Saturday, September 29, 2007

New Beginnings.

Just a few.

Much love to ya'll!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bay Area

Returning to the San Francisco Bay Area after 7 1/2 months is like an encounter with an old friend. The weather here is mild and temperate compared to the past dozen cities I've been traveling through. Summertime in the Bay is a chilly 13-20 degrees haven, unlike the sticky, humid, stuffy Vietnamese air I've been breathing the past six months. It's a blessing really, how beautiful California climate is.

When I first arrived, it felt like I had never really left. But gradual realization that my friends have changed, and acknowledgment of how I've changed has led to the acceptance that I could never return here. Berkeley was so essential for both my scholastic and personal development, but it will now have to remain so. I need to move forward. My near future is set because of the Peace Corps, but life post-service is absolutely uncertain.

During an afternoon drive to San Francisco a couple of days ago, my best friend Brian and I agreed that some things about our relationship will never change; and we are gladder now than ever before to have each other in our lives because we can depend each on each other. There are few people who could serve as my confidante; I can only list a four. I trust them because I know I could tell them anything, and they would never be shocked by my actions. It's a great relief knowing that there are people who would always love me and never judge me. I always try to do the same for anyone who asks.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Trust a Friend

I have been backpacking Southeast Asia for the past four and a half months. Traveling alone is quite a learning experience. I find that the simplest things I easily take for granted when I am at home are inconceivably more difficult when I am traveling. But the longer I travel, the more I realize that there is a duality in every situation. For instance, safety.

My foremost concern in all occasions has been safety. Safety for my health, safety from danger, safety from theft, and safety from offending indigenous locals. If I can maintain these four principles, I will do anything, and go anywhere. I am not sure about other destinations, but I have noticed that there are two types of travelers in Southeast Asia. You have the fancy suitcase, marble floored hotel, colorful fanny packs, tour grouped, travelers and you have what the Vietnamese call “buoi doi,” which translates as “dust of life.” I follow under the second bracket of travelers. I often trek alone, take the road less traveled, stay in local guesthouses, and walk or bike instead of taking motorized vehicles whenever possible (it is more beneficial for the environment you know). Although it is easier to travel luxuriously and pay for an experience, I have learned that everything is exponentially more rewarding when accomplished myself. Thus, I would say the most important thing I have discovered in these last few months is learning how to deal with people, and cope with stress under various situations.

Whenever I arrive at a new destination or city, I become extremely instinctive and defensive. It is difficult to avoid this behavior because it is the best way to survive. Bus stops and train stations in Vietnam are notorious locations for ruthless thieves, aggressive hounding taxi drivers, and anyone who just wants to rip you off. In fact, the thing I dread most about traveling Vietnam is bus stops and train stations. Every time I immediately exit the depots, my eyes, and ears have to be alert and sharp. One hand is in my pocket clutching my wallet, my passport hidden in a secret pouch clutched inside my pants to my leg, my backpack is double strapped and sealed, and my handbag in perfect view to my right. I barge out, not speaking to anyone, waving off to decline any offers, and have a mental image of the city in my mind as I quickly march to my pre planned destination.

Traveling like that for extensive periods of time is both tiresome, and hardening. But unusual unexpected occurrences has oftentimes reshaped my thinking, and altered my personality. Because when you are overly defensive, it is impossible for anyone to help you. Therefore, you have to occasionally lower your guard. But the question is, how can one judge the proper occasion? The answer, instinct. There are always people who will attempt to harm you, but luckily there are less of those than the people who would willingly help you.

I remember one occasion when I was at the south-western Vietnamese border town called Chau Doc, in which a cyclo pedal driver completely astounded me with his offer of friendship. As I have previously related, taxi drivers are notorious for demon-hood in Vietnam. Cyclo pedal drivers are no different, and because their labor is more intense, oftentimes they are even more brutal. In Hue and Hoi An (central cities of Vietnam), most cyclo drivers offer illegal narcotics, and sleazy $30 prostitutes at the sight of anyone with wealth. Though they were a common scene in the past, with the recent introduction of motor bikes, and automobiles, they are now outdated. The ones who were unable to afford the upgrade to motors were left pedaling with their feet, upwards to 50 kilometers a day. So with this in mind, you can only imagine how hard their lives must be and how untrustworthy they usually are.

I arrived at Chau Doc at 8 P.M. incredibly exhausted, extremely sleepy, and starving from the lack of nutrition after an eight hour bus trip, and a couple of ferry rides. I was tired. I was also in a really foul mood. So when a cyclo driver kept badgering me if I wanted a ride, I was automatically defensive, judging that he probably wanted to offer the traveler’s packaged happy meals. I refused to talk to him, and even went as far as taking my guest house’s backdoor to avoid him. After dinner, he caught me walking back from the market and asked me if I was going anywhere that night, because he would be glad to offer his knowledge of Chau Doc, and cyclo service. I remember being really lonely so I said two things. Firstly, I asked him for the strangest delicacy Chau Doc had to offer. He answered: snakes, and cave bats. Secondly, I told him if he drank with me, I would pay for his dinner. He amusingly smirked, and answered that he does not usually drink, but he will because I seemed like a nice enough guy.

So there we were, the two of us. We were in a shack overlooking the river, swatting mosquitoes from our faces, drinking 30 cent local brewed beers, and munching on roasted cave bats. I knew he was hungry, but he was really hesitant out of fear of discourtesy. I told him he could eat as much as he wanted because I had already eaten; I just wanted to make a new friend. Four hours later, we were drunk, merry and beaming with the largest grins from stories, jokes and discussions of our lives. He asked me if I liked my hotel, and if I didn’t I could stay with his family. For the rest of my trip in Chau Doc, his family spoiled me, and was very hospitable. Wandering the streets, I didn’t fear anyone or anything because I had a town local for a friend.

Looking back, I realize I learned much from him that night, so it is difficult to relate it all. But primarily, what I learned through this encounter was that it is impossible to judge anyone. Though it is wise to be defensive while traveling, I should always trust my instinct. In this case, I was initially over defensive when I first met him, and because I later trusted my instinct, I made a great friend. This is probably the most important thing to realize in all situations. Be aggressive when the situation mandates, but amiable to everyone. Because over cautiousness never gets an adventure.

So now, I don’t bother judging anyone because most times I am wrong. Instead of thinking the worst of people, I now imagine how they are when they are with friends and family. I am not mad when people try to lure me, I realize that poverty generates poor behavior. However, I know when someone is tricking me and can successfully avoid traps in most instances. But even better, I can always sense whenever someone is attempting to help me, and welcome them with grace. And this is probably the best thing I could have learned during these past few months because it is absolutely essential for any maturing young adult.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Grapefruits of Wrath

Actually, there is nothing wrathful about this story, nor is it macabre in any way. I just wanted to reference John Steinbeck, whom in my humble opinion was the greatest 20th century American author. However, it is grapefruit related so the title is relevant.

It’s strange that I never appreciated grapefruits when I was in the States. I always found it too sour and bitter for my preference. My first memory of someone actually enjoying it was on a February night in Berkeley two years ago. Though I greatly enjoyed her company, I could not convince myself to consume even a slice.

Since I’ve been in Vietnam, my aunts have been serving me tons (or at least several dozen kilo’s) of it during our lunch meals. Like everything else, including bitter melon which I have despised since birth, I began to develop an appreciation and somewhat affection towards it. Now I must have at least two grapefruits a day. If not, I feel a deep sense of forlorn as if I’m missing an essential lover from my nutritious diet. Perhaps the grapefruits in Vietnam taste better due to tropical climate, but I would like to believe that they’re more glutinous because they have been peeled by my aunts’ sweet hands.

Anyways, after waiting nearly 1 ½ hours at the immigration office to attain a visa extension form this afternoon, and experiencing the slothness of the Vietnamese bureaucratic government, I had a great experience riding home on my bike. After I finished pushing and shoving through a wild impatient herd of people at the office, I realized the light rain shower that had developed half hour before I had stepped into the immigration office, had now evolved into a full tropical thunderstorm. Not to be disappointed, I took off my shoes and my socks, shoved them into my backpack, along with my prized visa application. I retrieved a paper sheet thin neon yellow raincoat that I had bought for 20 cents in Hue, and quickly pulled it over myself in readiness to brace the storm. When I arrived at the parking lot to retrieve my bicycle, I discovered all the guards were absent, I suspected that they were all possibly hiding from the storm. So I climbed on, pedaled bare footed on my rusty piece of shit bike, clad in my hole-ridden 20 cents piece of shit paper thin neon yellow raincoat, and raced away avoiding to pay for my ticket, while hearing angry shouts from guards behind me demanding me to pay for my fare! But in my defense, I couldn’t hear them clearly because the thunder was much too loud. I swear.

Into the storm I pedaled dodging 6 inch puddles, slippery cars, and wobbly moped drivers while weaving through a maze of Saigon traffic. When I was nearly a third of the way home, I saw a man fell over in a puddle of brown sewer water with clear white plastic bags and fresh lime green colored grapefruits strewn everywhere surrounding him. Without a moment of thought, I ran to him, tossed my bicycle and began gathering his grapefruits from the street, in 6 inch puddles of water, barefooted, completely careless of the bacteria that were consuming my beautiful feet. Immediately, two other college students also came to his aid. I think college students have this strange way of congregating whenever there is trouble because they have an innate desire to save people. Maybe it is the super hero TV pop cult culture that influenced this, or maybe it’s the idealism of youth, because there were tons of older people racing by on their fancy motor bikes, and they didn’t give a shit. So I thought, if Batman saw this man in such a messy wreck, he would have done something for sure.

So there we were, the four of us, slosh sloshing in puddles of sewer water trying to retrieve the man’s wily drifting grapefruits that were flowing dangerously into incoming traffic. But the unhesitant storm continued to pour heavier, and thunder roared louder in the background with sharp shards of water slicing our backs while we were urgently gathering grapefruits, shoving them into his bags, and quickly tying them onto his dilapidated iron red moped. Yes. Did I fail to mention he was riding a moped? People in Vietnam carry all sorts of shit on their mopeds, and this incident was no different. I counted that he was carrying seven large bags, with at least twenty grapefruits in each bag, so there were at least 140 grapefruits tied to his vehicle! Crazy.

So thirty minutes later, we managed to tie everything together, helped him start his bike with him cuddled between one massive bag at his frontal groin area, and another perched on top of the previous, situated between his chest and the handle bar, barely enough for his eyes to periscope through the top of his bag. He didn’t say much the entire time, but neither did we. when he started to ride away, he glanced at us and said “chu cam on cac con nhieu”, which means: uncle thank you children very much or thank you very much. Those little words meant everything.

So when I finally pedaled away on my rusty piece of shit bike, clad in my hole-ridden 20 cents piece of shit paper thin neon yellow raincoat, I had the biggest grin on my face and impervious to the thunderstorm, and Saigon’s weaving traffic madness. But I only did it because I enjoy grapefruit so much.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Feels Like Home

I am back in Saigon. After a 25 hour bumpy bus ride from Hoi An, and 30 unnecessary bathroom stops along the way (seriously, who needs to piss and poop that much), I finally made into the heart throbbing, bustling avenues, and moped condensed, thicker than condensed milky atmosphere that is Saigon.

Previously I had planned for a trip to Australia, but too many complications has compelled me to to teach for the remainder of my time in this side of the hemisphere. Thank you Mai for referring me to Cha Phuoc from Da Lat monestary. I will repay you graciously when I return.

My next trip will be a 4 day bike ride with my cousin Khoa and a couple of friends to Vung Tau. Vung Tau is the nearest prominent beach from Saigon. There's Can Gio, but that place is a shit hole. By shit hole, I mean it's literally the dumping ground for the Saigon River. I cannot even begin to describe the Saigon River and it's goblin-filth mess. So I'll leave it for another post.

On another note, my flight scheduled for Los Angeles is on the 20th of July. I'll be in L.A. for a couple of weeks and heading up to the Bay Area around mid August. I would love to catch up over a couple (of dozen) beers and tell mad stories like old times. Also, I'm trying to organize a bike ride down Highway 1 if you guys are down. We could camp on the beach and go surfing and what not.

If ya'll were wondering, my health is great, I'm doing fine, and even a bit beefier than usual. My aunt's cooking is really husky-ing me up.

Until then, much love.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Ha Noi Street Sounds, Part II

If Saigon is known as the party spot in Vietnam with its lively atmosphere, mainly due to its massive population, nearing 10 million folks, Ha Noi is the northern charm. Ha Noi, is probably 2/5 the size of Saigon, with a third of its residents. There's enough room for you to breathe here if you wanted to. Strategically planned (unlike Saigon, which had developed unregulated within the last 25 years), shady trees line every street. Wait, they even have street signs for almost every road; completely unimaginable in Saigon.

Though the weather was warm today, I found riding 15-20 km around the city quite enjoyable.