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.