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From 2007

In the fall of 2007, when the race to replace George W. Bush was heating up, I put my house on the market and traveled to India to get lasic surgery and explore. My plan was to vote for Dennis Kucinich in the upcoming Democratic primary, and to move to Costa Rica on my return. Plans change. My father used to respond to my plans with this statement: “I will monitor all events.” My house sale fell through, I moved in with my then girlfriend, proposed to her, and voted for Obama.

This is a selection of my writings from that trip to India, copied and pasted from the bowels of this blog, where I migrated my Livejournal. I was just beginning to feel my identity as a writer.

The recommendation of Shantaram still stands.

                                                                             ~

the train trundles through the night, past the myriad trash-fires which warm the untouchables just enough to keep them alive for another day of hardening the hearts of the rich and middle class.

i am not, however, permitted to close the curtain on my windowless upper berth and remain oblivious. every so often, smoke, wind, and the direction we travel conspire to remind me by sending us directly into one of the acrid plumes rising from the fires. it is sucked in by the probably filterless air conditioner and pumped into my lungs, leaving me as laryngitic as if i had smoked a pack of cigarettes in my sleep.

i share my berth with a canadian couple. he was born in calcutta, but has lived in the west for 31 years. she was born in british guyana (of jim jones fame), but her grandparents were from india. she tells me that 70% of guyanans are indian, and not just because an ignorant italian misnamed them.

there is an “indian style” bathroom and a “western style” bathroom on the train. need i explain?

                                                                                       ~

 

on the train from delhi to kalka, i saw:

cow patties formed into discs by hand and lined up or stacked in piles, rows or patterns to dry by the thousands: fuel.

a solitary woman wrapped in a colorless sari sitting against a wall in the trainyard: sad but dignified.

(it seems only the poor and devoutly religious wear traditional clothing these days, in delhi at least. everyone else is trying to be as western as possible. they’re somewhere in the 80’s.)

people everywhere, living by the tracks, on the platform. a small girl brushing her teeth with a stick in a filthy mudpuddle.

animals: cows, goats, donkeys

then we left the delhi trainyards.

for miles and miles it was like travelling through a landfill, but an inhabited one, women and children everywhere scavenging through the garbage; families huddled around trash fires.

seemingly endless slums.

later: in the middle of a more agricultural area, tall (30′ or so) conical chimneys atop brickmaking kilns dotting the fields. raw and fired bricks stacked everywhere.

a goat in a t-shirt.

a man tightening the bolts on the rails. not with a wrench, with his bare hands.

a bright orange, lifesize plastic? palm tree in an otherwise nondescript rural town.

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i sat in a cafe having a more traditional breakfast, and watched the adults file past, in both directions, from wherever they sleep to wherever they work. each group different according to station or employment? but cohesive groups, nonetheless, based on dress, age, what they might be carrying (on their heads if they are women). i didn’t even try to distinguish the hotel workers from the restauranteers from the shopkeepers, or the roadside stand operators, but i got the impression that they walked together, regardless of which they were. it was like small battalions of brightly uniformed soldiers going up and down the street.

then the children. hundreds and hundreds of them, descending on the town for the festivals (not christmas) happening right now. there are festivals all the time, but the holiday they get is christmas. thank you britain. anyway, they filed through by twos, usually holding hands, with adult minders at the front. middle, and rear of each column, like schoolbuses without the bus.

these groups are individualized by dress as well, some with uniforms, some in traditional clothing, some mixed. girls and boys always segregated. one group came to a halt in front of my cafe, because a man was giving a hairbrushing demonstration on a wig sitting on one of those head and shoulder shaped wigstands. the girls were fascinated and crowded around him while the male minders tried without success to get them back in line. the boys watched, bemused but not without interest from their place in line.

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unlike hampi, where every building is either a restaurant, a shop, or a hotel geared to tourism, badami is a real town, with real people living real lives. the historical landmarks have yet to turn it into a tourist mecca.

i spent yesterday hanging out with a 26 year old german whom i initially pegged as an aussie because he learned english there. we strolled around the narrow back alleys of badami, pretending to be spanish to confound the omnipresent hordes of children who know how to say only “hello!” and “you from?”

they hadn’t a clue how to respond to “buenas tardes” and “como se llama?”. after saying “hello” and “america” and “david” (to the third question) about a billion times, it was refreshing to be able to sidestep. i remarked to steve that we must be like trained monkeys to them, always responding on cue to their prompts.

we spent a while talking, as i have with so many travellers, about the lack of concern indians seem to have for their own country. it may be that they are no worse than americans, but they have four times as many people in half the space, so it is out of control. still, there is a complete carelessness about everything beyond their personal appearance that baffles me.

we decided to go to the “silver service” restaurant at the posh hotel just outside of town for dinner. this hotel charges 10 times what i am paying in town. i didn’t see the rooms, but they are probably freshly painted with bleached and starched sheets, soap and shampoo. there is a manicured grass courtyard and a swimming pool. in short, this is where rich indians and the occasional well-to-do foreigners come to avoid actually interacting with the real india. they stay there, swim in the pool, and are shuttled around the sights for about $150 a day.

we go into the restaurant, which is empty, but would seat about 120, and order our meals, which cost only about 25% more than the identical dish in town. so, it’s all about the ambiance, right? maybe. the waiters are wearing shoes, there are white table cloths, and odd pillow case things slipped over the backs of the chairs. there are real glasses and silverware (cheap). as soon as you look closely, however, you begin to see that it is a barely executed surface luxury. the waiter’s shirt is filthy, the people who painted the room obviously didn’t even carry a rag to clean up their mistakes, there are mismatched touchups all over the walls, wood has been replaced in the trim with mismatched stain, and the floors are streaky. then, in the middle of dinner, the lights go out, just like everywhere else. so we are wondering how anyone could consider this luxurious. for the americans and the europeans, it probably isn’t, it’s just a way to see the sights and be insulated from the reality around them. it’s easier to spend $5 on a meal when you don’t have to think about how it’s a weeks pay for the people around you. for the indians, though, it’s different. i think maybe they are so used to walking around with blinders on, so to speak, not seeing the filth and squalor and the people who live in it, that they really don’t see the flimsy facade of the “resort”, they actually, perceive it as luxury. they overlook all those little things just as they do the little people.

the cave temples were overwhelmingly breathtaking. going to some more temples today.

                                                                                ~

THINGS THAT TASTE GOOD, BUT AREN’T, AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS

US brands are everywhere in india, as they are wherever i have travelled. coca cola owns most of the private water reserves in the world, and it is hard to find bottled water that doesn’t come from them or pepsi. lays potato chips are ubiquitous also, although i must say they have a greater variety of flavors here; masala, mint, hot and sweet, and several others, along with the same old boring sour cream for unadventurous westerners (why are they here anyway?). this whole cow thing is ridiculous. there is enough beef and leather wandering the streets to feed every starving person for a year, and give them all jobs making shoes, which they could then wear. not to mention the reduction in greenhouse gases. dead cows don’t fart. someone said to me today that we have to treat india like another planet, and behave like the crew of the enterprise, obeying the prime directive of non-interference. interesting. not that i want to interfere anyway. i just like to whine, complain, and judge what i don’t understand. what a typical american.

seriously, i am in the middle of reading a wonderful collection of indian short stories. it makes me feel much better about this place and its people, in some strange way. i also remember being 19, driving through the woods drinking beer, and laughing as i threw the bottles out the window. four times as many people, half the space…

                                                        ~

there are a lot of peacocks in jaipur, and they are all afraid. the fastest still have most of their tails.

                                               ~

tata, india’s car company, is coming out with a model which will cost only one lach (100,000 rupees, or about $2500). traffic will be absolutely impossible as people replace their scooters and motorbikes.

                                                             ~

i’m not shopping.

i apologized to my driver, who would have received a commission from anything i bought. i said “i know i’m strange”. he said i was like a coconut, strange on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside.

yesterday i took my driver for a mocha. he had never even been inside the coffee shop, much less had a mocha, which costs 20 times the cup of chai he drinks. today, i took my driver to lunch at his favorite restaurant. awesome food!

                                                      ~

when i arrived, i didn’t like the place at all, even though it was fascinating at times. i have since dropped most of my judgements, found things and places to love in india, and gained a small understanding of, and considerable respect for the people, although there are still things which make no sense and frustrate my western sensibilities.

if you can handle a 1000 page book, read Shantaram. now.

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Ferrocarriles y Perros Debiles

There are a number of things I like about President Biden, most of them related to the fact that he is the polar opposite of the President-Who-Will-Go-Down-In-Infamy. There are few things I really like about him. One of those is his love for trains.

When I was a child, I rode a train from Montana to Georgia to see my grandmother. Memories from that age tend to come in flashes. I see images of lily ponds and backyards festooned with drying laundry. I remember it was a grand adventure. That adventure is no longer possible. The steel rails which criss-cross the United States, and indeed much of the world, look like this today, overgrown and abandoned. In the US, many routes have been torn up, the rails melted down, and the right-of-ways converted to hiking, biking, skiing, and snowmobiling trails. Instead of efficient, affordable transportation and shipping routes, they are now playgrounds for those who have the time and money to play.

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Here in Mexico, the railroads survived the onslaught of General Moters and their carbon-spewing bus and truck routes for a much longer time. Mexico and Mexicans simply weren’t rich enough to be that wasteful.

In the end, the demise of the railroads here, as far as I can tell, has been to the lack of maintenance, rather than deliberate replacement. Again, it is due to the scarcity of resources. According to the gentleman I met crossing the tracks as I was taking tourist photos, you could take a train from here to numerous destinations as recently as one or two decades ago.

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Two decades ago, the communications revolution was just beginning. When I traveled, I bought a cheap cell phone wherever I went and had to hunt for internet cafes with bandwidth barely above dialup in order to post on my LiveJournal blog.

Now, we all carry the Library of Alexandria in our pockets, we make video calls around the world for free from the local coffee shop, and, in a few countries, there are functioning, state-of-the-art railroads. Sadly, in this hemisphere, what few trains we have are barely out of the 19th century.

I had hoped that Biden would have coattails in the Senate and House elections, enabling him to pursue a more ambitious agenda, including a real infrastructure plan with a full revitalization of our rail system rather than just a few billion bandaids.

Alas, it was not to be, so I will Just have to wait paitently and eternally hopeful like this railroad dog.

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Tanagers, Cotton, and Ceremony

When I went to Atzompa three days ago, I sighted this spectacular tanager in a tree. I didn’t have my “real” camera with me, however, with its attendant telephoto lens, so I didn’t get a photo. Two days ago I went back. I tend to go to places multiple times around here, both because I want to, and because I like to take my friends places. Anyway, this time I took my Olympus with its 300mm (600mm equivalent) lens. Red was waiting for me, and let me get almost close enough for a great shot.

I’m pretty sure this is the same type of tanager that I saw often in Tucson. I’m guessing that, like many Americans, it is down here for the winter.

I also snapped this photo of an open seed pod on a Ceiba (Silk Cotton Tree). This is the national tree of Costa Rica and is also one of the trees you see growing on the buildings of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, along with Strangler Figs. People here consider the tree sacred, and the “cotton” is harvested and used to make ceremonial garments.

Speaking of Ceremonial, I was also back at Yagul the other day, and finally managed to find the intriguing rock wall that you can see from the parking area. I tried a month ago, but couldn’t locate it. This time, I did. It turns out that it is more of a bridge than a wall, leading out to a giant split rock, high above the valley floor. I imagine it was a place where a priest (shaman) went on the solstice, but nobody knows. It definitely serves no practical purpose.

Isn’t it interesting how so many of the things we value, pursue, love, explore, keep, and miss have no practical purpose?

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Oaxaca to San Cristobal

I left at 5:15 this morning, well before sunrise, so I would arrive in the early afternoon here and have a chance to relax a bit. This was taken in the mountains a couple hours east, just before dawn.

Everyone who visits or lives in Tucson is taught of the rarity and endangered nature of the Saguaro cactus. It is true that it is both rare and endagered, being confined to a small region which is fast becoming overpopulated by the human pandemic.

It is not, however, unique. Not far south of the home of the Saguaro, are vast stands of the nearly identical (except larger) Cardon cactus, and I was very happy, on my trip down here in April, to come across mountains covered by a forest of columnar cacti. 45 of Mexico’s 70 species can be found thriving here.

So much of the internet these days is doom and gloom. Trump and the residuals of his incompetent, despotic reign will destroy democracy forever! Billionaires flying to space are destroying the working class, market capitalism (mom&pop stores), and the atmosphere! While we’re at it, everyone who goes to those environmental conferences is flying a private jet! Hypocrisy! And then there is Covid… either Covid or the hoax pademic is shredding our constitutional rights! Antivaxxers will be the death of us all! (not just themselves) Russia! China! Kamala has a funny nervous laugh! Biden is senile!

It never ends, and it is exhausting. It helps to remember that our little personal world is just a tiny bit of what exists. There are stands of columnar cacti thriving 2000 miles south of the threatened Saguaro. Nature will survive whatever humans throw at it, even if humans don’t. Democracy will win if we support it with our vote. Covid will eventually be just another flu.

In the meantime, Oaxaca also has a bumper crop of agave angustafolia (Espadin) ready to distil into mezcal, which makes it all better.

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Jueves, Nada Mas

No Thanksgiving here in Mexico. I could have gone to any number of restaurants to sit with a bunch of expats eating overpriced and inadequately sized portions of turkey and stuffing with no seconds. No seconds? What kind of Thanksgiving doesn’t involve loosening your belt and reflexively weighing yourself when you go to the bathroom?

I know, the story we were all told about the mythical First Thanksgiving is a bunch of whitewashed bullshit, but Thanksgiving nowadays is so far removed from that as to render it irrelevant. We should be recognizing the atrocities perpetrated on Native Americans every single day, not just on this day we reserve for fighting with our families over politics while eating yams and marshmallows mistakenly baked together 100 years ago and incorporated into the ritual to hide the error.

I missed spending the day with my family. I miss that every year, but what I miss even more is leftover turkey sandwiches with stuffing and cranberry sauce on Black Friday, while reading about all the idiots who crammed themselves into a Walmart to buy the same Chinese crap they buy all year long but at a 5 percent discount with bloody noses thrown in as a bonus.

Here in Oaxaca, people lined up for miles on Thursday to get vaccinated, while unvaccinated Americans congregated in snotty pods, sneezing in the peas and onions and playing touch football in the yard.

Here is a completely unrelated photo from Punta Gorda, Belize, more than a decade ago.

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Headless Virgin

I have no idea how this virgin lost her head, or why she still stands behind bars in this niche cut into the aqueduct which runs through Oaxaca.

She is the Virgen de Juquila, famous because a 30 cm statue of her survived a fire that destroyed the entire village in which it was located in 1633. Since the 18th century, the statue has resided in Santa Catarina Juquila. Replicas like this one are found all over Oaxaca.

Thousands of people make pilgrimages to visit the Santuario de Juquila annually, presumably to ask favors of her or just to be close to the power they attribute to a miracle.

Why is it that we as humans have this need for something all powerful, something which can solve our problems, something which will maybe even save us from death?

Is it something born of our ability, unlike most animals, to comprehend the passage of time, the existence of a past and future?

Does our knowledge of the future, which inevitably contains our death, terrify us so?

I know that, as my past grows longer and my future shorter, I contemplate the inevitable more often. I long ago passed the point where I had lived longer than I was going to live going forward. I have most likely now passed the midpoint of my adult life as well. It is an interesting feeling for someone such as myself, having no belief in an afterlife.

Yesterday, I had lunch with an older friend who just lost her sister to cancer. She asked me if I believed in an afterlife, already knowing my answer. I said no, but anything is possible. That is the kindest way I can honestly respond to such a question. I could tell by her demeanor that she desperately wants her faith to be true, and for her sake, I wish it too, but I doubt that it is.

It is a blessing that we learn as children that there is no Santa Claus, no Tooth Fairy, no Easter Bunny. I think it is cruel that people are conditioned to continue to believe in a supernatural caretaker and an afterlife. Because of that belief, they never learn to face the finite nature of both our lives and our relevance to the universe.

Belief in an almighty God brings a life where many of your most vexing questions are answered for you, notably the question of what happens after you die. It also brings a life of confusion and disappointment, where you have to reconcile the many horrors of life on Earth with the supposed benevolence of a Creator, where prayers go unanswered, and where good people die young and evil people thrive. A world where justice does not often prevail, and few reach their potential.

It makes one wonder, did this headless saint worship a heartless God?

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Seeds

This image was captured on my last visit to Mt. Lemmon, in the Catalinas, just outside of Tucson. I was using the nicest camera I’ve ever owned, a Sony full-frame mirrorless. I bought the camera for the Abuelos project I did in Guatemala in 2018. The image quality that came out of it was stellar, especially in low light situations. I was able to record high definition videos of the Mayan elders I interviewed, up to 30 minutes at a time. In short, it was the right tool for the job.

When I moved to Oaxaca, I decided not to bring it along, for a few reasons. First, it was huge. I hated lugging it around, and the lenses it used were massive as well. If I had wanted telephoto capability, I would have been buying a lens for several thousand dollars that was the size and weight of a 2 liter Coke bottle. Also, ever since my first DSLR, I have been using Olympus, who have a 4:3 format. I like it so much more than the 2:3 standard. I still use my Olympus OM-D micro 4:3 camera. It is light, small, has great macro capability, and I have a 600mm equivalent lens that is the size and weight of a 12 oz Coke can.

I don’t even carry my Olympus around much here. Not that I’m worried about it getting stolen. That of course is a possibility anywhere. It just doesn’t matter so much to me these days. I take lots of photos, just with my phone instead of my camera. Of course no matter how many megapixels your phone has, or how good its software is, a lens the size of your pinkie fingernail will never give you the kind of image you can get with one the size of the top of a Coke can, which in turn will never give you the results of one the size of a 2 liter bottle.

What it comes down to is a couple of things. I have moved on from photography, not in the way I have abandoned painting, but these days, all my images are going here or on Instagram (mostly the latter), so high resolution isn’t so important. I save my attention to detail for my writing projects. I still take a lot of pleasure in documenting my journey through life, and finding beauty in the decaying and the mundane, but I am no longer interested in making giant prints on fancy paper with a professional printer. I just want to share them on your phone or laptop and promote my books occasionally.

Maybe more importantly, I don’t want to be that tourist with his camera perpetually dangling from his neck, waiting to be aimed at whatever or whoever looks exotic. I live here now. It is less and less exotic by the day, This is a good thing. I am beginning to see the mundane more clearly. For the moment, I only take my “real” camera when I go out to historic sites or on tours. When I do tourist things, in other words. I use my phone to document the ever-changing art gallery of Oaxaca’s street art, and to capture whatever oddity or beautiful light attracts my eye.

When those seeds take off in the wind, they don’t know where they will land, but wherever that is, they will find nourishment, take root, grow, and thrive. I’m pretty sure I’ve landed. I’m feeling nourished. The rest remains to be seen.

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Thorn Bug

It’s been quite a while. I’ve been busy exploring Oaxaca and the pueblos nearby, taking a two month road trip from here to Maine and back, and working on Ocean, the sequel to Atmosphere.

This image is from my 5th trip to Monte Alban. A friend from Tucson was visiting, who happens to be a biologist, so we spent much of his time here at spectacular archaeological sites, looking at plants and bugs. With one exception, I had already visited the places more than once, so I likely would have ended up photographing the mundane anyway. I doubt I would have ever seen this critter, though, had I not been specifically looking for bugs.

I suppose there is a lesson here, maybe something about perspective, or attention to detail. Maybe about camoflage, or adaptation. Or maybe the lesson is that even if you think you know a place inside and out, it will often surprise you.

You could apply that to people as well. You think you know them, or you think you’ve figured them out, when all of a sudden, they throw you a curve ball. I have come to realize that when I am surprised by someone, it is rarely because they were hiding anything from me. It is usually because I wasn’t paying attention, was making assumptions, or both.

When I titled this post, I thought I might make a reference to Greta Thunberg, who continues to stand up to world leaders in defense of the world itself. We would be foolish to not pay attention to her, or to make assumptions about her or her message.

The world is changing before our eyes, and at an accellerating pace. I’m sure nature will survive, and it is likely that a portion of humanity could adapt and or migrate in the face of rising temperatures and sea levels, but is that what we want?

When it comes down to it, I doubt many people prefer smoke filled skies, polluted water, and mass extinctions. I don’t have the answer, but Greta and her generation might.