Archive for the ‘nonsense and rantings’ Category

Searching for Context… through facial hair…

A ubiquity throughout most of India, The Mustache is a point of pride for many. While taking a lot of these pictures, I’d ask the gentlemen specifically if I could have a picture of their mustache, and the answer was always the same:  “Of course! Give me a moment…” at which point the man would give a little spit-and-twist, or maybe just a quick pat-down to make sure no stray whiskers would sully his photograph. I myself resolved to grow one, and stopped shaving my upper lip even before leaving Sri Lanka.  In Kolkata, a month or so later, after giving me a shave, a barber asked if I would like it dyed. I took this as a sign.  I chopped the silly thing off in Sikkim, where mustaches are apparently out of style anyway…

 

Pondi

Pondicherry — brothers in arms. we drank brandy & waters with these guys in a park. it was a Sunday. good times.

Pondy

Pondicherry — seriously. don’t touch the SL.

Pondy

if there is any justice in the world, this man is paid extra for maintaining such an authoritarian upper lip

Hampi

Hampi — a marvelous couple

Vizak, I think...

Somewhere in Orissa — This guy was part of a three-man-band who played from the back of a very well-decorated pick-up truck. it was crowded.

the other half of the truck. happy fellows…

on a random train ride into West Bengal…

Varanasi– this fellow made very good beetroot cutlets. yum.

also in Varanasi, about 20m from the burning ghats. these guys were on vacation… at the burning ghats. go figure.

Agra — these guys have the esteemed post of guarding the impossibly polluted River Yamuna, which borders the Taj Mahal. this might explain why the fellow on the right is aiming his rifle at his own torso…

Haridwar — off the ghats of the Ganga, for thirty rupees, one of these mustachioed barbers will shave your head, showing your devotion

Haridwar — on the ghats, just before the sunset Puja. I liked this guy. his son was also very happy to chat with me about fire and bindis and Vishnu and all types of other Hindu stuff

Rishikesh — not technically a mustache but he gets an Honorable Mention anyway for being so awesome

Neil Island — this man makes an excellent biryani. this picture was taken about four days before Adam Yauch passed away

Delhi — where most street vendors are better dressed and styled than your average US senator. this man is making chole bhature. it was very good.

Delhi — another fine street vendor, near the Gateway to India

Darjeeling — a diminutive hotelier and yours truly. immediately before this photo was taken, I made the guy a huge whiskey & soda, of “sipping strength”, and he just straight chugged the whole thing… which is almost as common a sight as a mustache here

High Scores — The Best of the Best

Radnahagar, Havelock Island — Friendliest ‘Stache Award… this guy was AWESOME. he was the only nice fellow working at this guesthouse (if you can even call it that – my hut is in the background ), and we’d sit around and drink rum and shoot at cans balanced on fenceposts. he never wore a shirt was eternally smiling.

don’t even act like you wouldn’t buy cookies from this man

Kolkata — this guy wins my Well Polished Dali Award.  he ran one of the rat-infested hotels that line Sudder Street, but he himself was immaculate

Varanasi —  Best Mustache to Personality Award. a fine example of mustache wizardry. this man was quite possibly insane, or maybe just had one too many bhang lassis…

Delhi — this man comes in first – barely – for Best Raj. he was the doorman at a Chinese-owned pub in Defense Colony, a rich neighborhood in South Delhi filled with expats and ambassadors and other upper-class Indians

side shot. he was proud, really proud… and that’s why he’s such a winner

Port Blair, South Andaman — Best Raj, Second Place. it was early and I had just spent 18 hours on planes and buses and I literally ran after this man on his bicycle to ask for a picture

Delhi — Best Henna. This man sells chai on a patch of sidewalk just south of New Delhi Railway Station. he was stern and bent and moody, but his answer to “may I please take a picture of your mustache?” was the same as everyone else’s:  “yes, of course.”

Beach Five, Havelock Island — Best Facial Hair to Ear Hair Ratio Award. he was also a real sweetheart; he’d let us borrow his bong all the time, provided we brought it back clean and full. I learned his name no less than six different times and still can’t remember it

Elephant Beach, Havelock — Honorable Mention, “Toronto to Tel Aviv” ‘Stache Award. Daniel is one of the coolest sumbitches I ever met. we went spearfishing together that day. as you can see, he’s pretty damn good at that. the Trevally he’s holding was about seven kilos, and the groupers and mackerel hanging from it’s snout were quite tasty as well.

So there you have it… a good use of bandwidth, no?

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another long hiatus

I left Japan exactly seven days before the earthquake back in March. This was not my first close call… I was in Kunming two years ago at the exact time the Yushu earthquake hit. That killed about 2,700 people and left the province in shambles. In Japan, it was much, much worse: a six-minute magnitude 9.0 quake followed by a 133 foot high tsunami that can reach 6 miles inland is a seriously deadly event, and the results were tragic, nearly 16,000 dead and something like 3,300 missing, with ongoing nuclear meltdowns at three reactors. The earth has actually shifted on it’s axis, shortening our days by about 1.8ms. This is not a small event; while the death toll in Japan wasn’t nearly as high as in Haiti or during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, it was very, very serious.

The pieces I had already written about Japan seemed meek and pithy in the light of the earthquake, and I decided not to post them (I’m sure they’ll find their way to these pages eventually). Some of the stories and photos that emerged were heart-breaking. Some were downright amazing. All of them were much more visceral, and real, than anything I write…  “What Luck!” was the common response, but I found myself wishing I’d still been there when it happened. And then I felt evil for wanting to be closer to that visceral reality.

I became very unhappy with my writing. I’ve talked with many artists and writers about this since that time, and the general consensus seems that self-criticism is the hardest there is; the need to improve and the disappointment we find in ourselves is sometimes the greatest motivator, and sometimes just a deterrent… one of my best friends, an amazingly talented artist who is also a harsh self-critic (though he would never describe himself that way), hit the nail on the head: I just didn’t want to write anymore. So I stopped.

This was, admittedly, very easy to do… self-criticism was one thing, but the speed of life is a helluva force. Months slid off the calendar, my hair full of brake dust and CV grease, nails black from pimping my hands out to those in need of good hands, legs sore from riding trails every chance I got, belly full of local food and beer that I have the pleasure of buying from the hands that grow and brew it, ears full of good music from hands that are attune to the feel of vinyl, eyes full of history books and newspapers and crossword puzzels, pockets filling with money that I’m lucky enough to earn by working, or what passes for work these days (you know you have the right profession when you feel like it’s what you’d be doing anyway), and while my brain is still often ill at ease, I must admit: I enjoy a damn fine life…

But I am lucky. Well, that’s not strictly true… I am lucky by 2002 standards. By 2012 standards, I am miraculously, incredibly, undeniably blessed. In the years following my loss of academic momentum, many of my friends graduated from higher learning, nearly all of them to debt, perhaps only half of them to jobs. This is a very, very raw deal, especially as tuition costs continue to skyrocket year after year (one wonders what would have happened if our Occupy movements looked like what they do in France when tuition gets hiked), and while they were earning their educatiion, my own disolusion to college meandered me through a different path: a young business where I was able to grow into a very profitable sales gig, through which I was able to save a good deal of money (dumb luck/slight dicipline), the savings from which led to business ownership (a true education), the continuation of my trade (reliable and/or fun), and, amazingly, traveling (awesome). The irony is not lost on me that, to date, you cannot turn a wrench through a phone line, but you can write a computer program, or process a mortgage, or animate a film, or engineer complicated machinery, and probably a whole load of other jobs that are soon to disappear in our country… jobs for the educated. “For those with higher learning.”

I am, of course, not knocking higher education at all, and I look forward to reigniting my own academic momentum, but I am making a point: millions of people in my generation are in debt, without work in their field, and they are very, very pissed off about it. In a country where half the population is earning less than $42k/year , I am in the 24th percentile, earning under $20k/year, and the major reason I am able to enjoy the life I have at this wage is partially due to dilligent savings and frugal living, but mainly because I have always remained debt-free. I enjoy the liberty of financial independence, and for that I am, again, lucky as all hell…

It’s been a hell of a year; Year of the White Rabbit, or perhaps the Year of the Lifeboat. In America, while we all still holding out for some Hope and maybe even a little Change, Obama, his financial cabinet, and the rest of congress is hard at work mailing our house keys to the bankers and passing laws directly abusing the language of the constitution. The Occupy movement was pretty fun to watch, and it felt as if there was good, peaceful momentum, until the hired thugs went in, city by city, under cover of night, tearing down tents and macing old ladies (one wonders how much pepper spray the NYPD can buy with that $4.6mil from JPMC). And of course, in Wisconsin, what started as a public union battle has become a full-scale fight to keep the “fiscal conservatives” from selling our teeth out of our jaws, rife with liesmoney and hipocrisy. Oh, and lest we forget, corporations are people with the abillity to throw limitless amounts of money at prospective public servants, and even Obama, who spoke of this as “a threat to our democracy” has now, of course, kneeled in front of the money (if you haven’t yet signed Bernie Sanders’ petition for a constitutional amendment reversing this travesty, you can do so here). Everything seems, in a word, broken, and it seems we’ve forgotten how to run a government with public opinion, without the millions of lobbying and ad-time. The idea in America that everything should turn a profit, and that that profit is tantamount to volume of speech, is choking us to death. I love my country. I don’t want to see it whither and spoil like this.

I sit, writing this, in the hillsides of Sri Lanka, a country with similar problems and contradictions to our own. A nation that is 70% Buddhist, but that has the death penalty. A country that has spent 30 years in civil war over class and religion, with obvious, transparent class struggles still in place. Still, a place of relative financial independance. Well over half of all Sri Lankans own their own home (I assume this number includes family estate), and the cost of land ownership remains reasonable. 20% of the labor force is unionized, and the unemployment rate hovers around 4%-5%. 23% of Sri Lankans are at or below the poverty line, just a few percent higher than in the US (what does this tell you?). Source for these numbers: CIA Factbook

My life is filled with contradiction wherever I go; yesterday, I washed my laundry in a tin vat, squatting in the dirt with the sun on my back, listening to Jay-Z sing about how there is no limit on his Black Card.  (No Limit is also a brand of rice here in Sri Lanka, which makes me wonder if Percy P has asked for royalties yet). A public bus that will take you 100km costs about a dollar, which is the same cost as the 2km tuk-tuk ride to get you to the bus station. Most of the tuk-tuks here have wonderful slogans written on them, like “your jealous my prospects” or “get rich or die trying” or “margin of safety” (occasionally I see “peace begins with smile” and yesterday I spotted “I like to Sri Lanka”, both of which I wholeheartedly agree with). All sorts of things flood my head at all times, and picking the meat off the bones is sometimes hard. The garbage trucks in Ulan Baatar, one of the most isolated cities on earth, play ice cream truck muzak. There is a law against wearing your pajamas in public in Shanghai, which does not stop thousands of grown men from doing so each day. South Koreans, in conversation, will tell you straightaway that they distrust the Japanese more than they do the North Koreans. Japan is one of the world’s largest welfare-states, and their population is on track to decline by about 30% by 2060. What does this all have in common? Not much, besides that it’s all fascinating to me, regardless of my frame of reference for it…

I started writing these stories because they were my favorite to read. I never liked reading travel writing that sounds as if the person is explaining their slide-show; “then I went here, then I saw this…”. No, I liked the ones that were short, and true, and amusing, and stranger than fiction sometimes. One-Night-Stories, I liked to call them, though my friends have come up with much better labels, my favorite being “Puke Journalism” (I will admit, the visual one gets of literally barfing text onto a blank sheet of paper is pretty damn close to how I write anyway) . Perhaps this moniker is too true… I sometimes feel like I write the same story over and over, or that the writing itself is, at best, too personal, and at worst, downright self-indulgent. Beer seems to come up every twelve seconds or so, which makes me look like some twenty-something lush-about-town, which is maybe not so far from the truth, though a bit closer than I’d like it to be… or look, anyway.

I aim to change this. I want to take writing less seriously, and at the same time, more seriously… I want to write different tales, more thoughtful stories, pieces with some damn heart to them. Oh, there will still be beer involved, I’m sure, but I want more out of myself. I am lucky enough to be able to travel, and to be literate, and to have people who seem to like reading my rantings, however vile and repetitous, and goddamnit I’m gonna write stuff that people want to read, that people want to share. I’m standing on a bridge, breathing diesel smoke and feeling grit on every square inch of my body, whispering to no one in particular, “damn… I wanna write again…”

disclaimer

I should probably mention that a good portion of this was written just after I took my first warm shower in three weeks (warm showers are a serious luxury here, as in many parts of the world), a shower that left me feeling quite amazing, and the word ‘lucky’ appears something like a dozen times in this transmission, and that is probably no coincidence… so the next time you take a shower, if you are able to go into your bathroom, and turn a knob, and have hot, clean water come out, as much of the world is not able to do, you might consider saying something like, “Hot diggity, I sure am lucky to be able to turn this knob right here, and have hot, clean water come out! Damn, I’m lucky!”

Because… you know… you are.

I flew in to Taipei around 7:30 and hit the cheapest hostel in town, a surprisingly nice place on the east end of the city called The Meeting Place. The first night lent itself to finding food and taking in the atmosphere, similar to China at first glance but drastically different as soon as you interact with humans here. The first major clue was just outside the airport, after buying a bus ticket into the city. I walked out expecting a mob of people to climb over each other at the first sign of the bus, but instead found a perfect, polite queue to the sign indicating the stop for the #1813 to Taipei Main Station. I was flabbergasted. I kept half-expecting a riot to break out for seats at the arrival of the bus, and I am not lying when I say I was preparing for war at the sight of the bus, shouldering the pack, getting ready to spread the elbows and start pushing like BJ Raji, but it never happened — we just boarded, neatly, in order, and after the seats were full, the next person in line simply stopped, and the crowd behind us began waiting patiently for the next bus.

Now, I’m sure this may not seem very interesting or unique to most people, but to anyone who’s been to China before… well, that shit is fucking incredible. It looks like I’m stereotyping here (and I am), but that would simply never happen in a queue for a bus in China — there would be yelling and climbing and crawling and mob rule and 40 people refusing to leave the aisle after the bus was full, and really, for good reason, or at least justifiable reason. A few days after, I met a guy who’s been living in China for two years, and after mentioning this observation, he smiled with his eyes wide and explained to me that his pictures in Taiwan had almost exclusively been of people standing in line. "I just can’t get over it", he said. "I really can’t believe it… it’s just mind blowing. Totally different attitude." Even the subway queues are more civilized than the ones in Korea, and that’s saying something, as Koreans are really very courteous people. This is a base observation, but it was the starting point…

Taiwan is not China. It never has been. I was expecting this to be less transparent, somehow, but this place is 60+ years ahead of China in a lot of ways… writing this, my thoughts drift back to a bookstore in Beijing back in 2008, when I picked up a Lonely Planet China. There was an odd crease in the binding, and when I turned to it, I found that the section on Taiwan had been ripped out. I picked up another. Same thing, across the whole row of books… they must really not like the LP’s description of Taiwan. Asking students about it later, they were all pretty much in agreement: "Taiwan is China’s biggest island", I remember one saying. "Umm… that’s… not true at all…", I thought. This is really on the minor side of conditioning there, though — I didn’t find a single person my own age in Beijing who knew about what happened in Tienanmen in ’88, and I met quite a few older people who insisted to me that China dropped the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. That’s simply what they were taught.

Of course, on the surface, you’d almost think the progress was the other way around. I remember reading a few years ago that something like 60% of the construction equipment on earth is in China, with over half of that in Shanghai… and after being there, it’s a pretty believable figure. There is simply very little there that’s over ten years old… here, you can feel the boom has already passed, that the wave broke long ago and rolled back. Besides the Taipei 101, there are only two other buildings over 50 stories in the entire country, both of them built in the mid-90’s, though this may be more to do with the frequent earthquakes (I have been woken up by two since I got here, and there are tremors almost daily). Around Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung (the three biggest cities), everything smells like old concrete and rust, which is oddly comforting to me. Besides the occasional mall or commercial building, it’s rare to see new construction. In this sense, the whole place seems closer to Oakland than it does to Kunming…

clubbing: an exercise in alcohol, hormones, and lower mathematics

Night two. A hosteler has invited me to a club with another Swedish guy, says it will be a good time. We head out around 10:30 and subway it to Taipei City Hall, and I get my first view of the 101, dreary and gloomy behind the rain and fog. The club is just a few blocks from it, a basement joint called Babe 18. The cover is $500 NT (about $17) and the club itself is an all-you-can-drink venue — apparently a common thing around here. We grab a drink and sort of meander around… the place is small and just starting to fill up, and the vibe is pretty mellow. We start chatting with random folks around the bar, all very friendly, and besides the three of us, there are maybe only two or three other westerners in the joint.

I’ve honestly never really been clubbing before. I mean, I’ve gone to plenty of places that charge a cover and serve drinks and have a dance floor, and that’s usually great, but when I think’clubbing’, I think of a slightly different scene, a bit more dress-up perhaps, people wanting to be seen, but more than that, a perception of exclusivity, nowhere to sit, a volume level and spacial allotment akin to the engine room of a merchant marine vessel, lines and cordons and shit like that. This place is on the edge of that perception, and I find myself in an anxious comfort of the element for a few minutes…

As it gets later and the place fills up, the lens shifts a bit, perhaps the worse for wear, particularly as the verb "dancing" seems to be gradually become interpreted more and more basely and urgently, denigrating into "hump everything female at random". You know how occasionally, you’ll be on the dance floor, and you’ll spot a group of women, and they’re just dancing with each other, and they’re not just sort of ignoring the guys, but totally ignoring every guy in the joint? I suppose I’ve always interpreted this as transparent code for "Hey look guys, we’re just here to have a good time and cut loose, please don’t fuck this up by humping our legs at random."

Well, these groups are disappearing at an amazing rate as the men are getting drunker and more aggressive, and suddenly there are perhaps four men to every woman, and sure, not all of them are acting like total dicks, but every time I think I see something bad, it’s followed by something much worse. Guys are literally pulling each other off of the women they seem to be hell-bent on dancing with, even pointing fingers, and generally acting less and less like dancing partners and more and more like horny sociopaths. Maybe I’m being dramatic here, maybe I just don’t get it, maybe I’m jaded… but from where I was standing, I couldn’t help but think most of these guys fit into at least the seventh circle, some all the way to the ninth.

I watch and chat with other random people, not particularly enthused but in the melee I’m witnessing but pretty fascinated by it, almost like I’m watching a PBS documentary or something. At some point the Swede walks up with a puzzled look on his face and says "What? You don’t like dancing? You should talk to some girls…" as if these two things are somehow related to one another, when in fact they seem more and more to be mutually exclusive. "Yeah, I’ll do that…"

Around 3am or so, I decide the scene just isn’t really for me, finish my drink and walk out, trying to dissect it a bit more as I do so. A lot of these guys are, in the most true sense of the word, wasted , almost as if they’re trying to drink as much as possible to justify the cover price, something not unfamiliar to me but that seems different, much funnier somehow, in the context of a meat-market. I notice a sign on the wall on my way out that says something along the lines of ‘people who vomit inside club will have to pay $200 NT clean-up fee’, which instantly strikes me as a small price to pay. It must happen a lot.

I see the guys the next morning, drinking my coffee at the hostel. After berating me for leaving early, they tell me their story of the rest of the night, a real head-shaker, about how they left the club with the girls they were dancing with "but they wouldn’t take us home". Imagine that, dancing with a person doesn’t guarantee you sex with them! What a world… "Yeah, I was trying really hard, talking with her outside the club," the Swede says, and I can’t help noticing how "trying really hard to convince her to sleep with me" is neatly packaged the next morning as simply "trying really hard". I chew on my toast and smile, wondering if there’s ever been a study done showing how MTV has effectively set back gender relations by 250 years or so.

not my scene not my problem

Two nights later, I’m walking to a different club, almost begrudgingly, with a fresh crowd of new faces. We had gone for dinner earlier, and cause for celebration has translated into an urge for dancing. Most of them live in Taipei and almost all are Taiwanese born. She senses my disdain. "It’s… not really my speed", I explain. "Maybe I’ll come for a quick drink…"

This joint is called Carnegies and it’s supposedly famous, although it’s hard to see why. There isn’t really a dancefloor at all, but the place is big, spread out, with lots of tables, and a huge bar with enormous brass poles installed across the length of it. It is horrendously expensive, by any standard, and the girls are still 20-somethings, but the median age of the men has increased quite a bit — most of the guys are in their 40s. For the size, it is much too well-lit. We chat for a while, about meat-markets, and Egypt, and traveling, and the variance in attitude towards beer by the Germans and the Belgians, a topic I am almost embarrassingly conversant on. Then we talk some more. I wind up having a fantastic time, actually.

I wake up around noon, feeling a tad groggy but overall pretty solid – indeed, overpriced beer is a good way to keep the poor from drinking too much. I wash my face, run a brush over my teeth with a paste that seems to have been made with green tea and maybe anise. I walk back to be guestroom, or what seems to be a guestroom, I can’t really tell… she’s still asleep, curled up in the comforter, eyes closed and stoic behind waves of black hair… and I cannot possibly describe how beautiful she is. Absolutely gorgeous, just incredible, natural, no make-up or glitter, no haze, no false pretense or atmospheric tinge to discolor or distort the image, just her, still fully dressed, like me, on a dinky pull-out bed with a comforter sized and styled for a child, peaceful and indifferent… my heart pounds faster, short flashes that only exist in an impossible future running through my synapses. I can feel my brow furrowing, not by my own accord, and then the synapses relapse, that sugary substance that normally flows quickly changing to caustic sap… yes, the fact is sharply, horribly clear, and the fact is that I’m never going to see her again, no matter how much we both want to, that the future is as linear as the past, and the reality of the whole thing crashes into the beauty in front of me and shatters on the floor of my gums, leaving a dark stain that tastes like rust… I look away with lazy eyes. My hands are clenching into fists and I don’t know why, like picking a scab until it bleeds and then wondering to yourself how you could ever think that might have helped. I feel a slight peace but something else is trying to break in, something irrational and vague and eager.

She kisses me goodbye and tells me she doesn’t want to see me go and I tell her I feel the same way and we’re both completely telling the truth and it seems to be intended to make each other feel better but it’s clearly doing just the opposite. I hold her tightly, one last time, then walk away, feeling her stare… my eyes are closed and I’m breathing deeply, my steps slow and deliberate and almost cautious. I make the first turn and realize that I have absolutely no idea where I am and immediately decide that it doesn’t matter in the slightest. I notice that my steps are getting faster and faster, almost like I’m being chased by some phantom or something…

Somewhere along the line, I seem to have lost my Eligible Man-About-Town badge and was instead given a Hopeless Romantic purple-heart. Sometimes life holds you close and whispers into your ear that you’re special. Other times it just pukes in your lap. You’d think it’d be easier to laugh at the former and cry at the latter, but sometimes it’s exactly the opposite…