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Wednesday
Feb012012

A Guitar, a Cigarette, an Old Vietnamese Woman, and a Moment on Fire.

I continue my hibernation after being cast out  by the flood damage to my house.  I am lucky to have again as my guest writer Christopher Daradics, who is on his world-wide vision quest and book-writing expedition.  This piece glimpses Chris in Hoi An, Vietnam, a city I also visited last April.  Our impressions were quite different.  I saw a pleasant  old French colonial seaside town with many souvenirs for sale.  And Chris saw...destiny.  Christopher blogs at weoverhear.com. Enjoy.
 
A Vietnamese flag flies on every machine powered boat in Hoi An's small waterway harbor.  Most of the flags are tattered, usually just along top leeward arm of the yellow star which sits smack dab in the center of the solid red background.  To my eye, the flags are hand made, probably sewn by one of Hoi An's thousands of tailors. The flags are all weathered, stubborn, rugged, and steeped in the simple dignity of their persistence. 

Photo by Heather Stevenson

My boat was under human power, she had no flag, but the same story told by the tattered threads which gave to the holes in the middle of the flags was retold in the lines that gave way to the old woman's mouth, which was puckered around a cigarette. The bright whiteness and rigid sraightness of her cig seemed out of place, but only so in its poking out there in the middle of her dark face, under her dirty and worn out rice paddy hat. It sat directly on her lower gums in the space once occupied by her front teeth.  Otherwise, as she puffed and paddled me from my home on Cam Nam island across the bay into Hoi An's ancient harbor, it was a bright white and magical blue smoke kind of day. 

I was playing my guitar on the promenade a few meters up from the water when she, with the deftness and craft of any Venetian gondolier, paddled up and motioned for me to join her. I bit, zipped Annie back into her case, set her on board, and jumped in. Only after leaving the shore did I see the dead, bloated, and floating golden retriever my chauffeur had pinned to the shore when she swooped in to pick me up. The human powered boats of Hoi An, the flagless ones, like the one I was in, are finely shaped, tightly jointed masterpieces of simplicity and endurance. The exposed wood is grey, but looks like it's pleading for a chance to be purple, or blue. The boats look ancient, sleek, soulful, and are apparently well suited for pinning floating carcasses to the shore.

In that Asian boat, with that Asian woman, and her shrinking cigarette I sat like an Indian from the wild west with my legs crossed in the front of the boat. I unholstered my western guitar, played my western songs, and sang in my western language, with my western broken heart. "Earth Angel, earth angel, would you be mine? My darling dear love you all the time."  I sang to her. I sang to the boat. To the water. To the harbor. To the tourists. And to all the world as we made our passage across the bay toward Hoi An's UNESCO enshrined colonial kitsch gauntlet of French buildings that straddle either side of the waterway, I sang.

My gondolier and I, with her rhythmic and ancient boat-on-water, surged and glided, surged and glided, into the harbor. I strummed and sang. Locals and tourists took notice. With each strum on my guitar and stroke of her paddle our journey became more and more Wes Anderson-esque. The colors were over saturated. The scene's beauty was in its simplicity and peculiarity. The lenses groped us, me and my guitar, the wrinkled old lady and her disappearing cigarette. We were pure spectacle. 

The very moment we drew everyone's attention, the clouds worked in vain to save the French buildings, painted in gold, from catching fire behind the gawkers. The buildings caught fire, the boats caught fire too. Blue and purple won out over gray and the wooden paddle boats began to smolder. The powered boats painted in mariner's blues and Asian reds and yellows, with their fiery Vietnamese flags, burned as well, but they with the inorganic brightness and intensity of phosphorus and magnesium. Everything in sight, a burnt offering to the persistence and benevolence of the sun.

The world ablaze, I played past the molten gold dripping from the walls of the century old French buildings. In slow motion I strummed my chords towards the electrified blues, reds, whites, and yellows of the painted power boats, grooved on past the gawking cameras, sang past the smoldering purple and blue of the unpainted row boats. Everyone watched, and we glided by, me with my guitar, her with her few-puffs-left cigarette.

A hunch has been dogging me this whole trip and the last five minutes of my half hour two dollar slow motion music and fireworks spectacle finally put it into a picture I could get a grip on. Time is an ancient and toothless Vietnamese woman whose wrinkled old lips are wrapped around the bright white cigarette called Christopher. Like the soon to be dead and bloated dog that I am, she has me pinned. I'm clenched against her gums in the space left by teeth that have long since rotted out, and baby she's a puffin, and there ain't nothing I can do about it.  The buildings, the boats, the clouds, the water, the people and their hungry cameras, we're all cigarettes in that old lady's mouth, and baby she's a puffin and there ain't nothing we can do about it, nothing but sit back, sing our tune, enjoy the ride, and hand over our two George Washingtons when our half hour is up.

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