on memory

after another 24 hours of traveling, I am home. I settle in and begin to unpack. for the first few days I wake up in the middle of the night not knowing what country I’m in. and already I wonder: what will I remember most?

memory is strange. it picks and chooses. it changes moments, maneuvers them, works them. things fade, and others become brighter.

I know that the difficulties will fade. things that once held the weight of the world, moments of fear and frustration and discomfort – standing frozen in the middle of the street in unceasing traffic, showing up 24 hours late for an overnight train,  the sight of a spider the size of a baseball scurrying up my apartment wall – will become less so, become lighter. have already become funny in retrospect, thankfully.

the good things, the truly unique and exceptional, will become brighter. the first bowl of bún riêu. the first sip of vietnamese coffee. the look of the streets at night on the back of a motorbike. the mountains in Mai Châu, the beaches in Hội An, the blue-green water in Ha Long Bay.

there are things that will become lost entirely, and it is sad to admit that the loss is inevitable. but writing it down slows this process. even when the writing is a simple recollection – I did this, and then I did that – there is a kind of magic to it: it pins the moment in place, leaves a mark, a record. I’m in awe of that magic. I’m grateful for it, too.





a list of smells in vietnam

the smoke of offerings burning on the curb, incense in pagodas and small altars, the lemon-fresh moist toilettes they give to tourists everywhere, wet and mildew and urine in dirty bathrooms, the heavy perfume of rich old tourist women as they go by in rickshaws, skewers of pork grilling over charcoal for bún chả, leather in the shoe shops of Hội An, the eucalyptus insect repellant I spray on my legs and arms, the barnyard stink of little birds in hanging metal cages, cigarette smoke in the binh minh jazz club, the rich sweetness of hot coffee with condensed milk, pungent wafts of fish sauce from every street food stand (how can something that smells so bad taste so good?), freshly butchered meat and blood in an alley market, gasoline and endless exhaust fumes on the back of a motorbike in rush hour, the savory steam of a bowl of phở, freshly cut pineapple from a fruit vendor, centuries-old brick and mud in the citadel in Huế after a rainstorm, vinegar and chilis in a jar on a restaurant table.