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.