31 August 2005

A Dragon Would Be Nice

What a wonderful morning! I popped in a taxi and went back downtown, planning to go to a café I’d found yesterday. But there, across the street was an even better looking one. I strolled over and took a seat at a table under a huge umbrella.

Since it is off a main drag, the noise from the traffic was greatly diminished and, not only that, they had some funky, new-age-ish Italian music flowing from the outdoor sound system. I sipped ice coffee and spied on the people who came and went.

Across the street is a monstrous brick church that, when I first saw it said, Damn, Notre Dame in the middle of Saigon! And darned if it really isn’t called ‘Notre Dame’. I swore I would not include a picture of a French cathedral in South East Asia, but somehow it snuck into the background of my first shot of the day, and then I just couldn’t resist the wedding party. But that is it for Catholicism in my writings.

It would have been nice to stay at the coffee shop all morning, however I can only sit for so long. I paid up and went out to see what else I could find in the way of escape-from-work venues. Barring going into the big hotels, which might or might not have roof-top dining, I didn’t find a whole lot. Time to mosey on by the US Consulate.

Now, if I have my story straight, the consulate sits where that US embassy used to be. (Does that mean it is a completely new structure? I’m still working on the facts). I wanted to see if it looked anything like those pictures from so long ago.

One can see the 400 foot concrete wall barricading the front of the Consulate from several blocks away. As I approached, I tentatively reached for my camera. I knew what the answer would be prior to talking to the security detail, but I went ahead and asked, Can I take pictures? I chatted with the friendly Vietnamese guards for several minutes, then went across the street and took a picture. (power to the people?)

I ended up back at a different outdoor café, ate, drank water, and tried to figure out the tattoos on the guy’s arms sitting at a table in front of me. I need a tattoo.
Don’t think Vietnam is known for them. May have to wait until I can get to Thailand.


30 August 2005

Where's The Party?

I’ve been here almost a month now, and although I am thoroughly enjoying it, it is now time to find some sort of a social life. Do I have a clue as to how to do this? No. There are a few night spots I would like to check out, but the problem is three-fold:

1. I am just not yet sure of the safety of going out alone at night.

2. I live down an alley and would have to walk there from the taxi.

3. Getting into the front gate of the house requires wrist and forearm acrobatics. First you have to reach through an eight-inch square, metal opening, then stretch over to the right for the paddle lock, maneuver it, blindly search for the key hole, then turn the key while pushing up on the lock. And this is all at above shoulder height, while standing on a steep slope. I have permanently bruised arms. There definitely would be no quick escape into the house, were it necessary.

Still, I am hopeful that if I sit in enough street side cafés, I might just bump into some interesting folks. The problem has been finding those street side cafés. It seems everything is indoors. There are tons of little outdoor, plastic stool, kiosk diners, filled with men on their breaks from surrounding construction and such. I don’t think I would fit in. And this is probably the only really negative aspect of picking up and doing it by yourself. Time to get out the tarot cards and see what the future holds.

Luck be a…..

Nothing Stays The Same

I am still not sure if it is the place where I work, or it is just the way of life here, but it seems there is no such thing as a constant. Just when I had decided that teaching at the high school would be fun; and just when I had my students all under control; and just when I had gotten used to the change from a bad text book, to a worse book, to the belief that there would be a third, better book; it’s been turned upside down, once again.

Yesterday, I found out that I would not be getting back at least half of my students when school resumes next week. I would be teaching at least one other grade, if not two more. And that tantalizing, new text does not exist. Added to this is the mandate that teachers are to give oral exams to 420 students once a month, give grades, give and correct homework, and follow some strange curriculum that is nothing more than a list of items to teach. (Spelling/pronunciation/vocabulary/the alphabet).

The scheduling would change, I was told, and the teachers were to pick the classes they wanted to teach. I was given the list of classes, and asked to choose. This seemed to be neither a prudent nor fair way of handling matters. I sat down with the schedule and divided it so that no one teacher had more than two grades. (Previously, teachers had up to 4 different grades.) Happily, the others involved approved of my scheme. But I have been forewarned: the classes, times, days, will most likely be changed every few weeks, with no prior warning. I am seriously re-thinking my contentment with this job.

Having said that, I’ve only got 5 months to go on this contract, which is a piece of cake. Hopefully, it will be a Virginia Bakery, butter cream frosting, raspberry filling, cake!


27 August 2005

Cho Lan

Cho Lon, (Jo Lon), is Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese district. I believe it was its own city until after 1975, when it was incorporated into HCMC. It’s something like a 40 minute walk from my house, so I decided I’d take a taxi and save my sweating for the walking tour I’d found in a travel book.

Needless to say, I was unable to follow the map’s route that encompassed numerous temples and notable sights. But even so I did manage to stumble upon a few temples and a mosque.

The mosque was bit of a surprise for me. I’d run across one in District 1, but hadn’t even thought there would be one in Cho Lon. I noticed a side entryway and stopped to look in. The mosque stood on the right, and to the left of the driveway about 20 men sat in low chairs around tables. I tentatively gestured to a young man at the entrance, asking if I could go in. He happily motioned me forward.

Three steps led up to the mosque. Major repairs were taking place. Again, I looked around to see if it was ok to enter. Several nodding heads assured me it was all right. I knew to take off my shoes before setting foot in the mosque, and there was a sign in English reminding one to do so. Bare-footed, I stepped into the dirt that had been left by tiles the workers were digging up from the veranda. They were wearing shoes. I wasn’t quite sure about what etiquette prevailed in mosque construction circumstances, but decided on keeping the shoes off.

Even in its neglected state, the lines of the structure, with its surrounding tropical foliage, gave off a calming feeling. Could I take pictures? Again I searched around for someone to ask. One fellow indicated I should wait while he went to get someone. A healthy, older gentleman, who may very well have been the imam, came to me. His head was covered and he had the forehead mark acquired from years of daily prayers. He beckoned me forward.

I followed him to a wooden door. There he took off his shoes. I was allowed into the prayer room and told I could take pictures. Back outside, one man asked where I was from. He told me that the Mosque of Cho Lon was built in 1932 by ethnic Indian Vietnamese. After many years, they were finally able embark on renovations. I could already see that soon it would once again have gleaming tile floors and maybe some new paint.

From there, I walked up the street a way and spotted a small Chinese temple. At the entrance, I again went through the can-I-enter-take-pictures thing. No problem. I love Chinese temples. Burning incense from sticks and from giant coils suspended from the ceiling. Bright gold and red decorations; wooden carved doors and plaques; alters and statues. One is surrounded by a peaceful sensation that seeps into your being.
I wandered into another temple, but was really trying to find the pagodas I’d read about. It was getting hot, and I needed to hydrate myself. Unfortunately, all I ran into were little street stall/cafés, and they were only for men. Twenty minutes later I arrived at a huge shopping mall that was very empty. I sat down to buy a drink and look at those maps again. (No comment.)

After feeling revitalized, I set back out to explore smaller streets that were filled with all sorts of shops. I must have passed at least six stores selling Lion Dancer heads/masks. I passed a row of herbal stores, (and sneezed), and a whole street of electronics. I now know where to go to get that elusive, reasonably priced, CD player. I passed wonderful photo ops, like the truck drivers who park and hang their hammocks from trees to take a nap; and the people on the corners with generator-run tanks of compressed air to fill scooter tires. Then there was that section I ran into where the tiny cigarette carts also sold Best Friend condoms. Just where the heck was I? But in all of those places, it felt way too intrusive to start taking pictures. Maybe next time.

I am home now, with the windows battened down against the torrential rains. Usually, a storm passes by rather quickly. Not this afternoon.

May the force be with you,

26 August 2005

Bed Linens

I wanted to bring sheets and towels with me. “No need”, I was told, “they will be provided for you”. I had a pretty good idea of what would be supplied, and what would be available, which made it even more important to get those items while stateside. But there was only so much I could pack into my trunks, and only so much money I wanted to spend before leaving. So I opted to bring nothing. At the last minute, I grabbed some old towels to tuck in around the top of my bags in the hopes that they would contain my items should anything pop open en route.

Linins here are the same as everyone outside of the US uses. There are no top sheets. Either you have a duvet cover or a very lightweight, cotton blanket that is laundered every few weeks. Sorry, but I need a top sheet. I probably would have been ok with the set-up for awhile, had it not been for my unfortunate presence at the changing of the sheets. They don’t use mattress pads and they don’t use pillow liners. I thought I would gag. (I don’t think anyone needs details).

I’d put it in the back of my mind until I’d lie in bed, and then I could barely get to sleep. (me and my germ/bodily fluids phobia). The final turning point though, was when I met the employee who had previously slept in my room. (I’m getting nauseous just thinking about him.) I had to get new bedding.

Back to my favorite store, MaxiMark, and into the house wares department. I already knew I would not find a US-style, complete set of sheets, but there had to be something. As I looked at the display of sheets, stacked up on temporary shelving, a young woman employee came to help. I pulled out my scrap of paper with the dimensions I needed.

She showed me what was available. Each packaged set had a fitted bottom sheet and two pillow cases. I found a suitable set. Now I needed something I could use as a top sheet. Through hand gestures, and her few words of English, she seemed to understand and signaled me to wait. She came back with a top sheet. I also grabbed a pillow. What I needed now was a mattress cover. That couldn’t be explained because I doubted if they had them, or at least not at MaxiMark. I started to walk the aisles in search of something I could use. At that point, another sales woman came over and said, “Madam, pillow?” I was about to respond when I heard my sales lady say something which sounded like a warning. Did they work on commission? Walking down the rows, I found another section of sheets and pillows. Now I was really stumped. Was this actually a group of different vendors under one roof? I picked up a different, cheaper pillow, but my sales person assured me it was no good. I decided since I needed two anyway, why not get both? For that mattress cover, I ended up with another top sheet.

Then I started to do mental addition to make sure I had enough. It was almost 600,000 VND. And that was what I had. I calculated when I got home and it was only US$37, but that is close to some people’s monthly salary here. I did not feel comfortable with that, and I knew the woman who does the washing would think I was insane.

New sheets and pillows are now washed and on my bed. Ahhhhh, I’ll sleep in crisp, cotton comfort tonight, and be cootie free! Oh, and those ‘packing’ towels from 1972 that I brought? I use them everyday. I can live with my own microbes for a lot longer than someone else’s.

Don’t let the bed bugs bite,

25 August 2005

One HOT Teacher

After three weeks, I have gotten the high school-ers completely under control, which is something that really worried me in the beginning. Before arriving, I had no idea I would be teaching anything other than adults, and was not super thrilled that I had two, double-period classes of teenagers, 5 days a week. Initially, I was rather surprised by their rowdy behavior; I had thought that they would be, if not angels, at least very respectful of a teacher. And now I see that they are, for the most part, pretty well behaved. It just took a class or two to get things in order.

I admit that by today’s final class, number 8 of the week, I was darn tired of the same lesson. I think I might have sounded like a recording. I no longer had the need to look at the book for anything I did. I weigh this against the thought of prepping for several different levels, and I guess I have ended up with the better option.

I really feel for these kids, who start school at 6:15 in the morning, and study too many hours to comprehend. The school itself is a massive, utilitarian, Soviet reminiscent, structure. U-shaped, it rises seven stories high, with wide staircases of polished stone winding up to each level. Every floor has an expansive corridor, with waist high, outer walls. Above this, they are open to the courtyard, allowing for air to flow freely. Steel, pull-down shutters extend along the top of the open walls and can be employed to block either sun or rain. Around two sides of the U, classrooms open off to the inside of the walkways. Strolling down the halls, you can feel a breeze, which is cooled by stone and concrete, and high ceilings. Inside the classrooms is a different story.

There are up to 42 adolescent bodies, seated in three rows of wooden bench desks, seven deep. There is nothing in the room but a chalkboard, two ceiling fans and banks of florescent lights, which I immediately turn off upon entering. The windows on the outside wall actually open, however, the hardware on the wooden shutters has been painted immobile, rendering them impossible to move. Most are open only slightly, severely blocking air circulation. There are only shutters on the wall bordering the corridor, and they are in the same condition as the others. Suffice to say, it cooks in there, especially when it is close to 90 degrees at 7AM, with 4000% humidity.

Add to this scenario the fact that I dress appropriately, which means my legs and arms are covered. (No hip-hugging sarongs and tank-tops for me, as much as I would like to be dressed that way.) My hair is generally soaking wet by 7:30AM. The students are slumping in their rock hard seats. They, however, are smarter than me. They take off their shoes. I have always worn closed shoes to teach in for two reasons: 1, you have to be sure your toes are beautifully pedicured and your feet are clean; and 2, when I taught in air-conditioned rooms I’d get frostbite on the tootsies. I plan to shop for some suitable, strappy sandals this weekend. I also plan to chop off my hair sometime soon.

Having said that, you should see the Vietnamese teachers. Apparently, it is de rigueur for the women teachers to wear the traditional ao dai. These gals are decked out in the most beautiful outfits, made of silk or polyester. The fabrics are all very formal looking, and something I would only wear to a night at the opera. Skin-tight fitted bodice and long sleeves, with that high collar. I want to pass out just looking at them. The men are in long sleeves and ties.

Final analysis of the whole situation? I like the kids. I figure this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for them, (having a native speaker as a teacher), and I want to give them the best I can. I will try to come up with a less sweaty wardrobe, while maintaining a somewhat respectable appearance. Now all I really need to work on is saving my voice. I’m trashing it, even with the kids under control.

Time to change into that sarong,

ps: The Shot I Missed: those are goldfish. (I will try my darndest to find her again.)

23 August 2005

The Supermarket

Prior to coming here I had no idea, whatsoever, what consumer goods would be obtainable. I’ve been in countries where anything other than the real basics was just a dream, to countries that had more than I would ever need. I didn’t know if it all would still be small neighborhood markets, or if supermarkets were readily available.

I still don’t know if there are big supermarkets all over town, but there is one within walking distance of my house. And it has more choices than I would ever have expected. I mean you can get Listerine! In three different flavors!

Maxi-Mark is right on a busy, main street. Which doesn’t really tell you much because all the streets are busy. (yes, one day I will write about the traffic.) A young woman form the office kindly took me there on my third day here.

As we approached the front doors, I noticed a driveway that appeared to lead to a side entrance. I started to turn into it when she grabbed my arm and told me that was for motorbikes only. I narrowly missed getting run over. We proceeded in through the proper entrance.

In front of us stood several, temporary promotional booths. One had loud music blaring, a young man with a microphone in a bright turquoise t-shirt, and several young women in the same colored mini-skirts. I looked at the guy with the mike, who was beckoning people to come on over. Then I noticed the lettering on his shirt; Kotex. I couldn’t possibly be the same product as in the US. I looked at my guide and said, Is that….? Yes, it was. Disco feminine hygiene products.

Past the promo area on the left, lay the check stands. I turned to go in.
“You have to check all your bags”, my friend said. Check in my purse? Is that safe?

Apparently it is, and you have no choice, so we walked over to the security alcove. I removed my wallet, handed the man my purse, he locked it in a cubby, and handed me the key. I felt sort of naked and vulnerable walking around with no bag and my money in my hand. Then again, there seemed to be security guards all over the place.

Once into the supermarket proper, I was totally amazed at what was available.
Shelves of Nivea products and shampoos, and California raisins, and imported chocolate, and just about anything one would need. I stocked up on soy milk, juice, nuts and a few other things.

We checked out and was about to retrieve my bag when I remembered I wanted a plastic tumbler. We exited through the side door, crossed that motorbike entrance and went into the house wares section of Maxi Mark. Got my stuff, went back to pick up my purse, and finally on the road to home.

Thank goodness I was with someone who knew the way. We had to turn right off the main drag onto a little alley, then right again into another alley, then left, then right, or something like that. These tiny back streets are filled with makeshift carts cooking up meals, and serving them on low tables surrounded by small, plastic stools. And then there are the motorbikes, bicycles, and vendors cruising through, along with the pedestrians. On either side are front entrances to houses that line the way.

Most houses are narrow and tall, and have gates that lead into an open ground floor. Just in my surrounding few blocks, I have peered through gates and seen people lying on the floor watching TV; mechanics working on motorcycles; a fishing rod repair shop; and my favorite, the beauty parlor that doubles as a butcher shop in the mornings.

I really enjoy the back alley atmosphere. People sit around, eat, talk, relax. I smile at everyone I pass, and they smile back. Kids often run up to say “Hello”, and anything else they know in English. I would like to spend an hour or so just meandering these back byways, but I will have to do it when I know I have the time to get really and totally lost, which I will undoubtedly do, and which is why I haven’t yet tried a different route home. I am just very proud of the fact that it only took two escorted trips for me to nail the route to Maxi-Mark and home!

Happy Shopping,



20 August 2005

Top Drawer HCMC

After two weeks here, mostly driving to and from work, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the city looked like, and I liked it: a foreign country, a new culture, lots of noise and lots of traffic. Somehow, I didn’t expect to find a ritzy, western-style-shops area. Today I went there.

It took two days of checking two guide books and three different maps, but I thought I had finally figured out where to ask the taxi to take me to get to the tourist shopping area. (my sense of direction, even with three maps, sucks big-time.)

Carefully, I jotted down the appropriate intersection – Le Loi and Dong Khoi. Again, back to the maps to try and get the proper accent marks, which was hard because those little marks get even littler on a map. Over some letters, I just scribbled and hoped the taxi driver would think it was bad handwriting, not the wrong mark.

Once in the taxi, I showed the driver my piece of paper, and tried to pronounce the streets. We sat for a few seconds, while he carefully enunciated each syllable and he wouldn’t take off until he was sure I had the sounds close enough. We kept practicing as we drove.

At one stop light, he pulled out a piece of paper and wrote ‘thirty’.
“Excuse me,” he said, “how do you speak this?” Then we practiced English for the next kilometer. I wanted to keep up the conversation, to ask why he needed to know the pronunciation of ‘thirty’, but it couldn’t be done.

“I like speak English”, he said.
The traffic’s insane! I said. We smiled and laughed.

At my stop, he again pulled out the paper and drew an intersection. I understood that he wanted to know what you call it. I wrote down ‘this is the intersection of Le Loi and Dong Khoi’. He corrected my pronunciation of the streets, I corrected his saying of ‘intersection’. I paid, we smiled, said good-bye.

As I got out and looked around me, I knew I was in a different city. Wide streets, fancy gardens, expensive boutiques, 5-star hotels. And something very different: tourists. The parts of town I have been in really don’t have them. When I walk around my house, or at the schools, I am very aware of how different I look. But down here, the foreigners were everywhere.

I had my maps, but am well aware of what happens when I try to read one; I just can’t tell left from right. It is usually better if I simply start walking, and when I get tired, hail a taxi for home. I check out the map once I have returned to the known realm of my room.

So I sauntered around the district, looked into the stores, but didn’t go in. I am going to be here a long time, and the last thing I need to do is start buying souvenirs. Anyway, I figured this part of town had to be way expensive.

Then I passed a store where the whole front wall was an open entry-way. You could easily see the handicrafts, and silk scarves, and smell the incense burning. I supposed it was ok to just go in and look. Hanging paper lanterns kept the lighting low, as I squeezed in around display tables and cases filled with wonderful things. Baskets and silk pillow cases and beaded jewelry and ethnic clothing and old photographs and tons of other stuff I only got a glimpse of. I was surprised that the prices were so reasonable, if not down-right cheap. However, I wasn’t here to buy, so didn’t I didn’t really take my time looking at things. I was merely enjoying the atmosphere and the fragrant air.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed this fabric and beaded necklace type thing that I assumed was from an indigenous tribe. I touched it. I turned it over to see the price: US$8. I removed my hand. I looked at it again. I took it down. I hung it back up and walked away. Two steps later I walked back. $8??? I could afford that. And past experience has taught me that if you see something you want; buy it, because you will never find it again.

I took it over to the woman at the register. (although it wasn’t a register, of course, it was a table). I asked her about it.

“This comes from the Yao minority group in the north of Viet Nam.” I hesitated again.
How much is it in Vietnamese Dong? She didn’t even need a calculator.
“127,000 Vietnamese Dong.” Yikes! Why did that sound so much? I started to take it back. Wait, maybe I had enough dollars on me. I checked. I had $6.
Can I pay part in dollars and part in Dong? That way it wouldn’t seem so expensive. I handed her the $6 and 30,000 dong.

They wrapped my necklace in beautiful, purple paper, then stuffed it in a little woven, palm leaf bag. I got a card from the store so I could be sure to find it again.

I continued my walk and got completely turned around, as usual. Seems I couldn’t even find where the taxi had left me off. But I did stroll into another shopping area that was not so high-end. But by then, I had been walking for about two hours, it was almost noon and getting a little warm.

As I hailed a taxi, I tired to pinpoint where I was so I could go back tomorrow. It was useless. I was either north or south or left or right of where I had started earlier in the day. Thanks goodness I always carry the address of where I live so I can show it to the taxi driver. I should really try to memorize it for any future emergencies. If I ever lost it, I really would be lost.

Happy Trails,


19 August 2005

Health Check

I had my pictures, had my bag, out the door to go to get my medical check for my work permit. I sat back in the car and let the a/c dry the sweat. Crap! No passport. Back to the house, down the alley, up 4 flights of stairs, got the passport and back out.

We went to what I am told is one of the better, private hospitals. The first stop is in an open-on-three-sides reception area covered by a roof. I stand behind my colleague as she enlightens them about what I need. I smile, the nurses smile, then start indicating my nose and giggling.

What are they saying? I ask.
“You have a high nose and we think it is beautiful”. A high nose. I had heard that before in Asia, and I guess it means that the bridge sits farther away form the face. I keep looking at their noses to see what the big deal is, and I can’t quite understand. Never used to really like my nose, always thought it was a little large. I no longer bother to think such thoughts – dang, it’s just my nose, but I would never label it beautiful.

After a bit of paper work, the nurse hands me a little plastic bottle. No need for translation, I know the routine. I walk over to the bathroom. UCK! Old, nasty, doors that don’t close, and no toilet paper. I manage to pee all over my hand. There is a sink, with illustrated signs about the necessity to wash ones hands, but no soap.
I am beyond grossed out. I take the container back to the nurse’s station and she points to the floor. I set it down. She picks it up with a piece of paper for protection.

She will be our guide for the next few stops on the road of a medical check. Apparently, it was jam-packed in the morning, but almost empty at 2pm. We follow her across an open area, to check stop # 1: blood.

I look at the building. It is all barren looking concrete floors and walls that have seen better days. However, it does look sort of clean. I am lead into the blood-letting room. This is no way clean and sparkle and antiseptic-smelling like a US hospital. I start to get nervous. But I look at the techs and nurses and they are wearing spotless, white, pressed uniforms. I peek into the back room where they are handling the blood. Everyone is wearing gloves and I can see banks of brand-new hospital cabinets and equipment, all looking very modern. Still not at all like I am used to, mind you, but I have hope. The tech comes out and I am pleased to note a box of disposable syringes and that she is wearing gloves. Then I look at the gloves. They are covered in blood and with holes. I desperately try to ask for clean gloves, but before I can even get started, she has stripped them off and grabbed a new needle. I look away as she cinches me up. I do not even feel the needle going in! This has to be the best blood-drawer in the know world! I know there will be no bruising.

Next on our list of chores is the x-ray. My protests go unheard. I get radi-ized fully clothed. I mention my under wire bra but that doesn’t seem to be a problem.

We are marching through at a remarkable speed. We go up a flight of stairs and sit in the waiting area. It is an impressive example of tropical architecture. I sit in a long, wide, covered corridor, with an outside wall that is built of open-holed, lattice-type concrete. Air flows through, the sun is kept away. The germs have no chance of hanging around. Opposite the ventilation wall are door after door, leading into examining rooms.

I wait about ten minutes for the doctor. I enter and see that this is an ear/nose check. The doc has me sit down, grabs my shoulders, and pulls me towards him. I nearly fall off the chair. Mouth right up against my left ear, he says, “What’s you name?” I passed the hearing test. Then he looks down my throat, looks up my nose, and signs me off.

Two doors down, it’s the eye check. I cover my right, then my left, and read the chart. Perfect vision, on to the ophthalmologist in an adjoining room. He pries open my eye and uses a giant prism to direct a beam of 1000 watts into it. I can’t keep my eye open, but make it through the exam. Singed off on that, and on to my last stop.

We go back downstairs and into a large room with a group of nurses seated around an old desk, working on patient files. An older doctor sits at a desk to the rear of the room. We walk in.

“Take off your shoes”, he says. Oh dear! I thought I had forgotten the rule about taking off one’s shoes when entering a house or some places of business. But everyone else was wearing shoes. I obliged.
“Get on the scale”. Now I got it.
“Lean against the wall”. He read my height out in centimeters and I calculated it when I got home. I am 2 inches shorten than in the US.
“Lie on the bed.” Oh GROSS!!! There was a nasty, dirty sheet on it. What were they going to do? I would die if I had to get a pelvic exam! He pulled out his stethoscope and listened to my heart. Then the nurse took my blood pressure.

I was done. The results would be ready in a few days, but it looks as though I am 100% healthy. It truly was fast, efficient, and everyone involved was most helpful and pleasant. When I got home, I ripped off my clothes, threw them in the hamper, and jumped in the shower. I am such a wimp when it comes to the thought of germs.

Good Health to All,

18 August 2005

Enhanced Photos and Cheap Books

I need to get a “health check”, which in other countries means an HIV/AIDS test, but possibly here it is more. I went to the clinic, but didn’t have the requisite 2 photos and passport. I also needed 2 photos for the Ministry of Education, so on the way home dropped by the photo shop. Great; in my casual clothes, drenched in sweat, make-up worn off. Just how I wanted to be immortalized in the public record.

I figured it would be like in the States – walk in, sit down, snap, you’re done. Entering the small shop, my colleague explained the need for pics, and we were directed to the back. We passed through an even smaller room where 3 people worked at computers. I thought maybe it was also an internet café. Then on through another door to the picture taking room.

The photographer indicated the hot seat, and I sat down and fidgeted while he arranged his camera. Then I gave him my best smile. He stopped focusing, came out from behind the camera, adjusted my head up and left, then played with my hair a bit before returning to the job at hand. I grinned, he clicked. He looked down at his camera and shook his head. My colleague went over to look at the picture and a rapid conversation ensued. We needed to take another shot. Again, the photographer tilted my head just so, brushed some loose hair behind my ear, and click. This time all seemed in order. I went to peer at the shot.

Can I see the first, I asked, what was wrong with it?
“You smiled too much”. Huh? “It doesn’t look good if you smile too much”. From the way they were talking I got the impression that a total, police-blotter mug-shot would have been preferable.
“And don’t worry; we can do something about your clothes”. Huh?
“They will put you in a professional-looking blouse and fix anything on your face.”

As we walked back to the front, I again looked at the ‘internet-café”, and realized they were actually digitizing wedding photos and the like. In the front, I was shown examples of 10 different style tops I could “wear” and in at least 20 different patterns and colors. This was going to be fun. I choose 2 different ao dai, (ow yai), the traditional Vietnamese woman’s tunic; close fitted bodice with mandarin collar. The pics would be ready in 24 hours.

Next on the list was the bookstore for notebooks and to check out what English teaching materials they had. I couldn’t believe what was available – some of my favorite books that I could never afford, and they were dirt cheap. But they looked odd. The size was much smaller than what I had remembered. Maybe the export market to Vietnam was different. I picked up a copy – it was the same book, same cover, high quality paper, but uh oh, it was a copy! Now, I have been in enough countries where, if you want a copy of a costly book, you just stroll on down to the corner copy place and get it down. But I have never been in a country where high quality copies are actually sold in a bookstore! Needless to say, I would never purchase such copies that were in such blatant violation of copyright laws, no matter how cheap they were, or how much I wanted them.

But back to my mug-shots which I picked up today. They turned out way cool. Small as they are, you can still see that I know have perfect skin and look quite the international woman in my ow dai. Guess it is back to the hospital for that medical check, sometime tomorrow. Can’t wait…..


15 August 2005

1st Day of the New Term

Today was the start of the fall semester at the high school. I think last week was some sort of interim program, but I can’t be sure.

On Sunday, just when I was about to start planning for my classes, I was told that the books had been changed. Since I pretty much thought the original book was way too difficult and rather sucky, as well as not having done any serious planning, I didn’t mind. I got the new book and asked if the students would have them by the next day. “We will bring the news books to the school tomorrow.” I sat down to plan.

After several hours of document writing/printing, searching for appropriate additional materials, figuring how to teach with limited photo-copies, another dynamite lesson plan lay on my bed. Lights out at an early hour – the driver was coming at 6:40am.

6:35, out at the curb. 6:45, and still no driver. I started to count the motorcycles and scooters that passed by. At first, I started counting them individually, then by fives, then by 10’s. After I reached 200, a mere five minutes later, I stopped. Checked my watch, checked the street, leaned my arm on a street sign.

I noticed an ornately decorated flat-bed truck, parked across the street and figured it was a hearse. Golden dragons ran the length of the bed, with a red and gold, wooden canopy above. Off the edge of the canopy, hung blue fabric and silver tassels. A cleaned-up old army jeep, with a little mini pagoda on the back, stood guard in front of the truck. (It still had ammo looking things attached to its body).

I looked at my watch again as the minutes ticked by, stretched my arms, and gazed down the street searching for a familiar looking car. The brass band and drums got my attention from across the street. From the ally, a woman appeared tossing paper money, closely followed by monks in yellow robes and pallbearers dressed in military uniforms carrying a litter. On the litter lay a coffin that was much taller than what I have ever seen. The ‘lid’ was more dome-shaped, almost reaching a point at its apex. They got the coffin loaded onto the truck, accompanied by burning incense, music, and motorcycles swerving not to hit them. And still no driver.

By my watch, it was 7:20 and classes at the high school had already started. I went back to the house where everyone was still asleep except for the lady who cooks. It wasn’t hard for her to understand that I had been stranded. A few phone calls and I was off in a taxi to the school, terribly late for my first class of on the first day. The woman in charge of scheduling met me, and I was all set to sprint up the three flights of stairs to the class.

“There’s no rush, the other teacher took your class”.
But who took his class?
“His class was cancelled. You don’t have to teach for another hour and 15 minutes”.

Fortunately, it was a cooler morning, so sitting on the bench outside wasn’t bad. Sure whished I’d had something to read. After awhile, the teacher who had given me ‘no class’ news, returned with a class set of photo-copies of the first 4 pages of the book.
Why do we need these? I asked.
“The students won’t have their books until next week”. OK, so there went the “Get To Know Your Book” section I had planned to use for at least 20 minutes.

Even so, the class went really well the first half and not so well the second. After, I went down to meet the driver, who asked,
“Where were you at 6:20?” Huh? It had been 6:40 all last week, I explained.
“No, the times changed.” I tried to explain that it was not big deal and that I would be waiting at 6:20 from now on. (ugh!) He spent the whole ride home trying to assure me that it wasn’t his fault, and I spent the whole ride saying that I knew it wasn’t his fault and that it wasn’t a problem.

Let’s hope all goes as planned for my evening class.

It did, but the driver still kept apologizing.
New class tomorrow.
Good night,

14 August 2005

Bao Tang My Thut - Fine arts Museum

Today I saw the best exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum. Recent works by local artists, is about all I can tell you. The museum itself is housed in a big-ol’ French, colonial building. (Those boys sure did go for massive structures). I tried to get some decent shots, but between the museum lighting, and what appears to be my listing alee, they aren’t quite how I’d envisioned this posting to look. Nevertheless, I hope that some of the beauty shines through the bad shots.

(there are actually all sorts of accent marks on the 'Bao Tang My Thut', which I managed to employ when I wrote this on Word, but they just didn't transfer to my monolingual blog).

Off to practice standing straight.

12 August 2005

That Siterhood Thing

Just finished dinner with the ladies of the house. It’s one of those very special times when you are so happy to have come to a far-off corner of the world all by yourself. There were four of us. Only one could speak both Vietnamese and English, but it didn’t matter. We sat around the table in our jammies, talked, laughed, and ate. I tried out a few new words in Vietnamese while they patiently corrected and approved of my efforts. What a lovely way to end the work week.

Good night – chuc ngo ngon

11 August 2005

Off To See The City

After a week of life here, today I got to be the big city explorer that I am. I went for a stroll in District 1, which is the center of town. Whew! -glad to find out there are­ wide streets and more open spaces. I was beginning to feel just a tad claustrophobic. Where I live seems to be narrow streets and tall buildings. In between those narrow streets one has to navigate tiny alleys to get to ones home. And those teeny alleys do not stop the motor scooters, on any car that can fit for that matter, from entering the fray in search of passage among pedestrians, street stalls, vendors, and doggies. I was beginning to wonder if I no longer appreciated the madness of the metropolis. Thanks goodness that is not the case. (it’d be kind of rough living here otherwise.) I simply needed to get out and about.

Today started with grey skies and rain. The view over the rooftops indicated that clearing was probably not coming for quite awhile. I could either chance it or sit inside. I opted for the former, after waiting for a break in the rain. Outside the weather was surprisingly cool – ‘cool’ being relative, of course. Still, good cruising conditions. I hopped in a taxi and 15 minutes later I arrived at my destination. After about an hour stroll, I noticed the skies above turn an increasingly dark shade of black. Then the winds came up. Time to flag a taxi. We had driven no more than one block when the torrent started. For those of you who have never lived in the tropics, there is no way to explain the amount of water that comes down. You are immediately drenched. Fortunately, even if this happens, it’s not cold so you are not really miserable. Unless you start thinking about acid rain. Which I don’t. Hopefully, the weather will brighten up over the weekend so I can really get lost in the big city.


09 August 2005

...the best laid plans

Work so far: I arrived Thursday the 4th, with the assumption that I would start working on the 15th. I taught my first class the next morning with a 15 minute heads up. On Saturday, I went into the school to get my schedule. Found out I was starting full time on Monday.

Where are the books?, I asked, Isn’t this the middle of the term? What unit are you on? Where did the last teacher stop and what has he/she covered?
It took awhile, but I left feeling confident that I had the ‘big picture’ and could manage it.

Spent hours on Saturday and Sunday sorting thorough my resources as well as some books at the school so that I would have a bang-up week of really cool classes and not just the dead boring workbooks I’d been issued for class work. I was really proud of all my organized lessons, laid out in neat little piles on my bed. Good thing I didn’t have to teach until Monday evening, because my body still thought I was in California.

“The driver will pick you up at 4:30 for your 5:00 class”, the assistant director told me on Monday.
I thought my class started at 6.
“No, it’s at 5”.

I arrived at the school at 4:45 and verified that my class started at 6. Then I was introduced to another teacher, a lovely Vietnamese woman. She asked,
“Why weren’t you here for your morning class?”
Huh? I pulled out my schedule and showed her what the program coordinator had clearly highlighted: Monday AM; no class. Tuesday AM; class.
“It was your class and there was no one here to teach it”. SHIT! I kept trying, and rightly so, to shift the blame, but I don’t know if they believed me.
However, this teacher was very happy to meet with me. She had waited all Saturday afternoon because she had thought we were going to meet to discuss classes. Double SHIT! I apologized and said I didn’t know that we were supposed to meet.

It was around this time that I realized there were major language comprehension obstacles. This was going to be a challenge.
“We are sharing classes”, the teacher told me. WHAT?
But I have unit 5 all planned for the week, and unit 6 for the other class, and I decided to use this book for the kids since they aren’t using any text.
“But we are on unit 3 and 5. You will do page 14, 15, 16. In the other class you will do page 43, 44, 45. And the kids are on unit 7 for Tuesday’s class and unit 6B for Wednesday’s class”.

I audibly slumped in my chair. I would have to toss all those hours of work. It took another half hour before I could understand what was going on. Nobody seemed to know what anyone else was doing, even though there was a set course outline that nobody seemed to follow.

At least I would have all Tuesday to re-plan.
“I hate to ask you”, said the assistant director, “but another teacher has just called in sick and we need you at the high school tomorrow and Friday”.
This is in addition to all the other high school classes I teach.

I forgot to mention that the electricity was out most of Monday, which meant no fan, no computer, etc. It came back on at 3pm.I got back from work by 8pm and switched on my ceiling lights which promptly blew out. I spent an hour emailing with a flashlight, then gave up and tried to sleep. Up again a 5 with the flashlight email, but at least the sun is bright by 6am.

Tuesday’s high school class went ok. I managed to get drenched walking the 2 blocks from where the driver let me off, to my house. Taught the little ones at 5pm. Cute-as-can-be kids. Got home and still no lights. 8pm the guard from the school came to fix them. Not possible. Too tired to even flashlight email. Went to bed.
Dragged out the door at 6:30 this morning to go to my high school class. Got there/class cancelled/home by 8/next class at 5 this evening.
Oh yeah, that traffic. I’ll tell you about it another day.

07 August 2005

Sunday in the City

Jet-lag hit at about noon today, so no pics of Sunday in the park. Views from my roof top will have to do.
The food continues to be great. Everything is new and delicious; however, I need a break. Two, large, hot meals a day, in a hot country, may have contributed to the slows I am feeling. I switched to corn flakes and soy milk for the evening meal.
Work starts in earnest tomorrow, and I think I am prepared. Well, I am prepared, but whether or not all will go as planed remains to be seen.

Sweet dreams,

05 August 2005

First 30 Hours

I flew through immigration and customs. Thankfully, several different people were very kind helping me load trunks on to and off of carts and x-ray machines. I stepped out through the airport doors to be greeted by throngs off folks, standing behind barricades, looking for their friends or family members. It took a minute or so of scanning the placards held up in the crowd before I found my name. Then it was a short drive to what will be my new home for the next 6 months or so.

The house is narrow and tall; my room is 4 flights up, which I like except for those times when I have 3000 lbs of luggage. I dragged up one suitcase and the lovely people here assured me that they would get some big men to cart the rest of it up later in the day.

By 5pm I was ready to hibernate for a good few days, but had been invited out to dinner by the young woman who had met me at the airport and also worked at the language school. Was I ever glad I went. I haven’t had much Vietnamese food in my life, and everything I ate was a new taste sensation. All the dishes, tofu, fish, shrimp, egg-rolls, had completely different flavors from each other, and were different from anything I had ever eaten before.

That was Thursday night, and during dinner, my companion mentioned that I would start teaching on Monday. Monday? The 8th? Wasn’t I specifically here a week early so that I could prepare for the 15th? Apparently not. I’ve been in this business too long to even worry about such things.

Back at the house, I took another shower – (yes, it is hot and humid and I love it, but I also hose-off as often as possible). I heard some banging around on the staircase, and a few minutes later, a knock on my door. I opened to find the middle-aged lady who lives on the floor below me. Next to her were 2 of my 70lb trunks. I was mortified. Here I was saying that they were too heavy to drag up, which they were, and she brought up both! She left the third one for the boys to get later.

Before I went to bed I checked my email. (the head of the school is currently in the US). He was very pleased that I’d arrived safely and told me that this week I would be introduced to the teaching center and the high school so I would be ready for next week. Also this week I would go out to eat with some of his family. Also this week I would meet with another teaching coordinator. “This Week”? It was already Thursday night. I decided to forget about it until the next morning when I was to go to the teaching center at 9am.

At 8:45 I was downstairs ready to go to my orientation at the office.
“I am sorry”, said the assistant director, “but we have a problem. One of our teachers just walked out of the high school and we don’t have any one to teach the 9:15 class”. I thought I knew what this meant, but then again it could have been a misunderstanding due to language differences. It wasn’t. 5 minutes later I was in the car with the driver and the office coordinator, on my way to teach an hour and a half class of high school students, with no resources whatsoever. Just me and the chalk board. As I said before, I’ve been doing this too long to NOT expect the insane, so just went with it. Both teacher and students survived. I think I will be teaching there starting on Monday but, again, I can’t seem to get a clear answer as to hours, levels, times, days.

Oh, the picture – I will elucidate all of you on the traffic situation in a later posting.

Time for another shower.

Taipei to HCMC

I wanted hot; I got hot. But this is inside-an-airport-no-A/C hot. A two hour lay-over, dying of thirst, and nothing available from the vending machines without local money.
China Airlines is my new favorite airlines. It didn’t hurt that I flew on a half-empty 747. Great food, non-stop movies on my own personnel screen, and CLEAN bathrooms even after a 12 hour flight. My second leg is with Vietnam Air. Left California 15 hours ago at 1am and it’s now 6am the next day. It will all catch up to me in about 2 days.

Vietnam Air was fine, but my plane was one of those recycled from another airline. Kind of run-down looking, but it got me to Ho Chi Minh City, and there were only about 50 people on the whole flight. Food sucked – just what you would expect from an airline. However, the flight attendants uniforms were some of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. Burgundy full length tunics, split on the sides to the waist, fitted bodice, long sleeves, and a mandarin collar. White pants underneath.

Being an older plane, it didn’t have a video safety film. Instead, four flight attendants, with what I can only describe as a beautifully choreographed dance, demonstrated the exits and emergency procedures. Stationed in the isles, two fore and two aft, they stood with an arm behind them, bent at the elbow to align with the waist. With the other hand, they gracefully pointed to exits, in perfect unison, accompanied by the instructions being read over the loudspeaker. They put on the life vests with flowing hand and arm movements, gracefully miming the pull-tabs/blow into-tubes method of inflation. They finished with an elegant, simultaneous bow. Best floor show I’ve seen in years.

Airport departure

I’m at the airport and thought I could log on, but I’d have to subscribe to the provider. I think I have spent enough money in the past few weeks and can wait until later to post this.

Totally freaked out, I was, before leaving the house for the airport. I have too much baggage; 3, 70 lb trunks, a 57 lb suitcase, 26 lb carry-on, and laptop. The biggest down side of traveling alone is trying to keep track of it all. I mean, who watches your bags while go take a pee? Not to worry, my friend dropped me off at the curb, a lovely gentleman snatched up all my bags and easily loaded them onto a cart. He wouldn’t even let me help. He took all that poundage straight to the airline counter, waited until it was my turn, and put all my junk on the scales. Completely effortless and carefree on my part.

Now it is a 2 hour wait but I feel in a rather Zen like state. I think I might actually be able to sleep on a plane this time. The check-in counter woman told me it was a fairly empty flight, so I am hoping my strategy of a back aisle, middle-section seat will pay off.

Thanks to everyone who got me packed and off. Maybe I could have done it alone, but I would not have wanted to.

Off to pee-