Babel-ed by it All: a Retrospective

(Another post from Vietnam as part of my holiday retrospective.  The piece below, written in the summer of 2009, describes my cultural and linguistic confusion soon after arriving in Saigon.)

I haven’t posted in over a week—not because I have nothing to say—but because I have too much.  I’m overwhelmed with stimuli.  Each time I try to write what comes out sounds silly or clichéd.  I’ve drafted but gotten nowhere—several starts.  Perhaps, I’ll post the pieces—these nudges toward nothing I can name.  I’d also like to post a few of the photos I’ve taken—several of Saigon—many of my trip South to volunteer with a building project for the poor–a good hour and a half drive into the country from Rach Gia.  It seems I’m struck most by the faces of children—the eyes of cows and water buffalo grazing.

children playing in sand at volunteer build site

the children's existing housing

squat toilet at build site--common in Southeast Asia

water buffalo grazing in rice patties

We carried bricks from where we parked, to the build site—balancing on narrow paths through the rice patties—shouldering heavy sacks—so god-awful hot we sauna-ed even in the shade.

rice patties at build site

carrying bags of bricks through rice patties to build site

 Sara seems stressed—works ridiculous hours—well into evening—early mornings—weekends.  I don’t see how she does it all—so many people, places, programs—details out the ass—the bulging bigness of it all.  It’s clear why she rarely shares with friends or family what she does.  You have to live it to understand, to appreciate the enormity of the task.

Like Sara, I have trouble pronouncing people’s names—so many sound the same to me–probably because my ear is unaccustomed to the tones—so many combinations of vowels—the words for watermelon and several other fruits differing only in the dipping, the sinking of the sound—or rising at the end.  I used to think I had an ear for languages but not anymore.  I can do European sounds—but the tones of Asia—it’s like I’m deaf to them—can’t hold them in my head.  I’m muted by a Babel I can’t untangle for the life of me.

I know next to nothing about Vietnam.  Only that I am pleased to be here—curious, eager to learn more, saddened by my own ignorance of the place.  I do know, though, that I feel a stirring in me, a creative impulse to make—what?  I don’t yet know—only aware that it’s there, nosing again my consciousness, like a cat marking territory, putting down its scent.

And it rains here every day this time of year, sunny in the morning with clouds thickening toward afternoon—the air heavy even in the early hours—first hints of light just after five, full sun by six.  It’s just now begun to drizzle again, the rainy season soon a downpour. 

I try to go out in the mornings when it’s still dry, before the heat intensifies, boils over into wet, one that doesn’t help to tame humidity.  It sucks all oxygen from the air well into evening, when I hear our landlady pull the garage door down, signaling a close of shop—a metal rattle rumbling our small stack of flats.

Weighing in on Bangkok: a Retrospective

(Since the holidays have kept me from writing for several days now, I’ve decided to offer a retrospective, of sorts, hoping a peek at past posts would offer decent reading in the meantime. 

The piece below was written nearly two years ago–January 4, 2009–just after this blog was born under another name.  Sara and I were living in Kentucky.  I was teaching writing at a local university, and Sara was considering a return to disaster response work that was expected to take us to Bangkok.  Initially this blog was meant to chronicle that adventure. 

In the post below, I’m moaning about a diet I’d begun as part of a New Year’s resolution.)

Okay, I got on the scales this morning–big mistake!  It may be that we are about to embark on a grand and exotic Asian adventure, but, God knows, I can’t do it fat!  I simply can not walk the streets of Bangkok like this–all 173 bulging pounds of me.

This is how it all went down.  Sara and I had agreed we would weigh on Sunday.  I had begun dieting a week ago but was too afraid to step on the scales.  Sara is to start watching what she eats on Monday.  Sunday then seemed a reasonable day to determine what we weighed.  While I may be a chicken shit when it comes to actually quantifying my size, once the decision is made to put a number on the situation, I want to get the pain over with as quickly as possible.  So when we woke up at 2 this morning to take the dogs out for their middle of the night pee, I brought the scales into our bedroom, as the floor in the bathroom slants too badly to weigh accurately in there, and proceeded to strip naked, because God forbid I weigh even an ounce more than necessary.  I even removed my glasses and seriously considered doing without a barrette but decided it unwise to try reading the numbers both blind and with hair falling in my face.  Then, stepping on the scales like the most over-sized contestant on the Biggest Loser, I was told I weighed a mere 75 somethings or other.  Now I may not have a completely realistic sense of what I weigh, but I did feel fairly certain I hadn’t been 75 pounds since I was seven.  And, of course, being without glasses I was unable to get the stupid scales to stop reading in kilograms and begin weighing in pounds, as I stood shivering and blind in a drafty 100-year-old house–not able to weigh having made the big decision to do so.  This did not sit well with me.  So Sara, who knows my inclination for throwing fits and was herself sitting warm and fully PJ-ed under the covers of our bed–decided to intervene.  After playing with the thing for a few long and chilly minutes and asking me where I had put the manual–when in fact she is the manual keeping half of this relationship–got the apparatus reading in pounds again.  You know something is not right with the universe when a book of directions is necessary for figuring out scales.

To make a long blog a little shorter, let it suffice to say I weighed a good many pounds more than I wished.  So I am an Asian bound woman on a mission.  I will not walk the streets of a Thai city like this.  I may be willing to wear my glasses the next time I weigh, but I will not make a big fat spectacle of myself on the sidewalks of Bangkok.

(Sara returns to Haiti soon, so in a few days postings should resume normally.)

Season’s Greetings from Vietnam

Sara and I, along with our dogs Ralph and Lucy, would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from our home in Hanoi.  Without a doubt we would rather be hosting our annual Christmas party from 4th Street, but instead we send you best wishes and warm hugs from our home-away-from-home, along the shores of West Lake in Vietnam’s charming capital.  Hanoi is a city of lakes, and we are fortunate enough to live a mere 20 meters from the city’s largest, grateful to walk our dogs along its shores, despite the thriving mosquito population even into December.

The locals claim it’s cold this time of year, walking the winding streets in winter coats, hats, and scarves, in weather that warms to 70 if not 80 degrees Fahrenheit most afternoons and drops to a mere 60 at night.  Unless things cool off drastically come January, we will have lugged our warmest coats half-way around the world for no other reason than we were told it was “cold” here in the winter, forgetting that “cold” is a relative term, especially for those living in a tropical country, where unless you live at the highest elevations of Himalayas that extend into Western Vietnam, you will have never even seen snow, let alone know what we mean by “cold” that freezes pipes and paralyzes even the heartiest during the sub-zero days of January back home.  For us the weather is perfect this time of year, sunny and clear, and at its coldest what we would call “crisp” in the US.

For those of you who know about our work this fall with the Jimmy and Rosalynn Work Project 2009, the Mekong Build, let us assure you the event was a huge success.  For those of you less familiar with this work, you really only need to know that each year for the past 26, the Carters have hosted a large building project somewhere around the world, partnering with Habitat for Humanity.  This year the Mekong Build happened simultaneously in the five countries through which the river flows—Thailand, Cambodia, China, Laos, and Vietnam.  Here in Vietnam alone we built 32 houses in 5 days and hosted more than 700 volunteers from both Vietnam and around the world.

As the national director for Habitat Vietnam, Sara provided the leadership necessary to make our week a success.  Along with my friend Elizabeth, I scripted and staged the entire opening and closing ceremonies, even writing speeches for Diana Negraponte, wife of John Negraponte, the deputy Secretary of State for George W. Bush.  For Sara all of this was old hat, for me it was the experience of lifetime—literally, dinner with the Carters, chatting at length with Rosalynn.

Perhaps the most touching moment of the week, however, was on Wednesday, when President Carter addressed the crowd in our village church yard.  While the president was talking about his visit being a healing opportunity for our two countries still at war with beginning of his presidency, two veterans of that war sat side by side in the audience, one American, the other a former member of the North Vietnamese army.  As the president spoke of healing and the mending of broken relationships, the two veterans, former enemies, clasped one another’s hands, weeping through the rest of the ceremony.

In President Obama’s inaugural address nearly a year ago, he promised those President Bush termed the axis of evil that we would reach out our hand in friendship, if our enemies would unclench their fist.  In Vietnam it took more than 40 years, but less than four weeks ago enemies one time as formidable as Taliban militants today held hands and wept in friendship, peace, and mutual respect. 

It is this kind of peace, this kind of healing, we wish for you this Christmas.  We may be far away this holiday season, but we too, reach out our hand of friendship across oceans that feel like 40 years —sharing our love for you, our prayers for your well-being.  May you be blessed this holiday. 

With love for each of you,

Kathy and Sara

Suffice it to Say


Admittedly I’ve neglected this blog.

But–by God, I’m going to modify my delinquent behavior.  I must motivate myself to maintain this commitment.  In other words, I need to get my ass in gear and write.  Whatever happened to my admonition to students to write no matter what—even if what one produced was shit?  Yeah, yeah, I fell off the wagon en route to writerly success—got dropped in a ditch alongside the road to blogosphere bliss.

But—enough about what I’ve not done, and more about what has happened in the last several weeks. 

In short——–

Sara and I returned to Ho Chi Minh City after Habitat Vietnam’s staff and model build, moved 20 suitcases of stuff to Hanoi—another 30 hour trip by train, located and moved into a charming, French colonially inspired house near West Lake.  But after a mere two days in our new home, I returned to the US for a less than two week “opportunity” to check on our Lexington house and the pets we had left there. 

In equally brief terms——–

Let me mention——

The hell that I found there—

An infernal flea infestation and equally hellacious and nauseating odor that turned out to be hard wood floors having absorbed several month’s worth of cat urine—the urine of not just one or two feline friends, but four—four cats whose bladders and kidneys seemed to have worked well in our absence—tragically for all noses exposed to the foul stench.  Clearly, litter boxes were not kept clean—four 20 pound jugs of Tidy Cat were left unopened and unused.  Eleven days worth of scrubbing did not remove the stench.  The floors are ruined—will, at the very least, need to be sanded and refinished, if not totally replaced. 

I won’t mention———-

The rug that Sara had brought back from Turkey—left out on the back porch for weeks, if not months—mud and grass stained.  Probably the most valuable single item in the house, the only possession Sara actually adores—probably destroyed.

I won’t mention———-

That our dog Ralph was so infested with fleas, he had lost massive amounts of hair, was heart-brokenly depressed and alarmingly cowering in response to abrupt movement.  I was sickened.  I wanted to vomit.  I wanted to scream.  I wanted to kill.  God help the person who hurt and frightened him—god help whoever you turn out to be.

But all is much better now—

In brief—————-

I had to find homes for our four cats, which thanks to amazing friends I was able to do in a matter of days.  I had to bring Ralph with me back to Vietnam, where he is this moment asleep on the couch next to his canine “sister”—Lucy.  He is playing again and seemingly happy—seemingly content to be back with his family, wherever on the globe we happen to be.

I won’t mention (at this point)——–

Our agonizing journey to get here—stuck in Seoul—overnight in the airport, Ralph in a crate, me wheeling him on a luggage cart—no place to pee—no food to eat—nowhere to sleep.  That’s a separate story—more than I can manage to include here. 

Suffice it to say, that we are all well. 

Suffice it to say———

That Sara and I have celebrated our third anniversary in a part of world I’ve come to love—a place I never expected to live. But we are building a wonderful life here in Hanoi—amid much that is “other” to us—strange but lovely—Hanoi with its winding narrow streets, trees, lakes—

All I imagined Vietnam would be—

Magical, enchanting–take-your-breath away with wonder and grace——with a conical hat kind of peace—pointed and narrow at one end but broad and open at the other.

DisARMing Saigon Exercise

Early morning fitness efforts in Vietnam seem to involve excessive amount of arm swinging, the rotation of both arms at once from the shoulder, large circular motions.  This may be good for the heart, the circulatory system, the flexibility of the shoulder socket, at the very least.  However, it does little for Lucy, who aggressively barks at the alARMing movement, sharing her apparent displeasure.  Thus, I take Lucy outside for potty purposes, before there’s any chance the neighbors have taken to the streets, wind-milling their way to healthy hearts.

Jean Threatens Skype Scolding!

So, I just checked my FaceBook inbox, where I had received a message from a friend regarding my blatant lack of discipline when it comes to writing regularly—recording accounts of my many misadventures in Asia, tales of Lucy’s love for beach romping and train riding, stories of Sara’s work with Habitat for Humanity Vietnam and the Carter Work Project.  The thing is——Jean is right.  I am failing miserably in this regard and simply must bully (if need be) my writer self into writerly action.  So here goes—————-

Regarding the journey by train between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, let me assure you, if you have done it once, you don’t need to do it again.   Although the trip takes 30 hours, it is probably worth undertaking on one occasion, so you can see the changing landscape along the length of the country.  And frankly some of the scenery between Da Nang and Hue is stunning.  The tracks run along cliffs which tower over the sea on one side and are dwarfed by mountains on the other.  I don’t think you can see the coast from this perspective by any other means.

However, now that I’ve traveled both directions between Saigon and Hanoi, I’m not inclined to do it a third time, if I can avoid it.  Several reasons———  First, rail travel in Vietnam allows for little privacy and literally no security for your luggage, unless you purchase all four berths in a compartment and bring along a friend who can stay in your space and guard your belongings if you need to use the restroom or take a trip to the dining car.  The compartments do not lock from the outside, and the Vietnamese will welcome the opportunity to move into your space, if you leave it vacant for even a moment or two. 

When friends warned us about this, we, as westerners, found it hard to imagine.  Sara, at least, disregarded this information completely when we stopped briefly in Hue.  I exited the train to take Lucy “potty,” reminding Sara to stay in the compartment.  However, while walking the platform a moment later, I saw Sara behind me.  Panicked, I handed Lucy’s leash off to Sara, RAN for the train, and literally fought my way through the throng to our compartment, where, in a matter of two or three minutes of our being away, two people had moved in with their three suitcases and one over-sized box,  the box encased completely in tape, like a skin.  The box wielding pair did not want to leave!  They were most unhappy.  We clearly had extra room, and that surplus might as well be theirs—no notion of privacy, no notion of personal space!  Gesturing intently toward the empty bunks, arms flailing (they spoke no English;  I spoke just as little Vietnamese) one of the would-be squatters communicated his squatterly intention.  There was nothing for me to do but raise my voice, gesture with equal intent toward the door, stand my ground, quite literally, and indicate my land-lordly ruling on the matter.  Feud ended.

Why else might you not want to travel by train more than once along this route?  The compartments are far from clean, the food is frighteningly impossible to identify, and your space will be shared with roaches and other six-legged creatures  scurrying across the floor and along the wall—no matter your belief in the virtue of personal space—space that is spotless and insect free.

Gosh, Jean, I hope you are happy.  Any and all Skype scolding of this writer in training not necessary!

Okay, at least I wrote something.

Why does writing seem like such work! I have not blogged in over a month, and now I actually dread the prospect of sitting and typing my way toward even a paragraph—at the moment, I deplore the thought of generating text. It feels like such drudgery! The past few weeks are a jumble in my brain. I don’t feel like sorting out the details—Hanoi, Staff Build, Hai Lang Bay, train ride to Saigon, this week. Too much has happened.

At any rate, Hanoi was everything I had imagined Vietnam to be and more—winding, circuitous streets of the Old Quarter, peaceful parks along West Lake and Hoan Kiem, French colonial architecture, the guts of the city spilling out onto noisy, narrow alley ways. Hanoi marries the past with the present, the ugly with the elegant. There the Vietnam I had hoped to find actually exists.

Hats Off to Hanoi and Other Millinery Musings

We’ve been in Hanoi for nearly a week and are finally settling in—at least for now.  During our first  night in the city, we stayed in a lovely hotel overlooking the West Lake—a restful and relaxing way to recover from the from the train ride north, the movement of which rocked Sara and Kathryn to sleep two nights in a row but, for the most part, kept me wide awake.  The bottom line remains that I can rest few places besides my own bed—no plane, train, or automobile slumber for this insomniac, even with Ambien to supposedly assist in that process.

Tuesday we moved to this apartment, also overlooking West Lake—two bed rooms, two baths, stainless steel appliances, large, flat panel television, beautiful hardwood floors, and stunning views of Hanoi and West Lake from the roof deck.  Most days I’ve spent in the apartment, as the weather has been suffocatingly hot, humid, and rainy, and the neighborhood over-run with unleashed dogs and diseased-looking chickens.

We have eaten breakfast twice at the Sofitel Plaza Hotel, as well as dinner there Friday night, while waiting for Kathryn’s friend to come in from Cambodia for the weekend.  Yesterday we shopped in the Old Quarter and ate breakfast this morning at the famous Metropole Hotel, finally giving due diligence to our role as tourists—one we’ve long neglected since arriving in Vietnam.

Lucy's conical hat and Hanoi tourism 094

However, Lucy continues to turn heads and charm expats and locals alike.  This morning at the Metropole, she sat at the table with the rest of us, and the Vietnamese wait staff wanted to serve her a bowl of milk.  We kindly declined the offer, as Lucy has never consumed dairy, though we did purchase her what must be the smallest conical hat in all of Southeast Asia, one she’s been wearing for much of the evening, posing for photos.  It would seem milliners of peasant head gear here have gone to the dogs!  Hats off to Hanoi!

Here's to Fruits, Funerals, and One Witty Nephew

I have been enjoying the most amazing of tropical fruits—not just the mango, which I adore and is available in the US—but also others to which I had never been exposed before visiting Southeast Asia.

During my first month in Vietnam, I tasted the rambutan—which I’d describe as a fuzzy, strawberry-looking fruit—red leathery skin with soft spines, small oval shape, the size of a large seeded grape.  The fruit inside is white, nearly translucent, sweet and slightly acidic—quite tasty.

Also in the last week, I’ve purchased mangosteen from a woman who operates a fruit stand at the end of our block.  These, I must admit, are the most amazingly succulent fruit I have ever tasted.  With a deep purple peel and large leathery leaves on top, the white pulp separates like segments of an orange and nearly dissolves into a nectar-like liquid in the mouth, undoubtedly divine.

So, Sara, who should be pleased by my consumption of something other than bread, has been in Hanoi for more than a week, leaving  Lucy and I l alone in Saigon to deal with my neighbor’s funeral music. 

It all began in the early evening on Friday with what I thought was a band, one I assumed must have been playing at the micro-brewery beside my apartment.  Mind you, I had never before heard music from this establishment or been bothered by any noise from the place that remains open long after I go to bed.  But when the music began again the following morning around 7, I realized it could not be coming from my suspected source. 

Later that morning when I was finally able to communicate my question through a primitive form of sign language I use with my non-English speaking cleaning lady, the explanation came in two words, “Dead man.” 

But———–when the music continued incessantly on Sunday and resumed Monday morning  just after four—well before sunrise, I thought, “Dead man, indeed.”  I felt badly for my grieving neighbors—but good-god—I was becoming increasingly irritated by the clamor and close to homicidal in my mission to make it stop.  Fortunately, as my nephew Johnny rightly pointed out, Monday indeed became “the day the music died.”

Dog Left Alone in Saigon Apartment

I had to leave Lucy alone in the apartment for the first time this week.  For the first seven days back in Vietnam, I have taken her with me everywhere, unless I was able to leave her with Sara, which I did, once to eat lunch with Mai Anh and Elizabeth and three times to work out at the gym.  Besides those four brief situations, we had not been apart—until two days ago!

More specifically, I took Lucy to the gym with me for the first time Tuesday, since Sara is in Hanoi.  However, within minutes I was asked to leave, to take Lucy back to my apartment, as dogs are not allowed there.  This posed a problem, since Sara and I had been disinclined to leave her alone—fearful she would cry and/or bark and, in turn, bother the neighbors—our landlady being foremost among them.

During my initial attempt to leave her, she whimpered and wailed, wailed and whined, whined and whimpered some more.  A few minutes later I left her again, this time shutting her in our bedroom, so her moaning would not echo in the building’s back stairway.  This time I was not able to hear her, when I went downstairs and stepped outside, so I proceeded to the gym, where I agonized with each minute of the following 45 I spent on the stair-stepper.

Clearly, the problem here is not Lucy’s, but mine.  I’m the one afraid to leave her, and certainly my fear supersedes her own separation anxiety.

Again—what’s a dog-loving, gym-going American to do?  Mind you, I was told by more than one of Sara’s staff that dog-napping is a money-making crime common in Vietnam.  Someone steals a dog, then forces the owner to pay a ransom to get the dog returned.  It happened to Minh and her friend, whose dog was actually snatched from inside her apartment.  And one wonders why I might be a wee bit cautious, a tad overly anxious, a smidgen, perhaps, even more than a smidgen, fearful and disturbed.

At any rate, Lucy was unharmed and no worse for the wear when I got home.  Thanks to the gods that watch over small canines and keep Vietnamese dog-nappers away.