Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Saigon Trot

Or how to cross the road in Ho Chi Minh City.

Over four weekends of hanging out in the tourist areas, I’ve seen that the peoples of the chaotic lands manage it best – South America, North and South Africa, Eastern Europe and anywhere in Asia, except Singapore (I've seen groups of nervous Singaporeans marooned for ages). The intrepid races are also up to the challenge – the natives of all the rugby playing nations, Iceland and Scandinavia can do absolutely anything. And of course, the young of all species, who seem to consider it an adventure sport. That’s one way to look at it. The other, more sustainable, one is to treat it as karmic ascension.

Rule 1: Don’t wait for the road to clear; it is never clear.

Rule 2: Look all ways, not just two, especially on the one-ways. Once you’ve tapped into the fluid oneness of the universe (two or three crossings), this is easy to do.

Rule 3: Clear your mind of fear, hesitation, scepticism and all other frivolous fight-or-flight responses you’re cluttered with.

Rule 4: Look calmly upon the vast amount of traffic flowing your way and step off the kerb, where “kerb” stands for any square foot of earthly soil you set out from. Yes, those are full-sized

Rule 5: Recognise yourself and everything else on the road as unique particles moving through the cosmos, each in its own individual, inviolate orbit. Make no judgements, acknowledge no barriers, question nothing. Just let it all flow around you.

Rule 6: Move steadily and above all, continuously, across the road. Two steps forward, one step back. Sidestep, sway back, swing forward, skip around. Two steps forward, one step back. And don’t forget to smile. The Saigon Trot, apparently coined by the expat community in District 2.

It works. More than that, it’s the only way it works. If you’re not willing to join the stream, you will be stranded forever. To begin with, you can practise in crowds – there are lots of these too – but the time will come when the cigarette lady has unaccountably shifted across the road and you will have to blood the sword on your own.

*Secret Christian Master Rule: Channel Moses.

*If you’re given to reading/watching The Secret, you could try that too. It couldn’t hurt more than being hit by a motorbike any other way. But it doesn’t work if you think like that.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Cu Chi tunnels, Vietnam

The narrowness and darkness of the Cu Chi tunnels are difficult to describe. My stubby Dravidian body needs to bend double to walk in them. The Dutch visitors have to practically telescope. It takes me two tries and the bracing support of an intrepid Australian to nerve myself to enter. Crawling along well out of reach of the flashlight, I might have been one of Tolkien’s dwarves going through the mines of Moria. The walls are smooth and hard and way too close, except for the terrifying breaths of dark air when we pass openings to different sides; I more than half expect orcs and goblins to pour out of them. I only go about 60 metres (I had signed on for 20, but somehow got herded into the longer one), but I emerge with the sort of adrenaline high that a roller coaster produces and a real sense of the relief it must have been after seven long years.

Before you get to the part where you can enter the tunnel, neatly designed areas show you the weapons and methods used, a 3D model, a full map and even an old propaganda documentary. It’s all carefully sanitised, painless and undemanding. In the bright sunshine of a Sunday morning, the young forest that has grown over the ravages is innocuous and inviting. The fact that your guide keeps repeating the injunction not stray from the path does not register until you read a sign that says “B52 bomb crater”. You suddenly realise you’re on the battlefield, and there are still traps, trenches and camouflaged holes in the dappled forest floor. One of these is available for your guide to demonstrate and everyone keeps faithfully to the path afterwards.

The tunnellers made fake termite mounds in which they hid the air holes. There are many of these around and it’s impossible to tell which was made by termites and which by humans. They learnt to make land mines from unexploded enemy missiles and fashioned bamboo sticks into deadly traps. I count 12 types of these, from a spiky ball copying the rambutan that had stopped growing on their dead land, to a lethal swinging door inspired by cradles that no longer had a safe place to hang. When the river was poisoned, they dug wells inside the tunnels. They took their kitchens underground, designing chimney vents to make smoke disappear wispily into the morning or evening mist. They lived on tapioca for years. The resulting malnourishment only helped them make the tunnels even smaller. All of this is demonstrated through well-made, understated exhibits. You can even eat tapioca dipped in powdered peanuts, fire a rifle and buy sandals made from truck tyres.

The US Army didn’t stand a chance – how could secure young boys raised in mild climes have hoped to defeat this kind of on-the-fly innovation and endurance baked hard by centuries of struggle?

Back in Saigon, I see a notice outside a passing church and, deducing from the musical symbols that something songlike is in progress, I enter and sit in a familiar dimness, listening to the tail end of a Vietnamese choir. The words are strange but the tune of Amazing Grace is unmistakeable: “Through many dangers, toils and sins I have already come; ‘tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home”. It’s a strangely appropriate sentiment for a communist country that shook off the Catholic invader a long time ago. At least it replaces the tune of Green Fields of France that’s been playing over and over in my head ever since Cu Chi.

Agent Orange is still around, it gets in the meat and milk. My Vietnamese peers grew up in the desolate aftermath, their parents lived – or not – through the war. No monument stands here with the names of the dead, no flags went to the families of the fallen, nobody even knows how many fell. These claustrophobic subterranean corridors are all the memorial there is to an incredibly brave generation of civilian soldiers, both men and women. And that I think is the secret to the calmness and the complete lack of self-pity in the country: they were small and poor fighting the big and rich and they won, through their own spirit and ingenuity. What’s more, they are gracious in their victory.

Getting there: There are buses aplenty but I highly recommend the boat. Saigon River Express does it beautifully.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The economics of food

Taking a drastic pay cut is a fascinating exercise on all fronts - especially when you’ve long been accustomed to certain careless luxuries - but the supermarket is for me the most challenging one. Suddenly, you can’t just fling things into the cart, a bit of Austrian goat cheese here, a spot of organic Darjeeling tea there, a bushel of Californian oranges, never knowing how much they cost, let alone counting that cost. In fact, you don’t have a cart at all, because you’re taking the train, not a cab, and can only carry one basketful at a time.

You’re that lady who looks at the price tags in the vegetable aisle. You’re that person who buys the milk that’s on promotion for 50 cents less – that’s a good portion of your train fare and you’ve learnt from experience that it’s not to be despised, especially in the last week of the month. You’re the crazy one who knows exactly how much small change you have at any given time. (You’re also the near-mythical being in the Ikea checkout line with just one thing in your hand.)

In doing so, I’ve discovered that responsible or healthy or just flavourful eating is expensive. Lean meat, wild-caught fish, cold-pressed oils, pure juices, the better kind of fruit and vegetable, whole grains, fresh herbs, low-fat dairy – they all cost significantly more than the other kind. Pretty much anything that’s organic or without additives is out of reach. This is wrong, but apparently it’s the way the world works. Something ought to be done, but I don’t know what.

Now I’m in Vietnam for three months, I’m rich again – but I’m staying in a hotel and don’t have the pleasure of buying groceries. On the other hand, the food is good everywhere. Vegetables and fruits taste like they've just been brought in from the farm. The seafood is fresh, the meat is tender. Every sprig of coriander, each quarter of lime and sliver of lemongrass is a burst of exuberant flavour. The very salt on the table seems youthful and sparkling. I've eaten food of this quality before - in the sort of restaurant where you pay fortunes for it. Here it's on every street corner for a few dollars. I think the reason the Vietnamese are generally in a good mood is because of their food.

(My boss here is going to Singapore for a few days and I suddenly felt homesickness for my flat. I miss my kitchen, my study, my lake and my 1000-thread-count cotton sheets. It's my two-week marker, it always happens on every long trip. From here on, I will drift steadily away from the old and when the time comes to leave, they'll have to drag me kicking and screaming to the airport.)

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The wisdom of Noraini

I have only one more birthday before I turn forty and I’ve begun to fear it like an imminent sentencing.

In the clothing stores, I still drift towards the red jeans and floaty teenage tops, but now I've become conscious of it. Just last week, I wondered if I shouldn’t be buying something age-appropriate in black, even as I eyed something with multi-coloured polka dots. So I gloomily left the store, and walked on to the Coffee Club at Orchard Fountain Square to drown my sorrows in cappuccino, where I was pleased to see my favourite waitress, Noraini, was on duty. She’d cut her hair quite drastically so I took off my headphones to chat about that.

And found she’s well over 50, though she looks 35, has four grown-up children and is expecting a grandchild. When she’s not serving coffee, she’s coaching soccer at some of the city’s best schools. Her take on this is that as you age, you need to do the things you love because otherwise you’ll grow old. She’s generally a beacon of health and good humour, and this apparently is the reason for it.

A few days before this, my uncle sent me this picture from Chicago saying: “For some strange reason I thought of you this evening”. I looked at the picture for a long time, thinking of the Stuart Weitzman store in Dubai, my first pair of “designer” shoes, the joy of six-inch heels quite unimpaired by the considerable pain involved.

Forty, shmorty. I bought the polka dots on the way back. And I walked to the station in high heels the next morning, feeling so much more exuberant – though far less comfortable – than the misguided woman who’d lately taken to wearing sensible shoes.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The return of the Nokia phone

The Nokia Lumia 800 does all the things other smartphones do, while looking and feeling better than most.

It has interesting proprietary features such as Nokia Drive, which is a proper talking GPS like the kind you put in your car. Windows Mobile has come a very, very long way. Setting up and synching took only about the same amount of time as the iPhone 4 did. You can import many of the apps you have on other phones. The camera is good, and sharing pictures on social networks is a lot easier and more intuitive than other smartphones I’ve tried. And beneath it all is the almost irrational belief that since it’s a Nokia, it must also be more reliable, better tested than the others.

But I think the most amazing feature of the Nokia Lumia 800 is the social network one. All your contacts are linked to their Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter profiles. For example, if you’re looking for your friend’s number, you also see under his name his latest FB post or tweet. And you can choose to call, text, send an FB message, mention him on Twitter or email him at any of his addresses. The listing reflects the real world where your friend is one person, with several ways to be contacted. So friends who have contact details under both married and maiden names, my cousin from Cornell who has about a million addresses and phone numbers, people who have both personal and company FB profiles, and even people whose phone numbers I don’t have, but have other means of contacting are all in one consolidated, streamlined phonebook. And a shining example of a product feature matching the brand promise. Nokia, connecting people indeed.

As with all good ideas, this one too has a simplicity to it that makes you wonder why nobody thought of it before. It makes me almost burst with pride.

Many years ago, I was a small cog in the teams that helped launch the first Nokia camera phone, the first music phone, several Communicators and many startlingly edgy models that were probably ahead of their time. There was much pride in being associated with them, a time in the life of the brand when it was a pioneer. It was a time when internet and mobile were just beginning to collide. The iPod had just transformed portable music. Brands had just started to get in touch with customers digitally. Online banking and bill payments were still pretty cool, not a basic requirement. Traditional ad agencies were talking of digital departments, old agency folk were introduced to new types of skills. Those who worked on the Nokia account were at the front of this revolution.

I moved on from the account and agency, and eventually succumbed to the lure of the shiny pink Razr, but never really lost the my-first-one affection for Nokia.

So it is with great pleasure that I now find I can give the Nokia Lumia 800 my highest praise – after working on it for a few hours, the iPhone felt clunky.

Blog Archive