10.27.2005

Can't Slow Down

This blog post definitely gets filed in the "substitute for real human interaction" category. I can write about this once here, and I hope I won't have to tell this story over and over again throughout the next few days and weeks.

On my bicycle ride home tonight, I got hit by a car. I'm pretty sure I'm fine, but naturally I'm a bit shaken up. I'm really mad at myself for going through a dangerous intersection on a yellow light at dusk. Bicycles can't afford to do that. I'd even been warned about this particular intersection by my friend who's been cycling in the city for years. I'm really mad at myself for my poor judgment. I just couldn't slow down in time to make the proper decision, and I paid the price. I'm mad at myself for putting my life in danger like that.

But I might be even more mad at the person who hit me, because she didn't even stop to see if she'd, oh, say, killed me. I often remark that I'm not a lucky person, but you won't hear me saying that ever again. I was very, very lucky tonight and I'm really grateful. I feel that walking away from such an incident with only a bent back tire is a sign of great fortune. Please remind me of this experience next time I'm complaining about anything trivial. I'm even more fortunate that as I was standing there on the phone with Nick telling him what happened, several people came by to see if I was OK and to offer me help, even if all they could do to help was to note that, yes, it was completely immoral and illegal for this person not to stop.

I'd only gotten the first few numbers of the license plate number, and at the time it just seemed pointless to even think of doing anything official like calling 911 or reporting this to the police. But as I was standing on the street corner feeling addled and (I'll admit it) ashamed, a man ran up to me with a piece of paper. In a very comforting German accent, he explained that he'd seen what happened, followed the woman, written down her license plate number, and identified the color and make of the truck. He said he'd scolded her and told her she should have stopped. She apparently blamed me for running a red light.... He said I should call the police, because it wasn't up to her to make that judgment, and no matter who is at fault, you are supposed to stop and exchange information. I'm grateful to him for reminding me of this, and I did call the police. I suppose that, if anything, a driver like that should be ticketed. God knows I've gotten tickets for much less.

No, I was not wearing a helmet, and yes, I knew how stupid that was even when I was doing it. I almost grabbed my helmet on the way out the door this morning, because I'd been thinking as the days get shorter that I really needed the helmet because I'd be riding in the dark more often. But I was already running late and couldn't find it in our massively disorganized Front Closet of Doom. Rest assured, I'll be wearing my helmet from now on. Maybe even my motorcycle helmet.

I don't think I've ever experienced time slowing down the way it does when you are involved in a sudden, fast-paced, high-stress experience. But it was almost kinda cool the way it did. I just wish I'd been watching it happen in a movie or something and not experiencing it firsthand. It went a little something like this:

Hmm... I'm going really fast and that light at Harrison is green. I'll make it.

Crap, it just turned yellow and I've just made it into the intersection.


Oh god, this is THE EXACT INTERSECTION that Mo told me NEVER to cross on a yellow light.

But I CAN'T SLOW DOWN and THERE'S REALLY NOWHERE SAFE TO STOP.

I'd better just hurry the HELL up and GET OUT OF HERE.

(At this point I was actually yelling to the cars at the red light, "STOP! PLEASE! I HAVE TO GET THROUGH!" or something to that effect.)

OH NO OH NO OH NO Is that truck speeding up to barrel through this intersection?

OHMYGOD It's going to happen JUST like Mo said it would.

OH CRAP OH CRAP OH CRAP I'M GOING TO GET HIT OH CRAP OH CRAP

(This part I believe I actually said out loud, in Rainman-like fashion.)

Then came the point of impact. Then I was like,

I FEEL MY LEGS! HALLELUJAH THANK YOU JESUS CHRIST LORD OF THE JUNGLE.

Even though it all happened so fast, time slowed down enough so I had an opportunity to think all those thoughts. It was very very scary.

So anyway, that's my story. You know I already feel very reckless and foolish about it so please don't scold me. I can't even believe I do such things as ride bicycles and scooters in the dark in the city. I'm beginning to understand why they say you have to just slow down and think, no matter how eager you may be to rush home to your kitty cats. I'm beginning to understand why my mother worries so much about me.

10.20.2005

Interesting Magazine Covers + Political Pontificating....

all for the price of one entry!

What I found most interesting here are the various covers about Vietnam. They are all from 1965-66, fairly early in the war. Two thoughts/questions:

  • Does that mean press outlets were covering the atrocities and potential hopelessness of the war, but popular opinion just wasn't on their side, so people didn't notice?
  • I'll admit that I haven't been a news junkie lately, but I do regularly scan the headlines, front pages, nightly network news, etc. Maybe I'm tuning them out, but I don't see vivid pictures like this one...


    ...prominently placed. (Don't even get me started about why the press isn't covering the soldiers' dead bodies being returned to the country.)

    When I visited the War Remnants Museum (formerly called the War Crimes Museum) in HCMC/Saigon, I saw on display a copy of the good old New York Times' front page story the day after the My Lai Massacre, labeling it a successful mission in which 128 enemy soldiers were killed (of course, it is commonly known now that the body count was actually over 500 and included babies and children). Now I know that it's hard to report accurately from war zones, but I still feel compelled to point out the interesting items that show up on the front page of this so-called "paper of record." Keep this in mind when reading the paper nowadays, when we are once again involved in a seeminly hopeless war in a far-off region!

    /end political pontificating
  • 10.17.2005

    Before I Forget

    "We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection." —Anais Nin

    I read a post on Sandblower about keeping a journal during one's travels, and it made me realize how much stuff is fresh in my mind about my trip now that will fade over time. I kept an actual journal during the trip, and my travel companions contributed to it too, plus I posted here a couple times. But there's so much more that's impossible to capture, so here I'll make my "before I forget" entry, all the little details that didn't necessarily fit anywhere else, in the order in which they come out:

    Working Vietnamese women have a uniform. When you walk into a hotel, store, restaurant, or any other professional or upscale establishment, all the women will be wearing the traditional Vietnamese ao dai, a long-sleeved silk dress in a solid color worn over white silk pants (Trinny would so approve). The dress has high slits on both sides so it's very graceful and drapes elegantly without looking constrictive. Men actually wear them too, but the men's version has a shorter dress/shirt so it doesn't look quite as striking or distinctive.

    There are Vietnam Airlines offices EVERYWHERE. We were told when planning our domestic flights that you're best off buying your tickets once you arrive, as prices are fixed no matter when or where you buy and that there are travel agents or VA offices all over the cities. It's no joke: We arrived in Saigon, checked into the Rex Hotel, looked across the street and saw a VA office. What luck, we thought to ourselves and trotted over to buy the tickets. Little did we know that there would be a VA office across the street from every other hotel where we stayed, and that there seemed to be a VA office across the street from pretty much any business we went to. They were everywhere!

    Vietnamese businesses are fabulously overstaffed. The above-mentioned VA office had no fewer than 15 ticket agents, each with her own kiosk. You walk in, take a number, and are immediately called to a counter. This was true at hotels. We were travelling in a group of 4, and usually when we showed up anywhere, we each had our own attendant. We couldn't figure out whether this was because the country is ramping up for more tourism and we happened to catch it at a particular time in history, or if the culture is particularly service-oriented. Either way, you know these people come cheap. We heard that a hotel employee earns $25 a month.

    Vietnamese people love to do stuff on the street. They eat, get manicures, get haircuts and shaves, drink beer, sit and gossip, watch TV, feed their kids, play badminton, fix their motorbikes, etc. all on the street or sidewalk, right in front of their storefront or houses.



    The Vietnamese are the kings of small business. All they need is a product or service and a patch of sidewalk, and they'll sell it to you. I've already mentioned how some of the country's finest restaurants actually have no structural elements other than an enterprising individual colonizing the sidewalk (bring your own chopsticks!). But this concept extends way beyond "street food." Jeff saw a guy with a laminating machine and a sign; that was his laminating business. Buy an all-in-one fax/copy/print machine and an extension cord, open your front door, voila! Kinko's Vietnam. Plus, your sister/daughter/effeminate son can do manicures and pedicures while the fax is transmitting! So now it's a Kinko's/Supercuts combo. We kept joking about the various types of businesses we'd have to open out of our front doors when we got back. Of course, there are real businesses too with proper retail spaces and infrastructure, but the amount of wheeling and dealing that takes place right out on the city streets is impressive.



    The scooter is a member of the family. One of our guides shared with us a little saying: In the old days, all a man needed to be happy was his wife, his house, and his water buffalo. Now he needs the wife, the house, and a scooter. Yes, that picture shows a family of four zipping around Hanoi on their iron horse. The most we saw were FOUR children and an adult on one scooter, the kids all lined up by size. (I wish I'd gotten a photo of that one, but the scooter pix are hard to catch because they flash by you in an instant.) All I can think is the kids must love it. When it rains, the parent wears a poncho with a little plastic window in it the kid can see out of.

    The Vietnamese seem to feel inordinately safe on their scooters. Some of the stuff we witnessed either driving or being transported on a scooter: babies (held by women riding side saddle on the back); a pane of glass about 5 feet by 2 feet; a dozen plastic bags filled with water and koi fish; a 27-inch TV in the box; a women sending a text message on her cell phone; 3 live (we think) pigs; oh, god, I'm already forgetting, but you get the point... I think the key is that they drive pretty slowly (my estimate is 10-15mph) so they can slow down quickly to avoid obstacles. But the side-saddle thing just cracked me up and terrified me.

    And they don't wear helmets. On the freeway outside of Hanoi, some scooter drivers do wear them, but in the city it is a rare sight indeed. We didn't see any accidents until our last day, on our way to the airport. That's when we drove by a big truck, which had a woman lying very still in front of its front wheel. She was wearing a helmet.

    Both Nick and I rode scooters at one point. In the little town of Hoi-An, we actually were there long enough to befriend some of the locals, who for a variety of reasons offered (at separate points) to give us rides home. I really thought it would feel more dangerous than it did...

    Nick had a lot of fun pretending he was Australian. He said "G'day" to everyone—even other Australians. He had an entire conversation in which he told a local he was from Sydney, y'know, the neighborhood by the Opera House. There are tons of Australians travelling in VN, so people are already inclined to think white people there are Aussies.

    When we went on our tour of Halong Bay, Nick had been really looking forward to asking the following question to the guide: "How long is Halong Bay?" I stunned our group by beating him to the punch, and he still hasn't forgiven me. (By the way, it's 175 meters, according to our guide.) Nick also enjoyed singing "Halong, Halong" to the tune of the U2 song "Vertigo" as in "Halong, halong, I'm at a place called Vertigo..." He regaled us with the tune pretty much throughout the trip.

    Vietnam was the only country any of us had been to that had no McDonald's.

    Drivers in Vietnam also honk a lot. They're not really saying, "get out of my way" but rather just "hey, here I am!" And I'm not sure anybody listens.

    Crossing a Vietnamese street isn't easy. There's just so much traffic, and the vehicles never seem to stop. We learned that you basically have to cross the street slowly, giving the moving vehicles enough time to swerve around you. You must act resolutely. Once, in Hue where the streets were totally flooded, I walked out into the street and then shrunk back in hesitation. This was the closest I ever came to causing an accident, as the bicycle and scooter that had been reflexively swerving around my forward motion then had to correct their courses suddenly, throwing the whole street's assumed traffic pattern off. It was terrifying for all concerned.

    We did, however, see a dog cross the street. Walking. Between his two owners. Without a leash. He did not get hit. And I've already covered how insane crossing the street is in Vietnam. It was an amazing act of dog survival that, I'm thinking, can only happen in a country where THEY EAT DOGS.

    Have I mentioned that THEY EAT DOGS in Vietnam? Apparently, eating dog meat around the full moon chases away bad luck. Naturally, this led to a lot of jokes in our group, whenever something not so wonderful happened, about the only way our luck can change. Also: chihuahuas as diet meals and poodles as the choice for true gourmets. Hey, I didn't say they were good jokes!

    I'm sure there are many more bullet points to come but that's all for now.

    10.12.2005

    Censored!

    It seems I can no longer read my blog from Vietnam, as blogspot.com appears to be blocked. Oh well... I probably won't get to post again either, since the clock is ticking and we only have a couple more days here. Hanoi is warm and dry, and we've been enjoying exploring the crowded ancient streets of the Old Quarter and the (slightly) more spacious French Quarter. We very spontaneously stopped into this cute little salon and got our hair cut this afternoon. I must say that I totally trust hair salons in Asia. Clearly, they "get" straight hair. They also do extensive head and face massages while washing your hair! It was cool but I hope I don't come down with any strange illnesses as a result. We still need to make it to Halong Bay for a day trip (we won't have time for the overnight cruise) and then it seems we will be whisked home before we know it. The trip has gone by very quickly, but I can also say that 9 days is actually a nice amount of time to get a thorough glimpse of this lovely country. On that note, however, I'd better head off to dinner--no time to waste! We found this hip little neighborhood, sort of a Vietnamese SoHo, and we're venturing out this evening to find a restaurant there.

    Signing off, from Hanoi...

    10.10.2005

    Clothing Report

    We left Hoi-An yesterday, and I was sad to say goodbye to the friendly little town and its gorgeous Life Resort. I broke out my extra bag upon departure, so I could fit in all my new clothes. All in all I spent $330 and got 11 pairs of pants, 4 shirts, and 1 skirt. Nick spent $650 and got a suit, 4 pairs of copied pants (which were more expensive), 2 pairs of jeans, 2 pairs of pants, and 11 shirts.

    Now, I have to be honest: Our experience getting these clothes was pretty thoroughly insufferable. We were lured by this girl outside our hotel directly into the belly of the beast: the Hoi-An Clothing Market, a huge warehouse filled with little sewing machine stalls, shelves and shelves of fabrics, insistent children hawking post cards and cheap necklaces, and at least a few rats. We picked our stuff from patterns in a catalog, then went around grabbing different fabrics from the shelves. Then they take your measurements and send you home. When you come back the next day for the fitting, you basically have to strip down to your undies in clear view of an entire marketplace, sweating torrents in the tropical heat, while the little child-vendors accost you in mid-strip, even though you've told them over and over you won't buy anything, especially not while in your underwear. Then you have the tailors make all the adjustments and pick the clothes up later.

    The overall quality of the finished product failed to meet my high expectations, though I think this has more to do with my inability to pick good fabrics than the actual workmanship. Cotton is king; polyester deadly, right? Any fool knows that. But the harsh truth is that most fabrics these days are a mixture, and it's really hard to tell, as a novice, what's going to fit well. Light, stretchy denim feels really flimsy on the bolt but great on the body. Certain stiffer denims, on the other hand, seemed like great choices on the bolt but have absolutely no give on the body. It's also tough to pick the right cut, so while I'm pretty sure the seamstress made the pants I ordered, I'm not sure I ordered the right pants. (Also, I completely forgot that you have to designate a thread color; when you see my clothes you'll notice that pink thread must be really big in Southeast Asian fashion right about now.) Next time I'll have to be a little more careful about my fabric and pattern choices. I'd say the best results we saw were Nick's copied pants; they made perfect replicas in much better fabric than the originals. I definitely should have brought stuff to copy, using a tested quantity as a guide through the hullabaloo, rather than relying on my ability to summon gorgeous couture on the fly.

    I also think our experience was probably a lot less pleasant and user-friendly than it needed to be. Outside the main market, there are tons of storefronts with mannequins wearing replicas of all sorts of different clothes. They have dressing rooms, mirrors, fans, etc., and they take your order over to the market and have it assembled for you. We're also guessing you don't pay a whole lot more, as the prices we paid weren't exactly cheap. Ah well, next time...

    I'm still going to miss Hoi-An a lot, and I would love to do it all over again... As you all know I was really looking forward to the clothing thing, and now that it's behind me and I've gained all this knowledge (and wardrobe!), I think I might have to start planning my next trip to Thailand, where Jeff and Nancy say they have the same services but in a bit more orderly and calm environment.

    We arrived in Hue yesterday and toured the walled citadel built in the early 19th century when this was the country's capital. It's very stormy and wet—the power in the Life Resort kept flickering on and off before we left, so I didn't get to post this from there. The three-hour drive from Hoi-An wasn't bad. We've all been impressed at the good roads, especially Nick, who says Vietnam's infrastructure and cleanliness put India to shame among developing nations. Unfortunately, we're eager to leave Hue, which has presented us nothing but heavy rains and meager sights. Our hotel, the Saigon Morin, is old and stately; our room's filled with carved wood, marble, porcelain vases and the walls are covered in old black-and-white photographs from the colonial days. Unfortunately it all has this very slight tinge of mildew, despite the fact that everything is completely spic-and-span. Must be tough fighting the creep of dampness in this climate, in October, the wettest month of the year.

    Today we leave for Hanoi where it's supposed to be dryer. From there we depart for home in a few days. The trip is already halfway over!

    10.07.2005

    Coming to you LIVE from...

    SAIGON, for one night only!

    Actually, we're not in Ho Chi Minh City anymore, but since we're a day ahead of the sleepy land you call California, I can use that line anyway because where you are, maybe we still are in Saigon... I don't know; strange things happen when you cross the International Date Line.

    The trip has been amazing so far. I can't seem to say anything without it coming out trite and cliched. Aw, what the heck, cliches can be useful sometimes, so why not? The people are so friendly and wonderful. The drivers are intrepid and insane. There are a zillion scooters. Street vendors with two pots hanging on either end of a balancing pole over one shoulder sell delicious(-looking; I wouldn't know because we haven't been bold enough to eat at one just yet) food that you eat while sitting on a little chair next to their "restaurant," or more accurately, "patch of sidewalk." The parks all contain American fighter planes and helicopters, on display as war trophies. It pours rain in the afternoon and then, after the rain stops, within moments the city has forgotten all about it because it evaporates that quickly in the intense tropical heat. People wear pointy straw hats. Everything has been really, really fun and interesting.

    We left HCMC today and flew to Danang, and then we took the scariest cab ride through the pouring rain to Hoi-An. Scooters, bicycles, buses, taxis, trucks all sharing one little tiny road. We've only been here a few hours, but I've already ordered 3 pairs of trousers, 2 pairs of jeans, a skirt, and 4 shirts from the tailors. I go back tomorrow for my first fitting. We're staying in an incredibly luxurious hotel that is criminally cheap. Never in my life have I felt this rich. It's downright bizarre and feels rather colonial....

    I'm trying to stay up until 10:30pm to get on a regular sleep schedule. The jetlag hasn't been that bad though because I slept surprisingly well on the plane. Tomorrow we hope it doesn't rain because we're planning to sit by the pool, which is so beautiful it feels like a work of art. Vietnam is the kind of place you want to recommend to everyone and no one. Spread the word or keep it a secret?

    Anyway, I'm loving it so far. I won't be checking email but will be reading comments. Love to everyone!

    10.04.2005

    Off to Vietnam

    I had so many things I wanted to say and do before I left on my vacation, but they will have to wait. If the author of The Orange is reading here, I can say that the magnets have varied over the years but they have included one of Ulala from Space Channel 5, a little black cat, a 'how to recycle oil' reminder from the SF garbage company...

    I'll try to blog from the road; it's something I would love to do and hope this will be my first vacation from which I can report back, LIVE. Check this space!