Thursday, May 26, 2016

Mr. Rich

He met us at the airport with a sign that read "Streicher" and a beaming smile. 

He led us out into the steamy night air, scattering jokes and easy laughter like the stars in the Siem Reap sky. 

Proudly, he directed us to his tuk-tuk - an open-air metal conveyance pulled by a motorcycle - and we obediently scrambled aboard. 

And for the next twenty-four hours, our new friend chauffeured us around the archaeological ruins of Ankor Wat, the streets of Siem Reap, and the Cambodian countryside with a never-ending stream of funny stories, interesting quips, and good-natured teasing. 

He took us to a great restaurant for a late-night dinner, told us all the best spots for photos in the ancient temples, and kept us well-supplied in icy cold water during the overwhelming heat of the day. 

He also pretended not to know us when we returned to his waiting vehicle, calling out, "Tuk-yuk for hire! You ladies need a ride?!"

And when my enthusiasm for one last temple was flagging in the midday heat, and I asked him exactly how long it would take me to trudge through the jungle to see the finer points of this particular set of ruins, he looked me straight in the eye and dead-panned, "Just three hours." His twinkling eyes immediately gave him away, but he paused a perfectly-timed beat before laughing deep and heartily at my astonished face and his own sassy wit. 

Suffice it to say, Mr. Rich was a pure treasure. And if you ever find yourself in need of a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, Cambodia, you should definitely look him up. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Oh, Cambodia!

Never in my life did I ever expect to see the ancient temples of Cambodia's Ankor Wat with my own two eyes. But I did. 

Nor did I realize that there are other temples in the area, each with their own special brand of charm. But there are. 

[More on those later.]

And not in a million years did I expect the people of this tiny country to be so full of big brown eyes, easy laughter, and good natured hospitality. But that is exactly what I found.

Oh, Cambodia! You're entirely full of surprises. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

My Sunny Afternoon With Travis

Meet Travis. He's an 18-year-old Vietnamese country boy turned university student, a former pupil of my daughter and an online buddy of mine. 

Since I met him in my third-born's classroom two years ago and connected through Facebook, Travis and I have become great friends. He calls me his teacher and asks me all sorts of interesting and curious questions about American idioms and finer points of English grammar. And I call him my student and do my best to explain these puzzling nuances. In the midst of these sessions, we have grown quite fond of one another. 

So it was with great anticipation that I made plans to meet Travis in Saigon last weekend. And a lovely reunion we had together, talking and laughing in a cool McDonald's, sharing cheeseburgers and French fries as Travis talked to us about slaughtering chickens for his home-cooked meals. 

As I've come to expect when meeting far-flung Facebook friends, shadows of difference quickly fade away and the pure light of genuine connection shines in the balance.  I'm grateful for my sunny afternoon with Travis. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Miss Saigon

Upon arrival in the sweet city of Saigon, we first checked into our hotel with the flurry of lanterns streaming up through the atrium. 

Well. There was also the matter of the taxi driver who tried to cheat us on our fare. But between my feisty third-born's instincts and my tutlage in dealing with Indian rickshaw drivers last year in Hyderabad, we soon got him sorted out. 

Then we were off to explore the city and here is what we found. 


We found a lot of parks. Often their design bespoke the city's French roots, with a mash-up of Communist colors and patriotic statues. Surprisingly pretty and serene. 

French architecture

No, I don't mean French-inspired Asian knockoffs, longingly interpreted by the Indochinese of the 19rh century. 

I mean that the Notre Dame Cathedral was designed by a Frenchman and crest from material imported from France. It stands strong and tall to this day, the pride of local Christians, a bastion of European artistry, and a jewel for all to enjoy. 

Energetic Street Life. 

Yes, as expected, the streets of Saigon are chaotic. More cars than I expected and endless streams of motorbikes create something other than bedlam. Woven together with groups of happy schoolchildren, mid-century architecture, and iconic emblems of her historic past, Saigon's streets are pure poetry in motion.  

A City On The Rise.

Quite literally, Saigin is growing upward and outward, and this fact is readily apparent from the SkyView deck of the Bitexco Financial Tower. I'm not one for squandering a dollar on trumped-up tourist activities but this bird's eye view of the city was well worth the investment. 


Standing outside a coffee shop and shooting photos of the street, I witnessed a most remarkable thing. In the midst of the motorcycles, bicyclists, pedestrians, vendors and other citizens of the streets, a single butterfly appeared. Flying past me, flitting straight up the street, its pale yellow wings seemed impossibly fragile, its path far too serendipitous for this tumultuous environment. 

Yet she flew safely on, as far as I could see her go, this bold butterfly. And if she needed a name, I would call her Miss Saigon. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ghosts Of War

Cong Caphe is a Vietnamese coffeehouse that capitalizes on a wartime theme. Sure, it's a fun, hipster-driven motif. But sitting in an apparent base camp for the  North Vietnamese fills this American's veins with ice and her heart with a strange, outdated fear. 

When my daughters visit Danang, they experience tropical breezes, ocean waves, and a delightful little city full of bridges, motorbikes, and endless food. 

But when I come to Vietnam, I see ghosts. 

Ghosts of war. 

A war that was fought when I was just a child. At the time, I thought I didn't understand what was happening in this mysterious, far-off land. 

But now I see that I grasped the terror all too well. 

Children dying unspeakable deaths. 

Innocent men and women fleeing danger, desperate for a new home, a new village, a safe place to plant their rice and raise their chickens and pray that life could return to normal. 

American soldiers dying for a war that their countrymen rarely understood and didn't support, fighting an enemy they didn't know how to fight. 

A tiny Asian nation turned against itself in a proxy battle between the two Cold War super powers. 

And a post-nuclear world that looked on in horror as the conflict edged closer and closer to the abyss. 

* * * * *

This is what I think about when I come to Vietnam. And I worry how the people here will respond to a person like me, an American, who dares to come back and stir up those old ghosts.  

But each time I visit, the gentle people of Danang wrap me in kindness and generosity and love, and I understand that we are all helping each other heal from those terrible ghosts of war. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Family Reunion

The first hours of our trans-oceanic family reunions always involve working out some kinks. Despite our near-constant communication across the months and miles, our in-person interactions creak and groan at the start, as we re-accustom ourselves to each other's  idiosyncrasies and quirks. 

Somewhere around the 48-hour mark, the adjustment process comes to a head. Emotions crescendo, and we hold a pow-wow to sort things out and clear the air.  

And then, refreshed and renewed in ourselves and each other, we move ahead together. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Welcome Back

Day One

In which a sunny afternoon spent jumping in the waves of the South China Sea and lounging beneath a palm-shaded tiki hut  feels like a warm welcome back to a comfortably familiar place.