Archive for the ‘French Letters Visits America’ category

Super Special Singapore

November 19, 2018

There’s something about Singapore, and I can’t get it out of my mind. People laugh at the fact that it’s a crime to bring chewing gum into Singapore, and complain that it’s a nanny state, but I love it anyway, at least what I know about it.

For one thing, there’s a beautiful mix of cultures, and, at least according to what my guides there told me, they all get along. This wedding bed is a gorgeous example of Peranakan culture, often called nyonya, a local mix of Chinese and Malay, that specializes in joyous colors.

I kind of wanted to buy everything in this shop.

These houses are part of what was once the city’s red light district.

There’s Muslim culture, centered around the Arab Street neighborhood, although the people aren’t Arabs, just Muslims, usually of Indonesian or Malay origin.

There you can see everything from traditional dress, gorgeously tempting modern fashion, and school kids dressed for a festival.

There are Christians, who are already preparing for Christmas.

There’s Chinatown,

with a museum celebrating the samsui women, Chinese women credited with doing much of the construction work in Singapore in the early 20th century.

In this Chinese temple,

there are amazing decorative friezes made entirely of hand-stitched embroidery done in China, where a few artisans still master this craft.

There’s Little India, where the characteristic Indian love of glitter, color, and flowers is in evidence everywhere.

I stalked this lady down the street, to get a shot of how she twisted strings of jasmine in her hair. My guide Gee-Soo got some flower chains for me, and I hung them in my cabin, where they perfumed the air for two days.

I was curious about housing, about how all of the folks who aren’t represented in “Crazy Rich Asians” live. The answer is that over 80% of Singaporeans own and live in apartments in buildings known as public housing, which are built and subsidized by the government.

Gee-Soo took me high up in one public housing building, to have a look. The views were pretty spectacular, especially as an epic rainfall was brewing.

This is the nicely-customized front entrance of one apartment.

There’s lots of lovely modern architecture as well, although the knife-edged building on the left was considered to have bad feng shui, and so the building on the right was constructed to deflect any negative energy its neighbor might be emitting.

We walked out of the apartment building into a downpour the likes of which I’ve seldom seen,

and I realized why most sidewalks in Singapore are at least partly covered, as we all huddled together, trying to stay dry.

Water is a serious issue in Singapore, and Gee-Soo told me that two out of every three raindrops falling on the island is captured for purification and reuse. Even toilet water is cleaned until it’s completely pure and goes back into the system.

This is also the only place I’ve ever seen electric cars available on the street for rental, using a tap-and-go card payment system.

And pour finir en beauté, as the French say, saving the best for last,

there’s the stupendous National Orchid Garden, every inch of which is groomed to perfection, where I could have stayed for days, or even weeks.

So that was my little peek at Singapore, and I spent quite a bit of time fantasizing about how I could move there, or at least make an extended visit.

Except for the weather, a combination of heat and humidity that taught me a whole new understanding of the perspiration process, it’s my ideal environment in so many ways.  But for now, on to Indonesia.

Advertisements

The Rise Of Saigon

November 12, 2018

I was nervous about going to Saigon, and have been having a hard time getting myself to write about it. In fact, it took two shots of espresso to get my fingers moving to tell you about this day.

I grew up marching in the streets against the war in Vietnam. I remember the fall of Saigon, and couldn’t understand how an American could be welcome there today, even 50 years later. But I went, and I’m glad I did.

We started at the Rex Hotel, on whose rooftop garden were held the infamous daily press briefings during the war, known as the “five o’clock follies,” the content of which fell generally in the category of fake news, fed by the military to a cynical press corps.

Today the rooftop is a bar, where you can drink a delicious Vietnamese coffee and almost forget that there ever was a war.

Except, see that low building almost in the center, in the deep shade? That’s the former CIA headquarters, on whose rooftop the famous photo of people scrambling frantically up a ladder into the last helicopter out of Saigon was shot.

Even though today the hotel sports a glamorous lobby

housing a Cartier shop, everyone remembers that the place had another, darker life.

We visited a Buddhist temple nearby.

where we wrote our names on pieces of paper and attached them to hanging coils of incense. In a few weeks, when the incense finally burns our names, we’ll have good luck. It’s a long game.

When I asked our guide how the Vietnamese can forgive Americans he said it’s because they’re Buddhists, believing in reincarnation, and because they’re Asian, believing in going with the flow and letting time pass. The wheel goes around, he said, and that was a long time ago.

We visited the post office, the first example of French Colonial architecture in Saigon. The French colonized Vietnam for more then 50 years. They’re long gone now, their main legacy being these beautiful buildings and the Vietnamese people’s enduring love of baguettes.

We visited a market, where you can have a suit made in just one day. Time flows differently here.

We visited a lacquer workshop. It’s an ancient art, but time has changed the artists’ perspective, and the subjects are vivid and new, touched by history.

And we went to the place no one wants to go: the War Remnants Museum. It was first called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, then the name was changed to the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, and now that we’ve somehow managed to establish a good relationship between our countries, it came into its present name. This museum, quite naturally, shows the war from the Vietnamese perspective. How could it be otherwise?

When I say that no one wants to go there, I mean that there were passengers on our cruise who refused to set foot in Vietnam at all, as well as some who went to Saigon but wouldn’t go to the museum. I know that I shuddered and took a deep breath before entering, and I saw others do the same.

It’s mostly a photographic exhibit, with detailed historical accounts in the captions. For that reason you have to get very, very close to each photo, if you want to read about it. Often it’s the photographer who wrote the caption, although there’s a section devoted to photographers from many countries who did not survive the war.

It was all terribly painful to see,

but I knew I couldn’t leave without finding the section on the My Lai massacre. I won’t tell the story here; if you don’t remember it you can look it up. But here’s a tiny part of how it looked.

The photographer had provided the caption for this last shot. He said that he saw soldiers surrounding this family, and asked them to wait while he took this photograph. He then turned his back and heard the gunfire. What you see here is the very last moments of the lives of these men, women, and children.

So that’s Saigon today, risen from the ashes.

In the van on the way back I was sitting in the very front seat, so I couldn’t see any of the nine people behind me. I said, to no one in particular, not knowing where anyone fell on the political spectrum, “All that, and 58,000 American lives lost too, for nothing.” And behind me I heard several voices echo emphatically “For nothing.” Then I said “And we never learn.” And others said, one after the other, “Never….Afghanistan…..Iraq”

That was one day in Saigon, one day spent in the dust of a war fought so long ago that all is now forgiven. Let it not be forgotten.

 

Trouble In Beijing

October 26, 2018

DSC01163.JPG

First trouble is, you can scarcely breathe. See that air pollution? It’s not fog. It’s air so thick you can taste it, and believe me, it doesn’t taste good. This shot is actually at the port in Tianjin, but it was the same everywhere.

But that was the absolute least of my worries. No photos will accompany this story, because I was afraid that if I took any I might get arrested. Seriously.

One side thing I’m doing on this trip is visiting a series of Education USA offices, helping to recruit foreign students to come to the college where I work. Education USA is under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, staffed by local people, and is usually located inside an American embassy building. That’s the case in Beijing, and I had been warned to be prepared for the fact that the building was a fortress.

Oh yes, it definitely is that. But I have an appointment with an Education USA staff person, I’m an American and I have an American passport, and it’s my embassy, right? What could possibly go wrong, except everything?

I present myself for the appointment, accompanied by my Chinese guide. I’m sure it doesn’t help that he’s dressed like some sort of teen hip-hopper, in a long denim duster with a hoodie underneath, but I don’t really know if that makes any difference.

So I show up at the east gate at the Beijing embassy as instructed, half an hour early, figuring it might take some time to get in and find my way to her office. I show my passport at the gate, show them the name of the person I’m supposed to meet, and they refuse to let me in. And by “they” I mean the Chinese guards surrounding the place. If you imagine, as I did, that our embassies are guarded by crisp battalions of our Marines, you’re in for the same surprise I got.

The guards say no Americans are allowed to come in by that particular gate. I have my Chinese guide with me and he argues with them, gives them my contact’s name and tells them I have an appointment. They ask for her phone number, but I don’t have that. Oops. What I do have is a bag with Education USA printed on it that I was given in Tokyo, and I show it to them, but they have no earthly idea about the program. I wave my passport around quite adamantly, and they definitely know I’m an American, but they still refuse to let me into my own embassy, and they aren’t the least bit nice about it. No one there speaks English at all, and they show no sign of sympathy for my plight. Finally they tell me to go to the west gate. Just to get rid of me, I guess.

I’m at the east gate, going to the west gate. The circumference of the embassy is enormous. I’m not good at judging distance, but it’s probably half a mile all the way around, maybe more. We finally arrive at the west gate, which turns out to be the entrance to a parking structure. The guards tell my guide no one is ever allowed to go in by that gate, unless it’s for parking. Also, they don’t speak English and are totally unimpressed by my passport.

A small group of Americans walks out and I beg them to help me. They say they are only “contractors traveling with diplomatic passports.” Uh, yeah, right. They’re inside the embassy, they’re contractors, and they have diplomatic passports. I sensibly refrain from asking them who they work for, because I don’t think it would be in my best interest to know that.

One of them does take pity on me and finds and calls my contact’s number. No answer, straight to voice mail. The west gate guards deny me entry just like their east gate brothers, and they tell me to go to the south gate. Are you sensing a pattern here?

At the south gate they won’t let my guide come with me, no Chinese people allowed, they say. I kind of panic, because now we’re going to be separated and it’s not clear how we will meet up again, and I’m going inside a gate but not inside the building, and I can’t understand a word anyone says. Having no choice, I walk to the entrance of the building alone, but guess what? They won’t let me in either, because I don’t have a phone number for my contact. I didn’t have the wit to ask that “contractor” guy for the number he had called, so distraught was I at the time. The guys at this entrance are friendly and even smile at me, and they speak a little English, all a welcome change, but they won’t let me in. I ask to see an American officer. No can do, you can’t see any American without an appointment. I’m an American, this is my embassy, and I can’t see anyone. Then they call someone at the east gate, who tells them to send me back, this time they will let me in. I feel caught between Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day and Dante’s nine circles of hell, but I go. Reluctantly.

When I get back to the east gate, a little more than an hour after I first arrived, a nice lady comes to meet me and lets me in. She’s a colleague of my contact, who, as it turns out, was on leave for the day even though we had an appointment, which is why no one answered her phone.

The meeting with the nice lady goes well, and it turns out to have been a worthwhile exercise in frustration and rage. However, and I can’t say this strongly enough, WTAF? The Chinese “guard” our embassy (or, as a shipboard friend suggested, hold it hostage), and an American can’t get in. If it had been an emergency would they have let me in? If I had been bleeding to death would they have called an American to help out?

I hate to say this, but I really don’t think so. I always thought that an embassy was a place of refuge for its citizens. How wrong I was. Take heed and be prepared. Your embassy may not be your friend.

Shinrin-Yoku…..Forest Bathing

September 22, 2018

DSC00093

Today, to celebrate my last day living on terra firma for the next quarter-year, my little family and I went forest bathing at the spectacular Bloedel Reserve.

DSC00086

Parts of our time there were silly,

DSC00099

parts were Zen,

DSC00100

most was green,

DSC00096

but there were occasional splashes of color.

DSC00088

I was doing a trial of my new pocket camera, purchased especially for this trip,

DSC00087

and I would judge that it acquitted itself very well.

And now, I feel prepared to be uprooted

DSC00101

and set off for parts unknown. Beauty is everywhere, and I aim to see it all.

DSC00082

 

Cross Bat Off My List

September 10, 2018

DSC_0490-001

Now that I’m just a week away from leaving home and kitties until after Christmas, friends are asking me how I’m progressing with my To-Do lists. So far today I have been able to cross off:

* Order yen and yuan
* Vote
* Drop off bat
*Convince T-Mobile and Verizon to settle my bill

Of course, that last item took the longest, over a week, actually.  But really, it’s too exasperating to talk about.

The bat is what I really want to tell you about, that, and the advantages of living in a small town.

Yesterday Minou brought a creature in the house. I went to see what the batting-something-around sound was, and thought I saw a small bird. When I picked it up to rescue it, it turned into a bat. Quite a large bat, actually, considering how small and frail it had looked with its wings folded.

Now normally, of course, I would never pick up a live bat, so I was kind of freaked out. And since a bat that Minou could catch in broad daylight, a bat who couldn’t fly, a bat I’d touched bare-handed, all added up to potentially bad bat news, I confined the poor thing to a tupperware and waited for the health department to open this morning.

The bat expired overnight, even though I’d carefully punched breathing holes in the lid of the container. I’m not even sure why I did that, since obviously the lab was going to need a dead bat. So this morning I took an extremely dead bat into the County Health folks, who remarked that it was the second one to be brought in this morning, and it was only 10:00. Now I’m waiting for them to test the bat for rabies, and really hoping that a series of four rabies shots is not in my future. Apparently you get them in your arm now, no longer in the abdomen, so that’s something.

Then, bat-disposal accomplished, I went a couple of blocks over to the Elections office to cast my mid-term vote. And guess what? I was the first person in my county to cast her ballot! In fact, they printed it out just for me, since on election day I’ll be at sea, somewhere between Hong Kong and Vietnam. I would imagine that going to that extreme to help me vote is a small-town thing, although I’d like to think that every county would make such an effort to help out a determined voter.

Having contributed my drop in the ballot box to the Blue Wave, I went another couple of blocks over to the bank that can get me Japanese yen and Chinese yuan overnight, with no service fee.

Maybe events could have unfolded like this in a large city, almost certainly so. But it took me under an hour to accomplish all that, and most of the time was spent waiting for my ballot to be printed. We don’t have everything here in Walla Walla, but within a five-block radius we can have a bat analyzed for rabies, a ballot personally printed, and receive foreign currency overnight.

Now if only we had some alternative to Verizon and T-Mobile and spending hours fidgeting on hold only to be transferred to yet another person for the gazillionth time, this town would be just about perfect.

 

 

 

Soaking Up The Land

August 25, 2018

Today I had the doors open all day, for the first time in months. The temperatures had plummeted into the 70s, which to me is paradise. And tonight I could sit outside for dinner, and linger long afterwards, for the first time in weeks, The smoke has finally dissipated, and left us with Moderate air quality, and I swear, I’ll take it, even though it’s not classified as Good.

And tonight I lay in the grass and looked at the sky, awash in the sweet fragrance of alyssum. Evidently it’s been far too long since I did that, since Minou circled me restlessly, mewing gently and rubbing himself against my outstretched extremities. A starfish on land, I was.

But soon, in less than a month, I’ll be at sea. At sea for three months, surrounded by oceans and the lands that abut them. Traveling in the company of 1300 strangers, all people who’d presumably rather be at sea than on land. So what could possibly go wrong?

Really, I expect all to go, forgive me, swimmingly. By then I will have eaten all the garden vegetables I can, and will leave the rest to my house sitter. I don’t know whether she cooks, but I hope so, because there will be approximately 400 padron pepper for her to deal with. When I planted them I forget what late producers they are.

As much as I enjoy my current life, I am looking forward to being cast adrift, waking each morning not knowing what the day will hold. Aside from a couple of weeks on the island and a week in France, I’ve been tethered here for the past three years. For me, that’s a long time.

A part of me is yearning to fly free. Another part of me, the part that’s older and on this journey alone, is scared shitless.

I have just one more month to prepare for this adventure. Yesterday my dining room looked like a shoe bomb had gone off. A dozen pairs of shoes (thank you Zappo’s) were spread over my dining table, and spilling onto the floor. I’m in search of the shoes in which I can walk comfortably all day, a task complicated by the fact that I have enormous feet, and a recent foot injury. Only certain shoes will do, and holy moly are they had to find. Today I managed to get seven pairs returned, but I have to confess, a few more pairs are on the way. No vanity is involved, I assure you. All of them are in the “ugly as sin” category.

But then, I ask myself, why in the world should I care? There’s not a person in the world that gives a fig how I look. And I’m going to be in places I’ve always wanted to see (China! Japan! Australia! and other wonderful Asian and South Pacific countries as well).That’s what counts, that I get to go there.

Here’s what I can’t let count, even when it’s hard: Leaving Minou and Toby for three months with a person they don’t know. Not making anything with the prodigious plum crop my tree will be dropping soon. Trading the nostalgic scent of flowers for the aphrodisiac scent of salt air. Leaving the people I am used to seeing on the regular for people I’ve never seen in my life.

Trading land for sea, that’s the dilemma. It’s the thing that keeps me wondering whether I’ll stay here or return to the island. I love my home here, and am having a good life. But the sea is in my blood, and it tugs at me every day. Maybe I’ll get that out of my system after floating in its aqueous embrace for the next quarter of a year. Or maybe I’ll learn that I can’t live without it a moment longer.

So in a month I’m setting sail, hoping that time and the sea will tell me where my future lies, and will show me how far I’ve come.

How Young Is Too Old?

June 1, 2018

DSC_0615

Lately I’ve been contemplating this puzzle: am I too old or too young? Specifically, too old to live alone, or too young to live with others who might feel that they are too old to live alone.

If you know me, for sure you’ll say that I’m not too old, in fact, I’m too young. But here’s the thing. Parts of me are broken and I don’t know how to fix them.

Last fall I was told that my shoulder needs surgery, again. As soon as I was done saying all the bad words I know in all the languages, I realized that it was impossible. In 2010 when I last had shoulder surgery, Shel did every little thing for me, fastening my bra, moussing my hair, all the stuff married people do for each other when they absolutely have to. Because I couldn’t do those things alone.

So now I struggle with that shoulder every day, and try to ignore the pain and awkwardness for as long as I can. Because I can’t think of the alternative. Really, who is going to do up my bra in a pinch?

And if I have that awful surgery again, and it really is brutal, I have no Shel. Living alone, I’d basically be going bra-less and shampoo-less for a couple of months. And while I might have done that in the 60s, I’m way too old for it now.

And then, a couple of days ago I broke a bone in my foot, something that’s surprisingly excruciating. I have to wait almost a week, because our healthcare here is appalling, to see someone who might know why this happened to me while I was just walking across the parking lot at work, and tell me what might be done about it.

“Stay off it,” said the nice Urgent Care doc. Uh, how? I need to cook, do dishes, buy groceries, feed the cats, how in tarnation am I supposed to stay off it?

I guess I always thought that by the time I’d be needing help with the quotidian, the simplest stuff, I would have found a partner, or at least a companion. But no, here I am four years after Shel’s death living with just my cats, who are decidedly not helpful under the circumstances.

So yeah, I’m brave, and independent, and all that good stuff. But seriously, I’m only going to get older,even I will cop to that. And while my mind and heart are as good as ever, which is pretty darn good, various other parts of me are letting me know that all is not as it once was.

I’d like to get my shoulder fixed. I’d like to get my foot fixed. I’d like them not to need to be fixed! But hobbling around with the heavy bag of cat food in my left hand because my right shoulder doesn’t want the load, thus putting all that extra weight on my broken left foot, that sucks. And when I say it sucks I mean that it sucks the big one, and that I don’t know how to make it better.

Am I too old to live on my own? Am I too young not to live on my own? You tell me.