Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In old Hoi An, a kitten dies by the side of the road

Hoi An is an old and beautiful city in the middle section of Vietnam. It floods like Venice, and people boat down the streets. The buildings are the colour of butter. It is famous for its overnight tailoring. i got excited about the tailoring, my first experience of being fitted for clothes by anyone except my Mum. i frequented the rather funky Blue Sky Tailoring Company where i got silk shirts made for male family members, and a silk suit and linen pants for myself. Needless to say, i have grown out of them (see my entry, The earthquake shrank my clothes).

i was on my way back to the hotel with my bags of new tailor made clothing, and walking with me were James and Graham, both Londoners. James was a banker. He was keen to meet people and share business wisdom, and he had lots of opinions and ideas. He enjoyed bargaining and buying. Graham was a factory worker, who had travelled a lot in the South world, and had a very laissez faire attitude to other cultures. He was used to roughing it and travelled light.

On the way, we saw a kitten on the side of the road. It was raining and the kitten was wet and hunched. Its ears were huge and its face was pinched and it was clearly dying. It was a baby kitten, not a young cat, and helpless. Nobody seemed to notice it.

James and Graham argued about it. James wanted to save it, but Graham thought that was impossible. James felt that we simply couldn't do nothing, that we could at least feed it, that we could not know about the kitten and not take up the responsibility to care for it. Graham argued that Vietnam does not have the infrastructure to deal with stray animals, and without that, it would be misguided to help just one animal who will die later anyway.

On the whole, i agreed with Graham, although i didn't say much. It's dysmorphic, i said, it is going to die no matter what we do.

What's dysmorphic, asked James. Fucked, i said.

In the end, of course, we did nothing. We walked on. But the kitten wounded my heart and disturbed my thoughts. Later that night we went back down the street to have dinner. i did not want to pass the place where we saw the dying kitten. i tossed my thoughts about in my mind. Either the kitten will be there or it won't. If it is there, it will be either alive or dead. (Damn that Schrodinger!) If it is alive, it will still be sick. If it is dead, it will be (gulp!) dead. Either way i will be sad.

Well, the kitten wasn't there, but its tiny presence has lasted a long time.

For a srart, why did i use the word dysmorphic? Dysmorphic does not mean fucked. It was a word they used in a Neomatal Unit where i worked as a social worker, with sick and premature babies. A baby is described as dysmorphic if there is something wrong with its features. You have no idea what can go wrong with babies until you have seen a Neonatal Unit. i have seen babies who are further away from me chromasomally than chimpanzees, and it makes you wonder what is the definition of a human. Social work in such places requires a true compassion and a stern lack of judgment. And at times a strong stomach. Informally, such babies get called FLK's which stands for Funny Looking Kid, i regret to say. Another awful term is NFC or NFK. In the UK, NFC is Normal for Cornwall, and in New Zealand it is Normal for Kaitangata. (Kaitangata is a small coal town in South Otago). Very occasionally these pejorative terms get written up in babies' files, and naturally there is hell to pay if the parents see them and ask what they mean.

Both the informal and formal labels for babies are professionally useful for several reasons, but one reason is that they distance us from the subject. We can use our clinical terms or our humour to disance ourselves from the raw painful human stuff that just leaks out and upsets people and makes it all too hard. When i said 'dysmorphic', James and Graham were unaware of this, but i was evoking all that need for distance, for carrying on regardless, for doing the job, for surviving. You know it, that way of coping that means you drink some stiff gins in the bath and have a bit of a cry, and then get back on the next shift, rewired by that tender sense of clarity that is the hangover's special gift to the next day.

And so, the kitten undid us, with its small life and its death so small as to be invisible. What does it matter? Most countries do not have the infrastructure to manage stray animals. That sort of charity work requires a leisured middle class. From what i saw of Vietnam, its middle class is anything but leisured. i have come across versions of our Cats' Protection League in Kuala Lumpur and Port Vila but those are wealthier cities with a stronger ex-pat presence.

My response to the kitten was layered. There were the words and the analysis, but underneath there was pathos, and underneath that, the fear and revulsion that comes from sickness and death and wrongness in the world. The world should not have such things in it and i should not have to experience them. We should all be like Gautama Siddhartha, the prince, living in his palace, deliberately removed from all age and sickness and death. Except that it was his destiny to discover those things, and to leave the palace and undergo all those spiritual trials, and become the Buddha and give us the four Noble Truths.

And the first Truth is that there is suffering. And underneath the fear and revulsion there was an acknowledgement that any death, no matter how small, diminishes us, and that we call our sense of that diminishment our sadness, and that we are right to be sad, and to know that we are.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The irrational nature of a positive attitude

Since the earthquake on 22 February, almost everybody i know has engaged in highly rational behaviours due to equally rational concerns about further earthquakes.

i know people who won't drive, who won't go into shopping malls, parking buildings or anywhere that is above a single storey. i know people who check for the proximity of walls or trees as they move around the city. i know people who are constantly alert for earthquakes - they sleep clothed or with lights on, they jump whenever a loud noise is heard and remain as prepared as they can at all times. i know other people who have left Christchurch. All very sensible under the circumstances.

Of course all this wariness is wearying. Hypervigilence takes its toll on the body. Running just a bit rich in aldrenalin and cortisol all the time affects sleep and appetite and mood. Citywide, people are stressed. The domestic violence rate has increased, as has problematic alcohol and drug use. People are facing long delays in dealing with bureacracies and it is easy to become cynical. Gestures of symapthy are cheap. Fixing our stuff isn't. Whatever Dunkirk spirit people had is long gone.

Post quake anxiety may not be helpful in the long run, but short term it is highly adaptive and entirely rational. Of course we want to be ready to run. Of course we don't want to put ourselves in the way of danger. The fact that we can't predict the next 'big one' doesn't help those primitive but effective parts of our brains that are designed to save our lives.

Me, i seem to do it differently. i go wherever i want. i wake briefly for aftershocks or not at all. i suspect (although i haven't tested it) that my resting heart rate is the same as it was last year. i don't seem to be subject to any more moodiness or pessimism than usual. i am reminded of the earthquakes as i move around the city, but i don't grieve terribly and i don't wait for the next one. At first blush, i may seem more onto it, because i really do keep calm and carry on. Now, how rational is that? Hardly.

i am not known for a sunny and positive outlook, nor am i less subject to anxiety than the usual person. i am a political and environmental pessimist, which is partly why i support activism. i think the reason the earthquake bizzo does not bother me is sheer lack of imagination. i honestly can't imagine that wall falling on me or that building catching on fire. i don't have enough imagination to be anxious. i don't have enough persepctive.

Nothing particularly awful happened to me. i lost a few things i don't much care about and we were inconvenienced for a while. i was sad for the city's losses and felt hard for the deaths, while they were happening. i think i would feel very differently if i had been more personally affected. My perspective would have changed. But for now, bad things happen to other people.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Now that we have established the social order

In Hoi An, in the middle part of Vietnam, i met two men in a very local pub where i was eating 'running chicken'* and banana flower salad. And lo, they were from Christchurch, and we began a conversation you can only have with Christchurchians. They asked me where i lived (ah, Linwood! and we even have an inside toilet!) They then told me what schools they went to (posh ones). i figured, now that we have established the social order, we need to know nothing more. Even on the other side of the world, in the pouring South East Asian rain, in a scene from a Tom Waites song, Christchurch rules work. Ye canna break the laws of physics...

Images of Vietnam, a country not a war:

- A small boy monk reads his manga comic, tucked up in old monastery. Near him a very old woman sleeps on her side on a stone slab, just out in the open.
- A bride in a pink pavlova tiptoes through a muddy field. Her groom wears cream satin flounces; he follows grappling with her train. Mud is a feature here, especially as the monsoon kicked in. No wonder Napoleon said it was the fifth element.
- In the evenings people burn paper money and paper models of cars and washing machines for their ancestors in the next world. The money is US dollars.
- We watch a propaganda film from American War of the 1960'S. Propaganda in Vietnam is strident and unsubtle compared with ours.
- Delta life on the Meking is slow and lazy like the great river. Every meal ends with song, and after dinner a drunken jam session on guitar and two stringed violin. All the songs are local, about the river and its life; there is little 'pop music'.
- On the night train i share a grubby cabin with strangers, and we have intense conversations about Chilean politics.
-Out of Hue, the old imperial city, i take motorscooter tour of the countryside. Scooter offroading! The air is indistinct with the coming monsoon. There is no horizon. Land and water mix and i ride through floods and up stop-banks. The brightest colours are seen in the cemeteries, where the graves are newly painted for the festival of Tet.
- Luxury in Halong Bay after trekking - a night on a junk, the most lovely sight of thousands of tiny limestone islands in a still sea.
- Dogs live with people in an older form of the canine-human relationship. They keep away intruders and in turn get fed scraps. They live in compicated whanau arrangements, keep their pups in line and lie around in the shade. i was always feeding them and sometimes i could pat the pups.
- A Goth/Emo/Punk shop in Ho Chi Minh City. i am unsure why a Vietnamese youth would want to be a Goth.

A final note about the Confucian/Taoist/Buddhist mix. In Vietnam the world of spirit is everywhere, ancestors and saints are with us, and the religions seem to blend. In the western tradition, the sacred and the profane are separate. It is important to know what is of God and what is of the world. In Vietnam spirituality is less dualistic. i am reminded of animistic cultures, where spirit is in natural phenomena and is to be negotiated with as much as worshipped. Spirit is thus very natural and everyday and taken for granted. I never really got to grips with it. It seemed quite odd and superficial - like the people spending real money to burn fake money to send to their ancestors, who could use it in the afterlife. On reflection, though, i felt that the world of spirit was just no big deal - it is as real as food and love and children, a part of life and death.

*Running chickens are not raised in cages and are thus more expensive. This one was was running, i saw it go.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

And then the native porters deserted us...

We trekked in the hill country of Vietnam. We trekked and we trekked. Eventually the native porters deserted us for fear of evil spirits. Thent the evil spirits deserted us because they were bored with endless chatter about the exhange rate, the cost of the last meal, how much money you could save etc etc etc...

Actually, we trekked in the hill country. It will be all right, they said, it's mostly downhill. Except the downhill was clambering down small rock faces and sliding in mud and schlepping it through rice paddy fields where the only tracks were rows of muddy rocks. The theme here is, you got it, mud and rocks. The scenery was spectacular, and if i had been fitter i would have enjoyed it properly. As it was, i required some help at times from Thul. We were accompanied by a group of women who went with us in order to sell us things. Thul of the Black Hmong assigned herself to me (i know it sounds like a chaacter from Conan the Barbarian). Thul was 53, and tiny. She trekked wearing plastic sandals and carrying a large basket of handcrafts she wanted to sell us. Here the women build the houses, seemingly; i would see them carrying on their backs loads of asbestos roofing, up the hills. Thul's hands were dyed black form the indigo she uses to dye the handcrafts. She had a heap of kids; i met one of her daughters. The birth rate is high in the hill country. She probably saved me skin and certainly my dignity and at the end of the day i bought cushion covers from her. Cushion covers! i then had my brains removed to make more room to carry the damned cushion covers...and towards the end of the mud-and-rock combo trek, i fell headlong, flat out, and wrecked my knee.

We spent the night in a home stay, marae style, under mosquito nets, while animals barked and quacked and the river rushed by. In the evening we swam and played joke card games. It was Ho Chi Minh's birthday and we toasted Uncle Ho with the local firewater. Every house has a still out back. By bedtime i suspected my knee was infected and my legs were sore and my elbow was still bleeding. i felt humiliated and i thought, i am a liability in the group. i will be expelled from the tent. Oates was pushed, you know. Hot tears of anger and other cliches were shed into the night.

On the bright side, my nasty rash had subsided, the weird lumps on my face had gone, and my shit was no longer green. And gosh, the scenery was gorgeous and the hills were emerald rice and i had lots of new cushion covers!

Sa Pa is the main centre in the hill country, and it is a small town in transition. Over the last 15 years tourism has changed it. There are many different tribes, some with very small populations, and they each have their own customs and dress. Now, the traditions have become tourist attractions, and this had led to them becoming ossified and weirdly quaint within a generation. We seldom saw men (they work in the forests), but the women were everywhere, mostly trying to sell us things. A group of teenage girls hung around our hotel, i suspect partly to look at a good looking member of our group. The brightest and most assertive of them would stand under his window and shout 'You buy from me or i KICK YO' ASS!'

Vietnam is very wired. There was wi fi everywhere, and everyone has cellphones, and the coverage is excellent. i was amused to see an older tribeswoman in traditional hand made dress, being photographed helping a member of my group down a difficult bit of track - and then her cellphone rang, and like everyone all over the world she was torn between doing her job and answering the phone. The electricity is less sophisticated and sometimes plain dodgy. Thick black clusters of wires tramp the streets. People walk on them. They are so low slung they get propped out of the way with forked poles, like washing lines.

Each day held new experiences and things to think about. i was caught in a cycle of looking and wondering. Not everything was fun, but it was all cause for thought.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Travel to places beginning with V - not in Kansas

i was in Vietnam for three weeks last year, and someone at work asked me to email them. i did so, and the emails were circulated around the office. Some people enjoyed them, and it was suggested i start a blog. i realised i had visited places beginning with V - so i suppose my next trip will be to Venezuela!

Thus begins a short sequence of posts with my impressions of Vietnam.

Well, not in Kansas but in Hanoi.

Here the food comes from other planets. They eat everything. You haven't lived until you've eaten mugwort. i think it is because peope here are relatively poor. Two generations ago New Zealanders ate tripe, after all. On the menu it says 'beef guts'. They sure call a spade a fucking shovel. Actually, everything is delicious.

i took daily sweaty (there is no other kind) around Hanoi. I also took a motorscooter across the river into the 'burbs, in a sunset coloured blood orange with dust and fumes. Motorscooters are the main form of transport. i so want one! The best ones are the old Hondas, hard to get now and endlessly cannibalised. The city is noisy with motorscooters, and the traffic is governed by something similar to Brownian motion. Think of it as being a bit like the salmon run, but going both ways. To cross the road, you enter a Zen state, half close your eyes, b-r-e-a-t-h-e and enter the stream, surfing, grooving, gliding. It took half a day to learn. How peculiar, that in all this wild urban madness, my best virtues are patience and calm. Truth to tell, everything travels at about 25 kms a hour so i am semi-safe.

The din is only enhanced by the twice daily patriotic lectures given through tinny loud speakers. In the same spirit, i visited the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. i genuinely think he was a great dude, and i hear he refused to live in the presidential palace, preferring a traditional hut. He would spin in his grave if he saw the tomb, a fine example of Soviet era brutalism. The best architechture here is French. The public buildings are cream coloured, rather mouldy affairs, but stately with it, set back in western style avenues. They were all guarded, and i figured that even though i was a bit lost i would not ask directions from a spotty seventeen year old with a gun. i loved the art gallery, with its patriotic paintings on silk. Some of them have gone, as the times are no longer so strident, but i especially liked the one of a tank busting through the forest and being welcomed by grateful peasants.

Everybody tried to sell me things and i found it upsetting. Partly because i was mindful of their need, and partly because whenever they saw me coming they would hold up the XXL t shirts. Marketing in Vietnam is a bit too direct. Some tact would have been nice! i was a millionaire in Dong. The zeroes bamboozled me. i would sit on the hotel bed and stack the notes in piles and scratch my head and miss my husband, who has a maths degree. Every day i would stack my dong and attempt to count it and then stash it in several places, and i actually lost some in my luggage. Water costs 2,000 dong - about 20 cents. That became my benchmark.

i missed my dog. Here there were chihuahuas of preturnatural ferocity. No wonder, given what would become of them. People sold everything, cats and dogs and bright birds in tiny cages. Next to a stall selling old shoes, there would be a smart shop displaying Blackberries. Every corner had a mechanic fixing scooters, and men would gather there. Tiny children swept doorways. Women fetched and carried every sodding thing; of course it is a well known fact that whole economies are based on the carrying power of the backs of little old ladies in black dresses.

i felt sort of conspicuous but safe. People would overcharge me in a heartbeat but i did not think they would exactly rob me. i could walk at night on my own OK in Hanoi.

i stayed for two days and then joined a tour.