Date archives "April 2017"

Luang Prabang: No City for Old Men

I tend toward a curmudgeonly vision of the world, noting the less appealing aspects of a place rather than its attributes.  Where I see the residents of Sydney as over-inked, Jessica notices how fit they seem to be. Where she senses the universe of flavors in a Thai curry, I only feel the heat. Where she seeks out a place’s floral beauty, I look for mosquitos to swat. It is our perspectives that made our trip to Luang Prabang in Laos glorious for Jessica and frustrating for me, frustrating because I just could not find anything to grouse about.  My grouchy side—well, it’s not a side; it’s all of me—was kept from expressing itself for lack of material for the entirety of the four days we spent there. This is no city for grumpy old men.

Luang Prabang (hereinafter, “LP”) is the second largest city in Laos, the only country of the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations (hereinafter “ASEAN,” although since I will not mention the organization again in this post, you can ignore this parenthetical) that we had not yet visited so we decided to take a few days and a three-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur and see what we had been missing. Quite a lot, it turned out.

We arrived on an early flight and had been alerted by our AirBnB host that our accommodations would not be ready until later in the day but he arranged for us to be picked up by a young tuk tuk driver who took us directly to the Kuang Si waterfalls. The natural phenomenon would be striking enough were the waters of the multi-level drops not an iridescent aquamarine color, but they were making the falls and the many pools they filled practically glow. The selfie-stick crowd was beside itself with joy at its fortune in finding a backdrop that was worthy of its faces.

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The hourlong ride back to the city in the rear of the tuk tuk was a bit bumpy but I’m not complaining. When we got back, we were able to meet our hosts, Henri Pierre (hereinafter, “HP”) and his wife, Kham (hereinafter, “Kham”).  They showed us to our well-appointed apartment, introduced us to the kitchen set up and explained that, even though we were four kilometers from town, there were two tuk tuk drivers in the family so we would never be without transport. HP then asked us if we would like to have Kham make dinner for us that evening. Saying “yes” was one of the smartest things we’ve done in recent memory. I can’t tell you the names of the dishes we were served that evening because the amount of Lao I speak wouldn’t fill a cockroach’s cranium, if indeed, a cockroach had a cranium. Suffice it to say that Jessica and I agreed that it was the best meal we had eaten in Asia.

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The only disconcerting occurrence during dinner was HP’s response to some noise nearby. “I think the chicken is stuck,” he said. I thought that this was a euphemism for constipation but it turned out that he was talking about an actual chicken being stuck in a fence. He ran to free it. HP, the general manager of one of the better hotels in LP by day and a French guy the rest of the time, came to Laos with a six-month plan. The plan fell apart when he met Kham and, nine years and two babies later, they were established residents of LP.

We arose (far too) early the next morning so that we could witness the daily ritual of giving/receiving alms. Locals, augmented by throngs of clueless tourists (Yes, I include myself among them.) line one particular street in the old part of LP and, at the appointed time, monks from the various Buddhist monasteries in the town stream past the alms bearers collecting what they will eat for their one meal of the day. We have spoken to monks elsewhere and they eat the handfuls of rice and bits of bread or fish they are given. In LP, though, the rite has become so popular with tourists that the monks receive far more food than they could possibly eat. To their credit, the excess is placed in receptacles where it is collected by those who need the food. In the end, it is still charity.

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After alms, the tourists rush to plant their derrières into seats at one of the cafes in LP, many of which bear French names, vestiges of the colonial period. We found coffee there to be surprisingly good.  Surprisingly, because my expectations were low. As a result, I still was coming up empty on things to gripe about.

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And, speaking of nothing to complain about, let’s talk food. Let’s just say…. I got nothing. The food was clean and fresh and jam-packed with exotic flavors and aromas. If we go back to LP, I’m going to set more time aside to just eat.

Jessica found a yoga experience that checked the “Very cool yoga experience” box for her. The place was called Utopia and, when we arrived, I was a bit disarmed by the lack of conventional seating. Eventually, I did what all of the dreadlocked, tatted, pierced, recently-literate folks there did: I pulled up a pillow and stared out dead-eyed at the Mekong River. After a couple of Utopia’s cocktails (while Jessica mastered Warriors’ Pose), I realized that starting off on the floor just saved me a step.

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If you’re not of my vintage, you may never have heard of the Mekong River. It flows south from Laos through Vietnam and I can’t count the number of times that I heard Walter Cronkite, when reporting on the Vietnam War (or, as folks in these parts refer to it, the American War), refer to it in my younger years. Seeing its broad, shallow expanse summoned memories, some not so pleasant, but none so unpleasant as to generate a complaint.

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A practical note: When we arrived at the airport in LP, we were a little surprised to learn that it costs US$35 for a visa. There is also a US$1 charge if you do not have a compliant photo and another US$1 service charge for who-the-hell-knows-what-for. Personally, I put that last dollar into the category of “You came all this way and we know that you’re not going to turn around and leave for a dollar so give it to us.”  Sung to the tune of “My Way”: Complaints, I’ve got a few but then again, too few to mention.

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Luang Prabang: No City For Old Men originally appeared on Wold-Wide, Wide-Eyed.

Mis(s)pellings: An Excerpt

Chapter 1
Twelve naked, hairy people gathered in a circle in the courtyard of the little Sicilian villa and paid silent homage to the rising sun. In the center of their orbit of flesh stood the tallest of the group but he was not naked or hairy. He wore a flowing white linen robe over his lanky body and, except for the long white mane the color of corn silk that hung to his shoulders, he was devoid of hair, two of his female disciples having shaved his entire body earlier that morning. To call upon his gods, he must be clean of body, if not in spirit.

This was the end of one existence and the beginning of a new one for Ataturk Muhler. The life that was ended in celebration the night before when he and his disciples, in recognition of the full moon, participated in rites of the flesh. He choreographed and directed the drug-fueled debauchery and he himself had the pleasures of four of the women and two of the men. The ewe and the German Shepherd were left to the enjoyment of the others. The sheep bleated loudly in discomfort but the dog, after a little stimulation, seemed to enjoy the festivities. Fortunately, the Abbey of Thelema near the town of Cefalu was remote so there was no one around to hear the revelries. Nor would any townsfolk dare to approach the place since, for nearly a hundred years it had been known as a place where evil, having defeated good, continued to dwell. How how much they fear and how little they understand, he thought.

But today, with the rising of the sun, his new life began. The consecrated vestment of white would be his only garment for the next six months and the pleasures of the flesh in which he and his minions regularly indulged would henceforth be denied him. “By the mystery of this holy vestment I will clothe me with the armour of salvation in the strength of the Most High that my desired end may be effected through thy strength. May the power of Aiwass, sustain me,” he prayed in a reedy voice and, with a nod dismissed the twelve who scurried off like cockroaches at the turning on of a light.

Ataturk walked a narrow path that took him into a circle of mature chestnut trees that created an intimate and shaded clearing in the center of which was a small chapel built of rough-hewn stones, well-fitted so as to not require the aid of mortar to keep it standing erect. He carried with him a bundle of olive twigs tied together with pieces of hemp string. One end of the bundle had been dipped into creosote and now burned with a stubborn flame that even the brisk Sicilian morning breeze could not extinguish. Ataturk stepped out of the simple leather thongs on his feet, paused for a moment, and entered the oratory. The altar opposite the chapel entrance had been prepared in manic obedience to the instructions passed down over the ages from Abramelin the Mage. Though it was a simple wooden cabinet made of pine, Ataturk had designed it to be elaborately endowed with symbols of his place in the cosmos, symbols that reflected the evil thing he was about to do. Symbols that were considered profane by the teachers who had trained him.

Ataturk walked solemnly to the altar. First, he held the flame of the burning olive twigs to the wick of the oil lamp that hung over the altar. Until he had completed his task some six months from now, that lamp would never be permitted to go out. Next, he put the torch flame to the contents of the censor that sat prominently on the altar. The combination of frankincense, stacte, and agarwood that Ataturk himself had prepared followed the recipe of Abramelin and its smoldering produced a sweet, almost cloying aroma. He backed away from the altar and knelt in the center of the pentagram of obsidian that was embedded into the white pine floor, head bowed and silent for several moments. Rising up and looking heavenward, he began in a thin, watery voice:

“Oh Lord, Supreme God El in whose name I pray, make me worthy of the task set before me. Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, O Lord and I shall be clean; Thou shalt wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”

This post is an excerpt from Mis(s)pellings, a novel of magical comedy.

You Only Liver Once

The Tuscan town of San Miniato holds its truffle festival late in the fall, when the cherished fungal morsels are at their peak of fragrance and flavor.  In Massa Lubrense, a small town near Sorrento in Campania, they boast the world’s best lemons and celebrate the harvest with a huge sagra where the locally-made limoncello flows freely.  In the village of Marinelli near the town of Cisternino in Puglia, the world is invited to a weekend of eating liver.

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Ahead of the annual Sagra di ‘Gnumeeredde e Cerveelette the residents of the little white village in the “heel” of the boot of Italy break out their Sunday best, make their houses spic ‘n span and decorate the town square in preparation for religious parades, dancing to live music, barking of the vendors and, most importantly, the eating of roasted hunks of beef liver wrapped tightly in gut membrane.  The appeal of the ‘gnumeeredde is as compelling to the locals as is the yearning of the Scots for haggis, and is just as difficult to understand.  As my indulgence in haggis occurs once a year at the birthday celebration of poet Robert Burns, so is my desire for the liver sandwich for which Marinelli is “famous” totally satisfied by an annual experience.

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But it is the sagra itself that is the appeal of the event. The locals begin the July evening with a parade that features the statue of the Madonna that graces the little church that sits on the town square. A small brass band provides the cadence to which villagers of all ages and several generations march from one end of the village’s main street to the other. An outdoor mass on the steps of the square follows and, as soon as it’s over and the priest says, “Andate in pace,” the Marinelli townsfolk show what true party animals they are. The three-piece band breaks into American music that was new when these musicians were young at least two decades ago. Half of the population of the village falls into ranks and begins line dancing and the other half heads to the grilles to load up on the delicacy from which the party gets its name.

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When darkness has reached its full, the fireworks start and everything else goes into a pausa.  The pyrotechnics only last a few minutes but not a single attendee has missed so much as a squib going off.  If the explosions had been silent, you could have heard a pin drop, such was the collective skyward concentration. Vendors displayed wares that ran from cured olives to vacuum cleaners, an amusement park ride spun children around on swings and the locals showed off their most fashionable attire.  An ambulance and its staff of four stood by at the ready.  I think it was there in case someone were to try to eat more than one liver sandwich but it could have been for something else.

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Next month, Marinelli will host another sagra, this one for meatballs and meat rolls (involtini).  Is it any surprise that the village is known as the party town in all of Puglia?  Well, maybe not yet.

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And, as always, photos by the lovely and talented Jessica Coup.

You Only Liver Once originally appeared on Soul of The Heel.