Ghosts

Ghosts walk the streets in Hoi An. Recently I was delivered to a friend’s spa early in the morning for a visa run. We arrived to find my friend standing in her doorway with three prayer sticks in hand, praying. Upon finishing she placed two sticks outside her spa, and a third near a building across the street. 

I asked her about her placement of the prayer sticks. Usually, I’d seen them set outside of someone’s business or home (here they’re often the same place), but the one across the street confused me. 

My friend, I learned, years ago had lived in the mountains, and, desperate for money, came to Hoi An with her two children. They slept on the streets and somehow transitioned into staying in the building that sat across the street from her spa. Although now the building houses shops and is very presentable, back then it was dilapidated and dangerous. Water poured through the roof when it rained. The conditions were so bad that she feared that building might tumble down on her and her children. But it wasn’t always that way. 

During the war US troops walked through the streets of Hoi An, shooting the residents. One of those killed was the husband of the family that owned the building. His wife, heartbroken, died soon afterward. Their daughter, who was away studying in private school (they were a wealthy family), returned and, overwhelmed with grief from losing both her parents, took her life. Afterwards the building deteriorated.

But their daughter hasn’t found release. Instead, she haunts the building and the surrounding area. When my friend moved in, she began to pray to the daughter asking that she not reveal herself to her, or her children; that she not frighten them. She makes this request daily, and the girl has left them alone.

As time passed my friend started selling soup and her fortunes improved. Now she’s very successful. And each day she prays to the girl, asking that she not haunt her or her children. Each day her prayers are answered. Others haven’t been so lucky. 

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Across from my room

At night, across the street from my room, the second floor of the homestay pulses red. All night, and I assume, all day. Because the house has tall slit-like windows that remind me of eyes, I can’t help but feel that the home is somehow angry, a cauldron of pulsing emotion - the haunting of hill house. Likely, though, it’s the shrine to Buddha that I often see in the homes and businesses of Hoi An, pulsing with life. 

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Out in the Open

The Aussie came and sat at my table as I read on my iPhone and sipped peach and lemongrass tea. No names were exchanged, but we spent a fair amount of time talking. He was a doctor, a GP specifically, in his early 70s. Years ago he’d married a woman from Hoi An whom, ironically, he’d met in Australia. She met her first husband, a college professor and also an Aussie, in  Hoi An, whom she left him when she grew tired of his escapades with his students. She and her second husband returned periodically to visit friends and family. 

During our conversation, we discussed how different Viet Nam is from Australia or America. I mention that I grew up in the country, raising chickens and cows, seeing them beheaded with cleavers, or waiting for the butcher from Bodega to dispatch and slaughter the cows. He worries he says that his children won’t understand where food comes from. Society has distanced itself from nature, or perhaps the negative parts of life. Beef comes from the restaurant kitchen, as does chicken. Or they’re found in the grocery store, and now it’s easy not to think about the conditions of circumstances under which the animals live, and die. He suggests that I eat liver and brain for my fibromyalgia. I politely decline. 

Later, I see a motorbike drive by with a caged pig on the back. I point, and we both watch silently, then return to our conversation about something completely unrelated. 

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“You Shouldn’t Even Be”

The restaurant I was breakfasting in was nothing extraordinary, which is exactly what I like. When visiting a new town, I like to sit in restaurants listening to the locals visit. In the Silicon Valley region, I usually would overhear conversations about technology; website content, marketing plans, ideas for start-ups, etc. The conversations that I overheard in other areas tended to be more personal.

In a Starbuck’s in Northern Santa Rosa, I overheard a a group discuss the Bible, and the participants were honestly and genuinely debating some of the concepts therein. In Eureka, there was talk of fishing and job hunting. (There’s a nameless town in between that I make a point of driving past after I visited their public library and found an official sign in the bathroom asking the patrons not to pee in the floor drain) Perhaps the most unexpected moment occurred in the town of Lone Pine.

I was in a fast food restaurant when one of the patrons, sitting behind his white 12” MacBook said “the n****r,” and continued with his conversation. I was certain I had misheard. Then he repeated it, and again, and I came to realize that he was speaking of President Obama. 

Although the conversation was loud, and many must have heard him, no one said anything. Finally, the person he was speaking to saw my face, whispered to the man, who fell silent. 

When I finished eating, I walked past him on my way to dump my garbage. He watched from the corner of his eye but didn’t look up. I’m not sure what I would have said if he had. From there I drove to Manzanar, the site where the many Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during WWII, and just sat, reflecting. Cars entered and exited the main gate, and I saw people touring the prison, and visiting the museum. I stepped out walked around, photographed the guard towers, and drove off. I didn’t want to speak to anyone, didn’t want to go inside and see how these Americans were mistreated. The wound was still too raw from breakfast, so I drove off to return another time.

Lone Pine was not my first in-person experience with racism against President Obama. Years before I had been sitting in a gym locker in the city of Petaluma, while the tv on the wall broadcast the President speaking. A person in front of me looked for a moment, growled, and said: “You shouldn’t be allowed to be.” When he saw me looking at him, he became self-aware, regained his composure, and stopped speaking. 

Progressives I know wonder how President Trump, a man who brags of being a sexual assailant and someone who traffics in racist and sexist language was elected. We blame the people in the (derisively described) flyover states, such as Kentucky and Louisiana. The answer can be found more closely in the people sitting and standing right next to us.

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Synethesia

We sit in the coffee house talking of perception. My friend, whom I had worked with in a bookstore, is a great lover of classical music. I remain a mere dabbler. I prefer Vivaldi to Wagner; Tina Goa to Beethoven. Her interests are much broader. Then she tells of times when she would walk around and see music. Not in a poetic sense, but a real sense. Synesthesia. 

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Self-Portrait, Hoi An, Viet Nam, 2019

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The citizens of Hoi An often look at me and ask if I’m cold. True, it is winter here, and many of the locals are wearing jackets, but the 68-70 degree weather strikes me as being just about right. Indeed, I find it a welcome reprieve from the 100-degree weather of Sai Gon. 

I spoke with a woman from Mekong who had moved to Sai Gon four months earlier, and she kept repeating how hot it was in the city. Another warned me when learning of my travels, that it was cold in Hoi An. At the time Hoi An was between 80-90. 

We have a marvelous way of adapting, within reason, to the weather we find ourselves immersed in, though I am beginning to fear how I’ll fare in genuinely cooler climates. 

So I wear shorts, short sleeve shirts, shoes without socks, and relish the cool weather while I can...

Clouds and Water, Hoi An, Viet Nam

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To walk with a sense of receptivity is always the challenge, and the requirement, for the street or travel photographer. It becomes too easy to focus on getting to a specific spot or to look for a particular subject, or worst of all, to spend our time looking at our phones instead of the world around us. It becomes too easy to fall into habit. 

Walter Pater reminds us that “in a sense, it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations seem alike.” Commonly we’re told to approach the world with a “beginner’s mind,” a phrase that I believe has been taken from Sazuki’s book of the same name. 

While the phrase “beginner’s mind” is fine, I far prefer Rumy’s instruction to “wash yourself of yourself.” Eliminating habit and preconceptions is an act of shedding the old, including old perceptions. When we replace the old, our world appears new and alive. There’s none of the sameness that Pater warns of. 

This image was taken from a bridge that I cross several times daily. Occasionally I’ve tried to make an interesting photograph and usually fail. On this day, I noticed an oil slick atop the water. The oil reflected the bulbous clouds in their cauliflower-shaped perfection, creating a juxtaposition of high and low; of heaven and earth. 

The fish pictured in profile appears to have just broken water and is on its way to wherever it was going. I’ve noticed that here in Viet Nam animals, usually birds, often appear in my photographs without me seeing until later, as is the case with this fish. That’s just a bonus. 

An Bang Beach, Viet Nam

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I went to the river with friends for lunch, and we sat in their back yard visiting, and watching the fishing boats pull up and down the water. Some were loud, some quiet, and the ones that interested me the most were small and didn’t have any visible motors. These were boats that were too big to be rowed, and too small to be used overnight. I later learned that they had compact V6s positioned near the center of the hull, and out of site from people like me viewing from the shore.

As we sat drinking tea, some travelers from France wandered along the river and into our area. Although it wasn’t an unusually warm day, they were drenched with sweat and complaining of the heat. Later I learned that they were headed to Saigon, and I had to warn them that it’s usually at least 10 degrees warmer there. Who knows if they went. 

On our way back to Hoi An proper we stopped by An Bang Beach, and I walked around. It was my first visit there, and only the second beach I’ve been to in Viet Nam. The other beach wasn’t interesting photographically, but this one was alive. Surfers and swimmers were out in the water, laughter came from the restaurants, round basket fishing boats rested on the sand with fishing tackle inside, and lounge chairs waited under grass roofs. 

I had just finished photographing some acrylic storage tanks full of invertebrates, who in the backlight looked quite menacing, and stepped onto the beach. The boats, the tower, the people stumbling out of the water - the composition was right there waiting for me. So I took this shot.

Children’s Train, Hoi An, Viet Nam

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The new year plowed through with a bang. Not just the pop, thump, and flash of fireworks, but with a motorbike accident.

I was sitting outside of a friend’s spa, chatting while eating chicken and rice when there was a loud boom behind me. Before I could turn around, a young man, wearing a blue rain poncho, came sliding on his chest across the sidewalk. He crashed into my friend’s business stand, that stood outside her spa, listing her manicure, pedicure, massage, etc. prices, and finally stopped. Luckily he wore a black helmet for protection. Unluckily, he also wore flip-flops, which were nowhere in sight now, and he had circles of flesh missing from his ankles and feet.

We ran over and helped the dazed rider. About 15 or 20 feet back lay his motorcycle, and next to it a green cab. The cab had been making a U-turn and hit the motorcyclist. Strangely, the cabbie didn’t come to the motorcyclist or us and ask about him. Instead, he waited by the motorbike. A long gash stretched from the front bumper to the back of the front passenger-side door. The cabbie checked his door several times to ensure that it still opened. 

A crowd formed, and friends of the motorcyclist brought him ice to put on his wounds. When I asked if an ambulance or the police would come, I was told that his family had been called and that they would take him to the hospital. 

Someone from the cabbie’s company arrived and began taking pictures, and from the cabbie’s face, it was clear that he was worried about his job. The motorcyclist finally got to his feet and was given a cigarette by (who I assumed to be) his brother. He walked over and examined the damage to his motorbike, picking up pieces from the ground. 

As the crowd dispersed, I returned to my chicken and rice. This was the second accident that I’d seen in Hoi An. The first was the next block over, just a few evenings before. Luckily, that collision caused even less damage than this one.

Hours earlier, I celebrated the first day of the year by going out and making photographs. Children’s Train, Hoi An, Viet Nam is my favorite of all of them.

Wrapping Up 2018

This morning is the first day of 2019, and I’m pleased to celebrate it on the road. Upon reflection, I’ve realized that there are many images taken this last year that I haven’t shared, so here’s a post on this new year of pictures taken in Hoi An that I find exciting. They’re in no particular order.