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Patch reader Bernice recently commented on my Anthropologie-Inspired Storage Cabinet, saying, “…if everything had gone smoothly…no entertaining story, right?” Her comment got me to thinking about how long it’s been since my last installment in the Greg and Handan Epic Adventure (aka About Us) and why it’s been so long. I’ve really been dragging my feet on publishing more about Vietnam. Why, though? It’s the best place Handan and I have ever lived! We loved every minute of our time there. So why am I having so much trouble writing about it? Well, Bernice nailed it, and she gave voice to a thought that had been clanking around the dusty corners of my brain (those corners are getting bigger and dustier each year). The problem with Vietnam, from a writer’s perspective, is that it was nearly perfect; there was no conflict – the essential ingredient to a good story. The Afghanistan stories flew from my fingers, and in fact, I will be revisiting the country in the coming months and years with even more stories. Even good comedy needs conflict – some central struggle that the protagonist must confront. But I’ve hit a wall with Vietnam. It was all so pleasant and normal, and so, instead of beating my head against the wall trying to write something interesting, I’m going to move on to India. Maybe someday, I’ll get inspired to write more Vietnam stories, but now it’s India time.
Now there’s a hotbed of dramatic and comedic conflict!
Okay, so maybe you’re asking yourself, well why on earth would they move out of Vietnam if they loved it there so much??
Excellent question! Short answer: it wasn’t our choice. Long answer: keep reading.
As I already mentioned in Part 5 of these Vietnam stories, Madame Thao, the woman financing the Happyland project that Handan’s company was managing, ran out of money. Or maybe she never had any to begin with. There are a lot of unanswered questions, rumors, innuendos and shocking revelations about that project. But one thing was certain: Hill International was not getting paid. After several months of “I pay you ext month!”, they made the tough call to cut their losses and get the hell out of Dodge before they burned through even more money paying salaries that would never be recouped. The expat Hill employees in Saigon scattered to the four winds. Some went back to the States to work on dams and power plants and stadiums, some ended up in the Middle East working on big infrastructure projects in glamorous places like Dubai, and some found jobs with other engineering companies in Vietnam working on local infrastructure.
And Handan and I?
Well, we got transferred to India.
Yes, “we.” The project in India also needed an American Health and Safety manager, so I got to dust off my boots, and blow the cobwebs off my safety manual. Daddy was heading back to work!
So were they sending us to the tropical beaches of Goa where we could dip our toes in the Indian Ocean while sipping cocktails in coconut shells? Perhaps they would send us to the historically rich colonial city of Kolkata? Or the pink city of Jaipur, a famous tourist destination?
No, we were moving to Gurgaon, an overcrowded (and rapidly growing) satellite city of New Delhi, and the call center capital of the world.
Computer got you down? If you called customer support, you probably got Gurgaon.
Car troubles? The gearbox gurus in Gurgaon got you covered.
Xerox on the fritz, and the boss needs copies? Yep. Gurgaon to the rescue. (This scenario just happened to Handan last Friday!)
Okay, okay, Gurgaon isn’t only a call center. It’s also a burgeoning hub of finance and technology. Young people are flocking there in droves, chasing lucrative jobs with considerably higher pay than they might expect in some other cities. Gurgaon was growing fast back then (and doubtless still is), and all the new job-seekers and wealth-hunters needed a lot of apartment towers and villa complexes to house them and shopping centers to provision them. Hill International had taken on a large mixed-use real estate project (apartment towers and high-end retail shops) in Gurgaon in 2011, and by May 2012, it was already way behind schedule. Handan was needed immediately. She has a reputation for tackling screwed-up, over-budget, under-performing projects head-on, and getting them back on track. She did it in Afghanistan, and she’d have to do it again in India.
There was just one problem. It was the middle of May, and Barish had another month left in the school year. We couldn’t just yank him out, or he would have to repeat the third grade. The only option was for Handan to go to India for a month and live in a hotel while Barish and I stayed back in Saigon until school let out.
Handan packed a bag, and some of her Vietnamese coworkers and I took her to the airport.
This was the last time I saw my babes for 5 weeks.
I took her inside, and she disappeared behind the security checkpoint. It was the longest we’ve ever been apart.
While she was gone, I wallowed in solitary misery and drowned my sorrows in bowl after bowl of delicious phở bò (Vietnamese beef and noodle soup). It was torture.
When she came back to Saigon in late June, we had only a few days to sort through all of our belongings and either give them away (furniture, scooter, pots and pans, 60-inch LED television, generator) or pack them (clothing, souvenirs, 55-inch plasma TV, home entertainment system). I don’t remember how many bags we had packed for the move – duffel bags, suitcases and that enormous TV, but I remember thinking it would cost a small fortune to check all those bags at the airport. Turns out I was right, but Handan managed to negotiate a better deal 🙂
The plan was to fly back to the States, unload our belongings at my parents’ house in Glastonbury, pack what we would need for India, and then head back to New York City to get our travel visas from the Indian Embassy. But first we had to get out of Saigon.
Before leaving, we scootered around the city to say goodbye to all the friends we had met along the way. The restaurant and bar owners, the shop owners, the expats, the locals. It was a sad farewell to a city that will forever keep our hearts.
And then it was off to the airport – again with Handan’s coworkers in tow. We said more goodbyes outside the airport.
The girls all boo-hoo’d and blubbered…
…While Barish ate a cheeseburger.
I think the sentimental moment was lost on him. 🙂
And finally, the Navages, as a full and whole family, left Vietnam.
We flew to Hong Kong before connecting to New York. I remember only one thing from that flight to Hong Kong. I was seated in the aisle seat of the middle section of the plane. I hate the middle section, since I can’t look out the window and thus assume that the plane is constantly about to slam into the ground. I was on edge and not pleased with my situation, especially since the guy next to me smelled like re-fried armpits smothered in blue cheese. Armpits chose that very moment to pull some seafood-based snack item from his pocket and begin blithely munching away without a care in the world. With his mouth open.
For all the world to smell.
For all the world to hear.
Because this guy actually chewed louder than the Boeing 747 jet engines!
The chewing and the smacking and the slurping and the smacking and the chewing.
I closed my eyes and ground my teeth and waited for the plane to slam into the ground.
I remember a few small flashes from our layover in Hong Kong and a snippet or two from the Indian embassy in New York, but my memory has been all but erased of our brief time spent in the States. I must have been tired from all the travel, or maybe I’m just losing my mind. Either way, my next memory is of landing in New Delhi.
We breezed through passport control, collected our bags and navigated customs without a hitch. Hill had sent a car to pick us up and take us to the hotel we had booked for a few days.
It was late afternoon, and a haze filtered the sunlight, but the heat and humidity pressed through the veil.
Why are these projects always in absurdly hot and humid countries?
Aren’t they building things in Alaska? In Siberia?? Antarctica???
We drove southwest from New Delhi towards Gurgaon, and once again, I had that “not in Kansas anymore” feeling. Sometimes that feeling is exciting and good (like in Afghanistan and Vietnam), and sometimes it’s a little confusing (like in Doha). But sometimes, it’s just downright weird. India gave me that feeling. There were no machine-gun checkpoints, no hostile stares. It had nothing to do with the people. It had something to do with the air. The haze. The earth. The roads. The cars and auto rickshaws. Something felt off, unsettled, foreign. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
We arrived at our hotel, and those thoughts vanished like a wisp of smoke in the breeze. This was paradise!
I knew it was only temporary, but this place was heaven after the drive from New Delhi. We checked in, found our room and then had a look around.
Barish wasted no time settling in!
The next day, Barish and I made good use of the facilities.
All good things must come to an end, and that hotel was not in our permanent budget. We needed to find housing, but first, we needed a cheaper hotel and one closer to our offices. Handan and I were working on different projects, so we wouldn’t be working together like we did in Afghanistan. She was in an office tower in one part of Gurgaon, while I would be working on a construction site in another. We checked into The Palms Town & Country Club with the intention of staying about a month while we sought housing nearby and a school for Barish. I had read about the Excelsior American School in Gurgaon, and it seemed to be a great fit for Barish. I arranged a meeting with the head of school and was thrilled to learn that not only would Barish be welcomed when school started in a few days, but since we were both living and working in India, we qualified for the local tuition, which was a fraction of the price paid by foreigners. That “local” status would benefit me tremendously a few months later when I went to a medical center for a full day of tests, much to the dismay of those who eventually discovered their error. More on that in a future post.
We were living and working in India now, and Barish was about to start the 4th grade. As I sent him off to school that first morning, I thought about all that he’d been through until then. All the countries and all the schools – Romania, Kazakhstan, Abu Dhabi, Kazakhstan again, Vietnam, and now India. I hoped that he would flourish there. He’s an incredibly resilient and adaptable kid, and he deserved some stability.
But would he find it in India? Would any of us?
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