September 10, 2005
Because everyone needs a little Tony Quinn in their lives.
Because everyone needs a little Tony Quinn in their lives.
This show of photos from the Arab world opens tomorrow. I've admired work from several of the featured photographers for years. Should be excellent.
Thursday, September 8, 2005
6 p.m.-8 p.m.
547 West 27th Street, 4th Floor
New York, New York
Lately our baby has started developing strong dislikes of certain things. For example right now he doesn't like to be strapped into seats-any kind of seat: car seats, strollers, high chairs etc. He's a strong little guy and manages to straighten and stiffen his body like a board, hard to bend without a wrestle. Afterwards, once we get him in, fireworks as he protests at the top of his lungs. Or I should write AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS. So if you see me or my wife strolling around Brooklyn with a baby going at full volume please don't judge us. It's a phase. Or at least that's what we keep telling ourselves.
Other Raul Andres facts:
-Despite the post above, he's generally a pretty happy little guy. He almost always wakes up with a smile. In the mornings when he's playing on the floor and I'm reading the paper I often hear him chuckling to himself over some private joke.
-He eats virtually everything (including his fair share of paper), except plums.
-Anything with wheels, gears, or levers fascinate, as does my hair.
-He likes to blow into bottles to make noise.
-He makes ululating sounds by moving his hand over his mouth.
-He likes banging things on the table, but doesn't like the banging sound. He hasn't figured out the dissonance yet and keeps banging and then being kind of startled and annoyed.
-His mother is his favorite person in the world, but I can almost always make him laugh.
-His current favorite toy is a small basketball. He's also a fan of rocks.
-He shows no interest in crawling but keep trying to walk.
-His favorite thing to do is to be held upside down by the ankles and taken from room to room.
I heard yet another interview this morning in which a FEMA official said "no one could have predicted" a hurricane this devastating. Really? All of these articles were written in the last few years:
It is midnight in Pennsylvania where we are visiting for the weekend. The crickets and frogs are are out in force and the night is full of stars. I am sitting in the dark with only the computer light and my belly is full of Plum ice cream. My wife and baby are asleep. I hear their overlapping breaths in the next room. They start out the night breathing out of sync, but by this hour are almost in unison. I can't sleep and have been thinking of my grandmother's watermelon slush. As tomorrow is Labor Day I thought I might share the secret recipe. Watch out, it's super delicious.
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup H20 (room temp)
2 cups liquefied watermelon (de seed before blending... don't skimp with one of those seedless melons, get the real thing. real watermelons have seeds)
1 cup very cold H20
1/4 cup lime juice (small round Mexican key limes are best)
1. Deseed and liquefy watermelon, put aside.
2. Mix 1/2 cup H20 with sugar and boil.
3. Right when the mixture boils add the watermelon, lime juice, and cold H20.
4. Freeze immediately.
5. When frozen. Use an ice scraper or a spoon to scrape out servings.
That's it. Try it, it's so good you'll forget your name.
Have you ever noticed that some weeks the Sunday Times is chock full of interesting articles while other weeks it is thin. Well this week the paper is a full meal. Read as much news as you can take (this overview of the week's events in New Orleans is particularly helpful in unraveling why things went so awry), then to take a break from reality start with an article about biking across Tanzania, follow that up with some spiritualist photography, and end with a discussion of early Japanese film.
It is easy to get worked into a lather over the president's inept (and quite frankly bizarrely disconnected) response to the vast human tragedy taking place in Louisiana and Mississippi (Who did not cringe on hearing him cackle about how he used to enjoy himself partying too much in New Orleans when he was younger while standing on the tarmac of the New Orleans Airport where 30 people died just last night.)... And around the world there seems to be a healthy dose of schadenfreude in the newspaper editorials about the botched response to the disaster. But not all the news is bad...
Today on the New Jersey turnpike we passed scores of New York City police vehicles, generators, communication trucks, and busses in convoy down to New Orleans. Cars on the turnpike pulled into the median, their occupants standing in front of their cars pumping their fists in support or simply clapping. People passing by waved and gave the thumbs up or peace signs. Jenn teared up as we passed each bus. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, another smaller convoy of busses and supplies. On the median there, more people stopping and showing their support. One woman simply standing and crying.
This movie has been both praised and damned... as a Wong Kar-Wai worshiper I went in with high expectations.
For me it was a lovely mess, painfully beautiful visually but almost haphazard in it's storytelling. It's really a collection of short stories held together more by the mood than narrative. But at some point I just stopped caring about the overall story and just enjoyed drinking in the visual lushness of each scene and the tangible melancholy of each shot. Tony Leung is top notch as usual, but this film belongs to Zhang Ziyi who is heartbreakingly good. Faye Wong & Gong Li's performances seem almost inert by comparison. The problem for me was unlike In the Mood For Love a film whose melancholy added up to an emotional punch, 2046 left me thinking about the actual filmmaking... admiring the sets, wardrobe & photography, wishing the writing had been sharper, and wondering how I would have re-organized the film to make it add up to something that didn't break my suspension of disbelief.
My first girlfriend was a Louisiana girl, a Cajun. We would rendezvous in New Orleans. This was way back in high school and in order to make the long drive from Texas and justify my absence I would always have to tell a bucket of lies. I liked the journey though and would always go with the windows rolled down and lots of tapes in the truck. Her family hated me. My family had no idea. We both knew the relationship was doomed which of course made the whole thing almost impossibly bittersweet in the way teenage romances often are.
That was all a long time ago and most of the details are soft and faded like polaroid left in the sun, but something she said to me way back then always stuck in my head. It was a hot and humid August night and the air was full of crickets and frogs. We were on Magazine Street sitting on the stoop of a friends house and I was talking nonsense as usual. I was going on about the city being below sea level and the pumps that kept the city dry and the Army Corps of Engineers. I had read in a book that the Mississippi in it's natural state moves like snake sliding across wet grass but that the engineers had straightened it all out which made the river keep rising. At some point I noticed she wasn't listening and was staring into the middle distance. "What's wrong?" I asked. And then she began crying. "This whole damn city is an illusion," she said softly. "It's like Jerico or Tyre or Babylon, one day all of it, and I mean all of it, will all be gone." She talked like that, the way real Cajuns do. In the years since I've only been back to the city a handful of times, and we lost touch years ago, but when looking up at the hulls of boats passing by from the bottom of a Mississippi levee her words always came back to me... and now of course it's all come true.
The Smithsonian American Memory Project got a nice facelift recently. Search is now much better. I'm a fan of the Panoramic Image Gallery. A few hilights from tonight's browse (note the images are large... 5megs average). Brooklyn Bridge, 1913, Brooklyn Heights, 1911, Prospect Park 1907, Columbus Circle, 1913, Venice Beach, 1926, Theater Company San Francisco, 1911.
Most new parents I know will tell you that their number one issue during the first year of their kid's life is sleep. My wife is obsessed. She has a small library of books and a deep nuanced understanding of our babies sleep patterns. Usually when she hands me a book or article to read I sort of glaze over, but this piece originally in the New Yorker hit the spot. It helps that his experience mirrors ours and that we have landed in his camp.
My photoblog is up and running again... expect daily updates from my Kham/Amdo work for a while.
I've been sleepy... caught in the nether-world of jetlag and babytime.
ahhhh.... more soon
1. Buy clean clothes for flights home.
2. Arrive early for flight from Chengdu to Beijing.
3. Delay flight 2 hours. Force me to check bag.
4. Have flight arrive in Beijing late but not so late that a connection is impossible.
5. Have airline lose bag that they forced me to check.
6. Find bag and run to opposite side of airport. Break into flop sweat.
7. Close ticket counter in front of me. Miss flight home to wife and child.
8. Offer a hotel for the night.
9. Make that hotel the China Aiport Garden Hotel located in the "Aiport Industrial Zone."
10. Put a "sanitized" paper strip over the toilet in said hotel. Open the toilet to find it not only not sanitized but freshly used and unflushed.
11. Have the only English language magazines in the lobby be: China Eastern Aviation Monthly, May edition, Cat Fancy (Christmas 2004 edition... especially hateful given my anti-cat status), and Military Miniature Collector (June 2005). All obviously detritus from previous lost souls.
12. Have the only restaurant around be Nurburg-King Coffee (offering neither burgers nor coffee).
13. Arrive back from Nurburg-King Coffee to find an Australian named Lazy Fred poking through my bags. "Just being a bit nosey mate, we're bunking up tonight. Let's get sloshed and tear this place up."
13.5 "Call me Fred. Call me Freddy. Call me Lazy, call me Lazy Fred. Ahh I don't give a fuck."
14. Lazy Fred's disregard for even basic bathroom etiquitte.
15. The fact that planes land so close to my hotel room I can see the passengers in the windows.
16. Dialup, windows 95.
17. Being on standby and having an awful feeling about tomorrow.
Note to others in a similar situation. If you need to jump to the top of the standby list:
1. Say your wife is pregnant.
2. Say your wife is due any minute.
3. Determine that the ticket lady has a thing for Koreans (note Korean pop star pictures in her cubicle).
4. Say your wife is a Korean actress.
5. List your wife's films: My Long Lost Sister, The Rich Cry Too, and Legend of Yun.
6. Get theatrically teary eyed.
7. Watch the ticket lady move you to the top of the list. "No problem, please say hello to your wife for me."
A few years ago I was traveling around Yunnan and was robbed of everything except the clothes on my back. While I was living with the police who were looking for the robbers a policewoman took me out to buy some new clothes. The first order of business...Underwear. Finding my size was difficult, but the police lady was diligent. She finally found a pair that she thought were perfect. Imagine bright red Haynes with a very high waistband (it came over my bellybutton)--the best feature a little pocket with a zipper right over the crotch. The police lady held them in front of me and zipped and unzipped the zipper to demonstrate. Then she smiled and put her finger to her lips... ie it would be my secret. Those were still 2 sizes too small and it was several weeks before I got to a place where I could find boxers to replace them. I don't think I've ever felt dorkier in my life than when I had those things on.
Fast forward a few years, the situation is a little better. You can find boxers or briefs, but the boxers are oddly short. Sort of like short short boxers. And I don't do briefs. Ahhh...the USA land of lovely socks and boxers.
We're in Chengdu. Tomorrow I fly home. Yesterday was the worst day of the trip. We got caught in a truly massive traffic jam. The mountain had collapsed a major section of road. We waited for 6-7 hours. The line of busses and cars stretched as far as the eye could see. And because fate has a sense of humor, I was bitten by a bee a few minutes before the cars started moving again.
More on this and many other things as well as photos when I am back in Brooklyn.
That's what billboard reads outside Hongyuan and it's obvious the motto has been taken to heart. Since I was last here only 4 years ago Hongyuan has doubled or tripled in size. The roads have been paved. Modern streelights adorn the streets. Housing blocks now stretch out into the plateau. In a sense Hongyuan has always been a development. For China it is a relatively new city, created out of scratch when the Red Army stopped here to regroup in 1949. The city was not near anything in particular, just an outpost in the middle of the grasslands. It is miserably cold in winter and brutally hot in summer. From the forties to the eighties it was little more than a nomad trading post and army base. In the early 90's when I started visiting the city was probably 85% Tibetan. 10% Hui Muslim. 5% Chinese. It was a rough and tumble place with pool tables lining the streets and one eyed Tibetan prostitutes beckoning passersby from smoky dimly lit rooms. Yaks roamed the streets and there were men with their horses selling dog skins and fresh mares milk. Tibetan midget fortune tellers hung out at the gates of the bus station ready to predict your future. Knock down drag out fights were a regular nighttime activity. Almost all of that is gone now. A Chinese policeman explained to me that the housing blocks were exclusively for Chinese and that the local government provided big incentives to settle here. "The city is 75% Chinese, soon 85%," he told me with obvious pride. There are now ice cream parlors, nail salons, and kids playing basketball, it's a nice town and every day it becomes a little more like everywhere else, but walking down the main street makes me sad. I miss the old Hongyuan.
Yesterday in Aba we met a family of Tibetan girls ranging in age from 18 to 35. Both parents had died. They were on their own, and making the best of it. The sisters ran a restaurant, a hotel, and an internet cafe. Each was impressive. The youngest were hard workers and had an almost Japanese manner about them. The oldest had an obvious sense of style (her restaurant, extraordinary for Aba, would not be out of place in New York).
The middle daughter spoke English, one of her five languages. She showed us around town and the monastery. At night she took us to a "Tibet dance party". All the while we had conversations about her life, her future, her boyfriend (a Tibetan man who is living illegally in New York) and so on. The talking continued well into the night and although we were all tired I kept getting the sense she didn't want us to go. After the dancing we returned to her sister's restaurant. It was almost 2 at this point and after some more chatting I said we should be going... She looked at me and with piercing frankness said, "You are lucky. Your world is very big. You can travel where you want and do what you want and you are free. You have friends in many places. Maybe I am just a friend you will forget. My world is small. I am not free. I will not forget this talk or this night. Maybe you will return. But maybe you will never come here again." And then she stopped and looked down.
I promised to look up her boyfriend and to send some English books, but there was a truth to what she said, the traveler collects people and experiences and often forgets them or forgets to look at them as people whose lives they might have touched. But not always....
Today I returned to the small village of Amchok. I had stayed with the headmaster and his wife many years ago (pictures here and here). I returned with a batch of pictures from my first visit in 1994. The town was still recognizable, although much bigger. I stopped the first person I ran into, a monk on a motorcycle, and showed him the pictures. A crowd gathered. Everyone knew the faces in the pictures and in a few minutes I was on the back of a motorcycle on my way to headmaster's house. He was no longer living at the school, retired I think, and was in a small adobe house a bit outside of the town. The monk yelled over the the brush fence announcing a guest and in a few moments there he was. The headmaster. Same sturdy face. Same thick hands. I handed him the pictures. He smiled as he looked at an image of his younger self. Then studying a picture of his wife he started tearing up. His wife had died, as had an 18 year old girl in one of the other pictures, and the English teacher who had brought me to the village in the first place. The English teacher was named Chotar. He had studied in India and traveled with an English Tibetan dictionary and several volumes of Shakespeare. He had learned much of his English from Shakespeare so his conversation was unusually florid. I did not find out how he died, or the girl, or the headmaster's wife. We didn't have language in common and trying to find out the details through pantomime seemed too painful. The headmaster invited us into his house, offered us some yak butter tea and bread. He lived there with his daughter and granddaughter and a nun who might have been another granddaughter. All the while he kept going through his pictures and shaking his head. He separated out the images of his wife and those of himself. There was one picture of the two of us by a river and we took an updated one in the yard. In that moment the weight of the years lifted as we both froze for the click of the camera and smiled in relief afterwards. I hope to return.
I just sent 2 small children into paroxysms of terror...real horror... I don't think they had ever seen anything as scary as me.
Baima is so unused to foreigners that the people here react as if I'm from outer space, or a zoo. I've been poked with pool sticks, had rocks thrown at me, surrounded and stared at with slackjawed wonder, and surrounded and (I think) mocked. What's strange is that you never get this reaction out in the countryside. Out there people just smile, wave, and react like you're a normal person...
All around this region there are long stretches of emptiness. Green grass to the horizon, sky, low hills. You can walk for hours or days out into all that green. At first the experience is disorienting, but soon you find well worn paths heading out from somewhere to somewhere. If you walk long enough on those paths you will find small groupings of rocks stacked three or four high. These are symbolic stupas arranged by local nomads as they pass. I am often more moved by these small acts of faith than I am big temples or statues... because for me these grace notes are not just mindless devotional acts but are simutanously marks of respect and defiance, the artist's mark in the futile struggle against nature.
Today was an easy day. 140KM on gravel paths between Mei Shan and Baima. Most of the way was completely unpopulated... just deep forests punctuated by swaths of clearcutting. Logging is especially destructive here because of the steep valley walls. The trees slide down to the river below leaving utter destruction. The rivers turn brown with mud. All along the way the road was under construction by young Chinese men and Tibetan girls. Our car was surrounded a few times by curious workers checking out the strange looking people inside. One man asked me if I was a Uygher from Kashgar, assuming I was Chinese.
Baima is a flat empty city. It's hot. There are sheep and yaks wandering around on the main street. Otherwise it is very very quiet. After this post and a few emails I'm going to for a walk to the prayer flag field up in the hills.
We left Serta this morning under blazing sun. But the weather here is fickle, the minute a cloud passes the temperature can drop dramatically and soon there were clouds and rain. At this altitude the bottom of the clouds skim the hills making the sky feel close enough to touch....
About 30 miles out of Serta we headed down another river valley. This road has long been closed to foreigners probably because it is unfinished.... there were several washouts along the way but our 4WD Nissan handled the rivers beautifully. Some other cars were not so lucky.
Somewhere down valley the architecture changed. Tibetan stone homes come in all shapes and sizes but there are some common features. Generally they are 30-60 feet wide with walls that slope gently inward. Most are 3 to 5 stories tall. The first level is reserved for livestock, hay and so on. The middle levels are the living quarters with a big kitchen, small bedrooms, and, in some homes, a library. The top level opens onto a terrace, a place for drying crops, growing plants and flowers ectera. Outhouses hang from the back of the 2nd or 3rd level. Exterior decoration varies from village to village.
But in this valley the stone part of the houses are taller and thinner than in other places. The top part of the houses are made of wood and seem almost like a second structure. These wooden structures extend out 1/2 a log length on all sides from the stone base. The windows feature elaborate woodwork, and there are many prayerflags on the roofsw. The effect of is wooden ships. The homes are perched precariously on the edges of high cliffs again making them seem like ships marooned after some otherworldy calamity.
When I saw these villages a chill went up my spine. As a child I wrote a book for myself of pirate ships lost in a fog that ended up stranded on the rocky ledges of a mountain after a passing comet changed the tides and drained the ocean. This was my 9 year old book illustrated in 3D... of course in my book the pirates eventually grew bat wings and flew down from their ships pouring hot oil on the people below. Here there were only young children and old women carrying impossibly large loads of hay on their backs up the steep mountain trails, but still it is rare in this life that dreams are so fully realized.
If you find yourself heading to this part of world, here are some practical travel tips from the road.
1. Watermelons are your best bet fruitwise. Buy a small one, carve a small circle in the top (like a jack-o-lantern) and eat the insides with a spoon. If you cut the top like a lid it will keep for 2-3 days.
2. Baby wipes. Showers are non-existent. Baby wipes keep you feeling semi-fresh. You can actually find them here now so no need to haul them.
3. It's not about being clean, it's about feeling clean. The best way to feel clean: get your hair washed at a salon. They use warm water and often follow it up with a nice head massage.
4. Shaving. Why bother.
5. For your pack. Plastic baggies. The key to a tidy pack is to keep everything compartmentalized. Plastic baggies keep dirty stuff away from clean stuff and keep wet away from dry.
6. Clothes. Don't bring any clothes you will ever want to wear again.
7. Food. It's ok to eat it as long as it's steaming hot. If it's not hot don't eat it. The best bet in all of Tibet, skewers. The skewer ladies come out at night and depending on the size of the city have a decent variety of meats and vegetables.
8. Toilet. All toilets here are untenable, it's best to do it in the hills. If you want to be eco-conscious make sure to smear everything nice and thin. Round rocks are more eco-friendly than paper. If you must use paper, burn it.
9. Fights. If you stay out late you will see fights. It is ok to watch from the sidelines but stay to the back. If knives are drawn, run like hell. Remember everyone here carries a knife.
10. Drinking. If you are a foreigner you will often be grabbed by the head and brought into a circle of men and expected to display your drinking prowess. The problem is that the drink of choice is Bai-jou, a sorghum based liquor that smells like kerosene (we used it to start a fire the other day). You will not outdrink these guys. The best option is to start laying down challenges and starting lots of very loud toasts. If you are lucky everyone will get so caught up in the challenges and start arguing amongst themselves that you can slip away, otherwise prepare for a rough evening.
Conversation with a young man in Sertar.
man: Do you speak English?
man: Are you from Meiguo (America)?
[Mei means beautiful btw. Meiguo means beautiful country.]
man: In Meiguo every woman has large beautiful breasts like melons. Here women are flat like paper.
[at this point I was about to launch into discussion of how television might distort reality... that American women were no different than women anywhere else and that as far as I could see women here were semi-curvy... but then I thought, this poor guy is stuck here, why destroy the fantasy...]
me: In Meiguo we have magic water. After 2 months in Meiguo even the women here would have large beautiful breasts like melons.
man: Meiguo is the number one country on earth.
Serta is one of those cities with a variety of names depending on which map you consult. For the record the people here say Serta. We came up from Ganze on a road not listed on any of the maps but here we are.
Outside of the city are tall towers and bus sized rocks absolutely covered with prayer flags. The city itself is oddly modern with stoplights (the first we have seen since Chengdu), nicely paved roads, and a store labeled "Chain Store." Modern streetlamps line all the roads. There are scores of new unoccupied buildings. At odds with the modern town are the townspeople wearing a variety of styles of Tibetan clothing some of clothing styles are archaic even for Tibet and are rarely viewed outside of 19th century photography collections. A shepard chases a few stray yaks through the large center square. People find my leather aviator's hat amusing (it fits tight over my skull), odd since each person is wearing outrageous headgear.
The drive here from Ganze was easy... We left the city and headed through vast fields of wheat and barley all being harvested by hand... men and women with sickles cutting the stalks and bundling them up in neat bunches. Gradually we climbed up the valley to the plateau and crossed a few passes. At one mountain hundreds of local people had gathered for a festival. They were circumambulating the mountain, men, women, small children all making the hike (and seeming to have a great time) in the thin mountain air. Just hopping out of the car and walking up the road for a few photos left me out of breath.
Eventually we came to an ancient monastery town clinging to the side of a mountain where we stopped for a tour from some friendly monks who were busy rebuilding the place. Surprisingly pictures of the Dali Lama were all around. We continued up some river valleys through some heavily logged forests and finally down a river to this wide valley. The flag covered towers along the way were the first sign that we had crossed out of Khampa territory to something else all together.
The first order of business upon arriving was food. For me: delicious yak and potato skewers seasoned with cumin, chili, oils, and soy sauce and roasted over an open fire. I could eat this stuff every day.
We haven't had much time to explore yet, but wanted to check email in case the power failed. The internet place is another Mad Max sort of operation in a dark room with about 20 kids hunched over screens playing Warcraft, Counterstrike, and Dance Dance Revolution.
Now it's time to log off and hit the town.
I think we found them. :)
We have traveled many many miles since the last post.
The highlights have been:
A little log cabin village 4 hours up a small but raging stream. This was a village without electricity full of horses (with braided manes and tails), and beautiful vegetable gardens.
A monastery up the same stream with truly GIGANTIC trees--Trees at least 10 feet wide. At this monastery I was offered a plate of hooves. I declined.
The festival we ran into today up on the plateau where the women were wearing hats I have only seen in photographs taken over 100 years ago.
The view of all the snowcapped mountains from the Chola pass... around 5050 meters high.
All the lovely encounters we have had in people's homes and tents.
The low points have been:
Going 5 hours up a river only to have the road washed out.
Having to camp in the car because of said washout. It was freezing and raining. Our firemaking abilities were less than impressive.
Getting a very bad cold at altitude.
Paul forgetting his bag with his passport on the side of the road.
The anonymous meat I ate yesterday that is still making my stomach grumble.
Rain. (It's been pouring rain every day for at least part of the day)
Getting locked into our room at night in some places.
Other random notes.
There have been many changes around here since my last visit. The main ones being electrification and fencing. All along the main roads there are now electrical lines and telephone lines. You really have to travel far up side roads to lose these. Also there is now fencing on the plateau along the roads. This is new too.
The city of Manigango, once a 2 building trading post is now a real town with at least 4 streets. There was a heavy police presence there yesterday with groups of police in full riot gear marching up and down the streets. We were not allowed out of the restaurant. I have no idea what was going on.
The roads in this area have been vastly improved since I last visited. A few years ago they were just paths on the plateau. Now they are real roads, full of potholes yes, but much improved. The drive over the mountains felt much safer. We only saw one major accident (a huge truck that had fallen 40 feet into a river).
Sershul (Serxu) is pretty much unchanged although there are many more wild dogs roaming the streets. Hundreds of them lounging in the dust, humping lazily, picking up scraps of yak meat from rubbish piles. Cities like this are scary at night because the dogs get together in packs and become aggressive late in the evening. The hotel here looks abandoned (it is empty except for us and everything is in a sorry state of disrepair), but every time I visit the toilet a group of kids materialize to watch the show.
I think that's it. I'm dusty to the core but excited for the next couple of days. We will be covering some roads that were previously closed to foreigners. These roads will take us out of Kham through deep forests and over some high mountains deep into Amdo.
Too much love to my wife who is coping with our baby's first cold/flu alone.