Monday, September 29, 2008

Dinosaur Bone Soup, Nam Hangovers, the Secret to Bum Bum Massages

This is Bo Kho - Beef Stew. It's different than Pho, but after finally having it for dinner tonight, I'm not sure how it's different. With pho, you can get chicken, beef, or vegetables, but with Bo Kho, it's just beef. Really, it tastes just like beef pho.
There's a place out on the street that I've been looking at a lot, but I love the guy who makes his own wontons so much that I have been defaulting to him when I want soup. His broth is so clear. Speaking of broth, it's just a bit disconcerting to see the woman making the Bo Kho soup broth because she is constantly removing what looks to be dinosaur bones...big, thick hunks of bone that she drops on the ground in the alley. I know that purists wait until the end of the night to get the deep flavor, and since I eat at 8:00, I think I get that. It's truly delicious. Just like with pho, it is served with noodles and a huge plate of greens -- basil and bean sprouts, mostly. You pick at them yourself, put them in, squeeze some lime over it, add some chili sauce and hoisin sauce and there you go...it's fifteen thousand, just like the wonton soup (90 cents). We are constantly amazed at our neighborhood; they don't overcharge us for anything.
After the stew, I go to my favorite fruit drink lady a few doors down. She has been making avocado shakes when she sees me coming, but now I am pointing to other fruits. My favorite this week is grapefruit. If you saw a grapefruit here you wouldn't recognize it. It's paler, bigger and it's not sour; actually, it's quite sweet and the sections are more plump and juicy, a completely different texture and taste. In fact, if you tasted a grapefruit here you wouldn't recognize it, either. There is a guy who sells them at the morning market -- I love him because he peels them, too; the fruit and this service costs only 5,000 (30 cents). Since having to peel the grapefruit is its only bad quality, I think this is the best deal on the street.
After dinner and the shake and a shower, I head down to the Bum Bum. They will dry my hair and straighten it for 60 cents. I love that, and the way they straighten it defies the humidity--I'm getting used to showering at night so I can have straight hair. You never need to make an appointment at the Bum Bum (or any other salon), you just show up and they are ready to do whatever: a shampoo (you sit in the chair and they lather your head for about half an hour, then rinse for another half an hour while they do the cucumber facial), pedicures/manicures, haircut...They all just lounge around watching TV or doing each other's hair until someone comes. We have let the secret out about our amazing massage person, Trung. She is so great. And, as Katherine stated so well the other day, "There is a very good reason they are called the 'Bum Bum'." Trung really works your Glutious Maximus! So now, many of our AIS friends are coming to our neighborhood for the food and the massages (and the rooftop). How did we ever get so lucky?
Nam is not on the street to take me to school this morning. I'm surprised, and I wait for him until ten past seven, then hire someone else. I want to communicate to Nam that I'm going to the gym so he should pick me up at 6 at the arch and I try texting him, but there he is when I head out at 4:30, so he obviously didn't get the message. He takes out a bottle of aspirin and points to his head. He's telling me he had a headache in the morning, that's why he wasn't there. I think Nam is HM. If you don't know what HM is, then it supposedly means you are HM, too: HIGH MAINTENANCE. Last week, it's his cell phone, this week it's his headache. Well, I know the real reason: he had a hangover. I know this because everyone was out partying in the alley last night. Long tables were set up with tons of food and everyone was doing shots and yelling "hey!" in unison for hours. We have no idea what was going on, but I do know one thing: we did not call the police. We don't call the police on them when they play really sappy sentimental music to distortion, either.
So anyway, I tell Nam I'm going to the gym. He drives me the two blocks over there and points over to the restaurant across the street. He will wait for me and eat. He likes to share what he does in between driving me...sometimes he gets his hair washed, sometimes he goes to temple, sometimes he eats. When he drops me off at the castle gate, the neighbor who held the candle for me Sat. night is surprised to see Nam. They seem to know each other. Nam knows everyone, and everyone likes him. I like him, too, as infuriating as he can be...
Parent conferences tomorrow (with translators). I had better get some rest!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Weekend in the Alley Grid

Katherine and I come home yesterday afternoon to find a motorbike in the living room; it's Tarn's rental for 24 hours. We're incredulous as we hear about his intersection negotiations and U-Turns, and this morning, we hear how he is cut off on a bridge and if not for a very thin railing, he and his rented motorbike would now be in the river. All he suffers is a mild swelling on his ankle where the bike crushes his leg against the railing.

Later, we are on the bus heading to a market in upper District One, and we are talking about city transportation --good and bad-- around the world. Tarn adds, casually, "Yeah, I have never driven a car."
What? Never driven a car??
"I was going to get my learner's permit a few years ago, but I never got around to it." He lives in Wellington, and he rides the train everywhere. So here he is in Vietnam, where at least people drive on the "right" side of the street (NZ is "wrong," like England and Australia), so therefore he is not used to even riding on the "right" side, he has never driven a vehicle, never owned a license, and he is renting scooters and making U-Turns and nearly crashing off bridges into rivers in the most crazy place to drive in the world. I forbid him to ever ride a scooter again.
Katherine's sister is here, taking a little side trip from Sydney where she has had a three month job as an accountant. It's her 30th birthday today, so she will celebrate it on three continents -- the other day in Australia, today in Asia, and next weekend in North America (Montreal). Katherine invites people over for her and our friend Shannon's (Toronto) birthday last night, and Simon is back in town for a night so the castle is hopping with guests again. It's a pretty small gathering, but guess what...the police come again. We agree that we will lie low for a few weeks now...we feel really badly. The stacks are so close, it really does feel as though your neighbors are in your house. By the way, I talk to Shannon today, and she tells me that her "family" (she lives in a room in a guest house) has a birthday lunch for her. She thinks the world of her family; however, she feels that perhaps today is not the best day to be trying duck blood and pig heart (after a night of birthday drinking). I love it that I can be involved in all of the activity of the castle if I want, but I can retire to my upper chamber if I'm not in the mood. I am so far up that Tarn and Katherine text me if they need something.

When I leave the birthday party, I go out to meet Alice and a few others at a salsa bar where she and Ecuadorian Daniel clear the dance floor. They are both amazing dancers. I return home at around 1:30 am to find the alley grid completely without power. I make my way down the dirt pathway full of puddles in the pitch black but I can still see the shadows of two rats crossing the alley in front of me. I get to our gate (you can see it in the background of Tarn's picture) and wonder how I'm going to work the padlock and the key to the inner door without any light.

The street is so quiet and dark and I'm feeling a little panicky about getting inside...then behind me, I sense light and movement. I turn around and the woman who lives across the street in what is probably the poorest house in the area (the one who lectures us about using our padlock), is in the second story window with a candle. We are a bit Rear Window - ish here in this neighborhood; during the days we can see her family lounging on pads on the second floor where they watch TV. She gestures that she will stay there with her candle until I get in--and she does. When I open the second door, I turn around and wave a thank you, and my neighborhood watchwoman smiles and waves back. So sweet.

At this morning's market I discover tapioca balls stuffed with custard and finally stop the man with the cart whose advertising speaker seems to be saying "umat umaw" over and over; he peels back the cover of his cart to reveal what looks like donuts but may be rice cake flour deep fried with carmelized molasses on top. I buy four of them and only one makes it back to the castle, they are so good. I also find a table offering pig snouts (why didn't I see those before the party?) and buy ten of what I am now addicted to: fresh tofu cakes. And, of course, lots of fresh basil. I also make a trip to Nam's family's house by the Bum Bum Salon; when I'm there the other day, he shows me their material store and indicates that I should buy my material from them, so what is a motorbike client to do, other than to buy some material for a dress? Tarn accuses me of running my own sweat shop three doors down. I also buy eggs from Nam's sister; now I am invested. The other morning, he is carrying this huge water jug. He shows me his cross, makes a praying gesture, then points at the water jug. I assume that he is going to his temple, and that he fills the jug with water from the temple. I offer to hold the jug, and suddenly I am like all the other motorbike riders in the city -- riding without holding on to anything other than big items that really shouldn't be carried on motorbikes.
It's Sunday and I have been trying to read the New York Times and download the first debate all day, but the wireless connection is so slow. Sometimes I must try ten times just to upload one picture. At school it can be just as bad at times. So I guess I will just go down and watch a pirated movie, or eat more donuts, or listen to the hard rain through the grates. No hammock for me on this wet season Sunday afternoon!

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Pasta Sauce Quest and School Twilight Zone

Today at two o'clock I send an email out to Tarn and Katherine inviting them to a castle spaghetti dinner tonight. I'm cooking, and dinner will be at 7. Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it?

Well, not quite. Last week I buy Roma tomatoes, Thai basil and garlic at our Sunday market. I boil everything down with the intention of making pasta sauce, but at the time I have no idea that it will take a village and many miles to acquire the rest of the ingredients to make what you are viewing in the photo.

I look at two stores for tomato paste, nothing. I mention this to Steve (of the former dreadlocks) and he mentions to me that he can't find any basil but that "his" store sells tomato paste. The next morning I bring him a basil from the morning market and he has two cans of tomato paste for me.

Sugar is hard to come by, too, and I like to put just a little brown sugar in my sauce. I find white sugar (it's in the "foreign" section, along with peanut butter, jam and white bread). I mention this to Tarn, and he goes on a quest for brown sugar and comes back with it on Wednesday night. I know a store that sells wine--it's a few miles away. I make the walk on Thursday night. So Thursday night I cook the tomatoes, garlic and basil with some wine and tomato paste and a little bit of sugar. I need a little bit of salt. Haven't seen it anywhere.

Katherine knows a store that sells pasta, and it's right near the place in the Backpacker's District that sells french bread. After school today I have to commit; they are counting on a spaghetti dinner even though I can barely think about crossing five streets to get the pasta and bread. We are all eager to be cooking in the castle. I go and I find the noodles and bread and fresh lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. Can't find the salt. "Do you speak English?" I ask about five store clerks. Nothing but blank stares. Finally, I say forget the salt, but I try once more at the check out stand. She has me write it down and I see her ask five people. Finally she returns with a salt and pepper mix. I'll take it.

So, for dinner, we have a fresh green salad with homemade balsamic olive oil dressing (those we found at a foreign store also by the BD), linguine and fresh Roma sauce, parmesan cheese and toasted French bread with carmelized onions and purple grapes (couldn't find the goat cheese). After more than a month, I finally cook something properly. It tastes great, but more importantly, it feels great.

School just has me shaking my head most days...in a good way. The jackhammer guy has completed his job, the elevator is fixed (one day I had the jh on one side and a drill on the other), so it's relatively quiet now (the motorbikes are white noise). This week in English we are reading stories and poems that use hyperbole. I find a bunch of Shel Silverstein poems (I like your guy, too, Amy) and a story from Bill Cosby's "Childhood." At the last minute, I think of You Tubing Bill Cosby and I find his routine about going to the dentist, so I show it to introduce the story. The kids laugh so hard that two of them fall out of their chairs. When I say we are going to read the story, they cheer. Great! We get to read a story! Yay! Who wants to play Bill, and who wants to play his brother Russell? "Pick me! Pick me!"

Last week I showed the Twilight Zone...doesn't it sound like I am in one now? These kids are just too cute and eager to learn. They are so passionate. They are supposed to write paragraphs using hyperbole (my dog/friend/mom/dad is the coolest in the world) and all of them want to read theirs to the class. One kid named Sam, from China, stands and says "Mine is a poem, is that OK?" And he reads the most beautiful description of his friend. The whole class erupts into spontaneous applause; it's that good, and everyone recognizes it. In Ancient History, I make all the kids nametags according to which god/goddess they are and they must come to the front, spin three times, I hit them on the head three times with a fork, then they become the god. They love it. We are also reading Gilgamesh. I am learning so much about ancient history, for the first time. I certainly never studied it in school...or if I did I was unaware that I was studying it.

Some of the school system things have been changed, which is great. Things aren't totally smooth by any means, but now Nam picks me up at five every night, regardless (tonight I don't have to do any meeting or greeting with his family, thank goodness). This is still later than I would like, but it's getting better all the time.

All week I have been planning to get out of town this weekend. But maybe it won't happen until next weekend. I may just take a day to do nothing...no party planning, no school planning...it just sounds so dreamy.

Oh, and something funny: Yesterday, K runs into our real estate agent, Linh, at the Baguette place on the corner (not my lady...she's only there in the mornings. There's also a commercial Baguette King on the corner, at twice the price and not near as good). Linh says to her "I hear you had a party last Saturday." K asks her how she heard about it. "The police told me." She tells K that she told the police that we are foreigners, we don't know better than to have loud parties at night. We are living in a city of 9 million people, and we feel like we are living in a large extended family. I bet all of the HCMC network knows about our party. Maybe next time we should just invite them all.

Good night from Saigon!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Everyone Deserves Music

Brian, thank you SO much for finding a picture of my latest dress, because I was REALLY dreading playing dress up and asking Katherine and Tarn to take pictures of me. The Princess Di silver off-the-shoulder ensemble, it's exactly what I wanted.


Tonight's theme is music in its many forms in HCMC.


First, Cracking Bamboo:

Cracking Bamboo is somewhere in between bizarre, terrible and a little bit cool for about five of the ninety minute set. It's an ensemble of percussionists (and a few really bad steppers) from all over Asia and Europe (mostly Norway)-- ten drum sets, a big gong, a huge water jug, some chairs. Maybe someday someone will explain to me why even at the classy Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory, music must be played to distortion level on speakers. I spend the whole time wanting to be in bed (others from the school are also there, and I can't look at them during the abstract pieces (especially the Norwegian ones...it's like my international school experiences are colliding...because I will laugh). When it's over at ten, I just want to go home and crash.

But...I guess that I got Nam's whole family wrong earlier, because when he picks me up tonight, we turn down a different, narrow alley altogether, a few neighborhoods away from mine, and I mean a narrow, narrow alley, and we stop at a very small stack house. This, it seems, is his house. I meet his two daughters (both high school age. Amy, are you on to something?) and there is his wife--very, very gracious. Their house is small, with a tiny area hosting a TV, a fridge and a staircase upward. I ask if I should take off my shoes and his wife laughs and points at what they have...not much. No, don't take off your shoes. She invites me to sit down and the only place to sit is on the floor. I'm in a dress. But I sit. She offers me water from the fridge and a peach. The peach is to go, just a gesture of hospitality. The daughters know a little English. Nam wants to teach me how to count in Vietnamese at ten on a Thursday night while I am sitting on his floor in a dress. I try to pretend that I want to learn how to count to ten. Fortunately, we are there for a pretty short amount of time when he gestures for us to go. Phew. I wonder how many other family members I will get to meet?? After all, he has ten brothers and sisters, unless I misunderstood that, too, so this could be a long process. I think the house near mine is that of his great aunt, because his daughter tells me that their grandmother died.

Back to music.

The First Annual AIS (American International School) Musical

Each teacher at AIS must be involved with or lead an after school club. So I volunteer to help Alice put on a production of The Wizard of Oz. I know there is so much to learn from her...she is an expert in her field (I googled her and found a very positive New York Times review of a play she was in...that's The New York Times, by the way...) Sixty kids sign up to be a part of it and Alice is a diva at organizing them. Last week, with no notice whatsoever about how big the group would be, she had them walking in circles chanting, doing breathing exercises and playing drama games.


Today she reveals to the club the play we will do; none of them have heard of or seen The Wizard of Oz. So all sixty of us watch the movie for club today--auditions for parts will be next week. Imagine how sweet: sixty naive, well-mannered Vietnamese kids watching that movie all together for the first time. They cheer when Toto escapes from the nasty lady on the bike; they oooh and ahhhhh when Dorothy walks into color and when they first meet the munchkins. They laugh at the scarecrow and especially the lion. I haven't seen it for a long time, so the experience is magical.

MTV Asia

In the evenings, K, T and I like to watch MTV Asia because they play the most obscure 80's music videos-- lots of one hit wonders. Last night it was Mr. Big: the three of us can't help but sing it altogether: "I'm the one who wants to be with you; deep inside I know you feel it too; waiting on a line (waaaaiting on that line).....just to be the next to be with you; when it's through, it's through, a fateful twist for both of you; so come on baby, come on over, let me be the one to show you..." You're all singing it now, aren't you, and you can picture them with their big hair (here's some help): Or in the morning, K and I see Rick Springfield singing "Jessie's Girl." Things like that just make your day.

Grocery Shopping Music

Everty time I go to the grocery store, I feel like I am in the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland. And yes, they play the Small World music to distortion level.

Massage Music

When's the last time you heard "The Theme from Love Story"? Or "A Time for Us"? Or "Guantanamaro"? Because I hear those songs now every time I get a massage. There must be a massage CD that the government makes every salon in HCMC buy. I can't think of another reason someone would willingly play this elevator music other than by a communist mandate. But they ALL do, and I should know, because I have had my share of massages here. I love the massages, but man, can I make it through that awful music for nine more months? K and I plan to someday bring our own CD to the Bum Bum...maybe they will understand?


Karaoke on Wheels

Everything is on wheels, and almost everything is on motorbike wheels. The other day we see a lady with a huge weighing scale on her bike. All you need to do is to flag her down and she will put the scale down and weigh you right there in the middle of the street. I don't see one person flagging her down. Then, yesterday, Tarn sees a guy with a "To Go" karaoke set up. He's just driving down a busy street on his motorbike when he suddenly stops, pulls out speakers and a microphone and a display screen and the music begins to play. I wish I had seen it.

Friday, Friday, Friday. What to wear? I think it will be my Princess Di.

A Little View of the Hood

Tonight Nam stops by his house…right next to the Bum Bum Salon (Katherine and my new favorite neighborhood establishment – we both went back for $35,000 dong massages and they were equal to the $180,000 dong ones by the hotel) to introduce me to his sister, his mother, his nephew (who is able to translate a little bit of English) and his sister’s granddaughter.
His mother keeps asking me questions (so this is where he gets it), pointing to her ancestor shrine and crossing herself. The nephew translates a few things, like: She has ten children. Nam is number five. The other eight are scattered all over the city. She wants to know how many foreigners live in the house and where we are from. Are any of us married? We must seem so so so strange to them. It's nice to meet his family (I think his kids are grown, cynical ESL Amy) and I think it's pretty cool now that if I need a ride, I can just walk down to his house to see if he's available. Evidently, he didn't show last night at the carnival because he lost his cell phone. I'm not sure how those two things relate, but I feel badly for him, he seems so completely bummed about it.

I am taking the above picture from a stand across the street where I am eating chicken and rice. This stand holds a huge flat wok with a bunch of ingredients in bowls...the closest thing I've seen to Stir Fry Street in Shaoxing, China, but it's nothing amazing like it always was there. The alleyway you see from the street-- if you look behind the big blue sign, you will see the small sign that says "Bum Bum." Nam lives right across from there. If you take a right at the Bum Bum, you walk just three blocks down the alley to our house. The second picture is of that view. Our house is at the end of the alley, right near the gold colored house. Oh, and the stand to the right of the alley entrance in the picture is one of about ten on the street serving Pho Ha (the noodle soup) and to the left of the entrance is one of many fruit juice places. Everyone sits at the low plastic chairs. All day long. Noodles, noodles, noodles.
And here is our cake lady. She is on the street so infrequently that she is worth text messaging about. Tarn loves her the most, and she is here tonight, so I will write him a message as soon as I'm done with all of you. I've been reluctant to take pictures in my neighborhood, but oh well, here she is... And one of my favorite treats at her stand reminds me of that green Slime we used to love as kids. It's jello-like with a custardy filling. Here is a terrible picture of it:

This morning as I walk through the market, I decide to try something new for breakfast. There is a woman who makes all kinds of sweet rice-- red, red with beans, white with a bunch of stuff I don't recognize--

so I order the red. She puts it in a plastic bag, pours cream on top, and just like everything else here, it is rubber banded so tightly that I will fight for hours to get it off when I arrive at school. It's delicious.

I'm off to see a concert tonight at the Conservatory in District One...it's called "Impulse: Crackling Bamboo" and it's an international percussion festival. You will get the review tomorrow...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Nam


Map work: I live in the southwestern part of District One, the orange section) almost in District 5 (in pink)...Electric Avenue (in Chinatown) is in District 5. The high school is in District 10 (yellow), right near the green park...kind of in the middle. The green park is the carnival area where my gym is (and where I keep getting lost and disappointing Nam).


Written yesterday, when I could not connect to the internet:

Red Shirt Blue Helmet has a name. It's Nam. I'm glad I know his name now because he wears a different shirt this morning, it's red and yellow. When he picks me up after school, I try to tell him that I want him to take me to the tailor across town in the north part of District One, the one I went to with Alice, to pick up my dresses. I have a card with the address on it, and am making it as clear as possible. He doesn't understand.

Then one of my students, Alex, who actually reminds me very much of my nephew Devon (therefore making him one of my favorites), pulls up on the back of a motorbike with his mom. He wants to introduce us. After talking with her, I take the opportunity to ask Alex to translate between me and RSBH about the destination. He does this, then I find out Nam's name(by the way, I plan to start learning Vietnamese basics soon if only to communicate with my driver) and Nam then asks him to translate something for me. He says to Alex "Tell her I don't understand a word she says." That's what Chatty Kathy wants me to know. He doesn't understand when I draw an arch and write 6:30 and point to the arch two blocks away as clear as anything, but he can chat and chat away at me no problem. The other thing he wants me to know...if he's not there right away, he wants me to wait for him...he will be there shortly.

He takes me to the tailor through horrendous traffic and he goes up on the sidewalk a few times. But he always seems to be in control, nice and steady, so I don't really mind. I want to get through the traffic, too. When he does some impressive manouevers, I say, "Nice job" and by his smile I think he does understand at least a little. When we drive back through the part of District One that is the "Paris of Vietnam," he points at all of the attractions and wants to know, have I seen them? Have I walked around the Reunification Palace? Have I seen Notre Dame? When I nod yes, he seems pleased. He waits for me to get a fitting with my dresses, then takes me home. We are past the bargaining phase; I just ask him what I owe him and he gives me a fair price.

By the way, the dresses are beautiful. Maybe you'll get to see them someday.

Written today:
When I walk to the street today, Nam is waiting with his wife. I could be wrong, but I think she is there only to meet me. We shake hands and she is lovely; it's pretty cool. I can only speculate, but perhaps landing a steady customer--maybe especially a foreigner-- is a big deal. Today Nam is supposed to pick me up at the arch at 6 after the gym. When I come out, I think I know a short cut through the carnival, but as is often the case with my sense of direction, I am completely off. I get so lost, and the motorbikes and lights and buildings that all look the same confuse me. I get to the arch at 6:15, wondering if Nam has been patient. He's not there. I'm a little relieved because I forgot to bring long pants to cover my shorts, but I'm also anticipating a scolding tomorrow. I have to hire someone else to take me home, and I feel insecure the whole way. I hope Nam will forgive me!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Direct and CRAZY


People in Vietnam eat tons of rice and greasy food. They eat noodles, noodles, noodles, morning noon and night. Yes, they eat pho in the morning, too. So carbs, carbs, carbs. How do they stay so skinny? Their eating habits are directly opposed to what America has been telling us for the past ten years or so, and yet they have much less fat per capita.

I finally find the answer to at least this one mystery tonight, my first night at a gym (finally!). The answer is: The CRAZY EXERCISE machine! The gym I go to has some treadmills, some eliptical machines, free weights, weight machines, and--what I guess I will refer to as "fat jigglers." There are two kinds: one you put a strap around your belly and it jiggles your belly fat. The other you just stand on and it jiggles all of your fat. They both have the label "CRAZY EXERCISE TM" on them. So that is why people are so skinny here (after all, only very skinny girls are using them).
Some other gym differences: instead of an aerobic step, a girl is doing aerobic stepping on a dresser with a drawer in it. A bunch of guys are standing around a TV watching a competition between female video game players; the women on TV are playing karate. Buddha cutouts, the ones with Buddha and looooong fat earlobes, are posted all over the mirrors. Out at the pool area, people lounge around eating noodles. Carbs, carbs, carbs. Thank goodness for CRAZY EXERCISE.

A side note: I feel really good after exercising today. I'm going to join the CRAZY GYM. And I'm going to just watch that fat fall off as I stand there exerting no energy. I can't wait.

OK, now, my motorbike guy. He has become kind of a Chatty Cathy. He talks my ear off every time he sees me. Slight turn of a smile, an emotionless, slow pace of talking, but he just carries on as if I understand every word and gesture. A few times I have beckoned American International School students over to translate if he starts chatting when he drops me off at school -- other times, I am at a loss and just listen and hope he's not telling me that someone in his family has a terminal illness. The other day he takes a plastic bag off of the handlebars and opens it up. It's a banana leaf filled with sticky rice and some kind of custard. He gestures to me as if he's going to give it to me. He points to himself. I say, "Oh, for me? Your wife made this for me?" only to have him wrap it back up and put it on his handlebar. I think he just wanted to share what he was having for breakfast.

This morning I try to tell him that I want to be picked up three blocks away, under the arches where the creepy carnival entrance is -- the gym is located inside a carnival area that looks like it could be a movie set for "Halloween III." I have already thought this through: I draw a picture of the arches and write "6:30." But no matter how many gestures I make, he doesn't get it. Finally, a man walks by who speaks English and through translation we come to an agreement: don't pick me up at the school at five, pick me up under the arches at 6:30. However, after my workout I have a hard time finding my way back through the carnival in the dark. I run into many dark alleys and circus clowns meet me on more than one occasion in those alleys. I begin to panic, because I'm late. Finally I see the arches, but they are far away, so I run with my backpack on, in the sweltering heat, to meet Red Helmet Blue Shirt on time. I get there at 6:35 and he's nowhere to be seen. My heart sinks. All kinds of taxi drivers are around. "Motorbike, Miss?" But I want my guy.

Suddenly, I see him wave from across the street and he makes his way over, slowly. Slight upturn of a grin. Then he reaches into his pocket, pulls out his cell phone, opens it and points to the numbers: it says 6:37. I tell him I'm sorry, but that's not all-- he has another problem with me: he doesn't like it that I'm wearing shorts. I can't figure this one out. I wear dresses on most mornings and just hike them up, to a place that is higher than the shorts, like everyone else does. But he points and shakes his head. He's disappointed, and thinks it's not safe. He takes me across the street and points out my bare legs to the friend he made while he waited SEVEN whole minutes for me. They both shake their heads. I'm not sure what to do, but suddenly, he stops shaming me and starts his bike. When he drops me off, he pulls out his cell phone again. He wants to know what time tomorrow. Am I going to be late again? And then he counts, in English, "One two three four five six? Am I picking you up at six?" I count to seven. You're picking me up at seven, like you have now for two weeks. I have gotten the message, and I feel so badly for being seven minutes late that I pay Chatty Cathy 20 thousand instead of fifteen. Suddenly, I have a mother here in Ho Chi Minh City. I have to be on time, I can't wear short shorts...what could possibly be next?

Yesterday I get to see both the Reunification Building and the War Remnants Museum. The Reunification Building used to be called Independence Hall; it used to be the symbol of the South Veitnamese government and is preserved almost as it was on that day in 1975 when the Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist. The story of the VietCong takover on that day is worth reading about, it's very dramatic. But I won't go into it here. It is classic 60's architecture (the openness of the column structure lets so much sun in) and furniture-- the conference rooms and the receiving rooms are stately and beautiful; however, I really loved the president's living quarters. This room, especially...the gambling room(right next to the cinema). Doesn't it look like it could be straight out of Mary Tyler Moore? She should be holding a cocktail party here. (Ann, did I get the reference right this time?) Also interesting is the basement, with its network of tunnels and war room. There is a direct route from the president's room to the basement in case of attack. A ballroom and bar area are on the top, as is a military helicopter. Ho Chi Minh himself never saw Independence Palace. It was one of his regrets when he died.

Then there's the War Remnants Museum, which used to be called "The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes." Only go to this one if you have a strong stomach. It's a collection of planes, artillery vehicles, and weapons, but what's most striking is all of the photographs of slaughtered families, victims of Agent Orange and napalm. Wall after wall shows the atrocities committed against them by the US, with quotes from surviving family members. In the very first panel, too, is a quote from the Declaration of Independence "...we hold these truths to be self evident...all men are created equal..." It's a museum of victims telling their side of the story, and quotes from many other leaders of so many other countries speaking out against the war.

I'm not sure it's the best choice for me on this day, and I'm not sure about the strength of my stomach, the day after the castle warming party. I'm overtired and don't feel like seeing the Tiger Cages or the guillotine used by the French or the torture chambers. One interesting room is one dedicated to the "Everlasting Friendship between Cuba and Vietnam." It has many pictures of Castro and Che, uniting with the people of Vietnam. But I don't stay very long at this one; I'll come back another day when I feel like reading lots more. One room is covered with pictures and stories from Life Magazine.
On the way back, I see my first accident. We (a different driver) turn the corner to see a man on the ground next to a crumpled bike. He stands up and blood pours from his ear. It looks like he was already crippled, but he can barely move. He just stands there in the street looking at his bike. Finally, a man gathers him up and helps him to the sidewalk, leaving a trail of blood. He just keeps looking at his bike. I'm sure it's all he had. By this time I feel so sad that I go back to the castle and sleep, sleep, sleep.
Speaking of sleep, I guess I had better get some now. After all, I now live in fear of letting Red Helmet Blue Shirt down; I had better not be late...

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Tour of the Castle, from the Top Down (keep in mind it's really diffcult to capture)

(Castle warming party highlights posted below):
The finished deck:

















The balcony outside my fourth floor room (note the awning) and the ladder to the deck:


My room. (The landlords picked the bedspread). Here is my boring room lamp, Amy. And I have my own bathroom with the shower over the toilet (deluxe).

The guest Balcony Room:





The living room, from the top of the stairs (I've left out two staircases and K and T's room), and the livingroom from below. The kitchen is in the background, and the balcony is above the kitchen, but you've already seen that numerous times. And that concludes your tour of the castle!

Castle Party Highlights

1. We have the neighborhood cater it: the turmeric rice cake lady makes fifty cakes and a fresh spring roll lady we like makes twenty rolls.

2. We buy two big cakes from the local cake lady for birthdays: one angel food-like cake with layers of jello and one plantain cake that we mistook for rhubarb. Cakes are not Vietnam's best selling point, but they are OK.

3. Since we have yet to hire a cleaning lady, we get up at six a.m. and mop all of our decks (three) and all of our stairs and floors (we've been walking on grimy floors for two weeks). We are dripping with sweat.

4. My two roommates work for hours on their DJ playlists. Tarn, especially, concerns himself with four lists of music to go with any direction the party moves.

5. We're so exhausted from working all day, going to stores -- and getting my orange lamp wired by a personal electrician down the street-- that when I see it's 6:30 and people are coming at 8, I decide to walk two blocks down the alley to get my hair washed (I didn't want to get my bathroom dirty...the showers are over the toilets and you track dirt and water everywhere when you shower). Now I know we have been paying tourist prices: a hair wash (basically a half hour head massage), a condition, a cucumber facial (just like the ones I've had at the Korean Spa), blow dry and style at the Bum Bum salon costs me 40 thousand, or $2.40. We've been paying at least double that. I'm going back for a $2 massage tomorrow. Nice, nice people, too. These salons are everywhere: a hair wash/massage is part of the culture, just like in China.

6. Not a cloud in the sky all day...but while I am at the salon, it starts to pour and it rains harder than I've seen it yet (Yes, Megan Gallagher, like Costa Rica rain!) We have worked all day getting the roof ready...

7. Our first guests are a half an hour early. They are Vietnamese girls from the office and library. They don't eat anything before coming because Vietnamese parties always include dinner food. They chop up their watermelon and look very uncomfortable until other Vietnamese people come. We hear later that they are thrilled to be included in a "mixed" party.

8. Over fifty people come.
9. Franco the third grade teacher from Portland brings his mandolin and Linda the art teacher from Pennsylvania brings her violin. They take the balcony and play "Happy Birthday" to four September birthday people while we light candles for the cakes, then they stage a concert, beginning with "Red-Haired Boy."


10. The police come three times to tell us to lower our voices (our neighbors complained) and to tell us that some motorbikes could be stolen if left outside. A veteran teacher, Chris, says they do that kind of thing to foreigners all the time and that we can ignore them. The worst thing that happens is that Linda's shoes are stolen and she has to wear Tarn's flip flops home (just like Carrie in Sex and the City). Did the police steal her shoes? All the shoes sat in the foyer...

10. Katherine has placed the picture of me and Lyle Lovett on the mantel. A few girls see it, gasp over it and say "How do you know Lyle?" K is standing next to me and I can't help putting on a show. "We dated for a while." They believe readily. I hate their first question: "Before or after Julia?" For some reason, probably because it is very entertaining to K, I keep it up and have them going and just can't bring myself to tell them that it's not true. At the end of the night, K asks me, "Did you ever tell them the truth?" Oops.

11. The night ends on the roof, when the rain stops. "Ends" means that for two hours, between midnight and two, the ten remaining guests swing in the hammock or lounge under the palm. Four people sit on the rainbow bench, each with an instrument: Linda with her violin, Franco with his mandolin, Tarn with his harmonica and Chris with a plastic bottle and a kazoo. They play blugrass songs at Franco's direction. The only bad part about the night is that Alice is very very sick and can't come. This would have been her thing, completely. And even though Cynthia is out of the hospital and working, she doesn't make it either. She's still not feeling great.

12. This morning I am a bit sheepish when I step outside. All of our neighbors are out; the recycling lady is collecting our cans and I give a nod to everyone. Do you still like us? I am saying with my nod. A man who lives kitty corner comes over. I know he can speak English because Tarn talked to him the other day-- he is in charge of quality control for seafood exports to the US and Canada. He explains about the recycling system (the lady is paying me for all of the beer cans and I'm confused) and then he says, "So you had a party last night."

"Yes. I hope we didn't keep you awake."

"Well, we go to sleep early...but it's OK. The neighbors that called the police, they are in the house right there (he points about three houses down). They will be OK tomorrow, don't worry. Sometimes I have parties and they call the police on me, too. Did you have a good time? Was it your birthday...?" I find out that seven people live in his stack: his mother, wife, kids, brother, brother's wife, their kid.

Then I walk past the seamstresses. They come to the door, smiling. They speak no English, but they motion, "You had a party last night! Was it your birthday? Was it fun? Is that a rash on your shoulder? What is it from? You should put some lotion on it."

I ask if we kept them awake. "It's OK. You were having fun!"

I move on to the morning market. Everyone waves hello and offers to sell me eels, frogs, cakes, noodles, vegetables, jello. I love my neighborhood. The castle is open for business. Everyone asks if they can call and come over to hang out on the roof. Life is good. Think I will do something touristy today, like go to the Reunification Palace or the War Museum. Good night!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Blind Faith and Security

Katherine and I are waiting to cross the street to get massages today after school. We wait and wait for an opening to merge with the motorbikes. Sometimes it just takes faith, like I said, and sometimes, maybe on a Friday afternoon after a loooooong week at work, you just aren't as up for playing Frogger as usual. So we're waiting and waiting when we notice a man crossing from the other side. He's got one arm straight up and he's tapping a cane back and forth with the other--back and forth. He does not hesitate one bit. While Katherine and I wait, a blind man has crossed the road. Ponder that.

And this: our PE teacher from Ecuador named Daniel, who moonlights as a manager of La Cantina - a Mexican restaurant/salsa (as in dance) bar, sends an email out about celebrating Mexican Independence Day there, so K and I decide to go straight from massages/pedicures to the party. We order tacos and margaritas.

You know how some things just create a special secure spot in your mind, so that even when you have taken a crazy teaching job in Vietnam and every day something bizzarre happens-- like maybe a kid puts a snake in his nose and it come out his mouth and you just don't know what to do with that--so at those moments you can go to that special secure place and your whole world feels right again? Well, the tacos...the tacos. They make their own tortillas. They make fresh salsa. They roast pork for carnitas. They serve them with lime wedges. We are in heaven... I have to say: they are better than the taco bus tacos (but not cheaper). K and I decide we will go once per week; it will be my special secure spot, whether I am there physically eating the tacos, or in my mind, just knowing that I can go there and eat the tacos.

And as for Daniel, that Ecuadorian can salsa! We did not come dressed for dancing, but next time, he says, he will give us lessons. I work with some interesting people. They are all coming over tomorrow. We have a very long to-do list, so I think I will sleep now...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sixth Graders Swallowing Snakes and Stomach Stew

Sixth graders love to act things out. They love to make funny noises. They love to draw and play games. They are absolutely mad about the word "toilet."


Aren't they cute?



In Ancient History we are becoming gods and goddesses of Sumer and reading Gilgamesh.


In English, we are reading a teleplay called "Herbie" by Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame, so I You-Tube the episode "It's a Good Life." Both stories are about boys with extrasensory powers. The class loves to make the Twilight Zone sound (of course they had never heard it before...) and today we act out the play. We have an earthquake in slow motion and an injured girl (played by a boy in each class which makes it exreeeeemely funny for them) saved by a helicopter. The boys have been running into class asking "Twilight Zone?" because I can only download it in ten minute increments.


So, yes, it's fun for a change.


Other news: my guy waits for me in the mornings and after school now; it's a done deal. Today he brings me home all the way to the castle (I meet him out on the street by the sandwich cart in the mornings) and he points down the alley to tell me he lives there; we are neighbors. He must be talking to his friends, because I sure didn't tell him where I live; he just suddenly knows. I notice today that his red helmet has a little cartoon Tweety Bird on it. And today, he corners of his mouth turn up the slightest bit when he sees me after school.


Tonight K, T and I decide to go to Seafood Alley to try another place (T is mostly vegetarian but indulges in seafood sometimes to get his protein). A waiter meets us on the street and ushers us in, sits us down, then beckons us to follow him (the hand gesture is a palm down, waving motion). He leads us down the alley and into a stack house with a very long hallway. At the end is a kitchen, and down the hallway are pots and tanks and coolers. He wants to know what we want, even though he already presented us with a translated menu. He takes a live shrimp out of the tank and we nod a yes-- he takes it over to the pot: do you want it boiled? then he takes it to the grill: or do you want it grilled? We want it grilled. We point at long-necked clams (remember those from China?), regular clams (they come in a lemongrass saffron broth), squid (fried in a tamarind chili sauce, and, I don't know...we just keep pointing. We want everything. He takes us back to the table and within minutes our fish starts to arrive. Evidently, we pointed at eight different critters. Each dish costs about $1.80 -- the same price as the place across the street, so we each pay about $6.


In the middle of dinner, we hear "Hey!" Tarn and I turn around (Katherine is already facing the street) and we see two boys, also probably sixth grade age, dressed in silk costumes. One of them has two sticks of fire and he is swallowing them, over and over. He keeps yelling "Hey!" before swallowing the fire and after a few minutes of watching, T and I turn back around to eat. Suddenly, K goes white and puts her hands to her mouth. Because when T and I turned around, the other boy (not the fire eater) puts a thin, long green snake in his nose, which reappears seconds later through his mouth. K has to put her forehead in her hands for a minute; she has lost her composure and appetite. Tarn is disappointed. When they come around for money, he asks them to do the snake again, but of course they don't understand.



What did we pass up on the menu? Well, mixed intestine salad, grilled intestine, pig marrow, fried bird, fried frog, sapo duck tongue, stomach stew, cow ball, wild boar, and tons of snails. Can I put an order in for you?



Before we head out to dinner, our neighbor comes over to scold us about not using our padlock when we are in the house. The people here are crazy about padlocking their doors. The castle had four padlocks when we found it; its got an outer gate, an inner door and bars on all the windows. We want to be like everyone else in the evenings and leave our door open, but our neighbor, who is pantomiming in frantic gestures, tells us that someone will come in and do damage. So we are going to listen to the prophetess. We are very very careful about padlocking when we leave, but now we wonder how much of a target we are, living in this huge place. At least we have neighbors who are looking after us, but we keep hearing..."make sure you padlock your upper door (right by my room)" and now this from our other neighbor.


It's just a little disturbing, ya know?


Tomorrow is Friday, thank goodness. We sent out an email for the castle warming and everyone is coming. We think we could have a hundred people...so stay tuned for lots of pictures when we get everything ready on Saturday!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Orange and the Daily Grind

Remember that Simon was staying in the "backpacker district?" Well, when we were house searching (who knew it would turn out to be "castle searching") we wanted to avoid all houses that claimed proximity to the BD. Too touristy and, um, scummy, we thought.
However, it doesn't take us long to discover that we are a fifteen minute walk from it, and now we admit that it does have many coolness factors: for example, at any given time of day or night you feel like you at the UN - people from all nations line the sidewalk cafes and open tourist travel agencies claiming "Manila-$10," or the Indian food I eat tonight, chicken tikka masala (going back for the dosa - an Indian crepe filled with onions and potatoes), or this picture I buy in one of many artist copy shops. I walk by one shop and do a double take at "Starry Night" -- from a distance you really can't tell the difference. Men sit in the shops with a print of the painting they are copying and paint away with their oils. So I choose this painting. Don't you think it will go well with pink and baby blue? I also buy this lamp. Brian, I don't know what is drawing me to your color...

Back to the mototaxi quest: this morning I find my guy. He's low key, drives slowly and carefully, wears a blue shirt with a red helmet, and charges 15 thousand, straight. I'm so enamoured with his driving style that when he drops me off and I see Iain the Scottish science teacher who has been here for two years, I ask him to make a request to this driver to come back for me at 5:00.

So now, in the mornings, this is how my day goes: I walk through the alley market out to the main street to my sandwich lady's stand. I hold up either one or two fingers to let her know how many sandwiches for the day and she whips them up so quickly...shredded chicken, cilantro, carrots, cucumbers, no pate, a little salt and oil on a French Baguette (Banh Mi). They are yummy. This morning Mr. Blue Shirt Red Helmet sees me at the stand and offers me a ride and smoothly drives me the ten minute route to school through the nastiest of all nasty intersections. When the guard at the front of the school sees me, he uses his walkie talkie to alert Fourth Floor Security. I climb the four flights of stairs to my room and I find it unlocked with the air conditioning on.

Nice. Then massive amounts of sixth graders fill my life for hours and hours. I really like them. And I like learning about Sumer.

At 5:00, there is my mototaxi guy waiting patiently, in his blue shirt and red helmet. I show some enthusiasm that he is there, but he merely nods and starts his bike. I hear a "hey!" from across the street and it's Creepy Taxi Guy from yesterday. He laughs a sinister laugh and I just shake my head. I will tell people about that ride for the rest of my life. My guy takes me home nicely and I tell him, "See you tomorrow!" when I slide off the bike, and he just gives me that same emotionless nod.

And then-- because I am wearing the beautiful purple dress that my next door neighbor made for me, before going the two doors down to my house I step up into their shop to show them the dress on me. Both she and her work partner smile and laugh...they are so happy to see that I am wearing the dress and that I like it. I tell them how much I love it -- it's a great moment. How lucky am I? My seamstress is the definition of "sweet," too. I don't like to use that word to describe people, really, but that's what she is. Kind, gentle, unassuming, a little bit of sly humor in her.


Just thinking --I have been here just short of a month and I have a sandwich maker, a personal driver, and a seamstress. I know where lamp street, rug street, furniture street, Electric Avenue (start singing again), ban xeo street and vegetarian street are. A turmeric rice cake maker is just minutes away from my castle rooftop, on which I sit nightly in my hammock under my palm tree like a princess. And today I feel like I can handle this job. I am smarter than a sixth grader. It seems like six months ago I arrived at the Lan Lan Hotel, it really does.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Nice Castle Guests but not Mototaxi Drivers

This is Simon from New Zealand and he is our first guest on the balcony. Katherine met him out this weekend and asked us if we could invite him over...he's backpacking around SE Asia until he takes a job as a lawyer in London (like all New Zealanders do (Tarn did the same thing--actually, they are from the same city, Wellington). We could save him a bit of money, she says. Tarn and I are all for sharing the castle with people passing through.




Nicest guy in the world, and K and I get the balcony guest room ready -- we already got our landlords to put a single bed in, but now there is a small table and a guest towel as well. What else do you need? What a gracious guest. He comes in and is in absolute awe of the castle. He loves his balcony and cannot help himself; he recites something from Julius Caesar: He wants to stay with us longer (especially after we take him to the roof and he swings on the hammock under the palm with a beer in hand), but the rest of Vietnam calls him and he will catch his bus to Hanoi in the morning. K and I decide that we will post pictures of all of our guests in the room. We plan to have many of them between the three of us.



By the way, both Pam and Jessica, friends who plan to visit from Seattle (actually Pam will be stopping by while on her world journey) write to me today asking: when I come, do I get a party with DJ's too? The answer is "of course!!"



OK, now for a re-creation of an interaction with a motortaxi driver after school. Scene: dark clouds, smells like rain, nighttime (sad, at work until 6 again), wondering--do I get a taxi or a mototaxi?



(Keep in mind that he is speaking Vietnamese. But I know what he is saying.)



"Motorbike, miss?"

I show him my address. "How much?"

"Twenty (thousand)."

"Fifteen."

"Twenty."

"I can walk down to that street and get one for fifteen."

"OK, get on. I'll do it for fifteen."

I get on and The Intersection is massively congested. He spins a wheely and goes onto the sidewalk. His bike dies. I get off.

"I will not ride with you if you go on the sidewalk!" I say.

"OK, OK, no more sidewalks."

I get back on and then begins my wild Saigon ride. He weaves in and out, in and out, into oncoming traffic, in front of cars. Finally, when he is about a mile from my house, he goes not on the sidewalk but on the side of the road that is kind of a walkway. He is going the wrong way on the walkway, swerving to miss pedestrians. He swerves onto the road again and just misses an oncoming bus and curses at the bad bus driver, getting in his way. I hit him on the shoulder.

"Let me off!"

He stops. He's confused.

"Let me off. You are scaring me! I will walk the rest of the way," I say as I slide off the bike. I pound my heart. "You scared me to death!"

He is wide-eyed. "But miss, I am a good driver. I know exactly what I am doing. I will take you the rest of the way home, like I promised."

"I don't want you to take me home. You are a crazy driver and you were weaving all over the place and you almost hit some people and a bus. Here, take your fifteen thousand and let me walk."

Now he pounds his heart. "But miss, I am a good driver. I have been driving this motorbike since your uncle was in Saigon forty years ago. I have won medals for my superb driving skills. The way I weave in and out of traffic, it's what I am known for. It would be against my honor if I don't take you the rest of the way home."

This goes on for a few minutes. He will not take my money. I tell him if I get back on, he has to stay on the right side of the street, and he must go very slowly. He agrees.

He drives slowly all the way to my alley. I get off and he tells me that even though he swerved everywhere, he is a good driver and got me home faster than anyone else could have.

Crap. I only have a twenty thousand bill. I give it to him and he shrugs. He doesn't have any change. "It's OK miss, I won't charge you, since I scared you so badly." He hits his heart. "I don't want you to think badly of Saigon motorbikes...this one is on me. Have a nice night."

I start to walk away. Only, oops...I translated that last one incorrectly. What he said, evidently, was, "I did such a good job, you should really pay me twenty."

Because he suddely produces change.

He gives it to me, tells me "Thank you" in Vietnamese and makes me say it back with perfect intonation before he lets me go.



Now. What do you think his translation of this interaction might be when he is having a beer with his fellow drivers tonight? Something like "I was just driving this lady home and she kept getting off the bike and pounding her chest like a mad woman!"

Other news: I finally found a can of Raid in the backpacker district where K and I met Simon tonight. When we get home, the ANTS are GONE!!

I picked up my first dress and shirt tonight from the seamstress next door. She did a fantastic job! When you come, bring your patterns and ideas!

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Lesson on Dong
























What do you do when you are driving a Saigon motorbike and you get to an intersection that is COMPLETELY jammed? Use the sidewalk. Nothing is sacred. Pedestrians having the right of way? What a strange law to remember.

I've already forgotten so many of them.

The intersection by our school, which happens to be right next to the largest pagoda (Giac Lam) in the city, is what I've been telling you about. I take my third motorbike taxi trip this morning and the guy is smoking a cigarette the entire time, blowing smoke right in my face, and when we get to the jam he does not hesitate to swerve onto the sidewalk. That is when I tap him and tell him I'll walk the rest of the way.

A bit about dong...the mototaxi costs me 15 thousand dong, or about 90 cents (every thousand dong is about 6 cents), each way to school. A regular taxi costs around 40 thousand, or $2.40 in the mornings and as much as 50 thousand, or $3.00, in the evenings, just because the jams are harder to negotiate. So it's $1.80 per day for the motorbike or almost $6.00 per day for a regular taxi for transportation back and forth to school. Many teachers have already found regular guys who pick them up for school and back on a daily basis. My smoke blower will not be hired again. But there are many guys lining our street in the mornings. "Motorbike, Miss?" "Motorbike, Miss?" Now that I am in the swing, I will look for the best one and hire him. And I will tell him "absolutely no sidewalk scootering!"

My uncle, who was in Vietnam from '66 to '67, just wrote to tell me that the videos reminded him of Saigon 4o years ago, except that there were more three-wheeled carts and not as many cars. Hard to imagine that it has stayed the same for so many years.

Now, back to dong:

It's funny how quickly you switch into another currency and things seem SOOO expensive when they really aren't. To give some perspective, I will be paid $2600 per month here, which is about half of what I'm paid in Edmonds. We also get a $300 housing allowance per month and the castle rent is $1100, split three ways. The three of us will spend just a bit over our allowance on this place, which we can't believe. We got such a great deal.

Dinner can cost between 10 thousand and 100 thousand dong, depending on where you eat. Karrie and I tried to keep it under $5 per day for food when we crossed Mexico; I could do the same here without much effort at all.

Most teachers who have been here for a while can save quite a bit. As soon as we get our castle the way we want it, I'm going to try to live on as little as possible, giving priority to 1) travel and 2) food, or possibly 1) food and 2) travel. I'm thinking that the weekend after this one, after the big grand opening castle party where my roommates will be DJ's on different decks and balconies, it will be time to venture out of Saigon. We have a big map by the door and are putting sticky notes all over it, marking places we want to go.

To answer a few questions: Amy, pictures of the castle (including the lamp) will come as soon it is picture ready. And Chris, the pirated movies we have purchased are too many to list (again, at 90 cents a piece) but include: The Kite Runner, Letters from Iwo Jima, Sex and the City and Into the Wild. You have to pick through them a bit because the main staple is action, but everything is there.

It's Monday night and we are off to some kind of acoustic guitar place. Good morning, Seattle, Montana, Norway, Canada, China, America, etc.~

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Snips and Snails and Fat Piggy Tails

Hey, thanks, Brian, for posting more videos of HCMC motorbike madness! (why didn't the comment link appear?) I hired another mototaxi today to find lamp street...now it's no big deal. Tomorrow I will take one to school. (And I did find a lamp on lamp street. What's next? Stereo Speaker Street, also known as "Electric Avenue" in Chinatown.) This is a picture of our fruit basket. I can't remember the name of the prickly fruit but it's really good...

Not much time to post tonight because I have been studying Ancient Sumeria, but I do want to tell you that not much happened today for the Autumn Festival. I did see many people eating moon cakes during the day and sliced fruit with a berry sauce tonight out on the street. And...I did notice that much grilling of fat pig tails was happening in the alleys during market time. Who knows if this is a festival thing, but I'm pretty sure I would have noticed them before. But, hey, every day I see something new. Like today...I walk by a shallow bucket of frogs and think they are dead, but they aren't. What's worse is that they are tied together, five to a package, wriggling all over the place. Their movement scared me to death. They were right next to a bucket of live eels. I'm pretty sure those critters won't make it into my newly seasoned wok.

And--the best news of all...I saw HER tonight, making her magic cakes. She is real after all! But I had just eaten, so I had to just take the sight of her and feel happy.
Goodnight, Saigon--

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Traffic in Vietnam

Hey Marjie,

I found a couple more videos of traffic in Ho Chi Minh City. Is this pretty accurate to what you see? I find them somewhat mesmerizing... (I a "I'm glad it's not like that here" sort of way")

This first one is just 10 seconds:


This one is death defying for just over a minute:


-Brian

Plant Street Today, Lamp Street Tomorrow

Katherine and I find plant street today. The man who runs it speaks French, as does Canadian Katherine. They communicate and barter as he leads us around his nursery and then we see IT-- a nine foot tall PALM TREE. We look at each other and think the same thing. The Deck. It's meant to be. But how do you get a nine foot tall palm tree home? Well, you put it on the back of a motorbike, of course. (This is the small plant!)

So we are completing our transaction while our tree and two other plants for the living room are being bungeed to the back rack of two bikes when a motorbike taxi driver pulls up, points at the sky and lets us know it's going to rain. Katherine has been hiring them for weeks now, and I know it's going to happen sooner or later; I can't spend my entire contract here afraid to ride them. So I give the nod. It's a ten minute ride back, and yes, it's kind of fun. And it does begin to pour, so we wait under an awning for our plants to arrive.

At the shop, we are asked if we need help getting it upstairs (since everyone lives in stacks). Katherine says, "Oh, I think we can handle it." I remind her that we have five flights of stairs and a ladder up to the roof and that the tree is nine feet tall. We need the help. When the bikes and trees arrive, these two poor guys have to heave the tree all the way to the top; they are sweating and sweating...


Katherine says, "Let's not tell Tarn about the tree. Let's just see his reaction next time we go up." But the plant delivery has left a very thick trail of dirt through the door and up the stairs, and both of us are so tired from having them heave it up five stories that we fall asleep. Eventually, I see Tarn through my window, following the trail up the ladder, so I follow him. His reaction is great, he loves it. We are going to decorate it with bamboo hanging candles.
Our deck now has a rainbow park bench, a hammock (more hammocks to come--my roommates are jealous) and a PALM TREE. How can you not want to come and hang out on my roof? You don't even have to enter lesson plans, you can just sit there, swinging on a rooftop in Ho Chi Minh City...
Last week the park bench was delivered by cart:
Today feels like a real Saturday. We're getting settled so we all take on projects- my project is seasoning the wok we bought last week in Chinatown. I am so ready to start cooking in our kitchen...we haven't even had time to think about it. When the wok is ready, I step outside to the market and take my time choosing vegetables: oyster mushrooms, garlic, peppers, onions, beans and fresh tofu cakes...I keep it vegetarian because of Tarn. I'm not sure how to use the sauces here, but figure it will be trial by error. It's not the best stir fry ever, but we have a nice first lunch together.

The market is going to be a highlight of my year. Today I see halibut cheeks, clams, prawns, all kinds of dried fish-- soon I will be buying all of it each Saturday. Imagine, having all of this right outside your castle!! And our neighbor the seamstress fixed a hem on my pants this morning for thirty cents, and has been hired to make more shirts and skirts. How can I walk past all of those material stalls and not buy some and have something made?

It's really something to wake up here on the weekends. Our house has grates near the ceilings, so it seems that the neighborhood is inside every morning. Construction next door (yes, contruction is going on next door wherever I am in this city) begins early, as does the man who coughs for an hour. But the sounds of the market are the best. Buying and selling --- it ends at about 11:00 and we wonder: where do all of the vegetables, fish, fruit and goods go? To their homes? It's another mystery. Today my market find is a woman who makes her own taffy: sesame and molasses. I have found my dad's Christmas present.

Tonight I'm invited to a dinner party at Steve and Sharon's. They are from Florida and Steve is teaching math while Sharon looks for work with a non-profit. Nice couple...met while working for Habitat for Humanity in Atlanta. Steve used to have hair down to his waist and two hoop earings when he worked in Jamaica for the Peace Corps, but now he is clean cut and wears a tie every day. He is the leader of the "Glass Half Full" group. He is sooooo positive, in the best way. In the middle of dinner, we hear a band playing outside so we go out to the deck to take a look. A dragon is dancing down the street because it's Autumn Festival tomorrow. Moon cakes are being sold at every corner in red and yellow stands (the national colors) that will be collapsed tomorrow, just like our fireworks stands. We're wondering what kind of fun our neighborhood might have~
But we will have to leave it briefly, for tomorrow, we look for lamp street.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Street Crossing and Scallop Dating

I could write about motorbikes every single day. I just spent an hour trying to upload a video of me crossing a street, but the video would not load. Actually, pictures just barely load, so I was thinking positively. If you had been able to watch me cross the street, you would have said, "That is the most amazing thing I have ever seen Marjie do."

So I will just have to talk about motorbikes a little more: parents wear helmets and kids do not. Sometimes you see three kids on the back of a bike. Or one really little kid standing on the baseboard in the front. Or a mother driving with one hand and holding her child with the other. Or someone text messaging or smoking with a free hand.

Oh! I just found two YouTube videos that will help you understand my world...do not pass up this opportunity to click (the first is 12 seconds and the second is two minutes):
Still, I want you to see MY intersection.

This past summer, Dennis made me buy a scooter. Here they are (mine is the cute little one, a 125 Yamaha Vino, his is the big mean Bergman 650):
Every time we rode somewhere together, he would advise me on how to ride more safely. He was of the opinion that I turned in front of oncoming traffic in a risky way, or that I didn't use my peripheral vision when crossing intersections. Here the kids are not taught to look both ways before crossing the street. They just look the way they are going, which is what drivers do, too. You are in front, you have the power. Turn in front of anyone if there is room. Dennis, like Jaci regarding bathroom napping, did not understand that I was connecting with my future culture.

Now, about school, today is better. The jackhammer is quiet for a few hours, and I make some decisions that I feel pretty good about, which I will get to in a second. But the highlight of my day is when four of my cute girl students come in during their lunch and say, "We want to have English ALL day long. We don't want to have math or social studies or science, just English." Well, it's not because I am following the IB protocol, that is for sure. It's because we played "Around the World" with their vocabulary words. At one point, two boys were competing against each other and the word was "revolting." One kid, Tommy, wanting so badly to win, points at me and says, "Disgusting!" I say, "I have never had a student point at me and yell "disgusting" before!" Now THAT is an example of sixth grade humor. They love it. They get so wound up I have them practice "silent cheering." Then I make up a tongue twister out of the story. They must stand and say it twice, quickly, without messing up. "Some silly people slurp soup and some silly people slurp shakes" (from "The All-American Slurp"). There are four groups of tables and tables get points. All I have to say is, "The first table to have books and notebooks out gets a point!" and it's chaos to make it happen. "Anyone who can say this tongue twister twice quickly without messing up will win a point for his/her group" and the hands all go up and they whine to be chosen. Such enthusiasm. That never happened at Scriber.

As for Decisions to Make My Life Better: My first priority for next week is to find a gym. I need endorphin released. Secondly, I'm having my mom send my pants. I did not bring any of my professional pants from home and I hate wearing skirts and dresses every single day. Pants are hard to come by in my giant size and I'm not too excited about having pants made. Can't tell you what a relief this is. It's not too hot to wear them, either, because of the air conditioning. Another decision: I'm going to keep a low profile, not complain or draw attention to myself, but I'm also not going to post things every day on that awful site (until they make it more user friendly) and I'm not going to worry too much about my weekly plans. If the kids are learning, then I will be happy. If the admin is really worried about it (and they have a lot keeping them busy right now), then they will come to me I guess. But like I said, I'm not heading toward IB, so I have no one to impress. How does that sound, principal Kathy?

Now, about that date with the scallops...Katherine and I go to Rug Street after school today. It's not just me that names these streets thematically, the Vietnamese women in the copy room that I have befriended also call it Rug Street. They also tell me where to find Lamp Street and Plant Street. So we find a rug after visting about ten rug shops, one after another, all with the same product but with different prices. I do feel like I am in college again because nothing in the castle matches. We have pink curtains, baby blue design below the curtains, rainbow colored pillows, a Mexian tablecloth that Tarn contributed, and now a traditional blue flowery livingroom rug. Who cares?
After rug street, we return to our grid and stop at the seafood place that caught our attention last night. All kinds of mollusks sit outside the restaurant in a cart, and the cheery waitress brings us a "Photo Album" of all the ways you can have them prepared. We choose four: scallops on the half shell with peanuts and green onions, mussels in tamarind sauce, clams dipped in lime, salt and chili and another kind of clams I have never seen that come with a side of spicy fish sauce. They put a big waste basket under the table and you just chuck your shells into it. All of it=delicious. The whole meal costs us three dollars a piece, and our waitress is so passionate about showing us how to eat them.
As we wander the few blocks home, we gaze into the lives of our neighbors. Everyone has open doors on the bottom floors of the Lego stacks. We can see what they are eating and what they are watching on TV. We see them playing cards or badminton right outside. We see their shrines and pictures of their relatives. I want this kind of community in America.
And guess what? It didn't rain today, so we take beer to the roof and I get to swing in my hammock. That's all I ask, really, is for four good plates of seafood, a beer and a hammock. And possibly the return of my TRCL. And for four girls to say they want to be in English ALL day long, and for a 12 year old boy to point at me and say "Disgusting!"

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Glass half full, glass half full...

Do you recognize this person eating at Pho 2000?


Remember a few posts ago I told you that the motorbikes outside my classroom window sound like a never-ending loud Scriber lawnmower? I long for that lawnmower. Construction on the building right next to my window started on Tuesday. The jackhammer goes all day long. All day long. Every day. The jackhammer operator must eat while he is jackhammering. I can't hear my students and they can only hear me if I yell. By the end of the day...well...

Today I started at 7am and ended at 6:30 pm and didn't get everything done. We have to enter lesson plans into a computer system every single day for every single class; even though I teach only two preps, I have to reenter information five times every day. I must turn in weekly plans to my principal with all copies of work attached (plus student work). Every time we enter a grade for a student we must save that individual grade. I can't read the Vietnamese names of the kids so it takes forever just to find who turned what in. We started clubs today (we are supposed to lead a club after school on Thursdays) and they weren't organized so I made up games for an hour and a half. It's been raining for five days straight. The picture of my toes in my hammock, well, that was the first and last time I have had to enjoy it. It's monsoon season. And the rice cake lady is still MIA. And the ants still crawl up my wall.


Just to set the record straight, not once have I second-guessed being here. I haven't wished to be home (OK, maybe just for two days and then come back). My students are angels. But those of you who know my work style, it's to leave work and have a life. I don't really like to work that much...I mean, I like teaching, but yes I would rather be exploring and eating and...I hope it will get better...it has to get better. I haven't even had time to research a gym yet, so it will be three weeks without exercise...there is nowhere to just walk, let alone run, in this city. Running does not coexist with the motorbikes.

In the words of my mom, "You can do anything for ten months." When I think of her saying that, I try to picture her crossing the street of motorbikes. On the way to school, just before we get there, we have to negotiate a roundabout. Sometimes it takes the taxi ten minutes alone just to get through it, so now I get out and cross it by foot. It saves time and money (the taxi ride doubles sometimes just getting through it) but it just may cost me my life. (That last sentence was not meant to get back at you, Mom.)

After all, I knew it would be chaos, starting this new school and trying to head toward International Baccalaureate and all. The thing is, I don't care about IB. I'm not so into it. And when I'm working so hard I think...what am I doing this for? I have enough good recommendations...

But then things get better and my attitude shifts. Like tonight. Katherine and I discover a new alley in the grid and it seems to be "The Alley of Dreams." Many many rich houses and little restaurants serving fresh seafood. K and I have a date with some scallops tomorrow night, then we are coming home and watching a pirated movie (you can get them for under a dollar). Can't wait. Everything is an effort--everything we want to buy takes a whole trip, and we must ask, "Where is the best place to find a lamp?" "Where is the best place to find a rug?" Then we take a taxi and they let us off at the entrance to the grid and we carry things the rest of the way. In the rain. Oh, the rain. Wow, Seattle.

So, anyway, we find another turmeric rice cake place, a restaurant. They are very good -- they were covered with a rice milk cream or something this time-- and I was very happy with them, only I miss HER. And SHE charges only 6 cents per cake; this guy tonight charges us $2.40 for 8. Those high restaurant prices!! After the cakes, we wander some more and find a fruit juice stand a bit different from the many shake stands and we both order an original combination--I get carrot, orange and apple and it costs only 70 cents.

There are so many things to discover in this city. I know things will get better. Now everything seems insurmountable. Working eleven and a half hours at something I find tedious and meaningless is a thousand times worse with a jackhammer in the background.
So, #1 Fan... (she sent me a personal email, which seems so strange...I don't really know how to talk to her outside of the blog), your perceptions were right on. I am struggling a bit. I guess you can tell when I don't post for two days. Tomorrow is Friday and I am so so so happy. Good night everyone. You wouldn't believe how hard it is raining!

Monday, September 08, 2008

School, not Rice Cakes

I was going to write about the Turmeric Rice Cake Lady and how I think she was just an apparition or an angel because we haven't seen her since that first night we came to look at the castle -- but...everyone is asking me to write about school. I got three emails about that very topic just now.

By the way, my brother signed me up for a blog counter. It has a variety of measurements, but the one that really surprised me: 273 people visited my blog from separate computers last week. I just want to say: 1) who are all of you? and 2.) wow...thanks for stopping by!

Anyway, school. I'm not writing about how worried I am about my Turmeric Rice Cake Lady returning to the alley very soon...I'm writing about school. OK. I teach five sixth grade classes, which means that I teach every single sixth grader in the school. Three classes are Language Arts and two are Ancient History. They are labeled 6A through 6E and travel together through all of their classes. I teach on the fourth floor and the copy room is on the first floor (which, by the way, is not the ground floor). The elevator doesn't work and so I do a lot of running up and down the stairs. The copy machine doesn't work, either, but the copy girl runs all of our requests across the street. I guess this is OK, but we don't have the textbooks in from the states yet and we are supposed to rely on copies until that time. Oh, the internet is very slow and doesn't work half the time, either. But we do have LCD projectors that are hooked to our computers, so I have been using lots of visuals.

Let's see...the schedule is a bit crazy. We teach either four or five hours per day, but have at least two hours for breaks or planning, too, which means I arrive at seven and usually leave at five because Tarn (librarian) and I share a taxi back to the castle. Each week, each class has one block period which means they have one hour long class, a five minute break, then another hour long class. It's hard to get used to. And this morning I completely spaced on the fact that I was starting with a block and had only planned for one hour. So I recalled Amy's comment in the last blog about just playing games and using the language and I faked my way through the second hour with fun fun fun. We reenacted Otzi the Iceman's death: I put sticky notes on the foreheads of volunteers (all boys) and had them fight and stab each other and die. They loved it, and the kids had no idea how lame their teacher was. Maybe they even learned something~ However, I can't do that too much because the school is on the fast track to reach IB (International Baccalaureate) level. We are told to push them as much as we can...that is why this particular principal was hired; he specializes in opening new international IB schools. Here is a shot of my floor: pretty exciting, huh?

Things seem to be running rather smoothly, considering how much change the school has experienced in the last year. Many of the new students were required to attend summer school, so their English is OK. Some are so difficult to understand, though. One in particular, Minh, is so darned cute...the most prominent feature on his face: big teeth with even bigger (dirty) braces. He loves to talk and every time he raises his hand I try so hard to understand what he is saying, but I just can't. It doesn't help that the constant drone of motorbikes outside my window drowns out most of what he says. It sounds like the loud lawnmower that would always visit Scriber at the worst teaching moments, the times that you really just wanted to make a point. Plus, construction on a building started today and poor Minh might as well be a big set of clattering braces for all I can understand.

Sixth grade is interesting. I found that they didn't get my witty sense of humor the first day, so I am adjusting it with some success. Breaking things down to this low level is difficult for me, but I am great at thinking of fun games to play, especially at the last minute. And the kids love to get me to pronounce things. Minh loves to act as a conductor to get me to understand intonations...he sweeps his hands up and down, up and down. When I get it right, the whole class says "YES!" (This happens rarely and I usually cannot repeat it.)
What else? The girls hate sitting by the boys and vice versa, but I made a seating chart doing just that. The girls want to gossip with me and be my friend. The boys are polite but distant. I don't have one discipline problem yet. Like I have said a few times, the kids are cute and eager to learn. I tell you what...if you ask me direct questions about school and details you want to know, I will address them. But right now I am going to go peek around the corner to see if she is there and then I'm going up to my hammock. I will try to get pictures of the kids soon...that's what you will really like!
Good morning to you, good night from me! Isn't it strange that I am saying goodbye to Monday and you don't even know it's Monday yet~