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Name: Dominic Allen
Photos: Dom's photo libraries
We met in Saigon on a busy street that stank of fish guts. The man grabbed my elbow as I was walking, switching my attention from a pack of listless cyclo drivers towards a silk scarf looking uncomfortable in his rough hands. A young Viet boy looked on anxiously. The man said he wanted to know if I thought it was pretty, that he couldn’t trust the Vietnamese and needed a like-minded opinion. Horns and more stink and bands of shadows. I told him yes, but I didn’t mean it - there were too many colors, too much detail. The scarf’s pattern reminded me of a thousand Vitruvian scrolls gone mad, busting out of their rows and spewing all over eachother. It was his wirey beard that seized me. Long and white, it peaked out across his chest like a snowy mountain. It was taut as steel wool and defied the wind when it blew. Fat hung over his shorts, sweat beads stuck like slugs on his red forehead. He was badly skinburned and I was imagining piss staining fresh snow when the man explained,
"Kid, I'm Alaskan, never mind America in my voice. I’m gonna buy this scarf. I don't know if I like it but shit it’s cheap.”
“You buy, very good, very good, you buy, you buy,” said the little salesman like a cocky.
“Yeah I buy. I know, I buy,” mocked the Alaskan, looking at me with raised eyebrows as if I knew what he was thinking.
I found him a little repulsive but he was the first person who had spoken to me and not tried to sell me something since I had arrived. That was only four hours earlier. When the plane landed from Bangkok I saw a long row of bombers parked in the airport. Skeletons. I was hawked at the airport and pleasantly surprised when the guy who nabbed me introduced me to his grandfather who drove me into the city in a 40’s vintage vehicle with leather seats my skin stuck to. His car divided streams of Vietnamese racing everywhere on bikes as if it were a boat slicing water. I asked him to drop me at a round-about in the centre of the city.
“You may as well buy it.” I said to the man, itching under my backpack. Heavy as Cromwell’s soul.
“Yeah, fuck it! DONG!” He handed over the cash and went on “Man I've got this room, air conditioning, three beds, this lady cleans up my crap - fifteen lousy dollars." He was excitedly gesticulating. The little Viet moved on and approached a couple of girls in tie-pants. I don’t remember the name of the street, but it was busy and action was all.
"Oh, and you know that these pricks they want you to pay in American dollars. Can you believe that? Yeah, dont forget it, it’s the green that changes hands here man." He was speaking boisterously and I was becoming agitated and would have left him but wanted to say:
"Yeah, but I don’t think they have a choice really. I mean what can they do? I read that the Dong here is really unstable, but I’m going to use it. I think it’s a shame. Anyway, is that scarf for you?"
"Me? You jokin? Nah. I've gotta send it today for my girls birthday. Yeah, she's 13 - she's a teen now. Why you walking with your bag. Outta town?"
I was explaining that , no, I had just arrived when a tiny girl selling toy caterpillars made from papier mache tugged on my leg. Her eyes were glazed. She looked buggered. One dollar, she said. The Alaskan laughed, told her she had to be joking. They were terrific little inventions, really. Somebody had obviously found a load of used paper and cardboard (the ones i brought had maths scribbled all over them) cut it up, folded it, got some string and stuck it all together. You could pull a little cord from the thing’s head that wound a small plaster wheel and set the caterpillar crawling.
"What the hell are you going to do with those?"asked the Alaskan, ridiculing me.
"I think they're nice. Better than anything you’ll get in Toys R Us. You should send one to your daughter. Anyway, like you said, they need all the money they can get. I don't need it."
The Alaskan smiled delightly and said, “Well fuck me saint...what is your name”
“Alexander. But I don’t know if there is a Saint Alexander,” I said, amused that this man could be so rude and agressive, and yet some how so pleasant. It was the beard. It reminded me of Australian bushrangers. National identities may be invented fantasies but they work, they endear.
“Cool, Alex, you dont mind if I call you Alex, do you?” And then he said his name and went on “There's this Spanish hippy and me having a beer round there in that lane.” The Alaskan pointed at a crack between two buildings. "Well, not now, I mean obviously we’re here, but I'm meeting her now, if you know what I mean, met her before actually. Strange girl, man I'm tellin you. Come.”
The Alaskan, me and the Spaniard drank 333 in a place where you sit in small plastic seats and everybody faces the street. The beer came in glasses with big chunks of ice. A lot of people went by. Two mangy dogs hung arround sniffing eachother’s arses in the gutter. We talked about our experiences so far in Asia and what we thought of Saigon. The Spanish girl had bags under her eyes and looked as if she had been travelling for years. Her tongue was purple and her English incomprehensible. She had dredlocks and a steel cone pierced her bottom lip. She spat in the ashtray all the time. When I told them I had been to Cambodia the Alaskan asked me if I went to any of mad man Pol Pot's torture hospitals. I told them that I didn’t want to because I’d heard about crazy Israelis lining up to test guns in firing ranges. I told them I didn’t want to watch cows being mangled by bullets. The Spanish girl said, “Yes, it is fucking disgusting.” The Alaskan whistled and raised his eyebrows at me as if I knew what he was thinking again.
I told them about a girl I had met in Phnom Penh who said she had spent the last week with a nun in the mountains retrieving skeletons from a cave and burying them. The cave had been one of Pol Pot's mass grave sites and the nun went up there to free souls from purgatory, that odd void between heaven and earth. After a few days together the girl and the nun could understand each others words despite speaking different languages. The Spanish girl grunted when I told the story.
Later we shared a meal in a French restaurant with peeling walls that mainly served Italian cuisine. I would have liked to try some more local food on my first night, but the others said they were sick of coriander. Fans chopped overhead and the waiters were very pleasant, bowing and smiling after taking orders. When the meals came the Spaniard, who hadn't asked for any food, picked up a bowl of parmesan from the table and began fingering cheese into her mouth. She had dirt under her nails and a few bits got stuck to her face. The polite staff were shocked and stayed away. When she ate it all she put the bowl back down and drew a tobacco pouch from her pocket. I asked her then if she would like to try my food.
"No. Not hungry." She said, chewing her thumb nail.
"Listen, guys. I got this bottle of Baileys in the fridge back in the hotel. You can't hear all this shit." Said the Alaskan, after dinner was paid for.
"What shit. What are you talking about shit? What shit?" The Spaniard said, annoyed.
Nobody answered her but I imagined the bulky man was talking about the motor bike engines and Vietnamese chatter, the bells you could hear but not see. I was drunk by now and very happy in the new city. It was warm as we walked my bag didn’t seem so heavy. A scooter with three dead pigs on board zipped by.
We three strangers agreed to share the Alaskan's room. The hotel, Kim Violet, was six metres wide and barged up into the Vietnamese sky. It was the only hotel in a shabby residential area of Saigons old quarter. A bold concrete fissure poking up from the traditional single-storeyed structures which brushed up against it. Each floor abided by the same plan. Like a Victorian Terrace house in Carlton, a long hallway spined the building's length on one side, with rooms opening off it. Like the reception the rooms were tiled milky white. To break the sanitary whiteness, the owners dressed the beds in rose red thick satin sheets that spew in wild frills at the bed edges. They’ll collapse like cabbage when i kick them off, I thought. I stuck my head out the window and from five floors up I could still hear the communist radio pissing out from speakers proped up on poles on the street. Down the steep wall was a mess of corrugated roof-tops, each its own shade, depending on the infusion of rust. They coalesced into a marvellous patchwork that appeared more a product of modern art more than the pattern of simple living.
The Alaskan talked a little bit about his home while he rolled a joint. He said he knew some people living on a circle of soil in the ocean up there. "They still eat seals and shit." The air conditioned room was ridiculously chilled. Our joint crackled like kindling. The Alaskan man went crazy then and his face reddened and he started spitting, talking about the conquests of Ghengis Kahn. “That guy, well him, Kubla and the guys with ‘em, man they were crazy. I mean forget Alexander, not you, ha nah not you, your tiny. Nah, the Great, Alexander the Great, he was nothin’ on Ghengis. These guys on thier horses with their shit, throbbing along with their horses, mud, ching ching metal, I mean shit it’s rainin and fuuuw off with your head man, blood spurting. Fuck me! All over asia.”
The spanish girl laughed uncontrabally.
“What, what are you lauging at?” He was unnerved and obviously laughing because he thought he should.
“I don’t know,” I said “but when was all this...”
“No wait. Whats so fuckin’ funny? Damnit whats she laughing at man?”
I shrugged my shoulders and kicked my sandals off, surprised that my feet met winter on the ground. “Fuck this floor is cold. You should turn the air conditioning down.” I don’t think they heard me say that because she was still laughing and he was transfixed on her, repeatedly asking her what, what, what.
She finally replied “Well it is only that you talk funny with your hands moving and your face coloring so bright red. I dont know its funny OK.”
“You think I talk funny? Whats funny. Gheghis Kahn weren’t funny. You think war is funny. Is this some kind of hippy crap?”
And then beginning with “communism is funny” he lost it.
"You know what they told us at home? I mean we were a bunch of kids and they told us we were fucking heroes you know? Oh you guys need to go over and stop those dominoes falling. Go get the yella. Go on then. You don't go and we'll have em here. They were sain they’d be here rapin' and killin', sharing all there commie bullshit right here at home. In the fuckin snow! Can you imagine these fuckers in the snow? They wear no shoes and they're gonna come rape us in the snow? Bullshit. Can you imagine? I was seventeen, dropped out of college, smokin weed. I was bored - I'm tellin you didn't know shit. And of course I believed it all. McNamara and his shit. When we got here, yeah, we knew it. We saw the shit like you can't believe man. But, fuck it. Did we get down We smoked. All fuckin day we smoked. And we, you know, we did what we did. What they told us to do I guess." The Alaskan had then held up the dying joint and fixed his narrowed eyes on it. "Thirty years to the month. That's why I'm here. Had to come back see if it's as fucked as it is up here, you know." He rapped his head with a clenched fist.
The Spanish girl raised her eyebrows and spat in the ash tray, muttering to herself. I asked him then if he had cycled to the War Crimes Museum and seen the babies in jars. Those sample mutants of agent orange with two heads or no legs. He screamed that he didn't need to go there. That he'd killed three girls in a green field once.
I was sweaty as I tried to sleep. The fan on the wall whined and hiccupped like a sick child and in the next room the old man, who'd once had Vietnamese blood on his beard, fucked the Spanish girl.