Tuesday, November 08, 2005

What now?

Jeff and I have been home in Chicago for over a month and I'm at loss for what do with this blog. We've loved using this site to keep everyone updated about our lives, but now that we've settled back into our lives here, I see this blog needing to morph into something different. I'm open to your suggestions, so send them to me.

As for us, Jeff's back at work in his Chicago office and I just returned today to my old company VSA Partners as a Strategist. It's strange because in so many ways, it's like time stood still and waited for us while we were away. Jeff and I both feel that this experience of living abroad changed us, so it feels a little uncomfortable to have slipped so easily into our old lives. We had to pass up an opportunity to travel to India at the end of this month for a friend's wedding, but it's not so easy (or cheap) to travel internationally now. I do hope we can get over there sometime soon.

I'm slated to write some eco blogs for my friends at Urban Eco as well as some "Make a Difference" articles about green travel at CharityGuide.org. Make sure to check out those sites soon for those.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Last night before the long way home

Cambodia meets and far surpasses any expectations Jeff or I may have had before we arrived. It's too soon for me to feel comfortable making declarations about how or what this country is, but this place leaves me feeling in awe by the accomplishments of mankind, angry at the suffering that lingers from war and corruption, in tears over the number of crippled and impoverished children, and humbled by the resourcefulness and tenacity of people that refuse to give up.

We're staying at Earthwalkers, a guesthouse set up and run by a group of Norwegians that wanted to create a place that would give something back to the Cambodian community. These folks set-up and run various programs to help street children in Siem Reap, of which there are plenty. Yesterday, I learned that almost half of Cambodia's population was born after 1990 -- and there aren't enough adults to care for all the kids. And Siem Reap is unusual and dare I say lucky, because something like 84% of the population lives in rural areas where aid is unlikely to reach, but landmines abound.

We visited the Landmine Museum run by Aki Ra, a guy that was made into a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge after they killed his parents and taught him to make bombs, caught as a POW by the Vietnamese army and forced to fight against the KR, eventually transferred into the Cambodian army, and finally recruited by the United Nations to find the landmines and disarm them. Nobody noticed that he was keeping the mines that he de-mined and eventually he had enough to fill a museum. Even though the war is over and the fighting has stopped, the Cambodian countryside is estimated to have 1 million live landmines still planted that continue to kill and maim adults and children alike, on average something like 900 people a year. Aki Ra's mission is to make his country safe, and God bless him for that. I wish the United States would reconsider its position on landmines and sign the worldwide treaty to ban landmines. Iraq is now the country with the most landmines planted in its land.

OK, Jeff's says it's time to go. I'll be posting pics when we get back to Chicago, which will be this Friday afternoon sometime.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Cambodia, here we come!

Faithful readers, I can't wait until I've got free Internet access again, because wow! do I have a lot to tell. I need to keep this brief because I'm paying 100 dong a minute.

After leaving the idyllic and laidback Jungle Beach where we spent our time in hammocks and rustic beach huts, Jeff and I found ourselves in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, as it used to be called. Thank God we're leaving Vietnam tomorrow, because I don't think my nerves can take much more of urban Vietnam. Motobikes rule the roads in Vietnam, and traffic signals and signs are either non-existent, out of order, or ignored. However, drivers are required to use their horn when passing and for countless other reasons, so my ears are constantly filled with the beeps! honks! and toots! of horns. There's close to eight million people in HCMC, and I think nearly all of them drive a bike. Simply crossing the street requires you to step out into traffic and just start walking -- you just have to trust that traffic will flow around you, which somehow it does from all directions. For those of you that know how awful I am to drive with since the car accident last year, I'm hoping that after this I won't be such a panicky freak.

Jeff can't believe this, but the highlight of our trip for me came yesterday, when we toured the Cu Chi Tunnels that the Viet Cong dug, lived and fought in during the American War. We watched some war propoganda film, were shown some awful primitive, yet effective death traps that the VC created for the American soldiers, and then got to shoot guns. Yes, you heard me, we bought 10 bullets at 18000 dong apiece and tried our hand at shooting Vietnamese-issue assault rifles. Oh the pictures! Frankly, after my initial enthusiasm I was pretty scared to actually pull the trigger, although there was a shooting range guard standing right next to me. Surprisingly, I was a pretty poor shot (for some reason, I thought I'd be a natural), but Jeff came "this close" to hitting the target.

After target practice, we crawled through a 30-meter length of tunnel that was terrifyingly small and dark and left my heart pounding with claustrophobia and an overactive imagination. Our tour guide then rewarded us with fresh tapioca root with ground peanuts and tea, an everyday VC snack I'm guessing.

Despite, or perhaps because, of all the entertainment value at Cu Chi, it gave me the evidence of the war that I needed to more real, more tangible, for me. As someone born after the conflict, I really couldn't grasp what happened here, and to look at it today, you might think this was simply another developing nation. I also just finished reading a biography of Kim Phuc, the little Viet girl in that famous picture running naked after being hit with napalm. Experiencing present day Vietnam makes me wonder how many years and generations it will be before we know the truth and facts about what we're doing in Iraq and the true situation there.

But now it's time to make my pack hold for one more journey (the blasted thing is falling apart and I'm too cheap to buy a new one). We've heard mixed opinions on Cambodia and Siem Reap, so we're curious to go check it out for ourselves.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Off to Jungle Beach

Leaving little Hoi An in just a bit for Jungle Beach, a little beach hideaway outside of Nha Trang (a.k.a. China Beach). We've really enjoyed our stay in Hoi An and met some incredibly friendly people, a few of which we'll be keeping in touch with.

Yesterday I took a half-day cooking class with the Red Bridge Cooking School, which involved a trip to the market, a boat ride to the restaurant, and demo and hands-on learning of about four different dishes that we ate up for lunch. There was also a quick lesson in the art of food decoration, which I was miserable at. Seems my lack of paring knife skills is undermining my tomato roses. Must practice more with knives.

Sorry these posts have been infrequent and light, but I'm in the midst of an awful cold. Here I am in sweltering heat and sunshine with a sore throat, cough and stuffy nose. It's just not right. Jeff is making the most of his new camera and taking some really cool shots that we'll be adding to these posts later, so keep an eye out for those.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Arrived in Hoi An

It's only been six days into this trip and already Jeff and I have travelled via plane, bus, cyclo, boat, motobike and train. After leaving Hanoi last night from a two-day trip to Halong Bay, we caught an overnight train to central Vietnam. Being the classy people that we are, I'd booked us on 1st class sleeper cars that afforded us some degree of rest, considering it was a 12-hour trip.

The train was actually quite comfortable, but the best part was sharing the cabin with an old Vietnamese auntie and her nephew or grandson. Neither of them spoke English and since we don't yet speak any Vietnamese, there was a lot of gesturing and facial expressions to communicate. I took the bottom berth, as did auntie, which was good as we both woke at dawn. We sat and watched the ultra green countryside go by and life in the rice fields start.

Then the breakfast carts came by and auntie bought me and her what I thought were hard-boiled eggs and some curry leaves to go with our noodle soup. In fact, the eggs were actually half-hatched chickens, sometimes called balut, with partially-formed organs, head, and limbs. Lucky for me, the Discovery channel had a program on unusual Asian delicacies not too long ago, so I had at least heard of this food before. As I pride myself on trying everything, am not a vegetarian and quite enjoy eggs and chicken, I thought "what the hell" and popped it in my mouth. It was really tasty, with a taste and texture like, you guessed it, a hard-boiled egg yolk. I did spit out one tiny bone and crunch a bit on the beak, though. Thank goodness Jeff slept through breakfast; his stomach to try things like that is a bit more sensitive than mine.

And now we're in Hoi An, where we plan to spend the next several days. I hope to take a cooking class, visit an orphanage and get some clothes tailored while we're here. But first things first and it's time to get some dinner -- hold the balut.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Good morning Vietnam

It's a bright, clear morning in Hanoi and I'm letting my husband sleep in on our first day of our honeymoon. Jeff pointed out to me yesterday that we're just shy of being married six months. I know we're not very traditional people, but I still can't believe it's taken us six months to get to the point where we have longer than a weekend to relax and celebrate this marriage. Yet considering how hard Jeff's worked these past 10 months and all that we've done to make this work, I feel like this is so much more than a honeymoon. This is a reward for all those months of separation, the sacrifices we made back home, all the long nights and weekends Jeff spent working, being good sports.

So my husband sleeps as this city wakes up. We're staying in the heart of Hanoi, right near the Hoan Kiem Lake, somewhere between the Old Quarter and the French Quarter. There's a parade marching past our window because, as luck would have it, we're here during Vietnam's National Day, marking 60 years of independence from France. Last night, as Jeff and I walked around the Hoan Kiem Lake, there were literally thousands of people out clogging the streets. Since we didn't know any better, Jeff and I thought that this must be an exceptionally busy night in a bustling city. But then we noticed really well-designed posters and banners commemorating the occasion. These posters are very cool, with typography and imagery that recall the Futurist movement, as well as old propoganda posters.

I want to go outside and see the parade now, so I'll continue this later.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Farewell Singapore

It's our last morning in Singapore and our plane to Hanoi leaves at 15:30. This feels very bittersweet for us, because there are some very lovable parts to Singapore. There is so much that I know Jeff and I are going to miss:

never being cold or having to think about the weather
the courtesy and good manners displayed by young and old alike
cheap and accessible public transportation that makes driving a car unnecessary
the food
having a housekeeper that makes the bed and washes the dishes daily
watching Bollywood movies and crazy ghost stories on TV
hearing music you thought long since dead and buried resurrected for your listening pleasure
the charming architecture of the colorful old Chinese shophouses and gracious colonial black-and-whites
green green green everywhere you look in this clean and well-cared-for tropical city
feeling safe to walk in any neighborhoorhood at any hour of the day
living close to and learning so much from the Chinese, Indian and Malay
being just a plane hop away from a totally different country, language, food, culture and currency.

To sum it up, we're going to miss this experience of living in a different country/continent/hemisphere. Singapore may not be the most exotic stop in SouthEast Asia for the average tourist, but Jeff and I haven't been tourists. We've been expats.