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jonathanstray

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India Finds Us [Jan. 14th, 2008|09:09 pm]
jonathanstray
[mood |awed]

I hestiate to say "adventure", because, really, riding a motorcycle around on public roads is hardly a groundbreaking experience, but just being in India does have a way of scrambling the Western brain.

Last night Ian and I ended up in the town of Palani, Tamil Nadu. There was no reason for us to be there; it's not a tourist spot and isn't even in the index of the Lonely Planet. It was simply a good place to stop for the night. Pulling into town, we discovered that we were in the middle of a festival.

I have no idea how to truly convey the sense of being in this place. Like all of the developing world, India is dirty, crowded, noisy, short on privacy, and full of people trying to cheat you in various minor or major ways. But India has an energy all its own. People are doing things; it moves, it seethes, and it's all color and scent and sound.

There's a temple on the hill in Palani. This is the season for Pongal, a giving of thanks for the harvest. Those people walking on the highway (I use the term losely) were pilgrims, on their way to ascend the hundreds of steps to the shrine. Almost every lodge in town was full; entire extended families were sleeping on the streets, waiting for the temple to open at 5 in the morning. When we visited at about 9:00 AM, the approach was already packed. Stalls on both sides sold coconuts, powder for marking the forhead, garlands, camphor pellets, and other religious necessities, as well as great varieties of cheap plastic trinkets and toys, soveneirs for the visitors and their children. The crowd itself was all of types, men in suits, women in gorgeous saris, groups of shirtless men in black lungis running through the crowd and chanting. People knelt at fires of burning coconut husks on the street, bringing light to their third eye. Hawkers moved throught all of it, selling mosquito nets or plastic bags or banana jam. For a single rupee the elephant would bless your head with her trunk.

I left Ian as he made a call, and walked a few paces away to examine a jam stall. I turned to find him again, and discovered that a family of 15 people had meanwhile settled on the ground beside me, eating a meal off of banana leaf mats placed on the pavement, blocking my way.

I tried to photograph them. I tried to capture bright orange robes and the beatiful women in technicolor saries and the frenetic kneeling prayers. I thought about filming it. I let myself swim in the noises of the crowds and and the honks of the bikes and rickshaws and even trucks pushing people aside. I despaired. Nothing I could write would take you there; one day, maybe, I'll be able to describe the overwhelming sense of the real and the sacred in the same space. But you are not disoriented and overwhelmed. You do not see what it is to be in a truly alien place. I have failed to get the sense of the scene across to you.
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First Day on the Road in India [Dec. 30th, 2007|12:34 am]
jonathanstray
[mood |happyhappy]

We are in a little town called Panvel which is not in the Lonely Planet because there is nothing to see here, unlike (it seems) just about everywhere else in India. But it was a logical place to stop today, really just outside the suburbs of Mumbai, which is incredibly huge. We finally left at rush hour, after days and days of delays in getting the last bike, and so today was our first day on the road. It was exhilarating and terrifying, because of the traffic. I don't know how to describe it. There are no lane markings here; you just go wherever there is a spot for you to be. Everyone honks constantly but that's actually a safety measure to let people know you're there. Sometimes there are carts or cows in the road. It's utter chaos, and feels and probably is very dangerous, but somehow it works. Ian and Slim, both far more experienced riders than me, are exhausted and elated just to be still in one piece. Myself, I feel energized, glad to learn that I can do this, and somehow at peace with the difficulty and risk of this task. When I am riding I am fully aware, every sense engaged.

Fortunately we are out of the city now and the rest of the road should be much easier, and safer. We're also probably the only riders in India wearing not only helmets (rare enough) but armoured jackets and pants, just as we do at home.

We're going to get up at 6 AM tomorrow in an attempt to make the ~450 km to Arambol, Goa by nightfall. So I can't write much right now, except to say that I am ecstatic to be on the road, on this my first day of motorcycle travel ever. I am also completely delighted to be with Ian and Slim again. We've been talking non-stop. I had forgotten how much I enjoy lovely, deep, fast flowing conversation. Furthermore, it's completely wonderful to see them adjusting to India. Today they had (as Slim noted) their first interaction with locals that was not mediated in any way by money, in the form of these children who came up to us while we were stopped -- ironically, beside a McDonald's at a junction in the highway (but the menu is completely different, no beef, separate veg and non-veg sections).

The kids were sharp and engaged, with the fire of intelligence in their eyes. They came up to us out of curiosity, and we took the opportunity to ask if there was anywhere to stay in Panvel. They told us yes, and gave us good directions ("When the highways splits, go down! Do not go on the brige! It is expressway, no bikes allowed!") In turn they asked us where we were from and where we were going and other basic questions. The oldest, a skinny fiery girl of about 11 in a yellow t-shirt, produced a worn notebook and had us each sign it, a memento, she said, of our five-minute lifelong friendship. "Friends not beggars," she said.

It was completely lovely, one of these quintessential travel moments I've had so many of now that I almost close myself off to them. I'm forgetting… I was in Europe for so long and then mostly in tourist-overrun Goa. I've forgotten somewhat what it is to be here. Everything is all new with Ian and Slim. They are still astonished at the crowds of onlookers, at the way that everyone stares at us when we're stopped in traffic, at the gentle dissembling and slow crooked progress of the developing world. And of course, inevitably and beautifully, they are struggling with the dawning realization of how rich and educated they actually are, and how much not like home the rest of the world actually is. "It's all real," Ian told me, "and I don't think I could ever communicate that to anyone who hasn't experienced it." I am looking forward to re-learning all of these things and more, with two of my closest friends.
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The Great Earwax Scam [Dec. 5th, 2007|02:28 pm]
jonathanstray
[mood |amusedamused]

I pulled up on my stylin' Bajaj 180. Grass parking area to the left, crowded flea market dead ahead.

"You park there."

"What?"

"You park there okay?" The young Indian man was pointing.

"No no, I want to go back to Anjuna. Does the road really go right through the market?"

"This is parking. You cannot park inside."

"I know. Look. I'm not parking. Is this the Anjuna road? Anjuna?"

"You have some soap in your ear."

"What?"

He pointed to my earlobe. "You have soap there."

"Oh." Still sitting on the bike, I reached up a wiped my earlobe with my fingers.

"No no, still soap!" He brought his hand quickly up to my ear. I flinched but he grabbed it, and I let him do whatever it was. I was afraid he was going to stick something in my ear, but he didn't.

"See?" he held out a short piece of thin steel rod, with a big glob of yellow ear wax on the end. Funny, I'd just taken a shower.

"Still more! Wait!" And he lunged at my ear again with both hands. I had a brief panic that he was going to stick that rod through my eardrum. There was a small scraping in the folds of my ear, and again the road came away with a big chunk of wax on the end.

Hmm.

"One second, now I use cotton." He snapped open a small leather pouch around his waist. It was filled with raw white cotton. He pinched off a piece and began to wrap it around the rod, like a home-made Q-Tip.

I guess he found a lot of soap on people's ears.

"No thanks, my friend," and I gunned the engine, heading into the crowd. At least it was paved in that direction.

"Wait!" he called. But I did not wait.

Weaving through the crowds on a narrow path. Dodging vendors, tourists, other foolish motorbikes. A flea market built on and around the main road; no choice but to go ridiculously through it.

I took a sandy turn and stopped to check the traffic ahead. A man approached me, his dress shoddy, his cheeks dark and round.

"Clean your ears sir?"

And he was already opening his pouch as I pulled away.
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Night Sea [Dec. 4th, 2007|07:31 pm]
jonathanstray

and on this night sea
what I miss are the moments
immediately after when
you could say anything

like
in you I can feel the ocean
or
do you see me when you close your eyes?
or
we’ll be drifting forever

now those moments are
the reference stars
for certain words


[critiques appreciated]

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One of Those Moments When Things Fall Into Place [Dec. 4th, 2007|12:42 am]
jonathanstray
[mood |pensivepensive]

I googled "Sudan oil" tonight, and discovered something: China.

Oh.

Wars take money and weapons. Guess who? Guess why?

Here's not a bad article on the topic: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A21143-2004Dec22.html

Funny when a big chunk of geopolitics just drops into place. I feel like the world is a huge complex system that I am very... very... slowly building a good model of in my head. There are still lots of really big holes.
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I Thought of It First [Dec. 1st, 2007|02:35 pm]
jonathanstray
[mood |cheerfulcheerful]

Well, probably not. But I see that CBS's "The Amazing Race" has a contest where the first prize is a round-trip ticket to anywhere in the world... which is of course the prize for the Writer's Travel Scholarship, which I have now administered for three years (equivocality.net/writers-travel-scholarship)

Really this is just an opportunity to remind you all that the WTS will be opening for entries again soon, so, as usual: write. Tell your friends who write.

Myself I'm working on a short story that's a little different from anthing I've written before. I had the idea months ago, but it's sort of kickin my ass. I've been both loving and dreading working on it, and after a few hard days of false starts I've finally got a complete first draft today. It's somewhat embarassing that 3000 words should take me ten hours just for a draft, but... well, it's all hard when you're starting out.

Oh, and I am in Mumbai and it's amazing. Modern and Indian at the same time. The colors, the dirt, the life! I've never seen anywhere so buzzing with life at all scales. And it's full of contradictions. This morning I took in a little wifi at a neighborhood cafe while a family of four washed themselves in their cardboard shack right outside.

I think I want to live here. I remember the feeling I got from San Francisco that first day, and -- well, they say every time is different, but I think I'm in love again.
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Crappy Hotel Room Rhapsody [Nov. 21st, 2007|02:17 pm]
jonathanstray
[mood |contentcontent]

I am in a crappy hotel room in Oman, and it's just ridiculous how good I feel. The room really is magnificently squalid. The walls are covered in glossy beige-yellow paint, splattered on the baseboards and long since turned grubby. The ceiling is grey that used to be white, and spotted with mould. The room is actually pretty deluxe by some measure, with a fridge, an air conditioner, and its own bathroom. A double bed. Expensive too, at least for my kind of travel, at 12 rials, a bit over $30, but nothing else was available tonight. The floor tiles are even marble. But the bathroom is frightening. Nothing in there is actually unsanitary, but everything is so old it's got dirt on it that won't come off. Plus, when I turned the light on I saw something small scurry behind the toilet. It's been a long time since I've seen that – not since I left Africa last June.

And damn it's good to be back. I can't really explain this. In a few months, I know, I'll get terribly tired of the grime, the sweat, the dirt, the peeling gray hallways. For the moment I'm romanticizing them, as I have for a very long time.

The earliest moment I can consciously remember doing this was on my first trip to Southeast Asia in 2001. It may have been my second day ever in the developing world. I was looking for a room on the alley off Khao San road, Bangkok. I walked into a guesthouse and a was shown a room, a tiny room with, I remember, particularly grubby walls. Smudged paint; sickly yellow, or grey green. Bare light bulb. Perhaps a single bed, I don't recall. But I immediately had this image in my mind: me and a lover on that bed at night, looking at the dingy room, sweating in the wet night heat, thrilled to be so far away, so out of our normal lives, in a context so different that this was just a normal hotel room.

And over the span of my travels there were a hundred or a thousand other associations, moments and thrills of freedom in sordid places. Places my safer, classier friends would never venture, and so they were mine alone to discover, a part of the real they'd never get to know. Places where just being was a strange, constant challenge of its own. On this new segment of my journey, back to the poor and vibrant countries of the world, I must expect things to be a bit run down, I must expect the plumbing not to work. That will surely be annoying; yet the first few times it happens I will also get a little thrill of recognition.

For tonight, part of the thrill is having my very own private space. In Europe I always stayed with others, but tonight, for the first time in many months, I have a bedroom that's purely mine. This is one of the advantages of being completely alone in a foreign country. These crappy rooms have always been my shelter, my castle against an alien outside. When I'm really traveling, when I'm really pushing myself, the world outside my door is confusing and indifferent, which sometimes makes it seem hostile. So at night I plug the speakers into my laptop, play something much loved, maybe light a few candles to replace the hideous fluorescent and bathe the paint in romance. That's exactly what I'm doing now. It's home. It's a home I've had to create for myself, not in a building or a routine but somewhere inside myself when I am alone. I am happy to have learned how to do that. I had no choice.
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Out of the West [Nov. 17th, 2007|11:28 pm]
jonathanstray
I am in Dubai and it is a strange tropical paradise. Russia was killing me, with its winter and its winter people. Here I stepped off the plane and was immediately assailed by warmth and the smell of the ocean. And later, other smells: cooking food, diesel exhaust, the garlic-eating masses. The sun rose this morning in a clear blue sky. I put on my sunglasses, felt the sweat began to seep out of my skin, and was home.

Of course, Dubai is truly weird, just as promised. This desert port -- it's not even the capital -- became a huge skyscraper hub virtually overnight, all in the last ten years or so. They're still going. There are huge swaths of sand being converted to dense skyscrapers wholesale. Literally blocks upon blocks of towering office buildings and luxury condos all under construction, all topped by yellow cranes. I am told that Dubai used up every available crane in the world at one point in its recent history. There are the golf courses, amusement parks, and "investment parks", just squares of former desert marked out between massive new highways, farther and farther from the old fishing port. Superlatives abound to the point of insanity: the Emirates Mall has a an indoor ski run, and the tallest building in the world is a hotel that rises 500 meters -- and it's still under construction (planned height: 703m). Then there are the man-made islands, dozens of installed, paved and gardened sandbars which form the shape of an enormous palm tree. That's "The Palm" of course, and there's also "The World", which is a huge (kilometers wide) archipelago in the shape of a world map. I hear Brad and Angelina bought Ethiopia. Fortunately, there will be lots more islands for sale because two more palms are under construction. Everything in under construction, including a massive amusement park and what will soon be the biggest airport in history: "Dubai World Airport." All of these unbuilt things are on the tourist map, of course, a crazy combination of cartography and wish list.

Most of the people living in Dubai are not from Dubai. 85% are expats, mostly with serious amounts of money. But not the ones with jobs. As soon as I arrived in the airport I noticed that most of the people in line at passport control were not Arab. The people actually working in Dubai are all from India, Pakistan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Nepal. They're all brown; they all speak English (more or less) because that's the only language everyone can agree on. My cab driver yesterday makes the equivalent of $800 a month, and sends it mostly home to his family. This is not a lot of money in Dubai, but it's hugely more than he could make in Pakistan. The class divide (which is also usually a race divide) makes me deeply uncomfortable. I wonder how these Emirates and the expats living here can deal so easily with the fact that everyone who works to provide their vast array of vital services makes essentially no money, and probably never had and never will get a real education. There is something weird and wrong about it all, and I like to remind myself that this is really just a microcosm of the global situation. It might be good for us to see this reality on a daily basis, it might bring about some changes -- but maybe not, as the equilibrium of Dubai shows.

It's a city all based on oil money, black money; but then America is a country based on oil consumption. There isn't really public transit to speak of. The scale of the streets is huge, and the sidewalks are often broken or missing; but then Dubai is just amplifying all the worst mistakes of Los Angeles. I'm probably the only person wincing at the carbon emissions from the huge airports, I'm probably the only white person ever to ride the bus.

But for all of its fearsome scale and hostility, Dubai took me in when I found Bur Dubai, the old town, the low town, the souk. Here the smells multiplied as I walked down narrow streets fronted by ugly three story-apartment buildings with balconies and an air-conditioner sticking out of every window. It was beautiful to me, because the streets were alive. I was looking for hardware to maintain my battered laptop: some memory and a new battery, wandering along through the electronics quarter. Interspersed between the ramshackle computer shops were restaurants: Indian, shawarma, Halal, the food of Middle Asia. Rich smells wafted into the streets where men in white robes and white caps walked briskly about their business. Other men wore suits, or the pan-cultural uniform of jeans and t-shirt. Some pushed carts; others haggled in front of the shops, angling for a price on, say, twenty 100 Gb hard drives. Women were rare and not necessarily covered; I saw no veils, but a sudden trio of schoolgirls giggled from beneath their black robes. And above it all, the call to prayer ringing out in synchrony from the scattered minarets of the quarter.


I hadn't realized how accustomed to Muslim cities and South Asian crowds I have become. I've now spent months upon months of my life in Malaysia, Morocco, Indonesia, and Islamic Africa. I've befriended the Indian quarters of Toronto, San Francisco, Singapore and Hong Kong. Although this is my first time in the genuine, Arab Middle East, I find that I am completely accustomed both to the texture of Islam at ground level, and to a type of street life never seen in richer, tighter countries. No -- "street life" is too weak. It's a sort of hustling joy that suffuses the best of urban living among those who industrialized not so very long ago, who still have a cultural memory of a time before cars, loitering laws, and vendor permits.

My travels have changed me. Culturally, historically, genetically, I have far more in common with brittle Russia than I do with the bizarre cosmopolitan confluence of Dubai, but I rejected Russia, or it rejected me. A desert city of the Middle East populated by Arabs and Indians now rings the bell of of home in me. I eat my curry with my right hand, look up at the hot blue sky, and feel a clear joy.
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Adios, Russia (a pean to the mundane woes of the traveler) [Nov. 16th, 2007|10:16 am]
jonathanstray
[mood |exhaustedexhausted]

Moscow mostly sucked. I'm sure I need to give it another chance, but this trip was essentially a bomb. Yeah, I walked through Red Square and went out a number of times -- going to a gay club in Moscow was a riot, I tell ya -- but basically I was overwhelmed by logistics the whole time. Sometimes travel is like that.

Until I arrived at Deric's place, where I got my very own key, I had to leave in the morning with my couchsurfing host and come back when he came back. Unfortunately, it turned out to be unseasonably cold for Moscow in November, -5c or so plus wind, and I really didn't want to be outdoors. This left me with really nowhere to be during the day that didn't cost massive amounts of money just to exist. There are cafes everywhere, but a cup of coffee in Moscow is $5, or a quarter of my daily travel budget. Tea is almost as much. Or you can buy hot chocolate for the same price, which is the thick Russian kind served with a spoon, almost like a hot pudding, admittedly good stuff.

There was especially drama at Dima's place, since he tended to work really late and he was indifferent to my existence. True, I had a neat argument about global warming with him (writing on that topic forthcoming) but I ended up in a urine-smelling post-communist hallway at one in the morning, waiting for him. I don't want to talk about it.

There was especially drama at the Indian Embassy in Moscow. Problem the first: normal working time for issuing a visa to non-Russian nationals is 10 working days. Well ok, 7 working days just for you. Of course Friday is Diwali, then the Prime Minister is visiting on Monday Tuesday, so that's really, what, four working days until you leave the country. I didn't have the right papers that morning anyway; needed passport photocopies, photos, and a hotel booking fax . What the fuck? It's India, man, you just walk down the street and someone will offer you a guesthouse. Ok, fine. But you see, my visa expires next Friday -- is there really no way to do it sooner? Well, you can do it through a tour agency. And indeed, most of the hordes crowding the visa window, which never opened on time, were Russian travel agents with stacks of red passports rubber-banded to stacks of application forms.

Well fuck. I came back the next day, stood in the long line again, got lucky enough to talk to someone else. Okay, look, we'll take your application and your money. 2180 rubles -- almost $100. No guarantees. Come back on Wednesday next week to talk to the consular secretary, Mr. "Dixie." (I'm sure that's not his name but that's what it sounded like.)

Aside: getting a budget Indian guesthouse to fax you a confirmation letter is a trick. Lets just say lots of bad Skype connections and lots of reluctant clerks: faxes cost money, and also they're work, and then add in the usual third-world inefficiencies, and, well, lies. ("Yes sir, we'll do that. Tomorrow.") Several hours later, I finally found a hotel which seemed both cheap and reliable. Of course, I don't have a fax machine, but that's what the internet is for, via various fax-to-email services. Actually, it's pretty amazing that I was able to get this letter for essentially zero money just with my laptop and stolen wifi. Something that you would not have been able to do before. The approved route is to book some five star shithole through a scam of a tourist agency; it could have cost me hundreds of dollars for this piece of paper. It was supposed to, I think.

Fax in hand, I went back Wednesday, stood in line to ask for Mr. Dixie. "This is not a matter for Mr. Dixie!" yelled the clerk. "Do you have your receipt?" God damnit, I did not, how stupid of me. "Come back tonight, 5-6." I came back, now on my fourth visit to the embassy. Each time walking through the wind. Snow now too. Back in the evening, early to be the first in line, to find that there's not even any line as such! Just people milling around the window while a horrible ancient Russian hag with a frizzy blonde afro called out the names of the tour operators and handed their stacks of passports back. Of course, my passport would not be in there -- in fact I was still holding it, had to, the police in the Metro here sometimes ask for it. So I snagged one of the consular officers as he was walking by, and explained my situation. He seemed sympathetic. He took my receipt and passport and disappeared for a minute behind that thick no access wooden door. Reappearing, he told me to come back tomorrow 5-6, he said. And ask for who? Me, Rajeev.

Well at least I had a name now. Five pm again, yesterday, Thursday, the day before my Russian visa expiration and my flight. Again the crowd. Knocked on the door and an employee sittng nearby (a guard? but not always there) asked me what I wanted. "I was told to ask for Mr. Rajeev." Wait, is all he said. I waited. He left. I knocked again at 5:30. No answer. I opened the door. "Is Mr. Rajeev here?" I asked the first person I saw. "Just wait!"

Finally Rajeev walked by and I met his eye. blah blah blah I'm tired and I realize this is going to be very boring to read, because I am capturing the events but not the emotion. Well I was freaking the fuck out, okay? No Indian visa would screw all my travel plans badly. Best case, I would have to stay in Dubai, an expensive place, for 10 working days to get one there. I'd lose even more money changing my Air India flight. So that final night I was physically shaking. I had to work to control my voice. In fact this visa crap was pressing on my constantly the entire time I was in Moscow. Fighting my way upstream through a bureaucracy, and an overloaded one at that.

And now it seems like it might have been a good idea to get my visa in Dubai anyway, because when they finally called me in, despite continually asking and reminding them of what I needed all through the process, I got a three month visa. Fuck. Three months! "Is there any way to get six months?" I asked as I finally stood before Mr. Dixie, who stood there signing the visa in my passport. "Next time," he said. "One of the clerks told me I could just pay more money," I offered. "We cannot accept more money."

Every other Indian embassy in the world issues six month tourist visas. Fucking Moscow embassy deals with sour Russians all the time, lives in winter, has just gotten itself all miserable and closed down tight. That's my theory anyway. I guess I should be pleased that I got a visa at all given the time issues, but I'm not. I'm angry at myself for letting it turn out this way. I feel like I was overly meek. I feel like I needed to make my intentions known more forcefully.

Then there was the business with registration. More government bureaucracy, this time Russian. All foreigners need register themselves with the local authorities whenever they arrive in a new city. Not too difficult, I guess, but more paperwork. I had to go once, find the hidden office in the back hallway of some back building (more walking around in the freezing cold) and then I needed proof of my arrival date so I had to email them a photo of my train ticket, then come back later to pick the thing up. You have to carry the registration form around with you in your passport, or the police can fine you. Those would be the police posted in the metro, and everywhere else generally. They look very Russian, with long green coats with gold buttons and those round hats. I have no idea what they're looking for with these random ID checks. Undesirables?

Finally, a post office run. In my experience dealing with a foreign post office always takes at least an hour and a half. Finding it, buying a box, packing, dealing with the usually non-English speaking clerks... The Russian post office was even more complex, of course. Books have to go in a separate package from everything else. Again, WTF?

Did I mention the cold? At least it snowed a few days ago. For one night everything was covered in beautiful white. Now it's just slushy brown, yet just as cold. I hate winter.

As I said, I'm sure Moscow could be a great time, but it really wasn't for me. I wish I'd had more interactions with the locals, I wish I spoke more Russian, I wish I'd gone out more, and above all I wish it was warmer. I'm going to get on a plane to Dubai now, where I will buy memory and a new battery for my laptop, then continue to Bombay on Tuesday where it is currently 33 degrees celcius. I will sell my winter jacket to a street vendor and go drink a lassi on the beach.
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Where is my blog? [Nov. 12th, 2007|12:29 am]
jonathanstray
It's obvious now that Tribe.net is or soon will be dead (long live Tribe!) The reason this is obvious is that everyone I meet asks me whether I am on Facebook, not Tribe. Yes, losers have been asking me if I'm on MySpace for years, but, as I've said before, MySpace is for losers.

And in truth, Facebook is pretty cool, largely because you can write apps for it. Unfortunately its very openness is also a problem in that there is a lack of standardization of what one would think are certain key functions -- such as a personal blog that all your friends see when they login. This is of course the essential, killer-app function of LiveJournal. I do have my own more "serious" blog at Equivocality.net, but that is essentially a public face. As a freeelance writer, I need to be able to send prospective employers there. It's simply not the place to be self-centered, whiny, and frivolous.

No, I used my Tribe blog for that. And there's no Facebook equivalent.

So, an experiment in web integration. The barebones "notes" Facebook application seems to be as standard as it gets in that fragmented universe, and it claims to be able to import an RSS feed. Meanwhile, LJ does pretty much exactly what I want in terms of communication with friends. Now if only I could find a way to mirror the comments...

Some day, we'll remember this as ridiculous. I heartily appluad Google's Open Social Networking initiative.
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Departure Lounge [Nov. 3rd, 2006|08:41 am]
jonathanstray
[mood |blankblank]

Nowhere, notime, but they sure keep it clean.

My phone tells me it is 5:40 AM, but that’s on a different continent. There is a dull winter afternoon light streaming in through the windows, but I have to leave the concourse area to see it. My body is telling me that it’s no time at all. I could figure out how many hours it will be until I next sleep in a bed, but it would be a complicated computation of time zones and tickets.

The color-balanced fluorescents are more representative of how I actually feel: awake, awash in detail, but flat. Nondescript in my quick-dry synthetics on an industrial vinyl chair. Shabby in a formal, respectable sort of way.

I am surrounded by stores as I wait. Booze. CDs of pop music. A smallish bookstore. A seafood bar with deep orange crab legs and smoked salmon in glass cases, for the expense-account traveler. There’s a Harrods here too, because is London is somewhere nearby, after all. The compass clipped to my carry-on tells me I’m facing East but I certainly couldn’t point to where millions of people must be living.

The citizens of London, wherever they are, are not in limbo. They aren’t in a duty-free zone. They haven’t lined up carefully for the privilege of presenting their passports, haven’t been x-rayed, metal-detected, smelled and scrutinized for contraband gels and liquids. Me, I smuggled my toothpaste into carry-on. I feel proud of myself. Later, I’m going to brush my teeth in an over-bright beige restroom cleaned every hour by a teenage kid in a nondescript uniform. I wonder what his name is, and whether he has a girlfriend.

This concourse is inhabited sparsely by nondescript Europeans in slightly rumpled suits and jackets. Most of them speak English or at least familiar tongues. They are annoyingly acceptable, familiar, safe. I bet that frumpy businessman perusing the magazines is heading home this evening to his family in the suburbs of Munich. The banality of that offends me somehow. I wish instead that I was in some shithole of an airport in the third world. Maybe India. Maybe something like that ferry terminal in Penang, swarming with Indonesians waiting to cross the channel to Sumatra. There was life there, brown paper packages and noisy children and meals eaten hastily off of banana leaves. You might be able to make a friend there.

Here, I have no hope of a good conversation. Here, there is only air conditioning, which I am enjoying. The air conditioning will run twenty-four hours per day until the end of time. I can’t see the sun unless I walk out to a gate.

This is noplace. This is limbo. Time has no more meaning for me. I’m not even sure if I’m hungry or not. Purgatory is an international departure lounge, and I’m just another jetlagged soul. There has been a delay; there is no next flight ever. I am doomed to wander the concourse forever.
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The Goings On of the Going On [Oct. 30th, 2006|01:09 am]
jonathanstray
My life has hit one of those phases where there's no time for me to stop and consider. Every minute from now until my departure on Thursday evening is more or less scheduled at this point. I need only to hang on, going through the required motions, and it will all be over very soon.

Of course, much of the scheduled madness is time with people I will miss. I am continually slightly stunned by how damn much fun my life actually is, and that's a good place to be. I stole time from moving this evening to go out and see Shortbus with a group of friends, and I was delighted by how much my own community resembles the strange selection of heartful misfits in the film -- and how their cinematic parties have absolutely nothing over ours. My real life, it turns out, is the stuff of fiction. Good thing too, as it saves wear and tear on my imagination.

And now I'm flying to Morocco, landing in Casablanca. Yes, of course I picked that airport for its romantic connotations. I did want to land in that general area, but given the choice I will always pick the good story. It seems such a great place to start an adventure from. In reality, I know, it will be also be full of bad food, cold showers, shitty accomodations and people trying to rip me off. Repeatedly walking in cold to cities without any community connection, I expect also to experience a profound lack of the intelligent, creative, and sexy individuals that I enjoy so much in my San Francisco life. Hell, I won't even speak the language, though I am interested to see how my brain copes with Arabic. But all of this I can and will deal with. I've done it before.

And yet, a few nights ago I had a moment of fear. Lying awake after an otherwise lovely evening, it began to dawn on me that I was about to walk away from every single one of my friends for a very long time. No community, no home, and no cat. I know what I'm truly scared of, and it's loneliness. In the dark, the prospect is terrifying.

Go ahead. Jump.
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"Dude, did we really just have that much fun?" [Oct. 23rd, 2006|01:51 pm]
jonathanstray
So spoke Brendan on the drive home from the Epic, and he was right. The Epic Party was.

There was an amazing momentum to the whole affair. Once the announcement had gone out, people simply started adding their energy, unasked. This was the Stone Soup of parties, an event that raged all out of proportion to the very modest efforts of the organizers. What can I say? Hooray for us! I *heart* my homies.

My favorite moments:

...exchanging a barrage of "fuck you's" with Rubin in the hallway. People seriously thought we were going to get into a fight.

...discovering each of the rooms as our guests set them up; coming upon the play room, the spooky bar, giant silk lanterns, and most especially my kindergarten classroom.

...Amacker rousing everyone to go outside to see the sunrise. There was resistance, untile she started wandering through the hotel yelling "chocolate!" as a bribe.

...watching the train go by upon the aforementioned sunrise over the lake.

...Alice, all in tight black, standing next to Matt, all in crisp white. What an elegant pair!

...the Hookah Lounge. Dood. We will hereby refer to those involved in setting up that room as a "Tactical Intoxication Unit."

...performing my first ever booty rap. Werd.

...making Morley's maimed pink teddy bear talk to the partygoers. "I would express my deepest love by embracing you," it would say in its sad little voice, "but I have no arms."

...in a dark closet with a certain Lady.

...did I mention the hookah lounge? It was quite clearly where the party was.

...wandering over en masse to the champagne brunch next door. What a civilized way to end the festivities!

...seeing most of my favourite people all in one place! Thank you, thank you, thank you all! It was a great privilege to rock with you.
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Citizen of the World [Oct. 20th, 2006|12:35 am]
jonathanstray
[mood |creative]

Turns out that not many people believe in the world, the whole world.

I have not yet been able to insure my laptop against theft in Africa or the Middle East. Parts of it, yes. If my baggage goes missing in Casablanca or Cairo I'm ok, but if I'm in Saudi Arabia or Israel -- no joy.

First of all, it's hard to find anyone who provides international insurance against theft of valuable electronics. You'd think "travel insurance" would be the things, but that industry turns out to be mostly about cancelled cruises and re-uniting plump vacationers with their lost bags. After some searching, I finally came across a company that claimed to insure laptops "worldwide". It was cheap too, about $200 for year. Only problem was, it specifically exlcuded countries "for which travel warnings have been issued by the State Department", as in http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_1764.html.

Israel is on this list. So is Indonesia, which I've spent months in. Okay, I'll give them Iraq and Sudan, but Saudi Arabia? C'mon, is this insurer seriously implying that my laptop is more likely to get snatched in Saudi Arabia than in, say, Turkey, Chechnya, or Jordan?

To me, this is just ignorance. Not malicious ignorance, because this company obviously caters to business travelers who probably don't spend much time in Darfur. It's just that they've bought into the prevailing idea that the world is unsafe, because they, like most people, can't be bothered to investigate for themselves. Let's take the State Dept's warning about Indonesia. It reads in part: "The October 1, 2005 terrorist attacks in Bali in which three simultaneous bombs exploded, killing 23 people and injuring more than 100, are a reminder that terrorists remain active in Indonesia." Well, yes, that is true -- but how many Americans have died in motor vehicle accidents while vacationing there?

When I visited the small town of Mizque in Bolivia, one of the locals warned my friend Alice about a pair of visitors who were in from another, neighboring town. The towns were perhaps an hour apart and each had a population of a few thousand. “Be careful of those men,” the concerned local told Alice, “they’re not from around here.”

People, we are still living in the dark ages when no one leaves home and we fear what lies beyond our narrow horizons. We are scared, and we don’t even have balls enough to find out if our fear is rational or not. America is isolated. News coverage of other countries has fallen dramatically over the past twenty years (see this Yale study: http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=6553 ) and in the richest country in the world, 80% of the population doesn’t even own a passport.

Fuck this tribal mentality. I have no reason to believe that my particular nation-state of residence is somehow better than all the others. Where I am at any given moment is just a place, unique and special much like every other place.

Eventually, I started to find what I wanted on the web. Multinational Underwriters and International Medical Group, among others, offer medical insurance that is truly global. They’ll cover your local health-care services anywhere in the world – the whole world, really the whole world – for as long as you wish to keep paying their premium. There are similar providers in other industries too, companies who exist to serve a tiny but growing fraction of the global population who find the arbitrary divisions of territory and jurisdiction small minded and constraining.

Although everyone comes from somewhere, it really is possible to be a citizen of the world. To be sure, there are cultural, financial, and logistical hurdles to this dream, but fear and ignorance are the real problems.
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Most Excitng Book Today [Oct. 18th, 2006|12:54 am]
jonathanstray
[mood |creative]

Sahara Overland -- A Route And Planning Guide.

This book tells you exactly how to cross the Sahara desert, which turns out still to be difficult even in this age of GPS. There aren't any roads that go completely across it, for example.

I ran into this book in a travel bookstore, but this is not a travel guide. It does not reccomend restaurants. Instead it is 688 pages of extremely detailed, practical information. Such as which brands of 4x4s are most reliable. How to avoid bandits, as much as possible. Problems with fuel-injected vs. carbeurated motocycles. Listings for sat phone providers and medevac insurers. How to locate and use wells. Desert survival, should something go wrong. And of course, where and how to buy a camel, and how to ride one.

And it's all completely serious, based on years of hard experience. Totally fucking awesome. I love books about the real world.

Yes, I *am* getting ideas. I have been in love with the Sahara for as long as I can remember. Whenever I see it in photographs or movies, I get a strange sensation of home.
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Mouth [Oct. 13th, 2006|01:43 pm]
jonathanstray
I want to put your whole body in my mouth
roll it around on my tongue
taste all its angles and crevasses
feel it melt away inside me
until only a sweet taste remains
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Against The Reproduction Of Death [Jul. 12th, 2006|02:35 pm]
jonathanstray
I have been reading Hakim Bey recently, the brilliant anarchist pedophile poet. He is best known for his essay "The Temporary Autonomous Zone", which is probably the most cogent discussion I have ever run across of the sociological underpinnings of e.g. Burning Man.

His lesser-known work also has great value. Here is a piece that caught my fancy for the sheer optimism it exudes. Written in the 80s, I don't know that his discussions of nihlist art are currently relevant; but substitute a fascination with terrorism, for example, and the words ring true. He captures something important here in his comments about meaning, art, death, and life.

----

ONE OF THE SIGNS of that End Time so many seem to anticipate would consist of a fascination with all the most negative & hateful detritus of that Time, a fascination felt by the very class of thinkers who consider themselves most perspicacious about the so-called apocalypse they warn us to beware. I'm speaking of people I know very well--those of the "spiritual right" (such as the neo-Guenonians with their obsession for signs of decadence)--& those of the post-philosophical left, the detached essayists of death, connoisseurs of the arts of mutilation.

For both these sets, all possible action in the world is smeared out onto one level plain--all become equally meaningless. For the Traditionalist, nothing matters but to prepare the soul for death (not only its own but the whole world's as well). For the "cultural critic" nothing matters but the game of identifying yet one more reason for despair, analyzing it, adding it to the catalogue.

Now the End of the World is an abstraction because it has never happened. It has no existence in the real world. It will cease to be an abstraction only when it happens--if it happens. (I do not claim to know "God's mind" on the subject--nor to possess any scientific knowledge about a still non-existent future). I see only a mental image & its emotional ramifications; as such I identify it as a kind of ghostly virus, a spook-sickness in myself which ought to be expunged rather than hypochondriacally coddled & indulged. I have come to despise the "End of the World" as an ideological icon held over my head by religion, state, & cultural milieu alike, as a reason for doing nothing.

I understand why the religious & political "powers" would want to keep me quaking in my shoes. Since only they offer even a chance of evading ragnarok (thru prayer, thru democracy, thru communism, etc.), I will sheepishly follow their dictates & dare nothing on my own. The case of the enlightened intellectuals, however, seems more puzzling at first. What power do they derive from this telling-the-beads of fear & gloom, sadism & hatred?

Essentially they gain smartness. Any attack on them must appear stupid, since they alone are clear-eyed enough to recognize the truth, they alone daring enough to show it forth in defiance of rude shit-kicking censors & liberal wimps. If I attack them as part of the very problem they claim to be discussing objectively, I will be seen as a bumpkin, a prude, a pollyanna. If I admit my hatred for the artifacts of their perception (books, artworks, performances) then I may be dismissed as merely squeamish (& so of course psychologically repressed), or else at the very least lacking in seriousness.

Many people assume that because I sometimes express myself as an anarchist boy-lover, I must also be "interested" in other ultra-postmodern ideas like serial child-murder, fascist ideology, or the photographs of Joel P. Witkin. They assume only two sides to any issue--the hip side & the unhip side. A marxist who objected to all this death-cultishness as anti-progressive would be thought as foolish as a Xtian fundamentalist who believed it immoral.

I maintain that (as usual) many sides exist to this issue rather than only two. Two-sided issues (creationism vs darwinism, "choice" vs "pro-life," etc.) are all without exception delusions, spectacular lies.

My position is this: I am all too well aware of the "intelligence" which prevents action. I myself possess it in abundance. Every once in a while however I have managed to behave as if I were stupid enough to try to change my life. Sometimes I've used dangerous stupifiants like religion, marijuana, chaos, the love of boys. On a few occasions I have attained some degree of success--& I say this not to boast but rather to bear witness. By overthrowing the inner icons of the End of the World & the Futility of all mundane endeavor, I have (rarely) broken through into a state which (by comparison with all I'd known) appeared to be one of health. The images of death & mutilation which fascinate our artists & intellectuals appear to me--in the remembered light of these experiences--tragically inappropriate to the real potential of existence & of discourse about existence.

Existence itself may be considered an abyss possessed of no meaning. I do not read this as a pessimistic statement. If it be true, then I can see in it nothing else but a declaration of autonomy for my imagination & will--& for the most beautiful act they can conceive with which to bestow meaning upon existence.

Why should I emblemize this freedom with an act such as murder (as did the existentialists) or with any of the ghoulish tastes of the eighties? Death can only kill me once--till then I am free to express & experience (as much as I can) a life & an art of life based on self-valuating "peak experiences," as well as "conviviality" (which also possesses its own reward).

The obsessive replication of Death-imagery (& its reproduction or even commodification) gets in the way of this project just as obstructively as censorship or media-brainwashing. It sets up negative feedback loops--it is bad juju. It helps no one conquer fear of death, but merely inculcates a morbid fear in place of the healthy fear all sentient creatures feel at the smell of their own mortality.

This is not to absolve the world of its ugliness, or to deny that truly fearful things exist in it. But some of these things can be overcome--on the condition that we build an aesthetic on the overcoming rather than the fear.

I recently attended a gay dance/poetry performance of uncompromising hipness: the one black dancer in the troupe had to pretend to fuck a dead sheep.

Part of my self-induced stupidity, I confess, is to believe (& even feel) that art can change me, & change others. That's why I write pornography & propaganda--to cause change. Art can never mean as much as a love affair, perhaps, or an insurrection. But . . . to a certain extent . . . it works.

Even if I'd given up all hope in art, however, all expectation of exaltation, I would still refuse to put up with art that merely exacerbates my misery, or indulges in schadenfreude, "delight in the misery of others." I turn away from certain art as a dog would turn away howling from the corpse of its companion. I'd like to renounce the sophistication which would permit me to sniff it with detached curiosity as yet another example of post-industrial decomposition.

Only the dead are truly smart, truly cool. Nothing touches them. While I live, however, I side with bumbling suffering crooked life, with anger rather than boredom, with sweet lust, hunger & carelessness . . . against the icy avant-guard & its fashionable premonitions of the sepulcher.
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Crash Comfort [Jun. 26th, 2006|07:08 pm]
jonathanstray
This morning was my first Intermediate Acrobatics class. Last night, I did not sleep well.

The issue here is that I am really pushing my abilities to take this class. I've done two semesters of the Beginning class, but three is the normal prerequisite. Instead, I'm taking my third term of Beginning concurrently, hoping to pick up the required skills as I need them. Further, although I have come a very long way, I'm not even particularly good in the intro class. Plus I haven't had a lot of sleep this week, and I missed my beginning class because my motorcycle broke.

I was imagining showing up to the Intermediate class tired and stiff, being pushed by the uncaring instructors into increasingly impossible moves which everyone else would master effortlessly. I could see the disapproving looks on everyone's faces. I was expecting to be told I wasn't ready, to be sent back to the beginners class. These thoughts literally kept me awake for much of the night. Very few things will actually keep me awake at night. At 4 AM, 7 AM, 8 AM, I seriously considered not going.

In the end, I went. I was tired and almost depsondant as I walked through the doors, but my mood began to improve as the other students greeted my cheerfully. We started stretching, warming up, doing a few handstands. As I had imagined, everyone else executed their moves with far more grace, flexibility, and control than I could manage, but I discovered that I did know what to do. I was not embarassed. Later, when we got to tumbling, I was clearly pushing myself, but there were no disapproving looks. Instead, the kindly instructor took me aside and told me I have power and alignment, but no flexibility. I was advised to stretch daily and told that although he couldn't push me until I became more flexible, I was welcome to take the class. I left sore, tired, and euphoric. (I have power and alignment? How the hell did that happen?)

I have spent most of my life being very good at the things I do. It is a shock for me, therefore, to be so ungainly. I am simply not used to being the worst student in the class. I am, in fact, quite frightened of not being excellent in front of my peers, at least in the things I actually care about.

I once told a friend -- and maybe I shouldn't have -- that I would be fascinated to see what happened when she finally failed at something. I told her this because I remembered learning to fail; the first time I really crashed and burned, I did it very badly and caused myself far more pain than I should have. What I seem to be learning now is how to be bad at something, which is the necessary prerequisite to being good at it. I may never get good at acrobatics, but if I can learn to be bad at it, at the very least I will sleep better.
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The Monday Night Write [Jun. 21st, 2006|01:12 pm]
jonathanstray
I'm making it official. I'm making it weekly. I need to write, so I'm penning it in.

The Monday Night Write is not a writing workshop. We already have those. At the Monday Night Write we may talk about writing, or we may talk about life, but the aim is to say less and write more. All aspiring writers are invited to reap the joint benefits of peer pressure and coffeee.

Every Monday night, 7:00 PM-ish, Bean Bag Cafe, 601 Divisadero @ Hayes, San Francisco.
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This is only a test [Apr. 3rd, 2006|12:39 am]
jonathanstray
Just what I need: another blog.
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