20 February 2006

Garden Walk

Walking in my neighborhood is generally a quiet experience, if not spectacularly beautiful. After 5PM, the workers stop the drilling and tile cutting and all the other bothersome noises. I used to walk out of my building and head off down the street, walking about three blocks before it dead ends.

It is a gravel street and there are streetlamps, but the completed houses are very sparsely placed. One is going up directly across the street from me, and about six others within sight of my apartment. But mostly, it is deserted streets and frogs and crickets make the only real noise.

When I get to the dead end, I turn left and can walk another five blocks. If I turn right at the third block, I enter what can only be described as a Hollywood set, or maybe Disneyland, or possibly the Stepford neighborhood. It is a gated community of attached, row houses, running along narrow streets. By the extent of the growth of the gardens, I am assuming it was completed at least five years ago. The houses are three levels, half of the top floor taken up by a spacious balcony. The entrances of many of the homes are a veritable jungle of flowering vines and well-groomed gardens. It is all very pretty and very safe feeling, yet quite odd. The first time I walked through I got the chills. It was just to ‘perfect’. But by the second or third trip I was hooked. I could picture living there. Maybe.

The only problem with that walk is that it wasn’t long enough so I would head out onto the main street where it gets very noisy and rather ugly. I live on the left side of the giant street/freeway that barrels through town. The other side of the road has many more completed houses and they are of a different nature. After the few, 15 story, dog-ugly apartment blocks, there are mostly gargantuan houses, or very large, side-by-side duplexes. I had thought I had explored it all but the other day I found out that I hadn’t. I came upon the most incredible man-made stream.

It is a kilometer long stream built down the middle of a road. It must be about five meters wide, (but never trust my area calculations). Suffice to say that it is wide enough to have a curving stream run down the middle, flanked by incredible landscaping. The banks of the stream are built with round stones. A path winds up one side, then crosses over to the other, then farther up it returns to the other side, and continues this weaving back and forth the entire way. Sometimes a wooden bridge takes you across; sometimes it is giant stepping stones. Along the way you pass trees and flowers all meticulously and aesthetically arranged. Lilly pads and lotus flowers float on the water. There is even a mini waterfall where the stream crashes over a stone ledge.

You can walk along it at night because there are lights. You can take a rest on one of the benches. And even though there is street on either side, there is very little traffic, although this will probably change as the area is built up. For now, one side is all open land, lying along the banks of a river tributary.

In the evenings, you can see families with kids seated on a bench, munching on snacks. There are also a lot of young couples who park their motorbikes on the side, then side on a bridge or a bench or on the grass. It is a most pleasant place to wander.

Regrettably, I can’t simply walk away from the stream and into my house. There is the short walk back to the main road, past massive construction sites engaged in erecting a block long structure. And then I have to risk life and limb getting across the street/freeway. There is a stoplight, but it doesn’t mean much, especially to the semi drivers who race through red lights while blowing their horns. In fact, the thought of that part of the walk has kept me in at times.

Time for my walk.

10 February 2006

Rain/Post Office/Work Permit

The rainy season, I was told, would end in November and then there would not be a drop for six months. It rained right up until New Years Eve. Then yesterday, there were some sprinkles. And this afternoon, there was a veritable downpour for over an hour! I had to ford the rapidly filling balcony, to take out the drain filter before I got internal flooding. We even had lightening. It does clean the air, but if it isn’t supposed to happen, it is a little worrisome.

This first week back, after the two week break, felt like three weeks. Aside from the work schedule, I was supposed to deal with bank, work permit stuff, as well as international post issues. Of the three items on my list, none has been resolved.

Way back in July, about two weeks before I left for Vietnam, I was informed by my first employer that I would need notarized copies of all my teaching credentials and diplomas, and a letter stating I was not a criminal. I then had to send said documents to the employer’s office in Los Angeles, and he contacted the Vietnamese consulate in San Francisco. Or something like that. I then had to go to the consulate and get my visa. I assumed that since I was given the visa, all was in order.

When I arrived, there was other paperwork to be done, like registering my residence with the police and getting the health check. All that paperwork was done by others, so I assumed I was in the clear.

Back in October, before I even started working at the new job, I went to HR to ask what I needed to do about working papers. “You don’t need to do anything for a year,” I was explicitly told. That sounded odd, but easy.

Then, right before the Tet break, I received an urgent email from HR telling me I needed to get my work permit papers in NOW. I went to talk to the women in charge and asked why, if she hadn’t wanted any documents in October, that it was now urgent. I didn’t get an answer. So, I brought in all of my paperwork that had been sufficient for the first job. She went through them and asked for my passport. I couldn’t give it to her because I needed to go to the bank, then go to Cambodia. I was about to leave when she asked for my “blue book”. Huh? Turned out to be a little blue notebook that is supposed to be in my possession at all times, documenting that I am registered with the police. My realtor was supposed to have given it to me within a week of moving in. The HR lady was quite alarmed that I didn’t have it.

After work, I went by the realtors and asked about the blue book. Apparently, a gal they had working there when I moved in had neglected to get it done and they weren’t even aware of it. However, within two days I got the book.

This Monday, armed with my blue book and passport, I went back to HR. When the woman checked my blue book, she saw that the date listed for my move to my apartment was Oct 2006, not 2005. I suggested she take white-out, and fix the date. No go. Before I could leave to take my book back to the realtors to have them take it back to the police, she said I was missing a document. Huh? Yes, I needed a document from the State of California stating that the notary, who notarized my documents, is registered with the State. I really tried not to scream. I think she mentioned something about a letter from Washington DC stating I was not a criminal, but I pretended not to hear. How could I need more documentation than what I had already given to the first job?

She did say that it all would have to be sent to the US to be translated and verified. I said that this had already happened, and couldn’t she just email the consulate in SF? No.

The situation to date: I still don’t have the blue book because the police are on vacation this week. When I went into HR yesterday, nothing was mentioned about the Notarization of the Notary, so I didn’t ask. Push comes to shove, I can renew my visa on my own in March, but would really like to avoid any government offices. The post office is already more than I can handle.

Every single item sent from outside the country, other than a letter, is opened and thoroughly searched. My bag of candy corn took three months to arrive, and then I got a notice to go to the PO to pick it up. Since the address was in the same district that I live in, I figured it would be a short taxi ride away. 30 minutes later, taxi meter running, I was at the PO, where I had to present my passport and pay a dollar in customs to get my melted candy corn. At least they hadn’t opened the bag of candy. Once I got home and dug in to my treats, I realized it had all been worth it, but was worried about the other three packages containing books that were due to arrive shortly.

At work the next day, I asked around for any post office tips. I turns out that most people get things sent to a Vietnamese friend, and they pay no customs. Or if it gets sent to the main PO, there is no problem. But if you live where I do, it goes to the PO in the South Forty and you get charged as high as they can get away with. This was becoming a nightmare.

But when I got home that day, I found two mailer-bags with my books form the US, waiting at my door! They were worth more than the candy corn, but I guess the post office didn’t see it hat way.

I probably shouldn’t even mention the nasty work schedule that I was given, (like it was a reward, or something), because I was one of the few teachers qualified to take that particular class. The hours are foul, the workload way more than any other class. But it I was assured that when it was over, in just 4 weeks, I would be back to a normal schedule. I am now not so sure of that. The icky class finishes next Friday, yet the boss lady tells me she will “try” to get me a class, but won’t know until next week. I have had one long headache all week.

But, hey, it’s Friday and I am hoping against hope that I will be able to get some Olympic coverage here. I am doubtful. Winter sports are not high on the agenda of tropical nations. Thank god for American Idol!

01 February 2006

Last Angkor Note / TET

There was one truly upsetting sight in the temples; that of the decapitated statues. One after one, outside and inside the temples, nearly all their heads had been sheared off and taken as booty. It was most unsettling. I tried to imagine how the looters could have defiled the figures in such a way, and not felt like they had just maimed someone.

I then started to notice the replicated Buddha heads used as decoration or sold as souvenirs and felt ill. These are the same heads we have all seen printed on t-shirts or sitting in restaurants, but never before had I realized that they were representations of temple robbers.

Back in Vietnam, 28 January was the first day of Tet/Chinese New Year/Lunar New Year. I was able to see the midnight fireworks from my apartment. In fact I could see three different displays. I liked the fact that I was very far away. (fireworks scare me).

That morning, I’d run to the supermarket to stock up, knowing that stores and businesses would be closed for the three days of Tet. Having forgotten juice, I managed to make it to my local corner shop just as they were rolling down the metal gate at noon. It wasn’t until later that evening that I realized I had forgotten to ask them to deliver my 20 liter bottle of water. I had visions of boiling gallons of water for the next few days.

It turned out that there were a few of the Korean owned, mini-marts open, so I was able to purchase as many 2 liter bottles of water as I wanted, and paid three times the price of my big bottle.

I had missed a lot of the festivities leading up to Tet, but thought I could get into town on the second or third day to see things. It was not to be. The shuttle bus I take was off for the holidays, and I didn’t feel like forking out all that money for a taxi in two directions. However, I must say that life at the homestead has been very nice indeed.

My whole neighborhood has turned into a ghost town, the best part being that there is no construction going on. So far, it has been five days of silence. I had thought everything would be closed for three days, but now I’m not so sure. The post office was open today, but the bank was not. The supermarket opened for half a day, but had no produce. I still have an apple left, but have had no veggies since returning from Cambodia. So it’s tofu and rice for another day.

Hundreds of potted plants and trees adorn all the entrances to the apartment complexes here, as well as in front of all businesses. Lots of flowering yellow trees and chrysanthemums, and other plants I recognize but don’t know their names. Some trees have red money envelopes attached to their branches, and lots of houses have hung red lanterns out front. It would have been nice to go to the Chinese areas in town to see the lion and dragon dancers and all the decorations, but I just wasn’t able to do it.

The house across the street was finished in time for Tet and the family, with the minimal of household effects, moved in Saturday morning. The main workers had finished a few weeks ago. I have been following their progress since I moved here, and was dismayed to see that not only had they moved on, but their entire, makeshift housing complex had been completely dismantled and removed in a matter of hours. I didn’t even see them do it which, for some reason, bothered me. I had been following their lives from afar for over three months. Then, for a period of about three hours I didn’t look out the window, and when I did, there was no trace that they had ever even been there. It was a very strange feeling.

All and all, it seems that the Year of the Dog is getting off to an auspicious start.
Prosperity and health for all.