If I were back in the States, I suspect that I’d be doing what most of my friends are doing now–wringing their hands, yelling or throwing things at the television or just staring wide eyed and slack jawed at the inanities and sorrowful state of our politics.
I didn’t watch the first presidential debate. It’s Tuesday morning here in Osaka, and watching television during the day depresses me. I don’t feel much of a duty to watch and I expect that it will be talked about until the end of the Republic (which seems like it’s looming), so I’ll have many chances to hear/read about it.
Sujata took the kids to Universal Studios (thank you, Sujata!), which left me a full, wide open day to do as I please and the best part (so far–it’s still afternoon) was a swim at the Osaka Pool.
I haven’t been able to swim since we were in Phnom Penh and that was nearly a month ago. I couldn’t find a decent pool in Vietnam and up until today that was the case in Japan as well. It’s not like there aren’t good pools here, it’s just that they can be difficult to get to, especially when you rely on walking (Sapana calls it Bus #11) or public transportation. Deciphering pool schedules in Japan is also challenging. Yesterday morning I checked the Osaka Pool schedule and it said they were open so I walked the one mile to the site, only to find they were closed. I’m here to spend time with my family and sightsee but I have to say that one of my dreams is to travel around the world visiting and writing about different swimming pools. I generally talk to the folks who work at the pools and I’ve been amazed by the kind of information you can get–for instance in Darwin, I had a long conversation with the pool manager about the history of that particular pool, how it fits in with the larger neighborhood and the fact they the City was getting ready to rip out the existing pool and put in a much larger and competition-friendly pool. This is harder to do, of course, in Japan where all I can say (with hand gestures) is “How much swim?” or “Locker room this way?” I look and sound like such a fool.
The Osaka Pool was, by far, the best pool I’ve found–not just in Japan, but all the places I’ve swam on this trip. First of all, the structure is enormous and it looks like a giant space ship.
Most of the pools I swim at home are housed in ugly, hopelessly square brick buildings that look like some tight-wad public administrator held a gun to the head of the architect who designed them and promised to shoot if the architect went 1 cent over the already-paltry budget. Not the Osaka Pool–the thing looks like it’s ready to lift off.
It’s lovely inside as well. Not private-pool-you-can’t-come-in-here-unless-you-pay-$30 kind of lovely. I never go to those pools anyway–I always look for public pools mostly because they are less expensive–I paid 700 yen which equals 7 US dollars to swim at the Osaka Pool–but also because I don’t like going to those toney places anyway.
Like so many other things in Japan, you purchase your entry ticket at a vending machine, even though there is a lovely person sitting behind the counter just a few paces from the machine.
The locker room was spacious and clean and it even had lockers with free locks. This is a big plus–most of the places I swim at don’t even have lockers, let alone free locks. On more than a number of occasions, I’ve had to tote my shoes, my bag and whatever else I was carrying with me to the pool side and kind of keep an eye on it between strokes.
The very best thing about the Osaka Pool, though, was that it was 50 meters. I love 50 meter pools because I feel like I can really get my strokes going and I just love the freedom and beauty of that long line ahead of me.
I was lucky, too, in that the pool was virtually empty today. I had an entire lane all to myself. This, too, is a big deal. One of the reasons I love to swim is because I don’t have to think about anything outside of what I’m doing but if I’m sharing a lane I have to keep an eye on the other person and wonder if they are overtaking me or vice versa. When I’m running or cycling, for instance, I always have to be thinking “Is that dude in the car going to hit me?” or “Can I pass this other cyclist without getting hit by the oncoming car?” I don’t mind sharing lanes at the pool and, in fact, when it’s crowded and I have my own lane I always make way for another swimmer (a lot of swimmers don’t do this and it’s really annoying).
I listened to Charles Mingus’ Ah Um on the walk to the pool and Nick Cave’s The Good Son on the way back. Then I stopped and picked up some fresh onigiri (I am going to miss Japanese onigiri!) and ate it back at our apartment. I thought about the debate and the upcoming election a little bit, but it felt more like a pesky insect that buzzes your head everyonce in awhile.
Okay, the first thing you need to know is that “Hai!” means “Yes!” in Japanese. The exclamation point is very important because it’s not “Hai.” It’s “Hai! Hai!” so you say it with enthusiasm.
“Hai!” is a fun word–it’s playful and strong and full of vigor. Maybe you know “Hai!” from the Flaming Lips’ great song, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” a song about a young Japanese girl who saves Tokyo from robots programmed to destroy the city. The tune starts with Wayne Coyne’s scratchy, tentative vocals: “Her name is Yoshimi/She’s a black belt in Karate,” and then almost before he can finish the last word of the line, “karate,” in the middle soundscape you hear a small but strong female Japanese voice shout, “Hai! Hai!” I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times and I still find those Hais thrilling. My kids have been singing along to “Yoshimi” since they were wee ones and they, too, still love to shout out the “Hai! Hai!” parts of the song.
It makes sense that the Flaming Lips would tap into this–they are the rock and roll embodiment of the Japanese “Hai!”
If you visit Japan, an excellent place to find the “Hai!” of this great country is at the professional baseball games, as we did last week.
My friend, David Cooper, told me that Japanese baseball games were something to see–a real insight into the culture so last Sunday afternoon as we were walking around Tokyo, Sujata said, “Let’s go to a baseball game tonight.” A short time later, we had tickets in hand for a twilight game between the Swallows and the Tigers.
We arrived to the stadium about a half hour before first pitch and as we approached the gates I heard a marching band. It sounded like any given Big Ten university campus on a Saturday afternoon before a big gridiron matchup. I could help but wonder aloud, “A marching band at a baseball game?”
The marching band was still playing and I could tell that there were actually two marching bands–one for the home and the other for the away team, I presumed. I looked onto the field and I noticed something else rather strange: cheerleaders. “Are we in the right place?” I slyly asked Sujata. She checked the tickets with mock seriousness and announced that, yes, we were in the right place. This, too, I have to say, is one of the great things about visiting Japan: you never really know what you are going to get, but if you just stick with it, whatever it is, it turns out to be pretty cool.
Our seats were on the first base line about halfway between first base and the right field wall. Pretty good seats for the equivalent of 20 USD. We had been walking around all day–my legs were tired and I really wanted to try an Ebisu–the premium beer of Sapporo–so I looked around for the beerman–you know him: the grizzled staple of all MLB professional baseball games who trudges up and down the stairs with pre-poured Coors, PBR or Budweiser and who sloshes half of the beer in your lap as you turn over your money and he hands you the beer. That guy.
Here, though, in the Tokyo Stadium, I couldn’t find the beer guy. The closest thing I saw to any beer delivery service were lithe, twenty-something girls in brightly-colored uniforms toting large backpacks and . . . I couldn’t believe my eyes . . . they were carrying kegs on their back and pouring the beer from the keg to a cup as the customers ordered. They gracefully handed out the fresh pours with smiles and “Konnichiwas!” and they ran up and down the steps with the energy of marathon runners.
I was thinking that this was probably Yoshimi’s early training to destroy the evil robots.
Sujata and I noticed all this at the same time and in unison we cried out, “HAI! HAI!” We both waved our hands like first-graders who know the answer to the question the teacher just asked and, within seconds, there was a lovely beer girl pouring us an Ebisu.
We couldn’t have been happier.
The Japanese have many things over the United States. The food is better, more tasteful and healthier. The country is more environmentally conscious than we are, the people are immaculate dressers, have cool haircuts and are gracious, kind and funny.
Now, add the beer girls at the baseball games to that list.
I felt like I had already gotten my money’s worth. And then the game began.
With all the excitement about the suds I sort of lost track of what was happening on the field and in the stands. Sujata told me that when she purchased the tickets, the attendant asked if we wanted seats on the home or away side. Kind of a strange question for a professional baseball game, right? She, rightly, chose the home side and until I started focusing on the larger surroundings I didn’t realize that we were sitting in a sea of white and blue and green shirts–the colors of the Swallows, it turned out. I let my gaze cross the field and there across the third base line and throughout left and into center field was a sea of yellow and white–the colors of the Tigers. Atticus, upon realizing that we were sitting on the Swallows side, looked down at his shirt and duly noted to all of us that his shirt had a very large tiger on it. He knows enough about how American sports fans can be sometimes be crazy and violent so he became a bit frightened and asked if he could buy a Swallows shirt to cover up his Tiger. We went back and forth on this for a bit (I said don’t worry, but he was having none of it). He finally snuck out in search of a Swallows shirt, returned sans shirt but clutching a bag of french fries and seemed to forget about his oppositional shirt fairly quickly.
By that time, there was so much going on in the stands and on the field that it was easy to forget any perceived danger from aggressive fans.
Between innings, the cheerleaders for the Swallows and then the Tigers ran out onto the field and danced to Japanese pop songs. The Swallows mascot hammed it up with the cheerleaders, as mascots are wont to do.
When they were finished, fans of the Swallows started singing a whole panoply of fight songs that, from what I could tell, were paeans to their home team.
The game itself was pretty much like any other baseball game, although the Japanese pitchers really take their time between pitches so the innings go on forever. I timed it once and the Swallows pitcher took a full 90 seconds between pitches. We stayed at the game for two hours and that was only the end of the fourth inning!
It was the fight songs, though, that were the most interesting and exciting parts of our first live experience with Japanese professional baseball. I don’t know whether or not the Japanese have a good sense of rhythm, but judging from the display they put on at the Swallows/Tigers game, I’d say they do indeed. All of the fight songs began with a kind of rhythmic build up. The band would lay out the tune and the fans picked up with the band, clapping their hands. Many people came to the game with two smallish baseball bats that I quickly realized were made of a hard plastic. They would whack the bats together, so the clapping hands, the music from the band, the singing and the whacking bats–all that occasioned a wonderfully organized cacophony.
As the Swallows band and fans were belting out their fight songs, the Tigers’ side patiently waited and when the Swallows were finished, the Tigers’ band and fans started up with their own fight songs. It went on and on like this for the entire time that we were in the stadium and I’m sure that as the game went into the late innings, the singing, playing and clapping got even more robust.
There is much to be learned about Japanese culture in all of this. First of all, as I noted earlier, you see the graciousness and orderliness of the culture here at these games. I did not hear one fan yell in anger or taunt the opposing team nor did I notice the home team heckling their own players. There were many opportunities for some of the bad behavior you might see at any given MLB game–the Swallows really sucked that night and the Tigers’ starting pitcher beaned one of the Swallows best players in the head and nothing happened. The benches didn’t flinch, the fans actually went quiet and, this I couldn’t believe, the trainers took the player into the dugout for 5-10 minutes, looked him over, pronounced him okay to return to the game. He ended up striking out, so maybe they should have left him in the dugout.
We’re on the supersonic fast train to Kyoto right now–I’m hoping we can catch one more baseball game before we leave Japan.
One of the many things I have loved about traveling through southeast Asia and, now, Japan, is the ways that people in this part of the world greet each other.
Greetings are, of course, cultural codes that are so ingrained into our daily lives that they seem natural or even invisible. When you travel though, seemingly quotidian things, like saying hello to friends and strangers, become interesting spaces to understand and communicate across cultures.
In the States, there are a variety of ways to greet folks. If you come across an acquaintance–not a close friend–you would probably say, “Hello, it’s so nice to see you.” Men tend to reach out and shake the person’s hand. A woman might keep her hands down at her side or she might show her palms in an act of welcome and openness. Unless it’s a professional setting, women don’t tend to shake hands and men don’t tend to shake hands with women.
If you came across someone who is a really good friend, you might be more demonstrative. You might say something like, “Oh, man, it’s so great to see you! How have you been?” Or, you might use another term. I like to call my good friends, “Brother,” “Sister,” “Big Man” or “Big Fella.”
In much of southeast Asia, a greeting is generally accompanied by namaskar– all you do is to put your hands together in front of your chest so that the tips of your fingers are just below your chin and then slightly bow your head toward the person you are greeting. So, if you are in Cambodia, you would greet someone by saying “Sousday,” as you are doing namaskar.
It is not common to shake hands in many parts of southeast Asia. This took a bit of getting used to for me, as shaking the hand of a stranger or even a good friend is very natural for me and for most Americans, I suspect. The few times I did put out my hand in southeast Asia, people would look at me kind of uncomfortably and then grab my extended hand with both of their hands. All you can do then, is put your hand on top of theirs so what you are left with is four hands piled on top of each other.
It’s awkward and I only did that once or twice.
It didn’t take long for me to get used to greeting folks with a namaskar. I should note here, too, that I’m aware that there are distinctions between namaste and namaskar, but for this post, I’m using them coterminously.
Sujata likes to tease all the yoga people back in Denver who are inclined to greet each other with a namaskar and say, “Namaste.” She finds it humorously affecting and a mild form of cultural appropriation. “They’re just saying ‘Hello,'” she laughs. I’m of a very different mind: I don’t think it’s odd for people to do namaskar at home and I loved doing namaskar when I greeted people when we were in Bali and Cambodia. I’m a tall white guy, so I already felt sort of awkward in many of the places we went and doing namaskar helped me to fit in or to at least demonstrate my respect for where we were.
As I’m thinking about this now, I’m coming to realize how gendered hand shaking is in the States. And it’s not just that, as I mentioned above, there are different expectations for women and men when it comes to greetings. It’s also the way greetings, especially handshakes, are done. American men tend to tightly grasp the hand of the person they are shaking and they put their shoulder into it a bit so the action can oftentimes come across as assertive. Sometimes men are judged if they have a ‘weak’ or ‘limp’ handshake.
Namaskar is actually a much more gender neutral way of greeting. Part of that may simply the root meaning of namaskar–it’s to demonstrate respect for the person you are greeting. Because there is not physcial contact between the greeters, it simply cannot become an act of dominance. In the same way, men and women do namaskar exactly the same way; that is, there is not a gendered way (from what I could tell) to namaskar. And, given that there is no physcial contact (as in a handshake or a hug) men and women can namaskar to each other without eithe paryt feeling uncomfortable.
Tuk tuk drivers are ubiquitous in Cambodia–you can’t walk out of your house or a cafe or restaurant, let alone cross an intersection without a tuk tuk singing out, “Sir! Tuk Tuk?!” If you did acknowledge them and say “No thank you,” most of the drivers would quickly respond, “How about tomorrow?”–as if I knew when I’d be needing a tuk tuk a full 24 hours later! Most people–foreigners and nationals–just ignore them (unless they need a tuk tuk, of course) and just keeping walking without acknowledging the request. I spent enough time in tuk tuks, especially in Cambodia, to realize that these guys are really super cool, friendly and hard working. Most of them love to chat and they’ll offer all kinds of advice and insights into the city. And even if they are not garrolous, you have to respect what they do–it’s hard and dangrous work, there’s more competition than you can imagine and they don’t make money. They are not, for instance organized into tuk tuk collectives (like taxi drivers, for instance) so they are all out there struggling for customers. Given that, then, after a few days in Cambodia, when a tuk tuk driver bawled out to me I would always acknowledge him with a namaskar and the typical Khmer greeting, “Sousday!” If nothing else, it made me feel good that I was acknowledging these underappreciated purveyors of cheap (and fun!) street travel, and most of the time, they smiled and, sang out “Sousday!” accompanied by a namaskar.
There’s another reason I like to greet people with namaskar: it reminds me of Walt Whitman and the mid-nineteenth-century American writers I love. Here are the opening lines of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
These are some of my favorite lines in all of American literature partly because what Whitman is doing is performing a literary namaskar for his reader. Among the great early American writers, Whitman wasn’t alone in his love of eastern culture and traditions. Emerson, Thoreau and all their Transcendentalist friends (save that old codger, Hawthorne) were walking around Cambridge and Concord with copies of the Vedas and the Upanishads tucked under their arms, looking for ancient literary and cultural inspiration as they forged their own. Emerson read deeply among sacred Hindu texts, and he turned Thoreau on to them as well. Some of Emerson’s greatest essays and poem directly and indirectly invoke Indian mythology and culture and Thoreau based much of his writing on his reading of eastern texts.
If Walt Whitman was passing through any southeast Asian country he, too, would freely namaskar everyone he met.
I think that is one of the things I liked so much about southeast Asia: there were so many opportunities to connect with people. I could have stopped and chatted with any tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap in the same way that I could have chatted with any shop owner, restaurant owner, patron or bar fly in Ubud or Phenom Penh. It’s the same way in Ireland and that’s probably why I like Ireland so much, although doing namaskar in Ireland might get you punched in the face.
Let me begin with some context and qualifications: I love traveling with my children. They are engaged with their surroundings, inquisitive, thoughtful and they have a great deal of strength and stamina. Rarely do they complain about long travel or sightseeing days and when they do, it’s for a good reason like they are starving or their legs are so tired they are about to fall off. We have done a couple of overnight international flights–by far the most difficult flights because you’re only on the plane for 5-6 hours so you really can’t sleep which means when you land in whichever country you are landing in, all that’s really happened is that you’ve been up all night. It’s hard on me so it’s got to be doubly hard on them but, still, they have powered through these and many other difficult travel experiences with gusto, verve and aplomb. They are polite and gracious to strangers. They have gone for long stretches of time without food or water–because that’s just what happens sometimes when you are traveling–and being vegetarian makes it even more difficult, sometimes, to eat when people are hungry. They are frequently in bed late and up early the next day, and they manage this lack of sleep with incredible fortitude. In short, I can’t expect anything else from my children in regards to our travels so far.
That said, sometimes is just a !@#$% pain in the %^&* traveling with children. It makes me want to (*#%^ scream.
Much of the frustration I feel is compounded by where we are. We’ve spent the last four days, for instance, in Tokyo, a city that is like New York City on steroids, if you can imagine that.
So, if Sujata and I were on our own, here, we’d be fine. We’d go to visit museums and shop during the day, come back to our air b and b then go have a drink (Japanese whiskey is amazing), a nice dinner and then hit a jazz club after that. We’d walk hand in hand down the bustling streets, smiling at all the life and movement, staring up at the amazing verticality of this city and gazing down the neon streets at night.
We, of course, do some of those things, but they are all peppered with moments that are punctuated with one or both of us shouting or whispering in a hard voice, “Hey, don’t walk in front of me!” Or, “Could you please not swing your arms back and forth and to the sides like you are doing jumping jacks?” Or, “Would you please lift your head up and look in front of you–you are running into people and they are giving us dirty looks!” Or, “No, I’m sorry but I can’t repeat, what I just asked your mother. It really doesn’t concern you.” Or, “Do you see Japanese children behaving the way you are behaving right now?”
Sujata summed it up best when she said, “They drive you nuts, but they are so great.”
I should say, though, that sometimes I’m not much better than the kids. I am, happily, able to walk a straight line on the streets of Tokyo and, up until now, I have refrained from flailing my arms around and bouncing them off passersby. I generally don’t fall from standing positions, drop all forms of coins and glasses, blow bubbles in my water, shout weird things in public, like I have Tourette’s, or knock over dishes and cups in restaurants.
But, I do get grumpy, say stupid things to Sujata, complain about things I shouldn’t complain about and wait too long to eat or drink, thereby increasing the possibility of me doing all of the weird things the kids do.
And, since Sujata has planned, and continues to plan, the bulk of this trip–she researched and purchased all the plane tickets, all of our hotels and air b and b stays, she is masterful at using Google maps and she generally finds us places to eat–my major mode of communication her is in the nature of questions, as in:
“Sujata, where are we going tomorrow?”
“Sujata, where are we eating dinner?”
“Sujata, where is a bathroom?”
“Sujata, how do you make an international call?
She, god bless her, takes it all in stride (mostly).
The point here, if there is one, is that traveling changes everything. You gain a lot of control of your life because you don’t have to be anywhere or do anything that you don’t want to do. I, for instance, haven’t sat in a stupid, unproductive ‘meeting’ in over six months and I feel all the better for that. At the same time, you lose control of a lot of things: I don’t always know where we’ll eat our next meal, sometimes it takes a couple of hours in the morning before I can find a cup of coffee, I haven’t gone for a swim in weeks because I don’t have access to pools, I haven’t touched a piano in weeks, it took us about three times longer to get home tonight than I imagined . . . All that said, for now, I’m enjoying the uncertainty and the wackiness of it all. We’ll see how long that lasts . . .
We’ve spent the past month in southeast Asia. We started in Bali, made our way up and around Cambodia and then spent the last week in Saigon. I’ve written about the traffic in Saigon, the museums and rock and roll music in Cambodia and sundry other things that we did and noticed as we moved through this part of the world.
In this post, I’m going to focus on one of the most ubiquitous elements of southeast Asia: the motor scooter.
Back home in Denver, I sometimes see folks driving around on scooters. You see more bicycles and motorcycles, but there are a fair number of scooters. Sujata calls them ‘donor’ cycles, a not-so-subtle suggestion that they are not safe to ride. I’m of the same mind: the only two-wheeled transport I’m comfortable with is a bicycle. I ride my bike to work just about every day, even in the winter, but I don’t trust Denver auto drivers, so ride the side streets and I’m very careful. Until a few days ago, I’ve never been on a motorcycle nor a scooter.
The scooter, though, is the primary mode of transport throughout southeast Asia and I think it would be virtually impossible to spend a month here and not spend even just a little bit of time on a scooter. When we were in Bali, I really wanted to hop on a scooter and ride the meandering country roads that connect the rural inland villages. Tuk tuks were our primary mode of transportation in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap–aside from a couple of close calls, they seemed relatively safe. The scooters in the big cities, though, are a different story. We didn’t see a lot of accidents in the cities but when we did, it always involved a scooter driver on the ground. I had no interest in driving or riding on a scooter in the fast-paced urban areas.
That said, Sujata’s phone rang early one morning while we were in Saigon. She started having a spirited conversation with the caller, hung up a few minutes later and announced, “Hey guys, we are all going on a scooter ride tonight!” My stomach briefly dropped, my eyes got wider than usual and I asked her, “All of us? The kids, too?”
Yup. All of us, and it was all my fault.
Back in Siem Reap, we took a bicycle tour with a local company. I guess they liked us because at the end of the tour they asked us if we’d come back the next day and agree to ride around the city and be photographed for their marketing material. Sujata writes about this in a previous post. One of the terrific things about that experience was getting to know the photographers, two young Colombian nationals, Luis and Dur.
It was Dur who called Sujata and asked if we’d join the food tour that evening in Saigon. She and Luis had a contract to develop some marketing material for a local food tour company–Saigon Food Tours–and they wondered if we’d join the tour so they could photograph us scootering and eating our way through Saigon. Later that evening, after the tour was over, Dur confessed to me, over beers, that she wasn’t even going to call–who would take their children on a scooter tour through Saigon during rush hour? Luis, Dur informed me, said, “Just give them a call–all they can do is say no.”
We said yes.
I’ve written about Saigon traffic in a previous post. If you haven’t read that, all that post really says is the Saigon traffic is nuts and that scooters are the major reason for the traffic chaos in the city. Part of that is simply a result of the sheer volume of scooters in the city: the ratio of people to scooters is almost exactly 1:1. There are just over 8 million people living in Saigon and there are just over 8 million registered scooters in the city.
Saigon traffic really heats up at rush hour, around 4:30 pm. The streets get so congested that many of the scooter drivers–impatient to get home or to the bar–forgo the surface streets and ride up on the sidewalks. Pedestrians are at the bottom of this commuter food chain.
Dur texted us at 4:35 pm.
We traipsed downstairs and there were Dur and Luis, each sitting on the back of scooters driven by young people from the Saigon Food Tour Company.
Sujata, me and the kids were issued helmets, we each hopped on the back of a respective scooter and . . . away we went. My driver’s name was Phan and my first question to him was, “How long have you been driving a scooter in Vietnam?” I wanted him to say, “Oh, I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’ve never had an accident,” but from what I could tell, he wasn’t more than 20 (later he told me he was 22) so his veteran scooter status was questionable.
Phan quickly proved himself adept with the scooter, though. He confidently glided into the wave of traffic and the other six bikes followed behind us.
Within minutes, I was feeling quite at ease. Frankly, I felt safer on the back of the scooter than I did walking on the sidewalks. Phan was a garrulous host–I leaned in over his shoulder as he told me about his life studying economics at one of the many universities in Saigon. He was an industrious, interesting young man: the Saigon Food Tour gig was his third job. Most importantly, he was a big basketball fan, so we talked basketball for at least half the ride.
Saigon is a leafy city with wide boulevards that look a bit like Chicago in places. Spacious roundabouts with wide lanes of traffic dot the city. We found one such roundabout and took four turns around as Luis and Dur snapped photos and caught us smiling and laughing on their video cameras.
I kept half an eye on the kids–Phan and I were pretty far out front, so I couldn’t see them except when we paused at a stop light, or got caught in a traffic jam. The first time I saw Atticus he had a wide-eyed I-Can’t-Believe-You-Made-Me-Go-On-This-Insane-Ride look on his face. Or perhaps it was the You-Are-A-Really-Irresponsible-Parent look. I couldn’t tell. When Eleanor’s scooter pulled up, she was, of course, chattering away in that stream of consciousness, Jack Kerouac sort of way of hers.
Our first stop was one of the thousands of open-air restaurants that serves street food to workers on their way home. There was a great deal of confusion about vegetarians. The Vietnamese think that fish is not meat so we got a few helpings of fish-based street food and I’m pretty sure that one of the dishes had pork in it. Sujata and Atticus ate the fish, but, of course shunned the pork. Eleanor and I took a pass on all of it until fully meat-free dishes were served.
After that, we rode around the city for nearly an hour and a half–that’s a really long time to be on a scooter. I’m 6′ 3″ so my knees stuck out the sides in an awkward, probably semi-dangerous way. Every time Eleanor’s scooter pulled up to Phan and me Eleanor would admonish me to pull my knees in. That said, I was comfortable and happy as we rode on.
The sun set and the lights from the cafes began to replace the sunlight. Saigon residents seem to live their lives outside–the sidewalk cafes and open-air restaurants are always full and they get more crowded as the evening wears on. One of my favorite Saigon scenes was a long line of scooters on the sidewalk and behind the scooters a crowded cafe with men and women and children eating their dinners and enjoying each other’s’ company.
We stopped for dinner at a local barbeque joint–the kind of place we’d never have found on our own. This time, they served us all vegetarian food, except for the frog that was wrapped up in tin foil and that we unwittingly barbequed. Geez.
After dinner, our Saigon Food Tour hosts told us they had one more place to take us. We wound our way through District 4, zoomed through the Saigon River Tunnel and then popped up on the other side, in District 1. It was past nine pm and at that point we’d been on the bikes for nearly three hours. By then the hot afternoon streets gave way to a cool, breezy evening. The streets were emptying out a bit, so Phan and the rest of our drivers opened up their engines and we sped down a wide, open boulevard that turned into a dark, narrow street. We were barreling toward the Saigon River–I could see the city lights flickering off its placid surface. I noticed rows and rows of scooters parked on the side of the street and couples leaned against a long parapet that held back the river. We made a quick right turn. There were loads of people here, mostly couples, arm and arm, walking along the street, perched on the parapet or decamped on blankets–everyone gazing at the bright lights of Saigon from across the river. As our entourage came to a stop, I looked to my right and was nearly blinded by bright white lights high overhead. As my eyes adjusted, I realized that we were underneath the eight iconic, enormous Heineken billboards that mast the east side of the Saigon River. Vietnam has some pretty good beer but the Vietnamese love Heineken because the Heineken red star looks almost exactly like the star of the Vietnamese national flag.
That’s fair enough, I’m alright with Heineken.
Phan told me that this spot was the exact spot where he and his girlfriend of five years got back together after separating for a nearly six months. I looked around and noticed all manner of young couples arm and arm, cheek to cheek, enjoying their lives and settled into this relaxed, romantic scene. As I gazed around at the light from the Heineken billboards shining down on all these people and as I looked across the river at the the tall buildings of Saigon, I thought that this was really the stuff of a Bruce Springsteen song–barefoot girls sitting on the hood of a Dodge and all that. Bruce would would love this side of the Saigon River.
It was late, the kids were tired. So was I. We got on our scooters and headed home.
To the uninitiated, traffic in Saigon is hurly burly.
After spending a nearly a week here–as pedestrians, passengers in cars and vans and, most recently, passengers on four of the city’s 7.5 million scooters–we have learned how to navigate the city streets.
Now, the interplay between scooters, pedestrians, busses, cars and motorcycles seems more like a dance than a fray.
If you ever come to Saigon, here are some basic principles on how to cross the street without losing your life.
Principle One: Never, ever run across the street to avoid onrushing traffic.
To those of you in the United States, I know this sounds counterintuitive and even dangerous. In America, pedestrians who begin to cross a street and suddenly notice an oncoming car will generally walk more quickly, or even run to avoid the getting run over.
It doesn’t work that say in Saigon. When you pick up your feet and begin to run, you make yourself an unpredictable pedestrian. Drivers don’t know what you are doing or where you are going and you will create chaos and disorder. What this means is that, above all other things, you must trust the operators of scooters, cycles and cars and busses. If you are walking at a deliberate pace, if you look the oncoming drivers in the eyes, they will not run you over. It is also okay to hold up your hand and ask them to stop, especially if you have children with you. Drivers won’t even beep their horns, shout, curse, flip you off or give you a weird look. They will simply steer their way around you and go on their way.
Jaywalking is perfectly acceptable in Saigon. Just please follow the principles above if you choose to cross the street in the middle of a block.
There is much to be learned about life in this first principle. Many of us, when we cross a street, or, when we are planning for our future, look for a straight, unobstructed path where there are no cars or scooters barreling towards. We try to mitigate risk so that we may, literally and figuratively, safely get to the other side of the street. There is some freedom, though, in practicing this first pedestrian principle in Saigon: initially it can be unnerving, even terrifying, to step off the sidewalk and notice a long string of traffic coming at you at a relatively quick pace. But then you realize that you are seen and perceived, that drivers make way for you, that, you are indeed part of a larger almost synchronized dance and everything is okay.
Principle Two: Traffic that is turning right (scooters, cars, busses, trucks) will almost never stop nor will those drivers look to their right for any pedestrians who are trying to cross the intersection.
I realize that this seems like a contradiction of the first principle and perhaps it is, to a degree, but for your own safety, if you are pedestrian, just look to your left before you step out into traffic.
Curiously, this principle also applies to one-way streets. For instance, imagine that you are crossing a one-way street with traffic coming at your from you right. In the United States, it would be perfectly reasonable for you to not even bother looking to your left–it’s a one-way street after all and it would be highly unlikely for anyone to be driving the wrong way on a one-way street. In Saigon, though, it’s quite common for drivers–scooters are especially guilty of this–going the wrong way on a one-way street so . . . you’ve been warned.
Principle Three: It is common for scooters and motorcycles to ride on pedestrian sidewalks.
In the United States, most dense urban areas don’t even allow people to ride bicycles on the sidewalks. In fact, unless you are little kid, it’s considered rude to ride your bike on the sidewalk.
This is not the case in Saigon, even for scooters and motorcycles, and what this means for you as a pedestrian is that you have to watch your back, even when you walking on a sidewalk in the middle of a city block. Generally, you can hear the motorcycles because their motors are louder. The scooters, though, can sort of sneak up on you so if you have kids, like we do, who enjoy breaking out into spontaneous dance and acrobatic moves on city streets, make sure that you are always walking behind the children. This way, even if you don’t happen to notice a scooter coming from behind you, you can least yell, “Kids! Scooter behind!”
The next post will continue our explorations of the streets of Saigon, this time on a scooter.
In 1932, in a remote province of Cambodia, a boy named Sinn Sisamouth was a born. Sinn was musical and bookish–he’d sing traditional Khmer songs to the people in his community, he learned to play the guitar and, like many good Cambodia boys at that time, he was interested in sacred Buddhist texts. In 1951, Sinn left his province to study medicine in Phnom Penh. He kept singing, though, and he started writing some of his own songs as well. Sinn finished medical school, became a nurse, married a girl, had four children and, along the way, Sinn Sisamouth became the most famous and prolific singer-songwriter that Cambodia has produced.
By 1975, Sinn was a central figure of the Cambodian rock and roll and pop music scene–think of him as a kind of poet laureate of Cambodian music at the time. He sang traditional Khmer songs, ballads, straight-up rock and roll, covers of American pop songs (sung in Khmer and English), A-go-go songs and Latin and jazz-inspired songs. He sang duets with many other Cambodian singers and he fronted a four-piece rock and roll band. It’s believed that over the course of his short life Sinn wrote over 1,000 songs. From what I can tell he was loved by a wide range of people that included King Sihanouk and the Cambodian royal family as well as ordinary people on the streets of Phnom Penh, Battambang and rural villages throughout the country.
When the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in April of 1975, they were looking for the likes of Sinn Sisamouth–he and his cadre of rock and rollers represented everything that the Khmer Rouge wished to destroy. Sinn escaped to the country for a time, but the Khmer Rouge asked him to come back to Phnom Penh where they (falsely) promised him safety. All we know after that is that Sinn Sisamouth was executed in the Killing Fields. His bones are most likely mixed in with the tens of thousands of other Cambodians in the mass graves at Choeng Ek.
Sinn Sisamouth was at the center of a vibrant rock and roll scene in Phnom Penh from the early 1960s until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge began systematically killing musicians and destroying their recordings. From what I can tell we have access to only about 500 of the 1,000 or so songs that Sinn Sisamouth wrote. The rest were destroyed in the purges. In fact, if you listen to a Sinn Sisamouth song on ITunes or Spotify, what you are actually hearing are recordings that have been transferred from the few cassette tapes and LPs that survived the Khymer Rouge.
That’s a haunting, sad fact.
I’ve been listening to Sinn Sisamouth songs pretty much non-stop for the past week and I find them comparable to the finely-wrought songs of Elvis Costello, Burt Bachrach, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchel. Imagine losing one, or all of them, in a violent purge of artists and intellectuals.
The tragedy of Sinn Sisamouth’s life was repeated in the lives of many other Cambodian rock and roll musicians.
Ros Sereysothea was just an ordinary girl from a remote Cambodian village, but she sang beautifully and in 1967, when she was 17, Ros made her way to Phnom Penh where she quickly established herself as a cornerstone of the Cambodian rock scene and sang many wonderful duets with Sinn Sisamouth. After the 1975 takeover of Phnom Penh, Ros fled to the countryside where she hid until she was discovered by a regime member in 1977. Like Sinn, the details of her death are unknown and her remains have never been found.
And don’t forget Yol Alarung.
The first time I heard a Yol Alarung song I thought, “Oh, he sounds like Neil Young and Howlin’ Wolf (an interesting combination). And then I found the image above and thought he looked like a mash up of Keith Richards and Johnny Rotten, but I have to emphasize here that one of the things that makes pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodian rock and roll so good is that it’s not just mimicking American rock and roll. There are clearly influences, but what the Cambodians were doing was nodding to American rock and then extending it and making it their own. They sing in Khmer and English, they play clean, creative guitar riffs, push out funky, psychedelic keyboard lines and all that’s backed by solid, interesting rhythm sections. I had to resist that temptation to compare what the Cambodians were doing to the Americans and now that I’ve listened to Cambodian rock pretty much non-stop for the past week I can make a pretty fair assessment that they were, by and large, really operating on their own and creating their own brand of rock and roll. This was certainly the case with Yol Alarung. His tune, “Jeas Cyclo” is probably my favorite Cambodian rock and roll song. You can hear some American rock and roll influences, if you listen closely you can hear Yol looking forward to late 1970s and punk as well incorporating elements of psychedelic rock of his time. Plus, I just love anyone who can write lyrics like this:
Riding a cyclo
To central Market
Checking out girls
Wearing maternity blouses
Those maternity blouses
Thought she was knocked up
But she’s not
It’s just a popular new style
Riding a cyclo
To the old market
There’s plenty of girls
They’re all powdered up
Wearing pig tails
They crouch to sit
While buying rambutans
They’re wearing maternity blouses again oh!
Every day I ride a cyclo and check out girls
If this makes me poor, that’s all right
After reading those lyrics–and maybe you have listened to the song as well–it’s not hard to figure out that someone like Yol probably had no truck with the Khmer Rouge, so Yol, like Sinn Sisamouth and Res Sereysothea was taken by the Khmer Rouge and disappeared never seen or heard from again.
Imagine an entire generation of musicians just . . . gone.
If there’s any good news here it can be heard in the likes of bands like Dengue Fever–an LA-based band that combines Cambodian and psychedelic rock.
“Tiger Phone Card” is a good place to start if you haven’t heard them before. Dengue Fever is led by the Chhom Nimol, a talented singer who was born in Cambodia and lived in refugee camps with her family before immigrating to the US, and brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman. Like their Cambodian predecessors, they sing in Khmer and English and seamlessly combine the best elements of American and Cambodian pop.
One of the few regrets I have about our time in Cambodian is that I didn’t really get a chance to hear any live Cambodian rock and roll. There were opportunities, but it’s kind of hard to prowl around rock and roll clubs with kids in tow–one of the few drawbacks of family travel.