Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Flights of Fancy

My wife’s wallet is fat with stamp cards. Card for the gas station, card for the camera store, card for a curry shop I don’t think she’s ever even been to. She doesn’t even like curry. I myself don’t have the organizational skills to keep track of a stack of store cards, even if I did possess the inclination to hold onto them or the capacity to remember to use them. My wife hands me a supermarket card as I am heading out the door of the apartment, and by the time I’m walking through the automatic doors two minutes later (assuming I hit or ignored all the traffic lights on the way) I’ve completely forgotten about it.

Really, it’s hard to exist in Japan without amassing at least a modest collection of these insidious little gimmicks. I have a mess of them in a drawer from the haircut place up the street; I never bother or remember to bring the last one I got but I feel culturally insensitive if I don’t let them make me a new one. And every time I promise to bring my others to combine them and see what sort of discount I can get on my next cut. I may have enough to take over the place. Then once I do I am going to get rid of the stamp card system.

Before Japan outlawed free plastic bags at the supermarkets they gave out little green stamp cards to encourage people to reuse their old bags. I’m a pretty green guy, I reuse anyway, but I kept my ‘green card’ (get that double entendre?) (no wait, triple!) and after twenty eco-friendly trips to the market I got a buck off my eighty-dollar bag of rice. Once I did forget my card and they politely insisted they make me another one, the extra paper cancelling out the good of reusing my old bags but hey, this is the system.

I can’t even be bothered with frequent flyer mileage clubs. Fortunately, the wife can. She is a wizard with those alliance connections. (Okay, wizard is male but I can’t think of the female equivalent, unless it’s witch, a term that does not apply to a woman who gets me a free flight somewhere – but can apply when I forget to use my stamp card at the supermarket.) I think she’d flown exactly once with Alitalia when she sat down at the kitchen table one day with a stack of pens, two clean notebooks and a pile of mileage cards and mailed point reports from every major airline in the world, including a couple that didn’t even exist anymore. After two days of nothing but cheese sandwiches and No-Doze she had figured out how to squeeze Alitalia for two free tickets from Milan to Casablanca. And now, it seems, she’s done it again.

Even though my older boy is now three and thus eligible to fly for the same price and fuel surcharge as the average amateur sumo wrestler, my wife managed to score three free seats from some Asian carrier or another, valid in the next couple of months within a radius that includes Hong Kong, Guam and Saipan. A little time in any of these would be the perfect antidote to winter and the sprawling disaster area that is the unplowed Fukushima road system.

Instead we’ve decided to head over to the world’s most recent political and military center of instability.

Nine years in Japan and I’ve yet to see Korea. This of course does not count transfers I’ve made at Incheon International, which resembles a high-dollar shopping labyrinth with an airport attached. But if the two Korean airlines I’ve flown give any measure of what awaits, I think I may be able to look past the occasional overhead DPRK missile.

I look forward to airports and flights almost as much as I look forward to the place I am going. I’m serious, this is not a typo. An airport’s atmosphere is so often a reflection of the country it is almost like taking a glimpse into the present state of affairs of that country. A stopover in Beijing two years ago was a display of everything I heard about the city itself as it was preparing for the 2008 Summer Games. The floors and handrails and glass were so polished my eyes began to hurt after a while; then I opened a door to what I thought was a bathroom and saw a grimy room full of dirty peasant children attaching elastic strings to those baggage tags you’re supposed to fill out. Meanwhile, as a group of cheery-eyed young girls laughed and played with my then-one-year-old boy as he crawled around on the spotless floor, a man with rubber gloves and a forensic evidence kit worked the trail of prints and drool my son had left behind.

Mohammed V International in Casablanca had palm trees lining the road curving gently into the terminal area, where not a single person could be seen working save for the hordes hawking taxi rides. Casablanca itself was just like this – except for the part about the palm trees. Papeete Airport in Tahiti (also known as Faa’a International) was intimate, open and right on the water (on reclaimed land, apparently), and was electric into the wee hours with a crowd that seemed more local than traveler. That I didn’t have enough time on my layover to take a stroll down the street seemed regrettable until the guys at the currency exchange counter invited me into the back room for a round of bourbon and cokes. I’m trying to reconcile this with the fact my wife does not have an Air Tahiti Nui mileage card. On the other end of the good-times spectrum, at any airport in the US the security borders on paranoia. But once your shoes and belt and bodily orifices are cleared of all explosive devices you can go pick up a gun at Wal-Mart.

It’s tougher to see the soul of a country from the flight crew, but in some cases the resemblance is amazing. For our three hours from Milan to Casablanca, and back again a month later, the Alitalia crew didn’t quite seem to remember there were actually passengers on board. On a trip to the bathroom I passed an attendant sitting and reading a magazine. She didn’t look up because, I am convinced, she forgot she was at work. Or, perhaps just as likely, she didn’t give a cannoli. This contrasts with the cabin crew of any flight on any Chinese airline. They are keenly cognizant of your presence, and are quick to convey how annoyed they are by your inconvenient existence. The baggage handlers are an equally perturbed bunch, as I have witnessed both in person at the check-in counter as well as indirectly at the luggage carousel. Flying a Chinese airline is like buying any other Chinese product, and I will leave it to the reader to decide just what that means.

But by and large I love and prefer Asian airlines. Admittedly I am hormonally biased but the female flight attendants are generally beautiful creatures, a mix of swan, silk and lotus flower. They are polite and engaging and they give you free beer. By the end of the flight I don’t even care where I am. A couple times I’ve forgotten which country I’ve even landed in but wow didn’t that one attendant have the sweetest laugh. If my bags are in good shape at baggage claim I can assume I am not in China. If the customs officer doesn’t treat me like I’m the Emperor then I’m not in Japan. From there I don’t care which airport I am in, and the less it looks like Incheon the better if my theory holds true.

Leaving Phnom Penh International was like getting off a hotel elevator and expecting the lobby but instead stepping out into a back alley. For me this is not a problem; I don’t want a concierge when I travel. I want to be hit immediately with whatever the country has in store for me, and that can include a military presence or a sense of anarchy. Phnom Penh International did not disappoint in either of these.

Bangkok’s relatively new Suvarnabhumi Airport (also known as the ‘Airport of Smiles’) is, like Bangkok itself, big and modern and chaotic. Seven floors all connect in practicality via a series of long moving walkways which are heavily magnetized (like the floor of the prison in the Travolta/Cage classic Face Off) to keep luggage carts from becoming lethal weapons of rolling destruction. The same seven floors are also connected in atmosphere by a huge atrium, giving anyone anywhere in the terminal the sense that this is a big and wonderful place that can take you out with one faulty magnetized walkway. On the ground floor cab drivers swarm the new arrivals, while backpackers pound on the Internet kiosks that keep eating their coins. My first time in Suvarnabhumi, once I’d realized I wasn’t in Amari Airport (where I landed on my first trip to Thailand), I decided to find a quiet corner and try to catch a little shut-eye. I ended up spending the night in a little-used and evidently little-known room on the seventh floor, next to a cordoned-off Buddhist altar and in faint earshot of the ongoing bustle of Suvarnabhumi and of Thailand itself.

So what to make of Korea? Both Asiana Airlines and Korean Air provide, based on my limited experience, excellent service (provided by excellent flight attendants). The good folks at Asiana Airlines even went so far as to put the bike tool they confiscated from me at the gate into a padded envelope with my name and flight number on it so I would have no problems retrieving it once we’d landed in Kuala Lumpur (which aesthetically resembles nothing in Malaysia except the Petronas Towers). Yet Incheon itself gives an impression of ultra-modern, ultra-soulless ambition. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see for myself, up close, what Korea is all about. With visions of beef barbeque and kim chee and crowded marketplaces full of people whose words I don’t understand, I’ve got pretty high hopes.

Add a crew of silky, swanlike lotus flowers to the equation and I’ll have no problem when my wife wants to go a second time so she can use all those new stamp cards.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Paths Exist

The following is an essay I submitted for a recent travel writing competition.
The theme centered on the idea that traveling well means moving slowly, remaining in a place for a while to deepen both understanding and appreciation.
I didn't win.
(They must have figured the story wasn't entirely, exactly true.)
(Which it isn't. Though it's close.)

Paths Exist
Kevin Kato

When night descends on Ban An the isolation feels complete. The closest village, an hour’s walk away, may as well not even exist. The gas lamp on the wooden table casts a glow across the side of Kem’s face as she works on the strap of her sandal, the small tube of epoxy in her hand looking very much out of place here in this primitive oasis of civilization. Animals bellow and grunt in the darkness. Hushed words drift in and out from somewhere unseen; voices of children, not at play but at task. The cooling air smells of earth.

Reeb has not yet returned. Kem had expected him to be back the previous morning; still, her face wears no new hint of anxiety. Stranger in a strange land, I feel the weight of wonder falling on my shoulders. Besides the leeches I don’t know what dangers might be lurking in the mountains of northern Laos.

‘Maybe tomorrow?’

Turning her sandal over in her sinewy hands, Kem bears the air of a woman not taken by the specter of sudden catastrophe but encumbered by the constant awareness of the burden of existence.

‘Yes. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe morning.’

I’d met Kem not entirely by chance; I knew from a passing conversation with another traveler that there was a woman in the village down the path who had a hut for rent. As it turned out she had two of them, eight-by-eight wooden boxes on stilts, with small covered porches and no windows. Mine is the closer of the two from where Kem and I now sit, and is the only one visible in the encroaching black of night. Over the course of three days Kem had offered up emotionally stunted fragments about life in Ban An. As I watch her work the strap of her sandal through with a rusty nail I listen to the words she has left unsaid.

‘I was told there was a waterfall,’ I said to her that first afternoon. ‘In the next town.’

‘Yes. You are going tomorrow? Too late today.’

I hadn’t planned on when. ‘Yes. Tomorrow.’

Kem explained how Sanna was a three-hour hike along a trail winding through the forest and along a mountain ridge. ‘You should go barefoot,’ she added. This I accepted without thought or hesitation. Kem also told me Reeb could go with me if I liked. She gave no indication who Reeb was, only that he was supposed to be back the next morning, she could introduce us then and by the way would I like her to prepare dinner for me that evening. After pointing out the bathroom Kem left me to figure out the rest of her world on my own.

The path to Ban An is a series of disappearing and reappearing ruts in the dirt, passing through canopied groves, crossing small, ambitious rivers and rolling past rough, fenced in fields. Men were pounding holes in the ground with long wooden poles as I passed. Women followed, dropping in handfuls of seed and covering them up. They worked not quickly nor efficiently. Their labor had a staccato quality, as if they were not fully convinced that their labors would amount to anything, even though they had no other recourse.

Ban An, Laos

As the path nears the village the land opens up to wider, tamer swaths of farm, separated by low walls of grass and dirt and clothed in much tidier greens. The entrance to the village proper consists of a break in the cross post fence and a hand-painted wood sign reading, concisely, Ban An. The mere existence of such a sign is incongruous without the assumption of the occasional traveler passing through. Yet there is no other hint of foreign influence among the wood frame, bamboo wall, tin roof homes, the dirt of the only road, and the footpaths that string everything together.

As I sought out the woman of whom my traveling comrade had spoken I encountered precious few souls. They worked separately and in silence, cleaning or mending or perhaps venturing to further various parts of their existence. I nodded to each of them; each eyed me with an indifference veiled in suspicion, borne of ignorance or maybe familiarity. In my head I heard the words of a dear friend who had lived for many months in a remote Rwandan village doing research for her anthropology thesis: ‘You can’t just go up to these people and start asking them questions, you have to let them accept you first. And this takes time.’ In a place like Ban An, it feels as though time is just about all they have.

Kem’s two huts stood in a patch of dirt and grass at the far end of Ban An. Nearby a raised and roofed wooden deck looked out over the irregularly-shaped fields keeping the surrounding forest at bay. Two men, their skin a dark shade of nature, guided their plow-bearing water buffalo in trudging lines through the grass and mud, working with bowed heads, glancing up only to check on each other’s progress until the late May evening turned their field to gray. They disappeared together, no hint of a conversation passing between them. I remained, allowing myself to be hypnotized by the serenity, listening to the village behind me whisper and settle as night came over the land.

Reeb would not appear the next morning, nor for the rest of the day. This, for me, was not a momentary set-back but a day’s opportunity as Ban An, like all of Laos, captivates without adornment. The sounds of a new day rise up with the first glints of dawn. Iron utensils and subdued voices serve as prelude to the shuffle and clatter of another day – in the fields, around the home, along the path to the next village. Women tend to domestic matters without power or running water. Men lead their beasts with rope and harness to coax the Earth some more. ‘They need a plow, a machine,’ Kem tells me. ‘But it is so much money.’

Children of Ban An
 Alone at a table at the edge of the village I am anything but detached. Observing people unnoticed closes the physical distance. As I watched a woman with a flowing blue skirt gather sticks for her fire a loose cluster of children tumbled out from behind a row of trees. Some of them were of normal schooling age, which led me to realize I had no idea what day it was. Their straw hats contrasted with their clothing, a sampling of western world cast-offs. They were barefoot and seemed not to notice as they bounced through the half-alive grass. One by one they stepped up onto the raised edge of the nearest field and jumped off, shouting and shrieking as they splashed around in the muddy water of an irrigation ditch. They yelped and played, indistinguishable in spirit from Japanese school children in a bleach-clean swimming pool or half the neighborhood around an open New York City hydrant. I drank in the scene from Kem’s table, aching to join them, tethered by the absolute perfection of a moment I didn’t want to interrupt or end.

Young souls sated, they slowly dispersed. Two of the kids led a third younger boy across Kem’s grass. I tapped my pen against my note pad until one of them looked up. His burst of surprise brought the others’ faces to mine, and in the time it took to smile they understood, as I did now, that we had just spent several hours together in the same world. They giggled and bounced out of sight, and I climbed down from my perch to navigate my own barefoot way across the prickly grass and through the muddy water, down to the river where Kem had told me the path to Sanna begins. The men in the fields kept at their labors. The sun dashed across the sky. Reeb was neither seen nor mentioned as Kem prepared for me a dinner of rice and vegetables as there was no meat to be had that day.

The dishes, the sun and Kem were long gone when a girl of about eight climbed up the ladder, plopped down at the table and slid a notebook out of her ratty Barbie knapsack. Without a word or a look my way she began working, writing numbers and letters on lined pages in no manner I could discern and no language I knew. I put down my own pencil and leaned over, close enough to pull her nose out of the page. I smiled. ‘Very nice!’ Her hair fell over her face as she put her head down again, not fast enough to hide her flustered grin.

For an hour not another word passed between us, cementing my suspicion that she was there despite my presence, not because of it.

Bugs flit in erratic circles around the gas lamp on the table. Kem’s hands rise in front of her and fall out of sight again as she continues mending her sandal. Both of her wrists are naked, and I wonder what time it is. Not for me, for I have become well-accustomed to sleeping with the stars and waking with the sun, but for the children whose quiet voices continue to ebb and flow from the darkness.

‘The waterfall was beautiful,’ I say. Kem nods without looking. I scratch at the faint leech marks on my toes, wondering why the hell she would tell me to go barefoot. Or why I listened. Over the next few days an answer would slowly come to me. For Kem and the rest of Ban An going barefoot seems a matter of practicality; sandals don’t go well with river crossings and muddy mountain trails. For me – and I wonder to this day whether Kem knew it or not – keeping my sneakers on would have made the experience little more than a walk through the woods.

It’s best to keep a stick in your hand. Leeches can latch onto your feet no matter how fast you are running, and trying to pull them off with your fingers just gives them more time to tighten their suckers as their friends on the ground get busy burrowing into the skin between your toes. As I ran through the mud and wild grass, jumping roots and rocks and opaque brown puddles, I wondered whether the locals carried sticks too, or waited until they got home to scrape all their leeches off.

The Path to Sanna
 The path had begun steep, rising muddy from the banks of the river. Drier dirt and grass predominated as the land slowed its ascent and then leveled off. In places, ruts in the soft earth told tales of wheeled vehicles passing through, though it seemed unlikely the trail would ever see the likes of even an ox cart. Around a bend I came upon a small herd of water buffalo lazing in a massive mud puddle; further on a wooden fence stood across the path, ready to keep them from wandering too far. I encountered nary a soul until I came upon the wood and bamboo of the sign-less village of Sanna.

Surprisingly, Sanna was larger and more complex than one-road Ban An. A maze of homes and pathways spread over the undulating crest of a hill, nothing but the forest and more hills in every direction. There were no adults to be found. There were young children everywhere, dressed in dirty clothes or dirty underwear or in nothing but their dirty skin. Two of them smoked suspicious-looking cigarettes as they gazed at me through cloudy eyes. None of the kids looked above ten years, yet something in their manner told me they’d lived for many more. I saw no toys, no balls or bicycles as they tightened in a circle around me.

I greeted them, in English and in gesture. They responded in their own words, to each other as much as to me. They reached out, some to shake my hand, some just to prod. We shared but one idea, conveyed in the only word we both knew: waterfall.

They could have been leading me straight into the jaws of hell for all I knew. The path barely wavered as we descended further and further along a chute of mud and leaves. All around me the children laughed and shouted as they clambered through the brush. More of them seemed to be naked now. They swung from branches like monkeys at play. They gathered berries, dropping them into my empty water bottle. They howled in delight as I slipped through the mud, grabbing wildly at branches, sliding into bushes and tree trunks, cursing the same incorrigible ground these kids had thoroughly mastered. The world I knew was as far away as it had ever been.

The sound then the sight of the waterfall was not an end to the torturous game; it was merely a blessed respite. Alone I would have lingered on the rocks and swum at a snail’s pace. At this moment, I needed Laos and all her gentle quiescence. Instead the children leapt into the pool at the base of the falls and chided me, so I believed, for every second I remained with my feet on semi-dry ground. They splashed each other, then began splashing me. They climbed up rocks and jumped right back down, their delirious smiles daring me to do the same.

Thirty minutes later I was climbing back up that mountainside of mud. I was drenched and bruised and had the long trail back to Ban An still in front of me when the kids did something I never expected. They totally abandoned me. They took off up the hill and back to their village, which had also disappeared by the time I reached the top. There was no trail. No footprints. No sign or sound of the children of Sanna, or of Sanna itself. I was alone, wet and barefoot, and suddenly faced with the notion of being lost in these woods, these mountains, for much longer than I’d bargained for. How many children under ten, left to play all day under no adult’s care, ever got lost out here? My thoughts then switched to Reeb and I jogged off, searching for Sanna in a subdued panic.

Growing Up in Sanna

My erstwhile companions seemed neither surprised nor interested when I finally returned. The two smokers approached, then stood and stared from a few feet away as I passed. Their eyes were dark and hard. I saw a message in them, one of confidence and arrogance and contempt. This was their world, and I was welcome to leave. Back below Sanna I discovered two faint but distinct paths, running off not in opposite directions but as the legs of an ill-drawn triangle. Glancing around at the eternal, unchanging forest, I wasn’t sure which one to take. I looked back; at the top of the hill the children had lined up along the fence, watching as if they knew what was coming. I pointed down one path and they rose up in a clamor, pointing and urging me on my way. I then pointed down the other path; again they pointed with me, inviting me to go ahead and see where it might take me. Again I motioned, to the first path, to the second. Again a wave of encouragement, both ways. Except, I saw, for two little girls. They had pointed one way but not the other. I raised a hand to them and trotted off, praying for the next hour to whatever god existed out there for that cattle guard to appear around the next bend in the path.

The children’s quiet voices seem to have suddenly been switched off. I watch Kem tie off the strap of her newly-mended sandal. My feet ache from a million sharp rocks and knuckled tree roots. I feel the urge to ask her if she went barefoot to Sanna too – or if she ever even went at all. Instead I keep quiet, and continue listening to the things she isn’t saying.

Kem stares down at her sandal, maybe one thought in her head, maybe too many.

‘I leave tomorrow,’ I say, although she already knows. ‘Thank you. It’s nice here.’

She looks around at the darkness. ‘Yes...’ After a silent moment she turns to me. ‘Good you see the waterfall…’

‘...I wanted to go with Reeb.'

For a short eternity our eyes remain locked. Kem looks into me, like she knows I know something I shouldn’t – or something she should.

‘He’ll be back tomorrow, probably.’

Kem brushes her fingers over her sandal. ‘Yes. Maybe tomorrow.’

The next morning, on the path back to Muong Ngoi, I pass a man about my age. He has a sack slung over his shoulder. In one hand are his sandals. As I step to the side to let him pass I speak.

‘Good morning, Reeb.’

His expression softens, if only a little, as he gazes at me for a quick moment before continuing on his way.

The isolation of Ban An is an illusion that dissolves not with the sun but in time. Men and women work, albeit with different tools. Children play and laugh and learn in their own way, the universal way. Paths exist, leading to Sanna and further into the mountains; back to Muong Ngoi and Luang Prabang and the rest of the world.

In northern Laos it doesn’t take long to feel completely isolated. It takes a little longer to realize that the isolation is never truly complete.