10 March 2008

Simple Pleasures

Sometimes life gets in the way and one forgets about the simple pleasures that lie all about; like just walking around an exotic city in South East Asia, where I just happen to live. So that’s what I did today.

My first stop was the main post office where I went because I actually had to mail a letter. It seems such an archaic way of communicating. Long, long ago, when I first lived overseas in Brazil, letters were the only choice. I would write four, five, and six page letters in my teeny-tiny script to friends and family. Then it was two or three weeks before the mail to arrived in another country. And then, if people even did respond, they would wait several weeks. Letters to me took anywhere from seven days to three months. Basically, from the time I sent a letter until I got a response, it could be two months.

This was also back in the day of no satellite TV. And I certainly couldn’t have afforded a television, even if I’d wanted to watch the three local channels. I also never had a phone in any place I lived. Added to that, the cost for international calls was prohibitively expensive and of crackly quality. One really was cut off from the outside world. Looking back, I am grateful for having had that experience. My entire life was Brazil. I learned the language and lived the culture in a way that today would be impossible to do.

I live in Vietnam, but I live in a nicer apartment that I have ever lived in, in the US. I wake up in the morning and turn on CNN or BBC. I turn on the computer and check my emails. I am instantly in touch with anywhere I want. I know about disasters and weather and politics in real time. And although I did enjoy those years of pre-technological isolation, I wonder if I would still be living overseas if email and cable TV hadn’t come along.

I remember when I got my first Hotmail account. I swore I would never give up writing letters; that sending a type-written email ‘just wasn’t the same as handwritten words’. I got over that pretty quickly. Instantaneous communication beats weeks of waiting for a reply.

While at the post office, I picked up a free tourist magazine; one that I had never seen before. I pulled it out as sipped coffee at an outdoor café. There was an article about the only Hindu temple in Ho Chi Minh City. Indian temple? Here? It must be in some far off corner of the city, I thought. But no, it was right in the middle of it all, not very far from where I sat.

But first, I was off to explore a few clothing boutiques that I have passed zillions of times, but had never gone into. To get there, I walked down the same streets of shoes and bags that I have walked down since arriving here, but had never stepped into. Today I did. I fruitlessly tried on a few pairs of shoes; all three sizes too small, but it didn’t matter. I was having fun. I spoke in my piss-poor Vietnamese which seemed to please everyone. I walked in and out of the upscale, made-for-foreigners shops. Can’t say I was really impressed with any of the overpriced items for sale, but it was enjoyable.

My next stop was the linen fabric shop. I ended up with meters of lovely cloth, most of which I hadn’t planned on buying. I may come into a fabric store with an idea of what I need, but always leave with a whole bunch of new ideas and a very heavy bag. It is so much more satisfying than clothing stores.

I then wandered over to my favorite little café that has cozy sofas instead of tables and chairs. Although the weather isn’t hot-hot quite yet, it is still a good idea to re-hydrate after every purchase. I opened up the magazine with the Temple story and asked the young women sitting behind me if they knew where it was. I only had a three block walk.

Seeing the outside of the Mariaman Hindu Temple, it did vaguely look familiar; like maybe I had passed it in a taxi a few hundred times. I thought I would find an empty temple but was surprised to find quite a few Vietnamese placing incense in urns and praying to the gods. Inside the central alter area where three men, sort of officiating. I walked up and asked if pictures were allowed. The one man, who was Indian and in his 50’s, said that I could take pictures anywhere except of the central alter where the goddess stood.

He seemed welcome to questions, so I asked. He wasn’t sure of exactly how old the temple was, but his father had come to Vietnam in the 1920’s on business, and it was already there. From what I gather, there was a fair amount of trade going on between Vietnam and India at the time. His father stayed and married his mother, a Vietnamese woman. The man I spoke with said he had spent the past thirty years in France, and had returned a year ago to help his mother care for the temple. There are still a few Indian/Vietnamese around, and then there are all the foreign Indian business people who are working here. I looked around at all the Vietnamese praying and asked if they were Hindu. No, but they believed in the gods of the temple. He said the people come to ask for help, then return to give their thanks.

I walked around, inhaling the peace and tranquility, incense and jasmine. I do so love Indian and Chinese temples. They take the mind and body to such a calming place. I stayed for awhile, put a donation in the box, then replaced my shoes as I was about to leave. The man I had spoken with called me over. He handed be two tangerines and a small string of jasmine flowers; a gift from the temple to place in my house. Tonight I have the goddess watching over me.

Just now, I looked at the article about the temple. Oh my gosh! The photographer had taken a picture of the main alter! The man I spoke with is standing in front of the statue of the goddess blocking it from the camera lens, while two of his helpers are desperately holding up their hands in a “don’t take a picture” gesture. Yet this journalist had warned visitors to take off their shoes when entering the temple.

Even though my bag was getting a bit heavy, I still had the shopping energy to make a run through the big market. Fortunately, being around noon, things were rather slow inside. I found my sewing supply stall and bought safety pins, then quickly made a run through a few other favorite areas. I picked up a couple more items before walking out to catch a taxi home.

You can live in a city for the longest time and still be surprised when you find something new. You can go to old haunts and wonder why it had been so long since your last visit. And most of all, you can get away from the seclusion of your little apartment that, inside, is no different than living in the US, and realize – Wow, I live in Vietnam!