Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Around the DMZ

A friend recommended I visit the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that used to separate North and South Vietnam. The DMZ extended out 5 kilometers on either side of the Ben Hai River and ironically became one of the most heavily armed and bombed places during the course of war. To get there I hired 46 year Gwang to act as my guide and moped driver.

Much of the south-eastern land leading up to the DMZ has become a government sponsored rubber plantation. It wasn't the latex secreting trees that were the focus of our attention though. What Gwang wanted to show me was a sizable crater left by a bomb from B52. I'd seen many bomb craters before, in particular when I'd visited Laos the previous year. With exaggerated solemnity I told Gwang what I'd learned; courtesy of the Ho Chi Minh Trail's diversions through Laos, the American Air Force dropped the equivalent 2 tons of bombs for every man woman and child living in the country at the time. He wasn't impressed and in a spurt of patriotic one-upmanship countered by saying that 15 tons had been dropped for each Vietnamese person living in the DMZ at the time.

We crossed a new concrete bridge over the Ben Hai River and I stepped on North Vietnamese soil for the first time. By the side of the road, a sign ostentatiously announced that this had also been the beginning of one of the arms of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It generally only operated at night when American air superiority was less effective. Gwang motioned me to follow him toward a bend in the river where the remains of a blown up iron bridge still formed a shallow vee in the water,a testament to the accuracy of the daylight raids. The Viet Cong had rapidly built the bridge to ferry supplies south. It had been destroyed almost as quickly. As we stood examining the wrist thick suspension cables and misshapen girders that once supported it, a yellow mini-bus made a pit stop at the middle of the new bridge and a platoon of Viet Cong veterans in olive green uniforms stepped out to peer over the parapet. It is always an odd moment when you see the "other side" for the first time. I remember being in Eastern Europe many years ago when the iron curtain was still a reality. A friend I were hitchhiking by the side of the road when a Soviet helicopter flew by. A bright red star was painted on the side of its obese, unfamiliar body and the mingling of the chopping rotors and grinding Russian engine sounded like a foreign language. It was then that I realized just how indoctrinated I'd become in the "us and them" mentality. All the films and documentaries I'd seen about the "War in Vietnam" had dealt almost exclusively with the experiences of the Americans. On the bridge "the other side" filed back into their van and left.

I wanted to visit Truong Song National Cemetery, the last resting place of some 16,000 Viet Cong soldiers. Smaller military cemeteries, dating from the end of the war, can be found in most towns and honor only the soldiers who fought and died for the North, Truong Song was no exception. Those who fought and died for the South have never been honored and have no memorials.

Before entering the cemetery, Gwang and I stopped for a drink at a diner near the main gates. The yellow mini-bus had parked on the other side of the road and it's former occupants were perusing a display of cheap souvenirs. Feeding my curiosity, I sauntered toward them armed with a digital camera but was uncertain of the reception I'd receive. What would a white face mean to a group of people who'd spent their youth trying to kill an enemy that looked just like me? Coupled with that was the fact that they were about to pay their respects to comrades who had been killed by American bombs and ammunition. We eyed each other guardedly, trading occasional nods of recognition but not otherwise making real contact. I felt awkward. Back across the road a trio of veterans had taken up residence at the same table that Gwang and I had originally occupied. I wandered back for a chance to get up closer and more personal. After offering a hearty hello, and shaking hands all around, we ordered some beers and drank together. One of the veterans was a dapper fellow with a collection of prestigious medals pinned above his breast pockets. I wanted to ask him some searching questions but as my basic Vietnamese wasn't up to the task I thought about using Gwang as an translator. He was sitting between a couple of the veterans and obviously feeling very uncomfortable. Earlier he'd told me that his father had been a soldier for the South and after the war had spent two years in prison. I could tell he didn't want that coming out. Fortunately the veterans were in a hurry, they finished their glasses of beer in one gulp and left. About ten minutes later we saw them again. This time they were standing to attention in front of the Tomb of Unknown Soldier while one of their number laid a wreath. As we watched, they briskly made a final salute and then broke ranks to head back to the mini-bus.

I have always found the serried and standardized rows of military cemeteries disturbing; they are parade grounds in which all personality has been removed except for a few engraved lines detailing birth, death, name and rank. All of Truong Song's tombs were made of indentical orange and blue plinths with a stone at the head and a blue and white porcelain incense holder at the feet. The cemetery had been broken into different segments with each one being assigned the dead of a particular province. The exception was the one area dedicated to those who could not be identified. Their tombstones all read "chua biet ten" - "not yet know name". At one known grave site a couple of family members had come to pay their respects. They'd placed oranges, cigarettes and bundles of fake money on the slab then lit incense which they clamped between their palms as they knelt and offered prayers. With touching solemnity, one of them also added a burning stick of incense to all the surrounding graves.

The land around the Ben Hai River has now reverted to field and farm but even now the inhabitants live in continual danger of accidentally unearthing potentially fatal, unexploded ordnance. For some of them this ordnance provides supplemental income. The metal the Americans used to make their bombs was of a very high grade and empty casings fetch a seductively high price on the scrap metal market. During the periods between rice harvests, when the farmers are generally idle, the more daring of them venture out with metal detectors. Most of the time they'll just turn up shards of shrapnel but once in a while they'll find a good sized bomb. Some types of bomb are too risky to touch, especially those that contain white phosphorus, other types, bombs dropped by B52s, are considered the best. To render them safe and re-saleable they must screw off the nose and tail, remove the detonator and cut the right wires. Suffice to say, it's a risky venture. Should they succeed in not blowing themselves to bits, they also acquire the bomb's explosives which they can then use to dynamite fish.

Gwang took me to a scrap metal merchant's shop on the periphery of a village. In the middle of the main storeroom a green scale sat ready and waiting to weigh in the next treasure trove. Around it, hillocks of rusting shrapnel vied for space with piles of twisted iron. The split casing of a cluster bomb unit sat prominently displayed on one of them and, propped up against one wall, a half pyramid of defused bombs attested to the success of a few foolhardy individuals. I poked through the scrap trying to find the most interesting items. I found them sitting on the floor by the door, a pair of dirt brown mortar shells. Judging by their flattened noses they had been duds but it was obvious that no one had bothered trying to defuse them. It seemed a bit rash leaving them sitting by the entryway where anyone could stumble on them.

Our last port of call was going to be the Vinh Moc tunnel complex. To get there meant crossing the Ben Hai River again. This time we would cross at the point where the only bridge connecting North and South Vietnam used to be. The story goes that it was painted two colors; the Southern half being yellow and the Northern half Communist red. Like all bridges it had been destroyed during the hostilities and a new one built on the same spot once peace arrived. Splitting the country in two had had the undesired effect of dividing families. To show the pain it had caused, a large concrete statue of a distraught woman stood on the southern bank and looked with yearning toward the North.

The Vinh Moc Tunnels comprise two different systems, one for the military and other for civilians. They were dug over a period of two years along with an extensive warren of trenches as a defense against the severe American bombardment of the area. In two side by side pictures in the small museum, the "after image" showed the village of Vinh Moc with one single shell of a house left standing.

Flashlight in hand, we first descended into the military tunnel complex. From the entryway the tunnel descended rapidly and had been retrofitted with newer wood to keep it from collapsing in on itself. The wood ended abruptly to be replaced by earth walls, some of which had been coated with a stabilizing layer of concrete. Most of the tunnels tapered slightly toward the ceiling and were just high enough for a short man to stand up in. Moving deeper into the darkness the heat became oppressive and suffused with a cloying, earthy dampness. With quick steps Gwang lead me along the main passage, stopping now and then to point out the different branches and shine his light into niches where the soldiers had slept. The twists and turns had been so thoroughly disorienting that when we eventually rose to the surface again at the far end, I didn't have a clue where the original point of entry had been.

The civilian tunnels were much more extensive as they'd been designed to shelter upwards of 700 people. There were three levels, the lowest of which acted as a bomb shelter. Elongated holes had been burrowed into the earth along the length of the tunnels, each was only about a meter high by two or three meters deep and was meant to house an entire family. For effect, a quartet of plaster mannequins had been positioned in one of them: a mother, father and their two small child huddling together on their bamboo bed. The complex had been a virtual subterranean village, complete with a meeting area that doubled as a class room, wells, bathrooms, a maternity ward and a hospital. For the better part of four years the villagers had lived underground. It was too dangerous to farm the fields; instead supplies were secretly shipped in from the North. For light they used oil lamps whose acrid smoke can only have added to the discomfort. Air shafts and hidden doorways on to the sea gave the complex a limited form of ventilation but the long term deprivations had obviously been severe. The idea of spending four years living in these conditions made my skin crawl, especially when the beam of Gwang's flashlight happened upon a multi-legged creepy crawly the size of a Mars bar.

Ho Chi Minh's House

Vinh is about three quarters of the way up Vietnam. It is a city made in the true communist mould: wide boulevards as straight as rulers, aesthetically challenged housing complexes and intermittent billboards exhorting the workers to follow the party line. Now it is all just a substrate, fifteen years of capitalism have done their work in transforming the city center into a hustling, free-wheeling market place. The only reason to come to Vinh in the first place is to visit the nearby village of Kim Lien, the birth place of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's beloved father figure. To the Vietnamese he's known as Uncle Ho, or Bac Ho, which does sound a lot like "backhoe". I'm still trying to figure out whether or not the cross-cultural allusion works. Under his aegis the French were defeated and a communist state installed in North Vietnam. Afterwards, until his death in 1969, he lead the fight to reunify the country and rid it of all the troublesome foreigners.

To get to Kim Lien I hired a xe om, a motor-cycle taxi. It was a short and, at times, death defying ride through a landscape flattened by paddy fields and bordered by attractive low hills. The village, squat and forgettable, would be just another rice town were it not for its remarkable son.

Ho Chi Minh was born in 1890. The houses in his compound were certainly much younger than that. In the tropical heat the thatched roofs, woven walls and wooden rafters and supports would have rotted away years ago. I got the impression of it being very much like the paradox of "My Grandfather's Axe" in which the speaker states that his father replaced the handle and he replaced the head, but that it is still his "grandfather's axe". There were a few potentially, authentic knick-knacks knocking around, some fossilized books and an ink dish or two, all lovingly preserved in glass cases. All the other furnishings, mat covered wooden beds, a loom and some tables and chairs, were newer and probably made especially for the exhibit. It was difficult to tell as all the information was written exclusively in Vietnamese. A woman asked me in broken English if there was anything I'd like to know about the place. I asked her in which of the houses Ho Chi Minh was born.
"Yes," she answered definitively.

The compound was filled with people eagerly craning their necks to peer into the various rooms. Many of them were children who sported red scarves in the style of the "Young Pioneers". Women tour guides equipped with megaphones and dressed in knee length shirts and baggy pants, the traditional garb for Vietnamese women, herded them from place to place trying to instill in them the magnitude of their present location. By and large the children found the big nosed foreigner infinitely more interesting. Even the adults couldn't resist nudging one another and pointing in my direction. At the flower strewn altar to Bac Ho, one of them insisted on having his picture taken with me.

The square outside the compound, where the tour buses park, is bordered by souvenir shops. Here the faithful can buy all the Bac Ho paraphernalia their wallets can afford, from slim volumes of his works to green plastic busts that probably glow in the dark. My personal favorite was the Bac Ho clock with a halo of lights forever jetting out of his whispy, bearded head.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Train to Hue

Doing their utmost not to lose a moment of valuable English learning time, Van and Hien accompanied me to the railway station. I didn't feel up to the task of playing teacher as I'd just finished a grueling day going over the Vietnamese Phrasemaker with Mr. Quang. He is both an English language teacher and a linguist, two assets that made him the perfect person for the job. It was intensely interesting but after the fifth hour of constant listening and directing, my mental faculties were worn out. I sat with Van and Hien listening to their badly mangled English, making corrections as necessary and wishing the time would pass a little quicker. They resolutely hung on till the very last moment then we loaded my luggage on to Hien's moped to ride the last 200 metres across the compound to the railway station's main entrance. I had suggested we just walk there but since the mass introduction of mopeds into Vietnam going anywhere by foot has become an aberration.

With the exception of one lithe middle-aged woman, all my companions in the six-bunk, air-con cabin were pensioners. The oldest, a tiny, fedora wearing man with few remaining granite colored teeth, beamed with joy when realized he'd be sharing the space with a genuine foreigner. No one spoke English but through a rapid succession of signs I was shown where to stow my bag and then asked to exchange my middle bunk for a top one so one of the old ladies wouldn't have to make the dangerous assent.

At exactly 7pm the train pulled out.

The first person I fell into conversation with was Mr. Doan, a former high school teacher. He is now retired and, like everyone I met on the train, was going to visit relatives. When we got to the subject of age he asked me to try and guess his. If my recent experiences are anything to go by, this parlor game has become something of a national obsession. Despite the fact that age plays an important part in which honorific you apply to someone, the Vietnamese are highly desirous of appearing younger than their years. While doing the preparation for this journey I learned I should always use the youth invoking pronoun "cÂȘ", when addressing a woman of a certain age as it makes them sound more maidenly. Now I was about to learn that it's more polite to guess that someone looks younger than they actually are. I'd taken Mr. Doan's wrinkles and retirement into account and pronounced him 65 or 66. His features momentarily sagged. He was only 61. In retaliation he added five years to my age when I asked him to guess mine.

I hadn't brought any food for the journey. Providence came to the rescue in the form of a wood paneled dining car at the far end of the train. Supper was a thin soup of noodles and beef, known as pho (sounds like "fur"), in a translucent, plastic bowl that gave it the uncanny appearance of having gone off. Like all train food everywhere, it was barely palatable and I did wonder if I'd be up half the night getting rid of it. Along with supper came the now familiar linguistic interaction; first the staff is almost surly, then I eject a few words of Vietnamese. A smile breaks across the interlocutor's face and my comestibles are delivered with further grins and words of encouragement. Eventually I end up telling them that I've been learning to speak Vietnamese for x amount of days and eyes become wide in wonder. It's a real ego-stroker until they discover just how little I really can understand.

I was exhausted and clambered up to my bunk with the idea of doing a little writing then going straight to sleep. Quy, the lithe middle-aged woman in the opposite bunk, had other ideas. She was intrigued at having a foreigner in such close proximity and couldn't resist assuaging her curiosity. When I began writing, she poked her head across the gap and indicated she'd like to have a look. I surrendered. Using my Phrasemaker and a very poor dictionary we made conversation. My Vietnamese must have sounded very stllted and at times idiotic but her mountain of patience saw us through. Whenever I gave up and started babbling away in English, she'd smile back and say the one word she knew in my language, "no" and shake her head vigorously. It became a running joke especially when I started using it in defense against her sudden flurries of hardcore Vietnamese. Quy told me she loved music and was both a singer and musician in a five piece, traditional orchestra. In return I told her that I used to play in a seven man, gamelan band but had to leave because I was too busy with other projects. I shook my head sadly at the end of my soliloquy to let her know that I regretted my decision. We traded addresses but I doubt I'll ever see her again. In the middle of the night she and her aging mother, the woman occupying my original bunk, got off in the seaside, resort town of Nha Trang.
At seven in the morning Mr. Doan decided I'd slept long enough and poked me in the ass as a wake up call. To make up for it he bought me breakfast; sticky rice in a plastic box, to which he added a dried peanut condiment he'd brought with him. It was actually quite good. The old man and his wife then insisted on adding to the feast by buying me a polystyrene packaged ready-meal of noodles and beef. My real desire was for a hot cup of coffee. At that moment, one of the ubiquitous, blue shirted staff came by pushing an ancient trolley with drinks on it. To my great relief they had coffee. Mr. Doan wrinkled up his nose when he tasted his. "Not good!" he spat out. My taste buds must be less educated or my addiction stronger; it tasted fine to me.

Outside the window the bottom half of Central Vietnam was rolling by the window in a symphony of green. The rice growing season was in full tilt and the shoots were so high and plentiful that each paddy field gave the impression of being an oversized lawn. Across the landscape hunched figures in conical straw hats diligently attended to the crop. The train slipped in and out of the lush countryside to chug noisily through farming towns and hamlets. Each one supplied a vision of the country's backyards, an impression that always reminds me of seeing someone in their underwear. As if bent on proving my point, one man nonchalantly pulled his pants down and squatting there, in full view of the train, did his morning evacuation. He seemed completely unembarrassed by it.

After taking a nap I woke to a different landscape. A little further north the first cycle of the rice harvesting was over. The fields sat brown, stubbly and unmanaged. I was surprised as I'd expected to see a repetition of green paddies all the way through Vietnam and into China. It prompted me to ask Mr. Doan how long the country was from end to end.
"About 2500km. Vietnam is very long and skinny", he added, as if making up for its length.
I asked him what the northern region was like.
"There a four seasons up there," he said in his best schoolmasterly manner. "In the south there only two: the wet season and the dry season."
We looked over the map of Vietnam together and he pointed out the northern town of Sapa which he proclaimed to be the most beautiful place in all of Vietnam. It was close to the border with China's Yunnan Province. If I decided to go to Sapa, it would probably mean continuing on to Kunming, a lengthy detour from the nebulous route I'd initially planned.

While having a cigarette in the noisy, designated smoking area between the carriages, I got to talking with another older gentleman. Using the rattling of the train as a cover, he told me of his distaste for all things relating to the Vietnamese
government and social system. He had reason to be upset. After the American Army left the Vietnam in 1975 he was accused of being a collaborator and served five years in prison. He told of horrific conditions with barely enough to eat, grueling hours of hard labor and dozens of fellow prisoners succumbing to disease and beatings. When he was let out he was unable to get a job and lived in constant fear of being arrested again by the police. At that moment a couple of men slowly walked into the corridor. He whispered to me that they might be police and quickly disappeared. I ran into him a little while later and he continued his tale. He'd finally created his own job as a watch repairer but the pay had been bad and for years he had lived from hand to mouth. Now he was sixty-two and retired. The state was providing him no pension so he was living out his waning years on the largesse of his two daughters. "Sixty dollars a month," he grumbled. As we conversed in hushed tones, a young man came over and stood suspiciously close, pulled out a cigarette and lit it. The old man threw me a knowing look and disappeared once again. Politics is a dodgy topic in Vietnam. I'd learned the day before that speaking ill of the country and its leaders can be a criminal offense but, to a man, everyone has been critical of the government, particularly in regard to the mass corruption inflicting the country. Most people see it as the biggest problem hampering the countries leap into the First World of technology and opulence. One day I hope to meet a corrupt official to see how he translates the issue.
At lunchtime we were each issued a tray with four plastic containers and a pair of chopsticks. The largest of the containers was predictably filled with rice. Peeling back the lids of the other three I discovered a meal designed to repel the taste buds: tasteless mushrooms in brine, questionable lumps of greying sausage and vile greens with slivers of gristle and meat. I was hungry and did my best to soldier through but eventually gave up in disgust. The three older people all finished theirs. When times have been exceptionally tough you learn to eat whatever is set before you.

The train was now wending its way through a series of coastal hills. I quickly looked up the word for "beautiful" - "dep" and added the Vietnamese equivalent of "very" to it. We were passing a small peninsula replete with a hook of sandy beach. Set back from it rural houses peeped out from beneath palm trees that quickly gave way to a mosaic of crafted paddy fields. The next carriage down had corridor windows facing the sea. I excused myself from the cabin, found a window, yanked it open and settled in for the remainder of the journey. The spectacular viewing continued broken only by occasional tunnels through the mountains. Tunnels have always held a special delight for me; I know that when I emerge at the far end I'll be entering a entirely different realm of landscape. The shifting terrain brought us endlessly toward the sea. Below, waves crashed against forbidding rocks hemmed in by a thick cover of jungle green then around the next bend a sharp valley would slowly reveal its interior contours before finishing off with a graceful sweep of unmolested beach.

From my vantage I could make out both ends of the train when it navigated around a tight curve. We had an engine at both ends now, the rear one helping push us up and over the hills. Then I noticed a hunched figure gripping on to the outside of the train. Then another. Two other people suddenly sprang up from a space between the carriages and to sit on the roof. Stowaways! Perhaps it is not the most fetching simile but the way they clung on to the enormous body of the train reminded me of parasites. The train slowly came to a halt at siding to let a south bound express come through. The stowaways let go of their host and with bags in hand walked the length of the train holding up shards of dried fish for sale.

The old man with the fedora appeared. I bade him come over to the window and join me. For the length of a cigarette he stayed there gazing out and nodding to me once in awhile to assure me that, yes, it certainly was "dep".

Before arriving at major destinations along the line, a tannoy distorted voice would burst into action announcing not only our arrival but also to give us a short lecture on why the city was worth visiting. This included a short history that tried its best to be objective and failed miserably. I was eager to hear what they would say about Hue, especially considering its successful take over and subsequent loss by the Viet Cong and the wholescale devastation visited upon it as a result, but the excited chatter of the arriving passengers and the hub-bub of departure drowned it all out.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?

Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, HCMC, whatever you want to call it, the big, bad southern city is a maelstrom of activity. Last night, my first day in Vietnam, I sat at a street corner mesmorized by the non-stop chaos of motor-scooter traffic. Like Cambodia the only rule seems to be "stay on the right side of the road most of the time". Several roundabouts dot the city center, each time I've passed through one on the back of a motorcycle taxi or "xe om" (seh-om) I can't believe we make it to the other side. It is anarchy in motion; rather like being in a sea of fish that refuse to school but dart around in whichever direction takes their fancy. As if by a miracle, they hardly ever crash into one another. Making a simple turn requires a faith in the driver bordering on religion. Trying his best not to slow down he cuts maniacally across the opposing lane of traffic with mere inches to spare then revs the motor to race down the next narrow street at break neck speed. If taking a xe om borders on lunacy, crossing the street is tantamount to suicide. Imagine stepping into the path of a raging herd of buffalo and you have the idea.

Burgeoning commerce and free enterprise have once again become a part of the city's psyche. Restaurants, hotels and shops have burst on to the scene in a way that only capitalist countries have managed in the past. Incongruously, amidst the glitz and glamour a red flag with the a golden hammer and sickle suddenly appears or a blocky, fifties-style bill board promoting the ascendency of the manual laborer. You wonder how the powers-that-be can hold on to their socialist ideals against such a blatantly money-making backdrop.

Daring the rampaging buffalo traffic, I went for a long walk. Generally I have a very good sense of direction but this once I surrendered myself to getting lost in the warren of streets and boulevards. It didn't matter. I was armed with the business card from my hotel; a manic xe om driver could help me find my way back if necessary. HCMC is a jungle of concrete and store fronts with many of the buildings several stories high and only one room wide. Most of the time I had to walk in the road as lines of motor scooters blocked most sidewalks. In back alleys I stumbled across low slung apartment complexes sporting forests of television antennas or hunched markets with refuse and pools of water littering the ground. And always, wherever I went, I heard the mating call of the xe om driver, "Hello! Motorbike? Motorbike?"
"Toi muon di bo," I'd reply, "I want to walk." That seemed to do the trick, they'd break into a broad smile and let me go on my way in peace and quiet.

Amongst all the varieties of establishments I discovered, the most interesting was a corner shop selling dead snakes and insects in bottles of alcohol. The owner assured me it was for medicinal purposes by pointing at various body parts and agreeing with me when I looked up the word for pain. Giant, black scorpions ruled one shelf but the crowning glory was the display of adult cobras, each menacingly rearing its head with another species of snake clamped between its jaws. It rather puts to shame the idea of eating the worm in a tequila bottle.

When I found myself having accidently come full circle, I decided it was time to make a catch a taxi to explore other regions of the city. Like every foreign visitor I pointed myself toward the War Remnants Museum. Originally it was known as "The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes" but in a show of politeness was changed to fit Vietnam's new political face. Even so, America is still the prime villain. The courtyard bristles with different forms of US military hardware from the war years, each with a white on blue sign in Vietnamese and English explaining its speed and fire power with a few editorials telling how many thousands of people may have been killed by that particular type. Inside the halls it was no holds barred. Sections showed the ruthless efficiency of war and the pathetic aftereffects: Agent Orange Victims, people disfigured by napalm and phosphorus bombs, images of the My Lai Massacre, Viet Cong being tortured by American advisors. In a side gallery was a recreation of a prison from the era with plaster mannequins forever living out the conditions that the people in the photographs had to endure in real life. The final hall was dedicated to the people around the world who protested the war, from Americans to Japanese to Germans to Congolese and many more. It is a saving grace that many Americans did raise their voices as it is not lost on the Vietnamese people.

Outside the museum I met Van, a budding English language student. I'd been warned to expect such an encounter. The Vietnamese are mad about learning English, seeing it as a gateway to a better life. In general it's usually a one way affair with the student getting him or herself a free lesson. In my case, desirous of learning Vietnamese, the tide was turned and I got as good as I gave.

I've always known that during this journey the Vietnamese language was going to be the toughest nut to crack due to it's difficult system of pronunciation and accompanying tones. I was told by an American friend that it needs to be spoken correctly at all times as people might get upset at hearing it being mangled. As usual the reverse is true. I'm getting encouragement galore and great smiles of appreciation. After one day I've got down a few of the basics and been able to create quite a few phrases, but I'm quickly discovering that the local pronunciation makes it very easy to create nothing more than well-intensioned gobbledy-gook. Tomorrow I have an appointment at 1pm with Mr. Guang, an English teacher with a Saigon accent. With his help I'll start the refining process of the Vietnamese Phrasemaker.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Demons and Aaps

On the way to Phnom Penh, I noticed that Mouly had a green, woollen band tied around his wrist.
"Why are you wearing that?" I asked. I'd seen many people sporting something similar during a bus ride in Laos the previous year and had been told it was to help ward off travel sickness and expected to hear a similar answer.
Mouly chuckled and said it was supposed to help protect him from demons. He'd gone to the pagoda at his wife's insistence and for five thousand rials, about a day's wages, he and the band had been blessed as a form of travel insurance.
"What do demons do?"
"They give you bad luck. Maybe they cause an accident."
"Where are they then?"
"Maybe they are up in the trees."
"Can you see them?"
Mouly said that normal people couldn't see them, only the most powerful monks and even then only once in a great while.
Demons, are apparently everywhere and always intent on creating mischief. Prayer flags flutter at the highest point of many a house. From there, in a nod to gravity, the protective magic flows downwards thereby shielding the whole building from nefarious demonic influences. But, even then, demons can still sneak in and create havoc. In such an event, a monk must be called in. Using special incantations the soul of the demon can be coaxed into a glass bottle which is then immediately stoppered and a magic, woollen string wrapped around the top. The demon-filled bottle is then brought into a pagoda and stored there.
"Can you pick-up the bottle?" I asked.
"No! No!" Mouly warned. Merely touching it can bring on a bout of bad luck.
"What happens if the bottle breaks?"
"Then the demon will escape and create bad luck again."
He added that even if it did manage to escape the bottle, it would still be trapped inside the pagoda until one of the doors or windows was opened.
Mouly had nominally converted to Protestant Christianity some years previously but I'd always sensed he only half accepted it; the hold of his native Buddhism and the powerful folklore of Cambodia are still very much a part of him.
"Do you believe in demons?" I asked, stressing the "you".
He laughed nervously. "In the countryside many people believe. In the city, not so many," he said, avoiding a straight answer.
"Are there other types of demons? "Ghouls. Or something like that?" After describing what a ghoul was, Mouly introduced us to the aap.
Aaps look just like human beings during the daylight hours but when night descends a dramatic transformation takes places. The aap's head and vital organs detach themselves from the body then fly around looking for filth to eat.
"You mean garbage?" I asked while looking out the window at one of the ubiquitous piles of trash littering the side of the road.
"Yes. They eat that," he said excitedly.
"I think I see a business opportunity here," I joked.
It's debatable what aaps do actually eat. Perhaps there are several varieties as I was told later by Jasmine that some have a taste for human blood.
No one Mouly knew had seen an aap but if someone did, and had their wits about them, sticking a thorn through the vital organs and pinning them to the ground can be very beneficial for the perpetrator. An aap needs to reattach itself to its body before the dreaded light of dawn. Fearing for its life, it will reveal where a piece or two of gold has been hidden.
"Is it possible to tell if someone is an aap?
Apperently It is. They have a thin red scar going all around the base of their neck.
Just then we drove by a movie theater. On the billboard a grisly head with organs attached was flying across a bright red background. I'm told horror movies are very popular in Cambodia.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Back in Phnom Penh

After two and half weeks in Kampot, I'm now back in the capital, Phnom Penh, though still in the company of Mark and Jasmine. I'd figured I was almost at the end of revamping of the Khmer Phrasemaker then last night I sat down with Jasmine and went over the nouns with her. She is a very exacting and insists upon me using the politer versions of the language. It seems that much of what I gleaned from Mouly may now have to be changed. It is a daunting prospect that may well see me having to retrace my steps to Kampot in order to get this finished. On the bright side I can most certainly get by in Khmer now and have quite a formidable array of words and phrases at my disposal.

A few days ago I went up Bokor Mountain with an older couple from England, Norman and Viviane. They'd hired a car and driver to go there and after an elongated conversation with them, they invited me along. It was rough going; the road up is a shambles of ruts, rocks and potholes. At times we all wondered whether the aging Toyota Camry would be able to make it.

The attraction of Bokor Mountain is primarily the view. From the top it's possible to see across to Vietnam on the one side and all the way to Sihanoukville on the other. The lay of the land is surprisingly similar to that of Santa Barbara; the mountains are almost the same height and drop to a short flattish coastal plain with a succession of islands breaking the horizon. Of course the details in a Cambodian landscape are decidedly different to those of California. The flat lands are broken into squares of paddy fields edged by suggestions of villages and there is no beaches. In their place mangrove swamps hold domination. The vegetation on the mountain is wildly different; in place of chapparal is a dense carpet of jungle complete with hanging vines, raucous birds and the delicious fear that somewhere amongst it all there may be tigers. The French made the top Bokor Mountain into a retreat from the daily blast of Cambodia's heat. They started building in the twenties, put in view pointing restaurants, made a church and of course constructed a capacious, elegant hotel to service them. It all stopped working at the beginning of the seventies and eventually wound up as one of the last bastions of the Khmer Rouge who finally surrendered the place in the early nineties. Poverty and nature have taken their course. All the buildings have been stripped of whatever fixtures they possessed, down to the very wiring of the electrical systems and, for her part, Nature, has struck with a vengeance mottling the outsides with the patina of decay then coating the surfaces with a beautiful orange mould or lichen that brings a shock color to what would otherwise be a dismal affair. Wandering around the old hotel, through the once elegant rooms whose only remaining decorations are the beautifully tiled floors, the weight of history is palpable and as though trying to humanize the place once again scores of latter day tourists have etched their names and messages into the walls. All it does in the end is add to the melancholy.

Viviane had been given a the flower of an insect eating plant as a joke gift. It had the exact shape and dimension of a prodigious penis with a green hue that would have made even the most ardent prostitute back away in horror. It's difficult to be refined and graceful when snapping pictures of a floral dildo but she pulled it off. I am very impressed by the couple. They love to travel and have a preference for creating their own experiences rather that relying on a tour company to do it for them. Their attitude toward Cambodia was refreshing after all the negativity of the Kampot expat community. They always tried to find the best in everything and were more than willing to accept the limitations of a developing nation. Even so the return journey down the broken road started to play on their nerves and it was with a mighty sigh of relief that we arrived back on the main road.

I had been given the seat next to the driver, and budding Khmer speaker that I am, couldn't resist attempting conversation. It worked its magic. I sensed that if I hadn't talked to Dtay he would have remained a silent, unknown entity. Instead he blossomed into a personality and made a special effort to help us enjoy the outing; he picked exotic berries for us to try, gave us all expertly delivered back massages at one rest stop and became my smoking companion when ever we stopped for a pee break. Toward the end of the expedition Dtay suggested we all go for a swim at a well-known spot near Kampot. With a long face I explained to him that we didn't have the gear for it with us. "At bun-ya-haa!" - no problem - he assured us and went on to explain that it was possible to rent shorts and towels at the swimming hole. I was elated, not because I'd be able to go for a dip but because I understood him; understanding what is said in response to my numerous questions has always been a bit of an issue.

The swimming hole was a refreshing cool delight and was situated next to a set of rapids that exuberant boys leapt into accompanied by tire inner tubes and howls of pleasure. It was a perfect end to a good day. Just as we were leaving a couple of four wheel drives pulled up and disgorged their cargo of westerners. We'd seen them earlier on in the day up on Bokor Mountain; apparently going for a paddle is the culmination of every tour.

Of Hierarchy and Pronouns

Just as eyes are said to be the window to the soul, language is the window into a culture.

Today I tried to figure out the Khmer system of pronouns. This is possibly the most complicated aspect of the language and shines a light on how people in Cambodia actually perceive one another. In short, the Khmer culture is extremely hierarchical.
In English we enjoy the luxury of having one single word for addressing other people in the second person, singular or plural, namely "you". By contraset Khmer has a wild assortment based upon age, sex and social standing that must all be reconfigured each time you talk to different person. Eric is slightly younger than Mouly's but he is Mouly's boss and he is wealthy and therefore a powerful man. So Mouly, when talking to Eric addresses him as lowk (rhymes with "folk"), which loosely translates as "Your lordship". Eric, if he spoke Khmer, should address Mouly as nii-ahk (rhymes with "fiat"). This is a term used with "common people" and thus puts Mouly in a lowly position.

If Mouly were taking to a Khmer man or woman of high status he would further have to alter his vocabulary to make sure he was stressing that persons position in relation to his own. This would mean changing the words for "eat", "restaurant", "movie theater" and a slew of others. If he didn't the great personage would feel he or she was being subject to disrespect by an inferior and would thus endeavor to make Mouly's life hell. We, the foreigners, can get away with it, for the most part. Just the fact that we're trying to speak Khmer is respect enough. Even so, we would be wise to interject a few honorific words to show that we at least understand the concept.

In relations with Khmer people I've become acquainted with, a more equilateral system exists based largely upon the idea of us all being one big family. Tula, the bartender at Bokor Mountain Lodge, calls me "Bawng Jon" or "Big Brother Jon". In turn I call him "Own Tula" - "Little Sibling Tula". Dtii-up, who is older than me and female, I call "Bawng-s'rey Dtii-up" - "Older Sister Dtii-up". To confuse the issue further I can also refer to them all simply by their names in place of "you" i.e., "Does Tula want a beer?" When I do this I'm not talking to someone else about Tula, but to Tula directly. I can also refer to myself as "Jon" in place of "K'nyowm", the Khmer equivalent of "I". If it all sounds confusing that's because it is. Fortunately the experience will not be lost once I go to Vietnam; they exactly the same system over there.