27 November 2005

27 November 2005

Last week was mid-term week. It was brutal. By Friday, the students were burnt, the teachers were burnt, and thank god I don’t have to be involved with that for another five weeks.

I tested and scored on Monday and Wednesday; taught the other three days. Rather, I tired to teach. Seems my students were either too exhausted to come to class, or behaved like rambunctious 12 year olds. Even my best, loud, admonishing teacher voice had no more than a 5 minute effect on any of them. I certainly hope everyone will have recovered by tomorrow, Monday. Meanwhile, I had a weekend ahead of me.

Friday evening I went into town to meet up with a group from work for dinner and beer. After four months here, I finally made it into the backpackers area, the place where most budget travelers start their journey. It was just what I expected; lots of young scruffy tourists, packed into restaurants and cafés, or wandering up and down the streets. When I first arrived in Vietnam, I spent weeks without seeing other foreigners because they all hung out in this part of town.

I did learn that this area was where you could get really inexpensive meals that had NO MSG! (It is mostly because of msg that I never eat out.)

My weekend of exploring new places that most tourists visit on Day One, continued on Saturday when I went to Ben Than Market. This is the giant, indoor souk that sells everything from kitchen utensils to fruit and vegetables to tourist items. It is both a market for the Vietnamese and the tourists. The structure is massive. I think it must be at least a square block, with a cavernous ceiling. Inside is packed with aisle after aisle of small stalls, each crammed to bursting with consumer goods.

The taxi let me out at the main entrance, and I braced myself before entering. I knew it would be crowed and hot and claustrophobic, even at 9 in the morning. I started down the wide, main aisle, and was immediately greeted by stall owners beckoning me over to look at their wares. I really had no idea what I wanted to buy, and mostly just wanted to get my bearings and see what was available.

To the left and right, row after of narrow aisles lead off the main drag. I saw shoes and clothes and glasses and plates. Halfway down the main corridor, I took a deep breath and turned right into a row of t-shirts. The women manning the stalls immediately stood up, grabbed items out of their stalls, shoved them in my face, grabbed my arms, and asked what I was looking for, and told me that they had the best prices. It really was unnerving, but I know they are just doing their job, so I smiled, said hello, and tried to keep walking.

I stopped to look at a few bags and ended up buying two. I walked around a bit more, but the place was really getting to me and I decided that once I was able to find a way out of the maze that I seemed to be stuck in, I was out of there.

It was then that I happened upon a stall that was a little larger than the others. You could actually walk inside. The good part was that unlike the other stalls, it was not blasted with long tubes of florescent lights. The downside was that it was a tad hard to see things clearly. But the more I looked the more I saw that this was the kind of shop I was looking for. It was loaded with ethnic goodies.

Almost immediately, my eyes locked onto an elaborate headdress, adorned with beads and shells and hammered tin. I picked it up and knew I had to have it. I should say at this point, that I hate to bargain. What I did at this stall is what I do everywhere I go in the world; I asked the price, was told something I couldn’t afford, then asked if that was the best price. Without even entering into the undignified act of the bargain, I soon had the headpiece for less than half of what was written on the price tag. And most importantly, it was a price I deemed very reasonable and one I could afford.

Then I saw the second headdress. It was very different from the first, but equally fantastic. Without even asking, the price tag was cut in half. However, that didn’t do me much good because I didn’t have enough money left to buy it. I told the folks at the shop that I would come back the following day. That would also give me a chance to decide if I really needed the second one. And then I really did leave the market.

Once I got home, I took out my new purchase and beamed. It was even more incredible under good light. I was definitely going back to get the other, which is how I spent the morning today.

My second time in the market I felt much better. I really didn’t know all the sections, but at least some things looked familiar. I had been worried about ever finding the same stall, even with the address written down. Once inside, I looked around for some indication of where I would find store “888”. To my surprise, stall numbers were displayed at the top of every aisle. I found my shop in no time. I chatted with the family that ran the place, bought my headdress and some other little things, then walked towards an exit.

Along the way, I passed a bed linins stall. (I need another sheet so I can convert my extra bed into a couch. I will then replace it with the tiny loveseat I now have in the living room that is totally useless to lie down on to read or watch TV.) A young couple ran the place. He stood in front while she was inside on top of stacks of packaged sheet sets. Then began the interchange of three people who don’t speak the same language.

At least I was able to write out the dimensions I needed. Trying to tell them that I wanted a solid, dark color was another story. Most of the sheets here are ghastly plaids or prints. But eventually, I ended up with a solid, greenish-blue fitted sheet and two pillow cases. This had required a whole lot of digging into stacks and throwing packages of sheets in all directions. I am really glad I found something I wanted, because after all the effort, I could not have left without buying from them. Ok, no I really was going.

But directly across from the sheets, and we are talking a distance of less than 5 feet, there was an Indian shirt stall. And right in front were piles of a type of shirt I had been searching for, for over five years. I ended up with two shirts, and I think I may have paid too much for them, but it didn’t matter. I really did leave then.

Back on the street, it was getting hot. I had already planned to walk back to the backpackers area to eat a real meal with no msg. It wasn’t far away, but entailed crossing several, six lane, extremely wide boulevards, and there are no lights. Or if there are, not everyone adheres to the color of the light displayed. My reasoning was that if it got really scary, I would flag a taxi to go the final few blocks.

I found the place I had been on Friday night and ordered ginger shrimp with vegetables, and a glass of lime juice. Delicious! I guess I will have to come to this area more often if I want to eat out.

For the next few hours I strolled around the streets, stopped for a soda, bought some vitamins, then grabbed the bus back home.

I thought I might go for a walk in my neighborhood, but the thunder and lightning decided to appear. A bolt struck just struck within spitting distance of my apartment, causing me to jump out of my chair and yell. I’ve already looked out to see if there were any dead bodies on the street, but things appear to be ok.

I’m going to see if any good movies are on TV.

20 November 2005

The Weekend + Good Weather

I have no real idea why this seems to be the best weekend since arriving, but it does. Maybe it is because of the weather, or the fact that on Saturday there was almost no construction going on overhead, leading me to believe that they might almost be finished upstairs. Or maybe it is because next week I only have to teach classes for three days. (but still be at work for other things.)

It’s Saturday afternoon, still warm and sunny, and I see no threat of rain in the near future. I keep being told that the dry season begins in November. It is almost the end of November and it continues to rain everyday. My landlords had told me that this was a great flat, in part because of the breeze it gets. This morning, for the first time, a lovely gentle wind blew through my house for several hours. In fact, I was actually cold for awhile! (don’t worry, I was still able to survive in my shorts and t-shirt.)

Around noon, I went for a walk and tried to get some interesting photos, which is a challenge in newly built suburbs. I attempted to get some urban floral and fauna. I ignored the odd looks as I bent down on the sidewalk along the main street to capture the bug. Please note that he turned his head to look at me before flying off into the atmosphere.

I hope it was a good weekend for the other parts of the world.


18 November 2005

Teacher's Day

Sunday, 20 November, is Teacher’s day in Vietnam. And today, Friday, teachers all over the country, including me, had flowers and presents bestowed upon them.

The teacher’s room at work looked and smelled like a florist’s, each desk piled with bouquets of lilies and roses and orchids. Many of us also received gifts. I got the most beautiful necklace and earrings. I think the last time I taught at a public school in the US, there was something called “Teacher Appreciation Day”, and the principle left a basket of apples for us in the staff room. I kind of like this Day better.

Today was also the initiation of Friday Afternoon Softball, where I teach. For some reason, softball equipment is in short supply in HCMC, so I was surprised to see a few students at lunch swinging a bat, trying to hit a pitched tennis ball.

The batter’s hands were half-way up the bat, as he flailed around trying to hit the ball. I couldn’t stand it so walked over to give batting instructions. As I reached for the bat to demonstrate, another teacher called out, “Don’t complain about the weight.” I understood why he had said that as soon as I grabbed a hold of the bat and nearly dropped it.

It really was a gorgeous thing; dark wood polished to a mirror shine. But it weighed a ton. Why did you get such heavy bats? I asked. Turns out our resident English teacher/Sports Director had had them made the day before after an unsuccessful search for softball equipment. He’d given the specks to a furniture maker, who’d then churned out two bats.

Feeling the grip of wood in my hands, even though it weighed too much, brought back memories of all those years I had longed to play Little League, back in the days when girls were not allowed to do so. I remember trying everything I could to get on a team, but it was useless. When I finally got to an age where there were women’s city leagues, I was so out of practice, I didn’t even try. But it is still my favorite sport, and I just had to try a swing.

I took my stance, the ball was thrown, and I cracked it on the first pitch! It was the most amazing feeling. Like the old you-never-forget-how-to-ride-a-bike. I guess you never forget how to swing a bat and connect with a ball. I couldn’t participate in the game today, but just might do so next week.

What a great Friday! Flowers, jewelry, and baseball!
Batter up.

12 November 2005

Tan Lines

I finally made it to the pool next door. It is part of the pretty much defunct amusement park. There is the Ferris wheel, which I have seen turned on once; the race car circuit, which occasionally has drivers; and two of those death-defying rides that take you way up on a track, then let you free fall back down. I have yet to see those in operation.

Apparently, when it was first opened, maybe ten years ago, it was packed on weekends. Now, about the only thing in use is the pool on weekends. And it is an odd pool. The whole thing is only about a meter and a half deep. The water doesn’t even reach my shoulders.

But I wasn’t there to swim. I was there to get a tan. I figured about an hour in the morning sun would do for a start. I arrived at 10:00. There were already a fair number of families sitting around or splashing in the water. I found an empty deck chair, one of 6 in the whole place, and stripped down to my swimming costume.

Leaning back, I surveyed the scene. I was the only white person there. The rest were Korean and Japanese, with the requisite Vietnamese nannies in tow. And I was the only female in a bikini. A few of the little girls had on one piece suits. A few moms had suits that covered more than even the most modest American bathing suits. The teenage girls swan in t-shirts, bras, underwear and track pants.

The stares started immediately. Kids hung on the lip of the pool and glared at me. One came over, bent down, and tried to peer under my book to get a look at my face. Then there was this woman who kept swimming up to the edge of the pool, standing there, and just staring at me. After the third time, I thought that maybe she was someone I knew and I didn’t recognize her. But I don’t know anyone here, so it couldn’t have been that.

I walked into the water a few times to cool off, but did no swimming. After 45 minutes, I was hot enough, and probably tan enough for the first day out in the sun in months. An odd scene, it was, but the sun felt great.

I’ll go earlier next time and possibly avoid being the local freak show.

Cold From Hell

All plans are off for an exciting weekend, not that I had plans, but I’d like the option. I have a nasty cold. It’s a no-brainer as to where I picked it up. About 80% of my students have been coming to class sick as dogs, sneezing and hacking, never covering their mouths, not that it would really help that much in a sealed environment.

I instituted my usual game plan aimed against acquiring any contagions but, obviously, it didn’t work. Most probably because the odds against me were doubled; half the teachers are also ill.

The other health risk on the horizon is Bird flu, which I am not concerned about. I figure if I am going to worry about getting a deadly disease, the one I have the most chance of acquiring is Dengue fever, which is very nasty. It comes in two forms: the first will make you super sick for a few months, and possibly leave you with residual effects. The second is a hemorrhagic fever, (think: Ebola virus), which will kill you in the most gruesome way imaginable. And there is little you can do to prevent getting bitten by the mosquitoes that carry it.

As it stands right now, I am not at high risk for Bird Flu, which doesn’t mean I don’t keep up-to-date on the WHO and CDC websites. I even took it upon myself to make a suggestion to the student cafeteria that they stop serving sunny-side-up eggs, as the virus can live in such an environment. I was happy to note that they stopped serving them. But yesterday I saw that they now cook eggs over easy, easy being the operative word. The virus could still linger on.

At least in the high-class, staff cafeteria, they are taking strict precautions. As of a week ago, they stopped serving chicken. However, quiche and omelets are still available. Not that I usually eat there.

Last week, having left my lunch at home, I went in to get a vegetarian sandwich having been assured by staff members that the staff lunchroom did not use MSG. Halfway through my panini, eggplant, hummus concoction, I knew that was not the case. I got a major MSG reaction and still had three hours of work to go.

The following day, I went in and asked the manager if they used MSG. “Of course”, she said, “food doesn’t taste good without it and the Pasture Institute checked it out and said there was nothing wrong with using MSG.”

I will stop writing now. I really shouldn’t send updates when I feel like hammered dog meat.
Time to eat more garlic.

08 November 2005

Earthquakes In Viet Nam?

“Did you feel the earthquake last night?” was the question going around the teacher’s room as I walked in during a class break.

No, I said, before thinking. Then I remembered being awakened around midnight by some noises, looking up at the ceiling and seeing the light fixture swaying. At the time, I thought it was probably just some more construction somewhere, and assumed the breeze from the fan was causing the movement overhead. Guess I was wrong.

A few hours later, I was back in my classroom, feeling pretty spaced out. (the end of the day, florescent lights, whatever.) It was one of those rare times when I was seated at a table, correcting papers, while my students were in groups writing a story.)

All of a sudden, the room began to roll. Shit! I thought vertigo attack! But I immediately noticed that the students had stopped talking and were looking around the room.
“What’s that?” asked one, to which I quickly replied, Earthquake. As I said, I was not feeling 100%, so just road out the rolling of the room, calmly telling people to sit down, that it was all right.

Was I nuts! Where was all that California earthquake training? Why hadn’t I instructed them to get under the tables? Possibly because I am used to your everyday, fast-jolt-it’s-over quake, and figured that is what it was. However, this was not a fast one. It seemed to go on and on. I stayed seated and asked if it was over, still not convinced it wasn't a vertigo attack, or that the shaking had induced one.

Once again, after class, earthquakes were the topic of conversation among teachers. “I’m from California”, was the response from about four of us. One guy from England looked a little green. “You Americans may be used to it, but I didn’t like it. I thought I was going to throw up.” Another first-timer said it was as if she’d been drinking beer all night then smoked a joint. And just for the record, I did not like it at all!

Hopefully, that will be the end of the shaking. At least that will be my mind set. I live on the 7th floor, and I don’t fully trust the construction standards here.
Gee, and I was going to write about Bird Flu. That will have to wait for another day. Enough scary vibes for one day.

Rock and Roll is here to stay.

06 November 2005

Saturday Night On The Town

After three months in Ho Chi Minh City, I finally made it out on a Saturday night. I took the shuttle into town to have dinner with three colleagues from work.

It gets dark here very early and by 6:30 pm, it is pitch black. In all honesty, it was really hard to get out the door. It felt like it was 10 pm, and time to go to bed. But once I did get into town, everything was fine. Seeing the city for the first time at night was quite a revelation. As I walked the two blocks to the restaurant and looked around at the tourist filled streets, I wondered why I hadn’t done this before.

Everything takes on a different flavor at night. Even though I had been on those same, exact streets at least twice a week since arriving, it was if I were in a new city. Everything’s lit up, people spill in and out of restaurants and cafés, and the outside temperature is perfect. The pleasant weather alone is reason enough to come out at night. You just don’t sweat like you do when the sun is beating down at midday. So why hadn’t I gone out before?

We ate at a nice place, although the service seemed to be a little off, at least for our table. It took about thirty minutes to just get our drink orders in and then another thirty minutes to be served our food. They never did manage to clear the table, so we just piled the dishes up at one end when they brought our tea at the end of the meal.

I had to rush out, leaving the dinner group with their tea, in order to get the last shuttle bus back home. Looking around at all the activity, I thought about staying longer and taking a taxi home, but what was I going to do? Walk into a bar, sit at a café, or stroll the streets alone at 10pm? Those are things one can do during the daylight hours and not feel completely like a total looser for not having any friends. But it is not the same at night, especially when you don’t know a soul at any of the establishments.

Still, I think it might be better than sitting alone all weekend cleaning the house and spending way too much time on lesson plans. I’ll decide what to do next Saturday, next Saturday.