Sunday, January 28, 2007

Finally! The sun came out! For the first time I got a clear view of the mountains that surround our city (and a clear view of a few other things that I'm not sure I was missing...). So I took the chance while I could and took some pictures of my city and the view that I (almsot never) have.

The view above is what I see out of my home/office windows - or at least I do on sunny days (the rest of the time the river creates a misty fog that obscures everything).

And this is what (for the time being anyway), I call home. My bedroom is on the top floor, far right side. Living room, for the moment, is behind the open window on the third floor. The very top is an unfinished roof area used for drying clothes and housing the essential generator that often keeps us in business. The windows on the far left overlook the river pictured above. Kitchen is down at the bottom, behind the ugly green gates on the far right. To the left on the bottom floor is the motorbike parking area, and all the other windows are office space. My goals are:

1) put in real doors on the ground floor and add some kind of signage that indicates this is an ADRA office.

2) consolidate all of the living areas (kitchen, livingroom and bedroom) to the fourth floor.

And when I do manage to escape my not-so-ivory tower, these are the streets I take to. A bit different from the Madagascar ones (at least the ones up in the mountains).

I'm not sure if they just take much more care of the streets around here, or if motorbikes are just much gentler, but the streets are in MUCH better condition than I could have hoped for.

Wow, it's really amazing how much nicer it all looks with a little bit of least just looking at it this way takes the chill off for me. I don't often mind the cold, dark days that have been so much the norm lately - it makes it a lot easier to stay in and get some work done. But for the weekend I appreciate being able to get out and about. And with that, I'm going to go explore some more - have a great week, wherever you are!!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Fred the Hobo Rat

I’ve done Peace Corps. The mouse-and-rat thing is something that comes with the gig. I’ve dealt with it before and I’m sure I’ll deal with it again. But this one involved a box of $5 cereal that I can only purchase in Hanoi.

Shortly before I arrived in Vietnam, a certain population of mice and rats discovered the office here. In some ways it’s surprising that they didn’t sooner – we’re perched right up above the riverbank and in a general area that is more likely to have a rodent population. As for our office, the ground floor could hardly be said to be secure from miniature four-leggers – the building is open on 2 sides and the entrance area is secured against larger intruders with sliding metal doors. One half of the basement floor is our motorbike parking area. There is no door to block this area from other half – our kitchen. And the kitchen is really rather short on storage area – just a couple of cabinets underneath the stove and sink that is also home to our rather shockingly large dish collection. All of our dishes compete for space with my cook’s supply of rice and other dry goods that she uses for feeding me each day. I spent the weekend before totally clearing out this space and trying to get rid of any extra dishes/utensils that we never use in order to make space for some more things. Then I put in a small collection of my own supplies for when I do my own cooking. So now this cupboard contained dishes, rice and other dry grains in plastic market bags and some of my prepackaged pasta and cereal.

On Tuesday night my translator took me out for street food, so I didn’t cook. My cook also had had the previous two days off – so nobody had been cooking for a couple of days. When I got back that evening I almost went right on upstairs, but I noticed that some dishes were still out and should be put away (another disadvantage to this open-air arrangement to the kitchen – besides being extremely cold in the winter – is that it gets extremely dusty, especially now they’re fixing the road right outside our non-existent doors), so I reached down to open the cupboard and immediately noticed that something wasn’t right.

There were dishes and bottles of things tipped over haphazardly and then, there was a strange little rustling noise that came from the back. Immediately I knew what had happened – and a second later my nose confirmed it – that rat had been in there long enough to make that whole place quite ripe, and he was in no mood to leave. Why would he? He’d found little rat heaven right here on earth – warm, dark, and enough food to eat himself into oblivion.

So he was in there, I was out there, and he wasn’t moving. I tried banging. I tried yelling. Like that was going to convince him (even I knew that). So the only other choice was to take everything that was keeping him in there out. I reached in there and started removing, piece by piece, everything that he could be interested in. It took quite a bit too – either he was hopeful I would just go away or he was just too scared to move. Finally, as one more rat-pee soaked bag of rice spilled out, he gave it up and jumped out. Two days of rice slowed him up quite a bit and I could’ve stepped on his tail as he was fleeing. But it was one of this split second things and I chose not too.

This rat is no stranger to me. I’ve caught him coming around corners and trying to sneak into the kitchen to get at the garbage before. He’s a big one, but moreover, he’s ugly. He must’ve gotten into a tussle with a neighborhood cat or dog – he’s missing half the fur off of his back and runs with an odd limp. He must be old too because the hair he has left is shaggy and not so young looking. Before I had tolerated him – the staff has attempted to trap and remove all of the “Freds” living in the office, but this one is either too big for the trap or too smart to go for it (or the traps are so poorly constructed…well, you get the point). Either way, this Fred is definitely a local hobo rat – low on the ranks for even rats.

So I spent the rest of that evening digging out – gingerly – all of the torn and spilling bags of rice and whatnot and dropping directly in the trash and pulling out the dishes that became rat porta-potties to be washed. Fortunately Fred the Hobo, being as lazy as he is, decided that it was going to be too much effort to chew through the plastic that was wrapped around most of my own personal foodstuffs down there. So those also got stacked on the counter to get washed off. But one item that did go regrettably into the trash was my box of Natural Selections cereal - $5 at Citimart in Hanoi – that Fred must’ve decided would make a nice soft bed. And yes, in case you are wondering, rats do wet the bed.

I must’ve scared Fred enough that night that when I came down the next morning the trash can was undisturbed. So we had at least one rat-free night downstairs. For this I was grateful as I had some important visitors for strategic planning arrive on Wednesday night and my cook and I were hosting them for meals – I didn’t want them getting the wrong idea (although perhaps the story is a good justification for our desire to move our kitchen to the 4th floor – or at least for putting in real doors to seal off the bottom floor.

But the Fredlessness didn’t last – the very next night as I was walking our guests down the stairs to let them out that evening I got to the bottom of the stairs and promptly tripped over and followed through with a fairly admirable boot kick of something large and furry. Sure enough – Fred was back, and then gone again just as fast. Thank goodness it is winter and I was wearing heavy socks, and long pants with my house sandals. Shudder – we are going to solve this rat problem before spring arrives.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Motorbike Madness

This has been a pretty full but wonderful week – has it only been a week? A week since when? Well, it’s Sunday evening, whatever that means, and since the last Sunday evening, I have participated in senior management meetings, interviewed 6 potential candidates for staff positions, dealt with requests from project funders/donors, held strategic planning meetings, changed the arrangement of my office (like one whole room that I am completely in charge of and don’t share with ANYBODY), approved the purchase of a digital camera for one of our projects, and discussed steps necessary for major structural changes to be made to the building – all of these firsts in my life.

However, as much as these were landmark events for my professional life, I think you will agree that the most impressive milestone came on Saturday – my very first motorcycle driving lesson.

Since I have been here I’ve gotten more than comfortable – almost downright lackadaisical – about zooming through the feral jungle streets of Hanoi. I have survived while huddling from freezing winds over 120 km of bumpy, winding mountain roads traveling to remote districts. I have even purchased my own helmet (okay, so it’s pea-soup green, not my choice in color, but it’s the only one they had available at the time). So I was ready.

Saturday afternoon one of my dear staff members brought her husband – our unofficial motorbike driving coach – and our translator to the office. We took two motorbikes (including the one that seems to have been labeled “the boss’s” bike) and headed off out of town to a rural schoolyard that apparently has been designated the “driving range.” It’s where all the first-timers get to take their first automotive or cyclic steps – not anything particularly beautiful, but adequate. As we approached, Anh suddenly stopped the motorcycle while her husband zoomed on ahead to scope the scene. Apparently they didn’t want too much company or attention during my induction. But the coast was clear (for the moment) and well pulled in.

It was a rather amusing session with everything being said twice – first by the teacher who gave all the instructions complete with hand motions and appropriate indications. Then the second round – the translation which was done with the finest of efforts, but lacking a lot in technical vocabulary (i.e., gears, choke, accelerator, brake). But the essentials were clear (and I was wearing a helmet), so I was feeling pretty confident as I climbed on to the propped up bike and started to learn how to shift through gears. As soon as I learned how to shift without threatening unexpected acceleration and how to remember where my brake was (right foot! right foot!) AND to look straight ahead while doing all these things, they set me back down on the ground and my instructor climbed on behind me (sans helmet, perhaps not his best choice) and drove me around the track in a way quite reminiscent of my first snowmobile ride in my father’s lap.

Then, finally, it was on my own. Unfortunately at this point another set of onlookers has arrived with a driving student who took over the other side of the track. So I was left with a circle half the size of the original which required quite a chunk of bumpy track on the cross-cut too. Plus about 5 new pairs of male eyes to observe this foreigner’s first wobbles across the grass.

But oddly enough, they didn’t get nearly the spectacle they were ready for. In fact, as much to my surprise as theirs, I caught on. Like Harry Potter taking his first-ever broomstick ride, I more or less seemed to be made to drive a motorbike. It came more or less naturally. There were still a lot of reflexes to work on (right foot! right foot!), but they quickly became more natural. It was fun!!

That was a confidence booster – and it pleased my driving coaches so much that they graduated me directly to the next training ground – the testing field.

To get a motorbike driving license here, you have to pass a driving test. It’s not a road test like for driving an automobile in the States. They assume if you can pass a written test on road signs, then you will be road worthy (probably not the greatest assumption – another reason I prefer to wear a helmet). It’s a control test, and it’s not going to be easy. The test track is a outline figure eight, then a tight turn to a straight away, a second turn onto a series of small bumps and a final turn to the obstacles that you have to swerve around. The end part is fine – as long as you haven’t completely lost your nerve, if you can survive the figure eight and the turn into the rest of the course, you’ll make it to the end. But the figure eight is a killer. It’s curves are really tight and really leaves no room for error. Your acceleration and braking has to be exact the entire time. At no point can your wheels leave the white lines (who else recalls that old car commercial: stay between the lines…stay between the lines), and you can’t put your feet on the ground. You have to complete one full figure 8, then repeat about a quarter of it before heading into the turn onto the straight away. The turn is placed at such an angle that you’re heading sharply to the left but then have to pull a hard right in a very small angle to make the turn. Even my instructor struggled with that part.

I must have done that course in full 20 times and the figure eight somewhere close to 70. It was not easy. Exhausting actually. But by the end I was at least able to do it 1 out of 3 tries.

By the end of the day my instructor graduated me one last time – she made me drive on the open road. First choice was a quiet dirt path, but very bumpy. Next was a well-paved country path that was a lot of fun, and so much more relaxing after endless repeated figure 8s. Then, as we turned to go home, she insisted that I drive all the way back to the office. So there you go – intersections, other drivers, pedestrians, bikes, cars and trucks. Turns and traffic lights, the whole bit. Fortunately Cao Bang roads are so wide and traffic on weekends is far less than on weekdays (which still is nothing to speak of) that it wasn’t anything to be frightened of. And nothing at all after doing endless figure eights.

But while on the course, Anh pointed to a poster announcing the next testing session – suddenly I have about 2 weeks (or two more weekends) to prepare myself to do a figure 8 under a lot of pressure. Anh promises she’ll take me to practice, but as sore as my butt is already and as sore as I think my arms are going to me, I don’t know how much practicing my body is going to tolerate and still be able to function for day-to-day tasks. But it’s so much fun that I doubt I will be able to say no.

Look out world – I’m getting myself a motorcycle license!!

Here's the old Russian Minsk motorcycle - NOT the bike I will be driving for the test...or for a while considering we're selling them...

Sunday, January 07, 2007

On my own now...

Well, this is it. I'm officially on my own now.
Friday morning we took Ali to the airport, got her checked in and her excess luggage paid for, then, well, left. Walked out the door, into our car, drove back to the office, and Erica started her new life officially as the only Health Coordinator for the Cao Bang ADRA office.
Fortunately that night there was a wonderful thing waiting for me at my hotel – my sister's best friend from high school, and younger sister of one of my best high school friends, came to my hotel and saved me from being alone on my first Friday night without Ali in Hanoi.
My sister's friend is touring through Vietnam and Thailand visiting college friends. She's been here for a month now, and she's been doing it all Vietnam style until now, so I had the extreme pleasure of being able to take her out for Italian food and cappuccino and pancakes and fruit smoothies done Indian style and ice cream and chocolate mousse and all that Western goodness. And she was kind enough to deliver all these wonderful things that she carried across the ocean to help make my life here that much more comfortable. Then she was also kind to accompany me on my shopping rounds to store after Western-style store – and rejoice over the extraordinary contents (like cereal and root beer) with me.
She made my first weekend in Hanoi so much more fulfilling than I could have ever hoped for, and by means of such a wonderful and simple coincidence, she helped me bridge into my life here. By the simple act of allowing me to drag her all over Hanoi showing her the few places I know here – and get as drooly excited about the pirated DVD shop as I did – she built up my confidence to the point that I'm no longer scared of this city. I know I can make it now.
Thanks! It was fun!!