Jun 282006

I don’t like gambling. I don’t drink much. I’m asthmatic. Needless to say, Vegas casinos are not my favorite place. But here we were, trudging through the maze of slot machines and tchotchke vendors to get to the convention center of the Tropicana. Despite minimal signage, we managed to find our goal in time for opening day: Bodies – The Exhibition.

Aside from a steep entrance fee ($26), I can’t recommend the exhibit more. I spent several hours there, completely fascinated. Most of the exhibit consists of bodies that have had all water replaced with silicone. To do this, they place a body in acetone to remove all water, then move the body into a silicone bath and introduce a vacuum. The acetone leaves as a gas, and is replaced with silicone. After the silicone is cured, you have a preserved body that will never rot.

Most bodies had muscles or organs removed or rearranged to better focus on a particular system – skeletal, muscle, nervous, etc. Most of the bodies were not encased in glass, and very accessible to the viewer. You could stick your head in a rib cage to get a better look at something, as long as you weren’t touching anything. But the coolest thing about it was that the bodies were so, well, real. Aside from a slight plastic sheen, it was as if you just peeled the skin off someone and put them on a stand. One could see exactly how muscles fit together. How one group reinforced another, or in the case of the chest cavity, separated itself from the other systems.

Other bodies had acrylics injected into their blood systems, then the body was chemically removed, leaving the delicate lace maze of our blood systems completely intact. Presented in bright colors in a darkened room, they resembled beautiful and rare corals – that just happened to resemble a lung or a leg.

Other bodies were thinly sliced and placed between glass panes. I’d seen some of this technique before, but never a full body, or this many separate exhibits. It was fascinating, but I couldn’t help but think we resemble prosciutto ham.

Intrigued by the asian features on many of the exhibits, I asked some staff where the bodies came from. I was told most of the specimens are from Chinese medicals schools. Most of the bodies were male, young, and in shape. Puzzled, I pressed for a little more information. I was told most of the bodies were “unclaimed”, and died of natural causes. China is a big country, and could easily find specimens, but a little part of me worries that they don’t have the best reputation when it comes to tissue sources.

Parts of the exhibit made me a little queasy, but I was too fascinated to stop looking. Ultimately it made me even more motivated to continue working out and eating healthy. While resilient, the body relies on a lot of different systems. It can only make my life better to make sure everything is working properly.

Jun 092006

(Mekong photos can be found here)

May 6th, 2006

I didn’t have high hopes for our Mekong Delta tour. It had all the hallmarks of an uncomfortable experience – package tour, arranged through our hotel, and $10 for an entire day & lunch. Luckily I’m just a pessimistic bugger. It was a great experience.

Though there are a lot of tourists in the Mekong, it didn’t seem to be much of an issue for the locals – they all seemed genuinely friendly and happy we were there. After a day of driving around in a boat your face would be sore from smiling, and your arm limp from returning greetings.

Our Mekong Delta tour group was a pretty worldly mix – a Spaniard, Brazilian, Canadian, Pilipino, two Dutch, two Mexicans, two Japanese, and a couple Americans. Just to add to it, our guide spoke with a heavy mix of Vietnamese and New Zealand accents.

We started the tour by visiting coconut candy and puffed rice workshops. Though touristy, they were enjoyable. After watching the coconut press, we sat down for miniature tea with honey. The puffed rice workshop was educational, it was fun to watch the hot black sand puff the rice in a few seconds. It was also interesting to see things that weren’t part of the tour – a mayna bird speaking Vietnamese to his audience of baby chickens or the elaborate altars in the front and back yards.

Next up were the floating markets. We were too late in the day to visit a local’s market, but the wholesale market runs until you empty your boat. They would hang a sample of the merchandise on a pole off the front of the boat to advertise what was for sale; mostly pineapple and root veggies.

After that we cruised over the river to an island delta. We traveled up the narrow body of water, gawking at river business and homes. Eventually we docked and walked to a spot for lunch. Our bellies full of elephant ear fish, we were free to explore the island by bicycle. I was surprised, only a few of us took the bikes out for a ride. It was actually a bit cooler on a bike, the wind felt good.

We took the road all the way to the end – the ferry depot. A group of guys were enjoying the shade, and some beer. They smiled and waved me over. I really wanted to stay and have a drink, but our boat was leaving in a few minutes. “I’m sorry, I have to leave for my boat”. “Oh, ok” one replied, “Picture then!” and motioned me to take a photo. I smiled and obliged. They all waved as we rode our bikes back down the road to the boat. The delta folks are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever seen. After that it was back to the boat, then the bus back to Saigon.

Jun 052006

(Saigon photos can be found here)

May 4, 5, 7-9, 2006

After some fun donating blood (still waiting for Anna to write about that) at the children’s hospital, we were running a bit late. Han the Man got us to the airport in record tuk-tuk time and we had twenty minutes to spare.

Flying over Saigon, I couldn’t really get any sense of how large it was. I’m pretty sure we just flew over the least populated areas. Saigon is huge, and packed full of people. They claim there are two and a half million registered scooters in the city, but 3-4 million commute into the city each day. I wonder how many are unregistered.

To get an idea of how busy this city feels, throw all six million scooters into a busy city core with no freeways. Add a dash of work truck, a pinch of bicycles, and an increasing number of cars. Bake at 90 F under a tropical sun for 12 hours. These days the bandit riders sport masks that help with breathing, more than their skin tone.

If it sounds busy, loud, and a bit oppressive, it is. But Saigon is also fast, exciting, and energizing. One gets the feeling that if you stood still for a moment, you could almost see the city change before your eyes. The speed of change, both economically and culturally, gives the city a bipolar feel. One moment you are wandering through a historic building, the next you are walking by brand new sky scrapers. A woman in conservative traditional dress walks next to a woman in revealing western clothes.

Saigon is a great place to be a tourist. Other than in backpacker area, we found we were much more of a curiosity than a dollar sign. People were very friendly, and we had no shortage of help. If you ever want to talk for a few hours with a young Vietnamese person, just stay still for a few minutes in a park. Everyone here seems to be learning english, and a whole lot of them want to practice their language skills with you: Anna and I talked to two girls in a Saigon park for a few hours.

The next night I was out for some long exposure photography (or as long as I could go in a light filled city anyway). I was at the traffic circle near Ben Thanh Market. It started to rain, so I headed for shelter under a statue of Tran Nguyen Hai. Joining me for shelter were three policemen, though their uniforms always make me think army. The two older ones pretended to be uninterested in me, while looking me over on the sly. The younger one didn’t hesitate. “What country are you from?” Two hours later, I had to excuse myself to walk back to the hotel, as it was after midnight. I love unplanned exchanges.