Saturday, August 31, 2013

Freediving, continued

FREEDIVING continued…
Went freediving today, and it was great.  Basically freediving is SCUBA diving, but on one breath and no tank.  So, you don't go as deep, but you do get the same sensations for about a minute at a time, and at only the cost of whatever gear you buy and your transportation.   Peaceful weightlessness, the feeling of flight, and a totally alien environment to explore.   But the sensation is even more natural (pardon the condom commercial) as you don’t have any bulky gear on.

The sea near Antibes is world renowned for this sport actually, as the seafloor drops very quickly from the coast.  In a lot of spots, you can swim 50 feet out and you’re in 50 feet of water.  The hold the world records for this sport here, in a place where the sea drops to 300 meters (1000 feet)

 I don't push it too often, but after about 3 weeks of practice, I'm able to get down to between 10 and 14 meters (30-45 feet) safely.  Comfy cruising level is about 6 meters for me, can just chill and explore instead of focusing on going down and up.  It's a really beautiful, but intense experience because you have to be zen, or you'll panic and lose your oxygen, and you're deep underwater.  I used to be claustrophobic, and my worst fear in life used to be drowning.  I got over a lot of that when I learned how to SCUBA dive, but I think I almost conquered it doing this.  It’s not like I set about wanting to conquer my fear.  It’ s that I wanted to dive, and well, that fear got in the way, so it had to go.  It's a bit like Zoobomb, ripping down a mountain on a kids bike, be zen or crash...  I'm either addicted to danger or zen.

Speaking of danger, well, yes, it is a dangerous sport.  You can get what’s called Shallow Water Blackouts, which can kill you.  But typically they only happen when people push themselves, which I don’t generally do.  This danger can be minimalized with a dive buddy.  Which I don’t have unfortunately, although I’m working on that.

I think I have a pretty good gear setup now.  The most important piece of freediving kit are the fins (flippers for the landlubber).  They make specially designed fins that are twice as long, thinner, and more rigid than normal SCUBA/snorkeling fins in order to provide the most propulsion with the least effort.  Think of  a barracuda or swordfish.  It also helps to have a wetsuit, simply in order to stay in the water longer.  And if you have a wetsuit, you have to have weights and weight belt.  The weight belt is another piece of specialized kit.  SCUBA weight belts are nylon, freediving are rubber, because as you dive, your organs contract, and the rubber stays snug and doesn’t flop around unlike the nylon ones.  Still, all that gear did set me back a pretty penny, and I got the cheapest of the cheap.  Like around three hundred bucks, which I guess is cheap compared to some sports.

A big part of the freedive scene is “peche sous-marine” which translate to “underwater hunting”, basically, spearfishing underwater.  You hold your breath, go underwater, and hunt for fish with a speargun, usually under rocks and such.  I haven’t tried that yet, as I’m just happy with looking at fish for the moment.  Also I don’t know how to clean a fish, so I’ll wait till I can find a buddy for that.   Oh French adventure buddy, wherefore art thou?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Road Trip: Southern French Alps

So, yesterday, I looked at the weather report and saw that it would be beautiful weather the next two days, and then rainy Friday.  I’d been meaning to take a little motorbike trip for a while, so , why not?  I left at 3pm, after getting some camping supplies, then hit the open road.  I started down the coast road, which once you get past the city of Cannes, is amazing.  Check the photo link for some examples.

The only catch to the Easy Rider trip was my cold.  I’d had a cold for the last few days, and was still feeling totally out of it.  Like head in the clouds, confused about everything, out of it.  I might have had a fever.  But, weather waits for no man, so I headed out anyway.  Perhaps a night under the stars would clear things up.

The first day was rough.  I only rode for 3 hours, but even then, was having a hard time staying focused on the road, I felt barely in control of the bike.  To be fair, the bike is also new to me, I’ve only had it since February 1st, and it usually takes a few months of everyday riding to really get the feel of a bike. 

Eventually I made it to the beginnings of the Alps, and found a isolated spot to pull the bike over.  I hiked up a rock face for about 30 minutes and found a good camp spot.  A word about camping in Europe.  It sucks, very hard.  The only legal campsites are basically RV parks, complete with mini mart, a pool, and sometimes, a discotheque.  That’s a real hard sell from someone coming from Oregon, whose used to off road camping miles away from any signs of civilization or other humans.  For me, camping is a chance to re-experience the  glorious quiet, and slight danger, of wild nature.  So, I do what I call ninja-camping here.  Basically, find some wilderness, and hide yourself in it.  I rarely use a tent when I camp (unless it’s rainy, or I’m stuck in a campground), preferring to be under the stars.  So, when camping involves finding a flat spot, and throwing down a sleeping bag, it’s pretty easy to be ninja about it.  The only drawback to ninja camping is that you can’t really have a fire without drawing a bit of attention, and in the south of France, they are super paranoid about forest fires, as the climate is dry and very rich people own property there (just like California)

I had a new sleeping bag, a summer bag, thinking that the mild Mediterranean climate would be sufficient for it.   The night came on gentle enough, and I crawled into my bag cosy.  A few hours later I woke up, my legs and feet were freezing.  I was on top of a small mountain, and the bag was rated to be “comfortable” at 50F (10C-finally slowly, after 3 years of trying, I’m starting to get Celsius…sort of), and 40F was noted as “transition”, with 30F noted as “extreme”.  It had been hot in the day, around 70F, and I didn’t think it would be that cold at night.  Well, “transition” should be noted as “cold as hell”.  I suppose “extreme” means “you won’t freeze to death, not exactly”.    To be fair, I didn’t expect there to be a stunning 35 degree Fahrenheit difference between night and day (which was the case).

I tried to rest it out hoping dawn would come soon.  But after at least an uncomfortable hour, I decided screw it,  ninja or  not, I was making a fire.  So I did, and after that managed to get a an hour or two of sleep.  Lesson learned.  Always get a sleeping bag that is rated at least 15 degrees colder than any weather you plan on camping in.  Because nothing ruins a camping trip like being unable to sleep because you’re cold and miserable.

I woke up, trekked back to the bike, and hit the road again.  I was feeling better today, more awake, less numb headed.  I spent the day looping through the southern Alps.  Now, I always figured that European wilderness was pretty tame and neutered compared to the great open and untamed wilderness of the West of America.  And while it isn’t  quite as vast and untamed, I was impressed.  The French Alps are pretty remarkable.  Geologically, Europe is old.  It hasn’t changed a lot in the millennia, unlike the New World.  Most of Europe is not volcanically or tectonically active.  Usually, this means the land has been gently worn down by nature and humankind to be not much more than rolling hills.  Most of France is like this, but the South is different. 

Instead of rounding it down, time has carved it into some fantastic shapes.  I took a bunch of photos, but they hardly capture the magnificence of it.  I’ve never seen huge sheers cliffs and gorges like I have here.  Some of them look like some giant took a mountain, then cut a slit down it.  You go through these gorges, and above is about 300 feet of vertical rock, below you about 400 feet of vertical rock, and clinging to this sheer drop is twisting, narrow alpine road.  That is driving in the Alps, countless blind hairpin corners, with sheer drops to one side, and vertical expanses of mountain the other.  Then, you round the corner, and there is a medieval village clinging to a cliff, with a fortress guarding the highest point.  It really looks like Lord of the Rings stuff, but actually, better.    Again, the photos don’t do it justice, but give an idea.  Seriously, I was stopping around every other corner in awe of the vistas.

I stopped at a few of the villages, and I love these cliff villages, which are fairly common in the South.  Some barbarians decided that would be the safest, easiest place to defend, and had a water source, and thus, a village.  Some in very unlikely places, literally, hanging off mountains.   As space is at a premium in such a settlement, all the streets are very narrow, and the whole thing reminds you of a medieval beehive, narrow passageways twisting in and under each other.  Most of the passageways are too narrow for cars.  Very fairy tale-like.

As I was heading back, I finally started to get the feel of cornering on my bike, and was whipping around blind hairpin corners at 70kph an hour (about 45mph-don’t tell my mom, it will only give her grey hairs).  I even was able to lean it so hard into a few corners that my centerstand was scraping the ground.  A quick word about scooters;  they are easy to drive, and very convenient for around cities, as there’s no gears, they give your protection from rain, wind and road muck, they don’t ruin your shoes, they’ve got a ton of built in storage, and they are very maneuverable due to their smaller wheels.  This is great in urban areas, but on the open road they tend to suffer.  The smaller wheels make cornering quite a bit more touchy, and they don’t have good mid-range, car passing acceleration, like a traditional motorcycle would.  So, to work a scooter at speed takes some know how, whereas a motorcycle is built for that purpose.  

Anyway, it was a very successful little adventure, but makes me reconsider longer scooter trips, for the sole reason that the riding position is hard on the back.  Not as bad as a full sports bike perhaps, but you are forced to sit stock upright, with your arms crooked to hold the bars, and it forces your lower back to take all the weight, balance, and control.  There’s a reason people use motorcycles and not scooters for long touring. 

In the end, I can say, the southern French Alps are one of the most beautiful mountainous areas I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve toured through the mountains of Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Northeast of the US.  It is tied with Idaho (in my book, the most beautiful mountains so far), and that’s saying a lot.  Except in France, when you come up on a small village, instead of hillbilly rape or gun crazy Mormons, there’s wine and castles.  That’s a plus.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013



Tuesday afternoon, my new Lebanese friend Eli, who I met at immigration classes, called me and asked if I wanted to go to Slovenia for the weekend…Slovenia?!  I didn’t actually know where it is, exactly (bad geography teacher!), but my first response to any  question that begins with “do you want to go to…” is, yes. 

 I know it’s in Eastern Europe, which is an area I have traveled very little (just Czech Republic), but then with a moments more research (thanks wikipedia!), I discover that it’s a part of former Yugoslavia.  Now, being a child of the Cold War, I think Yugoslavia, I think dank, overcrowded orphanages, bloody Balkan wars, dismal grey communism , not good things.  But also, being a traveler, I think ‘cheap!’ and ‘cool stuff to see!’   

A little more research shows that actually, Slovenia is the richest, most Western Balkan country, and the most stable.  They avoided all the Balkan war nastiness actually.  They were the first former Yugoslavian country accepted into the EU, and have a standard of living on par with anywhere else in Western Europe, although they are currently experiencing high unemployment (like a lot of Europe).

Anyway, we left Friday afternoon at 2, driving Eli’s car, across Italy (crossing northern Italy takes a long time, 8 hours), Eli, me, and his french colleague Fred.  Road Trip!!  We got into Slovenia late, and the plan was to stay with some girls who Eli had met though the website , a pretty interesting little thing for those who don’t know.  Won’t spend much time explaining the site, but it’s a pretty cool site that connects travelers with other travelers, and/or places to crash for a few nights.  So, the girls said we could stay with them for the weekend.  The first girl, Barbara lived out in the countryside (most of Slovenia is countryside) with her parents, and they were all very sweet and nice, and her mom made a lovely breakfast for us, and her father sent us along the way with some bottles of Medini (spelling?) a local liquor distilled with honey (yummy drunk). 

A word about Slovenia:  it’s a quite varied country, as a part of it is on the Mediterranean, a part is impassable mountains, and a part is rolling plains, all in a tiny country you can drive border to border the long ways in about 3 hours.  Much of it is rural and sparsely populated, a lot of thick mountain forests.  Also, I was corrected, Slovenia is Central, Not Eastern, Europe.   In our American Cold War thinking, we often divide Europe into Free West, and Communist East.  But in fact, there’s the whole middle ground of Central Europe that get’s brushed into east, but isn’t, geographically or culturally. 

In fact, while Yugoslavia was communist, it wasn’t Stalinist, and they retained a fairly autonomous country which did business with the West and East.  Marshal Tito was the dictator for many years, but for a dictator, he was a pretty mild one.  Yugoslavian communism was the most humane communism on the market actually.  But in the end, no one likes dictatorships and being poor, so they turned free market republic when the rest of the communist countries dropped the act too.  I talked with the girls’ parents about life under Tito, and they said that Slovenians often think that life, while more shabby under communism, was more fair and just to the masses, rather than the feast or famine economies of capitalism.

Anyway, later that day, we saw some famous ski slopes and the town of Mirabor (second biggest in Slovenia, with a whopping 100,000 population), and there, the ancient grandfather of wine, the oldest living and grape producing wine vine in the world (400 years old).  Then, off to the capital Ljubjana, to meet up with Rebeka and Ana.  A note about Slovenian language.  It’s weird.  They don’t use a lot vowels.  C sounds  like “ch”, DR sounds like “ch”, Z sounds like “ch” in fact, pretty much the whole language is either a “ya” sound (like Ljubjana, which is pronounced Loobyanna), a “ch” sound, or “szz” (I still can’t make that sound) sound.  The word for hello is “Pozdravljeni  I didn't say Hello very often...

The word for “square”  (like plaza) is spelt “trg”.  Yup.  No vowels.  There’s a few other words that I can’t remember but they were spelt something like this “Drznjsco” or something.  With help from our hosts, I was able to learn a few phrases of Slovenian though.  Not quite as good as Eli though, being Lebanese, he is fluently multilingual, and was able to pick up a bit more than I.  Poor Fred, being French, had a harder time at it, as French can’t generally speak any other language besides French. 

We met Ana’s parents, and they made us a lovely dinner.  A word about Slovenian culture.  While a Slavic people, they are very culturally close to the Austrians, and as such, their culture is kind of a cross between the boastful Slavic, and the restrained Germanic.  An interesting mix.  Also, they all speak very good English.  Their architecture tends to remind me of the solid and square northern European buildings, with little ornamentation.

Anyway, we spent the night drinking heartily in the lovely capital city of Ljubjana until late.  The next day we went to check out these enormous caves  of Postojna in the countryside.  These caves were HUGE.  Caves are typically pretty tight and claustrophobic, but not these ones.  You could fit hundreds of people comfortably in them.  I’m not a big caver, but these were pretty spectacular, giant open spaces where Batman could comfortably live.  Check out the photos on link above.

That night we had some terrible Slovenian diner food and walked around getting drunk in the rain.  It was fun.  The next morning, back on the road, 10 hours to France!  It was a lovely three days graciously provided by our lovely hosts, Rebeka, Ana, and Barbara.  But on the road back to France, there was one other thing to check out, Pradjama, the Castle in the Cave.  Basically, some medieval lord decided to build a fortress into a giant cave on a cliff, to make it nearly impregnable.  Check out the photos.  We toured the castle/cave, which was cool, but the coolest part, the cave under the castle was closed because the winter rains had caused the subterranean river to rise.  Bummer, but still, pretty cool.  All in all, a great little road trip with a great group of people. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

French Mardis Gras, and how I almost killed dozens of French children.

So, my friends, it’s been a while.  You might notice, near the blog title, I’ve added a link for a photo gallery.  Now that I’m not stuck in a scary communist dictatorship under the employment of dictatorial Singaporean bosses, I can actually freely speak my mind and reveal my face on the internet with no fear of imprisonment or losing my job, thus, the photo section.  I have a lot of photos of a lot of things, with a lot of commentary, I hope you’ll enjoy, and get to see the strange parts of the world as I see them.  Just another word about the form of the blog, I’ll be posting a lot more photos, and probably less writing, as my time is pretty pressed here, and well, a picture is worth a whole bunch of words, so said somebody, sometime.

  Anyway, the whole new country, new pedagogical system, new culture, the 2 subjects (I got stuck teaching English, in addition to History, and I am pretty ignorant about how to English) and 3 new schools that I work between has kept me busy.  Oh yeah, and a social life.  That aspect of my life has been gaining momentum.  I’ve met a couple really cool people here, and feel fortunate for their friendship.  Things are going pretty well overall.  I like my job, my colleagues, my new apartment, my new motorbike, the environment here, overall, it's starting to feel like home, for the first time since I left America for the Great Unknown, 3 years ago.

Which brings me to Mardi Gras.  But, not Mardis Gras like you Americans know, no boobies, no frat boys, no binge drinking.  No, French Mardis Gras is more like our Halloween, definitely more geared towards the kids.  I went to Mardi Gras once in Poitiers, France and it was great.  A big crazy artistic parade through the city, people getting goofy, kids in costumes, floats, and at the end, the city provides free crepes and mulled wine for everyone!  Really awesome homegrown feel.  I know, too good to be true, right?

So, having such fond memories, I decided to check out the Mardis Gras in Nice.  Along the way, I’ve been keeping up with this website, , basically a website for travelers, by travelers.  Anyway, someone posted on this site about participating in the Nice carnival by pushing one of the big floats through the parade.  Sounds great, I love parades, and participating is always the best.  So I signed up, and one of my French friends joined me.

Well, Nice Mardis Gras is almost nothing like Poitiers.  First, it costs money just to watch it, like 20 euros.  Second no drinking allowed, everything very uptight and official.  Not a party at all.  Unless of course, you’re an under 12 french kid.  Then it’s an orgy of “doing whatever the fuck you want”.  Kind of like the kid version of the American Mardis Gras.  So first, we get our costumes, which mine happens to be  a full white body suit, that I dub the Human Condom (see photo gallery at top of page).   Next, our job is to push this unwieldy 25 foot high mannequin through the parade, which should have only last one hour, but ended up taking 3 hours.

Not a big deal though, except that we’re all dying of thirst, and more importantly, I discovered that Nice Mardis Gras consists exclusively of little kids throwing shit in your face for 3 hours.  French parents are usually quite strict with their kids behavior, except on Mardis Gras.  And apparently the thing to do is throw stuff in peoples face.  Silly string, confetti, glitter, you name it.  Not a big deal right?  Yeah, well, try having silly string shot into your mouth, and half a dozen 8 year olds ganging up on you blasting you in the face with handfuls of glitter and confetti, getting into your eyes, mouth, ears, everywhere.  I don’t mean, they throw it in the air, no they roll right up to you, and BOOM, throw a handful of that shit right into face, as you’re struggling to push a 400 pound float through a crowd of people.  My French friends took it all with the traditional Gallic shrug, but after 2 hours of that, spitting out confetti, wiping glitter out of my eyes, and scraping silly string out of my nose, I was ready to slaughtered some little French kids like an American angel of death on a Southern French Passover.

Overall, it actually wasn’t a horrible experience, only because it was one of those “hey, I can say I did that”  things.  I participated in Carnival in the French Riviera and although it pissed me off, still kept a happy clown face on, and did manage to bring some joy into some black hearted, rotten little French children.  Every silver lining has a cloud, or something like that.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Intro to The Cote D'Azur

SO, it’s been a while.  As you may remember, I finally left Hanoi, more or less, in one piece.  I spend the summer visiting my Portland friends and my Midwestern family, and it was great, apart from the death of my uncle.  But even that negative thing was balanced out by the his funeral was a chance for my family to get together and see each other for the first time in 4 years for some of them.

Anyway, I got to France in mid-August.  My first taste of Cote d’Azur way of doing business was the 70Euro ($100) 5 mile taxi ride from the airport to Antibes.  Most airports in France are connected by train, but no this one.  The second busiest in the entire country, mind you.  Why?  Well, the taxis make a killing, which you dry up if they installed a train line through the airport (although the train itself passes with half a mile of the airport)  This was something I learned quickly, while not exactly “mafia” in the typical sense, business is done in somewhat shadowy semi-illegal ways here.  It’s not so organized as mafia, but oddly enough, every business transaction heavily favors the interests of the locals, and it’s very much a network of one hand washing the other, you are the dirt that gets washed off.  The Provence is famous for this type of Old Boy networking.

Anyway, the person who was in charge of resettling me is somewhat paid by my company, and somewhat paid by the state of France.  Their only real responsibility is to find you an apartment, and open a bank account for you.  Basically, they put about 8 hours of work in for each client and get paid $2600 for it.  And unsurprisingly, she just so happened to know the landlords of the apartments she showed me.  Again, I’ve been in Asia long enough that I know how kickbacks works.  So, they show you about 8 apartments and you have to choose from them, whether you really like any of them or not.

Well, anyway, that’s fine, I knew I’d be take for a wash, but was fine with it.  You have to know how to pick and choose your battles after all.  I got an apartment in Juan Les Pins, which is just next to Antibes and Cannes.  And I’m only 4 minute walk from the beach.  Problem is the neighborhood where I live attracts the worst type of Cote d’Azur tourists.  Those who are there not for the culture, the nature, the history.  Nope Juan Les Pins tourists are there for only two things, the beach and the shops.  So, imagine, it’s like the South Beach Miami of France.  A lot guidos in Ferraris with slick back hair, a lot of Arabic knuckleheads with their hyper macho attitudes, and  a lot of girls wearing too much makeup.  Not really my scene.  Plus, I’m one block from all the clubs, which are like douchebag magnets.

Well, I decide I’ll move later.  No worries.  Now, about the job:  overall, it’s pretty great.  My colleagues are all quite professional, friendly, and dedicated teachers.  It really keeps a good vibe when everyone actually cares about their job and takes it seriously, and is willing to help other teachers too.  The only slight problem is that I’m the youngest by a good stretch.  This school doesn’t typically hire new teachers, as it’s considered one of the best public international schools in France.  I think the only reason I got the job is because they saw how bad I wanted it and that demonstrated that I would bust my ass to do a good job.  The kids are by and large bright and well behaved, as they have actually chosen to take these international classes.   Also, my vacations kick ass.  We work 6 weeks on, 2 weeks off.  Gotta love European socialism!

My classes are pretty good.  I’m have a relatively heavy load, teaching almost every class between 6th grade and Junior (grade 11) in high school, and I’m also teaching 6 hours of English, which is my big weak point, at three different schools.  But I’ve certainly had worse teaching loads.  The good thing is the hours.  On Monday I work from 8-12, then Tuesday from 10-5 then Wednesday 8-10, Thursday 8-4, and Friday 3-5.  The good news is, when I’m not teaching, I don’t have to be there.  So, if all my planning is done, I’m free the rest of the day.  That’s nice.

Another nice thing is the pay.  If I was living anywhere but the Cote D’Azur, I’d be making good money, but here the cost of everything except groceries is so high that I’m getting by.  Not losing money, but not saving that much either so far.  But of course, the first 6 months of living somewhere is economically the most difficult, as you have a lot of expenses to soak up at first.  Still I can’t complain.

The weather, and climate, as you may have heard me mention, is spectactular, usually warm and sunny.  The Mediterranean is beautiful, and within a few miles inland, the foothills of the Alps begin.  It’s as close to rugged wilderness as you are likely to find in Europe, with all sorts of awesome extreme sports to be had, amazing Mountain Biking, hang gliding, parasailing, skiing, canyoneering, hiking, all in the shadows of quaint medieval villages.  So far, the only place I’ve seen in the world that can compare to it is the Pacific Northwest, and here isn’t that far behind it.

The food is decent, though you really have to put out a lot of money for a meal in a restaurant.  Most meals start at around $14 and go up.  Groceries are cheap, and you can still get good cheese, bread, wine, liquor, meat, veggies, etc.  But as far as French cooking, you need to either have a French cook for you, or go to a restaurant, neither of which I have very often.

Bars are CRAZY expensive.  A pint of anything costs at least $8-12, mixed drinks more.  So I don’t drink too much in bars.  Rent is also crazy expensive.  Studios start at about $700, and one bedrooms about $1100.

The people…well, I have to admit, in general, the people of the Mediterranean (doesn’t matter which country) are kind of stupid dicks.  If you go inland 100 miles, the people become a lot cooler and less uptight.  But the problem is this region attracts a lot of old rich people, young rich people, and working class North African immigrants, all of whom feel the world owes them something.  In general, dicks.  However, I have met a couple cool people from the region, so they do exist.  There’s jerks and cool people everywhere, in every culture.  It’s just harder to find them in some places.

Also, they drive like shit here.  They drive aggressively,  tailgate like crazy, and drive too fast, at all times.  I’m told the Italians are even worse.  Northern French drive much better than their southern cousins.  That can be a bit nervewracking while on a motorbike, and that’s why I’ll be getting a bigger engine, in order to be more maneuverable at speed.

I’ll get into the specifics of the good and bad over here later, but this is just a little catch up to speed of where I’m at.  Until next time,

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Escape From Hanoi, the Conclussion with a Concussion.

Sorry, it’s been a while, been real busy adapting to the new school/country/life.  French paperwork and bureaucracy are legendary, not to mention, work.  Anyway, I left off as I was getting into the back of a chauffeured Land Rover with the brother of one of my students, who was connected to the government/mafia in some way.  Connections are how you make things happen in Asia.  Law is completely subjective upon who you know and what type of power you wield.   We were going to hook up with his high ranking cop friend who was going to put the squeeze on the taxi driver who ran me over, in order to get a little cash to cover my losses and pain.

As we were heading to the meetup, the brother explained to me that since we weren’t going to squeeze the taxi company itself , which was my original intention as they would have deeper pockets, we would be going after the driver himself.  The reason I decided not to go after the company was because if they made it a legal issue, there was a good chance they would contact my insurance company which had paid for my hospital stay.  If they did that, the insurance would find out I had been on a motorbike, a no-no, since I didn’t have my license.  If that happened, there was a good chance I would be left out in the cold, if my insurance rescinded their payments, I would be stuck with a $20,000 hospital bill and a lengthy legal battle in the Vietnamese courts.  Instead, if I put the squeeze on the driver, we could leave the company, and therefore the insurance company, out of it.

Sounded like a pretty good idea until I thought about it.  I would be squeezing a Viet taxi driver.  Someone whose yearly income was about $2,000.  That just didn’t sit right with me.  I’ve always felt a closer connection to the working sod, the underclass, because I had been there myself,  more than I have any other social group.  For all of my adult life, until I moved to Vietnam, I lived below the poverty line.   And I would be taking money from a guy whose yearly income was equal to less than my monthly income…But still, the guy almost killed me, left me for dead, and left me $1000 in the hole…

I had a quick think about it and went with my gut.  The last thing I want to do in life is drive another poor person deeper into poverty.  If I did that, I’d be just like all the other scumbags who make their millions by exploiting others.  The corporate CEO’s who instead of paying their American workers a living wage, send their production overseas to places like Vietnam where they can pay their workers literally pennies, the Communist party members who live in luxury while the average Viet can barely afford food.  Fuck that.  And fuck those guys. 

I told the brother to stop the car.  I explained to him my feelings, and where I was coming from (minus the strong language), He looked surprised, and asked if I was sure.  I told him, yes, I wouldn’t feel right about myself, I didn’t want to send another poor person even lower.  I’m not going hungry, I live in a nice enough place, and still save a little.  What more do you really need out of life?  I would rather chock up the $1000 I lost due to the various repairs, medical bills, etc, then to send someone else, and most likely his entire family, into grinding poverty.  I thanked the older brother for his help, and his kindness.   The brother nodded, still surprised and said he really respected my choice.  But there was one thing…I told the brother all I really wanted would be for his police friend to warn the taxi driver that he needs to be a better driver, because the next time he runs someone over, he, or the victim, might not be so lucky.  If I can make just one Vietnamese driver less dangerous, I feel like my time in Nam was a success.  We drove back to my school and I got out, feeling pretty good. 

A few days later, my “guardian angel” as I’d taken to calling Steve, the Westerner who picked me off the side of the road, bloody and semi-conscious, drove me to the hospital, and contacted my coworker to help me out, called and asked how I was doing.  I told him I was healing but doing ok.  He told me he had a friend who was an accountant, and as I was a foreigner who had paid taxes, and was leaving the country soon, would be able to get a chunk of the income tax I paid back.  Sounded interesting.  He gave me her email address.  I emailed her the next day, explaining my situation.  She said that I could indeed get around $14,000 back (about as much as I had paid), if I met certain requirements about the taxation system.  It turns out I did indeed meet these requirements.  She emailed me back that it was certain I would be able to get it back, and since I was a friend of Steve, she wouldn’t charge her usual consultation fee.  Great!

The next step would be for me to send her a copy of my paychecks, passport, work visa, tax ID number, etc.  I did.  After sending all this, she then said everything was a go, I just had to pay her the fee of $2,000 upfront to process the paperwork…What?!  Of course, at this point my scam radar went off.  But still, I knew accountants did have to get paid, and if I could make $12k in profit…So, I did a little research, contacting several legit Vietnamese accountants to see if such a law existed for foreigners getting back their income tax.  They all responded, no, not that they knew of.  Son of a bitch.  I was being set up.  Apparently for the second time. 

I replied to her offer with an offer of my own.  How about I give you $5,000 but you do the work first?  She replied, no she couldn’t do that, it’s not how the system worked, and if it was too expensive, she could lower the price for me, to only $900.  Right.  I asked her if she had an office, and was a registered accountant with the government.  She didn’t reply.   But by this point, she had all my identifying documents, so most likely, she is currently stealing my identity.  Well, guess what asshole, the jokes on you, I have abysmal credit, no company in the world will give me a credit card, you stole the identity of literally the worst person in America to steal an identity from.

This made me start to wonder about Steve.  So far, he had twice set me up with someone who wanted $2,000 off me, in order to get a huge sum back.  Typical con man scheme.   If there even was a second person, both situations were over email, so it could have been him all along.   In fact, it made me reconsider the “accident” itself.  What a coincidence that Steve, who also happened to be a con man, just happened to be there ready in the middle of nowhere, suburban Hanoi, where white people don’t go.  Ready to pick me up as a guardian angel.  Further, the photos that I took of the taxi were perfect.  Nothing cut off, license plate, make and model.  Apparently I did this after picking myself up, semi-conscious, bleeding out the face like a stuck pig with broken teeth and nose, yet still on the ball enough to photo the vehicle perfectly, and somehow, not photo the actual driver?…

It seemed more likely that in fact, Steve had set the accident up.  Most likely he was working in tandem with a Viet partner, the driver.  The driver nails me, then stops, just long enough for Steve who happens to be right there, ready to help me photo the vehicle (but not the driver), then takes off, leaving Steve to gain my confidence by bringing me to the hospital and looking after me.   It made sense.  One thing I’ve learned living life on the edge is that just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.  I have some stories about that which you’ll only get out of me over a beer or four.

At this point, I had only about 3 weeks left in ‘Nam.  I thought about reporting Steve, or trying to.  Using some police contacts to make a stink, or maybe smearing his name in the local expat website.  But, Steve knew where I lived.  He knew where I worked, he had my passport info.  If he was connected with the local mafia, which was pretty likely, as he didn’t seem clever enough to figure out this hustle himself, and he was always inviting me to dodgy little bars that “his friends” owned, I could be stirring a hornets nest.  If this was the West, I would go after him like a pitbull, because I understand how things work.  In Nam, I would be playing by their rules, and I barely understood those rules.  This is the type of situation that could get bad real quick if Steve was more connected than I was.  I only had 3 more weeks, then no more Nam, and off to the French Riviera and a new life.

In the end, I decided not to stir the hornet’s nest.  The only thing I would gain from that is revenge, and while it is sweet, I’ve also learned that revenge without a hefty economic compensation attached to it is just empty calories.  It’s a fine thing, learning how to assess battles that you have little chance of coming out on top of. 

 I was so close to finally making it through what had without a doubt, been the absolutely worst two years of my colorful life.  I had been homeless and penniless in strange towns several times in my life, and faced down some real scary bad situations that I’ll tell you about over a beer, and this had been hands down, the worst.  I had gotten dysentery twice, had two month-long sinus infections, got fired from my job, then rehired at the last moment, gotten divorced,  without friends or family, then fallen in love, only to have my heart broken to pieces for the first time in my 36 years,  gotten irritable bowel syndrome, and topped it all off with a crushed sinus passage, a concussion, a broken wrist, large patches of missing flesh, three broken teeth, and $1,000 lost.  I figured, fuck it, at this point, I’m just happy to be alive, in relatively good health, and have a new life waiting for me.  Sometimes, you just gotta cut your losses.

The next three weeks passed blessedly uneventfully, mostly because I spent them hiding out, trying to present as small of a target as possible to Hanoi.  And finally the last day came.  I honestly didn’t think I would make it.  Not until the plane left the runway, did I let out the biggest, happiest smile I had had in two years, as I watched the quickly disappearing swampland below.   Relief flooded me.  For the first time in two years, I felt relaxed.  I let out a whooping laugh as I waved my middle finger at the city from 500 feet in the air, never to set foot on that cursed swamp again.  Like my father before me, and so many other young men of his generation, just happy to be leaving ‘Nam alive.   Fuck you Hanoi, I won.  Just barely. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Escape From Hanoi, Part 3

Escape from Hanoi, Part 3

So, I had gotten out of the hospital, lucky to be alive from both the accident and the medical “care”, and had finally nailed down the job in France.  And better yet as I discovered, not just in France, but in the Cote d’Azur, on the French Riviera.  For those unfamiliar with French geography, this is the part of France right on the Mediterranean coast, right next to Monaco.  It’s one of the most desired places to live in Europe, second in French tourism only to Paris.  Year round warm weather, turquoise warm blue water perfect for diving, and delicious French cuisine.  It’s where the million/billionaires of Europe go to play.  And somehow, I had just landed a job there, that paid a good salary, with a generous relocation allowance, and teaching the subject I love (history) at what by all accounts is an outstanding, well managed, not-for-profit school.  About as different in every possible way that things can be different compared to my situation in Hanoi.  I couldn’t believe my luck.

Just a week previous, I was lying on the side of a Hanoian highway, semi-conscious, bleeding and broken in several places.  Then a stranger, an Englishman named Steve happened by and helped me out.  He happened to live right by the accident site, so he locked my motorbike up at his house, and brought me on the back of his motorbike to the hospital.  After getting out of the hospital, he got my bike repaired for me at a mechanic friend of his.  He brought the bike back to me, fully repaired.  The repairs only cost $300, and I thanked Steve profusely for getting that fixed, for picking me off the road, and for getting me to the hospital.  I asked if I could give him some money for his help, and he refused, saying he was just trying to do the right thing.  This guy seemed like my guardian angel, if such things existed.

Although, he said, that if I wouldn’t mind doing a small favor for him, he’d really appreciate it.  In Vietnam, their banking laws are labyrinthine to make it harder to launder money, he explained that the bank wouldn’t allow him to transfer his money back to England because he got paid under the table, so now he was stuck with a lot of cash and no safe place to put it.  He asked if, at the end of the month, I would do a bank transfer for him.  He’d give me the cash, and since I had a job that paid taxes, they’d allow me to transfer the money.  His job as an English teacher paid his salary in cash, as I already knew many English teachers are, in fact, paid in cash, under the table.   I said no problem, just let me know when he wanted me to do it.  I’m not a sucker, I would only do it if he gave me the cash first, so I figured there was no risk in that.

He showed me pictures of the bike before repairing it.  It was basically totaled.  The front wheel had been torn off the forks, and the frame had been broken in five  places.  Looking at the bike, I was again pretty happy to alive.  Still, I couldn’t really figure out how the accident had happened.

Now, I’ve been racing bicycles down hill for about 10 years every Sunday night in Portland (ZooBomb!), and I’ve seen and been in my fair share of pretty spectacular  wrecks.  After your first few wrecks at high speed, you learn how to crash.  Learning how to properly crash is one of the most valuable and painful lessons you can learn in life because the only way to learn the safest way to crash is pay for it with your blood and bones. However, if you know how to crash, your chances of being seriously hurt decrease enormously.  At this point, I am living proof of this. 

A quick and free lesson in crashing for the uninitiated:  When you crash on two wheels at speed, the first, best, and fastest thing to do is to tuck your chin.  Stand up now and try it.  Notice how, as soon as you tuck your chin, your shoulders hunch in protecting your ribcage and your abdominal organs.  Also, your shoulder muscles are bunched up around the neck area, further protecting your neck/spine, and reducing the impact area of your face/jaw.   If you were to land flat like that, your forehead would hit first, which is way better than having your nose/jaw hit first.  Your forehead is one of the densest bone masses in your body.  Further, when you really tuck your chin in, it pulls your arms to your sides, further protecting the sides of your ribs, and also preventing your arms from flailing around and getting snapped in half as you’re being tossed and spun along the pavement.  The simple movement of tucking your chin kicks in our body’s naturally most defensive posture, the fetal position. 

To this day, I cannot figure out how I receive my injuries as they were all over my face, left side and right, lower and upper.   All I know is that judging from the damage on my bike, and how little real serious injuries I had, I must have done something right in the crash, as all I had were three broken teeth, a concussion, a broken wrist, a crushed sinus passage, and a bunch of missing skin from scraping to a stop from 35-45 miles an hour (I can only presume I was going that fast as I was on the highway, and it appeared the bike had flipped several times while crashing).  I know those sound like serious injuries already, but I’ve seen people on ZooBomb get broken spines, crushed lungs and ribs, entire front rows of teeth knocked out, compound arm, shoulder, and collarbone breaks, torn ligaments, and broken skulls, all from crashing at my speed or often slower on a bicycle.  There but for the grace of god go I.

Anyway, a day later, I forced myself to go back to work, which I probably shouldn’t have.  In the course of the day, I got out my phone to take a photo of something, and I noticed I had a picture of a taxi on it.  I didn’t remember taking a picture of any taxi.  I checked the time stamp and geotag, it turned out the photo was taken at the time and location of my accident.  There were two photos, a perfect shot of the side of the taxi where I noticed tire skid marks, and another of the license plate.  I’ve been hit by a lot of cars in Portland, (never that seriously injured, at worst some scrapes) and my first reaction is to always take a picture of the license.  Had I been that bad-ass that even though I was half conscious, I was able to get up and take two perfect shots of the cab?  I guessed so.

Then I figured the next thing to do was call Steve, and ask him if he actually saw anything.  When I spoke to him, he said when he pulled up, I was sitting dazedly on the curb, and he noticed there were skid marks on the road.  I told him that I just discovered that I had apparently taken two clear shots of the taxi that hit me before they left.  Oddly enough, I hadn’t taken a shot of the taxi driver.

He said that was good news because his landlord’s son was a high-ranking police officer, and could represent me to the taxi company, essentially putting the squeeze on the company to pay for my injuries.  I said wonderful, thanks, and he told me he’d call me back shortly with more info.  About an hour later, he called and told me that today must be my lucky day, because since I had photo of the taxi, and Steve said he would be my witness, and because I was a foreigner, the police officer would be able to get me $20,000 from the company.  Wow, not bad!  He told me he would have more details soon, and he’d call me back.  Half an hour later, he called back, saying that the cop had confirmed it was guaranteed that I would get paid, there was only one small catch though, the cop was asking for $4,000 to do the work.  Now, I know you think that sounds crazy, but actually, bribery is how EVERYTHING gets done in Vietnam.  If you want a cop to do his job, you bribe him.  However, four grand was pretty steep.  The figure made me hesitate.  Steve said that if I didn’t have that much money, he could loan me half of it.  Earlier in one of our conversations, he explained how his parents were very wealthy and paid for everything, and he was only teaching English here in order to meet people.

I told him I needed to think about this before I could commit, as that was a lot of money.  He said I needed to give him an answer asap, as the longer we waited, the less of a case I would have.  I hung up and thought about it.  Something felt not right, I couldn’t put my finger on it.  So far, I had no reason not to trust Steve.  After all, the guy had practically saved my life, fixed my bike, and asked for nothing in return.  It had only been a week since my accident, I felt still out of it and confused, and this situation wasn’t helping.  Steve had assured me that this was a sure thing, as his friend had told him, and he’d known his landlord and her family for years.  Still something felt wrong.  Logically, it made sense, as this is how “justice” is done in Vietnam.  But I started to imagine how I could get screwed.  I saw the most likely route would be, I bribe the cop for four grand, then he brings me to police station to do the paperwork, and instead asks for more money, and if I refused to give him more money, than he would arrest me for attempting to bribe a cop.  These things can happen in Asia.  In an hour, Steve called me back, needing an answer.  This was all happening too fast.  I went with my gut feeling and told him thanks, but no thanks.  He said, no problem, he understood, and he looked forward to grabbing a beer with me when I felt better.

I still liked the idea of getting money from this accident though.  After all, the driver had almost killed me and then left me for dead, and I knew the taxi company would have deep pockets.  So I had another idea.  Maybe I could find someone to put the squeeze on the taxi company for free?  After all, most of my students come from very well connected families, typically high ranking government officials/Communist party members/mafia/businessmen.  In Vietnam, if you’re rich, you are some combination of all of those to varying degrees. There’s no such thing as social mobility there.  No matter how hard you work, if you’re poor, you’ll always be poor.  You’re born into your social class.  Much like America is becoming with it’s 1% super rich, and then the rest of us.

Anyway, I began asking my students if any of their parents would be interested in helping ol’ Mister International Man of History out.  The first kid that got back to me hooked me up with his brother.  I met with his brother, and he said sure, he’d help me, as he was connected with the police.  Teachers are well respected in Asia, and it’s not uncommon for student’s families to do nice things for their teachers.

I was feeling pretty tense, as I’m not used to mafia/Communist party officials doing favors for me.  The brother pulled up to the school in his chauffeured Land Rover with government plates, and I got in.  Off to the police station to talk with his cop friend and put the squeeze on the bastard who had almost killed me, then left me for dead….

To be continued…