Saturday, 31 December 2011

Back to Vietnam

Our airplane arrives at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in the late afternoon. The journey has been happily uneventful. Istanbul has a modern, well-designed airport, so the transit went smoothly. Turkish Airlines serves some of the best airplane food I have ever had (the eggplant and chicken in tomato sauce was absolutely delicious), and the flight attendants did their best to keep the passengers hydrated. The plane made a brief stop in Bangkok before moving on to Ho Chi Minh City, which was somewhat annoying, but as we were allowed to stay and wait on the plane it was not a big problem. Throughout the journey, we could enjoy movies of our own choice. A completely different experience from Air China, which I took last week, despite the fact that both airline companies belong to the same international alliance.

Like most Europeans, I need a visa in order to visit Vietnam. There are two ways of getting a Vietnamese visa: one can either get one at a Vietnamese embassy or consulate abroad (and pay around 50 or 60 euros), or one can apply for a ‘visa on arrival’ online. Basically, you sign up for a visa at the site of a Vietnamese travel agency, who will then get the required permission from the immigration department, and send you a scanned copy of the official approval letter. This usually costs about 25 US dollars, but I found an agency that charged only 11 - I assume they have a ‘special connection’ within the immigration department. You print out the letter, which you hand in (together with a passport picture and a filled out visa application form) upon arrival at one of Vietnam’s international airports, after which you have to pay an additional 25 dollars ‘stamping fee’. In total, I paid 36 dollars.

Getting a visa on arrival is an excellent way to experience authentic Vietnamese efficiency. In stead of passing through immigration immediately, you have to go to a small office in a corner of the immigration hall. You are not the only one: several dozens of foreigners are standing and sitting around the office window, waiting for their visas. Some look completely alienated, others indifferent, others frustrated. If you are lucky, a queue has emerged spontaneously; if not, survival of the fittest. I was lucky. While queuing, however, I realised that I had not filled out the second visa application form, and I did not see any lying around. My wife went to a nearby desk and asked if she could get a copy of the form, which the young official behind the desk kindly gave her. In addition, he informed her that if we did not feel like waiting for a long time, it would of course be possible to get the visa faster – the ‘priority treatment’, so to speak. Everything can be arranged, after all, for everything has its price. Welcome back to Vietnam.

We did not pay him. We have had plenty of experience with Vietnamese corruption in the past, and I consider it a sick system that I do not wish to support if I do not have to. So I filled out the form, and waited for my turn. As I approached the office window, the queue dissolved into chaos. Some people were making applications, while others were paying their fees, while others got back their passports, while others were impatiently asking why they had to wait so long, while others were simply standing there, blocking the way for new applicants, naively believing that unlike everybody else they would get their visa within five minutes – all in front of the same desk.

Eventually, I handed in the letter, application form, a picture and my passport. We waited. As I had not bribed the officials, I did not receive ‘priority treatment’, so we had no choice but to be patient. After approximately forty uneasy minutes, during which several people received their passports and many more arrived and applied, I heard a lady say ‘Mitta Aika Piita Rót’. I assumed that she was referring to me, and my assumption turned out to be correct - so after paying the official fee I received my passport, together with its newest Vietnamese visa. The seventh, I counted.

Tan Son Nhat Airport is located inside the city. As we had a connecting flight the next day and did not feel like spending our first night in the city centre, we simply walked out of the airport, and stayed at a nearby hotel. Saigon triggered my senses. If you do not experience it for a while, you forget what tropical air feels like, only to be forcefully reminded when you return. It was not very hot, but the moist, warm air engulfed me like a bath, and the myriad strange yet familiar smells made me feel both dizzy and excited. But the most impressive feature of Saigon is the incredible amount of noise it constantly produces. No other city in the world has such a density of motorcycles, and they all produce a fair amount of sound. Add to that the noise of construction work, street vendors and shops vomiting loud dance music, and you get the cacophony that is called Ho Chi Minh City. 

We found a hotel not too far from the airport, with clean sheets, a bathtub and a minibar. We enjoyed a delicious first dinner of grilled fish, water spinach with garlic and fresh green herbs. My wife treated herself to her favourite food, the most disgusting fruit Creation has ever seen: durian. Everything was fine. We slept very well, until the noise of construction work downstairs woke us up at 7am - a lovely way to get over a double jetlag. Any first-time traveller to this country, be warned: earplugs are an absolute necessity. 

We somehow managed to catch some more sleep before we got up and checked out. We enjoyed delicious bún noodle soup and Vietnamese ice coffee with condensed milk. Afterwards, we walked back to the airport for our connecting flight, which would bring us to Hoi An where we were going to spend the holidays.

It is good to be back.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Japanese autumn

If a novel is recommended by both Mr. DuPont and Mr. Engelen (independently, as they have not yet made each other’s acquaintance), it must be a good novel. Hence, I decided to purchase a copy of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and bring it with me on the airplane. No lack of airplane journeys, this week, so it did not take me very long to finish it. And I concur: this is an extraordinarily rich historical novel, full of memorable characters and events. Set against the background of the Dutch trading post Dejima (Nagasaki) at the turn of the nineteenth century, Mitchell’s latest novel is an intriguing story of hope, betrayal, prejudice, corruption, religion, imperialism, science and, inevitably, impossible love; at times sarcastic yet in the end naively romantic. The author beautifully describes sounds, smells, city life, random thoughts and other small details that may not be directly relevant to the plot, but contribute greatly to the overall reading experience. Thus, he succeeds in bringing to life his characters and the world in which they live. Frankly, I doubt the historical probability of some of the events; in particular, the morbid cult of Mount Shiranui does not seem very convincing. Nevertheless, I highly enjoyed reading this book, not in the least because it evoked nostalgia by reminding me of my own initial fascination with Japan, my first exotic Other.

The title of the novel contains the name of the main character, a devout VOC clerk from Zeeland, who resists the temptation of corruption but hopelessly falls for the temptation of female beauty. It also refers to one of Japan's nicknames: the land of the thousand autumns. Of course, the Japanese isles have four different seasons, each with their distinctive beauty – as any tourist pamphlet or kitschy ‘Zen’ book reminds us of. And of course, spring brings the annual extravagance of white and pink cherry blossoms, giving the nation an excuse for two weeks of jouissance. However, as any expert or resident will confirm, Japan is at its most beautiful in autumn, when the summer heat is gone but the winter cold has not yet arrived, when nature is at its most dynamic. In autumn, the maple trees in temples and parks turn red as fire, the ginkgo trees yellow as gold. Flocks of tourists come to the old capital to visit famous temples (and queue for hours to take pictures of themselves in front of famous sightseeing spots covered with red leaves), but the forested mountains around the city have plenty of quiet hiking trails. Throughout the country, towns and temples are covered in colourful dresses of red, yellow, green and orange. The air is fresh, but not too cold; the sky is usually clear, except for the occasional shower. Long periods of grey skies and never-ending rain, so common in the Netherlands or the UK during this season, are very rare. Autumn is also the time of many great festivals, religious ceremonies and cultural events. In sum, autumn is probably the best time to be in Japan.

Some pictures of the past few months. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

CA 911

The plane is crossing the Sayan mountains, near Achinsk, approaching Novosibirsk, not too far from Barnaul, Kansk and Ust Kamenogorsk. Geographical names as empty signifiers. I know that the names refer to real places, with real houses, where real people are born and work and love and suffer and die, but I find it hard to imagine what the places look like. Siberia, Mongolia, Central Asia: vast terra incognita, whose exotic names have long ago come to represent the liminal space between my beloved Japan, and whatever European country I call home. But the physical realities behind the names remain a mystery.

The sky is turning bright orange. It will be dark before I have finished writing the next paragraph. As my reading light is not working, I anxiously anticipate a long and dark evening, without the solace of a novel. I do not expect my laptop’s battery to last until our destination, and the amenities that make long-distance air travel bearable these days – so-called ‘in-flight entertainment systems’ – are sadly absent from this plane. So I enjoy the view as long as I can. The sky changes every minute: shades of lilac and violet are now absorbing the orange, but behind it is a long line of yellowish green, giving way to dark grey and, higher up, intense blue.

For some reason, I ended up on an Air China flight. Unfortunately, the airline company turns out to be inferior to most other companies I have flown with – as bad as Air France and Aeroflot, or even worse. I can survive without an entertainment system, but I would be grateful if the flight attendants were so kind as to smile, and use the simple phrases ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘here you are’. I would also appreciate edible food, in stead of the old, tasteless ‘chicken’ and non-descript jelly we were served for lunch. And I would appreciate a bathroom with a garbage bin that closes properly, so I could use the toilet without having to look at used sanitary napkins. Or, for that matter, a bathroom with a tap that could be turned off. I would have also appreciated a kind word of thanks from the flight attendants, when I notified them of the fact that the toilet was about to get flooded.

That said, it is a sad but undeniable fact that toilets are not among China’s greatest contributions to human civilisation, as previous experiences have taught me – so perhaps I should have been prepared, and not expected so much. But Japan has spoiled me. Its toilets are arguably the most comfortable in the world, not only because many of them are equipped with heated toilet seats, but also because they often have a great variety of options for rinsing, cleaning and drying those parts of the body that tend to get dirty during toilet activities. A proper, well-aimed, warm ‘shower’ is more efficient and pleasant than dry toilet paper, trust me. You can even adjust the water strength.

It is perhaps not very surprising that such fancy toilets have been developed in Japan, and not in China. While Japanese culture is strongly influenced by Chinese civilisation in many ways – ranging from language to religion, from architecture to political ideology – there are also some significant differences between the two countries. One of those is the importance attached to cleanliness and purity in Japanese culture. This interesting Japanese cultural preoccupation applies to physical cleanliness as much as ritual purity, which are two sides of the same coin.

For instance, bathing is a favourite Japanese pastime, and most people do it every day. Despite the fact that nearly everybody has a bath at home, public baths and hot springs are everywhere, for bathing can also be a social activity. As they spend a lot of time and money on grooming and washing, Japanese people are usually clean, and few smell, even on hot summer days – a nice cultural trait for such a densely populated country, one has to admit. As the outside world is considered dirty, it is important to regularly clean (we might use the word ‘purify’) oneself. Likewise, the prohibition on wearing shoes indoors is enforced universally. Wearing shoes at home is considered a mortal sin, and one of the few faux pas that even ignorant foreigners cannot get away with.

The same principles of cleanliness apply to practices of a more symbolic nature. For instance, before one enters a sacred place such as a Shinto shrine, one is supposed to wash one’s hands and rinse one’s mouth with water. In addition, in order to enter the worship wall (which is only allowed for certain rituals and on special occasions), one has to be ritually purified by a priest. He (or she) does so by chanting prayers and waving a special ritual purification wand over the participants’ heads. Approaching the deities in an impure state may insult them, make them angry and, ultimately, cause misfortune. While today taboos and prescriptions regarding pollution and purity are not taken as seriously by most ordinary people as they used to be in the past, these notions and practices remain an integral aspect of Japanese society and culture.

Sunset takes much longer than usual. The sky has turned a beautiful deep orange and indigo, but it still is not dark yet. I assume this is because we are flying westwards. But I also assume that we cannot escape the darkness forever. By the time we have reached our destination, it will be completely dark. But, fortunately, there will be little lights burning everywhere, telling me that Christmas is on its way. I will also see my first snow of the year. Most importantly, I will be reunited with my dear wife, after three long months of living and studying on opposite sides of the planet. The plane goes way too slowly.

The three months have been successful, though. I have managed to collect a great amount of relevant books and other useful materials. I have met a number of interesting people, and conducted interviews with priests, scholars, activists and leading ideologues. I have visited several shrines, temples and sacred forests. I have learned new things – not only about Shinto history and ideology, but also about forestry practices and spatial design. And I have experienced life in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, especially beautiful when wearing her colourful autumn dress. It was, in sum, a great period.

Although I greatly enjoyed spending the past three months in Japan, I am not very sad about leaving. Three months is not a very long period for fieldwork research, but it has worked out well, for it has forced me to focus and plan as well as I could. Hence, it was an intense period, and I have had little time to read, write or reflect. I was particularly busy in November and early December, during which I visited shrines, academic events and people not only in Kyoto, but also in Kumano, Awajishima, Nagoya, Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Ise and Nara. In between trips, I managed to present a paper on Shinto environmentalism at a research seminar. While I have undeniably missed some opportunities – people and projects I did not get in touch with, because I simply did not have time for more appointments – I do believe that I have made the most of the limited time I had.

As you have noticed, during this period, I only updated my weblog once. I apologise for this negligence, for which I blame my busy schedule. There is a great number of stories in my mind that have not been written down; a great number of experiences and conversations that have not yet been reflected upon properly. I hope to be able to write down some of those stories in the next couple of months. The ones that will not be published elsewhere will appear at this place. In addition, I have taken a great number of pictures, some of which I will upload here soon.

The colours have almost disappeared from the sky. Apart from the occasional laptop screen and the ‘no smoking’ signs, the inside of the plane is now pitch black. I am hungry, and I fail the understand the rationale of airline companies trying to create an artificial nighttime experience during the afternoon. I also fail to understand why the Swedish hooligans behind me are so noisy, and keep on moving the back of my chair. Perhaps they forgot to take their ritalin this morning. But then, I remember from previous stays in Japan that the culture shock usually did not occur until after I had left the country and returned home – so perhaps I should not really be surprised about the fact that, as soon as one leaves Japan, suddenly a great number of people seem rude and insensitive, at least in public.

As we approach the Ural mountains, we also approach the symbolic boundary between Asia and Europe; between those two mythical entities, ‘East’ and ‘West’. In the south, not very high above the horizon, a single star is shining brightly. It reminds me of the fact that it is almost Christmas.

No white Christmas for us, this year – except for the white sand of the Vietnamese beach where we will be spending our holidays. That is, in just a couple of days, I will board another plane, and return to Asia in order to visit my family-in-law and enjoy a nice vacation. Fortunately, I will not have to travel alone then. And fortunately, we will not be using Air China. In stead of the Ural mountains, we will cross that other East-West boundary: the Bosporus. I am looking forward.

More stories are on their way. Please stay tuned.