Saturday, March 12, 2011

New Pictures from the last couple of months

Sometime soon I'll write something here longer than a Facebook entry but in the mean time I uploaded a bunch of new pictures from February and March: Singapore, Saigon, the Mekong Delta, Phuc Quoc Island, Hanoi.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Walk to School

Usually, I walk or bike to school. The trip is about twenty minutes, five by bike, and about the same by taxi or xe om (literally, "hug ride," squinting into traffic from the seat behind a random guy on a motorcycle). I took a cab yesterday, a splurge at $1.50, saved for when the weather or my health are more under than over. But today, after a diagnosis and medication for a long-term sinus infection, I felt great and stepped out into the softening, Hanoi morning for the one and a half kilometer walk. It's been cold. Cold for Hanoi which, without central heating or any heating for many, feels like a meat-locker indoors and out when the temperature drops below fifteen or so. When it drops below 10 (Celsius)they close the elementary schools. Forty is just too cool to sit all day in.

But today the temp is around 17 degrees and rising (upper sixties) and for the first time in a couple months the gray smog contains moisture--like it actually is partly fog--and there's been a light rain, washing the dust off things and giving body to the air. It actually felt fresh, like an April (a nice April) in New England and the greens were green again. I walked out the back of my building--in itself unusual--they drop the grate between sunrise and sunset--and out my tree lined street to cross Nguyen Phong Sac--the big North/South street in my part of town. It's a divided boulevard with as many lanes in each direction as about twenty motorbikes can fit abreast, though it's rarely full and one of the less busy streets in Cao Giay, the university district where I live. (Cao Giay street is another story, a cross street that offers another, noisier route to school.)

I step out into traffic and, alert and steady, move towards the west side as the flow of motorbikes parts around me, sometimes honking with the cars who slow. I only stop for trucks and buses. They have louder horns and slower braking reflexes. On the other side I duck around the huge white White House Bia Hoi (beer hall), through a gas station with a hundred motorbikes lined up, and down a quiet alley.

I pass under a pergola of tangled, bunched power lines dripping with flowering vines and fruit reddening from green to carrot orange, past head-high blank, staring walls shielding the narrow (one room wide), three- four- five-story houses and covered with the stenciled phone numbers like license-plate numbers advertising anything from wall-repair to baby-sitting.

Some walls enclose strictly utilitarian space for a couple of motorbikes abreast. Others are exuberant with palms and bananas and dead-looking vines that trace the corner of a house to explode into blooms covering a fifth floor balcony. I pass by some homes tightly locked up while others have the front grates wide open and the family sitting in a combination garage-sitting-receiving room eating chao (rice porridge) or pho ga (chicken/rice-noodle soup) for breakfast on shared platform beds and watching the morning shows on TV.

Suddenly I emerge into an opening in the maze of alleys and shuffle into a hidden morning market without a name. It's the chief market for the neighborhood (I pass through another one hard by the university complex) and I pass women pulling carts of vegetables, noodles, chicken.

There are people specializing in seasonal fruit. Used clothing in heaps. Vegetables most of which I can't identify. Many of the women ride into town from the outskirts of the city in their conical hats and panniers bigger than the bicycle filled with produce. There are pails and pans and baskets of live fish.

Down the slight slope towards the greyish-purple creek that bounds the market on the south. Just above the creek are a group of butchers who slaughter chickens and other small animals in metal cones, cool and efficient, and later sweep the offal and feathers into the creek. Most speak only Vietnamese, but I chat in my quickly exhausted French some mornings when I'm not in a rush.

Moving on into other alleys I make my way west. I exchange smiles with the two girls who are always out on the side alley washing vegetables and meat and dishes and an occasional baby at the thin hydrant that rises out of the sidewalk by their pho stand. Then I stride out into the minor, more pedestrian street, Pham Van Truong. At the corner is what I like to think of as an urban spring. Clear water burbles up through a crack in the side walk and runs fifty meters or so down the gutter into a meter long hole (with a palm branch sticking up out of it to warn unwary cyclists and pedestrians). I pass the gate house guards of a large police station and carefully don't smile as one bounces as though he were playing Dance, Dance Revolution, a go go boy in a sentry box, to the (VERY LOUD) music from a women's clothing store diagonally across the street. I don't want him to notice that I notice. I don't want to embarrass him. But he adds a little bounce to my step.

I pass the end of the Cho Xanh (the green market which now is mainly inexpensive clothing and household stuff for students in the neighborhood) and duck into an alley on the right between a sandal store and a fruit vendor piled high with green oranges, chom chom (rambutan), green mangoes, carved tiny pineapples the size of softballs, dark green watermelons the size of pineapples, grapes, and whatever else is in season within a day's reach bicycle or moto bi. I cut through the alley through sandwich stands (selling scrambled egg on baguettes, or disturbingly colored sausages--also on baguettes) through a gate at what looks like the dead end of the alley.

I side step over the low grate that prevents motorbike-through-traffic and into the campus of the Dai Hocs, the national universities of Hanoi. I wind by a couple more big holes in the pavement or sidewalk, sometimes with palm, sometimes with a dead almond tree branch sticking up a few feet, and turn into my home stretch. I pass the School of Physical Education with it's row of mature royal palms. I've always been in love with royal palms since my high school days when, at Hampden DuBose Academy we had the furthest-north-royal palm in Florida on the sloping lawn between Ewell Hall, the grand girl's dorm, and Lake Margaret. Anyway. That one's long gone with a freeze that also killed the citrus orchards there. These are glorious, gray columns. On the other side of the street sixty or so people of all different ages and genders play volleyball on concrete. It's the new moon, so as I stroll pass the walled Chua Chua (I think it means the Holy Pagoda--"chua," with one tone, anyway, means pagoda in Viet Nam), the gates are opened wide and the courtyard in front of the pagoda are crowded with students buying incense joss sticks, Choco pies, Custa cakes, and fruit to

offer on the altar inside.

Running a little late, I pass by (though I want some joss sticks for home--only Buddha could like Choco pies and Custa cakes)and wind into the gate of the French Department. Phap. Built in the eighties by the French (Phap) it's kind of a Frank Lloyd Wright-manque fortress with deep, irregular rectangular pools filled with water during some of the year and magnificent lilies and lotus.

Now they're not filled with much but a few feet of jade-green (but not in a nice way) still (also not in a nice way) water which appears to be the consistency of tapioca. I step around the narrow edge of the pool towards my building. I can see the lights in the classrooms off the open mezzanine upstairs. I turn right and step into an alcove which is the only entrance to the building on this side--some of us have to turn sideways to get through, but it all depends on your build, turn left and wind up the stairs. At the top I try (usually a couple of times because it can't read my damp thumb pad) to open the gate with the fingerprint reader and unload into my chair and start up my computer in sunny jalousied office I share with the other faculty.

Class starts in half an hour. Graham Greene. And writing assignments.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pain in the Ass

The doctor was a she and spoke no English. Vuong interpreted. Between his vagueness and what got lost in translation I'm not sure what transpired but for 135,000 VND (about 7.50) I got my blood pressure and temp checked by a nurse. The Dr.--a young very tired looking woman who works primarily a pediatric clinic that just turned out to be across the street from the hotel--listened to my lungs and had me cough. Then she sat tiredly in her seat across the room and told Vuong what was going to happen. I was going to get two shots and a prescription of pills for three days. So we looked at each other and finally it was made clear to me the first shot was going to be in my ass. So I slid my sweaty pants down and was instructed in pantomime to lie on my stomach. On the sordid sheet that had probably covered the table all day judging by the gray and green and yellow and brown and red marks and received the most painful shot I'd had in thirty years. At least. The next shot was in my hand, on the back in the vein. The second most painful shot I'd had in thirty years. Then I was gestured out of the office. I paid the nurse right then and there. I asked if they would help the hives. She gestured me out and said (via Vuong) "Take the pills." So we got the pills measured out in doses and stapled together by days. The first dose I took when I got back to my room while I rubbed my throbbing (and not in a good way) ass. And passed out fifteen minutes later. I wobbled down to supper and nearly face-planted in my soup, and took the second dose at bed time and slept for ten hours. Well, they helped the hives and everything else.

This morning I realized I couldn't face the day as dopey as the medication made me and decided to see if I could figure out which one was making me sleepy. First glance. It was the codeine. None of the others was labeled so that was lucky. I decided I'd hoard the opiates for when I needed them, and am on the road of recovery and developing a little stash of class four substances. Just in case.

We spent the day on a bus between Chao Doc and Ha Tien and the extreme South West coast of Vietnam. We stopped at a palm sugar processing farm where we had water coconut (like little jellied coconuts without milk but opalescent fruit) tea rocking in hammocks in the shade. Then we went next door and checked out the sugar bush (as it were--there was some confusion about where the sap came from--tree like rubber and maple, or what). It's collected, as it turns out, in bags from the palm flowers (which produce a lot of milk, apparently) and then is cooked down like maple syrup into brown cakes. They decide which flower bunches will be sacked for sap and which grown into the water coconuts. (The other surprise is that the trees look like palmetto rather than the usual coconut palms, so I'm hoping for the best for my prostate as well.)

I tried it and immediately went next door and bought a kilo for a dollar and started a run which sold her out. I can't believe I was the first person to try it but it was delicious.

We spent the rest of the day boating in stages through a mangrove swamp bird sanctuary. It was blessedly quiet and lovely except for bird song: egrets, storks, and others that prefer estuarine life. It was lovely. A long time since I'd been in a swamp. Most of this, like the rest of the delta, had been completely defoliated during the American war. Some pockets of mangrove remained (one of which we spent most of our time in) but much of the rest has been replanted with eucalyptus which is, apparently, resistant to Agent Orange, Dioxin and other toxins. Guerrillas take note. We had a late lunch of an a huge variety of seafood prepared in a huge variety of ways all caught fresh today. Tamarind fish sauce, Tamarind baked fish (I love tamarind), little fish and shrimp (if that's not redundant) fried up potato chip sized and eaten whole. Chilis. Banana flower salad. Hot pot with bun (cold round rice noodles) fish and vegetables I've never seen before which happens pretty much every day here. It was heavenly but I'm eating like a pig on this trip.

Anyway, it was a really nice day and a pleasure to have a day of good health and alert and rested for the first time in three weeks. Now we're in Ha Tien for the evening and leave for Phuc Quoc Island tomorrow for a couple of days of rain forest, fish sauce economy, and the BEACH.

Friday, January 28, 2011

This is ridiculous...

I've fetishized the writing of this blog for long enough. What can I talk about? What can't I talk about? Am I writing long enough? Too frequently (not hardly)? So let me give composing a short piece online a shot.
Looks like a cold, feels like a cold...even smells like a cold. I don't think I have the flu, but I have a fever that builds through the afternoon. Yesterday it broke in the evening and today it broke in the afternoon. But yesterday I lay in bed for three hours feeling too week (or was it lazy? or fearful?) to get up. I lay there groaning. It was so pathetic I had to giggle every half hour or so. The night before when I got out of bed I had chills that took a few cups of tea and a hot shower to tame. My friend Tomoe, from Cortez, who's spent a lot of time in Asia, is convinced that illnesses here strike more deeply than in the US. That may be true. When I had pink-eye in the fall, it was incapacitating. But illnesses also seem to be more self-limiting. They've ended more quickly--as even cuts heal more quickly--in my experience.
By this morning my nose wasn't running like a faucet. It actually had been running like a faucet--I couldn't go to get a new handkerchief without making a mess of my shirtfront and the floor. I had a slow, intermittent cough. And the fever was lower. So I went in to teach. I wore a sporty tartan face mask (available for 75 cents on most street corners--less if you bargain or you're a Vietnamese person or, ideally, both)that looks vaguely like the front pouch of designer underwear worn on the face. But, designed for Vietnamese people's heads, which are, like their size in general, smaller than mine, it pulled my ears forward at approximately right angles to my head, so I wore a stocking cap to keep my head warm and pin the ears back. I looked a little like a bank robber and the students were nonplussed at not being able to read my facial responses as I peered at them as they made smart claims about Marlowe and Kurtz and wilderness and whose heart of darkness.
By the time I got home I still felt like crap so I shuffled over to the pharmacy where my Vietnamese got me nowhere beyond seeming eccentrically polite. It wasn't the place where I could show off my bargaining skills or food knowledge. But I did say "Hello," "Please," "Thank you," and "Good bye," several times each (there were several attendants--it was very cordial). I couldn't even say "Turn left, right, or stop." So I pantomimed. Sneezing. Fever/hot. Fever/brrrr. Coughing. Head ache. Staying awake. Sleeping. You get the picture. So I checked the scientific names on what they gave me. No codeine (hope springs eternal), but acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and some -hydramine ingredients to ensure good rest.
Then I watched American Beauty and finally got inspired to write something, anything (as you see) for the first time in a month. Who knows? Maybe I'll actually write something about Southeast Asia before too long.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas. Hanoi.

Merry Christmas! Christmas Morning, Hanoi

    You’d think those wouldn’t go together.  Christmas Morning.  Hanoi.  But here I am in the middle of it.  I’m alone.  The sky has gone from high and clear and fresh and moist to heavy and the wind’s come up.  Howling actually.  I know that, just out of site from my perch on the bed with the computer, that the palm fronds are thrashing, just like they did outside my third floor window in Hassell Hall, my first semester at HDA in 1968.  They’re mesmerizing but I no more associate them with Christmas now than I did then.  We New Englander and Rocky Mountain types forget that most of the Christendom, by far most, celebrates Christmas as snow-free and generally green.  If they celebrate it at all.
    But right now–in Hanoi–from my bed I see a grey, lowering sky.  I’m listening to the wind barreling.  Hunkered down in my bed I’m cosy.  I’m also listening to Christmas music.  (If you’ve not heard Sarah McLachlan’s Christmas album from two or three years ago, rush out and by it–it’s the best Christmas music in twenty years–listen to “Song for a Winter’s Night.”) I can see my six-foot cone-shaped object glittering silver and blue in the living room (I’ve always had a live tree, but this year beggars in a 90% Buddhist country can’t be choosers and I got my (Xmas Decoration, “Giam Gia!”) from the leprous, emaciated male-model Santa mannequin with the cotton candy beard taped on.  I could swear he winked.
    So, with the wind and now the rain tapping the windows, and the pinion incense burning in the room, and my cup of Ca Phe Sua (Java from Java) it feels like Christmas. Could just as well be a snowstorm outside with this grey light and cool draft.

    Last night two students and their families and I gathered for a fine, hot Indian meal at Tandoor (I had my favorite Goa Fish Curry) in the Old District and I wandered for an hour through the crowds for the Midnight Mass.  On the East side of Ho Hoan Kiem (the beautiful lake in the middle of the downtown) was a massive sound stage filling the choked streets with lights and performers and fender-to-fender, front-wheel-to-tail-pipe motorbikes loaded with families and couples.  On the West side of the lake and a block back sits the Cathedral of Saint Joseph, of the arch-diocese of Hanoi: a very Christmas-oriented church.  Many of the roughly 5% of the population of the Red River Delta who are Roman Catholic Christians gathered in, and around, the Gothic-Revival Cathedral, the Place and the surrounding glittering streets and alleys of this handsome, golden French Colonial neighborhood to celebrate. The evening ended with lights off on the sound stage and doors closed in the Cathedral. And streets intimately shared by hundreds of thousands of people heading out of the center.  Miraculously I found a cab and made it home shortly after midnight. And slept deeply and joyfully.

    I can see into the future, but only twelve hours.  Looking good.  Have a  fine fresh, lively, green spirit-blown, Christmas.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Very Brief Update on Thanksgiving

If I don't write something today, I will have missed the whole, eventful month of November.  So this entry is about lost opportunities.  Not opportunities to do, just opportunities to blog.  With a little luck I'll be able to catch you up over the next few weeks on what's been going on.

The short version is that I've traveled in the mountains--Sa Pa and Lao Cai on the China border--and the sea--Ha Long Bay, which lives up to it's reputation--and all over the Red River Delta to small towns and villages specializing in wood carving and lacquer and embroidery.  I've meditated on the difficulties of learning this beautiful language.  I've thought about food.

And I've struggled with the aftermath of pink eye which has made it hard to read at night and by artificial light and the slow abating of dysentery which has had me re-thinking food.

It's all led up to Thanksgiving which we, SYA, celebrated as a community with a traditional US meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and apple and pumpkin pies that we made at a cooking party in my apartment with two toaster ovens (the pies, that is--the meal was in the upper room of the stylish Baci Cafe).  The upshot was a wonderful meal that our Vietnamese guests found very strange and sometimes distasteful.  As we occasionally find the food, some of the food, here.

And, by the way, it turns out Hollandaise Sauce is really good on mashed potatoes.  Just so you know. We forgot the gravy.

Maybe I've re jump-started myself.  Maybe I'll keep up with this.  Lord knows I have plenty of news.  I'll try to tell these stories as stories.

But you need to know I'm very thankful.  Deeply.  Broadly.  To have the privilege of being in Viet Nam, to be the guest of these wonderful people, to be the colleagues of Vuong, Lisa, Ted, Amy, Lan, Phuc, Thuy, and Giang.  To be the teachers of these privileged but not entitled students.  To eat this fabulous food.  To see this astonishing country at something like a leisurely pace.  For my children and grandson.  For my partner who's already visited once and is coming in a few weeks despite getting sick the first time.  For email. For friends like Susan and Karen and Sujan.  For Skype.

Even for Facebook.

From Hanoi with love.