Saturday, February 28, 2004

Last weekend I taught the english class and it went pretty well. I had a Chinese TA helping me translate and keep the kids in line. I think she will only be there for the first two weeks though, so I'll have to learn fast. Basically they just want me there to say words really slowly and have the kids try to imitate my accent. It was kind of funny...last weekend we went in have no real idea what we were supposed to do, and then after we taught the class they sent us an e-mail explaining what they were looking for. The book we are using makes it pretty easy to teach since it has a lot of activities, but it seems like the book is a little too advanced for the kids. Most of them seemed almost completely lost the whole time. The first class was pretty badly behaved, and but the second class was perfect. Each class has about 25 kids, they're all 4th graders i think...and i didn't get to name them, the chinese TA did that, which explains why they all have such weird names, like "Luck" and "Young." I almost cracked up when I read the names and the next one was Dick...I said "Dick?" and this little kid in the front row jumped up and said "I am Dick." I don't know, it was just really funny...had to choke through the next few names...

The english class was probably the most interesting thing I did all week. I finally got my laptop in the mail...I don't want to recount the story...all that is important is that getting a laptop through chinese customs is really annoying and really expensive and I won't be doing that again. We have internet access in our dorms now I should be able to update this easier and more often. The only problem is that I can't upload at all because the school blocks it. I'm trying to figure out a way around it, but I'll probably have to bring my computer to an internet cafe to upload my pictures. Got all the pics on my computer now, and will eventually make them into a website. The total count is about 580 pictures.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

It's been awhile since i updated this, mostly because i've been too lazy and haven't had much time to go to an internet cafe since i've been in China. I didn't get a chance to write about my last night in Saigon, which was a great one. Shaul left around noon that day, so I was by myself for the night. I ended up meeting with one of my dad's customers, Sunny in saigon and checking out his business. He was driving me around the city at high speeds during rush hour on his motorbike (no helmet of course), and it was a pretty scary experience. During the last month i rode on motorbikes at least 15 times, but this was the first time i was really scared for my life. For the whole hour we were riding around, I kept imagining myself falling off and thinking of ways i could land that would only break a few bones and avoid death. But there were no problems in the end.

After we went to his 2nd cold storage warehouse, he asked me if I wanted to go to a reception with him. I asked what kind of reception, and he said it was a wedding reception. I was wearing a beer t-shirt and cordoroy pants, so I said I wanted to go but would have to go back and change, but he said it's no problem and I can go dressed like that. And that's how i went to a vietnamese wedding. It was a really surreal experience...there were probably about 300 people there, and it was on a wednesday night. He was right about the dress, there were a bunch of people wearing just polo shirts and sweaters, but i was still the most casually dressed person there. The reception was at a 2 floor building that all it does is host weddings every day...there were 4 wedding receptions going on that night. There was a kind of dance routine, and a couple singers came out and sang songs in vietnamese, then the family walked out, spoke a bit, there was some kind of ceremony and lots of cheesy music played by the DJ, then there was a burst of pyrotechnics and the ceremony was complete. I had no idea what was happening, but it was pretty cool. After the ceremony (I don't think this was the actual wedding ceremony, Sunny said something about another ceremony in the morning), they started bringing out the food and pouring the beer (with ice, which I'd never had before, but I kind of like it). As soon as I would finish about half the glass of beer someone would come by and fill it up, so i'm not sure how much i drank but i was feeling pretty happy by the end. The food was great, all seafood and pork, with a cheesecake dessert. I took a few pictures too, which i'll put up next time I'm able (along with about 200 others from the last few weeks). After the wedding he took me back to the hotel and I had a night by myself, ended up just getting really drunk, playing pool all night (mostly pretty badly), and passing out in my room. Luckily I ordered a wake-up called the day before and caught my flight to China at about 11:30 that morning.

Originally I was supposed to fly from saigon, to hong kong, to fuzhou, to shanghai, but in hong kong I was able to change it to a direct flight to shanghai from hong kong. It was a pretty good move too, because they told me my layover in Fuzhou wasn't enough time to go through customs and catch my next flight, so I'd probably be stuck there. I got to shanghai and saw one of the teachers from my program, took a cab to the hotel and there was no one around from the program. Everyone went out to party in downtown shanghai about 20minutes before i got there. They gave me a single room though, and I was tired as hell so I just took a shower and went to sleep...only to be woken up at midnight by the hotel staff saying they gave me the wrong room and I had to go somewhere else. I was really pissed off...don't really like being woken up, and now it would be really hard to get back to sleep...I kind of yelled at the lady who woke me up in english, nothing really serious, but she probably didn't understand anything I said anyway. I didn't mean to yell at her, but for about 10 minutes after I wake up I usually have no idea what i'm they should have just let me have the room, it was already midnight. At that point, though, all the people from the program were coming back from partying, so I changed rooms and went and hung out with them for a couple hours.

The next day we all took a bus to Hangzhou, where we're studying and got our rooms, took a tour of the campus, and the West Lake (a big beautiful lake surrounded by mountains right next to the campus). That first night we asked around for a club to go to, and we all went to a dance club downtown. It was valentines day, so there was a big party there. Before going we bought some beer at the market across the street from our dorm, it's only $.40 for a 24oz bottle. When we got there, the dance place seemed pretty high class, and the cost to get in was supposed to be something like $12 a person, but probably because we were all foreigners we just walked in for free. Within about 5 minutes one of the managers (who was actually cuban) of the club comes up to me and shaul, gives us his card and tells us "if you ever have a problem with any of the chinese here, you let me know." We pretty sketched out by that, but he also gave us a coupon for a free drink and discounted drinks. Most of the people in our group left after about 30 minutes because they don't like techno music, but about 6 of us stayed and danced for awhile. It was a pretty cool club, the dance floor was like a trampoline, so all the people dancing made the floor bounce up and down. I'm sure they have this in other places, but I've never seen it before and was pretty impressed. We went into what seemed like the VIP room, for about 5 minutes and just felt extremely out of place and left. It was a pretty good night.

The next day I bought a bike for only $20 and went to the supermarket to get some stuff for my room. The bike is the shittiest thing i've ever ridden. every time I pedal it I feel like it's going to break in half. It seemed like a good deal, but now i wish i would have spent a little more because i've already had to take it back twice because it broke down. Right now the seat is falling off and i'll have to take it back again. But it's pretty nice to bike around, every day so far i've tried to ride to new places, explore the city a bit, and get a little excercise. Since I had no winter clothes and it's pretty cool here, I went out and bought some winter clothes, which I'm pretty happy with. I needed a haircut, and I was a little scared to get one here, but me and a friend both got it together and it turned out pretty well. I didn't even tell the guy anything, he just started cutting, and in the end it looked pretty good. May ever be one of the better haircuts i've ever gotten, certainly was the cheapest.

So class started last monday, I have chinese class from 8:30am (somehow i'm managing that) about a 10 minute bikeride from my dorm, until about 10:30. Then in the afternoon, monday through wednesday there is a 2 hour chinese modern history/culture class. So thursday and friday afternoons are free, which is pretty cool, and so far they haven't given us too much homework on the weekends. I expected to be somewhat overloaded with work, but so far it's been reasonable. Hopefully it stays at this level. My chinese has definitely come back this week, and I've been learning a lot. The second night of the program we had to sign a language pledge to only speak chinese the whole semester. This is pretty much impossible, but everyone kept it pretty well up until the weekend. Yesterday we had our first test and I think i did alright, then the whole class went to a nearby mountain and climbed up it. It was a good time, took a bunch of pictures (it was too foggy to see really anything), but the best part was meeting a few random chinese people as we were climbing. Somehow two different people just started talking to was pretty basic conversation, but it gave me a lot of confidence in my chinese. It was the first time so far where I really talked to a stranger on my own in chinese. There were a few times we were talking to people in groups, but this was the first time on my own. Yesterday I also met my language partner, whose job is to talk to me for 2 hours a week in chinese. It's pretty hard to understand him because he doesn't speak to clearly, but it will probably be good practice once i get used to it. We went to a DVD store together (the pirated DVDs are only $1 per disc), and I bought Lawrence of far I've bought 2 DVDs, but will probably buy a lot more once my computer comes in the mail. And last night a big group of us went to a few bars and clubs around town. Overall it was a good time...the weekends will definitely be fun.

Today after I got back from lunch a person stopped me in front of my dorm and asked if i wanted to teach english to kids at a nearby language school. It sounded like it would be fun, they were offering $12.50/hour and i'd only have to teach 2 hours a week on sunday afternoons. I really didn't want to do it by myself, so i ran around looking for shaul who i knew would do it with me. So we went with them to the school and they explained the details and answered some questions, then we signed the contract to teach there and they gave us the book we'll be using. Tomorrow is our first class and I'm pretty nervous about it. We both are actually...not really sure what we got ourselves into. We're trying to plan a class (we each have our own class, with 25 students) and just have no idea where to begin. Tonight we looked up some info on teaching english on the internet, it helps a bit and they have a bunch of lesson plans. Still have no idea what will happen tomorrow during the 2 hours I have to teach. Our only real regret about it, aside from havign no clue how to conduct a class, it that it might keep up from travelling on the weekends. But we should be able to get back by 3pm class from anywhere we go.

That's all i got, this update was long as hell, but hopefully was worth reading. I'll try to post something tomorrow about how the class goes.

Monday, February 09, 2004

After Mui Ne we took a 2 am bus up to Nha Trang, another beach city about 5 hours north. We were pretty ready to get out of Mui Ne after the turbulent day...the bus ride to Nha Trang was uneventful, we got probably our best hotel room yet in Nha Trang for only $4 a night and spent the day hanging out on the beach. Overall it was a pretty relaxing day. Just read a book and chilled. The only eventful thing that happened was this woman selling snacks and cigarettes who came up to us and refused to leave until we bought something. She kept putting this pack of cigarettes in my hand and I kept pushing it back...after about 15minutes of saying i didn't want it, Shaul bought a pack of Mentos and she went away. It was funny for awhile, but it started getting annoying. A lot of the salespeople in vietnam so far seem to get angry when you don't buy something from them. They keep saying nice things to you, and when you don't buy they act all guy yesterday on the beach was selling these silk and rice-paper paintings to us and talked to us for awhile. He was being really friendly, but he wanted to sell us these paintings for $10 at first (which he said he painted himself, but they were the same paintings i've seen in every souvenir shop in vietnam). He said he normally sells them to rich tourists for $25 a piece and that he has been invited all over the world to display his work in galleries. It was a huge load of BS, but we played along and Shaul wanted to buy 3 paintings. Eventually he bargained him down to about $7 for 3 of them, and he got progressively more unfriendly as we bargained with him. Then he turned to me to buy something, but i barely had any money on me and didn't really want one. After a lot of saying no he got really angry and stormed off like he had just been ripped off by us. We didn't know what to kind of made us upset cuz we seemed to piss him off and he seemed all friendly at first. Then today we get to Dalat we realized it was all a scam anyway because a shop here was selling the paintings for $.50 a piece (before bargaining). I bought two and the lady looked at me funny for not bargaining with her.

So last night in Nha Trang one of my goals for vietnam was accomplished, I've wanted a hooker to come up and say "I sucky sucky very good" to us the whole trip and it finally happened. Our bus out to Dalat was at 7am this morning, so last night we went to a pool hall and just played pool for awhile. We started talking to the girls working there, and they were teaching us all these vietnamese words. It was fun for awhile, then one of them said something about me in vietnamese and they all laughed. The other one translated and said that she said I have a crooked nose...I didn't know whether to be offended or what, but we just left after that. I didn't know how to respond to that, except smile and walk out.

Anyway this morning we got on the bus to Dalat, a city in the mountains famous for its wine (less than $2 a bottle, and it's pretty good), its coffee, and the nearby waterfalls. The busride out here was really scenic, the city is in the mountains so we drove over a couple mountains and I took a bunch of great pictures from the window of the bus. Also, another great thing about vietnam, no karaoke on the bus. The bus driver still honks like michael jackson after a nosejob, but it's at least bearable without the karaoke. We got to Dalat and just walked around the city, and thought there was something strange about it. We couldn't figure out what it was, but then we realized that no one was staring at us, people weren't shouting "hello" while driving by, people weren't laughing as we walked by, even crazier was that motobike drivers weren't offering us rides, weed, or girls, which has all been happening nearly everywhere we've gone for the past 4 weeks. We just walked down the street like normal people, not like two huge dollar signs...even the people in the shops didn't try to drag us in to buy something. I don't know why this is the case here, especially since there doesn't seem to be many westerners, but it was pretty cool overall. Especially after all the hassling on the beach in Nha Trang.

So today and tomorrow I'm in Dalat, going to check out the waterfalls tomorrow, then take a bus back to Saigon at 11pm and get in at about 5am. I leave for China on the 12th, and I'm pretty excited about it...

Friday, February 06, 2004

It's been a few days since i updated this, and now is a perfect time to do it since it was one of the most intense/angry/irritating/amazing/best days of my trip so far. If you want a decent and pretty funny recount of what our day in Saigon was like check here. After a day in Saigon we went on a mekong delta boat tour for 3 days. It was the first time we really did a package tour and overall it was very good. Since we travelled in a group, we met a few people, and a couple people we had met before happened to be on the same trip (Almost every traveller that we're met and spent some time with we saw them at some point later on in the trip). We saw some floating markets on the river, visited a candy factory, honey farm, and climbed a 900m mountain (I was stupid enough to bring my 15lb small backpack along with me up the mountain). Our tour guide at one point gave us a brief history of Vietnam and talking about the "imperialist Americans" several times in the speech. I was a little worried about being american and coming to vietnam, but everyone we've told that we're american has been really interested in us. They all get this strange fascinated look in their eye and start asking a bunch of questions. Anyway, the main thing I wanted to write about in this entry is what happened today...I'll add more details about the mekong later.

So we got to Mui Ne, a beach town, at about 1am last night and looked around for a room, but the only place that was open that late was this hotel next to where they dropped us off. Except they wanted to charge us $12 a night for the room, which would be the most we've paid this entire trip. So we decided to sleep on the beach, and they told us to leave because they owned that part of the beach, and tried to charge us $4 each just to sleep outside there(the most we've paid so far the whole trip was about $10, and that was at the first place we stayed and before we knew that we should only pay about $8 or less). We told them that if they would just offer us one of their many open rooms at a reasonable rate we would take it, we'd be happy and they'd be making money...but they didn't accept it and we left...they were pretty obviously trying to scam us because we seemed desperate for a room. next door there was a cafe that was open that had a dorm room with 6 beds for only $3 a night for each bed we took...they turned out to be really nice people and we were lucky and had the room to ourself. So in the end it turned out ok...

Next morning we wake up and want to rent a motorbike to drive over to these big sand dunes about 20km outside of town. We walk down the street looking for a place to rent a motorbike, and this guy stops us and offers his bike...we negotiate him down to 45000 dong ($3) for 4 hours, which is the rate that hotel that tried to scam us last night charges. The gas gauge read near empty, but he told us many times that it was broken and there was a full tank in it. he seemed like a nice guy, so we believed him. about 15 minutes down the road, right at the point where we are in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road and it's about 95 degrees out, the bike stalls. We think it's a mechanical problem, because the guy assured us there was a full tank of gas. So I tried for about 10 minutes to start it up again, finally it starts, goes about about 2 minutes, and stalls again. This time it won't start at all...we sit there stranded for about 10 minutes, and we flag someone down driving by on a bike. He is really helpful, and checks the engine, and pulls the gas line, realizing it's out of gas. So he drives away and comes back 5 minutes later with a 2 liter bottle of gas...fills up the tank and it starts and runs fine. We get really angry because that guy lied to us when we rented the bike. So we take out 10000 dong to pay the guy for the gas, and he motions no (he doesn't speak any english), and goes through my wallet to take out a 50000 dong bill. I refuse...I know the gas can't possibly cost more than 20000 dong, so we try to pay him 20000, and he keeps saying no. After about 10 minutes of arguing with him, both of us not really understanding each other me and shaul pull out a pen and start writing down the price...he says it should cost 40000 for the gas. We keep saying no, and after another 10 minutes of going back and forth, he empties our tank and drives away. He wasn't even upset really...just did it very routinely. So we knew there was a place to buy gas up the road, because he didn't drive that far away. I pushed the bike up to a little grouping of restaurants and there was a kid selling gas on the side of the road we buy the same 2 liter bottle he brought us, and it was only 14000 dong. We thought the guy was being nice at first, but he was obviously trying to scam us. Make that scam number number 2 for the day and number 3 for the last 12 hours.

But things have always had a way of turning around on this trip. As soon as I am really pissed off at the people scamming me, and all the crap that has gone on, something great happens which reaffirms why I wanted to come here to begin with. The people at the gas place were honest, we accidentally gave them too much money, and they gave us the change after we started walking away. So we sat down to have a drink at the little restaurant and let off some steam. We ordered some coffee, and then a couple vietnamese people motioned for us to come over and sit with them (a man and a woman). They barely spoke any english, but we found out they were teachers at a nearby school, they were about 28 years old. We became friends with them pretty quickly and just had a great time sitting there for a couple hours playing pool with them and drinking coffee and tea (which they kept offering). They had to leave at about 3pm (after hanging out for about 2 hours) to go back to their school and teach, so we asked if we could come along and check it out. I've been wanting to go to a school in one of these countries since we got here and it was great. When we first walked in the teachers had the kids sing us a idea what it meant but it was pretty cool. The kids were perfectly behaved (they were all between 8 and 13 and it was a 2 room schoolhouse)and we just played with them, took pictures, sat in on a class and joked around for a couple hours. Every moment the teacher wasn't looking they were staring, waving, or making faces at us. It was a lot of fun, so the bike running out of gas turned out to be a good thing...

At about 4:30 we left the school to go back to town, promising to meet up with the teacher for a drink at 7pm tonight. We now had to return the bike and yell at the guy who rented it to us...we decided we wouldn't pay him more than 20000 because he obviously lied to us about the gas, we were pretty pissed about being scammed constantly, and we would be returning the bike with at least 2x as much gas as was originally in the tank. We got back, and explained the situation (his english was really good). After a lot of arguing and explaining how we were stranded and him saying that we were lying about it he finally said "well you should have checked the tank before you left." At that point we both flipped out, said we weren't going to pay him anything and walked away to a cafe down the street to eat dinner...the guy followed us and sat outside brooding. we ignored him, but after we ordered he stormed in screamed "Fuck you" and to give him the money, picked up a chair and was about to hit shaul with it...we both just stared him down. he was on the verge of tears, one of the ladies at the cafe started talking to him in vietnamese, I told him we'd pay him the 20000 like we said, but he didn't deserve any more...I really didn't care about the money, the difference is a $1.50, but we both weren't about to let him get away with lying to us and stranding us in the middle of nowhere. He yelled a few more obscenities and argued a lot more, I could tell he was extremely upset, and eventually accepted the 20000. he drove away angrily and came back 10 minutes later with a camera and took our picture...we just waved and took a picture back at him...he drove away screaming "you leave town tomorrow." We were really upset...not really sure if we'd done the right thing but we felt overall in the right...both of us aren't confrontational people and we didn't want that whole thing to happen, but the guy had to be taught some kind of lesson or he'd be pulling that shit again with someone else tomorrow. Nevertheless we decided that after dinner we'd try to find him and offer him another 10000 dong if he admitted that he lied to us...i've been told that admitting a lie is a really big deal in asian culture, but I'm not really sure. 10 minutes later he comes back in the restaurant and apologizes to everyone else for getting so upset and yelling. Shaul got up and took him outside and smoothed everything over...he apologized profusely and eventually admitted that he tried to rip us off. We gave him another 10000 dong and everything was better.

So was a pretty crazy day...tonight we're off to Nha Trang at 2am, about 4 hours away, to hopefully just sit by the beach and chill until we have to go back to saigon and fly to China.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Not much has been going on the last couple days. The night of my last post was probably the most eventful was the last night in Phnom Penh and Shaul wasn't sick anymore so we went out for some decent food (by decent I mean spending $5 on a meal instead of $1) then to some bars. I played pool for awhile at a bar and the girls working at the bar kicked my ass, then I beat some 40yr old german guy twice in a row and regained my dignity. It was just a really strange experience...we were in a bar in cambodia listening to American pop music, drinking cheap Thai beer, and playing pool against Khmer girls and some old german guy. After we got tired of that bar we went to another bar called "Heart of Darkness" which i really wanted to go to because I love that book. It was pretty trendy, and there were a lot of old white guys with young Khmer girls...a cambodian girl came up and talked to us (by talk I mean flirt) and we said we're from america, and she said her old boyfriend is from america, and pulls out a picture from her wallet and it is a middle-aged fat white guy...after that we just decided to leave...went back to the hotel and went to sleep.

The next day we caught out plane to bangkok and were pretty happy to leave. We arrived in Bangkok, found a decent place to stay in the main backpacker's area (not israeli this time, and about half the price as before also) and hung out on the main road for the day. This time in bangkok we enjoyed it a lot more. The last time we were just so overwhelmed by everything going on, all the people trying to sell us things, etc. that it just annoyed us. But now after travelling for awhile we are pretty used to it, so we enjoyed things a lot more. We shopped around the street for awhile, I bought a couple souvenir t-shirts, and I bought a book at a used bookstore, Cryptomonicon, so far it's great...900 pages and i'm already half-way through it. Also, that night we went to Shaul's cousin's for friday night dinner, and it was great to have a home-cooked meal, or at least a multi-course one, for probably the first time since i've been home. Later we went back to the main road and ran into a Dutch guy we had hung out with for awhile on Ko Samet. So the three of us barhopped the rest of the night. We both spend the next day just sitting in our room reading because we needed a break from sightseeing. Last night we met up again and went to a pretty cool jazz club in a different part of the city. The music was pretty good, until they had Thai people trying to sing some Soul songs...think little Thai girl trying to belt out Aretha Franklin's "Respect."

Anyway, today we flew to Saigon from Bangkok, and we've been trying to figure out what to do while we're in vietnam. We'll probably take a boat tour of the Mekong Delta, then head up to the beaches. Tonight and tomorrow though, we're hanging out in Saigon.

Also, I've been uploading my pictures while writing this. Didn't get them all uploaded, but I got about 117 up. Click here to see pics from Ethiopia, Thailand, and Cambodia. Hopefully that works.