Southeast Asia: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water – The Four Elements and my 2 cents or 463 dongs

A commentary on the four elements in Southeast Asia.

EARTH: Ground is everywhere. From the bumpiest roads to modern streets. A piece of country earth floats into the city. There is always dust and particles of some sort permeating the air. In the cities, dirt and exhaust from vehicles is the air we breathe. Almost everyone wears a mask. Me, too. In the mountains, with innocent air, the roads or paths are dirt and get kicked up by motor bikes, animals and field cultivation especially in dry season. By the end of a trekking day, I am covered in a layer of grit, my clothing heavy with silt.

Then there is some of the most gorgeous earth on the planet.

WIND: The wind determines how much and how fast the dirt will travel. It also contributes strongly to my well being. A breeze is so welcome on these brutally hot days. The soft wind brightens my mood and dries my sweat. The air carries the news of my surroundings; what’s cooking and what to avoid. Jasmine or BBQ wakes up the olfactories and pulls me towards the source. A food market may be a visual cornucopia but a whiff of offal and putrescence may shorten the visit. And when I’m in the mountains or on the sea I fill my lungs up with the pure goodness of forest and brine.

The air and sun dry the rice noodle, the rice cracker, the shrimps for fish sauce, the chilis for everyday seasoning, the bamboo for weaving baskets, sleeping mats and basically everything for home and livelihood.

Noodles drying by the Thu Bon River, Hoi An, Vietnam

And it dries the nets.FIRE: Fire is integral to SE Asian life. In the cities there are countless street food vendors cooking fabulous dishes. That’s a good thing. That they sometimes let their charcoal fires smolder is not such a good thing. Wafting smoke fills the air and we have to move out of its way or choke. In the country, farmers burn fields to make way for new planting. In Laos, when people smell smoke they know it’s February. It is now illegal but as most things go, tradition surpasses regulation. The air remains eye watering smoky for miles. In villages and smaller cities, people burn rubbish, plastic and all, anywhere.

Dry season is also fiery hot. 35-38 C (95-100F) with 100% humidity. I become so sticky that I stick to myself. My hair has curled so tightly it has knitted a frizzy nest on top of my scalp. My clothing feels like band aids, adhesively attached to my skin. On a bicycle tour my shorts became so glued to my skin that I couldn’t bend my legs. I had to hold the cloth off my skin so I could pedal. Last night I bumped into a woman in the crowds and made contact with her bare arm. I could feel my skin peel away from hers as we moved apart, like separating two pieces of bologna. My clothing has been cyclically soaked in perspiration and evaporated by wind so many times that they are perpetually cloying and damp. Most things have not been able to regain their shape even after washing. It has caused me to shop for replacements (how is that for a rationalization?). Yesterday was our last day in Hoi An, Vietnam and we elected to skip the beach and relish the hotel A/C. Heaven.

WATER: is a double edged sword in a region that has only 2 seasons; wet and dry. It brings the necessary rains to a parched land and makes the rice flourish but in lowlands rainy season rivers can swell upwards of 5 meters causing serious destruction. Entire island villages outside of Hoi An have been swept away in storms. In Hoi An, there has been disastrous flooding depending on how potent the typhoon is. We’ve seen marks on buildings showing the height of the water and photos of people paddling through the streets where only the top floor of buildings were visible. In wet season, temps are cooler, the countryside is lush. But in dry season, water irrigates the newly planted paddies, washes the motorbikes and cultivates fields. Bridges are rebuilt, construction booms and foreigners kayak and hike and enjoy watching the fishermen at work.

We also drink a lot of water as dehydration is a real threat. We refill as often as possible but bottled water is usually all that is available. Bottled water creates a tremendous plastic problem on land and water. The volume has exceeded the infrastructure for removal, recycling or introducing other technologies. Our kayak guide Lùng , created a clean up Hoi An volunteer program 3 years ago that removes plastic but hasn’t resolved how to get rid of it. He dreams of creating a rubbish museum besides improving the environment,

Watching rubbish TV
Lung and the beginnings of the Rubbish Museum

I toast him and others who do the work to clean up their villages. We hope responsible tourism will take hold wherever we travel and in the rest of the the world. There is after all, only one Earth .

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