Lessons from Vietnam: spiders are delicious, dog tastes like bear and if you are tall for a Grade 8 student, you might could get a shot of Jack Daniels brought to your table.
Last year Ty Marten of Fort Smith turned 12 in Zimbabwe. This past August he became a teenager in Saigon, or as his mom and travel partner Marlene Evans, calls it, Ho Chi Minh City.
This year it was her turn to pick the destination for their new tradition, a month-long excursion around Ty’s birthday, so after five airports, one ocean and about 22 hours, they stepped into the 30-plus degree humidity in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
“I love the culture,” Evans said. “I wanted to get to (the Temple of) Angkor Wat in Cambodia,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the wider 400 square-kilometre historical city of Angkor, one of southeast Asia’s most important archaeological resources. “I got goosebumps when I saw it.”
But first, spicy deep-fried spider.
I was raised in the bush and I don’t know where this travel bug came from but it’s in my blood. I want him, when I am gone, to travel.
Ty spit out the solitary leg Evans convinced him to bite into, but she loved all eight and the thorax, calling the local delicacy “wonderful, spicy and crunchy.”
“I got food poisoning from that,” the six-footer said, sitting at the kitchen table under his family’s hunting trophies, a blond black bear, caribou, wolf and giant bison among them. “I was sick for days!”
He was also ill on the day Evans visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the powerful but horrifying memorial to Cambodia’s Killing Fields, where collectively as many as three million people were tortured and killed. She figures it was probably for the best as at just 13, Ty may not have been ready for the experience.
She met the two remaining survivors of Security Prison 21 or S-21 as it was called during the Khmer Rouge regime’s reign, on an “amazing and humbling” day.
“I was walking on bones,” she said. “The tiles (in the prison) were still stained with the blood of the people they tortured there.”
That dark and moving day was one of nine they spent in Cambodia; they stayed in Vietnam for 19. There was no shortage of culture shock on either side of the border – they were followed by hawkers and “little Vietnamese ladies” who marveled at Ty’s height “everywhere” they went.
“All the little Vietnamese ladies would ask ‘how old, how old?’ and go ‘Oh,’ when I said he was only 13.”
Most of those experiences took place in open-air markets, with no refrigeration and “fish slime, mealworms and dog heads” as far as the eye could see. Where else would you take a tween who, despite taking to chopsticks like a fish to water, is more of a hamburger-and-fries kind of guy?
“I was grossed out by the smell of it,” Ty said. “There was hepatitis there!”
Ty had his own powerful experience when he became one of the millions of people who have waited for hours to see the revered Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh in stasis at his mausoleum in Hanoi.
“We had to buy a shawl so Ty could cover up” since exposed skin is forbidden on the sacred ground.
That experience may only have been rivalled by a delightful fish massage.
“All these little fish about this big (he holds out an open hand) nibble at your feet and eat all the dead skin,” he said. “It felt so weird.”
He got a kick out of successfully ordering a shot of whisky at a restaurant, too, even though mom made sure it never made it to his lips, let alone past his gums.
Evans has a couple of reasons for bringing Ty along on the road. Her husband hates to travel and on the only trip they ever took together, to Mexico a couple of years ago, he made no secret of the fact he didn’t enjoy himself and he picked up a nasty sunburn to boot.
Ty, on the other hand is a “wonderful traveller” who never complains, allowing his mom to indulge her wanderlust before her time runs out.
“I want to travel before I get too old,” she said. “I was raised in the bush and I don’t know where this travel bug came from but it’s in my blood. I want him, when I am gone, to travel. It’s such an education and an eye-opener. There’s more to the world than Fort Smith.”
Ty has until January to decide where in that wide world to go next.
“I’m not sure, maybe Poland or Russia, somewhere like that,” he said. “I kind of want to see the Kremlin … in real life. It looks interesting.”