Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Epiphany of Language- It’s Only a Medium, Neither Rare nor Well Done

The American lady got on the Taiwan to US leg of my trip, where I stopped to change planes. She spoke fluent Chinese, even reading it in her spare time, which there’s plenty of from Asia to the US, even with a tail wind. If you were blindfolded I doubt that you could’ve picked out the non-native speaker from the group. I felt sorry for her. She may have even been a native speaker, for all I know. That would be insult to injury, because no matter how good she spoke, the flight attendants would always switch back to English the first chance they got, even though they probably knew no more than a hundred words of English each and the American lady probably had a Ph.D. in Chinese language. That’s just what they do. Welcome to Thailand. A South American flight attendant once explained to me, in Spanish, that they’re trained to look at people to make a determination of what language needs to be spoken. She did that after telling me, “I assume you don’t speak Spanish,” to which I promptly answered, “porque no? Of course she was right if referring to native language, which does tend to follow traditional racial and facial patterns, which works until someone finds himself on the wrong side of a line, or until a person speaks multiple languages, the more diverse the more bizarre. I felt sorry for the American lady regardless, Chinese to the end, making calls in Chinese while the plane was still taxiing on the runway. I would’ve liked to have gotten more of her story but wo bu shi zhongguo ren.

Would multiple languages imply multiple personalities? Could you invest your identity in more than one or two languages even if you wanted to? Score one for Chomsky. French-speaking Belgians like to refer to the Flemish (Dutch)-speaking areas as something totally distinct culturally, though as a matter of historical fact, the ‘Dutch’ are merely Franks who remained un-‘Romanized,’ in a poorly-documented process that continues to this day, though Belgium itself was born in the early 1800’s European confusion of Spanish succession and Napoleonic conquest. If there is indeed a cultural difference between Germanic Franks and Germanic Dutch, then it could certainly be reflected in the language whether or not a direct result of it. Score one for Sapir and Whorf. Notwithstanding their linguistic imaginary Maginot line against the creeping onslaught of English in Quebec and elsewhere, the French are guilty of the same in Belgium where the line of ‘Romanization’ crawls northward, claiming Brussels already with no end in sight. What would Chomsky say about that? Feel free to comment, Noam, or I’ll vent my spleen about you making me parse sentences as a grade-schooler. How many of you even knew that Chomsky used to be a linguist? I suppose political commentary pays better, considering that foreign language is more typically the realm of hotel clerks, taxi drivers, and ladies of the evening looking for pick-ups with stick-shifts. Thus some of the best-educated people in the world know the fewest languages, it being a muddy field without even the most rudimentary maintenance, while a tribal person may know five or six, being largely unconcerned with technical perfection, and more focused on the means to an end. Certain sounds bring a certain result; that’s the important thing.

Thais seem to think language is a racial thing, largely disallowing it in a person of foreign extraction unless it appears that they may be ‘half-breed Thai. Not only do they allow that, but revel in some of the unique combinations that might arise. Those chosen many, both bastard and legit, find ready work in the entertainment industry, singing and dancing and acting in soap operas. In a sense Thailand is almost like a giant breeding experiment, not unlike the produce section in your local ‘fresh market’ or Big C. There you’re likely to find at least three or four varieties of ordinary fruit like papaya, orange, banana, pineapple, and mango in addition to exotic mangosteen, jackfruit, guava, tamarind, custard apple, durian, litchi, and others, some of which you might find in Spanish or Latin American markets, but likely never in the ‘super’ markets of Northern Europe or the USA. Top-of-the-line oranges are invariably the ‘honey’ line, juicy and thin-skinned with no fiber but very sweet, like honey I suppose, until they go bad. Any comparison to Thai women would probably be inappropriate here. If faced with a foreigner speaking Thai well with no obvious genetic relation, Thais will even be satisfied conceptually if the foreigner has a Thai wife, as if traits that couldn’t be passed along blood lines might instead be passed along in other bodily fluids. In reality the typical Thai woman is frequently hostile to her partner speaking the local language, as inexorably linked with status as it is and the Thai obsession with such. Even when sympathetic the Thai woman herself might hardly qualified to teach beyond the elementary level to which she herself has probably studied, maybe not enough to satisfy a Westerner truly looking to master a language. Modern ‘pop’ Thai has so much English in it that speaking Thai correctly frequently involves learning how to speak English incorrectly.

I’ve often wondered if my slowness in picking up the French language was because I just wasn’t ‘French’ enough. In reality it probably has more to do with finding a French-speaking place that I like enough to hang around and learn the language. It’s hard to learn the language of a place you don’t especially like. There are very few places in the world where French, and French only, is spoken, especially since its quirkiness inspires simplified pidgins around the world, not necessarily mutually intelligible. French-as-a-second-language is only partially effective, also, since it’s the ability to comprehend the speech of others that is the true measure of one’s progress. Speech fluency itself is totally subjective, and subject to shifting motivations. If a Thai bar girl decides she doesn’t want to condescend to speak Thai with old man Chomsky, then he effectively can’t speak Thai, no matter how much he may indeed know, no matter that he may indeed be the ‘smartest person in the world.’ Many women also may see it as their duty to adopt the language of her husband when they’re from different backgrounds. Maybe that’s the ‘something borrowed’ being talked about. In Thailand if a girl has a checkered past and would rather play chess the acquisition of a foreign husband and/or some English language is one way to turn a pawn into a queen in a country where such things carry high status. In many other countries it would carry low or no status. In Asia ‘marrying up’ seems to have a long history which remains unchallenged to this day, whereas in the West such notions are largely discredited. About the time American women were declaring that they don’t want to be sex objects any more, Asian women were declaring, “We do!” The rest of course is history.

It’s hard to shut a foreigner out verbally, of course, when he can understand every word the locals say and jump into their conversation any time he wants. I personally like to watch the evening news to test myself and my comprehension in countries where I want to learn the language. The language of news is correct, well spoken, and getting the content itself is a motivation factor. The scuttlebutt was that Margaret Mead in fact couldn’t speak Samoan worth a damn, so what does that say? If true does that diminish her work? Do the sexual mores of Samoa depend on her command of the language? Take a lesson from the taxi drivers- if you see a short cut, then take it. What the American lady maybe didn’t realize is that to a Chinese person all languages are Chinese, whether the words are or not, nouns and verbs like meat and vegetables prepositioned into word-ordered recipes, chopped and stir-fried in a blazing hot wok, sparks gently slapping your face in light hot licks, and then emptied in front of your face on to the plate, a little pool of oil draining off to lubricate the rice. It’s all digital now; anything is possible when you can count to ten in base two and get 1010 without a bunch of ritualistic magic squiggles intervening. The complicated old conjugations and declensions are a thing of the past, outmoded formulas ‘going Chinese’ for greater speed and adaptability, isolating and analytic, every word equal and multi-tasking. English has long led the Germanic languages in this direction, as French has somewhat less for the Romance, coincidentally each the strongest nation in its linguistic family. Does heterosis, hybrid vigor, occur in language? Let’s ask Noam.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Thailand Redux: Jet Rag, Medical Tourism, and Government by Goons

Home is where the heart is, they say. I figure they’re right, so my idea is to make as many places in the world feel like home as possible, something of a network of safe havens, you know, just in case… just in case all that apocalyptic symbolism becomes more than a metaphor; just in case things don’t work out like I have planned for my life; just in case I have a case of incurable wanderlove and feel like I’d be happier following the sun than following orders… ouch! Somebody pinched me a little too hard there! Where am I anyway? Searching searching searching… for a memory, a point of reference, anything… oh yeah, I remember now. If it’s Sunday, then this must be Thailand, and if this is Thailand, then that pinch in the butt must have come from (sound of blankets rustling) aha! The memories come flooding back now. That was a pleasant dream, though, the little bit that I can remember through my jet lag haze. Obviously all safe havens are not created equal. You wouldn’t want to try this at home anyway; concepts of home and nomadism are mutually contradictory. In reality it turns out to be not much more than a travel ethic, to feel like you’ve lived in a place you visited, as opposed to just seeing the tourist sites. I’m the lousiest of tourists actually. Friends come visit the Golden Triangle region of Thailand, where I’ve lived more than half of the last ten years, and see more in one day than I’ve seen in my whole time here. I’m jealous. My ethic may or may not be more ethical, but being a tourist is probably more fun.

People travel for all sorts of reasons now. I almost feel like everyone’s following me around, or maybe I’m following them. First there was simple backpacking, back when you’d actually carry a sleeping bag with you, and maybe even a tent. Then there was adventure travel, seeking out remote areas simply because they’re there. Then there were the world craft searches, seeking out interesting ethnic arts for sale to the Homies back stateside. Then there were the blue gene tours, looking for potential recombinant DNA possibilities. These days medical tourism is catching on quickly, not surprising given the disparity between Eastern and Western medical costs and the fact that we’re all getting older. If the US Democrats get elected and institute a health care system, Thailand may be out of a job. Don’t worry; I’m sure we can find some other work for them to do. When the cost of a simple tooth extraction can mean the difference between a few dollars or a few hundred, the logic is as simple as the arithmetic. The opportunities are endless- root canal tours, hair transplant holidays, sex change vacations, etc. The only problem is that many procedures require multiple visits, that and the fact that a day-long trip to Thailand is usually counter-indicated for emergency care. If you may need multiple visits, of course you could just hang around a while, and voila! Another new industry is born, retirement care. Bring on the private nurses! The average nurse in Thailand with ten years experience makes about three hundred dollars a month, is between thirty-five and forty years old, single, speaks enough English to get past first base, and has a little smile cute enough to melt hardened hearts. Interested? Keep checking for a Google Ad to appear somewhere on this page, and then click on it. The robots and web spiders don’t seem too smart, though. I told you I’d help you cheat the Eurail Pass, and then their ad shows up a day later, so go figure. No matter what I talk about, the ads for Thai girls keep coming up, so that seems like a growth industry. I only wish I’d clicked on ‘Timbuktu- Know Before You Go,’ before I went.

Tourists can’t get the same rates for medical care as the locals here, part of Thaksin’s legacy, but you probably wouldn’t believe it if you did. Appendectomy for six dollars? I’d be scared maybe they left a lug wrench inside or something. Even so, my wife’s scar wasn’t pretty, but it was cheap. To some extent, you do get what you paid for. Going to an American dentist after my Thai dentist was like riding in a Cadillac after a VW beetle, but guess which one I can afford the easiest? I wouldn’t advise buying into the whole Thai system of health care, though. Conceptually it can be a bit disturbing, particularly in the overemphasis on antibiotics. The EU called them on it when they started using them as food preservatives in export food products, though. The dairy industry anywhere in the world is no better of course. Livestock feed routinely includes antibiotics. Still, Thai conceptions of health are quirky. For some reason, Thais get a form of diabetes that seems to come and go. It’s typically a contributory cause of death also, usually one of four for some reason. Maybe they’re right and there is no single cause of death. I advise just taking the mechanical treatments and leave the high concepts to others, maybe yourself. I passed a remote hospital in the Isan outback once advertising brain surgery. I’d pass on that, but some Bangkok hospitals are getting a world-wide reputation, and Chiang Mai’s certainly acceptable for most procedures. I went in to a hospital in Chiang Rai a few days ago to get my kidneys checked and it was okay, if a bit factory-like. X-rays and medical advice for less than ten bucks is hard to beat.

The health care is better than the government; that’s for sure. At least Thaksin’s regime had some bright faces and some bright ideas, even if the main man was, and is, a megalomaniac who brooks no competition, nor criticism. His second-team cronies are like a re-visit to the dark side, Darth and the boys. The premier seems to think nothing really happened back in the student massacre of 1976. He must be studying conspiracy theory like others study The Art of War. But you’re supposed to wait longer than thirty years before re-writing history. Even Germans alive during WWII do it, though, using logic to make the Nazis seem more human, even though Nazism wasn’t especially logical. They like to rationalize that they wouldn’t have treated their workers ‘like that’, as though Jews had applied for work at the day labor office for temporary assignment to Auschwitz. The new Thai Interior minister is father to the son who executed a police officer point-blank in a crowded bar a few years ago for the crime of stepping on his foot. After a long runaround giving his father time to grease palms he was cleared because no one really saw anything. Now it’s payback time for daddy I guess. Mix me a Molotov.

Anything sounds better than jet lag right now. For the uninitiated, that’s something between a hangover, an attack of sleeping sickness, and Coriolis effects. I’m writing this in the dark by the light of the TV in my room, in some new take on the Lincolnian ethic. The best movies on cable TV come on in the wee hours of the morning btw. When’s the last time you saw ‘Nashville’ or anything by Robert Altman for that matter? I miss him. I love it, a kind of signature American film, even where it falls short. It’s long and sprawling, funny without really trying too hard, meaningful while trying even less, just like the America he manages to capture perfectly in the rear-view mirror. Did you know that everyone wrote the songs they sang in that movie, even Henry Gibson? And the metaphor is perfect, too. I love America most through the rear-view mirror.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Globalization Reconsidered

America is a hard subject to talk about, because though I may be a warm-weather expatriate, I’m not an ex-patriot. I defend America against cheap shots all the time. If you want to take your shots with me in hearing distance, it’ll cost ya’. Mostly though I don’t want to make light of a tragic situation, but I’m more often accused of being ‘too heavy’ than ‘too lite’, so I’ll forge on. In my wildest dreams I’d like to shine some light on an increasingly tragic situation. Since my creative MO tends to be to put something heavy in a light format, please don’t misunderstand. My heart goes out to all those affected by the most recent mass murder on a college campus, as it went out to all those who went before, as it goes out to all those affected by the tragedies of Iraq, as it goes out to anyone who has ever been the victim of a death for anything other than ‘natural causes.’ I mean my heart really goes out. I mean my heart really really really goes out, to the point that I’m not sure if there’s anything left. I let my ‘virtual heart,’ a hypothetical entity constructed of memory and algorithms, cover most of the mundane tasks just to protect the real thing for emergencies. Marriage will do that to you. Some of the most intense love I’ve ever felt was when I was single with no prospects nor any desired, intensified through non-fulfillment I suppose. I could find love in a child’s smile, a kitten’s purr, or under a rock. “If tears could turn turbines… ,” but I’ve said all that before. The American golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” that’s sex. The Chinese equivalent, “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do unto you, that’s marriage.

So the body count of American mass murder victims and Islamic suicide bomber victims would seem to be in about a psychological dead heat, if not a statistical one, so maybe it’s time to ask just what the Hell is going on. Is this as much a part of our modern era as video-on-demand, universal wi-fi and low-carb diets? Have we come this far forward only to collapse in upon ourselves for lack of a compass to show us a better way? It’s not just Imperial America, nor Islamistan. It’s the whole world, nations and cultures becoming caricatures of themselves, either for lack of imagination or better options. Call it cultural drift. For example, when or where could you go in Latin America and not see political demonstrations, blocked roads, mass marches, or tin-horn dictators, both left and right, making fancy speeches that accomplish absolutely nothing? I’ve traveled in Latin America for thirty years and that has only increased with the increased freedom to do so. What has changed is the emergence of a middle class due largely to closer economic and political cooperation with the US, where many of their citizens have been and continue to go. I’m sorry if that’s not politically correct; I call them as I see them. All the labor strikes and political manifestaciones accomplish little.

Asia, where such things are generally proscribed by law or tradition, has surged far ahead economically from far behind a century ago. They’ve got other problems, though. When or where could you go in East Asia and not find stifling individual conformity, monopolistic greed, obsession with status and prestige, and educated women unwilling to look beyond the kitchen and the bedroom for self-fulfillment? None of that’s going away any time soon. The first thing ex-premier Thaksin did as premier of Thailand was to propose a law that would put all his competitors out of business. Nice guy. His political disciples were just re-elected while he celebrated in Hong Kong. When or where could you go in South Asia and not find a racist caste system, assembly-line prostitution, crushing poverty, and systematic social injustice? Though the caste system was abolished by the Indian constitution, it persists. Most temple prostitution was ended by the British during their rule, though it is rumored to still exist in the south. Literacy in India now hovers around fifty percent with women in lopsided disparity. Many historically have opted for Islam, where there is at least some caste-less dignity, especially for the darker-skinned people.

When or where would you go in the Arab or Muslim world and not find the subjugation of women, restricted personal freedoms, religious hypocrisy, and near enslavement of the lowest classes? This shows no improvement with the rise of religious fundamentalism. Saudi Arabia finally outlawed slavery in 1962, though Mauritania didn’t get around to it until 1980, and it is rumored to still exist. Though politically sensitive to discuss, much of the current problems in Darfur and Chad relate to the ongoing ‘Arabization’ of the Sudan and Sahel which tends to further reduce the status of African blacks, even when Muslim. It also reflects traditional rivalries between herders and planters. As elsewhere in Africa and other parts of the world and other historical times, herders tend to dominate their sedentary agricultural subjects, in some cases adopting the culture of the ruled, the better to rule them. When or where could you go in sub-Saharan Africa and not find the world’s worst poverty, a double-digit AIDS rate, and political corruption that creates and sustains the worst problems? Options are not much of an option when you’ve got a life expectancy about equal to that of a gorilla in captivity. Hit songs in Nigeria tell about duping Western suckers in the numerous scams that long pre-date the Internet.

Europe may offer the most hope these days, given their self-reinvention as a unit, if indeed that succeeds after two disastrous World Wars, seventy years of Communism and subsequent ‘ethnic cleansing’ that has left scars that will not heal any time soon. Northern Europe leads the world in political liberalism, social justice, and economic well-being, largely made possible by low population densities, high education levels, and lack of social divisions, but that’s not the half of it. The South and East are still locked in a medieval past of Machiavellian morality and Mafia-like institutions. Where would you go in the former Communist heartland and not find archaic industries, environmental degradation, massive unemployment, and political instability? Women are the biggest export these days except in a Soviet Union and Central Asia lucky enough to have significant oil deposits. If America is any different from the rest it may only be in the fact that you can find some of almost all the other pluses and minuses in one single country. The Pacific Northwest is as politically, environmentally and socially liberal as anywhere in the world though, like Scandinavia, short on ethnicity. The South has yet to rid itself totally of the same instincts that fostered slavery. The Rust Belt has environmental degradation and high unemployment to boot. Wall Street is second to none in corporate greed, nor Microsoft slack in its love of the Monopoly board.

Isn’t the danger of globalization the homogenization of culture and loss of traditions? If that means loss of prejudice, intolerance, degeneracy, and injustice, then it seems like we could use some of that if there were some reasonable standards of what to expect. Generic development is probably not a bad start, if socially and environmentally enlightened. Ironically America and Islam share some of the most dubious traits- religious fundamentalism, violence, and oil-based politics. At least America can still put a little ‘fun’ into fundamentalism; it goes down better with a little lead guitar. Those Muslims got no sense of humor. Maybe people will get so depressed that they will stop reproducing. That might be a blessing in disguise. Lower populations could likely solve all of our problems except one, racism. That’ll take some creative inter-breeding. Sounds good to me. We all started out as one people before the diaspora. Why not re-shuffle the deck?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sic Transit America, Schizoid and Free

Pardon the triple entendres, but those who know about these things say we triple Geminis are like that, chewing up and spitting out words the way others eat chips and dips. While the rest of you are slicing and dicing cucumbers with your HSN miracle chopper, we toss and mix metaphors into alphabet soups and salads that are sometimes hard to digest. I myself know little of astrological apocrypha, except that the Thai system and the European system are essentially the same, except with dates offset about three weeks. This would seem to undermine the credibility of the whole system since dates are supposedly the crucial determinant of the astrologically inherited traits. This is not to be confused with the Buddhist Triple Gem/Three Jewels of sangha (religious community), dharma, and Buddha, which I know a little bit about but again not much. Jainism, the other religion evolved in India from the native Hinduism, also has Three Jewels, but they’re different, right knowledge, right faith, and right action. I know that because I researched some Jainism after I picked up an interesting book in the Atlanta airport a few days ago called ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ by Sam Harris, whose qualifications I’m not certain of. I literally picked it up, at no cost, off the seat, where someone had left it, probably a Christian expecting further vindication of his faith. He didn’t get it. In it Mr. Harris does exactly what he accuses “Christians like yourself” of doing, “cherry-picking the Bible… to justify every impulse...”.

In the book, which I doubt I’ll finish, he proceeds to excoriate the three-thousand-year-old Old Testament for not being modern and politically correct, specifically in its defense of slavery. Should it have also correctly predicted the rise and fall of cigarette smoking and the increased tolerance of homosexuality? But those are still controversial issues, aren’t they? He makes no mention of the fact that the Jews themselves were long enslaved, hence opinion-worthy, nor that classical Athens was the original slave society, dyed in the wool, lofty notions of freedom and democracy developed in the leisure time allowed by double-digit slavery. Rome was founded on the same principles, only gradually supplanted by the slightly more modern notion of colonialism. I don’t mean to shift the blame, either to Greece or Harris, only to make the point that slavery really wasn’t such a big deal back then, more like the answer to the question, “So now what do we do with the prisoners?” The system only became morally repugnant when slaving became an end in itself and better options became available. In Asia not that long ago people sold themselves into slavery to pay off their debts. Variations on this theme still exist. Are Judeo-Christian motives suspect because they didn’t correctly predict the tides of history? But he goes even further, labeling America, and America alone, a ‘lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant.’ However true that may be, I hope he doesn’t exempt himself from the criticism. He probably does, since the whole treatise is directed ‘in-your-face’ style at ‘you Christians,’ only slightly mitigated by the fact that the occasional reference equally castigates Muslims, while allowing that we should know better since we’re a developed nation. Maybe we should and maybe we shouldn’t.

While laughing in Christians’ faces for wanting to believe in ‘intelligent design’, he makes no mention of the fact that all the most prominent physicists of our era not only believe(d) in God but anxiously scour the heavens looking for radio signals that would be proof of what? Intelligent what? A good Darwinist wouldn’t, nor would I frankly. The chances are about one in… how many planets are there out there? There may not be creationism in Evolution, but there may very well be some creativity. Can you really explain the difference between humans and chimps with only a two percent difference of some thirty thousand genes? I was taught that a good theory could be used for prediction. Tautologies like ‘survival of the fittest to survive’ may explain much of history beautifully, but predict little or nothing. Genetic drift and generalized neoteny may predict much, however incrementally, but that’s not Darwinism. He further attempts to diminish Christianity by comparing it to the superior doctrine of Jainism, a minor if articulate Hindu reform movement that today numbers some four million. That’s like comparing Buddhism to Sufism, or Islam to Unitarianism. Harris allows no feathering of edges- if Jesus was not divine, then Christianity is bunk. Is this enlightening? If someone can read the Sermon on the Mount and feel nothing resembling inspiration at some of the finest words and ideas ever written or spoken, as original as they are universal, as valid today as they were two thousand years ago, then I truly feel sorry for that person.

‘Conspiracy people’ go much farther than Harris in their indictment of America, but their arguments tend to more circular and un-provable. That’s the beauty of it. While indicting George and Prescott Bush and the entire Bush Brothers Band and every bird in every Bush going back to the Crusades for every evil from the hypothetical but invisible New World Order to the price of gas in Flagstaff, then they proclaimed in 2004 without the slightest trace of self-consciousness that, “we need four more years of Bush.” You need it, bro’; you need it more than me. I sense rising unemployment in conspiracy circles with a Democratic victory. So the whole world hates us and now we even hate ourselves. America is sick, very sick, mentally ill, to be exact. The fact that others may also be is little or no consolation. The fact that there seems to be no concern about it is even less so. Where is the clamor and outrage at the copy-cat mass murders of college students by college students? When Charles Whitman climbed the tower at UT Austin and proceeded with his slaughter some decades ago (immortalized in Kinky Friedman’s ‘Rumor of a Tumor’) it was a big deal. It should be a big deal! Mass murder is not normal! Ignoring high gas prices is one thing. Mass murder is another. Remember the first time gas prices jumped up over fifty cents a gallon in 1973 and laws were passed reducing speed limits to 55mph? Those laws persisted into the 90’s if I remember correctly. Nobody talks about that now with gas over three bucks a gallon, and it’s more than twice that in Europe. It’s the same with gun laws. Gun control used to at least be discussed, for God’s sake! But that was back when ‘liberal’ was not a dirty word, even though the same word used to apply to those same name-calling Republicans back when the freedom in question was free enterprise.

When those planes hit those towers, they must’ve been aiming straight for our psyche. Starting before that but given new impetus, we have truly lost our way as a nation. America is being ripped apart at the seams, not the divisions between states or regions, races or genders, but the divisions within each and every one of us. America’s future is uncertain. That’s not uncommon for a teenager in the throes and throws of growing pains, used to being the bully on the playing field, now reduced to threatening to take its ball and go home, and hearing the other kids cheer. The only defense of our militarism is that we’re naively trying to make things better in Iraq and Afghanistan, however misguided. It’s only a coincidence that we most frequently stick our big noses in where oil is at stake. So we lose ourselves in music and movies, bored with our lives and our wives, dreaming of fame and wilder sex. Hip-hop artists are among the richest entertainers in the world, while singing about their life on the streets. Our precious freedoms and way of life are reduced to the freedom to pursue wealth and conspicuous consumption. We have the finest health care system that money can buy and a level of obesity that would make a fry-bread-eater blush. There are no easy answers in a consumer society, because it’s not likely to be found in a box or a capsule. It’s more likely to be found in a book or a long walk or a long talk with your spouse, or maybe even a little religion, either ol’ time or New Age will do. You gotta’ believe in something, something else.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Long Way Home from Africa to Thailand

This trip as a whole has been basically a salvage operation- initial shock, kicked while down, and arduous comeback. Maybe I was unfair to Africa, with unrealistic expectations. After all Thailand has its share of unsolicited guides and scammers, too. I’ve just long learned how to deal with them. But nothing was what it was supposed to be, just the opposite usually. Africa being dirt poor, it should have been dirt cheap, right? Not quite. That lack of development means that any development will be very expensive. What kind of role model is France anyway, with its monopolies and protections and labor strikes? Paris is retail incarnate, a boutique country for those with time and money. Ironically and conversely Marseille is very reasonable, as if the industrial revolution never really arrived in the southern ‘old’ Europe. Rome certainly has none, but it makes up for that with millions of tourists. Others aren’t so lucky, or unlucky, depending on your point of view. The industrial revolution was not pretty, probably the reason it caught on first in Britain and only later on the continent. Artisans working in their workshops are certainly more romantic than sweat shop assembly lines.

In another example of misplaced expectations the picturesque villages I expected to see in Africa seemed even more so in rural Spain, especially between Madrid and Zaragoza, almost even more African in fact. Those spires look less like Christian steeples than Islamic minarets, and villages seem to be perched high on hills for protection in a futile feudal world. The houses themselves are mud inspired, like negative space, something carved out of block rather than something erected from components, something more feminine than masculine. This would seem to be the connection between the adobe pueblos of northern New Mexico and western Africa including Morocco. The word ‘adobe’ after all comes from the Egyptian via Arabic and Spanish; so did the building techniques I think. The original Indians had to use rock or we would hardly even know of them after five hundred years, like the dirt ‘Indian mounds’ of the Mississippi Culture. Mud’s good but not that good. I suspect the true adobe pueblos of the northern Rio Grande were of later design. Of course the buses all pass these places by, just like they do in Mali and Morocco, so one is left largely to one’s imagination.

In the wildest science fiction scenarios, if the countryside were ignored, it could conceivably cease to exist. Once we’re accustomed to boarding the plane, closing our eyes, then waking up in some strange place, then how do we know that we really traversed all the distance between? One account of Australian aborigines relates how every piece of the landscape has a story associated with it. The researcher was overwhelmed when driving across that some landscape, as the speech was too fast to follow! What if the world were vertical, not horizontal? How would you know if you didn’t physically experience the distances and relationships between your points of measurement? Such scenarios seem absurd, but form the premises of many Hollywood movies of the past decade, The Matrix trilogy possibly being the best example. Like the best conspiracy theories, none of it can be disproved, and that’s the beauty of it, and the danger. By the same token, the most successful scientific theory ever, quantum mechanics, is totally foreign to common sense, and it has been proven over and over and over. Prime time on TV was once devoted to a theory that the moon landing was a hoax, and those people are not stupid, however misguided. I got sucked into the notion myself, for a day or two. But the transition from reality to fantasy is rarely shown in the movies, nor is the act of conspiracy ever revealed in real life. Both depend on a leap of logic to retrofit the past to fit present circumstances. I’ve lost friends to the warm fuzzy logic of Conspiracy. You can’t rescue them. You can only maintain communication and an arm outstretched. It’s up to them to grab hold, or not. They tend to think that we’re the ones who need help. Moral of the story: maybe common sense can’t always be trusted, but solid evidence and double-blind-controlled testing can; and don’t get so lost in a buzz-box that you forget to experience the world for yourself.

But the reason I stopped in Spain anyway was so that I could speak the language in case I needed emergency medical care. Well in Barcelona everybody knows Castellano, but only grudgingly use it, if they’re local. Welcome to Quebec. Catalan is the big deal, and you could get lost if you can’t read it. Appropriately it falls somewhere between standard Spanish and standard French in the spectrum of Romance languages, so it’s not impossible, at least to read. If a local makes you for a tourist, though, he could refuse your Castellano. If some trinket vendor’s got a language erection and wants to stick it in your face, then he’ll do that, to gain the upper hand so to speak. Welcome to psycholinguistcs and ESL, the empire as a second language. So much for Spain feeling like home because of the language; home is more complicated than that. Still I’d rate Spain as probably the coolest place to be in Europe right now, experiencing a renacimiento after decades of Franco’s strong-hand darkness. A cheap country doesn’t necessarily mean a good country, though, right? Right, Mr. Prez? Still, Spain is not too expensive, about like the US. Hostales will even give you the full set of keys, so you can come and go as you please. In Marseilles they lock the doors before midnight. In Spain, the party’s just starting at midnight.

I didn’t see many Gypsies in Europe this time, just one group camped with all their belongings at the Barcelona bus station, giving new meaning to the word ‘furtive’. What’s Europe without Gypsies? In Spain they toss the word around a lot, mostly in connection with Flamenco music, a la ‘Gypsy Kings’. Those guys obviously speak a dialect of Spanish, not Roma, though Iberian gypsies are apparently of Roma ancestry, originally at least. Flamenco music and dance has obvious connections with Arab culture and song; they did have significant cultural inter-mixing over the course of seven hundred years. In Spain flamenco bands are a dime a dozen, but the Gypsy Kings had a hit. That’s the difference. In Senegal a Gypsy Kings video on TV was titled ‘salsa’ music. That sounds like a line item cultural mutation. In East Europe Gypsies are not so highly prized culturally. There are lots of them, and for the most part unassimilated. They’re despised. Music could possibly be a selling point for them, as it is for many cultural minorities. This is one good thing about world music. It might just save the world, if it can save itself. Global warming and over-population can ultimately be solved; it’s just a question of time. Racism is the one problem that can’t be solved by controlling emissions, exhaust or otherwise. It can only be solved by intermixing, culturally if not otherwise. This is the role of America, both north and south, a test tube for societies and environments in turbulence. Europe doesn’t know the half of it. When is the last time Chinese New Year and Carnaval fell in the same week? It should have been a riot. It wasn’t. It was quiet. The parties were elsewhere. Where would be a good place to experience both Chinese New Year and Carnaval? I’d vote for San Francisco.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Rewind to America, but don’t forget about G…..

I guess it’s time to go home when the pizza that looked and tasted so good the first day in Marseille starts looking and feeling like pasty flesh hanging over my belt after three or four. People probably make fun of me for cooking noodles and veggies in my room, but it works, I assure you, and I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about health. I used to eat all that greasy starchy restaurant food back in my career as a trade show geek. I felt like shit most of the time. That ‘campout feeling’, that lack of mental clarity and general malaise, does not come from not bathing. The last week in France proved that. It comes from no vitamins. Two or three years ago in Mexico I finally said, “Ya basta!” after running out late into the Mexican night to find an open pharmacy with vitamins available. It worked. If I go a few days without veggies, maximum one week, I start failing to boot. So I started making my own meals, limiting the street food to once a day at most. Vitamin pills work, too, but not the cure-all. When you get old, you start playing for keeps. It’s just like my old pickup; the older it got, the more maintenance it needed. If Doonesbury went into shock twenty years ago realizing, “We’re our parents!”, then now imagine what I feel like realizing, “I’m my old pickup!” At least I’m not a trade show geek any more. There was a major one going on while I was in Barcelona and I didn’t even go. I used to seek these out to look for wood-carving customers, Paris Frankfurt London, all of them. Music festivals are more fun.

So it’s time to rewind the tape and re-trace my steps. That contradicts my rule number one- ‘backpack, don’t backtrack’, but it really doesn’t matter when you’re flying. Every thing looks pretty similar from thirty-five thousand feet. Airports are certainly all pretty much the same, except maybe for Iceland. Landing at Reykjavik International is like landing on the moon. The landscape is quite similar in fact, except for all the water in Iceland, in profuse solid liquid and gas forms at all times. Iceland in fact is the only place where the mid-Atlantic ridge juts above the water line, so it’s a geologist’s wet dream, spewing and sputtering and bursting at the seams. That is where new land is oozing out and spreading the continents apart. There are places where you can see that graphically. I’m more interested in the movements of the sun and moon. When we landed there a month ago a fresh snow had just fallen, so it was pretty surreal. Accordingly the sky was pretty cloudy that day, so it was hard to fix the positions of the sun, but it didn’t seem so weirdly dark, just like a very grey day for about six hours. They’re on GMT, so the timing seemed strange, too.

So the return trip started off uneventfully enough. I showed up early at the Marseille train station to catch the TGV to Paris. The station is not closed off from the tracks so it’s pretty cold, but not as bad as my arrival, raining like hell. The only heat are a few vertical space heaters that people crowd around till done, kind of like human Doner kebabs turning from red to brown. What is that stuff, anyway, mock leg of lamb? It tastes OK, so I’ll reserve judgment. The TGV runs like clockwork, over five hundred miles in three hours fifteen minutes. It’s like a plane taking off that never really leaves the ground. All in all, it’s not a bad deal for the buck, just enough time to pause and reflect before the fast rewind from Paris back to the US. So it’s all over but the Visa bill, or is it? The flight to Iceland and the connection there went smooth enough, down from the sunny skies on to snow-bound landscape, parallel realities that have co-existed since time immemorial. Skies are usually sunny at 35,000 feet, unless it’s night time. Down below it’s different. We occupy a thin stratum of habitability here in the troposphere, where solids and liquids and gases can coexist and light breaks into a full spectrum unknown and unknowable five miles up or five miles down.

For some reason I got a window seat on the final leg from Reykjavik to JFK. I don’t know why. I almost always get the aisle, the faster to make my connection. \After we took off, the area around Iceland was cloud bound for more than an hour, ho hum. I never got to see the northern lights either. Fortunately I saw them my first hour in Fairbanks. I need to see them again. We connected. It’ll have to wait. Then the clouds broke below. The water looked strange, like cottage cheese, the homemade kind, not pasteurized, where the liquid has separated. It must be ice, little wavelets frozen into lumps and ridges. We’re moving into a different part of the Atlantic, out of the Gulf Stream’s soothing waters that keep England green at latitudes that delight the polar bears in Canada. The ice thickens, not because of anything happening to it, but because we’re moving closer… to what? I look up and there is a massive ridge of ice on the horizon, but not horizontal. It’s vertical, cold and erect in a permanent salute to a higher power. I break my gaze long enough to check the flight map on the video screen. Oh my God! It’s Greenland! While the rest of the crowd turns their attention to the opening credits to Dustin Hoffman’s ‘Magorium’ or some such Hollywood fantasy, I watch as the wall of ice comes nearer and nearer, transfixing me in the process.

I was not prepared for what came next any more than I was prepared for what came in Mali. We proceeded to fly directly over the southernmost corner of Greenland and some of the most ruggedly beautiful landscape I have ever seen in my like, the world’s largest island, distantly related to Antarctica, unspoiled by the machines and machinations of man, virgin landscape proud and defiant. Only Antarctica itself could have been more comely, but I haven’t been able to justify a Buenos Aires to Melbourne flight yet. I will. Imagine what a flyover of Greenland or Antarctica would cost should you want to purchase such! In a word, the cost would be prohibitive, and that would be low altitude and high risk. This was the bird’s eye view from seven miles up where the troposphere pauses before becoming stratosphere and I myself pause in deep reverence to something much larger than me and my silly mental feedback. If there is a God, then He looks a lot like Greenland, solids subliming into gases, patiently waiting their turn until summer when they can get liquid again, warm wet and wild. I gaze spellbound as the plane continues on into the sunset; leaving Iceland at 5pm and landing in New York at 6pm, the whole trip is in sunset. Nobody seemed to notice. It’s almost as if nothing had really happened. I know differently. I’ve seen something you don’t normally see, unless you’re an airline pilot, and not likely even then. Greenland is the opposite of the northern lights, solid and forbidding, the perfect husband to Aurora’s electric mood swings, they making love over the northern landscape where humans don’t dare to tread, not lightly at least. The trip has had its epiphany at the last moment, and I’ve been thoroughly rebuked. Everything is NOT the same at 35,000 feet. It’s nice to be wrong. But it’s not really over yet, is it? Next week I go back to Thailand.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Marseille without Bars, American without Tears

So first this was supposed to be a European trip, focusing on the Arctic, with a side trip to Africa. Then it became a Mali trip, with a side trip to Norway. Then it became something else altogether. Why the interest so far north? Well, I’ve got an obsession with the Arctic, and I’m considering writing a travel book on it, so I gotta’ see it in the depth of winter, too, just to know what it’s like. It’s not exactly like I’m chasing the Chukchis in Siberia or anything like that. The west coast of Norway, and Iceland, are the greatest temperature anomalies in the world, with the possible exception of Lima, Peru. The temperature there, right at the Arctic Circle, in the dead of winter, is about the same as Flagstaff, Arizona, cold but tolerable, and much much darker. That’s what I needed to see. That’s the definition of ‘otherworldly’ for me, watching the sun rim the horizon, a few degrees above being summer, a few degrees below being winter. Phenomena like this can give real empirical clues that the old sun gods driving chariots across the sky were a little weirder then the ancients imagined. In reality, however, explaining the actions of Venus’ was probably the bigger clue. Even as late as Marco Polo’s era, readers were astounded that he didn’t fall off down there rounding SE Asia. Columbus read carefully. Anyway, that still doesn’t mean I want to do my big Norway adventure in darkness, so when I got the good Iceland Air rate to Europe with stopover included, that was an easy fix. It’s hard to pack for the Arctic and Africa at the same time, though, so I’m not really prepared for cold and wetness. I tend to put about as many miles on my shoes as my Dad put miles on the tires of his Gremlin, so they’re about falling apart by now. If the sky gets cloudy, my feet start getting wet just out of habit.

So it turned out to be something of a European trip after all. That’s the nice thing about multiple flight segments rather than one long round-trip from Arizona to Africa. Not only can you save money, and get stopovers, but you can cancel out partially and still salvage the trip. Actually, even losing half my Air France flight and buying the one-way on Iberia, I probably still came out cheaper than round-trip Arizona-Africa. Air France just laughed when I suggested that some consideration for a ‘medical emergency’ would be nice, since I’d taken the trouble to cancel my return and all. Maybe I’ll get the frequent-flyer miles anyway. But Europe’s still nice, even with the new weaker ‘bushy’ dollar. It’s hard not to like a place that names its main cities after sausages and mystery meats, e.g. Frankfurt, Hamburg, Vienna, etc. Budget airlines are proliferating like Thai food restaurants, threatening the old state-subsidized flag-carriers and giving real options for budget travel. The only problem is that you miss the scenery in between. This is ominous in an era when the real social and economic gaps in the world are between urban and rural. Our brothers and sister in the outback are in danger of being forgotten. This is especially dangerous in poorer countries that are heavily centralized. Fortunately most of our north European heritage is less like that, probably why it took them so long to show up in the history books. This is the good thing about Internet and advance telecommunications. It allows civilization’s greatest accomplishments to accommodate, and exist in communion with, Nature.

So life starts to take on a certain regularity after a few days, wherever you go. That’s not tourism; that’s traveling. Marseille is no different. I walk down the main thoroughfare of La Canebiere, named for its historical hemp, every day as if it were my own. It always looks different at night. I try to avoid getting hit by the streetcars that are so quiet they sneak right up on you. ‘Desire’ was noisier than that I believe, all clanging and clattering and keeping me awake at night. I check the price of avocadoes every day out of habit, dumbfounded at prices that vary from one to three dollars a pound. There are no wi-fi cafes here, but that doesn’t matter, since I can usually steal a signal from the fancier hotel next door. I check my e-mail and see how work is going for the Dengue Fever concert I’m promoting. I check to see if I’ve got any export business. I check to see if I’ve got the rejection notice for my novel yet. I send out this little message in a bottle as if I somehow know it’ll come back to me with interest paid, in love if not money. I’ve even been reading my junk mail, something I rarely do. I still don’t check to see how Amber1967 looks at 40; that’s a little too spammy for me. I’ve stopped working out every morning to avoid antagonizing my longsuffering kidneys, but that’s probably not a bad idea anyway in a place where showers cost five Euros a pop. I take a long walk or two a day instead, trying to discover new neighborhoods. I stick post-it notes on my laptop as if it were my office. I maintain an intravenous (coffee) drip, so that I won’t fall asleep at my keyboard and wake up to find myself in the Matrix. I’ve learned to eat Nutrella, which I’ve long noticed imported to Thailand, but never given a fair trial. It’s not bad, on bread for breakfast or whenever, even makes a decent cup of hot chocolate.

French TV is all backwards, though, ‘Days of Our Lives’ on at 9am and the good science documentaries on after midnight, but that’s OK. I’m just trying to understand the French. They’ve got Hannah Montana of course, Billy Ray’s achy breaky daughter. ‘Hunter’ re-runs still play here. That’s weird, but not as weird as ‘Alf’ reruns playing in Peru. At least Hunter’s a person. I’m not sure what time the flab-&-abs exercise ads come on. I try to keep up with the Clinton-Obama match-up. According to French TV, les Americains sont fatiguees’ de Bush. Tired of Bush? That’s an understatement. According to another columnist, Obama is the cowboy hero riding in to save the day and secure the happy ending for America and the rest of the world. Maybe they’re right, but I’d take whichever candidate can beat the oil mongers. The French liked Jerry Lewis after all. I go change money, since my hotel takes no plastic and the ATM’s are a rip-off internationally now. They even changed my West African CFA francs, not surprising here in Little Africa I guess, so that’s cool. I’m so blissfully bored I’ve even considered shaving my beard, which I started on the long train ride in Mali, then became attached to. Don’t tell my wife. It’s nice to be able to be bored anywhere in the world. It’s like home, not some border-town curio market with over-zealous salesmen hustling and hassling and drawing lines in the sand between us. I walk the red-light district after dark, listening to the cooing and purring of tired old service workers who probably got too old for Pigalle and came to work the provinces. They’re trying to get all romantic calling out from sleazy bars in dirty alleys. It doesn’t work that way. The desire for youth and beauty are hard-wired into our urges for merges like footnotes to an evolutionary dead end, sacrosanct and inviolable even when we’re just going through the motions. Almost anybody would rather go to Amsterdam and see young filles from anywhere and everywhere ready to get all Germanic for a lot less. Me, I’m just looking for halibut. Boredom can be dangerous.

I feel like Nitiphoom Naowarat, the guy on Thai TV, who travels around the world to check the prices of rice on the shelf and to see if they’re from Thailand. He interviews Thai people around the world as if they were really Chinese who just… don’t go there. He’ll go anywhere that hates America or globalization, so that he can join in the demonstration, donning the local garb and banging a drum. He even got his Ph.D. from Moscow University, but long after the USSR had folded. It’s easy to be Communist when it’s all over. He came in first in the elections for Senator in 2006. He even helped stir up sentiment against Thaksin, so that’s cool. He was doing just fine until a phone conversation was leaked to the Internet of him in a dispute over a half million dollar debt in a five million dollar business deal gone sour. I guess he doesn’t look so revolutionary anymore. But mostly he travels to interesting places, and then does nothing. I like that. What are you supposed to do anyway once bar-hopping is a thing of the past? You find pleasure elsewhere. I’ve seen hepatitis-C friends go through this for years, and now it’s my turn. I may never go back, even when the kidneys are healthier. The thrill of intoxication has slipped a notch or two over the years, thank God. The bars don’t represent a prison so much as a waste of time. There’s only one vice left; fortunately the ulamas OK’d it long ago for halal consumption. I’ll have a double macchiato, espresso with a head of steamed milk. It’s the drug of choice.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

If Tails Toulouse I Won’t; If Heads Marseille I Will

So I left Barcelona in the middle of the night. The rains had already started by then. I thought maybe I’d get lucky and ride out of it, but no such luck. By the time I got to Marseille, it was worse, God taking a dump on us, rain falling in sheets and wind blowing up a storm. We pulled in at six in the morning, I oblivious to most of the trip, though somewhere we changed drivers, probably at the Spain/France border. If Customs or immigration did anything, I’m not aware of it. They did upon arrival at the bus station in Marseille, running a sniffing-dog through the bus, regardless of the fact that people have already gotten off en route. The French police like to make a show of things, especially in Paris at the terminus of the route from Amsterdam. France is not sympathetic to any loosening of recreational drug laws. Alcohol is the drug of choice by tradition. You just don’t smoke joints by candle light and whisper “Je t’aime” in a breathy swoon. I guess it’s just not romantic. I don’t know why not. They don’t have any problem doing the same with cigarettes. I read today that France is the last country in Western Europe to outlaw smoking in public places. Four years ago the thought that any of them could do that was unthinkable. Ireland was the first, believe it or not, they of pub culture exported world-wide. So now cigarette smokers seek out open doorways in the train station like wi-fi scum looking for a signal. When they find them, they stand right in them, as though an open door were not a passage but an invitation to congregate. This was a conceptual problem already that smokers have co-opted for themselves.

Marseille has some of the cheapest rooms I’ve seen in a developed country in a long time, unheard-of prices like fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five dollars a night. Every room seems to have its own particular price, I guess based on square footage. That doesn’t mean they’ll have a shower, though, and if they do, you might have to pay extra for it. Thus the reputation of Frenchmen is confirmed by the system. We all knew they seem to carry a heavier bacterial load than most Westerners, we just didn’t know why. In France bathing is optional. Smells from laboratories sell well. When the first cheap hotel I inquired about told me there were no showers, I thought she meant there were no showers in the room, i.e. down the hall. She meant none, period. The rooms have sinks, though, so I guess you can take a whore’s bath, whatever that is, in addition to whatever else a guy might do with a sink, considering the crapper’s down the hall. I could use some help here, not being French, so I’ve considered offering a whore money to let me watch her bathe, but I don’t know if she’d do it. It’s probably too kinky. Those rooms don’t even have an electrical outlet, much less TV, or curtains on the window. Now if there’s something scarier than the fact that there are thousands of Frenchmen walking the streets in various stages of un-wash, which we already knew, it’s that they might be giving themselves a mop-job and whatever else over a sink by an open window while God and the whole world looks on. Better leave the kids home on that European vacation.

In North America rooms this cheap would have long been overrun by junkies or closed by order of the local government. Junkies don’t need showers either. That’s the way it is in Vancouver, BC, Canada. You can smell them coming. Apparently half our genes are devoted to smell. Now you know why. That leaves room for a lot of creativity in Evolution by the way. But the junkies in Van City don’t care about that; they have another concern. They also have their own district between the upscale part of Gastown and Chinatown. They roost like vultures, gravitating to the sunlight and surveying the terrain for easy pickings. Zoologists probably go there to study their feeding and mating habits, if they still have any. Marseille just has winos, good old fashioned bums begging coins for booze. I don’t know where they sleep, probably on the street. The cheapest hotels close their doors at ten, eleven or midnight latest. That’ll keep the riffraff out. This is a part of Europe scarcely known or acknowledged anymore, the old Europe, mostly southern and eastern, of poverty and degeneracy and petty crime, far from the tourists and modern development, wherever unemployment is rife and competition for scarce resources is fierce. A tourist concentrating on these areas could see Europe almost as cheap as anywhere in the world, certainly as cheap, or cheaper, than West Africa. This includes much of Portugal, southernmost Spain, southern France west of the Riviera and Italy from Naples south, in addition to most of the East European countries. Conversely the New Europe of budget airlines and capitalistic fervor hasn’t even scratched the surface here yet. There is no bus to Paris and the cheapest one-hour flight is four hundred bucks. So I’ll take the TGV. There’s no choice. International buses have cheap rates and traverse the country, but they don’t serve local routes. Welcome to France. Enter Sarkozy.

So I opted to go a half-notch upscale. For forty bucks and change net, I get some old European style with rough beams in the ceiling (including fake adze marks), a large bed, six stations of French TV, a sink, and… a bidet. I’ve got a bidet in my room, but no bath. Crapper and shower are down the hall, five euros to bathe. While I contemplate the ceiling beam right over the bidet and the multiple uses to which a nylon rain poncho might be put, I remember the scene in Tropic of Cancer (or was it Capricorn?) where Henry Miller’s American friend used the bidet to lighten his intestinal load to the chagrin of… well, everybody, but especially… the whores taking their whore’s bath. Now I’m getting the picture. Hey, I want my five Euros back! Even funnier was my architecture professor at Jackson State trying to explain the concept to the down home bloods who’d probably used outhouses during childhood. When he could get a word out at all between stifling his grins and muffling his guffaws, he called them ‘bidgets.’ I’d read Henry Miller so I knew what he was talking about, despite the bad French, but the rest of the class was lost. So we shared a bond there, derriere la scene, united in our imaginary knowledge of the ways of the world, while the peasants wallowed in their ignorance.

Marseille is a fast food paradise. That’s good considering that sit-down meals would be about the same price as the cheap rooms. I’m in the shawarma part of town, little Africa. If you want bouillabaisse, then that’s another quarter. Moroccans here seem right at home, sipping mint tea in sidewalk cafes, while their wives stay at home and do all the work, just like good little Tangerines back home, ‘the other TJ’. There are Asians here, but they seem fairly Frenchified, offering lunch specials with wine. The Vietnamese restaurants don’t even have pho’, the national dish, good old rice-noodle soup. Pizza is ubiquitous, and good. Kebabs and frites line every corner. The bakeries are to die for, of course. Me, I try to limit myself to fast food no more than once per day, not because of restaurant fatigue, but high carbs and boredom. So I cook noodles in my room and make sandwiches to order. The space between my window and the outside shutters makes a fine fridge, thank you. They have a combination cranberry/mango juice here, so all is right with the world. Kidney stones are in remission and I’m taking the TGV to Paris Sunday. I’ve got a wi-fi signal in my room, just by accident. Plan C just might salvage this trip yet. I’ve had visions of Marseilles for a long time. I don’t want to sound spooky like I had a premonition or something, because after all, I could’ve gone to Toulouse, but I think I always thought Marseille might be a part of France I’d like. It’s hard to learn the language of a place you don’t really like, after all. For me to enjoy a place is to internalize it, know it’s insides until I feel like a local. What cathedral? What statue? Show me the produce section.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Fat Saturday in Barcelona

Carnavalistas took to the streets Saturday here in Barcelona for what is the biggest day of Carnaval here. For a big city, the parade is small town, hardly Rio or even N’awlins, but still fun, nice to ‘happen into’ spontaneously. If nothing else it’s nice to see the various communities show up in costume, Bolivians, Peruvians, Colombians, and even Filipinos. So now it’s a European trip, Africa just a stamp in my passport, a fistful of unconvertible money, and a mirage in my rear-view mirror. I guess it’s time to do a Joe-Bob-drive-in-movie-review style head-count denoument. Let’s see: there were thirteen days, two countries, two unsolicited parasitic guides, twenty-six approaches from ‘friends’, (at least) one stalker, one whorehouse, one live band, no alcohol, no sex (with anyone else), two physical attacks from inside, no physical attacks from outside, two hotels, two flights, one train ride, five taxis, two taxi over-charges, forty-two boobs (African women are not obsessed with covering themselves, even, or especially, on long train rides), and I only got lost once, late at night, in Dakar, got confused at a five-way intersection and proceeded off at a forty-five degree angle with a bounce in my step. That’s what one of the taxi rides was for. They usually know the way back if you’ve got a landmark. It’s also helpful to know the name of your hotel. So I guess that’s not so bad. It could have been worse. I could have been beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Actually I’ve hardly ever been robbed in thirty years and fifty countries, and all of those were in Latin America.

Africa is an eye-opener. From Bamako to Dakar you can pretty much go from one extreme to the other, from the most remote unchanging village culture to the brashest urban one, from a place that’s never really waken up to one that never really sleeps. Yes, there’s reverse racism, however benign and yielding. When an unsolicited guide latches on to you and takes you for a ride, literally, that’s a form of racism. When the train ticket office blatantly overcharges you, then that’s racism. They don’t do that to blacks, I assume, certainly not the locals. They probably don’t do it to fluent French speakers either. Interestingly enough, that’s the part of the world where Islamic jihad has been most prominent, virtually transforming the landscape back in the 1800’s at more or less the same time as the colonial powers were “scrambling” to claim the continent. This was the last prize in colonialism, long after most of Latin America had already won its independence and joined the community of nations as little brother to Europe. That ‘Islamicization’ and ‘Arabization’ continues to this day, spreading southward with the desert and investment funds from oil-rich Arab countries.

I guess I’ll have to go back. I still have over a hundred bucks worth of CFA francs and they seem unconvertible here in Spain. I’ll try again in France, but I’m not optimistic. Why would they have anything like a currency exchange booth in the airports departures area when you could deal with some scumbag in a dark alley outside instead? And we wonder why Africa is so far behind. It’s just one last little annoyance, something to stiffen my resistance at being defeated. Fortunately that same currency is used in many countries of Africa, so all is not lost. I could contact some guy named Victor whose name I was given here in Barcelona, but… naah. I doubt that Victor’s rates are very good. Do you see those little Google ads that crop up saying ‘Timbuktu- Know before you go’? I wish they’d come up before I went. And Timbuktu is supposed to be the expensive place in Mali, not Bamako. I guess rooms there are a hundred bucks a night minimum. Jeez… and to think I complained last year about paying thirty-five euros at midnight for an Arabesque room in Casablanca that the Figueroa Hotel in LA would only emulate for twice the price. It’s all relative to expectations and budget. Put me on an expense account and I’ll never complain again. All those people who love Mali must fall into that category. But Africa is a trip. Its people are one of the world’s three great races, in distinctness if not in sheer numbers. The others are the Asian and Caucasian, of course. What’s ‘Caucasian’ mean, anyway, caulked Asian? Chalky Asian? The term is a misnomer, pulled out of a hat some two hundred years ago and now we’re stuck with it. By accident it could be right, and people without pigment might have formed their original population pool north of the bottle-necked mountainous Kavkaz region. Who knows? Most sources now postulate about ten races or physical types total, almost half of them in the South Pacific region. Now what does that say about the patterns of human migration and evolution?

So now for me it’s Europe, Spain, wide boulevards and lively plazas, mercados y siestas. Most of the things I like most about Mexico can be found right here in Spain, except Indians and low prices. It could be worse, like in high season, but definitely pricier than the US, especially with Bush’s newer weaker dollar. The last time the dollar was this weak was the early 70’s. Hmm, I wonder, what did the early 70’s have in common with the current era? Once again, we’re caught between Iraq and a hot place. At least there’s Chinese food here, so I’m happy. Dakar had some, but pricey, even some Vietnamese washed up on the shores of Francophony. They probably wish they could go back now. So the trick is to find the Chinese restaurant with a buffet. I did, and so has every other construction worker in town. For no more than the price of an English breakfast here, you can get the full Chinese spread. Yes, there are the ubiquitous British ex-pats even here. Of course what they call ‘English breakfast’ here is really an American breakfast, with hash browns and eggs. A real English breakfast includes stewed tomatoes and baked beans with sausages and eggs. I guess it makes your spouse look more appetizing first thing in the morning. You wouldn’t believe the expressions I’ve seen on foreigners’ faces at B&B’s in the UK when faced with such a display. It’s not cheap, either, so most places, in London at least, go Continental-style now. But the buffet is what Chinese food is supposed to be, cheap and good and plentiful. A ‘Chinese table’ (full of food presumably) tends to be among the more expensive types of food in Thailand, strangely enough, considering the racial make-up of the country. Spain is not lo-carb capital of the world, so the choice is easy between starchy greasy Spanish food or all-you-can-eat Chinese food at half the price. That’s a lo-brainer. I’ve got a water boiler, so I could eat instant noodles in my room, add veggies to taste, but the noodles are a buck a pack here, same in Africa. In the US, they’re fifteen cents, same as Thailand. There’s no roast chicken in grocery stores here, either, my staple food. I even found that in Dakar, but not Mali, of course. Mali’s the real thing.

Barcelona is pretty nice, especially down here in ‘Las Ramblas’. This is the maze surrounding the old original city. It’s not as Byzantine as the old Jewish quarter in Seville, but yeah, you could get lost in there. It’s called ‘la Gotica’, so I guess Goths are more organized than Semites. There’s lots of Gaudi architecture surrounding the city, of course. What I like here now are all the human statues lining the ‘Las Ramblas’ pedestrian thoroughfare. I first saw these last year in the Canary Islands, humans dressed in historical garb of choice, poised like a statue, unmoving, tip jar conspicuously placed, quite convincing. Well by now they’ve multiplied like mushrooms in Mississippi cow shit, so there are dozens on this one strip (in February, mind you), but mostly uninspired, just elaborately costumed, standing there hardly even striking a pose. There goes the neighborhood. Coincidentally I’ve found a park bench on the same strip where I can get a wi-fi signal (carefully monitoring the birds overhead), so I’m a regular now there, too, and quite the novelty apparently. Yesterday a tourist came up and asked if he could take my picture. No tourist has asked to take my picture since I ate noodle soup with the little bald-headed hill-tribe girl twelve years ago up in Sapa, North Vietnam. We were a cute couple, but that hardly counts, since geeky Vietnamese tourists do little but take pictures when they travel, mostly of each other. Well, my mama didn’t raise a fool, not many anyway, so today when I go back out to use wi-fi I’m going to take my hat off and place it conspicuously. This could be a major career move. It’ll be short, though. Tomorrow I go to France. I thought about doing a day trip to Andorra just to put another country under my belt, but… well… stay tuned.

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