Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Afternoon Siesta

Saigon rests at a latitude of around 10 degrees North. For those who weren't obsessed with geography as a child, this means it is very close to the equator, and, obviously, very hot.

I knew this before I arrived but in many ways I am more chimp than human (although I promise never to tear your face off), and refuse to really believe anything until I see it for myself. This is a character trait of mine that has gotten me into trouble over the years, and the Saigon Heat was no exception.

My first task here was to find a job, so I methodically and efficiently spent a day looking up the location of English schools and marking them on a map, plotting a route. On the following day, I dressed myself up in nice pants and a button-down shirt (the former light to keep off the heat, the latter dark to hide my sweat), packed my CV and some deodorant, and ventured into the city to pound some pavement.

The morning went fine. I got lost a few times, and nearly run over more than a few times on the chaotic, motorbike-packed streets, but this is all par for the Saigon course. The real trouble struck at noon.

Foolishly, I had thought that the morning - already sweltering - was the apex of the day's heat. This was not a rational thought, but rather the product of seven years in Southern New Zealand. Already, it was hotter than Dunedin's hottest day - in my mind, some kind of limit had been reached, and there was no way it could get hotter.

It did. Imperceptibly, the temperature rose a tiny bit with every passing minute until it was a full-blown heat wave. I wouldn't be stopped though. I was a man on a mission, with CVs to hand out, doors to knock on, and contacts to chase up. The heat must have been affecting my brain by this stage, because it was not until later that I realised that the streets - perilous in the morning - were now empty, and the sidewalks - empty in the morning - were now packed with locals on tiny stools, eating soup and mystery meat, drinking the refreshing sweet drinks that are so widely available in so many flavours, smoking cigarettes, and gossiping.

I trudged through the masses of people, shirt soaked with sweat, body screaming for water. My second warning sign then came, which I, typically, ignored: my nose began to bleed. Before I knew what was happening, a matronly streetside vendor in her early fifties yanked me into her stall, firmly telling me in Vietnamese to sit down, hold a tissue to it, put my head back. I don't speak any Vietnamese, but since these words were accompanied by her flailing her arms and roughly pushing me into a chair and forcing my head back, it was not difficult to put together the context clues.

When it cleared up, she poured ointment into it, which burned but definitevely solved the problem, and shoo'd me on my way with a few terse words, probably along the lines of "look after better yourself next time."

The language of Irate Mother is universal.

So I stumbled on, by this point in really awful shape. As I approached an English school (which would turn out to be closed), I decided to make sure I didn't have blood all over my face and stopped in a shop with a mirror to inspect. Satisfied with my lack of bloodstains - something I never thought I would be satisfied with - I made to leave.

Then I noticed something. There was no shopkeeper. There was also no staff, only a security guard who sat outside, fast asleep. I looked around the shop, and it became clear: they were all asleep. Leaned back in chairs, sprawled on the floor: every single employee of this shop was fast asleep.

It's the afternoon siesta, the time that it is literally impossible to do anything but sleep, as my sad day showed. I only wish I'd gotten the memo before I arrived.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


My blog's focus is about to dramatically shift. Much as I'm sure the world loved hearing my thoughts on life, the fact is they get kind of old, and to be honest I only have so many. Well, not really. I have a lot. But if I carry on as I have for too long, it'll just be a succession of movies I hate, people I think are cool, and jobs I think are lame, and all you fans will start to smell a rat - and stop reading.

But don't worry. I have moved from Sunny Dunedin to Sunnier Saigon. That's right - Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam. So I suppose this blog is, for the time being, a travel blog. The lessons to be learned travelling are, after all, far more interesting than the lessons to be learned living in your parents' attic.

At least I hope so.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bureaucratic Bamboozle

The University of Otago, the staple insititution of my hometown, regularly sells off old computers at bargain prices. Not long ago, my father, ever shrewd, took advantage of this scheme and decided to buy one – at $150 for a desktop, how could you resist?

Even shrewder, he enlisted me as the courier. Fair enough; I’m in my early 20s and live with him and my mother rent-free. What’s more, I was unemployed at the time, so I certainly wasn't otherwise engaged. So I set off one afternoon with my task clear: meet him, collect cash, then go to the university and pick up the computer. The whole thing shouldn’t take more than an hour.

I met him and got the money with no drama. Upon my arrival at the university, though, I realized that I’d forgotten where I was supposed to go. Hardly a big issue for a problem-solver like myself; my father, knowing my propensity for not listening when people are talking to me, had emailed me my instructions, so it was just a matter of going to the library and using my old student ID to log onto the internet.

ITS Teaching and Learning Centre was my destination, and the fact that I’d never heard of this place was no hindrance. It was just a matter of a few minutes’ browsing around the university website, and my destination was clear: 444 Great King St.

I drove a few laps in my parents’ van, trying in vain to find this place. 442 and 446 were both extremely well-marked, with enormous signs dictating their street number, street name, and building purpose. The fact that 444 was not labeled thus – or at all – should probably have served as a warning, but hindsight is always 20/20. At the time, I happily tracked it down through process of elimination, and walked up to the front door.

Again, a warning sign missed. The front door wasn’t just locked, it didn’t even have a handle. I scratched my head, examined the area around it for secret levers or buttons, and found nothing. Intrigued, I started skulking around, looking for alternative entrances.

As I did so, I took in what kind of building I was trying to infiltrate. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before, and a marked contrast to the rest of the university, which is designed in a very modern style, with large doors, high ceilings, and lots of glass.

This building, by contrast, had tiny windows, a good ten metres off the ground, and the walls were incredibly thick rock-solid concrete. It was built like a bunker, perhaps designed as a sort of panic building for the university’s staff if an invasion were to occur, a keep for throngs of dowdy bureaucrats and bewildered academics to retreat to in case the oft-publicised drunken disorder and rioting by students got really out of hand. Or maybe it was just a computer building. Sometimes my imagination gets away from me.

The actual entrance was - obviously – in the back, next to a dumpster. But, again, it wasn’t a standard door. It was two, in fact, with one leading outside, a small room, and then one leading into the building, like an airlock. The door to the outside was unlocked, but the door leading in was not.

Next to the interior door, there was a phone. Next to that, a list of names and extensions, and next to that a sign instructing me to use the phone to ring the relevant person; he or she would then let me in.

It was here that I started to suspect that perhaps I was in the wrong place, because my instructions had said to go to the reception desk, and I felt certain that the door-phone system would have been mentioned.

My fruitless perusal of the list was interrupted by “can I help you?” I looked up and had to stop myself from gasping in surprise. An IT analyst had, ninja-like, emerged from the building and somehow positioned himself behind me. His appearance was not conventional. In his mid forties, he was wearing a worn-out heavy metal t-shirt and pants that looked like they had never seen the inside of a washing machine. But what was really striking was his hair – completely shaved except for a long Mohawk that extended halfway down his back. It would be safe to say that I was surprised.

I explained my predicament, and he laughed long and loud, telling me that I was in “the complete wrong place.” (As if that wasn’t obvious.) “You need,” he said, as he rolled a cigarette “to go to the ISB. You know, over there.” He gestured vaguely towards the rest of the university. Then he walked away, which indicated to me that the conversation was over, even though I had no idea what the ISB was; the closest thing I could think of was Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but that was IBS, not ISB. Although if this unclear acronym talk continued, IBS definitely wasn’t out of the question.

I never got his name. Probably Godot.

Back to the library. I browsed an enormous list of acronyms, finally finding the ITS (Information Technology Services) building. Surely, I thought, this is the one – where else would one buy a computer? It wasn't the ISB, like Godot had said, but I assumed I had misheard.

So off I walked, my confidence boosting with each step, and positively skyrocketing when I entered a much friendlier-looking building to see a cash register. This must be it!

I waited for five or ten minutes before a flustered-looking woman emerged from the back room. I explained my predicament, and she, of course, shook her head.

“You need to be at the ISB,” she told me, pushing my blood pressure up a few points.

“Where,” I asked through gritted teeth, inwardly counting to ten and reminding myself that my troubles were not this woman’s fault “is that?”

“By National Bank, on Albany St.”

Thank. God. Finally, concrete directions. As I cut through the library, I didn’t have quite the spring in my step that I’d had before but I did have a feeling of relief that my ordeal was finally over.

Arriving at the bank, I poked around it, thinking that the ISB must be some tiny hamlet attached to it, from whence computers are distributed.

Nothing. Not a single thing. It was just a bank, whose connection to the university began and ended with proximity. I sighed and went to cross the street to the library again, with the intention of using their computers for the third time. As I stood at the light, feeling distinctly sorry for myself, I glanced at my destination. Like the buildings flanking the bunker, there was an enormous sign on the library, one that I had never taken notice of until now.

I sharply breathed in as all the pieces fell into place. Loath to use a common word when an uncommon acronym will do the job, the official name for the library is the Information Services Building. ISB. The building that I’d gone through over and over again all afternoon had been my destination all along.

But no reason to despair! My journey was over! I was successful in my quest! I walked into the ISB, into the Teaching and Learning Centre, and triumphantly puffed out my chest and said “I would like to buy a computer!”

The woman behind her desk took her headphones out and said “what?”

Chagrined, I repeated myself in more hushed tones. The woman blinked, pontificated, and said, thank God, “ you’ve come to the right place, let me check your name off on the list.” Going through each name excruciatingly slowly, she finally found mine. "That will be $168.50."

“What.” Not even a question. Just a flat statement of disbelief. My father had, as you will recall, only given me $150.

Her eyes crinkled in the beginnings of a sad smile. “GST.”


Monday, March 2, 2009

Northeast Valley Beatdown

I wish I had been told this in advance so I could have avoided learning it the hard way: never wear glasses at nighttime in Northeast Valley. I expect you’re surprised, because this is not a guideline that one expects to have to follow, but trust me: it’s advice worth taking.

The rather idyllic picture to your left should explain why my fate was so unexpected; the valley's more-than-rather efficient name should explain where it is. No further exposition is required.

My friend and I were searching for a party for which we had been given bad directions (that was a lie. Actually, I insisted to the party-thrower that we didn’t need directions, as I knew where the house was. When it became clear that I blatantly did not, I pretended that I’d been misinformed and thus neatly shifted the blame for our aimless wandering onto her. So at least there were some victories on this ill-fated evening.)

We wandered up one block, back onto the main road, onto another, all fairly aimlessly; I really had no idea where we were going.

As we got on the main road for what felt like the tenth or fifteenth time, a group of girls approached us. “Excuse me,” one said, noticing that my friend and I are both bespeckled, “but are you guys into computers?”

My response was admittedly rude. But you could also very legitimately argue that I thought we were just exchanging questions, taking street surveys as it were. She was wondering about our interests, so I enquired about hers with “no, are you into penis?”

Evidently, I’d given the wrong answer, because next thing I knew, the girl had snatched my glasses from me with surprisingly quick reflexes.

I tried to remain calm, a task made easier by the fact that I was so surprised by her actions. So after asking for them back a couple times, I snapped “fuck off,” and grabbed.

“Oi!” I heard one of her cronies indignantly exclaim, “nobody tells my cousin to fuck off!”

Somehow, I did not think that now was the time to mention that she took my glasses from me, almost completely unprovoked, so I stayed quiet and we walked away. Turning around, I saw that the glasses stealer had flown into some weird fury, and was being physically restrained by her friends. Wisely, we quickened our step.

Looking back, we should have ran, but we put too much faith in her restrainers. Like some kind of wild animal, she broke free and ran behind me, picking up speed and force until with a crash she slammed her fist into the back of my head, knocking me to the ground.

As I put my hands over my head and she rained blows upon me, I had to reflect for a second on the absurdity of my situation. If eyewear and language choice was enough to merit such treatment, imagine the fate someone doing something worse. While I don’t condone someone else hitting her first, if her response is at all proportionate to the crime that provokes it, I know that he or she will be filled with regret immediately after.

For the second time, her friends held her back, and I stumbled to my feet. My glasses, the cause of the entire altercation, where thankfully unharmed. As we ran away, we heard animalistic screams, punctuated with her sole supporter’s plaintive pleas of “he told my cousin to fuck off!”

The Valley is mostly full of broke students and burnout “artists,” two groups that aren’t generally violent. So unless you want to break this trend, and possibly your glasses, wear contacts if you’re passing through.