Daydreaming in Kathmandu

September 5, 2014

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People congregate on the ghats along the Bagmati river to pay their respects to the dead before lighting their remains on fire. A few feet away a two cows lap up river water unperturbed by scene around them. Ignored by everyone, they roam freely without restraint, like a pair of stray dogs. Further upstream, a woman squats by the water, soap in hand, with a pile of clothes by her side while a group of children run around laughing and screaming. They jump in and out of the river splashing water on my bare feet. This bridge is the closest I’ll get to the water but I still take it all in.

At least, I try.

Watching something like this unfold amounts to such a surreal experience, the stuff you see in movies or read in books. I’ve read that the ghats of the Ganges in Varanasi, India, are a lot like this.

Suddenly, the smell of burning flesh cuts off my little daydream and I’m in the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal, at the Pashupatinath Temple, one of the most sacred among the temples of Shiva, the Destroyer.


Neon Lights

August 31, 2014

It was a typical day in Bangkok, muggy, the air heavy with fumes from cars going nowhere in traffic and I was showing a couple of new faces around town. That was my routine back in those days, slowly getting to know the city with the help of others even less acquainted with their surroundings. It was all about the heat, the humidity and lots of walking.

We spent most of the day working our way through the labyrinth of shops and stalls that make up the Jatujak weekend market. Independent designers, second-hand clothes and shoes, knock-off designer goods, t-shirts, pets, trinkets… if you could think of it, it was probably there but that wasn’t a guarantee that you’d find it.

We had been lugging our purchases for better part of the day and most shops were closing down by the time we decided to look for the exit. Despite thoughts of deep fried pork, fish soups and crab legs crowding our minds, we managed to figure our way out. Knowing that delicious Chinese food awaited at the other end made the long ride in the MRT worthwhile.

I had been to Chinatown once before, for the Chinese New Year celebrations when the main road is closed off to vehicles and Thanon Yaowarat is completely overtaken by foot traffic and street vendors. It’s no weekend market but the stalls are stacked on top of each other along the sides of the road and the smell of food and the sounds of chatter smother you from every direction. Chinese New Year is a long weekend of stage shows, music, eating and mayhem, a time when Chinatown drowns in bodies, thousands of them. But this night was just a regular night. Daylight was quickly fading and I did not know what to expect.

We hopped on the subway from Chatuchak Park and headed to Hua Lamphong, practically the full length of the line. Once we got out, I began to retrace the steps I took that day, many moons before.

I’m pretty good with directions, specially when it comes to places to which I’ve already been, landmarks do the trick but the landscape had shifted significantly without the crowds and the stages. Besides the hard-to-miss Temple of the Golden Buddha, there were no signs telling us where to go and we couldn’t set ourselves adrift in the human currents that once flowed along the streets. While I wasn’t expecting any of that, I was hoping for a little more help.

I got nothing.

A street light would have helped ease the tension slowly creeping into our conversation. I kept my walk steady but the stray, nervous glances of my friends were hard to ignore. I tried to assure them that we would soon get there, I just didn’t know how soon or whether we were even headed in the right direction. My stomach grumbled but not out of anticipation.

We couldn’t have been walking too long but my feet felt like they were racing a marathon. My heart raced even faster. Conversation devolved into incongruous sounds as we tried to fill the emptiness of the night with our own voices. Our jittery small talk trailed off as we rushed through one of those garden variety unlit and deserted blocks, the ones you speed through hoping not to get mugged. And just then, we caught a glimpse of heavy traffic, food stalls, and neon lights.


A quick rant on a recent obsession of mine.

August 22, 2014

For the past few months, I’ve been telling friends that I really enjoy the Dresden Files. At this point, I’m ready to admit that I’ve been lying to them. And I’ve been lying to myself. After 12 books, the flimsiness of the characters has taken its toll on me. For a while, I had hoped for Jim Butcher to allow their personalities to develop naturally through the plot and stop with those annoying one paragraph introductions he includes every time a regular jumps into the fray and maybe, let the reader find out what their deal is all on their own. The problem is that everything you need to know about the characters in the Dresden Files can be boiled down to a paragraph and a few quips. They are not very complex. It bothers me something terrible and it makes his characters predictable, from the cowardly, career-driven but crooked Special Investigations officer all the way up to Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. I don’t ever catch myself wondering what’s going through his mind whenever he crosses paths with anyone in high heels.

Dresden himself boils down to this well-intentioned and highly misunderstood individual with the proclivities of a frat-house reject who hasn’t gotten any lately but has managed to contain his nearly nuclear levels of lust and should be commended for doing so. He also thinks that his constant interactions with the supernatural makes him better suited at deciding the fate of others, but it really doesn’t so he ends up messing things up for his people, professionally, emotionally and/or physically, take your pick. Jim Butcher paints Harry as the underdog, always fighting the odds, standing up against convention and fucking shit up (good and bad shit), while steadily acquiring the silent admiration of the brash, younger folk. He tries to be the nice guy but when it comes down to it, he comes off as the unintentional anti-hero.

Butcher’s female characters are all hotter than Cholula sauce. Harry constantly fetishizes them. You would think one couldn’t get hotter than the next but that’s only because you haven’t met the next contestant, with the exception of Murphy who is only really super cute (just give Molly some time). The traits and personalities of the women around Dresden are constantly overshadowed by their sex appeal, at least whenever the protagonist addresses them. Or talks about them. Or thinks about them. They highlight his sexual instincts and the strength of his will -his power to overcome temptation. If and when temptation overcomes him, it’s only because he’s taking one for the team. Murphy and Molly are the only two who somehow manage to escape this box. Kind of, since Harry still has a thing for them.

The characters in the Dresden Files are more or less defined by their props if not other tropes. The wielder of the Sword of Hope and a Kalashnikov, an agnostic black russian Knight of the Cross (God’s own Delta Force) is as complicated as they get. Everyone else just slips right into their bathrobes and slippers.

Sometimes, I don’t mind someone else doing the thinking for me and I say this not in an attempt to validate my taste for these books by labeling them as a guilty pleasure. I’m not a big fan of Butcher’s character portrayal, yet I’ve made it through 12 volumes.

I don’t hate Dresden. I rather like him in spite of his apparent deal-breakers. It’s not hard to find yourself rooting for the guy regardless of the annoying stuff about him and the people around him. I still think of Dresden as a regular guy, with a gift for magic, and a bunch of Nevernever people problems. I am annoyed at the things that I’ve mentioned because I think that were it not for those things, the Dresden Files would be even better. I love the concept behind many of the characters in the series, but I mean, after 12 books, I don’t expect a drastic change in their portrayal in the remaining 8.

Having said that, it still doesn’t sound like a good enough reason to stick around for so long. What gives?

These stories take place in a vast world that extends beyond the natural and incorporate classic fantasy and other fiction into its universe, while weaving together multiple, intriguing story lines. And I am a sucker for story lines and world building. I’ve become a big fan of the hardboiled tone of the series and I’m digging the underlying plot, Butcher’s take on the supernatural universe and the way he’s incorporated other fantasy books and myths into his own work-the Nevernever (land), Bram Stoker’s Dracula being a manual on how to kill a type of vampire, werewolves, native american shapeshifters, King Arthur, Merlin and Excalibur, dragons, archangels and fallen angels, and the world of the fae to name a few. It’s more than clever, it’s amazing work, something that I came to fully acknowledge around the time Dresden saddled up a zombie dinosaur. It got me hype. And I find myself looking forward to his possible encounter with the Jabberwocky.

While my beef with the characters in the Dresden Files was brought to a boil in Changes, I was still able to enjoy the details that further fleshed out of the world in which Harry operates. It’s not difficult to go through the series but this volume was a rough ride. Among the things that I’ve managed to accept by now is that there’s no way of avoiding the Deus Ex Machina that affects every story, especially since every one of them is about Harry saving the day, regardless of how out-muscled he may be. I’ve come to expect a certain outcome, I think it’s part of reading these books, but I can’t imagine anyone would be aghast at the final twist in Changes, whether or not you know that there are supposed to be 20 books in the series. I am fully vested in the Dresden Files despite my gripes. I enjoy reading them but after this one, I’m going to need a long break before moving onto what’s left.


The story of the best meal I had in Yangon

August 12, 2014

Indian food bliss in Yangon.
The sidewalk leading to the Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon was lined with vendors offering up all the essentials. T-shirts, shopping bags, posters, and pinback buttons bearing the likeness of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s living monument to the fight for democracy, were available at a low, low price from any one of them. The street wasn’t bustling with energy but the scene felt chaotic by Myanmar standards, although everything seemed to steadily devolve in the insufferable heat.

Inside the bazaar it was a totally different story. The shaded interior offered a much welcomed respite from the sun, electric fans buzzed out of every other stall and there was an unspoken sense of order prevalent throughout.

A middle aged man approached me as I walked into the market and sparked off what by now had become a familiar exchange.

Mingalaba!

Mingalaba.

Where you from?

America.

Obama!

After a mild back and forth he bluntly told me not to bother shopping at Bogyoke because only foreigners shopped there and that was why there was such a high mark-up on all the merchandise. I would find much better prices at the local market across the street and he would gladly show me the way. He happened to have a shop there, full of quality goods, much better things than I was seeing here and so on. He was very long winded (don’t laugh) and only slightly amusing. I nodded along politely but remained thoroughly uninterested in his sales pitch.

He got the hint.

“Good Luck and take care my friend,” he said as he took off. The most cordial tout I have ever come across left me just as swiftly as he’d come after me.

This was the first time in my short stay in Yangon that I had been approached by touts. After I parted ways with the man, others came after me, albeit sporadically, offering all sorts of products and services. Nothing outrageous like they do in Cambodia where they start off with accommodation, jump to marijuana, hash, heroin, women, etc, etc, with the list getting progressively worse before they leave you alone, but that’s a whole other story. The difference that day was that in Myanmar’s biggest city’s most famous bazaar, I wasn’t being accosted by people from every side, all at once. And they were so polite. I once had my shirt ripped by a group of overzealous vendors fighting over my attention at the Bến Thành Market in Ho Chi Minh City. Having had my share of experiences in bustling places overflowing with frantic peddlers, it was amusing how easy it was to fend them off in Yangon. Most of the time, all it took was a wave of my hand. These are not the droids you are looking for. It was way too easy.

The Bogyoke Market is an elegant market, but in the light of a more modest place like the Luang Prabang Night Bazaar in Laos, that elegance seems contrived. Compared to the overwhelming chaos of the other big markets around the region, like the tangled labyrinth of shops and people that is the Jatujak Market in Bangkok or the hustle and bustle of the Central Market in Phnom Penh, Bogyoke is too clean, too orderly and too easy to navigate not to be an oddity. Despite the ease with which I maneuvered through the building, there were lots of people around. The only place where I witnessed a larger convergence of foreigners in Yangon was at the Shwedagon Paya, although the number of visitors at the market still pale in comparison to those at the massive Buddhist shrine.

The Bogyoke Aung San Market offers a hassle-free experience that seems foreign to the way big bazaars operate in Southeast Asia. The mark-up on merchandise can be easily overlooked by westerners but there’s a reason why locals don’t shop there. Other than the architecture of the building in which it’s located and its conspicuous tidiness, there is nothing special about the place. Nonetheless, it is a destination highlighted by many travel guides, although it could easily be the opposite of a highlight. Something tells me that this will soon be a place where Jedi mind tricks no longer work.

Big markets around Southeast Asia (and some of the small ones too) are experiences all to themselves. You set some time aside, maybe half a day, sometimes a whole weekend, and you take the plunge. You don’t have to have an objective in mind before you dive in. It’s part of the city’s rhythm itself, from Bangkok, to Luang Prabang. Not so much in Yangon.

I didn’t go Bogyoke with the intention of picking up anything in particular but left emptier than I had arrived. I didn’t even take any pictures. My disappointment wasn’t enough to fill the void that I felt walking out. But that turned out to be more than just a metaphorical void, I desperately needed food. To my alarm, I couldn’t find a proper food stall and I felt the heat was slowly cooking every part of me. After a few blocks of erratic movement, I stumbled onto a chair in the warm shade of an Indian restaurant. Semicoherent, I waved a server over and ordered a plate of the best Chicken Biryani ever.


A front-row seat at the coup

August 6, 2014

Ever wondered what it’s like to live through a military coup?

Earlier this year, I posted a few entries about the turmoil going down in Bangkok (1, 2, 3, 4). I was getting ready to move back home and friends and family were starting to have doubts about the likelihood of my return. Things ‘settled down’ after the February elections but everything was not back to normal.

On the morning of Tuesday, May 20th, as I boarded my flight back to the US, I saw the news pop up on my phone. The military had declared martial law. By the time I arrived home some 24 hours later, things seemed very tense.

Every time I tell the story of that fateful day, the one where I boarded my one way trip to freedom, I’ll just do a rundown of the movie Argo, only that it’ll be set in Thailand and it’s starring me. At least that’s what it feels like I’m doing, specially when I include the part with the military truck chasing the plane down the runway, as I look out the window at the frustrated faces of the Thai soldiers trying to stop the 747. Nevermind I always sit on the aisle.

Later that week there would be a full on coup. Lucky for me, I was already half a world away. I didn’t get to live through that mess but a lot of my friends did and one of them wrote an essay that got published in a newspaper here in the States.

It has been about two months since but if you’ve ever wondered what life would be like living abroad during a military takeover, Jamie’s essay encapsulates the atmosphere of the time perfectly. Just keep in mind that Thai coups are a special breed and things would probably turn out differently elsewhere.

Enjoy.


on patterns that never end.

August 5, 2014

One of my favorite things about my brother’s art is his patterns. As a matter of fact, I used one of the first patterns he made way back in the day as wallpaper on this blog, it’s called “October, November, December.” You should see it up on a wall in real life, or you could right click, copy and tile it on your desktop and have your mind blown. He recently held a workshop on pattern making in Palm Springs in Cali.


Peep some of his work.


Luck in the streets of Little India, pt. 2

July 28, 2014

L1001321 by Alexander Zudasov

It was early in the evening in the streets of Georgetown, hot and steamy as ever, with the sun slowly bleeding into the sky and he was finally heading home after having spent a whole day doing things that weren’t putting money in his pocket. Somewhere in the vicinity of Little India he spotted his mark. Normally, he wouldn’t look for targets on empty streets like this but with a terribly slow week on top of an alarmingly scant season, he was keen to jump at slightest opening.

And there it was, opportunity knocking, wearing a tattered beer’s logo on his chest and well-worn traveling pants. Hiding a pair of fancy running shoes under a layer of caked mud, dressed in a halfhearted attempt to imply frugality but too neatly groomed for his own good. A man wandering about aimlessly in a place he did not belong. Even in the fading light of day, it was easy to spot him just by the way he moved. But there was something eerily familiar about this one. He realized that the stranger could have passed for a local had he worn simpler clothes and had more of the local spices permeating his pores. Those foreigners, he thought to himself, they even smell different. He often wondered why they never made an effort to blend in. His friends would always tell him it was lucky for him they didn’t.

Ironically, for one with his particular hustle, he didn’t place much value in luck. He firmly believed that there was a point in everyone’s life after which you made your own. Every event was a turn to be played out in someone’s favor. Some people were completely oblivious to this fact, mostly foreigners and the children of rich folks, those who could not be bothered with small details like worrying about their next meal, or having to sleep in the rain. There were always winners and losers and he had been dealt a rough hand in this game of life, right from the start. He came from the streets and he never had the privilege of leaving things to chance. Every act was a choice and he owned every one of them. As a result, he had mastered the art of making others believe in these fortunes he dispensed while he determined his own fate.

The scent of incense mingled with the thick air as he waited in the middle of the empty intersection. He offered a patient smile to the lonely soul drifting in his direction. Their eyes met and the fortune teller made his move.

“You are a lucky man!”

“Really?!” The stranger exclaimed, slightly taken aback as if the diviner had simply materialized out of thin air.

“You are a lucky man,” he repeated. “Do you know why?”

The fortune teller could already feel the page turning on his monetary misfortunes.

Calmly grinning, the stranger replied, “yes, I know.”

A tinge of alarm crept up his spine to the back of his head following the unexpected response and he was struck by a memory.

He had had a dream, not long ago, where he met a man at a crossroads, and this man led him on a strange path. In the dream, he had been moving about aimlessly from town to town, places he had always known but to which he had never been. Every alley, every edifice, every character in every town, every nook and cranny was as familiar to him as the lines covering the flat of his hand. Then along came this unfamiliar face who led him to unfamiliar places, from that very intersection, wearing that same gentle smile and serene eyes, moving in that unerringly foreign way.

There he stood, confounded by the turn of events. As the stranger walked away, he was reliving an encounter already branded in his memories. He knew the eversion of the man’s next step and the expression on his face. In an instant, he was overwhelmed by a fury of recollections, dreams that foretold a myriad other fates, ungainly riches, conniving deceptions, lifetimes of accomplishments, happiness, hunger, despair, conception and death. He relived them all, sights that could not be unseen, of memories yet to come.

The hustler became aware that his hoax had become real. But fate was not devoid of irony. While the futures of others lay prostrated before him, he was conspicuously missing from this vision. The uncertainty of his own destiny paralyzed him with fear. For the first time in his life he felt lost and darkness shrouded the road ahead.


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