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.


20 September 2006

Salsa Lessons

Needing to maybe get a social life after a year in Vietnam, I decided to try a night spot called “La Havana”. Several months ago I had read that they had Tuesday night salsa lessons. Dance classes are always a good way to meet folks, so a friend and I cruised on over there last Tuesday at 7pm.

La Havana is quite the cute little place that definitely had that south of the border, Spanish décor flavor. You enter into a small front room/bar, then head back to another dining-drinking area, through a small courtyard, and into the back dance hall. Rather small, it was, but since there were only about five people waiting for the class to start, it was doable.

I asked one of the waitresses who the teacher was and she pointed to a short, goateed man walking towards us. I walked over and introduced myself and said we were there for the class. He gave me an exasperated look, thought a minute, than said, “This is the beginning class, but it is not really beginning. This is the sixth class.” He paused, and when I didn’t respond, he continued, giving me a very suspicious glare, “Have you ever done salsa before?” I said that I had. “But what salsa do you do?” Stumped by this question, I sort of shrugged my shoulders and asked what type he did.

“There is New York salsa, Puerto Rican salsa, Cuban salsa.” I asked where he was from. “Spain”. I asked what type of salsa we were supposed to know to be able to participate in week six of the beginner class. He commenced to squiggle around the floor in front of me, demonstrating his brand of salsa. He didn’t say which type it was. He stopped, sighed and asked if I could do that. I said I would be ok. He huffed, turned, and walked away.

I dance to dance. I turn on the music and move. I don’t actually believe that dancing for sheer pleasure is something that needs to be taught, and that as long as you are having fun, who cares what you look like? Apparently our teacher did not have the same life view.

The room soon filled up with about twenty people, mostly young western women, and a few couples. The instructor, who had some weird name I never could decipher, told us to get into lines. The class began, with no music, just him counting 1, 2, 3-4-5, over and over, while doing Salsa Basic; which style, I have no clue. I had it down, and just wished he would turn on the tunes. No such luck. We then preceded to Salsa Basic with a Turn, still in lines, still no musica.

Eventually, he did see fit for us to boogie with rhythms and sound. We partnered up and moved around the floor. El instructor mostly walked around glowering. After half a song, he stopped the music and we went back to the lines, practicing Salsa Basic with Suzie-Que step, and on to Partner Spins.

Exasperated with our apparent lack of finesses, El professor called up a six foot tall gal to help demonstrate. We watched. Then the music started and we got to dance again. Soon, the tall lady walked over and stared at my friend and I for a moment before stopping and saying we were not doing it right. I leaned against the wall until it was my turn to be instructed. Tall lady and I got to one, two, three, four, five, turn – and she abruptly halted. “You are doing it wrong!” she scolded in a strong German accent. “You must spin on 7!” This went on a little longer until I was able to spin as the robot dancer had instructed.

After and hour and a half, we never really go to dance, and definitely never worked up a sweat, which is one of the reasons one takes a dance class. Senor Dancer, who had yet to crack a smile, then gave his End of Beginning Salsa speech, informing us that in the future, we would not be able to pay for only one class, but would have to pay for six at a time. He further noted that although most of the students had been there for all six classes, a good many of them were not ready to go onto Salsa Intermediate, and should repeat beginning. “I am not going to say who. But I know”.

Needless to say, I will not be back. However, I will continue my search for a place to shake my booty, and where there is no one to tell me I am not dancing right.
Uno, dos, tres!

10 September 2006

The First Amendment

I work with students who come from an educational background that does not encourage independent thinking. Schools use a state wide, teacher-centered, curriculum where students sit at desks all day and write down what the teacher says. Pair work, or group projects are not part of regular school learning. Knowing this, I am quite often surprised by the range of profound responses and expressions of deep understanding that I hear from some of my students. However, last week, while working on group opinions of various contentious statements, I was taken aback by the entire classes’ thinking.

One group of four students was given the topic, “it is sometimes all right for the government to censor newspapers, literature, and movies.” The assignment was to discuss their level of agreement or disagreement and then to present this to the class. The group concluded that they agreed one hundred percent with the statement. When we polled the rest of the class, their opinions were the same.

They backed up their point with arguments such as people could be negatively influenced by something that was written and therefore the government needed to protect the populace. An example was given about an erroneous newspaper article stating that gold prices would soon dramatically increase, resulting in people buying gold. Another example was that naked bodies and sex in cinema was offensive to Asian cultures.

Stepping lightly, I put forward the question that if censorship is justifiable, who would be the judge of what should or shouldn’t be allowed into the public domain? The government. I attempted a few more probing-thought questions, but got the same answers. Finally, I decided to simply tell them why the freedom of speech was one of my, if not the most, valued rights. What did I expect, a resounding, “Hey, we never thought of it that way! You have a point!”? No one jumped on my bandwagon.

I don’t think if I have ever before been so absolutely, totally, struck in the face with such an extreme case of cultural difference that I had not expected. I have always taken it for granted that everyone in the world believes in freedom of speech, and I was proven; resoundingly, I might add, wrong.

The insane amount of work I have been doing since getting back from my trip to the US, will no longer be, starting tomorrow. I will be working a four day week, having Wednesdays off. Not quite as spectacular as a three day weekend, but I really have no complaints. The two classes I have will require lots of extra hours, but hopefully it won’t feel like I am never able to catch my breath. And maybe I will stop using all that work as an excuse to not study my Vietnamese enough.

My language teacher still comes to my house twice a week, and we still have a lovely time, but I know I should be using the language more outside of class and doing a lot more homework. Having said that, I was in the HR office at work the other day, and understood almost the entirety of a phone conversation about what time the woman I needed to see was to return. It was simple, and I knew the purpose to the conversation before it was made, but still was pleased.

I blew off a lot of things this afternoon so that I could get a pedicure. I didn’t realize it would take about two hours, or I might not have gone. There are nail places on every block in the city, and even ladies with stools who will do your nails on the sidewalk. Unfortunately, even the ‘top’ salons are not to the standards I want. Mostly because nothing is sterilized and they don’t do your heals. But a new place opened up just down the street, so I thought I would give it a try.

Right away you know it is different because it has the ultra-modern, pedicure massage chairs. Even though I was there for all that time, I could never get the control panel to do the massaging I wanted. One has a choice of about seven different rubs and kneads and manipulations. Every time I tried to change it, I either ended up having the back recline like in a dentists’ chair, or moving the whole seat back so far that the woman working on my feet had to stop. I stopped messing with it and just leaned forward when the nerve-pinching part rolled over my back.

The biggest thrill, aside from getting my entire foot worked on, was that they had the cuticle/dead skin clippers stored in a jar of disinfectant. This is the first time I have seen that anywhere. They always tell you everything is disinfected in the US, but I never really see it done.

The actual pedicure was not top rate, but everything considered, they will have my business from now on.

It is now almost 8pm, Sunday evening, and I can no longer put off getting my class together for tomorrow. It is a new class, but I have done it so many times, that I shouldn’t need to spend much time.

03 September 2006

The People's Committee

After a year in Vietnam, I have now been approved by the People’s Committee, and have been issued a work permit. Hearing the news, in my mind I pictured a scenario of a group of battle weary, fatigued-clad men, sitting around a table, smoking cigars.

Before I was issued the permit, I had to get another physical. For a health certificate to be valid for the Peoples Committee, it must be less than six months old, and I had gotten my first one ten months before. My job would pay for the exam at a Vietnamese hospital. Remembering the last, bizarre, germ-ridden exam, I opted to go to the expensive clinic, even though I would have to pay for about fifty percent of the cost.

The SOS clinic apparently deals mostly with medical evacuations. It is centrally located, spotlessly clean, and everyone speaks English. The entire process took less than an hour. I can’t say that it was really more than a blood test and a chest x-ray, which I boldly protested. I asked the doctor if the x-ray was a TB screening. When he said yes, I asked about a skin test. According to the doc, in Vietnam they only do the skin test if the x-ray is positive. When I said that I didn’t want the radiation, he asked where I had heard that x-rays were bad and further went on to tell me that I could only be harmed by the radiation if I were to have three or four x-rays a month, over a year period. Then again, this was the man who, as part of the exam, asked me to touch my toes.

Now that everything is in order, I am really hoping work slows down. It feels as if I have been running a non-stop marathon since returning. What with doing half of a course with one class, then being thrown into another that was half-way through, in addition to the short course I teach, I have been working way too many hours for my comfort. I suppose I am partly to blame, assigning multiple essays for all my students then having to correct and critique forty a week. Worse, out of the twenty-one students in the class I took over, only six passed the final. I am trying not to take it to heart, as it was probably one of the two worst classes I have ever had in my life. Half the class never came, and the group dynamics were appalling. Maybe if I had gotten the class week one, it could have made a difference.

However, no need to despair, I tell myself. First of all, this is a three day weekend, which means a four day week, and I will only be teaching one level. After that, I think I am going to a four day work week, having Wednesdays off. Maybe somewhere down the road, I could manage a three day week. This full time work does not leave me any time to do any of the things that make life enjoyable. My not being able to write, being the principle drawback.

Of course, there still are occasional bits of pleasure here. Last week my cousin and some friends came to Vietnam. I was only able to hang with them for a few hours on their way to, and way back from a sailing trip they took up north. It was great. We had dinner and talked, and occasionally just stopped to realize how bizarre it was that the cousins were actually sitting in a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City.

Their last night here we ate at a small restaurant, The Black Cat, a place my friend had turned me on to. The owner had been a chef in Oakland, California for twenty years. The Cat is his third restaurant in the city. Food is a mixture of Vietnamese, American, and several others. They even make their own bagels. Everything is fresh, and every meal I have had has been excellent. The prices are completely reasonable. Talking to him a few weeks ago, I learned about his food philosophy. He is out to educate the HCMC public on the virtues of healthy eating. I was thrilled to hear that he is preaching the hazards of MSG and the benefits of fresh food. Best of all, the restaurant is centrally located which means I can stop in for a bite when in town. Everything else I had tried in the past was overpriced and sucked.

Actually, there is another place that I ate at last weekend with some other friends. Café Latin is a sports bar. I have no idea why they have that name since it caters to portly, middle-aged, foreign men, who come in to watch the football and rugby, drink beer, and eat. I do like the fact that the entire front is open to the sidewalk, so that sitting inside is like sitting outside. You are out of the heat, but not in refrigerated air. The menu reflects the clientele; lots of deep-fried dishes and red meat. I ordered the “Captain’s Basket”, an immense pile of beer battered, deep-fried calamari, fish, and shrimp. It took two days to finish it. I certainly got my monies worth.

I have also been able to keep up with some of my shopping outings. Just yesterday I popped into town to go to Ben Thanh Market. That’s the place where they sell everything and anything, for both tourists and locals. I detest the place, what with its throngs of tourists, small aisles, and surly stall attendants. But there are a few places inside that have what I need, and I needed new bed linins.

Bracing for the onslaught, it was, after all, a holiday weekend, I managed to get in and out in record time. This time I actually took my camera and took a few pictures. I never have done this before simply because it is too crowded and too easy to “loose” things. I only took shots of the main aisles. I did walk through the spice and food section, which were great photo ops, but I was carrying packages, it was crowded, and managing a camera, all the while on the look-out for possible camera-snatchers, changed my mind. I will have to go in one day for the sole purpose of photography. Or at least take pictures first, make purchases second.

Time to upload those pics to my laptop.
It certainly feels wonderful to write again!