Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Report from Vietnam

Since coming to Vietnam, I've mostly been posting little snapshots. That's not really accurate, since I forgot the cable that connects my camera to my computer, and haven't been able to upload any photos. But I haven't felt like the trip was worth my usual exhaustive blow-by-blow. And also, until now I've been struggling a bit. This is definitely the most ambitious travel experience I've tackled to date. Still, here's a quick update on the trip so far... [Photos are now up!]

On Thursday morning my colleague Matt Craig and I showed up in Hanoi. We checked in to our hotel in the old quarter, Sunshine 3, and then wandered out to find a bite to eat and arrange our trip to Ha Long Bay. Through Handspan, we booked 2 days and 1 night on the Lagoon Explorer junk boat. Then we tried our first bowl of Pho, and staggered back to the hotel for a nap. I did manage to drag myself out of bed later, despite the jet lag, and took a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake. We sat in a cafe for a bit, having a wonderfully delirious conversation about life, love and the pursuit of happiness, fueled by my first brush with the ridiculously strong Vietnamese coffee, which is "cut" with sweetened condensed milk. Later that night we headed to the one Indian restaurant in the old quarter, which we had been commended to by the professor at UCLA from whom I hope to take Intro to Classic Indian Dance this quarter. She had been told there is a mural of her at that restaurant, and wanted photographic proof. The masala dosa was actually really good, which perhaps explains why the place was filled with Indian tourists.

The next day we woke early and boarded the bus to Ha Long. On the bus we met Jean Luc and Fiona, a French-Scottish couple in their late sixties who very much impressed me with their travel stories. They take upwards of four big trips a year, and have been to some amazing corners of the world. The more remote the better it seems. They've been hiking in northern Pakistan 5 or 6 times, without a guide, and were raving about southern Yemen. (Never mind the civil war.) Someday I'd like to grow up and be like them.

We had a pleasant trip on Ha Long Bay. We lucked out and had nice weather, and although it was extremely touristy, our boat sailed further east than most and so we weren't completely in the thick of the traffic. The food we ate was very good, and the sculptures the chef decorated the plates with were a marvel of engineering. I can't wait to get my photos up. We stopped and visited a limestone cave on one of the islands, and had a quick kayak. We also toured a floating village, by which I mean I sat there and let a woman about half my size paddle me past all the houses while I stared in and the inhabitants stared back. I was most impressed by the little floating dog houses.

Upon our return to Hanoi, we met up with Nathalie, the American woman who started the organization that is our client, Chi Em. Nathalie is wrapping up her time in Vietnam, so the organization is now being run by the extremely capable Thanh. Nathalie is heading back to Berkeley, so I had to ask her if she knew Abby Falik, and her work with Global Citizen Year. Berkeley is a very small world, as is the world of international NGO folk.

[A note on pronunciation - I am discovering that any word that ends in "nh" actually indicates an "ng" sound. So Thanh is said "Tang", and our translators Linh and Minh are really "Ling and Ming". Which suggests that my entire life I have been massacring the pronunciation of the name of the father of this nation. Also, "d" is often "z". So the traditional costume that I ordered at the tailor would never have been achieved if Nathalie hadn't told me that an Ao Dai is really an "ow zai". We have also been introduced to the very useful expression of "oi, gioi oi!" (There are a bunch of accents missing there that this blog program does not seem able to handle.) Roughly translated as "oh god", it sounds like "oy zoy oy", and has the same intonation and expressiveness as a really satisfying "oy vey!"]

Dinner with Nathalie (at Highway 4) marked the start of the work portion of the trip, as we began to get exposed to all the details of Chi Em's work that we hadn't yet understood. I'll keep it short and say simply that Vietnam is very interested in foreign direct investment, and in having international NGOs be active here. In theory. In reality, any work is constrained by a very rigid and hierarchical bureaucracy in the best situations, and extreme corruption in the worst. It makes trying to create and implement programs here extremely difficult.

Especially if you are a bunch of naive and inexperienced business school students. On the one hand, it's been amazing how much we've learned, and I'm excited about the possibilities for us to make a difference. On the other hand, I'm having to fight the urge to throw my hands up in defeat and run back to the classroom where at least the case discussions are confined to a 15-page packet plus exhibits.

Since Monday we've been working in Dien Bien, the province where Chi Em is active. We're staying in a guest house in Dien Bien Phu, the capital city. Both the guest house and the city are a bit bleak. I've never been in a place less set up for tourism. There are literally no restaurants that have menus, and very few hotels. Still, the rice paddies are very beautiful, as are the hills around the city, when the moisture in the air clears enough to afford us a view. This is a very misty place.

Actually, this is a very wet place. The fields of rice are shockingly green, and this is the dry season! And last night, just as I was falling asleep, a storm rolled in. The rain was so heavy and so loud it sounded like a freight train was passing through. It even drowned out the thunderclaps. Very impressive.


Things I have seen on the backs of bicycles and motos on this extended adventure...

On a bicycle:
1) A rocking chair
2) A dining room table
3) A 30 lb. sack of cement. This wasn't actually on the back of the bicycle, but rather on the back of the gentleman riding it. Not tied on or secured in any way, it was simply draped on his back and over one shoulder. He had this look of intense concentration on his face, and I couldn't tell if it was due to the weight or his prayers that the damn thing wouldn't slide off.

On a scooter:
4) A family of 4
5) A huge pile of baskets, a tall stack of eggs, or a large cage full of chickens
6) A cat. Actually, the cat wasn't riding the scooter, but since most folks park their scooters in their living rooms (all the buildings have built-in scooter ramps over part of their front steps), I have seen several family pets staring out at the street from their perch on the seat of the scooter.
7) A flat screen TV. No kidding. I was dying laughing, watching a full grown man with his legs dangling off the back of his friends moto, clutching a 52" flatscreen between himself and the driver, as the driver wobbled across four lanes of screeching traffic, all of which was honking and gunning for the juicy new target in their path.

My sister Naomi collects traditional hats and headgear from all over the world. I'm tempted to bring her a helmet, since that's by far the most ubiquitous.

P.S. Thanks to Kevin Armstrong for supplying the following link to some spectacular examples of bicycle transport.


jet lag

This is by far the largest time change I've ever put myself through. And I have to say the worst part of the jet lag is how insidious it is. 5 days into my trip, I still don't feel close to normal. I haven't had any sleepless nights yet, but I hear that's what I can look forward to upon my return. Can't wait.

Right this very moment, my teammate Kyle, who only arrived yesterday, is sprawled out on two very uncomfortable chairs in the Chi Em program office, completely delirious. It's been pretty funny watching her valiantly struggle through it though. Yesterday we dragged her to Hoa Lo prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton). She got separated from the group for a few minutes, and then wandered back in declaring pathetically "I was just lost and alone in a Vietnamese Prison." I think everyone has fears of getting tossed into some crazy third world prison, but in her delirium yesterday, Kyle sort of achieved it.

Monday, March 30, 2009

First impressions

The first thing I noticed as the plane was on final approach was the rice paddies. Extremely green, almost fluorescently so, they come right up to the edge of the runway. Hanoi is relatively spread out. And interspersed between the neighborhoods are the rice paddies. I like to imagine they're communal, and that the city can feed itself off its green spaces.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

SB2K9 - Nicaragua

I’m in transit now, sitting in the airport in Taipei, waiting for our flight to Hanoi, and scrambling to record the highlights of my week in Nicaragua before it all fades. In the last fifteen hours I just survived the longest single plane flight of my life. At least, that I recall. When I was five, my family traveled from Montreal to Israel, but at that point I was young enough to be a) able to stretch out on the floor in front of my parents’ seats and sleep and b) very impressed by the desserts served on Swiss Air. The chocolate mousse came in a cup made of chocolate! But I digress…

I left LA at half-past midnight on March 16. We landed first in Houston, where I ignored the many options for spending money in favor of catching an extra hour of sleep on the airport floor. Then we had another three hour flight to Managua, followed by a little hop on a puddle jumper (which was neither pressurized nor air conditioned, much to my dismay), through Bluefields to Corn Island. Needless to say, I was very travel weary when we arrived. But Elvis picked us up in his big pickup truck, and I was somewhat revived by the sight of my friends clambering into the back of the truck to sit on the sides, and get into the true spirit of island life right away. The first night we stayed at La Princesa de la Isla, a pretty little hotel run by an Italian couple, located out on a point, accessible only after a walk or a drive down the beach (hence Elvis, and his four-wheel drive). The spot is extremely picturesque, and the ocean breezes keep the heat and the bugs down. We dropped off our stuff, and then headed into town, looking for the first of many Toña beers we were to consume. We walked around the tiny little “downtown” of Corn Island as the sun set and then made our way back to a fabulous (but expensive, we later discovered) meal at our hotel. We ended the night about as you’d expect, sitting in hammock chairs on the beach, drinking beers, and Flor de Caña rum straight from the bottle. But don’t worry; we didn’t finish the whole bottle (at least not the first night).

The next day, we got a ride from Elvis back down the beach, through town, which consists of the typical tropical third world tin-roofed concrete structures, painted in bright colors, with ruthlessly clean front porches, a hammock, and some sort of dog sprawled out resting in the shade. We got to the Nautilus Dive shop and met the proprietor, Roland, and the dive master Julien, who would be taking us down. We also met Baldur, a German dude who was coming along on our dive, and who we would later discover had an amazing talent to bump into absolutely everyone while under water.

Our first day of diving was nice. We did a dive at a site called Black Coral, and I think I spotted the thing for which it’s named. I saw some fish, some of them colorful, including a very large grouper that was shepherding a school of smaller fish, perhaps for safety, perhaps as a later meal. After a surface interval back on shore, we headed out to La Chimita, where I saw a strange and wonderful looking beast called a trumpet fish, and a nurse shark. Mostly, though I just enjoyed being back under water, and the feeling of weightlessness as the mild current washed us along.

None of us were blown away by that day’s diving though, so we were wondering if perhaps we’d made a mistake not making the trip over to Little Corn Island, where the reef is supposed to be in better shape. We certainly couldn’t understand why National Geographic had rated the place 9 out of 10 for diving. Our dive master heard us discussing what to do, and told us, emphatically, that if we wanted world class diving what we really needed to arrange was a trip out to Blowing Rock. So when we headed back to shore, that’s what we did. Then we dragged our waterlogged and famished selves down the road to the Fisher Cave for some lunch. That’s where we discovered that nothing related to food happens quickly on Corn Island (or in Nicaragua in general). Still, we had fun sitting out on the patio by the municipal docks, drinking beers or in my case grape Fanta. Eventually, our food came, with wonderfully yummy papas and for me a whole fish smothered in garlic. Mmm… It was worth the glares we got from the Italian woman at the hotel where we’d left our stuff all day when we finally wandered back in around 4pm. La Princessa was supposedly full that night, so we moved on to Carrie Morgan’s guest house, on the other side of town.

The most interesting thing about Morgan’s Hotel was that they’ve chosen to lease out the waterfront across the road from them to some sort of church, which holds open-air services every night. So every night, at around 5:30, they start testing the PA system, and blasting some pretty interesting country versions of Amazing Grace and other traditional spirituals. And then around 7 they settle in for a 2 hour service that is held partly in English, partly in Spanish, and partly in some local Caribbean patois that has a lovely flow to it. This made it all the more interesting, as we sat on the grass outside our hotel drinking the next bottle of rum, when we realized that the sermon was about T-Pain. “Now T-Pain was a fallen mon, hear? But Jesus, he loves him too.”

The next day, we were a little late for our dive appointment due to the very friendly breakfast served to us by Ike. Ike runs a hotel a little down the road from Morgan’s, and is one of those wonderful, gregarious characters that is truly able to make you feel like you belong. He’s a serial entrepreneur, and over our breakfast of gallo pinto and scrambled eggs, we learned a bit about the many businesses he runs on the island, while also working for a solar power storage company. I guess in a place as sunny as Corn the problem isn’t generating the power, it’s storing in long enough and stably enough to convince people to come off the grid. We eventually tore ourselves away, and wandered on to our date with Blowing Rock.

As best as I could tell, Blowing Rock is a mini volcano that rises from the sea floor about nine km off the coast of Big Corn. It stretches from the ocean floor to the surface about 100 feet up, and attracts all sorts of marine life, large and small. The surface is fairly choppy, so we had to do a “negative entry”. This basically involves making sure there’s no air in your BCD (Boyancy Control Device – the vest you wear that everything is strapped to), and throwing yourself backwards off the boat in a nice little cannon ball, hanging on to your mask and regulator so they don’t come dislodged with the violence of your entry. And then letting yourself sink as the bubbles clear and the boat pulls away, and rendezvousing with your group a couple meters below the surface. I would have been terrified, except that as soon as the bubbles cleared I realized the water was so clear the visibility was well over 100 feet. And all the surface chop faded to a very gentle washing back and forth, just enough to rock you, but nowhere near the drag-me-off-the-rock-into-the-very-large-very-empty-ocean sort of current I has anticipated. It was like getting dropped into the world’s biggest, cleanest, best stocked aquarium, and was one of the best dives I’ve ever done. The first dive we saw a nurse shark and two gray reef sharks, as well as all sorts of fish including many barracuda. We also saw a bunch of very large, very colorful lobster for which that coast in famous. It’s the off-season for lobstering right now, so they were feeling pretty safe and hanging out right in the open. Right at the end, we also saw two massive spotted eagle rays, very majestically fanning along in perfect unison, trailing their long tails. It was unbelievable. After a surface interval during which I got very seasick, between the chop and the smell of the boat’s diesel fuel, we dropped in again for a second look.

The highlight of that dive, besides more successfully avoiding the German’s tendency towards collision, was seeing a school (flock?) of 7 or 8 large rays off in the distance. They were too far away to see their colors, but just the graceful way they moved together, as massive darker blue shadows in the midst of the clear blue sea was something I’ll never forget. And then Dan scared one of them, and it darted off so fast my eyes almost couldn’t track it, and that’s when I realized this is one animal that is very well designed for the environment in which it lives. Goldie seemed to be as impressed as I was, or maybe she was just taking revenge on Dan for scaring the ray, but she spent the evening considering a tattoo of a ray on her leg.

After those amazing dives we were pretty amped, but also basking in what we’d seen. So we weren’t moving too quickly as we wandered down the road towards a place, maybe a house, where some named Marie, or was it Maria sometimes cooks food for folks. It gave us a chance to walk further along the road that rings the island, admiring the fact that the road was surfaced with pavers, each placed individually. It makes it easier to deal with the potholes, but is somewhat unfathomable given how long it must take to create in the first place. Eventually, we made it to Maris’s house, where we feasted on shrimp, lobster and king fish, plus rice and salad, and of course beer, for a whopping 7 dollars each. This was the first of two meals that day, however, which reminded me we weren’t in a place where food is always plentiful. The six of us ate Maris out of everything she had, and as we wandered back up the road, she was taking down her welcome sign. And later that night, we managed to eat the pizza shop out of pizza AND chicken curry. I know that some of the people I was traveling with have big appetites, but I think it’s mostly that there really isn’t that much that isn’t rice and beans. And we were forking up all of it. Which made it a bit embarrassing when Julien, the dive master, and Chavo, the local kid who was assisting him on the boat, showed up to join us for dinner only to discover that the restaurant was out of food!

The other interesting part of that meal was when Chavo, pressed to describe what he wanted to be when he grows up, told me that he just hopes he finds some of the packets of cocaine that sometimes wash up on the beach, so that he can sell it and buy a slick car. It’s an interesting aspect of the economy there, which stems from the island’s location near some of the major smuggling routes out of Colombia.

The next day we woke up early, and were on track to catch our plane until we realized it left an hour earlier than we thought. Still, after a bit of a scramble, we made it and were on our way back to Managua. In Managua, my dad’s friend Rita Arauz had arranged for a van to pick us up and take us to San Juan del Sur, 2.5 hours to the south. As with many such plans, not everything flowed smoothly, and there was a great deal more sitting around waiting that we had anticipated. Still, it gave us the chance to a) try the really yummy tacitos at the Managua airport, b) learn more about the foundation Rita runs, Nimehautzin, and c) get a free ride. Once we were on our way, we passed out of the Managua traffic into the countryside which was fairly dry this time of year, and dotted with extremely impressive volcanoes. Eventually, we arrived at Finca las Nubes, and the absolutely gorgeous house that Devin had found for us to stay in. By the time we got there, the others had already made themselves at home, and were sitting on the bar stools that are kindly located IN the pool.

That was the start of the surf part of the trip. I won’t give you the blow-by-blow, since that consisted entirely of waking up, eating, surfing all day, eating some more, and then sleeping. Lather, rinse, repeat. But it was both a joy and a challenge hanging out with a group of 13 (eventually 14 when Trent arrived having celebrated his successful match at UCLA for dermatology) for 4 days. The fun parts were throwing all the surfboards on top of our two cars, pilling everyone in (including, always, a bunch of guys riding the rails of the pickup – what is it with guys and trucks?) and heading out to some amazingly remote beach where we had the break to ourselves. Also fun was getting to learn to surf, although I don’t think I’ll ever get remotely good at it. And it was fantastic to have a big group of fun people all together, in the stereotypical spring break that MTV has popularized but that I never really experienced. SB2K9, baby! The challenging part was trying to make decisions with that many people, and negotiate where we were all going to sleep. And completely not fun were the nasty sunburns we all got from spending literally all day in the sun, even though we diligently reapplied our sunscreen.

I have to state the obvious, which is that surfing is pretty painful. Forget the tiny jelly fish stings we all got. Or getting completely washed out by a big wave and spending what feels like eternity in the white water to surface with a gallon of sea water in your sinuses that will spend the next hour and fifteen minutes slowly draining out your nose at unexpected intervals. Or getting conked on the head with your board by that very same wave. (My friends knew what they were doing when they talked me into a “soft”-topped foam board.) Or the muscles you never knew you had until you spend all day trying to direct a large floating oblong to obey your commands, not the ocean’s. It’s the very fine scratches and scrapes that you get on your knees and elbows from the sand that’s mixed in with the wax on your board, which then sting like fire as they’re bathed, with every wave, in a combination of salt water and sunscreen. My main impression of surfing is that it’s a slow death by rug burn. Is it any wonder I don’t think I’ll ever get good at it?

Actually, I liked it a lot. And I loved Nicaragua. Both the uber-mellow Caribbean vibe in Corn Island and the more touristy San Juan del Sur, which is not entirely successful in its resistance to Costa Ricanization, but is still pretty real. Neither place had any signs of the crushing poverty I had thought we might see, both places were wonderfully welcoming, and I loved the chance to pretend I spoke Spanish, eat good food, hang with friends, and relax. So I was sad to leave early, but proud of myself for successfully navigating the two buses it took me to make it from San Juan del Sur to the Managua airport. And although I found myself thinking as I compared the urban sprawl that is Houston to the scenes I had just seen in Nicaragua, that there’s much I prefer about the latter, I was still extremely relieved that I had the good sense to give myself a whole day to leave LAX, come home, do laundry, sleep in my own bed, and take a yoga class (with one of the Olsen twins, I have no idea which) before heading on to the next adventure.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Spring Break

Well, I'm almost done with finals, finally. This quarter went by terribly quickly. I'm definitely not ready to be only one quarter away from graduating. But I never like the stress of finals, so I'm pleased to have that largely behind me. Especially since I don't have to confront the fact that I'm returning to the real world until after some more exciting travel.

First, I'm going to Nicaragua with some friends. 6 of us are headed to Corn Island, on the Caribbean coast, to dive for a few days. And then we head west, to meet up with a larger group where we've rented a house in San Juan del Sur. Most people are going to surf. I plan to do absolutely nothing. Although who knows, I might see if I have any better luck than my last attempt at learning to surf. (Which was wonderfully fun, but left me with the worst sinus infection of my life.)

Here's a map of the trip to Nica:

View Larger Map

Then I head back to LA for exactly 29 hours. After which I head west, to Vietnam. That trip is kindly funded by the US Department of Education and my school, since I'm going with my team from school to do research for our consulting project. Our client is Chi Em, and we'll be hanging out in Hanoi and Dien Bien. I'm going a couple days early, though, so that I have the chance to see Ha Long Bay:

View Larger Map

I'm not sure what kind of internet access I'll have except when I'm in Hanoi, but keep checking. If I can put photos up, I will!