30 Day Travel Series: Swimming With Rats

The rat was really fat and almost a foot long. It had been swimming so furiously that it was panting.

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It was our second week in Vietnam and we hadn’t been out partying yet. We kept meaning to go out, but would just fall asleep because we were so exhausted from running workshops through translators. So we decided on a Wednesday that the following Monday would be our party night.

When that Monday came around, it was pouring down rain. It was 8pm and we were tucked under the sheets in our mildewy hotel room with our computers in our laps. “Are we going to do this?” Julian asked. “We said we would,” I droned. He closed his computer and said with assurance, “We’re doing this. Let’s wear headbands.” Our friend, Courtney, runs a headband company called Stay in Light, and she talks about headbands as her armor, as something that help her face the challenges of the world. We definitely needed armor that night, the streets were already starting to flood. With our headbands on and beers in hand we made our way in ankle deep water down to the tourist bar in town.

The bar was filled with drenched hair, people taking shots of whiskey and survival style stories of people’s journeys to the bar. Nothing like the weather to bring people together, I thought. We sat down at the bar and within minutes we had met people from ten different countries. As the water moved up inch by inch outside, the energy grew more and more anarchic. People were ready to take to the streets to take on the rain.

The bartender’s announcement of last call was met with loud booing. It was only 10:30pm but the bartender pointed to the front door and shouted, “It looks like the water is going to come in any minute now so we're closing.” Rumors started flying around about a small bar on the edge of town that would stay open as long as there were customers, no matter how high the water got.

Party deputies started organizing the troops. iPhones came out. Those of us with Nokia stick phones followed. In the streets, our leaders were kicking water at each other, boldly marching forward without umbrellas and turning their mouths up to the sky for a drink. “We are almost there team,” one of the iPhone holders said proudly. I lifted my umbrella so I could see Julian tucked under his and said, “I think we are going to need a red bull if we are going to keep up with this crowd.”

A couple of blocks later we came upon a little old lady who was huddled under a tarp selling beer, red bull and fried treats. We guzzled down our energy drinks.

When we got to the bar there was already six inches of water covering the floor. There was a pool table in the middle where four or five girls had set up shop. They told us they were going to stay there until the water reached the top of the pool table. And I think they probably did because when Julian and I bowed out of the ruckus at 1am, it seemed like they were just getting started. We left the bar when the water hit the crease in the back of my knee, that was our set indicator to go home.

We said our farewells and waded our way out of the bar to our bed.

We were startled awake at the crack of dawn by the pounding on our hotel door. “The water is coming, the water is coming!” Footsteps scrambled up and down the hallways. The manager shouted at us frantically. “You must move up stairs. Up, up, up!!” Water had filled the entire hotel lobby and dining hall. The flood started creeping up the three step staircase toward our room. We sloshed through the halls with all our stuff, being herded and hurried by the staff. As we were walking out of our room, teams were rushing in to lift the furniture off the ground.

From our top floor hotel room we could see the maze of flooded streets. We could see locals wading waist deep carrying their sacks of goods to the market that was going on as usual in the higher part of town. We didn’t feel like we could stay inside all day, so we set out to see what the market was all about. We stepped into the luke warm, brown water that went up to tip top of our thighs. We held our backpacks on our heads and walked slowly all the way to town.

When we got to dry land, I stood on the corner in a daze, watching the commotion. Wooden boats bumped into one another in the flooded streets, shouts swirled around with fury, fish heads floated by while fish bodies were snatched up one after another. A British accent caught my ear. I looked over and saw our three friends from the night before. The big blonde Brit looked horrified and hung over. He was holding his foot out to the side a bit, it looked like he may have hurt it.

We walked over to them, gave them hugs and laughed about the night. The blonde Brit didn’t say a word and had just sorta half heartedly draped his arms around us for a hug, so I asked, “Are you okay, what happened to your foot?” Without even looking at me he said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Everyone laughed. I said, “Okay, you have to tell us now, what happened?”

He told us about the drinks he drank, about how the water was up to his belly button when we left the bar and about how he and a bunch of girls from the bar had decided to wade home together.

He sorted mumbled and hurried the rest of the story, “We were walking carefully and the girl next to me saw a rat swimming, so I tried to run and stubbed my toe and my head went under.”

Julian whose face looked like he'd just swallowed a dozen worms said, “Your face went under the water?”

The guy nonchalantly nodded. His bad mood started to make sense.

“Your mouth in the water?” Julian continued questioning.

Question by question we pulled out the following: The rat was really fat and almost a foot long. It had been swimming so furiously that it was panting. The Brit had seen other live creatures in the water after the rat encounter, but wasn't sure what they were. And worst of all, he thought he swallowed a little bit of the water.

Julian and I were squirming by the end of the story. I slipped away and bought us each a liter of water. To add our part to the commotion, we pulled up our shorts and washed each others legs. There was no way in hell I was wading back to our hotel after that story. So for the rest of the afternoon we stood ankle deep in the water shouting to boat drivers, asking them for a ride to the other side of town. Right as evening fell, we finally found a boat driver who took pity on us and we floated back to our flooded hotel for a relaxing evening in.

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This is one of 30 untold stories of launching a global project (with my boyfriend, Julian) about love, story telling and connecting change makers.

Read all 30 days here: http://www.smithmag.net/community/people.php/HBOX

Throughout Vietnam, South Africa, and Uganda, we engaged with 650 everyday people working to make the world a better place to share their stories. Inevitably, there were parts of our adventures we couldn’t tell while on the road, because we were a start up trying to prove our merits as a serious social change project or because of nervous families monitoring our journey. But the truth is while we worked passionately to bring our dream project to life we also had an adventure of a lifetime. Here are the stories behind the stories of the Million Person Project: http://www.millionpersonproject.org.

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