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Monday, March 23, 2009

Potential Wildlife

number 2009/??

We recently enjoyed a beautiful weekend visiting friends at Cát Tiên Natural Park, located about a hundred fifty kilometers north of Hồ Chí Minh City, Việt Nam. 5,831 words.

Cát Tiên

[HCMC]—It’s Saturday morning, and we are preparing to hike into the Vietnam forest toward Crocodile Lake. The lake is a premier attraction of Cát Tiên National Park, where they release rescued Siamese crocodiles back into natural populations. We were driven ten kilometers to the trailhead in the back of a rustic Isuzu truck with two rickety wooden pews. Connected to this jury-rigged seating contraption are bars to hold onto as the truck pitches headlong over inconsistent dirt tracks. Everything creaks and rattles together, leans as one. We were sitting pretty high on the top of the truck bed, so besides the difficulties of keeping my ass on the plank—and absorbing each new pothole with my legs to keep that plank from actually harming me—we also had to duck a lot of overhanging flora. The track goes from one to another type of non-contiguous jungle canopy. Some hang lower than others. The drive was fun but hardly safe. Now we are at the posted trailhead; the sign says Crocodile Lake 5K. Sunshine has taken a seat on a concrete bench to remove her little green tennis shoes. She is putting on a pair of rented leech socks.

We’ve been up for hours already, even though it is still pretty early for me. Our room, catching a good deal of morning sun, was a lot more inviting today than it had been when we checked in last night. The curtains are blue and it gives the concrete cubicle a cool cast that the air conditioner doesn’t quite live up to. We ate breakfast in the cantina down the road from our room. It is being redecorated. Half of the walls are newly painted an earthy burnt-orange color. The other half are crawling with park wildlife. In the back room, a man works on a large green underwater mural featuring crocodiles, turtles, and duckweed. We took the preferred table, right beneath a rotary fan we had to plug in. My egg was pretty damn good, but there weren’t quite enough sub rolls to go around, so I split mine with one of our gracious hosts. Half an egg sandwich is more breakfast than I am used to getting, and I assume it’s enough for a ten kilometer hike. The iced coffee was fabulous.

Cát Tiên Natural Park about a hundred fifty kilometers north northeast of Hồ Chí Minh City. It is home to a pretty vast array of plants and animals, many of the latter endangered. Depending on who you ask, the list of fauna to be found at Cát Tiên is somewhat staggering: Javan rhinoceroses, Asiatic elephants and black bears, crab-eating and pig-tailed macaques, golden-cheeked gibbons, several types of langur, Indian muntjacks, sambar, leopards, palm civets, mouse deer, wild pigs, pangolins, fishing cats, guar, shrews, and wild buffalo. Ask some people and they’ll tell you there are Indochinese Tigers in there. It is a remarkable and diverse area of discontinuous bamboo forest tracts, wetlands, thick double-canopy deciduous woods, and other tropical forest lands. The certain wildlife population seems astoundingly dense to me, considering the confined area of the park is only about seven hundred twenty square kilometers. Some of the more breathless reports can be looked on with skepticism: populations of extremely rare clouded leopards and tigers, and even sun and moon bears, are difficult to verify. That’s not to say that these difficulties should be seen as conclusive. One camera trap set up to spot a possible area sun bear recently photographed a binturong by accident. As of this writing, the park’s official website doesn’t yet list binturong as an inhabitant of the park.

Public Transportation

The day before, we’d covered the distance to Cát Tiên Park from Hồ Chí Minh City primarily in a big green city bus with wooden floors. The windows were greasy but open, and while the bus was moving it was actually pretty comfortable. With no air conditioning, the temperature soared immediately every time we’d stop. The trip began with the vehicle at half capacity, a scooter loosely tied in the aisle, blocking off the four back row seats where we were sitting. We’d gotten lucky that our hosts for the weekend, friends who work at the park, were already in town this weekend. They’d been able to return to Cát Tiên with us. It is confusing trip. There are different destinations called Cát Tiên, and multiple ways to reach them. Since we had guides, we were spared much of the confusion and uncertainty here. We’ve never had the opportunity to become habituated to this type of public transportation in Vietnam.

And that’s a shame. It was much nicer seeing the landscape gradually trundle along past those open windows than to watch the globe shift anonymously beneath airplane portholes. We traveled through many different villages Friday, but they all muddled together to constitute one nearly consistent urban outskirt along the way. We stopped regularly, both to pick up passengers and to take on freight. Soon the motor-scooter in the aisle was joined by a refrigerator and a couple of dining room chairs. We stopped to load a huge tractor engine into the hold under the wooden floor; then to have a bunch of plastic conduit tied to the roof. Each stop was hot, as I’ve said, but old women in zipped-up hoodies, obscured behind surgical face masks from the cheeks down and leaf hats from the brow up, stepped aboard to sell water and off-brand cola from dripping wicker baskets filled with ice.

Near the end of our trip, already hours after dark, we were transferred to another, smaller bus which whisked us on to the Cát Tiên ferry. That last half hour should have taken longer. We were sped madly through the Vietnamese night, over pitch dark village roadways, dodging pedestrians and bicycle traffic as they appeared in the dim pool of our headlights. This was more like watching someone play a particularly intense video game than being a bus passenger. The benefit was that it was over quickly. Once we staggered from the bus there was only one more step to Cát Tiên: taking a small ferry five hundred feet over the slow-moving local neck of the Đồng Nai River. Our hosts are very friendly with the people at the little convenience snack bar cum ferry station. They were friendly with everybody. The ferry crew were lounging around and chatting after dinner, I guess, but didn’t seem to mind carting us across the river. This is the benefit of being guests. Though it is confusing to get there, tourists are welcome at Cát Tiên. Tourism is one of the ways the park raises money and awareness. But tourists face certain peculiar odds. Our bus from Hồ Chí Minh City took five hours to travel a hundred fifty kilometers. The ferry place has a sign saying it doesn’t run after dark, not without reservations. There was nobody in the tourism kiosk on this side of the river. I was glad, one more time, that we had been lucky enough to make this trip in the company of people who knew what they were doing. People who were friendly with the staff.

After checking-in at the main information desk we wandered along to our room. While the park encourages a certain amount of tourism, this is not a hotel. A tourist hotel is apparently being built somewhere down the road. Our block of rooms are considered guest quarters, though researches stay in these, too. They are predictably Spartan: a cinderblock square bathed in the lurid greenish fluorescence of its one flickering tube. The bed is pushed into the far corner, and has one nailed-on post for attaching the mosquito net. The other three corners of the net hook onto nails driven into the concrete wall. This was inconvenient, since it meant that the bed could not be pushed across the room to the wall with the air conditioner. No matter. I guess it’s better to be just a little bit hot than to have malaria.

Leech Socks

I see my first leech about halfway to Crocodile Lake. Leeches in the movies are greenish-black and about the size of a cigar butt, they live in and around brackish water and move sluggishly, relying on prey to all but spoon-feed themselves to the lazy bastards. But not these leeches. What I am shown is olive green, a little longer than an inch worm. It sits on a leaf waving its end around in the air to grab hold of passersby. Its mouth is its widest point, about the circumference of a pencil eraser. And it’s fast.

We were appraised of the availability of leech socks before we even left Hồ Chí Minh City. I’d had trouble understanding what they were for. It seemed to me that heavy pants and boots were good enough for those movie leeches. Could Vietnamese leeches bite through denim? To be safe, I have worn my combat boots, the old thick leather kind that lace midway up my calf. Sunshine has come hiking in cute brightly-colored trainers that don’t even protect her ankles. That’s okay, because our hosts, old hands at hiking here, are wearing little shoes, too. One is hiking in sandals. I am beginning to feel like my feet are overdressed, maybe. I do not think I need any leech socks. In any event, it’s difficult to take my shoes off and put them on again now that we are on the hike. Everyone else is wearing the socks, of course. They are tall sleeves of nylon that are worn under the shoes but over the pants legs. They protect up to the knees. They are not water-tight or particularly puncture resistant. I get assurances that we aren’t planning on investigating brackish areas, anyway. It has been at least a week since the last rain, and I can’t imagine where any leeches would be.

It’s pretty dry in the forest. It’s more humid here than in the compound area, possibly due to the low light and rotting vegetable matter; but it’s still dry. And beautiful: we are in an area of high foliage, and the woods are open around and above us. It’s all deeply green and brown, the spongy floor of the forest studded with volcanic stones covered in moss. The area around us is very quiet. We are looking out for animals as we go. There is virtually no chance we will see any. I am conscious of how very loudly I am moving through the jungle. I’m also pretty slow. I’d injured my ankle a couple of weeks before and, while it isn’t hurting me, I’m taking no chances on spraining it again on the path’s uneven stones and slick leaves. My loudness and slowness combine to protect park wildlife: anything living in the area will be well-hidden, or long gone, before I’ve gotten there. We do see a number of butterflies, however. They don’t seem to care how loud I am.

The path we are hiking is well-tended, and there is very little to duck under or push out of our way. Occasionally, we walk past deer and civet scat, the latter full of seeds and pods. Here and there are piles of figs fallen from tropical trees with buttress roots that form snaky, muscular walls through the porous igneous rock of the jungle floor. One particular Tetrameles nudiflora has a root system taller than me in places, and we sit here for a minute or two enjoying what scattered sunshine is allowed into the forest along its immense trunk. It’s here that I’m eagerly shown, by each of our hosts in turn, a leech. The first will not bite down on our host’s hand because of bug repellant, so he shows it to me up close. It whips around, stretching to find something to bite. I am a little bit impressed with leeches. The second I’m shown waves around in the middle of our trail, where it is nearly invisible in the in the fallen leaves carpeting everything.

Shortly before the five kilometer mark, we come across a weathered and possibly faltering structure that has been referred to as a boardwalk. It’s really a bridge. It runs about a hundred yards, maybe a little longer, across a low area I take to be a continuation of Crocodile Lake’s flood plain. We are almost there, assuming we live through crossing this bridge. It’s a little harrowing for me. Looking down, I can see right through the flat untreated wood slats into a weedy thicket thirty feet down. Sometimes I can see through gaps, sometimes through holes. Maybe it just seems like thirty feet. Each slat is attached to beams forming a spine down the length of the bridge by exactly one nail. I try to walk along the nails, which is not a straight line. The whole structure sways whenever two of us get a little too close together. I’m pretty certain I’m the heaviest person here, and so I try to keep ahead of the group, too. I am walking a crooked line, quickly. We reach the ranger station at Crocodile Lake none too soon. It is also on stilts, but it seems very solid. Since people live here, we have to take off our shoes to enter.

Blood in My Pants

Later, when I put my boots back on, I also put on my rented leech socks.

Berry Jam

Earlier that morning, after breakfast, we’d gone to visit the bear sanctuary. The Vietnam Bear Rescue Program’s first operational forest sanctuary is a result of the combined efforts of the Free the Bears fund and Wildlife at Risk, with support from Cát Tiên National Park. It is not yet accessible to tourists, but we are guests. We donate in the form of buying a couple of t-shirts.

The new sanctuary enclosure itself is huge, bordered by high chain-link and electrical fencing. The ultimate aim is to get rescued bears acclimated to one another and habituated to living there. The strategy is to confine them in a series of larger cages. Most of the bears there have been rescued from amusement parks or restaurants. Bear bile is a big and illegal business in Vietnam, considered to be medicine taken orally as a detoxifier. There are several ways to harvest bile. Some bears are slaughtered outright, some suffer crude surgeries to have their gall bladders removed. In some horrific cases, they are confined in restrictive cages and implanted with a tap so bile can be captured as the living gall bladder manufactures it. Federal support for conservation in Vietnam, in the form of applying measures enacted to illegalize trade in bile and other endangered animal products, as well as permissions for international wildlife conservation groups, is blossoming. But it’s an uphill battle against a population that reveres these practices as tradition. Even though it is illegal, bile can be found on many menus around the country where the practice is rarely even discouraged. To habituate these restaurant bears, rescuers first keep them in the smallest of the center’s cages, those most resembling their pens in the alleys behind illegal restaurants. They are then steadily introduced to larger and larger accommodation, closer and closer to other bears. Eventually, they are put into cages with others, with the ultimate goal being to release them into the large new enclosure out back. These bears are hopeless cases for ever being released into natural forest populations. Captured as cubs or born into captivity, they will never learn to hunt for food or avoid their predators in the wild.

Viewed as a zoo, the rescue center is a little dismal. Most of the bears, especially the bigger ones, have been hobbled in some way. They are missing claws or feet. They are not expected to survive through their natural life-spans due to bad surgery or other abuse. Still, they are happier than they’ve ever been in their lives, better fed, and their good mood is pretty infectious. They tussle with one another. They ferret food out of ingenious contraptions that have been made for them from rotating barrels or nets. As depressing as their stories are, it’s heartening that more and more animals are rescued every year.

I was just happy to be seeing bears. The park has both Asiatic black bears, called moon bears, and sun bears. Both have white or cream crescents on their chests. The moon bears are larger, shaggier medium-sized bears similar to black bears found in the USA. Sun bears are the smallest species of ursidae, and have short, soft fur and wide, bug-eyed faces with mildly stubby snouts. Most of the sun bears in the rescue center are little more than cubs, and live in side by side cages in the center’s one concrete building. While we were there they frolicked happily. Sunshine, who had gotten bread and berry jam for breakfast, was feeding her leftovers to the bears: holding each little dollop of preserves between the bars on the end of a stick. Bears like jam. Turns out, bears also like porridge. In a nearby concrete lean-to, several large cauldrons were already boiling away. These contained bear porridge, a concoction of whatever happens to be available: rice, grains, melons, occasionally liver or chicken. The bears like the porridge, we were told; but not the liver, which they pick out. This real-world connection between bears and porridge is my favorite new fact.

There are a few other animals in the rescue center besides bears. Two cages near the concrete building each hold a macaque. The pig-tail is nice enough, so we fed him rinds and seed pods through the bars. His neighbor, the long-tail, is a jerk who continuously caught our attention for threat displays. The threat displays were unintuitive, they looked like the macaque was yawning at us. These long-tails have pretty big canines, however, so even a bored-looking macaque seems fairly threatening. The monkeys begrudgingly put up with one another, but there is no love lost between them. Several doors down, past an impromptu garden, is an enclosure for rescued Siamese crocodiles. It is smallish, dominated by a crater-shaped cement pond. The water is mossy. When we walked up to the bars, one of the crocodiles was emerging from the water. Our host said it was the most he’d ever seen one move around. These crocs seem smallish, or perhaps the one we saw was pretty young. It was about four feet from nose to vent, twice that including the tail. Once he was out of the water, he stood absolutely still with his mouth open. He didn’t move again until after we were gone. Was this a threat display? Siamese crocodiles have pretty frightening teeth too. But with that moss all over his nose, he was pretty hard to see just several feet away. Somehow it seems more threatening that he was trying to be invisible. There was no sign of the other crocodile that is supposed to be in that cage.

Keeping this in mind, it is not all that surprising we never saw any of the namesakes in Crocodile Lake’s bright green waters. We didn’t exactly go looking for them. Directly below the ranger station there is a wooden plank leading through the marshy lakeside. At the end of this boardwalk two boats are tied. About midway, a rusting yellow sign asks visitors to please keep clear of the crocodiles. We are able to see this from the ranger’s observation deck, where we drink tea and take naps. Later, we walk five more kilometers back to where we are to meet up with the Isuzu. I suffer no more leech bites.

Tapetum Lucidum

Later on, Sunshine and I take a turn night spotting. Now we are tourists. This is another ride on the same wooden pews, but much slower. It’s some kind of night safari. We are driven slowly and quietly down the track, hunting for whatever living things can be seen from the road. To help with this, a guide rides in the front pew swinging a spotlight here and there into the night. He’s looking for eyes or antlers or movement. Meanwhile Sunshine and I, plus four other tourists, keep as quiet as possible. We assume that if the puttering Isuzu or the bright spotlight doesn’t scare wild things off, that our voices might.

It has been difficult to get seats on this truck. At some point earlier today, a corporate youth group has arrived. We were informed that two hundred tourists were staying in the park, but it seems more like eighty to me. Either way, these night spotting runs are booked. There’s no way even eighty people can hike to Crocodile Lake together. The boardwalk bridge would never take the weight. So they’ve all piled into a really large truck with maybe forty seats, and these are running every half hour or so till everyone gets to do something in Cát Tiên. We’ve lucked out finding available pews on the little Isuzu, but I’m still pessimistic. With all those scheduled trips, it seems unlikely we’ll get to see much of anything. There was no room left for our hosts for come along. The seats we’ve gotten required some haggling with the woman behind the desk. She still seemed pretty skeptical that we’d be able to get on the truck, even after I’d paid her. Maybe she was mad about the blood.

One of the leech bites is high on my thigh, just under the front pocket of my jeans. When a leech bites, its saliva anesthetizes the area. Vietnamese leeches make a circular wound the size of a cigarette burn. Then they suck, raising a purple blood blister within the circumference of the bite. I couldn’t feel any of this at the time. I think this leech had to suck extra hard to get capillary blood out of the pretty thin layer of subcutaneous material covering that big muscle. Of all my leech bites, this one took the longest to heal and turned the nastiest black-purple color. A leech also carries an anticoagulant in its saliva. This keeps the blood flowing freely through the tiny holes it’s made. Unlike a tick, who will eat himself to death, a leech will take what he wants and then abandon the host, balling up and dropping to the ground. I never saw any of the leeches that bit me. I detected their presence because of bites that kept bleeding and bleeding all afternoon. The bite on my thigh was the last discovered. Our host noticed the blood when it soaked through my pants. To do this, it had to soak not only through the thick layer of denim, but also through that front pocket. That’s where I’d stashed all the money we’d need for the day. In Vietnam, bigger bills are plastic and easy to wipe clean. But my smaller, paper denominations soaked a lot of that blood up. More blood than seems possible. Blood that would normally have dried into a crust, but now wouldn't coagulate. Later on, when we ate lunch, I was able to pick and choose bills that were minimally affected. But from that point on, I felt increasingly shy about paying for anything with pocket money that got more blood-soaked as the day progressed. The last thing I paid for was the night spotting safari. By then, all my bills were red, stiff, and felt slightly sweaty. But she took them anyway.

Since I assumed we’d see little on the safari, this is how I consoled myself: it was a beautiful night for what would amount to a hay ride. The stars were out and it was cool and breezy. Honestly, the bigger part of my excitement was this uncertainty about seeing any animals. It’s what made this more exciting than the zoo, where spotting an animal is expected. Not seeing anything seemed to be what we’d paid for, what would validate the chance we wanted to take.

We are driven in a new direction around the park. Here, the forest woodlands we’ve gotten used to give way to grasslands and even some cultivated farms. Soon enough we are under a close canopy of bamboo growing arched over the road. Then the skies are clear again. The four strangers in the car seem to be from New York City. They have never seen so many stars. I can sympathize, there are frequently no stars in the Hồ Chí Minh City skies, either. Tonight it’s clear enough for me to have some trouble identifying constellations. They are just too obscured with extraneous dots, the familiar nearly invisible in all the extra. I recognize Orion and the Big Dipper and Mars. The wind is exhilarating. At one point, passengers in a returning truck, the one thirty minutes ahead of us, point into a field and tell us there are wild pigs. “I’ve got it, I see it” our guide says, focusing his handheld floodlight at a patch of nearby grass. We sit frozen, excited, seeing nothing. “It’s right there,” he tells us. I can tell by the New York whispers around me that nobody else can see anything, either; but we all keep looking. Soon enough a tusk moves in the grass, and a whole damn pig becomes obvious around it. I have no idea how the guide has seen this thing. It’s much bigger than I’d expected. I’d been looking for a little dot out in that field. Later, when the pig begins to move off, the spotlight picks out another and another. It’s like they’re invisible until they move.

Throughout the drive we see bats. We see an endless supply of wheeling beetles who cannot seem to dodge the truck. These hit us and stick, so we flick them off again onto each other, the guide, the New Yorkers. The sambar we see is huge. I thought they were the size of little deer but he’s as big as a ram. The sambar stands in grass to his belly, grazing, when the guide spotlights him. Then he freezes with his eyes at the grass line. All I can see at first is the two reflected dots of the tapetum lucidum behind his retinas. But I can’t figure which parts of the surrounding darkness and vegetation go with those dots. Then he cocks his head and starts to shuffle off. At that point I realize everything I can see is part of the same sambar, his antlers looming like trees in the background. But the spotlight is resting only on him. We’ve turned around by now, our trip almost over. We pick up a little speed past landmarks I recognize from earlier. Beetles spang off our heads as we go. The wind has gotten chilly. My favorite moment of the whole night comes here, when we meet with the other truck coming down the road, the truck thirty minutes behind ours. Approaching one another, both vehicles slow down. Then I notice the bright eyes of some little animal in our truck’s headlights, its dark bump silhouetted by the oncoming vehicle. It gazes back and forth for a minute, eye dots flashing, and then scurries on off the road.

I have no idea what that little animal was. It seemed to be about raccoon-sized. And it was either stupid or crazy or brave. With all that night at its disposal, it managed to cross the street right front of the only two moving vehicles in the whole park.

Invisible Wildlife

I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep the night before we leave Cát Tiên National Park. It makes the car trip home a little more wearing. The youth group visiting from the city were having a bonfire in the field beside the compound’s reception building, so there as a loud emcee and drumming pretty late into the night. For a while we crashed this party. Musicians and drummers had come from a nearby village to perform traditional dances. They stepped in a snaking line around the fire, rhythmically beating shallow copper drums. They wore interesting traditional-style garments. The youths were dancing in line with them, led around the fire. Anyone could join in. We were welcomed to the table of food, too, welcome to share their booze. Two large vats of young red wine were being heated over orange coals. The vats were also stuffed with leaves and spices, maybe fruit. This worked sort of like a keg, but instead of a tap and plastic cups, people lined up again and again to suck warm herbal wine through long wooden straws. It tasted really complex and interesting the first time, but too sweet, with a cloyingly synthetic honey finish. The second time it wasn’t so good. As the wine was drunk, the vats were filled back up to level with warm water. It was a youth group, after all.

Back in our room, I’d laid under the netting trying to read a little bit in the hard glow from the florescent light. I was beginning to get a headache, but whether that was from the light or the weird honey wine I couldn’t know. Sometimes it’s hard for me to lay down with a headache. It’s always hard to read with one. The only room available for fidgeting around was the bathroom. Sunshine was asleep already. It was way too difficult to put on my boots just to pace around outside. The light in the bathroom is too bright also, also too green. Every surface in the bathroom tilts down, including the counter behind the sink. I kept my toothbrush in a plastic bag the ants can’t get into if it rolled off the counter. The toilet sits in the middle of the wall under a window, between the showerhead and its drain. The shower is perplexing, hoses spooling from an electric wall-mounted box with push-button controls. The directions for use are in English, but they are still mystifying. I suspect the box heats the water between the wall and the nozzle. There are pictographs illustrating the dangers of allowing the water from the nozzle to spray onto the box. In the close quarters of the bathroom, I didn’t see how that could be helped. Eventually my headache started to subside. I padded around, barefoot, quiet, turning out the lights, giving up on reading for the night. It was impossible for me to get into the mosquito net without waking Sunshine up.

It’s not just me. It’s difficult to get in and out of bed through the net. I was aware of Sunshine coming through the net in the dark, returning from the bathroom a little later. Perhaps with enough practice we would get more nimble about this. Light from the street cast a small glow into the room. I could barely see that the net was closed properly behind her. “Be careful” she told me. “I just killed a scorpion in the bathroom.” She held her fingers up, about two inches apart.

It does me no good to be sleepy for this bus ride home. The whole trip is aboard one of the smaller busses, like that second one we rode in on. These are really no more than large vans, with fifteen seats including the driver’s. We’re the first ones aboard, picking the bus up at the ferry quay on the far side of the river. We’ve already left Cát Tiên behind. Oddly, this daylight travel is slower than the travel we did the other night, the driver’s not nearly so reckless. I am concerned it will take us a long time to get home, as we comb the countryside for more and more travelers. But it doesn’t. Over the five-hour drive, the bus stops many times, picking up people, letting them off. It’s very crowded. At one point I am able to see twenty-nine people in the bus, standing, crouching, sitting on laps. There are two dozen green coconuts in the space between our seats and the back doors. There are five people back there too. I am so pressed in that my elbow sticks out the open window into the rain, but it’s the close traffic that worries me. Five hours.

I sit there thinking about our day today. We got up pretty early this morning, too. We ate the same breakfasts in the same cantina, and fed Sunshine’s jam to the baby sun bears. We watched adolescent sun bears tussle in the crater-shaped cement pool of the large enclosure. After, we went out on a short hike down a trail just behind the compound. I’d put on my leech socks before anyone else had. We were looking for monkeys, but I was never sure what kind. Our hosts study black-shanked doucs in the woods here, but I have the feeling those are usually found somewhat north or our location. According to our hosts, there is a group of pig-tailed macaques nearby. They occasionally visit the friendly caged macaque, coming almost all the way into the rescue center. Maybe it is these macaques we went looking for. We didn’t see any monkeys, which came as no real surprise. I hadn’t gotten any better at walking through the woods since yesterday.

The forest just behind the compound was very different from what we’d seen on the first day. Often close and dense bamboo and rattan thickets closed around us, choking out taller plants. These areas were interesting—so much brighter green and yellow, sunnier with far less room to maneuver around in, brighter with less direct sunlight. Just as often, we were in open areas with high ceilings dangling epiphytes and creeper vines with long thorns, darker but dappled with yellow rays. In the distance I was able to hear animals move through the woods, but I never saw anything except birds and butterflies. Some nearby huffing grunts alarmed me for awhile, reminding me of the three wild pigs we’d seen not too far away the night before, but then our hosts told me it was a squirrel. The loud barking we heard in the distance was apparently a deer. Soon we turned around and headed back to the compound again. It was almost time to catch the ferry and the bus.

If I learned anything about the jungle over the weekend, it’s about potential. In a zoo there are animals in labeled cages, just where you expect to see them. Mostly, this means that there are no animals to be found elsewhere. But in the jungle there is potential everywhere. Invisible wildlife can be anywhere; apparently they can sound like anything. They leave signs of their existence—dots in the night, some seedy scat, bloody circles—and sometimes they emerge immediately for their surroundings. But mostly they remain potential animals: invisible, everywhere, smaller or larger than reality, in the dark or behind the trees in the green.

Related pages of interest include:
The official site of Cat Tien National Park
The official site of the Free the Bears Fund
The official site of Wildlife at Risk

Photo © the author.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Closed Umbrella

number 2008/??

Friday we got the next long list of jobs opportunities available for our third international tour. That was the first of many opportunities presented to me in a night characterized by dubious choices. 3,223 words.

[HCMC]—This is the life we lead: the people we meet when we arrive in a new place all leave before we do. Their tours end and they must go somewhere else. Or their spouses get good jobs at prestigious universities and they must relocate. Or, you know, it’s a tough life and they decide to just go home. One of these will apply to each and every one of Sunshine’s coworkers. They’ll be replaced, one by one, by new people while the overall population remains the same. It isn’t all about the job, of course. It’s the whole expatriate life: this cycle also effects the scholars and teachers and NGO aid workers we befriend, along with the reporters and musicians and dignitaries. We must make our new friends fast so we can get as much time as possible with them, knowing that we’ll feel a little sad whenever they, sooner or later, leave us for somewhere else. The replacements are the flip side. These are mostly those coworkers and cultural expatriates who arrive after us. Many of these replacements are the people we will have to leave behind when we go off to our next place. These thoughts were in my head on Friday during one of those little after work parties jauntily referred to as a Happy Hour. This gathering had been organized by a woman who would be leaving at the end of next week. This woman was the first person we met in Hồ Chí Minh City, our sponsor, the coworker who picked us up at the airport. That was over nine months ago now.

If this all seems particularly melancholy, well, we’ve gotten pretty used to it. This is just the way things are. Added to this, everyone is so busy doing what they do here that it’s pretty difficult to manage relationship-building things like dinners and double dates. So when I say we have to make friends fast, I should add that we also have to make this happen with little material and brief maturation. By the second time I see someone at a party we’re either already friends or not, and I already know it. There isn’t really enough time for much indecisiveness about this, and that time is ticking away. I know why I was thinking about this: we’d finally received the long list of possible jobs for our next tour. From this list, we will have to select a number of positions to bid on, one of which will end up being our two- or three-year third tour abroad. We were hoping to receive this list at the beginning of the week, right after we returned from watching the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant in Nha Trang, but they strung us along until Friday afternoon. Sunshine emailed me the list as soon as she had it. I’d planned on going to this Happy Hour party—one more chance to hang out with our sponsor—but the job postings drove all that out of my head. It arrived in my inbox as a jumble of unformatted text, pasted from a spreadsheet. At five o’clock I had barely looked over the thing. I’d been concentrating on reformatting it into something legible. I had a brand new plan: I was hoping to get to the point where I could actually read the thing by the time Sunshine came home from work. I got a phone call about the Happy Hour instead. It was frustrating: after waiting all week for this job list, I had to abandon it for the office party I’d also been waiting all week for.

I grabbed my favorite umbrella and made my way through the monsoon to Sunshine’s office. Outside it was thick and bright, breezeless and humid at that point perfectly between rainstorms when the water is being sucked back into the air. I never even opened my umbrella, no drop ever fell, but I was still trickling into my damp clothing by the time I arrived at the Happy Hour party. I hadn’t had the kind of weather I’d planned for; I’d had the kind an umbrella could not protect me against.

This was another “Hail and Farewell” party. That first friend we made, that woman who rescued us from Tân Sơn Nhất Airport during our first few minutes in town, was not the only coworker slated to depart. A handful people will be leaving over the next two months. That’s the farewell part. As for the hail, I met three new people at this very party. That’s just the way it is. In with the new and out with the old, mostly in that order. One of the women I met will be taking over Sunshine’s job in October oh-nine. How weird is that? And since the theme of this party was to meet new arrivals and catch some last moments with those nearly departed, well, I must apologize: it was a theme mostly preempted by that new list of next tour job positions finally becoming available. We spent a lot of Friday’s party talking to those who were just like us: here for another year and hypnotized by the eleven hundred and twenty job opportunities that had fallen into our laps earlier that afternoon. These new arrivals wouldn’t be bidding on another post for a year, those leaving had already done this bidding long ago. They could not be a part of our Christmas.

All of these Happy Hour parties take place in the office. One of the bosses was mixing up Dalat strawberries and rum in a blender. I discovered an almost half-full bottle of Irish whisky among the two dozen or so fifths of imported liquor sitting on a filing cabinet. I was really excited about this. I haven’t actually seen any Irish whisky in Vietnam. The few restaurants listing it on their menus invariably tell us they are out when we try to order it. From this moment on, I ignored the berry rum smoothies from the boss’ blender (and the weird Chinese beer in the office fridge). I concentrated on the Jamieson. It’s pretty strange to be drinking in someone else’s office. Parties seem a little more surreal among the fuzzy maze of movable cubicle walls and photocopiers. It always feels like a birthday or maybe the last day of school. Here and there the identical plastic desks were decorated with photos and vases and cups full of pens, along with whatever else might fend off the otherwise characterless and homogenized anonymity of a cubicle. Whisky went down well here, between those bulletproof interview windows and these perky little workstations.

Outside, it had begun to rain like hell: sheets and torrents were falling so loudly we could easily hear it through that thick security glass. It was difficult to imagine leaving. I still had an umbrella, but it just wasn’t that kind of rain. It was the kind that rises over the sewer grates, drops tree limbs along the streets, and blasts right up underneath umbrellas. That Happy Hour party lasted longer than anyone really planned because of the weather. We stayed on and on, cozy in those office spaces well away from the rain. When the weather finally let up and we left, we all felt like we should apologize to the guards on night duty. I had not sucked down the entire under half-full bottle of Irish whisky. And although I made the joke, I did not stuff the over one-fourth full bottle into my pocket.

Outside it was misty and cool, the new rains had left it breezy. There was a pervasive drizzle, but I never even opened my umbrella. The coolness felt good on my face and hands, and if I arrived damp it was at least something I was used to by now.

The rest of my night doesn’t begin to blur until well after dinner. Our friend from the first paragraph invited us over to her house for takeout. It was the first time I had seen a place in her apartment building; it is always a treat exploring the housing pool. She had done a really good job with the decorating. I was surprised that, with just a week left in Vietnam, she still had all her stuff. She was in that stage of moving when it becomes important to give or throw away whatever stuff possible. We got to rummage through her DVDs, her shelves. Open bottles needed to either be drunk or poured out down the sink. Movers will not ship opened bottles. We all decided to order Indian food, which arrived about a half an hour later. A half an hour after that, Sunshine declined to go out on the town. There were interesting things to do, looking over our new list of possible jobs, researching interesting new places on the internet. This was her plan, and had been my own plan before the strawberry smoothies and Jamieson and white wine and whatever that Vietnamese apple flavored stuff was. But my plans had changed with my loss of judgment. I did not decline to go out on the town. Sunshine went home and I went clubbing.

My memories are still not too blurry at this point: four of us hailed a cab right outside our sponsor’s apartment. There was some confusion as to where we’d decided to go. Someone asked the cab driver to take us to an Irish bar with a name rather like “Sheraton” while someone else, confused, gave him directions to the actual hotel. Once we’d realized our mistake, we cut our losses and ended up in third place, a trendy curvy wood-and-brick barroom hosting a loud multinational band. The lead singer was French, and sung many French and Spanish ballads at a whole new speed. He also covered the Ramones. The dreadlocked guy was probably a kiwi or a yank, and he covered Oasis and Nirvana and Green Day. Occasionally someone would dance up from the audience and sing a song: a Filipino karaoke star, a African American rapper. It was all too flat and archetypical (or just typical)—sitcom cameos dropping in on the Huxtable family, relying on creative shorthand: an appearance-driven dimensionality based in audience expectation. But the sound thumped, the band was energetic, and the crowd was more or less dancing happily in that restricted hopping and swaying type way fitting, I guess, the closed-in space.

The problem with Vietnamese bars really is my own problem: I do not speak Vietnamese. There are always English menus where drinks are helpfully listed. But there is no way a two-sided piece of folded cardstock can possibly be comprehensive. Predicting this, most bars also list their well and shelf liquors on the menu too. If you know how to mix your drink they will make it for you, just so long as you can explain how to do it in Vietnamese. I cannot. If the drink I want isn’t helpfully listed (remember? A manhattan with Irish whisky instead of bourbon, shaken, up), I must make do with what is available. Friday night, after everything else, I ordered a long island iced tea. Everything else was too sweet: mai tais and singapore slings and cuba libres. Since a friend and I had sprung for that first round, I was later treated to a second long island iced tea I hadn’t planned on having. Complicating this, that second round also included a surprise shot, supposedly a lemon drop. Imagine a lemon drop: one hundred proof vodka and lemon juice and sugar, so alcoholic they are frequently served on fire in their little shot glasses. One of the things I really love about Vietnamese bars is their tendency to pour really long drinks. At this loud, sweaty, hip bar they only charge an extra ten thousand đồng (about sixty cents) to keep pouring a whole drink instead of stopping at a little shot. Little, if any, attention is given to the complex system of comparative alcohol-by-volumes which usually dictate the relative sizes of large and small drinks. This is why we all ended up with our regular drinks in our left hands and lemon drops in our right. Everybody else had beers and I had a long island iced tea and we all had these economy-sized lemon drops served without ice in a sugar-encrusted martini glass the size of a goddamn party hat.

(At one point, trying to choke this volume of sickly sweet lemon stuff down, I sneezed. This also reminded me of a sitcom. Flammable lemon and sugar flew everywhere in a comical spray. This is about when things started to get sort of blurry.)

With both hands full, I had to hook my umbrella in the front of my pants. I should have sent the umbrella home with Sunshine, but I’d forgotten. I knew I wasn’t ever going to get around to opening it. I was actually relishing the thought of walking home in the rain by this point. It’s my favorite umbrella, but carrying the thing around had become sort of a pain in the ass.

After another couple of songs, we left. One of our party decided to call it a night right then, reducing our group to three. This had been my plan, too. Walk home in the rain. But it wasn’t raining and out on the sidewalk someone suggested a nearby club and a cab was hailed and fine, whatever, I was having fun. Whatever it was I’d had planned at that point finally gave in completely to the different story I’m telling. It happened right there in the cab on the way to that club.

If the last place had been trendy and hip, this new place was slick and tony. They even charged an entry fee which was paid for me. They took away my umbrella and put it in a locker for safekeeping. There was no dance floor, but there was a wide spiral stairway radiating from the circular bar where people danced dizzily. Lights flashed. For a long time we sat in a booth. For a while we stood on the stairs. I remember that I swayed and hopped a little. The colored lights flashed on my hands. Hey, they had manhattans here, but no Irish whisky. Concessions were made. We walked on up to the second floor. We talked about important things. The people above me were in the same light as I had on my hands. It was bouncing back and forth. Dancing is good exercise. The banisters were steel, and I could let go with one hand at a time occasionally. I tlked about voodoo. The people up there would wave back. The music never seemed to change. I was eventually helped, more than I’d really like to admit, outside and into a cab by my friends, one of which was the first person I’d even met in Hồ Chí Minh City. I was slowly becoming shocked over being so drunk. I knew I was failing to hide the fact anymore, but I kept wishing I was invisible, less obvious, alone. I do not know who went home first, but I suspect it was me.

By the time I was in our apartment, things were coming back into some focus again. It was probably another hour before I went to bed. In the meantime, I took a little walk upstairs to the roof just to clear my head a little. I checked my email. I drank a lot of water. I tried counting up the number of drinks I’d had throughout the night, tried to figure out what had happened to me as a sobering exercise. There were the small smoothie and Dixie cup whiskies at the office party, a glass of wine at dinner paired with some sips of weird apple aperitif. There were the two long island iced teas and the two manhattans (those were really small if I remember correctly—hell, I drank ‘em fast enough). And oh yeah, there was that goddamn lemon drop thing. I know this sounds like a lot, but I ingested all this, with Indian food, over ten long hours characterized by some low energy hopping and swaying. I do not drink all that often anymore. I was expecting to get drunk, but not as drunk as I got. It seemed unthinkable to me that I had nearly blacked out. That I’d needed help walking down the swank club stairs to the cab. I went to bed embarrassed and perplexed. I just couldn’t understand it.

I woke up five hours later, took a number of aspirin with a whole bottle of water, then carried another bottle into the shower with me. It was a very long shower, in which I probably fell asleep, my head resting on a rolled-up, soaking wet bath towel. I didn’t really recover all that day, but that’s okay. I was ready to accept my punishment. At some point during Saturday I realized what the hell had happened to me the night before. I was still counting my drinks, one two three, trying to figure it all out when it occurred to me. I really don’t drink very often here in Vietnam. Not enough to have learned my new limits, that new point in the evening to say when. I had been following old patterns. When drinking, once the judgment goes, I used to count on habits of expenditure and volume of intake to guide me. I used to go out very often, and mostly I’ve handled myself with composure. But right now I’m almost thirty pounds thinner than I was nine months ago. This means that all those old limits and habits must be scaled in comparison. This is the sort of thing I’d never manage to remember after my judgment has gone away and my blood has already gone toxic with last year’s alcohol levels. As hungover as I was, though, I was happy to see it this way: it gave me something to spend the weekend slapping my forehead over, but also maybe even something to pat myself on the back for—what better reason to make an ass out of myself than all this newfound health? But at the same time I still felt awfully humiliated.

But what became of the original, intended story of my Friday, those plans I made and kept revising? Did that story slowly corrupt in the same way I did that day? Did it go off and end on its on once my plans for it had irretrievably derailed? Is it waiting to be picked back up at some later point in the weekend? If so, can I still come to the same conclusions and insights I might have on Friday, once I pick that story’s trail back up again? And if not, is this a bad thing? Friday was obviously founded on ignorance and dubious judgment. In a way, I’m glad that we didn’t end up making any career decisions on that day. What about my favorite umbrella? That one I can answer: I accidentally left it in that locker at the club. Frankly, it wasn’t the kind of night that could have been saved by an umbrella in the end, not that I ever opened it at all anyway.

Primary photos © an unnamed source; collaged by the author.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Fatal Vanities

number 2008/??

This is a story about ironic serendipity, or the misreading of self-selecting data, or possibly prescience. It is a confession of my baser vanities, or an accurate analysis of besotted failings, or perhaps just some run of the mill tongue-in-cheek aggrandizing cast in arch fatalism. It is also the story of one beautiful pair of sunglasses. It is not cautionary. 2,932 words.

Thursday Night at the Bar

[HCMC]—On the first Thursday in May, less than one week into a month-long international visit home to North Carolina, I found myself in my favorite bar in the world. It was the third time I’d found myself there in those first four days. We were all seated at the wooden standalone bar in the dining area. Thursdays have traditionally been my favorite night to go out drinking, a scheme I try to revive among the old crowd whenever I return. The crowd is less predictable than it used to be, however: so many of the usual suspects now have Friday morning work schedules. Because of that—and because this whole month of Thursdays have somewhat blurred together—I can’t remember precisely who was in the glasses conversation with me that night. Certainly there were several people listening when I started, for whatever reason, talking about my eyewear.

I wear glasses every day, I explained to anyone listing; but I do not, by the standard expectation, need to wear them. I have fairly sensitive eyes, that’s all. It can become very uncomfortable for me on sunny days or in brightly lit rooms. Because of my life-long tendency to compensate with sunglasses, this discomfort has never had a chance to grow less acute. Speaking of life-long tendencies, I continued, two more come into play here. The first is that I have always been the sort of person to get caught up in whatever I am doing, thus I lose things—hats, pens, telephones, keys, sunglasses—by leaving them laying around behind me. I remember them eventually, later on, but by then it’s often way too late to recover what I’ve left behind. I’ve developed a dopy lag whenever I do anything because of this; whenever I stand up to leave, I check my pockets several times. I look around. I drop my train of thought and conversation lapses. It’s a slow, nearly doddering, example of some absent-minded cliché. But it always takes a minute to surmount my constant suspicion that there’s one last thing I’m forgetting. Eventually, I can get on with my life. Mostly this process works, however awkward it feels. Mostly, I feel I’ve managed to limit the number of random things I’ve lost over my lifetime. But I have yet another loss prevention tactic related especially to sunglasses.

Why so careful with the glasses? I didn’t get into this at the bar that night. Obviously losing anything sucks. Everybody at a bar knows that already. Still, and this brings me to the second life-long mitigating factor mentioned above, for whatever reason sunglasses are special to me. I would rather lose my wallet than my glasses. Heck, the glasses are probably worth more. For whatever reason, I like pretty expensive sunglasses. It would be easy to say this is because I saw a pair I really loved in a movie one day, and I had to buy them. This is only partially true because, even by then, I’d already been indulging in costlier and costlier eyewear. But these movie glasses, the pair of Matusda model 2809s Linda Hamilton wore in Terminator 2, with detachable glass side-guards (in burnished gold instead of the antique silver color Sarah Connors’ wore—one doesn’t want to come over too terribly geeky), definitely represented a break from the midrange. When I finally located a pair of these things they turned out to be very expensive. But being young and saddled with few important bills, I bought them anyway. I lost them eventually, or course. But the damage was already done: I’d started a long-term relationship with the Matsuda label. I never bought another pair in that particular model again, out-of-print collectibles that they were. And while no other model ever aspired to the same price tag as my originals, all have ultimately fallen victim to that fatal sentence above: I lost them eventually, of course.

Instead of giving up on nice sunglasses altogether, I enacted this second loss-prevention tactic. I assumed the eventual loss of these possessions was due to fact that I needed to take the things off every time the sun sank or I walked indoors. To change this, I started purchasing regular frames instead of sunglasses, replacing their clear glass panes with non-prescription transition lenses. Presto: I had a pair of shades when I was out in the sun, and a pair of natural enough looking regular glasses indoors. I had eyewear I never had to take off until I was back home where it was perfectly safe to forget them now and again. And if I could be accused of indulging some affected silly poser vanity by wearing unnecessary glasses, well, no one would really know if I didn’t tell them, right?

Only I frequently told everyone. That’s what I was doing in the bar that night, I was telling whoever was listening all about how the cute pair of Matsudas I was wearing were really only sunglasses. “Because I never have to take them off, I don’t lose them” I said, or something to that effect. But then this sentence just hung in the air, dripped with fateful jinxy foreshadowing; so I went on to say something along the lines of “watch, now that I’ve said that, I’ll have lost them the next time I see you” just to cover my karmic ass. A sop to superstition engineered to defuse whatever accidental and ironic black magic my ill-conceived words might have instigated. Maybe I said it to be funny, but maybe I needed it to unjinx me, too. It wasn’t and it didn’t.

Election Night Under a Backhoe

Tuesday was the North Carolina Primary and the eighth day of my vacation home. I spent that evening at an election party in nearby Hillsboro. The event was engineered to make sure everyone had plenty of margaritas after the polls closed. We chewed over the various returns. This is what happens when a state plans its Primary for the day after Cinco de Mayo: parties get shuffled around and later I’m happy to report I had a pretty margarita-soaked week. Since it was a weekday night, we made the hour-long drive back to Greensboro fairly early. I was still wide awake, and since only fifty-odd percent of the polls were reporting, I decided to park it in a nearby bar for another hour or two just to see how things played out. One, Senator Obama won North Carolina handily. Two, I had about three more drinks. Wary of the typically cloying margaritas found in most US bars, I ordered manhattans. I ask for these to be made with Irish whisky because it is less sweet. I have them shaken and served “up” in a martini glass. I drink these pretending they’re actually in those deep and stocky glasses I only ever see in French noir. I don’t know what that model would be called. But my drinks are only every served in regular US martini glasses. The sad result is a good drink that looks just as pink and trendy as a candy appletini.

To my credit, I left the bar before it closed; but then I spent a couple hours hanging out on a friend’s couch, drinking his beers and watching his television. Sometime around four am I decided it was time to stagger back to my home base, a forty-minute walk along the cross street up at the light. Of course, it would only be thirty-five minutes if I were to cut through the UNCG campus. Saying my slurry goodbyes, I headed off down college hill on my shortcut.

I have a shameful history of drinking and trespassing. With the notable exception of the fraternity houses that dot the neighborhoods where I used to live, this has typically meant that I break into construction sites. It is hard for me to imagine myself clambering up vertiginous scaffolding, jamming myself into plywood crawlspaces, or combing gravelly rooftops for their trapdoors when I’m totally sober. But these things frequently happen when I’m left alone after drinking. This rarely requires me to go out of my way, either, as there always seems to be some major renovating going on nearby. On Tuesday night, it was only a matter of taking a shortcut home and thereby happening past the empty two-story hulk of the Forney building, surrounded by a chain link fence interwoven with green netting and running unfortunately adjacent to a convenient dumpster. I was up over that fence before sparing much of a thought about it, dodging off around shadowy construction equipment looking for an open window into the building. This was easy because the windows didn’t have any glass in them anymore.

The Forney building was originally the Carnegie Library, a thick two-story brick edifice crafted in a staid Italianate architecture commensurate, but less flamboyant, than the stone Romanesque of the older Foust Building around the corner. Nearly four-square, the façade juts into a false portico enclosed with decorative square columns up a few marble steps from the front walk. It was built 1905, the first library to grace the State Normal and Industrial College (for girls) just fifteen years after that institution’s beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. But things progress; the girls school joined the State University system in North Carolina, the library moved into a much larger pad across the street, and the old Carnegie building was renamed after Edward J. Forney, school treasurer and head of the commercial department. In the last decade it seems to have been used primarily by UNCGs School of Education, a graceful latter-day designation for one of the oldest buildings on campus, education being the initial mission of the Normal College way back when. Sometime during the last few months, Forney building was closed, more recently it had been gutted, its roof removed, and a trench dug around its foundations. Most recently, by five o’clock that morning, it had me crawling on my hands and knees through its sub-basement, over clods of fresh dirt lit by those hanging bulbs, in their handy little yellow mesh cages, that car mechanics use.

It is not a big building, and since all of the stuff had been scraped from its interior, including walls and windows and elevators, it was easy to get around in. Most of the incoming materials were still stacked and coiled outside waiting to be installed. There was very little left to see inside. I don’t know how I managed to play around in those remaining open spaces for so long that morning. By the time I was thinking about finding a convenient place to hop back over the green fence, the sky had already perceptibly lightened into that deeply bluish purple that passes for black in a painting. The stars were dimming. I knew dawn was not far off. I was a little spooked by a police cruiser that had just rolled slowly down the road. College Avenue is one way, and it had been going the other. I ducked quietly out of the building through one of the large window holes facing what used to be the quad opposite the one way street. I tiptoed around the corner away from the cruiser toward a cluster of construction stuff under a large tree.

I was almost there when I realized the fence was standing open where I’d come through it, beside my dumpster, and cars were beginning to park in the large grassy area adjacent to the gate. People were coming to work on Wednesday morning! They were maybe sixty feet away, between me and fence, getting out of their cars and unlocking doors and chatting. I hit the ground and rolled underneath the nearest cover I could find, a large yellow Caterpillar model 430E Backhoe Loader sunken into the wet dirt. If anything, the people seemed a lot closer and louder when I could no longer see them, so I crawled along beneath the vehicle’s axle to squat behind the large clawed bucket where I could keep watch. Headlights were swinging along the nearby wall of Forney building, casting my backhoe’s shadow behind me. It was all just amazingly adrenal. I was wearing a black leather jacket and now-muddy jeans, so I felt that I’d probably managed to fade pretty completely into the shadows. My face is still a pretty pale reflector, though, but probably unpredictable enough, stock-still near the ground beneath the large back wheels of that backhoe, to go unnoticed. I was very concerned about the reflection of those sweeping headlights glinting off my glasses though, so I took them off and shoved them in the hand-warmer pocket of my hoodie.

And that’s the last time I ever saw them.

It wasn’t too many seconds later when I made my move, though it seemed like longer. The sky was still dark. I decided to head for cover behind that tree, where a low six-foot brick wall led down a dark alley near the building. I imagine this wall originally served to obscure a service entrance into the first floor, but now that the yard had been excavated in a four-foot wide trench around the subbasement, the wall was perched on top a steep muddy slope running parallel to the wall. The remaining edge of ground along the wall was strewn with pipes and coiled cables. This seemed to be my best chance out: I knew I could climb the wall and I knew the workers wouldn’t be able to see me once I was around the corner of the building. I tried not to think about the cop I’d seen the last time I looked out at the street. Was that just a minute ago? With the noise of the morning crew close enough for me to eavesdrop on their conversations, I rose into a crouch and carefully loped off toward the slope at the corner. There was no way I could run—the ground was so dark I couldn’t see where I was putting my foot. The coils and pipes would rattle if I wasn’t pretty careful; the black eight-foot ditch at the perimeter would claim me if I slipped. I kept slowing myself down as I moved along the periphery of that little muddy ledge, just to be safer. I tried to keep the bulk of that backhoe between me and the first shift.

I practiced my excuse for whenever I finally got caught. All I’d done was trespass, right? I hadn’t broken or damaged anything. I’d seen a pair of keys had been left in that backhoe, and yet I’d just let it go. How mad could they really be at me? Eventually I was around that corner, in the pitch black space between the building and the wall, and I could pause for a minute. In that darkness, the sky had started looking really bright, but no one could see me anymore and I knew then that I’d somehow made it out.

That’s when I reached into my pocket for the Matsuda glasses that were no longer there. It certainly hadn’t been more than a hundred seconds since I’d taken them off, and I hadn’t covered more than sixty feet. If it had been a half hour earlier, I would have combed that dark litter-strewn alley for them and; but by then it was way too late. Popping over the brick wall was easy—the cop had disappeared—and the walk on home really did only take another thirty-five minutes. It was stark daylight when I reached the front porch of the house where I’d been staying. I was in a pretty fantastic mood: just elated that I’d had my very closest call ever, and by then more hung-over from the adrenalin than the booze. But it was too bright outside for sure, even at six fifteen in the morning.

Group Discussion and Epitaph

Did I lose my beloved sunglasses because I’d bragged about them in a bar one night? Did it happen because I tempted fate by explaining how rarely I lose things like sunglasses anymore? Did I simply lose them because I said I would? Perhaps I was paying the price for some egregious fault or moral slip-up? Maybe it is none of the above: it’s quite possible to imagine that these two events merely coincided, within five days, and are connected only by the fact that I have forced them together here. It is probably even easier to imagine that I happen to talk about my glasses all the time, incessantly, just waiting for that terrible day when their ultimate loss will constitute a punch line to the fact. This is the one final benefit they can provide me, then. One last protection against the specter of that unlucky jinx. This account is probably not very meaningful, but it does offer me something in exchange for my Matsudas.

On Monday, May twelfth, I ordered the replacements. The man at the little State Street optometrist’s remembered me from the last time I’d been there, in 2003, when I was buying the sunglasses I lost in the story above. He informed me that Matsuda, a Japanese optical design company, had abruptly gone out of business at the end of 2007. The twenty-odd models he had in his store might be my last opportunity to ever own a pair. I selected, with his help, the staid model number 10225 and the more flamboyant model number 10324, both of which were remaindered and going for deep discounts. I wonder what kind of story I will have when they are finally lost to me?

Linda Hamilton takes a hard look in Terminator 2.
What beautiful eyes you have.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007


number 01/2007

Before light dawned on the morning of October seventeenth, 2007, we began the relatively long and equally comfortable journey around the globe to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam via San Francisco and Hong Kong. 2,972 words.

Washington to San Francisco

[HCMC]—We arrived at Dulles shortly before four thirty in the morning. There were hardly any lines at the ticketing booth, which is just as well because we were too inexperienced to manage the automated machine: where was the keyboard? the passport reader? where could we tell the machine that international business-class passengers are allotted two checked bags apiece, and that those bags were allowed to be heavier? This was the first time either one of us had ever flown in a class better than economy, and the newness was immediate, a learning curve that started at the very front of the building. Automated ticketing kiosks are also a learning curve, of course. They are intended to assist experienced flyers streamline the otherwise predictable tediousness of routine travel management. But they are as varied as gasoline pumps, hotel shower fixtures, or snowflakes; these squat grey robots were science fiction compared to the old kiosks in Monterrey, México, and we stood for a few minutes with a finger on the touch screen, the helpful robot telling us to “swipe your passport now,” before a ticket agent saved us by moving us to a full service line. The business class line. It still took a few minutes to explain to her about how we did not have too many, too weighty bags.

Minutes later we were already processed, however. By then, our parents had parked the airport caravan in the short-term parking, and we all said goodbye to one another—one last hurtle after weeks of other goodbyes.

Then we were walking down the long, wide hallway to the checkpoint alongside the large crowd of a Taiwanese tour group we were allowed to pass at the executive rope stands. From here, we made our way through the priority express x-ray machines. We were carted from concourse to concourse by giant, crawling passenger transports akin to a doublewide trailer grafted onto a flatbed semi—a long way from the short red busses that drove us over the Monterrey airport’s tarmac. We walked down the C concourse past news sellers and full-on restaurants already open at five thirty in the morning. We had an hour to kill before our plane began boarding business class passengers first.

I had no idea what to expect, but it was nice. The seats were big and plush, with adjustable headrests, individual armrests, lumbar support. A flight attendant offered me orange juice, water, a mimosa as I stepped through a the cabin. The aisle was large enough to navigate around passengers who had stopped to stow their baggage. Sunshine had been unable to get us seats together on this leg, and she set in the row directly in front of me. It was very quiet in the cabin. I never expected an airplane to be more comfortable than a first-class Mexican bus. About the time we were supposed to be taking off, the standard safety instructions played on the retractable overhead televisions. The captain revved an engine. The plane taxied away from the gate. Soon, the captain announced the rather alarming new that half of the plane’s engines were not working. So we taxied back to the gate again.

Other travelers are crazy. Since whenever, I have a gradually eroding fear of flying. When I was younger, the only part of air travel that spooked me was the landing, when the ground came closer and closer and the plane made quick, sharp maneuvers to line up properly with the tiny rushing knife of asphalt. Now, and for some time, flying frightens me by default, and my favorite part is the landing: soon this will all be over. This is a digression meant to illustrate the tedium of waiting in the plane for an hour while they ascertained the problem. This is by way of explaining the incredulity I feel when I hear other travelers bitching that we hadn’t left already in a plane that can only fly in rapid, deadly circles.

As soon as the mechanic discovered the problem we were all ordered off the plane. We were asked to leave our luggage where it was. We waited for thirty minutes for them to make a decision about whether to cancel our flight. I couldn’t say what I hoped for, really. Maybe for someone to spontaneously invent a teleporter right there in concourse C. At eight forty or so the decision to go ahead and—why the heck not?—get on with the flight was announced to me, to Sunshine, to the large Taiwanese tour group, and we all shuffled back onto the plane, business class first. I was offered a mimosa, water, orange juice, we watched a safety movie, the pilot was apologetic. I crossed my fingers and it worked: the plane made it all the way into the sky and back out again on the other side of the country.

The stranger sitting beside me was polite, pleasant, and all about travel etiquette: he never spoke to me until breakfast was served, as the attendant spread a tablecloth over my telescoping tray table and poured coffee into my porcelain cup. Then we had a refined chat over our meal—some sausage something for him, fruit plate and cereal for me. He’s a CPA, he wore a nice suit. After breakfast, we both returned to reading and giving each other space. I fell asleep for almost two hours, my only sleep since Tuesday morning. I woke up on approach. I wasn’t very nervous anymore; this was almost over. We touched down in San Francisco only two hours into our three-hour layover.

San Francisco to Hong Kong

San Francisco International, at nine, was a lot more crowded than Dulles had been at seven. I changed my watch to local time while we double-timed it through the airport to the international gate. The gates here are numbered, but the concourses are not designated with a letter. We were at forty-something and needed to make it to somewhere in the hundreds, someplace labeled G. San Francisco’s airport is remarkably ramshackle, old, inconsistently signed. The sporadic maps indicated gates only up into the nineties. On the map, San Francisco International looks just like a stink bug. The departures board said our plane was on time. Our layover, which was to be so long before our breakdown in DC changed all that, was ticking away, almost over. Sunshine was our hero here. She somehow noticed the paper sign stuck to a wooden podium directing us down a flight of concrete stairs to the international gate. The man at the gate was wearing a maintenance uniform. The doorway looked like it would open onto a janitor’s closet, and was decorated with Do Not Enter Employees Only written beneath a steady red hand. But paper signs were taped to the cinder block walls, and these depicted a diagonal arrow and read International in an unsteady hand. We seemed to be the only people following this arrow, but okay. It led one floor down to a glassed-in hallway just off a mechanic’s bay in a crook of the tarmac. Towering above us was the right engine of a 727, some of its shell removed. The hallway terminated at an elevator where we were directed to press Floor Two International by another shaky paper sign. By this time we were surrounded by Japanese flight attendants who maxed-out the first elevator car. They had cute plush animals and stickers on their luggage, they had pop haircuts. There were no other passengers but us.

We eventually arrived on the second floor, just beside the sign directing us to our gate, for which we had to ride down one floor on an escalator. Back to floor one. While we were on the escalator, they called for the business and first class passengers to begin boarding. We walked right to the gate and got on the plane. I spent all of twenty-eight minutes on my feet in California.

Once on the plane, this one much bigger than the last, we were directed up the stairs to the business class cabin. Back to the second floor. This was a 777, and it had separate spaces for first, business, and economy class. I never even had to glimpse the latter, but the forward cabin of the first class passengers was eye-opening: instead of seats, they had kitty-corner pods which transformed into full single beds with dashing gimcrack headboard-desks consoles. Upstairs, the business class area was no less pleasant for all its unintimidating convention. We had the very same lounge chairs as the last flight, only they were positioned very far apart. Each had a television in the armrest. Each had a full keypad of control options. I was surprised to learn that my leather carry-on duffel was too round to fit in the overhead compartment, and had already given it to the prompt and businesslike attendant when I realized that there was a whole row of roomy trunks along the floor of the plane. I gladly received my fresh orange juice as I took my seat. I tried to touch the back of the chair in front of me with my toes and I could not.

The plane took off on schedule around one pm San Francisco time, the captain telling us that headwinds had convinced the controllers to dictate a longer, more southerly route than had been the plan. I changed my watch just after takeoff: fifteen hours forward to Hong Kong, even though we were going backwards over the Pacific. Our flight from California to Hong Kong lasted about seventeen hours, but we arrived twenty-nine hours later, eleven time zones and one adjustment for Daylight Saving Time later. Beneath the plane, it got earlier relative to our flight speed as we crossed the longitudes, then jumped forward a day relative to our departure hemisphere. After the sun had risen on us on the Dulles tarmac, it never set again until Hong Kong approach, making for one long day. Within the plane, things were as nice as they could be: glass glasses, silver silverware, champagne and delicate smoked salmon salad with challenging greens. I had a good but academically difficult book and crossword puzzles that were a little too easy for me. I had had almost two hours of sleep in the previous twenty-seven, and after the first hour, our well-mannered neighbors in the business class cabin shut all windows making it cozy and dark like a campsite. There was nothing but the sun-blasted ocean below us, anyway. I had a drink or two, I readied myself for sleep.

But that never came. It was a smooth enough flight. I didn’t get very nervous about it because the plane was so big, the bottom so far away, that I couldn’t really feel much of the flying. I am not scared of riding the elevator. I don’t know why I was unable to sleep. Maybe because I was in public. Maybe the noise. Maybe the jet lag. I tuned into the flight on TV. The little blue map flashes through practical information over a little GPS mock-up of the plane and the blue water below it. The view changes often, and the widest angle showed some land mass. We were going 579 miles per hour. Eventually there was nothing but a black cross over blue. I was too tired to read my book. We were 39,000 feet into the sky. The screen frequently repeated its information in Cantonese. Before long, I know what the fields meant, even in Hanzi. We’ve elapsed this much time, we have this many meters remaining. The opiate of the half light, the weary tiredness, the drinks and coffees and whispers, the crosshair focus of that achingly slow blue map, these cast an otherworldly aspect over the elongated day, I could do nothing but watch, haunted, as it progressed at half-speed but without changing. We crossed the date line shortly before eleven am somewhere, pm somewhere else. I am pretty sure I lived through every hour of that flight, even the ones that merely exist as the conjecture of relativity. Outside it was forty degrees below zero according to the map. Later in Chinese it was still forty below. This is neatly reveled: minus forty is the same in Celsius as it is in Fahrenheit: cold.

(Veracruz to Greensboro)

The longest bus ride I’ve taken in my life was from Veracruz, México to Greensboro, North Carolina, beginning the eighteenth of December just about twelve years ago. The entire trip, including layovers in Huston and New Orleans, took me fifty-two hours from start to finish. I crossed two time zones moving forward. There was a vast discrepancy between the charm and comfort of the Mexican busses versus the ones I had to use over the US border. I thought there was nothing more comfortable than these smooth, highly cooled land liners. They had more legroom than an airplane and cost less than a train. They were clean, their drivers were full of personality, they played movies. I thought that my fortunes would have been much improved had I been allowed to remain in Mexican busses the entire way across the US, too. But it wouldn’t have mattered: fifty-two hours is just too long to sit on any bus.

Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City

My spell broke over the Pacific Ocean, about ninety minutes before arriving in Hong Kong. A large lunch was served and the mood of the cabin seemed to wake along with me. Oddly, this virtual morning coincided with nightfall outside the plane, the opened windows finally and thoroughly lit the cabin with steadily deepening twilight. Soon, it was stone nighttime outside, and the plane was banking over the distinctive skyline of Hong Kong Island and landing at Chek Lap Kok Airport just off the north shore of Lantau. Here we gathered our carry-on bags and made our way through a thoroughly modern airport to board another plane just like the one we’d landed in. This walk did not pass through customs or immigration, we were merely traveling on through to Vietnam along controlled international spaces incidentally inside an award-winning building in one of the world’s greatest cities. Our bags were checked through security on the way off the plane, and then once again, for good measure, as we were boarding again about forty minutes later. In the plane we already knew where the stairs were, which seats were ours, where to put the bags. I suspected I might actually feel damned, faced with the very same landscape, same passengers even, on this new airplane. Like maybe time was looped up, repeating itself. But I didn’t, the business class cabin had finally become comfortable through familiarity.

This was the short leg of our trip. It was filled with nervous-excited chatter about Vietnam, filling out immigration paperwork, some murmured language practice, We gathered all of our documentation, made sure these things were replaced safely in spots that were easy to access. On the televised map between the seats, the plane remained firmly over recognizable bright green landscapes the whole way. Outside the world was moonless and black. The flight attendant tried to offer me food again, but I’d eaten less than two hours before, and couldn’t face the duplicate meal on this duplicate plane. After such a long second flight, the hour and a half between nose-up and nose-down on this third one went by in a flash: the seatbelt sign dinged on, the outside darkness resolved itself into a cloud cover we immediately left behind, my ears started up, and the pinpricks on light out in the void were Ho Chi Minh City.

What kind of first impression can be gleaned from an airplane? On a map, a city looks flattened and compartmentalized. Everything rendered in orderly uniform lines, everything can be seen. In reality, cities spring from the irregular ground and every nook is as isolated as it is accessible. Here was a number of lights, then a dozen, then a hundred, then a city. It spread from me to as far away as I could see out every window. A uniform pattern still: mostly low, cubic buildings punctuated sporadically with blinking skyscrapers. As we closed in my eyes adjusted, the maze of the city deepened. It was not lit up like Hong Kong, but lit from inside like a tent, the cracks in its shell revealing ghostly green flora, narrow fissures of streaming traffic, mystery. It grew more and more intricate before I really got a feeling, with no point of reference, for how close we were getting to the ground. It was fascinating, dystopian, both futuristic and developing. Enticing. Then every window in our air conditioned 777 fogged up and we could see nothing more until we were on the ground and hustled off the plane into Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport, where it was already almost nine thirty, Thursday night. I reset my watch one last time,

I was really tired by then. My lack of sleep made for an almost phantasmagorical trip here, but it also really helped keep my nerves in check for dealing with taciturn officials. Even the open, officious, knee-jerk animosity of immigration agents the world over could not penetrate my protective stupor. I was forced to stand in a different line from Sunshine because the man in the uniform didn’t like me. The next guy barely looked up when I stepped over the yellow line. “Robert” he seemed to yawn inside. I said I was, and he stamped me. Sunshine had actually had to talk. We were met at the baggage carousel by one of Sunshine’s coworkers who helped us on through the airport and on into the sultry slap of the southeast Asian evening.

Ho Chi Minh Cityscape photo © the Author

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006


number XX/2006

I have worked all week to rebuild my blog in this new and, one hopes, less restricted way. This is an explanation of sorts as to why I did it and what I hope to get out of it. 1,643 words.

[NL]—A style book is a resource publishing houses (like the New York Times, or Harper Collins) use to standardize formatting for the works they publish. It is a formal list of all the grammatical and typesetting answers to routine questions that pop up about preferential writing styles. There are as many different ways to write something as there are writers, and the style book offers guidance in tricky situations. It dictates house rules in the areas of formatting and the handling of verbal particulars. Ace reporters then know where to turn when trying to sort out material particulars such as: how do I go about inserting punctuation around quote mark? At what point is it appropriate to merely use numbers instead of spelling numbers out? Will the Washington Post let me print “asshole”? Will the editors at Penguin demand a certain endnote format? The list goes on and on because there are hundreds of standards. What is right for a doctoral thesis at Stanford and what is acceptable in the Boston Journal of Botany may vary by a little or a lot, but they do vary. One can assume there is a gulf of difference between the stylebooks of the Christian Science Monitor and Penthouse Forum.

This journal also has a style book, though it seems a little overblown to call it that. For formatting, I choose to copy incidental firsts: an illustration I whipped up of my Halloween mask (here) has been the antecedent for every other photo in this journal: I copy those unlikely parameters into every new file I post. The color of this blog’s background came about through accidental experimentation with the bizarre hexadecimal codes in the blog’s template. It was a pain to figure out how to replicate it in Photoshop, but I did it. Now it is saved for use on the borders of all of my Polaroid-looking frames. But or substantive issues, I keep a stylebook detailing the textual rules observed here. It is half a sheet of yellow legal paper, bulleted by handwritten five-pointed scribbles, and I know it is around here somewhere. Doesn’t much matter for today’s post if I find it, though.

That sheet of paper probably tells me the following: star: do not write in the second person. Star: do not reference the blog itself, it’s a platform, not a subject. Star: write about yourself not your friends. Star: be inclusive, explain things for a wider audience than expected. Star: don’t whine. Star: write sentences out; no bulleted lists, net jargon, or other irritating brevities. So look, the thing is only half a page, so it is far from comprehensive. If life gets too tricky, the Chicago Manual of Style (14th edition) is on a shelf about four feet away from me. These tools help me keep a system imposing post consistency from one month to the next. They also to prevent me from posting tempting blog content like this:

“Damn, its been six months since you last heard from me. Good thing I have been writing those letters to each of you. Hey Chris, stop reading this blog and get back to work!” [Star: do not overuse exclamation points or other bizarre punctuation.]

All of this serves to make this project as tidy as possible. My desire is to work up to a writing discipline that will serve me in other areas, but also to keep the posts themselves from straying into ugly or bewildering territories. I also try to keep the content away from subjects off-topic or entirely pointless. There are certain style rules intended to keep these goals, too. There is no sheet for these: I tend to steer away from any daily journal or diary content, preferring to let experiences ripen in hindsight, connect thematically to other experiences, and formulate into a synthesis. I like the subjects of my posts to act as a springboard to research and learning more about the places I am interacting with. I try to write to the point, occurrences grouped by theme or time, which keeps me from dumping long lists of unrelated material together in one heap. Finally, I want to take my time and make something that I worked hard to make, spent some energy and mind on. Combine this with the fact that I work kind of slowly, and only pretend to work in chronological order, and the outcome is that my project is ever more divorced from the rapid timeline of its subject. Something new for the starred sheet, then: take notes, it’ll be six months before you finally tell Chris to get back to work.

So that was my simple plan until I began to stumble upon its problems: any consistency of style is very restricting; little, unripe and disconnected experiences were disappearing between the posts; and oh, that escaping timeline. The fact is that there are very few readers willing to check back once a day for the forty days between entries. Some entries (a long history of everything that has ever happened, for instance) tend to bottleneck the process, too: while I am putting the hard work off, I cannot actually post the easy and fun posts that come along directly after. Who would ever find all the back-dated commentary that I am posting if it is hidden under newer backdated content, born tucked into this blog’s archives? I didn’t mean to insinuate above, if I did, that my own delusions of magazine are the right way to make a nice web log. Indeed, they are probably less valuable to the world than the more traditional bulleted, listed, linked, spur-of-the-moment, and—most importantly—frequently-updated blogs out there. But in the long run, this is not the real reason why I decided to change everything last weekend. Frankly, I decided I really wanted to be able to include some of that traditional, lightweight, easy to make stuff on my space, too. It looked like fun.

That is why I’ve just spent something like fifty hours maddening myself with HTML and CSS to figure out how to include a second, smaller blog beside the longer standard content on this site. It just comes down to the fact that, like many bloggers, I would like to tell you all about the links that I visited this week, toss in a note about my upcoming vacation, or just tell you that nothing of any kind of importance has happened to me today. It could be a forum where I mention things that are happening in the Mexican news that have caught my eye. It might be a place where I can express an unsupported opinion. Mostly, it is a place where I can mention short little experiences that don’t resonate or change my life or teach me much, the disconnected things that were slipping by in the old standard. For example:

On Thursday, November fourth, while it was still daylight on Sunshine’s lone sick day of the year, we stood and watched hundreds and hundreds of migrating monarch butterflies tumble by level with our second floor windows. They were visible from blocks away, black dots that grew in the sky into a pair of spotted gold wings, spindly and random in the air, and then receded into dots again against Cerro de la Silla. The birds were going nuts, swooping to and fro and mostly missing; but occasionally disembodied wings would sprinkle by, leftovers like a stale fortune cookie crust. In the wind, the severed wings floated much the same way that the living butterflies did, dead but persevering.

Why should I have to do without that, just because it makes no difference to whatever else was happening that week? Just because I haven’t gotten around to writing that week yet? Jammed between our trip to Honduras and our friends Tony and Christene rotating back to the US, the butterflies were in danger of being forgotten simply because they were small and there was nowhere to fit them. Is there some reason I could not just impose the above, as is, into my journal? Yes: obsessive compulsion. I didn’t think it would look pretty to have long twenty-two hundred word posts clustered in with bulleted lists and three line sentences. I thought that would annoy me. Because of this, I created a whole new blog for that stuff, figured out how to make a new column for it to live in, and then I tried to figure out how to make it actually appear there to a greater or lesser extent. When all of this was done, I worried that the three column look would coop up longer content into a thin yardage of text scroll, making it harder than ever to read. I worried that the cluttered business of the new design would be confusing. I worried that readers might now know what the temperature was at the Monterrey airport (which is located in the mildly cooler town of Apodaca). The worries snowballed, and I attempted to solve every one of them.

Now it is next week somehow, and I can tell it is daytime because I have the screen tilted away from the window reflection. I am just about done with this. In preparation for the roll-out, the new build, the encroaching go-live date, I wanted to write this down in explanation, even if it varies form the strictest reading of the style book. I was worried that I was alienating my few readers through my inability to keep up with the old blog right. The answer to this problems seems to be to make a bigger blog—two blogs—this I should be able to keep up with no problem. But the answer is also to stay engaged by not restricting myself from sillier, easier content more enjoyable, at times, to both you and me. Star: be interesting.

Copious Notes © the Author

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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Wanders of the World


The waiting was supposed to be the tricky part, but we made it. One week after submitting our bid list we know where Sunshine is to be posted in 2007. We are elated about it. 1,249 words.

[NL]—Friday we submitted our official bid proposal to the proper authorities, and sat back to wait. I very much handled this wait the way I predicted I would: I spent many hours a day cruising online photos of the places we’d included on our list while daydreaming about heading off to one or another of them. I worked my way slowly through the whole list (save one or two), and then started in at the beginning again. Sunshine has handled it more like we were told we would: she wants to know where the hell we are going and to get the suspense over with. I would imagine that this comes as no shock to anyone who has seen her on the days leading up to her birthday.

In the days between Friday and now, we have been studiously following the traffic on the bid computer to see what positions are garnering the most attention. Many of the posh posts we had assumed high equity bidders would go for remained unassigned but showed heavy traffic, indicating many interested parties had listed them. Places like Canberra, Australia and Montevideo, Paraguay were showing that as many as thirty or thirty five bidders. London and Amsterdam were getting equally fought over. We had included none of these destinations on our list for just this very reason, higher equity employees would get them all. Some of the posts that we had expected to be included in the list above were not so vied for, though. Island paradises like Praia, Cape Verde and Port Luis, Mauritius were seeing some interest, but nothing like Canada, or the Hague. I suspect it is because paradise is sometimes hard to access by direct flight to a major airport. Cape Verde had been on our list, and Mauritius had not. By Mardi Gras, all of the positions we were bidding on had at least five or six interested others.

By Wednesday, the post positions for the bidders with the highest equity were assigned, and since Sunshine was regularly checking the bid computer, we were watching positions disappear as they were given away. I got an update call late Monday afternoon letting me know that of all the posts granted that day, only four had been on our list. Coincidentally, they were my four least favorite positions we’d bid, and while I would have lived in any of them, I was happier that in this first round the list had narrowed to something more acutely desirable. Yesterday, Sunshine called me in the late afternoon again and told me of more positions snatched from our jaws. After that first day, this news was more upsetting: every new post dropped from possibility was a new post I had really secretly wanted to have most, and it hurt to lose it to someone else. Finally, early this afternoon, Sunshine called to let me know that she had gotten the official email that we were to be assigned Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, effective sometime around October 2007. This was incredible news since Vietnam had been our top choice; and, frankly, when we had watched the position disappear off the list yesterday afternoon, we assumed it was to a bidder with five percent more equity than we have. We’d given up on Ho Chi Minh. I suspect that it is possible we never did know what was going on as well as we thought we did.

This is great. Heading off to Vietnam for two years is a dream come true. I was at home bracing myself to be excited about Yekaterinburg, Russia or Skopje, Macedonia; but what I really wanted was Vietnam all along. I had actually started getting upset when I heard that Dar-Es-Salaam was going to another bidder, but now Vietnam is my favorite place in the world, again. And it is more than just Vietnam to get excited about (not that it would need to be, with Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, Danang, China Beach the Mekong Delta and Halong Bay in Vietnam), but the entire region. I’ll get to go to Laos and Thailand while I am there, Myanmar and China and Malaysia and Cambodia. Flights we take are so long, that it is generally taken for granted that passengers will stop on the way for a day or two of rest before getting back on the plane. These places will be in Bangkok or Hong Kong or Singapore. Our R&R leave, when we get it about halfway through our tour, will be in Sydney, Australia. There is just no bad news.

We are going to the other side of the world.

Tonight we celebrated at our favorite little neighborhood half Spanish restaurant. We just kept saying, “Vietnam, man! Viet-fucking-nam!” Now that it is late and all of this has, to some degree, sunk in, I realize that I really know very little about Vietnam. I’ve known some people from there, and some more from the SE Asian region. I’ve eaten a lot of what we call “Vietnamese Food” in the US, but I know enough about the cultural and folkloric qualities of cuisine to be suspicious of this actually baring much resemblance to the food I will find in-country. I have seen a number of Vietnamese movies that I have loved, and my images and impressions and fantasies of life there come from these: lush and hot tropical green surroundings cut with teeming masses of rickshaws and pedestrians selling street corner things and monkeys and durian and pointy little hats. Many of the people I know, family and friends, I’m afraid have images from movies, too—or newsreels, or grainy black and white newspaper photos: olive drab Hueys with open doors settle near the plume of smoke and the POV jumps up and down while young men with rucksacks jump and run for the whipping trees. Vietnam will resist these preconceptions. I expect it to.

The minute I found out about Vietnam, I began downloading photos from the internet. I downloaded hundreds, some taken before I was born, others within the last few months. They are a confused array of wide streets and muddy rivers and French colonial architecture, low CC motor bikes and coffee shops and piles of mud and rain up to here for six months every year. But I have to wait for the real learning to begin. Our travel guides and written materials will show up mail-order, and we will get a glimpse of other westerners’ ideas about, and reactions to, and opinions of the country itself. Then, in early 2007, Sunshine will begin Vietnamese language and SE Asian Cultural classes in DC. Eventually, we will get on a plane and find ourselves in the hustle and bombast of downtown Saigon, and from that moment on we will not be able to throw a rock and hit something we could have reasonably prepared ourselves for. When Sunshine first was offered this job, and I first found out that this was what my future was going to be, I had big dreams of my life changing completely: the world around me going from pole to pole and changing extremely from one day to the next. This fantasy was left unfulfilled when we were put in Monterrey, no matter how much I have grown to like this place. Now I can see the kind of thing I was wanting there on the horizon, and I am just in love with it. I love it.

Here is the Wikipedia entry on Ho Chi Minh City

Official tourism site for Ho Chi Minh City (in English)

Official tourism site for Vietnam (in English)

Here, here, here, or here for good Ho Chi Minh City photos

Southeast Asia photo illus. © the Author

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It's that time again. Beginner headquarters is picking-up house and relocating back to the United States on July twenty-fifth, 2009, to enjoy a month at home with family and friends. By the end of August we'll have set-up a semi-permanent household in Washington, DC, near the Cleveland Park metro stop on the red line. [DC metro map] Then, sometime after Labor Day, our boxes and boxes of stuff should catch up with us. After that it'll be smooth sailing till sometime in July 2010, when we will be moving abroad again, this time to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina for a little real winter.

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