Struggling in Sapa

rice paddy terraces from above“Madam … Um, are you afraid of snakes, madam?” asked Cuong, my young, Adidas jacket-clad, skinny-yet-very-able-bodied Sapa trekking guide. “Ah, well … er… I don’t particularly like snakes,” I responded, looking trepidatiously around the heavy bushes clogging the steep, narrow path we were following. The two tiny Red Dzao ladies who had been trailing us for about a mile giggled gleefully behind me. “I hate snakes,” continued Cuong – breaking off a sturdy stick from a nearby tree and starting to whack his way through the thick bush. The two ladies grabbed my arms and we carried on as I emitted a shallow sigh.

two women in moutainsThe four of us had been “hard trekking” for over an hour – the two women, clad in traditional, vivid red scarves and head pieces and various colorful skirts and wraps, had glommed onto us as soon as our jeep dropped Cuong and I off at the top of the mountain. As is their custom, these local tribal women follow tourists like me around asking ad nauseum, with huge toothy grins, “where you from!?”, “what your name!?” and the most oft repeated word, “shopping?!!?” I had become used to them during the previous day’s seven-hour trek and thought I had figured out how to kindly wave them off … but on this day, my polite attempts of repeatedly saying, “no shopping” and “no money” did nothing to prevent these women from following us down the mountain. And once the snake situation started and the wet, red clay hill became increasingly steep and precarious – I was happy for their company.

These two women – neither of whom topped five feet, if that, their feet clad only in common, beige, plastic shower shoes – became my sherpas. They manhandled me down that mountain as I listened to the severe “thwack, thwack” of Cuong’s snake stick beating a path. Being a proud, what I’d like to think of as strong woman, I tried, at the beginning, to make it on my own. That lasted a hot minute. Soon I found myself reaching out my hand to grab one of theirs (which was half the size of mine) while the other woman scooped up my other wrist as we navigated impossibly narrow paths clinging to the side of the mountain. One would skip across a small ravine, reach back, take my hand and pull me across – my feet leaving the ground – as the other scrambled to make sure I made it across. And they smiled and giggled the entire time.

terraced rice paddiesThis dance became interminable … my legs, already cramped and weakened from the previous day’s seven hours of trekking, began to shudder.  My toe – the one I smashed on a rock in peaceful Zanzibar – felt increasingly like it was fractured. At one point I remember thinking, I will give these women everything off my back if they help me make it down alive. I realize now how overly dramatic that sounds … but I was exhausted and scared and there was no end in sight and I felt like I was losing my grip – not just on the all-too-infrequent bamboo rods sticking up along the way but on any sense of control.

After what seemed like hours, I spotted a narrow cement road. A flat, narrow cement road. My two new besties deposited me at the bottom of the trail. I exhaled. I asked Cuong to take our picture. I gave them half my money, purchasing several indigo-blue-died hemp purses and scarves I didn’t want.  I hugged them fiercely. And they headed unceremoniously back up the mountain to tend to their sweet potato fields. And Cuong and I kept walking.

Kathryn Gilmore w two womenWe stopped for lunch (a picnic of soft rolls and fried ham slices and locally grown tomatoes and cucumbers and warm, tin-foil wrapped wedges of Laughing Cow cheese). I tried to catch my breath. I tried to reclaim my long-ago evaporated, positive, can-do attitude. But I knew I was done for. I knew we had another four hours of trekking ahead of us and, as I stood up from my low plastic seat after lunch, my legs throbbing – I thought to myself for the first time since I started this journey over two months ago – I don’t think I can do it.

After handing me three fresh bottles of water and looking at me happily, though with a bit of concern in his eyes, Cuong headed out with me trailing behind. And we headed up. And up and up and up. He did a good job of distracting me – talking of music and food and asking me questions about America. But my pace slowed and my doubt increased. And most sadly, my sense of humor evaporated. And then I stopped. “Cuong … I don’t think I can make it,” I said resignedly. “OK madam – I can call a taxi car scooter,” is what I thought I heard him say. His English was broken and I was hoping that I had heard him correctly. And he made a call on his old iPhone 4 and I heard the phone ring. And ring and ring and ring. And he laughed, “Haha! Voicemail!” But he left a long message and I thought he assured me that help was on the way. So we continued on. Up and up. Not the slow, sloping trail he had talked about over lunch. But a steep, never-ending cement road. Without shade.

So I kept plodding along, my head down, my arms pumping. Only rarely looking around at the glorious scenery – the emerald green rice paddies and steep mountains dotted with bamboo huts. From time to time an errant, mud-covered water buffalo would come into view and I would smile. A pig and her piglet family squealed in front of us, making me stop for minute at one point. After asking several times, “Madam – you want to sit down?” to which I responded, “if I sit down I won’t get up” … Cuong gave up and just trudged up the mountain by my side. I was not proud of my petulant behavior. I SO wanted to stop and sip my water and reset. But, I’m ashamed to say, I just couldn’t stop. I was waiting for that damn car to come screaming around one of the tight corners. And it never came.

And then … it happened. A small village came into view. And Cuong said simply, “We are here.” And my sweat-soaked shoulders relaxed and a smile erupted on my sour face and I exhaled. And then the most wonderful thing. A school came into view. Painted in traditional Vietnamese pale gold, the building was a beacon … I could hear the joyful chatter of young kids and saw some start to spill out of tidy rooms.

I asked Cuong if we could stop so we entered the school’s yard and I was immediately drawn to a small room to my left… the kindergarten room. And I looked at Cuong hesitantly, silently indicating my interest in looking in. His gentle nod encouraged me on and as I ducked my head in, the room erupted into yells of “HELLO!” “HELLO”! “HELLO!” and a few “BYE BYEs!!” mixed in.

These kids could hardly contain themselves. They elevated off their tiny chairs with glee. Tourists (aka white people) are rarely seen in this small village – apparently we usually stay closer to the security and ease of Sapa. So I was, apparently, a rare treat. And I could hardly pull myself away from the clamor. I no longer felt the pain in my legs. My breathing returned to normal. My scowl evaporated.

And while this buoyancy didn’t last long … pesky mosquitos and another day of uphill trekking the following day brought back remnants of my black mood … I learned a lesson that I apparently need to learn again and again. Nothing lasts forever. Not pain. Not impossibly steep paths. Sweat-drenched clothes even dry, given the chance. Not always, perhaps, according to our personal schedule.  But change comes. It is my hope that, during my next challenge, I handle whatever may come with a bit more patience… and a bit more grace. That my sense of humor doesn’t disappear so rapidly. That I will look up and forward instead of down. A girl can hope…

tree topsPS – Sapa is an indescribably beautiful part of Vietnam that I cannot hesitate to recommend to anyone. This brief part of my journey certainly does not reflect my love for this part of the world. I was lucky to have visited – and I hope to return…

About Kathryn Gilmore

Kathryn is an animal lover, world traveler, cancer survivor, food enthusiast and story teller. Her first trip to Africa in 2005 to volunteer with lions opened her eyes to the healing that international travel and working with animals affords. Since this inaugural trip, life has been more focused close to home ... becoming her mother's caretaker during her last days as she battled pancreatic cancer, taking on her own fight with breast cancer, moving back near her beloved home town in California, starting a food business and continuing to write and care for animals. In September 2015, Kathryn embarked on a six-month journey to Africa and Asia to volunteer at several animal sanctuaries. Her stories from afar were featured in her blog and focused on majestic wildlife, mouthwatering food, meeting people from all walks of life and personal growth. She is currently working on a book about her life and her travels – and hopes to develop a children’s book focused on elephants. Her blog, Onward Voyage, may be found at:

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