Meandering Miser

(Journal entry)
I know it’s been two days since I officially arrived (and four days since leaving AK), but it’s never too late to start journaling, right?
The long and winding road took me to layover in Seattle for a day, where I got to spend quality time with my dear old college friend, Mike Dominoski. I hadn’t seen him in twenty-plus years. He hasn’t changed much, only for the better. I met his lovely new wife, Mike’s first. At age fifty. Now that’s courage and love.
My trip has been dampened by my lack of attention to details. I forgot to bring pictures for my arrival VISA. But I had a pleasant layover in Korea, and made it to Hanoi three days after leaving Anchorage. It was midnight when I flew in. I knew the ride to my hotel would be another hour, so I ordered a driver through the hotel six months earlier.
And guess what? My driver wasn’t there. I scanned the airport for someone holding a sign with my name. No luck. There weren’t pay phones. No airport staff to talk to. Soon after I arrived, it was just me in the dark Hanoi airport, and a bunch of taxi drivers queued up outside. I’d been warned about Hanoi taxi drivers and the two tiered pricing system that exists for locals and Westerners. No thanks.
But after an hour of waiting for my runaway driver, I weakened. I went outside and negotiated the fee with a driver who I noticed had ten long, papery thin fingernails. We agreed on $15.00 and I hopped in after shaking his hand. A second man slid in the cab just behind me. He worked with my driver, and once the taxi accelerated, the second man began raising the price of my cab fee. I opened the door and hopped out of the moving taxi, tugging my luggage before it left with the men. The second man hopped out of the car and followed me back into the airport, begging me to get back in the taxi. Just as I approached the door to the airport, a rat ran in front of me.
Hello, Hanoi.
My second effort was much better. I got the nicest driver ever who was more than happy to accept my proposed fee. I was more than happy to give a good tip. And an hour later, I found myself in my lovely hotel room.
I’ve been frozen ever since. I had dragged my spring clothes out of my closet for this trip. Short sleeves, capri pants, and sun dresses. It’s wet and freezing in Vietnam.
The Rising Dragon Hotel is clean, hospitable, and amazingly homey. No one has over-charged me and the staff is concerned that I have a good time.
I am, all in all.
It’s difficult in a foreign country- to bank, bathe, shop, dress, and even walk without incident. Cars drive up on the sidewalk regularly, motorcycles honk constantly, and people target-glance my wallet.

I don’t know why I do it sometimes. Why not just relax in Hawaii? What is this need to see the world? I suspect I can learn to be a more compassionate person for it, and can represent our people well. It’s a thrill like no other, testing one’s mettle in that way.

Yesterday, I arrived in Heaven. Laos welcomed me with sun, heat, a driver holding a sign with my name on it, and two new American friends, a married couple currently stationed in Japan , a precious dorm room for $8 a day at Rivertime Eco Resort and Lodge. I walk down a dirt hill for my meals on the lodge’s floating restaurant, eat for nearly nothing, and enjoy the company of staff-Lao, Hmong, Australian, and British. I do excursions at my leisure. For $7, I had a one hour massage. I watched staff do karaoke ($3). I go walking, sunbathing, and hear the sounds of water, animals, and an occasional motor from a boat passing by. I do what I want, when I want. I gave school supplies to the local kids through Pack For a Purpose. Feel fabulous.
In 1999, I was still struggling, had a paper route, worked ten hour days as a social worker, attended graduate school, and carted (or dispatched friends to cart) the girls around for their activities. They were 11 and 12 years old.
Now here I sit in the sun in Laos, happy to leave my college-aged lovely daughters behind as I also leave the man of my dreams and the job I adore for three, self-indulgent weeks. This is awesome. If life gets no better than it is right here, right now, so be it. Good enough.

In the span of four days, I’ve gone on two village tours ($5 apiece), went kayaking for free, inner tubing($5), had a traditional Lao dance lesson, compliments of the locals having lunch at the floating restaurant, collected 4 new Facebook friends, and been invited to a Lao woman’s home to visit. This resort is a single mother’s dream.
And Hanoi? It’s a different experience altogether. If you like a constant chorus of beeping horns, cold, damp weather, locals target-glancing your belongings, pressure to shop, and uniformed men every so many meters watching your every move, Hanoi may well be your mecca.
As for me? J’e deteste.
(The next three days were filled with more fun in the sun, meeting other resort guests from England, France, Israel, and Laos, and touring the capital’s war museum, riding back to the airport in a tuk-tuk. I hated leaving Laos.)
Dear Journal,
Vietnam is mildly better this time around. My ride was actually at the airport in Hanoi when I flew back from Vientienne. Jennifer and I met up. Then we went to Sapa via overnight train. We had a teeny cabin and shared it with an Aussie married couple. Marty and Peter. I loved them immediately. They’re hilarious.
We went to a hotel directly from the train, took a shower, and began our trekking tour which consisted of 5-8 kilometers daily in monsoon-type weather mountains of Sapa in Hmong villages swarmed by Hmong women calling out, “You buy from me? You make me happy?” Occasionally, someone asked our ages, a popular question in every social circle in Vietnam.
I wanted to scream. Between the rain, the mud, and the begging, I was fried. I’d forgotten what a jerk I can be. The villages were as pleasurable to walk through as chicken coops. But after the good exercise the hikes provided, Jennifer and I enjoyed the new friends we met in our tour by sharing dinner time with them. We drank hot wine, which tasted like your average cabernet sauvignon heated up to 150 degrees. I wouldn’t touch it at home, but when you’re freezing after a good, long hike, somehow it works. And we went to a Vietnamese massage spa, where we sat in a sort of assembly line and warmed our feet in buckets of hot water while we got over-the-clothing body rubs.


Today, we got back in the early morning hours, taxi’d back to the Rising Dragon, and took much needed showers. Jennifer and I went to lunch and shopping with Marty. I got too comfortable with the crowds in Hanoi since Jennifer and Marty were with me, and barely noticed the hand unzipping my handbag as we chatted and strolled. I wrapped my hand around the attached wrist, and squeezed hard, calling out for Jennifer to help. I didn’t actually need any. I was mad at the female pick-pocketer. She was scared of my mad. I held on to her awhile. Now what? I wondered. She did too, and encouraged me to let go of her. I did.
On to Hoi An. Jennifer wisely decided that we should go via overnight train. I was tired and grumpy from the aftertaste of Sapa until we got to our overnight cabin. Seated closely across from us on the bottom bunk were three Buddhist monks. They stared at us as though we were a zoo exhibit, and spoke in Vietnamese about us.
“How old are you?” asked Middle Monk.
“47,” I answered, and motioning to Jennifer, “and she’s 42…How old are you?”
The monks bookending Middle-monk were both 29. Middle Monk was 33.
Jennifer leaned forward from the bottom bunk. “Do you speak English?” she asked, speaking louder and slower than usual.
Middle monk shook his head no. “Do you speak Vietnam?” he asked, matching her volume and pace perfectly.
All three monks burst into girly laughter.
Too often, I’ve thought that the Vietnamese are cold and humorless. On this night, the evening of my pick-pocketer, I was rewarded with being proven wrong.
The monks continued to talk and giggle amongst themselves. At around 11:30PM, I turned off my light in the top bunk and gestured that I was going to sleep. They said goodnight and lowered their voices accordingly.
Nearly a half hour later, I was awakened to the sound of Jennifer shreiking. I flicked on the light and saw that the monks had bestowed her with their traditional Chinese New Year foods, the Thousand-Year Egg and bean curd, and were insisting Jennifer partake.
Bean curd has a strange texture, but is otherwise fine to eat. But the Thousand-Year Egg? That was brutal.
In case you don’t watch the Travel Channel, Dear Reader, let me tell you what that is. It’s a half-incubated egg, either chicken or duck, that’s prepared in a concoction of things like salt, clay, and lime, and left to age for a good long period. Not a thousand years, but too long. So inside the shell is what amounts to a chicken fetus. Chunks of meat and hard-boiled egg, all at once. Blech!
Once I popped my head up to see what was going on, the pressure shifted to me. Middle Monk prepared me a plate of goodies, stood up, and handed it to me on the top bunk. I shook my head no, worried I would puke. He wouldn’t have it. “You! You! You! You!,” he said loudly in mock anger. We repeated the process. Twice. The others laughed uproariously.
What else was there to do? It was Chinese New Year. These were monks.

Two eggs later (it tasted like boiled egg with pieces of chicken inside it) with a bean curd chaser, I had to admit that it wasn’t half-bad. Jennifer and I were only too happy to provide three Vietnamese monks fodder for their holiday.

And that was when I knew it was love. Me and Vietnam. Not the Love at First Sight kind of love I had with Laos. But the arranged marriage, you’ve grown on me over time and will definitely do in pinch kind of love.

Holiday Joy

This holiday season passed by much better than I’d ever hoped.
Every year since I can remember, I’ve dreaded the holidays. By October, I’m praying I could wake up and it be January 2nd. Forget Halloween, Thanksgiving. Really forget Christmas, and skip the Happy New Year. Please.
But at the end of 2011, not only was I looking forward to traveling to Vietnam and Laos, I was in the thick of planning an in-service for some of the kids at the youth detention center I work at who would be spending their own holidays in custody.
Some of them come from loving families with rich traditions. Most do not.
On any given day in our detention center, we house juveniles who are orphaned, abused, and/or neglected. A good percentage of them don’t know who their father is, or haven’t seen him for years.
So getting some local artists to give workshops to motivate our detained kids and teach them a new skill seemed like an easy way to make a positive difference in their lives, and remind them that one day they would be released to a community that cared. After meeting with detention staff, we titled mini-conference for kids Bring the Outside In.
Did I say it would be easy? Not so much.
It turns out, a lot of people are busy or traveling on holidays. Who knew? So although I know many talented writers, artists, and musicians, it looked as though my hope would never materialize due to scheduling challenges.
But in the end, several amazing and generous volunteers came forward. Restaurateur Barry Yabyabin from KLT Diner showed the kids how to cook a healthy and inexpensive Filipino dish, pancit. My dear friend and comic genius Lee Post taught drawing. Amber Rose and her assistant Anne Freitag led the kids in Scottish Country Dancing. And Trey Josey and Kima Hamilton from Brave New Alaskan Voices mesmerized the kids with the art of the spoken word.
The kids were thrilled. But what I loved most was watching the volunteers, tentative at the beginning of their workshops, get energized teaching the kids a skill that might very well contribute to the staff’s rehabilitative efforts.
We all have some gift to offer the people around us. The trick is finding it and connecting it with the person(s) who need it.
Christmas of 2010 helped me turn a corner. Gifts versus presents. Memories versus madness.
I’m already planning Christmas of 2012.
Much appreciation to the volunteers.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, and welcome to my new blog.

As I write, fireworks are sounding all around me. It’s 12:00AM in Alaska, 2012, and I’m packing to go on a big fat adventure. Vietnam and Laos. Perhaps the only two countries in the world where I won’t feel broke.
But first, about the blog.
I used to wonder why any non-celebrity would bother to blog. Who cares what I think? What do I have to say, and why would it matter?
Recently, it came to me. In the span of a day, I had two different friends e-mail to ask how to help their respective friends who are in abusive relationships.
And I thought to myself, Connecting every once in a while is a good thing. Sharing my experiences, hearing from other people about theirs, that’s the point of a blog. That’s how it matters. And everyone has something to share than can benefit another person.
In 1990, while in my twenties, I left my own oppressive marriage and took my little daughters with me. I had a high school education, and was born in Kentucky of two parents who never had the chance to even get that far. Not surprisingly, I didn’t expect much.
Now, twenty-one years later, my two lovely daughters are both in college. I’m still single. I earned a master’s degree and work a job I adore, and am flying to the other end of the globe in a few hours by myself. Because I wanted to, and because I can.
My resolution this year is to connect more with others.
Thanks for letting me connect with you.