The Big Red Leap: Baumgartner’s Step Into Space

Red Bull versus Apollo

I’m of that vintage that, as I type, I can still remember the muscular effort it took, the particular mechanical, as it were pianistic feel of typing an essay on a portable Remington. The medium I’m typing on now also served as an information delivery system for the much-distributed video of Felix Baumgartner stepping off a sub-orbital platform into literal thin air. I am by the way typing faster, much more effortlessly, more carelessly, since any mishit keys result in much less dire consequences, such as restarting a page with a fresh leaf, or the frustrating use of that undergraduate savior, White Out.

I use the commercial, rather than the generic name for that substance because it’s easier to recall. In the same way, Baumgartner’s feat is easier for many to remember as “the Red Bull thing” because that’s how it’s codified in our heads. That’s how it’s been very purposefully codified in our heads, because Red Bull’s branding of such events is important to that company; they want to be identified with such extreme derring-do, as is only appropriate for a company whose big product serves as a medium for caffeine delivery.

I can also remember watching, on that ubiquitous information delivery system of the sixties, a somewhat more complex stunt carried out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1969. NASA didn’t at that time need the backing of a corporate sponsor. We didn’t watch The Nescafe Moon Landing. We were highly aware that behind Neil Armstrong’s historic step onto the surface of the moon was a U.S. government bureaucracy so rich and powerful that they had literally spent a chunk of the national treasury so that he could plant that flag in the lunar dust. Some of us were even vaguely aware that the national effort behind that endeavor was part of an arms race with the Soviet Union, the kind of sharp end of research and development whose broader shaft was working its way into our broadcasts from places just north of Saigon.

I watched the Moon Landing, which certainly earned its capital letters, alongside my grandfather. He was eighty years old at the time, having been born in 1889, and I’ve often wondered, as indeed I did at the time, what he could have been thinking. When he had been my age, he had been looking at the stars as he lay on a buckboard, or perhaps with his head resting on a saddle, looking up at what must have been a stunning view of the heavens, completely free of man-made debris, in the middle of the high plateau somewhere near Ekalaka, Montana. His commentary on the event was, as usual, succinct. At the end of the broadcast, he muttered, “that’s quite something.”

There was a further irony that I was vaguely aware of: because my mother was in one of her “I’m banning television from this house” phases, we were watching at the home of one of those odd people my parents were in the habit of adopting into their eccentric lives. It was that of Helen Janzen, a single mother who had made her way to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where we lived, from the chaos of post-war Germany. She was a thin, chainsmoking woman who spoke with a thick German accent, and it was characteristic of my parents that they included Helen in our lives; in 1969, you might reasonably expect the next broadcast after the moon landing to be something like Combat!, or Hogan’s Heroes, which presented German-speaking people either as demonic targets for the bullets of bold American G.I.s, or buffoons who were targets of American wit.   World War Two, that momentous event which had brought to life the Military Industrial Complex that was also bringing you the Moon Landing, was very much in the background of our thinking, and the U.S.A. had no less of an information monopoly on it than they had on moon landings.

Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Module and famously garbled his line, which should have read, “One small step for a man… one giant leap for mankind.” We believed him. Americans, who were footing the bill, believed him. Canadians believed him, and to judge by the crowds that watched the event all over he world, people of many nationalities and creeds also believed. I would never look at the moon again the same way. Those were heady times.

Apparently, Felix Baumgartner’s pithy quote as his stepped off what has come to be known as The Red Bull Platform (which has not, I believe, earned the capitals I’ve given it here, except for the product that forms the modifier of that phrase) was “I’m coming home.” This was another marked contrast to Neil Armstrong’s statement, which was optimistic, far-sighted, and outward-oriented, as is only appropriate for one whose only brand affiliation, apart from NASA and the U.S. government, was the Greek god whose primary attribute is reason. Mr. Armstrong was pointing the way to mankind’s conquest of space. Felix was performing on behalf of a soft drink company, or perhaps I should say a semi-hard drink company.

Not that I wasn’t impressed with his feat. It must have taken extraordinary fortitude to strap himself into that module, and to have placed himself in the position, having arrived in the stratosphere, to have thought, “well, I’m not getting down except by jumping into the arms of whatever Providence awaits me. Hope the parachute works.” Such a proof of pure guts is so far beyond most of us that even Neil Armstrong and company might have preferred their government-sponsored capsule to Mr. Baumgartner’s privately sponsored one. I realize that it is very unfair to compare these two events, but one can’t help it. Both involved a man in a spacesuit taking a very bold step, both were performed for the camera to a worldwide audience, and both involved images of the earth seen from that perspective that humankind could hardly imagine, much less visualize, when my grandfather lay looking up at the stars from under his blankets on those cool Montana nights. My grandfather’s step into the void had, by the way, been to board a train in Saint John, New Brunswick, one of North America’s oldest cities, as a very young lad, and chuff off into the American West. That too must have taken great courage.

NASA continues to operate, one presumes, on the edges of the American frontier of know-how, and if their contribution to the arms race might seem more modest, it is no doubt still central to American military interests. I wonder how much of NASA’s research and development, for example, contributed to the technology built into drone aircraft. By contrast, Red Bull isn’t going to produce a technological breakthrough, unless you consider expertise in commercial branding as a kind of techne, in the ancient Greek sense. As one of those people who’ve been watching America from a somewhat off-centred perspective my whole life (my grandfather still spoke with a kind of hybrid Montana-New Brunswick accent when he remarked on the Moon Landing), I can’t help but feel that stepping off the Red Bull Platform to come home is a highly symbolic act. Some people are denigrating it, even calling into question Felix Baumgartner’s courage. I think they’re nuts to do so. It was a bloody bold stroke, by any measure. Maybe what makes them critical is the sense that in comparison with that signal event of from our collective Baby Boomer youth, this seems petty and commercial.   Commercial it certainly is, but then again no one is going to turn the lessons learned by the intrepid Germanic-American Mr. Baumgartner into a cruise missile or a killer drone. Hats off to you, Mr. Baumgartner. As my old grampa would have drawled, in his bluenose-western drawl, “that’s quite something.”

Interstellar: We ARE in Kansas!

Interstellar, by Chris Nolan

We ARE in Kansas, Dorothy

By Kenneth Brown

Notwithstanding Matthew (“I’m my own god”) McConaughey’s excellent work in this film, I could barely keep myself interested, or indeed even awake at certain moments, in spite of the earsplitting volume at which Hans Zimmer’s baldly programmatic score was blared at us every time something of significance in the plotline made it necessary for the filmmaker to grab us by the ears and direct our attention to it. Such desperation in the final cut of a movie soundtrack usually points to a lack of punch in the screenplay.

What really bugged me about this film was a quality that’s common to other films of Chris Nolan’s. He is constantly telling us that everything on screen is Significant, which means that he’s made everything of equal insignificance. Every minute of the film seems to demand a “saving the world” resonance, so much so that the actual saving of the world, when we finally get to it after 2 hours and 2 many minutes, actually feels more like a denouement than a climax. Look at all that sweat and toil that the hero went through… okay, it’s done now. And the big emotional reward, when child re-unites with the lost father, the big payoff, is underplayed, and the two are once again parted. Okay, that’s done, on with the romantic resolution. Boy gets girl… except that there was never any chemistry between McConaughhey and Anne Hathaway to start with, so, well, that’s just another formula filled. The screenplay’s oddly weak ending seems to be saying, “well, you’ve seen all the Big Tricks, you can fill in the emotional subtext stuff for yourself.”

Ever since Nolan announced himself to the world with the groundbreaking Momento, I’ve been hoping he’d do something as good. And although the second Batman film (let’s call it “Joker” film) was fascinating, it was so because of a once-in-a-lifetime (alas too short) performance by an actor. And hurrah for Christopher Nolan for giving that actor space to work. It’s a real strength of his directing.

Why am I complaining about Interstellar? Because it feels like the artist is painting on a canvas that is too big, that the screenplay’s ambition forces the director to do amazing tricks one after the other, thus the Significant Moments problem. The fact is that the screenplay’s ambitions are too big for ME; it keeps presenting me with ideas that there’s no way I can get my head around (and that one doubts that his characters could actually get their heads around). This is a problem if you want your story to be about characters learning, responding, thinking and changing, and not about how clever the director is.

Once again, I feel like I’ve been asked to care about the people in the story more than Nolan himself cares about them, judging by the way he moves them around in his created world as though their decisions matter less than the structure on which Nolan hangs a bunch of cinematic Big Ideas.

This screenplay is as illogical and artificial as Inception, held together with duct tape and legerdemain, and ultimately failing to add up as egregiously as that film. The freaky ideas about time, space, gravity, and (be still my beating heart!) LOVE are offered as plot logic in a manner so blunt that I imagine that this film, thirty years hence, will seem as fatuous in its science as Flash Gordon seemed to my university cronies of yesteryear. Matt’s character Cooper perseveres in the face of all sensible physics, managing to communicate from a gravitational anomaly to his daughter and we’re given to understand that the anomaly somehow bends around on itself to the point where the daughter, having copied a few lines of Morse Code (not the densest medium of idea transfer), is able to solve a problem that has escaped quantum physics to date, thus enabling mankind to generate a planet where we can all be safe.

Well, not all of us, it seems.  Like all the superhero franchise movies (and this IS a superhero movie), this one can’t do without constantly reminding us that the world will owe its continued existence to America, predominantly white America. The stars and stripes are everywhere in this film. Space is an American lake, and as I watched the film in the company of two hundred very distinctly un-White, un-American people in Taiwan, I wondered uncomfortably how they received the message.

I know how I received it. It has a certain amount in common with The Wizard of Oz: the wide mid-western country setting beset by bad storms, the there-and-back-again plot that returns to that setting, the Tin Man who has to find his heart, the Cowardly Lion, the false Wizard, and little orphan Dorothy, who must symbolically find her way home. In fact, the more I reflect on it, the more it’s evident that Nolan’s Big Idea in the film is not Mankind’s Survival at all, it’s to remake the 1939 classic for the 21st Century. Considered thus, it’s well worth a look. Bring earplugs if you’re sensitive to loud noise.

Meanwhile, I’d love to see Chris Nolan make another film as tight as Momento; in that picture, he invited us into a rabbit-hole about time, and in fact, about how filmmaking is so much about the movement of time. Better that rabbit-hole than the worm-hole, where all the facts get shoved into a magic box, only to come out as… Kansas.

Reasons to see “Fury”

Inglorious Tank

Fury, directed by David Ayer

This just in—Shia LaBeouf can act. That’s the first in a string of good things I have to say about the serious Tank Movie that is Fury. This may be my favourite American war movie ever. It’s the war movie that I’ve been hoping some American would make since it became customary in my family, following my father’s lead, to decry the jingoism that has seeped into every American filmic retelling of the events in Europe between 1939 and 1945.

We Canadians are always stunned when we hear from American media that “World War Two began in 1941.” The Yankie-centric message is so profoundly insulting to the Poles, Austrians, Czechs, Russians, Finns, Brits, and their Commonwealth Allies (never mind the Chinese, for whom a bitter theatre of war was opened in the early thirties) that its arrogance makes those of us with a sense of history hold our noses. And even films as superbly crafted as Saving Private Ryan cannot avoid the cant of American exclusivism when the efforts of every nation’s soldiers fighting on the Western Front after D-day are dismissed in one unconsidered phrase about Montgommery’s competence as a general. Too much Canadian blood was spilled by December 7th, 1941 for any of us Northerners to feel anything but contempt when we hear this nonsense.

There are only two recent American movies about WW2 I know of that avoid this, and they do so not by celebrating with false bonhomie the Alliance that won WW2, but by focusing their narrative on what should be the proper function of a war movie: to remind us that war is a frightful affair, shocking and dehumanizing and to be avoided if at all possible, and then to be fought with unrelenting courage if not. The first is The Thin Red Line, which is set in the Pacific theatre, and now, Fury.

This film does not proclaim the great American Victory over Germany that never was, it exclaims the wasteful tragedy and loss that was everyone’s lot as the Allies pressed toward Berlin. It does not sanctify with righteousness the American soldier, it asserts that the bad guys and good guys are not easy to tell apart on a battlefield, although the screenplay does reserve that special place in hell for the SS which they so richly earned. The concern of this film is with the psychology of warmakers, and takes a crew of a Sherman tank as a case study. Director David Ayer is clearly a bit of a war nerd (what American film maker has ever actually acknowledged “The Brits and the Canadians” as co-equal partners in creating the Falais Pocket?), and when have we ever been treated to the actual details of life inside a Sherman (or any other) tank.

This film’s action sequences are so carefully choreographed that you feel the unexpected utter chaos of battle, yet you can actually understand what’s going on tactically in the battle, and understand the rising action of a scene. This is most notable in the tank battle between three Shermans and one Tiger tank, and you understand how vulnerable a thing a tank could be, and how only courage and initiative could create an expensive victory. You also come to understand in these sequences what fearsome power was wielded by artillery and tanks (mobile artillery), a point seldom made in war movies which have historically focused on infantrymen.

However, my favourite scene is the film’s beautiful mid-action pause as Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) and his neophyte young recruit take refuge in the apartment of a German matron and her niece. The scene is filled with tension and tenderness.   The subtext of rape and murder plays under the scene, and yet it manages to celebrate a hope that simple humanity might at last reassert itself in this mad muddy world. The writing in the scene only betrays us as a convenient and conventional resolution blows out the candle on that hope.

Then it’s on to the final act of the screenplay, another choreographed battle in which the tank crew must face the brutal finality of their story arc, and it is in the moral choices made by the crew that the story finds its classical shape. War is a tragic and wasteful thing, and heroic resistance comes at a high price. The violence that follows is another set piece of action, yet by the time the last explosion has happened, and the last bullet has been fired, we have already learned the lesson that all tragedy teaches: that from the soldier’s perspective, the human impulse to do the right thing is always a terrible choice. Hector sallies forth from the walls of Troy in defense of his city; that he does not return alive is exactly why he, and not Achilles (not coincidentally, another Pitt role), is the greatest hero of the prime and greatest war story, the Iliad.

Amongst the negative reviews I’ve read of Fury, one of the derisive comments is that we have seen this before, that the tropes of the classic war story (the epic battle, the use of the neophyte soldier as plot device) are familiar. That the ground has been often mined is true. The tropes are as familiar as the Greek model I’ve mentioned, or as Henry V. What makes this film excellent in my view is its focus on morality, not that peculiar American impulse to tell the audience that the American war was somehow different from everyone else’s. This film proclaims that the experience of war is truly, to borrow a word from an egregiously unhistorical film in which Mr. Pitt also starred, inglorious. The stars and stripes are absent from this landscape, and we whose countrymen fought ingloriously and anonymously, we whose war began in September of 1939, can watch this film without holding our breath against the foul odour of American exceptionalism.

“Samsara” film essay

“Samsara” a film by Ron Frick, on Netflix

Samsara by Ron Frick

The musical direction of this film, as stunning as the visuals, literally entrances us as Ron Frick’s visuals take us traveloguing through some of the most striking landscapes and manscapes of the planet. The beauty of the film, shot in 70 mm in countries across the globe, is breathtaking. It is composed like a dance cycle: sometimes the landscape is made to dance, as in one remarkable desert sequence, shot in time lapse, in which a single dessicated tree comes to life in the stark angles of the sun and the gentler light of stars and moon. In another, thousands of chickens are seen on a massive industrial conveyor, and we realize that their dance is final: the conveyor is leading them to their grotesquely industrial final moment.

The subject of this film seems to be, well.. eternity. It takes us into volcanoes, where rock is mutable liquid, and into the Buddist monastery where sand painting of heartrending beauty is made by monks shaking sand, grain by grain, onto the mandala, and where, once the work is finished and has been contemplated, it is swept into a bowl so that the process can be repeated. I am reminded of T.S. Eliot’s beautiful lines

Words move, music moves

Only in Time…

This film also reminds us that that is equally true of dance, prison sentences, or stone monuments.

You can’t look at this film without being grateful to be taken to places on the earth where you will never walk, into factories where hands literally fidget for the next industrial part to arrive on the assembly line, or where young monks run up the steps of their temple to race around the prayer wheel and set it in motion. I may never see the girl-boys of Thailand, but their challenging, lonely eyes have now tried to seduce me.

There are hundreds of moments in this film worth watching, and it would be horrid folly to ask anyone to ignore it, but I do want to say that the film doesn’t seem to have decided where the pointed end of the stick is facing. Is it about the eternal, or perhaps, in its sequence about industrial food production and consumption, about the horrors of the way we humans harvest protein, meant only to be consumed by overweight people and washed down with soda? Frick wants us to see both the movement of rock and the movement of pigs’ carcasses as a kind of dance, but I very well remember the effect of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, with a score by Philip Glass, whose arpeggios became so insistent and so troubling that the film’s theme was delivered more strongly, more insistently than in Frick’s.

Do not ignore Samsara, as I did, thinking that the documentary was going to give me a narrow message about Eastern spiritual practice. The film is much more ambitious than that; it tells us that mankind’s unstoppable desire to make and mutate the world, even in the way we destroy it, is part of the gaia of the planet. That’s a big message, and the beauty of the score, the breathtaking force of the imagery, and the amazing places that we get to see, are all worth contemplation. If you come out of this filmic experience with a new appreciation for those who can create beauty in the morning only to sweep it up and prepare for a new creation on the morrow, that can only be a good thing.

Ken’s Asian travels-fall 2014

TRAVEL BLOG- Asia 2014

Having arrived at the undeniable later part of my life, I have chosen to abandon those things that are habitual and familiar and to spend as much of the rest of my time as I can traveling and learning. I have taught drama and performed plays for the last 31 years, by and large a rich and rewarding career that has given me contact with intelligent and active young people.

Drama is not a natural fit with my character in some ways. I am something of an introvert, and I have neither the inclination towards social tribalism that many of my colleagues share, nor the inherent love of performing that I once had. For some years now, performing has seemed more of a chore for me than a joy, and it’s no accident that my activities in theatre have been centred more on writing, teaching, and directing than on acting.

Since I was about forty, I have also felt that I needed to be more useful in the world. Twenty years ago, I went to the great Tommy Banks and asked his advice. He asked me, in his ever-graceful way, “Ken, what could possibly be more useful than being a playwright?” And while it is true that a good play can teach much that is useful to the task of being human, I think that what’s driving my quest now is the search for my own personal knowledge of what it is to be human.

There seem to me to be a number of fundamental and intractable questions for our race at this time in its history. They are spiritual, social, economic, and political questions, and they are these:

  1. What is the fundamental purpose of religion? Does it have a use, and if religion is useful, how can we have religious practice in a framework that doesn’t of necessity exclude those who do not have the same practice?
  2. How can we, while supporting culture and tradition, achieve equality for people who are a priori excluded from equal rights in a given culture?
  3. How do we arrange ourselves economically so that resources are fairly distributed?
  4. How do we arrange not to breed ourselves to death? (This implies also that we do not breed ourselves into the destruction of the ecosphere.)
  5. What is happiness, and what practices work best to promote it?

DAY 1 IN MANILA:

SEPT 13, 2014

The 12-hour flight lands me 2 days later than I started, having crossed the International Dateline, at 3:10 in the morning, and the luggage acquisition process is so slow that even after 45 minutes delay at customs it takes another 45 minutes for my one bag to appear on the turnstile. The customs lady waves me through with an indifference that is truly surprising. Maybe they’ve sniffed and x-rayed my stuff to the 9nth degree already, or maybe there are just so many people bringing so much home for their relatives that they’ve just accepted an everyday Kappabar as normal customs practice.

You step out of the NAIA into a level of humidity that is startling even though I was expecting it. It’s five in the morning by the time leave the airport, and it’s unbelievably close. Hordes of people await their relatives outside the terminal, and my suitcase is grabbed by a guy who wants to help me onto his private taxi line and charge me 45 American to go to my hotel, which, as I know from looking at Google before leaving the Vancouver airport, is at best a 15 minute drive from the airport.

I take back my stuff and go to the taxi stand. Three guys—two concierges and a driver debate the location of the hotel in Tagalog and when I help them out with the info that it’s about 10 k north of the airport in the community of Malate, they send me off careering through 5:20 am traffic that’s as vicious as anything I’ve seen anywhere I’ve ever been, a dog-eat-dog, warn the pedestrians with a honk before gunning for them, bunt the motorcyclists out of your way if that’s what it takes to conquer the lane, no-brake, no-breaks contest on streets that are already dense with traffic.

The cabbie doesn’t know where the hotel is, really; he gets to the right area and makes smaller and smaller circles until he finds the place-a reasonably well-turned-out hotel on a street shared with massage parlours, a building that looks like it was bombed-out, and an active street life consisting of shopkeepers and street vendors preparing for the day as the nightlifers (including a woman shrieking at her young pimp or young lover) stagger in several directions.

If New York had no vestige left of normalcy, if the very poor were twenty times as numerous, and if the stunning heat were at four in the afternoon and not four in the morning, I would be reminded of that city.

I’m impressed with the general civility of almost all the Filipinos I’ve encountered. They keep a massive street noise sustainable and they are as busy communicating with each other as a city of Indians.

The beautiful young girl (and ARE there any young Filipinas who are not beautiful?) at the desk of the hotel looks at me and says, politely but somewhat pointedly, “you’re early.” I explain that I’m not really here to check in at six in the morning, but I’d like to drop my one bag and go walk around the area. She kindly offers to have my room ready by eight in the morning (awfully good of them—you’d never get that offer in a Canadian hotel), and is surprised when I tell her I’m going for a walk to find something to eat.   “You could take a cab,” she suggests. I tell her that I’m fine walking, and she and the security guy exchange a glance of knowing: they’ve got one of THOSE kinds of Americans, or whatever I am.

Oh Happy Day. I’m abroad!

Sat-Tues, Sept 16, 2014

My three-plus day sojourn in Manila has been an interseason of sorts, devoted to trying to readjust my inner clock to a time zone roughly half a planet away from Western Canada’s. I have been happy to have a secluded hotel room that’s almost completely artificially lit, so that I can gradually adjust. Nevertheless, the fact that I’m up at 2:45 a.m. on the day before my flight to Taipei says something about the relative failure of the experiment.

Typhoon “Luis” glanced off the shores over the past few days. High, but not frightening winds and occasional rain, a little of it that pounding monsoon kind of precipitation.   Everyone walks around wet, coping with it as we Canucks do a brisk winter storm. I pity the street people under their improvised shelters of gathered plastic.

For the past three mornings, I’ve walked out of the hotel early in the morning, with the security guard/concierge almost chasing me down the street begging me to take a cab. It is the view of Filipinos that Euros should never walk when they can be sensibly paying for transportation, preferably to someone whom they know or (I presume) to whom they are related. This seems entirely reasonable from an economic point of view; I am after all here to see their country and to improve the foreign currency balance to the greatest extent possible. Naturally, the thought crosses my mind to tell everyone here, “not to worry, the currency balance is being addressed by the hundreds of thousands of quite wonderfully industrious Filipinos who cheerfully work the bottom end of the pay scale in Canada and send money home. And don’t worry, they won’t be there on the bottom of the pay scale very long; they are out-working, out-saving and out-smarting very, very many other of their fellow Canadians.”

I am pursued down the street literally by scores of people per hour who want to suggest that I sample their wares, give them my custom, ride in their cab, stay in their hotel, or just give them money. This I do whenever the asker is a woman with a child, and I live with the white man’s burden of shame (the shame felt by any decent human being) when they see people who have children in abject poverty.

This vast economic disbalance is not new to anyone who has traveled at all. Yesterday I wanted to go to the Intramuros area—the old Spanish city of Manila occupied by Japan in 1942 and then mostly destroyed as the Japanese and the Americans disputed it in 1945. The locals who were caught in the crossfire… well, they were just damned unlucky. And there is a moving monument to those innocent victims. Nevertheless, the whole devastated area/townsite is a grim reminder of what happens when two empires vie for market share over the skeletons of the very people who are creating their Imperial wealth. Looking at the Japanese gun emplacement, or the bullet holes in the walls, I am filled with contempt for the Imperial Army of Japan and for Douglas MacArthur, who ran out of the Phillipines, taking with him the Phillipine President Queson, after the latter had arranged for half a million dollars to be paid to him. Money that MacArthur failed to mention in any of his memoires, and that remained secret until historian Carol Petillo broke the story in a 1979 article.

I was bike-cabbed around Intramuros today by a skinny, wiry, constantly charming young fellow who buttonholed me on the steps of the Manila cathedral and pitched me his tour of Intramuros in so winning a street-wise way that I had to say yes. The 90-minute tour included stops at the two major cathedrals (Cathedral of Manila, and the Cathedral of Sta Augustin that were the high-point of my stay here. This is not because I’m any great hand at Catholic iconography, but rather because of the insight that the wealth of this city, of this country has been so clearly amassed by a conquering civilization. One wonders what is going on in the heads of these so obviously South Pacific Islanders (as I’ll call them for want of knowledge of ethnicity) as they look at the iconography of Their Savior. At certain moments, looking at representations of the suffering Christ, I felt like turning to the brown people beside me as we stood (me fascinated, they bowed down by piety) and cracking, “he doesn’t even LOOK Jewish!”

As indeed, with those distinctly unSemitic features with which Their Savior is almost universally portrayed, he doesn’t. Spanish, German… maybe.

I did experience one moment of piety, standing in front of a modern painting donated by an anonymous artist who wished only to be known as The Pilgrim. The painting renders The Virgin as a distinctly native Filipina holding a distinctly native Child who, ethnically appropriate to his surroundings, glows with holy aura. And I thought of the women holding babies to whom I’ve been giving pathetically small amounts of money. “Celebrate them.   That’s what Christ was on about.” Amongst all the donation boxes in the church for the restoration of the organ or the preservation of the appropriated iconography, there are few enough marked “for the poor.”

Tomorrow… further into The Orient.

Sept 16, 17.   Taipei,

This is a city organized and civilized in the way our ideas of Chinese culture tease us in our dreams. The International Airport –Chank Kai Shek—is a postmodern construction of soaring heights that suggests pagoda, so clean that its marble floors glisten, and so surprisingly empty of hustle and bustle that it makes the Pearson look like a Greyhound station. The busses into the city (run by at least five different companies) are uncrowded, affordable –TD150, about five bucks—and utterly comfortable. The 45-minute drive to the middle of town took us along a freeway running parallel to the one on the ground for several miles, and suspended at least as high in the air as the High Level Bridge in Edmonton, with the opposite-flowing traffic (4 lanes of it) gracefully suspended from the same towers at half the height of the road on which we were traveling. This is transportation on quite another scale, as though the Anthony Henday Freeway, pride of Edmonton’s developer class, had carelessly added a whole new couple of freeways suspended at various heights a couple of hundred feet in the air. I did not think to take a picture, sadly, it’s not something I do, but the fact of this amazing piece of road construction was so astounding that it took me literally a couple of minutes to comprehend what I was looking at.

Thankfully, AIRBNB functions here, and I’m soon to be put up at Joel Finnestad’s apartment, or I don’t think I could afford to stay in Taipei. As it is, I’ve located a couple of bnb ops through that site, one of which is absurdly cheap. There are also official hostels, which are comparable to European prices. Anyhow, Taipei is no third-world country. This is the New World on proud display, complete with Starbucks and 7-11s that provide cheap food and drink and (as in the one across the street where I took refuge yesterday) a table to sit at in air-conditioned comfort before I figured out that, yes, that unit hanging in the corner was an air-conditioner, and yes, it functions by remote control.

I sense already that I am not destined to spend much of my life in Taipei beyond this two month exploration. Although its people seem wonderfully polite and efficient as their high-speed transportation system, I am feeling very foreign here without feeling that frisson of desire to explore this relationship. Too soon to judge? Well, perhaps, but this is a city very married to the brave new world of corporatism, and I sense that my skills aren’t very much in demand here. The dramatist wants tragedy and culture, not clean sidewalks!

Sept 19

My supercheap AIRBNB opportunity at Andres’ place turned into a bit of a shitstorm the moment I opened the door to the place with the key I had been given by his mother only to find an utterly shocked young girl who looked at me as though I were from The Place Of Ugly Old White Guys, and let out a small scream. I take it that Andres had not informed her that I might come by, and I take it that he doesn’t really encourage people to actually stay at his place once they’ve booked through the website. This girl in question, once she’d calmed down, identified herself as his girlfriend, one of those attractive young Chinese whose waistline would fit inside an average hat-band, a girl of inderminate age who might be 17 and might be 27. I take it she’s not 17, since once she got over the U.O.W.Guy shock (which is admittedly a challenge, since I arrive at the top of the ten flights of stairs in a muck sweat, glowing an apoplectic red in the 35-degree heat, she tells me that her husband is in Toronto. How that squares with being Andres’s girlfriend I do not care to pursue. “You hot!” She observes, and she’s not making a statement about my manly attractiveness; she’s exclaiming her unease about the fact that my head might explode at any moment, spreading U.O.W.Guy brain tissue all over the small apartment, to the distress of all who don’t share that profile.

I drop my stuff at the apartment and go off to see if Joel wants to stick to the vague plan we made yesterday to meet up and ride the gondola to top of the mountains on the West side of the city. Unfortunately, Joel has suddenly gone AWOL, or at least his phone has ceased to function, so not only can I not contact him by Facebook or email, since the CGIS (Chinese Girl In Shock) has denied all knowledge of a WiFi connection in her boyfriend’s home. Since she probably, like most CGISs I’ve seen on the Metro, spends 99% of her waking hours glued to her cell, communicating gossip, WiFi isn’t exactly her first concern. Come to think of it, having my head explode would probably provide pretext for excited texts for at least a day.

Anyhow, I try to be a conscienscious fellow, and phone Joel from various public phones throughout the day, but I’m never sure if I’m getting through, because no matter how I compose his number (and I do get help from a very nice lady at the ticket kiosk in the Metro), I get what I take to be a “this phone is lost in Cyberspace” message read by an super-nice, maybe psychotically nice, female voice. I eventually make it to the Taipei Zoo stop, were the gondola ride up the mountain starts, say “fuck it, I’m here,” and buy a 50-NTD (New Taiwan Dollar) fare to ride the gondola. To give a bit of perspective, that’s just less than two bucks. There follows the most magnificent ride up the mountain, lasting about 25 minutes, twisting up the mountainside following the contour of the thickly-forested hills. The two Germans and I who share the gondola car make noises of delight for the whole trip. If one can imagine what the Banff gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain would be if it started in the townsite of Banff and wound its way up to the summit following a twisting path sometimes at heights of over a hundred feet, moving silently over jungles where the flocks of exotic birds are flying far below you over a dense forest canopy, with occasional views of an ancient Buddhist temple perched on the hill, you might get the idea. At $1.78, one of the travel bargains of the world…

For the rest of the day, I can’t contact Joel. When I finally make it back to my B and B at Andres’s place, his mom is there, and I use her phone as a WiFi connection to send a FB message to Joel.   Given the frisson that I’ve sensed between him and his girlfriend, I hope he hasn’t undergone an incident of domestic violence.

I spend the next two hours reading. It turns out that Senora Andres (the mother) seems to feel about my presence only slightly less awkward than Girlfriend Andres. When I ask if there might be a clean towel I could use to shower, she responds, “you want to have a shower?” as though I’d mentioned that I’d like to amputate a toe in her living space. She takes a towel that is lying over a chair, smells it, says “this is clean,” and passes it over. (You must appreciate that at this point, as is usual with me in Taipei, I’m sitting in a pool of my own sweat.)

Andres does arrive a bit late. He explains that the situation is awkward; he and his 3 young hot girlfriends are going to be watching a movie in the room where my sleeping couch is set up. Would I mind sleeping in the bedroom? “No,” I say, whereupon he adds that another guest is flying in at midnight and is expecting to use the bed, so he’ll have to wake me up and get me to change beds in the middle of the night.

I don’t think I’m going to be a guest of Andres again on this trip.

Hope I can contact Joel again before his corpse washes up on the shores of the Tamsui River. .

Ok, I’ve decided to say “screw it” to my AIRBNB hosts; they already have my pittance of money for tonight’s rent; also, I’ve hauled my ass around in the sauna for enough hours today. I manage to find the downtown H.I. hostel in Taipei (after an hour and a half pursuing a phantom address) and I buy my new membership and a night’s lodging in a place where there are clean sheets, shower and washing facilities that I can freely access, and no possibility that someone will wake me at midnight and ask that I repair to another bed. I’m also paranoid about bed bugs, since Gerry’s adventure, and I must avoid bringing same to Joel and Shirley’s apartment AT ALL COSTS.

I’ve been getting glued into Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon” (my second time through the novel) and I’m more convinced than ever of his first-class brilliance. At one point, towards the end of the novel, the ‘90’s-era math whiz is talking to an old WW2 colleague of his brilliant, long dead grandfather, and the wise old guy is describing the difference between Athena and Ares, both gods of war. The Athena consciousness he describes as the clever, technology-savvy, ahead-of-the-curve consciousness that necessarily balances the savage thoughtless war-making of Ares. Here is the passage, in which we hear about how important it is to embrace Athena:

“Ares always reemerges from the chaos. It will never go away. Athnian civilization defends itself from the forces of Ares with metis, or technology. Technology is built on science. Science is like the alchemists’ uroburos, continually eating its own tail. The process of science doesn’t work unless young scientists have the freedom to attack and tear down old dogmas, to engage in an ongoing Titanomachia [Stephanson describes the battle between the Titans and the more modern Greek gods as an ongoing process called Titanomachia, a desirable challenging of the old by the new] Science flourishes where art and free speech flourish.”

This seems to me to pretty much sum up what I can understand about the history of the 20th Century. Yes, the Nazis did make better planes, tanks, and rockets than the Allies, but they were ultimately beaten by the code-breakers of the West—the strong undertext of the novel—and the angry warmongers of the late 20th and early 21st C also have so far been kept in check by a clever defensive strategy, and much more cleaver techne, of the West. (By the way, Stephenson has forgotten that the sacrificial MIGHT of the Soviet Union is ultimately what really defeated the Nazis, but I still like his thesis.) Britain could never have stood against the Nazis without Bletchley Park.

Sept 21,

Yesterday, Joel and I met at Taipei 101, the second-largest building in the world, and Joel ushered me to his place, where a very businesslike Shirley was getting ready to fly to Europe, for the second time this month. In the midst of her packing and preparation, she managed to connect me with the cheapest flight she could fine to Hanoi.

This morning, I was happily reminded of Keltie’s birthday this morning on FB, a day before it’s her birthday, of course, since it’s still Saturday in Canada. Take that, leaky memory!

The typhoon that has be warned of for several days is now apparent in the high winds, lower (blessedly lower) temperatures, and clouds that dominate the sky. Trucks move through the neighbourhood, broadcasting warnings, and the people of Taipei go about their business with no more ado than Canadians at the approach of a heavy snowfall warning.

Yesterday’s visit to the Longshan Temple was a wonderful interlude. The temple is architecturally remarkable, a classic Buddhist shrine with that familiar boat-shaped roof, featuring beautifully executed dragons and other mythological creatures on the corners. At the entrance to the temple, there is a water wall on your right, where travelers are invited to have their spirits washed before going into the temple proper.

That the temple is a place of worship is unambiguous. The huge urn in the main courtyard, an enclosure about 15 meters by 40 meters, billows smoke. Celebrants bring handfulls of incense stick to ignite, or to simply throw into the caldron. People lift their hands in prayer to the merciful Buddha, palms together, ritually saluting by shaking the hands three times. Smudging with the incense smoke is also important. The click of pairs of prayer dice landing on the stone is ubiquitous. These are elongated pieces of (I think) bone or ivory, painted red. The worshipper throws them on the ground and retrieves them; is this a ritual debasement that accompanies each prayer?

The Buddha’s temple is in the middle of the courtyard, and the worshipers file past the opening into the chamber where the statue sits, smilingly blessing the world.

I lost track of time sitting in the courtyard. There is a casualness about the manner of the people there. They are quietly practicing the rituals of their faith without ado, and one didn’t feel even the slightest sense of surprise or rebuke that an obvious foreigner should be in the midst of this peaceful scene. This made me all too aware how little I understood about what was going one around me. I will strive to be a better, more informed visitor. I felt so good being there that I literally lost track of time, and had to run to make Metro connections in order to arrive twenty minutes late for my rendezvous with Joel.

Sept 23.

Beitou Hot Spring, Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial

Joel was not working yesterday, and although our preferred plan was to take the train to the East coast and explore the national park on scooters, the typhoon forestalled this, and we decided the slightly blustery weather that Taipei city was experiencing shouldn’t prevent a visit to the renowned Beitou Hot springs. These are easily reached by simply taking the metro north towards its terminal at Tamsui and hopping on the special hot springs line that wanders a little further up into the hills at Beitou. In other words, another attraction that can be quickly, cheaply, and conveniently reached by public transit.

The springs are a short hike up from the townsite. One enters a modest doorway and for 50NT ($1.78) enters the springs site, a series of 5 smallish rock pools that cool down from 45 degrees where they come out of the hillside to a more comfortable 35 or so at the lower pool. The whole complex doesn’t cover an acre, and appointments are modest-small shower chambers, a men’s and women’s toilet, and several hoses on the walkway providing cold fresh water.   The Taiwanese people (especially those of a certain age) love to bathe, and everyone relaxes and chats with their friends as they parboil—it seems that hot springs behavior is cross-cultural. We white guys are just very slightly more a curiosity here than an Ethiopian might be in Banff (that is to say, hardly at all).

This pleasant interlude is followed by a trip downtown to the Chiang Kei-Shek Memorial Hall (and Park). Stepping out of the Metro and into this Park is astounding. The plaza itself dwarfs any public space I’ve ever been in, including St. Peter’s in Rome. The massive traditional buildings which house the National Theatre and the National Ballet are the ballast for the sides of the plaza, which surely would hold a million people, and the Memorial Hall itself rises at one end, opposite the huge gates. As you climb the massive stairway up towards the memorial hall itself, you realize that the people who thought of this place were nation-building in a sense that the Americans were when they designed Washington; the self-conscious grandeur of this monument is hard to overstate.

Once you get to the top of the steps, you can see that the immense (3-storey) bronze statue of Chiang is a very direct quotation of the Lincoln Memorial. There sits Chiang, a benevolent man, blessing his Taiwan.

Four stories below, you can meander through the huge halls displaying Chiang’s limousines, Chiang’s clothes, Chiang’s medals, adoringly massive paintings of Chiang with his son as they contemplate the defense of a small island off the Chinese coast against the hordes of Mao.

Very revealing are the reproductions of the photos of his life, especially the late ones. Chiang shaking hands with LBJ, Chiang shaking hands with Samosa, Chiang sucking up to FDR and Churchill at the 1943 conference, Chiang with Mountbatten, Chiang with MacArthur. He hobnobbed with the most powerful, most power-hungry, and also the most ruthless men of his generation.

When we make it back to Joel’s place, I read the Wiki entry on the man. He might have been responsible for the murders of as many as a million people. He might have lost almost every major campaign he fought, he might have been utterly delusional about someday invading the mainland and ruling a united China… but he was “our guy.” The existence of this massive monument to Chiang in a Taiwan that has so far superceded his mid-century blend of militarism, Confucianism, and an odd Christian mysticism, proves only that people can be deluded by their idols.

Sept 28. The Jam, Daniel Pearl Day of Music, Taipei Zoo

Been a few days since my last entries. One of the joys of Taipei, the superb Metro system, has been a major subtext of the ongoing adventure in this city.

Because it’s so easy and cheap to get anywhere, you roam about the city without much caring where you are. There are fascinating sights, sounds, tastes on every street, and going shopping for a piece of fruit is an enjoyable social moment. Replacing Joel’s lost keys yesterday was a delightful divertissment.

Joel and I had gone to the Wednesday night jam at “Bobwundye”, a bar downtown tucked away in one of the many University districts. The jam was a friendly environment. Mostly run by, and featuring Americans, who have that disarming desire to be liked at the same time as they compete with one another. As a Canadian, I’m aware that we a) give less of a damn whether you like us or not, and b) feel more awkward about competing for attention. Or maybe it’s partly a generational thing with me…

I was welcomed warmly as a friend of Dana’s and Scott Cook’s, and when it became clear that Joel’s guitar was not going to cut it due to a dead battery, I was lent a beautiful old Gibson ES to play tunes.   I stuck to blues standards, as there were folks playing with me, including a young man from, of all places, Mussel Shoals, Alabama. Because of the documentary that I’d seen (courtesy of Roger) about the Mussel Shoals Studio, we were able to connect in a very friendly way. He assured me that all those great old session players in the film were still there in town, still looking like farmers and still playing and being friendly at the local café.. My drummer was from Paris, a lively guy who was happy to hear la belle langue coming from a stranger’s mouth, and the three-song set seemed to please the crowd. Some really good music was played that night by the regular denizens, and the night was capped by a friend of Joel’s (his wife is a Taiwanese friend of Joel’s girlfriend), who proved to be one of the most gifted electric players I’ve ever heard.

At the end of the night, we found ourselves in front of the place, where the smokers were blessedly banished, hanging with a couple of guys from Hong Kong. Alfred and his friend suggested late night drinks, so we hopped in a cab and drove off to some bar that stays open till five a.m., whereupon followed one of those heartful conversations that one has when a bit pissed, both of these gentlemen opening up to us about the frustrating restrictions of their culture, and one of the guys venting to me about his frustration at not having children with his driven and careerist wife. “I have three cars,” he lamented, “but what I want is a child!”

I nursed a beer, Joel dipped into the Scotch, and when we finally piled into a cab and made it home, he’d discovered that he no longer had his bag. Thus my hunt for keys the other day; we’d forgotten the name of the bar, and it took Joel a while to track down (through my new FB connection to Hong Kong Alfred) the name of the place.

The hunt for keys was made humourous when I decided to jump into Mandarin.   Here at Mr. Brown’s Coffee, where I repair every morning, I dutifully wrote down the phrase I wanted to use, (“is there a locksmith nearby?”… got directions at the counter to the general area, and walked into a corner eatery Joel had introduced me to a few days ago. When I unleashed my new phrase in Mandarin, the lady looked at me utterly blankly, then laughed and said, “you try to speak Chinese!” I explained to her what I wanted; she thought it was hilarious that I had asked her for soy milk.

Anyhow, she took me across the street to the locksmith and he made me the keys. I was able to help him out a bit, tuning the old guitar that he had sitting amongst all the clutter in his tiny shop (this is quite typical for a tradesman’s working area in Taipei; the retail people keep their stores spotlessly clean, the tradesmen live like second-world strugglers.

Spent the day at the Taipei Zoo the other day, my last zoo experience being in Frankfurt with the boys in 2006, and I was delighted with the zoo environment. The animals have a fair amount of room, and I was only saddened by the elephants, who seemed to be dancing a neurotic dance of sorrow as they stood in the dust.   I can only walk for a couple of hours these days; the vulnerable pad of my right foot becomes too sore. I keep walking, keep hoping that change of diet and the lack of car or bicycle is going to take these excess pounds off my back (and front).

Yesterday was Daniel Pearl Music Day at Peace Park. Daniel Pearl was an American journalist who was beheaded in (if memory serves) Pakistan. As he was an accomplished amateur musician, he is commemorated by music festivals every year in many cities across the planet.   The festival in Peace Park in Taipei was delightful. A variety of musicians, many of them American, some Taiwanese, and many with a great international flavour, played on two different stages. It did my heart good to see the Occidentals and the Orientals up and dancing to a variety of music styles, from Jug Band to World Music, and to hear some really fine funk being played by a band which featured Lonnie, the gent (of my age) who had lent me his Gibson so I could play at the jam.

I’ve made an effort to organize myself for the next six weeks, booking hostels in Vietnam and Cambodia (though not for the whole trip; I presume I’ll have to find lodging on the road between Hanoi and Saigon (H.C.M. City) and between there and my destinations in Phnom Pen and Siem Reap. Just typing those names is exciting. I’ve booked a hostel room for three days after I get back from Vietnam here in Taipei, and then lodging on the East Coast, including four days of indulgence at a Dive Shop hostel on Green Island, which sounds like hippy boozer heaven with drinks on the beach and diving on the reef. Snorkling for me, as I don’t trust the pacemaker to handle the pressure of more than 1.5 atmospheres.

I’m already excited about seeing Liam, who’s flying into Vancouver 5 days before I get there and is going to drive back to Edmonton with me, and, as I’ve arranged this morning, Steve Scriver, who’ll be in Vancouver visiting his son.

Some lovely vids I found today while surfing:

http://www.wimp.com/tiniestengine/

http://www.wimp.com/solarhighways/

30 Sept- The Vietnam Historical Museum in Hanoi.

Every regime justifies itself. This much is a mere truism. And anyone with any observatory powers has noticed that the more centralized the regime, the more focused they are on promulgating the history which best serves to mythologize themselves. This is partly a sort of juvenile implulse—the weaker we feel, the stronger will be the impulse to self-mythologize.

This dynamic is plainly at work in the Vietnam Historical Museum. What the cynic may not be prepared for is the ever-accumulating evidence that the whole history of Vietnam in the 20th Century, at least until 1976 (about three generations) is a story of unremitting struggle against various imperialist forces, whether they were French, Japanese, British, or American. From the earliest documents on display at the museum, this subtext jumps out of the display cases. And if the organized response to oppression, whether of the peasant farmers, the rubber plantation workers, the coal miners, or any other segment of the working class, has been pretty hard-line socialism or stark communism, well, that’s hardly surprising. The International may have provided the only framework that a people this close to its peasant roots could understand.

I am not condescending to the Vietnamese by saying this. In fact, if there’s one vital key to their survival, it might be a profound toughness, a willingness to die and be killed that peasants can’t survive without.

Why did the French, the Japanese, the Americans all lose to these tiny little people? The answer is twofold: they were tougher, and they were fighting for their own homes; they might lose battles or even the odd decade-long campaign, but they could never be defeated because THEY HAD ALREADY LOST. All the landowners, the invaders, the powerful Imperialists with their advanced military hardware, had something to lose. (God knows what it was in the case of the Americans. Maybe it was the image of their corn-fed selves as the purveyors of justice and righteousness, as the ones who can’t lose because they Never Lose). It’s clear that the little yellow Reds, in the collective person of the Viet Cong, were simply determined to outspend the USAAF and the marines, not in dollars or munitions, but in something infinitely more valuable: their own –and even their children’s—blood.

Everything in this museum cries out that fact. As to the “we beat the Big Guys” factor, well, I didn’t see that very much on display. What I did se was “we beat the heartless foreigners.”

Oct 1

The staff at the Rendezvous Hostel are so supremely polite and helpful that I can’t imagine staying anywhere else in Hanoi. It may be that tourist dollars are so vital to this economy that there is some kind of edict of good manners, but I can’t help feeling that these people are more graceful than those at any other hostel I’ve ever experienced. At this price, it’s the best hotel in the world. Beautiful women gracefully nice to you always—what could be more pleasant?

And the private room is superb by hostel standards-spacious, well-lit, with functional air conditioning and plumbing.

The Army Museum

The display of rusting weapons not nearly as interesting as the group of old guys (well, my age, in fact), obviously veterans, from their forage caps and pressed uniforms that they were clearly wearing for the occasion, who were on a tour of the place. They appeared to be mostly engaged, but their attention waned a bit during the speech of the young lady (their tourguide), as she spoke to them in front of a lifesize display which portrayed a street-battle scene. A bronze statue of a resistance fighter, bearing an anti-tank suicide weapon, is featured in the display. This weapon is basically a mine on a stick, whose triplex triggers stick out on top…the idea is to run up to the more vulnerable parts of a tank, thrust the weapon against it, and blow yourself up as you blow a hole in the imperialist machine. The bronze statue displays an expression of heroic resolve familiar to those who’ve exposed themselves to the iconography of Soviet Realism. As I looked at the faces of the Cong vets, I wondered if that expression found much resonance with their own experience.

I did note one guy, who looked at me and could not suppress a laugh. I thought perhaps he was thinking, “’so THAT was our enemy! Ha!” I wanted to tell him “WRONG COUNTRY, BUDDY!”

I’m so glad that Canada has resisted these imperialist adventures. Resisted, or been shut out of—imperialism does have its rewards, after all.

I’m sitting in a shaded drinking hole drinking mid-morning lemonade, surrounded by a bunch of the local guys. They smoke, they chat, they studiously avoid contact with the white guy who sweats nearby.

I cannot speak highly enough about the graceful, sweet treatment I received at the hands of my wonderful hosts at the Rendezvous Hotel (an HI-International Hostel) in Hanoi. From the moment I came into town on the bus that dropped me at the wrong hotel, and the young fellow who is their go-fer fetched me on his scooter for my first terrifying ride through Hanoi traffic, I knew I was in the right place. When Phuon greeted me as though it gave her a big thrill to meet me, a sentiment repeated by the entire staff, I felt like this was, as the Dutch say Geselig (“homey”). Alberto, the Spaniard who helped me with the map, also communicated pleasure in sharing his adopted city.

Hanoi traffic. There is only one rule in Hanoi—negotiate everything. Every single encounter on the streets must be individually negotiated. Scooter-to-scooter, car-to-bicycle, pedestrian-to-anything, the rule is—don’t bump into each other, whatever it takes. You can cross a street with confidence, if the scooters aren’t too thick, because they’ll steer around you. But when you’ve successfully negotiated that task, look out for the illegally—or should I say, conveniently-steered bike coming the wrong direction against all the other traffic.

Cars outweigh bikes, scooters, and people, so they have precedence. Anyone who honks his horn repeatedly has to be leapt out of the path of, since he (usually that’s a male driver) obviously thinks his trip is far more important than yours, and HE IS COMING THROUGH. JUMP!!

Imagine the anarchy of the after-the-bell traffic pattern of students at a Junior High School. Imagine those individuals driving busses, cars, motorcycles, scooters, bike-taxis, bicycles, carrying large loads in the familiar oriental way with two loads balanced on a pole, or just sitting at seeming random places beside the road, each proceeding (or not) according to his or her own idea of his or her own precedence (and this largely undermined by each person’s sense of their own invincibility), and you’ll have a pretty good image of Hanoi traffic.

Oct 2,

I was very glad I got the impulse to phone Keltie this morning—she sounded so glad to hear from me and told me about her exciting studies in Van. She also reminded me about Andrew’s birthday. Saved by the international dateline again! I was able to raise Andrew, chillin’, as he put it in Dylan’s hot tub on the acreage. He and his two buddies are now planning a trip to New Zealand and biking around a part of the coast. Sounds pretty nice to me. I’d be delighted if he’d go off biking in NZ—less of a tough adjustment culturally than going to SE Asia, and still a big international adventure for him… with health benefits. Very affectionate call, much love wished very sincerely.

My San Diego traveling companion, whose first name, at least, is Maan (American of Palistinian extraction) has been fun to hand out with. We spent the day at the Fine Art Museum and then wandered round the streets till we found a nice nosh. He’s a fine guy, and loves to talk and engage with people. A very American trait that serves him well in this strange land. We’ve had fund dissecting the problems of the world. Ma’an’s liberal views might shock some of his compatriots, but it’s almost impossible for me to comment about some of the home truths that I take for granted: Americans aren’t loved or respected in the world, we don’t regard them as heroes, nor do we revere them in any way.  The remarkable thing is not that this smart, sensitive, intelligent fellow isn’t hip to the truth; he gets it that the world has changed, I just think that for him the decline in American status is news, whereas for me, American claims on our respect or sympathy went out the window long ago.

And I can’t even begin to tell him how, as a Canadian with a sense of history, I find American attitudes about their own superiority absurd a priori.

Not that has prevented us from having a very companionable time together. Last night, we decided to go out for beers, and ended up sitting at a corner in the Old Quarter on low plastic stools, drinking large bottles of local (Han Oi) beer. We were soon joined by two others: A 22-year-old Aussie infantryman, and a 26 year-old Lebanese businesswoman who works in Qu’atar (not sure I’ve got that right). What an eclectic group of drinking companions! If you had told me, as we pulled our stools together on the roadside, that we would have one of the widest-ranging, intelligent, fun conversations I’ve had in a very long time, I wouldn’t have believed it.   The Australian (Dean) was a blunt, relaxed, friendly fellow, sure of Australia’s greatness as a oversized loyal puppy. The Lebanese woman (Farah) was a tragic-eyed intellectual who ironically commented, when she thought she’d left behind a copy of her passport, “it’s not stolen: nobody wants a Lebanese passport.” The three of us found a remarkable unanimity of opinion about what was going on in the world, and it was fascinating that we all felt that some kind of massive, gaieic adjustment was inevitable in view of overpopulation, spreading weaponry, and ecological madness. We also found remarkable agreement about the basic things that need fixing in the world.

We sat and got jolly-faced surrounded by a huge crowd of international young people: mostly Vietnamese, but with a liberal sprinkling of Euros and N Americans, all sitting on the street corner on rickety low plastic stools, invading the narrow street to the point where, when the Army guys arrived escorting some BigWig in a black Acura (the limo of choice amongst the town’s elite), they had to actually clear the street so that whoever was behind the tinted glass could make their late-dinner assignation.

I must comment about out visit to the Fine Arts Gallery today. The first floor was given over to traditional Vietnamese carving arts, which were indeed fascinating, and as Ma’an and I ascended the floors, the art got more and more political. You don’t have to dig very deep in Vietnam before you reach the spirit of the resistance; the current runs deep in the national psyche. The war art at its best reminded me of the display of WW1 and 2 art that I saw displayed at the National Gallery. Simple moments captured reflectively: the farewell of a mother saying goodbye to her soldier son. Two guys lighting a smoke from the same match. The human face of war revealed in a moment, as opposed to the official face with a loud thought bubble coming out of the mouth.

This evening I’m leaving Hanoi for Hue on the overnight train, and making my way south from there to the ancient city (and newly a resort city) of Hoi An on the coast. I’ll spend a little time on the beach, and relax and read and write in a comfortable hotel room.

Overnight Train to Hue

My pen-and-paper diary was interrupted at this point by three pages of tic-tac-toe.   Those pages stand for one of the deepest moments of communication I’ve had since I began this trip. What follows is an attempt to describe the experience without sounding like some kind of missionary. It’s a position I don’t do well.

After boarding the train from Hanoi to Hue, I realized that I was sharing the four-bed compartment with four Vietnamese: three men (two stalwart young gents and an older man), and the young son of the eldest of the three men. I sat quietly in a corner of the lower bunk, clearly the outsider in this group. The kid was naturally the most frank about his curiousity towards this odd-looking Euro what sat writing in the corner. As one source of awkwardness was that my possession of the lower bunk meant that the men couldn’t sit facing one another, so I moved my stuff so that the group of men could sit chatting more naturally. I still felt like an interloper, so I peeled an orange and offered it around, which seemed to lower the temperature a bit. When I put down my diary, the boy, sitting in front of me, stared at it so curiously and frankly that I thought he was trying to decipher my scrawls.

This was observed by the older guys. Finally, feeling like the situation called for action, I took my pen and drew a tic-tac-toe pattern on a blank page, made an x in the corner of it, and handed the kid my pen. He immediately drew an “o”, and it was “game on.”

The older guys immediately approved, and followed our many games with interest and approval. When the concession cart came down the aisle outside, a beer appeared before me. After the kid and I played for half an hour (he and I counting the wins and losses in Vietnamese and English), he began asking me questions, the first being (as seems common in this country) about my age. I drew diagrams of my family, and the kid asked, inevitably, “where your wife?” I explained that we weren’t together any more, and his dad, at least, seemed to require no further explanation.

I managed to point out that Canada and Vietnam were the only two countries to best the USA in a war, a fact that surprised and delighted them. “You beat them?” the kid asked, incredulously. “We burned Washington,” I assured him. This seemed to impress the whole group.

We bedded down, and I got up with them when they woke in the early dawn. I thought we’d arrived at Hue, but they assured me that my stop was hours ahead. One of the young guys sat beside me and stroked my naked leg; an odd thing to do, I thought, until I realized that he was just amazed, and amused, by the hair on my legs.

When they got up to get off the train, we parted as though we had been chatting in a friendly way all night. I was sad to see the kid go; he was such a bright spark, and seeing him and his dad together made me homesick for my kids.

Sept 4.   Hoy An, Central Vietnam.

In Hoi An. Arrived last night after a hard day’s travel–overnight train to Hue, a morning spent in the Emperor’s fortress in heat so intense that when I finally found an air-conditioned refuge, I was nearly ready to pass out from heat exhaustion.

Hue and DaNang

Having misplaced the first of the two notebooks I inadvertently left in Vietnam at this point, I want to go back and recall that I did, on Gerry’s urging, pass through the old Imperial city of Hue, and spent a few hours at the old Imperial Palace, a complex of buildings comprising the administrative and ruling centre of the region that became Viet Nam until the end of the 19th Century, essentially a period of Chinese rule. Within the city walls are the surviving, and renouvated palace, some of the gardens and public chambers, and much of the basic outline of the city, which I suppose got a thorough going-ever by the vississitudes of the 20th Century. Now it is considered by the Vietnamese to be a cultural heritage site of great significance to, among other things, the tourist trade. In any case, to historians and cultural anthropologists. The displays of surviving dageurotypes, cloth, the revived moulding and tilework, are all very impressive. I loved staring at the photographs of the royal family. The looked like the thugs they undoubtedly were (their royalty was based solely on recent military conquest).

I felt rushed through the palace, not because of any pressure—indeed there were not crowds of people touring the place that day, the site had a deserted look—but rather because of the searing heat and the sense that I wanted to get somewhere I could immerse myself in salt water. I made my way into town and took the four-hour bus ride to Hoi An.

I had called Brendan from Taipei a couple of weeks before, and Jaquie had recommended that I visit there. I’m very glad I took her up on this suggestion as it turned out to be one of my favourite stops on the entire trip. I did want to mention one side-trip I took north from Hoi An the day I splurged on a scooter and drove up the coastal highway towards Da Nang, partly for the mere fact that that city was a remembered name from the Vietnam war; Da Nang was where the Viet Cong launched their last big push which didn’t end until they had overrun Saigon, sending the Americans home at last.

Da Nang is not a very attractive city, and I buzzed through it before turning back South, and stopping at one of the Five Mountains considered sacred to Buddhist (and older) tradition. It was a fascinating half-day climbing steep stairs, hiking along paths, clambering into tunnels, standing awestruck in a huge cave into which streaks of sunlight fell from crevices high above, illuminating a huge statue of the Buddha and the two small temples that occupied the huge floor of the cave. The cave was big enough to hold several thousand people, and does so on certain holidays, I understand. I wanted to have a good camera at that moment, but I realize that no camera (at least, no camera that I could carry in my single bag) could possible embrace the scale that I was seeing. If you think of one of the more impressive cave sets in a video game like Far Cry, or one for one of the Raiders films, you have some idea of what I was seeing.

I’ve described my stay in Hoi An in conversations and letters to friends. It was an all-too brief and delightful stay in a tropical paradise with excellent, inexpensive Vietnamese food and beer, daily trips to the beach by bicycle, a delightful cooking lesson, and a wee bit of decent writing.

I met and jazzed, when in Hoi An, with four mature Aussie women. Fun-loving, middle-class gals they were, from Adelaide, out to Vietnam for a bit of girl time. The world has changed indeed, when such gals beam themselves into the heart of this country like it was a weekend shopping spree in Vancouver. Admirable! I suppose when Ann (who had dropped a few bombs about her wilder youth, as well as letting me know she was married) mentioned a little pointedly that she would be in Saigon, where she knew I was headed, I might have picked up the cue, but I’m no more on a sex tour of SE Asia in 2014 than I was on a drug tour of Persia and India in 1974. Unless the drug is beer, which explains why this climate and all the exercise haven’t so far made much of an inroad on my spare tire.

The world is not absolutely perfect right now for me. But damn, it’s pretty nice.

The refuge was a gallery attached to a hotel clearly aimed at the foreign tourist trade. I was greeted by a quick, clever man of my age who welcomed me in an Eastern Euro accent that I couldn’t quite identify. I asked him if he was Hungarian. “Turkish,” he clarified. He was more than happy to give me refuge from the heat in his restaurant so he could share with me, having ascertained that I was from Edmonton, that he had spent many happy hours driving North into Canada when he lived in (in think) Billings. “I used to love driving down highway 93 into Radium Hot Springs.” With this statement, I knew he was for real.

He had come to roost in Hue with his Vietnamese wife after a life of wide adventure and traveling, he explained. His family were Turkish Christians, and he had nothing but bitter words for the Muslims he grew up alongside. “They drove us out of Turkey.” His father had been a successful farmer, but as the years went on, and Muslim extremism had grown, his family begun to suffer more and more oppressive and brutal bigotry.   His father would have a bumper crop of wheat, for example, and it would be burned by vandals as harvest season arrived; their house and cars would have all the windows broken. Finally, the family had been spread round the globe. He had relatives in the USA, in Australia, in Europe.

The bus transit from Hue to Hoi An was by recliner bus, a form of bus travel I would have loved for an overnight journey.   For the 4.5 hour afternoon trip to Hoi An, it was less than ideal, trying to stay awkwardly propped up so I could sightsee through narrow windows as the bus passed over the mountains to Da Nang on the coast, and then down the coast road, where the beautiful Pacific is obscured from the coastal road by a succession of expensive resort hotels, a blight familiar to visitors to any beach paradise anywhere.

I was happy to finally embark at the Hoi An “bus station,” a small parking lot on the highway outside of town. A scooter-taxi driver jumped in to offer me a ride into town and my hotel for 200,000 Dong, which amounts to some $13 CAD. This sounded ridiculously high to me, but I got on the back of his bike and in 12 minutes we were at my hotel. I walked in and asked them what the fare should be. The desk guy thought about 40,000, ($2) but when the driver complained, the desk clerk made it clear that he didn’t want any part of this debate. I gave the guy 100,000, ($5) and knew I’d been well and truly had. (I write this from the Da Nang Airport, where I’ve just been driven by car, a distance 10 times as far, for 10 bucks US. I don’t resent the money, but I hate being made the rube that I am in this country.

Day 2 Hoi An

I have been adopted by a young woman who is trying to improve her situation by getting her tourguide licence. I wandered into her in-law’s restaurant, a lovely modest little place in the Old Town called the Dong Au where you can eat very well for $3, or superbly for $6. Nha Hang, the cook and owner (with his lovely wife) also offers cooking classes and I thought, yep, about time. They immediately called his sister, Tieu Trang, who hurried to the restaurant to arrange the class for the next morning. “You come at 8:30,” she said, “we go by bicycle to farm.”

When I arrived the next day, Mrs. Trang wasn’t quite there yet. She arrived somewhat breathless (her daughter had been sent home from kindergarten sick). She was a bit surprised to see me; no doubt many tourists claim they’ll be there at 8:30 and don’t show up. Five minutes after a phone call, a guy shows up with two bikes, and we climb on and ride North out of town into a country scene where big fields are partly planted and partly in farrow, and where muddy water buffalo (they roll in the mud for comfort and insect relief) share the field with a species of crane that look very much like a blue heron except for their brilliant white colour.

Mrs. Trang (odd to call her that—she’s Keltie’s age) pulls off the road into a small lane that leads to an obscure part of the field, and we dismount at the organic vegetable garden. It is a bucolic scene where a woman of 83 (Trang tells me), waters her plot in the communal garden dipping two five-gallon watering pails into the well, then shouldering them by the familiar bamboo-pole counterweight method and hand-watering her (mostly) herb garden.

We are in a flat field of sandy soil, some 10-15 hectares in area, covered by small plots. Fertilization is by seaweed. The ancient and Mrs. Trang want to have a laugh, so they suggest I should try to water a row or two using the traditional method. They laugh as I try to keep the buckets sorted at each end of the pole, but finally acknowledge that I do an ok job of getting the water (for the most part) onto the plants.

From there we bike to the market, as close-packed, loud, fish-odoured, dead-chickened, unfamiliar-vegetabled a place as I could have imagined, and I’m given a thorough tour. Old women with no teeth smile at me and offer me… what? Daikon root? Taro?

We repair to the restaurant, where Mrs. Trang’s brother has laid out the tools of his trade, and a well-organized selection of spices and sauces. With just the right amount of guidance, he helps me prepare Spring Rolls (his recipe includes thinly-sliced pork and a very thin omelet). Then it’s a kind of onion pancake (I hesitate to call them onion cakes because Edmontonians have, since the 1982 Fringe Festival, a very precise idea of what constitutes and onion cake). The climax is halibut hot pot, a very fine recipe. Of course, they expect me to eat everything I’ve cooked, and down a large beer with it; simply not possible, and I’m glad that their kids consider the onion cakes to be a kind of holiday treat.

The three days that follow in Hoi An are a pleasant round of meandering around Old Hoi An, a very charming town, and biking back and forth to the beach, a pleasant 15-minute ride from town. The Pacific waters are majestic, infinite, and blood-temperate. My habit is to spend the first part of the day writing and wandering, then get to the beach at about 2, swim for an hour, and then repair under the bamboo-and-banana-leaf thatch and sip a cold “Saigon,” the cheap beer of choice here. Up north in Hanoi, the beer of aforesaid choice is, of course, “Hanoi.”

I resume my narrative in Ho Chi Minh City, which it is perfectly correct to refer to as Saigon, it seems.

OCT 7,8,9…

AFTER the marvelous respite of Hoi An, I’m in HCMCity, back where the traffic is psychotically busy and lawless, the noise is a barrage, and where the street hustle is notched up a few degrees. No more gloriously decadent $25 hotel rooms here; for the same money, you get something closer to a cell.   I am glad to be able to spend the dough on single accommodation though.

From Gia Long Palace, the former palace of Ngo Dinh Deim:

One minute ago, I stood on the balcony where Diem stood in 1963 watching the collapse of his regime, where, betrayed by Kennedy’s US government that he thought was his ally, he watched the approach of the Generals who would overthrow him and begin the long bleeding that would result in the defeat of the US-backed South Vietnamese state and end over a hundred years of foreign occupation in 1975.

I look down into the busy Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) streets. Off to my right, I can see the rooftop where the last US helicopter to be filmed leaving Saigon in 1975 took off. I can still see those television images in my mind’s eye—the desperation of the crowd on the rooftop to get aboard, the grievously dishonourable departure. No one of my era escaped that image, and everyone who saw it knew that the world had taken a severe tilt away from the comfortable lies of the post-war era.

The palace where I am is now a Museum of the Revolution, and Diem is only referred to as “the puppet” here in the displays in the rooms I’ve been traversing. In this teeming city, it keeps the memories of the old campaigners, the guerillas, the orators, the woman who drove her black Simca from front line struggles carrying wounded revolutionaries.

FOOTNOTE: the Simca was the exact same model and colour of the one in which I sat, fascinated, as Muriel Clarke, indefatigable old spinster, and daughter to Edmonton’s most eccentric mayor ever, would putter around town with my very young form in the passenger seat, watching with fascination as she negotiated four forward gears on a wheel-mounted stickshift—the only such arrangement on any car I’ve ever been in. By this way, the heroine of the revolution also used her Vespa, also on display, another echo of Muriel, who after her war service as a nurse, drove across Canada on her Vespa.)

The museum is somewhat run-down; it has that much-used look that buildings tend to take on in the tropics. If 1940s-era films are to be believed, all old French colonial remnants have this quality.   I think it may be a typically Vietnamese quality as well. “It’s good enough to be used! Use it!). The museum, like many things in this part of the world, seems somewhat carelessly put together, as though the displays had been created without a specific narrative in mind. Yes, we get it that the revolutionary patriots had primitive means to communicate, to arm themselves, to survive in the jungle. But it’s as though each area of the museum had been charged with communicating that message. Note to would-be museum curators: history, to be compelling, is not a collection of artifacts, it’s a NARRATIVE.

Nevertheless, having said that, it is fascinating to view the displays in all their bluntness: the primitive armaments manufacture obviously had a hand-crafted basis. One diorama shows two guys in the jungle hacksawing up American shell casings so that they can send them back, post-paid, in some more awfully personal form, like a home-built anti-personnel mine.

The anti-Americanism of the museum has been consciensciously toned down over the past decades, which is a very wise political and economic choice. Saigon is a surprisingly popular destination for Americans particularly the grandchildren of those poor sods, many who came unwillingly, and left sans their ideals, sans their limbs, sans their lives.   I can hardly imagine how hard it is for an American to come to this museum, particularly if they were combatant, and endure the living evidence of how these unstoppable little people could not be quelled by American bombs, or American desire to be loved.

In a John Pilger documentary (I’ve be catching up to this brilliant documentarian’s work on youtube—not to be missed!), he describes a bizarre scene in which, as a young reporter, he was “embedded” with an American unit whose job it was to “win hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese by showing up in a village and distributing candy bars and propaganda IN ENGISH. How tragically revealing that the acronym for these units was (wait for it… read the previous sentence… indeed)… W.H.A.M.   MY, but the US military has a way with words.

October 9

Last night I attended the “OA” performance at the old French Opera House. I’d heard second-hand that the director of this troupe had had some association with the Cirque du Soleil and that their theme was the history of VN. So having the opportunity to see a Cirque-inspired work at a beautiful colonial theatre –one of those few happy remnants of the period, I paid my $35 bucks and went along.

The show was quite delightful. The director had quite clearly apprehended what is great about the Cirque—the understanding that Silence is Golden, more powerful than the loudest noise in the clown’s gig-bag. It is best now and then to let an image reverberate in the audience’s mind, to let a piece of visual poetry resonate a bit. The show featured about 20 young acrobatic performers using very traditional Vietnamese artifacts, i.e. the round boat, the woven basket, the woven bowl, the various lengths and strengths of bamboo, to create playful, skill-based theatricality. These young athletes had the energy of a flashdance gang and the skills of circus performers. I loved the music, much of it played live on traditional instruments, but played well out of the box in uncharted territory. Action punctuated and driven by music in a way borrowed from both Chinese opera and rock music.

Of note was the fact that the show was attended almost exclusively by tourists. The 30-80 dollar price tag would preclude most locals from attending, but it’s no less disturbing to a theatre artist of my populist ilk to see a good performance closed to the non-elite here in socialist VN, much as it is in capitalist Canada. The rank-and-file is no more likely to attend such a performance as is a rig pig to attend such aesthete stuff as King Lear.

As I gaze out on a madly busy traffic circle, sipping an absurdly expensive cup of Starbuck’s coffee (sorry, it was the air conditioning that got me!), I wonder what Ho Chi Minh might have thought of the new Vietnam, where the capitalists have as free rein as ever they did when it was called French Indochina. Freer, in fact, since this modern capitalism has not religion as opiate for the masses, it has motor-scooters. The busy anarchy of humming, honking, buzzing internal combustion—surely this was not part of the program, any more than the ubiquity of the familiar multi-nationals, as willing to distribute Ipods, Yamahas, petroleum and Starbucks coffee as ever they were to exploit the workers in coal, rubber, and textiles. Perhaps what the Vietnamese wanted all along was the chance, simply put, to run it all and practice ultra-small-market enterprise in their infinitely-repeated stalls with the same trade goods repeated ad infinitum, plastic toys and mass-produced handicrafts as ubiquitous as passionfruit and mangoes (the common availability of which—though surprisingly expensive—might make me a permanent resident of the tropics).

Spoke to my nephew Matt yesterday. He has returned to Canada after his Australian sojourn literally a changed man, or more to the point, a man. His new-found love for Western Australia, where he found, newly, Love, amongst a great many other things, is wonderful to hear. Get thee to the sweatshops of the oil fields, Matt, and earn you way back to your New Found Land, there to commune with Nature and your own nature.

Tomorrow: Into Cambodia

 

Bus Flash Moments leaving HCMC

 

-Tens of thousands of scooters, hundreds of thousands, lahks of them!

-A bored 30-year-old lady behind her street stall of baking, her T-shirt reads “Where’s the Party?”

-Street vendors every 20 meters sell their T-shirts, pancakes, towels, cocoanuts, handkerchiefs, lotto, sub sandwiches, BBQ, trinkets, umbrellas…

-cops on streetcorners in tawny uniforms stand beside their more powerful motorcycles (about 350 ci Hondas), or lean on them. They don’t intervene with the traffic except to occasionally blow their whistles, needlessly, when lights turn. Cars obey, scooter drivers ignore the lights.

-we pass a fabrication shop (a metal roofed hut with dirt floor). The proprietor welds a brace onto t metal drawer, staring bare-eyed into the flare

-after 45 minutes driving, we haven’t left Saigon

-the further from the centre of town we get, the more I notice piles of rubble. The plastic bag, which no merchant thinks you should leave without, is the curse of this environment. Piles of plastic behind every building.

-the stance of the unemployed male: park the scooter, light a smoke, lean or sit against it

-women move more purposefully; they take care of children, they chat, they seem more socially engaged than their menfolk, who, if they are working, work very hard. If not, they watch, or gamble, or sit gazing.

-a scooter, piled high with birdcages, perhaps a dozen, a bright singing bird in each

-the stores, we might say garden-supply stores, where gallop life-sized ceramic horses, where elephants gambol where giraffes graze.

Cambodia, Oct 10

 

Noring Candhar

My tuk-tuk driver Mony needs a gig, so I offer him one touring me around Phnom Pen for the afternood. He takes me first to his favourite restaurant. We chat about Canada—he wonders how he can emigrate—and family. We then climb into his contraption—and elegant little trailer attached to his 100-cc scooter. He asks if I want to go to the Tuoi Sleng Atrociy Museum. Of course I do. And don’t. We did so much research about this place mounting The Cambodia Pavilion that I know all too well what it will look like. I know about the gallery of photos of the dead, and the steel beds upon which the victims of the Khmer Rouge were tortured by electricity, killed by strangulation, beaten and abused to death.

We pull up outside the walls of the infamous S-21 prison, and I pay my $3. The sign says “Students and Researchers FREE.” I think that status describes what I’m going here, but I’m certainly not going to haggle the fee.

I enter the compound, and I’m studying the map. The place isn’t very imposing in scale. It’s the shape of a rectangle of buildings surrounding a courtyard about 20×40 meters. In the courtyard are the 14 sepulchers –white, coffin-shaped monuments—of the last 14 people who died here, as the Vietnamese army drove towards Phnom Pen. (To their everlasting credit, it was the Vietnamese, not the UN, not NATO, not the Russians, not China, not America the Great, who finally put paid to Pol Pot’s insanity.)

Down the yard a ways, I can hear a tour-guide explaining something to a group I’ve learned to recognize on sight as Australians.

I walk into the 1st room of the building closest to me. An iron bedstead, shackles, a car battery, all rusted. On the wall, a painting of man bound to the bed, his body rictal in torture. The five rooms along the corridor repeat this theme.   When I come out of the last door and back into the courtyard, the guided tour party hasn’t moved. I sidle up to find out what’s being said.

The guide is actually translating the remarks of another Cambodian gent for the benefit of the group. Gradually it dawns on me what is happening in front of me. The tour-guide is saying, “…and he was very frightened for this brother, his father, his mother. There is little girl he is also worried about, and he is afraid because they have only been giving a little bit of bad water for several days, and she has been silent. He afraid she is dead.

“When Vietnamese break into compound… there (he points at a wall)… he want to hide from them. But they take him and tell him he is now safe.”

The guide points to a huge poster on the wall. The poster is a photograph of several Vietnamese soldiers, one of them female, with three children. The poster says “Vietnamese Soldiers Free Last Three Survivors of S-21.” Then the guide points to the guys he’s standing beside, and says, “This man the tallest boy in that picture.”

We all gaze at the man. He’s an unassuming fellow of about 40, short and slight, like most Cambodian men.

“You maybe have questions?” Aussie Lady: “Where does he live?”

“Not far. That way.”

“What does he do for a living?”

“He work in carpenter shop. His father was a carpenter, but Khmer Rouge kill both parents. Government want to give him job working here in S-21, but he say he cannot work here. Too many sad memories.”

There is a short pause we absorb this. Then the Aussie lady asks if she can take a picture. The tour-guide recommends a shot that includes both the living man and the photo of the child. I thank them and walk away from the photo op.

I spend a while communing with the walls of ghostly photos that are now part of the graphic history of world genocide. This very extensive gallery consists of 8×10 black and white photos of the dead, some before being murdered, some after, all with identifying numbers, like mug-shots. There’s something horrifyingly perverse about the impulse to categorize those you’re just about to murder, or have just finished murdering.

Each face of a living person is absolutely unique, a portrait of a human being as he or she reacts to the reality of their situation. Many, many are spiritually exhausted by whatever ordeals they have undergone, and are as though already resigned to the final solution.

Some stare into the lens with shock, some with horror. One photo that leapt out at me was of a fellow who openly defied his torturers. Another woman’s face clearly says, “you will be judged.”

My last photo study before leaving S-21 was of a display of the photos of the perpetrators of these (and a million other) grotesque crimes, the inner circle of the KR, Pol Pot’s closest associates. This particular rogue’s gallery is of aparachiks who survived after the conflict, displayed in before/after versions—the young politicos and masterminds of the… (I cannot say “revolution”—the Khmer Rouge were not interested in Revolution. Maybe one should say “devolution,” or simply “The Horror.”) … and the older versions, photographed well after the events of the 1980s.

Anyhow, the faces in the pictures didn’t show us monsters. Such evil should wear horns. But the latter-day pictures are just Old People you might see waiting for a bus.

I don’t know how or why these people survived a liberated Cambodia. There were no Nuremberg Trails to sentence them to their just desserts. I do know that the world’s forbearance in tolerating Pol Pot’s regime is the most monstrous hypocrisy of the latter 20th Century.

I would myself have advocated a quiet hanging for them all.

Angkor Wat.

 

I learned about Angkor Wat by reading Brian Fawcetts “Cambodia, A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow,” which became later a one-man show that we produced at the 1989 Fringe, and then mounted as “The Cambodia Pavilion” in 1990, the most expensive, ambitious project of my theatrical career (and as it turns out, the one for which I received the worst press).   Ever since reading Fawcett’s account of the temple site, I’ve wanted to go there.

Well, I’ve been. Yesterday and today, in fact. I have surprising little to write about the experience of visiting this monument. It is, in fact, series of monuments: Angkor Wat is not one site, or one temple. It is the remains of several cities, built over several centuries, in a variety of styles, and covering a critical period in Khmer religious history, as the culture was making the transition from Vedic Hinduism to two separate branches of Buddhism. When you arrive at the site and purchase your ticket to tour the site (a process which includes the creation of photo identification, as it happens), you are just at the entrance to a Heritage Site as big as a sizeable chunk of ancient Rome. It would take weeks of exploring to take it all in. In two separate visits, during which I felt like I was all but racing through the ruins, I exhausted myself completely in the burning wet heat, and felt I was able to absorb very, very little.

What you’re not prepared for is the constant hustle that you expose yourself to as you walk in the gate. Some of these hustles are very legitimate, like that of the high school kid who attached himself to me and tried to provide as much solid information as possible about the older sections of the site, and then politely asked me for a donation after an hour’s guiding me around. Some are bare-faced, like the religious man who encouraged me to light a stick of incense to the Buddha, and then revealed the stack of 20s he had concealed at the statue’s feet, and said, “Please give $20 for the Buddha.” I declined.

Small children pursued me when I stopped for a rest, cries of “take one, only one dollar!” chasing me indefatigably down the pathways. Angkor Wat is big business for the people of Siem Reap, one reason that I will not be unhappy to leave here today.

I was absolutely grateful to arrive at Angkor Wat at six this morning, at the urging of my almost comically ironic tuk-tuk driver Ra, who was here to meet me at the bus station yesterday having been phoned by his brother, who had shown me around Phnom Pen the previous day.

The sun rose behind the main temple at six a.m., a stunning sight. I spent the next three hours in the temple and wandering the grounds, absorbing the wonderfully detailed bas-relief sculptures of battles, wandering through long galleries (Gerry would be delighted to know that shaded galleries are a dominant feature of Khmer architecture—I believe they were no fools). The grounds of the site were nearly as impressive as the site. At Ta Phos ((pronounced “tap house,” which was a delightful ambiguity when Ra told me, “now I take you to Ta Phos” I though he was suggesting a morning beer…) the trees have been encouraged in their invasion of the temple. Long taproots are actually supported on scaffolding as they wind into the crevices between rocks.

On the path into that particular site, a band of seven musicians plays traditional Khmer music as they sit in the shade. Worth noting that every member of the band is missing a limb, or an eye, from encounters with stray land mines. No problem dropping cash into those fellows’ donation box.

When I finally overpaid Ra this morning, he made a stop at the cell phone stall and purchased a Samsung smart phone, a considerable upgrade on his old unit. He seemed pleased.

The bus connection from Siem Reap to Kampot turns out to be more interesting and complex than advertised. After 8 ½ hrs (not 6) on the Night Bus to Phnom Penh, the connection south to Kampot is not a matter of staying on the same bus, it goes like this: after working our way through intense morning traffic, we arrive at the bus “station” (in fact, it’s a little shopfront on the street, where the bus must necessarily stop a whole lot of traffic to let off the passengers. I sit down to await developments. The young lady who is at the desk doesn’t speak English, but I do manage, showing her my ticket that is marked with my destination, to communicate that I’m curious about when I might continue my voyage. She indicates “one hour,” so I step down the road for a cup of coffee and the badly-needed use of a toilet. When I return, I sit and wait, and after a while, a minivan pulls up.

“Kampot? Kampot?” the lady asks, and indicates that I should get into the van. I do. The man pulls a U-turn in the middle of the traffic, a la SE Asia style, and we career down the street for several blocks. As he slows down at a mild right turn, a man begins to run alongside the van, holding onto it. I take it there is some negotiation going on. The van driver pulls to a stop and further negotiation takes place. Van driver ultimately reaches into his pocket and pulls our some cash (I’m not sure how much—I think he was concealing the nature of the deal from me.) I get out, and the new guy points across the road to the lady who’s got a drink cart there. She beckons to me and the new guy comes across, takes a plastic chair and invites me to sit on it. I do. New Guy disappears, and the lady and I have a smile, and I disappoint her by not buying any of her luke-warm cans.   Twenty minutes pass. She then proceeds to sweep the sidewalk for twenty meters on either side of her cart. As she’s on about this, several guys come and try to convince me I should pay them five bucks to drive to Kampot. I resist, insisting on the right to use my already-paid-for ticket to get there. I go back to the cart, where the lady has finished sweeping the detritus from the sidewalk into the street. The sidewalk looks better. The street now has two new piles of garbage one it. I wonder what becomes of that? Nevertheless, I indicate to the cart lady that the sidewalk looks nicer and buy a drink from her cart, both of which please her. She sits down to smoke, joined by a friend.

Finally, some time later, New Guy arrives, beckons for me to come. We walk half a block to his ride, a (very typical) 1990 Camry. I show him the ticket, and he nods enthusiastically. Resigning myself to my fate, I climb in the back, the front seat being occupied by another fellow. I wonder if this is some kind of abduction, and I make a show of turning on my cell phone and making a fake call to a friend, telling him I’m in the back of a car, etc, etc.

My fears are not grounded. The car does take the road marked for Kampot, and when the driver stops after an arduous 45 minutes battling his way through thick traffic, on the edge of town, it is at a bakery, where I’m able to buy some bread and quell my tummy after 18 hours or so. Something like two hours later (an hour more than the driver’s original estimate) we are approaching Kampot. The driver has proved himself competent both as a driver and a business man. He has used both of his cell phones to arrange the pickup of one package and two more passengers along the route, and has, I hope, turned a profit with his beaten-up Toyota. I get down in midtown Kampot, and he makes no attempt (to my surprise) to collect more money from me. We smile and shake hands.

I am immediately grabbed by a Tuk-tuk driver who takes me to a guest house of his own recommendation for 2000 riels (fifty cents). The guest house is a beautiful old place with marble floors and a lot of dark wood finish, much of it beautifully carved. I ask to see the room, and it’s large with a comfortable bed, and although it has no windows (more common in Asia than you might think), it does have a door opening onto a small balcony. And a functioning air-conditioner.   And WiFi. For $13 a night, it’s going to serve admirably.

Kampot is a charming town. It has no famous temple, and no tourist attraction to speak of. It’s 25 km from the nearest beach, which means renting a scooter at 5/day, which is a pleasure, since I can travel around in my own breeze. Over the 28 hours I’ve been in possession of the thing, I’ve put about 250 kms on it, exploring the surrounding area and making one expedition to the beach. The trip up to the top of Elephant Mountain in nearby Bokor National Park took an hour of uphill climb, and when I arrived at the top of the mountain, I had ridden into the middle of a tropical rainstorm, which means rain coming down so hard that in Edmonton, ten minutes of it would cause major flooding. It was the first time I’ve been cool (not quite cold) since arriving in SE Asia.

Yesterday, I phoned Gerry, Andrew, and Keltie in the morning (thus evening in Canada. Life is complex enough for them all. Gerry was redoing his will in preparation for his heart operation sometime in November or December, he hopes. Keltie is nursing her new pup through the loss of the end of her tail, caught in a door, but reports that she’s happy at UBC. Andrew has declined to enter MacEwan this year, or maybe ever. Too bad about the RESP… But at least he’s playing with other musicians.

After these pleasant conversations, I drove to Kep, famous for its Crab Market and beach. It is indeed lovely, with many pub/restaurants fronting on the beach alongside the market, and with a white sand beach that I’m told, fills up with Khmer weekenders. I’ve been told that the next beach down (Angkaul Beach) is less spoiled, and I decide I’m going to get there by following the map that indicates a “short cut” to the next beach.

To no one’s surprise (certainly none of my ex-wives’ or girlfriends’), the short cut takes a very long time, because what begins as a charming sea-side road devolves into a cart-path, then a foot-path, then at times a narrow path precariously following the banked-up dykes between rice paddies, and once alongside a hog-wallow. I have to get some workmen digging a drainage ditch to help me carry the scooter over their work (and am happy to reward them with the fruit I’d bought earlier), and to seek the help of a toothless peasant woman with a badly-infected foot who helps me straighten out my bike and assures me that I’m a short distance from Angkaul Beach. I give her cash. Her two children look at me like I’m a spaceman. Hope the dough buys a few meals. Finally, here I sit, drinking orange pop (for you Americans, that would be “soda”) supplied by the family that runs what can be broadly described as a concession on the beach—several shade shelters covered with banana leaf roofs that have hammocks slung in them. The woman has a beautiful baby boy of about a year that she passes off to Grandmother for breaks, and grandmother loves him with the pure adoration of all grandmothers who are sane human beings.

I’m glad to be here. I’m glad I’m in the shade. I’m glad to wade out into the calm waters of the Gulf of Thailand and swim around in the water that I could only wish were a few degrees cooler.

I got to stop and watch several fishermen in a traditional Khmer craft haul in their net. On the pier nearby, I shared the view with several women from their community, who yelled encouragement; it seemed to be a kind of rhyme they were chanting. All were delighted by the arrival on board of the catch: about a hundred pounds of some small species, about the size of sardines. One wonders what they are, and how they are prepared… salted, and oiled, perhaps, and eaten whole.

THE FIREFLY CRUISE.

The lads who arranged my scooter rental for me promote an evening cruise on the estuary that is the waterway through Kampot. At six dollars, I thought, how could I go wrong?

Four of us, a young Parisien couple, and a French-speaking Chinese from Hong Kong, were the evening’s customers. We met at the Tourist Bureau as dusk fell (quickly, as it does in the tropics), and boarded the same kind of traditional boat I had watched the fishermen in that afternoon, with the familiar motor-on-a-stick well known to those who’ve seen pictures of Bangkok water traffic. We motored at surprising speed (8-9 knts) upriver. We passed under the bike-and-pedestrian bridge, the general traffic bridge, and the railway bridge, and to my delight, kept pushing upriver, past the busy, brightly-lit recreational field, where several teams contested on small pitches, past the very expensive-looking boutique hotels on the water, with their beautiful bamboo bars, and into the Cambodian darkness. Our guide/pilot would occasionally cut the motor and we would drift, looking for fireflies in the trees along the bank. A note for the safety-conscious: with no running lights, no navigation aids, and no life-belts, we motored along as though in broad daylight. I’m very sure that the boatman knew his business. After about half an hour, he cut the motor and we glided towards the tree-lined shore. Too fast, I thought, until our steersman/guide/captain ran to the bow (of a 30-ft craft) and, using the bamboo pole there, expertly fended the boat to a standstill. Then, nosing the boat into the trees, he murmured in satisfaction as the promised fireflies began to appear in the branches of the trees, lighting them up like Christmas trees. The guide caught one and showed us its light brown beetle-ish body. A small bug to make such bright light.

We continued upstream. I was literally speechless, enchanted, to the disappointment of our verbose Hong Kong linguist. The trip continued for the best part of two hours, and we all fell silent. The guide made a point of drifting silently at intervals. The moonless sky was clear enough that above us, the unfamiliar constellations blazed. In the North, there were occasional dramatic flashes of lightning over the peaks of Elephant Mountain. When we docked, we were all a little dazed by the beauty of the experience. We said our goodnights knowing that we had shared something unique and special. Our thanks to our boatman were utterly sincere. My life is almost too rich at the moment, like impossibly good food, or wine that I so exquisite that it should hardly be drunk.

Oct 18… from Saigon.

This blog is going to be short a few entries because, for the second time this trip, I’ve left a notebook behind while traveling… this time on the bus to Saigon from Kampot, a long trip, typical of both Cambodia and VN, in that the bus’s speed averaged about 40 km/hr. That’s just how traffic moves on the 2 (sometimes barely more than 1)-lane roads that are the main routes of travel. I was going faster than this on my rented Honda 100 Dream. (My first motorcycle, which I bought from Tom Turner in 1971, was a 125 Dream—I’m slowly downsizing.)

As our beat-up minibus grumbled across the countryside from Kampot to the VN border crossing, I realized that I had not written anything about the conditions of poverty I’ve been surrounded by since coming to SEA (South East Asia).   There is a range of poverty in both countries, and Cambodia’s is greater. It’s clear that Cambodia is starting from a much more recent economic cataclysm than Vietnam, and you can feel it as soon as you cross the border. Vietnam is no worker’s paradise, but the centralized government is more evident in everything from the infrastructure (noticeably better than Cambodia’s, pitiful compared to North America’s) to the propaganda.

In Cambodia, evidence of an economy struggling to rise above rice-to-mouth immediacy for much of the population is everywhere. It is in the condition of the roads, in the bare minimum of clothing for workers and peasants, in the ubiquity of corrugated iron as a building material, everywhere rusted, and that of the street vendors. You sometimes have the impression that half of Cambodia (and this is true of Vietnam as well) is trying to sell soft drinks, junky food, and trinkets to the other half. In the countryside, the white breed of humped cattle are everywhere, seemingly eating, but perhaps this is an illusion, because they are in general tethered by their owners, and grazing to the limit of the roadside. Not one of them doesn’t look like it is starving to death, ribs and bones sticking out everywhere. The farmers live in small huts, and like farmers everywhere, they work at all hours.

Transportation, as I keep remarking, is by scooter, unless the family is too poor to have one, in which case the bicycle is still used to pull surprisingly large loads on rusty carts, although gas powered wheels seems to be the norm, and small motors are used to get around, to take families around (the record that I saw was five at a time, although four is common, usually configured as dad driving with toddler standing in front, with mom and older kid sharing the seat with dad).   Education is far from usual, and I’m pretty sure that the literacy rate in Cambodia is very low among rural people.   I also encountered many numeracy issues. When making currency calculations, people are fast indeed, but conversion, subtraction, multiplication and division skills are lost to the electronic age. The same can be said of Canadian youths; I’ve encountered lots of Theatre students who don’t know their times tables beyond 3 or 4.

Any decent article, including those found on Wiki, can provide the statistical facts. My main thoughts are these: Water management, sewage control, and housing are big issues for both countries. What I have said for years about India remains true in this experience. The joy and pleasure taken by people in their everyday commerce with the world, with their children and families, and in life in general would put to shame the griping and grousing that Canadians indulge in as they are “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

The wise man who said that all happy marriages are happy in the same way whereas all unhappy marriages we so in different ways might have made the opposite comment about airports. All airport experiences are bad in identical ways, and if there are any happy airport experiences it must be because somewhere on the planet, somebody is breaking the rules. I was kind of hoping that flying out of HCMC there might be a squeaking little bit of room for the old crazy ways of Vietnam’s past might exert themselves. Maybe a captured Huey helicopter would land on the runway and prevent a takeoff, maybe they’d ask us to ride to the airplane in a bunch of tuk-tuks. But I was destined to be disappointed by the pressing logic of the new economy. The experience of getting on board the Airbusses is the same humdrum process of getting into the airport, stuffing yourself, if you haven’t thought ahead, with food that would be absurdly expensive in Paris, much less Vietnam, and being shuffled past shop after shop of “duty-free” perfumes and booze that I can buy down the road at the Superstore Liquorstore for less money.

What’s more, everything is in wildly inflated US dollars; a spoonful of Hagen-Daz ice cream sells for 3.5, and a chocolate bar for 2 bucks. Just in case you were missing a Mars bar from home as you board your plane, let us grind your last bit of foreign exchange out of you before you board that flight to sit in a seat that was actually built for the comfort of the prevalent body shape of a Cambodia peasant and be bullied by the flight crew into passivity.

Traveling has, ironically, taken up much too much of my time traveling around SE Asia (SEA has been adopted as an acronym here). The busses are cramped and uncomfortable for the length of time you must spend sitting in them as they travel over very poor roads which must be shared with every form of transport common to these parts, which includes everything except horseback, horses being far too expensive a commodity to be considered for use. I haven’t seen a horse in SE Asia; they all swam away when they realized no protein source is safe from mom’s cooking pot.

Oct 21

I rushed from the Taipei airport to a hostel I had booked in downtown T, slept 6 hours, and got the train South down the East coast to Taitung, a six-hour ride of breathtaking beauty, with the mountains on my right and the ocean, seen fleetingly, on my left. Arriving at Taitung in mid-afternoon, I left the station, and started the hike oceanward in search of someplace to stay, or at least, someplace to get out of the blazing heat. I finally found a modest building with a “hostel” sign on the front. The only person there was a Chinese lady of about 70, who spoke no English, so I sat and sipped the coffee she offered me before phoning her son, who arrived after half an hour. He explained that the hostel was full, but that they had a second property nearby. We agreed on a price, and on hearing that I needed my laundry done, immediately offered to wash it in his mother’s machine. What’s more, he told me that he and his very sweet girlfriend were driving up into the mountains that afternoon, and invited me to come along, which I was happy to do.   We climbed up into the hills in his (of course) aging Toyota Camry, stopping for ice-cream, and proceeding, in a two-hour drive, up into the hills, where their friend (our teacher, they said, although I wasn’t clear what the student-teacher relationship was) and her husband lived. Their house was a pine-finished beauty, white pine everywhere–floors, walls, and cupboards. This was no ordinary Taiwan house, a one-story cement enclosure on ground level. This lovely, spacious house would have been right at home in the Cowichan Valley, or on Gabriola Island.

So would the couple have been. They offered us grapes from California (clearly an exotic delicacy), home-made cake, and coffee brewed expertly by the husband, who reminded me of a younger David Suzuki. They also gave us plum jam that they had made from the plums in their garden that was possibly the best jam I have ever tasted: pure essence of plum. The entire conversation was in the Southern dialect of Taiwan, which I have since learned is quite dissimilar from the purer Chinese of the Taipei. In fact, it sounded much less tonal than standard Mandarin, more relaxed entirely.

The visit over, we drove back to Taitung in the dark, stopping to look at the stars. We picked up my laundry, and drove to the 2nd hostel, where I used Skype to phone “Eddie” at the Green Island Hostel.

I was a bit put off when Eddie, in his impatience to find out where I was to be picked up to be taken to the ferry in the morning, brushed aside the possibility of having my new friends Chen and Agelina give him the address. I could have sworn he said, “I never listen to these people chatter—it takes them too long to say anything.” This rather bigoted remark set a minor alarm bell ringing.

After this encounter, Chen and Angelina took me to one of their favourite noodle houses, where we had good soup, and invited me to eat the special dessert that they have on Sundays at another outdoor kiosk. This dessert consists of kidney beans, lentils, and two kinds of what I could only think of as fat in a watery soup sweetened with sugar. I’ll take apple pie any time. We then proceeded to the town park, whose feature is a bridge that has been charmingly arcaded in woven bamboo.

After a perfectly comfortable night, I was picked up in a taxi the next morning and whisked to the ferry slip and presented with a ticket to board the ferry, a powerful 60-foot catamaran-hulled motor vessel that accelerated to full speed before it had even left the sea-walled dock, and proceeded at 18 or 20 knots towards Green Island some 15 miles in the vague misty distance.

We were permitted on the upper rear deck, where I stayed, my eyes fixed on the horizon as we drove through a six-foot swell with a stiff breeze over the port bow. People around me started being sick half way into the voyage, and although I did feel queasy, I managed to keep my breakfast while all around me were losing theirs.

After some initial confusion, Eddie picked me up at the dock. The fact we missed each other in the initial crowd was perhaps an omen. He drove me the five kms to his establishment, helpfully explaining some facts about the Island. He is a strange fellow, a sort of strong piratical manner, very short and brusque, and it is clear he wants to control the situation he’s in, one of those loners who leads by doing too much, and doesn’t think much of anyone else’s capacities. He described the two girls he had staying at his hostel (“Kath” and “Andy”: both are South Africans, working in Hong Kong as teachers) as his “tinkerbells.” He has continued to use such terms to describe them, in their presence. He wouldn’t last a minute in Canada.

I thought I had landed in paradise. I accepted the invitation to join the other two guests and him on a dive that very hour, as well as the provision of diving gear, and some good advice about avoiding scrapes, cuts, and jellyfish. The four of us went into the water, with one of the girls wearing scuba and one snorkeling. I noticed that Eddie, upon my saying that I wanted to snorkel instead of scuba, seemed to feel slighted by this, and as we prepared to go in, he seemed to make some kind of disparaging remark about the two of us who weren’t going to use scuba gear.

I thought all was going well until the evening, when I realized that everything I was doing seemed to frustrate him. I didn’t get the hamburger I was cooking covered right away, apparently a huge frustration for him. When the two girls and I spent an enjoyable post-dinner two hours merrily conversing, Eddie didn’t join us.

When we got up in the morning, Eddie proposed a 9:30 a.m. dive. I began to cook an onion omelet, asking if I could do the same for anyone else. He seemed disgruntled by this, but the major crisis was when I drew some luke-warm water from his water dispenser, as invited to do, for my tea.   I realized it was too tepid for tea, so I poured two cups into a pot and began to heat it up. After less than a minute, Eddie stormed into the kitchen area, growling “No! No! No!” He snatched the water, now nearly boiling, and flung it into the sink. “What are you doing?! You bloody Canadians, always wasting everything, you have no respect for the environment.” I was so startled to be so strongly attacked, I was speechless. I stammered something about the water not being hot enough for tea. “See, see, THIS is for the tea, you people have done nothing but ruin the environment! People of your generation have done enough! Then there was some other undertoned remark about Canadians, and I retreated to the outdoor picnic table to try to digest my now-ruined breakfast.

I don’t know what this guy’s problem is, but he’s maybe the worst hotelier I’ve ever encountered in 42 years of travel. It is very unfortunate that his personality is so poorly adapted for life as a host, since his diving skills are excellent.

I loaded my snorkel gear onto my scooter and left, very frustrated and upset, and went snorkeling in the miraculous ocean, filled with at least 30 species of fish I had never seen anywhere but on good docs about the ocean. Eddie and the girls showed up as I was climbing out of the water. Eddie had equipped Kath with a plastic bag full of bread to be fed to the fish, and we had a lovely time floating about in swarms of fish who were eating food that may or may not have been actually damaging to them.   Certainly, the popular wisdom about feeding, for example, wild mammals, is that it does more harm than good, creating unnatural dependencies on over-processed free food.

In any case, the snorkeling is superb. Joel and I have agreed to meet in Hualien on Saturday morning at the train station (he’ll take the train down from the North) and we’ll spend two days motoring around in the National Park and blathering at night. After that, I’ve got to find some affordable place to hang out here in the South where I have access to swimmable beaches and good internet. Joel might have a contact that’s useful.

Oct 23

The remainder of my stay on Green Island has been delightful.   I was in to the water twice the morning of Eddie’s strange blowout, and when I got back to the hostel, Eddie was setting about cooking his special South African barbecue. I offered him a normalizing comment, and he set about to reset out relationship immediately. He managed to let me know why he’d gotten upset, which was basically that he thought it was bad manners of me to come into his hostel equipped with beer when he sells it out of his fridge, and he felt like I had disregarded his request always to cook with things covered. He also made a point of mentioning the people that had scorched him on tourist websites, and how he didn’t give a damn and could also counter-attack on the web. The message: you stepped on my toes, and I’m a bit freaked having learned that you write.

Anyhow, the Island has been delightful. I’ve loved snorkeling here, and though I regret that I haven’t felt up to putting on scuba gear, I’ve had great visions of a wide array of tropical fish, coral, and have loved getting back into the warm Pacific. Interestingly, Eddie pretty well insists on people wearing wetsuits with foot and hand protection; he is very serious about people lacerating themselves and then becoming infected. I bow to his expertise, although I certainly had no protection when I was swimming in Cambodia and Vietnam, albeit that I was swimming on sandy beaches, not on a reef covered in various shapes of coral that can cut you quite badly.

The two S African girls have been fun company at night, and we’ve sat up well after dark 2 out of the 3 nights we spent at Green Island Adventure Hostel talking about various cultural and social issues. I’ve also acquired a new Taiwanese friend, name Bin-Han, who at 26 is as innocent as it is possible for a university-graduated male who’s about to go do his military service to be. (Military service here in Taiwan is pretty light. Bin explained that, as he has a job in his field—electronics—his stint in the military is a mere six weeks… “and they not make me train hard like real soldiers.”) He and I spent an hour stargazing on my last night on Green Island, a moonless night after the evening haze had dissipated.

Oct 24th

My happy few days on Green Island, when not being bombarded by negative or positive energy by Eddie the South African were spent meandering, reading, swimming through coral and tropical fish, having latte at the “Sev” that would put many a brew at a coffee specialist emporium to shame.

I am ashamed to record that I spent but a pittance of my time there writing. My father had the illusion that in creating a nice little Island Retreat on Gabriola, he would be able to provide a place for me to write, as he would have put it, “a really worthwhile play.” Sadly, I was to disappoint him, and I wrote my very best (to date) work in my own home, usually in weather that would cause a cedar tree to curl up and die.

I note that I am writing with the pen that a Cambodian family in Kampot would not let me give them money for. How far our fears about human greed and selfishness are from the reality of human conduct. I refrained from committing myself to a longer time in Cambodia and Vietnam because I feared malarial jungle, harsh culture clash, stomach cramps from unhygienic food and water. What I found was a path well worn by thousands of years of civilization, a resilient rising above horrors whose unspeakable pangs one could see in museums and in the occasional haunted look (very occasional) and –in Cambodia—the not too infrequent sight of someone over forty who wa s damaged by some kind of ordnance, usually a landmine. In the aftermath of war and suffering, these SE Asian people display more grace and shy good manners than I have ever found in any N American or European capital.

Perhaps the ultimate irony emerging in both those countries is what is obvious on every street corner, in every village vendor’s hut, in the airports and in the shops: capitalism won. The great Communist dream of a centralized workers’ utopia is nowhere to be found. In Vietnam are many public displays and billboards reminding us of the glories of Uncle Ho’s socialist vision. Underneath those billboards, someone is selling something to someone and doing their level best to maximize their return on investment.

This is not to say that capitalism best provides what societies need; indeed, the infrastructural frameworks of roads, hospitals, indeed of any and all forms of service that are NOT profitable, are invariably provided by those sectors of economy that demand taxation and authority. The defects and shortcomings of VN and Cambodia are due to a LACK of centralized authority, not an excess. What both of these countries need is a taxable middle class.

Everywhere on the political landscape are a labouring class who everywhere strive for a little more comfort, a little more security, and everywhere the need of human communion through useful work, religion, above all through family. Every place I’ve been has a political class that tries to (or claims to) provide what they can of these amenities, while providing themselves with the trappings of elite status, like the sons and the daughters of The People’s Party of Cambodia, who pulled up to the Hard Rock Café in the middle of Siem Reap in a cavalcade of black Range Rovers and Escalades, as the cops brought all traffic to a halt for half an hour, in the city’s busiest intersection, as the political class descended from their chariots, wearing Italian fashions, and self-consciously mimicking the behaviour of those arriving for the Academy Awards ceremony. Carefully had they studied the ads for Givinchy and Armani, whose European models, seen everywhere there’s a billboard that can be directed at anyone who might buy the products, display a perfected insouciance.

The symbol of the overclass is no longer the decorated carriage or the jeep with the .50-calibre machine gun: it is the polished black SUV with the darkly-tinted windows.

* * * *

There is much to be loved about the Taiwanese. Their satisfaction with their little island is a very winning quality. And I love their petit bourgeois shop-keeping women, whose maternal self-assurance means that you are constantly buying fruit from someone who might be your Auntie Kay.

I like their oriental resourcefulness in taking advantage of whatever material resources they can lay their hands on. The culture is also naively uncynical—the “AH!” of amazement is perfected by Taiwanese people at an early age.

What’s remarkable is that this naivite translates into profound ignorance about the outside world. I have in three separate conversations drawn a complete blank about the whereabouts or the mere existence of country no further from them as Cambodia much less any knowledge of that country’s struggles under one of the most psychotic regimes in recent history.

Oct 26

Back in Taitung, I waited for Joel to arrive, and after some confusion of addresses, (which can be very ambiguous in Taiwan) Joel arrived and we went wandering around the town on rusty bicycles.   The day ended with a concert in Taitung’s arts district, with two local bands on the bandstand playing some very interesting folksy stuff and some very generic rock, both in Mandarin and in one of the local native dialects. The very attractive and engaging young woman who had given Joel a ride to the hostel showed up with her mother. This young woman –her “Western” name is Emily—spent ten years studying in Kansas City and in Northern California, and she has now come back to Taiwan to be with her aging parents. She is a highly-committed Christian, and used expressions like “God pursued me for years, and I finally gave in.” In any case, there was pleasant and light conversation while the band variously crooned and wailed away (I preferred the rhythmically interesting crooning to the wailing with electric guitars processed to the point the players might have been playing an electron microscope, or a slightly more tuneful version of the sound made when Igor closes the circuit with the monstrous breaker and says, “Yes, maaaaster!”)

Thoughts about God pursuing me. Although my intellect recoils when people make statements like this, I must own that I like the good will that many religious people display, like my dear friend and colleague Candice, whose raw acting talent, ability to stick to a purpose, and positive outlook towards the world constantly impress me.

Problematically, when many people make statements like these, they’re talking about a conviction of religious ideology, associated with things like creed, hidebound morality (hidebound here meaning “a book of laws literally bound in animal hide”), church tythes, and the ultimate sanction of the burning of infidels.

Many times in my life, I have had the sense that God was not only pursuing me, It actually caught up with me and shook my bones. Moments of ecstasy, of extreme grief, of loss, of those “little deaths” of ego that we are gifted in sex, in breathtaking moments when we understand the beauty of a piece of art or nature, when we have a flash of insight into how absurdly insignificant we are. This is good enough for me.

Joe Hall trenchantly remarked in a lyric many years ago that “we’re all tourists here at Moment City.” How true, but at that stage in Joe’s spiritual journey, the next line in the song was “pour more poison in!” It was so like Joe to compress a profound truth into seven words, and then draw the most destructive conclusion possible from the insight (“drink more!”). The weight of existential truth about the impossibility of any but these (Shakespeare’s word:) “momentany” connections to whatever is common between our consciousness and the universe is hard to bear; booze helps dull the pain of understanding this: that’s why so many alcoholics are smart people. People who practice religions constantly remind and reassure themselves that they are not alone, that they are in communion with their fellow zealots, their ancestors, their Gods. There is nothing contemptible in this: much good in the world comes of such communion, and much Charity begins at such homes. I think of the efforts of Candice and her friends to raise money through her church for good causes. What raises my defenses is the idea that charity often ends there, and every time someone declares that “Jesus Saves,” they are also saying “unJesus damns.”

Real genius, I observe, is universally associated with one human quality, and that is curiosity. Whatever suppresses that curiosity is destructive, and all creeds do just that. It is for this reason I have no more patience with Marxists waving Das Kapital than with Christians, Jews, and Muslims and their Books.

We impoverish ourselves every time we do anything that makes us less curious, and I am truly, deeply grateful that I have this time and leisure to sit on outside a 7-11 in Taitung, Formosa, as a million different ways of living pass by (including three wedding corteges, the last of which featured a car with the rosettes familiar to our culture, and a large spray of fresh-cut bamboo, each shoot about six feet in length, tied to the roof.   A moment after their passing, a stick of small firecrackers explodes on the street, hurled, I guess, from the cortege.)

A small truck, the sort of quarter-ton, flat-faced transport that is useful in these Asian cities, just drove by, the husband driving, the wife sitting on the flat cargo deck on a kid-sized pink plastic lawn chair; we stare at each other curiously and go on about our lives.

Nov 1:

Upon my return from Green Island, I repaired to the hostel owned by Yen-Tso Chen and Angelina, and after a typical Taiwan screw up caused by ambiguous addresses I connected with Joel, thanks to his being aided by a young woman and her mother who generously offered to help him find my hostel. We borrowed the hostel’s bikes and rode to the city park by the sea, which features a large bridge structure covered with beautifully woven bamboo. One of the spokes of my back wheel snapped (everything rusts in this country) and the wheel immediately went out of true, forcing me to lock it up and carry on on foot. J and I found our way to the Old station cultural area, and sat in the shade with a young German/Swiss who appeared to be happy to converse for a while in a West Germanic dialect. As evening drew in, Joel wanted to concert in the park, so he stayed as I rode the half-hour back to the hostel, where Yen-Tso and Angie quickly obliged me by driving back to the Old Station, stopping to locate the dead bike.

The park had been festooned with hundreds of lanterns gaily decorated by local school children, a delightful sight with each of the lanterns alight. I paid my small fee to get into the outdoor concert—a nominal amount that also included a drink.

When I got up the next day I was on a misson to rent a scooter and putter off into the hillsFinally, Joel phoned his friend Barry, who runs two hostels in Dulan, 25 km north of Taitung. Barry told us he’d be happy to see us, so we taxied up the coast.

I like Barry and his wife Sonia on sight. Barry is a tall, thin, muscular Amsterdamer of 54, and Sonia is a winnowy Taipaen. The seem to have an excellent, smooth-running partnership, and Barry has created a couple of hostels on the Amsterdam model of 50 years ago. Lots of art on the walls, decent clean home-made bunks in the dorm rooms, interesting paint jobs and draft beer a reasonable 100 NT per pint.

He and Sonia have a piece of land 7 km or so from the town and they are gradually building workshop, living space, and a garden. He proudly showed us the place, and then invited us to join him and Sonia, along with Tristan and his girlfriend, another mixed-race couple who work for them at the hostels, on their expedition to the night market in Taitung. (described above). The evening wound down back at the hostel, with a jam session. Barry has a collection of decent guitars, a big plus for me on this trip.

Back to Bataan! Make that… Dulan. The swimming at Dulan is on a black-sand beach where the swell rolls in uninterrupted by several thousand kilometers of open Pacific Ocean, and it can be dramatic indeed. Not a body of water to swim in if you don’t have good access to a rinse, since you come out a few pounds heavier with dark sand in every crevice and orifice. The sand in my ears alone needs to be attended to.

NOV 1-2.

The last 56 hours have been a bizarre and occasionally wonderful whirlwind, beginning with my commitment to travel to Hualein to seen the nearby National Park. When I enquired about bus schedules the night before, both Barry and the stunning young woman who was at the bar recommended hitch-hiking. Partly because I hadn’t stuck out my thumb on a highway for a decade or three, and partly because of my impulse to say “yes” to things, I went out onto the road early the next day (Wednesday) and did just that.

The woman who picked me up and accepted my presence as a matter of course on her trip to Hualein, the very city I was headed for. This little bundle of energy is named Liao Feng Ying. Meeting her might be a life changer for me, since she has insisted that I consider the Buddhist way as a more everyday practice, and I feel inspired by that.

From the moment she stopped her car it was clear that we had some kind of connection. (In an odd coincidence, she was driving a Honda Fit—same as mine, although newer, and one of the few I’ve seen here in SE Asia.) Call this insignificant, but the coincidences gew, and we were soon trading songs and trying to learn from each other as we drove North for 4 hours—Liao Feng is a very erratically slow driver—and by the time we arrived in Haulein I knew quite a lot about her, i.e. that she was both a Buddhist an a Christian, that she was an artist in fabric, that she was married to an army officer (I presumed that having stars on your epaulettes means that you’re a General in the Taiwanese Army), and lived in a natty new housing development in Hualein.

I also knew that she was somewhat obsessive-compulsive, and that once she had decided that I was her responsibility, there was no turning back. She arranged lodging for me by discreetly going behind my back, getting her neighbour who rents rooms to reduce the price steeply so that she could be sure I was safely lodged nearby without the scandalous presence of a man in her house while her husband was off doing his duty in Taipei. She stage-managed every meal I ate, although she doesn’t appear to cook, but prefers dining in various restaurants as many Taiwanese do. She managed to fanangle paying for most of the meals. I felt a bit as though I wee in the middle of someone else’s dream during the 56 hours I spent in and around Hualein. She tried to organize as much of my time as possible, visiting the sculpture gallery, several of her friends’ businesses, a couple of parks, as though to make sure I didn’t experience discomfort or the bumping of my head on any dangerous unorthodoxies that might hurt me.

I wasn’t exactly sure what our relationship was to be frank. If she was not attracted to me (God forbid, given her husband’s occupational status), she had odd ways of showing her indifference. She kept showing me her artworks, as though I had forgotten from time to time what she had created, or that she was a person of some status in the creative circles of Hualein. Her work had real virtue, although I was least taken with the piece of which she was most proud, a fabric reconstruction of The Last Supper, shown me ad…. Ad… well, tedium, at least.

Nevertheless, this woman has spirit. I personally watched her raise 8000 NT for the charity work of the YWCA, and experienced her excellent relations with a handful of people from Chinese tourists to tea merchants to greengrocers to landowners, showing energy and community-building talent.

THE GORGE

The rental of a scooter for 500 NT was (yet another) stunningly cost-effective Taiwan bargain. The five hours I spent driving up the mountain gorge in Taroko National Park, penetrating to the middle of the coastal mountain range was such a stunning experience of naturally beauty that one felt one was in Middle Earth, or Grogdignag, gazing at massive architectural cliff faces of rock that seem to have be frozen in mid-flow, or through cave cut as though by mythical beings through the living rock.

Several miles up into the park, a Temple rests on the shoulder of a mountain. I stopped the bike and climbed up the steps to the temple (a short but steep climb up well-worn stairs), which stood next to a five-story pagoda. This structure was tall and round, like a lighthouse, with a pair of staircases winding up the interior. After paying Buddha one’s respects, you can climb the stairs. On each level there is a balcony around the circumference of the pagoda, and I decided to walk in opposite directions around each balcony as a kind of meditation on gratitude. By the time I got to the top floor, I was high above the valley floor, the wind blowing through this painfully beautiful landscape on my skin as I drank in the clear mountain air. I have never, ever felt so blessed, so absolutely lucky to be alive, as I did at that moment.

From Kenting, southern Taiwan.

I had wanted to visit the southernmost point of land in Taiwan, and Barry had recommended the train and bus trips through the mountains and down the West coast of the island, and the more classically tropical weather of the extreme South, so I caught a lift into Taitung and got on the train.

Here I sit in an Indonesian restaurant in Kenting, chowing down on Nasi Goreng and curried chicken, a combination very familiar to my dear friend Tom (and how deeply grateful I am to him for this culinary familiarity). I wash down the delightful dishes with “Taiwan” beer, my drink of choice here, just as “Hanio,” “Saigon,” and “Cambodia” brews have been my drinks of choice elsewhere. It has been a remarkable day, yet again. I arrived in Kenting last night and wandered up “the strip” where street vendors hawk everything from BBQ to skill games, and tourists wander in a daze familiar to those who’ve spent a summer afternoon in, say, Banff, Alberta. Seeking a room, I stopped a couple of German girls and asked where there were backpacker hostels. They guided me doubtfully down a dark street, saying “it’s a little lonely, very Chinese.” I couldn’t resist commenting, “There’s a lot of that around here,” and I hope and believe that they felt slightly embarrassed for what they had just said. In any case, I found a nice room for a good price (800NT/$32).

With the help of my sensible, polite host “George”—we shared a congratulatory handshake that we were both 60—I rented a scooter this morning and drove West round the tip of Taiwan and up the coast, where after an hour I stopped by complete chance at the dive shop of a diver that Eddie had mentioned, a guy named John. Eddie had warned me that he was something of a drinker, and it is because of John that Eddie seems to have formulated the conclusion that Canadians are all alcoholics. John was sitting finishing a beer and smoking a cigarette as I pulled up at about 11 a.m. He’s from Kincaid, Ontario, and hasn’t been back since he hit these shores 26 years ago. His Taiwanese wife graciously introduced herself, and withdrew. What she makes of her Canuck husband’s boozing I cannot even surmise, except that she seems to be one of those women content to let their men descend into insensibility. Maybe it’s a co-dependence thing, as is the usual scenario. God knows the sex can’t be very good—how can you continue to make love with someone who smells like a brewery AND an ashtray? Maybe you just hold out for the life insurance. Maybe you just dismiss your troubles and watch Youtube. This is the second Canadian I’ve met on my travels, and both were drunks, married to local girls. Neither were great ambassadors for the nation.

Anyhow, after a half-hour chat during which I only wanted to escape, John seemed glad to send me on my way towards the Aquarium, some 7 km along the road. “It might take you two or three hours to see it all,” said John, as though this might represent some kind of waste of my time.

In the event, the Taiwan Aquarium was one of the highlights of this trip. It is a massive complex perched on the ocean facing SW, with two large buildings to house the exhibits, one a conventional rectangle, one a delightful architectural fish executed in steel and glass, evoking scales.

The tanks of the aquarium put you in as many relationships with the sea life as possibly. Belugas swim quite literally around you as you stand in a plexiglass tube. A huge tank containing deep water fish—rays, skates, hammerheads, fast-swimming tuna—is set up like a movie theatre, and what a show it is!   One gallery situates the viewer inside a wrecked fishing trawler, casting you as a diver or possibly the ghostly former fishers. The variety of species was stunning, and although I had to swim my way through schools and swarms of junior-high aged students hormonally obsessed with their cell phones and each other, this was the most pleasing few hours I’ve ever spent at such a facility.

This morning, I’ve used the last 3 hours of my 24-hour rental to explore the lovely walking trails around the Lighthouse park, and to drive North a bit up the Eastern coastal highway, where the wind famously blows the sand dunes across the highway, and you look East at a stunning ocean view with headlands rising dramatically in the distance. This excursion to Kenting has not been a trip of cultural discovery, but it has been lovely.

Once again, I’ve puttered along a coastline overlooking the South China Sea, a mere everyday matter of renting a scooter, or taking a hike. My self-consciousness about this is only partly feigned. I still do find it a bit amazing that this tropical beauty is accessible to me—to me!

I guess it’s a little harder to get the prairie out of the boy than to get the boy out of the prairie.

NOVEMBER 12, Taipei

I was sad to leave Dulan and the people there I’ve come to like very much—Barry Smit and his wife Sonia, notably, have become (I feel) lifelong friends. If I meet them again in ten years, it will be a happy reunion. I’m not sure what this communion is based on, perhaps partly the fact that in our very first conversation, Barry mentioned Orgon energy theory, and I had just been catching up on the history of Wilhelm Reich, one of the people I refer to often as an acting teacher because of his theory of Body Armour.   Part of the mutual attraction is that Barrie and Sonia feel to me like a couple that might have been right at home in one of the Edmonton communes of the late sixties. They would have fitted perfectly into the Ghetto, and would have loved dancing at Barrel House or jamming at The Hovel. Barry loved the fact that I wanted to spend hours cleaning and restringing his various guitars and making them in to useful instruments again. I worked on all five of his guitars over the course of my time there, and Barry appreciates people who like to be useful (a very Dutch trait), and Sonia treated me with quiet affection after I spent a couple of hours helping out at their little farmstead.

My days at Dulan were spent doing the following: get up, get coffee from the “sev” across the street, buy a little fold-over sandwich (a “tampi”) from the lady down the street, who after her initial “who is this new guy?” reaction, began cooking for me the moment I showed my face thereafter. After a spot of breakfast, I’d plug the computer in and write or procrastinate about writing for a while, and then walk the mile or so down to the beach and jump in the waves for a while. The big Pacific rollers slide up the beach with a regularity, and sometimes a degree of violence that results when you have steady winds from one direction (NNE) for weeks at a time over thousands of kilometers of open water. There’s something about knowing that the nearest land is so vastly distant that makes looking out to sea here on the East Coast of Taiwan different from looking out at other ocean views (the same is true in Newfoundland, for example, but the enmity of the North Atlantic feels very different).

Once again, I decided to hitchhike north along the coast road, the first trip having been so eventful. My first ride was with a young mother of two (her car seats were in the back seat). When she shared with me that she was going a bit crazy because her 2-year-old was misbehaving, I was able to assure her this was completely normal, and that she’d get back her angelic child soon. “Oh, great,” she said, “just in time for my younger kid to start in.” (She was very fluent in English.) We enjoyed each others’ company, and when she dropped me off after 15 minutes, I didn’t wait more that five minutes before a trucker picked me up and told me, yes, he was on his way to Hualien, from whence I intended to take the train into Taipei. We traveled in companionable silence for most of the way. His treatment of me was typically Taiwanese: when he stopped to buy food, he showed up with lunch for me as well, and we parked in a “viewpoint” spot and ate our dinner in silence. In spite of our not sharing more that fifty words in the two hours, he managed to phone his (I think) wife, who spoke a very little bit of English, so he could confirm that I was on my way to the train station. When we arrived in Hualien, he drove right to the station, and insisted on taking the good luck token down from the rearview mirror, and attaching it to my backpack.

Taitung Lanters with KenThere is such a wellspring of generosity and goodwill in the Taiwanese that it sometimes feels almost impossible. And it is always expressed in food. I’ve noticed on busses, which live-broadcast Taiwanese TV in frustratingly deconstructed digital, that no half-hour news broadcast goes by without at least two items about food and cooking. Whether it’s a news story about questionable Chinese oil products, or just a human interest item about someone’s mom, the food will be shown being fried, boiled, or barbecued. Taiwanese people LOVE to eat, and they love to eat with people they like.