Friday, March 25, 2005

A fine lunchtime for a wedding

I reached down into my belt and pulled out the pair of rubber gloves that were slung there. The oil in the air was thick blackening the fierce sun and I wiped some of it away from my brow before it could drip down into my eyes and surveyed the wreckage of the pipeline before me.

A geyser of oil was spraying thirty meters or more into the air from the ruptured head and the wind was taking hold of it throwing it back towards the houses and the school besides. This was going to be a tough one. One spark was all it would take to turn this world into an inferno and send us all to our fiery deaths. Armed with nothing more than the rubber gloves and a wet dishcloth I would have to tackle the beast head on before catastrophe could strike.

I gritted my teeth around the dishcloth and plunged forward tempting death to come at me.


“Mark I have a question for you.”

“Um…yes Miss Nga?”

“After I get married how do I please my husband?”


Miss Nga got married on the weekend. It has been an event a long time coming. Due to astrological signifiers being unaligned and ages not meeting required metaphysical requirements it has been talked about for the last year or so as being soon to come but just not yet. Finally it has come and gone and things like how do I please my husband and what a “man blanket” is and why you need one in winter are no longer problems I have to deal with on a regular basis. Though now I know somewhat the feelings those who have flown single engine piper Cherokees through active volcanoes have encountered.

I’ve been to three marriages since I’ve been here and you’d think it was the only topic in the school. Whose getting married, when, why, to what and how. There is never a moment in our days in which this topic doesn’t seem to climb over the parapet.

Despite all this talk and dissection and constant preparation, actual ceremonies that we have attended have all been fitted into a lunchtime break at school. On the allotted day twenty or so of us mount up and ride our scooters to a house or a hall, descend on the tables like scavenging birds onto a packet of discarded chips, eat our fill and leave an hour or so later. There is little sight of a minister or any of that and nobody seems that worried for ceremony at all. Its not like the old days though, where you had to ask your superior for permission to marry and run the risk of having them say “No, I don’t think he’s such a good match. Why don’t you marry that young Christian in accounts. The one with the combover and hiccupping laugh. It would be much better for production.”

Miss Nga’s wedding was a small affair. There were about thirty of us all told including the family in the small empty cupboard, sorry school yard, where it was set up. It was casual enough in fact for the groom to not turn up at all. I asked about this seeming irregularity and was told he was going to come from his home village but had got a bit delayed. Nobody seemed concerned and when we had to leave an hour and a half later he still hadn’t showed.

Before marrying Nga had been worried about her weight. Not the traditional brides dilemma of fitting into her dress, but rather the opposite. She was worried about being to small and thin to get married. Nga has had a bit of a dark childhood; shadowed by dead mothers, evil stepmothers, deadbeat dads, little food and abandonment. And though her sister is quite strong and well developed Nga herself weighs about three grams and is less than three centimeters high. She’s in fact shorter than Kate who few can claim to be and she constantly points out seven year old children that are bigger, heavier, taller and denser than she is. Nothing will ever make up for the poor diet she had growing up but she desperately wanted to put on weight for the wedding.

When she first met her future parents in law her aunt draped her in three sweaters to hide her slight figure. Looking somewhat like a furry melon on legs in the June heat, she sweated and wilted her way through this tense encounter carrying plates of food and throwing around compliments all the while melting into a puddle beneath her coverings. No matter how much she complained her well meaning Aunt wouldn’t let her take them off. This jockeys regime of torturous endurance and sweaty suffering did nothing to fool her future father in law though, as one of the first things he said to his son was whether or not the bride might be able to carry a child. Presumably he followed this worry up with one about her dress sense in the middle of summer.

With the worry of the wedding coming up she lost even more weight of course and though she looked the part in her white wedding dress and makeup she altogether weighed as much as the glue eyed chicken sitting on the wedding table waiting to be consumed. I went a round with that chicken later on and can say that thin though it may have been a mouthful lasted you a good hours worth of chewing and even after death it was giving nothing up for free.

Meal devoured, groom absent, bride a wafer and beer sunk we rode off again to go back to work. Like a socialist Disney musical we work, we wed, we work here and nothing interrupts the progress of any. A few days later back at work I saw Nga and asked her how things were going now.

“Everything is good. I have gained some weight, and I’m very warm at night now, thankyou.”

On an aside J.C. told me of another incident with one of his colleagues. Apparently this woman turned up to work one morning looking quite chuffed with herself. She was rampantly smiling, bursting into song at all moments, dancing her way down the halls and generally prancing about with glee. Some inquiries regarding this unusual state of elation yielded little result to start with, but persistent arm bending and cajoling eventually brought out the facts. It seemed she smugly announced that her and her husband had been tangled up last night and had bizarrely stumbled upon something incredible. Mind-blowing. Devastatingly fantastic.

It was while they were tossing around that they ended up turned all around on each other. Her on top of him but the wrong way him facing head towards her feet and of course her facing head towards his. Then they took hold of whatever was in front of them and let passion run its course. Incredible. She hadn’t stopped smiling since.

At this everyone in the office without exception burst out laughing. 69. She had smugly rediscovered 69. Hooray! They couldn’t stop laughing all day. Needless to say now she has a numbered nickname and has to put up with a moderate amount of ribbing over her naivety. Not too much however. After all she is one of the top sharpshooters in the country and with another woman in their office goes off training every week.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Fifteen years to life

A story in the weekend paper talked about teaching life in some of the outer provinces. The writer traveled out to visit some teachers who were living in the mountainous interior. He traveled out to the Da river then took the mail boat for six hours up river to where this commune was located on the isolated side of the river in rough jungle.

There he went to visit the school where the teachers worked and lived. The school itself was a small wooden sided and thatched building and near to this lay two houses that the teachers lived in. All 26 teachers lived together sharing the space. Single teachers were allocated a bed to share between two of them but married couples are allocated 4sq.m or enough room as they say for a bed and a desk to prepare lessons. Single teachers prepare their lessons on the dining table.

Teachers rely on students to supply them with wood for the stove and they rarely have anything to eat other than rice.

A quotation reads "The nearest market is 10km away, but if we go to Hang Mien it's 15km by boat. The markets are only held every 10 days so we can only ever buy eggs, dried fish and peanuts." All fresh food that they eat they have to catch. The only way in or out is by the mail boat. When the head teacher has to leave to go to district meetings or collect salaries he has to borrow money so he can buy shrimp to bribe the mail boat captain to let him on board.

The school is short of teachers still and most of the teachers who are there are from the plains of the red river delta. To overcome loneliness many have formed relationships with each other and married. The ministry of Education requires that all male teachers who are posted to the mountains must stay there for 20 years, while female teachers are there for 15 years before they can teach on the plains. But if they marry, they're unlikely to ever leave.