Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nha Trang Weekend, Part Two: Same Same but Different

Here's the "Same Same but Different" version of this weekend's story: Katherine and I find six other AIS teachers at the airport heading for Nha Trang. We have no idea that we are all relocating to the same place for Thanksgiving weekend. After hours of waiting and finding out that the flight is cancelled, four of us decide to tough it out and take the train. We know that the weather may be crummy, but we just want to go somewhere. You know how it is~

One of "Team Nha Trang" is a man named Fran. Fran is responsible for starting AIS and he has helped me tremendously since the school year started. He is simply just very, very cool and is probably one of the most intent listening ears I've ever met. He was principal last year but this year his title is "Director of Admissions." He loves the school and the kids more than anyone and the kids know it. Fran and his Vietnamese wife just built a house in Nha Trang and he tries to make it up there most weekends. He knows about the train and tells the three of us that we can stay with them until the morning.

When we arrive at their beautiful ocean -view home, K and I get the fourth floor to ourselves and wake up to a pancake and bacon breakfast. They are having Thanksgiving parties all weekend and invite us to all of them, but for the time being we head to our hotel...a $10 per night spot in an alley right off of the beach with a balcony and ocean view. It's a great spot (beach weather, of course, would have made it perfect). We meet up with our two friends (who had wisely flown in Wed evening) and decide to head to the mud bath/mineral springs spa up in the hills for the (cloudy rainy) day. It's a long, bumpy, steep, puddle-ridden journey to the spa, but it is a fantastic day. We have lunch on a little tiny island that hosts a wood-fire oven and we eat the best pizza since arriving in Vietnam. Then we are led up a steep flight of stairs and get in a freshly-run tub full of warm mud where we relax for twenty minutes. After that we follow a winding path to the mineral springs tub where we relax for another twenty minutes. After soaking in these two tubs, we can enjoy the pool and the waterfalls as long as we want, until we decide we want our hour-long massage. The cost for this day? $15.

The next day we see a Cham temple: the kingdom of Champa flourished between the 2nd to the 15th centuries-- they were semi-piratical and attacked passing trade ships to sustain themselves. They remain a substantial ethnic minority in Vietnam and are mostly known for their architecture; now I want to find much more of it. The temple that we see in Nha Trang was built in 791. It is active; incense burns all day long, and we see women in traditional dresses bringing in trays of fruits as offerings on the altars.

We also see the Long Song Pagoda with these two striking Buddhas: the reclining one is 18 meters long and the sitting one watches over all of Nha Trang at a height of 24 meters. A old toothless man guides us up the stairs (a self-appointed guide) and says, "I love Obama" to me all the way up.

I'm not even at the best part of the weekend yet.

Katherine has to fly back Saturday night because she is in charge of organizing the Terry Fox run for the elementary school. This is definitely not her best part: she is supposed to fly out at 7 pm...however, it's still too stormy, and her flight is cancelled - again. She must take the night train - again, which arrives back in HCMC at 5:20 am. The race begins at 8:30.

Meanwhile, as K is setting up a night of bunking with three Vietnamese men on the same grimy train, I accept the Thanksgiving dinner invitation at Fran's house - along with twenty others. I am among only four Americans in this group; it is fun to watch the wide-eyed wonder of the Vietnamese guests (and their picture taking madness) over the size of the bird. Fran and his wife bought it at a gourmet store in HCMC, and most of their guests have never tried turkey before. Some are a bit hesitant, but after their first bite of turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce, they are sold on the idea. Still, the turkey doesn't stop them from eating the other offering - traditional Vietnamese BBQ pork chops and rice.

Half-way through dinner, I am telling my Norway pumpkin pie story - not the regifting one - but just how difficult it was to find all of the ingredients necessary to make those pies there. Fran's wife overhears me and says, hey, I wanted to make pumpkin pie but I've never made it before. I have canned pumpkin and a graham cracker crust, but I can't figure out how to make the right substitutions.

Well, I am well-trained in pumpkin-pie making (just hoping my parents will understand the canned pumpkin), so I can make the substitutions- like using the heavy Vietnamese French coffee cream instead of condensed milk and nutmeg for ginger and cloves...and those who remain when the pie is done two hours later (a perfect pie eight of us at midnight) are beyond happy over tasting pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving in Vietnam on a stormy beach front night. And the fact that Ann has only banana split ice cream in her freezer- no big deal. Actually, it's a fine combination. The evening turns out to be exactly what Thanksgiving dinner is meant to be - a time to share a meal and friendship. What a great night.

And yet another highlight: the next morning I hire a motorbike driver to take me to an art gallery mentioned in the Lonely Planet before my 11:00 bus to the airport. Long Thanh is an internationally recognized photographer who has shown his work in over 53 exhibitions world-wide. He is known for capturing Vietnam's everyday beauty and contrasts. Long Thanh happens to be at his studio/house when I arrive - I am the only one there. I take in his stunning work and talk with him for quite a while. I finally decide to buy this one:

Here is another one that has been recognized all over the world:

After I make my purchase, the internationally acclaimed photographer says to me, "Would you like a ride back to your hotel?" and so I hop on the back of his very cool motorbike and he drops me off, curbside. On the plane, I am flipping through the Vietnam Airlines Heritage magazine and who is featured in the main article? Long Thanh, of course, Vietnam's beloved photographer.


Yeah, so, the only time I am on the beach is on Saturday morning, when K makes me bring my green tea out to the lounge chairs - chairs that are stacked up under palapas to protect from the rain. She wants to drink her coffee out there. Other than that, no beach, no ocean swimming, no sun. But I bet not one of you feels sorry for me, huh? Especially because, unlike Katherine, I was actually on that easy, clean, 45-minute flight from Nha Trang to HCMC. Easiest flight in the world.

p.s. Katherine, by the way, made it to her race, of course, and I suppose represented her country well with about ten AIS students among approximately 7,000 participants.

Nha Trang Weekend, Part One: Have you ever...?

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you get clipped in your lower back by a motorbike handlebar and when you hit the cement a crystal is dislodged in your ear and it takes a week and two hospital visits to shake the crystal back to its rightful place and the world stops spinning right before you are scheduled to fly to the most beautiful beach in Vietnam and you can't wait to just lie on the beach under a palm tree to rest and you get up at 3:30 to make your 6:00 flight and you can't believe how easy the 45 minute flight is and you break through the clouds on your descent and actually see the tarmac, although it is difficult to see under the whipping sand that makes it look like you're landing in Desert Storm and you think, wow this doesn't look like the pictures I Googled and I don't really think it's landing weather only to find out that it's not landing weather and you hear the announcement in Vietnamese first and actually understand that they are saying you are heading back to Ho Chi Minh City and when you get back there they say they will try again in one hour, and after an hour they tell you to get off the plane, you will fly at 1:00 but you must get your luggage and check it in again and then at 1:00 your plane is delayed until 3:00 and then at 3:00 you hear the announcement that your flight has been cancelled altogether so you try to get the ticket refunded but you want to keep the return flight because you think you'll just take the eight hour train to the beach but the girl at the counter tells you that their system says you are flying back Saturday, not Sunday, and that you must pay half the price of your ticket to change it back to Sunday because of their mistake and then you finally arrive at the train station and you're thinking it will be like the train ride from Shanghai to Beijing- so smooth and clean and you slept so well- only, instead, you get on the oldest, grungiest, jerkiest train in Southeast Asia at 7:00 pm (after ordering a club sandwich and having it arrive on a stale baguette) and you take the top bunk even though you're not feeling all that great- you're still a little dizzy-and when you realize you must use the toilet you crawl off your perch in the dark but you can't get the door open and all of your cabinmates are asleep so you keep struggling and after ten minutes of working with the door you finally get it open but when you get to the toilet there is no toilet paper so you go back to your cabin, climb back up to your bunk and rip a page out of the Lonely Planet only to discover back at the toilet that it's the A-B index so you go back again to get an insignificant page and the toilet is a squat toilet and the train is so jerky and you think you just want to die and you arrive at your destination at 3:00 am and it's rainy and windy and you hear that the weather is going to stay this way all weekend?

Have you ever had a week like that?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Three Dizzy Days

It's been three dizzy days.

I was determined to get up and go to school today because I felt about 50% better than I did on Monday - until I got up to go to school - and my room did its spinning thing again. I got back in bed and at around 10:00 got up enough courage to walk out to the street to get a cab back to the hospital.

Down the four flights of stairs - resting, again, at each landing, walking at a slant like I have mad cow disease and a bad back (go ahead and laugh), all the way to Trang Hung Dao, where the taxis are. And, whom should I meet? Yep, there he is, Nam, sitting at his hang out spot, a sidewalk cafe. He is shocked to see me. I don't know what he must have thought about my no- show three days, but perhaps he thought I was mad and avoiding him. What I didn't mention about last Friday when he was 20 minutes late was that he sped home. I kept telling him to slow down, but he would point up to the sky..."the rain is coming." When he dropped me off, he knew I was mad. He pointed up again, and sure enough, the rain started to fall and it fell hard. I told him that was no reason to drive so fast and besides, if he would have been on time...
But anyway, he sees that I am sick and runs over to steady me. He has the most animated face, and today it is full of compassion. I know enough Vietnamese now that I can tell him that I am very sick and that I need to go to the hospital. He sees my bag with back x-rays and asks if my back is hurt from the accident. He looks so sad when I tell him "yes." He tells me to have a seat and he hails a cab for me and helps me into it.
Making a long story short, Jessica, I wish I had known about the shaking thing the other day. A few other people wrote to me about it, too. Today I am referred to a Head Nose Throat Doctor and he says that a trauma like my accident can dislodge that crystal thing - even up to a week after it occurs - and that he could shake it back. So I lay down on a table and he cradles my head and does this figure eight kind of motion for about five minutes. He prescribes some different medication and as I walk out, I can feel a difference. Next, I go to see probably my most favorite doctor ever - she is so gentle and intelligent and soothing- a back specialist - and she gives me some good advice and suggests "radio frequency ablation" - a procedure for chronic back pain. I am going to read up on it and see if my insurance will cover it and possibly go back to have this done in a few weeks. Again, the hospital experience is nothing but positive, but I am there today from 10-6.
When I get home, I am feeling good enough to think about other people, finally. I didn't want Thuy to know I was sick...I couldn't imagine having someone with me, the way I was feeling, especially someone I couldn't communicate with easily. So I wanted to go by her house and tell her where I've been and that K and I would be flying out early in the morning (6:00). I find her whole family on the lower level of their open house, watching TV. Both Thuy and Tan are there, and they are happy to see me. They pull up a chair and I sit with them on their stoop.
Tan says, "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, we don't see you!" (because I always wave down their alley every morning). I tell her (in my terrible Vietnamese), "Monday, I'm sick, Tuesday, I'm sick, Wednesday, I'm sick...Thursday, I fly to Nha Trang!" They get it and they laugh. I tell them a bit about the hospital and my imbalance and show them the x-rays. They are very concerned.
Thuy says, "Maggie, can I go to your house and play with you, Katherine and Tarn?" (Such a great way to ask). I tell her I can't play tonight, that I must go and pack.
Thuy says, "Maggie, do you eat yet?" and the truth is that, no I haven't eaten, but I have so much to do that I tell her I ate at the hospital. "OK, Sunday next, you, Katherine, Tarn and me, we go to a restaurant to eat goat (this is something she has mentioned to me before). Then we go to ________ Pagoda (didn't catch the name)."
I say, "Perfect!" and she does this gesture that I love, she puts her hand up and waits for me to grasp it- it's such an intimate gesture of friendship. While my hand is up there with hers, I grab Tan's and hold it up there, too. They both tell me they will be "with us" when we fly. I love them.
So, yes, I will get on a plane to Nha Trang tomorrow at 6:00 am. It's a 45 minute flight. The doctor says I shouldn't dance. I'm OK with that. Right now the whole world seems OK, whatever the case, because it is upright and because I have so many good people in my life.
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! I will not be eating turkey, but I will be very, very grateful laying on my Vietnamese beach! Thanks for all of your kind emails!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Some Kind of Week

I'm going for the holistic Vietnam experience. That is why I was in a motorbike accident last week and why I spent all day today at the hospital. You all deserve to hear the full experience!

When I woke up this morning, I couldn't move my head without the room spinning and spinning and spinning. I thought I must have caught what Tarn had last week, but when Tarn came up in answer to my desperate text, he said it didn't sound like it. My head felt like it weighed a ton.

I sent an email to my principal, who was very concerned. He sent Tarn home early to take me to the Franco-American hospital (it was Tarn's first day back in a week). Dr. Mark paid for his taxi home and for our taxi to and from the hospital (nice). He was afraid that my dizziness was tied to my motorbike accident and insisted that I get it checked.

So today was my first emergency room admission, since - I don't know, mom? when? I don't even remember. My broken leg when I was two? Getting there was the longest journey ever. Being four floors up has been only a good thing until today (and sometimes when I forget something). I crawled to the fourth landing, then rested on the floor on my pillow. Then to the third, rested again. And the second, and then the ground. I was exhausted. I hugged the wall all the way down the alley to the taxi - much to the concern of Candle Neighbor. The taxi ride was OK - Tarn laid out my yoga pad in the back seat - except for every bump and blown horn (which was about ten times per minute). What followed at the hospital was lots of me being wheel-chaired around the premises to many different stations. They took full x-rays of my back.

The result: no connection between the two incidents. My back has injuries unconnected to the accident, which I know (from years ago), and they are admitting me to see a "pain doctor" on Wednesday. The dizziness - vertigo. Something changed in the fluids in my inner ear. No real explanation as to what causes that. I'm on medication, and am ordered to stay home tomorrow.

Two things: 1) the hospital was completely professional and state-of-the-art. I was in very good hands. The only problem was that it was a bit hard to understand the doctor when she brought in the x-rays. "Clear as mud," said Tarn. All Vietnamese people, including doctors, pronounce "headache" phonetically - head "h." It is a funny-spelled word. Oh, and the entire thing was paid by insurance, even down to the prescription. All I did was show my card.
2) Tarn was an amazing friend today. He stayed with me the whole time, from 2 until about 6. He bought me a sandwich, entertained me with stories of Iraq protest arrests in New Zealand, etc, and was so incredibly patient with all of my dizzy spells all the way there and while we were there. I'll never know how I got so lucky to find these two roommates.

When we got home, Tarn said he would go out and get us some fried rice. Candle Neighbor stopped him because she wanted the report. A minute later, he came back in. "She said you are not allowed to eat fried rice. Only rice soup." He waited a few minutes, went out again, and came back with two containers of fried rice and salad. He was able to sneak it in, past our vigilant friend.

I came home to some school emails from my students. "Are you OK? Please come back to AIS!" The emails had been sent within one hour of school starting today. It's nice to be missed. One also said, "Your sub made us work so hard. Please come back!" I'm the fun teacher, not the hard teacher. I'm OK with that.

So, yeah, all I really care about right now is that I am able to get on the plane to Nha Trang on Thursday morning. I will sleep all day tomorrow in my castle, and watch a bunch of pirated CD's. I'm hoping that you all don't require any more reporting on holistic Vietnam. It's hard on me!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Official Home of The Gibbon Experience, Bokeo Nature Reserve, Northern Laos. An Animo Innovative Conservation Project

Official Home of The Gibbon Experience, Bokeo Nature Reserve, Northern Laos. An Animo Innovative Conservation Project

Vacation Plans

I know what you're thinking: "It's Sunday. I'll get some new recipes from cooking class." Nope. You won't. Here's another conversation:

Me: I went to see Thuy this morning and she didn't say anything about cooking today.

Katherine: I'm sure it's nothing.

Me: Yeah, but what if it isn't nothing? What if she's tired of slaving away, making us food?

Katherine: I'm sure that's not the case.

Me: What if she is disgusted by all of the ants in our kitchen?

Katherine: Well, that could be...

Me: My neighborhood equilibrium feels off again. Maybe I'll go to the Bum Bum.

So I'm really sorry. I don't have any good stories today. It's quiet. I read the New York Times online and watched the British version of The Office.

Here's what I can write about: Thanksgiving break and Christmas break.

This Thursday at 6:00 am, I will fly to a beach called Nha Trang to stay for four days with three other teachers. It's been a long stretch with no break at school, and I am very, very excited to be here:

Many people say it's the nicest beach in Vietnam.

And then, for Christmas, here is a very short outline of Katherine and my adventure (which we have been agonizing over for weeks -- too many cool places to go, only two weeks):

1. Three days exploring the ruins at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

2. Fly to Laos and spend four days at The Gibbons Experience (I sent a posting from their website, you can access it above). It's something else. We will be staying in a treehouse and ziplining in search of gibbons. It's an ecotourist organization.

3. Spend the rest of our time in Northern Thailand. The highlight, we hear, should be Mae Hong Son, a little town in the mountains, almost on the border of Myanmar.

So, yeah, I think it sounds OK!

And I'll leave you with this: lyrics from one of 6D's Mummy Raps (Wraps) - Megan, this is from Georgina's class and it was performed complete with dance moves to rap music:

The West in the Ibu is where they take my body.
They wash me with some salt and I think they’re very naughty
All of my brain is removed through my nose
All of my brain, they throw to the crows.

They place my body on a sloping table
I lay here wishing that I had some cable
They cover me with salt and dry for 40 days
I feel really sick in so many ways.

Seal me with wax and cover for protection
If I try to get out now I won’t know the direction
Then they wrap my body with linen and string
I may try to run, but I surely can’t sing

Place that mask right over my face
Then run away with your spray can of mace
Place me, your mummy, in a cool coffin
Then go to Starbucks and buy yourself a muffin.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Five Conversations

Nam's Big Fat Problem

Yesterday Nam is twenty minutes late picking me up from school. A bunch of my sixth graders are across the street at a deep fry cart so I go over to see what they're eating. They educate me on what is good; they tell me I should get the things in the middle, which look like deep fried baby lettuce heads, so I order some. A few of them have ordered other items that look like deep fried fish balls and I'm in the midst of tasting Johnny's when Nam finally drives up. He's still in motion when he mutters something and gives me the twisting of his elevated hand - a gesture I have come to know well. He disapproves.

I look to Jessica to translate what Nam's Big Fat Problem is now.

"He's telling you not to eat anything."

"I know," I say. "Ask him why."

They talk. Jessica turns back to me. "He says you will get diarrhea."

Update: I did eat the lettuce. They were wrapped around fish balls. I didn't like them. I did not get diarrhea.

Conversation Killers

"Wow, you guys, Disney World really is fun. It makes me feel like a kid again. I mean, the time before my two-year stint at children's hospital."

"Slather up the sunscreen... I had a mole looked at recently and the doctor told me that due to the extent of its irregular borders I'm flirting with a melanoma."

- from Saturday Night Live's "Debbie Downer."

Last night I am out to dinner at very expensive Italian restaurant with Katherine's friend's friends - a teacher couple from a British school - who recommended the expensive restaurant. Katherine is bragging to them about my taste in food and my food history and karma.

"Cool," says the guy. "What are some of your favorite restaurants in Saigon?"

"It's funny," I answer. "Usually I would be able to answer that question very easily because I am obsessed with finding good restaurants. But since I've been here, I've been eating street food almost exclusively and I haven't had the usual urge for the restaurant hunt."

He looks very uncomfortable. "Wow. I hope you have all of your shots, because over 3,000 people die every year from eating street food in Vietnam. Hepatitis, A, B...?"

Does it bother you?

Katherine: Does it bother you how accustomed we have become to having ants in our kitchen?

Me: Yes. It also bothers me how accustomed I have become to having ants in my bed.

Katherine: Do you think we are less clean than other people?

Me: Probably.

Katherine: Do you think that we should ask other people if they have a constant stream of ants on their kitchen counter?

Me: No. Let's not mention it.

Katherine: OK.

Picture memory for select blog readers -- ants on our door in Costa Rica (Our ants are teeny tiny here):

When the moon is round (conversation one week ago):

Thuy: Maggie, why you have picture of monks? You like this religion?

Me: Yes, I am very interested in Buddhism.

Thuy: I take you to temple with me?

Me: Yes!

Thuy: I go when the moon is round. I come get you.

Me: (looking out the window at the full moon): The moon is round now.

Thuy: No! I come and get you when the moon is round.

Me: OK.

I think that means next month, but evidently, it means yesterday. Thuy comes and only Tarn is here. He's feeling better (finally), so she takes him to her temple across town, in Chinatown. They burn the circular incense. They go to a vegetarian restaurant that Thuy recommends. Tarn says it's great. I'm out at an expensive (mediocre) Italian restaurant. I'm going to have to get better at recognizing when the moon is round.

"You know, it was much better this time..."

Steve (of the former dreadlocks) and his wife Sharon, live pretty close by and we introduced them to the Bum Bum. Tonight they are both getting Tran massages, so one hangs out at the castle while the other gets a massage, then they switch. I really like both of them.

When Sharon returns:

Me: What music did Tran play during your massage?

Sharon: It was pretty good tonight. R & B...I can't really remember what, but it was good!"

When Steve returns:

Me: Hey, what kind of music did Tran play during your massage?

Steve (he pauses to remember): You know, it was really good today: Marvin Gay, Aretha Franklin, Al Green...

I am a genius. Now Steve, Sharon, Katherine and Tarn are all going to make her CD's, too. And we are also going to bring our own massage lotion, because baby oil is just oilish. I really hope we don't offend her!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"11/20 is Teacher's Day in Vietnam"

All day long I am handed single red roses, bouquets, cards and gifts. Most of the cards educate me on what Teacher's Day is..."11/20 is the day in Vietnam when we say thank you to our teachers. Thank you, Ms. Marjorie, for teaching me so skillfully." A few are more personal...Antonia writes, "Thank you Ms. Marjorie, for teaching me about Egypt. I understand everything you teach me in Ancient History and I really enjoy it." or Wendy..."You are my favorite teacher. I love to read books in your class!"

I get chocolate, a really cool wicker "Vietnamese" bag, a purse, six high quality champagne glasses, a diamond pin and many handmade cards. The kids demonstrate so much joy in giving these gifts. What a great, great day. I almost didn't come because my back was so sore this morning. But how could I miss Teacher Day?

6E is extremely cool - they "get" it - and I have them first thing this morning. I tell them why I am a little stiff and walking funny and they are very concerned. They want to hear all of the details. They tell me that I shouldn't ride the motorbikes anymore. Instead, I should hire a helicopter or a space ship or a hot air balloon or at least take a taxi or walk. They want to know if my driver told the other guy off, and I tell them that I definitely learned some swear words and they say that is appropriate. And, well, can you remember any of the swear words, Ms. Marjorie? Can you say just one of them? They are so much fun. Today they perform their "Afterlife Raps" or "Mummy Wraps" - poems about the steps Egyptians must take to make it to The Land of Two Fields. They are really, really funny. Maybe I will add some of their lyrics to the blog this weekend.

Word travels quickly about my accident. My principal comes up and offers to go to the pharmacy to buy me some codeine, but Alice beats him to it. It's pretty heavy stuff, and I feel like I'm floating all day. Everyone is so kind.

When Nam picks me up, I have Teacher Day loot to take home and he is pretty happy about that. "11/20, Teacher Day!" he says. Then he points to himself and he says something like, "No Motorbike Driver Day. It's not right!"

When I get home, I see that Thuy is hanging out with the seamstresses next door. They wave and invite me in. I take in all of my presents and show them everything, and they ooh and ahhh over it. "11/20 is Teacher Day in Vietnam" they say.

I took this picture on Saturday when I was taking all of the other market pictures. Ms. Hoa is on the right (she is Thuy's best friend) and her assistant, Ms. Tieu, is on the left. Katherine and I "Amazon" them. They are both so tiny.

Today two other women are helping out and so is Ms. Hoa's son. It's so comfortable that I stay for almost an hour. I show them some pictures on my camera- of Dalat and of my students. We laugh a lot...we have many jokes now, like whenever I mention Ms. Hoa to Thuy, I make the "face" she made when they were trying to tell me they were going to buy shrimp. Stuff like that. When I go, Thuy follows me out and tells me, "Everyone here in this market says you are very open and happy and everyone likes you. We really like you Maggie!"

How much love can one person take in in one day? This culture embraces. At moments like these, when I feel so full and happy, I imagine us at war with Vietnamese people. War is so weird.

"Thank you, Thuy," I say. "You are a really good friend."

The best.

After a while Katherine comes home with about four times as much Teacher Day stuff as I have. She teaches PE to all 200 elementary school students, and it seems that every one of them has given her a gift. She left most of them wrapped, so T and I help her open's our own little castle Christmas. I put them in categories for her...soap and candles and perfume on the right, then chocolates, then clothing (including silk material and jeans that say "Miss Sixty" except for on the pockets where they say "Miss Sixy." The copies always seem to misspell something), and she is holding the last category...frozen food. She got sausage links, potato hash browns and cheesecake.

Tomorrow the school is hosting a dinner banquet for us at the Legend Hotel. It's one of the nicest hotels in Saigon. I plan to get home at four and spend three hours at the Bum Bum. Can't wait.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Two Horrified Faces of Nam

Tarn has been sick since Sunday...fever, nausea, etc. Today he ventures out to the morning market after K and I leave for school and mentions his sickness to Thuy and Tan. At noon, after the market closes, guess who is at the castle door. Thuy has brought rice soup, some eggs meant for boiling and some ginger for tea. She spoon feeds him the soup and later the tea. They watch fashion TV together for a while. Later she tells him what he has been eating is all wrong (fried rice, tortillas, rice and beans). She tells him he has at least two more days of illness and leaves the soup to speed his recovery.

I get all of this information from Tarn while he is laying on the couch in pain and I am laying on the carpet next to him in pain...two pathetic castle-members, both flat on our backs. Through my pounding pain, I am being reminded that men don't give up good details easily. "So what happened then?" and "Then what did she say/do?" I am both laughing and crying as I pursue the necessary questioning. pain: on the way home, we are in the usual traffic jam after Nam picks me up from the gym. It has just started to rain. We are either stopped or moving slowy when I receive a blow to my lower back. You know how both fast/slow motion these things always happen, but after the hit, Nam, the motorbike and I timber to the ground and in the same moment, Nam is trying to pull me up (quick as a parent's reaction should be, but perhaps not quite first-aid approved), twisting my back even more. "Stop!" I say, because my legs are still wrapped around the bike. I unwrap myself, but my back is hurt. I stay on the ground for a minute. Nam's face is filled with horror. I think I got hit by a handlebar, but I'm not exactly sure.

When Nam sees that I can stand, I learn a string of Vietnamese curse words as he tells the driver (whose young son is with him and who has stopped to make sure I'm OK) what an idiot he is. Somehow I climb back on the bike and I'm crying from shock. Our drive home is fifteen more minutes, and three times - about every five minutes - Nam pats my knee twice and asks me if I'm OK. I don't know how to answer. Maybe the worst part is that it happened, after becoming so comfortable with the chaos. When we get to the neighborhood, he pulls over to the pharmacy and points to my back. I can't imagine what I could buy there, so I tell him to just take me home. Our candle neighbor is outside and Nam reenacts the whole thing and she is horrified, too, stroking my arm and making cooing noises. Her son comes out and hands me a rose. "Happy Teacher Day!" he says. My kids have been asking me all day with little smiles..."Ms. Marjorie, do you think you will get any presents on Teacher Day tomorrow?" so I know it's a Vietnamese universal gesture. They love their teachers.

And that's when I come into the castle and see Tarn on the couch and lay on the floor and cry and laugh as Tarn pries himself up to venture out to buy me some prawn fried rice. "I'm in better shape than you are," he says.

My back has been on ice for two hours now, but I guess time will tell how bad it is.

This morning was weird, too, and in it was Nam's first horrified face of the day. I usually get out to the street between 7:05 and 7:15, and today I emerge out of the alley at exactly 7:07 and do my usual scan for Nam. But this time I see something extremely disturbing: a tall, blonde man is standing next to Nam's bike and he is putting on Nam's passenger helmet. Huh? I quicken my pace. Nam is facing away from me and he is getting on his bike, with TB about to take his (my) passenger position. I am too far away; I might not make it time. Finally, I run a little and yell, "Yo! Nam!" and Nam's face, filled with horror, turns (talk about a slow-motion moment) to see me. In one sweeping gesture - one very similar to the anti-first aid gesture almost twelve hours later - he practically pushes Tall Blonde off the bike and motions for his friend to drive him. I tell TB that Nam is my driver and that he probably thought I wasn't coming this morning. TB just looks confused over why he is being ejected from the bike.

I know what happened; Nam just wasn't sure how crazy the Americans really are...would they take another Typhoon Day off for no reason? I joke with Nam. "You were going to take him instead of me? I wasn't even late this morning!" and I can tell he is embarrassed. "I didn't think you were coming," I think he says. And in the back of my mind, I think, wow, Nam drives other people, too. He was going to drive a pretty distinguished, tall blonde Dutch man. Hmmm. Interesting. He has no problem getting other people. I ponder this all the way to school.

When we get there, he hands me a breakfast present, the rice with custard, coconut and sugar that I have now received three times. I can't help but wonder, would Tall Blonde have gotten my breakfast if I had emerged just a few moments later? The thought makes me shudder. But you know, I think probably not.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What to do on Typhoon Day

1. Eat snails with safety pins. I am an adventurous eater, yes; however, the snails are all K's idea; I would never have ordered them on my own because they are too similar to slugs. This little stand is literally a thirty-second walk around the corner from the castle. I ate here Saturday, Sunday and now am back again today. They have stacks of crabs, clams, snails and scallops - depending on the day. This is the place we saw Thuy eating clams a few weeks ago, and now I can't believe I have just walked right past it so many times. (Perhaps I have been eating enough, regardless.) Anyway, the, yeah...they were...ok. A bit salty. Lots of work to get the litty itty bitty piece of snail meat out, too. I like the other seafood better, like, next...we:

2. Eat scallops topped with peanuts and green onions dipped in salt and lime and pepper along with a green leafy something. This is my idea. They are grilled to perfection. These two dishes, plus a lotus seed drink, cost only $1.80.

3. Eat something I have never seen before when I am out running a billion errands that have been on my list for weeks: the tortilla-looking thing tastes almost like divinity. It's crunchy and sweet. This woman is a Honey Artist, too. She paints honey in a Star-of-David pattern, tops it with coconut, and seals it with another divinity tortilla. It's delicious, and you may think it sounds too sweet, but it's not. I had better write down her street address, or I may never find her again. Every time I see one of these women now, I slow down and eye what is in their little containers. I don't want to miss anything. And they are so humble and gracious and grateful when you buy from them. Ahhhh.....

4. Hang out at the fabric stand with Thuy and Tan in the morning (and bring them banana cake with tapioca because they like it). They laugh and laugh when I tell them why I'm not at work today. "We never get typhoons here," they say. Flooding, yes, but typhoons, no. Not in the city. (I guess lots of places had "never gotten" tsunami's before, either...)

I want to climb up in Thuy's "Fabric Seat" with her. I could just hang out there with them all Typhoon Day long.

The moral of this day is: For those of you who love Snow Days, I know you would absolutely love Typhoon Days. They give you a chance to really, really slow down and enjoy (even snails).

Monday, November 17, 2008

Ten Hours Later...

I've been swinging in my roof hammock for the past hour; the city is quiet quiet quiet. No typhoon yet.

After I post the typhoon warning, Dr. Mark comes in my room during my Vietnamese lesson with Phouc. "Go straight home after school," he says. "Get food, water, flashlights and candles. Go straight home. Move anything valuable that could be covered with up to eight feet of water. Move your computer away from the window."

Eight feet of water? I'm picturing K, T and myself swimming on the first floor of the castle and a bit of panic sets in. I look at Phouc and she keeps a straight face until he leaves. "There will be no typhoon here," she says, nonchalantly.

"What do you mean?" I say.

She just shrugs and we go back to the lesson, but I can't concentrate. I keep checking with her. "If there's a typhoon, there's a typhoon. Until then, there is no typhoon," she says.

On my way straight home, I see a bunch of kids downstairs waiting for their rides. "Are you scared?" I ask them. None of them are. "Nothing will happen," they all say, and, "We get the day off!"

I have evil Jack (the one that gets to Anna) translate to Nam that I won't need him to take me to school tomorrow. He is completely confused. He looks up to the sky and waves his hand in dismissal. He doesn't think anything will happen, either (this man who knows when it's going to rain an hour before it does). On the way home, he takes a new turn and I know exactly what he is doing. Of course, since he, along with every other Vietnamese resident of Ho Chi Minh City, seems to feel no need to go straight home, he is showing me that he knew a shortcut to the Co op Mart. He hasn't let it go. "See, this is how I would have taken you to the Co op Mart if you had told me where we were going or if you had written down the address," he says (and I swear, it makes the trip maybe one minute shorter). (!) But today I am rested, so I just laugh and give him a friendly hit. "OK, OK, I get it!" I say. "And by the way, why don't you stop, while we're here..."

I go in and buy canned tuna, bread and a flashlight (so sorry, Brian, I wouldn't have made it home for my passport and to the post office to get your much superior flashlight in time). When I find Nam outside, he checks my bags, and he even checks my receipts. When I tell Katherine about this later, she says, "You know, at home we wouldn't even like Nam. We would think he was a total jerk." But here he is a topic of entertainment. Like the other day when he rides past Katherine and yells "7:00! 7:00!" and points toward the road, and K is thinking 'I don't need a ride at 7:00.' and then he says, "Marjorie, 7:00!" and then she understands that he is just telling her that he is picking me up at 7:00. "Yeah, Marjorie, 7:00! Woo hoo!" she yells back at him, and gives him a thumbs up. She is funny.

Anyway, it turns out that we are the only school in the city that will be closed tomorrow. I can find nothing about it on the internet. It seems that we have a "snow day" tomorrow with no snow. None of us are complaining. I already have my day planned, times three. What a gift. Well, I mean, if the people who have lived here for years are right, rather than my principal who moved here just a few months ago. I guess we will know for sure tomorrow, won't we? I could be swimming in eight feet of water in the castle, with a measley plastic Ever Ready flashlight. But I have canned tuna to swim to, if that is what happens.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Two "Only in Vietnam" Things:

Jon, my teaching neighbor from Texas, comes in looking a little bewildered this morning. "Do you have time for an 'Only in Vietnam' story?" he asks. "Always," I say.

He's riding on the back of a motorbike to work. His commute takes about 20 minutes. When he is nearing the school, he feels movement under where his knees are bent. He reaches down and feels something furry. It's a rat. A baby rat. Curled up under his knees. He flings it away quickly. He feels kinda badly; after all, it is just a baby...curled up under his knee!

He has no idea how it got there. Ick.

Monday afternoon email from Dr. Mark:

Dear All, We have a large typhoon coming. We will not have school tomorrow. Get plenty of clean drinking water, flash lights, candles and food. Thanks, Mark

I'm glad I live in a very strong castle~

Soon I will go home and prepare for my first typhoon. Brian, I think I had better go to the post office and pick up my flashlight...uh oh, I don't have my passport to do that. Wouldn't you know...

Carmelized Snake Fish, Sour Soup and Ginger Tofu

When Thuy arrives, I have Google Earth set up. Tarn is gone, but Katherine is here and the three of us fly around the world: to Seattle, Montreal, Wellington and Ho Chi Minh City. Thuy gets dizzy and has to look away when we fly across the ocean. We spend quite a bit of time finding our neighborhood and Thuy is fascinated. She keeps pointing to things and laughing.

I think I may be saying this every weekend, but tonight's dinner is the best yet. Here is the menu:

Deep Fried Ginger Tofu
Carmelized Snake Fish
Sour Soup

I'm going to tell you exactly (well, except I don't know measurements, I just watched Thuy throw things in and am approximating where I can) how to make all three of these things (it's my way to keep the recipes, too):

Start your rice cooking, then:

Ginger Tofu:

Cut tofu cakes into strips and coat them in freshly ground ginger. Heat oil in a wok and fry them for about five minutes on each side. When you remove the strips, fry the rest of the ginger in the oil and pour all of it over the cakes. We here in Vietnam are not shy about using oil.

Snake Fish: (Very much like halibut)

Wash the fish in salt water and cut into thin steaks. Put the steaks in a fry pan with sugar, fish sauce, oil, carmelized sugar (you can buy it in packages at our market, but you will probably have to make your own) and "moto" (we think it's MSG). Cook the steaks over very low heat for about fifteen minutes. When they are done, sprinkle with pepper. This fish tastes so much like Tamarind Tree's Catfish in Claypot. It's that tender and flaky and flavorful.

Sour Soup:

Cut two tomatoes into wedges and dice the okra, a long leafy green stem that I don't recognize, and one quarter of a pineapple. Put it all in a collander with the bean sprouts. It's kind of nice, you don't have to rip the heads off of the shrimp for this soup...they are a bit smaller. With these, you take scissors to them and just snip their heads right off. (Remember, they are already dead today, so that helps a bit).

Fill a deep pan with about five cups of water and put in a cluster of tamarind (look it up) (you can find it at many Mexican and Asian stores in Seattle). Let it boil for about five minutes, then take out the tamarind seeds. Add 2 T of sugar, 2 T of crystallized pork seasoning (here it is a package with a cartoon pig on it), salt and fish sauce. Add the vegetables and the shrimp and cook until vegetables are crunchy and shrimp are pink. Mom, this is the soup you love at The Tamarind Tree. Only Thuy's is better, of course.

Things are getting more and more comfortable for everyone during Sunday night cooking lessons. Thuy knows our kitchen well, she brings over what we lack, and our landlords installed a new stove without us even asking. It's a nice one, and we tell Thuy "We got this stove for you!" She just laughs. And you know what? My theory the other night, that Thuy didn't want to leave me alone? I know it's right. Because even though we are having a great time and talking easily, etc, when dinner is over, she is right on cue. "I go now."

She doesn't need to stay, because Katherine and I have each other. But before she leaves, she says, "Everyone will ask you three why you are getting so fat. It's because of Thuy's cooking!"

I'm thinking she loves being our teacher as much as we love being her students. We shut the door and K and I look at each other again and say, "We are soooo lucky!"

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Scenes from My Morning Market

Finally, I get the courage to take some pictures in my market. Here are Thuy and Tan at their fabric stand; she has just made my my Sunday shopping list.
We are making sour fish soup at 3:00, so my next stop is the orange woman who has been negotiating the items on my list for me. Her daughter, Cang, is with her today and she speaks good English. "My mother told me about you. She likes to help you," she tells me. "Come to us any time." I tell her that Thuy cooks with us and this news spreads. Oh! Everyone knows Thuy and Tan. Cang and her mother's orange stand sits right next to this fish woman who kills my fish, beheads it and bags my shrimp. Everything is dead this time.
Right behind her sits my vegetable woman. The soup contains bean sprouts, pineapple, basil and okra. My negotiator bags it
all up for me and tells me the cost. Fish and vegetables to feed four: about $1.80. Then I go to my new favorite turmeric rice cake lady for breakfast. Her stand is right
next to this Aids sign, which I love:

Keep in mind that all of this will disappear at 11:00 am. The market opens at 5:00 am, and many of these vendors have been up since 2 am, traveling to and from the source of their goods.

I feel more in love with this market and its people every single day. I wish I could take you all on a tour; I want you all to taste, see and smell everything, and I want you to feel the warmth of the people in my neighborhood.
I can't wait for cooking with Thuy at 3!

Cabaret! Cabaret! Cabaret!

Here is Liza Minelli:

Here is Joel Grey:

And here is Alice (Audrey Hepburn), a combination between the two of them:

Alice: singer, dancer, and someone who got the following comment in a New York Times review of the Off-Broadway play "Desert Sunrise"in 2006: "...when the girlfriend, Layla (performed with passionate self-possession by Alice Borman), does arrive, she introduces an unpredictable element into the relationship between the two men..." is put in charge of the huge Talent Show event that takes place tonight.

A few weeks ago she gets the idea to run a "Cabaret" theme through the show. She does an opening and closing number with the entire talent show cast and emcees the rest in her tuxedo and high heels. The result is a New York Broadway quality show (except for the kids' individual talents in between the big numbers, although they are cute --some of the hip hop is great and the pianists are fantastic). If you've never seen "Wilkommen" from the musical Cabaret (and I know Sbill and # 1 Fan have probably been in it), here is the YouTube link (beware, though...the song will be in your head all day long):

It is such a perfect piece for this event; as emcee, she puts the spotlight on her students and invites the audience to participate (Vietnamese audiences are typically very quiet) -- so her role is to be both subtle and gracious while being the diva she is. She pulls it off to a "T" and makes it an amazing night for the kids; it's unbelievable how she pulls talent out of them. Alice, remember, is not allowed back in the states for ten years (a visa issue), and she calls New York her "mother, father, sister, brother, lover and friend." But here she is in Saigon, living with her parents who are international teachers at another school, feeling more full than ever in her first year teaching job. She loves teaching drama, she loves putting this show together, and she loves directing The Wizard of Oz. She is a phenomenal talent.

One little side story: a group of girls who name themselves "Toxic" are performing a dance to the Britney Spears song "Toxic" (yeah). They make hair appointments for today, the day of the show, and they tell Alice that they are leaving to get their hair done two hours before curtain. Alice says "No way. I am not letting you out of this theater. I will never see you again~" but she tells them, hey, we are in Vietnam. Call your hairdressers and have them come here, to the theater.

So that's what they do...four hairdressers come to the theater.
It's a mindset I am acquiring: I am in Vietnam. Things are a little bit magic here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

All Eyes on Me

Yesterday I mentioned that perhaps the only time Thuy is alone is when she is in the toilet. Well, the toilet is the one place I am hardly ever alone at school. And today it really got to me.

I have mentioned this a few times: the security guards live at the school, and so do the cleaning ladies. The cleaning ladies actually live in the bathrooms. They eat, sleep, nap and socialize in the bathrooms. At lunch you may see three or four of them - from their various floor stations - congregating to eat out of styrofoam to-go containers on the floor. Oftentimes, after lunch, they will be laying on the floor - usually with their heads on the hard surface, but sometimes with a roll of toilet paper for a pillow - taking a nap. But when you walk in, their eyes are on you. They watch you enter the stall, watch you come out, watch you wash your hands and check yourself in the mirror. It drives me crazy on so many levels. I'm sure you Americans and Europeans will agree...if you could choose just one place to be alone during the day, you would choose the toilet. And, of course, the sobering fact of their bathroom existence gets me every single day.

Their main job is to keep the bathroom clean and "attended to," so it is a wonder how often the stalls are out of toilet paper. It sits in the cupboard and sometimes you have to get it yourself (as your attendant watches you from the floor). Oh, and by the way, there are no paper towels at this school. You dry your hands with Kleenex.

Their other job is to clean the classrooms after school. At 4:10 (five minutes after the kids leave), a guard will knock on my glass door and ask if the cleaning ladies can come in. When I nod yes, he allows them to enter while he watches from the door. He presides over them as if they cannot be trusted in the rooms alone. They will then get down on their knees and pick up scraps of paper (we have no vacuum), empty the trash and wash the boards. They keep their eyes down the entire time.

I always greet "my" cleaners in the bathroom and after school. They wait until I smile to smile back, but it is usually with averted eyes. I try to have my kids pick up every day so that their floor time is minimal.

Sometimes, at lunch, I will check every floor to find an unattended bathroom, hoping that they will be congregated somewhere else, eating their lunch. Otherwise, I go one story up - if I can -to the fifth floor bathroom because I really like that attendant; she is usually gazing out the window instead of watching the bathroom occupants, and she is usually singing, quite beautifully. And her stalls are always stocked.

Today (Friday) I really hit a wall. Fridays can be the most awful days for teachers. Friday Teacher Tiredness can send me plummeting into depression. I tell Nam to pick me up at four, because in the morning I know it is a Friday Teacher Tired Day for me (you already heard about my long, tiring week) and that I will want to get out and start my weekend as soon as possible.

The bathroom thing drives me especially crazy today: the kids are loud. I'm not well prepared. I feel like a terrible teacher. I want to be alone in the stupid bathroom. At four, I have a student translate between Nam and me; the last thing I want to do is to go to the store, but I must. Thuy is coming to cook on Sunday and she told me that I needed four small bowls for the soup we are making. My Saturday is booked, so I know that the only time I can get to the store to buy the bowls is now. I can't remember the name or the address of this particular store, so I tell Nam I will point the way. I know I am taking him in kind of a circle, but it is the way I walk there. And as I take him that way, I know I am going to get some crap for it, and I also know he will look in my bags when I come out. I am already fuming, just thinking about it. And I never got to be alone in the bathroom today, not even for a second. Plummeting, plummeting, Teacher Tired Friday.

Nam doesn't say anything until I come out of the Co op Mart. Then he makes a circle gesture with his hands and I'm sure he says, "You made me go in a big circle!" He is irritated. "I know," I say. "I'm sorry." He does it again. He is such a repeater. "I know," I say. "I'm sorry." He checks my bags. "You could have gotten cheaper bowls than these, right in my village," I'm sure he says. He makes another circle gesture with his hands. "I know," I say. "I'm sorry." The ride home is tense.

But we aren't going home. We are going to his aunt's house to wake up his nephew so that he can translate the fact that I made him go in a circle. I roll my eyes. Here it comes. I don't get mean very often, but I just don't have the patient tools to deal with MomNam right now (by the way, my mom never nags like this!). Nephew comes down and Nam blabbers to him, accusing.

"My uncle say you take him in a circle. There is a faster way to get to that store."

"Tell him I know. Tell him I didn't know the shortcut. It's how I walk there." I have total attitude.

More blabbering.

"My uncle say you should give him the address."

"I didn't know the address," I say. My tone is getting sharper. More blabbering.

"My uncle say you could have bought those bowls at a much cheaper place."

I am right on the verge, so I say, "How much do I owe you?" I want him to know that this conversation is over and that I am going to take my bag of bowls, of which he does not approve, and I am going to walk the three blocks home.

Whenever he takes me someplace extra, I pay him extra. He always has a number in mind. But he finally gets my mood, and I see hurt and fear in his eyes. There is a long pause.

"How much?" I repeat.

Now he feels bad; I have hurt my mother's feelings, and he was only trying to help. He makes a sweeping gesture with his hands. Nothing.

I give him a look that says "please just tell me how much..." when his great aunt, who has never spoken any English to me but who is always hanging around during these special translation times, waves her hand and says, "Souvenir!" I can't believe it; she has probably understood everything she has ever heard us say.

Now I feel bad. But I don't know what to do, so I just say "thank you" and walk away. As I walk down the alley, Nam yells a pathetic, "See you Monday!"

I feel awful.

I go to my big castle, where I am finally all alone.

Especially in the bathroom.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

" is...delicious!"

You must read to the end of this post to find out what is..."delicious!"

But to get there, you have to backtrack with me to the beginning of the longest week ever (it's Thursday night for me now):

Gristly Monday:

November is supposed to be the beginning of the dry season, but it rains all day long. I know it's been flooding in Hanoi, but I haven't seen any here, until Monday.

When Nam picks me up from school -a day of school I faked my way through, tired and Dalat waterfall sore - we are riding in two to five inches of water. We take two detours in the first half mile…there is no way through the lakes and rivers on the roads. Traffic is jammed, busses are criss-crossed at intersections, stranded. He takes a few back alleys, but still, we keep meeting dead ends. I think I could go to sleep on the back of the bike.

We are riding down one alley when he points to a woman standing near a pho booth. “My friend,” he says. He slows his bike and they begin to chat. He asks me if I would like some of her pho. All I really want is to crawl into bed. But I must eat, we aren't making progress toward home, and it's a Nam food suggestion. OK, let's eat.

“YO!” he says, indicating that I need to choose between three trays of “meat”on the stand. One is pure gristle- big, thick tablespoon-sized balls of fat. On the next tray is pork with lots and lots of fat on the ends, kind of half and half. On the third tray is raw tenderloin, very lean. This one cooks when the broth is poured over it. I point to that and when Nam's gracious friend brings my bowl to the table, MomNam begins to prepare it for me (earlier, he puts my raincoat on and adjusts my chin snaps and I feel like it is a snow day thirty years ago). He squeezes in lime and hot sauce and hoisin sauce, but I don’t allow him to put any peppers in (remember last time). He laughs.

Then his bowl comes to the table. I can’t believe it; Nam is eating with me this time – a first. He has ordered all three “meats.” About half way through the meal, he puts a little bowl in the middle of the table and places a ball of gristle in it with his chopsticks. He wants me to eat it. “It’s really good,” I think he says. I eye it. My weariness is magnified. I'm too tired to disappoint Nam, but I'm way too tired to try to chew that fat, or to try to swallow it whole and wash it down with iced tea.

I pick it up, though, and it is there in my spoon in front of my face. It's all blurry and I feel I'm not really even present. I just can’t do it. I put it down and shake my head at Nam. But he isn't giving up. He squeezes some hot sauce in the bowl and stirs it around. “Maybe you'll like this ball of gristle now, smothered in the hot sauce that you don't like,” I think he says. He points to it again. “Come on, taste it!”

Now there is an audience. Nam's soup-making friend, as well as another male customer, come over to see if The Foreigner will eat the best ingredient on the table. They wait. Nam's expectant face is dripping with sweat from his red pepper-filled soup. Six eyes are fixed on me. I just want to put my head down somewhere.

But I am finally able to muster up a very firm "No." Cuz you know what? There is nothing that is going to make me eat that gristle, not even Nam's pouty face. "Ok, be that way," his body language suggests, "miss out if you want." My audience disperses.

We negotiate three more detours on the way home. We stop at his aunt’s house to deliver the pho that Nam’s friend gave him at the stand. It's 7:30 by the time I walk through the castle doors.

No Break Tuesday:

I work all day and then meet parents for conferences between 4 and 6:00. No break in between; parents are waiting outside the door when my afternoon class gets out. I can't even "go out"-as the kids say.

No Sheets Wednesday:

Parent conferences between 4 and 6:00 again. Parents stay until after 6:30, though, which gets me back to my alley around 7:00. I grab some tofu stuffed with pork (topped with tomato sauce) and, before I turn the corner to the castle, I decide to pop my head into Thuy's house because sometimes she sits in the doorway and reads with her parents. She's not there, but a girl I don't recognize is. She says Thuy is just down the alley. No big deal. I head to the castle, and before even thinking about climbing the stairs, I flop down on the couch and turn on the TV --I am hapy because a Friends rerun is on...perfect non-brain activity, perfect dinner-eating entertainment for tonight. I am beyond content at this moment.

Then the doorbell rings. Tarn is on his way out, so he gets it. It's Thuy. She's concerned about me..."Does Maggie need something?" Tarn speaks much better Vietnamese than I do, so he mediates between us. "I just wanted to say 'hi'," I tell him to tell her. Tarn leaves and Katherine is playing soccer, so it's just Thuy and me. She lingers a bit at the door. Remember that on Sundays, she cooks and says "I go now" before we are even finished, so her hesitation makes me feel that I should ask her to stay. She quickly agrees, so I make some tea and we go to the roof and have a pretty nice conversation despite the lacking language. After about a half an hour, we go back downstairs. Her tea is gone, she doesn't want any more, but she sits down on the couch. Hmmmmm... I want her to feel welcome, so I try to make more conversation. I am still in a dress from work. My laundry is in the wash. I'm supposed to have my first teaching observation first thing in the morning. I am dying. My head feels like it's lolling to one side. It's been an hour. Where are those three words I am longing to hear?

But instead of saying "I go now," Thuy picks up the remote and turns the TV on. She's staying. You know what's on? America's Got Talent. You know how long we watch it? For an entire hour. Looking back, I can recall many thematic questions and statements, like, "You, Katherine and Tarn, you are a family" and (again) "Do you remember (miss) your parents?" "Did you live with your parents in America?" But in the moment, I just can't understand why Thuy is hanging around. She is so great at picking up social signals (unlike my Vietnamese Mother).

The show is over, and still, she sits. I know you're thinking, "Why don''t you just tell her you need to go to bed?" and I don't know the answer to that. I just can't make her feel unwelcome. She looks tired, too, though; after all, she starts selling fabric at 5:00 am. Finally, at 9:30, she says them, the three words I would pay five million VND to hear. "I go now." But she says something else that puts the entire night in perspective. "Tarn, Katherine -- both go out. You here, alone," she frowns.

I get it. Thuy has stayed with me all evening, despite her own weariness, because she thinks I will be lonely in this big castle if she leaves. This woman, 36 years old, has slept in a bed with her sister her entire life. She has been on two vacations, to Dalat and Nha Trang, her entire life. I will see both places within six weeks. She is never alone, except maybe in the toilet.

"I'm OK," I tell her. "Thank you." If she could only know how OK I was before the doorbell rang two and a half hours ago. But she can't. I head upstairs and when I open the door to the Rapunzel Room, I remember my laundry. It's all the way downstairs, in the washing machine, wet. My sheets are wet. They would have dried in just a few hours if I had hung them out. But I don't even care. I fall onto the bare mattress and go to sleep within seconds.

Delicious Today:

Observation: went well. All day the only thing I can think about is getting a massage at the Bum Bum right after school. However, last week, just a day after I made Tran the CD (the one with R and B -- Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, The Manhattans), my request for a massage was rejected. Tran tried to explain the reason, but wow, it stung. I was so dejected, walking back to the castle. All week Katherine and I traded email theories about why I couldn't get a massage. We are so spoiled, getting them whenever we want, any time, day or night. I suggested that perhaps I had committed some kind of cultural blunder by giving Tran the CD...maybe the government really does mandate "A Time for Us" on all massage CD's. But my neighborhood equilibrium has been off all week. No Bum Bum massages? I can't even think about it!

So I am a bit hesitant today, fearing another Bum Bum dismissal. But all of the girls are there, and they greet me warmly. When I say "Massage?" Tran smiles and nods her head yes and points to a seat; she is in the middle of doing someone's eyebrows. My sense of relief is even better than a massage. The smiley girl who sometimes washes my hair gets me some cold water. After glancing through a magazine for five minutes, the older woman who runs the salon walks by me and caresses my arm - a really gentle gesture that says, "We are glad to see you." And when I go upstairs, I get my answer: they have remodeled the fourth floor -- last week was construction week. As I lay down on the massage table, Trung fumbles with some CD's. And then I hear the best lyrics ever, "Honey you...are my shining star...don't you go away..." I lift my head up and laugh. "You like it?" I ask.

"The is..." she struggles to find the right word, "it is...delicious!"

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

36 Hours in Dalat

What can you do with 36 hours in Dalat? Here's one possible itinerary:

RAPPEL (thank you, Chris, for the correct spelling) (Europeans call it "ab sailing") down five cliffs or waterfalls, float down a river, hike through a canyon, slide down natural waterslides, ride 120 kilometers on a motorbike through hills and valleys, walk all around a special Saturday night market, fix a flat tire, fetch more gas when you run out, sit with a K'ha indigenous family for an hour, visit a silk factory and a mushroom farm, eat noodles at your guide's family's coffee farm and hear Vietnamese government secrets and ghost stories while standing in front of a Buddha shrine.

Beware, however: you will need every second of that 36 hours to do all of this, and you may come close to missing your bus back to HCMC, like we did...

K and I keep saying that we need to take some weekend trips on night buses from the city and not think about how long they are and how tired we will be when we arrive back Sunday night, so this last weekend, we finally do it. "Team Dalat" consists of three Canadian teachers from the elementary school:, K, Michael, Shannon, and me (I'm close enough to Canada and elementary school, I suppose) and we catch the 7:15 pm bus Friday night from the backpacker district, to arrive in Dalat at 2:00 am.
To announce our arrival, the bright bus lights go on and Vietnamese carnival music begins to play at corrupted levels. One minute, maybe two, might be necessary to wake you, right? No...evidently, you need FIFTEEN minutes of loud carnival music to do that. Anyway, we are booked at a hotel called The Pink House, and our new friend for the weekend, Rot, the hotel manager, is there to meet us at the gate. He is a character, and he can hardly bear to allow us to go to sleep because he wants to entertain us all night long. But we have an 8:00 date with some waterfalls, so we fall back into the pre-carnival deep sleep from the bus on very lumpy Pink House pillows.

K heard about Phat Tire Ventures from a guy in a taxi who said it was his favorite thing he's done in Vietnam:

Here is the introduction to the "Canyoning" section of their website:

Datanla Descent
Are you an adrenalin junkie? Do you love the water? If so this adventure is for you! Professionally trained guides will show you the ropes and prepare you for the journey down the waterfalls. No previous experience is necessary for this action-packed day of hiking, rapelling, swimming, and sliding down the falls!

OK, the answer to question #1 , for me, is "No." I do not have the kind of adrenaline that compels me over cliffs. But K answers "yes" to that question, and since she organized the trip, I just go with it. Oftentimes, I seem to just "go with it." For example, during last year's InStep class (I got to teach an outdoor education class which included hiking, camping and a trip to Costa Rica with my partner Chris Brown for the entire spring quarter-highlight of my teaching career), we just happened, one day, to arrive at a (300 ft...5,000 ft - which was it, Chris?) cliff in Granite Falls, and, as usual, I just went with it - or, over it. Chris really didn't talk much about the details (I guess he doesn't feel that "We're going over a 5,000 ft. cliff tomorrow" is such an important thing to know as we practice down a wee little slope in West Seattle). My elbow had a battle with the cliff that day and it didn't completely lose...but I still have a scar from it. It's one of those experiences that, after having done it, I could just cross off the list, show my scar every once in a while, and tell people, casually, about "rapelling." Like jumping out of an airplane. Glad I got to experience it, but don't need to do it again.

So when we begin this canyoning adventure and I look at a waterfall and see that our two very competent, relaxed guides, Ro and Thanh, are preparing the ropes for us to rappel over it, I say, "Is that what we're doing? We're going right over it? IN the waterfall?" or "We are dropping into THAT?" --each time my question is met with a casual nod. Yes, we are going over the waterfalls and dropping into that. Here is the description of the advanced route (yes, K booked the advanced route) (which, by the way, I did not have a chance to read prior to going).

The advanced route is for those in moderately good physical condition, looking for a more extreme challenge. This route follows the moderate route through the first rappel and skips over the second rappel to the third rappel before the water slides and lunch. After lunch the rappels are more technical and are wet drops as opposed to dry. This means you are in the waterfall as opposed to next to it. The last and most difficult rappel is affectionately known as The Washing Machine.

So, yes, we are IN the waterfalls. See the picture at the top, meant to catch your attention? That is not me; that's K. For you Insteppers reading this, you will "get" this better than anyone: that was a dragon I did not need to slay. I see two others get their faces battered and noses full of rushing water, so I casually walk down the cliff to take pictures of everyone else getting their faces battered and noses full of water. I do, however, do the "Washing Machine" (I don't have any pictures of that, unfortunately.) We drop down a waterfall into a whirlpool and are sucked under, then spit out again. I don't enjoy it. I don't like water up my nose, and I don't like the feeling that I am drowning, because, when you are under the water, you are sure you didn't do something right and that you are never coming up again...

My favorite parts of our "canyoning" day: the scenery, the hiking, the moments we float on our backs down the river, and the natural waterslides (pictured here). The calm moments. Those are my moments. The rest of the time, I am just going with it, or over it.

The next day, we have booked a motorbike trip with Rot, pictured here, starting at 7:00 am (so we can catch our 2:00 pm bus back to Saigon). I am so excited, because I get my own bike today, and it's a Yamaha 110 Nuovo, very similar to my Yamaha 125 Vino (still sitting in Dennis' basement in Seattle). Rot is charming and speaks excellent English. He has a degree in tourism and presents his trip without any pressure at all...but how can we resist it when he tells us that he does the "untouristy" view of Dalat? We won't see the Lake of Love or the Chicken Village, but he will take us to his family's coffee farm, about 60 kilometers out of Dalat, and we will meet his friends, part of the K'ha indigenous people. It is an amazing day. Dalat could really be a town in the French Alps...the temperature is moderate, the countryside is hilly and the architecture tends toward chalet; at times I think that if you remove the palm trees, I could be in Snohomish Valley. K and I keep saying to each other, "We are cool, almost cold!" and it just feels so nice. In the morning, I wear Rot's high school uniform sweater: a blue, heavily knit, handmade sweater. (One of Dalat's themes is "Heavily Knit Hand-Made Sweaters"--we see them all over the Saturday night market).
It is so great, again, to be away from the city and in nature. S rides on the back of Rot's bike and K rides on the back of M's bike, but I have my own. Here I am coming up on a herd of cattle:

Rot is an excellent tour guide. Our first stop is a tiny silk factory in a tiny, tiny little town. He walks us through the whole silk-making process, from worms to fabric, and we get to meet the women who are boiling the cocoons and spooling the thread and threading the machines to make the fabric. They are happy to show us...such a fascinating process that I could devote an entire blog to it...but instead, I will just leave you with one "nugget" -- not one part of the cocoon is wasted. When the worm is boiled out of it for the silk, the worms are washed and sold at the local market. They are great when they are stir-fried with garlic and green onions, says Rot.
We move on to hike down to the mighty waterfall pictured behind Rot (and a scary hike, too) while Rot gets his flat tire fixed (while this is happening, three of us ride on my motorbike). Then we are off to his village.

Rot explains that his family used to be one of only five Vietnamese families living among the K'ha people in this valley. They bought their coffee farm there, and so Rot went to school with the neighboring K'ha kids until he was fifteen, when he went to live with his aunt at The Pink House. He brings maybe two tourist groups out to his parents' house each week, and every time, he takes his group to meet a different K'ha family. "That way they are happy to keep doing it," he explains.
The family we get to meet lives in this house behind Rot's...they own the tiny plot for the house, but they sold their land a long time ago to pay bills. Rot went to school with the beautiful woman in the picture, Klar. She is very happy to see him, because he has not brought anyone by for six months now.

The five of us enter their hut and sit on wooden benches that are no more than three inches off the ground. Rot introduces us to the family (eight to ten live in these tiny homes) and explains the differences between the K'ha and the Vietnamese:
Vietnamese women are "bought" by families. When a Vietnamese girl marries, she goes with her husband's family and they are responsible for her; they compensate her family. It is opposite with the K'ha people; their sons are "bought" by the woman's family. In Klar's case, she and her first husband fell in love, but Klar's family was too poor...they could not afford to pay in buffalo or stones. So they lived together in secret (how that happend in this little house I do not know). When "his" family found out, Klar and her husband told them they were so sorry, etc, etc., but that they were in love and could they, perhaps, just have a few years to try to pay for the son? The son's parents agreed. But after five years and no buffalo or stones, they came and took their son back and remarried him to someone else. They left the kids, a normal practice. They have nothing more to do with the family. This has happened to Klar three times, so she raises her children with her parents.

See the necklace she wears? Her brother married into money and gave her that necklace, made of rare flint. It is worth a ton. Klar plans to keep it for her daughter, so her daughter can buy a good husband someday.

They are an extremely gracious family. Klar is embarrassed because she has just killed a wild boar and pork is sitting on the roof, drying (you can see it in the picture). At the end of the hour, Rot invites us to take pictures, but it feels really awkward until we show the kids how to take them and then let them see themselves on the display. They laugh and laugh. We buy a few of this woman's blankets, which take her a week to make (can you imagine her ab muscles after sitting like that her whole life?)

Rot then walks us through his coffee farm and shows us their avocado, star fruit, curry, jackfruit, custard apple, egg apple and orange trees. He tells us to knock on the door of his sister's house: the person who opens the door is dressed in a greyish blue robe and her head is shaved. She is stunning...a practicing Buddhist nun her whole life.
Then we return to Rot's house, where his mother has made us the most delicious pepper pork noodles for lunch. After lunch, he gives us a tour of his house and we stop in their Buddha room where he tells us some government secrets and ghost stories (which, actually, go together). Honestly, even though he said, "Shhhh...don't tell anyone..." I planned to tell all of you. If I had gotten more sleep in the past few days, maybe I would still tell you. But I am exhausted, so you aren't going to hear the secrets. Many lives will be saved because of my lack of sleep, for sure, since the secret involves blessings and safety for travelers.
Our way home is filled with more Rot education at an elephant ear mushroom farm, where it begins to pour down rain, almost hail. We slip on our raincoats, but when we start again, I must lean my head back and open my mouth so that the rain doesn't hurt my face. We are drenched. We have a bus to catch in 40 minutes; it will take twenty minutes to get back to the hotel, where we must then catch a small bus to the big bus. Suddenly, we realize that M and K are nowhere to be seen. They have run out of gas. Rot to the rescue, but to make a long story short, we arrive to our HCMC bus with just moments to spare.
The seven hours back is long. But when K and I get off the bus to walk back to the castle, guess what we are talking about?? "Where should we go on our next night bus weekend trip...?"
p.s. InSteppers, Costa Rica trippers: This weekend reminded me of our spring every single step of the way. From hiking through rivers, swimming under waterfalls, visiting with indigenous people, rappeling and also just the scenery, it was Costa Rica, Costa Rica, northwest hikes -- a combination between the two. And I kept thinking about slaying dragons...or not!
p.p.s By the way, this entire weekend, from bus ticket to hotel to rappeling to motorbiking, cost just over $100.