Archive | May, 2012

Exposed – by Tabitha

30 May

When I had been in Hanoi for about six months, I was asked to speak to the next group of volunteers after us, who had just arrived in Vietnam. Another person had also been asked to speak, a man who had lived in Hanoi for many years, and had a Vietnamese wife and child.

The sum of my advice to the new arrivals was that they should just relax and have fun, ride bicycles and make sure their house isn’t near a community loudspeaker. The other guy presented a half-hour-long list of fearful warnings: attach your wallet to your jeans using a chain, street food will make you sick, apartments are less likely to be robbed than houses, never trust your maid.

I was horrified, and also outraged, because I had lived in Hanoi for six months and nothing bad had happened to me at all. This guy was clearly just paranoid.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and now I am TOTALLY THAT GUY. I fret about personal safety and being left to die on the road, and more than anything, I obsess over all the deadly toxins and gross pathogens I’ve undoubtedly been exposed to here.  If I could have my time again, I would tell those new volunteers to invest in a full-body HAZMAT suit.

Paranoid Guy probably hadn’t only built up his horror stories from years of living here, but also from his Vietnamese family. Middle-class Vietnamese people are the most paranoid/sensible people in Vietnam, much more than foreigners.  My Vietnamese friends thoroughly wash fruit they eat, even if they’re going to peel it, like apples or mango or limes. When you’ve seen fruit rolling off a vendor’s bicycle and into the gutter, you understand why: if you touch that fruit then eat it with your hands, you are basically eating poo.  Same story for pesticides, used heavily on fruits like lychees and rambutans that you manhandle while peeling. Vietnamese people even wash and peel grapes, which I always thought was ridiculous, until a friend who works in agriculture here said he would never touch a Vietnamese-grown grape, peeled or otherwise, because of the undoubtedly carcinogenic chemicals on them. Awesome.

When cooking a meal here, half the time is taken up with washing and soaking and scrubbing all the vegetables, everything washed with three changes of water and using special “veggie wash” detergent. I actually add my own chemicals to my food now. I think it’s pointless anyway, since the water is laced with heavy metals.

On the subject of water, my water bottle is one of those metal BPA-free branded ones from Australia, and yet, all my drinking water here is delivered in big plastic bottles probably made from 100% pure cancer. Why do I bother?

Vietnamese shampoo made my hair fall out at a terrifying rate, so I switched to buying imported expensive Pantene, and it only got worse. My friend pointed out that the imported expensive Pantene was likely just an imported expensive Pantene bottle, filled with God knows what, that I had been rubbing all over my head for weeks.

Did I tell you that the disgusting pus-filled staph infection I had in my armpit was likely contracted from the local beauty salon? The one where they dip the same spatula into the same big pot wax over and over again, one customer to the next? The same spatula and the same wax that gets used for a Brazilian wax and then is wiped all over someone’s upper lip?

Have I told you about the time I was cycling along and then the road was shrouded in a huge cloud of mysterious mist emanating from a construction site, which left my eyes and mouth stinging for 30 minutes afterwards?

My poor ears, left ringing from countless bus horns; my poor, poor lungs from just trying to breathe in one of world’s top 10 most polluted cities; my poor insides, lovingly gifted with so many organic foods, now poisoned.

It’s lucky we’re leaving soon, because I don’t think I could stay here much longer, fighting against an environment that seems out to get me, and food that seems barely deserving of the name. I dream about eating a piece of sourdough toast with slices of gorgeous organic avocado and tomato, or biting into an apple, grabbed straight from the fruit bowl. I will be doing just that soon, and I hope each time, I remember to be grateful.


Exposed – by Beth

29 May

Lately I’ve been having a recurring vision/feeling as I’m just about to fall asleep. It’s quite odd. I can visualise my chest totally opened up. The blood and gore doesn’t gross me out at all, it just seems very matter-of-fact. But there is something unsettling about it. I recently listened to a particularly vivid episode of Radiolab entitled ‘Guts‘…which may have given me the imagery.

Back to the dream. After than initial realisation that I’m lying there with no skin, a range of different things happen depending on my mood. Mostly I’m just touching said innards. Sometimes I’m hugging myself, innards and all. One time I was swobbing my exposed torso with gauze soaked in chocolate (I think that’s a dessert craving). It was like that game Operation, but it was me operating on me…

I’m feeling a little exposed at the moment. Allow me to lie myself down on the FFF couch and tell you about it.

For the past five months my work has been going through a restructure. Has anyone ever enjoyed a restructure? I’ve been through a few at my work in the 4 years I’ve worked there, but this one is the first to really affect me. I am now one of those rusted-on grumblers that I’ve never understood BEFORE NOW. Not knowing what team I’ll be in, who my boss will be or even what job I’ll be doing July 1, has been really hard. Change is hard. Uncertainty is harder(?)

Secondly, I’ve been trying not to use food as a crutch/reward/way to get through difficulty since about last August. This is massive for me. Food was a real go-to when the going got tough. It’s forced me to take up a LOT of herbal tea drinking. I now eat MASSIVE salads: I’ve changed. I also eat a lot more fish. Still no other animal flesh, but definitely no longer a vegetarian. Like I said, I’ve changed.

Third, I have started doing a boot camp. It’s 3 times a week, but I usually only get to 2 classes. Exercise opens you up doesn’t it. I don’t think I have run like this before. Ever. And I really enjoy it. This is also a profound change. And a really positive one.

So, fourthly, I have lost weight. Not heaps (I don’t do weighing myself), but enough that I’ve lost a dress size plus. So there’s a bit less of me shielding me from the world. I think that, combined with all the change going on in my life is the reason for that recurring dream.

Totally on the subject, I watched these two Ted talks by a researcher who studies shame and vulnerability. Really amazing I think if you have time to watch (can be watched whilst doing dishes).

The phrase “vulnerability hang-over” is so cool. I get those.  I may have one after posting on the public internet a discussion of a dream where I smear my organs in chocolate. We shall see.

If you watch the talks and want more, there’s an interview with her here. The last paragraph on parenting is particularly interesting.

Road – by Karen

28 May

Goodness me. I was totally in awe of Justyna’s road post, and in between thoughts of how insane she was, I started scanning my memories, wondering if I’ve ever been on any dangerous road trips. Then I dug up my old travel journal, which lurks in the bowels of my computer, too cringeworthy to read, too singular to delete. It recounts tales from my backpacking moment in my early twenties, and mostly features paragraphs like this:

“This morning I got a cappuccino and biscotti for breakfast and went to check out the main drag of Salerno. I made my way down to a sunny park by the water, and was seated there happily until some middle-aged man decided it would make excellent conversation to pinch my cheek repeatedly while beaming and crying ‘molto simpatico!’ or similar.”

In between tales of encounters with affectionate middle-aged men, there are gushing descriptions of scenery that are CHILLINGLY similar to those travel emails our parents’ generation have started sending.

But there is also a veiled reference to what is in fact the most dangerous road trip I ever took. While I was sitting in Siena, bemoaning the endless galleries of gold leaf and crushed lapis to my journal and praising the ordinary sunshine like the Philistine that I am, I was approached my a rotund, balding, middle aged man. For whatever reason, I accepted his invitation to go to a nearby wine cellar and try some Tuscan wine. The wine cellar was a beautiful and historic (and public) one, so no nasty surprises. He professed to be a chef at a local restaurant who just loved hanging out and meeting international visitors.

When he heard that I was travelling on to Rome the next day without seeing more of Tuscany, he was horrified, and offered to take me on a tour of the surrounding villages. Purely because I was too broke to afford to see them any other way, I merrily agreed.

The villages looked like this:


We had an aperitif and a snack in one of them, and drove around the hillsides at dusk. My diary includes a painful description of the hills’ “improbably mathematical regularity”. We then returned to Siena, to his HOUSE, still unaccompanied, where the poor fellow cooked me dinner from delightful fresh ingredients. His story of being a chef did seem to check out.

Then he offered me a reiki massage, at which he said he was also very proficient. I declined, and was driven home.

That is all that happened on my most dangerous road trip ever. I conclude that I don’t really deserve to be alive, so anything that happens from now on is pretty much a bonus.

A not so leisurely road – by Justyna

27 May

Another two-in-one whammy. Sorry guys. Both ‘leisure’ and ‘road’ fit in nicely though.

I’ve never been into proper leisurely holidays. Never been on one of those all-inclusive deals in a resort, never sat an entire week on a beach sipping cocktails, have never actually gone on holidays with a suitcase come to think of it. I like to sweat it out a bit before I enjoy myself. A deserving rest only after there is exertion etc. I also have mild vertigo. Which brings me to our holiday in Georgia. Which brings me to the most harrowing road I have ever been on. Which brings me to the exact opposite of leisure.

Back in 2010 we went to Georgia. The country isn’t huge and we crisscrossed it getting about by mini-buses, trucks, trains and hitching. The Georgian Caucus mountains are the most impressive mountain range I have ever seen in my life. And to get to remote villages set in the depth of the mountains we hired a Lada Niva (a Soviet 4WD that is the most uncomfortable car ever, yet the hardiest and can be fixed with just a hammer and a spanner) for four days. The heart of the most remote region in the country was accessible via a mere 120 km drive from Tbilisi to an elevation of 3000m. This took nine whole freaking hours. The dirt, winding road allowing this accessibility is only open for three months of the year, due to the severe weather conditions and due to the road’s absolute crapness. The road is as wide as your standard dump truck (in this case the Russian Kamas), and likes to collapse unannounced in various parts causing you and your vehicle to plummet thousands of meters to your death. This happens every year. No one knows who its next victim will be. A bunch of Polish tourists in a Lada Niva or a goat herder with his whole flock. When winter ends the road work crews commence to restore the road’s semi-road resemblance caused by avalanches, mud slides and fruity cement mixtures. We were driving on this ‘road’ right at the end of September, only days before it officially closed in October.

I spent most of that trip with my eyes closed and an acidic taste of reflux in my mouth. I really was shit scared. The 4WD would lick the edge of the road and we would be briefly exposed to the gashing ravine below. This happened hundreds of times due to the hundreds of switch-backs. When a Kamas would come, we would have to hug the cliff wall or reverse to a passable shoulder, praying that the two vehicles would only clip one another’s side mirrors. I had that feeling in my gut telling me that I was stupid, that I had left a kid behind with grandparents, that this was such an idiotic way to die and that this WAS NOT a leisurely way to spend my holiday. Once we reached the saddle at 3000m though, and I felt solid mountain earth under my feet, and the most jaw-gaping views ever, I felt a bit more justified. We reached the village on a plateau and saw 360 degrees of hard arse mountains and I almost felt relaxed. Almost. We ended up pitching our tents at an army post. The Georgian soldiers treated us to a supper of lamb and tomatoes, telling us that since Russia had ground invaded Georgia in 2008, there were now army posts scattered all around the mountain range. We were camping on the border with Ossetia and Chechnya where all the trouble had begun, sleeping under a Georgian flag, right near a dude who had the night post holding a machine gun. Leisurely indeed.

Road – by Tabitha

25 May

I have been on many lovely and memorable holidays, but the hiking trip Nathan and I took in the south of France in 2009 has really stuck with me.

It was only five days – out of a two-month holiday – but I can practically remember every minute of it. The different road textures, the different gradients, the food we ate, the things we discussed. There were immense stretches of of fields and farms and, even more so, immense stretches of time, every minute of it spent actively engaged in moving forwards, and being in no-one else’s company.

I like being in The Nature, sure, and I like walking, but more than anything, I love getting from one place to another under my own steam. Bushwalking is fun, but it’s an activity for its own sake; it’s about exercise and conquering various obstacles and being outdoors, not a form of transport. In the Blue Mountains, for example, you can find yourself starting your walk at Blackheath train station, spending days going up and down valleys, then ending up at Blackheath train station. This is deeply unsatisfying to me.

In France, walking along roads and paths, we ate up the kilometres, moving from town to town, to map to map, and ending up many train stops away. We could look at the rail network map and say, “We walked every step of the way from here to there!” While I guess there was no point to our hike, it felt purposeful, the way that running home from work is so much more satisfying than just running a neighbourhood loop.

The way I’ve described the hike makes it sound like it was paced like a race, which is far from reality. While there was a great sense of progress and achievement, it was also luxuriously slow, which is why I think it’s so vivid in my memory. We had so much more time to take every little thing in.

I think a walking pace is exactly the right speed at which to experience the world. I went on my first cycling holiday here in Vietnam, and thought even that was too fast. A driving holiday doesn’t appeal to me at all. I would rather cover less ground but get to see all the little insects on the flowers along the way, and at the end, know that the only thing which got me there was my own two feet.

The road less travelled – by Beth

21 May

A couple of weeks ago we got a brand new road (surface) on our street. There were leaflets in our letterboxes explaining that this would be happening one day in the near future. We got new guttering a couple of weeks before it all happened (our skew-whiff guttering had given Winky 2 flat tyres, so it needed to go).

They said the actual road process would only take one day from go to whoa, and they were right.

They closed the road the night before and told everyone to get their cars out of the street. Two ladies with a guitar and beautiful voices were paid to stay there all night making sure (not sure what they were guarding against really, but they sang lovely songs).

At 6:30am, in came the equipment. Now, I’m totally down with diggers and trucks and cranes (Leo makes sure of this), but I had never seen this machinery before.

Asphalt paving machine

Eight wheeled thingy

There were lots of dudes hanging around, seemingly mostly doing nothing, but then you’d miss an hour and come back out and they’d made a lot of progress. We missed the bit where they had to scrape up the whole road (thankfully), and came home for the fun bit where a giant truck sidles up to the asphalt paving machine and dumps a huge amount of hot-liquidy bitumen into the back of it, and then it comes out the other end looking flawless and uniform.

Truck and paving machine

I never did get to see what the eight wheeled thingo did, but it seemed to just be driving around whilly-nilly. There was also a roller with huge brushes attached (like an arm in a car wash), and that roamed around trying to sweep up stray bitument.

The new surface was very hot, so they sent around a steamroller that had water coming out of it – impressive.

Wet steamroller

I wonder if a caption like “wet steamroller” is going to send people with kinky searchterms flocking to the blog… [sigh]

It was all over by 4pm, and the equipment shuffled away as fast as it came. One of my next door neighbours has been living here for 40 years and he’s never seen them do this before, so it feels very special.


Our new road!

Leisure – by Karen

20 May

Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting, Pieter de Hooch (Dutch, Rotterdam 1629–1684 Amsterdam)

I really can’t make much sense of this painting, which failing probably underlines the ways in which leisure pastimes have altered since the 1600s. Only one person in the picture really looks like they’re having fun – a girl who is holding a dry paintbrush next to some bread. Her little brother is bummed out, her mother’s face scolds, and her pipe-smoking dad is looking at the mum like wtf? And indeed, as pointed out by the Met, from which I’ve poached the image, “[t]he merry dialogue in the near ground is foiled by the mysterious encounter of a young man and elderly bearded figure in the antechamber and vestibule.” They mean foiled in the arty sense, not the gotcha! sense. Personally I think it’s just Grandpa coming to join in the dry paintbrush hijinks, but it could be a forboding and grim approach, I suppose.

It’s true that in the midst of many rollicking good times, a dour figure lurks in wait – be it the dawn of Monday, an assignment due date, perhaps even feelings of guilt and frivolousness for the particularly conscientious, which Renaissance-era Dutch folk surely were, no matter how much gold-slathered leather adorned their walls. You might argue that awareness of the fleeting nature of leisure time heightens our enjoyment of it, but I’m sure you also remember the pleasurable ennui of an endless school holiday in your warless 1980s.

It’s often said that hunter-gatherers, which we all were at some point in our evolutionary history, spend far longer than we do at leisure, but this has since been disputed by pickier anthropologists who point out that if you include all the damn time these guys spend on food preparation and other practical little tasks beyond hunting and gathering, they’re working about as long as we are. What seems certain though is that these populations (which do tend to have far better mental health than us, despite lack of access to modern medicine), spend many more hours in a state of “flow”, and that their work is much more similar to their leisure pursuits than ours.