My Newest Music Crush

Like many of my favorite finds, I heard this once randomly -- in this case at Kan Zaman on Haight st -- and just had to find out what it was.

I give you Balkan Beat Box. http://www.balkanbeatbox.com/ has samples.

Sort of, what? Hip-hop influenced reggae/ska with an Arabic horn section. Oh, and Klezmer riffs over dub basslines.

In terms of arrangement and production they remind me of Gogol Bordello, and it turns out that this is not a coincidence, as ex-Bordellian Ori Kaplan leads the line-up. After that, they're a mishmash of international musicians -- and the music totally sounds it. Awesome.

Chrome Graffiti on the Temple Walls

My god, it's like lace reaching into the sky! I mean, I'd seen pictures, but this, actually standing here in Durbar Square, Katmandu, watching the pagodas silhouette the dawn-- it's a fairy tale. This place can't be real. Here, let's climb the steps. Oh. There's graffiti at the top. The sun rises, shadows form. The traffic arrives with first light. And now the square is filled with belching diesels and kids on scooters, and vendors selling cotton candy and mobile phones. Also illuminated is every other building, the surrounding sprawl of hideous brick boxes. Katmandu, 21st Century. The pagodas cower before the hot, flat, smoggy light of the present time.

But no, he assures me. This is progress. This is change. Before, there was nothing, he tells me. We lived in the village, in the dirt.




I have arrived in Pokhara, Nepal. This is a town in the central region of the country, on a lake at the base of the Annapurna range of tbe Himalayan foothils. Needless to say it's gorgeous here. So was the ride, a broad (for Nepal -- one lane each way) flat road threading through the hills. I plan to stay here for probably two weeks, including a walk into the mountains. I want to see Annapurna. It's a 7-9 day trek to Annapurna base camp and back, with lodges every night. One of the charms of Nepal is that it's still not possible to drive to the vast majority of places.

I was reminded on the ride over just how different this place is from home, just how different people can be. I stopped at the top of a little pass in an isolated village for lunch. I saw the restaurant from the road, which is to say, a dark wooden shack with rough tables inside and people eating rice and curry off of metal plates. I pulled up, pulled off my helmet an sat down. All eyes were upon the foreigner, or his shiny and expensive bike. I gestured to the old woman who ran the place that I wanted lunch, pointing to someone else's plate and to my mouth. I hate not being able to speak the language, but I go through so many countries that I almost always can't.

A young man approached me and began talking in clumsy but clear English. First he asked me where I was from -- they all do. He asked me what I was doing there and where I was going. He asked me what I wanted to eat for lunch. Then I started asking him questions.

He's a teacher. Trained at university, then moved to this little rural town to run the school.

Five or six men watched us talk, wide-eyed. They were dressed in essentially rags. Farmers, one might say, but 80% of the population farms rice and maize just to eat. A normal group of village men.

"I moved here because I wanted to teach the people," he said. "I teach them to read. If you cannot read, you can have no knowledge."

The men said something among themselves, laughed in my direction. I was reminded, again, what ignorance is. These people know nothing that someone hasn't told them. They've never picked up a newspaper, much less a book. Television and radio and rumor are their sources of information. All the myriad tools at my disposal for understanding and exalting in the world around me -- science, politics, philosophy, poetry, economics -- they have none of them. I reminded myself that this is not unusual, that this is the situation of billions of people, a substantial fraction of the world's population. They've barely ever seen foreigners, or even people from a different town. From conversations with such people in the past, I know that they probably mistrust and possibly resent those outside their caste or ethnic group and want to ensure that "their people" are in power at all levels. I know that the women are treated as little more than objects.

I have so much respect for the millions of unthanked teachers of the world.
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Road Rhapsody

The border traffic between Nepal and India turns out to be mostly bicycles and trishaws, local people just strolling between their two countries. I love relaxed borders. They're best when there are no computers involved. My favorite was Morocco to Mauritania: just a wooden shack in the middle of the desert, where the immigration man slept on a cot and got up to write your name in a book when you entered the country. Nepal was a little more organized, with a nice concrete building, but still strictly paper. And you had to look for the sign that said "immigration" and pull over. I could have just kept driving.

So a passport sticker for me, and then breakfast. I sat down at an omelette stand outside the immigration building and gestured for two eggs. A young Nepali named Darshan sat next to me and started chatting. First he asked where I was from, all of that. It got more interesting when I started asking him if there was anything to see between the border and Katmandu.

"Do you believe in miracles?" he asked.

I hedged. I hate questions like that. You can't say no without being a square. But we got that over with and then Darshan told me about a man who has been meditating in the jungle for three years with no food and water. Says the discovery channel even did a documentary on him, had cameras 24/7 for weeks. Gave me the name of the little town, and an address there.

"Do you know this man?" I asked of the name he'd written in my notebook.

"He is my father."

So I will go to Piluwa, I will stay with Darshan's father and I will hike into the jungle to see this holy man. If he's really there. At the very least I will get a chance to visit someone's home.

Just then a dour man in a beige suit approached and greeted Darhsan with "Comrade!"

"He's the head of the local comittee," Darshan explained. "We're Maoists." The Maosists in Nepal, you may remember, have been known to kill their way to power. The man sat down with us and eyed me suspiciously. Darhsan asked me if I was religious. Another question I hate.

"I have no religion. Or maybe all of them. I respect relgion, I just don't like people who say they're the only ones with the truth."

"Yes," said the Beige Maoist. "The truth is in here," and he patted his heart. "Peace comes from within." I stared at the strangely spiritual communist for some time; when I got up to leave he bid me a warm farefull and safe journey.

And I was on the road again, the road away from India and deeper into Nepal. Tall forest on both sides, obviously planted, but beautiful. A remarkably well maintained road, but then, they don't have that many. Highway 1, the main East-West artery of the small country. Bicycles, trishaws, women keeping the sun off themselves with umbrellas, men eating lunch at the side of the road. Little motor traffic. An age-old Asian paradise, a scene from centuries ago. This is what India was supposed to by like. My tires whirred in the bright sun and I rode at a contented pace, happy to be there. Every so often the forest opened into brilliant green rice fields. I love rice fields. They're beautiful.

Going 80 km/h down the straight and idyllic road, the bike suddenly started losing power. It felt as if one of the wheels was dragging hard. Did I blow a tire? Destroyed a rim? I just had the rear wheel rebuilt, after breaking four spokes on the potholes of my last leg. This wasn't supposed to happen. Fight. Keep it upright. Pull over to the side. Wow, it's really jammed. No wobble, but no control either. Like I'm dragging something on the ground. Brake. Is that worse or better? Lean, damint. Too late. Shit. Going down.

The bike slowly fell over onto the crash bars at about 20 km/h. I stepped off it. I don't recall how I broke my fall, but would later discover that I wasn't hurt in the slightest. That's what riding gear is for.

The engine cut out and the rear wheel spun helplessly...

Gasoline started leaking from the overturned tank in a steady stream. The cap apparently doesn't seal.

I can't lift the bike on my own. I know this. It looked undamaged, but it wouldn't look too good if it caught on fire.

Fortunately, a couple Nepali men saw me go down and rushed over. They helped me get the bike upright. The gasoline stopped flowing. Shaken, I pulled off my helmet and gloves. It was too damn hot to wear them when I wasn't moving. I dragged the bike over to the side of the road and put my helmet down. It rolled down the derm. Someone retrieved it for me. I took my sunglasses off and dropped them.

Then I looked at the bike. Both wheels seemed intact. But something was lodged between the front fender and the wheel. A tangled, smoking mass of black plastic.

Shit, that was the guard at the front of the fender, wasn't it? But how...? My bike had jammed on its own fairing and ground it to slag.

I wiggled the fender experimentally. It was loose. I pushed it down and the front edge caught the wheel. Oh. Shit. That's possible? I reached for the bolts holding it in place and discovered that they turned under my fingers.

"Take your bike to my house," one of the men was saying in a lovely accent. Not the thick English of South India. Not the lilt of North India. But a soft, modulated English. "You can check it there."

"No, It's okay. I'm a mechanic. A small mechanic." I smiled at the crowd, now half a dozen boys and men, curious and concerned. Still a little wobbly on my feet, still feeling the jittery after-effects of the adrenaline pulse, I unstrapped my tool bag and took out a shiny wrench. In twenty seconds the bolts were tight.

Vibration slowly disassembles a motorcycle. Tonight I am going to go over my bike and check every single bolt.

I mounted, got my gear on, waved, and was off again. Now without the little front fender guard. My bike looked a bit stunted. Kinda dampened the aesthetics. I lost an exhaust heat shield somewhere in Karnataka. Then the whole muffler exploded a day out from Calcutta, repaired into an ugly mess of welding. My right luggage rack has cracked. My machine is slowly falling apart.

This afternoon I watched my trip odometer roll over 4,000 kilometers. I've come a long way.

But the bike was fine and I sped between the fields and the forest once more, enjoying the sounds of the wind and the engine. The scenery is better here, I decided. More open land, less crappy little cinder-block towns. There are over a billion people in India, and they're all scrambling to join the middle class at the same time. The highways are turning into dirty strips of suburbia. Not so here, I reflected. Broad shaded avenues, not too much traffic, long empty swaths between towns. Everything I wanted in a motorcycle ride.

I came across another stretch of tall trees lining the road. Beneath some sat men enjoying their lunch. A narrow grassy field rand between the road the forest beyond. I found a tree I liked and pulled over, unstraped my lunch.

Sitting in the shade, drinking a bottle of water and eating cashews and dried apricots in the hot, still air. Watching people go by on bicycles. Surprisingly little litter for a third-world country. Suprisingly little traffic, a blessed relief from the fumes and the honking. Passersby waved, and I waved back. The apricots were tart in my mouth, the water cool. Heat haze shimmered around the cooling engine of my bike, my steed. No guidance but a 1996 map I'd stolen from the guesthouse in Darjeeling. I was glad to be alone and unsure of my destination.

Nepal! Katmandu! Names more magical than India! The Himalayas and girls riding bicycles with parasols and a monk in the jungle who doesn't eat, and yaks and sherpas and a kinder, gentler Buddhist peoples. They'll all be buying iPods soon enough, but until then, I roll on through the green fields. Today I felt like I stepped out of my old world, like I might discover anything at all. Today I fell in the best way. In so doing I lost my fear of falling, at least for a little while.

Back on the road, almost

I went to Sri Lanka. I learned to surf. (That may be an exxageration, but I did make it up on the board fairly reliably.) I went back to Auroville, attended their 40th Anniversary celebration/rituals/events, and delivered a big ol' talk about how they can use online software in their community.

They're really into consensus as a governing method, but of course you can't actually do that with 2000 people and no software. So I'm trying to convince them to put their political process online. Wikigovernment? I'll definitely be writing more on this topic, and about Auroville which is, in many ways, a toy society. Just perfect for a mad social scientist like me.

Now I'm in Villipuram, a medium-sized town which is not, I note, listed in the Lonely Planet. That means there is absolutely nothing here to do or see, except, well, India. Whenever I look outside my window, my jaw drops. I overlook one end of a street market. There are often cows out there. The people sure wear colorful clothing. Not everyone has shoes. Computer equipment is sold next to banana leaves, which are used as plates here, of course. Guess I'm gonna have to write more about that too.

I am here waiting for a train to Calcutta. My bike and I are boarding this train to cover the 2000 kilometers in a reasonable amount of time, money, and energy. I can do about 300km per day on my bike here, so it would be a long drive, and most of the things I want to see are up in the North anyway. Darjeeling. Varanasi. Rishikesh. Oh, and Nepal. "Kathmandu" is still a magical childhood name to me.

I hope the roads are less busy up there. I'm really starting to despise Indian traffic, mostly because it's a direct threat to my life.

So in this interval I've been writing and researching. My current topics include the role that community currencies actually play in a local economy, and the possibility of very large-scale decision making methods using online tools. What I want is to understand the outlines of a post-democratic political model. Might some sort of wiki-government be possible? Along that line, I've just completed a little article on why Wikipedia works so well: http://www.equivocality.net/why-does-wikipedia-work/

At least, those are the things I'm willing to talk about publicly ;)

I miss you all terribly much. My time here is running out, I can feel it. In practice, I think this means a couple more months. I can't yet describe all the ways I have changed, and anyway I won't know fully until I return.

- Jonathan
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The Fourth Annual Equivocality Writer’s Travel Scholarship

(please repost/remail)

The Fourth Annual Equivocality Writer’s Travel Scholarship
(from http://www.equivocality.net/writers-travel-scholarship/)

Once again, we’re doing the Writer’s Travel Scholarship. Once again it’s very simple: you write something, and if it wins you get a round-trip ticket to anywhere in the world. Really.

In the contest announcements for previous years, I penned elaborate discussions about why I would do such a thing. Why it might matter. This year, I don’t feel the need to explain why I think writers need to travel, and hence why I would want to support that. If you don’t already know, that’s an even better reason to go abroad. Instead I’ll just say:

I think travel is good. I think writing is good. I think it is important that writers travel.

As before, I would like to make it clear that I am not specifically calling for travel writing. Write about your pet dog, if you can do it in an interesting an enlightening way. This contest is not about travel writing but writers travelling.

On to the details:

* Applicants must submit a short piece, 10,000 words maximum. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever, poetry or prose, on any topic.
* Also tell me a little about yourself, where you would go with your free ticket, for how long, and why. You can’t ever have been to that country before — I impose this restriction to encourage people to go somewhere new, rather than using the ticket to visit their overseas girlfriend. Also, you don’t have to write about your destination. I just want to know why you want to go there.
* Email entries as an attached document in text or Word format to wts (at) equivocality (dot) net by April 30th 2008. They will be judged by myself and my writer friends, the winner to be announced on May 15th 2008.
* To keep things fair, I will not consider pieces I know to be written by friends or acquaintances. What this means is that if you know me, you must anonymize your submission (including your email address!)
* Entries must be previously unpublished, there is a limit of one entry per author, and the ticket is limited to $2000 US. I will work with you to book the cheapest available round-trip ticket, based on departure and return dates given to me by the winner. I will try to accomodate these dates and other preferences as much as possible, but I reserve the right to shift each date plus or minus up to a week, and to make other choices such as routing and airline, in order to find the best fare. Other travel requirements, such as additional destinations or an open return date, may be accommodated if the winner wishes to make up the difference in cost.
* By submitting a piece, you grant me (Jonathan Stray) limited web-publishing rights, specifically the right to display it on equivocality.net and any other sites of I may have some degree of editorial control over. I reserve no other rights. If someone sees your work here and wants to publish it, fantastic.
* All decisions are final, and by submitting a piece you agree that I am under no obligation to award any prize at all. The idea is also to fund a developing writer who might not otherwise be able to afford to travel, so please keep this in mind when considering whether to apply. I have no funding, no committees, no mandate. I’m doing this just because I think it’s a good idea, so let’s keep it simple.

Good Luck!
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    bouncy bouncy


lying on the deck
my mouth opened to the rain stars
I was happy again to be alone

no interest in the feast below
I said it told myself
perhaps that was the truth

so I sailed my little boat
on the night sea
sometimes spotting ships
sometimes trading treasures
I hoarded stories given stolen
and counted myself king

and shy against that wall
I was emperor of oceans
and no one knew to tell me no

yes an emperor I used to be
and sometimes don those robes
I find inopportunities
like parties
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Writing That Moves People: More Thoughts on Blog Comments

I've read the comments on my last posting, and first of all thank you all for posting them. Not only did they feed my enormous ego, but they were actually quite insightful.

I think I've been missing a key point about involving the reader: there has to be room in the dialog for them to reply. Long ago I finally realized this in conversation, and now I occasionally actually, you know, listen to people. (Part of this was due to running across a definition that I've long since lost the source for: "truly listening means letting the other person change you.")

But in my writing, there's often no talking back. It's a captive audience; I can say whatever I want and you can't interrupt. I forget sometimes that ultimately the process of communication is about what is going on in the reader's head, not mine. Telling it like it is, according to me, is just a lecture, and no one likes lectures.

Ultimately what I want is to inspire passionate curiosity in my readers. I need to learn to write in such a way that I leave questions, not answers. Because I sure see a lot of questions out here.

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    hopeful hopeful