A poetic photo

Stairway

Once upon a time it had a purpose.
It was built into a plan.
Each step led you up
to the next,
and the next,
until you reached
your destination in the sky.

It was a stairway to a room with a view,
a view of the world that once was.

In reality I imagine this once upon
a time.
Sitting up there
High on the mountain of my memories.

Distorted in the delusions of my dreams
It weathers.

I wonder if it ever was?
That, which is no longer.

The stairs
are still there, stepping
up to thin air. Rising from the tide
that crept up on them.

[Just like I do]

Tip-toeing to the top,
in the rain.

Up.Up.Up.
I stare down.

Drip.Drip.

Drop.
I fall with my umbrella.

Posted in Sri Lanka | 3 Comments

Different

Sri Lanka surprised me. I left London without really considering the fact that I was going to an Asian country, a place a cultural world away. I didn’t think about how I might perceive cultural differences or how people there might perceive me.

I’m not sure why I didn’t contextualise Sri Lanka on a cultural map. Maybe it was because I have Sri Lankan friends in London, so subconsciously I imagined a country full of them, London-type people. Although, saying that, I also worked on a start-up green energy business in London, which set up projects in Sri Lanka. So I had seen images and read country reports… Perhaps it was simply because I was too focused on the idea of spending Christmas on a beautiful sandy beach to think about where this paradise resided – on an island completely foreign to me. An island with its own history and people (just like every other), but in this instance with people, generally speaking, who have lived lives that, in both superficial and profound ways, have been very different to my own.
(Listen to the BBCWorldservice’s Forum of ideas: After Shock: The Lingering Legacy of Civil Warat The Galle Literary Festival. Broadcast: 6 & 13/02/2011. )

These differences have made me ask questions about the relations that emerge between the divide – us: tourists/foreigners and them: local Sri Lankan residents.

What does it mean to be guest? How do people negotiate cultural difference and everyday interactions?

Here are some notes on my observations and experiences along with the questions I feel they pose. Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t think they make for ready answers.

It has been a group of Russian tourists who have proved the most controversial guests on Mirissa beach. Leaving little to the imagination in their bikini-thongs, appearing like exotic dancers, wiggling their bare-bottoms down the beach with hula necklaces draped over suspiciously their pert breasts. This group of people have erected raucous beach parties for themselves with loudspeakers blasting out tunes, which reverberate along the entire bay, starting at midday.

Kissing mouth-to-mouth, the girls have drawn more than one eye. Entertaining each other and their fat old men, whilst others watch on in disgust, a raw mix of embarrassment and erotic ecstasy. Waiters at nearby shacks fail to hide their delight, a sparkle of appreciation evident in their youthful eyes.

And so it continues, the girls sprawl themselves over rocks, set picturesquely a little out to sea, breaking the waves. They pout from their poses through the twilight at a large-lens camera, which clicks at them, capturing their moment.

The show goes on off the beach too. Couples wandering through the local streets in little more than their swimwear, occasionally with the addition of a transparent sarong, which billows open as they walk, sometimes revealing unsightly abdominal rolls.

Over-exposure?

Are these people oblivious to the shock their tailoring inspires? Are they intentionally imposing their nude values onto those around them? Are they being disrespectful? Or is this simply an act of “freedom of expression”? People trying to ignite desire, just like the advertising world that showers us with the same all over the world?

Can we argue that their comportment is an example of a cultural exchange, people “baring all” for cultural difference?

To paint a contrast in relation to these barely clad exhibitionists, on the weekend Sri Lankan beaches fill with locals – men, women and children – wading into the sea fully-clothed. A sight that satirically seems to turn the evolutionary tables on Civilisation: the traditionally civilised folk transformed, via comparison, into the naked savages… as going native here doesn’t seem to involve going naked.

In Martin Wickramasinghe’s book of short essays, Buddhism and Culture (1964), which I picked up at The Galle Literary Festival, he cites a quote, which poignantly touches on the relationship between notions of savage and civilised in colonial Sri Lanka (previously known as Ceylon). “G.K. Chesterton, an arrogant English Catholic once said ‘The conversion of the savage to Christianity is conversion of Christianity into savagery.’” Unintentionally, I think, he could be elaborating on my point!

Anyhow, back to the conception of people on busy local beaches, last Sunday evening, I had an unexpected encounter. I was walking along the crowded Weligama bay, a little before dusk with a sarong tied around my waste, leaving my footprints in the in the sand, wet from the rising tide. I walked past colourful fishing boats and stray mangy dogs scratching themselves raw, then past smiling families and youngsters gambolling in the setting sun, their feet in the surf.

Approaching the local crowds I started, feeling a little overexposed myself, or at least underdressed, a feeling that has become increasingly common as the weeks have gone by. This is mainly due to the fact that both male and female eyes have a tendency bore into any area of visible flesh, such unsubtle stares over time leave a sort of psychological burn. How quickly one can embody a norm.

So, reacting to my intuition I pulled a dress over my head and tied a scarf around my neck. Comfortably covered up, I continued my stroll. Then, almost as if confirming my discomfort, a teenage boy who had moments earlier approached me to say hello (a little predatorily), sidled up to my side again, this time pushing a bicycle beside him. I noted it, his method of chase, before, without saying a word, he grabbed my wrist. Then pulling me away from the sea, he said, violently, “Come fuck me,” gesturing to undergrowth by the road.
Shocked. Furious. In a state of disbelief, I let rip.
“Fuck off. Get off me. Do not touch me…” Then I began to lecture him, “You do not talk to girls like that. Do you understand? Now apologise. Say sorry.”
He backed off and said sorry. He looked a little surprised even a little bit meek, but still, his friends parroted “Don’t touch me,” as I walked away glaring at them.

Was my white skin a provocation? Is the gender divide a violent one here?

In public, at least, the young love I’ve seen here appears essentially innocent – young couples holding hands along coastal paths, others kissing against ancient trees, hiding behind umbrellas in Kandy’s Botanic gardens. Then there are the flings between Sri Lankan surf-dudes and Western babes.

Who knows how such romances relate back to specific local relations and young lovers affairs…?

How do private pictures develop behind the public displays?

I am only just beginning to establish friendships here, relationships that are doorways to other people’s worlds, as I leave Mirissa tomorrow, I will depart on their threshold.

(For a discussion of Love and arranged marriage – Sri Lankan style from a more legal-religious perspective see BBC Worldservice’s Forum of Ideas broadcast at The Galle Literary Festival. Broadcast: 01/03/2011.)

Posted in Sri Lanka, Tripping | 2 Comments

A lull

Time and I have been moving along while this blog has lagged behind. There are still tales to tell from my wanderings through Argentina’s northern territories and my final farewell to BsAs, but for now I’m just going to bring you back into my present.

My return to London was brief, a three week stint. Full to the brim with mulled wine, minces pies and the various people that I’d missed. The social whirlwind welcomed me home. A whirlwind that ultimately whisked me up, up and away again, to another far away land. This time journeying en famille – a genre of kidnapping: a way for my parents to pin down their two elusive daughters for two unadulterated weeks together.

The chosen location: Mirissa beach. A sandy bay idyllically framed by coconut palms on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. We all agreed that it wasn’t a bad idea.  So the tickets were booked. Fresh grilled fish replaced the traditional roast turkey and a tropical 30*C for London’s minus six.

There was fine sleet falling on Heathrow as we sat patiently in departures, we prayed it wouldn’t thicken. Fortunately long haul proved lucky (while short-hauls flashed *Cancelled*). We waded through the aftermath of the pre-Christmas blizzards, a backlog of havoc as freezing runways continued to freeze flights.

For us it was a mere nine hours in Terminal 4 browsing Boots and Burberry, WH Smiths and Harrods. Then eleven hours in the air with a Drew Barrymore chick-flick and a contorted snooze. Finally, we arrived five and a half hours ahead of ourselves on a Tuesday afternoon in Colombo. It was raining, as if we’d brought London’s snow-cloud with us. Its sleet now melted in Sri Lanka’s heat, having travelled half way around world.

We opened our umbrellas and bargained a taxi down to 6,500 rupees – meaningless money, foreign to our sense of currency, which has been warped by our journey through time. Caught in the conversion of value, we begun questioning what was reasonable in a country where reason is negotiable – where people ask what they want, but often accept what you offer.

The tiresome travelling finally relented as we arrived in Kandy (the hill country) to spend three very damp nights being serenaded by inexorable raindrops thundering down on our roof. This unseasonable weather front persisted as we moved to the coast for Christmas. Grey afternoons and heavy skies hung ominously over the beach, occasionally breaking and shattering into the sea. It wasn’t the flooding of the eastern coast, where millions were displaced, nor anything near Australia or Brazil’s new year inundations, but it dampened our spirits all the same. The unseasonable weather played against our expectations of endless blue sky days. This expectation had, in fact, determined my fate. When my parents disclosed their Christmas plan to me earlier in the year I couldn’t see a good reason to return to the British winter at the end of the three-week holiday. Quite content living the seasons backwards after my year in the southern hemisphere I asked for a one-way ticket.

And so it is that I’m still here, whittling down the last of my savings on roti and dhal whilst acclimatising to the tropics and the attention that comes with being a white foreigner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile my family have had to return to their other lives, an other that I seem to have misplaced, with no university or work to return to. I’m lost in the school of life, detached from the career ladder. I’m still following my whims, as each day poses its challenges as only each day can.

Essentially I’ve been abandoned on holiday, avoiding a return or creating my own reality, I’m not sure? Either way, I’m now alone in Sri Lanka, fending for myself.

For the moment I’ve made my home in a friendly family-run guesthouse, of the family Amarasinghe. It’s set in a leafy garden tucked neatly into the jungle. From the beach you follow the river, where water follows stagnantly towards the sea until you get to the bridge. On the way, if you raise your eyes to the rustling palms overhead you’ll spot the resident family of monkeys that leap precariously between the fronds, then perhaps pass a monitor lizard, which waddles away threateningly poking out a long purple-forked tongue or a peacock wandering between the banana plants. After the bridge, 20 metres on, you’ll find Amarainghe’s garden dotted with little residences, centred round the large main house. This is where I have my room, with a private shower that dribbles, a smelly toilet that gushes and strangely silent mosquitos that bite without warning.

en route to my guesthouse

I rise while the palm leaves are still shading the beach. Under this shade I lay down my sarong and practise a series of yogic bendings and stretchings, saluting the sun, (which has, of late, reassumed its position, blazing in the Sri Lankan sky). I breakfast en route to the monastery, which is also hidden in the jungle, down a newly laid concrete lane that leads to the 300-year-old temple. I greet the orange-robed monks and other passers-by as I cross a wobbly plank balanced over a shallow ditch to enter the nursery building where I’ve volunteered to play teacher.

The dozen or so pre-schoolers have each begun to reveal their own unique characters: Dopey, sleepy, happy, grumpy, bashful and … I’ve been named their fair aunty because I’m (snow!) white, apparently (despite my tan).

We communicate in mime, making evocative noises and silly faces. Heads shoulders knees and toes knees and toesOne two three four five … occasionally I get my meaning across, but I mustn’t push too hard – a lesson I learnt on the swings: I pushed the seats from under two little bottoms with my over-enthusiasm to make them fly. I dusted them off and kissed their bruises better. Luckily small children have a tendency to bounce. So no real harm done!

Two others have vomited, probably the result of combining swings with string hoppers (a kind of fine rice noodle eaten with dhal, egg or coconut sambol), which they devour with their tiny fingers, scooping it up into their mouths from bright plastic lunchboxes.

And so this lull on the ladder goes on.

Posted in Sri Lanka, Tripping | 1 Comment

Slumming it

I’m sitting at a laminated plywood table on a rickety plastic chair. Strip lighting has put everyone slightly off ease, except Damian. Damian is why we are all here, though he’s in fact not here yet. We each order a cortado with a mini medialuna (there’s an offer on) and wait for him. There are five of us, two middle-aged porteña ladies (pearls, cardigans and tailored trousers), my friend Vicky (eco-warrior yoga teacher) and George (a journalist from east London rocking English country chic in a tweed jacket). Then there’s me, just curious.

Small talk waning, Damian finally arrives in paint-stained dungarees and an afghan scarf, his belly falls over the sweater that he ties around his waist as he sits down. He greets each of us in turn, smiling broadly with his two chins, planting a besito on each of our cheeks.

First impressions are good. He does Diego Rivera well. I have high hopes.

Like Diego, Damian is a muralist and a revolutionist. Although Peronista rather than Communista. He lives, works and breathes Buenos Aires’ slums. He was born in one too. In the organic limits of the city, beyond the grid system of tarmac and right angles, in the villas – neighbourhoods recognised as existing “outside society,” separate from the “civilised city.” People live with a range of make-shift water and electricity supplies in homes built with whatever is at hand, corrugated iron roofs often held down by bricks and children’s toys!

Those who live within them call them barrios, those who live outside their borders call them villas, (slums). Typified by drugs, crime and violence these communities reside outside of state control, the police have little or no authority in their streets, different laws apply here.

However, several organisations have made inroads into these worlds, Evangelistas, Peronistas and a handful of NGOs. Damian works with the former two. Mixing faith, morals and politics in his pallet.

He is passionate about his work and eager to share his enthusiasm and saintly commitment to the cause. He begins to take us into his world with a story, painting in our minds the hardships that he’s encountered and the horrors that he has seen: a pre-adolescent girl giving a blow job to a man in the street in exchange for a cigarette, children giving birth to children, the destruction of addition, glue stiffing and Paco – a lethal (and cheap) derivative of cocaine that can kill users within a year.

George and I decided to spend the following Saturday accompanying Damian on his rounds, to see this world through our own eyes.

Before entering the first villa Damian instructs us to keep our mouths shut. He is on edge as we walk down the street whilst Bolivian cumbia music blares obliviously out of every other home. Our foreignness makes us targets, we’re white as white here and without the lengua franca we’ve cause to feel fearful, but I’m too curious to let this sentiment sink in. We’ve done all we can, George has replaced his tweed for a black bomber jacket, and my camera has been quickly whisked from sight after I conspicuously started snapping at an adidas-clad mannequin perched on a roof with a spliff hanging out of its mouth.

Damian is known around these parts, we’re safe, más o menos, with him.

After a lunch of soup and church-made bread we jump on a bus to the next impoverished neighbourhood. Revolution, it seems, is hard work. From 9am-6pm we move from one make-shift church to the next, singing-along with infants in a converted shipping container, exchanging pleasantries with the bright blue-eyed priest. We play dodge-ball under a fly-over, stick, glue and colour-in pictures crouched around miniature tables in several chilly church halls and finally freeze off our fingers painting-in blocks of colour on Damian’s latest mural with an entourage of little helpers.

Damian paints with acrylics, mixing primary shades to pastel to save a few pennies (white is the cheapest colour to buy). He asks if I know why he uses acrylic paint. I have a guess. Because it’s cheap? Because it’s easy to wash out of children’s clothes? Apparently not. He uses it because it’s not toxic, so the children can’t sniff it. I can’t quite believe it. Cute little 4-7 year olds running away to get high with a pot of his paint, but well, if he says so.

We in fact don’t agree on everything. To my frustration, George and I become You, Europe, the Developed World in his discourse. He refers to our world like a paradise, a state of civilisation that Latin America is still waiting to arrive. Everywhere we go we are thanked, constantly, at every opportunity they ingratiate us for making the journey all the way from England to visit them, these poor children, like we’ve sacrificed something to arrive in front of them. It makes me cringe. The part of the world I come from is imperfect too. I’m here because I chose to be here, not because my presence will do good. I’m not a healer or a priest and I don’t share Damian’s grand idealism.

I had a great day, sharing stories with people in my broken Spanish and giggling with children who were so full of life. It was fascinating to get an insight into Damian’s work. To share a bit of his zest for the future, a future that he strives to change, but knows he is very unlikely to see. He toils for a brighter world, the transformation of villas miserias into villas felices.

I think he’s getting somewhere, sharing his skills, brightening walls, making streets smile. Creative action for a cause, empowerment through creativity; I’m a fan. I only wonder if Damian’s relations with political and evangelical movements undermine the independence of art in these poorest parts of Buenos Aires, but then the money for the paint has to come from somewhere…

For up to date info on Damian’s projects visit http://www.grupocultural-cruzdelsur.blogspot.com/

Posted in Buenos A.musings | 2 Comments

Bread & Puppet

Featured in South America’s first hippy museum (in San Marcos Sierras, Cordoba)…

cheap art manifesto)

– – –

RESISTANCE POSTERS (image below)

Others included:
** Pull off the modernization suit and tie and let the naked sun shine on you **

** Fight the technological oppression **

** Resistance of the heart against business as usual **

** Resistance of the mind against the supremacy of money **

** Resistance to the ever growing logic of the empire **

– – –

The Bread and Puppet Theater is a politically radical puppet theater, active since the 1960s, currently based in Glover, Vermont. The name derives from the theater’s practice of sharing its own fresh bread with the audience as a means of creating community, and from its central principle that art should be as basic to life as bread. The Theater participates in parades including Fourth of July celebrations, notably in Cabot, Vermont, with many effigies including a satirical Uncle Sam on stilts. The Theater was active during the Vietnam War in anti-war protests, primarily in New York. It is often remembered as a central part of the political spectacle of the time, as its enormous puppets (often ten to fifteen feet tall) were a fixture of many demonstrations.

Wikipedia

Daniel “Peluca” Domínguez’s hippie history..

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Notes of some quotes

“Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-la qui partent seulement pour partir…”

“But the true travellers are those who leave only to leave…”

Baudelaire, Le Voyage

– – –

“El mono ve el pez en el agua y sufre, piensa que su mundo es el unico que existe, el mejor, el real. Sufre porque es bueno y tiene compasion, lo ve y piensa; pobre se esta ahogando no puede respirar y lo saca, lo saca y se queda tranquilo… por fin lo salve, pero el pez se retuerce de dolory muere.”

“The monkey sees the fish in the water and suffers, he thinks that his world is the only one that exists, the best, the real. He suffers because he is good and has compassion, he sees it (the fish) and thinks; the poor thing is drowning, it can’t breathe, and so pulls it out of the water, pulls it out and remains calm… at last he believes he has saved it, but the fish writhes in pain and dies.”

Un Buda, Argentine film directed by Diego Rafecas

– – –

“Estudiar la via de buda es estudiarse a si mismo; estudiarse a si mismo es olvidarse de si mismo; olvidarse de si mismo es ser certificado por todas las existencias del cosmos.”

“To study the path of the buddha is to study yourself; to study yourself is to forget yourself; to forget yourself is to be certified for all the lives of the cosmos”

Maestro Dogen, Zen temple, Capilla del Monte, Cordoba

– – –

“You think you have something? You don’t. The things have you”

Abuelo Emilio,  one of the 1st hippies to settle in San Marcos Sierras

– – –

La primera comunidad:

“Todos los creyentes vivían unidos y compartían todo cuando tenían.”

The first community:

“All believers lived united and shared everything when they had.”

Biblio Hechos 2, 42-44 / Bible Acts 2, 42-44

– – –

Comé, bebé, amá, despacio, muy despacio… hacé que tu vida dure más!”

“Eat, drink, love, slowly, very slowly… make your life last longer!”

Napkin in a coffee shop in BsAs

– – –

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted in a profoundly sick society.”

J. Krishnamurti from the film “Zeitgeist

– – –

“There were times when I preferred to walk, that is to say talk with my legs, rather than speaking, that is walk with my mouth… And yet deep down it all amounts to the same.”

Serge Daney from a photography book I flicked in BsAs book shop

– – –

“I’m so afraid because I’m so profoundly happy.. happiness like this is frightening.. They only let you be this happy if they’re preparing to take something away from you.”

Amir’s mother in Khaled Hosseini’s book “The kite runner”

– – –

“Here in the country’s heart
Where the grass is green,
Life is the same sweet life
As it e’er hath been.”

The Human Sculptors by Gilbert & George @ PROA museum

(taken from Norman Gale’s poem ‘The Country Faith’)

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What will god ask?

God will not ask what model of car you used; but rather how many people you gave a lift.

God will not ask the square metres of your house; but rather how many people you received.

God will not ask you the mark of your clothes; but rather how many people you’ve helped dress.

God will not ask you how big you salary is; but rather if you sold your conscience in order to obtain it.

God will not ask you your title; but rather if you did your work with the best of you.

God will not ask you how many friends you have; but rather how many people consider you a friend.

God will not ask you what neighbourhood you lived in; but rather how you treated your neighbours.

He will not ask you the colour of your skin; but rather the purity of your interior; nor why you waited so long in searching salvation; he will take you with love in his house.

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