Thursday, May 28, 2009

Spontaneous Prose

As time is the essential thorny bat that ends each day with a solid thwack, and a training course of monstrous proportions (and slippery contortions) attempts to envelope and bear-hug the life out of any sense of belonging and individuality left to embrace with my Freudian self, I shall attempt a short, yet thoroughly encompassing literary review of my secret idea-words based on Jack Kerouac’s 30 essentials to spontaneous prose. And, as that stealer of seconds’ padded flops echo throughout the hallways, I shall cut 30, as an inate cynic of Guiga, to 18, being a natural number.

1.Conglomerates – they’ll stifle it, so hide them in the closet, under the silky Christmas boxers
2. Steal words, but take them out of context
3. Congregate essentially with like ilk, drink, be merry and then meet the others you can’t handle sober
4. Source things from underneath things. Those pennies you find under the couch aren’t the only flubbertucks around
5. Lack of vitamins can lead to definitive prose and lying through your teeth but not necessarily in that order
6. Sixteen may be more than is warranted, given the current economic flibbergy
7. Keep you mind cocked, you never know when the wordthief might attempt a sneaky Pete at your grey jewellery
8. Puddles are made to splash
9. Don’t let the suede suck you in and lure you away from the hard-bottomed seat of tick tick tick, bang – fireworks; you’ve got it
10. Say it ain’t so, then explain why, with as much conviction as possible even if you don’t necessarily believe that conviction starts with a you
11. Close your eyes, open your ears, hold your breath and listen deeply
12. Wake with the swan of your soul fluttering the sparkles from its dewy back
13. Love it
14. Read and feed and nourish within
15. Stand up, stretch, and remember that coherence is the others’ problem
16. Sixteen might be too few when 15 gets itchy
17. Control and be controlled by the little mites that mold clay and rubber but trickle down your arms in spurts to drip onto pages
18. And alas, once plagiarised, attempt never to get drunk outside your own house

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Life, the universe, and everything I don't have time for

Is having a social life overrated? Do you find having friends annoying and seeing them a tedious chore? Is free-time a taboo subject? Do you consider going home before sunset a definition of laziness? Well, then I've got just the thing for you: The Celta Teacher Training Course!

This fantabulous course is guaranteed to allay any fears of what to do with your you won't have any! It'll ensure any choice of what to do tonight is taken care of for you immediately - it's always homework. Love studying grammar, phonology and getting bumsores from sitting in a stuffy small classroom in a rock-hard, small chair all day? This is it! Love making a fool of yourself and seeing your self-confidence crumble to dust in front of 12 students and six, staring grown-ups? Sign up now! Enjoy writing out course outlines for two to four hours every night? What are you waiting for?! The Ceeeeelta *insert catchy jingle here*!

If, however, you are a fan of actually not BEING your job, of actually interacting with people OUTSIDE of work, of having time for YOURSELF, of having a DRINK, kicking your FEET UP at night and generally justing CHILLING OUT. Well, mosey on by then. Nothing to see here, folks.

Yes, dear readers, in a malicious and evil attempt at getting me to do some honest work I've been conned into doing a CELTA course at ILA here in HCMC for one month! That's right, four weeks. That's 674 hours. The devestation it has caused upon my social life in just three days is beyond retelling. It's the social faux-pax equivalent of your friends catching you making out with your hand or dry-rooting your teddy as a kid.

Thus, I'd like to apologise for my inactivity with regards to blogging. I'm sure you get the picture. Thanks for understanding. Until later. Ciao.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Leaving Lagos

Over the last two years in Vietnam I’ve been curiously following the fate of the Nigerian community in Vietnam and have had some contrasting emotions and reached divergent conclusions.

In general, Nigerians living in Vietnam have been ostracised by not only locals but other foreigners alike, due to nefarious behaviour a number of them are involved in. I know this is not a localised opinion, from South Africa to England where Nigerians are seen “almost the world over as potential criminals and potential fraudsters”, according the country’s own Minister of Information and Communication, Professor Dora Akunyili, in a BBC podcast “This Week in Africa”. For example, type in ‘Nigeria’ in Google and the tenth most popular pre-emptive search option is ‘Nigeria Scam’.

This view is such a pervasive and global one that the Nigerian government have initiated a national “rebranding campaign” to try and reverse the negative perceptions held by others of the country’s people, by various plans and means such as targeting internal problems first, like corruption and other financial crimes.

Prof Akunyili is known as a strong and defiant woman who has faced similar uphill battles like taking on massive drug cartels in her stint as Director General of NAFDAC. The plan faces a lot of opposition after the “Heart of Africa Project” of the previous regime didn’t have much impact and the opposition argue the money could rather be spent on more immediate problems. On the other hand, journalist Uche Nworah debates well in favour of the project in the Daily Triumph, pointing out Nigerians should not “let others define who they are and how they relate with one another”.

Whether it will be successful is still debatable, but I’ve experienced first hand the way Nigerians are treated in Vietnam. It’s the tale of two Chris’: Let’s call them Chris D and Chris O.

Both are from Nigeria (both of the Igbo tribe I believe) and were lured to Vietnam by career prospects – Chris D is a 22-year old football player and was looking to break into a league where he could get some experience on his CV and make enough to get by to possibly be offered a trial in England with a decent club, and thus be able to provide for his remaining family in Lagos.

Chris O came as a businessman, vague as his “business intentions” were, I think he came looking to purchase fabric or clothes wholesale and ship it back to Nigeria, either to family or business partners to be sold at a profit. The reason I assume this is because I’ve spent some time talking to some Nigerians on numerous nights over a beer down in the Pham Ngu Lao area trying to pick their brains about what they do, without coming over offensive, as I was just genuinely interested in what they were up to. It seems a lot of the Nigerians here, as far as I understand, are of the Igbo ethnic group, and are attempting the get into the import/export textiles game. It’s difficult as their initial capital is low and they have to wait many months after sending the goods, usually clothes like pallets of jeans and t-shirts, home for a return on their profits due to the shipping time, having to wait for the clothes to be sold in Nigeria and money sent back to Vietnam to purchase the next batch.

The pitfalls are numerous, however, and what often happens is that a well-meaning business venture turns into a life of crime. I have a few theories as to why this happens. It doesn’t help that some Nigerian schemers make a quick buck out of luring fellow countrymen to Vietnam under false business pretences and then run off with their cash. Boo on you.

Another problem is the work environment. For example, what many Nigerians (and other Africans, Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans) would do in England when faced with financial and job problems is take up menial, unskilled or low-skilled jobs, such as security or dishwashing. However, being a cheap developing country the unskilled labour market in Vietnam is saturated by Vietnamese who work for extremely basic salaries; there aren’t any labouring or street cleaning jobs available. Even new university graduates work for a monthly average of about $200. Even if some of these jobs were available, a lot of Vietnamese are quite xenophobic and racist regarding black people, as I’ve found out over numerous classroom discussions and explanations with and to my students. If not themselves, they relate stories to me of other Vietnamese who discriminate against blacks in HCM City in various ways such as drivers not allowing them on their buses or restaurant owners banning them from their restaurants.

Peer pressure may also play a role as there is a large Nigerian community, possibly even two or three around HCM City, who live in the same neighbourhood, share houses to cut costs and are usually “in business” together or help each other out in tough times. Both Chris D and Chris O lived in one such community with over 50 Nigerians in Thu Duc District. When faced with capital that had dried up, the lure of becoming part of a “gang” or nefarious enterprises probably had a much stronger attraction than giving up and returning to Nigeria empty-handed and a few thousand dollars lighter. A Nigerian friend who used to live in Vietnam (and went back to the UK because no-one would employ him) used to actively avoid any of his countrymen for this reason.

Most times in turns out that Vietnam is not the ‘promised land’ many of these Africans believe to be when they arrived. Whichever way things go, what often happens is that lack of a fluid income and real business opportunities, very little or no chance of menial work, and a thriving and welcoming “fraternity” of Nigerians can pressure many of them in Vietnam to turn to criminal intent, as happened with Chris O. Chris got involved in drug smuggling, with the help of a Vietnamese woman who was later caught on the Vietnam/China border near Lao Cai Province for trafficking. God only knows what happened to her, as heroin smuggling is punishable by death in both countries, but Chris O was forced to flee to neighbouring Cambodia and hasn’t been heard of since.

Chris D’s story is very different, and the reason I’m writing this story. He had been playing football with my team, the Saigon Raiders, for quite a while and is actually a very good player (when he decides to pass the ball once in a while), agile, strong, fit and skilful. Off the field he’s a soft-spoken guy, who’s crazy about the English Premiership and is very religious (his ring-tone is a ear-splitting Baptist “Haaaallelujah!” sermon). As I said, he came to Vietnam with the idea of breaking into a team, building up experience and maybe making it big in a Western country. Despite a lot of help from the team; being photographed, videotaped and having a Saigon Raiders ID card made (the only player to ever own one), he wasn’t able to get a trial anywhere decent, as he was just not good enough for the big time.

While the rest of us paid membership and guest fees to play, it was decided Chris D could play for free as it was obvious he had nearly no money. Things were moving along okayish until the police started raiding his neighbourhood, obviously suspecting to find a whole crackhouse stacked with guns, a bevy of whores and generally illegal impropriety. They rounded up all the Nigerians they could find, took away their passports as many of their visas had expired (it doesn’t help when you don’t have much cash or a valid employer who’ll pay for a visa extension and you have to pay more than double what other nationalities do). They put them in a detention centre which wasn’t more than a cement cell until they could organise some money to pay for a flight home.

In the first raid, Chris D managed to elude them but they managed to get hold of his passport and refused to give it back until he showed them a ticket out of the country. It seemed the Vietnamese newspapers, such as Thanh Nien, were also running a kind of vendetta against the Nigerians as every week there would be a story of Nigerians involved in criminal activities such as soliciting women and sexual harassment, illegal immigration, fraud, counterfeiting and assault.

The second time the police came for Chris D he got away too but he arrived for a football match obviously shaken up and exhausted as he had to sleep on the floor of an internet café in his neighbourhood to lay low for a while. By this time the Vietnamese government had issued a “blanket ban on Nigerians entering the country following a wave of anti-social and criminal activities reportedly being perpetrated by Nigerian immigrants”.

Thanks to Les, one of the Raiders’ longest-standing members, we put a kitty together to get Chris D out of the country. He estimated that he needed about $250 to get himself a ticket to Cambodia and to get set-up with accommodation there. We got about $230 together when Chris phoned Les saying they had finally caught him and he was being held at the detention centre. Les went over and took him some hot Western food, some cold drinks and gave him the money.

We’re not sure what happened after that or where the money went but Chris phoned Les to say that he had a flight back to Nigeria. The other day he phoned from Lagos to say he had arrived safely and was staying with some of his relatives in the city. He also wanted to find out whether we won our last football match and to thank all the Raiders for their support. Many of his countrymen aren’t as lucky and are still stuck in Vietnam, hiding or detained in the detention centre with no foreseeable solution.

I’m trying to avoid the stupid apple cliché but its true that a number of bad people really spoil it for others with good, honest intentions. Coupled with xenophobia and unique cultural, economic and social conditions, what seems like gold can really turn out to be a lump of coal sometimes.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Ancient Hedonism

Ahhh the ancient town of Hoi An, not the central jewel in Vietnam’s crown – that privilege belongs to the imperial town of Hue – but definitely one of great history as a trading sea-port for centuries, quite well preserved and wonderfully quiet. I wish I could espouse its distinctiveness some more, but now houses as many lantern shops, tailors, shoe-shops, backpacker dives, travel agents, lacquerware stores, Chinese descendants, monuments and pagodas and yummy restaurants as any of Vietnam’s major cities. Not that I’m complaining when it comes to the eating part, though.

So instead of just making you puke-green with jealousy as I know no-one really reads anything about anyone else’s holiday (at least I know I don’t thanks to a childhood memory of some distant moustached aunty’s endless slides of her Namaqualand holiday), I’ve decided to put things in list form.

So, in no particular order, here’s my list of what I did in Hoi An, and it was so good you may as well take it as a list of the “Top things to do in Hoi An”. Actually, let me rephrase that as “Top things to do in Hoi An on a limited budget, whilst constantly searching for strong coffee or a drink, with a massive propensity for eating and all things hedonistic and a very limited concentration span”, more accurately.

1) Living quarters

We stayed at the prodigiously-spectacular-on-a-small-internet-picture Southern Hotel, also known as Khach San Phuong Nam. To be honest, it wasn’t bad in real life, seeing as we got our room for half the normal price – oh the joys of internet booking! A bit out of town, but with a nice swimming pool and eerie concierges who glare at you in a unnerving manner, if you’re into that sort of Norman Bates stuff.

Poolside non-action at Southern Hotel

2) Made to Measure

We perused the cloth market and found the same lady Sarah had her clothes made at three years ago (such good quality she can still wear all of the clothes to this day). Check out Ly Ly’s shop – they’ve got high quality cloth, speak English well, have everything tailored by the next day, are happy to readjust all the clothes and are way cheaper than the kazillion tailor shops peppering the streets of Hoi An. I got two dapper suits, two shirts and a kimono tailored for about $125! The one suit is a funky pin-striped one-vent suit with slightly flared sleeves and legs, two buttons and an elongated collar. The kimono is just plain porno: full-length dragon-patterned black silk with red sash and lining. Think Triad leader meets the Don meets Ron Jeremy and you’ve got the idea. I hope I don’t pick up weight otherwise it would all be futile…

Inside the cloth market

The fabric of life

3) Don't sell your sole, just get new ones made

We were on a “let’s get random stuff tailored” frenzy so we got some shoes and boots made. I got a pair of work shoes as I’ve been wearing the same shoes to work that I wore to my Matric Dance eight years ago. Flappity flop. Sad, I know. The new ones are nice comfy, black leather slip-ons with white stitching.

4) Hobbit treatment

As we were getting our feet measured another girl wandered up and said: “You should get your feet shaved”. No, not in the hobbit sense of the word as I don’t have hair sprouting from my little appendages, but I do have a callous or two from playing football which she wanted to shave the dead skin from. Persuaded and intrigued, we headed over to her beauty salon where, thanks to my sexual security I’m not afraid to say, I received a bit of a foot wash and pedicure followed by the eerily pleasing dead-skin shaving. The old lady who did it joked afterwards that the dead skin she’s shed into a bowl of water looked like chao or rice soup/gruel…erm.

5) Food, glorious food!

Needless to say, my girlfriend and I both having an insatiable penchant for eating and drinking, thus we gluttonised our way through Hoi An. First we called on Morning Glory Restaurant, run by a local celebrity chef called Ms Vy who runs three other eateries of note in the ancient town; White Lantern, Mermaid and the Cargo Club across the road. Fantastic and affordable specialties and traditional fare like the prawn curry that would definitely have had us coming back if we had another day or two in town.

Instead, the bestowed our humble patronage upon Mango Rooms the following night. Fusion at its finest, this place is worth its reputation (and price). We had a nice bottle of the house white with the Tropical Lush Salad to start: seared tuna with orange/ginger/soy dressing, greens and herbs, mustard sprouts, orange slices and watermelon cubes. As a main, I had the pan-seared chicken breast marinated in lemongrass, garlic and curry with a yummy pineapple/tomato/ginger sauce with garlic asparagus. Sarah had the pan-seared tofu cubes seasoned with other yummy local ingredients and both were pretty awesome. Go there. Go there now.

We also tried the local specialties of banh vac (white rose), hoanh thanh (fried wontons with a sweet and sour sauce) and cao lau (a kind of fried pork-ish noodle soup with crouton-like thingies) a few times. The banh vac was similar to southern nem, glutinous rice shaped like a rose encasing a tiny shrimp – kind of bland not bad with nuoc cham (dipping sauce). The hoanh thanh was great as was the cao lau, except for occasionally finding a leafy herb that we unaffectionately refer to as “feet” – a broad, dark green leaf taxi drivers in Vietnam like to put bushes of in the back of their taxis for some inexplicable reason, causing their cars to smell like old, mouldy feet. Unfortunately it also finds its way into some dishes and requires a diligent eye to fish them out before consumption.

A tasty bowl of cao lau

Fried wontons with sweet and sour sauce

6) Learn to cook

We also went to Sakura Restaurant one night and were impressed by their mix ‘n match cooking class they offered and the friendly, personal service of their manager. We tailored a menu of five dishes Sarah wanted to learn to cook (and secretly so did I) and were invited to come learn from their chef Duc the next day. You’ll have to wait for the next post on the results, which were spectacular.

Cooking course in action at Sakura

7) Beach living

We took the bike out to Cua Dai Beach, about 5 kms from the centre, hired a beach chair, ordered some food and a drink, whipped out our books and dozed for a couple of hours. Perfect – except for the food which made both of us pretty sick for days!

8) All-marbled out

We rented a bike early on our last day and headed out to the fabled Marble Mountains – five marble peaks jutting out of the flat surrounding countryside half way between Danang and Hoi An. A difficult climb is rewarded with some beautiful caves, Buddha statues, shrines, caves, views and some quirky and disturbing Hindu statues. Sadly enough, the marble from the area has been exploited to such an extent that the local producers have to order marble from China to sell to buyers!

Inside Marble Mountain

Yes, it was truly three days and nights of Ancient Hedonism. Highly recommended!