Sunday, July 27, 2003

Nha Trang, Vietnam, July 24, 2003

Tomorrow was the deep dive--the big plunge.

Our advanced open water course now allowed us to go as far as 30 metres, and tomorrow would be the first time anywhere near that. The depth comes with some dangers, though: you run out of air much more quickly , you can get lost more easily because it's darker, and your chance of decompression sickness, or the bends, increases. In the face of this, I explained to him my fear:
as you ascend at the end of the dive, your buoyancy control device (like a lifejacket) expands with air as pressure decreases. It seemed that on a couple of previous dives, I'd float too quickly to the surface and the insturctor would have to grab my fin to yank me back down. You don't want a runaway ascent, particularly on a deep dive, because of the greater chance of the bends.

"Keep your eye on me, " I pleaded to Cam. "Don't let me get away."

And so we dove deep, to 27 metres and had a good dive, even sharing air with the instructor, Xuan, and a more experienced diver, Maire-Claude, with great comfort. The ascent was a gradual one and while I felt in complete control of my buoyancy, Cam kept a close watch over me.

We got back on the boat for a required surface interval before the morning's second dive. Over coffe we spoke with Marie-Claude, who while in France, dove once every couple of weeks and did it on her own. She was working towards a goal of 20 deep dives before her 50th birthday. Her husband had been on the boat the day before and tried diving for the first time, eager to understand what attracted her to it. He liked it, but didn't want to do it again. Marie-Claude explained to us she'd been diving for three years and loved it underwater--"It's so peaceful down there," she raved.

It is peaceful--quiet, calm, meditative, even. You hear little more than your own breath in and out, bubbles on the exhale. But Cam and I have discovered it together, learning a new skill, growing more relaxed. Marie-Claude's husband is missing out.

Time for thumbs down and air deflators up, we went underwater again for our second dive of the day. Cam laughs at the surface, just before the descent. "What," I ask. "You look cute in your hood, " he smiles. The hood is new for me, and while highly functional, tends to make me look like a seal.

We were down for nearly an hour, practising navigation with a compass, looking at coral, petting a giant moray eel, taking pictures. Cam reached for my hand and we swam side-by-side. We had now mastered our buoyancy and could swim together easily. We'd come so far. Xuan signalled it was time to finish the dive and ascend. I no longer felt anxious: I could control my ascent, plus Cam would look out for me. Cam swam over to the instructor and grabbed her underwater writing slate. I watched him write, sure he'd ask her why we had to head back when we still had air. But when he finished writing, he positioned the slate in my direction.

Will You
Marry
Me
love

I watched those serious eyes behind his goggles as my own filled with tears. We held hands and his question was answered when I made the okay signal. And I nodded just to make sure there was absolutely no confusion. We ascended, Cam not letting me get away. I climbed up the boat ladder after him, and he'd returned from the bow with the ring before my gear was off. He placed the diamond on wet, tanned hands and there were salty kisses, tears, a hug. We'd picked up a lovely ring in Singapore about a month before and he'd been carrying it around ever since, waiting for just the right moment.

It was just the right moment, and it took me by surprise. But this trip has been full of them--speeding by rice paddies on motorbikes in Laos, watching a lightning storm alongside elegant Hanoi's Hoan Kiem lake, dining by the sea in Malaysia, watching the lanterns by the river in Hoi An. The trip has had endless romantic moments--and it's had its adversity. Maybe something like marriage. And as much as we never want this trip to end, we have so much more to look forward to.
4:55:00 AM

Thursday, July 17, 2003

That's Rich

If life can turn on a dime, it seems I'm flush with cash.

I'm carrying pocketfulls of change around, ready at a moment's notice to flip a coin and alter the course of my life.
This week has been momentous, with the weight of my pockets sometimes too heavy with the heads and tails of endless decisions.

We were enjoying the sun and, more gratefully, the temporary shade, of Hanoi, sitting along Hoan Kiem lake, in the centre of a busy and pretty, cosmopolitan city. Halfway through thick Vietnamese coffee and fresh crosissants, I spy an ad for sub-editors at the Vietnam News.

"You should check this out, " I suggest to him.

And he does later that day, strolling over to the news agency's hi-rise building with the hi-polish floors and having a conversation with Mr. Fook. I meet up with him a few hours later, and after I've trolled the city's many art galleries, waking up staff after sleeping staff who sit up startled and quickly flip on lites and fire up the AC when I walk in. I was too gauche at first to know about the early afternoon lunch/nap and then too North American to honour it.

I walk back to our hotel room, the one we've secured for six American dollars a nite, including adjoining bathroom, AC and satellite TV--a deal the city wasn't offering to tourists before SARS.

"How did it go?" I ask casually.
"How would you like to live in Hanoi?" he answers, nonchalant.

And so now for the past five days we've been sizing up our life together: Do we want to live in a foreign country? What about my job prospects? How easy is it to get a work visa? Can we afford to go home and come back? How much is rent?

After five days of fingering the pocket change, we're spent. We've looked at it countless ways and I need to go home. We both have jobs here in September should we want them. It's an attractive option.

We fell in love with this city: couples sit on benches around the cobblestone-ringed lake and watch the sunlight play on the giant weeping willow trees as they hang above the water; pale Vietnamese women don hats and roll flesh-colored gloves onto their arms past their elbows to shield themselves from the sun. Everyone's on a motorbike. Men sit on low plastic chairs on street corners outside Bia Hoi stalls and drink draft beer and slap backs. Women sit and fan themselves or their newborns and eat endless bowls of soup. Loudspeakers positioned on street corners blare, on occasion, what we assume to be communist doctrine.

We have our final meal of the most delicious grilled, ginger-laced aubergine, fried morning glory and sesame beef with citron and chili, and say goodbye, perhaps just temporarily, to our favourite restaurant.

This city has given us more than we bargained for.
4:13:00 AM

Get Me the Hell to Vietnam

A young Lao entrepreneur sits pensive on the floor at home, working the books after a day on the job at the Internet cafe.

"I've got it, father," he cries enthusiastically. "We can boost profits dramatically if we merely raise our rates by 50 per cent and not tell our clientele!"

This is, at least, how I'd imagine the exchange went at home one day. We had been frequenting the cafe in Vientiane a few days in a row. Then on the last day, killing time between hotel checkout and our bus' scheduled departure, we spent two hours dawdling online. When we went to pay, the total was out of sync with what we'd paid before.

"19,000 kip? Why so much this time?" Cam asked.

The shrewd Lao points to a small sign overhead. Overnight, the rate has gone from 100 kip per minute to 150. We are pissed. And yet again our deep-rooted beliefs in proper Western business practises bubble to the surface.

"You can't just change your prices and not tell your customers! You can't up your rates by 50 per cent and not let people know about it," I said sternly.

It seems like a sweet deal to the Lao looking to make some quick cash; but he was already losing customers who heard the exchange, and logged off to go to another cafe down the street, a cafe charging the standard 100 kip/minute.
But try to explain that to him, and you just come off as a surly Western know-it-all. Free enterprise is still working out the kinks in Laos.

Good progress could be made if their entire population got a handle on the three currencies: the kip, the Thai baht, and the almighty American dollar (which hasn't been as strong as usual, to the advantage of our Canadian buck).
While most transactions are seamless, we sometimes come across tears in the fabric: Trying to buy bus tickets at our hotel, I want to pay the $22 American price in kip, Cam in baht. The hotelier says it's too difficult for him, so we take our business elsewhere. Hell, if two math remedials can do it, anyone can, but it's like shifting from one rudimentary-level language to another.

For instance: a beer is 7000 kip. There are 250 kip to a Thai baht, a currency we prefer for the smaller numbers and because it's 30 baht to a Canadian dollar. Seven times four...My nose crinkles and lines form on my forehead with the enormity of the numerical task. Cam's jaw goes slack and his gaze loses focus, vaguely settling on a plane far, far away.

Bus tickets bought, time killed, beer quaffed, we wait back at our hotel for the night bus to pick us up. It's expected to arrive at 6, but we get there at 5 just to be sure. Six o'clock quickly rolls around. No bus. 6:15. Well, things to be lax here. 6:30 and we're nervous. By ten to 7, the bus was to have left the city 20 minutes ago and we've just been fucked over.

"This is BULLSHIT," Cam spits. "I'm going to give that travel agent a piece of my mind." He is livid.

Our hotelier asks if we'd like him to, for a fee, call the guy who is supposed to pick us up. He won't take baht change, we're hesitant to part with our small amount of precious American cash, and as we're leaving the country, we've dispensed with all our kip. We are to understand that if left with Lao currency, you're S-O-L, because no one else will honour it.
Angry but desperate, we break a dollar and have him make the call. The driver forgot us, but is now on his way.

Our hotelier gives us back our change. My wallet is now full with useless Lao kip.

3:32:00 AM

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

I can't seem to string together my thoughts and experiences right now in any measure of cohesion, so here's a list of cool stuff I saw or did or ate recently:

Having Asian elephants snozzle up bananas from my hand and pitching them into their mouths.
Riding elephants.
Never getting enough of the elephants.

Enjoying the misty hilltops along the Mekong River on a 2-day slow boat trip from Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Eating huge bowls of rice noodle soup with loads of cilantro and chili sauce every morning.

Rich Lao coffee.

Thatch-roof and bamboo houses everywhere. Cone-like bamboo hats, too.

Using my umbrella as a parasol as well as, well, an umbrella.

The old man and I rocking the 100 cc motorbikes out to a huge waterfall, alternately stopping to take photos of rice paddies and kicking into TOP GEAR.

Burberry's perfume from the Duty-Free shop.

Fresh fruit shakes made with ice, green melon and coconut cream.

Non-budget accommodation in Singapore with robes, clean bathrooms, TV and leather desk chair!


1:32:00 AM

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