Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Report from Tohoku

It does not have as many temples as Kyoto and Nara, it does not have Mount Fuji and it does not have the hyperurban energy of cities like Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya. Until recently, therefore, Tohoku was not very well-known outside Japan. But everything changed two years ago, when suddenly the whole world became familiar with its name. As you know, the region was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami that killed more than 20,000 people, wiped away entire towns, and caused heavy damage to a nuclear power plant. It was filmed by many, producing impressive footage that was broadcast by TV stations worldwide. The name Tohoku thus became synonymous with suffering and destruction. Until, of course, the next big war, disaster or sports event drew the attention of the mass media, and the world forgot about Tohoku. Journalists happily report about disaster, suffering and crisis, but the difficulties and hard work involved in step-by-step reconstruction processes are much less sensational, and easily ignored.

Most Japanese think Tohoku is far away. The area is associated with remote farming villages, archaic cultural practices and wild nature. In reality, however, the distance between Tokyo and Sendai (the largest city in Tohoku) is less than the distance between Tokyo and Kyoto. If you take the fastest shinkansen (bullet train), you can get there in only one hour and forty minutes. Nevertheless, Tohoku attracts few foreign visitors, as most tourists do not make it further north than Tokyo or nearby Nikko. They miss a lot: Tohoku has some of the most stunning landscapes in the entire country, fascinating religious traditions, and is a great destination for hiking, hot springs and matsuri (festivals).

I had been to Tohoku twice: in 2001 I spent a few days in Iwate prefecture, and in 2006 I went hiking and camping in Akita and Aomori prefectures. Since the disasters of March 2011, however, I had not yet had the opportunity to go back. But if such an unprecedentedly large natural disaster happens when you are doing research on the relationship between Shinto and nature in contemporary Japan, it is hard to ignore it. The question of theodicy – why do we have to suffer – is central to any religion, and Shinto is no exception. If nature is conceptualised as abundant and life-giving, as it is by many Shinto scholars, and the own ritual tradition as a centuries-old expression of gratitude to and harmonious coexistence with nature, expressions of nature’s destructive force such as tsunamis and earthquakes inevitably raise questions. Moreover, several of the organisations I have been studying have been active in fundraising, research or other activities somehow related to Tohoku, so it would only be logical to take these activities into consideration.

In sum, even though it is not exactly the central topic of my dissertation, I did feel that I should pay attention to what has been going on there. Hence my choice to spend a few days in Tohoku on this research trip. However brief the visit, it would give me the opportunity to talk to some people involved in cultural and religious activities, and to see the current shape of the tsunami-hit area with my own eyes.

Sendai Station is very crowded. It is filled with shops and stands selling all kinds of local specialties (meibutsu), from seafood and pickles to rice cake and biscuits. Recently, the number of domestic tourists coming to Tohoku has increased significantly thanks to campaigns by local authorities and Japan Railways, the promotion of various ‘traditional’ local matsuri, the establishment of a large new pan-Tohoku festival, a large Van Gogh exhibition in the museum of Sendai and so on. Apparently, there has also been a lot of economic activity thanks to reconstruction activities, mass volunteerism and government investment. But the money seems to go primarily to urban construction companies, travel companies and hotels, rather than to the remote coastal communities hit most by the disaster. Most people there are still living in prefab temporary housing, and few houses or other buildings have been rebuilt.

In any case, Sendai is a charming city. Some structures have been damaged by the earthquake, and are now being restored, but most buildings have survived – living testimony to the fact that the quality of buildings in Japan has improved significantly since the 1995 Kobe earthquake. The main boulevard, Aoba Dōri, is lined with high trees and wide pavements. Sendai is well-known for its university, Tohoku University, which is one of the most prestigious in the country. Its main campus is built on the site of the former castle of the feudal rulers, and surrounded by green space. A student city, there seem to be more bicycles than cars. The city has several interesting museums, nice restaurants and excellent locally produced saké. In sum, it is not a bad place to spend a couple of days (or longer).

Together with a professor from Tohoku University, who kindly invited me here, I visit the tsunami-hit area. The railroad has been destroyed, and although trains are replaced by buses, they are slow and few in number. The best way to get around, therefore, is by car.

We first visit Ishinomaki. With a population of approximately 150,000, this was by far the biggest of the towns hit by the tsunami, and thousands of people have died here. Reportedly, it is also the place where the most reconstruction activities are going on. We visit an interesting, fairly new shrine on the outskirts of the city, with an unusually young head priest. As it is located on a high place, the shrine did not suffer much damage. But the priest has been active in various community-rebuilding and forest-(re)planting activities, which he kindly tells us about. I also learn some new things about devotional practices in the Tohoku region which I did not know before – apparently, the worship of dragon gods is alive and well, as is the practice of communicating with and transmitting messages from these gods by qualified mediums. Shrine Shinto and shamanistic practices are not necessarily incompatible, it seems. Not anymore at least.

As we leave Ishinomaki and approach Minami-Sanriku, we drive through areas hit hard by the tsunami. Signs above the road indicate how far the water came. Complete villages and towns have been wiped away, literally. Now that most of the debris have been removed, the only thing that remains is empty wasteland. But the scars of the tsunami’s devastating power are visible in the landscape: ruins of bridges, foundations of houses, a few remaining walls. Hardly anything has been rebuilt, and it remains to be seen whether these towns will ever recover. Most survivors live in containers that serve as temporary houses – nobody knows for how long. We have lunch in a shopping area in Minami-Sanriku completely made up of such prefab buildings, before we continue our journey north.

The coastal road sometimes circles inland. Here, we see pretty farmhouses, gardens, rice paddies and forests. But as soon as the road gets close to the coast again, all we see is wasteland. Before the disaster, these areas looked similar to the ones further inland. It is hard to imagine now. Not only are the houses destroyed, so are other parts of the landscape: fields, gardens, woodland. Most of Japan’s forests today are made up almost exclusively of planted cedars (sugi) and pine trees, which are not very strong, and break as matchsticks whenever there is a flood or a typhoon. Therefore, when looking at the forests lining the coastal road, it is easy to see how far the water came: that is where the trees have disappeared. Further uphill, the forests are still standing.

We pass a railway bridge of which only the two central pillars are left; the rest has been destroyed. The railroad may never be rebuilt, as it probably was not profitable in the first place. But without a railroad, the speed of depopulation will only accelerate further. Yet, as the number of potential customers decreases, chances that the railroad will be rebuilt are getting smaller and smaller. It is the vicious circle of rural depopulation in Japan, also visible in other areas – but here, the situation is extreme, due to the sudden destruction brought about by natural disaster. Despite the rhetoric of ‘reconstruction’ and ‘rebirth’ one encounters everywhere in the country, most coastal towns have not been rebuilt. Their communities no longer exist is their former shapes, as many people have died, and many others have left. Those who remain live in their temporary prefab containers, and may have to stay there for years to come. Most of them are elderly people.

We drive through Kesennuma, a former port town, of which a large part has been destroyed. Bulldozers and trucks are driving around, cleaning up the remaining debris and parts of buildings. At some places, old cars, boats and remnants of houses are piled up, several metres high. At other places, only the scars remain. There are a few buildings of which one or two walls are still standing. They look like skeletons, the sole remaining vertical structures in a frighteningly horizontal landscape.

Then we see the ship. It was taken by the tsunami and brought several hundred metres inland, ending up in the middle of what used to be the town. For some reason, it has not been taken away. In fact, it seems to have become a symbol of the tsunami’s destructive force. As we are standing there, several other people stop and take pictures as well. Next to the ship, somebody has planted beautiful flowers, and a bit further a small provisional altar has been erected. The ship may well become some sort of monument; a place of commemoration, not unlike the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima. But its status is contested. I am told that some people want to ship to stay where it is, as a reminder of what has happened for future generations. Others, however, do not want to be reminded, and want the ship to be taken away. Issues like this can cause friction and divide an already fragmented community, so let us hope a consensus will be found.

Whatever one’s opinion on the ship, it truly is an impressive sight. As we walk from the car to the ship, however, I am perhaps even more shocked by what I see around me: the foundations of houses. Only the lower parts of the walls remain, but you can see where the houses have been, how big they were, where the front door was – in some cases, you can still see the steps leading to the front door. Most floors, however, are gone, and have given way to grass and weeds. I am reminded of Ostia Antica and other excavation sites I have visited – after disaster and destruction, usually only the foundations of buildings remain. These houses, however, were not destroyed two thousand years ago, but only two years ago, which makes walking here quite unlike walking around ruins from antiquity. Destruction is not always a gradual process; it can come overnight, quickly turning human civilisation into ruins. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. It is a depressing thought.

But as we drive further, I see a young woman and child playing in a brand-new playground, laughing together. Another prefab temporary shopping street has been erected, decorated with flowers, covered in bright colours. Humans have one great skill: their capacity to hope. Even in the most difficult circumstances, they are capable of rebuilding their lives, both literally and metaphorically. The importance of hope and optimism should not be underestimated.

On the way to Rikuzentakata, we pass by a huge white building. It looks like a factory, but it is a waste incinerator. This is where the trucks are bringing the waste and debris from the destroyed towns, and where it is processed and burned. Most of the building is hidden behind fences, so from the road we cannot see much of what happens there. Perhaps significantly, everything here – the fences, the building – is white: the colour of ritual purification, traditionally, but also of death.

When we are in Rikuzentakata, we visit Imaizumi Tenmangū, a local shrine that was destroyed almost completely. The only thing remaining is an 800-years old pine tree, the shinboku (sacred tree) of the shrine. It has become a famous sight in Japan. (In fact, as I will be told later, the tree died some time after the tsunami, and the few leaves on its branches are artificial.) The statue of a bull (found at Tenjin shrines throughout the country) is also still here, but it was decapitated by the wave. The shrine buildings have all disappeared.

Despite all this destruction, the priest and her family have displayed a remarkable optimism. They have provided various types of support for community members, engaged in fundraising activities to rebuild the shrine, and set up a project to provide local children with books, toys and a place to play. Called ‘Niji no raiburarii’ (‘Rainbow library’), they have brought a wooden prefab building to the shrine grounds, and turned it into a small yet bright and cosy library. Although the library is mainly targeted at children, it also serves as a community centre, constituting a space where parents and other people from the neighbourhood can meet and share information. We talk to the daughter of the priest, who kindly answers our questions, explaining why it is crucial to have a place like this if you want to bring people together and maintain a sense of community. If you are interested in this project and would like to know more, please have a look at their website (bilingual).

We drive back to Sendai through the beautiful mountains. By the time we reach Ichinoseki, it is already getting dark. Today was quite unlike any day I have ever experienced before. Never before did I witness such destruction; rarely did I have the chance to talk to people living through such a disaster and its aftermath. I am moved, not only by the things I have seen, but also by the stories I have heard. Sometimes, when people are directly confronted with death, they learn to embrace life anew. I do hope that these communities will experience the rebirth they are longing for, and find safety and stability.

Two days later, we visit the town of Yamamoto, south of Sendai. This place has also been hit hard by the tsunami. As we leave the main road and drive through the flat land near the sea, there are hardly any constructions to be seen – except for a broken railroad and a few prefab container buildings. Again, it is hard to imagine that, only a few years ago, there were plenty of houses in this area. We do see lots of trucks, though. They all bring waste from the surrounding areas to some sort of factory near the sea where it is processed – probably similar to the one we saw two days ago. All trucks have large banners saying “Let’s try our best! Yamamoto” – together with a picture of a strawberry and an apple, two local products.

Farmers, incidentally, have also suffered seriously from the tsunami. Not only because of lost harvests and farm buildings, but also because the soil has become salty as a result of the sea water, making it more difficult to grow things. I assume they have also had difficulty selling their products, as many Japanese fear(ed) that products from Tohoku might by contaminated as a result of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. However, there are signs of hope: new rice paddies have been dug, new rice planted, and new glass houses have been constructed for the strawberries. Yamamoto seems to be recovering, however slowly.

The tsunami did not only destroy buildings, landscapes and livelihoods. It also destroyed human lives, suddenly confronting people with death in a way few of them had experienced before. In many ways, modern society has become alienated from death; that is, in the twenty-first century, death is less present in human societies than ever before in history, and is confined to certain designated spaces as far removed from daily life as possible. But all of a sudden, people here have had to find ways to cope with the unexpected death of family members, friends and acquaintances. Of course, all of us are confronted with death sooner or later – but not usually on such a scale, and not usually so many people at once.

One thing I have noticed here in the past couple of days is that there are many new graves scattered around the landscape. Not all of them are the graves of people who died in the tsunami – many are probably family graves that were here before. But what is interesting is that the graves seem to be among the first things that have been rebuilt. While most people still live in their containers, as do some of the Buddhist priests performing funeral rituals for the deceased, many new graves have already been erected. Here in Yamamoto, in the empty, flat land near the sea, there are hardly any buildings. But there is a large graveyard, apparently brand new. The temple taking care of the graves, however, has not yet been rebuilt.

In fact, contrary to what most introductory textbooks on Japanese religion will tell you, it is not only Buddhist temples and priests that help people deal with death. We visit a nearby shrine that has been completely destroyed – all  there is now is a small prefab container that serves as shrine office, and an altar were people can pray, in lieu of a shrine building. We have a very interesting conversation with the head priest. She tells us about her experiences as the priest of an ujiko (parish, shrine community) hit hard by the tsunami, about the importance of conducting the annual matsuri – joyous collective celebrations that strengthen the sense of community, and establish some sort of symbolic connection to the ancestral past – and about spiritual care.

Many people in this area, she tells us, say that they can feel the presence of spirits of the death; some even see them. It is important to take these stories seriously in order to help people overcome their suffering; i.e., to talk to people about spiritual issues in a language they can relate to, so that they feel acknowledged. That is arguably more beneficial than calling their experiences symptoms of ‘mental illness’ and sending them to a psychiatrist.

It is not very common to meet a female head priest who talks about spiritual issues. As a matter of fact,  the shrine world remains very masculine, even patriarchal. There are female priests, but they usually work in small shrines they took over from their parents, rather than making a career in any of the famous and powerful shrines. Most of these shrines do not employ women to work as priests. Yet, I think, it might be a good thing if there were more female priests in the Shinto world. Perhaps the focus might shift somewhat: away from hierarchical social structures and nationalist symbolism – although these will undoubtedly continue to be part of the Shinto package in one shape or another – towards more attention to pastoral care, community well-being and, who knows, spirituality and non-regulated devotional practices.

The priest of this shrine is not only empathetic, she is also remarkably bright and optimistic. She has to work in a container without electricity or running water, yet she seems happy, laughs and tells jokes. The lovely wooden Edo-period shrine building has been destroyed completely, but she cherishes the one remaining wooden statue – probably a piece of the roof – of a guardian spirit, that was found underneath a pile of debris, a couple of hundred metres away. And although it may take a while before there is a new building, the reconstruction activities have begun: recently, Japan’s most famous ecologist came here to plant trees, and create a new shrine forest together with the community. The young trees are standing around the space of the former shrine building, bringing some green to a grey landscape, bringing some hope to an injured place. In a few decades, they will constitute a lovely small forest.

I will come back to have a look.

Het zakmes

Kansai International Airport. De jongen van de beveiliging vraagt me of hij mijn rugzak mag doorzoeken. Kennelijk zit er iets in dat niet mag. Na een tijdje wordt het duidelijk: ik ben vergeten mijn zakmes uit mijn rugzak te halen en in mijn koffer te doen. Helaas, denk ik, die ben ik kwijt.

Ik wil doorlopen, maar word opgedragen te wachten. Er wordt een politieagent bijgehaald. Het zakmes wordt grondig bestudeerd en gemeten. De beveiligingsbeambte neemt mijn paspoort en boarding pass in, en telefoneert met iemand. Ik word een beetje onrustig. Ze zullen toch niet denken dat ik kwaad in de zin heb, alleen maar omdat ik een zakmes in mijn handbagage heb? Dat kan iedereen toch overkomen?

De jongen komt terug en geeft me mijn paspoort, samen met een speciale kaart die ik om mijn nek moet hangen. ‘Ga hiermee naar de balie,’ zegt hij. Ik vraag me af welke balie hij bedoelt. Hij escorteert me verder. Nu brengt hij me vast naar een plek waar ik verhoord ga worden.

Even later staan we in de vertrekhal.

‘De incheckbalie, bedoelt u?’ vraag ik verbaasd.

‘Ja, daar kunt u uw mes laten inchecken, zodat het als ruimbagage meekan.’

Ik loop terug naar de incheckbalie. Een dame van de luchtvaartmaatschappij komt me tegemoet. ‘Volgende keer niet vergeten hoor!’ zegt ze licht bestraffend. ‘Dan moeten we u extra laten betalen!’ Ze doet mijn zakmes in een nette, stevige envelop, en legt het op de bagageband. Dan wenst ze me een goede reis.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

AY 77

While I am watching a mediocre recent adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, the plane is already approaching the Ural mountains. It is the main advantage of using Finnair when travelling to East Asia: they are much faster than most other European airlines. After a short night, I will arrive at Kansai International Airport early tomorrow morning. I hope I will manage to catch a few hours of sleep before we arrive. I probably won’t.

I did not keep my promise to tell you more about life in Vietnam. I would have liked to, but perhaps finishing a PhD dissertation is not compatible with keeping a weblog after all – or, at least, not with updating it regularly. I have to submit my dissertation by the end of August, so whenever I write, I work on the dissertation rather than doing anything else. Until it is finished, therefore, I may not be able to write many blogposts.

After I have submitted, however, I promise to be a more active blogger. From this autumn onwards, I will not only write about my own personal experiences living and travelling in foreign countries, as I have done so far. I also intend to blog more about topics related to my research: religion, (identity) politics, sacred space and environmental issues.

A bit of turbulence. The sky is a gorgeous violet. It is much more beautiful than the computer-animated fairytale landscapes the in-flight entertainment system shows me. Unfortunately, I am asked to close the window shade, so I have to do with the landscapes of Oz instead of the skies of central Russia. Too bad.

We had a good time in Vietnam. In the morning, I would make a breakfast, consisting of baguette with eggs or fish, fresh tropical fruit juice, and Vietnamese milk coffee. After some hours of working, we might go to the local market to have lunch and buy some food for dinner. Alternatively, we might work until the end of the afternoon, then go for a beach walk, a swim, and a fresh seafood dinner at one of the street restaurants. At night, I would often sit and work on the balcony for several more hours. Most days were like that. On weekend days, we would go to Hoi An to visit my parents-in-law, go for a ride in the mountains, or catch a movie. Once, we attended a religious festival for the local whale god, about which I hope to tell you in the future. In sum, three-and-a-half months passed very quickly.

We returned to Norway one month ago. When we arrived, it was still winter. Now, spring has come, and the nature in and around the city is finally awakening. In the meantime, we have continued working on our dissertation respectively MA thesis. Luckily, we have found a new apartment, in the southeastern part of the city, near the fjord. We are looking forward to moving there next month – and, hopefully, welcoming many (old) friends there in the future.

I have written most of my dissertation. I have about two chapters left to write, before putting it all together and editing the whole thing, so I will need the entire summer to finish. I am now visiting Japan one last time, in order to get some additional data for those last two chapters. During this trip, I will attend some religious festivals and a symposium, participate in some shrine activities, and conduct some last interviews. In between, I hope to catch up with some old friends.

The wizard of Oz is playing with fireworks. We are somewhere above Siberia. Time to get some sleep.

If I do not write again here in the near future, do not worry. I am busy finishing my PhD. If everything goes according to plan, I will be back online in September.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Days in Đà Nẵng (3): Hoa's Place

« Toute la Gaule est occupée par les Romains... Toute ? Non ! Car un village peuplé d'irréductibles Gaulois résiste encore et toujours à l'envahisseur... » - René Goscinny
Kleptocracy, alternatively cleptocracy or kleptarchy, (from Greek: κλέπτης - kleptēs, "thief" and κράτος - kratos, "power, rule", hence "rule by thieves") is a form of political and government corruption where the government exists to increase the personal wealth and political power of its officials and the ruling class at the expense of the wider population ... - From Wikipedia
September 2009. We return to Vietnam after a one-month trip to Europe, where she met my family for the first time. After a long journey, including 18 hours spent at an ugly Moscow airport, we arrive in Danang. We are tired and penniless, and not sure where to go next. We want to move somewhere we can live together, even though we are not married yet; we want to live free and anonymously. She got an offer for an MA program in Ho Chi Minh City, so she takes the plane there to complete her registration, but she is refused entry to the program because she arrives too late. Meanwhile, I am spending some time at a small guesthouse near the beach south of Danang, taking a rest, thinking about what to do next. She returns to Danang and meets me at the guesthouse. After two good nights of sleep, we decide to move to Hanoi.

The guesthouse where we stayed is called Hoa's Place, and it is located in a small hamlet near the Marble Mountains. It has been there for almost twenty years, and in those years it has become a true backpackers' institution. It was visited by independent travellers long before there were any large beach resorts in this area; back in the days when Lonely Planet guidebooks still signified adventurous low-budget travel, instead of mass tourism and hyperconsumption. In all those years, it has not changed much. There is nothing special about the rooms. The location is great if you want to stay near the beach, but inconvenient if you want to spend much time in either Danang or Hoi An. However, it is the atmosphere that makes the place special: the relaxed vibe, the friendliness of the owner and his family, and of course the communal dinners, which are a great opportunity for meeting fellow travellers. Judging from the high rating on Tripadvisor, this atmosphere is much appreciated by almost everyone staying here.

Hoa's Place has not changed much, but the surrounding area has. As I wrote in earlier posts, in the past ten years or so, nearby Hoi An has changed dramatically; so has the city of Danang recently. In only five years, the thirty kilometres of sandy beach between Hoi An and Danang have been turned into one large construction site. Local communities have been displaced, their villages given way to monstrous resorts, casinos and golf courts. Those who did not leave voluntarily were forced to leave. As Human Rights Watch reported recently, in 2012 the human rights situation in Vietnam has deteriorated significantly. "Land was a flashpoint issue, with local farmers and villagers facing arbitrary confiscation of their land by government officials and private sector project operators", they wrote. Local activists and bloggers have been imprisoned for many years for demonstrating against the confiscation of land by corrupt government officials and project developers.

The problems are interrelated. First, one of the very few remnants of the communist system is that people do not actually own the land they own; they merely 'rent' it from the People, and the Party (i.e., local officials) can confiscate it at any time, fairly easily, for comparatively little financial compensation. Second, local government officials are easily bribed, and earn a lot of money by selling land to domestic or foreign project developers. Third, resistance is generally poorly organised, and easily crushed - not in the least because the army is one of the most powerful economical actors, running banks and phone companies, and being in charge of mining and logging activities. Nepotism is widespread; local governments, private investors, and army officials happily divide the cake, while those who have been living on and working land for decades get next to nothing. As land issues are becoming more and more controversial, and the national economy is stagnating, dissatisfaction is likely to increase in the near future.

We visit Hoa's Place for a cup of coffee. It still looks the same as four years ago, and we enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. Sadly, though, destruction seems imminent. The guesthouse is one of a mere handful of houses still standing. On both sides, empty wasteland is waiting for investors. If it were not for the high fences and security guards, one would not know they are destined to become five-star resorts. However, it is only a matter of time before this area of beach is also filled with concrete blocks. Meanwhile, the nearby Marble Mountains have also been 'developed': these days, there are more shops selling marble statues than customers. One wonders where all the marble comes from - not from these mountains, that much is certain, otherwise there would not be any mountains left for the tourists to visit.

We talk to one of Hoa's relatives. She tells us the amount of money they have been offered for their guesthouse and land. It is barely enough to buy a small apartment in Danang. Thus far, she tells us, they have refused to sell their land. However, she does not seem very optimistic. Sooner or later, she knows, they will be forced to leave. It is the story of many Vietnamese people today. But until that moment, they will keep the guesthouse. Who knows, a miracle might happen.

Two hunderd metres down the road is a large army office.

Update (April 25, 2013): One month after I posted this story, Hoa's Place was destroyed. The life of this popular backpackers' institution has come to an end. Worse, the entire beach between Danang and Hoi An has now been confiscated by corrupt local authorities, and sold to project developers. They are constructing hideous concrete blocks, which are believed to attract thousands of tourists. In all likelihood, though, most of the rooms will remain empty. But the natural and social landscape of the coastal area are changing beyond recognition. I cannot help but think that the demolishment of Hoa's Place, and the traditional coastal hamlet where it was located, is of great symbolic significance. It is illustrative of many things that are going wrong in Vietnam today: corruption, land confiscation, cowboy capitalism, and the ruthless exploitation of environmental and human resources. 

One expat has been so kind as to document Hoa's Place' destruction, and post the footage online (original post here):

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Days in Đà Nẵng (2): Our neighbourhood

The calendar tells me that we have been here four weeks. I find it hard to believe, but calendars do not lie. It may be a natural consequence of getting older, but I feel that my perception of time is increasingly at odds with the real speed of time passing by, and I am not sure whether that is a good or a bad thing. At least I am happy I do not know what boredom is like: whether I am busy reading, writing, cooking, sleeping or walking, I never feel bored, not a second. But I am a bit concerned about my inability to control the time I have been given. The obligation of submitting a fully finished PhD dissertation in August worries me sometimes.

Sure, I have been busy these weeks: I wrote a new dissertation chapter, edited another one, and read some important texts. Our apartment turns out to be a fine working place. But I have not been as productive as my optimistic dreams had promised me. Perhaps I should adjust my expectations, realise that quality is more important than quantity, and accept the fact that some highly interesting side topics and books are peripheral to my main story and should be left aside. There was a Golden Age, I have been told, when PhD candidates could spend a decade writing a thousand-page masterpiece; these days, however, there is little money available for research in the humanities - economically useless as they allegedly are - so the few of us lucky enough to get funding for doing PhD research have little choice but to accept the fact that we have to squeeze the whole project into three years. We try our best.

Being immersed in my dissertation topic, I would almost forget where I am. It is easy to spend a whole day inside the apartment, oblivious to the outside world, especially on a grey and rainy day like today. When we stay inside like this, the only things reminding us of the fact that we are in Vietnam are the occasional sound of a street vendor's tape in the distance, and the delicious tropical fruits turned into shakes and smoothies by our blender. Doing this work, one can easily get detached from the physical world. Hence the importance of going out every now and then, to experience the place where we live: a ride along the beach, a day trip to Hoi An, a visit to a local restaurant. And, of course, a walk in the neighbourhood - if only to go to the market.

And a nice neighbourhood it is. Located between the river and the sea, far from the port and the main industries, this used to be a poor suburb, inhabited by fishermen and their families. Later, during the war, the city was home to one of the most important American military bases; soldiers were sent to this beach area for a bit of fun and relaxation, bringing dollars and prostitution. But they left forty years ago, and the neighbourhood once again became what it had been before: an impoverished seaside suburb, little more than a village. Until recently. The city's population has grown significantly, as has its wealth. Slums gave way to big houses. Some members of the new middle class moved away from the crowded city centre, bought land near the sea, built houses and changed the face of the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, new hotels and seafood restaurants are emerging all over the place, anticipating the advent of large tourist crowds.

Yet, between the new houses and hotels, there is still quite a bit of open space. Some of it has been appropriated by guerrilla gardeners, growing their fresh vegetables and herbs on every available spot. If you know a bit about plants (or, alternatively, have a spouse who can teach you), you soon discover that those weeds growing next to the pavement are not weeds at all: they are chilli plants, lemongrass, sweet potatoes and mint, as well as peperomia pellucida, basella alba and sauropus androgynus. Some of them may find their way to the market, to stalls selling street food, and to your plate. Other empty pieces of land, such as the one in front of our apartment building, are surrounded by fences, so that local people cannot grow their vegetables there. But these, too, have been appropriated: by fragrant plants, birds, lizards, frogs and colourful insects. There is a lot of life in the city.

When you walk around the neighbourhood, you are likely to be approached by a street vendor on a bicycle, wearing a conical straw hat, who offers you whatever it is she is selling. If you are lucky, she has mangosteens, which she is transporting in a basket on her bicycle. They may not look appealing from the outside, but just wait until you taste the fresh white flesh inside: they are absolutely delicious. You may have to haggle a bit before buying them, though.

If the street vendor does not have what you want, you can continue your walk to the local market. Markets are always interesting places to visit, wherever you go, and you will not be disappointed here either. There is a great variety of fresh products, some of which you have never seen before: strangely shaped fish, shellfish and crustaceans; fresh herbs, vegetables and tofu; fermented eggs and eggs with whole duck embryos in them; all sorts of different (organ) meat; and beautiful flowers, used for praying. And, of course, all those wonderful fruits, some of which you will turn into juices or smoothies: pomelo, avocado, papaya, mango, lime, pineapple, dragonfruit, passionfruit, soursop, banana, rambutan, custard apple and coconut.

If you do not feel like cooking lunch today, you can sit down on a tiny plastic stool at one of the stalls selling noodle soup, rice with grilled meat, savory pancakes or rice porridge. A delicious fresh meal here will cost you less than a single drink in a bar back home in Europe. Once you have finished your bowl of noodle soup (with fresh herbs, possibly guerrilla-gardened), you can stop by at a local cafe for a cup of strong Vietnamese coffee, ideally served with condensed milk and ice.

After this nice cup of ice coffee, you may want to continue your walk around the neighbourhood. You will notice that there are several small, traditional buildings standing between houses. These are family shrines, called nhà thờ tộc, where people come to pray to their ancestors. They are not to be confused with đình, community temples, like the one you are passing by now. It has not been maintained very well, but you can still distinguish the lovely rooftop decorations. In the front yard, teenage boys are playing football. You assume it is a community temple, but you are not completely sure. It may also be a đền or a miếu, both of which would be translated as 'temple' in English, but which are not the same as a đình: they are places where individual deities are worshipped, rather than community meeting halls.

As a matter of fact, you are still not sure about the exact difference between đền and miếu. You are told that the former are associated with powerful Vietnamese deities, such as ancient kings and generals, while the latter are associated with local gods residing in nature, such as the popular tiger god. But you are pretty sure that miếu is a Chinese loanword, and that the grand Confucian Temple of Literature in Hanoi is also called miếu. You are a bit confused, and you realise how much you still have to learn about Vietnamese religion. In fact, if you were to continue your walk to the beach, you would see several other small temples there, called đền thờ. They have been built for stranded whales, who are considered gods of the sea, and are regularly offered food and incense.

The đình is standing next to a chùa, a Buddhist temple (usually translated as 'pagoda' in Vietnam). It is a lovely building, recently painted, with a large gate, a marble statue of Quan Âm, and a roof shaped in the typical East Asian way. You take off your shoes, and go inside. Two guardian deities are looking at you angrily. There is an altar, with a small statue of a Quan Âm with thousand arms. Behind, there are three large golden Buddha statues. They look pretty similar, but the nun welcoming you explains that they are Maitreya, Shakyamuni and Amitabha. She tells you that this is a Pure Land temple, and that they have regular meetings for laypeople, explaining them the principles of Pure Land Buddhism. She also tells you that in Vietnamese Buddhism, women can be ordained just like men. You would like to learn more, but your language skills are too limited to continue doing research on this topic for the time being. And anyway, it is about time to go back home. You have a lot of writing to do.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Days in Đà Nẵng (1): Arrival

It is a sunny day, 26 degrees, and I am sitting on the balcony. Motorcycles and cars are driving on the road below, but it is not very crowded. I am on the fifth floor of a new apartment building. A couple of high hotels are blocking the city from view, but there is still plenty of open space around here. In the distance I can see the sea, and the dark green mountains of Sơn Trà peninsula. I wonder whether it is possible to climb them. A giant white statue of Quan Âm, the bodhisattva of compassion (known as Guanyin, Kannon or Avalokiteshvara in other countries), is guarding the city. I still remember they were building it, a couple of years ago.

We arrived here on New Year's Eve. We had spent our Christmas holidays packing our stuff, cleaning our apartment, and moving everything to a friend's place. Next, we moved out of the apartment where we had lived the past year and a half, and went to Danang - the city where we are going to spend the next three months. It was a long journey - we had stopovers in Amsterdam, Singapore and Siem Reap - but everything went well. We even had the chance to pay a short visit to a famous Buddhist temple in Singapore, and enjoy some delicious local food. When we arrived in Danang, we were too tired to go out and clebrate the new year - but then, Vietnamese new year is not until next month.

It is windy, and not very hot yet, but I am glad it is finally sunny. The past two weeks were cloudy and a bit chilly, but it seems to be getting better. This morning, I went running along the beach, and the sea and sky were beautiful. It is hard to imagine a better place to do your morning exercises.

This is no vacation, though. I am supposed to submit my dissertation in August, and I still have a lot of reading and writing to do, so there is little time for playing or relaxing. Time is going fast. Still, I much rather read my book in a nice Vietnamese café, under a palmtree, than in a dark Norwegian apartment. And I much prefer writing my dissertation on a balcony, wearing shorts and flipflops, drinking ice tea or fresh fruit juice, to doing it at my office in Oslo - even though it is a nice office. Hence our decision to live in Vietnam for a couple of months. Of course, being able to spend some time together with our family was another important reason for coming here.

Danang is changing rapidly. It is the largest city in central Vietnam, with a population of approximately 900,000; strategically located between sea and river, it has been an important economical centre for quite some time. But in recent years 'development' has truly taken off. The city's skyline is ever-growing; more and more new shopping malls and office buildings are erected; shabby old neighbourhoods are giving way to new roads and apartment buildings; several impressive new bridges are being constructed; and last year, a brand-new airport building was inaugurated. New hotels and restaurants are eagerly awaiting foreign tourists, who have not yet shown up in very large numbers.

It remains to be seen whether the costruction craze can continue, however. Only a few years ago, Vietnam was touted as Asia's new tiger. Its economy was growing fast, impressive new buildings and roads were built in the big cities, and a middle class was emerging, leading to increasing domestic consumption. But today, there is less reason for optimism. The national currency is weak, and inflation very high. Foreign investors and companies are withdrawing, frustrated as they are by the corruption and state patronage of 'national' companies (usually owned by powerful members of the ruling oligarchy). Lack of investment is leading to the cancellation of construction projects; as a result, estate prices are dropping, and banks are getting in trouble.

I am getting thirsty. A couple of days ago, we bought a blender, and now I am experimenting with fresh fruit juices, shakes and smoothies. Thus far, I have made watermelon juice, pomelo juice, and a mango shake, all of which were very nice. The best was perhaps my soursop smoothy, with aloe and yoghurt. Today, I am thinking about making a dragonfruit-banana shake. Or shall I try passionfruit juice...?

Finally, let me apologise for not having been a very good blogger recently. I promise to update my weblog more recently this year. As I will be busy with my dissertation, for the time being I will not have time to write lengthy essays or travel stories. But I do promise some short stories about life in Danang - once a week, perhaps twice. And, who knows, some pictures. Please stay tuned.