38 hour Thursday

Thursday morning I woke up above the Pacific Ocean somewhere off the coast of Japan. I knew this because right after I saw the clouds and ocean below I looked at the helpful map showing where we were on the planet. I was given breakfast and the loudspeaker announced that we were one hour out from Tokyo.

After eating I dozed some more, opening my eyes once in a while to see what was outside my window. Blue ocean with tiny white caps under hazy clouds. Nothing but a cloud. Picturesque rice paddies that were unharvested and nobody and no boats in sight. Soon we were on the ground and I was sleepily waiting in the security checkpoint line to get back into the international terminal. I looked around at all the unfamiliar people and heard them speaking in accents, some that I didn’t recognize. I heard a japanese girl speaking in deliberate, clear english. I thought about the world and how small my world had been while I was growing up, and my world was larger than many. I still couldn’t help wondering if I’d done life a little wrong. I only traveled internationally once when I was young, and I didn’t travel much on my own volition, and usually not to new places but back to old places. I didn’t learn a second language. As an english speaker it is difficult to chose which language to master as your second, but that’s really not an excuse because two are better than one. The line was long and I had plenty of time to think about these things. Getting through security was easy and they didn’t seem to care that I had a bunch of liquids that I didn’t remove for their inspection. So much of security is theater.

I found a little office area with wired ethernet and went to work trying to find a way to get free internet. These guys had done their due diligence though and I couldn’t find any way around paying. This was a problem because last time when I tried to pay I still couldn’t get online because Boingo’s billing mechanism was broken. On top of that, the Boingo software for Mac is terrible, like so many OEM apps for Mac. They really shouldn’t bother with those kinds of things and should spend that money on something more productive.

I wandered around the airport, plodding along tiredly. It was familiar, I had spent enough time here last time that I knew where I was and where to go to get whatever. My flight wasn’t listed on the display yet though since it was too many hours away, so I just wandered aimlessly. I exchanged some money and went to an electronics shop with some stuff that isn’t available in the USA, which is just a novelty to me but still entertaining. When my flight did appear on the monitor I was 2 gates down from where I needed to be, which would’ve been really convenient if it weren’t boarding in 8 hours. I got some tea, found a power outlet and managed to successfully pay for internet access. This allowed me to kill many hours of my layover while catching up on blogging and chatting with some US folks who were up.

After sitting for too many hours I walked around the airport some more. I noticed the stark differences between Japan and Vietnam. Before landing in Tokyo I looked down at the rice paddies and it was immediately evident that we were not in Vietnam, even though there were rice paddies for as far as you could see. Japan was so clean, so quiet, so organized.

As I was walking around looking for gifts for friends a man offered me samples of sake, which I gladly tasted. It was delicious and I thought about buying a bottle, but the fact that you can’t even take duty free liquids over 100ml through Japan made me wary of what other ridiculous liquid restrictions I would encounter.

After what seemed like an eternity my plane began boarding and I watched everybody line up and get on, then when the line was nearly nothing I boarded and took my seat. I sat next to an older Japanese woman with a dignified demeanor. She began writing a note and when I glanced over my eyes picked up the word “unforgivable”. I was curious, and although I didn’t read the whole note, I did also see that she mentioned her choice of airlines by their reputation vs simply price. She folded the note up, put it in an envelope and gave it to one of the flight attendants. From then on the flight attendants would stop by from time to time and talk and talk and talk, saying “hai” over and over as this woman spoke with calm certainty. I wondered what the note actually said…

After watching some of Cirque Du Soleil’s Dralion, which has an awesome juggling scene, I switched to The Soloist and proceeded to be thoroughly unimpressed. Afterwards I managed to finally get some more sleep…

Thursday I woke up to the ongoing sounds of a boy crying. Not wailing, but genuinely crying. I realized it had been going on for quite a while and wondered why his, who was seated in the next section up, didn’t come back and help him. The first thing I saw was the darkness map of the world with our plane positioned over the pacific right on the border between light and dark. The boy’s dad eventually came back and took the boy off to the bathroom. I closed the window shades on the two windows next to me and went back to sleep. I couldn’t stay asleep though. It was an uncomfortable drifting in and out of sleep. Eventually we were landing in San Francisco and as I carried my bag off into SFO I finally woke up.

About 5 immigration people asked me if I had all my bags as they checked my passport. It seemed like they couldn’t believe that person could have such little luggage. That may have been the thing that set me apart from the rest and made them select me to a full luggage search. The guy going through my luggage also couldn’t believe that I only had one bag. He, like the passport control officer, found it hard to believe that I didn’t have a physical mailing address. The passport control officer scratched off “San Francisco” and wrote in my parents address in Colorado Springs. The man searching my bag asked me “Why did you write down Colordo Springs if you live in San Francisco?” to which I replied that I did not write down c/s. It seems so simple, move out of apartment, quit job, live out of a backpack, yet so many people don’t understand until they stop to think about it.

Sara was supposed to pick me up but I wondered if she’d even be there after my flight was late and my time was wasted while the LEO did a half search of my tightly and intricately packed backpack. She was though and it was great to have a friend there to whisk me away in a sleek automobile. We headed down 101 to Mountainview to meet up with some of the SugarCRM crew. Pretty much the whole local IT team plus Kyung showed up and we filled a nook in the restaurant with loud friendly conversation. Sara had to go and I was bummed that we didn’t have long enough time to catch up with each other.

After lunch I caught a ride back to Sugar where Lila had brought my car. I sat and talked a while about my travels and the way that poor countries and technology fit together, then headed up to Lila’s house to pick up some stuff I’d left there. When I got there I took a shower, which was great because I had been out for over 36 hours without a shower. I also tried to take a nap but couldn’t sleep, so I decided to head on up to SF.

As soon as I started driving I got sleepy. Luckily I’d driven this route a few hundred times so I could drive it comfortably while sleepy. It was lame though, I didn’t want to drive that route. I had quit my job partly because of that drive. Between that drive and the SugarCRM HQ I felt like my old life had been severed and I was having to pick it back up to get to something underneath it. I just wanted to let it go and move on, those times were gone.

The first place I went in SF was to my mailbox which hadn’t been checked in two months. All of the mail fit into the box, so it wasn’t too bad. The post office is right downtown SF, near embarcadero, and it was nice to submerge myself back into the heart of SF, like jumping straight into a pool to help you get used to the water quicker. The weather was kinda bad, breezy with a little rain, but it was familiar and that was great. The air was cool and clean, so different from anything I’d experienced in the previous two months. I also heard seagulls for the first time in two months.

Then as I was driving to the Sunset I witnessed the first crime I’d seen in two months. I thought about how I hadn’t felt threatened in any way in Asia at all. The worst thing I’d encountered were animals and the fear of getting ripped off by agreeing to an inflated price, but I hadn’t been scared fo being mugged or anything while I was there. I was sad that it took less than an hour for me to witness a crime in SF. I love this city and honestly I don’t see that much crime here, so that was a bit of a slap.

Right as I was getting to Golden Gate Park I remembered the microclimates of San Francisco, and even though it was somewhat warm downtown it sure as hell wasn’t warm by the ocean. I turned around and drove all the way back downtown and went to my storage unit to get my jacket and picked up some other gear while I was there, including some camera gear I hadn’t played with in a long time.

The ocean was vibrant and the horizon had a crisp line as I drove to Java Beach to get coffee and internet. I didn’t stay long because Rob told me to meet him at Noriega Pizza, so I headed down there. We talked a little bit and it was good to see a great friend, but I had a hard time saying a lot of stuff about my trip because I still need time to process it. Maybe… maybe this is as good as it’ll get and I should just blab about it without thinking too hard. At any rate we had good convo and then headed to Sea Biscuit to meet up with Rob Taylor so they could record a podcast for (d)NOT.

I don’t know if it’s just the fact that I can understand the language, but I think that San Francisco has more doers than other countries I’ve visited. Aside from Rob and Rob recording their gig in a coffee shop with friendly and familiar folks walking in and out catching up with the latest goings on, I’ve seen a lot of other people around already that look like they’re up to something fun. There is a cool energy in San Francisco that I really really like. Some of it is the natural energy of the city, and on top of that there is the sentimental aspect, the familiar places with so many good memories tied to them. I was really really happy to be back.

We dropped Rob Taylor off at home and headed back to Rob’s place and geeked out with laptops, linux, Star Trek and a sip of whiskey.

The Last Days in SE Asia

I woke up to an oncoming silence created by the absence of electrical power on Tuesday morning. This was a good way to get an early start because I couldn’t sleep without the fan protecting me from the mosquitoes and cooling my body. I took a shower and headed out for breakfast with Tien. We went to a new place that is near the internet cafe we frequent, right next to the lake by the river in Long Xuyen.

At breakfast Tien told me that she’d talked to the principle of the school where she works and he had reminded her that she had employment obligations that last through September. This meant that she couldn’t travel with me because she would have to resume teaching in less than a week. We had planned on either moving to Saigon to work or more preferably to travel a bit, probably back from Bankok down through Malaysia where we could see all those beautiful beaches that we missed out on last time. Now this was not going to happen because Tien would be busy. The only reasonable option for me was to return to America on my scheduled flight which left the next night. Even though this was an option that I never wanted to have to pick, it felt nice to finally have a final word on what would happen.

When we got home there was still no power. We decided to go to Saigon that day and stay over night. Tien got on the phone and found us a bus leaving at 4pm while her mom and sister fixed some food for us. Tien told me a story about being attacked by a wild dog near her house when she was in Jr. High. She was outside playing with her puppy and some crazy wild dog ran up and started to attack her and her puppy, so she picked up the puppy and ran but the dog chased them. Some local folks saw what was happening, found some bamboo sticks and killed the wild dog. At the end of this story we realized we didn’t have enough time to catch the 4pm, so we shot for the 5pm and began packing.

Tien and I went to the market to get some gifts for my family and friends. Her family kept wanting me to take more and more stuff, not realizing the restrictions that come with living your life out of a backpack. I simply couldn’t take a lot of what they wanted to give me because I didn’t have the room and I was already heavy laden. On top of that, the food and liquid restrictions are so tight these days that you can’t really take either of those products. That was a shame, I was hoping to bring back that bottle of CK Entirety.

I said my goodbyes to the family that had so graciously taken me in two months ago, feeding me and clothing me and giving me all that they could to make me comfortable, and had then become my own family. Saying goodbye is hard when you don’t speak their language though. How do you convey the details of the small things you really appreciated? I did my best and then four of us got on two scooters and headed to the Long Xuyen bus station. I had a new energy, the energy that comes with having a plan and putting it in motion. I was happy to be doing anything, and more so happy to be on my way back to the USA where my family and friends were waiting, my car was waiting, and I still had the freedom of unemployment. I was so caught up in thinking about how great it would be that I forgot that Tien wasn’t coming with me, and when I remembered this my heart sank a bit and something felt not right. There was nothing I could do about it though.

It was harvest time in her village and I saw a man on a cart pulled by two water buffalo heading off through the waters of a tracked up rice paddy. Many people were out moving big bags of rice from vehicle to larger vehicle.

Back on the bus to Saigon for the last time of my trip, I thought about how I’d be traveling in a few days in my own car with my GPS guiding my way, 80mph across the open highways of western America. That style of travel is so different from the way people travel in Vietnam and I was really grateful for the American ways that I had taken for granted. The automobile and the highway truly were and are avenues of freedom and an opportunity that millions of people do not have.

I put on the Samurai Champloo soundtrack and kept thinking about my old familiar ways, the joys that I had given up when I left America. I was really looking forward to getting back. I had a sore throat though and my stomach was still a little upset. Tien was on my arm, visibly upset but not falling apart, just looking up with those worried eyes that she gets when something is not right.

When we arrived at the bus station most of the ground was under about 1 foot of standing water. We once again found a taxi to take us to ye olde Ruby Star where I got a larger room than usual, complete with a bath tub. I got a beer, drew a bath, and relaxed. Then I got online and began pinging a bunch of people in America and planning what I’d do when I touched down. That night I slept deeply.

Wednesday morning we woke up to the sounds of big engines, small engines, and honking. Our larger room came complete with a double window that was partly broken and created a hole where the sounds of Saigon could assault our sleeping bodies. We did have to get a move on though, so it was probably for the good. Tien got a phone call from FedEx and while I was in the shower a courier showed up with some gear from Joby. They asked to use a photo of mine on their page and sent out some gear as a thank you. I had planned to use this while I was in Asia, but here it was arriving hours from my back to America and I now had to pack this unused gear in my bag with all of the gifts. To top it off, the shipment came from Santa Cruz California.

We hurried out for breakfast at a usual spot, then came back to the hotel where I managed to pack most of my things into my backpack. I gave some of the left-over stuff that I wouldn’t need to Tien to take back to her house. We checked out and left our bags with the hotel receptionists. We’re in pretty good with them since we stay at that hotel so much, and we trust them, so it was a good alternative to carrying our bags around in the mid-day Saigon heat.

We headed out to find a book store. Tien had finished the tiny book we’d bought for her to read and were looking for something significantly more challenging and intellectual. We asked a cyclo and scooter taxi driver if there were any bookstores nearby, but they said not for 2 km and offered to take us there. We declined and found store selling books about 200 feet away. It was basically a media piracy store. We picked up 1984 and a DVD collection of Tom Cruise movies, a strange dose of western culture for Tien to digest before she (hopefully) gets to America in a few months.

We were hot and parched by then so we went to find a coffee shop. We found a really western style cafe with a bunch of backpackers hunched over laptops and pay terminals. We sat at the cafe and talked for a while, tried to figure out what to do with an empty day in Saigon. I couldn’t think of much except shopping but Tien didn’t want clothes or jewelry or shoes or any of that stuff. Instead we went to the store where I bought my LX3 and looked at laptops. They had a decent selection, but we weren’t really happy with any of them. The Acer netbook was nice feeling but I didn’t trust its quality. Plus, I had forgotten my wallet back at the hotel so we couldn’t buy it outright anyway.

We ended up grabbing our bags and having a taxi take us to a little street where there were numerous computer shops. We looked around a bit and although I was able to find an Asus netbook, it was more than I had on me. We settled on a Benq Joybook. Interestingly, the one we bought did not come with Windows but ran a derivative of Fedora 8 called Linpus. At first I was thinking this would be bad, but on second thought I decided it could be good. Desktop linux is pretty usable now, and it would do pretty much everything Tien needed, so I decided to take a slight risk and get it. Worst case we could load Windows on it later…

There was a cafe nearby called Jazz Cafe where we went to camp out for a few hours, play with her new laptop and kill some time. They weren’t playing Jazz. The laptop was pretty good, a standard current netbook with a decent build, light weight and slightly hot. The screen was nice too. Unfortunately the OS was … lacking. I decided that rather than trust some one-off distro of Linux I’d load it up with Ubuntu. That is something I’m familiar with and could help her with if there were problems. On top of that, i just happened to have a USB key that had a bootable Ubuntu 9.04 install on it. How geeky is that? I was worried that I’d mess something up and not have time to fix it, but 30 minutes later we were up and running on Ubuntu with no hiccups.

While the OS was installing it finally hit me that I wasn’t going to be with Tien much longer. I explained to her that I have this third person mode that I go into that detaches me from the emotional effects of the things I need to do and that I wasn’t just unaffected by the pending geographical separation and time apart. I was worried she’d think I didn’t care, which I did, but I’ve found in my life that worrying about inevitabilities is wasteful, even if it seems insincere.

Eventually it was time to go, so we found a taxi to take us to the airport. There was a TV screen inside the taxi that was playing a video of people rollerblading down the Great Wall of China. It then turned to something about Michael Jackson and showed a video morph of what MJ looked like from when he was young to when he died. I realized that the King of Pop died a long time ago and all that remained was a plastic ghost. I wonder if MJ’s body has even begun decomposing yet or if it’s still as fresh as a McDonalds french fry.

At the airport Tien’s mom and sister Thule met us. I went to check in for my flight and when I got to the checkin area it looked like everybody was moving to another country. Everybody in the whole line had at least 3 suitcases stacked on carts. Some had several boxes. I couldn’t believe all of the luggage this entire group of people had, and they weren’t even together. Luckily a woman motioned me over to some premium super-duper megastar member high speed lane that I did not deserve to be in and I checked in for my flight in about 2 minutes.

Tien’s family and I found a little cafe area to sit at while we waited for the last hour before my flight. Tien translated a few things but mostly we just enjoyed each other’s company. Tien and I were trying magic tricks with a Malaysia .20 piece and I made a syphon out of two bendy straws to mix Tien’s apple juice with my Sprite. I went to use the bathroom and there were two girls in there, a mother and an attendant. At first I wondered if I was in the right bathroom, and I was. I thought about San Francisco and about an Erasure concert I went to, sometimes there just is no gender separation in the bathroom. Another odd thing about this bathroom was that one wall was a huge window that looked out into the parking area, so all of those scooter parking folks could watch you urinate. This was no different from watching men urinate on the side of the road everywhere else in Vietnam, so that too wasn’t really uncomfortable. On the way I went to use the hand drier but decided against it when I saw that people had used it for an ash tray.

Before long it was time to leave Tien and her family. I had already said goodbye to Tien’s mom and sister a few times, so this was just another goodbye for them, but Tien was in a trance. I thought at first she was trying to translate some stuff in her mind, but realized that she was just overwhelmed with emotion. I thought she fell apart when I embraced her, but she kept herself together. It was only after she was out of sight that I finally felt the effects of realization that I wouldn’t see her for a long time. Passport control went quickly, there was a short wait at the gate, and soon I was sound asleep in my seat flying away from Vietnam.

Plans always change, next stop San Francisco

Like many times before, yesterday we had our plans and then they were changed on us. At breakfast this morning Tien told me that she talked to her school and had learned that she had employment obligations that required her to stay in Vietnam and work through September. With that finality, I’ve decided the best next step is for me to quit resisting everything that is directing me to go back to America on my planned travel date, and so I will fly back to America tomorrow night and arrive in San Francisco before noon on Thursday.

The return from Malaysia

Tien had expressed how happy she was to be back in her home country when we were walking through the airport, and it showed once we got in the taxi. She smiled a lot and was chatting up a storm with the taxi driver. I began to sink back into the mindset of not even needing to pay attention to verbal communication because nobody spoke to me in a language I knew except for words that were superfluous when paired with body language.

I had guessed that Malaysia would be hotter than Vietnam, but I had been wrong.

As we drove and looked around at the familiar scenes of Vietnam Tien said “my country is very poor.” This is something I already knew, but it was a distinct detail now that she had something to contrast it against.

We had the taxi driver drop us off at the usual hotel, the Ruby Star, and we were given the same exact room we had last time, complete with intermittently malfunctioning air conditioner and partially clogged drain. Still it was nice to have AC at all, and at least we wouldn’t get mixed up. We rested for a bit. I caught up on some online stuff and found that I’d lost all of my photos from a day in Cambodia, most importantly the photos of S21. This was disappointing if only because I wanted to use one of them to illustrate a (d)NOT article written by Robert Taylor.

Tien and I headed out to have dinner and shop at a famous market in Saigon. Over dinner I asked her to tell me a story and she told me her life story, which began “I was born into a poor and happy family.” It’s true, I think I’ve described her family that way to people before. We talked about the state of Vietnamese people and what Vietnam needs to progress. We’d touched on many things related to this, such as the communist government. It’s an interesting subject to me, especially considering the increase of western influence that is riding in on a technological wave.

Tien made me take about 5 pills after I finished dinner. She’d gone to a pharmacy earlier and they had given her a cocktail remedy for my ongoing digestive problems. We then went to the market which was a one story building with many many vendors inside of it and was much the same as the Chinatown market in KL. We bought perfumes as we had wanted to do in KL and then headed back to the hotel.

On Saturday we went to have breakfast at a restaurant we’d eaten at once before but had since been remodeled. I had a hard time eating because I felt really weird in a way that I could not describe. It was a feeling I’d never experienced before but was somewhat like being hung over. I guessed it was a lack of hydration due to the medicine I’d consumed at dinner the night before. We went back to the hotel and I drank a ton of water and went back to sleep. When I woke up 90 minutes later I felt significantly better. It was time to check out, but it was not time to catch our bus, so we sat at a coffee shop around the corner and I downloaded Worms for the iPhone.

A taxi came and picked us up at the coffee shop and dropped us off at the bus station where we sat for another 30 minutes inside a small room where people were having loud conversations and going in and out really quickly. I tried to sleep since I was still feeling a little ill, but could not. Soon enough our bus arrived and we boarded in the far back corner. The bus took off and soon after departing turned down a very bumpy dirt road that we’d never taken before. Tien has motion sickness problems and she didn’t have any medicine to take and thus quickly became uncomfortable. I guessed that the detour was to avoid a huge traffic jam just outside of town, but it seemed that many people were taking this detour and it ended up being somewhat jammed itself. Tien asked me to put on some jazz for us to listen to. We got through the bumpy dirt roads alright and once we were back on the paved road the ride seemed smoother than I remember it being on other trips. It was so smooth that we both dozed off and went to sleep for a while. When we woke up we played Worms for a long time, and soon we were in Long Xuyen with just a few more minutes until we were dropped off right outside her house.

With heavy backpacks, gifts in our hands and not much traffic out on that Saturday night, we walked into the house and into warm greetings. It was a happy time as we sat around inside exchanging gifts, showing photos and sharing stories. Tien’s family got me a pair of sandals while I was gone, and some beer and wine which was a nice gesture since none of them drink. I drank a beer while we all talked and had food. Then, glorious sleep.

Sunday morning Tien and I went and had breakfast at the market. Now that we were back home it was a good time to talk about where we were, how we felt about traveling and our future, and level with each other about things we’d been keeping aside for the duration of our trip. We had a good personal talk and were both happy at the end of it.

We went back to the house and I opened up a package that had arrived for me. It was a replacement Geomet’r GPS for my Nikon. It looked like it might have the same manufacturing defect that my previous one did, but at least I had it. I tested it and it did work, but I’m still wary of the device and don’t recommend it as a reliable geotagging solution. Not only that, it is not flexible as it cannot be used with the LX3, whereas a GPS data logger would work with any camera along with something like GPS Photo Linker. I am definitely going to go that route next time…

We spent the rest of the day being lazy and hanging out at home. I took a long nap, longer than I’d planned. It was nearly sunset when I woke up. Tien and I went out to cruise the village and I took a bunch of video to show people back home what it’s like. As a photographer one of the things that frustrates me is that you honestly can’t always capture the scene with still images, even as much as you want to, so it’s nice to have some simple video to fall back on.

Monday morning we meant to get an early start but did not. We were too late for breakfast so we headed to Long Xuyen and had lunch at our usual internet cafe. Looking at the calendar I realized I was supposed to fly back to the USA in just over 48 hours. We talked about our options for the time between now and when she gets the fiancé visa approved and I decided to not fly back to America but instead stay in Asia. I thought that it would be more important for us to stay together during this time than be apart for however long it’s going to take. I’m still really angry at US immigration and I think it’s complete bullshit that I have to stay out of the country if I want to be with my fiancé.

It rained hard, then softly, and we left the coffee shop and went to a book store. We found an english book, Sherlock Holmes – Silver Blaze, for Tien to read to me to help her with her spoken language and pronunciation skills. These are the two hardest things for her to have practiced while learning english in Vietnam.

We left the book store and cruised around the city some more just trying to find something to do and found our way to The Panda Cafe which is on the 5th floor roof of a large electronics store and looks down on a large round-a-bout. I had seen this place from the ground and wanted to check it out, but it was before sunset and was probably the wrong time to see it in its proper context. It was mostly dead. It looked cool though.

There were matches in the bathroom so you could smoke; Vietnam is still macho like that.

We had two small expensive drinks and then left. I wanted to get a copy of Wall-E to watch with Tien’s family, so we went to a media store where they sold knock-off music and videos. I couldn’t find the movie because all of their books were completely disorganized. Chinese movies were stuffed in with Japanese and American, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what books the movies were placed in. I thought it was odd that I couldn’t even find a pirated copy of a movie to pay for.

On the way home Tien pulled off to the side of the road where two people were selling crabs from a basket. Tien asked for something and the woman began pulling crabs out of the basket and dropping them in a plastic bucket where the man made sure they did not jump out and crawl away like I’d seen at another crab vendor a few blocks back. After putting about 10 crabs into the bucket they put a bag over the top, flipped it over and tied the bag off, sealing the crabs inside. I thought that a plastic shopping bag was not adequate protection for 10 crabs, but they double bagged it so I couldn’t complain. It ended up being OK though and we were not maimed by the crustaceans.

That night Tien read half of Silver Blaze to me while I dozed on the couch, swatting mosquitoes and helping her correctly pronounce some new words.

Malaysia, Part 2

Wednesday I woke up to hurricane winds and our hotel shaking. I moved the love seat in off the patio expecting to have torrential rains hitting soon, then I went back to sleep. When I woke up 3 hours later everything was calm. I guess that’s just how night weather is in Malaysia.

Sometimes when I dream it is like a movie with actors and character development, a climax and an ending. Some times the credits roll. This night I had a dream in that style about a big heist, but not a bank heist. It was something about ripping off a big corporation. I remember less of the plot from this dream than probably any other dream I’ve had like this, but I do remember the ending where about 4 of us survived an ambush. The whole dream was narrated by Morgan Freeman.

Tien and I were awake in time for breakfast this morning so we went downstairs and had a surprisingly good meal. We went back upstairs and relaxed for a bit and tried to figure out if we should leave, and then after a big pillow fight we decided to pack up. We checked out and caught a Mercedes Benz taxi back to the bus station. We got on the bus to Seremban, the city where we had to transfer to a train that would take us back to Kuala Lumpur. We turned on some music and zoned out and nearly missed the station. Luckily I happened to see the walkway we’d taken a few days earlier and recognized it in time to get off at the exactly right stop.

While we were waiting at the train station I saw a scale and decided to weigh myself and my backpack. I weighed 97 kg with a bunch of stuff in my pockets, and my backpack was 16 kg. I have to say I’m pretty happy with my backpack, especially since it holds 35 lbs of gear comfortably.

We boarded our train and headed off. I was staring out the window watching forests of palm trees pass by when I was struck with a craving for Mexican food. Then I thought about Puerto Alegre and how lovely their guacamole is with a margarita. There was no chance to have anything like that here though, so I let the thought go…

We checked back into the Mandarin Pacific in KL and had a rest, then headed out to find the Petronas Twin Towers. On our way down to the Pasar Seni station I smelled cloves in the air and realized that it wasn’t the first time I had smelled them in Malaysia. I guess people here love cloves, and I can’t blame them.

Four stops down the line we got off at a subway stop called KLCC and walked up a few flights of stairs. Walking up the steps from a subway into a new city is always an exciting thing and I recalled my first time walking up to Stockton and Market in San Francisco. I wasn’t sure what to expect here in KL, but what I did see when we walked out was a huge ƒ building. I wasn’t sure what it was but I began photographing it, and as we strafed it I realized that it was in fact one of the two Petronas Towers.

Petronas Twin Towers The Petronas Towers were enormous and awesome. I’d never seen such at glorious building before. They were shiny and clean and all of the spaces surrounding them were huge. Huge entryways, huge fountain, huge driveways. Tien and I spent a long while photographing them from near and far, and then went inside to take more photos. Inside on the bottom levels is a four or five story mall. Outside in the back is a large patio with an impressive fountain and an island. We took many many photos and some videos. TIen had never been inside of a shopping mall before and had never seen skyscrapers aside from those in Saigon, which aren’t really skyscrapers so much as tall buildings.

After we got tired from awe at the towers we were hungry, and since mall food tends to suck I resisted the urge to let Tien try Pizza Hut for the first time and we walked a block away and found a better, cheaper restaurant than what would’ve been available at the KLCC mall. I was beginning to feel a little ill in my digestive system, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying two beers and a delicious plate of spaghetti with chicken. Tien got some sort of delicious chicken and rice dish and honey lemonade. We sat and enjoyed our food as it got dark, then returned to the Petronas towers to take some photos of it at night. They are much more impressive at night because of the way they are lit up. Aside from the unique Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower, the rest of the skyline wasn’t even remarkable when compared to these towers.

We were really tired by this point so we got on the train and managed to stay awake. Between the train station and the hotel I began thinking about an old friend I used to work with named Ron Abitbol. Sometimes we had to travel for work to the same places, but we did t work together all that long. Ron lived out of his car about half of the time, and sometimes he’d live in his boat or in an actual dwelling of some sort. He was a unique character, his own man. Some people thought he was weird, and I guess he was. He did his own thing pretty much all the time. Before I had met him he had gone to Mexico for a long time and worked on a boat. He ended up marrying a Mexican girl and bringing her back to America. He would wander all over. I felt like I might be a Ron.

That night I slept unusually poor. The sickness had set in and kept me up frequently. Even so, we ended up sleeping in late and missing breakfast on Thursday morning.

We decided to go to the Batu Caves, a place I’d wanted to see since I saw taka’s photos of it. As we were getting ready a screw fell loose on my glasses like it had back at Angkor wat. We wandered around looking for a micro screwdriver and found an optics shop where a girl tightened the loose screw for me.

A block later we found a small temple and were invited inside. We went in and as I was taking photos I noticed that the battery on my camera was nearly dead. We went back to the hotel and ended up staying there and not going to the caves at all because I felt so ill. Tien went to find some medicine and food. I had told her to get some dried fruit. She returned with medicine, tea and junkfood which she said was the closest thing she could find to fried food. She did have some multigrain crackers though and that was nice.

Tiny WatchersWe napped the afternoon away and when I woke up I was antsy and feeling a little better, but rather than the batu caves we went to Menara KL looking for a geocache.

Two train stops up we began what was a decent walk to the top of a hill. As we got near the cache location a group of monkeys came running up. We took photos of them and watched them play and preen. When a menara security guard finally left we found the cache and dropped off a travel bug I’d found in SF. This was Tiens first geocache.

Since we were at menara we decided to go up into the tower. It was nearly sunset and the views were gorgeous. It really helped me see the space of the city, which was larger than the maps had led me to think.

There were many Islamic families in the tower and many of the women were dressed head to toe in black with just eyes and hands showing. One of them was having her photo taken, which I thought was funny since you couldn’t see almost any of her. It was like taking a portrait of somebody wearing a gorilla suit, it could be anybody. I thought about that custom and the more I thought about it I became slightly offended at it. I couldn’t put my reason into words but I was definitely offended and that was strange since I don’t usually get offended by people’s lifestyles.

We went back down the 1 minute elevator ride, me feeling slightly ill on the way, and at the bottom was a vendor playing with a really neat crazy remote controlled car. I ended up buying it for tiens nieces.

We took a shuttle down the hill to the street. The radio was playing a local Malaysian radio station with pop hits in English. One thing I like about Malaysia is that almost everybody speaks English. On top of that, many of the Malay words are misspellings of english words. For example, restoran, motorsikal, ekspress, monorel, and bas.

I had a hard time staying awake on the train home because I hadn’t eaten a proper meal in a day and was extremely dehydrated due to my ongoing gastrointestinal problems. There was a sign on the train that said “Three seats are reserved for senior citizens, disabled and pregnant ladies. Aren’t we courteous?”

Back at the hotel I noticed the the battery in my LX3 was dead so I plugged it in with a funky 3 prong plug. Back in Vietnam I’d looked at that plug and had nearly thrown it away since my American plugs had been working great everywhere. In malaysia though all power plugs were these and I’d used that cable to charge my Nikon and my laptop.

I was starving by this point so we went for food. I very irritably dragged Tien Through the market and settled on chicken fried rice with sprite, which was very satisfying. We then went to look for some gifts for her family at the market but couldn’t find anything that really stood out and decided to get some perfume once we were back in Saigon since we probably couldn’t bring it on the plane. We headed back to the hotel and packed for our early departure the next day. I always take a long time to pack so I gave Tien On the Road and had her read aloud to me while I packed.

We got to sleep later than I had hoped and 6am came too soon. We hit the train to sentral and arrived at nearly 7, which was a bit later than planned. Even at that time Starbucks was not open and we weren’t going to eat McDonalds so we just got on the KLIA Ekspres and went to the airport with the intention of getting breakfast there. We ended up arriving much later than I had planned and I was a little worried that the lines through passport control would be as long as last time we were here, but the whole process of getting into the international terminal was actually very easy. This ease was the last bit of joy I experienced in Malaysia.

There were pretty much no breakfast places in the airport. I say this from the perspective beyond passport control. After making one of my innumerable uncomfortable bathroom breaks that were the ongoing result of my illness, we went to a cafe and got coffees and a vanilla muffin, which would’ve made a great breakfast if we had time to eat it. Instead we went down the travellators, that’s what they call the moving walkways, and got to our gate. At the gate there were unsurprisingly no places to sit, and surprisingly another xray security checkpoint. I put our coffee, the muffin, my phone, LX3, ipod and the remote controlled car into a tray and passed it through the metal detectors. On the other side I received my electronic devices soaking wet with coffee that had spilled as it went through the machine along with the spoken notice, although it was not written anywhere, that I was not allowed to bring drinks into the gate waiting area. I had run my coffee through the machine and spilled it all over my new camera, phone and iPod for nothing.

I drank some of my drinks and left the rest there, picked up my soggy electronic devices and my muffin and proceeded to the waiting area for our gate, complete with plenty of chairs and absolutely nothing else. This was a place meant for people to wait, yet they could not bring liquids in, and there were no restaurants or even a drinking fountain. I sat there dehydrated from my illness and ate my muffin with no liquid to wash it down.

I then boarded a plane and sat there for over 30 minutes with really irritating music that sounded like french music mixed with banghra being played backwards and a screaming brat in the next seat over. Neither Tien or I could understand a single word spoken by the man who offered us a meal on the plane and we ended up getting a meal that was to me entirely inedible. At least I got a few tablespoons of Sprite.

Malaysian Airlines had bragged about being one of the few five star airlines in the world, but judging from their airport and their air service, I honestly wouldn’t choose them if I am ever given a choice again, and I’ll avoid KLIA or at least plan ahead if I have to go there.

I managed to find some calm by listening to Chicane very loudly and closing my eyes, but as we landed that terrible music came back on and that brat started screaming louder and I felt a little like I was on an airplane straight to hell. We were in Saigon though, so at least that was good.

We landed. I exchanged my ringgits and some Lao money that I still had into dong, slew a few taxi touts and found a good driver to take us to the familiar District 1, Pham Ngu Lao, and the Ruby Star.

Malaysia, Part 1

Sunday morning we woke up and hurried out for breakfast at our usual spot before checking out of the hotel and catching a taxi to the airport. Tien had rarely been inside an airport before. She had never been on a plane before. She had never left the country before. This was the first of some big firsts for Tien and I was excited to experience them with her.

We waited for our plane at the end of a remote terminal. There mens bathroom had a girl walking around inside cleaning things while men urinated with her right there. I thought this was interesting, and actually I’d seen it before. She pointed me to a toilet that she’d just finished cleaning so I went to it. What else can you do when a woman offers you a clean toilet?

At takeoff I was a little worried that Tien would go into shock like she’d done on a roller coaster at a fun park there in Saigon on the second day I was there. I think I forgot to write about that day, but she basically went into shock for like 15 minutes and I had to carry her off the roller coaster. She did ok though. I took a video of it and will post it on youtube so you all can experience her first airplane takeoff.

The meal on the plane was good, chicken beriani with vegetables on the side, mango juice, wine, chocolates and wafer cookies. Tien always shares her meals with me since she’s a pretty small girl, and we shared this meal too. I began to see the benefits of traveling as two, like “I get more food on the airplane.” We listened to some music and before we knew it we were on the ground in a foggy Kuala Lumpur. The airport was nice, modern. There was almost nowhere to sit though, and we ended up sitting at a train stop in order to fill out the immigration arrival cards. Then we got forms for H1N1 and there was nowhere to fill them out because about 100 people were needing the same exact thing. Most of us just used the handrail of the broken moving sidewalk. Beyond health screening was passport control where about two hundred people were waiting. I had never seen so many people at passport control. It was interesting people watching though. There were many girls with head coverings, Malaysia is predominantly muslim. The police looked really sharp, great uniforms. There was a cute little chinese american girl doing funny things in the line next to us.

Waiting at Sentral Finally out of the international zone of the airport, we looked for transport. The airport is located some ways away from the actual city of Kuala Lumpur and there was allegedly a train going there. We finally found some signs pointing to an empty area at the far end of the airport. There was literally nobody in sight and it kinda felt like Jacob’s Ladder as we proceeded down to the ticket booth and out by the tracks. I had expected to find the train out of service there ended up being a healthy number of people on the train when we got there. It departed soon after we arrived, and it was a very good train. The ride was very smooth, the speed was very quick, the seats were comfortable. A man we were sitting with said that the train system, Kuala Lumpur International Transit Express, was privately owned and used to go direct to downtown, but it wasn’t making money that way so it started putting in more stops along the way and thus took longer. He told us some more about KL, Malaysia and Singapore. He was a nice and had a beard and a turban. He was a business man returning from a trip to Singapore.

We got off the KLIA Express at KL Sentral Station, which is a huge transit intersection. About 5 train systems come together there and there is also a small airport. We were pretty tired from traveling so we took a rest at Starbucks and got coffee. This was the first time Tien had ever had Starbucks, she didn’t even know what it was. I explained how it was a huge corporate entity that pushed smaller, local coffee shops out of businesses in cities where the government didn’t intervene. I then went on a short tirade about how huge corporate entities are bad for locals and how they screw third world countries like Vietnam out of their human rights like healthcare because the suits at the top don’t care a single bit about the individual who is actually doing the work down at the bottom of the pyramid. Then we got up to catch a train.

We were a little confused by the whole five transit systems thing at first, but we got some insight by following another pack packer couple who I overheard talking about the same stop we were looking for. When we found the ticketing area for the train we needed, all but two of the ticketing systems were broken. I tried one but it wouldn’t take actual money so I went to the line for the other one. Then both of them broke right in front of us as people used them. We bought tickets from a person and then went to the turn style where all but two of them were broken. This was the most broken train station I’d ever used. The train was nice though, and when we left the station there as a great view of the city. We got off one stop down in Chinatown.

As our train was pulling up I was checking out all of the sights. In the distance we could see the Petronas Twin Towers that are in every photograph of Kuala Lumpur, which we also had seen on the KLIA Express on the way in. I saw a tall hotel called the Mandarin Pacific and thought it would be great to stay there because we could see out over the city, so we went and got a room there. After a short rest we went out and got some refreshments including a bottle of cabernet. We went back to the hotel and I enjoyed a glass of wine while taking a bath. I bathe in every hotel that has a tub because you never know when you’ll find another one since they’re so scarce.

Kuala Lumpur Chinatown OldieWalking outside we found a McDonalds which was directly across the street from our hotel. I joked with Tien about eating there but she didn’t really get the joke because she had no idea what McDonalds was. I told her that we’d eat there some day, but not tonight. Instead we turned left to see what was that way and ended up in the center of the Chinatown market which happened to be a block away from our hotel. The streets were closed off and there were market stands set up selling shoes, bags, shirts, lighters, binoculars, fruit, dvds, scarves, belts, watches, perfume, bathing suits, etc. etc.. I found a stiletto knife with a lighter in the handle and nearly bought it, but I figured I couldn’t take it on the plane home so I decided against it.

I asked Tien what she thought of the market and she said it was strange that people were talking in languages that she didn’t understand. I guess we all think that the first time we are in that situation, but it had been so long for me I had forgotten that it had happened to me when I first went to Sunnyvale to work for the Chinese.

We found some good smelling perfumes and bartered the price a little until I realized I might not have enough money to pay for the perfume and pay for dinner, so we just left and went to have dinner. It was good dinner, fried rice with chicken that was pretty flavorful. No doubt fresh meat. We had fresh lychee and mango juice too. We walked around a bit more, saw the rest of the market and some of the surrounding area and returned to our hotel.

Monday morning we had breakfast at the hotel, which was so so. They had strawberry jelly to put on toast so that made me happy, but cold eggs and spring rolls aren’t exactly part of the breakfast of champions. The coffee was bleh, but hey, it was coffee so I couldn’t complain. We headed out to find a travel agency to help us plan our getaway to a beach but amazingly we couldn’t find a single one. Usually in the backpacker districts they’re everywhere, but here there were absolutely zero to be found. Instead we looked in the Lonely Planet guide that I had and picked out Port Dickson on the map and decided to head there if we couldn’t find a travel agent anywhere else.

We packed up, got on the train and headed back to Sentral Station. On the way up to the station Tien turned to me and commented about how she probably looked much more confident today, which she did. I recalled that buzz of riding public transit for the first time, experiencing all the new things like tickets, turn-styles, route planning and waiting on train platforms.

Back in Sentral we were a little confused on how to get to Port Dickson. The map showed a train going all the way there, but people there said that was not so. On top of that we weren’t sure which train to take since five different transit systems come together there. In the end we figured out that we had to take a train to a city called Seremban, then take a bus to Port Dickson, and so we did.

Islam is the official religion in Malaysia and it certainly shows. There are girls everywhere with head coverings on, and they sell head coverings in markets just like baseball caps and shoes. On the train there was a girl with a head covering on and a hand bag that said “bikini bottom”, which I thought was pretty ironic. I thought about how Islamic girls probably wear head coverings while they swim and figured that the Saudi Arabian Girls Swim Team would perform very poorly. There was another older woman on the train with a head covering and hair several inches long coming out of a mole on her neck. I don’t know why, but a lot of Asian people let the hair in their moles grow out inches while cutting the rest of the hair on their face. It doesn’t make sense to me, and is kinda gross.

To kill time I decided to play with Cydia on my phone, even though I didn’t have internet access. This is when I recalled how poor a lot of OSS software is. Cydia is absolute crap without an internet connection, and honestly is pretty poor as a package manager in general, but not even networking software should crash in the absence of a network connection.

The train dropped us off a ways from the bus station and we had to walk down a long covered pathway to get to the bus station. It took me a while to figure out the bus station, mainly because I associated the numbered bus parking spots with ticketing windows of the same number, but there ended up being no correlation there. You merely had to go stand by the bus stop labeled with the destination you wanted to go to, get on the bus and pay for your ticket once you were onboard. Simple. While I was figuring this out we were walking around and Tien bumped into some Vietnamese people and was really excited to see her countrymen while out and about in the world. It was remarkable too because even when I was in Vietnam traveling the English speaking Vietnamese people had said that not many Vietnamese people travel outside of Vietnam.

We boarded the bus with a huge crowd and were almost the last ones on, so I ended up having to stand at the front of the bus with one foot in the stairwell and sit on the dashboard while Tien stood next to me. Our bus headed off through the city and off across the countryside through hills and winding roads on smooth paved roads. We passed a dead cow at 80kmh. We passed land that had “private property” signs, the first I’d seen in Asia. 40 minutes later we were standing in a town we knew nothing about, so we started walking around. 10 minutes later we realized that we’d need help so we went to look for a map but could not find one. We ended up talking to a taxi driver who drove us south down the coastal road and pointed out hotels. We picked one that was tall and was right on a beach. It was more of a resort hotel than I was looking for, but it was nice and we wanted to be on the beach, and that we were. Our room was large and had a patio looking straight down onto the beach itself, which was quiet and small. Only a few people were on it and the waves were gentle.

We were hungry so we went out to find some food. There was a market across the street from our hotel so we headed that direction. At the main street we stopped and I checked traffic to my left to make sure it was clear, but to my right was a curve in the road that I couldn’t see around. I kept my eye on it as we walked into the first lane, but right as we did some maniac came flying around the curve on the wrong side of the road and full speed. Then I realized it wasn’t that he was on the wrong side of the road but that people in Malaysia drive on the left hand side and I’d checked the road wrong. We ended up just running across and did not get hit. This was fruitless though because some of the restaurants were closing down and the ones that were still open only had gross food. I wanted to find a restaurant with pictures on the menu so I could just point and say “I want that.” I recalled a scene from Lost in Translation where they are at the shabu shabu restaurant and Bill Murray orders in just such a fashion.

We went back to the restaurant at our hotel and looked their menu over. There was mostly chicken and I figured that between the Muslims and the Hindus there wouldn’t be much beef or pork in this country. Tien and I talked over dinner about traveling and mixed culture, how things are so different in different parts of the world.

After dinner we went up to our patio and drank some fruit juice and wine and watched the sun set. After it was dark we went swimming in the ocean. The water was as warm as a pool, the waves were gentle, and there was nobody else around. It was really really nice, like the whole ocean was our own pool. I taught Tien some more about swimming and she caught on well, but got cold and worn out quickly so we went back inside after 20 minutes or so.

Tuesday I woke up to thunder rolling in from the ocean from lighting that was going on way out in the Strait of Malacca. I got up and brought the love seat in off the patio thinking that there could be huge rains, then went back to sleep. When I woke up it was not raining, but looked like it had been and would be again very soon. And it did. We caught a taxi to a bank back in town and it was raining when we got out of the car. I withdrew some money and then realized that I had no idea where to go or what to do.

Tien and I began walking through the gentle rain down the side of a main street until we saw the word “restoran” and assumed it was a restaurant. It was, but it wasn’t appetizing so we walked around some more and found a place with decent breakfast even though it was after noon. We ate and drank coffee, then walked some more. We found a small temple with huge doors that had just shut when we got to them and the tiny bells all over it were still shaking. It looked like a Hindu temple to me, but I could be wrong.

We bought some drinks from a local market where a friendly man was asking all sorts of questions like “Is she your wife? Where’d you get her?” We left the shop and walked out towards the street and I wondered how on earth we could get ahold of a taxi in a place that looked like it was nowhere special, but just as I was thinking this a taxi pulled right up in front of us and we jumped in.

Back at the hotel we rested for a while and waited for the sun to come out a bit more, and once it began to warm up and dry out we went for a walk down the beach. There was a park at the north end of our beach. While we had been in the taxi I’d seen something that looked like a pier and I wanted to check it out, but when we got there it was closed for construction. We decided to swing on the swing set instead. Tien had never been on a playground swing before and she loved it.

Statue in the Forest We left there and found a calm beach with white sand near the pier thing which ended up being a bridge to what was once an island but was now a peninsula. We walked out onto it and photographed the bridge, then continued into a forested area with weird trees that grew up out of the ground and had branches that grew back into the ground. Some of the branches grew up from below the ground in an arc and then went back to the ground so that they were only an arch of wood coming out of the sand. It was very strange and interesting and I’d never seen anything like it before. I found a few little statues in the forest and some other neat areas, but it wasn’t exactly a beautiful place so we didn’t stay long. Instead we went back home and resumed being lazy.

At sunset we went for a swim. There were some men on boats that were pulling these big colorful blow-up rocket looking water toys and were charging for rides on them. We didn’t have any money since you can’t exactly bring money swimming and you wouldn’t want to leave it on the beach. I wondered how they made any money at all, even though it did look fun. Tien and I swam for a long time and played in the waves until after the sun had set and it began to get cold.

The hotel had a sign that said that there was no wet attire allowed beyond the edge of the lobby and especially not in the elevator since it could cause a short circuit in the electricity. I wondered what kind of beach resort would have such ridiculous rules. They didn’t even provide a locker room to change, so we just ignored the rule and went in while we were still wet. The hotel had other silly rules too, like “no outside food or drink” even though the room had a refrigerator in it and there was no grocery store in the hotel itself. I realized that this was a place where rules were made to not be followed.

One Day in Saigon before Malaysia

Saturday, Tien and I woke up at the familiar Ruby Star which is situated in the Pham Ngu Lao area of Saigon. Our room was small and had no window so realizing that it was time to get up was difficult from the darkness of our bed, but an incoming phone call helped wake us up and get our morning started.

We went to get breakfast but ended up at a travel agency first. We got a price for two tickets to Kuala Lumpur for the following day, then went to go have breakfast and try to find something better. We had a breakfast of simply bread with eggs and soy sauce with Vietnamese white coffee, so delicious. After visiting a few other travel agencies we decided to go with the more expensive, but more convenient time-wise option that we first found.

With travel plans covered we went to tackle the only other thing we needed to do in Saigon, find camera gear. I was still searching for the Loreo 3d rig and a pocket cam. We managed to find an official Canon store, but the camera that I wanted, the Ixus 870 IS. It’s a 2008 model, but surprisingly the Canon store did have… for a whopping 9,000,000+ dong, which is more than $500. We continued our search and ended up at some 5 story electronics store that was having a super duper awesome mega blitz sale extravaganza palooza z0r where gold painted models were standing outside as statues holding a sign that presumably advertised an amazing deal and loud music with a man continuously talking about something that must have been really really awesome could be heard from a block away.

We walked inside and were unable to find any 2008 model cameras, but we did, however, find the much coveted Panasonic DMC-LX3 and my heart rejoiced and then was immediately torn and frustrated. So much like love it might have been just that. “Should I get the Canon Ixus model that replaced the 870, or should I go with the LX3?” I could not even begin to consider buying a camera that I hadn’t researched online, so we went across the street to the second floor of a bakery that smelled like sugary pastry heaven. We got some disappointing smoothies and I did some poor online research that led me to no conclusions. I pulled up Skype on my iPhone and rang up some buddies in America. It was only 11pm or so there and it was Saturday night, I figured they’d be awake and probably happy to hear from me while they were up partying or whatever.

Ben didn’t answer his phone, which sucked because he owns the LX3 and I wanted to get his final word on its awesomeness. Nathan pretty much said “go with the Lumix”, which I wasn’t even really considering at this point, and he also said “they’re pretty much all the same once you get above a hundred dollars or so, so you can’t really go wrong” and that was decent advice.

I went back to the store, saw the price on the Ixus 960 and bought the LX3. Spending that much money when I don’t have a job is a tough decision, especially after buying two next day plane tickets to another country, but it was something I needed as a photographer and I knew I’d be happy with it.

Tien and I went back to the hotel and rested. I planned to take a nap but ended up researching some stuff online and talking with Tien about philanthropic technological stuff like the X-Prize and Folding@home. We also talked about Roomba, which I love. We then headed back out to get some food while room service cleaned our room. We went to a local pizza place and got some disappointing pizza and I got a disappointing cocktail. We then tried to find some sandals for Tien, whose feet were sore and in dire need of some function over fashion footwear. We were also on the lookout for an SDHC card for the new camera, which I thought would be incredibly easy to find but instead was incredibly difficult to find. We found some great sandals though, perfect fit and Tien loved them. She put them on and we walked and walked and walked and walked until we were back at the super duper mega sale store where they only had wimpy 2gb cards. On the way back to the hotel I found an electronics boutique that sold me an 8gb card touted as being class six but in fact ended up being class 4. I swear, you can’t trust anything around here.

It began to rain a long block away from our hotel and we got to the front door just in time to be completely soaked. Luckily air conditioning helps dry wet clothes. We rested and then went back out for drinks. We found a nice lounge called Classica with only two other people in it. I got a beer and Tien got a chocolate milk. They also brought us rambutan and dragon fruit, which was nice. There was American music playing that was half neat and half awful. All in all though it was a nice place and made up for the mediocre lunch we’d had.

We retired to the hotel with anticipation of our flight to Malaysia the next day, a new camera in hand to document our trip and new experiences.

Bad Breakfasts, Leaving Binh Hoa with Tien

Wednesday morning I slept through my alarm and the noise of the other people in the house and didn’t get up until after 9, which never happens. Shortly after I got up the power went out, which is now pretty normal. Tien and I decided to head into Long Xuyen to get breakfast and return my suit.

Breakfast was notable because it was a pretty miserable experience. Tien took me to a new place to try a new food. Before we even got our food I was having respiratory problems from the fumes of passing scooters. When breakfast came it wasn’t very appetizing to loom at, and the flavor wasn’t exactly desirable to my taste buds. The thing that finally made me a little nauseous though was one of the most disgusting dogs I’ve ever seen that came wandering by. Black nipples dangled inches below the low hanging skin of the bitches belly and sores adorned her backside as she miserably waddled past looking for food. Tien asked me “is it terrible?” “yeah…” she just laughed, apologized and said that it was her favorite thing to eat for breakfast.

Things got better at our usual coffee shop near the lake where we got lost in the Internet looking at Stereoscopic images online. I found the Loreo 3d lens in a cap and decided I wanted to buy one if I ever found one. We headed out to look for a camera shop and helmet shops, but didn’t really find anything good. We headed home and on the way I wished I had a smaller camera to use for times like when I’m on the back of the scooter, or when the d300 was too large to bring along, or when I want to take video. I decided I really need a second camera.

Thursday was yet another rainy day. Tien and I spent a usual amount of time trying to figure out our future, this time discussing the option of me going back to America at the end of July and having her come later once the visa is approved. This option sucks, but may be the right way to do it… I wasn’t happy with that thought because I never wanted another long distance relationship, and I definitely didn’t want to be a married couple who live in separate countries. The frustration with this combined with the rain made me very tired and I slept for most of the day.

That evening after it got dark the rain finally let up so Tien, her sisters and I went into town just to get out for a while. We went to the supermarket and I finally found the Da Lat wine I’ve been looking for, so I bought a bottle. It was a little tart, but I enjoyed it. What can I say? I love wine.

Friday was another interesting breakfast. Tien and her mom try to make me new things to eat, but sometimes they attempt to recreate the type of meal I’d have in America. This morning was eggs, bread, butter, coffee, uncooked hot dogs and pig liver pate with soy sauce. I really do appreciate their effort to show me new things, but I had to tell Tien that coffee and bread with eggs and soy sauce was good enough. Uncooked hot dogs and pig liver pate have no place in an american breakfast.

Unexpectedly, Tien’s uncle from Saigon showed up in his Toyota tercel. He was on his way through to drop somebody off and was headed back to Saigon that day. Tien and I had been planning to go there for a day and then fly to Malaysia, and this was the perfect chance to go, plus we wouldn’t have to ride in a bus. I was certainly ready to get back on the road since I was setting a new record for consecutive days spent in Binh Hoa, so we packed up and waited for him to come back.

So we waited… And waited. We had thought he would be back in an hour, but he wasn’t. I played iPhone video games to kill time. Then I let Ngoc play some. I taught her how to play field runners while we ate lunch and she did better than I expected on her second try.

We finally left Binh Hoa at 2pm in the cool comfort of a private car, a rare pleasure in Vietnam. Her uncle ended up being one of those stick shift drivers who doesn’t use the friction zone so my equilibrium was a bit off, but it was still better than the bus.
I saw a person at the side of the road with a sewing machine ready to do alterations and repairs.

Tien’s cousins house was on the way so we stopped by for a while. It was a nice house across a wooden footbridge from one lane sub street off the main street. Some men were in the water building the foundation for a wider cement bridge that would be safer for the villagers.

We went inside and sat a while, eating corn on the cob and rambutan. I went into a back room and laid down in a hammock and enjoyed how quiet it was in this place. Quiet was something I had been longing fir since it seems like there is noise everywhere in Binh Hoa even though it’s in the country.

It began to rain. The rain was loud in the tin roof of the wooden extension o the house. I really liked that place… The wood was dark and welcoming and the vaulted ceilings made the space feel larger than most Vietnamese buildings which have flat ceilings.

The rain got heavier, then the power went out, then we left.

There were a lot of people out on scooters despite the rain. They all wear and share rain ponchos. I saw a man with an ATI Radeon poncho. This was not because he worked for ATI or owned a Radeon card or probably even a personal computer. He probably got it from someone at the factory where it was made. Just like everything else brand name, it’s not for fashion or endorsement, it’s what’s available.

The skies outside were smooth grey and for some reason it reminded me of Littleton. The journey was now a familiar one and I usually knew what to expect to see ahead.

Tien and I shared my iPod because I finally got a headphone Y splitter that worked correctly. It was nice and I even was able to hear new things, like how Kaskade’s song Mccamon uses the sampled record noise to make a beat.

We stopped for dinner and I ordered beef, but somehow ended up with seafood. This tends to happen. I most certainly never order seafood but somehow I end up with it. Oh well…

Back on the road I looked out into the dark night and imagined that I was somewhere else. I used to do this as a kid on the way to Texas. Dark roads are hardly distinguishable so you could just as well be anywhere else in the world. I thought about the trip ahead, going to Malaysia, just Tien and I. The car stereo was trying to drown out the music from my iPod and I wondered what could be less sexy than Vietnamese talk radio.

We were dropped off at the same house I came to my first night in Saigon and ended up at the same hotel I was staying at when I proposed to Tien. Saigon might actually be starting to feel like home.

The Engagement Party

Tuesday was the day of our engagement party. We woke up and went to the bank to withdraw some money that was a gift from my parents and my grandmother. This took a long time. We then went to a jeweler and Tien bought a lot of jewelry, then we exchanged the remaining dollars for dong. This also took a long time. The jewelry was beautiful though, and it is tradition to buy these types of jewelry with the money given by the family of the groom. We got lunch and headed home at mid day and took a nap.

When we got up I thought I was supposed to get ready for the party, but I wasn’t. Tien had gone to get her makeup done so I just hung out and played on my computer even as the guests began to arrive. A girl came in and began speaking to me in very basic english, very unsure of herself. Her name was Ngoc and she was 15. She was Tien’s cousin. We talked a little about music and other standard chit chat. I soon thought it was time for me to get ready, but alas it was not and Tien’s sister Thule told me to take another nap. Then when I got up she told me to come out and visit with people and gave me coffee.

Tien soon showed up and said “get ready!” I explained that I had been trying to, but her sister kept making me drink coffee and take naps. I showered and put on my suit, the one they hadn’t measured me for. It actually looked pretty sharp and fit pretty well. I was happy with it. A good suit makes a man happy in a unique kind of way.

I went out into the room where the party was taking place and there were a bunch of people I didn’t know, including a table of all men. A man came up to me and spoke to me in broken english. Ngoc said he was going to fill the roles that my father would fill if he were here.

Somebody gave me some things to hold in a specific way, then grabbed a bunch of the men and gave them things to hold, then we were all told to walk outside. A photographer was directing us on where to stand and how to stand, but of course I couldn’t understand anything he was saying. The photographer had a disfigured hand but was rockin’ the camera like a true pro. The group of us stood there in the gentle rain with traditional engagement gifts and had our pictures taken by the disfigured photographer. Then we went inside and had our pictures taken in there. Then I had my picture taken alone in there, still holding that stuff in that specific way, still not knowing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Somebody took the stuff away from me and instructed me to do some traditional poses while I had my picture taken.

I itched my ear and noticed that there was a mosquito bite on it. I also had one on my eyebrow. There is no part of my body that is free from those suckers.

The photographer ran off to do something else and the man who was acting as my father said “You stand there alone for ten minutes until your bride comes.” So I stood there by myself for about ten minutes while a bunch of other people had their pictures taken, and things were opened and candles were lit and more pictures were taken.

The man acting as my father came up and asked me something about religion, and I wasn’t sure what he was asking, but when I asked a clarifying question he just said a statement and didn’t respond as if he still needed an answer to his original question. I realized that this is a common phenomenon with miscommunication. Somebody will ask you a question, but when that question isn’t understood they simply turn the question into a statement about their stance on what the answer had to do with.

Tien appeared in the door and had her picture taken. Then she came out where I could see her. She was wearing traditional clothes and looked amazing. I think she looks great in red, and that’s what she was wearing. One by one I took the jewelry that we’d bought earlier in the day and put it on her, posing for a photograph with each piece. We were then instructed to do this and that, and I was really confused as to what to do because there were several people talking loudly to each other in my immediate vicinity. Tien tried to explain something to me, but a man was shouting in my other ear so I decided it was probably best to just go along with whatever.

I thought about how I was a lot like a dog living with Tien’s family. Her sister tells me to go sleep, then feeds me. Everybody talks in a language I don’t understand except for a few words. They feed me, laugh with me, I entertain them with tricks. Then when a group of people show up I get confused as to who to listen to and do my best to behave the way I think I should, but I honestly have no idea how that should be other than behaving, smiling and minding my manners.

Tien and I were instructed to walk slowly outside to have our pictures taken. Traffic was flowing on the road near the front of her house where there were flowers adorning the entryway. Trucks and motorbikes passed by and honked, and for a moment I thought they were honking congratulations but I then remembered that they always honk like this and were simply driving by.

We made our way out to a van, piled in and drove off through the rain to a restaurant in Long Xuyen. As we were driving I again appreciated how nice my suit was. I felt like James Bond looking so sharp in a nice suit in a third world country passing by a river with boats and machinery around it. I tried to think of a spy plot but couldn’t come up with anything specific.

We crossed over one half of a bridge where the other half was still being built. One of the cranes had fallen into the river because the ground below it slid out from underneath it. Thankfully it landed on the river bank instead of on the one good part of the bridge.

Feed me cake I thought about the paradox between the actions of reality and the ceremony that celebrates an occasion. We were celebrating this engagement between Tien and I, an occasion that is romantic and amorous, but I felt like I was participating in a play where I was merely playing a part but wasn’t actually supposed to feel anything. Like I was supposed to appear in love, but couldn’t actually act on the feelings of actually being in love.

We arrived at the restaurant and had more photos taken at the entryway. When we got to the dining room floor everybody was already seated, eating and drinking. Tien and I had more photos taken in the surrounding area. We walked down the aisle between the tables, having our photo taken, and got onto the stage where we had our photo taken. I was finding it very hard to concentrate because a light nearby was trying its hardest to set something on fire, and I could see and smell the smoke. This was going on right by a big cake that we were supposed to cut, and we cut it while we had our photos taken and the light bulb kept trying to set things on fire.

As we got off the stage there was this really loud, really awful music playing. I looked up towards the DJ booth and saw a karaoke display cuing words, but nobody was singing. We had instrumental karaoke music. Soon the man who had acted in place of my father got on stage and said some things, and then began to sing. Tien and I were finally allowed to eat. They brought me Saigon Red Beer, and gave us food and people sang.

Drinkin Bia I was having a really good time. The singing was fun, the company was great, the occasion was great, the beer was good, the food was good. I asked Tien what it was we were eating but she didn’t know what it was called. She just said that it was part of a pig, and after looking again at it I guessed it was pig stomach. It was delicious.

The table of men who had been at Tien’s house was now sitting at one of the tables at the restaurant. They were a bunch of badasses. They were smoking and cheering and saying loud things while pointing like they were totally going to go do something awesome as one big gang. One of them got up on stage with Tien’s brother and sang karaoke with him.

A woman next to me was trying to get me to eat my rice quicker, so I obliged, but when I did I got the hiccups. Then I thought I was going to look like a drunk with the hiccups so I drank beer to wash the rice down and that probably made me look more like a drunk.

Tien sang some songs, and after one she stayed on stage and danced a little and then I got on stage and danced with her and we had our photos taken. Then the end of the song erupted into another big photo session with everybody in the restaurant coming up to take turns being photographed with Tien and I underneath a green light. This went on for some time, and all the sudden the party was over. The music was off, people were going back to the van and it was dark out.

We hadn’t even eaten a single piece of cake.

We took the cake, got in the van with a bunch of other people and drove back to Tien’s house. When we got there Tien’s mom started cutting the cake up and putting it in bags for people to take home. There were hardly any people left though, but some of us got spoons and started eating the cake right off the platter. It was delicious. There were butterflies and flowers made of white chocolate and mint chocolate. We ate until we didn’t want anymore and there was still half the cake left over. Then everybody left and I laid in the hammock for a while and somehow ended up asleep in my bed.

It had been a great party, even if I didn’t understand a word of what was said during the ceremony.

Visa Issues

Sunday was a rainy day. Everybody was hanging out because there’s not much to do outside when it’s rainy, and it’s difficult to get places on a scooter while it’s raining. I was on my computer fiddling around when Tien came in looking a little sad and told me that her mother and sister didn’t approve of us getting a tourist visa to get into the USA quickly because they said it was impossible, and that if we wanted to do it that way we didn’t need to celebrate the engagement party. I didn’t understand why on earth those two things had anything to do with each other. We talked a long time about it and I could barely make sense of it. I was incredibly frustrated and started questioning everything, which is typical “shit doesn’t make sense” behavior for me.

Tien and I went out to a nearby cafe. The place was wide open, as most places in this area are. It was made up of a grid of posts holding up a thatched roof and between the posts were hammocks. In the centers of the squares created by the hammocks were tables and chairs. We sat at one table and Tien ordered a milk that she ended up never touching. We again tried to make sense of things, tried to figure out a plan to get into America at the end of the month. We were still set on getting the tourist visa because it only made sense, so we decided to somehow continue down that path. With that resolve, we rode off to another restaurant and got food and beer. Just as we sat down it began to rain heavily with lots of wind, and for the first time in Vietnam I was cold and wished I had a hoodie. Tien hadn’t dressed well for the weather and was freezing. When the wind and rain subsided a little bit we got on the scooter and rode home through the rain, then cuddled up under a blanket to get warm, eventually migrating to the bed and sleeping for the rest of the night.

Monday I woke up with the intent to unravel every last detail I could find about the tourist visa and whether or not it was a good idea. Just as we were filling out the form I noticed one detail and decided to do some googling before submitting the application. About 30 minutes later I had relented to doing things a different way, with the fiance visa. It was not because going to the USA on a tourist visa was impossible, but because the short time frame we were aiming for could create some large legal hurdles in the future, potentially creating immense problems for us that could last years. I decided it was better to wait a few months and get things done easily from the beginning than spend years trying to sort things out. I decided this because I am already exhausted from all the bullshit associated with US immigration. It’s unbelievable how difficult it is to get things done the right way, and it is very easy to see why so many people take shortcuts or simply enter the country illegally. For many people I would wager to say there is hardly an alternative to illegal entry. When I looked through forums online I found many many people who were also incredibly frustrated at how difficult it is to legally immigrate their fiance or spouse. This seems to be par for the course with the US gov though. Just look at the recent stimulus bills that essentially gave the irresponsible people a free ride out of responsibility and shared that burden with those of us who had been responsible all along.

Through all of this, every time I ran into another detail with the word “months” in it I thought of Anthony Hopkins after he had his stroke in The Legends of the Fall, talking to his son Brad Pitt. “Screw the government.”

I also found a website, www.visajourney.com, that tracks visa processing times and although the estimated time for a fiancé visa is 6 months, apparently it only takes 75 days on average in Ho Chi Minh City, which was much more reasonable. So, after conceding defeat, Tien and I headed into town to take care of some things for our engagement party.

I saw men playing soccer barefoot in a parking lot off the side of the road.

While we were riding I heard somebody call out, and when I turned to look it was the fight guy from the bus. I was so amazed to see somebody I actually knew while I was out and about that before I knew it I’d smacked him on the arm even as we were riding and said “look at this guy!” as if he could speak english. Tien laughed a lot and then some stuff was said in Vietnamese and soon I waved goodbye.

That evening Tien and I went to a more upscale lounge style restaurant, probably the most swank place I’ve been in Vietnam, and got some smoothies. It amazes me that so many of these places don’t even have alcoholic drinks on the menu. A lounge like this place in SF would be charging $8+ for cocktails and probably wouldn’t even have a blender to make a smoothie with if you wanted one. We watched some American movie on TV and waited for the standard evening rain to stop, but it didn’t stop, so again we just rode home in the rain.

A Tragedy in Binh Hoa

Saturday morning I woke up to Tien climbing back into bed. “I have some bad news from the people in my village…” She went on to tell me that the father of her best friend Trinh, whose family lives across the street, was on his way back from taking his parents to the airport when he had a heart attack. Trinh and her boyfriend rushed him to the hospital where they diagnosed him as immediately needing an operation. It was an expensive operation and Trinh did not have the money, but they would not do the operation until they had the money. Trinh and her boyfriend rushed off to the bank to get the money that was needed, but by the time they returned to the hospital her father was dead.

Tien said he was a good man. Good to his family, good to the people in the village. I had met his wife, she is a wonderful woman. He had planned to take her to a tailor to get new clothes made so they could attend the engagement party for Tien and I. This family was close to Tien’s family.

Trinh and her boyfriend were on their way back from the hospital with her father’s body. When Tien and I headed in to Long Xuyen to take care of some engagement stuff they had just arrived at the house and were preparing a memorial.

Later in the day Tien and I went over to their house. Trinh’s father was laying on the bed under a blanket, a flower in his mouth, his wife at his side fanning the flies off of his body. A table was at the end of the bed with a photo and a little shrine with many sticks of incense and cigarettes burning in his honor.

I had never met Trinh, and this was hardly a good time for introductions, so I ended up not even talking to her. Her boyfriend was nice though, he was taking care of most of the folks who were coming in to pay their respects. Tien spent a lot of time with Trinh while I sat at the side of the room and took in the gravity of the situation. I partly wanted to photograph the scene, but didn’t want to actually go through with doing it. The photographs would’ve been amazing though because of the genuine sorrow. It was bittersweet. Clearly these people loved this man, but now he was gone.

I gave my regards to Trinh’s mother and then Tien and I went back to her house. We talked about how unfair it is that sometimes money rules who gets to live and who has to die. It’s interesting that this sort of thing happens in a communist country. We talked about the health of people in Vietnam and how they handle medical problems. She says that people do not go to the doctor, they just take medicine to alleviate their symptoms, and if the symptoms don’t go away then they go to the doctor. She said that they do a bunch of things that probably don’t help serious problems.

The world is really different over here in Vietnam. So much is the same, but so much is different…

The Trip from Binh Duong, Conspiring About Visas

At about 1:40am the bus finally arrived at our guesthouse in Binh Duong. 40 minutes late is par for the course in Vietnamese transit. As we were getting on a man in a brown shirt shook my hand and tried to talk to me in Vietnamese. I just passed him and found a seat, stuffed my bag under it, verified that there wasn’t a single position I could sit in that was comfortable and turned my iPod on. We cruised around all sorts of weird city streets picking up passengers from dead end dirt roads, big industrial complexes, the side of empty city streets and so on. A few employees were directing people where to sit when they came on, and sent most of them to the back of the bus. The front seats had been designated as reserved by placing plastic kiddy chairs on them.

About 30 minutes into the journey I smelled smoke in the air, but it wasn’t the kind of smoke on the breeze that blows in from outside. I looked up and sure enough there was a man smoking in front of the bus. It was the man in the brown shirt. Then I realized the two gentlemen directly in front of us were also smoking. I wondered when they would be told they weren’t allowed to smoke, but when an employee stood up and lit a cigarette my hopes of clean air disappeared in the growing cloud of smoke. Pretty soon there were about 10 people on the bus smoking.

A few hours into the ride the man in the brown shirt came walking down the aisle and said something to me. Tien translated it. “He wants to fight you.” He was just joking though, and in fact ended up being an employee of the bus service. He began directing people around here and there, and kept coming back to say things to me in Vietnamese. He was obsessed with fighting me. He was also obsessed with the hair on my arms and legs. He kept feeling the hair on my arm and on my legs, saying things about fighting me, and about how he had a beautiful daughter he wanted to introduce me to, and about how he wished he had a son so he could show him all these wonderful things. At one point I could’ve sworn I heard him say “gay man” as he looked at me, and after that I was convinced that he was gay. This joking and touching went on throughout the whole bus trip. He was good at his job though. I’ve never seen vendor ladies get off a bus quicker than when he shouted at them.

Another interesting character was a man who got on the bus at one of the stops. He was wearing a pale blue suit and had long wide fingernails. He had medium length black hair and was carrying a black bag. He set the bag down by my outstretched left foot, reached in and pulled out a microphone, turned something on with a spark and then began trying to sell people little sea horses over his PA system. He also tried to sell them some weird herb medicine and something else in a little cylinder. He got off at the next stop and I was glad he wasn’t shouting into my sandal anymore.

At about 10am we finally got home. 8 hours and the second worst night of sleep on my trip, successive to the worst night. I greeted Tien’s family and spent a little bit of time with them, but was immensely thankful when they suggest I take a shower and get some sleep.

I woke up and caught up on some internet stuff while it was raining outside, then Tien and I headed back to Long Xuyen to pick up the engagement photos that we’d taken before I went to Cambodia. They were good quality, though a bit silly. It’s funny, but some of them are actually very good. I dislike the way I look in them and wish I could’ve gotten a tan and a haircut before the shoot, but everybody here swears up and down that I look handsome and I that’s what counts since the photos are more for the family than myself.

When we got home I went straight back to the internet to conspire on how to circumvent the mountainous bullshit related to Tien’s visa. I was up late working on that, and when I finally got to bed I slept wonderfully. The first night of great, uninterrupted sleep since I had left Laos.

I woke up early the next day and began playing games with Ngoc. I was fascinated with what was required for an adult english speaker to play a video game with a Vietnamese child. Unfortunately I didn’t have many games on my iPhone, but decided to buy a few and see how well she did with them. Crayon Physics was a little steep of a learning curve for a 4 year old with no instruction. Before I could get any more games the power went out.

The morning was still early so Tien and I went down to an internet cafe and I talked with Lila about ways to handle the visa stuff. She gave me some great ideas that I had considered, but not from the angle she was attacking it and I decided that would be my best bet. I was happy with the information I’d found and the ideas I now had on how to possibly get Tien’s visa handled in a timely manner. It involved a little extra help from other people, but sounded promising.

On the way home I got this awesome idea on how to circumvent the whole visa thing entirely, bought a SIM card and talked it over with Rob, then came to the conclusion that it was not awesome at all and there was no way it would work. Oh well, gotta keep the creativity flowing, even when it takes you to dead ends.

The power was still out when we got home. It came on briefly, then went off again. Tien and I went to a nearby internet cafe to do a few more bits of research, and soon afterwards the power there went out as well, but I had gotten most of the information I needed. When we got back home the power came on and we went back to work on the visa stuff. We had hoped to get the help of her brother in law for part of the visa stuff, but he was unwilling to help because he said it wouldn’t work. This was frustrating to me because it seemed like nobody wanted to even try except me. I had this dream about marrying tien, traveling with her and taking her back to America. Only one of those had even remotely come true, that being traveling to Vung Tau which is a drop in the bucket compared to what I had hoped for, and the other two aspects were mountainous hurdles. I was really frustrated so Tien and I went for a ride on the scooter.

I saw a dog laying in a hammock, chewing on the netting.

We ended up at a spot that I like in a nearby field where they are preparing to do construction. We watched a beautiful sunset as we talked about the hardships we are facing in making our dreams come true, but resolved to keep on trying.

The next day we went out to do some engagement party preparation. I got fitted for a suit without them even picking up a measuring tape. We got some coffee and I sent a quick e-mail from my phone to Dan and Cass asking them for help with the visa stuff. By the time we got home they were waking up back in America, had read my e-mail and had agreed to help however they could. The feeling of receiving their support was glorious and I was reminded of how awesome it is to have great friends in times of need. It’s awesome to have great friends at any time, but when they are there for you when you are in a tight spot it is a glorious feeling. My spirits were revived and later that evening I went to work discussing the details with Cass.

At dinner time I had a beer, which is uncommon in Tien’s house, and enjoyed watching Ngoc and Tien’s sisters play with Labryth and GloBall. These were much more fun for Ngoc, though it may have been because Thule had instructed her on how to play, I couldn’t tell. In the middle of it all, a tiny lizard jumped onto me and I ended up chasing it around trying to catch it. When I finally did catch it I found that it was too small to do the belly sleep trick, so I let it go.

It had been a great day and the sleep that Tien got as she drifted off beside me was a great way to finish it off. Saturday morning I woke up to Tien climbing back into bed. “I have some bad news from the people in my village…”

A short stay in Binh Duong

While we were in Vung Tau Mai was on the phone quite a bit talking with a friend of hers who she knew online and he invited us to stay at his place in Binh Duong, which was on the way to Saigon, so we decided to go. Unfortunately when we found the bus station there was no bus directly to Binh Duong so we had to take a bus to Saigon, then go back on another bus. This was OK though because Tien and I wanted to go down to the consulate and ask them some questions about the visa stuff.

We got on a bus and headed for Saigon. Like many busses, this one had a TV playing random entertainment. This bus was playing a DVD with some apparently famous Vietnamese people singing. It was called Paris by Night 25th Anniversary. Mostly it was people singing, but there were interviews with the set crew and some other entertaining scenes. At one point a girl had a dream that she woke up and found a genie lamp, but when she rubbed the lamp Osama Bin Laden came out instead of a genie. I’m not sure about all that happened since it was in Vietnamese, but by her second wish Bin Laden laughed maniacally and shot off his AK47 in the air and disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

Shortly after that scene the DVD began skipping so the driver turned it off and put on music set composed of 8 songs on repeat. One of these songs was Akon’s “I Wanna Fuck You” and I couldn’t help thinking of the European commercial about english lessons.

When we got to Saigon we caught a taxi to the consulate. I asked them some questions about visas and was dumbfounded at how ridiculous the situation was with Tien’s visa. It was such a load of bullshit I thought there had to be another way to do it. She said I had to go to American and file for Tien’s visa there. This was astonishing because I was not in America, nor did I have the time or money to fly there. This was the first bit of a mountain of bullshit concerning American visas for Vietnamese citizens. I left the consulate thoroughly pissed off at how asinine the situation was and had a new perspective on what Mexicans probably have to put up with frequently.

We went back to the bus station, got on a crowded and hot bus and headed to Binh Duong. I tried to sleep but ended up just marinating in sweat. We exited the bus and I continued marinating while standing on the sidewalk, then I was chilled for a few minutes inside a taxi, and marinated again on another sidewalk and on the back of a scooter.

When we arrived at Mai’s friends house I took a shower. The first thing I did when I got in the shower was break the handle off the water faucet in the bath. I have a real knack for breaking things, and it really shines over here in Asia. After showering we ate a small meal to hold us over until we got a better meal, then went out for a walk.

I soon was grateful that I ate that little meal, because the sight of half of a cooked dog hanging by his teeth in the market right outside our guest house destroyed my appetite. I was also glad I had eaten eggs since they are unmistakeable. Mai’s friend was a slick kind of show off guy who liked to have fun, so later on when we were eating I half expected him to say “that’s not chicken, it’s dog!” Then I thought “so what if it is? It tastes good…” As far as I know though, I never ate any dog meat.

It got dark and we went to sleep with the intention of waking up the next day, but ended up getting up after an hour or so to sing some karaoke. There are never any english songs in the karaoke books so I mainly get to watch other people sing. Tien sings Camly songs and people say she looks like her too.

After karaoke we did end up going to sleep. On the floor. It was probably the worst night of sleep I’ve ever had. It’s certainly the worst night of sleep I can remember, but who knows, maybe I blocked out the really bad nights.

In the morning Tien gave me a massage to help my aching back, then we walked to breakfast. We walked like 15 blocks. I didn’t mind though because I was hoping to get away from the market where they were selling dog meat. We had pho and of course I wondered what that meat was…

After breakfast, Tien, Mai and I caught a taxi to Đại Nam Văn Hiến, a safari style theme park inside of big castle walls, complete with its own real temple, a few artificial mountains, and all sorts of other assorted fun stuff.

The first thing we did was get on a train and go to hell. Or rather, a haunted house style thing inside of 5 big chinese dragon heads that was like a trip through hell. It was so dark inside that my eyes never fully adjusted. It had ghouls flying at you in the air, from behind cages, people grabbing at your legs in the dark, and tons of voices screaming, crying and shouting in Vietnamese. I thought about the Vietnam war and S21.

Đại Nam Văn Hiến Temple GateThe next thing we did was rent a tandem bicycle. Two seats and two sets of pedals for three of us, complete with a triple ring in front and seven in the back. I didn’t have much trouble working the bike and it felt good to be back on a bike since I love biking and haven’t done it in over two months. We biked to the temple and went inside. It was a big compound with water fountains and a very large room for the temple itself. It was probably the largest temple I’ve been in and it was nice that it was real, not just some tourist attraction.

We biked around some more and I took a bunch of photos and then we went to an Italian restaurant and got food. I got an incorrectly made but delicious club sandwich. Tien got some of the worst spaghetti I’ve ever tasted.

We checked out the go-kart track that was near the restaurant, but Tien didn’t want to race so I didn’t bother. It was a neat track in a figure 8 with a bridge over the intersection, the first I’d seen for go-karts. The cars were minimal, and they didn’t seem to give anybody any training on how they worked before throwing them on the track. It looked fun, but instead of that we went to Snow Land.

I was pretty skeptical of snow land, it was over 90ºF outside. They gave us rain boots, jackets and gloves, but no hat. Then they let us inside to snow land, a freezing cold sledding hill with an assortment of tubes. I couldn’t believe there was actual ice created by these air conditioners when it was so hot outside. I quickly got very cold without a hat, but Tien and I had fun sledding down a few times. She had never seen real snow, and technically she still hasn’t since this was some of the worst spring snow you’ve ever seen. Still, it was entertaining and fun.

It was late in the afternoon so we headed back to guest house and hung out for the evening, figuring out our travel plans. For some reason we decided to take a 1am bus to Binh Hoa instead of a 5pm bus. I decided to get some sleep before then since I can never sleep on those busses.

Trip to Vũng Tàu

My layover between Vientiane and Saigon was Phnom Penh. I thought this would be great because I could call Tien using my Cambodian SIM card and let her know that my flight was an hour late, but she didn’t pick up. We were on the ground for about 15 minutes, then I boarded the same airplane in the same seat and we flew away.

Along with arrival and departure cards for passport control, the spread of H1N1 has prompted governments to require incoming visitors to fill out questionnaires about the state of their health. Previously the questions had been something like “Have you had dizziness, cough, diarrhea, fever, nausea within the last 10 days? What countries have you visited in the last 10 days?”

The Ho Chi Minh airport has had the most outbreaks of H1N1 that I’ve heard of yet which explains their additional diligence. “Have you come in contact with anybody who has had fever, cough, diarrhea, nausea within the last 15 days.” I couldn’t even remember everywhere I’d slept in the last 15 days.

I managed to find the slowest line at passport control. This is something I have a real knack for. I also had done this in Thailand when I was trying to catch a flight that was already boarding and in Laos with the whole pen incident.

As I was walking outside I felt distinctly different from the last few times I was in Saigon and I thought about how much I’d done in the past few weeks that had given me a new confidence in international travel.

As I walked outside Tien was waiting for me in a black blouse and a white skirt, looking beautiful and beaming with joy. I never quite know how I’m supposed to express my feelings within cultural affection allowances, but I managed to find something that was acceptable to show my joy at having her back. She grabbed her sister Mai, who I was not expecting to see, and we went off to find a taxi.

This was where my travel experience came in handy. I cut through the timidness that Tien has, kicked the first taxi driver to the curb and found a ride to the hydrofoil station at a quarter the cost. This is what you learn from getting ripped off at the Saigon airport. “Fool me once, shame on … shame on you. If you fool me… We can’t get fooled again.”

We got to the hydrofoil station and I was quickly reminded how utterly chaotic Saigon traffic is. Smoggy, loud, and chaotic. What sense is there in calmly walking across a six lane river of continuously flowing traffic?

We bought our hydrofoil tickets for the Vina Express to Vũng Tàu, but it wasn’t leaving for over two hours, so we found a place to sit and wait while drinking coffee and eating some noodles. Then it began to rain. Then it began to pour. Then we realized that we would miss the glorious sunset we’d hoped to see from the hydrofoil just as we were to arrive in Vũng Tàu.

The hydrofoil was awesome and pretty freakin quick. It skimmed over the water and made big splashes up onto the window. It was also very agile in the water, so agile that sometimes we thought it’d tip over, but it skimmed by tug boats and ferries and barges and oil rigs down the Saigon River and off into the pacific ocean. A girl came by and told us that because of the weather there were oceanic problems at the port so we’d have to go to a different port and take a bus into town. This frustrated us beyond the mere absence of a sunset, but that’s how travel goes in these places. There was also the standard TV display of random entertainment and most of what we saw was some weird kung fu movie with four people who would wring out a shirt and drink water from it, then use it as a weapon.

Right at dusk we pulled up near a dock in an industrial area a little ways up a calm river just south of Vũng Tàu. It was still gently raining as they made us climb over 3 ships with no planks between them while carrying our bags to get to the actual dock. Tien was still wearing her nice clothes but we managed to cross with few issues. She admitted that she’d dressed poorly for traveling because she wanted to look nice for my return and this was fine by me.

Some of us managed to pile into a bus and fill it completely up while others remained outside in the rain haggling with taxi drivers. Soon it was completely dark, the rain had returned to a pour and we were stuck on a one lane dirt road behind a car that had no driver. I was reminded of those idiots in SF who double park on the train tracks and lock their car then disappear inside of a building. One time I sat on a train for 30 minutes while they towed the car. This time it only lasted 5 minutes though, which was nice because traveling can really wear you out and I’d been traveling all day and had already been off schedule twice.

We arrived at the bus drop off and stood under an awning at the local KFC while people tried to figure out where they were going to stay, then tried to find taxis to take them there. It’s interesting having people who speak the language with you because they can actually get useful information, but this information is rarely passed on to you. I kept flipping back and forth between “let me handle this” mode and “you handle this” mode. In the end Mai found us a place next door to the house of a girl who was trying to find a taxi, so the four of us got in the taxi and headed off. It appeared to be nowhere near the beach by the time we got there on the back streets, but in fact ended up being only two blocks from the beach. We dropped our stuff in the room, took a little rest and went off to find dinner.

After dinner we walked down to the beach. It was great to finally be there… aside from the fact that the waves on the shore were lined with trash, it was beautiful. With Tien on my back we waded about 50 feet out into the warm water and stood there watching the lightning storm that was going on way out in the Eastern Pacific. It felt great to be back at the ocean. I had been by the ocean for the previous year and a half while living in San Francisco, but in the previous two months I was away from it and it was great to have it back. Even more, it was great to be in warm water as opposed to the cold SF Pacific, and it was great to have my girl with me to experience the lightning show, which was reminiscent. It was, I guess, a mix between old good memories and new joys.

The following day we got breakfast and then headed out to a large Christian monument on top of a hill just south of the strip where we were staying. This was the first real Christian anything I’d seen on my trip. There wasn’t a word of english or french on any of the plaques so I have no idea what it was about, but there were angels and moses and cupids and at the top of the walkway up the hill, a huge statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched.

By the top of the hill I was drenched in sweat. I sat with Tien and talked about some of the hardships we faced in getting married and bringing her back to the USA. There are a few big hurdles to pass this month and I wanted to make sure she was still with me on all of our plans. She was, so we were happy. Her sister arrived with a bag of fruit after we’d been there a while, so the three of us sat and ate lychee and rambutan. We stayed at the top for a while, then headed back down the hill and off to the hotel.

Our plan was to clean up and go swimming, but the climb up the hill and the heat of the day had wiped us out, so we ended up falling asleep for an hour or two. This was fine though, we needed it, and afterwards we headed down to the beach. We found three chairs to rent and Mai stayed to watch our things while Tien and I ran off to go play in the water. As it turns out, swimming is not one of the things that is taught in Vietnamese school. Later I had a good conversation with Tien about the differences between an average first world education and an average third world education. The fact that Vietnam is about halfway covered with water yet they don’t teach swimming blew my mind. Tien said that 15 students had died the previous year from drowning while riding a boat to school in heavy rains.

This lack of swimming education made Tien terribly frightened by the waves and it took me a while to chase her through the water and coax her out past the breakers to where the water was more calm. Unfortunately she couldn’t always touch the ground out there. She had seen a photo I took in Ha Long Bay of a boy floating on his back and wondered how he could do that, so I taught her how and in typical Tien style, she learned very quickly. In 15 minutes she was floating on her own as large waves that were on their way to breaking passed her by. We ended the swim lesson, took a few minutes to enjoy the water and the fact that we were finally traveling together, then headed back to the shore to let Mai have her turn in the water.

There were women walking around with eggs and fish and baskets containing metal cans with fire that was boiling water where they would cook you fresh seafood. Many women were walking around with baskets of fresh fruit, and some guy was riding his bicycle by with a huge speaker system on it that made me think of the pillow fight in SF this year. A few people rode down the beach on their scooters. A group of kids next to us had collected a few dozen shells with crabs inside of them and as we were leaving one of the crabs tried to walk its way off the table. A man nearby picked it up before it got off the table and showed it to the group of friends he was sitting with.

Mai, Tien and I headed back to the hotel. The path to the beach is a typical Vietnamese path, which means it is free to ride scooters on and do whatever else you feel like doing on. Some kids were parked on their scooter talking on the phone. One woman was cooking up some weird fish that looked like a flat octopus.

The next day was Monday, but still Sunday in the USA which means I still had time to post my weekly photo set, The (d)SPOT. Because there was an elevator shaft between our room and the AP, I had to sit in the hall next to the elevator to do my work. I caught up with some co-workers and did other assorted online stuff as I was posting my photos. Just as I was finishing up and saying goodbye to some folks, the power went out. At first I thought the AC had just gone off, but then my internet connection was interrupted. I finally verified that it was indeed the power being out by checking the elevator, which was nonfunctional. I thought about how awful it would be to be trapped in an elevator in a small hotel in a third world country and was thankful that I was not.

Lazy in Laos

Having arrived late to Vientiane and taken the first guesthouse with an opening, Thursday morning I went to find a better option, an option with Internet. That is vital if you want to stay in touch with people who are scattered around the globe.

I checked into a nice looking guesthouse with a huge bed in a pretty good looking room. I signed on to catch up with photos and whatnot and discovered that even though there was wifi, the actual Internet connection was glacial. It was reminiscent of the 14.4 days. Facebook took over 15 minutes to load. Ping times to google were Averaging 5000ms over 20 hops with 8% packet loss and an MTU of 1100. This was terrible… 

On top of that, as the day warmed up there began a breeze that crept in through the window leading out to the tiny alley, bringing with it a pungent aroma of pestilence. 

It was mid day so I left the stench and went for a walk. Just as I was photographing some stuff and fearing getting rained on a nice tuk tuk driver came up and offered to take me to some local sites that were photogenic. He had photos of the laces and they were indeed grand so I agreed and jumped in the back of his tuk tuk. Off we went, the tuk tuk bumping and whining all the way.

The clouds went away without raining and left a hot, humid day. The skies were beautiful blue with an assortment of scattered clouds. I was soon drenched in sweat.

We saw four locations and miraculously ended up by my hotel. I went inside to clean up and cool off, then went to find dinner. I also had to figure out what to do in Laos.

I found a resturant where some kid on the way out said the food was good and ended up being wrong.  Soon after sitting down a local girl started talking to me and invited me to sit with her. I obliged but soon regretted it. She could barely speak conversational English, seemed mentally vacant and just wanted to go to a bar. Soon after sitting down a man came by and offered me Viagra. I paid for my food and left.

I did go to a bar though. I had a delicious coctail and chatted with some backpackers from the UK. They suggested that I go to Veng Viang and showed me photos from the previous day. It was gorgeous and I thought that I’d like to go. Then they said it was a party town and I thought twice. It was gorgeous though…

I had been in Asia for a month so far and was finally getting a bit tired of traveling. I’m not sure if it was loneliness or exhaustion, but it was probably a bit of both. I was tired of having to look so far past the defacto tourist bullshit to find things actually worth doing. Photographing Veng Viang was definitely worth doing, but I’m the end I decided to fly back to Vietnam to be with tien and go to Vung Tau beach, something we had wanted to do previously but were unable to do. I was a little bummed about not getting to spend more time in Laos, but the world has a lot to see and I can always come back.

The next day I checked out of the stinky slow internet room and went to secure my airfare to Vietnam. I couldn’t get a ticket for that same day so I got one for Saturday and went to find my third hotel in Vientiane. This was half the price of the last, had a window looking across a street to a temple and had no Internet. There was an Internet cafe right next door though.

To access the Internet you were supposed to go buy an access card, then log into their web portal and enter the info to get access. I really didn’t feel like leaving my hotel room and took this as another cllaw sharpening tech challenge. Within a few minutes I’d found an open HTTP proxy within their network and used it to get online. The access was much much faster than my previous accomodations but had limitations on allowed protocols. It was fine for my needs and I spent the next few hours trying to circumvent the protocol limitations. I never got anywhere with it, but it was a good exercise and it was good to know that my skills hadn’t dulled in the last month of unemployment.

I got hungry so I went back to the full mooncafe where I’d met the uk backpackers. This place was a branch of the Cambodian Boom Boom Room, a media store specializing in the illicit sale of music and movies to travelers at terribly low prices. One album was $1.50. I bought 5.

Back at the hotel there was smoke in the air as the monks across the street burned leaves they had raked up. This morning, July 4th, they woke me up with drumming and chanting. I think monks may not be great neighbors.

After a delicious breakfast I checked out, found a tuk tuk and headed for the airport. My short stay I Laos is pretty much over, save waiting for my currently delayed flight. I like it here though and I’d like to come back some day and go farther in. Today though it’s airplanes, my girl, a hydrofoil and a beach.

Bye bye Bangkok, hello Laos

I’m in one of those mid range SE Asian guesthouses again. The kind with the mini fridge stocked with soda, water and local beer. They’re nice enough to have an air conditioner, but not nice enough to have free wifi. There’s a shower, but no bath tub. Along with the bidet they do provide toilet paper, but you’re not allowed to flush it down the toilet. Instead you have to put it in a little bucket. My bucket came with some already used tissues and a used condom. This bathroom has two tiny extras: a phone in the bathroom next to the toilet and a clothes rack on the door.

One nice constant on my month-long trip has been the availability of american power plugs. They’re not always grounded plugs, but there are always plugs. The ones that aren’t grounded sometimes make your gear sting you with a tiny flow of stray electrons.

I’m in Laos at the Douang Deuane hotel in Vientiane. This was the 4th place I had to try before I found an open room. My room wraps in an L around the elevator shaft, but it’s quiet so far. I’m on the 4th floor which is second to the top. You can find me in room 404.

I have yet to check into a hotel that has 4 digit room numbers, let alone get lucky with room 2046.

Room 410 would’ve been mildly amusing too, and if I had Tien here we might have had to play charades.

It took me 5 modes of transportation to get here: taxi, motorbike, train, car, and airplane. I was somewhat hoping for a sixth being a tuk tuk, but you can’t win them all. I suppose the sixth could be my feet since I had to wander around in the dark of night looking for a place to sleep.

Yesterday was Tuesday and My had school. We caught a taxi to the Sky Train in Bangkok and she went off to class leaving me to do what I wished in Bangkok. I took some photos and soon got lost inside of an enormous mall next to six or seven other enormous malls located in Siam Square. I basically wandered around and took some photos and gawked at all the different things. I tried to find some photography gear that was decently priced but everything was just slightly more expensive than in America. I wonder if photographers in Thailand are inherently better because of the higher cost of entry.

The AnoontakaroonsThat night Mint and I sat up watching The Usual Suspects on Thai TV. They blurred out guns pointed at people at point blank. They blurred out people smoking. They blurred out people’s lips when they said certain thing. They let you hear every cuss word.

Today I looked at my schedule and decided that I better get a move on and get out of Thailand. I was enjoying the company of My and her family, but I was longing for the freedom and the lifestyle that comes with it. I also only have a few days left until I need to be back in Saigon and I have a whole country to see. With that in mind I logged onto ye handy internette and bought a plane ticket to Laos, surprising My and spoiling her day at school. She called her friend to answer her name and fill out her homework for her, then spent the day with me. We once again performed our taxi and sky train maneuver to get downtown, then got coffee and headed off for the backpacker district, Khaosan Road.

Khaosan Road is just about everything I hate about backpacker culture, all wrapped into a very long block. We were only there for 90 minutes, but that was plenty time to see what there was to see. I could go on and on about how much BS there is there, and I plan to do so over at Dream Not of Today where I post photos and from time to time write logical criticisms of culture, other assorted diatribes and whatever else fits the edgy dynamic of that site rather than the personal angle of this site.

Long story short, we hit the road in a taxi that went so slow we both fell asleep and woke up 1 block later. My paid the 45 minute 100 baht fee that took us around 2 sides of a single city block, and we walked. We had to do something, I was now 45 minutes late for my projected timeframe of going to the airport.

A block or so later she found us some motorbike taxis. This was not only a fantastic way to kill the 5km of gridlocked traffic between us and the sky train, but it was reminiscent of Vietnam, the country where four days from now I will return into the arms of my fiancé.

Siam Square transit took the two us through gridlocked traffic on that motorbike the way I’d handle just myself on a bicycle, which is more aggressive than most, passing between cars and taxis and busses like he was navigating a maze and knew the way through. We used the oncoming lane to pass hundreds of cars. We ran gridlocked red lights with police sitting right there or doing the same thing on their motorbikes in the opposite direction. We passed a traffic cop stopping cars that would otherwise have a clear shot and hit 50km on the open 5 lane road and were passed only by a CBR 150 before diving back into the gridlock. We passed through more maze like traffic, turned down and alley and went through a parking structure and ended up right at the stairwell for the sky train. Why did we ever get into that stationary air conditioned automobile?

I thought about how there are never any traffic jams in Vietnam unless there are automobiles involved. I shared this thought with My. Later on that night her dad would share the same thoughts with me.

We got off the sky train, got into a taxi and got stuck in traffic again and I loathed the automobile. I wondered how on earth so many cars could contain so many drivers that were so fucking stupid as to sit there in the street burning up and smoking dead dinosaurs when they ought to be going somewhere at a very rapid pace. I thought back to when I first bought a motorcycle in San Jose in order to cut through traffic and give up the sitting and dinosaur smoking lifestyle.

We eventually got home, I packed as fast as I could, which gets harder every time I buy a bamboo flute or a man purse or a pair of broken swimming shorts, piled into her dads car and headed off to the airport. I arrived at the airport 45 minutes before the plane left. I got my ticket 30 minutes before the plane left. I got through passport control and security 15 minutes before my plane left. I got to my seat on the plane 10 minutes before my plane left. I didn’t know things could go so well after going so badly.

The flight was nice, I was nearly asleep when they gave me a delicious meal and a small pour of wine. I listened to Halcyon + On + On and One Perfect Sunrise. Orbital is always great traveling music.

When I got off the plane I still hadn’t filled out my arrival card, which is standard procedure on the plane in order to make passport control quicker. There were no pens, so I just went to the line and stood there. The man turned me away to go fill it out at the desk where there were no pens, so I went. There were about 7 people standing around sharing a single pen. It belonged to an Asian man of a descent I couldn’t discern, but he gave it to me when everybody was done with it and walked away with his wife and child. I filled out my stuff and left the pen there as goodwill, but then thought I should’ve done differently when I ended up next to him in line. He didn’t care, he just smiled and waved it off. It was late and we were tired, who cared about a pen? It’s always good to have smiles and laughs from strangers, and there’s something extra when there’s no other communication beyond the rudimentary.

I changed my remaining Baht to Kip. Kip is another currency with 4 or 5 trailing zeros. My taxi ride to the hotel was 52,000. I got dropped off by the waterfront of the river that separates Thailand and Laos, so basically I was only a few hundred meters into the fourth country on my journey. The hotel I had found in the guidebook was full. The place next door was full. I had predicted this and had scoped out a few places on the way in. They were also full, including the one that had wifi. I had picked the right neighborhood though and the 5th or 6th place I went had a room open, and that is where I am now.

I like Beerlao. I’m not sure if the beer here is great just because I haven’t been drinking as frequently, of if it’s just better, but beer here in Asia is nice. Maybe it’s the property of ones being applied to a heat factor that is well above what I’m used to. Anyhow, I’m safe and sound in Laos. I have 4 days here, then it’s back to Saigon to be with my fiancé and handle visa stuff for her trip to America with me. Beyond that, I’m not sure how my trip is going to go, but I think I will only be able to see Malaysia and not Singapore. Perhaps I can shift in a different sixth country to make up for it…