Living in the Gothic

8 Nov

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Grey stone paved streets, winding alleyways, overhead arches connecting adjacent buildings, laundry hung between open-shuttered second story windows. Stone ramparts with their bastions, towers, and gates. Pointed arched Gothic windows, saints’ relics in elaborate casings, mystical paintings of miraculous events. When you travel to Siena, you not only travel in space but in time. In Siena, we walked in the 13th century.

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the Palazzo Pubblico with its Torre Mangia

Siena’s heyday was between the 12th and 14th centuries when it was one of Europe’s largest and most influential cities. The Piazza del Campo, the city’s main square laid out beginning in 1255, is considered one of the most beautiful in all Europe. It is fronted by the Palazzo Pubblico or Town Hall, built between 1298 and 1310. The building and the art it houses, including the three fresco panels that make up Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, are paeans to rational government. Its bell tower, the Torre Mangia, 102 meters and 400 steps up, was built from 1325 to 1344 and is still one of the tallest towers in Italy. The Fonte Gaia, the city’s public fountain inaugurated in 1386, was elaborately decorated in stone by the Italian Renaissance sculptor Jacobo della Quercia.

 

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Siena’s Duomo, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption

Siena’s majestic white and black marble Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, the Duomo, was built between 1215 and 1263. It’s massive, and was the largest Cathedral of the time. The dome built by the leading Italian sculptor of the age, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the facades of carved gargoyles and saints, the inlaid mosaic floors, and the works of art by Donatello, Bernini, Michelangelo, Pisano, and just about every famous artist of the age all inspire awe.  The pointed Sienese arch defines the Gothic style and has dominated building styles from Florence to London. For a century, Siena built the tallest, the biggest, the most beautiful.

And then in 1348 the Bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, killed 2/3s of Siena’s citizens. Death was all around. Every family was affected, the peasants most of all, and with the tragic loss of peasant laborers, Siena’s “progress,” in the form of civic construction, came to a standstill. The plague and the battles lost to Florence, Siena’s long time adversary to the north, left Siena in a freeze frame for more than 600 years. Flash forward, and frozen in time became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.
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According to UNESCO, the walled city of Siena is “the embodiment of a medieval city,” one of the most accurate living examples thriving in the 21st Century.

 

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Monte dei Paschi

And thriving it is. Inside its Gothic walls, Siena is vital and energetic. It’s long been a banking center.  Siena officials founded Monte dei Paschi in 1472 after the Black Plague, and its lending fueled the Renaissance in Tuscany and long supported the citizens of Siena. The Bank is still operating, making it the oldest bank in the world. However, while the bank’s fiduciary relationship with Siena itself has frayed after a derivatives scandal a few years ago, the city has also become a tourist destination, attracting over 200,000 visitors a year.

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Many of the visitors are day tourists by bus from Florence and international students taking classes in Italian and Renaissance art. They come to see and taste, and there’s plenty of beauty and deliciousness to go around.

 

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NAU Siena 2016 students

I was in Siena for just over four months as lead faculty for a College of Education semester abroad. Four months was more than enough time to learn my way around the city’s serpentine streets, alleys, and byways, to visit the city’s museums, cafes, bars, and clothing shops. Walking the 13th century everyday to Italian class, to the grocery store, the gym, my students’ practicum school, compelled me to ponder place and time, geography and chronology. There is magic in that wrinkle in time, in time folding back on itself. In Siena, that folding back on itself is all around, everywhere you look. (I don’t mean life in a time warp, where everyone wears medieval clothes. Actually the Sienese I’ve met, like Italians in general, are quite hip – men regularly wear hats and scarves, and the women are all fashionably chic.)

Instead, in Siena one lives with world heritage, and most Sienese proudly assume stewardship as cultural watch dogs for their city. They tie present to past through membership in one of 17 contradas, a ward system into which you are born. Dating back to the middle ages and traditionally associated with the local guilds (e.g. notaries, silk traders, terracotta makers, shoemakers), each contrada has its own mascot – turtle, goose, panther, she-wolf, seashell–a totem if you will, and its own colors and flag.

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 Oca drummers and Oca baptism

My neighborhood contrada was the Oca or the goose, with a flag of green and white with red trim. Each contrada has its own baptismal fountain, museum/chapel, drummers, and patron saint, and once you are baptized into the contrada, you are a lifetime member. All contrada activity leads up to the Palio, Siena’s famous bareback horse races in the Piazza del Campo in July and August.

I pondered these ties of past to present as I explored Siena’s streets and piazzas. Back home in the US, I live in a place so new that my house, built in 1972, is “before code.” And I wonder, as Americans, how we relate to past when we have so little of it? As a nation of immigrants, we’ve long been accused of lacking a sense of common history, and poll after poll support the accusations. We are a new country, bad at history, and not much better at geography. “What is American memory?” the poet laureate Robert Pinksy asked. “Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide who we are.” Perhaps students in the US don’t learn history because we don’t have a shared memory. On the eve of a particularly contentious national election, I muse on our difficulty in determining just “who we are.” After all, we’ve blocked out huge swathes of our nation’s past. Forget about the 13th century; most of us assume that the country was pretty close to empty before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. We forget that we are a nation of immigrants, resorting all too easily to the anti-immigration discourse of let me in and then close the door behind me.

In Siena, we proudly lived in the Gothic. And perhaps the most intriguing part of walking in the 13th century is that in the Gothic, in that continuum of past and present, you know who you are.

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Education in Siena

5 Jul

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I’ve been lead faculty for Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) second elementary-education majors’ semester abroad in Siena during Spring 2016 semester, and it’s clear that we are all, students and myself alike, sad that our time in Siena is coming to a close. We’ve had a wonderful four months in Siena. In addition to cultural visits, Italian classes, and home stays with local families, education majors spent a few days each week at San Girolamo school, a K-5 Catholic school that educates approximately 100 children across five grades. The NAU students observed, assisted, and facilitated activities during the K-5 students’ English as a Second/Foreign Language classes, clocking more than 45 hours of practicum experiences in the process.

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It’s not hard to argue that a semester abroad experience is particularly important for education majors. In a few short years, they’ll be standing in front of their own classes of impressionable children. In these times of increasing student diversity in US classrooms, it is imperative that teachers see learning and teaching as cultural practices. As multicultural educator Geneva Gay wrote, teachers must come to understand that “culture is at the heart of all we do in the name of education.” As they navigated the Italian classroom, where time is a more leisurely construct and student chatting and play are regular activities, my education students began to recognize their own cultural identities, to de-center the US educational system and practices, and to critically analyze their own assumptions about learning and teaching.

As an educational anthropologist, I had the opportunity to provide guided reflection, and so we talked about making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, and practiced using our sociological imaginations on the world around us. Armed with these new cultural lenses, the students contemplated the ways children learn language and the ways we do school, and after classes, explored Siena’s neigborhoods, serpentine streets, holy places, and late-night life. They made new best friends and became bolder, more confident, and more curious. They traveled in and outside Italy in pairs, groups and independently, and blogged and journaled about their adventures.

Home stays, arranged by Siena School staff, were an important part of the dynamic. The students quickly made host parents and siblings part of their extended family. They learned how to eat cena at the late hour of 8:00 pm, to make their needs known with their evolving Italian skills, and to negotiate the city’s less than dependable bus system. They tried new foods, and even those who professed to be picky eaters soon told me how much they liked the way their host families made particular dishes.

“It’s a great experience, probably the best experience in my life. … Being submerged in the culture.…My ability to grow as a person, I went from the tourist to the citizen of Italy,” the students asserted about our months in Siena. During the semester, they learned about both Italy and themselves. They also discovered that learning and teaching, like eating and dressing, are practices embedded in culture, politics and history. Now I’m not saying that four months of study abroad will cure the ills of the American school system. But I am saying that during the Spring 2016 semester in Siena, the education majors became global citizens, comfortable in a world now larger than before.

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An Unexpected Paean to Mexico City

18 Feb

This is an unexpected paean to Mexico City, Meso America’s majestic city. Before my first visit this fall, I was leery of the metropolis and its reputation of dirty skies and dangerous streets, smog and drug cartels. I’ve returned to report that the reputation is not only undeserved, but inaccurate. Mexico City is charming, bustling and colorful, layered with a history that honors pre-Hispanic food and art.

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charming, bustling, and colorful

First, I must say that I was captivated by the very notion of pre-Hispanic Mexico. It’s like talking about pre British America, which in our particular historical narrative doesn’t exist. Our shared myth in the US is that everything on the north American continent started with the colonists. Sure, within that telling, indigenous peoples roamed the land. But as a taxi driver in Mexico City reminded me, we in the US are committed to an immigrant narrative that leaves no room for previous residents.

In Mexico City, you see that historical layering at the city’s Historic Center or Zocalo, where, the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, was built atop the Aztec Templo Mayor. The stones from what was the temple to the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli have become the Cathedral’s walls. Christian Mexico City is layered on to the pre-Hispanic, the past configured in the present.

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Templo Mayor and the Metropolitan Cathedral

The Cathedral, the oldest and largest in Latin America, by the way, offers a wonderful bell tour, Tour de las Torres y Campanas. It’s one of those tours you’d never be able to do in the US given our litigious proclivities. For 15 pesos (about 85 cents) and 45 minutes of climbing up to the roof and scrambling over parapets into bell towers, you’re rewarded with panoramic views of the city from all directions.

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Tour de las Torres y Campanas

The Zocalo, once the Aztec ceremonial center, is now home to Dia de Los Muertos floats with skeletons arrayed, political rallies for indigenous rights and musical concerts.  When I was in Mexico City, the Zocalo hosted the country’s annual book fair, and rows and rows of book stalls displayed chapbooks of all shapes and sizes.

The city’s Historico Centro spreads out from the Zacalo and the Cathedral, with Diego Rivera’s The History of Mexico murals decorating the walls of the National Palace on one side, and the street is the Palacio de Bellas Artes, with its spectacular art deco interior and exterior, on the other.

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The History of Mexico (1929-1935), Diego Rivera

The Ballet Folklórico de Mexico http://www.balletfolkloricodemexico.com.mx performs at the Palacio de Bellas Artes every Wednesday and Sunday at 8:30 pm, and I timed my return to the city for the Wednesday night performance. The dancers­–with their swirling colors, graceful choreography, and stirring music–were breathtaking. You can buy tickets in advance on line or at the theater’s box office on the day of the performance. The theater is small, so any seat is a great seat.

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Palacio de Bellas Artes

In between is the Dulceria de Celaya http://www.dulceriadecelaya.com, which sells Freda Kalho’s favorite, limones cocadas, limes stuffed with sweet creamy coconut, that I found surprisingly enticing. Sure you can get limones cocadas in the local market, but the Dulceria feels like a place out of time, an opportunity to transport oneself back to days when taste and beauty went hand in hand.

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La Dulceria de Celaya

A few miles away, just off the Bosque de Chapultepec is the Museo Nacional de Antropologia http://www.mna.inah.gob.mx/index.html. The museum was one of a very few items on this anthropologist’s very short bucket list, and so I was particularly delighted to make my way through the park to the impressive collection. Over 600,000 artifacts, from the pre-Hispanic Mexico through the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, are on display. A coffee bar is located in the building’s courtyard next to an outdoor theater where local bands entertain museum visitors. The spot provides respite and renewed energy for the exhaustion that inevitably accompanies a visit to the Museum. In addition to tourists, the museum was crowded with school children and families. Their excitement and pride in place was palpable, and I was truly impressed by their connection to their own country’s history.

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Aztec calendar stone, National Anthropology Museum

Frida and Diego, by the way, are everywhere in Mexico City. Images of Frida, with her flowing pre Hispanic garb are sold in every tourist shop, and Diego’s murals, documenting Mexican history from the pre-Hispanic through the Mexican revolution, decorate, educate, and inform parks, walls, and museums.   Frida’s Casa Azul http://www.museofridakahlo.org.mx, with its mirror ceiling-ed bed, and the shared Juan O’ Groman connecting Casa Estudio, in Coyoacán were well worth the short taxi ride from the Centro Historico.

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Frida’s kitchen, Casa Azul

I could go on and on, about the inventive tamarind cocktails at El Mayor with its panoramic view of the Temple Mayor, the traditional pre-Hispanic Mexican food at Fonda el Rufugio in Zona Rosa, and the creative ceviche at Aguila y Sol not far from the Museo National de Antropología. But all that’s just scratching the surface of this charming city.

I leave with an admonition to self about the dangers of believing the hype about Mexico. “Don’t be afraid to visit Mexico City” writes a reviewer on TripAdvisor and I’m in complete agreement. I ask myself how race and class, border economies and immigration politics factor into our shared narratives of danger below the border?  I ponder the role of fear in American society. Who benefits from our collective fear, and why are we so easily duped into believing the world outside our doorstep reeks with danger?

Donald Trump’s presidential run highlights the appeal of fear based politics in creating group solidarity and maintaining social order. Trump’s reawakening of talk about a border wall is a good example of how fear and ethnocentrism walk hand in hand. I am reminded that fear based politics are much like parents’ stories about the bogeyman. The terror that will bring harm to us unless we behave also works to keep us hidden under our beds, afraid to step far outside our country’s doors (to work a metaphor). Like walls, this fear narrative seems to be just as much about keeping us in as keeping others out.

Fear and politics go hand in hand; fear powers over and controls.  So as a traveler, it often seems impossible to differentiate real danger from constructed fear.  That said, there are places in the world (I’m thinking active war zones) where safety is an issue.  But from my recent experience, Mexico City certainly isn’t one of them.  It’s a glorious city.

the slide fire and the edge of disaster

26 May

After my year of travel, I moved from Flagstaff to Sedona AZ and took a hiatus on the blog.  But the Slide fire in Oak Creek Canyon, just outside my back door, urged me back to WordPress.  Fire is disaster; fire is cleansing.  With destruction comes renewal.

 

I woke up in a cloud of grey this morning. Sedona is shrouded. The majestic red rocks are in mist, the sky is yellow grey, and the smell of smoke is in the air.  This is the third day the Slide Fire has blown smoke our way.  The story is that the fire, eight miles to the North, was started by a human six days ago. No one knows who or how yet: a spark from a camp fire, a flick of cigarette ash? It’s dry out here.  It was a dry winter, and people are visiting the red rock canyons in droves.

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The fire started near Slide Rock Park, a popular tourist spot with its a natural red sandstone water slide and a swimming hole.   It traveled north, then northwest through Oak Creek Canyon’s rugged forest and steep walls. The path has kept Sedona safe but compromised Kachina Village, where its 2500 residents have been in pre-evacuation mode for four days, their emergency To Go kits ready by the doors of their A frames and log cabins.

 

The Slide flre spread from 400 to over 16,000 square miles in five days, and containment is still under 25%.  For most of that time, the fire has looked like a gigantic white/grey cloud, a pyrocumulus (my word of the day), from my back deck. But today the smoke has drifted into the canyon and settled onto the canyon’s floor.

 

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Living in Sedona, I am reminded daily of the Earth’s majesty.   Every morning my drive to the gym takes me past hoodoos and rock spires: the Mystic Hills above the Chapel of the Holy Cross, past Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte on one side of the road, and Cathedral Rock on the other. I live in awe. The fire is a different kind of metaphysical awe: a threatening admiration, an antagonist’s respect.

 

Living just downwind of the fire, our main concern, as heard on tv news, seems to be the loss of business. Tourists are scared of the fire. And this is Memorial Day weekend, small businesses depend on the dollars. My friends/colleagues in Kachina Village are living in perpetual limbo, a hotel one night, back home the next.  The 900 some firefighters, the co-stars of this story, are a visible manifestation of heroism. They are our first and only line of defense.  If you ever lived near a fire, you know exactly what I mean. (According to a friend who lives by the fairgrounds, where the firefighters camp at night, they are all men. A study by Cornell’s Institute for Women and Work, indeed less than 4% of US firefighters are women. Just saying.)

 

We live on the edge of disaster. Human made or otherwise, I’m finding the difference to be blurred of late. And we are all hoping for rain.

 

Hoi An, or Waxing Poetic about Magical Places

21 Jun

The world must be awfully big if there are so many magical places that have never even entered my consciousness.   I’m talking specifically about Hoi An, on the central coast of Viet Nam, here.

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Hoi An, where children wave with joy when they see you, where garbage trucks sing a melody as they pick up the trash, where the ladies on the beach sell their trinkets with kindness, where food, even in the smallest of restaurants is presented like a bouquet of flowers.

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Hoi An, a trading port that dates back to 15th century, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  According to its website, UNESCO World Heritage sites “must be of outstanding universal value” and meet several criteria, which include representing “a masterpiece of human genius,” “to bear a unique, or a least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition,” and “to contain superlative natural phenomena.”   I didn’t know about this UNESCO World Heritage business, but now that I do, I suspect you could travel the world visiting one after the other and never be disappointed.

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Hoi An clearly fits the bill.  Built on a series of canals between the Thu Bon River and the South China Sea, Hoi An has been called the Venice of southeast Asia.  “Magical” is the word most often used by travelers to describe the city, and magical it is indeed.  The city is filled with 17th and 18th century pagodas, temples, community worship houses, and family houses dedicated to the worship of ancestors.  Only bicycles are allowed on the streets of the old town, where classical Vietnamese music floats in the air from loudspeakers.   The streets are hung with silk lanterns in bright hues of red, blue, and gold.

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Ladies sell candles for the equivalent of 50 cents that they light and lower onto the river to carry wishes away.  During the monthly full moon festival, electric lights are switched off, and the entire old town is lit by lanterns.  The night is eerie and magical all at the same time.

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Speaking of bicycles, Hoi An is a perfect bike riding town, and tour guides offer bike circuits of 10 km. or less through the surrounding padi fields, past coconut palms and verdant herb gardens.

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The air smells like mint and basil, temple incense, and jasmine.

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At my hotel, the absolutely superb Ving Hung Emerald http://www.vinhhungemeraldresort.com/, I heard two women saying that Hoi An was great, but “you know what I can’t find?  A supermarket.”  True, no supermarket.  I think I saw maybe two mini marts in all of Hoi An, but lots of stalls that sell everything from boxes for betel nuts and hair combs made of bone to toothpaste.  Best of all, right in the middle of the old town, there is an outdoor market, with fruit, vegetables, fragrant herbs, fish, meat, noodles, all kinds of rice (who knew there was more than one kind of rice, or that sticky rice is totally different from other rice?), flowers, gold marigolds for Buddhist rituals. Fruit I’ve never seen before.  I know this sounds hyperbolic, but it was one of the best markets I’ve seen.  It was bustling from 6:00 am until 6:00 pm.  Not with tourists, although there’s the occasional tourist walking around the market, looking, taking photos, buying fruit, but with locals, buying food twice a day for their own meals.

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Hoi An is actually a shopper’s paradise.  Tailors are everywhere, and can make almost anything of silk or leather.

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The leather worked better for me.  I had a great pair of faux Christian Louboutin red high heels made, all from “choose your own, what you like best” leather.  Pretty typically, the red heels needed two go-arounds.  The first pair felt tight.  I walked around with them on in my hotel room.  They looked great but hurt.  I took them back to the shoe shop to be stretched.  The next day, to my surprise, I picked up a brand new pair, which fit perfectly.  That seems to be a common experience: the first time around tailor made objects tend to be cut small.  Which means the first cut should start out slightly bigger than necessary.  So you end up like Goldlilocks.  Not too big, not too small.  Tailor made is an interesting concept.  Maybe the very wealthy in the west buy clothes tailor made, but most of us buy clothes off the rack.  You can’t always try on tailor made clothes.  Generally you give the item a “yes,” agree on the price, give a deposit, and get measured.  In Hoi An, you come back the next day for the finished product.  Everyone who comes here gets something made.  The easiest item is men’s shirts.  Men are always happy with their shirts.  Women, well, you know, women are a little harder to please.

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So how did I not know that such a charmed little town exists?   A just a short taxi ride from Danang and China Beach (remember the tv show), which is now home to many upscale resort hotels.  And how many other magical places have we never heard of?  I actually know a bit about geography.  A few months ago when I was staying with my mom after my dad died, we watched Jeopardy nearly every night.   I mean it: I could set my watch by Jeopardy.  And I was surprised at how good I was at the geography-related questions.  So I ask again, how did I not know about Hoi An?  Is it due to the blackout of everything Vietnamese?  The not knowing anything about the country that bested us at war?  I’m going with that one, although I’m open to other explanations.

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Following the squid in Mui Ne

20 May

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In addition to kitesurfing and Russians, the other thing about Mui Ne is the fish.  Pretty much anyone who doesn’t work in the hospitality industry in Mui Ne does something with fish.  Catches, cleans, shells, buys and sells to restaurants, prepares and serves to tourists, eats.  You can see all the steps in that seafood chain in Mui Ne.  That’s what I did.  I followed the squid from its appearance on the beach in the early morning to its arrival on my plate at the open air bbq seafood restaurant that evening.

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Mui Ne fishing village is about 7 km north of Mui Ne, the tourist hub.  It’s a straight flat bicycle ride, one I took every morning at 6:30 to watch the fishermen as they brought in their catch from their night out at sea.  I’ve rented a bicycle whenever I can in South East Asia.  The towns–Siem Reap, Mui Ne, Hoi An, even Vientiane–are relatively flat, and the traffic is not as onerous as Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok (where I’m just not up to bicycling).  Mui Ne was perfect.  One long straight, flat strip of road:  a picture book morning ride.

The beach at the fishing village was dotted with spotted and striped gastropod shells that belonged to mollusks, before being scooped up and brought to the shore.  Most were broken as their inhabitants were pulled from their shells by Vietnamese women with cleavers.

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But it was surprising how many were left whole.  I picked up a few each morning, and before I knew it I had collected so many they formed a long line on the shelf by my porch.

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Seashells always remind me of the perfection of the universe.  To quote an Edith Nesbit poem, “Each shell a perfect little thing.  So frail, yet potent to withstand, the mountain waves’ wild buffeting.”  It struck me recently that although I’m one of those people who picks up seashells (those empty of their occupants of course) when I’m at the beach, I don’t really know much about their inhabitants.  Sure, everyone knows about clams, but what formed/lived in the eastern sea augurs, banded tulips, and scotch bonnet shells (the official state shell of North Carolina, by the way) I collected that made them a commercial commodity?  Sea snails is my current thinking, which, here in Vietnam, are undoubtedly barbecued or stir fried.

The fishermen brought in so much more than sea snails after their nights at sea.  This is mostly net fishing, not The Old Man and the Sea kind of struggling.

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Going out at dusk and returning at sunrise in their brightly painted wooden boats, the men bring their catch to shore in thung chai, Vietnamese basket boats used in central Vietnam.  I had never seen thung chai before, although they figured as significant actors in A O, a dance performance I saw at the Saigon Opera House.  Made of bamboo for short distances and low tides, the baskets easily fit three young men, Rub a Dub Dub, Three Men in a Tub, and coolers of ice that house their catch.

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The term picturesque doesn’t do the scene justice.  Men were fishing and rowing from shore to ship, ship to shore.  The women were all on the beach, shelling, counting, cleaning, and buying the scallops, lobster, piles of white squid, white fish, and crab.  The scene was bustling and full of life, money and fish (that would shortly be seafood) changed hands amid conversation and laughter.

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The catch turned up the same night in one of many open air seafood bbq restaurants on the Quan Bo Ke strip at the northern edge of the tourist hub.  During my weeks in Mui Ne, I ate in several of the little restaurants, all fronted with displays of the day’s catch: bowels, coolers, and tanks of eels, tiger lobsters, sea bass, turtles, frogs.  Poor frogs though, they seemed so frantic to escape they stood on each other to get closer the top of the tank.

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That first night, I chose the squid, barbequed with lemon grass and chili, because I had seen so many squid at the beach that morning.

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I couldn’t order the frogs, since I felt sorry for them.  I actually wished I could help in their escape.  I had a mental image of scooping them from the tank.  “Hop, hop.  You’re free, you’re free,” I imagined myself saying.  Of course I didn’t, but I wanted to.   I don’t know why, but it’s easier to anthropomorphize frogs than squid.  Well, at least when the squid aren’t hopping on each other’s backs.  Not to diminish the mighty squid.  To quote Lee Rourke’s “The Squid Poem”

There is no thing that can match the surreal beauty of the squid.  Make no mistake: the squid is beautiful alright.  Unique, almost like it is holding its own form captive, so extraordinary in its texture.

All of the bbq restaurants served beer, some hard liquor, a very few made cocktails.  The seafood was very fresh, well spiced, and the prices were great.  Any meal under $10 that includes fish and some form of cocktail (a mojito or the more do it yourself few jiggers of rum and freshly squeezed lime) seems like a bargain to me.   In the states, seafood is always expensive.  Rumor is it’s because the mob controls the Longshoremen’s Union.  Could be.  If so, the mob apparently hasn’t made it to Mui Ne.  Seafood there is still surprisingly affordable.

Kite Surfing on the South China Sea

16 May

Just over two hundred kilometers or four hours east of Ho Chi Minh City on the coast, Mui Ne is relatively new to the tourism game.  I read that the town came of age in 1995 as an ideal viewing spot of the total eclipse of the sun.  Mui Ne now attracts two kinds of tourists:  Russians interested in an inexpensive tropical beach holiday and extreme sports types looking for a thrill.  Still, the town is much quieter and less developed than its more popular beach counterpart, Nha Trang, five hours by road to the north.

I came to Mui Ne to write.  I found a room with a balcony overlooking the South China Sea

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at Shades, http://shadesmuine.com/home/, a boutique hotel owned and operated by a wonderful couple from New Zealand, Linda and Scotty Brown.

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The place is a gem.  Its seven self-contained apartments and four studios are decorated and maintained with care.  It’s one of those places where everyone actually seems happy to see you every morning.  Linda, by the way, does a great getting-to-know Mui Ne tour as part of being a really nice host.  She drove me and a few other guests around the town, down to the fishing village, past the red and white sand dunes, and through Sea Links, the new gargantuan timeshare/hotel/villa development and golf course designed by Ronald Fream, who’s apparently a hot shot in golf course architecture.  Sea Links’ marketing website boasts that the golf course is “probably the most challenging links style course in Asia!”  (The exclamation point is part of the quote.  I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds enticing.)  Sea Links has wine castle, a literal Norman style castle in which red wine Napa style is stored and tasted, surrounded by a still very young, ornamental looking vineyard.

Sea Links Castle

Lots of back door deals were made around this one by men with big egos and deep pockets.

Mui Ne’s basically one long, 15 km. stretch of Nguyen Dinh Chieu street with restaurants and hotels doting either side.

Mui Ne main strip

Russians discovered Mui Ne in 2005, after a Russian delegation of tour operators traveled to Vietnam to check out possible tourist destinations.  Now Vietnam Airlines, Aeroflot, Transaero Airlines, Sibiry Airline, and Vladivostok Air all schedule direct flights from Russia to Vietnam, and 1/3 of the tourists to the area are Russian.  Storefront signs and menus are all written in Vietnamese and Russian, and part of Mui Ne is referred to as Little Moscow and the Russian Village.

Unknown

Russians are big people, even bigger than Americans, and we grow them big in the US.  It was odd to see so many large, sun burnt, and I mean painfully burned beet red white people lumbering down Mui Ne’s main street.

But what I found equally striking about Mui Ne was the kite surfing.  For an extreme water enthusiast, kite surfing in Mui Ne should be at the top of the bucket list.  I had never seen kite surfing before, and was duly enthralled by its devotees.  Kite surfing involves riding a surf board while strapped to a large kite sail.

kite surfing

The kite itself looks more like a rectangular parachute and measures anywhere from 32 to 52 feet across.  Before arriving, I hadn’t made the connection between kitesurfing and wind, which should have been obvious, given the “kite” in kitesurfing.  Mui Ne’s windy for much of the year, and so is perfect for the extreme sport.  There are plenty of schools–WindChimes, C2Sky, Sankara, Kite-N-Surf–right on the beach, that rent equipment and offer lessons.  A two hour intro “taster” course costs anywhere between US$110 and $140, and a five hour beginner course is around $300. Equipment rental averages $40 an hour.

This is some sport.  Even in my younger days it would have been well beyond me.  Don’t get me wrong: I’ve skied, parachuted, parasailed, boogie boarded.  But kitesurfing’s a whole other game.  An ideal candidate would be a skateboarder who snow boards, surfs, hang glides, and lifts weights for upper body strength.   I did sit and watch the kite surfers on several windy afternoons.  Not only do they ride the waves, but the kites lift them high up into the air.  They swirled and twirled, lofting maybe 40 feet above the sea.  The wind was gusting, pelting me (and my camera) with sand, and the kite surfers, mostly men, but yes, one or two women, were flying.

flying

This is truly riding the earth’s energy; for thrill seekers, Mui Ne’s the place.  And if you like seafood, it’s heaven.  But I’ll save the following the squid story for next time.