Saturday, November 19, 2005

Crazy Game of Frogger.

Welcome to the South China Sea, where the MV Explorer has encountered the roughest seas of the voyage! Everybody is sick! Woohoo! About 30 people showed up to Global Studies that they decided to break with the tradition and allow the class to be broadcast directly into the cabins. Kevin Murphy, the Global Studies lecturer, almost stopped mid lecture, but somehow managed to pull it through. I was really busy since so many professors decided to show movies instead of lecturing today. I don’t blame them. Even Sam, my new AV counterpart, who has lived six years on a ship, tells me was the first time he’s ever gotten sick.

The rocking is pretty violent and random, unlike previous swells, and that is why I think everyone is sick. It is impossible to sleep for any length of time before getting jolted awake. The windows on the seventh deck Staffulty lounge are getting nailed with spray. Several students and I spent some time last night timing our jumps with the slams to see how high we jump. Really, there was only one thing left to do in this kind of weather.

I needed a haircut.

Yup. Apparently the hair on the sides of my head an the back of my neck grow much faster than the hair on the top of my head (balding? Um… my grampa on my mom’s side died with a full head of hair… I’m safe! Whew!) that I beginning to show hints of Gallagher with a mullet. Chicks dig that, right?

I went to the beauty spa, home of the sauna and massage tables and exercise rooms and barber shop (rough life, eh?), and requested a touch up of the sides. Remember that scene in Jackass when Steve-O gets a tattoo while offroading on a Hummer? It was like getting a haircut from someone with severe Parkinson’s. The results?

Well, if you think Kim Jong Il of North Korea is sexy, than I’m the man for you. I might request a little touch-up when the water is a little calmer, but we’ll see.

The captain will try to steer behind some islands for protection against the weather, and I can see a huge city of Taiwan as I type this. Not sure which… I’ll got check the Map Channel later.

Alright, more catch-up to do. We new immediately that Vietnam was going to be a different experience when they taught us how to cross the streets in Ho Chi Minh, complete with simulated cars. The trick? Once you go for it and start crossing the street, you have to commit and go all the way through. Much like gymnastics, the most dangerous thing you can do is hesitate, because the drivers assume that you will be moving forward and will dodge you accordingly. Since there seem to be more motorcycles than people in Ho Chi Minh, this is a scary proposition the first time you actually try it, but it isn’t long before you trust the system and start walking into the busiest streets just to get a kick of watching the parting of the Red Sea.
After a windy, three-hour trip up the Saigon River, we arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, and immediately you notice how modern and western the city is. The staff members who have been here as recently as two years ago say that the city has undergone a tremendous shift. Gone are the bicycles and traditional clothing and in are shops and malls and fashionable wear. I saw little evidence of a Communist economy while there, unless the Communist Party is really into making sure all citizens get a fair share of Armani Exchange. There were western brands everywhere.

(By the way, I’m convinced KFC is the most popular brand in the world. Colonel Sanders died a famous man).

I had planned for a long time to meet with a man named Cuong, a native Vietnamese man who befriended some SAS staff members over a decade ago. When Pete returned to Vietnam as a resident dean of the Fall 2000 voyage with Anne, he had raised some $5000 to help Cuong buy a house. Cuong has been indebted ever since.

Anne gave me his contact information, and we agreed by email to meet at the Ho Chi Minh Museum upon my arrival. What I didn’t know at the time is that the city has some five Ho Chi Minh museums, and he waited next to the one located next to the ship, dedicated to HCM the man himself. I walked all the way to a museum dedicated to the city, waited some time and didn’t find him, so decided to tour the city by foot, on my own.

The city is wonderful, modern, easy to get around, and I got to do a lot, so I’ll save a few details.

First, I visited the War Remnants museum, dedicated to the victims of the Vietnam War (or, as called over there, the American War or the War of Vietnam Agression). The first thing I noticed is that I’ve never seen a movie has successfully captured the look of Vietnam during the war. There was an war photography exhibit, and most of the pictures involved a lot of mud, which we don’t see in most of the movies set in the war.

The museum puts a real face on the Vietnamese side. Most of what I know about the war comes from movies from the war, but, as noted by Kevin Murphy, they’re never about the war but about how the war changed the soldier. The Vietnamese side is faceless or never dealt with, and the museum immediately adds that perspective for you.

There are two moments in particular that make Americans feel very uncomfortable while there: the start of the exhibit, which starts with the American Declaration of Independence, and this text on Agent Orange. It hurts reading it, and in combination to the descriptions of torture techniques, the experience was powerful. War is hell.

I continued on my foot tour of the city, visiting a Catholic Church that had a Virgin Mary statue that the faithful believed was “crying” and so they clamored around it by the thousands. I’d never seen a miracle up close and personal before. Unless you count the Berman’s performance on the HBMR video. That was an amazing experience.

Things were so cheap in Southeast Asia... and everything is fake, though oftentimes the workmanship is so good there is nothing to tell you what you're buying isn't real. All the CD and DVD are pirated, all books are illegal copies, and there are fake brand name accessories all over the place. I bought a huge North Face backpack for $15 and a Rolex for $10. Not bad, eh?

After calling my mom for the first time since the voyage began (I'm a bad son), getting pinched by a prostitute, and hanging out with the staff and students until late, I was able to figure out where Cuong and I went wrong, and luckily, he volunteered to try again the next morning at 9am... just a few hours later.

I met up with Cuong, a diminutive man who believes he's 40s, though either he doesn't know exactly or he wasn't able to convey it to me in English. His wife was also present, and after a brief introduction I hopped on the motorcycle and we headed into the crazy Vietnamese motorcycle traffic. I'm not going to tell you I thought this was a smart idea - they tell us on the ship that 30 people die a day in Vietnam from motorcycle accidents, and I didn't have a helmet. But I couldn't miss out on this unique opportunity and Cuong's generosity, so we hopped on board. It was pretty fun to see him dodging the pedestrians and other obstacles, and since I'm about twice his size, I'm pretty sure he needed quite a bit of effort to get the cycle moving... objects in motion tend to stay in motion...

We drove and drove and drove until we got to an industrial part of the city, where Cuong lives. We arrive at his house, in a very poor area where there is a home-made fishing pond and chickens around. In other words, I was near malaria and avian bird flu at the same time, and with the motorcycle rides, the only unsafe thing I didn't do was have unprotected sex with a prostitute. That I remember, anyway.

Soon the neighborhood children are packing his door frame trying to get a glimpse of this strange creature that's come to make a visit. "They've never seen an American," Cuong tells me. As I've done in all the other places, I start making friends with a little juggling, and next thing you know, I'm playing tag and other games with them while Cuong's wife cooks us a delicious meal.

At lunch Cuong tells me all about himself and shows me his pictures, including some that I had seen before from Anne, He doesn't live in the house bought with the $5000 given to him - his wife lives there with his five-year-old son because there are better schools in that neighborhood. He lives near his work, and now work isn't much anymore. Nine months ago, he was working at a nearby factory making fishing nets, and he lost a finger in a work-related accident. He was fired and given a $60 severance package. Out of work, he had to improvise, so now he collects cans and after opening them with a device he built, he sells them as scrap metal. His wife makes about $70 a month at her job.

After the meal, he asks if he he can take me anywhere, and I tell him I always wanted to go to the Cuchi Tunnels. He said no problem, so we hopped on his motorcycle on our two hour trek of Vietnamese backcountry. This time I had a helmet.

The backcountry is exactly as we expect Vietnam to be in our minds: rural, green, with traditional clothing, ox carts, bicycles, conical straw hats, and rice field after rice field after rice field. I did wonder why they bothered marking the streets with traffic signs, because really, they didn't mean much. We never stopped dodging cars and buses and trucks driving into oncoming traffic, often sending us to the shoulder. There does seem to be a pattern after a while, so you really get used to it and feel safe. Until it starts raining. But I'll save that story in a second.

Two hours later, we arrive at the tunnel, which is an amazing experience in itself, showing me how little I knew about the Vietnam war. I had an impression in my mind that the tunnels were somewhat like the U-boats in World War II, that is, impressive but ultimately not important in the big picture of how the war progressed. I was wrong - the tunnels were an intergral part of the strategy of the guerilla warfare. They are an impressive feat of stealth engineering and improvisation, complete with hospitals and dining halls and booby traps. I walked through them and they are very small, I was sweating profusely by the time I reached 50 meters or so - it takes a lot of effort crawling through them, and the smaller average size of the Vietnamese soldier actually worked in their advantage because oftentimes American soldiers couldn't fit through some of the holes.

I spent two hours around the tunnels, and you leave with the feeling that the Vietnamese had a complete resolve to win the American War, regardless of the cost to their country. They were simply hard-wired to do so. Even today, you sense this undertone of pride that the little country beat out the big American invaders. It feels very weird to westeners, especially since the Vietnamese tend to be very hospitable to Americans nowadays. Cuong tells me he wishes people would just forget what happened. I wonder how easy that is to do.

I leave the tunnel, and a monsoon of epic proportion hits us. Of all the Vietnam movies I've seen, the only one that gets this right is Forrest Gump. Really, Forrest Gump! They rains come and go exactly as described in the movie, like someone turns them on an off in a matter of seconds. It can be sunny, and then you see a wall of cloud rolling in, and it's pouring rain in a matter of 30 seconds.

We're running out of light, so we need to make the two hour trek home. I ask Cuong if this is safe, but I'm not sure he understands my question. He puts on a plastic bag, and we're on our way.

I'm not proud of this, but this was definitely one of the craziest things I've ever done. I can't see a thing with the hard rain pelting my eyes. I'm not sure Cuong could see it either. The traffic continues moving as if this were a drought, and the road is often flooded. At one point, crossing about six inches of water, Cuong loses control of the motorcycle and we manage to fall off but stay on our feet (thank you, gymnastics!). Cuong loses a sandal in the process, which I find in the middle of traffic and have to run out and get it.

An hour later, the rain stopped, and we're relieved. We get back to the ship so I can get some dry shoes (I hate wet shoes), and I go out and treat Cuong to dinner and coffee. I'm not sure what it is with me and motorcycles in distant countries, but this was a pretty sweet day, one of the best. We say our goodbyes and I'm off to another night of fun in Saigon. If you're ever in Vietnam, give me a call, and I'll put you in touch with Cuong. He'll show you around.

The next day, we traveled to the Kingdom of Cambodia. That's next.

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