Friday, November 20, 2009

Walking Among Ghosts

Poland is full of ghosts. Everywhere. Some invoking the warmth of a true compliment, others bearing the weight of a lie everyone seems to believe. All mysterious.

This is a recollection of my experiences among the tragic chilling whispers of those who once inhabited the land that is now Poland; drawing on visits to three different concentration camps, one former Jewish ghetto, one overgrown Jewish cemetery and one former forced labour factory. Unlike some experiences where a body can develop numbness to repeated pain for survival reasons; each visit to the locales of these ghosts elicts physical reactions which don't callous. The rapid heart rate. A sinking stomach. Clamy palms. Woozy light-headedness. Every time.


Unlike the other Polish cemeteries I have seen around town; each grave site shrouded in fresh flowers and candle lanterns, this one is different. No one comes here to visit their deceased family relatives or friends. No one is around to sweep the autumn leaves blanketing the walkways. No one to pull the moss from and level the tombstones leaning at 20 degrees. No one can trace their family line back to Samuel Stien who died in 1923. No one remembers who he is. History lost unable to be retrieved.


Against stereotypes, Hollywood can nobly raise a true story to a popular consciousness that is important to be rememberd by millions. Walking amid the remains of Schindler's Factory, the afternoon rain can't wash away disillusionment. Pastel colors can't hide the grey facades of the communist buildings in the background. Misery atop misery. The small ajoining museum traces Adolf Hitler's rise to political power and Oskar Schindler's rise to human compassion.


I'm not sure how locals can live in this scarred neighborhood. Walking past the remains of the Jewish ghetto wall everyday; can they begin to imagine their life under a Jewish visage? I feel rather uneasy taking a photo of the crumbling height of brick. Is this a photograph of a historical site or of someone's misery?


After an hour and a half on a train I arrive in the Polish town of Oswiecim. I walk to the end of town past guilded Communist apartment complexes, canary yellow forcing a smile. I reach the Museum of Aushwitz. The name is unfitting. Museums aren't associated with death. I shouldn't feel like this when I visit a museum. All the Holocaust media I have previously ingested rushes to me. The personal accounts. The textbook facts. The archived photographs. All come from this place.

It seems redundant to hire a tour guide to tell me all the textbook facts I've already read and stories that seem an insult to atrocity if not described in a survivors own words. The scenery tells it's own story. A story that alarms me with it's unabashed nakedness. The double barbed wire still encloses stark two-story brick buildings, and signs still hang in German. I hold my breath and tears to past under the iron entrance arch branded with "Arbeit macht frei". "Work brings freedom". Perhaps I feel ashamed to enter this place as a tourist, free from the despondency that it brought to thousands of people. Immediately after, a grim silence takes over.

Several of the buildings of the former prison were transferred into exhibits with informational displays and plaques written in Polish, English, and Hebrew. Basic descriptional captions become morbid.

One photo enlarged shows two young children walking merrily hand in hand along a railway platform with the caption: "On the way to death". I suddered at the unexaggerated truth.

"In this cell a Polish priest pledged to stare to death in order to save another prisoner."

"In this building several German scientists conducted human experimentation on women prisoners some who died or were maimed for life"

"Cement roller that was utilized with human power"

Others didn't need any caption at all. Behind a large glass window there was a 10 x 5 m area of: human hair. Sold to German textile factories.


Veiled by a new reality swinging back and forth on the hinges of death, I take the shuttle bus to Birkenau another camp 20 minutes away.

Looking at the railway tracks running through the middle of the vast field, this is raw. Walking along the train tracks, along the platform, it's easy to imagine the death march taken by thousands.

I enter a wooden barrack; a place that is properly suited to house horses or cows or goats. Three-tiered bunks line the walls.

I catch snippets from a group tour in English. "What you can't experience today is the smell," the guide is saying, "If you can imagine all the bodies packed into this small area it gives you a sense of how strong the odor was. An odor that could be smelled 5 km away."

If I don't already feel innundated by the sounds of my imagination, the gustatory sense completes the terrific nightmare.

At the end of the train tracks I stand at the memorial, read the inscription, and look back on the horrific mess.

"Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly jews from various countries of europe" -Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945

It's hard to imagine about one and a half million people in one place. Harder still to imagine human beings in the shape of herded goats.

Afterwards, I discovered a poem by Nobel Laureate Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, that fit my feelings:

Starvation Camp at Jaslo

Write this down. Write it. In ordinary ink
on ordinary paper: they were given no food,
all died of hunger. All. How many?
It's a large meadow. How much grass
was there per person? Write it down: I don't know.
History rounds off skeletons to the nearest zero.
A thousand and one is still a thousand.
As if that one weren't there at all:
an imaginary embryo, empty cradle,
a primer opened for no one,
air that laughs and screams and grows,
stairs for the void running down to the garden,
nobody's place in the ranks.

This is the meadow where it became flesh.
But the meadow is silent as a bribed witness.
In the sunlight. Green. Over there is a forest
for chewing wood, for drinking from under bark--
a daily helping of landscape,
until one goes blind. Up there is a bird,
that moved across lips as a shadow
of its nutritious wings. Jaws opened,
teeth would chomp.
At night a sickle would flash in the sky,
reaping dreamt-up grain for dreamt-up loaves.
Hands of blackened icons would fly in,
bearing empty goblets.

On a spit of barbed wire
a man was swaying.
They were singing with soil in their mouths. A lovely song
about the way war hits you right in the heart.
Write about the silence here.


In Lublin, I take the bus 156 4 km out of the city center to visit the Majdanek Muzeum. Concentration Camp. Prison. Death Camp. Unlike Birkenau hidden in a rural field, or Aushwitz tucked behind a small town, the barbed wire of Majdanek run along the main road. I can see small clusters of homes less than 100 meters from camp buildings. Not to mention a panaramic view of downtown Lublin.

Majdanek was one of the largest prisons and is laid out in the eerie rows of rectangular wooden barracks. I start the tourist route entering the men's bathhouse. A building where men were both cleansed and exterminated. I read the sign in the first room and gasp at the grid of shower heads above me. I quickly move on to the next room before being trampled by the horde of naked emanipated men feeling the concave where their stomachs used to be. Knowing exactly how many spoonfuls of soup is necessary for survival. A peek into the next room isn't much better. Shelves of empty Zyklon B canisters. The posion of the masses. Saving the worst for last, is the room where people were locked and Zyklon B was dispensed. With an attached small closet with a square peephole to witness murder. "Sick..." I mutter aloud in disgust and rush to exit the building. After only these three rooms, I am unsure I want to visit the rest of the camp. I sigh and realize that I must not to overtaken by ignorance. I walk along the stone road into the camp. I remember reading in a museum back in Krakow that at some of the camps the gravel paths were crushed tombstones uprooted from Jewish cemetaries. I pick up several of the stones at my feet. A couple could be fragments from the granite grave markers I have seen. Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath and move to the grass.

One of the buildings has it's door opened forebodenly. With hesitant steps I peek inside. Shoes. Hundreds. Perhaps thousands of shoes. Tall metal crates with men's, women's, and children's footwear line the sides and run through the middle of the long building. I can't bring myself to enter this building; to get lost in the infinity of history's hostage remains.

I finally made it to the back of the prison, to the creamatorium. The name gives a more positive connotation that should be allotted to a structure not of death but of annhililation. It was with great trepedation that I finally entered the open doorway, braving my imagination of being trapped in a horrific nightmare. My shadow followed me through two empty rooms until reaching the back room. Unlike the other prison buildings I entered, only my lone footsteps echoed on the cement floor. I didn't hear despairing moans, crys of pain, or even soft sad sobbing. My own breathing seemed out of place in this black hole of existance. It wasn't the brick ovens that arrested my attention. Red brick with iron castings, resembing an old-fashioned country home furnace or an 19th century bakery. It was the metal strechers sticking out of the openings. The same likeness of hospital strechers used to carry ill human beings down a infirmary corridor. This is not a cozy cottage, a bakery, or a hospital. The intersection of images suddenly shocked. My whole body started quivering as I read the short signposting to my left. The heat from the these ovens was used to heat the water used in the prison showers. The ashes were mixed in with the fertilizer that prisoners used during their forced farm labour. I glanced back at exhibit 1. This is not a replica or a reconstruction. These bricks smeared with the black smoke of signed human flesh.

Next was the masoleum. I walked up the steps, and peered under the large dome. I looked up and down the 5 m tall pile of grey ash. There was another visitor to my right. Human ash. Our eyes meet and shared a brief tight-lipped grimace. Any words would seem awkward or rude. The passing exchange was enough to communicate: This was real. This is real.

On my way out of the camp, I looked over at the black crows like vultures encircling and swooping through the expanse of field. "How do they know" I wondered, "that deaths oozes from this earth?" They must feel the same empty expired sensation I do. I wanted to tell them, "You are only looking for ghosts". Suffocating in the crowd of ghosts among us.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Long Way Home

I always take the long way home.

As I enter the final months of 2009 and the last chapter of my year spent abroad, I begin to feel the linear path of my journeys close into a circle. I am coming home. the long way. The final months of my time in Vietnam I realized that I had satisfied my curiosity for Asia, for a daily existence I imagined possible only within the glossy photographs of a National Geographic magazine. The magazines that I would pick up as a child and wonder if these images actually represented the planet Earth. I discovered that rice paddies, dusty highways full of motorbikes, and women in conical hats walking alongside water buffalo do exist. There are people on the other side of normalcy who I call friends and others still who I was connected through only by the most basic strand of humanity. I lived like a local, I lived like an ex-pat. I went cruising on motorbikes and watched the four seasons pass on a blue plastic sidewalk stool. I picked up a penchant for martial arts and unique musical instruments. I ate things I never knew were edible. In the sweltering summer heat I knew that my time in Vietnam was over. The country that once came alive for me grew a bit lackluster, indicating a quiet end; generously giving me the most vivacious Vietnam I ever knew in memories. My goals for adventure, cultural misunderstandings, uncomfortable situations, and exotic food achieved, I packed up my things and left as seamlessly as I had entered.

I always take the long way home.

Along my travels down the winding road back to the USA, I have met familiar faces and new faces who inspire new dreams and evoke a sense of humility as a young traveler. My sister. My friend. Turkish students. Grandfather backpacker. An Iraqi Swede. A Japanese Brazilian. A Finnish American. Polock Canadians. A Vietnamese Kiwi. An Italian ex-con. From Roman ruins to Turkish baths, from cathedral spires to mosque domes, from cheese fondue to middle eastern meatballs, the journey home is full of new ideas and pleasures.

I always take the long way home.

Nearing the country that was once the home of my ancestors, I begin to feel the rewards of choosing the long way. I enter a foreign land that brings me to the brink of tears with it unassuming familiarity. Images, smells, and customs that I call my own are here in this faraway territory. The old woman sitting on the bench beside me, her head tightly wrapped in her babushka. Market stalls with pungent buckets of sauerkraut ready to be sold by the kilo. A church cemetery aglow in the late autumn darkness. My heart skips a beat when I see the tiny yellow, red, and orange lanterns shrouding the peaceful resting area in a sacred cloak. Walking through the rows of headstones decorated with flowers and light, I remember that today is November 1st, All Saints Day. A holy day in the Catholic calendar commemorating all those who came before us. The hot steam of my breath that leaves me to linger over the carved Eastern European names is the only thing that separates me from these people. I look at the snow-capped mountains illuminated by the full moon, the raised crucifix glowing from the colored light. A divine peace warms me from within. I think of my Polish grandfather and grandmother. Tonight they are here with me; welcoming me to the history of home as I know it.

I always take the long way home.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Morning After

The morning after.

You know the one I'm talking about. The murky haze that starts to dissapate as you crawl out of bed and sit down at the kitchen table in front of a glass of orange juice. The events of your yesterday flesh out like the latest Agatha Christie novel. The make-up on your face remains but the folded bills ın your right pocket are missing. Was...I robbed? The sweet acidity of the orange juıce reminds you Suddenly, the clues lead you to the solution of the missing night out. The stage. The 70s cover band. The crowd. You. You dancing. You dancing while the crowd cheers. Wait...What?!

Your roommate starts to laugh. "It's true," he or she will nod. And then you know that this is the morning after.

But travel brings a different kind of morning after. One that feels 300 percent better than the night before. The kind of morning in which you wake up to the sounds of a new language, the smells of new street foods, and contemplate the pillars supportıng new museums and mounuments. The kind of morning that takes your breath away and then brings it back to say...I don't think I'm in Michigan anymore.

When to bed last night in Vienna and now I am in...Budapest?
And that rıver is...the Daunbe?
I think that woman just cursed at me in...Hungarian?

Piecing together clues but this time with a better outcome.

This is...the Black Sea? And, I'm going to swim in it? Alright!
Wait...we're standıng in line to buy tickets to the...bull fight? Awesome!
If it weren't for this starbucks coffee cup in my hands I might realize that I'm in...Hong Kong? Sweet!

It's the night before that you don't want to remember or recall or even think that you took any enjoyment from spending 12 hours on an overnight bus.

I've done the overnight trains. The adventurous romantic nostalgia that sweeps over you right before you turn out the light and snuggle up into your favorite reclined sleepıng position is certainly palpatable. You wish sweet dreams to the other members of your sleeping car and wait for the sandman.

But the sandman doesn't do sleeper buses. Not since 1978 at least. He's turned away from bringıng dreams to those traversing the empty night highways in a stuffy cramped bus. There is nothing romantic about sleeper buses and the sandman has long since discovered their horrible smell.

The rotton smell of vomit. 20 minutes into the overnight trip from Varna, Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey I hear the fırst retch before the stench. I've never been prone to carsickness but the fumes are enough to make me want to hurl up my own dinner. Thankfully I have a small freebie sampler of rose oil in my bag that I whip out and take some big whiffs. The ladies across the aisle from me are plugging their noses.

Waitıng for sleep on an overnight bus is like waitıng to get a root canal in a dentist's office. I always find myself with a strange nervous anxiety. I can never get a right position. I shift left then right then stretch my legs out. Then cross my right leg over my left. Then switch. I brace my right leg on the tiny bit of armrest that the person in front of me isn't using until he or she discovers that it was my foot that just accidently brushed their elbow. Outside is darkness. Inside is a man snoring. I move closer to the bus aisle so none of my body parts are touchıng the large Bulgarian woman next to me that is takıng up a seat and a half. I watch the digital clock at the front of the bus. I start to drift. Then the bus stops and the lights come on. I follow the crowd to the border checkpoint. Hand over my little blue booklet to the officer. "Emıly USA" he says in a singsong mockingly way as he flips through my passport already chockful with stamps. I grunt. "Yeah, and hand ıt back," I think to myself. VISA! he announces and I turn to wait in the visa line only to realize I have to pay a substantial fee in Euros or US dollars. I barely have enough. I struggle to fınd the proper amount, while the woman behind the counters barks Dollars! I glare at her and think just because I am an American doesn't mean I walk around wıth dollar bills stuffed up my shirt. I've had to deal wıth four different currencies in the last week. Give me a break. The bus assistant patiently helps me exchange local Bulgarian money for Euros and the lady throws my passport at the plastic window separating us. Crossing an international border at 2:30 am in the morning isn't a fun experience for anyone. Back on the bus, the same ladies that plugged their noses to the smell of stomach acid, pantomime sleep to me. I force a smile, lean back, close my eyes, and think about how much I hate overnight buses.

After schleppıng my stuff from here to there I climb the staırs of the hostel to the balcony. I watch the sun rise over the historic domes of Istanbul, sigh, and think:

I love the morning after.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

From Southeast Asia to Southeast Europe

It's been a long time since I last updated this blog and perhaps that is because there is too much to say and too little time to properly make a blog post about each moment of inspiration or discovery. But to zip though my summer of sultry heat oppressive nights and bank office days in Hanoi, my fall started with moving continents. Now, I have ended up in Southeast Europe. Varna, Bulgaria to be exact. A city on the western coast of the Black Sea if you want to point your finger on a globe.

I started this Europe jaunt in Cologne, Germany working my way East. Getting back to the Western world brought a relief and strange feelings of readjustment. When was the last time I drank from a public water fountain? Without the loud sputter of thousands of motorbikes even the big cities in the West seem rather peaceful. Local people look at me and start speaking the local language. Oh right, I remember, I'm not in the racial minority anymore. Or I just look a lot like a German girl. Before confidently stepping into traffic, I pause, and press the crossing button and wait until the line of transport vehicles has a red light while supressing a drive to saunter across a busy street. But pedestrian crosswalks continue to trip me up. Is this a crossing where cars will stop for me or I have to stop for them? At every intersection I enter a mental conundrum: go, stop, wait, walk, pause, wait. Ah, which one is it? It's nice not being hassled on the street to buy antique lighters, fruit, or various assortments of plastic sandals but where is the pho soup vendor? Because all I want now is to squat over a plastic stool and have my insides warmed by steaming broth. Not to mention the fact that everything seems incredibly over-priced to the standards I adapted to.

But after I realize that yes, I can drink the tap water, life is pretty good.

But back to Varna, Bulgaria. I never consciously planned to travel to Bulgaria and it remained distant enough to make me question whether or not it had it's own language. (It does. Here people speak Bulgarian and not too much English). But pulling into the decrepit dusty bus station in the border town of Ruse and having a Bulgarian friend I met on the bus from Bucharest, Romania help me buy a ticket to Varna, I feel washed over by nostalgia. If things hadn't been written in the Cyrillic alphabet, I could have been waiting for a minibus in Southeast Asia. Huddled in the corner of the bus while I cringe at the driver's breakneak pace I cannot help but feeling incredibly excited about travel again after incredibly efficient Western European trains. This is not to say that I despise any form of rules, regulations, and safety, but perhaps I have learned to appreciate and enjoy places and things that are a bit (ok, maybe a lot) rough around the edges. And that is exactly what Southeast Europe has been so far.

This coastal town is starting to boom with tourism. In the local markets there is a row devoted entirely to kitschy tourist items, Currency Exchange Bureaus on every corner, and a 20 meter length of second home real estate listings in the middle of main square. Yet with a central area that seems to be mainly comprised of pedestrian only streets and a 8 kilometer stretch of public park overlooking the Black Sea, Varna is charming enough that I don't seem to mind the washout that tourism occasionally brings. As much as I was giddy to dip my feet in the discovery of a new body of water, the Black Sea, (which to be honest, didn't seem that black to me, I would say, a deep blue) I am very satisfied to report that the results are in and Bulgaria is my 30th country! So let's go swimming in the Black Sea!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Spa Menu Du Jour

Before I came to Asia I count count the number of massages and times to a spa on one hand. Now I am enjoying exponential growth rates in my spa experiences.

While living in Hanoi my weekly routine consists of a 2 hour massage at a price that isn't completely outlandish and is actually less than it would cost me to eat out at a restaurant in Hanoi. I now have 'my spa' which I frequent and I think I'm just about a regular.

Massages in Asia are cheap enough, more than good enough and can even be socially responsible enough in the case of one outfit in Cambodia. When passing through the Cambodian capitol city my friend, Miriam, and I wandered over to the "Seeing Hands" massage shop. Our muscles were streched and pounded by legally blind masseuses. A win-win bargain for all.

Beyond massage, I have discovered new ways to relax.

In Singapore there was the FISH SPA. I was attracted to the spa when I passed by what I presumed to be a pet store or at least an exotic fish breeder. They I spoted the young couple around the corner, their feet dunked in a large long fish tank. Little minnows swarmed around their feet at lower calves. Fully intrigued, I made a note to stop by on my walk back and check out this strange spa treatment. I signed myself up for 20 minutes in the fish tank. After my feet were rinsed with water, the fish mistress lead me over to a bench in front of the tank. She explained the technique of fish spa which is to start on the smaller fish and once you get used to the little nibbles, you can move to the tanks with the bigger suckers ready to eat every single dead skin cell on your lower limbs. I eventually took the plunge with the bigger fish and watched the 200 or so fish swarm even between my toes.

Afterwards I learned the maneating minnows are called "Doctor fish" and hail from Turkey where they orginally cure a skin disease called psoriasis.

After, as the fish spa weren't enough, I took on a 20 minute feet reflexology massage. I had heard about these massages since my high school health class, and was anxious to finally try it out. It was rather comfortable to lie back and let someone erase miles of walking around the concrete jungles of Singapore. The science of reflexology is the concept that different pressure points in your feet are directly linked to other parts of the whole body. And the beauty of it is that it seemed to work.

The most recent item on the spa menu du jour is acupuncture. Mind you, I don't have arthitis and suffer from no chronic pain in my pain or any of my joints. Yet acupuncture remained an exotic treatment that I wished to experience. And experience I did in Luang Prabang, Laos. I stepped into reputatbly the most authentic spa in town and there it was the first item on the short list of services. I hadn't planned on receiving acupuncture on this particular day or even at this particular time after I had sweat out my body mass of water. I inquired and before I could change my mind I was swept into the chamber by the physiologist. "Yes, I do acupuncture, where you hurt?"
"Um...I don' hurt.."
"Ok, I do acupunture. Ok, your shoulders, upper back. Ok, I do acupunture."

It's not until I can feel the slight electric pulse touching the nerve points of the pins that I begin to question my descision and desire for acupuncture. Suddenly I feel trapped in a science experiment that is about to go wrong. I worry that me, Dr. Jekyll, is undergoing a dangerous transformation into Miss Hyde. The title physiologist seems to be a euphamism for "Pins and Needles Witch". Next, I worry that since I didn't have pain to begin with, maybe I'll walk out with a stiff neck for life. While rubbing my feet together in nervousness all I could think of was, "Am I really paying for this?"

Thankfully she came back into the room before the 20 minutes were up and I pulled together enough courage to glance over at the shiny silver pin sticking out of my left hand. I'm a damn human voodoo doll. "I think I'm ready to be done".
"Oh, but it only been 5 minutes!"
"Well, in one more minute I want my time to be up"
My dance with this devil is over.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Life as a Dao Minority Girl

It's 11 am and the My Dinh bus station is already swampped with holiday travellers returning to their hometowns for a long weekend holiday break.

My friend and I make our way to the bus towards his hometown of Ha Giang province, one in the Northeastern throes of Viet Nam. After being crunched in the first row of the bus. I turn to look behind me at the many pairs of glazed eyes. Several are averted into plastic carsick bags. The bus seems more like a solemen transport to an unknown destination than Hanoians making their way home for a relaxing weekend. I almost begin to feel lightheaded and naueous myself as the bus incessently pounds his horn while taking the approaching curves of the foothills at an uncomfortabley fast speed. I seem to be the only one anxious at the driver's breakneck speed and my concerned eyes find my friend's. "This bus must go to Ha Giang and then return to Ha Noi before dark," he says with a resigned voice of fact. I fold my elbows and rest my forehead on my crossed arms. I look down trying to drown out the noise of truck honks or at least bring them to a dull drone.

My friend nudges me to prepare to get off and informs the driver to stop. The bus slows as it lets off two passengers, unwilling to come to a complete halt. The forlorn passengers seated crossed legged on the bus floor must look hungrily at one new open seat. But I don't dare turn down to affirm my thought, only to catch my backpack that the bus attendant hefts toward me.

After a family meal, I settle into my weekend in the countryside.

Tieing up my mosquito netting and tennis shoes, I start my day.

Breakfast is Pho Chua, a dish that is not found in Ha Noi and one that I have not eaten yet. It is the ingredients of pho, delicious beef noodle soup, without the beef broth but with the sweet and sour fish sauce liquid that I have come to love. I am always happy to discover a new Vietnamese dish. The variety of this cuisine is truly something to celebrate.

Motorbiking up the mountain is our first activity of the day. Rain has muddied the path and I wonder if I should have brought along my helmet. Dark clouds empty onto the mountain and soak my shorts and shoes. Past the waterfalls and mountain springs, we come to a small lake. Large huts quientessential of Vietnamese ethnic minorities dot the shore. Finding shelter under one hut, we park the bike and climb the steps to the hut's open living area.

I sit cross-legged on the mat and drink Vietnamese bitter tea from my miniature teacup. I look out past the open air windows at the lake, the mist, the green tea plants. I seemingly could spend hours with a pot of Green Vietnamese tea. It's affect is calmly arroussing. Perfect for good conversation or meaningful comtemplation.

We meet some friends preparing lunch in a nearby hut. I dry my shorts by the fire and watch the defeathered chickens roasting on peppermint bark sticks. Lunch includes four sliced and diced chickens. People place food in my rice bowl as is polite and customary. My new friend, Tuan, next to me takes some sticky rice, molds it into a small ball and hands it to me. I accept this gesture with a smile along with the numerous shots of Vietnamese ruou, or glorified vodka, that he invites me to. I can't say no as one after another from the friendly group lift their tiny glasses to a toast. Tuan moi Emily. He lifts his glass. I am bound to reply with some social Vietnamese grace. Emily moi Tuan. Drink. Even before someone proposes another toast, someone else has already filled my glass from one of the white porcilen bowls containing the Vietnamese spirit.

They string the chicken heads on a wire and hold them in front of my face. I strunch my eyes and shake my head. Everyone laughs.

It goes like this for another hour.

Wine.Chicken.Rice.Wine.Chicken.Cucumbers.Rice.Wine.Wine.Cucumbers.Sticky Rice Ball.Wine.Chicken.Cucumbers.Wine.

Tuan asks me if I can see the future in a chicken foot. "Khong" I shake my head and puff out my cheeks as I sound out the Vietnamese for No. Too bad, as he plucks the talons and chews on the cartilidge.

I sleep off the early afternoon drizzle in a small Ethnic Dao hut spraweled over a comfortable wood slated mat.

As the rain subsides, I am dressed in traditional Ethnic Dao fashion. The Vietnamese girls help me tie the silver plated vest and wrap the red cloth around my waist before expertly wrapping my head into the black and red headdress. I giggle in the mirror at my blonde hair peeking though the scarf. A tour guide takes me and my friend to the Dao village.

I feel rather flustered visiting these people dressed in their own traditional clothing. It might as well be last year's Halloween's costume for me but a tradition passed down through many generations in their eyes. Nonetheless, they smile. Dep! Beautiful! One woman admits that now, the Dao people only wear such traditional costumes for special ceremonies and festivals as one outfit takes two years to properly prepare. We meet two old Dao ladies on our walk and they stop to pose in a photo with me. One woman is half my height with legs like that of a marathon runner. The other has a full set of black-stained teeth from chewing betel leaves. I pose for another picture by a water-operated rice thresher. I might as well be the poster child for their model community: boasting traditional clothing and their main source of livelihood.

I feel reluctant to take off my new outfit. The girls giggle and reach up to help me unwind the brightly colored cloth bands from my headscarf. Putting away another life I could have been born into.

Friday, April 24, 2009


It's been eight months since I've been in Vietnam and nonetheless there is something everyday that stikes me as bizarre. Here is a short list from the past several months.

-puttering along on my motorbike en route to the university I see a deer tied to a post outside the goat meat restaurant. On second thought it must be a large species of goat.

(On a side note: Goat meat is quite tasty. I first tried it in a fresh spring roll with fresh herbs and starfruit. I'm surprised that this meat has flown under the radar in the States for so long as it contains higher protien than beef and even less fat than chicken. Spread the word.)

-a truck rambling past on the freeway to Hanoi full of puppies. These little furry guys aren't going to end up as cuddly pets.

-a gigantic green squash rides shotgun on one man's old Honda Dream Motorbike.

-a old woman seating on the back of a park bench combs through a younger man's (her son?) hair picking out (lice?).  An image banally instinctual to the extent of divine beauty.

Not even realizing it, most of these strange moments here are culinary in nature. Which naturally I find fitting in Vietnam especially when my students inquire about my favorite Vietnamese food before they ask where I'm from.

There are not too many foods that I don't like and dog meat is one of them.  I must be the one who is bizarre, the Tay (Vietnamese slang for Westerner) who detests the filet minogn of meat.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Full Passport

What happens when there are no more visa pages in your passport?  You apply for more!  My trip to the American consulate in Hanoi to apply for more visa pages perhaps officially dubbed me as an avid traveller.  Several weeks ago, reminiscing through the pages of my passport, I came to the end and realized there are no longer blank pages waiting to be tightly wound into memories.  Chockfull of entry and exit stamps, three different forms of various visas, and copious nostalgia, my passport is a beautiful art form representing my alternative international universe in the past 7 years of my life.  I am no longer the 16-year-old wondering if a passport could ever be entirely filled with diplomatic markings.  Now I only hope I can make a dent into the next pages in the three years still remaining until expiration.  

A full passport.  A full life.  

Saturday, February 21, 2009


The billboard on Kim Ma street is rather ominous.  The grand billboard with electric displays lists Hanoi traffic accident and fatality statistics.

As I was roaring past today, the statistics were enough to release the twist of my hand on the handle accelerator.  Number of traffic accidents yesterday: 1.  Number of traffic fatalities: 1.  Most of the time when I make the daily turn from Kim Ma street to Lieu Giai, on my way home from work, I send a passing glance to the board.  0 traffic accidents yesterday.  I send an exasperated, whew, in the midst of the roar of traffic.  Right before I swerve around the city bus.  

156 accidents thus far this year.
142 traffic fatalities thus far this year.

What actually constitutes a traffic fatality?  I was left pondering the meaning of this english translation until I inquired.  Death.  142 people have died so far this year from traffic accidents.  Fortunately I haven't seen any terrible accidents yet or dead bodies sprawled on the street.  

Of course there are the fender benders.  Luckily the most damage that I have incurred thus far is cracking the hard white plastic covering of my old Honda Dream when I toppled over in the FPT University parking lot.  Needless to say, maneuvering the bike in small spaces is one of the harder parts of driving.  Most bikes are expertly parked in tight rows outside storefronts and looked after by an attendant.  Most of the time, the attendant hands you a numbered ticket before you park the bike which you must produce along with 2,000 or 3,000 Vietnamese dong ( about 30 cents) when you retrieve your bike later. 

Helmet laws are enforced and perhaps the pollution masks people wear when driving will become a future law.  The surgical looking mask drivers wear to protect against dust and exhaust fumes also serves as a fashion statement.  My cloth mask is a pink, blue, and green floral pattern.  

In terms of rules of the road, there aren't very many.  Or I should say there are rules such as traffic lights, roundabouts, and one-way streets but followed under your own digression.  The no man's land of the road are fairly busy intersections with no traffic signals.  These are best approached with caution and a heavy foot over the break.  Slow down for the tour bus to pass, swerve around the man slowly making his way across the street, speed up before the student on the bicycle collides with you.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


There are numerous blog topics in which I could continue writing about in lengthy discussions and descriptions of even minute things in Vietnam.  And it would take me weeks of non-stop writing and contemplating to have polished prose.  So now I list a random assortment.  Consider these the cliffnotes.

I toured a house available for rent two days ago.  I wondered how much it would cost to buy it.  

I need to buy shower shoes for my bathroom.  There are no shower stalls in Vietnam so you just shower yourself with a hose from the bathroom wall.  The problem is when I reenter my bathroom with dirty feet on a wet floor.  

Three days ago I was bitten by bedbugs.  Now when I say "Don't let the bedbugs bite!"  I will speak with experience.

Today I ate streetside bun cha, a lovely Hanoi speciality of juicy bits of pork in fish sauce eaten with rice noodles and fresh herbs.

I love driving my motorbike.  Even after today when I got pulled over for turning left on a red light.  Frankly I was surprised when the policeman blow his whistle.  People commonly drive through red lights with intent.  Unfortunately the policeman spoke English which ruled out my plan to speak English very quickly and shrug my shoulders and shake my head to avoid a ticket.  But thankfully he let me off with a "Be Careful".  I didn't even have to give him bribe money.

Pollution and Corruption are some of Vietnam's biggest urban problems.  

I sleep under mosquito netting.  

Since being in Vietnam, I have received four scarfs as gifts.

I am currently attempting to learn how to sing a Vietnamese pop song.  

In the future, I want to bring little peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to my students.  

Vietnam does not have ovens.

Last week I was almost pickpocketed.  I screamed and turned around when I felt someone unzip my backpack.  After reassuring my valuables remained I watched the teenage boy slowly scuffle past me on the sidewalk as if nothing had happened.  I walked 5 feet behind him for 100 meters before he turned the corner.  I was shocked by his audacity, wanted to properly scold him, and tell him to try being a little slicker next time.  Those european pickpockets would laugh in his face.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Vietnamese hot pot.  My favorite dining experience thus far.  Each time I partake in this wonderful ritualistic gathering for a meal over the simmering pot of broth, I can look around at all the faces who make Vietnam special.  Sitting crossed legged on the floor, I feel more than an honored guest but accepted as a local while my neighbors plop bits of cooked beef, tofu, or pan-fried duck embryo in my ceramic bowl.  Heaps of freshly cut herbs are added to the fragrant communal bowl along with fresh oysters, squid, pig's heart, sheep intestine (tripe), and small balls of pounded pork.  Enough to satisfy variety a gourmet craves.  While a discussion of lau automatically may lead to a further in-depth report of Vietnamese gastronomy, I shall leave that for another post.  For the sake of a treasured national cuisine, I must do it some justice.  And I haven't even been to Hue yet, the ancient capital and home to Vietnam's finest delicacies (dog meat excluded).  

Hot pot is a celebration in itself yet creates lasting memories of special occasions.  My 23rd birthday being one of them.  Sprawled out on the floor, sharing from this single pot brings people together in a way that transcends eating "family style" at a table and chairs.  I watch the gray shrimp turn a mouth-watering pink while picking up some Vietnamese words or two.  Ngon qua.  So delicious.  And it's even tastes better dipped in chili sauce as ubiquitous on the Vietnamese table (or floor) as ketchup in an American diner.  Let's not also forget nuoc mam, or fish sauce, the pungent hazel liquid, the traditional staple condiment in Vietnamese cooking.  By itself, I still have yet to acquire its taste but mixed with a little vinegar, lime juice, sugar, and chilies, it is quite a wonderfully delicate burst of flavor.

At the end of the hot pot meal enters noodles, varying from the wispy-like rice noodles to packaged instant noodles added to each bowl along with the nutrient-rich broth.  Best enjoyed slurping from your bowl to your heart's delight.  

Monday, January 5, 2009

Capturing Sound

I can't do Vietnam justice with a camera. Of course each picture illuminates some feature of Vietnam, a motorbike, a lake, a spread of Vietnamese dishes, a food stall vendor in a conical hat, yet when I peruse the photos I have taken thus far, I never feel satisfied with these momentos. None seems to capture the quintessential or invoke my feelings toward Vietnam. And how can I even begin to use words to orally describe my surroundings to those who inquire: "So, Vietnam, what is that like?" The closest I can come in words would be an onomonpeic poem of the daily sounds.

As a Christmas gift I receieved a digital voice recorder which I hope to capture the sounds of Vietnam as an instinctual way to truly feel life in Vietnam.  Sound is deeply imbedded in culture and I can't pronounce the Vietnamese language well without sounding sing-songy myself.  Sound makes Vietnamese challenging yet fun to learn especially as I learn words that are separated in meaning only by the tone of voice. Upon meeting another foriegner named Bo, I remarked, "Why in Vietnamese you name means, father, beef, and region"! 

Before I left for Vietnam I only wish that I would have brought with me some more songs in my bag of tricks. "Sing a song," my students plead with me.  I don't consider myself a good singer, I can simply hold a tune but that is all that seems to matter to the people here as they applaud enthusiastically after I belt out a humble rendition of my now signature song, Jewel's "You Were Meant for Me". Sometimes I feel like I am living part of High School Musical: Vietnam. 

Not surprisingly then, Vietnamese love karaoke.  They like some English groups that I have never heard of. "You don't know, 'Michael Learn to Rock'?" a friend prods me with a look of shock. I guess groups like these never made it in the US or their respective English speaking countries but found a niche market in the Asian karaoke scene.  Go figure.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

New Years Resolutions

Welcome 2009—The Year of the Ox.  This year hopes to be full of industriousness and I have found the perfect new year’s resolution to match—blog more, much more.  Thus far in Vietnam I haven’t written as much as I would have liked and was lowered to jotting down notes before falling asleep, or a quick one-liner in a Microsoft word document.  Not too mention the water-logged journal I had to savage after the Halloween floods.  I dedicate the rest of this blog to the steadfast ox and the load he bears with my humble words. 

Upon returning from the States after a last-minute surprise visit on Christmas to my family, the realization that I actually have a life here in Hanoi makes me a bit uneasy.  Or perhaps it’s the reality that I now have the desire and ability to plop myself anywhere in the world and set up camp for myself.  And with this reality life continues to simultaneously unravel and create mystery. 

Today I am back and after a call to my friend we take lunch at a street stand to digress in a new variation of bun cha, the classic Hanoian specialty.  Juicy fatty pieces of pork served in the ubiquitous mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar.  Thin rice noodles and a bountiful plate of mixed fresh herbs aiding in digestion and palette cleanser.  I missed the food of Vietnam.  While we sit and lunch I trade my battered brown shoes for blue plastic slippers with an entrepreneurial young shoe-shiner.  After 10 minutes my worn mary janes are looking brand new.  After settling the both bills I realize life is great.  A delicious meal and a shoe shine for under $2. 

I met the real Mai Trang today.  My friend’s uncle is the owner of Khach San Mai Trang- Hotel Mai Trang I stayed at for two weeks and bears its namesake from his daughter, Mai Trang.   A very nice, friendly girl and for the sake of her esteem I hope Hotel Mai Trang continues to be a successful business. 

I close with a snippet from my current tune on my itunes “Rock and Roll” by Eric Hutchison.  Lately, as I have been hopping cultures in the past month (Vietnam, China, USA) life seems to be a simply a matter of doing what you feel and looking around in wonder.

“If he wants to rock he rocks 
If he wants to roll he rolls 
He can roll with the punches 
Long as he feels like he's in control 
If he wants to stay he stays 
If he wants to go he goes 
He doesn't care how he gets there 
Long as he gets somewhere he knows” –Eric Hutchinson