Our epic journey to Ho Chi Min City involved three planes; when you go from one communist country to another you can’t actually cross the border in very many places. And at each point the notion of Americans going from China to Vietnam stumped the passport people. Lonely Planet makes it seem like back packers do this all the time, but the Chinese did not get that memo when they confiscated all those guide books. The second plane advertised “gorgeous human origin intoxicant fertile jianshi; hand cream made with human placenta. They did not, I’m sorry to say, sell it on the plane.
I’ve never had such a complicated time getting out of a country; and that includes living in Slovakia in the early 90’s and traveling around Eastern Europe. At some point I really felt like a fleeing dissident and the insistent percussive rubber-stamping made an oppressive soundtrack. We flew through Kunming, which, when we arrived two months ago, felt like the exit to Lost... and this time seemed familiar. The temperature of 64 degrees made us all cold for the first time in two months. We then flew to Guangzho, another one of those cities of twenty four million that I had never heard of before. It felt like the biggest airport in the universe, and the golf carts are the size of Toyotas and zip through it faster than cars do on highways in Yunnan. It took us about an hour (55’ says my scientist husband, who timed it) to walk to our next gate, and the security at the customs/exit station was intense. My shifty eyes do not play well in a communist country, and a certain points I would not have been surprised if someone tossed us in a little white room for extra questions. Guangzho is a center of international commerce, and feels like one of those places with factories full of thousands of underaged girls that you read about in newspapers. And, delightfully, it’s an earthquake center. Sometimes it’s probably better not to google things. In any case we noticed an immense racial diversity. We have seen almost no white people anywhere in Yunnan and exactly one Black person who happens to be a Cameroonian grad student at the Garden. The kids explained all of this to us in the first two minutes of airport time. The real blow came when Jonathan realized he’d left his Kindle on flight number two and understandably collapsed in a puddle. Thanks to the big brother is watching you aspect of China they found it before we even took off from Guangzho, and we can get it on the way back. With spy cameras everywhere the things that get left places rarely to actually get stolen.
It also became very clear that had the five of us needed to escape a repressive regime and keep the Jewish people alive we would never have made it. Rebecca makes the worst possible escape; she looks around dreamily and takes on an almost aggressive and selective need to follow every rule, and then dreamily looks around some more. When I told her to cut underneath the rope to make our 10 mile hike to the customs agent quicker she put her hands on her hips and said loudly "but the sign says follow the arrows." Meanwhile half the time we saw a threatening looking guy in a uniform Eli had one of two stress responses; pretending to shoot him or refusing to walk. I’m sure the Vietnamese especially like to see little American boy shooting.
We finally arrived in HCMC at about 11:00 and had to get our visa; the visa agent promptly ripped off but at least we got in which is not true for the Russians on the plane with us or the Dutch guy who didn’t even get to leave China. When we got to the hotel at midnight the kids had to explore every nook and cranny of our rooms before going to sleep. Eli let out a huge yelp and announced "wow i've never seen a vacuum like that before...." The joint does come with hot water, bath, bath salts, slippers, robes, cartoon network, a pool with water in it etc... This morning I took the best shower I’ve taken since we left Charlottesville. They popped up at 6:30 ready to swim. Instead, we went to the breakfast buffet full of croissants, bread cheese, real yogourt etc... We were all kind of overwhelmed at first and probably could have sat there all day. In case you need reading material for elementary aged kids I recommend an English language communist propaganda newspaper delivered to your door; simple, clear politics and a good deal of rah rah. They loved it, read the whole thing wanted to know if we'd get another one tomorrow etc...
After croissants and coffee Manuel headed to the doctor to deal with the giant pussing oozng staph boil on his elbow. One of our fun family bonding actives has been draining boils and spending time sending gross pictures to doctors at home to decide what to do. Jonathan had a doozy on his chest and one of my love handles is now scarred from one on my hip—rude. The doctor in Ho Chi Minc city told Manuel that he sees this all the time with westerners who move to Asia. The boils, though not attractive are nothing to worry about, but we do need to rinse with some antiseptic soap. We can add this to the list of moments when I wish we had a doctor anywhere near us and to the list of things that someone who is supposedly shepherding us through the process of living in remote China might have shared. So none of us will meet our demise by boils, and we’ll have to do something other than lance boils for fun.
While Manuel went to the doctor, the kids and I headed out on the town. First we changed Yuen to Dong which got us funny looks. The exchange rate from Dong to Dollars is about 20,500 to a dollar, so it really does work like the old lira and it’s totally confusing me. I made Rebecca take charge of the map and for dealing with the traffic we developed a routine of holding hands and running across the street. Eli thinks he’s seeing motorcycle races. The green clad crossing guards sometimes sort of helped. They are not, however, dumb, and understand that it is best for them to wait for traffic to stop before stepping out to stop traffic. And the traffic works kind of like shock therapy for someone with an overzealous panic response to oncoming cars thanks to last springs SUV runin. We basically spent the morning as consumers doing exactly the things that in another life I would have scoffed at. Eli found a little wooden bicycle and Jonathan got a jumbo pack of Bakugans. Rebecca and I got fitted for new custom made dresses (about $20 each; silk for me and cotton for her). We also got cone hats, cookies, chocolate some of which we might well be able to buy on the down town mall in Charlottesvile. We found an English bookstore and purchased some gems there too.
To add to the excitement of the morning I looked at the proofs for an article and noted that the illustration is wrong. The analogy would be it say look at the pretty cat and instead you get a Philadelphia pretzel. I’m editing the journal issue so it’s my fault... So I sent my fabulous graduate student to find it. When it wasn’t at my house she tried to go to my office. But, oops, my office is not office anymore, my stuff is in boxes, and I don't even know where the new office lives. While working on this, my little internet trick stopped working, which spun me into a panic as I envisioned finishing out the summer without google, facebook, new york times, etc… I did get it work again this morning with some very complicated computer gymnastics--go me. So far, we are all loving it here and in fact it does feel refreshingly like Paris!