Nellie!

Posted on August 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Sports. 2 comments

Consider me stunned to read that Don Nelson has been named the new head coach of the Warriors.  Not that it’s a bad thing, of course.  After all, Nelson was in place when the Warriors were last a winning team, back when I was 13 years old.  Some of the ESPN guys are bullish about the Warriors prospects under Nellie, but they remain pretty much the same team as the one who lost 48 games for Mike Montgomery last year.

I remember that after Nellie was fired from the Knicks the Chronicle ran a story about how he and his wife were living in a Hawaii paradise and that he was playing golf all day and didn’t want to return to coaching.  About a half-year later, he was back running the Mavs.  Some guys just can’t stop.

As for Monty?  I’d say he’ll be back coaching Division I somewhere, and before long nobody will remember that he coached the Warriors at all.  Quick trivia question:  who are the eight men who coached the Warriors after Nellie left?…

The End Is Nigh

Posted on August 30th, by matt_schiavenza in China/Vietnam Summer 2006. No Comments

Today I leave Yangshuo after seven extremely relaxing days, most spent just wandering around the town on foot.  Yesterday, I rented a bicycle for the second time and set off with a small group looking for a place to swim.  I was dubious, but we stumbled upon a path leading down to the banks of the Yi River.  There was a little grassy beach- perfect for catching some sun- and a slow-moving river that was pleasant for swimming.  A small fisherman kept us company for awhile, probably marveling at these Western mermaids that happened to turn up on the shore.

I have a late flight out tonight back to Fuzhou, where I’ll have about five days to sort everything out and say goodbye to my home for a year.  I’ve been delighted with Yangshuo but am very much looking forward to being back in hot, stinky Fuzhou again.…

The Mosquito Coast

Posted on August 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Books. No Comments

Allie Fox, the protagonist in Paul Theroux’s novel The Mosquito Coast (published in 1982), believes himself to be the "last real man in America".  He is fond of regaling his family with pablums against American society, which he believes to be in a rapid state of deterioration.  Americans, he argues, have become so anesthesized to technology and fast food and religion that they no longer possess the ability to be self-sufficient, productive members of society.  Citizens of "The Land of the Free" are not free at all; slaves to television and drugs and cheap thrills, Americans are self-destructing without even realizing it.

Allies sees himself differently, and possessing the courage of his convictions he takes his wife and four children to live in isolated jungle on Honduras’ Mosquito Coast, as far from modern American society as he could possibly get.  His children, raised on a farm and kept out of school, yearn for a normal life yet at the same time place their full trust in their father’s vision.  Allie is, after all, a mechanical genius who has invented a pollution-free method to produce ice from fire.  This he plans to introduce to the Central American "savages" who "don’t realize how good they have it".

The Mosquito Coast is narrated by Allie’s oldest son Charlie, a boy of thirteen who idolizes his brilliant father yet is tantalized by the American pop culture that eludes him.  We see Charlie bravely climbing the rafters of the ship to please his father, the latter exhorting the boy to "conquer his fears".  In the jungle, where Allie serves as mayor of a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, Charlie struggles to carve out his own identity and come to terms with the choices his parents have made.

Allie’s ice machine is a smashing success, and soon he acquires a religious-like devotion among the natives, who refer to him as "Father".    As the town grows, so does Allie’s egomania; he never misses an opportunity to remind his family that he alone has provided them with "liberty" and "prosperity".   

But inevitably things begin to go wrong.  A mission to deliver ice to a neighboring village fails when the ice melts in the tropical heat.  Missionaries visit and take away one of the village families, showing that Allie’s grip on group ideology is more tenuous that previously imagined.  During this period of conflict, the young Charlie begins to see cracks in his father’s facade- determined idealism transformed into destructive megalomania.

What makes the book so pleasurable to read are its delicious ironies: hoping to free his family from the constraints of traditional religion and hateful of the Christian missionaries common in the developing world, Allie becomes a religious-like tyrant himself.  His version of "liberty" and "freedom" cannot be criticized or challenged; any dissenters are dismissed as cranks and even outright abused.  Allie puts his family under considerable strain in order to pursue his vision of paradise- only he fails to realize how selfish he really is.

Everyone knows obsessive parents; the sort of people whose zeal to provide the best possible life for their children results in tyranny.  What many adults forget is that their choice to live a certain way was simply that: a choice.  Preventing their children from the ability to make similar choices later in life is a very subtle form of abuse.  Allie personifies this type.

The Mosquito Coast is masterfully written, as one comes to expect from Theroux, and it stands as a useful diary from the late 70s/early 80s; a period when many Americans took urban crime, high energy prices, a slumping economy, the success of the Japanese and the persistence of the Soviets as proof that America was in irreversible decline.  Few I suspect removed themselves from society to the extent that Allie did, yet as Allie himself says, "I never stop until I get where I’m going". He is not a man to do things half-way.…

No to Big Papi for MVP

Posted on August 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Baseball. 8 comments

Back in Hanoi I caught the first two games of the Yankees/Red Sox series, transmitted via International ESPN.  Finally, I got to watch a bit of the 2006 season, even if I have no dog in the Red Sox/Yankees fight. 

It was a pleasure though watching the Red Sox lumbering designated hitter, David Ortiz, a player who has garnered the love and affection of Red Sox Nation in a manner previously reserved for players like Nomar and Pedro.  To think the Minnesota Twins once released him is unthinkable- he is now one of the game’s great hitters.  Ortiz is a fearful presence at the plate, and his heroics in clutch situations this year has only built his mystique.

Naturally, Ortiz is a leading candidate for the AL MVP award.  At first glance, his numbers suggest he deserves it: he leads the majors in HRs and RBIs and his other numbers are solid.  ESPN projects Ortiz to finish with nearly 60 longballs before season’s end as well as over 150 runs batted in, enormous production even in today’s offensive era.  It won’t be easy voting against him for the MVP, but that’s what the baseball writers should do.

Ortiz is a DH.  When the Red Sox take the field, he sits on the bench.  In the history of the DH, exactly one player (Don Baylor in 1979) has won the MVP award, and for good reason: they’re only half-players.  A DH just simply isn’t as valuable as a player in the field.

Besides, there’s a legitimate MVP candidate right on Ortiz’ own team: Manny Ramirez.  Yes, Manny isn’t a good left fielder- but at least he plays in the field.  Moreover, his batting average, on base average, and slugging average are all better than Ortiz’.

Manny has always had a goofy image given his long locks and his oft-stated desire to play for the Yankees, but he is one of the most prolific offensive players in baseball today.  His numbers this year will fall in line with what has been a consistently excellent career.

There are other candidates, of course. Justin Morneau of the Twins comes to mind, as does the underrated Derek Jeter.  Manny certainly would be a legitimate choice. Ortiz, though, shouldn’t enter the conversation.…

China Redux

Posted on August 25th, by matt_schiavenza in China/Vietnam Summer 2006. 1 Comment

The long Vietnam phase of my interminable summer vacation has come to a close, and I re-entered China two days ago via southwestern Guangxi Province. 

I boarded a morning bus in Hanoi that cruised through the lovely northern countryside to the border crossing at Dong Dang/Pingxiang.  That is- I assume it was lovely, as I was asleep the entire time due to my decision to stay up until 3am the night before.

The border crossing itself required two hours.  We filled out some customs/immigration forms on the Vietnam side and handed over our passports to the border agent, who conspicuously decided to deal with mine last.  As all of the Vietnamese and Chinese trudged to the Chinese side, I nervously watched the man scrutinize my passport as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls.

My passport is eight years old and endured a rough afternoon in Halong Bay when the heavy rains soaked my money belt and damaged it.  Fortunately, the information on both my Vietnamese and Chinese VISAs remained legible so in the end he let me through, not before informing me that my passport is "very bad".  I imagine he was referring to its condition rather than the government it represents, but I could be wrong.

We eventually reached Nanning, the dull capital city of Guangxi Province.  I booked into a cheap hotel and arranged for a bus to Guilin leaving the following morning.  No rest for the weary.

The bus left at 9 and sped into Guilin about four and a half hours later after a pit stop halfway through.  Guilin is famous among Chinese travelers, but it’s hard to imagine why- the town itself is nondescript and ugly and the pollution made it difficult to see its legendary karst mountains.  I decided to make my visit short, buying a ticket for the next bus to Yangshuo.

One hour later, I reached Yangshuo and bid farewell to what was hopefully the last long-distance bus I’ll take in China for awhile.  This town is more my style- a pretty downtown, beautiful mountains, relatively clean air, and a peaceful vibe.  I was met by a fellow at the bus stop who guided me to his hotel- being too tired to investigate the scene myself, I readily stayed for the night.

This morning, I changed to a hotel right in the middle of town, giving me better access to the facilities Yangshuo offers.  I plan to take it easy here- doing little else but riding a rented bicycle through the rice paddies.  I will be awfully busy back in Fuzhou making arrangements for my return to the US, so here the objective is to chill as much as possible.  It’s 2pm and I’ve done nothing today, which is perfect.  Great.  Outstanding.

In a moment, I will book a flight to Fuzhou (from Guilin) and take care of other errands in order to wipe the schedule clean for the rest of the week.

More later…

California Plans

Posted on August 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. 1 Comment

Through the course of this trip, I’ve met a lot of fellow travelers from all over the world.  The small talk all goes the same way.  Here is a short version of the bio I present to new acquaintences on the road:

- American, from California
- 25 years old
- International Relations graduate
- taught in China for two years
- Don’t know what I’m going to do when I go home.

The truth is, I do know what I’m going to do when I go home, but in an effort not to bore the listener I tend not to go into much detail.  This is my blog, however, so I’ll now take the opportunity to present a fuller picture of my intended activity after returning to California in two weeks.

I imagine I’ll spend the first few days recovering from jet lag and getting spoilt by my parents.  That’s only natural, of course.  But here are things I intend to do.

- Get into shape.  I know, I know, I’ve been saying this for years…..but this time I mean it!  I could probably stand to lose fifteen or twenty pounds, and would like to rebuild some strength through running and swimming.  Luckily, California’s temperate weather allows me to pursue both activities virtually year round.  Not to mention, financial and logistical constraints will force me to cut down on unhealthy activity such as drinking beer and eating bad food.  I’m reasonably confident that I’ll be slimmer and fitter after a few months back in the States.

- Purchase a new computer.  My Dell laptop, in nearly continuous use since 2001, finally became too slow and beated up to be of much use anymore.  I gave it to my friend in Fuzhou in exchange for helping me pack my suitcase and being the recipient of all the junk I wanted to get rid of when I moved out of my apartment.  I’ll be looking for another laptop, probably a PC, that’s a lot faster and more powerful than my old one.

- Research Graduate Schools.  Eventually, I’m going to go back to school, most likely doing something related to Chinese Studies.  Only at home will I have access to all the resources I need to research schools both in the US and abroad.  Estimated time of matriculation?  Probably Sept. 2007 or 2008.  Yes, I will most likely still be a student when I hit 30 in 2011.

- Earn money.  I’m not sure if I’ll have the time or flexibility to work a conventional job, but I will have to find a source of income somehow.  I’m going to look into ESL tutoring and private lessons, most likely, though something else might pop up as well.

- Figure out what to do next.  If I choose to study again in China, as is likely at this point, I’ll have to settle on a particular school and then enroll.  If not, then I’ll have to make a decision as to where to go after the New Year

- Spend time with my family. I’m lucky to have three surviving grandparents, and as all of them are in their 80s (one will be 90 in September) I’m looking forward to seeing them before I go away again.  I’m also excited to see my sisters in San Francisco and Washington and to visit their families; I imagine my nephews keep growing and growing.  My other cousins, aunts, and uncles are also important to me though fortunately nearly all of them are based in the Bay Area.  Of course, I’m looking forward to hanging out with my parents, with whom I will be living for the time being.

- Seeing my friends.  Thanks to the Internet, I’ve been able to keep close tabs on both my high school and college buddies during the past two years, but this is no substitute for hanging out in person.  Most of my friends either live in California or else will come home during the holidays, and for those that won’t I’ll make an effort to scrape up enough change to visit them.

- Other things.  Learn to drive a stickshift.  Set up a website.  Read magazines and the newspaper.  Go hiking.  Maybe cook a little.  Who knows?…

Vietnam in Review

Posted on August 20th, by matt_schiavenza in China/Vietnam Summer 2006. No Comments

My time in Vietnam is coming to an end, as in three days I will be boarding a bus bound for Nanning, China.  I’ve been here for nearly four weeks now, beginning in Saigon and slowly working my way northward.  Here are some of my initial impressions of the country- others who have come here are welcome to add to these or challenge some of my opinions.

What I liked:
- the big cities: Saigon and Hanoi, especially the latter.  Great architecture, good food, cool atmosphere, and plenty to see and do.  I enjoyed both a lot more than Bangkok or Phnom Penh

- accommodation: virtually everywhere I went, I was able to score a very nice hotel room full of amenities for $10 or less.  Unlike rooms in Thailand, Vietnamese rooms usually come equipped with a refrigerator and TV; perfect for chilling with a beer after a day spent walking around in the humidity.

- the boat trip to Halong Bay:  incredible scenery, great service, and the chance to meet a lot of interesting travelers.  For instance, I moderated an argument between an Israeli and a Palestinian girl, both of whom conducted themselves with a remarkable degree of civility and restraint given the emotional subject.  Very interesting and enlightening, if a bit bizarre considering we were floating on a boat in the middle of a Vietnamese body of water.

- The Blue Gecko Bar in Nha Trang: great deals on drinks and the friendliest staff in Southeast Asia.

- the hamburgers at the Nha Trang Sailing Club: best I’ve had in Asia- ever.

- pho bo: delicious beef noodle soup for a buck..available everywhere.

- bia hoi: sidewalk keg beer served for 12 cents a glass.  Fantastic camaraderie, especially in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

- Augustin: a French restaurant in Saigon with unbelievable orange-flavored duck.  Fantastic.

- Stop and Go Cafe in Dalat: run by a Vietnamese poet sporting a beret and a wispy white beard.  Spent a few hours there reading his poetry, listening to him play guitar, and drinking rasberry tea.

- Minh’s Jazz Club, Hanoi: great live jazz, mixing Vietnamese originals with classic American tunes.

-Reunification Palace, Saigon: former headquarters of the South Vietnamese government, left largely intact following their defeat in 1975.  Very interesting place to wander around.

-Mama Linh’s Boat Tour, Nha Trang: spent a great day there drinking in the floating bar, dancing to the impromptu band on the boat, and eating a great meal as we flitted through the turquoise waters

-Cu Chi Tunnels, near Saigon:  Absolutely fascinating display, and a fairly clear lesson of how the US and the South Vietnamese lost the war.

Things I didn’t like:

- Motorbike drivers: ubiquitous, persistent, annoying, and dishonest.  If I could get one guy to take me where I want to go, not try to rip me off, and not try to lead me to a brothel, I would die a happy man.

- Hoi An: pretty, yes, but way too touristy and not a particularly pleasant place to walk around.  The beach was nice, though, if you could get a few minutes peace and quiet from the food vendors.

- Dalat’s weather: rainy and cold.  Think Bay Area in the depths of an El Nino February.

- long-distance buses: cramped, slow, and uncomfortable.

- the invisible mosquitos:  I haven’t seen one, but I keep getting bitten.

Clearly, the good outweighs the bad here….and that’s a reasonable representation of my overall feelings about the place.  Thailand is probably more relaxing, and Cambodia more exotic, but Vietnam has a pretty damn good range of sights and sounds.  The tourist industry here is overgrown, and supply definitely seems to outstrip demand here.  As a result, the people are desperate for your dollar, and react badly when you seem unwilling to part with it.  Hopefully, the amount of tourists in Vietnam will increase, or the amount of people in the tourist game will decrease, leading to a more natural balance.

All in all, the hassles are a fair price to pay.  I’d recommend Vietnam to just about anyone.…

Giant Resurgence?

Posted on August 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Baseball. No Comments

So after a horrific stint which appeared to put the Giants completely out of the race, they’ve suddenly reeled off five consecutive victories including an impressive road sweep of the Padres and yesterday’s home win over the hated Dodgers.

How could they have turned it around?  Look at the numbers.  During the Giants losing spell, they lost a number of one run games and weren’t blown out in any of them.  Given the number of runs they scored and gave up, you’d think they’d have won at least a few more games than they had.  Likewise, none of the five games they’ve just won have been blowouts.  Rather, even more close games that have gone to the Giants rather than to their opponents.

Any conclusions?  The Giants are basically a .500 team that has been undermined by a faulty bullpen.  The Dodgers are more talented, and the smart money says they’ll take the division handily.  Then again, anything can happen in the wacky West, and I’d love to see the Giants win even if it means a quick exit in the playoffs.…

Elephants for Lieberman

Posted on August 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Politics. No Comments

The New York Times reports that many national Republicans are endorsing Joseph Lieberman’s candidacy for the US Senate, even though there is a live, breathing Republican candidate in the race.

Here’s their logic: Republican Alan Schlesinger cannot possibly win, so of the two plausible candidates the moderate, hawkish Lieberman would be far preferable than the anti-war Democrat Ned Lamont.

Yet here’s the problem: Lieberman actually holds pretty liberal positions on domestic policy, and he has stated that if elected, he plans to caucus with the Democrats.  He is a Senator popular with Republicans due to his position on certain issues, just as John McCain is popular with some Democrats.  That their actual voting records belie their moderation seems of little consequence.

My question: will this backfire?  Will Connecticut Democrats normally sympathetic to Lieberman abandon him for Lamont just to spite the Republicans?  I’m unsure.  If I were the Republicans, I’d take my chances that Lieberman would win anyway (as the polls indicate now) and support Schlesinger if for no other reason that he chooses to be a member of their Party.…

Massages- The Good, Bad, and Criminal

Posted on August 18th, by matt_schiavenza in China/Vietnam Summer 2006. 1 Comment

In theory, getting a massage is one of the most pleasant experiences one can have while traveling in Asia.  Weary from trekking or merely walking all day in a big city, I enjoy the blissful tranquility and physical relief that massage parlors provide.  Some of the deals here in Vietnam are fantastic:  I found a place in Hanoi that offers a sauna, bath, massage, and shower all for $8.  Compare that sum to what people pay in California for similar services.

You do have to be careful, though, as many massage places here and elsewhere double as brothels.  This is obvious: you’re already sitting in a small room with a young woman wearing nothing but your boxers; it doesn’t require much imagination to see how this situation leads to prostitution.  In fact, many Western travelers enjoy massage parlors for precisely that reason.  Local Vietnamese know this very well, and nary a night goes by without some moto taxi driver offering to take me to a "boom boom" place.

Fear of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease as well as a general distaste for the prospect of paying for sex keep me away from indulging in whoring, but I do like an ordinary massage.  One such experience I had typified the thin line between legitimate and illegitimate services.

I walked into a massage parlor one night in an attempt to find a recreational activity that didn’t involve drinking.  I was led into a small room where a young woman (18 or so) instructed me to strip down to my boxers.  I did as told and lied prone on the couch, waiting for her nimble hands to ease my tense back muscles.

Before long, I could tell something was wrong with her manner.  She was unusually flirtatious for an Asian girl- smiling and at one point even kissing me on the cheek.  I turned around and gave her a look like, "what’s the deal?".

She offered a range of extra services, promoting them like a man trying to sell his used car.  As NBNL is a family blog I won’t divulge exactly what she said, but she wasn’t giving up very easily. She tried to flirt more with me, but by this point I was annoyed and firmly rejected her proposals.  "I just want massage," I said, and finally she relented.

The rest of the massage was, let’s say, subpar.  She had lost all interest in doing her job and went through the motions for about ten minutes.  Thirty minutes remained, but I just got up and left without saying goodbye.  Luckily, I was able to slip out of there without any further trouble or extra money spent.

Today I met a German man in his early 40s who related a similarly negative experience.  Unlike me, he wasn’t entirely innocent in his quest. He wanted to get laid.  Finding a dirty place isn’t hard, as moto drivers accept commission from brothels for bringing foreigners in.  He hopped on one such bike and sped off to his destination, hoping for a quick shag before heading home for an early night’s sleep.

He was led into a small room and began negotiating with the girl in question.  Clearly, he was going to get ripped off.  The prices were far too high, and after awhile he gave up and said he wanted to leave.  This didn’t make anyone happy, but the manager of the brothel talked him into drinking a beer.  Being German and a general beer pig, he relented and drank a quiet beer while contemplating what to do next.

Foolishly, he didn’t inquire about the price, and when he went up to pay, he was presented with a bill….for $83.  This was of course about 83 times more than what he should have paid, and he said so to his host.  Three men then appeared, each brandishing a broken beer bottle with sharp edges.  Nervously, the German reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of Vietnamese dong, totaling 50 bucks.  The brothel deemed this an acceptable compromise and let him go.

So here are the warning signs that your place isn’t what it seems:
- the price is ridiculously low, even for Vietnam.  A decent hour-long massage should go for about $6-8, so one for $3 will probably come with the expectation that you’ll generously tip your masseuse for services rendered.
- the facility is bare-bones.  Most decent parlors have showers and lockers in addition to the massage rooms.  If a spot conspicuously lacks these amenities, think twice.
- the "masseuses" are wearing sexy mini-skirts and halter tops.  A professional wears something comfortable and bland, as a nurse would.

Now if you’ve decided to indulge in prostitution, here are some of the things to consider:

- a great many of Asian sex workers are HIV positive
- many of the girls could well be underage.  In Cambodia, I saw girls who could not have been older than fourteen linked arm in arm with middle aged white guys.  Remember, if you sleep with someone younger than eighteen you’re no longer a horny tourist looking for a bit of fun.  You’re a child molester.
- prostitution is technically illegal, so if caught you’ll be in a world of trouble.  I don’t think your embassy will be sympathetic to your pleas for clemency.

So my advice would be to check carefully that your massage place is legit and resist offers from opportunistic locals hoping to cop a buck.  And if you’re looking for a bit of fun while on holiday, I suggest booking a flight to Cancun and hitting on drunk American college girls.  …