31 December 2006

End of Another Year

When I first lived overseas, computers were very large items that lived in very large rooms, and things like laptops and cell phones were gadgets of science fiction. Telephone service was available, but overseas calls were not always easy and exorbitantly expensive. Correspondence was by mail. I would write a letter that could take anywhere from 7 days to three weeks to get to it’s desired location. The recipient usually kept said letter for several weeks before replying. Then it was another three to four weeks to get the reply, providing it wasn’t sent to the wrong country first. In other words, several months usually went by before someone said, “I’m fine”, to my question of, “How are you?”

But that has all changed. Less than ten years ago I swore I would never use email. Now you couldn’t pay me to write a letter. I can instantly know what is going on in the world and keep in contact with family and friends on a daily basis. In fact it is hard to imagine that I actually once lived a life without the internet.
So just think about what it was like the other day to try and get internet access, and to be denied.

They had an earthquake in Taiwan which severed several underwater fiber optic cables. Most of us in the Asian area were affected. My ADSL was totally down, so I tried a dial-up connection. It also didn’t work, but came operable sooner than the ADSL, but with limited access. I could get Google, and CNN, but not Hotmail. I started to feel panicky when it had been about twelve hours of no email. I started to check the connections every thirty minutes, if not sooner, before I realized I was being a little insane.

I tried to get news coverage about the whole situation, but really couldn’t find anything. Then I searched blogs and came up with a few irate bloggers who were ranting and raving about not being able to get into their accounts. I certainly didn’t like “being cut off”, but hey, cables under the ocean are not a quick fix and for most of us, it wasn’t exactly life threatening.

Eventually, things started to work. More than 24 hours without email and guess what? I hadn’t missed anything of importance. It took about a day or two more to get back to more or less normal, although at times things seem a little sluggish. Not that I really care considering the original estimates were saying that if might take three weeks to repair.

And in a few hours it will be 2007. I will stay home and look out over Ho Chi Minh City to see the fireworks, or I might just go to sleep before midnight. Or maybe I can even get a live firework broadcast over the internet from some other place in the world.

With wishes that the New Year be filled with Peace,

25 December 2006

The Godfather Of Soul

Christmas day, and I’d been sitting in the apartment trying to figure out what to do. All day I had been playing Latin and world music – appropriate for the day, I thought. But while searching through the CD’s for my next choice I stopped and said to myself, “I need me some James Brown.” I hadn’t played him in probably two months, if not more.

As the first song blasted out my body twitched. The adrenaline started to pump. My heart started to smile. I danced around the floor grinning and grooving. That’s what James does to me. I eventually stopped boogie-ing, and went about other more mundane tasks like washing the dishes. Somewhere on about song eight I decided I should pop down to the corner store to get a few things.

I returned, threw my grocery bag on the floor, opened the windows and turned on BBC. As I sat eating ice cream, staring at the screen but not really listening, I saw “…..Godfather of soul dead…..” scroll across the bottom of the screen. I froze, and waited another ten minutes, hoping they would run the story. Finally I gave up and went on the internet.

It seems at about the exact moment I had put on my James Brown CD, Mr. Brown was moving on to that ultimate Funky Town on some other plane.

I put the CD back on, lit a candle, (sorry James, all I had was a very un-soulful, vanilla scented one), sat down, communed with his spirit for a second, thanked him, shed a tear, then got right on up and got down with the beat and celebrated his life. As James’ says, “Get up off a that thing and dance until you feel better”.

Years and years of listening to his music means that my body has memorized every beat, every sax blast, every drum slap, of every song, and I never get tired of it. You can’t sit still when you hear James Brown. You can’t stay sad. You can be dead tired, sure you don’t have even one mega-ounce of energy left, and James proves you wrong.

Thank you James for everything you have given me thorough out my life. You have always been there for me; when I am happy, when I am sad, when I need motivation, when I need my spirit moved. You and your glorious music will always live inside me.
I Feel Good, thanks to you.


24 December 2006

Deck The Halls

And yet another bizarre “Christmas” is all around, although this year I have a bit more insight into the why of it all.

Every business in HCMC is bedecked with garlands, wreaths, candy canes, fake snow, and the ever-present miles of tin foil covering trees, awnings and rocks. Last year I thought this was for the benefit of tourists, but it turns out that is not the only reason. In fact, Christmas is a half-day holiday for all workers in the country. It is a day to enjoy, and unless you are Catholic or Christian, has no religious significance.

I dread going into even the little corner market because I am assaulted with the worst of Christmas music; novelty tunes set to a disco beat. Were it traditional carols, or the Hallelujah Chorus, I would really enjoy it. But this stuff is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Everyone assumes that if you are foreign you are Christian and that you go “home” for the holidays. They are either shocked or worried when I say I am staying right here in town. Even when I explain that I only actually get the 25th off of work, they seem to think I should be spending a small fortune to travel half way around the world, to suffer in the cold for a day or two.

My apartment complex, I must say, is the King of Decorated Buildings out here in the burbs. We have flickering lights adorning palm trees, wreaths on entrances to the different blocks, and three, large deer lounging in the garden. It looks kind of cool at night. In addition to the holiday adornment, in the past two months, the whole place has gone through a major face-lift.

A new management team took over and immediately took to redoing the grounds. The gardens were replanted and landscaped. New guard houses went up. Playground equipment was installed for all the kids. Just yesterday they finished the new name sign at the front of our complex. Although there are two other, similar buildings just across the street, we are looking far the best in the neighborhood.

All would be perfect if it were not for the penthouse above me that is still under construction after four months, and my insane neighbors with anger management issues. Last night their daily shouting match was augmented throwing bags of garbage at each other in the hall.

Peace on Earth

08 December 2006

Typhoon Durian

What were they thinking, naming a typhoon after the most vile-smelling fruit known to man: Durian? (think ‘skunk’ x 1000) What did they expect would happen? Had they named it Typhoon Peach, or Typhoon Plum, or even Typhoon Banana, I am sure it would not have turned into the monster it was. Definitely a Self-Fulfilling Typhoon Prophecy.

Watching CNN, I’d observed its steady path through the Pacific, into the Philippines, and then on towards Vietnam. Living in Ho Chi Minh City, one does not usually have to worry about typhoons. (Which, by the way, are called hurricanes on the other side of the world.) I was told that they never hit the city.
Central Vietnam is another story. They take the brunt of storms that roll in off the Pacific and there is often major destruction and loss of life, much of it from flooding.

Monday morning I noticed how lovely the weather was; on the cooler side, with this great, fairly strong breeze. And then I started hearing that this pleasant weather was from the typhoon, which was due to possibly hit HCMC later that day. Oh. We even got an email at work advising to evacuate low-lying areas and keep or passports close at hand.

I live on the 7th floor, and really doubt these buildings are hurricane proof, as there is no need to build them for that. I kept close watch of the news and saw that the storm had been down-graded to a Tropical Storm, so stopped worrying about being blown over. Obviously, flooding would not affect me.

I made sure that everything was off my balcony so as to avoid a clogged drain and rain water seepage into my apartment. Still, I saw no sign of storm clouds, though the mild, windy conditions continued. But it did not feel right. The birds were not out, no bats cruised by my windows at dusk, and I didn’t even need to close the screens as it seemed all the flying insects had holed up somewhere.

I went to bed after 10:00, bolting all the windows and mapping out where to sit in my apartment should windows start breaking. And then nothing. At 4am the rain started but it never got strong. It continued for several hours and stopped. I found out later that at the time we were getting mild rain, the typhoon was trashing costal areas about 100 kilometers from HCMC.

The weather may have been fine, but my students were not. Everyone was slightly spaced out, not doing their work, and not really able to concentrate. Typhoon fever, I suppose. I talked with other teachers and it was the same in all the classes. Usually my classes fly by, but not that day. It felt like I had been teaching for ten hours.

I cannot add “typhoon” to my list of adventures, and I’m good with that.


02 December 2006

Island Jaunt

Work can really piss me off at times. Not the teaching, which I love, but all inefficiency, insanity, and ineptitude of everything else. However, unlike my counterparts in, say, California, I am able to hop on a plane and in less than an hour find myself in a tropical island paradise.

I spent four days back at Phu Quoc and this time the rains had stopped and the weather was perfect. My plan was to chill, read, and get a tan. I managed two out of three and still can’t figure out why I do not have that beautiful golden glow I should have after more than enough hours in the sun.

I have spent a lifetime not using sun block. I have no desire to spend fifteen hours in the sun, so what is the point of SPF 15? I do, however, know that the sun is quite strong here and I am never really exposed to direct sun, so decided to practice caution. There is nothing more stupid than getting a sun burn on day one of your vacation, thereby wiping out any chance for further sun exposure. With that in mind, I diligently slathered my body with Hawaiian Tropic SPF 4, and sauntered on down to the beach at 9am.

As much as I do love the sun, lying in it and succumbing to heat exhaustion is a different story. I can stand about twenty minutes, max, then have to get wet, cool down, and then sit in the shade and read. I repeat this routine for two hours at the most. When I get to the point of looking at my watch every few minutes, telling myself “I only need 15 more minutes”, I know it is time to head in. Weather and temperament permitting, I might repeat this at two or three in the afternoon. This was my tanning ritual for day one and day two.

Scrutinizing tan lines after my second day of disciplined sun exposure, I was seriously disappointed to see almost no change. I grabbed the bottle of Hawaiian Tropic to make sure it wasn’t SPF 14, and not SPF 4. The bottle clearly said “4”. Possibly there was a mix up at the factory. What was I to do? Write them and complain that I was still white after using their sun block product? My mind was made up; day three was not going to involve any thing that would keep out UV rays. End result was that I never did get a decent tan, even with no sun block.

My other beach ritual is morning and afternoon walks along the deserted beach. I had been in Phu Quoc two previous times and never saw a soul as I trekked up the beach. This time the fishing fleet had moved in. Several families of homesteaders had set up camp along the beach. Their shelters consisted of tarps suspended from poles. Four small boats were anchored directly in front of the camp.

Walking closer, I could see they had nets out, but instead of people lining up to haul it in, they had this wooden contraption that did the job. A small platform held a spindle with handles attached, by which the fisherman could draw in the line. One man sat on it and, hand over hand, grabbed the handles, pulling them towards himself. On his left sat another person who carefully coiled the collected line, then placed it in a basket. I remember that the guy turning also did something with his left foot, possibly to assist in the pull. I never feel comfortable getting close-up shots of people, feeling it is too intrusive, so have no documentation to refresh my memory.

On another morning walk, I arrived just as they were at the last stages of hauling in their catch. Knowing I wanted pictures of the event, and wanting to test out my Vietnamese, I remembered my basic plan for assuaging the feeling of intrusion. Take photos, talk with the people, then make a donation.

I was able to communicate with them, but more through sign language than verbal communication. I found out that their daily haul was not sufficient, and that the entire process had taken four hours. That meant that the nets were set out at four or five in the morning. What always strikes me about the fishermen, or workers in general here, is the camaraderie and ability to do tasks with such precision and timing, yet with very little need to speak. There is a closeness and warmth that radiates out, weather they are hauling in a net, or sitting around the cooking fire.

Evenings at the beach are always lovely, especially now that the rainy season is all but gone. Every night, around 6pm, I sat, camera at the ready, to get those fantastic sunset pictures that I so adore. Saturday night the sun went down and it didn’t look very promising. But I remembered that the last time I was there it had started out the same, only to be followed by an ever increasing, colorful display. I waited. And waited. I didn’t give up until it was pitch black and the moon was up. And that is the way it was on this trip. Three nights in Phu Quoc, and not one decent sunset.

One of the many joys on the island are the dogs. I had assumed that the free roamers, that all sort of looked related, were unique to where I was staying. Apparently not. The Vietnam Airlines flight magazine had several articles about Phu Quoc, and one mentioned the Phu Quoc Dog. There are various theories about how and when they got there. The 100% PQ dogs have a ridgeback, but are smaller that Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Even without that unusual trait, they are very cute. Medium, to small-medium in size, short-haired, and most that I have seen are tan, although there are black ones. They all have the most wonderful temperament and seem to always be happy. In the early mornings I would watch a group playing tag on the beach. Later they’d hunker down in the sand for a nap. And although they are not raised by people, you’d never know it. They love human companionship and always walk over for a pet.

My last evening there, I set out on my stroll. I travel alone, I live alone, and most of the time am happy with it. For some reason this evening I felt so terribly alone in the world. Sometimes one just wants to share the beauty and serenity of a place with another soul, which is something I rarely get. And then, all of a sudden, the big male, Phu Quoc dog was at my side. I had spent a lot of time talking to one of the small females, but this guy I hadn’t really known. I looked down at him and asked if he wanted to go for a walk with me. He healed as if he had been trained. I would stop to look at something and he would stop. It was incredibly wonderful. The only time he veered off the path, so to speak, was when he decided to practice his cattle herding skills. And yes, there are always cattle around, and I have never been sure who they belong to.

The doggie ran over to where the cows sat in the sand, and crouched down. The one cow closet to the dog was not impressed and stood up. I called out to my friend telling him he was no match for a large animal that was on the defensive, although cows aren’t exactly hostile creatures. When I yelled at him to get back to where I was, he promptly obeyed and we continued with our walk.

Back at the resort restaurant, I sat down and my dog-buddy went sniffing around. A few minutes later, I saw another couple take off down the beach, dog guide in tow.

Later that evening, I had dinner with four other people. We then went a short ways down the beach where they had set up a pile of wood for a bonfire, our dog joining in the fun. He sat with us as people took turns petting him and talking to him in whatever their native language happened to be. He understood every word. At one point, two of my group decided they wanted to play in the water to experience the phosphorescent algae. Up until then, I hadn’t even heard him bark, but as the people walked down to the sea, the dog started to whimper. He was worried. We tried to reassure him, but he did not calm down until all had returned.

When all of us decided to call it a night, we walked back to our bungalows in a group, guided by one flashlight. I was the first shack, so bid adieu. My doggie followed me to the door and would not leave until I had unlocked it and walked in.

I think I miss my doggies more that I miss the beach.

22 November 2006

Teacher's Day 2006

Teacher’s Day is a big deal in Vietnam. Last year I got bunches of flowers, presents, and cards. This year I got a CD and a card. But this year I also participated in a Teacher’s Day program arranged by my Vietnamese language school.

The event was held last Sunday evening at a hotel in town. Two and a half weeks ago was the first I heard about it. My teacher arrived for our lesson with a sign-up sheet. It seemed that the students would be putting on a show for our teachers and we were to choose an event in which to participate.

I glanced through the choices; sing a Vietnamese song, do a traditional dance, participate in a play. I told my teacher I would go for the dance, wondering how they were going to get it all together in less than three weeks. She said no, I shouldn’t do the dance, but enter the Ao Dai Fashion Show. I looked down the page to see this event that I had apparently missed.

Ao Dais (ow yai) are those beautiful, long tunics and pants that they actually still wear here, when not in jeans or mini-skirts. They are lovely, but look a bit like bondage, what with a no-breathing-room, fitted bodice, and made of polyester, unless you can afford silk. Not really practical for this climate. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted to get an ao gai at some point, so why not now? The deal was further sweetened by the fact that a silk company was donating the silk and I would only have to pay for the tailor, a mere $18. My only concern was there would not be enough time to get them sewn, but this is the land of 24 hour tailoring, and my teacher assured me it would not be a problem.

There were a total of ten of us, and the following Saturday we converged at the language school to get measured and to choose fabric. Two woman tailors set about measuring; rather one took measurements while the other transcribed. I did like the fact that it was in centimeters so I had no idea just how big or small I really was. These women did not speak English, but I did get it across to them that I did not want the traditional, mandarin, high-neck style. I do have limitations.

When I finished up there, I went back to the outer room where some of the other women were looking over sketches of very non-traditional ao dais. What was up? Turned out we had our own private designer. I choose one with a V-neck that buttoned down the front. I added sleeves to the sleeveless sketch. But where was the fabric? I really am a fiend about choosing the fabric I will wear.

We were not going to be able to choose. The designer said she would write down our color choices and then she would go to the factory to pick it up. Then began the insanity of ten women trying to describe the hues they wanted. One lady wanted the color of my tank-top, which she had seen while I was getting measured. Another wanted the green in a postcard on the wall. I wanted a magenta – just try saying that in Vietnamese. We all did the best we could, the designer took photos of us, and we were finished. The products were to be completed in a week, we would come in for final fittings, and it would all be done before the big event.

What with working and living on one side of town, and going to the other for fittings, I was getting a bit worried that this just wasn’t going to work. Not that it mattered since they weren’t finished last Thursday, with the party being just three days away. This was getting nerve wracking. I finally got the OK to go in Friday at 5pm. Even if it didn’t fit, I could do any adjustments myself.

I arrived at the language school to find that only the tunic was there – no pants, no tailor, and two buttons were still missing on my pink outfit. Not a color I would have chosen, which was actually more of a dusty rose, so not a bad choice by someone else. It was explained that the pants would be done by the next day, Saturday at 4pm, when I could pick it up. Obviously, I couldn’t even take the tunic home.

I called the following day, ready to pick up my outfit and was told it wouldn’t be done until the next day, Sunday, and that the tailor would bring it to the hotel where the function was being held. Sorry, that just wouldn’t do. These are form fitting numbers, made of sheer fabric, and one must get the right bra. After a bit of negotiation and several back and forth phone calls, we arranged for a delivery guy to bring my ao dai to my house on Sunday morning at eleven.

At twelve noon the next day, Sunday, I get a call from the tailor, in Vietnamese, saying it would be delivered at 4pm. Or at least I thought that is what she said. That would give me about an hour before I had to leave for the hotel. Fortunately, I then got a text message in English confirming the time.

When my ao dai arrived, the first thing I noticed was how damn delicate the fabric was. I was sure to trash it within minutes of putting it on. I also needed to iron it, which I managed without burning the super-fine silk. Then I tried it on. An amazing fit for never doing anything other than taking my measurements. However, ao dais are designed to be worn with a bullet bra, which I don’t think have been on the market since the 50’s. I came up with something, and was pleased with the classy look. I need more of these, albeit in something other than fragile silk. By the end of the evening, I didn’t have any food stains, but it was quite wrinkled, even though I did my best not to move too much. I was sure it would rip apart.

As noted in my last blog, the ride into town took forever because of Bush Security. But arrive I did, and rode the elevator to the fifth floor, and walked outside to the pool, where it was being held. I had expected some rather informal affair. I walked out into a scene of lights and cameras and balloons and buffet tables. It was a clear, warm, perfect evening. Waiters walked around with trays of drinks. I mingled and talked to several people I knew, and met many others.

The song and dance numbers went well, and then it was time for our fashion show. We had been given instructions about walking slowly around the pool and pausing at certain points, where we were to “turn around charmingly”. That over, I went back to eating. We had a massive array of fantastic food.

It was a lovely evening, and a wonderful way to honor our teachers. And now I have real ao dai. (which needs to go to the dry cleaners.)

The pictures included here having nothing to do with the event. They are of the street where I buy fabric.
Happy Thanksgiving!

20 November 2006

Bush In The House

For about six months now, I have been waiting for Bush’s visit to Vietnam. As soon as I heard that he would be here for the APEC meeting, I knew I had to do some sort of subtle protest. I decided that I would wear a CODEPINK t-shirt and just sort of stroll by wherever it was he was staying. A friend even made me pink earrings to go with the outfit. All I could hope for was that some of his homies would take note; just as a reminder that even on the other side of the world, we haven’t forgotten about him.

As it turned out, he came into town on Sunday and there was no way I could partake in my mini-street theatre plan. I was booked for a Teacher’s Day reception in the evening and it would have been too much to make the trip into town twice in one day.

At 6pm, I got into a taxi wearing my brand new, pink silk, Vietnamese outfit. (more info to follow in a later posting). We drove over the bridge to District 4, and then the traffic all but stopped. I was sort of daydreaming and didn’t notice the delay for quite some time. I don’t remember ever going out on a Sunday evening, so assumed it might be the norm.

Eventually, we got through District four and into District 1, heading for District 3. As our speed increased, we zoomed by the New World Hotel, and my driver mumbled something and pointed. Half asleep, I grunted and turned my head to see if I could figure out what he had said. Oh! He had said “Bush”. Now I noticed that the streets were lined with police in flack jackets and helmets, toting weaponry. I glared at the hotel and mentally transmitted feelings of ill regard. I was glad I was wearing pink.

Turning the corner I saw that all the streets around the hotel were blockaded. I wondered why he would stay in that particular hotel. 5-star; it is not. Later that evening someone pointed out that hotels like the Hyatt and Sheraton are jammed together like sardines in the center of town, making it pretty much impossible to cordon off the area. So the big brass, for the sake of security, had to slum it, I guess.

Mental telepathy might not be the best form of protest, but it did feel good.


19 November 2006

Kem Chuoi

Kem Chuoi, (chewy), literally means ice cream/banana, although it really is just frozen banana, coated in coconut milk and peanuts. I first had it soon after arriving in Vietnam. It was when I was with one of the young women from my first job, and she had the driver stop at a little shop on the side of the road to buy kem choui. I instantly loved it.

It is not something that is commercially produced. People make it at home and sell it in their shops; hence, I hadn’t had another for over a year. (my neighborhood has none of these family stores.) And then two weeks ago, my Vietnamese teacher arrived with three that her daughter had made. She wasn’t sure if I liked them, so apologized for not bringing more. When she found out I truly adored kem choui, she said that our following class would be a course in making them. I tried to give her money for the ingredients, but she wrote down the necessary items, totaled them up, and showed me that it only cost about one dollar to make 24 frozen bananas. Two days later, she arrived with everything.

One starts with making coconut milk. The canned stuff I already had wouldn’t do, explained my teacher, it simply doesn’t taste right. That morning she had gone to the market, (where she goes every morning at 6:00am.) She bought a fresh coconut and had the seller shred it using some sort of machine. We put the coconut in a saucepan, then added about half a cup of boiling water, and stirred it until it had absorbed the water. Then, over a strainer, we squished handfuls of coconut meat into a bowl, removing the milk. The leftover shredded bits can be used in other things, but we tossed them.

We added a little salt and some sugar, (I opted for less sugar), and about three tablespoons of cornstarch. The milk then goes back in the pot, this time over a low flame. While this is cooking into a thick paste, you slice the bananas in half.

I must explain that not Just any old banana will do. Of all the types available, only one is suitable. It’s a short, fat nanner. All the others contain too much water and when frozen, turn to ice. As I sliced, my teacher laid out the cellophane pieces in which we would wrap our frozen desserts. These were actually small bags that are cut open.

The banana half is placed on the cellophane then flattened with the side of a large knife. Onto this, you ladle the thickened coconut concoction, sprinkle it with roasted peanut pieces, wrap it up, and put it in a plastic container. 24 pieces later, it was done, the kem chuoi’s placed in the freezer, where they would need several hours to freeze.

My teacher told me that you can basically put a coat of anything on top of the coconut milk, like chocolate or fruit. She said that on special occasions she layers all the ingredients in little molds and puts fruit on top. I am hooked on this simple, yet incredibly tasty treat. I still have over half of them left in the freezer. Usually after class, we sit down to eat them as we gaze out over the darkening skies of Ho Chi Minh City.

I feel the need for one now.

31 October 2006

A Night At The Opera

I have walked past the Opera House at least once a week since I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, but had never been inside. On one hand, I am suitably impressed by French colonial architecture, on the other; it is a blatant reminder of colonialism. Hence, I had never had the desire to explore the inside. There are always performances going on but I never seem to know about them until after they occur. But when I heard about “A one act opera in which Italian music meets Vietnamese Romance”, I made sure I got the dates right.

My friend and I arrived at the Opera House at 4:30 for the 5pm performance. We climbed up the grand front entrance stairs, went to the ticket booth and asked for two seats. The woman picked up about seven tickets, thumbed through them and said they were sold out. I asked about the tickets in her hand. “No more”, she said. I pointed to the ones in her hand and asked again. I think the problem was that there were not two seats together and she assumed that is what I wanted. Eventually, I got to aisle seats on the main floor.

I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in, other than colonial grandeur. Right away I could see that it was a bit shabby, but not bad for a hundred year old building. I don’t know the exact date of construction, but had heard that it was a replica of some opera house somewhere in France. Before looking for my seat, I went in search of the restrooms, which were located downstairs.

Since the main entrance is actually second floor level, ‘downstairs’ takes you to street level. And there, at the bottom, right next to the restrooms, is where all the motorbikes were parked. Not much fazes me when it comes to gasoline powered transport inside houses anymore, and I didn’t even think it odd until later that evening.

Back up at the main level, we walked into the theater to find our seats. I was surprised, yet pleased at how small it seemed. From the outside, I had envisioned a massive venue and had thought that my seat in row ‘L’ would be in the nether regions. I was remarkably close. I looked at my watch; ten minutes until curtain, and the theater was not even half filled.

As the minutes ticked down, I kept my eyes on all the empty seats and told my friend, in row ‘D’, that we could probably move in a few minutes. Five minutes to go, some orchestra members were tuning up, while others causally walked down the aisles having just arrived. As the curtain time warning lights flashed, more musicians and patrons arrived. The two seats beside me remained empty. Five o’clock arrived, the house lights dimmed and I was just about to go get my friend when two women walked in sat next to me, yapping away.

About this time the orchestra started playing, and one of the ladies kept telling her friend that she couldn’t see. Then she started leaning half way into my territory to try and see down into the orchestra pit, all the time complaining. In addition, new people kept coming in. it seemed obvious that they were not going to shut the doors to latecomers, who continued to arrive for the next thirty minutes.

When the curtain went up, the lady next to me finally shut up. The stage itself was high enough to easily see the singers and the set was constructed of tiers that rose to a scary height, considering there were no safety handrails on any of them, and the performers stood right at their edge. The chorus consisted of something like thirty men and women, mostly Vietnamese, but with a few western folks thrown in, towering over their choir mates.

I was just settling into it, trying to ignore the stragglers arriving, when the woman next to me picked up her cell phone and started to text message someone. I leaned over and said, excuse me?, in a low, commanding voice. She huffed and put the phone away. I was later to learn that she had it on vibrate, and when it buzzed her, she picked it up and walked out of the theater to chat. From then on, the only distraction was some large man who kept pacing up and down the center aisle throughout the entire performance.

“Chao Bella”, incorporated the music of Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, and others, into a tale of love on the Mekong Delta. Your basic love story: boy meets girl - girl’s father disapproves – boy wins approval of father – all live happily ever after. And it was wonderful! They sang in Vietnamese and Italian, and I think I understood about two words in Italian, but it didn’t matter. At one point in the story, a group performed for the main characters. They juggled, did flips, balanced and rolled around on giant balls, walked on stilts. I was later to learn that they were from the Ho Chi Minh City Circus. I hadn’t even known there was such a thing. There was another section with a beautiful pas de deux with wonderful ballet dancers.

After the performance, we walked across the street to the Continental Hotel, famous as the spot where the writer Graham Greene wrote “The Quiet American”. I had always wanted to go, but had thought the veranda had been glassed in and I hate sidewalk cafes that are enclosed. It turned out that one section is still open-air in the evenings. The place has quite a pretentious feel to it, and was almost empty. Surprisingly, the prices were quite reasonable and it was a lovely place to sit and watch the people go by.

In the future I hope to go to more performances. I believe there is a city symphony orchestra, ballet, and opera, as well as visiting performers. Now I just have to find out where to get a season schedule.


21 October 2006

Mid-Autumn Festival

This year I participated in the October 6th Mid-Autumn Festival/ Moon Cake Festival/ Tet Trung Thu. The school where my Vietnamese teacher is employed had a party for the students. I arrived at the school, after a scenic tour of downtown by the taxi driver, to find the hallways and the large classroom decorated with candles glowing out of small, hand-made, paper holders. Students and teachers with families in tow, mingled and introduced themselves, and munched on the snacks that lined two tables. I knew a few of the people from my trip with them to the shrimp farm.

There were about thirty people in the room when we sat down to hear about the Mid-Autumn festival and listen to a story. One young American woman was asked to translate. When I spoke to her later and found out that she had only been in Vietnam for one year, I was shocked at her proficiency. She then explained that her entire year had been spent studying Vietnamese. She was working for some sort of charitable organization that had allotted her two years to learn the language before starting some sort of project for street children. I drooled. That has been one of those life dreams that never came true; to have someone pay for you to learn a foreign language in a foreign country, for a year or two. Hell, the Peace Corps gave me two months.

Essentially being a children’s festival, we did kid things. The first was to break into groups and try to put the story we had just heard into order, from cut up sentences. Yes, it is a language school, and this is a language school activity. Fortunately for us, it was in English, which did not mean that you could do it without really reading the cut up sections. My group rushed through but kept getting it wrong.

Next, we had a choice: learn a song or make a lantern. I gathered five people, sat on the floor with a packet of materials, and cut and glued. All very fun, and we ended up with a nice piece of work.

Then it was off to Cho Lon, the Chinatown of Ho Chi Minh City. This is where all the action really happens. I had wanted to go last year, but not alone. This year my teacher said she would take me. We jumped in a taxi for the twenty minute ride, streets becoming increasingly crowded as we neared “Lantern Street”.

A festival ritual is that children are given a lantern in which they can put a candle or just carry around. The night before, our apartment complex had organized a celebration for the little ones. There must have been at least fifty kids running around with lanterns of all sizes and shapes, while two adults in traditional costume lead them in song and games. I was really glad that there weren’t burning candles inside.

And now I could see where lots of those lanterns came from. We got out of the taxi at an intersection branching off onto a street lined with sidewalk shops filled with lanterns. There were paper fish, lotus flowers, and happy faces; cellophane boats and animals; high tech plastic things that moved and beeped with flashing lights. There were also some other kid toys. My favorite was a small lion dancer mask and cape that was fitted on top of an electronic toy so that it danced and shook. Upon closer inspection I saw the moving part was actually a T Rex. The streets were jammed with parents walking with kids and picking out lanterns. An equal number were on motorbikes, driving up to a stall and letting their child pick out something. It was a madhouse.

We then walked for another twenty minutes back to the community center where lion dancers and dragon dancers were performing. They had already finished the show by the time we arrived, but it was fun to walk amongst the joyous kids running around and laughing.

I never did eat any moon cakes, but there is always next year.

03 October 2006

Bat Story

A slight break in the rain on Sunday meant I could do that last bit of wash left over from my beach trip. The washing machine sits on my little, 4 by 8 foot balcony. It’s good for doing laundry but not much else. I dumped my clothes in the machine, threw in the soap, then bent down to adjust the drainage hose before turning it on. This required some maneuvering as the washing machine is in a corner and the hose is between it and the wall. Strange, I thought when I saw a large, black spot, what is that on the hose? I walked around and peered down. Oh my god! It was a bat! He was sprawled on top of the hose, sort of the way a squirrel lies on a tree branch. This couldn’t be good. Bats do not sprawl.

I leaned in as far as I could and saw that one of his little bat legs was outstretched. Was it broken? Was he dead? But then the other little bat leg twitched, so I knew he was alive, perhaps dying. I sat down to think. It was mid-morning, and all good bats are asleep. Maybe he was just waiting for the night shift. Whatever his state of health, I certainly couldn’t do a wash. I would have to let him sleep, hope he survived the day, then flew off in the evening.

All day long, I went to check on him. I worried that it would start storming and he would get wet. Or maybe too much light was disturbing his rest. I rigged my umbrella to afford a darker alcove and protect him from any stray rain drops that might appear. On one of my checks, I noticed that he had moved a bit, and what I thought had been an injured leg had now changed position.

Mostly, I just sent mental encouragement to him, but at one point I bent over and whispered, just keep resting, little bat, you’ll be ok. His ears started to twitch and I jumped back realizing that a whisper to a sleeping bat was equivalent to a megaphone in a human ear.

Right around 5pm is when all the bat brethren take to the skies to feed. There is still plenty of light in the air, so as soon as I saw them flying I went out to once more check on the patient. He was moving! I think I remember that bats have to pump blood into their wings before taking off. And since this guy had been sleeping at the wrong angle all day, I assumed it might take him longer. I waited about five minutes and went back.

Carefully, I opened the glass door to the balcony and froze when I saw that my bat was at the edge of the door and I had nearly squished him. He obviously wasn’t quite fit to fly. He was also in the way and I needed to close the door. The last thing he needed was to fly into my apartment. I looked around for something to nudge him with. I grabbed a towel, and gently gave him a scoot. He turned on me, threw a wing out to the left, bared his teeth and hissed. But he did back up enough for me to close the door.

I was getting really worried, because he should have flown off. I peered through the door and watched helplessly as he ran around on his little feet and front claws. He’d try to take flight, but couldn’t get any height. He ran around the balcony with amazing speed, bumping into walls and trying to scale them. His little claws simply couldn’t attach to the concrete.

What could I do? If I tried to pick him up, I’d give him a coronary. And then what would I do? Dump him on the ledge where he would plunge to his death? Maybe he needed nutrition. All I had was a banana, and although I was fairly sure he wasn’t a fruit bat, I put a piece out for him. He ran into it a few times and gave it no notice. I sat down again and watched him and willed him to take off but finally, I couldn’t stand it any more, so went into the other room.

That’s when I decided to build him a ramp to the ledge. I was not sure that that would help, but he was going to kill himself trying to get to higher ground. I took a large basket and turned it upside down, then leaned the ironing board next to it. If he could scale the basket, then hop on to the ironing board, he could climb up to the balcony ledge. I returned to the living room and turned on the TV. I now worried that if he did try the basket escape route, he might get a foot caught.

I took one last check that night. It was dark, but I didn’t see my bat, or hear him scampering around. I brought the basket and ironing board back inside, and checked to make sure he wasn’t stuck to either of them. I would do a more thorough check in the light of day.

The next morning I searched my balcony at least ten times, but there was no sign of him, so I assume he made it out alive. The thought did occur that maybe he had died under the washing machine. But he couldn’t really fit under there and I would have smelled something by now. I still can’t figure out how he ended up where he did. There is nothing on my balcony that is bat-hanging material. Possibly, he was a little slow on the uptake and tried to hang from the electrical outlet, fell asleep, then plopped onto the hose. Whatever the case may be, I am so grateful I did not have to do a bat burial.


01 October 2006

New Mattress - New Glasses

Waking up with an aching back for the past year prompted me to look into purchasing a new mattress. The one I had was only a year old, but total crap. I once tried to flip it over, only to find it was one-sided, and that the reverse side was something you might find on the bottom of a box. My theory is that Vietnamese just aren’t accustomed to sleeping in beds, so may not know what a proper mattress is. The majority sleep on the floor on straw mats, or on wooden platform beds with no padding. They say they are comfortable.

Several friends recommended this special, Vietnamese invented/made, foam rubber mattress. They all swore by it. When I went to one of their stores, I was shocked to find that the price was equivalent to one months rent. I’d rather use the money on a trip. I could live with a sore lower back. Or at least I thought I could. Then I thought I might at least check out the prices of other mattresses.

I called my realtor, who also delves in decorating apartments. She said that she would ask my landlord to buy a new one for me, since I was about to renew my rental contract. It was something I would never even have thought of doing, but my realtor assured it was proper. And two days later, I got a new mattress.

I couldn’t sleep on it for three days. One; because it still stunk from the plastic wrapping material, and two; it has been raining so much that I could maybe wash my sheets but they would never dry. Finally, I did wash them and with the helpful hint of a friend, strung them in the living room and turned the fan on them.

Last night was my first night on the new mattress. It sort of felt lumpy, but I woke up without a backache, so am very happy.

My other acquisition for the week was new glasses. By now, I think the whole world must know about my super-sensitive eyes and their adverse reaction to fluorescent lighting. Basically, with first contact in such lighting I immediately start to get light headed, which then turns to dizziness, which is soon followed by a migraine headache, and that is the end of any happiness to my day. Through years of experimentation, I have found that rose tinted, glass lenses, with anti-reflective coating, seem to at least enable me to get through a maximum of five hours under florescent lights. I by no means feel “normal”, but usually don’t feel like passing out or throwing up if I wear the glasses.

Do note that I said “glass” glasses, since these eyes of mine can detect any irregularities in even top grade plastic lenses. Cut to the chase: I went in to an optical store last week to order glasses. I needed the florescent protectors as well as reading glasses. The reading glasses I have are something like eight years old, and they work, but are all lopsided and chipped because the lenses keep falling out and hitting the floor.

It took awhile to explain what I needed, and I repeated everything 400 times, just to make sure. The optometrist told me that tinted glass lenses were no longer available anywhere in the country, but he would check just to make sure. I really didn’t think plain glass with only anti-reflective coating would work, but decided to give it a try.

When I picked up my glasses, I went home, then went to the corner mini-mart to try them out. Big mistake – it was like going under the lights with nothing for protection. I came home, popped a handful of ibuprofen, then tried to relax for an hour before my Vietnamese lesson. When my teacher arrived, I proudly showed off the new reading glasses and proceeded to use them during our class. By the time she left, the headache was even worse.

It wasn’t until the next day, while wearing the reading glasses, that I noticed the world was warped. Oh damn! The optics on the reading glasses had imperfections and everything was wavy. No wonder my head had continued to degrade the day before.

Two days later I went back to the optician and explained matters. We are now going to try gradient, grey lenses; the ones that get darker in the sun. Hopefully they will work. I then tried to explain the reading glass problem, while every person in the store tried them on and said they saw no problem. They were all very kind, and the owner assured me that he would have the lenses re-made. I know he thought I was crazy. I will go back on Wednesday. If anyone has any ideas on how to deal with ‘the lights that are slowly and painfully killing me’, please let me know.

Off to my new bed.


25 September 2006

No Power

Before going to bed last night, I managed to wash the fish out of my travel bag and get a load of damp, dank, smelly clothes into the machine and then hung on the drying rack, which I had to put inside because of the continuing rains. I’d gotten my Monday lesson plans together, and picked out what I would wear the next day. All I had to do was to go to sleep.

When I awoke, it was still grey, gloomy, and a little chilly. I walked into the kitchen to put the water on and realized I had no electricity. I checked all the switches, and nothing worked. This meant I was going to get a cold shower.

Once that little torture episode was over, I walked over to the breaker box and saw a main switch was down. I put my hand on the wall next to the box and almost screamed out loud from the fright of touching a very hot wall. Panic set it. I sniffed around for fire and smelled nothing. I have now learned that a phone call to management, especially at 6am, is useless. I quickly dressed and rode the elevator down to the ground floor and ran to find the security guard.

Between my limited Vietnamese, borderline ranting and mime, I conveyed my situation to the concerned security man. He radioed someone else and told me it would just be a minute. I may have been jumping up and down by this time.

Soon, the fix-it security man rode up on his bike and I tried to explain things as I nearly pulled him to the elevator and then up to my floor. He was very shocked by the heated wall and went into the hall to cut the power. He assured me there was no chance of a fire. I had already been figuring just how much of my valuables I could take into work. I told him that two electricians had worked on the breaker box the afternoon before. He told me he could have someone there by 8am. Since I had to go to work, we arranged for a 1:30 appointment, but not before I made him tell me at least three more times that nothing would ignite in my absence.

When I came home from work I was happy to see everything was still intact. The new electrician arrived, but no one had told him anything other than I was without power. Again, my attempt at conversation was pitiful, but he understood. I was truly impressed by the first thing he did which was to make sure the power was off. Every other time, including yesterday, the workers can’t be bothered to do so and say, “no problem”. I’m sorry, but 220V is a huge problem. Every time someone comes in to do a repair, I mentally rehearse my lapsed CPR training.

In no time, the electrician had the breaker box apart and the problem solved. One of the wires was not attached to where it should have been screwed in. I told him, or at least tried to, about the two men who were here yesterday and had taken everything apart but had somehow failed to notice a big fat wire sticking straight out. I guess I really am lucky they didn’t get fried in my apartment.

I am really happy that it was such a simple cure and not a major re-wiring issue. It also explains all those lights that fade in and out, which I had assumed was due to fluctuating currents. And now maybe my internet connection will not flick on and off at all the wrong times.

Maybe tonight I will sleep well.

24 September 2006

Stormy Weather

Seriously needing a break from life in the teaching mines, I went back to Phu Quoc, the island I had visited last May. Granted, it is still the rainy season, but that usually means a few hours of rain and then back to hot and muggy. And since for the past few weeks it has been quite stormy, some times all day long, I reasoned that this weekend would be calmer. I was wrong.

I flew out at 6:30 Friday morning, which meant that I needed to leave my house by 5am. Not wanting to take the chance that it would be too early for the usual clump of taxis parked outside the apartment complex, and not trusting a 5am call to the taxi company, I arranged with my Thursday morning taxista to pick me up the following morning. I had done this all in Vietnamese, and he was there when I walked out at 4:50am.

At that time in the morning, it only took thirty minutes to get to the airport, so I was in plenty of time to catch the one hour flight to my island paradise, where I would again stay at Bo Resort. I already knew that the owners were still away on vacation in Europe, and that there probably wouldn’t be many people there. It turned out that there was only one other guest.

By the time I had arrived in Phu Quoc, got my bag, and walked to the taxi, it had started to drizzle. My driver on that end moved slowly through the dirt roads that had seen a full season of rain. As we plowed along, the rain increased. Half an hour later, I was at Bo Resort, and it was really coming down. Someone grabbed my bag and took off down the hill towards the bungalows. Not about to start running downhill on stone and dirt paths, I meandered along, loosing sight of the man with my belongings. One of the gardeners pointed to my bungalow, and in I went.

Last time, I was given the only bungalow available. This time I had my choice of any and boy, did I get a good one. They are all lovely, but this had a far better view of the beach below than my last stay. Best of all, I could actually hear the sounds of the sea. Farther up the hill, one can’t hear the waves crashing. I stopped in long enough to realize that the weather was continuing to worsen, and if I wanted to make it down to the restaurant at the bottom of the hill, I needed to boogie. Umbrella unfurled, I gingerly walked down the last section of the path on stone steps, now somewhat cascading with water, wishing there were a hand rail.

At the restaurant, which is an open air, thatched roof building, I noted that the storm curtains were down. Large pieces of plastic; attached to think bamboo poles, top and bottom, kept the rain out. I admired the extension to the dining area that they had been assembling last time I was there. I was greeted by the same young man who I had met last May. He seems to run everything. I got a cup of coffee and looked out at the weather. It did not look promising for a sun tan, but all the same, it was beautiful. And I was cold! Yes, yet again, I had brought all the wrong clothes. If the weather were to stay the same, I would be wearing the same two pieces of clothing for the next three days.

The friend of the owners, who was managing things in there absence, showed up just as the full-blown storm hit. Had I taken a later flight, I would still be in HCMC. Not much I could do but appreciate the natural forces around me, eat breakfast, and hope it would let up at least enough so that I could get back up to my bungalow without getting drenched. It was too cold to get wet and only have a bikini to change into.

The weather spirits were with me at around 1pm. The rain stopped, the skies cleared, and although it wasn’t perfect-perfect beach weather, it was more than adequate to take a stroll and start collecting shells. As it does, the stress and tension drains out of my body with each step along the beach. I walked and walked; the beach all to myself. I passed the jellyfish graveyard. I suppose the storm was just too much for the poor guys. The largest was over a foot in diameter, and although I sort of wanted to play with him and turn him over, I figured it would not be a prudent move.

Two hours later, a new storm front arrived and I went back to my bungalow to take a cold shower, (no sun = no hot water), and changed back into my layers of clothing that really were not sufficient. Then back to the restaurant for cups and cups of hot tea. The last time I was there, the restaurant always had people coming and going and it was quite a different feeling to be the only one there most of the time. The other lone traveler showed up, but she was hanging with the friend of the owners. I actually enjoyed the solitude and could just walk back to the kitchen should I need more hot water or if I wanted something to eat. Part of that is also the laid-back ambience of The Bo. Even when the place is full, I bus dishes, or grab an extra plate.

I awoke to a grey Saturday morning, but it wasn’t blowing or raining. By the time I had finished breakfast, the sun was out, and I hurried to get into beach wear. I might only have a few hours of tanning time, and I was so pale that I scared myself. I tried to remember the last time I had had a decent tan, and it must have been about four years ago. To hell with sunscreen; I’d made that mistake in the past. You slather it on, get two hours of sun, the rains come, and that is it for the rest of your vacation. You are left with no color whatsoever. If I only had limited tanning time, I was going to make the most of it.

Two hours later the sun was still out, so I took a walk up the beach and collected more shells. I got some exceptional specimens to use in any of a number of my various art projects. I got to see a beautiful rainbow. I passed some graves a short ways back from the shore. People are buried where it is auspicious, and I couldn’t think of a more auspicious location. Eventually I walked back, and took a break out of the sun.

I went out for a little more sun that afternoon, but could tell that I was mildly fired, so packed it in for the day and spent the next few hours reading in my bungalow. The skies remained clear, and I hoped for a beautiful sunset.

The sun sinking into the sea started out with your basic golds and yellows. Not postcard spectacular, but lovely all the same. I sat on the shore and watched as with each minute, the intensity of the sky became increasingly more magnificent. Bit by bit, moving from the center outwards, more of the horizon filled with color, now ranging into pinks and deeper yellows. The formations and backlighting gave it an other-worldly effect; like I was watching a sunset on Vulcan. The air was warm; there was no one but me and the sea. I sat transfixed by the sky, and alternately, the tide flowing in and out at my feet. It seemed to last forever, changing with every breath. When darkness finally fell, I walked back to my table at the restaurant and looked out over the beautiful sea with lights from fishing boats in the far distance, listening to the waves and the peace.

I shut off my lights at ten, but couldn’t seem to fall asleep. A few hours later, storm number four hit with unbelievable power. Lighting was striking down all around me and I really hoped it wouldn’t hit my thatched roof. My little bungalow shook with every thunder clap. The winds were stronger sounding than I had ever heard, and the rain was ferocious. Possibly it would be interesting to watch, but I might die in the process, so stayed in bed listening. Every time I thought the worst had passed us by, another wave of ferocity hit. I started to wonder how strong the foundation was and imagined my shack sliding down the hill. I was glad for my semi-fried body as I knew there probably would be little chance of sunshine in the morning.

The storm eventually did stop, but Sunday morning was grey and foreboding. Out at sea, one could only see dark grey skies, indicating the incoming weather front. I had to leave at 10:30 to get to the airport in time which meant that the next few hours would be spent in the restaurant and not on the beach as I had hoped. There, I started to get nervous that if the weather did not clear, as it hadn’t on Friday, I would be stuck in Phu Quoc. I couldn’t deal with the guilt of calling work to say I was stuck out at sea. When my taxi arrived, I still doubted that any airplanes would be taking off any time soon, but went ahead to the airport.

At the ticket counter, I was told that my flight was delayed. It looked as if the weather was clearing, so I hoped it wouldn’t be too long. An hour later, they announced that we could check in. Unfortunately, the check-in was for the people who were supposed to be on the 9am flight. My plane was still in HCMC. I went up to the counter and asked if there might be a seat on the flight due to leave in thirty minutes. The counter agent took my ticket and handed it to the guy at the computer, so I had hope. At that point, a young American woman walked up. She was in the same predicament. I told her they were trying to get me on the flight and she just dropped her ticket in front of the man on the computer.

Eventually, they let us both on and we went running to the gate, assuming that the plane was in the final boarding stages. The plane hadn’t even arrived yet, so we sat down and waited. Talking with someone certainly made the wait and the flight go very quickly.

At the luggage carousel in HCMC, I saw my bag rolling towards me and also noticed that it had wet patches all over it. Maybe it was just condensation. My friend, being young and healthy, grabbed it off for me and I leaned over to take a whiff. GAG! It was covered in fish water! Obviously, my bag had been next to the fresh fish box, which had leaked all over it. I sounded irate and was making all the Vietnam air people bend over for a smell, but then realized, what could they do? Hopefully, it hadn’t leaked or fumed through to my belongings.

When I got home, I opened my bag and dumped it all on the floor. Thank goodness, nothing seemed too fishy. I went to turn on the light, (those dark storm clouds cutting out the sun again), and found I only had electricity in part of the house. I don’t get this travel, come home to no utilities, thing. Last time I had no water. I called the management company, and two electricians came over.

Of course, when they tried it, the lights went on. I was really starting to feel stupid, but then the lights dimmed, glowed, and went off. The men took apart switches and looked at the fuse box, tightened some screws and everything seems to be working. All I really understood form one of them was that I should not be using anything over a 40 watt bulb, because of course either a 60 watt or 100 watt would cause these problems. Or maybe that is not what he said.

My little vacation wasn’t quite long enough or warm enough, but I cannot complain. I got out of the city and away from work. I will go back in two months, and I have already booked my special bungalow for four nights. I will take jeans and sweatshirts and bikinis and sarongs. There might still be some rain, but nowhere what I experienced this weekend.

Time to get the fish bag out of the washing machine.