Backpacking Teacher

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

Archive for August 2009

I love these unexpected evenings in Saigon

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You gotta love this town. On the way home this evening I stopped off at a local haunt when I saw a good friend having a quiet beer there. We chatted for awhile then ordered some of the great food this very local place serves.  We’re there for awhile when a guy next too us strikes up a conversation. Now this is not the first time this has happened and, on previous occasions we have found ourselves drinking dubious alcohol or engaged in simplistic conversation and mime but, on this occasion our conversationalist proved to be from the United States.

He introduces himself as being from San Francisco but, for all intents and purposes, appears to be Vietnamese. Both my friend and I are well travelled and neither of us are particularly insensitive so it takes us awhile to ascertain that he is indeed American (which neither of us doubted) but was born in Saigon and is one of those people who escaped from the south in 1975. I say escaped because those are his words and because for him it was, no doubt, an escape. Now this is what I love about this town. I was planning on a quiet night but instead I end up having an experience. Our friend turns out to have been an air traffic controller (hence the photo above) who left the country in 1975 just as South Vietnam was about to fall.  He tells us about making a new life in San Francisco, the pre-1975 days and how English and French were widely spoken in the streets of Saigon and how he made it out. We learn about his restaurant business, how he didn’t return to Vietnam until 2005, after Clinton had normalised US/Vietnam relations and how the city had changed so much since he left. We don’t talk politics because that is still a no-no in Vietnam but we do skirt around the edges. We’re fascinated by our newly found friend because he connects us to a Vietnam that we only know of through documentaries. We buy each other drinks, although I think he buys us more drinks than we buy him, share phone numbers and agree to meet up one night in Cholon, the Chinese district which he knows well, at some stage in the future. I love this town. I was just driving home and going to have a quiet night. Instead I lived a little history, not for the first time and, no doubt, not for the last.


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August 27, 2009 at 12:22 am

Down and out in Paris (with apologies to George Orwell)

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Camino de Santiago July 2009 780

A very promising and thoughtful ex-student of mind once gave me a book by George Orwell about his early impoverished days in Paris and London called, appropriately, “Down and Out in Paris and London”. The book was an enjoyable read and quite an insight into the depths of poverty that existed in Europe in the early half of the 20th century.

Camino de Santiago July 2009 765
The title and story came to mind as I walked the tourist embraced streets of Paris. This city of lights has little obvious signs of poverty today. This is not my first time to Paris but here again I found myself wandering the familiar tourist route of the Seine, Notre Dame, Champs Elysee etc. Sights I’ve seen before but I was just enjoying the early morning walk.

Then I arrived somewhat accidentally at the Louvre. I have never been inside and had not had any intention to do so today. Not because I don’t like art but because it seemed so de rigeur to do so in Paris that I rebelled against the idea that this could be Paris. I had promised myself that Paris was a coffee in a cafe with a newspaper watching the world go around me. I did not need to say I’d been to the Louvre as if somehow that gave me some cachet of art credibility. But then I dissapointed myself. I saw the queue was short and, on a whim, entered. What a mistake. I found myself in a bedlam of cameras, strollers, t-shirts and bumbags.

Jostling and barely having time to view some of the stupendous works around we eventually found ourselves before a glass enclosed, little picture of the woman with the enigmatic smile. The jostling, the cameras, the security, it could almost have been the papparazzi at work with Madonna to the fore.. Quick we must get a photo, stop, study the painting, you, yes you, put your head to the side, ok now you, finger to the chin. Ok done, I think we still have time for the eiffel tower. I wandered around the Louvre for awhile trying to take in the amazing pieces of art that fill it’s every nook and cranny but I left feeling sullied. Like I’d done something just to say I’d done it. It afforded me little pleasure. I felt down and out in this world famous museum.

So I went to a cafe and read my newspaper and watched the colourful world of Paris pass me by. What a delightful, colourful, character filled city. I forgot how much I enjoy the vibrancy of multicultural cities. Saigon is very monocultural and much of the Spain I’d seen (as fantastic as it was) was similarly monocultural. Paris reminded me of Sydney with it’s people of different hues, it’s colour, it’s vibrancy. Now I know why people like Paris.

— Posted from my phone

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August 7, 2009 at 1:52 am

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I went to the end of the world today and burned my clothes

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I went to the end of the world today and burned my clothes. My Camino closed as my clothes burned and flames flicked into the air while in front of me I saw nought but ocean. While Santiago de Compostela is the end of the Camino many pilgrims in the past continued to the end of the world, as it was known then. Here, at Finesterre, they would collect a shell, symbol of the peregrino, to show they had been to the end of the world. I’m not sure where the clothes burning comes from but it is a tradition to do so.

I had arrived at Finesterre with a few fellow peregrinos. As we drove out of Santiago I would occasionally catch glimpses of yellow arrows or shells and my body would lurch as my feet and mind willed me to walk. The speeding car scared me a little and it felt a travesty to be travelling so quickly through such beautiful countryside. When we arrived in Finesterre we proceeded to the waymarker and the lighthouse that mark the end of the world. There we symbolically burned some items we had brought with us. I burned my silk sleeping sack brought from Vietnam that symbolized my travels to a different place every night, I also burned my socks as a symbol of the pain I’d had to endure from my blisters to get to the end of my Camino. It was as I watched the flames flicker that I finally felt my Camino coming to an end and, as the last flames finally died, I said a fond farewell to a fantastic, deeply felt experience.

Ps. My last two days in Santiago were bittersweet as I finally said goodbye to many friends I’d made along the way. On the last days just hours before my flight I met up again with my Lithuanian friend. It was great to see her again and my Camino would have felt slightly empty if I hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye to her. We had travelled much of the Camino together and shared many similar experiences. Once again, the Camino delivered when I needed. Even though it was finished.

— Posted from my phone

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August 4, 2009 at 2:05 am

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A night out in Santiago de Compostela after having walked 800km

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Santiago de Compostela threw a party for me, or at least that’s what it felt like. July 31st, the day of my arrival, saw the last day of a week of activities celebrating the feast day of Santiago (which falls on July 25th). The town was absolutely buzzing when I went to meet my Spanish travelling companions in front of the Cathedral. Cafe’s bustled into the street, buskers played from every corner and students and peregrinos rubbed shoulders in the dense, worn stone little calles of the old town.

From the Cathedral I walked a little way and fell in love with opera. Round the corner from the cathedral under an arch of fantastic acoustics two buskers performed various arias from Italian opera. I have heard opera and seen opera before but never developed a taste for it. But here in Santiago sitting on dirty stone steps with fellow peregrinos I listened to these stupendous voices boom through this cathedral arch. A crowd formed and we were given a performance of the voice that brought shivers down the spine.

It was to be a night of music. After the opera we watched a Celtic bagpipe band (Galician culture is strongly Celtic influenced), then passed several busking guitarists, a violinist and a rather scary looking clown. Then into a crowded little cafe for beers and the most delicious pinchos (bar food similar to tapas). I ran into many familiar faces as we moved from little crowded pub to little crowded pub in the narrow alleyways. In one place I ate the Spanish delicacy of pig’s ears (much softer and fattier than I’d imagined).

Then onto the concert (with fireworks going off in the background) where some local bands played before a packed audience of peregrinos in sandals and fleeces, students in jeans and t-shirts and touragrinos (tourists who bused it into Santiago) with their polo shirts and bumbags. It was a fantastic night of partying and a great way to cap off our arrival. This old town with it’s old buildings and winding streets of bars and cafes is just alive at night and for once I had no peregrino Albergue curfew to adhere to 😉

— Posted from my phone

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August 3, 2009 at 7:09 pm

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Reflections on my Camino de Santiago

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As my Camino ends I think it’s time to look back on it.

To me the Camino was a thing to be done because it sounded physically challenging and a completely different experience from those I’ve had before. It was in a country i knew little about and involved an intriguing history. The Camino certainly was physically challenging. In the beginning my muscles cried out with pain, going up mountains my breath came out as ragged gasps, my shoulders ached at their burden. In the later stages problems with new boots caused blisters that made it feel at times that I was walking on needles. By this stage the rest of my body was strong and could walk for hours on end if need be.

Mentally the Camino was also challenging. Some days it was difficult to get your mind into gear or to stop thinking about your aches and pains or to find the scenery monotonous. It was at these times that mental fortitude became important, the ability not to give up but just to move on. Mental toughness became necessary again when blisters came to play. Early morning starts were especially painful and it took some gritting of teeth to get through this.

The Camino was a journey of inner peace. The beauty of the walks, the simple daily routines brought you to a mental oasis that allowed your thoughts to soar. When your body began to walk automatically your mind began, like a bee flitting from flower to flower, to move from thought to thought in something that resembles dreaming but still being completely cognizant of what’s happening. It reminded me of how my mind used to fly around when sitting in a classroom as a bored pre-teen.

The Camino was about community, as disparate people from disparate age groups, ethnicities and beliefs became, for a brief time, a roving closely knit community, supportive and encouraging of each other. Lost things were returned, food was shared, commiserations given, blisters attended to by others, massages given, wine drunk, stories told, jokes shared, laughter joined and pleasure taken in each others company.

The Camino is for many a life changing experience. I can see how this could be. Everday is the same routine but delivers new surprises and joys. You never know where you’ll sleep or what the town you’re in will be like. You don’t know who you’ll have dinner and drinks with. You do know that it will nonetheless all happen somehow. This creates an inner peace, a confidence in the fact that things always work themselves out. You are someone who has walked 800km, almost a marathon everyday for a month. This is not a small feat. This creates an inner confidence.

I’m not sure if the Camino is life changing for me. Perhaps time and distance will tell me that. What I know is that it is life affirming. People are good, nature is stupendously wonderful, our bodies are remarkable machines and our minds love simple routines so they have time to thrive.

I loved my Camino. An entirely fulfilling experience. At the end of the Camino at the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela the signs for alpha and omega (signifying the beginning and the end) have been reversed signifying that this is a new beginning. It echoes the sentiments of the elderly Spanish gent, whom I walked into Léon with and who gave me a rundown on Camino history, when he said, “the end of the Camino isn’t sad it is happy because it signifies the beginning of something new”.

My personal take on the Camino.. Get up, walk, shower, wash, eat, drink, talk, sleep. These simple things are the Camino. Walk, just walk … the rest of life will take care of itself.

— Posted from my phone

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August 2, 2009 at 8:26 pm

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Day 31: Arco do Pino to Santiago de Compostela … 800km in 31 days

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Chocolate con churros is a typically Spanish breakfast snack. Donut like sticks encrusted with sugar dipped into thick dark hot chocolate. My last day was much like this favoured snack – bitter sweet.

The last day started, like so many others with a tired body wanting more sleep, zipping bags, strapping of feet and hefting of backpacks onto the back. I headed out, like so many other days, into the dark. I started off by myself but soon found myself walking through the forests with a young german guy who admitted being quite scared of the mist enveloped forests. I guess the Camino delivered me to him to make his journey a bit easier.

The mist was to remain heavy all day right until I walked into the square around the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. It was so heavy I couldn’t see more than 50 metres ahead of me. When I walked under trees they rained on me as the mist so heavy it condensed on the leaves and rained from them. It was quite surreal to see the patches under trees all wet and dripping while elsewhere it was dry.

I spent most of the walk wrapped in my thoughts. Thinking back on the Camino I remembered the places I’d stayed at the people I’d met and made friends with, the meals I’d had, the sections of walk I’d enjoyed, the tough days and the joyful ones. My walk was a quiet, reflective stroll. Through it all I kept feeling that today was a good day to finish.

About an hour out of Santiago I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in weeks. We walked most of the way into town before she veered off to go to her Albergue. It was good to run into her but I was happy to walk in by myself. I enjoyed this quiet reflective mood I was in.

I wandered into the old town, down some steps and then, around the corner from the Cathedral I stopped to sit awhile. I wasn’t quite ready for the Camino to end yet. I sat there awhile watching peregrinos pass and listening to buskers play.

And then I walked around the corner to the Cathedral, walked until I was in front of it. I looked up. Then I stopped walking. 800 km. I sat on my backpack, like so many other peregrinos around me and looked up at the Cathedral. I felt no excitement or joy, I didn’t want to jump or dance, I felt no sadness, I didn’t want to cry. I felt strangely peaceful. Completely calm, at ease. I breathed in. For many moments I thought nothing, I just was. I don’t think I’ve ever been at such peace.

After awhile I looked around, took photos and videos and then admired this stupendous Cathedral. By far the most stupendous Cathedral I’ve seen, coloured no doubt by the fact that I had to walk 800km to see it 😉 I greeted a few familiar faces then wandered through the Cathedral. On wandering out of the Cathedral I saw my Italian travelling companion for many days, she was just about to head out but with an overjoyed shout we hugged each other and exchanged stories. A few other familiar faces came into focus and we all talked awhile. After saying a few painful goodbyes I headed off to the Office of Peregrinos to get my Compostela. The Latin document that certifies I have completed the pilgrimage to the resting place of the disciple James. I attended midday mass and caught up with a few other familiar faces before heading off to my accommodation.

I splurged. The night before I’d found a five star hotel located close to the Cathedral. I’d booked two nights at the Melia Aragauney. I trudged into this five star hotel tired, dirty and smelly. A beautiful little hotel decorated tastefully in a middle eastern style my body thanked me deeply for this gift. I thought it only fair after all I’d asked of it over the last 31 days. Tonight I’ll go out for dinner and drinks with my Spanish friends and, no doubt, run into others I know. The Camino is over, tonight we celebrate our fantastic achievement. We walked 800km, every single step of it.

I’m brought to mind the Proclaimer’s song “I would walk 500 miles”. Today I can say not that I would walk 500 miles but that I did walk 500 miles. I didn’t know if I could do it. Now I know.

— Posted from my phone

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August 1, 2009 at 3:56 am