Saturday, November 17, 2007


Recently, in private correspondence I'm shamelessly exploiting here, international fantasy author James Maxey typed the following:

Keep me posted if you eat anything over there that makes you think, "Wow, I can't believe we don't sell this at every restaurant in America."

He included an example, food he'd recently discovered prompting just this thought. It got me thinking about dinner. Not so much about food itself as about how I tend to feel about it when I experience it. It isn't much of a stretch to imagine I'm going to order dishes here that are wildly beyond my previous experience. I can go on to imagine many of these dishes will be revelations. Still, at the time I read Mr. Maxey's email, I dismissed the sentiment as being rather alien to me. I could easily imagine food prepared so expertly, say, that it exceeded previous standards; but food is so entrenched within its relationship to culture, taste, and mise-en-place, that I couldn't readily imagine any item independent enough to answer any sentence so devoid of specificity. Three things: this does disservice to the tongue-in-cheek nature of the original comment. It also does disservice to food, which should occasionally thwart expectations. Lastly, it speaks to the arrogance by which I rate my own imagination: really, why wouldn't the specialists running every restaurant in America have already predicted something if I'm able to? It was with Mr. Maxey's request in mind that I sat at my very next dinner table, and he will not be disappointed. After a nice meal of sautéed squid and tomato new tofu soup, we were served a gratuity I'd welcome at the end of each remaining meal of my life: dried ginger chips dusted with confectioner's sugar beside cups of bitter, spicy ginger-infused black tea. [Cavin]

Friday, November 16, 2007


Responding to my recent note* about New Delhi deputy mayor Sawinder Singh Bajwa falling to his death during his own response to a band of attacking monkeys, a beloved reader sends in this New York Times follow up. The article is to-the-point about the burgeoning wild animal problems plaguing the Indian capital city. It will be a hard tide to turn: the Times cites India's rapid urbanization as acres of surrounding green spaces are devoured every year, prompting many monkeys to pick-up and move downtown. The article doesn't explicitly mention this, but bad municipal practices in lower-income areas make it easy for these monkeys to forage for food, fostering in turn their habituation with people and dispelling the usual fear with which wild animals regard human proximity. Possibly, the reverse is also true: people forget that wild animals are dangerous due to their growing boldness and frequency. The other reverse is certainly true: my intrepid reader chooses to reside in New York City rather than live in the constant strangling shadow of her own monkey fear, massively swollen proportionate to a New Yorker's distance from actual monkeys. Up till now I've calmly, ruthlessly, disregarded this fear as an irrational hysteria. But today my reader has convinced me, calling my attention to one terrifying passage from the linked article:

The lawyer charged by the High Court with ensuring the monkeys' removal said recently that things were as bad as ever, even in some leading hospitals. "They attack patients who are being rolled inside the hospital, pull out IV tubes and scamper off to drink the fluids" [...]

There's nothing quite creepier than this mental image of vampire macaques, beadily watchful from some dark purchase, swilling medical tubes of blood and chemical mutagens like candy, like... like nightmare Pixy Stix. [Cavin]

Thursday, November 15, 2007


The whole time I've been here in Ho Chi Minh City, waxing giddy about the rainfall we've been seeing, the central lowland areas of Vietnam have been enduring weekly thrashings under the brunt of this particularly vicious typhoon season.1 At home, it hadn't hardly rained in months; I'd been missing weather. I knew that October is the tail-end of southern Vietnam's six-month monsoon, which brings yearly rains. I thought these rains were normal. Maybe they are, but they've also been typhoons, one after another, blowing down Filipino towns to plow across the South China Sea. On December third, Typhoon Lekima diminished into a tropical storm as it made landfall on its way to Laos,2 shedding much of its weight. One hundred thousand homes were washed away in heavy flooding, scores of lives were lost. Since then, the region has seen frequent storms,3 and many affected areas--including cultural Huế and ancient Hội An, a UNESCO heritage city--are still under feet of water. Vietnam's central transit arteries are also flooded out; many tourists in towns along the narrow middle of the country are marooned. The US has pledged a million dollars in aid.4 There are already outbreaks of dengue fever and acute diarrhea, including cholera,5 attributable to these flooded tropics. Okay, okay. If this plight isn't bad enough, the locals in Khánh Hòa province have to worry about the crocs. Rising floodwaters damaged the enclosures at the nearby farm and hundreds of large freshwater crocodiles, raised for skins, have been loosed into nearby Cau River,6 the tributaries of which have now ostensibly extended to include many well-touristed city streets. Soldiers and rangers have been deployed to capture or kill as many enormous lizards as possible as news venues have relegated the whole disaster to their quirky items pages. [Cavin]

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Somewhere within the reams of Sunshine's work-related jargon, among mouthfuls of cryptic initials, anagrams, and stepped quantifiers, there exists an item called a tasker. I do not know what this is, but that's hardly important. I've been hostage to the wrong end of Harvard Business School enough to equate it with any number of quasi-articulated fad outcome format composites. It means as little to me as leading indicators, dashboard flashes, or cost-versus analyses, though I imagine taskers have more in common with action plans or a goal points. What does this have to do with geckos? Vietnam has many geckos. I thought there were a lot in Monterrey, but no. Once it's dark here, around five thirty, every random restaurant's lit signage hosts dozens, their silhouettes darting to and fro across photo advertisements for phở, bún, and Huế -style whatevers. Keep looking. There are geckos up and down the sides of light-colored cement buildings, lit by the green spots aimed at lush decorative sidewalk planters. I'm sure they're all over the dark buildings, too, just harder to verify there. They are certainly all over the sidewalk; and sometimes, while walking, I get the uncanny feeling that scratchy, erratic stuff is receding before me. The geckos here are greenish, not the martial tan of Mexican geckos, and seem to grow about six inches, nose to tail. They have no trouble standing upside down on the ceiling. Recently, Sunshine was surprised by a very small and spry gecko standing on the ceiling of our eleventh-floor closet. She named the lizard Tasker, a pretty good gecko name if you ask me. Since then, we've seen Tasker on the kitchen wall and behind the bathroom door. Or maybe these are different Taskers. This last time he seemed a bit curlier than before. [Cavin]

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


There are many interesting places nearby, and after running around DC all summer I've become patient enough to walk wherever I wish to go. Really it's because I can't take a cab, yet. Half the time, I don't know where things are, but I wouldn't know how to direct the driver if I did. Someday, there will be a lot more about cabs here, but for now I walk. While walking, it's important to keep my attention on several different things at once. Speeding traffic, for one--there will be much more about traffic here someday, too. For two: it is important to watch the sidewalk itself, as it's often riddled with interlocking bricks, slippery tile, roots, missing sewer covers, muddy furrows, oil puddles, or impromptu structures. These are unexpected things; the streets of Saigon are actually in pretty good shape. Among the expected: densely parked scooters, boiling soup, taut rope, elementary school, tiny plastic benches (red), the shoeshine man, and yet more speeding traffic. It's not unexpected to become interested discarded things, a benefit of cocking my attention here and there like a bird. Many discarded scraps look like cash, possibly because there's a funeral parlor nearby using some sort of lucky prayer money. Some of these look like US one-hundred-dollar bills, so maybe they're extra lucky. Or maybe these are unlucky lottery tickets. Whatever; I ignore them. I have a new policy of retrieving random playing cards, however. I see so many I've decided to play a game: Saigon Stud. Lê Thánh Tôn Street1 dealt me the deuce of hearts down near Ben Thanh Market2 today, so I guess I'm drawing for the flush, or maybe high-low. Someday, I might walk off with a large lucky money payoff! I'll keep updating my hand as it develops. [Cavin]

Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans Day

Happy Veterans Day! (or Armistice! or Remembrance! if you prefer). Our tradition of Veterans Day dates to the Great War, when fraternity with our European allies, and late troop involvement, made important for us that war's arbitrarily-chosen moment of ceasefire: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I am afraid this timing was chosen for its convenient and cool-sounding mnemonic rather than the moment peace accords were signed, and fighting continued after this ending was designed, if only to fulfill in aesthetic resonance. After World War II, Armistice Day was renamed in the US to memorialize all veterans of foreign wars, and the attributive (but not possessive) Veterans Day has been celebrated on the eleventh (or, from sixty- to seventy-eight, its closest Sunday) most years since. It is an official state and federal holiday in the United States, and government employees get a vacation day on the nearest Monday; though many schools and businesses do not close. Sunshine will be off work tomorrow. Owing to this country's place in US military history, as well as its place in the cultures of our friends and family members, this seems a profoundly apropos first holiday for us to celebrate at post in Vietnam. Typical observance is the following: two minutes of silence observed on the eleventh Parisian hour, the anniversary of 1918's oddly corrupt and impossibly mannered colonial ceasefire. Some places this silence ends in rounds of cannon fire. Time zones play tricks, of course: that's the seventeenth hour in Southeast Asia, five am in Washington, DC, and one pm in Baghdad. Generally, however, like sunrise, like lunchtime, like any relative labeling, the world celebrates at local eleven am, when I observed another hour and a half of silence, I suppose, because I was still asleep. [Cavin]

Sunday, November 11, 2007


I was fairly glib yesterday about my inability to make the wireless router to work with our ISP. If I cannot make this system work it will be a crushing blow to the family, I'm afraid. As it stands, Sunshine has to gather all her stuff, and come into my office to get online. She sits at the opposite side of my desk, running another data cable over my lap to the extra port in the DSL modem. This is not good for a girl who is writing a book; nor is it all that productive for me. I have to make a place at my desk for one thing, putting away either the external hard drive, for example, or the scanner. These things aren't actually on my desk yet, but my goal is to have room for them some day. Having Sunshine's cable running over my lap seems to make me sit up straighter, though. The reluctance the internet seems to be having flowing through the harmless wireless transmitter doesn't inspire my confidence that I'll be able to coax it to work successfully with my VONAGE modem, either. That hardware actually steals side signal from the provided bandwidth traveling between the wall and the DSL modem. If I cannot eventually get the VONAGE up and running, then it will seriously cramp my ability to ever talk with the western world. At something like a buck a minute, outbound long distance telephony is going to have to be pretty rare (though I guess I can buy the same phone cards I encourage others to get). I imagine all I really need to do is talk with the guy at the desk. Some upgrade must be in order: I know there are other wireless systems operating in the building. [Cavin]