When I got up early this morning to buy 15 tomatoes, five onions and a few peppers at the market, dice them up and put them into a huge container and balance it on my motorbike for the ride to school, how could I have had any idea that these tomatoes, onions and peppers and I would spend an hour and a half sitting against a wall by the side of the road on one of the hottest mornings in Saigon so far this fall?
I’ll begin the story of my morning's saga by explaining about the vegetables:
At most international schools, teachers are required to run some kind of after-school club. Last year I helped with Drama Club, and this year I am in charge of Cross-Cultural Club. We – fifteen of us – decided to focus on a certain country for three or four weeks; our goal is to learn about food, music, art, holidays, etc. Our first country of focus has been Mexico (I influenced this a bit). We got a late start on clubs this year, so our first meeting was just a few weeks ago. We learned about Day of the Dead (Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, the days the dead come back to visit) and did a skeleton art project; skeletons were supposed to be doing something the kids love to do – the whole “death as a part of life” idea. That's why mine is eating two tacos:
The kids were really excited to make quesadillas and fresh salsa today, so that’s why I had everything chopped up and ready to be mixed, cilantro’d, limed and salted by them. I was very excited for this, because I love giving cooking demonstrations. I really wanted one of those adjustable mirrors that the real cooks use, but had to settle for a plain old table. I had set it all up and talked to the sweet cooks in the lunchroom, asking for permission and for the location of pans, cutting boards, etc.
So I was on the road this morning, all loaded up, when I felt my tire go flat. No surprise... flat tires are rather common in this City of Motorbikes. But, for some reason, I panicked, and I forgot about all of the tire fixers at most every corner. I thought that, just maybe, I could make it to work and then deal with it.
But then I felt the tube blow out, too, and I was forced to the side of the road. I got a hold of a friend who reminded me about the tire fixers on every corner. I saw a guard sitting inside the pumping station where I had stopped and pantomimed my dilemma. He gestured over just around the wall, and, sure enough, there was a tire – fixer stand. The tire fixer, though, was nowhere in sight. The guard walked over to the cart and lifted the tarp covering it. A man emerged - from what I'm guessing was a twenty- year-long deep sleep.
Not a Sleeping Beauty sleep, though - he looked at me and smiled with his three remaining teeth and seemed happy to go right to work on my bike. “Great,” I thought, “Better than Jiffy Lube! I will be out of here in no time!”
I notified the school at eight that I was late, but it wasn’t a big deal because I have first period prep. So I leaned against the wall to wait. When the guard brought me a plastic chair, I felt comfortable enough to pull out my book and read, sweat already pouring off of me.
After fifteen minutes, I looked up; my tire fixer was crossing the busy street. I looked over at the guard and he informed me that he needed to buy a part. Fine. I went back to my book. Tire Fixer came back and worked some more. I continued reading. And sweating.
After fifteen more minutes, I looked over to the station; he was crossing the street again! The guard looked at me and made the Vietnamese negative hand gesture, indicating, “This guy isn’t really so good.”
I was beginning to wonder when he had last fixed a tire. 1982? He didn't have any parts.
After another twenty minutes went by I looked up and my heart literally stopped: my bike was gone, and so was the guy. I looked desperately over at the guard. “Have I given my bike to a con-man?” was the look I gave him- because motorbike theft is rampant here.
But the kind guard assured me it was OK, that he just had to take the bike somewhere. Again, I got the "he is a crazy tire fixer with no parts" hand gesture. OK. I waited ten more minutes, and during that ten minutes I called my principal again and told him the latest. He didn’t like the sound of my bike “going away” and told me he was going to send someone who spoke Vietnamese over to help. This entire process should have taken about fifteen minutes.
But fifteen more minutes went by before my bike returned. Tire Fixer was rolling it right by me, dressed in his greased – covered grey jumpsuit. Taking a closer look, I could see his hands; I couldn't tell where the fingers ended and the fingernails began – they were completely black.
He took it back to his station and continued working on it. Meanwhile, enter a passing crazy woman who was obsessed with my collection of tomatoes, onions and peppers. She took them out of my bag and spoke to me in non-stop Vietnamese, like I understood her (just like Nam's family). Finally, I took my bag from her and walked away and pretended to receive a phone call. What a hot, strange morning this was.
Finally, Tire Fixer rolled the bike over and told me it was fixed and quoted me the price I was expecting: about four dollars for a new tube and 90 minutes of "labor" - or "part-finding." I waited for Nate to get there and we learned that my tire fixer didn’t have any air, either. He had no parts nor air. So he had to wheel my bike to a place that had it – a place that, I am thinking, was just a block or so away. That place most likely had parts and tools, too, and a tire fixer that had been awake for at least some portion of the last decade to fix tires.
He sure was smiley, though.
Anyway, my salsa ingredients and I finally made it to school by the end of second period - my hair ruined for the day from sweat.
The after-school quesadilla making was a success - despite the stress that the vegetables had to endure. The kids loved the quesadillas and wanted to go home and make them for their families. My favorite part: the kitchen staff was so curious to watch us mix the salsa, fry the tortillas and fill them with shredded cheese (you don’t see cheese much here) and were so gracious to assist in any way they could, so I topped three quesadilla triangles with salsa and took them to the kitchen. The cooks were shy at first, but then one took a piece and said, “Thank you, Teacher!” The others followed, and their eyes lit up at their first taste of salsa.
Every once in while, you get that feeling that you’ve just done something very good. When those eyes lit up at tasting salsa, I definitely had that feeling.
And giving that tire fixer a job- The Most Unprepared Tire Fixer in Saigon. That made me feel really good, too.