Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Three-Hour Tour

Midori and my excuse for going to Phu Quoc was that it was "on the way" to Rach Gia. Rach Gia is a small fishing city that serves as the base of Habitat's operations in Kien Giang province, which in turn is a fairly poor, very rural southern province in the Mekong Delta. By "on the way" we meant one could fly to Phu Quoc, sit on the beach for two days, and then take a boat from Phu Quoc to Rach Gia. Unsurprisingly, the boatride was an adventure.

To start it off, our hosts in Rach Gia had pulled some strings to get us on this boat, and the logistics of those strings meant we would take one company's boat, but the tickets would be waiting for us at a different company's office. I was pretty sure even from the onset this arrangement would end in failure. The company with the tickets - whose office is located, as far as I could gather from my attempts to find it at the dock, in St. Louis - even sent someone over to give the tickets to us. Some punk-ass other westerners ended up with the tickets instead.

Props go to Midori, who made an ally early on with a woman in one of the booking offices. She ultimately found us one ticket, which I thought should pose a problem, since two of us wanted to get the hell off the island, but with some handwaving and, on my part, standing around looking incompetent in a way only an American in S.E. Asia can successfully pull off, we got on board. I was glad to contribute something to the cause.

Midori got a seat in the passenger cabin, but when I tried to sit next to her, I was directed instead to a hatch in the ceiling that led, by way of the cockpit, to a covered area on top of the passenger cabin that was the manufacturers had probably not intended for passenger transport. It was small and crowded when I arrived - I got the only remaining seat on a bench - but just before setting sail another 12 or 15 people popped up through the hatch. It was sort of like the State Room scene in Night at the Opera, but with a monsoon rainstorm that started halfway through the 3-hour trip.

The storm did mean that I got to meet my neighbors (all of us on the windward side), as we all tried to shelter from the driving rain. This is how I met Tien:
an 11th-grader from Cao Lanh City. She and her mother, aunt, and brother graciously invited me to their house if I'm ever in Cao Lanh. And Tien did an admirable job translating their questions, including, "Do you have a lover?" (They all responded enthusiastically when I pulled out a photo of Blair.)

Righto. Some photos. The boat's crew at work during the storm:

This photo makes it look less crowded than it was, since everyone is crammed to the left of the camera frame, on the lee side, to avoid the rain:Rach Gia, as seen from the Habitat offices:

Citimart!All of the vacant land you see in these photos has (unlike vacant lots in most American cities) never been developed. It's all landfill, claimed from the Gulf of Thailand over the last twelve or so years. The center of Rach Gia looks like a normal city, but out here it's like a mall in a marsh. I particularly like how tall, skinny, and occasional the buildings are, an indication of the lots' size and the developers' dreams of density.

Starting posts on Kien Giang this weekend: the road to Ha Noi goes through the Mekong Delta.

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