Because we are kind and occasionally like to give the kids a break from sitting on the side of the road sucking up noodles, we decided to treat them to a proper tourist day out.
The term ‘tourist’ sends shivers down my spine. It is a dirty word in our family, we who have been backpacking around Asia for the past four months.
“Why can’t we just eat here? You’ll hear my daughter wailing as she walks past a yuppy restaurant with chalkboard menus, trendy wooden plates and proper seats, ‘They do spaghetti bolognese and e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g-!”
Marching on like a sergeant major with my nose in the air, I rant on and on about how ‘We didn’t come all the way to Vietnam to eat spaghetti with tourists.’ and then plonk my family down at the side of another road for yet another plate of street food. Sonny, sitting with his knees rammed into his chin on the far too small Vietnamese plastic chairs and Tessa asking if we can get a packet of chocolate biscuits on the way home.
Today, however, I very kindly agree with Brian to take the kids to see the dark caves in Phong Nha. Phong Nha is in Vietnam. If you haven’t been, go. It’s beautiful. You might just want to read this post on scams in Vietnam first though. I wouldn’t want you to be caught off guard.
There. That’s the travel blog duty complete.
Phong Nha Dark Caves are a teenagers dream come true, they have a zip wire and an adventure climbing rope over the water. There is mud, and there are headtorches. There is a guide. And there are masses of tourists. I had already convinced myself that it would be hell on earth.
We arrived at the meeting place ready for our day of adventure. The average age of the crowd was about nineteen. Jolly good thinks Liz. A day with the young ones is always good for the morale.
Noticing the size of the zip wire and all the muscley young bods, I started to sweat. ‘You could go with Daddy and swing over the water while I stay here and watch the motorbikes.’ I suggested, but no. They weren’t having any of it.
“Oh, Mummy! Just relax! It is going to be such fun!”
I’m not sure about the word fun. It makes me nervous and sometimes agitated.
“Stand up straight Tessa” I snapped, and walked off in a huff pretending to read the carpark sign that was written in Vietnamese.
After lots of high fives and bouncing around, the happy helper instructors asked us all to fill out a disclaimer form. We all stood around balancing the clipboards on our legs and started to write.
From over the far side of the room, I spotted Tessa looking confused, and I had a moment of homeschool mother panic.
Please don’t forget how to write Tessa. And for God’s sake remember your date of birth. I know I’ve neglected your school work for the past five months, but please, please don’t shout over this crowd of university graduates; ‘When was I born?’ Like you always do.
It was nearly as bad. “What’s my weight?” she bellowed over the crowd in my direction. At least she didn’t put her hand up.
The question that every decent Mother should know the answer to but one of which I haven’t got a clue. I pretended not to hear her. That’s always an excellent teaching method I’ve found.
I looked over and saw her talking to a nosy young busybody from Australia. Probably asking her what it’s like to be homeschooled and if she wears her pyjamas and watches telly all day. I’m sure I heard Tessa say:
‘My parents have homeschooled me for the past nine years and I have been taught practically nothing. I don’t even know my weight. Mummy won’t allow scales in the house because she says she refuses to be dictated to by numbers, but we all know it’s because she can’t face the fact that she’s the same weight as Daddy’.
I think that’s what she said or maybe it was just, ‘Mummy. Did you hear me?’
‘Write anything’ I muttered, squinting, trying to see the form through my misty three-day-old daily contact lenses, praying that she wouldn’t ask me what was the difference between pounds and kilos.
The happy helper from behind the counter decided to chime in;
“No, No madam” she beamed – far too happy for someone who is apparently on work experience from school and who is being paid sod all, “Scales here. You weigh. Step up here with other people.”
Just what you need to ruin the start of the day. The only consolation was that we had to strip down to our bikinis making the load somewhat lighter. I, of course, was wearing the famous grey speedo all in one from India. Now looking even more unattractive after eight weeks of Asian living.
I followed her orders and stood in the line of shame. The happy helpers jolly assistant was announcing the weight of each victim so that the instructor could write it onto our forms. I stood muttering to myself about how ridiculous this all was, all the while becoming more sweaty and anxious as the line grew shorter.
And then I spotted her.
A giggly little twig in a black strappy bikini whos shoulders was no wider than the tops of my thighs and who was wearing a silver snake wrap around bangle – at the top of her arm. And it wasn’t even digging in. Not looking at all fazed by the fact that in thirty seconds her body mass would be announced to the world.
I wanted to push to the front and elbow her out of the way. I wanted to say “Don’t bother getting on the scales, Missy. You’re skinny. That’s all we need to know”, but I didn’t. Instead, I stood there, trying to work out why her snake bangle didn’t resemble a piece of string tied tightly around a lump of dough.
She got onto the scales. I grunted and huffed while she pretended not to be able to read the numbers on the scales, something she found incredibly amusing apparently.
So silly. So girly. So cute. ‘Fancy that’ I wanted to bellow down the line, ‘you, so skinny and with your snake bangle not even digging into your flesh and you can’t even read the scales’. Instead, I rubbed my tummy as if I were pregnant, stroking the static grey material of the swimsuit over my heaving pot and looked around to catch Brian watching my actions with horror.
Tessa’s turn. My poor starved girl hardly made the needle move. I reminded myself that she needed to eat more – budget or no budget.
Sonny’s turn. He nearly kicked the scales flying with his size eleven feet and jolly helper became flustered and asked him if he could scrunch his toes up so that she could see the numbers.
Brians turn. “I’ve lost 5 kilos since we’ve been away!” Brian. Smug as a person who has recently lost 5 kilos. I wanted to say, ‘If there’s one thing I can’t stand its skinny men’ but feared this would have been somewhat hurtful and bitter, so instead, I said “have you paid that tax bill yet? It was due on the 6th”.
Oh, God. I wanted to take hold of the horizontal bars that were fencing us all into line. Trapping us in. I longed to swing up onto them like a trapeze artist so that they would carry my weight and enable me to dangle only my dirty toes over the scales.
Luckily jolly helper shouts my weight out in kilos and not in stones, so I’m none the wiser of the outcome.
Since emigrating to New Zealand I’ve never had to hear about stones again. Only kilos. And I don’t understand those.
This traumatic experience left me feeling moody. And hungry. I always get hungry when I am publicly humiliated. When the young dude instructor said that we should all sit down to watch the awesomely fun amazing video about how to use the zip wire safely, I declined. And like a mardy pants, retreated to the toilets to try and work out how many pounds were in a kilo.
By the time I skulked back from the bathroom the crowd of uni graduates were heading over to the tower, patting each other’s backs and saying how a-m-a-z-i-n-g- it would be to ‘do’ the zip wire. Totally Lit.
I managed to catch Sonny, Tessa and Brian as they were mingling with the young crowd, frivolous and laughing with excitement at the thought of flying 200 metres over a lake with only a nappy made of wires to hold them.
“Thanks for waiting” I huffed, trying my hardest to dampen their spirits so we could all just call it off and go home and count our money.
My kids were completely oblivious to my terror, but Brian held out his hand to me.
“Try and relax Liz, you’re missing the moment and worrying about something that hasn’t even happened yet.”
Shut it you’ I wanted to bark into his up- for- anything -face, “You couldn’t even find your way here without google maps. And you’re too skinny”, but I thought this might be a bit harsh, so instead I tried the coy approach. Rather terrifying to watch but one which I like to employ in times of desperate measures;
“I’m scared. Of jumping off…”, I shook my head dramatically and blew my fringe out of my eyes in the hope that he might find me slightly vulnerable and young. I was just about to launch myself into a dramatic monologue about me, me and me, but when I looked around he was already halfway ip the hill with Sonny, debating about what would happen if they were both on a zip wire and a nuclear bomb exploded.
I nearly toppled over trying to put my legs into the two stupid loopholes. I tried to make a joke out of it and did my best giggly girl impression, but the instructor looked at me as though I needed mental health treatment and said “Are you ok Madam? Do you need to sit down?”
“Hurry up mummy! You’re holding the line up!”
I wanted to shout to Tessa’s that in fact, I was about to have an anxiety attack. I wanted to tell her that my legs were about to collapse and that she had better ask daddy to google helicopter in Vietnamese. But instead, I pursed my lips even tighter together and said,
“Get your hair up in a bun young lady or it will get caught in the wire. And stop speaking in an American accent”.
The instructor was starting to lose patience. He tried his upmost to get me into the contraption without ever actually touching my skin or the grey swimsuit.
He pulled, he yanked, he clipped, he sniffed.
“Done. Move on”. The little Vietnamese git almost pushed me flying down the steps.
‘Is that it?’ I wanted to scream back at him. ‘A mules halter made of some nylon webbing and a couple of bloody metal buckles that are too loose and this is supposed to support my weight and take me flying through the trees at a million miles an hour like Jane in the Jungle is it?’
But instead, I just said ‘Thank you very much that fits perfectly thank you’.
I could see him, the instructor, eyeing up the girl with the snake bracelet. She was two behind me in the line. I exhaled loudly to show I wasn’t pleased with the harness fitting service and then stood to the side folding my arms across my heaving chest. That was bound to get his attention.
But I watched instead as he guided snake bracelets legs into the loops. Placing each of her feet down gently. Her, all the while pretending that he was tickling her with the dangling straps. Tittering. Wreathing into the harness. Me, stood like a drooping earwig, scowling. With my metal nappy on.
I attempted, loudly, to loosen the straps that were between my legs. They were far too tight. He’d done it on purpose. I mumbled to myself about how he was a silly young boy who didn’t understand a more mature woman’s requirements. That was all I needed. Friction-induced thrush.
‘You go first Sonny, and then you can film Mummy coming down on the zip wire!’.
I’ve never been a screamer. Even at seventeen, I would never scream if something scared me. Not that sort of girl. Lots of girls shouted as they jumped into mid-air on the harness. The girls screamed, and the boys yelled “F*c-k-i-n-g- A-W-E-S-O-M-E-E-E” Apparently it makes it better that way. It just does.
I mentioned to Sonny before he jumped off that if he was having a good time he was to maybe shout ‘Yippee!’ for the camera, but I don’t think he heard me.
It was my turn. I caught sight of my daughter and husband – their expressions resembling those of a pair of terrified rabbits caught in the headlights of a car, both praying that I wouldn’t show them up and fall to my death in Vietnam.
And then my eyes fell to the group of nineteen-year-olds, all watching on in disbelief. I’m sure I heard the snake bracelet girl say, ‘Good on her for giving it a go at her age. I hope I’m that adventurous when I’m old.’
Off I went. It took a bit of momentum to get me going I admit, but once the wires went downhill, gravity kicked in and I was whizzing over the water. I wanted to scream at the people below “Look at me! Look at me!” but my lips were clamped together so tightly with spit and wind that I was having trouble breathing and before I knew it I was coming to the end where Sonny, an instructor, and a group of terrified looking onlookers all stood waving their arms at me.
I concluded that they must be cheering in admiration and I giggled – a scary sort of horror film giggle, and with the wind blowing my hair I knew that I probably looked like Jennifer Lopez. Just with short hair.
Utter panic and terror met my eyes.
S_T_O_P!! Put your feet down!!
I saw Sonny cover his eyes, but it was too late. The zip wire flew past all of them and threw me into the crash barrier sandbags at the end of the line. Me, with my legs nearly broken. Almost squashing the instructor and kicking him over the cliff.
“You’re supposed to put both of your feet down and stop yourself! Oh, my God…”
Purple with embarrassment.
Ashamed to say that this clodhopper on the harness was related to him in any way. Pretending to have something between his toes so that he could bend over and hide his face.
Me. Desperate to get off those effing wires and regain some composure. Laughing as though I didn’t even care. Making out that I always spent my afternoons tied to a cable, bashing into sandbags with my knees. ‘Ha ha ha! You’d never guess I was in my late forties would you guys?’ I wanted to say, ‘ I’m always so bloody up for it, I really am’.
Because earlier I had been sulking in the toilets and failed to watch the safety video, I had apparently missed the necessary safety procedure on how to land correctly while on the zip wire.
‘Oh, my GAADDDD!!! AWESOMEEEE!’
That’s all I needed. I had just performed the most humiliating zip wire landing known to Vietnam, and next up behind me was twiggy black bikini wearing her snake bracelet. I could hear her screams from 200 metres away. I secretly prayed that she had also missed the safety video and that she would crash into the hessian sacks and break her legs and maybe her nose. But it was worse than that. Much worse.
I watched in horror as twenty metres short of where she was supposed to stop, the zip wire, carrying this featherweight twig came to a slow, gentle, and very ladylike, stop.
‘What was this?’ she cried in her broken English, ‘why have I stopped?’ lips pouting and ankles crossed, leaning back on her stick-thin arms and looking over her shoulder at Sonny who was stood mesmerised like a gormless half-wit, bewitched by this picture of utter perfection.
‘You too light!” Cried the instructor jigging up and down on the spot, his eyes growing wide with excitement, almost having palpitations at the prospect of having to rescue this baby in distress.
Oh, how she laughed with that little black bikini on. Swinging back and forth on her twiggy arms, trying to rock the zip wire into gaining some momentum to make it carry her tiny frame to the end of the line. But budge it would not.
‘Just throw the silly daft cow a rope and yank her in’ I wanted to scream but decided this might make me sound bitter and resentful, so instead, I just kicked the harness’ on the floor and asked Sonny if he knew the difference between stalagmites and stagnates.
Or the Vietnamese word for heavy and light.