In Hoi An there are countless shops selling very similar items. Because of this, the competition is pretty stiff. Once, as I started to walk away after looking around, a shop owner said, “Tell me what you pay. I know if you no buy from me, you buy from someone else.” Shop owners are constantly working for your time and attention. Even their friends and family members chip in: “You want shoes? My brother owns good shoe shop next door. How about massage? My friend give best massage.” But there’s one phrase I hear over and over, and the first time I heard it I was stopped in my tracks.
I was walking down the street, not looking at any shops or anything in particular – just walking. A woman across the street called out to me:
“What are you looking for?“
Since I wasn’t in any of the shops browsing the question seemed out of context and took on an entirely different meaning for me as it was a question I often asked myself.
I wheeled around. “I’m sorry?“
“What are you looking for?” she repeated.
What am I looking for? That’s a great question. But do I have to be looking FOR something? Can’t I just look? I’m not searching so much as I’m just wandering. Is that not allowed?
It wasn’t the first time a seemingly meaningless question made me catch my breath. Just before leaving on my trip my friends and I were enjoying a final meal together. The night before had been my going away party, surrounded by family and friends wishing me well. The next day, brunch with my best girls and their husbands was a bit somber knowing we’d have to hug each other goodbye soon. As we were settling up the bill the waiter was working hard to divvy up the separate checks.
“You’re together, and then you guys, and I think you and he split the broken yolk sandwich…” he went around the table pointing.
“And you’re on your own, right?” he asked, staring down at me.
My friend Maggie instantly caught the double meaning, reached over and squeezed my knee knowingly under the table. In mere moments I was about to be “on my own” for the first time in every sense of the expression. Until that moment my pending adventure had seemed so far away, but with that simple question the magnitude of the situation hit me and it was finally real for the first time. I took a deep breath and managed to squeak out, “Yes. I’m on my own.”
Now I say the same phrase with confidence and even pride when people ask if I’m traveling solo. But at that moment, with the great unknown staring back at me, I was terrified.