Saturday, August 23, 2008

That "Uncle Ho"

I did not get to fly on a Hello Kitty Eva Jet. What a disappointment, because the lead-up was so dramatic with the pink striped gate in the waiting area with all of the little pictures and the playground. The gate seemed way too special to lead to nothing. My brother, who called me on Skype right after I posted (and yes, we talked through the internet for free while I was at the airport in Taipei and the connection was better than the one between our cell phones from Seattle to Bellingham) asked if he could have my Hello Kitty tray (what nerve!). Well, Brian, neither of us will get one now.

Anyway, I'm retrieved from the airport by a cute girl named Tu (pronounced "Du") holding a card with my name on it right outside the airport. She introduces herself as the "Director of Student and Staff Relations." During the bus ride (the Mercedes Benz bus is owned by the school) to the hotel (which is in District One, the most interesting district, according to my Eyewitness Travel guide), I ask her what her job entails. At first she says she is not exactly sure, because she is new along with most of the teachers, and then she lists a variety of duties and says, "And I have the most important job there is. I count the days you work and am in charge of payroll!" (she cracks up). Then she hands me a new SIM card loaded with time as well as one million Dong (the name for money here, which is ripe for fun). "Now I am making you a millionnaire!"(cracks up). I ask if Ho Chi Minh is on every bill. "Yes, he is. We call him Uncle Ho!" (cracks up.) "Just like you have Uncle Sam, right?" (cracks up). Well, I guess...except her uncle is real and inspired a gritty movement for independence, I think.

The ride there reminds me of my passenger days in China, where Amy and I uttered The Lord's Prayer in taxis on many occasions. "Motorbikes," pedicabs, cars and buses swerve in and out in front and behind, wherever there is space. I read that HCMC is filled with motorbikes, but I would describe it as a motorbike army. Most people on these scooters are wearing bandanas or face masks, but it doesn't seem particularly smoggy, and, thank goodness, the heat is not sucking the air out of my lungs. I think that my summer experience in Shaoxing toughened me up for life regarding heat and humidity.

We arrive at the hotel, Tu hands me a map and points me in the direction of the famous market just two blocks away and leaves. "Have a good time! See you tomorrow!" (she is taking me and some others apartment hunting after the parent orientation at the school). It's a nice hotel, and it's my home for the next two weeks.

After getting somewhat organized, I head toward the magnet which is the market--because I am hungry, and so, so excited. On the way there... I pass carts with fruits, vegetables, steamed banana leaves filled with rice and mung bean paste, salad rolls, sandwiches, fried fish and pho. I was too young to be a real "That Girl" fan, but the way I feel is like Marlo Thomas in the opening credits, where she is wearing the pink suit and the pill box hat and purse with the white gloves (is this an accurate memory?) and she is so overwhelmed by New York City and her freedom and love for her surroundings that she throws her hands in the air and spins around as the camera zooms out, capturing the moment. This is how I feel now, as I take in the food options in my path. I need an overhead camera...I take one of everything, and it is all delicious.

When I head back to the hotel, I run into a group of teachers. I like them all immediately. They invite me out for a drink and we are out for hours, just laughing and talking and planning excursions for the year...

OK, now, go back to the part that reads "on the way there..." I will now tell you how it really happened. There are no food carts, and I am gripped with fear at having to play Frogger across the street, a game I learned to play so well in China. I can hardly muster the courage to cross. Outside of the market there are numerous people with deformed limbs. They approach me, point at their deformity and ask for money. I enter the part of the market where women are hacking away at meat with cleavers, then move to the area where women are hacking at Dorian, the stinkiest fruit on the planet. The market must be ten blocks by ten blocks and it reminds me of the market in Oaxaca, only the goods are just a little different. Just like Oaxaca, there is an area of counters where women are serving pretty much the same foods: noodles, fried fish, snails, meat on sugarcane and salad rolls instead of enchiladas, tamales and chili rellenos. Every time I pause at a stand, a menu is shoved into my hands and I am commanded to "Sit down." Finally, I choose a clean-looking stand and order the shrimp salad rolls. They are chewy, not fresh, not even close to Tamarind Tree delicious. While I am eating, I see flies landing on the rolls in the case. When I stand up, jet lag hits and the market with its smells and sounds starts spinning, a spin quite unlike the spin in the "That Girl" opening credits.

I head back to my hotel--it's 3:30 in the afternoon and I'm going to sleep, just for a few minutes. I wake up and it's midnight. I'm starving, so I eat a Power Bar. One of my lights flickers on and off even though it's turned off, so I have to stand on a stool to unscrew it. Did I mention that I'm starving? And I haven't met any teachers.

I am not discouraged --just hungry and there aren't any Hello Kitties --or windows--in my hotel room, where I am wide awake and did I mention- hungry. I just got an email from another teacher who is also wide awake, so I suggested a hotel lobby meeting at 1:30 am. Not sure if she will think that is really weird, but we'll see. Someone go and eat a salad roll at the Tamarind Tree for me, OK?
**One hour later: Cynthia did meet me in the hotel lobby. She is my new hero. She is from San Diego and has only left California twice - she has never been overseas. Because California is laying off so many teachers, she decided to look "elsewhere." She is in her 50's and has three kids in their twenties; her two sons are freaking out about her split second decision to pick up and move, but her new husband of two years is supportive. She thinks it's good that he is out of touch in Dublin on business at the moment, because he "doesn't do well when I cry." Like when she tried to convert traveler's checks at the bank and they told her they "didn't do that anymore." She talked to her 80 year old dad on Skype today, though, and she was able to cry with him. She's teaching second grade. She is looking at this as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Like I said, she is my new hero. She can be your new hero, too.


Dad said...

Three cheers for your new hero - and for Skype. Thanks for your blog entry.

Angie said...

Hello Marjie,

So glad you made it safely there. My prayer for you is that you find the yummy pho you ran so far away for!

Brian Bowker said...

I thin it is good that your first meal was poor; It can serve to cleanse your pallet and act as a punctuation mark before you start your new and wonderful culinary adventures in Vietnam!

Or, maybe all the good Vietnamese cooks have already moved to Seattle.

Either way, adventure is certain!

The Norris Clan said...

You SO had me going because only amazing stuff like that happens to Marjie! So, when I got to the second "On the way there..." part, I realized, "Hey, that's what happens to everyone else on vacation, not Marjie!" But, I agree with Brian... I think your first meal should have been that way so you can appreciate each one as they come even more!

Yeah for Cynthia. So glad you have a hero. Glad you are safe! Try the gum yet?