Thursday, May 14, 2009
I'm wading through the thousands of images taken while I was gone. I'm more or less recovered from jet lag but no less disappointed at the real world I've returned to, though I have no right to be disappointed. It will never change, only I will change and I knew that being away for three weeks wasn't going to accomplish the kind of change that would make a difference in my life here immediately.
Anyway, thinking back to when Jesse and I went to Abu Simbel and what those brief moments felt like in retrospect. I am struck by the contrast in the experience of seeing these monumental and magnificent sculptures and the crowds of western tourists of which I am one milling around at seven on a blistering morning in the desert. I am struck by the intensity of awe I feel contemplating works such as these and the near impossibility of being undistracted by those feelings while in the presence due to circumstances.
Last night I was reviewing some images taken the night before at a Nubian village we went to for dinner. As we approached a line of camels and riders passed across our view in front and I snapped off a group of pictures. At the time I suspected several things that did not add up in my mind to what I wanted the images to be. One was that the village appeared painted to some extent to appeal to western and English speaking tourists, hence the word "crocodile" spelled out on a building otherwise sporting Arabic script. Also the some of the pictures smacked of pandering as they did not feel like they originated for any reason other than what it was thought a tourist might respond to. Lastly the caravan of camels which when I was taking the pictures was rather distant was, as I suspected, ridden by at least two tourists in bermuda shorts and sun hats.
How to reconcile to the fact that one is there with the hordes? At Abu Simbel after not enough sleep and a three hour drive across the desert one is thrown in with the dozens of bus loads of tourist arriving at the same time, which to our western biological clock would breakfast time.
There is no chance to savor the feeling of serenity or power in the presence of the sculptures themselves for me. I need more space, more sense of the sacred, perhaps it is the scale that impresses? I think it's much more.
I feel when I look at these kinds of works, that I am rightly put in my place in the world and in the context of history. That I am as important and significant as a single sigh in a long life in terms of what these antiquities present to me.
An image of Jesse at the Temple of Philae caught my feeling very well, a feeling I immerse my self too deeply in photography to savor as much as I wish when in the presence of the works them selves.
It is disturbing to my own desire to be able to experience these places, and times with the kind of peace one wants from a refreshing visit to ocean or countryside. I ask myself what makes me so special and I have no answer, other than what ever others conclude for themselves, I am too wrapped up in my own neurosis and self centered delusions to have a grounded perspective. If I grant myself any credit at all it is that I truly passionately love to share what it is that I love so much and want others to have at least a chance at the pleasure and enrichment that I gain.
That said, I am also aware that anything we experience is appreciated or not half based at least on what it is we bring with us to the experience. The same is true for any art, music, film what ever. Thus it is always frustrating to feel at times that one shows what one perceives as magnificence to others only to receive back the feeling of incomprehension or even indifference.
When I am traveling I want to be invisible and of course that is a conceit of my own as I am anything but invisible to most, but I try to minimize my sense of intrusion as much as possible.
Then there is the complaint that we are using the rest of the worlds for our museum, to gawk at "primitive" ways of life and revel in the difference from our own technology and information saturated world.
What arrogance it is to wander around in these peoples world, their lives, to hand them money from a life that to them appears to be of unparalleled luxury compared to theirs.
I can't help but wonder when traveling, especially out of the city, where that man with the donkey and the goats sleeps at night, how his food is preserved or prepared. I think I know the answer in part which is that he sleeps in a dwelling that would make most of the people I know squirm if confronted with the realities of it. Possible lack of running water or minimal and same for electricity. Same for access to so much that is part of the fabric of our lives, access to public education of a significant quality, libraries, airwaves filled with information, music and advertising.
That brings me to why I don't feel so arrogant in front of these people. I am not so sure that what I know of daily life is always superior to what they know. Like them, I pay a price for my "freedom". Their world is proscribed by at least a degree of religious devotion and tradition that we scorn mostly in our predominantly secular world. Their world has rules for behavior of what is expected of the genders and their world is filled with family and extended community I suspect largely unimaginable to many of us any more.
I envy them that sense of security and knowing how the balance of life is defined. They do not necessarily question the world beyond the boundaries of their own culture. They also might if they had a greater access to education and if public health services were stronger, but who am I to look down on them? They don't live in a world of sex and material goods saturated advertising bombarding me from every direction, they don't live in a world so secular and without reverence that money is the common denominator and not community. relationships, feelings and family.
Perhaps this is only a reflection of my own mangled background. I feel like a child in front of some of these people and there are many who probably think just that of me. I am in awe of those whose world makes sense and they are confident that their place in it is secure. Sometimes I am not so sure.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Another week of jet lag. I hadn't counted on it being so brutal. Maybe I should have just stayed away. I came home to exactly what I knew to expect, a and now ex wife still deluded into imaging I would want anything to do with "friendship" without major changes in our relationship. I dreaded coming home for this reason alone. It was what I left and knew I would return to as no one has the power to change the past other than their perceptions and as yet I have had no grounds or experience to base such changes upon.
So now that's out of the way. I was in fact delighted today to find that the Egyptian Hotel Windsor desk clerk had sent my brass tray and it arrived in the mail as promised.
The delight was as much in having someone you trust come through for you as the fact that one of the artifacts of my childhood was such a tray. That original tray was bought when I visited Egypt as a child, dragged home by my mother with two children (of which I was the younger) along with a huge leather hassock (deflated at the time)as well as an amazing inventory of trinkets, souvenirs and lovely pieces of folk art typical of Egypt accumulated over the many months of our visit then. Those items were dragged physically across Europe by my mother with me and my sister on trains and ships and finally after New York by airplane to home, across the bay from San Francisco and displayed for decades only to be lost, dispersed or other wise disappear. I wanted my own tray now that I understood it was to be a table and not a display object for a shelf.
I live in a different world though I may be her cultural and psychological heir. I was apprised as I left Phnom Pehn for Seam Reap that my total weight must equate to no more than 43 kilos (the rest of the worlds version of 50 lbs) so I was glad I had had the brass tray sent by the Egyptian postal service.
Hopefully (and probably) that service has improved in security. As a child the anecdote I recall is the American or other expat who was expecting a gift in the mail from home that never arrived. The sender inquiring repeatedly finally feeling pressed to describe the particular striped neck tie sent, and upon inquiry at the Cairo post office the ex pat noticing the clerk wearing a tie suspiciously similar to the missing gift. So I am delighted to observe confidence in the present ability as well as (and perhaps most importantly) the Hotel Windsor which negotiated the entire thing for me at a remarkably more reasonable rate than that quoted to me by Egypt Air the airline I flew out of Cairo on to Bangkok.
But enough of that. I am home now and enjoying only the after glow of photographs that I am editing along with the slowly fading memories. It is aggravating to me that no matter how hard I work at preserving recollections I know for a fact that details will disappear day by day, invisibly and inevitably. Being human is such a humiliating and aggravating reality at times.
So as I knew I would find, I am home in my college town, filled with young people and of course being heterosexual I tend to some times notice women and the fact that the way they comport themselves along with how their physical characteristics differ from those in other countries, they are also of significantly different disposition towards men. Here I feel, as I knew I would at home, far more isolated and severed from contact. It is a consequence of both my being of some generations older than the coeds that frequent the neighborhoods near the university as well as the facts of how genders behave in my culture differently than in others I visited. The curiosity to me is that in Egypt with a clear distinction in the roles of men and women, perhaps due to my being a man, I felt included and respected though socially separated from women, in Asia I felt included and socially engaged and at home I feel neither except with people I know well and not many of those.
As I work on the photographs I remember how I felt being there and finding them. I remember feeling an intense love of Egypt, of the people and knowing that they would not necessarily understand my feelings or what being there meant to me. I thought about it a lot at the time and after. It is not an academic sense, it is of necessity highly subjective, born of experience and repetition. I'm sure if when I visited in 1976 I had not had a positive return I would not have wanted to return again as much as I had for the last over thirty years. Fortunately I was not disappointed but felt entirely vindicated in my feelings.
It is not hard for me to see the gulfs in reality between my own country and Egypt and much harder to know how to bridge those gulfs as an individual. As I work on the images I see one after another, faces that I remember looking at me either quizzically, friendly or angry and knowing in that moment to not further pursue, to take my advantage of good will or resign myself to a moment missed and the light being wrong. So many considerations, none of them particularly personal and mostly circumstantial.
Time and again I wanted to tell someone that I could not communicate with how important I felt it was that I have a momentary chance to show how wonderful Egypt is, how marvelous that people can still feel the pride of history that Americans can mostly only read about.
We imagine ourselves to be proud of our history but there is absolutely no comparison with the pride of people knowing their heritage counts immeasurably in the history of the world while ours is still an experiment barely even tested as the contemporary world watches in a combination of envy and confusion at our embarrassing wealth even in the worst of times and our incredible nearly total lack of experience with physical strife amongst ourselves or with invaders compared to extensive poverty more common elsewhere.
Luck does not even begin to describe our circumstances. Our standard of living, our assumptions, our sense of entitlement is beyond the expectations of kings for even the lowest of us in so many circumstances. There is no way to understand this in a text book and only travel and being in the midst of the reality of other cultures begins to educate.
It is an experience that is more precious than the finest university can provide, it can only be gained by throwing your self into the midst and taking what you find by trusting that people are human every where and they feel largely as you do and want mostly what you want, that is to be loved and respected and accepted for who they are. It's not all that complex really.
Today as a self indulgence, feeling crummy still both physically and emotionally, I bought two CD's to make myself feel better and I took a long time choosing. The first is Women of Egypt 1924 -1931 and the other is Amr Diab, greatest hits. a major pop star in Egypt. Obviously these are sort of bookends of the modern world, and being an amateur student of culture I found myself wanting at least some degree of perspective. This wasn't too bad for two choices for someone who reads no Arabic and took a chance. I can't begin to describe them adequately but the first is much more listenable to a western ear willing to hear and the second is surprisingly both clearly rooted in the culture and modern in being sped up (as is our own popular music since World War Two for the most part) and American influenced in the way that pop music is almost everywhere now.
Anyway, an afternoon spent making rice pudding with my formula with cardamom and almond flavoring) a good cigar, a martini made with gin from Washington State and finally a phone call from a local acquaintance and then Jesse to leaven my otherwise sometimes heavy moods.
It is hard for me to come home to what I left, knowing what it would be so well. not looking forward to it particularly and not being disappointed. Hoping to be wrong but knowing the probability being I would not be wrong.
So onward with the predictable and wondering if maybe it is time now to just move entirely away after believing so fervently in being of a place and having more than a brief history as is so common. Wondering where I would go and why. Wondering what my purpose here is anymore without a context or a partner to justify my presence. I feel like a left over with out any particular excuse or necessity.
Maybe that will change, or maybe I will change by leaving and creating a new reality for myself. It's too soon but I feel impatient as I was feeling already before I left.
As I review the images I am alternately amazed and embarrassed. I am amazed at the humility and good humor people exhibit towards me for the most part and I am embarrassed by own arrogance and assumptions. I freely acknowledge my sometimes predatory and voracious tendencies when behind a camera, my desire to capture before the subjects defense mechanisms and perhaps outrage at being invaded by an apparently presumptuous tourist take over against my simultaneous desire to not be rude, be a poor guest in their country that I so delight in for the very reasons that it is not my own culture and that I have so much to learn and want to share.
I am an ignorant outsider without more than a rudimentary command of a smattering of words or knowledge, just a profound affection.
An odd thing I heard the night before we left Cairo. We're visiting with a friend of a friend of my son. a woman from Egypt who's parents were diplomats and grew up in Washington DC. I give her the brief details of why I am so fond of Cairo and at some point she compliments me on my pronunciation of Arabic. I felt somewhat embarrassed as I felt there was no basis for such a compliment. I could only attribute it to the early phonetic recognition of a child to what the sounds "should" be coupled with the infrequent exposure I've had as an adult. Still though, through our entire visit words would come to me that I recognized but had forgotten the meaning of and when I asked I realize that of course I did know the word. Not whole phrases really but words coupled that help greatly when dealing with people in the street, phrases like "mafeesh felooze" or "I have no money" which you tell the appropriate beggar, or "mazboot" when asked how I want my coffee, which simply means balanced or not too sweet and not too plain. It happened every few days and by the time we had to leave as has happened in the past I didn't want to leave yet, I wanted to belong and be accepted and feel loved. Something that sometimes feel missing at home where it should be for everyone. It's no ones problem but my own to fix.
Still, looking at these images, seeing some of the faces of joy and genuine welcome how can I not wonder why it should feel so hard to find this close to home, but it does.
Saturday, May 2, 2009
I must be almost home because I’m incredibly frustrated trying to do something that should be really simple. I arrived about six thirty with four or so hours of sleep. Wandered into the beautiful new airport all but deserted and finally located a bench near an electrical outlet to plug in the computer. Plugged in and found no wi-fi. Not really surprised, I took a nap. Drowsing listening to the background music shift from Parsley Rosemary & Thyme to Fur Elise by Beethoven. There was a nice performance of some traditional Chinese musicians and dancers for a while. The personnel at Immigration and Passport control were efficient and professional. All seemed like it would be a smooth transition.
I went to change the remaining Thai currency to Yuan so I could get something to eat and had to pay the equivalent of seven US dollars for the privilege. Later I realize I could have used a credit card for food and waited until I got home to convert currency. Instead I do both.
I go to an airport restraint promising free wi-fi and order a club sandwich and a cup of coffee. Regular coffee which tastes pretty good amounts to an espresso sized serving in a regular cup. After forty five minutes of slowly eating the OK sandwich and almost warm fries I still cannot get an Internet connection and complain. I’m told they have cables, no wif-fi and am directed to a triangular shaped desk with two connections per side. I’m given a cable and sit down at a vacant space and plug in. After over five minutes of trying to get on line I notice the stickers on the two receptacles on my side both say “broken”. So I sit and wait for one of the others to free up and after ten or so minutes one does and I plug in again. I still cannot get a live connection to the Internet and give up after another ten or fifteen minutes in really annoyance. Decide I will try a land line credit card call since I am never able to get through on my cell phone no matter what I do.
I wander around and find a bank of phones. The video interface is mostly in Chinese but I plow ahead and do the best I can to get a response I can work with. I am told repeatedly regardless of the credit card or way I try to use it that “calls to that number are not allowed”. I’m trying to call my son in Oakland to see if I can get my car left at my house so I can collect my mail and do banking before the weekend starts. Then I try to call each one of his brothers with out success either. Finally I decide the try the most expensive option and try a collect call and manage to finally get an English language interface. Finally after having tried countless times on three different phones on two different banks of pay phones the call goes through. Of course I’m calling at the wrong time and it’s ten thirty at night for my son and he’s not sure he can move the car for me. I feel badly that I’ve interrupted his sleep and that I’m asking for something beyond his ability. I feel like my efforts to get through were mostly an exercise in futility and that I should have done nothing, taken a pill, had a drink, waited until I got myself home and then decided how much I was over drawn or now many bills I’d missed paying in my absence.
Ultimately none of this will make any difference and my life will soon return to the patterns it normally follows with the people that I normally interact with at home. The Chinese cultural celebration display is on again with young dancers on the stage spinning around. That sounds better.
An hour later. I quite feeling so aggravated and resign myself to the future having not a great deal of change from the past. It’s usually so incremental that the differences are marked in degrees of subtlety rather than dramatic contrast for the most part. I may as well accept that nothing is going to change, no one is going to act any differently and that if I want that I need to look elsewhere or within myself.
My final flight takes off in about an hour. The trip has been remarkably free of irritation other than allowing myself to be ripped off early on in Egypt, and some extravagant expenses such as a suit in Bangkok. I’ll have to take myself to the opera this fall to justify the purchase. Of course maybe I’ll learn how to convince other people I’m really serious about doing business rather than just playing at it. It took me six months or more of steady effort to get that confidence as a cab driver so I should allow that this time too. Of course when I was learning to drive a cab I wasn’t alone and that does make a difference. Maybe it seems like it makes more of a difference now because I’ve returned to this state too many times to feel optimistic any more. Just resigned that this is what the cards I’m dealt, have dealt myself for that matter, will amount to and there is nothing more to be said. I need to simply figure into my budget the fact that if I want to tell someone my innermost thoughts I have to pay for it, and if I want to be touched kindly, I need to pay for that too. The expectations of how things are supposed to be are mostly made up in my own mind and resolving to be at peace with the facts of my life is all I can do or else I’ll act out inappropriately again with sex, drugs and other self destructive behaviors.
I’ve been away since April 7, been to three countries and in seven different cities since I left home (New York, Cairo, Aswan, Luxor, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Seam Reap)and on nine different airplanes and spent my money with far less restraint than I do at home. Hopefully I will enjoy my things at home, enjoy drinking the Arak and smoking the cigars, wearing the suit, the silk boxers and kimono. The bottom line is that I bought things for others that I got great pleasure out of choosing and if they bring others pleasure then that is worth more than the indulgences I bought for myself.
I remember when I left that I was struggling with whether or not I deserved such a trip and I can’t say that I’ve changed much in three weeks. The feelings of privilege as an American are not feelings I am comfort able with. I want to share what I have with others and not feel used or exploited. Those feelings are no different with those I let in close to me at home than they are when I travel and am among strangers. Sometimes the differences can seem blurry as those in other countries are so warm and engaging, friendly and solicitous and ultimately it is about your money. At home the behaviors are a little different and the coin of the realm is not necessarily that of cash, sometimes it is more expensive than one realizes at first.
I’m finishing my last beer in China and going to the gate to take off in forty five minutes. The trip will be over in twelve hours or so and then I’m back to the cool grey fog of home and reality again. Until I can get away.
The airport is new and glossy, left over from the Olympics. I was last here in 2006 and loved the city but this time I'll be stuck in the air terminal for nine hours. It sounded worse in advance than it was in reality. I find things to be interesting almost anywhere I am and for the most part refuse to be bored but insist on trying to bring my own context of experience with me to understand where I am from a present perspective each time.
Despite a depressive personality I love the world and humanity and revel in all the variations and permutations we insist upon each other. It is these infinite variations and digressions that make us human and keep me from being bored.
How can I as an American accustomed to the impossible privleges and assumptions that Americans entertain, not be impressed with the soaring modern architecture in both the Bangkok and Beijing airports? Yet, Phnom Penh charmed me, reminded me of the first time I flew out of San Francisco as a child in the fifties, the terminal was similarly modest but no less international. We oncce built a patch in the middle of the bay and called it Treasure Island after the Robert Louis Stevenson story, dropped a Worlds Fair on it (what ever happened to those?) and had loft plans to use it as an airafield for Pan Am Clipper Ship airplanes to the "Orient".
In America the future is constantly racing ahead to collide with the present in ways that we here take for granted and the rest of the world marvels at and yet like any one anywhere, we pay a price for this success rate. The price is the sometimes loss of personalization. It takes time to be personal, it takes time to spend time with others long enough to hear them and know what they feel. One of the American failures has been the trade off of the human for the transendentally futurist. So enchanted with our ability to fly close to the sun like Icarus we forget to sit in the mud and be charmd by the child mocking us and being a clown just across the way. It takes time and patience to do these things and it does not require any gadgets or gizmos. It doesn't matter if you have the latest Ipod or sleekest car. The child doesen't care and neither does a lot of the rest of the world. Theyn are dazzled by our neverending phenomena but at the end of their days, there is still rice to be planted, a child still to be sung to and some one down the road expecting to be paid off to leave you alone for another day. We just handle our payoffs with a less primitive systlem, but no less draining ultimately.
Corruption is part of the human condition. That's how we got to be where we are now. Not glamorous and fast, but clumsy and awkward. stepping in the mud of the world, not watching where we walk, electing fools who couldn't even lie with a straight face. Some of us insisted on voting for these people and it will always be so, here and abroad as well.
This time though the greetings were so often more "welcome, Obama GOOD!" and lots of thumbs up. People wanting to know how we feel about the new president and hopeful that we're still hopeful.
They do depend on us to an incredible degree and we have let them down so many times and told them to ignore the little man behind the screen but people are not fools by and large and they don't ignore what is in plain sight.
We insult the world when we take it for granted. They know that we have taken them for granted and that is why in part they are ready to take us for what ever they can when that is the option, because they will never be up to the bigger hammer that we represent so viscerally.
I grew up in the immediate shadow of the atomic bomb, that hammer ever ready in the shadows that everyone hopes will go away and everyone knows will never disappear within the memory of anyone who will ever remember them however remote. We're talking here about people who in some cases still celebrate the holidays of the Pharaohs. How do you argue with people who readily acknowledge a heritage of four or five thousand d0cumented years? This isn't some vague Day of the Dead worshipping some personal ancestors, this is the history of the world, all of us. They celebrate it, we don't. We're still hung up with Seventy Six Trombones and a Big Parade on the Fourth of July. It feels puny to me. These folks know antiquity and what the nitty gritty reality of being human really is in the put rice on the table with nothing else in sight.
I know I'm rambing here.
I'm home and rattling around in my coffin factory looking at the artifacts of my brief trip and wondering what I could have left behind. What I might have skipped. Not much, I would have skipped letting myself be humiliated by being ripped off by a man inthe building I once called the home zero in Cairo but now is just another decrepit two star hostel hard by the El Tahrir Bridge. Since I'm such a "rich" American, I can take it and wince. Not let it color the rest of the time, and me? I'd go back to Egypt anytime, hot, cold, wet or dry. Cambodia? Sure I'd go back. I'd plan a little more now that I know a little more. And Thailand? When do we leave?
I found a message on my phone when I got home from a friend who I wnet to China with the last time, when I thought I was happily married, asking me if I wanted to go again this summer. Now that I'm not happily married, what's to stop me? When do we leave and do I really have to come back this time?