Backpacking Teacher

Travel, teaching and things in between. Saigon is the focus for now.

Archive for March 2009

Cyprus – In which I visit the only divided city left in the world

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Today I visited the only divided city left in the world. Nicosia, or Lefkosia as the locals refer to it, is located in central Cyprus and is divided by the UN’s green line which separates Turkish Cyprus (north) from Greek Cyprus (south). It’s easy to tell where you are because the predominant flag being flown is not that of Cyprus but that of Turkey or Greece. The overt nationalism but not for your own nation strikes me as quite strange.

Nicosia is a great little city. Superb motorways make it a short trip from my base in Larnaca. I drive through outer Nicosia until I enter it’s heart. I know I’m in the heart because I’ve had to drive through the city walls that encircle the old town. Decrepit, decaying, small streets, shops, cages, mosques and churches make it a great delight to walk through this part of Nicosia. Occasionally I am brought short by sandbags, a barricade or barbwire that reminds where I am but mostly I just wander the old streets. I admire decaying buildings, watch old women in black scarves hang washing over balconies whilst two stories below people shop for Hermes bags.

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I stop before an old orthodox church only to see three rows of soldiers arrayed outside it’s front door. From inside I hear a priest sing the Kyrie Eleison and I wonder if I am the only one who finds this juxtaposition, between soldiers with automatic weapons and bayonets fixed standing outside a church as a priest inside sings a haunting tune, a little peculiar. I ask a policeman (of whom there are many around) what’s happening. He’s friendly enough and tells me the president is visiting the church and that it is for a ceremony that commemorates the anti-Turkish uprising in 1821. I should have known.

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I stay awhile to watch and take a few pics but I’m soon draw away by the thought of wandering the ages old streets of Nicosia. For the rest of the day the beautiful sound of the priest singing follows in my thoughts. I cannot think of a finer soundtrack to the old town of Lefkosia.


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March 27, 2009 at 5:57 pm

Cyprus – in which I visit the tomb of a man who died twice and talk to a man who thinks before he speaks

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The weather has picked up a bit and whilst still cold for me is pleasant because the sun shines bright. I don a few layers of clothing and go to explore Larnaca some more. In Larnaca I visit an old church that lies at the entrance to the seaside city. It is the church of St. Lazarus the man of bible fame who died and was brought back to life. Turns out he did eventually die about thirty years later on the island of Cyprus and this Church I stand before is built over his tomb. The church of St. Lazarus dates back from the 9th century (I am always awed by things old) and is an old traditional looking church with chunky, old, misshapen stone walls. Inside it is cool, calm and filled with gold and religious iconography. I sit down, enjoying that feeling of peace that I find inside most religious places of worship. I watch as Greek Cypriot after Greek Cypriot enters the church, kisses the altar and then goes to kiss and pray before a selected saint. I watch one woman kiss a particular saint in a picture – perhaps a favoured saint or perhaps one who can help fulfil a particular prayer. One man kisses all the saints arrayed on either side of the centrally placed cross.

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I feel at peace in this gaudy place of wood, gold, pictures of saints and chunky, cold stone walls. After a while of just sitting there I descend some rickety wooden stairs into the tomb of St. Lazarus. There I find two open caskets, some lamps to keep the light shining and a beautifully painted piece of iconography. Lazarus is no longer here, taken away centuries ago by Crusaders but still this place is revered. I stay awhile, enjoying the peace and calm but not quite understanding it all. I leave the church feeling invigorated.

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After breakfast in Larnaca alongside Phinikoudes, the seafront walkway, I head off into the hills. My destination the ancient monastery of Stavravouni. Founded back in 327 this monastery is perched atop a rocky peak. The oldest monastery in Cyprus it follows strict rules like those of followed by the ancient monasteries of Greece.

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I arrive at this austere monastery located above the hill looking down on Larnaca just in time to be admitted. They admit men only and I have ensured that I’m wearing trousers and a long sleeved top. I wander up the steep path and, unsure of where to go I wander in through a door. There I meet the bishop of the monastery and a monk. I wander into the church above the hill, awed again by all the iconography. The cross in the centre of the church has held, for the last 17 centuries according to a monk I talk to, a piece of the cross of Jesus. This little church with the cross of Jesus feels like nothing so much as an old and musty bric-a-brac shop, filled with religious ornaments. It is not an unpleasant feeling but I don’t stay long. I feel a bit uncomfortable walking around freely in the home of these monks.

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I return to talk to the monk. He is dressed all in black, his clothes look homemade and his face spawns an unruly crop of facial hair. He speaks to me a little of monastery life and the rituals including predawn services that go for three hours. He tells me of a celebration service tonight that will go for eight hours and commemorates Mary being told that she was to immaculately conceive, as the Catholics like to term it. My conversation with the monk is interesting but stilted. He takes long pauses, so long in fact that I sometimes think he may have fallen asleep as he thinks of responses. We talk a little of Australia and of Vietnam but mostly we talk of the monastery. He tells me of the hours they spend in prayer and how more can be done through prayer than through direct good deeds. When I question this statement he is genuine in his belief and explanation that the prayers of people like him, directly to God to intercede on particular matters, can have greater effect than individual deeds performed by one or two people. His faith is quite profound. Once again I’m intrigued but not quite understanding it all. I’m beginning to quite like this little religious island which is offering me some unique experiences.

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March 26, 2009 at 8:40 pm

Welcome to Cyprus – Larnaca, how a tourist town can seem so dreary

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My first day in Cyprus is raining and dreary. It’s cold and, at about 16C, about half the temperature I’ve been used to over the last few months in Saigon. From my hotel, located about a five minutes from the centre of Larnaca, I go for a walk.

I pass dreary beaches with brown sand and overblown signs for sunbed hire. I pass signs for all you can eat English breakfasts and signs in Russian for things I know not what. The shops seem to have an order about them, first souvenir shop (most are closed), car rental, restaurant with obligatory signboard full of photos posted out front, travel agency and then real estate agent. Seems this little island is slowly being bought up by Brits unhappy with the dreary weather back home. Cyprus advertises itself as the island of 320 days of sun. Just my luck to encounter one of the remaining 45 days. Ah well … I am struck by how much of a tourist town this is (but then again I’m a  tourist in a tourist part of the city) and I’m mostly struck by how horrible and tacky such places can feel when devoid of people. And that’s what I notice the most – the lack of people. Coming from Saigon where sound and people is all I know this wind and rain swept place with few people and only the sounds of waves and rain splattering in puddles is ghost town like.

I have lunch of Souvlaki at a local restaurant and then, after wandering the promenade of Larnaca I go off to rent a car. I am determined to see more of this place. There has to be more of Cyprus than discarded tourist signs, half closed restaurants and British newspapers.

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March 26, 2009 at 5:43 pm

Posted in beach, cyprus, expat, food, teacher

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I’m off to Cyprus and London

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Holidays are due next week but this time round my plans have been put on hold somewhat. My original plan was to spend the two weeks taking the train (reunification express) up to Hanoi. Then making my way back down the coast to Saigon stopping off anywhere that interested me. I was really looking forward to seeing more of this country that I’m enjoying so much of. However that’s not the way things worked out.

Our school is currently going through IB (International Baccalaureate) accreditation (one of the reasons I chose this school to work at) and, as part of that, all staff need to undergo, subject specific, IB training prior to teaching the course. As we plan to start teaching in August the options for my training were limited. The only available course is in London during the holidays so that’s where I’m going. I’m not complaining though because the school is obviously spending a fair bit of money to send me and one of the reasons I came over here was for the IB training and experience. So I’ve had to rearrange my holidays and Vietnam must wait (but I do intend to spend a fair bit of the middle-of-the-year summer holidays exploring the place).

Instead of staying all of the holidays in London I’ve decided to take the first week off to go somewhere I haven’t been before. The first option that sprang to mind was a week in Syria. Unfortunately several emails to the Embassy back in Canberra quickly informed that getting a visa would involve flying back to Australia first, something It wasn’t going to be practical for me to do. Instead I’ve decided to spend a week on nearby Cyprus.

Why Cyprus …. well firstly because I could get a cheap package out of London but mostly (because there are a lot of cheap packages out of London) because this divided little nation, which lies in the Middle Eastern infused eastern part of the Mediterranean, seems to interesting. It has both a Greek and Turkish heritage yet owes much of its history to the Middle East. It was once bitterly divided and is now beginning the process of reconciliation. It’s history dates back thousands of years and is, by reputation, beautiful and filled with an abundance of good food and friendly people.  I really am looking forward to my training and my holiday on the little island that was the birthplace of Aphrodite and Adonis.

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March 21, 2009 at 3:30 pm

Bike repair and I practise a few words of Vietnamese

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Saigon bike repair 001

I was riding my bike into District 1 (downtown Saigon) when I noticed my bike all wobbly. I pulled over to see I had a flat tire. Luckily for me there are myriad tire repair places all over the place. Usually one guy with trolley and an air compressor ready to pump up your tires for a few thousand dong (we’re talking 10 or 20 cents here). I pulled over, got my tire checked only to find that I had a leak. The guy pulls out some rubber patches, a bowl of grimy water and proceeds to check the inner tube just like I used to do when I repaired my own bike tires as a kid. In a few minutes the leak is repaired and for less than a dollar I’m on my way. I’ve now got to the point where I can ask for prices in Vietnamese and even understand them when they give me a price (sort of). This helps to keep the prices they charge me to local foreigner rather than tourist foreigner prices.

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Today I pulled out of the parking lot to see my tire flat again. Luckily for me there’s a repair shop 20 metres from the apartment, known as Sua Xe, they are like your local garage mechanic back home with a little less equipment and a lot more ingenuity. So I go into the bike shop and smiles greet me. A youngster on a bike greets me and says something about my bike tire. I understand the greeting but not the rest so I tell him I don’t understand but it’s clear my tire needs changing. A mechanic doesn’t make me wait all day or make me make an appointment he just gets down on his haunches and proceeds to remove my wheel to replace the inner tube.

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While he’s doing this I buy myself an iced tea and wander over to a couple of guys playing Chinese Chess a popular past time in Vietnam and something I’ve now (just this moment) decided to try and learn. I say hi to the guys and they try to engage me in conversation but their English is limited and I can’t get beyond greetings and prices in Vietnamese so we’re not going anywhere. I jumped out of the way as I delivery vehicle turns the corner. When I say delivery vehicle I mean a bike piled high with boxes of drinks and other small shop items. You have to see the photo to believe it but this sort of thing is quite normal around here and these delivery guys handle their overloaded bikes with aplomb.

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The repair finishes and with smiles all around the boys double check all nuts and bolts to make sure everything is where it should be. I ask the elderly man managing the place the price. I’m gratified that he understands my accent and I’m obviously getting some of the tones right because he tells me the price in Vietnamese. I confirm the price as 50,000 (about $2.80) and pay him. He smiles when I say you’re welcome in Vietnamese after he thanked me for the payment. I drive away with smiles and laughs all round feeling somewhat chuffed that I managed some form of communication. Mind you I probably could have done the same thing without speaking a word of Vietnamese but perhaps they would have charged me $3.80! I’ll have to ask my Vietnamese teacher how much they normally charge locals for these things. She be happy that I tried out my Vietnamese.

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March 15, 2009 at 10:43 pm

I play tennis in a theme park graveyard

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On Thursday’s after school I take my tired and flabby body down to the local tennis courts at Phu My Hung (expatty area in District 7) and put myself through something akin to exercise. By that I mean that I flail around with a racquet in my hand hoping as if by some form of unseen magic that I will be able to strike the yellow object steaming in my direction. Occasionally I hit it and, in even rarer moments, the ball will land sweetly on the other side of the net whereupon I will put a smug smile on my face as if to say "hah, I meant that".

But this post is not about my attempts to play tennis it is instead about where I play tennis. You see I play tennis in a graveyard. Not just any graveyard mind you but the graveyard of a themepark. Not many people can say that. Not many people get to play beneath the spokes of a giant Ferris Wheel, not so much the London Eye as the Phu My Hung Eyesore. I usually park my bike not far from the faux pagoda which lies next to the merry not-go-round. Down a cracked and weed filled path lies the remains of the theme park’s backbone, the rollercoaster and next to the courts the dusty, leaning, voucher booth with the door that swings open when the wind blows. A Vietnamese flag stills flies valiantly from a flagpole tottering at 45 degrees so that the flag brushes against the nearby bushes. All the rides are still brightly painted but with a sheen of dust, a veneer of despair, a coating of calamity.

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I don’t know why the courts are in a theme park graveyard but I like playing there. I like the still air, the creaking doors, the overwhelming feeling of a happy place in disrepair. I like to look up occasionally and wonder what stopped that gaily painted Ferris Wheel from turning. Was it the rumoured death of youngster aboard for the first ride or something more prosaic like a lack of income that caused this wonderland to die a slow death. In any case the ghosts of happiness roam that park and I can think of no more interesting place to play the game of tennis.

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March 14, 2009 at 9:00 pm

The rain, the rain, the rain has come to Saigon and it’s a hoot.

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rainy saigon over district 7

It seems the rains may have come early this year. I’m told they don’t normally arrive until April or so yet here they are in all their resplendent, thunderous glory. Earlier this week I paused while walking down the corridor as I heard noisier than normal shrieks of delight from some of our primary kids. I looked out the window to the field below to see these kids running and laughing giddily as the rain began to fall. Their delight was palpable and I laughed to see them having so much fun out in the rain.

A few days later I stood on my balcony and watched as the winds caught errant rain drops and took them for a whirlwind dance through the sky, completely defiant of gravity, before finally allowing them to continue their descent to the ground. Seconds before the dance of the raindrops I had watched in awe as the sky darkened and rain clouds raced across the sky to turn the sun filled day, into a dimly lit cavern, ready to explode in a shower of water.

Today I sit at a coffee shop on Saigon’s famed Le Loi street. My coffee is milky, hot and strong. On my iPhone Eddie Vedder provides a soundtrack to today’s episode of backpackingteacher. I sit outside, yet undercover. I’m close enough to the rain to feel the occasional sprinkle yet not close enough that I have to move. The skies crackle with thunder and the air is strong and wet and smells of rain. The water pours down but, unperturbed the locals on bikes continue to drive by. Only now they’ve all donned raincoats which generally cover them, their handlebars, and the passenger at the back who, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they’re on the back of a rickety vehicle travelling at high speed amongst many other such similar vehicles, rearrange their positions constantly to best avoid getting wet.


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The streets begin to look like rivers and the cars and bikes create wakes like speedboats and ocean liners. The the approach of bike riders to riding the riverroad varies. Some ride slowly, legs held high above the water as if delivering a baby, other riders plough through at full speed creating wakes as tall as their bikes. A third subset walk their bikes through as the water laps at their shins and knees.

And it continues to rain with unrelenting ferocity. The rain lasts over two hours. I have things to do but I don’t mind the rain enforced layover in this coffeeshop. A friend calls and laughs as she recounts getting caught up in the downpour and getting absolutely soaked. The air is beginning to cool considerably and it smells sweet and fresh. I almost feel like I want to run out into the rain laughing giddily like the kids at school.

Le Loi flooded

The flooding streets (see video) look like such disorganised, chaotic fun I decide to ride home in the rain. I drive out the carpark contemplating whether I’ll be a legs akimbo, giving birth driver or, water be damned, I can make waves driver. I don’t have time to make the decision because as I exit the carpark into knee high water my bike stalls and I’m forced to get off and push it through the river back into the carpark. So much for riding home in the rain. Instead I’m stuck in a carpark waiting for a mechanic to effect repairs. Ah well, not to worry, it’ll probably be raining again tomorrow.

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March 8, 2009 at 1:40 pm