Friday, October 8, 2010

THINGS YOU GET FOR FREE--Still Hue, Still the 8th of October, Still not raining!
This is in celebration of something I've really enjoyed lately, that doesn't cost much at all. . .mostly having to do with pestering local people. Obviously, I take a lot of pictures as I go, many more since I stopped feeling guilty about the costs of film a year or so back. The boats don't seem to care much, one way or another, nor the mountains or houses or the water buffalo. The people, on the other hand sometimes have strong opinions on the matter. On the one hand, you'll find the occasional person, pretty young lady or wrinkled old man who will scowl and make the “no, not me” gesture, and it's best to give in quickly and visibly and just put away the camera. On the other extreme, you might try to take a photo of one pretty child in an empty road with no other human in sight for miles, and before you get the camera focused, there are thirty or more and they're too close to focus on and LOUD and moving fast jumping up and down and trying to be first in line. Those are the extremes, and you'll get everything in between. Now and then you'll steal a photo, either by accident or on purpose, but that's not entirely kosher (though now and then I can't help myself). For that matter, now and then you'll pull out the camera and the three year old subject will scream at the top of her lungs and run for the house. So it's a mixed bag, sometimes easy, often not, but the taking of the photos is one thing, and having them to smile over later is another, and, pinned down here in Hue waiting for paperwork to come back from Hanoi, I've found a better way yet to enjoy them. For about $.35 apiece I can get 5x7 prints laminated in plastic from the local photo studio in an hour or two. So, it requires that I remember where each photo came from, and sometimes a good bit of work cropping and cleaning up, but that's where this little laptop comes in, all to the good. So, after a good day of work in the field and an hour or two cleaning and cropping, I pack the files off to the shop and end up with a dozen or so portraits to deliver next day. Then the fun really begins. Most tourists (including me most of the time), taking pictures and moving on, never come back with a print.

So, having taken shelter on a porch in front of a small dry goods store on the island, I bought an umbrella for $2.50 (a nice one, made in China of course). Having bought the umbrella, I was entitled to take three quick photos of the young lady of the house and her two year old (they both worked on the umbrella sale). Having printed and laminated one of the three and carried it back to the island two days later, and having parked in front of the shop (to renewed commentary from the neighbors, who still aren't used to seeing an elephant on a motorbike in town), and having approached the shop again, I was asked “What do you want today Uncle?” (I really enjoy the “Uncle” title, it doesn't make me feel as old as “Ancient Grandfather, which I also get sometimes). So I asked for a moment, undid the day pack and pulled out the envelope of new portraits. . .

Cut to a crowd scene of pandemonium, children grabbing for the photo, parents trying to see too, little old ladies making loud comments. . .fill in your own blanks, there was a lot going on for a minute or two. When it all calmed down, the question “How much money do you want for this?” and when I say “no money, it's for you” everyone is delighted. But then they have to look through the other eleven photos and recognize two of them, puzzled about the others. I explain that the others are “from farther away, up that way” and point down the road and things calmed down.

Across the street, where I bought a pair of scissors from the school supplies shop in the front of a small house and took photos of the 80 year old tiny mother and her 40 year old daughter, both smiling hugely, there was a much quieter, but very pleasant visit involving a large cup of tea and non-stop smiles, though not a lot of conversation. It's interesting to see the difference in the level of communication we can achieve. Some people hear one sentence of my dog-Vietnamese mispronunciation and watch a moment of my play acting and lock up. It's sort of an unspoken ". . .Can't understand what you're saying and not going to try." Many others make a lot of effort, even to the extent of working with my over-detailed and tiny-printed pocket dictionary and we end up with a remarkable degree of mutual understanding. Or at least we think we do! Anyway, this was a simple case of, “that's nice of you and you must be a nice man but I can't think of a thing to say to you so please drink your tea and smile.” A perfectly nice visit, but not earth shaking.

There were several others during the day obviously, all somewhat alike, with variations on the details. I ended up drinking a lot of tea, a bottle of sparkling water and sharing two bottles of Coca Cola with a crowd in a coffee shop, but the most pleasant was in another coffee shop, where the young blind girl lives.

I'll have to back track a bit for you here, to two days ago, I was quite thirsty (though actually a bit damp on the outside from an earlier shower which had passed) and I stopped at a very pretty little coffee shop about 15 km from the bridge on the island, out in the country, with trees and flowers and a view across the fields in the distance, and very nice landscaping inside, a miniature mountain of limestone rock in a tiny pond, an exquisite little sea shell on one cliff of the mountainside, flowers and vines (both real and silken) all around the room, colored lanterns hanging from the overhead, and, most important, full sized tables and chairs to sit at and actually relax. The gentleman of the house had welcomed me in and assured me he had “mineral water with gas but without sugar” and ice (learning to say “nuoc khoang co ga, khong duong” is one of the accomplishments of this trip) , and he proceeded to produce the bottle and glass, open the bottle and pour out the first bit for me with a flourish. He left me all alone then in the shop to enjoy the drink and the flowers and the scene outside, all of which were wonderful. . .but after a bit came back to visit. When he found that I was from Seattle, he smiled hugely and told me that “this house has five people in Seattle”. This was starting to be a lot of fun, so we traded phone numbers, names and so forth (though I can't really read his handwriting and tried at length to straighten it out into block letters with the accent marks so I could read them). So far, good enough, but then his Lady Wife came in with their eight year old daughter. And she is the blind girl. She has been profoundly blind since birth, her eyes fully formed but clouded very dark gray, completely unseeing, apparently even to not distinguishing light from dark at all. And more, she does not speak. While her Dad was making a good solid effort to talk with me, we were just barely getting by, I couldn't seem to hear his words clearly, nor he mine, and he used far more vocabulary than I had. Let us begin calling them by name, he's Duy, which sounds a lot like “Y-whee” and his wife is Thanh “Tawn”, with a downward inflection in your voice. Thanh, on the other hand was darned well determined to be understood. It was a struggle, but she wouldn't give up so there was a lot of fun and frustration. And all the while, the blind girl (I still do not know her name) sat on a chair next to her Mom and silently tore up a sheet of used paper into one inch squares, two at a time, held them up to her hair like barrettes and then threw them on the floor, pair after pair, until there was a blizzard of torn paper on the floor. She held the paper tightly between her feet in front of her on the chair (a tiny thing really, she perched on the chair like a Buddha, with that paper between her feet). It was a good way to keep track of something, and perfectly convenient for her. She listened to the conversation and I asked Thanh if she understood, even though she does not speak. Mom smiled wryly and said, “yes, she understands VERY well.” H'mm. After a while she reached out and touched my arm, groping to find out where I was I think, just a brief touch and back to her paper. I reached over and laid a single finger on her bare foot and stroked it once. She stopped tearing the paper and sat very still while I stroked the foot, from the ankle to the toes, perhaps three times. Then she was back to her paper. Anyway, eventually I finished my mineral water and the conversation ran completely out of mutual vocabulary and I got up to leave, pulling out the camera as I got up. Mr. Duy had lead his blind daughter off into the house for her evening bath, and Thanh was holding her perfectly beautifully normal two year old on her lap. I took their portraits there and at the wrought iron gate as they walked me to my bike. And I left.

So. Back to the trip with the photos to deliver. I'd made all my other stops on the island first and it'd been a very fine day, but I was particularly looking forward to seeing this family again, perhaps for that I saved them until last, though they are also farthest from the bridge. Actually, I'd ridden a hundred kilometers in the day after my other stops, the umbrella seller and her daughter, the scissors seller and her mother, the lady who made squished crepes in the scorching hot iron, people in the place where I ate a bowl of noodles instead of drowning in the downpour outside. . .so it was late again when I came to their coffee shop and stopped. Mr. Duy was out in front, sweeping the patio and was surprised to see me since tourists don't usually come back, for that matter, tourists don't usually come there at all, but he brought me another bottle of sparkling water and a glass of ice while I dug the photos of Thanh and her two year old out of the pack. I think he had not realized I'd taken them, he had been inside with the blind daughter and her bath, so he was completely surprised to see them and called Thanh out to see. It was a much quieter pandemonium, there was only the family, but the two-year old had to see each photo and recognized herself when she got the idea. . .then the blind daughter came to see what it was all about. She groped among the other arms and hands and found a photograph and felt of it and realized it was a paper sort of thing and immediately took it to fold and tear, which caused a good deal of added pandemonium for a moment or two, before she decided she wasn't supposed to do that.

I almost had missed her coming, but looked up just in time. Before I'd only seen her sitting or being lead to meet me and later, away, never proceeding on her own. This time she'd come from deep inside the house alone, walking carefully, with her balance lingering on her back foot at every step, and slowing when she got near the edge of the living room, where the floor stepped down a few inches to the cash register and then again to the floor of the coffee shop (which itself has three different levels). Those steps served her as markers for the edges of the regions of her universe. She was nearly stopped when she came to the first drop off and her little toes searched for the edge, crawling ahead of her tiny foot until she found it. Then she stepped confidently down and took the two strides that carried her across the cash register flat to the next step and she paused again while her toes found the drop off. . .and again, down and confidently moving ahead, though with one hand in front of her, making a quick back and forth motion looking for obstructions. After the fuss over not tearing up the photo Duy took her back to the living room and found her something else to work with. As soon as he was settled back in next to Thanh continuing to try to make me understand what was on his mind, back she came, to each drop off and across the intervening flat, with the little toes hunting for the drop offs and her hand flying back and forth in front of her looking for obstructions, or, in this case, for a chair. Finding the chair, she quickly figured out which way it faced and turned it to face the rest of us across the aisle, crawled up and began fussing with her current piece of paper. It was a CD wrapper, brightly colored liner notes (though of course the colors meant nothing to her) inside of a clear plastic bag. . .a tough clear plastic bag. She could tell the paper was inside but couldn't find the opening to pull it out, so Duy pulled it out for her and handed both pieces back. So much for the liner notes. Bit by one-inch bit she tore them up, tried them on as barrettes (sometimes rubbing them fiercely into her hair) and then discarding them to begin again. At the end she was left with the plastic CD bag, still intact, clasped between her feet. She tugged at it a while then gave it up and held the whole thing up to the side of her head, tried it in various positions. . .and threw it on the floor. Duy went looking for more paper.

I can describe so much activity, it went on for half an hour or more, since Thanh was trying very hard, dictionary and pen in hand, to make me understand that Duy had invited me to his family memorial dedication four days hence. I'd actually figured out it was an invitation and the date and time, but hadn't yet grasped the significance. Here, where ancestors are revered almost as gods, and are seriously believed to dwell among the living as important members of the family still, the family memorial, literally, a house for the dead, is a very important (and often very elaborate) structure. Most are simply an alcove or a niche in a wall or the space on top of a dresser, with a scarf, a photograph or two of the ancestors, incense, fruit, rice and flowers, but in the countryside they are often complete houses with gorgeous ornamentation and imposing inscriptions. I've no idea what the dedication of a new one involves, but no doubt will soon find out. Communication however was failing us, dictionary and all. Finally I pointed out that there were people at the hotel who spoke English, and, relieved, Thanh set about writing out a formal invitation for me (I have it still, beautifully lettered on a scrap of paper, carefully torn from a book of accounts, with columns of figures and what they were for on the other side). . .

And so I left again, feeling quietly delighted with life.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a slow reader, been going hit-or-miss, sometimes from one end, then the other, then just plop in the middle. So I just got to this day of yours. . . . I'm quite at ease letting you be up to your navel in the typhoon flood waters while I'm comfortable, looking at the superb photos. Feeling slightly guilty I guess but nothing I can't handle. This day on the other hand moves me deeply. Legally blind and partially sighted, I've spent a fair amount of time with blind people. This story with its images of the torn paper, the testing for hair ornaments, above all, the toe finding the steps, the quickness with the caution, orienting the chair to the group. I've been looking right over your shoulder on this one, my tears mixing with the rain on your bald head--not pity! just love. Thanks (more than I can say) for sharing this day. Allen