Sapa, Vietnam

I'm filthy. I have tan lines on my feet I'm not sure are from mud or my sandals. There's dirt under my fingernails that I've given up on trying to remove. My only shower in 5 days has been in a waterfall, where I haven't used shampoo for fear of contaminating the water. My version of doing laundry is hanging sweaty clothes up to dry and shaking them out before I put them back on. The mud I've taken to going barefoot in is the ground people and animals share alike.

My wrists are overloaded with bracelets. My favorite white shirt has been dyed dark with indigo. I've drank way too much rice wine, let people prepare my food with their hands, swallowed water I shouldn't have.

"Vien-jow." Sister. "Doo-noo." Brother. I can count past a thousand. I can say hello, how are you, I'm full, thank you. I had an exciting moment this morning when I realized that "dieh" was water, so "dieh-ja" was waterfall. I think I know more words in Hmong than I know in any other language.

Pieces of my heart are left everywhere when I travel, not every place that I go, but with some people and in some cities, some mountains and towns. Vietnam already holds the most pieces; Sapa holds a big one. I love the mountains. I love the mountains so much. And I love the family I have spent the past 4 days with.

My heart broke a little bit when I was walking into town with May, on our way to get motorbikes, when she stopped suddenly and said, "Soong." (her 6-year-old.) "He asked me this morning to come and get him from the waterfall before you left so he could say bye. I forgot." I didn't even know he had told her that. We were already too far gone.

It broke some more when May's eyes teared up as she hugged me bye, as she and her husband sat with me in town for an hour and waited for my bus, making sure I was on it before they would leave me. It broke more when she told me that yesterday (on a hike with other tourists) she was excited to come home because "I knew Ma was there." (me.) "Today," she said, "my heart is really sad to go back."

And it continues to break as I think of everything that's happened. How I've opened. Stories from her friends, how one woman's mother had 14 children but only 7 survived. People I've met. Being convinced to take more and more shots of "happy water." (again, even though I learned my lesson from last time, I couldn't be rude). May dying my shirt this morning, asking me if I wanted to learn how they embroider their clothes. Patiently sitting with me, taking out my stitches, until I was capable of doing it by myself. Making me pancakes and literally laughing at me when I used a fork to cut them into pieces, reaching over instead and putting banana slices and sugar on top and rolling it up into a burrito and putting it into my hands. "My mom would have yelled at me for doing that when I was little," I said.

The kindness of her husband as he cooked and served each meal, filling my bowl with more rice even when I protested. His English not quite as good as hers, but his quiet role in the family just as strong of a presence. The sweetness of her boys, the little one saying "you? Waterfall? You? Lunch?"

My shock when May told me that she didn't even learn to speak English until 10 years ago, when she was in a village where tourists came. That she struggled to learn, because she never learned how to read or write in any language. So every English word she learned had to be stored in her head. Her frustration at not being able to read the emails in her account another visitor set up for her. Her appreciation in having them read to her. Her joy in talking about every person she remembers that's visited.

She had already given me bracelets, and I had bought even more of them from her, so she couldn't give me another one as a goodbye present, she said. I was sitting outside when she came out and asked me if it was ever cold where I lived. Yes, I said, in the winter it snows. She presented two cloths from behind her back and told me to choose one, and then wrapped it around my head and told me to look at my phone to see what I looked like (the first picture). This keeps you warm in the winter, she said. When it is cold here it keeps me warm.

I'm sad. I'm so happy, but I'm overwhelmingly sad. I don't want to leave Sapa, but I felt like it was time. I have 4 more days in Vietnam. I never ever want to leave Vietnam.

(This post will make more sense if you read the one from a couple days ago. And that one makes some really important points so please read it if you haven't)