Friday, October 17, 2008

What a Difference a day makes . . .

What a difference a day makes. On Friday October 12th the most amazing thing happened. Twice. I met the most wonderful, intelligent, crazy, beautiful, funny, spirited, caring, loving, interesting, thoughtful, courageous, young woman I have ever known for lunch and then again for dinner. Countless hours on the phone, text messages, IM chats, and Skype video conversations, and four more trips to Viet Nam later and I am more in Love with her everyday. What a difference a day makes indeed. . . . .

Le Ky Niem Mot Nam

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Soaked from head to toe . . .

Soaked from head to toe. That's how I had spent most of the week before our trip to Sai Gon. The remnants of Typhoon Hagupit and start of Severe Tropical Storm Mekkhala had been dumping rain in Northern Viet Nam for several days, and, needless to say, I had gotten wet. No matter how good my poncho was at keeping most of me dry my head and feet got soaked. Aside from obvious fact that riding a motorbike in the rain will get you wet, there are two other realities about life in Viet Nam. One, you frequently get bitten by little bugs, usually mosquito's, but other things as well. And unless you are in the habit of bathing in DEET this is unavoidable. So I had two little bug bites that were in just the right place for the front strap of my Teva Sandals to keep wet. The second fact of life here is that if it rains hard anywhere in Viet Nam the streets will inevitably be flooded and you may find yourself standing in ankle deep (or deeper) water. Water, which, because of all the stuff in and on the streets will probably be contaminated with all sorts of nasty things. In 1993 I found myself thigh deep in water trying to pedal my bicycle back to my dormitory after one particular lengthy rain storm which my friend and I had tried to wait out at the German Embassy's monthly Bier Kellar. Unfortunately for me these two things came together three weeks ago, and whether in Ha Noi or in the deluge in Sai Gon those two little bug bites got infected.
The first few days we were back from Sai Gon I did not notice anything unusual, but on Wednesday morning I woke up to find that that area of my foot had swelled and a red streak had made its' way close to the base of my ankle. Naturally I was a bit alarmed. Huyen was alarmed too and after ruling out going to one of Ha Noi's many public hospital's without her to help translate I called over to the SOS International clinic just 4 blocks away from our apartment. Luckily there was one appointment available that afternoon, so after having a quick lunch with Huyen I jumped onto our trusty Super Cub and headed over to the clinic. Though I'd first been in the building that houses the SOS clinic in 1999 when it housed the Business Consulate of the American Embassy where my friend Tara was working I had never needed it's services before. So when I walked into the reception area I knew I had made the right decision.
Dr. Fone was a big man and very affable, as are most of the Australians I've met (Huyen was a little shocked later on when I told her I had been joking around with Dr. Fone. He commented on the fact that I had brought in two helmets, to which I responded the bigger one was for my posterior. Apparently joking around with doctors in Viet Nam is something you don't do, but never met an Aussie without a sense of humor, Med school or not.) He took one look at my foot and declared it a staph infection, also stating it was too bad there weren't any med students around to observe my textbook condition. The good thing about not working (or doing much else for that matter) is that I had all the time in the world to hang around for an hour of medication via IV. Dr. Fone recommended two days of IV treatment, so he told the nurse to leave the IV in overnight as I had agreed to clear my busy schedule and return the next morning for round 2. Unfortunately, this meant the nurse decided to stick the IV in my wrist, which would prove a bit of a hassle given the limited use of my left hand, but, I suppose it was a better option than having a needle taped to the crock of my arm for 18 hours. I lay there for about an hour listening to Honduran woman translate Spanish into English to a Belgian doctor for her Colombian friend who was having severe chest pain. The next day the curtains separated me from a German man who had come into to make sure his children's immunizations were up to date, while on the other side of me a Japanese man lay silently attached to a IV and an oxygen tank. International clinic indeed.
Last night I took the last of my oral medication and the swelling, redness, and blisters have all but disappeared. Hopefully there will be no long term ill effects, and under the advice of my mother (the inventor of due diligence) I will be stopping at Bumrangard Intl. Hospital in Bangkok on our way to India in two days to see an infectious disease specialist to make sure of just that. As Dr. Fone felt the for any swelling in the lymph nodes behind my left knee two weeks ago he said it was good that I had come in that day as staph infections can travel rather quickly. I agreed and thought to myself, what a difference a day makes . . . .

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

Update . . . finally

Well it's been quite some time since I put some letters together, forming words, and strung these words into sentences for my blog. I'll chalk it up to one part writer's block, one part health problems, and one part life. . . . .
Three weekends ago Huyen raced home from work on Friday in a cab and picked me up at our apartment on the way to the airport. We were on our way down to Sai Gon (Ho Chi Minh City) to attend a going away party for one on my good friends, Thuy Pham, who after 4 long years in Viet Nam had decided to head back to the States. The flight on newly formed Jetstar/Pacific Airlines was a bit cramped, as the seats were tighter than I think I've every experienced in a 737. The rainy weather as we descended into Tan Son Nhat airport also did not help as it got a bit bumpy, though nobody threw up, which is often the case when traveling on public transport in Viet Nam. Because of a delay in Ha Noi we arrived rather late, and despite a offer to go out on the town Huyen and I made it to the hotel and crawled in to bed by 12:30 AM. Up at a civilized hour of 10 AM the next morning we had to make a quick pit stop at my old hair salon to get Huyen's newly styled hair properly coiffed before meeting Thuy and her boyfriend, Seth, for a Western style brunch. The conversation turned to dinner (as it often does when I'm having breakfast) as I had volunteered to cook for a dinner party of 12-15 people. After some discussion we formulated a plan and the 4 of us were off in a stifilingly hot cab to a place called Metro.
It turns out that Metro is huge, and much like Seth and Thuy promised very much like Costco. Which of course is great for getting lots of stuff in bulk but not so great if you try and get in without a membership card. Having never been to Metro Thuy and Seth had not brought along any I.D. to register for a membership card. Luckily my California Driver's License was sufficient to gain us entry after some quick paperwork. Naturally we ended up spending more time in Metro than we thought we would, especially in the huge refrigerated section of the giant store. Unwisely the three of them left me alone to escape the cold of the meat locker so I, of course, made the biggest and most expensive purchase of the afternoon, 4.5 kilos of Australian Strip Steak (unfortunately the Aussie meat [which is the best quality] comes in large cuts, so even though I picked the smallest piece it was still rather large. So much so that Seth may still be commenting about it as he and Thuy scuba there way through Malaysia.) With a shopping cart full of stuff and my new Metro card we paid the hefty bill (the meat was 1/3 the total) only to find that Metro does not provide bags to carry your purchases. Again, I came prepared with a back-pack (partially filled with some cooking tools I'd brought down to SGN) and a small man bag. Stuffing as much as we could into both bags we picked up the rest and jumped into a mercifully cooler cab. Off to the Manor.
My agreement to take on the cooking challenge was done partially because I was told I would be doing the cooking in the very nice kitchen of one of Thuy and Seth's more well heeled friend's. When we finally got into this friend's apartment in the Manor (another story full of lots of walking, lies, and 4 adults trying to figure out simple tasks) I was not disappointed. The $300K apartment had had another $50K invested in a fully upgraded kitchen. Needless to say, I was excited. The four of us needed to shower and tie up a few more odds and ends (which for Huyen and me involved going to two more small Western markets to buy more stuff. 3 Markets for one meal, welcome to your future life Huyen ;) before we returned to cook.
Two and a half hours later we were all back in the nice new kitchen (oven had not even been used before) and quickly dove into to getting the four course meal together in 2 1/2 short hours. Once again Huyen proved why I love her some much. She dove right into all the onions, garlic, and shallots with aplomb despite the tears, and was a great sous chef all night, or at least until a certain prohibited spirit made it's appearance. Fortunately the well heeled friend returned from basketball shortly after our arrival to find the four off us working away like crazy in his kitchen because one of us (who well remain unnamed) was having quite a bit of trouble with the Porsche Design can opener. After quickly dispatching the 8 cans I needed open he offered to open some bottles from the in cabinet wine fridge I had been eyeing ever since I had set foot in the kitchen. Turns out, like many folks of means, that he's is quite the Oenophile and every six weeks when he goes back to the States he returns with half a dozen bottles stuffed into his suitcase (American wines are insanely expensive here because of specific taxes, so fans of Napa Cabs are out of luck.) An unfiltered Newton Chardonnay to start us off right, and 2.5 hours were a blur of peeling, chopping, par-boiling, roasting, sauteeing, etc . . . even as the first guest started to arrive.
The pea and mint soup with creme fraiche, baked pasta, and 8 lbs of strip steak with roasted potatoes were a hit, though by the time it was all done we had gotten through almost 4 bottles of wine. Once dinner was polished off the hard stuff came out. Absinthe, newly legal in American, a liquor which apparently ranges anywhere from 110 to 180 Proof and is dangerously easy to drink ( The bottle we were imbibing that evening was 170 Proof. Of course Thuy got the first glass of the Green Fairy, but quickly thereafter a glasses topped with a flaming green spoon of sugar was offered around to all the guests.
Having maternal Grandparents renowned for producing high quality rice wine with the best ingredients Huyen first experience with alcohol came at quite a young age. When she was six she picked up a cup of what she thought was water, but which turned out to be her grandparents rice wine. So 17 years later when the Absinthe was poured Huyen was happy to take part. "Wow this is great! Can I have another?" Luckily there were others waiting for a shot because 5 minutes later she was horizontal on the couch in the living room. Whilst the increasingly ruckus festivities went on all around me I started the Molten chocolate cakes trying to limit my alcohol consumption to red and white wine I had drunk earlier. Unfortunately, Thuy called me out for a glass of Absinthe, and not wanting to disappoint the appreciative crowd, I took the drink. This being the second time I've drunk Absinthe the taste, smoothness, and power came as no surprise to me, but in combination with the wine the effects were not desirable. After all the guests had had their chance to the Absinthe, Thuy was center stage trying to guess which one of the guests answered questions about her that Seth had secretly collected early in the evening. An incorrect answer resulted in Thuy having to drink a shot of wine, but if she guessed your answer you got to polish of the shot. Unfortunately, I was the only friend present who had met Thuy in college, so my last drink of the evening came as she easily identified my answer. One very emotional speech later, Thuy not me, we all changed clothes walked out into the light drizzle to catch cabs to the club.
Like most clubs in Viet Nam, Bounce is insanely crowded, insanely loud, and insanely smokey. Even though the well heeled friend has his table in the VIP area reserved there was still absolutely no room to move. I felt sorry for the people working in the club as the push and squeeze their way past the club goers to deliver drinks, cigarettes, and snacks. After only five or so minutes it all got a bit too much in my weakned state and I need to the restroom anyway, so Huyen and I claw our way out of the club. After sitting outside the club trying to get some fresh air for 10 minutes wehead back inside to say our goodbyes and then back outside to catch a cab for the very short ride to our hotel.
Unsurprisingly the night was not very peaceful and by the time morning breaks I've got a bad case of the runs and am sore all over from rolling around trying to get comfortable all night. We still manage to get packed up and off by 11 AM to meet up with my good friend Kym and his girlfriend Trang at the very popular restaurant Quan An Ngon. Despite having not had any good Southern food the previous day I am not able to eat any more than some tofu with ice. My numerous trips to the restroom during lunch finally convince Trang that I'm really not feeling well, though she kept trying to order enough to feed all four of us. At a cafe later on we stumble upon the idea of getting a massage at a nearby spa. Given how sore I am a massage sounds great, but the idea of getting stepped on by someone while I'm sick seems a bit risky. Soreness (the $8.50 price and the promise of hot stones) win out, and with a quick detour to pick up some Imodium, we were off to the Spa. Despite some uncomfortable, uh . . . painful moments, I managed to keep my screams and the contents of stomach inside where they belonged. All in all, aside from not getting to eat some of my Southern Vietnamese favorites, not a bad way to spend a Sunday.
We took our leave of Kym and Trang, making a quick precautionary stop in the very posh bathrooms of the Sheraton Hotel Sai Gon, before making or way to our decidedly humbler hotel. Meeting very briefly with Thuy and Seth who had come by to return my cooking implements and say goodbye on last time. Saddened by our both our imminent departures from Sai Gon the Gods opened up the Sky and the rain came down in buckets. It was not until I had finished loading our bags into the taxi in ankle deep water that I realized that I had not taken my camera out once during the entire weekend. So, while the cab waded slowly towards Tan Son Nhat Airport I took a few photos out the window. Rain as we arrived and rain during our departure, an ominous sign as we sat at the gate soaked from head to toe. . .

Thursday, October 9, 2008