Sunday, April 27, 2014

Expat Life: Traveling to Hanoi and Some Thoughts on Driving in SE Asia

We did not ride in a cyclo, but they were everywhere in Hanoi.

If you are asking yourself, "Wait! Didn't MsCaroline just get back from spending a weekend in Kyoto?" you are correct.  In fact, it was just over 2 weeks after the AsiaVus got back from Japan that they turned around and boarded a plane for Vietnam.

Why? Because MsCaroline and her family love the thrill of travel and exploring new cultures? Well, yes, partly.  But the truth is, coordinating their 3 vastly disparate schedules (including 2 international schools on completely different holiday plans) requires nothing short of a mathematical algorithm.  So if all of them are free for a long weekend - they go somewhere, even if the last trip was just 2 weeks ago and the older people in the family are still not fully recovered.

So it came to pass that the AsiaVus found themselves seated on an aircraft in the midst of a party of loud and obnoxious hearty and ebullient middle-aged Korean gentlemen who appeared to be heading to Vietnam for either a stag party or a trip with their hiking club (from what MsC has seen on the mountains around Seoul, both seem to involve roughly the same amount of drinking.)  It was with great foreboding (and a certain amount of grudging respect) that MsCaroline watched the man in front of her put away enough whiskey - neat, mind you - to fell an ox. To the everlasting relief of MsC and her fellow travelers, though, he and the rest of his party managed to avoid puking or starting fights some of the more typically dramatic outcomes of such a high level of consumption, and drank themselves into a state of - if not complete insensibility - at least relative silence, by the 4th hour of the 5-hour flight.

The point here is that the AsiaVus were already somewhat short-tempered and crabby when they entered the arrival hall of Noi Bai airport and discovered what can best be described as 'a scrum' directly in front of the 'Visa On Arrival' booth, where it turned out that a massive Brazilian tour group had just arrived moments earlier and all of them were trying to fill out their VOA forms (Note:  MsC would like to point out that she had had the sheer dumb luck forethought to find the forms online and fill them out in advance, which put them well ahead of the Brazilians, none of whom seemed to have brought a pen with them to Hanoi, and were clearly becoming desperate.)

MrL -whose formative years in Manila had outfitted him superbly for this precise moment - plunged into the sea of humanity and elbowed worked his way purposefully toward the counter, where a torrent of people thronged around a dimly lit sign that stated, "Visa On Arrival."  Of course, it turned out that the end he'd  gone to was the wrong end of the kiosk (no signs, of course), so he fought his way back through the crowd and went to the right end of the counter, where he submitted the paperwork, necessitating a return to the other end of the counter, where the madding crowds still milled about in terrifying density, presumably still searching for pens.  Picking up the visas involved squeezing one's way through a glut of tourists moaning and pawing around the glass booth, which reminded MsCaroline a bit too vividly of the zombies in The Walking Dead.

Visas and luggage having been sorted, the AsiaVus headed out to find their driver, who was (thankfully) waiting exactly where he said he would be.  The 45-minute drive from the airport into the Old Quarter of Hanoi then proceeded as most such trips proceed in Southeast Asia:  the driver expertly weaving his way through a variety of vehicles (cyclos, motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, trucks, other cars) while keeping his hand permanently affixed to the horn at all times.

Keep your wits about you at all times.

 Now, MsCaroline realizes that there are major differences between many Western and Asian countries, and, for the most part, she continues to be amazed and impressed by the way people, cars, bikes, and animals all manage to share such limited space in a relatively peaceful way and with comparatively few casualties.  A huge player in this scenario is that fact that driving is, for the most part, much more of a fluid and interactive pastime than it is in the US, where we all just follow the rules as written and people get alarmed and incensed when anyone does even the slightest thing out of the ordinary.

Compare this to just about anywhere in Asia, where space is limited and a wide variety of people and vehicles must share fewer, often smaller, roads. Some of these circumstances are unique to Southeast Asia, while some of them apply across the region, even in modern, highly-technological Seoul, where you are unlikely to cross paths with livestock while driving, but still have every possibility of the car in front of you stopping abruptly in traffic and putting its flashers on for no apparent reason.    In every case, drivers must do their best to adapt to these circumstances, and in no way is this more obvious than in the difference in the way that Western and Eastern drivers use their horns. Should you be unfamiliar with these differences, MsCaroline has comprised a handy chart which travelers may wish to carry along on their next journey to the region:

In North America the honking of a horn can mean:
In Southeast Asia, the honking of a horn can mean: 
The light has changed.  Go.

The light has changed.  Go.
Hey! You very nearly caused an accident, you !@#$%^&*(!!!!!
The light has not changed.  Go.
I am waiting to pick you up in your driveway and am too lazy to get out of my car.
Move out of my way, I am going.  I do not care what color the light is.

Here I come, watch out.

I am about to pass you.

I am passing you.

I am passing you and you may or may not see me.

I have just passed you.

Move out of the way, goat/dog/cat/cow/horse/child/chicken, I am about to pass you.

I am passing you and you are drifting into my lane, because lane markers are more of a suggestion than a rule in this part of the world, so driving between the lines is not necessarily an expectation.

Just so you know, I am driving next to you.

(While waving)You should go around me, since I have stopped my vehicle in the middle of the street to do something and it is inconvenient for me to move at the moment.

I am driving quickly toward you on the sidewalk and you are in my way

I am parked on the sidewalk and trying to drive into traffic and you are in my way

I am about to drive onto the sidewalk and you are in my way.

You have the right-of-way in a pedestrian crosswalk, but I am driving anyway, so you might want to be aware that I am driving toward you and move more swiftly.

(Note:  Clearly, these are not the only possible meanings a horn can have, but these are the primary occurrences that MsC has noted in her recent travels.  It should also be noted that, 99% of the time, the honking in SE Asia is pleasant and good-humored, unlike in N. America, where it tends to be accompanied by a certain level of rage and impatience, and - if windows are down - can get quite shouty.)  
You name it - you saw one on the streets or on the sidewalks.
Everyone has to share the space.

An hour later, the AsiaVus were walking into their hotel rooms, no worse for the wear, and looking forward to exploring Hanoi in the morning.

Silent Sunday

So hard to believe I shot this on the busy Han River in the middle of Seoul. I love watching all the water birds, but the cranes are my favorites.  It's like a tiny, holy, moment whenever I catch a glimpse of one like this.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Expat Life: New Neighbors

The nosy dog is fascinated by the moving van (note mint sprouting in the pot - mojitos in our future...)

One of the facts of life overseas is the frequency with which people come and go.  Typically, the summer months are the times of biggest turnover, as they are in most places.  However, expat life being what it is, it's not really a surprise when people come and go at any time of year.  Back in December, our across-the-hall neighbors - a contentious older couple who kept to themselves (by 'kept to themselves,' I actually mean 'avoided human contact like the plague') moved out.  Since then, we've been treated to a regular stream of workmen, realtors, and prospective buyers - but no new neighbors.  We actually haven't minded - the last couple displayed an alarming tendency to engage in heated discussion (by 'heated discussion' I mean 'domestic brawls') on their patio. This was bad enough if all our windows were open - which they are for at least half the year - but was even more unpleasant if MrL and I happened to be sitting on our patio right next door while it was taking place.

In any case, the apartment across the hall has been blessedly empty (and its patio correspondingly serene) for 4 months now, but our halcyon days may be coming to an end.

The first hint of this came when I tried to turn my car into the narrow street by my building this afternoon and found the entrance to our parking garage blocked by a moving van.

After circumnavigating the block and narrowly escaping death by taxi dodging a certain amount of traffic, I was able to get into the building and up to my own apartment, where I discovered that the moving van's hydraulic lift was positioned on the balcony next to mine.

If you, like me, have spent most of your adult life inhabiting one-or-two story suburban houses, then you will be just as interested as I was in how people get furniture into buildings with small stairwells and tiny elevators in a crowded metropolis. Or, possibly, you will not be. We were not actually present when our things were moved into our apartments in Korea, so I didn't get to see how it was done;  I've seen lifts moving furniture in and out of apartments in Seoul, but have never watched the process 'up close,' so this was an excellent opportunity. Anyway, the point is,  the Nosy Dog and I trotted ourselves out to our patio and -under the guise of watering my plants - unabashedly goggled at the Moving Guys and their Really Cool Truck and Lift Arrangement until we were treated to a view of exactly how they get the stuff up there:

MsCaroline thinks it would be really fun to ride on one of these things.
No signs of the new inhabitants yet, but there has been a great deal of Lego going up on the lift, so the likelihood seems high that we'll end up with a semi-normal family for neighbors instead of shrieking misanthropes (sounds like the name of a band, doesn't it?)

We'll see.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Expat Life: Musings of an Adult Third Culture Kid (TCK)

MsCaroline, adoring the baby chicks at the market in Bangkok.  This was (obviously) before Bird Flu.

Anyone who's read my sidebars (or just the headline on this blog) knows that MrL and I both grew up (more or less) overseas, and identify as TCKs (Third Culture Kids, or 'kids who have spent more time overseas than in their 'passport culture.')

Part of the fun of moving to Asia has been visiting places we lived as kids - not always so easy for TCKs to do - as well as enjoying some of the aspects of the culture that we remember so fondly (MsCaroline, for instance, has re-discovered just how much she loves anything made of sweet bean paste. Anything.)

Of course, as I've mentioned before, our kids are not typical TCKs.  While we did move several times thither and yon across the continental US, Sons#1 and #2 did not have to contend with any international moves until 2011, when we moved to Seoul.  Son#1, a recent high school graduate, delayed his University studies for a semester and enjoyed living abroad for 6 months before heading back to the US;  by the time we return to the US, he will undoubtedly be finished with his studies and living on his own.

While Son #1 spent his entire childhood in the USA, Son#2 moved to Seoul when he was just 14 and starting high school. While he's not exactly a TCK - at least not by his parents' standards -  by the time he leaves for Uni in the fall of 2015, he will have spent 4 years living overseas and attending an international school.

Like his parents, his high school experience has been one spent very interestingly - but far from typically for the average North American.  His teachers come from 6 countries;  his schoolmates, from at least a hundred.  His speech contains a mix of Canadian, British, and American terminology, (sprinkled liberally with Korean slang.)  When he says goodbye to his friends in the graduating class this year, they will be heading for universities on at least 5 continents.

It's not a typical sort of school experience;  in fact, it will undoubtedly set him apart for the rest of his life.  Not in a bad way, but in a way that will make him recognize other TCKs and international school students as 'kindred spirits' of a sort;  fellow travelers who've experienced a life outside the norm and who can't always identify with the shared cultural experiences of their fellow citizens.   Even all these years later, I found myself relating very strongly to this slideshow;  if you attended an international school, or your child does, I know you will be nodding your head in sympathy.  If you aren't, it's a great little insight into a world that's completely different - but, at the same time, maybe not so different at all.

 22 Signs You Were an International School Kid

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Silent Sunday

Expat Life: Weekend Trip to Kyoto

Cherry blossoms in front of the Yasaka Shrine.

If you have come to this post hoping to read an informative travel blog about the highlights of the scenic city of Kyoto, Japan, you have come to the wrong place, and MsCaroline is very sorry.  Allow her to, instead, direct you to Emma's delicious Kyoto posts at her blog, Bavarian Sojurn, where you can read some actual useful information about Kyoto and also drool at some of the most lovely photos on the Internets.

Those of you who are still hanging around here in the second paragraph will not be surprised that MsCaroline has been back from Kyoto for almost a week and actually only has a very few really useful observations to make about Kyoto, but plenty of other sorts of observations, which her readers have come to expect or at least, have resigned themselves to.

MsCaroline should point out up front that she and MrL have both taken on extra responsibilities at work since January (a good thing, careerwise, for both of them, but time-sucking) and have, correspondingly, far less time to do anything.  On top of that, Son#2 has a completely different holiday schedule than MsC, which means that the AsiaVus are limited to taking long weekend trips to places that aren't too far away and only when the stars align.  As a result, MsC has been doing a lot of slapdash, last-minute bookings involving late-night arrivals and late-night returns, which is fine for Son#2, who has the vigor of youth to sustain him, but which requires at least a week if not more a slightly longer recovery time for his parents.

Needless to say, with this sort of poor planning, things are less likely to work out as perfectly as MsCaroline would like.

For example, had MsCaroline realized what she was doing, she would never have booked a weekend trip to Kyoto at the peak of Cherry Blossom Season.  But let us not speak of that:  instead, let us speak of Japan (generally) and of Kyoto (more specifically,) the wonders that were seen and the things that were learned.

  • Cherry Blossom Season in Kyoto is Very Crowded:  As is the case in most of Asia, if there is something worth seeing, there will probably be a Chinese or Korean tour group there, seeing it with you:  if you are in Japan during Cherry Blossom Season, this will be magnified to a power of ten thousand. You will also be seeing that thing with all the Japanese citizens who decided to pop over to Kyoto for a day trip.  Not to worry, though:  everything is very efficient and well-organized, so you'll get to see all the sights  - for example, Kinkaju-ji (the Golden Palace):
    The Golden Palace, looking serene and peaceful.

Which is quite lovely and remarkable, if you can mentally shut out the rest of the crowd around you:

Mass humanity, photographing the peace and serenity of the Golden Palace.  

Woe betide you if you ruin my perfect palace shot.

  • Foreigners do not pay taxes on Japanese electronics:  Needless to say, MrL and #2 were in their element in the enormous electronics market right near Kyoto station, where a rainy afternoon was spent stimulating the local economy:
MsC did not buy these, but thought they were fabulous.

#2, coveting the fur-lined headphones
MsC is sad to say that they decided against buying the super-duper electronic head massager (not sure it would work without a transformer back home) but each one enjoyed it in his or her own way:

#2's response:   Hmmm....very interesting sensation.

MrL:  scintillating!

MsC:  Uhhhhhhhhh
  • In Japan, the kimono is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.  This is different from Korea, where one tends only to see people in Hanbok during holidays or at weddings.  In Japan, they seem to be virtually everywhere - on the streets, in the malls, on the bus, etc.  Sometimes, it seems perfectly suitable to the occasion, such as a shrine or a temple:

In other cases - such as this bank of vending machines - it seems like something out of a time-travel novel.

  • Crowds or no, some of the shrines and temples were incredible:  A particular favorite was Kiyomizu-dera, an ancient Buddhist temple built into a mountainside, which provides a breathtaking view of Kyoto.  Due to MsC's slightly scatterbrained  lack of planning, the AsiaVus arrived at this temple at approximately 5:30 in the evening and discovered an enormous queue snaking down the temple stairs and into the street in front of the temple.  Having puffed and sweated their way up the stteeeeeeeep approach to the temple, they were loath to leave without having seen it, so they settled in for a wait with mixed emotionsmostly hostile ones.  As it turned out, the reason for the queue was a fortunate one; during the spring and fall (prime foliage seasons), the temple grounds are illuminated at dusk, turning an already-impressive structure into something mystical and magical - and the AsiaVus, by dint of sheer luck, had arrived at the right place at the right time:

Looking down from the temple at the queue behind us

Dusk was falling as we entered- cherry blossoms everywhere.

Looking down as the lights come on over the mountainside

Reflections in the grotto