Sleepino Hobos in Seoul

So I’m back home now in freezing cold Berkeley, where it feels like winter. Writing this from the Berkeley public library– and it feels like a dream. Funny, how you perceive a place so differently after you’ve left it for a while for the wide world. Berkeley feels comfortable and friendly and wacky…. and wintery. Continue reading



Well, I’m out of the hospital. They released me on Tuesday, and my mom and I are staying in a nice hotel (though we keep lamenting how the food isn’t as good as the hospital food…) with a rooftop pool. Everything in our room is for sale, as detailed by the hotel manual. If you want to buy the sheets, they cost 700 bhat. If you want the coffee spoon, that costs 30. The telephone costs 1,000 and if you want the water heater, that will go for 20,000. The sofa is also 20,000, but the bed skirt is a bargain at 1,000. They’ll throw in your pillow for 300. We tried for a while to figure out if this is an attempt to prevent people from stealing or a joke, but we are still confused. Continue reading

Dengue Detour

Most of you know already, but the reason I dropped off the blogosphere for a while is because I came down with Dengue Fever, a disease unheard of to me before my trip, but apparently very common in Southeast Asia. Anyway, I’ll try to come back later and write the gory details, but for right now I can only muster enough energy to tell the basics.

Two days after Adam left, I had a panic attack. It was very out of nowhere, since I hadn’t had one since my junior year of college, but in retrospect I think it was my body telling me something was not right. By Friday morning, I had a high fever and a terrible headache, and so I went to the International Clinic where they checked me over and told me I should do a blood test to see if I had dengue. I declined, upon seeing how expensive the test was, and since I didn’t have the “rash” that dengue is associated with. I put myself to bed with a cold compress and hoped I could sweat it out.
Two days later, when I wasn’t any better– in fact, I was worse– I went back to the clinic and had the bloodwork done. It came back negative: no dengue. Meanwhile, I was worsening– I had fever, chills, the worst body ache you can imagine, no appetite, and exhaustion. All I could do was sleep. I also was becoming weak from not eating, and began blacking out everytime I left my bed. And I STILL didn’t know what was wrong with me. I started to feel like I was going crazy in my tiny matchbox of a room, all alone in the dark, sweating. Eventually, I went BACK to the clinic while I had a very high fever and told them I wasn’t getting better. The doctor called me back in the morning, but when I went downstairs in my hostel to talk to him on the phone, I fainted on the floor. Luckily, there was a very very nice Australian woman staying in the hostel who saw this and fanned me back to life, throwing cold water on my face and demanding to know if I had taken any pills. I think they thought I was a crazy partier or something. Anyway, after she revived me and figured out that I had been sick for five days, she and her husband escorted me to the doctor, where they repeated the dengue test. Ding Ding Ding! Dengue Fever.
I was kept overnight in the clinic so they could keep me on an IV of fluids to rehydrate me, and monitor my temperature. They then realized, from a blood test, that my blood platelet level was falling. It fell for two days before the doctor decided I would be better off in the hospital in Bangkok. So all of a sudden, I was being wheeled into an ambulance (bumpiest ride of my life), escorted by Doctor Toucan– a really nice Vietnamese doctor. The whole trip to Bangkok, my feet didn’t touch the ground– I was carted from wheelchair to stretcher to wheelchair to business class seat, to wheelchair, to private bus, to wheelchair, to another stretcher, and right into Bumrungrad Hospital in the middle of Bangkok. My hospital room is like a 5 star hotel suite, and my mom flew out and met me here in the middle of the night. After two nights here, my blood platelet level is back to normal, and though my liver enzyme count is through the roof, and the Dengue rash finally reared its ugly head– all over my legs and arms, the doctor tells me I’m getting better.
I’ll try to write more another time, the nurse is here to check my blood pressure.

To Buy or Not to Buy: The Imperial Discount

Signs in English are everywhere in Vietnam, as if everything here were produced for us visitors. But from experience, I don’t think most of the merchants sitting under these neon banners even know enough English to read the letters of their own advertising. Of course, it’s on us to learn Vietnamese if we truly want to communicate respectfully, but it also seems that they’ve invested lots of time and effort in setting up an infrastructure that will draw in Western purchasing power. It can be confusing, thus, especially at restaurants when we foreigners are handed a menu that quotes higher prices for the same items listed at a discount on the “Vietnamese” menu. Then, the question becomes, to buy or not to buy:
Probably about 90% of everything I own at home, I got at a reduced price– the imperial discount. I’m buying things directly here in Vietnam that I would buy at home for more because of middlemen and corporate commission. Part of my conscience tells me that I probably should accept to pay higher prices (than locals) during international travel to make up for the water, electricity, wood, information, poetry, and fashion I co-opt or steal from them by participating complacently in the corporate American economy that we all know to be blatantly extractive and exploitative.
On the other hand, I didn’t personally screw them, and so I owe them nothing. But on the third hand, my country did screw them, and I am reaping the benefits and putting them toward travel within this country. We had a couple debates over this issue, Adam and I, with him annoyed that he can’t get anyone to quote him a fair price up front, and me delighted that my inner-Jewish-woman can finally tell people out loud what I think every item is really worth. But haggling, though it can be fun and useful at times, does get tiring and I start to wonder how one can determine the true price of anything with so much global and environmental history mixed in. And so I keep coming back to the question of what do I owe them, and what do they owe me… In the end, don’t do we really just owe each other basic respect and decency?

Rolling Blackouts in Hanoi, and Flying Solo

Hanoi, the Capital– July 8, 2010
First Day on my Own, Adam flew home last night
So I got my ass kicked by Monkey Island. It’s a long story, but basically it includes traveler’s diarrhea, several flesh wounds, and a jellyfish. Anyhow, not to worry anybody because I only feel stronger for emerging from the jungle in one piece. Halong Bay was beautiful, and I finally got to do some hiking– though I don’t know that I’d want to repeat the steep climb we did in CatBa National Park to a panoramic view tower, because frankly it was hotter than hell and I was preceded on the descent by oversized bullets of my own sweat. Highlights of the trip included stargazing on the deck of our boat with no light pollution, a Willie Nelson lookalike who played Jason Mraz on guitar during the long and crowded bus ride, trekking from a white sandy beach through the jungle to our bungalow overnight on Monkey Island (whose gates are guarded by a very relaxed, yet well-endowed, monkey), and a beautiful kayak excursion in and out of the lush, humming green cliffs of Cat Ba Island. I also met a really “lovely” engaged couple named Mark and Denise (!) who are from England and Ireland, respectfully, and I’m meeting them tonight for a movie in the air-conditioned “Megaplex” cinema… the first movie theatre I’ve heard of in Vietnam.
I hadn’t planned to stay in Hanoi at all, let alone spend four nights here, but I couldn’t get a ticket on the overnight train to Lao Cai (the border crossing for China) until Saturday night. The lodging here is more expensive than the rest of the country, especially for a single travler, and so my room is the size of a matchbox. There have been rolling blackouts since I arrived which is really unpleasant given that air conditioning is my lifeblood here, even more so than water. I’ve also developed a pretty strong aversion to Vietnamese cities for their smog, traffic, and swarms of tourists all being carted through the manufactured Vietnamese trail, complete with identical trips to Halong Bay and Sapa and late night binge drinking sessions at the local Irish pub. I hate feeling like I am one of many, but I know that it’s silly to think I’m any different from the rest– just because I walk around the tourist destinations with a conscience doesn’t mean that I’m not walking around tourist destinations.
But Hanoi is the capital city, and therefore holds a wealth of history and culture if you’re willing to brave the heat during the day to visit museums and stroll through the backstreets of the Old Quarter. I went to the amazing Hanoi Museum of Fine Arts today, and was– I kid you not– the ONLY person in the whole museum. The funny thing is, right next door was the Temple of Literature where HOARDS of white people were snapping photographs rudely inside the Confucian temple whilst religious Vietnamese who had come to pray seemed miraculously undisturbed by the flashes and jostling backpacks. The Temple was somewhat nice looking and the gardens were mostly shaded, but I didn’t really see the appeal– thus my surprise that the Art Museum (which featured handcrafted ceramics, traditional folk crafts, clothing, jewelry, and paintings from all different periods of Vietnamese history) was totally deserted. I meandered through, taking my time, and softly singing Arirang to fend off the loneliness of exploring the more deserted parts of a city on my own. Again, not to worry anyone, I’ve met plenty of nice people here– it’s just that somehow being AROUND people is not the same as being WITH them. And I do miss all my friends and family from home.
I ate lunch in a progressive, comfortable, and excellent restaurant called Koto, which somehow gave me a sense of comfort because the food superiority reminded me of Oliveto and the food world I accidentally became a part of in the Bay Area this past year. I ordered the Coconut fish salad, and closed my eyes while I ate it because it was so good. It’s rare to find a healthy meal here, unless you’re willing to pay top dollar, but again– Koto is progressive and known for its commitment to recycling all its proceeds into its own rigorous hospitality/culinary training program for underprivileged youth from the city streets. All the service staff, as well as the cooks themselves, are themselves students in the program, and the restaurant as a 100% job placement rate after graduation. In the end, I actually felt really good about splurging, which allowed me to relish my layered dark chocolate mousse cake in complete and utter bliss.
Tomorrow, I hope to visit the Women’s Museum, the History Museum, the Revolutionary Museum, and the temples within Hoan Kien lake. On my last couple days I’ll visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and museum, because I have a weird fascination with the dude. He was very charismatic, and eloquent, from what I’ve read, but he’s also the symbol of communism in Vietnam and was obviously a very controversial figure in his immense power. I’m eager to get to China and the cool weather, but I am also captivated by this country I stumbled blindly into. I actually like wading/j-walking through traffic (it feeds my anarchist fire), and riding half terrified/half exhilirated on the back of random guys’ motorbikes through the city, narrowly missing other drivers by only centimeters. In a weird way, I feel sort of accomplished sweating gallons every minute, especially since the Bia Hoi (fresh beer on tap– inspired by the Czech) is very abundant and incredibly refreshing, and I had never until this point experienced getting a tan within a city. I like waking up early, despite feeling exhausted all day, and I even kind of like the lonely solitude of navigating the streets, and puffing on my inhaler each morning to combat the smog. This traveling thing: I think it’s growing on me.


Hoi An, Vietnam July 2010
It’s fascinating to look at economic development in a country where wireless internet comes before toilet paper. In the hotels and restaurants we have frequented so far, I’ve noticed how disparate, conflicting, dissonant the state of affairs seem to be. I often find myself trying to guess at the wealth of an establishment, or a family, but it’s almost impossible. This is because a restaurant’s seating area will be plush and luxurious, while its kitchen will look like something out of Fast Food Nation. Which is not to mention its bathroom, which may look like something out of a grotesque Diane Arbus photo. Another example is the country house I stopped at to answer to the call of nature on the delapidated road from Ho Chi Minh City to Mui Ne Beach. The female proprietor our driver spoke to was very gracious, and led me proudly through her carpeted living room, complete with flatscreen TV, DVD player, and comfortable looking easy chairs, straight through to the “bathroom” where she pushed the door open and pointed at the ground. My eyes searchingly followed her finger… but I couldn’t even find so much as a hole in the ground. After desperately scanning the room, looking for ANYTHING that might resemble even the most primitive toilet, I realized she was instructing me to pee in a small red bucket that I had previously seen employed merely as a child’s innocent toy in a sandbox or at the beach of Lake Anza. Aha. Well, here goes the violation of everything innocent…
But in all seriousness, it seems that the way development is happening here is somewhat reflective of a national mentality that strives to achieve Western-style capitalist luxury (air conditioning, motorbikes, wireless internet, sparkly shoes and jewelry) yet refuses to give in to the uniformity and gentrification of Westernized health and safety standards (street vendors, black markets, brand knockoffs, foodborne illness, occupational risk, dirty diesel fuel, etc.)… It all comes down to different priorities, one might think, which could help to explain why international negotiations can often be so difficult, and often fruitless. We’re trying to trade apples for oranges, when what they really want is DVDs. And for all of us, no matter our nationality, escape can sometimes seem better than looking our problems in the face, and we turn again and again to our televisions to transport us to the greener side of the hill.
But historically speaking, there may be another explanation for this warped picture of priorities. In “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places,” a quintessential read for understanding the Vietnam War through a woman’s perspective, Le Ly Hayslip explains that “the rubble and refugees were not the only byproducts of our war. Hundreds of thousands of tons of rice and countless motorbikes, luxury cars, TVs, stereos, refrigerators, air conditioners, and crates of cigarettes, liquir, and cosmetics were imported for the Vietnamese elite and the Americans who supported them.” Like in any culture, once the wealthy achieve material success, they immediately set the bar for others to strive for. Apparently, the war created “a new class of privileged people– wealthy young officers, officials, aned war profiteers– who supplanted the elderly as objects of veneration.” In fact, much of the current class system of wealth and ownership may be a nonsensical yet irreversible remnant from a war that turned an entire country on its head.
However, I haven’t really noticed a visible upper class, though I’m sure it must exist. So far, most of the people we’ve come in contact with are either extremely poor, or middle of the road merchants– literally. Granted, we’re backpackers and thus relying solely on budget accommodation, food, and transport. Perhaps the rich folks are remaining hidden in their private cars and centers of trade in the financial districts we haven’t bothered to seek out. Or, perhaps, we haven’t noticed them because, in fact, they look like us– with our expensive REI backpacks, ipods, and loaded coinpurses. Perhaps we are blind to manifestations of wealth and privilege because we are always looking out, rather than in.
In many ways, “They” are us, and “We” are them. Our interlocked histories make it a zero-sum game, yet we all win some and lose some. Money, and richness, I think, are entirely subjective and relative. Are we Americans as rich as they Vietnamese in culture, family, work ethic, spirit and simplicity? Are they as rich as we in choices, freedom and flexibility, formal education, and technologies? And of course, there is an endless spectrum of class diversity within both of our so-called societies.

Hygiene Vs Cleanly Spirit

My grandma Elizabeth once told me to keep a pen and a little notebook by my bed. As an insomniac and a writer, she always knows too well the obstacles I am facing. “No matter how tired you are,” she pleaded, “no matter how much you don’t want to drag yourself out of bed for the hundredth time that night, when you have an idea or some thought that comes to your mind fully formed…perfect…. write it down!” And so, I’m writing it down.

Hygiene vs Cleanliness of Spirit
When you’re covered in sweat, and dirt, and piss, and bugs
And when there’s a dried layer of sweat over all of it.
When you’ve been dusted with diesel, and given up on makeup and bug spray weeks ago,
And when salty rivulets of sunscreen drip mercilessly into your bloodshot eyes…
You can really start to feel the shine from within.