Catfish and Mandala
by Andrew X. Pham
Farrar Strauss, New York, 1999, 344 pp, $25
A Vietnamese American takes a bicycle journey back to the country of his memories. Highly recommended.


randmother told me it had been written in my sister Chi's fortune penned by a Vietnamese monk on the day of her birth, in the year of the Tiger: suicide at thirty-two. We were sitting on Grandmother's bed in the very room where Chi had hung herself. The rope was gone, but there was incense ash in the carpet, its fragrant prayers locked in. Grandmother closed her hands over mine and asked me quietly if I wanted to read my birth fortune. It was from the hand of the same monk, written twenty-seven years earlier. She pressed into my chest a yellowed fortune-scroll, crushed and tattered, its secret bound by an umbilical cord of red twine. I looked at this relic from a distant world, dreading its power. I said no, quit by job, and bicycled into the Mexican desert.

     The first thing I notice about Tyle is that he can squat on his haunches Third World-style, indefinitely. He is a giant, an anachronistic Thor in rasta drag, bare-chested, barefoot, desert-baked golden. A month of wandering the Mexican wasteland has tumbled me into his lone camp warded by cacti. Rising from the makeshift pavillion staked against the camper top of his pickup, he moves to meet me with an idle power I envy. I see the wind has carved leathery lines into his legend-hewn face of fiords and right angles.
     In a dry, earthen voice, he asks me, "Looking for the hot spring?"
     "Yeah, Agua Caliente. Am I even close?"
     "Sure. This is the place. Up the way a couple of hundred yards."


     "Amazing! I found it!"
     He smiles, suddenly very charismatic, and shakes his head of long matty blond hair. "How you got here on that bike is amazing."
     I had been pedaling and pushing through the forlorn land, roaming the foreign coast on disused roads and dirt tracks. When I was hungry or thirsty, I stopped at ranches and farms and begged the owners for water from their wells and tried to buy tortillas, eggs, goat cheese, and fruit. Every place gave me nourishment; men and women plucked grapefruits and tangerines from their family gardens, bagged food from their pantries, and accepted not one peso in return. Why, I asked them. Senor, they explained in the patient tone reserved for those convalescing, you are riding a bicycle, so you are poor. You are in the desert going nowhere, so you are crazy. Taking money from a poor and crazy man brings bad luck.


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