Mary Clark, Traveler

Revisiting Cambodia and Vietnam

They were my seatmates on the flight from Taipei to Phnom Penh, Cambodia – an American couple from the enormous Cambodian community in Los Angeles. In preparing for my trip, I had read much of these young Asians whose families had escaped from Cambodia and Vietnam in the late 1970s. This next generation was starting to revisit their native country to connect with their roots. The wife actually remembered, as a child of four, her family’s escape to Thailand in 1979. They walked hundreds of miles, stopping for food at night and sleeping under trees. Her most vivid memories were of the times they had to run because of gunfire and her uncle would pick her up and carry her. None of her relatives that stayed in Cambodia survived.

On our bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was an American Cambodian from Washington, D.C., who had immigrated from a Thai refugee camp after escaping the Pol Pot regime. It was the first time she had been back and the first time to meet her grandparents. It was strange seeing this very American girl and her very Cambodian parents and siblings. She was quite helpful in translating all of the action by the bus driver, especially when we pulled to the side of the road and sat while he yelled on the phone with somebody. (We had apparently left a passenger stranded 10 minutes back and the company wanted him to return. The entire bus booed that idea so we kept going.)
These stories brought back memories of the five or six Cambodian families who were sponsored by churches in my hometown in 1980. At the time, I truly had no idea what they had been through but was made painfully aware of their trauma when we visited School Number S-21 in Phnom Penh. It was used as a prison and torture facility during the Khmer Rouge. Of the 10,000 people who passed through the prison, only seven survived. One fourth of the population of Cambodia died under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Gruesome stories were the norm. It was only four years of such oppression, ending in 1979, but Cambodia is only beginning to heal. It is becoming stable enough to benefit from the large tourist industry. Siem Reap, home to the incredible ruins at Angkor Watt, is the first city to provide the hotels, restaurants and transportation necessary to attract visitors.
In Vietnam, one million South Vietnamese escaped by boat after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and many immigrated to United States. For that we should be grateful. As a group these families have been enormously successful in their adopted countries. Thirty years later it is their children, educated in the Western world, who are interested in returning to Vietnam to learn of their past and to create business opportunities. On a two-day tour of the Mekong Delta, I praised the English of one of the tour members only to discover he was an American, living in Portland, Oregon, and with his family owns five Vietnamese restaurants. My comment was embarrassing for me, but he got a good laugh out of it. He helped us identify many of the unfamiliar fruits and vegetables we saw for sale, especially on the world’s largest floating wholesale market. This armada of produce laden boats served farmers dropping off their products, and restaurants and stores buying in bulk. We could only gape at this unusual distribution method. We were not happy to learn from our Portland Vietnamese friend of a recent outbreak of Asian bird flu that had killed many ducks in the very town where we found ourselves. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
Vietnam suffered through some years of trying to make a communist economy work. Fortunately, their leaders decided in 1986 to test out a freer market and the economy is now booming. Yet the cost of living has remained low. Our hotels in Vietnam ranged from $5 to $12 a night and most of our meals were under $3. With a population of 150 million and 95% literacy, Vietnam is poised to become a dominant player in that part of the world.
Late in the trip, I met a Vietnamese American airplane mechanic with Boeing in Wichita, Kansas, who escaped Vietnam by boat when he was two-years-old. His two-month-old sister had to be left. He was painfully aware that there was a discussion of whether to bring him with the family when they departed. A different decision would have given him a totally different life. But he is now very committed to helping his family that remained in Vietnam and making sure his children are comfortable with their heritage. This is the consistent attitude we found as these children of those who fled Cambodia and Vietnam are making their first round trips, not to stay, but to help.

Leave a Comment

The Art World of Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is best known as the city of the Tango in the land of the Gauchos. Throw in a fist full of art though and you’ve got a big Ft. Worth down under. B.A. has cowtown’s wonderful juxtaposition of creativity layered on a cattle society. On a beautiful spring afternoon in November, I set out to discover this interesting art world.

The first stop was the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the national museum with several floors of art works from around the world. I was encouraged to go directly to the second floor by an American student studying Hispanic art. She described it as the history of art in the western world revealed through Argentinian artists and subjects.

The floor began with landscapes and portraits typical of the 17th and 18th centuries. Horses and the “campo” or country were popular subjects. I particularly liked the Gaucho series by Bernaldo de Quiros who painted in the early part of the 1900s. But what’s an Argentinian gaucho in lace pants doing in an impressionist painting? This new subject in a recognized art era was startling but allowed renewed appreciation of impressionism. Peasants and workers are revered by Latin artists as represented by a poignant painting of an old woman feeding pigs in La Comida de los Cerdos by Fernando Fader. A colorful scene of breathing factories and straining dock workers by Quinquela Martin shows great sympathy for those who suffered through the industrial age. Italian last names of many of the artists reflect the huge Italian immigration to this country. The art progresses into the modern age with an unusual depiction of the Annuciation. An inflated, elongated Mary is visited by a puffy, highly feathered angel! I’m sure there was more wonderful art on other floors but the second floor is the jewel.

The museum hopping continued with the Malba Museum, built in 2001 to house the modern art collection of its director, Eduard Constantini. It is dedicated to expanding that collection but also promoting contemporary Hispanic artists (although there was a featured movie of Andy Warhol on my visit). Its permanent collection contains works by Freida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Roberto Matta, and others. Regular exhibits and movies encourage the younger artists. Add in a sleek café and it’s a required stop for any visit.

There’s more at The National Museum of Decorative Arts. But what’s a museum to do with such a dull sounding name? The first suggestion is to be housed in an elegant former home built around 1915 in the French Neoclassical architectural style. The second idea is to fill the home with period European furniture, tapestries, paintings and sculptures to give the viewer a sense of the life of the rich when Argentina was also wealthy. And, finally, leave the Great Hall almost empty to allow one to imagine a room full of music and dancing. This place was a lovely surprise.

Now, I’ve checked off the major museums and am wondering if that’s all there is to the art world of Buenos Aires. Oh, no, the best is yet to come – from the streets – on Sundays.

La Boca (the mouth of the river) is the home of many artists and the passionate Boca Junior soccer team (I suppose all soccer teams in Argentina are passionate). Its aging stadium gives shade to this small community located in an old warehouse district. On a Sunday afternoon, the streets fill with booths of artists, tables and chairs to relax and eat, and best of all, spontaneous tango dancing.

An often overlooked street fair is the Feria de Matadores, also held on Sundays. It originally was the country fair for farmers to sell their produce, honey, and jellies. There are also a lot of equestrian products, including silver spurs and belts. In late afternoon a horse event provides drama as riders grab a ring while standing on a galloping horse. Again, though, it was the street scene that charmed. Gauchos dance the traditional handkerchief dance by selecting women in the crowd to join them. Sidewalk cafes offer the famous parrillado (grilled meat) perfectly complemented with Argentina red wine. And families and friends walk arm in arm in the streets. Our lunch group included two retired Argentina lawyers of Italian descent and their ballerina daughter and my cousin and her husband. We talked about books, politics and opera. What a great way to pass a Sunday afternoon.

I haven’t even mentioned the crafts fair often held outside the Recoleta cemetery, the artistry of the stylish Argentinian women, or the antique area of San Telmo displaying the talents of silversmiths of the past. An entirely different subject is the European ambiance created by B.A.’s architecture. What a feast for the eyes. For a fresh look at art history and at the soul of Argentina, don’t miss the art of Buenos Aires. So, until the next column, remember “All you really have to pack is your passport and money. The rest you can buy.”

Leave a Comment

The Traveling Gene

My brothers and I were never given an option. Every summer, my mother would throw her five children in the back of a Plymouth station wagon and head out to a predetermined destination in the United States. Distance didn’t matter. Seattle, Los Angeles, Colorado, South Dakota, Washington, D.C., were all in her sights. My father claimed the crops on the farm required his attention but he would still occasionally fly up and join us. By the time I left home, my brothers and I had checked off 35 states. After my mother was widowed at 46, she began to explore the world. In 1969, she planned a ten-week tour to Europe for the family, complete with the purchase of a Volkswagen van delivered to England for us. Long before faxes, cheap telephone calls or the internet, Mom used Europe on $5 a Day and the mail to reserve hotel rooms for every stop on the itinerary. We skied in Switzerland, rode into a salt mine in Austria, swam off the coast of Sorrento, Italy, and visited East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. That summer we added ten new countries to our list of places visited and I was hooked.

The tradition continued with my family. Our children did not get the traditional trips to Disney World or the beach. They bargained for panchos and backpacks in the Indian markets of Ecuador and zipped through the cloud forests of Costa Rica. Each took advantage of the Rotary exchange programs, one to Spain and the other to Japan. Family conversations today still include debates on where the next trip should be.

This will be a column on traveling but its emphasis will be on every day life, not on a day to day description of a trip with hotels and restaurants. It may cover cooking lessons in Hong Kong, or one day’s experience in the art world of Buenos Aires or even a report of immigration issues from the viewpoint of a Spanish teacher in Guatemala. Since I don’t travel on tours, I often read extensively prior to a trip. Guide books are helpful, but memoirs and literature give a greater perspective. And with the internet, you can even read local papers for the hot issues in that country. Hopefully, I can occasionally liven the column with tidbits, such as a dog poisoner is on the list of Hong Kong’s ten most wanted or that there is no word for diet in the Vietnamese language.

Through the years of traveling with my mother, we learned the world was to be enjoyed, not feared. Different is not a synonym for bad. The worst travel experiences become the best stories to tell. And travel will cure any ambivalence about the pleasures of your own home. But regardless of the length and enjoyment of our ventures, we need to return to our family and friends where a trip can be most enjoyed in the retelling. So, until the next column, remember “always pack your swim suit.”

Leave a Comment