Sunday, February 12, 2012

What's the sound of your holiday?

I ended my first day in Ha Noi with quiet. After a day of scooters, street vendors and Uncle Ho I joined the Ha Noi Community for Mindful Living for meditation practice and a meal.

I was hungry for sitting still and good company as well as good food after walking 5 or 6 kilometers of Ha Noi's streets and sights. In the rainbow light of a Tibetan vegetarian restaurant near the meditation hall in Ho Tay I leaned back and just listened to the expats chat. 

One guy mentioned that Dengue Fever would be playing in Ha Noi in a week or so. 

My ears perked up. 

Long before I gained the escape velocity necessary to venture outside smalltown Burbank, I was a seasoned armchair traveler. I'd been jarred present by koto music in Japan, rocked my hips in lean-to clubs in West Africa and skipped over reindeer patties in Lapland to follow the darting, birdlike folk melody of a gap-toothed herdsman.

I stacked Smithsonian Folkways and Real World releases on my shelf like so many pins on a map.
One of my favorite discs is the Musicians of the National Dance Company of Cambodia. The traditional orchestra is largely percussive, knocking out the structure of the tune on gongs and xylophones. The oboe adds sinuous melody, and the human voice chant-dances over it all. Not a few listeners have found the warbling Khmer vocals shrill and annoying. To me they are sweet and deeply heartfelt.

Dengue Fever is ostensibly a local band, from Echo Park on the hip east side of Los Angeles. But their vocalist was discovered in a karaoke bar in Cambodia. They blend retro Cambodian pop tunes, akin to sixties psychedelic surf rock, with Chhom Nimol's gorgeous soprano. What I heard when I first heard Dengue Fever was traditional court music that I could really groove to. And with lyrics in both English and Khmer I could sing along in my own shrill falsetto.

Earlier that day I'd watched a traditional Vietnamese ensemble perform, and it brought tears to my eyes. The bending tone of the monochord pulled years of my heart's dreams and my listening-imagining-adventuring fully into the life I live in the present. 

Now again, my worlds collapsed. To hear a band from my home town playing in their neck of the woods on the far side of the globe a few weeks before I set foot in the singer's native country - what beautiful synchrony.

As it turned out, I did not make it to the show. Such is the nature of escape velocity: I'd covered hundreds of miles by the time Chhom hit the Ha Noi stage. But their lyrics played with me long into the trip. In one duet the couple bemoans the distance between she in Phnom Penh and he in New York.

The first thing that I'll do
is throw my arms around you
and never let go

For that moment, my first night in Ha Noi, I embraced the whole world, just as I was held in the world's sweet song.

More on Southeast Asian music:
See the woman clapping before the bamboo xylophone? The rush of air generated by her hands plays the instrument.
The work of Sam-Ang, an ethnomusicologist at the Royal University in Phnom Penh.
You can play the instruments of the traditional gong ensemble, called a pinpeat orchestra, here.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Half Light

My first night in Sihanoukville was my introduction to the art of begging in Cambodia. I'd met a trio of other travelers at a food cart en route to the night market, negotiating their own temperaments as the som tam vendor pummeled together hot chilis, savory spices, bright herbs and a whole black crab in the shell (optional) under her pestle.

We sat on blue or red plastic chairs in the half light of the food stalls. All of Southeast Asia swims in the milky pallor of compact fluorescence. Vietnamese shops and larger markets are as bright as an atomic blast, either as a sign of relative wealth or by the intensity of their desire for it. Cambodia, by contrast, is a twilight.

It's like being in an aquarium, or a morgue. And an odd adjustment to a westerner used to incandescents and their primordial association with the glow of candles, the warmth of the sun.

The waitress shouted my companion’s order to a cook clattering in a dim stainless steel cubicle at the back of the stall.

We poured glasses of very weak tea from the pitcher on the table. We waited out the appearance of a number of dishes that were decidedly not the plate of chicken and steamed rice my friend ordered. 

My fellow traveler and the Cambodian proprietress chattered parallel English/Khmer monologues about the order in question. I opened the styrofoam container of som tam I'd taken from the cart at the roundabout and peeled the plastic sheath from my chopsticks.

Every few minutes a child approached, appearing like a wraithe out of the darkness. Disembodied faces floated just above the level of the tabletops. They were like dust devils, their skin, eyes and hair the same muted shade of ochre, liked they’d been rolled in the red earth you see in the country. They slacked their faces and uttered pleas without moving the corners of their mouths. They stayed as far from smiling as they could.

Sometimes a mother would be there, clutching a young child in her arms. You never saw her approach. It was as if she never actually moved, unable to spare the extraneous movement, fatigued beyond compare. But there she was, her face a few feet above you muttering a request for money.

I learned to be stern with these children, leaning in as I said "No", my animation in inverse proportion to their torpor. They would linger, little fingers on table edge, then turn their whole bodies slowly away, as if rotating on an axis.

When we'd had our fill of chicken and rice and spicy papaya and tea we pushed back our chairs, rising into the illumination, closer to the bulbs suspended under the tenting, like we were swimming to the surface of some ocean.

As soon as we were up, the children massed around the table, streaking from the far edges of the market stalls to survey the cast off scraps abandoned at the table. One wrapped a glass with both hands and drained the dregs of tea and melted ice. Another opened the styrofoam box which had contained shredded papaya and peanuts and delight, but was now full of tissues used to catch my nose, streaming from a cold and the unrelenting spice disintegrating in a puddle of spent citrus.

They quickly picked over the site and dispersed, leaving empty plates even emptier of a few grains of rice.

This is hunger. This is ingenuity and life at its most pure.

In the face of bad odds, these children play a part, the simple energy in them bent into the shape of beggary. They find their sustenance through this art, plying a trade of heart strings and pity. 

And we say no, or we give them something, trying to negotiate the formula of fish and fishing poles and wondering at how we got our pockets stuffed in the first place.

This is life at its most simple, which is only ever dimly lit.