Calidris Reads: Costa Rica

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Costa Rica:
A traveler’s literary companion

Edited by Barbara Ras

First sentence from one of the stories: “Pressed against the run-down schoolhouse, the chumico tree bears a miraculous fruit for the poor child who can’t afford marbles.”

I really wanted to like these stories, but I found I just couldn’t get into them. Perhaps because much of the work is translated. Maybe I’m just a shallow and unsophisticated reader and this represents serious modern literary fiction. I would finish one piece with relief and think “Maybe the next one will be more appealing” but it wasn’t. I didn’t find that the stories gave me the sense of place that I’m looking for when I choose a book to travel with.

2 knots (Not recommended)

 

The Jewel Hunter

Chris Gooddie

Opening: “Blood pounded in my ears. My heart rate was up in the stratosphere. I crouched on a disused hunting trail in a remote forest in southwest Sumatra.”

We all read it. We all loved it. But we’re birders. It’s a quirky, humorous true tale of how the author gave up a lucrative job to spend a year criss-crossing the globe in a quest to see every species of pitta. Pittas are reclusive, sometimes rare, birds that lurk deep in forests, so his success was by no means assured. Along the way, he comments on food, people, places, and adventures he encounters, as well as sharing the lists he creates. Birders tend to be list-makers, and Gooddie is no exception, for example, the following mantra:

  1. Animals are the best things in the world.
  2. Birds are the best animals.
  3. Pittas are the best birds.
  4. Gurney’s Pitta is the best pitta.

If this strikes you as even remotely funny, this book might be for you. (We found it hilarious.)

Note: Although we read this book during our Costa Rica trip, there are, in point of fact, no pittas in CR (nor in North/Central/South America as a whole; they are mainly Asian and Australasian birds, with a couple of species in Africa). However, we were very caught up in birding on that trip, so this fanatical birder’s story seemed appropo to our state of mind.

If you’re a birder, I’d rate it 5 knots (Must-read); if not, I’d say maybe 3 (Recommended).

Khon: A Fascinating Find

Khon performance in Bangkok. Image source: asianitinerary.com

 

 

In a quiet corner of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, rarely noticed by the streams of tourists focused on golden stupas and kinnaris, we stumbled into the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. It’s a cool, dignified space staffed by serious people who welcome you with a polite smile and guide you firmly through an appropriate visit. Appropriate, in the case of this royally sponsored institution, meaning quiet, properly dressed (no bare arms or legs), and, above all, respectful.

The museum was founded by the Thai queen in 1976 to promote the appreciation of traditional Thai handcrafts, especially the creation and use of silk. As the queen is also a champion of khon (variously spelled as kohn), the museum includes a small display of the elaborate costumes worn for this traditional masked dance (“Dressing Gods and Demons”). Constructed of silk heavily embroidered with gold/silver and “jewels” of colored glass and beetle wing, the costumes are based on research conducted in conjunction with a 2007 revival performance of the ancient art.

After viewing the exhibition, I was eager to check out a performance, and through considerable digging around, we discovered shows played at the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre. Our efforts to see one, however, turned into a comedy of errors.

On the evening of the show, after an excellent meal in the tiny hole-in-the-wall Café 511, we asked the taxi driver to take us to the Sala Chalermkrung Theatre. We showed him the tickets, which had on them the name and address in Thai. We told him we were going to see kohn. None of these references worked. He consulted with his taxi colleagues. Nope, none of them had a clue. Finally, we said “Old Siam Centre,” which is in the same block as the theatre. Ah! Yes, now he knew! Off we sped, only to arrive at the Siam Paragon, a luxury shopping centre. Try again. Next stop: Siam Discovery, another mall. The poor guy obviously only understood “Siam” and was doing his best based on what the bulk of tourists wanted to find. On the other hand, this is the royal theatre, for gawd’s sake, surely someone must have heard of it? By a process of elimination only, I believe, he finally brought us to the Old Siam Centre.

We walked around the place several times, thinking, How can they possibly hide a theatre here? Is it underground? Is it on the roof? We began to question our mental competence: Could a Thai theatre look so very different from what we’re used to that we’re just walking past it? We commenced staring suspiciously at young Thai women selling Hello Kitty merchandise in the market: perhaps one of their booths concealed a hidden entrance to the theatre?

Finally, we asked the crisp information officer by showing her the tickets and she sent us off with a series of hand gestures. Tickets in hand, we walked out of the mall, following her instructions as best we could, only to be accosted by a sincere-looking old man who pointed to the tickets, shook his head vigorously, and sent us back into the mall. How were we to know that he was not a kind citizen but a critic who was warning us away from the show? At least, that had to be the explanation, because having slogged around the block yet another time, we ultimately discovered that we had literally been on the theatre’s doorstep when he intercepted us and sent us away.

Fortunately—having had much experience of losing our way in Bangkok—we had allowed lots of time. We were finally seated in the vintage-1933 theatre along with a dozen giggling schoolchildren and a handful of other patrons. This in a theatre that holds well over 450. My companion suggested that the rows of emptiness probably belonged to scores of confused ticket-holders wandering the streets outside after being turned away by the helpful old man.

After all our misadventures, I can happily report that the show was worth the effort. Although khon has been compared to classical ballet, they are similar only in that their movements are formal and stylized, and the dancers use mime. Where ballet dancers balance on their toes, khon dancers stomp down heavily on their heels. Where ballet calls for airy lightness, khon favors strong, deliberate movements. Khon is mostly quite slow and often involves balancing on one foot, moving the feet and hands very precisely, and sometimes posing in tableaux-like formations. There’s also a dash of acrobatics thrown in.

The stories are drawn from the Hindu epic of Ramayana and feature gods, demons, and monkeys. Despite wearing rigid masks that cover the entire head, the principle dancers were able to convey character and humor through hand gestures and subtle body and head motions. To make the performance comprehensible to foreigners, the theatre has LED surtitles above the stage (in English only; tough luck to other non-Thais).

The onstage costumes were similar to those I had seen close-up in the museum, and it was wonderful to see the silk, dazzling metallic embroidery, and “jewels” move under the stage lights. (Okay, you may need to be a costume geek to get excited by this, but I did.) At the same time, the background information I had picked up from the exhibition enhanced my appreciation for the performance.

The two experiences made a perfect pairing I’d recommend to anyone visiting Bangkok. Just leave generous amounts of time to find the theatre and beware of that kindly man who wants to give you directions.

This excellent video shows khon both in performance and behind the scenes.

Currently, khon performances run on Thursday and Friday nights. Tickets available from thaiticketmajor.com and their outlets; 800-1200 Baht (US$23-35). The Queen Sirikit Museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm; admission is included when you purchase a ticket for the Grand Palace complex.

Have you experienced a piece of traditional culture in a places where you’ve traveled? Tell us about it in a comment.

Calidris Reads: Bangkok

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels and nonfiction written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Tone Deaf in Bangkok

Janet Brown

First sentence: “I have spent most of my life searching for a home.”

A series of essays by an ex-pat on Thai (mostly Bangkok) food, language, culture, aging, relationships, home, and exploration, with a dash of Cambodia thrown in for good measure. The writing is excellent, the analysis and self-examination, astute.

The title is in reference to the tonality of the Thai language, where a slight mistake in the tone you use can make the difference between “water buffalo” and an unmentionable part of the anatomy.

Reading this before my trip, I was struck by some of her observations and looked forward to seeing for myself if they held true.

  • “It’s such a filthy place that I’ve scraped dirt from my skin while sitting in an apartment fifteen minutes after having taken a shower, and I’ve had to pick my way down neighborhood thoroughfares to avoid stepping in dog shit.”

Yes and no: the air pollution is palpable and visible at sunset as a thick haze over the city. However, I didn’t find the streets particularly filthy. Of course, you always have to watch where you step, but that’s true in my home town, too. In some neighbourhoods, there are actually people who spend their days sweeping the sidewalks with palm brooms, so things are kept pretty tidy.

  • “The air tastes like a cigarette and frequently smells far worse.”

Let’s just say the air is noticeable, whether tinged with the pong of sewage and garbage or perfumed by blossoming trees.

  • “It is unusual to see a Thai girl who isn’t beautiful, and it is rare to see a woman over forty who is.”

Not true at all. I saw lots of both.

  • “Western toilets abound in Bangkok, although the stalls all too often come without a supply of toilet paper.”

Yup. However, you have to remember that toilet paper is not part of Thai culture; they traditionally use water to cleanse. You may find a toilet that has no toilet paper but does have the ubiquitous spray hose. Besides, the number one rule of travel is “Always carry TP on your person.”

  • “On the Skytrain, it is possible to explore the city without getting lost….It’s convenient, it’s clean, it’s scam-free, and it keeps culture shock at bay.”

I am pleased to report that this is basically true. We criss-crossed the city on the Skytrain and the only issue we faced was trying to figure out the correct platform.  In one case, a young man noticed our hesitation and took the trouble to speak to us and give us directions to our platform. As we followed his directions, we found that he had mistakenly told us to go right instead of left, but we figured it out. A few moments later, while we waited for the train, he came running up to us: he had realized his mistake and tracked us down to make sure we hadn’t gone astray. Now, that’s a kind and thoughtful stranger.

4 knots (Recommended)

What do you read when you travel? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

Healing a Wounded Country Through Art

Photo source: https://pharecircus.org/

They call it Cambodian traditional circus, but slapstick clowns and trained poodles, this ain’t.

It’s a steaming hot night in Siem Reap, the tourist town built on the doorstep of one of the world’s great heritage sites: Angkor. Visitors from across the globe fill the neon-lit bars and restaurants on Pub Street, where vendors hawk everything from “Fear Factor” fried scorpions on a stick to toe-tickling foot massages delivered by nibbling aquarium fish. There are only two kinds of people in Siem Reap: those who are there to see the temple ruins and those who are there to extract money from the first group. And who can blame them? This is a poor area in a poor country. Foreigners throw away big money on lodging, food, transport, and fun. Every local desperately needs a piece of that largesse and most work extremely hard to earn it.

In a dusty lot on the dark outskirts of town, far from the hustlers and the massage parlours, stands a tent. Inside, a simple, mostly empty performance space is surrounded by tiers of wooden benches. It’s well organized: young people in bright red t-shirts deal out tickets, hand out bamboo fans to keep the sultry air moving inside the tent, usher patrons to their seats, and sell snacks and merchandise. The place is packed and when everyone is seated, two musicians enter, bow, and take their places. The performance begins.

Sokha is nothing less than a retelling of the horrors that engulfed Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and the struggles of the people to come to terms with this period when between one and three million Cambodians were executed or died from starvation and disease. The story is based on the experiences of the founders of the Phare Ponleu Selpak School, who lived through that time. The school’s mandate is to provide free education in academics and the arts and to train young artists for professional careers in visual arts, theatre, music, dance, and circus (two of their graduates were recently hired by the Cirque du Soleil). The Phare also strives to create opportunities for local artists and help to revitalize the arts in a country where most artists were targeted for death under the former regime.

The performance is a skillful blending of music, mime, visual art, dance, and acrobatics. With minimal props and basic costumes—a far cry from the elaborate trappings of the Cirque—the artists evoke laughter, tears, amazement, and total engagement from the audience. The story could not be more powerful, and knowing that the performers were all personally affected by the events referenced makes it incredibly moving. The use of masks to dehumanize the persecutors is chilling; you see that the ordinary people were under those masks and participated in the killing.

As the show progresses, we see Cambodia’s slow, courageous steps toward recovery after the end of the Khmer Rouge. Despite the trauma still felt today, the people are acknowledging and healing from their past. They are celebrating the rebirth of the arts through performances such as the Phare.

Near the end of the show, during an emotionally charged scene in which a teacher helps a shattered child to see the healing power of art, the electricity in the tent suddenly went out. The performers froze and did not move for many long minutes while crew scrambled to get the generator restarted. It was like Cambodia herself held her breath through her long darkness, balanced on the knife edge between annihilation and hope. When the lights came on again, the audience cheered and the actors moved forward to the end of the scene and toward a brighter future.

The day after the circus, we went on a nature tour to a manmade wetland in the countryside. It was filled with birds and fisherman poled their dugouts across the serene waters. As we commented on the beauty of the place, our guide said quietly in his broken English: “Built by Khmer Rouge. Three thousand people die.”

More information and tickets for the Phare are available at https://pharecircus.org/. Advance purchase during the high season is recommend; the performance was sold out the night we attended.
Have you seen a local performance during your travels that is a must-see for visitors? Let me know in a comment.

In Search of Folk Music: Wales

Folk music is about history and storytelling, archaic language and ancient notions that are sometimes surprisingly (and disturbingly) contemporary, and modern ideas that may have their roots in antiquity. It’s also about shared culture and joining with your community to express joy, sorrow, outrage, or remembrance. It can be hilarious or mysterious, bawdy or accusatory.

I am proud to call myself a folk musician, and when I travel, I seek out like-minded folks.

In planning my trip to Wales, I thought with excitement of the country’s reputation for beautiful voices and fierce pride in Welsh traditions, and I determined to visit a folk club and share in the singing. With the help of Mudcat Cafe, an online community of folkies across the world, I found a songcircle in Wales that fit into my schedule. Then I resolved to learn one simple song in Welsh so that I could wow the locals.

This was a recklessly brave and foolish ambition. For those of you who don’t speak Welsh, I will point out that it is a fiendishly difficult language for outsiders to learn. I suspect that the native Welsh are genetically equipped with a tongue that attaches in some unique fashion and which allows them to shape the sounds.

Take, for example, the “ll.” Wikipedia describes this as a “voiceless lateral fricative.” There are literally pages and pages of helpful explanation on the Web trying to explain how to create this sound. Gwybodiadur.co.uk: “…put your tongue in the L position and say SH (not S). Don’t forget to keep the tip of the tongue up against ridge behind the teeth and not let it point forwards or downwards as it would do for a normal SH…you’ll sound a bit like a really annoyed cat.”  Try to imagine doing this while singing. Considering the level of skill and determination this demands, one ceases to be amazed that the tiny Welsh nation has doggedly resisted Anglo domination for hundreds of years.

However, I reasoned that even a somewhat mangled version of a Welsh song would count as a culturally sensitive attempt and gain me some brownie points. So I tracked down a short, repetitive, but lovely folk tune called Ar Lan y Mor and I prevailed on my Welsh-born friend for some lessons. I think he almost choked the first time I tried to sing it—no, wait, that was just him correcting my pronunciation.

After several months of practice, I found myself in a Pembrokeshire pub, surrounded by friendly locals. Folkies are, as a rule, very welcoming types, and, though no doubt nonplussed by my presence in the midst of their group, they were kind. When I announced that I would sing Ar Lan y Mor in Welsh, I gleefully noted their surprised and respectful expressions. Nobody laughed at my garbled pronunciation and all applauded warmly at the end.

Just as I relaxed back into my chair, feeling quite smug, the woman next to me leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “Very nice, dear. Of course, we’re all English here.” Indeed, as I soon confirmed, they were all escapees from the Anglo-urban rat race seeking Welsh utopia and not one could tell the difference between an “ll” and an angry cat. Bloody ll, thought I.

At the end of the evening, I was slinking, crestfallen, toward the door, when a craggy old fellow at the bar with his face sunk in his pint, glanced up just long enough to growl, “I’m Welsh and ye did pretty well. Good to hear someone singing in Welsh.”

So my efforts were not completely wasted. I gained a healthy appreciation for those few who tackle Welsh as a second language—and they are as rare as red dragons. I witnessed first-hand the long-standing tradition of English empire-builders taking up residence on Welsh soil, a custom that dates back further than King John. And I scored a point for Canadian chutzpah.

O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau!*

Have your efforts to speak the local language during your travels been delightful or disastrous? Write a comment and share your story.

*“May the old language endure!”—from the Welsh national anthem