Thursday, January 09, 2003

Tây ba lô (My life as a westerner with baggage)

As I saunter or drive through the streets in search of culture, or usually just coffee, sometimes I hear the locals say to each other “Look! A westerner with a bag!” ‘Tây ba lô’ in Vietnamese.

This can be translated as simply ‘Backpacker’. The term is commonly heard since backpackers are still, despite their abundance, found to be a novelty. The general attitude is that all westerners are rich. So why do they dress so shabbily?

Tây ba lô are considered odd as they are clearly cheapskates, eating nothing but spinach and drinking the grittiest beer in town, clinging to their budgets for dear life. Their dress sense, too, is considered to be ridiculous, usually Red Bull shirts and fisherman trousers, all the rage down Ko San road in Bangkok. Thus, to be called a Tây ba lô, especially if you're a local resident, is actually rather derogatory. Every time I hear a local refer to me as a Tây ba lô I wheel on my heel and show that I understand and they will scuttle away giggling: “The westerner with a bag understands Vietnamese!”

As I pulled up to the traffic lights on Dien Bien Phu street, dressed for work, with a tie, my shirt tucked in and polished shoes, I heard a young boy shout “Tây ba lô,!” I raised my eyebrows and shook my head. “Actually, I’m a working man, not a tourist," I said in Vietnamese smugly. "This is a schoolbag” I left him and everyone else in a trail of smoke. One – nil.

The very next day I was walking to the shop and a man, completely by himself, blurted to his chest, “Tây ba lô”. I turned around and said "Hey, if I’m westerner with a bag where’s my bag?" He just shrugged his shoulders and walked away as if the question was both stupid and irrelevant. An important lesson. Being a westerner with a bag is a state of mind.

My house is near Ho Chi Minh's Mauseleum down an alley or two. Further past my house in the heart of Ngoc Ha village lies what's left of the B 52, which crashed here in 1972 and is described as a Historical Vestige. Appropriately enough its like a crust left from a hefty sandwich. I wonder what the locals’ reaction was to any surviving pilots, who landed in the area. “Westerners with helmets and parachutes”?

Everyday one or two crafty tourists manage to find their way past my house in to the labyrinth of lanes and alleys to have a look. Perhaps that’s why my neighbours refer to my place as ‘The house of the westerners with bags’. I often meet the tourists and set them on the right path. Also, plenty of visitors have crashed here on a Southeast Asian tour. So perhaps the locals see the house as a giant manifestation of the bag itself. A kind of mothership where backpacks recharge before further peregrinations. It makes sense, sort of.

The other day I went looking for my own backpack and realised it had disappeared. Or perhaps I left it somewhere on my last laundry run. Paranoid, I pictured a delighted local showing it off to his friends as a trophy. "Behold, the Tây's ba lô!" At first I panicked. Did this mean I had been de-bagged? Had I been rendered impotent? As though someone pinched Shakespeare’s quill, Christy Moore’s guitar or Uncle Ho’s ciggies -- what's a Tây ba lô without a ba lô? Where did that leave me?

Then I realised it was exactly what I wanted. I was no longer officially a Tây ba lô. I felt liberated. I sat on Pho Ly Thai To and joked with the shoeshine boys that I am now a westerner with no bag but two trouser pockets. They seemed to appreciate the humour.

As I sat waiting outside Au Lac Café a group of five star foreigners rolled up to the Metropole Hotel and clambered out.
“Westerners," observed one of the shoe shine boys.
“Westerners with bags” I reminded him of the bags they had.
They collectively scorned me.
“They have suitcases! (Tay nay co va li co ma).”

Another lesson had been learned. You are what you carry. So as I pack my bags for a Christmas return to Dublin I realise am minus a backpack and minus a suitcase. So when I pull up to the red lights on my way to work and I hear the shy boys and giggly girls say “Tây ba lô” I shall raise my finger and correct them thus: “I am a westerner with two schoolbags, a satchel and three plastic bags.” Bit of a mouthful, but fair’s fair.

Henceforth, the world is simpler. There are backpackers, suitcasers and those fumbling in between fighting grimly to be neither of the above. Myself, ‘The westerner with a variety of bags’, included.

Copyright Connla Stokes 2002

No comments: