Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reconciliation through football?

That's right! Armenian and Turkey have been placed in the same Fifa qualification group for the 2010 World Cup, which will take place in South Africa.

Armenia and Turkey will face off twice. The first match will take place on September 6th in Yerevan, Armenia, and the second match in Istanbul (presumably, if not Ankara) on October 14th, 2009. Wow, I have no clue where I will be in the fall of 2009, but damned if I will miss the match. I will definitely be in Turkey to watch this match, although I am extremely dissapointed that I can't attend Armenia vs. Turkey in Yerevan. Armenia's president lifted travel restrictions for Turkish citizens to Armenia for the week of the match in September, representing what could be an interesting shift in Armenian-Turkish relations. I hope sincerely that Turkish citizens who visit Yerevan the week of the match are treated with the same respect and courtesy than any Armenian, Kurd, or any human for that matter, would expect as a visitor of Turkey, or any other nation.

I doubt racial and ethnic tension will be totally absent from the matches, but I think they will definitely provide much needed press coverage on the political situation in the caucasus, and, of course, Turkey's abismal human rights record, including widespread, insitutionalized historical revisionism and intimidation of ethnic minorities in the multicultural nation.

Newly elected Armenian president, Serge Sarksyan, has reached out to Turkish president Abdullah Gul, inviting him to attend the September match in Yerevan. No responses from Turkey yet, but we shall see. Argggg I wish I could be there! I will be thinking about them all day as I hike in Spain, or might just take the day off to watch the match via internet somewhere.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Camino Uno

The camino de Santiago is a hike across northern Spain, technically beginning in Roncesvalles, and ending in Santiago de Compostella. For centuries, the route has been a significant Christian pilgrimage, but has evolved into a popular destination for lovers of hiking, culture, and spirituality alike.

I reached Roncesvalles, a village no larger than 3 football fields in the middle of the Pyrennes, on August 22 in a bus full of other hikers. This village, and many of the subsequent pueblos I have since encountered, subsist solely on what I will call "camino income". That is to say, the economic benefits for locals to accomodate hikers, provide them with internet (like me!), hot water, showers, beds, etc, has definitely hardwired "camino income" into northern Spain's economic landscape.

Analysis aside, the hike has been fantastic so far. I have reached day 3, having hiked about 70km, and feel pretty confident about reahcing Santiago de Compostela by October 1, the day of my flight to Italy for my sister's wedding.

I was surprised by the average age of the camino hiker. They are certainly an older bunch and make me feel like I am fresh out of diapers. I have heard horror stories about broken legs, blisters, dislocated hips, on and on. This got me very worried as I was lugging around a pretty heavy rucksack of about 30 pounds, which REALLY takes a toll on one's body after a day of walking 29 km through the Pyrennes. A hiker should carry 1/10th of their body weight on their backs. 30 pounds is just about double for me, so a change was really needed.

Two days ago, in Cizur Mayor, I shipped my large rucksack off to Santiago, leaving with a pack of the bare essentials which have made hiking so much more pleasant. Before, the sack included all sorts of unnecessary nonsense that was marginally useful in past situations: iPod, 4 pairs of socks and underwear, a bulky raincoat, bottles and bottles of pills and Flinstones vitamins, Checkhov short stories (I'll miss this one), etc. All that remains is one single change of clothes, my travel documents, my notebooks with my writing, toiletries, and foot cream(cheese?). My posessions are very few at the moment.

A few (odd) things I have noticed while hiking so far:
1. Some people have terrible nutritional habits. I'm sorry, but if you are going to hike 800km, you need to eat right the majority of the time. Apricot jam on a piece of toast won't cut it. Eat the actual apricot. Breakfast consisting only of coffee? Cheese, cheese, and more cheese?
2. Why do so many people carry so much crap? Since getting rid of my big rucksack, walking has been so much more pleasant. Nevertheless, it is still challenging, and there is still pain here and there, but I cannot imagine how much worse it would be if my bag was heavier.
3. Stretch, people. When people stop walking at the end of the day, or just to take a break, they just sit down and sigh. This is an absolutely critical moment for stretching. On the camino, we are asking much of our muscles, and if we don't tone and relax them with stretches and some massage, then they will just get tighter and tighter, and make life miserable.
4. Starting before the crack down is a little over the top, if you ask me. Waking up at 6:00am is fine to avoid the high noon sun, but 5:15, or even 5am is really overdoing it.
5. Walking and talking is great.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Boom Festival 2008 = Firewalking, Gibberish Meditation, an Overall Mindblowing Experience

My friends, there are times in one's life where we must get to the point. This is one of them. I have been working days on a post about my experience at the Boom festival 2008 in Idanha-a-Nova, Portugal, but because I have just finished hiking 29km and have much to write about the Camino de Santiago, I must quickly describe the highlights of Boom.

1. Got on the wrong train, reaching the necessary part of Portugal 4 hours past the point I had planned.

You might consider this image a foreshadow of the strange times to come.

2. Snuck into the festival by hiking 5 hours through the woods from 9pm-2am with a Dutch couple, Nunu and Sabrina, and a pair of Portugese kids, Caroline and Ze. Tickets to the festival were sold out. Tickets would have been 120 euros.

Our night hike group in Portugal :): Ze on the right. Caroline in the middle. Me on the left.

3. Firewalked 5 times in a ritual led by Shahman. Howled at the lunar eclipse for three minutes, learned Shahman songs, watched actual fire worshippers perform their ceremonies, confronted fear.

This is the fire before it became ash. The waiver form next to it that all firewalkers had to sign.

4. Gibberish meditation sess¡on which not only included meditation through spoken gibberish to one's self in a large group for 15 minutes, but then we spun for 15 minutes doing a swirling dervish ritual, followed by a great activity of movement which I can only describe as "shoo", and will have to show you one day.

5. Rediscovered the power of hugs. They can be so profound and joyful.

6. Yoga is great.

Amazing yoga masters doing partner yoga before the firewalk. On the left is a big chunk of the festival. That big tent on the right was a huge dance tent.

7. There are people who are convinced that the Mayan calender has chosen December 2012 as the dawning of a new age.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Image from a Dream

My dreams have been vivid in my time here in Portugal. I love vivid dreams. They engulf me, convince me that I live in a different reality, which is good because it expands my consciousness to multiple planes of existence. The following is an example of an image from one of my many dreams. Just a warning – I wouldn’t consider this image pleasant, so read on if you are up for it.

They rolled her into the center of the church hall on what looked like a stainless steel operating table. Her cracked withering body had lost all ability to function on its own.

The entire congregation gasped at the sight of her. Even the priest, with his bible flipped to the page for wedding vows, had to remove his glasses and rub his eyes.

One mother shielded the eyes of her shocked five-year-old boy. Someone, it seemed, had pressed the pause button on this wedding ceremony to provide the appropriate mood for this moment of gravity.

She belted borderline nonsensical prayers with a quivering voice and intermittently managed to heave her chest to the heavens on points of emphasis. Her extremities were clamped down, and she was dressed in an ironically pleasant green Sunday’s best.

The priest, in his elaborate green robe whose excessive ornamentation he detested as absolutely unnecessary and – practically speaking – hot and heavy, bashed on with the ceremony as best he could.

Her presence was consuming. The discount tart perfume from the older female congregants did little to contest the stench of impending death and withering humanity overpowering the incense wafting about. Even those sitting in front of her continually turned their back on the ceremony to soak her in. They couldn’t believe she was real. And for the more pessimistic congregants (who preferred being referred to as “pragmatists”), she was a window into the future – a chilling reminder of age’s relentless consumption of the human vigor and spirit.

The priest, reciting the prayers he struggled to find meaning in after hundreds of thousands of recitations, envied her power over the people. He sang louder, rattled the incense with more intensity, but to no avail.

Bird Watching, Modelling, Postcard Inspiration, and an Important Point About So-Called “International Artists”

Have you ever lived with a bird fanatic? Someone who can tell you a blue-feathered tit breezed by without your even noticing? I do. It’s strange. Frank is not only an avid bird watcher, but he also leads bird-seeing tours here in southern Portugal.

The uncannyness of it all struck me for the first time when we were driving home one night. The first few kilometres of our journey leaving the Quinta ranch traverse a bumpy dirt track. But even the bearable unpleasantness of the track’s bumps and thumps were abruptly interrupted by Frank at the wheel slamming on the brakes.

“There!” It was pitch black. “There! Did you see it?” Nothing but darkness. “God it was beautiful!” He started the car back up again. Before I had the chance to ask him what just happened, he was already into his monologue about the owl he just saw. “They only come out at night, these ones, and you’ll usually find them swooping around looking for worms and lizards to grab for dinner. They’re just magnificent.” Driving with Frank has taught me to think twice about birds that fly by a car I’m in. I would, however, consider Frank lucky he has very little traffic to deal with out here in the middle of woop woop. If Frank pulled his antics on I-95, he would be lucky to avert a ten car pile-up.

Check out his blog at www.paradise-in-portugal.com/blog/.


Hugh Wood is an artist from England who came to stay here at the ranch. I met him after one of many canoe trips with my sometimes-favorite dog here at the ranch, Lucky (a future post for these dogs is well overdue). Hugh and Frank had stopped by the stonewall Uwe and I had been working on, and based on how they spoke with each other, it was clear they were old friends.

After the canoe ride, Hugh was hanging out at the pontoon with his wife. We got to talking, and when I told him I was planning to hike the Camino de Santiago, he became overcome with joy and excitement. He spoke of his many adventures cycling from England to Santiago de Compostela with his son. Our conversation branched about his many interesting, self-steered trips, to Brazil and India, enriching his eye and inspiration with exotic subject matter. Check him out at http://www.dunfordwood.co.uk/.

Hugh painting:

Before talking to Hugh, I had been feeling apprehensive about the camino. 750 km hiking alone? It sounded better in casual settings and conversations, but mulling it over in my head here in Portugal as I lay stone after stone upon the wall made me think twice. Could I really do it? Will I have too much stuff? After being immersed in Hugh’s enthusiasm for the idea, the self-doubt dissipated, my determination renewed. I also received a postcard here in Portugal from Merlini Joelle, the mother of my research partner in Paris. It was Merlini who, a few months ago, told me all about the camino and how great it was. Merlini was on the camino and sent me a postcard. It was such a great feeling to get mail! It was the last thing I expected, and the short message was a welcome surprise.

Hugh painted a number of works in his few days here. Some he drew on a canoe in the middle of the lake, singing to himself, of all things, Ave Maria, and other obscure songs that sounded like British pop – or maybe it was another genre rendering itself as British pop to me because of his accent. One of his paintings was drawn near the hammock, and I was surprised by the ease with which he carried on a conversation with me as he painted. The closest comparison I can draw is trying to talk while playing guitar, which for me is extremely difficult. But I do remember the fantastic conversations that would take place while painting in high school art class. Maybe painting and conversation are more compatible than I think. Anyways, I was standing in Hugh’s line of sight, and he ended up incorporating me into the painting. Now I can add “international modelling experience” to my resume…here I come Morgan Stanley.

My modelling debut. I'm the only stud in the painting.

An important point about “international artists”, and “international experience” in general. Many musicians, actors, writers, etc that I know tend to use the word “international” in their biographies as a mark of prestige, the assumption being that if an artist has international stature, then they surely must be good. And this probably is more often true than it is false. The idea of international, however, is not as grand as it seems. In Europe, for example, a pianist from Lichtenstein might have a concert in Luxembourg, and they henceforth have become an “international performing artist”. The language of it conjures images far grander than the actual reality. Even me, with my stonewall building and brick laying here in Portugal, could endow myself with the exaggerated title of “international architect”. While it is true, I believe that the words evoke something much greater. Just another example of language clouding and complicating reality, and in turn, using it to describe such oddities.

Power Tool Paradise

If manliness is defined by how many power tools one has operated, then you can bump me up two notches. Make it three if you count slicing both your thumbs with a pocket knife, unleashing under whelming tricklets of blood. What are those really fast spinning metal discs called? The motorized power tool that shoots sparks as it slices through the toughest of metals…or the mushiest of flesh. Yes, I have had the privilege to operate one, in addition to a jackhammer. Aha! Grinder. They’re called grinders.

Watching Frank, the founder and owner of the Quinta ranch, use the jackhammer was my only formal operational training. Learning how to use the grinder strictly involved listening in horror as Frank described one instance five years ago when he put a small blade to a large stone, causing the spinning wheel to shatter and nearly sever his hoo-hah-hah.

Focus is mandatory when operating a grinder. If the spinning disc so much as sneezes on you, then you can look forward to telling your grandchildren about the time a power tool claimed one of your extremities. A variety of thoughts run through my mind when holding a grinder. “Concentrate. Concentrate. Fly. Concentrate. Bee! Run…no – spinning death weapon…family jewels…concentrate.” Concentration comes easy for the first few grinding experiences, but the true challenge comes with habituation, for it is at this juncture that we expect nothing to go wrong, and one is left slightly vulnerable, with one’s guard down.

Thirty minutes into my slicing séance, my mind started drifting around Frank’s story. How loud did he scream? Imagining the sound drowned out the piercing screech and sparks spewing from the grinder. “They could always sew a finger back on,” I comforted myself. “In the worst case scenario, of course.”

Uwe, the East German (he was educated under the Soviet curriculum – fully trained to believe that capitalist Americans wanted to kill all the communists to expand their global empire…which is in many ways true if you think about the muck we’re plunged into thanks to the antics of Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, Bernard Lewis, George Bush Jr. and Sr., and the rest of the gang) expatriate, joked that if I did in fact slice off some of my fingers, it wouldn’t be a big deal. “If Django can do it,” he told me, “so can you.” This made for a good laugh because the day before I had shown Ewe the gypsy swing guitar book I have been working out of with Django tunes in it. For those who don’t know, Django Reinhardt was a world-class jazz guitarist specializing in swing. Two or three of his fingers on his left hand (the one doing all the fretting) were dysfunctional! So he played with two fingers! Anyways, I can’t do half of what he did with five fingers, so Ewe’s suggestion was a rather grimly humorous point.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Short Story

I wrote this after sitting on a hammock in a Paris suburb at the home of Andre Agabalyan and his family.


Today, I decided to lay in my hammock and drift. I listened to the bird’s fluttering staccato chirps to one another, calling for food, calling for love. I flinched as bees swirled and dashed by my face, taunting me with their relentless hum and the ominous threat of their attack. I flinched because I couldn’t convince myself to trust. Instead, I simply wished I could communicate with the bees.
“Do you intend to harm me,” I would ask them. I couldn’t handle the thought of being stung, again. As a child, my friend Chris and I would use bee’s and hornet’s nests as target practice for our baseball throw. We used a tennis ball, though, to give them a chance.
The moment of the throw was always one of great dramatic tension. If the ball looked like it had a chance of hitting the target, then we would sprint away as soon as the projectile was released. We would check behind us seconds later to see if we were right, and if we were, we would run for a good five minutes, thinking the victims could easily identify us and mount an aerial retaliation. For this reason, the climax of My Girl was particularly poignant and frightening.
But once, a hornet did get me, right behind the ear. I cried and cried. I suspect that that momentary blip of pain forced me to confront my mortality for an excruciating childhood moment. I rolled off the hammock in the wake of its haunting memory, and lay in the grass where the worms could slowly wiggle onto my body, lay their eggs, start a family, sign off on a mortgage – the whole bit.
My eyelids grew heavier as I thought more of the worm family. The Johnson’s, they were called. None of them had first names; they just referred to each other as “Johnson”. The father of the homestead was a banker who wore a top hat and a brown tie to work. He had a cup of coffee for breakfast, with a slice of blood cake. The wife drew the blood from my unsuspecting arm – eyelids heavier – which I never felt, but might explain why I sometimes felt – heavier – dizzzzzzz.
Staccato chirps. The soundtrack to a canvas caked in darkness. Flickering light. I reacclimate, resituate, return to my drift.
Turn onto my side and stare into the grass. It’s green – not incredibly so - but enough. It’s numbingly green, in fact. Rather ordinary. Rather “to be expected”. My eyes scan over the base of an oak tree by the fence that’s been here longer than I have. Thought of Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and laughed. “No special tree in my life,” I thought to myself. These children’s tales have a tendency to pry morals out of molehills. I got back onto the hammock.
“Hey,” I hear a voice say. It’s not in my head. I ignore it for a moment. “Hey you,” it insists.
It’s real. I jolt. “Who said that? Where are you?”
“Where am I? Why, you’re right on me. Or perhaps I am on you.”
“What?” Ludicrous. What was I on? Nothing but a lousy hammock with multi-colored zig-zags with hues five years faded.
I ignore the voice, or at least tried at first. Went back to the grass, starring at the blades obediently pointing in the same direction – up.
“Funny, isn’t it,” resumed the voice. “How they all seem to be different, but they’re all just doing the same thing. Looking up.”
I considered the notion or a moment before jolting again. This time I plopped out of the zig-zag contraption and stared at it, expecting a response to my benign furrow-browed stares. “If there’s anybody here, just say so, because I can hear you.” It was the deadliest shade of my voice, tragically tinged with quivers on hard consonants. “I’ve been known to get rather hostile when provoked.” I bit my nails. “Consider it a warning.”
“Easy, friend. There’s no body here, just me.”
“Just who?”
“Just your multi-“
The phone rang from inside the house. Most likely it was my sister again, fulfilling her self-imposed rule to call once a week, always on Saturdays – 98 percent of the time in the same half hour window. I let it ring and heard the message from a distance as it was being left. “Just calling to say hi and see how my little brother’s doing. Call me back when you get this.”
Another masterpiece performance. I had always resented the way she would refer to me as her little brother, as if it endowed her with an ownership.
“It’s strange, having no body,” continued the voice. “People always sit on me and law down on me and make love on me, but they never seem to consider that they could do those things with me as well. Instead I just study them, observe their body language – their hunched shoulders, their shallow breath.
I starred at the faded multi-colored zig-zag hammock, flabbergasted.
“Do you have any idea what it’s like to have people sit on you all day long, and not say thanks?”
“I – I’ve got a clue.” I had just left San Francisco on a two year stint driving taxis, making money, not hearing customers say “thanks” in their mad rush from A to B.
“Cabs don’t count. People pay you. It’s a form of gratitude.”
“Not necessarily.” I had thought this through many times before. “It’s not really a grateful gesture if the person is forced to pay. It’s a rather cold, emotionless, calculated economic exchange. And besides, how did you know I was a cabby?”
“I know many things about you, Charlie. I know by the way you lie upon me, by the way you rest on me for hours without moving, how you let the phone ring and ring, people reaching and reaching for you, and you more readily shut them out of your life than you let them in.”
“The last thing I need is a psychoanalytical hammock.” I kicked the dirt.
“Psychoanalytical? That’s quite a word. Quite the label. Maybe you are imposing false ideas on someone like me, someone who transcends society.”
“Society created you.”
“Society created you.”
Some response, I thought.
“Just because society created me, it does not mean that I, and for that matter you, must abide by her standards.”
“You’re just a hammock.”
“You’re just a man.”
I jolted.
“Is it a crime to suggest such a thing?”
It wasn’t. The birds kept chirping. The bees still hummed. I couldn’t handle it. Outfoxed by a hammock. I ran inside to return my sister’s call.