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.