Monday, October 22, 2012

Nearing the Finish Line

I had wanted to post a whole bunch of landscape pictures but, for some reason, this hotel's internet lacks sufficient bandwidth or something. I am unable to upload at all or have to wait three hours for one photo to pop up. I also wanted to write good descriptions of the scenes but, at this moment, I find it difficult to express myself in a way that will do the pictures justice.

I guess I am internally struggling with the fact that in three hours I will be heading to the airport for my flights home. The time in the air will be shorter since heading East means riding the jet stream. Nonetheless, I will be flying for about 18 hours. Then I will stay in Portland overnight before heading back to Bend.

What then? It will be natural to feel some let down. I have had a fantastic trip that has been so so full of excitement. I have seen breathtaking countryside, huge rivers, incredible historical sites, and chatted with fascinating people. The journey has exceeded my imagination. I have taken well over a thousand pictures, sketched everyday, and recorded lots of thoughts. A vacation ends. The mundane and routine begins. I guess I'll have to make new goals and plan another excursion for next year. There is still much to see and so little time.

Special thanks to those of you who have given me so much encouragement and have cared about my well-being, especially Tapirgal, Raksha, Sylviafromoverthehill, and Lowell. My daughter Laurel, my son Adam, my sister Jane, and my nephews also have exhibited great patience again by putting up with my risk-taking and general tomfoolery. I love all of you, including those who I have not mentioned. I am so fortunate to have such fine people near me on my daily adventure.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Singn' n Saigon

"Well it's one, two, three, what're ya fightn for? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn the next stop is Viet Nam." How many of this blog's readers have even heard the tune sung  by Country Joe and the Fish? That's what I wondered, as our bus sped past the U.S. Embassy in Saigon not far from my hotel. I craned my neck to glimpse over the high walls to see the building that was fixed in my memory in 1975,  when the end of the war had come. Who reading this post remembers the ignominious scene or even knows of the helicopter hovering, dropping a rope, and hoisting Americans and a few South Vietnamese officials to safety? Our guide told us the original building was gone and a new one had been built. He spoke of it as a part of a new dynamic, prosperous Saigon, a vibrant capitalist Communist city of 10 million in a country of 85 million which had become a leader among the ever-growing economic powers of Southeast Asia. It was time to look forward.

Then we stopped and toured the opulent palace of the former South Vietnamese government. It is now a museum. After so many years, I reheard the strangely pronounced names of the cast of corrupt players who had  lived there and who we saw on the nightly news and to whose cause we had sacrificed some our finest people. Ngo Dinh Diem and his wife, Madame Nu, Nguyen Van Thieu, Nguyen Cao Ky had governed and stratagized within its walls. Now I stood from its balcony almost 40 years later and looked across the courtyard and down the street toward the center of Saigon or what is now called also Ho Chi Minh City.

Being here has made me reflect on the past; about our star-crossed involvement in what was clearly a Civil War or about our failed attempt to preserve our economic interests from the onslaught based on the domino theory of creeping Communism. Since then, much water has flowed down the Mekong. The gut-wrenching events of that time affected countless lives and changed me fundamentally.  Those war years marked the beginning when I questioned my society, my government and its values, my values and the direction of my life. Those tumultuous days spun me like a misguided rocket deep into a jungle where I landed and fizzled through the rest of my life. Nonetheless  I had been a lucky survivor..

I feel like a Janus head here. I look back sadly at the past, but am also awestruck by the present vibrancy of this city which is modern, clean, smart, and so alive. Time has not only healed the wounds of war, it has produced amazing growth and a society of people preparing themselves vigorously for the challenges of the 21st century.

So as I turn into bed my first night here and listen the city sounds, I recall  the rhythm and words of the second verse of the song... "and it's five, six, seven, open up dem pearly gates. Well, there ain't no time to wonder why. We're all gonna die." Many did before the war ended in 1975, and yet the peril to human life continues.  We, like  innocent villagers, are caught in the crossfire, when, as history shows,  the powerful and greedy  go unchecked.

In a place so associated in my past with turmoil and death, I feel safe, optimistic and happy. My Asian adventure has taken me through time to the present Viet Nam. Thousands of  people younger than I speed past my window on humming motor bikes in the midst of their  journey. Like the sturdy, small, manicured trees growing  gracefully in white and blue porcelain pots which sit near the entry of many houses, life flourishes anew here, refined and lovely.

For those of you who don't know the Viet Nam War song "Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die" by Country Joe McDonald and the Fish or want to hear it again, Here is a link. I think you'll get a kick out of it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What's For Dinner?

Long before I left on this trip, I had heard that the Southeast Asians had a penchant for eating what we would call "exotic" foods. Needless to say, in my strolls through markets, I looked for these delicacies. In addition, my Vietnamese friend  Thien Vu aka Andy, who owns a nail salon in Astoria, encouraged me to try cobra wine. He explained that it was a sure bet to increase virility.  Therefore this morning on my last full day on the Mekong I decided to share a few pictures of dishes I saw and items you also might like to try.

In the large jar in the bottom picture are cobras that have been fermenting for several weeks. Together with rice, yeast and water, a delightful schnapps is created. I knocked back a swallow and let the juice "slither" down my throat. The snake penises are first removed and put in a different jar and are fermented separately. I have a photo of this concoction too, which, for any voyeur reader, I will share privately.

The second photo from the bottom and the second from the top showing showing some pink meaty loins are the carcasses of rats. I have a photo of a lady taking live ones out of a cage, smacking their heads on the pavement, skinning them, and throwing them in this bowl.  I do not do rats. I don't care if they allegedly taste like chicken.

I'm generally sympathetic to animals so it is hard for me to watch them suffer. It is  common to see live animals, especially birds, restrained and then hacked, or to watch live fish flopping around before being beheaded and wrapped for an evening dinner. In this country practically anything that moves gets eaten. The markets are full of a variety of poultry, sea life, and meats. All parts have some use. In the middle picture some relatives of the "AFLAC" duck have met their demise. Duckling eggs are also available and, I am told, are remarkable in taste and texture.

I have dozens of pictures of eels. The third picture is one which shows a small, light brown colored variety.  As previously posted, these can be purchased fresh or dried. I find them both palatable and they have been included in some of the meals on the boat.

The question, I wonder, is what foods do we have in our culture, which others consider exotic? It's not a Snickers bar. I bought one the other day in Cambodia. Anyone having a TV dinner tonight?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A New Day

Of course it is hard to think of Viet Nam without awakening images of the past. I'm not sure that I can do a post without lurking memories. Of course my recollections, although poignant, pale in importance and intensity to those who were here. For all people in the war zone, I feel sorrow and gratitude.

The boat is now moving, We are floating down the Mekong to our next site. I look about at the shores and see fishing boats, verdant tropical landscape, small villages, and people going about their business. It is over 40 years later.

Yesterday, my first full day onshore in a small town, Chau Doc, I had the morning to wander about before the afternoon guided tour. I slipped off by myself and began snapping pictures of street signs, buildings, bits of detail, and, of course, my favorite subject, people. I was met with curiosity, smiles, and good will. I have only a moment to complete this post before breakfast and also while I still have signal. My desire is to let the pictures tell the story, but it is a challenge to bring up even one picture since the signal is unstable. Anyway this is Viet Nam today. There are so many others, people in suits, workers on motor bikes, children grinning and of course the elderly, who remember.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My Deployment?

Good morning Viet Nam. Although these pictures are only a few of the hundreds I have taken on my float through Cambodia,  it gives a glimmer of an idea of how much I am appreciating the cruise. I have only a minute to fire this post off before we dock at a small village across the border. It is a moving experience for me to be here after all the years of hearing the name of this country and how much, as a young man, the War impacted my life . Then again it is nothing compared to my friend Jay, who toured here as a Naval officer in 1969 and saw and experienced all that which I did my best to avoid. He spoke over breakfast about his last days here. I am awed, and frightened to come on shore. Then again on such a journey as this one, so removed from my normal life, emotions are predictably mutable. More later. My love to all of you

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Floating Downstream

My sister Jane has always encouraged me to take a cruise. On many of my journeys I have seen tourists from various behemouth-sized ships milling through markets near the port or shuttled by tour buses to nearby sights. I knew that they were sipping the wine from the edge of the glass of a country but hadn't the time, energy, or wherewithal to drink heartily from the goblet. This was fine. You get something of a county's sweetness and that is really what matters.

With some skepticism I decided to join a river cruise of the Mekong River from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh,(Saigon). The online brochure indicated that the luxury boat had a capacity of 28 passengers and would travel the 800 kilometers in 7 days with many "breathtaking" stops. For reasons that are still not clear to me, this is the first trip of the season and the boat is virtually empty. There are only 11 of us, composed of 2 New Zealanders, 2 Israeli-Americans couples from California, a husband and wife from rural Minnesota, two old Navy buddies, who served on the "Delta" during the War, and me.

The tour leader is a young French-Swiss fellow, who reminds me of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, intelligent and mysterious, who lives year around on the boat, speaks with the crew fluently in both Cambodian and Vietnamese and determines the trip's itinerary, which he promises will be unique.

We left Siem Reap day before yesterday afternoon and began crossing the largest lake in Southeast Asia, the Tonle Sap which during flood is 30 miles wide and 75 miles long. Then it becomes the Tonle Sap River, and stays almost as wide. It is deep, full of floating plants, sandbars, muddy water, and loaded with nearly blind fish pursued by fishermen paying out long gill nets. The area is scarcely populated and I glimpse an occasional village on its shores.

After a welcoming "open bar" party on the sundeck, we were shown our air-conditioned quarters and then given a brief synopsis of the next morning's activity, namely a tour of a remote floating village which,according to our leader, no tourists will ever visit except his guests. Then we were treated to a sumptious gourmet dinner of an artistically prepared lobster appetizer, several seafood salads, and a dinner of whole fish and fresh vegetables, from recipes from his chef cooked to Asian perfection. I burst with excitement and kept my camera clicking of the scenery, shooting pictures of passing boats and of course the dinner.

Tonight we have docked in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, where I have connectivity. I have been underway one evening and two full days. It has been extraordinary and I will do my best to share my adventures, although I am having fits uploading pictures. The bandwidth is questionable and also it is hard to see because my screen constantly fogs up due to the humidity. I think of my sister and thank her, but I'm not sure this is what she envisioned for my first cruise, although it fits me to a tee. I have seen people and places which challenge description. So far my float is a cross between Heart of Darkness and the Loveboat!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The ancient world of Angkor

Several of you have urged me to put up pictures from Angkor Wat in spite of my initial reluctance. I took 287 photos and as you know it takes a while to sort them out. Also to do a post is a daunting task since this amazing place illicits so much energy on so many subjects such as history, art ,religion, architecture and personal feelings. It is one of the Wonders of the World on par with the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids in Egypt.

That being said, it is important to understand that Angkor Wat is actually the name of the largest ruins in the area known as Angkor, sanskrit for city,which is 390 sq miles in size, making it the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It contains over a thousand remains of early structures. Wat means temple and Anghor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II, ruler of the Khmer Empire in the 12th Century as the royal temple and eventually his mousoleum It took 30 years to complete, employing 10,000 workers, hundreds of artisans, and 6,000 elephants. It is a Hindu temple but later Buddhist features were added

My photos don't even come close to conveying its size. Within its outer wall and surrounded by a 2.2 mile long moat, a football field and a half wide, all dug out by hand, are the temple grounds and a three-tiered temple adorned by towers in the shape of lotus blossoms situated on 203 acres. The above photos include a few of the over two thousand different carvings on the main buildings outer walls. If some of the pictures appear to convey a cold bleak building, it is important to remember that much of the structures were also built with perishable materials like wood especially the roofs. The jewels are gone and many of the statues were damaged or destroyed by conquerors and pillagers.

The next photos are from the East entrance to Angkor and to a second temple, Angkor Tom, which the king built 30 years after Angkor Wat.

The last photos shows that forest has buried many old palaces and dwellings. This ancient world falls to the march of nature.

I am leaving shortly on the river cruise portion of my journey down the Mekong River through Cambodia to Viet Nam. I won't have connectivity but I will be thinking of you and will post as soon as I can.

A Day in Cambodia

I am now in Cambodia and although I visited Anghor Wat yesterday, one of the seven wonders of the man-made world,I feel overwhelmed by the massive nature of the experience and also feel totally disinclined to think about religion, history or art today.

Fortunately I was able to visit Siem Reap's central market place today, from where the pictures I am posting were taken. Typical for me, while the other tour participants sought an area to buy souvenirs, fake silk garments, and suspiciously "authentic" jewelry, I slinked off in a totally different direction, where, as fortune would have it, I found a public market situated in a covered area down a narrow lane. Such a place is paradise if you want to get a "whiff" of average people and their food. This discovery proved to be no exception.

Inside I saw vendors selling dried eel and assorted fish along with sausages made from who knows what. Hanging from strings and looking like deflated balloons, these delectables produced a strange looking odiferous,edible curtain. I did my best to listen in as customers asked about quantity and quality in a melodic Cambodian tone devoid of shouting or arguing. There were stalls selling such a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, seafood, poultry, duck eggs and other foods you might consider exotic like snake, spiders and crickets. This was the Cambodia I was looking for, something that is missed when staying within the confines of a four star hotel. I began to interact with various sellers including some girls who were sorting fish. One even let me draw her. It created somewhat of a crowd and a great deal of laughter since my finished product lacked even the slightest resemblance. One person said that the sketch more likely resembled her brother!

It is strange, having grown up during the Viet Nam War era, I know that I had developed a guarded and negative attitude about Cambodia and Cambodians. I thought of dangerous people who were high on drugs and of Communists lurking in the underbrush. My biggest surprise is that, so far, I find the Cambodians to be a wonderful, handsome people. I feel safer walking through Siem Reap's relatively clean streets than in any country I have ever visited. I rarely see police and or soldiers. There are no indigents on the street nor unsavory characters hassling people. Maybe the government does not tolerate friction in this town, which is dependent financially on the multitude of tourists from all over the world who are here to visit Angkor Wat. The people drive slowly and somewhat sensibly considering it is Asia and I only occasionally hear a horn blare. Perhaps there is a strong desire for peace considering that the effects of the Killing Fields of 1978. I don't know. Maybe there is just something in the character of this nation and in its culture, as it seemed to be in Thailand, which fosters gentleness, refinement and a smile. I won't be here long enough to find out for sure. I only hope it is true.

Monday, October 8, 2012

om eye, ohm my, oh my?

My dear friend Jennie asked me about my impressions of Buddhism. I sit here wondering what I can say of any significance other than I know so little of its history or ideas. I suppose I could go to Wikipedia and read a simplified version and sound knowledgeable to you. I have heard guides relate mythological stories and speak of elaborate cosmogonies filled with various spirits, jinns, gods and goddesses. I know that Buddha was a young prince who 2500 years ago who left the palace and saw the suffering of the people and then developed into the ninth emanation of Vishnu, the Hindu supreme, who incidentally will reincarnate again. Does this sound familiar? Well its all Greek to me! or Judeo-Christian-Moslem for that matter.

Again what are my impressions? One thing I know for certain, Hinduism and Buddhism are not on a noticeable decline nor does it appear that religious zeal is waning in the Third World. Even if it were, it would hardly be noticeable, Until you travel extensively, it is hard to grasp that there is just a mind boggling number of people out here and most are followers of some religion.

This sobering realization slapped me squarely in the face that the other day when I found myself in a market which had several hundred booths selling amulets,statues, and various trinkets. Bins and shelves were overflowing with at least a million images of various deities cast in metal, or carved out of wood, plastic, stone or glass. These little items were either to be worn, placed around the house on a shrine, to help in prayer or to be used to ward off spirits. If it works, don't question it!

I have already visited any number of temples and historical sites from which the above photos were taken. I have seen people lighting candles, burning incense, bringing flowers, kneeling in prayer, and placing their palms together, fingers pointing upwards, to show their devotion and gratitude before the placid visage of Buddha. He gazes peacefully outward and projects inner clarity. His expression appears All-Knowing and encourages correct thinking which includes detachment from worldly needs. Whether he could maintain that composure in rush hour freeway traffic is anyone's guess, but I find his image certainly more palatable than an altar adorned with the depiction of the gruesome suffering of Christ on the cross.

How do I feel about Buddhism? In the last analysis, it remains a muddle for me. I am a cantankerous historian. I watch and record, but can not, in clear conscience, join. My mind does not let me suspend judgment. I am told to listen with my heart and feel the energy. but the most I achieve is hearing the crooning voices of the Beach Boys singing "Good Vibrations." I am a restless, rebellious sort. Let the humble figure it out. I'd rather take the photo and my chances with the All.

The three photos were taken at Ayutthaya, a World Heritage site, a former capital of Thailand. It was built a thousand years ago but was sacked by the Burmese army in the 18th century. The last photo also from there was an original head which was discarded by looters one hundred years ago because the nose was broken. It was left on the ground and a tree grew around the remains and created this image.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Thaiming it write?

I wish I had written a post yesterday about my first impressions and experiences in Bangkok. My goal would have been to have given you a clear picture of what I saw or learned or how I felt. It would have been easier since I was fresh and my "bowl" was empty. Unfortunately, after a second full day of touring, it has filled up and is brimming. It feels like I am floating about in an alphabet soup and colliding with many different letters, some in a foreign scribble, and now lack the ability to even sufficiently describe the texture, color or odor of the broth. I am overwhelmed and tongue-tied. Perhaps this mental muddle is a result partially of jet lag and troubled sleep, but then again I'm definitely not in America.  

One of the benefits of photography is that preserving a scene helps recreate the moment and brings back memories which otherwise are damaged or lost. So, to help me recall, I have selected a few photos from yesterday. In the midday heat, I ventured out aimlessly down the busy street in my neighborhood of Banglamphu skirting the Chao Phraya River, a watercourse similar in size and depth to the Willamette in Portland, but different by its chocolate-brown color and strange-shaped longboats. After passing through a college campus, I suddenly discovered on the other side that I had arrived at a marketplace, which by size and complexity was beyond my wildest expectations.

With my camera, hanging down from my neck like a giant amulet, I began "subtly" snapping photos of working people and their goods. It was propitious that I came upon the man in the first photo. He was selling beautifully designed, scrumptious, baked goods. Unlike all the other vendors, he seemed curious about me, was willing to chat, and spoke good English. I told him of my journey and he told me of his, the importance of right disposition, a key Buddhist concept.  Furthermore he spoke of the Thais. They were a good people, reserved and intelligent, and could be engaged through the art of smiling.

Putting his advise to work, I began to stroll past vendors, taking pictures and smiling. Several ladies offered me tasty morsels and another gave me a flower. There was none of the hubbub nor filth nor begging nor pushy hawking I had experienced in so many other countries. The market was busy, but almost quiet, except for a lone guitarist who played tranquilly to the public. I listened for a while and noticed a  policeman standing nearby. It occurred to me that I had seen  neither soldiers nor police on my entire walk until then. At that moment the policeman ambled over to the musician, said something in his ear and picked up the microphone. With a soft melodic voice and, accompanied by the guitarist, the cop began to sing beautifully and gently what could have been a ballad or love song. I listened for a while and moved on, knowing that my new adventure had truly begun.

It is now morning in Oregon. It is the middle of the night here in Thailand. Good judgment says I should try and go to sleep. The distance between us vast. I sit alone, ponder, and write my story to make deadline. I want my post to be like the morning paper thrown at your door. I don't know why. I just do.  

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

On the Road Again

This post has nothing to do with creative writing nor artwork. My sole purpose is to let you know that I arrived in Bangkok last night. I have to admit that I found the flight here tedious to say the least. After rising at 4 AM in Portland, catching a 2 hour flight to Los Angeles, then boarding an 11 hour flight to Tokyo,and then finally, after sitting at the gate for an hour because of a sick passenger, a 6 1/2 hour flight to Bangkok followed then by a 45 minute taxi ride to my hotel, I arrived at 1 AM the following day and, of course, feel like crap. Actually, I am quite happy mentally and eager to see the sights, but have decided to rest this morning and acclimate to the incredibly humid air and the squalor.

The experience of flying with Japan Airlines was rewarding. I was one of the few non-Japanese on the plane and was fascinated by the interactions of the people. I saw much bowing and gentle smiles. People showed me great courtesy. I was playfully teased and urged by a flight attendant and old man who was sitting next to me to try a number of Japanese foods available to business class passengers. I accepted if they both agreed to let me to do sketches of them.The review of the final products generated much amusement.

As I sit here thousands of miles away from home, my nephew Mark's insight comes to mind. He asked rhetorically how a person can have any complaints with flying. He made me remember that riding on the plane's cushioned seat, which retracts into a bed, is like sitting on a magic carpet flying at pell mell speed. It wasn't that long ago that sailors spent months in unknown seas or explorers crossed strange lands in the face of countless peril from hostile people, threatened by dangerous weather or rampant disease. In a moment of frustration or despair, at least one such adventurer looked at the sky and saw a comet whizzing by and must have thought how wonderful it would be to travel distance at that speed. Today that shooting star is just one of dozens of jet trails littering the night sky. Yesterday I was in Oregon, today Thailand. I had to sit a long time. Foolish me to whine about my exhausting journey!