25 May 2006

What To Do On Wed/Thurs Night?


And another season of American Idol is over. That had been my entertainment, as well as the entertainment for many of my colleagues, for the past several months. And the grand finale was almost destroyed by Star Network, the folks who broadcast the show.

There I was, an hour and a half into the two hour final show, when a Star News update comes on, and the talking head announces, “and there is a new American Idol”, I quickly turned my head as they flashed a clip of the winner being announced. I thought I saw too much, but I hadn’t. However, what were they thinking, to break in with breaking news about the results of a show everyone is watching? Apparently, Star has a reputation for doing this with sporting events they are rebroadcasting.

My next big television concern is the World Cup. I only really watch football/soccer once every four years, and then I turn into a football-psycho. I watch as many games as I possibly can, getting more wrapped up in it as the days go by. It is truly the best sporting event in the known world.

Four years ago, when I was living in Malaysia, I really lucked out. The games were held in Japan and Korea, so that put it in almost the same time zone. I believe that there was an hour in time difference. Added to that, I had the teaching schedule from hell, both mornings and evenings which, fortunately, worked out perfectly for World Cup viewing. While friends in the US had to get up at 2am to watch a match, I did it in real time. I think I watched at least 90% of the games.

Now that I am in Vietnam, and the games are being played in Germany, there will be a time problem. But that is not the worst of my worries. I am going to the States in mid-June, which means I will have to watch hideous American commentators destroy the games.

When I have watched the World Cup overseas, I usually get European broadcasts, which are far superior to American attempts at covering a football game. The announcers actually know the players names and are well versed in the ins and outs of football. The last time I saw the World Cup in the , the US, the announcers would say things like, “That was a good kick by the guy in blue,” then segue into “say, did I tell you about that fishing hole I found up in Alaska?” Or they would start in with the nasty, belittling remarks that one never hears from the European broadcasters. Hopefully, I will be able to watch Telemundo, and their commentator Andres Cantor. Even if you can’t understand Spanish, he is the man to listen to.

So, as you can see, life is fine and well in Vietnam.
I’ll be rooting for Brazil!
Kate

21 May 2006

Pictures

OK, it seems I can post pictures,
but cannot do so after I write a blog
which is how I usually do it.
Will work on solutions.
Kate

Work Permit Update

And the saga of securing a work permit continues. For those who do not remember, and for those who just might care, here is the story until now.

Before leaving California, I duly had all my university degrees and teaching credentials notarized. I got a certificate of clearance form the county sheriff’s department. I sent all these to my first employer, who forwarded them the Vietnamese consulate in San Francisco. There, they were translated into English. They also obtained a beautiful, official, State of California letter, with a big gold seal, stating that the notary who notarized my documents was really a notary licensed by the state.

Once in Vietnam, I also had to get a medical check and a Vietnamese police check. One would think that that about covered it. Not so. The HR office at work keeps telling me I need other documents, and I am not really sure what they want. In all fairness, it is not the HR people; it is the Ministry of Work Permits.

From what I understand, I need a dean of admissions from one of my universities to write and sign a letter stating that I graduated. That letter must then be notarized. And that notarized letter must then be sent to the State of California’s notary office to verify the authenticity of the notary. Said letter must then go to a federal office for the final stamp and seal of approval.

The woman in HR tells me that the notarized diplomas I have submitted are not valid because my name appears on the notary cover letter. You know, that part that says, “I_______ swear that the attached document….”. She tells me that someone other than myself, like the Dean of admissions, has to fill it out. It does no good in trying to explain that no one, at any institution I have attended, will undertake such an insane request.

I even pulled up the State of California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, where I, along with valid credentials, am listed. No, that is not good enough. No embossed, gold seal.

My almost last resort was to head on down to the US Consulate to see if they could help me out. I already knew that they would not notarize, or help in any way with obtaining work permits. But I heard that for $35, they would attach an affidavit. Since I actually have my original teaching credential with me, I thought I would give it a try.

I really had to psych myself up before going down there. All Official Government offices make me itch. I especially didn’t want to see a portrait of a smiling “W” looking down on me. But I persevered.

Once there, I went through the requisite search, and handed over my cell phone. They tore my purse apart, but did not ask me to drink from my water bottle as all other consulates/embassies I have been in do. As I proceeded through the bomb-proof doors to counselor services, I looked forward to waving to the cute Marines who I knew would be on duty in their glassed in control room. Oh no! I had forgotten! The Marines no longer guard diplomatic posts. Instead there were Vietnamese guards. It was very strange.

I took my number and waited for half an hour either reading or doing waiting room surveillance. Weird – no picture of W. But there was a tacky tin cabinet with consulate paraphernalia for sale. One could by a mug, or cap or bag, all with “the handsome Sate Department seal”.

Eventually, number 15 was called and I proceeded to the triple-glass, speak-through-a-microphone, window. I have no idea how people work in such a tomb. I explained what I wanted, and was told to pay my $35 at the window on the right. I asked about paying in Vietnam dong. It wasn’t allowed. Where was I to get dollars? The clerk suggested I ask the other people waiting if I could buy dollars from them. Right. She then said I could walk one block down to the bank. So off I went.

Three banks later, and 2 taxi rides, I was till unable to exchange money. I ended up at one of those seedy looking, money changers. It was located on a main tourist street, but I have my suspicions about them. Not to mention the exchange rate was higher than at a bank, not that a bank would sell me dollars. I took one more taxi back to the consulate.

This time, knowing the drill, I picked up my bag from the x-ray machine, walked over to the inspection table, unzipped it and pulled out my cell phone. They took my phone but said they didn’t need to check my bag. Why, because I had been there an hour before? The Marines would never have been so lax with security.

Another twenty minute wait and the clerk takes my form and credential and tells me to pay my $30 at the window. I guess I had heard her incorrectly the first time, and had bought an extra $5 at way too high a rate.

Once I paid, I sat back down and waited to be called. At window number three, an actual American state department person had me raise my right hand, swear that this was me, and sign the affidavit, which she also signed. I all but begged her to put a fancy gold seal directly on my credential, but that is not allowed. The seal I did get, on really cheap consulate paper, was pretty lame looking. I am sure that the labor ministry people prefer ostentatious seals as I seem to be questioned about the authenticity of low-budget seals like the one I had just received, for $30.

Tomorrow I will submit the new documentation and hopefully get reimbursed. I have no idea if it will fly with the powers that be or not. I certainly hope so.

Question Authority
Kate
ps: Apparenly, the Blog site folks agreed that I wasn't a spam blog, but they are still blocking me from attaching pics. I HATE my blog without photos, but this is a free service, so I can't complain.

Sorry about the boring layou.

18 May 2006

Rainy Season Begins

Monday, 4am, I am sound asleep. I start to notice the sounds from outside. Something in my unconscious tells me to JUMP. It is a torrential rain storm, I have windows open and the clothes are on the balcony.

First, I vault out of bed to the living room and shut windows. Then into my other small room. Last it is back to the bedroom, as it opens on to my small balcony and it takes awhile longer for the rain to enter. I look at my clothes, which really were dry enough the night before, but I thought I’d give them a little longer. They are about 50% drenched. Just as I am thinking of dragging them inside, lightening strikes a few blocks away. I decide that getting fried in an effort to get the laundry in is not a noble way to die.

Once I close the balcony door I realize that the sheet I had kicked off in an effort to save the apartment is on the floor, mopping up rain water. Considering my past experiences with rain in this place, it wasn’t too bad.

For the next two hours, I watched as the intensity increased, sure that my undergarments would, at any moment, fly off into the surrounding building sites. By the time the storm had passed through, it was time to get ready for work.

And so it begins; the rainy season. It does cool things down, but now it is always the rush to get out of work and get errands done before I get trapped in a downpour. I am constantly on the lookout for dark, menacing clouds and the first hint of strong winds. Two days ago at work I managed to avoid the worst storm of the season so far, only because I decided to sit and have some tea before going home.

Sitting out under the awning of the outdoor university cafeteria, I could feel the winds pick up and saw the skies darkening. The tables and chairs we use are made of the heaviest wood I know, and are a real pain to move. Last fall, during another storm, I finally understood why they were so weighty and difficult to rearrange. They stood their ground when all else was flying. But not this time.

The first indication that this was not going to be a normal storm was that the chairs began to move around. The cafeteria area is open, but built under the second floor so is well protected, and normally only the outer edges get wet. Within one minute, students were scrambling to get away from the wind-swept rain that lashed through the entire place. When I saw the first table flip onto its side, I decided it would be a good time to get up and go into the building. Again, being wiped out in one’s prime by flying patio furniture, does not a good obit make.

I watched from relative safety as the gale intensified, now accompanied by thunder and lightening. Tree branches came flying by along with the tables. I was really glad that the taxi I had called was late. I hoped everyone had pulled off the road. It would have been impossible for motorbikes to function under these conditions. And then, after about thirty minutes, it stopped. I have never experienced anything as violent as our mini-hurricane. In total, three tables were broken, numerous chairs and branches lost, and ten trees knocked over. I think they were able to save the trees.

The following day I asked my Vietnamese teacher if she had been caught in the storm. She said that she had lived here her whole life and never experienced a storm. Huh? After a few questions it got cleared up. I learned that in Vietnamese there are only two words for such weather: rain and typhoon. I still think it was a typhoon.

Now it is back to only being able to hang clothes on the line when I am home, and the constant worry that the balcony will again flood into my bedroom.

On constant storm alert,
Kate

ps: it seems my blog has been identified by the cybers as a spam blog, so until they verify that i am in fact, not a robot, i can't post pics, and possibly can't post this.

05 May 2006

Surreal HCMC


It is after midnight and I am trying to process the evening’s activities. I was invited to three different establishments I had never been to, not a difficult task since I have only been out on the town three times in the past nine months.

Dinner at a French restaurant was the first stop. I walked in off the streets of Saigon, and into a different country. It could have been France, it could have been California. The initial oddity was hearing only English as soon as I passed through the front door. And then, being a French restaurant, the Vietnamese staff great you with bonjour. Pretentiousness aside, the place was cute. Mediterranean looking d├ęcor with lots of little bateaus on shelves next to French books, and sailor hats hanging from hooks. The waiters wore jaunty, nautical motif uniforms. The actual seating arrangement left a lot to be desired but, fortunately, it wasn’t crowded so the rows of tables lined against the wall, and touching each other, didn’t matter.

The food was nice and I might have stayed for cake if it were not for the loud Americans at the small bar at the front of the restaurant. Why is it that western foreigners, and especially Americans, are always so loud and obnoxious when in other people’s countries? As I was pondering on this after leaving the restaurant, I got dragged into the Irish pub down the street.

Now things truly got bizarre. It was your basic, small bar, packed to the rafters with white people, a good part of them Americans. This was the ex-pat life that I had heard about and known about but have always chosen to avoid. Crowds of drunks are not pleasant at any time, but crowds of drunken foreigners pretending that they are not in Vietnam, is so amazingly strange. I really wanted to leave as soon as I entered, but had been promised Irish music.

Seated in a corner table where the air conditioning and fan didn’t reach, surrounded by boisterous, drunken conversations about the most mundane topics, I started to sweat and could feel the room closing in one me. The musicians sat down at their chairs along wall across from me and I thought that if I could just hear some good tunes, I would be ok.

The first few bars from the band of three had me shaking my head in despair. It turned out it was blues night/open mike night. One after another, really lousy amateur instrument players got up to ‘jam’. It was painful at times. In fact it was never even moderately tolerable. At long last I got out of there.

The final stop was a Vietnamese cabaret where they sing in French. It was the complete opposite of the Irish place. The clientele were all Vietnamese, seated at small tables in front of a low stage. I immediately became aware of the calm, quiet atmosphere. As I looked over the room I took in couples sitting silently drinking coffee, or maybe a cocktail. I sat at a table just as the band took the stage. There was a guitar, piano, violin and bass. A young woman singer came out and addressed the audience in French. It appeared that everyone understood. And then they began to play and she began to sing. It was phenomenal! Every one of the musicians were pros. The singer was incredible. The audience just sort of sat there and slightly applauded at the end of each number.

After the first singer did three numbers, she was replaced by another, excellent chanteuse, and then another. Sometimes there was only one guitar as accompaniment; other songs used all the musicians. At about 10:45 I noticed that people were leaving. At 11:00, it was obvious that the cabaret was closing, for which I was eternally grateful having about as much noise and commotion as a woman can stand in one night.

I have never noticed the serenity and dead silence of where I live as much as when I got home tonight. The juxtaposition between the intensity of the downtown nightlife and the tranquility of the midnight burbs is astonishing. There was also the feeling that I had been in some sort of weird, alternate universe, and had returned to sanity.

Although I had taken my camera, I took no photos of tonight’s outing. I’ll put up more beach photos, which are infinitely more appealing than the strange scenes of tonight’s adventure.

Give me crickets over electric guitars any day.
Kate


04 May 2006

Phu Quoc


A four day weekend and where does one go? To the beach, of course! And not just any old beach, but to the island of Phu Quoc, a short, fifty-minute plane flight from HCMC.

The island has yet to be trashed by tourism, so maintains a rustic feel. A large part of it is national forest, and another part an army base. The major industry is fishing, but you can see that in the future tourism will probably take over, even though the government says it wants to keep it as an eco-tourism haven.

My flight left Saturday morning at eight. I was lucky to even get a seat as it was a holiday weekend and the four, daily flights on a small, seventy-odd seater, had been sold out. I found a local travel agent who swore she could get me on a plane, and she delivered.

I had booked a bungalow at the Bo Resort, which had been highly recommended by a colleague. I was to be met at the airport by someone from the “Resort”. I do want to clarify the term resort does not have the same meaning in Vietnam as it does in other parts of the world. I would never go to a real resort. It simply means that it is accommodation on the beach with a restaurant.

As I walked off the plane and into the small airport in Phu Quoc, I looked around for a sign with my name, but saw nothing. Soon a man approached and asked if I was Kate, going to the Bo resort. Odd, I thought, but he spoke no English other than that I couldn’t ask how he knew. I had noticed a women holding up a sign with some other peoples names and ‘Bo Resort’, but assumed it was probably a group with no room for an extra passenger.

My driver grabbed my bag and we headed outside. As we walked, I noticed he was going away from the few cars and towards the motorbikes. When he told me to wait while he got the bike, I made it very clear that I needed a taxi. So he put down my bag and went in search of one. It was obvious that everyone knew each other as he asked one person, who called out to another, and so on until I remembered the woman with the sign who was now loading bags into her car.

Bo resort? I called out. Then I noticed that she was loading the luggage of the family of five that had been on the plane with me. There was no way I would fit in. But she grabbed my bag and said to come along. I tried to find the family to ask if this was all right, but they were headed off to a row of motorbikes, leaving the taxi driver to deliver their bags. I didn’t see them until much later, so I guess they went on an island bike tour.

Once on the way, I was really glad that taxis were an option in Phu Quoc. All the roads we went on were bumpity, red dirt. Not my idea of what a fun bike ride would be. As we drove I looked out onto lush, greenery, interspersed with occasional small buildings or houses, and cows in the road. I also thought that having a women taxi driver must be a true rarity on the island. I have only seen a few of them in HCMC. She did quite well maneuvering around livestock and motorbikes, up and over potholes, and through places where even the word ‘road’ was questionable.

Thirty minuets later, I was dropped at a gate. A woman came over and welcomed me to the Bo resort, while a staff member took my bag. She told me to follow him. We walked along a narrow path through beautifully landscaped flowering trees and plants, passing a few bungalows that stood well apart from each other.
I was taken to bungalow number 2.

And what a bungalow it was. Perched on a hill overlooking that beautiful garden, and on down to the beach and the sea. A lovely porch with two lounging beach chairs served as the entrance. Inside was a large room with wooden floors and two beds. The roof of the building was made of palm leaves, separated from the top of the walls. The bathroom at the back was simple and clean and made of tile. Shutter windows opened out to the garden on the side and front walls.
The bungalows were spaced so that you felt total privacy.

After I had dumped my bags, I waited for someone to come and tell me about check-in procedures. No one arrived. Then I thought about getting something to eat, but had no idea where the restaurant was. I looked out at the winding paths and decided to head down the short hill to the beach where I assumed it would be.

The restaurant was a raised terracotta platform with a thatched roof, looking onto the beach and the beautiful coastline. This also served as the ‘check-in’ desk, tour booking desk, and anything else you might need. Like that shelf of books actually packed with items I would read. I got something to eat, grabbed a book, and went back to my bungalow to get into beach gear.

About to unlock my door, I heard a meow. I called out, got a response, but no kitty showed up. We talked back and forth until I entered my bungalow and looked up to see a young cat walking across the rafters. She finally did come down, and hung out with me for the entire stay. She was a beautiful, young cat, very intent on talking and being held, but I couldn’t get a picture of her. You try to get that sort of cat to pose.

That first day I thought about going down to work on my tan, or take a walk, but just couldn’t get it together. I kept thinking I had to do something until I realized that no, I didn’t. I was on vacation. I did go back down to the restaurant where I met Marie and Regis, the owners.

She is Vietnamese/French, and he is French. They met in California, and opened the Bo about three years ago. Again, as in Cambodia, these people are what made my stay so special. You immediately feel part of the family. They sit and have a meal with you, arrange sightseeing trips, talk to you about anything. There business is doing quite well, and it is all by word of mouth.
By the time I was ready to retire, it was dark. Walking back to my bungalow was a bit of a challenge. Motion sensor path lights came on as I went up the main walk, but then I couldn’t see the small trail that went to my place. I found one bungalow, but realized in time that it wasn’t mine. For a minute there, I was sure I was going to get lost. But I found it, and from then on when I went down in the late afternoon I left the porch light on.

Although the Bo has electricity, it has no TV, A/C, or business center, but it does have a fan. However, once the skeeter net was down, I couldn’t feel the fan, so rolled it back up. I never did get one bite the whole time I was there.
I fell asleep and slept better than ever.

I awoke in the morning to find that my kitty was waiting for me. Such a nice amenity at no additional cost. I could already see that a storm was rolling in. I made sure I got down the hill before it broke. Having coffee as the storm raged through, I talked with several other guests. One guy had been there for a few months on a break from making a documentary film in Cambodia. Others were from various countries, or working in Vietnam. All of us seemed to share the same desire for the serenity and low-tech life that the Bo offered. The rain eventually stopped, and it was perfectly good tanning weather, or trip weather, but I still had no desire to do anything other than veg-out and read.

The next day I got up and went for an early morning walk along the beach. Four kilometers with not a soul in sight, although there was enough trash on the beach that you had to be very aware that you didn’t step on glass. I think the trash may have been from all the fishing boats that comb the seas. At night you can see them, way out in the water, seemingly all in a row. They are hunting for calamari, going out in the evening and staying all night. And the oddest sight on the shore was all the lost flip-flops, but never a pair. I kept thinking I should take a bag and collect them all. But I only ended up collecting shells, and I got some beauties.

When I got back, I saw that they were making great progress on the addition to the dining area. Basically, there was one man doing most of the work. I watched as he built the entire frame with only a tape measure, small ruler, and string for measurements. He had started the day before I got there and it was almost finished when I left. Once the frame was up, with the help of three other men, I watched as they did acrobatics to attach roof beans and other things. To get up, they would shimmy up the round corner posts, just like you see when people climb coconut trees. Then they would walk around and use toes and feet and both hands seemingly at the same time. The most remarkable part was when the attached the palm leaf roof.

I had always wondered how this was done. The dried palm leaves are cut down the center leaving two pieces with leaves on just on side. They are then laid on top of bamboo poles that have been hammered into the roof beams. Each palm branch is then tied down using other plant vines. The whole thing is rain resistant.

Although the weather was quite warm, it was no where as hot as HCMC, and there was always that lovely breeze off the water. The clouds came and went and it was only really bright and sunny for an hour here and there. The first two nights the high cloud cover prevented star gazing. But on my last night, the stars came out. I lay on a bench by the waters edge, gazing up at the heavens, trying to memorize the sight. How I wish one could see stars in the city. Perhaps if that were true you would get complacent about the wonderment of it all and no longer feel the power of the universe, the way I do on star-filled nights.

My last day was spent getting a few more shells and rocks, walking on the beach, and reading. I was glad that I had gotten the 4pm flight, giving me the best part of the day to enjoy it all. I reluctantly left, but know I will be back in the not too distant future.

Wishing on a star.
Kate