196: Finding big falls, spiders on my face
Sometimes you fall. Sometimes you let yourself down slowly. Photo: Eva
LAYING on the floor, feeling a little unjustified pity and a bit morose, I watch the gold second hand on a clock sitting above a mirror in Leah and Eva's room smoothly spin around and around. Maybe I should throw in the towel on Dice Travels.
Of course, that's not an option.
I'm feeling slightly rejected and far too sensitive, as well as disappointed with my lack of focus on work. It's strange how such unjustifiable feelings are able to crop up.
I know I'm being lazy. Yet, I don't seem to care as much as I should, which is even more disappointing. It's like watching an iceberg come over the horizon as your ship slips through the arctic and not caring as much as one should, despite having seen Titanic.
That said, it's been a very good day, which might come as a surprise given the current soiled mood.
I woke this morning shortly after midnight.
There's something in my hair, I can feel it. Then again, maybe it's all in my head, not on it. I rouse myself from sleep before using my phone to cast a pale blue light across the brown bean bag that I'm using on the floor as a pillow.
I fall back to sleep.
I wake a couple hours later. My hand brushes my cheek. There are hard, thick legs – eight of them.
“Ugh,” I sit up brushing a spider the size of my palm off my face.
Leah's been sleeping restlessly all night, while Eva's is wrapped up in a sleep of the dead.
“There was a spider on my face,” I say, seeing Leah's eyes gleaming at me in the dark.
I turn on a head lamp.
It's a big spider. A Giant Australian Spider, to be specific.
“Kill it,” Leah suggest in her usual monotone, stoner voice.
“No, it's okay. I'll just catch it.”
There's a cup on a nearby table, but it's full. By the time, I've dumped its contents into the sink and returned the spider has scuttled out of reach under Eva's bed.
“Hey there little buddy. Come on buddy.” “Was it actually on your face?”
“Yeah, I think it was giving me some spider kisses.”
Eva comes out of her deep sleep.
“You can sleep with your face on my bed,” she offers in sleepy voice.
“Only your face,” Leah quips.
“Of course. Did you guys know that in the 1940s when they made movies and there was a bedroom scene the man had to keep one foot on the floor. There's your three-am trivia for the night.”
I take Eva up on her offer, though push my luck and climb into bed as a whole person, rather than propping my face up on the bed with the rest of me dangling onto the floor like a broken doll.
In some ways, the spider was a blessing. I'm feeling restless and drawn to Eva – emotions stirring up in a way that doesn't seem to happen too often. I'd thought about wandering outside to just take in the night earlier to dispense with the restlessness, but the die decided against it. Unable to sleep, I hoped to see Eva's hand linger along the edge of the bed, a sign that I could at least reach up and hold it.
Feeling a oddly vulnerable, and aware of it, my hand carefully searches for Eva's now that we're sharing a bed. My mind has been whirling with beautiful images of deep-water soloing in the bay tomorrow and attempts to decipher Eva's interactions with me and others boys, as well as where the line is when you're hitting on a friend who is hosting you, especially if you've had a flirtatious past.
Her fingers are rough from rock climbing, man hands, despite their dainty size. Our hands lifelessly hold each other, then there is the most subtle stroke back on my hand after my fingers pressed against hers.
I want to pull Eva close, but there is a slight resistance. There are a couple moments of cuddling, a couple caresses, but then it breaks apart.
I can't sleep. Surely this isn't helping Eva sleep either.
My hand reaches up to her face, wanting to pull it close for the softest goodnight kiss. However, they roughly find it, causing her to panic, thinking it's a spider. I laugh.
This happens twice.
Eva rolls onto her back and my hand falls to her inner thigh, but is thrown from the region, which seem entirely fair.
Mostly uncomfortable in the bed, I catch snippets of sleep. Eva's finally found a position she can sleep in with elbows thrown wide.
It's nearly 7am when she gets up to pee and starts to dress.
“Come here,” I say pulling her toward me. She resists. “I'm just going to move to the floor so you can get a bit more sleep. I'm sure the spider is gone.”
She wants to get out for a morning yoga session. Nonetheless, I return to the mattress on the floor. It's hard and comforting. I cuddle up with a bean bag and fall into a deep sleep.
“I forgot to get your shoes size, so we need to be at the shop by 8:15 at the latest. I think I'll head out now so I can grab breakfast,” Eva says.
“Give me a second and I'll give you a ride. It's not a big deal.”
I quickly back my bags for a day of deep-water soloing and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP).
Outside, there is a chill to the air, but it's warmer than yesterday and not raining – both good signs.
Eva's unfazed by last night, which is good. We've got a healthy, friendly conversation going as we pile onto Donkey and pop over the hill from Ben Beo Bay to the center of town.
“I'm so pumped about deeping today. It's my last deep-water soloing session. I can't believe it,” Eva tells me.
“I'll get breakfast. Go ahead up,” I say, giving Eva a gentle shove toward the shop.
“I want it with rice.”
I plop down on a baby stool placed on the cobblestone sidewalk along the main road. A middle-aged woman wearing a floral hoodie and a matching face mask is squatting down in the center of ring of stools. There is a large ceramic bowl covered with plastic and a thick towel to keep the steaming hot rice in. Next to the bowl is a small burner with a cardboard wind guard splattered with oil. The woman takes scrambled eggs, mixed with some leafy green vegetable, out of a little skillet and tucks it into a bag of rice with a pair of chopsticks.
I point to a blue bag of mini-baguettes and the rice, to order to egg dishes: one with rice, one with bread.
The woman starts cooking the eggs, while helping another customer. A waft of steam rises from the rice bowl as she uncovers it. She pushes a wrist thick roll of Nem, fermented pork, out of a banana leaf wrap, slicing off a thick piece for the customer.
When I arrive upstairs, Asia Outdoors is in near chaos. The opener failed to do the necessary setup. So, Eva is running to Czechs through the test to ensure the pair is safe to belay. This is happening in the middle of the already small mezzanine lobby floor where he outdoor adventure company is located.
I do my best to stay out of everyone's way. Conner ends up getting me a pair of La Sportiva shoes after Eva asks him to help me.
“Sorry about that,” Eva says, once everything simmers down.
“No worries; you're working.”
Eva's determined to make sure I have an amazing time on this trip. Yesterday, cold and rainy, caused me to make a fuss about getting anywhere near the water, despite today being the last chance to go deep-water soloing due to the change in tides.
That night, sipping modified hot chocolates – we dumped a B52 shot in them, which the bartender didn't approve of at all – we sit on the top deck of Le Pont Hostel and Bungalows, which overlooks the bay. Below, fishing lights twinkle and glow like red and green stars in the black water. We are waiting to meet up with the rest of the Asia Outdoor crew for dinner. No matter what I say at this point, she won't believe me that I want to go deep-water soloing.
She hears me, but has ceased listening. Though, I hadn't originally wanted to deal with the cold, the idea of going with her and getting to see her at work on her last deep-water session sounded perfect. I'd mostly just been giving her a hard time anyway.
“Did you ever like me?” Eva asks as we change topics.
Slipping sideways, I don't answer directly. I'm caught up in the use of the past tense, and it doesn't seem like the right moment to correct it into the present tense.
“We've always been good friends. Even if you didn't come to my thirtieth birthday party,” I say.
She denies being invited, when in fact the Facebook messages I eventually find are proof of her flippantly blowing me off. She and another very good climbing friend both ditched on the party; I was keenly aware of it. Especially Eva's absences, because I knew that she had her knickers in a twist about something and she was simply trying to make a statement, which sucked, because I wanted her there with the rest of my friends.
“I didn't think you cared,” she says, backtracking on her argument. “You were always surrounded by beautiful girls and too busy to make time for me.”
“You were always important. But it's fine. I understood.”
“You'll never let that go, will you?”
“Nope,” I say with a smile.
The conversation moves on. We talk of her ex-boyfriend who she started seeing long after she and I become solid climbing buddies.
She still loves him. He was actually supposed to visit her here, but family issues arose. She had wanted to stay in these little wicker bungalows on the roof top of Le Pont when he visited. I suggest we get one for ourselves, but she's not too keen in the idea.
Her ex seemed to be the right person at wrong time. Though, with enough persistence, they might end up getting the timing right.
At the end of the night though, it didn't matter if she thought I wanted to go deep-water soling or not, because I was going to go either way.
Halong Bay translates to Descending Dragon Bay. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The boat captain, who sits at the back of the outbound Chinese Junk we're on this morning, stares through the open door at the far side of the covered boat to see what's coming.
“Please don't stand in the aisle. Otherwise, the captain will hit something and we'll all have to swim to shore,” Conner, who is the boat guide today, tells a couple dozen passengers sitting in the booths on either side of the aisle.
The wide-hulled Chinese Junk chugs through the placid waters of the bay. A skeptic would have to lean overboard and lap at the water to confirm that we weren't in fact in a giant lake. Protected by nearly 2,000 islets Ha Long Bay, literally Descending Dragon Bay, feels more like a sea of karst limestone cliffs sparsely painted with rugged, determined vegetation than a body of water.
The name was imposed on the bay after French lieutenant Lagoredin, captain of Avalangso crossed paths with giant sea snakes on three separate occasions. It made headlines in the French-language newspaper Haphong News. Of course, Lagoredin wasn't the only sailor to spot the giant snake species.
However, according to local legends the Vietnamese were assisted by gods who sent a family of dragons to help them defend their country.
“This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade. These jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders. Under magics, numerous rock mountains abruptly appeared on the sea, ahead of invaders' ships; the forward ships struck the rocks and each other. After winning the battle, the dragons were interested in peaceful sightseeing of the Earth, and then decided to live in this bay,” explains Wikipedia.
Legs dangling over the edge of the stern, I let Eva attend to work as the mesmerizing landscape slips by us.
The communities survive on aquaculture and fishing. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
On the far side of two monolithic formations, the largest of several floating villages comes into view. A total of about 1,600 people work, eat, sleep and grow up out here on the Bay's waters. Dozens and dozens of properties float on the water's surface like post-apocalyptic lily pads. The property nearest to us, like most of them, comprises submerged nets and pins for aquaculture; a weathered, wooden house; a one woven basket boat and a couple of dogs.
The grid of walkways around the fish and mollusks pins connect directly to the family home, while the entire property float on 50-gallon blue plastic barrels. A pair of women in Vietnamese conical hats and rubber gloves scoop up nets full of small shimmering fish, tossing them into the air. The fish splash down in a neighboring pin. The women's muscles strain from the weight of each load of fish. Like two clocks running at slightly different speeds, the women throw load after load of fish into the air, their motions momentarily syncing up and then breaking apart.
Attentively, a noble-looking, black-haired dog watches as his owner untangles a pile of nets on a different platform. The dogs are an essential part to each home. The strong beasts look friendly from a distance, though Eva confirms that they're kept on board as guard dogs; even the puppies are known to bite strangers.
Farther into the village, a man sits among a pile of greasy engine parts as he works on an exposed fishing boat engine.
After a short ride, we arrive at the floating tourist restaurant Hanh Trinh Di San, where the climbers split from the rest of the group to head to the Three Brothers and Hawaii 5-0 climbing walls, leaving everyone else to their kayaking.
Eva gives us a rundown of what to expect and the general rules for the climb session. Spanish Marc stands next to her as she talks; he's shadowing her as part of his training.
The first wall we stop at, Three Brothers, is less about climbing and more about getting use to the feel of the rock and jumping into the water.
It's an overcast, gray day – warmer than yesterday, but there's still a chill in the air. Thoughtlessly, I splash down from a few meters up. The water is warm., but back on the boat, the air chills my skin. Eva packed a big towel for us.
Wrapped up in the towel, I watch as the rest of the group climbs. Though both of the guys with us are strong climbers, it's their first time deep-water soloing, which means the mental game is what they're struggling with.
Deep-water soloing is one of the most beautiful forms of climbing. Free of all your gear, you are immersed in the moment. There are no takes, no pauses. The only breaks are natural ones, where the rock was molded over millions of years by the steady hands of the elements. When you fall during a deep-water soloing climb, a completely natural fall, you have lost all control. The world has overpowered you, and it feels wonderful. Unlike free-soloing, when you have these moments deepwatering you don't end up dead, which is a good thing in my book. That said, it is possible to get injured if you're pushing your limits on height, as water isn't the softest thing in the world. However, it's a lot easier to break the surface of the bay than a rock's surface. One day, maybe, I'll find myself mentally and physically strong enough to start free soloing, until then, deep-water soloing is my adrenaline-junky drug of choice.
It's exciting to watch everyone climb. To see the fear, the thrill and their faces washed with happiness when they arrive back at the surface after splashing down.
Once warmed up, we move to Hawaii 5-0.
Deep-water soloing is one of the most exciting forms of climbing. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Eva
The stunning face of Hawaii 5-0 wall is pocketed with holds, cracks, ledges and tuffas – those stalagmite like formations that are iconic to many karst landscapes. The limestone world in front of us, all around us, took more than 20 million years to reach this stage of maturity. The fine-grained limestone was slowly uplifted by tectonic plates and then molded by the hot, moist climate.
As the group begins to tire, Eva seizes the moment to join the fun. The boat pulls up against the wall, the thick, old tires on the stern press against the rock face before pulling away and leaving Eva behind.
Smoothly, effortlessly, Eva works her way up the limestone. Barefoot, in honor of former Asia Outdoors employee Vu Nguyen, arguably the best barefoot climber in the world, Eva gets to the top of the route about ten meters up before jumping.
Muscles aching and exhausted, I'm eager to get on the Golden Ledge climb, but worried that I'm too gassed to finished.
The Golden Ledge is a heady, high climb for the area. Some members of the Asia Outdoor staff capable of climbing it have bailed before reaching the top, because the high crux can be that much of a head fuck.
Starting a new tradition, Eva's already scaled the Golden Ledge and tucked a pair of black bathing suit bottoms – she forgot to bring some pink lacy panties – up there. At the moment, she's the only woman on staff to make the climb, but hopes the future will see other ladies adding to the collection.
The yellow streaked ledge at the top of the climb is about 21 meters up, not too high for cliff jumping, but at the same time, an unintentional fall while trying to complete a difficult climbing move is not super fun.
A bit too tired, I'm left at the base of the Golden Ledge route up.
Deep in the zone, I begin climbing. I've no idea how high I am. I'm happily cruising. Tired, but cruising, unfazed by the idea of a fall, because such a thought has yet to manifest.
I'm so out of shape.
I can feel it coming, but give a climbers grunt and I reach up for another hold.
It's a long fall.
The water cracks open beneath me, then rushes to cover me like a father shielding his child from uncontrolled flames. Back on the boat, I'm wrapped up in a towel. There's no time left to try again. Eva points to where I fell from. I was so close to the top.
It's frustrating. I'm use to getting what I want when it's possible. Golden Ledge is possible. Had I gotten on it two routes ago, it would have been very possible. However, today, there's no chance to try again. I might have to come back to Cat Ba and make this happen another time.
Though the group's supportive, I can't shake my disappointment. I should be better, less fat, less out of shape – stronger. Then again, I should be working for it, rather than drinking beers and eating too much sugar.
Though the disappointment lingers, it doesn't damper the day.
After eating with the staff on the top deck of the boat, all sitting on cushions around a number of bowels with tofu, greens, rice, fish and a little meat, I curl up in a corner for a nap.
Eva is taking the climbers somewhere else, while I'm staying behind to go SUPing with the Finnish guide, Maiju.
Maiju takes us SUPing. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Now that it's winter and they sky above gray, the water below our boards isn't a mesmerizing blue or green, but rather a reflection of the dull sky above us. There are only three of us on SUP boards, not including Maiju, who is a tall blond with short cropped hair, blue eyes and a big, wide smile.
After poking around a small family shrine hidden in the nook of one small cove, we begin a loop in search of the famous Golden-headed Langur one of 60 animals endemic to Ha Long Bay. The critically endangered species was poached down a population of 53 members scattered into isolated sub-populations by 2000. That same year, Cat Ba Langur Conservation was launched. Though we as tourist aren't allowed into protected Langur sanctuary, Maiju has spotted the extraordinary creatures, whose young are completely golden with sharp peeked mohwaks cresting their little heads, on a number of occasions.
One of the girls we're with slips off the board and splashes into the water. I loop back and grab her water bottle for her.
The pair of tourists assumed I was part of the Asia Outdoors team, before I explained that I was simply a tourist like everyone else.
There's rustling in pocket of jungle among the jagged, sharp limestone outcrops. There's more rustling and then we spot the Langurs.
It's impossible we're so lucky. Balancing on the board, I carefully remove my camera from a drybag and begin shooting. My internal excitement is hushed as I click away, the inflated board I'm standing on drifts closer and closer to the sharp rocks.
Careful not to burst the board, I paddle away and then pause for another photo shoot. To think that there are less than 100 of these extraordinary creatures in the wild and we've crossed their path.
Maiju and the girls paddle away. They're barely visible as they take a bend around one of the islands.
“I can't believe we found them!” I say to Maiju when I catch up. “To think how lucky we are. There aren't that many of them at all.”
Apparently, this is not what a Cat Ba Langur looks like. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“What? Oh, those weren't the Cat Ba Langurs. Those were a different type of monkey,” Maiju says.
“Seriously?,” I ask, deflated.
“Maybe I shouldn't have told you.”
Dragging our boards up on to a course, coral rag beach, we prepare for a little excursion. We're running low on time, having already crossed paths with the pack of a dozen or so kayakers that also departed from our mother ship.
The larger of the two girls on the trip declines to join us as we wade into the water; there's a few tight spaces and crawls ahead of us.
Crawling through a low limestone arch Maiju leads us into a lush tropical garden. Thick, dark-green leaves hang from the trees in the small fertile area, protected from any harsh elements by limestone walls.
An enormous luxury liner designed to look like a Chinese Junk has pulled up next to the Asia Outdoors boat by the time we return. The ship's crew is unfurling three enormous decorative sails. Through the windows along the ships sides it's possible to see the crisp white sheets and the intricately folded napkins on the dinning tables.
The Asia Outdoor staff hadn't seen the ship this close to the national park before. Despite it's pretense of being a Chinese Junk, the ritzy boat does little to enhance the charm of the Bay.
We return to Cat Ba after the gray sky marres our sunset.
After dinner at Buddha Belly Vegetarian Restaurant and solid bouldering session with everyone on the roof, I find myself alone, staring at the golden second hand of the lock in Eva's room. My mind runs through the day, focusing not on the beauty of Cat Ba, but on a different beauty, Eva and my interactions with her. It seems that it might be impossible to have a soft enough breathe to breath the embers of our best into any sort of flame.