Friday, December 30, 2011

A Lad in Saen

January 13, 2010

The dawn light was still gray as we climbed the steep stairs of Wat Jom Khao. The temple hall was decorated with paintings of Buddhist lore--most of them quite surreal. The male figures had the cheesy mustaches of a silent film villain, and the Buddha himself was quite ugly, his face old and out of proportion. Beside the temple was a low squat tower. From this hilltop, we could watch the sun rise behind the old French fort, watch the light take hold in Thailand across the water.

Back down the hill, the monks were finishing their final alms rounds. About a dozen women were kneeling in the street. Upon a certain verbal cue in the monks chant, they all simultaneously began to pour water from soft, shapely vessels.

Miki and I hustled up our own breakfast, then walked down a slope to the Mekong that served as the border. We were processed out of Laos and jumped into a waiting pirogue to make the crossing. It was ridiculous how easy it all was, how casual everyone was. Infected with this spirit I tried to talk the woman at Thai immigration into giving us 18 day visas rather than the usual 15. She seemed to go for it, until an official little man in a starched brown uniform popped his head in the window and explained (politely, but slightly aggressively) how to pay the overstay fee. Fifteen days it was.

We took a song taa-ou, following the Mekong to Chiang Saen. we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the quiet little town, past the old ruins which were much like those in Ayuthaya, usually a broad platform of raised brick, with a few chedi or a seated Buddha at the end. Unlike the segregation of the ruins into parks as at the old capital, here the town had been built to encompass them, houses and shops constructed right up to the leaf-covered grounds. Three of the old city walls remained, the fourth having crumbled into the Mekong long ago. We walked the north wall, under large trees growing through gaps in the brick.

The waterfront was lined completely with Chinese boats, their crews loading them with various goods. We watched one group carrying 5 cases of Red Bull, holding a chopstick in one hand which the foreman would take as a means of keeping count.

We spent the better part of the day at Wat Chedi Leung. The chedi is --was-- massive and furry with weeds. There was a variation on the broken platform theme in that this one had had a roof built over it to protect the large gold Buddhas it housed. A group of monks from Chiang Rai came and filled the floor with their orange forms. Two guys had unmistakable gang tattoos, and one was probably a ladyboy, very delicate in face and gesture. I found myself wondering why, if they didn't take food after noon, were so many so fat? After a brief chant, they were off again, filing in pairs through gaps in the ruins. The head monk came and found us, a nice young man of 24, who seemed eager to practice his English. Such a dichotomy, this young guy overseeing such an ancient site. Adjacent to the main hall was a small outdoor cafe called 'Heaven on Earth.' It did have a semblance of such, with thoughtfully arranged flowers, colorful art, and comfy chairs in which to pass a couple of hours.

We had a massage while the light faded, followed by a simple meal by the river. Then began the worst night of the entire trip. Our quiet, peaceful bungalow by day became the center of the party by night. Voices drifted from the vendors across the street, eventually drowned out by the thump of 3 or 4 competing sound systems. Our pipes must've backed up at some point for the air in the room became thick with the reek of raw sewage. No, I don't believe I can recommend the Chiang Saen Guest House...

On the turntable: Nirvana, "Bleach"
On the nighttable: John Nichols, "On the Mesa"

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mekong, Upriver

January 12, 2009

...we made our way down the dusty hill to where the slow boats were moored. The trip upriver to Huay Xai was touted to be 5 -6 hours, but it took us 9 1/2. Such is Lao Time. I felt sorry for those trying to cross into Thailand as we docked just 5 minutes before the immigration post closed. But this was the way I had intended to pass the day, and it was heaven to drift quietly up the Mekong, watching the mountains drop away into jungle. Our boat had long, ornately carved rails, between which soft bus seats were laid in rows to pamper spoiled white asses. The passengers were all European at first, including a French woman who seemed unable to sit still for 5 seconds. As we continued upriver, the pilot stopped about a dozen times for locals who stood on the high rock crop banks waving shirts. We stopped at one village that had a market right on the bank, and seemed to be selling nothing but T-shirts. Nearby, a couple sat eating in their pirogue, clearly embarrassed to be the subject of every one's photos.

Our pilot steered us past the low jungled hills, past the shores of rock and sand. The rocks had been carved during rainy season in a pattern that was almost purposeful, methodical. He used a proper captain's wheel, unlike the single bamboo shafts attached to the afts of the pirogues. Both his steering house and the bow contained small altars, the latter more ornate, its joss sticks lit before launching. On board, an old woman sat with her three granddaughters, none of whom moved for the entire trip. The woman seemed to have knee trouble, and was asking the French bata-bata butterfly for treatment. Again, interesting how Europeans are seen as a source of medical treatment. A Frenchman sitting nearby rubbed some sort of salve into the afflicted joint. I watched all of this to the soundtrack of my iPod, listening mostly to '60s stuff, and slightly chagrined that the "Oldies" setting now includes music from my college days.

We reached Huay Xai at dusk and grabbed a room. The owner was a gorgeous woman in her '50s, with the glamour and dress of a beauty queen. There were photos of her in her younger day, resembling two daughters well represented in the adjoining photos. Clearly brought up with great expectations, I wondered how they felt about waiting on and cooking for tourists.

We walked up the main street, taking all of 5 minutes. It was all very Thai, even on this side of the river. At the base of the long steps leading up to the Wat, a man whispered hello from the shadows of the naga's head, a clear attempt to sell drugs. We ignored him and found a restaurant on a deck overlooking the Mekong, the sun's final act being to accent the purple hills with pink. A Korean girl sat behind us, filling out her journal, and across the room, a man sat at a keyboard, his crooning being a vast improvement over the previous BGM of bad pop songs. As the Xmas lights came on, Miki and I raised our final toast with Beer Lao...

On the turntable: Genesis, "Plays Live"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winding out of Laos

...Laos wakes early to chickens and shouted voices. Music was coming from somewhere, and like all trad music I'd heard since while in country, was of the "more cowbell" variety. This was Saturday -- market day. The town had swelled with villagers from the surrounding hills, which explained the voices and all the boats moored at the bottom of the steps. Being hill-tribe people, there was an array of colorful clothes and interesting headwear. A few women had their hair tied up in interesting buns, many at the front. They had gathered to buy or sell veggies, tobacco, silks, and meat carried in bags or arranged like a crime scene. One woman stood chatting and smiling to a friend, holding bovine forelegs with the shinbones protruding. The old-timers, as expected, had beautiful faces.

We waited fro Liu to buy a couple of chickens for his sons, then boarded a boat for the seven hour trip upriver. It was a chilly morning, but warmed up once the mist burned off. It was a pretty smooth ride, the mountains reflected off the glassy surface, with occasional rapids, which the boat seemed to climb. We passed fishermen, people damming small streams, a boatload of monks, bathing buffalo, women placer panning gold, and naked kids having kung fu battles on the beaches, complete with high kicks and flying sand. Norman Lewis talks of the monoscape of the jungle. It is the perfect camouflage, as people literally just popped out of the dense foliage. Other times, in straining your eyes, you could make out these figures and small huts, like viewing a Chinese landscape painting.

We stopped in a few villages along the way. The first was a Tai-Dam weaving village, with a sign out front saying, "No Slash and Burn Village." The villagers rushed to hang their wares in front of the homes for us, the first customers of the day. A few women were at their looms, all four limbs moving independently like a drummer. One woman was boiling silk worms and pulling the yellow thread out of the pot, while her baby slept in her lap. She offered us a each a worm to eat, which tasted just as bad as the ones I had had in Korea 13 years before. I found one scarf that I liked, weaved in remarkable detail by a women in her '80s, with failing eyesight.

We had lunch in a different village, eating in front of the hospital, closed for the day. As we ate, a large palm frond fell onto the electrical wire. I doubt that the hospital will have power when the open tomorrow.

The third village was a very poor Khmu village, which we'd noticed by its small hospital built high on a cliff overlooking the river. It was a steep scramble up sliding sand. A couple of men were repairing fishing nets, one with great dexterity considering that his right hand was gone. He'd made the bad decision to fashion a knife from a UXO. Based on the reactions we got, not many farang have come here. There was the usual parade of kids, as well as a very old man who was brave enough to come up and take Miki's hand. We passed a few old women bathing, completely unconcerned with covering bare pendulous breasts with their sarongs.

Later, we did a pee stop on a remote stretch of sand. As I did my thing, I had a fantasy about Liu and Suan, the boat pilot, pulling away, marooning Miki and I here at the edge of the jungle. Would we be able to survive, to get out? My answer came a few kilometers upriver. The entire right band had been cleared of jungle, for a new road leading to the nearby Vietnam border.

In late afternoon, we arrived at Muang Khua. The waterfront was a construction site, and the rest of the town not much better. The hotels were large, characterless concrete boxes, and before them garbage and food was strewn everywhere. People walked by doing the patented projectile nostril clear. Definitely a Chinese town. There was a hard edge here that I hadn't yet found in Laos, both from the Chinese and Vietnamese locals, and the tourists. Greeting two foreign men with a "Hello," one answered with a gruff "Bonjour." He was of the age to have possibly fought at Diem Bien Phu, 50km away. A daily bus leaves here at 6 a.m.

We met our driver from the first day, who said that the town "isn't beautiful, too noisy." We concurred. A friend of his had a guest bungalow in a village one hour away. "Great view," he promised.

We arrived in a village flanking the road, like a hundred others during the last 3 weeks. Our bungalow turned out to be a pile of blankets and a mosquito net in the back corner of a shop. Um, no. Had I been traveling with the driver from point A to point B, and these were the digs, offered up at, charitably, $1 a night, I'd be fine. The trouble was compounded by the driver's buying our dinner at a stall beside the road, whose meats were of an age slightly less mysterious than that of Dick Clark. Again, had this been part of the flow of travel, I'd be a good sport. But we'd pre-paid $70 a day, and found the food and accommodations sub-par. So we mutinied. We asked to go on to Oudomxai. Liu and the driver acquiesced, but there seemed to be some unspoken tension there. I hated this loss of trust, after three days, of what felt (naively perhaps) like friendship. Once the driver turned up, the vibe changed. There was a definite aggressiveness in both his manner and technique. What was unfortunate was that Liu seemed to have shifted sides, in deference to him. He was no longer in charge , it seemed. And our tour had begun to suffer -- the itinerary became less interesting, the amenities, less amenable.

We reached a sort of armistice over dinner in Oudomxai, the laughter and good feeling returning. What rankled though was my pride. I didn't want the driver to think I'd refused the "bungalow" because I was just another spoiled tourist looking for comfort. It was all a matter of me wanting services equaling payment rendered. Yet even this left me uneasy about how conservative I've become. Almost as amends, we wound up in what was perhaps the nicest accommodations of the whole trip -- a Chinese hotel, that while reasonably plush, couldn't offer protection from the sound of a loud TV echoing from down the hall...

...Oudomxai is a Chinese town, and the market reflected it, in the broccoli and bok choy, in the imported smokes. There were a few hill tribes about, but more often there were men in Mao caps. We drove south, stopping at a couple of uninspiring villages. One of them was a cold place, the people not interested in us at all, not returning our smiles or greetings. It was almost like an unspoken comment on cultural tourism being a trip to a human zoo. Miki were by now tired of these village visits, uncomfortable with this very point. Far better to spend a week or a month with them, offering work as an exchange for food, and hopefully, mutual understanding. A lot of these villagers are obviously unhappy with busloads of tourists dropping by to gawk and shoot photos. We quickly took the hint and fucked off.

In a single roadside stream, people were washing farm equipment, their cars, themselves. An old man smoked a cigarette through a waterpipe. Tall corn stood in rows on badly deforested hills. Banana trees extended their fingers to high-five the sky.

Our driver made quite a few stops on the way for his own personal needs--for rice, sugarcane, ice. I didn't mind much, but we spent perhaps a cumulative total of a couple hours waiting on him. I like him, despite myself.

The hills dropped, then we were at Pakbeng, a single dusty road leading up from the Mekong. The town itself wasn't much to look at, but the surrounding hills, and the river, added charm. Most of the hotels and cafes had waterfront decks, on which we had a pleasant way to pass the afternoon. There were only a handful of foreigners about, including one who lounged on a bed sitting on the veranda of a guesthouse next door. Farang began to arrive en masse in the late afternoon, trudging up the slope laden with bags like pack animals.

Our own guesthouse was pretty nice, a wooden affair of dark teak. It was noisy though, mainly from the karaoke coming up from the street. Judging solely from the thumping bass patterns, Laos has only 5 songs. And Lao people are outright bad at singing. One could argue that the pitch of the music is different from what we know in the West, but most of the singers (ahem) I heard were miles off the key of the song itself. As the bass thumped on, I began to curse the Japanese for inventing karaoke in the first place. One cafe offered a diversion in some Thai radio. I found it amusing mainly because the top news story was about predicted tapioca shortages in 2010. We live in interesting times...

On the turntable: "Still Swinging" (Various)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nine months after...

I wrote this not long after the quake and tsunami of March 11. It appears in a less vehement form in the Quakebook collection. Buy yours here. Every cent of the proceeds go to charity.

That Friday, I awoke before dawn, in order to get to my early morning yoga class. As always, I swallowed a splash of coffee to fully rouse myself, then quickly checked my email before setting off. I noticed a message from my sister wondering if my wife's family was okay. I didn't have time then to check the news, and it was difficult to concentrate on my teaching that morning. It was only later that I saw the videos of the water rushing in. I watched one video after another, as if not quite convinced that this was real. NHK was streaming in another browser window, and in a third, I followed Facebook updates from friends. This last was the most surreal. From the nature of the messages, it was obvious that cell phone reception in Kanto was down, Facebook being the only reliable means of communication. But it was unsettling to this vicarious experience of the post-quake confusion in real-time. One post: "Where are you? Did you get the kids?" Another: "Trains stopped. Walking home. Google Maps says I should be home in seven hours." For the rest of the day I imagined my friends walking through the cold night. That night I couldn't sleep, my head filled with images of all that moving water.

The next morning, I checked in to see that a great many people I cared about were having a pretty rough time. It was also apparent that we had better access to news, when the media was still giving facts and hadn't begun squealing like nervous nellies. I went off to work, but couldn't keep my concentration. Even though my wife and I were safe in Santa Fe, loads of people checked in on us. My co-workers could see that I was disturbed. I'd already begun to hear about the sense of calm amongst the Japanese, about the absence of looting or advantage-taking. Yet minutes into my work shift, I watched a woman try on sweaters, then toss them in a heap on the shelf, all before the eyes of her two young children. In the big picture, retail came across as pathetic. My manager let me go home early . Once there, my wife told me how she'd seen a car rear-end another, then quickly U-turn in order to flee. What the hell is wrong with my countrymen? After a year back in the States, we are quite depressed about the state of things here, at the behavior we witness daily. A day before the quake we began to reassess things, and I began to look at grad schools back in Kyoto. The moral strength and cooperation we witness in Japan becomes almost the justification for a return, the sort of society in which we want to raise the child now deep in my wife's belly. I'm not such a pollyanna that I don't recognize the problems there, the things that once rankled. Over 15 years in country they'd slowly worn me down, in what one wit called "death by 1000 cuts." But America's flaws glare by comparison. (Though that's a rant for another day.)

By Sunday, we needed to turn off the laptops and go for a walk. The news was no longer fact-based and entered the realm of speculation. As the week went on, I relied more on Facebook and Twitter than any media source. The foreign press sickened me. On the first day, as I desperately tried to find out if people I loved were still alive, these websites forced me to wait for 30 seconds as they tried to sell me stuff. Their later sensationalized coverage will always be remembered as they created a panic of fleeing foreign Tokyoites and drew attention away from the true suffering going on further north. Again, the priorities and morals of my birth country astounds me.

As the week went on, our lives began to revolve around what was happening with the reactors. Online, silly humor interspersed with drop-dead seriousness gave me the impression that Tokyoites were slowly losing their minds under the worry about the radioactivity, as they were jolted yet again by another aftershock. By the following weekend, they began to write of other, more normal things, and in the international media, Japan dropped out of the top headlines.

And as we continue to live here safely in America, my sleep is still disturbed, I still finds myself occasionally shedding tears. It's incredible how emotionally attached I am to Japan. It appears the quake caused some profound seismic shift within me, as I begin to seriously consider where to live the rest of my life.

On the turntable: Asleep at the Wheel, "Live at Billy Bob's Texas"