February 1, 2013
Christof becomes gets ill during the night and because I’m also feeling queasy, we spend the morning in bed. Calling to see if we can have the same room for another night, I’m put on hold,
– It is my ardent wish, a sensual Asian voice whispers in my ear, to be of utmost service and to fulfill all your wishes.
It seems that our wishes, despite her professed ardency, cannot be fulfilled:
– Executive balcony room booked tonight, you change to standard room with window at 12:00. We call you when room ready.
At 12:00 a porter picks up our bags and Christof, who looks thin and spent, drags himself down the hallway in his wake. At the tiny 7-Eleven around the corner, I buy him some Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers because all the packages are covered with baffling illegible characters and I have no idea what they contain.
I wander through Chinatown alone, and although I’m starving because I haven’t yet eaten, the unfamiliar sights and smells are so overwhelming I’m incapable of making a decision. There are rows of restaurants and food stalls, but this early in the day most of them are empty and look uninviting. Lines of people wait in front of a shop to buy long flat pieces of what looks like beef jerky made of pork and fish. Buses of school children in uniform swarm out and crowd the market stalls. Everywhere tiny fabric shops lined from floor to ceiling with silks, cottons, and wools advertise hand-tailored suits made in a day. It is the first time in six months that I have been anywhere without Christof and I feel lost amongst the crowds in which I am the only white person.
Jet-lagged and disoriented, I need something familiar to stabilize my feelings of malaise. An Italian restaurant with tables set up on the banks of the river with a pleasant view of high-rise buildings is just the thing and I sit down for an European-style meal of salmon, spinach and rice. It’s Friday afternoon and the office crowd has finished for the week. Well-dressed people saunter along the quay, seemingly blind to the splendid warm weather and elegant yachts coasting by on the river, fully engrossed in the tiny screens of their smart phones.
A visit to the Funan Digitalife Mall, a six story digital mall devoted exclusively to electronic products, proves disappointing. The selection doesn’t warrant the impressive glass- covered atrium; all the merchants sell the same products at the same price. I linger for a moment in front of a stall selling cameras and immediately a sales lady picks up a fascinating-looking candy-colored video camera, demonstrating how it unfolds and can be stably held despite its miniature size.
Music floats out of a temple near our hotel, where piles of shoes lie scattered near an entrance sign bidding visitors to remove them before entering. I do and recoil from the hot, sticky pavement underfoot. An Indian ceremony is under way and all the women are attired in colorful saris and the men in fresh pajama-like suits or long wrap-around skirts. Three musicians, a drummer, a bell ringer, and a reed instrument player, set the pace of the ceremony while monks moving constantly between two altars, light incense and perform rituals with the crowd following them. As the music gathers in volume and intensity and the bells rattle in a incessant wild crescendo, the congregants press their palms together over their heads before bowing down in reverence and murmuring ritual prayers.
A group of young barefooted women in dazzling saris appear and cause a ripple of excitement as they proceed towards the altar. A lattice provides an optical barrier between the worshipers and the tourists, effectively blocking our view of the ceremony. After some time they reappear and weave through the crowd while solicitously clutching the arms of the beautiful woman in their midst, whose exquisite make up perfectly matches her sari. Her eyebrows are decorated with innumerable tiny sparkles, and her long thick hair, which falls past her waist in billowing waves, is woven through and through with bells and flowers. Despite her beauty, she glances downwards demurely with a complete lack of vanity as she is led through the admiring crowd. This is an Indian wedding and she is the bride! Oddly, there is no sign of a groom although on the street a flower decorated Bentley is waiting by the curb.
In the hotel room, Christof is sitting up in bed. Having eaten some of the goldfish, he now feels better. We Skype with Anna-Maria for the first time in months, and later with Cornelius. It is so good to hear their voices and to share some of their experiences, most of which never get related by email but need a conversation to emerge. The saddest part of being on this journey is the fact that we are often out of touch with each other for weeks at a time. Exhausted, I collapse into bed while Christof, who has become restless, goes out to explore Chinatown by night.