26 January 2007

Passport Photos

I have had almost ten years to prepare for my passport renewal, which expires March 2nd. So, of course, I have left it until now. What with work, and the odd hours I can actually go to the consulate to get it done, time just sort of slipped away. However, the most important reason I haven’t gotten it done yet is that of the Passport Picture.

Any ID photo of importance must be worthy. I even make DMV re-take my picture if don’t think it will look good on my drivers license. One time, because I kept getting automatic extensions on my license, and the photo was so out of date, I ‘lost’ it and had a lovely new one made up. However, misplacing a passport because it has a dog-ugly photo is something not even I would do. And folks, you have to show that baby for ten whole years, crossing all sorts of international borders, and using it regularly when living overseas. It must be a work of art.

The last time a got a passport I sat through, and paid for, three different shoots. That was before the glorious age of digital cameras. Now, you can not only instantly check and re-shoot, but digitally enhance said photo. Nevertheless, one must be well prepared.

Last week I got up early so that I could do my hair and put on tons of make-up, and make it to the photo shop before it got too hot and sweaty. There is only one option out in my neighborhood, and I have never liked the quality of their work, but figured I would just have them re-shoot it as many times as necessary. I knew they didn’t digitize photos but decided if I painted my face really well, it would be ok.

As I expected, the surly “photographer”, really just a 5th rate technician, huffed when I tried to fix my hair in the mirror. The ten minute walk to the photo store had done serious damage to my do, not to mention I was dripping with sweat. The guy took a picture; I looked at it and made him take another, and then a third. He was of no help at all in trying to get a good shot. I finally decided to just pay for them and if, when printed up, they were really bad, I’d go into town for more. Nothing could have prepared me for how terrible the pictures looked when they were printed. White trash is about the only description I can give. I had thought the top I wore would look good but it did not. I actually had sweat beaded on my lip. I pocketed the pics and left.

The next day at work I was relating the story to a friend who said I needed to go into town where there was store after store of places that enhanced photos. I was worried that changing a passport photo might be slightly illegal. My friend assured me that all they do is erase dark circles under your eyes, maybe add a little rouge to your cheeks, lop off stray hair, and only slightly soften facial lines.

I later took one more look at the tired-whore photos and knew I had to go for digital improvement. But first, I would have to get my hair done. It was time for cut and color anyway, so I planned the day starting with a careful decision of choice of clothing. Then I applied massive make-up, and grabbed a taxi to Toni’s salon.

As soon as I arrived, I explained my need for extra special attention as I was headed off to get pictures after he finished. We decided to change my cut and this time I said I wanted red streaks on the burgundy hair instead of the blonde he keeps giving me. That took over two hours and then it was time for the styling.

Toni is forever trying to get me to let him put crap in my hair for a more stylish look. In point of fact, I do like how it looks, but simply cannot stand the feel of stiff, gooey, hair. However, this time I told him to go wild. First, my hair was dried using a round brush. Then came the flat iron to up-turn the back. This was followed by the goop and at least ten minutes of scrunching and twisting and pushing around. After that was the hair spray. I looked good.

It turned out there was a photo shop next door. Toni took me over and we talked about the pictures. We found out they didn’t do touch-ups, but it was so convenient that I went ahead. After I sat in the chair I noticed it wasn’t a digital camera, so I would not be able to check the picture. What the hell, it cost very little. They took the shot, and twenty minutes later brought it back to the salon where I was waiting. Another no go. Toni said he would take me to the digital shops, but not before he re-did the styling, which he didn’t like in the picture.

He started by combing down all the poof he had given me, then plugged in the curling iron. He was in his element. After all the times I have told him to leave my hair alone, I had given him carte blanche. He rolled and fried about eight curls on the top of my head amidst my constant screeches that he was pulling my hair. Then he got out the comb and started to separate and tease my hair. Damn, I was never going to be able to brush it out. He rubbed in more guck, twirled, pulled, and placed strands at appropriate angles. Then he handed me a plastic face shield to hold in place as he sprayed on toxic amounts of hairspray. There were several more minutes of final touches before we got a taxi to the photography shop.

Turned out Toni new all the guys there. He explained what I needed and we walked up stairs to take the pictures. Like all the stores on that street, this was once a French something-or-other. Very possibly a villa. Not much has been done to the majority of these places in a hundred years, and it was fun to look at the old tile floors and wooden doors, and wonder who had walked these halls in a bygone era.

Once I was seated, I had Toni adjust my hair. We took three pictures and they both agreed that they were good. Back downstairs, the shots were up-loaded on to the computer and it was easy to choose which was the best one. Mr. Digital sat at the computer, me next to him, and Toni on my right. Then the ‘improvement’ process started. You have no idea how many little errors there are on your face until it is blown up large enough to fill a computer screen. I knew then and there I never wanted to be in the movies. I said what I did and didn’t want done, and Toni translated. But I don’t think the magic man really listened and I don’t think he needed to.

I watched as his left hand flew over the keyboard and his right hand marked, and or circled, bits of my face. Some sort of color scale would spring up onto the screen and then this graph-like thing, which the tech adjusted with such speed that I could never quite catch on to what he was doing. He lightened up the raccoon eyes, slightly smoothed out a few lines, erased unsightly freckles, and gave me the whitest damn teeth I have ever seen. I kept worrying that he was going to turn me into a twenty-year-old. But actually, when the pictures were printed in three different sizes; US passport being the largest and Vietnamese work permit being the smallest, one really couldn’t tell that all the digital stuff had been done. I certainly would be nice if that computer program would work with such ease on my living face.

It had been a very long day, but well worth it. It is now my firm belief that one must have a personal stylist to escort one through the entire process of identification photos.

Here’s hoping they don’t stop me at the border for traveling with fake ID.

17 January 2007

Gas Tank

In Vietnam, we don’t have gas lines into houses or apartments, or I guess into much of anything else. To wash dishes, I boil water. The shower has an electric water heater, and the gas for the stove comes from a small tank.

When I moved into my apartment in October, 2005, the gas tank was empty. The landlord called the shop, and a new one was delivered. At the time, I told her it would last me a year and she laughed. She said I would need a new one in three months.

Having used such tanks in other countries, I knew my consumption rate. Although I cook every day, it is quick cooking; no pots of beans and rice simmering away. But half-way through the pasta last night, the last drop of gas finally ran out. I let the linguini sit in the hot water another five minutes and although a bit sticky, was edible.

When I got home from work today I called the number on the empty tank and, pretty much ordering in Vietnamese, had a new tank delivered fifteen minutes later. Some sorts of services here are far superior to anywhere else in the world. And you can’t beat the price. One tank, that lasts me nearly fifteen months, is only $10.

The rose next to the tank is for perspective, not aesthetics.
Time to cook.

11 January 2007


One of the few irreplaceable American services is the dentist. I just don’t trust them anywhere else. If one gets sick anywhere in the world, one knows what to do. With teeth, it is another matter. You just don’t want anyone messing around with power tools inside your mouth. This is one of the reasons I try to practice good oral hygiene. And even though my teeth and gums are in excellent health, I still need to get them cleaned occasionally.

Shortly after I moved to my apartment, a new dental clinic opened up. I talked to a few people who had gone, and they seemed impressed. Of course, they had pretty nasty looking teeth, so I wasn’t yet convinced. I then went in and grilled the receptionist about the dentists. It turned out that one of them had done post-graduate dental training in the US. The office was spotlessly clean, and they seemed to have all the most modern equipment. I let them do my teeth.

I went in again today for a cleaning. In Vietnam, and in every other country I have lived in outside the US, the dental hygienist does not exist. Dentists do the dirty work. I am not quite sure how they squeeze in all those years of hygienist training along with their teeth drilling studies. Actually, I know they don’t. They do an adequate job, but it is not up to what I would get in California. I always forget about the experience in a foreign dental office until I am in the chair.

As I said, the office was a five-star deal with bright, shiny equipment and top-of-the-line dental chairs, so I was comfortable. The dentist and her helper, (I have no idea what the helpers training was), donned gloves and masks and eye-shields, as I lay in a prone position. The first segment of the cleaning was with the ultrasonic thingy. The helper put the suction in my mouth, and the dentist went to work.

Immediately, water from the sonic gun started to splash all over my face. Then it started to drip down my throat. The tool was positioned such that I started to drool. The helper held a washcloth over my lower lip, alternately sponging off my face. By the time the water started to hit my shoulder, I was having the hardest time trying not to laugh at this Three Stooges Cleaning, and began to choke on the water. They let me up. Then it was back to it. It really was good I wasn’t wearing make-up, as by the end of it all, my face was soaked and my shirt rather damp. However, my teeth are darn clean, and the price was only about $25, so I am happy.

I will forgo pictures of my sparkling teeth, and instead attach pictures of dragon fruit. I can’t believe I had never tried it until a few weeks ago. I just assumed that anything that looked that bizarre most likely had a nasty flavor. I was wrong. It has a delicate, slightly tangy taste, and a soft-crunchy texture. But the most amazing part is its physical beauty. They are bright pink, even if the picture doesn’t exactly show it. The skin is so hard it looks and feels like plastic. In fact I bought a plastic one as a souvenir, and it is hard to tell the difference between it and the real thing. The first time I cut one open I just started in awe. How in the world did such an extraordinary fruit come into being? It’s like someone’s dream of what fruit would look like on Planet X-153. I am definitely hooked on these babies.

Time to check out my clean teeth again, and eat more dragon fruit.

08 January 2007

The Gecko And The Scarab

I do not know what it is about my tiny balcony and the injured and dying creatures that seem to seek it out. A few weeks ago, it was a gecko.

I have the little guys all over my apartment. They come out at night to chow down on the bugs and other insects that are about. I have daddies and mommies and right now one or two babies. I talk to them on a nightly basis and they seem to respond to my voice.

Generally, they are on the ceilings or walls and stay off of the floor. Sometimes they cling to the outside of the living room screen window, but I had never before seen one on the floor of the balcony. Actually, I think the one I found was napping on the underside of the bottom of the balcony door, and when I opened it, he fell out.

At that point I was sure I had just startled him, as he didn’t dash off. I tried to get closer to see if he was all right, but decided that would only stress him out more, so went back to other parts of my apartment. When I went back later, he was still in the same spot. Maybe he was confused; it was still a few hours before dusk, and the geckos are nocturnal. When I next checked, I didn’t see him.

Relived, I stopped worrying about him and went on with life. But the next morning I saw that he was still there, although he had moved up to the inside of the door frame. This was not good. What do geckos eat? I couldn’t really catch a fly for him, although I guess I could have nabbed one of the spiders that also share my house. My only hope was a piece of lettuce.

I hoped he was just tired. I didn’t see any injuries, he was breathing, and his eyes were moving, but he certainly wasn’t going any where quick. I worried that he was in discomfort, but could not even contemplate stamping on him to end it all. After all, he might just get more chipper in a few hours.

For the next 24 hours, I kept a watchful eye. His location was never more than a foot from where I first found him. At this point, I knew he was a goner, but just couldn’t think of how to end it all for him. When the ants finally started to gnaw at his still living body, I knew it was time for Euthanasia by Freezer. I loaded him into a small plastic container and popped in the deep freeze.

And then there are the beautiful scarabs that fly in at night if I don’t have the screens closed. They are the most incredible, iridescent green, about an inch long. I often find them in the hall outside my apartment, dazed and confused, and hunkered down on the floor. It is easy enough to pick them up and toss them back out into the night. Or sometimes I find them dead inside my apartment, not really sure how they ended up there. I tried to preserve one with a craft varnish, but the ants started to eat right through it.
I had hung my clothes up to dry the other day, and noticed a scarab plastered to a t-shirt. Again, being day time, I figured he was snoozing. I completely forgot about him until many hours later when I brought in the laundry and threw it on the bed. Oh no! The scarab! I checked the shirt he had been on and saw nothing. I then checked the balcony, and he was lying on his back on the floor.

Gently, I picked him up and put him on top of the washing machine. He was alive, but certainly not flight worthy. Once again, I went for the lettuce, and laid a few pieces out in front of him. When I went back some time later, I was truly surprised to find that he was actually munching on the lettuce. Finally, a creature was responding to my attempts at first aid.

I left him there overnight, and he happily ate his way through a ton of lettuce and pooped all over the washing machine. But I could see he was never going to get airborne again. I had to freezer him. I knew that the ant invaders were lurking just around the corner, ready for a feast.

So now I have three, cryogenically preserved beings in the ice box. The praying mantis is still there. I want to dispose of them properly. Maybe wrap them together in little critter shrouds. But people go through the garbage here, separating out recyclables. Either my little buddies would be desecrated, or the cleaners will think I’m a witch. I should probably just go bury them in an empty lot. Whatever I do, I should do it soon. I would hate for anyone to go into my freezer looking for ice cubes, and end up with a mini-coffin instead.