Listen to Pilot Light

Thursday, March 29, 2012

French Coffee and Finnish Translations

Sunday on the beach of Mui Nai near Ha Tien, Vietnam turned out as interesting as Saturday had been. The overnight rain made the morning muggy and the beach crowd wasn't as big as on Saturday. Still it was plenty busy. Late in the morning, we wandered to a restaurant for iced coffee. We found a seat at a table and started trying to catch the eye of one of the busy serving people. A woman from another table got up and came over, speaking to us in French. Fortunately, Dagny speaks French. I can usually get the gist of a conversation in French, but there is a time lag before my understanding kicks in enough for me to nod moronically (since I haven't the vocabulary to respond). That lag is death to conversation.

As it turned out, the woman was Vietnamese, learned French in a mission school and had been to France. She got a server to fix us coffees and chatted away. Then she insisted on paying for our coffees and disappeared back to a large family group. So that was pleasant. We wandered a bit more then stopped at another place where we ordered more coffee and then decided to try some of the street food.  We'd already sampled the dead flat things (DFTs) as I noted in my previous blog, so we got some spring rolls. These aren't deep fried, and they had mint in them, along with other veggies and what we suspect was pork. Very delicious. We then tried some long rolls of glutinous rice wrapped around coconut and sesame buns. All lovely. The last of these we ate as we walked down the promenade watching people watch the weird Westerners. One woman acted like she knew us, at least that is what I assume was meant by her smacking me on the arm and then giggling when I looked at her. She was an attractive woman, probably in her late 30s and I'm not sure what was going on, but it went on for a while.
A spring roll vendor hawking her wares along the promenade

As we returned to walking down the promenade, we saw a bright red creature walking the other way, carrying a beer. His hair was copper colored, but his skin was quite red. That is what happens, apparently, when you sun bake Finnish skin. His name was Chris and he was excited to speak to someone who spoke English. So we found a shady table, ordered some beer (Beer 333) and chatted. He was there with a Finnish friend and his Vietnamese wife, who had a house in the area. After talking about this and that, we asked Chris if he thought the Vietnamese wife (Juan) of the other Finn (Marco) could help us arrange a taxi back to town the next morning, as we hadn't seen a taxi and had more luggage than I was comfortable with taking on a moto (not that they would mind). He thought she would, so up the beach we go to find Marco and Juan, and their extended family.

Outdoor market in Ha Tien
The family was just getting ready to leave and wondering where Chris was anyway. They had rented a minibus for the day and suggested that we pile in with them and drive down to our hotel where Juan would arrange things. It was quite a full van, with the 90 year old granny, cousins, uncles, kids, and assorted foreigners (us). One of the men decided that everyone needed to have one of the shaved iced treats, so we sat in the van chatting until the vendor had made one for everyone, including us. We drove to the hotel and, with Marco speaking Finnish to Chris and Juan, Juan speaking Vietnamese to the hotel proprietor and Finnish to Marco, and Chris speaking English to us, with the occasional correction from Marco in Finnish and English, it was accomplished.

The last view of the Vietnam border
before crossing back into Cambodia
We went back to Ha Tien the next morning, bought pork rolls from a street vendor at the market and then hopped the minibus that crossed the border back into Cambodia, where you can understand the people. The familiar sound of Khmer was sweet to our ears. 

All of the border guards and health officials from both countries were great and there were no problems and only minor confusions. However, whenever crossing a border into Cambodia, be sure to have your own pen. You'll need it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lunch in Ha Tien, Viet Nam

Being huge fans of Vietnamese food, we decided to go out and get some. As it is only 100 km to the Viet Nam border, we decided to go to Ha Tien. We caught a minibus from Kampot at 10:30 and were in Ha Tien just after noon. 
Ha Tien Market

We were starving and found a nice restaurant near the market. The food was great, and the people friendly, even if they found us odd. The waitress at the restaurant was a bit abrupt in showing me that I was eating my noodles incorrectly (you spin them up with a fork, rather than using chopsticks as I was doing), but I have a tremendous capacity for forgiving attractive young women almost anything. Dagny tells me just to do what I am told and I try, I really do.

Our transport to the beach (8km for $2)
There isn't much in Hai Tien, so we looked for transport out to Mui Nai, a beach about 8 km down the road. There aren't any tuk tuks in Ha Tien, we didn't fit on a motorbike with our luggage, but we found a pedican driver willing to haul us out there. It was a pleasant ride, although a bit of a squeeze in that little seat.

Mui Nai was amazing. Although we have travelled a lot, this is the first time in a long time that we have been in a place where knowing English, French, Spanish, a little Cantonese and some Khmer wouldn't give you enough words to communicate with anyone. Everyone can say "Hello" and some sales staff manage "What you want?" but that is it, beyond quoting prices.
Today we had lunch at Hong Phat, just across the promenade from the beach. I had fried rice with squid and Dagny had Singapore noodles. I drank a couple of Bia 333 (beers) and Dagny had an iced coffee. All for the low, low price of 85,000 Dong.

Did I mention that we are millionaires? The day before, when we learned that dollar didn't work here and there were no ATMs, I had made an emergency run back to Ha Tien on the back of a motodop and changed US$100 into a bit over two million dong; so lunch translates into $4--at a beach resort. The air conditioned room is $17.50, but we got a discount from the regular $20 for staying three nights.

The tables are at the restaurants are all designed to accommodate moderately sized Vietnamese families of say, forty people, so we didn't sit alone. Two women were at the table already, ordering slushies from a guy on a bicycle who shaved ice into a cup and poured on colorful syrups and condensed milk. Seeing that we were foreigners, and clearly not up on the importance of this delicacy, they acquired another spoon from the vendor before he sped off and insisted we try them. Well, I'd always wanted to.  It was very sweet and tasty.

When we finished our food, I ordered another beer and Dagny went to check out a nearby store that sells a variety of strange things, some of which she thought might make suitable art components. If we visited an aircraft factory she would find suitable art components. Two other ladies sat at the table, and another lady came over making an impressive pitch for her particular dead flat things. Dead flat things (DFT) are fish (I don't know, some kind of fish) that are dried and are, by law I think, always flat. The ladies examined the DFT and gave their approval. The vendor went back to squatting on the pavement where she fired up her fire in a bucket, cooked the two DFTs and brought them, with dipping sauce, to the table. The ladies decided that my diet was sorely deficient in DFTs, and used sign language to indicate that it went with beer. Unwilling to suffer the consequences of violating some cultural taboo, I tried it. It turned out to be kind of a tasty fish jerky. Definitely something I would have again.

The other two ladies were not to be outdone, and the younger one had brought a big bag of peanuts. She shoved a handful in my direction and asked if I knew what peanuts were. This surprised me, because she asked in decent English. My first thought was that he was a librarian from St. Paul on a junket, but she was a student (English major) from Ho Chih Minh City on vacation with her mother, who was the other lady at the table. (The peanuts, by the way, were boiled and tasty. These too, I was assured, are vital to the diet of the Asian beer drinker and I thought that good information.)

Dagny came back to sample these delicacies before I managed to eat them all, partly because the ladies were involved in competitive restocking of my plate. We chatted with the young lady, who taught us a few Vietnamese expressions that we immediately forgot. We decided to refer to her as the person in Mui Nai who speaks English.

There are a couple of days left on the trip, and there are these orange things, sort of like tortillas, that have shrimp and other stuff on them and I am wondering what they are like.
A quiet beach moment on Friday before the tour buses arrive

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Waiting for the rain

It is getting warm in Cambodia now. The nights still cool down, but the afternoons are often quite hot. I can't tell you exactly how hot it gets, because I have given up on getting information from weather reports. There is no weather station here, and the weather is quite different in the big city where there is one, but take it from a kid who loves the tropics--it does get hot. It won't get cooler until the rains come.

April is the cruelest month according to Thomas Stearns Eliot, the American poet who wanted to be a British poet, and did a fair job of that. In Cambodia, which tried being French for a while, April and May are the hottest months, tempered by, at some point, the advent of the mango rains, which produce the best mangoes in the known world. Good mangoes offset any perceived cruelty in my book. And the mangoes are tasty even now.

A mango tree in March, waiting for April showers

A Cambodian mango, but it tastes international

One of the many things I enjoy about Asia is the fresh food. The produce doesn't look like it was factory made. Oranges come in different sizes and some are mottled. They are flavorful, and that is what counts. Cambodians have an interesting way of talking about some fruit. The Romanized pronounciation for the word for orange is groach bpoasut, which doesn't do much justice to the way it sounds, really, and anyway all you need to say is groach to make your point. When I saw tangerines in the market, I asked my neighbor Nak what they were called. She said groach. When I pointed out that that was the word for oranges, she agreed. So I asked how the heck you could send someone to the market for tangerines and make sure they didn't come back with oranges. She said you say Battambang groach, which means oranges from the province of Battambang. Of course the word for mango is pretty close to the word for monkey, so I am learning to be careful what I ask for.

After the mangoes come the rains. The rains are often heavy to an extent those who haven't been to the tropics can't really imagine, but it is a good time of year. Roads are impassable, tourists go home, and the place is relatively cool and quiet. And wet.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Visiting Phnom Penh

The capital of Cambodia is a city that has been through more than its fair share of turmoil, but it has proven resilient. If commerce and hustle are valid markers for the health of a city, it seems to be thriving. Markets are everywhere and the low rise skyline is gradually lifting to meet the aspirations of foreign investors who seem to want buildings tall.

That doesn't mean that you can get all that you might want there. It is small as capital cities go. That makes it more manageable and friendly, but it also means you don't always get what you want. But you can get a clean, air-conditioned hotel room for $25 and good food in a variety of cuisines.

In some of the markets you really have to want to shop. This was taken early in the morning at the food market near the guest house we stayed in. It is just a couple of blocks from the riverfront.

Of course Asia means temples and the city grows up around them. 

We go to the city mostly to shop for things that don't make it to the provinces on their own. Although I have a rather iffy relationship with cities at the best of times, I can enjoy PP for a few days and the more khmer I learn, the more I enjoy it, which you'd expect.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Save the River Day

Yesterday a lot of people in this little town took time out to do something to clean up the river. The Kampot River runs through the middle of town and has seen some hard times. So a few people organized a cleanup day called "Love Kampot River Celebration and Clean-up" that involved over 300 local schoolkids, officials of Department of Environment, local business owners, and other people who care about the place they live. After the cleanup, several boatloads of people joined the fishing boats on the river.

A local boatload of cleanup day volunteers

The day resulted in the collection of a lot of garbage, people thinking about and appreciating the river, and a good time had by all.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Finishing a book means you get to write the next one

I just finished writing a book with my good friend Jim Beckett. It was largely a long distance cowrite, with him in the US and me in Asia, which produced its own challenges, but overall it was a fun experience. I have written with other writers before, but on nonfiction projects, mostly about computers and voice recognition. So Jim and I needed to work out a method that let us collaborate, push each other, and then agree on some final choices.

As I said, it went rather well. Jim and I were always both focused on what made the book better, with little regard for who was doing what (which generally depended on who had the idea and energy for the task). My agent, Rebecca Pratt, is reading it now, and will give her thoughts on how marketable it is, but that is, and always has to be a separate issue for me.

Jim and I had bounced several story ideas off each other when we launched this project, sitting in his living room in Silver City, New Mexico, and perhaps we will pick up one of those to tackle in the future. More likely, we will take the lessons learned in writing this one and come up with something new altogether. Time will tell. In the meantime, I am working on another book project that is moving along nicely. I can't keep from writing, and usually have several stories in some stage of development, so there is never a problem in having something to work on.

I find it an interesting contrast to write one story with another writer, and then go back to work on one that is entirely mine. When it is all yours, you have the freedom to do almost anything, but you have to provide all the effort, the ideas, and inspiration. Both are good and interesting ways to work. And working, keeping writing, is the important thing; although I want to finish books, get them published and see them being read, I want to be deeply involved in the next one.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Writing--the tough racket

Writing well is a tough racket and good writing often doesn't come easily.

I think that literature, which to me means good and important writing, should be about life. The treatment can be humorous or serious, but it should provide some insights into life. They don't have to be profound, but they have to be there. But insight first demands sight. That means that the writing job begins with observation. The observations are digested, then used in writing. With luck the subconscious provides some better thoughts based on the observations than our dull conscious mind comes up with, and that the writer manages to tap into those while getting the story down. When the writing accurately represents honest observations, and demonstrates true human qualities on a fictional stage, there is a chance, a small chance, that we have produced something worthy of being called literature.

As an aside, it's just another damn word, of course, that literature term, but you have to believe in something, and if you want to communicate, you need to express it somehow. The idea of literature as something that provides a bit more than other writing, has persisted for a long time and I hope it holds its meaning for a while longer. I think I need it.

So it is quite a rough racket, this business of writing literature. All this seeing and thinking and trying to understand cuts into the limited time available for thinking and writing, and so it competes with itself for the only resources a writer has--a brain, energy and time. I find it all too easy to wrap myself deep inside a novel or story and forget to come up for air, much less to observe.

I suppose it is possible to write entirely from a strictly intellectual perspective, to write well, to write accurately and honestly, relying on nothing but your own logic and emotion. Yet, it strikes me that such a limitation will flatten the work. An author might produce one such work, but subsequent books would be imitations of the first--the same material written about as freshly as possible. It gets difficult not to repeat yourself.

My theory is that we who write to sell, write to be read need to dig deep enough to offer the reader characters with a variety of emotions and feelings. It isn't easy, but a book must honestly represent characters and ideas that he or she disagrees with or even finds disagreeable. And it is in honesty that so many of us stumble. When the reader encounters a two-dimensional cardboard representation of something complex and astoundingly three dimensional, it is because the writer hasn't taken the time (or had the interest, perhaps) to explore and understand what he or she is writing about.

Exploration and understanding are two writing tools that don't get used nearly enough. But then writing is a tough racket.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Writer Traveler

The traveling life is not necessarily the easiest one for a writer. It can be inspiring, but also dispiriting at times. Writing in a SE Asian guesthouse sounds kind of romantic, but noise, unreliable electricity and the need to get out and find another place to eat, can play havoc with trying to write on a regular basis.

So I choose to travel as Paul Bowles suggested in SHELTERING SKY, moving slowly over the face of the planet. Rather than spend a night or two in Kuala Lumpur, my preference would be a few months. Then there is time to capture the feel of the place, get in tune with its rhythms, and learn to live well.

I am in Cambodia now, working in a bungalow that overlooks a river where I can swim in the afternoons. It isn't quite as idyllic as that might sound, for this the wedding season, and Cambodian weddings are loud, and annoying especially as the amplified music comes on at five in the morning and can go on until after midnight, with several weddings competing for airspace and earspace. But this doesn't happen every day, and life is usually bittersweet anyway.

I have started this blog to document my writing life and to take a look at various demons and angels that you encounter when working as a writer. I have been a writer for many years now, and all that has changed is my focus, which has shifted from nonfiction to fiction. Poetry has been a constant, along with my music.

I am finishing up a novel that I started in the United States last year, writing with a friend, Jim Beckett. We finished the cowriting and managed to remain friends as well, and that feels like an accomplishment. In a few days we will complete the last bits of editing and send it off to Rebecca, my agent, to see if she can find a home for it. The publishing world is one built on shifting sands, she assures me, and we will have to treat everything we do as another grand experiment. I am comfortable with that.