29 November 2007

Marimba Magic

A few Friday nights ago, I just happened to see a small flyer advertising a concert by an Israeli marimba-ist for the following evening at the Conservatory of Music. I had never heard of Asaf Roth, but do love live music and marimbas, and he looked kinda cute. I assumed it would be good, but never imagined that it would turn out to be one of the most incredible concerts I have ever been to.

I’d been to the conservatory once before. It’s a small venue; sort of long-in-the-tooth, but with that old-world French charm and decent acoustics. The concert was free-of-charge, and open seating. I settled into the perfect spot to see and hear.

Asaf started with a few lovely, mellow pieces, and all the stress in my body started to drift away as I was caressed by the music. As the concert progressed, his selections built in intensity.

‘Remembering’ is one of the most remarkable musical pieces I have ever experienced. Before he began, Asaf explained that, since he was only one person, he was going to use an electronic loop pedal to stand in for additional musicians. Then he demonstrated. He tapped a switch with his foot, and into a microphone said “come”. Instantly, the word was repeated, "come, come, come", in a steady 4/4 beat. Then he tapped the switch again and added “on” Now we heard, “come on, come on, come on.” Then, “shush”; “shush come on, shush come on, shush come on”. Demo over; he began to play.

The piece starts with a simple, slow, melodic line, of about 12 measures. Then he abruptly stops, slowly moves to his left and picks up maracas. Another pause, he taps the electronic loop switch, which replays the 12 measures, on top of which he shakes the maracas. Again, an abrupt halt, then over to a xylophone, and another dimension is added to the piece. I think this is where he goes back to the marimba and we now hear what sounds like a mini-orchestra playing the most beautiful, somewhat haunting, music.

Marimba Spiritual, was even more mesmerizing. This piece started slowly and built in speed and complexity, once more utilizing the music loop. The rhythms sink inside you and at one point I flashed back to a Sufi performance I had seen in Cairo; it had that same feel of grabbing your soul and nearly putting you into a trance-like state. I gave up trying to figure out how many layers he had put together or understand how he could keep track of it all. This man is not only a seriously talented musician, but a master of multi-tasking.

At this point I should mention that I have never been able to sit still when I hear music, and simply do not understand how others do so. Especially when beautiful melodies and intoxicating beats are coursing through your body. I hate having to be consciously aware of restraining my normal physical reaction, which would be to really sway and move along with the music. Mostly, I was transfixed by Asaf’s performance, but a few times I peeked at the people around me and they were like rocks in the ground, not a foot tapping, nor a head bobbing.

The next delight was “Peter and the Wolf.” A Vietnamese woman, who had introduced Asaf before the concert, walked onto the stage. She sat down at a chair to his right, adjusted the music stand which held her script and, ever so slightly, nodded to Asaf, who started to play. Let me tell you, I may have only understood a few words of the language, but it didn’t matter. Between the excitement, wonder, and joy in her reading, added with that marvelous “Peter” score and Asaf’s variations, the entire audience was swept away on a magical journey. What was truly amazing is that our narrator did not speak marimba, and Asaf did not speak Vietnamese, yet they functioned as one, never missing a beat or a word. Even more phenomenal, as I learned after the concert, was that they had only practiced together one time. Granted, the woman was a conductor and performing arts teacher, which I found out later, but it still was a remarkable feat.

Another piece included students form the Conservatory. I had been wondering about all the percussion instruments sitting on the left; bass drum, a snare or two, some cymbals or bells, and I think a timbale. This piece was all percussion and Brazilian beats. Anyone who knows me will understand that it was close to pure hell for the Samba Queen to remain seated. Asaf was more of a conductor this time, using that traditional Carnaval instrument, the whistle. Truly awesome. And, as with “Peter”, they had only rehearsed together once.

Aside from the instruments I knew, Asaf had this electronic thing that I could not see. I sounded like it was a keyboard, but then sounded like percussion. He did this very bizarre thing where he sang and played the keyboard together, but it all meshed together to produce what sounded like a choir. I simply have no way of describing what the heck it was, but it was cool.

I was buzzing by the time the music stopped. I was still buzzing when I got home. Since I don’t have any way to get his CD, I am now forced to listen to snippets off his website. How is it that I had never heard of him? And what if I hadn’t been in the right place at the right time to find out about the concert? No matter; it was meant to be.

Do give his music a listen http://www.asafroth.com/

26 November 2007

Nha Trang

I’d been planning my annual birthday trip for months. All I wanted was a few days of sun on a secluded beach where I could get a tan and collect sea shells. I figured I’d go to Nha Trang, an hour’s flight north of HCMC. Everyone who has been there has brought back good reports, but no one could recommend a hotel, so I was off internet hunting.

Unfortunately, all I seemed to find were ugly hotels, not even on the beach, but across a huge main boulevard. That was not what I had had in mind. Upon further research, I found a place called Paradise Resort, that had beautiful bungalows on a long stretch of beach. The price was a mere $18 a day, which included three meals a day. It also was 33 kilometers north of town. After not too much thought, I decided that it really wasn’t that far to travel and it was exactly what I wanted. I booked my ticket and Paradise.

A few days before my trip, a nasty typhoon was moving in towards the Philippines, with a good chance that it would continue on to Vietnam and hit Nha Trang. I kept up with reports, right up until 4am Thursday morning, an hour before I needed to leave for the airport. The forecast was grim. I thought maybe I should cancel but knew if I did, the typhoon would dissipate and I would be stuck in HCMC. I should have cancelled.

My flight left at 7am. I was not pleased to see that it would be on one of Vietnam Air’s little prop jets. They give these runs to the new guys and they have always been rather bumpy flights and landings. I was also thinking about the typhoon. And then there was the fact that Paradise was in fact a 2 hour taxi ride from the airport. Nha Trang flights, up until a year ago, landed in the downtown airport. They have since moved to Cam Ranh airport, 45 minutes away from downtown. Buckled in, it was too late to change my mind.

I sat next to an American doctor who was in Vietnam overseeing an international medical training project. He told me that he had been in Vietnam in the mid 60’s as a USAID worker. We were having a pleasant conversation when the turbulence started. It was fairly horrific, went on entirely too long, but I managed not to loose my breakfast. The lady across from me kept yelling with every bump. She later apologized and I answered that that is how we all felt, but had persevered to not scream.

Coming into Can Ranh, my seatmate told me that it had been built as an airbase by the US military during the war. It is a massive, basically deserted airfield. Besides worn out tarmac there didn’t seem to be much other than sand and some green ground cover. The landing was a few bounces short of a text-book maneuver, and I was really happy to de-plane.

Waiting to get our bags, the doc asked if I’d brought my skeeter repellent. Damn! Once again I had forgotten. He said he had an extra bottle, and handed me a container of Cutter Bug wipes, to which I said, “I went to school with Tommy Cutter!” I really wonder what ever happened to Tommy.

After collecting my bag, I walked outside to the grey, drizzling day, and found my taxi driver waiting. I don’t remember much of the ride into town; I was whipped, having had little sleep, it was a grey day, and the raindrops impaired my vision. As we got into town and started to pass some of the hotels I had seen on-line, I was truly grateful I hadn’t booked any. There was the beach bordered by a lovely promenade, then that double wide boulevard, and then the hotels. At one point we pulled over, and my driver told me his brother and his brother’s taxi would take me the rest of the way.

For the next hour I did notice the beautiful scenery. We drove over a river and I saw that all the fishing boats were painted a bight, royal blue. They reminded me of Portuguese fishing boats. And they didn’t have any eyes! They are the first sightless boats I have seen in Vietnam. When we went through small villages, their houses were also blue. Very lovely.

We arrived at Paradise and I was really looking forward to meeting the owner, “Mr. Cheri. A Frenchman”. That is what it said on the website and how I addressed him on the phone, but his email address said “Vladimir.” He came out to great me and I guessed his age as late 60’s even though he walked and moved like a 30 year-old. I later learned he was 80! Throughout my stay there I would ask about his life and got bits and pieces, but mostly that he had lived here and there and done this and that. I did ascertain that he was Croatian. Then again, maybe not. He had been in Vietnam for eleven years, had a 32 year old wife and two young boys.

Paradise resort really was nice, although the weather pretty much made it impossible to get a good look at things. There were basic beach bungalows and beautiful apartments and higher quality bungalows, a huge eating area, patio/lounge space and, of course, the sea. Only one other guest was there at the time, so I had my pick of accommodation. I chose the high-grade bungalow right at the water’s edge. A two meter wall protected me from the surf, which seemed to be getting quite wild, especially since the water there is supposed to be fairly flat.

I unpacked my bag cursing myself for the 300th time about the fact that I, yet again, did not bring enough warm clothes. I had the sweatpants out the night before, but decided they would be too warm. I spent the next 4 days in my one pair of grubby jeans and one long-sleeved t-shirt, sweatshirt and scarf.

My days were spent reading, eating, and sleeping, as the weather got worse. I enjoyed talking to the one other guest, a retired guy from Sweden, bumming around Vietnam for six months. I kept bugging Mr. Cheri about the weather forecast. Although there was no wind, the waves were getting scary, especially since my bungalow was right there in the front of it all. At one point he told us we were on alert for evacuation. Great.

The first night I was on my bed reading, doors open, listening to the waves crashing. I kept getting up to check how close they were to my room. At this point, they were about two meters high and seemed to be breaking just a few feet in front of me. I kept envisioning tsunami scenarios. Around 9pm, totally freaked, I packed my bag, left it in my room, and high-tailed it up to the dining area, which was farther up the hill, to see what the situation was. No one was around. Fine with me, I was prepared to sleep at the table. About 10:30 Mr. Cheri came down, asking what I was doing. I explained that I was about to be swept away by waves and he started to laugh. “No problem”. Finally convinced he knew what he was talking about, I went back to my bungalow.

The next night I was up every hour to check on the waves and kept my bag packed for a hasty retreat. At least I finally remembered to use the bug wipes so that when I was sitting outside before crawling under the mosquito net, I wouldn’t be chomped on. Reading, I looked down and noticed my bright red nail polish was on a page of the book. Oh crap! Cutter bug wipes take of nail polish! I quickly ran in to wash off my hands. My nails remained sticky. Wonderful, stuck in the middle of a typhoon, no nail polish remover to get the rest off, and gummy nails. I washed my hands again, then tried to forget about it. Eventually they did dry and I was saved from any embarrassing nail situations. Add that to your list of nail polish removers, along with brake fluid. (don’t ask)

The rain never stopped until Sunday morning. And although it wasn’t sunny, at least then I could do one walk on the beach and collect shells. I was glad that this trip had come to an end and I could go home. On the drive to the airport I was able to get a better look at the area. The road to Can Rahn is brand new and beautiful. But when we got to the airport, it was a different story. Because I had been talking to people and in a hurry to get into the taxi when I had arrived, I hadn’t paid attention to my surroundings.

Can Rahn airport is haunted. I felt it as soon as we drove in. When I first came to Vietnam, the war was always in my mind; in the names of places, in the people I saw. But it was always an intellectual connection, not something I physically felt. Vietnam to me has become just the country where I live and work. It has lost its edge as the place of such useless death and destruction. It is not that I have ever forgotten that, but that those sentiments had been pushed into the backdrop of my life. Looking out at the vast expanse of Can Rahn, now only a tiny air terminal and a few abandoned buildings, I said to myself, this is why I have come here.

I walked around outside and could feel the ghosts and sadness in every step I took, and in every place I looked. Inside, on the second floor, I gazed out onto what I estimate would be miles of paved ground, now barren but for two planes.
I found I could not sit down. The building itself was oppressive.

We were loaded into the bus and driven out to our plane. I stepped out onto the tarmac and was wracked by an overwhelming sense of sorrow. While the others moved quickly to board the plane, I stood back and tried to concentrate on what I was feeling. What could I do? Someone needs to heal this landing strip, and I am just little me. Maybe just being aware, just being receptive to the grief reaching out and enveloping me was what I was supposed to do.

I’d spent most of my vacation pretty much just wanting to leave and feeling anxious. Getting onto the plane, I felt much calmer. Some purpose had been served, although it was not the one I had planned.


01 November 2007


When I first moved into my neighborhood two years ago, there wasn’t much here other than apartments and houses and lots of construction. The one supermarket was housed in a small building, with crowded aisles and sloping, cracked floors. You could never let go of your shopping cart because it would take off and either run into another customer or smash into the tomatoes. Restaurants were few, overpriced and served questionable fare. There were a few little shops that were combinations of real estate agents and something else, like a dry cleaners or lamp shades. They generally disappeared after a few months. The part I really did like was walking up to the river and along the beautiful landscaped walkway, where It was like being in the country.

All that has now changed; some for the better, some for the worse. The bitty supermarket turned into a massive place. Originally, the stock was about the same, just more of each item and spread out. I am not really sure if the stock has, in fact, increased, or if it is just that I have gotten used to what is an is not available in Vietnam. In addition, another big supermarket opened, and a connivance store sprung up right in front of my apartment building. Do keep in mind that “big” supermarket is relative. It is large for Vietnam, where the majority of folks still go to the fresh markets every morning at the crack of dawn.

The first month or so that I was here, I also went to the market on Saturday morning. But it became too much of a hassle. It really isn’t within walking distance, and I no longer had the desire to make the sojourn on my weekend mornings. I can get produce in the supermarkets, but it is no where near the quality or selection that one gets at the fresh markets.

Of the other shops that open and close, not much is of interest. There are now about four flower shops selling both fake and real flowers. Their selection is limited and two to three times the price of flowers in town. I still haven’t figured out who shops at the clothing boutiques. Weird clothes, usually one of each item and outrageously priced. I prefer my supermarket which has really good buys on tops and pants.

There was a stationary store at one point, but it disappeared. What I really want is someplace I can buy light bulbs. The dry cleaner cum hardware store, (actually just a few odd items), closed eight months ago. Eventually, as the area grows, all these things will become available but, for now, it is hit or miss for what is on sale on any particular day.

Several weeks ago I was riding my bike up by the river. All the monster buildings that were either in foundation stage, or still empty lots two years ago, now tower over the area, blocking sun and air. The beautiful landscaped walkway is now hemmed in by hideous, fifteen story, apartment buildings. I can never walk there again.

Fortunately, the area right along the river is still the way it always was. It is the nursery for the gardens in this area. I ride my bike along the gravel paths, through rows of baby plants and gardeners, and I am transported into a different world. There are always a bunch of gardeners who are generally surprised to see me bumping along on the red bike, but who always wave back and smile.

However, there is one good addition to the nasty buildings. Along the bottom of one of them, directly across from the river, there are now six or seven new restaurants. They are all branches of well known establishments in town.

One day, after my tour through the river gardens, I was in need of refreshment. I noticed, for the first time, that these restaurants were being installed and that one was already opened. It looked lovely, with outside tables, under umbrellas. I parked and went up the stairs and sat in a big, cushiony sofa-thing. I spoke to the owner who explained that this was the first of the restaurants to open, and that the others were soon to follow. I only wanted to drink something cold, but took a look at the menu and was pleased to see that the prices were quite reasonable. I commented on the beautiful view of the river and that I was worried that it would suffer the fate of everything else around and be turned into a concrete jungle. He assured me that the river would stay and that on the other side of said river, they were building a golf course.

In the coming weeks, I was back there several times to either eat or drink coffee. A few weeks ago, the rest of the places opened. There is a lovely chain coffee shop which has fantastic seating, but the coffee is shockingly priced and sucks. Vietnam has the best coffee, especially the ice coffee, which one can’t really mess up. But this place, Gloria Jean’s does. I knew from my experience with them in Malaysia, that they were not good. Even worse than Starbucks coffee. But I thought I would give them a try. My Ice coffee was at least three times the average price, and it was horrid! Unfortunately, I doubt I will ever go back, even if they do have the most comfortable chairs.

Last week, while stopping off with my bike, I saw that they were setting up huge banquet tables all along the front of four restaurants, getting ready for a big event. I talked to a man who looked to be in charge, and he said that that evening was the grand opening. He invited me and said that it was open, and free, to all. So at 7pm that evening, all dressed up for the grand affair, I arrived. One of the managers and the owner I had spoken to several times, came rushing over to greet me, looking quite surprised at my attire and commenting on how nice I looked. Later I realized that I had only ever spoken to them after jumping off the bike, sweaty and bedraggled.

It was quite the event. I wandered from place to place, walking in a looking at the d├ęcor of each eating establishment. They are all beautiful. The free food was good, and the live jazz band was great. The rain held off, it was a full moon, and I felt like I was on vacation in a new city.

So finally, after two years of no options other than cooking for myself, I now have quite a few choices. I am quite pleased. Little pleasures are these.
(the pretty pictures are from Hoi An)