Sunday, February 15, 2015

We ate everything ...

Cathy wrote this small ode to after her visit with us.  I was touched by the piece and wanted to add it here.  Thank you Cathy!

We Ate Everything: on Food and Memory in Paris
As I emerged from the Metro steps at Boulevard Saint Michel, I was not prepared to be cast so intimately into Paris; stone buildings are softened with curves, fountains call for your stray fingers, and people everywhere, eating. I was swallowed up by the smell of butter, smoke and dirt as we darted with luggage in hand to the Crêperie Des Arts. Our bodies brushed against other bodies, passing cafe tables, and trees just opening for spring. We hurried. We were hungry.

We devoured them all: cheese, egg, banana, chocolate. We ate every scrap of tender crepe, then licked our fingers. And thus began be the pattern of my brief stay in Paris: great hunger followed by ravenous eating, then back again to hunger, all immersed in curved iron, spires, and door after door leading to food.

Every morning Paul brought back a small bag from the patisserie to supplement our spartan breakfasts of baguettes and hot chocolate. It was something new every day: pain au chocolate, Norman tart, almond croissants. We ate them all, knowing there would be no lunch and miles of walking before returned at night. In the days that followed, I embraced the communal nature of eating in Paris. On park benches we shared bites of crackly croissants, crumbs dropping shamelessly into our laps. We looted the scraps from one another’s paper bags, hoping for a forgotten meringue. Even at breakfast, we tore at our buttered baguettes until they disappeared.

It’s better to buy a little knife, so you can slice the bread, cheese, and peppers you bought at the market that morning before shopping for canvas linens for Paul’s art in Montmartre. At Abreuvior Street and Place Dalida, we found a bench, made sandwiches, and watched the people walk by the pink houses on Abreuvior Street, down from the Sacre-Coeur.

“Do you want a picture?” I asked Linda.
“No,” she said. “I just want to sit on this bench and look at this street and the people coming down.”

I stole one anyway. Not of the pink houses, but of them, eating olives and the last of the baguette. Over the next few days, I took a few of Linda and Paul in Paris, and thought about how immersing in an experience without a camera represents hope. Hope in one’s ability to remember, hope in returning, and hope in one’s experience.

When in the Louvre the next day, we saw this crowd at the Mona Lisa. We did not stay in that room for long.

Rather, we sat a long time at Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, discussing the symbolism, the politics, and the intertwining bodies brushing the green sea.

And then there was Bernardino Luini’s Salome receives the head of John the Baptist. Her youthful, smug face, the hand of the executioner, the act of holding the plate. We sat a long time there, too.

After the Louvre we took the long walk to the Jewish Quarter for falafels, cold sodas, and fruit tarts. At the little park around the corner we shared a bench and watched children run and the teenagers play ping pong and smoke cigarettes. With heavy eyes and stomach we stretched our legs, smelling the blossoms teased open by the afternoon sun.

“Are we here to experience?” I asked Paul later, between mouthfuls of cream and banana crepe, “or to say that we’ve experi- enced?”
“Sadly, I think most are here to say they’ve experienced,” he replied.

It’s better to share in Paris. To feel the hunger for walking, then to eat in the sun, passing bites between you. It’s better to be frugal in Paris, to bypass the tours and the taxis and smell the city on your clothes when you go to bed. Without pictures, we fear we will lose Paris. But live like the city is yours, and it becomes so.
We will remember the smell of the wind-lifted lilacs and hanging over our bench as we drifted to sleep, the vibrant blue of the Van Goghs, and cool stone of the cathedrals. We will remember the long eclairs, the giant meringues, the tender maca- roons. I can see the stretched shadows of streets in evening light, the tree-lined paths to metro steps, and people kissing on every street. And we will remember the urine stains on the walls of the cathedral, the shoe-worn, stone steps of the metro, and riding my bike near cars so fast their sudden breeze lifts your shirt of your sweating back. In her beauty and her belly, Paris accepts you, elevates you to her own through the acting a part in her dirty, sweet opera.

I’m in a quiet corner of the airport, waiting to board my flight home. A young woman breezes past, finds a small table, drops her bags, and pulls out a small paper bag. with several French macaroons. Checking the lighting, she brushes off the table and arranges the contents of the bag—delicate pastel macarons—in a whimsical stack. As she maneuvers around the table, I hear the hear the distinct, slow clack of an expensive camera. My mind wills her to eat just one—to drop it thought- lessly in her mouth. But quickly, she stuffs the macaroons back in their bag and hurries off.

Then, I thought of the clafouti we ate on the stone steps of the Heritage building, with its dark, sweet cherries and sugary crust. And the old straw chairs we sat in at Saint Merry’s Church as we listened to the mournful baroque cello. Or the old man in the cafe in his suit and red scarf, flirting with the waitress. The ring on his finger, the hat at his side, the way the waitress touched his arm. I pulled out my notebook and began to write.

“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”
—Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast 

Thursday, May 22, 2014


In Berlin I have become interested in surveillance.  

The DDR was infamous for their State Security (the Stasi) looming over every facet of it’s citizens lives. 

The Stasi’s presence in the country was pervasive and working in the midst of Gedenkstatt, the Stasi’s secret walled off city of office blocks, electronics facilities, surveillance technology, forging machinery, data and records centre, chemical experimentation lab, and secret prison, is for me a daily reminder of the nature of that society. 

After going on a tour of Hohenschonhausen prison we watched “The Lives of Others.” It is a film about a Stasi agent who steps outside the strictures of his assignment in an ill-fated attempt to save a couple who he has become obsessed with. They stand out because they live honestly, which is at such odds with how disingenuous life in East Germany had become. Working in the midst of the Stasi facility coupled with the film has heightened my sensitivity to the nature of state voyeurism.

The State in an-ever increasing attempt to protect itself, its ideas, and people grows a security apparatus. On my first morning in Berlin I went for a run and found myself fascinated by a large old less-used complex of buildings.  Later I found, this area was also used by the State Security Services. It made me aware that “security” consumed an ever increasing  percentage of the talents, land, resources, funding and finally psychology of this East German nation.

Yet for all it’s sinister appearances one is also struck by how amateur the DDR was when compared to our secret society.  We have recently become aware that our governments are involved in secret renditions, black sites, enhanced interrogation[1], drone strikes, remote targeted assassinations, rules of engagement, the down loading of all our emails and texts, back doors into computer programs, paying internet companies for access, private security contractors, and massive data storage facilities in the desert. We have become the Stasi global in scope.

Today, it is fashionable to expose the depths of the intrusive nature of this small communist country. The Germans behind the wall called themselves the German Democratic Republic (DDR) and in order to preserve their republic they annulled Democracy. But from them we learn that no matter how consumed a culture can be with security you can never be totally and completely secure[2] even behind a wall.

[1] The Stasi felt enlightened because they used no physical torture
[2] and possibly the very act of making a security state ensures ever increasing opposition to it.

phone pic of the view from my painting studio window
Painting: "Stairs" (from Stasi office building turned studio ... maybe eventually Langley will become a large studio space ... "IMAGINE")
photo's of Hohenschohnhausen prison
Etching: "title yet to be determined"
Photo: "after the data collecton (? title in the works)#1
Photo: #2

Sunday, March 30, 2014

only in India

Only in India, is cricket played on every vacant lot ...(like soccer in the UK, Basket Ball in the USA, or hockey in Canada)

Only in India:

Only in India do they cancel a flight because it is not full, reschedule you through another city, make you wait in the airport 8 hours, promise you a hotel but never get you one, force you to storm the first class lounge, only in India will the management back down when you threaten a scene, change the gate without posting it on any board, and still get you into Katmandu late on the second flight.

Only in India can a communist protest be organized in support of a woman in the middle of a hunger strike. (she is demanding a proper investigation into the murder of her husband… by the way only in India are 66% of prisoners serving time have not yet been convicted of a crime.  The poorest might stay in jail 5,6, or 7 years without a conviction for a petty theft, only because they cannot afford bail or a lawyer)

only in india is it OK to have a pellet range attached to whatever local attraction.
and only in india is riding elephants one of those attractions.
Only in India does one use their boarding pass 10 times. 
1.  to get in the airport
2.  to get in the next door at the airport
3.  at the check-in counter
4.  before placing the hand luggage through the security check
 5.  when been patted down, everyone gets the pat down  
6.  when picking up hand-luggage with a sticker declaring it is not dangerous
7.  when going through the gate,
8.  when going through the gate, next, the soldier, who looks at the card in utter confusion
9.  when getting onto the plane
10. when getting off the plane (what, they will keep you on the plane forever if you cannot produce the boarding card?)


We got off at the wrong train stop.  When recognizing the error we realized the train we had been on was still in the station, I grabbed our luggage and ran.  As we got to the train Linda protested that she  “was not sure what the correct direction of the stop.”  The train started to move I threw on a bag jumped onto the train as Linda dug her heels in and said “I won’t!” I jumped off the train, furious! Linda frantically looked through her notes and yelled a station name to the platform guard who repeated “yes, but yesterday, ma,am, yesterday.”  Again I ran for the train jumped on and again Linda repeated “No I won’t !“ Even more angry, I again jumped off and pushed the luggage in utter disgust. However, only in India, the train slowed down, (magically or through some human intervention) came to a stop and we able to get on the last car. 
only in india does this man come say hello

Only in India can I cut my toe nails, I know gross, and when returning to the scene a few minutes later see that ants are carrying away the nail clippings.

Only in India … going to the optometrists office sounds and looks like …

Only in India are all the dogs muti-colored (after Holi)

And no it is tim to move on ... because when one becomes cognizant of the absurdity of the place, there is no end to ones amusement and frustration.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"Kanada ... hockee champions"

Everest poking its peak out from behind Lohtse. View from Kala Patther.

This blog entry was imagined as the pictorial climax of my 6 months.  I took photos each step of the way to record our legendry ascent to the highest place in the world.  Then at base camp, at -15 degrees and 5400 m the SD card failed. So I will annotate a truncated version of the events.
waiting and waiting and waiting
Day 1-3: The airport.  First flight into Lukla is gold, we were on the second flight, and Katmandu fogged over and the flight was cancelled. Day 2 we got to the runway, sunny weather, step onto the plane, the pilots step off, share a smoke, and get into a truck and drive away.  Bad sign.  We spend the rest of the day in the airport, at 4 the flight is cancelled.  Day 3, we are determined to fly somewhere, Lukla sure, but if by 10am we are not in the air, refund, and fly to some other part of Nepal.  We get a boarding pass at 8, miracle, as we are only booked for 11, wait in the departure lounge (which smells of urine, you can imagine how intense that smell was at 3 pm the previous day) we pass through the gate, onto the little bus that lurches toward the plane, onto the runway, get on the plane, the pilot starts the engine we taxi, takeoff, but I know only when you land is a trip to Lukla real.

Landing in the most dangerous aiport in the world is an experience in itself.  You drop over a ridge, wind buffeting the small plane, the runway appears below, looking to be vertical and very short.  The plane lands hard, brakes are applied, and very quickly a rock wall appears in front of the plane, which marks the end on the runway.  The plane into a small parking area, passengers are whisked off ,one propeller still turning luggage tossed off and then on, 12 new passengers are quickly ushered on, and the plane leaves within 5 minutes.  Takeoff is a terrifying descent down the short tarmac and liftoff as the ground descends into a gorge and the plane begins a precipitous ascent to scale the nearby mountain range. 
Mani Walls and Buddhist script carved onto rock slates
A dog followed us for the first day
view from one of the 6 suspension bridges
Finally in the Himalayas we look for a porter.  We decided to forgo the travel companies and hire a guide porter directly. The men that confront us at the airport are mangy and shifty, not like the clear faced, nice men that helped the other trekkers at the airport, the ones vetted by the companies that hire them. We walk across the one street of Lukla with its dirty hotels and take safe haven at a tea house, and then I walked alone without my bag, and successfully navigate finding a reliable guide for the trip. (I asked some nonchalant men sitting in the sun and guickly a 12 year old boy appeared, I have to decline, and say I am looking for someone your age, and I am introduced to an experienced guide, Pemba, phew).

Walking is the best part of the trek and as we walk out of Lukla the green mountains, villages, river, and small gardens quickly shake off he grime of three days at the airport. 

Day 5-6: Walking requires crossing 6 suspension bridges as you crisscross the milky blue river below and climb 600 m into the base of treks into the Everest region, Namche Bazaar sitting at 3500m.

I get sick.  I have had a fever and a head cold for 4 or 5 days, probably exasperated from sitting in the airport, but at altitude with no heat, snow, and when the pipes all freeze, the illness explodes into a fever of 102, coupled with shakes.  (brushing my teeth is like using an electric toothbrush)  Luckily the worst of the illness happens on a rest day, a day to acclimatize to the altitude, and I get anti-biotics, pain-killers, cold tablets, throat syrup to guzzle and which soon freezes, and try to get better.

Day 7: Walking to Tengeboche a monastery at 4000m. Massive mountains newly covered in snow surrounds one as you walk, following a ridge, then descend to the river, then again climb 500m to the monastery.  We decide to descend a little lower to Deboche as this section of the trail is covered in ice and the descent at 4pm will be less treacherous then a descent at 8 am.

We made it this far, but the most dangerous moment awaits us.  Sharing one squat toilet with 20 other people, the floor completely covered in a one inch layer of ice.  (oh, I broke my hip falling into the pit of the squat toilet I need a helicopter lift back)

Day 8 and 9: Walk to Dingboche.  Following the icy track down form Daboche you emerge at the river and cross the bridge looking up the valley and Amadablam that looks like a mirage as the sun sits behind it and it appears only faintly sitting in the sky.  You climb from the river to Pengboche and make your way up the valley eventually climbing to Dingboche at 4400m. On the acclimatization day the views of the two valleys emerging are fantastic Amadablam on one side Taboche Peak on the other.

Day 10: We walk two days in one. We follow the ridge to Dughla, climb the pass, cross the memorials of those who died on Everest, and enter into what is now the Khumbu Valley. A straight valley greets us, and we though the snow following the trail past Laboche towards Gorapshep.  The end of the day is a circuitous traverse of the ridge above the glacier, but you are greeted with remarkable views of the entire valley and the peaks of Nuptse, and Lohtse. 

Gorapshep is cold, everyone circles the stove until the heat disappears and you have to spend a long, cold night in your bag, tossing and turning and peeing at 5100m.  
the stove in the middle of a lodge, this one in Daboche
In the morning we climb Kala Patthar to be at the top of the valley and to get the best views of Everest and base camp below. 

This is what makes the entire trip worth it, the cold, the altitude, the 7 hours of walking, the broken nails on your big toes, the frozen squat toilets, the loss of appetite, no vegetables, the 12 hours a night in your sleeping bag, it is all for the view.  To be on the top of the world to see a landscape that can only exist in one place. Amazing, beautiful, spectacular, and in one case the word awesome seems completely appropriate.
view down the Khumbu iceflow

Lohtse and Everest

We return after breakfast back tracking past Laboche, to Dughla, and down towards Periche (a wind tunnel that looks like a town from a western movie, one street, a few lodges, some corals just out of town, and a bar or two.) We walk over the Periche pass and down to Oches having dropped 1500m in the afternoon.  From Oches we descend the following day to Namche, and from their the next day we make it to Lukla, where we spend the night in a dark town, cold lodge, and dank room and pray we can get a flight out of the town the next day.  At this point you just want to get  hot shower, a salad, and a good night sleep.
"Kanada ... hockey champions, yeahh!!"

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Scenes of Kolkata are like the set of blade runner and I wanted to write something about this, about how the extraordinary becomes gradually normalized, but I was reading a book while here, and came upon this monologue delivered by a character in the novel.  Her words are an interesting place to start a dialogue about the city.

Would I be capable of giving up everything for something I believed, in something I wanted without thinking about the risks? Have I ever believed in anything or anybody intensely enough to do that? I realized that I never believed in anything seriously and that's why I never made a radical commitment. Does it have something to do with the fact of being more or less European and white and being born in that rich protectorate that is the north of the world, where everything is arranged so that nothing ever shocks you where life really ought to disgust one.

That is what many of us feel just shame or controllable anger. I feel ridiculous poor disgustingly poor in spirit. I feel infinite sadness having it all and at the same time having nothing. It is contradictory isn't it? 

The things that stifle me today are the result of wars and destruction and learned books and terrible peace treaties; many people have died so that we the grandchildren of the century can have what is crushing us today, as if we were on the verge of falling into a deep sleep and opium sleep. Coming to a place like this is a way of breaking up completely, opening your eyes and once they are wide open you can't let them close, Beyond the borders of our beautiful countries there is a terrifying outside world filled with life, a black sun that stretches over a number of continents only revealing its beauty after the first impact. What we see on the surface is horrible and cold but slowly the beauty emerges in this world. 

On the other hand our world has a surface that is lovely and everything is bright and shiny, But with time what we see is the horror. I do not want to go back to that Opium dream that is out paradise of the north. I'm staying here with real people and real problems, Where everyone has to go up on the trapeze without a net and the struggle for existence is real and not a metaphor; I've found life here, I've understood the value of that miraculous fragile thing called life and that's why I developed an overwhelming desire to live it to exhaust it to the last drop, what a miracle.

      (loosely or freely quoted from) Santiago Gamboa: Necropolis

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Anil and Jeeva

Anil and Jeeva in their home

They are people of “good character.” Anil and Jeeva are in the business of navigating a changing India.  They run a small home-stay in Munnar the heart of the tea area in Kerala.  Munnar is a respite from the rest of India. Cooler temperatures and the orderly carpet of tea plants spread over hundreds of hectares of luscious green hills, are in stark contrast to life below. 
Munnar tea plantations

They are living their dream with two children and a small business as they they try predict India’s response to its interaction with modernity. Using their conversations with Europeans they have a small window into what is next. However theirs is an uncertain dream in the flux confronting India.

Anil worries about the enormous amount of time his son has to spend working in school.  Driven by hyper-competitive entrance exams their son attends boarding-school where he spends 7 days a week learning.  Anil says, “this cannot be healthy” and thinks his son will leave this system stunted socially and personally.  But what can you do in a country that demands competition for limited spaces to top flight universities.    

They are also watching Munnar’s transformation from a small hill-top hamlet to a significant tourist destination.  Responding to this avalanche of change they took an unusual course, they closed the travel shop in the town and sold their adjoining home “for tourist price” and bought in the small village 10 km’s out of town.  They built their dream home on the additional land they could now afford and bet tourists would seek a quiet, green, and personal holiday experience.  And they waited, and waited.  Friends said they were crazy, building on a site without tea plantation views, and the apprehension that they made a mistake grew.  But after two years the beautiful walk of the surrounding village, the 1 hour climb into the surrounding plantations, and the community of Chithirpuram worked out.  People came and their home became the number one listing on trip advisor. 

However, the view of the gorge below has eventually drawn others to share the dream.  A massive hotel is being built a block away.  The idyllic paradise has been shaken by a large mega construction.  Anil’s frustration is palpable and he sees this intrusive style of development as wasteful, environmentally and socially.  The money would be better used promoting people to expand their homes, create home-stay’s, and encourage a more equal distribution of social capital that would be sustainable that blended into the natural landscape.  They are frustrated with a culture of greed that is pervasive in this new India. 
View of Mega Hotel a block from their home-stay.  The pictures here are taken from another new construction just up the way at Chithipurum.

Then Jeeva’s sister is in Canada and says, why did you not come here, you would be so much richer.  Like many in modern India families have been wrenched apart as Indians have taken advantaged of a global economy and moved to North America, Europe, and the Middle East. But they are living their dream and it is too late for them. But they worry for their son.  Should he not be able to enjoy the privileges of a western education and life.  But he is 16 and they would miss him terribly and are concerned how he would manage on his own in a new country.  And then how could they afford this.  Although comfortable in India the money they earn would not go far in Canada.  That means his education would be prohibitively expensive and would require them to liquidate some of the investments they might rely on in the future. 

Tea plantation workers 
I also asked if this might create a suphocating link of obligation between father and son.  But Anil explains this is the way in India, families sacrifice for children, but with sacrifice comes with expectations. However, he is uncomfortable making claims on his son’s future he really just wants him to have the best in the world. Anil’s and Jeeva’s real concern is that they will not be able to visit him, touch him, and they might in the end lose him. How can they facilitate what is best for their son in a fiscally and personally responsible way?

“Daughters are not as expensive.”  They want their 12 year old daughter to be able to choose whatever she wants to study and be happy.  She tells me her favorite subject is Science, but Jeeva see’s an artistic talent that she hopes will remain. But they do not want to fuss about her art, “let her discover it on her own.”  Maybe there is an art school near Chennai, but for now they will see.

For girls there is not the same pressure to get to the best school and to be wealthy.  Marriage will ultimately define their future.  Yes, a dowry is still necessary, but for a boy to marry he needs to be well off and established and that requires the best education.  What about a love marriage? (they themselves fell in love at school the 18 year old Anil flirting and courting 16 year old Jeeva under the watchful eye of her father the Botany professor.) So a love marriage? Yes this Ok, but they will wait and see what happens in the future.  For Jeeva, as long as it is a Christian partner, this will be alright. 
pointing not to the future, but towards his wife who is "a hard worker."
So they watch and try to anticipate India changing landscape.  For our part, Linda and I were so privileged to be allowed to share their concerns, dreams, and views.  The greatest facet of travel is to be able to meet people and get to share their humanity.  Anil and Jeeva have given us that chance and we wish them well as we all make decisions about our respective futures.