The Lows

Getting off a train in Delhi’s Nizamuddin rail station is like stepping into a pressure cooker. The crush of passengers leaving the station. Beggars asking for alms. Hawkers clamouring for attention. Taxi drivers and touts, thousands of them, intent on taking travellers to their destinations. And it’s hot.

We have sunny and optimistic dispositions. There’s a lot of room on a trip like ours for something to go wrong and we have a tendency not to dwell on the low points for too long. But that doesn’t mean our journey hasn’t had its challenges.

This morning at breakfast we talked about the most difficult moments of our trip. It’s good to discuss these things. We learn from them. We also learn a lot about each other. The challenges make the good aspects of our trip seem even more positive.

HEALTH

I called a friend yesterday and one of the first things he asked was: “have you had any health issues on your trip?” This is often one of the first things people think about.

Our medical dispatch documents Saga’s case of Shigella (diarrhoea with blood and mucous), acute dehydration and time in the local hospital. While sick she was tethered to the toilet; she literally didn’t leave it for more than five minutes at a time over a 48-hour period. And Louise and I were mostly tethered to her, keeping her company.

The combination of sleeplessness and anxiety is likely the reason why I came down with shingles a week later. Here is shingles: pain across the left side of my face along my facial nerve. The nerve would fire and throb into my neck. My face swelled up and my head felt like it was in a vice. Open sores broke out on my face, ear and forehead. The acute phase of this lasted a week. It was incredibly intense.

We’ve also had the more regular travelers’ illnesses. A weird itchy arm rash sent us to the pharmacy to get antihistamines. Variants of Delhi Belhi have struck from time to time.

When sick, once we’ve figured out what’s wrong, we come up with plans a, b and c to recover. If a plan isn’t working, we escalate to the next. Uncertainty amplifies the distress but we’ve had the great good fortune to have medical consultations with our favourite pediatrician (my father). He diagnosed Shigella and Shingles from 12 time zones away and has guided our treatments. After that, it’s mostly a waiting game.

THE ELEMENTS

The girls thought it was scary when the Kampot River jumped its banks. The water levels were higher than the girls are tall. They were worried about the animals. They didn’t know if the flood would last forever.

TIME

This trip is largely about time. In Toronto, once work, school, extra-curricular activities, chores, and everything else were accounted for, we were time poor. We didn’t spend enough of it together. We reclaimed our time when we bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia and set out on this adventure.

But once we were time rich, we needed to figure out what to do with it all. It was shocking, in a way, to wake up and realize that we had no office to go to, no school to attend, no play dates. The whole day stretched before us like a blank slate, waiting for us to fill it in new and different and exciting ways. Our daily routine eventually settled into doing three things: we read/learn, we play and we explore (in addition to taking care of the admin of life). Before we got into that routine, however, boredom would sometimes set in. We made it clear that each of us is responsible for our own contentedness. We’re truly happy when we are engrossed in an activity; a book, a game, a sport. Each of us needs to find something that engrosses us. Confronting and embracing boredom in this way has been an important learning experience for us.

RITUALS

We miss aspects of living in Toronto. Our family. Friends and neighbours. Sigurd, our dog. Holidays like Halloween, Valentine’s Day. Playing the piano and violin. Baking. Running. Sidewalks.

SAFETY

Back at home, we’re careful about a lot of safety issues. Take driving; we buy cars based on safety records, wear our seatbelts, change our tires with the seasons. Here, we mostly ride in rickshaws. Often there are no seatbelts in cars. So far we’ve been fine, although we are aware that, an accident here would impose challenges of a higher order than in Toronto, all things being equal. We try not to think about it too much.

When we stepped into the pressure cooker of Delhi’s rail station two days ago, we had come from Agra and had a flight to catch to Goa. Our train was late and we needed a taxi to take us to the airport. I asked an official where the pre-paid taxi stand is and he made a vague, unhelpful gesture to his right. A swarm of taxi drivers insisted the prepaid desk was closed. We didn’t believe them but couldn’t find the prepaid desk. Exasperated, we agreed on a price with a taxi driver, got into the cab and set out for the airport.

We careened out of the airport, speeding, barely missing pedestrians and other cars. The driver began speaking incoherently. The driving was erratic. More close calls with pedestrians. Faster driving. The driver started taking his eyes off the road to talk to us. The girls cowered in the backseat, terrified. Our driver was drunk.

At a red light in the middle of Delhi’s streets, I took the key out of the ignition. Louise and I got the girls onto the sidewalk, unloaded the car. Incredibly, Delhi traffic waited patiently and respectfully while this unfolded. A woman in the back of a Toyota graciously asked if she could take us somewhere. Into her car we piled, grateful. None of us has ever been so relieved to arrive at an airport.

We arrived on time in Goa and are staying near the beach in the north. Gorgeous Goa is the right place to decompress from our Agra trip and this is where we wrap up the India leg of our journey. On Sunday we fly from Mumbai to Cape Town to continue our adventure in South Africa and Botswana.

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The New and the Old in Da Nang

We’ve written about Vietnam’s initiative to create the next Silicon Valley in an earlier post. Da Nang buzzes with energy around the new entrepreneurship. According to this Atlantic article, interest in entrepreneurship in Vietnam is “at least as strong as in the [United] States… you hold an event for entrepreneurs here, and you’re going to have a packed house every single time”.

At the same time, more than 2/3 of the population is rural. Agriculture made up 20% of GDP in 2011 and fisheries and aquaculture accounted for 5% of GDP that same year. In 2005 (a little dated, sure, but still a useful benchmark) fully 60 percent of the employed labor force was engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fishing.

While there is a lot of excitement around innovation and technology, a big share of the population is engaged in work that is far removed from the innovation hubs and business accelerators of the cities.

At sunrise every day, fishermen haul in their catch on Da Nang beach. Their boats are like large floating tea cups that bob above the surf.
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It’s hard work. Teams of up to ten men haul in the nets using ropes attached to belts they wear around their waists.
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When I was down on the beach the other morning, I heard the men in the water let out a holler before throwing a fish onto the beach. A fishmonger (wearing the helmet) grabbed it and dropped it into a bucket for people to buy.image

The fish sold almost immediately.

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Another holler came from the water. A log, caught in another net, had torn it apart. The team used the same ropes and belts to pull the log out of the water and they left the offending log on the beach.

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The rest of the catch sold just as quickly.

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Our stay in Da Nang is coming to a close.

On Thursday we’ll fly to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to spend the night before traveling on to Kerala in the south of India. We’ll be in Kerala for a bit more than a month, spending Christmas at a homestay in Forth Kochi. Then we’ll rent a flat in Ernakulam, a few miles to the east. We’re drawn to Kerala for its food, culture, sights and social system. Kerala has the highest literacy rate (94%) and the highest life expectancy (74 years) in India. A survey in 2005 by Transparency International ranked it as the least corrupt state in the country. And it is also the home of Tellicherry peppercorns, grown near the Malabar coast.

We’re excited about our next destination. We’ll have lots to share in future blogposts.

 

Da Nang Soundscape

In earlier posts we’ve highlighted the different sounds that characterise the various soundscapes that we’ve visited.

In Kampot, the soundscape featured the natural world: critters at night and fishing boats in the mornings and early evenings. The hubbub in Luang Prabang seemed to emphasize the spiritual, with the drumming and chanting from the wats.

In Da Nang the noises we hear project the state’s authority and control alongside the city’s aspirations to become a booming metropolis.

Vietnam and China currently have a territorial dispute over an island that is about 200 miles away. The island is located in what most of us know as the South China Sea but that the Vietnamese call simply the East Sea. On a daily basis we hear and see the air force flexing its muscle as it flies combat planes and helicopters over the city. Parenthetically, India is helping Vietnam build capacity for a modern air force. Russia is supplying the planes and parts.

When we first arrived in Da Nang we noticed loudspeakers on the beach. They were blaring muzak in the afternoon.

 

Listen to Muzak 2.wav by User 666885694 #np on #SoundCloud

 

Later in the evenings rock music booms- live bands, karaoke, DJs. And in the mornings at 6am and afternoons at 430pm the government uses the speakers to beam news and information to the public. The public service announcements could broadcast news about helmet laws or narrowcast information about the closure of a local post office.

Whistles are everywhere in Da Nang. Traffic police use them to enforce compliance. Lifeguards use them to make sure swimmers don’t drift outside the designated swim area.

The city beach is the preferred location for newlyweds to get photographed.
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There are doves (and pigeons) that photographers hire as props for the shoots. And the dovekeepers control their beasts with whistles.

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The city is growing like gangbusters. New hotels are popping up everywhere. Hammering, sawing, welding, digging, shouting; it’s all part of the racket.

We have written about traffic. Motorists honk at intersections to partially compensate for the absence of traffic signals. Yesterday the girls rode to the French library with Felix (note the helmets) and their squeals of delight could be heard from blocks away.
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Headstrong

Upon arriving in Vietnam one is struck by how large the government looms in daily life. The national flag is ubiquitous. The Communist Party’s hammer and sickle symbol flies everywhere.
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The Party has been in power with no political opposition for decades and wields tremendous control. There is a massive state surveillance apparatus. One observer of Vietnam’s military estimates that one person in six works for a security force.

The volume of motorbikes on the streets makes an impression too; motorbikes are undoubtedly the country’s principal form of transportation. They flood the roads.
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And everyone here seems to wear a helmet (in contrast to Cambodia where most seem to ride with a bare head). The helmets look stylish!

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Until 2007 Vietnam had no laws requiring motorbike helmets. Everyone found that they were too hot and cumbersome to wear. Women complained that they messed up their hair. But at the time there were 30 motorbike-related deaths per day and annual lost earnings and health-related costs totaled $885m.

In 2007 the government passed new legislation requiring motorbike drivers to wear helmets. But how does the state get 90m people to comply with an unpopular law? The government began with  public sector employees (there’s a lot of them)  and rural areas. Then it moved to the cities, using a combination of co-option, coercion, propaganda and punishment. The legislation only took months to implement and there is near-universal compliance. (As an interesting sidebar, some initial compliance was in name only; a few drivers wore cooking pots on their heads).

And with 90m people looking for helmets, an obvious business opportunity emerged, leading to a thriving industry for stylish motorbike helmets. A year after implementation there was a 10% decrease in accidents; a significant saving in both lives and money. But helmets don’t fix everything and people still ignore traffic rules, speed and drink and drive.

Which brings us to the view from our balcony on the seventh floor in Da nang. Every day, we drink our morning coffee overlooking the street below. There’s a school nearby and as time for class nears, more and more motorbikes speed through the intersection. Like almost all intersections here, there are no stop signs. A common traffic phenomenon here is for drivers turning left to cut into the oncoming lane, then turn left into more oncoming traffic on the inside, and eventually move to the right lane. I understand the urge to do it; I’ve tried it on my bike. It’s simply a bad idea. See below.

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Motorbike on left is (with 2 passengers) on the inside of oncoming motorbike.

 

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Oncoming motorbike (on left) squeezed between both left-turning motorbikes.

It’s enthralling to watch, in the way that seeing a gruesome crash enthralls. Every few minutes brings a close call. But when there is an accident (in the two weeks we’ve been here we’ve only seen one), at least they’ll be wearing helmets.

 

Da Nang Runners and Fire Breathing Dragons

Da Nang is set to host the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race in February. It is also the location for the Asian Beach Games next September. Da Nang is the right place for it, with its kilometres of uninterrupted beautiful beach.

Barefoot Running

As a way of promoting the Clipper Race, Beach Games and all-around healthy living, Da Nang hosted its first ever 2km, 5km and 10km barefoot beach race this morning. Louise and Ida were among the competitors for the 2km run. It’s the first time that the city has had a sports event of this sort and it came will all the bells and whistles.

People:
Race organisers expected 8,000 locals and foreigners to attend. While we didn’t see any other foreigners, there were easily 8,000 runners. Here’s a panorama shot that captures most of the crowd.

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Party grandees:
Take a look at the VIP table on the left in front of the stage (you can barely see it, but it’s in front of the dancing Zumba squad). VIPs included the heads of this or that association, network, community, etc. Each had his moment of recognition and applause before the race.

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Drones:
This is the first time I’ve noticed drones at a public event like a race. Take a look at the top of this shot.

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TV crews:
Our athletes stood out not only for their fitness but also due to the fact that they could have been the only foreign competitors. At the end of the race the local TV crew tracked them down for an interview.

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During the race spectators could enjoy the sunrise and the beach.

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And here are our athletes, with their cheering squad, post race.

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Here Be Dragons

If you look at a map of Da Nang you’ll notice that the beach area is separated from the mainland (and the rest of Da Nang) by the Han River. There are four bridges that cross the river, connecting the beach to the city. The Dragon Bridge is one of these, completed in 2013 at a cost of $90m (the picture below is not mine).

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Fortunately for us, the mayor who oversaw the construction project included fire-breathing and water-spouting features in the bridge design. At 9pm on Saturdays and Sundays, the police stop traffic on the bridge while it activates those features. Our family went to take a look last night (on Louise’s birthday). There was a huge crowd- there always is- and it’s mostly locals. It was a great sight, super gimmicky but absolutely worthwhile. Needless to say, the mayor is incredibly popular.

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The Next Silicon Valley? Entrepreneurship in Da Nang

Vietnam is trying to create its own version of Silicon Valley.  In 2013 it launched the ambitious Silicon Valley Project: an initiative aiming to transform the country from a top producer of electronic components to a major player in the global digital economy. The goal of the effort is to launch internationally competitive technology firms while transforming Da Nang, Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City into a tech hub. Vietnam is taking a smart, systematic approach to building a startup ecosystem. Training programs to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas abound. There is even a business accelerator modelled on Y combinator.

The initiative is certainly creating a buzz; just before we arrived in Da Nang, Lotus Fund announced the launch of an innovation space for entrepreneurs called the Lotus Hub.

All this got me thinking about the fellows who made me some new eyeglasses this week (mentioned in an earlier post). While eyeglasses aren’t at the forefront of the technology revolution (anymore), these opticians show a real entrepreneurial spirit.

My glasses need an extra strong prism ground into the lens. These opticians had never worked with this kind of prism and apparently there’s only one firm that has these lenses in Vietnam. It’s based in Hanoi, more than 700 km away. While I was getting fitted for glasses, the opticians tracked down the firm in Hanoi and arranged to get the lenses shipped to Da Nang. Two days later I was back at the optician to get my glasses.

I had never seen glasses get built before now. With a marker, the opticians traced the lens shape (from the original plastic lenses that come with the frame) onto the new lenses. They snipped off the glass around the marker line using regular pliers. The result: the lenses you see in the picture below.

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Next the optician shaped the lens using a grinder:

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Twenty minutes later I had my glasses:

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Nobody knows how successful the Silicon Valley project will be. While there are plenty of young people with great ideas, the bench of experienced managers might not be deep enough to handle the growth. As well, the government’s role in the initiative could impede its progress. But I will say this: I have a great pair of new eyeglasses, made by some entrepreneurs that aren’t dissuaded by a weird prescription and the logistics of getting a lens from 700 km away.

Tet Arrives Early

The most important celebration in Vietnamese culture is Tet, or Vietnamese New Year. The word is a shortened form of Tết Nguyên Đán meaning “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day”. The holiday is an occasion in which people dress in new fancy clothes and reinvent themselves. They get new haircuts, earrings, shoes, accessories. Parents and relatives also give money to and buy stuff for children. Tet’s timing is based on the Vietnamese lunar calendar and usually falls in January or February.

When we set out on this trip we tried to be disciplined about what we brought along with us. Some advice we received was to pack half of what we think we’ll need and bring twice as much money. After researching other travellers’ packing lists, we made an inventory of everything we would bring. Anything that wasn’t on that list didn’t make it into our packs.

As an example, here’s a shot of Nigel’s clothing for the full eight months. Missing from the pile are shoes, two shirts and a pair of shorts.

We knew that we could pick up most things we needed along the way and that Da Nang would be the place to do so. Da Nang is 20km from Hoi An, a town full of bespoke tailors who can create any article of clothing that one could desire. Hoi An tailors enjoy a reputation as master craftsmen, able to copy any design they see, based on a picture, within 24-48 hours.

We could use more clothes. We have enough clothing to make it through a four-day period. Four days are fine if we have a washing machine but if we’re cycling through hotels and cities, it’s better to have extra shirts, dresses or shorts. Off we went to Hoi An yesterday.

It took us 90 minutes to choose material and get sized. We either left our clothes as design examples or the tailor sketched out the designs.  None of us has ever had custom clothing made, so it’s a sweet indulgence. And, Saga can ask for improvements on the design of the dress that she is getting: her current dress is too tight around her ankles and she hasn’t been able to skip and jump as much as she needs to.

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Louise and Nigel could use new eyewear. Our lenses are scratched and our frames are old. Not surprisingly, Da Nang also boasts top notch opticians. We went to a family run place operated by a father/ 2 sons team: Viet (son) Nam (father) and Ho (other son). Easy to remember. We’ve had glasses made for us in 48 hours. One of us has an unusual prescription and the optician needed to get a lens shipped from Hanoi.

So Tet came early for us. New fancy clothes, earrings for the girls (look at Ida’s and Saga’s ears above), and accessories for the parents. Now we just need to find a barber!

Da Nang Dispatch

On Friday night we arrived in Da Nang.  We’re staying in a two bedroom apartment, in a tower located two minutes from the beach. We’d just spent three weeks traveling through Laos and Vietnam, staying in hotels and visiting some amazing places: Luang Prabang, Hanoi, Halong Bay. At this point we’re ready for the pace of living a normal life in a big city in a developing country.

Which brings us to Da Nang: one of the few places in Vietnam that offers mountains, beaches and city, all in one. If you take a map of Vietnam, Da Nang is located on the eastern coast, at the midpoint between the north and south.  With a population of about a million people, it’s the fifth largest city in Vietnam. There’s a lot of hustle here; Da Nang has a young, entrepreneurial population that have made the city the third largest economic hub in the country, after Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It is is also close to three UNESCO World Heritage sites: the Imperial City of Hue, the Old Town of Hoi An, and the My Son ruins.

Back in September, we booked our flat through airbnb. Our apartment looks onto the beach and yet is just a five minute taxi ride (ten minutes by bike) from the downtown core. Da Nang is booming and hotels are popping up like mushrooms along the beach front. Below is the view from our window at night (all the buildings with lights on the top are hotels):


And here’s a shot of Ida on the beach in the afternoon.

Since arriving in South East Asia we’ve been at a loss for preparing local vegetarian dishes. We’ve eaten delicious noodle soup, curries and banh mi sandwiches but have no idea of how to make them. We don’t even know where to get the ingredients. We’ve felt a little lost, searching for sand in the desert.

On Tuesday, Louise and Ida cracked the South East Asia food code (or at least part of the code). They took a cooking course that showed them not only how to make noodle soup, green papaya and mango salad and Vietnamese savory crepes but they also went to the local market to source the ingredients. The cooking class included a trip to a local garden, where Ida and Louise transplanted lettuce (Vietnamese farmers like their straight rows) and harvested herbs. To get the right ingredients, Louise now brings to the market pictures of the fruits, vegetables and sauces she wants to get and shows them to vendors. Or she’ll write down the Vietnamese words for some of the products she wants to buy: sugar, salt, etc.


  

To help the girls keep up with their schoolwork, we want to get them into an environment where they are speaking French on a regular basis. Through the Da Nang French Institute, we connected with a local French conversationalist, Felix. He lives here with his partner, the general manager of an international NGO based in Da Nang. Felix spends two hours with the girls on weekday mornings, talking with them in French. Here they are playing Scrabble together. Next week they’ll probably go to the beach together and maybe the French library in Da Nang. They are really enjoying it (Ida, two minutes ago: “I really love our French tutor!”).


So here we are. We’re staying in a flat with a kitchen. We’re learning how to navigate the markets and prepare delicious meals.  We’ve got an excellent French language program for the girls. We walk on the beach together for evening sunsets. And we’re thoroughly enchanted by Da Nang. It’s the perfect recipe for a great stay.