31 August, 2006

Thoughts and actions

Since I've gone out the last two mornings, shopping for things like sheets and basic pantry items, I decided that today I would stay in and clean the common areas of my apartment building. It's really a house with the rooms rented out, so I'll say I stayed home to clean my house. The kitchen was SO gross. I swept up a big roach, which was lying on it's back twiddling it's legs and when I swept it, it righted itself and ran (as roaches do) straight towards my roachless toes. Well, that sucker was no match for my straw broom, lemme tell ya. Also there was a whole shelf consisting of millions of little mouse droppings. In order to get hot water out of the tap, you have to turn on the red light on the wall, which I did, but after waiting a few minutes, still no hot water. So I am cleaning with cold water. At least we have soap by the sink... oh wait, it's baby shampoo! Well, I suppose I came here in part to challenge my western ideas, so whatever. I keep finding myself living in these big communal houses, and cleaning this one feels much like cleaning the old Bee Tree house in Swannanoa. Whose is this? I wonder to myself as I sift through random shoes, papers, dusty cardboard boxes, and things molding in jars. But now the kitchen is looking much better and I am celebrating with a bowl of Grape Nuts, one of my favorite things back home. I tell you, the people you spend time with have a large influence on what becomes a favorite: before I met Kenny, grape nuts and metamucil never would have entered my shopping cart. But now I crave them.

So at yoga class last night, I met Nicky, the blond New Zealander instructor, and her partner Minh, who is Vietnamese-Canadian. They met here about three years ago and are 10- weeks away from having their 1st child. Entering their home/studio last night was the closest thing to coming home that I've felt since I arrived in Asia. I just wanted to curl up and stay there. I'm so glad to have found them, not only because they are minutes from my house and work but also because they are lovely, funny people who have stores of knowledge regarding living in Saigon. I was looking around at their cool old motorbikes (vintage!) their beautiful, simply decorated house, and their fun little neighborhood street and thought, "wow- it is possible to move here and create a life for yourself." I admit, the living is easy. Most things are cheap, transportation is easy, the language is fun to learn, and you can do pretty much whatever you want to do (as long as it's not translating essays on Democracy, as I learned from the BBC) because it's a huge city and there's something for all walks of life. Last night I also met an Aussie and a French woman and I'm going out with the girls tonight-- truly my first time since my flatmate was busy earlier this week.

My sheets are golden silk and I really like them. I've never been one for silk but for some reason, since it's so plentiful here, I'm digging it. My parents' birthdays (all 3) are coming up in the next month or so, which means it's time for me to figure out how to post things home without them being "lost."

Also, I've been starting to think about the fact that yes, things are cheaper here but I also have to consider that I'm being paid a Vietnamese salary (well, it's closer to that than an American salary) so I have to think about some sort of saving strategy. So far I've been recording all my expenses on a sheet of grid paper, and I'm not happy with how much I've spent this week. It's not a lot, and I know that it's the first week and I needed to get set up and find things and buy the things I didn't have that I needed (towels, sheets, some food, etc). But I think I might try to buy a bicycle. The trip to work and back is very short on a motorbike, so if I left 10 minutes earlier I might be able to save that $1.50 each day by biking it. Not until I have a few paychecks under my pillow will I think about buying a used motorbike. But it does seem like something worth thinking about, especially once Kenny gets here...

My One-Week Anniversary!


Aw, man, tonight I spent all my creative energy making the little movie below. Too bad, too, because I had some very nice things to say about how wonderful the little yoga studio is, how I made a new friend when I was getting my 20,000d pedicure (less than $2, for those who are vicariously celebrating my skinflint lifestyle), and how nice it is to feel like I'm settling down into a schedule. Oh well, since a picture is worth 1,000 words, here: you may have a billion.

30 August, 2006

Good Things!

Wow! I love being in this city! I had a fun conversation whilst on the back of a motorbike this morning, with the driver who spoke very good English, relatively:

him: how long you here?
me: five days! nam!
him: oh ho ho, new arrival.
me: yes! I like Vietnam!
him: you like now; you here five days!
me: oh, good point.

So yeah, I guess I should say I love it here so far. Today I was the bravest of all days yet, and I took the morning off (Grandma is taking over on ironing duty today, which is fine with me; I'm the nanny, man) and ventured into the city center which is fancy fancy land. I mean, Saigon IS the largest city in SE Asia, right? There are haute couture boutiques and towering gleaming brand name castles and all kinds of big history-of-communism tourist spots. But that's where I knew I was guaranteed to find an ATM, which I needed badly. I was down to my last few thousand dong. Plus I had a few things to pick up, so off I went on my own, grabbing rides, making change, holding my head up high (just in case I looked like frightened easy prey). So once I had a few hundred thousand stashed away in my bag (about $60), I caught a ride to Ben Thanh, the huge market thatI was taken to last saturday, which now doesn't seem half as scary. It's funny to me how it's organized. There are these tiny aisles you have to squeeze through and on one side you've got embroidered handbags and on the other side, plastic tubs of picked fish parts. Then next to that you've got the handcarved wooden goodies, then you've got the pig legs and sides of beef. So much stuff to look at!

I had a great time being not as shy anymore. I talked to people, negotiated deals, located streets, smiled at people, even stuck out my tongue at a little boy. And while on the roads I only got about half a pound of grit and diesel smoke in my eyes and lungs. My flatmate has started using an asthma inhaler and she's been here for 5 months. Uh oh. Well, this should help combat icky lungs: there is a yoga studio 2 blocks from where I work! we passed the street on my way in this morning, which means it's between my house and the kids' house!!! This makes me immensley happy. The teacher is a westerner and has a vietnamese partner who is going to pick me up on his motorbike tomorrow night and take me to my first class (for free). If I like it, I can drop in again or purchase a package, but it's western prices- $10 a class! That's a lot of money. We'll see if it's worth it.

So my day is only half over: I'm venturing out again to try to find a place to get my nails done (hey, why not).

Also: had a traditional Vietnamese breakfast today of hot beef soup (pho bo) and mmmm, it was so, so good. The clear noodles and lime juice and basil leaves and bean sprouts in beef broth is just so satisfying. If you live near a Vietnamese resteraunt, go get some.

Deals of the Day:
-$9 for an electric kettle (not that great of a deal but they were hard core bargainers and I was getting tired)
-.64 cents for a bag full of fresh garlic heads
-$8 for a set of golden silk sheets (my current ones don't fit)
-.64 again for two bottles of my favorite green tea (pictured above)

not great, but not at all bad. I'm going out tonight cause my flatmate is leaving for Bangkok for the weekend, so she's going to take me out to a bar. It's about time!

29 August, 2006

Incredible day. Whew.

Well, faithful readers, it finally hit me, on this my 5th day: montezuma's revenge (or "good old fashioned traveller's diarrhea"- can you name the movie?). The only thing that worries me about this is that the moment it hit, I was in the middle of my inspired First Walk to a New Corner of Binh Thanh by myself. Only Westerner around of course, because I was walking around during the middle of my morning at the kids' house which is not at all in a tourist's neighborhood. So there I am, feeling immensely satisfied with myself due to walking around by myself and being able to say hello to people and "no thanks" to the offers of motorcycle rides, scoping the local scenery (most notably the charmingly named Cafe Compact Disc) when I feel the rumbles begin. I turned tail and walked at a clipped pace back to the apartment building, but the Universe decided that this was a good time for me to figure out that there is a East building and a West building, both of which have a #22, and I had just made it all the way up to the wrong one. Ye gods. Go, go, go. Finally I make it up to the right apartment, let myself in, get to the bathroom and er, let it all go. Sorry. Only then did I discover, and I am not at all making this up, that the toilet was not flushing. I basically just pooed in a bucket for all it mattered. I jiggled the handle: nothing. Looked in the tank: nothing. What the hell? I am totally trapped. Grandma is home. She wants to have her turn in the bathroom. Oh, shit (no pun and all that. sorry). Hanging onto any last shred of dignity, I pantomime my predicament. She hands me a bucket and barges ahead of me into the bathroom. I go, "no, no!" for fear that she will hate me and throw me out or worse. But she takes the bucket from me and puts it in the bathtub, filling it up. Then she says to me, pointing at the toilet, "put in!". She wants me to float it out? Oh, gross! I imagine that the rest of my day will be spend squeegee-ing the bathroom floor. But I trust her, so she turns away, I lift the lid, and pour the water. And the dang thing flushes. You got me.

On a less disgusting note, my travel woes worsened this morning when I discovered that my deal with Ong Tu had fallen through due to his desire to sleep in. Stuck without a pre-arranged motorbike ride, I hit the road walkin' and tentatively look at all the guys sitting on their motorbikes. None of them offer. Hmm. Usually my problem is the opposite, but this is a curious morning. While I ponder the option of a taxi ($2) or a conversation (awkward) I notice something: the Vietnamese excersize, en masse, in the mornings! All over the place were little old ladies doing Tai Chi, little old men jogging in circles, and young women speed walking in their plastic sandles. Word! It was this cute little insight moment. It made me smile. Then I got a taxi and paid 3 times what I would have paid Ong Tu and didn't have nearly as much fun.
[For the interested, Ong means Mr.]
[and he costs 10,000d or .63 cents. The taxi cost me 30,000. Grrr.]
The kids were great today. I really really like them. Of course, they're kids and have the same shortcomings as any 6 and 8 year olds, but they are totally manageable and the rewards are bountiful. I get so many hugs and giggles. Today was tennis lessons, which are at the country club. Ritzy. But their coach is cool and we got all our homework done before their mom came home and I had an American dinner ready to eat the moment she walked in the door. I felt like a superhero. Or a supernanny. I was rewarded instantly by her announcement that she had just arranged a steady motorbike ride home for me from Ong Hung, for 10,000 each way. YAY!! I am starting to really like riding on motorbikes. I wish I could show this to all of you. Tonight I was filled with such joy and peace. It was strange to feel relaxed doing something I've feared since I started researching current Saigon culture, but tonight dusk had just fallen and the lights were soft and we took all these colorful, odorous, jam packed roads and I just loved observing it all. There was a young guy in jeans texting with his phone as he navigated the roads on his motorbike while carrying two friends seated behind him. Amazing. One little shop was blaring "I want it that way" by the backstreet boys but it sounded like they had a bootleg of a bootleg copy, and that just tickled me, thinking of the lip synch video we saw on google video- hope y'all know to what I am referring.

Ah, Saigon. I am starting to learn just a little tiny corner of you. And I can barely remember how to get where I need to go, I still only have about 10 words, and my tummy is upset. But you know what?

I'm kinda happy. :)

28 August, 2006

Warning: a venting session

[deleted due to wise comments from friends]

[undeleted because the King's stinking son fired me, and thank you for bringing up such a painful memory. Why don't you just give me a paper cut and pour lemon juice on it? We're closed!]

When Saigon is good, it is very very good. But when it sucks, it sucks hard. I'm not sure how to feel about these 13+ hour days. I mean, I've only had 3 so far. I guess I'm used to separating my home life from my work life and there being equal time spent on both. And after all that time of complaining about that separateness, and pining away as you've all heard me do about my wish for a summer-camp like life where work and living are one and the same, I finally was given exactly that. I knew when I came over that I was being brought here to be a nanny, which I knew was kinda like maid, but no toilet scrubbing, just cleaning as it pertains to the kids. I guess I just didn't really internalize how much of the day this job would take up. I know I need to adjust and be okay with the fact that I arrive at 6:30 am and am lucky to leave by 7:30pm, because it's not really like I have that much to do anyway, and lots of people work those hours. They;re okay with me not going with them on the weekends anymore, because I need time off (unless it's a weekend when they have guests over, and then, I guess I'm going). Also, I can eat their food which is a huge plus, and I'm sure that I can escape more once I get the schedule down pat.


If I may outline the day I had today:
6:00, wake up and get dressed in something that won't get sweaty too soon (ha)
6:15 meet Ong Tu outside for my motorbike ride to work (the kids' house)
6:30-7:30 wake up kids, get them ready for school, feed them breakfast
7:30, meet driver downstairs for drive to school
8:00- kids start school
8:00 till I'm done: I go back to the house for cleaning duties (today I finished unpacking the boxes from their move, just lots of toys and art stuff, etc, tomorrow I iron the kids clothes)
1:30 meet driver downstairs to go wait at school to pick up kids (it's a traffic thing)
2:30 kids are actually let out of school
2:45-4:15 I am supposed to speed two tired kids through a bath, a snack, and their homework before
4:30-5:30 it varies between Chinese tutoring, tennis, and piano
6:00- we're home again. If their Mom is home by then, she is supposed to start preparing dinner, if not, I will do it.
Then I can go home, depending on if I want to stay for dinner tonight.

This averages out to be about $4.50 an hour.

But the thing is, it's not actually too bad because during the day I can stay at their house, read a magazine (in Vietnamese) or watch TV (in Vietnamese). Or I can go navigate my way through the streets and fulfill any errand I desire to do (so far I have not had to do any errands for the family, thank the almighty god). I can't tell, but I think the Mom might be getting frustrated at me for not knowing my way around yet. This is going to sound very bad, but here's the truth: unless a Vietnamese word is written down for me, I can't tell what the hell word it is! I have no idea if the sound I'm supposed to repeat starts with a Q, an "Ng" or a B, which can all sound the same. I cannot remember a sound. But I can remember a spelling. I think I'm going to start carrying a pen & paper around with me so that when I am taught a word I can have at least a fighting chance of remembering it. Ok, I'm venting now. I brought excersize clothes to the house with me today, thinking I might go on a jog, but I couldn't figure out how to lock their fancy keypad door from the outside so I jogged around the living room to cheesy Vietnamese pop. Then I rinsed my clothes out and hung them on the line, and at dinner the Mom says, "you know, you can do your laundry at your house." I know it wasn't snotty, she actually thought I didn't know that there is indeed a bucket and a line on my roof, and was trying to be helpful, but still, I was miffed. It's ok for me to iron your kids' clothes which are just going to be worn by kids but not for me to hang something on the line?

I have to stop myself from venting too hard, so let's focus on the good things: I think I'm starting to have a small, temporary effect on the kids' behavior. They have a habit, espcailly the boy, of deliberately ingnoring what adults say. Like, looking right at you and doing it anyway. So I've been working on stopping everything at that point, getting the full attention, and asking with genuine concern if they can hear me or not, and if so, then why didn't they respond. It usually creates a guilty-puppy expression and a change of behavior. So hey, we'll keep working on it. Today I gave them the first of the presents I brought them (temporary tattoos and maple syrup from VT) and asked them what they thought I should get in return. They looked suprised and started to list possesions of theirs and I stopped them and said, "you know, I don't want you to give me anything, I want my present to be good behavior for the whole Chinese lesson" and by god, they were awesome. I could tell they were really struggling, though. And at dinner tonight, they both wanted to sit next to me and when I left they gave me lots of hugs. Hoorah.

Another wonderful thing: I have been expressing the fact that my favorite Vietnamese food is fresh rice paper spring rolls, and so today Bich made a special trip to the market (the lower class one by my house, the first one I went to) and bought all the ingredients, and she and I both prepared it for dinner. Yum and a half. I stuffed myself because normally she tells me that I don't eat very much (huh???). Yum.

And another good thing is that she really does help me get around. I know that there is only so much one can do to help a foreigner get around, and then you just have to learn for yourself. Well, today I learned a lot. For the first time, I demanded my correct change from a taxi driver (they'll start by handing you a lot less, and then you have to ask specifically for each bill).

Oops, one more not so great thing. Today I was having a very pleasant chat with one of the maids, a young man who looks about 15 but is actually 30. He looked nice, clean cut, well-fed, and we had one of the best bi-lingual conversations I've had yet. I was just thinking "I wish I could talk to most Vietnamese this way" when one of the kids comes and whispers in my ear, "grandma says stop talking to him. you tell him too much." They are worried they'll be robbed or I'll be kidnapped or something if we talk to the help. Today the kids made a big show of hiding their hands when they punched in the key code to their apartment because the driver was standing around. I would have been insulted if I were him. Doesn't this guy spend his whole day driving their asses around? But maybe they know something I don't know. Maybe if you're nice to the hired help here, they'll rob you. The kids said it happened once, and a maid took their mom's jewelry. I mean, it's a big city. I wouldn't be suprised. But then again, the kids also were adamant that sugar bugs live on your teeth and if you don;t brush your teeth the sugar bugs, which look like tiny black spiders, will build their home in your teeth (I told them they were talking about cavities and they almost ripped me a new one. "NO! SUGAR BUGS!")


But hey, what can I say. I like them. I like the money I'll get at the end of the month. I live living on the cheap. I like that soon I'll have Kenny with me (and life will be 100x better). This is really not too bad.

p.s. either monsoon season started today, or someone dropped an ocean over the city. I hope the latter.


it's freaking hot. my clothes and hair sticks to me all day long. I stink very quickly after taking a cold shower. My face is a shining oil slick. How does anyone manage to look put-together in this enormous city?

p.s. today I stepped in a puddle of fish guts. and I don't mean fresh ones.

27 August, 2006

O Holy Night

I can't even begin to explain how amazing this is. Well, okay, I can begin.

Years of paying $65/hr for a pretty-good massage has finally karmically paid off. Today I found the Shiatsu Massage studio, which for a total of 140,000vnd (that's $8.70, y'all) bought me the best, and I mean hands down, blow the rest away, can't believe my back feels so good BEST hour massage I'm ever had. So the massage itself was 90,000Vvnd which is about $5.60 and I left the standard 50,00vnd tip which is about $3.10. That was the main selling point for me. But the massage itself was one of the only ones I've ever had that would have been worth the $65/hr. Holy freaking crap! But wait, there's more. Other reasons why I love this place so so much:
-it's 2 blocks from my apartment
-the place has it's own sauna, free of charge
-they have lockers that they lock your belongings in (v. important) free of charge
-there's no haggling for price, because they're listed on a big menu
-upon arriving AND departing, they give you a glass of iced Vietnamese tea, which is a green tea that kind of tastes like almonds and vanilla and yum
-you request your masseuse by her number (mine is number 9 all the way)
-there is NOTHING sketchy about it. No signs of "happy ending" massage to be seen.
-BEST OF ALL: my masseuse is a chiropractor! Or at least, she cracked my neck and back with all the finesse of the best chiro in NC.


So on the other hand, I had a pretty stressful past few days. Or was it just a day? Good lord. Basically, I was shown around town by my new friend, G, who lives across the hall from me and has been here since May. She knows a lot of great places. And she likes to shop a LOT so I was basically a puppy in tow, staring at all the craziness with wide open eyes. The Benh Thanh market is where we went, which has everything you could ever desire, if you desire lots of clothes, accessories, handmade goods, raw meat and shiny animal parts, dried foods, candies, lottery ticket sellers, etc. Wow. My head was spinning because it was my first real big Vietnamese market (instead of the small one down the street from my place). I tried out my bargaining skills by talking a seller down from 65,000vnd to 50,000vnd for a St.Ives Apricot Scrub (my favorite, and I left mine in NJ) but my glory was temporary as it turns out the bottle had been refilled with some greasy gunk that is definitely not the original product. Live and learn. Taxis are fun, very clean, and not really that expensive: if you keep it under 6 or 7 minutes or so, it stays at 12,000 which is less than a dollar. I mean hey, I've never really been rich before, and if I can afford a taxi now, I might as well grab that chance cause lord knows if I try that anywhere else it'll cost me a week's worth of food. The best taxis are the green and white ones, Vintaxi or something like that, and when you hail cab about 4 or 5 come screeching dangerously to a halt in front of you, never mind that there were just 25 people on 10 motorbikes right there. Sweet.

Food has been great. I finally went grocery shopping today and got a shitload of goods (including Tabasco and cans of Orangina!) for about $15. Amazing Savings, you have been schooled. But otherwise, I eat with my family/employers and just have what they have. It's been a lot of really salty fish, beef-based broths with stuff in it like greens and sweet potatoes and bean sprouts and basil. I find a new favorite thing every meal. My current favorite thing ever is chom chom, a fruit that's like 1/2 grape and 1/2 plum that comes in this spiky, magenta shell. Here it is:

It's delish.

I spent the weekend with the family at their river house, which was a LOT of kid time but a beautiful location (pictures coming to Flickr soon). Basically, I'm tired but full of new experiences, and I can't wait to go to work tomorrow morning because I'm going to negotiate my first motorcycle ride with a stranger (I rode on the back of a family friend's this morning). Maybe soon I'll be driving one... I made sure to buy health insurance as soon as I heard that motorcycles would be my mode of transportation in the morning. But you know, if I chicken out, I can always get a taxi. So my first official work-week begins tomorrow morning at 6:15... guess I better head to bed.

25 August, 2006

...1st day continued

Wow. So when I arrived at the airport and made it through immigration, I was met by a crowd of Vietnamese faces, none of which looked like they were waiting for me. I made the mistake of walking past the waiting crowds of families and into the swarm of awaiting taxi drivers. Man! I never felt so attractive, and not in a good-looking kind of way. In a "do I have money bags tattooed on my forehead?" kind of way, which let's face it, of course I do: well-fed white girl with tons of baggage and a "help me" expression. Natural taxi meat. I thought I was gonna have to try out my khong on them when a friendly dude approached me with a sign that said "Jessica Lee". How did he know?

He led me to a mini-van and I climbed inside with a woman who then became my first friend in Vietnam, whom we all call Mama. She has been working for the company for about 15 years, and yet speaks maybe a dozen English words, none of which either of us could think of on the drive to the house. Now I must admit, I had no idea of any of this at the time. No idea who she was, no idea where we were going, no idea where the kids were. I was here for kids, right? Um. Nevermind. I am suddenly completely distracted by the sights all around me: safe in the car, I was free to ogle all the all the rows of tiny shops and towering buildings smashed together in impossible proximity and the people, coupled together on motorbikes, merging and separating together like one giant two-wheeled traffic amoeba, little horns beep-beeping merrily, while they all zoomed into certain death and somehow avoided each other and went on to another near miss. Girls and boys on a bike, boys and boys on a bike, parents and kids on a bike, grandma and baby and kid on a bike?! And so on. Every once in awhile I'd spot one person to one bike. Selfish punks, I thought. Turns out it's a nighttime thing. Today most everyone was going it alone. Maybe it's a workday thing.

Anyway, all of a sudden we slow way down, edge our way into on coming traffic, and turn left into what looks like the outdoor seating area of a sidewalk cafe. Oh my god, screamed my head, save the children! But the seas parted and we drove up a little street that I hadn't noticed, up to the curve in the curb where there was a little iron gate. We all worked to drag my stuff inside (which really, there wasn't that much of) and we're in this gorgeous house. I mean really gorgeous. Startling. Dark wood on the floors and furniture, obscenely high ceilings, long curving staircase. For the next hour or so, Mama pulled me around by the hand showing me extremely helpful things until I wanted to kneel down and thank her for making me feel so normal. How to lock the doors. How to turn on the AC in my room. Where we wash our laundry. Things I totally needed to feel in control of my world again. All in pantomime and a few key words. "Okay? Okay?" Very fun. I was so tired, and yet here we were, me going though drills of undoing the padlock through the little door on the gate, Mama on the other side, locked out, trusting me to do it right.

And then, they were gone, and I was alone. And somehow very awake. I decided to unpack, and discovered the amazing puddle of exploded shampoo. I spent the nest few hours tentatively hanging up a few clothes, wiping shampoo off of my sneakers and out of my books, throwing away ruined bags of Yogi tea (aw, man) and doing a little jig when I realized Kenny had replaced the wad of cotton at the top of the Tums bottle (you saved the tums!).

And then I fell asleep.

A quicker jaunt through day two, in highlights:
-miscommunication funnies, like:
Mama: "Okay? You Hep B?"
Me: "What? Hep B?!... oh, happy! Yes!"

Me: "In America, the police will pull you over if you're not wearing your helmet."
Max, wide-eyed: "They pull you off your motorcycle?? Do you get hurt?"

-being pulled to the market by Mama after I told her that I had no towels or alarm clock, discovering the amazing market and then coming home and realizing I had just bought two big fluffy towels and an alarm clock for a total of about $5

-meeting the kids and the mom, being totally impressed with how smart, funny, and modern they are. And being so, so grateful that we get along fine and what's more, I really like them so far.

So tomorrow they have a picnic thing with other families in their company and then I'm coming over around noon... not sure what for yet, but I do know we get to go to the river house on Sunday. Yay! Yay for life! Yay for change! Yay for all you can learn in a day!

The adventures of someone who doesn't know much


Well. Here's how it started: after a short night's sleep in friend Sam's NYC studio apartment seen here on the left, Kenny and I drove to JFK, which was a lot easier than I thought it would be (probably because it was 6 am).

It wasn't long til it was time to part ways, and yes, that was sad, and yes, I cried. A little. A wee bit. I was kinda proud of my self control.

And then... I had the two best airplane experiences of my entire life. Not because I got past the carry-on check points without having to give up my eyedrops (obviously a bomb in the making) and my chapstick (it was made by NC hippies, so obviously not safe), but because the flights to SFO and then to HKG were so easy and so quick that it actually was a little unbelievable to be in China all of a sudden. There was hardly anyone on my flights. On the pacific flight I had a row of four seats all to myself, with all the pillows and blankets that entails. I had me some good sleep, and about 4 meals (not because the seats were empty, they just kept feeding us these tiny little salty meals.)

So I leisurely headed into the HK airport, expecting nothing but more of the same cushiness, and was entirely unprepared for the wall of security officers waiting at the gate for my next flight. It was like a football team, maybe two, of poker-faced Chinese guys with rubber gloves and impeccable uniforms. And yet they still did not find my eyedrops and chapstick!!! muahahahah. Must've been distracted by the other baddies which are now not at all dangerous, like my tweezers, sharpened pencils, and knitting needles. My how things change. So anyway, I checked in and made it onto my flight to Vietnam, and it was a totally different story. The plane was loud. The people on it were extremely loud. I was seated beind a family of 72, all of whom were sporting Disney Land apparel and accesories, and they were all yelling and guffawing in Vietnamese. It was an interesting 2 hours, and I spent most of it hanging on to every word, listening for any sound I could recognize. All I heard was khong which means "no."

Once I stepped off that plane, the hotness started. Clothes clung. Hair flattened. Faces got shiny. It was hot. I felt gross. I dragged my stuff over to customs & immigration, where I was told that I needed to purchase my visa and have my photo taken, for $50 and $2, respectively. I had read in several guidebooks about being swindled at immigration, and since I had a letter saying that the company would bear all costs in regards to my arrival and entry, and most importantly due to the fact that I only had about $40 (yes, I'm an international vagrant) I was less than willing to whip out the cash. I tried explaining all those reasons, and still the guys pointed at me and tapped menacingly on my visa (which they had prematurely stuck onto my passport, assuming I was good for it). "You pay! I give you! This receipt!" Uh oh. Finally the older guy takes my letter and goes back to the phone, punches in a number (there's no phone number on the letter, I checked) and issues a series of short barks to whoever answered. Then he comes over to me, smiling, and takes out his own wallet. Whipping out a handful of 20s, he waves them at me, then puts them back in his wallet, all the while looking at me with an expression of great meaning and importance. I don't get it. The other guy is laughing and he says "he pay for you."

Huh? Ok, fine, I think. They're probably teasing me. The person on the other line probably verified me, and he is being silly because he knows I'm nervous and have no idea what he's saying to me. I probably would have done the same thing. So I tease back. "Thank you, Santa Clause!" They have no idea what I'm saying. I weakly head over to customs, declare that I have nothing to declare, and then on out the door and into the muggy Saigon night.

To be continued...

21 August, 2006

Snakes on a Plane!


Maybe that wasn't the best choise of pre-travel movies. Add the adrenaline rush from a really jumpy, gross movie to the heightened reality of getting ready to fly to the other side of the globe, and you get a girl whose heart is skipping around nervously and from whom tears may pour at any moment. I'm careening from skittish to weepy to sentimental to excited and back to nervous very quickly. And tomorrow is my REAL last day.

So one more post before my travel journal celebrates its official bottle-breaking. See you tomorrow, america.

16 August, 2006

Message in a bottle

After a good month and a half of not hearing much from my host family, I got the most charming email, which suprised and delighted me and couldn't have come at a better time: questions from the kids! "Will your family miss you? Do you have pets? Will your pets miss you? Do you like ballet? Which video games do you like? Do you like to ride horses? My room is peach and pink!" They sound like completely normal, funny, loving kids. My heart almost fell apart when X wrote: "I will give you lots of hugs every day so you won't have to miss them [your family]". Plus they're meeting me at the airport "with a big sign!!!" Oh my god. Thank you. They do exist, and they are nice. Whew.

The past few days have been strange. Lots of emotion, coming up in all different ways at unexpected times. Sometimes I feel frustrated for no apparent reason, and lots of times I feel like I need to escape all the people and their noise. Then other times I get this longing to be in the middle of everyone, like a craving for good human conversation. Here at VH camp there are lots of inspiring, beautiful souls and we all sit together and sing and eat and talk all day long. At dinner last night I was sitting at a table full of these ladies, and Kathy asked us if we wanted to draw runes. By this she meant to reach into a black velvet drawstring bag filled with polished stones, each of which had a particular symbol carved on one side, and to see which one we got. When you reach in you have to be thinking of a specific question, hope, or issue in your life that you'd like some guidance on. The rune symbol that you draw stands for something, and you look it up in a book that Kathy has. Well, we all reached into the bag and pulled out a rune, and then went around the table reading out loud what our runes meant. The air was really charged with that feeling of something important happening, a realization about to occur. It seemed like each of us got a very potent answer to our questions, or at least some interesting guidance. I wondered what the other women were asking about. I especially wonder about the women my own age. The youngest at the table, Annie, is someone that I've wondered about all year long (she lived in our building). She's a very private person but we have good talks sometimes. Those talks are like gems. I don't want to freak her out but I'm so fascinated by her. The other person our age is Heidi, a gorgeous curly haired songwriter who reminds me of a lot of girls I used to look up to. The older women at the table were all beautiful, middle-aged mothers who laugh a lot and have hot flashes and I look at their silver hair and listen raptly to their stories of what they did in their mid-twenties. I need to write more about these people but that's for a different journal, not the travel one.

Here at the Roundhouse there are puppies and there is an old dog. Her hips are sort of frozen up and the floors are very slick (because they're wood, but also maybe because the dogs pee on them whenever they feel like it). She can go up the stairs but when it comes time to go down them again, it's a lot less certain. She has to go really fast and it's kind of a sketchy process. So she stands at the top of the stairs and I swear, if a dog can look apprehensive, this dog does. Yesterday morning I was sitting with Ken watching the dog look at the stairs, and I was just saying how it seemed like she needed someone to carry her down, when she fell. It was awful. She was trying to right herself but just tumbled all the way down. We jumped to our feet and ran over to the bottom of the stairs and I felt this awful panic. It was really freaking scary. I thought the dog would end up twisted and broken, but she just lay there splay legged and we helped her up and she tottled away, like she was emabarrased. When I was in middle school our family dog was old and frail and I was too pissed off at the world to do anything about it. I should have spent more time with her but I was scared and grossed out by her body failing. Now I have a lot of old-dog guilt. I feel like I should have done better. So the dog falling set the tone for a really shaky morning. I was misplacing things and making silly mistakes in my music and getting really impatient with some of the less-than-charming elements of our motly crew.

I leave in a week. I can't believe this is really happening.

13 August, 2006

Life in Massachusettes

While I was teaching, I lived in a constant state of having lost my voice. My western medicine guess is that it was from talking loudly all day, trying to make my voice cover the whole auditorium and to talk over the students who were involved in their own little side conversations. My eastern guess is that there were lots of things I was preventing myself from saying, and therefore my throat grew weary from trying to hold back. What I definitely know is that it made singing really hurt. I couldn't get any high notes out. I started singing lower and lower and even then I could only be relied on to sing for the first 15 minutes or so. At the end of my second year teaching I missed performing, so I did the musical Pippin, and refused to speak more than I absolutely had to in school, which meant compromising my teaching, but hey.

So when I signed up to do my first Village Harmony camp, it was not as my regular self, a confidant singer who loved nothing more than some really great harmonizing with people whose voices blended well with mine. It was as a scared, embarassed person who wasn't sure if I could make more than a few off-key squeaks.

The summer came, and I stopped teaching to an auditorium full of young people. I rested my voice. And today, the third day of VH camp, I still haven't lost my voice. My throat is tired, and that makes sense: it's like using a muscle that is weak and not used to the work. But still: I feel happy. The altos have a shitload of great parts. There are really good singers here. I love the songs that the leaders picked. This is how I remember singing to be. Hell yeah.

Oh, also: I bought a new digital camera. It's tiny and feels like it could be crushed without much effort, but it's shiny. And consumer reports gave it a top billing. Best thing: now I can take pictures without borrowing Kenny's camera, which is appropriate since I'm going to Vietnam first. Check out my first round of shots:

03 August, 2006

20 days to go

The days are hot... and we've been spending many hours in the public pool, playing with Kenny's new camera and trying to pretend that the lukewarm water helps us forget that it's over 100 degrees outside.

It also helps me forget that I've got twenty days to go now until I move to vietnam. I'm gettin excited. I'm gettin scared. Why excited?
  • well, I get to be on an airplane again. that's always thrilling at first.
  • also, it takes a bit of bravery (I'm pretty sure) to grab a suitcase of one's belongings and say "that's it, that's all I'm taking with me! Screw the rest!"
  • and who am I kidding, really? it's exciting to just be the type of person who can honestly say "I'm moving to Vietnam. Today. Right now."
Why scared?
  • well, holy shit, have you seen Lost?? Airplanes break! They rip apart in midair! They fall down, hard! and even if my plane doesn't fall from the sky, there are all sorts of things that are less than pleasant awaiting you on a plane: germs, dry eyes, varicose veins, feet swollen to twice their normal size. Yuck.
  • also, what if there's something I need when I'm there, that over here I have in abundance, let's say tampons, or American-butt-sized underwear, or something, that I don't realize I need? This isn't a fear, so much. Let's move on to the real fears:
  1. Real fear number one: once I leave Kenny, he won't be able to find me again (this is silly).
  2. Real fear number two: upon arriving, I will appear so tired and dishevelled that my employers-slash-host-family changes their mind and sends me home (again, really silly).
  3. Real fear number three: I won't do a good job.
There is it. I found it. The real reason I'm feeling nervous. This usually happens when undertaking a new job. You make yourself out to be the Perfect Applicant, completely sure of your abilities to do all that your new job will require of you and then some, and of course you land the job. But then you start thinking about all this new job will entail. And you think, Oh My Lord. I know that M is 8 years old and X is six. These are ages I've worked with before, with wonderful, laughing and hugging results. But. What if these kids are really hard to get along with? What if M is really shy and doesn't want some strange girl hanging around him? What if I'm not girlie-girl enough to know all the appropriate french-braiding techniques that X requires? What if they had a really skinny au pair before me and they think I'm an American cow who doesn't warrant respect enough to listen to and they run away or lock me out of the house or something??

Um, or: the kids are just regular kids. we get along fine. they parents think I'm doing great. Kenny finds a wonderful living situation in a safe neighborhood with at least one person who can speak both english and vietnamese. the family let's me out once a day for a yoga class/cheap massage/language lesson. And the year flies by and I lose weight and gain a foreign language and come home with lots of presents for YOU. You know...

it's almost as much fun to imagine all the good stuff that might happen. :)

So, all neurotic ramblings purged for the day, let's make a list. I like lists, they sooth me.

Stuff I still need to do before I'm ready to get on that plane:
-buy medical insurance
-pack goodies and treats for the kids
-stock up at a drug store all hygienic products that I think they might not sell in HCMC (my favorite shampoo, toothpaste, razor cartridges, etc)
-repack my suitcase and weigh it
-find someone to take over my effing verizon account so i don't have to pay $175 to break the contract
-tell my parents that I love them

Guess that's really it. I can do this. This will be fun. And for those who don't know, I'm publishing pictures on flickr, words on here. Thanks for following along.

I'm on Flickr a lot.

Jessica K.. Get yours at bighugelabs.com/flickr