How to Lose, and Recover, All Your Possessions While in a Country Where Few Speak English


As I noted earlier, I recently left Jakarta, leap-frogged through the States (on a whirlwind tour of old friends, microbrews, pretentious coffees, and artisanal cheeses that left little time for blogging–my apologies), and landed squarely in the city of Saigon. M and I got here early Saturday morning, and our first 36 hours have lived up to the expectations set by those who had been here before. Granted, Jakarta didn’t set a very high bar, but I feel like our quality of life here will be a vast improvement over that of our first Asian home. To craft a completely unjustified hypothesis based on one example, and possibly set myself up for unmet expectations, let me state the following:

My journey to Jakarta was easy, seamless, and felt far shorter than the 30 hours it actually took.

Living in Jakarta was a stressful, sometimes depressing, and physically and emotionally taxing experience.

My trip out to Saigon was a stressful, sometimes depressing, and physically and emotionally taxing experience.

Therefore: Living in Saigon will be AWESOME!!!


I will spare you the banalities and small hiccups that made my transit to ‘Nam more horrendous than one would imagine it would normally be, but will zero in on one incident, perhaps the most notable debacle of the adventure. Here goes.

Because of various planning snafus, financial limitations, and other circumstances beyond my control, during my layover in Singapore, I needed to collect my bag, go through customs and immigration, and then re-check my bag on a separate reservation on a different airline to fly to Saigon. I anticipated this process to be annoying, given the myriad steps and the fact that it would be happening in the middle of the night after 25-odd hours of travel, but I’m a pro at handling annoying, Ain’t no thang. This, however, was a thang. A very shitty thang.

Approaching baggage claim, I spotted my suitcase from afar. “Sweet!” I thought. “Easy peasy!” I raced over and yanked it off the conveyer belt, then immediately noticed that not only did the suitcase look slightly different, but it also had a tag on it saying, let’s just say, “John Generic Person,” which, I observed, is not my name. I hefted it back up onto the belt and waited for my rightful suitcase to come out. And waited. And waited.

It never came.

I went to the Lost & Found, where a gentleman with very limited English had me fill out a missing luggage form. I tried to explain to him that I was fairly certain that Mr. John Generic Person l had mistakenly taken my bag, and asked if–since not that much time had passed since our flight landed (though it was rapidly slipping through our fingertips, I silently noted), and John GP might still be in the airport–we could perhaps page him and avert the impending disaster. The man rolled his eyes and shook his head and, muttering words I did not understand, pushed the form back to me. I tried not to burst into tears right then and there (I hadn’t slept in several days, mind you), and finished filling out the form as best I could. Of course, I had neither an address nor a phone number to write down, and was imminently leaving Singapore for a city 700 miles away, so I did not harbor much hope for the return of my suitcase. My confidence was deflated slightly more when he handed my receipt, a piece of paper with no words except my (misspelled) name and an 8-digit code on a line that asked for a 10-digit code. As he tried to shoo me out of the office, I asked for his name, so that I would have something concrete to ask for when I inevitably called from Saigon asking if my bag turned up, and had nothing to tell them except for a useless number and useless description of my suitcase. He took the paper back, shaking his head again, and scrawled two illegible words in the corner of the page.

I walked calmly out of the Lost & Found, passed through customs, found a secluded corner, and collapsed on the floor in tears.

That suitcase contained: all of my most beloved clothing; all weather-appropriate clothing for my new home; an edition of the only book that I have ever co-written and edited; Clownie, my stuffed clown that I have had since before I had hair; various prescription medications; a book that my mom made me for Christmas a few years ago that I’ve kept by my bedside everywhere I’ve lived ever since.

I was a disaster.

After crying in the corner for a while, I wandered around aimlessly. Here I will mention that my flight had arrived at just past midnight, and my next flight didn’t leave until 7:20 A.M. The airport was deserted, everything was closed, and most lights were off, although the AC was going full blast. It was boring, dark, empty, and freezing. Eventually, I steered my mind toward an aim: finding a power outlet. I walked with my 50-lb backpack and 40-lb handbag (this situation was shitty enough that I’m allowing myself a little hyperbole) for about 40 minutes before I found the one outlet in the Changi airport, in the corner of a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, where a teenage girl was posted up with several stacks of paper and a pile of books, charging her iPhone. I turned around and wandered for perhaps another 40 minutes. Upon return, the girl was still there, still charging her iPhone, and I decided I would test my laptop’s battery and just turn it on unplugged. I sat down and fired off a tragic and perhaps slightly melodramatic e-mail to my mom, a less melodramatic e-mail to M, and a rage-filled e-mail to United, then, glancing with disdain at the iPhone-charging teenager, hauled up my stuff and commenced my aimless wandering. Five hours to go.

I meandered past closed airport restaurants and deserted ticketing counters, pausing to sob on a few benches and to exchange some U.S. dollars for Vietnamese dong (ha!). As it turns out, aimless wandering at 3 in the morning with two heavy bags gets old quick, and so I found myself back at the Coffee Bean about half an hour later. I checked my e-mail again, and saw a new message from my dad, titled “your bag.” I assumed my mom had told him about the e-mail she’d received from me, and that he was offering his condolences, and looked at a few other emails before opening his. When I finally did, my heart briefly stopped. “Kate,” it read. “I know you couldn’t find your bag–another person picked it up by mistake and contacted me about an hour ago from his Singapore hotel. I gave him your information, and he arranged for United to take your bag back to the airport…it should be there about an hour from now.” At this point, I cried again. Then I checked the time stamp on my dad’s e-mail, which showed that I had a mere 20 minutes until my bag would allegedly arrive. I used this time to write a non-tragic but equally melodramatic e-mail to my parents, and to cry some more. Then I strapped up and headed to the Lost & Found.

The rest of the tale is fairly uneventful, so I’ll skip the details and give you a brief rundown. I sweet-talked my way backwards through customs, showed up at the Lost & Found, collected my bag, went back through customs, forwards this time, and then headed to my flight.

What I will elaborate on a bit is this: Check the goddamn tags on the bag you pick up from baggage claim, John Generic Person. And everyone else. JGP, I know that you flew from New York to Singapore, which can mean few things other than that you work at a place like JP Morgan or something else that makes you lots of money and makes you feel super important. But you’re not too important to look at goddamn luggage tags. I know that you’re the type of guy who doesn’t look at his bag at all until he’s about to unpack in your (presumably very swanky) hotel in downtown Singapore, and that is likely because you had paid caddies handling your bag all the way from baggage claim to hotel bedside. But it’s not your caddies responsibility to check the goddamn luggage tags. I know that you’re a big jerk and you made me cry an unhealthy amount in a short period of time, causing the 6 people at the Changi airport between 1 and 4 a.m. that night to have less than favorable impressions of me. So don’t assume that every generic blue roll-on suitcase is yours. Because it’s not. There are probably quite a few of them in the world, and now we have confirmation that there are at least two.

I hope you enjoy your stay in Singapore, with your own possessions now safely restored to you. Because you would have looked pretty dumb wearing my new blue tube dress, and Clownie does not take well to strangers.

How to Lose Blog Readers

Hey guys. I’m in Bali.

For the unenlightened few, Bali is an Indonesian island, and is among the most beautiful, serene, and idyllic places on earth. It’s sort of the Hawaii of Southeast Asia, though 5 times smaller, creating an irreplaceable feel of community and unity instead of geographical and social dispersion, and, unlike the Polynesian culture in Hawaii, the native Balinese have managed to retain a large amount of their native culture (for counterexamples of this, see here and here) from the Hindu temples to the flower offerings to the yogic sayings that infiltrate Balinese language (which a lot of the people here still speak).

I’m here because, a few months ago, I took the plunge and enrolled in a 5-week intensive yoga teacher training, which began this week. I’ve written about yoga in Bali before, but this is a whole different kettle of fish. It’s a 200-hour certification, with countless additional hours of homework and reading (our asana manual—one of five books we received upon arrival, in addition to books procured beforehand—is about two inches thick. Just to give you an idea), and our instructor has emphasized the dire consequences that will inevitably ensue if we fall behind in our reading, our work, or our physical practice.

On top of that, we’re staying on a pretty remote part of the island, and accessing the Internet is something that can’t be counted on to happen on a daily basis.

So, to circle back to the title of this post, this preamble is all to say: Uh, sorry guys, but I might not be posting a lot. AND I’m living in a tropical paradise, which might make readers rageful with jealousy. Neither thing tends to promote blog readership.

Also, to get a little real for a sec, if you don’t mind, I’m kind of hoping that this will be a transformative and deeply meaningful experience, and I worry that if I try to encapsulate encounters or experiences or realizations into bite-sized blog-worthy anecdotes, I’ll somehow cheapen them.

That being said, I’ll try to not fall completely off the grid. Maybe the blog will just evolve for a bit (or permanently), become more short-form (as many have previously requested…sorry guys. Conciseness is my Everest.) and picture-heavy, less labor-intensive for me and less taxing on the eyes and brain for you.

And now, I’m off to drink a fresh-pressed watermelon juice on the beach while watching the sunset, then go watch a yoga documentary with the group, go to sleep at 9, and wake up at 6 for 3 hours of practice.

Be jealous….or not.

How to Puppysit

Goddammit I love puppies. Even the word itself—puppy—makes me melt. But in my life, my love for puppies has largely been unconsummated or vicariously played out (or mollified by the internet), because I was too young to really appreciate the puppyhood of my childhood dog, and have not owned a dog since. I’ve seen friends, boyfriends, siblings, uncles, and parents get new dogs over the years, but given the fact that I can’t even make it through a day without spilling water on my iPhone, I didn’t think I should be responsible for a living being.

Then, a few weeks ago, two of our friends here in Saigon got a dog. They’d wanted a guard dog, since they live in a burglary-prone part of the city, but somehow ended up with this 700-gram wonder:

To give you a sense of scale, this box is about 18″ x 18″

His name is Zlatan, and he is the most delightful creation the universe has ever known. I won’t attempt to describe his cuteness or sweetness; I will just say that being in his presence reduces me to saying things like “Hello fluffy muffin face!” and “Does Mr. Snugglebutt want up? You want up, Mr. Snugglebutt?”, and doing things like letting him lick my entire face with his disgusting (adorably disgusting!) puppy breath.

Our friends, Zlatan’s mommy and daddy, made vague overtures about the possibility of M and me puppysitting sometime, but I didn’t think it would ever happen—that is, until they called last week and asked if we could take Zlatan while they went to Bangkok.

That was on a Wednesday. I basically hyperventilated with excitement from that point until Zlatan got dropped off on Friday afternoon.

But when Zlatan’s mommy said her final goodbye, and I was left alone in the apartment with the tiny little fluffball, suddenly the only things I could think of were all the possible ways I could accidentally kill Zlatan over the course of the next two days. He looked up at me with his big black eyes that seemed to say, “You’re responsible for keeping me alive aaaaalll weekend long!” And I felt the fear of God.

The terror mostly wore off, though, and I ended up having a Zlatan-tastic weekend. I don’t pretend to be an expert on canine care from this one puppysitting stint, but I did learn a few things, which I’ll share here:

How to Puppysit

  1. Don’t kill, injure, or sicken the puppy. Note: All of the below rules are, directly or indirectly, in service of Rule 1.
  2. Do not let the puppy run in front of car/buses/motorbikes. This is especially important if you live in a major Asian city. To avoid this, a leash can be used, though that’s risky. I recommend putting the puppy in a purse for all street-crossings. Bonus: You get to have a puppy in your purse.
  3. Set alarms to remind yourself when to feed the puppy. Starving is known to cause negative health effects, such as death.
  4. Resign yourself to cleaning up lots of poopoo and peepee. Puppysitters don’t have the time or authority to house-train the dog, so just do your best to get the puppy to poop outside after meals, and be prepared to hold your nose and wipe up some gross stuff.
  5. Buy breath-freshening bones. This will help save a bit of your sanity, and allow your love for the puppy to remain unadulterated, as puppy breath without some sort of mitigating agent can be one of the most noxious stenches known to man.
  6. Don’t let the puppy jump off high ledges. This means that if you live somewhere like us, on the third floor with balcony railings that a guinea pig–sized pup could easily slip through, the puppy should not go outside unsupervised.
  7. Don’t leave small objects on the floor. Puppies eat stuff that’s on the floor. You probably don’t want to give the puppy the Heimlich.

    We had to put away all our toys!

  8. Give him a collar with a bell. This is extra important if you have a tiny, tiny puppy like Zlatan and if you are a normal- to large-sized individual. I don’t know if you can actually kill a puppy by stepping on it, but that’s not something I really want to Google.
  9. Try to control the amount of affection you feel so as not to literally suffocate the puppy with love. This one was the hardest.

And then sit back and let the wonders of puppysitting wash over you. Because in a few days, you’ll be back to your responsibility-free life, but for now, you have one of the most universally beloved things in the world—a puppy!—in your possession. And when those few days come to an end, your responsibility is twofold. You must:

  • Relinquish the puppy to its rightful owners without resentment, resistance, or overprotective comments.
  • Suppress the sudden urge to go buy your own puppy. Just because you took good care of a dog for 2 days does not mean you are ready or fit to be a full-time dog owner.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself…

Awww da puppy baby mushmelon wanted up!


How to Thwart a Thief

Despite the riots and threats of terrorism, the extreme poverty and rampant corruption, the occasional hostility toward westerners and treacherous street crossings, I never felt unsafe in Jakarta. We left our doors unlocked, I walked alone at night while listening to podcasts, I took cabs for long distances by myself. Of course, I basically lived in a violent crack den back in San Francisco and didn’t mind it, so I might not be the best barometer for gauging safety level, but the point is that nothing ever happened in Jakarta to wrench me out of my possibly false sense of security.

But in Saigon–beautiful, park-filled, sidewalk-lined, friendly and colorful Saigon–I was not allowed the luxury of my illusions for very long.

By day 2 of being here, I’d been warned a dozen times about the motorbike bandits that allegedly flooded the city streets. This is their scheme: two people ride by on a motorbike, and the one on the back yoinks cell phones from the hands of unsuspecting pedestrians or oblivious fellow bikers. Valuing my right to text while walking, and to frequently adjust the volume level on my podcasts, I continued to hold my cell phone in my hand while perambulating around the city, inviting admonishments from M, M’s colleagues, and every little old Vietnamese lady who saw me. One woman, from whom I was buying pineapples, was not satisfied when I put my phone back in my purse, and insisted that I wrap my massive shoulder bag around my neck, zipper-side facing my chest, and clutch the purse like a baby. Strangulation, apparently, is less dire than theft.

Anyway, I’m totally invincible (as evidenced by the black eye, two motorcycle accidents, eyeball-burning, and near-death-by-boat experiences that I’ve had since the beginning of 2012), so despite the warnings and zealous concern of those around me, I wasn’t too concerned about getting my phone snatched. I did, however, begin to take a few precautions. Though I continued to listen to podcasts and pull out my phone to rewind/pause/adjust volume, I implemented safe-texting practices. That means that when texting, I would stop walking and stand as far from the roadside as possible, holding my phone with two hands. Kind of annoying, but not a huge hassle.

So the other night, on a busy road near our apartment, I stopped to text M. Yes, I was less than two minutes from seeing him in person, but I felt it imperative to complain to him right that second about the crappy yoga mat I’d bought. Mid-text, my entire arm–not the phone, not my hand, not my wrist, but the entire limb, gripped just above the elbow–was yanked nearly out of its socket by a Vietnamese girl in leopard-print pants on the back of a motorbike that had suddenly leapt onto the sidewalk. Instinctively, I wrenched my arm back, tightening my grip on the phone to pull it with me and successfully freeing myself from her grasp. Apparently not expecting a tiny white girl with earbuds in ears and phone in hand to react with such alacrity (self-congratulatory tone intentional), the bike-bandit duo panicked. The guy in front accelerated, and they sped away as all the patrons of the streetside restaurant next to us stood up and began to run toward them. They careened off of the steep curb, crashing head-on into a poor guy trying to park his motorbike who then subsequently became the fastest and most persistent member of the mob chasing after the thieves.

I watched in horror as they tore down the one-way street in the wrong direction, swerving violently, barely missing colliding with two taxis, hotly pursued by a slowly diminishing crowd of surprisingly fast restaurant-goers. Eventually, they disappeared, and I watched as the mob returned to their dinner, and the parking man returned to inspect his motorcycle.

Unsure of whether or not I should stick around, I stood dumbly, reassuring each individual that I still had my phone, clutching it firmly in my hand and nodding gravely in response to whatever cautions they were giving me. Finally, when it became clear that my presence there was neither necessary nor interesting to anyone anymore, I turned to go. A tiny elderly woman stopped me, pulled my earbuds out of my iPhone, and shook her head staunchly as she handed them back to me, gesturing for me to put them in my pocket. Then she took my bag off my shoulder and wrapped it snugly around my throat.

Sorry, esophagus: I’m not letting my shit get stolen.

How to Have a Game Night Sans Games

Friends, booze, and games go together like bubur, ayam, and telor (HOLLA at my Jakarta peeps!). So what do you do when you’ve got the first two ingredients, but not the last? It’s happened to the best of us, when the beer is plentiful and the time abundant, but the inevitable cry of “Let’s play a game!” is met with someone vainly looking for the dice they thought they maybe had somewhere. But despair not! Games don’t have to involve elaborate boards or battery-operated elements, they need not even require cards or dice. See below for some suggestions that we recently drew upon (Pun intended. See below to understand said pun.) to take a recent Saturday night from “awesome” to “very awesome.”

Drawing Wars: M was initially resistent when our new friend E suggested the game, insisting that he is horrible at drawing. But, contrary to the implication of the name, Drawing Wars actually has nothing to do with drawing skills, but rather involves taking turns and drawing items that “beat” the item drawn by the previous player. Obviously the term “beat” is subjective, and arguing can occur over whether, say the Starship Enterprise really beats the A-bomb, but consensus can usually be reached and the game goes on until, well…until somebody gets bored and starts a new game.

In the Drawing Wars specimen above, for instance, an apple is beaten by a sword, which is beaten by the end of Shogunate rule in Japan, which is beaten by atomic bombs, which are beaten by the Starship Enterprise, which is beaten by a whale (some Star Trek reference I apparently didn’t get), which is beaten by Captain Ahab, which is beaten by an English teacher who sucks all the life out of Moby Dick, who is beaten by a fat and illiterate student, who is beaten by a job application, who is beaten by Obama/Biden 2012 (I’ll allow that political reference to be interpreted in whatever way you want), which campaign is in turn beaten again by a voting populace of those like the fat and illiterate student, which is then beaten by the electoral college system, which is then beaten by Obama’s performance in the first debate, which is then beaten by a scared-looking Paul Ryan in the VP debate, which is then beaten by the grocery store being out of stock of protein powder, which, finally, is beaten by a delivery truck supplying new inventory of protein powder. Then we got bored.

Comic Book Popcorn: This is a good game to play after Drawing Wars, because you already have the pen and paper out so no one has to get up. Basically it just involves drawing a comic strip one panel at a time, and passing the paper from person to person taking turns in the panel drawing. Sort of like that game where you write a story and everyone writes one sentence at a time. We drew a really awesome comic but it has both adult content and adult language, and involves bad things being done to bunny rabbits, so I will not post it here. Please e-mail me personally if you think you have the moral fortitude to handle seeing it.

The Squiggle Game: This was always a favorite of me and my sister when we would go to Friendly’s and ten minutes seemed like an interminable amount of time to wait for our Conehead Sundaes. The rules are ridiculously simple: one person closes his eyes and draws a squiggle (it’s best to keep it relatively short and uncomplicated, but more advanced players can squiggle for up to ten seconds before opening their eyes and passing the paper). Then, another player takes the paper and uses their imagination to make the squiggle into a drawing of a recognizable thing. Again, the masterpieces produced from our squiggle game involve adult content, so I will leave them out of this post in the interest of family-friendliness. Incidentally, we are very, very mature.

TV-Watching Drinking Games: Okay, this one obviously does involve more advanced supplies than paper and pencil, so it’s not exactly equipment-less, but given that the odds that any/every member of the party have their laptop on hand are about as high as the odds that they are wearing underpants, I think it’s safe to include this game. Obviously, there are watchable things that we all associate with drinking games–political debates, for one (we used these rules). Sports games, for another (I love sport). The Big Lebowski, for a third. But think outside the box, people! If you have the creative wherewithal, anything from Two and a Half Men to YouTube videos of piglets to Law & Order SVU can be made into a drinking game. And on that note, if you create new drinking game rules to any of the above, please send them my way.

Reverting to Middle School: Sometimes, you’ve just got to abandon any shred of self-respect and indulge your inner tween. It’s likely that many people in your party are just dying to play a rousing game of Truth or Dare, but don’t want to be the loser who brings it up. Thankfully, I have no shame, and so am often the one lobbying for these games. Usually, my pleas are ignored, but when we do play, everyone is the happier for it. Besides the classic T&D, you’ve got Never Have I Ever and Two Truths and a Lie. If you’re interested in middle school games that aren’t likely to have you making out with the wall or recounting the time you pooped your pants in art class, there’s also charades and M*A*S*H*. If you don’t know the rules to any of these games, then you are an alien, which is creepy but also means that my readership has seriously exploded, which is awesome! But actually, if you’re an alien, write something in the comments section in alien-talk.

That’s all I’ve got, but I think that’s enough to occupy an idle Saturday night! Other game-free games in the comments would be greatly appreciated. Happy playing!

How to Eat a Jackfruit (fo REALZ this time!!!)

As some of you may remember, in my previous life in Jakarta, I launched an ill-fated attempt to eat a jackfruit. This ordeal included bodily pain, social ridicule, and some very bad smells. Though I learned my lesson (lesson: a jackfruit is not a durian, nor vice versa), and saw many a jackfruit on street stands and in grocery aisles, I never again made the attempt to eat one while in Jakarta. I was scarred.

But now, safely landed in a new city, a new country, I felt filled with a renewed motivation to taste the food that is the namesake of this blog.

I mean, to be honest, I barely had a choice; the universe made it so impossibly easy for me to sample jackfruit here in Saigon that it would have taken considerable effort to resist it. Directly outside the hotel where we stayed for two weeks, not to mention on virtually every sidewalk within a 1 km radius of our apartment, there are carts devoted to jackfruit. Usually they’re staffed by a small, elderly Vietnamese woman, though I’ve seen younger women and a few young men running a few of them. He or she stands behind the cart all day and often into the evening, carving up the massive jackfruit and slipping the orange bulbs of flesh into neat plastic containers ready for purchase.

As you may remember from the first jackfruit debacle, when I Googled how to cut a jackfruit, the search results yielded complex how-to’s involving all sorts of equipment and dangerous instruments (rendered even more dangerous when said equipment and instruments are used to try to carve up a durian, but that’s another story); but here I had all the hard work done for me (though, to be honest, these ladies make it look pretty easy), all the cutting and spooning and peeling is completed, so my task lay only in the act of eating. Which task–despite one choking incident that my high school friends will gladly recount–I’m pretty good at.

But before I break down the steps of consuming the fruit, I want to make sure I’m not giving short shrift to the actual act of getting it into a consumable form. Because it’s a pretty awesome thing to watch. First of all, the jackfruit is an incredible natural phenomenon, notable for its size alone.

THEY’RE ALL THIS BIG. jk some are smaller.

The inside is filled with a whole lot of non-edible flesh that surrounds these shiny, perfect little bulbs of edible fruit. So the ladies and gents at the carts, many of whom are only about three times the size of the jackfruit they’re handling, take these massive machete-style knives and dive right in, expertly cutting around the bulbs and extracting them from the fruit. Though some people characterize jackfruit-carving as a messy process filled with things like “ooze” and “latex” and “white fibers,” the experts here seem to have taken all that unpleasantness out of the process. They carve and cut and pluck out adorable little fruits, free of any ooziness or fibers. I’m not sure how they manage that, but it’s not my job to know. It’s only my job to have 30,000 dong to hand over.

And then to eat it.

Which is actually really easy, but I’ll make it a little more complex so we can all pretend that I’m imparting useful content here.

So, you get your little container of jackfruit, which should look something like this:

Eating jackfruit by a fountain in the park is ideal, but not required.

Then you pluck out your first bulb of jackfruit. They fit very nicely into the palm of your hand.

I’mma eat you!

But don’t pop the whole thing in your mouth! Because, unless your jackfruit-cutting-professional has removed them, this little dude is holding a seed, which is NOT edible. You might need to take a bite to find the seed, or you might feel it. Once the seed is out, you’re free to enjoy the fruit. It’s got a very sweet, mild taste, sort of like bubblegum mixed with cantaloupe. AKA delicious.

Awww, it’s in a little sleeping bag.

This is what it looks like with the sleeping bag off. The sleeping bag might be edible, but I didn’t want to mess with that.

That’s it! That’s how you eat a jackfruit: move to Saigon, exchange some money, pay 30,000 dong, watch out for seeds, and enjoy. It’s much easier than eating a durian in Jakarta, trust me.

How to Live in a Hotel for Two Weeks

To find an apartment in a foreign city where you don’t speak even a vague approximation of the language (3 weeks and counting and I’m still working on pronouncing the words for “thank you” correctly) is to tackle a daunting task. To attempt to procure said apartment before arriving in the foreign city is completely futile.

That’s why M and I spent our first two weeks of Vietnam life confined to the walls of a low-ceilinged, poorly-lit hotel room. Of course, people stay in hotels for far longer than two weeks; heck, people live in hotels. But not hotels like this. This was not a long-term residency hotel, not a luxury hotel or even a well-established chain hotel like Ramada or Marriott. This was a small independent hotel boasting such things as the slowest elevator in Saigon, a breakfast buffet offering dry shrimp on soggy toast, around-the-clock construction on the 6th floor (where, luckily, we were staying), and an ever-intensifying sewage smell emanating from the bathroom. This was the type of hotel that makes its guests slowly become homo-/sui-cidal.

But we made it through without killing each other or ourselves. Here is how you can do the same if you ever find yourself crawling the generic flowered wallpaper of a hotel room in the future:

How to Live in a Hotel for Two Weeks

Bank on the free breakfast. Okay, I know I sort of shit on the breakfast not two paragraphs ago, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t eating it every morning. Traveling gets expensive, and today’s economy means fewer perks for people like us. But one thing they haven’t taken away is free breakfast at even the crappiest of hotels. So go forth and eat free stuff! It’s money in the bank, basically; plus, soggy toast is really just reconstituted bread, right?

Jerry-rig the power supply to the room. In a lot of hotel rooms, the power outlets and electricity only work when the hotel room key card is inserted into a little slot by the door. This is annoying because it means you can’t do things like leave the air conditioning on to keep the room cool when you leave or download entire seasons of TV shows while you go to lunch. Luckily, circumventing this is fairly easy. If a credit card in place of the key card doesn’t work, chances are you can do the trick with a piece of stiff paper folded to key card size. Just leave that bad boy in there for the duration of your stay, and enjoy all the electricity you can handle!

Buy some in-sink laundry detergent to wash your clothes in the bathroom sink. Hotel laundry services tend to be overpriced and slow, and not worth it for things like socks and T-shirts. Note: do NOT accidentally buy colorsafe bleach instead of laundry detergent and almost pass out while washing underwear because there is no ventilation in the bathroom.

Designate a dirty laundry corner. If you give up on laundry and/or almost asphyxiate from bleach fumes and need a laundry break, designate one corner of the room, preferably one that is out of sight, as the dirty laundry area. M and I used the empty cupboard underneath the TV. Similar to establishing a pee corner, this allows civilizing rules to bestow a sense of humanity upon an otherwise anarchic situation.

Unpack. It may seem like a waste of time given the fact that you’ll theoretically be leaving “any day now,” and will have to re-pack everything, but that’s fallacious thinking. Half an hour now and half an hour later is time well spent if it means you’ll avoid two weeks of digging through suitcases to find the pair of shorts you want. You’ll be amazed at the restored dignity you feel upon hanging up a button-down shirt and putting your pajamas in a drawer.

Learn the quirks of your room. Each hotel room is a unique snowflake with its own special characteristics to discover. Learning these quirks helps you to adapt to life in the room and also imbues the space with a sense of familiarity; and though a dingy hotel is not necessarily something you’d hoped to become intimately acquainted with, it can make you feel more comfortable in this type of involuntary confinement. In our room, the quirks included: sticky wooden shutters that took considerable manpower to open and close, requiring much deliberation over whether it was really “worth it” to let some sunlight in the room; a loudspeaker at the school across the street that blared out 20-30 minutes of announcements every Monday at 6 A.M.; the aforementioned sewage smell seeping from the bathroom; maids who consistently came too early every morning and then, after being told we weren’t ready for housekeeping yet, never returned.

Downgrade all said “quirks” to “outrages.” Allow the familiarity to bleed slowly into the realm of contempt.

But, and this is very important, you must make sure that this last step, wherein which you fully acknowledge the crappiness of your abode and current lifestyle constraints, does not occur until the last or second-to-last day. Because once you drop the facade, you can’t re-erect it, and once it’s down, your misery does not decrease but rather multiplies. Venting and complaining to your partner about an unchangeable fact is not, as people like to say sometimes, “cathartic.” It just makes you unhappier and puts that unhappiness at the forefront of both of your minds.
So wait until the last day, and then say, finally, “God I’ve hated living in this hotel,” or perhaps “Get me the fuck out of here,” or whatever variation speaks to you.

And then, at long last, move out of the hotel. Drag your suitcases, backpacks, purses, and plastic bags of dirty laundry down the stairs, out onto the the sidewalk, and roll it all 100 meters down the street to your new apartment.

Reclaim your place among humanity.

How to Handle Getting Caught in A Monsoon, Saigon Edition

My timing upon moving to Jakarta was such that I didn’t ever encounter the Indonesian rainy season; my timing upon arriving in Saigon was not so fortuitous, as I’ve mentioned here before. Of course, “monsoon season” doesn’t have one specific definition, and so I spent much of my ‘Nam preparation speculating about what it would be like. Would it pour rain all day every day? Would it it drizzle all day every day? Would there be violent downpours followed by clear skies? Would these violent downpours be unpredictable, or would there be specific times of day when the sky could be guaranteed to open up?

Now that I’ve been here for two and a half weeks, I can confidently report back that I still have no idea. The rain here has no discernible pattern, as far as I can tell. Some days it will rain from sunrise to sunset and into the night; some it’ll downpour once, twice maybe, but otherwise be clear; others it’ll drizzle lightly for hours. I’ve tried to establish rules of the rain, only to see each one disproven, one by one, over the weeks: Oh, when the wind picks up, that means one’s coming; or, When you can see a blue sky in the distance, the shower will be super short; or, If it’s a really hot day, the rain will come right at the hottest point; or maybe, If it’s a really hot day, the rain will come just as it starts to cool down. None of these rules are true; or they’re all true, just only sporadically. The only real reliable indicator of an impending rainstorm is that when the locals pull over on their motorbikes to put on their ponchos, a storm’s a-coming. But the thing is, by the time you see that happening, it’s usually too late.

On our first full weekend in Saigon, M and I decided to take our motorbike over to District 2 to see the alleged mansions and pretty architecture over there. The sky that Sunday morning could have been interpreted in any number of ways given the abovementioned rules, but, also given the stupidness of those rules, we decided to just go for it. We had a fun long drive through the city and across the bridge, then explored District 2 for a bit before stopping for some fruit juice and sparkling water at a beautiful riverside lounge (the beverage choices being products of our semi-successful attempt at Sober September); then we hopped on the bike and headed, with no particular haste, back to District 1.

We weren’t quite ready to return to our dismal hotel home, a poorly lit room filled with two weeks’ worth of dirty laundry where we’d been camped since arriving in Vietnam, so we zoomed around a bit more.

M took a longer, more meandering route home, guessing at where certain roads would come out and exploring new parts of the city. On one long stretch of road that cut through shack restaurants and expanses of fallow fields, a light shower misted us, and we saw enormous puddle testifying to an earlier downpour, but we saw the dark clouds moving in the other direction, and congratulated ourselves on being lucky and/or smart (if the title of this post didn’t make clear what’s about to happen, then that self-congratulation detail certainly should).

We crossed the bridge that returned us to D1, depositing us probably no more than 5 minutes from our hotel. But the air felt fresh and clean and the bike was fun and the roads now felt somewhat familiar, so we decided to follow our noses and figure out how to get back through intuition rather than by pulling out our phones and orienting ourselves; If we got super lost, we could always pull out the smart phones and figure it out.

But even as we wound down unfamiliar street after unfamiliar street, and the sky darkened and the wind strengthened and the mist turned to droplets turned to big, fat, fast-coming drops, neither of us could swallow our pride and admit that we needed the damn iPhone. And once that fact became clear beyond a doubt, the iPhone couldn’t, in fact, be brought out, because the volume of water pounding down upon us, not to mention our own soaking wet hands, would have completely prevented its usage and potentially destroyed it. So we pulled into a slightly covered entryway to a parking lot and checked the map. At this point, already fairly drenched, we also decided that it was probably a good idea to poncho up.

Now one essential component to having a truly epic caught-in-a-monsoon experience is to make sure that the you have recently upgraded your iPhone software to iOS 6, an upgrade that renders the native map application completely unusable. This will really authenticate your monsoon experience, as you will not only be unable to search successfully for your hotel on the map, but also, within eight seconds, be told that you’re facing south, then north, then south, then north again! To ensure that you don’t have the opportunity to mitigate the purity of this we’re-completely-fucked experience, make sure that any other smart phone, such as an Android which still has a working mapping app, is completely out of data credits and so lacks its GPS functionality. Now you’re really stuck.

On a slightly tangential note, if you’re looking for a romantic and intimate experience, being soaking wet under one plastic poncho with your partner while cursing at a non-functional phone that is denying you the ability to get home as a shirtless man in swimming trunks and flip-flops watches you from the parking attendant vestibule while finishing up a plate of rice, is probably not an ideal choice. But you know, whatever floats your boat.

Finally, M was able to gather enough information from the map to orient ourselves, and we headed home. On the way, we discovered that we weren’t, in fact, heading home, but rather heading away from home, and pulled over under a tree, which we pretended was providing us shelter. We waited for a little bit, also pretending that the rain might let up soon, and then stopped pretending both of the above things, banged a U-turn, and got back on track. A few turns and puddle drive-throughs and many swear words later, we finally passed an unmistakable landmark, the Notre Dame cathedral, which both told us that we were near the hotel, and allowed us to navigate home without technological aid. Dripping wet, fplattered with mud, eyes blurry from raindrops-in-contacts, we finally pulled up to the hotel. We’d made it.

“You know that as soon as we get inside, the rain’s gonna let up,” M said.

Whether it did or didn’t let up was beyond importance to me at that point; we were dry and sheltered, and a hot shower awaited, and no amount of cruel irony could take that away from me.

But, yeah, I’m pretty sure it let up.


How to Stop Your Eyeball and Greater Eye Area From Scorching Pain and Potential Annihilation

Alternate Post Title: How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Pho Dinner

So the other night, M and I decided we’d pop out of our hotel (Yes, I live in a hotel. I need neither your pity nor your judgement.*) to grab some pho from a nearby spot that M had found on a Saigon food blog.

Now, in an instance of really very canny planning, we arrived in Saigon during monsoon season, in fact during the rainiest month of the year, according to Wikipedia.  This does not mean, as I’d feared, constant rain all day long, but rather intense heat broken by quick and violent storms that sweep through the area in half an hour or so and clean the city. Beautiful, but unpredictable. And they become less beautiful when their unpredictability means that, just as you’re stepping outside to go get some delicious, delicious noodles, the sky opens up, forcing you back inside your hotel.

Showcasing my characteristic scrappiness, resilience, and unflagging spirit, I did not despair. “Wait!” I said to M, “I witnessed a gentleman at this very hotel get pho delivered here today. We shall do the same!” So we managed to communicate to the front desk that we’d like them to order pho for us, and it was delivered to our rooms not long after.

If eating pho can be messy and chaotic for a native Asian at a table, then try to imagine the disaster that ensues when two white Americans, fumbling with their chopsticks and crammed onto a tiny hotel room couch using phone books and chairs as a table, try to successful consume their meal. But we pulled it off without any significant disasters, happily loading up our plastic take-out bowls with bean sprouts, Thai basil, fish sauce, and hot chile peppers. Because of utensil and eating surface issues, I ended up using my fingers a fair amount to tear apart too-big pieces of tofu or vegetables, but whatever, no biggie.

We finished our meal and retired to the bedroom to watch an episode of The Wire, which we have been slowly working our way through since moving to Asia (almost done with season 4 now. God damn Marlo is a heartless bastard.). At some point while watching, I reached up and rubbed my left eye. Now, let me take note of a few things here: first off, I had washed my hands after finishing my food; second, I had only put one chile pepper in my broth, and had taken it out partway through and not consumed it; and three, I only rubbed my closed eyelid, did not touch the eyeball or inner-eye area at all.

Regardless of these seemingly mitigating circumstances, my eye immediately exploded in searing pain. I tried to ignore it, because something was about to go down with Snoop and Chris (Andre, you idiot.), but after less than one second the wrenching burning sensation made it clear that it was not to be made to wait.

“Pause,” was all I managed to say as I jumped up from the bed and ran to the bathroom.

In too much pain to really think clearly about things like perhaps taking out my contacts or thoroughly washing my hands again before attempting to deal with my eye, or like the most effective way in which to flush my eye with water, I turned the cold water up to full blast, tugged the bottom of my eyelid to keep the eye open, and began splashing water in my face.

After M got tired of waiting to restart The Wire, and/or became concerned at the length of time I’d been standing over the sink with the water running, saying “Jesus Christ” repeatedly to myself, he inquired as to what was going on, and I informed him that my eyeball was slowly being liquidated by chile molecules.

Not himself beset by this grievance, he possessed the presence of mind to, once he came into the bathroom, observe some inefficiencies in my burning-stopping-system. His words of wisdom will be my first pieces of advice (See, this blog is super practical!). Well, actually, my initial instinct–to flush my eyeball with water–is really the first piece of advice. If you find yourself with a foreign substance in your eyeball, flush the bejeezus out of that thing with clean water (using Jakarta as a bar here, I think this stuff qualifies). But, as with anything, there are more and less effective ways to do this.

Least effective: Splashing water at your face, aiming mostly for your eyeball

More effective: Cupping your hand under the running water and submerging your eyeball in the pool collecting in your palm.

Most effective: Holding your eye open and your head under the running faucet, and let the water run in a continuous stream.

After I settled on the final method, M thought to inquire as to whether or not I still had my contact lens in, which, of course, I did. It had occurred to me several times that this fact wasn’t ideal, but the idea of taking my eyeball away from the cool water, and of having to touch my eyeball again with my finger, seemed too overwhelmingly painful to attempt. But that was in my head. When uttered in the words of another human, I realized that I had no choice. I had to take my stupid contact out. So that’s the next step, although I suppose it should be the first: take out your contacts, if you wear them.

The new level of pain to which I ascended upon removing my contact was, shall we say, beyond my expectations. All of the hot, scorching burn of before, sharpened by the astringent sting of an eye completely devoid of moisture. I screamed and stuck my head back into the sink.

We stayed there for a while, my head in the sink, coughing and choking on the water that ran down my face, trying to contain my panic as the heat of the burn spread to my eyelid, my eyebrow, my upper cheek, all the way down to just above my lip, trying to ignore the fact that when I looked in the mirror, I saw that my left eyelid had turned red and was swelling my eye shut. M stood behind me, watching me sputter and looking up remedies on his iPhone.

“Do we have any milk?” he asked, and then remembered that we live in a hotel and no, we do not have any milk.

Several more eternities passed.

“Okay, I’m gonna go get some milk.”

M ran out to get some milk. My first thought was that he might be a while, and that maybe my eye had been flushed for long enough and I could get up and see who sent me the text that I just heard buzz on my phone, but one second away from the stream of water told me that wouldn’t fly. So for the next while–5 minutes? 10 minutes? 20 minutes?–I got intimately acquainted with our sink.

I mused about whether the sink manufacturer–Cotto–and the drain manufacturer–Toto–were at all related, or whether the similar names were a coincidence. I watched the draining water receded and ebb and spiral around the drain, fluctuating as the position of my brow and nose shifted, looking much like a stop-motion animation because of the illusion of jerkiness the water’s swiftness creates. I pushed my dry, discarded contact from the edge of the sink into the basin, and was amused for 15 seconds or so as it struggled to go down the drain. I realized that my right arm, pinned between my torso and the sink, had gone completely numb, and that my right hand was a corpse-like shade of purple, and changed position. I listened to every elevator ding and prayed for the milk to arrive. At a certain point, when it seemed that M had been gone for at least 4 to 5 hours, I doubted whether Vietnam even sold milk.

And then M came back, with two icy cold bottles of milk, and we spent a very romantic 3 minutes or so pouring milk into my eyeball, and then just holding the milk up against my open eye and tilting the bottle up and down. The image revealed when he pulled the bottle away–swollen lid, milk-matted lashes, bloodshot eyeball, milk drops caught in brows and collected in fat droplets on my cheek, hair stringy and wet from the water–was perhaps less than glamorous, but, amazingly, miraculously, my eyeball no longer felt like it was being barbecued over an open flame. It was a lactose-filled miracle.

So, really, this whole post is kind of just an excuse for me to ramble, because you can skip all the preliminary steps and go straight to this one, the only instruction you need, the answer M repeatedly found in his Googling efforts: put some milk on it.

*But I will take a real estate agent recommendation.

How to Get a Vietnamese Visa

As loyal readers know, I now reside in Vietnam. Doing that requires getting a visa, a thing that may conjure knots of stress in your stomach if you are averse to waiting in long lines, paying seemingly unnecessary fees, and handling the bureaucracies of foreign countries, or any of the above. In order to quell the anxieties of all ye anxiety-prone Type A-ers who may have need to visit Vietnam, I’ll do another “practical knowledge” post and explain the process to you.

So it’s a bit more difficult than getting a Visa On Arrival in Indonesia–where the process is: Give me American dollazzzzzz!!!!–but not much more. It does, however, require a little bit of pre-departure work. You’ve got to go to one of the many websites that allow you to apply for a VOA, and fill out an online application. There are a bunch of sites that offer this service, and it can be confusing to pick one, but let me break it down for you: they are all the same, so go with the cheapest. At first I thought that the scant $19 fee for Get Vietnam Visa indicated a sort of low-budg shirking that would fuck up my process, and was contemplating going the extra 99¢ for My Vietnam Visa, or even splurging on the $21 Vietnam-Visa, but ultimately my cheapness won out and I went with Plan A. And I got my visa just the same as everyone else, and saved a potential $2 (41,700 Vietnamese dong!) in the process.

So after a few days, you’ll get your approval letter, and all you need to do is print it out and bring it with you. The various websites will tell you that you also need your passport (This is correct. And if you managed to travel from a different country to Vietnam without a passport, you are way too smart to be reading this blog.), and two regulation-size passport photos. This last one, you don’t really need. I happened to have two old passport-sized photos lying around from when I applied for a French visa, but my mom got nervous because I look naked in them (I was going through a tube top* phase then. Don’t judge.), so we went to CVS and got two more taken. But I think you’re safe to save the $7.95, given that M showed up with no photos and didn’t have an issue. If you’re a nervous Nellie, then go ahead and get them, but I highly doubt it matters, and if whoever is on shift at the visa counter does require them of you, you’re not going to get turned away without them; there will inevitably be someone on staff to snap some pics, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re slapped with a hefty fee.

That’s all the prep work you need. Once you get off the plane, things should be pretty self-explanatory, but there are a few things you can do to expedite your visa-getting experience (Note: the following tips apply specifically to the Saigon airport). First, obviously, move with alacrity off of the plane. It’s likely that most people on your flight need to go through this process, too, and every person who gets there ahead of you adds a few minutes to your wait time, so don’t be shy. Use elbows if you must.

Once you’re off, follow the signs to immigration, and when you reach that room, go immediately to the left wall, where the VOA counter is. A bit to the right of the counter is a desk where you can get your application form. Grab this, and fill it out quick. Don’t fret over confusing questions like ones that ask for the name of the relative or office you’re visiting–I just wrote down our hotel name, and was fine. Most of the people there likely don’t read English anyway, so no one will be scrutinizing your answers that closely, especially if you’re just doing a tourist visa. Then hand in your application, and wait. I ain’t got no tips to speed this part up. But you should be good from here on out. After a few minutes, or perhaps more if you didn’t follow the above advice and were one of the last people to hand in your application, your name will be called, and you’ll head back to the counter to pay your fee. Make sure you have US dollars on hand, because that’s what they want. Pay your fee, collect your passport, and hit the immigration lines.

And then come visit me. I don’t have any friends yet.

*I know I mentioned a tube dress in my last post. But a tube dress is a TOTALLY different animal from a tube top. Totally. Maybe this is why I don’t have friends.