Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pics from the bell casting

Finally, a week later, here are some pictures from the bell casting. And of the cutest old woman I have ever seen. There is a picture of our vodka and lunch, and a picture of tons of noodles being dried on the side of the road.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Vodka Shots at 10am? Only in a Monastery

I was not going to post anything tonight because my camera battery is charging so I cannot post pictures, I am exhausted, and I know I am going to have another crazy day tomorrow that will need to be documented. But I decided I should just get it all down before the novelty wears off, I suppose.

Today class was cancelled at the last minute for a field trip. A bell was being casted at a monastery not too far from our school. Supposedly this only happens once in a lifetime, so we had to take advantage of the opportunity. We were all dressed in pants or long skirts to show respect when entering the temple, so of course, it was a scorcher with ridiculous humidity. We, the fourteen students, four other teachers and I, loaded into a bus around 5:50am and headed off to the monastery to see the casting of a bell. Around 6:45am, we stop for noodles with beef, and then continue on our way. The bus drops us off at the bottom on a steep hill. We walk on the gravel/dirt road up and up and up - completely drenched in sweat by the time we reach the ceremony. As the only Westerners there, we obviously stand out. We are surrounded by monks and nuns - all wearing robes, most purple or brown. Many of the monks and nuns have shaved heads and black/red teeth. As we are offered mini-cups of tea (the first time of at least 15 more times that day), we are also offered this bitter fruit thing that they chew on - later we find out that they chew it to blacken/redden their teeth. As we pack in like sardines around the bell (in a hole in the ground), they start putting tons of metal into three huge buckets around us and light it on fire. The background noise is Vietnamese chanting and drumming. We are then told that we need to wait at least one hour until the metal is melted so that they can pour it in the cast. Many of us stand around and continue to watch the green flames rise from the buckets of metal, while others are dragged off by random Vietnamese people to pose for pictures. This was a nice atmosphere though, because when I finally made eye contact with people and then cracked a smile, they smiled back! Black teeth and all! I definitely felt more like a welcome person than an exotic escaped zoo animal. One hour later, everyone begins to re-surround the bell. We are watching and waiting as they dump hot burning ashes and embers onto the ground and pour water on them, getting the molten metal ready to pour. We are patiently waiting (and continually sweating through our clothes) for the bell to be casted - because that is the whole reason we got up at 5am and were standing there sweating in the first place.

Soon, our tour guide lady is anxiously pushing us away from the bell. We follow, assuming she knows what she is doing. Next thing we know, we are being told to take off our shoes and sit on the ground. Then monks bring us trays of shot glasses and multiple bottles of vodka. We are each given a glass and start taking shots. It is 9:45am at this point. They keep pushing shots on us, as we try to politely refuse (these are high school kids for goodness sake!) and soon they put at least 10 different vegetarian dishes in front of us, which we guess means that it is lunch time. Maybe the bell will be casted after lunch. More than halfway through the meal (where drinks consisted only of vodka), a few of us realize our whole group is not with us. As they walk toward us, we find out that they casted the bell as soon as we were taken for shots and lunch. The point of the whole trip was to see the once in a lifetime event of the casting of the bell - and most of us missed it! I was bummed, but the kids seemed to be ok. They were being pulled in all directions by the surrounding Vietnamese people (pretty much everyone - maybe at least 50 people) were having lunch with us on the ground). They were being offered more shots and a tokes out of a huge pipe (of course, they politely declined, since we have rules in this program ;) ).

Soon we leave that monastery and get back in the air-conditioned bus. We stop at another temple/pagoda. Still sweaty messes, we meet more monks and drink more tea. Oh, and at this monastery, there are not only monks, but also monkeys! Two of them in a cage...

There are not a lot of other people ate this monastery, and we are invited to go upstairs to the second and third floor to clean up and take naps. There are between 6-12 rooms on each floor and one bathroom. No doors on the rooms, but instead, red velvet curtains. The kids go to rooms. The teachers are trying to just hang out, but are soon shuffled to our own room. There are two queen-size beds in the room with no mattresses. Under the bed, we see empty Choco-cake containers and empty beer cans. In the dresser drawers is a ship in a bottle...When we woke up that morning, how could we ever have guessed what we would have seen and experienced??

So there are definitely details that I have forgotten, and I will post some pictures later, but that is the general summary of the day. Tomorrow, we are going to Ceramic Village. We wake up early, take a boat on Red River, then ride some bikes, then make our own pottery? then a bus back? Really, there should be question marks after each one of those plans because I have NO idea what will actually be happening...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dancing dwarves and other Hanoi WTF moments...

One thing about this job and living in Hanoi is that I never know what is going to happen. My coworkers and I joke that the only thing we really know is what is happening at that very moment. The only thing that we can be sure of is that we are in sitting in that specific spot during that specific moment in time. Everything else is unknown. Lately, it's been seeming even more surreal. I keep having to ask myself if I am dreaming or if it's possible that someone slipped something into my drink. The past few days have been full of these types of experiences.

Before I get into today's exciting cultural experience, I just want to mention the different stages of culture shock. Here they are in the order they tend to occur (though stage 3 often creeps up no matter the stage...):
1. Preliminary stage
2. Initial euphoria
3. Irritability
4. Gradual adjustment
5. Adaptation and biculturalism
6. Re-entry phase

For the past few days, I have definitely had more than a few moments in stage 3. You would think that after living in a dorm for 10 years, I would be used to noise - and I definitely am, to an extent. I am used to teenage noise. I am not used to screaming, crying babies, hammering or stomping on my ceiling at all hours, piercingly loud Vietnamese singing, or even louder rants in Vietnamese. I have also been feeling so done with people staring at me. I have waves of not wanting to leave my apartment because I do not want to deal with tidal waves of smelly sweaty people unabashedly staring at me (though I cannot deny that I am probably one of the biggest sweatiest people, but I really don't smell that bad thanks to genetics and deodorant). That is another thing that is driving me crazy. I am always a hot sweaty mess. I walk 15-20 minutes to school every day on a crazy crowded road past two bus stops, outdoor markets (they sell dog - the whole de-furred cooked dog, head included with the mouth open and teeth bared, just sits on the counter like a roasted pig with an apple in its mouth waiting to be digested), motorbike repair shops, tons of clothing shops (all with Western mannequins of course), outdoor restaurants with little mini plastic tables and chairs , and thousands and thousands of people. Most people just stare as I go past, some do double-takes (but not the kind where I feel flattered - the kind you would do if you saw a one-eyed-one-horned-flying-purple-people-eater pass you on the street), but lately I have been getting more smiles and 'alo's, and of course, the ever-present xe om offers. Regardless of all that, I arrive at school soaked in sweat. Literally soaked and dripping. So maybe that is why they are staring - a huge blond girl dripping sweat. I would probably stare too.

Anyway, as I have probably said, every day is an adventure, and even now that we have school and a fairly stable schedule, I still have no idea what each day will bring. If someone asked me to predict what I would see, hear, experience that day, I would never even come close to what actually ends up happening. Hence the WTF moments. In the past month, there have been more WTF moments than I can possibly document.

The director of the program for which I work seems to have some pull in Vietnam. He was born here and can speak Vietnamese fluently and has a long wise-man Asian beard, so basically, he's a big deal and has connections. Our director is good friends with a famous Vietnamese puppet master who has been around the world (even in the US - DC, New York, LA) with his puppets for conventions. This specific puppet master's expertise is water puppetry, which is a Vietnamese original. After we (our 14 American students and 4 teachers plus the director) attended one of his wonderful water puppet shows, he invited us to his house the next weekend. We drove for an hour in a little van until we arrived. His house was beautiful - though being filled with puppets gave it a little bit of a creepy factor. We also met his family. One of his sons is looking to attend school in California. His daughter has just finished a trip around the States and is returning at the end of this month to uhh 'born her baby'. WTF moment #!. Now please understand, I am not judging in any way - the family was amazing and so generous to welcome and feed 14 American teenagers - but this definitely struck me as interesting. Then we learned how to make nem (spring rolls) and proceeded to make at least 100. After we ate a delicious meal, we piled back in the van.

When we get out, we are outside of the Opera House in downtown Hanoi near lake Hoan Kiem, and in front of us are life-size dwarves with huge heads, big dragons, Mickey Mouse, flower pots, bananas, fish, and so much more dancing and galloping around to music. WTF moment #2.

We get escorted into the Opera House and somehow get VIP seats up in boxes. We are at an international puppet show (the 2nd annual in fact), and there are at least 30 tv cameras all around. Seven countries or so are competing in this puppet competition - with judges and everything. The first puppet show we saw was awesome - uv-lighted puppets with the puppet masters in black so they could barely be seen - dancing to music and flying around. The second puppet show...WTF moment #3. It was supposed to be the Ugly Duckling. Some were puppets and others were people in huge character costumes like at amusement parks or football games. Lots of quacking in Vietnamese accents and lots of piercing noises - and lots of complete randomness.

Today, we went to yet another puppet show. Yup, WTF moment #4. This show opened with a puppet Michael Jackson singing and dancing (moonwalk, pelvic thrusts, and all) to 'I'm Bad'. The premier puppet show today was sort of a Cinderella story, with lots of death, Vietnamese screaming, and dancing roosters, horses, and huge butterflies.

Supposedly we have tickets to another puppet show tomorrow night...who knows what that will bring??

So, I have had one Western indulgence since I have been in Hanoi. I recently joined a very expensive and very Western gym. I take a crowded sweaty bus to get there every day, but it is worth it. Inside, they have ellipticals with tvs attached, jacuzzis, and a nice outdoor pool. No stairmaster, but really I cannot complain. I kind of feel like I am cheating on the Vietnam experience by joining this gym, but it has been really nice. The interesting part is that it is usually quite empty (though it has just recently opened) and the music is Western. As I was enjoying my elliptical workout the other day, my thoughts were interrupted by a song coming through the loudspeakers. Interestingly enough, the song was 'Pretty Fly (for a white guy)' by Offspring. Such an interesting song choice haha, which made me wonder 'WTF?'.

Then, the last WTF moment of the day, a nice gym worker comes up to start conversation with me while I am on the elliptical. She is nice, so I indulge her. Soon, she is asking me whether I want to find a Vietnamese man to marry. I say sure - whatever, I guess I am looking for someone. She quickly then offers up herself. 'You can marry me! I am lez. I am lez and I love you. Let me tell you how to say 'I love Amy' in Vietnamese.' Flattering, I guess, but also, WTF??

The next adventure for the day is Ultimate frisbee. Two students and I are going to check out a supposed ultimate frisbee pick-up game tonight...should be an adventure! Much like everything else...