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.