You had to climb up over two hundred stairs to reach the room where I lived in Hanoi. There was no bathroom, no toilet or sink on the top floor – just my little room with its narrow bed and a single window overlooking the rooftops.
The ground floor was where the family lived. It was also where I washed, showered and went to the toilet. I was never sure what was on the four intervening floors but I felt I knew each step personally.
Of all my downstairs activities, it was showering that made me nervous. Perhaps it was the fact I was naked, with only a door to separate me from an extended family going about their daily business. Perhaps it was because I was scared of showering in some insensitive, peculiar western way. But almost certainly, it was the fact that within a three by two metre room, there was a toilet, a shower and a washing machine. I was grateful for the plastic sandals I was obliged to wear. I felt they might protect me when the erratic spray from the shower head reached the exposed wires and open plug sockets that dangled from the walls.
The bathroom was at one end of a single room in which the family cooked, ate, studied, watched TV and slept. There were always children doing homework, either at the table or stretched out on the floor, kicking their legs in time to their algebraic workings. The grandfather was often at the table. Sometimes I sat with him, exchanging nods and smiles as I waited for a cold beer to take up the stairs to my room. Sometimes I would just sit, simply passing time in their company, a passive participant in all that they did.
Although I was effectively stranded in Hanoi, without a passport or a valid visa, I was blissfully happy. I enjoyed the familial goings on; my daily interactions with the family. I also liked watching the storms rip apart the sky with great white tears. The solitude. The simplicity of it all.
I ate bread rolls, overly sweet, from the bakery down the street, pho from the restaurant a few doors down and omelettes from the man on the corner. Occasionally I would venture out: walk a few blocks for a night on Beer Hoi.
In that corner bar, sitting amongst topless men, pressed in by humidity and the slow inevitable paralysis from the alcohol, you could see all the world. From a plastic stool, with eyes barely open, you could take in love and violence, lust and anger , youth and old age, eternal life and death.
At some point I would pick up my legs, slap the glistening shoulders of those that had shouted, grinned and shared questionable snacks with me over too many hours, and head back to my little room.
On the journey home, I tried to judge if I was too intoxicated to buy the water I so desperately needed from my house mother. Invariably I was, but I still wanted her to know that I was safe – her tall white son who lived in the sky.