Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A long time ago

Black Chicken market original

I'm not the greatest blogger I know. I realise I haven't touched this blog in almost 2 months. Doubtless everyone who has ever read it has dropped off by now. But anyway I am going to add something now about the trip we took to Sapa with Connor and Bin. It is actually about a food we ate there. Black chicken.

There seems something sinister about eating a black chicken. Something sacrosanct like peeing in a church, hotwiring a hearse or defacing a picture of a Cardinal. It seems like the sort of thing you would do in a devil worshipping ceremony. Put on some red robes, funk your hair up and eat a black chicken, maybe afterwards put a curse on your kid brother so he has a hiccupping fit during band practice or breaks his retainer eating a taco.

I’d heard about black chicken from a source, and that’s always the way with these sorts of things. Someone whispers something in your ear, you find a note taped to the bottom of your chair, instructions are lipsticked on your mirror when you come out of the shower, or thrust into your hand in the midst of a prison riot. I was told that it was medicinal in nature, a local delicacy in Sapa and worth a million sins. Though perhaps my mind conjured up that last part after I suffered a blow from a dinner tray during the riot.

Where we went to eat I couldn’t order it off the menu. I get confused about that. If it’s on the menu and I order it off the menu, does that mean if it’s not on the menu I order it on the menu and it’s off the menu. It’s something that needs the UN’s attention (oh yes in these times more than ever, my inner worrywart is saying). At any rate I ask the waitress to get me one from the market just outside and after agreeing to pay for the whole thing myself, someone is dispatched to carry out the deed.

This is the first time I’ve engaged in anything so blatantly corrupt and I’m a little bit nervous. I make the mistake of blindly selecting some preparation off of the menu and I get the yips when it comes out hissing and spitting on a steel plate. I’m sure the lights dimmed slightly when they brought it over but it might have been a power dip. It’s hard to pinpoint satanic intervention mixed up with genuine electrical inconvenience when I’m so far from home.

Black Chicken with lemongrass

The chicken is black. I mean it really is black, the skin, the bones, the feet and the eyes too. The meat though, senor, she is not (my inner Mexican comments). Her taste is sweet and woody, gamey rough with a lemony tang from the preperation of lime leaves she has been smothered in. My skin prickles a little, but I feel no turning from the light in my soul and I admit a little bit of disappointment about selling my eternal salvation so cheaply. It tastes a little like eating one of the Marlboro Man’s calves, the Marlboro chicken, or a sandwich smoked under the bonnet of a truck.

Google eyes

I actually expect a bit of damnation to oocur later on that night. It wouldn’t be the first time on the road that I’ve been struck down and the market the chicken came from looked to be the same one Ebola grew up in. Nothing happens however and I get to cross the threshold of churches again with nothing more than the usual burning sensation. Live another day I say.

Easy riders

I should mention that the trip in the post below between Dalat and Hoi An was taken on the backs, almost literally, of two motorbike guides out of Dalat. They go by the names of Paul and Joseph, a remnant of a catholic education, and collectively they belong to a part of the Easyriders, a group who nowadays have a substantial reputation for taking tourists on rides through the country.

They’ve both been at this for over twelve years and are both members of the original twelve strong crew who started the Easyriders in Dalat. Paul is in fact one of the riders we went with five years ago on a trip from Dalat to Nha Trang. That trip was particularly memorable, so it was never in doubt that we would go back again. When we found out that we had some time off in early July we decided to ride around the Central Highlands, and we knew we would have to search them out again.

Paul is getting on now. He has the look of a man who has spent a long time outside. His eyes have a smoky tinge around the rims of the irises that reflect time spent searching the road and the horizon. An artillery officer for the South Army in the war and born in Dalat, he has spent a lot of time in the hills where we travelled. His reflections on the scenes before us swept in and out of the present to encapsulate a time stretching back into a distant turbulent personal history (including time spent in a re-education camp) and beyond to the roots of Vietnam’s existence. Joseph’s own reflections were often less dramatic - he told us he was lucky enough to be slightly younger and so was a student in the war years - a dry wit slept at the corners of his mouth and could be roused at his leisure to have us grinning about something or other he had just thought of.

Perhaps it was dangerous leaving at the beginning of the wet season. This was the reason that we decided to avoid the landslide prone Northern Highlands and go through the middle of the country, avoiding the coast. We asked around a bit about routes and roads to take, and gained some insight into what people we talked to had done or heard of. However, on reflection it would be difficult to choose a dull section in the landscape. Mostly the roads were perfect. The main highway that heads to Saigon via this inland route is virtually brand new, mostly built by the minority tribes. It has in parts taken over the old route of the southern inland highway, which was built by the French before the war, then partly left to decay, and finally effectively destroyed by the bombing.

Now the road is almost gleaming in that way that fresh tarmac does. It has taken over large parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail and, as such, inspires much of the type of thinking that I have reflected on in the posting below. The hill-tribes, minorities and farming communities that it passes through, between the big cities of Da Nang, Kon Tum, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot, are remote and captivating. At times we were spellbound by the forlorn existence of some of these people, at others my breath was taken away by their sophistication, such as the time I wandered into a Rong communal house in a small dirt and pigs village. In the musty dim blindness of the sudden relative darkness I was stunned to hear the question “Would I be able to help you at all?” peep out of a corner in pitch-perfect English.

Some things that we saw couldn’t be given an adequate description so I hope some time to show some photos of things. If you are planning on making a trip through the area don’t be put off by the uncertain nature of motorcycle travel or the unfamiliarity of the country. Take the advice of using these guides out of Dalat and you will be in very good hands. Beware though of others using the Easyrider name to get your business and visit the Peace II Hotel to find the original group. Their collective experience, honesty and reliability are worth every effort to locate them.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Trails and Jubilations

The Ho Chi Minh trail winds in and out through the jungle canopy some way below us. At times it is clearly visible, two tracks of rutted reddish earth breaking a path through the trees, at others it is completely indistinguishable from the undulating green mass of leaves, vines, limbs and vegetation that have overtaken every surface from the valley depths to the peaks of the encircling mountains. Ranging up and down the various peaks without effort, the jungle moves and shudders under the sweeping rain that is coming over the horizon. One side of the road is overtaken by the heavy clouds whose approach had come in, unhidden by the mountains and the storm moves sweeping up the valley, around the curve of the hillside and is now beginning to speck the road surface in large dollar weight droplets that thwack my helmet and hands as I reach out to take the raincoat from the rubber strap securing it to the back of the bike. The jungle movement convinces us that there are monkeys ranging in the canopy, leaping and scurrying about in the downpour, seeking cover. Any amount of life could be hidden there in the mass of vegetation. Watching us.

Soon the rain has closed in behind us and as we ride around another curve in the endless sweep of tarmac that has been stretched around the girth of the hill like a belt, it comes not towards us but chases us down the line of the road. Its progress is slow and colossal, an overwhelming surge that has swallowed the line of the crests it overtakes. Ahead though, the line of sunlight that demarks its edge is sharp and brilliant, a crisp line in the sky like a bright bird in the jungle green foliage. It marks the crest of a wave that breaks along the edge of the mountain and rolls back, content to devour the space it has already claimed and leave us to stand by the roadside and watch it recede, our eyes drawn into the mass of green that carpets the land, the trees whose shaking leaves quiver beneath the drops, and the mystery of the invisible hidden beneath such an enormously powerful force of dominion. The inevitable and determined plunder of nature left rampant and untrammeled.

In its past the trail had been the subject of the most incredible bombing in recorded history. The sheer tonnage of munitions that would fall on it staggers the mind. More explosives than were used in the entire Second World War fought over three continents were rained onto this trail. Rangers in groups of three were dropped into the jungle to search out and report on the position of the trail, a trail that moved constantly to avoid destruction. It is hard to imagine from a distance how terrifying it would have been to have been dropped into the unknown green mass of the jungle and creep up and down these mountains searching for the path of an enemy you must also avoid.

Then, beneath us by a riverside whose reddish waters indicate the birth of the wet season and the scoured mountain soil being dragged seaward, comes the trail again. Just as suddenly as it had disappeared under the trees before the storm began, it flashes out from the dark tunnel of the jungle floor to shoot across a rough concrete bridge over the waters and join us on the high side of the river.

Here, a waterfall cascades down the side of the mountain dropping beneath a bridge that now holds weeds and saplings. The waterfall and the bridge both hold a story of flight by the Cambodian King seeking sanctuary in Vietnam’s Northern Communist Capital from Cambodian marauders. Long ago he had studied and lived in Hanoi and, with the overthrow of his government by the ruthless and monumentally insane Khmer Rouge, he fled to the safety of his old stomping grounds with his wife. There they stayed under the hospitality of the government, till the time came when change brought the Khmer into retreat and they could return to Cambodia. Along the same road they returned and under this waterfall they paused to bathe and refresh themselves. The queen washed her hair and gave the nameless cascade a story and a name.

Cambodia is far behind us now, the road to it having forked off before we reached Pleiku, but to our left Laos lies some 15 kilometres over the hills. At times the track weaved in and out of Laos and we pause for a drink by a stretch of dark brown track that leads up around an intriguing corner towards the border, beckoning us to follow it to where it might lead. The crossroads here has birthed a small collection of houses and buildings servicing the people eager to make money by stripping out the old timber and searching the hills for gold. The land is dark enough to be almost blood red and it has a sort of arcane fertility that grows anything that falls on it. Where the jungle has been cleared the red stretches are planted with mountain rice up to the crests of the hills. Small women and men bend over in the distance of the peaks and pluck and poke the earth walking side ways up the pressing slanted slopes to keep there footing.

In one stretch of uprooted, stripped and burnt jungle, where hills shapes can now be discerned and houses and farms have come over it like a rash, we pause to visit a pepper farmer and his family. A balding man with a semi circle of hair that begins and fails from behind each ear and whose boys sit in the shade helping him mend a mattock’s blade with a hammer and anvil, watches us coming up between the pepper vine strung tree poles regularly spread over a field. Each pole speared into the earth is as thick a telegraph pole yet only half the height and pepper vines are hung over them like garlands. For each pole here a tree has been cut down in the diminishing jungle and new moves are afoot to replace the practice with brick poles.

The family’s dogs run about on the ground and their white pelts have been long ago stained by the soil to resemble red foxes with black patches. They caper in and out from under the posts of the verandah in front of a simple three room wooden house, plastered inside with motorcycle pictures on one wall all fading to that blue sun drained colour of barber shop photographs. The man was from My Lai a long time ago and his forearm is marked with a tattoo recalling the date he joined the Viet Cong, a fact he tells us carefully after finding out we are not American. We talk and smiles are exchanged as tea is brought out for us if we want to have it. His wife comes out to join us, moving with the aid of a crutch, her leg missing beneath the knee on the left side.

Along many stretches of the road farms have ripped up the jungle and replaced its chaotic supremacy with an ordered relentlessness of their own. Between the avenues of rubber trees we scoot through an area of heavy police involvement, where minorities left over from the American war clash with the government over rights to the land. Resettlement of northerners to the centre has been a constant policy since the end of hostilities. Those Minority people who sided with the Americans during the war think they fare poorly, disadvantaged by the influx of these settlers. Now the jungle diminishes further to accommodate more and more settlers and more and more land is brought into productive use by the government. Hanoi Pho restaurants advertise from signs in the small wooden towns, an indication of resettlement evidenced in the migration of this and other northern tastes. Dog is copiously advertised even in areas where five years ago we had seen none. Coffee and tapioca crops range alongside mountain rice and pepper in the search to exploit this naturally fertile section of the country.

The newly rebuilt highway runs alongside many hills that remain bare. Green and undulating in what for our minds seems a perfect picture but represents the legacy of defoliants sprayed in some areas as far back as 1964. Near Pleiku and around Buon Ma Thout, the sites of major exchanges of military adventure, the sight of ruined land is common and hills marked by concrete memorials signal events that now witness only the passing traffic and the occasional interested tourist. In Buon Ma Thout and Pleiku both, there are memorials featuring tanks. The revelation of the battle for Buon Ma Thout was these tanks, which stormed out of the jungle to take the town and surprise the south. It hadn’t been envisioned that the NVA could bring tanks, supplies and fuel over the mountains and into the city. After the constant bombardments of the Ho Chi Minh Trail it was thought impossible to carry fuel through or build a pipeline that could survive. The city was defended by a meager amount of troops after a deception played out in captured soldiers, misleading maps, decipherable communiqués and a feint towards the heavily defended Pleiku emptied it of troops and with the tanks involved it fell quickly leading to the eventual capitulation of the south.

Pleiku in turn was destroyed but this was not until later, and after the war the Russians rebuilt it so that heavy soviet architecture blights the city where it had once been blighted with combat bases and airfields. Now the deserted military airfield bumps over the same lumpy section of ground, overlooked by the same murderous hills and still pockmarked with filled-in bomb craters that goats and chickens wander over today. Beside the runway we stop for a drink at a tea stall, set up to catch the passing trade and occasional war tourist stopping to look at the runway and photograph the chickens. These chickens, the owner believes, must be the most photographed chickens in the world; more famous than she is that's for sure.

Emerging from the mountains we joined the coast highway at Hoi An, whose blasting sunlight and ocean breezes seemed removed from the cooler mountains and curving roads. Before joining the highway we had left Dalat, its surging tourist boom heralded in more hotels every minute you look and a cascading flow of money that sparkles in new motorbikes on every corner. Between the two seemed another world, a darker more implacable place immune to the changes that have overtaken these two tourist Mecca’s. The jungle is steadily being eroded but the changes that this will bring are not the sort which will bring tourists.

Before flying out of Da Nang's airport the sun scrolled out an orange sunset that back lit the mountains we had emerged from earlier in the day. The tarmac reflected the sky in a blaze of colour and as this fell into night, the flight, that would take us back into Hanoi exactly one year to the day since we had arrived, was refueling and blinking a line of lights settling the scene. It did feel strange to be back in the midst of an airport after emerging from the deepest parts of the jungles. The concession souvenirs in the stores seemed even more empty and hollow than they ever had, the TV that broadcast a Korean soap opera had a flat colourless tone, the other tourists who sauntered about in matching Tiger beer shirts and took photographs of each other in front of the sunset seemed strange and far away.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Sick and tired of being sick and tired

I'm not entirely sure why I should start with this, I guess there is something of laziness in the decision, although i am of the opinion that approaching anything directly is the dullest method you can employ, for what it's worth anyway, today I am extremely tired. I have been eating fried sausages on white bread with Heinze Tomato Sauce on them for the last two days and nursing a cold into the world. My arms are so weak I find it uncomfortable lifting them both off of the couch. it so happens the nights have been unbearably close the last two and i haven't enjoyed a full sleep in days. Put together with everything else and I'm barely here at all, a spectre in all but appearance.

Last night Kate fell down with something as well. She has a stomach pain that is cripplingly painfull for short periods of time then dissapears. No idea what it might be. She hasn't been drinking that heavily and neither have I. She has been a bit discomfitted and needed the bathroom but it seems to hold no answers to what has gotten hold of her. Last night she spent a lot of time jumping out of bed and kicking me. Today she has skipped out of work and lain on the cushions watching one after another interminable film and trying to ride out whatever is going on. She's faceing the decision of wether or not to go to the doctor and all the palaver that involves.

A long time back now, almost a year in fact, she went down very hard with Dengue fever. One of the tropical things that sound good to talk about long after you've had them. "Ah, yes, that time I had Dengue fever. I'll never forget the visions....." all told to rapt attention from whoever it is that you are drinking with. At the time however it was quite crippling. It did eventually result in a night spent in the French Hospital. "Beware the French Hospital" we were told, "It's where the first case of Avian Flu died." Kate spent the night locked to a drip being revived with bottle after bottle of viscous liquids. By her accounts the hospital was one of the best she had ever been in. Better in fact than any she encountered in Australia and the first she had ever been to that had staff dressed like hotel bell boys with gold piped jackets and trouser seams you could cleave a bullock with. It was however an expensive experience. Nothing to compare with the ludicrous and obnoxious SOS clinic where we first went but rich enough to make us broke for the rest of the year.

Now she is sleeping and I hope she will awake feeling a bit better. She has eaten, though nothing more substantial than toast and watermelon, and I wonder if it will make enough of a difference to avoid the doctor altogether. It's difficult judging just when to best go to a docotr. Were it me I wouldn't go unless I couldn't sew back on the arm myself, or that head wound was making me too dizzy to ride around. But its not me and you can only take chances so far. Just now in fact as i write this she has staggered in again clutching her mid section. It seems like it comes once every hour or so and theres no pain the rest of the time even when poked and prodded.

A bad stomach is nothing new here of course. Both of us have had the affliction more often than we would like. We try to eat everywhere but its not as you would expect, the more expensive places tend to be the ones that turn you inside out rather than the ones slapped down in the gutter. Nothing brings it on quicker than going somewhere 'safe'. Its a little part of life here unfortunately. You do get used to things and less and less affects you, or the affects get less and less, but there is always a time here and there where you are dropped to the floor by a salad or a spring roll that's been through someones hands.

There is therefore no real cure for it. You get sick no matter where you go. And there is no way to tell when it willl happen. We of course avoid the warm meat in the sun and that fish the woman on the corner has been trying to sell all week but we eat out most of the time and there is no way of knowing how your food has been prepared or who by. You step into the factoring of chance and blindly hope that nothing bad will happen.

Kate has gone back to sleep and will see how she feels afterwards. I'll get rid of the cleaner and sit down with a book then see how she is when its over. Hopefully everything will be back to normal.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Break that rusty chain

You rattle the chain. You turn the lock. Rust stains your hands as you walk the spot along laneway tiled with grease past smoldering cauldrons that spit and hiss and slip out the front into the street. There looks that measure and find you short line the roadside in jeans and shirts and you sweat. A line that’s seems to get repeated and repeated again through every day now.

The corner flowers rot and fill the air in a drainsides grim wet with greenish hair. A swarming runoff an over worked drain, chicken’s feet, the flies, the meat and basket ware, the calamity of the streets and the traffics blare. Don’t pause or consider hesitation there’s traffic here that entraps anticipation. So move through streets, and jumping sounds and hustling bikes heaving you round with the softest breeze to unfix the air. The sense that order has skipped might be there for a moment. And so the trees, bewildered, stand in somber contemplation of a wandering careless fool in streaming chaos that has the streetlamps devout limbless attention. The wind its got a move going on between the arms and through the fingers shaking the leaves making them limber. A second here a moment there then it leaves, disappears, dieing to renounce the shiftless air, loudly, alone in a bar somewhere.

The school rises from the street like a giant concrete flea. Felled by a stroke of deliberation on the part of an omnipresent politician who has become a city somewhere south of here. Filled with baking forecourt, miniature transportation and over run with children shrieking. Colours and numbers and numbers and colours then around and around a gain. Colours and numbers and numbers and colours and numbers and colours and colours and numbers. Break a moment and hide from hello’s beside the streaked and clipped teenagers in the photo studio.

Make it through the day. The crisp air conditioner the perfect reflection of the wine glass at dinner. You hunt through memories for adjectives. You sort through ends and scraps and second hand deliver something you might once have thought or remembered. Perhaps.

By night the air is the trucks roar. The prostitutes impersonate roadside repairs and you wander home dragging yourself three feet behind. You rattle the gate and throw open the laneway black as a hole in the ground. Walk the bike into the mouth of darkness and close its teeth behind you. Rattle the chain and open the inner gate and the rust is there to stain your hands again. Climb the stairs and flash a green spark from the fans switch. Struggle through mosquito net into coma-less sleep sweating on the sheets.

Friday, June 17, 2005

A little bit of nothing really

Work has accelrated of late and we are both being pushed hard. The early morning which used to belong to us to squander in bed has now been overtaken and I'm up every morning before 8 and sometimes before 7. I'm getting my first class of "what colour is this?" or "In the morning I brush my teeth" before I have even recovered from whatever dream I was shaken from. It's good for the money and to be truthfull it does make me feel like I am using the day a bit more, however too early is too early regardless.

Kate has taken on some more work with a company and is doing tests for all the students. She complains that it is too much work getting it started but eventually will pay off I'm sure.

I realise that I haven't added much to this blog for a while and this is not becaus we haven't done anything. This stuff about work is an indication though of whats been consuming so much of our time. Other than that we have gotten out of town a bit. We went to Bat Trang just the other day and rode around there for a while. We managed to find a house with a flat concrete statue of a Mig fighter jet on the roof and a chimney shaped liked a concrete rocket. In a village that was basicly no different architecturaly from any other. They did specialise in ornamental plants and the fields were covered with them. The plane on the roof could have been a celebration from the past or a homage to some fallen soldier it was impossible for us to know. Just down the road from there was the cemetary, a section of which contained the war dead, the rocket however makes me think that it was a celebration of sorts. Long before many countries, other than the USA and Soviet Russia, had been to space Vietnam had sent a cosmonaut, a fact celebrated on stamps and posters of the time, and perhaps here in a chimney.

In the house we have flowers again. Lotus blossoms both white and purple are in the vase over the fireplace and orchids and small flowers i have no name for but look nice anyway. Soon we will be heading for Dalat where flowers are grown en mass and will have the chance to ride along the old Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Central Highlands in early July should make a nice cool change from Hanoi's humidity.

That should be enough for now to keep this blog ticking over. I gues this has really been the equivalent of running a car round the block to keep the battery charged and I'm sorry for that. I will try and write again soon, something a little more interesting.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Another iced mango

A mosquito net, a lens cap, two kilos of mangos, a blender and four green fist sized avocados. Spread out over a week, and yet that list of purchases sums up the time neatly for now. It’s summer full, heaving, sweltering, bloated and confusing, it has landed with a ferocity marked with nightly storms, battering rains, murderous heat and the same sun you’ve got only bigger in size, vigour and vengeance.

Wiping out a winter that now seems hopelessly misplaced, the heat has raised the city with a shocking casualness. By noon the streets are empty as everyone cowers inside and we sit in the cool tiled interior of our lounge room and, to the hum of the fans, consider blending up another round of mango and ice to compete with dehydration. There has been a strange taste in my mouth for the last two weeks that’s coming across as decay or death or something, my body falling apart as it tries to climb out of its skin and hide from the heat. At night the mosquitoes had been callously hunting us until we erected a net to hold them at bay. And now by night we lie besieged beneath a flimsy canopy of nylon while the entire world flings its insects at us.

A few days before, I rode out along some new roads around Hanoi with the aim of making use of the brief space between noon and work where the tires could keep some consistency without turning to mush. I took the camera and slung it behind me to keep the filter on the lens as clean as I could without its cap. God only knows where the thing went. It took me an hour before I found something to take a photo of. A bunch of guys were stripping the rubber off a heap of giant tractor tires and I thought it was a chance to actually take a photo of some people literally evaporating. The young guy who seemed to be doing most of the work had his shirt off and was sweating. In my life the only thing that I have ever seen as drenched in sweat had just won the Golden Slipper, and the work itself seemed like one of those eternal torments malicious gods set for the damned.

Not much further along the same road were a group of men attacking a bee swarm with a stick. If they had a fear of being stung they didn’t show it. They were lashing at the tree with enthusiasm and soon the air around them was thick with bees swirling like a storm. One of the men, a thin grinning man, was snatching bees from the air and popping them into his mouth like grapes. It wasn’t worth a photograph but the sense that it was worth capturing in some way made me think at the time of telling you about it here.

I took some casual photos of ducks and pressing machinery, the latter out of some misplaced obligation. Nobody seemed to mind having their photo taken. The ducks were mute on the subject of course, but the pressing plant guy swung his hose back and forth in such an obliging way that I couldn’t tell him I was only passingly interested in the size and strange shape of his machine and not him.

I eventually got to work with just the briefest moment to spare, on the way back passing another road accident with a crowd of onlookers and a bike on its side. The murals on the other side of the road extolled workers holding hoes and rakes and marching across a back-drop of fields that in the real non-mural world were diminishing rapidly. The fields were all turning into blocks of apartments and more houses.

The roadside murals and signs that sprout up along roads project the fears of moral and social decay that get summed up in the newspapers as social evils. Heroin in schools, AIDS, running over school children with your motorbike. They are all hand painted with lumpish, plain and strangely coloured people who ignore the rules of scale for traffic and architecture alike. Their world seems to be a visually simple one where heroin dealers are misshapen, shriveled aliens and happy people march in threes in groups of unlike profession: soldier, scientist, farmer, minority hill tribe person, minority fisherman, minority miner, and so on. The gigantic size of the traffic lights in their world doesn’t seem to worry them as much as the meeting of the rice grower and metal machinist in socialist harmony. The murals themselves on the roads outside of town are often painted on small block shaped buildings whose purpose is obscured from me. The buildings sit by the road above the houses, isolated and ugly, painted in government colours with no doors in their openings or glass in their windows. They’re variously filled with, cattle, families, workers or nothing at all.

In my mind there is now one of these strange buildings sitting empty above a field of rice, a mural on one side shows the tire scalpers, the bee scavengers and the ducks marching across a horizon dwarfed by gigantic mango blenders and mosquito nets. Their sweat drenched bodies glisten in the sun as they set to dismantling the season and the heat before it evaporates what is left of the countryside. In my mind it’s beginning to be summer and I’ll note here that I have a feeling it may be more than what we asked for.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The summer of all things

Every winter is new and every summer the same as the last. Or is that every summer is new and every winter the same as the one you forgot about already. It makes no difference I guess. The seasons change or at least should be changed, at least once every now and then, because even weather goes stale after a while.

For us the moment is long overdue, but the last two days saw a brief change. The sun swam in the sky, the clouds were vanquished, the evening brought a breeze that made your head swim, the balcony doors were thrown open and I sat for a night on my own in the house drinking beer, eating pretzels and feeling the breeze wash over me. Who knows where summer goes but when it comes back you have to love it.

Now if it can stay we will have got somewhere.

The fruit is coming out in force on the streets. Basket carrying farmers line the pavements around my house with rambutans, jackfruits, prize mangoes, green oranges, limes, pineapples, tamarinds, watermelons, mandarins and whatelse, none of them in short supply. The police raid the street with a loudhailer and a flatbed truck and the farmers scatter, running to hide around the corner or in a laneway, giggling and looking harried, only to return as soon as the heat is off. They work every day and some have dead chickens or pigs feet, laid out like dolls legs on a wooden board.

For this week Kate had been getting up for a 7am class of pharmaceutical employees and there, around the corner from the house, in what has always been a busy intersection of no note, was a morning fruit, fish and flower market we had no knowledge of. On the way home from dinner we went under Long Bien Bridge and bought oranges and rambutans to devour when we got home at midnight. The long curled spikes of the rambutans tickled our fingers as we ate them and our tongues tingled as we savored sweet white centers.

The fruit has erupted in force but it never really left I guess. Even in the middle of leaden winter there were green skinned oranges to juice and passionfruit brought up from the south. We could buy mandarins from one of the many headscarf wearing women hiding in our laneway or push through the crush of the market to get a mango or two to bring home and divide and consume. A week has passed since we bought the long green avocados that ripened on the kitchen bench in a day, turning from green to black in moments. The fruit now though seems new. New fruit for a new season.

Tomorrow there’s a chance the weather will be ashen. Today the sky snapped shut on us with a force and we remained almost totally housebound, stuck to the lounge, pinned beneath hangovers. The weather reports sashay back and forth. Tomorrow it will be 32 and sunny, Thursday 40 and hot, Friday cloudy and 23, Monday fog and humidity. They flit about between delusional extremes that never really arrive and people talk about the weather coming from Hong Kong with derisive despair as though it has been cast off or thrown at us. Today the specks of rainy mist clouded the air like flies, not rain. I had the balcony cleaned in preparation for something I’m not even sure will arrive. Nothing is certain other than that when it arrives summer will hit with everything it has.

I watch Nick at work like a barometer. His cool Chicago blood is too thick for the heat and when he begins to melt I’ll know to clean the fan and refill the ice trays in the freezer. Until then the limbo is terrible.

Friday, March 25, 2005

A fine lunchtime for a wedding

I reached down into my belt and pulled out the pair of rubber gloves that were slung there. The oil in the air was thick blackening the fierce sun and I wiped some of it away from my brow before it could drip down into my eyes and surveyed the wreckage of the pipeline before me.

A geyser of oil was spraying thirty meters or more into the air from the ruptured head and the wind was taking hold of it throwing it back towards the houses and the school besides. This was going to be a tough one. One spark was all it would take to turn this world into an inferno and send us all to our fiery deaths. Armed with nothing more than the rubber gloves and a wet dishcloth I would have to tackle the beast head on before catastrophe could strike.

I gritted my teeth around the dishcloth and plunged forward tempting death to come at me.


“Mark I have a question for you.”

“Um…yes Miss Nga?”

“After I get married how do I please my husband?”


Miss Nga got married on the weekend. It has been an event a long time coming. Due to astrological signifiers being unaligned and ages not meeting required metaphysical requirements it has been talked about for the last year or so as being soon to come but just not yet. Finally it has come and gone and things like how do I please my husband and what a “man blanket” is and why you need one in winter are no longer problems I have to deal with on a regular basis. Though now I know somewhat the feelings those who have flown single engine piper Cherokees through active volcanoes have encountered.

I’ve been to three marriages since I’ve been here and you’d think it was the only topic in the school. Whose getting married, when, why, to what and how. There is never a moment in our days in which this topic doesn’t seem to climb over the parapet.

Despite all this talk and dissection and constant preparation, actual ceremonies that we have attended have all been fitted into a lunchtime break at school. On the allotted day twenty or so of us mount up and ride our scooters to a house or a hall, descend on the tables like scavenging birds onto a packet of discarded chips, eat our fill and leave an hour or so later. There is little sight of a minister or any of that and nobody seems that worried for ceremony at all. Its not like the old days though, where you had to ask your superior for permission to marry and run the risk of having them say “No, I don’t think he’s such a good match. Why don’t you marry that young Christian in accounts. The one with the combover and hiccupping laugh. It would be much better for production.”

Miss Nga’s wedding was a small affair. There were about thirty of us all told including the family in the small empty cupboard, sorry school yard, where it was set up. It was casual enough in fact for the groom to not turn up at all. I asked about this seeming irregularity and was told he was going to come from his home village but had got a bit delayed. Nobody seemed concerned and when we had to leave an hour and a half later he still hadn’t showed.

Before marrying Nga had been worried about her weight. Not the traditional brides dilemma of fitting into her dress, but rather the opposite. She was worried about being to small and thin to get married. Nga has had a bit of a dark childhood; shadowed by dead mothers, evil stepmothers, deadbeat dads, little food and abandonment. And though her sister is quite strong and well developed Nga herself weighs about three grams and is less than three centimeters high. She’s in fact shorter than Kate who few can claim to be and she constantly points out seven year old children that are bigger, heavier, taller and denser than she is. Nothing will ever make up for the poor diet she had growing up but she desperately wanted to put on weight for the wedding.

When she first met her future parents in law her aunt draped her in three sweaters to hide her slight figure. Looking somewhat like a furry melon on legs in the June heat, she sweated and wilted her way through this tense encounter carrying plates of food and throwing around compliments all the while melting into a puddle beneath her coverings. No matter how much she complained her well meaning Aunt wouldn’t let her take them off. This jockeys regime of torturous endurance and sweaty suffering did nothing to fool her future father in law though, as one of the first things he said to his son was whether or not the bride might be able to carry a child. Presumably he followed this worry up with one about her dress sense in the middle of summer.

With the worry of the wedding coming up she lost even more weight of course and though she looked the part in her white wedding dress and makeup she altogether weighed as much as the glue eyed chicken sitting on the wedding table waiting to be consumed. I went a round with that chicken later on and can say that thin though it may have been a mouthful lasted you a good hours worth of chewing and even after death it was giving nothing up for free.

Meal devoured, groom absent, bride a wafer and beer sunk we rode off again to go back to work. Like a socialist Disney musical we work, we wed, we work here and nothing interrupts the progress of any. A few days later back at work I saw Nga and asked her how things were going now.

“Everything is good. I have gained some weight, and I’m very warm at night now, thankyou.”

On an aside J.C. told me of another incident with one of his colleagues. Apparently this woman turned up to work one morning looking quite chuffed with herself. She was rampantly smiling, bursting into song at all moments, dancing her way down the halls and generally prancing about with glee. Some inquiries regarding this unusual state of elation yielded little result to start with, but persistent arm bending and cajoling eventually brought out the facts. It seemed she smugly announced that her and her husband had been tangled up last night and had bizarrely stumbled upon something incredible. Mind-blowing. Devastatingly fantastic.

It was while they were tossing around that they ended up turned all around on each other. Her on top of him but the wrong way him facing head towards her feet and of course her facing head towards his. Then they took hold of whatever was in front of them and let passion run its course. Incredible. She hadn’t stopped smiling since.

At this everyone in the office without exception burst out laughing. 69. She had smugly rediscovered 69. Hooray! They couldn’t stop laughing all day. Needless to say now she has a numbered nickname and has to put up with a moderate amount of ribbing over her naivety. Not too much however. After all she is one of the top sharpshooters in the country and with another woman in their office goes off training every week.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Fifteen years to life

A story in the weekend paper talked about teaching life in some of the outer provinces. The writer traveled out to visit some teachers who were living in the mountainous interior. He traveled out to the Da river then took the mail boat for six hours up river to where this commune was located on the isolated side of the river in rough jungle.

There he went to visit the school where the teachers worked and lived. The school itself was a small wooden sided and thatched building and near to this lay two houses that the teachers lived in. All 26 teachers lived together sharing the space. Single teachers were allocated a bed to share between two of them but married couples are allocated 4sq.m or enough room as they say for a bed and a desk to prepare lessons. Single teachers prepare their lessons on the dining table.

Teachers rely on students to supply them with wood for the stove and they rarely have anything to eat other than rice.

A quotation reads "The nearest market is 10km away, but if we go to Hang Mien it's 15km by boat. The markets are only held every 10 days so we can only ever buy eggs, dried fish and peanuts." All fresh food that they eat they have to catch. The only way in or out is by the mail boat. When the head teacher has to leave to go to district meetings or collect salaries he has to borrow money so he can buy shrimp to bribe the mail boat captain to let him on board.

The school is short of teachers still and most of the teachers who are there are from the plains of the red river delta. To overcome loneliness many have formed relationships with each other and married. The ministry of Education requires that all male teachers who are posted to the mountains must stay there for 20 years, while female teachers are there for 15 years before they can teach on the plains. But if they marry, they're unlikely to ever leave.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Take Away Chicken

Take away chicken