Hue Away by patrick carpenter

I remember everything.

I remember it took six steps to cross the balcony to lean on the white ledge to look across the river and through the palm trees to the citadel where the flag was undulating carelessly. The sky was the grey blue that comes after the rain and before the humidity. The wind came and went, came and went, and on it was the muffled chugging of the engines of the long boats sauntering against the current. Songbirds flitted through the palms and three boys came through the vegetable garden with covered bamboo cages and sat silently, staring up in a futile attempt to figure how to trap them. Time passed. There were no horns, just an occasional human voice:

‘I thought he said he was in 104...’

‘…downstairs in thirty minutes...’

‘Wir sehen uns spaeter?’

and the infrequent opening and closing of solid doors. The pool to the left on the grounds was the cleanest Caribbean blue, salted and undisturbed. Over the thick white low wall that separated the pool, the garden, and the grounds from the river, one of the hotel’s chefs was cutting off banana leaves to be used to accent the plates that went out of the kitchen at noon. Women were walking single file and talking down the narrow path to the tourist and fishing boats. It was still morning, but the guests booked on the early flight had already departed and the residence was peaceful, contented.

I walked back inside the room and scanned the handwritten welcome note. Who takes the time to write by hand? I cut into one of the mangos in the basket on the bureau, slicing it sideways along its spine and dicing it into cubes. The room and the open balcony were quiet enough to hear the knife cutting through the sinews. It may have been the best mango I had ever tasted. Great meals make great memories, but can you make a memory of just one slice? Stop now all that is spinning inside your head and just realize how good this is. The city can wait. The itinerary can wait. The day is still ahead. There is enough time for everything. But now give into all the subtle variations of flavor in this singular fruit. I ate the first half on the bed and the second half over the sink as the juice ran down my arm. I raked the skin and the seed with my teeth. I thought, ‘Who buries the best possible version of a fruit in a fully loaded basket in the far corner room on the first floor of a hotel on an unexceptional guest reservation?’ Is it generosity?

The residence I am remembering is La Residence Hue Hotel & Spa, Hue City’s grand hotel. It is part of Accor’s MGallery universe and your reward for reaching the middle of Vietnam. The M is for Memorable, and MGallery hotels are the pride of Accor, distinguished by their settings, their history, their design, their character. La Residence is named obviously: it was the official residence of the French colonial governor. Its grandest rooms are named for noteworthy personalities that graced the building in its first life, and these persons are noted in biographies along the long halls. If anything, they seem to confirm the elegance of the building in their portraits. Who knows if they lived grander or loved deeper than we do now, but they certainly saw to their days with enough savior faire to live up to the building’s dramatic Art Deco styling. Rounded rooms, high ceilings, and wraparound foyers – it all brings to mind the best days of the ocean liner and the grandest theatres. The hotel sits with pride of place on Le Loi, resplendent in white and set back deep in its berth. The entrance flows from a circular graveled driveway and into a lounge, because a good host knows what his guests want before they admit it. Straight ahead is a broad, well-stocked bar backlit by the sun. The ceiling is a structured sunburst, with support beams radiating outwards towards the pool. I sit and sip and stare and understand why the hotel has made the Conde Nast hot list and Reader’s Awards, the Travel and Leisure top hotels lists, and won Hideaway Report’s Grand Award. All this to say it’s really the only place from which to base your excursions into Vietnam’s first capital.

I remember stopping early that first full day on a street along a canal that fed into the Perfume river. Each house a different style from a different era, and seemingly every other house an outdoor café. Vietnam’s history and her habits are here in plain sight. Trees along the banks of the canal that must have seen emperors, foreign emissaries, a student who would grow up to lead the country, soldiers local and foreign, and finally peace. Sitting for coffee just after sunrise, my guide asks about a particular antiqued gate down the alleyway. A conversation ensues, pulling in the surrounding tables. Being out of the loop, I sip the black bitterness and think of the advice of Walker Evans, ‘Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop…You are not here long.’ We get up to get going, to cross over the bridge and go through the walls of the Citadel and she tells me the modest man modestly dressed that she was talking to was distant royalty and the gate was once an entrance to royal grounds. This little note settles in while I pedal past a steady line of men all fishing in the moat surrounding the Imperial City. So it goes here, with the blending of the opulent and the modest, the past and the present sharing the same wall.

Unlike Vietnam’s big three, Hue is not in a rush to reinvent its visual identity. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are demolishing their physical past at breakneck speed, and Da Nang’s rapid development means it can no longer be overlooked in favor of the political capital to the north and the economic capital to the south. But Hue has the good fortune of being fewer than 100 kilometers from Da Nang and yet in a world all its own, a world where there is still time, there are still sidewalks for walking, there is still a river you can actually swim in, there are still houses with gardens and lotus ponds that bring the good fortune in and walls to keep the bad fortune out. There are vestiges of the past everywhere, and not all its history is cast in cement or clay.

I remember everything, but some things more than others. In the Forbidden City, the painted phoenixes of the queen’s gate, the bas relief of the dragons for the king, yes, but strikingly, the small relief of a multi-colored toad at the bottom of one gate. Who could guess that lowly toad would be there to greet the royal family? Leaving the palace grounds, I remember overhearing a tour guide tell two Indian men that his parents used to make him kneel on the skin of jackfruit when he was naughty. Who could ever find such a use for one skin against another? I remember much more: The somberness of the tombs of Tu Duc and Minh Mang, coming at the end of otherwise splendid grounds. The students in white ao dai hurrying into blood red French colonial buildings where Ho Chi Minh went to school and were now the pride of Hue. The metal swans bobbing beside the riveted bridge shaped like a comb that stretched over the river that flowed underneath like hair. The cup of mixed fruit and the sifter of apple juice placed on my table after my afternoon swim in the hotel pool, and the locals who still swim out every morning from the riverbanks, swimming around the nets of the fishermen in their skinny wooden boats. I remember the hint of orange in the marinated pan-fried prawns and the young rice ice cream from the six-course alfresco dinner beside the hotel pool. The ‘honeymoon’ bedroom of the mandarin who bought a garden house from a princess. It was no larger than two square meters, no higher than three meters. Even given the fact that people were smaller a century ago, this was no more than a closet and a challenge to even the least claustrophobic of lovers. I remember packing slowly but being driven away by the taxi rather quickly – a sign that my time in such a city, such a residence, was now turning into memory.

I remember it all. Because everything about it was Memorable.

 

 

 

the game changer: tran many tuan and jazz in vietnam by patrick carpenter

note: an abridged version of this article appeared in the October issue of Oi' Magazine

The Game-Changer

It makes sense that you hear him before you see him.

Tran Manh Tuan, the musician. The game-changer.

Walking up to his villa in the morning after the rain in a sleepy part of the second district, there are the unmistakable sounds of a saxophone going up and down the tonal scale. Throaty, urban sounds, louder than expected. It’s a distinctly metropolitan wake up call. The saxophone is fluent in the dialects of the city – it honks, it bellows, it stops traffic. It flirts, it wounds, it lures. It’s a train through town, it’s the end of an affair. Now though, the tones rush up and down and escape from his basement studio and spread out over koi ponds and broad palms, past drowsy Chihuahuas, and through the iron front gate. If you live on this street, you get free concerts. The rest of us have his Sax‘n Art club on Le Loi, or can catch him in or in front of the Opera House or Bitexco, or anywhere around Saigon he headlines with his big band, or his eleven year old daughter, or whomever he is riffing with on that day in his busy calendar.

Minor mistake: it’s not him we hear. It’s a student playing scales. Tuan is standing at arm’s length from his student at a long table listening actively. Restlessly. He already knows what he’s going to say, but he waits for the student to finish. He’s heard these notes come out of a saxophone since he was eight years old. Same notes, every time. Slightly different, every time. It has to be tedious, as if each time you wanted to have a meaningful conversation, you had to begin by reciting the alphabet.


He’s standing, moving, stopped. Standing, moving, stopped. It’s rhythmic, like every single thing in his life. He appears a block of trapped energy, with a frame that suggests a deep breath bottled and held for the solo. He’s dressed in a dark t-shirt and linen lounge pants.  He wears his hair pulled back tight into a stub of a ponytail and sports a 1940s moustache in the manner of Ronald Coleman, or better yet, jazz icon and fellow saxophonist John Coltrane. The moustache lends panache. His glasses are perfectly round black frames with faintly tinted blue lenses; they have the early 20th century sophistication Ralph Lauren pushes hard. Around his neck is a harness that comes down to a V at his stomach. There’s a catch at the end and it looks like he’s either going to strap on a fishing pole and hook a marlin, or he’s just been awarded some kind of engineering medallion. But it’s just there to cradle any one of his many different horns, and why bother taking it off when you’re just going to put it on again because you are always making music?

“That’s a good sax!” He tells his student, a classically trained musician who also teaches saxophone. Tuan is not just a performer, recording artist, producer, composer, club owner, big band leader, GAME CHANGER… He is also a teacher of teachers. They come to learn how to play – as in, play around. They may know how to read music, to play scales and make their way through the standards – songs like Gershwin’s Summertime, or Autumn Leaves, or more appropriately for Saigon now, Stormy Weather - but they are searching for the feel.  “If you can’t play, if you can’t feel, you can’t have jazz.”

Jazz may have been born in the churches and brothels of New Orleans after the American Civil War ended in 1865. Slave songs, Sunday choirs, and surplus horns and drums from the battlefields came together in the most blended city of America, in the most mixed breed of music. It evolved from the blues to swing and beyond and traveled out to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City. Then through world wars and peace it reached Paris and Berlin and other European cities before wandering into Asia on wax records and phonographs on colonial steamers and in soldiers’ kits. Jazz moved easily, fast and loose and willing, and evolved constantly. Joyous, desolate, it encompasses all of life. But at its base there were three constants: it was a distinctively American art form (as in: a new century, new world, new rules), definitively improvisational, and undeniably racial: blended at its best, divided at its most troubled. Over time, the first and last constants have faded, leaving improvisation as the single star to guide them.

“If you asked me to play exactly what I played last night at the club, I couldn’t do it. Each night is different. I’m playing and I’m improvising - off the body language of the band, the audience; I’m reading the mood and responding, interpreting. We’re [the band] communicating on that stage, really understanding each other. We’re communicating back and forth and with the audience in a universal language.”

So let’s be blunt: how did something like jazz find a home in a place like this? Vietnam’s traditional music is an ocean away from negotiation and improvisation and personalization. It’s not free in the sense that you can’t break into a song and take it this way or that depending on the mood. You don’t figure it out as you go along, passing it around to each musician to build upon. At the same time, the traditional culture here, with its Confucian ethos and Buddhist influences, has long valued obedience and subjugation of the self. In such a setting, jazz seems decadent, almost irreverent. Is it therefore any wonder that the Vietnamese nickname for the saxophone is ‘the prostitute’ because it can go so easily with so many different styles of sound?

“I first heard a saxophone when I was eight years old. I remember it clearly. It was from a song by Trinh Cong Son, Vietnam’s number one composer. I had been playing in my parents’ Cai Luong group since I was five. I played the moonstring, Vietnam’s two-string guitar.  I didn’t have a childhood, I had the moonstring. But I heard that sax and it was like the first day of the rest of my life. It was the range of sound from the sax that hooked me. I started playing the saxophone in restaurants, around the swimming pools of five-star hotels, with a band, whenever and wherever I could.”

But how do you build a home without a foundation? You start by importing the bricks. In 1989, a group from France called Oui, Oui, Oui came and played at the French language center. ‘We talked about jazz and when they went back they sent cassettes. I listened to those tapes over and over and to CDs that my friends brought from Eastern Europe. I loved it, learned as much as I could. The music had soul. It was personal, but at the same time, very open. And I was looking for a way to express myself. Jazz fit my persona and the saxophone fit my character.”

And the audience? “My first CD was a flop. It was a collection of jazz standards but there were two things wrong. First, I focused on technique, not soul. It’s not going to sell without soul. Jazz music is about intensity and dynamism. The melody is one thing, but you can recognize who is playing with soul. Second, I had no audience. I had to build one. So I built a club.”

Friday night. The interior of Tuan’s club is bathed in red and blue light. The combination makes the interior something between plum and wine. There are saxophones wired into the walls and large photos of Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker and the usual suspects that make up the Mt. Rushmore of horn blowing. There are replicas of Tuan’s CDs. It’s exceptionally clean. This is no downtown dive. In fact, it may be the best smelling club ever, with traces of tropical spices mixing with the citrus of the cocktails. The musicians take the stage at nine, killing the smooth jazz video and vibe. Piano, sax, bass, and drums. They’re all mid-40s or so, black shirts, jeans, different lengths of hair. The drummer is bald. It somehow fits that the sax player has slick and shiny patent leather pointed shoes, while the base player kicks back in white canvas sneakers. If you saw them on the street on a Tuesday afternoon, you’d say: those guys look like they play in a jazz band. In short, they look the part. The set starts with a jazz standard Beautiful Life and the sax holds the spotlight before handing it off to the piano player.

“I started the club eleven years ago. I needed a place where I could go and play, so I decided to build one and hire myself to play every night. My friends all said I was crazy. And when they heard how much I put into the sound system, they said I was really crazy. They said: ‘Where’s your audience?’ Well, in the beginning, 99% of my audience was imported. It was expats and foreign tourists. I needed to find a way to grow a local audience.”

The band plays two more songs, warming up on the way. They are joined by a thin young Vietnamese man named Tony in a sharp white blazer and glasses who takes the microphone and starts to sing Hallelujah, I Love Her So. It’s a polished rendition, with energy. No crooning mystery here: Tony is happy he’s in love and letting everyone know. The early crowd is 60-40% foreign middle-aged to Vietnamese young professional. Three young, attractive Vietnamese girls walk in and the piano player stops looking at his keys. They order drinks with maximum color and umbrellas. Tony moves into the song Crazy, which he calls ‘a Julio Iglesias song’. Patsy Cline would fall to pieces if she heard that. But it’s fun and the floor keeps filling up. More Vietnamese, mostly young, a large table of Japanese businessmen, and two tables of four of late 20s mixed company. By ten o’clock, the club is full and well blended: Asian tourists, western tourists, expats, and locals, from mid-20s to mid-60s. The drinks at the tables are mostly blue, but there are bottles of whisky and highball glasses as well. All eyes are on the musicians, the chit-chat is minimal. It’s definitely a club where you come to listen, and the product is class. Tony takes a bow and makes way for the game changer.

“I figured out how to bring Vietnam to jazz. I had to build a bridge. I picked out old Vietnamese folk music and rearranged the sound with soft jazz. I used traditional Vietnamese instruments like the bamboo flute, or the instruments of the ethnic minorities in the north, and this way, the people could recognize the melody and sing along with the song, but then also be interested in where I would take it. People call this fusion and to many it is still what I am best known for, this blending of the types of music, the cultures, something familiar but then new. If you only do things for the audience, if you just do what they like, then you are not a true artist, and you’ll have nothing at the end of the day. But you also have to be careful not to push too hard or they will go away. I made this bridge and it was trail-blazing, game-changing. I put these songs on my next CD and it was a huge hit. In fact, my second CD is still my best selling CD.”

Tuan breaks out the bamboo instruments on his second song, which seems to start in the northern forests before turning abruptly into the city when he puts down the bamboo and picks up his sax. By the end of the song, we’re closer to Harlem than Ha Giang, and Tuan is really letting loose and loud. The audience tries to keep up. Throughout the remainder of his set, which includes new renditions of Ain’t No Sunshine (When She’s Gone), Autumn Leaves, Georgia (On My Mind), and a funk version of Summertime, Tuan is constantly picking up, playing, and putting down different instruments. He plays the tenor sax, the alto sax, the soprano sax, a fender Stratocaster, bongo drum, slaps a cymbal. He intersperses the melodies with something like a recorder that was modeled after the Armenian duduk, and unique ethnic minority instruments that look like they came out of someone’s garden. One looks like three pipes coming out of a gourd, another a bit like the pan flute. When he plays them, you can see why his brand of Vietnamese fusion has caught on: they give you a true sense of place without any trappings of nostalgia. You won’t get this anywhere else from anyone else and the audience, regardless of their knowledge of jazz, seems to recognize they are getting something rare, something real.

“Day by day, the audience’s knowledge is getting better. Technology is a big part of it. The improvements in technology have meant easier access to different types of music. People are curious and they are starting to explore more musically. And I see the result in my club. More Vietnamese are coming, they’re younger and they’re coming with more understanding. Travel is another factor, both in terms of exploring outside Vietnam, and musicians coming here. I’ve traveled to over 50 countries with my music, and I’ve played with some of the greats here in Vietnam. What I am seeing is that jazz is now truly universal. It’s a global language. You have African and Arab beats and melodies in French jazz, you have jazz festivals in places like Chiang Mai with musicians from Myanmar, Laos all giving local color. I’ve gone and played with monks chanting in the pagoda in Hue. It’s all very free now. Americans are still very proud of owning the origins of jazz, but when you play with the greats like Herbie Hancock or Derek Nash, they give you space to create your own way.”

Appropriate, therefore, that Tuan’s set ends with Fly Me To The Moon. It starts misty, matching the weather, but the audience knows by now there’s going to be fireworks before the song is through. Sure enough, Tuan and his band take everyone for a tour of sound, complete with him playing the soprano and alto sax together at the same time, music coming from both sides of his mouth in a frenzied Latin samba chica chica boom chic. From Jupiter and Mars to Rio in one song. From Louisiana to Lao Cai in one evening. Trail-blazer. Game-changer. Enough said.


Art Blakely, famous jazz drummer, used to say that jazz ‘washes away the dust of every day life’. The audience drains out of the club, the music still vibrating in their heads, and into the wet of the Saigon night. Looking up and out at the streets, you see that all the dust has indeed been washed away. A good storm will do that. But so will a good sax.

 

 

 

 

memory train by patrick carpenter

There's a comfortable feeling of delivering myself into the care of those who run these great, somnolent trains, through the clear glass of which people are staring, as drained, as quiet as invalids.
Salter, A Sport and a Pastime

Just like that, I'm back in Europe, boarding every train I ever boarded in the eight years I lived there. Overnight trains to Venice, longer to Paris, Heidelberg, Palermo, where they backed the train into a ferry to cross over to the island from the toe of the boot and you'd jump out at every stop to look at the postcards of the town to see if it was worth spending the day there, and this is how you discovered Cefalu and Solunto. Overnight trains which were always an option if you could not find a good pension in town and didn't actually need to spend another day there anyway. Friday after work trains to the ski towns of Zell Am See and Saalbach, the dining cars with heavy white tablecloths and efficient, peevish waiters, goulasch and romerquelle, trout and strudel. Sunday trains back to the city crowding up the closer and later it got, falling asleep on top of each other after two days on the slopes and two nights under eiderdown and windows open to fresh alpine air. trains to countries that no longer exist - only cities now: Belgrade, Split, Brno, Bratislava. First class sleepers with your own sink and no customs officer will wake you at 2am, the budget sleeper with the crack that let in the frigid February air. All the great, thick magazines to buy at the kiosk, the magnetic chessboard, the dares you would dare your friends to play on strangers to cut the boredom, the pity of East European trains where the third class would stand for hours outside compartments full of privileged free-market students, exhausted victims of dysfunctional economic systems, reeking next to young soldiers hung over and sick returning from a weekend pass, climbing over all these bodies and cheap luggage and sick to get to the hopeless WC, the time you kept getting kicked off trains because you had no ticket because you had no money because you had no wallet because it was stolen along with your passport, clothes, and your only decent pair of shoes in the Venice train station and the customs official didn't know what to do with you without any of these things and so he finally gave up and let you get back across Italy to Austria but the Austrian conductors kicked you off all over again so you had to hitchhike to Graz and jump on the next train available - which turned out to be the one you had just been kicked off of, and when you recognized the conductor and he recognized you you both couldn't believe you luck and you had to get off at the next stop again but at least it was one stop closer. and the times you mistakenly boarded the local instead of the regional and added hours to your commute, plodding through towns like Bruck Fusch, Bruck An Der Mur, St. Johann Im Pongau...all the time the chance to stare out at mustard fields, abbeys on the hill, vineyards, rivers, alpine towns, snow flurries, farmland, places where you would think to yourself: what would you do if you lived here? or here? or here?

this is not a love song by patrick carpenter

(with apologies to J. Alfred Prufock)

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Celine and Shiseido

In Saigon, the selection of a creative designer for yet another European fashion magazine come over to elbow for ad revenue and the gossamer glances of the religiously hip is cause enough for a contemporary art exhibition. Who knew such promotions deserved such promotion?

The venue is the newly established DIA, a rectangled gallery that sits above a café bistro on Dong Khoi street. The café bistro is Modern Meets Culture. DIA bills itself as ‘a space for a series of contemporary art experiences in Ho Chi Minh City’.  The arrangement could be perfect for those with progressive appetites.

Opening night coincided perfectly with the opening of the heavens. The blackest, heaviest clouds of the wet season hung over the city.

‘Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table’

This, the second exhibition hosted by DIA, follows shortly after its group show of drawings by local artists. DIA has charted a discourse from something resembling an end of term talent show to one young man’s sketches for features in the fashion magazines that are now his competitors. So DIA started with a final exam, and followed it up with a retrospective of a career that has just started. The distance covered can be measured in a phrase, namely, E Pluribus Unum. The clear takeaway from all of this is that budding contemporary artists in this city, armed with sketch pads and keen on grabbing our attention, would do well to dream of double-page spreads and eau de toilette bottles balanced on the nape of a skinny girl’s neck.

The show comes with the proud disclaimer from the leader of DIA that his ideas on art and culture will be included in the inaugural issue of the magazine that now employs this creative designer who is being promoted by the leader of DIA. Call it a tidy commercial arrangement, call it a three-way. Nothing’s shocking.

Speaking of shock value, one does not go to a contemporary art exhibition seeking shelter from the world, from things that push or shove. One goes for the contact, for the crash. Indeed, some works are not completed until the audience physically engages. As such, a contemporary art space is not a rest stop, not a spa, not a place for the passive. It’s a place for confrontation. The question for DIA then: Is there not a more passive exercise than flipping through a fashion magazine?

‘Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk along the beach.’

So far, the DIA experiments in contemporary art lack the experimentation, examination, provocation that are inseparable from the force of contemporary art. These exhibitions are contemporary in the calendar sense, but not in the character.

It’s an early verdict, perhaps a bit harsh, but on an opening night under thunderclouds straight out of Armageddon, such judgments should be encouraged.

Show us your teeth, DIA! Contemporary art is the most aggressive of the different departments at auction, with meteoric rises and catastrophic falls. There is nothing meek about the market, nor should there be, as there is nothing meek in the art. It is a world where the meek do not inherit the earth – they inherit the dirt So why not an exhibition that dares?

And indeed there will be time

To wonder ‘Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?’

 Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

The art world may now be recognizing (i.e. collecting) commercial/fashion photography. Whether this stems from a dearth of traditionally sellable pieces or a latent recognition of the pieces having their own artistic merit is essentially academic. Sellers say: why ask why? But it’s what’s in it for the buyer that’s more intriguing: Are these pieces pop art without irony? Are they consumer nostalgia? Have we discovered another Toulouse-Lautrec? Do we want to be in them?

Is it perfume from a dress

That makes me so digress?

It would be a stretch to say the exhibition attempts to push these questions on the viewer. We are not being challenged to reconsider our desires in the manner of a Jenny Holzer ‘Truism’ (PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT). There are no overwhelming questions here, except maybe how the skeleton of an audi sedan fits into the evening. Answer: it’s what’s driving the dream.

What is here, quite simply, is the display of Dzung Yoko’s creative talent used commercially. For the most part, Dzung and his teams succeed in creating images that elevate the product without surrendering creative integrity (the perfume campaigns are valiant attempts to entertain your eye around the product). No easy task, that, and clearly he earned and enjoyed the trust of everyone involved. There is evidence in the pieces of creative freedom: of space for the talent to play, to flirt with nostalgia, to tweak Asian stereotypes, to stretch the imagination – so long as the result remained beautiful. There is also evidence of influence – Tim Walker, for instance, comes to mind – which is another way of saying the pieces are romantic, slightly eccentric, and value style more than push fashion.

But what is not here is any narrative between the sketches and the final shot. It may have been interesting to see any evolution of the assignment. There is an audience that enjoys the ‘behind the scenes’ just as much as the final product, but with some pieces the sketches mirror the photo to the degree that you could imagine the sketch came after. Would it lessen the impact to see discarded ideas? To learn of the initial assignment and how his mind raced through challenges, overcame constraints? Sometimes the journey really is the destination.

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Celine and Shiseido

 

manta! by patrick carpenter

(note: this piece originally appeared in the May 2015 SEA-GLOBE magazine www.sea-globe.com)

The engines are cut deep in the Mergui archipelago, in Myanmar waters, at a rock no more than a speck on the local nautical map. The nearest community – that of the Moken, Myanmar’s sea gypsies – is more than six hours distance by speeding boat. Solitary, lonesome fishermen speckle the horizon in their longtail boats– some with nets, some with explosives, all with only the most meager protection from the elements.

Below the rock is the reef. The reef, with its giant and white eyed moray eels, its octopus, soft corals, fan corals, zig zag oysters, the beautiful but horribly named varicose wart slug, the beautiful and perfectly named oriental sweetlips, the bluelined and honeycombed groupers, glassfish, angelfish, emperor fish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, an infestation of scorpionfish, fusiliers, snapper…is a diver’s paradise. But this dive is all about the giant manta ray.

Black on top, white on bottom, mouth forever open, the giant manta doesn’t swim - it soars, it glides, it flies. A giant manta’s wingspan can exceed six meters; the largest reach a seven-meter span. Sharks, dolphins, whales, fish all give some sense of the effort it takes to be in motion in the way their tail fins push them through the water. But the manta glides in hydrodynamic grace and can easily outswim a shark.

We step off the boat and drop down to thirty meters and beyond. At this depth, colors dull as light fades. Everything goes from light blue to violet to midnight. We have come all the way here, and dropped all the way down to this blue on blue world, because this particular place is a prime feeding ground. Mantas, being plankton eaters, cruise the world’s tropical waters, harvesting this floating food. And beyond the underwater safari thrill, as part of the Ray of Hope Expedition, we are here to identify mantas for research purposes. Like fingerprints, no two mantas have the same color markings around their gills. This enables researchers to identify and trace individual migrations by processing photographs through pattern recognition software similar to facial recognition technologies.

We drift and spread out like sentries, staring out into liquid midnight. We strain to see something come from out of the abyss. Time and air reserves escape in bubbled plumes rising towards the surface. Both are finite. Anxiety begins to creep in, and the body language of the divers shows signs of resignation and disappointment. Not today, not this time.

But then, from inside the midnight, a flicker of white. The uplifted, unfading tip of a wing. The dive leader taps on his tank with his metal baton – sound travels faster through water than air – and all masks align like searchlights, first to his outstretched arm, then straight on from his finger to that tip. It’s confirmed: a giant manta.

The manta emerges, gliding parallel to us. She banks and comes towards us, then spreads out in full view like a rock star before somersaulting and gliding back parallel the way she came. She stays just a minute, then turns back into the void, tantalizing, fading, practically dissolving into midnight. Just like that she has left the group, left the reef, left the rock. Her timing is perfect - just long enough: come late, leave early, leave us wanting more - like all the most desired guests.

remember: the deluge by patrick carpenter

A week’s worth of heat had just been lanced and what was relief now turned to deluge. No warning and now everywhere a waterfall. This street Iguazu. Turn the corner Victoria. Further on Niagra. Days before had been like this, with evening spikes in humidity, but then – nothing. Each day ripening, sweltering. Each night unplucked. Cursed.

But now: shouting down in sheets. Erupting. Vomiting.

So then let it come down, drenching. We are exposed. We are not made of salt.

The roads went from desert to deserted. Flash flooded. Pressure and temperature free falling, racing the rain down. Bikes brake mid- stream, drivers dawn plastic parkas and clear off quick. It is coming down too hard for all but the stranded and the taxis, the lights of which hit the pooling gutters like searchlights from a seaplane or a swift boat. Brightest silver, blown out beams. Beams that moved quickly, swooping, saying I’m coming I’m Here I’m gone.

The lightning was here and gone too, in staccato flourishes. The heavens flashing code. Signals echoing back off thunderheads. Two cloudships deep in conversation. Thunder a no-show: there is no percussion, no punctuation. Delayed, like so many trains.

Then suddenly the entirety of the moment. The flash, the cordite, the tearing of the heavens. Like the life-spark in a laboratory, or the shock of forbidden flesh in the corner of a boy’s eye. Blinding, burned into the iris.

The cafes and restaurants were all open and the conscientious ordered out of courtesy to remain at their tables. Sorbet. Tiramisu. Another glass of white. Another round of this.

remember: summer by patrick carpenter

The summer. You drive down the artery in the old quarter, flanked by endless t-shirts, looking up at the clouds closing over the evening light. The sky can easily be divided in two, in gold and grey, and the wind that precedes the storm begins to blow the dirt of the street and the buds off the flowering trees into your eyes. When the wind blows like it does, it seems like the noises of the street are rushing into you: The horns are thrown at you, around you, and the broken conversations dart past your head as if blown from one of the long bamboo poles that dance on the shoulders over the backbones of the city. The sound is more appropriate this way: it travels the way you do, and it interrupts the way life does here. It intrudes.

p. carpenter

remember: giraffes by patrick carpenter

Remember when you drove down the highway and on the side was a family walking from the bus stop, all with shaved heads, all only with white, threadbare cotton shorts. Luggage on top of their heads. How close they look, physically, all browned and moving like giraffes…elegant, measured, against a background of storefronts, smoke, exhaust…

Oblivious or oblivion

hanoi autumn by patrick carpenter

The line of cyclos moved like a tapeworm through the streets. You had the swarm – the motorbikes blitzing, and now coursing through them, the tapeworm. The tourists who lined up outside the hotel for this packaged experience were able to see traffic up close, to be pelted with gusts of motorbike exhaust, as well as the slow push down from the leg of the cyclo driver ahead. When close enough and the tapeworm never sub-divides, the passenger might catch his reflection in the stainless steel back of the cyclo directly in front.

No one put on their best face for the passengers. Everyone just raced to get around them, to be free of the blockage. Bypass.

These are the grey months. The locals bundle up. You look at them and think the blizzard will hit this evening. For a country that never sees snow, the people of hanoi buy their fair share of ski jackets.

discovering luang prabang by patrick carpenter

note: a version of this article appeared in Vietnamese in the 2012 Nam Ong magazine

Discovering Luang Prabang

Free advice: It may not be wise to wish for adventure while flying to a town filled with temples and spirits. With so many deities in such a small radius, chances are they’ll hear you, and grant you the adventure you only thought you wanted. And so it was, that as we watched our plane's shadow slide over Lao's endless rolling mountains, our lazy conversations were abruptly cut off by a loud rattle and a cabin full of oxygen masks dancing on our hair. All eyes trained on the stewardess, whose expression clearly indicated that this was no drill. No message came from the cockpit, though as time ticked by we would happily have paid to be told anything - and paid more to be told that there was no danger. It was left to the stewardess to take a stab at lowering the collective anxiety in the cabin. Her best efforts left most passengers wanting better, and may have further increased the blood pressures of the most nervous travelers, as her explanation, 'We had to fly over a mountain!' led all of us to look for this mountain and to wonder what kind of flight path we were on that forced us to climb to clear it.

Thus, our unexpected discoveries:

1. The tallest mountain in Lao is Phou Bia, at 2,819 meters. You should not need a plane, or more than a day's hike, to scale the top.

2. The oxygen mask is roughly the size of a small paper cup. If you have a nose, it will not fit.

3. These particular masks were made in 1996, one year after Luang Prabang became a World Heritage Site. Luang Prabang is aging better than the masks.

4. Loss of cabin pressure and increased anxiety leads to nausea in some passengers, and requires them to coordinate the dual maneuver of covering their mouth with the airsickness bag, and covering their nose with the oxygen mask. And yes, like a train wreck, you will watch even though you tell yourself not to.

5. Under such anxiety, there is no guarantee that you will remember the last conversations you had with your family.

6. Any unusual sounds from the engine or onset of turbulence that follow will disproportionately increase the fear factor.

7. It is hard to tell if the loss of cabin pressure causes the stewardess' eyes to water, or if she is just crying quietly while going about her business. Same goes for the passengers.

8. It will always be strange to hear the stewardess say: 'Please wake him up. We need to make sure he is not unconscious.' You will spend time wondering whether the stewardess, in her broken English, is correct to say ‘not unconscious’ or just ‘conscious’.

9. You never want an airplane meal to be the last thing you taste.

10. Once you land, it is easy to forget all of this happened.

Luang Prabang sits on a peninsula surrounded by a sea of undulating deep green mountains in the northern central part of Lao PDR. The mountains may have been a barrier, but the peninsula is formed by the Mekong river and its tributaries, the Nam Khane and the Huai Hop. Three rivers make for swift travel, discovery, settlement, and trade - but there are many towns on rivers, and there is only one Luang Prabang. What sets this place apart is the quality of the craftsmanship, the artistry of its buildings, and the devotion of its space to worship - of nature, man, and spirit. It is not a conventional urban mashing of commercial and residential areas; it was basically a royal fortress with adjacent temples and monasteries. The nearby villages acted as commercial centers. With the arrival of the French, Luang Prabang remained a Kingdom but became a protectorate in 1893. It also became slightly more conventional, as its location (it had been a crossroad on the Silk Route) and riches appealed to French business tastes. Importantly, the French chose to build all their public buildings in Vientiane, and thus Luang Prabang was spared the demolition and alteration of its foundations.

A guidebook in 1926 described Luang Prabang as “A spacious town of a few wide French streets, softly paved, if at all, with narrow Lao streets like lovers' lanes between them. Well wooded, with roomy yards usually whispering with palm-trees. In other words, it is not a city at all, in the crowded, noisy, Western sense, but a leisurely congregation of separate dwellings…In short Luang Prabang town is in many ways what idealists picture the cities of Utopia to be…with gentle people of a land so kindly treated by nature.'

So far gone, yet so recognizable. You could use that same guidebook to walk the streets today. Because Luang Prabang, despite the intervening histories, looks essentially unchanged. Granted, it may look more like itself than ever, thanks to UNESCO's requirements that building materials and methods remain appropriate to its character and identity. But this is the prudent path to take. Unlike other World Heritage Sites, Luang Prabang does not feel sterilized. And unlike Angkor Wat and other magnificent cultural destinations, Luang Prabang has not been allowed to degrade into a carnival of busloads and soulless, bulked up, boring hotels. Luang Prabang has been well served by staying out of such garish spotlights that turn history into amusement parks. Its night market is a great way to manage souvenir shopping without turning the town into an endless maze of trinket and tailor shops, and there are enough destinations outside the town, either along the river (caves, waterfalls) or on motorbike, to keep one on the road to discovery. In the town proper, you cannot waste your time. You could turn your trip into a gourmet treasure hunt and be glad you did, with French, Thai, Lao, and other regional flavors competing to satisfy your taste buds as you gaze upon the swift Mekong current or golden paneled pagoda. The monasteries are so mind-blowing in their attention to detail and choice of color and illustrated stories, that you actually come close to admitting they are too much of a good thing. But in beauty, too much of a good thing is wonderful. The royal grounds, now a museum, are worth exploring, not just for the wealth, but for the surprising modesty of the private quarters which serve to humanize the royal family. You'll have to soak it up by the eyeful, as photography is not allowed, but this actually helps you remember what it was like to really look at something, and not just grab it with a snapshot on a cell phone.

This then, is Luang Prabang's lesson: Slow down and savor it all. Discover the details that have stood for centuries: the carved dancers and gilded deities on a monastery door. Be inspired by color: the saffrons and yellows of the monks robes, the red, white and gold on the monastery walls, the patterns in the women's sarong's, the texture of silk, the grains of local woods. Discover a civilized pace of life: the forgotten sounds of wind coming down the river, coming through the palms, the plants, the bamboo, or the friendly neighborhood symphonies of families, pets calling out, bicycle bells. Rise early in the morning to see the monks make their way down the main street, moving so swiftly in silence it seems they're floating. Float down the river, balanced by clouds and forests and the rhythm of the motorboat. Visit the wet market for new ways to present produce, and while there, soak up the pace: it is vibrant without being vulgar. There are motorbikes in the market, but no horns. The drivers sit and wait for the crowd to move along, moving at the same tidal pace, or they wait for the crowds to part like the Red Sea. Either way, it is a relief to not be subjected to a blaring horn and to noise for the sake of noise alone. In Luang Prabang, where there is so much beauty, it is unsurprising that there are still manners between strangers - something held over from the past and as difficult to discover as a new world, a new mountain, a new moon.