© Elizabeth Brunazzi, 2001
From time to time, Frigate receives e-mails from colleagues, friends, and relations regarding their travels. Letters home! Letters from far away with all their consciousness of the absent place, of the unfamiliarity of the place at hand. Letters about going home again. . . Was it that long ago when we exchanged real paper letters, epistles with beautiful stamps, wavy cancellations inked over them? When I was a child, my father and I would carefully pry such stamps off their envelopes and put them away in a little tin box to take out another day and daydream by. Later, when I was a wildchild hitchhiking through Europe, we used the air letter, a red, white, and blue striped envelope/letter hybrid, a butterfly made by a committee, thin as sunburn peel, upon which we tried to write as much self-conscious travel prose in as little space as possible. We would then fold up the thing, lick the appropriate surfaces, press them together and send our words out on moth-wings. For then every ounce meant a price increase, international postage was dear, and mail was measured in ounces, not megabytes. Forget anything so remote as a personal computer. Without further ado, then, Frigate is pleased to let you read from our mail-bag.
This winter, George Scribner, an acquaintance of ours and a casualty of the dot.com layoffs, took his pink slip with panache. In the spring he embarked upon his first wild-water rafting trip; then, in a marvelous gesture, signed up for a "roughing it" tour of Southeast Asia.
This is the fourth time I've written this e-mail. . . . My browser crashed in Vientiane, and I lost my connection twice in Hanoi. I'm beginning to think it's a plot. Anyway, we arrived in Hanoi last night, having spent two days in Vientiane, two days in a jungle "resort," and one day in a border town that was a surreal wild-west experience. More on that later, but first things first. . .
Vientiane, one of the first Lao river-valley fiefdoms and the current capital, has endured attacks by the Burmese, Siamese, Vietnamese, French, Americans, among others. Now it must face the most intense invasion of all, the Tourists.
To fortify itself against the onslaught, Vientiane is building infrastructure: a new airport, new roads, sidewalks, street lights. It's refurbishing and polishing monuments. But there's a long way to go. Walking is hazardous. The sidewalks pitch, fall, and sometimes disappear into the drainage channels below. The city is filled with graceful French colonial mansions. But the grass is overgrown, the fences are rusted, and the homeless share the verandahs with feral cats. Also, the two oldest wats are in disrepair. The exteriors are weathered down to bare wood showing little trace of their original gilding. The city reminds me of East Berlin. . . where buildings ruined from World War II sit alongside vast plazas and exaggerated institutional buildings.
The vestiges of war are evident in Vientiane. The US Embassy, for example, looks like a maximum-security prison. We noticed its tall, white walls down a side street when strolling along Vientiane's Champs d'Élysée, Thanon Lan Xang, which leads to its own Arc de Triomphe, Patuxi. As we walked towards the compound, I counseled my friends, "I don't know what this is but it's VERY serious. Don't take any photos." That was a good call. The blue uniformed guards laughed when I asked if I could take a picture. I didn't realize it was the American embassy until standing directly in front of the motorized black wrought-iron gates. Each of them sported subtle gold American eagle insignia.
In contrast to the American embassy, one can visit the Lao Revolutionary Museum, housed in a French colonial building on the other side of town. The first two rooms contain a sparse selection of archaeological artifactshousehold objects, religious icons, and jars from the mysterious Plain of Jars. The remainder of the museumfifteen rooms or soprovides a detailed "history" of Laos's military struggles and political victories. Dioramas and photos are annotated with naively propagandistic captions like "Comrade Xiao has a friendly chat with the people." These images are punctuated by actual weapons, including rifles with bayonets, casually arranged within arm's reach behind a simple rope. No guards. No security. Yikes!
More later. Let's hope this one gets through. . . .
From Singapore, our friend B.J. Atwood-Fukuda writes of work and climate.
I started docent training at the Singapore History Museum two days after leaving NYC last September. While hardly as intellectually demanding as law school, the course seemed just as intense and time-consuming. Probably wasn't, but the muggy heat makes such. . . efforts feel Herculean, if not absurd. This must be why the tropics aren't the birthplace of the Calvinist work ethic, among other northern preoccupations. (On the other hand, manual laborers here work unbelievably hard. . . but that's another story.) The course ended in December, but somehow I'm still busytraveling, making friends, reading books about Asia, working out a lot and trying to revive my literary creativity. And, in theory, guiding at the Singapore History Museum.
The climate isn't so much an excuse as an explanation for my own inertia, which isn't really inactivity but often feels like it. If you're used to seasons, to the rhythm of cold snaps and thaws, the fake chill which rules every indoor space inhibits creativity. . . as much as the steamy heat outside melts the brain. Flitting back and forth between these contrasts all day long over many months deals a series of tiny shocks to a system used to a more temperate, perhaps more brutal, climate. Strange things happen to your sense of time in a place where it's always summer. I find it harder than usual to be punctual here, as if being late had fewer consequences. Or maybe I just feel it should have fewer consequences. There's something silly, if not sinister, about living in an erstwhile rain forest as if it had never existed as such, as if it wouldn't reassert itself the moment humans stopped erasing it with steel and concrete. Meantime the Internet rules: any shipwrecked Martian might think it's the only world here while at the same time wondering where it is and what it smells like. Office workers dress the way people do in the fall and even the winter in NYC. To me, this says less about the number of hours they spend in the a.c. than it does about [what] they consider the locus of their "real" lives to be. Despite having to walk outside in the heat to get from their offices or homes to the bus stop, or perhaps because of it, locals pointedly do not interact with the climate. They're not even tan, unless they're naturally brown. If you watched a video of a street here, you'd never guess it was 90 degrees outside with humidity to match. You'd see people in black gabardine business suits and think: hmm, looks surprisingly cool for a place with all those palm trees.
David Kovacs writes from Hungary, where he has been sent to the university at Debrecen on a Fulbright.
On the very first day of orientation, the Fulbright Commission here in Hungary embraced me and my fellow "Fulbrighters" with a hearty four-part welcome from the American ambassador, the director of the commission, the Hungarian Secretary of Education, and the US Public Affairs Officer. This orientation took place, rather symbolically, in the former headquarters of the Communist Party. . . and only leading. . . Party members previously had access to the conference room where we Fulbrighters, (some of us) hesitant purveyors of the "free" market and its trappings, were now meeting to discuss "Hungary Today." Later that night we met at the residence of the US Public Affairs Officer for a party at the very same house high up in the Buda Hills that had been used as S.S. headquarters under Eichmann. Anyway, the deep-fried goose liver at that first orientation lunch told me all I needed to know. So delicious and so lardaceous that goose liver wasthat it completely summarized almost all that I can say about life here.
There's an obsession with aesthetics in Budapest that is just wonderful to the eye, ear, palette, and mind, but it can all be so taxing to take in and process in a way that makes sense. Thus, the history of Hungary: so heavy as to be [whispering from] the bullet holes in the buildings, [then] blinding the unsuspecting disciple to the insidious diseases of the heart. The orientation proceeded as a congenial four days of sightseeing, traveling to other interesting parts of the country, getting to know the other Fulbrighters and their respective projects, and further lectures on the contexts of modern-day Hungary. There are about fifteen of us here; I am the only "writer" though there are two other artists: a pianist from Texas and a painter from Wisconsin. Debrecen is considered to be the Stanford of Hungary and the architecture of the buildings is in the neo-Spanish style and is, I might add, rather breathtaking. The English Department there was directed for many years by Laszlo Orszagh, the world-famous translator and author of the most extensive Hungarian-English dictionary. My colleagues are extremely deferential, generous, inquisitive, and learned. . . despite the fact that their salaries put them well below the poverty line, and they therefore have more than one job. The university is quite pooron the verge of bankruptcy.
. . . the students. . . are very respectful and intelligent. They have rich ideas on life in its many incarnations, and their English is quite good; especially my upperclassmen have an extensive command of idiomatic English, and their British accents with a little Transylvanian lilt are most charming. . . . students always do their homework no matter how much sleep they lose. . . , and they take very heavy course-loads. The overall cultural emphasis here from primary school on up is on hard, diligent study. Many of my upperclassmen have already read books I meant to assign them, so I have been forced to improvise my reading lists in order to facilitate their vast stores of knowledge.
As for the classes I teach, they consist of a Fiction Workshop for upperclassmen and a course entitled "The History of Twentieth-Century American Identity: Jazz Studies." I was inspired to do this class by Moustafa Bayoumi, who invited me to the Jazz Studies Symposium at Columbia University [last] spring. It is an essay-writing class in which we look at how the instrumentality of jazz plays out in American Culture. We are reading essays by Ralph Ellison, James Alan McPherson, and other intellectuals, [as well as essays by] musicians, that talk to the paramount importance of African-American identity and culture in the greater American consciousness of the twentieth century.
. . .I hope you're enjoying autumn in New York. . . . The leaves here are already beginning to turn maroon and gold, and soon they crackle underfoot and smell and sound like the very dry wood come to the city for burningthe world's changing all the time, full of uncertainty, but at least in this sense we still share similar fates.
We received this e-post from Noah Epstein, who was traveling with Rachel Brooks in the BajaBaja California, that is.
Unfortunately this is a mass e-mail, but as I am here in a tiny cafe with astonishingly slow Internet service, I don't have three hours to wait for all the messages to be sent. So. . . .
We traveled to Santa Barbara last Thursday and then spent Rachel's birthday in San Diego, dining at the Marine Room, a little restaurant so close to the ocean that the waves crash against the front window. We crossed into Baja on Saturday early morning and drove to the Catavia boulder fields where we camped amidst an endless expanse of gargantuan smooth, grey boulders and abundant cacti. The next day we traveled to Mulege where we found a lovely palapa (an open air straw hut) and spent the first day swimming in the clear water and relaxing from the drive. The following day took us to the Islas de Santa Ines, about a 45-minute boat ride west in the Sea of Cortez, where we did two dives which were fairly uneventful except for a few stingrays, two moray eels, several nudibranches (sp?little semi-translucent neon invertebrates attached to rocks). We also saw a puffer fish, several hundred sea stars, and sea cucumbers.
After recovering from the nitrogen overdose we went kayaking todaygot up before dawn, made Rachel's coffee so she could speak, and then grabbed our kayaks and took off from our front yard. We got into the middle of Bahia Concepcíon before the sun rose. The water was glassy all morning, and prehistoric frigate birds scanned the still water for fish. We found an isolated island beach where we shed our bathing suits and ate mangos and hard boiled eggs (yes, an odd combination, but it was hard to beat). Returning to our beach-front palapa, we packed up and drove through the roaring furnace of mid-afternoon Baja to Loreto, where we are now. It is a very ordered, neat, and unusual city about seventy miles south of Mulege on the Sea of Cortez. We have arranged to go fishing tomorrow for yellow-tail and dorado and red snapper. Afterwards we are heading to La Paz, where we will dive with the sea lions and hopefully eat our fresh catch. After a few more days, we drive to Todos Santos, a Santa Fe-like artists' town on the Pacific side. It will be our last stop before we start the 1500-mile drive home. . . .
One more George Scribner for the road (now from Cambodia):
The road to Phnom Penh is an elevated dirt patch that rises from ten-twenty feet above the rice paddies. It is elevated to minimize flooding. However, it gets washed out all the time. Even the new construction gets washed out, and the workers have to start again. Sometimes, pieces of road disappear for the entire rainy season (May-October). Our guide has been calling ahead for three days to determine if the road is passable. Yesterday, it wasn't. Today, it is.
On either side of the road are grass shacks. We haven't seen these since Laos. There the shacks seem primitive but appropriate to the region and to the emerging Lao economy. Here, they just seem decrepit and destitute, and this impression is reinforced when we see the ribs of the inhabitants, their dogs, and their cattle.
The Khmer people seem somewhat Indian in their appearance and nature, and they wrap a long, rectangular scarf around their heads much like the Indians do. Historically, they've been influenced by Indian religious beliefs: the carvings at Angkor are often stylistically Indian and portray Hindu gods.
As we drive towards Phnom Penh, our guide lectures us sternly about safety: do not take anything out of the hotel that you are not willing to have stolen. The beggars are everywhere, and they are very persistent. They consist of landmine victims with missing limbs and children who speak perfect English and then cry if you don't give them money. Do not go out alone after 9 p.m., and be sure to pay a driver from the hotel to accompany you wherever you go. Etc., etc.
By the time we arrive, we are on red alert expecting to be dropped into a war zone. What a shock to be welcomed into the Renaske Hotel, a sprawling French-Colonial mansion directly across from the ornate Silver Pagoda, the royal palace, and the National Museum. Somehow, we managed to book a cheap hotel on the best piece of real estate in Phnom Penh, or any city we've visited thus far.
I lock away my valuables, passport, credit cards, and all but $10 (American dollars are the preferred currency. When you buy something, you get back dollars and Cambodian Riel instead of American coins.) I walk to the curb and gawk at the spectacular Khmer architecture. It can only be compared to Disney for its drama and fantasy. Nothing real is ever this exotic.
Past the palace and a right turn towards the Tonle Sap River and, what do I find? The most lovely quay in Indochina: parallel paving-stone pathways lined with grass, ornamental lighting, a low retaining wall with people perched watching the sun set. I stroll along looking at all the smiling faces, soldiers, monks, families, Red Cross workers, policemen. . . .
Across the street, around the corner from UNESCO is the legendary Foreign Correspondents Club. I walk up the stairs and into the barand I am in the movie Casablanca. A golden stucco room with a peaked beamed ceiling, dark wood, and white tiles. The bar curves towards groupings of Mission-style lounge chairs and circular Art-Deco coffee tables. The room is open on three sides and extends out onto a wraparound terrace with a view of the Sisowath Quay and the river.
Slowly, the ceiling fans turn, as do the heads of every person in the room. I am being scrutinized. And I am doing the same. These can't be tourists. They must be spies, or international businessmen, military advisors, or aid workers. And I am one of them. I feel very mysterious, like a man with a secret.
The FCC became my refuge for the next three days. And it was a very needed fantasy, because the reality that I confronted and am still trying to comprehendwas more horrific than anything I ever imagined.
Finally, Carl Dimow from Maine writes about the trip he and his klezmer band, the Casco Bay Tummlers, recently made to Lithuania.
After a year-and-a-half of planning, organizing, and fundraising, the Casco Bay Tummlers klezmer band traveled to Lithuania this past spring for a two-week goodwill tour. Band members Carl Dimow, Julie Goell, Nancy 3 [this really is her name! ed.] Hoffman, Dan Mills, and Hayes Porterfield were all prepared with maps, language guides, and contacts, but we would be the first klezmer band to tour Lithuania. How would we be received? During the Holocaust, 95 percent of Lithuania's Jewish population was exterminated. Would there still be anti-Semitism? How would people react to hearing a Jewish band? We also knew that Lithuania, freshly independent from 45 years of Soviet occupation, had seen difficult times. What would that be like?
We needn't have worried. Everywhere we were royally treated, first at Skamba Skamba Kankliai, the national folk festival at Vilnius, an exquisite city full of winding streets laid out in medieval times and buildings from the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many of the festival concerts were held in these ancient buildings and courtyards. In the remains of the Lower Castlea cavernous set of ruins with stairs into open cellars, arched masonry, and stonework visible by torchlightthe music performed was ancient Sutartinespolyphonic chants with similar instrumental canons. The Lithuanian people love to sing together, so many of the performances involved groups doing folk songs that the whole audience knew, many with over twenty verses! There was also a lot of dancingwe were all up doing polkas and waltzesand we learned that traditional folk music was one way that people held onto a sense of national identity during Soviet occupation.
Any concerns we had about not being well received were dispelled with our first concertabout a thousand people packed into a courtyard of the University of Vilnius clapping, cheering, and chanting "one more song," "one more song," in English.
The stark contrast to all this merrymaking was touring the Jewish sites around Vilnius. We saw the neighborhood where the famous Jewish scholar, the Gaon of Vilnius, had studied and taught. We saw the site of one of the ghetto theaters that kept people's spirits and hopes alive.
It was like seeing a ghost city in the midst of a bustling cosmopolitan center. Before the Holocaust, Vilnius was forty percent Jewish. It was a thriving intellectual and cultural center of Judaism and was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. During the five years of Nazi occupation, Lithuania's Jewish population was reduced from 200,000 to 10,000. We were taken to the forest at Paneriai, where many of these murders occurred. We were left speechless, standing in this pastoral wood on a beautiful spring day, seeing the large pits, still gaping in the green earth, where 100,000 people were shot and buried.
That afternoon we performed at the Jewish museum for an audience of older Jews, many of whom were survivors. What a bittersweet and emotional moment for us! Many people knew the songs and it was a rare chance for Julie, our bass player, to do introductions in Yiddish. The concert was filmed for a national weekly television program about Jewish life. We were feted with a tasty supper and had a chance to meet some people in the community.
In a rented van, we next headed north on one of Lithuania's three main roads. Few people own cars, and fewer still drive across the country, despite its small size, so we occasionally shared the road with a horse and wagon. Similar to northern Maine, the countryside consists of long, rolling, open farm fields, a few hawks, and huge patches of lupines. However, giant stork nests on top of buildings reminded us we weren't Downeast anymore!
On the small road into Linkuva we passed two signs saying "Zydu Genocido," Lithuanian for Jewish genocide sites. Since independence, the government has marked two hundred of these memorial sites around the country. These two sites were well-maintained memorials with plaques in Lithuanian and Hebrew detailing what had happened and when. The deeds were credited to "Nazis and their local henchmen." Under the Soviets there had been no mention of Jewish victims; people killed by the Nazis were simply "victims of fascism," but the Soviets were responsible for their own criminal acts. During the years of Soviet rule, nearly a quarter of the population of Lithuania was deported to Siberia or imprisoned. The first principal of the Linkuva school was involved in the guerilla resistance and eventually killed. Despite the current economy, which is struggling, we found no one who spoke positively of the Soviet time.
During the next few days of a school residency in Linkuva we taught Jewish songs and dances. It was apparent that the students were clear about what had happened to the Jews of the town. We helped them with their English, and they asked us many questions about the US. They joined our singing and dancing at the concert in town.
We played a concert at the House of Culture in the neighboring town of Pakruojis. People were moved by knowing that Julie's ancestors were from the area. At the end of the concert a woman handed her a bunch of wildflowers saying, "Flowers from your native soil." The directors invited us to stay and drink Suktines, a strong Lithuanian mead alcohol. We sampled Charcoutis, a large stalagtite of egg biscuit which is rolled and dripped into a cone shape. One of the directors taught us a dance while a local musician played the accordion.
Back in Linkuva, we feasted, talked, and drank late into the night.
The next evening we performed at Linkuva's House of Culture, a vintage cinema in the center of town. Our concert was packed. A costumed "ethnographic" music-and-dance group opened for us. We were stunned by the director's eloquence and honesty as she welcomed us and spoke of the importance of sharing culture. Then it was our turn. Seeing children sing in Yiddish and do Jewish dances was not lost on their parents and grandparents. People went wild during Hayes's drum encore. We all sang together on "Tum Balalaika," a song which all Lithuanians seem to know. The director brought us flowers and made a moving speech: "I was born after the war, so I never got to meet any Jewish people. My parents always told me what kind and good people they are. Thank you for not forgetting us. We are so glad you came back."
After a day off at the beautiful Curonian Spit, we headed for Kaunas, Lithuania's second-largest city. The city itself is stunningly beautiful. Founded in the thirteenth century at the junction of two rivers, the old town stretches out from that point with a display of sixteenth- to eighteenth-century architecture which is traversed by a two-mile-long pedestrian walkway.
We arrived in Kaunas with plans to head straight for our lodgings to get ready for our one scheduled event, a concert that afternoon sponsored by the Jewish Community Center. By a lucky mistake we missed a turn and found ourselves in front of the Kaunas Synagogue. We stopped, of course, and went in.
Built in 1871, the only surviving synagogue in Kaunas is an imposing blue building. On the grounds outside is a memorial to 1800 children who were murdered at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas during the Holocaust. Inside, we met a number of colorful members of the congregation. As a result of this chance visit, we planned a second concert at the synagogue for Sunday afternoon.
Our concert for the Jewish Community Center was a delight. The audience loved hearing Yiddish songs. There were two beaming women in the front row who jumped up and danced. At the end of the concert we were introduced to a local musician, Chaim, a conservatory-trained violinist who grew up hearing Jewish songs from his father. He teaches and performs classical music but also plays for Jewish events in Kaunas. He happily agreed to sit in with us the following day.
On Sunday morning we were given a tour of Jewish sites around Kaunas. The principal stop was at the Ninth Fort. Used as a prison and killing factory by the Nazis, it is now a museum of the Holocaust and the Soviet occupation. After a week-and-a-half in Lithuania, the weight of history sometimes seemed overwhelming, and it was hard to respond emotionally to the incomprehensible cruelty. It was most moving to hear our guide's own story. His father escaped to the Soviet Union as the Nazis invaded. His mother and her sister, just girls, were taken in and cared for by a non-Jewish family in a small town. He returns there every year to put flowers on the graves of that family and to make a contribution to their church. It was a moving relief to hear this simple story of kindness, compassion, and bravery.
We arrived early at the synagogue to warm up and try a few songs with our new fiddler friend. After just a few bars we were all making eye contact and smiling. Chaim can really play. He's got technique, an improvisational spirit, and a wonderful Jewish soulfulness in his sound. During the concert, some of the younger people began line-dancing through the aisles. An older man in front was singing along with all the Yiddish songs. Chaim was adding unexpected and inventive new ideas to our tunes. We looked from the people on the floor to the high ceiling of this old temple which had seen so much history. It was one of many moments in Lithuania when the past and present were mixed together in profound and beautiful harmony.
Touring raised a complex mix of emotions for every one of us. The tragic history of the Holocaust was constantly on our minds. Nevertheless, we were overwhelmed with the warm and enthusiastic reception we received in every part of the country. Both of these realities are true. Both stay with us as we continue to perform and share our music.