Women sleep on hammocks along the water, barefoot and surrounded by tea canisters…
You try to capture your place in a neat little paragraph, one with compelling imagery – it’s a must! – of those shaded tree-lined boulevards, a serene ripe green in summer, prickly skeletons in winter. What’s in the air, as well? Parilla clouds in Montevideo. Dust and sand, intrusive, skin-stinging, is in Tripoli air I heard. Maybe love is in the air of Paris, Japanese tourists think, until they get there and see their dreams commit suicide by way of top of the Eiffel Tower.
In these descriptions you end up romanticizing your place in question beyond oblivion, to an extent that suffocates an unimaginably diverse entity and replaces it with the sometimes rosy, often simplistic concoction of your mind. Born from, what will forever be, a painfully limited experience. I know all this because I’m guilty of it too.
The short summaries of Lonely Planet and other travel guides and literature attempt to characterize places in this way. For legitimate purposes, no doubt. Tell readers and travelers how this place is, tell them what they must know and what to expect. They will thank you for it; their trips will be smoother, easier. They can make the most out of their two free weeks a year.
But it invites the danger of generalizing to the point of blandness, offering dubious literary certainties with no follow-up. It talks about a place in the context of a handful of eyes and opinions, in ways that are too confident. How, in truth, to describe my place, Hanoi, that captures its whole? Yes, the Old Quarter is a sight, stitched together by crumbling buildings that are alive, but Hanoi is more than the Old Quarter. How do I mention the city’s labyrinth of alleys, a system as expansive as nerves and synapses, that hide from the sun? How do I talk about the dizzying effect of the carbon monoxide I breathe in, sitting in rush-hour traffic? Or the incredible amount of animal abuse that goes on? Or how in some areas, the wires create a thick net that could catch a falling object and sometimes support the weight of even the fattest of roosters? Or the oppressive regime, both creators of laws and enforcers of them? Or the semi-abandoned amusement park at the top of West Lake that plays its music and turns its ferris wheel for no one?
But what I find most offensive about these neat summaries is that they rob me of the grand surprise: that beautiful, indescribable feeling of being thrown into a place and going through it on your own terms.
Instead, I should talk about how the longer I am in Hanoi, the less I understand it. How one of the most nausea-inducing statements is anything resembling: “The [insert group here] are a proud people.” How I’d be a terrible travel-guide writer because for every place I’d write: “Just fuckin’ go and see for yourself.” How anyone who asserts absolute truths shouldn’t be regarded seriously. How answers are only good insofar that their questions are worth asking.
Instead, I should say that my truths are not yours, and my truths extend no further than my hazy line of vision and feeble reach of my arm: I’m people-watching from this cafe balcony. It’s a breezy cloudy day on the lake with good visibility. Women sleep on hammocks along the water, barefoot and surrounded by tea canisters. A spider has been pulling a thread from a nearby hanging leaf to my head, and it’s dangled here in front of my face longer than it should. Everything is interesting, and everything only happens once.∗