Monday, August 26, 2013

The Vessel: Reflections on my World Adventure

Interactive Map of my 2012-2013 World Canoe Building Adventure

Am I really home? After a year of traveling the world, living amidst indigenous communities, upon their waterways, building their canoes, I find myself asking, is my adventure really over?

The canoe is a vessel. Around planet Earth's diverse environments, traditional canoes literally carry the life of people whom depend on them. Yet these vessels carry much more than goods and bodies, they carry a way of life, a world view born of a particular ecosystem. In this way, the canoes of traditional cultures are storytellers, vessels carrying important lessons, insights, inspirations, ideas, and meanings across time.

The idea of listening to these storytellers, through the wood's grain or the bundling of reeds, was the wind which thrust strongly at my back as I made my first few steps this year.  As I look back on notes, photographs, memories, and friends, as I hope you will on this site, the synchronicity of my journey illuminates. There's so much more in my heart to unravel, so much more to these stories I don't yet understand. What epitomic words can I say to you, you who have taught, followed, connected and supported me?

I will say thank you, but I will also say find your passion, that which you love and are inspired by in all honesty, and purse it, in which ever way works. Your passion is sacred. It is sacrelidge to ignore or fear it. Thank you to all of my teachers this year for showing me this. Thank you to this world these gifts and for you.

Am I really home? Is this adventure really over? Maybe I never left home. Maybe the chance to follow my passion was finally coming home, an initiation into understand what home means. Now, I see that adventure is an approach to life, a certain story that commands the way it is lived. Adventure is not other countries, the exotic, or anything contextual. It is the excitement, the interest. Our passion is simply what carries them. Here's to an adventure, a homecoming. To the vessel.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Ainu Canoe

Distinct carved designs of an Ainu river canoe

I found home away from home. On the far northern island of Japan, Hokkaido, I went to visit friends I had made in New Zealand, the Sekine and Kaizawa families, who are descendants of the Ainu people, the first nation of Japan. The Ainu are diverse artisans, carvers, weavers, and craftsmen, keeping alive thousands of year old traditions marking their relationship with nature and each other. 

Master carver Shigehiro Takano

Maki and Kennji, my host parents, introduced me with great kindness to the language, arts, and way of being of the Ainu people, including mind blowing food. Maki is a renowned artists, particularly carver, who taught me basic patterns. Her daughter Maia, my host sister, is also quite skilled in these arts as well as a storyteller. Kennji, my host dad, works in the timber industry and showed me his knowledge of the forests and creeks on an Ainu language outing with local school children. It was a complete immersion and I felt as if I was home already, no matter which side of the Pacific I was on. 

Carving traditional patterns

The Ainu have various styles of canoes, having traditional lands upon oceans and river. I was in the village of Nibutani, on the Saru River, where dugout canoes, often with intricate carvings were used. These dugout canoes face the same method of carving as on many other world traditions, using axes and fire, though chainsaws are new members of the tool kit. 

The ocean going canoe, just one built in recent times,  is a sewn, single hull, plank canoe using intricate lashing systems and tree nails. 

Digging out the canoe, Ainu Culture Museum

An important artistic tradition in the Ainu world is the sacred offering of Inau. Inau are river trees, often willow, that are carved to make spiraling shavings, which bundle together to for intensely beautiful patterns that seem to come to life in the craftsman's hands. Some such Inau are placed on the front of traditional canoes as offering to gods which may help its voyage. 

Inau for a canoe

The Ainu Museum of Nibutani houses many canoes as well as treasures of the past and present. The museum does not act as a grave for lost arts but rather a sacred place of protection of knowledge and arts so that living Ainu people and others may enjoy and learn from them. This museum is right along the Saru River within the Ainu community of Nibutani.

Learning to carve Inau with Kaizawa Momoru

Ainu culture lives. Its resilience is astounding, as are the more than giving, more than kind, people whom have welcomes me into their homes, shared their food, taken me hunting and fishing, and made me feel like family. A story telling culture, I had the opportunity to read, listen and learn such stories. In a meeting house created at the museum, I listened to two elders share traditional stories while eating fresh deer meet caught by papa (on the right) with whom I had went hunting that morning. 

Community elders storytelling

My quick assimilation into family has much to do with the incredibly wonderful Grandmother Kaizawa Yukiko, mother of many of the artists with whom I have been learning, including my host mother Maki. Yukikosan gave me amazing Ainu meals of lilly dumplings and fresh deer meat while showing me the deeply important bark textiles she weaves into traditional clothing. I am humbled to have been in her presence.

Kaizawa Yukiko, master weaver of the bark textile

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Moments in HaLong Bay

Sunset from Cat Ba Town

An overland journey from Laos brought me to the incredibly maze like city of Hanoi, Vietnam. From there I went for some kayaking and exploring in the massive limestone wonderland of Ha Long Bay on the Northern Vietnamese coast. In Ha Long, a different typo of bamboo boat exists. They are large oval baskets rowed with two oars used throughout floating island fish farms in lost sea shore canyons of green covered cliffs. 

Floating Islands of Lan Ha Bay

It was a relaxing week, as I make my journey homeward after a year of true, wild, adventure. I took a boat to the island of Cat Ba, the largest in Ha Long bay, the majority of which is national park and rugged vegetation midst impossibly steep cliffs. 

Bamboo boats tied together for living

It feels as if almost every nook and cranny of this place, covered in steep dark cliffs hiding from the VIetnamese sun is a mystical place waiting to be explored. With a kayak or the calm sway of the bamboo boats its east to find yourself moving through arch gateway cliffs of clear and untouched water or in secret bays, any of the million.

Resting bamboo bats, Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

From Cat Ba, I explored Lan Ha Bay, where villagers live on floating islands made mainly of plastic containers. There they farm fish that they catch in the bamboo boats. Other than experiencing a few moments on the bay, it was a relaxing, unbusy, last week in Southeast Asia. 

Lake of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam

My final week on the Watson journey, will be spent with the Ainu, the indigenous of Japan, in the northern island of Hokkaido. I am going there to visit friends Kennji, Maki, and their daughter Maya Sekine. I met them in Waitangi and they told me of their canoes, traditional carvings, weavings, and other beautiful traditions. This will be a meaningful place to end such a journey, and begin new ones.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Epiphanies on a Ferryboat

Canoeman weaving his net at the start of temple stairs
A Laotian canoe man fixes his nets at the bottom of an infinite stairway up a mountain to a temple over looking the Luang Prabang valley. He sits calmly in the lotus position and doesn't look up from his work. 'Good view' he says. Pilgrims may climb atop peaks looking for enlightenment, but my sage sits calm at the bottom, by the riverbank, living in the surface of things. 

The golden lace like paint of the Mekong racing canoes, ready for their September celebrations, is a beautiful sight within each temple (Wat) I visit. But my last week in Laos, fighting through dengue, was spent learning to make, in part, and paddle the fisherman's three plank canoe at is the style of this region.

Wat racing canoe
I've been back and forth on the Luang Prabang ferry,moving slowly over the muddying Mekong waters. The ferry takes me to a village across the river where I've been working with  few villagers building their fishing canoe for the rainy season. 

Though I missed much of the build because of the dengue, I was able to help hammer on the two keel like wooden pieces which connect the two side planks to the bottom. The planks are joined flush and fastened only with nails and these keel like pieces. The inner frame including seats, partial ribs for  extension pieces, and two or three hull ribs for structure. 

Hammering a canoe
Few people in the region specialize in canoe building, rather a family builds its own canoe, paints it the color they choose. The vessels vary based on the skills of the family craftsman. with a stick or a small piece of bamboo, chunky gasoline tar is spread throughout all the cracks. In a light rain I worked with this family to spread the tar and seal their new canoe.

Putting on the joining pieces

Small bees seemed to love this tar and would swarm in places on it, bothering us not. It also seemed as if they were eager to help build the canoe and push tar deep into the cracks, sealing it for good. 

Tar sealing

A few of the canoe men shows me their paddling techniques, adjusting between bow and stern, rotating which is which while following calm sections of the fast flowing rainy season water. It's always inspiring to see the quick balance of someone whose has grown up paddling on rivers. The canoe men use the current to drift and cross the river while moving along its length.

Paddling on the Khan River where it meets the Mekong

The final time I took the ferry across the Mekong, a truck filled with more than its weight of bamboo scrapped along, rocking the boat as we laugh. The ferry men wore cowboy hats, smoked cigarettes and laughed softly. Just another day of Mekong life.

Ferry boat in Laung Prabang, Laos

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sacred Mekong

A canoe on the Khan River
To Indochina, the Mekong River, which flows from Tibet to the South China Sea over nearly 4,350 km, is the veins and heart which pump blood and life to the regions ecosystems and economies. I spent the last ten days in one place along this vast waterway, nearly in the center, Laos' spiritual capital Luang Prabang. Ive got quite a few stories to tell of Dengue Fever, teaching and learning with wonderful Buddhist monk friends, and plenty of excursions around this wonderful jungle hill area dotted with temples.

Luang Prabang, Laos
Being a river person myself, the Mekong, was like a magnet for my soul because of the ancient history of religion and cultural practices around the river. In caves along the river, some tourist laden, some not, sacred waters are paid homage to and offerings have been made to nature since before modern religions, even one as old as Theravada Buddhism. 

Celebrating a new monk, washing the head monk with sacred water (background)

The 35+ temples of Luang Prabang each have intricate carved Naga, or serpent beings said to inhabit the Mekong. These Naga can be seen protecting the front of temples, the roofs, the candle holders, and in paintings within the temple. During last week, my friend Seng became a monk after five years as a novice. During this time, everyone poured water down a silver Naga (seen above) which went out the mouth into a small enclosure where the head monk was being washed by this sacred water. 

Alms giving and canoe racing
These temples also house racing canoes (Ill unfortunately miss the race in September this year, based on the moon cycles) for their local community which are similar in style to the three planked Mekong canoes, except 15 to 20 meters long, made as dugout canoes to hold dozens of paddlers. More to come on the design of these canoes. The monks bless these canoes, giving good luck to their communities which race them on the Khan River, a tributary to the Mekong.
Wat Mai"s racing canoe, my friend Monk Seng next to it.

Yet my meditations didn't keep me from my passion of making things. I explored the Khan River by bike, looking in each community for those who were building three plank canoes. A plank, with upturned bow and stern either with steaming, force, or by adding small plank, is then given two size planks with simple nails every half foot or so. I spent sometime with one man who was patching an old canoe using a gasoline based pitch.

Patching an old canoe with globs of gasoline tar
Recently cooked, the chunky pitch took but a few hours for it to dry. A decades old canoe could be given much more life by the simple chipping of mud, rot, and resealing. The canoe I spent sometime working on had many layers of patches, making a single meter like a rainbow. Metal, different woods, plastics, rubbers, all keeping a single family's fishing vessel in good order.

One square meter of a mekong canoe

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Weaving Vietnam's Bamboo Boat Tradition

Making the connection piece for gunnels at both bow and stern
Bamboo (Bambuseae) in all its variations is among the fast growing living things in the world, reaching up to two feet in 24 hours. It is strong, light, versatile, beautiful, and it floats. It would be hard to choose another material to better serve as the symbol of Asian ingenuity.

Traveling between Hoi An and Hue on the central Vietnamese coast, it was inspiring how many styles of the bamboo boat could be found, simply based on use, needs, resources and a bit of creativity. Some bamboo boats are woven into large 10 meter long vessels with a canoe form, some are the coracle shapes, large and small. Near Hue at Thuan An beach, at the mouth of the Perfume River, I spent time learning the small woven canoe, five meters at most, using almost only bamboo.

Splitting bamboo for gunnels

Other than a woven bamboo mat for shaping, which varies in styles and weaving patterns based on the intended design, only a few pieces are needed to make the bamboo canoe of Hue. I worked with a builder who showed me to split long pieces of giant bamboo for the gunnels, both inner and out. These circular gunnels will eventually meet at the top and with a rope along the entire length, they will wrap and pinch the bamboo mat between them.

A t-shaped ( as shown in the first picture) stern and bow piece is made to hold the gunnel pieces together at the end. Bamboo thwarts or another strong wood will keep the form in place. Its likely that a builder, with but a single small grove of bamboo, could make plenty of these ingenious vessels.

Weaving a new hull

The mat is woven using thin splits of bamboo. I saw various patterns being woven along the coast. Groups of three and four were the most common, moving diagonally. A wooden mallet is needed to pound the strips into place.
Pounding the strips in place
In each of the workshops I visited, a few rolls await to be shaped. Within a day, weavers can make a fine hull mat.If you are further interested in this part of the design process and regional variations, I highly recommend my helpful friend Ken Preston's blog He has been traveling Indio-China for quite sometime, documenting these wonderful traditions with an admirable passion and determination.

Ready to be shaped
Shaping the hull can be done in different ways. Some regions use a hole dug into the ground. In Hue and Hoi An, bamboo stakes are placed outlining the intended design at the gunnels, much like that of the North American birch bark traditions, and with a little muscle, the bamboo can be worked into memory of its intended shape.

Adding the gunnels varies for each boat. Canoes do not have support ribs, the mat maintaining its natural shape, while the circular boats often have bent ribs overlapping to maintain strength.  Using plastics, nylon cord, and various other modern materials various on each person's craft. It is very much about whatever works.

Depending on size, the bamboo boat may be paddled with a single blade, a double kayak style blade, a small outboard motor, oars, or even the incredibly cool hand paddles.The are used for all types of fishing and transport activities along the coast and in the Perfume River Delta it feels as if they are the most common and important craft of all. They are the workhorses for this intricate water community.

Bamboo canoe at Thuan An Beach, near Hue
I am sad to leave the Vietnamese coast, but equally excited to spend time at my next location, the sacred Mekong River in the holy city of Luang Prabang. I will return to the Vietnamese Coast before I leave Southeast Asia. I have the same emotion as in every time on my journey its time to move on. Wishing that I had more time, Its that feeling to simultaneously be grateful for the experience you've had, but humbled by how much you have yet to learn.

Paddling at sundown

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Life in a Bamboo Basket: The Vietnamese Thung Chai

Mr. Hung and his Thung Chai
I woke up this morning at 3a.m. I put on my shoes, grabed my camera and ran to the beach by moonlight. I knew I was already late. On the water I could see the dark circles moving from the beach. "Mr. Hung!" I yelled. One turned around just in time to let me slosh into the sea and flop over its rocking edge. This was Mr. Hung and his Thung Chai, a woven bamboo basket boat, ready to start another day fishing under the stars on the Vietnam coast.

Careful hands weave a good net
My first days in Vietnam were learning from Hung just outside Hoi An. We would fish, repair and maintain his boat, and repair the kilometer long net that he drifts into his homewaters every early morning, pulling the fish in as the sun rises. The woven bamboo vessel, found throughout Vietnam in different shapes and sizes (more posts to come), is made from centermeter or so wide strips with a bamboo circular gunnel. It is coated for waterproofing in a variety of materials. Hung showed me how he applies a coconut based oil-tar. Sometimes cow dung is used while today fibreglass is becoming popular. Whatever works is the way.

Sunrise fishing. Cham Islands in the background
Paddling the Thung Chai is much like sculling an Inuit kayak. The long thin blade (also much like that of Greenland) is moved side to side patiently in the water on the side of the boat in which you are trying to go. My first attempts simply moved us in circles. Then I watched as Hung moved it, as if dancing, flipping the paddle side to side in an arch, bringing the paddle facing edge forward after each movement, all while balancing standing in the waves. The balance of strength in the strokes turns the vessel.

A basket full of one's needs
A small group of men go out fishing, each with their own vessel. I can't see their faces until the sun is up, but I already know them through their voices, passing the time with soft conversation and a bit of serene singing. It is a community of fisherman, each helping the others with their boats, observing the others catch, making the time pass easier for all. I don't speak Vietnamese, nor they English, but over time, Hung and I figure out a few things about each other and enjoy the moment. We pull fish from the net. one by one. Thats communication enough.

Lifting to shore
With the occasional swim, afternoons means repairing nets and relaxing from the sun. Hung and I sit under a tarp in his beached Thung Chai as he shows me with patience how to repair holes made by fish or the ocean bottom. We have everything we need here. Shelter, water, a bit of food, something to do. The hours pass. Now and then a motor boat rides by. Hung shakes his head in disapproval. "Hung thung chai, no motor!" he makes the movement of paddling with a big smile on his face. Thats enough for him.

Friends after a day fishing