Saturday, February 28, 2009


My first impression of Malta driving in from the airport: WOWW! Jesus! God! Baal and his brother (Z.) Bub! My second impression the next day: WOW. My third impression a full twenty-four hours after the first: wow? But that’s still good, because I’m not much the ‘wowie zowie’ type like some of my xxxx’s anyway. Ask anyone; but you know that already, don’t you? Even though I’m American, I’m not a loud extrovert, rather more the European exxi-stenchy type, a French shrug long incorporated into my vocabulary of body language and a German glare ready just in case. But Malta’s pretty incredible, ‘the island fortress’ lying exposed mid-Mediterranean as waves of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Normans, and assorted Crusading Knights, Teutons, and Hospitallers all took a poke at her and tested her resilience and hospitality and longevity. The British were not to be left out of course and proceeded to fashion one of the most interesting of their proxy island/city/states, moreso maybe even than Hong Kong, Trinidad, Singapore, Gibraltar or Penang. Apparently Malta passed the tests of time. The stories are legendary even if you’re not a conspiracy nut, but it’s interesting to see how it all played out, if indeed it’s yet time to draw conclusions.

Some facts about Malta may surprise you (I already told you they speak a dialect of Arabic)- Malta is a full-fledged member of the European Union, even using the €uro as currency (they don’t all do that); Malta is a Lesser Antilles-size island with a large population of almost a half million, something like an urbanized St. Kitts of the Mediterranean; Malta is Christian, VERY Christian. The thumbnail sketch would be something like: modern Malta is a combination of three cultures- Arab, Italian, and British. While there would be a lot of truth to that statement, it would gloss over a lot, also. True, they tend to speak Arabic, eat Italian, and drink British, but they hardly look like the typical North African ‘Arab’, whether the Berberish Maghribbis or Nilotic Egyptians. They are as light-skinned and fair-featured as any Italian, if not Brit, and they are as fashionable and sexy as any Brit, if not Italian. Apparently their dialect of Arabic is close to Tunisian with a large admixture of Italian and other European influences, not surprising since everybody, literally EVERYBODY, speaks English, in a post-colonial situation not dissimilar to that of the Philippines or Malaysia, all with distinct national languages but anxious not to lose their English. More than a few speak Italian also.

Where did the Arabic come from? It probably started developing slightly B.C. with the first historical inhabitants, the Phoenician/Carthaginians, who would have spoken a north Semitic language, now extinct, closely akin to Hebrew and only slightly more distant from central Semitic Arabic, a language not even attested at the time of Christ, and probably non-existent, having not yet fully diverged from earlier Semitic languages. Central Arabia was not the most likely place for settlement, depending heavily on the domestication of the camel, which came long after most of the other best-known of ‘man’s best friends’. The Mediterranean itself has NOT been settled since time immemorial either, a fact which probably prejudices many European historians against prehistorical sea-based migration, since it took us so long to get our sea legs, not surprising since we apparently mustered our forces originally on the Asian steppes. European history is about horses, not boats. The first explorers of the Mediterranean islands found pygmy elephants. They killed them and ate them all of course, leaving huge piles of bones and lots of empty bottles of barbecue sauce. ‘Nuff said.

But when the Maltese came they built; civilization has been here as long or longer than anywhere, some seven thousand years, and featuring the oldest free-standing structure in the world. The original language would have been overwhelmed by the Arabic brought in by the same Arabs who occupied Sicily for many years and were the other main conduit for classical Greek learning to re-enter the West from Islamistan, the main one being the Andalusian connection of Arab and Jewish culture. My first impression on entering Valletta resembles the pictures I’ve seen of Jerusalem’s white stone houses sprawling low over the hillsides. I feel like I’ve just jumped to the Middle East without traversing the intervening distances. True, Morocco has some similarities but that seems more akin to Spain and even Mexico than the actual Middle East, i.e. adobe (an Arabic word via Egyptian). Valletta is the main town on modern Malta, though increasingly it’s more the tourist center than the business center, dearer in price and affection. Still, unless you’re looking for a Canary Islands-type generic beach hotel across the bay at Sliema, this is where you come. The earliest colonizers went to a high place not surprisingly called Mdina by the Arabs. Even Paul the founder of Christianity washed up on the beach here they say. They say a lot of things. I guess it’s only fitting that Malta wound up Christian. If the liquor don’t get you, then the pasta will.

If pressed I might have guessed that Malta was Christian, but I had no idea there was a pre-Lenten Carnaval. It’s not bad either, though not the sexy affair that Rio’s Carnaval has evolved into, nor Trinidad’s either, from what I hear. This one’s definitely for kids, and they rise to the occasion, all dressed up in allegorical costume. The floats may be a bit pre-fab and lacking in individuality, but the community spirit behind it is good, and it may in fact be closer in fact to the original than any of them, hard to say now that Rome is only reinstituting its own after a long period of dormancy. It’s certainly better than what I saw last year at Barcelona, and I’d be tempted to say I like it better than the drunken bash at N’awlins, but… naah. I like New Orleans, except from a jail cell. It’s definitely no match for the affair they put on at Recife in Brazil, which is a work of folk expression and dedication second to none. Malta’s has some similarities to the Brazilian event with its grandstand displays and performances, but that’s where the similarities end. There are no alcoholic beverages for sale on the streets here, though I’m sure you could find some if you wanted. That piss for sale on the street in Recife wasn’t much good anyway. The scene at the local Burger King and McDonald’s has got to be seen to be believed, though. I notice some of the local girls sporting big exposed British bellies now that Kate Winslett has made it okay to be a big ol’ gal (with ensuing dress-size inflation). Burger King will get you there fast.

Of course the problem with parties is that they end, leaving the streets desolate. Then the rains came. Fortunately I’ve already booked a flight on to Athens via Romefor less than $150, so I’m okay. Next cheapest with daily flights is $7-800. Is Malta what modern Arab culture would be like if the Prophet hadn’t turned such a profit with men who’d rather see their women in veils than bikinis? Maybe, but the question is probably moot since neither the race nor the language would likely have spread this far without Islamic conquest. Where else would you go to even test the theory now that Beirut and Christian Lebanon have been trashed to Hell and back? Dubai hardly counts, even though the international airport DOES have an Irish pub in it. Nevertheless there is a Mediterranean physical type which predates not only Islam and Christianity, but probably all Semitic and European cultures, and there’s no more historic animosity between them than anyone else. Most of the Old Testament wars of extermination were between related Semitic groups, though the Philistines (Palestinians) did seem to have sea-gypsy roots and routes before ending up.... guess where? The Gaza strip.

What’s the conclusion on Malta? Malta is cat country, maybe not so much as a ‘real’ Arab country, but not much competition from dogs nonetheless. You are what you speak. That proves it for me. Still the question remains: which culture is mas macho, Islamic/Arab or European/Christian, and which is plus femme? We already know where Asia stands. Maybe this is the true dialectic of history, not ideas nor social classes but the struggle for sexual dominance. What else? They’ve got an energy drink here called ‘Cocaine’, but that may not be specific to Malta. It should do well. They’ve also got Thailand’s M-150 which, last I heard, was banned everywhere due to its ingredients, so who knows? The Labor Party here seems to have the best pubs. I guess they learned something from the British. The Chinese here still have no major presence, their food mostly being the high-price delicacy it still is in most parts of northern Europe. For a minute I thought I’d found a genuine Chinese fast-food ‘takee-outee’, but no, there were kebabs on the menu, albeit with sweet-and-sour sauce. Where does that kind of Chinese food come from? Urumqi? The local food’s okay with me, and quite cheap away from the tourist areas.

But me, I’m ready for some warm weather, or at least some sunshine, or die trying. I didn’t come to the Mediterranean to wear my long johns (gwanni lungo in Maltese, but don’t quote me). Of course Tunis, which I left a few short days ago because of the rain, is now sunny and mild, so there you go. Don’t try to predict the weather, not in February. I seem to be surfing a cold front. Genoa was over 70F yesterday, far north of here. But there are things more important really, like reasonable accommodation. The room I have booked in Athens claims free Net, communal kitchen, and private bath all for less then $35. There’s no breakfast, but I’m tired of other peoples’ breakfasts. Who eats salami for breakfast anyway? I guess I do when they’re giving it away. My room in Malta is cramped and cold for over $40, but the service is good and so’s the wi-fi, but only in common areas. The water’s so hot it vapor-locks, making me want to piss in the sink I’m so cold. But Malta’s great. I had no expectations, so was pleasantly surprised. Still I hope to hang in Athens a while. I’m on solid ground now, no choke points, so no rush. See you there.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


So I caught the ferry to Tunis, me and the Tunisians and the assorted adventurer with his commando-girl love interest. Anybody who thinks that Muslims are a bunch of brown-skinned losers would love this ferry (that’s not my opinion btw). I guess long-distance ferries are the Mediterranean equivalent of Greyhound buses in the US. By contrast long-distance buses in Europe are mostly the exclusive province of backpackers, since most people travel by train, and buses in fact hardly exist in some countries. Watching cars board the ferry was like watching East Germans crossing the border into the West for the first time, almost twenty years ago, their Ladas loaded with their scarce possessions, ready to ditch it all for a new life in the western lands, urban legends sight unseen. Of course in this case the Fiats are loaded with air conditioners and refrigerators and all the other technological artifacts de rigeur up north but hard to find in the Sahara. Foot passengers are a bit more limited, but tend to carry at least their weight in luggage, and more than a few blankets. That’s what I wish I had, because a cold front is moving with us to the south. I hope we can outrun it. Then there are the ubiquitous Chinese businessmen scouring the globe for opportunities. They’re everywhere now.

Ferries don’t seem to run on time so I had visions of the ‘boat from Hell’ as we finally departed from Rome’s port of Civitavecchia. It was a long cold night in steerage; apparently they reserve their best heaters for the cabins. The Tunisians didn’t mind of course with their blankets and their fava farts. They took the cushions off the seats and put them on the floor then slept with their shoes off like nothing was more normal in the world, while I huddled in my single jacket trying to conserve body heat by exhaling with my mouth and re-inhaling with my nose (I’m joking). We made a stop in Trapani before crossing the strait to Arab country, but nobody got off; we’d already passed through Immigration in Rome. We must have made up some time somewhere because we pulled into Tunis right on time, twenty-one hours after leaving Rome. So did the cold front. It’s raining and chilly in the night air. I zip right to the front of the Immigration line and breeze on through. There’s no regulation of taxis there so you’re at the mercy of their basic instincts, though I suppose it could have been worse, e.g. Tangier, or Buenos Aires, or countless other places that fleece helpless tourists right off the boat or at least look the other way.

At least my hotel in Tunis has got heat, a fact that’s not lost on me as I consider my onward options. I sleep on it. They’ve also got my passport. I’ve never seen that done except in communist countries. Apparently that’s to ensure payment… so I pay up. Duh… why didn’t you just say so? The next day is still grayish and cold, so I need to chart my stars immediately so as to avoid last minute stress and confusion. There IS no ferry to Malta any more, dag nabbit! I knew it! Now I’m really wishing I’d booked a return ferry segment back to Sicily, especially since it was the same price as the OW, a fact I found out only after booking the OW (or ALMOST at least; I refused to re-check for fear of kicking my head senseless, knowing that if it were only 2-3€ more I’d still have passed, and justifiably so, cheap-ass that I am)! Now I’m stuck! When I’m stuck I start looking for an exit, NOW. There’s a flight to Malta for $180 OW. That’s not a RyanAir price, but not THAT bad really, twice a week, next one Sunday, same day my hotel’s booked up to. I fuss and fume and walk the streets looking for inspiration… i.e. looking for Internet.

I’m cold, I’m stuck, and I’ve got no wi-fi, at least not at a reasonable price. To use a computer in my hotel room would cost the equivalent of certain sex acts in certain sectors (of the world, pervo, not your body), so I forego.

Many things are cheaper on the street than they are in your room of course, so that’s where I look for connections, all to no avail. If you think you’re going to cruise the Maghreb with your laptop, blogging up in your hotel and cafĂ© hotspots, think again. They’re way behind. There are hardly any Internet cafes at all for that matter, though I finally found one, that’s only one, apparently a government-controlled ‘Publinet’, though at reasonable price. That doesn’t mean the next town down the road will be any better. I had really thought I might hang in Tunisia a while to practice my French, but the unavoidable conclusion to my dilemma is staring me right in the face with that silly stupid grin. I book the flight. I ran the scenario through my head a dozen different ways and it worked out the same- when stuck with your luck, tell it to go f***… I’d already tried to book a flight in the US in fact but it didn’t go through at a cheaper price. I’d even considered looking for an agent to book it for me, for a fee… I think that’s what I just did, same flight and all… yep, just like I planned, harrumph…

This trip doesn’t need to get stalled so early, so I’m good. I’m on a quest for 192 countries after all, and there’s another kink waiting right down the line at Malta. It’s an island, remember? That’s kinky by definition, and a flight from there to Athens is definitely ‘iffy’, though RyanAir had one to Brindisi, Italy, almost FREE… if I’m an EU citizen. Huh? From there’s a ferry to Greece, fairly frequent I think, at least better than Tunis. If I had to go back through Sicily to catch a boat to Malta, though, then go back overland AGAIN, I’d be really tempted to blow it off, and I don’t want to do that, or maybe I just don’t want to admit I made a mistake not booking the return ticket originally, which I only know because my brain is so full of sub-conscious feedback that I only research all my options AFTER I’ve made my decision, consciouness being the wretched curse that it is. The trip is back on course anyway, ahead of schedule actually, so maybe Istanbul’s back in the pic, or maybe farther south even, where it’s warmer. Bottom line is that Malta’s a world heritage site, and apparently cheap, so that’s good enough right there. LP’s website says Malta’s the old world, so don’t expect to book your room online, then the next page has more cheap hotels on offer than any country I’ve ever seen. Does one brain hemisphere communicate with the other at Lonely Planet? I know the feeling.

So I guess two short days will have to suffice for my Tunisian experience. Is that enough to ‘get it’? Yes… and no. I’ve eaten couscous with the Homies and gotten lost in the souk. Half the fun of coming to an Arab country is getting lost in the souk and seeing where it spits you out. It’s also half the frustration, the crush and crunch of bodies slipping and sliding against each other in some caricature of a pedestrian walkway. Don’t go if you’re claustrophobic. How anyone could actually shop in such conditions is beyond me. Of course there’s no shortage of plasticrap in the old medina along with the good traditional stuff that successful tourism brings. Am I regretful that the trip is getting cut short? For some reason, no, not really. I like kicking back, but I need good prices, good weather… and readily accessible Internet, preferably wi-fi. This is my life after all, not my vacation. One out of three isn’t good enough, though another season may present itself sometime. Food is certainly cheap enough, prices that almost make you cry, and it tastes good too, similar to that of Morocco. Espresso’s about 400 TND, about a $.25 George W (no, not THAT ‘W’). Those cheap hotels probably don’t have heat though, so that won’t work right now. What other down sides are there to Tunisia? Creeps follow me around, especially at night, up to no good I assume, though I try to avoid those conclusions. You’ve been here and never noticed that? If they’re good, you don’t. I don’t like it regardless. Bottom line- when in doubt, bail out. Malta sounds interesting enough in itself, firmly straddling Arabia and Europe like no other. Stay tuned. I can’t wait. I’ve already got a list of questions.

Will Malta be a dog country or a cat country? All across the Arab countries cats rule, taking over entire sections of cities with impunity, apparently a right they’ve earned since the era of the Sphinx. Of course this is only possible if dogs are controlled. Cats won’t get far in South America. All animals are controlled in modern countries of course. The irony is that the Arab countries are so male-dominated, and to me cats are analogous to femininity, and dogs masculine by analogy. Arab countries reek of testosterone, from the scads of males hanging out in cafes all day to the erect chiseled minarets that serve as symbols of Islam, a far cry from the fleshy rounded lobes that serve as the domes of Christianity, the final cross little more than a cherried nipple on top. In this view the entire Crusades would be little more the the banshee hysterics of a woman scorned, determined to get her room with a view down on the Mediterranean coast back. Or are the feminine cats psychological sex surrogates for the macho Muslims, and the masculine dogs likewise for the feminine Christians? I won’t go there.

Myself I can go both ways, dogs or cats that is, with equal affection. The Muslims DO seem to prefer their women, uh… plain. But all that testosterone is dangerous. If bottled up and concentrated and focused on a single objective, who knows what could happen? It could be the strongest weapon ever known. Worlds might change, wars might be fought, planes might crash into buildings, and men might kill themselves, willing to sacrifice all in a blaze of glory for the sake of faceless Gods and fuzzy futures… hey, wait a minute… Or are Arab cultures really the feminine ones, merely adopting masculine affectations as needed, and vice versa for the Christian cultures? The dialectic could get confusing with no clear answer, since religions frequently seem to dictate to a people what they need, not necessarily reflect what they are…

What were the other highlights of Tunisia? Well, they seem to have outdone the Italians’ combination toilet/bidets. Flexible hoses in Tunis bathrooms with a business end that looks similar to that of a Preparation H dispenser obviously have no other utilitarian purpose. But blood oranges are the big discovery. I don’t know if I’ll ever eat another orange that isn’t red, they’re that much better, sweet as a beet and almost as red on the inside. Try one; ask for ‘sanguinello’ if nothing else works. Somebody in Florida is missing the boat with this. What else? They have thirty dinar (from ‘denarius’, just like denaro and dinero) notes, and their change is divided into a thousand millimes instead of a hundred cents. I’ve got a nice big room and I’ve even got central heat. But I ain’t got Internet, and Tunisia is just not really working for me for some reason. Maybe it’s the weather, or maybe just the large ratio of tourists to locals, always a recipe for dissatisfaction for me. That’s the good part about the slow season, but maybe it’s not good enough. Next stop is Malta. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 23, 2009


What can you say about Rome that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? I could probably think of many things but that would involve my usual themes of supermarkets, travelers’ constipation, TV and politics. I don’t want to do that, not yet anyway. Rome is better than that. Rome is transcendent. It may not exactly be the Eternal City as claimed for publicity purposes, but most places aren’t exactly what they’re claimed to be. New York is not the ‘City that never sleeps’; Bangkok is. Rome in fact was almost entirely depopulated during the Middle Ages, a far cry from its imperial glory days of almost a million souls, wolves finally entering the city walls to take up the slack and see what they could scavenge, just like medieval tourists, just like us modern tourists in fact, crawling through the piles to pass our whiles. Rome is in fact the city that tourists sustained. The Italian Renaissance occurred mostly elsewhere, especially Firenze, as did the growth of cities, Paris and London and Milan and all the rest. The ultimate insult was the Church itself even moving its headquarters out of Rome for a spell. To this day Rome’s only industry is tourism, that and government and religion. It’s NOT the eternal city; that’s Jerusalem.

Rome is a palimpsest, the waves of time washing over it in repeated successions throughout history, leaving silt and sediment and new soil for planting. Like much of Europe its past is its present to us, and it manages to keep re-inventing itself accordingly. With much of space already conquered, at least the easiest pickings, time is the new frontier, and memory is the easiest path. We of European descent know that well, hoarding our souvenirs today and selling them on e-Bay tomorrow. Others have other ideas. For all their past of ancestor worship and vertical blood lines, the Chinese bury all public view of it as fast as they can. You’d be hard pressed to find a traditional district left standing there. They think they ‘gain face’ by emulating las Vegas and turning their country into a Pai Gow pinball machine defined by its bells and whistles rather than its collective soul. Europe doesn’t do that, not much anyway, or at least not yet. Luckily for them America’s already done it, so that’s reason enough to avoid it right there.

Rome is compact. Save that one-day Metro pass unless you want to camp out in the ‘burbs, which is not a bad idea. With e-booking there are some deals to be had out there, since they lack the walk-in traffic of the rookeries surrounding Termini station. How does a room in a sprawling villa for $50 with breakfast buffet sound? TV sucks of course, at least until midnight when the naked girls come on advertising their wares by taking off their wears. That’s reassuring for young boys everywhere. That was always the urban legend growing up- the naked girls come on TV at midnight. Very few hotels of any price will have wi-fi and you’ll be pressing your luck regardless. My place claims to have it in the common areas but no go, ‘local only’, ‘limited access’, etc; you know the drill. I guess that’s the drawback of so much attachment to the past. The present might get overlooked. Maybe they’ll wait and see if Internet passes the one-hundred-year test. Any place that actually has it probably has some other serious disadvantages. I persevere. The time when I can write a travel blog to you in real time is still a ways away. In America it’s pretty standard fare for hotels and easy to find elsewhere for the price of coffee. South America’s not far behind. Elsewhere in Europe and Africa and Asia you can sometimes get lucky, even in places as far-fetched as Phnom Penh and Dakar and Port-of-Spain. I guess Rome figures they don’t need it.

Rome sprawls in time, not space. You can see the Colosseum from almost anywhere, and even the Vatican is not much of a walk. The map makes it look big, but it’s really not. Just walk until your feet get sore, then take a break, and do it again. You can see it all in a day or two. Imperial ruins poke through everywhere, giving the Middle Ages a run for its money. The modern era has hardly made a dent yet. What would it look like if it did? At least supermarkets seem to be making inroads since my last visit five years ago, so that’s good. You don’t have to buy your groceries in bars anymore. The only problem right now is the weather. Europe’s had a rough winter and it ain’t over yet. I certainly don’t remember it being this cold in Marseille at the same time last year. Maybe it’ll be warmer in Tunisia. I hope so. If it is, I may hang there for a while and practice my French. Like any son of Rimbaud worth his verse, I’m just looking for creative derangement of the senses, the better to find some unusual pattern of words or images that have yet to see the light of day. Unlike some others, I’d rather try it without the aid of drugs. I’ve done all that. And I’d like to do it sustainably. Burning out at twenty-two is hardly an option for me now as I close in on fifty-five. In other words, I want to get my trips with trips, hyper-trips to the point of illumination.

The problem with practicing French of course is finding a country I like that speaks it. It’s hard to learn the language of a country you don’t especially like, though Marseille last year was an improvement. If there’s anything more pretentious than Parisians themselves, it’s people pretending to be Parisians, e.g. Bonairenses. And though the Maghreb speaks it often and well, it’s still NOT the first language, and overhearing and understanding a language spoken among native speakers is the final test of fluency. My next option may be Madagascar, which still uses that colonial language, not odd considering it has many competing local dialects. What IS odd is that all those local dialects are Asian in origin, from Borneo to be precise, reflecting an ancient migration of probably humble proportions. Even odder is that English is now one of their official languages also, EVEN THOUGH NO ONE SPEAKS IT, at least not outside the tourist areas. I think they just one-upped Thailand in some category of wackness, though I’m not sure which. Sounds like my kind of place. Stay tuned.

My inability to master French in my two months in French-speaking countries is a sore spot with me. I did study for two years at the university basic and intermediate levels after all. I understand more Italian on TV with no formal study and less than two weeks in-country, at least equal to Portuguese, thanks to my prior knowledge of Spanish. Portuguese pronunciation deviates from the spelling almost as much as French, and if it indeed sounds like a drunk Frenchman trying to speak Spanish, which it does, then French must be like a drunk Portuguese trying to speak English. The Maghreb is interesting from a linguistic point of view, pure Old World, the linguistics of language acquisition, not abstract theory, the language acquisition of a prostitute with her eyes on the prize between your thighs, hot rize plus and the finest buns ever was, i.e. consummation and fulfillment and y’all come back now, dahlin’. The average Moroccan taxi driver probably speaks more languages than the average UN interpreter, though a footnote is necessary. Tourist-oriented vocabulary is limited, and I heard as much bad Spanish there as English.

These European vocabularies are all closely related, mind you, though also notable is their mastery of local as well as classical Arabic. The language they speak to me there depends on their shifting perception of who and what they think I am. That’s not code-switching; that’s chaos. It’s a trip. Sometimes I get so bumfuggled I forget which language I’m speaking myself. Of course English’s only legitimate claim to the international standard is its analytic isolating quality, hard to appreciate unless you’re Asian. People who speak half a dozen Asian languages can’t figure for the life of them why Spanish verbs have several dozen different endings, when only one is necessary. Don’t ask me why, but English is only lightly inflected that way. Other than that its only claim to ascendancy is its imperialistic status. It’s a mess orthographically.

I picked up a bad habit in the Caribbean, i.e. booking ahead. This runs contrary to the backpacker’s credo of spontaneous emission. When it’s time to fly, then fly. That’s a metaphor; flying is the problem actually, that and expensive accommodation. When you’re traveling overland, there’s hardly a reason to book more than a day or two ahead really, unless rooms are tight and dear. You can’t do that in the Caribbean. They won’t let you. They’ll call you on those fake hotels you write in on the landing card. ‘Happy House’ indeed! Then the room they found me was the one I stayed in long term anyway. That’s the nice thing about the slow season- rooms are easier to find and cheaper. Of course this slow season may last a few years. We’ll see how gas prices respond in the next few months. If the speculators get over-anxious they may kill the coming summer season in its infancy. It’s not entirely coincidence that huge gas price surges were followed by the Next Great Depression. Though predatory lending may have been the immediate cause, it’s all part of the gold-pan get-rich-quick philosophy of the son-of-Reagan Republicans.

Big news here is the Japanese finance minister showing up drunk at the G7 economic summit. Did that make CNN? I bet it made Fox. What else is new in Rome? Well they seem to have finally perfected the combination toilet/bidet, so that doesn’t have to take up space next to the bed like in France. This is good for those of us accustomed to the Thai system which has a rubber hose and nozzle next to every toilet. This was probably intended for the chambermaids, but creative minds couldn’t pass on that opportunity to stay clean and green. The Italian bowls even have the water jetting sideways instead of straight up the you-know-what-hole, so that’s even wilder (and easier on sensitive tissues). But I digress. Tunisia’s next on the list, on the other side of the Mediteranean, the crossroads which have seen Arabs, Turks, Crusaders, Normans, Romans, Carthaginians and Greeks all claiming pieces of turf in their own good time. To this day Malta, European to the point of Euro currency, even still speaks an Arab dialect, albeit written in Roman alphabet. How’s that for multi-kulti patchwork pragmatism? That comes next after Tunisia. Stay tuned, and pray for sun.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Matter with World Music

The problems with world music are many, but fortunately for you that mostly impacts the promoter, not the listener. The main problem for me is its very lack of definition. What exactly is world music? If you’re a new listener and think you might be interested, that’s a fairly important consideration. Definitions vary, but almost all of them are extremely broad and inclusive. My own consists of three parts: music of different languages, cultures, and styles, other than the dominant Anglo-American genres, or at least those that have names. If the music has at least two of those three, then it’s world music as far as I’m concerned. This is not without its problems of course. By this definition Cajun music sung in pidgin French passes, while that in English fails. That’s okay; we’re not on a pass-fail system. If it’s any consolation ‘indie’ is almost as hard to define. Neither is a true genre, both more like ‘none of the above’, either capable of being lively or sluggish, comprising a full orchestra with strings or just one person with one string.

The main problem concerning world music for a promoter is that it’s a hard sell. About the only genre that scores lower points- whether MySpace hits or actual sales- than ‘world’ is ‘bluegrass’, and that’s a relative point. In Flagstaff, AZ, bluegrass is nearly, if not clearly, the most popular genre. The same is true for ‘indie’ in LA, and ‘Latino’ in Miami. Back East or Down South the story would be different I betcha’. Obviously a genre besides hip-hop, country, pop or mainstream rock needs to find its niche to survive and thrive. That’s doable. In Europe where most music comes from somewhere else anyway (especially the US) ‘world music’ fares much better. Music’s almost like DNA dividing and diversifying to the point where you have primates of Asian, Nordic, and Black African flavors in that historical path from cyanobacteria. Not coincidentally these races are not only viable, but excel in their respective fields, and hybrids of them are likely more vigorous than the original, though that might be hard to prove.

Popular music is the same. From a point in the mid-fifties to mid-sixties, there was little difference between mainstream ‘white’ music and the parallel reality of so-called ‘race’ music. Accordingly Pat Boone could take a popular Little Richard song, tone it down a bit, put on a white sport coat, then go play it on the other side of town for bobby-soxers. Both Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins were early rockers before they became country music fixtures. Similarly even a decade later Duane Allman or Eric Clapton could take a current Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters song and make it rock or blues-rock with little change, just a change in marketing, nothing spatio-temporal. Thus a torch was handed off as American blacks lost interest in a genre they created. That’s hard to do today. The dominant American genres of hip-hop, country, and rock have little in common, though a trendy middle-road commercial ‘pop’ is always ready to borrow liberally from them to give their music the muscle that it otherwise lacks.

World music itself does the same, borrowing liberally from diverse sources. Concepts such as ‘authentic’ and ‘indigenous’ have little place in the discussion, and frequently face a chicken/egg situation, such as, “which came first, African or Cuban?” To be sure Cuban roots go back to Africa, but just as surely modern genres of African music look straight to Cuba. Thus musical DNA proceeds by artificial selection. Which didn’t we have ‘world’ music before the eighties? It didn’t exist. Few modern genres of African music predate the seventies. Fast forward to 2008 and much of the world music play list comes from big Western cities- Paris, London, New York, LA- with large immigrant communities and what I call ‘slash bands”, as in Mexico/US or France/Tunisia, bands with members from diverse origins who find common ground in eclectic music. Those who dismiss this approach out of a preference for the ‘real thing’ might be missing the boat. They might not like the real thing even if they can find it even if it exists and that very act will change it in the process. This is the Cultural Uncertainty Principle (CUP). Let’s drink.

The nice thing about world music is that it crosses all boundaries (hopefully pulling thread in the process)- of age, of race, of gender, genre and nationality. It has a timeless feel, not necessarily the passing ruminations of the snot-nosed kid down the block. World music has usually been fomented by popular sentiment and fermented like fine wine through the filters of time and tradition and mixed to the tastes of modernity. I know the kid down the block has a creative urge to release, but that mostly applies to other kids. You and I have been through that already, haven’t we? I know that youth is the great progenitor of new ideas. Albert Einstein was 26 the year of his anno mirabilis in 1905, and Schroedinger’s publication of a major theory at the old age of 39 was unheard of. Okay, so that might apply to the Dylan-Hendrix-Cobain phenomena of pop music genius, but those are the vast minority. Most is simply kid rock. No I don’t mean that Kid Rock, but kiddie rock, music for adolescents. Whether it’s pop star Katy Perry kissing a girl “and liking it” or indie darlings Ting Tings begging “shut up and let me go, hey!” doesn’t matter. It’s all trivial meanderings, mostly who’s doing whom.

The goal is novelty of course, for listeners and music industry professionals also. This is what generates sales as well as emotion after all. ‘New’ means ‘more’. Following the trials and tribulations of youth undergoing their pains growing and groin gets old though. With five thousand languages and more or less as many cultures out there we should be able to do better, and that’s what world music is for. It’s a way to satisfy one’s urge for novelty in a way that’s, uh, novel. So there it is. Come and get it. Can’t enjoy a song whose lyrics you can’t understand, you say? How many words did you understand of the Feist song “Sea Lion”? I understood two. Yeah, it’s nice to understand a word or two, but that’s usually enough. Would the song, ‘Oye Como Va?’, by Tito Puente and popularized by Santana, have sold more copies if you knew the lyrics meant, “Hey, how’s it going? The rhythm’s… sure good for enjoying” (repeat ad infinitum). I doubt it. It might have even sold less. Point is, except for a few spectacular lyricists, the music’s the message, not the lyrics.

Ironically, since by my definition one of the requirements for world music is the use of languages other than English, it seems equally of de facto importance that at least one member of the band does speak English. The customers do, after all. It’s no accident that the Mexican groups that are active in the LA indie scene- Kinky, Nortec, Ceci Bastida- all come from border areas with ample opportunity to practice English. Local DJ’s boast about the fact that they helped Julieta Venegas ‘break out’ and ‘go Coachella’, seemingly unaware that she’s been a big star in Mexico for years, pure Mex-pop. She’s only ‘indie’ for US marketing purposes. Meanwhile Mana’ is bigger than all of them put together, and has toured with Santana, but does no promos in English, so goes un-noticed. MySpace comments for the others are mostly in Spanish also, it’s worth noting.

Local promoters even blur the issue further by booking acts like Gnarls Barkley for their ‘world fest.’ Maybe it’s time to ‘re-define world music’ as the LA Weekly puts it, but I doubt it. The same weekly warned viewers to ‘beware world music’ two years ago under the same circumstances. Gnarls Barkley is NOT world music, though a case could be made for Sigur Ros. If newcomers think that Gnarls Barkley represents world music, then they don’t bother with Tinariwen, which is something a world apart and at least every bit as good and important, if not many times more so. Cold Play likes Tinariwen too. The point is that world cultures are disappearing under the onslaught of increasing population, universal English, and the lust for money. Money is a universal language already. So is music. It doesn’t have to be refined into English-language pop crap. The efforts usually don’t work anyway, so vive la difference!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


continued from previous So I’ve ‘done’ over half of the Caribbean countries now, seven down and only six (depending on current political events) to go. ‘Big deal’ you say, except that that’s a lot of flights and connections, not to mention expense. You don’t see many backpackers here, unless they’re sailboat-savvy. I hear you can get on boats in Antigua (drop the ‘u’ to match local pronunciation). That’s a greater number of countries than in all of South America. With your indulgence I hope to check some more Caribbean countries off the list by doing some simple airline stopovers. These are tiny countries with tiny less-than-Alaska-size populations and it’s not like they’ve all got distinct cultures. I figure if I get to Antigua I can go RT to Grenada on a LIAT milk run stopping off at several different countries on the way down and back. Then I’d just do a side trip to St. Kitts where I might even buy citizenship if I think it’ll get me into those countries that might not like a US passport. I’m serious. Current rate is $300K investment and $35K for paperwork. Who knows? Maybe they’ll let me run for president. With another little side trip from Miami to the Bahamas, I’d then have the Caribbean zipped up, all thirteen countries.

So I’m already planning two or three trips ahead while sitting in Montego Bay, probably not the typical activity here. They’ve seen it all. MoBay is yesterday’s travel news, like Acapulco or Hong Kong or Rio. I was shocked at how small the tourist strip is here. I haven’t been to Negril but I’ve been to Kuta in Bali, the road that never ends. If it weren’t for the airport and the cruise ships, this wouldn’t seem any more of a tourist destination than Hollywood or Chiang Rai or Flagstaff or Berkeley or Portland or Boulder, all places I’ve called home, however temporarily, chronologically inverse. I’ve seen cruise ships before in Ensenada, but not like these. These cruise ships are amazing, huge floating hotels that bring you only one step closer to ‘the real thing’ than watching the world on Nat Geo. The passengers go crazy when they land of course, ready to drink and shop. Would they even know the difference if you merely toured them around an island theme park, each stop a different country theme? It’d save on diesel fuel.

The next day dawns gray and blustery again, but I feel better, so I work out. I usually feel worse when I don’t. Now I got a big idea while watching the planes coming in low over the ocean to land at MBJ. Ever since watching the movie ‘Pushing Tin’ I’ve wanted to try that little air turbulence trick like Billy Bob Thornton where the plane flies right above you and lifts you off the ground. Of course it also throws you around so you need some heavy duty safety equipment which I don’t always carry in my pack. Also there’s usually the problem of gaining access to a runway, especially difficult in these days of flight terrorism. But if the flight comes in over water… and I’m content to stay in the water instead of actually flying around… what’s to stop me from a little bit of experimentation in turbulence? Of course there is the possibility of problems with the Jamaican equivalent of the FAA; that’d be a spot of bother, or… it could draw some kind of attention from the other people on the beach; but…

…the Thing, the bug, the virus, whatever- it’s still inside me. Sores aren’t healing and new ones are opening up. Tender tissues are swelling up in sensitive places. What’s in that water any way? Is it even safe to swim in a third world country so close to a city with its trash and sewage and God knows what? You don’t swim in Pattaya, Thailand. It’s not healthy; everyone knows that. Can you safely swim in MoBay? They got two tourist police for each tourist here. Why can’t they hire some people to pick up some trash, too? But there’s no time for abstract speculation. I need an exterminator… fast, before the Thing decides to franchise and found new colonies. I need a weapon. I need antibiotics.

It’s hard to appreciate the fact that bacteria used to rule the world. Think dinosaurs were the most successful species with their 200 million year run of the earth, or maybe (chuckle) humans? Think again. The explosion of multi-cell life as we know it occurred only some seven hundred million years ago. Bacteria have been around at least three billion, ever since Earth cooled down below the boiling point. The amazing thing is not that life occurred; it’s that complex life occurred. And I’m still trying to figure out my wife. Any responsible scientist who claims that certainly more life exists out there somewhere given the law of large numbers, is surely talking about bacteria. Any scientist who swears there are PEOPLE out there is taking corporate money from somewhere for something. The dreamers are just killing time scanning the skies for radio signals, until they actually find one… Back on Earth bacteria, good Muslims that they are, will never give up, always trying to regain turf that they’ve been forced to cede over to modern antiseptic societies. They probably will. It’s just a paradigm shift. In their world view we work for them, giving them shelter and transportation in return for some time on Earth. At least we can understand bacteria; they’re like us. Viruses are another story. They’re like another dimension, DNA in a condom and nothing else, always ready to infect, any time any place any vector. Wear protection.

Looking for a doctor in a Third World country is always fun. The only consolation is that it’ll probably be cheaper than the US, but it’ll probably be more than Thailand. It is, but health is more important, health and happiness. Considering that I’ll see my wife tomorrow for the first time in two months, I need to be fit, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. I wouldn’t mind a little icing on the cake, too, after pretty boring food for two months. The boredom diet works, and the travel diet too. I’m down to 173 pounds from probably 183 a half year ago. That’s fighting weight, lean and mean and polished to a high sheen... Blood pressure’s good, too. So it costs me $70-80 for the office visit and a week’s worth of penicillin from a clinic called, I shit you not, ‘Doctor’s Office’. What the Hell; this trip is way over budget anyway. I only spent $17-1800 for 50 days in the four southernmost South American countries a few months ago. These 60 days will end up at almost three times that, and I’m a frugal muthuh’ fuh’ yuh’, rice cooker and all. Who said that foreign travel is cheap? The initial flight for both these trips was a frequent flyer freebie, as is my next one to Rome; use ‘em or lose ‘em.

But the antibiotics work and this trip draws to a close. Even the defecation aggravation and resulting hemorrhoids seemed to respond. I knew it! They sneaked in the back door! Almost symbolically I caught a Seinfeld episode that I’d somehow missed, lost in the crowd, like the one illusory last peanut in a bag holding mostly empty shells, ‘Serenity Now’ (“Newman!”), the end of an era. It’s time to move on. I’ll spend a week in California before heading out to Rome. See you there. If you like this travel blog then it’ll definitely continue on TravelPod at where I’ll eventually tell the stories of all my travel both past present and future, at least until I reach the official UN total of 192 countries. The Thailand-to-Timbuktu blog may revert to its earlier trial role as a world music mouthpiece for promotion and criticism. World music is a worthwhile cause that needs all the help it can get. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 09, 2009


The change comes over me all of a sudden, almost imperceptibly and without warning. One minute everything’s fine; then the next minute I’m losing it, my health, that is. First it’s just a funny feeling of myself being divided and separated with an ensuing lag time between the two halves, and then a little chill and involuntary shudder as my body tries to create some artificial warmth for itself through motion. Or maybe my body is simply trying to shake it off, deny the existence of the other now inside me. But it’s too little too late. I have no choice but to ride it out now, let it run its course. But what is it? It’s not some drug I voluntarily ingested and now I’ve changed my mind while waiting for it to ‘kick in’. It’s another being, another life form that’s found its home in me, whether by accident or design, sitting in the driver’s seat and taking over the wheel. They say the worst virus the world has ever seen, Ebola, still lives in some cave in Africa, just biding its time… in expectation. What’s found its home in me? Whatever it is, it’s wicked, splitting me apart, twisting my view of the world to its own diseased perspective “as all seems yellow to the jaundiced eye.” But I’ve already had HepA, so I should be knock-ulated for life. No matter, the important thing now is to stay warm, drink lots of liquids… and take a vitamin pill.

Some cold weather in Cuba is one thing; that’s not even the Caribbean proper. That’s only a stone’s throw from Miami and subject to major cold fronts coming down over the plains from Canada, one after the other, like planes taking their turns on the runway. Most don’t make it to Jamaica of course, nor Cuba either, running out of steam at around Orlando, maybe leaving a little patina of frost on the fruit crop at worst. But when you stay in your room in Jamaica to stay warm, not cool, and the AC takes a full day off, then you know you’ve got some bad weather. The East Coast has been getting battered all season, so I hear, while California has been getting fried, basking in record winter highs, so I tell my wife. This is good to remember, because I got chills to the point of going to bed early and getting under the covers. That’s not normal; I generally like cool weather. But it makes no difference when something’s got you in its grips, a bug or virus or something. I hate that feeling, that out-of-body experience that puts you beside yourself with fear and anxiety, not to mention unease and disease. The weather actually serves as something of a consolation, not just that I’m not missing anything, but that the chill is not only internal. It’s almost like the front came to Jamaica through me.

It’s no big deal I think, probably just a 24-hour bug, but it’s probably enough to keep me close to home for the remainder of my stay in Jamaica. So that means I spent three weeks in Jamaica total and never got out of Montego Bay. Oh, well. I did the same in Port-of-Spain for a week when I also had wi-fi and a cheap (by Caribbean standards) room. At least here I don’t have to piss in the sink. Actually that’s one of my favorite things while traveling, to actually put down roots in a place for a while. For me traveling is not merely an end in itself; it’s the background against which my life happens. It would’ve been nice to tour the island, but taxis in Jamaica are not cheap, with prices that would make a New York cabbie blush. How about $10 for the five-minute ride from the airport into town? Or $100 for the one hour ride to Negril? Prices might be negotiable as long as you’re not at the airport already, and depending on how well you speak patois. Hating pretentiousness I try to remember black Southern US dialect, complete without conjugations nor declensions and frequent use of the word pickaninny. Given the similarities, it just may be possible that this was the marshalling yard for African diaspora culture, given that slaves were typically ‘seasoned’ in the Caribbean before moving on to the big time in the US. When transcribed to Roman alphabet, Creole is easily understandable, so hardly qualifies as its own language as far as I’m concerned. Dem belly no full wit bacon fi dey only be talkin Jamaican. You neva git dat trip to Rio talking dat Krio. Dem mullah dey no issue no fatwa talkin dat patwa.

There’s local mini-van transport here, but they look pretty cramped and crowded, and seem to only do about thirty minute runs, so for Negril you’d have to transfer at Lucea. That’s a lot of hassle just to go look at another geek-ass tourist resort. What am I going to do with seven miles of beach? If I could run naked down it that’d be different, but I doubt that’s the case. That’s the first thing I did the very first out-of-country trip I took over thirty years ago to Yucatan. I ran down a deserted beach naked. The rest is history; now I look for simpler pleasures. That’s the nice thing about Montego Bay; it’s been surpassed by upstart cousins Negril and Ocho Rios and their $500/nt resorts. So I got lucky here, less than $50/nt and wi-fi coming in my window from next door. But now I have other health issues also, which I won’t go into at any depth. Suffice it to say don’t despair if you get an attack of hemorrhoids at the beach. Jump right in; the salt water works wonders. Who needs Epsom salts?

So I spend my last ten days of this trip getting as domestic as an old mother hen, even buying a rice cooker, so I can cook brown rice and pumpkin squash and callaloo and ‘ground provisions’ like yams and sweet potatoes, supposedly the secret to Jamaican runners’ success. Aahh… real food. Supermarkets here aren’t great, but I bet they’re better than Negril or Ocho Rios. Of course anything that boils water can also make coffee, and Jamaica’s got some of that too. It’s almost like home. I can make a drip coffee maker out of anything, but Styrofoam cups are the preferred raw material. So life takes on a certain regularity, taking a walk on the beach or a swim, walking into town for provisions, but mostly sitting right here in my room with my Internet and Cable TV and MySpace and Sype, doing business and talking to my wife and writing and reading and… just living, almost like the real thing. The big excitement was when I thought there was a Seinfeld episode that I hadn’t seen yet, but it was a false alarm.

Jamaica of course is old news in travel and music circles, reggae music pretty much single-handedly spawning the world music industry after Bob Marley’s death. Jamaica is now so dependent on tourism that I doubt they could do without it. This spawns a certain dependency, both economic and psychological. Though famous for its ‘friendly natives’, which is true, that’s not to be confused with the scads of hustlers pretending to be your instant friend. Aside from the simple offering of goods for sale, including ganja, they have a couple of interesting come-on lines I haven’t encountered elsewhere. One starts “I can see you’re not a racist” and the other “Hey! Remember me?” at which point the hustler claims to be the cook at a restaurant he assumes you’ve frequented or security at your hotel, i.e. everyone’s hotel. What, do they go to scam school? They’re still groveling, trying to get in the back door when the front door’s wide open, at least to any legitimate product of reasonably good quality that I actually need.

Michael Phelps would probably love it here. He could toke up all he wants and there’d be almost no place to upload a video to YouTube. It’s funny though. I smell ganja here all the time, literally ALL the time, but I’ve only rarely actually seen someone smoking it. The Phelps hubbub is ridiculous, though. If somebody wants to rag on him, why not blast him for doing a Rosetta Stone ad and never speaking a word of Chinese in the process, not a ni hao nor a wo ai ni nor even a simple chi fan ma? It’s a joke, but maybe appropriate for Rosetta Stone, which I consider to be almost a consumer fraud in addition to bogus linguistics. We all wish there were some magic way to simply Chomsky-like absorb a language, and Rosetta Stone plays and preys on that philosophy, but I don’t believe it. If you want to learn a language, crack the book. I didn’t notice Chomsky speaking perfect Spanish on Havana TV. He spoke English. Actually you don’t need a book now, much less a dozen. You just need a laptop and internet, ditto for guide books. You can shift my paradigm anytime, baby. To be continued…

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