Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Journal of India: The big leap South to Chennai

Marina Beach

On my first night out in Delhi, I met this guy called Cartak who lived in Chennai and was going down there in a couple of days. Since I still didn't have a trajectory ready to go through India, and since the guy said I should go visit him so that we could go out again (the advantages of my personal charm!), I decided to make it my next stop after coming back from Haridwar. I booked a plane for a massive change in location (from far North-center to far South-East), but first I had things to attend to near Delhi...




I was hoping to make it an early night yesterday in view of my morning flight to Chennai, but it was Callie’s birthday, and we took her and Winnie out to celebrate. Ashwini brought his driver, so we chanced an evening of binge drinking in Gurgaon, a small town outside of Delhi, notable for being highly ‘commercial’, as my friends put it. Essentially this meant that it was full of large office buildings. We went inside some kind of hotel or commercial centre and it felt like being in New York, but with Indians.

On our way home, we dropped Winnie and then Callie, and on this second instance I went to stand by a tree, stuck two fingers into my mouth and vomited whatever alcohol was left in my stomach. I really wanted to sober up quickly: I had decided to go home, pick my bag and go straight for the airport, without pausing for the flimsy single hour of sleep I was going to get. I managed to sleep an hour and a half at the airport and almost three on the plane.

I landed in a lush tropical scenario. Chennai is mightily warmer than Delhi, more verdant and clearer in the air. I took a room in a guest house which had been suggested to me by a friend. 400 rupees a night and a rat-hole of a place which legitimated the cheap expense (cheap in European terms, at least – the one in Haridwar had been free of charge).

I chilled out for a half hour and then walked outside. The beginning was disorienting. We are already in the centre of the city and people seem uncertain as to what’s worth seeing here. As a way of giving myself an objective, I am now seeking a tourist office for some info. I am also seeking a cap and a pair of sandals, as an alternative to being cooked alive by the local sun.



Superficially, Chennai strikes me as the most Christian of the cities I’ve seen in India. Several churches announced the rhetoric of Jesus, which resonated oddly in this place. Apparently one of their central monuments is a cathedral, that of Santhome (which I have not seen). There must have been a different emphasis in terms of colonization, here.

Sleeper class coach, from the inside


Hyderabad Express.

On a train as I write these lines, in what is known as Sleeper Class. The cheapest of them all. There is nothing in these blue carriages other than sleeping benches sticking out of the walls, three tiers per wall, no sheets. It is fine by me. As long as the temperature stays clement, as it is now (much due to the tissues of wind that whip into the coach through the blue metal bars at the windows), I will call myself content. I call in at Hyderabad at 5:45 in the morning, discounting delays, and I’ll need to find myself an hotel.

Yesterday Cartak invited me to his place for lunch – there was a housewarming function and I joined them after the prayers. I sat on the floor by Cartak and a broad leaf was spread on the pavement before me. We sprinkled it with water, rubbed it clean, and food was poured upon it.

I will not deny that it was very trying. Eating with my hands was laborious as the food was more liquid than solid. Mostly it was rice mixed with vegetables and creamy stuff until it became some kind of porridge. The food at Ashwini’s place had been spicy to the event horizon, but it was always good. Here, the taste was unwelcome to my tongue and eating proved more of a chore than it was a pleasure. I finished the meal to avoid insulting my hosts.

One of the local uncles gave me a ride home on his bike, and I subsequently went to Marina Beach, where I sat reading for a few hours. More than a hundred metres of sand, then a green and troubled sea. It felt strangely foreign, as though even these waters spoke a different language than mine, in contrast with the ripples of the Mediterranean, so dear and close to me in memory. Cartak later called and we joined some friends of his cousin’s at the local university hostel. It is superfluous to specify that the conditions were not even remotely comparable to what we get in Europe (though they bear a vague resemblance to what I saw in the Caribbean). We all went on the roof, twelve of us, on a night of few stars. We were all men. The point of the gathering, as I understood it, was that of sitting in a circle and getting drunk together while sharing cigarettes. Not an unfamiliar experience. I wonder to what extent we may speak of contamination from the Western ways, or if instead this is no more than a universal drive towards state-of-consciousness alteration in the young.

Stealing the scene was as easy as it gets. I was aided by the fact that their transgression, as such, was just a case of ‘been there, done that’ for me. Also I had the sexual seniority – I was stunned to find that only two of these eleven kids were not virgin. One of them was Cartak, who was the only one aged 25 rather than 21, the other had fucked a prostitute. After a few hours my friends found me an auto and Cartak and his cousin escorted me home on their bike (rigorously without helmet, and with alcohol in their bodies, as seems to be the custom over here).

It took a while to fall asleep – the room in this guest house becomes an oven in the night, and it’s a good thing I don’t suffer mosquitoes (nonetheless, more than fifteen bites on the right arm alone).

I was allowed to sleep until late hours. The train on which I’m on departed at 16:45, and the guest house was no great distance from the station.

The sun is declining and a fat man is sleeping at my right, his soft hair brushing on my elbow. The Indian countryside, which seems immense, is tranquil and flat. The sight of human settlements, however, is desolating. Images of lacerating poverty, and mountains of garbage with encampments flourishing over them, and polluted rivers with cows and Indian buffalo wading through them, are set against a backdrop of ponderous Industrial development. Everywhere there seem to be factories or cities in construction.

The man on my right has begun to snore. My fellow travelers look rather bristled by the fact, and this gives me the quirky impression that there is a comical side to this situation, one which I can’t identify.

PS. I should add that the bats which soar over the local campus at night are the biggest flying objects I’ve ever seen short of aeroplanes. If it weren’t for the wings, I would have thought I was finally seeing the elephants.

Out in the streets of Chennai!

Monday, 29 March 2010

Journal of India: North towards the Himalayas

After Delhi, I took a train North to Haridwar, which is just below the Himalayas. Regrettably the mountains were too distant to really absorb much of them, but the city was beautiful, since I ended up there in the middle of a religious festival. The next day I went back to Delhi for a brief pit-stop before my plane, which would take me to Chennai.

Click on the photos to see them in full size!


The train took me to this small river town across curtains of grey mist. It appears that Delhi is not the only place where transparent air makes for an uncommon good.

I took my first Rikshaw to find my guest house. A delightfully refreshing ride, but a single hole in the road will make these things swing like a rolling bell.

As soon as I was free, I walked out into the city, and I spent the best part of the next six hours walking. I occasionally sat down with some local gurus, mostly old men with long rasta hair. They didn’t strike me as particularly illuminated, more like a bunch of people who have smoked way too much weed over their lives. One of them offered me food, which I thought very kind (though I put my brake to my appetite due to the dubious hygiene). I made some efforts at communication after that, but he did not respond. He seemed more interested in attempting to seduce this local lady of thirty-odd-something, who in fact did possess some beauty. I excused myself, and as I left he ‘blessed’ me by printing a thumb of paint onto my forehead.

There were a great deal of these figures around because today the Kumbh was taking place, a festival involving the holy Gunga river. It is not unlike baptism in that you plunge in the current and are washed out of all your sins. Ashwini, on the phone, told me that I should jump in the river, and I suggested that he throw himself in the lake. Interested as I am in these religious rituals, I had a whole day of walking ahead of me and the logistics of bathing were very much in the way. I guess it’s going to be hell, after all.

At one stage I took a funicular up to a temple. The view was stupendous, the temple on the other hand was not. A couple of statues surrounded by a clusterfuck of souvenir shops. I was blessed (again), and this time they asked me money for it. Dream on, Siddharta.

One thing that impressed me greatly about this place was the fauna. After the cows, dogs, goats and pigs, this time it was the turn of the monkeys. Small grey apes that roamed all over the place and climbed on just about anything. They were even at the station. I also saw the usual eagles, and – amid the assortment of birds – a number of beautiful green parrots. Didn’t know they belonged in this place.

I walked down the temple by the steps, all the while thanking God that I hadn’t found this track upwards when looking for it (it was one of those legendary temples with an infinity of vertical steps climbing over the mountain, and the way down was enough to dehydrate me like a camel).

I then went to the house and ate (a meal based on six Kit Kats, such was my level of exhaustion). I walked out again later for a breath of fresh air before going to sleep. En passant, I popped into a temple where this group of a dozen kids and a crone were sitting cross-legged and chanting. One of them motioned to me and I walked in. The temple was small and clearly quite poor, yet it felt ever so much more sincere and appeasing than the one at the top of the mountain. I left early though – I was tired, the singing was getting repetitive, and I was anxious someone would steal my shoes, which I had left outside in the haste.

It is barely nine o’ clock, but I shall get myself ready for bed. My train is at 6.10 a.m. tomorrow and I feel exhausted. I am going to need a holiday when I come back from the holiday.

The funicular, with my glossy new glasses...

Delhi (briefly)

I wonder why in Delhi taking the metro feels like going to the airport. Scanners, bag-checking and soldiers with machine-guns.

About those ‘gurus’ with long hair, I wonder what I was expecting. Probably nothing, which is why I’m not feeling disappointed. They were the guys who coined the term ‘illumination’ (whatever the original word may have signified), one which I find much more appropriate to indicate a wo/man’s goal in life than ‘happiness’ (the European telos).

So perhaps I was wondering what it would feel like to come in touch with other ‘illuminated’ people. But of course I felt nothing, other than the simple pleasure of sitting in peace with other people (and that doesn’t require illuminated companions). After all, if illumination is no more than realising that you don’t need illumination, what could these people possibly give me – other than their company – or tell me?

...and the view from it.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Journey through India: Walking through Delhi

My trip through India was officially inaugurated with a couple of days spent in Delhi, at the house of a friend of mine called Ashwini. The first five entries were written at that time, including the two which I am omitting from this blog.


A bit more considered, now. I left from Kanhaiya Nagar and took a stop at Chandni Chow. Very impressive. A crowded, old part of Delhi, all markets and hustle. I took a glance at the Red Fort, chose against visiting it inside for questions of time, repelled the onslaught of paraphernalia merchants, and got back on the metro for Connaught Place. Decidedly less impressive – an open circle of grass surrounded by rings of traffic. The place was empty and dispersive, and for some reason Indians find it superfluous to put up signs with the names of roads, so the map was as good as useless. A bird shat on my shoe (perhaps some other animal – if it was a bird, it must have been a real juggernaut to leave a plop that size), so I had it cleaned and was charged 1500 rupies. I only paid 1000, but it’s still obvious that I let myself be swindled. Never without a blooper, the first day in a foreign country.

From there I walked to India Gate, despite multiple warnings (including Ashwini’s earlier that day) that it would take 40-60 minutes. I did it in 25, and with breaks for photos and road-crossing. I regret not contributing to the local private transport business, but I reckoned I’d done enough for that of shoe hygiene.
India Gate was good. I felt I should have taken someone with me to take pictures. But of course the most altering sights were those which could not be put on camera. Two children, a boy and a girl under the age of ten, came to sell me trinkets. They were dressed in the most gorgeous robes and they were heartbreaking. I purchased nothing from them – it’s not a business I want to encourage – and obviously I didn’t take a photo.

After a brief detour around the stadium, stopping at a park of ruins for my first journal entry, I came to the Muslim monuments of Indra Prastha and Pirana Qila (the Owl Fort), assuming that I’m reading this map correctly, which were set in rather solitary parks. Nice, but run-of-the-mill. When deprived of its people (and the constant fresco of power which they project), the sceneries of India become ever so much more bland. Besides, ‘monuments’ are not exactly the kind of items we are lacking in Europe.

Local metro is efficient but crowded. Have never seen anything like the shove-fest that took place to get on the trains after six. Not in a violent way – the men there seemed to be amusing themselves, and in truth so was I.

Taking the tube in India generally involves more controls than taking a plane. You can just see the metal detectors in there. Just after I took this photo, a soldier came up and told me pictures weren't allowed. (why?)


Woke up late (as per schedule), enjoyed a tasty breakfast, then set off. Ashwini was free today, so I wandered about with him. We picked up Callie with the car, then went to the ruins of Qutub Minar. Lovely, despite my status as ‘veteran of monuments.’ Perhaps it was yesterday’s fort which was kind of unremarkable.

The temperature was sweltering. Once finished with the stone relics, we went to the temple of Iskcon, dedicated to the worship of Krishna. As per yesterday, the best part of the trip was that which eschewed the camera. The inside of the temple, with its worshippers and esoteric art, was very moving (soothing, as all religious places). Its art seemed centered around a sweet, lovely and ambiguous smile which immediately made me think of the Mona Lisa (I don’t know whether this stuff is representative of truly Hindu art or not).

Outside the temple was a small altar surrounded by an open space. On the marble floor were painted flowers – red, then blue, then yellow – which drew a spiral and led from the outside of the altar. A spiritual ritual involved stepping on each of the flowers, reciting a formula with each step, until reaching Krishna in the centre. I walked the path of flowers and stood before his enigmatic smile. Every step felt like a metaphor, charged with meaning and events (being overtaken unlawfully by a little girl, receiving advice from Ashwini, seeing the seemingly mocking smiles of two youths by the terrace). When I reached Krishna, I spontaneously knelt before him. Then I stood and left him to his silence. I did all this with a garland of flowers around my neck. I hadn’t sought after it, but when the local priest started distributing flowers, one of the guards smiled at me (not without some irony) and tossed me a garland. Real flowers, mostly white with a few red and yellow islands, sweetly scented. Perhaps it’s not hard to move the heart of an outsider, but I was touched.

We later went for a meal from a street kitchen. Momos, which are a kind of chicken tortellini, Panipuri and Golgappas, the latter being sort of crunchy balls with a hole filled with spices, dunked in sauce. All lovely, and obviously all spicy. We closed with some pretty bland ice-cream.

Currently got home, finished booking flight to Chennai, working on how to get to Haridwar.

Delhi – Chawni Bazar.

Here’s everything that India is supposed to be. An agglomeration of street commerce, housing, education and transport, each street a scarf of chaos that runs through, across, below and around the buildings. Nothing is taller than three storeys. There’s so much stuff around that the eye struggles to embrace it all. Boxes, tyres, sacks of all varieties, building material, sand, scooters, sleeping dogs, cows and calves, and all kinds of goods to be sold, from food and clothes to jewellery, tools, vehicles and raw materials. Bikes, scooters and pedal-propelled carriages dart across the concrete, beeping their way through the crowds and the carts. Above, cables hang across every building and from thick poles, often limply, often tied together to form a single fat rope of electrical wire. The sky is hazed here in Delhi, even in this temperate season. The air is dense and quickly makes you feel like your mouth is full of chalk.

People frequently gaze at me, especially when I’m writing. As I jot these lines down, the eyes of almost all passers-by turn to me before looking down at my notebook. It appears that I’m the greatest tourist attraction. From hunter to hunted, if you will.

The Red Fort, from the outside

Friday, 26 March 2010

Journal of India - A prologue

So I came back from India with a notebook full of writing about the things I saw, and for a few weeks I wondered what to do with it. I was originally a bit too shaken to share (and very much exhausted after the long journey), and I needed to let things sediment in my mind. Yesterday I felt that I was at a relatively safe distance and I went back to my original booklet, seeing whether some of this material was worth putting here. I re-read the whole thing and I decided it was.

The diaries are actually rather irregular. The first two entries I'm not going to transcribe, because they're frankly too chaotic - I was still adapting myself to the new situation and I couldn't write cogently for the life of me. A brief sample:

The initial euphoria of exploring a new setting is ebbing, and now the multitude of signs and histories with which I have brushed flanks – perceiving a little of the local reality and a great deal of my own stupor – is pressing in my skull. There is so much to learn, and so little time and energy to do so. The resulting sentiment is one of a drowsy indifference, a certain affability when faced with the surroundings’ unfailing tendency to make you wonder.

The wall of the ruin is mottled, dug into by time and tourist gazes. History’s own version of acne (or that of stones). No doubt the sentiment of ‘indifference’ will prove as passing as the euphoria. It is so hard to put order in one’s thoughts when one is presented with such an array of experiences (all variations of the same one – a sight that screams ‘remember me’).

The rest of the entry consists in a few lines on local traffic and the eagles that fly over the sky of Delhi, but it's not particularly insightful. So my chronicle is going to start from the third entry, throwing in two or three entries a day, depending on what city they're describing. I've tried to edit and cut the least possible, though the odd word here and there has been added or changed when clarifying the text seemed really necessary.

So from tomorrow, and for a few days, the Rant Machine is going to be touring India. Hope you enjoy it. Peace out.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Cruising the Caribbean, Part 2

The following day is probably the most adventurous. We have decided to go and visit the Moon Springs, a set of small waterfalls lost within the pluvial jungle. The bus trip alone gives new meaning to the word ‘tight’ as I am crammed in a bus where I literally cannot move, since I am crushed between the wall, the abysmally low roof, and a woman the size of a shark from the Jurassic. I am cemented in a position which is almost comfortable what with the fact that I am bottled and curled up without having to stress any of my own muscles, until more or less halfway through the trip my left testicle sees just how much more fulfilling its existence will be if it starts itching like a maniac for as long as my bag is kept between my arms and my legs. Delightful. Thankfully the trip is not that long and I manage to extricate myself from the bus half an hour later (by which time the testicle has stopped itching, of course). I step down, so does the gigantic woman (to the driver’s relief – throughout the journey, he looked doubtful that his vehicle would make it up the mountain), and so does Calum.

We take a trip through the springs, and they are indeed beautiful, but also very hazardous. At one stage I’m climbing under a waterfall to reach a beautiful lake and my feet are trying for holds on the submerged rocks. ‘Watch out for the hole,’ Calum tells me from behind, and one second later I hear a sound as of a large animal crashing into the pond, and I turn to see Calum sitting down within two feet of water in the position of a Zen monk with the waterfall drumming on the back of his neck, looking strangely meditative as he tries to get the camera out of the water. I find the view hilarious, and I laugh protractedly and with gusto, so hard in fact that I end up losing grip from those bloody stones and my legs go wheeling under me as I slip nipples-first into that tadpole-bonanza. When me and Calum step out of the water, we get in an argument. I cannot remember what the reason was, but that’s some wrung underpants if I’ve ever known any.

We go back to the ship, change, and spend the rest of the day on the beach.

We repeat the latter process for a few more days. It seems that the best way of spending your time in whatever island of the Caribbeans you’re sojourning in, is to spread a towel on the sand, lay your back on it, and get roasted like a cod for six hours. Absolutely amazing. After the fourth day of this I’m feeling quite tired so I go to sleep early.

It is a silent, lovely night. Calum has gone to enjoy some air on the deck while the ship sails through the darkness. Stars are gleaming through the night and I doze off to sleep with the gentle message of the waves whispering in my ears. At around two a.m. I am woken with a start by the sound of a giant walrus vomiting in our toilet while banging its head on the walls, or something which sounds very much close to it. ‘What the hell?’, I think. The door to the bathroom opens, and Calum staggers out, looking three sheets to the wind. The fact that he has awakened me seems not be a cause of concern for him, the pecksniffian bastard..

Despite the bags under my eyes, the curiosity gets the best of me.

‘Well, what’s up with you?’ I enquire, slurring.

‘Those English girls are fitbirds of the prime category... Oh Christ, I’m dying...’ he says, beating me to the slurring competition.

‘You pulled?’ I can’t believe it.

‘Aye, commander.’

‘With those English girls I was speaking with the other day?’

‘Yeah. The very ones.’

‘Well, I’m not surprised you vomited, then.’

‘Oh, that’s right, I forgot I was speaking with Erik Von Markovik.’

‘Bloody hell. You must have been drunk like an Irishman to snog one of those. Even the sea-gulls stay away from our ship when they’re taking a walk on deck.’

‘Bitter grapes, eh?’ he sneers. The son of a bitch. It’s true I wouldn’t have minded some salsa while on this cruise, but certainly not with those warthog-faced gals I met the other night. They looked like they had been pulled out of Warhammer. I’m about to tell him that when he reaches his bed and dozes off in the space of six seconds.

I am thinking of getting a proper eight-hour sleep now, especially as the next day we are expected to dock and reach home at last, so there should be no further reason to get up early and go exploring, yet at seven in the morning a bell goes off like a thermal nuclear alarm and everybody gets up and starts yapping. Me and Calum sort of stagger towards the bridge, and a sailor explains to us that it is a drill, selected for this day in a ‘clever move’ by the captain, who did not want to interfere with our holidays when we were coming to the new islands. We should wear the inflatable jackets, we are told, and wait by the rail. I turn down to work the fiddle, and when I look up I realise that my comrade is nowhere to be seen. ‘Hullo,’ I think. ‘I wonder where he is.’

I discover the answer five minutes later, when the same sailor drags him by the arm to my side, him looking very pale.

‘Where have you been?’ I ask.

‘I was vomiting,’ he says, almost out of breath, ‘off the other rail. Then this idiot came along and started ranting that I was supposed to stand on the opposite side of the ships. I almost threw him overboard when he grabbed my elbow. Never heard anything so absurd in my life.’

I tell him: ‘If the ship is sinking, you think they’d wait for you to finish vomiting?’

‘If the ship is sinking and I vomit in the safety boats, I’m going to be thrown to the fishes anyway. Might as well close in dignity.’

He has some logic himself, the poor lad. So that’s pretty much how we closed with our own cruise – high-flying our flags of dignity. Oi begorrah! Onward ye masses!

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Cruising the Caribbean, Part 1

I'm going to take up the subject of the Caribbean again, if only to close it (also because I was picking up steam before I started yacking about Avatar). This time I will speak about my experience as I visited all the local islands. I reasoned that being in the Caribbean wasn’t going to happen to me that often throughout my life, so I might as well see all the islands I could while I was at it. So one day I walk up with one of my fellow students, a guy called Calum, to a ship which tours the islands, and we get a cabin for a week.

On the day I set off, the man comes over with a neatly trimmed beard, Ray-Ban sunglasses and ironed clothes. I for a change am hungover, and the truth is impressed upon me that spending time with Calum is going to be something very different from living with Jack. The Welsh bastard has turned me into something of a slob (not that I was a disciple of Mary Poppins before that, but I didn’t live in the bogs either), while Calum looks like a cross between Clark Kent and the gingerbread man. We are given a cabin the size of a sardine tin which has been thrown under a steamroller, but given the prices we are paying, we can’t complain.

Couple drinks too many on the night before departing, maybe. Whoever drew those moustaches on me, if you're reading this, you can go fuck yourself

‘Please put that light out,’ he tells me on the first night, while I’m trying to read. It turns out that he has sleeping trouble – he can’t doze off if there’s a fly dying in Mexico or something. Grand. At least he should be organised as to the journey.

On the first day, we disembark on an island (I hate to be generic, but if anyone can go through five of those islands in five days and remember their specific names four years later, then they deserve the Legion of Honour as far as I’m concerned). We walk into the village, and it takes twelve seconds before we end up in the market and are assaulted by twenty merchants trying to sell us fruit. There, we negotiate with a ferocity which we never would have expected to possess on the price of a sack of pineapples, spending forty minutes in the act of bartering and shouting for our rights, only to get swindled ten minutes later by an old lady selling us pizzas. As the afternoon deepens, my interests and Calum’s display some divergence, so we part ways. I decide to walk on my own to see the sights out of the village, without really taking care of my direction, and I get lost. I turn back and start walking towards the sea in the hopes of finding the boat, and soon I am scrambling with a herd of goats which surfaced out of nowhere and appears to be going in my general direction. I suddenly understand why goats follow their shepherd (or ‘goatherd,’ or whatever the fuck he’s called) so intently. There is something so unspeakably inspirational about him. He looks like someone who really knows where he’s going, strutting about with that satisfied gait of his. Eventually he turns and sees me amid his goats. An exchange follows as to the whereabouts of the port, one of no great wit, in truth – for all of his military poise, the man is disappointingly dim.

On the second day, as we dock into new land, the sun is glorious. We wake up and look at it through the glass, and Calum looks particularly jolly.

The best way of spending your time in the Caribbean, by a mile and a half. Click on photo to see it fully.

‘What do you say that we take a dive?’ he suggests, and I respond with enthusiasm. Then I start rummaging in my backpack, and it turns out that of all the things I could forget, it was the swimming suit which earned the privilege this time. My friend takes it philosophically.

‘You fucking dickhead!’ he yells. ‘You go on a five-day cruise through all the beaches on the Caribbean and you can’t think to bring a rotten swimming suit? What are you going to do, swim in bollocks?’

So I have to go to the village before I can dive, and there I get assaulted by the men of the local market to sell me fruit, because obviously I can’t live without it. That night, Calum has gone to bed early, while I am on deck, chatting with some English girls who are also taking the cruise. They’re the kind of girls who require about twenty years in prison before they start looking attractive, and seeing how I’ve never been behind bars, this limits my interest considerably. After a few drinks together, I take my stuff and go back to bed.

The next day, Calum is flustered. ‘If you come back in the dead of night from your escapades,’ he informs me, ‘can you at least not do so like you’re banging together a pair of drums in the process.’

‘Calum,’ I inform him softly, ‘to begin with, it was more an encounter of the third kind than an escapade. Secondly, the only thing I did before going to sleep was brushing my teeth. If that equates to bongos, then you want to get some sleeping pills, mate.’ The man does not agree, and a small discussion is had on the right of a human being to sleep without being disturbed.

This is getting too long. I'll post part 2 tomorrow or the day after.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Thinking of Avatar

So the Oscars night ran its course and Bigelow kicked the shit out of Cameron. Fair and worthy I call it, and I’m glad it went that way. I was rather disappointed by Avatar, expecting more pathos and deeper characters. Personally my objection was an excess of raw material – it would have made for a great trilogy, with the first film focusing on the training, the second on the betrayal, and the third on the comeback. As it stands, despite the three-plus hours of running time, the plot and characters are just not sufficiently developed to build a real emotional connection, and you can’t empathise with them the way you did with, say, Luke Skywalker or Neo.

Still, much of the critical reception to this film had me perplexed. Some of the claims that it is ‘unoriginal,’ for example, are in my opinion short-sighted. The bare-bone plot structure was banal in films like Star Wars or The Matrix too (to stick with those examples) – archetypal, even, with tropes like ‘saving the princess’ and assuming the identity as the ‘chosen one.’ It was their technical and imaginative execution which made these movies refreshing despite the unoriginal tale, and it’s obvious that Avatar should be judged on the same grounds. Similarly, I had no gripe with the way the film picked up the culture of Native American Indians for the Navi. After all, Tolkien picked up Celtic mythology for The Lord of the Rings and Herbert did the same with Middle-Eastern imageries for Dune. Revisiting old narrative structures or cultures is not deplorable per se, as long as the execution is engaging and interesting enough. And there’s no doubt that the flatness of Avatar’s writing has been overstated, too – people call it ‘terrible,’ but if this is terrible, what do you call the new Star Wars trilogy, or the Harry Potter films?

Ultimately Avatar is a rather mediocre film in terms of script and characters (the bad guys are particularly boring), no more than that, and I think the most synthetic criticism was brought up by Cynthia Fuchs from Popmatters:

For all its powerful technologies and even Grace’s subtler dimensions, Avatar can’t get out from under its essential cardboardness. It can point to the evil effects of racism, but remains entrenched in the fundamental premise: the tribe both endangered and saved by the cowboy, the marine, the same-old romantic lead. Okay, so he’s also blue, in an appropriative and opportunistic way. He’s still the One

True, all. But while a great deal of the critics have been quick to point out these flaws, very few have been receptive to the more subtle aspects of Avatar as well. Praise for the film has been even more superficial than the criticism, and that’s why I felt the need to add my voice by means of this blog-post. The real value of Cameron’s latest creature is its successful assumption as flag-bearer for a new movement of science-fiction – one which had been timidly announced by Wall-E, and importantly stated by The Matrix. Avatar is more subtle in its discussions of virtuality than the film by the Wachowsky brothers, and I’ve seen very little analysis of this. The question was posed most pertinently by Keith Uhlich from New York Time Out, and no-one, to my knowledge, has cared to answer it:

It’s more than a little disconcerting that the film’s manufactured landscapes—with Jake Sully acting as their destined-to-be-reborn pantheistic savior—have a comparable weight to the most rugged terrain of our own great outdoors. The question lingers as the movie comes to its triumphant body-swapping close: Is this a pro-environment parable or a prophecy of virtual realities yet to come? Cameron’s new world may very well be a verdant Matrix.

Yeah. The naturalistic pantheism is couched in a discussion of virtuality, and this is the juice of the text. The opening of the film is the opening of an eye (meta-statement, but also throw-back to Blade Runner, the most representative film from the ‘old’ generation of sci-fi), and the very first words bring our attention to the nature of a dream. Of course, this has a certain ironic taste – the film is lifting a mirror to the spectators, who are also ‘opening their eyes’ to the dream represented by the story. The dream discussion is touched sparingly, but sustained throughout. Halfway through, Jake Sully tells us that real life has become the dream, and the dream has become real life – a reference to his alternation between his real body and his artificial avatar, and an obvious nod to the evolution of virtuality itself and how we experience it in contemporary culture. It should also be noted that Jake’s ‘real’ body is on a wheelchair, i.e. it requires an artificial support. The image of the wheelchair is placed against that of the artificial avatar – both are ‘wheelchairs’ of a sort, meaning that questions of what makes a body ‘real’ become more subtle and destabilized than they initially appear.

Now much like the two ‘bodies’ comment on each other’s reality, so the film sets up an antinomy between the utilitarian, sterile laboratory of Jake’s team (a tiny room) and the hallucinating outdoor scenarios of the Navi. The principle is the same – both comment on each other, questioning each other’s value, use and nature. The film points out their interdependence, and it’s particularly interesting to see the ‘middle ground’ that it sets up in the other human bases (those of the military bad guys at the excavation point). These are sort of a neutral zone, possessing qualities of the virtual and of the real at the same time. Though they belong to the ‘laboratory’ side in terms of aesthetics, they are absorbed in the narrative and seem to become a part of the same virtuality. It should be noted that the human laboratory doubles up to become the closed motion-capture rooms where the film itself was shot – again, the story borders on the meta-textual, as any discussion of virtuality executed through CGI will inevitably do. The statement ‘real life has become a dream, the dream real life’ applies to Jake as he enters the avatar, but also to Cameron as he projects this amazing world in the cinemas (more on this later).

The lab....

...and the space exposed.

I really need to see this film again – I only saw it once and more than a month ago now. But what struck me is that the film makes it a point of couching all of its own stories and myths in an explicitly virtual canvas. Even the Navi are fundamentally virtual creatures, from the neuron attachments in their ‘tails’ which are basically USB keys to their connection with the biological ‘internet’ of the trees and planet. So it is ironic that the threat posed by the humans is that, by destroying their tree, they are destroying the foundation of their virtuality – the basis of its own opposite ideology, that of loving nature. Now the film’s capacity to question – albeit in an often partial and rudimentary fashion, I’m not contesting that – the meaning of nature, artificiality and reality in contemporary culture (while showing how these concepts depend upon each other) is its greatest merit. The film’s final image, that of the virtual men chasing out the real men, is rather frightening as a prophetic metaphor. Still, I believe there is an underlying circular statement in the film – a certain sense that a cyclical view of history (the recurrence of the Western man versus American Indian trope, for instance) reflects itself in a cyclical relationship between representation and its subject matter (myth of nature coming from a virtual matrix, and vice versa).

I realise that, at best, this is more of a suggestive speculation for now than any kind of textual demonstration. As I said, I’d really have to see this film again (preferably stoned) to pick up on its subtlest nuances. What I thought was especially interesting and subtle was another dimension possessed by the film – Avatar as the most autobiographic of James Cameron’s films, and the figure of Jake Sully as a re-narration of Cameron’s ‘epic’ quest to narrate stuff. Two things pop to mind immediately.

1. The film has received much criticism for its ‘banality,’ and one example of this is the presence of space marines – a rather dated trope. But what people forget is that space marines, in cinema, were popularised by Cameron himself – Aliens practically defined the figure, and it’s unbelievable just how successful and pervasive their imagery has become (check out this cut-scene within the video-game Halo – it’s practically a remake, and this was made in 2001!). Avatar goes to great lengths to make the cliché of the ‘space marine’ a negative one, even getting to the point of re-staging the ending of Aliens but inverting the original ethical and aesthetical register (the monsters have become the good guys, the good guys have become the monsters). The ‘clichéd’ representation of the marines is in reality an incredibly assertive act of revisionism – one which is particularly notable because Cameron is doing it with his own work (much like Jake is ‘betraying’ his own kind). After Avatar, representing a space marine will necessarily mean making a statement, taking a position, endorsing an ideology (with or against Cameron’s film). The figure of the marine will never be ‘neutral’ again. Never. The space marine is dead, and the alien who killed him has assumed his shape.

2. The second obvious source of interest, in terms of Avatar’s relation to Cameron himself, is the paratextual quality of the film (more so than the metatextual qualities, I would say). The film tells a story, but at the same time it is a story – the (hi)story of cinematography itself. For all of its megalomania, Avatar is in fact as distant from vanity as you can imagine. It does not intend to ‘last forever.’ It doesn’t want to be a milestone – if not as a milestone of transience, that is. Its interest is ancestral, primary, archeological even – it goes back to the old function of cinema as emotional catharsis by purely technical means; to a time when going to a rollercoaster and then to the movies to see the miracle of moving images was fundamentally the same thing (much like, say, the novel in its ancestral form used to be similar in nature to the transient entertainment of social gossip). Aaron Sagers, still from Popmatters, puts it in these words:

When color came to cinema in the early 20th century, or when silent film gave way to talkies in the ‘20s, I was a few decades shy of making my entrance. Nor was I alive for the golden era of 3-D films in the ‘50s. I also barely made it in time to catch the beginning of the blockbuster film era in the late ’70s. But I’m clearly here for the beginning of the next movement of film, and it is Avatar. It’s too bad I didn’t get that a little earlier[…] Avatar has surprised me more than any other movie in a while. It reminded me that the size of a movie is far greater than the screen it’s shown on, and it provided a well-deserved slap to not underestimate the audience’s willingness to embrace a new kind of cinema.

What’s really interesting is how self-aware the film is of being itself a greater story than that which it tells. The change that is going on in cinemas has a certain epic nature which the film itself tries to reflect, lifting up a mirror to the bespectacled audience with the opening eye at the beginning. This kind of ambition is not strictly cinematographic and therefore cannot be evaluated according to our usual standards. You cannot use it to say that the film is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Like Star Wars before it, Avatar has a dimension which goes well beyond the superficial quality of the text as a narrative. Its history will be more than its story, and for this reason it is a story that makes history. Since you cannot respond to something like this by ordinary critical standards (for criticism is already part of the film’s history), it is only fair that Avatar should have been defeated on the arena of the Oscars.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

My first job ever

At the time of writing, I am about to take a train to go to Rome and sign my new contract. It is basically the job of a tourist guide in Egypt or Greece. My formation starts in about three weeks and it'll take me to Tunisia.

So I was thinking what to write about, and I decided that after so many intellectual posts, I'll take a more lighthearted tone and discuss the suicidal process of looking for employment - by going back to the first job I ever had, back when I was living in the Caribbean (and there's a whole set of entries in this blog on that time of my life, if you're wondering when that happened).

You see, couple of months into my permanence in Eden, I succeed in the ingrate task of finding a job. Thanks to my multiple language skills and of course my pretty eyes, it turns out that I am qualified for the position of tourist guide. A lady with a face like a camel, going by the name of Nadia when she’s not carrying Arabs on her back, will be my boss. Obviously before the job can begin I need to find out about the island myself.

The Queen Victoria, not proportional to Queen Victoria herself I hope.

So there we are for our introductory trip at six in the morning (why do these things always have to be done at six in the morning?), dressed up like scarecrows in a Nintendo videogame. The uniforms for the job consist in white trousers and multi-coloured shirts made with a local material which would be perfect if I were an air-traffic controller, given that being accidentally run over with that beaming flag around your chest is as likely to happen to you as drowning in Iraq. The shirt was easy to find, but the trousers were only available in pigmy-style size. When standing for the first tour, I have my nut-sack pressed up to my diaphragm and I look like an eunuch, the guy next to me is sporting a goatee over the shirt and he looks like something out of gay pride.

The tour starts, and a local girl who is supposed to be an ‘experienced’ guide sits in front of the bus. She begins explaining what it is that we are seeing as we take notes. The experience would be quite pleasant were it not for her insistence on ‘entertaining’ us. When the bus sets off she turns around all jolly and goes, ‘How are youuu??...’ and her words trail off into silence. She repeats the question and when we still refuse to lift our arms and go ‘yaaayyy’ like a bunch of demented retards, she gets quite angry and starts shouting and ranting at us. She seems to want to come back here and beat us, in fact. Considering that the girl has such a body mass that if you send her into space you can fly satellites around her, you’ll understand that she looks pretty dangerous. Fortunately she does settle back when we start reaching our destinations, like a pacified rhinoceros.

Then I find out what the lack of national monuments can do to a culture. The volcanology museum is a hall the size of a small stable the greatest attraction of which is represented by a broken church-bell which survived the first volcanic eruption and a couple of skulls the sight of which alone is enough to make everyone ill. The rum distilleries have some legitimacy as tourist attractions because they give free shots of rum at the end, but the summit of self-serving embarrassment is without the shadow of a doubt the banana museum. What on earth is there ever to see? Getting off the bus is humiliating enough, as you have bananas thrown at you from every side as though you were a monkey, and the interior is made up of panels, hung on walls, which tell you the history of the banana. Then you walk towards the plantation and out, all the while with people offering you bananas (or variations thereof – banana cakes, banana creams, banana paper, banana ketchup and shit yo). The plantation, given the naturalistic setting, is the only bit which looks rather interesting, but we have to interrupt it because it starts raining and because the guide makes a joke about bananas being ‘useless if they can’t stand’ which has Nadia in convulsions.

The banana plantation. In the rain.

It really makes you wonder what’s the point of going on holiday to the Caribbean if you don’t intend to spend your time toasting yourself on the beach. If you plan on seeing buildings and museums, you’re much better off staying in Europe.

The one thing which is really lovely and worth seeing is the botanical garden. Good heavens! I have never seen so many and such beautiful flowers all together in one place. Martinique is surnamed ‘Madinina,’ meaning ‘island of the beautiful flowers,’ and this is entirely legitimate. The only problem is that bringing people around through that garden implies learning the names of all the flowers by heart, and that would be hard enough if they weren’t all in Latin. I guess it’s true that you can’t pick a rose without finding some thorns.

When the tour is over, we are carried back – and the girl tries to entertain us again. ‘I will now teach you fifteen terms in Creole, the local language.’ (An appropriate choice I believe, since Creole is spoken by approximately fifteen people). ‘Bonjou means good-day. Saofé means how are you. Mabien means I’m all right. Chuchu means – ’ Enough, Jesus!! My turn to lead the tourists around will be the next day. I reason that two Creole terms is as much as I can realistically expect any of those nut-heads to learn, even in the implausible case that they may want to hear some more. I note down the first two, then I close my eyes, lean back and let the bus take me to my sweet port.