Friday, October 28, 2016

The World is My Playground – Erich

The Bard once wrote, “The play's the thing.” And I know he was talking about a theatrical performance and not jumping and running and climbing and sliding. But I'm going to purposefully misinterpret that quote right now and talk about play.

We visited a playground here in Sale, Victoria, Australia. And play, while universally enjoyed by children everywhere (and some adults as well), can have some differences.

First, you don't always see a peacock walking around in your playground.
What, you think this playground is just for people?
And sometimes a peacock has to show off.
Look at me! Look at me!
Sometimes on playgrounds you have competitions, right? Well, so do the peacocks.
Here's his rival
And why do they do it? All in the hopes that their women might notice them.
Unimpressed with the ostentation
On the run
Like the peacocks, I too must put on my courtship display to garner Alrica's attention. Here I am playing the xylophone to demonstrate my suitability for her.
I assure you, melodic sounds ensue
Actually the xylophone on the playground is unusual in the tones it produces. While it does have eight different notes that it can play, it does not make a major scale. I'm not sure what scale it produced.
Do re mi? That would be too easy.
There were other unusual sights on the playground. Instead of seesaws, there were these seats hung from a vertical that would bounce up and down.
Talk about verticality
The kids climbed into this spin capsule. It's kind of like the tea cups ride at an amusement park. You pull on the disc in the middle and the capsule spins around.
Not dizzy yet
You know the bouncy seats on a big metal spring. Often they look like race cars or frogs or other vehicles or animals. Well, the same was true here. There was a frog one and a turtle one. But there was also this: An echidna!
Go with what you know, right?
Educational sidenote: An echidna is also called a spiny anteater. It is one of the two species of monotremes.

Educational sidenote sidenote: A monotreme is an egg laying mammal.

Educational frontnote (because why should sides get all the notes): The other monotreme species is the platypus.

Another fun item at the playground that we don't see at home was this zip line.
Posing while zooming by. Isn't that multitasking?
You pull the seat uphill, hop on the seat, and zip line down to the other end.

One final, very cool, difference, but one that we did not personally enjoy: A swing designed for a wheelchair.
This is a great idea
Not everything was different than playgrounds in the United States. Similarities include: swings, spinners, mulch, and helicopter parents.

I've mentioned in other posts how in many countries parents let their kids have a lot more freedom to play in ways that could potentially hurt them. That's not meant as a bad thing, I think it's great. But here we witnessed total hovering. My kids were playing on a spinner. A small girl came to join them. No problem. But then said small girl's mother was way too worried about the spinner actually spinning while her little girl was on it. I can only imagine that for my kids (who were being very careful with the smaller ones) it did cut down on the fun of that particular piece of playground equipment.

I even got vetted! While we were there, a school group came. They were a prep class. This doesn't mean prep school like it would in the States. It means kindergarten. Anyway, this class of 5 and 6 year olds all in red shirts and red hats comes to play.

I'm standing in front of the big spinner where my kids are playing along with the smaller kids. I think this is what happened. Some of the chaperons of this school group were unhappy about some man they didn't know hanging out near their kids. So they sent one of the fathers who was chaperoning to come and question me. Though at first I didn't know it was an interrogation. I thought he was just being friendly.

“Your kids go to the school?” he asked me. I didn't know which school he was talking about, but I knew the answer was no, so I explained that my kids were homeschooled.

Then he asked if I lived around here. I explained I was visiting. He asked where I was from. I explained that and how we were traveling.

Finally, came the moment that he had a realization which caused me to have one too. At that moment, he noticed the two much bigger kids on the spinner with the kids in red. And he had his realization. “Oh, those are your children?”

“Yes” I answered. And that's when I realized that until that moment I was 'creep at the park' rather than 'good father allowing his children to enjoy play.' After that we had a very pleasant conversation about my family's trip and his ideas of great things to see in the area. Once the need for protection had passed, he was as friendly as could be.

After all, he recognized the need my children would have for play too. Everyone needs some play time. Again, in the somewhat misquoted words of the Bard: All the world's a playground and all the boys and girls (and some of the grown-ups) are merely players.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

My Second Marsupial - Syarra

With the squeaky beach and the wildlife I would call this a successful day!

After a two-hour drive we arrived at Wilsons Promontory (or as they call it here Wilsons Prom). Driving through Wilsons Prom was neat. We were driving by the wildlife walk when we saw emu standing in a pasture eating. So we decided to walk the path and hope to see more wildlife.

Our hope was answered when in the distance we saw kangaroo. After walking on the path, getting lost, looping back, and continuing on the path we arrived at a field. In the distance was a single kangaroo standing like a statue. I don’t think that it had a joey but at that distance we could not tell. Then another, 2, three more arrived. A whole troop of kangaroo ran 150 feet in front of us. Some had joeys some didn’t. With our video camera we zoomed in and got a picture of a joey. The kangaroos were amazing. Hopping with heavy joeys must be hard, wouldn’t you think so? Well I think so.

Anyway then we left so we could continue to squeaky beach. The sand does squeak! It was fun even though the water was too cold to play in. There were big rocks to climb and we enjoyed it. 

On the way out we met with some people going to have fun at the beach. They were very friendly and it was interesting to talk to someone who lives in Melbourne. All in all, today was a good day in which I met my second marsupial!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Koala sits in an old gum tree - Alrica

We arrived onto our fifth continent last week at the start of a three-day rain storm. We are housesitting for a friend at their lovely home in Sale, Australia and after five weeks with spotty internet in Vietnam, three days was just about right to get caught up on our research projects, homeschool, and just bond with our friend’s dog and relax. Monday morning arrived with sunshine and blue skies and it was time to explore. We headed about an hour and a half east to a place called Raymond Island with the hopes of our first marsupial sighting. We weren’t disappointed.

Syarra with our new friend Pepsi!
The drive out was lovely and it was really fun to get back in a car after many months of public transportation. There is just a different level of freedom. And the road was quiet and peaceful which was a nice change from the constant noise and congestion in streets in Southeast Asia. Arriving into the quiet town of Paynesville, we followed the signs to the ferry landing where we parked the car and walked over to the ferry. We have done ferries before but this one was a bit different. For one thing, it only travels about 200 meters or 660 feet. This ferry is also a chain ferry meaning that it uses a chain as a guide to get it from one landing to another. Also, we didn’t actually recognize it as a ferry at first. It seemed to be just an extension of road since it was there when we got there. Cars just pulled onto it and parked and then waited until it crossed before pulling off. There was a small waiting room for pedestrians on the side and we liked that pedestrians were free.  We sat and enjoyed the cool air and the clean waters with birds swooping in to catch fish. Ten minutes later, we disembarked.
Ferry coming in to dock.
Prices are perfect if you are willing to walk.
Pedestrian waiting room.

Raymond Island is known for koala bears that were introduced/cultivated in 1953. The island is well covered with eucalyptus trees, otherwise known as gum trees, and hiding amidst this flora are around 600 koala bears. We saw our first one within moments of stepping off the ferry. It was way up in the tree tops so we didn’t get a great view. The kids had already made a beeline for the park across the street. We joined them and were excited to see this one:
This guy was just a few feet away from us.
We played Where's Waldo to find this guy in the upper right corner.

After watching this guy for a while, we walked over to a picnic table and got out the sandwiches that we had brought along. Several birds hopped nearby looking for a handout but were disappointed. After finishing her lunch, Syarra went back to the playground equipment and called to us that our koala friend was now down out of the tree and crossing the street. We put our food down to see the koala walking bowlegged across the street. With our backs turned for just a moment, one of the magpies grabbed hold of Carver’s sandwich and tried to fly off. The sandwich weighed almost as much as the bird did and with both kids chasing it, it was bound to lose. It dropped the food and hopped away. Carver grabbed the sandwich but was disappointed to find that it was no longer edible. Well, lesson learned, don’t turn your back on these tricky birds.
He's the thief!
We put on jackets to ward off the cool weather and the mosquitos and followed the Koala Trail which lead us around the island. We saw several koalas, lots of gorgeous birds including eastern parrots and lorikeets - and even a few kookaburras, and several locals who were delightful to chat with. I have no doubt that we will do more of this kind of exploration while in Australia, but this was an ideal first outing. Stay tuned for more!
Hard to take a picture of these lorikeets but the colors were amazing!

The Grocery Store - Syarra

We are in Australia doing a house sit in a city two and a half hours from Melbourne. Yesterday we went to the grocery store. If you read our blog you would know how exciting the grocery store is, if you have not you can read these blog entries:

Chợ Bến Thành and Chợ Bà Chiểu - Carver 

In which the store had chicken feet and heads.

The Land of the Rising Fun – Erich 

In which there was octopus and Italian Lime Fanta.

Mall Adjusted – Erich

There was uterus.

Here the food and the types of food at home are alike and the experience is similar. The people speak English and where I find the most difference in food is in the snacks and spreads. You may have heard of Marmite from the UK and Vegemite from Australia, mixes with yeast extract as well as other things, which in my opinion are not good.

There were many types of tuna in the grocery store: Smoked, in Thai red curry, tomato and onion, seeded mustard, sweet chilli, in spring water and olive oil, mayonnaise and corn, lemon pepper (and of course regular tuna)
Eight weird kinds!

 Also there are good snacks like chips and candy.

Interesting flavors of chips

Totally new

A different Cadbury

Though there are no particularly special things, We got normal things particularly good. The yogurt is local and amazing. We got an apple rhubarb twist and a raspberry coconut twist, it was so good we went back and got toffee honeycomb twist
Yum Yum

The Squash (or as they call it Cordial) is a concentrated liquid so that when it is added with water it produces a drink. Here it is particularly good, we bought raspberry and lemon flavored cordial. When we got home I tried them mixed together and it produced a delicious raspberry lemonade.
The store brand is amazing!

This our experience with the grocery store. And it was made easier by everyone speaking the same language.

Master Craftsman - Alrica

Before we close out our trip to Vietnam, I wanted to share with you some reflections on craftsman. As we travel around the world carrying all of our stuff, we can't really afford to add to it so I get to look longingly at the amazingly artistic works in the bazaars and medinas but rarely get the fun of haggling for and buying stuff. Occasionally, I do get to buy something like in Malaysia where I was starting to really need a new shirt and picked up a gorgeous batik painted shirt. Batik is a craft where melted wax is applied to cloth in gorgeous designs. The cloth is then dyed and the wax is peeled away to reveal the art. The shirt I purchased was fairly simple but lovely and comfortable.

Vietnam required a different kind of purchase. On our way there, one of the straps on our biggest backpacks snapped off. This was probably a $300 backpack and not easily replaceable but we started looking into it soon after arrival. We found smaller packs but they would require us to trim down our gear even further, not something that any of us were excited about. Sewing through heavy canvass and nylon straps was not something I intended to try with my simple needle and thread I had packed so we emptied the pack completely and went out looking for a tailor that might be willing to take it on.

As we walked through the streets of district one in Ho Chi Minh City, we passed by a group of guys sitting on the sidewalk repairing shoes. Seemed like it might not be too much of a stretch so we presented them with this challenge in our limited Vietnamese and lots of hand signals. They grasped the problem immediately and started to work on it. Using a knife and some sort of metal tool with an eye in the point, they cut off a piece of unneeded strap, replaced the broken piece, sewed it all back together, and finished their work so that it looked as good as new. The entire process took about 10 minutes and cost us 50,000VND - about $2.10. It is hard to express my appreciation for this craftsman that took a problem that could have been a major issue for us and fixed it. The pride that he took in his work reminded me of the value that craftsman across the world bring to us, whether they be making woodwork in Morocco or fixing shoes in Vietnam.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Familiar Again – Erich

Remember in school you had to do these compare and contrast essays. You were given two items, maybe two books or two characters in a book or something more esoteric like a pair of pliers and a can of tuna. Then you had to write about how they were the same (both a can of tuna and pliers have metal components) and how they were different (gosh, I can't think of any differences.)

Those were not my favorite writing assignments, but maybe they were yours. That would be a contrast. But my goal here is not to give anyone a writing assignment.

Instead I am reminded of compare and contrast because of our arrival in our fifth continent: Oceania. We are now in Australia. And I am noticing so many comparisons to our own home due to the contrasts to where we just were.

We were last in Southeast Asia. We spent time in Thailand, then Malaysia, and then Vietnam. After a few months in the tropics, coming to the southern side of Australia is a huge change. Well, a huge change from Southeast Asia. But in some ways it is a change back to the more familiar. Australia, thus far, is so much more like the United States.

We haven't been here long, but here are some of the things I noted right away. First, climate. We went from the tropics back to a temperate zone. Not only that, where we are is at latitude 38° south. Where we last lived in the U.S. was at 40° north. So not only is it similar in temperature, the day length is familiar again. Though I do have to remember that this is spring, not autumn.

And spring is a glorious time. We are in the state Victoria. There are rolling hills covered in green. There are farms around. There are some smallish mountains in the distance. In many ways, it could be Pennsylvania. Plus, it is nice to be cold, not frigidly cold, but cool. You could almost forget that it ever drops below 20°. (Below 20° you cry. I'm speaking in Celsius. That's 68° in Fahrenheit.)

You drive on the left here, which was also true in Malaysia and Thailand. (However, in Vietnam they drive on the right as we do in the States.)

Let's get a bit scatological. In public restrooms in Southeast Asia they have some stalls with the Western toilets (the kind we use) and some with Eater toilets (the kind used there.) This is actually very nice that they have Western toilets at all. But another big difference is in washing your hands. Usually, no matter how many sinks a restroom has, there is only one soap dispenser. So if you are at a sink far from it, you must make a trek and push your past other men to get to it. Then when it comes time to dry your hands, there is only one hand dryer. (There are never any paper towels. They are big into conservation.) So either you wait or you say that's what you wear shorts for and just dry your hands there.

Not so in Australia. Here there are only Western toilets. There are soap dispensers over all the sinks. There are multiple hand dryers and, lo and behold, paper towel dispensers.

Another change is hot water. In Southeast Asia, the only place there is hot water in the house is the shower. And you have to switch it on before you take a shower and switch it off when you are done. No hot water in the kitchen or bathroom sinks. Not even going into the clothes washer. In Australia, hot water is in all the places we would expect it, sinks, showers, and laundry.

The garbage is collected in a bin (a garbage can) and taken to the curb once a week for early morning collection. Like home! As for Southeast Asia, I don't know. We rarely saw a few individual houses, but we always lived in large apartment buildings. In those, you brought your trash to a trash room (though of course it is rubbish in a rubbish room). And then somehow it got collected from there and brought out of the building.

Here's one that I cannot yet explain, though I have a conjecture: Seagulls. In the States and also in Europe and also in Africa if we were anywhere remotely nearish the ocean we would see seagulls. But in Thailand we never saw any. Even when we were in Krabi, at the beach, no seagulls. And none in Malaysia. And none in Vietnam. But within a few minutes of leaving the airport in Melbourne, Australia, I spotted a seagull flying overhead.

Why no seagulls in Southeast Asia? My best guess is they must migrate. Maybe they don't like to hang in the hot, wet tropics during the rainy season. Maybe some seagulls migrate that way in November or December, after the rains end and when it gets colder where we usually see them. We'll be back in Bangkok in December, so I will keep a look out for them then, see if I can get any evidence in favor of or contradictory to my conjecture.

Oh! Right! And English! They speak English in Australia. Of course, everyone knew that. It's not a surprise. But boy, does it make everything easier.

Yes, there are a few differences between American English and Australian English (and British English and South African English if you want to get into the details.) But I won't get into all of those now. Maybe I will later. In a compare and contrast essay.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Cooking Vietnamese Style - Alrica

Our strategy when we arrive in a new country is to eat out for the first few days to get a sense of the local flavors and cuisines before hitting the grocery store where we will hopefully, at that point, recognize some of the food choices. After spending the last month in Malaysia where spicy foods reign, we were excited to try all sorts of new flavor combinations that didn’t set our mouths on fire. Particularly interesting was Pho Bo, a beef noodle soup that comes to Vietnam from the northern part of the country. The traditional process is to spend about four hours making it, straining it over and over to make a clear broth that then has noodles, beef, and vegetables added to it. The most surprising thing is that this savory soup is flavored with cinnamon, anise, ginger, and cardamom. This is something that I wanted to learn to make.

So off we went to a Vietnamese cooking class. We chose one given by the Vietnam Cookery Center in Ho Chi Minh City based on the recipes being taught and their positive reviews. Since we had discovered very few people here spoke English, I was particularly excited to see reviews that mentioned how understandable the staff was. Cooking classes in this area seem to arrange their classes by menus offered each day and the particular class I wanted included Pho Bo, Green Spring Rolls with dipping sauce, and sautéed chicken with spicy and sweet basil sauce. Plus it included a market tour. Since Erich’s parents were joining us for three out of our five weeks in Vietnam, we were excited to share this with them.

Bright and early Wednesday morning we took the shuttle into District 1 and walked from there to the Ben Thanh Market. We had been to another market that was a much more local market and the differences were pretty stark.  Ben Thanh is clearly a tourist’s market, complete with lots of foreigners, sales people who spoke at least some English, and prices to match. However, we were met there by our guide who spoke beautiful English and walked us through, explaining everything, and we were happy to find that our group of six would be the whole class. We hit the fruits and vegetables first where she cleared up our confusion about different varieties of Mango (there are over 200), explained that the weird bumpy cucumber thing was called bittermelon and could be used in stir-fries, and had us smell or taste easily 20 different herbs and greens while explaining how to recognize and use them. Then we went into the meat section where we learned the proper way to cook lungs, heart, and other internal organs (slice them thinly and cook in a bit of oil and sauce) and headed into the seafood area. Since Ho Chi Minh City is near the ocean, it is well supplied with shrimp, fish, octopus, snails, and other sealife, though we were warned away from salmon as it is imported and very expensive.

We then caught a taxi back to the fifth floor cooking center where we were given tea and sugared ginger and left in the capable hands of Linh, our chef, and her helpers. The cooking tables were set with individual burners and little cups of spices that we would be using for our recipes. After introductions, we began marinating our chicken in a clay pot and then turned our attention to our shrimp and pork spring rolls. The spring rolls were an exercise in fine motor skills as we took the mustard leaves, filled them with noodles, egg, pork, and shrimp, rolled them up and tied them with a spring onion.  These are then dipped into a mix of sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, and garlic. They were delicious and fresh tasting!


Then came the soup. Linh had started ours early that morning since the broth needs to cook for at least four hours. She started with a chunk of thigh bone and since we didn’t get to see it before, she started a new one. The bone was put in warm water with a bit of salt and lemon juice and we got to watch the blood leech out and the bone whiten. Then it came time to season it. A tray was brought out with whole spices on it. The cinnamon wasn’t anything that we recognized as it was still attached to the bark (the cinnamon is actually on the inside of the bark). The cardamom was a whole nut with little seeds inside. These, along with star anise, were broken up into small pieces (nothing was thrown out), and cooked in a dry pan along with some whole cloves. The smell was amazing. Once everything was toasted, they were put in a basket like an oversized tea strainer and dropped in the soup to be lifted out later. We then piled ginger, onion, and shallots onto a wire mesh and cooked them directly over an open flame. When they were blackened, the outsides were peeled and the insides were washed and dropped into the soup.

While the soup finished cooking, we cooked our chicken in the clay pot and got ready to enjoy our lunch. We were taught to fill a wire mesh dipper with precooked noodles and bean sprouts and dip them into hot water for just a few seconds before dumping them in a bowl. Then slices of beef were added to this along with onion and soup stock poured on top. I had heard that olfactory senses retain the strongest memories and this is one of those aromas that will now instantly bring back memories of the humid breezes and fun we had that day.

In addition to the chicken and soup, Linh brought out a tapioca dessert that was filled with interesting textures and flavors, nobody’s favorite, but a great way to cap off a day of new tastes and experiences. We all loved that not only did we learn new recipes and cooking techniques but that we learned so much about Vietnamese culture and had a wonderful day together.

Reflections – Joni (Guest Blogger)

For the past three weeks, Erich's parents, Joni and Morrey have been visiting us in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. These are Joni's reflections on the time here.

As our three weeks come to a close, I reflect on one very awesome experience. It began with a looonnnggg flight and then an evening in a lovely hotel near the airport. They served one incredible free breakfast which included omelets made to order, fresh fruits previously unknown to us foreigners, egg rolls and other appetizers, and cereals and much more. Then a longer than necessary Uber ride to where our kids were staying as the people at the hotel who kindly helped us order put in an incorrect address. As we knew we were close but lost, we called Erich and he had the people at the apartment complex speak to the driver and tell him how to get there. We were quite close so a few minutes later, we were there. And one of the best parts of the trip---the long awaited best hugs and kisses ever. Boy, did we miss that family and, boy, was it great to see them and hold them again.

Being in Vietnam has been a great experience. Most places people do not speak English but all are super sweet and nice and as helpful as possible. The area we are in and the shuttle ride to the downtown area is interesting in that you will see lovely places such as this apartment complex and right next to or sometimes in front of them you will see an area that we would refer to as a slum. Along the road there are many little shops and the electrical wiring to them looks like a mass of tangled lines that culminate in a mammoth birds nest look of jumbled wires. We want to know how they would ever find the bad one if they had a problem

The other shuttle destination is to a much more upscale area. The housing and the surrounding area are sans surrounding slums and appear to be a much more affluent neighborhood. The stops include an area with an entire housing community and loads of restaurants and shops. We found a great pizza restaurant there. The other stop is a mall very upscale with an enormous food court and a huge grocery store with fabulous selection. Our family goes equipped with back packs and loads them with the grocery purchases for easy home delivery.

We have had outings. We all went to a cooking school that was really fun. It started with a stop at the local market to show us many different varieties of fruits, vegetables, meats, noodles, a good education in local products. Then off to school. The chef was a woman, Linh, or Lynn, if you prefer the American spelling, both pronounced the same, who spoke perfect English and explained everything easily. We watched her explain the preparation of pho bo, the main dish around here, which is a sort of beef noodle soup but can pretty much be a meal in itself. We made spring rolls with shrimp and learned to wrap and tie them together. We also made a chicken dish where we marinated our chicken in a clay pot then cooked over an open flame. Everything was delicious. Dessert was what she called tapioca. It was like no tapioca I had ever eaten. Not at all my favorite. Some of us thought it was okay. They could have my share.

We also went to a war museum. Part of the display was the tiger cages and explanations of many various means of torture used on the prisoners. It was very uncomfortable and embarrassing to think that we were a party to that. It upset Syarra to tears and made all of us feel ashamed to be standing there as obvious Americans. I'm sure the local citizens were not looking at us with as much contempt as we felt for ourselves.

We also took a trip to the Mekong delta area. It was an amazing area where they grow many different varieties of fruits.

We took a boat ride and a sort or kayak/canoe ride, saw a bee apiary that made delicious honey from the longan fruit flower.

We sampled that fruit which is similar to a litchi. We went to a coconut plant that made candy, wine, rope, and it seemed like anything else you might want out of coconuts. I bought a great looking t-shirt size large that the woman knew would fit me. It now belongs to Syarra, my 10 year old granddaughter. So much for a size large. I guess in Vietnam I must be a size XXXL!

Then to top off our trip Morrey and I both got sick. We started with a cough, progressed to stuffy nose, then achy body and pure exhaustion. We slept all day one day then the next morning took the shuttle to downtown and went to a clinic. They spoke beautiful English and were very efficient. $523.00 American money later we left with a diagnosis of Influenza A, Tamiflu and fever medication. We came home, slept all day again with medication this time. The Tamiflu worked well and by the next day we were semi human. Two days into the meds and I was almost normal, Morrey always takes longer to get over things. Today I feel like a real person again and Morrey is almost there.

As our adventure is coming to a close we reflect on our wonderful experience and prepare ourselves for the terrible feelings of withdrawal we will get when giving those last hugs and kisses tomorrow. It has been a great treat being together and sharing a small piece of their wonderful adventure. We have a better understanding of the total experience they are getting with their world travels and we so admire and respect all that they have done this past year. As their adventure continues our memories of our part in it will carry us through until we hug and kiss them again next summer.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Cheese is Cheese – Erich

In order to make this post, I am going to use the power of a flashback. But I am going to use it recursively, meaning I am going to enter a flashback while in a flashback. It might be confusing, so hold on tight.

Entering flashback: Several years ago, while living in Pennsylvania, we had one of my coworkers, her husband, and her kids over for New Years. Unlike us, they were Pennsylvania born and bred. Well, as part of our appetizers that day, we brought out some cheese.

Entering flashback squared: Before we lived in Pennsylvania, we lived in Wisconsin. And one of the great things about the area we were in was the cheese. There was, about 40 minutes away, an incredible cheese making business called Hennings. You could go in the early morning and see them making cheese. Then you could buy fresh cheese curd, still warm. You could buy their aged cheddar available in multiple ages such as 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, and so on up to like 15 years. You could buy fresh colby or aged colby which tasted completely different. Alrica prefers it fresh, I prefer it aged. This led to many arguments. But that was a minor problem for such good cheese.

You can also order cheese from Hennings and they will send it to you. So while we lived in Pennsylvania, we did occasionally order cheese. But only in the winter, because if it was too warm out, the cheese wasn't so good by the time it arrived. It was partly melted.

Back to only one layer of flashback: The cheese I brought out was from Hennings in Wisconsin. And I was explaining to our guests that it was great cheese. To this, the husband of my coworker quipped, “Cheese is cheese.”

Now as a mathematician, I am a big fan of the Reflexive Property. Big fan! It states that x = x. A property of equality is that any number (or more broadly any element of the group, ring, set, etc. that we are studying) equals itself. But though my coworker was a fellow math enthusiast, her husband was not. And I don't think he was making a statement in support of the Reflexive Property. Though maybe he was a closet fan of that fine proposition, I certainly hope so.

Instead, he was stating somewhat sarcastically that no cheese was any better than any other cheese. You tasted one, you tasted 'em all.

Really? About cheese? I mean if you wanted to make the argument that Coke is Coke, I could agree. I've been in many countries now, and Coke tastes the same everywhere. Interestingly, that isn't true of all pop. For example, Fanta Orange and Mountain Dew do not have the same flavor in all countries.

But cheese? Even in one grocery store you find a couple dozen varieties of cheese, and each has its distinct flavor. Did he really believe that cheese from Wisconsin was no different than cheese from Pennsylvania? What about cheese from France? Or Greece? Or Turkey? In Turkey, they have a cheese called Beyaz Peynir that I had never seen or heard of before arriving there.

So just as one cannot, in my opinion, say cheese is cheese, one also cannot say that pizza is pizza. (No offense to the beloved Reflexive Property.) Pizza is perhaps an Italian specialty or perhaps it is truly American. But it is not the same the world over.

Did you know that seafood pizza is big! Not so much in the United States. But internationally, we see lots of places with pizza that has toppings like clams, squid, mussels, and shrimp. Hawaiian pizza with ham and pineapple is everywhere. Though in Muslim countries, the ham is either made from turkey or just missing from the pizza as they do not serve pork. Taco pizza on the other hand is something I have rarely seen outside of the U.S. (or really even outside of the Midwest.) Though I haven't tried pizza in Mexico, maybe it's big there.

This may sound unbelievable, but here in Vietnam, I may have eaten the best pizza I have ever had. I know, crazy! Who would think you have to go to Vietnam to get incredible pizza? But we enjoyed pizza at a place called Red Tomato in Ho Chi Minh City. The crust is delicious, both their thin crust (which is quite thin) and their pan crust. They do have Hawaiian Pizza, because everyone does, right? But they also have topping combinations we do not. The sauces go beyond tomato, even though that is their name. Maybe that's irony.

My point is that you may think it's all the same or even that you have had the best. But you probably haven't had the best. There could always be better out there, somewhere, even somewhere you might not expect. I didn't expect my favorite pizza to be in Vietnam. And maybe that's not even the best. There are still many pizzerias in the world I have yet to explore.

In Portugal, Alrica, Carver, and Syarra declared that they had found the best ice cream ever. In Morocco we discovered the best orange juice ever. And I would have never guessed that a 7-11 convenience store in Japan was the place to get the best corn dogs ever.

The world is a surprising place. So don't dismiss the possibility of discovering something better than you've known before. Because even though I firmly hold to the bold statement that x = x, cheese can be much more than cheese.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Hidden in Translation – Erich

I can only imagine that traveling a decade ago would have been much harder than it is today. There is so much technology that makes it easier and more convenient now.

One such piece of technology is translation software. We, for example, use Google Translate on our cell phones. It's great when you need to find rubbing alcohol or ask for bus tickets. But it does have its limitations.

Say you want to tell someone you have a cold. Well, the translator can give you a word for cold. You can even check for alternative translations. And they even tell you if they are nouns or adjectives. (They also tell you which are verbs, adverbs, conjunctions, and so on, but you don't get a lot of these when translating “cold.”) But how do you know which noun “cold” means the one that makes your nose run rather than the one that makes you shiver?

I have also been using technology to learn Vietnamese. I'm not master of the language, but I have learned a few things. The most important thing to know in any language is thank you (cm ơn). You say it all the time. Perhaps next most important is hello (xin chào) and then excuse me/sorry (xin li.) Excuse me and sorry are the same phrase in Vietnamese, and we've found that to be the case in several languages. Finally, being able to say the numbers is very useful for buying things and figuring out how much you owe.

But I know more than that. I have learned many useful things like verbs for “know” (biết,) “understand” (hiếu,) “go” (đi,) and others. I have also learned several useless words like “ferris wheel” (đu quay) or “dragonfly” (con chun chun) which are not going to come up in conversations here.

Yesterday, I had a chance to enjoy something on a new level because I know a little Vietnamese: subtitles. Several Vietnamese television stations play American movies. Some are dubbed, but most are played in English, but with Vietnamese subtitles. Last night Alrica found a movie on one of them called “Spy” with Melissa McCarthy. I wasn't even aware of the existence of this movie before last night, but we watched it.

It was fascinating! Not the movie itself, though it was fine. What was fascinating was the language. First, even though the movie is in English, they still blanked out all of the curse words. (And that movie had plenty to blank out.) It was actually a bit jarring. In America, sometimes you see a movie on television with curse words and someone has overdubbed the “bad words” with some other word that sounds similar and bad, but isn't the unacceptable one. How many times have I heard about “fracking” in movies that have nothing to do with drilling into the earth? Here, there was just a moment of silence each time a curse word was spoken.

Except once, where whoever was in charge of the pregnant pauses must have missed one. Someone used a word that would be the -ing form of defecation, and that apparently got by the censor.

Also fascinating to watch was the subtitles. Because where those words occurred, they didn't leave gaps in the translation. They just bowdlerized them. For example, America's favorite curse word becomes an expression of a desire to sleep combined with with.

Not only that, but Vietnamese subtitles seem to have fewer synonyms. I noticed that the phrase I learned for perfect (hoàn hảo) was used for “perfect”, and “scrumptious” when describing how someone looked, and “incredible” in describing someone's battle prowess after the climactic fight scene.

It was a fascinating experience to watch both the movies and the words at the bottom. I can't say I knew them all, but I knew some. And that made it fun on a new level.

And if you don't agree, well, that's just cold! Though it's unclear whether I mean you are rudely indifferent or that I need a jacket.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Chợ Bến Thành and Chợ Bà Chiểu - Carver

In Vietnamese, chợ means market. And we have gone to two markets now, Bến Thành and Bà Chiểu. Chợ Bến Thành is in the center of the city. The big bus stop is there. It is designed for tourists. Everyone there speaks English. And the mangoes cost twice as much as they would at the grocery store. In fact, everything costs more. But it's aimed at tourists. Tourists can afford it and it is more convenient. They are paying for the central location and the English-speaking merchants. It also has a roof and motorcycles don't drive through it.

But then there is Chợ Bà Chiểu. It is a 45-minute walk from the center of the city. It is for the locals. Few people there speak English. And the mangoes are very good prices (when I talk about the prices of mangoes, that is just one item for comparison.) Only parts have a roof and many parts are on the streets and motorcycles drive through the market. And while it was more crowded, it was also more authentic.

Now you have heard about the markets. But there is more to hear about. We are living in The Eastern Apartments. And yes, they are east of the city. There is a shuttle into the city and a shuttle into a different suburb of Ho Chi Minh City. But the shuttle into the city goes to the Diamond Plaza, a mall. It also stops at a different mall and department store on the way. Diamond Plaza is across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral, a big cathedral built by the French. Across the street from that is the Main Post Office. It was also built by the French. Now it is a tourist site but you can still handle any postal needs there. And Chợ Bến Thành is a 15-minute walk from the Diamond Plaza.
Notre Dame Cathedral, but much smaller than the one in France

The Saigon Post Office

Most of these people are probably not mailing things
 Also, no one has talked about the grocery stores here. For all you know, we are withering away into skeletons. But don't worry. I am not withering away from starvation. We have six grocery stores. To understand three of them, you need to know something very different and interesting. There are two towers in the Eastern. We live in one. And at the bottom of both towers are shops. Some are convenience stores, some are restaurants, there is even a kindergarten. In our base, there are two convenience stores. In the other tower’s base is a much bigger convenience store. The mall that the shuttle that goes into the city stops at is called the Parkson Cantavil. It has a grocery store in it. But the other shuttle goes and makes many stops in a certain neighborhood. That neighborhood has a place called the Sky Garden, similar to The Eastern. And at the base of the residential towers are many shops. There is a great pizza place there called the Red Tomato. But in the neighborhood are two malls, each one having a grocery store better than the one in the Parkson Cantavil. However, that bus does not come as frequently and is a longer ride. So for small, common things we go to the K-Mart, the convenience store in the other tower which is nothing like the K-Mart in the U.S. The K-Mart even has normal, refrigerated milk. But here they have UHT milk, which is milk that can be stored on a shelf until it is opened. The K-Mart doesn't carry it but the Z-Mart, one of the convenience stores in the base of our tower does. So if the K-Mart doesn't have milk, we go get the UHT milk from the Z-Mart. On bigger shopping trips, we go to the Parkson Cantavil. The shuttle that goes to the Diamond Plaza goes to the Parkson Cantavil, then to the department store, then to the Diamond Plaza, back to the department store, then to the Parkson Cantavil, and then back home. So we get off and then get the same shuttle back as it comes around again. But on even bigger trips, we go to the Sky Garden area with the bigger grocery stores. However, then we usually have to spend many hours.
When we butcher chicken in the U.S., where do the feet end up?

Or the heads?

Yesterday, we did the Mekong Delta and a couple days before that, we did the War Remnants Museum. And finally, I got a day of not going out today. It wasn't that I was tired, it was just that going out is stressful and we have been going out so much.

And one last picture to end the blog post

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Farmers in the Delta – Erich

Do you know the song “The Farmer in the Dell”? Cute song. Repetitive, additive, fun for kids. But there is a lot of taking in the song. The farmer takes a wife. The wife takes a child. The child takes a nurse and so on all the way down to the cheese. The cheese, in its own selfless way, takes nothing. It stands alone. And I never knew exactly what it means to say the cheese stands alone. But it's beside the point. The song is all about taking.

And in that vein, we recently took. We took a trip, a tour, if you will, of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong River is one of the longest rivers in Asia. It flows through seven countries: Tibet, China, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Here in Vietnam is where it flows to the sea. But as it nears the ocean, the river spreads out into an alluvial plain.

An alluvial plain is a flatland where the river forks into many fingers that flow to the sea, what we call a delta. That's because the capital form of the Greek letter delta is shaped like a triangle, and that is the shape that the fingers of the river make. But the other great thing about an alluvial plain is the soil. The river, after traveling so far, has picked up many wonderful minerals and nutrients. And as it spreads out over the flatland and splits into fingers, it tends to deposit many of these. So alluvial plains are frequently great lands for growing food.

The Mekong River Delta is no exception. Farmers in the region grow rice, lots of rice. But they also grow many wonderful tropical fruits. We got to enjoy some firsthand. But I'll get to that.

First we boarded a bus in Ho Chi Minh City for the hour and a half ride down to the Mekong River. Our first stop was the Chùa Vĩnh Tráng.
I got pictures of this from all (actually three) sides, but I like this one the best.
Vĩnh Tráng means infinity. While chùa means temple, and this is an incredibly unusual Buddhist Temple. Why unusual? Well, the original temple was destroyed by termites. So a new temple was reconstructed in 1907. This was during the time that Vietnam was a French colony. So the temple has a fusion of design elements. The pitched roofs are similar to Chinese pagodas. The interiors are very Cambodian in style. And the exterior facades resemble a large French villa. A very unusual mix.

It doesn't exactly scream France, but it does have elements.
The garden outside the temple includes jasmine trees and their fragrance was strong and delightful. The gigantic statues of Buddha, standing, sitting, and sleeping were white, gleaming, and bold.
The clouds made a nice arch
That is one happy guy!
Not the most comfortable mattress, but he is beyond material concerns.
The interior was lavishly decorated, with not an inch of barren wall or ceiling left alone.
I love the mix of the modern and traditional elements here.
I wonder if we are allowed to beat this drum.
Apparently these are the rules. It's okay, I wasn't that hungry.
From the Chùa Vĩnh Tráng we rode in the bus to the boat dock.
We visited on a Sunday which is a popular day for the Vietnamese to go to the delta as well.
Here we got tickets for a motorboat to take us across the wide Mekong River. The boat was long and had a very loud engine, so we missed much of what our tour guide, Nia, was telling us while we crossed the river. But we learned plenty more when we reached the other side.
Welcome to Fantasy (well, Unicorn) Island
We landed on Unicorn Island. But in Southeast Asia, a unicorn is not a horse with a horn on its head. Their version of a unicorn is a creature whose lower body is that of a lion, upper body and head are those of a dragon, and who has an arm with a hand over a sphere. You frequently see statues of such creatures at Buddhist and Hindu temples in the area. (Though we didn't see one at Chùa Vĩnh Tráng.) We also didn't see any of those mythical creatures on the island, so I'm not sure how it got its name. Maybe they're nocturnal and we just missed them due to being there in the day.

First we visited a stop where we got to taste the honey collected on the island. About half of the island is dedicated to growing longan trees. A longan is a fruit with a thin peel and then a soft translucent white fruit inside. In the middle of the fruit is a large dark seed (that floats, as we would later see during our rowboat ride.) It is related to a lychee, if you know what that fruit is.

On Unicorn Island, they raise bees that get their nectar from the longan tree flower. The bees are much smaller than the honeybees we are used to in the United States, adapted to the tiny flowers of the longan tree.
Yeah, my wife touched that. Crazy brave (or just crazy.)
And the honey has a distinct flavor. I mean, it tastes and looks enough like honey that you would know it was honey. But it is a bit less viscous than the honey we are used to and has a flavor that differs from clover honey or wildflower honey in America. We got to see the bees in a hive. And they wanted someone from our group to touch the honeycomb (covered in bees) and taste the honey directly from the comb. First they asked Carver to do it and he was not going near that. Luckily, Alrica volunteered to “take one for the team”. She touched the honeycomb, was ignored by the bees, tasted the honey, and declared it “very good.”

We went from that stop to another area where we got to taste five fruits grown on the island. We were serenaded by locals while we ate. They sang songs in Vietnamese, though they closed with “If You're Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands” in English.

The five fruits, which we were told to eat in order, were: Pineapple, Mango (which was an interesting variety that was both sweet and sour), White Dragonfruit, Watermelon (and I admit, I did not partake in that one myself being less than a fan of all things melon), and Longan. We had tried all but the longan before. However, we figured out how to peel and eat the longan, because a fruit we have tried is rambutan. They're similar, not in appearance, but in form.

From there we walked to a dock, but not on the Mekong River itself. Throughout Unicorn Island, there are streams/canals that flow. They are natural streams, but people have dug them out to make them wider, so they sometimes call them canals. Here we boarded rowboats. They were thin like canoes and kayaks, but longer. We didn't have to do the rowing, we had local boatmen and boatwomen who took us about three kilometers.
Ready to row!
It was a beautiful view of the trees and the banks. In the middle it began to rain, lightly at first, but then with more vigor. No problem. Our boat owners had the pitched conical hats that natives where, one for each of us. And they had plastic sheeting to put around ourselves to keep dry-ish.
Traffic jam!
I'm not real down with selfies. Apparently the smiling idea is beyond me.
The dock where we left the rowboats was where the stream met the main river again. Here we re-boarded our motorboat. It took us to another area in the delta, one that our guide referred to colloquially as “Coconut Town”. In this area, not only do they grow coconut palms, but they use every part of the coconut for everything. The buildings are made of coconut palm wood. The roof of said buildings is made from dried coconut palm leaves. Utensils for eating and cooking are made of the wood. Cups are made from cast off husks of coconuts. Animal feed comes from the edible parts of the coconut not consumed by humans. Fertilizer is made from the leavings when the coconut milk and meat have been collected. The milk of young coconuts, which is sweet, is used as a beverage (which we got to enjoy on the boat trip to Coconut Town.) The milk of fully ripe coconuts, which is sour, is used for cooking. The coconut oil is used as a cosmetic. And the coconut meat, naturally, is used to make candy.

Candy? Yes, candy. We visited a coconut candy factory. There was a machine to remove the husks from the coconut. Then another machine shredded the coconut meat. This was placed into a large press to squeeze out the sweet sweet milk that is inside. (The remaining milkless pulp of the meat is fed to animals.) This sweet milk is cooked and stirred until it becomes thick. And then it is made into a chewy sticky candy, almost like caramels, but not caramel flavored.
They used to do this by hand. Happy technology!
There it is, ready to be cut and wrapped.
The candies were combined with other flavors as well, so you could get coconut candy with ginger flavor, or durian, or chocolate, or peanut, or pandan leaf, or just plain coconut.

Also at the candy factory, we had the opportunity to try snake wine. Snake wine is bizarre. There is a huge jar filled with dead snakes, geckos, scorpions, and ravens.
Yes, snake wine really is snake and much more. They should call it snake, et. al. wine.
Nia told us the snakes are skinned, but their venom is not removed because it is a necessary ingredient of the wine. I'm not sure where the original source of liquid or yeast is, but this jar definitely ferments. It smelled like wine.

Nia asked for volunteers to try the snake wine. Both Alrica and I tried a sip. It was strong, clear, and had a flavor I would be hard pressed to describe. It wasn't bad and certainly clears out your sinuses. Nia told us it is about 40% alcohol. And he insists that you can drink as much of it as you want and you won't get drunk, because it is medicinal. I can believe that the Vietnamese use it medicinally, but I didn't quite accept the “drink as much as you want and never get drunk” claim. Not that I did an experiment to find out if Nia was right or not, but I am skeptical.
We're either sweaty, rain-soaked, and tired or else the snake wine is kicking in. You make the call.
From Coconut Town we got on our boat again and rode to our last stop: a restaurant with a dock right on the river. Here we enjoyed a sumptuous lunch. We had spring rolls made from Elephant Ear Fish, and there was plenty of meat left on the fish to enjoy after you had eaten the spring rolls.
Apparently the uncooked fish looks like an elephant's ear.
In addition we had catfish in a thick and tasty gravy, a vegetable that looked and tasted a lot like green beans or string beans (and maybe it was exactly that), and a Vietnamese omelet with spring onion, garlic, soy sauce, sugar, and fish sauce. (Fish sauce is a big thing in Vietnam. Lots of cooking is done with it. It's made from tiny fish, like anchovies, that have been boiled for a long long time.)
Really? He's making us look at pictures of his lunch?
Dessert was watermelon. Again, I passed. But I had plenty of elephant ear, so I wasn't starving.
When all three generations have a good time, it's a win-win-win.
There was no dairy in the meal. Dairy generally isn't so common in Southeast Asia, though you see more of it in Vietnam because of the French influence. But we didn't see any dairy, not even a morsel of cheese, during our time with the farmers in the delta.

That's probably because the cheese was busy standing alone.