Wednesday, September 17, 2008

First Cambodia Trip, 1995

In the fall of 1995, I remember I was at a production company in NYC talking to one of my regular storyboard clients about the beauty of courier travel. Basically if you were a lone traveler with a flexible schedule you could call up a number and listen to a recording about greatly reduced last-minute flights overseas to Europe and sometimes Asia, on major airlines.

All that was required was that you had to surrender any check-in cargo space for mounds of time-sensitive corporate mail that legally required someone to fill a seat to be sent. You also had to be able to leave within a few days or a week and only travel for a few weeks, but in return you got a round trip to various European capitals for usually $100.

To illustrate this to my client I dialed the number and listened. The recording listed a rare flight to Bangkok leaving in 2 days, round-trip costing $300. I jumped on it, and within days I was headed for 3 weeks to Southeast Asia again. It was to be for a week in Cambodia, a week in Vietnam, and a week in Myanmar (Burma).

But Cambodia ended up leaving deepest impressions this time.

Cambodia was a country I had planned to visit on a previous journey (the holiday visit in '94/95) but had to cut my trip short after 3 weeks in Vietnam. The reason for this was partly that I was in love with a new girl back in NYC. But a very strong reason, I discovered years later, was that I had been on Lariam, an anti-malarial drug. After the mid-nineties they took Lariam off the market because it was found that some people had delusional reactions to it. I was one of those people.

My last week or two in Vietnam, as I wrote intense self-scrutiny about my visit to the country as a voyeur, I began to go a bit crazy. Hanging out in Saigon by myself I grew increasingly paranoid about my mental health and what I was doing there. I felt like I was living in a Joseph Conrad novel and decided to cut my trip short to get back to familiar ground. I read years later that many people had this experience on Lariam.

Anyway, this time I was thrilled to have the opportunity to visit Cambodia . I had heard much of it's romantic settings and intense history. Aside from being notorious for it's terrible genocide through the late 1970's where as many as 2 million died, ( depicted in the "The Killing Fields" )
, it was also the center of an expansive and large kingdom dating back 800-1200 years ago.

Many of the crumbling temples from this time period still dot the countryside and jungles in the center of the country, at Angkor Wat. With massive banyan trees growing up through the ruins and the sounds of birds and monkeys in the air, it makes for a very romantic atmosphere. Apparently much of the region was covered with overgrowth until the 1850's when French archaeologists "discovered" it.

I'm grateful I got a chance to see the temples at this time, when it was still not too touristed. Today the temples are clogged with buses and private cars full of tourists. Large hotels line the road to Angkor Wat.

But in 1995, Cambodia was still an edgy country, with regular reports of train hijackings and highway robbery of westerners. Much of the Khmer Rouge responsible for the genocide, it's power waning, turned to desperate means. It was my Mom who, of course, unearthed an article of an American couple gunned down by bandits near the temples. The residual effect of this was clear when I visited some of the outer temples and found myself escorted by a lone soldier carrying an Ak-47.

Phnom Penh, the modern capital, felt itself like a Wild West town. I had read that many international criminals chose this city to lay low in, due to the lawlessness. The first democratic "elections" were held only a couple years before and Hun Sen was just starting to bring stability, but there was an unpredictability in the air at all times.

I stayed in the "Capitol" hotel, (from where I sketched, above) another notorious budget hotel with a checkered history. In Vietnam, among the expats, I heard stories of questionable types roaming the halls of the Capitol with pistols drawn late at night. But it was cheap and popular on the backpacker circuit, so I checked myself in and kept my valuables on me at all times.

While I was in Phnom Penh I had a motorbike guide take me out to Toul Sleng, a former high school that had been turned into a torture and interrogation center by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970's. Some 20,000 innocents passed through this place before they were taken a few kilometers away to the Killing Fields and executed.

I had a very sobering experience at both these locations. Rather than draw anything , I just recounted in text, my hours at the high school with an incredible woman guiding me. Later, on my flight back to the states, a nice young French couple saw this book and asked to look at the sketches. When the French man got to these pages and read the words, he openly wept on the plane. It still gives me the chills. And keeps things in perspective. Below:

The Killing Fields were down a few kilometers of rough road outside the city, much of it impassable except by motorbike because of damage from monsoon flooding. The site itself was quiet and breezy, tranquil. But one only had to look to the ground at their feet to see the bone shards, teeth, and shredded clothing left behind in the exhumed graves and realize the unchecked evil and tragedy that played out there years earlier.

The writing below is from a couple motorbike guys who would take me and another American, Chris, around. My guy was named Sonny and was an affable and street-wise young man who often bragged about a Swedish girlfriend he used to bang. He had fled the country as a young boy and grew up in Thai refugee camps, where he learned his English before returning to Cambodia.

About 5 years later I worked on a Matt Dillon film in Cambodia in the art department for 2 weeks. While I was there a young man in a baseball cap would come and go, quietly running errands for the Israeli propmaster. It wasn't until my last day that I suddenly heard this guy laugh out loud and instantly recognized him. It was Sonny and I reminded him that he had driven me around five years earlier. We reconnected and a year later I returned to shoot my own film and made Sonny one of the characters in the film.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bangkok and Hue , June 1995

In June of 1995, I returned to Vietnam once again, my third trip within a year. I guess I was on some sort of vision quest as now I was determined to experience Vietnam with more focused awareness of how I processed things as a young American. In looking back, I was at a real turning point in my life.

I had been born in the city, grown up in the suburbs, gone to an internationally attended art school, and returned to the city. But nothing was challenging my sense of critical thinking like these trips to Vietnam. In order to make sense of it all and maybe validate the journeys I began to act as a reporter, covering myself in a sense. Eventually the data I recorded at this time became about 100 pages of an abandoned nonfiction novel.

So as not to bore anyone who doesn't care, two of the chapters I wrote around 1996 can be found by clicking HERE.

The chapters cover the same time period that I did the below sketches. On this trip I spent a few days in Saigon and about week or so in Hue.

Presented in greater detail in the chapter postings is my account of randomly meeting a married artist couple, Anh and Vinh, at the Art University in Hue. Both professors at the school, he was a sculptor and she a painter.
Speaking English with me, they very graciously invited me over to their house one afternoon where I spent about 4 or 5 hours drinking tea, looking at their artwork, and sketching portraits of each other.

Additionally in Hue I unexpectedly found myself in a very innocent romance with a local woman for several days. She and her family ran a popular restaurant and for some reason she found me worthy of her attention, so volunteered to be my guide to the countryside outside Hue. What made it especially interesting was that she was deaf and mute. (My old neighbor Steve, who used to hire me as a laborer in high school at his construction sites heard just those details and cried, "She sounds perfect!" as his wife rolled her eyes.)
These interesting and fond times are also written about in the chapters.

Also on this trip, I had two chance encounters with people in Saigon. I was hanging out with a recent grad in the expat bar "Apocalypse Now" talking about RISD, my alma mater.

" You went to RISD?" he asked, " That guy over there went to RISD too", pointing to Andrew, a stocky short guy with glasses across the room.

I went over and introduced myself to Andrew and talked for about 10 minutes before I stopped and really recognized him.

"Wait a minute! I know you. I painted houses for you one summer. You fired me!" This was true, but I hadn't recognized my old boss as he had cut off his long hair. Andrew broke out into a big smile at the weird crossing of paths.

" Frankly I was a lousy painter anyway" I confessed.

On another night, in another expat bar, Q-bar, I met Adam Yauch from the Beastie Boys. After introducing myself he showed interest in my sketchbook, telling me his father is an artist who always used to bring sketchbooks to family outings.

Adam was starting his first big non-concert trip through Asia with some high school friends. He told me later he was going to visit several other countries of interest, including Tibet. I guess it was on this trip that lead to his own personal quest as Tibet became a very big cause for him a couple years later. I understand he eventually even married a Tibetan woman.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Vietnam - December '94 to January '95

Only 3-4 months after my first trip to Southeast Asia, I received a request to return to Vietnam from an advertising client of mine. Diane, a middle-aged single Creative Director from Jacksonville was fascinated with the idea of seeing Vietnam, but felt a bit uncomfortable as a woman traveling alone through a war-torn Third World country. I assured her it was completely safe, but agreed to join her since Vietnam was very much still on my mind.

Out of all the countries I had visited on the previous trip, Vietnam really lingered with me. In retrospect I have long come to realize that it was the power of myth that held sway over me. I graduated high school in 1986, but even at that time World History classes usually ended with the Korean Conflict and American society still was not regarding Vietnam as a lost war. The wounds still ran deep.

The closest I came to learning anything about the Vietnam War in an academic setting was during my World History class in 11th grade. It had been established that my teacher, Mr. Carson, a Vietnam veteran, had traditionally used the last day of the school year to discuss the war. I looked forward with some anticipation to this day, but it ended up being a series of anecdotes about a scared 19-year old sharing a foxhole in the jungle with a buddy with dysentery. Nothing about the politics of the situation. My education of Vietnam remained what movies and tv had fed me for years.

So that first trip began a process of peeling back layers and challenging the ridiculous myths I carried in my head. Like meeting a celebrity in real life, Vietnam was becoming more human to me. Though unlike meeting a celebrity, Vietnam was becoming more fascinating to me. Back in the States I ended up writing 40 pages of notes about an experience that was increasingly obsessing me

So gladly, I gave up a holiday with my family and headed back with Diane to keep journals of my experience. Eventually I wrote about 100 more pages of what I thought would be a book. Maybe it'll be another blog.

The pages below are from when I visited Qbar, an expat joint in Saigon. Showing my sketches to Thuy, a gorgeous bartendress, (who is sketched further below), she took my book and wrote out my first Vietnam language lessons for me.
I had little inkling at the time that Qbar would become my regular hang-out, 2-3 years later when I ended up living in Saigon.

Around this trip I also began to realize the nature and importance of the sketchbook process in my travels. With the previous recorded journeys, I ended up finishing a complete book on this trip. It felt good to have something so ragged, textural, and personalized to preserve the experience. During this time I began the habit of making subjects sign the book after I drew their portraits and even sometimes letting them take a shot at drawing me.

Diane and I spent the first few days in Saigon, before hiring a car and driver to take us up the coast, to the Central Highlands (which reminded me of a scaled down San Francisco region with the cool air, pine trees and mountains). From there we headed to Nha Trang, the beach town, to spend Christmas.

The local children loved Diane, who, with her Southern Belle demeanor and blond hair, looked as exotic to them as they to her. Thirteen years on, some of my most vivid and warm memories of that trip are when we pulled the car over to an anonymous roadside shack in Central Vietnam for a break from the bumpy ride. Diane spent the next hour making a score of local urchins laugh their little butts off with her imitations of farm animals.

Christmas Eve we spent at an open-air seafood place on Nha Trang's beach. A local vendor, savvy to the time of year for Westerners, wandered around selling sparklers. Diane, filling the role of Santa, would hand out some Vietnamese currency to a couple little kids to buy sparklers and light them for her on the beach before us.

This had the effect of tossing some crumbs of bread to just a few seagulls.

Before you knew it, there were about 10 or 15 little kids prancing up and down the moonlit beach with sparklers. With so much youthful joy on parade, Diane, who had no children, was in maternal bliss. With a beatific look on her face, she glanced over from the celebrating pixies and exhaled, " I'm in heaven."

We continued driving up the coast, stopping in Da Nang, Hoi An, up through the dramatic Hai Van pass with it's amazing coastal views and then down into the ancient capitol city of Hue.

Hue, once being the center for Vietnamese royalty, previously was the site of an extensive palace, hundreds of years old. Unfortunately, except for a few key buildings, much of this historic architecture was flattened during the Tet Offensive of 1968 when Hue was under seige.

At that time in 1994, when you wandered the grounds, it was not difficult to spot signs of this: broken tile and china, spent bullet casings and rusting smoke cannisters.

One rainy day, I climbed the to the top of the ancient wall that surrounded the old part of the city. Amidst a rubble-strewn pile of bricks I came across a brown piece of fabric, about the size of my sketchbook page. It had many tiny violent holes in it, as though from shrapnel, and appeared as if it torn from some NVA soldier's fatigues.

At this time I was beginning to get into the habit of collecting interesting textures to montage into my book, so I took it back to my hotel and laid it out to dry.

That night I had incredibly spooky and horrifying nightmares that freaked me out. In the morning I deduced that I may have been messing with some poor soul's final resting spot before departing this world. So I returned the fabric to the exact place I found it, hoping to restore any spiritual dignity I might have disturbed.

From Hue, Diane and I flew to Hanoi as the traveler's word of mouth had suggested that much of the land in between is flat and uninspiring, and really just many many more hours of bumping along the roads of a country with a weak infrastructure.

Hanoi was impressive in it's romantic ambiance, thanks to the extensive French colonial architecture that really defined the city, and the fact that some of the men over the age of 60 wore berets.

And of course, a trip to Hanoi isn't complete without a visit with Bac Ho, who lays in permanent state in a glass coffin within a heavy-handed Communist looking masoluem. No pictures allowed, of course and you're not allowed to stop the slow single-file shuffle, circulating at a distance from the old man in a very dark room. But Uncle Ho looked great.

After a few days in Hanoi, including New Year's Eve( which I drunkenly spent with a bunch of Belgians in the bar, "Apocalypse Now"), Diane and I went our separate ways. She elected to head in-country for a few days to the hill tribes of Sapa.

Entranced by the limestone formations I saw featured in the French film, "Indochine" I elected to head to Halong Bay. (Again, little knowing that several years later in Saigon I start what would ultimately become a close acquaintance with Linh Dan, the actress who played Catherine Deneuve's adopted daughter in that film. Small world.)

The journey to Halong Bay was about 4-5 hours over land by bus. About halfway there we had to stop, along with scores of other vehicles, at the Red River to await a tugboat to push a very large barge across the water to meet us.

Several weeks before I had packed nothing but clothing for warm tropical weather. Well, Northern Vietnam it turns out is friggin cold. I was wearing my one long-sleeve item, a silk jacket I had bought in humid Venice two years before - not too effective against the damp cold and windy air I was bracing against. As we unloaded off the bus for a bit, I sprinted for the line of bamboo shacks housing vendors who serviced the barge-waiting crowd.

Inside a group of young girls stood behind souvenir stands, enveloped in big down jackets and heavy mufflers. I desperately needed a scarf and no one spoke English. So I began to pantomime being cold (cross arms tightly and shake). They pointed to expensive down jackets hanging on the wall. It was too much of an investment for the two days I would be in Halong Bay, so I put my hands to neck and pantomimed wrapping something.

The girls stared back at me blankly with looks that said " Why is that white guy choking himself?"

Finally one girl's eyes widened in comprehension. She cried out excitedly and quickly unwrapped her own handmade scarf from her neck and sold it to me for two dollars. It was a red/blue/and purplish plaid number that I wore for years and eventually mourned it's loss after a rambunctious night out on the town in NYC.

Below is the portrait of Thuy, the bartender I mentioned previously. She was still working in Qbar a couple years later when I lived in Saigon. Thuy had a somewhat austere manner about her which, mixed with her exotic looks, could be kind of intimidating. But I remember on the last occasion that I saw her, on a flight from Saigon to Bangkok, she looked very different.

was with her much older, middle-aged European boyfriend who was taking her back to his home country. It was the first time she was leaving Vietnam and coincidently, they sat behind me. From the time the Thai Airways flight took off to the time we disembarked at the large and very expansive Dom Muang airport in Bangkok, Thuy had this unguarded look of innocence and wonder, like a child who was entering Willy Wonka's world.

One of Qbar's Vietnamese patrons took a shot at drawing me and another patron, below:

The last pages of my sketchbook are often filled with writings, scribblings, directions and little notes from other travelers or locals as we tried to communicate something. The pages below are from a young woman who served me when I sat down in a cafe after wandering Hanoi alone for a few hours. She had long, very permed hair and said she was a design student. She said her spoken English was not as good as her written English, so took my book and wrote down the things she wanted to ask me.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Tulum, Mexico - May 2008

I've jumped way ahead in the timeline on this posting, in the interest of mixing it up a little. This was my most recent trip from about a month ago. (posting June '08)
My travels have tapered necessarily in the past year or two partly out of budgetary reasons (shifts in career and a relocation from east to west coast), but I haven't lost the bug.

Several of my dear old friends from school had arranged a trip to Mexico and had rented two houses on the beach in Tulum, on the Mayan Peninsula, about 70 min south of Cancun. It was to be Cary, his wife Sylvia, their 2-year old Tyler, my old RISD rooomate Sean, his wife Kelly, THEIR 2-year old Maya, Cary's childhood friend Sam, his wife Marie, THEIR one-year old TRIPLETS, and another RISD friend Shawn. And a nanny and another couple as well.

A month or two before, they called me to join them and incredibly, I balked at first. I had just moved to LA and was suffering from a lack of comfortable job flow and hence, cash. But fortunately they pushed for me and I stepped outside a myopic view of things to consider this: Much valued friends, each raising pre-schoolers, each mobilizing to vacation together in a foreign country, is a RARE and valuable moment to get on board with.

As it turns out I was asked to come work for my old company in NYC temporarily for an extended trip in April which helped easy the finances. So after I finished that stint, I mailed my fashionable blazers home to LA, went to the Gap to buy ONE pair of olive drab shorts, and jumped on a plane straight to Cancun.

Everyone else had arrived several days ahead of me, so when Cary and Sylvia picked my up in a slightly aged Toyota rental, they already had a visibly lower blood pressure than myself. Before heading to the beach house, we took a ferry over to Isla de Mujeres for a seafood lunch

Our beachhouse, above, was perfect. Rustic, breezy, quiet. Right on the beach of a lagoon. You could walk out about 5oo feet and only be waist high in crystal green waters that averaged about 90 degrees. You only needed to take a snorkel with you to see plentiful sealife in it's natural environment right out in front of the house.

The house was maintained by a paunchy and charismatic local named Ricky, and his wife Sol. They lived on the grounds in a small house with their three kids and completely made us feel welcome. Ricky would sometimes cook for us or run into town for beer. Always an entertaining presence, he would sometimes hang out for a beer or a margarita at our urging.

During midday, iguanas would wander the grounds looking for lunch. But my favorite animal was Pinto, the house puppy. He looked like the product of a Jack Russell Terrier and a beagle or something. Like some local doggie had scored a one-night stand with a visiting trendy doggie from el Norte during a previous rental .
Pinto was playful, attentive, and affectionate. (Sigh) I love Pinto. It was hard to leave him.

One of Tulum's points of interest are a vast network of hundreds of inland cenotes, or freshwater pools which you can swim or scuba in. Some, like the one we visited above, are dramatically subterranean, with vines snaking down a hundred feet from the surface. The pool is cool and reviving, but virtually bottomless.

We did a slew of snorkeling, kayaking, and even went to Xcaret, a sort of cultural Mayan Disney, but really it was nice enough just to sit in the shade and stare at the ocean for a few hours.
People back home later asked me if I got a deep dark tan. Hell, no. My sensitive Irish skin demanded I wear SPF 50 the whole time and stay out of the sun. It was pretty much 95 degrees F and sunny the whole time. And so humid I gave up trying to tame my curls after the first few hours.

As attractive as inertia was, Cary and Sylvia convinced me to take an overnight trip to Chichen-Itza, the main Mayan temple complex, a couple hours into the interior. We passed through a pretty nice colonial-era town called Valledolid (images below) but had no time to stop. Ancient Mayan architecture was calling.

At Chichen-Itza.We booked into a very nice hotel just at the edge of the temple grounds, so that we could walk over. Checking in at 4 pm, I heard the grounds close at 5pm, but I could probably slip in for free in the last hour. So I grabbed my sketchbook and ran over. The ticket people had already vanished for the night and I was able to get the below sketch done in the last hour.

When I returned to the hotel, I decided to look into the hotel bar. There at the semi-circular bar were about nine women having drinks. It turns out the women were all in a week-long holistic healing course of a sorts. They were on their last night of learning about healing ailments (emotional and physical, I guess) through sound vibrations.

I gotta say, I love my friends and their families, but the chance to get my flirt on after a week of being the lone single guy was too much to resist. I had a couple of laughs and glasses of wine with the holistic ladies until Cary and Sylvia appeared at the door with Tyler, waiting to eat dinner. They told me to stay, but I couldn't abandon the friends who brought me along. We ended talking to the girls later anyway after dinner.

The page above is a photo of Cary floating at the edge of the shore snorting salt water through his nose repeatedly to cleanse his sinuses of city dirt. He was mumbling something about tribal Africans doing the same, or something like that. I didn't really follow him, but he did say it cleared things out pretty good.

It was a great trip, and we all want to reassemble there again next year, maybe even with more friends. I loved being amongst friends, watching their families grow. I guess the only time it really caught up with me was the last night at dusk ,when I was on the roof watching the sunset by myself. The night before, over mojitos and Cuban cigars, Sam's wife, Marie, went around asking people what they wanted for themselves the next year. I answered to return with someone special to share it all with.