The Asian Canine Flu has got hold of me. Scratchindog is going down and I don't know where the spiral will end. Hot, hot fevers. Chills as I clutch blankie around me and call out deliriously for nursie. Every movement is an effort - only the walk the to the bathroom seems urgent enough to move me. And yet, and yet, with the exhaustion and tiredness sleep evades me.
5am I sit in front of the computer looking at the news - smoking half a cigarette (down to 3 a day) - drinking a wee scotch to ward of the germs. My mind a heaving festering jumble of thoughts and emails to be posted, failed quotes to negotiate, of trips coming up. Hurricane Ike is about to slam into Houston and people are ignoring compulsory evacuation orders. Do they think god will save them? Do they think their houses will be burgled by scuba wearing underwater thieves? It seems a harsh way to raise the general educational level by letting the most stupid die. Is 'compulsory' too big a word - and why are they not forced out? A disaster about to happen.
It is almost a week since I returned from Laos to attend the lavish and extremely fun wedding reception of Hanh and Steve. One of the highlights of Hanoi social life for the year. Alcohol rained down from on high, children hacked ice swans to pieces, men wrestled on the floor, there was food, dancing and a fine array of eclectic fashions. Sunday was a quiet day among the ex-pats in Hanoi. Mumbled thanks to gods unnamed that the last weekend of organized liver damage was done and life could return to normal levels of inebriation. And so they have.
The week since has been spent trying to become a real citizen of Hanoi - which means having a bank account here so I can stop being financially raped by my bank in Australia. My future landlady (for I move in a couple of weeks now) only accepts crisp $100 US notes. It's OK for some isn't it? And don't kid yourself, I have seen the US and Vietnamese Dong notes rejected for being too crumpled, or god-forbid, having a small tear in them. Their is a belief that these minor blemishes render the money not worth the paper its printed on. Which for the lower denominations of Dong is probably true.
Hanoi days are here to stay by the looks of it. Resigned from my job in Sydney to escape the terror of returning to become institutionalized again. How do you wake up to find you've been at the same University for 18 years? That is half my life.
So SE Asia it is for the present. And back to the horror that is looking for work - my most disliked activity next to eating my own puke. Well - almost - looking for work that is. In fact, have esaped from Hanoi for few weeks to travel around Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. My first few days in Bangkok were spent in 5 star luxury at the Sukhothai Hotel. Buckets of ice and plates of lime bought by room service to pad out my Saphire Bombay gin and Tonic. Beds like solid clouds, pillows more fluffed than any porn star. Even the Asahi brought to me by the pool came with its own individual ice bucket. The pool assitant smiling in that subservient way whilst he directed the shade umbrella over my head and I tipped my cigarette into the solid brass ashtray. This is the life.
Well not anymore! From 5 star to no star as I awoke this morning on the rock hard mattress of the New Vuang Thong Hotel. The mattress could be described as soft only if compared to the pillow. All I want from room service here is that resupply us with toilet paper. Drunken screaming Indian neighbours, moudly life-size pictures of 70's holiday beach resorts and an air conditioner that sounds like a small prop plane. This is more the life I'll be living for the next three weeks of travel through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. At least I still have some of the gin left, sneakily transferred into a plastic water bottle for easy travel. I'll post when I can, upon what I can. End of dispatch.
I have a feeling of being unproductive - which is not healthy in the professionally unemployed. So I have decided to make a list of things I have learnt in the last day:
1) Learnt that 'learnt' is British English but in the US they 'learned' things... Which to me sounds like they did learn something, then forgot it... I learned many things as a young man... Whereas if you learnt something, you still have it floating around your cranium somewhere. Explains a lot about Americans really.
3) i) Đây là cái gì? (What is this?) ii) chuếnh choáng (hangover) iii) đắt thế! (expensive) iv) dừng lại (stop) v) lấy vợ (take a wife)
4) Found that making your own wall paper in Vietnam will be convenient and affordable. 5) Realized that adding scotch to your morning coffee is not considered as 'sophisticated' as I thought it was. But it still tastes nice.
6) Understood that wherever you are in the world, someone will still steal your lighter.
7) Learnt that when Vietnamese say 'iloemyieanmyieoeshiein' they mean 'I love my wife and my wife loves white wine'.
As has been my want this week, I have spent yet another day mostly at home. I do not immerse myself in the exotic oriental bustle of the Old Quarter, nor recline in my cyclo as he doggedly peddles from one cultural marvel to the next. I potter, I cook, and trace various ingenious routes around an apartment whose multiple doors allow you to walk in a figure eight-and-a-half. I spend grossly unequal times looking at a computer screen and gazing over West Lake. Mornings are mostly spent chatting to the peeps online. Returning emails to the peeps back home. Updating scratchindog's flickr site and writing in my diary. That is writing with a pen. Onto paper. In cursive script.
The hand written diary. The romantic looking pages full of English trained whirly-curly-ness. You would think that is where the juice is. Alas, it isn't so. My feeble organic memory has its mnemonic hands quite full with just standard day-to-day necessities of life. It tends to, after a few days, dump vast stretches of virgin memories into the trash bin. Even worse, it produces Reader Digest condensed versions of those that survive the cleaning and keeps them for Catherine the Great village purposes. The hand written diary, disappointingly for my many future biographers, is a simple narration of where and when with whom did what. Remembering the basic facts of the past becomes the physical act of turning pages. This is not mirror of the soul stuff. There are no interpretations of the shadowy inhabitants of my seething passionate subconscious. Do you know how long it takes to write in long hand? When is the last time you wrote two full pages by hand?
Friends claim that they want to know what I am doing here. They appear to show an interest in the day-to-day stuff of my life. More interest than I show in their lives anyway. Should I ditch this hand writing nonsense and post it on the blog instead? Sacrebleu!No way! It is way too boring. Do they want to hear a list of names of people who are not introduced? Do they want to see addresses and place names faithfully noted but not described? The written diary is a scaffold, tied off along a series of temporal-space locations with objects and people dangling from it. It is a tool for me to explore the trajectory of my past. To choose a spot and orientate myself with the help of a few notes. It assists that strange resonance construction method the brain appears to use to remember the past with us: Create a model of a situation in your mind. A few particular folk in a particular place doing some generic action at some time. Take your model down to Reflection Beach on the shore of Memory Sea and show the sea your model. Does the sea resonate with your model? Given the sea's layered and compressed and moth-eaten experience, have you provided it with something it can work with? Is there a form of empathy? If so, you can watch those salty tendrils reach out and clothe your model with the whole gamut of emotion and sensation, mood and context. The sea will paint-in details, extend the framework, even do some renovations (to produce a nice holistic effect). This beautiful construction may have nothing at all to do with an event in your past, but it can certainly pass itself off as one. Or it can indeed faithfully depict a scene from somewhere far far away and a long time ago. I guess it depends on your model and your relationship with the sea. Tangents aside, my hand written models for Memory sea are not the stuff for an audience.
If my friends or parents or workmates or hairy-man lovers of the internet want to know what I am doing day-to-day, they are not going to read my blog. The are going to look at scratchindog's flickr site. If a picture is a thousand words, then my word count on flickr is pretty impressive. Here you see the people, are immersed in the bars, ogle the food! And if you really really must have words to get your jollies, there are pithy titles and sometimes humorous mini-descriptions to give you context and local flavour. Yes... that's blogging your life. Who cares for opinions when you have pictures? Who cares for your deep existential self-destructive abyss of self-loathing when you can make a witty word play on bòng dền? If the diary is my tool for divining the past, then flickr is my public relations department of the present. Here is the exquisitely crafted propaganda of my life. And in a certain bent of mind, watching a slideshow of the last three years of my edited life can be enlightening narcissistic entertainment.
Obviously the scandal, gossip, licentiousness and horror doesn't make it directly onto flickr. Blog worthy? Yes! And many people make a fine life out of it too. But being the discrete, polite, realpolitik, Machiavellian coward that I am - I cannot do it. I need these friends (my dear dear friends) who are closest to my heart in all the world. I trust, respect and value these people. If they all knew the details I'd be lynched - and who wants that? No, no, no. The detail is a potent, often fatal, herb that requires a specialist hand in distribution. A little here, a little there, mixed with the right accompaniments. Never too much for any one person (it builds up in the mind like mercury in the body, and at critical levels can cause similar physical malfunctions). However all the little morsels are eventually put out there into the world. My mornings of endless gmail chats and email replies are the rafts upon which these little creatures are sent out into the world. Cute little chaps by themselves or in small fluffy clumps, but if all brought together, like gremlins, they would kill us all. I do not need my blog as my coffin.
So each morning I now have to feed three functional word mouths - the Guide, the Bard and the Ugly. (Ed note: This pun is so bad it should be removed, but because it could possibly be reformed into a joke about New Zealanders or the Irish we have left it in.) What hope is there for the fourth cousin without a job? The poor little blog who stands at the window of morning looking in at the others gorging themselves. I do not know, I do not know. For the meantime it will have to shiver in neglect. Get the odd bone thrown at it. Scramble for attention in those glorious author drunk moments when anything seems like a good idea. All three members of the global audience will just have to make do until a purpose is found...
So today I met up with a friend for lunch at Koto. Koto is a not-for-profit restaurant and vocational training program for disadvantaged youth in Vietnam. It has recently opened its new and larger premises at 55 Văn Miếu opposite the Temple of Literature. The ground floor has a nice laid back café atmosphere, though we choose to dine in the comfortable lounge/bar area on the next floor up. I believe if you keep going up, then there is roof top seating with a good view over the Confucian Temple across the road. There is a good mixture of both Continental and Vietnamese fare available - all appealing in both flavour and presentation. Prices are reasonable for ex-pats (60,000 đ or $4 for a roast duck salad - always a favourite of mine), and the atmosphere is of quiet understated luxury. It also has wifi!
It was sprinkling as I left, and my friend was concerned about me walking away in the rain. 'Haha - this is nothing!' I was getting wetter from the sweat coming out than the rain coming in. I walked along Nguyễn Khuyến, then Hàng Bông back into the Old Quarter, and finally took a right down Hàng Trống towards Puku cafe. Puku is an excellent ex-pat hangout, especially if like me, your wireless at home is crap. A lot of my time here has been spent finding good wifi points outside of my house to continue my life of aimless surfing and procrastination. Puku was set up a number of years ago by a Kiwi (who is really lovely - but probably doesn't need my publicity). It has changed hands since, but not the menu. They do a largely western breakfast, lunch, dinner menu - and they do it well and at a reasonable price. But the reason to come here is it is comfortable, the upstairs floor is particularly open to the air, and they don't seem to mind how long you sit here on your computer sucking back Halida's and smoking. I looked up the weather forecast and it says scattered thunderstorms. Sure, whatever! Except - bang! - it began. Rain like the rain back in Sydney. Rain that makes the trip home on the back of a motorbike taxi look particularly suckful and uncomfortable. Rain that has just started leaking through the roof onto my laptop keyboard... This blog entry has been brought to you by the rain. I've got no where else to go now.
Geckos live in my apartment. Small and pale, they cling and move on the ceiling and the walls with their splayed sucker like feet. They make a distinctive popping sound that helps mark the passing of my time. The other place I have seen geckos is in the bottom of large bottles of rice wine, thus making gecko wine. This wine supposedly has all kind of medicinal properties, though its primary effect seems to get people wildly drunk. Recently at bia hoi, amidst the endless rounds of cheap weak beer, many bottles of gecko wine were ordered. The wine was poured into small glasses, perhaps two thumbs widths high, and knocked back in one after some incomprehensible toast. Eight glasses violently clinked together in almost well-aimed synchronicity, sending a small fountain of wine into the air and down hands, wrists and forearms. Repeat. In the collective consciousness of Gekkonidae I think they know the fate that awaits a minority of their family. The sound they emit is exactly like the sound of brain cells imploding.
It is hard to conceive of the structure of Hanoi unless you have a Borges bent to your thinking. There are the big streets that the tourists trot down, weaving between the street cookers, bike repair men and motorbikes. The shops and houses appear to make a unbroken chaotic frontage extending as far as you stumble. But look closer and scooters dart from darkened spaces between shop fronts, people slide in and out of these unseen passage ways. Descend into these tight spaces and you find other alleys, passage ways, squeeze spaces. And from these diverge even more conduits of human traffic with walls that tower four stories above, and doors opening onto living cum workspaces that themselves are divided up into human sized pods where inevitably there is a mattress or straw mat for rest. Even then it continues subdividing so the cats have their spaces, and the rats theirs as well. Each square formed by the intersection of four roads is a termite nest of humanity and more - not even just in the floor plan - but stretching up into the sky. Steps, spiral staircases and ladders extending into the gloom of the air. A fractal space folding into and onto itself repeatedly and endlessly. Each block a cartographers nightmare, a madman's dream.
All the planning was in getting here. Now I am here, what the hell am I supposed to do?
Hanoi has reverted to its perpetual mist to greet me. West lake lays like a sheet of gun metal out the window. I hear power tools, motorbikes and Led Zeppelin. OK, so I'm playing the music. Dazed and Confused has come on the random play list and it seems rather appropriate at this juncture. For the moment it is better not to plan. For the moment, it is better to walk out the door and get lost on the streets until clarity returns.
Thank you Sharon for getting me complete to the airport. Thank you Nick for getting me complete from the airport. Now I'm going to walk out the door and see the world. Seeing I still get lost in Newtown, I doubt that anyone will ever hear of me again...