January 26, 2007

Styrofoam Floats (11/18/06)

Talk about making lemonade when life hands you lemons.

In Ha Long Bay off the eastern coast of Vietnam, an entire village floats on water. One room wooden houses sit atop a framework of 2X4s tied together with rope, all kept afloat by big blocks of styrofoam wrapped in blue tarp. Children run along the planks as sure as if they were in their backyard, while dogs patrol their houses, barking at intruders. Laundry hangs on neat lines strung between posts, while small rowboats tied to the edge of the planks float lazily awaiting passengers.

These permanent dwellings are a result of a people who were driven from their land by a combination of bad land management, bad weather and unfriendly governement policies. What happens when you shoo farmers onto water? You make them… fish farmers!

With support from the Vietnamese government, the villagers have been sucessful in making a living with no land at all. In between the homes where a lawn might be are fish farms. A large net hanging below the surface keeps the fish from escaping. Touring the village in a kayak, I watched as men simply threw a spear downward into the pool and came up with a fish that was HUGE – almost a foot and half long.

Instead of convenience stores, small row boats laden with fruit and vegetables from the mainland paddle their wares around. From the rowboats that hovered around our big tourist boat, we could even buy beer, Oreos and Mars bars.

And this seemed to be but one example of preserverence, of survival and of the optimism of the Vietnamese. The sense of a better and brighter future was projected in all the people we met. We were told, over and over again, how Vietnam had just surpassed the US to become the world’s second largest rice producer. This is even more incredible when I realized that it is all using manual labor, with no machines.

Now, perhaps the next step would to open some “row through” fried fish restaurants…:)

January 23, 2007

Food Stall Hopping (11/21/07)

After 2 weeks in Vietnam, we finally worked up the courage to eat at the street side food stalls.

We set out with determination, along with a nice guy we met on a trip, David Kim. We figured we would have acclimatized to the local bacteria by now, and fervently hoped that we would not get food poisioning.

Initially, it was a little intimidating. When we sat down, we got a few bemused looks from the locals. The stands are very simple affairs, with short with squat plastic stools and low plastic tables strewn with squeezed lime peels, smack in the middle of the sidewalk. Locals plunk down and slurp bowls of mysterious looking food. A single bubbling pot, with colanders full of noodles, vegetables and puzzling looking meat products would surround the single cook. There is no menu, and no English spoken.

But this was, by far, the most delicious food in Vietnam! For some reason, restaurant food is bland, overcooked, or both. We speculated this was because only tourists can afford to eat in the restaurants, so not only do you have unknowledgable customers, you only have to get them in the door once.

And oh wow is it cheap. The first stall we tried Cau Lau, a local Hoi An specialty, consisting of thick rice noodles, spicy soup, fried pork and bean sprouts. 3 huge bowls garnished with fresh lime and 3 huge beers -$2.50.

We were still a little hungry, and drunk with our newfound power of eating at a stand, we moved on to a second stall and sampled the fresh steamed buns, containing sausage and whole quail egg. – 3 buns, $1.

While walking and stuffing ourselves with the buns, we came upon the third stall, and tried some Chao Vit, a rice porridge containing roast duck, and had 2 more beers – $2

By this time, we were rolling around holding our stomachs. It would be worth it even if I did get food poisioning. (We were fine).

I was only kicking myself that we didn’t start eating like this this earlier!

January 6, 2007

Talk to the hand!

We signed up for a trekking trip through the hills of Sapa in northwest Vietnam, to take in the scenery and to see the traditional way of life of the ethnic minority groups, such as the H’mong and Dzai. (Check out Jonathan’s photos)

Sapa seemed overrun by western tourists, and we initially worried that we wouldn’t meet any locals on our trip. But we couldn’t have been more wrong. Dozens and dozens of girls and women in traditional dress sought us out, hawking all manners of handmade goods – cloth, embroidery, purses, wallets, bracelets. Although heavily accented, their English was startlingly good. Usually as soon as we left the hotel lobby we were quickly surrounded by groups of women and girls, some as young as four years old, thrusting goods in front of us and chanting “Buy from me!”

One big bonus was that I, personally, was largely ignored by the locals, who concentrated on the rest of the group. My tour guide cued me in – “They think you’re Vietnamese,” he whispered. “Vietnamese never buy anything.”

We hiked down through the amazing terraced rice paddies that lined the hillsides. From above, the rice paddies look smooth, seamless and perfectly sculpted. From ground zero, I saw that each paddy actually has a lip, and thus creating a small pool to to keep water in. I discovered that there were small channels of water running systematically downhill, sometimes powering wooden rice mills designed to separate the grain from the husk. Wildflowers lined the edges of the paddies, while pigs wallowed in the mud to keep cool, and ducks swam in the little pools. Completing the perfect pastoral scene were water buffalo munching on hay, chickens pecking the ground, and little boys playing with sticks and hoops.

After dinner, we went with our fellow trekkers for a drink at a very non ethnic minority English pub, complete with blaring music, bar stools and a pool table. To my surprise, 3 H’mong girls (we found out later they were actually 18-24 yrs old) in full traditional dress were wielding the pool cues with ease, sinking stripes and solids with attitude. They were so out of context for me in that bar, it was like walking into a bar and seeing a giraffe calmly chewing on a leaf. One table near by had several more H’mong women sitting quietly playing cards. No one was drinking alcohol, but they seemed very at home there. After a few interactions, we found out that they were saavy, spoke excellent English, and worked as local tour guides for their villages.

The influence of over 10 years of constant tourist interaction was clear – they could play pool, exchange insults, and talk trash with the best of them. They’d met people from all of the world, and knew quite well what was fashionable – one of them was out of traditional dress, in a spaghetti strap tank top and a miniskirt and silver hoop earings. This all from villagers who have only intermittent electricity, no running water and only one TV in the whole village.

After a heated debate about whether a ball was fairly sunk into the hole, the most hyperactive H’mong woman screamed at Jonathan “Talk to the hand!”, with perfect hand gesture and intonation. We all watched, fascinated.

I left the bar thinking about what a strange line these women walked. They lived in a traditional village, farming rice and taking pigs to market, and yet were irreversibly changed by constant exposure to tourists and the outside world. It made me think of the book “The Ladies Paradise” by Emile Zola, depicting the lives of shopgirls in 19th century Paris. The shopgirls were trained with the mannerisms and the taste to be able to interact with the wealthy aristocracy, but would never be one of them. They stradled two worlds, and were not fully content in either.

How does it affect village life? It is the women who earn the living, who make the traditional crafts that tourists buy. It is the women who go out and hawk them. It is the women that have the exposure to westerners and their ideas.

I can only imagine how bewildered a Hmong man might be if his wife suddenly put her palm inches from his face and shouted out “Talk to the hand!”…

December 26, 2006

Written in Stone

Forget the piece of flimsy, tiny paper shoved into a cardboard holder.

Now this is a Diploma!

In the central courtyard of the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first University built in the 11th century, are 80 of these stone stelae mounted on the back of turtles, erected for each graduating class. Each graduate has their name etched into stone as they pass their strenuous exams after five years of study. And in the spirit of learning, I discovered that Chinese characters were used in Vietnam until the 17th century, when a Portugese missionary phonetically translated Vietnamese into the roman alphabet.

There must be a hidden academic in me somewhere. I love visiting universities. I love the tranquil atmosphere, and the idea that people (well, only men) a thousand years ago traveled thousands of miles overland by foot to obtain knowledge. It was thrilling to visit the first university in Morocco, built in the 9th century, as well touring the very new Kathmandu University, built in 1991. Knowledge and education flourish only in times of peace and prosperity.

And so, a wish for peace and prosperity in this holiday season, and a happy and bright New Year!

December 14, 2006

Zen and the Art of Dodging Motorscooters

Arriving in Hanoi felt like we jumped in a time machine that zipped us back 25 years.

As soon as we left the gates of the modern international airport, we were surrounded by rice paddies, with people diligently working in fields, actually wearing those classic conical straw hats! The concrete highway cut through the landscape dotted with farmers harvesting rice, by hand(!), and the occasional water buffalo.

We soon came to the city limits and were surrounded by fleets of motorscooters, carrying entire families or strapped down with furniture. The scooters outnumbered cars at least 20 to 1. Not a helmet in sight, the scooters weaved in and out of traffic whereever there was a space. And it seemed every single one of them needed to honk to let us know they were passing us. The greatest thing was that most of the women wore wide brimmed hats, and hankerchiefs covering their noses and mouths, looking like bandits about to make a getaway.

The streets of Old Hanoi were equally clogged with these scooters, and with the narrow sidewalks covered with vendors, beer stalls, parked motorscooters, people cooking meals with only one pot, tiny plastic stools, and souvenir stores, it was impossible to walk on the sidewalk down an entire street. The sounds and smells and sights were overwhelming at first – it was hard to know which way to look, or which way to move to get out of the way. (Check out Jonathan’s nice collection of pics of Hanoi).

As a result, crossing the street was a slow motion zen experience unlike anything I’ve experienced. Without traffic lights or stop signs, the motorscooters and cars have no reason to come to a stop. If I stood on the edge of the sidewalk and tried to wait for a clearing, I could stand there for hours. As the locals demonstrated, the only way to cross is to become one with the traffic, to join the flow.

Leaving the relative safety of the roadside, I made eye contact with drivers coming towards me. I watched as scooters gauged where I was and simply continued, full speed, to swerve around me. This gave me a big enough gap in the traffic to move forward another foot or so. At all times I maintained eye contact and kept my movements slow and predictable. While standing still in the middle of oncoming traffic went against all my instincts to escape death, making a mad dash to the other side would have ensured I become splattered on the concrete.

And however crazy it was to be a pedestrian in Hanoi, hopping on the back of a moto taxi (scooters with a driver who will take you where you want) was fantastic, zipping along the narrow lanes, the wind in my hair and the street stalls whizzing by.

Way more fun to be on a motorscooter than trying to avoid them in the road…:)

December 9, 2006

Good Morning Vietnam (whether you like it or not)!

I felt like someone had put my head inside a drum and started to pound on it.

I had spent a sleepless first night in Hanoi, battling with Jonathan for the barely large enough sheet, listening to the incessant honking of motorscooters on the street, hearing the clanking of the airconditioner, and sleeping with my head underneath a towel to block the hurricane force wind directed at my head from the ceiling fan above. I finally fell asleep, earplugs snugly in, at what felt like 5:59 am.

At 6 am, on the dot, a woman’s voice began blaring in Vietnamese. The Voice was everywhere inside the room, bouncing off the walls. I was so startled that I jumped out of bed and peeled back the curtains to look on the streets, expecting maybe a bomb threat, crazed pedestrians running in all directions. Instead, all I saw were some bleary eyed vendors, sitting uneventfully on the side of the street. I tried to identify where the horrible voice was coming from, but couldn’t see anything. This went on and on, until the Voice was replaced with some truly terrible upbeat muzak.

I was furious. I was out of my mind and in a sleep deprived rage – anything to stop it. Jonathan, with his earplugs, stunningly didn’t hear anything. I looked out in the hallway, seeing if any hotel staff were around, but no one was in sight. I gave up and sat miserably in my room until 7, when the thing mercifully stopped.

Later on, I found out it was the “Voice of Vietnam”, spewed from loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles all througout Vietnam, courtesy of your friendly Communist party. It turns out there was a loudspeaker about 10 feet from our room. When I asked the hotel staff what was going on, he seemed surprised that I was so startled by it, it was so commonplace. This particular morning, he informed me, was a message telling people to wake up, be virtuous on the weekend, to clean their houses, and get a start on the day!

One more reason to be grateful for living in a democratic nation…

December 7, 2006

Welcome back to Hong Kong

Ten years ago, I visited Hong Kong with my parents, a place I had not been since my family moved when I was 3 years old.

I found it crowded, noisy, inhabited by rude people busily rushing to and fro in a skyscraper jungle. My overwhelming impression was that it was New York City on steroids, sort of like being stuck in Manhattan’s Chinatown, but without end.

And now? I couldn’t be happier to be here. Did I change? Did Hong Kong change? How has my travel changed my views, especially just coming from Kathmandu? I can’t say. I suppose that’s part of the problem of trying to use myself both as the control and the experiment…

Hong Kong itself was much more orderly and clean than I remember 10 years ago. There are signs and directions and rules for everything, and the city runs very smoothly. I was impressed by the new Airport (I flew into the one runway airport right before it closed down in 97), and the transit system was something out of a dream compared to the T in Boston. Subways run every 3 minutes, with signs in the station telling you exactly how long before the next train arrived. Melodious pre-recorded voices told you which station was coming up in three languages. The immaculate subways eased into the station and lined up precisely with the sliding glass doors. Arrows on the floor indicated where one should enter the subway car (on the sides) and where people should exit (through the middle) for maximum efficiency. Transfers between different lines was as easy as walking across the platform.

One thing I noticed that was definetely new were the public service announcements, ranging from helping the blind and volunteering, to disease prevention. Last time, I remember giving up my seat to an elderly person on a bus, who quickly took the seat but then looked at me like I was a chump. Now there are bulletin boards inside the train promoting this behavior.

I was most enthralled with the Octopus card, a smart card with stored value, which can be used on all forms of transit (bus, subway, ferry) and at 7-11s and pharmacies. It was scary how easy it was to forget that it was real money…just whip out the card, put it on the little reader and presto!

It was strange to be in Hong Kong without my parents, and to see my parents’ friends without them. Last time, I was still a kid in their eyes, but now, married with husband in tow, it must have been as strange for them to see me as an adult. Being here without my parents has also given me a much better sense of Hong Kong geography — last time I never knew where I was, as all we seemed to do was visit relatives and friends. And eat.

I forget how much English my mom speaks, compared with her friends – “Hello” was about it. Jonathan graciously sat there and ate everything pushed in his direction while conversation swirled about him in Cantonese, with occasional bits of English translation by me. Even my contemporaries, the children of my parents’ friends, who had all taken English in school for years, could speak very little. I can hardly fault them – my 5 years of French from school is pretty abysmal.

It was fun to see Man Sook (Uncle Man), my Dad’s best friend for almost 50 years. Though pushing 70, he looked in good shape. Last time I was there, I mostly listened as my parents talked. This time, being alone, I got great stories of my Dad in his youth, pre Mom. As quiet and introverted as my father was, his friend was talkative, especially about the past. Lots of random things I knew about my Dad became clearer as I was regaled with stories of their meeting, how they used to go to my Dad’s hometown in Fushan for Chinese New Year, how they signed up for mechanic lessons instead of English lessons in Hong Kong, so they could go and be of better service to the glorious revolution in China. They had made it through the training and were waiting to cross the border, when escapees who had just made it back brought stories of the real horror and nightmare going on. They quickly got the heck out of there! Man Sook not only knew my grandmother, but my Dad’s older brother, two people I had never really heard about, never mind seen a picture of.

And of course, how could I be in Hong Kong and not go on about the food? We had some of the best dim sum I’ve ever had at a restaurant named Dong (East) on Nathan Road. Everything was excellent, but especially interesting was the different take on the shu mai – ground pork stuffed in their little yellow skins, but covered with a thin slice of scallop and topped with bright red shrimp roe. Seafood abounds, with tanks and displays of huge and succulent shrimp, fresh fish, scallops, and Hairy crab. We had a great meal at a seafood street stand by one of the night markets.

And the fresh, fragrant, fluffy jasmine rice was just as I like it. I was home.

December 3, 2006

Talk the talk

I was positively giddy to be in Hong Kong.

Not only did I fluently speak the local language (Cantonese), but I spoke the second most spoken language, English, even better! Ask the guy how to get to the city? No problem! Wittily chat with the taxi driver on the way to the hotel, and find out that it changed its name and ownership just a month ago, along with some sordid gossip on the hotel owners? Simple, when you speak the language, and utterly impossible when you can’t.

I was half afraid that Hong Kong would now be speaking mostly Mandarin – it had been 10 years since the handover back to China, and I had heard it was the main language of instruction in the schools. But clearly on the streets, and in the hearts of the people, Cantonese is still the primary language.

I could walk around the streets and hear the banter between the guy sweeping the street and the shop owner on his stoop. I could understand the things random people were saying – completely mundane and boring things, like “Check the temperature of the freezer”, or “No, those are only 2 for a dollar”. I think it is a common phenomenon, but when people are talking near me in a language I don’t understand, it immediately makes me think they are talking about me (maybe snickering to their colleague at the outrageous price I just paid for apples). But not so here – all the stuff that is completely off the radar to a tourist who doesn’t speak the language was mine to understand.

No more explaining in broken mandarin to mainland Chinese that yes I was Chinese, but I didn’t speak mandarin. No more puzzled looks from Tibetans who assumed I was mainland Chinese. No more being able only to say “Hello” and “thank you” in Nepali. I felt like I had been restored somehow, and a giant barrier was gone. Things that were so difficult, like trying to patch together the correct phrases to ask the taxi driver to turn down the music, were so trivial now.

I know that this will wear off soon – just like I take for granted I understand everything going on around me in the States. But it really makes me understand the importance of being able to communicate – and how isolating it is when you can’t.

And of course, being able to order all my favorite dim sum dishes is a big plus too. :)

November 30, 2006

Gross Anatomy Amidst Rice Fields

The world sometimes feels like a small place. What are the chances I would know someone who knew someone who lives in Dhulikhel, Nepal? And that I would get a thourough tour of the almost completed Basic Sciences building of the Kathmandu University medical campus?

My friend Aimee, who taught for 6 weeks at Kathmandu University as part of a joint Harvard Med School program, put me in touch with a friend of hers, DG and his wife Laxmi. We are always interested in meeting locals or expats in the places we travel to. It gives an entire extra dimension to visit – observing first hand small customs (instead of just reading about it), and being served a home cooked meal is always fun and enlightening.

Our dubious travel karma continued as we took a cab to the city bus station. DG told me that it was 30 rupees to take the bus, easily recognizable because there would be a guy standing in the door of the bus shouting “Dhulikel Dhulikel Dhulikel” over and over as fast as an auctioneer. When the taxi driver heard where we wanted to go, he was sad, shaking his head, and kindly let us know that there was Maoist strike, and that buses were not traveling to Dhulikhel that day. But he, as a taxi, would be allowed to pass, and he would take us for a mere 9000 rupees. We refused to heed him, and said we would check at the bus station anyway. We were dropped off at a bus station, and asked for Dhulikhel, and all we got were people shaking their heads at us, understanding we wanted to go to Dhulikhel, but not speaking English. We looked at each other and thought for a moment that the taxi driver was actually right, when we decided to ask a random guy on the street who looked like he might speak English.

In fact, he directed us around the corner, to the Intercity bus terminal, and not the long distance terminal! The cab driver deliberately tried to trick us by dumping us at the wrong bus station, which of course would not have buses to Dhulikhel. Gotta be on our toes…

DG met us on the side of the road, and took us to his home on the campus and to meet his wife. Kathmandu University (KU) was located among lush rolling green hills covered with terraced rice paddies. His home, temporary housing provided by KU for staff, consisted of a one room hut with a tin roof, covering no more than 300 square feet, with a patch of land for gardening. It was cozy, and homey, and we were warmly welcomed. Laxmi had a meal waiting for us as we settled in, and were served a delicious Nepali meal of several preparations of potatoes, dal bhat (lentils, much more soup like than I had imagined) and rice. I am always thrilled when I get to taste home cooked meals, and see what kind of semblance there is to what is served in the restaurants!

We were treated to the story of how DG and his wife met. In short, acting on his sister’s pre-screening of the girl and her family, he choose Laxmi within THREE HOURS of meeting her, and they were married by the end of the weekend. That takes the cake for shortest dating AND engagement time yet. :)

DG was very gracious, and took pains to set up a thourough tour of KU despite his clearly busy schedule. KU is a small private university, only 10 years old, but we could see from the bustle of activity and construction it had big plans for expansion. I was also shown their new Basic research building, with all the seriousness of hosting a visiting NIH delegation on their part. I am sure they did not know exactly what to make of me -they knew that I was a molecular biologist somehow associated with Harvard Medical School, though I was clearly there on non-official capacity, dressed in a polo shirt, jeans and Tevas. We were shown the gross anatomy lab, and they even offered to show me the cadavers they had in the giant freezers…uh, no thanks. Lots of jars of pickled and preserved human organs dotted the room.

We were spared the city buses and put on the staff and student buses headed back to Kathmandu. Riding in a school bus with 50 rowdy college students in Nepal was another one of those unexpected experiences. Loud music blared over the bus speakers, scenes of country life whizzed by outside the window, and we had our first smooth transportation experience in Nepal.

We had a great time – so many thanks to DG and Aimee :)

November 27, 2006

Manifest Density

Kathmandu is one of the densest and most crowded places I’ve ever been. Throngs of people, snarls of traffic, riots of color and sound assault and overwhelm the senses. Though it looks and sounds like chaos manifested, it all seems to flow smoothly.

Kathmandu traffic is insane. In many parts of the city there are no sidewalks, traffic signs, lights, lanes, double yellow lines or any of the other markings we take for granted. I like to think of myself as a pretty good observer of my surroundings, but it took me over 15 minutes to realize which side of the road Nepalis drive on (the left). The road is shared not only by cars and buses, but bikes, motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, taxis, people, and street peddlers. Everyone creates their own lane, and the speedy maneuverable motorcycles stream wherever there is an open space, weaving back and forth between sides. Rickshaws plow head first into throngs of people, and magically a path clears. Bells, whistles, and car horns constantly screech the presence of their drivers to the rest of the world. Jonathan stood by the roadside one day and found he could only count to three before another honk or noxious noise pierced the air.

Taking a right turn across traffic in our rickshaw actually made me put my hands up to cover my eyes – I literally couldn’t watch, because I was sure we were going to die.

Besides being riddled with potholes and dirt patches, the roads became even more like obstacle courses due to the random piles of trash strewn in the streets. The trash is just swept into heaps, and then sits there. We couldn’t discern any sort of trash collection the 6 days we were there.

And yet, it all worked together somehow. People flowed and went about their daily business, shopkeepers hawked their wares, women sold fruit and vegetables while men prayed and placed offerings on thousand year old religious shrines on the side of the road. The city had a festive spirit as people prepared for the upcoming 5 day holiday of Tihar, and shops were decorated with garlands of flowers and holiday sweets were sold.

Amazingly, we got used to it in just a few short days. It seemed natural to pick our way along the narrow streets, and to move my arm up out of the way to avoid being hit a car’s rearview mirror zooming by. We stepped blithely around the trash, and learned to hold our ground against oncoming honking motorcycles.

And viva Thamel, the tourist ghetto, where we savored the first Diet Coke, Pizza and baked goods since leaving Beijing…:)

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