WWJD? No, seriously.

4 02 2014

Apparently my soul is going to burn for all eternity in a fiery hell while my boyfriend’s soul enjoys basking in the eternal light of the golden city. I’d ask hell what’s up with that, but currently, that feels cliché.

Religion is an incredibly sensitive subject for most people, myself included. I don’t pretend to be anything other than Switzerland in most religious conversations. Any judgment I pass on a bouquet of religious doctrine is about as informed and  thoroughly thoughtful as proclaiming, with no particular authority, “Yeah, that Joel Osteen guy, he’s a big douche.” That’s where it ends for me. It gets a laugh from people who might agree and it’s dumb enough to not legitimately threaten any Christians. My views on religion are completely unsubstantiated, probably incorrect, and reinforced by a populace of wacko hypocrites. Sure, I know and respect some wonderfully religious people—Christian, Witness, Catholic and probably a few Muslim extremists—but I’ve never pretended to be a model citizen, let alone a religious martyr. Judge not yet ye be judged.

So when my boyfriend told me a few days ago that he had been saved, I was at a loss for words.


I felt like Rex 😦

We read fantasy, enjoy discussing society, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, share a cynical view of the world and a uniquely obsessive fondness for one another. It’s disgusting, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. So how would you feel if suddenly using the F word produced a bitter taste in your lover’s mouth?

He had been going to apologetics classes and church services for a while. He’s in Afghanistan right now and I guess that makes sense. He’s one of the most intelligent people I know and while I miss him dearly, they’re lucky to have him because he’s doing a world of good out there with his boys. I don’t know exactly when his quest for truth manifested into said activates. Nor was I was ever threatened by his search until his salvation suddenly compromised my perception of our equal partnership and general appreciation for magic.

I felt left behind. I felt self-concious. It was like my best friend suddenly started speaking Latin, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this but I don’t know how to speak Latin.

While I’m not a religious person, I have at one time or another been so moved by beauty that I can hardly breath. I’ve tried to write about it, but like faith, it’s something that can’t be tangibly held or coveted without loosing its intrinsic excellence. I’ve given up on that idea and pay no attention to the opinion of the multitude—know thyself.

And I know that beauty and truth and love can exist in the world despite how often it seems easier to believe that humans are just another species on this planet waiting out their inevitable extinction. My relationship with him makes me believe in the good and to see him smile or make him laugh is worth any fire and brimstone that may await me on the other side. But I feared that might not be enough.


I didn’t pray. I steeped—in a warming concentration of the worst possible feelings known to the human experience: jealousy, anger, resentment and above all fear. This is where I become my best impersonation of Hemingway. I see everything in shades of blue and grey, lose my appetite and suppress the urge to drink scotch and chain smoke. I reminisce about The Running of the Bulls in Spain, though I have no particular recollection of ever being there. I try to pretend I’m okay when I’m not until those crazy, bovine mother***** push me to feel something I don’t want to feel.

At the time, it felt like it would be safer to steep than try to understand his choice. But safe has very little to do with relationships. More importantly, I realized that his salvation has nothing to do with me. It’s about him and his journey, not mine. I know who I am.  It’s other people that scare the s*** out of me. And when it’s your best friend, your parents, your boss or your gorgeous boyfriend that’s doing the scaring, it can be really f****** scary.

We like people to behave the way we expect them to behave, do the things they normally do and so on. It gives order to relationships and insight to guide our interactions. I was sitting at my work desk not working when I realized I was being an idiot.

If I ever want to get anywhere in relationships, I have to let people change. I should support people’s self-discovery not confine them with expectations. I was scared that our relationship would change because he was changing. How many times have you ever been in a relationship and thought to yourself, “they just wont let me be who I am”? I’m taking steps to encourage change rather it define my relationship.

I told him all of this, and like a good Christian, he explained to me that nothing I’d ever known about Christianity was correct.

I was saved.


Feliz Navidad: Catching the Spirit in Mexico

13 12 2011

Nothing says Christmas in southern California, like a visit to Mexico. You’re reminded of the spirit of giving because most of the people there live well below the poverty line, so you can’t but accept humility and appreciate everything you have that’s separated by the iron wall cutting through the natural beauty of the Pacific Coast. Crossing into Tijuana, my cell phone lost signal faster than the drug cartels push a kilo of coke. Which is pretty fast I hear. My best friend advised me that driving down to some remote spot between Ensenada and Rosarito was not a good idea. She reminded me that there have been repeated stories of violence and gang warfare all throughout Mexico for the past decade. But where she saw an intimidating and potentially life threatening experience, I saw a chance to embrace my perpetual masochism, and get my third world country on. This certainly wasn’t the first time.

There are several ways to tempt death in Mexico. Driving is a huge one, people down there don’t give a damn if you have insurance. Eating the food. Sanitation standards are different if not nonexistent. Drinking the water is not advised so I stick to beer, which might lead to the ingestion of small amounts of rust, or other carcinogenic impurities because they reuse glass bottles and don’t clean them. And then there’s the police force, who are bent, twisted mo-fo’s that’ll take you for everything you’re worth. Useful tip: keep an extra forty bucks in your shoe. So whether you buy useless trinkets from an eight-year-old peddling the street, or you’re forced to give a cop everything you have, the spirit is all around you in Mexico.

But I’m not an idiot. I would never go to Mexico by myself, or with a group of white people. Instead, I went with three Mexicans. If you don’t have any Mexican friends I recommend that you get some or at least hire some for the trip, it makes life a lot easier and you’re in for a good time. Mexican people love to socialize over long meals and exponential drinking.

We played chicken a few times with oncoming traffic, escaped collision by mere inches. We rolled past check points where soldiers stood at the ready with semi-automatic weapons, loaded or not, they made you stare. And about an hour after we crossed the border, we crept slowly down the dirt road that lead to our destination, a seaside spot that felt like a secret.

The view was spectacular, tide pools framed in black rocks lead our eyes out to sea, the sun slowly setting into a dark wall of clouds sitting on the horizon. A man in the distance was scouring the rocks for muscles or clams. The sun, on fire, echoed the heat coming off a green chili and shrimp dish that I pretended wasn’t so spicy. We drank with the waiter, who was probably underage, and told embarrassing stories about each other. The sun went down and we all stopped.

It’s moments like these, when the world seems to stop spinning, that I feel the happiest. I love the ocean because it’s a natural reminder of how small we are. Waves crashing onto rocks supposes a metaphorical perspective. A cleansing of the old, and hope for the future. It’s something you feel, not something you can ever know. This is what the season is all about. So forget the gifts, tell the people you care about, that you care about them. Make some Mexican friends and go to Mexico.

Happy Holidays everyone. I wish you love and beautiful sunsets.


30 10 2011

The older I get the more I hate popular idioms. Mostly because people use them when they have nothing thoughtful to say, and they tend to stay with you for while. And this week, my first week home, I found myself repeating some useless advice in my head: Home is where the heart is. And I have no idea why I kept saying it. Maybe because somehow, I thought if I repeated it enough I might find some resolution to the way I am feeling.

I feel like I have been living out of a suitcase for the past fifteen months. I’ve unloaded a lot possessions along the way and it feels amazing to be so light. I packed for three weeks of European travel in about fifteen minutes. But what is weighing me down is this transient shift battling against my former, very anchored, habitual self. I get the sense that most people enjoy some level of stability or permanency; a sense of what is to come, at least an idea of how to speculate ones future. But when you barely have an address, when you pick up three different coin currencies off the bottom of the washing machine, look at them in your hand, you start to wonder: what am I doing? And if and when you figure it out, you wonder even more if you made the right decision.

I was lost. Somewhere between jobs, between countries, between thoughts on what I was going to do next. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could miss home when they’re touring through one of the most beautiful places on the planet: the French Riviera is beautiful. But somehow, while walking past the grand fountains in front of the infamous Monte Carlo Casino, I realized, I had no idea where I was. A ride along the Amalfi Coast is said to be a religious experience, but I wasn’t looking for God. I was thinking about home-whatever that means, my future, my past, and from time to time flirting with my super hot Italian cab driver, Antonio Sabato.

Missing home when you’re traveling is common I suppose; a natural reaction to stress, the unfamiliar. But when you finally make it back, wherever you came from, will it feel like home? Can we look into the faces of the people we love and expect the same kind of understanding that we learned to discover in ourselves? I think to some extent we can, but for anyone who has ever gone solo, attempted to question the fabric of their comfort, returning home feels less like returning and more like an invasion on static memories that have been in motion the whole time you were gone. Do I fit in here? Home hasn’t made sense to me for a long time, I left home because I didn’t understand it then. And in my search for clarity, I found more confusion. The more you learn about something the more you realize you know nothing about it at all. So more confused than ever, I’m in southern California looking for full-time work in a highly competitive field, and questioning the whole damn thing. I feel weird in a familiar place.

But you know what they say, time heals all wounds. That’s the annoying thing about idioms, they mean different things to different people. This is a common take: Home is a place where regardless of its make-up, feels good, feels the best to whoever has made it a home. It doesn’t mean you live with your family or friends, it’s simply the place or the people who you love to be around because it makes you the happiest. And I guess that’s why I feel so bothered by the whole notion. My heart doesn’t feel like it belongs anywhere in particular. I think I left a big piece of it in Korea. I definitely gave some of it up in Barcelona and Italy. And I feel like I have so much more of it to give, that it’s terrifying to think of it locked up inside a home. I’ve never been more scared in my whole life. Not even when I thought I was going to die in Vietnam from anaphylaxis shock. So after repeating the phrase a million times this week, wondering if there was some mystical power that would emerge from its intrinsic nature, I realized: I need to be a house.

Don’t Stop and Never Run

21 09 2011

Part VI: The gypsy

I like to shower twice a day. And I’m okay with that.

I woke up to sunlight and rice patty fields. It was morning. We were alive and as far as I could tell I didn’t have lice. Somehow I had fallen asleep with my head in my lap. My butt was asleep and my back hurt. Are we close? We stopped to go to the bathroom and stretch our legs. It was 8:00 a.m. and from  near-by conversation I gathered only about an hour or so away from Nha Trang. Anxious, time passed quickly as the scenery unfolded. Slowly, we crept down the side of a mountain covered in green jungle. To the east, an unobstructed horizon of ocean, gray with mist. A black water buffalo pulled a man driving a broken wagon; following the road down into a marina of torn and  faded fishing boats. We had arrived.

Mike and I were exhausted. It was plain to see on both our faces. I had been extra weight the whole night, and we were both getting sick of this tedious pace. The sleeper bus catastrophe mixed with the final bits of medicated delirium still working its way out of my system, were pushing us towards a schism.

We were sitting across from each other, bowls of pho steaming up my sunglasses. It was breakfast time and I was in the mood for a fight. Before our trip, Mike had gone through an emotional break up. But while adventuring through Vietnam, he had expressed some revelations about his feelings, and was determined to confide in her face-to-face today at the airport in Nha Trang; a meeting that seemed romantic and coincidental, but wasn’t. Shut up Mike. He had been practicing his lines over and over. I’m really over hearing about this Mike. Justifying his mistakes and calculating his comeback. Mike, I’m not sure this is a good idea. Like Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, there would be Italian opera, and doves would fly. His mind painted pictures of grandeur that made me want to vomit. SHUT THE FUCK UP MIKE! I lost it. I need some space. I needed some time to myself. I told Mike I would find him in two days, and we would go from there. What are you going to do? At that point I had no idea, but I looked out at the crystal blue water and had a good feeling that I would be fine.

Alone in a bed, I slept the most glorious sleep of all sleeps. I splurged a bit on the room, but I didn’t care sprawled out on the king bed of cool cotton sheets. I turned the air-conditioning down so low I asked for more blankets. Yes. This is vacation. It was night when I woke up. The streets looked less crowded from the 14th floor window. I wandered through the neighborhood lit up in neon lights, cracking and buzzing, flickering on and off. It was raining, but it was so hot that nothing was wet. I had no idea what day it was or what time of evening, I just walked until I got hungry, sat down at a cafe and ordered an espresso. The hot sting of caffeine felt good. I listened to some French men on the patio speak the romance language, as the rain kept coming down. I wrote in my journal, listened to some music and paid my bill. I bought some ice cream around the corner and tried to eat it before it melted all over my hand. This was my pace.

Sometime the next day, after sunning too much on the beach and shopping, the phone rang in my room. Come have coffee with us. Feeling fixed for company, I was all for it and bounced down to the lobby ready for the beach. Romeo and Juliet were downstairs with someone I didn’t know. A young Vietnamese/American man who spoke natively, and had been gypsie-ing around Vietnam for almost a year, pausing the last few months to call Nha Trang home; Juliet apparently had a friend in Vietnam. I enjoyed him right away. He was well-traveled and educated, on the edge of being a hipster, but without the Rayban sunglasses and meaningless tattoos. He’s so pretentious. Mike didn’t care for him, but I was sure that had more to do with Mike’s romantic rendezvous including another set of balls.  Or maybe the doves didn’t show up. I don’t know. Over coffee and cigarettes the four of us exchanged funny tales of travel, taking in the beautiful scene from a garden table.

The gypsy promised us an authentic Vietnamese dining experience, so again we braved from sidewalk to sidewalk. Don’t stop, and never run. Huh? That’s how you should cross the street. He said it so matter-of-fact that I was almost insulted. But the gypsy is an experienced backpacker and knows what he was talking about. It worked. All of a sudden the stream of motor bikes didn’t seem so intimidating. I watched him and pretended to have the same confidence in my flip-flops. He was right. I thought this trick was spectacular. Mike was rolling his eyes.

We moved up a tight alley and stopped at a busy corner. An old washing drum had been transformed into a fire pit under a chicken-wire  grill. Now we’re talking. Rocky shell-fish was poured onto the flames peaking up thought the wire, snapping and cracking the sand and weeds from the clams, muscles, and snails. Dry and wet seasoning buckets were scattered about the sidewalk while a quick-handed old man artfully pinched out just the right amount onto the steaming meat. The smell of smoke mixed with salts, garlic and fresh-cut lemon grass meant one thing: this was going to be good. We sat around a small platsic-tea-party-table, Mike’s legs almost to his chest, and waited for our first course while we enjoyed a cool, sweet beverage made from seaweed. Intimidating in dark green, the gypsy said it was a health staple for locals and a popular dinner drink. It definitely tasted healthy, I’ll give him that. An old woman placed a bucket under our table and dinner was served. Small plastic plates covered in newspaper soaked up the runny juices and flavored oils spilling out the shell beds. Grilled muscles and oysters on the half shell, delicately dusted with crushed cashew and green onion. I burnt my lip a little as I sucked one down. Fantastic. It had the simple taste of ocean that all shell-fish possess, but rarely keep after freezing, or over-saucing. The lemon grass, oil, and garlic covering the clams and mussels was amazing, clearly from the hand of a cook who had been doing this a very long time. Next, sea snails served in a bowl of warm coconut milk. The trick is to suck it out really fast, and really hard. The sun was going down behind the buildings. Our bucket was getting full.  We ate and laughed,  savoring a truly unforgettable meal.

Nha Trang is gorgeous through and through; it penetrates with a gritty vibe of  lazy beach living. Time is lost under warm waves of ocean, the sun and tide a useful reminder to put on more sunscreen. It’s a beauty that teaches you to tell time with your body and not through the electronic extensions that define our modern time. Sleep when you’re tired. Eat when you’re hungry. Get wet when you’re hot. After the first night I thought: I could stay here forever. But I knew that wasn’t true. I could never be like the gypsy. As romantic as the idea sounded, I could never go long periods of time without work, without order or routine. I’m a creature of habit, not one of vicarious adventures on sleeper busses. I don’t need designer hand bags, but I like to shower twice a day, and I’m okay with that. Our adventure in Vietnam was coming to a close. Mike and I had seen some amazing places, faced relative uncertainty, and met wonderful people in the mix of disaster. The hectic race down the coast of Vietnam finally silenced by the stillness of Nha Trang; the timeless experience of sharing a slow meal, watching the sunset, smiling with strangers, and in the most simple way of expressing: just being alive. We run because it feels safer than looking around to consider where we are. We miss moments between the places or things we run to. Miss it all because we were so sure the grass would be greener in Nha Trang. And sometimes it is. Sometimes when we get there it’s everything you thought it would be. But likely, we soon find ourselves running off again, looking for something that keeps us moving all the time. And we can’t stop.

The gypsy had one more trick up his sleeve. We are going to a party. Where? On the beach. The night was cool in breeze, stars out in purple sky. Tall palms swayed in a seductive motion towards the shore. A huge white canopy had been erected like a circus tent over a large circle of beach, connecting a bar from the street down a dark path to a crowd of people dancing barefoot in the sand. It was like zion had moved off the hill and taken three hits of ecstasy; if God is a DJ, He was throwing this party. The tent glowed purple in black lights while colored beams of all kinds shot across the night air, arms reaching up, down tempo to an electro/house beat. There was only one problem. Mike and I had to catch a train to Ho Chi Mihn city at 7:00 a.m.. We both knew there was only one thing to do, and it started with a bucket of Long Island Ice Tea. Romeo and Juliet grabbed at each other playfully, while I toasted the gypsy to a wonderful evening. The four of us danced on the beach flipping up fans of sand. Mike put his arm around me and we smiled, laughing about our argument the day before. We raised our glasses. Well, at least we can sleep on the train. I laughed and pushed him to dance. Tomorrow could wait, right now all I could think about was how awesome it was that they were playing Daft Punk.




Dedicated to Michael Peterson. Thank you.

Don’t Stop and Never Run

29 08 2011

Part V: Sleeper Bus

I kept telling myself that this would be really funny someday.

The day we left Da Nang, all of my nervous hallucinations came to fruition. The road to Nha Trang was through the countryside, a dirt road with green jungle on both sides; uneven, steep, dark and, scary. Besides the rusty train tracks that connect the north and south, Vietnam lacks a comprehensive system of direct roadways into dozens of cities. But I had done a great bit of reading about traveling down the coast of Vietnam and was confident that an overnight sleeping bus would be perfect for getting us to Nha Trang. We could spend all day in Da Nang, sleep on the bus for 12 hours and wake up refreshed and ready to explore. How easy this sounded in my head.

The woman at the station was apathetic to our appointment, and didn’t see any problem with us waiting until the following day to travel to Nha Trang. But Mike was determined. He had been pining all week over his ex-girlfriend who was due to arrive in Nha Trang the same day, so the plan was to be there when she arrived and sweep her off her feet. I supported his effort, but his romantic idealism made me want to kill myself. Fortunately I was still high as a kite from taking excessive amounts of  my perception, so I wasn’t in any position to attempt and achieve a successful suicide. A few phone calls later the woman smiled, satisfied with a solution to what Mike was now regarding a problem of national importance. She said a van was on its way, and that the van would take us to the neighboring city of Hoi An, where we could catch a sleeper bus headed for Nha  Trang. Fine. Mike was restless, pacing back and forth, anxious to get to his princess. I was sitting in a chair sweating, staring at a wall, fading in and out of consciousness. I don’t remember the drive into Hoi An.

As soon as I fell out of the van I knew something was horribly wrong. About 30 foreigners speaking in languages from all over the world were spilling out of the booking office. They looked exhausted, falling over their bags, sitting and sleeping on each other. A family with two young children sat close to the desk of the operator, the mother fanning herself and son with a magazine. How long had they been here? By now it was well into the evening, and it was clear we were going to be late. The people in the office offered little consolation. When is the bus coming? Soon, very soon. But when? Soon. I didn’t know where we were, or how long we would be there, so Mike decided-for both of us-to get some dinner. The cafe food was boring and over-priced. The appeal might have been the free WiFi or western nuance, but as I fidgeted over my rice and vegetables, I couldn’t help but wish he had eaten across the street, on the little-plastic-tea-party-tables, lined in front of an outdoor kitchen where I knew the pho was being prepared by a women who didn’t care at all about presumptuous smears of sauce across a plate. Is this ketchup? Probably no WiFi, but I’m easy to please.

As the night wore on, we were making friends with people who like us, had been duped by this travel agency. But unlike us, most of these backpackers had been in Vietnam for sometime and were planning on staying. Two icy girls from France were taking a month-long holiday through the country, which put into perspective-yet again, how absurdly ambitions our itinerary was. But we had come this far, and I wasn’t about to give up just because some French girl in floral cotton pants and Keds was making me feel like a jerk for trying to keep a schedule. But our schedule was beginning to feel pointless, so at about 9:00 p.m. and after a handful of  blue and white pills,  I resolved to be content with the evening, however it went down. We would eventually leave, eventually arrive, and I would be fine; I was already starting to feel better. The medicine was working. From the booking office we boarded two small buses with our new friends and headed to yet another location where supposedly the large sleeper bus was waiting. To my surprise there it was, a double-decker, parked and waiting like an oasis in the desert. My backpack suddenly felt less heavy. After 7 hours of waiting around, we were finally on our way.

The sleeper bus is a unique experience; one I hope to never have again. It smells like hot vinyl and plastic, the ball pit at a Mc Donalds more specifically, and probably just as unsanitary. Down the length of the bus were two very slim isles that separated three rows of bunk beds. The beds are shorter than an adults average height and slant up so that the legs of one person fit under another persons back and head. They are padded like examination tables at a hospital and have the same cold quality. Each bed is set with a blanket and a pillow. Instantly I started telling myself that someday this would be really funny; that someday I would tell my children that I had been a badass in my youth and traveled via slave bus through Vietcong jungles and lived despite a brush with pubic lice and ring worm. But in this moment, I was terrified. I sat down on the bed and looked to my right where an old Vietnamese man was nestled tightly beside me. Hello. Behind me the French girl was wrapping herself in a lightweight sleeping bag, something I’m sure experienced backpackers carry with them. This French girl was really starting to piss me off. I was exhausted, so  instead of  freaking out, I decided to try to relax and make the most of a weird situation. The old man next to me was breathing hard and I could feel it on my neck. Yes. This will be hilarious. Televisions flipped down and played Vietnamese music videos. How do people sleep with these on? I looked at the French girl now reading a book with a light clipped to the hard cover. I really don’t like her. Sometime in the middle of the night I fell asleep.

What’s going on? I had no idea what time it was. It was still pitch black which meant that we hadn’t gone far and that I was still tired. We were on the side of the road somewhere down a straight dirt path with no lights. They were dumping our bags out from under the bus. What time is it? It was 3:00 a.m. and the bus driver was informing us that we needed to wait at this location for another bus that would be coming through to take us the rest of the way. I was so tired and beyond frustration that nothing could surprise or upset me at this point. Whatever. The bus pulled away, and me and about 28 other people were on the side of the road waiting, again. Waiting to live, waiting to die, I had no idea.

And then things got worse. Twenty minutes later, instead of a sleeper bus, two vans rolled up. No fucking way. We still had 8 hours of road to lay down. The men were explaining to us that there wasn’t going to be a sleeper bus to Nha Trang. This was our bus, two small vans that probably could fit 12 people comfortably if they weren’t also carrying backpacks and other luggage. We were 28 people and 28 bags. No way. Even if we could all fit, how were we supposed to endure 8 hours of rough terrain. I shouldn’t have asked that question. I was in the very back between Mike and a girl from western Europe. My knees were almost to my chest, I scrunched up on bags and held my breath when they tried to slid the van door closed. No way. But they just kept shoving people in, forcing us to double up on seats and share our personal space in ways I never dreamed possible with strangers. Mike was visibly in pain. This is going to be really funny someday.

Don’t Stop and Never Run

24 08 2011

Part III: Dead in the Road

A real life speakeasy!

An hour southeast from the airport we were headed into the famous French Quarter of Hanoi, known for the beautiful landscapes surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake, museums, architectural charm with modern convenience. The closer we got to our destination, the more frequently I held my breath as motor bikes weaved between trucks and cars sharing a narrow dirt road. Our cab driver’s foot was  sporadic and aggressive, but I had no choice but to trust that he had braved these uneven roads many nights before and lived. Then, just as I began to convince myself I wasn’t going to die, I saw a man on a motor bike not twenty feet from my back seat window, fly and land face down in the road, his head smashed, his bike sliding alongside him. Our car slowed to a crawl as we passed him and a large crowd of people staring and snapping pictures of the accident on their phones. I looked away immediately, and closing my eyes I told Mike I had changed my mind: I don’t want to ride on a motor bike anymore.

Admittedly, I know very little about Vietnamese history, and even less about its modern political and cultural conscience.  Having some experience living in a country that’s divided geographically and ideologically, I should have known that northern Vietnam would be distinct from the south, but like so many things on the trip so far, assumptions were becoming somewhat of a novelty.

For one thing, northern Vietnam seemed less friendly, less oriented toward the tourist. The people wore a hardness locked deep in their stares; down right terrifying when holding a semi-automatic weapon. Oh my God! Why is that guy looking at us? The people of Hanoi seemed far more pressed to make a deal, even if it meant lying. I could literally see the lies falling out from the bookies mouth, ripping me off in broad day light. But when you don’t speak the same language, it’s always a slanted conversation. Spoken English is less frequent in the north. In contrast, I was astonished by how fluent many of the people were in the south.

Hanoi’s main attractions were everything you would expect from a Lonely Planet description, but on the fringes it was clear that the city was desperately impoverished. Children ran around with no shoes on selling cigarettes, the elderly were hunched under ripped tarps to escape the sun, all while motor bikes tore through any sense of calm the city had to offer. This is fucking crazy. It was hot, and even as I strolled around the lake, I could feel the tension of people who were barely getting by; confronted with people who come from far away places to take pictures of  Uncle Ho, a political figure whose legacy is arguably the misery the poor in Vietnam suffer.

I became incredibly self-conscience of this economic inequality one afternoon. Lazily walking down a thin bit of road not consumed with motorists, Mike and I were window shopping and taking in the hectic rhythm these people call home. I think everyone who visits a poor foreign country likes to try their hand at a little friendly bargaining; and prices in Vietnam are considerably adjusted to match how much money the merchant could guess you were carrying, so it’s expected that you counter any offer that seems unreasonable. But I think there is an art to this, because the last thing a foreigner should do while traveling as a guest in someone elses country is disrespect a persons livelihood by teetering business power away from the merchant. Mike was going back and forth with a  woman over the price of a pair of Nike flip-flop sandals. He was pretty sure that the price was too high, and also not convinced that sandals had not previously been worn. He refused her set price and began to walk away. She quickly crumbled and called him back. The currency exchange in Vietnam is substantial and difficult to keep track of, especially if you’re like me, horrible with basic arithmetic. So to calculate the figures he busted out his iPhone 4 and slid open an application that converts Vietnam’s dong into U.S. dollars. He finally agreed to a price, paid the woman and walked away victorious. I had to say something. Don’t do that! I couldn’t help but mention that I thought it was crazy that he use a six hundred-dollar phone to determine if this poor woman was nickel and dime-ing him. I think he ended up paying 9 dollars for the sandals.

Another significant difference between the north and the south is the curfew. At about midnight, everything in Hanoi shut down. Windows barred, doors closed, lights off. This was a striking experience having come from Seoul, where literally the city never sleeps. But just like that, we found ourselves walking in the abandoned streets of the French Quarter, hungry and wishing we had bought beer for our hotel room. But as luck would have it, a friend of Mikes was living in Hanoi, and had contacted him through the hotel. She offered to take us out. Out where?

Ducking down under the mechanical gate that covered the front door and windows, we were suddenly inside a lively bar with several foreigners speaking English, mostly with accents from parts of Europe. A real life speakeasy! The lights were low, the music just above a hum, but it was good music; they served mediocre bar food and most importantly, they had beer. We sat in a party of five on a second story loft overlooking the heavy wood bar. I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin from my face as I became completely swept up in my imagination. I contemplated what would happen should we be discovered. I felt like a pirate, an outlaw, soaking in my imaginary rebellion almost as fast as the second round of cold beers. Mike’s friend was a lovely host, she came with company, none of whom can I recall the names of. Exchanging stories of travel and teaching abroad it was an intimate reminder of why I had moved to Korea in the first place: to meet people who had the balls to do something different, who had something to say about the world we live in. When it was time to leave, we slipped out a trap door with more locks on it than I could count. The streets were dead in static mist, still warm from the afternoon. I wanted to take a shower. It had been another long day.

Don’t Stop and Never Run

23 08 2011

Part II: Sanitation is Overrated

This would be good for me: I would train my immune system to withstand third world bacteria.

Motor bikes zipped through intersections, up onto sidewalks, and through alley-ways. Are they honking at me? A friend had warned me about crossing the streets in Vietnam, and within the first 30 seconds of seeing the chaos I understood why. As we dodged, stopped, took two steps forward, one back, and ran our way from sidewalk to sidewalk, I was wondering what else here might exceed my expectations.

Wandering about District 1, known mostly for being the most expensive ward in Ho Chi Minh, we finally came into one of the city’s notable crossings: Ben Thanh Market. There was nothing comfortable about shopping in this fair. People everywhere, pulling and pushing you to buy trinkets and knickknacks of every variety. The air was hot and unfamiliar smells lingered around every pile of souvenir t-shirts. But the bustle was lively, foreigners and local merchants mashed up against each other, shouting prices back and forth in a rise of noise. The make-shift  booths were so packed together I could barely make it through an aisle without my backpack taking down a tower of knock-off sunglasses. Through the maze of fabrics, jewelry, and wood carvings, we finally came to one side of the building that opened  to an outdoor  aquarium. The alley smelled of dead fish and other ocean life still swimming in tubs lined up along the walkway. Small fish, squid, crabs, you name it, where splashing around as men and woman cut and cleaned unidentifiable parts; washing the guts down onto the floor and into the sewer. I saw rats the size of possums ducking in and out of view as I clicked away on my camera. This is awesome! In the adjacent building the same seafood was being prepared in steaming bowls of soup, rolled into rice paper, and layered into fresh baguettes. It was time for lunch.

I’ve always been pretty adventurous when it comes to cuisine, but the adventure in Vietnam surely begins with a lack of sanitation standards. This is not your mother’s kitchen. It doesn’t smell like Lysol and lemon, no one wears gloves, and you feel like an asshole for requesting a napkin. We looked through the dingy plastic display cases for something to strike us, and after a few rounds about the different bar top kitchens, we sat and pointed to our lunch. One bite in, and I quickly stopped caring that the woman behind the counter was washing her dirty dishes in a tub on the floor with water that was cold and questionably without soap. I resolved that this would be good for me: I would train my immune system to withstand third world bacteria. Plus, the earthly sweet spring rolls and peanut sauce were too delicious to stop eating.

For dessert I was immediately drawn to a counter serving what appeared to be hot-pink and acid-green in a glass. What is this?  Though found in other Asian countries, Vietnamese Che is known for being particularly sweet; a blend of coconut milk, molasses, yogurt, and a rainbow of exotic fruit. I was feeling bold and asked for the dreaded durian, a fruit known for its pungent smell and acquired taste. The fruits and preparation vary depending on the season and location. A woman poured and layered her way to the top of the glass.  It was heavenly. The soft fleshy body of the fruit was custard-like, and complimented the crushed pomelo and banana oil. Chilled with shaved ice, the drink looks amateur but has an elegant taste and texture. Refreshing and fun, I was already trying to figure out how I could get these ingredients back in California. I could make a fortune!

Happy and full from our tour through Ben Thanh Market we decided to take a break in a dark, smoke-filled café with free WiFi. This is perhaps one of my favorite things to do while traveling: people watching and getting high on caffeine. And from the tinted panoramic window it was a first-rate show. A young Vietnamese boy was playing with his older brother in front of an electronics store. Used-looking cordless phones, alarm clocks and tape decks were spilling out onto the sidewalk like a 90’s plastic flashback. I think I use to have that CD player. The tanned boy was maybe four or five-years-old and unusually porky. His round cheeks and cherub belly were fun to watch as he ran after his equally porky brother. They threw rocks at each other, garbage from the street. Then, the young boy walked to the edge of the sidewalk, lifted up his shirt, pulled out his penis and pissed into the street, fully exposed while he watched his brother run back and forth. I couldn’t stop laughing as no one seemed to notice or care. Good for him. I’m sure there comes a time in a young man’s life when this type of display becomes inappropriate, but in this moment I was glad to be in a place where children enjoyed such an unusual freedom.

As evening fell, it was time to move. We headed to a domestic terminal where we had a flight to catch into Hanoi. While waiting to pass through security a cockroach the size of a mouse ran onto the floor, scaring the waiting people into a frenzy. Finally, a man with closed-toed shoes kicked it across the room into the other line. Good. It was their problem now. Our flight to Hanoi was delayed, which again sparked my anxiety into flashing images of me panhandling in rags to replace the passport I had lost after being robbed at gun point… under water. After remembering to breath, I decided to count cockroaches while Mike read his book.

About an hour before departure we took seats in the cafeteria and fueled up with some instant noodles. I had my feet up on a chair, hugging my knees and resting up for what I knew would be another long night. I noticed a man eyeing me a few times from across the tables but thought nothing of it. I was sure I looked amazing; fatigue and sweating has that effect on me. Mike went to the bathroom, and the man approached me. You should really get your feet off there. It’s incredibly rude you know. People have to sit there. I was shocked. Not because he said it in English, but because he made me feel like a jerk. And why? What had I done but rest my weary backpacker body! But shock soon turned into anger. I was pissed. How could someone be angry with me for leaning my feet on a chair when there where monster cockroaches about? How dare I? How dare he!  Even though it’s far from the cleanest or most sanitary country, the Vietnamese have serious respect for cleanliness and social grace, at least, the outward appearance of such. Mike came back from the bathroom. Did you wash your hands? No. Why would I?

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