Feeling hungry…

January 24, 2008

I recently got an e-mail from a friend who expressed discontent with San Francisco’s temperate weather — which I absolutely was unable to empathize with. Then, this past week he was finally pleased that, for the first time, he felt cold in San Francisco.

Yes, some of this is about the need for seasons in one’s life. But I think this was really a comment on the need for suffering in one’s life. I think quite a bit about the idea of suffering. You know, the “life is suffering” sort of business. But I don’t think I experience it quite enough.

So my vacation plans were thwarted (a whole other story that I’ll get into another time) and I’ve just return to Saigon so I can work tomorrow. And it’s rainy.

Really, really rainy.

So rainy that all the women selling food (it’s all sold off the street) have closed up shop and gone home for the day. So I missed lunch today and, for the first time since being in Vietnam, I am REALLY, REALLY hungry.

And I feel so grateful. In some strange way, I like it when life is a little hard. I think I understand one little piece of my friend a little better now. It think I yearn for a little bit of suffering because it helps me to appreciate all the other nuances — the seasons — of life.


The river boat man

January 20, 2008

Right after going to see Angor Wat (and the other surrounding ruins), we went on a boat ride down a river just outside Siem Reap (the town we’re staying in near Angkor Wat). We all file into a wooden tourist boat and head down the river. I’m excited, thinking that it’s beautiful to be able to be on the river at sunset, where the weather is pleasant.and we’re away from the crowds. Most of the people on the tour file into the main cabin, putting on their life vests and sitting quietly in their wooden chairs, but I head to the back, noticing a bench with a beautiful, unobstructed view out the boat. I feel a soft breeze whispering by. The setting sun is casting a splash of sheer champagne with a veil of rose. Aah!

Before I know it, a much smaller sampan-like boat approaches and a young girl, no more than 8 years old, leaps onto our boat “Ooh, a staged pirate attack, how fun!” I think, before realizing that she’s carrying a basket of soda and bananas, to sell to the rich tourists (us) for “one dollar, please.” Suddenly, we have six of these tiny skin-and-bones children on our boat. Their skin is a leathery tan from their (at this point less than ten) years of living on the river, constantly exposed to the elements. One little boy approaches me, lifting a soda can with an arm no wider around than my wrist and a plaintive, “One dollar, please.” His deep brown eyes plea, “With a dollar, maybe I could eat tonight.”

A well of emotions is starting to bubble up. These children must live like this daily, begging for just enough food to make it through another day. Is there any hope for their lives to change? What have they done to deserve a life like this? It seems so unfair that some people should live in such poverty while others watch on with an inability to truly help — or worse yet, with indifference. What do they think of their lives? And what do they think of us?

The children realize that they have sold everything that they are going to sell and one by one start to make their way off the boat, leaping off and landing expertly on their sampans. Just as the last boat is pulling away, a young woman on my boat realizes she has a few dollars left and reaches over the side of our boat to hand the dollar to a man rowing one of the riverboats. They’re both reaching toward each other, but our boat is moving quickly. The man reaches a little farther to grasp the dollar. And the woman reaches a little farther. But the man in the riverboat reaches a little too far and I see him falling, as if in slow motion, with every ounce of strength he has toward that dollar bill. His head goes underwater next to our boat and I’m all too aware of our boat’s motor whirring under him as he sinks underwater.

The young woman’s eyes well over with silent tears and she whispers, “for a dollar… he risked his life for a dollar…”

A moment later, the man surfaces, swimming desperately back to his sampan. Will he live another year, I wonder. And does he think his life is worth it?

Kids on the river

January 20, 2008

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of the man in the story, but here are some of the other kids we encountered.



A day with the monks

January 20, 2008

Two days ago, we went to see Angkor Wat and the surrounding ruins. My favorite ruin was Ta Prom. This ruin was left intentionally unrestored, to look like it did when it was first discovered in the 19th century. There are enormous roots (with colorful names like “strangler ficus”) growing among the stones. Here are a couple of pictures from the site:



But my favorite part of the day was seeing the monks in their saffron robes. I’m embarrassed to say I was surreptitiously trying to get lots of candids of the monks among the ruins.


At one point I made eye contact with the monks and we smiled at each other. So I approached and started talking to the monks. The one in the foreground in this photo said that he has been a monk for give years and is hoping to be a tour guide when he finishes! The other one has been a monk for two years and wants to be an English teacher someday.


Mixed blessing

January 18, 2008

My last day of work (2 days ago) started off great. I went to one of the clinics for indigent people (where my refractionist works). It was enriching to look around and see what various clinics are like in the city. The first room was the “emergency/triage” area – where a British general practitioner was volunteering for two weeks. The clinic is a free clinic that’s entirely run off donations, but the facilities were still well-kept and spacious and far more contemporary than I would’ve thought for a free clinic in Vietnam. For instance, the Ob-Gyn exam room had a portable ultrasound, there was a laboratory complete with CBC and chem machine. It was even air-conditioned and had an elevator. Pretty fancy.

Then, the day started to go downhill. We went to a tour agency (since we’re out of work until Sunday, my mom and I decided to take a little trip to Angkor Wat) that’s downtown and my mom thought we since we were downtown, we should go shopping. If you don’t know, I’m really not a shopper. When go to the mall at home, I often end up spending about 1/5 of my time in the mall and the remainder in the bookstore (looking at architecture books – I’m sort of pre-school about books. I’m much more of a picture-looker than I am a reader). We ended up going to three malls and one market so I ended up shopping for 6 hours today! I think I’ve done all the shopping I need to do for the next year. At least I got some interesting pictures from the market:

These are dragonfruit

And my favorites… mangosteen!

And jackfruit

And even snakewine. Apparently its good for your liver and GI tract.

We also visited the oldest church in HCMC. I’d never seen Vietnamese people in stained glass before so I HAD to take a picture.

And I had never seen a saint wearing Vietnamese clothing before, either!

In Cambodia

January 18, 2008

I’m currently in Cambodia (since I was out of work for the past few days, I decided to go on a little side trip to Cambodia. Unfortunately, I’m using dial-up so the next few blogs will all be text. There’s no way I’m going to have the patience for my pictures to load. I’ll post more pictures when I get back to Vietnam.

On architecture

January 18, 2008

I certainly don’t think of Vietnam when I think of contemporary architecture. (For those of you who don’t know, I LOVE contemporary architecture and design — almost as much as I love eating. That’s saying a lot!) A few nights ago, I had a really great conversation with one of my cousins (who is an architect here) about his vision for architecture in Vietnam. It was really amazing to hear what he had to say (This is what I think he was trying to say. My Vietnamese is pretty spotty in this realm. How do you say “deconstructionist” again?) He says that he hopes to help change Vietnamese society through the buildings. He says that he feels that the society has a glass ceiling – the people are constantly copying the ideas of other people, but aren’t creating brand new ideas of their own. By changing the style of one’s surroundings, you change the way that people think and relate to one another. So he hopes to create a more creative, forward thinking, openly associating society.

It was so amazing to see some of his designs. He’s really good! (Almost half of the pictures he brought in were images of his buildings in magazines!) His buildings have an open, airy, almost ethereal feel as well as an organic edge evocative of Frank Gehry. I designed my potential future house when I was in college and haven’t thought about it for a couple of years, but now I think I’ll have my cousin design my house!

My lucky day

January 17, 2008

Apparently it’s good luck in Vietnamese culture to run into a funeral (they say that people are only allowed to be buried on auspicious days so if you run into a funeral it must be auspicious for you). I guess today was my lucky day. One of the neighbors who lives a few houses down from our hotel recently died. (You can tell by the constant chanting on the PA over the street… and by the people dressed in all white, the color of no life… and by the funeral bier.)

The vulnerable observer

January 17, 2008

I’ve only been in Vietnam for a little over a week and I am ashamed to say that I already find myself getting quickly habituated. I no longer find myself giving a second thought to things that I previously thought were unusual. Crossing the street into continuous traffic? No big deal. Inhaling the equivalent of probably about 2 packs of cigarettes per day in second-hand smoke and exhaust? Pretty standard. Animal organs in bowls on the street? Been there, done that.

Does this mean I’m just not very affected by my surroundings? Or maybe I’m just not a very well-thought person. Or maybe just easily-habituated. Or something else I haven’t thought of?

This feels like blasphemy to write, but I think the more likely answer is that life here really just isn’t that bad. Or, more optimistically, maybe mankind is much more resilient than I like to believe.

The medicine woman

January 15, 2008

I was eating breakfast this morning and the usual cast of women walked by selling fruits and newspapers and things. Then, this woman walked by who I had never seen before.

It turns out she was selling traditional medicines…

Like this raven!

And scorpions!

And snakes!

Ravens and scorpions and snakes, oh my!