Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dodging Dancing Dogs and Eating Che




Dateline: Hoi An, a measly 125 km and three hours south of Hue, off of Highway One a few kilometers, or looking at it another way, 25 km South of Da Nang on the coast. That's a slightly messy description, but so is the route in here from the North. I'm finally getting smart enough to ask early and often though and drove straight here this time. So this is September 22, Wednesday, day 13/49 of the trip, the weather was hazy hot all day (yesterday was blue-sky clear until the thunderstorm got all worked up in the evening).

I finished up what needed doing in Hue (though I could easily spend a week dawdling from one beach to the next, checking on the local surf boats and beach restaurants). Rough life here in the sun. The thunderstorms in the evening are pretty spectacular, but I've still managed to be inside every time one really drowns the neighborhood. What I haven't managed to dodge is the dog dancing, or Dancing Dogs. They're everywhere at the moment. It seems there is some sort of mid-year festival that works on the lunar calendar, so since the lunar new year was about six months ago that puts the festival about now. The only part of the festival that impacts traffic is the dog dancing teams, of which there are many to choose from. Unfortunately, they only work from dusk onward, so all my photographic attempts so far have come to lots of blurs and electronic noise. No real pictures. The "dog" usually has four legs,which look suspiciously like a teen-aged boys legs in shiny satin pants covered in "feathers" or flounces or...h'mm. He has a large round head with prominent tufted round ears, large, fiery eyes, and a vigorously flapping lower jaw (or is it maybe a tongue??), and quite the glorious cape of a hide. . .lots of color and spangles involved.

The team consists of the orchestra, that would be the large drum, the small drum, the cymbals and assorted pairs of drumsticks, since at least two people get to play the average drum (one might confine his attention to the leather head, two more might beat on the barrel staves). The beat is really fast and loud is the only setting on the dial. The dog, however, has problems. Apparently, for all his big eyes he doesn't see very well, so he has an assortment of assistants to keep him properly focused. At least one will have a fancy fan. . .not to mention a very large red head, a black (or it might be brown) farmer's outfit, and an enormous pillow belly, which gets used in slightly obscene gestures, or can be used to bump non-donating foreigners vigorously. Another fellow has what must be intended to be a video game avatar leader. . .sort of a tinsel star arrangement on a stick, which apparently the dog can see pretty well. . .it's used to get his attention and keep him on target. So, a victim, or rather a recipient of blessings, is chosen, usually a business or residence. The orchestra takes up positions in the street outside and sets the mood. . .loud and fast. The Dog, the dog leader and the fan waving-big belly people advance on the house with a great deal of bouncing and prancing and refocusing (no you dumb dog, over here. . .) and then the serious dancing gets going. It's at this point that the difference between a bunch of neighborhood kids and a serious martial arts team surfaces. The kids prounce and collect their fifty cents or dollar and prance away. The martial arts men put on one fabulous show, and that's when the traffic stops. Mind you, I wouldn't mind ordinarily, but given the state of my bowels and the proximity of the lightning and the darkness of the sky, I could have chosen another time to watch the show. . .but some things you don't choose, and I did stay dry one way or another. In case there is any doubt about the traffic getting by, an added five or six men stand up a bamboo pole in the middle of the street, fifteen feet tall or so, provided with a few hand and foot holds for the dog to climb, and four or six guy ropes for assorted crew and audience to tail off on and the dog dances right up the pole and, OSHA be darned, stands on the topmost rung and puts on quite the show. When the crowd is appropriately impressed, he sheds his head and hide and does a kung fu descent that looks like a chiropractor's nightmare. Meanwhile the head and hide have grown new legs and disappeared into the house or store front and the serious extortion has gotten under way. All the while of course the racket from the orchestra is carrying on, and the crowd isn't always quiet either. If that isn't enough to keep everyone interested, the very best groups will have a plywood dance floor about four feet square held up at shoulder height by half a dozen spare pairs of dog's legs, and somebody's really talented five or six year old, maybe three feet tall standing straight, with a great big red head and a pillow belly under his miniature farmer's outfit will dance round and round and bump and grind up there above the crowd. Some of them have obviously studied Michael Jackson. And then it's all over and you can try to break out and get through to the hotel. Until you come to the next team setting up in the street.

Che, on the other hand is entirely delightful. You've probably seen a weak watered down version of it in Little Saigon in Seattle (if you're from Seattle, otherwise pick your own Little Saigon). The stuff we get there comes in clear plastic cups, some beans or corn or some such and a little colored agar agar maybe or a grape or two. . .with some sweet rice and a dollop of coconut milk, it's a lot better than nothing, but Real Che, on the street in Hue (or Cam Pha, or Hanoi or. . . for that matter)comes on a table set out on the sidewalk (or in the wide doorway of a restaurant)and is at least ten or twelve kettles full of sweet and sticky or gummy or syrupy treats and a vat of crushed ice. You can buy it in a plastic bag, but you can't eat it that way, it has to be in a glass. . .so sit down and use the lady's glass, don't try to run back to the hotel with it, it'll melt. If you're lucky and obviously crippled up the dishwasher will spot your problem and trot out his own full height chair so you can sit in comfort (and see all the kettles). I'm at no disadvantage here, everybody chooses by the point and shoot method. Either that or they take pot luck and let the lady-in-charge put in a dollop of everything. Not a bad choice, but my favorite is the bananas in tapioca syrup mixed with the white fresh coconut chunks cast in the middle of the tapioca balls in a light sugary syrup. The purple agar agar doesn't seem to have much flavor to me, but the multi colored is nice. The yellow mush is very nice and you might want a dollop of that on top of your bananas. . .or not, the lady seems to think you should have at least a little of the purple mush underneath your coconut milk and your brown crispy toasted coconut flakes (neither of those are optional. . .they go on top of every glass). What with the half glass of crushed ice to start with. . .well it's hard work, but it has to be done. Oh, and it's 25 cents a glass. . .Oh dear.

The most fun however, is comparing Che from town to town like vintages of California wine eh? The stuff in Cam Pha for example was mostly extremely sticky until you mixed it with the ice and coconut milk, then it was only pretty sticky. Loved it.

All work and motorbikes make Ken a dull boy. Add Che. Repeat if necessary.

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