Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Cramped Buddhas, ornate lacquer and lunch

From legends to lacquer to lunch, Bagan has been a slam dunk of adventures.

You see what I see
Reclining Buddha
Heading out early to beat the heat we made stops at a number of pagodas and even climbed a couple layers of one to get good shots of the incredible number of these holy structures in view. The real destination was to see two reclining Buddhas. These fascinate me because not only are the crowded into giant warehouse-kind of space but they are serene and comfortable at rest. I like the fact that Buddha rests, since he leads his followers into meditation. And throughout our Christian gospels, Jesus goes off from the crowd to rest, to be alone and refresh.  Reclining Buddhas make for crazy photos, especially if you take the long view from the feet. On the balls of two feet today, there was no set of symbols or messages. They were just big feet. 
Prisoned Buddha
Another recliner
The major pagodas have legends. It’s a family thing. The first King of Bagan (Pagan) was King Anawrahta. He began building Schwezigon Pagoda (contains relics of Gautama Buddha, two bones and a tooth).  The King died and his son finished the project. It took 32 years. Then this son, who became king, built the temple which houses four enormous Buddhas, also visited yesterday, known as Ananda Temple and Monastery, built in 1091. Then the first kings grandson constructed the highest Temple in the Bagan range - Thatbyinnyu - in 1144. It sports four levels of terrace which the brave can get up to by tall brick steps to get an overview of the presence of hundreds and hundreds of temples of every style across the fields of acacia thorn trees and other scraggly growth surviving in this heat.   And then the first King’s great-grandson built the largest Temple called Dhammayangyi. It looks like an Egyptian pyramid and is made out of large red bricks.This king has a bad reputation, having slaughtered his father, elder brother and queen. And had a rather violent demise himself.

feet view of Buddha
Another Temple

Ok That’s only one family of builders. I was anxious to see the Manuha Temple. Here a story unfolds explaining the presence of the regions biggest sitting Buddha. He looks like he is packed in a box that’s too small. There’s a reason.  King Anawrahta had requested the holy Buddha papers written on palm leaf that were in possession of the Mon King, who refused to turn them over. Therefore the Mon King was confined to a small area from which he could not move, i.e. he was in prison. When the Mon King Manuha died, his son built on that very spot a temple and filled its walls with the largest sitting Buddha in such a cramped space one can field his discomfort and pain. In this compound is also a long stable like structure where an enormous reclining Buddha lays straight legged and immoveable, one hand under his head, with not much view of life on the outside. 
In the compound of the Ganesh Pagoda (two hairs of Buddha are ensconced here)  there is another enormous reclining Buddha  a full  72 feet long and called Shinbinthatyaung, also seems to be in what resembles a too tight, torturous tomb. He faces east with head pointing south unlike the other reclining Buddha which is more regulation style, facing west with head to the north, the traditional position of Buddha prior to entering Nirvana.  I think I’ve Buddha-ed out.
Final lacquer plate
Takes all this for one plate
As the morning steamed, we visited Bagan’s most delicate and dedicated crafts house called Bagan House. We were led through the entire process of a plate - being made from long thin pieces of bamboo swirled into a pot or a plate or a bowl - as it was painted with lacquer, a thick black mush from the lacquer tree, then left to dry a week, then painted again, left to dry another week, and again and again til a design was etched in, then colors one by one, drying between each addition, until 15 steps were completed and the highest quality of lacquer artwork results. Horsehair is another thread like substance used to weave in and out of bamboo to form cups. It takes six months to make one piece and a year to make the higher level lacquer ware. Of course there is a shop to wet your appetite. But the process is fascinating and the end result valuable. There is an university where these craftsmen are trained near our hotel.

Tink with ingredients
Pickled tea leaf salad
May cooks fish curry

Best in the day was the invitation from Tink, our local guide for Myanmar, to join him and his mother and sister for a cooking course lunch at his home. Not far from the lacquer factory, and under a prolific large mango tree, where an entire room is dedicated to Buddha imagery and adoration, sits his home. And on a rectangle bamboo table about the size of the double doors of a church was a bamboo mat where the family sits to eat and chat. We were given a table and a fresh limeade, having to wait a bit because the electricity had gone off. It goes on and off all over Bagan, day and night, even at the hotel. Meanwhile Tink discussed the little bowls of spices laid out on a bamboo tray: salt, tumeric powder, chicken broth powder, chopped peanuts, palm sugar, chili powder. These would be part of almost every dish. Once the electricity returned, Tink’s sister began sauteing scallions and tomatoes in oil in preparation for a fish curry to be made from a Feather fish from the river with added spices. Then the grated green mangos were adorned with the same spices and topped with fried onions in saffron for my favorite salad of the day. Bright green, tiny, tumeric leaf was the subject matter of another salad, and so was picked green tea leaf, mixed with salt, peanut powder, sesame seeds, tomato and fried beans (from a package.) This was just flat out delicious. Then to be offered fresh sweet mango from the very tree under which we lunched was a joy. Of course it was more than we could finish but we were grateful for the real time with real people of Bagan.

Other events included a visit to the best puppet maker in Bagan and a dusty stop by an orphanage run by a Buddhist monk who personally rescued 80 youngsters from the devastating cyclone 5 years ago. He has quite a large space with various opened and closed houses, and the boys are in the process of being normal boys and/or monks, if they want, even playing soccer in their rust red robes. We met the director, a modest monk with wire-rimmed glasses. He says various international groups give him support and a brick dormitory is about to be finished. These kids have no living relatives because of the loss in the storm. They are fed, educated, housed and loved in this ministry. Thank God for the Buddhist monks.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Shoes off at Pagodas Parade

bamboo shoots
Take off your shoes. This is Buddha territory.
Bagan, Myanmar, must be the cathedral for all Buddhas. With over 3000 pagodas in 40 square miles, there are so many relics buried here (of course one rarely sees the relics no matter what religion, so it is a “faith-based” concept) that holiness flies through the air on what little breeze there is. There are also “nats” or spirits which are in you and on you to make life good or bad, and there are even holy fish which flop up on the beach, an event much revered by villagers who stuff the fish’s mouth with rice and press gold leaf on his fins and some kind soul pours water on him to keep it alive until it flops back into the sea none the worse for wear. However, woe to him who eats one of these unnamed sea creatures. Life will be negative.

3 types of eggplant
Primarily Bagan, where 55 kings are said to have ruled,  is the hottest and most humid place in which I’ve stepped. And as you meander through pagoda after pagoda, temple after temple, and oogle at the 3 stories high statues of every kind of Buddha in  bronze and gold, your shoeless feet are on fire and your head swirls with sweat.  I finally bought a much needed paper parasol (it’s cooler than silk) and became a whiz at getting through the required paths and tributes so I could dash back to the air conditioned car. 

rub this on your cheek
We departed Yangon for Bagan at 7 a.m. on a Yangon Airlines prop flight with a logo on the side saying ”You are safe with us” in English. Now that made me wonder. Going through the old timey airport was like days of yore in Africa and South America. Check in. Don’t need ID. one old fashioned Xray for the bags and everyone lines up when the flight is called. It’s a good thing the guide was going with us (Bagan is his home) because the announcement was a one shot deal and in the Burmese language. It’s a challenge in the Southeast Asian countries. Each country not only has a different language and monetary set up but each one has a different alphabet with not one recognizable letter. I try to learn to say hello, goodbye and thank you, but all the Bagan  kids and young girls who come up to beg for you to buy their wares have a vocabulary of English responses like “buy this, I give you good price.” “see you later”,“I’ll be back,” good ole tourist cons. And they can do it in various languages, it seems.

Buying a longhee
Bagan is a dusty, dry country town where motorcycle is the mode again.  Market prices are much cheaper than other areas because the Burmese natives here are agrarian and bring their produce from the fields close-by. Hot off the airplane, we went at the early hour to the real market. The selection of vegetables, greens, fish, and clothing on sale was fascinating: orange bamboo shoot, three kinds of eggplant, gourds, more garlic and shallot than a ton of gravel, tamarind leaf and bark, thanaka logs, strange green herbs, bright green tumeric leaf, manioc root, Toddy palm sugar from the Toddy palm tree, strange bitter cucumbers, beetel nuts (even the royalty chewed this bitter seed often mixed with other ingredients to give it a flavor) and more baby potatoes than rice. 
Giant Parasol on the way

 I was quickly accessed by a pair of women with the butter colored thanaka paste on their cheeks and a blue silk longhee held out to wrap me in. In ten seconds they had me dressed as a local, and believe you me, every person not foreign wears the longhee wrap skirt, man (wears cotton) , woman (wears silk), or child (same). It’s really quite appealing. Hard to turn down such confidence. Buy from one, however, and a war happens as everyone has a bargain and are sure you will crack and buy another. Finally we pushed our way out and began the day in Bagan by stopping at the enormous one to two story hotel flowing through flowering trees and small temples on the Ayeyarwaddy River bluffs.

As we drive through the ancient Tharaba Gate 849 A.D.with a “nat” spirit on each side, a brother and sister, and dedicated to Min Maha Giri, I discover that inside this gate remnant and wall all residencies had been removed for historical reconstruction needs. Now there are only four large tourist hotels nestled inconspicuously along the dusty dirt road and river. My guide’s family was one of the 6000 who were abruptly relocated - given two weeks to get out - and were placed south of Bagan near a fancy pagoda. He showed us the tree that was once in his yard. Most houses in this town are made of bamboo with thatched roofs and boats are teak wood. There is a private mansion a few yards down from my hotel, built on the river bluffs that speaks of a Bel Air magnate - huge gray concrete with green reflecting windows and more room than a Hilton. It is owned by the brother of the deeply loved political leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Shwezigon Pagoda 

Buddha at Ananda Temple
In the ancient Mon city, about the time William the Conquer was doing his feats, the first King Thamudarit established the first Bagan Dynasty about 1044 A.D. A monk named Shin Arahan came to Bagan to establish Theravada Buddhism which royalty also followed. Soon devotees were building the biggest concentration of religious structures in Burma (Myanmar). A pagoda was the best - a solid building with religious artifacts of the Buddha buried inside. A temple is a structure with an inner hall where Buddha images are kept and pilgrims can worship in its halls. The belief was to pay such tribute to Buddha earned any man merit toward Nirvana and inscriptions are on stone slabs at all the monuments mentioning who the donor was and how generous. (Reminds me of the Renaissance commissions by artists to donate to the churches for a ticket to heaven.)  These plaques also records that all farms, rice paddies and people left donations for the continual upkeep of these devotions so that their deeds could survive the 5000 years of the Buddhist Era. Building a pagoda is the highest form of merit so there are various sizes of pagodas all over Bagan. And in these worship tributes are not so much paintings and stories but huge statues of Buddha in gold. 

On the Ayeyarwaddy River
Ananda Temple
Since the people of Myanmar are Therevada Buddhist, they follow exactly the teachings of their god, as do those in Thailand and Sri Lanka.  Tantric Buddhists thrive in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal. Mayayana Buddhist are softer, not as strict, and thrive in China and Korea.  At the Ananda Temple, a 9.5 meters high Kassapa Buddha was crafted so the facial expression changes as you move from side to side - from smiling to stern; This Buddha has a cape like outfit. Shwezigon is the golden pagoda here as well as in Yangon and contains relics - Buddha’s collar bone, frontal head bone and one tooth.
Mahbodhi temple is Hindu and is decorated in pyramid type layers with 465 sitting and standing Buddhas. Htilominlo - two story red brick temple built 1211 - contains four giant gold buddhas, each facing a cardinal direction . Two are originals, two have been replaced. There are Gothic style arches here too. The comparisons to the huge brick temples at My Son in Vietnam come to fore. In Bagan it’s more then number of the spires that cover the landscape that you can see, one right after another, some much taller than others. 

I couldn’t sweat any longer and after a stop at the parasol factory (umbrellas are a part of one’s wardrobe here to protect from the heat), we had a quick trip on a boat down the Ayeyarwaddy River, with a rain storm looming - it never showed up - and a private show of amazing Burmese puppetry (the normal kind) dressed in elaborate costumes while I munched on butter fish and the Bagan style spring roll. 
It’s good to have a foot massage at the end of the day to wipe off whatever attached itself to one’s feet in their nude moments, and maybe a moment to remove what attached to my spirit through meditation. Foot massages are good for whatever reason.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Gold Is Where You Find It - Myanmar

Young couple in Longees
Before the Pagoda
First off, men in Myanmar (Burma) wear skirts. Seriously. They are called “longee” and they are the national dress for males. Women also wear the same wrap around ankle length skirts. They are either belted or knotted at the waist. It doesn’t beg for the same curiosity as Scottish kilts, but I’m told by our guide Tink that they are extremely comfortable and cool.                                                                                    

You might say Yangon (the original and now the revamped name for the city Ragoon) is a gold mine. Everything, it seems, is painted gold and even the fabric in my room at the hotel is gold (a bit gaudy for me but Jimmy Carter stayed in this room when he visited.): it’s all about the Buddhas. Buddhas are golden in every pose, stance, recline, and thought. Some even wear gold cloth or quilts sort of like a Virgin Mary is dressed in blue and white in a Catholic situation.  

The eccentric enormous Pagodas glitter with gold from every angle of the city. The golden Padauk flowers hanging off their trees; and menus taut golden tofu, which is the Burmese substitute for French Fries. Prices are also golden here. A square meter of space costs 1000 dollars. The government owns just about everything so it has the power to move people out when they want to start a project, like a new enterprise with China to mine copper in the north. (Twenty thousand farmers were told to move on from their life long homes to make way for the new mines.) Then there is the incredible golden lady Aung San Suu Kyi who tho confined for 15 years to house arrest won a Noble Peace prize for fighting for rights of her countrymen, who when they protested the horrific rise in the cost of living, monks were beaten and many gunned down in a public demonstration.                                                                                             
Spirits speak to the young
Parade of gold Parasols

There are tall golden parasols carried to shade over young children dressed in ornate golden gowns - boys and girls alike - preparing for their first departure from mom and dad to do their Buddhist obligation in a monastery for a few weeks. (A boy must go when he is between 7 and 12 and then later when he is in his early 20ties. A girl only has to do the early one.)  There are white gold faces on women and men and children, a kind of 2000 year old makeup tradition called Thanakha from the tree of the same name for beauty and for health, which looks like a smudge or a square of yellow on their cheeks or forehead. 

And if you really want to invest there are natural gold pearls, not cultured ones, offered along with fine jade, blood red rubies and other natural pearls found off the beaches of Myanmar at a few high end shops aimed at tourists (mostly French and Indians.)  Burmese still have not forgotten the golden visit by President Obama and how that opened the door for the return of the American tourist. Hotels are packed. And souvenier shops sell framed photos of Obama and Lady Aung San Suu Kyi together. 
Washing with the Tuesday group

If you really want to be impressed by gold, visit the  National Museum where the Lion Throne of the former King Theebaw and Queen Supayalat stands in golden glory. It takes your breath away, especially when you see the ornate costumes the young King and Queen had to don to greet their subjects bringing gold to their gold sitting spots. At another warehouse-like structure held up by steel frames is the largest reclining Buddha on earth,  wrapped in a gold and crystal robe, 70 meters long, her head (I refer to this Buddha as a “her” because it has such a feminine demeanor, smiling with passion and compassion for all who bow to him) resting on her hand, and apparently the best Buddha footprint discovered. There are 108 signs on the soles of the two pink feet, so out of sync with reality, it becomes spiritual. 
royal barge

And one last gold thing is the gargantuan royal barge which sits permanently in the lake here in Yangon, although there are two more that actually travel in other parts of Myanmar. This golden barge is anchored with monster heads and tails and was supposed to be used to take the royal family from town to town where people could acknowledge them. Now the one in this city is a popular restaurant.

Yangon is a divided city - the busy, old, crowded unappealing part along the harbor streets where many remnants of old British architecture still stand and in need of repair; then there are the long curving, flowering flame tree and teak tree lined streets that wind through the enormous walled grounds of military and government buildings and the golden Pagodas and private homes. Traffic is a nightmare because, get this, no motorcycles or bicycles are allowed. Therefore cars are often perpendicular when they should be going north or south and people think nothing about causing a jam. We were in one for about 20 minutes because someone was trying to cross traffic and others got in the way. There are seven million inhabitants in Yangon, so you get the problem.                                                                                                                                     

Along the roadways are little oasis under canopies where men, mostly, and young couples sit on plastic stools (child size) at plastic tables and have tea or lunch of “mohinga” (a rice noodle soup with fish, lime and banana flower) or “ono koswe”, a yellow noodle soup with chicken and coconut milk. These are the real thing in Yangon. For lunch at the Padonmar Restaurant I tried fresh tea leaf and ginger salad (filled with peanuts, scallions, garlic, dried tiny shrimp, sesame seed and lime.) Have you ever had fresh green tea leaf in a salad? Tasty.
Note makeup

So to get back to detail, the early move was to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which, in so many words, makes St. Peters - Rome look like a doll house. Never ever have I seen so many spires, so much gold, so much mosaic glass reflecting even more gold and green, and white stupas and Buddhas after Buddhas in every size, shape and position, smiling and feminine most of the time, but drawing the prayerful full of hope and everybody barefoot, please. There are so many “chapels” and each one full of action. Monks wrapped in rust colored robes sat on ledges of steps to watch what was going on.

Buddha footprint
 Why this pagoda? It’s one of the holiest sites in Buddhism and at the tallest point in the city. And it houses actual relics from the four Buddhas who have appeared in history: 8 hairs from one’s head, a walking stick, a brown bathing robe, and a water dipper. The story goes that at the end of the previous world, five lotus buds sprang up on the hill of this pagoda and from each rose a sacred bird carrying a sacred yellow robe which symbolized the coming of the five Buddhas who would guide the next world toward Nirvana. Four have appeared , the fifth, Maitreya, is still coming and it will mark the end of the cycle.  There is more to this tale: two Burmese merchants traveling with a caravan of 500 carts could not get their oxen to move. They were stuck to the earth. A nat appeared before them with news of Buddha’s enlightenment and so they went to pay homage to him, bearing rice cakes and honey.  So pleased was the Buddha he plucked 8 hairs from his head and told them to enshrine them on Singuttara Hill with other Buddha relics. They sought help from Thagyhamin, King of the Nats. A pagoda was built. In 260 BC Ashoka, a great Indian emperor and disciple of Buddha found the then small pagoda completely submerged in jungle. He cleared it out and built the Shwedagon Pagoda in its first form. It has been added to and expanded over the centuries to occupy the huge space and height it does today.  Just so you know it, my guide told me the mother of Buddha dreamed a dream that a white elephant had visited her and next thing she knew she birthed Buddha; sort of has a touch of our Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit. White elephant statues abound in this pagoda.
reclining Buddha 

important feet 
Today a few young boys and girls, decorated to the hilt, with complete family in tow (I’m told grandparents have a special interest in this day) as the youth are initiated into the Buddhist religion by leaving home and spending some time in a monastery with the monks, where they learn new eating and sleeping habits and a bit about respect and faith. Also at this Pagoda, young marrieds wanting to have a child stop at a special Buddha to offer lotus flowers and lanterns for that. And then there is the sort of zodiac area where 8 spots have been designated for the birth day of the week, and it is your duty to stop there and pick up a silver cup, scoop water from a huge bowl, and wash the Buddhas squatting there. I apparently was born on a Tuesday, (our guide Tink had looked it up) so got the Tuesday slot and it was crowded. Candles are lit, incense is flowing, and jasmine leis are being hung around the Buddha statues neck. The heat was blasting down from the morning sun. It was already about 90 degrees at 10 a.m. 
looking for babies
Myanmar people are friendly, thankful, and graceful. They eat three meals of rice a day. It is against the law to own a gun or violent weapon. They are particularly protective of the head, and so don’t touch anyone’s. Youngsters need to give a slight bow passing the elderly (I received a lot of smiles and “hi”s) and also should not tower over them when talking. Hey, marriage is easy. If a man and woman are recognized as a couple by seven houses to the left and seven to the right of their homes, they can marry. Monks aren’t required. The person performing the marriage must have had a long marriage himself and blessed with many children, although nowadays 3 children are the limit for economy sake.

Pho and 34 streets and 54 tribes

Fish Mobile

A day of nostalgia in Vietnam, the rain having cooled off the air in the night;

kids in orange everywhere
Streets were as usual so packed with motor bikes of all sort ridden by Vietnamese in helmets, dodging in and out of us and each other like a superstar soccer player trying to get the ball to the goal. 

Here in the city of 34 streets with giant almond and banyan trees like umbrellas for shade we watched business come to life, quickly, early. Each street were once designated spaces for the trade guilds and they range from shoe street to herbal medicine street, to sugar, basket, scarf, fan, silk, cotton, fish sauce, wood altar, prawns, lacquer, tin, frame, electronics, bamboo ladders, bird house, bonsai, house plants, tea string and tape street, paper street, and so on. It was a challenge to identify where we were, but there was always something funny, unique and quizzical to watch. People do normal things and are friendly wherever they are.

Happy Water Puppet
evolution of the hat
Our destination on our last day was to the Ethnology Museum and 54 Traditions Collections of Vietnamese Minority Art.  The title alone was enough to make me wonder could it be true but this is the only Gallery in Vietnam which brings together all the artifacts of the 53 minority groups and the Kinh majority people. Vietnam is very divided into tribes and sections which are an amalgamation of the fascinating 2000 year history. Is there a pure Vietnamese tribe? That would be hard to define as  this country’s valuable shore line was continually coveted, peppered, attacked, abused, and overrun by China, France, a bit by America and many other feudal lords and kings in the founding days. Always it has remained primarily Buddhist in faith, with fringes of animism. And somehow it has survived, stronger, more fascinating and welcoming than any other in Southeast Asia. And now there is peace and prosperity on the march.

rice scarecrow
As we arrived at this extraordinary museum, once again we confronted hundreds of precious children surely between ages of 2 and 6 who were being led like charms on a chain bracelet through the various displays of the museum. All were dressed in orange T-shirts and caps (surely not U-T fans) and gaggling and laughing and pulling each other’s shirttail-skirt to stay in line. Lots had their caps cocked to one side. I pray it had no meaning, as in Memphis.  It always cheers me up to see such young children learning their colorful history. We need to do more of this culture thing in Memphis.

shaman's tools
The diamond in my visit was being escorted by Dr. Mark Rapoport, an American pediatrician turned specialist in cultural art and history of the 54 tribes. He and his wife also run (in another location) a shop filled with authentic  museum quality antiques from these tribes and by the time one leaves, she is injected with the same enthusiasm of the pursuit of utility with beauty in each of the tribes. I love traditional costume and no matter what the task, the labor, the problem, women wear their costumes day in and day out in the hill countries. (In the cities, it’s modern Vogue and comfort). As we walked through the categories: Central Highlands, Tribal Textiles (amazing), The Shamanic Tradition, Functional Objects, Water Puppets, weaving traditions, etc., Dr. Rapoport’s enthusiasm, knowledge and passion was contagious. 
reverse applique
Some examples: seeing the process of making the Nung bamboo and rattan conical hats that everyone, including tourist wear; the Hmong of the highest mountains of north Vietnam make finely pleated skirts out of hemp and indigo dye; the Lolo tribe (of Tibet and Burma inheritance) women wore the most exquisite attires of what is called “reversed applique” and each one is a credible colorful work of art; the basketry of so many can be a bird or a rat trap but each one looks like a creative sculpture because, as Dr. Rapaport said, an useful object such as a coconut scraper or a woman’s smoking pipe (in the hill country women are tobacco smokers and also, like most, put great emphasis on the beetel nut, which turns their teeth black for beauty over the years,)  has just as much value as something pleasing to see as it is being used. A buffalo horn depending on which end is kept open can be a powder keg, a wine holder and filter, or a trumpet. Time and time again he pointed this out in tools, baskets, and instruments like zithers and gongs and huge metal drums. 

lunar calendar
The bright red ensemble of the Hoa (ethnic Chinese) wedding dresses is to bring happiness, good luck and prosperity to the couple, who are still traders in the Saigon area. The Behnar communal house rather than being just utilitarian, soars to heights of a temple at least 19 meters at the apex of the roof, all out of straw because it symbolizes the power of men. We also saw tomb of the Giarai people encircled with wooden figures with sexually explicit carvings like those of pregnant women and other fertile activities. There is also a stamp (stamps out of wood were big) carved with the image of the thunder god who works in healing. If this is stamped  or tatooed in red ink on someone’s skin, it tells the god not to waste time making this guy sick. He’s protected.
Shaman doing a paper spell

But my favorites were the shaman displays - the Shaman’s “doctor’s” kit with the usual teeth and stones and ornate cap and the shoulder “adze”, ring and gastrolet. A shaman situation has been created where everything is made of paper, the costume of the shaman and the ancestor, the wall drawings, and most objects are as well to emphasize the impermanence of life and that when the ceremony for the ancestor was done, everything would be burned to send the spirits up to the happy relative in the heavens. Like this. It has a touch of the Day of the Dead activities in Latin America.

Pho House
 I received so much information from Dr. Rapoport - with his American take on cultures he loves - that I couldn’t get it all down. But this was one of the best museums I’ve passed through and my imagination is richer by the encounter, as I hope is that of the many little ones who were also visiting that day.
Vietnamese Pho

As a final adventure in Ha Noi (as Dr. Rapoport writes it) our guide took us to a street side Pho house so we could finally lunch on the most famous meal of regular people. Pho is eaten daily and it is said to be better in Ha Noi than anywhere. It is a large bowl of tasty broth into which greens (like spinach, morning glory, etc) and green onions and fresh rice noodles are soaking. Meat or chicken are included for the non-vegetarian. The eater adds peppers, tamarind, lime juice, fish sauce,  and spices as well. It was delicious and filling. I’m not a pasta eater but this one I could handle.  

Friday, April 26, 2013

Pilgrimage with Kids

We went to the top, this morning, celebrating two Vietnam “gods” by visiting where they tread and gave life to this country: political leader Ho Chin Minh and philosopher Confucius.

Pilgrim at Ho Chin Minh Tomb
Lining up at the Mausoleum
Ho Chin Minh, called a nationalist, a socialist by temperament, a Marxist out of expedience, was groomed in the Soviet Union, was leader of the Viet Minh resistance movement and believer in the same freedoms called for in our constitution (life, liberty and pursuit of happiness). He, only he,  brought freedom to Vietnam after centuries of being picked on and violated by China, France and US forces. There was rarely a time in Vietnam history when citizens could sit back and enjoy this peaceful beautiful country. Someone always wanted to conquer it. In 1994 President Bill Clinton lifted the embargo, and Vietnam became a tourist mecca. It’s worth the trip.

kids kids kids
Kids rock at school
One has to rise early to join the mile line of  pilgrims: children of all ages, some tourist and tribute paying Vietnamese visiting the gargantuan Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square, where many a saber was rattled during the days of conflict. The monstrosity of the structure is supposed to resemble a marble lotus blossom (I can’t see it) built with materials from the famed Marble Mountain in Danang. It is skirted by a massive square on one side, where many a soldier high stepped,  and the yellow French Colonial style buildings where the bachelor Ho Chin Minh lived and worked. Not willing to live a fancy life, he humbled himself by living in the wooden servants quarters, a small house on stilts which still stands with its green shutters under an amazing forest of giant trees.

Confucius say
Victory in School
Tom and Jerry count
Win the turtle
It was a cloudy morning on my visit and there is a surely a mile long blue walkway canopy all along the route so no one has to suffer the heat. Took about a half hour to get from beginning to the entrance. Guards in white uniforms trimmed in red and gold are surely chosen for their patient nature and smile in order to deal with thousands of children, from babies to teens in organized school groups. Most stayed in a well-disciplined line, while teachers carried the weary and tried to hold on to the wanderers. I laughed because it’s the same all over the world. Kids will be kids no matter where they are. Groups wore the same color shirts or hats  (orange, blue, lime green ) or uniforms so their frantic teachers could keep up with them. I was amazed at their behavior and as the little ones moved forward, (the younger ones got in quickly)  they held onto the child in front by the shirt tail or the hem of a skirt and one 5 year old kept grabbing the collar of whomever was in front of him. It was such a delight to be among the real Vietnamese and this entertainment made the continually moving long line less tedious. When the children saw us, they all waved their hand and said “Hello.” So we made a lots of new friends with a smile and a “Hello” back. When we reached the entrance to the mausoleum, teachers frantically removed all caps and bonnets to show respect to their leader, Uncle Ho, who is surely smiling at all the young ones’ antics in their tribute.

The preserved body of Ho Chi Minh lies in a refrigerated room, much as does Lenin in Russia and Mao Tse Tung in China. It is a somber lighted view that seems as if he is taking a nap. His wispy beard is in tact. His gray uniform memorable. The experience very brief as no one can dawdle.  I was watching the little ones watching him but moving on as quickly as possible. The mausoleum is only open three hours in the morning and not always.

Buddhas steps
zen moment
Confucius said, among many things, “Set your heart upon the way, support yourself by virtue, lean on goodness, seek attraction in the arts.” The man of wisdom had a lot to say  and teach and yesterday I visited Van Mieu, The Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university, built in 1070 and founded by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong. It took hard work and drive to get to be a mandarin, and the 1,306 doctor laureates who made it have their names engraved on 82 stone stelae riding on the backs of Galapagos style turtles. This temple is also an elaborate red and gold tribute to Confucius, modeled after a similar one in Qufu, China. There are many courtyards, lots of Bonsai, plantings to show the virtues one needs in life, Cut outs of Tom and Jerry placed near ancient coluns and hundreds of school children, many wearing yellow or red silk robes and strange hats which signify they were in the process of graduating.  We happened to be there on a special education recognition day. Teachers and parents carried giant bouquets of flowers which they presented to honor their accomplished children.  

A special treat was a visit to the hidden home of  Asian art entrepreneur Suzanne
Lecht, an American, who has carried the banner for contemporary Vietnamese artists near and far. She served us lunch prepared by the best chef in the city. The “cat fish” in delectable tiny squash flower vines was an adventure, as were dill fish cakes. Suzanne’s various storied home, part of which was a wooden one on stilts she brought in from the country and had incorporated to the structure she built from scratch, is filled with art by the Vietnamese Five members and many women artists.  We walked the Buddha steps: birth, Middle Age, Sickness, Death, Rebirth It can be done either direction. Suzanne's home was a sweet respite in the middle of a crowded, bustling city where mass tourist products dominate. A valid art world, though small, does exist here and is getting world-wide attention. We left here and went to the History Museum to walk through room after room of antiquities.