Category Archives: travel

Sunrise in Bangkok

Sunrise in Bangkok and a woman is dumping a large sack of charcoal into a square metal box on wheels. She carefully arranges the charcoal into two stacks, stashes the half-empty sack next to a light post, and lights one of the stacks with a neon green lighter. A great plume of gray-blue smoke puffs into the pink sky.

Sunrise in Bangkok and there are dogs, three, four dogs trotting along the side of the road, breathing heavily. One sees another dog under a car, runs over to shove its nose into the sleeping dog’s pink, exposed paw. The paw withdraws into the shade under the car.

Sunrise in Bangkok and there are marigold monks holding silver bowls like bells. They stride between the food carts, parting the crowds like orange blooms, like small and friendly fires. Their shoulders are relaxed, they move with precision but without intent. The eldest moves to one side, into a patch of concrete in front of a closed beauty salon and two food-cart women bow in front of him, press their heads to the pavement.

Sunrise in Bangkok and a woman in a short red skirt with a tattered flag of amber-tinted hair frowns at a man on a scooter. He’s a taxi, you can tell by his orange safety vest with the number, and she suddenly swings up and sits side-saddle behind him, holding her purse in her lap and not holding on to the scooter at all. He zooms off and her balance is amazing, hair in the wind, it’s like she does this every day and of course she does.

Sunrise in Bangkok and it’s already hot.

Sunrise in Bangkok and there are hundreds of sweet stubby bananas roasting on a grill. There are squid pig fish meatball sausages on a stick and all of it is delicious. Even better with peanut sauce. Giant pots of boiling everything, walking by them makes you even hotter, but the smells are so worth it. Everywhere there are people chopping food, cooking food, serving and eating food. Spoons and forks and soup spoons and chopsticks clunk against plastic bowls and it is a joy to know that there is so much good food being made and being eaten. It is in the gestures, a hand sorting through frothy green fresh dill, ladling the correct meatball-to-broth ratio over fat bean sprouts, a child with a mouthful of fish.

Sunrise in Bangkok and there’s another farang, tall and fair skinned and our eyes meet and there’s a twinge of recognition what are you doing out at this early hour but in the end it means nothing, because we’re just two white people in Bangkok and it’s not that special and there is no connective tissue or shared identity, really.

Sunrise in Bangkok and there is a girl with french-braided pigtails, starch-white shirt, blue skirt and clunky black shoes. She is headed to school, and sees and meets another girl on the corner and they walk together to the bus stop where a windowless short red bus will stop and they will pay seven baht to the driver’s assistant.

Sunrise in Bangkok and watch where you are going, there’s a scooter coming up the sidewalk, there’s a broom salesman on a bicycle, there’s a Lexus trying to find parking, there’s a gate swinging out at you, revealing a brief glimpse of an emerald-succulent courtyard and careful! the sidewalk is wet and slippery and opens suddenly into a canal.

Sunrise in Bangkok and it speaks the city-language of fares and transport and so many skyscrapers and 7-11s that after two days you feel fluent. At home. But then I give the satay lady in the pink cart 30 baht for five sticks of flattened meat and she hands me back three sticks and a handful of the smallest silver and copper coins I have ever seen in my life. I look at the coins and try to give them back and she doesn’t want them and neither do I. We look at each other and city-language is not useful for people-language so I concede and head back to my flat.

The Recent Ancient Tradition of Ogoh Ogoh

 

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Bali is quiet today. It is Nyepi, the first day of the New Year, and it is a day of mandatory rest and meditation. We are not allowed outside our flat–if we are caught on the street we’ll be firmly escorted back inside. We must stay very quiet and not indulge in any way, or we’ll catch the attention of demons that are currently flying over Bali. If we are quiet enough they’ll shove on and not stop to wreak havoc. There are no flights in or out of Bali today. Silence.

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Yesterday, however, was a glorious racket as Ogoh Ogoh were paraded down the street at sunset, twirled around and “confused” at intersections, then burned down at the seaside. Over the past week we’ve been peeping inside of temples to look at the in-progress Ogoh Ogoh as they were carefully built over metal frames. As we stood watching while the young single women of the neighborhood encircled the crossroads, holding torches toward the center, and the young single men of the neighborhood paraded into the center, playing drums and melodic reong–pot-shaped gongs, the ceremony felt timeless, foreign, yet had a spiritual resonance as well. It was invented in the 1980s.

I was ambivalent when I heard of the recent manufacture of the Ogoh Ogoh parade–it seemed typical of the kind of trap you can fall into with Orientalist thinking. Bali is so mystical, the people are so nice, they value spirituality, aren’t their ancient ceremonies so quaint and romantic? Still, I love a good procession and it reminded me of the Day of the Dead, another parade that celebrates the liminal and otherworldly.

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The materiality of Ogoh Ogoh is interesting; though some Ogoh Ogoh are very small, they rapidly become very elaborate, with an emphasis on the grotesque. Many go to great lengths to make the Ogoh Ogoh appear to be flying, with very little attaching the demon to the underlying bamboo structure that young men use to carry it. There are lights installed to light up their faces, and some have heavy metal music blaring from their bases. Many Ogoh Ogoh have pendulous, veiny breasts representing Rangda the demon queen. Some are painted, some are meticulously airbrushed, and I have heard that some of them are sold instead of burned at the end of the night.

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The Ogoh Ogoh and their young male handlers process to the beach, where they gleefully tear off the heads of their creations, then set fire to the demons that they carried through the streets. The Ogoh Ogoh were once made of paper mache, but now they are mostly polystyrene and the great gouts of black smoke made it impossible to breathe. The crowds dispersed before the fire had gone out.

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And today, Bali is quiet.

An Interlude in Bali

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Canangsari offerings, still intact.

There were a million Canangsari husks down at the beach last night, contents spilling out into tide pools, ruined flowers, smoldering incense, and candy wrappers blowing in the humid breeze. These offerings are everywhere, on bridges, at the openings of small roads, in front of businesses, always laden with colorful tidbits for hungry spirits. A woman in a small market staples the small woven trays together, dogs sniff out the better morsels, one skitters into the street after being accidentally kicked by a tourist. There were even more of them yesterday, after a pre-New Year cleansing ritual on the beach, stacks and stacks of offerings covering the black sand.

photo (20)The small flat we are renting is heaving with ants. An ant just climbed out from between the F and G keys on my computer and is scrambling toward the screen to meet with three others that are drawn to the glow. I don’t really mind, they’re tiny and they don’t bite, but I wish one of the geckos would eat them.

I’m in Bali to write–I’m putting together articles and catching up with work that was put aside while I was finishing the thesis. We go out to get fruit from the little market down the road and scoot to the beach to watch the sun go down.

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Baskets covering Balinese fighting roosters, kept aggressive and ready.

The anthropological landscape of Bali is covered in large footprints, hidden deadfalls and the echos of heated argument in venerable academic halls. I sometimes want to go to the market and buy the canangsari to leave offerings to the hundreds (thousands?) of anthropologists who have studied here. Flowers for Clifford Geertz, Ritz crackers for Margaret Mead, betel nuts for Gregory Bateson. I’m a guest here, and I have my own research to write up, but it is hard to avoid a good haunting from the ghosts of anthropologists past (and present!).

Save Early, Save Often

Command-S. I think I picked it up from video games, or maybe even from Choose Your Own Adventure books. I’d read each story, keeping a finger between the pages at each decision point, and then another one, and another one until all of my fingers were used up and I’d be flipping back and forth to find the optimum route. In video games I’d run back to the save point, use unique names for each of the files, fill up all my “save cards” or eventually hard drives. It isn’t so much that I was anxious about making the wrong decision but more that I wanted to experience everything the book or game had to give.

The Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology scores the game playing style of gamers according to card suites, with Diamonds = Achievers, Hearts = Socializers, Clubs = Killers and Spades = Explorers. While I haven’t formally taken the test, I’d score pretty high in the Spades category, always exploring the level until the very edges of the in-world earth, looking for the extra dialog or funny-colored sword. My imaginary rucksack was always full.

I have been writing so much and for such sustained periods of time that I find myself in the same compulsive mode, command-S, command-S, command-S. Save. I have started doing it in emails now, annoyingly, as Google Chrome offers to save my entire screen, and on Facebook, command-S. All dissertation writers get their own personal ticks, I suppose.

Next week, visa-Gods willing, I’ll be on the road again with my not-so-imaginary rucksack. I’ll be headed to London to work with the incredible L-P Archaeology on the developer-funded Minories Project, a fantastic excavation right outside the Tower of London. I’m taking this six week diss-break because L-P gave me free reign with digital media and interpretation and it’s perfect for setting up some fairly experimental postdoc work. Time to see if I can find the edge of the world again. Command-S!

Windy ol’ Qatar

Lately I’ve been finding myself in the incredible position of writing about sharing without sharing, writing about blogging without blogging, writing about photography without taking photographs, owing writing to people and being owed writing, and being surrounded by profoundly bored people without having the luxury/curse of boredom. You’d think it would all balance out, but sometimes it feels like I’m chasing my own tail.

And that’s without the wind.

The wind has several flavors in Qatar, but it’s nearly without pause, and in the calm, blessed moments, there are hoards of flies. The best is to hope for a small respite, enough to ruffle the paper on your clipboard, but not enough to snap your measuring tape–something that happened twice to our team last week. My measuring tape didn’t snap, but it did rip one of my grid pegs out of the ground.

Happily my archaeology has been good lately–I am not allowed to discuss details, but the sequence of my features and architecture has been making sense and what we call natural, which just means stratigraphy beneath the human occupation layers, is showing up in several places. Getting through to the bright whitish-yellow shelly sand is a relief, especially as we only have a couple more weeks to dig before we start shutting things down for the year. Funny ol’ job, methodically recording and removing the traces of other humans.

It also helps that I’m working with really good people, but I think we’re all getting a bit sick of each other.

And the wind. The wind.

Qatar – Happy Eid!

All my workmen were excited to have a few days off for Eid al-Adha, the festival celebrating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Hundreds of millions of animals were sacrificed for this event, but we’re out in the desert, far away from the festivities. I’ve spent most of the time working on my dissertation, but managed to do a little wandering in the desert and took the requisite animal photographs:

Here are a couple of the reconstructed fort at Kalet auom elmaa:

An American in Bristol-town

Two magpies are sitting on a chimney outside my window. They’re nodding and peering around, feathers ruffling in the slight wind. Behind them the sky is cinematic–so far English skies have most others beat in terms of cloud variety, color and just general confusion. Some of the clouds race north along the horizon, and a small gray puff wanders S/SW and still more hover, unimpressed by the action.

I’m glad it’s both of the magpies though, as I’ve been told that you have to salute a single magpie and I’ve been gamely waving my hands at the poor things for the last few days. I never really expected to live in England, not like many Americans, but Bristol is fantastic–a nice mix of city living with a great art scene and a sleepy old shipping town where shops close at random hours and a “late night” barber shop near my house advertises being open “until 7 in the evening!”

The Bristol museum is incredibly well curated (hopefully get around to posting about that later) and has a series of old maps of Bristol hanging around the second floor. Walking around the exhibit brought me through the days when there was a stately house and a big square, then a slow creep of blocks and streets along the river front, then the block of housing where I live appeared, up north, some time between the 1850s and 1880s. I’m perched on a hill, and as I write I can see a wide swath of chimneys, red tile, stone. The high street (Americans, read: main street, with all the shops) is only a block away and I wandered down there this afternoon to the green grocer, passing by the fish monger, the butcher, and a few local pubs. For something that was relatively unplanned, we managed to find a very sweet place to live for a couple of months.

When my friend Guy came to visit Oakland he found that he was much more culture-shocked than when he was in Brazil or many other places. Things were just a half-step…off. I think I understand that better now. Ultimately, Bristol is an art, hip college town and that caters to my taste pretty well, but there’s always that half-second of hesitation after you’ve asked for a train ticket or another pint, “ah, American.”

It’s a nice thing though, to write your dissertation in relative solitude, without the endless whirlwind of social things that I tend to have when I’m in places where I actually know people. I miss my friends, I get lonely, but after I write my daily allotment, the back streets of Bristol are mine to explore. If only things weren’t so damn expensive, I’d be set.