Friday, February 01, 2008

Rain, rain, go away…

I have had that old children's lyric, ´It's raining, it's pouring," running though my head non-stop for over a week now. It may be snowing enough to cause a Chinese-sized national disaster in China, but that means it is cold and raining in northern Vietnam. Temperatures have not gotten above 45o‑F (8oC) during the day and the rain just keeps coming. The damp means nothing is dry, and there's just nothing like warping yourself in a cold, damp towel after a hot shower.

I am back in Cao Bang after two cold and rainy weeks in Hanoi. Every time I enter the office in the morning I say a prayer of thanks for my new home. In all my new place isn't that much warmer than the office – I only have heat in one room in my new house and have to rely on a small space heater that really only makes psychological difference in my bedroom – but when I step into the entry way at the office with the chill breeze chasing through the open grillwork on the front door into the kitchen, I am eternally grateful for solid doors and windows and no wind blowing through my new kitchen and dining room.

I do have heat in my office, which makes work bearable. The damp chill is miserable, but I would tolerate it if I had an active job and a warm bed to return to at night. Instead I have a desk job and a damp, chilly room. The small heater makes a world of difference, although I haven't figured out what to do for my toes that freeze underneath my desk while the top of my head roasts snugly under the breeze from the heater.

The other thing that makes life bearable here is tea. Copious, obnoxious amounts of tea. We boil water almost continuously and pour bucketfuls into thermoses that almost immediately gets transferred into cups. I must drink a liter and a half of hot water per day. Green tea, strawberry tea, mint tea, Lipton tea, random herbal tea, you name it. My most exciting find last week in Hanoi was at literally 5 pm on my way home after a long cold day of shopping before heading back to Cao Bang. I spotted the ceramic-selling ladies who wheel bicycles laden with random pottery pieces around Hanoi – and there dangling from the back were these giant coffee mugs.

A proper mug is far more difficult to find in Vietnam than cheese (and cheese is nigh impossible in most places). Traditionally the Vietnamese love their tiny little ceramic shot glasses for tea, with miniature tea pots to match. Our office is made out in an assortment of old ADRA mugs and coffee mugs from other NGOs and one random souvenir from a Vietnamese sea port (thank you Ali), but the ADRA ones are so old they're beginning to crack when overheated. I, however, was desperate for a mug big enough that the contents would actually be cool before I could finish drinking it.

I am supported in this habit by a new addition to our ADRA family – a new volunteer by the name of Rachael. Rachael hails from the Sydney area of Australia and is enjoying the winter about as much as a root canal. She and I are basking in my discovery of mugs that hold nearly a half liter of liquid and the purchase of a two-liter thermos for hot water. Sheer survival, it seems, depends entirely on our ability to force hot water into our stomachs and to keep our hands warm by cradling hot ceramic between our fingers.

Rachael was brave enough to accompany me back to Cao Bang in the height of the winter – and is generous enough to insist that Cao Bang is "beautiful" at this most miserable time of year. We have just completed our third full week without sun and I fully anticipate a full two months ahead of dreary, wet darkness. So far we've subjected her to freezing mornings, cold days in the office, miserable wet motorbike rides to various points of town and wearing layers of the same clothes day after day after day.

But she's also getting to see the Cao Bang team in action and at their best right before the Lunar New Year holiday. We've done Vietnamese hot pot for dinner and a karaoke night to welcome new staff. She's learned the glory of a warm scarf, dry feet and a whistling tea kettle. And we're all appreciating having solid windows, walls and a roof over our heads and warm blankets on our beds after a hot shower at night. And someday the clouds will lift enough for her to see the mountains – and then she will know that Cao Bang really is a beautiful place. If you can like it in the rain, you won't help but adore ait in the sunshine.

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