Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Vietnam: Day 2-Present, Part VII: Fast Forward

Since I’ve gotten just a couple more than a few months behind in catching up to the present, I’ve decided to write a short summary of the past 5 months…

In January, I started teaching my first class at ILA…(Senior 3s)

The months of February and March were fairly uneventful. I was focused on getting into the flow of work, as well as, daily life in Hanoi.

April was my birthday—not a very exciting one this year…after all, what’s so great about turning 25 for the second time? And there was certainly no beating last year's birthday, which was a month-long event beginning in North America with an MJ themed party (and briefly attended by some of the local police)...

...and ending in South America with an Argentinean Asado!

I did, however, at least go out with a group of friends for a birthday dinner to one of my favorite restaurants. Uncle Ho was there...well, his portrait at least, which was given to me as a gift…

On the 25th, most of the expat community gathered at the American Club for the MAG Music Festival, which was a benefit concert to clean up land mines across Southeast Asia.

And a couple of weeks ago was one of the biggest national holiday weekends in Vietnam. On April 30th, 1975, the North Vietnamese Army invaded Saigon and finally ended the war. The following day, May 1st, was Labor Day. Many Vietnamese and local expats executed escape plans from Hanoi that had been months in the making. Tickets to anywhere were hard to come by if not booked at least a month in advance. And, tourists found themselves having to alter their travel plans or to take the far less desirable seats to work around the mass exodus from the city. The trains were so crowded people were bribing agents to allow them to sleep two per bunk and some were even sleeping in the corridors.

After my own drawn-out drama over arranging train tickets, I reached Sapa in the early morning hours of the 29th. The next morning, my friends and I had plans to trek Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3,143m, which is often referred to as the “Rooftop of Indochina.” Unfortunately, in the end, a number of complications (illness, train tickets, and the weather) brought our group from 11 down to 2.

My new acquaintance (and now friend), Kim, and I reached the summit on the morning of the second day of the climb. The views weren’t spectacular due to the cloudy weather, but the journey was amazing. We trekked through rivers, muddy bamboo forests, and over steep and slippery rocks. We laughed and talked and loved every minute of being on the mountain. A dog we nicknamed, “Fansi,” joined us somewhere along the way, which reminded me of my day hikes in Vermont when I would borrow friends’ dogs to come along with me.

In addition to the Fansipan trek, I had a number of other adventures in Sapa including a couple of motorbike trips, exploring an ancient cave, and a 9km trek to the Red Dzao village of Ta Phin.

Adventures like this truly make me appreciate living in Vietnam and remind me of why I came in the first place. Like anywhere else in the world, it’s easy to become distracted by the daily grind and to lose sight of the bigger picture. Sapa was a well-timed, much needed vacation that renewed my energy and enthusiasm for life in Vietnam.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Vietnam: Day 2-Present, Part VI: December

December was a good month. We moved into the house on December 2nd and, for at least the next year, I finally had a place to call home. After living out of hotels for 3-months it was an enormous weight lifted from my shoulders and the move finally made me feel like I was making progress in relocating to Vietnam. Before finding the house, I was in an obscure place, somewhere between a tourist and an expat. I didn’t feel like I fit into either category and had felt somewhat displaced. The house restored a much needed sense of stability and belonging. I was eager to unpack my bags permanently, but first I had to take one last trip to Saigon.

Since I had decided to travel for a few months prior to settling down, I left most of my things with my friend, John, in Saigon. He was also in my CELTA course and had accepted a job at an International school there. In addition to getting my things and seeing John again, my friend, Sandy, and her husband, Robin, were also in Saigon.

Sandy and I have been friends since 2002. We met in the Republic of Kiribati where we lived and worked for two years as Peace Corps volunteers on tiny, little islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After our return from the Pacific, we kept in touch. We had even lived together in Vermont for a few months in 2005. She and her husband created the non-profit, gap year program, Thinking Beyond Borders, which provides the opportunity for recent high school graduates to work with local NGOs around the world to learn through service about public health, social, economic and environmental issues on a global scale. Coincidentally, the program was working on a sustainable agriculture project in Vietnam for the month of December.

So on December 12th, I returned to Saigon. Although I had chosen to live in Hanoi, it felt good to be back in the city where my journey had originally begun. It was now a relatively familiar place to me and landing for the second time felt very different from Day 1. It had been less than 3 months since I had stepped onto Vietnamese soil for the first time; and, in that time, I had completed my CELTA, traveled all over the country, secured a job at ILA and found a home. I had come a long way and was excited to see a friend who has known me through a number of my previous lives. Sandy was with me in Kiribati and Vermont and now we would meet again in Vietnam.

As soon as I exited the airport, I found a motorbike taxi to take me into my former stomping grounds and to one of my favorite restaurants, where I would meet both Sandy and John. It’s always surreal to see a familiar face in an unlikely setting, but Sandy and I adapted quickly, which is always easy to do as long as there’s food, beer and shopping to be had.

After just over 3 months of traveling with the program, she had lost a fairly significant amount of weight and needed to have all of her pants tailored. Luckily for her, I had made myself thoroughly familiar with the tailor shops in Saigon. After dinner, we went for drinks and made plans to do some shopping, tailoring and other errands over the next few days.

I was glad to be able to spend most of my time in Saigon with Sandy; John wasn’t feeling well during my stay and he also had to work. On the 17th, Sandy left for a whirlwind trip to Thailand. And a few days later, John and I left for Hanoi to do some traveling around the north. After a couple of days in Hanoi, we traveled to Ha Long Bay for 3 days and 2 nights along with my housemate’s friend, Cara, who was visiting from Australia. Although it was my second escape to the Bay, it certainly wasn’t any less beautiful or enjoyable. We had timed our Ha Long Bay trip to return to Hanoi on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.

As we were in a taxi on our way home, I switched on my cell phone and less than 2 minutes later, it rang. It was another friend of mine, Erika, who I had also met in the Republic of Kiribati. She was on holiday in Vietnam with her boyfriend. In the weeks prior, we hadn’t done a very good job of coordinating our itineraries via email. I had been under the impression that she was arriving in Hanoi on the following day and was surprised to discover that she was already in the city. I quickly gave them my address and they arrived soon afterwards. Having both Erika and John with me was an amazing gift for Christmas.

We had a Christmas party at the house, which gave me the opportunity to meet and get to know many of my future co-workers at ILA. There was plenty to eat and drink, and we also played the Thieving Secret Santa gift exchange game, which our Vietnamese co-workers especially enjoyed. It was their first exchange of the type and each time a gift was stolen away their reactions were hysterical. Among the gifts were a Santa suit (complete with beard) and a machete!

After Christmas, John and I were planning to go to Sapa together, but luckily I was able to opt-out, guilt-free, since Cara and John got along so well and were happy to be travel companions. I, on the other hand, was happy to stay home and relax for a few days. Not only had I recently traveled to Sapa with Adam, but I was also exhausted from all the events of the month. Staying behind gave me some downtime and the opportunity to process and reflect.

Seeing Sandy and Erika had reminded me of my life in Kiribati. It had certainly been a challenge, but I found myself missing the simplicity of life there. It’s true that while we were living there we joked about minutes often feeling like hours, the days like weeks, and the weeks like months. But, each time we stepped onto our beach-front property, we felt the sand beneath our feet and every breeze that came our way. We were present in even the simplest moments. The other thing about life in Kiribati was that merely being there was enough—at least for the time being. We were stripped of our western clothing, make-up, and material possessions. And, unless we intended to marry a local, dating wasn’t a culturally appropriate option. So finding a relationship was another twenty-something concern that we didn’t have. Living in Kiribati was simply about being you.

Just over four years later and at the end of another year, I found myself living in another foreign country, with significantly different living conditions, yet still searching for the same thing. I am still looking for some kind of peace to settle my fears that life won’t pass me by and; that someday I will become a small part of a greater whole. For as long as I can remember, I have always been acutely aware of the passage of time. I have always felt that it will catch up to me long before I’m ready.

In 2005, I was working in an Assisted Living facility for seniors, when a 93-year-old woman said to me, “I never thought that I would be this old. I don’t know why, but I thought that I would be young forever.” In that moment, I saw myself in her and I was reminded again that I don’t want to ever find myself asking what happened? How did I get here? I have continued to believe that as long as I remain true to myself, live life with intention, and choose without regret that things will eventually fall into place. And although I recognize that I have come a long way from where I began, it still doesn’t feel like enough. I can’t help but to wonder what kind of life I will have lived when I get "there."