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Sunday, December 15, 2013

10 things you have to adjust to when living in Saudi Arabia

Four months in to my contract in Saudi and I am still adjusting. Of course, some things are easier to adjust to than others. I can’t honestly say that I like it here. I don’t really hate it either. I feel a sort of total ambivalence towards living here as there are no real highs or lows to report. There is just the persistence of being. I imagine minimum security prisons are the same way.
That being said, here are some things that are different compared to other places I have lived.
  1. Total segregation of the sexes in public. Men and women who are not married or related are prohibited from interaction except for the act of shopping. Since no women work in retail, the employees of every store and mall are male. In restaurants there is a separate counter for women and men. While I have gotten used to the segregation in many ways, there is something strange and unnatural about only being around men 24/7.
  2. The concept of a national dress code. Saudi men wear a white garment called a thobe. It looks like a long sleeve button up dress. It is often accompanied by red and white checkered head scarf. In a world where men and women are kept apart and the men wear a garment that looks a lot like a dress, I often find my western awareness confused and uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that some of the softer Saudis often play with their headscarves and flip them in a way that a woman might flip her hair in the mirror before going out or the way she twirls the ends while engaged in a flirtatious conversation.  It is not just the Saudi men who have a “dress code.” The women are not allowed to leave the house without wearing a hijab and an abaya. These two pieces combine to totally obscure everything except a woman’s eyes and shoes from sight. Some even wear a veil that covers the eyes.
  3. Lack of public entertainment. Movie theaters, live music, bars, clubs, and other typical meeting places are banned here.
  4. Lack of music. For the most part, one does not randomly hear music in Riyadh. Shops don’t have a soft music background, cars don’t usually have the radio on, and tv and commercials are devoid of music. No jingle and no jangle.
  5. A desire to be first. Driving or being in a vehicle is a daily risk in Riyadh. There are traffic rules, but they are more often broken than followed. It is not uncommon to see a car speed to overtake another car then brake to make a right or left turn. The need to get in front of another person outweighs the need to make safe and legal traffic decisions.
  6. Arrogance. Here is one where Saudi and America have a lot in common. If you ask any Saudi what the best country in the world is, they say Saudi. Just like Americans often say ‘Merica, fuck yeah.
  7. Imported work force. I am only here because I teach English to Medical students. I am thankful for the job and opportunity. The rest of the workforce is just like me, imported. It is rare to see a Saudi doing some sort of work. The doctors, chefs, teachers, drivers, cleaners, nurses, construction workers and others are all from other countries. In fact, except for my students, I know more people from Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, or Bangladesh than I do Saudis.
  8. Shaking hands. It is a common Saudi cultural practice to shake hands every time you see someone. Maybe I am overly sensitive, but I don’t like that much physical contact with people. Every day at the start of class, my students shake hands and attempt to shake my hand. Well, they used to until I told them that I don’t like shaking hands every day. Now a few of them will offer a fist bump, which I find much better, but I still don’t want to do that every day either.
  9. Prayer times. Saudis are Sunni Muslim and therefore pray 5 times a day. The first prayer happens just before dawn. I can live with this. However, the last 4 prayers are throughout the day. Every business shuts down for 30 minutes at each prayer. This makes accomplishing anything during the afternoon virtually impossible because things are closed around noon, then again around 3, and again around 5 and again around 6:30. It is amazing that anything gets done at all.
  10. Things not getting done. There is no concept of customer service or efficiency here. Things just take a long time and when they do happen, are not always done correctly. And since no one wants to take ownership of a mistake, it is hard to get anything fixed.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Palace of the Pleasure Seekers

I took prodigious pleasure at
The palace of the pleasure seekers
Plotting for a point in the present that
Penetrates the past with pure precision
People perk up at the thought of pursuit
Plentiful and plain
Pervasive and petulant
The power persists
Please please me
Play proudly with paradise
As we approach the precipice of the profane
Pick between passersby and passing away

I procured pleasure and not possessions

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


There was a subtle sillage of her essence 
created by her smile and friendly nature
left in the air like waterfall mist 
Not a scent, but like a scent, 
made of wow 
this light and witty banter 
would be my downfall
infusing my life 
with magoa, 
what the Portuguese call 
a heartbreaking feeling that leaves 
long-lasting traces, 
visible in gestures and 
facial expressions
moving me from whole to broken 
“She knows the fever that burns 
inside me: this desire for travel and exploration,”
thoughts of her baltering around my mind
Dancing in and out of other thoughts
Misplaced and unexpected
Captivated and capsized by 
the ghostly silhouette of a 
chance encounter 
Counting the moments until 
my counterpart appears, 
a part of me already?
Of course. 
We are two 
engaged in word pornography
Seduced by each other’s intelligence
Trying to make the world better 
from the inside out 
by laughing.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

We walked away

We walked away
absent the light of day
she grabbed my hand
in a way that seemed more than
like our hands were
meant to be
one, two, three, four
I declare thumb war
Laughing and walking
moving just as much
side to side as forward
surrounded by the quite
stillness of
desert skies and
an almost full moon
living a lifetime
with every step
I held her hand
feeling each finger
like a lifeline
pulling my heart
and my pace
to salvation
and grace
So we walked.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


My head spins
Arabic winds
promised love
nightly sins
new found friends
intoxicatingly begins
wishing that it
never ends
a broken heart
always mends
when our soul

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Learning to Think

The recent shutdown of Congress is teaching me how to survive in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I am often frustrated by living in a place that disregards logic and chooses aesthetics over functionality. But then I look at the mess going on back home and realize that we don't always choose function either.

As for the Kingdom, there seems to be a decided push towards how things look to other people rather than how things work. Most of my students have never been taught critical thinking and I suppose that makes sense. Why would or should one think critically in a society that makes decisions for you; decisions based on appearing pious rather than improving quality of life? I have already written about the traffic and pollution problems. Everyone seems to operate on a "it only matters that I get what I want" mentality. Every one is in a rush.

However, when it comes to the administration of the life here, nothing is done quickly. I have been here two months now and still have not received my ID card, or Iquama. This ID is needed for everything: to travel, book a hotel, get a sim card, open a bank account, upgrade internet, book an airline ticket, send money to the USA, and many other basic needs. Tomorrow is the last day before a 10 day holiday and me and the other teachers who started when I did will be stuck here without the ability to travel or be productive in making life more manageable for the duration of the holiday. Form over function can blow me.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Anything You Choose to Do is Almost Always More Enjoyable Than What You Are Forced to Do

I have written about my first two months here in Saudi both on this blog and on facebook. When I look back at the things I have written, I get the feeling that I complain a lot. My goal is not to be a closed minded American who only values the way I have always done things. That being said, I will probably continue to complain.

Riyadh is what the USA would be if the religious right wing conservatives ran the country unopposed or power checked. I have never expected every country to be the same or offer the same way of life. I have also never been the sort to run around going "America, fuck yeah!" But recently, I have come to appreciate the idea of choice much more than I ever have before.

Saudis don't have a lot of choices when it comes to how to live life. Well, I suppose they have choices, but not as many as I am used to (not just in the States, but during my time in SE Asia and Europe as well). Because the religion and the government are so closely related, religious mores are codified as law. There is very little in the way of secular laws as a matter of fact other than basic traffic and contract laws. For the most part, the law and the religion are one and the same.

To be fair, there is some distinction. There is a regular police force and a religious police force. Personally I have not had contact with either, but I observe how they operate and read the local news. Back to choice. Things that are banned in Riyadh:

Public music
single men and women mixing
single men and women ordering from the same counter or area of a counter in restaurants
women driving cars (no real ban but there are fatwas against it)
non Muslim holidays including Halloween and Valentine's Day
long hair on men
women wearing regular clothes in public
single women out alone in public (unless foreign)
Women showing their hair or ankles or anything in between except hands and eyes. (only in public)
The Bible
Converting away from Islam
movie theaters
bars, night clubs, concerts
Basically, if it is remotely fun, it is probably banned.

This is where I have a problem. I truly believe that every person deserves the right to live as he or she sees fit as long as they do not hurt others. But in this place, this bastion of religious piety and hypocrisy, people don't have a choice. Anything you choose to do is almost always more enjoyable than things you are forced to do.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Settling In

It has been almost a month since I packed up my 2 bags, said goodbye to some of my best friends in the world, and was delivered to the airport by Valerie and her kids. The goodbye was unceremonious. She has been my friend since we met in a coffee shop in Davidson just before I graduated. I was there to read and write poetry and she was a barista who made a delicious Glacier Gulp. (Breyer’s Vanilla Bean Ice cream, espresso, and chocolate blended into a caffeine treat).

I grabbed my bags from the back of her car, said goodbye, and realized that once again in my life, everything was changing. It was a short parting absent of tears, but full of emotion. We had spent so many afternoons or late mornings sitting at either Common Market or Amelie’s bakery enjoying coffee and conversation. There was also the occasional trip to Smelly Cat and the artsy NoDa charm that I had forgotten how much I missed while I was gallivanting around SE Asia for almost 4 years.

Two flights and a change of date later, I arrived in Riyadh. My first impressions of Riyadh were somewhat bleak. The landscape is terrible at best. In recent times, Saudi Arabia has been one of the most peaceful countries in the Middle East. There is no Arab Spring happening here as the royal family has a firm grip on the political state. In addition, having the holy sights of Mecca and Medina gives the place a certain feel that is missing from other areas in the gulf region.  Yet despite the peace and holy nature of Saudi, any drive around Riyadh baffles the senses as there are equal parts new construction and fields of debris and rubble.

The traffic is maddening with its lack of order and the noticeable disregard for rules and regulations. It is not uncommon for highway exit ramps with only one lane to be filled with 3 cars at the same horizontal position as you make your way up the cloverleaf. Everyone is in a rush. This is the traffic of a desert metropolis awash in money, cheap petrol, imported American, Japanese, and Korean cars, and only male drivers. Insane. The senses become baffled because despite the obvious modern nature of Riyadh, every 5th or 6th city block is a field of broken stone and debris. It is as though while you are sleeping, someone comes along and bombs a few buildings into smithereens; a silent, sneaky, invisible war zone.

In truth, I cannot tell if the debris is from former buildings or dug up from the ground. Riyadh is growing at an alarming rate but they have yet to experience all that comes along with rapid growth. There is no concern for the environment. If garbage is left in the desert long enough, it gets covered with sand and is eventually out of sight. Of course, this mentality doesn’t work well in a city with paved surfaces and extreme development. The casual act of tossing one’s waste out the window remains and ugly reminder of what poor environmental planning means.

Like I was saying, this is the desert. I have been here about a month so far and there has been exactly 0.0 cm of rain and this trend will continue for many months. Without rain, the settling dust does not get washed away. On the one hand, you don’t have waste water run off problems. On the other hand, you don’t have ample fresh water. The buildings in Riyadh are covered by a thin layer of really fine dust that has settled and caked on over the months since the last rain. It is sort of like make up. In fact, it closely resembles foundation. I often wonder what this dust does to the lungs?  But then I have a cigarette and realize that I have bigger fish to fry.

As I settle in, I have found a bit of a routine. My students are awesome and it is dirt cheap to live here. 1 USD is equal to 3.75 Saudi Riyals. But the good thing is that the Riyal has the spending power of 1 dollar.

For example:

  • ·         20 liter jug of water = 5 riyals
  • ·         Pack of cigarettes = 9 riyals
  • ·         Lunch of salad, rice, hummus, bread, juice, chicken quarter, fruit, and soup = 10 riyals
  • ·         Laundry service for 6 shirts, 3 t-shirts, and 4 pairs of pants = 16 riyals
  • ·         Pepsi in a can = 1 riyal
  • ·         Iphone 4s = 1000 riyals
  • ·         30 minute taxi ride = 25 riyals
  • ·         Driver to and from work for 1 month = 500 riyals
  • ·         2013 Kia sedan, brand new = 32,000 riyals
One can easily live on less than 3000 riyals a month and live well. Since the average salary for a University teacher is north of 11,000 riyals a month, it does not take long to see the value and draw of working here in Saudi, at least for 1 or 2 years.

When I first decided to come here, I was thrilled about seeing a part of the world that I had never seen. But I quickly found out that there is not much of Saudi culture to explore. As a single man, I am segregated from women and families. In addition, there are not many things that are truly Saudi. Everything is imported except for chicken, rice, and dates. That is a bit of a disappointment. Luckily Riyadh is more than 60% expats from various Gulf States and Africa. So I am learning a lot about Pakistan, India, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Oman, The U.A.E., Oman, Sudan, Nigeria, Turkey and Jordan from the people I meet on a daily basis. This new knowledge comes with an almost unlimited amount of new foods to try and fawn over. I will save that for a future post.

For now, this is Marcus in Mesopotamia and I am settling in.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Moving day

My friend Stacy just said (via chat), I often find that I am a different person when I achieve a goal than I was when I set it. Words of wisdom to live by. Growing and changing as people is great when we keep an eye to being the best selves we can be!

Also, I am moving out of Sulmaniyah hotel today and to my permanent residence in Riyadh. Goal accomplished. Starting work at Al Iman University on Sunday. Goal accomplished. I wonder what person I will be a year from now when I complete a year teaching in Saudi?

Friday, August 23, 2013


There are no baristas in Riyadh
Such is a life out of balance
the rich smell of Turkish coffee
forcing my mouth to water
like Pavlov's dogs
in wait of a treat
but not cute barista to greet
No smile with service
a subtle blush
no heart warming rush
no opportunity for a cutle little sin
not even a "thank you, come again."

All of the workers in Riyadh shops appear to be male
What spell is this?
Of the many things American I miss
none as important as
the absence of Miss.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


The wanderlust of travel is like a sickness that creeps into you body and soul.

seeping into my bones
saturating my spirit
coating my thoughts
two imperatives
go, do

amazed by the differences
chair, table, desk, cup
shop, theater, food cart

So many words that
I have always know
but now transformed
slightly different than before

Monday, August 19, 2013

I wish I liked eggs

My experiences in Saudi have been quite limited so far. Perhaps the most interesting event was the ride from the airport to the hotel the evening of my arrival here in Riyadh. Apparently the appropriate way to drive is to floor it at all times. When approaching a vehicle in your lane on the highway, one should repeatedly flash the high beams, accelerate to the rear of the car in front of you, and pass them when they are 3/4 into a lane change. The first time this happened, I could probably have smelled the cologne of the drive in the car we passed if both of our windows were down and I was not holding my breath and bowels!

Mohammed, my driver, is not an aggressive man. He is tall, lean, and soft spoken. But he drives his Toyota van like he is in hot pursuit of someone who has just stolen his life's savings. During the drive he taught me a few phrases in Arabic. marḥaban Riyadh; welcome to Riyadh. Dahabba - go, šukran - thank you, lā - no, naʿam - yes, and a few other words that I have since forgotten. I wanted to ask him how to say. "my god, slow down argh!" But I kept that to myself.

In any event, the rest of my time here has consisted of downloading and watching movies on my laptop, the occasional email, and a few walks around the hotel. It is hot in Riyadh. Very hot. So hot that you could could cook eggs on the sidewalk. I don't like eggs. But that is how hot it is. 

Saigon, Vietnam is hot too. There are just 2 seasons: Summer and Wet Summer. I think the hottest day I ever experience in Vietnam is about the same as the evenings here. No joke. Of course there is not of the humidity that existed in Vietnam. But for what Riyadh lacks in humidity, it makes up for in pure heat.

Just before I left NC I took a bite of a ghost pepper to see what all the fuss was about. Don't try this, fyi. The ghost pepper is to a bell pepper what Riyadh is to Vietnam or Thailand in terms in heat. 

Until next time

Marcus in Arabia or Marcus in Mesopotamia. Not sure which I like better yet.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Since 2009 I have been doing my best to live "In The Moment," just like the name of my blog. In these last 4 years I have seen and done more than I had ever imagined a poor kid from the hood could ever do. And yet I often feel empty.

Living in the moment means keeping both mind and thoughts focused on what is happening now.
To not take for granted the series of moments that accumulate to make a life.
To always say yes to experiences and adventures and new friendships.
To communicate your desires and feelings.
To express yourself with your actions in all that you do.
To do.
To do something.

This has been my mantra and my driving force. And it has worked for me. The thing about living for now is that when you look back there are little if no regrets. But there are some. One the one hand, the rush of living in the present and trusting that life will sort itself out is immense. I have experienced a high from doing that is not too different from that of a person searching for the perfect drug. My drug is travel.

And like the high seeker, sometimes I don't think about the consequences tomorrow will bring. I don't have a plan for the future. When I allow myself to think about the long term, there is some sort of emotional disconnect. Partly because I am not guaranteed tomorrow, and partly because I could never have predicted the turns my life has already taken.

My friend Valerie recently asked me what propels me to constantly be in motion, one foot here and another out the door. I am seeking the high.

Getting off of a plane, boat, taxi, tuk-tuk, songtheaw, ferry, xe om, or bus in a new country or city activates all of my senses at once.

New language.
New foods.
New smells.
New architecture.
New customs.
New music.
New people.
New opportunities.

It is like being reborn with a tabla rasa but keeping all of your knowledge and experiences. It is this moment, that is my driving force. And it can only be satiated by change. I sort of feel like Dexter and his dark passenger. But this passenger brings joy and whimsy.  In any event, I still plan to live in the moment, but I hope to reflect more on what may come and has happened.

Marcus in Mesopotamia

In just over 24 hours from now my move to Saudi Arabia begins. That last sentence isn't exactly true, but it is close. My move probably began when I was in university and I fell in love with a Turkish girl from Germany.  That was the moment that the idea of my existence on this planet changed from a local North Carolina prospective to a more global one.

There were many steps along the way. First I dreamed of Europe. And then of Japan. Then I went to Europe. My dream of Japan became a life in South Korea; living and working in South Korea's second largest city, Busan. It is a coastal port city with more than 4 well used beaches, 24 hour access to food and drink, and the kind of friendships that stir the soul into motion.

Some time and place later, I have been to 16 countries so far, including an amazing, interesting, and also terrifying year living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Tomorrow the adventure continues as I have packed up my life in the USA and will be boarding a plane for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Full circle. I never married the young Muslim girl I fell in love with so many years ago. But now I find myself on the precipice of moving to the birthplace of Islam. I guess it is not exactly a circle. My life has spiraled more like the famous Fibonacci numbers with every event in my life being the sum of what has come before. Yet still moving in a circle so that I never lose sight of where it all began.

Marcus heads to Mesopotamia in 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 ......

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Shifting Sands of Time

It was December 23, 2012 when I arrived back in the USA after a hiatus of sorts. The world was supposed to have ended and yet it was my best birthday ever. I missed this place.
I missed the wide streets.
I missed the giant oak trees of my old neighborhood.
I missed the graying hair of my mother.
I missed the hair of my grandmother that is turning white.
I missed the smell of summer rain storms in the South.
I missed the familiar wittiness of so many quirky friends.
I missed the micro-brew.
I missed the Common Market and other shops along Central Avenue.
I missed driving down the highway.
I missed the quiet.
I missed everyone speaking in English.
This list is not exhaustive, only a start.
A month from now I will be boarding a plane for the distant sands of Saudi Arabia. There is so much that I will miss from home. There is so much that I will miss from South Korea and Thailand and Cambodia and Laos, and Vietnam.  Home is where you are your happiest and I have been happy in so many places with so many faces and people I will never forget.

Here is to hoping that Saudi is like everywhere else I have been: good people and good times.

Ah, I have missed the uncertainty of travel and now I am feeling it again. It is good to be home.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Spirit Journey

I am starting a new tour guide service for SE Asia. Primarily it will be Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.

Spirit Journey

Wet Winter Wednesday

Antifreeze in my veins-
bones bend
under pressure of winter winds
and driving rains-
my skin, cracked like desert plains-
melody within keeps me sane-
without hate or disdain-
smile and skip
like childhood games.

Sweet Melody

Her eyes were fixated on the skies 
just above the eastern horizion
and my hands were focused on her legs
just beyond her thighs and
she sung a sweet melody
that made me want to cry but
her soul was so pure
my eyes remained dry

I couldn't look away
no matter how I tried
i lived a life and a half
every time she sighed
once she turned away from me
and something in me died
but I gathered myself like a man
and took it all in stride
contented by the fact that
her smile had never lied
my sweet melody

Everything is poison

Everything is poison
the foods we eat
the bed we sleep
the dusty wind
my cracking skin
the diet coke
life's dying hope

everything is poison
a life of sin
Phnom Penh
this cigarette
all my regrets
what we remember
what we forget

everything is poison
the holy name
waging war
being poor

everything is poison
exhaust fumes
pending doom
diet sprite
high fructose
we eat the most

everything is poison
a homeless face
no saving grace
the corporate ladder
nothing matters

everything is poison
and yet
i will not quit
breathing in
making spit
pumping blood
made of mud
cause everything is poison
but life is the cure

And So the Sun

The sun sets in the west
some distant place
also my - home
vast flyovers
winding hills
snow filled balleys
wind swept plains
the stagnant decay of 
simple living
we grow fat from
the filler in KFC
and Mickey D's
consume factory made food
with delight
our waists grow
matching the distant
where the sun sets
in the West.

I long to head west
beyond the setting sun

if I am lucky
and fast
Arrival will be as the sun
rises in the East
shining on fileds of soy and rice
watching the glisten of
early morning fishing lines
catching sunrays
wrangling in food
made in nature
true delight
the enduring cycle of 
simple living
test and tuned by
time and tradition
Yes, the sun sets in the west
but rises in the east
finding a beginning in the end
reborn in the 
crimson glow of 
A new day
bittersweet rebirth
perched atop a spinning world
with two distant lands 
that both feel
like home

Why, How, When

I used to ask WHY
until I learned the excitement of asking HOW
But HOW has been replaced with WHEN
And it turns out that the answer is usually NOW - do something, Spirit Journey

Friday, January 11, 2013

My Life in Vietnam, Part 10: Get Out Now

I am going to skip ahead again by a day. There are events that happened at Hotel 68 that I am not quite ready to write about. But you should know that it is possible to hack into the in room surveillance system with a RF remote control, computer, and tv.  In fact, some entrepreneurial expats have found a way to do so. It is the greatest of breaches of privacy that I can imagine and my soul cannot easily rehash the events I am referring to. I accessed this system and having this knowledge made me uneasy. Afraid for my life.

“I have to get out of Vietnam!” This was my sole focus at this point. Leave. Every bone in my body, every muscle attached to those bones, every thought, every instinct yelled “get out now!” 
Bag packed, I checked out of the hotel and went across the street to change my USD for Vietnamese currency. There were strange marking on my bills and having only been in Asia for the last 3.5 years, I had lost the ability to tell the difference between real and fake US currency. I should mention that people in Vietnam often make fake currency to burn as a ritual sacrifice to the good health of their respective businesses. It is not uncommon to see half burned $100 bills littering the space between the sidewalk and road.  Burned money in the gutter.

New currency in my pocket, I walked up to Pham Ngu Lao street in the tourist district of Sai Gon and went to the first open travel shop I saw. I booked the first bus ticket to Cambodia. The woman at the counter told me that it would be about an hour wait and that I should be back in 45 minutes for a pick up. Given my state of mind at the time, I parked myself on a chair outside the entrance to the business and smoked a cigarette. I noticed a rather unfriendly man walk into the shop and start talking to the staff in what seemed like a mix of Vietnamese and Chinese. I am not fluent in Vietnamese, but I know enough to get the general tone of a conversation.

The man handed the woman something wrapped in paper and gave her a firm look. She looked nervous and shaken. That worried me. He walked outside and got on his motorbike. He drove a few meters away and stopped and pulled out his phone and began a conversation that I could not overhear.

Like most buildings in District 1, the travel agency’s front was garage style. The entire front rolls up to expose the business to pedestrian tourists. I was sitting on a stool in the front left, just outside the building. This gave me a complete view of the interior as well as a view of the street, sidewalk, and park across the street. The woman left the counter on the right side and moved behind the counter next to me on the left side. She unwrapped the paper under the counter and pulled out a red and white syringe.

Even in my heightened state of paranoia, I realized that not everything was about me. I mentally ran through the list of possibilities.
·               She had diabetes
·               She has a heroin problem
·               She has some other medical issue but the man did not look “professional” in any way
·               This was for me. (again, I was so freaked out at this point)

My fear was increased because she had moved to the counter next to me and we could have made physical contact without any effort. I got up and moved my chair a bit away from the building and put my back to a sign so that I was only accessible from the front. Feeling nervous, I asked for my money back and planned to go to another agency. She declined to give me my money so I grabbed my back and walked across the street to the park.

On the other side of the park I planned to grab a taxi and head to the airport. I saw the man from before on his motorbike and decided that maybe I should walk for a while and grab a random taxi. He followed, slowly.  I ended up walking about 1 km to the more expensive area near Ben Thanh market.

Monday, January 7, 2013

My Life in Vietnam part 9: Peak of Paranoia 2

My thought in taking a taxi was that no one could force me into an accident. I only had 2 concerns at this point: personal safety and finishing my last class. Part of insuring my safety was taking the out of place objects with me in my backpack to class. This was a strange class.

Instead of having a normal class with my student Thao, I talked to her for 3 hours about all the things that were going on in my life. I showed her the extra phone charger, sim cards, uv light, tags that only showed up under uv light, etc.  For the most part she was understanding and helped me stay calm. About 2 hours into the class, her phone rang and she stepped out to take the call.

When she came back, she said "there are things I want to tell you and I wish I could help you, but my English is not good enough.  Do you need money? Can I give you money?"  There was something in the tone of her voice that made me nervous. Really fucking nervous. I declined her offer of money because I felt like why would I take money from her that I did not earn.

Eventually we said our goodbyes and I got in a taxi. The taxi with the driver I mentioned in my last note. I was used to driving my motorbike and being very aware of my surroundings at this point. From the back seat of a taxi, I was even more aware. I had time time look at everything. There were two guys on a motorbike next to the taxi and they were carrying long metal pipes. Probably for construction of some sort, but also the right length to grab and beat the shit out of someone with. In front of them was a man, his wife, and a small child on another motorbike.  Behind the taxi were tons of other motorbikes, but a few were driven by people that I recognized from other staged almost incidents. Each bike was carrying "tools or supplies" of some sort that would be quite useful in a riot. . .

The motorbike with the family pulled in front of the taxi and was almost hit. I lost shit and yelled for the driver to stop. No accident. This was when I forced him to change directions and get on the highway.

Skip ahead to the map incident. . . The second time that I lost my temper in Vietnam - I am yelling "turn the fuck around. look at the road. what are you doing? stop the  car. stop the car! stop the fucking car!"

I looked at the meter and paid the fair and got out of the taxi with my bag, evidence, and started walking. We were still on the highway, but there was an intersection close by and I felt safer on foot.  After making it to the intersection I walked under the bridge and onto a side road that lead to Trung Hung Dao street. The people on the motorbikes slowly drove by me and made extended eye contact.  All I could do was sit down on the stoop of a building and light a cig and wonder what was happening to me.

Eventually I took the "evidence" out of my bag, made eye contact with one of the drivers and then I obviously placed everything on top of an electrical transformer on the side of the road. I started walking. He turned around, went back to the transformer and collected everything. I was only 2 km from my hotel, so I started the walk home.

My Life in Vietnam part 9: Peak of Paranoia

Some parts of this story are out of order and I am intentionally skipping some parts because I don't want to think about them or don't want it on facebook.  That being said, let me reorder.

I packed my bags at the hotel and also packed "evidence." 

During the mad dash around my hotel room I found a few things that I thought were important proof. 
  1. My phone came with 2 phone chargers. One was a usb that connected to my laptop and the other to a power outlet. I found a third charger. (my speculation at the time was that this charger was another way of accessing data on my phone/pc. It was the type of charger that connects to the power outlet and also to the computer. The USB wire could be removed from the base.
  2. USB speakers. The seal around the woofer of the usb speakers had been broken and crudely resealed with glue. I started to take it apart and look inside but as you can imagine, my mind was racing at this point. I took a picture with my phone and put the speakers in a bag of things I planned to leave at the hotel.
  3. Old hard drive. I wrote down the serial number, took a photo, and also put it in the "leave behind" bag. (again, I had already tossed this harddrive once before after being told by the computer repair store that my music and photos from the last 3 years were damaged and not capable of being restored.)
  4. The uv pen light - took it with me
  5. scan bar code from fake laptop battery - took with me
  6. toiletries - left behind. (anything that could be opened and closed I left behind partly because I was not quite sure what the angle was. Am I smuggling data, drugs, being poisoned, going to be killed in my sleep and made to look like a drug overdose, etc)
  7. my clothes - took with me but went through pockets, seams, etc. Found 3 sim cards from my travels but the phone numbers on the sim cards did not match the phone numbers that were assigned to the phone when I inserted the cards (are this spoofed, hacked, etc) I did try to access the data on them but they were encrypted. took the sim cards with me.
I went downstairs, gave them the key to my room, got on my motorbike and left. I ended up getting a room at Hotel 68 on the corner of Bui Vien and the ally that runs paralled to De Tham.  This was morning.  I had one more class left to teach and then it was time to go. As you can imagine, I was extremely paranoid at this point. I did not feel safe driving or even being in Saigon. But I had a class to teach and had to deal with that committment. I sold my motorbike and decided I would take a taxi to my last class.

In a previous post I wrote about the taxi driver who turned back to me while holding a map and asking were I wanted to go. This was on the highway home from this last class. And, he did not not bother to stop the taxi.  We were in motion but both of his hands were on the map. I was sitting in the back seat and he was looking back at me.  What I did not write about before is what I noticed going on around me in the taxi-

My Life in Vietnam part 8: The Part You Have Been Waiting For

Ly left a UV pen light in my hotel room one night. Before she left, I had been cleaning and trying to lighten up my load for the trip home. I threw several things away including the old harddrive from the Samsung Laptop I came to Vietnam with, a deactivated credit card which I had cut into little pieces, receipts, cds, virus infected usb flash drive, and various other things. 

While cleaning, I opened the drawer to the wardrobe and found something strange. There was a grey man's long sleeve shirt, a plastic wrapper for some sort of electronic equipment, and wait for it --- a cardboard box that contained the battery for my IBM Thinkpad sl400 laptop. Except, there was a battery in my laptop.

I never bought a second battery. It turns out, the battery in the bottom of my wardrobe was the original one that came with my laptop. The one currently inserted in my laptop had come in that box and it had been modified to include a second mini harddrive, mini wifi card, and an IR receiver. (I opened it.)

By chance, I took the UV pen light that Ly left in my room and pointed it at the fake battery. WTF? I saw a scan code and serial number that I didn't notice at first. Long story short, I began looking at everything in my room: my clothes, electronics, papers, toiletries, etc. UV markings everywhere!

Then on top of the wardrobe I found drug paraphernalia. There was more under the mattress of the bed, behind the mini fridge, behind the toilet, under the sink, under the trash bag in the waste bin, (which is where I also found the cut up credit card that I had thrown out hours earlier.) This is by no means an exaustive list. Just know that I spent about 3 hours going through my things, throwing out anything that looked altered, and packing the rest away.

Once I packed my bag, I went right downstairs, checked out of the hotel, asked them to call the police and have them seach the room because I felt like something was wrong, and then got on my motorbike and found another hotel. 2 days before I fly. What have I gotten myself into?

Also, during this 3 hour clean up period, I found my old harddrive in the bottom of my bag. The harddrive that I had thrown out with the cut up credit card.

More to come. 

My Life in Vietnam part 7: Pre-Exodus, Arranged Chaos

Hanging out with my new friend, Ly, was fun. Actually, it was 2 parts Fear and Loathing in Saigon, One part Carnivale, one part Fast and Furious, and one part Angel Heart.  I suck at references.

There are a lot of sides to my personality. I say yes to almost anything, I like to help/fix things, I am irresponsible at times, I live for adventure and the unknown. Ly was all of these things. Saigon has no shortage of beautiful women. Ly was not exactly beautiful. She had charm, charisma and a winning smile, but I would not call her beautiful. Maybe pretty on a good day. More than anything, she was normal. I like normal.

Without going into much detail, I should have realized something wasn't right. She would always ask me about the time I was leaving for work, or when I planned to fly to the USA, or what district I was working in on a certain day. For the most part I just thought it was small talk to help her improve her English. Then I started "almost having accidents" on the way to and from work. People would suddenly stop infront of my motorbike. One morning after being out all night with Ly, someone stopped in front of my motorbike on Cong Quyen. I squeezed my brakes and slid to the ground without making contact with her, but barely. Even though it was sudden, I could see it happening. 

She pulled up on my right side on her motorbike. There was plenty of room behind me. Just as her rear tire was in line with my front tire, she looked back in her left rearview mirror, made eye contact with me for half a second, stuck out her left hand to signal a left turn, and came to a full stop right in front of me. I I squeezed my brakes and made a sharp turn to the place where she just was. No contact with her motorbike, but plenty of contact between me and the pavement.

She looked back as if expecting me to hit her. I looked up from the ground. She drove straight! I am thinking "why the fuck is she going straight after just stopping right in front of me?"  I got up and dusted off my pants. My motorbike was leaking a little gas and had some scratches along the left side. There was some other damage as well, but nothing to severe or costly. 

My Life in Vietnam part 6: Pre Exodus

I feel like I have given enough context to let you know my state of mind, but there is so much more to say before the actual events. I will skip ahead to the exodus now and then come back and fill in more context to the story.

My lease expired for my apartment in Vietnam in October. The owner of the building knew that I was planning to visit the USA in December and agreed to let me live month to month without a lease until December 11th. On November 9th, she said that she changed her mind and I had to move out by November 11th. As you can imagine, I was not happy about the situation but there was nothing I could do. I did not have a lease, she owns the building (as much as you can own a building in Vietnam), and I didn't really like her anyway. 

Note to self: the one time I showed actual anger was the night I moved out. I will come back to that.

Anyway, since I only had just over a month until my planned trip, I figured I could just live in hotels for that time period. The first few nights I went for luxuary; $20 usd a night. After that I moved to a dive of a place with a sign that read 24 open in neon green lights. This place was somewhere on the scale between a Love Motel and a by the hour F* pad. Yes -- classy. 

Around this time, I met a girl who works in a bar on Bui Vien. We immediately hit it off and ended up spending a lot of time together when she wasn't working. She told me about her daughter and how slow work was for her. I told her about my life and plans to go to the USA. We drank. We stayed up all night. We did a lot of things. (I am leaving specific details out of this part as this is facebook).

Then about 3 days before I was planning to leave, things got strange.