Friday, July 29, 2011


With our tail between our legs and our bags of dirty laundry, we have beat a retreat back to the Hoang Yen Hotel. I am reclining on the bed in our suite (we even got the same room back), luxuriating after a long, hot shower.

Two nights ago, the kids and I went down to the Guard's latrine to fill up our garbage cans with water. We barely made it in the front door before Elia lost her grip. The container she was carrying lost its lid and water spilled everywhere. We were all frozen, watching the water pump out - over our shoes, over the dining room table legs, over the floor. We had no towels to clean it up. Sobbing, Elia said, "I only wanted to help!"  Of course she did.

The kids have been great with the whole situation.They've been helping fill buckets at the guard shack and running back and forth with dishes from the bathroom to the kitchen all week. But today, it's nice to leave that behind for a bit and to feel clean, shaven, and ready for the week.

We have been fortunate in the support offered us by Andrew's school. Staff there have been helping us to interpret the water situation this entire week. Many have offered their swimming pools and showers. The Principals at both the Elementary and High School offered the return to the hotel as a possibility earlier this week. We have been making it all work with trips to the swim pool and sponge baths. But last night, we got word that it may be another entire week before the situation is remedied. Andrew starts work tomorrow and we are out of clean underwear. When the School Director called us last night to offer us the hotel, we gratefully accepted.

Andrew starts New Teacher Orientation tomorrow. We will all join in for a kick-off brunch and there will be many opportunities for the kids and I to join in throughout the week. On Wednesday, all the teachers return and the kids will join in for children's activities. We are all looking forward to meeting some of the people who will be filling our days in the year ahead.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cash Economy

We are almost out of money until Andrew gets paid in a few days.

Things here cost more than we expected. Andrew received an advance on his first paycheck, which was delivered to us in Vietnamese dong at the airport. And, of course, we brought some money with us to tide us over. But, we didn't bring enough. I'm trying to think back on how we calculated, but the fact remains that we just didn't bring enough.

Our apartment required two months rent as deposit, and then we needed to pay two months rent up front. That took the bulk - $3600.00. We certainly didn't understand that before we came. Andrew and I had a good laugh when we discovered that we had both misunderstood, but in different ways. I thought we paid two months rent up front - one month as deposit, one month as rent ($1800 for this apartment, by my calculations). Andrew thought we paid two months rent as deposit, and then paid our first month's rent (for a total of $2700). In the future, we will pay three month's rent at one time, requiring careful budgeting. And all of this is paid in cash.

As always, there are ironies. The school was willing to pay for the hotel (including breakfast, refrigerator bar, laundry, running water) for up to 10 days. We were there 5. We wanted to move in to our apartment as quick as possible so we could start to settle. Then the water went off and we were out more cash than we planned for. Cards are not accepted readily here as they are in the States. We could use our debit card to access our cash back home, but only the really fancy places accept them. Of course, we don't want to go to the fancy store and pay $10 for something we know we can get from the local market for $1..... once we have cash.

  So we can't clean and we can't shop. We can walk only as far as we can entice our 7-year old, generally requiring a paid treat somewhere in the outing. We don't have enough quite yet to buy our bikes, although we would save a lot of taxi fare if we had them. We have found electronics here to be exceptionally expensive compared to US prices, so we can buy a lot of cafe sua da's from Ms. Mai's shop around the corner before it will become cost effective to purchase a coffee maker.

And, of course, all the stuff we "need", we have in a box at home. Now, why didn't we ship our stuff? Oh yes, Andrew has to be here and working for 3-4 months before he can get his work permit. And you can't receive a shipment in Vietnam unless you have a work permit!

We profess to a "green" lifestyle, but here we are buying coffee every day in bad plastic cups, with plastic lids, plastic straws and plastic carry bags included and re-purchasing almost everything that we left in a box or gave away back home.

And we know that this is how most people here are doing it. We joined a google group of neighbors in this area. 95% of the posts are from people trying to sell their stuff because they are leaving Vietnam. We went to one "garage sale" and picked up a few things. We don't want to do that too much though because we can get reimbursed by Andrew's school up to a certain amount for Settling In expenses. Requiring a receipt. Requiring you to buy things from a place that can give receipts. Requiring you to do most of your shopping in a store, away from the open markets where things are the least expensive and your dollar goes directly to the person selling to you.

In our good moments, it's all very strange and laughable.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Going on Day 5 with no running water

And starting to get a little cranky about it. Yes we realize that we are lots better off than many in this country. Yes, we have our basic needs met. Yes, we have been backpackers and campers and so have been known to go without running water for weeks at a time.

And %^$# - I want a shower! Maybe even more than that, I want to clean this apartment so we can start to settle in and feel more at home.

We have discovered that there was some sort of overflow which caused damage to the electrical panel, which controls the water pump. This morning when I went out for my cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee), a man came on the elevator at floor 2 looking quite refreshed and well coiffed. He said "Hello" with little hint of an accent so I dove in.

"Do you have water?" I asked eagerly. He looked at me blankly, having apparently reached the end of his flawless English. In for a penny, in for a pound. I barely had time to pantomime the showering routine - face turned to the water, soaping up and shampooing - before the elevator doors were opening at the ground floor. "Yes", he gasped before escaping (somewhat rapidly, I thought) out into the open courtyard. And I hadn't even shaved.

It's hard not being able to talk to people. We have to rely on others for our information. We've been lucky to have a few people at the school who have been willing to call our housing management company to get more information for us. That's how we know as much as we do. But we don't know when it will be fixed. We don't know what the delay is. We don't know if we can expect this to happen frequently. We don't know if this is an issue we can break our lease over.

Our landlord, through interpreters, has been nice. He even gave us a key to another apartment he owns in the building so we could try the bathroom there. Unfortunately, it is only one floor down and the water pressure there was only negligibly better, if at all. Meanwhile, we can't shower and we can't flush and we can't wash. We don't know whether to stick around because it will be fixed any minute or to throw in the towel on this apartment or to run away to the beach until next week. The beach solution is looking good.

Meanwhile, we miss our dog. We miss our cat. We miss our friends. We miss our clear, cold well water. We are all getting weepy and falling apart over the seemingly smallest things. This cross-cultural stuff is hard and exhausting. We know a whole lot less than we don't know. And there are new wonders everyday. Tonight we had pretty good pizza for dinner - a little taste of home.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What do you do when......

 you have just moved into your apartment in a foreign country and the running water disappears for 3 days??

Go to the swim pool!

There are a couple of pools nearby that we can choose from. Our apartment, unfortunately, does not have one. We hope not to live in daily regret of that for the next two years.

This one has become my personal favorite. It is an older facility (our first experience with pit toilets, for example), but quieter. This picture may not do it justice, but the white part of the pool that you can see below is white sand. That portion of the pool is quite shallow, but the bottom is covered in thick, soft, white sand. Hence the name, Sandy Bottom Pool. The pool is part of the Phu My Hung golf club. It is surrounded by palm trees, lounge chairs and generous seating areas. If you spend significant time there and get hungry, you can even order pool-side meals, as we did yesterday. Entrance fee to the pool is less than the other pool, but we found the food to be at golf club prices.

The pool is a good place to make acquaintances. We hadn't been there 5 minutes when a chubby boy cannonballed into the pool near us, barely popping up for breath before asking the children's names. Later in the day, Asher was being taught the game of water polo by a Korean man and his two sons while Elia and I played "peeksie" with a small boy, reminding us of and making us miss our small friend, Kanu.

Today, there is still no water and we are feeling the pains of yesterday's inadequate sunscreen. 

And we were wet, gloriously wet and surrounded by water all day.

Who says life in Vietnam is hard?

Princess Elia in her element.  

How quickly parental values are compromised in a new culture...
Of course now the kids want us to buy one.  

Vietnamese Joke

Posted by Andrew:

Question:  What is the difference between Nguyen Kim and Nguyen Khim?

Punchline:  10 dollars in the taxi.

So far, pronunciation of Vietnamese has been one of the biggest challenges.  Yesterday we asked a taxi driver to take us to Nguyen Kim, a large electronics store where we wanted to buy cell phones.  We had been there once before, a 20 minute ride into District 1.  From looking at the map, I knew there were two ways into District 1, so when the taxi driver didn't go in the direction I expected, I assumed he was taking the other route.  35 minutes later, he pulled to the side on a strange street and said, "Nguyen Khim."  I looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings and I asked, "Nguyen Kim?" After several of these back and forth, including my pantomiming of cell phones, ipods, and floor fans, he finally got the point.  "Oooooh.  Nugyen Kim! Why didn't you say so?"  20 minutes and 10 dollars later, we arrived.

Pronunciation has also been difficult when telling taxi drivers where we live.  Our apartment is My Phuoc (pronounced Me F*ck).  There is another apartment which is larger and more recognized called My Phuc (pronounced Me Fuke).  With my strong American accent, it is difficult for taxi drivers to tell the difference.  I have resorted to just pointing the way when we get to our neighborhood.  However, when ordering large water bottles for home delivery on the phone, I had to loudly and repeatedly say the apartment name.

Water Company:  Me Fuke?
Me:  No, Me F*ck!
Water Company: Aaah.  Me Fuke.
Me:  No, ME F*CK!
Water Company:  Yes, yes.  Me Fuke.  What apartment number?
Me:  No!  ME F*CK,  P..H..U..O..C.  ME F*CK!
Water Company: OK.  Me F*ck.  What floor?
Me:  Floor eight.
Water Company:  Floor A.  Very good.  30 minutes.

Luckily the words for "hello", "thank you", and "I'm sorry" all have easy pronunciation.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Close Encounter

of a lizard kind.

We have looked at over 20 apartments since Saturday morning. Yesterday, I kept noticing what was obviously some sort of small animal waste in many of the apartments. The first time I saw it, I thought the previous tenants must have had some sort of large'ish bird. The second time I saw it, I started to be a little more suspicious. The fifth time I saw it, I finally gathered the courage to ask what kind of rodent it was. There was much concern from our entourage of 8 and they all gathered close for an inspection. Everyone held their breath until Mr. Hue sighed, stood up and said, "It's from a lizard". There was much laughing and smiling. "Ah", we said, "a lizard." THAT we can deal with.

This morning, in our hotel, I was getting ready for a shower when I heard a little yelp from the living room area. I poked my head around the corner to see if all was ok. Andrew was standing, reading something when he felt something on his foot. When he looked down, it was a small lizard. He yelped and kicked at the same time. We haven't been able to find that poor lizard since.

posted by: Debra

Saturday, July 16, 2011

24 Hours and 14 Time Zones

Posted by Andrew:

After about 24 hours of travel (Seattle, Seoul, Ho Chi Minh City), we have landed at the Hoang Yen Hotel in Phu My Hung, a suburb of Saigon.  Even though we are exhausted, the trip was relatively easy.  I tend to worry much more than I need to.  Some highlights -

All of Korean Airlines...The stewardesses in baby blue tops and ultra-starched white scarves. There is a ratio of about 1 stewardess to 5 passengers.  When we boarded our flight from Seattle, there were slippers, toothbrushes, and water bottles on our seats waiting for us.  Debra and I immediately put on the slippers and padded around the plane in them for the next 12 hours.  We were tempted to join the Korean Air elite passenger club which is called "Morning Calm." 

Elia's air sickness somewhere over the Pacific...The mess in the aisle was not exactly a highlight, nor was the fact that 7 flight attendants descended on us as soon as it happened and had the whole thing cleaned up in about 45 seconds.  What was a highlight was the elderly Korean woman next to Elia.  As soon as Elia stopped throwing up, the Korean woman began to vigorously massage Elia's hands, feet, and belly.  Elia immediately felt better and has been asking Debra and I to massage her feet and hands since then.   

The movie selection on the flight..."Hollywood Classics" which means anything from The Terminator to Shrek to Fiddler on the Roof, all subtitled in Korean.  How do you translate "Oy vey" into Korean? 

The meal choices were "Burning Hot Side of Beef" or "Noodles with Short Mustard."  Debra insists I just couldn't hear what the stewardess was saying.  Both dishes were very good and came with as much wine as you wanted. 

When we arrived in Saigon, after a brief layover in the shopping mall/airport in Seoul, we quickly cleared immigration and customs.  Because of our ten suitcases with a matching blue jungle theme pattern, all of the other passengers (primarily Vietnamese) began to notice when our bags would come on the claim carousel.  They would laughingly point them out to us and help pull them off and onto our overladen carts.  We exited the airport into a throng of several hundred people.  Entire families had showed up to welcome relatives, but we became a spectacle with our three carts, 15 bags (counting carry-ons) and very cute children.

Since getting here, everybody seems to be smiling and pointing at us, especially Asher and Elia. People are fascinated by Asher's braid, and complete strangers can't resist touching Elia's face.  Both kids are completely fawned over everywhere we go.  We thought Portland was kid-friendly...this place is amazing.    

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Goodbye Home of 6 years

As can be true in life, things don't always happen as we might imagine. Our last month at our sweet homestead in Estacada has been a flurry of chores and lists that we didn't even come close to accomplishing. The goat barn is not cleaned out, the garden and orchard did not get mowed one last time, the moss did not get scraped off the roof, the walls in the mudroom are not as clean as they could be.

But the skylight that has been leaking from time to time got reflashed by a professional, the gutters were replaced, the house finally got painted fully. We laid carpet tiles in the kids' bedrooms.

Both of these lists could go on and on.

In the end, we find that what matters most are the "people" things.

We got to stay these past few days at my mom's house in Clackamas, providing us all some sweet early morning times. Frantic calls for help to friends were promptly and lovingly returned in the form of food, muscle, child fun, and in more ways than I can even think of in my busy brain at this moment.

We feel privileged to have been a part of our lives. We may be the ones moving, but we have not done it alone. Nor do we go alone. As we head out tomorrow morning on this adventure, we take all of us - our families and friends, our Portland and Estacada experiences, and our open hearts for what is to come.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Paranoia, Self-Destroyah

Since Andrew and I made the decision to take this opportunity in Vietnam, my paranoid fantasies have been on the rise. The closer we get to departure, the more intense they seem to become. I have, at times, lived literally in fear that "something" was going to happen. Imminently.

The kids or Andrew would get hurt. The kids would disappear. Andrew would be killed in a car wreck or shot at school by some student lost in the struggle of end-of-the-year test scores. My cancer would come back. One of our mothers would be diagnosed with some fatal illness.

It wasn't until last week, when both of our children were away - Asher at sleepaway camp and Elia at a friend's house for the week, that Andrew confessed he has been having the same ill thoughts. What a relief to not be the only one. Strangely, my fears eased with both kids away, while Andrew's spiked to the point of extreme discomfort. It helped to talk about it.

Let me say that again. It helped to talk about it.

Talk about it. Whatever it is, talk about it.

Heartbreak Hotel

With one week to go, the toll is starting to add up. Today we found a home for our last dog. So far, we have placed 13 chickens; goats - Zoe, Zippee, Zeus, Zorro, and our pregnant Mei-Mei; dog - Lulu; cat - Captain Whizbang; and now, our Sadie Sue.

Each placement has brought relief and has taken a little piece of our heart.

The chickens, goats and Lulu have been gone long enough now that we have been able to move forward. It has helped that they all have such great placements. The chickens are happily pecking at the La Medica/Schwimmer household, the goats (now 6, with the birth of Gyzmo in May) at the Morgan's, and Lulu, in dog nirvana at the Kellogg's.

We have held on to Captain Whizbang and Sadie. For, Sadie, maybe almost too long. We have known for awhile now that Captain Whizbang is going to join the goats at the Morgan house so we have been able to rest easy on that decision. Sadie has been another story altogether. Wouldn't you know? The one pet we thought would be the easiest to place was, in the end, the hardest. Some of this I have to attribute to our own unwillingness to let her go. But let her go we must.

Yesterday, with a sick and heavy heart, I was starting to research no-kill shelters and imagining my family going off to Vietnam without me while I stayed home to find a good placement. In my head, Sadie flew to Alaska, New Jersey, Minnesota and Spain. It's been a gut wrencher, to be sure.

Today, I am pleased and relieved to report that none of this will come to pass. Sadie will be joining the household of Mark & Sue ( we don't even know their last name?!) and their cat, Jo-Jo, in SW Portland.

Now, perhaps, the real work begins. The work of grief as we say goodbye.