Alone And Small, Surrounded By The World

Lost in Gansu in HDR
We weren’t lost, but there were moments, out in the harsh glare of the Gobi that we felt it. In this part of Gansu nothing grows. The soil is a rough gravel–ten thousand miles of conglomerate and worn sandstone turning to dust, empty. More barren than any desert I’ve ever seen, except the Rub-al-Qali.

“Out here,” I wrote in my journal, “listening to sand whistle off the dunes one feels alone and small. Everything is so much bigger, in real time, than it is anywhere I’ve ever been.”

Like all good photos, this one was an accident. I was taking test shots of the mountains in the background. If you look closely you can see a jagged line, hanging on the horizon like low lying clouds in a luciferin haze. When I uploaded the photo later that evening it was this shot that caught my eye, and in the days to come I returned to it many times.

An epochal feeling pervades the scene, as the rough edge of the Kunlun Shan, that great rippling sheet of scraping rocks crumples into the Tarim Basin.  Uplift and subsidence before me as geology comes alive, the power of unfathomable forces in the silence of a cool April afternoon.

But more than that it has a feeling, and although all is still there is movement in the photo. Gao Xuan, our driver, runs fingers behind his neck, in consternation, looking backwards at the young Khazakh standing out in the middle of no where—what was he doing out there, dressed in a suit jacket, fifty miles from the nearest town and miles away from any water? Evocative of the entire day, from Dun Huang all the way to the Jade Gate, this curious meeting of Han Chinese, Kazakh and American not three miles from that great and ancient Eurasian entrepot, the Jade Gate. History repeating itself in an off-rhyme; Occident, Orient and Nomad. Modernity eye to eye with the past.

And the sign in the foreground? I have no idea what it says. Although in my imagination it says something like, “Welcome To The Last Outpost of the Great T’ang Empire.”

Alone and small, surrounded by the immensity of the world. There might be a word for that, but for now I will settle for a picture.

Nota bene: Other photos from Gansu and Xinjiang can be found here, here, here and here.

Vampire Takedown

Vampires suck. Really. And this is a great takedown of ‘em.

Give me zombies over pasty, bloodsucking, hyper-sexual freaks any day.

Which reminds me, if you have a twitter account you should really be following Gus, who is enduring the zombie-pocalypse one tweet at a time.

The Glory Of India

Shore TempleI received this email yesterday from a friend in India in response to my post entitled, “Reflections on India” and I just had to post it. It encapsulates in a way I never could, all that is India, in all of her glorious complexity. Not only is it a beautiful email, it contains something that I’ve never been explain to people: the music of Indian English. If you’ve never heard Indian-English spoken in India, you are missing something:

At first, I wanted to stab you and snatch your purse, but then I realized I cant do that. Cause you don’t have a purse, your a man! err.. Yeah I read your name after I read the write up, call me careless err.. you already did hehe, sorry I’m sounding so cocky but I’m just a lad trying to grow a French beard for quite some time now.

I must say, it’s an impressive write, I’d relish it with a tinge of lemon in root beer if I were in any other country (I dont know how root beer tastes with lemon) but as it is, I’m an Indian (with no motives to kill you)

Its good to know that you’ve seen almost all of India and better, came up with so few problems. Makes me think.. is 4 your favorite number? Cause I can be sure that there are a few thousand more problems in India. Your observations and explanations are really nice and pictures. pollution, lack of infrastructure , corruption etc etc are indeed very Indian. But India is not a city built in an Age Of Empires game. Millions of people divided on probably more lines than there are people have just one thing in common, we are Indians. Conservative, primitive, careless, hypocritical or whatever suits the mood, and have been a part of this ever growing world with due attention and equal consideration. Everyone is cared for, people care for themselves, selfish as one might call it, but I see it to be as an effort to promote and make place for personal interests. Simply, its like the millions of crazy school clubs that the kids in the US come up with. Only here, its grown ups fighting for rights and also end up getting free publicity. These are the games Indians play, its actually a book, called Games Indians play, nice and funny. You should read it.

Mad Sadhu!I read this other book called Keep off the grass, a book by a second generation Indian who made about half a million dollars working on wall street. The book starts with his feel of wanting to know his roots, and he comes down to India for an MBA. His experiences of India are quite similar to yours and he knows nothing of his mission of soul or root search. By the end, he begins to read a few books by Ruskin Bond and relates himself to Mr. Bond. He feels that Mr. Bond would be able to clear out a few things and plans a visit.

The protagonist asks “why did you leave London? Why did you settle down in India?” To which Mr. Bond said “hmm.. well, it always had to be India, it couldnt be anywhere else, I guess. I belong here. No publishing deal or pound advances in the UK could change that.”

He paused, “you know I read a joke in the newspaper this morning. If Brooke Shields marries Ruskin Bond she would become Brooke Bond. Silly, I know, but well, I almost fell down laughing. Could I ever appreciate that in London or anywhere else in the world? Belonging, thats what it is about. You cant be happy if you cant be whole. Does that make sense?

The protagonist, Samrat Ratan decides to do away with the life his parents chose and settles down in India.

Tamil GompuramYou are right, I am careless, actually carefree, carefree of what you have to say about me. I want to change, I know it would only do good, but things are not in my hands, I cant go out overnight and tell people not to wear green socks, cause then people would first ask me why, then tell me that i didnt have the right to say, then that they like green socks and there are people who would ask me what socks are.. I hope you get my point.

I do not have numbers, nor do I know more to be able to speak to you. But India is not a book, not a word, not a country. Its a feel. I like to call myself a world citizen, but there’s only one place I call home. Sentimental fool I might sound, but that again, is Indian! It’s a place where we offer milk to snakes, touch and worship a cow thats blocking traffic. My dad doesnt fight with the father of a kid who beat me up, nor have I learnt his credit card numbers by heart. But I have people to go home to. The inability of the government to provide me with amenities is replaced by the care and comfort of my home. change this, and I would cease to be me.

~Shree

Well said.

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Do you agree? Disagree with the author’s opnion? Then leave a comment!

Further commentary on India can be found here. Reader responses to this story can be found here and here. Please contact me via Facebook (you can message me via Facebook even if you don’t have an account) if you would like to respond. My only request is that you be polite and not call me names.

The Evil That Lurks in the Heart of Cookies And Mint Shampoo

First, can I just say that Girl Scout cookies should be Schedule I class drugs. Absolute, pure, unadulterated evil.

And, speaking of Girl Scout cookies, what’s up with mint chocolate chip smelling shampoo?

As I came out of the shower this morning my Dad asked, “hey, how do you like that shampoo?”

“You mean that foul, hippy, mint-smelling shit in your shower?”

“Yeah, I like it, because it makes my scalp tingle,” he said.

“Maybe that’s because, unlike me, you don’t have any hair?”

Lake Isle Of Innisfree

I know it’s not Tuesday, but I re-read Yeats’ poem again last night, which compelled me to write. But first, Yeats’ poem:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

~William Butler Yeats 1892

Few poems have stayed with me my entire life. Few resonate year after year after year. As a late teenager, early twenty-something it was love poetry, Petrarch and Catullus, unrequited, quite silly and partially mad. I didn’t have the patience yet for the great epics of Dante, Homer and Virgil. In my late twenties I found the aggrieved anger of Bukowski, and while many see him as a misanthrope and misogynist, I’ve always believed he was, at heart, a secret romantic, raw, shredded up and thrown into the dumpster of life, only to emerge from it, pristine, like an American phoenix.

After Bukowski came Rilke and all of his existential angst. I could relate to much of it, his peripatitc wanderings, his loves, his failures as a man, his disciplined lyricism and the visual feast his images conjured.

One year, however, stands out. On the cusp of my thirties I took a trip to Ireland and Northern Wales. I spent a month backpacking in the hills and mountains of northwest Ireland around Donegal and then in Northern Wales, a place that still haunts my dreams. The only reading I took with me was Yeats, determined to decipher the lyrical knot of his poetry. Of course, I’d read Yeats, and the ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ many times before. Ed Hirsch had introduced the poem to me while teaching at the University of Houston.

One unseasonably warm summer day, as the car I was in sped north between Donegal Town and Killybegs, I saw the ‘Lake of Innisfree.’ No, it’s not called Innisfree, or maybe it might be. Memory is fickle and the lack of notes in my journal prevent me from recalling.

It was still a time when one could hitchhike across Ireland–before the great real-estate bubble obliterated much of the country with American-like track housing—when a lone Yank wearing a baseball cap, carrying a backpack could catch a ride with a pregnant mother, two howling kids in the back seat. A long time ago, indeed, another Ireland. But, my benefactor that day, a young man from Sligo named Tim Egan on his way to deliver Guinness to Killybegs, noticed a copy of Yeats hanging out of my pack. He pulled over and said, “Aye, you’ll be liking this. They say this is where Yeats wrote some of his finest poetry.”

We looked at the dedicatory plaque, which said Yeats had built a house of sorts here with his bare hands. I smiled, looking about. There were no hives for honeybees, or bean-rows, but the day was bright with the sun and the soft flapping of linnet’s wings. In short, peace did come dropping slow.

Tim whispered the words of the poem. Horripilations rose along the edges of my spine. The words caromed around in my head and settled in my heart and then I forgot it all and the years passed. My tastes in poetry changed once again. Dante called. And so did Homer. Czeslaw Milosz made a guest appearance as well. But Yeats was ever there, lurking, hiding, biding his time. And from time to time I find myself thumbing the well-worn pages of that summer journal, filled as it is with lots of not-so-good writing and equal amounts of even worse poetry. What that journal has in abundance, however, is a voice–for it was that summer that I found my writing voice.

And in that voice I still find ‘nine bean rows’ in the discipline of writing. And I become an engineer of cabins and bee hives with my words, memories and images. I can feel ‘peace come dropping slow’ after a long editing-session, sitting back with a glass of scotch, pride in a job well done.

And best of all, the soft sounds of ‘lake water lapping’ can be found anywhere I choose: watching the silent silhouette of ships skating along the blue waters of the Bosporus, hearing the crush and throng of humanity in all its glorious diversity on an Indian railway station, pacing back and forth along the dilapidated battlements of the Great Wall, but easiest of all when I am sitting on the deck of my favorite Austin coffee house in the cool air of late winter.

I choose, then I remember, and then I smile.

Gargoyle Zombie Paradise

Sean Paul walked with Reyes down the narrow medieval streets in the false-dawn. He screeched like a little girl when a gargolye-zombie lurched out of a hidden passage, looking like a sick, pale harpy.

“Chill, Pablito,” said Reyes, “it’s just my ex-wife.”

Shine, Perishing Republic

When I see things like this it makes me shake my head. Not because I am intolerant. If you want to get your freak on, by all means do so. It’s just that I get the distinct sense that this is what the late Roman Republic must have been like, as all the bizarre Eastern mystical cults spread while the ennui and boredom of life forced people into stranger and stranger associations.

Most people tend to think it was the imperial period, during Caligula’s and Nero’s reigns that the moral life of Rome was terribly decadent–it was politically decadent, no doubt, but morally? Not what it was a hundred years before.

In reality it was the late Republican era that was decadent par excellence. Auguries and foreign gods proliferated as much as orgies and Bacchic Rites while poets such as Catullus’ wrote of Caesar’s (female and male) conquests. Caesar is reputed to have been one of Catullus’ lovers. Republican virtue was drowned in wine, sex and the worship of foreign deities, one of which would wash over the Mediterranean Basin and transform the world.

But lurking in that decadence was a counter-attack from the conservative forces of Rome’s old civic religion. Augustus was an example of that, of sorts, in his exhortations late in his life that the young marry, have more children, be more family oriented. Sound familiar?

The sprouting and proliferation of cults and strange entertainments was crazy in the late Republican period, although limited to the upper classes. The head count still suffered as they must, while the powerful did what they could. And now, we live in a kind of global imperial twilight, our life and times, I suppose, but now the blue and red of dusk turns violet and crimson until purple night covers our dying republic.

Shine, perishing republic.

Mr. Homer Meet Señor Borges

‘”Such a long trip,” he thinks, “and so many places I could have stayed along the way.”‘ Odysseus is clearly a man after my own heart. And in this sterling new retelling of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason, I feel, more than ever that I know Odysseus. He’s new, fresh, post-modern and so very real in all his complications.

The book doesn’t so much as read well, as it breezes by like the images that float in our mind’s-eye when we toss in those fitful moments before sleep overcomes us. The images aren’t logical, but they aren’t yet fantastic, either.

This is also the kind of book that makes me want to write, if I could overcome being green with envy. Sentences like this haunt the pages, jumping out like errant grasshoppers:

“He could be immersed in molten iron and wrought into an ingot to be dropped into the sea, there to spend eternity listing in the deep ocean currents.”

Or this:

“The gloaming had deepened and the orchard shook in a gusting wind that made his footsteps inaudible.”

What writer would not give a small portion of her life to write one sentence so rich and so laden with the power of verbal necromancy?

Mason’s novel is divided into 44 books, or short chapters. (It’s only 230 pages long.) Some are no longer than 600 words, others of several pages. I got the sense at times that Mason was single-handedly trying to conjure up allegory and symbolism as well. But none get bogged down. Effortless artistry carries the tales rushing ahead to their inevitable, crashing conclusion.

Each is a compact of narrative prowess. None uninteresting.

And if the language succeeds, the stories, the plot, the narrative are almost rashomon-esque. None of the stories contradict each other–Mason leaves the contradictions to Odysseus and others in the tale–while Odysseus remains, almost impossibly so, a unified character. It’s life that is contradictory, and in life, other people.

Odysseus always plays his part: but it’s the expansive imaginativeness of Mason’s devious story-telling that one finds laughter, smiles and cringes on several occasions. And perhaps, a few well-timed horripilations: Odysseus the assassin? Achilles the Buddhist? The quiet concatenations of Agamemnon’s heart? Penelope’s elegy?

Mason is all too aware of the post-modern predilection to get lost in the confusing and complicated, to overwhelm the reader with all sorts of nutty plot devices. But Mason’s language and stories are a throwback to a more ancient viewpoint. His book is fruitful with entanglements but never descends to the cheap trick of irony. And, unlike Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, we can all relate to Odysseus’ predicaments; we’re all everymen, without the novel being an esoteric exercise in the mundane.

This book is amazing. I bought the damn thing last night and already read it all. Homer meets Borges, all post-modern, poignant and telling, almost sweet and rueful at the same time and never stuffy. It’s the sum of a thousand tiny complications all rolled into one.

If you have even a passing interest in the ancients, I cannot recommend this book highly enough: a really brilliant retelling of an ancient but timeless tale. And brilliant is a word I seldom, if ever use, in a book review.

Invoking The Muse

Sleeping: BursaIf I’m rotting, it’s a charmed, golden atrophy. What calamitous catalyst that Turkish woman wrought on Friday is beyond my comprehension.

I was terrified: the white screen of death had been staring at me for weeks. Weeks of writing indolence—all wrapped up in the job search. Trying to be normal, respectable. And never knowing where to begin the final portion of the book: the white elephant in the room, Turkey.

Fits and starts. But many more fits than starts.

And then I heard that voice, that sound. Suddenly a torrent of words poured forth. Real inspiration. And I’m wary of inspiration, because it is the handmaid of the muse and the muse is a fickle bitch. She’s mean. Devious. Demanding. And what she gives she just as quickly takes away.

It started an hour later after I left the coffee shop: the words, at first a trickle and then a river, the stories just came over me like a ton of bricks. Maybe not the best metaphor, but I felt overwhelmed, relenting to the voice, the inspiration, as fickle as it is.

And it was easy, unforced. The words were true and pure and rolled off my fingertips like a poem, or a song in the night under clear skies and the moon. All of it: the mosques, the light of the skies in the Straits, the mountains, the smiles, the smell of raki, the bitter twinge of olives for breakfast. The characters, the moldy apartment with damp ceilings I stayed in. Mahmoud. The songs on my iPod in Istanbul blasted from the speakers. And the historical anecdotes came even easier. The wizened sufis and the cruel sultans. The ghosts of Sinan and Justinian merged, seamlessly, as effortlessly as gliding through the Seljuk mosques of Mesopotamia, the circle of a dome and the upside down triangle pendentives.

Before I knew it, I’d written almost ten thousand words.

It’s not for nothing that every travel journal I own begins with this invocation to her:

O’ muse:

When I am weak, give me strength.
When I am lonely, give me friends.
When I am afraid, give me courage.
And when I am lost in the darkness, help me find the light.
In exchange I offer you my words.

She’s fickle, no doubt. But she also rewards devotion.

A Parthian Shot

In Parthian CountryIt’s not the best shot in the world. But I had to have it. My father, Ahmad and I are hurling down the highway towards Meshed and the Holy Grail of all travelers in Persia: the tiled magnificence of the Gohar Shad, trying to make it there before dark. The day before was spent crossing the barren, lifeless Dasht-i-Kavir.

The great range of mountains in the photo is the Kuh-i-Nishapur. I was dying to go up into the hills and see the famed turquoise mines. Turquoise—the color of the Turks—that arresting faience adorning mosques and minarets from the Pillars of Hercules to the Straits of Malacca. Green may be the color of Islam but turquoise left an indelible, obsessive stain on me. The stain of blue in the harsh Central Asian heat and sun. Amidst the orchards of Samarkand and the opaque olive pools of Bukhar-i-Sharif and the summit of Persian architectural expression: the Sheikh Lutfollah mosque of Isfahan.

The mines, worked since antiquity, finally petered out in the late 19th century. Perhaps the turquoise mined here found its way onto the ring fingers of Chinese princesses and Roman potentates? Who is to say it is not so? In the grand sweep of time anything is possible. And it was a day pregnant with the possible.

Behind me was the Parthian Steppe. Just writing the words gives me chills, chills that conjure up images of those mail clad cataphracts who captured the emperor Valerian, or the wily archers who massacred a full legion of Romans and a consul—Marcus Licinius Crassus—at Carrhae in Mesopotamia, thus, dealing out fatal blow to the Triumvirate back in Rome.

“Parthian country,” I mumbled to myself as we raced across the red grass steppe. The dirt more crimson than the cereal laden grasses littering the steppe. I shook my head in the wind and heat and thought, “it is still a wild, feral land.”

A few miles East of us, set in a crease in the foothills of the Kuh-i-Nishapur, were the remains of the city itself. Jewel of Khorasan, home to Omar Khayyam and Farid al-din Attar, avatars of the great 10th-11th century blossoming of Persian science and mysticism. And then came the deluge: a new nation of wild horsemen stormed out of the Central Asian heartland, fresh from the conquest of Kwarizm, those Mongols, and Nishapur was obliterated, never to rise again.

We stopped and walked through the sun baked ruins: a wasteland. It is said that the Mongols left a mountain of skulls near a half wasted city gate as a warning: do not return.

But the ghosts did not heed the Mongols, for like a whisper, just above the breeze, I could hear them, a keening lament for a civilization lost.