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…

Friday, August 24, 2012

Escape from Hanoi, Part 2

So, I had just missed my third and final job interview at the French school by two days, due to a concussion with amnesia, and several other broken parts.  I was in a hospital in Hanoi, the “French” Hanoi Hospital.  I put quotes around the French part because that’s their big selling point, that there’s actually French doctors there, but in reality, there’s like 2 in the entire hospital.  So, basically for 10 times the price of a normal Viet hospital you get a 5% chance of getting a French doctor, and a 96% chance of getting regular ol’ terrifyingly oblivious Vietnamese medical care.

Anyway, I checked my email, saw that the school had emailed me twice trying to get ahold of me, then gave up.  I emailed apologizing, and explaining to them the situation and how I would be in the hospital for at least the next few days, but I am still very interested in the position.  They replied ‘no problem, we understand, get well soon and let us know when you feel up to an interview.’  Phew.

The next morning, I was to have surgery on my nose.  My left sinus passage was crushed and needed to be popped back into place.  I would need to be placed under general anesthesia, which always carries some risk of the anesthesiologist od’ing you if they don’t get everything exact.  So far, I hadn’t seen a single French person, and my medical team was no different, all Vietnamese.  In these situations, much like flying, I just figure either they’ll do a good job and I’ll live, or a bad job and I’ll die.  Not much to be done about it.  Call it fatalism, but it gets me through the day.

My face hurt like hell, if you’ve ever had a sinus infection, like that but with the additional feeling of hitting you in nose with a hammer.  Not fun.  Anyway, they cart me to the table, and dump me on it.  They lay me down, and then a little poke, and ahh, the sweet nectar of oblivion is pumped into my veins.  No more pain, just happy floating in the void.  I was having a pretty nice opium dream, I don’t remember of what, but I can only assume it was somewhere far fucking away from a Vietnamese hospital.

Dreaming, and then CHOKING!  DROWNING!  GGGGGHHHH!! My eyes snap open, and gurgling, I cough out blood, spraying the entire operating room in blood, like the chick from The Exorcist.  Step out of the action for a moment, I’m going to give you a little first aid quiz to see if you know more than 5 Vietnames nurses and one Vietnamese surgeon.  Question:  If someone is bleeding profusely in their sinus passage, and you lay them on their back, where do you think gravity will dump that blood?  If you answered “down the victim’s throat”, YOU WIN!  You know more about first aid than a room full of Vietnamese medical professionals! 

The blood had filled my nose, and proceeded to fill my throat, cutting off all air, essentially drowning me in my own blood.  Still zonked from the anesthesia, but lucid enough to know what’s going on, I wave at the nurses who are currently running around the room like 5 chickens with their heads cut off, and do the international hand signal for “choking”, the crook of your hand across your throat, with a panicked look in the eyes, and face turning slightly blue.  They continue to run around the room aimlessly, all yelling in Vietnamese, but none actually doing anything.  One has at least the bright idea to offer me a tissue as I’m coughing blood everywhere.  Thanks lady, but instead, do you think maybe you could help tilt my head up, as I’m clearly trying to do, so the blood flows out of my throat?  Nah, too complex a concept.  I push through the drug induced coma and finally get myself onto an elbow, where I expel the rest of the blood onto the floor.  Then I take the uselessly proffered tissue and wipe my gore covered face off.  If I was slightly more zonked out by the anesthesia, I wouldn’t be writing this today.  I think in the states, there might be a lawsuit there, but in ‘Nam, it’s just business as usual.

That was the only real bad thing that happened to me in the hospital, other than one of my nurses stealing my morphine doses as I was healing up, which really sucked as my sinuses were hurting so bad, I couldn’t sleep, or do much apart from grit my teeth.  I finally got out of the Hospital of Doom (which is believe it or not, the second best hospital in all of Hanoi) and back to my house on Friday.  About the job, I knew I had to strike while the iron was hot.  I knew I was fighting with a lot of other teachers for this gig, and if I waited too long, they might just go with someone else.  Although I was still mentally rattled from my concussion/amnesia, I emailed them and said I’d be ready for the interview by Monday.  Two days to try and get my brain hard-wired again.  I still had (and still have) absolutely no memories of the time between leaving work and sitting with my coworker with my arm already put in a cast in the hospital.

The interview was at 1:30pm on Monday, so Sunday night, I went to bed at midnight, thinking I would likely wake up at my usual hour of 8 or 9am.  In Hanoi, I never was able to sleep later than about 8:30am.  I woke up comfortably, stretched, and looked at my watch, thinking it would be maybe 9 or 10, since I felt so refreshed.  It was 2pm, half an hour after the appointed time.  Shit!  Again!  I jumped out of bed, then tried not to faint from lack of blood pressure, grabbed my computer, checked email, and sure enough, another two messages asking where I was, and if I was still interested.  I replied that I was absolutely interested, and apologized for how unprofessional this must seem, but the medication I had taken had apparently knocked me out for 14 hours (literally the only time in my life I have ever slept for 14 hours).  If they could just give me 30 minutes to get ready, I would be ready to interview.  They said no problem.  Quickly brewed some strong coffee, and dressed. 

The funny thing was that, as bad as my injuries were, if you looked at me, I really didn’t look messed up at all.  Not even a bruise on my face, although I had broken sinus and teeth.  My arm was in a cast, but that was it.  So, I decided I needed to ham it up, and show them that I was really messed up, otherwise they might just think I was bullshitting them.  So, quick costume change.  I put two large bandages across my nose, I hadn’t shaved in a week already so I had a nice castaway beard going, and then I wrapped a sling around my arm, therefore hoisting my cast into the camera’s field of vision and making my arm injury look far worse.  To top it off, I put on a shirt and a tie, and draped my suit jacket over my shoulder, in an imitation of a veteran from The Great War.  Now, I looked like I felt.  Perfect.

When they turned the camera on (Skype interviews are now the norm for international work), the director let out a gasp.  Booya!  “Um, are you ok?  Are you sure you are feeling well enough to do this?”  Yes, I’ll be fine, let’s get this interview started!  “Well, if you need to take a break to rest during the interview, that is totally fine, no problem, just let me know.”  No ma’am, thank you, but I’m pretty tough and you’ve already had to wait for me enough.  “Well, if you’re sure…” 

And again, I aced the interview.  Even though I was groggy and messed up, like I said, my interview mojo is pretty high nowadays after going through 3 days of non-stop interviews in London.  After, I wrote her an email thanking her for her time, and that I looked forward to speaking with her in the future.  She responded almost immediately thanking me for my time, and told me it was pretty clear that I had the energy and dedication for the job.  Boo and ya!  Two days later, I got the job offer.

The problem is my motorbike was still with the guy who I assumed to be my guardian angel, this English guy named Steve, the one who took care of my bike, picked me off the road, and brought me on the back of his motorbike to the hospital, pouring blood and half conscious.  If it wasn’t for him looking after me, I might just have died on the side of some Hanoian highway.  One thing about the Vietnamese, if they see an injured Westerner, they are very unlikely to try and help them.  Not because they are bad people, but because they are afraid.  In popular Vietnamese legend, if a Viet helps an injured foreigner, and then said foreigner dies or gets worse while under their protection, there is a belief that the foreigner will then sue them, or that the government will hold the Viet responsible for the condition of the foreigner.  This might actually be true, knowing Vietnam’s crazy laws, but I don’t know, and neither do most Viets, as such, they are real hesitant to help a badly injured foreigner, and given that, I can’t say I blame them.   

When I was in the hospital, Steve was constantly texting and calling me, asking how I was doing, if there was anything he could do to help, assuring me my bike was safe, and that if I wanted he could get my bike (which was completely totaled from the accident) up and running for around $300 because he has a Viet buddy who’s a mechanic.  Seemed like a good deal to me, so sure, hook it up buddy.  This really saved me a big head ache, as I would have somehow had to get the bike towed to a garage and then negotiated them fixing it, all with basically no Vietnamese language skills.  This might not sound difficult, but in Hanoi, everything is a negotiation, and there’s no such thing as “the Yellow Pages”, if you don’t know a mechanic, or a tow truck, good luck finding one.  But Steve hooked it all up, and for a good price (I assumed).  This guy was like some blessed stranger.  He saved me from an uncertain fate on the side of the road, brought me to a hospital, and asked for nothing in return, I even offered to give him some money as a token of gratitude for helping me so much, and he refused.  What a guy! 
In the world of con-men, this situation is called “gaining the mark’s confidence”…As I was to find out later…
To Be Continued…

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Escape from Hanoi, Part 1

Time travel back with me to mid May…  I had just accepted a job offer in the Virgin Islands and was pretty excited about that.  Tropical paradise and all that.  Then I got even better news; six months previous to that, I had spent a few weeks researching and sending out letters of introduction with my CV (like a longer resume) to every single international school in France, Germany, and Sweden, and I even built up a website to highlight my teaching skills and sell myself.  One school in France got back to me saying they might have a position opening for next school year.

Not one to let opportunity pass, I stayed in touch with this school, pestering them about once a month to remind them that I was still very much interested in teaching for them.  They kept saying, ‘yeah we know, we’ll let you know’.  A few months of this passed, and I didn’t hear back from them, then I decided to take the gamble and fly to London for this job fair.  About that time, in my daily job hunt, I noticed an ad, “Teach in the French Riviera” on the London Times Educational website, which is about the hottest and most used European teacher website.  When you post any job there, you’re going to get hundreds of applicants.  When boasting about teaching in the French Riviera, you’re going to get many hundred more.  I read it, like probably a couple thousand teacher before, and discovered it was for the school I had been in contact with.  I didn’t know the school was in the Riviera because the school goes by this long, unwieldy French appellation which got shortened into a long, unwieldy acronym.  I just knew it was in France, and that’s somewhere I wanted to teach.  I didn’t know it was in THE most desirable place in France to live, right on the Mediterranean, in that little sweet spot right next to Italy.  So of course, the competition would be fierce.

For any European job, me being an American puts me at a huge disadvantage.  At least half the European schools I applied at wouldn’t even consider someone without a European passport.  Mostly, it’s because getting a work visa for a non-EU citizen is a pain in the ass, and in the French bureaucracy, it’s worse than almost any other European nation.  Finding a job there as a foreigner is a super hard sell.

So, I figured this was the moment I was waiting for, and dropped them another line, reminding them that I would love to work there.  “Yeah, we know, we’ll be interviewing in about a month from now, we’ll let you know.”  Well, I knew I didn’t stand much chance with that, so I went into negotiations with the Virgin Islands school, a bird in the hand, and all that.

A month passed and no news.  Then a few weeks later, I get an email asking if I’m still interested in working for the French school.  Absolutely.  We set up an interview for the next week.  The interview comes up and I kick ass.  After going through 3 full days of non-stop interviews in the London fair, my interview skillz were top notch.  The director of the school tells me that I just made it to the top ten of a very large field of applicants, around 500 people applied for the post.  Yeah, I got game.  Not over yet though, he sets up a second interview for the next week, this time with himself and the head of the History department.  The second interview comes, and I ace that one too.  He tells me at that point, I bumped up to the top spot, and I pretty much got the job.  I just have to go through one more interview though, this time with the head of the School board. 

At this point, I had the Virgin Islands job if I wanted it, so I knew I had a fall back.  And tropical paradise is a pretty good fall back.  The only thing that made me more interested in France is that the island I would be moving to was tiny, only 20,000 people.  I’m now a single guy, and after being stuck in the tiny island of Hanoi expat life, the thought of going to an even smaller social scene wasn’t appealing, especially one with few single people, as I was told the Virgin Islands were (by someone who was currently working there and single).  Paradise, yes, but paradise by yourself can get lonesome.  In France, I have a real shot at laying down some roots, and finally finding a place to rest my wandering soul.  I speak the language, love the food, understand the culture, and I really like the idea of having workers rights, a concept that doesn’t exist in Asia (and barely exists in America).  Plus, the Riviera ain’t such a bad place to live either.

This is all happening at the end of May.  I only have a month and a half left in my contract in Hanoi.  If I can just survive the next 45 days, I got either tropical paradise or the Mediterranean, both a far cry from the ol’ Loud and Dirty.  I left work early so that I could go home and prep for my final interview.  I took the highway to get home…And the next thing I am conscious of, I am in a hospital.  I look around confused and clueless as to how I got there.  My arm is in a cast.  My face hurts like hell, so does my leg.  My pants are bloody and torn.  I look over, and there’s my coworker Ryan sitting next to me.  I ask Ryan “What happened?  Why am I in a hospital?  Where’s my bike?”  Ryan rolls his eyes and sighs.  He tells me in a tired voice that I got hit by a car when I was riding my motorbike home on the highway, a foreigner named Steve saw me on the side of the road, picked me off the road, brought my motorbike to his house which just so happened to be a few blocks away, then brought me on the back of his motorbike to the hospital where I was diagnosed as having a broken wrist, three broken teeth, a crushed sinus passage, a bunch of road rash, and a concussion.  By his rapid-fire litany of that sentence, and his weariness, I deduced that he had probably told me this a hundred times and I had lost my short term memory.  I asked him.  Yup.  This was about the hundredth time he told me.   At least this time, I remembered.

The doctors then put me into a hospital bed, and Ryan told me (again, and also for the first time subjectively) that it was very important that I tell the doctors and the insurance company that I was WALKING when the accident occurred.  This is important because I don’t a have motorbike license in Hanoi.  Very few foreigners do.  I knew a total of 2 out of all the foreigners who had one.  The reason is twofold.  One, the process for getting a motorbike driving license in Vietnam is extremely byzantine, complicated, long, and like most things in that country, only works out about 30% of the time.  Reason two is that the government realizes that foreigners are the best drivers in Vietnam.  We’re not the ones who make the roads dangerous.
 Still, if the cops wanted to, they know they could literally pull over any foreign driver, and none of them would have a license.  But they don’t.  My theory behind that is Vietnam is really trying to boost their tourism, and the last thing they want is for tourists to be reporting back about always being hassled by the police.  Not good for tourism.  So, yeah, the accident happened while I was “walking”, although I still had my motorbike helmet with me in the hospital.  The doctors don’t care though, unlike here, they’re not in the insurance biz.

Eventually, they put me into a bed, and tell me I have to spend  at least the next few days in the hospital, to make sure I don’t have permanent brain damage, and they are also going to need to operate on my sinus passage.  Eventually Ryan goes home when I get sorted out.  Thanks again Ry-Ry.

I wake up the next day, still dazed from my concussion, but lucid.  I check my email on my phone which miraculously survived unscathed, only to find two emails from the French school, one email asking where I was, and the second asking if I was still interested in working at the school.  Shit!  I had missed the interview by a full day!

To be continued…