Last week I met a fascinating woman. What would be the most appropriate word to describe my contact with her? You see, she passed away some time ago. But I have come to know her in a profound way, gradually, step by step, word by word… and I am very grateful for this encounter across rainbows.
Two weeks ago (this was back in the summer of 2012) I visited my best friend in New York. What a wonderful time is when we are together! We are mirrors in our likes and dislikes, in our passions and repulsions, we have the same favorite past times, same curiosities. Beside the Broadway shows, walking the NY streets, buying books at Strand and strolling in Central Park, beside the exquisite dinners and the Harlem music clubs, we spent a lot of time remembering old days, talking, reminiscing, looking through old photographs and digging up old memories… She stumbled onto five old-looking notebooks and said: “Oh my God! You have to read these. You’ll understand!”. I took them gently, almost puzzled and frozen at the idea… personal journals of a woman I’ve never known. She passed away some years back, her personal notes where gifted to my girlfriend by the woman’s son, my friend’s boyfriend at the time. Complicated, puzzling, unexplainable… the life of these Notebooks as the life of my wonderful heroine…
What serendipity to have these precious shreds of an existence in my care! I started reading them back home in the quiet of a Sunday morning. How careful I am holding the old papers, how conflicted the feeling – do I have the right? But how can one resist? I am treading lightly… I’m reading with respect and admiration, and I am handling the fragile pages with utmost care… The more I read, the more sacred they become, a conversation across years, across realities…
I am astonished! There are five journals. The first one starts in August 1971 and goes on until 1973. It is a torment to read… how any human being can go through so much suffering and humiliation from the person one loves most… I won’t go into the details, but two years later the booklet ends in one word: DIVORCE.
Her second Notebook is all love. In fact, all her journals, every single page, are ALL LOVE. This Notebook ends in Feb 1975. With a deception. In love.
From her third journal I infer her age while writing the notes. It starts in Oct 1979 and the journal is about her 20-year university graduation reunion. How fitting! When she wrote this, she was my age… I just attended my 20-year college reunion this summer… what a surge of emotion!
At the end of this Notebook, she comes back with one page written in October 1984, 5 years have passed from her last entry in this notebook. Poignant.
The fourth Notebook is the fall of 1981, titled ‘Jurnal de Vacanta, 1981’, a vacation diary. A special, happy time, a visit to her sister in Munich area in Germany. I feel elated that she spent this wonderful one-month visit in Bavaria and some parts of Austria. I live the novelty of her travels and discoveries through her words.
Her fifth Notebook starts in November 1988 and goes through October 1989.
1989! The year of the Romanian Revolution, the fall of communism! I can’t help but put her words into a context I’m so familiar with… There is one last letter she wrote, dated July 1995… A woman of ‘a certain age’ as French would say, giving advice to a younger woman on how to deal with heartbreak in a love affair. She gives as a Post Scriptum the last line from an old Italian movie, when the unhappy heroine of the movie looks outside her window onto an empty street and says: “How many windows, how many women like me… nevertheless you NEED TO LIVE”. And then my wonderful heroine, the real woman of my lines adds her words in brackets “and you even need to LOVE your life”… This was the motto of her life! I’ve seen it in her first booklet.
Now, April 2017 – I am continuing this, writing five years later. Five years have passed since I’ve had her journals… Another serendipity perhaps, to come back here and tie this up… just like she tied up one of her journals after five years… I have long returned the precious Notebooks to my friend… deeply grateful for such a special gift. My friend was right, I understood.
The woman that I’ve never seen, but got to know so well, talked about feelings, dreams, hopes and illusions… heartbreaks, embarrassment, regrets… And yet, the overarching message of her written thoughts was strength and self-reliance, starting all over again every morning, upbeat and vulnerable, smiling at the world… in love with life… She is the archetypal woman of great novels and classic Italian movies, the ones she loved so much.
I am so taken with her never-ending faith that life is beautiful… I haven’t seen an image of her but I know it from her words… she was so beautiful, inside and out!
I cannot end this without a word of thank you to my girlfriend for sharing these precious Notebooks with me… I wrote most of this post immediately after reading the Notebooks but hesitated much whether to share my thoughts on them or not… so sacred, so personal, but so universal. So now I have decided Yes… a woman’s life distilled in everlasting perfume is for sharing… a nod to my archetypal woman and also to my girlfriend in the same breath.
I think of her at times… and, at times, I think she is around…
I do not know where to begin telling you in how many ways I fell in love with Georgetown, the old-town of Penang. The small tip of an island off the northern entrance in Malacca Strait, at the other end of the world I call home… But this is why one travels. To be seduced! To dive in colors, sounds and smells of the beautiful cacophony our little world becomes when one looks at it with benevolent eyes.
I’m not the first to have discovered Penang and fall in love with it. The British have put it on the map and ‘fell in love with’ back in 1786, but for different reasons. When Francis Light, captain and trader with British East India Company landed, the island belonged to the Sultan of Kedah. The British East India Company was in dire competition with the Dutch East India Company for the control of spice trade and navigation control across Far East. British have promised the Sultan military protection and help against the Siamese and Burmese invasions. The history of this island in peppered with deceit… Even though he married the sultan’s daughter, Light did not have a mandate to offer military support and the Sultan wanted to rescind the agreement. The British took the Island anyway. Marking the first settlement of the British Empire in the Far East, they founded Georgetown, named after King George III, and started to build Fort Cornwallis, the fortification preserved perfectly to this day – perhaps because it was never engaged in any battle. At the time the fort was being built the island was inhabited by about 1000 Malay fishermen. Historians debate if Chinese have already reached the island at that time.
In their pursuit to open up trade business, the British declared Georgetown free port, invited Chinese traders to settle and brought Tamils from southern India for labor. European rubber and tea plantation owners with properties across Malay Peninsula started setting up home bases on the island. The banks followed suit and an economic boom ensued. During those years, Penang was for a while neck in neck in trading competition with Singapore – another member of the British Straits Settlement. It lost the competition and luckily retained that old world charm untouched. That is one major way I fell in love with it. I love strolling through the past!
For me, the surest way to fall in love with it was to revel in its diversities: diversity of cultures, of skin color and language spoken, of cuisine, diversity of eye-shape, hairdo and music sounds… Of architecture and way of living, of how one drinks its coffee and what tea is preferred… Diversity of religion and modes of worship…. Oh Mother of Diversity and Tolerance, this is your Home! And this is why an observant heart would not forget this place!
You park the car by Fort Cornwallis, pass by the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Tower, and start your stroll through history on Beach Street, the British colonial banking and trading quarters. Some Wall Street of the time…. You are conflicted with the thought of British having deceived Penang by not offering support to fight against Siam in the late 1700’s, but graver and morally unconscionable, during the WWII, they decided to evacuate all European residents in secret and leave the rest – Malay, Chinese, Tamils, Thai, Burmese and all others that came to find their fortunes on a bustling little island – at the cruel will of the Japanese occupation. And that’s yet another way to fall in love with it – so much history, so much pain and misery, so much boom and bust concentrated in one little place… It makes it alive with joy and heartbreak and gives it a presence like no other. Penang, Georgetown, Pinang, call it what you like, the place has a soul. History is cherished and preserved. Here, old is hip. Old is new. Old is beautiful.
The famous five-foot-ways are still intact, dating back to the time of colonial rule – the five foot indentation in the ground floor of a building so that the upper floor provides shelter from sun and rain to the pedestrians. Across the Strait Settlements the five foot ways were part of the town plans but colonial ruler and local ruled never saw eye to eye as to their use, with merchants wanting to use the verandas for their daily life and commerce while the administration wanted the public space cleared and maintained. The conflict culminated in the Verandah Riots in Singapore with no concrete win and both sides pretending the matter solved.
At the other end of Beach Street and out of sight from the British money temples there is a small sign pointing to Little India. And it all starts to beat faster, for a secret longing of my heart is to meet India at home… So I plunge blindly with eyes wide open… And ears are buzzing with Bollywood music and nostrils are inundated with smells of spices and sweet fragrances of unknown lands…. Oh… the colors of the saris and silks in the shop-windows, the flower garlands hanging bright and long and waiting to be offered at the feet of gods… The skin color on the sidewalks and the language changes, the dress is different… The white or vermillion marks on forehands speak of a different worship style and smiles are wide and heads a shaking sideways… I get lost into little shops, I am expected to buy saris, but instead I am attracted by a place that blares a mantra on the sidewalk and I get out with two CD’s. Anything of India you want you can find, bangles of all colors covering the windows from top to bottom, all-gold coverings, saris, jewelry, music, Bollywood movies, biryani clay-pots, spices, sweets-carts and vegetable stalls. All resonating with the din of life and raw energy.
Looking out from the clay pots a different looking place picks our interest. Turns out it’s a Chinese bistro part of a historic inn. After all that Indian color and excitement the quiet moment for coffee makes its call. But curiosity it great and while I love the A/C, the ambient music and cleanliness of Bistro Tang – an oasis in the midst of Little India, my eyes are restless and across the street a battered looking old house captures my attention. We ask for coffees at Tang but I add ‘can you make it old style’ and showed the motions of pouring through a sifter… Something I saw in another Chinese coffee house in KL. The young barista said we don’t make that kind here, but they can make it for you across the street. And she motioned for the shabby house I eyed. That’s all I needed. While my husband gets comfy with his Tang coffee I cross the street into this open kitchen/restaurant that serves sidewalk-cooked char kway teow – the national favorite Malaysian fried rice noodles. There is only a mix of locals in the joint and the air is completely different than at Tang’s. I ask the Chinese lady busy frying noodles in a searing wok, about ‘old style coffee’. She nods and sends me to the back where a young man takes the loud order from her. While he prepares my coffee I am considering if this is such a good idea… the hygiene is questionable, this is an open air ramshackle… but I can’t help it, I really feel welcome. He pours the coffee through a cloth strainer, then adds condensed milk and pours from one cup to another several times, then adds ice and a straw. When I turn around an old man gestures me to take a sit at his table. He asks me where I am from. He has no front teeth but good English. I can’t really figure out his ethnicity. I take a seat and we strike a conversation. When he hears I’m from Romania he tells me he knows of only one lady from Romania, the gymnast, the perfect 10. I tell him, yes, Nadia – I meet her once in an airport lounge. He thinks she must very-very rich. We laugh. I ask him where is he from, turns out he is Thai, several generations in Penang. He suggests I try the fried noodles but… emmm… no-no, I am not hungry at all. The coffee is good. Then he says ‘the tall man you are travelling with is looking for you’. I said, yes, my husband is having his coffee at Tangs, and indeed B is up and looking through the window across the street. We joke and laugh some more, the old man is so easy to talk to, I wish I could spend hours to learn about his old stories…. When he senses I’m about to get up, he asks if I don’t mind taking off my glasses so he can see my eyes. I give him a wide smile and take off my sunglasses. I leave him with a big smile on his face and rush for the cool a-world-apart place that Bistro Tang seems now.
We’re off to explore more and discover the ‘Street of Harmony’, what used to be known as Pitt Street where in a short walk one can visit the centers of the four main religions of the Island: St. George’s Church, the first Anglican Church in South East Asia. Then on to the Hokkien Chinese temple dedicated to the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy Kuan Yin and to Mah Chor Por the seafarers’ patron, with worship practices blending Buddhism and Taoism. Then on to the Hindu Temple Sri Maha Mariamman [the Universal Mother] worshipped by the migrant Tamils who looked upon the goddess as their protector in times of trials and tribulations. Finally, the minaret and domes of the imposing Kapitan Keling Mosque appearing above the rooftops. Built by the Chulia Indian Muslim community, it is named after one man, Kapitan Keling – literally, Captain of the South Indians. One cannot help taking note of the true harmony of the place, what they call this street may sound like a tourism marketing gimmick, but you do see Chinese and Indian locals praying side by side in front of each other’s temples, selling their worship fare side by side and truly getting along. This is reminiscent of Kathmandu’s famous temples where Buddhists and Hindus pray side by side in perfect amity.
Continuing on Penang’s heritage trail we find ourselves on the rickety walkways of the Clan Jetties. Like the rest of Georgetown, this is a walk in time… on lanes of wood beams, built on stilts over the open shores. In the old days the location was a wood yard, littered with planks and firewood where poor Chinese families worked loading and unloading sampans. Eventually seven jetties sprung up and were dominated by different clans. Each clan started to build houses and to this day they live on water with little convenience. Each house has a little shrine suspended by the entrance with shoes and flip-flops lying at the door. Like elsewhere in Georgetown, bicycles are everywhere… The jetties are another face of a fascinating past confronting an incredibly tolerant present. I do not know if this continuity would be possible in the West. The clans are catching up with times tough; they’ve opened up the jetties to visitors and have transformed the font of their houses in little shops selling art and souvenirs. Yet, when you take a turn on a quiet wooden lane you could very well be walking one hundred years ago.
One cannot visit Georgetown without a walk on the Armenian Street. The now-gone Armenian community in Penang was never numerous, but it was notable. Few wealthy Armenian businessmen made fortunes on the island, the famous hoteliers Sarkies Brothers among them. The Sarkies founded luxury hotels throughout South East Asia; Eastern and Oriental in Penang, Raffles in Singapore, Strand in Rangoon, and others. A stroll on the Armenian Street takes you to the heart and vibrant buzz of this old place. Charming shops, Chinese clan houses, cafes, museums, art galleries… When you find out that the Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yat Sen shaped history out of a humble shop-house on the Armenian Street you no longer think it is too much… you are already seduced and simply know there’s more… Today a museum, this was the Penang base where Sun Yat Sen lived for a while and strategized the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. And one can dive into yet another layer of history if one is so inclined.
What else can this little place offer you in one day? If all this wasn’t enough, here is the topping: a trishaw ride to savor the famous street art of Georgetown. The legs are getting weary but the sponge-like curiosity and thirst for more are running high. We have seen the trishaws and their drivers all day long. Time comes we befriend one and we make him happy. And we start chasing the frames of composite wall art that made Georgetown famous with young crowds and artist-adventurers that love to put their stamps on walls across the world. What’s special about the street art here is that it incorporates wall-painting, real bicycles, motorcycles, swings and basketball hoops, tree roots or the entire façades they are adorning. Such ingenuity, such fun and such finesse… I’ve seen the street art of many cities, from Valparaiso or Santiago de Chile to Philadelphia, so bright, so many colors, so striking, one strong statement after another. The street-art of Penang is quite the opposite; it is subtle yet so alive, so integrated in its surroundings that it won’t stand out. And the effect is marvelous! You get caught in a play with Ernest Zacharevic’s children riding bicycles or scooters, reaching out for buns in real steamers, hanging on little wooden swings or playing a basketball hoop. You stop counting the cats of the 101 Lost Kittens project by Malaysian and Thai artists that aim to raise awareness about stay cats. Is this Asia?
The artists have a beautiful and witty dialog on the walls of Georgetown and everyone loves it. In fact, the municipality participates too with the humorous wrought-iron art work representing historic facts about the street or the building it hangs upon.
Penang is a gem of many facets; it is confounding: business savvy, historical and hip, devout and artsy… oh, it holds so many promises! An island hosting many ethnic groups going about life in peace; not trying to impose their own religion or their way on the rest. Well, yes, this is Asia! Penang teaches the world that is all right to be different while together; that the Buddhist chant will not offend the Muslim call to prayer and the Hindu festivals in December are not a threat for Christmas. Tolerance for street artists, for cats and foreigners… tolerance for life as chosen.
“The lamps are different but the light is the same: it comes from beyond…” Rumi
I left for Vietnam utterly unprepared for what may come; no mental preparations, no emotional baggage, no expectations. My favorite way to travel, turns out: just plunge, dive in and let it be. Let it affect you. Let it allow you discover yourself in front of unexpected, a mirror of surprise and stress of the unknown… the most revealing.
I knew one leg of the trip would be in the mountains of Sa Pa, close to the sensitive Chinese border. Main reason one goes there – meet the ethnic minorities that live in the area, some trek among the rice fields and villages of mountain scenery, some go to climb the highest peak of Indochina, Fansipan, at 3,143 m – the easternmost lost vestige of the Himalayas. The French went to escape the heat of Saigon; their colonial response to the British hill stations of the Indian Himalayas.
We spent three days in Sa Pa, took the Victoria Express night train from Hanoi – an experience that heightened my excitement, sense of adventure and dreamy disposition. We usually don’t travel by train and I long for it at times – I find it so romantic, hardship and reverie combined; it takes me back to my college years of communist Romania and many books. I feel train stations charged with emotions and private histories; soul particles hovering above tracks, in full moon or pitch darkness, in morning dew or crimson twilight… millions of footsteps traced, lost and found. I must admit, there was no hardship in Victoria Express, just reverie… That night there was a pregnant waxing Moon almost ready to burst full. Just the two of us in the sleeper compartment, we kept the curtains open and watched the sky lying in bed… a dream! I would wake up in the soothing noise of the train moving slowly on tracks and look up; another show – Moon set and made room for stars and constellations to play, and dazzle, and tease at will. Another dream!
We disembarked the train in Lao Cai and took an hour-long car ride to Sa Pa. This ride prepares the eye for scenery and color – leaving behind the noise of typical Vietnamese morning markets, where everything seems to happen at once: buy-sell, haggle, cook, eat breakfast and drink coffee, charge up for the burden of a new day. All that behind, the eye meets endlessly vivid-green terraces, rice fields perfectly manicured on mountain slopes, specs of water catching a sun ray, gleaming in a momentary fairy dance.
And when you turn your eye to the road in front of you, water buffalos, motorbikes, bicycles coming into vision at once and there… peculiar short women in colorful dress walking on the side, carrying round baskets on their backs, but not the bamboo shoulder poles that Vietnamese women carry all day long selling fruits, flowers, and sweets on the streets of Hanoi or Saigon. No more conical straw hats either. This is a different world. Yet here, just as in Saigon, Hanoi or elsewhere in the World I’ve seen, it is the women that seem to always carry the weight of the world.
My first encounter with the local women was immediate, coming out of the hotel, two beautiful Black H’mong women with large smiles and poor teeth approached me in a very good English. Where are you from? What is your name? And this is how my tribal love affair got under way. I knew they were not only about conversation; I knew there must be trade – but I allowed myself seduced by smiles and kindness – the only thing I’d do is to respond. I didn’t buy anything from them that morning, we just arrived and had a full day in front of us – they understood, still smiling and with kind eyes they asked: ‘You buy from me when you return?’ And it was sealed! ‘I will’.
The main ethnic group in Sa Pa area is the H’mong; the Black H’mong are called such because they wear indigo died hemp clothes they make by hand. We saw a woman in her house extracting hemp fiber from the cannabis plant and barrels of blue/black die from the abundant indigo plant that grows around the area, everywhere on our treks. The women’s hands are stained in indigo from all the work. There is also the Flower H’mong group; their dress is very colorful with intricate designs. I’ve first met three of them in a Tourist Information Center, they were displaying their handwork and crafts. We talked, they showed me their stitch and how they do it with smiling eyes; they didn’t ask me to buy anything.
We started with a self-guided morning tour on motorbike, surveying Sa Pa and the astonishing surrounding area… a tour of the lush jungle bracing slopes stabbed by rich and graceful waterfalls, hiking trails in the foothills of Tonkinese Alps, taking in amazing vistas at Haven’s Gate, the highest road in Vietnam.
In the afternoon, still on motorbike, we visited Cat Cat, a Black H’mong village very close to Sa Pa. The scenery – breathtaking! Rice paddies glistening in sunlight, green, green, emerald-green everywhere you turn and blankets of white mist on top on the mountains. The village stony path felt very touristy, lined up with shops selling crafts. However, if you take your eyes a bit further to the left or to the right and look for detail, you see their homes and catch a glimpse of the child bathing, or other household chores in progress. The village natural setting is amazing, perhaps Cat Cat is quickly becoming somewhat inauthentic – so close to Sa Pa and so exposed – but remains most beautiful. Walking down the stone path among houses, stores, tea shops and half-naked children, goats, pigs and roosters, we make it to the bottom of the valley. A river runs through it. We cross it on a wire bridge. To the right the river comes down lazily barely making a statement among the green. Naked children bathe and play. To the left there is a gorgeous little waterfall and the river becomes wild cutting through polished mountain stones. Two young men catch tiny fish with baskets in the waterfall. By now we are surrounded by women and girls trying to sell us something. Anything.
This is confusing!
On one hand I think this is how Heaven must be looking like. The mountain slopes, the mist above, the green of the rice paddies, the river – so lazy where children play in the distance, the waterfall raging down below… the fishermen climbing the waterfall like Black H’mong Spiderman or Ninjas.
However, I look into the women’s eyes, they are still smiling but I finally perceive the desperation. They HAVE to sell me something! I am conflicted!! I thought this was Heaven and I still see Beauty all around, in nature, in their smiles. But deep in their eyes, the Beauty mixes with Despair.
Of course there is some haggling, they ask for as much as they can think of, but when you haggle with a smile in your eyes, it makes it mighty fine. We bought from them, not much – some postcards; their reaction warmed my heart – ‘Me Happy, You Happy!’ They tied little ribbons to our hands – a sign, a pact, a loving seal.
On our way back to the hotel, my morning Black Hmong girlfriends were waiting. The day must have worn them down and I don’t know how much they sold, but they greeted us with the biggest smiles. I’ve got little hemp purses from them, and yes… another ribbon.
The second day in Sa Pa was a full day trek in the Black Hmong and Red Dzao villages of the Lao Chai valley. This time we hired a local guide. Great English, excellent sense of humor, Xuan – a happy soul! No road this time, not even a trail – just Xuan’s knowledge of where we are and where to go… we crossed rice paddies, bamboo forests, even people’s courtyards with their permission – no beaten path here. However, there were certain stations where village women and girls would sell water and crafts.
And just the same, the story goes: great scenery, good hike, exotic and beautiful looking women and children everywhere. Xuan explained, this was the time when women dedicated their entire time to crafts and sales – the rice is planted waiting for more rains, it will be late August-early September when the paddies turn yellow that the women will get busy in their fields. They won’t have time to follow trekkers all day long. But for now, at one of the water stations I was picked up by another Black H’mong girlfriend. What is your name? Where are you from? Is he your husband? Again, impressive English. She told me she learned it from the trekkers. They have an ear for languages for sure… and a desperation mixed with resilience. Yet, their approach is so soft and gentle, and it’s not fake. They NEED to make that sale, but their smiles, good will and curiosity are genuine. My new friend walked with us for miles. She lived in the village we were going to have lunch. She braided a beautiful heart from a green twig for me. She made a little horse from another twig. Step by step we hiked down to the valley, talking all the way. She explained me the jewelry she was wearing, two sets of earrings, bracelets, her mother’s long necklace… She is 50 and wanted to see how the valley looked like through my sun glasses. After lunch we purchased little purses again, hand stitched and beautiful.
We headed for a different village – this time a Red Dzao tribe. The dress is different here; young women wear red head-scarves, the older ones have a bigger, more involved red headdress with tassels all around.
Red Dzao women are not as ‘aggressive’ as the Black H’mong ones. They certainly want to sell you something, but won’t walk with you for miles; They may not have the same charisma as the Black H’mong ‘girlfriends’. The women pluck their eyebrow and the hairline until it stops growing. Xuan explained the tradition – old story of a peculiar king that wanted his meal cooked without the risk of burning hair… since then Red Dzao women have followed the tradition. We’ve seen a meal cooking on open fire in a Red Dzao home the next day. I must say, the fire comes very close to the face. We spent some time in their home and had good conversation. Xuan asked the old woman of the house to show us her hair-line. She was a little shy at first, but then she took her headdress off. Now I shall take back the comment about their charisma. Red Dzao are just as sweet and friendly, perhaps a little shy. I was so happy she felt so comfortable in our presence to show us what rarely people see, the self-made receding hair-line of tribal lore.
The third day we hired Xuan again for a guided motorbike tour – we reached further this time; the villages, the trails, the kids, the glimpses of everyday life completely aloof, unaware and indifferent of the foreigner’s eye looking in.
When you see naked little girls using a runoff ditch and plastic bags, or simply their bare feet to experience a waterslide… you can’t help see their beauty, innocence and joy of life, but can one ignore the misery? They’re not aware, but you, the stranger looking in, you are.
Even by Vietnamese rural standards the hill tribe minorities are poor; the poorest of all. What is their fate? I was so happy to converse with many of them, to get to know a little of their lives, but are they on their way to lose their authenticity? Will they start trading smiles for camera against a fee?
I hope it rains, so that rice grows nice and abundant.