BY KATHRYN VAN BEEK
Anna stared out the van window into the early morning fog, then straight ahead into the backs of the heads of the other passengers, trying not to feel sick. For most of the trip she and Kit had thought of themselves as intrepid explorers. It was only now, jammed between hemp-wearing travelers and self-important expats, that it was obvious what they really were – two clueless tourists on a well-worn conveyor belt that was about to spit them out in Sa Pa. She wanted to throw up. She could still feel the grime of the night train on her skin and smell its stench in the fibres of her clothes. The van turned another steep corner. A hot wave of nausea flooded Anna’s body and she gripped Kit’s hand. His strong fingers crushed the unfamiliar diamond rings into her flesh. He smiled at her.
Chai was first aware of the heat, then of her head, then of her thirst. She carefully rolled over and curled into Yang’s back.
“I don’t want to go.”
Calculating that she had a good eight minutes before she had to get up, she ran her hand down Yang’s lean, warm body. Yang grumbled in his sleep and brushed her hand away as though shooing a chicken. Chai wondered if it was the things men didn’t even know they did that made their wives grow to hate them.
Cold water dribbled down Anna’s body. In this grand-looking hotel the plumbing was shot and none of the windows and doors opened or shut properly. She dried herself off with a small towel, dressed in fresh clothes and joined Kit upstairs for a breakfast of noodles, omelets, and coffee with sweet milk. The dining room ceilings were high and the tiled floors ornate. To their right, large windows framed expansive views across the misty hills. To their left, the kitchen was a dark, concrete hole in the wall where everything was cooked on a portable gas burner.
“We’ll be back at work in a couple of days,” sighed Anna.
“Don’t think about it,” said Kit. He cocked his head at the sound of yapping outside. “I hope there aren’t too many dogs here.”
With typhoons consuming the rest of the country, their trip to Sa Pa had been a last minute variation on their carefully-planned itinerary. Consequently, neither of them had been vaccinated against rabies before leaving Auckland.
“I’m more worried about malaria,” muttered Anna.
Kit looked downcast. “I didn’t mean to lose the tablets. I’m sure we’ll be OK.”
Anna leaned back in her chair, holding her tongue. Kit had also lost the phone charger and their guide book.
“I wouldn’t mind another coffee,” she said at last.
“What my lovely wife wants, my lovely wife gets,” Kit smiled, pushing back his chair. It was the first time he’d used the word. Wife. She didn’t know why, but it grated.
Chai pulled on her bright blue gumboots and began the tedious walk up the hill. She wasn’t wearing the hoop earrings Yang had made her. She hoped he’d notice they’d been left behind and realise she was affronted. The air was moist today, thank goodness. Perhaps she’d make it to the hotel without having to vomit.
In the dark shop they selected two pairs of hiking boots and some “XXL” shorts that pinched Anna’s “M” buttocks.
“Two hundred thousand dong?” she suggested.
“No-oh,” said the salesman, in the deeply affronted sing-song voice she’d become accustomed to.
“Three hundred thousand?”
“No-oh.” This time he leaned forward and slapped her on the arm. She liked this handsome, surprisingly tall, surprisingly tactile man, but this bartering system made her feel like a mug.
“OK to wear on trek?” she asked.
“Don’t wor-ry,” he replied. “Four hundred thousand.”
“OK,” she said, and handed over the cash, feeling the warmth of his slender brown fingers in hers.
As they left the shop Kit stopped in his tracks, forcing Anna to lurch sideways to avoid him. She followed his gaze to a small, round-eyed street dog over the road.
“I love how they look like bigger, cooler Chihuahuas,” she said.
Kit’s eyes flicked over the animal as it yawned and curled up for a nap. Anna linked her arm through his.
“Don’t wor-ry,” she said.
Chai dragged herself up the hotel steps and collapsed on the couch in the lobby. She pulled the hood of her pink jacket up around her ears and tugged her bright plaid sun hat down over her eyes. As usual, the lobby reeked of piss. She didn’t know how Hien could stand it. Perhaps he was pretending the toilet didn’t smell so he wouldn’t have to clean it. When she’d arrived in the lobby he’d sprung away from the internet-enabled tourist computers like a naughty cat. Now he stood behind the front desk like a big man. Two Europeans walked up the steps with shopping bags. They were tall, pale and freckly with big limbs and open faces. German?
“Hi Hien,” said the woman.
Hien pointed to Chai. “Your guide’s here.”
“Hello,” said Anna. “Do you mind if we quickly get changed?” Chai nodded. Anything for another five minutes on the couch. “I won’t be long,” said Anna, not sure if Chai understood. She swapped her summer dress and sandals for the shorts and hiking boots in the lobby loo. It stank.
As they walked through the town a group of ethnic minority women joined their party – chirpy, chatty, and incessantly trying to sell them woven friendship bracelets and silver earrings. They wore the intricately embroidered indigo clothes of the Black Hmong tribe. Chai wore the same traditional garments, but had accessorised them with her ridiculous jacket and hat. She looked inadvertently street-chic, like a hipster on a style blog.
“How old are you?” asked Kit.
“Nineteen,” said Chai.
They walked down a steep and slippery hill. Chai helped Anna across the rocks. Anna was reminded of her last visit to Auckland Zoo, where the rhino shared an enclosure with the springboks.
“How long have you been a guide for?” asked Anna.
“Two years,” said Chai.
Anna took photos of the water buffalo, a young woman with a baby strapped to her back, sculpted rice terraces that looked like Māori pas, picturesque traditional houses with large thatched roofs, pot-bellied pigs. She finally understood why the tourists in New Zealand took pictures of sheep.
“Do you have brothers and sisters?” asked Kit.
“Yes.” said Chai. “I live with husband now. He is farmer.”
She stopped and pulled out a mobile phone. The screen displayed a picture of a young couple dressed as though for a Disney wedding. The woman smiled so broadly she was barely recognizable as Chai.
“We hired clothes for photo,” she said.
“Good idea,” said Anna, thinking of the expensive dress in her wardrobe that she would never wear again.
Chai noticed the bees before anyone else did. She moved quietly to the side of the trail and stayed still. One by one, the other women followed her lead. Kit trudged on, oblivious, his thick calves stained with mud. Anna had never seen a swarm before. They flew furiously down the track towards Kit, as though their mission was of paramount importance to their Queen.
“Kit,” yelled Anna. “Kit! Stop!”
Kit was carefully picking his way down a stony slope. The swarm flew straight at him and enveloped his upper body.
“Oh my god!” shrieked Kit.
“Don’t move,” said Chai.
Kit swung his arms in circles like an air guitarist, comically trying to bat the bees away. He ran down the slope, keeping pace with the bees, only losing them when he tripped and fell to the ground with a howl. The bees continued their war-like journey down the path.
“You told him to stop,” Chai said, as the women moved to tend to Kit’s stings.
“I know,” said Anna. “I can’t figure out if he’s deaf, or if he just doesn’t listen to me.”
They arrived at the home-stay before dusk. Chai lingered for dinner, acting as translator for the host family. They all sat on tiny plastic stools in a dirt-floored room, eating a meal prepared with water from the stream that ran outside the door. Anna had never tasted anything as good as the fat spring rolls. Kit chugged back the happy water. It seemed to help him forget the pain.
“How did you learn such good English, Chai?” he asked.
“From tourists,” Chai said. “They come to village all my life. If you can learn language you can become guide.”
Anna recalled the fresh clefts of new roads being dug into the hillsides, the bamboo scaffolding of new hotels.
“You must have seen a lot of changes,” she said.
“A lot of changes,” echoed Chai.
Anna heard the eerie buzz of a lone mosquito and spotted it hovering over her arm. She smacked at it, but missed. Kit stood up sharply, knocking over his stool and spilling his pho. He clapped his hands around the mosquito, but it moved out of his grasp. Chai calmly reached up and pinched it between her fingers.
“Dead,” she said.
“We lost our medicine,” apologised Anna, as Kit rubbed pungent lotion into her shoulders.
Chai walked home in the dark, her feet automatically deciphering the route. Sometimes she could get the journey down to eighteen minutes. Not that she needed the time. Now that she wasn’t spending her evenings embroidering her wedding garments, the nights seemed strangely empty. Yang’s mother said that would change when the babies came along. But Chai didn’t want babies. Not until she was old – nearly as old as Anna. For now she liked having her Friday and Saturday night spending money, and the time to think on the treks. The tourists could be stupid but they taught her about the world. And, when she timed it right, she could watch her favourite soap operas while they had lunch. She’d missed out on Zhēn Huán Zhuàn today because of stupid Kit. But perhaps it wasn’t his fault. Perhaps there weren’t any bees in his country. Her pace quickened. When she caught up with the girls in town tonight, they’d tell her what she’d missed on the show today.
The mattress smelt of damp, and Kit’s hot breath smelt of happy water. In the dark he kept trapping sections of Anna’s hair beneath his heavy arms. Anna thought about the lean, brown man from the hiking supply shop. He would be graceful and dangerous in bed, like a sex ninja.
“My – neck – is – so – fucking sore,” Kit panted.
Chai lay next to Yang, listening to his slow, annoying breathing. Before they’d married, their encounters had been intense. Now she worked hard to pay for their weekend excesses and got nothing. Why had they bothered going into town if he was just going to pass out drunk when they got home? She wondered what it would be like to do it with someone as big as Kit. Someone that big would never get tired. The ground moved in circles beneath her. Chai felt as though she was being lowered, very slowly, from a very great height.
They sat at the outside table, taking in the sound of the stream and the scent of the cool morning air. Kit looked up from his crepes, honey oozing from the corner of his mouth.
“Delicious,” he said, absentmindedly dropping a slippery chunk of banana on the ground. Anna realised that travelling with Kit was far superior to being at home with him. Abroad, she was relieved of having to pick up the bath mats he always left soaked through, cleaning his shaving residue from the sink and picking his discarded orange peels off the floor.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“My stings feel fine, but my boots are still wet,” he said.
“Mine too,” said Anna, wriggling her toes inside her cold, squelchy socks.
It took all of Chai’s mental powers to put one foot in front of the other and drag herself up the hill. Anna and Kit were in front of her, politely walking as slowly as their long legs could. Anna had picked up a walking stick, and Chai wished she had one too. A gaggle of tourists on the backs of scooters zipped by, followed by one or two drivers who had yet to find passengers.
“Scooter? Scooter?” they called. Anna turned to Chai.
“Would you like us to hire one for you?” she asked.
Chai shook her head, embarrassed. She stopped at a lookout to catch her breath, and her charges pretended to admire the hazy view of the hillside. Chai tried desperately to think of a reason to sit down.
“Good place for lunch,” she said, pointing at a nearby hut.
“Would you like something?” asked Kit.
“No, no,” muttered Chai. She sat outside in the fresh air as the tourists ate, trying to block out the smells of cooked meat and thick coffee.
Gray mud oozed up around Anna’s boots. They were starting to emit a sickly damp odour. Chai looked wrecked. The poor girl was probably pregnant. Anna remembered with a jolt that she’d have to get her IUD out when they got back home. Or perhaps it could wait another year? As they lurched up the hill her thoughts turned to the trails of dirty litter glittering in the light.
“From tourists?” asked Anna.
Their last stop had been Ha Long Bay, where they’d waded up to their knees in the warm green water before disgust at the floating chip packets and bobbing beer cans had forced them out. She remembered the appalling sight of stark white, obese tourists happily floating in their own filth.
“No, from locals,” said Chai.
They marched on past a row of huts.
“Almost there?” asked Kit.
“Almost there,” chimed Chai.
The sound of techno music came from one of the dwellings. As they got closer there was a shout and the clatter of something falling over. A door opened. As the shouting continued, a wiry brown dog ran out and headed straight for Kit. Anna watched in horror as it latched onto Kit’s leg. It glared at him with baleful eyes. Kit tried to wrestle it off, but it sank its teeth in further. Blood sprang from Kit’s leg, and his screams echoed around the hills. Anna picked up her stick and brought it crashing down on the dog. It hung on as though possessed. Anna kept beating until her arms were sore. Beating as though summoning ancient gods on a primal drum. With one last thwack the dog collapsed to the ground like a crumpled rag. Saliva dripped from its bared teeth. It made a deep, gurgling noise as it panted. It glowered at Kit with blood-filled eyes.
The hospital was dirty and bureaucratic. Unable to speak the language and unsure of what was happening, Anna felt like a rabbit in a veterinary clinic. A kind, elderly doctor cleaned Kit’s wound.
“You have insecure feeling?” he asked.
“Of course I do!” said Kit.
Anna held his hand, but she felt afraid. Was he already going mad? How long would it take for the virus to reach his brain? She couldn’t stand the thought of losing her kind, funny Kit before her eyes. The doctor said something in Vietnamese, and Chai nodded.
“What did he say?” asked Anna.
“He says you wait ten days, you know for sure dog has disease. After ten days, dog has disease, it dead. Then you get vaccine.”
“Ten days!” said Kit.
“Or, you get vaccine now.”
“He’ll get it now please,” said Anna. She stroked Kit’s thick hair.
“Will it work?” asked Kit.
“The doctor says it will work,” Chai translated. “Many people get dog bite, have vaccine, very healthy.”
The doctor looked up from his work and smiled at the strained faces.
“Don’t wor-ry,” he said.
The first time she’d ridden on the back of Yang’s scooter she’d almost died with fright. Now Chai loved the way he careened down the muddy hills in the dark. She couldn’t believe he’d come and picked her up from the hospital, rescuing her as though he was a Chinese emperor and she was his favourite concubine. She put her hand on his knee. He wove his fingers through hers and drove, one-handed, down the slope in the dark back to home.
The hiking boots were unsalvageable. Anna stuffed both pairs in the lobby bin.
“You lucky, you will catch night train,” Hien said as he gave them their bags. “Van arrive soon.”
“Thank you Hien,” said Anna. It wouldn’t be long before they’d be back in Auckland, sitting in a White Cross centre and waiting for the second of the three injections Kit needed to keep him safe.
“Very big,” said Hien, pointing at the bandage that wrapped around Kit’s leg.
Kit put his arm around Anna’s shoulder and pulled her close.
“She killed dog,” he said proudly.
“I did not,” objected Anna. She reached up, gave him a quick kiss, and pushed her fingers through his springy hair. “But you can tell everyone that your wife killed a dog for you, if you like.”