30 December 2006

Home is Where the Drum Is

December 27, 2006Okay, one day in Varkala, and it’s a different story. Shades of Koh Chang, in fact. I arrived by train mid-morning, standing like a sardine in the second-class coach, then set out on foot in the hot glare through the streets of the town. One guest house I inquired about was full; I headed off down the road, trying to follow the signs and my map. A quick look at my pocket compass told me I was headed in exactly the wrong direction, so I flagged down an auto-rickshaw to take me to the “Government Guest House.” No vacancies there, either, so somewhat discouraged, I went by foot to the “Cliff Road” to seek out more guesthouses. The first likely place I came to, with Internet on the main floor and big clean rooms above, was available at a good price, so I parked my backpack there with a reservation for at least the one night, and continued on to the cliffside strip to explore further.

Think Dallas Road in Victoria, with a thatched-roof Cook St. village-cum-Government Street summer Sunday market, placed lengthwise along the cliff. Same size cliff and beach, only fine sand the whole length instead of pebbles; then raise the water temperature some 10 degrees C., boost the air to 30, and send the sun summer-high. That’s Varkala.

So far I still wasn’t convinced. But then after lunch in the Café Italiano, I saw “Drumming Lessons” on the sign of a café offering otherwise the usual list (travel services, money exchange, massage, email, food and drinks, etc.). I approached a likely fellow with an Afro and dark complexion, and he said his friend the djembe teacher was out of town till the 30th. But he said they jam every Friday, and I was welcome to join. When I asked about dununs, another friend at the café next door came to the rescue with the business card of a local Senegalese drummer who teaches drum, dance, and “African Yoga.”

I followed directions to “Master (Ken) Doumbia’s” house on my way home through the shady green back lanes to my “Sopanam” lodging. The house was quiet and the large gates were shut. Oh well, I thought, I’ll try again in the morning, when classes were advertised for 11:00. Then, after stopping by my guesthouse to confirm my stay for a week, and going to dinner, I walked back down to the strip to check out the scheduled tabla-and-flute concert at the Blue Moon. It wasn’t happening, so I stepped into the cybercafe to check out Ken’s website (http://www.westafricanroots.com/)for more info. There under “workshops” it seemed to indicate he’d be teaching in Senegal in December-January. I sent off an email inquiry just in case, then went home to start some editing work. Simultaneously, from a nearby location, some LOUD electronic music started up. A hip bungalow operation?, I wondered; it’s going to be a long week here. But not ten minutes into it, I heard on the cranked-up PA something about “the Africans.” Hmm, sounds like a wedding. There’s still a chance.

Sure enough, the unmistakable sounds of djembes and dununs pounded through the night air. I ran to the window and threw open the sash, and saw the lights of a house some 100 meters away where the drumming was clearly coming from. A five-minute walk put me through the open gates to a wedding party in progress, with three African drummers going full tilt (two on djembes and a third playing upright duns). I even got into the dancing action for their last piece, then introduced myself to Ken by saying I’d just sent him an email. Yes, he was teaching every day, and I was welcome to come at 11:00 the next morning. Then the DJ took over and some good funky dancing in the sand-covered yard followed. No place like home: drum and dance.

An hour later, back in my room as the pounding electronic beats continued flooding through my window, came the dubbed and repeated line, as if airmailed personally: “Destination is Canada . . . Destination is Canada.”

December 30, 2006Today in an email Ilana wrote, “I hope you find what you are looking for.” Exactly the words Nora told me when I left for Maui eight months ago. What does this mean to me--and why does it seem strange or even misplaced?

First of all, I need to consider the possibility that their assumption is correct. Then maybe I am searching for something without even realizing it.

From my point of view, I would rather say, “I’m simply doing what I feel impelled to do: to live in a warm place where I can swim and walk and work and play, in good health and congenial surroundings.”

Since there is no one location that I know of where I feel completely at home and satisfied in all the above requirements, however, that journey becomes an endless one, where each resting place presents its own compromises and limitations, serving well for a while but then giving way to the “search” for another place that might supply that missing element or two, without sacrificing the essential ingredients of the root quest, “happiness.”

Lately I find happiness in disparate moments . . .

--playing drums with Ken and the other students today, getting locked into a nice solid Kuku groove at tempo. There is so much to be aware of and to appreciate and to refine even while holding down the accompaniment, especially if there is a good lead drummer to support and follow. It is a pleasure for me to play with someone who is a “master” (whatever that relative term may mean), because my playing gravitates to the quality of those I play with. When I am in that groove of present flow and rhythm space, there is nowhere else I need to go.

--being invited by Ken to join him for performance at the Funky Art Café tomorrow night. I am always grateful for performance opportunities, and when they arise, it is a grace of serendipity that allows me to know that I am where I am supposed to be.

--walking after class in the company of ten-year-old drum student Mondyi, to his father’s shop, where I enjoyed a papaya-apple-lime-ginger smoothie and wheat grass juice, and met the family.

--sharing a lovely smile with a beautiful brown-skinned Indian woman flashing large white teeth, just outside the Ayurvedic Wellness Centre where they offer free consultations . . . only, not today.

--exploring the more remote stretches of beach and coastline to the south and north of the main Varkala cliff beach, this morning and afternoon. Also last night, I enjoyed the main beach under the light of the half moon, with hardly anyone else about. There is a freedom in solitude and in walking in natural places that gives me instant happiness, whole and sufficient in itself. The moving is almost a contradiction, because it seems a paradox to move from what is already perfect. Yet that perfection is not of the fixed variety; it may be doubtful, in fact, that any perfection is fixed or fixable; and so the perfection is rather, like the drum rhythm, in following the impulse of movement at the proper tempo, relaxed at whatever speed, in tune with the larger music.

--moving patiently through a high fever yesterday, too much sun giving way to a day of room-sheltered recuperation; then venturing out at night for a perfect nourishment of hot and sour chicken soup (and butter garlic nan bread), while watching The Motorcycle Diaries on the restaurant video; and finally catching by chance, at another restaurant, that missing tabla and flute concert. The drummer sat with a drum shaped like a bata but with heads like tablas; and he played it furiously like a tabla, with fingers flying, one hand at either end. The flute player meanwhile kept pace with a lovely characteristic Indian mode, sweet chromatic slides and trills, some melodic steps and some legato space, both going pretty much full tilt. Their music presented a great marriage of complexity, in the play of notes and flowing rhythms, and simplicity, in the apparent lack of arrangement. In such inspiration comes a kind of happiness that is not confined to the present experience, but carries beyond into future possibility.

26 December 2006

Passage to India

25 December, 2006

My passage to India has been so far uneventful in this new age of travel. Just a token clip of ancient Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas to begin the flight; it was over before I could start up my iPod in self-defense. In the back alley by Khao San Road drinking cappuccino with the rest of my Viennese Breakfast (two perfectly boiled eggs, buttered brown bread with minced green onion), it took me twenty minutes to register the big plastic jolly Santa over a six-foot bubble of falling snow, the whole display framed with flanks of real potted poinsettias. Otherwise, it’s just another Christmas: an unexpected wi-fi connection in the boarding lounge, allowing me to say e-hello to distant family and friends; then on to the wonderfully pungent and India-present lamb masala on the plane, with more excellent coffee, this time plain and strong-black; and while still airborne, finishing a couple of editing jobs on the trusty laptop.

Those presented an interesting coincidence, as both last night’s chapter in George’s sprawling political novel and today’s middle-America romance featured bended-knee marriage proposals; with both couples incidentally associated with best-friend couples also marrying. There were some synchronistic resonances in my book reading of last week, as well. Going from Atwood’s post-apocalyptic Oryx and Crake, to the near-apocalyptic Atlantis Found by popular writer Clive Cussler, in which the plot to ruin the world hinges on a series of break points on the Antarctic ice shelf that threaten to trigger a pole shift. Perhaps inspired in part by the very same book, Michael Crichton’s latest thriller, State of Fear, incorporates the very same threat, though with different means (synchronized explosive charges instead of nanotechnology ice-cutters), motives (eco-terrorism instead of paving the way for the second Flood and Fourth Reich), and consequences (media sensationalism to boost funding against global warming, instead of an all-out global deluge to eliminate inferior human breeding stock).

Crichton has a heavy axe to bear, and an uphill battle to climb against the Gore-bred masses, with this polemic-laden book; but he does his old good job (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain) of exploring deep themes and exposing conventional social/scientific “wisdom.” The signal point that he (also John Steinbeck in the next book I start to read, Log from the Sea of Cortez) makes is that we are creatures of our present time, not of the past, though we may indeed be prisoners of our illusions of past conceptions of the world, and what is politically correct or even, whatever it may mean, “true.” Both Crichton and Steinbeck make that point especially when dealing with the interface between contemporary culture and romanticized notions of simpler people and places living in a state of supposed “paradise” or “nature.” Steinbeck draws on the relativistic notion that we change a reality simply by our presence in it. Chrichton is fond of upsetting popular assumptions such as “global warming is an unquestioned reality” or “the redwoods are the natural state of the environment in California” or “the way people lived in villages was better.”

Steinbeck writes:

We can look with longing back to Charles Darwin, staring into the water over the side of the sailing ship, but for us to attempt to imitate that procedure would be romantic and silly. To take a sailing boat, to fight tide and wind, to move four hundred miles on a horse when we could take a plane, would be not only ridiculous but ineffective. For we first, before our work, are products of our time. We might produce a philosophical costume piece, but it would be completely artificial. However, we can and do look on the measured, slow-paced accumulation of sight and thought of the Darwins with a nostalgic longing. (pp. 52-53)

So it is with this “adventure” I’m on. It’s only adventure in the old sense to traverse these continents, and so by a very long stretch. Far from the exploits of Alexander the Great, for instance, or Vasco da Gama--or even of E. M. Forster, the eminent English novelist (Passage to India). I’m just another tourist, bound for another beach, another cybercafe.

As I fly to India, the salient question is not whatever romantic or preconceived notion I may have (along with the tourist industry which lives, for instance, via plastic santas, or “cute” emblematic elephants fashioned of concrete or living shrubs), about the place I’m going to. Nor is it a matter of what is appropriate behavior enroute: do I strike up Christmas conversation with my fellow travelers; simply look them over; bury my nose in a book; open the laptop and do editing work or Scrooge-ish bookkeeping, or email distant friends and family; or do I simply meditate in present time or place, my shirt the wrong color orange notwithstanding? For instance.

On landing, my very first impression is of a sense of home, with the welcoming large land and its forgiving medley of multi-racial, multi-ethnic peoples. This impression proves short-lived, however. On actually settling into the city of Trivandrum, capital of the south India state of Kerala, quick disillusionment sets in. There’s the usual stuff about overcharging for taxi and room, the first day in a country; and then in the shops I’m met with uncooperative or even hostile local people, refusing me service, giving me ugly or disdainful looks; offering directions grudgingly. But all of that is only personal; I can forgive their resentment, even agree with it, given our relative history and economic situation. I just need to adjust, learn to blend in . . . or spare myself the effort and escape to the tourist enclaves, what I like to call the “tourist ghetto.”

"The Real India"

Once here, the salient question becomes, “What is the real India?”

--Is it the wreckage of civilization that overwhelms the first-time visitor, here as in Iquitos, Peru, or Conakry, West Africa, calling to mind the epithet, “Apocalypse Now”? With the streets full of rubble, crazy drivers and pedestrians alike playing chicken 24/7 amid the choking diesel, shrieks of engines, garbage and open sewers, and the unspoken grief of the wretched beggars, the fixed stares of the ordinary poor, in general the desperate and all-pervading social poverty? A pretty picture it is to see the ladies in their brilliantly colored and jeweled finery, tiptoeing matter-of-factly through the broken pavement and dust and gravel, while the canned music blares unbidden from every corner.

--Is it the red-eyed gods and buxom courtesans of the art museum, the India of the romantic imagination? This is the India of the days of its own empire, its caste-mad hierarchies and nobilities, its hallucinogenic religious eroticism . . . before, that is, the arrival of the Portuguese and British overlords posing in roseate landscapes and lush gardens, co-opting the Brahmins and looking the other way while Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Ganesh, Hanuman, and Siddhartha Buddha gamely grappled in eternity with the demons of the ancient psyche.

--Is it simply this: the rich spicy curries and inexplicable masalas that thrill the senses, bring tears to the eyes, and cause me to swear despite all the assaults to decency and beauty and humanity and nature, that it is worth it, and that I’m glad I’m in India?

--Is it the tourist meccas like Varkala and Goa that I am actually bound for, with my own romantic-yet-practical visions of palm-lined beaches of golden sand and welcoming waves, ever-pleasant ambience, familiar amenities (read: cybercafes), universal language (tourist English) and transnational culture?

Conclusion: I think I need more information (i.e., experience in the country, beyond one day).

15 December 2006

Koh Chang and Beyond

15 December, 2006

Routine now gives way to impending movement, to the smaller island of Koh Maak. In the meantime I alternate the basic elements of daily life: where to eat, when to swim, checking email, and editing. The weather alternates from stifling hot and humid, to pleasantly warm and breezy. I start to make a little headway on long-term projects, given the abundance of time in each day and night . . . yet without any sense of pressure or obligation. When my personal focus becomes too narrow, I have to let go of my habitual cravings (for accomplishment, activity, outside validation), and give way to the sensuous unity of present time. In this place that merger comes in moments unannounced: while eating a dish of light fried rice and crab, and transcendent green curry. The evening air is imperceptible, and the food inspires an inner glow, until the boundary of skin gives way, and soft fire infuses all. Air, water, body, sunset, vegetable, animal, light, spirit all become one, and there is no longer any need to distinguish "self" or its doings.

An email arrives today that expresses my otherwise poorly articulated and seldom focussed quest:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest--a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.

Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security. (Albert Einstein)

Last night on impulse to do something different, I bought a ticket for a night fishing trip. Once again it didn't turn out to match very well what was advertised. Instead of one part squid fishing, and one part regular fishing, it was all squid--and only one caught, in the end. And the promised on-board fish barbecue never materialized--perhaps due to the absence of any fresh fish? In any case, I was not disappointed because, though I embarked at first as the only passenger, I was joined before we left the dock by a jovial party of ten Russians, mostly rather hefty specimens of the Slavic breed. It didn't take long before one man about forty years of age, with passable English, sat beside me on the gunwale and said, "You will drink some vodka with us?" My own Russian blood moved me to take the bait with hardly an instant's hesitation. I gave my name, Nowick, explaining that it was the name of my Russian grandmother. Sadly, she left Russia too young and never taught me any of that rich language, which swirled around me on the boat for the next five hours. I was fed white bread and mini-kielbaski, Pringles and pineapple. My tiny plastic cup was refilled and, when the vodka bottle was dry, refilled again with gin. The flow of Russian from the "Russkies," as they called themselves, increased with the flow of spirits. One man from Latvia worked back home as a "mechanic of spirits." My translator, with twelve years of part-time instruction in English yet an elementary grasp of it, worked in Moscow as an automobile insurance adjuster. His wife was a dentist. It was strange on the surface, yet somehow, genetically perhaps, or by Canadian temperament, I resonated more closely, and felt more at home, with this voluble crowd speaking with obvious and uninhibited humor and passion, than I had even while jamming on the beach with the Turkish hippies, and certainly more than in the British pub-with-hammocks back at the Elephant Garden. These, I sensed at a visceral level (maybe it was vodka warming my heart) were my people. "In there," my interlocutor said pointing to my half-empty cup, "is your health."

The Latvian woman sitting at the other side of me, who kept thrusting bread and kielbaski at me, was going on the whole evening about the absent "barracuda," as I could tell by that word's appearance once or twice in every sentence. Meanwhile we absently jigged for squid, holding rods baited with strips of white flesh, or simple line wrapped around plastic bottles and dangling weighted white lures. One woman won the night's lottery with a lucky catch of a six-inch squid. The gimpy-legged captain apparently did hook a barracuda at one point, but lost it before landing it. The stars were bright, the moon was missing, the sea air was soft and warm.

This morning while meditating on my bed back at the bungalow, I felt the almost queasy sensation of still being on the boat on the gently rocking waves. Was it a hangover, the remnants of sleep, my body's lingering attunement to life on the water? Maybe just more of that self-dissolving into an all-encompassing fluid element, where body and language and mind and world flow as one.

And today? The blaring canned Thai music from the temple celebration down the road pounds me outdoors and on my way, away. Down the road into the unsettled corner of the island? To a shady corner of the beach to write? Back up to Lonely Beach for the crowds and night life? Taking it slow till the evening and one last Turkish jam?

To begin with business at hand: email correspondence and Web documents, breakfast of chicken pastry and cinnamon bun, real latte. With the last sip, I rise. Next step: on the road . . .

. . . later . . .

I followed three branches of roadway this morning, ending in the all-leveling warm seawater, in the shade of the palms, sipping a cool lemon-banana shake, writing, wondering . . .

In the act of writing, and publishing to the Web, am I becoming more or less self-focussed? Does this narrative draw attention excessively to the personal and the person, or does it serve as a liberation and expansion from a default level of uncommunicative self-absorption (or merely social contact) to greater identification with others and world interests? The black dog hobbling up to me on three legs at this moment to smile at me, in the process wrapping himself in the sarong draped on the back of my chair, offers some clue that there is a self-transcending impulse at work.

The first track extended as a sandy dirt path through a palm grove behind the beach, leading to the previous limit of my explorations, a narrow cement road winding into the exclusive domain of the Grand Kahuna Resort. There life-sized statues of elephants mingle with opulent buildings and exotic landscaping. I am met also with the usual morose silence of the hired workers there, and a security guard who informs me that to pass further into the grounds I need to pay a fee; there is no continuous road access here through to the other side of the island as I had been told.

Retracing my steps, I found another path leading from the cement road further into the jungle, with a flat grade and easy walking, especially in the shade and the breeze on this morning of minimal heat. This path led in time over a dry streambed and, at the second such dry creek, I could see a road on the other side. This must be, I figured, the end of the main road which represented the actual departure point for the waterfall I'd been told of, as well as the path leading beyond the road to the other side of the island. Once on the road where it was broken by the once-flooded creek, I decided to explore the extension beyond the road first.

After a short distance I left the world of motorbikes behind and threaded my way into the jungle, following a barely-discernible footpath that wound its way up a gradual grade. I'd been told it was an 8-km trek between ends of the pavement, or was it the respective towns at either end? My one liter of water was nearly gone already, and I was getting winded climbing in the rising heat of the day. When I came to a tree blocking the path, with the way even more overgrown and still gaining elevation ahead of me, I decided it would be wisest to turn back. Maybe I could settle for that waterfall and freshwater swimming hole instead.

An old Thai man emerging from the jungle confirmed that the next path led to a waterfall (I made gestures to indicate falling water, and swimming), so I followed that way again along a level grade and over a dry stream bed. At the next streambed I could sense water, and then did indeed sight a stagnant pool among the rocks. But there was a shanty on the other side, and a definite smell of cesspool or sewage turned me away without further temptation to immerse myself there.

Back on the road where it was cut off by the creek, I faced the choice of returning the easy way I had come, following the level paths through the trees, or following the main road back. The latter choice would complete my circuit of and curiosity about the terrain, since I had not followed the road to its end on my initial trip last week. At that time the number of hills and the sweltering heat had got to me, and I'd turned back short of the washout. Today I still had some energy left, and that motivation which seems to drive me from time to time to return to paths not taken in order to somehow complete unfinished business, or to redeem myself for holding back out of fear, fatigue, or simple unreadiness to act fully in a certain direction. This syndrome I could apply for example to relationships that ended, I felt, perhaps prematurely; to my journey in Spain where I was compelled to backtrack to manifest the mystery of the Moorish temple at Zaragoza; even to the trivial case of passing up one chance to party with friends, by making sure that I took the next opportunity presenting itself.

In this case I had to pay the karmic price of return by going up and down a number of steep hills on the road, as it snaked the longer way around the coast back to the beach. Was it worth it? In the course of fate, I do not yet know. In the moment, I was satisfied enough with following that due process of completion. Along the way, I was aware that exercise of the body in itself represents that more complete merger with the world, of which Einstein spoke. Especially with aerobic exercise induced by exertion of climbing, there is more interchange of oxygen, air, breath, heat, spirit, body, mass, energy. Also, travelling the ups and downs of hills, experiencing greater heights and depths and extremes of heating and cooling, represents more intensive involvement with life in its full potential--like a taste of warming vodka on the boat with the Russians, as opposed to the tepid water of solitude in my bungalow. Finally, as I come to the final rise above the beach I am granted the perspective to see, at one glance, the sea around Koh Chang, the waters where we fished last night, the beach where I will swim today, the island I will visit next week, the Grand Kahuna Resort, the lagoon and adjoining palm grove behind the beach, the mountains beyond, and the pass that leads out of sight to the other side of the island.

05 December 2006

Koh Chang 1

3 December, 2006
Two days into my trip, and already I have experienced the worst and best of what I might have expected. Well, not the absolute worst, or best, but the trivial worst and the essential best.To dispose with the trivial first. I barely escaped from the freezing snow and icy rains of Victoria and Seattle, shedding my fleece and windbreaker and toque at Chris's house with my car, and walking 45 minutes to the Clipper downtown. Luckily I had discovered that my runners had serious holes and were expendable, so at least I could wear them for the trek until the SeaTac airport where they went into the trash bin, and save my sandals for the remainder of the trip out of the ice and snow. My socks and feet got wet and cold anyway, but the long walk in Victoria and again a brisk walk in Seattle for a second city bus connection, after I just missed the first, at least kept my blood moving. Missing that first bus but catching the second by flagging down the driver a block early mirrored the bad/good luck that would follow in the first two days of the journey.Yesterday on arriving I was shortchanged on the bus and then overcharged in the guesthouse restaurant. In both cases I could have or should have known better, but was cast in the spell of the jetlagged and newly-arrived - just as in Spain when I bought my first train ticket. The bus to Koh Chang again cost twice what my research told me; but at least it was easy, with a pickup from the guesthouse where I booked it, and passage with an additional taxi ride all the way to the bungalow I had reserved. Then the bungalow stuck me, as I already knew they would, for a double-occupancy rate, claiming that "all the places on Koh Chang charge for double occupancy"; though in a quick scouting trip the first night I found three places offering single-occupancy rates.Turning down a taxi tout at the airport offering a ride for 1050, then 700, then "for you" 600, I found a free airport shuttle to the bus terminal where I transferred to the city, walked a few blocks to the river ferry, and boated to the Thewet pier. During the final walk to the guesthouse next to one where I stayed with Nora and Cleo last winter, I reminisced via the sights of temples and smells of markets and food stalls, and sensation of humid 30-degree heat, and felt a homecoming sort of familiarity. Also a deep and reassuring affirmation of the basic purpose of this whole 6-month junket, that I would not have to be cold any longer.I did feel self-conscious of the difference on this trip this year, travelling alone. It seems most farang travelers here are couples, most in their twenties; or white males of my middle age who are either burnt-out looking expat types long ago given up to this rootless lifestyle, or puffy bland reflections of my own privileged status on the loose with inherited or overearned middle-class wealth. No fair ladies of my own life-stage and disposition? But what if there were? I was firmly set now on my own path of no more compromising with my essential life purposes: stay warm, swim, and play music wherever possible.On my arrival at the Bailan Family Bungalows, I set up quick housekeeping next door to a fat London couple with thick accents, and headed for the beach. There only a few others lounged or read on the coarse dark golden sand, or fished wading out from the rocks, and I tested the waters before sunset. The brownish water was salty and bath-warm, and the bottom was rocky with the tide out. The sunset colors gathered slowly in intensity, in the lukewarm air. This was not a glorious splash of paradise hues, but a muted, more subtle brand of chosen environment. The essentials seemed to be in place, yet lacked a certain definite impact. In fact, on leaving the beach, I noticed a definite line of demarcation revealing that the sand had been imported here, dumped as a gilt overlay upon an otherwise unappealing stretch of plain brown dirt.On Saturday night at the Tree House, the most popular destination for the backpacker types, a crowd of a hundred or more sat in the dim-lit sprawling bar and restaurant, a virtual campus of the university of ex-university. Couples chatted, alluring young things sprawled languidly on hammocks, DJ tracks grooved in the background. "Amazing," I observed to a nubile princess standing in line with a menu beside me. She said nothing. At the desk I inquired about room rates and retraced my steps down the gravel path through the forest, stopping for an hour at a lonely Internet outpost manned by a tanned longhair busy at a sewing machine.Today the tide turned, in various ways. I awoke before seven and enjoyed a lovely swim in the now soft-sand-bottomed waters at high tide. Had a fruit lassi at the guesthouse restaurant and changed my reservation from four nights to two, given the cheap alternatives in the neighborhood or also likely farther afield. Then set out on foot over the forbidding hills to Bang Bao, the fishing village at the south of the island.Just short of the turnoff to the village, I followed the obstacle-smashing impulse of my miniature Ganesh that Melanie had given me as a talisman for the trip, and stopped to inquire at the Elephant Gardens bungalow operation. Virtually the same accommodations as I was paying 480 for - an eight-by-eight hut with double bed, mosquito net, small porch, and adjoining bathroom with toilet, sink, and shower - was available here for just 100 baht ($3). Is there a good beach nearby? I asked. There was, at a 25-minute walk down the main road, and one hardly anyone knew about because it was past the limit of current development on this end of the island. In fact, these two - Agatha, from Poland, and Jan, from Austria, just coming down the path - were on their way there and maybe they could show me where it was.Finally a friendly bungalow owner and two friendly walking companions; and the beach we came to was superb. Soft white sand curved around the forest for a mile or so without any visible human impact, past the restaurant and bar at the sparsely-populated main beach area. After a long pleasant swim and beach walk, I ate an excellent spicy and tender squid red curry stirfry for lunch, and headed back to explore Bang Bao where I wanted to check out Internet facilities, availability of espresso, and boats to the neighboring smaller islands of Koh Wai and Koh Maak. As I said, the essentials.But the best was just to come around the first corner, where I saw same faded funky signs advertising "Djambe's . . . hand drumming . . . drum workshop." Of course I was intrigued to see all my own favorite keywords thus displayed before me like a mirror-mirage, and turned down the little path to the shore. I met there a small coterie of interesting-looking folk of indeterminate age or origin. It turned that most of them were from Turkey; there was a resident fellow named Djambe who said the few bungalows were full but they welcomed visitors to jam with them on the beach every evening, with drums and also other instruments. The drum shack was piled with djembes and drum shells, with a prominent pair of dunduns displayed in front. When I saw those drums I said to Ganesh or allied spirits, thank you for this gift of the path opening for me in just the right way - I don't need to go anywhere else now. Jep was working behind the shack. He looked more Thai than the others, and expanded on the invitation to come jam - no fixed ending, just when you feel like stopping.I promised to return, and did go on to Bang Bao for reconnaissance of Internet, coffee, and boat trips, declining an invitation from Djambe to sit and have something to drink then and there, as there was this other impulse in me to walk when I felt like walking, and to take care of all the business I had set for myself even on this providential day. In Bang Bao a German woman running a dive business caught my ear for a while, steering me to the best Internet and coffee place, which I enjoyed in short order. On my way out of the village with $200 worth of fresh editing jobs on the tiny flash drive in my pocket, I stopped for some fresh-cut pineapple at a little stand. I waited there and then spoke a while in pigeon English with the woman who served me. Her name was Nan and she had a 26-year-old daughter in Bangkok who was returning to Koh Chang in the new year. Did I have a lady? "No? Wait, I'll show you my daughter's picture. She and her man, they split apart also." The daughter was indeed beautiful, posing in school outfit with a soccer ball, and a golden gown. Korp khun kop, I said after finishing half the pineapple, and took the rest with me as I headed out of town again to reserve my hut at the Elephant Gardens.6 December, 2006I've been making some good connections here. At Djambe's I went for an excellent evening's jam, with Jep, Ozan the Turkish medicine man, his sidekick the sailor, and his beautiful wife who makes felt shoes. Together they are also here, for six months, working on a project to make and market a kind of bandana with sunglasses. When I suggested these might be popular among the BC ski crowd and Mountain Equipment Coop set, they offered me the Canadian patent. While not sure I want to take on another business interest, I thought maybe one of my jobless friends back home might appreciate the opportunity. We played the Thai-made African drums, flutes from Turkey, Irish pennywhistle, hammered dulcimer, didgeridoo, and plastic shaker for five hours under the almost-full moon, on the sand and in the shack opening to the beach.It was a setting and an opportunity almost too good to be true. Indeed, the little strip of land there between beach and road is only rented, and Djambe noted that the undeveloped land beside that last choice beach down the road is presently for sale. By this time next year, everything here that is most enjoyable could be swept away by the relentless tide of tourist dollars.On the Bang Bao pier is a tapas restaurant called Little Havana. The choices I made, a dish of soft feta and gently fried vegetables, and tender potatoes with aioli, plus a pineapple-orange-lime drink, were all absolutely outstanding, and a welcome change from a steady Thai diet. I chatted with the owner who is from Belgium. He also works as a website developer and database manager, for clients back in Europe, from his new location where he has been for six months now. He has a Russian girlfriend, but knows enough from being here to explain to me the difference between the Thai "bar girls" and what Westerners would normally call "prostitutes." "Here what they want is, maybe you could even say, a friendly relationship," Dido told me. "A night of fun, and then maybe you take care of them a little, spend a little money on them."I was curious because at Lonely Beach while walking down the road, I had been accosted by two or three such beauties from the balcony of a roadside bar. "Hello! Where you going? Come here." I kept walking of course, set in my Canadian reticence and prejudice about such things. And I was already hooked up with a couple of folks I'd just met at a restaurant, on our way to a live music concert nearby. That connection began with my query about a djembe on the premises. At the concert I ran into the London couple living in the bungalow beside mine. I left after a short time and, while I was getting ready for bed, the couple also arrived home in the midst of a fierce drunken argument full of swearing and so thick with alcohol and Cockney that it sounded like a foreign language laced with Anglo-Saxon expletives.Dido's eyes lit up when I told him I played African drums. He was a staunch fan of Belgium-based djembe star Mamady Keita, had seen many of his concerts, and had even hosted an after-party for Mamady at his own house, and jammed with him there. Presently he hadn't played in a year, and was excited to hear that I could show him some new rhythms to add to his limited repertoire consisting of a few variations on Kuku. In turn he caught my interest on the subject of Drupal, an open-source website design and database engine that I could use for my own website projects and those I build for clients. On top of these common interests he is a divemaster and avid snorkeler, and suggested that we might tour around the nearby waters on a friend's boat to do some snorkeling.I had been intrigued by Ozan's resume as well, as he had made a personal study of alternative and primal healing practices, including knowledge and practices from Siberia (the origin, he said, of a core strand of Turkish people), the Caucasus, China, and India. A quick diagnosis of my own complaints confirmed what I had heard from a psychic reading two years ago, that I needed to strengthen my "inner fire," for example by a dry spicy diet, sea salt, restriction of water after meals, and expression of anger. He invited me to return some time for a more complete consultation. On his part he was fascinated with the spirit evoked by my humble tin whistle, likening its ethereal tones to the eagle-bone whistles of shepherds of the high Caucasus, or for that matter, Siberian and North American natives. I promised to return also for the purpose of tuning the somewhat wangled strains of the dulcimer with the help of the pennywhistle.Last night I enjoyed the varied company of the other international travellers in the cozy ambience of the balcony restaurant at Elephant Garden. The menu offered again some refreshing and tasty alternatives to the ubiquitous Thai food. The crowd of seven or eight was oddly silent as they ate, swung in lazy hammocks, read, or simply gazed into the near space, full enough with its palette of red and yellow cushions, softly lit palm thatch, golden bamboo. British rock music played in the background, probably the choice of Will, the owner. The human silence was almost uncomfortable, but seemingly mostly for me, since the others appeared content and meditative. I gradually adjusted, recognizing that this scene was not unlike a Quaker meeting; though most of us so gathered were semi-horizontal instead of sitting on hard wooden pews or plastic urban chairs, and our thoughts were perhaps more immersed in our momentary sensuous pleasure than in reflections on the life of George Fox or Jesus.Finally I recognized that two of those seated on the floor around a central table of food were Agatha and Jan, whom I'd met again earlier that day at lunch on the beach. I took a cushion beside them and struck up a conversation that then extended to some of the others for a few more hours (while some chose to remain present but mysteriously silent for the duration). Besides Agatha there was another Polish woman there whose national identity, Agatha remarked, was revealed by her preference for putting ketchup on pizza.Dido told me that today there would be a tropical storm arriving via Cambodia, the remains of a deadly hurricane that swept through the Philippines. But this morning the skies are still blue and balmy, the breeze is gentle, the waters lapping at the pier quite calm. Having just breakfasted with banana pancakes, guava juice, and real mocha, I suppose it is time to head for the beach. Who knows - the storm may yet decide to show up later. So might my 285,000-word editing project, due to arrive any day now.For that matter, so the world's media voices opine, Mideast Armageddon, the perennial bogey, now slouches ever closer. I stay ahead of that end game reading Margaret Atwood's dystopian masterwork, Oryx and Crake. Sadly, it is almost finished. After that, what? I already discarded the rest of my fiction collection before leaving home. I will write an essay - maybe today, maybe tomorrow - on Atwood's book and call it "The End of Fiction."Curiously, her and my last word in fiction mirrors the collapse of civilization itself. In the meantime, there is still a meantime. An "average time," perhaps not. A mean-spirited time, certainly, in some unfortunate quarters of the world. I can only be grateful that such is not my current condition, at least not here, not now, in the immediate surroundings of the smally personal "me," and of the locally acquainted and selectively networked "we."

13 September 2006

Branding Democracy

Branding Democracy

Is it all as simple as a grab for oil and power? From the top, yes. Creating fear and then stepping in to “protect”? Those are mafia methods: the protection racket.

REPORTER: What does the war in Iraq have to do with 9/11?
BUSH (irritated): Nothing....But the American people should know that I’m doing my job of protecting them.

Deeper than that, the implied lie is that “the war” is a protracted (in fact never-ending) battle of good vs. evil. In order to make sure the people feel “good” (especially about their fearless leaders), the population has to be presented (enter TV, newsfeeds, and embedded reporters) with a generalized enemy to be feared: an “axis of evil.”

An average American responds: “God continue to be with the victims and their families. Be with the soldiers as they continue to defend our way of life. It's regrettable that so many are forgetting the scenes of that day. We are in a struggle for the very lifestyle that so many take for granted.”

At this deeper level of truth and self-deception, goodness equates with the supreme value placed on material prosperity, and the freedom to enjoy it even if at the expense of others. In such a bipolar world, the “haves” are good and the “have-nots” are evil (unless they are content with the plundering of their resources and sanctions on their own freedoms).

So finally we have it. Oil really is blood: the lifeblood of the American way of life. Protecting Americans means protecting the way of life, the lifestyle, the priceless “democratic freedom” to consume at the top of the global food chain, for which any cost in human lives (whether foreign or American) is deemed a necessary blood-sacrifice.

The high priests of American foreign policy (for whom Bush is really just a typecast down-home mouthpiece) are certainly wedded to this imperial philosophy, by their own embedding in and dependence on the corporate hierarchies that rest atop that economic food chain. And the people who follow the resulting war cries, whether conscious or not of their real motives, must be reckoned with.

If it’s a real “us” against “them” today in North American politics, it’s those of us who cannot in conscience support violence to other human beings for the sake of our own prosperity, vying for political influence with those who have no qualms about putting the maintenance of their economic lifestyle above the very lives of others less fortunate.

I could go further to say that the one stance is “good” and the other is “evil,” but my dualistic trap has very different consequences than the current working model. My response to the evil of imperialistic warfare is, the behavior should be condemned and made politically indefensible. The conventional response to the evil of insurgent have-nots is, kill them if they don’t comply.

Which brand of democracy do you buy?

25 May 2006

Impressions of Paradise, Part 2

This time I’m on Maui, the pinnacle of close-to-home paradise for North Americans. There are lots of Canadians here especially, along with the usual tribe of Aussies and Kiwis, Brits and Swedes, on and on...It’s ironic that here in this high-end resort culture, I find myself having deja-vus of Conakry, Guinea, where the post-apocalyptic world has been born and is daily dying in poverty, dust, smoke and overpopulated chaos. Here the fumes are more benign, the cafe scene trending momentarily to the mellow...but moments ago when I was inspired with this surprising juxtaposition, the Australians were loudly cursing from the center table, an oversized truck was belching and screeching outside, the canned music was careening from Bootsie Collins to the Beatles, a mother at the next table was chatting on her cell phone while her small child babbled and tottered around the room, and I had to somehow maintain my bubble of concentration while doing an editing job on my laptop...the job including remarks on the state of world culture wherein rural Mexicans can now use cell phones and Internet even while lacking basic telephone lines. In a similar vein, last night I confessed to my housemates at the pineapple ranch BnB that I didn’t know how to use a microwave and didn’t have a TV...though I packed a laptop and iPod. $50 a night seems like a good deal, but there is really no privacy there except in the small bedroom - office on the bed - as the housemates scurry around from 6:30 on, and the 4-7 boys of the owners’ family roam the manicured grounds like cruising flies....Harsh, I know; and it’s all fine, really. I chose to try to work here rather than at home where I also face the same dilemma: enclosed in my private box of an apartment, or out in the public domain where all manner of talk and distracting noise is ever-apparent. In the hostel there was the hubbub of traffic at all hours in the kitchen and common areas both indoors and out. At dawn on the world’s prettiest beach I was almost alone but not quite; roamers began a regular sea-watch before 6:00. Am I complaining? It seems so. But really, I simply observe, as there is that choice: isolation, in front of TV or computer or book or food inside that lonely box; or life in domesticity, with all of the attendant emotional and interpersonal issues around common space and time, meals and work and leisure and sleep and sex; or out in the social world where there is the property grid to contend with, crisscrossed by traffic, tourists, neighbors and friends and family, and the ever-present if sometimes invisible homeless.If there is a point it may be that nothing is exactly as it seems. Do the very rich escape these conundrums by forking out $300 and up for a box in the highrise above the postcard beach where I stroll for free and the native Hawaiians tend the landscape and serve mai-tais for minimum wage? Am I more or less connected to my vanmates on the hostel tours than I would be with my mate or mates on a more privately rented journey across this or another island once or now branded “paradise”? Are those natives who are poor or well-wheeled better off now or under the arrogant kings of their past who ordered them to carry buckets of volcanic soil from one valley to another, or to fight the natives from a neighboring island, or to die from unknowingly transgressing some arcane taboo?Distinctions are what makes the world go round, but in the end, they are all so problematic. The solution may seem to be, then, to disappear in the mantra of oneness and void...a consolation that philosophy does offer at any moment when needed. Complaint then turns to acceptance, to letting go of any ambition for further distinction in service of ego or illusion. And is this the only choice, then? - the disintegration of paradise into chaos; or its integration in the moving mosaic of the moment? Yes, and yes, with more than a footnote to beauty...the sudden glory of sunset in clouds, or an inspiring oldie on the airwaves, or a five-minute snorkel at a spontaneous cove in the company of a giant prehistoric turtle... Life and work and play go on, and the search for the right combination of environmental variables continues. It also changes by the moment...so that now there is only genial conversation and a high-pressure sigh of an espresso machine to accompany the gentle clacking of my keys in the Italian bakery-cafe in Makawao, upcountry Maui, at the end of May, 2006.

05 April 2006

Blogging on Blogging

I used to do this all the time: blogging before blogging. Now that
there's blogging, I can hardly bring myself to blog anymore. Always
trying to be different, I guess. When alternative becomes mainstream,
what's the alternative?

Of course, it always come down to: just doing it. Being extroverted,
by definition; though I'm not, by nature.

In the end, there is a new beginning. Philosophy ends action; then
action ends philosophy. On and on: yang on yin. Or, action is
philosophy; philosophy is action.

Any words can be defended: terrorism on terrorism, for example. Or,
any are indefensible. My friend got stopped coming off a ferry,
because he "looked suspicious" - swarthy complexion, black beard,
backpack and bulky coat, looking around at things, writing things down:
a grocery list, thoughts about sex.

Many, in other words, forms of subversion, perversion. Depending on
one's point of view. Thus, the necessity, or the impossibility, of
expressing a point of view.

To speak or not to speak...it's not even a question: just a dual
imperative, with either choice as good/bad or appropriate/inappropriate
as the next.

In the meantime, there are cultural observations to be made, true or
not, but apparent in the moment:

Food in the USA is more interesting than in Canada. Americans are more
talkative and outgoing than Canadians.
American politics isn't more evil than Canadian politics, just more
blatant, less wishy-washy.
Or maybe that does make it more evil.

On the subject of politics and philosophy, I like Joanna Macy's take on
it, going back to the Tibetan "Shambhala Prophecy"
(http://www.joannamacy.net/html/great.html) of the 8th century:
combining the two principles of compassion, which fuels action; and
insight, which recognizes that all our thoughts and actions, no matter
how slight, have an impact on the whole web of life.

15 February 2006

Impressions of Paradise

Halfway along in this five-week stay in Thailand . . . Each day I move slower, sinking deeper into life’s simplicity, the gentle warmth of air and water, and of the people who live here. In this respect there is little difference between the native Thais and the foreigners vacationing here, or those who have adopted it as their home. The pace of life is universally relaxed, at least on the island of Koh Phangan . . . even at the thronging spit of beach known as Haad Rin, home of the world’s biggest full moon party.

This is supposed to be the dry season, but it has rained almost every day, and recently for most of the day and night. The occasional appearances of full sun are reminders of the blasting power of that element, which otherwise is rather subdued, moderated by soft clouds and caressing breezes. At night there is seldom need for more than a sheet, and often just half of that is enough to cover bare skin. In the sun it is impossible to keep clothes dry from sweat, and in the torrential rain likewise impossible to stay dry. But there is no panic of hypothermia or even much of a chill . . . just acceptance of that other universal element, the water which surrounds us.

I’ve been somewhat guiltily managing to carry on my editing business here, averaging a couple hours a day of work on the laptop. Internet connection businesses are everywhere, so it was a simple matter to find one with a fast connection and ethernet cable to hook into my laptop for transferring edited files. The guilt part has something to do with working at all here, when the experience of paradise is so rich and full in itself; a feeling that I should be immersed as fully as possible in it while it lasts. The other part of the guilt has to do with enjoying the best of both worlds . . . that’s it’s somehow unfair or undeserved to be able to make one’s living in so relaxed and effortless a way as this. In fact the combination is doing what I anticipated it might: convincing me that living and working here at least six months of the year is eminently sensible.

The other part of my working life is also coming together as well as I could have imagined, with a full dozen of the yoga students deciding to attend drum classes once or twice a week while I’m here. The main obstacle of having enough drums was passed last week when I accompanied half a dozen of the students into the nearest town (Thong Sala), to buy passable djembes for under $40 each.

The beach itself is perfect for swimming, with a broad crescent of white soft sand, shallow clear pale green water, and minimal wave action here on the mainland side of the island. A recent visit to the seaward side gave some challenging variety in the form of big breaking waves, but a tropical storm whipped them too high even to travel out by boat, so we had to hike back to our starting point, two hours over a steep rough trail. Amazingly, no complaints from 9-year-old Cleo on the grueling trek.

Other roads and trails nearby have taken us by foot to neighboring beaches, giving us relatively local access to groceries as well as, again, more variety of experience here – much more immediate than traveling by taxi or motorbike.

With the beaches lined by bungalows and restaurants, there is no shortage of variety in eating out . . . though the menus differ very little from place to place. There is only a subtle difference between the universally offered green, red, or coconut curries, but it’s hard to tire of these, when the result is almost always excellent, and at times absolutely transcendent. (The homemade coconut or chocolate ice cream doesn’t hurt either, or the discovery here and there of a real cappuccino). The biggest challenge on the food front is appeasing (or not) the endless restaurant obsessions of Cleo.

Yes, this is yuppie heaven all right, but heaven by any name is hardly to be argued with. If I have found the formula and means to live out my ideal 8-hour day here – 2 hours each of work, music, swimming and walking – there is no cause to complain. And that’s just the quantitative analysis of how time can be spent . . . when the true experience is timeless, and of a mysterious yet unmistakable quality, impossible to convey and equally impossible to resist.

24 January 2006

conservative minority

So that's the way it works, eh? Canadian politics symbolizes it, with
a new minority Conservative government. Most of the voters prefer the
more liberal-leaning Liberals or NDP, but the government goes to the
control of the conservatives.

It's like this: it's easier to stand pat, to stay stuck, than to figure
out where else to go.

I must admit, I didn't even get involved in the issues in this Canadian
federal election enough to know any specifics. And I didn't vote. I
lost interest in Canadian politics after the Quebec separatist movement
died down. But it's interesting enough to note how this election
points to an ongoing syndrome of political life.

Those who want change inevitably end up being split over how to do it,
where to go. The liberal or progressive agenda is split into a rainbow
of sub-issues, of constituencies, of ethnic and ideological diversity.
Whereas the staid middle-class, largely white and conservative values
are more simplistic, more generic, more homogenous. Thus they have an
advantage in holding a solid block of votes for a single party or
ideology...or negative ideology, if you will.

The result is inertia, the inertia not of movement but the easier
choice, of stasis, status quo. Here we go, again; here we stay.
Business as usual.

Otherwise, what? Who can agree?

18 January 2006

Website Mania

All right, here's a stab, at 2 a.m., at the newest twist in Web
publishing: blogging by email. It should come in handy when I'm in
Thailand, two weeks from today. Meanwhile, I'm all webbed out...you
would think...after a marathon of upgrading this site
(alternativeculture.com), creating a couple of new sites
(DjembeRhythms.com and masalaband.com) and finally, redoing the
over-javaed home page for HyperLife.net.

Next? Oh, there's always a next. Though in Web-land, a real human can
sometimes disappear for months on end. What was the quote I heard
today? "It was, like, real, like something you'd see on TV."

Hmm. In the meantime...

There's always a meantime, isn't it? That is, if you believe in time.
As in, time is money, time's a-wasting, etc. But then, the sages all
tell us that time is an illusion; words have no real meaning; desire is
doomed; and so on. What are we to believe?

Me, it depends on my mood. At 2:11 a.m. (present time) I'll call it
Websday and now, call it a day. "See you" again "soon."

In the meantime...

04 January 2006

From Column to Blog

Welcome to the first issue of AltCulture Blog...the weblog for Alternative Culture Magazine. The last "column" appearing in this spot was two years ago, dealing with world issues, namely the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since that time I have gone cold turkey on the world news front, coming to feel that buying into the whole mainstream news thing, "real" as it may be, is not really a very alternative approach to the world...even in the form of offering "alternative" news and views.

As I see it now, there is nothing wrong with such a focus or interest...it's just that it's not where I'm at today. Have I "sold out" to the apathetic materialists, by switching this content area of my website from "news" to "travel"? Maybe. On the other hand, maybe it's a deeper shift about putting life energy in alternative directions than mainstream politics, media, and issues beyond my direct influence.

This debate spans decades in my experience, as my experience has cycled back and forth, in and out of political involvement and focus. And certainly it's a debate larger than the span of my own lifetime.

What it boils down to is this: Increase your awareness, then do what you do best, in a spirit of respect and positive energy. Nonviolence can be active in both direct and indirect ways. The best way I know now to affirm life energy in the world is to live it in ways I can do most fully and directly. I guess when it comes to reaching out, that means for me, writing, and playing music for dancers. For someone else, it may mean increasing political action. We all have to follow our truest destiny, for the greater benefit of all.