Saturday, November 10, 2007

Midnight Tug-of-War

Evening has settled over the town – coming faster now that winter is creeping over the edges of the calendar pages. Noise from the local restaurant drifts up through windows, but mercifully the saws and hammering from the construction site next door have ceased. My curtains are drawn and windows closed against the evening chill. I’m fresh from a hot shower and ready to snuggle under the covers with a book for my first early evening in weeks.

BOOM. Boom-boom-boom-BOOM.

I’m still not used to the noises that my new house makes and amplifies through the hollow backbone spiral stairwell. I wonder if somebody is downstairs pounding on my door. I’m wearing only a tank top and pajama pants, so I slip cautiously out through the French doors to my bedroom balcony to peer into the shadows below. There are a few people running in the street, but I don’t see anybody at my door.

BOOM. Boom-boom-boooom-boom-BOOM. BOOM-BOOM.

In the pool of light from the streetlight I see the disturber-of-the-peace. A woman is beating on a large drum, raising the cry of war. There are three or four adults milling authoritatively about and several children excitedly run over hoping for a turn with the drum mallet. A few insubstantial noises come from the drum as the children whack away. There’s no panic and no sense of urgency – just the persistent and insistent droned beats changing slightly in tone and tempo as different adults demonstrate their messaging skills:



BOOOM-BOOOM-BOOM-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-ba-ba-boom. BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.

Obviously there is a message in all this banging, but people seem only mildly interested at first. Gradually more and more people wander down the street, bundled in winter coats and hats. Children race excitedly up and down through the puddles of hazy light from street lamps and doorways, thrilled to be sanctioned to be out past bedtime in a neighborhood made new by shadows and darkness. Several motorbikes get caught in the throngs roaming distractedly about. I stay hidden in the shadows of my balcony, hoping that whatever it is that is going on, they forget about the new foreigner.

BOOM. Boom-boom-boom-BOOM.

The banging continues, more frequent now as those milling don’t want to be kept waiting forever. Then suddenly a rope appears in the middle of the street and three parallel chalk lines are drawn about six feet apart. And I, with my bird’s-eye view of the proceedings, suddenly understand: this is rehearsal time.

Things happen a bit more quickly now. I slink even deeper into the shadows, hoping even more that my presence is forgotten. I have been assigned to the tug-of-war team for the Sunday neighbourhood party – a competition to be held against another city street, also apparently having a block party. I never imagined that a friendly tug-of-war competition would involve rehearsals, strategizing and practice. But here I am, shivering in the shadows, watching as the women and the men take their respective sides and places and prepare to rehearse pulling on a rope.

The banging on the drum has finally ceased, and all the attention is on the man holding the rag tied to the center of the rope. Ten people alternate sides down the rope on either end of the street, some giving anxious little tugs as they wait for the man in the middle to drop the rope. Women line up beneath my balcony; men have the rope in the shadows beyond the streetlight.

The rope is dropped and the referee leaps backwards as the rope is snatched taunt. This first battle lasts only seconds as the women quickly yank the men off balance and snatch the ribbon over their line – along with a couple of the men standing closest to the middle. Laughter and shrieks of victory cut through the darkness louder than even the beat of the drum. The men slink back into the darkness, not exactly into a strategic huddle, but to pass looks of quiet determination among them. The line-up takes longer this time as apparently more strategy is applied. Placements are considered, spacing carefully controlled. Finally they are ready to begin again.

The rope is dropped a second time and the referee jumps clear. The battle lasts longer now; while the women have sheer strength and endurance on their side, the men have their pride to defend. Balance is hard fought and won and suddenly the women are pulled across the line onto the men’s half.

The exchanges continue, with women and men alternating victories. Then suddenly everything stops when the referee grabs a sheet of paper and disappears into the house. I recheck my shadowy hiding place to make sure that it’s not me they’ve missed. Watching from above is one thing, being pulled down in my pyjamas to practice yanking a rope in the middle of a night is quite another.

Suddenly, to everybody’s amusement, a foreign couple wander through the mess. At first they appear slightly taken aback at the crowds standing about on a particular neighborhood street after dark, and then bemused by the sight of a rope lying on the ground. Nobody is making desperate moves in any particular direction, so I assume the foreigners don’t believe it to be a lynching. Soon the foreigners, tourists obviously, are noticed by a few in the crowd. A flurry of hand gestures and some monosyllables are exchanged, and as a few children rush through the crowd and attempt their own mini-tug of war with a rope twice as heavy as they are, the tourists figure out what’s going on. Why there is a neighborhood tug-of-war competition in the middle of the night is certainly still a mystery them.

Inspired by an audience and the return of the man with a sheet of paper, people leap back into action to demonstrate their tugging prowess. After some disorganized stretching and warming-up, three more battles take place in quick succession, again alternating victories between men and women. As the tourists watch, I am even more relieved that I am only observing from on high. It is better than trying to explain that, no, they aren’t just having a random game in the middle of the night, which would seem odd enough, but they are actually practicing for an upcoming competition this weekend. And they have been practicing every night this week. This is serious business.

Finally, the tourists tire of the strange occupation of the Vietnamese locals, and I begin to shiver in the evening chill. My hair is almost dry now, and my shoulders are still bare. I give one last glance to the jacketed and scarfed and now sweating population below, and retire to my warm bed and book. My participation in rope-pulling events will simply have to come the day-of…although I’m already considering just which shoes will provide the best grip and whether wearing gloves is allowed...

_____________________________________________________________________ Sunday Tug-of-war update: yesterday afternoon we had the competition - after 3 hours of communist party leaders giving speeches and patriotic song and dance (some of it absolutely awful, some of it impressively good). That was a learning experience in and of itself.

Then came the tug of war - and our team took it seriously. Matching team jerseys, red headbands, the whole bit. They even made me go change shoes (I was going to anyway, I just was unsure of the order of events). There were 6 competing teams in all, 3 men and 3 women's teams. We were the last women's team to compete, and we literally walked away with the prize. Hardly had to pull at all - completely walloped the other women's teams. Guess it pays to train against the men in your neighborhood.

I think the top men's team was the one from our neighborhood (all wearing matching red jerseys, and the women from our team went nuts yelling for them).

I had been hoping for a pull-off between the best men's and women's teams, but the whole thing deteriorated pretty quickly, and ended with us all tromping off to eat rice. Well, it was fun anyway - still think practicing every night was overkill though.

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