The Hoa Mai tree in the kitchen of the guesthouse. These trees are for good luck during Tet. And the one in the guesthouse was blooming today.
Tet is here. Last night we were invited to a friend’s house and we ate on the roof and waited for the fireworks to begin. This particular roof had an excellent view of the canal through town and the two bridges crossing it. The traffic was insane but after fighting through it, it was nice to watch the motorbikes move in an endless line crossing the bridges and driving along the canal. All the lights from houses and streets were reflecting on the water which added to the beauty of the scene as well. We chatted and then at 10:30 the explosions began. The fireworks seemed to last for quite a long time too. The smoke from them blanketed the center of town and drifted towards us and finally that smell of gunpowder arrived where we were and I remembered warm nights in July at home. Then I started sending text messages to a lot of people wishing them a happy new year. However, I wasn’t feeling all that well and wanted to go to sleep early despite the occasion.
Then the next morning: things were quiet. I got up and drove around the city to see if people were out, and it seemed to be unusually crowded for a holiday morning. After making a brief city tour I came back and Tyler, Steven and I had instant noodles because most of the restaurants in town are closed today. And so far it’s just been a day of relaxation here; reading, a movie, etc. To all of you out there, happy new year.
These are the days of little or nothing to do. I can sleep in—something that I’ve found is much more difficult than in my college days—and then spend a leisurely day of having relaxing coffees and driving around the town. Today was a good example. Steven, Tyler, Sharla and I went for a rather late breakfast and I ate what are supposedly the best eggs in town. Then, I just decided to go around. It’s nice now because Tyler has a motorbike and that makes all four of us mobile. So we drove through this lovely weather that seems to have arrived just for the Lunar New Year. It’s pleasantly cool and when driving along the streets you can feel the fluctuations in temperature while the bike hums beneath you. So we drove along a road with open space around it and cool air on our faces. Then a big circle back through town. When we were nearing the university, I yelled to Tyler that Steven wanted to visit the crocodile farm here in Long Xuyen. I had been there when I was visiting as part of a student group with Bluffton College, but since I’ve moved here I’ve only seen the place in passing; I’ve never stopped back in. So we drove out towards the ferry and finally found the place. The son of the owner was there and spoke excellent English and guided us around to see all the crocodiles. He told us how they incubated the eggs for a higher hatching rate, where they exported to, etc. After walking around and viewing various sizes/ages of crocodiles, he showed us the pet bear they had, and proceeded to feed him bananas. The bear was lazy in the heat and barely moved and only ate three tiny bananas before refusing any more. We told the man guiding us that we all taught at An Giang University, and he said that Dr. Xuan, the president of An Giang University often visits the farm. So after our little tour he invited us to sit down and gave us some drinks, and then refused to let us pay for them because of the relationship that his family had with An Giang University. It’s interesting how things on a little whim or thought (i.e. “Let’s go visit the crocodile farm.”) turn into meeting an interesting person with an interesting connection to our place of employment.
The past three days have been shoved full of travel and exhaustion. I’ll try to recount the main points:
Day 1:Ha Tien, Kien Giang Province
On Saturday Tyler, Sharla, and I went to the southern-coast city of Ha Tien with a group of students. The most ominous part of this trip was the 4 a.m. departure time. We woke up in the darkness and walked to the main campus—with several dogs barking at us—where the bus was meeting us. Things seemed to be going smoothly. The bus was old and had no air-conditioning so we had all the windows open and let the cool wind blow freely through the bus. However, we weren’t very far outside of Long Xuyen when there was a loud BANG! and the bus stopped; we had a blowout at 4:45 a.m. As with all buses, the tires were big, and so were the bolts holding them on. The driver couldn’t take the wheel off without more tools, but it was also before 5 a.m. in the morning and few, if any people were up and about. The mosquitoes were viciously attacking my feet and it was dark and things weren’t looking so good. Then a small café opened up not far down the road. This was very good information for me. Then the sun began to rise over the Mekong Delta, which drove some of the mosquitoes away. I’m still not really sure how the driver did it, but somehow he found some tools or help somewhere and got everything back together and we were on our way again slightly after 6 a.m. At this point I fell asleep and when I woke up the landscape had changed and there were some mountains around.
We finally reached a place near Ha Tien where a pagoda was located in a cave. It was also right on a small beach and people waded around in the water and I was one of many that climbed around on the rocks in the area. We left that particular area and headed towards the actually city of Ha Tien and ended up at some tourist area where they had innertubes and lots of seafood for sale. We ordered kilos upon kilos of crab and this big shrimp-looking animal that I’ve never seen in America. I ate and ate and finally a guitar was brought out and then the singing. It was wonderfully cool in the shade near the water. But eventually we had to head towards home. There was much talk and laughter on the bus and more singing with the guitar too.
One of the students on the trip lived en route and we stopped there to eat and drink more even though we were completely stuffed already. The trip wound down with a student in the back of the bus (where Tyler and I happened to be sitting) doing imitations of several teachers that left us howling and in hysterics. We were finally home, but I was slightly nervous going to bed, because the next day a mixed group of students and teachers were invited to a student’s house for his wedding party and we were leaving early.
Day 2: Phu Tan District, An Giang Province
Tyler and I were up early. I was finished showering and everything early and went off to fill up before the trip. Then a good breakfast and coffee to shake off some of the exhaustion from the previous day. We were headed to a district of An Giang Province called Phu Tan, and people told us it was about 40 km from Long Xuyen. It was a nice trip by motorbike and the air felt good. We actually arrived there early though, and went to a café for a good twenty minutes or so to kill some time. Then we drove a little more and found the wedding party. The groom was a student of me and Tyler, and we were the only foreigners at the party. It was a wedding party so everyone seemed to be happy. The food was excellent and seemed to never stop coming to the table. At wedding parties in Vietnam, the bride and groom walk around to all of the tables to take pictures and to exchange wishes and thanks.
At this particular wedding, there was a very friendly photographer who was chatting a little with Tyler and I and made us pose for a few photos with other people.
After about 2 hours of eating, we decided it was time to go. Tien, a teacher who came with us, had read about some corpse that had been found near where we were and wanted to go see it. I never really knew if he was exaggerating things or what, but several people were very excited to go see this phenomenon. However, once we were headed the opposite way of Long Xuyen we learned it was farther than we expected. Then Tien got a flat tire and decided that this was a sign to head home. I agreed and we made our way back to a ferry. However, just before we arrived at the ferry, Tyler and I noticed a strange sound coming from my motorbike. It was something with the chain and it was making be nervous; after crossing the ferry we still had about 20 km back to Long Xuyen at that point. Somehow it was too tight, but there was a man near the ferry who adjusted it. It continued to sound weird on the ride back though. I have to say that on that particular drive I’ve never felt more tired driving a motorbike than that day.
I arrived back so tired, but worried too because at 6:30 the next morning we were taking another trip, this time to the neighboring province of Dong Thap, and my chain was making strange sounds. I went and found a good friend who happens to know a lot about motorbikes and we decided that it was time to change the chain and sprocket set, which we did, though I was nearly falling asleep as we sipped coffee and waited for the work to be completed. Tired: yes. Exhausted: yes. But I slipped into staying up and talking with Tyler and Sharla, and this stimulated something in my brain which kept me up until 1 a.m. I was planning to get up at 5:30 to shower and shave, etc, but instead was woken up with a text message from Tyler saying “Wake up!” at 6:30.
Day 3: Cao Lanh, Dong Thap Province
The morning started by waiting for other teachers to congregate (unlike the previous two days, this was a teachers-only event). Finally we bought gas and headed out of town. This trip was about an hour, two ferries, and kilometer after kilometer of narrow roads. I’d made the trip about a year ago with students and teachers from An Giang University. This too was a nice ride. Our first stop was the home of an English teacher from An Giang University who has a small child and her husband recently went to study in America. We talked and snacked for awhile and then went to eat. And did we eat. Someone ordered plate after plate of something called banh xeo, a kind of flat pancake, crepe-type thing folded over beef, shrimp, and bean sprouts. I’ve never seen so much of that stuff before in my life.
After stuffing ourselves with banh xeo we went to the memorial of Ho Chi Minh’s father which is located in Dong Thap province.
Another volunteer from An Giang University, David, was in town on that particular day and I was in text contact with him about a relatively new café there where foreigners drank coffee, juice, tea, anything for free. So after visiting the memorial, the women went to the supermarket in town, and the men went to drink coffee. However, there were some problems finding the place. We started asking people, and the first two didn’t seem to know anything. Then something happened that would never happen in America: A male teacher was riding by himself, and stopped to ask a young woman for directions. Instead of explaining, the girl just jumped on his motorbike and said she’d show us; a show of trust between strangers and male and female that I can honestly say that I’ve never seen before. And thanks to this girl, we found the café where foreigners drink for free, from December till February.
David met us at the café and had his free coffee too. So after coffee we met up with the women again at the supermarket and our weary band of 11 made the trip over two ferries and narrow roads back to Long Xuyen.
This morning was my last teaching engagement for at least two weeks. I’m getting an extra day or two off before the beginning of the Lunar New Year. I was strange though; I came back to my room after lunch psyched up for a much-needed nap, but I could hardly sleep at all. Therefore the afternoon has disintegrated into a day of nothing-doing. I drove around, bought film, had a snack, talked to Tyler and Sharla, etc.
Otherwise, Tyler recently bought a motorbike; his is a Honda Win, which is the real version of the bike that I drive. He seems to be getting the hang of the clutch really quickly, and now drives to campus and meals.
And David has announced that he’ll be leaving soon to go back to Canada. It’s kinda a bummer that he won’t be around, but he got a good job offer at home and thinks this will be better for him. Because of this it means that tonight David want’s to have a bonfire on the roof of the guesthouse. Now we have to run off into town and find something to contain the fire and some more wood.
Yet another early morning of American Lit. In class this morning I had a realization: that I really love teaching literature. I made some of them read an Edgar Allan Poe poem out loud in front of the class (not “The Raven,” even I don’t understand those words). And then on to Whitman. I’ve had my own problems reading and interpreting him, but I just wanted to have my students focus on his main themes and values, etc. It didn’t seem like an exceptional class, but I just really had fun this morning. A girl in the front row said, “Eric, can you do me a favor?” “What?” I responded. She was too cold because of the fan and asked me to turn it off. I was nearing the point of sweat because of my pacing and gesticulating, so instead I gave her my jacket (she was wearing one already) and she and the girl next to her put it over their laps and huddled together like it was approaching the point of freezing.
Because this weekend is right before the Lunar New Year holiday I’ve accepted the invitations of two different classes to go on day trips with them around the Mekong Delta; a chance to see more of the country and get to know my students better.
A too-early morning of teaching Hawthorne and Poe… My students seemed exceptionally tired as well, maybe because it’s Monday after all…
Yesterday afternoon I was feeling exceptionally lazy and took a leisurely nap and therefore I couldn’t fall asleep immediately last night. Then I was up in a panic at 5:45 this morning searching for my clock to make sure I didn’t sleep through my class. I’ve taken to wearing my jacket to breakfast, because the air is significantly cooler in the morning and the ice in coffee makes it feel cooler yet. I had a quiet breakfast while looking over some of the works by Poe and watching students meander to class.
After my session of confusing my students, I walked out to the parking area to get my motorbike. The older security guard was sitting there and smiled at me. And there were strains of what sounded like a classical flute playing somewhere near him. I didn’t take the time to find out what exactly was going on.