26 February, 2007

We Built This City

Tonight I had the pleasure of dining by myself at the new Korean place down the street from Kim and Janny’s house. The street I’m speaking of actually houses, or housed, a good many of my favorite people and restaurants. This street has the distinct feeling of being an alley, but it connects two really big important streets (albeit in a very winding fashion) and I guess so many people were proud of themselves for discovering such a handy shortcut, they decided to build some pretty houses and affordable ice cream stands and beer halls and now, a Korean restaurant. I really like this street.

I took with me only my wallet and a book, and set off to find the place. Its existence had only been hinted at by my friends who live around here, but the mention of a good Korean restaurant stuck with me and tonight I was on a mission. From deep within the couch cushions, Janny waved her hand vaguely in a direction and said it was called Ma Ma Han’s and that it was really easy to find, so I took off in that direction, and sure enough, almost at the end of the street, I found it.

Now, this alley is homey, and lovable, but it’s also a little rank. The sewers flood, and the other day on a walk, Kenny and I noticed a cigarette pack on the ground that was full of syringes. It has a few unsavory elements, but in a easy-to-learn kind of way, an unpretentious way. I was unprepared for the downright class of this Korean place. Ma Ma Han, whoever she is, must have studied interior design somewhere, because the good use of space and lighting really was apparent even from out on the street. It shone like a little gem in the dusk. In fact, for a second I worried that maybe I should have dressed up a little more. But there was one teenage guy sitting out front, probably to direct potential customers in, and he lit up in a grin when he saw me make like I was going to enter, so I figured my jeans and flip flops could be forgiven, and I was waved inside.

I was the only customer. I took off my shoes and sat cross-legged on a cushion at one of the low tables. A woman who looked like she was maybe in her mid thirties brought me a menu, which had surprisingly no Korean at all inside its covers. This was a good thing, since I can read enough Vietnamese to order something good, and I did: I ordered banh xeo kim chi, which sounded like the perfect combination of Vietnamese and Korean cuisine. Banh xeo is an institution in itself. There are regions, somewhere, that are known for making it better than anywhere else. You can get banh xeo at almost every restaurant in Saigon, and there is at least one that serves nothing but. Basically, it’s a very thin egg pancake folded over some bean sprouts, shrimp, or whatever the specialty is. It’s crispy and greasy, and very good wrapped up in lettuce and dipped into nuoc mam. And as we all know, I think, kim chee (or chi) is a variety of picked and spicy side dishes served with any Korean meal. So pickled stuff in a crispy egg blanket is what I ordered. I sat back to read and wait.

And I’m pleased to announce that the meal was awesome. The banh xeo was hot off the griddle and the veggies inside were crunchy and perfectly spiced. I ate slowly, reading a paragraph between bites, and when I looked up at the end of my meal, the city’s lights were lit up, and they reflected off of the wooden floor, and families were walking past the restaurant and kids were teasing each other like they do everywhere and teenage girls were practicing dance moves in a driveway across the street. Kim had just called to invite me to dessert downtown. And I had a revelation of sorts. Here it is:

I love this city. I love my life in this city. I love its freedoms, I love its possibility. I don’t exactly love the fact that I’m white and living here, because it means I get stared at and yelled at, but I’ve come to realize that there are plenty of people richer and more privileged here than I, and that a good amount of them are Vietnamese, and that I’m a giao vien Tieng Anh (English teacher), which is a respectable job for a white person, and the old ladies I talk to seem to respect me for that and be pleased with me. So I don’t feel especially guilty for being here, though sometimes the staring makes me mad.

It’s exciting, having so many opportunities and choices at my fingertips. Is this how I would feel living in any major city? Somehow, I don’t think so—-because the warm weather and the affordable lifestyle are big parts of what makes Saigon, for me, so much fun. When I think about living in, say, New York City, I worry: how would I afford that? I don’t want to be a pauper. I want to work hard doing something genuinely beneficial for a few hours of the day and then get to enjoy spending the rest of my time with friends, learning a new language, using public transportation, trying new foods, spending money on local restaurants and services, and getting a tan through it all. Maybe I could do this in a North American city, but I somehow doubt it.

I enjoy Saigon the most when the sun is down. The city at night, in the cool, on the back of a motorbike on my way to somewhere I like to be—-in my head I always seem to have that song, “we built this city; we built this city on rock and roll!” stuck on repeat. It’s like my unexpected, uncool anthem.

Will it be the same when I come back? Will I get to come back? I know that’s up to me. I don’t have to leave now, but I’m choosing to. I have to find out. I have to find out if I can go back and continue feeling as fully realized as I do now. I miss contra dances and baking and my knitting supplies and the Folk School and Gwynn Valley. I miss the Appalachian mountains, especially in the Fall, and I miss crickets and nice dogs and silly things I never really liked that much before. Most of all, I miss my friends. I have fewer now than I used to, and my Mom told me that would happen. I remember thinking how sadly wrong she was when I was a teenager and she was trying to explain to me that even though she had only a handful of close friends, it didn’t matter, because those friends had been there longer and knew her better than anyone. And I thought of my long list of current best friends, a mile long and ever-changing, and thought, well ha. Mine are the same way. But it’s funny which friendships lasts and which don’t, whose paths diverge from yours and who ends up keeping in touch, even sporadically, and mattering. And it’s great when you realize that it’s no one’s fault, that no one has done anything wrong by fading away, that we’re all young and are finding our way and our niches. Now I also have a handful of close friends, most of whom probably don’t realize they’re on that list, that I miss so much, even though we don’t see each other that often. To see them now, I think, would matter very much.

[In all honesty, I think one of the main reasons I like living in Saigon so much is because so far, I haven’t had to deal with things that stress me out when I live in the states, like owning a vehicle and maintaining it, or ordering more checks from the bank or renewing my license or even getting up early to go to work. As a recently arrived ex-pat, I haven’t had to deal with a lot of the grown up hassle. So, aha, maybe that’s it.]

So I’ll come back home, and I’ll have a Fall and I’ll go to camp and I’ll hug my friends and I’ll bake stuff. I’ll love Kenny and we’ll annoy each other and still love each other. And if Saigon really is the only place for me, then it’ll still be here. But I think it was Karl Maslow who had that theory of self-actualization, and I think I remember learning that self-actualization isn’t this thing you achieve and then you get to stay there forever and ever, amen. You hit that point and then sometimes, it eludes you, and you have to go back to attending to some of your more basic needs to make sure you can be free to feel self-actualized again. And maybe Saigon is like that. Now that I’ve felt it, I can take it with me, and have moments of feeling this good again. I’ll just try not to get another vehicle or need any more checks. And I think my license doesn’t expire for a while yet. As for work… well, we’ll see what I can find.

Goodbye, old pal

I sold my bike today. My apple green darling had no gears, but it did have a bright and trilling bell which amused me to no end when I used it to communicate with the other honking beasts on the road. Hwonnnk! Hwonnnk! would go the motorbikes, and tra-la-la-la-la would go I in return. Also, I never had to worry about rolling up my pants legs, because there was a nifty little mesh guard protecting the chain from any sort of apparel intruders. You could sit straight up while riding this bike, and imagine yourself a willowy young thing with a white ao dai and long black hair, cycling through the Mekong on your way to school. I mean, that’s who these bikes were designed for. You still see millions of girls all in white, ramrod straight, pedaling along. But now they’re talking on cell phones. My bike had a key attached to the back wheel which I could lock if I liked, thereby forcing any would-be bike stealers to have to carry the darn thing, and a basket attached to the front (which never made it onto the dorky list in Asia, believe me, but is rather a necessity). My favorite thing about the bike was probably the back seat. Welded above the back tire, black and sleek and luxuriously padded, it made the bike seem to say to the world, “yes, I am a lowly human-powered machine. Yes, I frequently am ridden by two people simultaneously. But they ride in style.”

Yesterday I was trying to hustle the bike. As I do when I have no idea where to begin looking for something, I started at Ben Thanh Market. Not actually in the market, of course, since (fortunately) they don’t allow people to ride through the market. [They do in other markets around town, and it is a sincere pain in the ass. No one is insistent like a Vietnamese person on two wheels—it doesn’t matter who or how many people are blocking the way, nor does it matter how permanent the blockage appears to be: they will crunch up into each other’s pedal space, inching forward relentlessly, honking sharply all the while. Add to this the lack of concern for rules governing which direction you must go on a particular street (or aisle), and you could have one guy sitting astride a bike, perpendicular to the bikes around him, at a stalemate because he’s being increasingly penned in on both sides by hurried, crowded, exhaust-spewing motorbikes. But no one would stop to let him back out. It’s lovely, especially when you are the sole walker (or God save you, cyclist) flattening yourself against the side of a dingy stall, and you have just bought a tall, dripping bouquet of flowers for your friends’ lunch party which you now have to hold above your head and are just trying to get past the raw, hanging chunks of carcass next to you to buy some tomatoes and maybe a Toblerone bar. Nothing says yummy like rare rack of ribs hanging directly next to a nose-picking guy on a motorbike with no muffler.]

Anyway, I was walking the bike down a street outside Ben Thanh Market, and the plan was to go blithely unawares down the street, gazing up at some clouds or something, while people read the sign tacked onto the front of the bike basket advertising it’s availability. Then, theoretically, they would stop me and ask, in broken but comprehensible English, if they could possibly take a look closer. They would look and coo and agree with each other, and then I would seal the deal, we would smile and nod our heads at each other once, and I’d walk on home, 800,000 dong the richer. But you can’t play a player, or something like that, and in retrospect who did I think I was kidding? These people make a living, daily and for generations, by selling what are probably twenty-cent tee-shirts to tourists while clucking their tongues and pretending that it’s a bloody shame to let the “Tin Tin In Vietnam” shirt go for anything less than three dollars, but they would do so just for you, and you don’t have to be exceptionally gifted linguistically to realize that when you walk away, they are now clucking appreciatively to whomever made the sale, probably saying something like, “Oh Thuy, you old bird, you’ve still got it! Did I see a tear well up in your eye when you agreed to forty-thousand dong? I tell you, I almost peed my pants! You deserve an Oscar! I still think the big pink man on the end would have settled for fifty-five, but hey. It’s the New Year. Pork ribs for everyone!” And then they’d be off to the market, on motorbikes of course.

The best offer I could get yesterday was 450,000. I haggled and explained and showed off the warranty, even tried to get some cooing started, but everyone had poker faces on and was insisting that I would get no more than 200,000 anywhere else, but they were willing to be generous. I paid a full million dong for the bike about five months ago, and have kept it in pretty good shape, replacing a tire here and adjusting the kickstand there. Plus I had all the paperwork with me, ready to show off, which I did, to back up my asking price of 800,000. Now honestly, a thirteen dollar loss after owning a bike for five months is very, very good. I know that vehicular things depreciate like heck as soon as you breath on them. But I figured, if I start at eight hundred, I could probably get six hundred by the time bargaining was done, and that would be fine. I learned this in Ben Thanh market, actually. The salesgirls habitually start the numbers at about four times what they think you’ll pay. Then you chip away at your end, and they chip away at their end, and you make a few walk-away attempts, and they call you back, and eventually, with much eye rolling, they let you pay one fourth of whatever they had started with. Or one half, if you haven’t been charming enough or it’s a new moon or something or you’re the first or last customer of the day. Who knows. Sometimes you’ll go from being almost violently persuaded to part with your money at one stand, and refused outright at the next. There’s something going on there, but I haven’t figured it out yet. It’s usually an older lady who just looks at you out of the sides of her eyes and gives the old wavy hand gesture, and you know that for some reason, she’s not going to sell you a sandwich or a pineapple or anything, no matter how much money you’re willing to give up. It’s a mystery.

So today I rode my bike to meet my friend Lindsay for lunch at the Black Cat, one of my favorite places to go for a healthy lunch. We’re happily tucking into lentil soup, carrot juice, and green salad, when the owner’s wife approaches me and asks about the bike. I barely manage to swallow to begin my sales pitch when she’s agreed to buy it for my asking price, 800,000 dong. Uh, sure! I blather on happily about all the bike’s sweet little features, but it doesn’t matter anymore—the money’s in my hand, and I am now an ex-bike owner. A little sad, but not really. I’ve got pictures. I’ll remember the good times. And to reward myself for being so ambitious with the sum on the front of the bike, I go buy really good souvenirs for family at home. They deserve it. They taught me how to ride a bike, and how to make signs.

21 February, 2007

Green Tea: it Packs a Punch

[8:34:15 ] Jessica says: OH MAN! I gotta tell you what happened to me today!
[8:35:15 ] Kenny says: What?
[8:35:23 ] Jessica says: So, Kim had never been to the new Saigon Square
[8:35:31 ] Jessica says: and I wanted to get the computer bag
[8:35:31 ] Kenny says: No kidding.
[8:35:40 ] Jessica says: so we walked there
[8:36:04 ] Kenny says: yeah
[8:36:07 ] Jessica says: after hanging out at Highlands on Le Loi (but my stupid
computer wouldn't load any websites, grrr, so we left)
[8:36:22 ] Jessica says: so, the bag shop was one of the only shops NOT open
[8:36:37 ] Kenny says: you have to sign up for an account
[8:36:53 ] Jessica says: so Kim and I looked at souvenirish things, and then went to
Citimart upstairs to get some groceries
[8:37:13 ] Kenny says: Was the bag up there?
[8:37:52 ] Jessica says: (I did the password thing at Highlands and had a Very Good signal strength, yet it took a good 20 minutes for each page to load and since I had to do online form stuff for prescott, it wasnt worht it)
[8:38:02 ] Jessica says: ignore typos, I got sick of fixing them.
[8:38:04 ] Jessica says: so anyway,
[8:38:23 ] Jessica says: I buy some cereal and soymilk and a bottle of green tea, the kind with lemon
[8:38:33 ] Kenny says: ok.
[8:38:54 ] Jessica says: I notice that the bottom of the bottle is all ballooned out, but I figure it just got hot or something. In other words, I didn't think much about it.
[8:39:06 ] Kenny says: Uh-oh.
[8:39:39 ] Jessica says: So we paid for our groceries and are walking down the street chatting. We get to the corner where the little market begins, and I get out the tea bottle, and place my hand on the top and begin to twist..
[8:40:05 ] Kenny says: uh oh
[8:40:47 ] Kenny says: did the bottom fall out?
[8:40:57 ] Jessica says: All of a sudden a LOUD BANG goes off and Kim puts her hand to her head and screams and my right hand is hurt and there's tea f*cking everywhere, shooting into the sky like champaigne
[8:41:02 ] Kenny says: was there a mouse?
[8:41:16 ] Kenny says: Holy shit!!!
[8:41:29 ] Jessica says: Yes! Holy fermented tea!
[8:42:01 ] Kenny says: THAT'S AMAZING!!!
[8:42:04 ] Jessica says: It was gross and hilarious and scary. We could do nothing initially but laugh in this kind of shrieky way, and drip
[8:42:31 ] Kenny says: How's your hand?
[8:42:35 ] Jessica says: So a few seconds goes by and we're trying to put the events in order: the tea lid exploded off, throwing my hand back
[8:42:50 ] Jessica says: and the lid hits Kim in the side of the head, and she thinks she's been shot
[8:43:04 ] Kenny says: (rofl)
[8:43:21 ] Jessica says: and the tea is just splurting everywhere and stinking, and the xe om driver next to us has jumped like 5 feet
[8:44:03 ] Jessica says: So. we're like, what do we do now? my hand is turning bright red and I kid you not, there is a lid-sized circle on my palm
[8:45:12 ] Jessica says: So we walk back to citimart, dripping and giggling like crazy people. We go in and try to explain what happened. The security guard is really nice, and hands me a towel and tells a cashier to get me a new tea
[8:45:34 ] Kenny says: That is SO cool.
[8:45:57 ] Jessica says: when they bring me the new bottle, the bottom is curved out just like the last one. I point this out and express some concern, so the guard takes it and before we can do more than wince, he OPENS it. Inside. You can guess what happens next.
[8:46:11 ] Kenny says: NO WAY>
[8:46:14 ] Jessica says: Boom! And he gets even wetter than I did. Yes way.
[8:46:19 ] Kenny says: (rofl)
[8:46:22 ] Jessica says: There's a young kid who's been watching this whole thing who is explaining the situation to his mom, and they're both just staring at us, and there’s one male expat in line who’s just kind of pointedly ignoring the situation. But the guard is fine, he’s just wet.
[8:47:30 ] Kenny says: ((at this point I'm shrieking with laughter. Emoticons are doing nothing for me now))
[8:47:34 ] Jessica says: Finally they bring me another tea, and this one looks good, with a flat bottom. Just to be sure, the guard takes it... we take a step backwards and hide behind our bags... we wait... and nothing happens. It's fine. We walk home and laugh like shaky hyenas the whole way
[8:47:48 ] Jessica says: then we wash off.
[8:47:51 ] Jessica says: It was awesome.
[8:48:10 ] Kenny says: That is so awesome.
[8:48:11 ] Jessica says: (and now I have to blog about it!)
[8:48:27 ] Jessica says: it was truly scary for about a second and a half. I mean that was loud.
[8:48:39 ] Kenny says: Well, enjoy. Can't wait to see the finished blog.
[8:48:58 ] Jessica says: it might be this conversation, if that's okay with you. what do you think?
[8:49:02 ] Kenny says: "buyer beware" has a whole new meaning.

18 February, 2007

There is Life Outside Your Apartment

There is Life Outside Your Apartment!

After a whole day inside, sleeping and getting used to being All Alone, I was ready to gnaw my own arm off at the elbow this morning when I woke up. As I was strapping on my Chacos in preparation for the Big Hot Walk of the day, loud banging started up outside the house. That’s completely usual for this neighborhood, especially now that it’s Tet: there have been fireworks, a yapping dog symphony, motorbike revving competitions, and I think I’ve made my point about the karaoke machines. So when the drums started I didn’t really register them, but they didn’t stop. Realizing this as a possible interesting event, I walked out on the balcony and there right in front of our house was a troupe—a troupe!—of young guys dressed from head to toe in fire-engine red costumes, complete with red slippers and red headscarves, playing these huge golden drums and banging symbols and drawing a real crowd from the surrounding houses. Sweet! I filmed them from the balcony for a few minutes but before I realized what I was doing I was running downstairs and joining the crowd in the street.

It turned out that the party was for our neighbors, who (I’m guessing) were being honored by all the attention of the drumming troupe, who was playing directly in front of their door and a couple of teen boys were now doing a symbol dance on their stoop. The inhabitants of the chosen house were standing there in their front area (there aren’t really yards in front of the houses here, it’s more like a ground level patio where bikes are parked) just watching with proud expressions. At one point, two pre-teens put on a dual dragon suit (think of the old horse costume: one wears the head, the other wears the tail, and all you can see is their legs). They ran into the neighbor’s house and were in their for quite awhile, but none of us on the street peered in to see what was going on (they eventually came back out). The highlight of the two-person dragon was when the front guy jumped backwards onto the back guy’s shoulders. It looked like the dragon had reared up onto it’s hind legs. Wow.

The neighborhood kids were extremely worked up about the troupe, and when a dozen guys busted out a really long dancing dragon, the youngest kids were just beside themselves. The various dads, moms, and older relatives held up the littlest ones and the troupe made the dragon swoop down right in front of the kids—it was pee in your pants worthy, for sure. I have to admit, the dragon was just amazing. It whooshed around in this really fluid, snakelike whirl, way above our heads. I was floored. While the dragon was dancing, a few of the drummers went down the street to retrieve a really long metal pole, which they planted into a brace that kinda looked like an industrial strength christmas tree stand. They hoisted up the pole, which had to have been at least twenty feet high, and secured it into the brace. There was nothing at the top but a very short crossbar about two feet from the top, making the pole look a little like a crucifix with stumpy arms. The dragon folded itself away and the guys crowded around the base of the pole, the drums getting louder and more intricate, and one of the guys started to climb up the pole like a monkey. He was holding a giant dragon head, and I have no idea how he got up there with one arm, but when he was at the top he placed his feet onto the arms of the cross and sorta squeezed the top of the pole between his knees. The dragon head had a hinged mouth and he fit it over the top half of his body, with a long scale-covered tail hiding his legs. Then, to the beat of the drum, he began to dance.

This guy twisted and swirled and reached to all the directions—with his feet staying put on the beam and his arms inside the dragon head. It was like, Captain Torso time. I realized that another guy had gone inside the neighbor’s house and was on the second story balcony (which was closer to the ground than the dragon guy was) and was holding out a long decorated stick with what looked like a head of lettuce attached to the end. The guy reached; the dragon guy reached. Finally the dragon manages to bite onto the stick, which swung precariously around until he was able to bit it securely. Of course at this point the drummers were doing a suspenseful sort of drum roll. The people assembled in the street seemed tense and expectant—everyone’s necks were craned, and we were all shielding our eyes from the sun, which was right above the dragon guy. One of my street buddies was an elderly man wearing gorgeous silk blue pajamas and a hearing aid who asked me in French if I spoke French, then told me he spoke a little bit of English and that he was 82 years old. Next to us was a younger man in a wheelchair- his legs were twisted and shriveled but he was cheerful and excited to have me squat down next to him so that he could watch the show through the screen on my camera. He shook my hand and spoke Vietnamese. As we watched, the dragon guy made it look like the dragon was eating the lettuce, and shredded bits floated down to us. Finally, he dropped the stick and everyone applauded. The guy took off the dragon head, dropped it down, and then turned upside down and slid down the pole head first. It was amazing. Everyone cheered.

After the dragon guy came down a lot of the adults crowded around him and offered him cups of water and pats on the shoulders, and it seemed like they might have known him personally. He was sweating profusely and looked ready to keel over. The kids and I just stared at him with our mouths sort of open.

After that, the crowd dispersed and I walked on, passing latecomers who had obviously heard the noise from across the neighborhoods and had wandered over. And I felt incredibly lucky that that was happening right in front of my doorstep, and that I was around to have seen it.

The day only got better: there were so few people outside at high noon on the second day of Tet that I felt like I was in a sunny, tropical zombie movie (in one of those scenes where the hapless hero starts wondering where everybody went). I walked all the way across town and by the time I got to Ben Thanh Market I had my iPod on and was barely looking either direction before crossing the street. My plan was to walk down to my favorite haircutting place but I realized along the way that this was probably futile, so I changed directions and went to the park. Aha! So this is where everybody is. I was quite hot, so stopped to cool off on a park bench away from the crowds of over-excited kids and cranky looking parents. I was playing a game of iPod solitaire in the shade when all of a sudden a reeeally strung out looking guy was standing right in front of me. He looked angry. He stared at me and said in this really creepy flat voice “I lub yoo.” It was pretty apparent that he didn’t exactly know what that meant, so I said, “thank you, that’s very kind” and went back to my game, thinking that if I ignored him then he might go away (broken hearted, of course, but hey). Instead, he took a step closer to me and his eyes narrowed, and he repeated “I lub you” and I noticed that he was swaying and that his face was scraped up. I live in perpetual fear of being suddenly barfed on (I’m not kidding) so I said, “di, di, di!” with an angry face, but he did not di away. Now this is the weird part: this guy sort of stumbles out of his flip flops and starts walking stiff-legged in little circles around them. I’m not sure how it happened, or why, but his shoes were off and he wasn’t even looking at them, he was just staring into the middle distance as he stumbled around them, as if someone had said, “Hey Tuan, I bet you can’t get your feet back into your shoes without looking at them.” Now I really felt like I was in a zombie movie. One of his stumbling circles took him very, very close to me and I sort of leapt up and away before any contact could be made. It was creepy and weird. Plus, now I was benchless (not to mention unlubbed), so I walked on. [I noticed though, by glancing backwards, that as soon as I left he put his shoes on just fine. Weird.]

I was very pleased to see that the bubble tea place was open, and grinning like an idiot, I ordered one iced green tea with no milk and lots of bubbles (tapioca pearls, if you don’t know), and then realized that maybe the shiatsu place was open. I walked that way and it sure was. I know I’ve written about this place three zillion times, but I just gotta say again: I love it. I want to take it home with me. It is the very best place in the whole world, or at least this city. For a little over ten dollars I got to spend the rest of my afternoon in the shower, the steam bath, the sauna, and on the massage table. I even got my favorite therapist, number nine, without asking. She was just there.

I walked home, freshly scrubbed and rubbed and steamed, and sat down to eat this. I warmed up my leftover concoction of wild rice and vegetables and ate while singing along to the Ditty Bops.

Life can be pretty freaking grand when you’re All Alone during Tet.

[also-- the podcasts "Quick and Dirty Tips" are so clean cut they almost squeak, but they are quick and the tips (on grammar, money smarts, and practical legal advice) are pretty worth listening to. They're free on iTunes.]

17 February, 2007


How self-centered of me.

My usual daily internet check-in goes something like this: check the gmail, check the myspace, check the flickr, check the blog. Sometimes there are addendum: check the bank account, update my iTunes podcasts. If time allows, I travel around on one or more of these sites, letting myself float along on a internet tangent until it's time to not be online anymore.

Until today, however, when it came to checking other people's blogs, there were really only a handful that I visited. I guess I must have known that lots of people that I know in real life have blogs, but for some reason I didn't find a lot of them until this morning, when I luckily stumbled onto a UU friend of mine's blog, which captured me and left me reading for almost an hour, shaking my head in wonder at the power and naturalness of her writing style, the topics covered, the depth of insight-- it is a great blog, truly.

And of course, in her blog she references other great blogs, some of which are by people I know or have met through my occasional UU involvement (compared to these people, my involvement can only be thought of as occasional; these people are lifers who are actually doing something for the movement. Unlike myself, whose current level of dedication extends as far as trying to explain UUism to new friends in Asia who have never heard of us). One that seems full of promise is the FatGirlSlim Chronicles, by a friend of mine who is learning how to be an opera star in London.

You know, if I hadn't have left the States, I probably would be a lot more involved with this world of blogging UUs, but since moving to Asia is what led me to start my own blog, maybe not. Too much time inside has led to too much ponderous activity. It's time to go on a walk.

16 February, 2007

We're flyin' now!

Huh: Plugging in my computer greatly increased the wireless signal strength. Who knew?

In other news, life is great here in all-alone-in-a-big-house land. I'm doing laundry on the roof, listening to the sounds of the neighborhood recovering from last night's celebrations (there were fireworks at midnight and I could see them from the window!), and generally making big plans in my mind for the next two weeks.

On the grand to-do list: sell my bicycle, finish souvenir shopping, get my legs waxed, get a haircut. Eat at the Korean place one last time. Eat at the Indian place one last time. Sell my cellphone (right before I leave, of course).

Ah, the freedom of a not yet begun day from the comfort of a balcony with only a hot laptop for company...

It's all coming to an end.

Well, I thought it was going to be a very different sort of year.

In a few hours, Kenny will call a cab for his pre-dawn ride to the Tan Son Nhat Airport, and his Vietnam experience will be over. And in a few weeks, I will follow suit. Right now we're packing, and I'm freaked out because I just watched a scary movie on a really grainy TV (which makes it so much worse) and the neighbors next door have apparently rented that favorite of Vietnamese household gadgets, the combination karaoke-machine-and-megaphone.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the reason why I came here and what I thought it was going to be like. I feel a few different ways about how it's turned out. On one hand, I think, it's not fair. I wanted to be an au pair. I got psyched up about it all summer long. I signed up for something and prepared for it and it turned out to be not at all what I had agreed to. And then, it was gone. But on the other hand, if the job had turned out the way it was supposed to, I wouldn't have been able to do most of the best things I did this year-- living with Kenny being the top thing, of course, and traveling around Asia for seven weeks. I would have been a live-in au pair, devoting all my time and energy to a family, and all my freedom, too.

I'm not sad, just ponderous. I hope I get the opportunity to be an au pair again at some point. It still sounds fantastic, even though now I know that the possibility of falsely representing yourself or your situation can come from the family, not just the au pair (I mean haven't you heard tons of stories about au pairs, usually eastern European, discovering the nightlife in their new host city and having to be woken up everymorning to take the kids to school still drunk?).

And I guess I'm a little dissapointed in myself for not staying longer. I'm really excited about coming home, especially because I get to live in Vermont, and see my family again. But I can also see how easily I adapted to living in Saigon. This is just one of those great cities that is about to change so fast, that all I can do is be glad I lived here "before." Before the WTO, before all the motorbikes start turning into cars and the roads become congested for all time, before it becomes expensive to live here.

There's no point imagining what your life would be like if things had turned out differently, unless you're unhappy with your life, which I can emphatically say I'm not.

If the karaoke next door doesn't stop soon, however, I may change my mind about that last part.

15 February, 2007

A Warm Welcome

Arriving in Saigon last night was bliss. The city has never looked so beautiful. Everything was all lit up for Tet, the lunar new year, which starts on the 16th. There are paper lanterns and huge smiling pigs everywhere, as well as banners saying Chuc Mung Nam Moi, crowds, dragons running through the streets with lots of human legs underneath, etc.

We arrived just in time to climb off the bus, claim our backpacks from under the bus, and walk across downtown to meet up with our friends for a group Valentine's day dinner. The combination of lovable friends whom we have missed very much and the wine (haven't drank at all since before Christmas!) and the food (goat cheese! fresh salad! pasta! lamb! oh my god!) served to make me feel extremely warm and melty. Plus we were at Jaspa's, where you are provided with crayons and allowed to doodle on the paper tableclothes. Wow. Home sweet Saigon!

We are sleeping at Kim and Janny's house, both of whom left today for Tet, so the house is all ours-- or at least for one more day, and then Kenny leaves, and it's all mine. Sniff.

Today was an extremely productive day: good sleep was had, I took a bath, Kenny and I completely unpacked and repacked our suitcases (making the usual "free store" pile for when the girls return home) and went on the easiest shopping trip ever: everything we needed just appeared before us, right when we needed it, for great prices. We found a new winter jacket for Kenny (since the NorthFace gore tex jackets come with all the trimmings here for about $26), souvenirs for Mary, Yoshi, Chris and Kei, new computer cases for me and Patty, a few groceries for the empty fridge, and a new inner tube for my front bicycle tire, which I'm going to try to sell before I go (the bicycle, not the tire).

And now-- we get to watch a movie on a real TV screen! On a couch! Inside!!

Traveling is great, but it's even greater sometimes to come home.

11 February, 2007

Oh, poo

Well, darn it, I got lazy and let all this time slip by; now I have a gazillion adventures to write about and it's all piling up in my brain, augh!

So, in brief:

- have officially applied to grad school
- have offically left Laos and am three days from returning to Saigon
- have just uploaded more than 400 photos from our adventures in Laos
- have caught yet another weird stomach thing and am not feeling so hot, especially since today's beach frolicking won me a sunburn,
- and um, gosh. I don't know. I have a lot to write about. Guess I better start.

Since the last time I was able to write a blog, I’ve traveled from Luang Prabang in Laos all the way to Nha Trang in Vietnam. But let me slow it down.

We decided to eschew the tourist trail and not go to Vang Vieng and Vientiane, even though we had heard fun things about those places, and at some point I’d like to go back (like when we can afford tourist prices). Plus, it was really cold at night and we had had several overcast days, so the real attraction of hanging out in Vang Vieng (tubing, kayaking) was sort of a moot point.

So. We looked at the map and read a little bit on Travelfish (which is fast replacing the Lonely Planet website, in my opinion) and decided that if we just headed dead east we could cross the border and be back in Vietnam- and it would be warm again, and we can speak a little bit of the language, and it was just be good. So the first stop East is a little town called Nong Khiew (called NK from here on out). The main things to do in NK is to walk to the cave a few miles down the road in this huge limestone cliff, and to catch a boat to what turned out to be the best place in the entire country for us: Muang Ngoi.

Muang Ngoi consists of one road. The electricity only comes on from about 6:30pm to 9pm, but that all depends on who’s turning on the generator, I guess. You cannot get to the town by roads- it really took me awhile to absorb the fact that there are no roads that go there. None. You have to take a boat. And the boat ride is one of the most stunning I’ve ever seen—the mountains are so unbelievably tall and they’re really sudden. There’s no rise, there’s just jungle and then boom, it gets shaken off and there’s a white and grey limestone face with a few scraggly palm trees hanging on to the sides. Once you get to Muang Ngoi, you pretty much just walk up and down the little street and pick a bungalow- they’re all about two bucks a night, some with a porch (ours had a porch!) and some facing the river (ours faced the river!). It gets seriously cold at night, and stays that way until the sun is way up in the sky the next day. While we were there it was a full moon, which lit everything up so much that the roosters crowed all night. There were seriously hundreds of chicken in Muang Ngoi. In fact, there was an unusually large number of babies, puppies, and chicks in the town- I guess there’s a lot of procreating going on. There’s no hot water, so you have to pay to go to the steam bath and pour little bowlfuls of hot water over your shivering body if you want to wash with something other than the chilly river water that they pump up to the guesthouses.

After a few days hiking around the trails, visiting the minority hilltribe villages up in the forest, and trekking across the rice paddies and streams, we caught a boat back to NK and spent the night there, and the next morning we caught the first of many trucks to get to the Vietnam border.

You wouldn't believe it, but after three days with a runny nose and frozen ears and a wrapped up pig screaming at your feet and a pile of chickens overhead, the whole open-air back of the truck thing can get pretty tiring. So it was with glad tidings that we rode the final three hours to the border and hopped out of our ride, went through the stamping out process, and walked the half mile or so of no-man's-land between the two countries.

However, Vietnam was not as ready to welcome us with open arms as we were. The officials at the gate were incredibly sweet, and I was back into my flow of maybe two dozen words in no time, charming them with my "Chung toi la giao vien tieng anh, Ho Chi Minh City!" [we are English teachers, Ho Chi Minh City!]. Kenny stomped on my foot and then I realized maybe that I shouldn't mention that we've been working illegally. Oops. Luckily nothing was mentioned, for the guys were busy drawing us a map of how we were best to proceed to Hue, our first stop on our grand tour from North to South. It turns out that when public transportation is scarce, motorbike drivers get greedy, as well they are able to. Kenny and I each paid more for our 53km ride to the next town over than we would end up having to pay to travel the entire rest of the length of the country. We were pissed off, and so we strode out of town, intending (this was K's idea) to just walk to the next time where the locals were maybe not so used to seeing stranded tourists at the border, and try to get a better price. But what ended up happening was the greedy motorbike guys (just young men on flashy bikes) followed us out of town, watching us getting hotter and hotter and more and more tired from hiking uphill and not seeing a dang hut or village or anything. Finally we agreed to put our lives and budgets into their very nicotine-addicted hands and spent the next hour and a half fairly certain that death was imminent and being grateful that at least, we made it back to the country that has our information at the Embassy, and that we got to see a little of North Vietnam.

The plan was that the guys were going to drop us off at the next town over, Quan Son, where we could catch the daily 1pm bus to the big town on the coat, Thanh Hoa, where we could catch any number of possible transportation options southward to Hue.

But. They guys stopped a few times. They just pulled over on the side of the road, tried on our sunglasses, smoked some cigarettes, tried to get us to pay a higher price (now that we were in the middle of Where The Heck, Vietnam) and basically dawdled until it was almost 1pm. Then they said, in effect, "oh, we better pull over again at the next village and call the bus so they'll wait for you!" Suuure, we said. Not like we had a choice. So they do that, and we continue a little speedily now (who knows what the bus said?) until my guy gets a flat tire and we have to change it. By now it was definitely after the bus's departure time, and when we sped into town, locals started shooing us down the road, as if to say, "they;ve only just left! go, by god!" and so we did.

But. When we caught up with the bus, a young guy swung down casually and appraised us, apparently much amused by our frenzied attempts just to catch up with him. "Twenty-five dollar!" he says, to the mirth of everyone aboard. We protest, shocked, and the cackles from toothless Vietnamese already onboard pour down from the open windows. "Twenty-five, twenty-five," he says, ointing at Kenny and I in turn, "very cheap fah you, you Amedican!" and laughs gleefully.

Well, sometimes you just snap. We've got this guy hanging from the bus, we've got our motorbike drivers who have been steadily quacking a litany of higher prices than we had agreed upon from behind us, and I just loose it for a second, and yell "no! NOT cheap! Di, di, di!" [go away, go away!]. I turn to the motorbike guy, pull our rightful change from his hand, and grab Kenny, walking away in a steaming huff. The bus leaves, the motorbike guys zoom around taunting us for a few seconds, "ooh, hee hee, etc" and then we are left, again, on the side of the road with no apparent plan. At this point we've spent well over our daily budget, and that's for everything: food, transportation, room-- just on this one 53km leg of the trip alone.

So now we really do start to hoof it. We walk for about an hour, taking some pictures of the stunning countryside, and rationing out what's left of the last water bottle that we bought, when along comes a huge lorry, and we make the little finger-wiggling come here motion (palm down, arm out straight, now flap your wrist around), and lo and behold, they're going to Thanh Hoa and there's room in the cab!

To make a long, long ride into a much shorter story: we ride all crammed in, with three men who are very kind and speak almost no English, but do have an enormous tobacco-filled bong that they slurp on the whole way. We experience some hand-fixed break downs, a succulent dinner of eel and rabbit (it was actually really, really good), and a straight shot to Thanh Hoa, where we immediatley hopped onto a night train and rode it, snoring all the way, to Hue.

A few good days were spent there, washing the Laos dust out of our pores, clothes, and hair, and quickly remembering what it means to be in a hot climate again. We walked all over the city, splurged on an $8 room which had internet en suite (Hosanna!) but no hot water, and then to save money, bought a ticket for the open bus, which dropped us off this morning at the crack of dawn in Nha Trang.

On Valentine's day we return to Saigon, and Kenny flies home on Saturday morning. And then I get to do some major souveneier shopping and repacking of the bags-- and finis!

I'm on Flickr a lot.

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