Sunday, June 22, 2008

Lam in 'Nam


Strange new world

I've arrived in a hustling and bustling city that is rapidly changing. Even I, who was here only a year and a half ago, can now say:
I remember the times when we didn't have to wear helmets while driving mopeds; when the only thing clogging up a street was a cloud of little mopeds honking the living bejeebus out of you. Now cars snake their way through the streets, like big bugs amidst a swarm of ants.

Construction islands interrupt the flow of traffic. Street lights are now in place where they weren't and people are suddenly following traffic rules. Before that common sense gave chaos order. Ca phe (coffee) is scribbled in neon writing on every second restaurant front. Cranes tower over brittling house facades and malls mushroom out of the ground.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Off soon

I am leaving for Vietnam soon (afterwards heading to China). In just four days, I'll be lugging about my camera and my macbook in more tropical climates, probably dehydrated and grilling in the sunshine that blankets Ho Chi Minh City. I've spent the past few days acquiring miniature packages of Pepto-Bismol and Advil, light summer clothing and fit-in-your-pocket-sized travel guides in hope that those bibs and bobs will end up saving me from diseases, heat strokes and other minor catastrophes.

I can finally follow what a good friend of mine calls "the tug back home", though Vietnam is a homeland that I have never really gotten to know. In my naivety, I hope to be able to report on HIV among injecting drug users in Vietnam, possibly make a difference there. Mostly because my 25-year-old cousin is just that.


I don't even know his full name. I haven't seen him since 1998. I was in Ho Chi Minh City that year, a 13-year-old, wearing shorts that were too short and having just discovered hair dye. I was an estranging, colorful eye soar in a brown and dusty city, infested with honking, clattering mopeds. 

He was a meagre little portion of a teenager, a cheeky grin painted across his round, stretched face. He mistook my braces for jewelry. He played a bamboo flute that had holes too large for him to cover with his stick fingers. 

Then, eight years later, I was told that he got into heroin. He might have contracted HIV and was sitting in jail, my mother said with a sententious voice. Then resentment: He had gotten so much financial support, a broken family is an explanation, but not an excuse, so many people tried to help him getting over the addiction, it serves him right, poor boy, he deserves it, it's such a pity, sigh, hrmpf, sigh. 

Periodically, I received random updates from my mother and my aunts. But the bits of information about Tam were randomly inserted into phone conversations about my school grades, my current boyfriend and my daily diet and so they dangled around like buzzwords without contexts. I was left puzzling together a mosaic of facts. 

In a culture where the 'Western import'  HIV is kept hush-hush, asking questions of fact-seeking nature is rather frustrating. A sound wall of uncomfortable laughter deflects any serious attempts to dig deeper into an issue like this. Then sometimes in whispered conversations fragments of the entire picture are passed on, delivered in an eerily gossipy fashion. 

What was a possible infection in a cell phone conversation in 2005 became awful, awful and untreated HIV in prison during the summer I was at home from college and turned into full-blown Aids by Christmas December 2007. At first he was incarcerated for burglary according to my mother, later the crime was re-cast; he got jailed for stealing a bike or a moped. Four years of imprisonment turned into two years for good conduct. Or maybe the director of the prison felt sorry for him because he had Aids. Whatever it was, he got out, had rashes all over his face, was crying, was jobless, was alone and had to start anew in a society governed by a communist government and traditional values. Aids was written in prickly letters all over his skin.

Then the poor sucker, the asshole, the nice young man turned bad because of circumstances messed up again, dealt a drug of some sort and got locked up again, a choir of female relatives told me in a staggered canon. And he's still there.  

So what can a girl do? 

I decided that reporting within family circles to get the anecdotal story of my cousin might not suffice to emerge myself from the helplessness in which I am swimming. I want to help. I'm denied access to my cousin. Physically. Bureaucratically. I try to think of what I can do with my new-learned skills and my uselessness in scientific research. And I came to the conclusion that I just gotta go now and go and do and go and speak to and produce and see and write and educate (?) and do. And maybe find a CD player I can send to prison. Some chocolate, too. 

Friday, June 6, 2008

SUV time...right now?

A quick video I did with another reporter at the WSJ. It's quite bizarre to be looking at cars that eat up so much gas, when gas prices are so high. But apparently car dealers have been offering rebates on those metal monsters as they've not been selling too well.

I guess the most telling quote in this was: "The majority of people who come in for this, the last thing on their mind is gas mileage."