(500) Days of Summer

“(500) Days of Summer” is not standard romantic comedy fare. There are some amusing moments but they are more warm or touching rather than funny.

Zooey Deschanel is a delight as the film’s eponymous romantic focus. She brings a light quirkiness to the role that is very appealing. It’s easy to see why the protagonist, Tom, falls for her.

Unlike many romantic comedies, the protagonist is a guy and the story is told from his perspective. The film is written by two men and directed by another. The movie has a far from a macho take on romance though.

This may be appropriate as men tend be more romantic than generally given credit for. Contrary to common wisdom, on average, men tend to fall in love faster than women. Also men tend to suffer more after a break-up. I suspect there might be an evolutionary drive for women for fall in love later: women historically (think from hunter-gatherer times up until a few decades ago) bore a huge risk if they fell pregnant to a man not committed to them. From this perspective, not falling in love too quickly is a sensible precautionary measure. Men suffer more after a break-up probably because in losing their partner they typically also lose their best friend. Women tend to have a stronger support network of friends to get them through.

We certainly see Tom suffer through his break-up, despite the support of his friends. Very sweetly, he gets the most support from his baby sister. The wisdom she has gleaned from her high school years helps him work through the end of his relationship.

An appealing part of the movie is that the story is told out of sequence. The memories of the romance are played out in the way that they might be during a break-up – Tom’s mind flashes from the romantic beginning to the eventual disintegration of their relationship. Some events are revisited in his memory – romantic moments hold hints of trouble when analysed in retrospect.

I saw a reviewer criticise the movie for not being cynical enough and he objected to the ending’s ultimately optimistic view of love. This might say more about the reviewer’s love life that it does about the film. For me though, the message of the movie is that even though two people in a partnership will live out the same events, the experience of being in a relationship is ultimately a subjective and individual one. When these experiences diverge too widely, the result can be heart-break.

Meditation Tip #3

Following on from Tip #1 and Tip #2 comes

Meditation Tip #3: Empty your mind
This is the hardest part and probably the key to meditation. The idea is that we rarely give our minds a chance to relax. Sleep will restore our bodies, but even when we are asleep, our minds are still active and dreaming. This is, of course nonsense: we only dream in the shallower stages (REM) of sleep. Most of sleep time is spent in deeper sleep stages when our brains are quite chilled out.

The deeper stages of sleep aren’t as well researched because, well, I guess even sleep scientists find dreams darn pretty interesting. It seems though that deep sleep might be a chance for your brain to shut-down and selectively forget some of the stuff that you’ve processed during the day.

In any case, meditation can replicate some of the tranquil level of brain activity that is experienced in sleep and it can’t hurt, so…

The trick – and it’s a trick that takes some practice – is to allow thoughts to come up and let them go.

Concentrating on your breathing is a good start (see Tip #2). If you meditate with your eyes open, allow your eyes to soft focus on a point.

Chanting a mantra might work for you. I’m sure there are entire books written documenting the effects of different mantras. For my money, I wouldn’t go past “Omm”.

One technique that I invented for myself (I’m curious as to whether it has been independently discovered) is “photographing the thoughts”. When a thought surfaces, imagine a polaroid photo being taken of it. Visualise the image frozen in front of you. Imagine it passing slowly through my head. As the photo passes through your brain it takes the thought with you. As over thoughts arise, repeat the process.

Flashpacker transport options

There are no trains from Saigon to the highlands of Dalat. The journey involves a 7 hour bus trip which means either be an entire day on the highway, or an overnight trip. The bus company targets local and international tourists, so at least wouldn’t be a repeat of my recent bus journey. Still, I wasn’t keen to loose an entire day travelling or suffering a unpleasant night with even less sleep than my travel insomnia would allow.

A quick internet search showed two flights a day with Vietnamese Airlines. Since these flights are mainly filled by locals, the prices are reasonable (US$50 one-way) and, better still, can usually be booked at short notice. After a bit of a struggle, I got myself a ticket for a Monday morning flight.

The good news was that the flight would get me in to Dalat at 07:30 for a full-day of motorcycle touring. The bad news was that I’d have to be at the Saigon airport at 05:30. The taxi from the centre to the airport can take an hour and while I had been waking up at 04:00 I was trying to encourage my body clock to stay asleep at that time.

Budget travel guides, both Lonely Planet and online, were silent on hotel options near the airport. An internet search revealed a number of high-end options. I had been staying in budget accommodation for far in Vietnam, but having come to terms with my flashpacker status, I decided to go for it and booked a room online.

The driver stuffs my backpack into the back of his taxi. “Parkroyal Hotel?” he confirms, looking at my backpack and then from my sandals to my grubby T-Shirt. “Vang,” I assured him. Yes, a luxury hotel for me tonight please! In the taxi I try to make myself look presentable. I put on my best, or at least cleanest, T-Shirt and take off my bead bracelets. I try brush some of the dirt off my backpack and zip away the shoulder and waist straps. It looks a little bit like a shoulder bag, but really is still just a backpack pretending.. There is nothing I can do about my sandals – the only footwear I have with me are my pair of Tevas.

To try and compensate for my slightly grubby looks, I booked myself in with the title “Doctor Jason Haines” (unfortunately, “Lord” wasn’t an option). PhD doctorants can be eccentric can’t they? I’ve worked with academics that wore sandals in far cooler climates than Saigon.

I try to feign confidence as a stroll into the lobby. I’ve stayed in hotels of this class in Europe and had to pay 3 times as much for the privilege – I could stay here a year if I maxed out my Visa card limit. I give my bag to a porter and present my passport – use two hands in Vietnam – to the receptionist with a “Chao buoi toi (good evening)”. I get a friendly welcome, well at least after they’ve seen my credit card. I’m sure the sideways glance he given me is just in my imagination.

The porter deposits my “bag” in my room and I change for a swim in the indoor pool. Back in the room, I hit the mini-bar. To complete my 1st-world neo-tourist-colonist image, I take a Gin and Tonic (“Keeps away the mosquitos, old boy! Don’t want a dose of malaria, what?”).

Over the few hours of my stay I spend more money on tips for the porters and the mini-bar than I’d spent on accommodation the previous two nights. The room is both ludicrously cheap by European standards and ludicrously expensive by Vietnamese standards.

“I hope you enjoyed your stay. Thank you Doctor Haines,” says the receptionist as I check out. No, thank you!

Flashpacking

A backpacker is someone travelling independently and on a budget. They avoid organised tours and typically choose simple accommodation and take local transportation.

“Flashpacking” is term that has arisen in recent years to describe a subclass of backpackers. The main distinction is that flashpackers are not so limited by budget constraints. High-end digital cameras and iPods are common equipment. Increasingly a laptop will also be crammed into the backpack between the sarong and the Lonely Planet guidebook.

I don’t necessarily think there is anything noble about travelling on a shoestring. Some travellers take pride in how little they spend on a trip – the mock travel guide “Phaic Than” parodies this by boasting that one of its authors travelled on such a low budget that he actually made a profit on his last trip to Asia.

For me, independent travel is about the lifestyle. You are more open to meet people – both locals and travellers – when when avoiding organised tours and high-end accommodation. A backpack is a practicality and allows you to hop on the back of a motorcycle taxi which is often the best, if not the only, travel option to get to a budget hotel.

Having a tight budget for food might mean missing out on some local food. It will typically exclude the tourist-priced western dishes. I much prefer to eat local food while travelling, but after a few breakfasts of Pho (noodle soup), I feel no guilt about tucking into a plate of bacon and scrambled eggs with local coffee and fresh tropical fruits.

For me, independent travel is also about the experience. The broader the experience, the better. This goes for accommodation as well as food. Staying at a high-end resort is also an experience, but for my tastes is too generic and not as much of an adventure as staying in lower end budget options. At the other extreme, very low-end, dingy, flea-filled hotels aren’t generally the sort of adventure one deliberately seeks out.

I’m on the “gadget-freak” sub-sub-category of flashpacker backpackers and I think I started early. I backpacked in 1999 with a CD player and a digital camera. This was in the dark days before MP3 players and when digital cameras were large, clunky, expensive battery eating machines. Laptops were impractical for travel and were without wifi. GPS devices wouldn’t become popular until the US Defence Department turned off the accuracy reducing “selective availability”. (oh dear, I think I’ve written a “kids of today don’t know how good they’ve got it!” paragraph)

For my 2009 trip, I took both my digital cameras: a mid-range one with a good zoom lens and my pocket size waterproof one. I also brought my iPhone which has been invaluable. I think I got my full flashpacker stripes when I bought myself a MacBook Air duty free at the Hong Kong Airport. With free WiFi being pretty much ubiquitous, a laptop is usually the best method for internet access. It also allows me to write, write, write. Bus journeys are a good chance to sort photos, write emails and do blog posts.

I’m writing this on the bus from Dalat heading towards Saigon. I’m going to be dropped off on the way to visit Cat Tien national park. This is not the typical stop, so I’m hoping the driver remembers. I’m a bit reassured as I found the GPS coordinates on the parks official website. By entering them into the GPS app of my iPhone I know that we’re now 54km and 1 hour 20 mins away from the park. Good thing too: I’d like a toilet stop for my bowels which are on an Immodium induced “pause”.

Travel Lady

The Travel Lady taps on her keyboard. “Flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat,” she says, “Is okay with stopover?” I frown. It’s a short flight. “Where is the stopover?” More tapping. “San Franciso,” she says. “San Franciso?!”

I plan to fly the next morning and that’s too late for online booking. I figured that going to a Vietnamese travel agent in Vietnam with a prominent “Vietnam Airlines” sign in front would mean I could book a Vietnam Airlines flight. Not only is my travel agent probably using one of those brain-dead flight searchers that don’t include domestic flights, but apparently she lacks a basic understanding of world geography. And relative costs – she slides a printed quote over the desk: $750.

So, I could take a 50 minute flight for around $50 with Vietnamese Airlines, or spend 24 hours on planes and $750. Maybe I’ll try another travel agent. “Cam-on; Thank you” I say and make my way for the door.

Bus trip to Can Tho

The Friendly Woman sitting in front of me on the bus motions to get my attention. She indicates in the direction of the ticket inspector and makes a sign. She spreads her fingers wide and taps her palm against her first curled in a circle – 50 thousand dong, about $2.50.

The ticket collector comes around as the bus is pulling out.  “150 thousand dong,” he tells me. I tell him the price is 50 thousand and we start to haggle. “I paid 50 thousand to come here,” I lie, not wanting to implicate my undercover accomplice, Friendly Woman.

The bus is stopped and the collector calls over the motorcycle driver who had brought me to the (slightly dodgy) bus station. Since he had already ripped me off for the taxi, I guess they figured I would be gullible enough to trust him for the bus fare. They come down to 80 thousand and I give up by offering 70 thousand. Friendly Woman glances at me when the inspector leaves. I show her 7 fingers and she raises her eyebrows. I guess being overcharged 20% is a lot for her. For me, I avoided the original “200% gullible foreigner surcharge” and I ended up being taken for around $1.

Friendly Woman offers me further advice. She points at my shoulder bag and mimes pulling her own close to her. She indicates in the direction of the Sleazy Guy who is sitting across the aisle from me. The warning wasn’t really necessary. When the bus was still in the station, Sleazy Guy had shifted across to sit next to me. With a serpentine smile and tobacco breathe he nattered at me in Vietnamese. “Fine,” I thought when he touched my arm, “the Vietnamese are open and tactile people. My pale skin and hairy arms must be a curiosity.” When he put his hand on the inside of my knee, I thought that was a bit too open. A stern frown and a firm shove  sent him scurrying back to his side of the aisle. “Great,” i thought, “now I know what solo female travellers have to put up with.” So, no, I didn’t need further warnings to be careful around Sleazy Guy.

Boat trip from Phu Quoc

I feel eyes upon me and look across the aisle to see a sweet little Vietnamese girl giving me a toothless grin.

I smile, wave and say “hi,” thus utilising 50% of my Vietnamese vocabulary. Her mother encourages her to say “hello” which she does. I take a photo with my iPhone and show the screen across the aisle. She gets curious and takes a step closer. I hold out my hand for her to shake. It takes her a minute and lots of encouragement from her mother to gather the courage.

She’s interested in my phone and I wrack my brain for apps that might be suitable for kids. I’ve got a little fireworks application that responses to touching the screen and this keeps both occupied for the next half an hour as we send explosions and flashing lights around the screen.

Tired of fireworks, we move on to my photo album. She’s able to look through by swiping her finger across the screen. Her mother looks across the aisle with interest. I show them photos of Switzerland and try to mime that snow covered alps means that it’s cold.
Every time a western woman appears in a photo, the girl points at the innocent Swedish girl sitting next to me and asks me a question in Vietnamese. I have no chance of explaining that my dark-haired ex-girlfriend in the photo is not the blonde Swede sitting next to me. I nod enthusiastically. “Sure,” I say, “it might as well be her.” The Swedish girl raises her eyebrows and gives me a side-wards glance. Regardless of how many different western woman come up, she points at the Swede asks the same question. I nod agreement. We get to a photo of wedding in a park I once visited. The girl points at me and the Swede and asks a question in Vietnamese. In for a penny… “Sure,” I reply. “Our wedding in Russia was very lovely,” I tell the Swedish girl. She gives a laugh

We look at photos of my Cambodian trip 10 years before. There’s ONE photo of me in there standing naked under a waterfall facing away from the camera. My bare, white buttocks cause much giggling for everyone. I tap on to the next photo and the girl swipes back to it. More giggling. Well, serves me right I guess.