Sunday, February 24, 2013

Waiting for Myanmar

February 24, 2013

My early morning editing of episode four was interrupted by a man overboard drill.  The announcement of “this is just an exercise” preceded, “MAN OVERBOARD!”  The ship banked to the starboard side and let out a horn blast.  How exciting!  Especially when your coffee almost spills on your computer…oh, life aboard a ship, never a dull moment.

I wrapped up my episode by noon – wahoo!  It'll be uploaded and be airing in a few days on  Don't forget to check it out!

At 5:00pm, there was the second of a series of workshops for Women for Better Business, where we explored prootyping our dream careers.

During the first workshop, we went into discovery mode to see what type of a workplace we’re looking for in order to find out what our dream career would be.  I realized that a lot of my likes were just reciting what I have right now.  Flexibility with hours, constantly changing projects, creative control and travel.  The one thing I discovered that I feel like I’m lacking is a larger creative team.  Matt and I work so well together, but it would be awesome to have a larger team to bounce ideas off of and spread out more work in order to take on larger and more intensive projects.

In this workshop, we did a fast brainstorm of all the possibilities, rated them with our values, then narrowed them down to the things that we felt were highest on our list.  The hardest factor of this exercise is the how much is unknown about all these "out there" options.  It was an interesting learning experience because I realized that I'm living my dream career.  Owning our own business and working as freelancers allows us the flexibility with projects and clients that I absolutely love.  It also gives us control over the budgets and finances which, although a little scary at times, is very rewarding to be in charge of those decisions.  (Fruitful...not yet, but we've only been at this for less than a year.)

I realized that I don't have a dream job, but rather a dream project.  I want to direct the narrative feature about Operation Babylift.  During the meeting, I talked with ladies from all different fields that threw out connections and things that I should do to make this dream a reality.  It was fun to talk through what steps I need to take because the steps are easier to grasp in my mind than the big idea.  I suppose that's with any dream.  You can't just jump from A to Z, you have to make it through each letter, maybe not in order, but it's easier in smaller chunks.
At the end of the meeting, we all clinked glasses, and I wandered to the front of the ship where I caught sight of the sunset. It was absolutely beautiful!  I snapped a photo to the East and then one to the West and thought I'd share it with you as a parting thought.

Our world is beautiful.

Porting in Myanmar tomorrow morning, then taking a flight up to Mandalay and one over to Bagan in a whirl-wind tour of all the epic b-roll locations around Myanmar.  Our trip got cut short on both ends because of some crazy government things, so we're not able to leave the ship until 4pm tomorrow, and have to be back on the ship by noon on our last day here.  So, we're basically down from five to three days in Myanmar.  You win some, you lose some.

Oh yes, and we will be losing internet tomorrow, and it's highly regulated in Myanmar, so no promises on updates for the next five days, but I'll keep track and write these out and upload them when I get a chance.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

In Loving Memory...

February 23, 2013

Yet another sea day today which results in more editing.  I’m still working on the fourth episode, and am sadly uninspired with my edit.  I had a good meeting this evening, that will help me finish up by 17:00 tomorrow when it's due.

One thing about ship-life is the lack of decent working space.  I’ve found that if I edit in our room, I'm terribly distracted by having internet, visitors, snacks and looping Disney films.  I've found that if I edit in the co-working closet that we call The Eagle's Nest, I'm saddened by a lack of internet, but strangely focused, however extremely down by the end of 8 hours of an enclosed, rocking space.  The editing is better, but my mood is worse.

I can't complain about it because of how flipping awesome this trip has been and is going to be, and also because of what amazing experiences I've had and will have.  I can handle a little grumpy post-production with the epic shooting that goes with it.  I hope you guys like episode four!

While editing, there was an announcement over the intercom that there would be a memorial service held in the Union for one of the professors that was teaching on the ship who had passed away in Shanghai, China.  I didn't want to post about it when it happened out of respect for his family, but I really want to talk about the memorial service because it was truly moving for me.

A professor and his wife were both teaching on the ship, and on their way back from a field lab in Shanghai, he had a heart attack on the bus and passed away.  His wife decided soon after that she would accompany the ashes back to the United States where they would have a funeral with her and his family, and then that she would come back to the ship to finish the voyage.  I can't even believe she came back.  I would be a sobbing pile, and I'm not sure I'd ever want "Semester at Sea" mentioned again.

However, as was made clear during the memorial service, we've built an amazing community aboard this ship, and it's like coming back to a new family.  This family had gone through the loss with her - not at the same level, of course - but had literally experienced it as it happened, and that made this a place of comfort.

The service was led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and hundreds of people showed up to honor the professor.  Scripture, poems and quotes were read.  Arch delivered a wonderful message.  He started out by having us focus on the change that has happened within us.  We live in a world of go, go, go, and we are all "go" people, yet we sit on a ship and allow the nine days that it will take to arrive at a port enjoying the journey and the people along the way.  A journey that could take a few hours on a plane outside of this ship-world. We're not sitting and biting our nails wondering when we'll arrive in Japan or thinking how much quicker we could get there.  We've made our journey around the world a part of the adventure. (My words.)

He talked about love.  Ending with a message of Immanuel.  Entering our pain. Wiping away our tears and embracing us with the words, "I love you."  He ended the message by whispering, "I love you," over and over.  It was pretty powerful.

Arch has a pretty good sense of humor.
This is a photo op turned silly with Matt and I.
After Amazing Grace was played by two students on the piano and a saxophone, he said into the mic, "The proper response is 'Hallelujah and Amen.'"  The students quietly repeated it.  He stopped in his tracks, put down his arms and said, "Well, that was not very enthusiastic.  How about give me some oomph?"  And the students belted it out.  The wife of the late professor looked so pleased with the whole memorial service.

He then closed the time with an ending in his native tongue.  It was beautiful.

At this time, we all processed out to the very back of the ship where there was a receiving line to give her and her brother, who joined the ship when she returned, a hug and some kind words.  Then, students were able to throw roses off the back of the ship.  The entire three back decks were full of students, and the captain was taking the ship in a giant infinity pattern.  Riding along on the back deck as the ship groaned into the massive figure eight was a humbling moment.  You could see our curved trail behind us, and the ship turned so sharply that the water inside of the wake was almost completely smooth, and the water outside the wake was rough and choppy.  It gave the infinity symbol a surreal permanence as we drifted around.  Roses floated by as the ship crossed its path, and we all watched the pink sunset together.

Our curved trail.  I wish I had panorama view to show you.
As I watched a single rose float by four stories down, I realized how small the little flower was in the ocean and imagined it being swallowed up in a storm 50 miles away.  I felt introspective and peaceful, and I thought about the losses I've experienced in my life.  I thought of the people that I remember so alive, and then thought of how sad I am that they are no longer with us.  Staring down at the dark water, I thought about my life's work and what would be ahead for me, and I thought about how I wanted to look back on this moment at one point in my life and smile at the peacefulness that I had felt. I thought about how much I love Matt, and how badly I don't want to lose him.  I thought about my family, and how excited I am that we'll be coming home in a couple months.

The students on the 7th deck watching the sunset
spin around us as the ship made its figure 8.
Then, I came into the present, and I realized how crazy it is to be staring at roses floating in the middle of the ocean in warm, humid air as I sail to a country on the opposite side of the world from my home.  I remember wanting to be a veterinarian, then a marine biologist, then some sort of scientist or engineer, then meeting the love of my life and falling in love with his craft, which led me to film school to meet the people who got me this job, that led me to this ship.  What a crazy journey this life is.

Well, I've got to head to bed.  It'll be an early morning tomorrow to finish my episode and feel good about it before 5pm.

To all of you reading this post, I hope you do something a little bit unreasonable in your life.  I hope you get out of your comfort zone this week and try that new food, or ask out that handsome person, or take the day off and call that family member or friend you've been neglecting.  Live in the moments you're given and live just on the edge of contentment.

And remember: I love you!  Over and out.

Change of Plans

February 22, 2013

It’s a sea day today, which means we’re all in separate dark rooms doing post-production on the ship.  Matt and I have been working the the “Eagle’s Nest”.  Matt is editing a snapshot of our time in Tokyo at the InterAqua water conference that he and Rosa attended.  Very entertaining.  I’m working on episode 4 of our web series where I will be showing the story that we followed with Tendekayi in Shanghai visiting the Solar Ear lab.

We spent some time this morning solidifying our travel plans in Myanmar, and Matt, Danny, Mark, Larissa and I are going to be heading up north and visiting Mandalay and Bagan to see a monastery where they feed 1,000 monks every single day and 5,000 pagodas in a single location.  Thom and Joani were just in Myanmar, so they recommended a sight-seeing tower in Bagan where we can catch the sunrise over the pagodas.  I can’t wait!

In planning forward for the rest of the trip, the entrepreneurs have begun making some excellent connections in these countries and now have other travel plans than riding along on the ship’s route.  We’ve had to decide between staying with the few ventures left on the ship between India and South Africa, or sending people off into other countries to follow the travels of our entrepreneurs.  For Matt and I, they’ve chosen the latter.

Matt and I are going to head off of the ship for a two-week adventure.  We’ll port in Cochin, India on March 6 at which point the rest of the team and all of the entrepreneurs will be heading to Bangalore for an Unreasonable Event.  We will follow Mouhsine and Minh from Prakti Design to another part of India, I think it’s Chennai, to stay there, visit their friends and potentially take their biomass stove out and test it in a couple markets.  On March 17, we’ll be flying to Phnom Pen, Cambodia, where they had just visited during our Vietnam port, to follow them to a world-wide stove convention that anybody who is anybody in the stove world attends.  The other Unreasonable venture, One Earth Designs, is also planning on going, so we’ll get to see Catlin there, too.  We’ll stay through the conference and get to enjoy some of Cambodia since we didn’t get to visit there during our Vietnam stay, and also visit a local village where Prakti would like to donate a stove to a coffee shop owner that they had met while they were in Cambodia a week ago.  (This world travel stuff is crazy!)

After about five days in Cambodia, we will fly to Cape Town, South Africa and beat the ship by two days.  Matt and I will get some b-roll around Cape Town and shoot anything else that Minh and Mouhsine have planned, then meet the ship at port on March 25 where we’ll finally get to do some laundry.  Whew!

I’m looking forward to our crazy adventure!  But first, we need to finish these edits and have a great time in Myanmar (or Burma for you old-school cats).

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Singapore: Day 2 of 2

Well, I didn't see as much of Singapore as I was hoping, but Matt and I still enjoyed our time here.  I woke up at 7:30am to go grab some breakfast on the ship and found Tendekayi of Solar Ear eating in the dining room.  I joined him, and we started talking about today's plans.  Our job was to follow our assigned entrepreneurs with whatever they were doing today or grab b-roll around the city, so I was up for whatever.

Tendekayi had a meeting with the Singapore Association for the Deaf, and he was okay with us following along to film it.  We found ourselves a taxi outside of the port and headed to their building.  We met some of the leaders of the association, two of whom were deaf, and had a great meeting.  They showed us around the school, and we got to meet a small class of deaf students.  They came out to the courtyard and showed us where they lived on the map of the world that was painted there, and then we showed them where we live.  All they know of the United States is New York City, so that's where we decided to be from.  No problem.

They showed us around past the primary school and to the vocational school where they train people with disabilities to get jobs in the Singapore.  Most of the work that's available for them is in hotel hospitality, so they are trained to cook, set tables and serve food in a beautiful kitchen and faux restaurant set-up, as well as trained to clean hotel rooms in a staged hotel room complete with a viewing room on the side to watch as others work.  It's fantastic!

They led us upstairs where they would like to put the Solar Ear lab where people with hearing loss would build hearing aids and solar chargers for sale in southeast Asia.  Right now, Solar Ear plants are in Botswana where it started, Brazil and Shanghai (where we visited - watch for that episode next week!) and they will be putting one in India and now they're planning for one in Singapore.  Go Solar Ear!!  Growing like crazy and changing the perceptions of people with hearing loss on an international level. Hopefully, this lab would become a source of income for the vocational school to help grow all of their other programs.

Matt, Shawna and Nizam chillin' at the Hawker Centre.
At the end of our tour, we did a quick interview with Tendekayi, then grabbed a taxi to the Fullerton Hotel in the downtown business district of the city.  The Fullerton is a beautiful place and was originally a massive post office for the port of Singapore before being gutted and turned into a hotel.

We were there to meet with Nizam, a freelance videographer that has worked for the BBC and National Geographic.  He was on the ship from Vietnam to Singapore doing a story for the BBC on Unreasonable at Sea.  He used to work for the BBC full time, but found that he didn't have as big of a variety of projects as he wanted, so he went freelance, but still gets jobs from them on occasion.  He's a very adventurous fellow, and he's covered things like the tsunami in Japan as it was happening.

Kaya toast and magic Singaporian coffee.
Earlier in the day, we had asked our cab driver where he would recommend we go with only one day left in Singapore.  He said, in his thick accent, something like, "Go hooker for abortion curry."  I had him repeat it a couple times, but couldn't quite understand why he was recommending we seek out the red light district...

Well, Nizam took us to the Hawker Centre where they had a huge food court full of separate stands of Asian food. It was a wonderful bouquet of smells and tastes and things to see.  AAAH!  It was wonderful! turns out that you can get single "portions" of the curry at the "Hawker" centre.  The cab driver was trying to tell us that we didn't have to order the family portion, just the small portion of it.  Makes for a funny story later.

We had to get another cup of coffee to go, and
it came in these convenient dangle carriers.
We had Korean BBQ, a smattery of Indian dishes, a plate of random breads and veggies that we dipped in bright red, sweet and spicy peanut-tasting sauce, and finally, the grand finale of foods, kaya toast with coffee.  Kaya toast is a magical concoction of butter and kaya (a green, sweet, jelly-type substance made from a leaf, I think) smooshed between two pieces of toast which you dip into thick, sweet coffee.  They have the BEST coffee in Asia.  It's a dark roast, brewed like espresso and not watered down except for with sweetened condensed milk.  Magic.

After lunch, we made our way back to the ship, so that we can embark to Myanmar this evening.  It sounds like Matt and I will get a little bit of time off in Myanmar, and I'm very much looking forward to that.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Singapore: Day 1 of 2

Singapore is an interesting comparision to the other countries and cities that we've been to in the last two months.  Starting in San Diego, I've felt like we've crept our way down the development-level scale until getting to Ho Chi Minh, the least developed place I've ever been.  (Which doesn't say much for my world experience...)

I'm awkwardly excited to be in Singapore.
We're still not sure if I should have
gotten caned for doing this...
Singapore was named the wealthiest country in the world this year, and it shows!  Take the Bellagio and Mandalay Bay out of Las Vegas and cover an island with that level of extravagance, and you've got yourself the city of Singapore.

We learned during our pre-port meeting that they have some very strict laws, like no chewing gum, spitting or jay-walking, which are punishable by caning.  We also learned that if you're caught with drugs, it's punishable by death via hanging.  You know...any given day in Singapore.

The city is ridiculously clean and crime is virtually non-existent.  There is no poverty.  Well, it's all relative.  It's such an expensive place to live that they do have subsidized apartments where the lower-income people ($70,000 a year or so) can have a place to live.  Things are immaculate and extravagant and interesting and artistic, and there is construction everywhere because their economy is booming.

Posing in my $8 Wal-Mart sunglasses
in front of $8 billion buildings.
Singapore is a melting pot of Asian cultures, and speaks english because there are so many Chinese, Malaysians and Indians that they had to pick a common language back in 1958 when they got independence so that it would unify the country.  There were so many culture wars, they had to go with a neutral language to make people feel like the language was something they could have in common.  With the mix of cultures comes interesting and creative architecture and a fun-looking, modern style that mixes up New York trendy with classic Eastern decor.

We learned that having a car in this country is a very expensive endeavor.  First of all, the number of cars on the island is capped, so cars can only enter when cars leave, and it turns out to be about 200-300 of these slots per month.  With a population of 5 million, you can imagine that these are of high value to people.  They auction them off when they come available, and the cost of getting the right to own a vehicle can run you around $90,000 on average.  This license expires in 10 years.  So, you buy the right to have the car, then you buy the car, which is über expensive because everything has to be imported.  Then, once you've got the car, you get a GPS system in the vehicle that tracks which roads you drive on and for how long, and you get charged for the road usage.  It would be like having a taxi meter in your car and getting charged for driving it.  People complain about taxes in the US...don't move to Singapore!

Matthew running camera for the event today.
We loaded up a bus from the port with the entire Unreasonable at Sea group to head to the Singapore Unreasonable Event that was planned by the local TEDx community.  The University sponsored it, and they did an absolutely lovely job.  It was a well-attended event, and they fed us like there was no tomorrow.

We had sushi, deep-fried soft-shell crab with sweet chili sauce, coffee eclairs, mango noodle salad and a few more things that I tried and loved, but have no idea what I ingested.  We ate way, way too much for lunch, then had to shoot the three hour pitch event.  Not the best idea when we're all sleep-deprived.  All I wanted was a nap.

Regardless, I ran slider up on the stage to get epic shots of the pitches and the audience, and I never fell asleep once.  The entrepreneurs did a great job, and the crowd really loved to hear about all of the great ideas that these companies have.

Photo compliments of Mark Crawford of today's Unreasonable pitch event.
Outside of the Fullerton where we had the
reception hosted by Google.  There you can see
the Sands Resort towers.  The infinity pool
is the connecting structure on top.
At the end of the event, we went to a dinner/reception hosted by Google on the rooftop of a swanky hotel that overlooked a large pond.  It was right across from the Marina Bay Sands Resort, which is the famous three tower hotel that has a large park/garden and infinity pool connecting the top of the three towers.  This was the hotel that kept Vegas going during the US's first economy hit in 2008.  Yes, they make that much money.  It's the most profitable hotel in the world.  The building cost $8 billion to build, and they paid it off within the first year of being open.

Needless to say, it was a pretty sweet view from the top of the Fullerton Bay Hotel with our free drinks and crazy-fancy appetizers.  I tried duck liver.  It was actually pretty good.  Weird spongy texture, but had the flavor of egg at first which melded into a roasted walnut finish.  Like a good wine.  Opened up nicely, as they say in the biz.

Matt and I needed to catch up on a little bit of sleep, so we didn't go out on the club scene this evening. I hear it's pretty swanky, and I'd rather save my $50 entrance fee and $15 a beverage for a hotel stay in Myanmar next week.  Oh, the life I live.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Good-bye Vietnam

It was our last day in Vietnam, and we decided to grab any final b-roll around the city that we had missed.  We went to the Ben Thanh marketplace again and spent some time in the raw meat section.  We met a cute couple who live in California that are originally from Vietnam.  They’ve lived in California for 30 years now, but come back each year for Tet to visit their family.  The little man was picking out live shrimp for lunch.  He told me that you pick out your meat and then head inside the market to the food vendors who cook it up for you, and you can take it home and eat it in your hotel.  Brilliant!  We didn’t try it, but it sounded nice.

Matt was filming in the market and getting attacked by little crawfish jumping out of their buckets at him.  Matt made friends with one vendor by returning the shrimp to the bucket unharmed.

We were pretty exhausted and a little bit Ho Chi Minh’ed out, so we found a Pho place for lunch, then headed to our favorite coffee shop with shady, rooftop seating overlooking the Cathedral and post office in the middle of town and got ourselves some afternoon beers.

It was about time to wrap up and get back on the ship, so we walked back to the bus and loaded ourselves onto the ship for a special event on the back deck: a barbecue!  We had ribs and coleslaw and macaroni and cheese!  It was amazing!!  Such a fun moment to sit in the humid heat of Vietnam enjoying a barbecue rib and great company.

We talked about our adventures and our thoughts on Asia, then had a meeting to pitch the stories we filmed for the Vietnam episode.  Matt and I pitched Pedro’s story pretty well, so you just might get to experience that day via video.

One interesting thing about Vietnam is that fact that there is Wifi virtually everywhere.  If you go into a restaurant or food-selling establishment (aka open garage on the side of a tall building), you might have to ask for a password, but you can get it anywhere and everywhere.  Sometimes the cab drivers even have their own little network right in the cab.

I was picturing a very rural place with many rice-paddies and minimal buildings, but instead I found a city with the usual extremes that come with any large city – wealth and poverty.  There were rugged torn down buildings that didn’t look like they’d stand much longer next to brand new, glass skyscrapers with gold-plated steps.  Street vendors were selling ice-cream on the steps of the Gucci purse store, and at the market a woman was cleaning her apron on a sopping wet floor with a bucket and some powdered soap beneath dangling cuts of raw, room-temperature meat beside a Rolex watch seller.  (Probably knock-off…but still an interesting dichotomy.)

Every country we have been to has caught me off-guard.  What I was expecting and picturing because of the imagery associated with them in the states has more often than not been completely wrong.  Technology has connected our world, and the motorcycle taxis play Angry Birds on their smart phones during their lunches.  People are people.  They’re clever and manipulating, but they’re also interesting and funny and welcoming in every single place we’ve been to.

It’s a lot safer than people make it out to be, too.  Of course, you need to be aware of your belongings and your surroundings and avoid getting into cars with strangers, but the world is not out to get you.  You’re often targeted by street vendors since you look like a rich tourist, but for the most part, it’s just like anywhere else in the world.  People are people.

The other huge learning is how different the countries’ cultures are in Asia.  Even within a country, like China, Shanghai and Hong Kong were night and day.  My learnings as an American had me lumping them all into “Eastern” compared to our “Western-ness.”  What a shallow world-view I had (and still have as my stereo-types continue to be broken.)

It’s been two days on the ship, and time has flown by since I’m working on the Shanghai episode about Tendekayi’s visit to Solar Ear, and we’re arriving in Singapore tomorrow morning.  Our pre-port got us good and scared because they will cane you for spitting, and if you’re caught using, buying, or even having traces in your blood of illegal drugs, you can be sentenced to death via hanging.  I don’t think I’ll be pushing my luck with the authorities tomorrow.  I’ll just stick to the Chili crab.

Side note: with all of these extreme punishments for chewing gum, jaywalking or drug use, prostitution is still legal in Singapore.  Priorities, I guess.

Touring My Tho and the Mekong Delta

Matt and I gathered our film gear and met a taxi right outside the ship where Pedro and Bianca were waiting for us. They had hired a taxi for the day and were ready to search the wetlands of Southern Vietnam for a plant that would fit their water purification set-up. The taxi took off and we excitedly shared about the adventures that we had been on during our days apart.  We sang along to music and the taxi driver danced a little bit.  Everything was hunky dorey!

Then...after about 45 minutes of driving, we asked our non-english speaking driver how much longer.  He said something in Vietnamese, then tried to do some sort of hand signals.  Then, he pulled out his phone and typed in 11.  "Do you think we'll be there in about 10 minutes?"  No...we would be there at 11am.  Swish pan to the clock: it was 9:30am.  "Oh."

So, it turned out that Pedro had decided to go to My Tho which is southwest of Ho Chi Minh City.  About 2.5 hours away.  We're always down for whatever as a documentary film crew, so we just kept filming and went along for the ride.

With such a long taxi ride, a bathroom break was in order.  The driver stopped off on the side of the road where a little lunch shop with a covered patio and about 25 hammocks resided.  Pedro and Matt went to get beverages while Bianca and I headed to check out the facilities.  Around the back of the dilapidated building, through the rubble piles and mud, we found a tiled walled.  There was a small door and a raised squat toilet, so we made ourselves at home.

Pedro noticed right away that there wasn’t proper sewage disposal at the place, and realized that it could be the perfect place to hunt for the plant he was looking for.  He followed the dribbles of bathroom waste down to a nearby pond where a bunch of cattail-like plants were thriving.  As he expected, they were only thriving in this one area where the brown- and gray-water from the building was going, and decided to take a few samples back for the students on the ship and for further research.  He began plucking out three plants out of the soggy, brown mess and rinsing them off at the other end of the pond.  Mind you, these plants are about 7-feet tall.

Our friendly cab driver went into the hammock establishment and got us some plastic bags to put the root side of the plants in and delicately carried them to the cab and placed them in the trunk.  Little did he know the smell that this would result in later…

We got back on the road with a happy Pedro and made our way through the motorcycles and trucks to My Tho.  The cab driver wasn’t going fast enough for Pedro’s taste, so he proceeded to push on the driver’s leg to go faster than 60km/h.  The cab driver was so patient with us and found it funny.  He pointed to the side of the road and said, “police.”  Must be the only English word he knows.  We all understood and gave the guy a break.

We rolled into My Tho around 11:30am and were dropped off at a Makong Delta tour shop.  After much haggling, Pedro talked them down from $25 a person to $19 a person for the four of us to charter a boat down the delta to search for the plants.  He argued the man into giving us 2.5 hours instead of the standard 2-hour tour, and felt happy as we loaded onto a motorized boat across the big river.

Now, what Pedro didn’t know was that he had just paid for the most touristy tour there is on the Makong Delta.  The loaded us into the motorized boat that took us to the first of four tourist-trap islands where they stranded us in little shops and huts that made fun little items for a little bit, then came back to get us to take a boat to the next little spot.

The places were really fun and would have been a relaxing place to play with bees, drink honey tea with lime, hold a python, eat yummy fruits and hut-made coconut taffy, but Pedro was bent on getting one of the boats to take us aside to look for these plants.  Of course, this led to some hilarious encounters where he opened up his computer to the local tour operators (one being a 16-year-old boy) and showed them a picture of the plant species to see if they’d be able to help us.

It was such a beautiful location and there were so many fun things to do at each spot that we eventually lost ourselves in the tourist game and found ourselves in the coconut candy hut with a vat of snake wine in front of us.  Pedro and Matt looked over the bottles of yellow liquid with floating snakes in them that had scorpions in their mouths and decided it would be a good idea to stick that yellow broth into their tummies.

Our little tour guide, which we called Tye because we couldn’t pronounce his real Vietnamese name, opened a large jar full of the liquid and a large, coiled up python (dead, of course) and dipped a shot glass in and handed it to Pedro and Matt.  Both drank it down pleasantly surprised.  There is not enough Cipro on this earth to make me drink that stuff, so Bianca and I very rudely declined.

The rest of our tour was pleasant, but it ingeniously ended around 2:00pm at a lunch stop where a single plate of fish and rice was 1 million dong.  We were hungry, but not about to pay that much for rice, so we opted out of lunch.

The boat took us back to the main part of town where we found our cab driver who took us to a snack station before driving us back to the 2.5 hours to Ho Chi Minh City.  We feasted on the equivalent of Pringles, some sesame seed crisps and honey-coated cashews.

Along the way, Matt spotted a rice paddy with three women dressed in traditional hats and had our cab driver pull over so he could get a shot.  It was quite epic.

Pedro and Bianca dropped us off at the ship and went off to enjoy the rest of their time together in Vietnam.  Little did we know, Pedro had a ring stashed away and proposed later that night.  Eeek!  She said, “yes!”  Yay!

We were pretty darn hungry after our late lunch snack and met up with the rest of the film team who had just gotten back from their Cambodia trip to go out for one last dinner in Vietnam.

We went to a little sidewalk place that we had eaten at before and decided to try some new dishes.  We got the usual garlic rice and yellow noodles, but added some garlic escargot (snails), sour beef and roast pigeon.  The snails were massive and too much of a snail texture for me.  The sour beef was wonderful, and the pigeon was surprisingly appetizing.  It was greasy like duck but had the taste of pork.  I’d eat one of those dirty little birds again if I had the chance.

We wrapped up dinner with a Saigon beer toast and headed back to the ship where we crashed into bed exhausted.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Jibbin' it up in the HCM

Our last day of b-roll was spent lugging Matt's home-built, 12-foot jib around Ho Chi Minh City.  It was a blast!

We found a rooftop café for a short lunch break, and discovered Vietnamese coffee.  It's a strong, strong shot of espresso mixed with sweetened condensed milk.  I'm not sure you can come closer to heaven on earth...okay - I know...Vietnamese coffee during a Vietnamese massage.  Yes, that's the life.

You can see the music video production just above
Matt's left hand (your right).  Our jib's better. ;-)
Walking down the road to find a good location to set up filming, we saw a weird little contraption across the street from us.  There was another homemade jib!  A man was shooting another dude singing a song.  A music video!  Ha!  What are the chances of running into a person using his homemade jib while scouting a location to use our homemade jib?  Apparently pretty high.

After seeing how acceptable jibs are, we busted out ours in the middle of a park.  We found a cute old lady with a snack cart where she was cutting up mangoes and trying to sell us drinks.  We asked if we could take a photo, and she and her sister didn't seem to protest, so we dropped our three bags and began setting up the jib.

Matt showing the sisters how the jib works.
The were quite surprised, but went along with our antics.  The little lady would pose for "photos" as we shot video around her cart and out into the street.  We swung the jib down from signs and over her spices, and shot a conversation with her sister and an old man sitting on their little stools.

They were nice and friendly up until the point that we were finished, and then wanted money (of course).  We bought some mango and a coke, but she still wasn't happy, so finally Danny gave her the equivalent of $10, which was probably more than she makes in a day, and that shut her up.  We chocked it up to a location fee because we got some awesome footage!  Urban street vendors without teeth equals fine cinema.

Cute poses.
After appeasing the sisters, we wandered off through the dangerous streets of Vietnam.  I carried the backpack and the blue jib bag while Matt and Danny pulled a Charlie Chaplin and weaved their way through the streets with the jib all put together.

We had a few good laughs and also a couple good scares, but all in all our travel with the jib was safe.  We found a beautiful cathedral, and stopped there for a little bit to shoot the sights.  A giant tour bus of Europeans pulled up and swarmed the statue, chasing us off since a bunch of white people around the place didn't make very good Vietnam b-roll.  (No offense to white people...)

That doesn't look weird at all!
We were right next to the main post office in HCM, so I decided to send off the postcards we had written a couple days ago.  Inside, it was a sprawling, beautiful space.  It was an old building that they had turned into a post office and souvenir shop.  It was long and had a tall curved ceiling.  Very beautiful.  I wish I had taken a photo, but I was so darn hot and sweaty that I wanted to just get the stamps bought and get out of the stale air.

Today was blazing hot, and people were being smart by staying in the shade or staying inside.  In front of the cathedral, we were baking to death, so it might have been fortuitous to have been chased off by so many tourists.

Our caravan of comedies embarked again through the streets to a large roundabout that had been transformed into a walking mall just days before for Tet.  (The Chinese new year).  The busy roundabout, beautiful flowers and classic buildings made a perfect location for a few more jib shots.  We set up again, and got a crowd of people.  Everyone wanted to see the monitor and everyone was wondering what TV station we worked for.  Many wanted us to pose for a picture.

Us in front of the cathedral prior to the tour bus swarm.
At one point, a giant Asian tour group wandered by following a man with a flag on a stick.  The man asked us what we were doing, and when we said shooting video, he translated for the group who, at the same time, went, "Oooooh!" then started snapping photos.  I put up the two-finger, peace-sign pose and anyone who didn't have their camera out, got it out and started taking pictures.  What a sight!!  Better than the gardens, for sure.  I'd love to know how many QQ pages we'll be appearing on this evening.

We were so dang hot and so dang dehydrated, that I decided to head into a building to see if I could find us some water.  We had brought water, but drank it all in front of the cathedral since we were sweating so much.  I wandered into what looked like a small, fancy shopping mall only to find floors and floors of escalators that went down to floors and floors of stores and food courts.  Two floors down there was a legit grocery store with 1.5 liter bottles of water for 7,000 dong.  That's less than 50 cents!  The street vendors sell little bottles for 20,000, so I jumped on the opportunity and bought some cokes and the giant bottle.  I got back up to the street and found that Matt needed more counter-weight for the back of the jib, so we had to begin on our cokes while the water became a part of the film gear.  A small sacrifice for sexy footage.

We saw a group of Semester at Sea faculty and staff led by the dean, Tom Jelke.  He's good people (as we say in the business), and we've really enjoyed partnering with him to make this experience happy for the students and Unreasonable.  As soon as he saw us with the twelve foot jib and a crowd of tourists and locals peering at our monitor he just shouted, "Yeah, real subtle, guys."  We never said we were going to be subtle...did we?

Matt got the grand idea of sticking the jib out into oncoming traffic to get some good shots of the motor bikes.  Motivated by the good shot, Danny and I agreed to participate in this shenanigan.  We got a couple epic shots and left the square happy filmmakers.  Matt did a wonderful job creating a travel jib.  With a little stabilization, the shots will be flawless.  Hollywood quality.

With the jib packed up and our cameras stowed, we headed back to the shuttle that takes us to the ship.  We were sweaty and gross, but content with our day's work.  We got to the ship and headed straight for dinner and then a shower.  Tomorrow morning we head out at 8am with Pedro to find a plant in the middle of the wetlands.  Thank goodness we're taking our malaria medicine...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Vietnam Valentine's

So, Matt decided to take me to Vietnam for Valentine's day.  What a husband!

Some market delights.
We hadn't been to any of the markets in Ho Chi Minh and were still waiting to hear from Pedro, so we decided to find our way to the Ben Thanh market in the heart of the city.  After breakfast on the ship with Tom Chi and his wife, Lucille, we disembarked and caught the free shuttle downtown.

The bus dropped us off at the Rex hotel, and it was a quick walk to the Ben Thanh market.  From the outside, the building is pretty non-descript.  It really doesn't seem like anything is going on around there, but when we found a single open garage door, we entered into a land of trinkets and food stuffs.

My favorite part of the Vietnamese market is haggling with the sellers.  I'm pretty good at walking away, and having them chase me down and give me a better price.  "I give you good price!" they would shout.  I found a wooden chopstick holder that was very ornate and beautiful.  I fell in love, but I didn't tell them that.  The first little booth had it for 500,000 dong which is the equivalent of about $25. About what I would expect to pay in the U.S., but being in Vietnam, I didn't have to take that!

I walked to another seller who had the same one for 450,000 dong.  I picked around it, and she showed me some scarves, then I picked up the thing I desired and asked how much.  I acted appalled at the price, and put it down.  She handed me a calculator.  "You name price," she said.  I had decided at this point that I didn't want to pay that much for it, so I was about to give up.  She forced my little finger to the keys, so I plugged in 200,000. (About $10)  It was her turn to throw her arms in the air.  I motioned that it was okay, and started to put down the box, and she typed in 350,000.  I shook my head.  250,000, she typed in.  I pointed to the set of chopsticks made of bone and wood and asked if they were included.  "No, no.  Extra."  I walked away and she cut me off, typed in 250,000 and stuck the matching chopsticks in the box.

Me + Rambutan = Love
Done.  I opened my purse and gave her the 250,000 dong (about $12.50), and she wrapped it up with a smile.  We shook hands and parted ways, both very happy campers.  I love Vietnam.

We wandered to the part of the market where the food sellers were and found a woman selling rambutans - our new favorite fruit.  I was so happy to have my mouth full of that delicate little fruit again, that I posed for a reunion photo. (see picture to the right)

Matt, Danny and I wandered the market taking photos of the random sleeping cats, piles of fishy smelling, gut-looking foods, and fun trinkets made for haggling.  Once we finished our bag of rambutans, we found another woman selling coffee and weird puffed corn - like corn nuts.  We tasted a couple, and they had a light coating of sugar that made for a delicious snack.  We bought 250 grams and left the indoor market with our loot.

Danny wanted to check out the shoes, and we found the shoe district on a leg of the market.  Tons and tons of name-brand and knock-off shoes that cost a fraction of what they would in America.  I found some Tevas for 250,000 dong, but decided against it since we were running low on our cash and still needed to find some lunch.  Maybe tomorrow...

Our hunger led us to the Barbecue Garden, and outdoor restaurant with a high tent covering nice-looking tables.  We checked out the menu, and it was decently priced and had some fun things to try and headed in.

It turns out that each table had a little propane tank and barbecue grill in the middle where you would cook all of the raw, marinated meat that you order from the menu.  We got some spring rolls, steamed rice, a lamb skewer, wild boar with five spices and a large portion of beef wrapped sugar cane skewers.  Uh-mazing!  So, so delicious.

We finished off the meal with mango and coconut ice-cream, then parted ways with Danny so that he could go see the war remnants museum and we could follow through with our Valentine's day plans.

Lunch cooking in the middle of the table.
Matt and I were full, tired and very hot, so instead of heading directly to our evening's events, we decided to grab a nap on the air-conditioned ship and wait until the sun went down to venture back out into the city.  It was the perfect idea because I conked out, and two hours went by without me even realizing it.

At 6:00pm, we went to the gangway only to find Pedro running his girfriend's luggage through the ship's security system.  He was wearing his shirt from the day we left him and a pink-ribboned Vietnamese straw hat around his neck.  This was our first clue that he hadn't found his luggage from the cab snafu on Tuesday.  It was so good to see him, and we found out that he had worked out with the researchers to go to the mangroves on Saturday morning to complete the Vietnam research for his company.  He sent us to go visit with Bianca (his girlfriend) who was waiting by the cab this time, while he grabbed some clothes.

She's such a lovely person, and it was fun to see her again since our brief meeting at the airport.  They were headed to the Cambodia border for more adventure.  We started to say good-bye when we heard a ruckus from the gangway.  Pedro was back at the ship's open side yelling for Bianca to come through.  He had found Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the ship and wanted to introduce him to Bianca.

They had the cutest encounter and got a photo taken together, then Arch headed back on the ship.  We all laughed at the idea of Pedro running throughout the shipping in search of Arch, getting him to exit and then head back on for the sake of introducing his girlfriend.  This, my friends, is true love.

Matt and I walked to the city center enjoying the cooler evening air on our way to our Valentine event: an hour-long, Vietnamese massage.  We had been told about a little place called My Nhi, and were making a b-line to their front stoop.  If we hadn't been briefed about it, I wouldn't have entered this place thinking that we'd be robbed blind and left to die.

Matt and I in the shoe market.
We found the address which was an open art gallery and souvenir shop.  A little woman came running out with a massage flyer, and we recognized the name, so we followed her through the paintings to a staircase.  The stairs led us up two floors where there were three glass doors.  She led us through the middle one and had us sit down on little stools where our shoes were immediately removed.
We pointed to the $10 60-minute full body massage, and they led us over to a maze of curtains with massage tables in the middle.  The two tiny women began undressing us.  (We had been told about this, so we weren't too freaked out.)  We were stripped down to just our underwear and put on the tables under warm towels.

A Vietnamese massage is a full contact sport where the little woman uses her full body weight and any extremities she deems fit.  At one point, she was walked on the back of my legs.  At another point, she had climbed up on the table and was using her elbows on my back.  It was wonderful!

After a surreal 60 minutes, we were washed with a hot, wet washcloth to get the majority of the massage oil off of us, then the two women insisted on dressing us.  That part got a little weird since they wouldn't let us get off the tables.  Much giggling ensued from both parties when it came to the pant zippers.  Ooooh, Vietnam.

We got a free bottle of water (unsealed in front of us - which is a good sign), and they put back on our socks and shoes and tied them up tightly.

In a magical, floaty way, we headed down through the art gallery an onto the streets where we ran straight into Danny who had just finished dinner.  What a chance encounter!

We went and found a Pho soup place together since Matt and I hadn't eaten yet, and talked through what we wanted to shoot for our final b-roll day in Vietnam.  We're in search of some Mekong Delta footage with rice fields and a rural village, but the best place we could find was a 4-hour bus ride.  It really would have been epic to head out to the Cambodian border to Sam Mountain and see the temples and rice fields and hike to the top where we could chill in hammocks, but with the constraint of needing to be back at the ship for our next Pedro adventure on Saturday morning, there just wouldn't be enough time to get a bus back.  It should have been an overnight trip, but we wanted to stay available for Pedro's story.  Next time!

We decided to call it an early night (which is a relative term on this trip), and get some shut eye.  Tomorrow, we're going to bring Matt's 10-foot jib out into the middle of Ho Chi Minh City and see how long we can evade the authorities while we get epic b-roll of motorcycles, gardens and markets.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Vietnam Day 2 - Part 2: Lessons

After our afternoon nap, Matt and I met up with Danny, Matt Corliss and Oli for dinner.  We met in the big downtown square and walked around the busy streets until we found an restaurant that spilled out onto the sidewalk.  We morphed a table of four into a table of five and ordered up some Saigon beers.

Posing at the restaurant on the sidewalk.
Lesson 1: If you're going to drink something off the street, choose something carbonated.  Often, vendors will refill water bottles with tap water, then reseal them to resell and make more money.  If you drink that water, you will be very sick.

We looked over the menu and decided to get a little adventurous.  We ordered up garlic fried rice, steamed vegetables, minced snake and some sort of beef dish.  The snake was pretty darn tasty.  It was kind of like a sausage with a fragrant flavor to it.  Not sweet like sugar, but fragrantly sweet like jasmine tea.  We finished up dinner and paid our bill which came to about 650,000 dongs.

Corliss orders our snake with a
sophisticated, raised brow.
Lesson 2: We're millionaires! It's hard to get used to so many zeroes, but with the exchange rate of about 20,000 dongs to a single US dollar, that's the equivalent of about $32 for five people to have dinner and seven beers.  Not too shabby.

The snake is on the top right.

After finishing up, we decided to wander the streets and hunt down a location for Danny to do a couple time lapses in the streets.  Since it's the new year, everything is decorated with lights, and the square is packed with tourists and locals wandering around and taking photos and enjoying awesome street food.

Lesson 3: White girl equals photo opportunity in Asia.

I am an uncommon spectacle.  I'm tall, I'm blond and I'm pale.  We can't go anywhere without people wanting to take a photo with me.  It's a tad embarrassing, but also a little flattering.  Most of the photos are me clutching my money, thinking these people are going to flatter me enough to pick my pockets while I'm posing for the picture.  So far - not the case.

Danny set up his motion control time lapse rig in the center of the action, and we got a lot of attention from onlookers.  At first, they thought that we might be setting up some sort of performance as all of the stands and black tubes came out, but then, once they saw the camera, many posed in front of it thinking that they were what we were wanting to capture.

Lesson 4: Vietnamese people are pretty darn nice.  For the most part, they keep to themselves, but if you smile, they smile back.  If you joke with them, they joke back.  If you stumble, and they see you, they look concerned, but if you laugh, they laugh with you.

I feel safe here.  It's not like Shanghai where I felt like my smile was going to be slapped off my face, and it's not like in Japan, where people stare at us making it obvious that they know we're foreigners.  There were a lot of families around for the new year's celebrations, and I never felt threatened or afraid.

Speaking of fear...

Lesson 5: You should probably have a healthy amount of fear for the traffic.

You are not safe from motorized vehicles anywhere.  The mopeds and motorcycles will drive up on the sidewalks to cut a corner or go down the wrong way.  Matt described it best: "it's a chaotic system that shouldn't work, but it does."  It's smooth, people just predict where the person in front of them will be, and they act accordingly.  There's never a clear way.  If you'd like to turn left, you just turn left.  The motorcycles will go around you and the larger vehicles will brake or accelerate to beat you.  You just keep steady and predictable and all will turn out fine.

Yes...that's the director of Disney World park designs.
Yes, my friends.  Keep the healthy fear.

At one point during a time lapse, Danny was approached by a man interested in the camera rig.  Danny talked with him for a little bit only to find out that he's the head of park design for Disney World.  He's been working with them since 1977, and he designed Paris, Hong Kong and is now finishing up Shanghai to be opened shortly.  He even showed us his Disney ring!  Awesome!!  Nice guy, too.  He's here in Vietnam working on his tan, he said.

Lesson 6: Tourists like tourists.

People feel safe when they see someone who looks like them.  We got talked to by many Westerners who were just interested in talking with another Westerner.  It's fun to relate stories about things that surprised us, and people are so friendly.  All it takes is a returned smile, and let the conversation begin!

At about 10:30pm, the entire block basically shut down.  The lights on the buildings and on the decorations all shut off within minutes of one another.  The road that was blocked off for the pedestrians was - without warning - opened up to the motorcycles and taxis, and we were left in the middle of the road with a motion capture rig.

We decided we should probably head back to the ship, when we realized that the celebration wasn't just over for tonight, but that it was coming down completely.  We're talking at least a 10x10 section of city blocks that were decorated with flowers and lights being swarmed by crews and crews of people that began tearing it all down.  Not like delicately taking apart the 15 foot displays, but knocking them over into pulled up dumpsters and tearing down string lights.  Our way back to the ship was along the entire street that was decorated, and we were blown away by how quickly things were being taken apart.  They are pretty serious about closing time.  The year of the snake has begun.

We made it back to the ship, tired and sweaty, but with full bellies and fun memories.  Matt and I have tuckled into our bunk beds, ready to face another day in Ho Chi Minh City.

Good night, Vietnam.  So far, you've tugged on my little heart strings, and I'm loving you - quirks and all.

Vietnam Day 2 - Part 1: Perspectives

Today was left open as we waited to hear if Pedro was going to be traveling to the location of potential partnership with his water purification system.  Matt and I had breakfast on the ship and took care of some post-production loose ends, ready to spring into action if it was time to shoot.

Lunch came around, so we decided to grab it on the ship before heading out to explore more in Ho Chi Minh City.  We had heard that the Vietnam War Remnants museum was an interesting place to go, so we decided to head over there and learn about the war from the Vietnamese perspective.

The courtyard of vehicles.
We caught a taxi, and entered the three story building, walking by a courtyard of bomb shells, helicopters, tanks and jets.  We began at the bottom story where there we displays about children during the war.  We learned about how the children would continue going to school even if they were down in underground bunkers, and many schools split up the children into homes so that they weren't all in one location in case the school was bombed.  It was interesting to realize that life had to go on as usual during the war, and people were trying to live and normally as possible despite the constant war all around them.

The second floor went through the after effects of the war.  So much chemical warfare was used, and we saw photos of people who were burned by phosphorus bombs and agent orange.  There was also a full room dedicated to people who were born in the 1990's and 2000's who are still deformed by their mother's exposure to agent orange in the fields, water and seafood.  It was very disturbing on one hand, but also intriguing to see how the people lived their lives with such extreme deformations.  I couldn't help but think that many of these people were born in the early '90s.  The age of my little brother - still effected by what went on in the 1960's and early 1970's.  Words flooded my mind as I looked at the effects on these people: melted flesh, twisted bones, missing limbs.

This was a sculpture made out of metal
schrapnel by a war survivor.  It's called
On the top floor were sets of before and after photos of locations around Vietnam and how each spot has recovered and rebuilt since then.  There was also an entire room dedicated to the journalists who covered the war.  We saw Time magazine articles that showed Vietcong soldiers tied up and being shoved into a jeep.  The caption on the photo said something like "this soldier was held for questioning, then released later, unharmed."  Then, we saw a photo of a group of women and their children huddled together, flinching from an unknown source.  The caption on that photo was from the photographer, and it said something like: "I saw the guns raised at the group, and shouted, 'hey!'  They paused long enough for me to snap a photo, then I turned around and heard the sound of gunshots and multiple bodies hitting the ground."

There were so many horrors of the war.  American soldiers blown to bits.  Vietnam villages burned and bombed with no survivors.  Children and women massacred.  Body parts missing.  Head wounds seeping.  People carrying limbs of their fellow combatants.  Babies born with their spines bent the wrong way and half of their face missing.  Everything talked about the "American aggressors" and illegal war crimes that the United States committed during the war.

It was surreal to go out into the courtyard and see giant military vehicles and aircraft with U.S. markings on them.  We also went into a replica of the prisons called "tiger cages" where the South Vietnamese would keep North Vietnamese prisoners.  Inside it described how they would torture all of the prisoners to death, and listed all of the ways that they would perform the torture.  It was truly horrifying!

It was an emotionally draining experience that was confused by the research I did going into the museum.  I was interested in seeing the museum because I'm fascinated by the war, and interested in one day making a feature film about a small piece of it called Operation Babylift.
Much of the controversial language has
been removed from the signs, as of 1995,
but you can see that there are still hints
of negativity.  This sign puts "Vietnam War"
in quotes suggesting that it's an
inaccurate description of what the
U.S. did to Vietnam.
The museum was created by the North Vietnam perspective, and it used to be a lot more one-sided than it is now in pointing out the war crimes of France and the U.S. and also referring to South Vietnamese people as "puppets."  It's been criticized by how blatantly one-sided it is, but regardless, it still shows the graphic side of the war.  Many people feel that the museum has twisted the stories and photo captions to support "their side" of history.

It certainly makes me question who is truly telling the whole truth.  It's easy to leave out the rough edges when writing history books, depending on your audience, and I would say there's plenty of that being done in the media today.  Take, for example, the most recent national news with Mary Blair elementary.  It's a better story if we demonize the school for taking away children's happy dreams for the world and their blooming imaginations.  A kid throwing rocks on the playground and getting a little timeout in the principal's office? Not so interesting.  How would we expect the account of a 17-year war to tell the whole truth when we're only allowed to consider a limited number of perspectives?

They day in the museum left me wanting to learn more - not convinced of anything other than the fact that it was a terrible, terrible war.  But what war isn't?

After our exploration, we headed back to the ship to get a quick nap before dinner... (to be continued)