Saturday, July 30, 2005

Illness and observations

So I've been here for 4 days now. I've seen the major sights, and I'm headed off tomorrow morning for a 3-day boat tour on the Mekong Delta. How much would you pay for transportation and hotel? How does USD14 sound? They don't cover my meals, but that's ok. I thought about going for the full-on 4 day tour with a 1 night homestay with a random family somewhere on the delta, but after wasting a day recovering from a hangover I decided I need to get a little back on track, there are more exciting adventures awaiting me further north.

I've been to a fair number of countries, and everytime I've gone to the more third world ones, like Morocco and now Vietnam, I typically last about 4 days before getting really ill. So, like clockwork, my stomach's been rumbly and I've not been feeling well. I'm a little worried since on my trips to Morocco I only felt ill in-country and as soon as I got back to Spain (only a few days), I started feeling a lot better. This time I've still got 3 weeks to go. I hope I don't feel bad the whole time.

When I was packing for my trip, I was pretty worried about what I would do with all that free time I'd have with no one to talk to. So I figured I should take a book to read and went out and spent quite a bit on a book in Spanish so it'd last me the whole time. Well, guess I wasted that money. Here, kids walk up to you on the sidewalk and try to sell you little, copied versions of various books. Just about ever book ever written on Vietnam is here, as well as almost the entire set of Lonely Planet guides pertaining to Asia. But they also have recently popular books like the latest Harry Potter and Bill Clinton's autobiography. Guess I didn't need to order those earlier, either. I feel bad about purchasing some of them, especially since I'm only choosing the most interesting books. I got When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, which I've finished already, and a couple other books I haven't gotten to yet. Heaven and Earth is a fascinating story of a farm girl who lived near the border between the two Vietnams and how she managed to keep herself alive and wrangle her way to a life in the US. It's very good because it's an honest view of both sides of the Vietnam War: the initially noble and idealistic Viet Cong, who quickly turned to terror in order to maintaing their hold on the village; and the corrupt and brutal Republicans. She also describes her experiences - both good and bad - with American troops. She eventually married a civilian contractor who took her to San Diego. The chapters of her life alternate with her modern tale of returning to Vietnam in the mid-80s to visit her family, completely unsure of what sort of reception she'd receive. It's uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time.

Yesterday I went to Cu Chi tunnels, a highly touristy attraction tailor-made for foreign tourists. First we watched this insanely propagandistic film about the heroic peasants who "held a gun in their right hand and a plough in the left," or something like that. Basically, it builds up their sacrifice without describing the tragedies that befell their families after they lost their relatives. Some families were completely obliterated, or reduced to one pitiful old woman. It's interesting to see the simple ingenuity the VC used to evade detection by the US troops, and a trip through a mockup of the tunnels was so claustrophobic I only did half of the entire 100m distance, and that tunnel had been built wider than the real ones. I couldn't fathom living or hiding down there.

Today was a visit to the "War Remnants Museum," Formerly called the "Chinese and American War Crimes Memorial," or something as unwelcoming to wealthy tourists. Guess they make more money this way. It's actually quite a well-put together exhibit, although rather one-sided. It has a great series on photojournalists on both sides, many of whom lost their lives to bring the horrors of war home to America. There's also an exhibit on the various Geneva-prohibited weapons that were used by the Americans, though I don't know how many of the weapons displayed really were prohibited. The section on Agent Orange and the horrors it still wreaks on the innocents, civilians who weren't even born at the time of the conflict, was quite gruesome. I couldn't stand it after a while and had to get out for a bit. Of course, they don't mention the atrocities committed by the Viet Cong, but it's still good for showing that war is brutal and should be avoided at all costs, and that the people who suffer most are the people who want it least - civilians caught in the middle.

I'm still forming opinions on Vietnam, and they alter with every account I read. My current book, Shadows Wind, is a rather negative portrayal of the Vietnam regime and seesm to comdemn tourists to Vietnam and just about anyone who's ever written a book about the country. The author likes to stand on his high horse and say no one's described the real Vietnam, and he will do that for us. We'll see. The next one I got was Robert S. McNamara's account of how we got into the war. After watching the documentary he made earlier, I'm very interested in delving deeper into it. I think it's something that will be pertinent well into the future, and something our current leaders would have done well to read. He describes the Vietnam War as a colossal and horrific misunderstanding. We saw it as a struggle to prevent the spread of Communism whereas the North Vietnamese saw it as just another fight against another race of imperialists (in reverse chronology, they French, the Japanese, the French before that, the Chinese, and probably some others I missed). So in failing to understand the adversary, a terrible wound was inflicted.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Arrival in Vietnam

I pulled into Vietnam last night at almost midnight. The guy was waiting to take me to my hotel, and I have a nice double bed for a pretty good price. The people there are friendly and all. I spent today just wandering around. Constantly people call out and try to get me to ride on their motorbike or taxi or to sell me something. After all day of it, it gets a tad old. I visited the Ho Chi Min museum and got a private tour from a couple really nice volunteer girls. I guess they go to college and do tours in order to practice their English. It was fun since I learned a ton more than I would've been able to glean from the signs. After that I stuffed myself with Thai food. It was ok, but not the best I've ever had. Tonight's dinner will be something Vietnamese. I'm gonna try and set up some tours over the next three or four days, to see the underground tunnel villages built by the VC during the French and American conflicts, and also to take a boat tour through the Mekong Delta. After that, I'll probably just head up to Dalat and go around there.

I want to buy a decent backpack somewhere here, and there are tons for sale, but I suck at bargaining, and they're marked higher than I want to pay. I tried my hand at haggling for a new change of clothes, but that didn't go too well. I got them down to about 55% of what they asked, but I think it was still too much. Oh well, guess they can have a nice dinner tonight.

I'm headed back for my afternoon siesta and then in the evening I'll head back out to check out the local nightlife.

PS - I tried writing emails to people, but the extraordinarily cheap cafe doesn't like the web-based emails for some reason. So most of them will have to wait until later.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

On my way, sorta...

After a rather rough last night in Hiratsuka, I'm heading off today to meet up wtih my friend Elaine and crash on her couch, since it's much closer to Narita airport. Better to do 2 of the 3 hours today rather than rushing and possibly being late/missing my plane tomorrow.

Last night I had dinner with Ana and Damien at one of our favorite (ok, at least my favorite) restaurant: The Ramen. Mmm, ramen. Then we went to a little bar to hear the sweet sounds of the band Green Shit. It was rather interesting listening to Japanese stoner folk music. I couldn't understand much except when the guy starting belting out "Pass the green shit-o," and "ganja." About half an hour was all we could tolerate, so we took off to watch Batman Begtins at the theater. Pretty good, I must say. It was much more plausible than the previous ones, although you can tell they're getting low on evil villians when they have to pull out the Scarecrow.

So after saying goodbye to them, I had a few drinks with my roommate Tracey, who doesn't go out very often, and Miwa. It was sad to leave Miwa since she just got back, but we said our goodbyes and we'll see each other soon.

By tomorrow evening I'll be in Saigon, and I'm looking at a trip to the Mekong Delta by boat for a couple days, as well as a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, an extensive tunnel system built by the VC during the war. I'll post before I leave Saigon to travel north and let you all know what's happening.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

...Not Only in Japan

Bizarre English translations aren't limited just to Japan. via some anime site I was checking out

Only in Japan

A good match of fake food and computing. Also available in thumb and duck (scroll down).

(via ODK)

A short respite

So I finished classes on July 15th, and I've had the past week off to enjoy some R&R before I get down to the hardcore R&R when I go to Vietnam. I spent the time doing mostly mundane stuff like cleaning the apartment - something I hadn't done lately and was probably driving my roommate Tracey crazy - and reading. I've been reading "My Life," Bill Clinton's autobiography. I'm into the 2nd volume of the paperback series, but I probably won't finish it before I go to Vietnam, which means I'll have to give it back to Ana and wait til I return to finish. He's an interesting guy, and seems a lot smarter and shows much more humility than we're usually led to believe from the media of the time. I also tore through the new Harry Potter book. It wasn't as good as the previous ones, I think the 4th one was Rowling's peak. But that's what that kind of pressure and expectation will do to a person. I wish they'd lay off her and let her work at her own pace, but that's not how the world works, I guess.

When I didn't have my nose stuck in a book or a grimy corner of my house, I spent a lot of time hanging out with my good friend Miwa, who's back from Valparaiso. She spent the last couple years studying at Ivy Tech there. She's graduated now and is looking for a permanent job. I hope she finds one around here since I enjoy her company and I don't relish returning to only chatting online or by email. Last night we went to the beach to watch the fireworks with some other random Hiratsuka gaijin. I went to a festival of floating lanterns at Enoshima island with Ana, Damien, and Amanda. Steak night was on the 20th, so a few of us went there also, where one guy tried to down a kilo of undercooked meat, which didn't sound like a good idea beforehand, and didn't look very pretty afterwards, either. On the way, we managed to stumble upon a gang of sweaty Japanese guys carrying an o-mikoshi (portable shrine) down the street in one of the myriad neighborhood festivals that go on throughout the summer. I also tried to make another trip up O-yama with my friend Kanako, recently returned from Vancouver for study. She had some trouble with the stairs, so we decided to rest and have our picnic at the shrine halfway up, until we were chased out by a gignatic bee that sent Kanako screaming and me flapping my hat around like a loon. So we sat in the restaurant up there and enjoyed tofu ice cream (which was pretty good, but didn't taste at all like tofu).

So, check out the photos page for some more photos from my week off and check out Damien's and Ana's pages for a different photographic perspective.

I'll clean up and pack, then it's off Tuesday for Vietnam for 4 weeks. It should be a good trip, although probably there will be some lonely spells since I'm going solo. I hope to meet some people and make friends along the way, but you never know what happens. I'm taking along Gabriel Garcia Marquez's autobiography, Vivir Para Contarla (Living to Tell the Tale), in Spanish. Hopefully it'll take me the whole time to read it so I don't end up lugging a book I've read as well as trying to hunt down a new one to read. I'll try to post before I leave with a rough itinerary of what I'm doing. I should be able to post from abroad, since internet cafes are supposed to be rather prevalent. Let's hope so.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A Tale of Two Festivals

This past weekend saw two very different festivals take place. First, in Hiratsuka, there was the annual Tanabata. I said I'd post some pictures, but there wasn't really that much worth putting up. I should've taken a photo of the garbage piled chest high on the street, but by that time my camera was out of batteries and I was exhausted and riding home.

On Saturday, Ana, Damien and I escaped from the festering piles of rotten food to go to Narita for the Gion Festival there. It's really funny to tell Japanese people you went to Narita for the Gion festival, because in the first place, the only conceivable reason to go to Narita is to use the airport. One of my friends, after I emailed her that I was going there for a festival asked me if I was also going to take a plane. The other part is that the name Gion is most famous as a historical area of Kyoto where the geisha were/are. So everyone, upon hearing I was going to Narita for Gion, would then ask if I was going to Kyoto. It got old, so I've given up saying where and why, and just say I went to a festival.

It's amazing the difference between the two. Tanabata in Hiratsuka is mainly a commercial affair, the streets jam-packed with food stalls and a few decorations hung along the streets. But Gion in Narita is magical. First of all, despite being known in Japan as only having an airport, and actually being infested with arrogant flight crews from said airport, Narita has a very historical part of town, including one of the top 3 Buddhist temples in the country, and the 2nd most visited at New Year's (all the more strange nobody seems to recognize the name of the temple unless it's used in the same sentence as New Year).

We theorized that Narita must've escaped much of the bombing during WWII (more on that subject in Hiratsuka some other time), and to this day retains an amazing Main Street, filled with old wooden restaurants and ryokan. One shop is filled with folk remedies, including ginger roots in glass jars, stuffed snake, elephant tusks and a polar bear skin (most of which is probably illegal to buy nowadays), while another building houses an eel restaurant. We stood and watched as the man would grab a live eel, slit it behind the gills on one side, and proceed to drive a nail through its head and fillet it, still squirming on the cutting board. Talk about fresh!

The festival lasted from Friday through Sunday. During the weekend, various neighborhoods compete (I think) by pulling out ancient and elaborate dashi and parading them around the city. Dashi are enormous portable shrines that are pulled on 4 wheels by dozens of people pulling on two ropes. The pullers are dressed up in traditional clothes and chant, while some guy runs between the two columns yelling hoarsely into a megaphone. This cacophony is accompanied by a group of drummers and flutists who ride in the dashi as well as a few guys who dance on top holding lanterns, fans, or parasols. The guys on top also have the uneviable job of making sure the statue on top doesn't hit power lines as they roll through the city. And at night, the dashi are lit up and roll through the streets like glowing beacons of revelry.

On Sunday, we were invited to a dinner given by some of Ana's old students from Narita, the Kiuchi's. Dr. Kiuchi and his wife Takako are a real unique couple. They completely defy the Japanese stereotypes. Kiuchi has a great sense of humor, and Takako is a lovely and generous hostess. Ana said they saved her when she was first in Japan, and I can see how those two could lift anybody up out of a bad experience. Anyway, this dinner was a full-course Japanese meal with 5 or 6 courses varying from amazingly tender roast beef to sea snails (which I ate successfully) and whole raw shrimp and prawns. All this was washed down, of course, with an endless supply of Japanese sake and beer. I was sad to leave early, but I had to make work Monday (which I did, though barely). The three of us were decked out in yukata and jim bei. We also met up with her former coworker, Elaine, and another former student, Yumi.

In other news, we hit a good conveyor sushi restaurant and I was the only one to actually enjoy eating raw goose meat. And nothing's more pathetic than a dog in a yukata. And you can buy anything from a vending machine. I'll write more later about my summer plans, I'm going to Vietnam for 4 weeks. Also, check out the photos I've posted from the weekend. Once I finish work this week, I'll try and get through the backlog of photos I have to post.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Tanabata is here again

So Tanabata is here again. This is THE festival for Hiratsuka, so people go all out. It's supposed to celebrate two lovers who were tragically separated and died, so they can only meet on the 7th of July. Or something like that. But the reason isn't important, it's time to have a party! There are lots of streamers and decorations up, and the whole place is packed with people and food and game stalls. And no festival in Japan is complete without a large animatronic dinosaur. This year it's an apatasaurus (sp?).

The downside is that it's all located around the station, which means if you're going anywhere (like work) you have to wade through the crowds and you can't park your bicycle anywhere near the station anymore. And like all festivals that go on for 5 or 6 days (this one ends Monday, I believe), after a while all that piled up garbage and food starts to smell pretty ripe in the hot, humid weather. I feel sorry for the poor sods who live around there. Most people from Hiratsuka don't really care for it because there aren't really any big parades or ceremonies, it just seems to be a way to get people to go out and buy outrageously priced food. Of course, I found a place last year that sells gyros, so I'll be there every day for dinner.

I'll skip out on the smelly bit, since Saturday and Sunday I'll be in Narita with Ana and Damien. We're headed that way for the Gion Festival, the largest in that city. There'll be huge omikoshi(portable shrines), so big that they'll be on wheels pushed by a couple dozen guys and somebody who has to stand on top with a stick to keep the power lines out of the way. Now that's a festival!

We all went out and got jimbei (a traditional summer thing, like a really short kimono top and shorts) and yukata, so we can walk around in style. I even bought some geta, those funny wooden shoes that balance on two vertical pieces of wood. I'm getting better at walking in them, and with the added height I'm a veritable giant here.

I'm taking it easy tonight. I had a ocuple late nights and I feel a cold coming on. Don't want to be sick in the middle of a party. I'll post up some pics of the fiesta soon.

Saturday, July 02, 2005


Here's Julian, the other ex-Nova teacher who works in the same city as me. We have the same days off, so we hang out a lot then and after work. He can make any hat work.

Friday, July 01, 2005

With friends like these...

So here are Ana and Damien, the happy couple sharing food. Very unique :P Anyways, I like these new photo options. So stay tuned for more embarrassing photos of all of us.