Posts Tagged With: university

Weasel Poop Central

Dalat is a college town of about 400,000 people with a large (13,000 students) regionally well-known university. It’s only about 30 miles from Nha Trang as the crow flies, but it’s a 3-4 hour bus ride; Dalat is up in the mountains at about 5000′ (1500 m) elevation, and the road to it is steep, winding, and very slow. It does take you through some scenic valleys with narrow waterfalls threading down the cliffsides.

Dalat IMG_8729-HDRThere used to be a rail line connecting Dalat with Saigon but the Viet Cong blew it up during the war and it has never been replaced. It does have an airport with twice-daily flights to Saigon, though. (People seem to randomly call it either Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as the mood strikes them, though the latter has been the official name since 1975.)

There is a certain amount of nostalgia for the railroad, though, at least among the very small community consisting of a burnt-out expat American who opened a restaurant called the Train Villa Cafe, which sports a railroad car behind the building. He used to be the general manager of Tower Records in Singapore, but he moved here in 1991, married a local woman, and (according to Phil) has been running this restaurant and drinking himself to death since then. We ate lunch there, and he did arrange for some of the local hill tribespeople to come and perform some traditional music for us.

Dalat IMG_8767They are called the Kho, part of a larger set of hill tribes that are collectively known in the West as Montagnards. The Kho themselves are subdivided into a number of groups, including the Khmer in Cambodia. They have a very characteristic style of dress — dark blue cotton with vertical colored stripes as you see in the photo — and speak their own language. This particular family of musicians had been educated in the cities and spoke Vietnamese as well. The Kho language is significantly different from Vietnamese; Phil does not speak it.

We continued on to our hotel, a large ornate place with the inexplicable name of the Sammy Hotel. No one seems to know who “Sammy” was, but the architecture is pretty purely French Colonial and — because of our frequent travel with OAT — we have been upgraded to a very large and pretty snazzy suite, with a full living room and two baths. Yay!

The weather was deteriorating by mid-afternoon but we headed out anyway — eventually getting poured upon — to visit the Linh Phuoc Buddhist temple, a large and impossibly ornate complex in which every exterior square foot — and quite a bit of interior space as well — is covered by elaborate dragon-themed ceramic mosaic tile and statuary. It is an utter riot of color and detail, something that Antoni Gaudi would have happily designed if he had been into Buddhism.

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Dalat IMG_8891-HDRThe interior is no less elaborate, and includes some creepily realistic statuary along with all the ceramic frou-frou.

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Dalat IMG_8870By the time we left we were in a full-on downpour, which continued for the next four hours; it is the monsoon season.

It was still pouring at 6:30 PM when we were picked up at our hotel by a cheerful young woman in a rain poncho, riding a motorbike. (Vietnamese use their scooters to go anywhere at any time; monsoon rains are of no consequence.) Her name was Nhii, and she is the 26 year old daughter of the host family with whom we had dinner at home last night. As I have mentioned before, every OAT trip has a generous dollop of interaction with the locals, and each trip usually includes dinner at home with a local family.  Nhii put us into a taxi, and then led the way home through the driving rain on her motorbike.

Dalat IMG_8908Those are Nhii’s parents at left, and our travel mates Hazel and Bruce on the right. Nhii’s father is a retired archivist with the government; her mother is retired from a bank. Nhii herself is a receptionist at a hotel and the only one of them that spoke any English. (Hers was pretty rocky but serviceable enough for the occasion.) The language barrier put things off to a slow start, but as we started showing each photos of our various grandchildren, things picked up. Nhii’s mom is an excellent cook and served us a nice meal that included pho, spring rolls, sticky rice, and a salad that had a large number of hard-boiled quail eggs in it. The evening was enjoyable enough, but we would have liked to see more of the house (we never got out of the living room and dining room) and learn more about their lives. (We learned a lot more about Nhii since she could converse.)

The rain had stopped by the time we headed back to the hotel, and we slept well enough in our Colonial Overlord room to take on more ambitious sightseeing today.

Dalat is a major center for wholesale flower cultivation and sales; it is sort of the Holland of this part of Asia. Flowers are big, big business here, and the best way to illustrate that is to show you this panorama looking into the valley adjacent to the downtown part of the city:

Dalat IMG_8812-PanoWith the exception of the tile roofs in the foreground, every single building in that image is a greenhouse, hundreds and hundreds of them filling the valley. Here’s the interior of one of them, and happy Alice — who is an avid gardener, unlike myself, and much in her element here — with a sample bloom.

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Dalat IMG_8931I am informed that that is a gerbera daisy.

The greenhouses are not made of glass, but rather nylon, which we were told is a technique invented by the Israelis. Water condenses on the interior and drips into the gutters that you can see running the length of the structure, thus minimizing the need for an external water supply.

Besides flowers, the other cash crop in these parts is coffee, and so of course we were morally obliged to visit a coffee plantation. Since we live in Kona (Hawaii) for about five weeks a year that was not exactly new and exciting for us — and I don’t even drink the stuff — but here you go anyway:

Dalat IMG_8937-PanoWe got The Coffee Spiel. There are three types of coffee here, being Arabica, Mocha, and Something Elsa-a (Robusta, I think), and the differences are [at this point my brain turns off due to total indifference]. So of course they sat us down and served us a sample, which everyone duly admired, except for Alice, who literally shuddered and sotto voce averred it much inferior to Kona coffee.

Dalat IMG_8942Those are our travel mates Yvonne, Karen, and Joan. Yvonne looks a little dubious.

But this was not the main event. Oh no, far from it. This particular coffee was conventionally grown and processed. At no point did it emerge from a weasel’s digestive tract.

You may perhaps have heard of kopi luwak, the fabulously expensive Indonesian coffee that is processed from beans that have been eaten and excreted by a civet cat. Well, guess what? They do it here too. They call the creature a weasel here, but it is the same animal, Paradoxurus hermaphroditus if you’re taxonomically inclined. It is not related to the ferret-like thing that we in the West call a weasel, but looks rather like a raccoon. Here’s one in its cage at the plantation.

Dalat IMG_8975So the deal is, they feed the coffee “cherry” — the red fruit with the bean at its core — to the animal, which dutifully poops it out the other end, its digestive enzymes having dissolved the fruit and worked some chemical miracle upon the bean. The poop is dried in the sun and the beans then extracted by machine (thank God). You then process the beans and charge a zillion dollars a pound for them because people are insane. I mean seriously, this is certainly the only consumable substance in the world where declaring, “This tastes like shit,” is considered a compliment.

Dalat IMG_8948Note the sign above. For the record, I was not tempted to take any away. I am however going to start an emo band named “Weasel Feces”.

Alice, who is a coffee snob, was very disdainful of the whole thing but upon actually tasting it — they gave everyone about a half a shot glass to try — declared it quite excellent after all.  And as I looked on in head-scratching wonder she actually plunked down money to buy a few ounces, at a price that scaled to US $90 a pound.  That’s about three times the price of good Kona coffee. She is unable to testify that it is three times as good.

That adventure under our belt, we climbed onto a flatbed hitched to a tractor — this has been an especially interesting trip, transportation-wise — and literally headed for the hills, traveling a short distance up into the hills to visit a Montagnard/Kho village. Our first encounter was with some fierce children (one was wearing a Batman teeshirt so you know this is serious) who took a break from chasing each other around to threaten to eat us.

Dalat IMG_8994We navigated this existential threat — I taught two of them to play Thumb War in case my grandsons ever visit here — and spent some time talking to the village headman and his wife, who was patiently weaving through part of the conversation.

It’s an interesting society, matriarchal for starters; property is handed down through the women in the family, and arranged marriages have been abolished.

That’s as much of Dalat as we have time for. Tomorrow morning we fly to Saigon for the last leg of the trip. We’ll be there for three nights, then leave for home on Saturday.

 

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Knick-Knack Padua

Our original goal for today was the Scrovigne Chapel in Padua, decorated in early 14th-century frescoes by Giotto, that is so well-preserved that the paintings’ original rich colors – cerulean skies, golden-haloed rows of angels – are still intact. What this means in practice is that extraordinary measures must be taken to keep it that way: visitors are allowed in for only 15 minutes at a time, and there is no photography allowed at all. This in turn means that the “tourist throughput”, so to speak, is very low. Reservations must be made in advance for your particular 15-minute window, and this is not an easy process, requiring callback numbers (our phones do not work here) authentication codes, and other elements of a Jason Bourne novel. We did not take care of this while still in the US, and it became a near-impossibility now, as we learned the hard way when we tried to buy tickets at the chapel in real time. Bottom line: we didn’t see it. So here is a Google image for you instead.

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We didn’t see this.

Still, Padua is a lively city, home to the University of Padua, one of the Continent’s oldest and most venerated schools, dating from the mid-13th century. (Consider that Harvard, the oldest university in the US, is 400 years younger.) It is what today would be called an urban campus, a skein of ancient and modern buildings integrated into the compact, old portion of the cityscape. It has an array of passageways, courtyards, and alcoves to explore, and wandering randomly – as we were more or less doing, having flamed out on the Scrovigne Chapel – reveals treasures like this variegated marble staircase…

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…or this very Italian bar and sundries store, located in a passageway off one of the university courtyards.

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Padua-10The university – like many in Europe – saw its share of sacrifice in both World Wars. It lost a number of students in both wars, commemorated in various ways around the campus. One well known example are these brass doors, easily 10’ tall, listing those killed in WWI.

The university was also an epicenter of the local Resistance during WWII, and was given an award recognizing this by the European Union.

It’s not actually fair to say that we were wandering randomly. We were in fact in search of the Palazzo della Ragione, primarily because Elaine had picked up a brochure for it that featured a very large and impressive-looking wooden statute of a stallion. As we headed in search of the elusive statue we came to refer to it as the Trojan Horse, though that is not actually its subject.

The Palazzo della Ragione, as it turns out, is not exactly a single building but rather an array of them defining the perimeter of the oldest part of the city, very possibly the site of the original local Roman forum. Now the square is the site of a yeasty farmer’s market, mostly featuring meats, cheese, and produce. Its crown jewel is the Great Hall, called the Salone, which houses our equine target. While we found the building without too much difficulty, getting inside turned out to be a bigger challenge, until Elaine took the reins (notice my clever horse reference there) and asked one of the merchants, who kindly led us to the correct, not-at-all-secret staircase.

The Salone is an impressive structure, the interior space being a single open cavernous volume, every square foot of wall covered with frescoes, and topped with a so-called shipwright roof, meaning that it is shaped like an inverted ship’s hull. I’m guessing that it’s about 250’ x 100’ in area, nearly a football field in floor area. It was completed in 1219, and looks for all the world like a medieval zeppelin hangar. (That roof, by the way, is a rather fraught piece of architecture. Originally built of wood, of course, it has been variously burnt down in fires and blown off by hurricanes, and then rebuilt, about every 200 years or so.)

The space is so huge that upon entering it is easy to overlook the non-Trojan horse at the far west end. It is quite the stunning beast, a proud-looking (and, um, anatomically correct) stallion perhaps 20’ tall, standing on a platform with one leg raised, sinews visible, and glaring down regally at the viewers.

 

You can see him here, against the backdrop of frescoes on the wall behind.

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One of the later additions to the Salone, sating from 1761, is this golden sun on the south wall:

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It is hard to estimate its size because it is high up on the vast wall, but I am going to guess “bigger than it looks”, perhaps 6’ across. And what is cool about it is its astronomical functionality. See that bright round dot below the nose? That’s not a photo artifact: it’s a hole in that pierces the wall of the Salone. The Sun sits at the midpoint of the south wall, and at midday on the Equinox the beam of sunlight shining through the hole traces the path of the north-south meridian line that is inlaid in tile on the floor.

Yet another unusual feature of the Salone – and man, it would be great to fly a little drone quadcopter around in it, or at least play Frisbee – is the “Stone of Shame” at the opposite end of the hall from the horse. (In Italian it is called “pietro del vituperio”, literally “stone of vituperation”, which is a phrase that I am going to have to start using more often.) It’s a black stone cylinder, broadening slightly at the top, about 2’ wide and 3 ½’ high, placed there in 1231 and used to punish insolvent debtors. According to the statutes of the time, if you couldn’t make the vig you had to sit on the stone three times wearing only your underwear whilst stating “I renounce my worldly goods.” Then you were banished from the city. If you were foolish enough to return you would have to do it again, only this time people would pour buckets of water on your head. Wait till the credit card companies hear about this.

Padua-3We left the Salone in search of sustenance, which is the Italian word for gelato. That craving satisfied, we continued on to the “Commune” the central square of the modern part of the city. This is a congenial park centered on a fountain lined by a very large number of classical statues and frequented on pleasant days – which yesterday definitely was, sunny and in the 70’s – by many, many people, sitting by the fountain, lazing on the grass, or (as you can see here) practicing their tightrope skills.

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We hung around for a while, soaking up the sun and the atmosphere, then headed back to the car, fortifying ourselves for the long (20 minute) trek with another gelato. Indeed, I believe that I have discovered the Zeno’s Paradox of Gelato, as the intervals between gelato stops became progressively smaller as we got closer and closer to the car. If the walk had been much longer, we would not have needed dinner.

I will close with some self-indulgence, in particular with the narcissistic fantasy that you actually care how I am posting these entries at all since I stated a few days ago that our B&B castle does not have wifi. As it happens, there is a restaurant down the street with free wifi that (they graciously informed me) they leave turned on 24 x 7. So every morning I wander down the rode, sit against the outside wall of the restaurant, and blog away in the hope that the cars speeding down the winding, narrow alley do not crush my legs. (About five minutes ago I actually had to stand up and dodge a voracious street-sweeping machine whose girth filled the entire alley.) Anyway, here I am hard at work, in a photo that Elaine took yesterday:

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