Wednesday, September 12, 2012

THE VALLEY OF SILENCE


*Continuing our look at the Tiger Father & Family's holidays

If there’s one thing I love it’s a western movie. Of course you have to be careful saying that when you live in China. It could mean you prefer films like Die Hard XV and Alvin and the Chipmunks over Raise The Red Lantern and Kung Fu Kindergarten. I mean the horses and gunslingers type.

And if there are two things I love, then the second thing would be native American culture. Tribes like the Sioux, Cherokee and Apache sounded very evocative when I was a lad. I always wanted to make smoke signals and settle down with a good squaw. Sitting Bull and Geronimo were war time leaders just like Patton and Rommel, only they had better names.

These two love interests might seem incompatible, for in most westerns the “Injuns”, after giving a bit of lip early on, usually suffer the mother of all hidings. But they do come together nicely at Monument Valley, an important native American site where many a western was shot. I’m also fond of a good monument, and I like a valley as much as the next man. So during our recent holiday we went to this ancient, awesome, geological wonderland.

They put it in a really inconvenient place. Straddling the border of Utah and Arizona, Monument Valley isn’t on the way to anything. But it had long been on my list and we were all about roughing it. Plus our RV had air-con.

You can’t just go driving through the valley willy nilly. You have to go on a tour. Since the area is in the Navajo nation, our brochure said we could get a tour with a genuine native person. We paid for a private tour, partly to learn more, but mostly to avoid an 8.00am departure.

I was excited to meet our Navajo guide. Would he perform a dance? Inspire the kids with a folk tale? Would he crouch down, strain some sand through his fingers and describe his people’s connection to this mystical place? Would he be wearing something hand-woven, or at least a feather head-dress? And what would he be called? Rearing Horse? Courageous Cat? Eats With A Fist?

“Trevor this is Larry,” our intermediary said. Larry was a stocky man of about 50. He was wearing … well he was wearing Levis and a red button-up shirt. It had long sleeves, if that adds interest.

I wasn’t sure how to approach. Could we even communicate? Larry silently extended his hand. I met his gaze and extended mine. He grabbed it, squeezed it in a way I can only describe as painful, and jerked me closer to him. This was different to the handshakes of my people. Alas I hadn’t expected it and stumbled into him, which was awkward.

And then he spoke.

“Kah,” he said.

I’d thought “Hello” was “How”. Still, I wanted to try. It wouldn’t do to say anything white and stiff like “Yes, quite!” or that old chestnut “Good day to you!”

“Kah,” I replied.

He looked surprised. At my worldliness?

“Kah,” he said again.

“Kah,” I said. Now I really wasn’t sure where this was going. But then Larry raised his index finger and, I guess you could say solemnly, pointed at my top pocket. Poking out was a thick ticket which showed I had paid.

“Ooooooh - card,” I said, handing it over. Larry turned and walked away.

Here is famous director John Ford making a movie
with John Wayne in front of the valley's
triple-pronged outcrop which was of course
dubbed The Three Sisters (because geologists
 found the rock to be female).

And here's how the sisters looked to us, complete with
matching clouds. 

How Monument Valley is depicted in one
branch of popular culture.

And in another.

Our vehicle was a converted pick-up truck with seats in the back. Larry got into the cabin and off we went. Finally there they were - majestic pillars of stone, aka buttes, rising some 100 metres (300 feet) from the flat earth. I was keen to learn more. In the cabin, Larry picked up his microphone to speak.

“Supermarket,” he said.

Sure enough, we’d just driven past one of those.

“Airstrip”.

Those sights absorbed, we entered the national park. First there was a native dwelling, or hogan. Larry took us in. We milled about, making interested humming noises. I felt Larry was waiting for us to settle so he could begin his talk. I marshaled the kids to attention, whereupon Larry … just stood there. Turns out he wasn’t waiting for anything. So I thought I’d break the ice.

“Mud bri ..”

“No.”

“Not mud bricks?”

“No.”

“Right. No. Not mud bricks …”

I glanced at my wife Stef. I might need to engage a bit more.

“Well … what then?” I asked.

“Mud and grass.”

Oh. I’d missed the grass. But then there were wooden beams.

“What kind of wood?” I asked.

“Strong.”

“Oh stro …"

“And light. Strong and light.”

“Cedar?”

“No.”

“Pine?”

“No.”

I walked past Stef. “I think it’s a guessing game,” I whispered. Problem was I felt like I was in trouble with every incorrect answer.

Six-year-old Lani asked me about the door ‘hole’. I said she could ask Larry. She didn’t want to. I didn’t blame her. I asked if it was usually covered.

“Blanket,” Larry said.

Ah. Now we were getting somewhere.

“A blanket!” I said. “What kind of blanket?”

“Store bought.”

Riiiight …

At last our guide perked up. At last he had another syllable to add.

“Sometimes kangaroo skin,” he said. This didn’t really help.

“Why kangaroo skin?” Stef asked.

“It was imported. From Australia.”

I looked at Stef and exhaled. I’d once got blood from a stone without this much effort. Only this stone was costing us. Whereas in our exchange about the card it appeared Larry had a problem enunciating his words, it was now clear he just didn’t like using them at all. It’s a bit of a handicap if you’re a tour guide.

“So how many people live on the Navajo nation?” I poked again.

Larry stared at me. I thought he was going to punch me in the face, but he was just thinking.

“Many,” he answered, not very mysteriously.

How many?”

“Many many.”

Usually I want my tour guides to shut up after a while. This was becoming bizarre. I wondered if the Navajo were a notoriously taciturn people, like those verbal minimalists from the ancient Greek region of Laconia (whose capital was Sparta). Maybe we would learn more in the park’s Navajo museum.

Not really. A tiny part of one room gave hints as to how they once lived, using a couple of old robes and pottery. Almost two rooms were devoted to how Navajo radio operators had helped Allied forces in World War II, speaking messages in their native tongue that the Germans couldn’t understand.

It seemed perverse. You wouldn’t say the Navajo have done all that well out of European settlement. It was jarring to learn alcohol can not be sold on the entire Navajo nation, which is a bit smaller than South Korea. Plus, that WWII unit was ultimately treated shamefully by their white commanders. But this episode was presented as the high point in Navajo history. Perhaps they like their real culture so much they’re keeping it to themselves.

The kids in a hogan. Did I mention the Navajo people
are really really tiny?

No, this is the real hogan. The previous shot was of
their steam room out the back, used to treat illness.


This part is called John Ford's Point, because the director
liked shots from this angle. Fortunately this guy had
come by on his horse.

He let us sit on the horse and get our photo taken,
provided we first paid him $5.00. Coincidentally
a lot of other people took him up on his offer.

That's me. Did I mention the Navajo horse
was really really tiny?


We came to an awesome formation called Window Rock. I was hoping against hope our authentic Navajo guide might know some geological history.

“How long have these formations been here?” I asked.

“Since the dawn of time,” Larry said.

“How many years?”

“Four hundred and fifty.”

Wait. The dawn of time happened 450 years ago? Was it covered by the media?

“Sorry,” I pleaded, “who says time began 450 years ago?”

“Everyone.”

I for one had never said that. Finally Larry said it referred to when Navajo people arrived in the area. If you look at the internet, even this sounds like a guess.

There was one more thing to see – the Eye of the Sun. It’s a huge open cave with a hole in the roof through which to see the blue sky. As was his non-interventionist custom, Larry waited by the car while we walked in. There we saw another Navajo guide, sitting and talking to a white family.

“And then Lonely Cloud ran into the hills,” he said. “It was his time to become a man.”

Stef and I were stunned. Look at the tour these people were getting! They were getting a folk tale. We were chagrined enough, but then …

“Lonely Cloud took out his flute and played.” The guide took a recorder out of a hand woven bag. Phweet phweet phwee-eet.

Bloody hell.

Taciturn my foot. If our guide was Larry Laconic, these guys got Harry Haveachat. With music!

We returned to where Larry was not playing a flute. One last try.

“Hey Larry – what caused these rock formations?”

“Natural forces.”

He got back into the vehicle.

“So it wasn’t some bloke with a high pressure hose then?” I wanted to say.

I’d had about enough. And clearly, so had Larry – maybe a hundred tours ago.
Oh well. The scenery was spectacular. And there’s always the internet.

Monument Valley and the kids. Of course taking good
photos of rock buttes is easy. Kids, less so. Behind them
from left to right are the two "mittens" and the Merrick
Butte, which could have been named after Joseph
"The Elephant Man" Merrick for all we know.

Lani at Window Rock.

Did I mention it's really big?

The Eye of the Sun, with people
below. The whole valley was
carved by water in an ancient
sea, which left behind the
Colorado Plateau, aka
natural forces.

An ancient cave painting of some sort of antelope type thing.
Thankfully a picture paints a thousand words, taking
our haul for the day to roughly 1,020.



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