A dose of ‘Rona Reality’ after three COVID-free months in Vietnam

vietnam covid poster

Poster by Le Duc Hiep with the words, ‘To stay at home is to love your country’.

After three months of glorious ‘life after lockdown’ here in Vietnam, I’m having a dose of Rona Reality. I suspected it would come.

It’s been three months of euphoria, pinching ourselves, saying “we’re so lucky”, and doing the thumbs up whenever a Vietnamese person with a bit of English says, “Vietnam safe; Vietnam beat Covid”. It was good to see the nation so proud − and great to re-integrate into the society, after the unsettling anti-foreigner sentiment that COVID-19 brought about earlier in the year here.

As a life-long pessimist, I wondered when the bubble would burst. This week, it did.

On Monday, because I’d recently been to Danang − where there’s been a flare-up of Covid after nearly 100 days of no community transmission in this country bordering China − I was ordered to self-isolate at home.

Compared with what others have experienced this year, it’s not much to complain about.

Besides, we’ve had the freedom to go out without masks on (and so on) for some time. Because everyone deemed the country safe (and it WAS), our new normal had relaxed enough to look not that different to the old normal − except we don’t go out as much as before, are still trying to recover financially and are all in limbo about future plans as we can’t go back to our countries right now.

Still, we all shared this feeling of having found ourselves in one of the safest places in the world. There was this sense of being held in a soft cocoon, while the virus caught up with the rest of the world, and sucker-punched our home countries.

The minute I could, I travelled locally, supporting the Vietnamese government’s drive to boost local travel. I’d accumulated a year of Annual Leave dates, and I was finally free to take them. (Would you have done the same?)

Since our social distancing ended, I’ve watched the sun set from Cát Bà Island; planted rice in Sapa; learnt how to embroider in Ninh Binh; swam in rim-flow pools overlooking the sea in Danang; and bought custom-made wares in beautiful Hội An. Tourists were few, hotels were cheap, and those in the service industry were all eager to please, clearly so enthusiastic to be serving customers again.

"Cat Ba Beach

Cat Ba Beach, the first weekend after lockdown, was the first place I took my mask off (everyone else was without one). Mask-free locals saw us and joked, nervously, “No COVID!

Then news of one new case of COVID in Danang broke. My landlady began frantically messaging and phoning. “When did you get back from Danang? The authorities want a list of all the places you went to and stayed in Danang. Hurry, they are waiting!”

I thought that was that – I’d flown back on 17 July, a day before the 18 July date they’d announced as the ‘safe’ cut-off period. Phew! “I’m so lucky”, I said, high-fiving the people I was with on a trip to Ninh Binh.

Those three words: I’m so lucky.

Before COVID, I hadn’t said them much in relation to my own life. But it’s funny how quickly you can get used to that idea, even as a pessimist – and to a tenuous, false sense of security (when you really need it).

The sense of rebirth and elation was quite something to experience. But since we’ve been taught that pride comes before a fall, and we wouldn’t want to ‘lose face’, there was still underlying uncertainty and caution. In my case, there was also some guilt. Sure, we faced Corona fears and social-distancing early, given our geographic closeness to China. But, thanks to Vietnam’s swift, strict response, it was nothing like what our home countries are now experiencing with the full-on COVID blow.

But back in Danang, when we all still believed Vietnam was safe, we finally blew caution to the wind. We’d gradually done all the post-lockdown ‘firsts’: first beer out, first grocery-shopping trip, first social dinner, first staff meeting, first face-to-face class, first time being brave enough to go to tourist areas as a foreigner, etc. Now that we’d navigated out first time in an airport, it was time for our first time in a local nightclub.

Karma, hey.

It turns out when me and my friends were bar hopping, dancing, and sharing cigarettes and body space with Vietnamese youth in a nightclub called Hair of the Dog – counting our lucky stars that we could enjoy life again sans masks or social-distancing restrictions – we were in the same area that the man who later tested positive had visited at some overlapping point in time.

(Don’t judge: We started the corona battle back in January. We couldn’t teach face-to-face for three months. There had been no new cases of infection for nearly 100 days.)

Note, too, the word ‘area’: We were not in the same venues as this infected person (bless his soul, health, family) just in the general vicinity of streets. And that shows how efficient the Vietnamese contact-tracing strategy has been; how they managed to contain the virus so well, for so long. Within two hours of receiving my detailed list (thanks, Google timelines), they’d deemed me enough of a risk. “If you are out, get home. They are coming,” my landlady said.

Boy, was I scared. I didn’t know whether they were the police, ‘coming to take me away’ to one of the many military-style quarantine facilities I’ve seen pictures of and read about. All my xenophobia fears from earlier in the year resurfaced, and that sense of being so powerless as a foreigner in a country without the essential tool that is language.

quarantine

Gavin Wheeldon wrote about his experience in a Vietnamese quarantine facility, saying is wasn’t too bad. I see a lack of mattresses…

I was pacing, calling my housemate at work (a language school). The potential severity of the situation was freaking me out (“What if I DO have COVID? I live opposite a daycare! I work with children! I’ve just bought cigarettes from the old lady shopkeeper a few houses down!”). This was ‘worst-nightmare’ stuff a few months ago, when locals assumed we were travellers bringing COVID into the country and we were treated like disease-ridden ticking time bombs. Even our Vietnamese colleagues started stepping away from us, with clear fear in their eyes, thinking we’d perhaps been in contact with foreign travellers and so on.

Hanoi xenophobia during covid

A sign in Hanoi from a few months back, when anti-foreigner fears were high (as was xenophobia).

Would they haul me off, those men in green who frightened me during our lockdown?

I left my weekend bag from Ninh Binh packed in case I’d have to leave in a hurry, as I’d been told others going to quarantine had had to do. Then, for some strange reason, I put on my favourite dress and earrings, so that if they marched me off in full view of the nosy neighbours, I’d at least be able to hold my head up high. (I know, I know: logic level = zero.)

THE BACK STORY TO THE FEAR (circa March 2020):

During lockdown, there were checkpoints on every street (three on my little alley alone). The army was called upon. When the uniformed officials first saw me, their eyes widened and they asked the taxi driver: Where did you collect her from? Where is she going?

They were worried I was a traveller, just in from some flight or other. As I’m mute without the language, it was intimidating. Especially given the trickles of info we were getting at the time − that security guards and officials were threatening foreigners with instant detainment in the military quarantine facilities if they didn’t provide passports/money/medical certificates etc.

On the day we finally got news of a ‘lockdown’ (they don’t like that prison-like term here, preferring ‘social distancing’), communicated via Whatsapp from our manager, we went straight to the grocery store to stock up. Returning home an hour later, the officials stopped me and my American friend, called us out of my home where we were separating our groceries. They marched us back to the checkpoint, took our temperatures, phoned people, and kept us there. They didn’t want to use Google translate to answer my question: “What are our temperatures? Why are we being kept here?”

The neighbours I’d had for 10 months gathered. My friend didn’t have his passport. He was without a phone. He was nervous. I was furious. I called my landlady to talk to the sternest official, a man old enough to have fought in the Vietnam War. He let us go. I walked in front, my friend behind, between the rows of onlookers and neighbours standing at their doorways, as I raged with a sense of injustice and powerless.

Two more intimidating home visits from immigration police followed within the hour. And only when my landlady and her husband arrived in person did they disband and leave. My landlady was clear: no more visitors. No more going out.

Fortunately, that was the worst of my run-ins with officials. But the encounter − along with hostility from locals jumping out the way when they saw me, saying “không tây! Corona/Covid!” [No Westerners! Corona/covid!] – made me feel quite unwelcome here in HaiPhong, North Vietnam, where foreigners are few and remain ‘Othered’ to begin with.

BACK TO MONDAY, THREE DAYS AGO:

So there I was in my pretty dress and dangly earrings. Pacing. Looking down at the alley from my balcony, waving at the toddlers saying “Helloooo!” to me from their daycare opposite. My landlady arrived to be the translator. And when they arrived – one man and two women in white, wearing their masks and face shields – I wish I could say I handled it all with the dignity befitting the dress. I didn’t.

In fact, as the women from the daycare opposite looked on, eyes wide (there’s no privacy here in Asia, so they could see everything through our floor-to-ceiling glass doors), I turned into a dramatic, frightened child.

“I’m scared,” I wailed, gripping the couch in semi-foetal position.

ppe nurses at home visit

Blurry pic of the government nurses, with the daycare workers in the background.

At least the landlady-translator and PPE dude found it funny. (They would not have a few months ago!) The two nurses doing the forms were kind, and they laughed when my landlady didn’t know the word for ‘diarrhea’ (on the checklist of symptoms), and had to resort to childish ‘explosive poo-poo’ sounds and gestures 🙂

My biggest worry was, and is, the neighbours. The daycare women opposite were watching on with worry. Their front door is mere metres from ours. Grandparents collect their grandkids from that front door … they can’t be (and don’t look) happy to have foreigners living so near them.

Anyway, I’m armed with a thermometer and must send my temperature results to my landlady to pass on twice a day. My total self-isolation will only amount to six days. Not bad. (Well, that’s if we don’t go into another city lockdown, which is seeming more and more likely.) I hope that when I step out, if I get to step out, I won’t be feared by the neighbourhood.

This experience has certainly cued some paranoia, which only amplified when I heard the police would pay a visit, to check that I’m staying in my room (to avoid contact with my housemate), and to check that we’re not hiding any other foreigners. (They’re trying to trace the source of these new infections, and believe it may be from Chinese illegal immigrants being smuggled into the country via the porous Northern border.)

We were told they would arrive at 8:30am on my third day of isolation. My landlady brought over fire extinguishers (!!??!!) for, I assume, added proof that we’re following Health & Safety protocols. So just after 8:30, I sat in my room like a good girl, while 10 police officers (TEN!!) crowded my downstairs couch. My housemate was sitting on the stairs, texting me. 10 men in uniform. Because of me. I couldn’t hear much; there were no raised voices. But I could see passers-by stopping to look at what ‘the problem’ was from my balcony window.

“What are they doing???” I texted.

“Going through our papers.”

Being a foreigner in a country can sure be scary during a pandemic.

haiphong covid

One of the pictures that scared the crap out of me during our lockdown, when there were checkpoints on every street and alley of this city, Haiphong.

I heard them leave, checked that the coast was clear for me to come down (in my mask) for another cup of coffee. The landlady said they were asking how many people live here, and about me who came back from Danang. She says this was a mandatory annual visit, which was especially important at this time. Her uncle has a relationship of some kind with the police, so we’re lucky they didn’t stay too long. (Not that we have anything to hide, mind.)

FUTURE FEARS

I’m lucky years of living alone and working from home have prepared me for days of being inside alone. Right now my biggest concern is that my housemate is having to be my grocery shopper etc. I’m used to my independance. But looming over all of us here is the very real prospect of another lockdown, of teaching online, of being paid 25% of our salary to do so, with worries that the language centre we work for won’t survive financially, and we’ll be stuck here without an income. (Fortunately, I have resurrected my freelance writing and editing career since the last lockdown. Can’t have all eggs in one basket!)

So it’s back to tracking new cases, waiting on government notices to be translated by some well-meaning person on one of many expat Facebook groups, etc.

Thankfully, I know I am still lucky. I do not appear to have COVID (at this point in time). My family back home are still (thankfully) healthy. I have a housemate to help me get things from ‘out there’, an English-speaking landlady, two income streams (for now at least) and a working visa that extends until next year.

May luck be with you, and us all, until this damn virus dies out.

COVID-fighting superhero

Nữ Anh Hùng (NAH), a COVID-fighting superhero character created by illustrator Fred Serra, who is based in Ho Chi Minh City.

40 things I did the year I turned 40

I just turned 42. I spent the day in Sapa, up high in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwest Vietnam. As we sat down to eat and drink rice wine (AKA “happy water”) with the hardworking Black Hmong family hosting us in their homestay, after planting rice in the green hill terraces you see in travel guidebooks, I wondered how I got to be so lucky.

My life post-40 is so different to what it was pre-40. My thirties were full of highs, and way more lows. So I thought I’d share some of the big and small things I did the year I turned forty in a deliberate effort to change course.

rice planting in Sapa Vietnam

The rice paddies at Mama Mu’s homestay, Sapa. Note the buffalo and the family planting rice.

  1. Saw the year in with an after-party swim with friends at dawn. An owl winked at us from a perch between branches.
  2. Celebrated 12 years of ‘flying solo’ (with its many moments of romantic potential, missed connections, heart-heaviness; as well as its total independence and undeniable character-building).
  3. Mourned the end of my ‘happy family’ fantasy. Decided to turn to Option B: Travel.
  4. Lived in other people’s houses, giving their pets and homes TLC while they were away. I stoked fires, gazed into glossy animal eyes and slept with furry bodies breathing beside me.
  5. Went on a facilitated sacred mushroom journey. The fabled Heroic Dose took me on a (thankfully) beautiful trip that nourished me for months after.

    sacred magic mushroom journey

    Artwork by Burakerk / Pixabay.

  6. Got down and dirty at AfrikaBurn (the African version of Burning Man) after a seven-year break.
  7. Subsequently lost my heart on a sparkly dancefloor under a big, starry sky 😉
    Saw the sun rise just after watching a huge wooden artwork burn in the African desert, being held by a beautiful young foreigner dressed in a Zebra suit. (Ten months later, I was being held by another older foreigner while watching the sun set over the sea on a Thai island *wink*)

    afrikaburn 2018

    The sunrise burn at AfrikaBurn 2018 (unfortunately I didn’t make a note of whose pic this is…).

  8. Admired an epic halo form around the moon with special people. Twice.
  9. Completed my TEFL training to teach English as a Foreign Language.
  10. Renewed both of my (long-expired) passports.
  11. Had an Enneagram reading tell me I’m likely a type 4 (Individualist – sensitive, introspective), not a 1, as previously believed. (Makes much sense, TBH.)
  12. Had an astrologist tell me, “This isn’t as bad as it gets. Hold on for 44.” *gulp*
  13. Worked with my old boss and mentor; repaired some (somewhat) burnt bridges.
  14. Shared a sunset beach ritual with my identical twin sister (to claim what we wished for, and let go of what no longer serves us). We later dined at the place the World Restaurant Awards voted Best Restaurant in the World for 2019.

    paternoster beach

    Paternoster on the Cape West Coast, where we stayed for our shared birthday xxxx.

  15. Danced around a pole. Poorly.
  16. Left my country’s borders for the first time in nine years. (Ended up visiting five in that year.)
  17. Met the male cat that lives in the rocks beneath the Greek Parthenon (meaning “unmarried women’s apartments”, ha!) on the Athens Acropolis. Fast, feisty fella.
  18. Took a writing retreat on Lesbos, the Greek island the poetess and ‘tenth muse’ Sappho was from.

    flamingo bar skala eressos lesbos

    Flamingo Beach Bar, at the lesbian-friendly Skala Eressos beach on Lesbos, the island the poetess Sappho came from.

  19. Attended my first gay wedding as part of the (one) groom’s party – a special honour.
  20. Packed up the apartment where I’d worked and lived alone for five years.
  21. Marie Kondoed my home and got rid of most of my possessions. Not the books, though. Hell no.
  22. Moved to a new continent – experienced the culture shock that is SouthEast Asia.

    som tum salad

    My first meal in Thailand. Unfortunately, and embarrassingly, I couldn’t stomach the overly fishy Som Tum salad with raw prawns.

  23. Faced a financial reckoning. Filed years’ worth of tax returns (finally!).
  24. Started paying off debts accumulated during my feast-or-famine freelance years.
  25. Changed careers, temporarily. Started back at the bottom with others fresh out of uni/college.
  26. Started working with children.

    monk day Thailand

    Monks’ Day at the farming school where I taught.

  27. Became a foreigner in a foreign land. Twice.
  28. Lived in neighbourhoods where few speak English; lost language as a daily tool.
  29. Tried many weird foods for the first time. (Fried silkworm pupa, crispy crickets, pigs’ intestines, chicken-blood soup, to name a few…)

    Khanom chin and chicken feet Thailand

    Khanom chin noodle soup with chicken feet and chicken blood (the dark jelly bits). It was made by my favourite student’s grandmother, so I didn’t have the heart to decline the offer.

  30. Spent my first Christmas away from home. Worked on the day. (Which, in Thailand schools, means wearing red, posing for pics, watching a lot of Christmas-themed shows put on by the students, making kids make Christmas cards and sing along to English carols.)
  31. Walked with elephants at a sanctuary.NOTE: Never ride elephants, and do your research to find out which sanctuaries are really what they claim to be. I went with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project started by Chiang Mai locals and the Karen hill-tribes. But I still have mixed feelings about the experience/sanctuary vis-a-vis responsible tourism and the elephant issue in Thailand. In my mind, my money went towards supporting the tribes who look after the elephants in their care. I realise it may not be as simple as this.
  32. Walked into my first NYE party on my own, not knowing anyone there.
  33. Went sailing for the first time, around Thailand’s beautiful islands.

    Phang Nga Bay northeast of Phuket

    Buying prawns off of a longtail from the yacht … near where the James Bond film was filmed, Phang Nga Bay northeast of Phuket.

  34. Savoured the holiday romance of my dreams. Ooh. La. La!
  35. Started learning (the basics of) two new languages.
  36. Got onto the back of a motorbike for the first time. Got into a tuk-tuk for the first time.
  37. Navigated the art of using a squat toilet. Note: navigated, not mastered.
  38. Marvelled at the joys of walking alone at night, safely, for the first time in my life.
  39. Took myself less seriously by becoming the buffoon you sometimes have to be when teaching without the aid of a shared language.
  40. Moved into my first houseshare, the day I turned 41.

    Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town.

    Stormy seas on my 40th birthday, Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town.

BOOK REVIEW (and Thailand travel throwback): A Sailing Story

Now that it’s ‘lockdown’ here in Vietnam (though they’re loathe to use that term, favouring ‘social-distancing curfew’), I’m remembering round-about this time last year, when I got to sail around Thailand’s dreamy islands and did an in-situ reading of a coming-of-age travel memoir about seafaring experiences few can imagine.

Phuket sunset Thailand

Sunset reading spot (Phuket).

I’d just finished four months of teaching in rural NorthEast Thailand − a rewarding but dusty, landlocked experience − when an old bookclub friend from home suggested I join her and her new hubby on one leg of their year-long honeymoon – sailing on a catamaran around Southern Thailand.

I met up with them on a beach on Koh Lanta. Getting picked up via dinghy, running as fast as I could across the hot sand with my heavy suitcase and laptop, was a surreal experience − something I’ll smile about for years to come 🙂

Koh Lanta SUP Thailand

The Koh Lanta beach where I was picked up.

As I was adjusting my footing (and core) to the sway of being on-board, I was thrilled to spot a copy of Martinique (Nicky) Stilwell’s sailing memoir, Thinking Up a Hurricane.

I first read about Martinique’s story when I worked at O, the Oprah Magazine South Africa, and we printed a book excerpt. I’d always wanted to read the whole memoir. The universe conspired to have me do so in the most appropriate of settings.

I know little about sailing, apart from the odd term I picked up from copy-editing a sailing magazine. So reading the book while experiencing a bit of life at sea first hand, and for the first time (and with a bookclub buddy, to boot), made for a truly immersive reading experience.

Koh Yao Yai island sunset Thailand

Another dreamy day, another dreamy sunset. This time while anchored at Koh Yao Yai island.

sailing the James Bond island Koh Phang Nga

Approaching Koh Phang-Nga…

Like me, the author is one of twins who grew up on the East Rand of Johannesburg, South Africa. Knowing the place she grew up in, about a six-hour drive away from the sea, helped me appreciate just how unusual and eccentric her family’s mission was. (Neighbours must’ve thought them nuts!)

ABOUT THE BOOK:

In 1977, the author’s father, Frank Stilwell launched Vingila, “17 tons of welded-together 11-mm steel plates” into the Indian Ocean, to take his family (including their pet dog) circumnavigating the world.

His experience of sailing? Very little.

The author and her twin brother, Robert, were nine. They were taken out of school in order to learn about life on the open seas.

The Stilwell family became part of an odd-ball community of sailors, learning how to live as sea gypsys day by day, swell by swell, island after island.

The book reads like a journal and adventure story, albeit the adventure wasn’t one of the author’s own will. As a reader, I admired the family’s grit and guts, while balking at the dysfunctional aspects of their story. Their poor diet and lack of access to clothing and supplies was coupled with the Dad’s lack of sailing know-how, which put them in serious danger many times. There are some truly frightening scenes in the book, of approaching storms and Frank’s stubborn refusal to exercise caution. (As one Amazon reviewer said, “I wanted to pop the old man on the nose”.)

Monkey Beach Phi Phi island Thailand

View of Monkey Beach, Phi Phi island.

The twins often lack the company of kids their own age, and they become keen and adept sailors rather quickly. I loved how the author collected cowrie shells and managed to keep her own education up, as best she could.

At first, the family are outliers among the salty sailor types who scoff at their boat and naivety. But as they become more hardy, self-sufficient and eccentric, they start to fit in among the oddball assortment of sea gypsy characters that weave in and out of the narrative. There are amusing anecdotes featuring boozy escapades, nudity, and some very salty seafaring language!

buy prawns in Phang Nga Bay Thailand James bond

The highlight of my sailing experience: Buying prawns straight from a longtail in Phang Nga Bay, near where the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed. We stayed the night and enjoyed a beautiful evening with no other boats in sight.

But for me, books are about the characters and their growth. Martinique’s transformation comes when she finally stands up to her father. The difference between them is captured in the title. Frank, the risk-taking adventurer father, regards his daughter as the rat that would abandon ship, dreaming up catastrophes (“thinking up a hurricane”) and erring too much on the side of caution.

childhood sailing memoir

The author, Nicky, as a child with her father on Vingila.

As a teenager craving normalcy, Nicky finally stands up to her father in order to leave life at sea and return home to finish her education. In what’s seen by her parents and brother as a betrayal, she goes to live with family and attend high school. That she managed to get an education, after years of being at sea and feeling like a fish out of water when back on land, is incredible.

After reading this book, you think: What became of the protagonist, Nicky?

While she doesn’t have too active an online presence, her social-media bios read: “Writer, doctor, surfer, sailor”. So she reached her goal in the end. And it seems she still has an adventurous, seafaring spirit. For instance, in her role as doctor, she’s worked on contract in the Arctic.

“It takes courage to pursue a dream, such as to sail around the world, become a doctor or write a book. Martinique Stilwell’s book Thinking up a Hurricane is, in essence, about the realisation of these dreams.” – Reviewer Adele McCann, for writerscollegeblog.com

If you’re craving an absorbing (and true) travel adventure that will take you far away from the confines of your own home, I highly recommend this book.

Author-doctor Martinique Stilwell today

All grown up: Author-doctor Martinique Stilwell today.

TITLE: Thinking Up a Hurricane
PUBLISHER:
Penguin Random House South Africa
BUY IT HERE.

The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in Vietnam

vietnam lanterns mid-autumn festival

Lanterns are a big part of the mid-autumn celebrations (picture by David Emrich for Unsplash).

Today, my Google Doodle honours the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrated throughout parts of East Asia, which is also known as the Moon Festival (or Tết Trung Thu, here in Vietnam).

vietnam mid autumn festival

Traditionally, it was the celebration and feast to bless autumn’s harvest. (It’s still way too hot to feel like autumn in my books, but apparently that’s the season we’re in!) Today, the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival the most significant one after the Vietnamese New Year, and it takes place when the moon’s the brightest in the year.

The build-up to today, the official day of the Moon Fest, has been thrilling, with the sounds of drums and cymbals going at night as troupes of dancers rehearse their Lion Dances. The dance is believed to drive out bad luck and bring good fortune. Toy shops are festooned with pretty star-shaped lanterns and fluffy dragon, unicorn and lion heads.

Apparently, “the Mid-autumn festival activities were cast on the shell of Ngoc Lu bronze drums. The Vietnamese bronze drums were used as the significant symbols for power and wealth throughout many generations of the ancient Viet tribes dating back to the Bronze Age in Southeast Asia”.

The festival is known as the children’s festival as farm workers would reconnect with their little ones in the middle of the long harvest season. Ever since, it has been a time for family reunions and delighting kids with things like new clothes, colourful lantern marches, and lion and dragon dances.

It’s been great being a teacher, as I’ve gotten closer to celebrations than I would’ve if I’d come as a solo woman traveller or digital nomad. We had a Lion Dance crew come perform for my class of 6-year-olds last week, and just this morning I was woken with a BLAST when dancers and drummers literally used our front doorstep as the stage for performing for the kindergarten opposite our house.

Our landlady observes all the Vietnamese Buddhist rituals, coming to clean and pray twice a month on the moon’s auspicious days. As she swept this morning, she told us of her childhood, when the family would gather to gaze at the moon at midnight. She told us the legend of how the man (and his tree, as you can see the black spot [‘tree’] on it on this day) came to be there, up so high.

Tonight I shall gaze at that man in the moon and ask him a question or two. (Hopefully, I’ll find a mooncake to nibble and some cassia wine to sip.)

For now, here are a couple shots from the Lion Dances seen so far…

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

lion dance vietnam haiphong

The troupe outside our language centre, with my little ones reaching out to touch their fluffy manes.

lion dance vietnam haiphong

Taken from my living room: Dancers perform for the kindy kids opposite.

 

BOOK LIST: Fiction to get your hands on this month

September is great month for readers wanting the latest must-reads, as it’s when publishers often release hot new titles. This year, some big names have come out with stories I, for one, can’t wait to read. Here are my top suggestions…

Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale The Testaments

The author on the cover of TIME.

THE TESTAMENTS, by Margaret Atwood (Chatto and Windus)

Thanks to the TV series, this sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly the most anticipated of the lot. The Booker-prize shortlisted sequel picks up 15 years after the 1985 original, with a change in narration.

As O, The Oprah Magazine’s Leigh Haber explains: “While The Handmaid’s Tale is told entirely from Offred’s point of view, its follow-up, The Testaments, has three different narrators, none of them Offred. We are back in Gilead again, where Aunt Lydia seems to have amassed even more power. By now, Lydia has a lot of dirt on the commanders, and she isn’t afraid to use it against them to put them in check or to get something she needs. Because she is a narrator, we get a certain insight into her motivations and thought processes—or so we think: she’s not a very reliable narrator, so be forewarned.”

You can read an exclusive extract here.

Cover of Margaret Atwood The Testaments

OUT OF DARKNESS, SHINING LIGHT, by Petina Gappah (Scribner)

Zimbabwe’s most well-known contemporary writer has a new novel out, set in nineteenth-century Africa. It tells of the trek to carry Scottish explorer Dr David Livingstone’s body from Zambia to the coast, and it’s narrated by Halima, a young slave woman, and a former slave named Jacob.

Kirkus Reviews describe the book as “a humane, riveting, epic novel that spotlights marginalised historical voices”.

Should be a goodie.

Pettinah Gappah book blurb Out of Darness shining light

Praise for the novel…

THE WATER DANCER, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World)

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the first full-length novel from the journalist, author and comic-book writer who’s outspoken on the issue of reparations for slavery is a story about slavery and how it tragically separated families. The fiction debut tells of Hiram Walker, a slave born on a Virginia plantation who becomes part of the underground movement to end slavery.

Ta-Nehisi Coates new novel

The author photographed for VANITY FAIR.

Publisher’s Weekly say that with this book, “In prose that sings and imagination that soars, Coates further cements himself as one of this generation’s most important writers, tackling one of America’s oldest and darkest periods with grace and inventiveness. This is bold, dazzling, and not to be missed”.

THE DUTCH HOUSE, by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins)

The award-winning novelist, essayist and bookstore owner made Time’s 2012 100 Most Influential People in the World list, and has featured on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday.

Her publisher’s describe her new release as “a richly moving story that explores the indelible bond between two siblings, the house of their childhood, and a past that will not let them go”.

I love an intergenerational story featuring a house as a kind of character, and would buy this book for the enigmatic, artistic title-and-cover combo alone.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

THE WORLD THAT WE KNEW, by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster)

From the prolific author of The Dovekeepers, among others, comes a Jewish historical fiction tale about three women in Europe during WW2.

(You can check out the book trailer here.)

Here’s praise from fellow author Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge: “Oh, what a book this is! Hoffman’s exploration of the world of good and evil, and the constant contest between them, is unflinching; and the humanity she brings to us—it is a glorious experience. The book builds and builds, as she weaves together, seamlessly, the stories of people in the most desperate of circumstances—and then it delivers with a tremendous punch. It opens up the world, the universe, in a way that it absolutely unique. By the end you may be weeping.”

The world that we knew by Alice Hoffman book cover

AKIN, by Emma Donoghue (Little Brown)

The Irish-Canadian author of the brilliantly executed Room, which was made into a film starring Brie Larson, is finally releasing a new book, which is about a retired New York professor and his great-nephew who go to the French Riviera to unearth the wartime secrets of the professor’s mother.

The London Free Press says: “Donoghue fans won’t be disappointed as the author of 2010’s best-selling chronicle, Room, pens another page-turner. In Akin, kinship itself, in all its intriguing possibilities, is viewed through the forced pairing of an 80-year-old widower and his 11-year-old grand-nephew and through the fraught events of a week-long trip to the south of France … Although Donoghue’s lively tale has many attractions, its most appealing is the repartee between uncle and nephew, crisp, peevish exchanges which underscore the gulfs which exist between generations, gulfs which cannot be bridged easily. Michael is technologically savvy, while Noah is a novice. Noah constantly corrects Michael’s grammar, but the boy, who addresses his uncle as ‘dude,’ refuses to rise to the bait”.

Akin by Emma Donoghue

AN ORCHESTRA OF MINORITIES, by Chigozie Obioma (Hachette, Little Brown)

This one’s actually been out a few months, but it’s been shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, which will be awarded on the 14th of October, so there’s still a lot of buzz about it.

It’s a love story; a kind of retelling of Homer’s Odyssey that’s set between Nigeria and Cyprus and is partly based on a true story. What sounds fascinating is that the story’s told from the perspective of a person’s animating life-force – referred to as “chi” in Igbo cosmology.

An orchestra of minorities by Chigozie Obioma booker prize shortlist

What inspired the story? The scam artists who lure desperate African students to universities in Cyprus, taking their money, with unmet promises of entry into Europe.

As The Guardian explains:

“The impetus to write the novel came out of what happened to Obioma’s friend, Jay, a Nigerian man he met in the first days of starting college. Jay had been duped by the middle men both into thinking the university in Cyprus would be a springboard into Europe, and that his degree would enable him to make lots of money. Instead, he confronted the reality that not only had most of the funds he’d handed over to fixers been embezzled, but that he was now stuck in northern Cyprus, where there were no jobs and where his status as a Nigerian immigrant made him widely despised. After a heavy bout of drinking, Jay was found dead at the bottom of a lift shaft, where he was assumed to have fallen accidentally.”

“The impulse to write in the first instance may come from a place of optimism – Obioma says that he was partly motivated by a desire to salvage Jay’s death from meaninglessness – but the bottom line remains that, whether one construes the larger forces to be spiritual or political, Jay, and so many other victims of seemingly random deaths, “didn’t do anything to deserve that fate” [Obioma’s words]. Illuminating that fact honours the author’s friend as it powers his fiction.”

INLAND, by Téa Obreht (Orion)

This author’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife − about folklore, family and feuds in a story that mythologised Yugoslavia’s history − dazzled me back when it won the Orange Prize back in 2011, when the Serbian-American writer was but 25.

She’s finally released this new offering; an American Western set in 1893 that the blurb describes as follows:

Nora is an unflinching frontierswoman awaiting the return of the men in her life – her husband who has gone in search of water for the parched household, and her elder sons who have vanished after an explosive argument.

Nora is biding her time with her youngest son, who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking the land around their home, and her husband’s seventeen-year-old cousin, who communes with spirits.

Lurie is a former outlaw and a man haunted by ghosts. He sees lost souls who want something from him, and he finds reprieve from their longing in an unexpected relationship that inspires a momentous expedition across the West.

Check out a funny response from Washington Post book critic Ron Charles, here.

Inland by Tea Obrecht

Do you have any new book releases to recommend? What have I left off?
Do let me know…

From War to Peace: A review of The Napalm Girl’s memoir, Fire Road

 

Fire road napalm girl Vietnam War memoir

The cover of Fire Road, the memoir by Phan Thị Kim Phúc.

When I was getting ready to move to Vietnam, I did what I try to do before going to a new country: Research through books, series and films. With Vietnam, though, most material is (understandably) usually about the Vietnam War.

And what image or person is more representative of the tragedy and insanity of that war than “The Napalm Girl”, Phan Thị Kim Phúc?

My sister handed me her copy of Kim’s memoir Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness, and Peace, co-written with Ashley Wiersma, which tells her story beyond the horrific image burned into collective memory. I thought: Do I really want to read about this? Another part of me knew I had to. (Also, I enjoy a good Triumph Over Tragedy story.)

On 8 June 1972, Kim and her community got caught in the crossfire between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese soldiers when an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places forced them to flee their village, Trang Bang, along the strategic Route 1 she refers to as Fire Road.

At nine years old, Kim was pictured running down the road, screaming, with third-degree burns over her body in a photo that some say had a major role in ending the Vietnam War. Nick Ut, who took her to the hospital later, won a Pulitzer for the shot that became part of photojournalism history.

The Napalm Girl by Nick Ut Vietnam War photojournalism

THAT image, taken by AP photographer Nick Ut, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Kim was thought dead. But she survived, and spent 14 months in intensive recovery from the third-degree burns. Here’s the book’s blurb:

Get out! Run! We must leave this place! They are going to destroy this whole place! Go, children, run first! Go now!

These were the final shouts nine year-old Kim Phuc heard before her world dissolved into flames − before napalm bombs fell from the sky, burning away her clothing and searing deep into her skin. It’s a moment forever captured, an iconic image that has come to define the horror and violence of the Vietnam War. Kim was left for dead in a morgue; no one expected her to survive the attack. Napalm meant fire, and fire meant death.

Against all odds, Kim lived − but her journey toward healing was only beginning. When the napalm bombs dropped, everything Kim knew and relied on exploded along with them: her home, her country’s freedom, her childhood innocence and happiness. The coming years would be marked by excruciating treatments for her burns and unrelenting physical pain throughout her body, which were constant reminders of that terrible day. Kim survived the pain of her body ablaze, but how could she possibly survive the pain of her devastated soul?

Fire Road is the true story of how she found the answer in a God who suffered Himself; a Savior who truly understood and cared about the depths of her pain. Fire Road is a story of horror and hope, a harrowing tale of a life changed in an instant − and the power and resilience that can only be found in the power of God’s mercy and love.

From the get-go, given the subtitle and her many references to God and Jesus Christ, it’s clear the book will be about faith. And, really, given what this woman has had to live through and with, it’s no wonder.

How can you watch your family members and community die, survive being horrifically burnt, become the ultimate anti-war ‘poster child’, a puppet in your country’s propaganda machine, live with constant physical pain and NOT turn to faith?

This is not to say Kim wasn’t raised religiously to begin with. For me, some of the most fascinating early parts of the book were all about the CaoDai beliefs and rituals of her childhood.

In a feature for Christianity Today in which Kim tells of her coming to the Christian faith, she explains:

“Cao Dai is universalist in nature. According to a description on CaoDai.org, it recognises all religions as having ‘one same divine origin, which is God, or Allah, or the Tao, or the Nothingness,’ or pretty much any other deity you could imagine. ‘You are god, and god is you’ − we had this mantra ingrained in us. We were equal-opportunity worshipers, giving every god a shot.

Looking back, I see my family’s religion as something of a charm bracelet slung around my wrist, each dangling bauble representing yet another possibility of divine assistance. When troubles came along − and every day, it seemed, they did −I was encouraged to rub those charms in hopes that help would arrive.

For years, I prayed to the gods of Cao Dai for healing and peace. But as one prayer after another went unanswered, it became clear that either they were non-existent or they did not care to lend a hand.”

I also enjoyed Kim’s recounting of her mother’s infamous noodle shop, which the state eventually took over. I think of this aspect of her family’s past often here in Vietnam, when I see little girls helping their moms at its many street stalls and home ‘restaurants’.

Vietnam street food noodle shop Fire Road

An excerpt from the book, mentioning Kim’s mother’s noodle shop.

The book also spent some time revealing aspects of Kim’s story that many may not be aware of. (I certainly wasn’t.)

For instance, I didn’t know…

…that it wasn’t the Americans who dropped the bomb that burned Kim. Apparently, it was dropped “by a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot flying a propeller-driven, American-made A-1 Skyraider. The attack was an attempt to roust North Vietnamese units from positions near Trang Bang. The forces engaged there in early June 1972 were all Vietnamese.”

… about the effect of napalm on the body. The ‘sticky fire’ adheres to skin like tar, making it hard for doctors to treat wounds. Trying to wipe it off only causes it to spread; and only smothering it (excruciating pain) removes it. It continues to burn the body if exposed to oxygen, too. Horrific.

“Napalm can generate temperatures of 1,500 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Phúc, having sustained third-degree burns to half her body, was not expected to live.”
http://www.earth.com

Kim had to undergo many operations after the attack, and was still undergoing treatments in her 50s. So that day caused her physical suffering that lasted her whole life.

that Kim then became a keg in the country’s propaganda machine, having to attend frequent conferences and media briefings to say what she was told to say. All this time away from her studies (and life) squashed Kim’s dreams of becoming a doctor.

The many synchronicities in Kim’s story gave me goosebumps, and hats off to her for making so many friends (and meeting important people) along the way. I admired the guts it took for her to defect and make a new life in a colder clime.

Above all, the book makes you think about what’s needed for healing from trauma and tragedy, both literally and figuratively. It’s about the power of faith − for overcoming debilitating emotions, like fear and rage; for forgiveness (“love your enemy”, as the Bible says); and even for bringing a family together again.

kim phuc napalm girl scars

Kim holding her first-born son when he was an infant. Motherhood gave her healing.

Today, Kim is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and she has a foundation to help other children of war. Her story is a generous gift she has given the world. It is a truly inspiring one of resilience, forgiveness, gratitude and grace. I’ll end with Kim’s words:

“We are all walking one fire road or another, be it paved by relational upheaval or financial upheaval, physical or emotional or the general inconveniences of life,” Kim says. “But when you and I come along with a posture of peace, or with gentle and kind words, or with an offer of prayer or a hug, or with anything that looks and acts like Jesus, it is as if we have used a fire extinguisher − the flames that burned hot settle down.”

To hear Kim speak about the book, watch this clip from Tyndale House Publishers.

napalm girl Adel Abdessemed

When it comes to the Vietnam War, Kim’s story is part of the popular imagination. The haunting image of her running away, naked and burnt, was made into a sculpture by the French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed.

 

Birdhouse in my soul

I was walking past the pet shop on the way home from school, when I saw a toddler trying to get my attention. The snotty little boy was holding a bottle, pointing; his adorable brown eyes eager for me to see what he was clearly so enjoying seeing.

I followed his gaze to the birds and the fish, and started ‘talking’ to him. Noting his grandfather’s approving smile from the shop next door prompted me to take the boy’s lead. Of course, he spoke no English (and, at his age, likely barely any Thai). But he clearly wanted to communicate about the colours and movements surrounding him. Bless.

petshop

We walked the shop, and I got down to his level to ‘ohh‘ and ‘ahh‘, and point out this fish, that fish. We were babbling away, sharing the uplifting feelings that animal encounters can bring. I love how, as a toddler, all sounds are new to him. It doesn’t matter that I am English. He knows no difference yet. He is too young to laugh at me, or exclaim ‘farang!’ [foreigner] to get his family’s approval.

When it was time to go, I waved and said goodbye. His grandfather was now outside the shop entrance, smiling from where he’d been watching us. (Don’t say I don’t do my part to try improve community-foreigner relations, he he.)

Truth is, I’ve had so many moments like this on the walk home. No matter my mood or energy level, there’ll be some encounter with a Thai child that buoys my spirits. I wonder whether I should be teaching toddlers, instead of high school kids? I also wonder whether the early experience of being one of twins, using the crytophasia ‘non-speak’ secret language that twin toddlers use, has helped me access that age, in which sounds can mean so many things, as they’re not yet defined by one language group’s rules and codes…

Anyway, thanks, kid. You won’t remember it, but I certainly will 🙂

Cats of Thailand: The False Friend

grumpy cat
After I took this pic at a dress shop at Lonely Beach, Koh Chang, I did something I never do – asked if I could touch him.

I’d been admiring an olive-green slinky number for a couple days, and was about to ask “Tao rai?” [How much?], when I saw this comfy beaut. Normally, I go ahead and touch the goods. But something told me to get permission first…

Good thing I did.

The owner said: “No, he bite. People say, ‘Oh, I have many cats.’ He don’ care. He bite evelyone.”

Of course, then he rolled onto his back, making his large furry belly look all inviting. Not this time, kits…
#CatInstinctStrongWithThisOne

PS. I did not buy the dress.

Some street scenes from Chiang Mai, Thailand’s chic, cosmopolitan #DigitalNomad city

“Do you ever get to a city and immediately think, I want to live here?”

This question, along with “Do you ever get to a city and instantly hate it?”, is frequently posted in some of the travel groups I’m part of on Facebook.

Tha Pae Gate

Big girl + little girl = captivating scene near the Tha Pae Gate, on Chiang Mai’s moat.

In the case of Chiang Mai, it was the former for me. I could say it began the moment I stepped off the overnight bus, when I saw I had two lovely Tinder matches, while deciding how to head where next. This is no big deal for some, but for me teaching in rural Thailand for three months, the Tinder pickings have been slim.

The feeling certainly grew as we took our Grab taxi to the old town, and I spotted so many cute cafes, and more men – and trees! (Isaan is the dry part of Thailand so I have been longing for greenery).

But to be honest, I was primed for this ‘love at first sight’.

A close friend spoke highly of it, saying his fancy-sounding Italian mamma talked dreamily of retiring there. And it’s a hot spot among the global #DigitalNomad community, of which I hope to be part of (someday soon?).

Anyway. It didn’t disappoint.

Apart from my self-confessed bias, several of the other foreign English teachers who came to Thailand with the same agency as me had the same feeling. Unlike Bangkok or Pattaya, which can turn some (including me) right off, Chiang Mai is a heart-stealer of note.

Here are some pics I took while walking around, all starry-eyed and full of that hope-filled energy only a truly promising strong first attraction delivers.

(I’ll be posting more on what I’ve gleaned on the city’s #DigitalNomad scene, and what to do there if you’re just passing through, soon.)

Chiang Mai cafe

Asian Art Deco: A cute cafe (and English signage, rare in my Thai experience so far) on Ratchapakhinai Road in the Old City.

Kad Klang Wiang chiang mai

Tempting streetside seating at the Kad Klang Wiang foodie/shopping square in the Old City.

mango Thailand

When it comes to tourist pics, this mango place is ripe for the picking 🙂

asian beauty

Glamour pusses take a break to post those all-important status updates 😉

John's Place chiang mai

John’s Place, beside the east side of the Old City’s moat. Go here for nice views of the NYE Lantern Festival goings on.

wat temple chiang mai thailand

Ah, the temples you see, just walking around at night … peeping at monks going about their daily business.

thai monks morning alms round

Speaking of monks … they’re an everyday sight in Thailand, but I can’t get used to it. It was beautiful to be up early and hear their chants as they walked the streets on their morning rounds collecting alms. They do this every day, barefoot, no matter the weather. Read more at: http://www.thaibuddhist.com/monks-on-their-alms-round/

Wat Phan On temple walking street chiang mai thailand

This little lane in the Wat Phan On temple provided brief respite from the crowds of the Sunday evening walking street market. I saw women circling the temple’s Golden Pagoda, carrying flowers; heard the bells being rung; saw delicious food; and bought colourful earrings here.

capervan thailand

Cocktail, anyone? No, but I do WANT THIS DISCO CAMPERVAN REAL BAD!

wall art graffiti thailand

Hello Kitty wall art on one of the little lanes I liked.

urban hanging garden

Lush hanging garden that fills me with a good kind of envy…

scooter thailand

White respite.

massage chiang mai

A welcoming entrance to one of the many massage parlours in the city.

 

 

Two months of teaching in Thailand: Some thoughts…

I’ve been teaching English in Thailand for two months now, and it’s been three months since I left my friends, life and (dis)comfort zone in Cape Town.

It feels far longer.

Nong Bua Daeng Hae Krathup festival
The high street of Nongbuadaeng was festooned with decorations from the October Hae Krathup Tradition festival, which I missed by days (dammit!).

I’d never been to Asia before, and when you do full-on cultural immersion − when nearly every sight, sound, smell and taste is fresh (well, not literally − some are anything but…), and you can almost physically feel your perceptions shift around every street corner − even 15 minutes of a day stretches into something memorable. Seeing the world through new eyes engages your full attention, which slows down time.

I see a lot of adorable Thai toddlers here; they make my insides gooey. They’ve also made me reflect on cognitive learning … on how the familiar becomes familiar so early; on the joy and wonder of experiencing things for the first time.

But newness isn’t always easy. Especially when you’re 40, and frequently fearful.

Back home, I’m often the youngest among friends; unmarried, childless, still “a maiden” in many ways. Not here, among teenage students and other foreign English teachers so fresh out of school, they may as well be taking a gap year. And while home (Cape Town) can be a playground for skateboarding Peter Pans and festival-hopping party girls to say things like “age is just a number,” being a middle-aged (!!!) teacher among twenty-somethings in a conservative, small SoutheastAsian town means you’re forced to confront your chronological age – or, at least, traditional (and possibly small-minded) perceptions on it almost daily.

But I digress. Back to the many gains of this adventure: So far, the biggest immediate gain has been the sensory stimulation. I see so many intriguing sights just sitting on my veranda here in Nongbuadaeng, in rural NorthEast Thailand. Then there are the festivals and markets and celebrations and rituals. And there have been many buses and budget hotels and markets and minibus trips to other Northern places in-between.

Chinese opera
Chinese-style opera at the carnival that came to town for the week of the 5 December National Holiday, in honour of the birthday of the King of Thailand, Vajiralongkorn (AKA Rama X).

I sometimes wish I we were living in the imagined future, so I could do a quick download of all the daily images and impressions. I’m constantly thinking: I must write this down. I must save this picture. I must remember…

Then, there’s what this place is doing to my long-heavy heart.

The main reason I chose to try out ESL teaching here, over more lucrative places, was because of “the people” everyone raved about. While I’m wary of romanticising “the land of smiles”, I’ve been touched by so many everyday human interactions and treated very well by students, colleagues and town folk. Living so openly within a community (rather than behind high suburban walls, as we are in South Africa) makes you feel part of it, even if you’re just a foreign guest.

Last week, at a temple in Chiang Mai (where some of us teachers went for New Year), I said a prayer of gratitude for all the moments of grace and kindness I’ve been blessed to experience in the last two months – the sweet laughter in class, the generous warmth from the women of Nongbuadaeng, the nourishment of the delicious food. Thanks to my time in Thailand, something inside me must surely be shifting – how can it not?

wat phan tao
The place where I gave thanks: The teak Wat Phan Tao temple, meaning ‘temple of a Thousand Kilns’ (due the fact that it was once used to cast Buddha images for Wat Chedi Luang next door).

Below, some notes on some of the things I miss, and some of the things I’m grateful for.

(More blog posts on teaching and living here to follow!)

WHAT I MISS

Proper conversations with friends. I love nothing better than a good, deep and detailed natter with people who know me. Language barriers reduce conversations to the bare basics here. And getting to know new people, from vastly different backgrounds, takes time and is not without its own challenges.

My car. I asked for a walkable town and I’m glad for it, but a lot of the local sites are only reachable with wheels − and I’m having scooter issues. With my driving phobia history, knowing two young men who died on scooters, and not having insurance to cover scooter accidents, I wasn’t going to hire one. But the three younger English teachers I’m with did and I didn’t want to miss out on outings or be the ‘granny of the group’. (Too late!) I’m still too poep-scared (as we say in South Africa) to ride the damn thing further than our block. But I haven’t given up on slaying the beast just yet … I miss the freedom of being able to go greater distances than my feet will take me.

Nice toilets and showers. Cape Town’s drought toughened me up a little, so I’m used to no baths and treating showers as cleaning necessities rather than languid luxuries. Here, you have to confront non-Western toilets (and ‘the bum gun’), carry toilet paper (which can’t be flushed and must be placed in the waste basket), and showers are those soft-flow hand-held jobbies hung upon the wall. *Sigh* #FirstWorldProblems

Proper cutlery (and such things). No, this isn’t because we’re eating with chopsticks. We aren’t. In Thailand, you eat with a fork (left hand) and spoon (right hand). You use the fork to push food onto the spoon, then spoon the rice into your mouth. (I’m still figuring out if it’s the same for noodle dishes). The cutlery is of a thin metal, the kind you may take camping, so I miss the feel of a heavy knife and fork in hand. Ditto for plates and glasses. At café’s here, it’s all plastic plates and cups. I wasn’t able to find any ceramic plates at the shops for my flat, either. On the plus side, everything has that impermanent/festival/camping feel, which is fun. And there’s less to break.

fork and spoon in Thailand
It took an hour’s bus ride to the nearest city, but I finally found a knife (the type that goes with a fork) among boxes of the spoon & fork combo you quickly get used to eating with in Thailand.

Some food items, like proper coffee, cheese, salt and pepper. Even though coffee is grown here, Thailand isn’t a place (like Greece) where you’ll easily find a good coffee. At the cheap hotels we’ve stayed at, it’s strong and powdery. In the shops, you’ll find instant varieties pre-mixed with milk powder, sugar and even ‘weight-loss’ or ‘skin-tightening’ ingredients. It took me a few weeks to find ground coffee, but I’m still on the hunt for a bodem (using a tea strainer until then). At restaurants and cafes, there’s sugar, chilli and soy sauce on the table. Funny how you quickly miss everyday rituals, like cracking salt and pepper onto your meal before starting.

Friendly pets. In Chiang Mai, I asked a #DigitalNomad I’d just met if there was any downside to living in Thailand. “As you’ve probably seen, it’s the attitude towards animals,” she said. It’s true. The many street dogs here are full of mange and on their own mission. The outnumbered cats are skittish and still elusive. As a pet-sitter and animal-lover, I miss animal affection.

Thai dog
A typical Thai dog. He is not as rough-looking as the street dogs, so likely belongs to the shopkeeper family. He will be fed and perhaps get the odd scratch, but he likely won’t be washed, sterilised or cooed over.

A body of water to swim in. In the North, we don’t have the beaches Southern Thailand is known for. While Cape Town’s cold Atlantic sea is hardly inviting, you always know it’s there. When it’s hot here, I crave a body of water to swim in. But the local reservoir is not for swimming, and the nearest pool requires a scooter ride to get to (and is not exactly clean). It’s not surprising that most of the kids here can’t swim. (Again, #FirstWorldProblems).

Articulation skills and the ability to read environment. There’s lots to be said here, in a longer post. But just imagine, for a minute, not being able to read street signs, menus, receipts, SMS messages from your bank or phone provider. I’m used to being literate, and feel pretty ‘lost’ in my surroundings at some point in every day.

WHAT I’M GRATEFUL FOR

Living in a walkable town. During the placement process, the agency asked us for our preferences, and this was one of mine (together with WiFi and a verandah or outside space at home). I’m loving walking through the food market each day, and strolling to the 7/11 at night – pretty much a no-no back in South Africa, as it’s too dangerous to walk alone at night.

Thai market Nongbuadaeng
Markets everywhere! In addition to the daily market, the nightly produce market, the Saturday night market and the 15th of the month big market, there’s the Mon-Wed food market outside the school.

The agency support. I’m told I can earn more through a direct placement and wasn’t too sure about my agency before getting here (I had all kinds of suspicions). But they offer a curriculum, telephone support 24/7 (even for things like translating a Thai text or speaking to a Thai person to organise transport etc.), and the visa support has been a relief.

That I’m not a vegetarian or vegan, yet. (Sorry!) Contrary to what many expect, Thai cuisine isn’t that vegetarian friendly. And ordering veg-only is just another communication complication. I’ve seen the lengthy process of someone trying to explain that no meat should be in the fried rice be served pork fried rice, only to get non-veg food served to them, and have to suck it up and eat plain white rice and sliced cucumber … there seems to be fish sauce, chicken, pork broth or egg in most dishes.

That I was able to buy a new phone. My one had a cracked screen and kept running out of space, even with a new SD card, but new phones were just too expensive to buy back home. I picked up a new Samsung Galaxy J4+ for less than 5000 Baht ($156; R2230) at the Big C in Bangkok, and it’s been essential for life here (with its need to Google translate, use local banking/taxi apps and Google maps).

That I’ve had some teaching experience. While it was part time and at an English creative college, rather than full time at a Thai high school, it made it easier for introverted me to stand in front of many sets of eyes and do all the prep necessary to feel prepared for 50-minute classes.

Feeling part of a community. Note I say feeling over being. We are farangs (foreigners) and get called so daily. We’re just passing through for a season. But after five years of freelancing alone at home, with no family of my own nearby, being a respected member of a community, living close with our neighbours, attending local events and just being part of the daily flow of life has been so good for me on so many levels.

So after that long post, is there anything you want to know about my Thai teaching adventure? Let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to you here…

Thai sweets
A sweetie stand on a street in Chaiyaphum, the city an hour or so away from us. Ain’t it PRETTY??