Friday, January 30, 2009

Bangkok: Booked!

I miss Pad Thai.

And thanks to the 'global meltdown' that everyone is so afraid of and the recent protests in Thailand, AirAsia is having a sale on flights between Hanoi and Bangkok. 0$ round-trip, and only 60$ with taxes and fees!

I will be spending my birthday eating pad thai on the streets, and sipping cocktails on the beach.
Bangkok, here I come!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The End of Tet.

Traditional Tet decoration

About two days into Tet (the Vietnamese lunar new year) I was totally over the whole thing and ready for the bakeries to reopen. I want a croissant. This holiday seems to last longer than an American election campaign!

I definitely did not expect everything to be closed this long, and for the city to be this quiet. I have spent the last couple of days riding my roomates bicycle through the quiet streets, about the only time I think I can enjoy such a ride. I feel lucky to have already met so many Vietnamese people, and they all want to show me what Tet is all about.

I should have been warned about some things, like the fact that people give red envelopes of 'lucky' money. I received about 10 of these, and I'm sure they were all thinking 'great, a cheap-o' when they saw a foreigner walk in the door! But apparently it's forgiveable for a foreigner to not have lucky money to give, especially an international volunteer.

Before visiting some shrines, I also had the opportunity to eat some bamboo soup and some vegetarian banh chung at another friend's house. Banh chung is a square rice cake that is usually stuffed with pork and beans, wrapped in giant leaves and then boiled for almost a whole day. It's offered to ancestor's beforeTet, and then finally eaten afterwards. Mine came off of Buddha's alter, because as we all know, Buddha and I are both vegetarians! It didn't taste so bad once you get over the green colour and the fact that it was boiled for a whole day and has sat on some alter for god-knows-how-long soaking up incense and growing bacteria. I was trying to tell myself that boiling it in the leaves is like sterilising something in a glass jar... kind of like canning! It helped.

I spent today visiting the homes of the director and vice-director of the organisation. It was really quite enjoyable despite about 95% of conversation happening in Vietnamese. I spent most of the time staring at the muted television wondering what the hell those Vietnamese music videos could possibly be about (skimpy women singing in fields of flowers...). Every now and then a co-worker would give me a vague idea of what they are talking and laughing about: She is talking about picking a tree for Tet... Apparently I am quite a commodity, as it is considered lucky to have a foreigner come into someone's home during Tet.

Lunch was quite interesting, just as soon as everyone stopped eating the men started drinking heavily and smoking while the women would peel citrus fruits. I couldn't really engage in either of those activities, though I was taking very small sips of the black-rice alcohol the men tried to feed me, fearing that if I drank it too quickly they might fill my glass up again. I think I've eaten enough dried fruits, nuts and sticky rice to last me a lifetime!

Gratuitous Video Scene #1: Hanoi

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới !

I've been almost embarrassed to mention that I am now on vacation. Almost everything is closed now, and the entire country has been celebrating Tet, the lunar new year. It's strange, but many Vietnamese follow the lunar dates. It's not uncommon for someone to say 'the 23rd' and mean the 23rd day of the lunar calendar which is really, let's say, the 30th of a given month. Awfully confusing for the foreigner. I wonder if it affects the time of day too, because the Vietnamese tend to be consistently late!

There are many traditions and superstitions regarding Tet. People spend the week before Tet shopping and preparing traditional foods and an equally long time figuring out who should be the first person to enter their house in the new year. It's believed that the first person can influence the fortunes of the family, and so someone is chosen based on their age, their year, and some other characteristics ( like honesty, purity, blah blah all those things that only exist in fairy tales and legends). To follow the tradition I have cleaned my office and bedroom, paid my credit card and been subjected to hearing my neighbours slaughter the rooster that has been waking me up every morning.

Last night I joined some Vietnamese friends for the festivities. We met up at someone's house that had been decked in Tet decorations. Cumquat trees, branches with little flower blossoms, and fruit was dutifully stacked on the alters commemorating loved ones long gone.

After eating cucumbers and sticky rice and watching pork, chicken and meaty spring rolls be enviously eaten before my eyes (dumb for me not to remind them of my vegetarianism, but I had really already eaten) we headed out to watch the fireworks and street festivities.

In Vietnamese style, we basically left 5 minutes before midnight rushing through the streets. As we walked the anticipation was amazing, motorbikes and people rushing in one direction, as if we were going to watch the end of the world.

As soon as it hit midnight and the fireworks started, the crowd erupted. I made a wish and sent up a lantern into the sky. Not so successful, as it got caught in the power lines. It got freed by some people in the crowd who were throwing things at it to get it free, but then got caught in a street decoration. It finally became free again, and it seemed like the crowd was just as happy as I was, as my wish is likely to come true and they were safe from a potentially disastrous electrical fire.

Happy New Year, or Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Still in Asia?

So did they get the rejects of long-gone fads from the 1980s?
What are these called anyways? There were about 8 machines in this gym, and two of them were these (was was attached to a treadmill)!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Week 1: Hanoi in Pictures

Just because I am white, it doesn't mean I want a moto-biiiiike! So stop waving at me!

This is the entrance of the house I am living in

My day, this is a hat shop, by night it is a streetside barbecue!

Street food

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Starting the Internship

I am now at my second day of work. There is a lot of review that I have to do before I can really have a good idea of how the organisation functions and to become familiar with all of its projects and activities. So far everybody is extremely nice and welcoming towards me. We had a briefing meeting where I was introduced to everybody and everyone went around and introduced themselves and their projects. There are about 20 or so people working here, and all of them are Vietnamese except for me, another Canadian and an Australian (vegetarian) that I have yet to meet.

So far, I am extremely happy with this job. I have a feeling that I will really enjoy these next couple months. There is so much to learn. They gave me a desk right next to the window. Every 20 minutes or so I turn my head and look out to the city from this 16th floor office and grin. I just can't believe I am here.

I have been so incredibly busy these last couple of days just meeting people and going out for coffee, lunch, dinner, drinks... hopping on and off motorbikes whizzing around the busy streets. With work and plans every night until Thursday, I am really looking forward to some relaxing time during the Tet Holiday.

I have yet to cook a meal in this country. Everything is so inexpensive, it's hard not to resist restaurants. I have been eating quite well. As a contrast, in Japan I had been eating a lot more junk stuff like tempura and fried things because that's about all I can find. Yesterday I went out for lunch with all my co-workers, and there were about 20 small plates of food that we picked off of and a bowl of rice. I ate string beans, tofu, cabbage salad, some pickled vegetables and salted peanuts. It felt light but satisfying. I think I can used to this. Tonight I will be going out for Chinese BBQ with a German vegetarian girl and her team at a UN organisation. Apparently there are a lot of veggie choices.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

First Day in Hanoi

All I can say is that I just had one of the most eventful days of my life. So far, I am completely in love with the city, its dirt and noise and traffic and especially the chickens and roosters that seem to live outside my window.

I started out the day with my Australian roommate, we went to a nearby vegetarian restaurant. As we were walking and talking I found it hard to keep my focus. This was the first time I experienced Hanoi, and so I was eating up every single sight. We curved around alleyways trickling with people walking, cycling, and on motorbike. The occasional vendor passing by, snippets of ground-level workshops with people wielding and mending, small restaurants and cafés. And this was only in the alley to the main road!

The vegetarian restaurant, Ha Thanh (#116, Alley 166, Kim Ma Street, Ba Đình), specialises in mock-meat dishes. I got a sort of barbecued sausage dishes that came with rice and a soup, and cost only about 2$ Canadian! They also have a vegetarian breakfast pho which is only about 75 cents. So I will be back!

After a long walk into the old quarter to get my Vietnamese SIM card, I called a Vietnamese friend and hopped onto a xe om, a motorbike taxi.

Imagine me clutching onto my dear life on a xéom, hoping the sesame and peanut milk I drank at Mr. Bean Dream didn't suddenly give me an inconvenient gastro-intestinal 'reaction.' Imagine never having ridden on a motorbike and then doing so in Vietnam!

I held on as hard as I could and just took in all the amazing sights. People whizzing back and forth on the narrow streets like rockets or fireworks shooting up into the sky before exploding. Thin and narrow buildings that reach 6 or 7 storeys with shops at the ground floor, and small street vendors huddled on the sidewalk diligently filling up empty bowls and empty stomachs!

I thought 'this is what a true city is!'

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Finally in Hanoi

I am in Hanoi now.

First thing I noticed: it's humid and smells like matches. And there is this thick fog everywhere.
I've only experienced the night so far, but it strangely reminds me of the nights in Florida, when i was a kid.

More to come later.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hello from South Korea

I am in Seoul, waiting for my connection to Hanoi. I have about 4 hours to spare, but only about 20 minutes on my laptop... and no adapter plug on me to charge it.

If I can add on to my recent post about becoming increasingly fearful of flying, it's as if every flight I take without plunging into the Earth increases my chance that the next flight will be the flight of doom. To make matters worse, I, the only white person on the flight from Hiroshima to Seoul got stuck with the emergency exit seat. I was afraid that each time I tried to pick up a fruit with my chopstick was a chance that my elbow would unlatch the door and we'd all be sucked out at 35,000 feet over the East Sea.

At least I got a meal on the 1.5 hour long flight.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Making Friends (and Enemies)

I don't step foot in Hanoi for another couple of days and I've already made quite a few friends. Not only friendly local Vietnamese, but other foreigners alike. It's a good start. Maybe moving around a couple times as a kid has made me socially adaptable. yeah right.

I've also seem to have made an enemy. I got a pretty harsh message from a prospective roommate, upset because she found out (through other friends) that I was looking for other 'long-term arrangements' with other houses. This, after she did not respond to an e-mail for over a week, where I was asking for an update on when I could move in as the date was not set. She finally responded, yes, but asking me for a couple more days because the availability was 'now up in the air'. Maybe that was a mistranslation between American English and Quebec English, but I take that as enough uncertainty that dipping my feet in other housing adverts would be acceptable. Her e-mail basically ended with 'have a nice life', but I should be saying that to her, as I am sure she has a lot of difficulty with an attitude like that.

Good news is that I will now be moving into a much calmer house. With a Canadian couple and two Americans. The location seems more ideal, and there is this cute vegetarian restaurant really close by that I discovered on the New Hanoian. That's enough to convince me.

My time in Japan has been amazing, despite being low-fi, and just chilling with Jeannette. The food is much better, thanks to Jeannette's greater grasp on the ability to express the mind-blowing notion that vegetarian means no fish. Motto is really amazing, he made tempura for us the other night, and a sweet soba soup with fried tofu on the top. He's also been sharing the futon with me and Jeannette, Jeannette acting as a suitable heterosexual barrier between us. Her snoring also muffles out his own, and likewise for my sleeptalking. And so there is no embarrassment!

I've decided that while I am in Hanoi, I will start thinking more about possibly going to grad school. I would definitely consider studying in Japan. I've looked at university websites for schools in Kyoto and Hiroshima. Judging from their proper use of English, I would say they look pretty good!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Field Trip to Yamaguchi City in Pictures

We relaxed and dipped our feet in one of the city's foot onsens. After a while it get pretty crowded, but everyone was chatting to each other. It seemed like a big community thing, there was even a couple with a month-old baby!

Jeannette is obsessed with trying every weird flavour of soft-serve. This one is soba-flavoured.

Lighting an incense at the Pagoda in Yamaguchi.

People would leave offerings for the spirits, I think this one is for children. Yes, that is a doughnut.

The Pagoda.

Me and Beth, a fellow Canadian eating at this delicious macrobiotic vegetarian organic restaurant.

Instead of eating, you can always opt for a martini glass of these yummy green pills, that are much better than eating a basket of plastic fruit and vegetables.


The other night Jeannette and I went to this new bar with a bunch of other foreigners that was owned by two young Japanese brothers. The bar was about the size of my kitchen in Montreal, fitting only about seven chairs around the bar.

As two Japanese people entered the bar, everyone else left. Which was good, because I don't know how they would have fit in the bar. The girl was in a kimono, and immediately started talking to me and Jeannette. It turns out nobody spoke enough good English, and so we had to resort to primitive noises and gestures in order to communicate.

At one point while trying to describe a question for us, she had a cigarette pack on the right, a lighter on the left, and a pair of chopsticks in the middle. We had no idea what she was asking, and how all three of these objects related to each other. Finally it dawned on Jeannette: She had made a scale of sexuality, the cigarettes being 'Homo', the chopsticks being 'Straightu' and the lighter being 'Lezzu'.... of, of course! At this point it started to get uncomfortable, as she was obviously very drunk, and winking and licking her lips at Jeannette. She said she was a lighter - a Lezzu. I don't think this type of question is very common, and either it is quite obvious that I'm gay (which I just thought would not be too obvious in Japanese society were the guys spend so much money and time on clothes and their hair), or Jeannette and I happened to find the only gay hotspot in Tokuyama.

Either way, we both got molested by her, as she got up from the bar, she kissed me on the lips, and then proceeded to bite on Jeannette's nose while nuzzling Jeannette's head on the rough silk of her kimono... Yeah. Not awkward at all.

The point is, gaydar is international, all you need is the instruction manual in your language.

Friday, January 9, 2009

United Once Again!

So I've arrived at Jeannette's in Tokuyama. I am surprisingly not very jetlagged, I fell asleep around midnight and woke up around 9 am, which is my usual schedule. Other than a couple scary sleep talk/walking episodes that woke up Jeannette, I slept pretty well.

I finally met Motto, Jeannette's Japanese boyfriend. He is super nice, and he is just so cute the way he is a little awkward and dorky just like Jeannette. We went to a tempura restaurant near Jeannette's. I had a bunch of veggies dipped in the batter and fried, but the best was the nest of shredded carrot.

In terms of Hanoi, I think an apartment will finally work out, after having another apartment not fall through. This time, it's with a Canadian couple who lived in Montreal for a while.

It's strange to think that my life has pretty much changed now. I'll never be able to go back to Montreal, to my apartment and to my boyfriend. This isn't a vacation. It's just the next step in my life.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Land of the Rising Sun: Japan.

Sorting of this sort would never be acceptable in Montreal. People get upset that they have to separate plastic from paper

We flew over Lake Winnipeg, through the prairies and then into the tundra of the Yukon and Alaska

This was the flight route from Chicago to Tokyo

I am in Tokyo right now, waiting for my plane to Hiroshima. I feel just a little dirty and very tired.

I had this unexpected cold develop over the last couple of days, and I am thankfully feeling better. It might be because I accidentally took twice the dosage of Cold-FX last night and this morning.

I swear that as I get older, I become more and more terrified of things... like for instance flying. I am always convinced that just one turbulent motion or one 'unstable air pocket' is enough to send the plane rocketing to the bottom of the ocean, or to some suburban neighbourhood, destroying the local Wal-Mart and and most of the McDonald's drive through. Once we landed in Chicago, I told myself I was done with this trip. And it was only 3 hours into a total of a 27 hour journey... and this 27 hour journey isn't even my final destination!

I forgot how great Japan is. I am sitting at Gate B of Narita Airports domestic departures terminate, and it is pretty much silent except for the faint traditional Japanese music playing the background. And the way the people great you, smiling with the whole face, and repeating over and over and over again how much they want to thank you... arigato gozaimasu!! It's nice.

Lunch was even good on the plane. Some weird concoction of steamed vegetables, sushi rice and tomato sauce... and then a plate with about one third of a gherkin, a fourth of a shitake mushroom and some baby corn.

I'm glad I am taking a week to just chill with Jeannette. It's a much needed break from all the stressful preparations... But I asked myself on the plane while over the Pacific "What the fuck am I doing?!"

Thursday, January 1, 2009

One Week Left.

It has been quite a while since my last post, and I apologise for it. It's been rather hard dealing with something major that happened. Sorry for the vagueness, but I'll just say I started packing some clothes a lot earlier than I had thought.

I now have less than a week left before I leave and I feel I have not gotten very much done. I have mostly been moping around and stressing about the house, not accomplishing anything because there is just too much to do. Sounds familiar? I feel like I am back in university (Note to self: work on your ability to accomplish things on a tight schedule while you are gone).

The money situation is very good at the moment. I believe I'll be able to survive with the amount that I managed to save and fundraise. I'll have to monitor how much I spend in the first month I'm there to know exactly how much I need, and how much I can afford. With meals on the street often less than a dollar, I don't think I'll have a hard time affording food!

Christmas brought me together with friends and family, who I feel have been very supportive of me, and the impending doom I have put myself into. My aunt asked me if I'm afraid of being lonely. I said no, but the truth is that I am terrified. It part of what I need to work on, not needing the presence of others in order to feel occupied or happy.

Christmas also brought some much needed things. Let's just say I've never been so happy to see the familiar pink colour of anti-diarrhoea medication sticking out of my stalking! But I'm sure I'll be even more happy in a couple months when I'm crossing my legs as if cracking a walnut trying to find that pink box and regretting my decision to eat at that sketchy street stall run by that old wrinkly lady with no teeth.