Bali had been a pretty wonderful vacation, and I was happy to check that off my bucket list. We left the lush green island in Indonesia and headed to the flashing neon lights of another island: Singapore. We flew in at about 6:30 p.m. and were scheduled to leave at noon the following day. We stored our carry-on luggage at the airport for a few dollars and took the train into town to the Clarke Quay, a large mall that flows along with the Singapore river. The buildings, sidewalks and river boats are all lit up in a neon fluorescent glow, and the roads are lined with carts selling souvenirs and restaurants from all over the world. Renee and I walked around and crossed the bridge to the other side of the river, and we settled on eating at Marrakesh Lounge and Bar, a Moroccan restaurant. There I tasted the best tabbouleh of my life and some pretty great humus as well. With those two dishes and two ginger ales our total came to about $50 USD. Ouch! Singapore is not the most budget-friendly country, but it was definitely worth the quick visit.
We caught the last train back to the airport and spent the evening wandering around the terminal watching movies in their little theater, looking around the large M&M shop, wandering through the indoor nature trail and eventually renting a room at one of the hotels inside of the airport.
The next afternoon we flew into Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, our new home for the next year. We got our visa on arrival (see here for steps on how to obtain a visa into Vietnam), and we hauled our luggage to a metered taxi and entered into the calculated chaos of Saigon traffic. There are more motorbikes than anything else on the road, and often those motorbikes hold up to five people or huge bundles of cargo strapped to the back. We dropped our stuff off at the hotel and took another taxi to Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, a big street in District 1, and looked down the streets of 18A and 18B for a room to rent for a month. There were “Room for Rent” signs on many of the gates, and if someone was home they would show us to the room available and answer any questions that we had. When renting a room you’ll want to make sure to ask what is included in the price. Do they do laundry for free or for a charge? Do they clean your room? Do you get keys to the front gate? Does the price include water and electricity? Is there a curfew?
As we were winding around the stone alleys a small woman grabbed our elbows and wordlessly led us to a bright green gate with a black spiral staircase that led to a balcony on the top floor. We sat down on a bench while she called someone and passed us the phone. A young woman explained that she would be there tomorrow morning if we would like to come back and check out the room then. We walked across the street and sat at a table with plastic chairs and a container full of fresh greens for Pho (pronounced fuh). We each received a large bowl of the delicious Vietnamese soup containing broth, rice noodles, beef, herbs, bean sprouts and onion, and we mixed in the spicy red sauce and hoisin sauce along with a squeeze of lemon. We spent the dinner silent except for sounds of slurping and sniffling as the soup cleared our sinuses and made us sweat in the night’s heat.
The following day we went back to the green gated house and met with a woman and man in their fifties who didn’t speak a word of English. The woman’s daughter who we spoke to the day before was not there yet, but with a lot of charades and scribbling numbers on a piece of paper, we came to an agreement of $300 USD for one month and decided to move in the following afternoon. The room was spacious, well-lit, had two desks, a closet space, shelves, a bathroom, and a queen size bed. When we were all moved in we realized that although we were the only tenants renting a room at the moment, the family who owned the house was living there as well. On any given afternoon you could find the daughter (the young woman who speaks English), her mother, her auntie, and sometimes her younger brother hanging around the house. As the month wore on we became close with the family, and we would often sit at their kitchen table eating homemade meals prepared for by the mom, and we would pass the computer back and forth with Google Translate to communicate.
The first week in Vietnam was spent roaming around our area and visiting friends who had moved there about a year and a half before. We feasted on some of the best, cheapest and fresh food of our lives and enjoyed immersing ourselves in a new culture and finding our place in the city. Renee and I had resumes prepared to drop off at schools and we had interviews lined up — and then we got a message that would change our plans completely. If you recall, our plans have changed quite a bit over the past year or so, and the most recent arrangement was that we were going to teach in Vietnam for one year and then head back to the US. The message we received, however, said that Renee’s job will now start this summer instead of next, and our plans of moving back to America were now being flash forwarded by a year.
We had already paid for the month in Vietnam so we finished out the next few weeks there and figured out what to do next. We had lots of fun with our friends, we saw a lot of the city, and we decided to spend a week in Bangkok, Thailand before heading home to surprise our family.
We said goodbye to our friends and host family, and we hopped on a plane to Thailand.
The day we flew into Bangkok was the day they overthrew the Prime Minister. They spent the rest of the week trying to overthrow the rest of the government.
I knew that there were tensions in Bangkok since November, but I had also talked to a couple in Bali who had recently lived there and they had no problems (like me living in South Korea when the world was convinced we were about to blow up. Read about it here). Obviously things escalated, and we were advised to stay away from government buildings and any protests, and we were also told to ride public transport as often as possible since most of the major roads would be closed due to the mass gatherings of people. The day after we got into the city we made our way to Khaosan Road, a short tourist street that is lined with hostels, cheap restaurants, street food and souvenirs. I ate a big and satisfying plate of Pad Thai and walked down the street seeing things like fried scorpions and funky hats for sale. That evening some protesters threw grenades at a few government houses, and soon after that the police used fire hoses and tear gas on the people. We stayed at our hotel the next day, unsure of where was safe to go and where to avoid, but the following evening we ventured into town and hopped on the White Orchid River Cruise and sailed around for two hours enjoying singing, dancing, eating and sightseeing. The next morning, our final day in Thailand, we went to Chatuchak Weekend Market to pick up some final things before our flight home. As we rode above Bangkok on the BTS Sky Train we saw large protests scattered throughout the city. A few days after we left Thailand I got a message from the US Embassy advising people to stay away from Bangkok and to change their travel plans, as some gunmen opened fire on a crowd of protesters. Needless to say, I did not get to experience much of Thailand or Bangkok like I had hoped.
After a six and a half hour flight from Bangkok to Tokyo, a twelve hour flight from Tokyo to Chicago, a canceled flight from Chicago to Kalamazoo, MI, and an extremely expensive taxi ride from Chicago to Kalamazoo, Renee and I were finally at my moms’ house at 1:30 a.m. Neither of my moms were supposed to be home, so I was extremely surprised when the lights flipped on and a minute later my mom came running through the garage and scooped me up in a hug, both of us screaming, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!” The following day we surprised my dad at his work and some friends around town, and it was super fun to see the shock on everyone’s faces.
Life in America has officially begun. There are a lot of things to get re-used to, I find myself pretty overwhelmed at times, and I have a lot that I want to accomplish; however, I am happy. I am happy to be back in America, I’m happy to be surrounded by my friends and family, and I’m excited to see what this new phase of life has to offer. Stay tuned, friends.