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From the curved, brick street.

I landed in Huntington a few nights ago, to the warm home of my friends Sara and Jeffrey, so thankful for their hugs and hospitality. For the first few days, I felt very disoriented and at once out of place and completely at home. There’s a slightly dizzying disquiet for me here. Loud echoes and reverberations from adolescence and its maddening tincture of desire, anxiety, hopes and pain. My first love, first sex, first rock and roll, first hangover, first crushing heartbreak, first glimpse of existential emptiness. When I arrived in town I wandered a bit and ended up driving past the house where we had lived on Rugby Road. I stopped and looked up at my bedroom window. The curtain was open and I could see light purple paint on the wall and a little girl’s collection of pink and glitter and ribbon. I felt my throat close up a little and my head start to separate from my body. It was dark out, cold and damp. It was hard to stay in that spot with the tsunami of memories and emotions flooding and choking me. I drove on.

Before getting to Huntington, I stopped in Portsmouth, Ohio, where we lived for six years or so, pre-adolescence. A once bustling industrial city on the river, Portsmouth is now struggling under the dual curses of poverty and fundamentalist religion. I arrived feeling an exuberance for tracking down my old haunts; the baseball field, the river bank, the houses where we lived, the woods where we played. My sparkly excitement was met with large swaths of heavy, brown despair. Nihilism, broken minds, and cancer treatment ads covering giant billboards. Life was often difficult in Portsmouth where I spent some of the grayer years of my coming up. There is some nostalgia, and a few seriously fun memories of rolling down grassy hills, learning to ride a bike with no hands, and the neighborhoods where we lived, with whole societies of children that encompassed friends and enemies, where games of kick-the-can or red-rover were played with to-the-death ferocity.

Before Portsmouth I wandered around Granville, Ohio, where the blissful, idyllic parts of my early childhood reside, all sledding in deep snow, walks to the duck pond, the summer blackberry feast out back, naps curled up with my mom. Then to Athens, where I was born and later spent my first quarter of college. A quintessential college town with a gorgeous campus and all the important places within about a fifteen minute walk from the main quad. Brick streets and old buildings, front porches, a town warm and friendly, bursting at the seams with the creative and the curious.

My family moved to West Virginia when I was 12 and I left at age 22 for San Francisco. The last time I was in Huntington was spring of ’06, just about a year after my dad died. I came here to find him and see him again, to hear his voice and talk to his spirit that still inhabited the sidewalks and buildings and every tree and blade of grass on the campus of MU where he had taught for thirty-something years. He was easy to find, standing at the river, the mighty Ohio, sacred to all who have grown up along its banks. Spring is gorgeous here, and that trip aligned perfectly with the dogwood trees blooming like crazy, daffodils poking out of their cold hibernation, trees budding, winter coats getting left at home, smiles and warm hellos. Life emerging from cracks in the pavement, clear signs of hope and peace.

This time I’ve entered Huntington from the back door, the end car on the train. I see myself on so many corners, walking my paper route, riding endless hours on my bike. I see myself horny and alive, moving and playing, avoiding traps and bullies, seeking out the fun and adventurous. I see myself afraid, anxious about my place in the world I was growing into. I watch myself from behind, early twenties, loading my gear into an old bread delivery van and driving West. And I sit quietly and look, and stare, and listen, as the light softens and fades, and the frost takes over the cold ground and the naked trees. I don’t want to get close enough to touch or kiss or enter the places of my youth. I am watching from across the street, and that’s close enough.

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Facing West

This morning I had eggs, latkes and a bagel at Katz’s Deli in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Now I’m in a Comfort Inn outside Wheeling West (By God) Virginia. My head is spinning, really hard.

I loved New York. I want to live there.

Last night I parked my car in the Bowery and was walking back toward the full-funk hostel where I was staying when I passed a small café. There was a slight chill in the air and it was drizzling rain. The café entrance was down a few steps and a handful of patrons were spilling out onto the small patio between the sidewalk and the door. There was talking and laughing and the place seemed warm and alive, an inviting contrast to the cold wet loneliness of the sidewalk. I stopped and looked. A beautiful woman in a shiny red dress was leaning out the door. She looked at me and said HI, and I said HI back. I asked if they were still open and she said, in a luscious accent, “Yes, well, it’s my birthday and we’re having a party, and you’re welcome to come in and have some cake.” I went in and sat at the bar and realized most people there were speaking Russian. The bartender, Tatiana (yes.. seriously) steered me toward one of their homemade infused vodkas and I sat and chatted with a guy sitting at the bar. (New Yorkers are so much friendlier than San Franciscans. What’s up with this?) As I was starting to leave, shiny red dress started dancing a tango with one of her suitors. I was mesmerized and tingling, watching and mentally inserting my own hands, my feet, my body into the mix.

I want to live there. In New York. And I want to live in that spontaneous tango.

Driving today from the edge of the East coast with Manhattan still buzzing at my back, toward West Virginia and Ohio, my home states, it felt like I was coming full circle. Looking at my past, from behind, in the light of the present. Or something like that. I feel like I’m sneaking up on myself. When I look at the drawing I’ve made of the trajectory of my life on the map in my head, I’m standing at the Ohio river facing the West coast. It’s very late on a very rainy night in West Virginia, and I’m staring at the back of my own head.

Tomorrow I’m meeting family in Ohio for Thanksgiving. I can smell them pies from here.

Roommates

There’s a mouse in my room. A part time mouse. He shoots in under the door and heads behind the TV table. He hangs out there for ten or fifteen minutes then shoots back out the door. I watched him do this three or four times last night. What the hell is he doing? At first I thought he was after the food I had in a bag under that table, but he didn’t bother it. Is he a drug runner? Mice all act like they’re on speed, anyway, running like crazy from corner to corner, acting like freaks. What the hell?

There are rats above my room, living in the ceiling above the bathroom. They rustle and fight and argue and screech at each other all night. There’s a herd of them, and sometimes it sounds like one or more are being slammed against the wall, getting the shit beat out of them. Thud, thud, screech, scramble. The noise from their rat wars is so loud that it sounds like parts of the ceiling are breaking under the strain. They don’t bother me too much since I don’t have to look at them.

The cutest of all the critters I’m sharing my room with is a small green lizard. Counting tail, he’s maybe six inches long, but he’s never fully stretched out. He climbs along the wall in a scriggly “S” motion, skittering two or three feet at a time. He comes in through a crack where the broken air conditioner sits in the wall and meanders around, looking for the hole above the door where a power cable sticks out. He pokes his head in and then slowly enters the hole, his tail sometimes sticking out for a bit.

A few days ago I found him on my bed, just sitting there, next to my pillow. He hung out there for a while, maybe asleep, but I doubt it. I moved closer and he jetted up the headboard and hung out there long enough for me to get a good picture of him. He’s cute, with a lean and efficient body, a tapered tail and mottled green skin. I’m sure his coloring serves as camouflage outside on a tree, but against the pink walls of this room he ain’t hidin’ from nobody.

I think that’s pretty much it for the menagerie; a cockroach, a cricket, mouse, rats and little green lizard, all sharing a small room with a tall bald man from USA.

Lights on

There’s a cockroach in our room. I see him when I go in the bathroom at night and turn on the light. He’s big, and fat, and has really long feelers. He’s shiny and brown and seems to be in excellent health. He’s probably looking for his companion, whom I smushed and flushed a couple nights ago. You see, I grew up with a hatred of cockroaches. Actually, more of a frightened loathing. When I see a cockroach, I usually jump just a little bit. My skin crawls. My throat tightens, and I immediately make a plan for how I’m going to extinguish the little bastard.

It took me three stomps to kill the first one. He was also big, and thick, and really crunchy. When I finished him off, my roommate yelled “you didn’t kill it, did you?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Why? He wasn’t hurting you. He was a harmless living thing.”

Ross has some kind of respect for these creatures, something having to do with them being able to survive a nuclear holocaust. As I flushed the guy down the toilet, I felt a pang of guilt. Ross was right. The bug had no ill intent. He was just looking for some dead skin or some mold from which to fashion a nice dinner.

This cockroach is still alive, the beneficiary of tenuous Buddhist generosity gingerly visiting upon my conscience. He slowly walks around the edge of the tub, sniffing with those gigantic feelers. I swear he’s looking for his friend. When I first decided to let him live and wondered if he was missing his pal, I muttered under my breath “Too bad. Let that be a lesson to you sewer sucking bastards.” Now I’m really trying to see him as just another of God’s noble creatures. Some mama cockroach’s son. Maybe someone’s lost pet.

Spiritual practice with a cockroach.

Just stay out of my bed, you fucker.

Lights out

There’s a cricket in our room. As soon as the lights go out, he starts his song. One cricket in a room sounds just a little desperate, crick cricking with everything he’s got to an audience of… people sleeping? Is he lost? Or is it every cricket’s dream to squeeze through and get “in”? Afterall, it’s a pretty sweet venue for a solo act — marble floors, painted concrete walls… great acoustics. I don’t know what he’s doing. Looking for love? Trying to find his friends? Announcing that he needs a late night snack? Maybe he’s chanting, his cricketing a sonic driver for a shamanic bug journey. Maybe he just loves to sing, waiting patiently for the dark so he can rub those hairy hind legs together. I’m also not sure he’s a he, but I think the lady crickets are the ones quietly being sung to, sitting in the corner pretending to not pay attention as the boy crickets desperately try to win their favor. In the dark.

What sounds a little sad is that, after half an hour or so, the cricketing becomes irregular until, a few minutes later, it stops altogether. What’s going on? Is he tired? He waits all day long until it’s dark so he can sing his legs off, and then he poops out after half an hour. Cricket? Did you sing yourself to sleep?

My first paan

“I’ll have one, too!”, I shouted above the din of traffic. Pravhdeep had already had one paan today and this would be his second. I had seen men chew wads of this stuff throughout India and was curious, but never enough to try one. For some reason I had a thought that it was briefly intoxicating, or maybe like a strong caffeine hit. I was feeling a bit adventurous, but also asked Pravhdeep about any affect on the mind. He just looked at me with confusion.

The man in the small makeshift stall took two betel leaves out of a bowl of water, patting them once with a rag. First good reason to not put this mess in my mouth. On the leaves he spread some kind of white paste, then some brown paste. Then a sprinkling of nuts, a spoonful of fennel seed, a finger glop of what looked like dark red preserved fruit, then he folded it up and handed it to me.

“What do I do? Eat it, or just chew it?”
“Eat.” said Pravhdeep, as he waited for his.

I looked back at the jeep.

“If this goes wrong, will you guys take me to the hospital?” I yelled, half serious.
“You gonna eat that thing? You’re in trouble.” Ross called from the front seat.

Something mostly clear was dripping out from inside the leafy wad and I kind of froze.

“Put in!” Pravhdeep demanded.

I took a breath and stuck the thing in my mouth but couldn’t quite get it all in. Pravhdeep reached over and shoved it fully in my mouth with his fingers. I started to chew and laugh at the same time and first noticed that some of the nuts were not giving in to the pressure of my teeth. Those were the first to come out, dropping to the ground. I kept chewing and my attention wandered to all the different flavors; sweet, sour, tangy, earthy, green, rich, brown and red. My salivary glands kicked in and soon my mouth was full of watery, leafy, nutty, fruity something. Rather strong aromas worked their way up the back of my sinuses, which was pleasant and somewhat comforting. I was kind of enjoying it. I chewed for a long time to try to get the pieces, mostly the leaf, into bits small enough to swallow.

This was one of several stops along the busy road back to Derha Dun. We had done a morning workshop in a small public school in the village of Vikas Nagar, 40km from Derha Dun. The workshop had gone well, although the number of students was much smaller than previous mornings and the timing was off, so there was less time for art. The students in this tiny rural school were incredibly shy and at first seemed to not believe that they were actually allowed to have fun at this. I’m traveling with my good friend Ross as he does the Peace Exchange part of his Create Peace Project. This was my fourth workshop and I’m enthralled and totally in love with this project. There are always several moments that steal my heart, usually somewhere around the time the kids ‘get’ that they are going to make art on a card and send a message of peace to kids in the US, all the way on the other side of the planet. In exchange for their efforts they will receive a card with art and a message from their unseen contemporaries in California. Their eyes get big and they get excited and my little heart melts. I love this.

The chewing continued, but the mouthful of chunky mush never got to the place where I wanted to actually swallow. I couldn’t stop thinking about that bowl of water and the dirty rag, not to mention that I was not at all sure about swallowing those leaves. I crossed the road and spit out as much as I could, hacking my way back to the jeep and continuing to let fly pieces of leaf and fennel out the back window as we drove.

“Your tongue is red!” Pravhdeep shouted as the jeep rumbled down the road. OK, I tried paan. Sort of. Close enough.

Dalat… with the sistahs.

April 27, 2007

The first time I went to Dalat I was in a van full of nuns. We started driving from their convent in Ho Chi Minh City early in the morning and filled every seat in that thing. With all our luggage and food for the trip we were packed pretty tightly. On the road we had a breakfast of soft cheese and baguettes. Parisian style bread is one of the nicer legacies from the French occupation and you can find it all over Ho Chi Minh City (the new name for Saigon). That, and clean ice, which is great considering the heat in southern Vietnam. Iced jasmine tea and incredibly delicious fruit shakes keep the body cool and the tongue happy. I have at least two a day. Every day. We made several stops along the way, mostly for more food. The sisters have several friends who operate farms and orchards and I had four different types of fruit that day that I had never seen. I don’t remember the names, except for one. Jack fruit. A jack fruit is a huge thing, about the size of a bloated football. It’s got a thick green skin with little points all over it and it grows in clusters, hanging like bizarre growths from the armpits of the jack fruit tree. Inside are chewy melon colored segments that are sort of like not very juicy mango. Tasty, if a little odd.

We were heading to Dalat to visit one of the five schools for blind children that the sisters operate. If you want to know love let a three year old blind kid who can’t speak English crawl into your lap and decide he wants to move in. This little one wanted to touch everything and when he found my camera hanging from my neck he wouldn’t let go of it, caressing and clutching every surface, “seeing” it with his fingers. Later in the day it took me quite a while to get all the grimy jack fruit out of all the nooks and crannies.

At one point in the drive the sisters started singing. Lovely, sweet, harmonious voices lilting through the rumbling vehicle. The singing turned into chanting which I surmised were prayers. Not understanding a word of Vietnamese I could still feel the devotion and the love they were expressing. I felt warm and accepted in their company. Completely comfortable and very well cared for. We stopped for lunch and feasted on tangy soup, grilled chicken, savory BBQ fish and piles of steaming rice. Before lunch arrived there were small bowls of Spanish peanuts, the kind with the red skin left on. The sisters would meticulously peel the skins off and let them fall to the floor, creating a swirling little forest of red.

My reason for being on that bus was an invitation I had received from Sister Thoa. She is a friend of a friend of mine at work and I had contacted her to see about visiting the school that’s located in HCMC. She was very happy to show me around and I spent an entire afternoon at the school that day. I got to see how blind kids learn to write in brail and heard them play music. I got a tour of some of the software they use on the computer that reads text for them and can also read commands and messages. The kids can become quite proficient on the computer because they perceive it differently from sighted people and are able to memorize commands and keystrokes much faster. Many of the kids are able to go to regular high school after a few years with Sister Thoa and the teachers there. Some are disabled in other ways but might still be able to learn a craft or skill. Some go on to massage school as blind masseurs are quite in demand. The ones with multiple disabilities will have to go to other schools or institutions when they reach a certain age.

The absolute highlight of my day there, and one of the highlights of the last few years of my life, was that I got to sit in on a music class. There were two girls playing the Koto, the Japanese stringed instrument where one hand does the plucking and the other bends the notes. One boy on keyboard and another girl on a beautiful instrument with one string, the name of which I could not understand but translated into something having to do with the moon. There was a wall with mandolins hanging all over it and when I mentioned that I played, that was all they needed to hear. I was in. The teacher sang the song to me and I eventually picked it up. A sweet Vietnamese melody that the kids had become quite good at. Playing in that little impromptu ensemble was sweeter than I can describe. To communicate musically with those blind children was as intimate as if I had touched their souls. It transcended everything; sight or no sight, Vietnamese or English, young or old… nothing mattered but that song. We made music and it felt like a moment of heaven on earth. We were all happy little musicians when we finally got it right.

The nuns and volunteers who run these schools are made of pure love. They give and give from a seemingly endless supply of kindness and patience. The schools are very modest and don’t get any support from the government or the church at large, instead relying on donations and income from selling the crafts the students make. The kids live onsite and the parents don’t have to pay for their children to attend the school.

When we arrived in Dalat we visited the second school of the day. I was invited to join them for dinner and again we feasted. This time it was a soup that was cooked on a small propane burner in the center of our table. A boiling pot of broth, fresh seafood, raw greens, all mixed on the spot and ladled out fresh and yummy over rice noodles.

I had neglected to read in my guidebook that Dalat is considerably cooler than Saigon. I had only sandals and thin pants with no jacket or hat. It was a tad uncomfortable. I stayed in a nice hotel and then next day took a walk to the lake in the center of town. As I was walking to the market before catching my bus back to Saigon a young man stopped on his motorbike and started talking to me. This has been a common occurrence throughout my trip. People are just that friendly. Often they want to sell you something, like a ride on the motorbike, but just as often they’re simply curious as to what a bald white man is doing in their town. Hinh was the young man’s name and we quickly started talking about the war. His father had worked for the Americans during the war and was upset when we left the country to be overtaken by the communists. He spent two years in prison and another two years in a “re-education” camp. Since he had been working for the Americans he was lucky to still be alive. He was still alive and is doing well.

Hinh belongs to a loose knit group of moto-guides called the Easy Riders. They are almost legendary as guides, taking folks for day trips or often for much longer journeys. Next Monday, Hinh will pick me up in Hoi An and we’ll head into the Central Highlands for a few days to see the Ho Chi Minh Trail and visit some small ethnic minority villages in the hills. He’ll then drop me at a beach town and I’ll make my way up north.

So, tonight is my last night in Saigon. I arrived here on the ninth of April and have totally fallen in love with this city. Vietnam is exploding. Since following the example of China and moving towards Capitalism, their potentially overheating economy is going nuts, projected to grow by nearly 8% this year. Blah blah… but what that means is that things are changing quickly and everyone is aware of it. Hinh mentioned to me in our brief talk that he’s very excited about Vietnam joining the World Trade Organization. I cautioned that this might have as much negative impact as positive.

This city buzzes with motorbikes and at rush hour they converge at intersections in teaming masses of chaos. You can see everything on a motorbike, from families of five to merchants transporting goods. If it’s not on a motorbike it’s on a bicycle, or a cart. If it’s not on wheels, it’s being carried by a woman on two baskets suspended by a pole on her shoulder. Yeah, like you’ve seen in the movies, complete with the conical straw hat. The piont is, everything is moving.

So much of life happens on the street here. Small stands or carts with all types of food being cooked on the sidewalk with a handful of plastic chairs setup for patrons. Folks do their work on the sidewalk, they cook dinner, raise their kids, eat, talk, laugh, argue, and if it’s hot enough, pull out a lounge chair and sleep on the sidewalk.

Things I’ve seen sold from bicycles, carts or carried by hand: stacks of books and videos that must weigh 35lbs., taller than the seller and held together with a strip of material; dried fish hanging from a rack on the back of a bicycle with a small platform and tiny coal oven for heating the sauce; old men with lottery tickets; cigarettes, sunglasses, lighters, toys, fingernail clippers and other items for personal grooming; kids with flowers, kids with packages of gum, mothers with babies selling sugar-free Dentyne; women with two small baskets, one with a small charcoal oven and the other with batter and molds for making fresh waffles; a man on a bike with a loudspeaker playing a recording of a woman’s voice saying the same thing over and over, apparently advertising the large box of baguettes on the back; and… get this… corn. CORN Y’ALL! Corn hanging from a small rack over a little table that contains a small charcoal grill on which to grill said corn, all on a bicycle!

Did you get that? Grilled corn. On a bike! Rolling right up to you with all it’s grilled yummy goodness. Can life get any better than that?!! I say no. No, it cannot.

I have been so warmly received here, especially when folks find out I’m American. I’m a bit surprised by that. Not one note of animosity or resentment. Not a sneer or frown or bad word coming my way. Just warm handshakes, big smiles and welcome to Vietnam. The Vietnamese people have seen so many foreigners invade their country that they’re very happy to have it back and fiercely intent on remaining independant. They don’t live in the past and they just want to get on with the business of living their lives and growing their country. The dynamism is infectious.

And it’s so easy to travel here. Surprisingly so. Vietnam is an easier country to travel in than the United States . Well, actually most countries are better suited for foreign travel than the US, so that’s not really saying much. Let me try again. Vietnam is as easy to travel in as any country I’ve ever visited. So… if you’re thinking of heading out of the country for a vacation, come to Vietnam. The people are awesome, the scenery is beautiful, and the food will leave you smiling and begging for more.

Oh… the second time I will visit Dalat? At the end of this motorbike trip.

This is my first post in a long time and there’s an awful lot I’ve left out; Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia. Some of the most intense experiences of my life. They’ll have to wait for later posts.