September 2009


mac128When we got back from Bangladesh we bought an old house on Myrtle Street in St. Thomas, probably still the house that I love best. After spending a couple of years fixing up the downstairs so we could live in it, we turned our attention to the attic and built a bedroom/playroom for our boys. Pam and I finished and the boys moved in probably around ’89 or ’90. Shortly after that we bought them the first of what was going to be a long line of computers. I think we paid around $100 for it, and it wasn’t much, but it was a real computer, not a game system.

The next morning I went up to the attic to use the computer and found it lying in pieces on the floor. I was speechless. I had looked forward to owning a proper computer for some time and here it was in pieces all over the attic floor. I was too stunned to be angry, but when I looked at Jon sitting among the pieces he turned toward me and with a cheery and confident smile and said “Don’t worry Dad, I know where all the pieces go.” And he did. He had it back together and working inside of an hour.

I could not believe it; I still can’t. I mean, I have got some technical competence. I have renovated three houses, two of which basically had to be gutted and Pam and I have done nearly all the work ourselves. But I couldn’t have taken a computer apart when I was 10 and put it back together. Heck, I can’t do it at 60. But Jon could. The next computer came along pretty fast after that. The one in the picture isn’t it. We don’t have those pictures in Malaysia, but this is close. That was the last Mac we bought, the rest were all PCs because by now our son’s interest was getting serious and we wanted to make sure that he was familiar with Microsoft products, because that is where the jobs were going to be.

He had his own business when he was 14, installing software and setting up computers for new buyers. He wasn’t old enough to drive then, so Pam and I would have to drive him around to clients’ houses to do the work. Years after Jon went off to college some of his old customers would call the house looking for Jon to help them with a computer problem. They hadn’t been able to find anyone else who was as knowledgeable as he was.

When he was 17 he got a contract with the St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital to set up a computer network for them and used the money to buy a state-of-the-art computer system for himself for college. At Conestoga in Kitchener he took a full course load and worked two jobs, one at Future Shop and one at Rockwell not just to pay his own way, but to gain confidence and expertise in his chosen field. While he was at Rockwell he wrote a program to run some machines that no one else at the company had even thought of. He translated that experience into the first of many positions in IT both in Canada and down in the States.

But today is the payoff; Jon has accepted a position with Microsoft. This is not a position that he applied for. They came looking for him. This isn’t even the first time they’ve come looking, but Jon has been loyal to all the companies he worked for, and he was working on an important project the last time they came knocking and he said no. This time the offer was just too good, and he has accepted.

As you can tell from this post, we are inordinately proud of our son for how he has handled his career and of his drive for excellence. We are sure that he will be a real assest to Microsoft, and the experience will be good for him as well. Just so long as he doesn’t let them know he still has a Mac in his closet!

Saigon
Pam got back from the north about midday on Thursday. I will let her blog about her experiences when she gets a minute. I am looking forward to reading about them as much as you are. Although I have heard bits and pieces, I have yet to hear the full story, Pam not being as given to verbal fluency as one who continues to make his comfortable living from such activities.

Our last afternoon and evening we spent hunting for souvenirs to bring to Canada in June. Vietnam is home to some remarkable craftsmanship, much more so that any South-East Asian country we have yet seen. Carvings, paintings, woodwork, lacquer work and ceramics are all done at any exceptionally fine level of craftsmanship, and we were hard pressed to choose from such a rich assortment.
Vietnam Laquer Crafts
Choices finally made we settled on some tasty noodles for supper, cuisine being another well developed aspect of Vietnamese culture and then went for a stroll along Nguyen Hue in the cool evening air. Saigon, with its blend of American hustle, French cuisine and civic planning and Asian culture and resilience, is a captivating city.

But Saigon is not Vietnam, and we both got out of the city enough to see that. With a coastline of 3,500 kilometres – longer than the distance from Key West to Bangor, Maine – there is clearly a lot of the country that we didn’t get to see. Fortunately for us Vietnam is less than two hours and only about $70 US away from us in KL. It may have taken us more than two years to get here, but we are both thinking that it will not take that long to get back.

Pam and I do not often take tours, prefering to go our own way and explore at our own pace. But sometimes the tour is the best way to go: the cheapest, the safest, and the most effective way to see difficult to reach places. Yesterday I took the tour to the Mekong Delta. In order to get a good price you have to be prepared to do a little shopping around, which can take some time. I checked out the prices at a few places ranging from 90 to 150 dollars American before I found the same package for $15. That included a motorcycle pickup at my hotel. We boarded a small airconditioned bus for the two hour drive to the start of the delta at a place called My Tho. Those who opted for the cheaper package got off here to tour the fruit orchards and honey farms that dot the delta.
Vietnam2009441

I stayed on the bus for another hour to the northern main branch of the Mekong where we boarded a comfortable and stable boat for a tour of the floating market, an area where fresh produce is brought down the river and sold wholesale to the many vegetable sellers in this region. We had the obligatory tour of the coconut candy and the puffed rice stores, but the rustic and hand intensive production of both operations was quite interesting, and the Vietnamese tea that they served, kept piping hot inside tea cosy that was a hollowed out coconut shell, had a delicate flavour and aroma.

Then it was back on the river to go across to the village for lunch. The Mekong is probably close to two kilometers wide at this point, at least this one branch of it is, and I was grateful for a steady craft and a powerful engine. Across the river we entered a narrow channel, that branched many times before we docked at a little village for lunch consisting of rice, chicken vegetables and a local delicacy called ‘elephant fish.’ It was delicious.

I managed to cop a wee nap in a hammock before we headed out again. The Mekong Delta is tidal, and now that it was low tide we had to be paddled out on small skiffs rowed by a wiry Vietnamese who stand at the back of the boat and row forward, crossing and levering two long oars against each other along the narrow channel. A variety of ducks frolicked and fed in our wake until we reached the next branch of the Mekong where our larger boat lay anchored. Once again we manoevered downriver, the Mekong’s flow now battled by the incoming tidal waters from the sea making for some turbulent water. Safely ashore at Vinh Long we walked through a long market crowded with produce to a small outdoor cafe overlooking the river. We sat sipping iced tea and staring at the river while we waited for our bus to arrive to take us back to Saigon.
mekong-delta-women

The bus trip back was uneventful, but I was happy not to be driving. The roads in this densely populated country are crowded with trucks, and lane discipline is a new concept, most prefering their half of the road right down the middle, thank you. We stopped once at a lovely roadside restaurant, complete with gardens, before hitting the road again. We got into Saigon around 7:30 pm, almost exactly 12 hours after we had started. The tour guide, the bus, the boat, the lunch; all that cost me $15 for one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences. I think I got a bargain.

Vietnam_MekongDeltaI don’t think any river has captured my imagination like the Mekong. It is not merely that it travels through Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, but it is the lifeblood of those countries; providing the only reliable highway in Laos, feeding fish to the Cambodians who eat virtually nothing else and providing Vietnam with enough rice for its 90 million people while giving it a valuable export commodity.

 

But that is not what captures me. It was the war, what the Americans call the Vietnam War, and what they call here The American War. It was the thousands of soldiers who travelled from North Vietnam across Loas to the Mekong, and spent months travelling down that mighty river to the delta from where they mounted the southern front in terrain that was impossible to penetrate, let alone defend. The scale of that offensive, the tactical daring of it captured my imagination, and made me long to see the river that had made such heroic tactics possible.

Last year we travelled from Luang Prabang in Laos to the Thai border along the Mekong. It was an idyllic trip through lush teak forest, and a magical journey I will never forget. We have seen the Tonle Sap at Siem Reap, and sipped tea where it joins the Mekong at Phnom Penh. At that point it is now a mighty torrent that last year drowned the entire crew of one dragon boat in their annual international race. And now today I have seen the Mekong Delta.

It is massive. One arm of it alone completely dwarfs the Mississippi, and there are nine arms, known as the nine dragons. Twenty million people live here, twice the population of Ontario, and yet there are no structures higher than two stories. Millions live either on the rivers or along their shores, boat and jetties line every bank, and behind every house are the fields of rice stretching to the flat horizon. There is a timelessness to the river and its patient stoic inhabitants that alters your perception of the planet and its people. I have finally seen the Mekong, and it was worth the wait.

We flew into Vietnam on Sunday. The airport is new and efficient and we paid the stated rate, $15 to get to our hotel. Having missed the place the first time and going around the block, the cab driver remarked “O my **, that IS it!” Not the most auspicious introduction, but we’ve been around the block a few times ourselves, Pam and I, and we are not easily put off. Our hotel may be modest, but it is clean and moderately priced and in a safe neighbourhood. Anything beyond that we consider conspicuous consumption.

Ho Chi Minh City

We got in early enough for an evening stroll through the upscale part of town, and I have to say we were pretty impressed. The streets and sidewalks are wide, as they are in Phnom Penh, similarly influenced by the French genius for civil planning, and the sidewalk cafes and rooftop terraces were gracious and friendly. We must have walked 20 kilometers on Monday. We started with a tour through Ben Thanh Market, much more organized than Central Market in Phnom Penh, but not nearly as much fun. Prices are pretty well as stated, and the Vietnamese are not easily moved.

Bycycle Rickshaw

We made the mistake of catching bicycle rickshaws outside of the market whose drivers took us two kilometers the wrong way and into a deserted courtyard for a shakedown. We don’t often make that kind of mistake when we are travelling, but we got off relatively lightly and more than a little chagrinned at our naivete. We hoofed it the rest of the day and found Saigon to be full of the romance of French influence and the legacy of protracted war.

It is an odd combination. The Reunification Palace was everything you remember the archectecture of the sixties to be: angular and airy. The Hotel de Ville and the post office pure French colonial gingerbread.

Reunification Palace

Hotel de Ville

The War Museum was suitably horrific, as befits a horrible war. The artefacts of the American genius for crafting weapons of death were eye-opening even for one as cynical as I, and the pictures of the human costs of torture, mines, napalm and Agent Orange won’t be easily forgotten. Salad Nicoise and a sweet crepe at a French cafe went some way to restoring a sense of perspective on a troubling day.

The Vietnamese are a hard and hardened people. Their drive for prosperity is being noted even among their neighbours in South-East Asia who are used to seeing such rampant capitalist ambition. A square foot of land in Saigon is now more expensive than Hong Kong or New York. Everywhere you look buildings are going up; expensive buildings. Our shakedown at the market is just the tip of the iceberg: these people are tenacious and determined. Whatever is takes, they are going to succeed, and they are going to be a force to be reckoned with in this part of the world.

vietnam

Hindsight is a curious thing. As you age there comes a need to make sense of where you have been in life, and to put things in perspective. Quite often this becomes an exercise is self-deception and flattery, a kind of personal revision of history, hence the wide disdain for such reflections. While making every allowance for this tendency, and seeking as best as I am able to avoid it, I recognize that some will see this post in that light regardless.

But we are going to Vietnam, Pam to minister, I to visit, and some reflection is unavoidable. After all, for my generation there are few countries that more resonate with our personal histories than this one. So many deaths, including four innocent students on the campus of Kent State, so many horrific images – the naked girl fleeing in terror from her napalmed village, the Buddhist monk in saffron flames – so much deception and corruption, finally ending in the resignation of America’s most hated president, Richard Milhous Nixon. To finally visit the country that generated much of this angst is cause enough for reflection.

My part in the protest movement of the 60s was minimal: some marches, some arrests for public disorder, some police surveillance. Nothing out of the ordinary for an average Canadian growing up in those days. Canada was a haven for those who protested the war, and we were relatively safe in our mild protestations. America was the real battlefield, and although I spent some time there and took part in the social activism of the day, my passport ensured that I paid a moderate price for my view on events in South-East Asia.

But Vietnam was never far from my thoughts, and there was no question that what America did to that country and the neighbouring countries of Cambodia and Laos was seen by many of us as criminal. While fifty thousand American soldiers lost their lives in that war, ten times that number of Vietnamese died, the overwhelming majority of those being innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Cambodia and Laos still haven’t recovered, Vietnam, with its far greater population and national resiliance, has.

I am looking forward to seeing a country that has been in my thoughts since I began to think about my global responsibility. I think it is going to be a worthwhile experience, and one that for me is long overdue.

Liz and Hyundai

Not quite as famous as some of the greats of British racing, but a lot dearer to us is our own very own daughter, known briefly as “Crash,” a nickname she acquired on sixteenth birthday on the very first day she drove a car. She drove all the way home from the license bureau quite successfully and even drove into the garage, which would have been even more sucessful if the garage door had been open.

No one was hurt, and the air bag didn’t even deploy, for which I am very grateful as that question always comes up on insurance forms. The car itself suffered almost no damage, and when Liz went West several years ago took the Sunfire with her, as seemed only fitting. It served her well for many years until it was replaced with the little Hyundai you see pictured above.

Despite her lead foot (I think that is genetic) and the constant need to adjust her tunes while she is driving, Liz has turned into quite a good driver, which proves my long held conviction that there is nothing like a good crash to make make you aware of what may happen on the road if you are not careful. I had one myself at 16, a lot worse than our daughter’s, and it did me a world of good.

Dave and Jon both have had their moments behind the wheel as well, but God has been awfully good to all of us, and nothing serious has ever come of any of it. We count the Lord’s favour to us as a blessing as we consider our daughter’s birthday on Monday. So many miles travelled, so many adventures, and yet He has blessed and preserved her through all of them. We are grateful to God for our daughter, our own sweet “Crash,” and trust that she will rejoice in all the good things in her life on her day. Happy Birthday, darling. Drive safely.

Next Page »