Sunday, May 27, 2012

Working Out

This post was written last Thursday (on May 24). As you read, imagine that it is a few days ago. The mistakes you've made in the past few days haven't happened yet, and you can prevent them from happening because it is no longer today.

Because I’m working out and working out, things are working out. Let me clarify:
My house has gone on an exercise bender. We have two main things: our pushups; our running.
We started the pushups not too long after arriving. Our coordinator, Jess, wanted to make it a house thing where we all exercise together. I’m a big fan of the idea, especially because it meant that my exercising in the living room (the only place where there is space to work out) would be legitimated by a household norm. At the start, the others (except Dave, who steadfastly refuses to exercise until he returns to Canada) were doing the pushups and other weight exercises too, but by now it’s just Jess and I doing them. Our goal is to increase by 5 the amount of pushups we each can do in one set. I started off around May 16 with 30 and by today (May 24) have already gone up to 37. As I would say, “That shit cray.” It’s not like I’m eating ridiculous amounts of protein either. But protein is overrated anyway. People have survived for millennia without eating as much protein as Canadians tend to eat.
Anywho, my goal for June 1 is to be able to do 40 pushups in one set. I’m not doing any special training to get up there, Imma just do pushups at the appointed time and hope that the stars align to let me do 40.
Every couple of days, we wake up early to run. Our intention is always to get up at 6:00, so I set my alarm for 5:55, throw on some exercise clothes and wait in the living room for my teammates. I’m always disappointed to find that no one else has emerged by 6:20. We end up beginning our runs after 6:30, which is not good because by that point the traffic has built up. In Canada, this would not be a big problem, but where we are it is a rather big problem because our choice of running terrain is that between tarmac frequented by motorised traffic and bumpy, narrow and muddy paths beside the road. When a vehicle comes our way, we need to dodge either by moving to the other side of the road or, as I prefer to do, jump onto the uneven dirt and hope to not sprain my ankle. Our area is very hilly too, which means that at any given moment we either have too much momentum or are struggling to move forward.
Yesterday I woke up at the appointed time, like usual, and ended up waiting until 6:30. So I told myself “Screw waiting. Imma go run myself.” The others shouldn’t hold me back. Best run ever – I practically made it to Chavakali, the road to which is essentially one big fat uphill, and down the hill back. Tomorrow I’m going to push even further – Imma run all the way to CHAVAMAST, a really cool community-based organisation that I got into contact with totally by chance.
Here’s where I get into another sense of working out. My first encounter with CHAVAMAST was totally unexpected, yet it has led to a relationship that will probably make my work much more fulfilling than it would have been without it. Last Monday, after completing an interview, I took a matatu to Chavakali for a SID meeting at 1:30. My interview and the subsequent dumping of the contents of my short-term memory into a notebook ended at around 12:00, and I arrived in Chavakali just before 12:30. So I had an hour to kill. I thought I might walk from one end of town to another to look for a hotel (which, in Kenya, is a restaurant, not necessarily a place with a bed) to chill in. Imagine me, a muzungu in a bright pink shirt, pleated pants and leather shoes, sauntering through a one-road town in Kenya. That’s right, you were probably thinking of a thumb so sore it stuck out all the way to outer space. But that actually served me really well because, having gone through the whole town and not really found any establishment I felt like entering, I just sat on one of a series of concrete parking blocks arranged on the side of the road. I casually took out my phone and checked my email (hooray for Android!). After a few minutes of idling on my phone, I heard some shouts of “Hello! How are you?” I had heard these words before, and they generally led to nowhere except a “I’m fine. And you?” But they were coming from the office of CHAVAMAST about which I had thought “I should get in contact with these guys about my research one day” when I saw their motto of “Community empowerment, accountability and governance” in capital letters above the entryway to their office.
I had time to kill, so I wiped off my dusty bum and walked into their office. I had really come to the right place, because it turns out that they do social audits of the LATF, one of the two devolved funds that I am studying! We talked for a long while about the LATF and Kenya, and I got the contact information of a few people in the office along with some concrete information about the LATF in Sabatia (which is very hard to come by). More importantly, I felt like the seeds of a relationship were there.
So I’m working out in the sense that I’m not working in the house on my computer – I’m going out, meeting people and getting my work out there. I never thought of myself as a networker or as a go-getter but those are things that you need to be to do social-science research successfully. And being those things is ever so satisfying. One thing that I’ve come to realise is that people are really willing to help if you only ask them. So Imma continue to be out of the house and talking to people. I just feel so...productive when I’m out and about. After all, I wasn’t sent to Kenya to sit in my house.
So that’s been a slice of my life and what I’ve thought about it. I’m excited to see how my research unfolds! Oh, last night we saw a newborn calf stand and walk for the first time as its mother licked the birth fluids off of it. I have lots of good pictures because I was standing dangerously close to the mother cow. Thank God for health insurance.
I present to you some cool photos germane to the foregoing:

This photo was taken off of the Lunyerere bridge, near Mbale. I enjoyed the bridge on the day when I took this picture, but was not so impressed when I had to leap onto it  from the tarmac because there were vehicles coming in both directions and a few seconds later found myself on my left side and adorned with a nice coating of mud on my left side and a series of parallel scrapes on my shin. I still finished that run, going all the way to (and just beyond) Chavakali Market.

This is the sidewalk. In Canada we use the expression "off the beaten path" although it would be much more appropriate for Kenya, where there are actually paths that are beaten, as opposed to paths that are unbeaten. Above, I present to you the beaten path.

Facing east.

Last Sunday, one of the cows on the compound gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Here is Jambo (us muzungus named her Jambo. Say it in the most muzungu way possible, really stretching the "a"), looking all placenta-y.

Jambo's been somewhat cleaned up by her mother, who doesn't seem to mind at all. I got this shot thanks to my amazing vantage point. Jambo hasn't started walking by this point, but thanks to help from the man who takes care of the animals, she's on her own four feet now:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Reflections on a Week Away from Home

So it has been nine days since I left home for Kenya. While I haven’t started work yet, I’ve been having a great time (for real!). I would have expected that I would need some alone time, but I haven’t been craving it in any way, shape or form. I’m excited to begin my research and needs assessments in the coming weeks. Tomorrow I’m going to meet an important local figure (confidentiality, sorry) to get approval for part of my research, which is exciting.
I suppose the best way to organise this post is by category, so that you can get a bird’s-eye view of my life this week. Suffice to say that my life hasn't been like this:
(the biogas reservoir on the compound. Yes, that's manure. Yes, we do use ithe gas to heat our food. What a beautiful cycle. We use the result of food to create food.)
Food. No, I haven’t died yet. No, I haven’t gotten cholera. No, I haven’t gotten diarrhea. The food has been both amazing and amazingly safe. Our host is a wonderful man and a wonderful cook. He made us a beef-and-potato stew on the second day and it was so good that we’re still talking about it. Another day we went to his sister’s house (which is on the same compound) and he made a green-lentil stew which we ate with chapatis that we all made together (actually, mostly Anjum and Antu, our resident natives of the subcontinent).
I’ve also tried ugali, which is the Kenyan staple. It’s a thick paste/porridge made from maize flour that is used to pick up or mop up the main dishes. When you eat out, half of your plate is filled with greens or stew or something and the other half is filled by a giant steaming blob of ugali. You can’t just grab it and eat, though. For the best taste and texture, you have to knead the ugali in your palm to make it glutinous (a process that takes a few seconds at most) and then turn it into a little glove to grab your food with (or just eat plain). You can make ugali with unsifted flour, which creates the equivalent of whole-wheat bread. I haven’t made ugali yet, although I will be sure to have pictures taken when I do.
Transportation. No, I haven’t died yet. No, I haven’t gone to the hospital yet. No, I haven’t been in any accidents yet. I’ve taken both the piki-piki (motorcycle taxi) (much like the xe ôm in Vietnam) and the matatu (van taxi). The matatus are pretty rad. They have anywhere from 11 to 14 seats but actually seat 20 or more people. When you get on, you negotiate with the ‘conductor’ a price to get to your destination. Oddly enough, you don’t pay until you’re in the middle of your ride. I would have thought that there would have been mad staring at the muzungus on the matatus, but it’s been okay when I’ve been on them. No funny stories from the matatus, except for being told by my coordinator to throw my banana peel out the window (apparently, the cows love to eat the peels). Matatus don’t have route numbers because ‘round these parts each town has only one main road.
It’s been a bit of an adjustment to get used to the fact that Kenyans drive on the wrong side of the road. When I cross the road I still look the wrong way for passing traffic.
Language. I haven’t really used much Swahili yet. I actually haven’t spoken to that many Kenyans, and most of the time it’s been in English. I have busted out a few Kimaragoli (local vernacular) phrases, including “Buche” (“good morning”), “mirembe” (“hello”) and “utigari borahi” (“goodbye”). When I went to the market today I tried some Kiswahili but it ended up reverting to English because it was difficult for me to say Swahili fluently. I know what I want to say but because the language is new I get anxious enough that the words get stuck in my chest. Even when speaking English the words get stuck sometimes. My stammer has come back with a vengeance and I’m doing my best to manage it given that I don’t really have private space to practice fluent speaking. I’m intentionally speaking slowly and making eye contact with those with whom I’m speaking. Doing those things makes it better, although I still stutter and get blocks. I think that as I speak more I will become more confident in speaking, and as I become more confident in speaking I will stutter less. I just need to not avoid or reduce speaking time because of fear of stammering. I do foresee an issue when I’m interviewing government officials, as I’ll probably be pretty nervous, and therefore stammery. But I can do it! I’ll look them in the eyes, and breathe properly, and speak clearly. I’ll probably stammer some, but it’s really not the end of the world. It’ll just force them to listen to me more closely.
For my research I will hire someone to translate to and from Kiswahili (Swahili) and Kimaragoli. Perhaps that person will be able to teach me some useful Kiswahili and Kimaragoli. There doesn’t seem to be too much literature written in Kimaragoli but I will be very happy if I can get my hands on a Kimaragoli hymn book and bring it home. I would like to be able to write a Kimaragoli 101 for next year’s crop of SIDers going to Kenya.
Accommodations. Our house is so wonderful. We have both great infrastructure and great people. We have an indoor shower, a gas stove and running water (which is more than you can say for many homes in the area). Showers are of the bucket variety. They are so freakin’ awesome. I use less than 2 litres of water per shower here, while in Canada I use a hell of a lot more than that in the shower. I am seriously going to take bucket showers at home in Canada. It’ll be really easy because I won’t have to wait for the hot water to boil – the water tank will have boiled it already. I’m going to go on a freakin’ bucket shower crusade. Organise riots in the streets. Lobby my Member of Parliament to get him to propose a multi-million dollar initiative to educate people about bucket showering. Given the federal Conservatives’ record on the environment, I’m not optimistic that he’d listen.
My sleeping arrangements are definitely different from those I have in Canada. When I was on residence, I had flatmates. At summer camp, I had roommates. But here, I have a bedmate. Dave and I share a big bed, which takes up about two thirds of our bedroom. Our suitcases (dressers) take up another 20 per cent of our floor space. So we really don’t have much space to hang out in our bedroom. But the room is really only for sleeping and changing anyway. We should be out in the living room talking or relaxing with others, or out doing our work, not cooped up in our rooms!
Phone and Internet. I caved and got an Android. It did hurt to part with so many shillings, but it makes Internet access very accessible. Also, SID can buy it back from me right before I leave, so that future SIDers can have the use of an Android for much less than I paid.
For this month, and this month only, I have a data allowance of 1.5 GB. I’ve definitely had to restrict my Internet use to the most elementary functions (email, document retrieval and the occasional Facebook login). If I have a lot left over around the middle of next month (when the 1.5 GB expires) then I’ll have a data party. I’ll watch all of the YouTube videos that I’ve been craving, such as Top 60 Jewish Ghetto Names and The King’s Singers’ rendition of The Barber of Seville.
And that’s the kind of week it’s been. From all of us in North Maragoli Ward, Sabatia Constituency, Sabatia District, Western Province, Kenya, have a good night. Stay tuned for your local news.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hello everybody! I've decided to keep things simple and use this defunct blog for my time in Kenya. Sure, the name "Josh in Hanoi" doesn't reflect my being in Kenya, but keep in mind that a lot of names don't reflect what they denote. As George Carlin said, you drive on a parkway and park on a driveway. Figure that one out.

Monday, January 17, 2011


My friends, winter has come. It is not the crisp, clean winter of the Arctic or the snowy paradise depicted in too many Christmas movies. It is ten above, and it is hell. I bet you’re all wishing it was ten above outside right now. Let me tell you (I’ll tell you anyway. I don’t care if you let me or not) – ten above in Vietnam is a lot different from ten above in Canada. In Canada, one can appreciate the chill the air provides to one’s face as he/she passes from one centrally-heated building to another. In Vietnam, ten above outside is ten above EVERYWHERE. In my tile bathroom, in my bedroom with wood flooring, in my office (which has no heating system, but which has a machine that dispenses boiling-hot water on command). I have to wear my outside jacket and my hat to the dinner table. When I get home, I go to my room, reluctantly take off my jacket, and climb into bed under my three (yes, three) blankets just to be acceptably warm. This is a big time-waster, because I always end up falling asleep (I don’t want to get up) for no less than an hour before my host brother wakes me up for dinner. I want to have hobbies, but I just find that there’s no time, on account of my sleeping. It’s also hard for me to concentrate on anything when I’m freezing at my desk. I could be studying the Nôm script (the Chinese-derived script that Vietnamese used to be written in), or writing my next Top 40 hit, or reading about world domination (not a joke – I have been inching through an abridged version of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Instead, I am stuck in my bed, left with only the ephemeral pleasures of dreamland.

[This section has been removed from public view. Although it truly belongs to this composition, it isn't something that everyone with an Internet connection should know. Please contact me if you want to read the part I have removed. The post continues below, as it would have in its entirety.]

All through my illness, my host mom has taken really good care of me. She has me tell her immediate of any changes in health status, she has prepared special foods for me and she has given me medication, both herbal and non-herbal. Apparently berberine, an herbal ingredient used a lot in Chinese medicine, is great for stopping diarrhea. It was no match for my case, though, even though I took twenty pills of it. My friend Min tells me that, when taking herbal medicine, one has to take what seems like a lot because the ingredients are not as powerful as less-natural ones. The first time I took berberine, I took ten pills. Why I thought it was a good idea to put them all in my mouth at the same time, I have no idea. It’s not like anyone swallows two Tylenols at the same time. So I had ten of these pills in my mouth and I was trying to wash them down with water but they weren’t going down because they were so bitter. The longer they stayed on my tongue, the more bitter they tasted. It took me a good two minutes to get all ten pills down, and about two hours to get rid of the awful bitterness on my tongue. The next time, I took three pills at a time, and that worked out beautifully.

I am happy to report that, as of right now, it looks like the final score is Josh – 1, piece-of-shit pathogenic bacteria – 0. The next time I get diarrhea, I hope I get the obtuse kind.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tôi yêu Việt Nam

Well, it might be presumptuous to say that I yêu all of Vietnam. To this day, I am still bothered by cat-calling xe ôm drivers. And there are still no barbershop quartets in the city. But last Thursday I got a big dose of genuine friendliness. Never ever ever would I have had the same experience on the streets of Toronto, principally because I don't look like a foreigner in Toronto. If we Torontonians treated all foreigners like I was treated today, then Toronto would be a much happier place.

My adventure began at the market near my house, where I was going to stock up on fresh fruit to kick the ass of this cold that I have before going downtown to work on my research project. By 'market', I don't mean 'supermarket', but an alley roughly twelve feet wide with women of all ages above 40 sitting behind baskets full of fresh vegetables and fruit and rigged scales (don't quote me on the scales). As I always do, I made my way from the entrance to the end, seeing how many people were selling custard-apple. This gives me crucial information about the number of suppliers of custard-apple - knowing how many people are selling it tells me what my bargaining power is. As I make my way through, I hear cries of "Cháu ơi!", meant to lure the foreigner into paying too much for something. By the time I reached the live chickens at the back, I had decided that paying 2000 VND for two bananas was going to get me farther in life than paying 9000 VND for two custard-apples. The ladies selling bananas always make a whole song-and-dance when I ask for two bananas, because it is apparently such a hardship to take a knife and cut two bananas off of the end of a bunch of fifteen. The (elderly) lady selling me the bananas was so adamant that I not take two bananas that, after we had got the price from something ridiculous to 2000 VND, she gave me a third banana for free.

Oh, and I also got about 300 grams of mandarin oranges. Mandarin oranges are in season in Vietnam right now, so they are very cheap. They have yellow skin, are really small and are easy to peel. You can pop a whole one into your mouth with no problem. They would have been delicious if I could taste them (remember, I have a cold).

As I am about to go downtown, the elderly lady offers me hot tea. It was fairly early (only 8:30 a.m.) so I thought I could spare a few minutes to talk to her. Whenever I buy fruit, the fruit ladies are always so amazed that I can speak the most basic Vietnamese, and they invariably say "...nói tiếng Việt Nam rất giỏi/giỏi lắm/giỏi thế!", and proceed to ask me the usual questions: Have you taken a wife yet? No? How old are you? Twenty?! Too young! I have a niece who is the same age as you. She's studying in university...". They are then so shocked when I say that I will not take a Vietnamese wife because I have a girlfriend in Canada. Maybe loyalty isn't as important in Vietnam as it is in Canada. Anyway, I and this old lady sit, and we chat. There are a few times when I cannot make out what she says, but most of the time I get it all or at least the idea. One thing she said, which I hope I will never forget, is this (and I don't remember her exact words, so I'll have to give a rough translation): Vietnam is poor, but it is rich in affection. She hit the nail right on the head with that one. People earning $3 USD per day have treated me to whole weekends of fun, and it does not seem to bother them one bit that I could easily have paid for everything. People are always working, day and night, to earn money, yet they are generous with the little they have even when those benefitting from their generosity have many times more purchasing power than they do. Even those who don't spend significant portions of their monthly income on me are actually interested to find out about me and my life. Yes, it's because I'm a foreigner. But their curiosity is friendly and has no malice or greed whatsoever. And there is no awkwardness, of which there is so much in introducing oneself in Canada. I admit that I am probably one of the biggest sources of that awkwardness (because I'm an awkward person). They don't talk to me because they have to - they talk to me because they want to. In Canada, in most cases when I'm not talking to any of my friends, I feel like I'm dragging the other person into the conversation by their hair - it's so hard to get real friendliness from other people. Yes, I'm generalising, but Canadians are so scared to ask other people about themselves out of fear either that they'll get an answer that they don't want to hear or that the other person will think they're weird for asking so many questions. I say "To hell with that". People should want to meet each other.

So our conversation ended after about half an hour. I thought for a second about paying for the two glasses of tea that I had, and by the next second I thought that paying for them would express that I didn't see the gesture as one of generosity. I promised her that I would come back from time to time, and I plan to make good on that promise.

Two bananas, a few mandarin oranges and fourty minutes later, I arrived at that building across from the Opera House, and had two of the most-productive hours of my life. As I walked west on Tràng Tiền, a lady carrying two baskets of bananas hanging from a long wooden stick (on the streets of Hanoi there are women, young and old, carrying stuff on these yoke-like contraptions, which are laid on one shoulder) implored me with her eyes to buy bananas. I said "Cháu vừa ăn chuối" (I jut ate bananas - this was true), a sentence which led to her guiding me to a restaurant which, by her account, is frequented by many foreigners. I didn't see any foreigners in there. Anyway, she led me all the way to this restaurant, probably over 300 metres away from where we met, while carrying the heavy load of bananas on her shoulder. Surely she didn't have to incur the extra damage and drudgery. I probably could have found my own nice restaurant if left to myself. But she took an active interest in my enjoying lunch, and wanted to be sure that I would enjoy what I ate. I actually did enjoy my plate of fried tofu. Mmm, tofu.

And as I made my way from the record store (where I bought some CD by Trọng Tấn), I stopped by a cart to buy some bánh mì (baguette). For some reason, I thought that it was appropriate to pay 5000 VND for an ambient-temperature, not-too-flavourful piece of bread. Of course, the older lady selling bread and her slightly-younger friend started talking to me. After about a couple of minutes of shooting the you-know-what, two girls, about eighteen or nineteen years old, walk by and freeze in their tracks from seeing me squatting on the sidewalk, holding a conversation with two Vietnamese women. "He's a white guy. Yet Vietnamese is coming out of his mouth. DO NOT COMPUTE DO NOT COMPUTE" is probably what went through their heads. Vietnamese people love to think that their language is the most-difficult language in the world. There is a Vietnamese saying as follows: the worst storm is not as bad as Vietnamese grammar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vietnamese is not as difficult to learn as at least three other languages which I have had the pleasure of learning for any significant period of time (English, French and Arabic. Two years of learning Arabic has had the sole result of me knowing how to say "I am eating a watermelon" in Arabic).

These two girls speak to me at lightning speed for a couple of minutes. It was all very confusing and surreal, but I think that somewhere in there word got out that I was on my way to buy headphones. One of the girls spends the next fourty-five minutes with me, standing there while I try on headphones and say that I don't want one with a microphone attached and that "big headphones" does not mean "earbuds". Would you take fourty-five minutes to help a total stranger buy headphones? As per usual, we exchanged phone numbers and promised to hang out at some later point in time. I hope that I'll remember and take the initiative to contact her.

Why did I have such an experience on that day? Surely it's not my own talents - I'm as reserved as can be. The old lady at the market was right: Vietnam is poor, but it is rich in affection. And, in most cases in my experience, it's not a money-grubbing affection.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Bicycle Diaries

Last Thursday, I bought a bicycle. I know! Even I asked "What took you so long?". I had been here for nearly four months and I was still moseying around the city on foot, by bus, by xe ôm and by taxi. I had to get with the way of the future! No longer do I live in darkness. I once was lost, but now am found on Đường Láng four days a week, pedalling the hell out of my two-wheeler.

My new vehicle (the word "vehicle" gives my bicycle the dignity it merits) was made by Asama, a Taiwanese company. It's a single-speed bike, a fact which takes the stress of indecision out of riding a bicycle. I pedal, and the bike moves. No worrying about what the optimal front gear-back gear combination would be. The bike asks no questions, and I give it no answers. That's the way I like it. It's silver, has a built-in lock (yahoo!) and a basket on the front. The basket might give the impression that I look like a joyful little schoolgirl when riding the bicycle. Nothing could be further from the truth. My manly work clothes, my helmet with a flames decal, my legs like tree trunks (see below), my mind-boggling speed, the steel in my eyes, they all say "Step back. This is a real man on the bicycle.".

I had been apprehensive about riding a bicycle in Hanoi because, to an outsider, the traffic looks like hell. What would poor I do without the shell of a car to protect me from the big, bad, unscrupulous motorcycle drivers? But then I started working at Hanoi Community College, requiring me to commute on one of the most-godawful bus routes in the city. The bus never comes, the driver plays the worst Vietnamese music [which is really something, because Vietnamese music as a rule is bad (THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS DON'T KILL ME)] and I have sometimes felt so squished that I feared the atoms comprising my body would implode. Oh, and it would take me over an hour to get to work. On my bicycle, it takes me thirty minutes to get to work, and that includes a pit stop to eat xôi by the river. By bus, it would take me an hour, cost me 6,000 VND (3,000 VND each trip) and force me to walk for ten minutes on a stinky, dusty street. So every workday I save one hour, giving me one more hour to listen to Hard to be Cool (In a Minivan) on repeat.

What is the bike-riding experience like? It is a blast. Riding a bicycle in Hanoi is much safer than riding a bicycle in Toronto. Most of the vehicles around me are motorcycles, which are narrow and can easily go around obstacles. Cars are very wide and the drivers cannot see exactly where the edge of the car is, making the risk of colliding with a bicyclist on the side of the road relatively high. In Hanoi, I have access to virtually one-and-a-half car widths of road space, giving me lots of room to avoid the many potholes, crushed rats and unsightly bumps on the road. It also gives me room to whiz by the other cyclists, who like to take their sweet time on the road as they languish without helmets. I go nearly as fast as the motorcycles, allowing me to go to the left side of the road whenever I need to make a left turn. Sure, the cars honk at me, but, as I said in a previous post, I don't give a shit, because I'm on YouTube, baby! I ain't going to get off the road just because you decide to take one of the modes of transportation least conducive to safety, air quality and just allocation of road space. Of course, when I'm in the left lane, I pedal like hell and promise to buy my legs a beer one day to make up for the trouble I cause them.

On a related note, my use of a bicycle has been wonderful for my legs. They have been transformed from stores of flab into pistons of power. Three months ago, my calves were 8.5 out of 10. Now, they're 15,000 out of 10. I have to get ready to have thighs like those of the Greek gods, because that's where I'm headed. Cream-white thighs, unblemished by the sun and more suited to oxen than to human beings. They lead very nicely into my effulgent, finely-toned, deep-beige calves, which are the marvel of the world over. The colours are so divergent it is as though the thighs and calves belong to two entirely different beings - or, more accurately, deities.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pulling a Fast One

So yesterday was the Day of Atonement, the day when we (you know who you are) atone for our sins in the hope that God won't p0wn us in the following year. Usually I spend this day in the Toronto area, rushing from class to synagogue and driving under the influence of overwhelming hunger. But this year was different. This year, I spent my Yom Kippur in Hanoi. To put it mildly, there is not much in the way of Judaism here. I had to suspend my disbelief a great deal in order to turn the nearby military academy's five-o'clock wake-up horn into the blowing of a shofar. Despite the dearth of other Jews, I managed to participate in some rituals nonetheless. However, my participation was certainly not perfect.

I was looking forward to coming home early on Friday night, as my work activities had ended a bit early that day. I was getting ready to go home when someone I worked with invited me to come to her office and chat with the staff there. I spent about an hour there talking and eating dried fish from Nha Trang. In Canada, this is called 'a waste of time'. In Vietnam, this is called 'important relationship-building'. So I ended up leaving my office at the usual hour. On my way out, I was accosted by one of the college's vehicle watchers and invited to come into his office and talk with him. He is definitely one of those people who thinks that how well someone understands him is positively related to the volume at which he speaks (in Vietnamese). I was practically being yelled-at from a distance of one-and-a-half feet. Maybe I would have understood him better if I couldn't hear my eardrums exploding. He also served me what is quite possibly the most-disgusting tea I have ever consumed in my life. It was nearly cold, too. Blech! I minded the tea more than I minded the fact that a man, in his fifties or sixties, whom I had never met before put his arm on my shoulder and held on tight and touched my leg. I really don't mind that - I mind getting stared-at a heck of a lot more than I mind being touched.

That took me to about five o'clock. I waited about twenty-five minutes before my bus came. When it came, it was jam-packed (as usual) so I ended up taking a motorcycle taxi to get home. Now, I understand that drivers always ask for more than they expect to get. But I was being quoted 50,000 VND for a ride that should be 25,000 VND at the most (I paid 25,000 VND). It annoys me not because they want such a price - it annoys me that they insult my intelligence by quoting such a high price. I figured that I would commit the sin of stinginess because I would atone for it that evening anyway. Would it have been right to accept a price of 30,000 VND, which the drivers insisted was rock-bottom? Who would spend the 5,000 VND in a way that provides greater social benefit? If it buys shoes for their kids, then I should have accepted the price of 30,000 VND and swallowed my pride. But if it buys cigarettes, then I should bargain as low as I can possibly go. Would I spend it in a socially-useful way? Do I have a right to that money in the first place? Which is more important - my pride in getting a good price, or the driver having xôi (instead of nothing) for dinner? I am inclined to say that the latter is more important. But I am not a charity, and I should not be seen to favour some drivers over others.

The sun was still up when I got home. I thought I would be able to sneak dinner in before the sun said goodnight (on Yom Kippur, one is supposed to refrain from eating and drinking from sundown to sundown). Alas, we did not have dinner until eight o'clock, about one-and-a-half hours after the sun set. I was certainly not going to refuse to eat. I wouldn't ever go through a whole fast day without eating dinner first! After dinner I took some big gulps of water to make sure that I would not shrivel up and die from dehydration during the fast day. In Vietnam, it is rather possible to go a whole day without eating (people in the countryside are forced to do it), but it is much less possible to go a whole day without drinking. The heat and the humidity suck the water out of your body like a vacuum sucks dust.

For the first time in two weeks, I woke up after 5:30 AM. I decided that Yom Kippur would be a day of true rest (and atonement). After waking up at about 7:45, I just lay in my bed. It was the first time that I could truly relax. I really had nothing to do or to worry about doing - not even getting up to eat. By 8:30 I was on the floor, also laying and taking doing nothing very seriously. Between 7:45 and 2:00 I lay in my room accomplishing a whole lot of nothing (and a bit of reading, and a bit of atoning). This Yom Kippur was the first one during which I actually atoned. In Yom Kippurs previous, I just went to synagogue, did the whole fasting shtick, slept, etc. But this time I committed the act of atonement. To do this, really-religious Jews will take a live chicken and swing it around above their heads as they recite each of two prayers three times. If I wanted to, I could have used a live chicken. They can be easily bought at the market or pilfered from somebody's property. I have seen live chickens hanging out in front of a café that I go to often. I don't think anybody would miss them. But it was easier (yet more costly) to use money instead of a chicken. Money doesn't scream or try to peck at you. But it probably makes the experience much more intense. "Please God, this is my exchange, this is my atonement, I will do ANYTHING to get this chicken to stop attacking me!" is probably what goes through the heads of most Chasidim. But now I actually have to part ways with the money. That kind of sucks. But the money doesn't belong to me anymore. It belongs to those who need it (NOT xe ôm drivers).

The hunger was a nice feeling. I hadn't felt it in a long time. As the period of hunger drew on, my body felt more relaxed and seemed to clean itself out. I'm not referring to elimination. Parts of my body felt like they were freeing themselves of some kind of heaviness and dirtiness.

In the afternoon I decided to brave the moisture-sucking sun in order to go to the park to stretch. That venture was mostly a failure, because I really felt more like sitting on the bench than stretching. I did a few feeble stretches and enjoyed a view of the lake in Nghĩa Dô Park. To be honest, I do feel like I took the Day of Atonement a bit too easy. It's all about mortifying one's flesh and one's sense of pleasure in order to be granted a good year by God, am I right? But this is Hanoi, not Toronto. I was missing the awesome (as in causing awe, not as in cool) experience of communal atonement in synagogue. Then again, I also missed the communal chit-chat during the service. I definitely did not miss that. It is so rude and ruins the service. I don't care if I am committing the sin of whatever the opposite of mercy is - anyone who persists in chatting during the service, after being told to be quiet, should leave the sanctuary voluntarily or be forced to do so. I'm not talking about people who ask their spouses every so often what time it is. I often wonder the same thing when I have to wait until sundown to eat. I'm talking about people who talk about how sick their aunt is, how many diseases she has, what medications she has to take for them, how she is too stubborn to move into a nursing home already, how things would be so much better if her husband wasn't in the hospital, why her husband is in the hospital, how many diseases he has, how many medications he has to take, etc.

I was looking forward to doing some more sleeping at home but I was accosted by some construction workers sitting outside the site on my street. They're building some kind of tower which, according to the artist's rendition pictures on the outer boards, will only have white people in it. I had to go through the same questions: how old are you? are you studying here? have you taken a wife yet?. I was talking to a group of three people, all of them sitting close to each other, yet each of them asked me the same questions. Some other workers came by to look at the Tây, and they in turn asked me the same questions. I would like to forgive them for annoying me, because their curiosity is friendly. But I am not that good of a person. Yet.

As I came in the front door of my house, ostensibly to do some more sleeping at home, my host dad offered to teach me some Vietnamese after showering. I had planned neither on showering nor on learning Vietnamese that day. Many people wash themselves on Yom Kippur because they have to be in close proximity with other people in synagogue. I do not wash because not washing helps me feel like shit, which is what I am in comparison to God. I somehow managed to wash and dry myself in twenty minutes and learn how to greet different people in Vietnamese. I knew how to use the vast majority of the titles beforehand, but the lesson itself clarified some things. I also successfully picked up some new words! I do not know if he knew how exhausted I was, or if he thought that my hunger might preclude me understanding what he was saying to me. Luckily, dinner was right after the lesson, at six o'clock. The sun was still up, but I didn't care because I would rather eat than be a jerk.

So I had twenty-one hours of fasting. It's not quite twenty-four, but it's better than nothing. And I learned something about how being in a room full of people magnifies the intensity of the religious experience.