31 December 2005


Six hours until 2006. It never feels like a year has come and gone, but it especially doesn’t feel real this year. Maybe it is because I have lived in quite a number of places in the past year, and now am in a really different spot.

The other night I was trying to remember in how many different countries I had spent New Years Eve: Mexico, Brazil, Israel, Egypt, Malaysia, and now Vietnam. (Brazil was the best.) I went to sleep thinking about all of them. When the alarm awakened me the next morning, for a nano-second I didn’t know where I was. I was sure I wasn’t in “my bed” and that didn’t bother me. But I had to run through that list of countries before I remembered.

One hour to go. Between those last paragraphs and this one, I went out for a while. I had received an invitation to a concert by some local choir, to be held at the Ferris wheel next door. The program listed traditional music as well, so I thought it might be nice.

All the rides at the park were lit up, and some were running. I think I explained before that this amusement park is on the scale of a small carnival, situated amongst palm trees and greenery. They had erected a large stage and assembled plastic chairs just to the left of the swinging pirate ship, which screeched and groaned with every sway. Having recently rained, (although this is supposed to be the dry season), the chairs were wet. I perched on the edge of one.

As the choir started, I had to plug my ears. They were backed by taped music and the volume was turned up loud enough to fill a 700,000 seat arena. Whether they were good or not was hard to tell. However, what I could hear was not exactly easy listening music. When they started in on some Christmas type songs, I got up to walk around.

Families and couples milled about and some kids were on a few rides. I walked over to the jittery-looking carousel. I heard the ring-ring announcing the start of the ride. All of a sudden, the merry-go-round lurched forward and started moving way to quickly. I thought I was about to witness toddlers being hurled through the air. Fortunately, it slowed down almost immediately. I watched as it creaked around and around.

I then returned the few steps to the stage area, hoping to see some of the traditional music. I watched as a group of youngsters, dressed in Santa suits and carrying violins, marched on stage with their teacher. They had to cover their eyes as they were being blinded by stadium lights. Eventually, the light situation was sorted, and the music began, again at 3000 decibels. It was the Glo-ooo-oo-o-oooo--oo-oo-o-ria, en excelsis deo, backed by a disco track. It was time to head out into the night.

And what a night it was. About 8:30 and 80 degrees, and I had dressed for the chilly night air. As I walked down the street I passed a few people doing the same. This isn’t what you’d call a rocking suburb, but it was New Years Eve, so I walked the three blocks to the local pub.

I have been there before, but only in the day to sit at an outside table and drink ice tea. That’s what I did for a short while tonight. Almost no one was there. I am sure the hard core boozers were in town, although I have heard it is a madhouse in the center. Apparently, thousands and thousands of people fill the streets and just stroll and talk.

I finished my night by dropping into Lotteria, a Korean fast food joint. The only thing I ever have bought there is ice cream, and that was what I wanted. I got a sundae to go, which consisted of a tiny blob of soft ice cream, drizzled with some imitation strawberry gook. The counter person slapped on a lid, dropped it in a plastic bag, then scooped ice on top. I had been wondering how it would survive the trip home.

It is now 12:05 am, 2006. I just was out on my bitty balcony, camera in hand, set on night mode, and NOTHING! No fireworks, no neighbors hooting it up, no car horns, (not that there are any chairs on the streets I look on to), nothing but still air! I thought there must be something on TV, but all they had was very embarrassing footage from a club in Hanoi, where some really horrid band dressed in red satin Cossack shirts, was signing Santana music, while the lead singer, (American) kept looking at his watch. There looked to be 20 people n the club, seated quietly at tables, while a few hoochy-coochy gals with the band tried their best to wiggle. (You do realize this does mean there still is hope for me as a bar chanteuse). They cut back to the news room when the guy said, “30 seconds till midnight”.

I have lasted to see in the New Year, while many of you are still waking up in 2005. Do go out and have more fun than I did.

Auld Lang Syne


26 December 2005

Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta. If you are American, and of my generation or older, there is only one thing that comes to mind when you hear those words: war. Hearing the country name, “Vietnam”, often evokes the same thoughts, but since I have been here, those connections are less frequent. Yet I had not been able to escape the visceral response to Mekong Delta; images from the nightly news, stories from survivors on both sides, sections from movies. But I also knew that it was a beautiful area with a unique way of life and I wanted to see it. So yesterday I took another day trip, this time to the Mekong Delta.

“The bus leaves at 7:30”, I was told by the woman at the tour office. The bus from where I live to the center of town takes 20 minutes at that time of the morning, then it’s a short taxi ride over to where I’d get the tour bus. There should be enough time, especially considering that my last trip with these people left 40 minutes later than we had been told. But I knew I would freak the whole way there thinking that I might miss the tour, so I took a taxi and got there at 7:20am. We finally left around 8:00.

Our mid-sized bus had 30 people fully packed in. We were an international group; Australians, Koreans, Vietnamese, New Zealanders, British, Taiwanese. I sat next to a young Vietnamese woman who was home on holiday from studying in Australia. Like we do in our own countries, she had never been to the Delta region.

Our guide was a jovial man in his mid-30’s. As we headed out of town, he told us about the various produce grown in the Mekong. Pineapples, he assured us, “are very good for your health”. They cure skin problems, help you loose weight, help you sleep, and make you strong. Watermelons from the Mekong are also very good for your health. Eating three of the small ones is better than Viagra, he told us. As the day wore on, we were to hear that anything and everything in the Mekong, is “very good for your health”. By the end of the trip, most of the group would fill in those words before he had a chance to say them.

Looking out the bus window, I noticed we were heading back towards my apartment. You could actually see my building as we turned left onto the highway. I checked my watch; 8:15. Damn, I hadn’t needed to get up at 5:30; I could have just walked out and flagged down the bus at 8:00! I would remember this for trips in the future. Oh well, it was only an hour and a half to the Delta and out boat tour. I had chosen this trip over the three hour bus ride of the other option. However, I had been given misinformation. We wouldn’t reach the Delta and our boat until almost 11:00. If this was the ‘shorter’ trip, I didn’t want to think about the other trip I hadn’t chosen. One thing I can say about Vietnam, nothing goes for more than an hour and a half without a break. When I teach, we have to take a break every hour. On a bus, it stops every hour or hour and a half, relieving me of one of my greatest fears: the 3 hour trip with no bathroom stop.

Our guide assailed us with stories and songs and information about the areas we passed and the history of the Mekong. He had graduated form the university, but his father was still a rice farmer and he would go home to help harvest and drain rice paddies. I had noticed on my last trip that there seemed to be graves standing in the middle of the rice fields; one here, on there. He explained that in the countryside, people were buried where ever the geomancer tells them is a good spot. He further explained that in the north of the country, three years after a person is buried, they are exhumed, their remains but into a jar, which is then taken to the temple.

We passed through little towns and over cannels, and eventually arrived at the dock for the river boat we would board and tour in. It was a long, low slung affair, allowing you to ride right on the water. We sat on two-seated benches. A wooden roof covered our heads, but the rest was open-air. The day was rather grey, but that was probably preferable to insufferable jungle heat and humidity, and/or rain.

As we wound our way up the river we passed boats moving in both directions. Some were public transport, others carried produce from the Delta to Ho Chi Minh City. The boats were of the same basic design as ours; long and narrow, but in varying sizes. Some had only the pilot, others had up to five people either engaged in an activity or lying in hammocks. I was very pleased to see at least one boat with a lone woman at the helm. Our guide explained that most of the boat owners sometimes lived on the boats but also had a house on the land. The majority of work done by the boats in this region had to do with transporting produce and materials produced there. Fishing boats were in other areas.

Our first stop was at the coconut candy factory. We filed out of the boat and into an area that really was producing candy, but also arranged so that tourists could watch the process. I saw them make flat, paper-thin rice pancakes that you use as tortillas. (and when filled, they are delicious!) I watched the process for making coconut taffy. Every part of the coconut is used for one thing or another; the husk, the oil, the milk, the pulp, the shell. I skipped the sampling of cobra wine, (very good for your health), and will not even describe it to you. There were tables set up with piles of various candies to buy, as well as handicrafts. I knew we would only be there a short while, so went in search of purchases.

These trips are so cheap that I don’t know how they run them. The least I could do is to throw some money into the local economy. I ended up with wooden cooking spoons made from coconut shells, a purse made of a shell, (lined and with a zipper), and about one kilo of candy including taffy and crystallized ginger.
Again, I don’t know how the venders make much money as we are rushed through it all.

Walking further, we were taken to the puffed rice area. A giant cauldron hung over a fire. Inside were several pounds of blacked sand. Rice, still in its husk, is dumped into the burning hot sand, while the rice-tender quickly stirs it with a long pole. Within less than a minute, all the rice is puffed. He then dumps it into a sieve to separate the puffed rice from the husks. The husks are used in animal feed.

The rice is then mixed with caramelized sugar. Two men stand on either side of a giant vat, meter long mixing spatulas in each hand. With astounding grace and precision, they mix the concoction as if performing a ritual dance, moving in a slow circle around the pot, as they dig, scoop, pull there sticks up and shove them down again. It really was memorizing. Once they finished, the mixture is dumped onto a rectangular table with three in sides. It is rolled and flattened before being cut into squares.

Back on the boat, we soon reached what looked like the open sea. Getting back to that mental connection I have with the Mekong, I was surprised to see how wide it was. The guide said over one and a half kilometers. I keep thinking about the small canals I had always seen on the news or in movies. And wasn’t that John Kerry swift-boat film from the Mekong? Obviously, there was way more to this river than I had known. And it was also then that I realized I hadn’t been thinking WAR for over an hour. As the day passed, visions and thoughts of conflict drifted further and further from my mind, not by any conscious effort, but by the people and lives I saw around me

Up another narrow waterway, we docked at the lunch restaurant. I sat at what we dubbed the International Table. Me, a Korean couple, two ladies from Taiwan who had been in Vietnam on business, and to Vietnamese men. We ate fresh elephant ear fish that had been deep fried, (but not at all greasy), served standing on its side in a little stand. We ate it with those rice paper pancakes which you fill with mint, lettuce, noodles and vegetables, and dip in fish sauce. Fish sauce is on every table with every meal. It is made of sugar, lime, chilly, and something else. I love it. I threw MSG-caution to the wind, and dug in. twenty minutes later, I was stuffed and had a splitting headache, but it was worth it. I have never had such excellent fish.

We had another half hour before leaving, and were encouraged to grab a bike and take a turn around the neighborhood. I needed water and a seat. Our lunch had been included in the $7 tour and, again, I couldn’t understand how anyone could profit from this. I looked around for things to buy and only water was available. I did manage to take a short walk, while most of my fellow travelers hopped on bikes. I figured after all those hours of sitting on a bus, then in a boat, then eating, why spoil it with actually getting the blood moving?

We had one more stop on our trip and that was to the ceramics factory, where they make bricks and garden pots for both the local market and export. The factory is inside a building, but it’s a very simple structure, with openings in the roof to let in light. About eight, immense brick ovens lined the walls. After they are cut from clay, they are fired for three weeks.

Walking on, we went into a giant warehouse of drying pottery. Only two people were working, making large planter pots in the shape of a cat. The clay, which is from the banks of the river, is sliced from a huge block. One person pounds and kneads it, rolls it out, and then it is pressed into a two-side mold. The team of two can make about ten of these large pots a day, working a ten hour day. They are quick and efficient, and are paid by the number of items produced. They are paid about 2 or 3 dollars a day. Keep that in mind the next time you buy are large, earthenware garden pot that is made in Vietnam.

We boarded the boat for the last time. Before taking off, we were each given a fresh coconut to drink. From a branch of coconuts, the boat pilot chopped off the bottom and top, stuck in a straw, and we drank as we cruised back up the delta.

It was 4:00, and I was not looking forward to another bus ride, but was happy to be heading back. This time, our bus was even smaller and I was wedged in over a wheel well. “OK”, said our guide, “We will be in Ho Chi Minh City in three hours”. What? I called out. It’s supposed to be an hour and a half! It turned out to be quite enjoyable. Across from me was a mother and daughter from New Zealand. Behind them, a father and daughter from Australia. Next to them, a couple also from Australia. We started pulling out the various snacks we had bought or brought with us, and passed them around. We exchanged stories, got travel tips from those who had been here a while, and later heard more stories from our guide.

Nearing the city, I realized I would not have to go back into town if they could just let me off at the turn off the freeway. I called out to our guide, who talked to the driver, and it was arranged. When the bus pulled over to let me off, I was a little sad to leave my new friends, and felt rushed giving my thanks to our charming guide who had put up will all my extra questions. Once out in the open air, I decided to walk home, even though it was pitch black. Everyone assures me it is safe and it was. The twenty minute walk really helped after that last, squished bus ride.

A long day, but a good one. Now, when I hear ‘The Mekong Delta,’ I may still have the old memories, but I will also have new, positive ones. And isn’t that what it is all about?

Happy Holidays to all

23 December 2005

Day Trip

After four and a half months, I finally got out of the city on a day trip to the Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi tunnels. I met up with a friend at the travel office at 8 in the morning, having bought the $5 ticket the day before. Our tour group of about 20 consisted mostly of young couples from assorted countries. We piled into the mid sized bus and after a mere 45 minutes we had left the noise and stop-and-go traffic of the city behind.

I kept staring out the window as we drove along the road lined with what one imagines Vietnam to look like. I almost yelped out loud when I saw my first water buffalo plowing through rice paddies. Having looked at the same scene in numerous photos or on TV you’d think it wouldn’t look so brand new and exciting, but it did.

It took about two and a half hours to get to our first stop, the Cao Dai Temple. Caodaism was founded around 1920, and incorporates aspects of many different religions. They use mediums and conduct séances. And anything else you want to know about it, you will have to look up for yourself. It is a popular tourist stop mainly because of the large, rainbow colored main temple that looks like nothing you have ever seen, yet has familiar features.

The interior of the Temple reminded me of a mosque with its cavernous, high-vaulted hall, and floor to ceiling pillars, except that the pillars have Chinese dragons wrapped around them. Then there is the Eye that stares out at you from inside a triangle, amongst floral designs, evoking thoughts of Egyptian gods. The ceiling is painted the blue of a sunny day in the summer, and dotted with little silver stars and wispy clouds. The symbolism is endless but we really didn’t have time to explore it for more than twenty minutes before being lead to the upstairs mezzanine. From the narrow walkways encircling the interior, we were able to watch the daily, noon-time ceremony.

Again, I don’t know what exactly was going on other than it was a religious ceremony. With men and women separated on either side of the hall, they walked slowly up towards the main alter. (Which, by the way, includes a gigantic globe surrounded by dragons, burning incense, wooden tables, and a lot of gold decorations.) Musicians and singers accompanied the devotees who, upon arriving at the designated prayer area, sat on the floor. The majority of the men and women wore white, while some of the officials wore bright red, blue, or orange.

Although we were told that it was all right to take photographs, even during the ceremony, it felt quite intrusive to do so, especially with the flashes going off. We were allowed to take pictures of the followers, but when a tourist attempted to take a picture of another tourist inside the temple, we were gently told not to do so. I really would like to have taken more time there, but the bus was about to leave. Part and parcel of a day trip.

Next, we were off to the restaurant for lunch. It was just a small, side-of-the-road, open-aired affair, but they managed to serve all of us our various orders in no time at all. Before heading out, I availed myself of the facilities. I followed other tour members out to the back where a row of doors led to the toilets.

One door was open so I walked over and looked in. Obviously, it was some sort of wash room. It had a slightly sloped floor with a bucket of water and a mouse hole in the corner leading to the outside. I waited until a vacancy came up and walked in, only to see the same type of room. I called out to the women who had just walked out of it. So we just pee on the floor? I asked. “Yes, and wash it down with water.” And I thought that I had seen every type of restroom that existed. It was way weird! And yes, you get pee in all the places you don’t want it. And what was I supposed to do with the toilet paper?

It was another hour on the bus to the Cu Chi Tunnels. At this point, I would have really questioned the point of a trip like this had it not been for our tour guide. He was incredibly knowledgeable and articulate about where we were going and what we were seeing, about the war years and where he had been and what he had done. I was surprised at his candor – there are some things that are just not cool to talk about if you were working for the wrong side in that war.

Originally, I had not wanted to go see the tunnels that were used during the war. I have met people in my life whose job in the army was to work those holes in the ground, and I had seen what it had done to them. However, I am glad I went. I really had no idea that these were more than just escape and attack tunnels. The people of the area lived underground, cooked underground and carried on everyday life there for years. The ingenuity of their construction is amazing.

It was upsetting, yet surreal to walk around an area had been repeatedly bombed and napalmed. Coming upon a US Army tank that lies in the exact spot where it had been disabled gave me the shivers. Others clamored to take photos seemingly unaware of what that dead tank signified, and what had taken place on the ground where we now stood. Several times I walked away from the group and peered out into the now, re-vegetated landscape. As our guide had repeatedly told us during the day, war is terrible.

With hopes that all those spirits are now at rest,

18 December 2005

Orchids part 2

I couldn't get these on the orchid story yesterday.


17 December 2005

The Frustrating & The Magnificent

Getting money is not always that easy here. There is an ATM machine at work, and it even is from my bank. The problem is that it is often out of order or out of money. Today being Saturday, I figured I’d clean the house and loll around in the early morning, then head to the supermarket where another ATM machine is located.

I hopped on the bike around 11 o’clock and after only 2 blocks my thighs ached. (Terribly out of biking-shape, I am.) There are parts of this suburb that are pretty much empty, but one still has to keep a keen eye out for drivers who just don’t really stay in lanes and start turning left the block before they need to, veering dangerously into the wrong lane.

And then there is the main street, which is really a four lane, divided highway. Even with the stop light, you have to be really careful, because the motorbikes will not stop, and the monster trucks; only if really necessary. Once you cross that, and get on to the parallel back streets, it is ok. Ok, that is, until you hit the speed bumps. I walked my bike over one last week and ended up on the pavement. I probably wouldn’t have if the bike hadn’t weighed 40 pounds. This time, I got off the bike every time and walked it over the bumps. That was far less embarrassing than landing on the street.

Arriving at the supermarket parking lot, I locked up the bike and went in to the ATM machine. It was out of order. Crap. Well, my bank was just two blocks away. As I started to walk back to my bike I remembered that there was about a 10 cent parking charge and I had left all my change at home. All I had was a few big bills. I knew saying I would pay another day wouldn’t work.

Back I walked into the supermarket to get change, which I almost didn’t get. The week before I had misplaced my parking ticket but had paid the guy and was about to ride off. “No ticket, no bike”. I tried to argue, but the only thing he knew in English was “no ticket, no bike.” I had to go back into the store but luckily found my ticket by the checkout stand.

I walked my bike down to the bank but, oh dear, even though they were still open, they had stopped handing out cash at 11:00 and it was now half past.
“You can go to the supermarket”, the bank lady said. I said I had already tried that. “Well then go to the university”. I explained that I worked there and that the machine had been out all week. There was one other ATM, way down the road, but my standards, and it would entail driving on that freeway with all the semi’s and crazy drivers. And who was to say if when I got there, the ATM would actually work? I rode back to the supermarket just to check if maybe the machine was now functioning. This had worked in the past, but not this time.

Now I will backtrack and explain why getting to the bank was all that important. I mean I still had a few Dong left and wasn’t yet totally destitute. My urgent need for cash had to do with the opening of a new supermarket in town that I hadn’t even known about until yesterday.

I believe I have mentioned the only, woefully inadequate supermarket that exists in this suburb of foreigners, where a big supermarket would do a booming business. True, they are building a massive new building next door, but I guessed it would take at least another six months until it was completed. “Oh no”, said a colleague, who lives out here, “It’s bad luck not to have things completed before Tet, (Lunar New Year), so it will be done by the end of January.” It didn’t seem possible, but gave me hope.

And then yesterday, another co-worker said, “That new supermarket looks great.” I asked what he was talking about. “The one they have been working on for months. It’s just down the road from your apartment. Haven’t you seen it or the signs advertising the grand opening today?” Ok, so it is just down the road, but that side of the road is across the mini-river/slough, and five freeway lanes away from where I pass it every morning on the way to work. It’s just another min-mart, right? I asked. “No, it’s a real supermarket.” And that is the reason I wanted more than a few Dong to go shopping with. On the way home in the taxi yesterday, I spotted it. This was miraculous! One day there is nowhere to shop and the next day there is a brand-new supermarket!

I would at least go check it out, and be able to buy soy milk and juice. But as I got closer to my house, I noticed my bike acting strangely. I got off. Two, almost flat tires. I pushed it across the big street, looking for the pump & tire change/oil guys who hang out on the divide across the “river”. No one was there. I walked back to the entrance to my apartment complex and managed to convey to the guards what I needed. One hopped on his bike and told me to follow. We had gone only a short way when he spotted a fix-it man, and flagged him over.

An ancient gentleman, on an even more ancient bike, pulled out his very old pump and put air in both tires. I paid him, got on the red-devil bike, and zoomed down to the new supermarket.

The front of the supermarket was lined with around 20 floral displays. They were the types that are on a stand, and brimming with orchids, lilies, roses, mums, and greenery. They do that here when any new business opens. I am not sure who sends them, but possibly other businesses, family and friends. Parking my bike in the dirt, I saw that two or three of these huge arrangements had already been dumped. I could see perfectly good sprays of orchids sticking out all over the place. I would have to deal with that when I finished shopping.

I was very impressed with the new market. It is two floors with food downstairs and house wares upstairs. It is well laid out, and a cursory tour through the aisles proved that it had many items that are unavailable in the other market, and at better prices. The produce didn’t even look too bad. I would prefer to go to the outdoor market for fruits and vegetables, but it is a hassle to get there and I can only do it on weekend mornings. I will still go every few weeks, but at least now there seems to be a reasonable option.

Once outside with my few purchases, I laid my pack down so I could dig through the garbage dump of flowers. I simply couldn’t believe that they had been discarded after less than 24 hours. True, the brutal sun had done a number on them, but they were far from the throw-away stage. I already had an enormous armful of orchids when I noticed one of the guards taking a cigarette break and watching me. I asked if it was ok to take them. He seemed to understand. I kept going on about how beautiful they were and how I couldn’t understand why they had been 86-ed. (does anyone still use that term?) He was soon joined by a colleague, who beckoned me over to the 18 displays still standing. They told me to take whatever I wanted. I wasn’t sure I had understood, but then they started pulling out orchids and handing them to me. I took a few more, but began to feel funny. Also, I had so many, and no vases at home, that it was getting ridiculous.
The guys helped me tie them together and put them in the basket of the bike.

Then I had to hoist my pack onto my back. It was when I grabbed the handlebars that I realized I should never leave the Red-Devil out in the open sun. Somehow I managed to get on the bike without loosing my balance from the weight on my back, lay the flowers in the front basket, and while toasting my hands and butt, drive precariously home.

My flowers are displayed in plastic bottles and I am thinking of going back later to buy a vase and get more. I know that the others will be thrown away at the end of the day and the thought sends chills down my spine. Just one more cultural difference to get used to. Hopefully, I will again be in the neighborhood of a new business just when they throw away the orchids.

Flower arranging time.

14 December 2005

Acupuncture House Call

After two colds in four months, I could feel my ear starting to go again. I’ve had the dizzies for a few weeks now and thought it best I find a Chinese doctor before things got out of hand. It’s not like I have been loosing my balance or anything, but things in the inner ear just aren’t right. Fortunately for me, I was given the name of a local Chinese doctor last week.

I called Dr Trung on Monday. The first thing I asked was if he read Chinese. The reason being that Doctor Leung, (who had treated me in California and spoke no English), had given me a medical letter written in Chinese. Dr Trung assured me that he did and that he could see me Wednesday afternoon. I asked for directions to his office. No need for that, he said, he would come to my house. I did think this was odd, but when I checked with the woman who had given me his name, she said that was how he worked.

At 3:30 he knocked at my door. He sat down and I handed him the letter from California. He read it and asked me some questions about my health. He also wanted to make sure that I wanted the needle treatment and if I’d had it done before. I explained that I was nearly a professional pin cushion. Then I lay down on the couch.

He sat down on a stool, opened his briefcase, took out supplies, and put them on the chair next to me. Then he unwrapped one of those disposable wet towel things and wiped his hands carefully. I watched as he opened a metal tray containing a ton of carefully ordered needles. He assured me they were sterile.

I’d only ever had one other doctor stick me, so was interested I experiencing the difference or similarities in technique. Even before the treatment began, there were differences. Dr Leung always first took my pulse, on both wrists, then checked my blood pressure. Dr Trung did neither. The sticking-in was also a little different and felt a little different but, with both doctors, it never hurts.

Almost immediately one can start to feel little electrical tingles coursing between the needles. I got a needle in the temple region, behind the ear, between the eyes, on the top of my head, on the feet and legs. (equally distributed on both sides of my body.) Then he hooked me up to the electric pulse machine, but only for the temple and ear points. In California, every needle got plugged in. It is then you really start to buzz and it is very relaxing. My eyes were already closed and it would be 20 minutes before I opened them again.

I must admit that lying in your own house to get a treatment is quite decadent and so much easier that going to the doctor’s office. But all the sensations took me right back to the little office in Oakland’s Chinatown where I had had my last treatment. I missed the conversations going on in Chinese between the doctor and other patients. I missed the smiling faces of the elderly clients, waiting for treatment or herbal medicine. And most of all, I missed the smell. I adore the aroma of Chinese herbs. You just want to dive into to all of them and roll around. It was always so soothing and calming. I really hoped this doctor would leave me with a batch, but my nose didn’t pick up any of the scents.

Lying there and dreaming of the office in Chinatown, I did what I always do in such situations; fall into a deep REM state, only to be awoken by Dr Trung telling me he would now remove the needles.

After quickly pulling them out, he immediately put pressure on the spot with an alcohol soaked piece of cotton. And as with all my prior experiences, after 5 minutes, it is impossible to tell where the needle had entered.

I asked about any herbs I might need and the doctor told me I didn’t need them. Or maybe he will bring some next time. Although he does speak English, it is still limited. I did find out that he studied in China and that the needles are made in Vietnam. Next time I will ask more questions. He seems to think 7 treatments should have me right back on track. After only one, I feel better. And the cost? About US$4. I simply couldn’t pay that little even if that is more than some people earn in a day. After all, I am not some people.

My next treatment is on Friday, and I am sure he has time for anyone else who would like to come over and get cured. Such a sensible way to treat the infirm!

Maybe this weekend I will go to an herbal shop to gets bags of scents to freshen my house.


08 December 2005

Odd Time Of The Year

When in tropical climes, in non-Christian countries, one doesn’t notice the months changing or the advent of The Holiday Season. So why is the local supermarket decked out with a giant, fake Christmas tree; a mechanical, laughing, anorexic Santa; and why does it have carols blasting from the sound system? Or why where they putting up ornaments and green tinsel in the telephone company store? And then there is downtown, where one of the 5-star hotels has plaster snow and trees with big red balls all along the side of the building. It is all so strange.

Usually, it simply seems bizarre and very out of place. But I was in the supermarket two days ago, having just run in from a rain storm. The sky through the front windows was grey, and the air conditioner was on high. As I wheeled past the MSG lane, I heard “Oh Come All Yee Faithful” resonating throughout the store. The weather and the music must have sparked some primal memory, because my whole being felt the touch of the holidays. And I am talking about the good feeling, not the commercialized insanity it has become. I caught myself quietly singing along to “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem”. I must admit that I love the traditional carols, probably because I hear them so rarely, and I enjoyed the few minutes of musical escapism.

I can’t say the same for the CD my hair stylist opted to play when I was in there last week. It was all that horrid, kitschy, crap, like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa”, sung by children, in Vietnamese.

Along with all the out-of-place symbolism, it has been an odd month paying, or trying to pay the bills. For some reason the electric bill, in my small apartment where I never turn on the A/C, was outrageously high. Higher than my friends in a 4 story house. My phone bill was also another shocker, 95% of which was for internet use. The damn dial-up is not a flat rate. I pay for it by the minute, and since it is so slow, I probably spend double the time I would spend if I had DSL. Which, by the way, I hope to get before January, but that is a whole different story.

I give up trying to pay the rent. Last month, I had to call the landlord six times before they finally came and got the money. So far this month, I have only called once, and am now leaving it up to them. I don’t particularly like having the rent money sitting in my apartment, but it really is safe here. I tried to get a bank check but it isn’t possible. The only people who can get checks are business owners. Everything is done in cash. I think the worst part is having to keep my house spotless because I never know when the owners will call and come over. Or maybe it’s worse thinking that they’ll come over on the weekend, which is scared time to me.

Then there is the opera singer who takes early morning and evening walks. I can’t quite tell if it is just a good voice, or a very good voice. Definitely, it carries. I can hear him blocks away. Today it was at 6 in the morning. I looked out the window to watch him as he strolled and belted out tunes. Again, I can’t tell what language it is, but I don’t think it is English. This time, however, I noticed that he was stopping at the house builders shacks. I ran to another window to get a better view. He was singing and had his hand extended to them. It was then that I spied what I believe to be a bible in his hand. Of course, I am on the 8th floor, so I could be wrong, but it did seem to make sense. I will have to further investigate this one.

I plan to take the bike out for its maiden voyage this weekend to explore the backwaters of the neighborhood. I am sure I will find more oddities, which is a major reason for living the life I do.

Peace on earth, good will towards men and women.

03 December 2005

Blonde Once More

After my last hair experience, I had to find another salon. I kept passing an interesting place that was a block from my house. A few weeks ago, in desperation, I walked in to talk to the owner. I was happily surprised to learn that he had gone to the US as a teenager, where he had studied and worked in the hair business for 17 years. He returned to Vietnam five years ago and opened two salons.The cut was superior, so I went back today for the highlights.

The first step had his two assistants, one on each side of me, painting in a base coat to the roots of my hair. They lowered the chair all the may, and then asked me to scoot down even more because they couldn’t reach the top of my head. By the time they finished, it was time to shampoo it out.

After one of them dried my hair, the foil process began. I was already sweating from the various layers of protective towels and capes. I steeled myself for the upcoming LONG procedure.

I don’t think I have ever had as many highlights put in at one time. I knew that more foils meant better highlights, but I had almost fallen asleep by the time we were only two thirds of the way through. It did eventually get done, but then I had to sit under a hot hair dryer for twenty minutes. I actually did nod off, I think, with rivulets of sweat dripping down my back.

But it was all worth it. I am, once again, really blonde. And although it was expensive, it was still way less than they last guy who gave me dark hair.

Now, to do something exciting with my new image!

PS: the photo is the Kite Master who didn’t make it on to the last posting. I swear I will get DSL in a few weeks so that I can actually get pictures to upload in less than 40 minutes.

01 December 2005

Kite Making

During Tuesday’s class, I noticed that there was a lot of activity going on in the large center room of the third floor. At the break, I wandered over to see what was happening. It was a kite making class, organized by the student activities office.

About thirty students were busily constructing kites. I asked who was in charge, and someone led me to the front where a man in his 50’s was helping students to make kites. It turned out he was one of the top kite makers in the city, if not the country. He not only designs and makes kites, but is a champion kite flyer.

This was really exciting, and I expressed my interest in learning how to make a kite. I was invited to join in, but explained that I still had several hours of teaching left. No problem, there would be a second class on Thursday afternoon, after class.

So today, at 3:30, I set out to discover the world of kite construction. I knew that kite flying was a traditional, Vietnamese sport, and I often see kites flying in the distance when I look out my living room window. But that is about all I really know.

As soon as the Kite Master came in, we all got down to business. I watched as he carefully measured out the pattern on a sheet of large paper, and then cut it out. Next, he grabbed a thin strip of bamboo, about 2 feet long and, using a knife, quickly split it exactly down the center. After that, he rapidly whittled the stick to smooth it out. When I had watched a room of students doing the same on Tuesday, I also noted the first aid bag on the center table and more than a few bandaged fingers.

While I grabbed paper and bamboo sticks along with everyone else, a student drew the pattern on the whiteboard. Now, if I only had a ruler. At that moment, another student approached and just started helping me and another teacher. This guy was from a part of Vietnam where they make kites all the time and he seemed to enjoy helping us rather than making his own.

Once the kite was cut out, it was time to glue on the bamboo. I sat down on the floor. I stuck my fingers in a pot of solidified, jello-ish, gluing material. It turned out to be made from rice, I think with the starch stuff that washes off dry rice. This stuff really worked. After securing the strips, I used small pieces of paper to brace the sticks in place. I was having the best time, covered in glue and scooting around the floor to hold sticks and grab glue and paper. The next step was to tie strings to the bamboo strips. Actually, that was the step that should have been before the gluing, but I made due.

My kite was now done and I took it over the instructor for his approval. He tied the side strings together and gave it toss to check the aerodynamics. He nodded his approval. There was no way I was ready to stop, so I decided to attempt a second, different style kite.

My helper was still with me when I got up to get more supplies. It was then that I noticed three students from one of my classes, busily constructing kites. They looked quite adept at the process. When I asked them, they said that they had been making kites all their lives. I know had three more assistants.

By the time I finished number two, my hands were caked in glue, but I didn’t want to stop and go wash them. Anyway, as the stuff dried, it kind of rubbed off easily. I Iooked around the room to see what the others were up to. Groups of three or four students were busy painting their kites, on top of tables, or on the floor, with no paper underneath. The room was a mess. And I had assured the student activities coordinator that I would make sure all the tables were back in rows because 80 students would be testing in there the next morning.

Garbage can in hand, I went around picking up paper and bamboo and glue and string. The other teacher went in search of a broom. Students were leaving, obviously with no intention of picking up. So we swept and mopped and I told the painters to take their brushes to the bathroom and wash them off. I can’t say the room was spotless, but at least it wasn’t a disaster.

Walking down the hall on the way out of the building, I looked through the windows into the second, large activities room and saw one of my students practicing for a fashion show. I opened the door, because I am very nosey, and saw another of my students seated on the side, obviously bored because he was playing games on his cell phone. He looked at my kites and asked what they were. I told him about the kite class down the hall. He seemed sad that he hadn’t known about it. But I told you and the whole class, I said. “We thought you said it was a ‘cake making’ class. Hey, I am sure I wrote it on the board.

It now seems there is a keen interest in making kites and flying them and there is talk of more classes and kite flying contests. I can’t wait!

I’m going to fly a kite!