Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Accidental American… Somewhere in Africa

I wouldn’t say anything as clichéd as “this is the life” or anything like that, both because it’s not that great here, and clichés are to be avoided like the, uh, peste, by any writer worth his, uh, paper (dodging clichés can be difficult). Of course I hear people refer to Thailand as ‘paradise’ and I don’t know what they mean. I guess it can be an ego booster for someone with low self-esteem, though perhaps the opposite for someone truly talented. There’s certainly an element of village communism present there and in most small communities, jealousy and resentment, the great equalizer. I usually relegate such platitudes to the ‘superficial impressions’ folder. Nevertheless, it’s always nice to find a place worth hanging, time to wash the clothes, buy some bread, and make some tea, especially after a week or two of rough travel. This is the way I like to travel, like serial monogamy, never exactly settled down, though hardly extreme adventure. I guess it’s a backpacker style, or maybe an American one, but probably my own. That’s the way I do everything, never totally committed to any one thing, but unwilling to ever totally dump anything or anyone, almost. In addition I’m a terrible tourist, often preferring to riffle through postcards rather than actually get up at dawn to get the best light for that sublime view of some God-forsaken ruin. Where I differ from the typical backpacker is that they tend to congregate with ‘their own kind’ whereas I tend to eschew such. A modern-day backpacker can travel throughout Southeast Asia from one safe haven to another and never really see anything else. While not wishing to be judgmental, the disservice seems to be that he might think that what he’s seeing is the totality of the landscape. This plays into frightening ‘artificial reality’ scenarios, a la ‘Matrix’, ‘Vanilla Sky’, ‘Truman Show’, ‘Pleasantville’, or many others (most of which I like), in which the Berkeleyan dictum esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived) gets carried to absurd, if plausible, extremes. After all, if we just followed common sense perception, we’d still be worshipping the Sun god on his daily rounds, and far from even considering multi-flavored quarks for Mr. Mark that sit and spin to a regularity that somehow underlies the very fabric of our physical reality.

I was in Mexico so many times when somebody saw an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe in his tortilla soup that I swore they were running that tape for me every time I crossed the border. Twice I was there during the worst pollution ever recorded, the second being worse than the first. They found a mutated rat about a meter long. I hope there’s nothing like that here. By some quirk of fate, or some butterfly that happened to flutter by, I find myself in Dakar, Senegal. This is how most of life works really, isn’t it? Is natural evolution really anything other than a series of brilliant mistakes? Is cultural evolution any different? Conscious decision-making and pompous philosophy usually come only after a big meal. Hunger can speak any language. So here I am, the accidental American on a busman’s holiday. But for a few quirks of fate I would be thinking about Quiche’ Indians right now instead of the price of quiche downtown. But for another quirk or two I would’ve lived the last ten years in Bolivia freezing my buns and learning Aymara’ instead of steaming them and learning Indo-Aryan. This is more than just ‘funny how life plays out’; no, this is indeed at the very core of our being. It’s almost as if the Lord said, “Go forth and divide,” and the rest is history.

In my research of mail-order brides, I learned a very interesting statistic. Do you know how most couples meet? Chance encounter, pure dumb luck and fortuitous circumstance. That makes Internet encounters seem relatively inspired and calculating now, doesn’t it? Downright rational, I might add. Should we re-think planned marriages? Maybe Mom does indeed know best. Now there’s a scary thought. Enter the dumb tourist into this lively mix, whether in Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts, or backpack and dreadlocks, or me. We’re here to test the tourist uncertainty principle by accident or design; it makes no difference. That means that our experience is not only limited to our perceptions of that experience, not the thing itself, but that nevertheless the thing itself will be altered in the very act of being perceived. This is a lively ground for interaction, in direct proportion to the distance from the original source. Like lightning drawing a spark up from the ground to meet it in mid-air, travelers draw out the most susceptible locals from the teeming masses, those just dying to meet us. Hard things on both sides will be seeking out soft spots in the other simply to test their resilience and because they are there. Beware three-body problems. They’re unsolvable.

So the signs all say ‘Dakar’ and so it must be. If they all said ‘Abidjan’, I wouldn’t know the difference. What there is here is a street scene that has to be seen to be believed. Think something between Khaosan Road and a Dead show. Apply pigment. It seems like everybody is selling something, especially cell phone SIM and top-up cards. You Americans have been spared most of this hysteria, with your two-year plans and two-page contracts. One guy’s got shirts draped over his arms, the next guy’s got pants, then there’s shoes displayed on the pavement every block or so, so I guess you could outfit yourself on the way to a party without having to go home and change. The problem is that it can be hard to walk down the street having to dodge vendors. Fortunately my cell phone’s got a radio, so not only can I listen to the local tunes, but I’ve also got plausible deniability, in case someone is offended at his entreaties being ignored. “Hey! Chill, dude! I didn’t hear you!” I’ve taken to using earphones even with the radio off. They’re too much hassle, the constant sales pitches and general hangings on and followings along. I guess it’s part of African culture or at least big-city African culture. It wasn’t like that on the train or in Mali, and to be honest, it’s no worse than Kuta Beach in Bali. I’ve caught at least one guy secretly following me for an hour or two, pacing his steps to match mine, always managing to be right there every time I changed my mind and turn around. The important thing is that I haven’t felt physically threatened once, only annoyed, and that’s good, ‘cause these are some big brothers. My wife asks, “Aren’t you scared?” Yes I am, and frequently, but not from aggression, not yet, at least. I’m scared to eat the gumbo, and I really want to, ‘cause it looks pretty good, but the last thing I need here is to get the runs or stomach distress. This is a calculated fear, logically inferred from premises, not merely fear itself. Fear itself is transcendent. Unlike Mali, at least there are options for eating here, though I’m not likely to get restaurant fatigue any time soon. I’m considering a boredom diet. It works.

I’m not the first who’s washed up here in the path of least resistance. If Americans wash up on the beach in Mexico and Brits tend to wash up in Thailand, then this is where more than a few Frenchies find themselves when the euros run low. I suppose they’ve got a few stories to tell. The Europeans used to always rag on us Americans back on the Gringo Trail. “You Americans only want to work,” they’d accuse. Hey, we got no gap year or continental grand tour or month-long paid vacation every year before we go back to our predictable life in the same town where our great-great-great-grandfather was born. We’re immigrants by nature, always on the look for something better. My g-g-grandaddy got on a boat, in steerage I presume, because it couldn’t be any worse than ‘back home’. Much of northern Europe did the same, looking for liebensraum. We need it. We’re not the romantic type; we’re the Germanic type. We’re not looking for each other; we’re looking for the other. We’re not looking for style; we’re looking for substance. Civilization is not limited to cities, and we’ll invent computers and cell phones and rocket ships to prove it, if that’s what it takes. It just takes space, and time, and lots of edible purple berries until the first crops come to harvest. This is our mission, mission impossible. It’s a way of life. Still the French implant their patisseries and boulangeries on the cuisine and their breathy ‘je t’aime’s and syrupy love songs on the airwaves without the slightest trace of self-consciousness or irony at the juxtaposition of such fluff in deepest darkest in-yo-face Africa. It takes all kinds. I wish they’d implant some of it in Mali.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Less Miserable… Dakar d’accord

No, I haven’t taken to writing way-off-off-off-Broadway plays. I’d only end up blogging them for release to the public. No, sometimes when it’s fourth and ten and you’ve got linebackers rushing the punt, you just gotta’ grab the ball and do an end run. So I reverted to plan B. You’ve got to have a plan B. This is an axiom of free-style travel, especially if you’re going to a region for the first time, especially if the travel guides steer you wrong, as they sometimes do. I’m still pissed off. I respect my readers more than that, both of you. I’ll tell you the truth, even if it hurts (sales). I won’t play up to false political correctness that does you no good when you’re standing on the side of the tracks on the edge of town at five in the morning without a clue, without a brew, all strung out on her or him. No, I’ll tell you the truth, even if it causes you to re-think a certain portion of a certain trip. The truth is that the ethnologist in me found Mali awesome; the traveler in me found it awful. Words fall short of the reality. Still I try to be positive and put the best face on things. I have to, because I have to go back. This happened once before, in Haiti. Plan B was the Dominican Republic.

I’ll tell you straight up that even though Mali is probably one of the most incredible places in the world, sometimes the most incredible places are locked in some of the most impossible situations, e.g. Burma, Cuba, etc. In Mali that situation is not political so much as simple under-development. I just can’t afford to really like Mali whole-heartedly. It’s not practical. It would mean I’m slumming, watching poverty from the safety and superior vantage point of my tour-bus window, enjoying the spectacle. Poverty in the countryside can still have dignity and status, that of tradition and homeland. In the city it just plain sucks, though it still speaks volumes. You can see the history of West Africa laid out right before your eyes on the streets of Bamako, likely part of the larger area where black Africa became black Africa, in a large population pool from which the Bantu speakers spread out to dominate the rest and populate the continent, displacing the aboriginal ancestors of the modern Khoisan speakers. They arrived at the cape not long after the Dutch. Of course many Africans from this area wound up in the American South from the slave diaspora. I think I see some familiar faces. Still, Bamako is hardly a city, more like a hundred villages in search of one, a dozen tribes in search of a nation.

Mali is like the Guatemala or Cambodia of Africa, picturesque and inspiring, but cumbersome for travel. But cost-wise it was starting to look more like Bhutan. I don’t mind some culture shock. This was sticker shock! Guatemala and Cambodia are cheap. Do the math; the numbers just don’t work for Mali. So I booked a train to Dakar, Senegal. If Senegal doesn’t get the same marks for authenticity, it at least gets higher marks for ‘livability,’ at least for West Africa. “The roads are bad,” they say, so I booked a seat on the train, thirty-five hours, but at least maybe I can get some sleep, train tracks not being so bumpy, usually, by definition. The train leaves in the evening, so I’ll arrive in the morning, and what I save on two nights’ hotels will pay for the trip. Well, the travel writers blew it again. They don’t tell you that this is the train from Hell. One look at that sorry caravan made me quickly regret that I had contracted for thirty-five hours of such abuse. It gets worse. Apparently that thirty-five hours refers to only the actual travel time, not including the interminable delays and waiting time on the tracks, nor the meal and pee-pee stops at least three times a day. The bathrooms were unspeakable, of course, so I held my own for the whole time, which only works if you don’t eat much. I didn’t, surviving mostly on something like rose hips and the kindness of strangers. Times like these are when you do that long-postponed fast, when you finally shut off the caffeine to your free-wifi-with-coffee-addled brain and concentrate simply on being and nothingness, staying awake, thinking outwardly, no internal dialog, pure perception without the curse of consciousness that language brings in its wake. There were some magic moments, too, like when the whole car breaks into song at one extroverted lady’s instigation. Bunuel’s Subida al Cielo (Mexican Bus Ride) has got nothing on this. Then there were the endless expanses of baobab trees, looking nothing so much like little African baby dolls rising from the landscape with thick trunks gradually tapering to tufted hair and stubby limbs. It was like a dream and a nightmare handing off the baton through the night.

When the train finally rolled into the station, almost sixty hours had passed, or would have, anyway, if it had actually rolled into the station. It didn’t. The train dropped us off at the edge of town at five in the morning, we final travelers looking and feeling like compost after being squeezed together for the better part of three nights. What to do now? Bite the bullet. Find a hotel and hope it’s late enough that I’ll only be charged for one day if I leave the next morning, a small consolation prize. No such luck; they hit me for two nights and I didn’t even have a key for the door since it’s mostly for short-term use, if you know what I mean. There was a condom on the floor, if you know what I mean, mute testimony to some disembodied desire at least filled full, if not exactly fulfilled. On top of that, the taxi driver over-charged me. On top of that, I got a signal on my cell phone but I couldn’t get a message out to my wife ‘out there,’ might as well be the moon. Worst of all, my feet were so squeezed on that train that I got a case of swollen-foot thrombo-phlebitic ‘economy class disease,’ and feel a screaming bout of gout coming on. There’s some pills left over from last year, but they won’t last long. I’m traveling in a foreign country and now I can’t walk? That’s usually almost all that I do. I could use some inspiration. Still I never lost my faith in my fellow men, and that’s what sustains me, the basic goodness of men and women, cultivated through religion and honed through practice. These are ‘people of the book,’ too, the Qur’an, and it shows. I was never offered so much food and drink as on that train, even by Thais, and they’re good at that, and including Deep Southerners, ditto. This, too, will pass.

The whorehouse wasn’t that bad, really, right next to a honky-tonk that I could look right into from my window. I wasn’t going anywhere fast anyway after sixty hours on a train and an attack of gout. If you don’t know what gout feels like, count your blessings. The pain is excruciating, only slightly mitigated by the fact that it can go away as fast as it comes on. That doesn’t mean that it will, of course. So when the Senegalais band started playing around midnight and went on until four or five in the morning, that was fine with me. I got a free concert. I’d only be drifting in and out of consciousness otherwise anyway. The next day will be better. It has to be. I get an early start and start walking. The foot is serviceable. I pick up some speed, and then a sudden realization hits me. I have no idea where I’m going. I had expected to be let off at a train station, which usually confers a certain centrality to its location. Why that train dumped us on the edge of town I’ll never know. There’s a ‘cyber café’ open, so I check my e-mail and look for maps online, spurning the advances of a little baobab doll of a teenager looking for a ride to the US. I couldn’t understand much of what she said anyway, since they’ll never speak their language the way they expect you to speak yours when English has to be reverted to. It’s the white man’s curse. Anyway, the maps are junk, so bid the little girl good-bye and revert to instinct, in no certain order. She’s cute, but it would’ve never worked. I flag a taxi and ask to go to the train station. There has to be a real one somewhere, and I’m betting that it’s close to the center. It is, and the taxi driver didn’t even rip me off. My French must be improving. At least French actually gets used here between locals, which I never heard in Bamako. There’s an obvious Arab middle class here, probably Moroccans in addition to peripatetic Lebanese, so that must be the difference. Still there are no hotels in sight. This is a breach of logic, a traveler’s last line of defense. Anywhere else, Asia or Latin America at least, and there’d be bunches. It’s time for the sixth sense, a kind of traveler’s radar, to flush out the elusive goal, a cheap but good hotel.

Fortunately I travel light, rule number one. Like an ant following familiar smells where no lines are drawn, I gravitate toward the dense part of town. It shouldn’t be far. It’s not, and there’s an auberge sign pointing up above a commercial courtyard. They size me up quickly and show me a room back by the staff’s kitchen, my kind of place. The price is right. We’re in, and right in the center of the city. Dense commercial area? Hmmm… I wonder. I flip the lid on my laptop and look for a wi-fi signal. It hems and haws, then locks on, Skype and all. We’re really in! I need a line! Quick, Trinity, give me a number! The Skype rate to Thailand from Senegal is the same as from the US! The phone is ringing! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit… A voice comes on the line. Could it possibly be? Sawatdi kha.” It’s a miracle.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

4th and 10… and Surrounded by Mali’s Middlemen

Fortunately for me, Timbuktu is just a metaphor, right? It represents the ends of the Earth, right? We all knew that somehow somewhere deep down in our subconscious, right? I mean, if I ever actually got there, then what would I call the blog then? So the moral of the story, of course, is “be careful what you ask for; you might just get it.” Now that’s appropriately vague enough to fit most circumstances, and I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but certainly Mali gets raves as ‘the real thing’ so I guess that’s what I wanted, I being a strict aficionado of authenticity in all its multifarious manifestations. Oh, it’s real all right. We hear much of ‘developing countries’ and ‘under-developed countries’ and ‘least-developed countries.’ That last category must be Mali’s. There’s nothing there; okay, there’s hardly anything, hotels, stores, restaurants, anything, and what there is, is hard to find. Well, nyaa nyaa, bitch bitch, precious little American fell down and can’t find his beer; what a pity! No, I’m serious; there’s nothing, and that’s not the worst of it! To find what there is, you almost have to resort to the free-lance guides that prey on you while you pray to them. This is anathema to independent travel, to resort to the hybrid multi-cultis that comprise the interface between tourist and foreign country. Feeling sorry for me yet? No, it gets even worse. It’s expensive, even exorbitant! This is definitely anathema to independent (read ‘budget’) travel. When the cheapest backpacker hovel is $25 a night, then we got a problem. They never heard of credit cards of course, and ATM’s are not ubiquitous.

Travel writers are not doing their job here. Maybe when they specialize in a country they become accustomed to it and lose their objectivity. I’ve been to over fifty countries and researched this trip extensively and no one ever mentioned the high prices, only that Timbuktu seemed high. If that means Bamako is comparatively low, then maybe I’ll pass on Timbuktu. They also said there isn’t much in Timbuktu! That’s what I’d say about Bamako. Let me clarify this. A fifty dollar hotel in the US is better than a fifty dollar hotel in Mali, by far. That the fifty bucks is easier to come by in the US should go without saying. Lonely Planet is in on the collusion, too. They don’t tell you actual prices, unless you’re actually booking through them, only rating them $, $$, or $$$. Well, that doesn’t mean much when a $ in Mali is $25 and a $ in Chiang Mai is $5. I’m thinking of filing a lawsuit. Lives are at stake here, not just psyches. Sure, we love that roller-coaster empty feeling in the pit of our stomach, but the epiphany is in transcending it. Much has been written of the ‘instant illiteracy’ you feel upon first arriving in China. Mali’s worse, and it’s not about the letters. Though I haven’t mastered French, I can certainly get by, especially if reading. The first Phoenicians arrived close to where I’m sitting right now more than two thousand years ago and conducted trade by mute barter. Many mixed couples in Thailand do this as a way of life. It works. That’s not the problem. The problem is the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness you get when confronted with untenable situations. There’s next to nothing there, and what little there is, is expensive and poorly organized. So what do you do? I did the unthinkable. I played parasite-host with a free-lance guide, even staying in his hovel apartment with his so-called ‘family’, while buying myself some time to re-think my plans. That was an eye-opener to be sure, the Mali equivalent of a slum project, full of color, to say the least. Well, Mohamed and I parted company a bit not so amicably after a couple days, he scamming up my rent steadily, but still I bought a little time and some vivid images for the mind’s eye, so basically a successful maneuver. Never say never.

How can a place so poverty-stricken and undeveloped be so expensive? What’s wrong with Mali is what’s wrong with Africa, just more so. We Americans chastise ‘developers’ with our choicest curses, preferring to save a solitary tree than stoop to WalMart’s central dogma. In Bamako I dreamed of Whataburgers and greasy chicken legs when confronted with the choice of very expensive restaurant food or street food of an uncertain sanitary nature. That’s the problem in Africa, that huge gap between rich and poor, no entrepreneurial middle class. They could use some Chinese businessmen here, and I suspect they’re on the way, given China’s infrastructure investments on the continent. The Lebanese only go so far, doing what those same ancestor Phoenicians were doing two thousand years ago. They’re in Thailand, too. But Chinese represent a modern production capacity and global distribution capability unlike anything the world has seen since Britain’s head-start on the Industrial Revolution and America’s mop-up of WWII. Chinese study their history and learn their lessons well while just doing what comes naturally in monopolizing trade and working within extensive family-based networks. What Zheng He could never accomplish six hundred years ago with his ‘treasure fleets’ of Chinese sailing junks, modern Chinese conquer every day with their container loads of inexpensive Chinese junk. Of course, while a ‘conspiracy person’ might see a pattern to all of this, in actuality it’s mostly just a situation of individual Chinese trying to feed their families and willing to give up citizenship in order to do so. After all overseas Chinese still count and are counted by a country that worships its blood line.

So why is Africa so far behind in the first place? Certainly business acumen is not the same as rocket science, basically just common sense- buy low and sell high, but old habits and fears are hard to break, and complex organization can be difficult to establish. Is it simply a trait of ‘negritude’, or of Africa, or maybe of French cultural overlay? I suspect ‘all of the above.’ After all, the closest out-of-Africa analogy in my experience would be to Haiti, similarly impoverished, over-priced, and very interesting, ultimately. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t say “there is no there there.” That’s Oakland. There’s plenty there in Mali; it’s just not economic development. It’s music, and tradition. Street names are replete with names like Diabate, Keita, and Toure’. You can watch Amadou and Mariam on the evening news and hear Salif Keita coming from cassettes (yes, cassettes). Malian musicians are a regular feature at music festivals world-wide and no less respected back home. I stopped to rest from a long walk at the same time and place as an itinerant cassette vendor, and a magic hour transpired, just listening to Malian pop music blaring from a car battery-powered ghetto blaster. I watched the top 15 music video Friday countdown, and I’d never heard of any of the musicians, but it was all good. Comparisons could be made to ‘60’s Cambodia, where an entire era of music was bigger and better than any of its individual stars, and widespread poverty was not an overriding obstacle to cultural excellence. The comparison is interesting, because modern Cambodia is a beehive of industry and development, quickly moving out of the ranks of ‘least-developed countries’ with the help of its neighbors and cultural cousins Japan, China, and Thailand, etc. They’ll expect a return on their investment of course. This is old news, as most of Southeast Asia would be developmentally retarded without their Chinese immigrant merchant class well established. Who’s going to help Mali, and some thirty other sub-Saharan African countries? Do they really need it? Do they even want it?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Timbuktu or Bust

The Festival au Desert at Essakane, Mali, outside Timbuktu, is over now. I imagine it was good, but probably nothing like its early years. There’s no Tinariwen, no Ali Farka Toure’, and no Robert Plant. Robert’s gone on to other things, like a hit album with Alison Krauss and a reunion with the Zeppelin boys that got good reviews. I was never that much of a LedZep fan, but I can certainly appreciate what he’s doing these days. Tinariwen’s hotter than the Sahara in July, so hot that they’re spawning imitators like junkies on grunge. The movement is even crossing borders with impunity, as Tuaregs do, Niger now getting in on the act. Ali Farka’s gone on to that jam session in the sky, of course, but his son’s carrying on the tradition at Essakane, looking a little bit more Tuareg a la mode every day. I wanted to make it but just couldn’t justify the high expense, especially since there’s no way to avoid traveling during the holiday season. Flights fill up on Air Mali (Air Maybe) and the overland route takes time. So I had to content myself with GlobalFest in New York last Sunday, a single evening of twelve acts playing on three stages, giving new meaning to the term ‘cluster-f**k. This is the way showcases work, of course, but for some reason world music promoters like it special, as if the confusion adds currency to the cause. While that may be fine for a bunch of unknowns looking to be listened to, I’m not sure if that’s the best use of resources for established acts. Obviously you can’t listen to them all at once, so magic moments get missed. Not only that, but what might seem quirkily fun, running around the plaza in Albuquerque catching snatches of locals mixing and matching licks with foreigners from all over the world, becomes downright burdensome running up and down stairs in Manhattan’s Webster Hall, causing some tired legs and a general cluster-flock. GlobalFest has to compete with itself also, trying to live up to last year’s line-up which consisted of such luminaries as Andy Palacio, Lila Downs, and Dengue Fever, hard acts to follow.

The show started slowly with the typical European acts one must suffer through, violin, accordion, tuba, etc., to get to the good stuff. I mean it’s all GOOD, of course; it’s just that some is better than others, but the Europeans invest heavily, so they get equal treatment. I saw four or five acts before I heard anyone sing, so you get the picture. Of course it doesn’t help that no one has ever really defined what ‘world music’ really is, so acts having a slow go of it in their traditional genre might try to market themselves as ‘world music’ for better results. This might be the case with Crooked Still, an American bluegrass band at the show. Bluegrass is a pretty solid genre on its own, so I suspect a conscious marketing maneuver and/or a conscious effort to include North Americans in the mix. That’s fair, I guess, though the lines get fuzzy with all the ‘slash’ bands that occupy the turf, that is, US/Mexico/India/Morocco/whereverstan. There are many ex-pat foreigners in the world-music field, i.e. Africans in Paris, Mexicans in the US, Indians in the UK, etc. This not only gives them an English-speaking connection to their audience, but also an adaptation in taste, whether conscious or not. World music is like world food, derived from its country of origin(s), yet somehow different, often better. I’ve certainly had South American food and Asian food in the original and its hybrid forms. They’re both legitimate, as long as it doesn’t come out of a can. You can’t claim that Chinese food in the US is unauthentic when they use broccoli, if the cooks and the customers are both Chinese in the vast majority. To adhere to rigid rules would be the unauthentic path. Of course the ‘tsunami special’ and the ‘Rambo favorite’ on a Thai food menu is another question.

So a mostly-female group called ‘Pistolera’ finally got the show rockin’ with some Mexican-style rock-and-polka that kicked some surprisingly real ass, especially considering the matronly appearance of the chief protagonists in their vintage clothes and scarce make-up. If they had a looker like Lila Downs out front, they’d have real potential as some novelty rancheras. Mexican corridas are usually sung by men, leaving women the slow stuff and booty-twitching. It’s a shame, but sex, and its illusions and false promises, sells. It wasn’t a big deal back when you’d listen to a faceless radio, but these days you got to look and sound, not just good, but USDA prime rib good. It’s disgusting. I’d like to think music is better than that, but much of it really isn’t. Problem was, you could barely get in to see the little rancheritas because of the cluster-flock at the downstairs stage, so I almost missed some rockin’ good stuff. A Senegalese band got things hopping upstairs, good enough to maybe make me do a detour on my upcoming West African trip. The leader himself was about seven feet tall and it seems they could all do little flip-up tricks with their crotches. I looked for signs of drooping wood with no luck, so the effect may have been genuine. They were followed by the obligatory Saharan blues group Toumast, which was playing a bit crippled without their female signer, so I’ll fudge my faint praise. Suffice it to say that Grunge has got its Cobain and reggae its Marley; you can’t expect equal brilliance from every corner. It’s still good, and got the Senegalese hopping on the floor, so that speaks well. Bands usually play their set then head for their bottles and pipes first thing, not the dance floor. I can’t blame ‘em. Other than that the venerable 84-year-old Dominican Puerto Plata, after the city of the same name, played some nice Caribbean rhythms, again enough for me to revisit there at some point.

For better or worse I don’t have any songs stuck in my head the morning after GlobalFest, for what that’s worth. Like love, the best music sticks in your head the next day. I hate to reduce music to that, but that’s what ‘hooks’ are, the words and music still playing in your head, begging you to buy them. A lot of ‘world music’ doesn’t have that, but some does. It’s not about language. It’s about a minor key making you sad, and a major key picking you back up, all done with style and grace, and a catchy rhythm getting you up on your feet whether you like it or not. The first revelation with my forays into world music was that the lyrics really don’t matter that much, not always, certainly. When they’re stellar, then so much the better. They’re usually not. That’s writing. So ‘world music’ limps on, a million musicians in search of a genre. Its promoters don’t help much, with their quirkiness and laughable invocations of authenticity and ‘indigenous.’ Everybody’s got their little marketing schtick, whether it’s Putumayo, Real Guide, or Sublime Frequencies, and certainly there are good musicologists doing good work, but I can’t help but think people are making something overly complex out of something really very simple, i.e. the boogie factor.

So it wasn’t Timbuktu, but it wasn’t bad. I’m still holding out hope for some other ‘festival in the desert’. Essouk is still possible. I’ll head straight to Gao and see what’s shaking. If the homies say “let’s go,” then I just might. I WILL make it to Segou, but that’s different, jungle and urban music, whatever, but not desert. This is the most complicated trip I’ve ever planned. It not only requires a visa, but a yellow fever shot, and a hotel reservation, and countless festival searches. At least I got a family to stay with in Segou. That’ll be good, and cheap. Cheap country doesn’t mean cheap hotels, after all. I’ll just hope for the best, and try to groove on the music. At least I called off the week in Norway (a week of cold and darkness, great idea!). One night in Reykjavik was plenty. At least my feet won’t be cold in Mali. I’ve got fifty countries down and a hundred fifty to go. Planes crisscross the runways at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle international airport like they don’t know where they’re going, but I do. Timbuktu or bust! And as the plane touches down in Bamako, I knew, just as I expected, that ‘this is not Kansas anymore’. For better or worse, this is the real thing, warts and all.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

I Had a Blog Dream... and a Pyramid Scheme

No, I’m not some modern-day MLK emerging from the barracks, positioning myself at the right hand of God and the left wing of the voting populace. No, I had a bad dream. I dreamed that I paid John Chow $450 to review my blog, and all he could say was, “that’s not blogging; that’s typing.” My nemesis in Thailand has said as much already, heckling me and my blogs, informing me that Jack Kerouac’s ‘automatic writing’ died even before Kerouac himself. Cool… I can live with that. With enemies like this, who needs friends? If the man is trying to diminish me by comparing me to Jack Kerouac, then I’ll take that as a back-handed compliment. The thing hack writers don’t understand about Kerouac is that he was essentially a poet, writing novels. They don’t call it the ‘Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Narrative’ now, do they? Poetry relies on spontaneity and inspiration to be effective. There is no such thing as a ‘poetic essay.’ That’s a contradiction in terms. Unfortunately there’s little point of reference for poetry, since most is scarcely compelling, much even repelling, though not repulsive. It’s just too boring to be repulsive. The journals and slams are full of ‘rhymin’ Simons and their fellow-traveling Garfunkels on one hand, and poetry professors and professionals on the other, making self-conscious references in a secret palace language that only they can understand. Modern poetry is so lame that I doubt even one percent of us can name the current US poet laureate. I know I can’t, though I might recognize her (his?) name if I heard it. It’s hard to even say what poetry really is since pop music stole it’s thunder, like fine art being liberated by the camera. It’s not rhyme; that’s lyrics. It’s not meaning; that’s philosophy. It’s not narrative; that’s a story. Any ideas? As Allen Ginsberg himself claimed, Bob Dylan is the poet of our era, not the guys in the textbooks.

Of course the quote in question was Truman Capote’s about Jack Kerouac. Now there’s a world of difference between Truman Capote and Jack Kerouac, not the least of which is writing style. Truman may have played the late night talkies to his own advantage or certainly to his increased celebrity, but he never had a moment like Kerouac reading to Steve Allen’s piano. You can’t book that, though McClure and Manzarek give it their best shot. Give it a listen, but don’t wait too long. The Beat poets are showing their age. Kerouac self-destructed and Burroughs and Ginsberg are now long gone. The next generation looks to Patti Smith for inspiration and elder statesmanship, she having bridged the gap between poetry and rock, but heirs are few and airs are many. The MySpace generation can barely spell their words, much less cast a spell, and whatever hip-hop is, it ain’t poetry. Naropa Institute in the early 80’s was a revelation and an inspiration even then, that the Beat poets were still alive and howling twenty-plus years after we all added –niks to our knacks. There was Gregory Corso next door literally screaming drunk and A.G. himself wrote me a poem for a buck to support the cause of learning, now long lost among a nomad’s middens. Still the fire burns, somehow somewhere. If Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs were channeling Rimbaud, Whitman, and Joyce, then who was Truman Capote channeling? At best he may have evoked F. Scott Fitzgerald, and there’s plenty of talent there, but enough to dismiss the Beats? Naah…. As Oliver Stone said of Tarantino, he’s “making movies about movies.” It’s the difference between art and artifice, the ‘real thing’ or its derivative bastard offspring clones, capable of standing and working, but not reproducing. ‘Non-fiction’ novels are fine, but they both did that. Does that place Capote’s journalism above Kerouac’s poetry? I doubt it, but time will tell.

Blogs are the same, or more so, maybe the quintessence of literary nothingness. For those of you who don’t know, John Chow is a self-proclaimed blogosphere ‘mogul’. Disregarding his Asian features and possible Mongolian ancestry, I think he means to claim himself king of the hill, Mr. Blogger par excellence. Now I don’t know how he or anyone else defines ‘mogul’, but six figures doesn’t usually do it, certainly not in Mr. Gates’ dot.com world, not even in hyper-hyped Hollywood. I think that says more about the ‘blogosphere’ itself than anything else. I’m sure Mr. Chow is a nice guy; it’s just that he doesn’t really offer a product in return for the money he promises to make you online. That’s the definition of a pyramid scheme. He got into trouble by trying to scam Google and promote himself by offering ‘back-links’ to anyone who’ll mention him in the same breath as “making money online.” So basically he’s building his ad-revenue potential by biting the hand that feeds him. Now I won’t malign his Asian character by referring to the historical precedents of Chinese wanting to control the medium of currency; I’ll just say that he threatens to bring down the very system that sustains him, i.e. biting the hand, etc. Now that’s OK as long as you have something creative to add, but apparently he doesn’t. Aside from a few references to cars and fine dining, he only blogs about blogs, and “making money online.” So he makes money online by telling people how much money he makes online. He’s not the only one, only the most brazen. Now he’s charging $450 just to review other people’s blogs, hyping the hype, and getting it. I’d like to say that’s not American, but it is. Look at the robber barons. Look at Bill Gates. But it shouldn’t be that way. The glass is half full, not half empty. There’s always room for new ideas. So Google in retribution has diminished him in the search rankings, but the war’s still on. This is the new webocracy, bloggers plowing the field whose harvest that mostly others will reap, personalizing the impersonal net. Let’s keep the playing field level.

So this is probably why Google suspended my ads after the ‘Thai women are digital’ blog. After I exposed their inner workings, they responded by pulling my ads. That’s okay; I don’t exactly depend on ad income to support myself and my habits. You guys aren’t exactly ad-clickers now, are you? No, me neither. When they start putting public service ads on your site, though, you know you’re in trouble. Maybe they thought I was spamming and scamming, promoting my own ads to promote my own income. A quick reading might make you think so. I may have even clicked a few of them myself. Some of them are interesting. I can always use a cheaper flight to Thailand. So now it’s either travel insurance or nothing, or gulf hurricane relief. Which gulf? Which hurricane? Sounds like a business with a future. If I do a blog on Thai girls, then they pull all the Thai girl ads. I guess that makes sense. I suppose this is all supposed to be transparent and subliminal. You read a blog and see an ad, so then click on it without thinking, as if it were an extension of the blog itself. It may work on consummate consumers, but you guys are too smart for that, aren’t you? Judging by my Google Adsense revenue, you are. So any self-reference to the system itself could be a scam. Only a human would know. Spiders and bots only count and categorize. So now I’ve got search ranking but no ads. Not that I had income from them, but I like their spontaneity. Well, the Google ad fairies, spiders, and bots must be scratching their heads over me now, or scratching something, at least. We’ll see what they do next. At least they function according to reason. That’s better than a nemesis would do. What’s the protocol with a nemesis? I’ve never had one before. I’ve always prided myself in never having burned bridges, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Flagstaff: Might as well be Chiang Rai or Huaraz or TJ

Welcome to the new era of the generic ex-pat. It used to be that people would ‘end up’ in remote corners of the world because of some curious connection- marriage, work, research, ethnicity, or such. The highly motivated immigrant would likely be well-versed in local lore and quite proficient in the local lingo. He had to be. He might even ‘go native’ and adopt the local garb and hang out with the local residents. All that’s changed now. These days the connections are more spurious than curious, and the local garb is Kmart classic. The only question facing the would-be ex-pat now is “Which country?” as though the only differences were quantitative, particularly financially. Though many countries are wary of casual ‘unofficial’ immigrants like me, there is a plethora of those courting the retiree trade, especially those with a surplus of nurses, like Thailand. These guys usually are largely ignorant of the local culture and rate their experience by its similarities to ‘back home’. Similarly, they rate locals by how Westernized they are, particularly linguistically. Thais even rate each other by how well they speak English, as if any of them were qualified to judge. The Mexican border area also rates well in this area of service and, accordingly, those areas have their fair share of retirees and weekend adventurers, Americans usually, of course. But you can go to the Dominican Republic, Philippines, Morocco, Guatemala, Brazil, Bali, India, or many others, and find similar situations. This is a growing trend, pasturing the herds. What they all have in common are low prices (relatively), nice weather, appropriate services, and a reasonable level of safety.

‘Convenience’ ex-pats like this tend to follow geographic and linguistic lines. So Spaniards, Portuguese, and especially, Italians, tend to gravitate toward Central and South America, linguistically and culturally similar. French can go both ways, of course, but heavily support their cultural and linguistic cousins in North and West Africa. Au contraire that they are, they tend to grant higher status to black Africans in France itself than they do to Arabs, different from most other ‘high’ cultures. Familiarity breeds contempt I guess. If they hurry they can still find some francophones in old French Indochina, that is Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, though those numbers are fading fast before the onslaught of English. Englishmen and northern Europeans tend to prefer those who prefer them, cultural pragmatists like Thailand that prize the English language above all else, and the genuine English speakers like the Philippines, India, and Anglophone Africa. Southern Europeans are conspicuously absent in Southeast Asia and the ones who do wade through the mental confusion might wish they hadn’t. Once I was summoned to translate for an Italian who found himself lost in my neighborhood. He and I had a nice conversation in Thai while a group of Thais stared on dumbfounded, finally ‘getting it’ toward the end. He spoke no English. We didn’t get around to Spanish.

Many times I’ve spoken ten or fifteen minutes in Thai with Thais when they suddenly felt inspired to ask, “Can you speak Thai?” What can you do? Patience, patience, suffer it gladly; or suffer it still, whether gladly or not. Still the pragmatism and wifely flexibility shine through. One prominent Thai web dating service has information in eight languages, including Dutch, Norwegian, Japanese, and Swedish, none of them major languages, but excluding Chinese and Spanish, the world’s first and third most-spoken languages in the world. They know where the bread is being buttered. It even has Thai language; what the Hell, why not? It’s surprising how many Western men in the Thai dating service are in their thirties. The women are overwhelmingly in their twenties. That may be more the medium than the message, youth being more ‘net’-oriented. The reality ‘in-country’ is certainly toward older foreign males. Maybe the new generation of Thai females doesn’t want to wait around to be dumped by their Thai husbands as they turn thirty.

Then there are the ex-pats like me, long-time travelers and avid adventurers, imbued with ethnicity and in love with language. It’s not necessarily like we could be anywhere, though we almost could, it’s more like we want to be everywhere. We don’t look for the easiest places to be, the paths of least resistance; we look for challenges. We look for authenticity. Personally I wouldn’t be in Thailand if I weren’t inextricably involved at this point and a bit over the hill where oats are usually sowed. Thailand’s really almost TOO easy, too willing to emulate the northern European model to the point that authentic Thai culture has to be searched for at deeper levels, with mixed results. You can avoid the interface people and the interzone girls, refusing to speak English, but ultimately you can only do that effectively by moving to areas where that is minimal, and those are few. Everybody wants the new hybrid reality, almost in direct proportion to the extent that they celebrate their ‘Thai-ness.’ It’s always been that way, the Siamese being a hybrid Chinese blend long before they ever thought about affiliating themselves with their tribal ‘Tai’ and Lao cousins. The word ‘Tai’ entered the English lexicon in 1895. The word ‘Thai’ followed in 1902. Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939, under an onslaught of Chinese immigration.

This is similar to the Irish celebrating their Gaelic ‘Irish-ness’ while following customs and language that are generally English. The English and Americans do it, too, ‘Celtic’ traditions apparently being transmitted through Irish pub culture and traditional music. In reality the last stronghold of Celtic language in the British Isles is in Wales, though it’s not Gaelic, and it’s hardly acknowledged. Nobody goes to Welsh pubs. The language closest to English language itself is to be found back across the channel in the Frisian islands, those who never left with their Saxon and Jute cousins, speaking another modern tongue whose ancestor was Anglo-Saxon, just like ours. It’d be interesting to hear how intelligible it is, if at all. Do the French celebrate the same thing as the Irish when they remember their Roman-era ‘Gallic-ness’? I wonder. Do modern Turks celebrate their Roman-era ‘Galatian’ roots, now long assimilated? I doubt it. They aren’t usually kind toward minor cultures within their boundaries. Ask the Armenians and Kurds. The Celts, probably one of the earliest of Indo-Europeans to break away from the pack, seem to have abandoned their language at every juncture. I suppose it wasn’t a very good one. They were better at applied mechanics, and beer. The culture hangs on precariously. Score one for Sapir and Whorf. Pragmatism loses a point.

So where do you go if you want the third world without leaving your modern developed country? After all, that’s what people like me are after, regardless of where we actually find ourselves. We’re culture jocks looking for culture shock, in the downtown slums and in the remote border areas. If you’re European, you head for the far reaches of the Carpathians and the Pyrenees, and even then you might not be satisfied. Cost is a factor, after all. You’ll do better in America. There are still ethnic enclaves in Cajun Louisiana, the Mexican border areas, and Indian country, especially the southwest. When I first came to Flagstaff twenty years ago, you could still see Navajo women on the street in full silver-and-turquoise regalia, not to mention street drunks frequenting several Indian bars. They’ve long been replaced by lawyers and dentists, Deadheads and Trustafarians. The ethnicity may still be there, or out at the WalMart, at least, but the scene has been sanitized. That random element of disorder is priceless. It can’t be mocked-up at tourist-oriented ‘Indian villages.’ That’s what the Third World is all about, and to some extent, any place will do. When I’m stuck in the States, I found solace across the border in Ensenada. If I’ve got a month to kill, hardly enough time to go back to Asia, I’ll catch a cheap flight to Peru and a seven-hour ride to Huaraz- instant Andes (and no jet lag). Or maybe go to Guatemala and hang with the Mayans in Quezaltenango or the Garifuna at Livingston. The possibilities are endless. The flights are cheap, probably cheaper than living in the US full-time, certainly Europe. Of course, there’s always Alaska, where you can kill two birds with one stone, ethnicity and the elusive Arctic Circle. I saw the northern lights at Fairbanks in my first hour there. It’s like Flagstaff twenty years ago, Indians and college students. Athabascans across the border in Canada even call themselves Dene’. It’s a small world… and a narrow strait. Is Tijuana really any different from Tangier (Tanjah), the ‘other TJ’? When you get the itch, head for the border, any border.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Thai Women are Digital and Now Online

There are a lot of lonely people in the world, true, but come on, Google, you’re going to give me a bad rep here. I know, I know, scientists and philosophers need love, too, but ‘local sexy singles?’ For those of you who don’t know, I have no control over the ads that grace the halls of this blog. When I post a new update, ‘spiders’ and ‘bots’ crawl through the virtual woodwork like ants at a picnic, devouring my humble verbal offerings and rendering them into easily digestible keywords and ‘meta-tags’. So I was curious to see what ‘content related’ ads would show up at the party, given a rather hodgepodge collection of posts loosely falling under the heading of ‘travel’, and sure enough, the first results were rather predictable- apartments in Chiang Mai, townhouses in Phuket (pronounced ‘poo-get’), cheap flights to Thailand, condos in Hua Hin, condoms in Pattaya. Huh? What’s that? OK, I’m exaggerating, and admittedly, it wasn’t surprising to see “Single Thai Girls” popping up sooner or later, given the legendary beauty of Thai women and the legendary incompetence of Thai men. After all, it’s a feminine culture, and the same traits that are attractive in women are not necessarily attractive in men. Conversely, the same might be true in ‘masculine’ Western culture. Vive la difference! That’s legit anyway, women with genuinely good hearts looking for something better for themselves and their families. In Thailand, working-age offspring typically not only support the children, but the parents also. They find it hard to believe that it might be any other way any where else, despite my protestations to the contrary. So the practice of women ‘marrying out’ is now widespread and respectable, given that impeccable Thai knack for commerce through any open door, unfailing publicity, and uh, pragmatism. I wouldn’t say it’s Thailand’s number one export yet, but maybe…

So the running joke has always been that I accuse my wife, and Thai women in general, of being digital, that is, on or off, hot or cold, sweet or sour, no middle ground. “I wouldn’t know what to do with an analog girl,” I tell her. They tend to see things in very black and white terms while the rest of us are watching the movie of life in HD DVD with a helping of JPEG in HTML on the side. They’re like LCD screens with a push-button control. That’s liquid crystal display, not lowest common denominator. It’s like you turn on the tube on Christmas day and there’s a fire burning, or you buy the DVD and watch tropical fish swimming around your flat screen aquarium, probably even got a snail super-model cleaning the inside of the screen. So push the right button on a Thai bar girl and ping!, she turns on with a smile. As the liquid goes down in the cocktail-style hour-glass, so do the edges of her lips until you’ve finally got a perfect frown to go with that empty glass. Wa ma ding?” she’ll then ask you in fluent Pidgin English and the fact that she’s merely running sweet red liquid through her veins like the stuff you put in your hummingbird feeder is irrelevant. You’ve got to feed the meter, and the meter is an old-fashioned Thai water-clock, complete with an ice cube on top that will clean your nose at no extra charge. Why is that extra cube always there? Nobody knows. Where’s Seinfeld when you need him? But the girl always smiles on cue even when she doesn’t understand a word you say, nodding her head agreeably like a flower waving in the breeze. Order up another round and the screen refreshes itself, and you, with a smile. Sound good? Apply here. My wife always told me that people would want to hear about Thai girls and lady boys, not the abstract considerations that tend to preoccupy me.

But ads for ‘local sexy singles?’ That’s different. What did I do to deserve that? That has nothing to do with Thailand and everything to do with sex. Lord knows there are plenty of other blogs out there that deal with that subject a little bit more, uh, directly, than I do. Do a search on most-used Google search keywords and it’s the same in every category: sex, or maybe boobs. Search politics: it’s sex; religion: sex; hardware: sex; software: sex. But what does any of that have to do with me? Okay, I did do an expose,’ heh heh, of webcam girls and I am always rather interested in the various manifestations that can ensue culturally out of our obsession with that one seminal event that sustains us- the reproductive act. That’s okay; it’s good for evolution. But that’s not the same as selling sexual services. I feel like a pimp… Actually, it doesn’t feel that bad. Anyway, I was curious to see what would happen with the ads when I stopped writing about Thailand so much, simply because I’m not there right now. Well, the first clues came with my blog on Cambodia. All of a sudden, instead of ads for tourism, travel, adventures, and single girls, I’m showing ads for veterans’ benefits, war videos, and genocide ring tones. Huh? Genocide ring tones? I don’t make this stuff up. If you don’t believe me, follow my blogs one at the time, only one blog to the page, to see them change with each page. Don’t know how to do that? Google me, or google the blog’s main keywords, ‘Thailand’ and ‘Timbuktu’, that is. On a good day, I’ll come up number one. Click on that and they’ll send you to the site, but only one page. Then creep through older or newer posts. Or, just trust me, and I’ll walk you through it. The next blog we’re back in Thailand and now not just ‘meeting Thai girls (for serious relation)’ but taking ‘Thai gay tours’. I wonder what sights they visit. I bet there are a lot of statues and monuments. Did you know that ‘Ladyboys of Thailand’ has good prices? I wonder what they’re selling. I can’t click my own ads for fear of being accused of ‘spamming’. But you can. Some people like canned ham, especially out in ‘da islands’, where commodities are scarce.

With the immigration blog we get ‘green card’ ads and with the ‘dark side’ blog we get Thai ‘yoga’ massage ads, all the while flogging and blogging ‘single Thai girls.’ Hmmm. Then the funniest one comes up with the Thai food blog, an ad by Pepto-Bismol. Ya’ gotta’ love it. Well, when I do my first American blog it takes them a while to adjust, and they’re still doing Thai ads. Come the ‘tsunami’ blog and they’re right on top of it, with ads to ‘help disaster victims’ and ‘adopt orphans’. Cool. But what will they do when I mention ‘jihad’? Drum roll here, please. Depending on what day you check, you might get something on politics or George Bush or maybe even ‘learn Arabic online’, but guaranteed you’ll get something on, guess what? Travel insurance. Do a blog on world music and blues, and they manage one music download site, but other than that it’s travel to Thailand. They like me there, plenty of advertisers that pay. I bet the next one will be more gals, or gays. Nope. Talk about over-population and gas prices and they freak, nothing but one banner-sized ad about Gulf hurricane relief, and empty spaces, when I usually have four small ads. Don’t try to pin a meta-tag on me, mother-flipper (just when they thought they had me figured out). You can’t exactly sell Thai girls in the same breath as talking about over-population, now can you? Nope. Kills the urge. All these decisions are made at the speed of light, mind you, millions of little bits and bytes, 0’s and 1’s, flickering on and off, semi-conducting, each second. The full multi-blog home page now shows ads for NGO’s and teaching English overseas. Sounds boring and depressing. I’ve let Google down. We could use some Thai girls to liven up this bash. I have a feeling they’ll be back. Mr. Google misses them, and he’s letting me know that, by keeping me out of the search engine rankings this week after that last depressing blog. Over-population indeed! We want more Thai girls! You got it, bro. You got it. I miss my Thai girl, too (though on second thought next time they placed two ads side by side top dead center one with ‘Arabic Classes’ and another with ‘Learn Hebrew Abroad’). Salaam. Shalom. There is a God.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Over-Population and the Price of Gas in Flagstaff

Oil prices kissed one hundred bucks a barrel yesterday for the first time in history, only slightly mitigated by the fact that a buck ain’t packing all that much of a bang these days. But that’s a psychological barrier, so everybody starts waxing philosophical about the future of the planet, etc. Don’t worry about the planet. That’s the problem- human arrogance, to think that ‘the planet’ is all about us, and only us. The planet will do just fine. Don’t worry about you and yours either. You’ve never had it so good. Don’t even bother worrying about ‘life’. Bacteria are quite resilient, around almost as long as there’s been something liquid to swim in, even surviving ‘global freezing’ a full hundred million years before the Cambrian ‘explosion.’ ‘Global warming’? Piece of cake, at least for the gigajillions of bacteria that we host symbiotically. They’ll find other sources of food, even without our plumbing systems. If you want to worry about something, worry about the species. There’s good reason, not least of which is the fact that almost all that have ever existed are now extinct. The fact that our intelligence gives us an advantage is easily outweighed by the fact that it also causes most of our problems. A dumber species might do better in the long run, if only they’d stop breeding so much.

We’re victims of our own success. Evolutionary success is equivalent to reproductive success, usually. We humans have to change all these equations to suit current fashion, so that now cultural evolution is arguably more important than the biological kind. That’s too bad, because we sure now how to screw, up a good thing, that is. Will we ever be content just going through the motions? As always, time tells. For millennia the overriding principle of life was to reproduce it, the more the better, ‘family values’ defining our interactions and even reaching the status of religion Back East. Wars used to be fought to capture people for resettlement and lineage expansion, long before anyone thought of putting up borders to keep them out. So now that we’ve conquered the planet how do we conquer ourselves, our desires, our traditions, our obsessions? After all, global warming is only a problem because there are billions of us producing it. If there were only a billion of us world-wide, you could drive all the Buicks and Pontiacs you wanted. Over-population was an eighties problem, largely forgotten since China dealt with it, however haphazardly, on their own front. China’s good at seeing the writing on the wall, even in foreign alphabets. India will pass them in population soon, and others are making up for lost time also.

We sometimes worry about those billion or so ‘yellow devils’ ‘over there’ creeping through the cracks into Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants around the world, General Tso’s ultimate strategy of infiltration through the stomach and bowels, unlike the Western obsession with hearts and minds. Given their traditional obsession with cash income in all trade relationships, our mutual relationship runs sweet and sour. They invented it, after all, paper money and playing cards. The Opium Wars were more about currency than drugs, at least the first time. Opium was currency, the only product they would accept besides silver. The rest is history. I assure you they worry much more about those billion ‘white barbarians’ surrounding them on all sides, i.e. Europe, America, and Australia. India’s right there, equal in total numbers, especially if you add their sub-continent and cultural neighbors Nepal and Sri Lanka. Islam accomplishes with dogma what India failed to accomplish with karma, bringing Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia over to their camp to surpass a billion. The population race is in a dead heat, emphasis on ‘dead.’ Maybe it’s time to lay down our crosses and swords, penises and wombs, and call it a truce. Modern warfare certainly no longer depends on the human wave assault. Words defeat the sword; information defeats bombs.

Limit reproduction to two children ABSOLUTELY and see how many of our problems might go away. Instead of giving tax credits for more children, give tax credits for less. After all, cultural evolution allows for many forms of satisfaction, not just watching your sons and daughters grow up to despise you. The main ‘proof’ for global warming is that chart of ‘inconvenient truth’ showing a spike in temperature that coincides perfectly with the spike in the industrial revolution’s exhaust emissions, first coal, and then oil. Has nobody noticed that that graph also coincides with the spike in population that equally defines our epoch? After steady population growth since the origin of food production some ten thousand years ago, from around the year -500 BCE to around 500 CE the world population remained relatively stable, stuck at around a hundred million or so, at least a quarter of them in China. It only managed to double in the next thousand years, given devastating political turmoil and the growth of cities, a great career move for bacteria and viruses. Then the playing field went berserk. As the ‘Pax Britannica’ eventually won out internationally and Materia Medica won out internally, that stalemate changed radically. The Industrial Revolution created the wealth, in real terms, to sustain large families, with fewer of them now dying. Even Chomsky will admit that we’re richer than ever, albeit with lingering problems. Only Africa has been systematically left out of the prosperity, with life expectancies still hovering around the low forties in many countries. The world got its first billion simultaneously living inhabitants right around 1830. It got its sixth billionth right around… wait a minute…

What I want to know is why, with oil hovering at a hundred dollars a barrel, is gasoline hovering locally at three dollars a gallon, the same as when oil was selling between sixty and seventy dollars a barrel? That would be due to certain, uh, psychological factors, right? Supply and demand, right? Tell that to the poor guy trying to feed his family in the Third World outback. Don’t blame America. Prices, if anything, are MORE in the third world; the US, by comparison, tends to be cheap. In highly competitive Thailand, prices, at current exchange rates, are right at four dollars a gallon for the premium grades. In quasi-Communistic Cambodia, they are at least that for the low-grade blends, ditto for Canada and their integrated NAFTA economy. The recent riots in Burma were sparked by a sudden increase in gas prices. Riots had already occurred in Indonesia, an oil-producing nation, for the same reason. Without Communism to keep it honest, it seems that capitalism no longer is. Is Islamistan any better? The USSR used to subsidize her satellites; does Arabia? She must, if Egypt can sell gas at $.65 a gallon, less than Kuwait or Riyadh. Egypt doesn’t produce any. It’s only $.12 right now in Caracas. What does that say? How much is dependent on local real estate prices or political considerations or profit margins, and how much goes to government taxes anyway? Gasoline is currently selling at $1.74 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the U.S. commonwealth territory. It is exempt from most US taxes. Remember what the price of a barrel of oil was in 1998? I bet you don’t. It was twelve dollars. Have things changed that much in ten years, be it supply, demand, output, income, China, America, Europe, or Islam? Oh yeah, I almost forgot… 9-11, that explains everything.

We’ll lose the battle against global warming without renewed population control efforts. I can think of a thousand reasons to control carbon emissions, but that’s just not enough to reverse global warming. We will lose that battle. Any thought that the oil will run out before the heat becomes too much ignores coal, which is not only dirtier, but which will never run out. Any more questions?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Stuck Inside of Flagstaff with the Sahara (or is it Mississippi?) Blues Again

It’s almost like some Dylan song, except that Mobile probably ain’t that bad, nor Memphis that great, probably not that much difference really, except that Mobile’s got a little piece of the gulf, which is really nice to break up the monotony of the Deep South until it washes up into your yard. I doubt that Dylan’s ever been east of Highway 61 and south of I-40 anyway, except for the Rolling Thunder Revue back in ’75, doin’ some tunes for us homies, he and McGuinn and Kinky and T-Bone and Allen G. and Joan, like some kind of East Coast Kool-Aid pH test for the rest of us, better late than never. Dylan’s one of my all-time pop heroes, he and Costello and Carabao and Cobain, the best R&R of each of the preceding four decades. The best pop music of this decade has yet to be determined. Einstein, Jesus, and Plato occupy another plateau. Dylan and I share the same birthday, if not exactly the same religion. He said things that may never have been said otherwise. Saharan blues? Yeah, that’s good, too. That’s why I’m going to Mali. There’s probably more good music there per capita than any country in the world, not just the traditional griot style of the sub-Saharan heart of darkness, but a new northern style fostered by the Tuaregs, the ‘blue people’ of the desert. Think deep blue indigo. Think guitars instead of guns. Think music instead of jihad. Talking Timbuktu? Talk Tinariwen.

Tinariwen is the best example of the new ‘Desert Blues’. I first heard them on a sample CD from the WOMEX festival last year in Sevilla, though they’ve played a few WOMAD’s in the last few years, and have been instrumental, pun intended, in making the Festival au Desert outside Timbuktu famous. I knew none of this, though, when I got focused on that 3-song sample CD only a little over a year ago. It immediately became my favorite, best of the ten or so I culled from the stack, as I lightened my load in Rabat. Three months ago they opened for the Rolling Stones in Dublin. It’s nice to be right. A blitzkrieg tour of small venues in the US ensued, maybe the last time you’ll be able to see them like that. I tried to see if we could get them here in Flagstaff, but too little too late. Hard to believe they actually played here for a handful of passersby at NAU a year or two ago. Yup, really. Turns out they’re best friends with the local Navajo band Black Fire, even counting them among their influences on their official website. Berta Benally says they met back at the Festival at Essakane outside Timbuktu, and have been fast friends ever since. That’s a great album from the 2004 festival, including such luminaries as Ali Farka Toure’ and Robert Plant, also. The festival is on the verge of getting too big for its limited infrastructure now, and others have imitated its success. Tinariwen themselves sponsor one at Essouk near Kidal, though their manager tells me it’s not being publicized this year due to violence in the region, and will likely be a very “low-key affair.” There’s an off-chance I might even make it there in time, though hedging my bets. It’s too expensive to make Essakane with the early January holiday rush still in effect. I WILL make it to the Festival at Segou, down south near Bamako. It’ll be more the traditional griot style of Malian music, as opposed to the more free-range Tuareg style.

Ali Farka Toure’ lies somewhere between the two, resting in peace, while his presumably oldest son ‘Vieux’ carries on the musical tradition with his half-Western band. They say that “the blues” can be traced to a single village in Mali, but I doubt it. They say lots of things. If it could, though, Ali Farka’s hometown of Niafunke’ would certainly seem appropriate. Since his electrifying success, much speculation has arisen about whether the blues was imported from Mali to the US or vice-versa, and the argument quickly becomes circular, with turn-of-last-century early blues musicians obviously retaining some African influence only a few generations removed and turn-of-this-century Mali musicians obviously influenced by an avalanche of American music that has swept the globe for a hundred years, not just from the US, mind you, but also the Caribbean exerting strong influence. The question quickly becomes one of definition. “Blues” by definition is an American medium, and consists of several different styles, both rural and urban, and that doesn’t even include jazz, gospel, and soul. Malian music is similarly diverse. To try to find the “blues gene” or get self-righteous about who discovered what in an essentially collaborative medium is a bit feudal and futile, especially considering the dispersive methods of the slave trade and the lack of proper record-keeping. Black people of the African diaspora have much in common to be explored and shared, notwithstanding the significant differences between cultures within the African continent itself. Let the scientists and doctors quibble over the details.

The origins of the new ‘Sahara Blues’ seem a little less mysterious, despite Robert Plant’s description of it as “a drop in a very old bucket.” For one thing, Tuaregs aren’t even black. They didn’t invent the blues, nor do they share much culturally or historically with black Malians, with whom they have frequently struggled. Music is better than all that, and obviously ‘Saharan Blues’ has borrowed much from Ali Farka in addition to Arabic styles from the north. When Ali Farka first heard of the Festival au Desert, he immediately asked to play. The rest is history. Music has been a powerful unifying factor between North and South in Mali, bridging the vast cultural gap between the Saharan north and the sub-Saharan south. Uprisings are frequent in the region and indeed, Tinariwen themselves met and coalesced in one of Muammar Gaddafi’s training camps in the 80’s. Now they carry guitars. Music can heal, both internally and externally. One of Tinariwen’s most competent competitors these days, Etran Finatawa, from the same region but across the border in Niger, is composed not only of Tuaregs but their traditional enemies, the Wodaabe, a picturesque group of non-Muslim Fulani. The Tuareg roots lie with the Semitic north. The Fulani roots lie with the Niger-Congo South. They meet where the Sahel meets the Sahara, where camels and goats meet horses and cattle. Though far from the Islamic heartland in Arabia, this is where the world’s most prominent jihads have occurred, mostly by the Fulani, mediating culture and religion between the Islamic/Semitic north and the tribal/animist south. The fact that their traditional herding lands were being heavily encroached upon was probably a contributing cause. Music is better than all that. It may not be the universal language nor the universal religion, but then again, maybe it is.

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