While we seek an agent or publisher, we are providing excerpts from the first two chapters of our forthcoming book in progress: Changes in Longitude: How One Couple Chucked it All to Travel the World.
During a nighttime stroll we had gotten lost in the dimly lit, maze-like streets of old Saigon. A series of turns led us into a narrow alley whose sole purpose seemed to be connecting to other alleys. The winding streets felt as though laid out by a two-year-old chasing a kitten.
Space is dear in the congested city, so sidewalks act as ad hoc home extensions. Old women hunched over woks as they stir-fried vegetables, while the tantalizing aroma of chargrilled meat encircled us. In the incessant heat, locals squatted on small plastic stools, trying to catch the occasional faint breeze. They looked at us with amusement, while small children stopped their games for a moment to point at us and giggle; obviously, we were well off the tourist path.
One elderly man, sporting a wispy Ho Chi Minh beard, waved us away from one alley and pointed to another. We followed his advice, but ended up at a blank wall, like wayward mice that still couldn’t find the cheese.
We spotted an open-air building off to the side. A slight woman in her twenties, head shaved clean and clad in a plain gray robe, approached us and calmly said, “Come in.” She smiled serenely, like a saint in the stained-glass window of a medieval church. Because we had no idea where we were, and only a vague idea of how to get back, we took her up on the offer.
Somehow, we had stumbled into the Châu Lâm Pagoda, a Buddhist convent, on the busiest day of the year – the Tet holiday. Dozens of pairs of flat straw sandals were lined up outside the entrance. We removed our thick-soled hiking shoes, which stood out like Hummers in a row of bicycles.
Sister Huê Chi led us inside to meet the Master of the convent, an elderly woman with a commanding presence. She was barely four feet tall. In the background, a nun struck a gong at regular intervals as the others chanted prayers to Buddha. Fragrant sandalwood incense from burning joss sticks wafted over us.
The Master led us by the hand to a table, where other nuns scurried to present us with traditional Tet dishes of sticky rice and bright orange mangoes. We had no idea what was going on. However, since we come from Italian and Russian ethnic backgrounds, where we were trained well by our grandmothers that refusing the offer of food is considered an insult to the host, we dug into the simple meal.
Michael had trouble shelling a bowl of watermelon seeds, so a novitiate was called over to help him. Our young assistant cracked the shells in her mouth, and then pulled out the seeds, which she gracefully dropped into Michael’s hand. By then we felt like family, so he eagerly gobbled them up. The Master grasped each of our hands; her skin had the appearance of a weatherworn saddle but was as smooth as a newborn calf as she gently held onto us.
After finishing our impromptu dinner, she led us to another table to fill out prayer cards. The sisters would pray for us and our family members back home. We asked them to pray most fervently for our daughter. The sisters then clipped red pieces of paper inscribed with blessings to our hair. Thus adorned, we entered the sanctuary.
Nuns bowed in rows behind small silver tables bearing prayer books. Their hands remained clasped together and their heads lowered as they shot curious sideways glances at us; the only Westerners there. Whenever we made eye contact we were met with a soothing smile. A few minutes later, we knelt in front of a yellow-and-red altar dedicated to Buddha.
Dozens of small red votive candles and strings of sparkling white lights illuminated the shrine, on which worshippers had placed humble offerings of oranges, flowers and, somewhat incongruously, a dozen round tins of Danish butter cookies. We pressed our foreheads gently to the marble floor as we tried to mimic the movements of the saffron-robed worshippers around us.
During our prayers, the same thought occurred to each of us: “We’re two middle-aged people from Philly. How did we end up here?”
You’ve just read the Prologue to our book in progress—Changes in Longitude: How One Couple Chucked it All to Travel the World.
To read more go to: Chapter 1: Gonna Fly Now (Part 1)
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We are still seeking an outlet for this book. Interested agents and publishers can reach us by clicking the “Contact” button near the top of this page.