Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Queen of Chapati

During a festival seven years ago, Shashi, a woman of the prestigious Brahmin caste lost her husband when his best friend murdered him over a sum of 35,000 rupees (the equivalent of about $1,250). During the 45-day period of mourning Shashi was not allowed to leave her house and was expected to lament his death with the many members of his family as they arrived day-by-day to pay respects. When it had come time to move on, Shashi was not allowed to remarry or to work, and if she were to follow her role in Hindu tradition she was required to shave her head and dress in white rags, living the remainder of her life in poverty, for those who supposedly knew better held her responsible for this senseless tragedy, which had certainly been a terrible consequence of dour karma. With two young sons to raise the option of renunciating the world was quite unfeasible. She needed work or at least help of some kind but her husband's family, who lived upstairs, refused her requests for aid and in fact stopped paying her utility bills. Shashi's downstairs flat went into a dry darkness, as she lost access to water and electricity. These were the desperate circumstances in which the widowed mother of two had to restart her life.

That Shashi would eventually manage to overcome the tragic circumstances endemic in this "secular democracy" is a tale of perseverance. Her story is not generally heard by most vacationing westerners and is not on Saturday's itinerary sandwiched between Buddhist rock caves and Jain temples. And if it weren't for her ingenuity I might not have been fortunate enough to meet her and her story would have remained an internal affair, a covered-up pimple nevertheless scarring the diamond face of India.

Shashi lives in Udaipur, which any badge-pinned guide worth his hyperbolic salt will tell you, is the "Venice of the Orient," flying past exaggeration into outright distortion, Venice being a coastal city of canals and Udaipur being an inland, aggregated city situated around a lake. The city is certainly most famous for being the primary setting of Octopussy, one of the James Bond franchise episodes in which Roger Moore is at his most cheeky (the movie plays ad nauseum every day in the numerous lakeside restaurants; will play in all likelihood until the end of the world—a waiter told me he's seen the movie 10,000 times). When the monsoons are good and drought is remote the lake shimmers, landmarked by a gorgeous palace in its center (rooms about the better suites running $2,500 a night). In fact, water—as a source of life and nourishment— is nearly supplementary to its aesthetic value, for when the lakebed dries business dies and India being a large country, the tourists roam elsewhere.

Shashi is not from Udaipur but from a neighboring village with very traditional values. Being from a good family of respected caste, Shashi was wedded to a handsome man of similar social standing and solid career prospects. Like most marriages in Hindu tradition, her marriage was arranged and the day before the wedding she had not yet met the man she was to spend the rest of her life with, having only seen his photo once before the ceremony. After the marriage, she left her family and village and the people she had known all her life for the big city.

Her husband ran a lakefront restaurant geared towards tourists. Like nearly all eating establishments in Udaipur, meals were served on the roof with a view to the lake and palace, insinuating the romance of the maharaja and a more gilded age. She bore him two sons and their family lived well. When a ten-day festival came to Udaipur seven years ago, Shashi's husband and his best friend set up a food stall to cater to the crowds. Their profits were excellent and when it came to split the money, the best friend proved to be his worst enemy. After arriving by scooter at his house, the friend suggested supper before business. Unbeknownst to Shashi's husband, the food had been heavily drugged and after he passed out his friend used a plastic rope to strangle him to death. Despite the cover-up, a police investigation found evidence of rope marks but even though the friend was indicted, tried and convicted for murder, he managed to bribe his way through the courts, serving a jail sentence of just one year, allowed to keep the balance of his dirty money.

Meanwhile Shashi received nothing that was rightfully hers and no compensation for the heinous crime. Instead of empathizing with her situation, her husband's family blamed her for the bad luck, cutting off her electricity and water hoping she would go away for good. They lived right upstairs, they saw her every day, and they did nothing for her.

Left to her own device, Shashi betrayed the rules of her caste. She had her sons visit the guesthouses to retrieve laundry, which she washed in the very early morning as not to attract attention for she was not supposed to work. Later she snuck out at dawn to clean hotel rooms. It went on like this for nearly five years, a desperate time with almost no money and both fear and shame dominating her emotions. Then, less than two years ago, one of her sons brought home two Australian tourists who wanted to learn how to make chutney. And that was how she found a way out of the darkness and a calling that would utilize her charms and talents: cooking classes.

In Udaipur, the competition is cutthroat. Around the streets of the tourist enclaves on the north side of the lake, signs, bulletins, and flyers for cooking classes are as ubiquitous as announcements for the 7pm Octopussy showing. Many of these schools have been in operation for years and in becoming profitable have, in the balance, lost a certain homespun touch. Classes can fill a dozen spots, can charge up to $25, and with nearly all the vegetables prepped there is little hands-on participation for students—consequently the event is more that of an expensive meal rather than a learning experience.

Shashi restricts her classes to three students for that is the limit that can fit comfortably in her kitchen. The kitchen adjoins her living room, where her home-from-school sons put their feet up on the family bed and watch television. It took us four hours to prep and cook the entire menu—masala tea (mixed with fresh-ground cardamon, peppercorn, and ginger), potato and onion pakora, coriander and mango chutneys, aubergine and tomato curry, vegetable palau, naan with cheese and tomato, potato parantha, coconut sweet parantha, and a stack of chapatti, the dishes variously spiced with anise, oregano, garlic, tumeric, cumin, chili pepper and sugar, a comprehensive overview of a very regular Indian diet.

Two years ago when Shashi began her classes she did not speak a word of English. Raised in a Rajasthani village and a fixture in the household under her husband's shadow, she did not learn any vocabulary until she discovered her talent for teaching. In the beginning she relied on hand signals for communication, but being attentive to the tourists' a-ha exclamations regarding what she wanted to express, Shashi catalogued a phonetic dictionary of common words, culinary and otherwise, that began to pepper her vocabulary: "grind," "stir," "heat," "boil," "flip," "cauliflower," "peas," "waste," "burn," "knead," "dough," "rolling pin," "spatula," and eventually she learned the tragic words which chronicled her life story: "murder," "bad man," "police," "bribe," "injustice," "widow," "bad luck," "abandoned," "shame," "fear." In conversation she makes the grammatical mistakes typical of people speaking English as a foreign language, dropping noun articles and mixing tenses; she has a preference for imperatives ("Flip now!"). Nevertheless, her concise speech is quite clear, her culinary directions nearly flawless, and it is quite a feat to learn how far she has come in so short a time as a result of her assiduous note-taking.

Indian food continues to be a mystery for Westerners. Quality in most restaurants is often elusive. I could taste the difference in the food Shashi taught me to cook: the recipes being quite specific about spice content, length of cooking time, the balance of ingredients. Her precise interpretation of common Indian dishes is spectacular. Having spent six months in India on various trips, the food I cooked under Shashi's guidance had been one of the great meals I have had. She is a bit of an underground sensation in Udaipur, surviving and succeeding on word-of-mouth alone. Still despised by her husband's family she shares the building with, she is now envied for her good luck and the well-deserved popularity that she's earned for herself. Her sons are nearly of age, university-bound, likely for positions of hotel management and decent salaries which according to Shashi means the misshapen fortune that darkly characterized the family in the past is gone and they have grown to be most eligible bachelors.

It's been suggested in some Indian literature that a woman directly transfers her emotions into her chutney so that the eater of samosas and pakoras consumes not only mango, mint, or coriander but regret, sorrow, love, indulgence, heartbreak, tenderness…and perhaps this may be the very reason her meals are so wonderfully palatable. There is a strong, redemptive spirit here, seasoned with salt and lemon juice, blending effortlessly into the chili taste. Like all the very best meals, it is rejuvenating.

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2008

To Be Legal Or Not To Be Legal

Drugs are, without a doubt, dangerous. There is nothing to debate there. But so is tobacco and alcohol. Surfing and skateboards are too. In the U.S. alone, there are six million car accidents annually, leaving more than two million with permanent injuries and killing more than 40,000. These are shockingly dangerous numbers. Should the automobile be put on the black market? The debilitating effects of eating junk food daily are well-documented. Bootleg Twinkies? Oh, and what about all those guns?

As Obama said in his inauguration speech, "the time has come to set aside childish things." American leaders have a bad habit of treating its citizens as petty, naughty children, promising to know what's best for us. Perhaps this trend reached its apogee in the Bush years with his terror alerts and the culture of fear that infused his State of the Unions. But although the government might claim to know what's best for us, its pretty clear it doesn't know how to manage money very well. Ten trillion dollars in debt with a huge stimulus package and more tax cuts looming, it's just going to get worse. If we are going to avoid inflation, then we are going to have to act decisively as well as creatively.

Some states, deeply troubled by huge deficits, are trying to legalize some forms of gambling to cover shortfalls. This is a good idea. I don't gamble and feel bad for the families whose fortunes are ruined by addicts but gambling, like all vices, thrive on one of the most classic American homilies ever followed: "When there's a will, there's a way."

It's the same with prostitution. Luckily, like gambling, I have no need for it, but I am not so close-minded I cannot overlook its necessity. The irony of the existence of prostitution is that it is the rigid dogmas of Judeo-Christian society that create unhappy marriages, loveless, single men and the desperate women that have to turn their bodies into profits. Through legalization we can regulate the industry with regular health checkups for workers which would then do a little to turn back the tide of AIDS. I could even see prostitution as a feminist issue. If it were legalized, they would have their rights protected by police authorities against dangerous and violent men. Put those pimps out of business! It could be win/win for both Libertarians and puritanical capitalists: legitimize the work of the afflicted and then tax them! 
Finally, there's narcotics. Like the windfall created by legalizing the sex trades, the income derived from taxes on hallucinogenics and related paraphernalia could be incredible. (Who knows? You could even create a special deposit account in which the government revenue from marijuana funds universal health care--considering how lucrative the drug trade is, it wouldn't take as long as you think). But why stop at marijuana? Cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms, even heroin-- are they anymore dangerous than extreme sports or supersizing every meal at McDonalds for one month? For every user, there's a dealer in the shadows. Not only would legalization wipe out kingpins, on a street level it would strip gangs of their raison d'etre. After all, the sensational turf wars tolling death and destruction in America's inner city neighborhoods are fought over who gets to deal where. 

There are over 2.3 million Americans in prison, a higher percentage of incarceration per population than any other nation in the world. It goes without saying that this is absolutely shameful. Moreover, it is unaffordable. With legalization, it would not be right to move ahead without granting amnesty to all nonviolent drug offenders. The money saved from paying for the upkeep of the prison system could be used in social programs providing a soft landing for those looking forward to a second chance. 

Rather than swim any more against the current, in the First Hundred Days of Roosevelt's Presidency the government repealed Prohibition. It did not fix the Great Depression but it certainly provided revenue and castrated the bootlegger.

What is more dangerous? A sixteen year old smoking pot in his front yard or a devalued dollar made worthless because of irresponsible fiscal spending.

The logistics of such an endeavor would be difficult, to say nothing of the leap into the great gap of the Culture War. It would entail great courage from politicians willing to risk outrage from a general public conditioned to view drug use as a crime rather than a disease.

Like I said, we are going to have to get creative if we are going to get out of this financial catastrophe.

Yes, we can.

You Don't Know What You've Got Until It's Gone

From the Center for Research on Globalization, we are now learning that the large media conglomerates, including Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner and Comcast, are teaming up to usurp Internet Neutrality. What this means is fast service for corporations who can afford the adjusted rates and very poor speeds for small businesses and individuals. The benefit from the corporate standpoint would be two-fold: greater profits as well as the suppression of dissent. In the last decade we have experienced an open vein to information like never before in history. Should these conglomerates succeed in their intentions it would be a coup de grace for freedom of expression.

Even though there are Democratic majorities in Congress and the White House, I remain concerned, for after all it was Bill Clinton who signed into law the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which deregulated radio outlets leading to enormous consolidation of corporate media.

I cannot help but wonder that the power structure was a little taken back by the potential of the Internet to unite grass roots organizations, as it did to great success in the election of Barack Obama. Every year, the potential of the Internet seems to be improving, a purposeful tool for organization and knowledge.

We should cherish this right.

Speak up.

Monday, January 26, 2009

It's Great To Be Indian (And Not...Pakistani)

As soon as I exit the taxi four small children carrying handfuls of India's national flag surround me. One of them, waving the saffron-green colors, yells, "Go, India, yeaaaa! Go! Go! Go!" I push off, following the large crowds past tea vendors and other makeshift refreshment stands. Everyone is walking very quickly because we are late for the performance. At the gate I am shocked when I see the grandstands. There are hundreds, if not thousands of people, murmuring excitedly, many of whom carrying those little flags sons and daughters whirl in the air, pockets of color flashing against the falling light.

Every evening, the sleepy border community of Wagha improvises quite a party. People from all over India drive some hundreds of miles just for the event, which in its pomp, spectacle, music, dance, and lowbrow entertainment is not much different from a circus though one could fairly call it a political rally with a not-to-be-taken-lightly subtext. What is happening is the daily closure of the border between Pakistan and India, a checkpoint between the electrical barbed-wire fences where visa papers are examined, passports are stamped, and bags occasionally searched, a process of dull but necessary bureaucracy. But life in India is hardly ever dull. So if life can be dressed up at all, then it may as well put on a great costume.

And certainly the border guards look great. India has a huge standing army, largely kept in place because of frequent diplomatic fallouts with Pakistan over the situation in Kashmir. Like the United States, the army in India represents an opportunity for social mobility and perhaps glory. So they have a large talent pool from which they can cast stars and the border guards are stars. Very tall, lean, and handsome, they sport handlebar mustaches of a quality I have only seen in photographs of French Foreign Legion officers. Their hats are indescribable: a dark cap with a striped, tasseled sash wrapped around, crowned by a Chinese fan in red and gold colors. To me they look like cockatiels rather than gladiators though I am not sure what the intended effect is. It becomes comic when you examine the whole uniform: the brown shirts look all right but the chinos finish halfway down the calves and white underpants with stirrups trail down to shiny, polished boots.

I am ushered into the stands. The seating capacity is huge, probably roomy enough for three thousand, yet it's such a large turnout there are hundreds sitting on the sidewalk. Literally, it's standing room only. On the other side of the international gates, the cheering potential for Pakistan looks dismal in comparison. Not only were the stands smaller, they were barely half filled, a last-place team kind of crowd. Just the day before, in India, an explosion had detonated an international train killing around 70, most of them Pakistanis, though Muslim extremist groups were suspected. I didn't know if the mood at the border ceremony would consequently be subdued or hot-blooded. Instead it turned out to be vaguely ridiculous.

I don't suppose the program varies too much regardless of current events. An emcee moderates, while guards march back and forth in exaggerated gaits. Then a male performer finds the spotlight, leaping and lunging and lip-syncing to some Bollywood hit with operatic intensity. He looks like a regular Joe, a little pot-bellied, but he has great hair and Elvis sunglasses. When his performance concludes, dozens of men rush the stage and start dancing. A few modern women form their own circle and the dancing goes on for about ten minutes with the stadium crowd clapping along. I can't believe how weird this all is.

After some time the emcee breaks up the party and we get back to marching, along with some call-and-response vis-a-vis the audience. Some of it was in English and some of it in discernable Hindi. The emcee would cry, "HINDUSTAN!" which the audience would repeat. This was followed by "ONE DAY!" which again the audience repeated. The context of the cheer was disturbing: India is ostensibly a pluralistic society. There are 130 million Muslims as well as substantial populations of Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, and Christians. The northeastern regions near the Burmese border are so "wild" and "tribal" that some practice animistic rituals,  living almost completely independently of the greater economy. It's commendable that India should have as its motto, "Unity in Diversity." But hearing such a chant now declared in such bald language causes me to wonder how genuine is the sentiment Indians regard their multiculturalism.

There's more marching. And then the guards line up and sound off a long cry into a microphone while their nemesis competes for the biggest lung pull on the other side. There's some more marching, more call-and-response. And then the flags are rolled down, carefully folded, and locked away. I feel something's missing like fireworks or a cannon boom. Everyone poses for pictures with the handlebar mustaches and attempt to stride past little kids aggressively hawking the show's DVDs.

When I return to the parking lot I find the taxi driver, who leads myself along with the other passengers up to the side of an embankment. He points to the electrical fence. Every now and then a crow is fried when alighting the wire. The taxi driver is a small man and excitable. In his wallet there's a 1973 military identification card where he looks handsome and slightly defiant. Proud of his service, he tells me, "India is great." This simple, declarative axiom is a bumper sticker you see on buses and taxis all over the country. When we climb down the hill there are a few kids waiting by our taxi, stragglers with flags bunched in their tiny hands.

Of all great human passions, the one I find least endearing and probably most dangerous is nationalism. This is a sad fact in America, of course, where people confuse patriotism for nationalism (which is perhaps an inevitable consequence when the military is wealthy and education underfunded). No one, and I mean no one, should love their country without reservations. Though they go out of their way to proclaim otherwise, governments (including the United States), do not have the interests of their people at stake. To put brutal policies into effect— war, counterterrorism, as well as the revocation of "certain, unalienable rights"—devastating measures are promoted, masked in Orwellian double-speak, dressed up as the devil or the debutante, depending on the expedience of the situation.

Samuel Johnson, a British lexicographer, famously said patriotism is the refuge of the scoundrel; perhaps you could say in my nation's case, so-called patriots draw the line between America and the un-American. But though I may loathe my congressmen and the former Bush administration, I feel very patriotic about my country. I'm not ashamed to be American and I have never lied about where I'm from and have defended it against those who blindly attack it baselessly. For me, patriotism is wanting what's best for the people of a country, not what's best for the state's power, which is nationalism, an unexamined allegiance to authority. This simple discrepancy in semantics is typical in the United States, where the educational system fails to inspire curiosity in the details of day-to-day governance. Politics: along with sex and religion one of the great dinner table taboos. Add a mainstream media complicit in simplifying the message with its narrative filters and sound byte propaganda, the citizen's misinformation opens them up for irrational military programs that they would otherwise protest.

And then there's the idea of a nation-state, a country that is supposed to represent our collective interests. Despite advances in technology, especially television, which have led to homogenization, I still feel the idea of a country is an abstraction, especially as a tool for defining personality or social characteristics. For example, in America, there are many cities where I'd feel out of place, philosophically as well as socially. I prefer the city to the suburbs, walking to driving. An empty street makes me nervous—it's not right, counter to millions of years of evolving social beings. Red State/ Blue State: in only the most general sense is there something so encompassing as 'American culture' (which if one is to believe the media has been at war with itself since the 1960s). I think of culture as a disposition, a perspective as well as a common knowledge, much more micro than macro, grass roots rather than 'sea to shining sea.' It can be aesthetic like an interest in the arts or it can be functional, related to sundry necessities like shortcuts to beat freeway congestion or the location of a town's most authentic tacos. I'm talking about intimacy in culture on an everyday footing.

India, as a country, is even a larger abstraction. The facts supporting this are indisputable. For one thing, what has come to define the modern state more than anything is a shared national language. India has eighteen of them. English is the language of politics and finance and the lingua franca of the rich. Most people in the north speak Hindi though it's very rare you will find a native Hindi speaker south of Bombay where most people speak Dravidian languages like Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, and Kannada. Ironically, Urdu, the main language of Pakistan, India's arch-enemy, is an Indo-Aryan language: thus northern Indians would be able to converse with Pakistanis better than hundreds of millions of their own countrymen!

Beyond the difference in language are the details that make cultures so unique: religion, cuisine, music, dance, art, literature. Then there are different concepts of political thought, economics, and education. Boston and Miami may be pretty different in temperament but that is nothing compared to Madras and Kochi, which are roughly in the same region.

Because India is unnecessarily large it has always been in a sense, unmanageable, three regions, in particular: Kashmir, the Northeast territories, and Bihar in the Gangetic plain have been in open revolt or characterized by rampant lawlessness for years. Violent banditry in the historical holy land of the Buddha has devastated Bihar while secessionist movements in Kashmir and the Northeast have been exorbitant for the government to suppress. The conflict in Kashmir in particular has precipitated four wars costing tens of thousands of lives, years of civil unrest and has led India to the expensive and dangerous program of nuclear proliferation. When India detonated its first nuclear weapons in the Thar Desert in 1998, it was met with great jubilee. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the madness of irrational nationalism than the fact that the greatest exultations were among the poor, who have had basic services like education, health care, electricity, and basic plumbing denied them because of the disproportionate investment in war instead of infrastructure. Substituting basic human decency for a national identity has preserved a status quo of Dickensian disparity.

It doesn't make sense. Why should India fight four wars in addition to an ongoing civil insurrection to keep Kashmir? After all, more than seventy percent of the population there is Muslim. Just as important, the common language is Kashmiri, which though similar to Hindi (as a branch of Indo-Aryan), is nevertheless distinct. A region of tall mountain passes and rugged peaks, Kashmir for centuries has celebrated a unique and vibrant culture in arts, literature, and especially music. Yet I met only one Indian out of dozens who believed that Kashmir might be better off without India, seceding and becoming an autonomous state. Everyone else believed that it was to be subdued and preserved at any cost, even if were to bring the conflict with Pakistan to an irrevocable brinksmanship.

I tend to empathize with Indian (or should I say Keralan) author Arundhati Roy, who interpreted the explosions and resultant fervor as a "crisis of imagination." But that's where nationalism leads us, up in the smoke of a mushroom cloud.

The first thing Indians will want to know when I meet them is where I'm from. And I always want to know where they're from too. I'm always dumbfounded when they tell me, 'India.' That seems rather obvious. But of the hundreds of conversations, very rarely did anyone tell me first and foremost, they were from Delhi, Bombay, or regions like Gujarat or Tamil Nadu. India would always come first as a point of identification.

But what's interesting is how much people love India. Kids and people who don't speak English will shout out at me, "India #1," prompted simply by my foreignness. Sitting with businessmen or guesthouse owners I learned how optimistic Indians are for their economic future. I heard many businessmen speak of India's glorious future quoting fancy forecasted numbers for GDP and GNP growth. One businessman told me that within thirty years India would be wealthier than America. I thought of the rickety, overcrowded bus I had taken that day, bouncing against potholes, passing rural settlements made of mud and straw. He had decided to focus on numbers rather than what was happening right in front of him.

It's true India has enjoyed tremendous economic growth in the last two decades. This bull market began when the national government decided to privatize the economy. What did deregulation mean for India? Outside conglomerates trickling into the country buying up India's major industries. Control of the nation's resources moved from the state to private enterprise. Monopolization of industries as well as bribery have enabled special interests to run India as a corporate oligarchy. The rich getting... you know where this is going. Twenty-five percent of the population lives below the poverty threshold. Roughly estimated we're talking about 300 million people living on about one U.S. dollar a day. That is nothing to be proud of. It should bring great shame to the patriots. But the media, like its counterpart in America, crops the picture to fit the story. "India Shining," as the government's current promo-tag is called, beams its spotlight selectively.

As I'm in my thirties I find it amusing along with other Americans when we discuss how powerful the Pledge of Allegiance shadows our unconscious. I adore pop music but I cannot seem to remember the lyrics to any of my favorite songs. Yet, I can place my right hand over my heart and recite the Pledge verbatim. I can do it in my sleep. It scares me sometimes. And it should scare you.

I bring this up only because I found a clue to Indian nationalism while on a bicycle ride on country roads outside the fallen kingdom of Vijayanagar or its present offshoot, Hampi. This was in the morning and I stumbled upon a school assembly. I had been attracted by the drumming, which sounded martial in its cadence. I found a few hundred kids standing in locked formations while a principal yelled and the students called back, all the while the drumming never ceased. I imagined this went on every day of these school children's career until they entered the university.

What I think the kids were saying was something like, "I pledge allegiance…"

How do I stay optimistic then? For India's sake? I must admit there was a bit of flair in that border ceremony. The mustaches, the dancing, the music, and the crowds contained all the elements of the absurd. Rather than interpreting the show as a playful method of indoctrination, I want to believe that this was, if not an outlet, then another opportunity to indulge in a love of spectacle. I didn't think anyone there would feel comfortable annihilating Pakistan. Anyway that would not be good sportsmanship. As long as we could scream louder than the other side, maybe that would be enough.

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2007

Does God Leave Footprints in the Sand?

There's a great desert in Namibia, in Africa's southwest, where two German geologists went AWOL during the Second World War. They didn't believe in Thousand Year Reichs, Jewish pogroms or master races; they were scientists and primarily curious about what lay under of the surface of the world's upheavals. I mean this literally. Namibia is a region rich in reserves of quartz, jasper, amethyst, among hundreds of other minerals. While rock could transcend eras, the war was a pocket in time, a manmade catastrophe that they did not believe in and were determined to survive so that they might continue their studies. They escaped to the desert where they hid out among the dunes and ridges, canvassed for water and hunted antelope and other animals, much as man must have lived in this region for centuries. Amazingly, they survived for two and a half years before they exhausted themselves of game, water and the gambit of living in the harshest of climates, finally surrendering themselves to the authorities.

Bordering South Africa, Angola and Botswana, Namibia does not figure prominently on most people's minds when they think of Africa, as its recent history is not so pathetic or violent as many others on the continent. In the 19th century, during the gluttonous appropriation of lands, rivers, and mountains it was ignored by the the European colonial powers in the initial rush for conquest. The British had put a flag down in the deep harbor of Walvis Bay but otherwise the coast was not advantageous and the land beyond it, inhospitable. The Germans eventually claimed it for the Kaiser but as with every area of land in Africa, there had been someone settled there beforehand. The Germans fought a vicious battle with the indigenous San Bushmen, forcing thousands to migrate east to the Kalahari Desert where they starved to death or perished from dehydration.

Namibia was pretty much ignored afterwards as a frontier post until diamonds were discovered in 1908. Of course, this raised its profile considerably and became a source of contention among the great powers. It was forfeited by the Germans along with their entire colonial holdings following their defeat in the First World War. A treaty put Namibia under a mandate to be administered by South Africa, back then still a member of the Queen's empire but more or less autonomous. When South Africa achieved nationhood, the rigid and racist social structure known infamously as apartheid was firmly entrenched in its society as well as within its colony in Namibia. Great diplomatic pressure from the UN could not sway South Africa to release its grip until an internal guerrilla movement called SWAPO made things untenable for South Africa to effective govern. Independence was finally granted in 1990.

A lucrative industry, there are very few unemployed geologists in Namibia. For underneath the barren plateaus and mountains of sands are rich reserves of diamonds, copper, gold, lead, tin, lithium, and zinc. Namibia is the world's fifth largest exporter of uranium. Because of the wealth generated from the mining industry, the country feels wealthy by African standards. When I crossed the border from Zambia the landscape was just as forlorn on the Namibian side but the bus stopped at the OK Market, a generic supermarket outfit with America-sized food packages and correspondingly high prices. I was surprised to find three dollar magic shell syrup for ice cream amid the merchandise.

This wealth, is of course, quite deceptive. Like South Africa, there are two worlds in Namibia, black and white, and the distribution is very uneven. The major industries are still controlled by old Afrikaans and English families and wages do not correspond to rising prices. 35% of Namibians are unemployed and 50% live below the poverty line (nearly one-third of Namibians have annual incomes of less than $1400). The desert climate is as inhospitable now as it was a century before. Less than one percent of the land is arable and during prolonged droughts starvation is rampant. And the economic success itself is precarious, dependent on the availability of underground minerals. When they will eventually be irreprably exploited the country's infrastructure has few economic alternatives.

Regardless of technology, irrespective of the minerals, the desert remains formidable, dangerous, unforgiving. It is also a source of tourism. There are canyons, plateaus, vleis (dry river beds), and dunes that give the desert its geographical character. The dunes of Sossuvlei are particularly special--they rise nearly 300 meters from the earth, unnatural mountains undulating into the horizon, a great sand sea. When the wind picks up, sand scurries across the desert's face, giving the land its voice--lingering and soulful-- between the long, stoic silence it invariably defaults on.

How the sand dunes are formed is a bit of magic that takes millions of years to develop. Sediment of iron oxide is carried down the Orange River into the Atlantic where it meets a strong surface current called the Benguola. The Benguola spins the minerals in a cyclical direction against the coastline grinding it up into a fine red sand that is then blown across the land by a southwesternly wind that eventually meets a southeasterly wind, that has picked up along the way sediment from the Orange River upstream. The two winds clash and the fallout is deposited so that the dunes are balanced and colored on both sides, a finely carved ridge forming the dunes' backbone. Erosion from the nearby mountains is the source of quartz and dolorite blown in from more desert winds creating a delicate, sparkling sheen. When the sun rises over the dunes, its ascent to the sky douses the landscape with shifting light like a great finespun Arabian carpet washed over in fresh dye.

Namibia is a geologist's playground, an inspiration, a neverending story of development, formation, erosion. But for most of the country's inhabitants the dunes have very different origins. Like many countries in Africa, almost ninety percent of Namibians are Christians and they believe in the Old Testament, biblical creationism, Intelligent Design. Thousands of miles to the north, the men of the Sahara explain, 'God created the desert for man to find his soul.' Is this because the desert, like any embittered environment can bring out mans' great virtues and extreme depravity? When you think of life and the desert, survival comes to mind because if water is the source of life, surely the absence of it is the proximity of death?

Life manages to persist. Amid the rugged terrain outlining the desert's frontier, trees are sparse but they do grow and some of them are home to giant nests of birds calles sociable weavers. Dozens of these birds live in the same nest, building upon the shelters to accommodate growing populations. Creating a complex apartment aviary, the nests can grow so large they uproot trees. 

On the road between the urban sprawl of Windhoek and the desert are birds-of-prey gliding in slow, deliberate circles, wild horses grazing on yellow grass, fat cattle slouching on the long march, and the occasional baboon seemingly shiftless and bored on a rocky outcropping. Indeed, in Nambia, one gets the impression that biblical creationists would lose the great evolutionary debate. Even to the casual, amateur eye, the formations and the adaptive qualities of the wildlife indicate the earth is a very old place.

Yet one can't help but feel that God does exist, because the desert and the surrounding landscape feels much more intricate than the aftermath of a climate pattern. This is divine and inspired beauty and while I don't think it necessarily demonstrates a Biblical Jehovah at work one is inclined to believe in some mysterious force present.

At a distance the sand dunes are conspicuously empty of life. But when one puts his or her foot in the sand, a little black-rounded bug, with a curved thrusting blade in front emerges from the depths. If one touches your shoe they squeeze into a little ball or dig themselves under the grain. The 'bulldozer' beetles have managed to stay alive in the desert for millions of years, through unbelivable summer temperatures and great desert storms. These robust creatures persist in a climate not made for life at all.

There is something both frightening and wonderful in that.

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2005

Friday, January 23, 2009

Mickey Mouse, A Mentor Named Don Quixote, a Cameleer Called Abdul, A Beast Monikered Bob Marley, A Man Without a Past

"The less she bore man’s imprint, the more room she offered for the expansion of his heart.”
Marcel Proust on Nature

Sunrise in the desert is a true delight. With the stars slowly fading out, a purple haze becomes the western horizon. Light diffuses across your vision in rainbow patches, a hue of Venetian wild yonder gathered wishfully from Bradbury stories. And to be alone on the sands is to give in to imagination, to the magic of fairy tales and serialized adventure musings. It is desolate and cold yet romantic and rejuvenating. In central Morocco, I was wandering the Sahara dunes, alone, just after the sun had risen and a sky being blued. From the distance there was a lone figure coming towards me. My hotel, where I was the only guest, was on the outskirts of the village of Merzouga, a good six kilometers away from any dwellings or fashionable auberges. The person seemed to arrive with the dawn, a man born of the light. As he approached, I discerned his navy tunic and matching turquoise turban-- ‘le hommes bleu’ the tourist literature calls the Bedouin of the Western Sahara. Amid the wide expanse of sand, he approached my vantage point, called out a 'Bonjour,' and kneeled before me. From a satchel, he unrolled some newspaper and produced specimens of fossilized rock. "Good price," he said in English once he had successfully discriminated my American accent.

The first nick in the relevance of the Western Sahara caravan route came in the 16th century when the Portuguese opened the Atlantic coast with coastal shipping. Nevertheless, men, camels, and goods continued to cross the Sahara for hundreds of years, from Marrakech to Timbuktu, trading in salt, spices, ivory, slaves. In the 20th century the French established a Protectorate. Under their colonial supervision a modern highway infrastructure was constructed. Later than that, airplanes made transport quicker and more efficient. Thus, the legendary caravan routes have largely disappeared and very few hardy men still make this difficult journey. Still the desert grows, it effuses, beckons, and challenges. In this era of mass tourism and virtual experience, it is this market that is the only lucrative one left in this arid, foreboding land.

All along my travels I’d been warned against the hustlers of Merzouga, a small village on the edge of Erg Cherebi, where the largest sand dunes in the country were accessible via a good, paved road. Supposedly busloads of tourists made the stop, posed with camels for five minutes and took off on the long trip back to Ourezazate or even Marrakech, a good six hours drive away in grueling heat. This stretch of the desert has also become something of a Land Rover’s amusement grounds with manic cavalcades of sports utility monsters roaring through the gentle ambience, bellowing  berserk macho energy. The camel tracks were covered by their 4x4 ruts and the quietude compromised beyond pity.

I was on the local long-distance bus from Tinehir to Erfoud, where I would have to change buses to get to Rissani. There, a taxi would take me to Merzouga. It was a convoluted route and I expected some trouble. Still almost a hundred kilometers from my destination two slick young cads took two seats across from me. Our conversation was typical of two hustlers making the peripatetic strike. They praised my coming to Morocco, for taking local buses, for meeting real Moroccans; these people on the tour buses, they said, missed out on the whole experience. "You are like Berber,” they announced, intending it as a compliment, a comparison to the indigenous population, the original Moroccans. 

Following the obligatory round of sickly, sweet praise they turned their talk to camel treks. “I’m a musician,” the thin, peppy one informed me. “I will perform a party tonight. You must come.” I told them that I hardly had a party in mind for the desert and that I actually wanted someplace very quiet, remote, soundless… I told them I had chosen my hotel, the Nomad Palace, precisely because it was far away from all the other hotels in the area.

Ah, but the dunes weren’t as high, they said. Undeterred by my steadfastness, they remarked the place was dangerous, too close to the Algerian border and that sometimes Americans were kidnapped or even shot by snipers. I politely smiled, acknowledging their desperate spinning with a skeptical eyebrow furrow. The younger one, the musician, slipped into a pouting silence. His friend persisted, lamely, recommending a compromise: if I went on their desert excursion, they would be happy to drop me off at the Nomad Hotel in the morning. Nope. A series of unrelated personal questions followed--to save face or win me over I could not decide but answered them succinctly. When it was discovered that I lived in Japan, the melancholy musician sprang to life in simple, but perfectly pronounced Japanese: "Honto ni? O-genki desu ka? Sabaku ni ikitai?"  Really? How are you, my good man? So you want to go to the desert?

The bus had reached Erfoud and was nearing its terminus. They reminded me that they were my ‘friends,’ and that I would be hounded by “faux” guides as soon as I stepped off the bus.

“Those people outside, they’re going to make couscous in your head.”

“Yeah,” I asked. “Then what are you making?”

“An egg.”

“Oh, so you’re frying an egg in my head?”

“Yes. With a Moroccan salad.”

“Abunai,” he said in Japanese, cocking his head to the faces outside the parked bus. Dangerous.

They weren't lying about that. I was hounded as soon as I disembarked. At a teleboutique, I called up the Nomad Palace: Ali, the proprietor, was in Erfoud picking up fresh produce from the weekly souk. A lucky break. He would be over in a few minutes to pick me up. I waited on the curb while some woebegone tout, stubbornly hovered over me, promising a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I had visited various African deserts and witnessed their commercialization. I knew it by the sound of a flipped silver coin hitting the plastic table. But I couldn’t help myself: I clung to my expectations, I had visions of romance, adventure, and mysticism, but so tenuously held on.

Perhaps the desert loses its enchantment when it's turned into a postcard. Can a tourist really claim he’s been to the desert and the ascetic hardships the journey implies? Or has he merely seen it? If you walk far enough there’s the silence and the wind envelops, the sand gets in your eyes and mouth and scratches your skin. But the danger of its indifference to life, of its potential ruthlessness has been sanitized. The French Foreign Legion outposts have been replaced with ‘auberge avec piscine.’ Men who may have once raised camels mop the floors of honeymoon suites. The old ways are gone or put on as ‘authentic’ cultural experiences.  It's not enough that the ways of the infidels had to contaminate the national governments, the cities, the youth... even in the desert, archetype of the middle-of-nowhere, the infidels had it right: money makes the world go round.

Perhaps I'm naive.  You can’t blame the local 'men in blue' for wanting to make a little bit of profit out of us. For those  who were born and will die there, the desert will always be a rough place, real rather than romantic. It's my fault, rather, for wanting to believe in Mickey Mouse although he’s just a cartoon character.

One can interpret a child’s innocence as having no real illusions. Fantasy and reality can be one thing: whole.  At Disneyland there are no costumes. It is not a fabrication; there is no man sweating underneath cursing his lot in life, craving a cold beer. To adults, fairy tales imply whimsical make-believe, but for a child it is the way the world works. When the wizard of Oz turns out to be just a man behind a curtain, you know Paradise has been irrevocably lost.

I arrived in the desert as the reluctant cynic: I had my vision of the Sahara, its tranquil beauty, its dangerous history, and its savage light, and I expected disappointment. The only way I could come out unscathed was to adapt a special attitude, that of a fabulist, or a young child, an innocent. Perhaps channeling Don Quixote was the only worthwhile solution. All or nothing.

My cameleer, Abdul, didn’t speak English, mumbling his French incoherently, as if he had been to the dentist and injected with large doses of Novocain. Ah, but he had no tongue; it had been chopped off as punishment for a lascivious comment regarding the Sultan’s harem.

The camel, single-humped and technically a dromedary, was named  Bob Marley. The resemblance to the Rastafarian legend was a stretch though the beast did have a friendly smile. The animal would be my carriage into the great sand sea.

And who was I but a Man Without a Past. Why had I come to the desert? Why was I intent on being here? Abdul inquired with his mangled tongue the origins of my history and my quest but I accepted the questions in silence, letting his enquiries echo into the void.

Leaving the village of Merzouga behind we entered the dunes. There on a small ridge of sand: a woman of Latin heritage in a tight white suit chaperoned by a heavyset man riding down the dunes on a piece of board. Surely, with her dark, agile beauty she was a foreign princess sold to the chief of a local tribe and he a carpenter and inventor showing off an ingenious device of transport. But where was her palanquin and her porters?

Along and over the dunes we trudged. Abdul faithfully inquired after my state of being: I was absorbed by the light playing upon the dunes, how it made ever so delicate shapes, shadows slipping away like a receding tide or its creeping arrival delivering coolness, all motions at the mercy of solar angles. Contentment did not describe my feelings. I was dazzled.

I thought I would have the dunes to myself but a group of eight camels came trawling from the opposite direction—their riders looked droopy and ill-begotten— perhaps they had made the 1000-mile journey from Timbuktu? Their gaudy social attire was terribly inappropriate for the desert… Did they run out of water and have to barter their raiments? I wanted to ask them about the oasis, as the desert was vast and harsh and what if we were to be lost should we fall under the spell of landscapes? But chagrined jowls set forward—I was out of their peripheral vision. I did not exist.

Going my way were a young couple from Switzerland. Abdul was friendly with the other cameleer and he tied my reins to the rear dromedary. I took them to be speculative merchants. They didn’t talk about their purpose here. They spoke of home. The desert has that effect.

The sun set. And the sky was cast with a mulberry glow, like a plum ripening through four seasons. The moon was nearly full, just a sliver bit off and the way was lit by lunar shine. We continued, our small camel train, cresting a high sand dune where we looked down upon an oasis, small, verdant, a cluster of palms, spilled figs, small shacks of wood covered in tarp, a well containing spring water, a fire and a cooking pot.

Abdul spoke to my dromedary and the beast collapsed onto itself in a sitting position. I dismounted and entered the camp. There was food and music and in the songs a local lore which seemed culturally impenetrable, yet exquisitely beautiful. The hand drums were spanked, an oriental flute was blown, lyrics lapping the night in a harmony barked as well as sung. I lay back, looking towards distant crowns and let the sound envelop me. The tumescent moon subdued the incandescence of the constellation but no matter.  I could see the bushy bedhead outline of the palm grove poised before the great sand dune and the miracle of the oasis came to me— how water, the source of life, could be discovered in the most unlikely of places and because of these marvelous springs the desert could be crossed on foot or by beast. It has been crossed and will be crossed again. For a brief, ecstatic moment I fancied I could be one of those men, if only I wanted to. And then a shooting star defied the lunar light. It sparkled in the sky in a moment’s burst, just long enough to pause for wishes and dreams.

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2005

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Tonight the Lady Does Not Sing the Blues

Like nearly every rational person on the planet, I was thrilled by the election of Barack Hussein Obama. Living in Japan, I had voted absentee a month before (my fourth election eligible to vote, having cast my lot with Clinton in ’96, Nader in ’00, and Kerry in ’04). For the first time in years I regretted my choice to be living abroad.  Because America had changed, and in doing so had become a lot more interesting than it had been in the go-go 90s. For better. For worse. The powers that be should have been able to recognize this inevitability. Bush had politicized Americans like very few predecessors: the youth organized, soldiers revolted, housewives marched, many staunch conservatives rescinded their views. In all likelihood, a President Obama would not have existed without an incompetent like W. As they say, sometimes you have to hit bottom before you can go back up. Or if Obama had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.

Living in Japan with its seventeen hour time difference against the west coast meant that Obama was officially declared victorious in the election around noon. I had no television so I had to listen to developments on public radio selected from itunes radio. As the results were coming in state-by-state, new Democratic Senators and states gone blue for Obama (Pennsylvania! Ohio! Virginia! North Carolina!) I discovered myself hollering yahoos and delivering fist pumps, for what I believed I was witnessing was not a vote for the Democratic candidate or even Barack Obama but a passionate repudiation of the status quo: the occupations and wars, the financial mismanagement, the curtailing of our civil rights. When Obama delivered his speech, in front of hundreds of thousands in the cold autumnal Chicago night, I cried not just from joy but out of relief that there was a way out of the darkness for America:

For the first time in years, perhaps my life even, I felt shining pride of my Americaness. Oh, I’ve always been proud of American culture, its music, its films and literature, its muckrakers and its dissidents, the diversity and the friendliness of the average person but I loathed the government, the corporations who were controlling it, the kingmakers who pushed us pawns to the brink. It seemed to me patriotism for your country should have been incomprehensible when your government condoned unregulated greed, preemptive war, and the torture of human beings denied habeas corpus. I believe that when historians look back at the Bush era, they will find a society that had been gripped with madness and fear, a chicken running amok with its head cut off.

I do not think it was policy that was behind Obama’s rising star—rather it had everything to do with the man’s theme. In this hyperkinetic culture we have permanently entered, the medium is the message, and hope was what the man promised. Not in so many words, but in his charisma, his character, and his ability to inspire us to dream.
photo by UCHUJIN

So, because of the said time difference, when some friends and I wanted to watch the inauguration, it was inconveniently scheduled for 2am Tokyo time. We jerry-rigged a film projector to a laptop’s live feed telecast. It did not go as well as planned. CNN did not include Japan in its coverage area and BBC’s circuits were jammed. 

The whole world is watching

We ended up with Fox News, only the visuals were slow and choppy and quickly fell behind the audio, turning the ceremony into a bit of a spectacle. Therefore, part of Obama’s speech occurred when various dignitaries (and villains, Dick Cheney in his wheelchair) were rolling out to their seats. Like some commentators' reactions I subsequently read on the Internet, I was satisfied by what Obama said but I had not been inspired. There were moments—for example when he declaimed against America’s enemies and more or less declared the American way of life sacred—when he reminded me of Bush but with a more arresting rhetoric. To reference a comedian’s take, excusing the tough talk, he wondered aloud why melted cheese tasted good on Italian but just ruins Chinese food?

I went to sleep feeling a little bit skeptical about the disconnect between what a man says and what a man does. But I do think that all the hagiographic feting Obama has received might be a positive influence in the end. For Obama has an opportunity to be one of history’s most remarkable men, if only he be brave. To hope will not be enough. 

Finally the time has come, the time for action.

Let’s see what happens next.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hanging With the Maasai

Likely, you were first introduced to them in your father's National Geographic and you never forgot. In fact, had the illustrious magazine required the service of a mascot to gimmick the longing for adventure in the anthropologist in all of us, who else would define the exotica of tribal life to suburbanites as well as they, with their fire-engine red cloaks, their stony-point spears, their beaded jewelry and elongated ears, their propensity to leap in the air.... In spite of massive industrialization entering the developing world, thousands of tribes continue to practice rural, animistic, shamanic customs. Yet, among these multitudes, it the Maasai of southwestern Kenya who continue to define the pastoral image of the ultimate Luddite.

Much of the technological progress that has characterized the past century has not made it to Africa. There are many reasons for this, primarily the corruption of dozens of governments on the continent, embezzling state revenues, aid packages, and IMF loans. What that means is that a number of rural areas are without drinking water, education, arable land, and adequate health care. Most of these people desire to acquire the benefits of technology and science. What makes the Masaai unique then is that, collectively, they are committed to a culture that is hundreds, if not thousands of years in practice and does not seek to be absorbed into a greater economy. The Kenyan government, however, in need of dollars, euros, pounds, and yen have done what they could to advertise the Masaai as any entrepreneurial city slicker might. And the Masaai lands being enclosed within the Masai Mara park, one of the richest and most famous wildlife reserves in Africa, are already inundated with tourists and their silver. Thus the inevitability of something you saw in National Geographic can be shrink-wrapped, packaged, and presented with a little red ribbon.

My own introduction to the customs of the Masaai was through a handsome, young man named Tendy. I'd met him at a campfire, where he and four others performed a series of dances on several traditional narrative themes: the story of a "lion's glorious assassination," an exposition on circumcision, and a wedding dance. The dances-- requiring a bit of agility-- involved much leaping and some low, muffled grunting punctuated by buzzing screeching.

Following the show, Tendy explained the meaning of the dances. When a boy of the tribe reaches a pivotal adolescent year (around 16, when we in the USA are enjoying the initiation of a driver's license), he must venture into the wild and slay a lion. Once this not-so-simple task has been achieved, the kill's mane must be brought back to the village as proof of the deed (where it is eventually tailored into a hat piece for one of the chief's sons). I suppose when you are born and raised in a valley where the nocturnal roar of lions is a way of life, their existence is not something to be feared so much as venerated.

A few days afterwards, Tendy took me to visit his village, where I was introduced to George, one of the Chief's sons. The village-- a collection of mud huts and thatched roofs, thorny fences built from acacia branches and no electricity-- was noticeably absent of men. As it turned out there was an important convention of elders and the younger men were preoccupied with grazing their cattle. George, one of ten siblings of various maternal lines, explained that nomadism being a traditional way of life, the Masaai had grudgingly accepted some modern practices, notably agriculture and the harvesting of maize, but otherwise continue to profess a lifestyle unique to much of the world.

For being a remote people who have balked at entering a world of Internet and antibiotics, George's English is surprisingly good. I pepper him with questions regarding Masaai social custom and personal enquiries. Turns out George is a true blue Christian. Ancestral spirits have got nothing on Jesus, who "died for my sins." I figured being a warrior he would at least be interested in Old Testament battles and intrigues but George did not seem to be aware of the stories outside Christianity's defining raison d'etre. It seemed between George's adeptness at English and one-size-fits-all spiritual convictions, some had come before me, selective about what and how to modernize the Masaai.

However, George would fit in better with old-fashioned Brigham Young Mormons than modern day Southern Baptists, since of his key ambitions in life were not chiefdom, but multiple spouses. A Masaai can have four wives, which would of course indicate a made man. I asked him if jealousy among the wives would be a running problem. He explained that disruptive element is taken care of when the village shamans perform clitoridectomies. Paraphrasing George, removing the clitoris removes the hotheaded lusts that are the cause of so many headaches. I didn't know how to explain to George how wonderful the clitoris was in the act of passion without transgressing the delicate line on cultural values. George, a bachelor still, told me about his girlfriend. She's from another village and they rendezvous in the tall elephant grass when they want to get acquainted (where he might have to kill a lion I suppose if one showed up uninvited). The safer option is a neutral pub where they can drink indigenous beer, conspiring over their glasses I suppose, the delightful maneuvers of forbidden romance.

In general, it seems the Masaai men have it good since not only do they benefit from the obvious advantages of polygamy, they are also exempt from the more mundane village tasks. The women carry fresh water from the river and wash the laundry. They also build the huts, crudely put together with thick clay mud, cow dung, and thatched straw (simple dwellings befitting a nomadic people occupied with moving). Inside it’s cool and dark, simple. If a man has four wives he hangs his spear over the hut where he is interested in his supper and where he shall lay his head in rest.

I wanted to know from George what it was like to kill a lion. He never has since young men don't have to perform this initiation rite anymore. Strict national park regulations have made lions a protected species. For now, a group of young warriors must defeat the common and not very intelligent buffalo, who if separated from his herd, is not so dire an opponent (and perhaps whose horns don't translate into as glamorous headgear as the lion's). The young men, like those in suburbia who read stories of ballplayers and pirates, have their share of myths, lore and what it used to be like in the good, old days.

In spite of their aversion to alien technology and the fact the Masaai continue to live without telephones, electricity, television, running water, and sundry conveniences, they are aware of machines that when pointed at them, record frozen life-like images of real moments. Recognizing the value wealthy tourists put on the act of phototaking, the Masaai have instituted a price. In the village you can shoot as you like but there's a fifteen-dollar fee. But buyer, beware, because should you shoot young, smug men unsolicited, they are liable to wave an elephant jawbone in a threatening manner.

Of course, I tried to take as many photos as I could without getting bludgeoned. George toured me through the village, where there was dancing, singing, and a bit of jumping. Many children, most of them naked, ran circles around me, laughing hysterically when they fell flat on their bellies from exhaustion. I tried begging off when George insisted I don his lion hair. This sort of hat doesn't look so noble or glorious on white guys. He escorted me through the market where I was urged to shop for homemade beads, carved jewelry, wooden knickknacks, fabrics bursting with color and a blacksmith's greatest hits of weapons you could not successfully move through customs. Mostly though it was women shouting at me "Buy! Buy!" as I sauntered past feeling very put upon. Something is not right, I thought. Something has been lost. Was it the Nikons, the Rolexes, the Armani sunglasses of wealthy visitors revealing glimpses of a coveted world that might be better than the one you were born into? I thought of a German tourist showing a group of Masaai kids the skyline of NYC on his digital video recorder. With enough exposure to sounds and lights shows, to Ipods and laptops, perhaps the vivid landscape that was home would no longer be enough to satisfy curiosities corrupted by fancy toys. You can remove the clitoris to take away a woman's passion but excising the envy and greed caused by brief encounters with the outside world would not be so simple.

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2005

A Blossom for a Bonbon

I found it while lying in the grass: a petrified shoe. It had a fossilized sheen, abandoned, forlorn. The stitches had been worn to nothing. Caked with weather—rain, mud, and strong mountain light had bleached it of color.  Had it been there for some time? What struck me most was that it had not been entirely discarded, as if it might be worth something to somebody someday.

I was in the mountains of Lesotho, a small landlocked country entirely within the borders of South Africa. These were austere hills, quiet, bare, and vast, a complete departure from the cosmopolitan air of Cape Town and Johannesburg.   And while the land may have seemed unspoiled at a casual glance, very little of it was actually arable, the soil ruined by subsistence farming. But the poverty of agricultural abundance was not the humanitarian crisis that Lesotho was developing an infamous reputation for.

Before my arrival in the country,  I had stumbled upon a well-thumbed World Atlas. I could find no publishing date but the geographical designations of Rhodesia, Zaire, and the USSR seemed to indicate that it could not have been edited beyond the late 1970s. The back contents had demographics charts including a breakdown on population density. Most interesting were the projected figures for global population for the year 2000: nine billion! Clearly, these experts had no idea that a severe epidemic could play such an attenuating factor in their analysis.

You cannot find a country in Sub-Saharan Africa that does not have an AIDS problem. Though Lesotho is geographically isolated by the Drakensberg Mountains, it nevertheless has one of the world's worst infection rates, an estimated thirty percent of the population. The source of the scourge is neither novel nor particularly unique.  One third of Lesotho’s male work force contracts with mining agencies operating in South Africa, most notably around Johannesburg. Needless to say, the work can be both backbreaking and humiliating.  Deprived of filial laughter, the family hearth and familiar friendships, driven by loneliness and perhaps melancholy or even desperation for some moment of hot vitality, many migrants engage with prostitutes. Taking the disease back home, they infect their wives as well as future offspring born with the disease and no chance for a healthy life.  Things are so bad in Lesotho, the life expectancy is just over 36 years of age.

As I said, the terrain is mountainous and the farmers that are able to produce crops often lose them to frequent drought. When I was walking through the countryside I passed a village that had just received a large shipment of foreign aid. Large sacks of maize were being distributed to hundreds who had lined up. Villagers that had come from over the horizon attached their rations to gaunt donkeys. It was wintertime, a crystal blue sky, and though the day was a little warm, most were bundled in large, colorful shawls and second-hand ski caps.

It is sad that this country has come to depend on foreign aid for its survival. The people of Lesotho have a proud history, especially when you consider that other than Swaziland, all the major tribes of the region had been incorporated into the European vision that was South Africa. During a critical point of land-grabbing, Lesotho had a wise and capable leader, Moshoeshoe the Great, who survived the onslaught of Shaka Zulu and his famous armies and then manipulated the local colonial powers, the British and Boers, into warring with each other. Lesotho managed to survive on its own, keeping its language and its culture intact, avoiding the devastation of apartheid, and though nominally attached to the Queen’s empire it was formally recognized as a sovereign nation in 1966.

Unfortunately, things never took off for Lesotho in modern times. It has had four decades of bad government, factional fighting, corruption, human rights abuse, riots, famines, a terribly undeveloped infrastructure and the AIDS plague: all dire symptoms of a failed state. Things are temporarily peaceful but it will take time, investment and perhaps some luck for the people to provide for themselves. 

There is a small, developing niche for tourism. In the village of Malealea, one can organize hikes, pony treks, and horse riding. The day I arrived I had gone on a walk to see some bushman paintings in a nearby cave. My guide, Ra, pointed out crude hunting sketches of men and beasts. He showed me a place where the rock formation curled out like a wave break. Here our exclamations could thus echo across the landscape, bursts of sound rippling across the air. 

Ra sang in the local choir. One could hear the poetry of the landscape in his humming as he hopped between the boulders and skipped under the trees. Ra was 26 years old. Both his parents were dead, casualties of AIDS. He lived in a small, tumbledown shack with his sister. However, Ra planned to leave for Maseru soon. Maseru was Lesotho’s capital; like most big cities in Africa it had been overwhelmed by crime and poverty. But his brother lived there and promised him a job working in a factory that produced Levi's Jeans. He hoped to earn enough to return in six months, in which he would purchase for himself four cattle. Four cattle would give him some status in the village. Cattle are big here, not for slaughter or even milk, but as a status symbol. Acquire enough cattle and the village might make you a chief.

What could happen to the man with a song in his heart who leaves these golden, but infertile fields for factories? At best, Ra spoke like a dreamer; at worst, a man suffering delusions. Optimistically, he had the future mapped out in his head.  But the city could defile individuals, either in a physical manifestation like AIDS or a spiritual one like desperation and despair--it could rob you of your hope, which is all many people here really had that had not been ruined. The city could destroy a beautiful man and I didn't know if Ra could leave and come back, still singing in the soft, simple innocence he did that golden afternoon.

The overnight pony trek I embarked on the following day would take me through the valley and over the hills, about forty kilometers in distance. The landscape was lovely yet rugged and not a little bit surrealistic. There was plenty of typical highland shrubbery but also cactus plants: needled flapjacks stacked atop each other’s heads. There were aloe family bushes, green strips flaming out, sharp and thorny.  They looked carnivorous, as if they might devour unsuspecting birds alighting for a brief moment in appreciation. Aloe trees spurted from some of these plants, growing ten meters in height, great green stalks interspersed with thin, weedy branches like a psychedelic coat hanger in Dr. Seuss's foyer. Particularly gorgeous were the peach tree blossoms in full bloom. This was late winter and these flowers were the harbinger of spring. Along with the shaggy-haired weeping willows,  they had been brought over in the nineteenth century by Swiss and French missionaries: Jesus with a bouquet of feminine winsomeness. What sweeter lure to the Hereafter than the gorgeous pink of the blossoms, their delicate, ethereal intricacy.

Travel through the valley goes across highlands, along steep cliffs and down ravines into dried-up river beds, back up rocky hillsides and then into meadows of tall, yellowing grass and tiny, slumberous villages of mud brick walls and conical roofs held together with matted straw. Along the streams women washed their laundry, dousing the colors, scrubbing. Later in the afternoon I spotted farmers' wives carrying home baskets of food balanced effortlessly above their heads. There were some men in the fields. The farming was indeed small-scale: the crops plowed by oxen cart.

However, most villages seemed to belong to the children. Upon seeing me ride in, they broke from the lethargy to come scurrying up in greeting, some saying ‘Hello’ but most crying out ‘Give me sweets! Give me bonbon!’ So desperate for a piece of Cadbury they risked dismemberment hurrying barefoot dangerously along the pony's stride, following a very great distance behind me sometimes, vain hopes that a day’s monotony could be broken by a bonbon. 

Eventually, I realized that there was more to this than a hankering for chocolate. For what could the beauty of landscapes really truly mean in comparison to the rumblings of empty bellies?

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2005

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Sun Finally Sets, Finally

There are only a few hours left of the Bush era--the era of torture, rendition, high alerts, Katrinas, faulty WMD intelligence, secret surveillance, star chambers, failed diplomacy, environmental depredation, disproportionate tax cuts, class war, contempt for the rule of law, zealous fundamentalism, ideologue orations, postwar incompetence, no-bid reconstruction contracts, rampant bankruptcies, jobs lost, savings toast, scot-free white collar criminals, a health care crisis, the rich getting richer, the poor hitting the trap door at the bottom-- legacies don't go away when the president rides off into Crawford, Texas. There's a lot of work to do. But. We made it.

An Explanation on How You Should Read This Blog (The Fine Print)

Like any and all, I suppose this will be something of a public diary. This being the case, I intend to divulge dirty secrets, wave soiled underwear under your sensitive nostrils, and tell as many lies as I can get away with. The truth is so Old Economy, it belongs on paper, chicken scrawl adding up all the corroborated facts. We are facebook. We are myspace. We are bloggers. Lies are the currency from which we purchase our everyday sundries, fingers crossed, wink wink...
            Otherwise, I will use this as a forum for some short stories, travel writing, and fleeting moments of premillennial truthiness.

We Are All Googlers

In a world of noise, white noise, black noise, noisy neighbors, noisy Top 40 claptrap, noisy espresso machines, maddening puppets, phlegmatic hobos, whiny preachers, the noise of alarm clocks, dentist drills, and escort sirens, noisy diatribes against gays, illegals, terrorists, liberals, freedom fighters, smokers, noisy PA announcements, noisy cheerleaders, noisy money shots, wedding vows, gruesome divorces, noisy heart attacks, noisy cute cute cuteness, noisy scuttlebutts--with all this noise, why bother with another noisy blog? Don't you already have enough to worry about? Like getting some peace and quiet, a little shuteye, a toothy smile from a grinning monk--to belch your beer without having to say "Sorry?" By its very essence, privacy is quietude, but I have decided to join the seething masses, hooting, hollering, throwing pebbles at your windowpane.    
   "You're a writer," my friend Adrian Storey, tells me. I half-expect him to say a writer writes (something my mother declaims when the letters taper off or my girlfriend remarks in periods of settled indolence). No, what Adrian Storey means is that if you want to exist (as a writer, photographer, artist, etcetera), it's not enough to dream and love (fluttering hearbeat motions that are anything but silent, tolling with joy as their wont)--not enough, you gotta blog, fellah, another teardrop in the storm.

   Actually, Adrian Storey (who goes by the moniker, Uchujin, which in Japanese literally means Spaceman or Alien Dude--he's actually a very sensible person) probably did not mean that a life lived right is a life lived in electronic glass houses. Rather, his intentions are compassionate and realistic. We are all Googlers now. There is a library at our fingertips and bullshit can be sniffed out at a keystroke. A tale of two worlds, where fake is the new reality. To be or not...with that in mind, if you want people to know a little about yourself--what you do, why you do and how you intend to do it--the process entails a bit of disclosure, a time for baring your breast. So...Showcase! Present! Elaborate...