Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Cat Tien--the edge of reason

Road trips in college always created a euphoric feeling, didn’t they? They implied adventure on a monumental scale for our sad, myopic, pathetic, little lives: staying in hotels shaped like Shake and Bake boxes and castles, drinking copious amounts of wine from a box, singing along to the Spice Girls at the top of your lungs, doing finger puppet theatre in the back-seat for the folks in the car behind you, putting a water-gun under your sweatshirt and holding the tollbooth person at pretend gunpoint (unbeknownst to them of course) just because you forgot small change…

Those were the days. So you can imagine my delight when I heard that my Vietnamese language school program proposed taking a road trip to Cat Tien. I started filling up the water guns immediately, before remembering, sadly, that there are so few toll booths in Vietnam. Hmm, the security checkpoints would have to serve in place of the tollbooths instead, I decided. Where were we headed, you ask? Cat Tien National Park, second only to the Grand Canyon National Park in terms of its grandeur. Actually, not really. I gotta be honest, unless you’re totally into birds, which I am not (come on, they are BIRDS), there is nothing to see. We were promised crocodiles, elephants, Javanese Rhinoceros, frozen cavemen and lepers (just seeing if you’re paying attention), and gaur. What did we see? Rabbits and deer. Not even crazy, three-eyed psychedelic rabbits and deer or something like that, but the normal, healthy kind.

The trip went from bad to worse as soon as we arrived. I was hoping we would be camping, but turns out we had rooms with air conditioning…at least the mattresses were made of foam, so that helped. Then we took a tour of the guesthouse grounds and to our delight found a canteen and a karaoke bar. Peaches and Cream Barbie! There was even a massage parlor, but, given that it had “massage parlor” written on it instead of “spa,” we decided karaoke would be a safer evening activity. While waiting for our jungle safari, some friends and I embarked on a karaoke journey with Madonna, Vanilla Ice, Lionel Richie and so, so many others. With enough Tiger beers, anyone would have loved it.

After we settled in, our first activity was a two-hour trek in the “reserved core area.” We saw dozens of really old trees and learned that leeches don’t actually look like those fat, disgusting buggers in Stand By Me. We discovered that leeches are actually tiny (when not fattened up on obese American blood), wormlike creatures that move like inchworms. Kinda cute, huh? We found a few in our shoes, but since we were constantly checking, none of them had actually attached to our legs, although I did get an untreatable form of Lyme Disease. But that’s about all we learned, besides the fact that when trees die, they die from within, so it’s not always apparent from the outside that a tree is dead. Really, though, don’t we all die a little inside every day?

After dinner and a team quiz with our language teachers on what we had seen that day (was a quick quiz, let me tell you), we divided into two groups for the “two- hour night cruise deep into the jungle by jeep watching wild animals and hearing the calls of rhinocerous.” Now, I’m no Ork, but again, there was disappointment. Because some other couple (rumored to be Brangelina) rented one of the jeeps for their own private “cruise” in the jungle, we had to split up into two groups and do only a one-hour trek deep into the jungle. As I mentioned, we saw deer and rabbits and heard no “calls of rhinocerous,” although luckily, the peyote we had smoked earlier allowed us to see dragons and unicorns—does that count? I even remembered the song from The Last Unicorn—“When the last eagle soars over the last crumbling mountain…” **To spare you, I leave the entire set of lyrics for you at the end of this blogorama of a blog.

That night, I curled into a ball and gently wept on my foam mattress of a bed until morning (my sister said that she falls asleep to the sound of her own screams). The next morning was quite a bit more interesting—we took a one-hour bike ride through the area where we had been the night before in the jeep. We heard dozens of birds (few of which our guide could identify--hey, he’s just a guide, what’s he supposed to know, you know?) and saw nothing, although getting away from the Ho Chi Minh City air out into the cleaner countryside air with an actual blue sky was soooooooooooo nice. Again, we had split up, so half of the group did the bicycle ride, while half did a canoe trip. The “canoe” trip ended up consisting of the group being loaded onto an engine boat with no paddling whatsoever. At least our bike trip had bikes; and we propelled them ourselves as well. Frankly, I don’t know and I don’t care what the boat people did—I’m sure they yachted around on their little corporate yacht drinking Veuve Clicquot and being all corporationy while laughing at how provincial we countryfolk were on our little bikes. I bet they even tried to pretend they were pirates.

After completing our morning chores and activities which were divided along class lines, we loaded up the van and headed back to Ho Chi Minh City, stopping along the way only to dispose of the dead bodies of those who were eaten during the night safari. Would we go back to Cat Tien? Should you go to Cat Tien National Park??? Why the heck not??? I just changed my mind about how I felt when I first started writing this fantastic piece. I’ve decided that you should go, too. You just should.

**The Last Unicorn (damn, I wish I had written this…)

When the last eagle soars over the last crumbling mountain

And the last lion roars at the last dusty fountain

In the shadow of the forest though she may be old and worn

They will stare unbelieving at the last unicorn

When the breath of winter through the flowers is icing

And you look to the north and a pale moon is rising

And it seems like all is dying and would leave the world to mourn

In the distance hear the laughter of the last unicorn

I'm alive, I'm alive

When the last moon is cast over the last star of morning

And the future has passed without even a last desperate warning

Then look to the sky where through the clouds a path is torn

Look and see how she sparkles, it's the last unicorn

I'm alive, I'm alive...

My comment: even if we all die inside a little every day like the trees.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

What is happening to the neighborhood?

I recently watched an episode of The Sopranos in which two of Tony’s “employees” try to shake the manager at a Starbucks-implied coffee shop into paying monthly “dues” for protection. After approaching two more of the new businesses in town, they realize that they are not the typical mom-and-pop shops, and, thus, “corporate” won’t respond to their attempts to extort money from them. Asking what has happened to the neighborhood (actually, they asked, “what the &*(! is happening to the neighborhood”), they imply that globalization is definitely putting a cramp on traditional mafia ways and that it’s over for the little guy.

Perhaps the same can be said here in Vietnam, although the local police are not giving up as easily as Tony’s guys. Without getting into too much detail, the NGO where I was working just moved into its own independent office space…unintentionally next to the ward (neighborhood) police station. And when I say local, I mean, bumbling, bored, Barney Fife kind of local. During the first two weeks of our being the news kids on the block, the police visited seven times—sometimes in plainclothes, sometimes in uniform—but their demands have slowly softened, as they realize that we are a non-profit that operates on a bare-bones budget. To give you an idea of how bare-bones, I used to pick up paper clips off the floor and add to them to my collection because we had no budget for office supplies. And for post-it notes, I would cut up the back of used printer paper and staple a booklet together for writing notes. Oh, and the used printing paper was from another office—I was strongly and frequently encouraged not to print anything. So, while the obnoxious local (and Ministry police, I might add) police have slowly become bored, that still hasn’t stopped them from going into the computers and erasing emails and other important documents from them.

My point is that when I took the job in the education sector, I thought I would be more shielded from corruption, but, sadly, it is one of the most corrupt sectors, particularly when it comes to international education. New scandals crop up every week, like the one involving the Minister of EDUCATION, who gave himself a highly competitive scholarship to study in England. And while the newspapers report some of the scandals, everyone knows there are many more stories that the government does not allow to be printed. The Party fully subscribes to the “peaceful evolution/transformation” theory the John Foster Dulles put forth during the height of the Cold War. “Peaceful evolution,” as the Vietnamese government explains, is how the Americans defeated the Soviets. Through cultural and educational exchange programs, the Americans surreptitiously and single-handedly made the entire Soviet Empire and Eastern Bloc collapse, subjugating them to the evils of consumerism, Wheel of Fortune, and morbid obesity. Never mind the fact that the Soviet Union was facing imperial overstretch alongside internal rot and collapse, and had a leader who advocated political reforms before economic changes. Let’s not even get into the arms race, the Pope, or as the Repubs like to point out, Reagan. In fact, the Vietnamese government regards the Fulbright program as one of the most suspicious things to happen since the country opened its doors to foreign governments. Fortunately, they haven’t found out yet that several alumni have already returned with the newly developed Raymond Shaw computer chip in them. Sadly, operating a business here faces less harassment and annoyance than working for an NGO. That’s not to say there is less corruption in business, but to say the corruption is more straightforward, with less suspicion involved. And golf. Lots and lots of golf. And Jack Daniels.

Ultimately, I gave up that job with the NGO. The glitz and glamour were simply too much.

I was prepared to mention all of this to Jorge when he came to visit two weeks ago, but there simply wasn’t time. Jorge and Dr. Rice kindly made time for a meet and greet with the Consulate folks on their 19-hour visit to Ho Chi Minh City. Knights of Columbus, does he ever look fit, that president. I knew he wouldn’t have, oh, to be kind, let’s use the word “time” instead of a reference to his intelligence, for a deconstruction of the Peaceful Evolution theory, so instead of shaking the president’s hand, I thought of something else instead. My five readers, it always comes down to South Park, doesn’t it? Okay, so, there is a South Park episode about Jennifer Lopez. Cartman does a hand puppet version of Jennifer Lopez where she sings “Taco-flavored kisses for my Ben (as in Ben Affleck).” Actually, it’s “Taco-flavored kisses for my Beh-en.” I came upon the brilliant idea of replacing, “It’s a great pleasure to meet you, Mr. President,” with imitating a hand-puppet version of J.Lo and saying “Springroll (eh, fish sauce also works)-flavored kisses for my Jorge.” I decided against it, though. Duke’s short career flashed through my head, so I decided to stick with the vanilla phrase instead.

A few days later, Brangelina rolled into town, those crazy bastards. They went all around the city centre on their motorbikes and ate at one of my favorite restaurants in town. Where were we? Stupidly, we were at the beach a few hours outside of Saigon (recently dubbed the “Hamptons” of Vietnam, in a recent NYT article, but I beg to differ), drinking mojitos by the resort’s new Infinity pool. We were also working on the next move after Pakistan—it’s complicated, but so far, we’re only a few connect-the-dots away from completing a bird’s eye view of Tom DeLay’s profile in our moves around the world. I was cursing myself for letting Tom DeLay and mojitos lure me away from the possibility of seeing Brad Pitt in my city, but alcoholism can have that effect.

That’s the skinny on us for now. You stay classy, United States.

Friday, September 01, 2006

From Middle Earth to Down Under

Or, From the Land of Flightless Birds and No Predators to the Land Where Every Dangerous Animal Known to Humans Dwells and Even the Giant Earthworms Can Kill

Many of you know how much I LOVE to fly, so the thought of taking a total of eight airplanes for the upcoming New Zealand/Australia trip terrified me. In the end everything was fine, but my nerves were definitely shot by then, as well as Duke’s circulation in his hands. The trip started off on an exciting note when we landed in Auckland in fog and rain so chowda thick that you could not see the runway until the wheels touched down. And they don’t call NZ the Roaring 40s in terms of wind patterns for nothing, no sir. Yes, flying in and out of NZ was, as Larry David would say, pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty turbulent.

Let’s move along. When we arrived to Queenstown via Auckland, we expected Prime Minister Helen Clark herself to greet all tourists arriving at the airport. You know, like Blair does in the Simpsons episode when they go to Merry Old England? Sadly, no there was no Ms. Clark welcoming us to her country, but we did see some hobbits. I don’t know how those nasty barefoot hobbits could take the weather—we went from 35 to 5 degrees Celsius (figure it out, I’m too lazy to convert) in 10 hours. Definitely not Shire weather.

In Queenstown, dubbed the Adventure Capital of the World for its, well, adventure tourism, we engaged in such dangerous activities as watching skydivers and bungee jumpers and feeling even colder, taking in the local (VERY local…as in “Yeah, and John Smith just added 10 new sheep to his herd, yeah, yeah”) news on TV, and going on a wine tour. After a few days there, we headed to Te Anau where we spent three days touring a glowworm cave and two amazing sounds in Fiordland National Park. We saw things we had never seen before—rainforests co-existing with glaciers (apparently, NZ and Chile are the only two places in the world where you find that), fiordland crested penguins, fur seals, people actually from Wyoming, and a mail system where you need only write a person’s first name on the envelope.

From Te Anau on the west coast of the South Island, we headed to Dunedin on the southeast coast, a city whose name reflects its Scottish founders. We arrived late and found ourselves in a hotel room that was a bit smokier than we wanted. We simply couldn’t say no to the hotel manager, however—he was about 5 feet tall (not a hobbit, don’t worry, I checked his papers) and went out of his way to answer any questions we asked. He reminded me of a man whom my sister and I met in Ireland called “Little John.” Little John had a wooden-leg, he did, and was about 4.5 feet tall. He almost drowned when he was a child and remained little ever since, he did, or so the story went at the pub. Anyway, meeting the hotel manager reminded me of my Irish friend, he did, so we simply had to stay at that hotel, smoking room and all. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to enjoy the Cadbury Factory, as there was a snowstorm expected to hit that area and close all the roads. Instead, we got an early start and headed up to Christchurch further up the eastern coast. Just as well, we didn’t want to be tripping on chocolate, like the Simpson children parodying Trainspotting, while driving.

In Christchurch, we learned about Antarctic exploration history, glugged NZ’s microbrews, caught a glimpse of the famously shy kiwi birds, and took in some Maori history. In fact, Duke was chosen as the “Chief” of our tourist group, which meant that he had to negotiate peace with the Maori tribe that we would be meeting that evening. Luckily, Duke hongi-ed (the traditional Maori greeting where they touch noses) correctly and our fate did not go the way of some of Captain Cook's men. Later in the evening, all of the men learned how to do the haka. You might know it as the dance where Maori men grimace fiercely with their tongues elongated and show the whites of their eyes. It’s also the All Blacks national rugby team’s pre-match intimidation/motivation routine. Duke definitely needs to work on his haka moves before joining the rugby team, though.

The rest of the trip was filled with more glaciers (at Mt. Cook, where they filmed the final scene in the first Lord of the Rings movie), gold-mining history, some great hikes, more wine with red meat, and cold, but beautiful runs.

We met some interesting people along the way, besides the hobbits. During our Fiordland cruises, we met an American from Virginia who had moved to NZ to be a vet. In Christchurch, we met a Swissman who had been living in NZ for 20 years running his own café. He was very Swiss and very Old World—no credit cards, only cash, even if it meant losing customers, and he complained that NZ/Aussie/British backpackers drank too much and the NZ women looked “jez like ze men; zey are too manly.” We also met many people working in the NZ tourism industry from all over the world. NZ has been experiencing a large increase in tourism, but still has a significant labor shortage. Young foreigners are taking advantage of the country’s liberal “working-holiday” visa program, so we saw more nametags with “Roma,” “Masa,” and “Ali” than “John” or “Kylie.” We had some great conversations about living overseas.

After 11 days in NZ, we flew on to Sydney. We did all of the touristy things there—the Opera House, the bridge, the Botanical Gardens, the aquarium. Although disappointed with not meeting Helen Clark in NZ, we were delighted when Howard came through for us. We were out for a run early Sunday morning and saw Prime Minister Howard himself out for a brisk walk—well, okay, I actually noticed the large, fit bodyguards surrounding him, while Duke noticed the Prime Minister. I was too busy wondering why anyone would wear such a loud green and yellow tracksuit to pay attention to who was actually wearing it. Too busy pondering his sartorial taste, I missed my chance to say g’day, but Duke was ready and got his “Hi, Prime Minister Howard!” in.

If you were hoping to hear stories about our adventures with dingoes, crocs, vegemite sandwiches, Mordor, the ghosts of Shackleton’s men, or fistfights with Russell Crowe and "Tugga", you’ll be sorely disappointed, readers. This was a pretty tame trip—we’re saving the adventures for our next trip there, which will probably involve even more planes.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Of Snakes and Monkeys

When I was little, I loved Indiana Jones movies. One of my favorite movies was the uber-culturally sensitive Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, particularly the scene when Jones and Willie were served chilled monkey brains, python meat and eyeball soup, among other delicacies. While my mother would turn away in complete horror, I would gleefully watch, munching away happily on my dried seahorse chips. At times, I would lop off a piece of our hamster’s head just to play along. That was wrong—one should never “lop off”; heads should be sliced properly at an angle.

Who knew that years later, I would find myself in situations where I would be faced with eating sheep eyeballs, horse liver, bloody rooster soup, duck embryo and cobra meat? Family friends who were visiting Ho Chi Minh City were the catalyst for our latest culinary adventure. On my recent trip back to the States, I had casually mentioned at a party that in some parts of Asia, including Vietnam, it is considered very manly to eat snake’s blood and even the beating heart of a snake. A certain someone remembered that idea and brought it up when coming to visit. Toward the end of their trip, I asked a local friend to recommend a good (and, somewhat safe, but safety, of course, would be secondary) snake restaurant.

A few hours later, having text-messaged a few people, our small group turned into a party of eleven. The menu was daunting, where to begin? There was armadillo (or, as they preferred the alternative spelling “armadilla”), gorilla, rat, panda bear, and bat. Unfortunately, they were all out of Ross’s Holiday Armadillo®. We decided to go with cobra and turtle. The waiter let us choose our turtle while it was still alive, and brought the lovely little guy to our table. A member of our group thought it would be funny to tease the turtle with a wrapped packet of chopsticks. Tommy the Turtle snapped off several pieces of the paper wrapping and spit them out, as if to say, “how original, you stupid f%$king Americans.”

Then the snake handler brought out the cobra while we took turns kissing it on its head. Unfortunately, Duke got bit, but took it like a man until four hours later we had to rush him to the hospital—just didn’t seem right to continue watching his face turn bluer and bluer. After we sent him off to the hospital (joking, by the way), we continued our adventure at the restaurant and watched as several people held down the snake’s head (wrapped with tape) while the snake handler chopped it off. He carefully took out the beating heart and gall bladder and put them into mini wine glasses. Next, he held up the snake’s body and slit it down the middle, draining the blood into a bottle of very cheap vodka. Our mouths watered as the waiters poured the bright red vodka into our shot glasses. Our visiting friend (let’s call him “Kram”) seemed somewhat anxious when the still-beating heart and gall bladder were set in front of him, cameras flashing. But…after two gulps, it was done, and we all followed suit by downing our own bloody mixture of vodka. Yum—just like apple cinnamon tea.

The waiters then brought out chopped up, grilled snake meat (tastes like toddler meat, in case you’re wondering), along with grilled snake tails and grilled Tommy the Turtle. None of us were too pleased with how the turtle looked—he was pretty much just grilled sans shell, then thrown on a plate with lettuce. Tommy’s head had been cut off, but his shell was put back on (I suppose for the sake of decency) and the claws were still there—someone had even thought to give him a manicure and pedicure. I tell you: it was a night full of magic, laughter, gumdrop smiles and tears, and I was sad to see it end. The owners of the restaurant played “Turtle-flavored kisses” by Hennifer Lopez, as we left. I almost wept—I had checked off an important box on my “things to do before I die” list.

I was even lucky enough the next day to check off another box on my list—Make Friends with a Back-flipping, Chained-up Monkey. This unexpected treat came after we hit the tailor’s shop. For whatever reason, in the year that I have been traveling up and down this street to get to the tailor, I never noticed the back-flipping, chained-up monkey. Unlike the monkeys we had seen in Cambodia the week before, this little guy had a particularly volatile intensity. That monkey seriously needs some ritalin. Kram’s sister suggested the monkey should go free, but Kram and I laughed at that idea. Silly Kram’s sister, everyone knows that monkeys are for Homer's entertainment and space experiments. As if I needed it, now I have even more incentive to visit the tailor. In fact, the next time I go, I plan to slip a Vietnamese copy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the owner to see if I can convince him to give raw simian grey matter a chance. Viruses and anatomical similarities be damned.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Much Ado About Nothing

The Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is winding down this week after much ado in the city leading up to the event. As soon as I arrived back from a long visit to the States, I knew something important was going to happen. (The States, by the way, were the same as I left them, except what is UP with the TomKat and Brangelina baby watch…if they gave birth to a three-headed hyena that could say “my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,” THEN I would care.) The streets were being paved, the bottoms of trees had sparkling new coats of white paint (a Soviet/Commie thing, I think), buildings that had been left in mid-construction for over a year with a cartoon-like frozen crane next to them were humming again, and sidewalks that had previously dropped off were being lengthened by Shel Silverstein himself. My, I thought to myself, something is afoot.

I honed these skills while I was in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan, in fact. My first experience with city-wide preparations for an important visit was when two large Russian men came to the English Resource Center where I was volunteering. In broken English, they said, “Ve be need for chair-ez. Prezident vill be come.” From this, my students wisely deduced that the Uzbek president would be coming to our humble city for a visit, and that these nice gentlemen wanted to make his stay as comfortable as possible. As Boris and Ivan started to take the couch out, I inquired as to where they were taking it and when they would return it. There was no time for an answer because the two had decided they could not get it through the door and would have to take the door off of its hinges. No, let’s make that rip the door off of its hinges. The wacky 72 year-old Peace Corps Volunteer (another story in itself) who was with me squealed and made preparations to pack up the entire Resource Center in her purse, should the doorway be permanently left open. I tried a more rational approach—showing Boris and Ivan how to turn the couch sideways and angle it such that it would, indeed, fit through the doorway. Seelly Amereekan Peace Corpus Volunteer, their stares said, ve don’t have time for thees crap. So, long story, short--they did rip the door off of its hinges and we had to pack up the entire Resource Center in luggage that we had to run home to get. What ultimately happened to the couch, my anxious readers want to know? It was used for the President’s possible, but never realized, visit to the prestigious International Lycee. It was eventually returned to the Resource Center sans one of its side cushions.

So, back to APEC. The city was alive with (in addition to the rats) preparations! What I noticed most, however, were the signs around all of the construction touting “Cotecin Construction—Safety First,” above hatless workers and welders dangling precariously off of the 20th floor, with lightening providing a glimpse of their profiles. Drivers pulled up on their motorbikes, having transported a giant, glass window pane between themselves and a passenger behind them. Pedestrians wove throughout all of this, not a barricade or warning sign in sight. Even the Mini-Kiss midget cover band (see Daily Show story) that was here on tour as part of APEC was able to roam freely through the chaos. It reminded me of the time when Duke and I were at the airport in Hanoi and someone was stripping a carpet off of a spiral stairway above the check-in counters. Nails, threads and large chunks of carpet were raining down through the steps. Finally, an airline employee thought to put up makeshift gate that is used to guide the passenger lines near the counters as a blockade. It only served to encourage people to stand directly under the flying debris. As if in a movie, a woman with her baby walked under the open staircase and took a call on her cell phone, pausing long enough for us to wince, then walked on just as a very large piece of carpet fell behind her. She didn’t even notice.

Sadly, I was having popcorn last night. Sad, because it was popcorn and sad because I was watching it turn around and around and around and around on the microwave carousel. The other sad part was that as I watched it turning around in the microwave, I noticed the “This end up!” and “Side of bag!” and “Do not pick up from this end!” Really, Orville takes more concern for his consumers than the Cotecin Construction Company took in its workers or fellow citizens. Let’s not even discuss the lengths to which Hotpockets (cue “Hotpockets!” theme song—that was a good one, wasn’t it?) goes to save its customers’ from tongue-burn, or how McDonald’s warns its slow-minded patrons about the amazing concept that the contents of their coffee cup are, indeed, hot, or even that Conair must spend thousands of dollars to tag its hair dryers with large signs for users not to operate the product while in the bathtub. I digress.

Mmmm, hotpockets—pizza inside a hot bread-like pocket. Great idea. Breakfast, all mixed together into one delicious hot pocket that is always soggy and cold in the middle and crispy hot on the outside. Such a contrast, you are, my little hotpocket. Anyway, safety in Vietnam—not so safe, no. Perhaps we need to create a jingle for Cotecin Construction Company, a la Team America—“What would ye-oo do-oo if you were asked to give up your dreams for safety? Safety isn’t free—it costs folks like you and me. And if you don’t give us your buck o’five, who will? Safety costs a buck o’fiiiiiiiiiiiive.” Perhaps the Mini-Kiss midget cover band can sing it for them.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Be Aggressive, B-E Aggressive

“Why are Americans so aggressive and combative?” read the question on the list of FAQs for soon-to-be-departing southeast Asian students to the U.S. My director once headed up a scholarship fund, and this was one of the questions that came up repeatedly in pre-departure orientation sessions. He sent me and my assistant the list of FAQs for some humorous reading before a holiday weekend. “Do you agree that Americans are combative and aggressive?” I asked my assistant, pinning her on the ground so she couldn’t escape. Indeed, no one in the office seemed to have a straight answer, but all agreed that Americans could be hot-tempered at times.

This question continued to bother us as Duke and I waited in line at the airline counter to check in for our flight to Hanoi. For Christmas weekend, we decided to go to Sapa, which is a remote place in the northern highlands near the Chinese border. It is home to several minority ethnic peoples and one of only two minority sites that tourists are allowed to visit. I still couldn’t shake the question after yelling at the woman checking in passengers. My God, I thought, she definitely needed to be more organized. We were told to wait in a second line, since the first line, in which we had waited 15 minutes, wasn’t the correct one. And who knows, yelling and threatening to hurt her family might not have endeared her to help us either.

“Watch out for the guy behind us, he’s lurking,” I whispered to Duke as we queued up for the second time. Having lived in Uzbekistan and now Vietnam, I’ve become more than a little sensitive about mobbing and disregarding the sacred code of queuing conduct. Duke subtly turned his head to see whom I was referring to, and from then on the airport trip went from bad to worse. The old man behind us instantly snapped at Duke when he turned around. He said in almost unaccented English, “What are you looking at? What is your problem?” To which Duke replied, “Uh, I was just making sure you didn’t cut in front of us.” Now, clearly, the man behind us was a bit off, which was obvious from his excessive shaking and head ticking, so Duke should have simply said, “Sorry, nothing” and turned back around. Yes, as Duke himself often points out, it’s amazing how a functional illiterate like himself can get a PhD in our society. The man was not happy with Duke’s answer, of course, and let out a string of insults, which included, “white trash”, “jerk”, and “mixed…(inaudible)….piece of shit…(inaudible)…goddamn.” Amazingly, he did not end up next to us on the plane or even on our flight, although we saw plenty of him in the pre-boarding area.

We were two for two when we arrived to the train station in Hanoi, and got into a loud fight with a strange man who grabbed our bags and took them the ten feet to the other side of the station, holding out his hand for money.

Duke and I were getting so good at fulfilling the combative stereotype that we thought about creating our own show modeled after Russell Crowe’s ‘Fightin’ Round the World’ on South Park. We got into a fight with our luggage valet, however, before we could really develop the concept further.

After an eight-hour train ride, we arrived to Lao Cai, a village near Sapa, on Saturday morning. We took an hour ride to the top of the mountain to get to our hotel, eager to begin our Winter Wonderland Adventure.

But wait, where was our hotel? Where was the town of Sapa? Where were the mountains? The fog that had just settled in upon our arrival to the hotel was thick as clam chowda, making it impossible to see. Then came the rains. Our first two days of the trip, during which it stopped raining, em, not at all, we hung out around town, drinking cup after cup of hot chocolate. We also talked to other travelers, all of whom seemed compelled to tell us how beautiful the weather was the day before we arrived—clear, sunny and in the 60s. In addition to hearing how great the weather was, we also spent some time dodging the ethnic minority group gangs accosting travelers. In particular, we were followed by the Gang BlackH’mong Gang (it’s a Power Puff Girls reference, people), from whom we managed to escape only after I gave them some blankets covered in smallpox. When we tired of going out around the town, we played round after round of pool in the hotel lobby, then retired to our room, looking longingly at our tennis rackets (too foggy and wet to use), swimsuits (indoor pool was being fixed from the day we arrived until the day we would leave), and gym clothes (“gym” consisted of a rickety, rusted stationary bike, I kid you not a thighmaster, and a vibrating belt that you put around your waist ostensibly to whittle it down to Kate Moss size, according to the picture).

For our last two days, we decided to kick it up a notch and do some day treks in the rain and thick-as-chowda fog. On the first day, we hiked to the Su Pan and Ban Ho villages, and met some people from the Red Dao and Tay ethnic minority groups. We had lunch at the new Starbucks in town, then our guide took us up a “shortcut” to meet the car. The shortcut consisted of a steep, muddy path with what seemed like 40% inclines. Picture, if you will, a Slip ‘n Slide with flowing mud laid out on The Cliffs of Insanity, a la Princess Bride. Add some weary travelers and their bored guide. Throughout the trail throw in some disturbingly cute black pot-bellied pigs, CHICKENS! and water buffalo. For the finishing touch, add several ethnic minority children running up and down the path in sandals, dresses and (I cannot make this up, folks) large pieces of corrugated roof or baskets of heavy wood on their backs. The hardier ones had both roof and wood on their backs. Once in awhile, we’d also see the occasional elderly man out for a stroll on the perilous path with his umbrella. Salt to the wound, man, salt to the wound, as we labored up the hill with our walking sticks, gortex gear and $100 hiking boots. To be fair, this path would not be nearly as bad during the dry season—it would simply be tricky, rather than ludicrous, which is what we were dealing with. From time to time the mist even cleared enough for us to see what a truly magnificent landscape it was. The hillsides were terraced from top to bottom with silvery pools of rice fields, forming what looked like giant steps. Again, I’ll let the pictures tell the story, as waxing poetic is not my thing:

The second day was much the same, however, we were able to see a very cool bamboo forest, a precipitous waterfall that our guide expected us to cross, and even more children hauling corrugated roofs and wood.

For me, the highlight of the day was trying to balance along the narrow ledges of the rice terraces, where on one side was a six inch-deep pool of water, and on the other was a six foot drop to another pool. If possible, the fog was even thicker this day, the Cliffs were somehow more insane, and we were attacked several times by pirates wanting gold and booty. Luckily, we had the gold and booty. We fell on our bums more than a few times, but the greater worry was that we would slide over the edge of the path and down the steep cliffs. As I mentioned, the local people have no problem negotiating the trails--they think our clumsiness and falling over is quite hysterical. At several points while I was considering whether a particular divot in the path would collapse under my weight or not, a woman and her children from the village below would saunter up and demand, “You buy pillowcase!” While I was grateful to them as there was no Bed, Bath & Beyond around (as far as I could tell through the fog, anyway), there is a time and a place for buying home furnishings—balancing on the edge of a precipice isn't one of them. I politely, but aggressively, declined. After all, I had a stereotype to fulfill.

The highlights of the trip included a very skinny Santa Claus giving out gifts at the hotel on Christmas Eve, everyone assuring us that Sapa, magical place that it is, had no avian influenza, and me yelling at our tour guide to make the rain and mud go away. Humph, aggressive American, my foot.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

I've Been Everywhere, Man

My most humble apologies for such a lag in writing time. I wrote a fantastic piece in October about the essence of bullshit, and its relevance to my most recent experience of planning a major event in a Communist country. I ended the piece with an imaginary scenario that started out with an American child playing peacefully with his Vietnamese counterpart. Playtime, however, degenerated into a pissing contest between the two children about who’s country’s form of government was superior. If I recall correctly, the Vietnamese child won when she brought up Dick Cheney eating toddlers for breakfast. It was a good blog, she was. Unfortunately, I foolishly misplaced the paper on which I had written the blog, as Luddite-me likes to write everything out by hand (okay, in truth, I dictate it to Duke), then type it into the computer.

That Pulitzer-prize winning piece is lost forever, but here’s an update on life in the last few months:

Work: Work continues and I continue to show up. Questions from students and educational administrators continue to baffle me, this week’s what-the-bleep question being, “Do you know of any Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in English around Ho Chi Minh City? I have a friend who is an alcoholic coming to town to visit.”

Travel: My sister and her friend came to visit for two weeks—our first visitors! We took them around HCMC and some nearby sites for the first week, then did Angkor Wat and Ha Long Bay for the second week.

Angkor Wat: A&W is one of those places constantly featured in National Geographic magazine or on the Discovery Channel, so it’s pretty amazing to actually stand in front of AW proper and see it in person for the first time. We spent three days walking around the various temples and cities that were built over hundreds of years. There was one question we couldn’t shake: Why in God’s name do we learn about the great “western” empires and completely skip over the Khmer and Cham and Siam Empires in school?

The beggar children we saw at all of the temples were heartbreakingly adorable, savvy, depressing and quick-witted. They had their sales pitches, we had our answers, and they had their counter-responses…they didn’t miss a beat. Their skilled sales pitches could make any Cutco or Amway representative blush. We ended up buying many a useless item from them that will probably end up at your doorsteps as this year’s Christmas present. Just kidding. But not really.

For the uninitiated, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves (, so that I can spare the readers the formulaic and uninspired descriptions that plague the usual accounts by novice writers.

Ha Long Bay: Our next junket was to a bay in northern Vietnam that spills into the Gulf of Tonkin. It is an area of 3000 incredible islands made of limestone, scattered around emerald waters under hazy skies, so says Lonely Planet. We spent two days and one night on a boat in the bay, which was a great experience. There were tons of other boats and lots of tourists, but we still had a great time exploring a (Disneyland-like) cave, canoeing (in circles), watching the sunset and sunrise, catching our dinner (just kidding), and explaining to our French shipmates that not all Americans call them “Freedom Fries.” After all, we said, some of us know that Americans can’t always claim to have a monopoly on freedom. Sure, some of the time, heck, even most of the time, but certainly not all of the time. He, that would be silly. Moreover, we applauded them, first, for their resolution to stay out of Iraq (as Jon Stewart says, “why go all the way to the Mideast when you can fight Muslims in your very own suburbs?”) and second, for not surrendering Paris even after a week of heavy rioting.

We even managed to squeeze a day of touring in Hanoi, including Uncle Ho’s mausoleum (he was getting a tune-up in Moscow, however), the Lake of the Restored Sword, the Temple of Literature and the famously narrow streets of the Old Quarter. My sister and her friend were able to see the interesting array of characters that gather at the lake each morning, including aerobicists, badminton players, tai chi masters and calisthenics diehards. We even saw someone who looked suspiciously like Suzanne Somers leading a thighmaster session.

Despite the autumnal weather in Hanoi, we couldn’t get out fast enough—we grew tired of the taxi drivers, painfully narrow streets, and seemingly less friendly attitude. Coming “home” to Saigon was refreshing. It’s hard to explain, but Hanoi lacks the emotional range, the fire in the belly that Saigon seems to have cultivated.

On our last big day together, which was Thanksgiving, we had an especially tough day at the spa. We subjected ourselves to massages, facials, manicures and pedicures in the name of beauty. “God curse this beautiful face,” I was heard to have said numerous times throughout the ordeal.

Then, we had American-style burgers and fries—rice does wear on a girl, sometimes—at a restaurant where pictures of Tom Selleck and yellow-eyed, crazed looking stuffed tigers co-exist on the wall in a friendly, but somewhat tense manner. While the burgers were excellent, the restaurant’s atmosphere has an unholy mixture of Polynesian décor and Gary Glitteresque horror. Friends, if you don’t know who Gary Glitter is, type in “Gary Glitter” + “Vung Tau” into Google and read away.

Before dinner, we had a swim and a Jacuzzi break. I tells ya, life is tough here. For Thanksgiving dinner, we ended up eating a hodgepodge of food that was anything but American at an Italian restaurant owned by a Frenchman. The Frenchman, whom I’ve met several times, likes to give unsolicited wine recommendations, answer questions in the most elliptical manner possible, and open his eyes widely like a hamster being squeezed too hard, then squint them so tiny you can’t even see them anymore. Again, we complimented him on his countrymen’s restraint to surrender Paris, or France for that matter, to the rioters. We also offered to send in American troops if necessary.

We left the restaurant only to find HCMC was experiencing its own “riots” after a FUTball win…but unlike their University of Maryland counterparts who set cars on fire after even pre-season games, these young FUTball fans were happily riding their motorbikes up and down the center of the city, Vietnamese flag in hand and victory-sloganed bandanas on head. We managed to seek shelter on the rooftop bar of the historic Rex Hotel, famous for entertaining journalists during the American War.

Safe among the plasticine statues of elephants, tigers and crocodiles—a visual simulacrum of Barnum and Bailey-like delivery—we had a few refreshments and watched the excitement from above. After an hour or so, things died down and we were able to resume our discussion about Fibonacci numbers and Germain primes. But, we were distracted again by the party of 12 next to us who broke into a French version of “Happy Birthday”. Convinced that they were speaking in tongues and starting their own riots, I sprinkled some of my mojito drink on them, yelling “avaunt thee, Satan!” My sister took her cue and guided me away. I conceded that it had been a long day and the fun had to end.

Two days later, Duke and I said a sleepy, but tearful, goodbye to our guests as they checked-in for their 6:00 a.m. flight. We were left alone to ponder the highlights of the visit, such as the tail-less gecko sightings, running away from the aggressive CHICKENS! that gave new meaning to “free-range”, paddling through the rain-swollen streets, trekking up the hill to see the giant Jesus statue, and revealing that joining the Foreign Service (hell, we found this out when we joined the Peace Corps) gives you a chance to get in touch with prejudices you didn’t even know you had.