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!


amyt said...

Pig snouts
rat crossing
sweet neighbors with candles
fresh tofu cakes
police raids

and yet you present it all with charm and grace.


Brian Bowker said...

HCMC sounds like a perfect place for Tarn to have his first experience driving a vehicle since it doesn't sound like anyone there will notice that he doesn't know how to drive.

I like the story about the lady across the street watching for you from her window. That's really cool, especial since you're a foreigner that apparently parties too much. Would neighbors in the US be so kind?

Is it possible to send you care packages? If so, what address would someone use to do so? If you post it on your blog, maybe people will send you stuff...