Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Life in Pictures

These are a few pictures I have been meaning to post that we have taken over the past week.
A monkey in a tree.
A mango as big as my face.
A mighty river seeping through the countryside.

A Sixth Finger

After a bit of guitar shopping, Gavin and I walked outside only to discover a man draped over our scooter like a wet blanket.  Men here love to drape themselves over their motorbikes, all very bizarre to me.  Anyways, there he was, caressing our bike as though it was his own.  He didn’t seem to understand it was ours until we literally had to ask him to remove himself from our bike.  While we were putting on our helmets and masks and Gavin was starting the bike, I studied the man.  Something was a bit off about him.  He had moved to the next bike over and was slowly caressing it with his hands.  Something was strange about his right paw.  A small sixth finger had sprouted from the middle of his thumb.  The base of it was very thin and looked like a infirm, soggy noodle.  A deformity that could have been easily removed with a band saw and a band-aid, but never had been separated likely due to personal aesthetic preference.  The small piece of flesh ballooned out to a normal pinky sized finger, and even had a small, dingy nail attached.  As he gestured and moved about, his appendage swayed to and fro.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


 Some of you may have noticed Gavin’s resemblance to a gecko.  If you haven’t, think about his long torso with short appendages and his long fingers with round pads at the tips.  He is basically a large, lanky critter.  It’s funny because they are one of his favorite animals as well.  In Vietnam they are considered to be extremely lucky, especially if you find one in your home.  They are everywhere here, on the sides of buildings, clinging to warm signs, and marching through the streets with colorful banners.  On our first night in our new apartment, Gavin found one in our spare room.  He came running out to the living room with his hands cupped around the creature telling me to look between his fingers.  “Look inside, look inside,” he implored.  I did, and sure enough there was a little gecko sitting there, terrified.  After admiring him, Gavin decided to put him out on the balcony so he could get out of the house and find some food.  Unfortunately, once Gavin opened his hands the gecko sprang forward out of extreme fright or frustration with life.  He propelled himself forward at such an amazing speed, that he flew over the balconies’ edge and into the air.  We don’t think our friend survived the 4 storey fall, but we remain optimistic as he may have been heading to college next fall.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Rambutan is one of the many new tropical fruits Gavin and I have been enjoying.  It is related to Lychee and is a tasty treat on a hot day.  It looks almost like a chestnut, except the shell is soft, and can easily be peeled.  The color varies from yellow to red and the spikes are like soft hairs.  Using your hands or teeth, you can remove part of the shell and pop out the fruit inside.  The fruit looks like a grape and has a similar texture.  The first time we ate rambutan was in front of the hotel we spent our first week in.  We were returning from a night out and some of the bell boys had a bunch of rambutan and offered some to us.  We sat on little plastic stools and each had several, throwing the shell on the ground, enjoying the fruit and spitting out the small seed in the middle.  Bunches are sold as street food around the city or in the super market.  Gavin may actually be addicted to these.

The Guitar Master

Some time last week, Gavin and I were invited by our coworker, Kip, to a bar, Yoko’s, in District 1.  Yoko’s has live music most nights and a smoky, cozy atmosphere.  Getting to Yoko’s proved to be a feat, and once we finally arrived we were only able to see the band’s final few songs.  We enjoyed what we heard, including a searing rendition of “Johnny B. Goode”, but were left disappointed that we spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find the place. So we jumped on the idea of going to another bar/restaurant after the show with Kip’s friends, including the band.  At 138 we sat outside and drank beers.  I met some awesome female ex-pats.  There seem to be a lot more women here than in Istanbul.  Gavin met a few of the band members; one guy was from the Philippines as there is a large population of Filipino musicians here and another from Vietnam.  He also met a few other Western musicians, who gave him some tips about buying a guitar in Saigon.

Yesterday we set out to buy Gavin his 3-month anniversary present, his very own Vietnamese guitar.  We headed out to the ‘Music Street’ as we had been directed to the other night.  This street reminded me a bit of the hill at the end of Istiklal Street in Istanbul (Tunel): every other store sells guitars and assorted stringed creatures and between the music shops there are hole-in-the-wall juice shops or pho restaurants.  After examining the guitars at a few of these shops, we didn't really feel like anything we saw in our price range was that special as they tended to be generic factory-line models.  So we headed back up towards our apartment to a little shop by our house that we pass almost everyday.  Here we met Tuan.  He makes and sells guitars in his shop in the front room of his house.  Day after day as we passed, we would see him sitting on the floor with his tools surrounding him, working away on his guitars.  His small work shop is packed to the gills with half-finished acoustic, classical and electric guitars, amps, wood, molds, tools and scraps.  There is only a narrow empty aisle through the middle and hardly room enough for Gavin, Tuan, and I to sit and look at the guitars.  Tuan greeted us with hand shakes, a big smile and a little English.  He works sinewy and shirtless in his shop and has 2 extremely long fingernails (as many of the Vietnamese men have here).  He was excited to show off his custom-made guitars and even let Gavin play on one of his electrics with a strange, indented fret board that lets out mournful squeals and squalls of feedback simultaneously (Vietnamese style).  After meeting Tuan we realized we had to buy the guitar from him.

Today we headed back to pick out Gavin’s new friend.  Tuan was all smiles and quickly pulled out a few of the guitars Gavin had tried yesterday.  He ended up deciding on an acoustic with dark rosewood, a sturdy oak neck, and an unpolished matte finish.  It is absolutely beautiful and has a great sound.  Currently Gavin is happy as a clam, strumming and singing in the other room.  I don’t think I have seen him so happy since our arrival.  

Monday, October 25, 2010

Another Monday in Saigon

Gavin and I were rudely awoken throughout the night.  First by some unruly misquotes who somehow have become immune to our Raid plug-ins.  Then by the oppressive heat.  And around 9am by what sounding like the walls being bashed in by sludge hammers, but was probably in fact some construction going on near by.  The incessant pounding left us with headaches, not helped by the bottles of Saigon beer we had drunk the evening before.

We spent Sunday night with a friend, Patrick, who has lived here for 14 years and has a lot of stories to tell.  We were also joined by Freddy.  Freddy is nearly done with medical school in the states, but when he runs out of money to fund his education, he comes to HCMC to teach for a year to rebuild funds.  This is his third year out here.  We had our first truly negative interaction with a Vietnamese person.  The man offered to help us with the menu when we arrived before our friends, but ended up just being really annoying and drunk.  Once our friends arrived and a few words were exchanged in Vietnamese, his friends ushered him back to their table.  After that we enjoyed a few beers, music, stories and some amazing food.  Unfortunately I forgot the camera, but Gavin had a quarter-kilo of fresh prawns served grilled on sticks with their heads and shells still on.  He was given a lime/pepper/salt sauce for dipping.  I got noodles with beef and veggies.  Patrick ordered a whole red snapper.  The raw, whole snapper was put on the table in a large dish over a small burner sitting in a spicy broth with some vegetables.  It slowly steam cooked in front of us.  The finished product was amazing.  Over all, a pretty good night

After our rude awakening this morning, Gavin and I feasted on eggs, bacon and sweet rolls for breakfast, then headed out on the town.  Today's mission was to find a guitar for Gavin.  I think we found what we were looking for, but I'll save that post for another day.

After running (or rather biking!) all over town we ventured to a different super market near our house to stock up on some grub and household needs.  This time we went to Co-Op Mart rather than Super C.  Co-Op Mart is located on Shit Creek, which is sort of behind our house, across the railroad tracks and on the way to work.  Shit Creek was at low tide today so all the trash and sewage was exposed and extra stinky!  I tired to get a good picture of it, but kept having men peeing get in the way of my photography.  I did however capture one picture over the creek of men burning trash.  I guess the smell of burning trash is better than rotting feces.

Despite the stench and scene, Co-Op Mart far out shined Super C.  We had a field day in there and left with two huge bags of stuff, everything from dragon fruit and new cups to a new notebook for lesson planning and cream puffs.  We also couldn't resist the point of sale deals and sprang for a case of beer.  We rode home, our load larger than ever, along Shit Creek, over a bridge, through back streets and alley ways and along train tracks where we were stopped for a few minutes by a lurching train straight out of the middle of the century.  We carried on through the busy street,  to Cach Mang Thang 8 and finally to our quiet little alley and into Our Green Building.  What a long day, and we haven't even gone to work yet!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

It's a full moon...

I guess that's why I had such wild classes today!  I started off my day with an interesting Angel Food Cake muffin we bought on the street last night.  I had originally thought the scrumptious muffins must be corn, but was surprised to find them to be sweet and delightful paired with a strawberry yogurt before a long day of classes.  Gavin had his usual of Corn Flakes and bananas with soy milk.  We woke up early and headed off to class around 7:15 so I could get to my 7:45 class on time.  This morning I started off with my 6-7 year olds.  I teach from a book called Beeno which follows the story of a bee (Beeno) who appears to be the milkman's androgynous child who lives with a seemingly normal family.  The kids are super excited to be in class and our time is filled with games, drawing, singing, and speaking.  The students are always enthralled with my lessons, however I leave less than stimulated after repeating the same 5 words over and over again for 2 hours.  

After Beeno (today's lesson was numbers) I went on to a 9-10 year old class of complete lunatics.  I had possibly the worst lesson I have ever had in my life today and had to threaten to call students parents.  Apparently Farm Animals wasn't as exciting to my students as I had hoped.  What can you do?

After class, Gavin and I hopped on our scooter and headed out for lunch.  We have a red Yamaha Nuovo scooter which nearly buckles under the weight of our combined 350 pounds (a feat not even achieved by a Vietnamese family of four deftly clinging to their motorbike).  Gavin wears a matching red helmet that says "Arctic Cat" on the side and a red bandanna covering his face.  I have a pink helmet with a matching pink face mask with a music note and an animal on it (still haven't figured out what the creature is).  The mask hardly blocks out the toxins from the caustic sea of exhaust, but I guess it's better than nothing.  We battled against traffic from work, along a sewage strewn river, down the alleyways of our neighborhood, finally past our apartment and to a Hanoi style restaurant just down the road.  There we feasted.  I had noodles and grilled flank steak in sweet broth with an array of vegetation (leaves, lettuce and some sort of stringy green plant) while Gavin indulged in a fried egg with greasy meat (maybe pork?) and a fresh French roll.  What a delightful meal to share on a hot day together.  

Upon arriving home at last, we kicked back and took naps.  The heat is exhausting.  It is very humid and consistently hot, weather that I am not accustomed to.  It has been a hard adjustment for me, but I am coping.  This afternoon we lesson planned together.  Gavin faces his first Beeno class tomorrow, while I have two 10-13 year old classes.  We have been surprised so far of how disorderly the classrooms can be.  Students chit-chat a lot and it can be hard to keep them focused.  We have to remind ourselves often of how we were at that age, and keep lessons interesting and creative.  The students we teach are very bright.  They have been learning English from about three, and are surprisingly good.  Their pronunciation is often weak, but they ask thoughtful questions and can answer vocabulary questions at 10 years old that advanced adult Turkish students struggled with.  I overall love teaching here even though it can be difficult to gain class control and keep the classes attention.  Let's just say I have learned a lot of games in the past two weeks!

Our school provides us with a dinner if you work in the evening, but since only Gavin was working, I made us a snack before he left.  We have been trying a lot of the different things available here, so I made us a platter containing sweet buns with a few different cheeses and fruit.  Unlike Istanbul, buying different cheeses  doesn't cost much and we have been endulging (Gouda, Emmental, etc).  We also had one of the sweetest mangoes I've ever had and a hot pink fruit the size and shape of a large mango called a Dragonfruit, which tasted like a Kiwi.  And some sour cherries dipped in a spicy salt mixture. 

After Gavin left for work I enjoyed a Zorok beer (Polish origin now brewed in Vietnam?) and finished my lesson plans for tomorrow.  I also did the laundry.  We are privileged enough to have a washer.  While hanging out laundry to dry, I noticed our neighbors doing theirs by hand.  It looks like an arduous task.

Tomorrow I look forward to a class observation from our head teacher and two "exciting" three-hour lessons with some "wonderful" children.  I just hope they are a little more well behaved then the ones I had this morning!

I hope everyone is doing well!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

First Notes on Ho Chi Minh City

Classrooms packed to the gills with batshit-crazy children.

A sea of chugging motorbikes spewing palpably viscous chunks of exhaust down scarred lungs and up red-raw, dripping sinus cavities.

Pudding-thick tropical air stirred once a day by torrential downpours.

A nascent relationship sprouting between us and tennis.

A pink-tipped, wedding-cake ornate pagoda viewed from our bedroom window. Its denizens solely female. A forgotten Monastic order that clings to peace in the midst of this chaotic megalopolis.

A spacious, clean apartment placed somewhere above the city. An incongruous wonder of modernity when juxtaposed with our neighbors' detritus-strewn rooftop hovel.

An ostensibly simple cuisine to those who don't get further than Pho, yet rich in simple complexities when the intrepid muncher ventures from the well-worn path.

This is HCMC.