-death experiences, won’t let us catch our breath either. He paints us a picture of the magnificent view and we find ourselves longing to stand atop those heights ourselves, greeting the winds at the top of the world—and then the next moment he’s making us shriek with laughter.
The abyss beneath us, the bewildering panorama about us, cast a spell that awed me to silence. I began to believe it awed Irvine too, for I saw him clasp his hands and look out over the six thousand foot chasm with an expression that assured me he was in tune with the Infinite.
"Oh, Dick," he whispered in such unusually solemn tones that I awaited some great inspired utterance about the sublimity of nature and the glory of God.
Breathlessly, tremblingly, I listened.
"At last," he continued in a far-away voice, "after talking about it and dreaming about it all these years, at last, I can actually SPIT A MILE!"
Shortly thereafter, Richard proves he had the makings of an excellent blogger:
…I, clinging to the wooden cross that marks the Swiss-Italian border and scrounging into the snow to keep from being blown away, got out my inseparable note-book, and with frozen fingers laboriously inscribed a thought or two on the wind-whipped page.
"If you fell from here to Zermatt," he snapped impatiently, "you’d write scenic impressions in that confounded note-book on the way down."
Our friend Keri is traveling the world at present. As we read Halliburton’s narrative, Keri is constantly on my mind. Richard the recent college grad is (at this early stage of his memoir, at least) playing the starring role in his travels. Keri’s letters are ensemble pieces; she is a compassionate and shrewd people-watcher, a woman keenly interested in the customs and personalities of the people she encounters.
Her letters are a treat.
If I’m ever asked what traveling tip was the most useful to me, it
would be that I learned where the 5-star hotels are located. Usually
the staff can speak the basics of my language. After a few days feeling
totally adrift in China, I went to the lobby of a swanky hotel, and the
girl in the gift shop helped me with the map, taught me to say hello,
please, thank you the correct way. Sometimes it’s worth the cup of
expensive coffee for a place of understanding.
In India, they must use old British text books, as "kindly" is usually
substituted for "please." As in, "Would you kindly follow me." Also in
India, "thank you" is never said. A few people even asked me why I said
it so much. This at first struck me as rude, but the whole vibe of
India led me to see that gratitude isn’t expected by doing the right
thing, such as answering a person for directions, or a transaction at a
store. With that said, my gratitude was always appreciated.
The other night I was walking down a very busy street here in a
touristy section. A young Asian man stepped aside for me to pass, and I
thanked him in Thai. He shook his head. I tried it in Laos, Vietnamese,
and Khmer. Shook his head no. Said it in Chinese. No. Said it in
English. In an American Southern accent, he said, "You’re welcome,
ma’am." He’s from Texas.
There is a Chinese word, it sounds like "laiwhoia", but is carried out
as a long word. This means, "Heads up, we have a white person here."
I’d hear this if I was in a crowd, waiting at a traffic light. People
there wouldn’t stare at me, but give quick sneaky glances. It was
polite, actually. After awhile, I’d hear it and could feel all the
little looks I was getting. A few times, I wouldn’t hear the word, so I’d play around and say it myself. It never failed to have everyone around me laugh. The best
thing, is when you can joke around without a shared language. There’s
something pure about it, in a way.
I would love to have been a fly on one of those streetcorners, watching the laugh ripple through the crowd. Keri also wrote about sharing jokes without language in an earlier letter, during her time in Hanoi.
Two young girls approached me and in pretty bad English asked if they could stand with me. I said yes and they quickly hopped up the ledge next to me and started talking. They are both 20 and in university there. Both came from small villages. They were very happy to practice their English and I was happy to learn more about their world. So every night we’d meet for a few hours. We always sat in the same spot and they’d each keep one hand on my leg. I think they thought I’d unexpectedly run off! If other people came by to join our conversation, they’d each grab my hand and talk a bit faster. They said that not many tourists want to spend time talking to locals. I enjoyed talking to them much more then seeing the pagodas and museums of Vietnam.
It’s odd how even without a common language people will tease each other and make jokes. We laughed a lot. While they didn’t have a smooth flow of the language they could rip off a very sophisticated sentence.
It reminded me of a time when Michael and I came out to visit you in Long Island. I think Jane must have been 5 maybe 6. I know Rose was alive, but I don’t think Beanie had come around yet. Jane was holding a toy, a horse, with the horn and wings. Pegasus. Michael asked her what it was and she didn’t reply right away. So I said that it was a magic horse that can fly. Jane nodded and then went on to talk about the myth and story of Pegasus in great detail. Michael looked at me like I was a total idiot. I looked at Jane like she was totally brilliant. I realized then if I keep my mouth shut people are sometimes formulating some smart thoughts and pulling the words together and eventually will say something much more smart than, "It’s a magic horse!!!"
That’s how these girls were. They would stop and think for a few minutes, then ask a smart question, or explain a cultural difference in splendid detail. Thanks to Jane I was quiet enough to let it happen.
Keri plans to stop off here for a while when her trip is over. I intend to be quiet enough to hear the rest of her stories.
Letters from Thailand: the Second
Letters from Thailand: the First
Never in History Has It Been Easier to Learn About Geography