The Garden City at the ITCZ

Is it possible to create a world where 10 billion people (the estimated number of people on Earth in the year 2100) and nature live sustainably and in harmony with each other? I wondered if Singapore might have some answers for me.

Singapore’s distinctive sky line at sunset.

When I left the US for Vietnam more than three months ago, I hadn’t anticipated I’d end up in Singapore for a couple of weeks. I only had a 3-month work visa for Vietnam, so I knew I would likely have to go somewhere to renew it. Other Fulbrighters suggested Singapore for the quick turnaround time on visas at the Vietnamese embassy. I was also curious about this tiny country that is also a very large city of six million people on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula. This is a country that has become a global center for business, commerce and culture, and espouses its commitment to sustainable development goals. But it’s probably most well known among tourists abroad for its gardens, its ‘Supertrees’, and buildings that drip with green foliage in the city center.

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Snapshots from a city walk on a Saturday

Written on a Saturday in mid-February…

I have a routine now. While it’s easy to imagine living in another country as romantic and exotic, each day filled with adventure and memories that will last a lifetime, the fact is, when you have work to do, the adventure necessarily gets set to the side, especially when your work involves a lot of mental energy. You start seeking rhythms and routines that feel familiar and help you get into that work mindset without burning out.

The rows of greenhouses nestled between houses and villas is becoming a familiar sight on my daily walks.

For example, Vietnamese coffee is world-renowned for being extra strong, extra sweet, and served in all sorts of creative ways – with egg, with condensed milk, with coconut milk. There’s even a cafe near campus that sells coffee with black garlic! This is garlic that has been aged at low heat and high humidity for several weeks. Supposedly, it loses the strong flavor of garlic and becomes a bit sweet. Not being huge fan of sipping on garlic cloves, I haven’t tried it yet! I’ve tried several other types of coffee, however, and enjoyed drinking it. But at home I settle for some version of English Breakfast tea. You can only find it in the bigger supermarkets here, since it’s not that popular. But that’s what I drink each morning here.

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Vietnam: One Month In

That’s right. I’ve been in Vietnam for a little over a month. I’ve debated what to share here. There has been a lot to process. But I don’t feel I’m ready to tell a coherent story of my time here yet. I feel like this country is revealing itself me in tiny pieces. Layer upon layer. Not understanding really any of the language means that things tend to be mysterious in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time – not since my first trip to Germany. But even then, the rhythm and intonation of German felt familiar to me, and I picked it up quickly.

I’ve probably mentioned before how I tend to think of things in layers – maybe the byproduct of decades of thinking about how atmospheric models work. Dalat offers lots of vistas where you can watch the sky move in layers.

Here, I feel like a child. Everything I do requires some level of deciphering, some level of conscious effort for activities that come automatically at home, from learning to use the ATM, or my phone, to crossing the street on my own. Food can be especially confusing. I’m starting to realize that the same foods are sold just about everywhere in the city. But I still don’t know what they are. is chicken. Lẩu is some kind of hotpot (but far be it for me to order one on my own – seems like something you do with a group.) Oh – and when I type lau into Google Translate, it tells me that this word means ‘wipe’ or ‘bathe’. Of course, the little symbols above the a make it an entirely different word. You see why I get confused? Or why the staff at a restaurant might look at me funny if I ask for lau gà? Am I really asking for ‘bath chicken’? I don’t know. So, while Google Translate is my friend, it can also lead me down dark alleys.

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Discovering Dalat

When just about everything you see, hear, taste, and smell in a day is new, you miss a lot. Sensory overload happens when your brain is trying to take in more than it can process. Any traveler can experience this, and when you travel outside of your own culture, in a place where you don’t know the language or even what foods to eat, sensory overload can come on fast.

Welcome to Dalat! This city in the central highlands is known for it’s enormous variety of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Strawberries are in season in January, and you can’t walk around town without tripping on a strawberry vendor. Or motorbike (they are always in season).

I have a pretty good idea of when I’m overload. It comes up on me as a sudden fatigue, and a desire to go lay down. I could be walking down a street, a 45-minute walk from my hotel, with many other things on my to-do list, and I will have to make a change of plans. Too much to take in. When I was younger, I would race on to the next new thing, really not taking anything in too deeply. But I’m in a place and at a stage of my life when I want to take in things much more deeply.

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Wet Feet and a Warm Welcome in Vietnam

I didn’t know it was possible to sink into mud up to your knee caps and still pull yourself out again. But mud at the bottom of a fish pond is fully mixed with water, and apparently, walking around in it can stir up the critters who live there (shrimp, in this case), and give you a chance of catching them with a wicker basket.

I did not imagine that learning traditional fishing techniques of the Mekong Delta would be part of our Fulbright orientation. Especially not when it followed two days of meetings with US Consulate officials, including the US General Consul, Susan Burns, and many of her section chiefs. We were briefed on economics, politics, safety and health. We met with representatives from the Public Affairs section, who are very interested in our work here, building ties with Vietnamese universities. It was truly exciting to learn about Vietnam from the perspective of Americans who have been working here.

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Bright Lights, Big City

I felt a bit giddy stumbling onto the little chocolate shop near the Ben Thanh Market in central Ho Chi Minh City. The tiny shop is lined with dozens of brightly packaged bars of varying choco-intensity and flavor, all sourced from a single farm in the Mekong Delta. “This one is my favorite,” says the young woman assisting me finding my own favorites. Using a pair of small tongs, she grabs a small chocolate chunk from the box of chocolate flavors displayed in front of me and drops it into my palm. I pop it into my mouth and feel the cinnamon sting my tongue. “It’s right here,” she points to the bar of cinnamon chocolate on the shelf behind me and I take one and add it to the other bars I was buying.

Bright lights in central Ho Chi Minh City.

“For how long are you in Vietnam?” she asks in her perfect English. I tell her I’m going to live and work in Dalat for the next five months. Her eyes light up, “Oh – I love Dalat! It’s so beautiful! So many flowers – and the pine forests!” She sighs remembering her time there, and I suddenly feel excited and a little less tired than I’ve been.

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Vietnam: The Arrival

It’s really easy to get caught up in visions of international travel that are more fit for cinema than real life. You know what I mean. You might see yourself on the bow of a ship, the wind whipping through your hair as waves splash the hull – and there’s a crescendo of music before cutting away to a view from above, of that same ship crossing emerald blue waters that border some dramatic cliffs or mountains of ice. Sure. Sometimes it’s like that.

But what we tend to forget is that in order to have those magic moments, we basically have to traverse a modern-day version of Dante’s hell. The hours of sitting in a tiny space where your knees get crushed when the person in front of you decides to recline their chair. The attempts to feel human by brushing your teeth in that tiny airplane bathroom, then wondering why there’s so much water on the floor. The bruised shins, twisted shoulders and smashed finger tips you get from trying to haul all your baggage around – and when you’re going to live and actually work in another country for several months, there can be a lot of baggage! Seriously, I wouldn’t pack a blazer for an international trip if I didn’t have to.

Because I didn’t take too many photos on my 30-hour journey, I thought I’d share a glimpse of Ho Chi Minh City at night. The city center has a lot of old buildings, a lot of new buildings, and a lot of traffic.
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The sinking city that haunts my dreams

Venice is haunting me. I didn’t think it was my favorite place in Italy. That title would have to go to Cinque Terre. Nor did I think it was the most memorable place at the time that I was there. But Venice is the place I keep returning to in my dreams. And it looks just the same in my dreams as it did in real life, with shimmering waterways plowed by gondolas, misty views of distant islands, and buildings that sometimes seem to lean a bit too much toward each other.

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An Introduction to Camino Life

Sometimes the need to walk away from your life can become overwhelming. Do you ever wish you could walk for miles each day, across open farmland, over rolling hills lined with vineyards, and even along suburban thoroughfares, past gas stations, mini-marts and fast food take-outs, even as your feet become blistered and sore? (Okay, I know that last bit didn’t sound so appealing!) I think people have always had this desire to some extent, even if they aren’t fully conscious of it. Across the world there are ‘pilgrimage’ trails – some of which were established for more traditional pilgrimages, or long walks that have a spiritual significance. Others are newer – old roads and sheep trails through mountains become pathways for tourists taking the slow route. The resurgence of interest in pilgrimage routes in recent years is a clear indicator of how much this desire pulls at us.

The Tuscan hilltop town of San Miniato Alto after a September rainstorm.
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Cinque Terre Trails Part 2: Corniglia to Monterosso

I woke up feeling utterly wiped out. My swollen and sore calves felt like they had extra weights attached to them. But when I saw a patch of blue sky, I decided to make my way north from Corniglia, along the trail to the village of Vernazza. The hike along the coastal Cinque Terre “blue” trail is advertised as strenuous and dangerous, as it winds high up along the cliff faces. Any threat of rain will close the trail.

A morning thunderstorm out over the Ligurian Sea, off the Cinque Terre coast.

When the church bells in Corniglia chimed at 9 am, I found myself the only person embarking on the trail, past the still-empty checkpoint where rangers will look at your trail pass and make sure you have decent shoes. There were still puddles from the rain the night before, but the dry earth on the trail drank that water up quickly so I didn’t have to pass too many muddy spots. I had heard that there can be a conga line of people along this trail by midday, so it was sweet to have it all to myself. There was a thunderstorm out over the ocean and I wondered briefly if I was doing something dumb, but the forecast had shown everything shifting southward, so I decided to chance it and make a dash to the next village.

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