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Sunday, March 25, 2012

11 year old boy in Khanh Village next to Cuc Phuong National Park.
Never thrown a disc but within 15 minutes was throwing forehands and backhands. 
I gave him the dis in the evening and the next morning, he and friend were out with it on the soccer field.
Climbing out of the Khanh village valley at the beginning of our 10 mile hike through Cuc Phoung National Park
(March 2012) 
Andrew Sanborn, Anna Oakes, Elliott Crofton, and Sarah Weiner climbing into the rainforest at Cuc Phuong.
Our guide Viet, Luke Williams, Andrew Sandborn, Anna Oakes, Elliott Crofton, Perrine Aronson and Sarah Weiner
in the Cuc Phuong Archaeological Cave -- site of ritual burials and stone and bone tools dating back 7,500 years.
Gorgeous "pitcher plant-like" flower in the understorey of the Cuc Phuong primary forest.  Is it a calla lily? 
Two  butterflies photographed in the meadow at the Cuc Phuong visitor's center.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Learning how to prepare "sticky rice" in steamed leaves on a trip to Dung Luan
In my life I have studied, traveled, participated in programs, and led trips to many different countries, but this year is different. I have passed the halfway point of my time here in Viet Nam and feel acclimated, comfortable, and competent. I know where to get the right color compact fluorescent light bulbs, where to get an electric guitar cord repaired, at which hours the gym is less crowded, which fruit ladies or vegetable ladies in the market will not rip me off, which ATMs don’t run out of cash when all the other ones have been empty for five days, and which bakeries have the best baguettes. I’ve learned how to bake dozens of different cakes (last night was mango, ginger, salted plum bread); and how to survive with a refrigerator the size of R2D2, a kitchen with two stoves and a tiny toaster oven. I know how much a taxi should be to anywhere in the city, how much to pay the driver who takes the “scenic route” that adds 8km to a 6km trip, and how much faster my trip will be if I ride my bicycle. The list of mundane things goes on and on. One of the reasons I haven’t written for this blog in so long is that life has become so normal. So, what do I love about my life here. I love climbing the ten floors to my apartment – for the exercise (the elevators work fine, but I try to climb the stairs as much as I can). I love the fact that there is a “farmer’s market” every few blocks where I can buy fresh locally-grown produce, and meat so fresh that was walking around the previous day. I love the constant discovery of new dishes being sold by someone who has set up a small, propane fueled stove on the curb or up some narrow alley. I love riding my bike on the lakeside road or up boulevards with stunningly landscaped medians, or streets lined with giant trees. I love how Vietnamese people will just come up to me on a bus or while eating street food and strike up a conversation to practice their English and find out what I am doing here. Their curiosity is especially aroused by my bicycle – few foreigners ride bikes – most get around by motorcycle. I love my job. It is truly an ideal teaching situation. Fifteen students (now down to 7 in the second term after the semester students went home), two classes per day. I am spoiled by my light workload. It’s not too little, though. It allows me to really think about my teaching, plan ahead, and to address the needs of my students as individuals. I particularly enjoy teaching environmental science and economics together, to the same students. There are so many cross-disciplinary concepts – it is such a natural pairing. I find economics captivating. Now that I have begun to appreciate economic thought, I can see the paradox of how free markets are the underlying cause of our most critical problems, but that these same markets probably offer the only realistic solutions to the social and environmental quagmire in which we are trapped. I have to add that I also love that a teacher’s salary goes so much further here. Back in the US, we always have to worry about how much we can afford for one thing or another. Here, our paychecks go so much farther – when we have the time, we ca hop on a plane and go to another country, we live easily and comfortably without a car. We can out and spend $2.50 for a full Vietnamese or spend $7 or $8 for an upscale western dinner. We are returning in four months and I feel ambivalent. I would love to stay another year, but then it will be even less likely that we would want to go back. I can definitely envision a future as an expat. When and where are up in the air, but I think it likely that Becky and I will find another opportunity to live abroad, when the time is right. In the meantime, I will enjoy our four months that remain. But our friends, families, dogs, and home are calling us back. There are also things I cannot stand and can’t wait to leave behind when we return. The pollution, the smoking, the fact that Vietnamese drivers have no concept of “right-of-way” and will run the red and drive straight at you when you are in a crosswalk with a green pedestrian light, or will turn left out of an alley without stopping and head toward you against the flow of traffic. But that’s about it. There are other things to complain about – how some vendors will try to charge me 2 or 3 times the price for goods that they will charge a local person (not many, but some), and how waiters will hand me a huge menu and then stand there right next to me, expecting my order immediately – such pressure! And then there is the fact that Vietnamese have no concept of standing in line or waiting their turn – getting on a bus, or getting food at a buffet is a free-for-all. But these are minor inconveniences that foreigners learn to deal with. In the end I find that I can adjust easily to life in another culture – even without having learned the language. I wonder how much culture shock I will have to deal with when we return. I imagine it won’t be easy for any of us, especially for Sivan and Amali. A year to me or Becky doesn’t make much of a difference – our lives tend to be pretty static. But to an 11 or 14 year old? Their world is so mutable – will they return to familiar routines? We are starting to think about those transitions. Have I changed this year? Honestly, yes. I need to reflect on those shifts in my physical, emotional, and social self. I think that will be the subject of my next entry. In the meantime, I will upload some pictures and videos over the next few weeks. All my best, Chuck