The GoGlobal Blog

Month: February 2011

Amsterdam

Amsterdam

There could not be a more appropriate name for this post. This entry is very obviously named in order to follow suit with everything in the captivating city. During out stay, it did not take us long to discover the odd sense of humor and original personalities of the Dutch people.

But before meeting too many of these colorful characters, actually getting to the city was quite a bit of work. Seeing as this is my first time  living in Europe (I say this in lofty hopes that there could be future prospects), I want to see every part of the continent that I am able. Obviously, this requires quite a bit of necessary traveling and that fact requires that I become accustomed to everything airport associated – airport food, airport bathrooms, and irritating airport security regulations. But no matter how many times I arrive or depart at an airport, I have a small feeling in the pit of my stomach that something will go wrong. I fear I will look too sketchy to make it through security. I worry the airline will send my luggage to Tunisia instead of my desired destination. Regardless, I don’t put my full faith in the airport til I saunter out of their sliding doors and into whatever new place I travel to that weekend. Never before have I been bested by the airports of Europe. However, my roommate was not so lucky this past weekend. The airline messed up her original ticket and forced her to rebook. As a result, we didn’t make it to our original designated flight time. Luckily, our flight was delayed 2 hours. Unluckily, this meant we had two more hours to kill in the airport and 2 less hours to spend on Thursday night in Amsterdam. However, given the current circumstance, everything really did work out for the best.

When we got into Amsterdam at 1:00 am, we didn’t have many options of activities. As we arrived at our hotel, we experienced our first strange example of the unique Dutch sense of humor. Upon exiting the cab, a man shouted “4 girls!”. Why yes, hello to you too extremely obvious man who is both able to count and distinguish gender. Not five minutes of walking later and an additional “4 girls!” exclamation occurred. We brushed both off and headed into our hotel.

Having read all of the reviews stating that Amsterdam hostels are filled with either vermin or drug addicts, we opted for the cheapest hotel we could find for the weekend. A double room for four people was a tad cramped but served its purpose appropriately enough. However, we were thrown off by a couple of things. In our new place of dwelling, the first thing to get used to were the stairs. Apparently, the Dutch are known for extremely narrow steps. We almost broke our necks everytime we went up and down to the concierge. Also, we were a little more than perplexed by the bathroom situation. Our bathroom was the one thing in the city that was extremely inappropriately named. They should’ve called it the showerroom, as in the whole room was a shower which just happened to have a toilet and sink. This spacial predicament resulted in wet feet and a plethora of damp toiletries throughout the weekend.

The next day, we ventured beyond our unusual lodgings and took advantage of a free tour of the city. We met in Damark Square which holds a few historic landmarks including Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, the Royal Palace, and New Church (different from Old Church which we saw later). See, I wasn’t joking, the Dutch really are into obviously naming things. Perhaps that is why we received shouts from the strange men from the night before; had they just hoped to obviously define new visitors in their city?

The tour itself was amazing. Despite the crazy reputation Amsterdam may have acquired, it is an utterly gorgeous city filled with amazing history. Because its founders literally built a dam across the River Amstel (again with the obvious naming!), the entire town is on water. This makes for gorgeous bridges and canals at every turn. The buildings were reminiscent of those I had seen in Prague but with a little cuter character. From the mod Jewish district (designed by crazy art students in the 1960s) to the Chinese Districts (meaning no Italian pasta for me for the weekend), each area we visited had more adorable personality than the next.

Considering myself somewhat of a history buff, I loved seeing the ports and museums for the Dutch West India Trading Company ,the hiding house of Helen Keller during WWII (complete with view of the church steeple she mentions in her diary), and the pub where Rembrandt crafted some of his most famous paintings. However, the tour didn’t only take us to dry historical sites. Right after gazing at Old Church, we turned to our left to see the notorious Red Light District with some of its famous ladies already at work in their windows. To end the tour, my inner Wisconsinite came out at one of the most famous Amsterdam cheese shops. It was the perfect tour and the perfect day.

As you’ve somewhat seen, the Dutch proved to be very interesting people. At risk of offense, I couldn’t help but to somewhat look at them as children during my time there. Firstly, their sense of humor is very childish. Our tourguide (a student named Nauschka) warned us at the beginning of the walk that many passerbys of tour groups like to shout “She’s lying!”. She counteracts this by teaching her groups to yell back “We know!” Also, a big aspect of culture in Holland is the usage of bicycles. In Amsterdam, they have difficulties maintaining easy passage through canals because the inahbitants of the city find it hilarious to throw bicycles in the river (25,000 per year!). When they’re not tossing the bikes in the river, people ride them (and ride them INSANELY) through town. They have a saying in Amsterdam to warn tourists – “if you hear the bell, you run like hell”. I found this to be extremely true and pondered if my obituary would humiliatingly say “Laura Osterndorf – death by bike in Amsterdam”. However, I found the most humorous thing about the Dutch to be their childish ignorance of any other culture. Usually I feel as though I must wear a sign on my forehead with Uncle Sam pointing at all the Europeans. However, in Holland, I was asked if I was from the UK more than several times. Having a bit of fun with the natives, we told a group that we were from Spain. We were met with barely any skepticism and only one person bothered to point out the obvious fact that I look nothing like any Spaniard who’s ever lived. However, the same person continued the conversation by telling us how mad they were that we (the Spanish) beat them in the World Cup. I won’t lie, it was nice to not be a totally ignorant American for the weekend.

Finally, there were a few main positives that stuck out this weekend in non-traditional ways. Nostalgically, I was reunited with my foreign exchange German friend Jan from high school; it seems crazy that it took 3 years and a different continent to bring us back together. Second, this weekend was a nice change of pace from a food standpoint. Because Amsterdam is such a touristy area, they cater to all ethnicities and desires. Italian food is big everywhere in Europe (not helpful to Rome natives like us who want to experience new food everywhere). In Amsterdam, I oddly experienced Mexican, Asian, and Bavarian food, all proving to be refreshing and delicious. Finally, the last and coolest memory I take back is going to the Trance Energy concert in Jaarbeurs Utrecht, a different city of Holland which is right outside of Amsterdam. The concert featured some of the biggest House DJs in the world. I had one of the best times in my life dancing the night away. Also, cultural fun fact: in Europe, they call concerts (as Americans known them) “parties”. To them, concerts are only orchestral events. What will these crazy Europeans think of next?

After dethawing from the cold of Amsterdam, it was nice to arrive back in the 60 degree weather of Rome and hear “ciaos” all around us instead of the hacking Dutch lanaguage we experienced all weekend. I can only hope the beautiful weather and beautiful language will stick around for Florence this next weekend!

Karaoke, Calico, Gelato and dinner with a Priest

Karaoke, Calico, Gelato and dinner with a Priest

The title really sums up my week pretty well, so maybe I don’t need a blog post after all……..nah I’ll still do one anyway.

Monday came around, and that annoying thing called “class” took place. The bummer about having 3 monday classes is that I have 3 midterms coming up in less than 2 days. Good news is that spring break is less than a week away. Anywho, monday night consisted of installment one of Karaoke night. A good start of the week stress reliever. At first everyone was reluctant to get up on stage, but after director of students Mike Beazley sang the Backstreet Boys, the party was on. Now myself, not being afraid to look like a fool and get up in front of people, I signed up to sing Blink 182s “All the Small Things” Everyone was singing along with all the songs anyway, so it didn’t matter if you could sing or not. Overall, great time had by all, can’t wait for next time…any song suggestions?

Tuesday, clearly wasn’t important enough for me to remember, so onto wednesday. Calcio game night. That’s all I really need to say. My squad, Gang Green (the guac’s) was taking on Brown. They feature an actual Div 1 soccer player from SLU. But surprisingly he was not a factor, I blocked all of the shots he took (jamming my thumb on the turf/concrete on one save). However, Brown found every possible way to sneak the ball in the goal. Including a freak header on a corner kick. It was quite a defensive battle that ending a 3-5 defeat for us. Oh well, had to lose that first game sometime, and now that its out of the way we can regroup, and move forward. The tradition of a glass of beer and pizza helped take the sting (and actual pain) out of the defeat. Intramural calcio is taken very seriously around here, as you have probably already guessed.

Thursday night, a number of us signed up to have a delicious (and paid for) dinner with the campus minister, Father Al. I love that the weekends start on Thursday here, I am going to be in for such a shock when I have to go back to Chicago and 5 day weeks, what madness! So the dinner took place at a restaurant called “Taverna Parione” near Piazza Navona, I highly recommend it if you are ever in Rome. Ordered some typical ‘antipasti’…suppli (fried rice balls & cheese), fried veggies and bruschette (with tomato). Obviously wine was involved. And I’ve found that the house wine at italian restaurants can be very good, and cheap. And more and more I am finding myself a bigger fan of white wine rather than red. Red can be too dry at times for me, not fruity enough (I’m clearly my mother’s son, at least when it comes to wine). For my main dish I got a calzone with ham, egg and cheese. Weird combo? No, delicious combo. And apparently there was another large party at the restaurant at the time, and they had tons of extra food, which the waiters brought to us. Needless to say, we were stuffed. Before we left, however, we had a typical after dinner italian drink Limoncello. Now when I say we were full, I really didn’t mean that. There is ALWAYS room for gelato. And this restaurant just happened to be close to the best gelato in all of Rome. A hole in the wall gelateria called “Frigidarium”. This place is so good it even has its own flavor called Frigidarium, not sure what flavor it actually is but its delicious. PLUS they dip your ice cream in chocolate and put a little cookie on top before giving it to you. I am now craving this gelato simply just by writing about it, thanks.

Friday was a school sponsored trip to the scavi at Pompeii. I signed up because last time I was in Italy we went to Ostia instead of Pompeii. My grandpa always has said that Pompeii is just “a bunch of old bones” and he couldn’t have been more right. I guess I had higher expectations for Pompeii based on what I’ve read about it. I assumed there would be plastered bodies everywhere, not the case. There are still a number of them, and its kind of chilling to see, but that’s not the ONLY thing Pompeii is about. Also I felt like the the ruins looked a lot like those at Herculaneum, which makes sense as they were both destroyed by the same eruption. Either way, it’s amazing just how preserved everything is. The paintings on the walls, the marble. Kind of gives you a great insight to how these people lived. And staring at the daunting volcano in the distance is a bit unnerving. Scientists say its due real soon for a big eruption, rivaling that of the one that destroyed Pompeii. The highlight of the day was probably evading the Carabinieri (military police). Basically if you don’t have a license to give tours you can’t give one. And the professor who was with us obviously didn’t have one. So we had to kind of sneakily walk around Pompeii so that he would not be arrested.

I have to say (and I’ve said this before). The time is going really fast. I’ll be in Greece real soon. And then when I get back my time will be over half way done. Yikes. I’ll try to update before Greece so you don’t have to go too long without hearing from me. But we shall see how midterms treat me. Wish me luck, and good luck on your tests and whatnot.

About the Protests

About the Protests

I’ve gotten a lot of people asking about the protests that have been happening throughout the Arab world. To put it bluntly – it will never happen here. As long as the Sultan is in charge there will be no mass protests or regime changes. People here genuinely love the Sultan. And they should.

Before the Sultan wrested control of Oman from his father in 1970, the country was not in good way. The Sultan’s father, Said bin Taimur, strictly outlawed any symbol of western culture. Smoking, wearing closed-toed shoes, playing music, and numerous other innocuous actions were punishable by jail time and even death. Since Qaboos bin Said has been in charge, the people have seen the outlook for their country take a complete 180. Without the Sultan, the modern, stable, and prosperous Oman of today would not exist.

That being said, there have been two protests. On February 19th, about 300 or so people gathered outside the Ministry of Labor to request a higher minimum wage. Among there cardboard signs were numerous pictures of the Sultan and messages showing support for him. There was no anger or violence. The police gave out cold drinks and snacks.

The protests that have been happening are relatively close by – Yemen is our nextdoor neighbor and Bahrain is just up the Gulf – but they are still far away. Sitting at my house in Muscat is about as chaotic as sitting in an apartment in Chicago – actually it’s probably safer. We’ve gotten a few students who were evacuated from Egypt, and the SIT Jordan program is coming here for their excursion instead of Egypt, but other than that there’s nothing. The protests are a topic of conversation here, that’s about it.

Yet another great weekend.

Yet another great weekend.

Yet another weekend almost over. I tell you, it’s going by quite fast. Sheesh it’s almost March!

It was a great weekend. As I mentioned before I was heading to Napoli on friday. Thus, I woke up at 6:30a to head to the treno stazione. It was a rather quick train, only 2 hours. But immediately upon our arrival, Naples showed her true colors. The colors of trash that is. I learned that the public service sector is more or less run by the Mafia, yes Mafia, thus they clean up whenever they darn well please. We right headed to Pizzeria da Michele (as seen in Eat, Pray, Love) but it was way famous before that movie anyway. Best pizza I’ve had in italy so far. Naples is not very big so we just walked around for a few hours, going into a number of churches and stores. All the while avoiding the trash, that due to the wind was forming trash tornados. Did not get back to Rome until later in the evening and upon arriving at the train station hunger was intense. I’m ashamed to say I got McDonald’s, I did not come to Italy for that. BUT at least got something called a McRoyal which we do not have in the States.

Fast forward to Saturday evening. A few of us decided to go out for dinner instead of mensa again. You really have to be here to understand just how “blah” it can be. Anywho, we headed to the south of Roma, “Trastevere”. There we went to the #1 bar in the world according to some beer website. It’s nicknamed “Ma Che” because the full name is much too long for anyone to remember. It’s fun to try various beer from around the world, it’s much like trying different wines, each has a unique flavor. I’m still adjusting to the whole “It’s perfectly legal to drink here” But I have to say I have been very responsible, I’m in a foreign land and I’d rather have a good time and remember my experiences here. Afterwards we got a table at the restaurant “Bir & Fud” (Pronounced Beer & Food, but burrr ‘n fud as I call it). We had some of the best antipasti I’ve ever had. Suppli (fried riceballs basically) and ham bruschette. For the main course we had pizza that rivaled Neapolitan pizza. However, the 2nd pizza we shared had anchovies on it. I was feeling adventurous so I tried it. IT’S SO SALTY. I’m glad I tried it, but I will probably never be eating it again. Then in typical Roman fashion we wandered the streets and ate gelato. There’s no such thing as too much gelato.

On to sunday. Slept in a little, I love doing that by the way. Amo dormire a lungo! After dragging my lazy butt out of bed, Katie Mac and I ventured to the Porta Portese flea market in Trastevere. This market is HUGE. So many vendors selling, well you name it they have it. Granted a good number of the items were your typical “made in china” trinkets, there was a good deal of legitimate products as well. This was my first real shopping outing while here, I’m not a huge shopper by the way but I figured it was time to get some gifts for the friends & fam. Among my purchases was an authentic soccer jersey for myself. I choose largely on color but also because of the player, Buffon, a goalie and as I am team keeper for our intramural team I figured it was a good choice. Today was also my first taste of the regional trains here in Italy. I’ve been on the “train” trains and metro, but the regional trains are much like Chicagoland’s Metra. Katie and I could not figure out where/how to buy tickets so we just got on. Ended up not having to pay there or back. Train for free equals train for me.

Now I sit here, still needing to do a bit of homework for class tomorrow but I think I’ll go to dinner first. So I should probably leave you now. Thanks again for reading! Ci vediamo! Ciao ciao.

Better late than never!

Better late than never!

Ciao everyone.

I noticed a little while ago that no one was blogging from Rome this Spring 2011 semester. And as I already set up a blog on another site, I figured I can copy my posts over. That way my writing will reach a broader spectrum of readers. Hopefully, through reading this blog you decide to study abroad or take a vacation.

Rather than copying over the posts I’ve already made, it would take a while as there are many posts and I have limited free time, I will include the link to my other blog and you are welcome to catch up.  http://k2heartsrome.blogspot.com/

You’ll find out quickly that I’m no english major, so there are bound to be errors. However, I’m a bit of a comedian so you’ll be sure to get a few laughs.

Here’s a very quick recap of my time here so far, to get you caught up a little. (But if you want a more in depth version, see my other site.)

I left a very snowy Chicago on January 11th, arriving in Rome on Jan. 12. After what seemed like the longest day ever, I was awake for what I figure to be 36 hours, I was finally all settled at the John Felice Rome Center (Loyola’s very own campus in Rome). The rooms are typical “dorm” style, bathroom in the hall and all that jazz. I am a bit lucky as I got a single, which you might think is lonely, but there is no internet access in the dorms so if I want to skype (or let’s be honest, Facebook) I have to go to either Rinaldo’s cafe in the downstairs of the center or the brand new Information Commons. So life here is VERY social. The Rome Center is situation on Monte Mario, a hill of Rome. Only 20 minutes from the heart of Rome by bus, that is IF the bus comes. Public transit is nothing like it is in Chicago, I miss the CTA so much. As for classes, we only have them Monday-Thursday so traveling on the weekends is easy and encouraged. The teachers know you’ll be traveling so homework is not too hard, just quite a bit of reading, but you have to remember it’s still college.  So far I’ve been to Paris, Florence, the Vatican and Naples. And soon to be going to Pompeii, Tivoli, London and Greece for Spring Break. I was a bit homesick pretty much immediately upon arriving in Rome, but with each day it gets better and now I’m seeing just how fast this semester is going! Rome is such a cool city, I am glad I chose to come here. Granted my italian is mediocre at best, I’m finding myself able to understand it more and more and going out and about is good practice. It’s definitely easier to learn a language if you are IN that country.

I think I will wrap it up there for now. I don’t want to overwhelm you all in my first post. My next post will dive right into my life here, picking up right where my other blog is. I hope you enjoy reading, and if there is anything you want me to explain, write about, do in Rome, please let me know, I believe you can comment on the posts!

Until next time, best wishes and “ci vediamo!”

Ken

Muscat: Car City 4 Life

Muscat: Car City 4 Life

The city of muscat is shaped like a ruler. It’s not very deep, but it just keeps going in either direction. It is just so long. And as a city has really only started to come into its own recently (like, within the past 30 years or so) it escapes me as to why the city wasn’t subject to a more centrally planned design. There are three distinct sections of the city – Ruwi, Mutrah, and Muscat (Old Muscat), but between them, and even whithin them, there are long stretches of empty, uninhabited desert.

This design of course facilitates a city which is built around transport via automobile. Those who don’t have cars can take one of the many cabs or a rather uncomfortable tightly packed minibus taxi known as a ‘Baiza’ bus. However Muscat doesn’t have a light-rail system or even city buses. This means that many of Muscat’s residents who can’t afford cars, namely its South Asian ex-pats, are restricted to using these types of transport. Moreover, as a city which is attempting to foster tourism, the presence of only taxicabs, especially ones which are notorious for ripping foreigners off, is harmful.

Unfortunately, as Muscat is built around such an awkward shape, it would pretty much be financially unfeasible to construct such a large light rail system. Buses would be the only option, but that would require a more intimate knowledge of the city than a tourist-friendly rail system.

Basically Muscat is in a situation where it pretty much has no other option than private vehicles in order to get around, in this temperature not even bikes are feasible.

Know this begs another question – as a rentier state wherein petrol is cheaper than water, was this design intentional? I’m sure the car companies are pleased with it.

This post was pretty boring so I promise that next time it’ll be fun.

Super Fun Weekend 2011!

Super Fun Weekend 2011!

This past weekend was a blast.

Since Friday is the Holy Day in Islam, weekends here start on Thursday. This past Wednesday night there was an urs (wedding) at the house next to mine. I wasn’t invited but my 11 year old host brother told me to just walk on in. The father was very welcoming – he gave me tea and stuff. I guess weddings in Oman are like those in the Godfather (“Accept this gesture as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day). I helped set up the bands equipment and after a few minutes of hanging out I left.

I’ve been meeting a lot of my host dad’s friends. On Saturday we visited one of his work friends who came to Oman from Zanzibar (The two were once part of the same country). I also met a couple of his friends who are cultural pariahs. Homosexuality in Oman is a very secretive thing. Their apartment was almost hidden in the back alleyways of the city. In fact, this society in general seems to have a great deal of secrets. Girlfriends, drinking, homosexuality, etc.

On Friday we went to a small city about an hour north of Muscat. It was snugly located in the middle of a crescent of rocky mountains. After visiting my host-moms extended family, we went to a massive Omani fort. I guess the thing was only built about 60-70 years ago, but that didn’t stop it from being impressive. I definitely know what I’d do in case of a zombie apocalypse – nothing could get into that thing.

We finished by going to a small creekbed inhabited by a bunch of doctor fish. If you don’t know, doctor fish are used in the Middle East (as well as Asia) to eat the dead skin off of the body. Imagine your feet being encased in a school of bottomfeeders, all scraping at your feet. It was new to me, and on several occasions I either burst into laughter or frantically jumped out of the water – I highly recommend it.

This morning I found out that I have a huge problem. One of the kids in my host family went into my bag five days ago and took my emergency global cell phone. The phone I have for emergencies ONLY because it is so expensive. In the three days he had it he ran up a $350 cell phone bill!!! I’ve contacted the cell phone company so hopefully I’ll be able to find someway to fix it, because I certainly can’t afford it. Stay tuned.

Is It My Turn Yet?

Is It My Turn Yet?

As much as I have enjoyed my two months working at the local coffee shop, I am ready for an adventure.

Most college students vacated my hometown about a month ago; needless to say, I can’t wait for a change. In just under one week, I will head into Chicago, not to visit Loyola (although I will miss it), but to leave on the very long flight from O’Hare to Melbourne International.

Australia, here I come.

Not so fast though. The flight consists of an eight-hour layover in San Francisco and another two-hour layover in Sydney.  So with the time difference, I am looking at over two days of travel. My fingers are crossed the flights will go smoothly though.

I still don’t know what to expect upon arrival.  I, however, do know that I will be trading in all this snow for lots of Australian summer sun.  For now though, I should probably turn my focus to packing, fitting four months into two suitcases.

Check back here about twice a week. I look forward to sharing my Australian adventures with you.

Wow! First real post!

Wow! First real post!

I’ve been in Ireland for almost a week and I think I’m finally beginning to settle in. I got picked up at the airport in a group of study abroad students by the DCU bus when I first arrived. The driver was really friendly and I have to admit to my surprise that the whole driving on the left side of the road thing kind of a freaked me out. The bus driver dropped off our group at Shanowen Hall. We were greeted by…no one. There was an empty office that didn’t open until 10 and the dorms were almost completely dead because all of the students were still on holiday. Sooo we waited. And waited. And waited. We waited for an hour and a half with giant suitcases outside the empty office. The wait wasn’t too bad. I got to know some of the IES students pretty well. We are all American and it turns out that two of the girls were assigned to live with my friend from Loyola. Finally 10:00 rolled around. Management arrived! They informed us that, actually, we waited and waited and waited at the wrong place. The place we were staying at was about 100 feet away on the other side of a wall. Sweeeeeet. Haha. We made our way over to Shanowen SQUARE and settled in to our rooms.

Campus here has some differences from Loyola that are taking time to get used to. My apartment has 5 girls living in it. We each have our own room with a desk, closet, bed, and bathroom. We share a kitchen and living area. It’s massive. I love it. There is also a bar on campus in the student Hub. It was a pretty wild concept for me at first. Public transportation is 1.60 Euro (I don’t know how to type the euro symbol yet.) each way. And the buses stop running at 11:30 pm. I miss my UPass.

I saw the Book of Kells at Trinity college. It was gorgeous. I didn’t even know what the Book of Kells was until my mom insisted that I visit it when I got here.

I love it here so far, the sky has been blue  the past couple of days and I’m in the process of planning a shopping trip and an adventure to the Cliffs of Moher!

Hopefully now that I have internet these posts will become more frequent!

Chup Mong Na Moi (Happy Lunar New Year): A Tet Adventure

Chup Mong Na Moi (Happy Lunar New Year): A Tet Adventure

I know I said I would pick up from breakfast, but lets fast forward a week to NOW and then after this blog I can backtrack a little bit.

While the students back home in Chicago are off school for a blizzard, I am off school to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year which is basically a Vietnamese version of Chinese New Year. You can tell Tet is approaching because the traffic in Ho Chi Minh is crazier than usual and many stores are already closing down for the holidays. Everything is occurring under Christmas, err, Tet lights strewn everywhere, tons of flowers EVERYWHERE! (Including lots of good smelling Easter Lilies), and everyone trying to sell you ‘lucky money’ which is basically fresh new monetary bills (crinkled is simply not allowed) placed inside a deep red envelope. I’ve heard that if you give American bills in your lucky money to someone, that person will hold you in very high esteem because it is a great honor. Red is a big part of Tet apparently, as I’ve seen entire buildings ( 2 stories) wrapped in red paper. Also lots of paper people pasted to building wearing traditional red oai zai (Vietnamese clothes) and sporting a red Tika, which I thought was unique to South Asia… but I guess it is part of the culture here too. I mean Hinduism was the dominant of religion (mixed with local animism) of Vietnam before Buddhism arrived in a pincer movement from China in the North and India in the South.
For Tet my roommate decided to invite me to his home town of Ninh Tuan up in central Vietnam. Tet is a time when family gets together and just relax with each other a take a break from everything. He said if I didn’t spend time with his family on Tet, I would be missing out on a lot of Vietnamese culture. I agreed because I really would like to see how Tet is celebrated, and I think it would be more fun than sitting around Ho Chi Minh/Saigon. His hometown is a nice little coastal town and the breezes here remind me of my summer home in Northern Michigan. Lets talk about how I got here up to today. That should be more than enough to constitute a nice long blog entry. Here we go:
Nghiem had left a few days early, but had reserved a ticket on a later bus for me. Our secretary in the Loyola office in Saigonland Tower agreed to take me to the bus station, my pickup time was 5:30. I was just finishing packing up my things around 5:20 when Trinh called, “Hello I’m downstairs waiting for you”. I picked up my belongs in my Inian Jones satchel and my trusty backpack that has accompanied me from Freshman year of high school through my Indian adventure, and now here. It has some battle scars, but that gives it charm and character. So much that I don’t want to get rid of it… and the fact that I’m really cheap. Anyway, I locked up my door and headed downstairs. On the way out Robbie gave me a salute and said jokingly, “Have a great time buddy, and don’t eat anything I wouldn’t.” I reply back, “Psh, yeah right.” And smiled because my palate is a little bigger than Rob’s. He’s a burger and fried chicken man. Nothing’s wrong with that though, in fact earlier that day I walked to KFC and bought us both a ‘bucket’, aka two pieces of fried chicken. Eating it felt like a guilty pleasure after a week or so of noodles and rice. I shook hands with Gabe and we wished each other a happy Tet. I met Trinh outside at the gate. She handed me a helmet, I hopped on her bike, and we rocketed off to the bus station with the wind whipping her long black hair in my face. I didn’t mind because it smelled like lemons.
At the station she gave the conductor my ticket and spoke some Vietnamese. We then waited for twenty minutes and when the bus boarded I wished Trinh a very happy Tet and hopped on the bus.
The bus ride, as I anticipated was not fun. I had my share of cross country buss rides varying from MegaBus from Chicago via Indianapolis to Cincinnati, Jaipur via Delhi to Dharamsala, and now Saigon to Ninh Tuan. I think I would rate MegaBus as #1 because I can plug in my laptop and type away or if I am feeling really childish I might just do a throwback to High School and play some ROME: Total War. Indian buses are positively awful. No air conditioning, so bumpy I hit my head on the roof countless times, there is no personal space, and I was so frightened I couldn’t sleep even at 3 in the morning. Why so frightened you ask? Well, consider a crazy eyed driver driving a large tour bus up a one lane road in the Himalayan foothills with no guardrails, not that that would have made me feel even safer. The driver is averaging between 60-70 mph up twisting roads in almost pitch black, and I can see down the hill without having to crane my neck because we are so close to the edge. Reading reports of buses losing control and flying over cliffs is common in India, so that didn’t help either. My friend Kristen said it was one of the scariest experiences of her life, and I agree.
Now the bus to Ninh Tuan wasn’t frightening, but it wasn’t a MegaBus. There was AC and the seats could recline. The bus also did not rumble around cliffs at break neck speed either, which is nice. However, people thought it was cool if EVERYONE talked on cell phones until 2 AM, and then just as I was getting ready to sleep and baby started to scream. Not cry, scream. The girl sitting next to me, Nhi, was also a college student and she practiced her English for some time. Before we departed we exchanged numbers and promised to meet for coffee, or ca phe in Vietnamese, back in Saigon sometime after the New Year.
Getting off the bus I was swarmed by about 20 guys in leather jackets up in my face saying, “motorbike, taxi, you want go someplace? I take you.” To shoo them away, you have to show confidence and be assertive. I witnessed the opposite in India when we transferred buses in Delhi. An Australian girl had no idea where she was going, and the hyena tuk tuk drivers sensing a vulnerable prey closed in for the attack. She tried to be polite at first, and then they began to fight over who would get her like dogs. After five minutes of pestering she ran to her boyfriend who was getting his luggage off the bus and grabbed him sobbing, “Make them stop. I want to go home.” She was balling. Poor girl.
So the first wave descended upon me and I shooed them away with my hand and a stiff ‘no’ head nod. I had called Nghiem and he was coming to pick me up. So it was just a waiting game. I had to pit my mettle against a bunch of lean motorbike taxi drivers with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths looser than the flip flops on their feet.
After a few minutes and no Nghiem combined with most of the passengers leaving, a second wave of drivers approached me thinking I was stranded. It was time to pull out the big guns. I call it the Babylon strategy, named after the Biblical Tower of Babble. I used this to great effect in India. If people are incessant on selling something to you, or simply want to talk up your ear and you are not in the mood for it there is one thing you can do that will turn them off: Speak in a language they will not understand! So, at the Taj Mahal where people would come up to me and pester me to no end I would say with a big smile, “Hello and peace. My name is Jimmy. I am an Arab and I speak Arabic. Do you speak Arabic?” (In Arabic) Of course this is an utter lie, but it worked because people came up to me attempting to speak in Hindi or English, and when I apparently didn’t speak either, their smiles turned to frowns and they walked away dejected. So, in this situation I said the same thing, only in Hindi. The taxi drivers faces twisted with confusion and the all mounted up their motorbikes and sped away. Haha, I chuckled to myself. ‘Works every time!” Shortly thereafter Ngheim walked up and with a pat on the shoulder we walked to his home a few minutes away. It was about four in the morning so the rest of the family was naturally asleep. Nghiem led me upstairs to a central room with a large queen size bamboo mat on the floor and a large blue mosquito net above it. We both plopped down on the mat. I was so tired I didn’t bother to change into my pjs or brush my teeth. I think I passed out from exhaustion within a matter of seconds.

The next morning I woke up to roosters. That’s a new one to add to the list. Throughout my life I’ve woken up to different things: when I was little my mom’s voice or my dad ruffling my hair to get ready for school. Latter the bells of St. Vivian’s Catholic Church and St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, eventually my alarm clock at four thirty in the morning proclaiming it was time for swim practice, then last summer it was a competition between the local masjid’s (mosque) morning call for namaz (prayer) prayer verses the Hindu mandir’s (temple) early morning bhajans for aarti (prayer). It was almost as if they were competing for souls, a friendly competition unlike other times in history… but that’s a whole other story and before I start my lecture on South Asian history, I’ll stop. Recently I’ve been waking up to the staff using large palm brooms to sweep the compound around 5 AM and then later in the morning the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral-Basilica from around the block. Besides the morning noises, from my old house when I was a child I could also hear the festive sounds of Greek music coming from St. Nicholas’s annual Summer Festival charging the hot summer nights with a feeling of pure joy and in the cool of Fall I could hear the announcer and cheering coming from up the road and charging the air with a power felt down North Bend Road as thongs of fans cheered the St. Xavier Bombers, my future high school, to victory in football. Knowing all of this, I am certain that once I settle down and buy my own house I want to be within close enough proximity to a church so I can hear the bells.
Groggy, I walked down the stairs and found a FACTORY! I’ll comment more on this later and daily life at the Luu residence in a later blog… buts lets skip forward to the fun stuff, Tet… the Vietnamese NEW YEAR!

My first Tet began at the stroke of midnight when a huge barrage of fireworks lit up over the ocean and my roommate’s family climbed up little trees oohing and awing to see over the smaller houses blocking the view. It was a spectacular show with large bursts of every color. Considering fireworks are banned in Vietnam and firecrackers have been outlawed since 1994 for ‘security reasons’, the Vietnamese went nuts over this state sanctioned firework display. So next fourth of July thank your lucky stars and stripes that we live in the good old USA and have the freedom to use fireworks!
Anyway I went out the gate to get a better view and when I came back inside the compound I was greeted with pats and my roommate said I was the first ‘caller of the year’, fancy word for visitor from outside the family to officially come inside the home after New Year has begun. Due to this I had to go around and wish everyone a very happy new year1 (chup mong nam oi). Supposedly this brought great luck to the household and me. I couldn’t help but laugh though because the word Chup in Hindi, Urdu, and Nepali is a very curt way of saying ‘SHUT UP!’ haha

The whole family gathered together after the fireworks and we had a toast for luck, health, prosperity, and happiness in the New Year. We counted to three in Vietnamese and yelled YO as we clinked our glasses together and downed glasses of cheap Australian wine. After our toast we all dressed up in nice clothes, including me in my fancy traditional Vietnamese clothes. My silk oai zai was dark red with golden and jade circles and dragons, and complete with large poofy cotton pants very similar to the Punjabi variant of pyjama pants that I wore in India. Pretty flashy I must say. Dressed in our finest, we piled into the family’s large Mercedes van that is used primarily to transport tea and headed out to the local Pagoda to pray.

The pagoda we arrived at was largely circular and had a sloped roof typical of pagodas with a spire at the top and red clay roof tiles sloping down in every direction. Surrounding the pagoda were several shrines to different images of the Buddha, lots of gardens, ponds, and stone paths intersecting them all. Walking through the garden with throngs of other New Year pilgrims we approached the pagoda reverently and removed our sandals at the base of the huge stone steps leading up the large welcoming auditorium complete with a huge Buddha sitting in contemplation and lots of little monks and nuns clad in saffron robes leading the faithful into different rooms and up stairs to different parts of the pagoda. My roommate’s family and I were led up to the central room upstairs where there was a large Buddha accompanied by several minor deities and pictures of deceased monks and nuns on an altar surrounded by offerings of fruit, vegetables, money, a variety of juices, and large pots of incense swirling up around the sparkling eyes of Siddhartha. Dozens of well wishers were laying prostrate on the ground with hands folded up in front of the alter. Others were kneeling, and many were holding incense sticks and waving them back and forth inside their clasped hands in prayerful position moving the stick forwards and backwards, never side to side. Nghiem’s mom placed a smoldering stick of incense in my hands, and I was thrust into prayer. I wasn’t expecting that, I thought I was just going to respectfully observe. However, with incense in hand I said a prayer to God to watch over my family here on earth, and for the peace of all my family that has gone before me, including my grandparents and my Uncle Dan. I then asked the spirits of my ancestors to watch over me and pray for me.
I remember talking to my Dad before the trip about ancestor worship in Vietnam and what he thought about it. He said he would never pray directly to our ancestors, but he often prays through his Mom and Dad who have passed away to look after our family. So, I prayed in the fashion of the Vietnamese, but with a Western Catholic twist. When I finished my prayer I placed my incense in the huge bronze pot beneath the Buddha along with hundreds of other sticks and walked towards the exit. A Buddhist nun smiled at me and gave my the pressed prayer hands to her face as I walked away. I returned the gesture and said happy new year in Vietnamese. On the way out a nun stopped us and gave my roommate, his sisters, and me some ‘lucky money’ and wished us a happy new year. With the family’s prayer complete, we piled back in the van and headed for home. We needed to get some sleep, because we would be travelling a long way tomorrow. First to a collection of hilltop Hindu temples built by the ancient Cham Empire, and later farther north a few hours to see Nghiem’s extended family.
Upon reaching home and laying down on the bamboo mat I reflected on the day and was very happy. I thought to myself “Now I can say I’ve prayed in Catholic Orthodox and Protestant churches, a Synagogue, a Mosque, a Sikh Gurudwara, a Hindu Temple, a Jain Temple, and FINALLY a Buddhist Temple! I think I’ve got God covered.” A few moments later though I thought “That’s a lie, because nobody’s got God covered because God is TOO BIG to be covered, but we all can try right? I’m going to keep trying until I die.” I relayed that thought to a family friend Zach a few days later in an email amidst our travelling among Nghiem’s extended kin, which will be a large blog entry in itself. So I’ll stop for now. Wishing you all a happy (Lunar) new year!

Peace,

Jimmy