Motorbikes, bubble tea, and monsoon rains have all become a part of our new normal here in Saigon, Vietnam. I can’t believe it has been two months since I first arrived here! It has been an odd mix of both slow and fast, from waiting through quarantine then jumping into my new job and everything that came after. We’ve had a wonderful time these past few weeks setting up house and settling into our new life here. Here are some of the highlights
At the beginning of September we had a day off of school for a local holiday. We joined some new friends at a fancy spa in our area for a day at the pool, and then went for dinner and some drinks in town.
While we were out that day I saw a family releasing fish into a lake. This is Buddist tradition that represents compassion and invites good karma.
I’ve had a fabulous time going to some different workshops over the past month. My friend Brianna and I attended a macrame workshop at a little tea house in our area where I finally learned the art of large-scale macrame by making a plant hanger. I’ve taken to this craft immediately and completed two more since then.
We also attended a candle making workshop. We learned about scents and waxes and mixed our own signature fragrance into our own candles.
Brianna and I also peeled ourselves out of bed early one Saturday to attend a traditional Vietnamese Opera. It was quite the experience trying to guess the storylines and adapting to the music.
We have wheels! One of Kim’s dreams has been to have a motorbike of her own to zip around town on so about two weeks ago we made it happen! Our new bike we are just renting for now. Some people rent the entire time they live here to make it easier for maintenance and repairs. We don’t have a plan at this point but are happy to just have a little red bike to take around town. So everyone, please meet Rizzo! On our first weekend of having her, we took her out around our area and ended up finding Kim's favorite Vietnamese breakfast dish:
A big part of this month has been in setting up our house. Our apartment came furnished so we haven’t had to buy many big items thankfully. But it was a big day when we got night side tables and lamps for the bedroom. There are so many little things that go into moving into a new space and I’ve been trying to be conscientious about what we are buying. I want to love every item in our home. I was surprised to discover that it is a big online ordering culture here. But somethings you just need to see in person. I was delighted to stumble upon this basket store while we were out adventuring the other day. It had the *perfect* laundry baskets that I was looking for.
I also might be a little obsessed with buying plants. All the plants. And gorgeous pots to put them in. The plant nurseries here are just endless jungles of greens. It feels like when I was adventuring through the Ecuadorian rainforest.
Speaking of adventuring, we’ve had a lovely time of it. Here are some spots we found while wandering around District 1 (the heart of the city)
And this past weekend we went to District 5 (chinatown), where we had hand-pulled noodles and found Bead Land. It is a small alleyway overflowing with beads, jewelry making supplies, every kind of thread/yarn/string/rope imaginable, and so much more! I am certain I will be needing to return to this area
One evening we were lucky enough to go on a mini-street-food tour with one of my colleagues. We tried a few different local dishes. I’ve been so impressed with the vegetarian options here! There are so many local vegetarian and vegan restaurants! It’s nice to be able to have vegetarian versions of the local dishes as well as some tasty fusion ones.
We’ve had more lovely gatherings with lovely people. Newbies brunches, double date nights, and even High Tea.
We went to the movie theater the other weekend and ended up in a "love cinema" where all of the seats were actually full sized beds! 🙈😂 We were the only ones in the theater at the time, not sure how I'd feel about what others would be getting up to 😬😉Don't worry, the mattress was plastic and looked very clean.
In other news, Kim got a badly needed haircut.
A few last snaps from the last few weeks.
It’s funny how quickly we adapt to changes. I feel so settled into this new life already. Sure, there are many areas to still sort out (like my home art studio) but in so many ways it all feels normal now. I’m deeply missing my friends from Istanbul and my family and friends back home but I'm glad to have found some fabulous people here in Saigon who are amazing additions to my expat family.
Most of the last two months have been filled with getting my feet under me at school. But one evening last month Kim and I went down to Ortakoy after school. This is the little neighborhood that is about 15 minutes walking from our apartment. We had to rush down because we needed to go to the bank, when we were finished we decided to take a stroll around the area. We wound up sitting near the Bosphorus snacking on some street food and sipping tea. We tried a new to us drink called salep. It is a milk and flour based hot beverage made of wild orchid powder from the roots of mountain orchids. I found this surprising since it tasted like my favorite winter flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg. It was a lovely evening and one of those moments that make me pause to breathe in awe of experiencing this place.
Our Tiny Apartment
I’ve been putting off sharing pictures of our apartment because I wanted to finish decorating it first but I feel like that process will be ongoing so I’ll share with you what we have so far. Ever since I got my first apartment when I was 17 my place has been kind of haphazardly put together. You know, the typical “college apartment” with hand-me-down furniture, pieces picked up from yard sales, posters taped to the wall, mixed-matched everything. Coming to Istanbul Kim and I had hopes of loving this place enough to call it home for longer than the length of my two year contract and I had dreams of a beautiful apartment. I was so very excited to come to Istanbul and have a new place where we could design intentionally. We could purchase furnishings that we absolutely loved, set-up a design that is both beautiful and functional, and have a place that is truly curated. Unfortunately when we arrived I realized that our blank canvas was actually a very small, dingy canvas. I sat on the sofa that first night with teary eyes seeing all my hopes going up in flames convincing myself that there was no way we could make this a place we loved. I was not happy and the apartment still stands as a low point in our move. Slowly, however, we’ve began adjusting and settling into our new place and pace of life. One by one we found furniture pieces and specific items focusing on a clean, open concept in order to keep as much room as possible. Despite my lack of a green thumb, plants bring me a lot of joy so I’ve been collecting many and am loving the way they make the space feel. It may be my new obsession because everytime we walk into the grocery store I can’t help by scope out the plant section which unlike America is composed of all potted plants rather than cut flowers. So I present to you our current work-in-progress abode, Casa Kim & Alisa:
The Prince Islands
Just before school started a few of us new teachers too a trip over to the Prince Islands. It is a small group of Islands just an hour ferry ride away from Istanbul. No cars or other motorized vehicles are allowed on the island so it is traditional to take a horse drawn carriage ride around the island. It was an adorable way to spend a day.
Fall Has Arrived
I hate the cold. You would think living in New England for the first 25 years of my life might have given me some greater adaptability to the cold but I always told people that the cold was the number one reason for me leaving New England. It’s not just the cold, it’s the darkness, and wetness, and not wanting to leave the bed because stepping on the floor feels like stepping on an iceberg. The cold is just miserable to me. When you leave for work at seven in the morning and it is dark out only to return home from work at five in the evening and it is still dark out, it is soul sucking. Hence the reason I spent the past three years living in the tropics. Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m not a fan of the heat either but I would much rather be sweating then shivering. I might have just stayed right there in the tropics if it weren’t for my wife who was melting away by the 100*+ days - see Kim is a true Mainer from the western mountains who wears shorts and flip flops long into the winter. So, as all the good married couples do, we compromised. Turkey is supposed to have very mild winters with an average of eleven days of snow a year in Istanbul. It (supposedly) rarely gets below 30* F. I can handle that I thought - silly silly past Alisa. It is 45*F today and it is freezing! The wind is blowing in from the water with that winter undercurrent and all I want to do is curl up in my bed, eat soup, and never some out again. A few weeks ago I grudgingly unpacked all of the sweaters that I salvaged out of my storage boxes in Maine this summer and I have been rationing them since - hoping to use them as sparingly and infrequently as possible. But the current temps have brought the sudden realization that I did not even bring a jacket. Looks like shopping will be in my future. On a positive note, the cold has inspired me to pick up my favorite winter craft - knitting.
Kim in France
While Kim was in France the US decided to stop allowing Turkish citizens to get US visas. Turkey, in response, did the same thing back to the US. Meaning that all visa services for US citizens were put on hold. (Read about it here) Luckily Kim already had a tourist visa that she would be entering Turkey with but with the suddenness of the situation and the unclarity of it, there was a lot of nervousness from both of us about her getting back into the country. It is crazy that the presidents can just make rash orders like this that effect so many people. What if she hadn’t had a visa? What if the new teacher that came to my school arrived just one day later? What about the person on my expat forum who is getting married here next month and isn’t able to get visa for any of her family to join her? I hope they work this out very soon because I want you all to come visit me!
My Stolen Camera
This is a hard one for me to write about, so much so that I almost didn’t put it in the blog but it was a significant event that happened and I think I should share with all of you. Kim and I went out exploring one Saturday and we had a marvelous day of wandering the streets of Istanbul. We went to some different areas, meander the cobblestone paths, visited the spice bazaar, and even got a fish sandwich for Kim from one of Istanbul’s famous fishing boats. The last thing we decided to do was go uptown to check out this big grocery store that Kim had heard about. It was a big store and I was sure to keep my camera on me while we were shopping because we were moving back and forth from the cart. But as we were walking up to the checkout counters Kim asked me to go grab her a water so I set my camera bag in our cart knowing that Kim would be right with it and went searching for a water. When I returned I helped Kim load up the groceries and pay. As we were walking out of the store I realized that the camera was gone and the bottom dropped out of my stomach. I frantically went back into the store and scoured the checkout area then found a security guard. The rest of the night was a blur of watching video footage in the security room, talking with the police through google translate, and crying. The next day we went to the police station and filed a report then later in the week Kim went to some of the used camera stores in town and dropped off a flyer, but it seemed completely useless in a city of twelve million people. Here is the video from the footage if you are interested in seeing it. The first video is of them stealing the camera bag out of our cart while Kim is loading things onto the register. The second video clearly shows their face as they steal another bag from a different cart. The saddest part to me is the young girl that the woman have with them who is most likely carrying stolen items in her little backpack for them. It’s interesting that every person I’ve shared about this event who has lived her is shocked, saying these things never happen here.
This camera has been with me for six years, through sixteen different countries, photographing twelve weddings and hundreds of thousands of photos. It was a camera that I saved up for slowly by shooting weddings and portraits and a lens that I traded in four other lenses to buy when I moved to Myanmar. It was a constant source of creativity for me and all of a sudden it was gone. I cried a lot that weekend, knowing how long it would take for me to save up for a replacement that was going to cost a couple thousand dollars. I reached out to my sister Andrea, the other photographer in the family, who I know would understand my pain. When, to my surprise and delight, she shared with me that she had my exact same camera body that she was looking to get rid of because she had upgraded recently. When thinking about how to get it to me I knew that shipping it was out of the question because getting things (especially expensive, valuable things) through customs here is a huge endeavor that often ends up making the senders/receivers regretting that very action. But it just so happened that Stan was leaving for France later that week and Kim was going to meet him. Some quick work on Andrea’s part, creative packing on Stan’s part, and careful transporting on Kim’s part and two weeks later I was holding a new camera body. I’m still stunned at how that all worked out and the generosity of everyone involved. Now just to save up for a new lens.
At an Art Loss
I’ve had a lot of pent up artistic energy lately and have not been really sure what to do with it. Maybe it’s due to the loss of my camera. I’m so very grateful to have a camera body again, and lucky enough to have brought one other lens with me so I am able to use it. It’s strange how it is the exact same model as my past camera but it feels so foreign in my hand, it doesn’t have the same scratches on the bottom from the tripod, or the little tiny dent on the grip, the viewfinder is slightly different and the screen looks clearer without the protector on it. After I got it I felt a sense of resentment towards it in a way that I can’t quite put into words but I think is mainly connected to still feeling pain from the violation of having this precious tool stolen from me. Anyway, the other day I had enough of it. I decided to take myself on an art date day in town. I grabbed my camera and set out for the day to do some of my favorite things. First I took a ferry ride which I simply adore. Something about sipping a tea while sitting in the breeze on the ferry deck is pure joy. I took a series of photos while I was riding that I will save for their own little post. Then I spent hours wandering around art stores. I hadn’t had the pleasure of visiting any art stores yet and I loved meandering through running my fingers over the paper and brushes. I ended up leaving with a new sketchbook and didn’t waste any time cracking it open doing some ferry sketches on the way back over to the European side. Lastly I went for my first visit to Istanbul Modern, the contemporary art museum in town. Although none of the pieces jumped out at me I enjoyed taking my time to sketch a few different paintings and perusing the gift shop (aren’t art museum gift shops the absolute best??). It was the most wonderful day and I put this page together from momentums that I gathered to remember it.
One of the funnest experiences I had over the past month was participating in a Murder Mystery Dinner. If you are not familiar with the concept, it is a mix of a dinner and a play that everyone is a part of. Before the night you are given a character and a backstory, every person comes dressed up and stays in character. Throughout the night events unfold, more information is given to you in sealed envelops to help you respond in the way your character would. There is bribing and gossiping happening all around. Eventually someone gets “murdered” and each person investigates the others to come up with a guess at who did it. I’ve always wanted to attend a Murder Mystery Dinner and this one certainly did not disappoint. Our theme was 80s Prom Gone Bad and my character was J.J. Smart, the class valedictorian. The night was a blast due to our awesome host who put it all together and the very best of folks to play with.
In addition Kim was the caterer for the evening. She pulled off the most delicious four course meal for the 20 or so people attending and every bit of it was spot on. There were stuffed mushrooms, caesar salads (with fresh anchovy dressing), pumpkin and ricotta raviolis, red wine braised short ribs with polenta, and a chocolate guinness cake with raspberry coulis to finish it off. I’m bummed that I didn’t grab any photos of the food but take my word on the mouthwatering taste of it all.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a great leader in Turkey who founded the country out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. He is deeply revered by all Turkish citizens. His statue and portrait are seen in restaurants and homes all throughout the country. At our school we have a photo of him in every single classroom. On November 10th the entire country stands still for one minute (9:05 am) to commemorate his passing. At school we had a large gathering that involved a speech, a wreath laying, and the minute of silent. Check out this short clip to see traffic stand still even on the bridges and highways.
Kim has been spending her time doing what she loves, cooking for people. She developed a service where she offers a variety of food and sells it to the teachers/staff at school. Every week she puts out a menu of salad, dinner, casserole, soup, and specialty items then delivers the orders to school. We are so grateful that she has had a tremendous response from the teachers, enough to keep her happily busy every week. The main disappointment of our apartment is most certainly our kitchen that is the size of a closet. I have no idea how she cooks dozens of meals in that space every week and nearly never complains about it but I think I have previously established that she is some sort of kitchen goddess. Here is this week’s menu to give you an idea of what she’s been cooking up:
We have been taking weekly Turkish Lessons which have been great but not sticking as well as I would like. Kim has trouble following but I’m understanding in class fairly easily but as soon as I leave I seem to leave all that I’ve learned behind as well. I think they are helpful no matter what though - even if it’s just a word or two a week. Thankfully Turkish is significantly easier than Burmese, at the very least I can read and pronounce the words. I think our teacher gets exasperated by us though, a group of teachers together is not usually an easy group to handle.
In Other News . . .
I’ve been teaching a beginners yoga course after school, and Kim has been tracking down every market in town. I’ve just completed my 10th week of weight lifting and am really enjoying seeing my body change and feeling stronger by the week. I realized that I forgot to bring any brown closed toe shoes so I tried to go shoe shopping the other day only to find out that they don’t carry any women’s shoes above the European size of 40. This is equivalent to the American size of about 9 in women's. Isn’t that crazy! I managed to track down one pair of brown boots in a 41 that mostly fit my feet but I now know what is on my summer to-buy list. There certainly have been some downs over the past two months but thankfully there have been a lot more ups and all in all we are so very happy in Istanbul, at my new job, and in our new home. We can’t wait to explore more of this country and Europe, but right now we are happy wandering the streets of Istanbul, experiencing the newness of the honeymoon stage.
Here are some tasty bites we’ve had while out and about.
Kim trying some street mussles
Ferry rides are my favorite
There is a "Fruit Garden" just down the street from us where anyone can go and pick fresh fruit for free, right now it's pomegranate season.
Our new weekend routine of going for a late Turkish breakfast every Sunday
I've been rolling with my kombucha brew this year and have expanded to Jun (made with just green tea and honey) as well as hibiscus tea kombucha. So tasty!
This is Phoebe. She is a cat that hangs out in our apartment compound because she used to belong to a teacher that lived here but she got left behind. And then another teacher adopted her and left her behind again. So sometimes we let her come cuddle in our apartment.
Until next time my friends
On October 8th I joined a group of photographers to capture some snap shots of our city. Every year Scott Kelby, a world famous photographer, hosts his annual World Wide Photo Walk. It is a time for photographers to get together and take photos of their neighborhood. It is labeled as the "social photography event of the year," as one of the main goals is to bring together a community of people with this common interest. On the single day hundreds of Photo Walks are held across the world with thousands of photographers participating.
I joined in my first Photo Walk when I lived in Auburn (Maine, USA) two or three years ago and was thrilled when I saw the announcement for the Yangon walk. Taking my camera out to the streets is one of my favorite things to do but it was made even better by the great company. More than a few of these photographs have gone in my "favorite photographs I have ever taken" folder. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did taking them!
Only once a year do lions dance through the streets of Yangon. They dance to celebrate Chinese New Year, the festival that marks the turning of the Chinese calendar. Since January, we had been looking forward to participating in some of the festivities to mark one of Southeast Asia's biggest holidays. When the big day finally rolled around I was giddy with excitement at the uncertainty of what I would witness. The difficulty of finding out any information on any large event in Yangon meant that we did not know what was happening or when. All we knew was that it was Chinese New Year and we were headed to Chinatown.
*For video footage of the Lion Dance scroll to the bottom of the page*
Our 'go with the flow' attitudes paid off because as soon as we got downtown we heard drumming. We followed the loud banging and clashing of cymbals to the entrance of a hotel where there was a large crowd gathered. In the center we spotted our very first lion! It was a spectacular site, fluffy purple puffs were accompanied by gold and silver sequence that sparkled as the lion danced around. It was controlled by two extremely skillful and acrobatic performers, martial artists who train long and hard to receive the privilege of performing. A troupe of supporters from the same martial arts studio accompanied the lions in their dance. This lion was visiting the hotel in a customary tradition that involves performing a special dance called Cai Qing which means "plucking the greens."
In this dance the lion must "pluck" greens from an area in the establishment. It stalks the greens like a cat in hunt and then eats them a bit before spitting them out (see the ground of the picture below). Along with the greens the lion will also "pluck" a red envelop which customarily contains money to compensate for the performance. The purpose of this is to bring good fortune to the establishment for the coming year.
After our serendipitous find, we made the short trip over to Chinatown (which is between 20th and 18th street) to make our first official stop at the Chinese temple. I'm not sure how many Chinese temples there are in Yangon but I do know that this one is the largest and grandest.
Bonus points if you recognize what the containers with sticks in them (right side of the picture set above) are ^ . If you don't know or don't remember, check out when we visited the Chinese temple in Bago and our friends Alex and Meme showed us how to use the traditional Chinese fortune telling sticks.
As we were approaching the temple, we could smell it before we could see it. When we arrived there was a cloudy, smokey atmosphere that was so strong Kim had to stay outside. Come to find out, it was coming from all of these HUGE incense spirals. There were hundreds of these hanging up inside and outside of the temple, each one accompanied by a small purple tag. I couldn't read what was written on the tags but my guess is that it was a person's or family's name that donated to the temple.
The main section of the festival was held on Sinn O Dann street and featured a Lion Dance competition. Although the signs said that there were Dragon dances we did not see any during our time. We were lucky enough to see a lion practicing his dance. This was exciting for me because I was able to get up close and grab these great shots of the lion in motion!
We took a few hours as the day turned into night to wander the streets of downtown with our hearts set on our usual search: the quest for new, tasty food. This time we were hoping to try some special cuisine for the Chinese New Year celebration, maybe some Chinese food (?) but with no avail we settled for a tasty bowl of our favorite shan noodles instead.
It's not just the lighting here, the picture above is of an actual golden watermelon. Bellow is a stall of small bite-sized candies that were all over the place during the New Year Festival.
We left the vibrance of the night market and returned to the main festival to wait for the competition to begin. Sure to arrive early, we grabbed some seats (tiny plastic stools) on the sidelines and watched the small street fill in with more people than I could have ever imagined could fit in the space. After a long wait, a parade of all the competitors, some sort of performance that I think was the lion performers paying their respects to the temple or the association or someone, the dance finally began.
There are many legends about how the lion dances began, my favorite involves a fierce creature named "Nain" who liked to terrorize villages and kidnap children. One year, a lion was stalking near a village when the Nain creature appeared. The lion attacked the Nain and frightened it away. After the lion also retreated, the villagers decided to make a costume of a lion to scare the Nain away if it were ever to return. The dance is accompanied by loud banging, music, and fireworks to continue to frighten the Nain. Since this the dance became a yearly ritual, the word Nain has become the Chinese word for Year. Happy New Year everyone!
It was another Friday night which means Friday festivities! A bit of a change from our usual scene, Kim and I headed to 50th Street Bar & Grill for a teachers event. 50th Street is a very well known expat establishment downtown. It has a very classy feel like that of a fancy NY pub. As I have come to learn here in Yangon, the nicer looking the establishment the higher the prices. This is the only place in town that you will pay $30 for a steak. In their defense though, this is probably the only place in town to get a decent steak. You could probably put every restaurant here in two categories: local and expat. As we tell our couchsurfers, with the local places you pay local prices and with expat places you pay expat prices. Plus the extra tax and service charges. Not trying to complain here, it is just a fascinating separation between the classes.
All in all it was a fun evening meeting other teachers from around the city. There were two other international schools there: International School of Yangon and Yangon International School - people are not very creative with their school names here (if you are keeping track you will know that my school is called International School of Myanmar and yes, there is a Myanmar International School in town also). It is strange to be in an environment (outside of school) where you can understand all of the conversations going on around you.
As I circulated the room and meet new people we had the same exchange of conversation over and over again: What school are you with? How long have you been here? Where are you from originally? Do you like it here? How long do you plan on staying? And so on and so forth. I did get to get to know some pretty cool people and am looking forward to seeing them again soon!
Art Show openings are held a little differently here. Unlike the evening openings that they have in the States, almost all openings here are morning events - often on weekends. With the opening there are a slew of treats available to munch on and tables to hang out at while drinking tea and talking about the artwork. There were a variety of food items at this opening including some sort of fried noodles, hot dog type things, and lots of little fried foods.
When we went grocery shopping this weekend we realized after we arrived at the store that we were getting hungry. Everyone knows that it is a bad idea to shop on an empty stomach so we decided to grab a bite to eat before heading in. We just wanted a snack so we decided to share one of these Hot & Roll. It turned out to be a crepe with a choice of toppings. We went for the BBQ chicken one which included cheese. It was actually quite tasty.
In the weeks leading up to the move there were many times I would be just going about my normal day-to-day business when all of a sudden the fact would hit me that we were moving to Asia. We, normal, simple, easy-goers from no-where Maine, were moving to Asia. It just seemed preposterous that a change that ginormous was about to happen. A change that would make the world as we knew it seem like a distant dream. I remember those moments vividly now, especially the strangeness of the feeling that accompanied them.
The other day I was just walking down the street coming back from eating lunch at a street stall near the school and, just as sudden as it had come before, I had the realization that I am here. Here. In this place. I am living in Myanmar. I am walking down the street, with all of these strange but friendly people staring and smiling at me. As I crunched one of the giant tree leaves that had fallen on the ground in front of me, a deep feeling of gratitude set inside my chest. This is what it must feel like when you succeed in finally achieving a goal that you have been dreaming about for so long, and that was so big it seemed more like a crazy dream than any sort of reality. And I smiled as I began to come to terms with the fact that this, this messy, beautiful, exotic, frustrating, peaceful, loud, confusing place is where I live. This is my life. I let that thought rest inside of me and it stills me. It wraps around me like a big comfy blanket on a cold night saying, “Shhhh, you can rest now, you did good.” It is asking me to take time to enjoy this place and all it has to offer, to be appreciative and to slow down.
Since I got here I have felt like I was going 100 miles an hour, trying to see all the sights, help our apartment feel like a home, plan enough for school to get me through the next day, and begin to make sense of this wild place. I’m finally here and there is so much, so much to see, so much to do, so much to experience. The words from my yoga teacher, Heidi, creeps up into my mind, “Be kind to yourself,” she would tell us. Just because you are capable doesn’t mean you need to. I take a breath and let those words sink in a bit further and remind myself that I am not just here for a week or a month, but rather years. I hold on to the weight of gratitude that settled into my chest and notice the lady feeding the lunch leftovers to the stray cat who was meowing at her ankles. And I am thankful, thankful for cats, thankful for only ladies that feed them, thankful for the rice and unknown type of meat that I just ate for lunch, but mostly I am thankful just for being. Here. In this place. Finally.
*These were taken by Kim on our recent trip to Inle Lake, be on the lookout for that post because it was epic!!*
Alisa & Kim
Two expats living, teaching, and eating their way across this beautiful world