Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Picnic with the Ancestors

It looks like I'll be leaving Hue shortly, so this is time to wrap up loose ends before we get on the long road again and things start changing really fast.

First off, my invitation to come to a special event with the Blind Girl's family turned out to be a very big picnic with the Ancestors. Based on the number of live people who turned up, there must have been quite a few ancestors involved. In fact, it was apparently a day on which lots of people had lunch with their ancestors. Several other family memorial structures were also full of picnickers and good things to eat. These structures are scattered up along small lanes among the pines and cactus on the crest of the sand dune that makes up the offshore side of the island, mixed in among actual grave sites and tombs.

Ah, but I've gotten ahead of myself. I was originally instructed to turn up at the coffee shop at eight in the morning to proceed from there, which meant leaving Hue before seven, it's a bit of a distance on a small crowded road, so I'd been up since five getting organized for the day and was actually a few minutes early. Thanh, the Blind Girl's mom was already gone to the picnic, as part of the cooking team. Duy, her dad, settled me into one of the easy chairs next to the couch in the living room and Bao Vi, the Blind Girl herself (we'd finally been properly introduced), was busy wriggling all over the couch. Perhaps not seeing makes you less susceptible to vertigo, but whatever the reason, she was as much at home standing on her head, draped over the back of the couch or flopping around anywhere on it as she is standing up. Then someone put music on the stereo out in the coffee shop and she got quickly up, navigated to the end of the long coffee table and made straight from there to the center of the living room. . .and began to dance. She doesn't use a great deal of the dance floor, but enough, turning and turning. It was lively 4/4 music and she made a full turn in eight beats, little bare feet turning her around and around, thin arms waving in time in the air, tiny hands twirling, bending and swooping with her body as she turned, smiling broadly. When the music suddenly stopped, so did she, and stood there, her head cocked on one side, eyes unseeing of course and waited for it to come back. And it didn't. So after a while she began again, a little slower, turning and twisting and bending and swooping and sweeping her arms and danced in silence in the middle of the room.

Then it was time to go and Duy and I started out into the coffee shop and she demanded his attention, held his arm with one hand and fluttered her other hand around in the air, wiggling all over. He very gently took her hand from his arm and told her we were going and she immediately reached over, found my arm, grabbed my wrist and felt my forearm with her free hand. . .and found the hair. I've much more hair on my body (except on my bald head) than any Vietnamese, and obviously more than she'd ever seen before. She patted and stroked it for a moment and DID NOT pull it. A kid I could really like. But we left and she went off with her grandma.

So back to the picnic. . .which was held at the "family memorial structure" which is the size of a small house, but very elaborately finished like a pagoda, and has only one main room, containing, not graves or any thing of the sort, but rather just three very ornate altars, a large gong and a large red drum. The whole front of the building opens up to let in the light (though it's wired for electricity and there are colored lights for candles on the altars) and a wide porch and patio extends clear across the front. For want of a better word, let's call the big structure a "shrine", though you might just as well call it a picnic shelter, it works very well for one.

There was nobody there with enough English to explain to me what it all was about, but some things are pretty obvious. Out in the front yard of the shrine was a pretty ordinary sort of small shrine for the dead people like you see in many front yards here, a miniature house and courtyard on a pedestal under a small roof, where, early in the morning a full sampling of the picnic dishes and drinks were set out for the ancestors, along with a few cigarettes for the dead old men. As it turned out, neither the ancestors, the ants, nor the flies ate much, so later in the day that food (and a whole lot more) was spread out for the still alive among us. It was simply a family reunion picnic for about 120 live people, all more or less related if you include shirt tail relatives. . .and an indeterminate number of ancestors.

There must have been a formally planned starting time, but about ten o'clock the old men began putting on their ceremonial over-shirts, "ao dai" (say it "Ow Yigh" as in "sigh")which are, actually, very similar in concept to the lovely dresses women wear here on formal occasions or to go to the office. They have a high tight collar, they're buttoned up one side, with long panels fore and aft hanging down to the knees, and the man's costime requires their odd formal Vietnamese hats as well.

A youngster fussed with a powerful PA set and a couple of fiendish speakers with feedback (which he shortly tamed). The ceremonies went on for about half an hour, beating on a gong or a drum (but not both at once) and performing recitations addressing the ancestors, of which I understood not a single word. . .a job done entirely by the oldest men, from 62 to 84 years old, the bunch I later ate with.

The rest of us more or less quietly sat around on the porch or in the yard outside the shrine, mostly wherever we could find a little shade, and visited. At one point, on my own, and separated from my sponsors, I was offered two different wives, or both of them. I made my usual objection that I already had a wife and was immediately introduced to a gentleman with three wives (all sitting with him amicably enough) and ten children. I think the thing was a trap, but M'goodness, THREE wives? TEN kids???. Anyway, I got out of it by claiming that I couldn't really handle one wife properly and more would be completely beyond me, which caused a certain amount of amusement all around.

When we finally got around to the eating I held my own for a while, sitting with the old men (I guess that's appropriate now)reaching around the circle of dishes to pick out just the morsel I wanted next off of a dozen or more plates of good things to eat. Then I realized I had a real problem. Everytime I tried to stop eating for the day more food turned up in my rice bowl. The only thing I really wanted to do was get up off the floor and let a little blood back into my legs, but nobody was getting up yet and everybody was feeding me the best of what was left. I had to sit there, dying, cross-legged on the floor and keep eating and drinking orange pop. It was orange pop or beer, and even at my worst I couldn't handle beer that early in the morning.

The food was all absolutely delicious (especially after dipping the various bits of meat and vegetables in the various hot spicy dipping sauces), and there was a great deal of it, but finally they gave up on stuffing me (getting stuffed themselves I'd guess) and we all got up, or rather, they simply got up and casually walked off and, over a period of minutes, I persuaded my legs to hold me up again and staggered off to find something to lean on. I could do this quite well wen I was a youngster, but that was then.

So there I was at 11:00 in the morning, stuffed full and before you knew it, packed off down a tiny side street to a cousin's house to take a nap. I'm still not sure what prompted that, even as full as I was, I'd only been up since five and wasn't sleepy yet, I thought. . .and stone cold sober. . .but I fell asleep on the couch anyway as instructed and woke up half an hour later to the sounds of a Vietnamese seven month old complaining to his 18 year old aunt about things in general. Loudly. Opening my eyes I found the empty living room I'd been put to bed in held two young women, the 7 month old and a young gentleman in his twenties trying to interest me in a large piece of sugar cane. I smiled at the ladies, scowled at the yowling kid and tried the sugar cane. Believe it or not, after all this time in the tropics, this was a first, a two-foot long piece of corn stalk as thick as a shovel handle, with a hide like fiberglass and a chewy pulpy middle. You don't eat it, you peel the fiberglass off the outside with your front teeth, then take a bite of the pulpy inside, squish it with your teeth, chew a couple of times and spit out the great bulk of it onto a plate on the coffee table. Oddly enough, the juice is just pleasantly sweet. I'd always imagined it would be overwhelming, but not so. Very nice really. H'mm.

About then the Blind Girl's family turned up on their motorbike and I was hustled back into my shoes and onto my own bike and off we went. Unbeknownst to me, Duy, her dad, had been in the picnic mode the whole time, and what beer I didn't drink, he had. Thanh and the two year old hung on tight behind him and I just tried hard to keep up on my own bike. He knew the twists and turns and it wasn't easy riding but we all ended up alive at their house and coffee shop and be darned if I wasn't put to bed for another nap. We all were. It was after noon by then and hot out, but still two naps in one day??? On the other hand, I'd wanted to see more of Bao Vi and she hadn't been at the picnic at all (which made perfect sense) and now she was still at her grandma's, so. . .it was either give up, or go back to sleep. Be darned if I didn't go back to sleep, this time in a spare bedroom upstairs on a thin pad on a tile floor. You really can sleep on such a thing, though it seems unlikely! Perhaps that's why though, half an hour or so later, hearing quiet voices downstairs, I was awake again and went down to find three generations of them sitting on the floor visiting. . .Bao Vi, her Mom, and HER Mom. Thanh turns out to be the most persistent communicator I've ever met trying to get across the language barrier, with her very few words of English and my pitiful Vietnamese. . .and the dictionary...we managed a fairly fruitful conversation for half an hour. She quickly figured out that I simply can't "hear" Vietnamese very well, so she began writing things down full length. I'd identify what I didn't know, she'd try an alternate word, I still wouldn't get it, but by then we usually had it narrowed down to the point the dictionary was a reasonable proposition and we'd go that route. I asked after Duy and she said simply he would sleep for a long time, so I took my leave.

I stopped by again the next day to drop off some photos from the picnic (I got one very good portrait of Duy's father at the dinner table) and a pair of white stuffed dogs for the girls, ate a quick lunch with them, and said goodbyes. They were extremely pleasant people, and Bao Vi, the little Blind Girl, could melt a heart of stone.

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