Sunday, December 26, 2010
On our first day in Luang Prabang, Jenn and I met the 12-year-old girl on the right selling trinkets on the street. We didn't buy anything but did take her up on an offer to play tour guide to a nearby Buddhist temple for the afternoon. I shot this image on the boat ride to the temple landing. The girl's father piloted the boat.
Here's the temple, or rather the backside of it. The kid is a friend of our tour guide's and he came along for the ride.
This is the main temple inside the national museum campus in Luang Prabang. Significantly more gilded than the one we visited with the grade-school guides.
While in Hanoi, Jenn and I stayed in the Old Quarter, a place of narrow lanes and great human density. I snapped this shot outside our hotel two days before my passport was stolen.
This one really belongs in the nautical album but here Jenn gets a lesson on net-casting from the Hoi An fisherman. Our tour boat driver pulled right up to the guy's little wooden fishing boat and, on cue, the fisherman hopped aboard and began teaching us how to toss the monofilament net. The net is closed on one end and closes in the water around a series of lead weights attached to the open end. I never saw the guy pull up any fish and am unsure how successfully the net works, although he showed us a small bucket of fish about the size of chubs that was stashed on his little skiff.
In Hanoi, you can buy doughnut balls from female street vendors. Here, Jenn captures the scene when one such vendor sells me a couple doughnuts but then screws up the change. She is convinced I have shorted her some money and is crying and grabbing at me. She's the one with the ponytail with her back to the camera. The crowd is alternately shouting at me and then her: At me, to give her the money; at her, for being a fool. One woman on the scene slapped my vendor on the forehead and then turned to bark at me, motioning for me to remove my wallet. This loud and lengthy exchange drew a crowd of onlookers down the block and even stopped a couple cars passing by. The vendor grew increasingly panicked and yanked at my sleeve and tried to grab my wallet from my pants pocket. I finally walked away and, in the quiet of a nearby store, figured out that she'd given me too much change for the order--which I'd handed back before walking away. I found her in the street, talking calmly on a cell phone, and returned her money. She didn't look up from under her cone hat but took the cash and tucked it into her shirt.
A more successful doughnut purchase. After all that, they weren't very good. Jenn spit hers out.
Two very popular Luang Prabang sights: Monks and dogs.
Visitors to Luang Prabang will inevitably find themselves shopping for textiles. Silk, cotton, even wool, Laotian weavers churn out table covering, wall hangings, shawls, scarves, throws and yards upon yards of unfinished cloth. Here a woman works her loom in a textile village near Luang Prabang.
The woman with her arm around me told me to sit for this picture and then to buy some bananas. I did both. This in Hoi An.
A nighttime view of the pedestrian bridge in Hoi An.
Wise turtles at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.
Wise teacher at the Temple of Literature.
Water puppets in Hanoi. More fun than leather puppets in Jogja.
The exteriors, though, are impressive: Ornately carved, almost over-ornamented, multi-hued lava stone spires reaching jaggedly toward the sky. They're a wonder, to be sure, and sit in a visitor's park like slightly shambolic totems of a more severe and mystical time. This describes a lot of Central Java, I suppose, but Prambanan, with its fore-fields of stone, feels more precarious than a place like Borobudur. It seems ready to topple if given a stout enough shove.
We grabbed a cab out to the ruins and, on the way, were involved in our first Indo fender-bender. The old-timer driving our cab--who may or may not have been moonlighting in someone else's car (the driver ID on the dash was of a man several decades younger)--got to daydreaming and didn't notice the minivan that stopped short in front of us during a decent little rainstorm. Cabbie hit the brakes, Talya let out an alarmed cry from the front passenger seat, and we skidded about 30 feet before slamming into the left rear end of the minivan with a thwack. Two guys were quickly out of the minivan and the cabbie was all smiles and laughs. Sorry! He shook everyone's hand who would take it--although didn't offer us a shake--and left the meter running while he got out to deal with the man he'd hit and with the cop who showed up briefly after about 10 minutes. Talya paused the meter and we waited while the Indonesians sorted things out.
As far as I could tell, no police report was taken. Insurance information may or may not have been exchanged. Everyone crowded around the minivan's bumper but no obvious damage was visible. The whole delay lasted maybe 20 minutes. The cabbie hopped back in the car, fired up the meter, smiled and sort of shrugged his shoulders, and then we were on our way again. Back to the past in Jogja.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
We then wrapped up the evening watching a very solid Indonesian Stones cover band work through a dozen standards, including Little Red Rooster from the early days. The singer completely inhabited the Jagger persona, slinking around stage in a little brimmed flop hat and lisping in a British accent between songs. The guitarists slung their Telecasters low and aped Richards in tandem. During an intermission I asked if they'd play Ventilator Blues and they said they didn't know the song. Instead, they played It's Only Rock 'n Roll.
Christian and I are staying in a nice little guest house where we sleep without air-conditioning under giant mosquito nets. Lodging's about $7.50 per night, which includes a fruit plate breakfast and cup of Indo coffee. The guy who runs the place looks exactly like Mark Wahlberg and is missing most of the big toe on his left foot, the result of a childhood bicycling accident, he said. He wears flip-flops and on his left foot sticks the sandal thong between his second and third toes.
The malls of Jogja were packed yesterday and Santa-themed clothing and hats were popular with retail staff and holiday celebrants alike. There's a significant Christian population in Indonesia but there's no way they alone are driving the kind of foot traffic and commercial-Christmas saturation I've seen here and in both Jakarta and Surabaya. The holiday is very much an American-style shopping bonanza and I'll be looking for some clearance specials later this afternoon.
Tonight, keeping with the Western Christmas in Jogja theme, I think we're bowling a few frames. Right after some sightseeing at a nearby Hindu temple complex. Not sure yet if I'm headed to Bali for New Year's but looking like it. Very happy holidays to everyone reading. Will have some more written stuff up here soon. In the meantime, I'll try to get some pics up from various travels.
From the nautical album:
Friday, December 17, 2010
Until then, a couple images from Laos. Jenn and I got out for an elephant ride yesterday--a definite trip highlight, although the lumbering and strangely bleating pachyderms will win no races; a horse in similar country, if a horse could manage some of the jungle trails, would run fast and easy circles around our elephant friends--and we also hit an old Laotian Buddhist cave. Our elephant, a 35-year-old female named Mrs. Nam, was a retired logging animal who now leads tourists along a heavily wooded jungle trail at about a half-mile-per-hour, stopping often to yank bamboo shoots from the ground and jam them into her maw. She is also a prodigious farter and at one point relieved herself of about 55 gallons of urine. For all that, Mrs. Nam was a gentle and friendly animal. Once we got off and had a chance to pet her and really talk with her, she repeatedly grabbed at me with her trunk and flapped her ears happily. She made eye contact through long lashes and very clearly nodded so long when I said goodbye.
Luang Prabang is nothing if not picturesque and we've been busy with our little point-and-shoots. Mekong vistas, monks, cute kids, lazing dogs, elephant handlers (today's vocab word: elephant handles are called mahouts), crumbling stupas, temples, and a million statues of Buddha.
Monday, December 13, 2010
Very, very long story short--a full account will follow soon--Jenn and I managed in the last 24 hours to get an emergency, replacement passport; a handwritten English-and-Vietnamese-language police report; and, this morning, an expedited visa in super short and impossible order. This work included several pitched battles with our hotel; the recruitment on the sidewalk of a university student/translator who was a godsend; both help and not-so-much-help from the folks at the U.S. embassy; and an airport driver who functioned as a fixer.
Anyway, lots of characters to discuss and plenty of insight into Vietnam's seedy officialdom. Glad to be wheels-up in a few.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Having your passport heisted is bad but turning for help to the hotel staff and having them suddenly forget how to speak English or how to call the police for help is worse. The desk staffer refused to call the cops and then got his manager on the phone. When I pressed the manager to call his cleaning staff at home and ask if they knew where the documents were, he said he would do it tomorrow. I said that was too late and that I wanted to file a police report. The manager insisted that I wait and when I said I didn't want to wait, he hung up on me.
After I called the U.S. embassy and the police on my own, the hotel manager eventually showed up and since that underwhelming arrival has consistently refused to believe the passport was lost inside his building. Surely I lost it from my bag in the street. He more recently started claiming that I directly accused him and several other members of his staff of stealing the passport. I didn't, and I'm not exactly sure where this line of obfuscation is headed. But the manager did try a couple times to explain that, in Vietnam, U.S. passports are so cheap to reproduce or fake that they're not worth stealing. He guessed one might sell for about $2. I asked if he was serious. Of course. Very serious.
Promises to be a long day tomorrow, and a couple long days down the road back in Indo. Will write with a fuller accounting shortly.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
An example of the kind of history on display inside the Hoa Lo Prison building in downtown Hanoi (skip ahead to the third graf). Hoa Lo, better known as the Hanoi Hilton, is the one-time French colonial dungeon that the North Vietnamese used to house downed U.S. airmen like John McCain who, whatever you think of his politics, cannot raise his arms because of tortures he endured while in Vietnamese custody from 1967 to 1973.
On a lighter note from the last post ... One of the funniest quotes I've heard from Brett this trip was uttered Sunday evening in Saigon. "It was so good I can't even talk about it." It wasn't just what he said but how he said it: dreamily. Brett was describing his experience at Beauty Spa Ngoc Anh, otherwise known to us as the Saigon Spa of Amazing Acrobatic Feats and Tightrope-Walking Massage Therapists! So started our four-day addiction to the Acrobatic Spa, my addiction to tightrope walker Phuong and Brett's to Mi.
If you are wondering how to say Mi, so are we. After four days at the Acrobatic Spa and calling her phonetically "May," we learned it instead rhymed with Me. There was much confusion over this pronunciation, though, so all we really know for sure is her name is spelled "Mi." The following exchange happened the first day and every day after:
Brett: "So how do you say her name?" (when trying to make a reservation with his masseuse for the following day)
Front Desk Lady: "What?"
Brett: "Her name?"
Lady: "May" (phonetic)
Brett: "May?" (saying it exactly the same way)
Lady: "No, May."
Brett: "Yes, May."
Lady: "No, May."
This banter went on and we continued to call and ask for her by the name May, until we learned days later it was pronounced Me. It turned out Brett never did get to see Mi again. She was off the following day and called in sick the next. Maybe Brett exhausted her over the pronunciation of her name.
As Brett mentioned in an earlier post, these masseuses are trained in the art of full-contact, body-wobbling Thai massage. But the experience isn't just about the one-hour, $8 massage, it also is about the before and after, or tea time and nap time. When entering the spa, you are greeted with hot tea and ginger--refreshing after wandering around in Saigon's 90-degree heat. Then they call you in for your massage or, if you're Brett, theyjust forget about you and leave you in the waiting room for a half hour. At some point, the men go to the second floor and the women to the sixth--then follows the acrobatic, tightrope walking and pulverizing massage.
The first night, my spa lasted a bit longer than Brett's. As I entered the lobby, I found Brett sound asleep on the couch in the lobby. The next night Brett thought I was lost as he waited for me 30 minutes after he was done. No, I wasn't lost but fast asleep on the 6th floor, snoring away on top of a bed a of hot rocks. I was delirious after my spa/nap, and almost fell asleep at dinner, jet-lag fully sinking in. But as it was our last night in Saigon, we needed to fit in one fore massage so off we were to introduce Brett to his first foot massage.
The foot massage, for the super low price of $7 with tip, started off with a near electrocution when the cord to my foot bath of water was plugged into the wall. Sparks flew killing my foot bath! All this while sitting on large recliners watching Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage with Vietnamese subtitles. I think we both fell asleep in the recliners--at least I know I did as my thigh still hurts. I guess foot massages in Vietnam include the entire leg, arms, head and neck. It is amazing how strong the masseuse's hands are--the amount of pressure these tiny, slender women can apply with their fingertips is amazing and often can be excruciating.
Sad to be leaving our Acrobatic Spa but used to our daily $12 routine of being massaged, poked, prodded, stretched, and cracked one of our first adventures in Hoi An was to find a worthy spa. We thought we would be in luck - upon arrival at the airport in Hoi An, we were met by our taxi driver. He introduced himself as “Me.” We asked how he spelled it. “M-i.”
It was miraculous that Mi the cab driver met us at all. Even the simplest things are a test of fortitude here. Something as simple as placing a telephone call takes a lot of time and patience—hoping against hope that an English speaker will answer on the other end; figuring out how to even dial the number is it's own kind of confusing puzzle, what with dropped or undropped zeroes and area codes; relying on cheap pay-per-use phone service that drops more calls than it connects.
But Brett forged ahead and attempted to call our hotel in Hoi An to inform them our flight would be arriving ahead of schedule. After dialing at least 10 times before the call connected, he lucked out and was able to hold a decent conversation. It was the spelling of his last name--M-c-N-e-i-l--that really threw the hotel clerk. He spelled it 10 times but just as he was confirming the spelling for a final time the call was dropped. Another five or so attempted calls later, Brett got through and spent six more minutes spelling his name into the phone. The clerk claimed she'd lost his name and its spelling during the few minutes since the earlier call was dropped. I often have to go through this pain in the U.S. with my tricky last name so I enjoyed listening to this call with a beer and French baguette and cheese in hand (the only safe foods at the airport). We arrived at the Danang airport to find Mi holding a sign for Brett M-c-M-e-i-l. So I have been calling him this ever since: Mr. McMeil. Thank goodness I wasn't spelling my entire last name or we would still be on the phone with the hotel clerk.
We never did find a good spa in Hoi An - too much time at the tailors. That is an entirely separate post - to follow later ... .
Thursday, December 9, 2010
I did not join this fucking maniac for this part of the tour.
The tunnels also represent a unique challenge to claustrophobic history tourists: Climb down in, or no? Short answer: Climb down in only after others go down and make sure it's not too coffin-like, and do this only one or two times. The first time will be fine—you'll scurry along bent over at the waist in a tunnel that's been opened about a third from the old days to accommodate Western tourists, and you'll snap a couple pictures—but the second time you will get halfway through the tunnel but where it bends to the left you will come face to face with a flying, trapped bat and you will turn around and had straight back whence you came.
The view from down in there.
This will complete the subterranean portion of the tour for you today, and you can concentrate in the woods and how frighteningly difficult it would have been to fight here, and it allows time to think about the various low-tech ways the Vietcong used to maim soldiers and kill Army dogs—tiger traps, punji sticks, terrible barbed spikes that caught your foot and leg and never let go. I asked our tour guide, a former South Vietnamese Army helicopter pilot ho said he spent two years in a political re-education camp after the war, how many soldiers the stake pits and such killed. Not many, he admitted, but they were very good at killing dogs. He said the U.S. lost about 3,800 dogs during the war but didn't know how many of that number had died at Cu Chi.
Tour guide, Lut.
After visiting the tunnel complex, we walked down to the Saigon River, where it was Vietnam picture perfect.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Power lines in Saigon.
But before Jenn gets a chance at the keyboard, some thoughts on the one-time South Vietnamese capital, a place of significant cosmopolitan bustle and, for this Indonesian resident visitor, a surprising number of English speakers; the Communist party's commemoration of the American War of Aggression; the impossible determination and self-sacrifice on display at the Cu Chi tunnels outside the city; and why every single person reading this should make plans to visit Vietnam, regardless of their interest in tragically misguided, criminally vicious Postwar containment strategies, etc. To wit: Jenn and I averaged just over one 60-minute, full-body Thai massage per day (each including masseuses who walk on backs; who apply hot rocks to backs they've walked on; who bend and crack every joint in the back, hands, arms, legs, neck and feet; and who finish the thing by hoisting you onto their knees—them somehow under you and you propelled forcefully into the air, your lower back pushing onto their knees with all your weight, the pain sharp then dull then gone, or mostly gone, as your body finally gives up and collapses into itself, the muscles unable to tighten anymore) for about $12 per with tip. This after dining on multi-course meals of oysters, pork, chicken, lamb, Indian samosas, pho, coconuts, coconut milk, beer, wine, coffee, and excellent chocolate croissants and fried doughnuts and never spending more than about $10 each.
So, then. To the War Remnants Museum! A highly effective Hall of Monstrosities from the American war, this place is a case study in the use of historical narrative as a contemporary (or near contemporary) ideological brickbat, as a national creation story, or as political justification for the rightness of control lying in the hands of Ho Chi Minh's heirs and not in anyone else's, especially the former “puppets”—the puppet governments, puppet armies, puppet police and puppet peasants—who at one time fought against Ho and the North. You enter the museum complex through a parking lot filled with American war machines—tanks, bulldozers, howitzers, jets, a Huey and Chinook helicopter—and the closer you get to the museum entrance itself you begin to see American ordinance. Rockets, cluster bombs, napalm canisters, Agent Orange barrels, mammoth, ground-pounding bombs from the bellies of B-52s. It's a tableau of mechanized and often impersonal death, financed and imported by a superpower enemy that could spare almost no expense in its efforts to obliterate the Vietnamese patriots. Look here, the museum invites visitors. They had all this shit, metric fucking tons of it, and it didn't matter. We would never have let these machines, or their pilots, beat us. It's not explained in the display but I'm guessing the war machines were captured as the Americans gave up on Vietnam; none showed any battle damage. They are just big trophies for the winners, and they sit in a parking lot with their rubber wheels rotting and their Plexiglass windows turning the color of skim milk.
A remnant of the French colonial period.
Inside, the museum focuses on the past and present violence of the war. The past is shown in photos of schools and nurseries leveled by American bomb attacks, dead kids stacked like cordwood atop piles of rubble. There are pictures and stories of My Lai and of Thanh Phong, where Bob Kerrey and a band of Navy Seals killed about two dozen Vietnamese people. The American government awarded Kerrey the Bronze Star for the action but inside the War Remnants Museum Vietnamese authorities claim Kerrey and his men targeted women and children, killing many with knives. A cement sewer where several child victims allegedly hid before being found out and gunned down by American servicemen is on display inside the museum. Color photos of dead boys and girls frame the display, while a spotlight shines down on the sewer.
The Vietnamese Declaration of Independence.
Multiple walls of the first floor are dedicated to commemorating the use and aftereffects of Americans' use of Agent Orange, or Dioxin, for defoliating the Vietnamese jungle during wartime. This display, which includes dozens upon dozens of photos of crippled and malformed Vietnamese children and young adults, victims of genetic deformations caused by the toxic chemical. In another section of the museum, visitors will find black and white photos of, to borrow directly from Glenn Danzig, hideous, deformed monster babies: encephalitic heads, Cyclops eyes, multiple eyes, multiple faces, limbless bodies, just impossible and unnatural, unlivable and evil fucking debilities and malformations that, propaganda or no, are an ongoing national shame for us. The Vietnamese ask us to consider just how viciously we poisoned their country and people—and for what. Many pictures are of children born more than a decade after American troops left the country, the lingering malignancy of our might and malice. A story board from the display informs us that in May of last year the International People's Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange suggested the U.S. Annually pay $1.52 billion in remediation and reparation to Vietnam for the damage done to its people, land, flora and fauna by Dioxin. This money wouldn't buy a new torso for the 29-year-old who lives without the use of his tiny, atrophied legs nor would it absolve us of responsibility for the sufferings of month-old infants who are physically incapable of survival given their painful and sensory-depriving handicaps and who expire before they ever begin but not before they're able to suffer, but it's money we owe this country and we ought to be paying something. We owe it.
Although not officially part of the Agent Orange exhibit, the museum features a first-floor charity booth for people living with chemical-related diseases and deformities. On the day we visited, the booth was manned by three very small, quasi-dwarfed people in wheelchairs. They lay very deep in their chairs, mostly unmoving, and I'm not sure how much muscle control they had. Also manning the booth was a young man, a musician, who played an electronic keyboard and sang along in what sounded like a high-pitched, wordless tone. His face was completely devoid of emotion, in large part because he has no eyes or eye sockets. His upper face is a flat canvas of stretched skin, forehead to upper lip, on either side of his nose. No opening of any kind for eyes. I left a donation in the box and signed my name in the register after being told I had to. Among maybe three dozen other names and hometowns visible on the ledger, mine was the only one from the U.S.
OK, Jenn wants a turn so I'll come back to the Cu Chi tunnels and the many charms of Saigon. And soon, a discussion of bespoke clothing and shoe shopping in Hoi An.
Friday, December 3, 2010
Writing from the Harrod's cafe inside the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, during a layover en route to Ho Chi Minh City, which I'll call Saigon from now on.
I got back to Magelang late Wednesday night--later than I otherwise would have after a Merapi-related mud flood swamped a bridge on the main road between Jogja and Magelang, halting all airport shuttle bus traffic for the day. I shared a Kijang cab ride with four other people and a trip that normally takes about an hour, an hour and a half at the most, lasted more than three hours. We took side streets about a car-and-a-half wide, many of them choked with logging trucks moving at glacial speeds. Our driver was an old and, unique in my experience for a hired Indonesian wheelman, cautious driver. We lumbered slowly through the night, afraid to pass anything without a 1,000-yard straightaway. It was a slog.
Got back to the guest house to find hard rains had washed out all Internet access at the school. I moved back in, packed for Vietnam, and lit out for a Friday morning flight to Jakarta. Spent the night with a friend and his girlfriend last night at their small but homey apartment in south-central Jakarta. The girlfriend, who arrived in Indonesia about the same time I did in August, was laid up with terrible food poisoning. She rallied for a while while I was there--we all watched a Russell Crowe movie on TV--but then spent most of the night vomiting torrentially into a plastic bucket in the bathroom. She heaved hard and wet, over and over, the splat of her guts hitting the bucket every 10 minutes for three-quarters of an hour. And this after a day of puking Friday. She would wretch and moan, wretch and call out. She needed tranquilizers, and an IV. When I left this morning, she was still in the bathroom, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, spitting up and calling out to me through the door to have a good trip.
I've been fighting a bad bug of some kind for a while now but nothing like what my buddy's girlfriend is going through. They think she's got food poisoning and I think the lesson for me is that my gastronomical holiday in Indochina might be more cautious than if I were feeling 100-percent. There will be plenty to eat but maybe not so much from the food carts. Of course I'm saying that from the cleaned-and-polished, aroma-free confines of the airport, where everything tastes the same, and maybe I'll feel differently when hit with the street food of Vietnam.
Jenn and I are winging our itinerary but my guess is we tour Saigon tomorrow, head out to the Cu Chi tunnels--where I will not be making the trip underground; to the nearby hamlet of Phu Loi, where my dad was based during the war; and to the Delta, where we might see some floating markets. Inside Saigon proper, we'll be visiting the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, and I'll get someone to show me the old embassy roof, which is not identified in my copy of Lonely Planet. Excuse me, Aussie travel writers, but what percentage of your English-language readers are Americans? A seemingly noteworthy landmark, no?
All right, off to catch a plane ... .