Friday, August 22, 2008

Movie: Frontiere(s)

Frontière(s) embodies the elements of “new French horror” so well that one might be tempted to think that I extrapolated my theories from this film alone. Originally slated to appear in After Dark’s Horrorfest 2007, Frontière(s) was given an NC-17 by the MPAA and was given a limited release later. And while the gore isn’t more extreme than anything seen in Hostel (compare the two tendon-cutting scenes), its brutality and sheer intensity—particularly towards the final survivor, who has been so beaten and debased that she can hardly stand—brings more than a few cringe-inducing moments.

The set-up is achingly familiar—almost cliché: a group of youngsters on the run convene in a secluded inn only to discover horrific goings-on. And while it perhaps introduces too many elements (neo-Nazis, cannibals, mutants, torture, claustrophobia) to have the single-minded effectiveness of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Frontière(s) offers an explicit backdrop of the Parisian riots. The opening credits appear as televised images of rioters clashing with the police, with newscasters announcing the election of an extreme right-wing government (paging President Sarkozy). The image of the young rioters throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails highlights the underlying theme: the new generation versus an established quasi-fascist power. Even as the murderous von Geisler family decry integration (while mocking Farid, a Muslim), the youngsters show integration as a fait accompli. Yasmin (presumably Arabic and Muslim) is pregnant with Alex’s (a Caucasian) child. Farid calls Tom (another Caucasian) “brother.”

Director Xavier Gens capitalizes on the neo-Nazi imagery: in one particularly gruesome moment, a character is steamed alive in a chamber reminiscent of the gas chambers. Gilberte, the seductress of the family, has a creepy, sexualized air that calls to mind Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. The patriarch of the family wears black jackboots and gives fatherly lectures even as his victims lie writhing with shackles around their necks. He presides over his brood with an iron fist, and the yellow and orange color palette indicating chaos in the early scenes of Parisian riots return during a candle-lit “dinner” scene with the family.

Frontière(s) is most hopeful point in its insistence that evil—as expressed through intolerance—is a learned behavior. Just as the child-like Eva has not yet been corrupted by the von Geislers, so Yasmin attempts to spare her unborn child (which appears before the credits in ultrasound form) the fate of being inculcated into the family—or, by extension, the new right-wing government. Still, this hope is tempered by the final image: Yasmin, approaching the freedom and the border, only to be stopped by policemen who slowly reach for the guns as she approaches.

Welcome to the new world.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Movie: P2

One problem with having a solid, verifiable trend is that people—naturally—will try to cash in on it. In the wake of the J-Horror craze, how many Ringu rip-offs did we endure? After The Sixth Sense, how many movies had to have a mind-blowing twist ending (well, other than the ones the M. Night Shyamalan himself put out)? So when the producers of P2 receive top billing, you can almost hear the cash registers ringing in the background.

So even though Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur have their fingerprints all over the screenplay, it’s Franck Khalfoun (perhaps best known as “guy-with-axe-in-his-back” in High Tension) who has actually puts on the director's hat. And while the set-up of the film is brilliant—one woman, one psychopath, and an abandoned parking garage—the execution somehow didn’t hold up.

The film—essentially a folie à deux—therefore hinges on the two main characters. Both Angela, the victim, and Thomas, the psychopath, suffer from being woefully underwritten. Eager to get to the red stuff as quick as possible, Angela furrows her brow, calls her family (it’s Christmas eve), and frets—none of which really makes her endearing. Thomas has screaming fits and glares angrily at the camera, but none of this makes him threatening. He’s too busy chloroforming Angela and handcuffing her to tables to be a fully-formed character. Supposedly, his loneliness is the source of his madness, but this is something that’s announced (somewhat unconvincingly), rather than evinced. Imagine a movie in which you both fear and pity the protagonist… now how scary would that be? (Hint: think of Asami in Audition.)

It’s a pity, since the set-up of P2 had so much potential. Usually “trapped in a bad place” films take place in the countryside, where the entire locale has been steeped in cannibalistic hillbillies. But to have a common urban landscape become utterly defamiliarized… this is the stuff of nightmares. P2 also hints at some underlying class tension (Thomas might as well be singing “Uptown Girl”), but it dispenses any deeper examination with a character that might as well be wearing a sign that says “dead meat.” It's much too easy to kill yuppies; everyone secretly cheers. (And it's a nasty death, too; the scene drags the entire enterprise into sleazy territory. And of course you can’t have torture porn without a wince-worthy fingernail extraction or ocular damage scene.)

Aja and Levasseur still have a little ways to go before they can establish themselves as a reliable brand name in horror, à la Romero. They can craft some effective thrills, no doubt, but for P2, it feels like they punched a button, got a ticket, waited for the gate to go up, and then just finally drove away.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Movie: Them (Ils)

A second film which makes my grand, overreaching statements on French horror sound like blather? So be it. If anything, Them (Ils) has some elements of torture porn—namely, the torture part—the violence isn’t the centerpiece of the film. Instead, tension—pure, unadulterated—permeates every frame. Have Surround Sound? Good. There’s a recurring sound effect that's both familiar and mysterious; once its source is revealed, the sound moves from terrifying to deeply disturbing.

Ostensibly based on a true story, the film plays primarily on fears of displacement. First, the universal fear of being in a foreign place. Lucas and Clementine, the French couple, are already estranged from their Romanian surroundings. Although Clementine is a school teacher, she has difficulty with the language and is somewhat resentful of her students—in other words: normal. And if living in a large, cavernous home deep in the countryside weren’t enough, the film hints at a impossible, bureaucratic police department: either you’re put on hold until you’re dead, or you just don’t have the correct paperwork—and no less dead.

The second displacement is a more bourgeois, though no less effective: the fear of home invasion. And here is where the film works with brutal force. At first, the mysterious assailants simply frighten the couple: cutting off the power, turning the television on and off. But as the attacks grow more violent and begin to come from all directions, the safety of home becomes the inverse: the mechanisms used to keep the external world out (locks, shutters) are used against the couple, as their options for escape become increasingly limited.

The tension in the film never relents. Once night falls, the film hits its go-go-go stride, and the action doesn’t relent until daybreak (and not even then, really). The camera rarely stops to linger; instead, directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud keep things constantly in motion. Careful, judicious use of soundprimarily silenceprovide much of the creepy, restless feeling: it's one thing to jump because of a loud noise on the soundtrack; it's another altogether to be feel the same nerve-wracking fear that the protagonists feel as they strain to hear something—anything.

The directors owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, the original home invasion nightmare (unless you count Lady in a Cage or Wait Until Dark—and why wouldn’t you?). Obviously, Them has none of the postmodern conceits of Funny Games, and the sadism is ratcheted down a notch. As well, the pacing differs: Funny Games excels in delivering long, excruciating suspense; Them, on the other hand, rarely gives you time to catch your breath. But films share, however, a bleak worldview. The motives of the attackers in both films is eerily similar, and while the identity of the omnipresent, hooded figures in Them isn’t revealed until later, the dual revelation of both the “who” and “why” provides a well-placed gut kick. Remember how I said that French horror films have placed their hope in the new generation? I may have to revise that…

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Movie: Silent Hill

So after all the hoopla talking about “the new wave of French horror,” here I am, reviewing a film that’s: 1) an American production; 2) based on a video game; and 3) pretty poor. Let’s just go with the assumption I’m working from worst to best.

Now, Christophe Gans is by no means a bad filmmaker; after all, he helmed entertaining, if flawed, Brotherhood of the Wolf. In other words: he’s not Uwe Boll. But this seems to be the fate of French genre directors who make a big splash in their own terroir: they come to the US with stars in their eyes and are blessed with a big-budget video-game adaptations or remakes which still rake in ungodly amounts of money.

Having not played Silent Hill, I’m in no position to judge how faithful the film is to the game, but video games, at least, have an interactive element which allows the player to invest in the character on-screen. Films don’t have that immediacy, so it falls upon the screenwriter to provide that connection. So here’s problem #1: Radha Mitchell—no stranger to genre films herself—has little to do during the first hour of the film except run around and scream “Sharon!” Sean Bean is similarly squandered as he races around in a subplot that screams “Padding!”

Gans does manage to conjure up some striking images, but, unlike the visions of Guillermo del Toro, Gans’ feel shopworn, second-hand. Pyramid-Head might have been more frightening if he didn’t feel like a Cenobite on steroids. The town cut off by sudden, endless cliffs? You can thank Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore for that. The uniform worn by Officer Bennett (Laurie Holden, whom you might remember from the X-Files as Marita Covarrubias) seems as if it were designed by Tom of Finland. The tightly choreographed Rockettes-of-the-damned scene (nurses in latex!), however, is something that I’ll give Gans credit for, but for every interesting moment, there are at least two that will leave you shaking your head: the trip-hop showdown march, the grainy explanatory flashback, the cryptic crazy lady. I kept shaking my hand at the TV screen, hoping a cursor would appear so that I could click Radha Mitchell into a different part of the movie.

Apparently Gans is slated to direct the movie version of the game Onimusha next. Wake me when he gets to World of Warcraft.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Behind-The-Curve Trendwatch: France is the new Asia

Gosh, it seems like only yesterday that you couldn't go into your local multiplex without running into a long-haired vengeance ghost with Japanese origins. The turn of the millennium belonged to the Japanese and their creepy, atmospheric (and sometimes gruesome) J-Horror. J-Horror, of course, bled into the nearby countries—most notably Korea—and finally came to the Americas, via a steady stream of remakes. But, as it happens when something becomes a culture meme, the market quickly got oversaturated, and Sadako became as much as a stereotype as any other boogeyman. Or, woman, as the case may be.

Meanwhile, French filmmakers have becoming increasingly visible in the genre. While French forays into horror have been spotty (though with a few classic examples), they roared into the consciousness with Alexandre Aja's High Tension (Haute Tension); now, French horror auteurs have become the enfants terribles of the genre.

It seems to me that this new thrust of extreme French horror has three major influences:

1) Torture porn. The obvious forerunner for the French taste for torture porn would be Takashi Miike's indelible (and still unsurpassed) Audition, and, to a lesser extent, Eli Roth's Hostel. Graphic violence, of course, has always been a secret pleasure of horror movies, but recent French directors have turned up the gore level to 11. And while this might not necessarily distinguish them from American directors who have done the same—torture porn itself is an American phenomenon (which has, thankfully, seemingly passed)—recent notable French horror films have been able to imbue their torture with cultural significance, stemming from

2) the French riots of 2005. If one believes that horror films are the culture's way of exorcising its demons, then this is the catalyst for the most recent explosion. After the accidental death of two teenagers in a Paris suburb, the Arab and African immigrant communities burst out in protest. (It certainly didn't help that then-Interior Minister and current-President Nicholas Sarkozy said that those neighborhoods should have been "cleansed with a power hose.") The anger and violence spread throughout France and continued for almost two weeks, until new police powers—including the banning of public gatherings—eased the pressure somewhat. But the racial underpinnings of the riots remain a definite subtext—if not an outright one—in the best of these films. Besides, racial tension is one of the key factors in

3) the changing demographics of France, particularly the Paris suburbs. Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine in 1995 was the first high-profile French film to address the "new generation" of Francophones. Since then, the view has only gotten increasingly bleak. On the upside, though, many of these new films—especially those depicting French youth—have consciously (perhaps self-consciously) introduced a racially and culturally mixed cast as a representation of France as it is today. Granted, most of that cast is offed in various gruesome ways... not to mention the whole violence and pessimism thing... but there does seem to be a distinct, if faint, note of hope towards the upcoming generation, even as the current one heads off towards its doom.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be taking a look at some of these French horror films, taking a look at some common themes and exploring why France is the new Asia. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Movie: The Deaths of Ian Stone

The main drawback of horror movies is that there are very few truly horrifying tropes out there, including (but not limited to): the division between the living and the dead; the necessity of bodily integrity; the line between sanity and cloudcuckooland. So when a new idea comes into play, it seems genuinely exciting.

I was genuinely excited to see The Deaths of Ian Stone. It promised Groundhog's Day... but with gruesome death scenes! But here, we come against the flipside of having a great concept; without an equally great follow-through, it becomes a wasted opportunity.

What The Deaths of Ian Stone offers is essentially a mystery story: why does good ol' Ian Stone, all-American boy, keep on getting murdered every day? Why does he retain only a few fragments of his previous “lives”? And what the heck is he doing in England? Does he have a valid work visa? Indeed, the mystery should propel the story forward, and, in theory, it should be maintaining our interest as we piece together the answers, breathlessly anticipating the form of Ian's next demise.

Only in theory, of course. The actuality, the film spills the beans far too quickly (thanks to the traditional fount of exposition, the Creepy Old Man). This seems to indicate that although the writer (Brendan Hood, who also penned the rightly-maligned They) had a killer concept but didn’t know where to take it. So instead of a spooky meditation on the possibilities of predestination, change or alternate dimensions, we get some hooey about supernatural beings called Harvesters, which, for all their smoky, eerie beauty, seem rather limited in their choice of deaths for Ian Stone. Impalement, throat-slitting, and speeding trains. Twice!

Mike Vogel does his best to inhabit each of Ian's new lives as best as he can; he's particularly convincing as both a junkie and a resentful office worker (although having him as a hockey jock reeks of typecasting). On the other hand, Jaime Murray is squandered in a role that involves way too much hissing. She has a sinewy sexuality, but given her actual role, it doesn't make a lick of sense.

The final third of the film devolves into quick cuts and voice-overs from previous scenes, plus a little latex and sunglasses fetishism cribbed from The Matrix. Now that the "why of the story has been answered, there's little left to do except throw in some more visual effects, add some lackluster fight and chase scenes, and ensure that, yes, love does conquer all. Ian’s last line in the movie, “What’s the matter? Scared?” seems to sum up the problems with the film as a whole. To answer his first question, the matter is a riddle is only as good as its solution; to answer his second, no.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Greetings from: VATICAN CITY

Some people come to Italy for the architecture; others, the history. I’ve told anyone within earshot that my trip through Italy would be the gelato tour. And so it was: south of the Vatican, in the tree-lined Trastevere section of Rome, I began my tour. Odd, then, that I would make three stops at the same shop—La Fonte Della Salute—for three different flavors: chocolate orange, pear, and then peach. Not all at once, of course. Each time I returned for more, the girl at the counter gave me a cock-eyed look, a bemused You again? When I finally stumbled out of the shop, satiated, I fell into another shop, ready for some cinnamon gelato.

I know the Vatican is a huge pilgrimage site for Catholics, and as I walked through the Basilica, I saw nuns from around the globe in their habits of different colors and a smattering of priests. (Several shops along the street sold a calendar that offered a new hunky Italian priest each month; alas, none of them were in the Vatican at the time.) But the tourist-to-devout ratio was skewed more towards the former end. And why not? While I’m ambivalent about using one’s cultural heritage as a cash-in (on the one hand, it pays for upkeep and maintenance; on the other, it’s tacky), the Basilica is one of the few free historical tourist spots in Rome. I don’t think the Holy See is hurting for cash: lots of marble statues of saints, wax figures of dead Popes behind glass, everything gilded and/or filigreed. Alas, no religion offers total one-stop shopping; while the Vatican provides plenty of spiritual fulfillment, it does not provide gelato.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Greetings from: ROME

On the train ride to Rome, I silently played “gay or Eurotrash” with the guy across the aisle from me.

Eurotrash points:

  • plastic frame aviator sunglasses
  • black leather loafers with rubber cleated soles with navy blue socks
  • ostentatious ring on right hand with undecipherable symbol
  • polo with a full-color brand symbol the size of his palm

Gay points:

  • sings along and seat-dances to Madonna on his iPod mini
  • carries a Prada manpurse
  • fashionable female friend with chunky necklace
  • wears a Louis Vuitton belt
  • has “concerto Madonna” written in big block letters in his day planner, which he then proceeds to color in
Sorry, gals. The gays have it.

I’ve noticed that the Roman men wear great suits and great shoes but only OK glasses. They also, it seems, a penchant for bikini briefs (don't ask me how I know, but it has to do with watching too much MTV Italia, all right?). But don’t take this as a complaint; it’s hard to criticize too much when surrounded by good-looking, dark-complexioned men who aren’t afraid to have body hair creeping out of their shirt collars. I’ve always wondered if the Italian-American machismo attitude was directly imported from Italy, or if it’s another all-American creation, like the fluffernutter. I think it’s probably an altered form of that machismo: the swarthy I’m a man pose blended with a Protestant-cum-Catholic work ethic. It goes beyond simply being a cultural phenomenon and transforms into a pose that Italian-Americans have to actively cultivate. Of course, I didn’t suffer the horror stories I’ve heard some female travelers tell about Italy: stares, catcalls, eyeroll-worthy pick-up attempts, and the ever-popular ass-pinch.

In fact, I kind of felt left out.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Greetings from: VENICE

After a late night on a cramped train from Ljubljana, stepping into the morning light of Venice was not quite a breath of fresh air—if for no other reason than the canals create their own atmosphere. But Sunday is its own world in Venice; silence reigns on the Rialto Bridge, still clear of tourist trinket stalls. A handful of vendors were setting up their wares, but except for the unfurling of awnings, the quiet seemed almost medieval, otherworldly. You could hear the leaf-green water lick the edges of the canals. People were getting in their boats; shops were shuttered. The food vendors only now put out their good, narrow cups filled with watermelon and kiwi. In the cobblestone squares, empty plastic cups cricked against each other as the wind blew them about, and beer bottles, proof of late night’s revelry, stood in corners, on ledges. It must have been a wild Saturday evening.

As the day grew later and hotter, more tourists appeared, so that by the time we reached San Marco Square, the place was filled with tour groups, some following their leaders holding up little umbrellas, others following along with earpieces to their guide speaking quietly to them through the ether. From every vantage, the winged lion of Venice looked down, holding his Book. When we crossed back over the Rialto, we could hardly move from the crowds. Every shop glittered with “Murano” glass, cut and shaped into every conceivable form. If I stopped into those shops, it was only to soak up the air conditioning; with a bulky bag dangling from my shoulder, I was rightly concerned about stumbling and creating lots of beautiful glass shards on the floors of Venice.

With only a few hours to spend in Venice—a tragically tight schedule—you can’t help but hit all the big tourist spots: The Bridge of Sighs, the Grand Canal, the Doge’s Palace. But sometimes this is the way it has to be. At lunch, we sat in the shade, while an accordion player serenaded us with a medley of the great Italian musical stereotypes. It was the quintessential Italian experience: eating flat-crust pizza al fresco, while “O Sole Mio” plays in the background.

Greetings from: BLED

Just a short trip to the north, Lake Bled is nestled at the base of the Julian Alps. It’s every photographer’s dream: you just can’t take a bad picture of this place. Resorts surround the lake, which is emerald-green and clear as far as you eye can focus. Swimmers, sunbathers, strollers: all around the lake, young and old; a retreat for tourists both internal and international. Tito himself had his summer villa here (which is now a hotel), but for such a prime piece of picturesque property, several of the lakefront homes are abandoned, collapsed, or otherwise in disrepair. Matthew keeps talking about renovations, and it frightens me.

We took a boat out to the center island (of course, we hired one for 12€ each; did you really think we’d row ourselves?), where, in the church atop the island, we watched the tail end of a Slovenian marriage. According to legend, if the groom can carry the bride up the stairs (and there are a good number of them), then the marriage will be a successful one. I don't think the groom did this, however; he was too calm and non-sweaty to have lugged another person. In dress shoes, no less. The bride wore a cream-colored gown, and the groom’s tuxedo was the color of honeyed milk with white pinstripes. We caught a glimpse of them as they left the chapel, amidst handfuls of rice. It must be odd, celebrating this day with a steady stream of tourists surrounding your party, blocking your photographer’s shots, and otherwise just getting in the way. But perhaps when you’re enjoying yourself, when you’ve convinced yourself that this day carries a greater weight than any other day before, you can ignore the presence of strangers commenting on your clothing and the clothes of your guests.

The national pride and joy—the dessert that made Lake Bled great—is a kremna rezina, a layer of whipped cream atop a layer of vanilla custard, sandwiched between to flaky pastry rectangles. It appears on your plate like a brick, but goes down like a marshmallow. Accompanied with a vroča čocolada s smetana, it’s decadence for those who know decadence. For others, it’s just a toothache.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Greetings from: a bicycle trip around the city

After being forced aside by a mad bicyclist one too many times, it’s now my turn for revenge. I rented a bike from the hostel, and I was off like the wind. While I respected the existence of the bike lane, at times, it seemed to merge into the sidewalk (or else took a path which I couldn’t locate). And only once did I come close to a collision: two women, walking side by side. I rode up behind them, ninja-like, and eased by them on the left. Had I stretched out my right hand, I would have smacked one of them squarely on the ass.

Unsurprisingly, I got myself thoroughly lost several times. When the roads take a slight change in direction or angle off, they also change names, and with the tiny font on the map I had to guide myself, it was next to impossible to relocate myself. Many of the buildings in Ljubljana were unmarked as well (the National Gallery has to be one of these pink rectangles, but which one?), so I had to orient myself by unmistakable landmarks: the bus station, the beer factory, the river, the castle. Luckily, there isn’t much of Ljubljana to get lost in, so all problems mostly solved themselves.

In Tivoli Park, I stopped by the Hot Horse stall, apparently a local favorite. I ordered the house specialty, the horse burger, and at first, I suspected that the name had more to do with the size of the burger than the contents of the patty. As it turns it, it was both. You can pile on as many toppings onto the volleyball-diameter patty as you want, and the server wraps it neatly in a foil package. And while I can’t say that the taste was objectionable (either on my tongue or my conscience), if someone offers me horse meat again, I think that the neighs have it.

While eating, a small black-and-white kitten emerged from underneath the Hot Horse stall, squeezing its little body out from a hole in the ground. In a few weeks, it wouldn’t be able to do that anymore. Of course, being the sucker that I am, I immediately felt sorry for it. It hadn’t yet learned to fear humans—just a matter of time, I suspect; even though I carefully pulled off un-mustarded parts of my horseburger for it, other benches shooed it away thoughtlessly—and I was able to pick it up and hold it. So light, so fragile. He swatted good-naturedly at my fingers; no claws yet, but I imagined that they’d soon be sharp and ready to fend off the world. I named him Žižek and wished him godspeed.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Greetings from: LJUBLJANA

I spoke about “roughing it” too lightly, and then I’m actually doing it. We’ve moved one step down from a hotel to a hostel, where the extra “s” stands for “savings.” It could also stand for “shared bathroom.” But irrational need for maid service and 400-thread count sheets will eventually be my undoing. Luckily, the Aladin Hostel isn’t strictly for youths, so there are a fair number of older folks here. And as long as it isn’t run by an international cartel of sadists who pay for the pleasure of dismembering you, I’m fine with it. (Damn you, Eli Roth!)

I’ve actually stayed in a hostel once, when I was in my early twenties and couldn’t afford a hotel room in Boston for a writers’ conference. I recall a pleasant enough experience, if not particularly a memorable one, since I only spent one night in the hostel before shacking up with various conference-goers after that. Please keep in mind: this is when I lived in D.C. and my #1 requirement for a boyfriend was that he have air conditioning.

The halls smell of disinfectant—off-putting, although it does imply that the toilets are cleaned on a regular basis. Still, I like to limit my Pine-Sol exposure as much as possible. The lobby looks like the interior of a strip club: padded benches with M&M-colored cushions, ceiling fan, colored lights in the windows. The reception desk could be the DJ booth. It’s actually peaceful here (signs posted around the hostel ask guests to keep their partying to a minimum, by request of the police), and residents drift in and out, speaking French, English, other unidentifiable Indo-European languages. On the whole, I've seen fewer mullets here than in the Czech Republic, but the fauxhawk is still in full-force. Particularly annoying are the fauxhawks with the pointy parts bleached or dyed a different color.

Late night in the hostel lobby: one of the two overhead TVs has a test pattern. The station has gone off the air and says nothing but “TV Koper. Capodistria.” The other plays a grainy Slovenian film. It looks to be from the 60s or 70s, judging from the clothes and the general demeanor of the actors. The odd thing—the Slovenian subtitles are on as the characters speak those self-same words. It’s a crash course in pronunciation—if only I knew what the police inspector was saying to the guy who refuses to button up his shirt.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Greetings from: BRATISLAVA

Many travelers I’ve encountered really enjoy this idea of “roughing it”: lugging a 50-lb. backpack across a continent, staying in grimy hotels, buying as little as possible. Traveling, for me, is a mini-indulgence; it’s not a smorgasbord of extravagance, but neither is it an exercise in austerity. And considering the impressive skills of the chocolatiers along the Danube, why hold back on this simple pleasure?

Bratislava is almost like Prague in miniature—which shouldn’t be taken as a slight. It has the historicism of Prague, but on a smaller scale: Prague’s Staré Mĕsto could eat Bratislava’s for breakfast. By the same token, however, Bratislava attracts fewer tourists and has an appealing gritty side, which isn’t readily apparent in Prague. For instance, we arrived at the south train station in Bratislava and walked to the Old Town, a walk of about 2 km. Old, lived-in apartment blocks—crumbling concrete, laundry hanging off of balconies—edged up against new, vacant construction; an urban renewal project that hadn’t begun the “renewal” part of the plan. The Incheba Convention Center, a sprawling, white monolith in the center of a vast, empty parking lot, festooned with banners proclaiming upcoming gatherings (and Disney on Ice), seemed to embody both the initial optimism and eventual failure of Communism. The bridge spanning the Danube River, crowned with a Starship Entreprise-like restaurant, rattled with automobile traffic as we crossed. On it, a young man sprayed and wiped off graffiti—a continual losing battle; as soon as a space had been cleared, a new tag appeared.

The main drag in Bratislava’s Old City has been commercialized as much as Prague’s (global capitalism, thy name is The Body Shop), but plenty of raw Bratislava remains with boarded-up buildings and disintegrating facades. There’s also a similar sense of play with the public art: a man emerges out of a sewer grate. Napoleon slouches against a park bench. A photographer peeks around a corner.

But let’s talk chocolate for a minute. I’m generally not a truffle and bonbon connoisseur (I prefer the dense purity of bars; for example, in one Vienna shop, I saw a panoply of fascinating flavors: rose and thyme, sour cherry and Kirsch, cranberry and rosemary, but these were all fillings and crèmes, rather than integral to the chocolate itself), but even I indulged in some truffles at Cokolada pod Michalska. And while the flavor combinations aren’t as exotic as those described above, they still fire off all the tongue-based endorphins at once.

Better still was the hot chocolate at Schokocafe Maximilian Delikateso. Max Brenner in New York City serves up sugary sludge compared to the thick, rich, impossibly flavorful cups of bitter chocolate that we sipped—almond for Matthew, orange for me. Nearby, an orchestra tuned up, played snippets of soundtrack music to smatterings of applause. Tourists milled around the souvenir carts ringing the square, and Matthew and I surreptitiously snapped pictures of cute boys and well-dressed promenaders. (Maybe not as surreptitious as we’d like to think.) Sunshine lit up the fountain in the square, and the cannonball embedded in the face of the church seemed to make perfect sense: the flaw that makes beauty possible.

* * *

I know I kind of ragged on the Austrians earlier for their Asian food fetish, but we dined at Chang Asian Noodle (next to Chang Asian Duck Bar). And while this brought back some unpleasant memories from when I was nine—namely, a European tour with my parents, aunt, and uncle in which we wandered the street of Torani one evening, searching for a Chinese restaurant—I will say that in my defense, it was close to the hotel, well-populated by locals (one of whom brought in his Dalmatian), and reasonably tasty.

Greetings from: Opernring

Monday! The sun was shining, the shops were open, the world had righted itself back onto its axis. The previous day’s rain became nothing more than a cold breeze that blew throughout Vienna. We made the tourist circle around the city center, gazing at Baroque buildings and dodging the bicycles that come zooming down the sidewalk. Vienna is extremely bicycle-friendly (designated bike lanes!) although the riders can occasionally be pedestrian-hostile.

I’d also discovered the joy of ordering my hot chocolates mit Schlag—with whipped cream. The Schlag isn’t sweetened, as one might expect, but adds the richness and butterfat that milk froth just can’t contribute. No more trying to dissolve those last lumps of Swiss Miss in tepid tap water—Viennese hot chocolate is the real thing.

The Viennese have a fondness for Asian cuisine (maybe rightly so, since there’s only so much schnitzel you can eat before you turn into a leaden lump). The Orientophages of the Czech Republic had to confine themselves to Činksa restaurants, but Vienna aims for a more cosmopolitan feel and offers the gamut: Japanese, Indonesian, and even Vietnamese (owned and operated by Chinese, but close enough). Asian groceries, as well, dot the streets around the Naschtmarket, tempting me with their shiny cleavers.

The main street of the City Center, Graben (a former ditch), has become a pedestrian walkway given over to high-priced conglomerate boutiques: Hermes, Hugo Boss, Zegna—beautiful suits around the 1,499 Euro mark. The businessmen striding through the square, assiduously ignoring tourists as if they were lampposts—were they the market for those suits? Or do they need the suits to match the red marble urinals and mahogany-doored stalls of the Adolf Loos-designed public toilets?

Matthew and I ascended the south tower of St. Stephan’s Cathedral, 300+ stairs caked with decades’ worth of spit-out gum and the names of previous visitors scratched into the stone. The top afforded a panoramic view over the city, but was slightly marred by the fact that it was now a gift shop, manned by a soporific cashier. I don’t blame him, though; it was warm, and I can’t imagine lugging an A/C unit up those stairs.

We capped off the evening with dessert and tea in Süssi. We were served by a single young man, Christopher, with dark hair and hearing aids in each ear. He reminded me of Jonathan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, expect happier. “What is your wish?” he asked, indulging our indecision with a genuine smile, rather than the grudging acknowledgement to which we’ve become accustomed here in Europe. I sort of wanted to put him in my pocket and take care of him. Mit Schlag, bitte.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Greetings from: VIENNA

My greatest regret upon leaving Prague—besides not being able to spend more time there—is learning all these words in Czech that I’m never going to use again. Knihy, for example. Book. Vlak, train. Dĕvka, bitch.

On the train to Vienna, we passed Blansko, where there was a lake of green water alongside a black cliff, almost like a quarry. The vines and tree branches stretched towards the water, a verdant waterfall. Sunbathers on its “shore.” What was I doing cooped up on the train again?

Worse, the rain that had annoyed us in Prague followed us to Vienna, where it had gathered strength and now came down in a fury. What I imagined to be a beautiful, classic city was washed out in gray clouds, falling sheets of water. Not to mention that it was a Sunday, and almost the entire city had closed down. This is what Catholicism hath wrought. Where’s the Reformation when you need it?

Our hotel, AllYouNeed, has a spartan decor, like a Ikea clearance showroom. I've also noticed that European hotel bathrooms—well, at least the lower- to mid-price hotels that we prefer—have a corner shower stall, little more than a quarter-circle. A tight squeeze: I constantly bumped up against the water handle, alternately scalding and freezing me out.

We did manage to sneak into one of the famous Viennese coffee houses, however: the Café Leopold Hawelka. Despite the strengthening rain, we sat outside, mostly protected by the umbrellas, although we’d occasionally catch some spray drifting past. The interior was all dark wood and heavy curtains, the day’s newspapers on long, wooden readers. But I suspected something might be bad when I stood at the doorway and the middle-aged waiter brushed past me (it seems that you simply seat yourself at most places in Europe) and muttered, “Please stop raining.” A young, blonde waiter came to take our order, and we sent him away because we hadn’t decided yet. Big mistake, because we never saw him again. No, really. He left the café entirely. One moment he was serving customers; the next, I didn’t see him whatsoever in a cursory sweep of the inside. We speculated that he’d been fired by the grumpy middle-aged waiter, because the older one kept getting more and more frazzled as the night went on. He was the only server, and he cleared tables with a violent sweep of his hands, oftentimes spitting out mysterious German expletives. He finally wandered back outside when prompted by a table impatient to pay the bill. And while our hot chocolates certainly delicious, I had to track him down in order to settle—€4 for each drink. The experience seemed questionable. Entertaining, but questionable.

Still, I’m a sucker for bad service stories, especially when you can see the curmudgeon materialize right before your very eyes: normal human, normal human, bam!, raving madman with slightly mussed hair. And I did leave a tip, but only because I didn't want him to cuss me out after I left.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Greetings from TEREZIN, back to PRAGUE, Vinohrady

The first sunny day in Prague.

I fear that I’ve been using the word “ghetto” frivolously, letting it meaning “cheap” or “gaudy” or “trashy and full of bling.” But a day trip into Terezin reminds me that the word had a meaning long before it became associated with the contemporary African-American idiom. It will always mean a heavily populated area of a single ethnic or racial group, but in Terezin, I’m reminded of the darker implications of the word.

But—and I hate to say it—the city itself has a sort of tackiness that rubs me the wrong way. The victims of the Holocaust should be rightly remembered; the Holocaust itself should haunt humanity until the end of days, but I felt like the remembrance had become the major industry in Terezin. When you name a hotel the “Terezin Memorial Hotel,” it’s pushing the boundaries of taste. As well, it’s disconcerting to see normal Czech families living their lives in the houses that you know once housed thousands of doomed Jews. Of course, it’s unrealistic to imply that the buildings should have been preserved in amber as a static monument. But the everyday nature of the town itself makes the reconstructed dormitory in the Magdeburg Barracks seem artificial. It doesn’t help that outside of the Small Fortress, just past the field of gravestones and roses, many bereft of names, religions of the dead demarcated by the humongous cross and the Star of David emerging from a mound of black rocks—just past that were a strip of tourist shops, selling Bohemian glass or, at the shop closest to the road, Native American dreamcatchers and beaded necklaces.

And yet, I was still moved. The exhibition on the artists in Terezin struck me; maybe this is the only way to understand tragedy: huge numbers of deaths—humans shipped around like livestock—take on greater significance when extrapolated from a singular experience. To privilege a writer over, say, a mother of four seems terribly elitist of me, but there you have it.

From Terezin, we hiked a pleasant 2 km. to the small town (to say “quaint” runs the risk of being patronizing) of Bohušovice, which I imagine gets some spill-over from the tourist trade, but not much. On one side of the street, more Soviet-style block apartments; on the other, individual houses (or as Matthew phrased it: “proletariat/bourgeoisie”). The menu at the Restaurace Radnice was handwritten and in a plastic cover, with no translation, so I simply picked something and ate it. Discovery is the best part of travel. The barkeep, with his thick broom-like moustache, looked at us askance, but was good-natured enough to indulge us intrepid travelers.

* * *

I’m not one to stand on formality, so after returning to Prague, we went to Club Termix, a gay club that seemed to have a high patron-to-prostitute ratio. Is it ridiculous to want an “authentic” gay experience in a foreign country? Because—from what I can tell—gay clubs everywhere are pretty much a monoculture. Who needs Esperanto when you have Madonna? Even though I suspect very few people there spoke English, everyone knew the lyrics for “Ray of Light.”

Still, I was curious. The early 90s saw a huge boom in twinky gay Czech porn stars (the blame falls squarely on the hairless shoulders of Bel Ami); surely there was more than that. It really was like any other gay club in the United States. A smattering of older men, some bearish types—no one danced with their shirts off, thankfully—but still dominated by young men in their 20s. The only difference was that I only saw two other minorities—two black men (not together)—and I was the only Asian.

Well, maybe it’s not that different from the US, come to think about it.

To think: I would have happily danced alone on the floor there (tiny as it was, maybe 20 ft. square). I would have sacrificed my lung capacity to secondhand smoke and my hearing to the bass. I would have danced atop the speaker box with wild abandon. But I have a more fully-formed sense of shame now. And besides, I’m no longer in my 20s, so I gladly cede my position, especially considering the high preponderance of diva house being played. When the DJ started repeating tracks he’d spun earlier, I knew it was time to leave.

Greetings from: Hradčany, Malá Strana

Every time I reach this section if town—the location of the Prague Castle—I have the irresistible urge to call it “hard candy.” Perhaps it’s simply too much Madonna on my mind. After all, there’s not a single area of the city that’s not painted or carved or scalloped or crenellated or otherwise adorned with statuary (or, alternately, studded with anti-pigeon spikes), and much of the imagery has religious symbolism: here, a pietà; there, a saint.

But Prague is also a dream for public, secular art: odd sculptures and murals appear with regularity. So whether it serves as a memorial (disintegrating victims of Communism in Malá Strana) or serves a mysterious function (a pendulum of the oversized metronome) or serves up a slice of a surreal (mutant babies crawling up the television towers), art is everywhere, and you eyes can never rest in one place. A city of beautiful distractions. In front of the Kafka Museum (a multimedia extravaganza with some installations that remind me of bad student films), two fountains in which the water flowed out of the penises of the statues.

The painted buildings look like pieces of Wedgwood china, but when you have a city that bears its history on its walls, even the new buildings have been made to look old. Every church—at least in the tourist-frequented areas—sponsors a 5 p.m. concert with some form of Vivaldi or Mozart on the program. As you walk down the streets in the morning, you can also hear a conservatory student practicing her piano from an open second-story window: ascending and descending arpeggios, scales, runs.

And yet, the man-mullet is still in fashion here. Go figure.

The Prague Castle complex itself requires an exorbitant admission fee (about 350 kč for the deluxe package), but the heart of the area—St. Vitus Cathedral—has no fee whatsoever. So, even though we all know that the Cathedral is God’s home, He’s made Himself a wonderful conversation piece with the six stained glass windows that explode out of the dark recesses. Other parts of the Cathedral may seem excessive (a tomb made of solid silver?), but the windows illuminate the soul as much as the world.

But equally as entertaining is the changing of the guard in the Castle Courtyard. They’re accompanied by a 5-piece brass band: trombones, tuba, snare drum. But it’s much pomp without the attendant circumstance. The guards’ powder-blue uniforms, replete with epaulets and colorful ceremonial cords and guns with shiny bayonets, make them look like a particularly masculine majorette squad. For those who can still be impressed by formation marching, shouted Czech commands, and sabers being slid in and out of sheaths, it’s quite the spectacle. For those who can’t, it’s just fun to watch boys parading around in uniform.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Greetings from: Staré Mĕsto, Josefov

I consider myself relatively tolerant of other religions, particularly when they’re tolerant of me in turn. Thus, Prague, with its strong traditions of Catholicism and Judaism, comes as a sigh of relief, even if they haven't sat comfortably next to each other in history. Indeed, right in the center of the Old Town is a statue dedicated to Jan Hus, the guy who was way into Reformation before Luther made it all mainstream and cool.

And while I appreciate the artistry that goes into religious symbols—those Catholics love their icons!—it doesn’t bowl me over as much as it would a believer. Instead, I look at the vaulted and painted ceilings of St. Nicholas or the ornate Moorish patterns in the Spanish Synagogue and pause to admire its aesthetics.

Matthew, however, is a much more sensitive soul than I. His heritage is Jewish, after all, but I was surprised to find him tearing up within the gilded patterns of the Spanish Synagogue. Much of it had to do with the exhibit detailing the fate of the Jews in Terezin ghetto; Matthew found himself wondering how many of those who died there had come to worship in that very same synagogue. And later, in the Pinkas Synagogue, with its walls covered with the names and dates of death of the Jews of Prague, even I could feel the tremendous weight of history bearing down upon the place, even if my borrowed polyester kippah steadfastly refused to stay on my head.

But at least I wore mine. Despite the posted signs asking men to cover their heads to respect the sanctity of the place, I saw plenty who went yarmulke-less. And it annoyed me a little. More egregious was the young man who kept taking photographs when the pictogram clearly depicted a camera with the round red international symbol for no slashing through it. I mean, I could have easily taken pictures inside the Spanish Syngogue—and believe me, I was tempted—but I decided against it. Not that I fear any Divine retribution. But I'm probably pushing my luck as it is.

Behind us on the stairs in the Pinkas Synagogue, a teenage American girl missed a step and stumbled. As her friends helped her up, she admitted that she had probably had too much to drink last night. Her friends agreed; they were all pretty wasted. I guess wasted would be the appropriate word, but I don’t hold their youthful exuberance against them.

The day was cool, and the sun wouldn’t appear until nearly six in the evening, but walking through the Old Jewish cemetery, the gravestones clattering together haphazardly, angled whichever way their anchors had buckled, I passed by the grave of the Rabbi Löw, the legendary scholar and mystic, who had created the Golem of Prague. Matthew placed a pebble on his grave, a sign of respect. I bought a small pottery golem, my own sign of respect.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Greetings from: PRAGUE, Charles Bridge, Kampa

Anyone who hasn’t played “gay or Eurotrash” should really give it a try. It only more challenging once you’re in Europe itself; the men are generally well-dressed and wear interesting—if not always great—shoes. I guess the feeling of foreignness is endemic to travel, especially when faced with a language that has strange diacritical marks over non-vowels. On the bus ride from the airport, Matthew pointed out the old Soviet-style block housing, Communist tenements, before Prague finally gives way to its own storied history and red-tiled roofs.

Our hotel, the Hotel Kampa Garden, is a stone’s throw away from the garden itself, a verdant path, where couples lie in the grass, the girl’s head on the guy’s stomach. Our room overlooks a small canal used for grist mills. In the direction away from the garden, the Charles Bridge stands across the Vltava River, and it’s a major tourist draw, lined both with statues of religious icons bearing gold crosses and street vendors selling glass jewelry and caricatures. At the moment, however, it’s under construction, with part of the Western edge fenced off, and workers in lime-green t-shirts mingling amongst the crowd. At one end, you can pay 70kc to ascend the tower, which allows you some astounding views of the city—you can trace the path of the river as it makes its way around. You can, as well, watch to other tourists as they gather below for group pictures or simply pick their way over the cobblestones.

In Kampa Square, at the foot of the Charles Bridge, there’s a busker festival going on. Thus far, we’ve been treated to jugglers, puppet shows, marionettes, and even mimes. Sadly, they didn’t wear whiteface a la Marcel Marceau, but they did have skin-tight white gloves that went well past their elbows. It seems to me that the secret of good miming is not getting trapped in an invisible box, but being able to carry a narrative on facial expression alone. Though the box does seem important as well.

I was exhausted in the evening—a full day’s worth of transit. The sun hadn’t gone down yet by eight, but evening was cool, and I could still hear applause for the performers in Kampa Square.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Greetings from: LAKHPAT

I try not to cause any international incidents, but despite my best intentions, things get out of hand. For instance, take Lakhpat, a ghost town on the northern border of India. You need government permission to visit. I always thought that the government simply didn’t want you to see some of the extreme poverty-stricken parts of the country -- like China. But that’s not the reason at all.

Lakhpat was once a thriving port city situated at the mouth of the Indus River. An earthquake in 1819 diverted the flow of the river, however, and without water access, the life drained out of Lakhpat. Nowadays, it has 200 residents and two small, spooky temples, one Sikh, one Muslim. As far as I can tell, their #1 industry is survival. The city is ringed by tall fort walls; despite some crumbling here and there, it’s possible to walk Lakhpat’s perimeter on the wall.

Just beyond the walls lies the Rann, and this time, it’s pure desert. I crept out through a hole in the wall. It’s a flat expanse with a handful of hills. The earth had cracked from where mud during the rainy season had dried; animals had left tracks. Cows, dogs, and a single gazelle sprang off into the distance, startled by my approach. Some ruined boats in the distance demanded a closer look. As I photographed them, I saw three figures in the distance -- shepherds, I figured. I was two-thirds correct.

The third figure was a soldier. When he saw me, he waved me over. Even though I had my permission slip to be in Lakhpat, I was no longer in Lakhpat; I had wandered into the borderland with Pakistan. That explains the big honking rifle he carried, then. A small piece of camouflage cloth was wrapped around the muzzle, and the magazine cartridge was transparent. Inside, the bullets were sharp-tipped and severe. BSF was stitched onto his dun-colored uniform’s shoulder -- Border Security Force, I imagine.

I had to wait with him while he summoned his superior officer. The soldier who had stopped me was friendly enough; I showed him the pictures I had taken (it was more of a command, really), and he asked how much a camera like that cost. He asked if I had a girl. His superior was much more gruff. He barked at me in Hindi, and I tried to look contrite, but I didn’t understand a word he was saying, he and soldier who had stopped me did his best to translate. Eventually, we managed with sign language: my arm was the city’s walls, and I was not to go beyond the walls.

I wasn’t worried. I know that if anything serious had happened -- taken into custody, for example -- that I could demand contact with the embassy. I wouldn’t have been ideal, stuck on a tiny military outpost for who-knows-how-long, but I never felt in any danger.

Still, it’s good to remember: going beyond the fort walls is a no-no.

Greetings from: DHAMADKA

If yesterday was the earthquake tour, then today was the textiles tour. As part of the rehabilitation effort, NGOs invested their resources into providing the Kutchi people a livelihood and not simply a hand-out. To this end, they made an effort to revive Kutchi handicrafts -- primarily in the textile industry. There’s a dizzying array of traditions at work in Gujarat; each tribe has its own specialty, its own designs. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t try my best to support them -- primarily by shopping.

The earthquake reconstruction period split communities in an odd way; some villages chose to rebuild where they were, while others simply picked up and moved a few meters down the way. In some cases, half the village would leave for a brand-new development, brand-new town, while the old village had its own, separate revitalization. And in both places, the villagers were able to restart their craft-making.

Ajrakhpur, for instance, split off from Dhamadka, but both towns continue their specialty: block-printing. The initial design is stamped onto a length of cloth and then stretched out in the sun, weighted with rocks, to dry. From there, the Muslim craftsmen (with firm and steady hands) continue to dye the cloth, expanding or filling in the colors of the first print. The natural dyes used in the process (derived from turmeric, pomegranate, iron) don’t appear too striking when first applied, but after a washing and boiling process, the vibrancy emerges.

Meanwhile, in Dhaneti, the women practice Ahir embroidery, an intricate and, frankly, stunning art. Traditionally, their finest work is reserved for their dowry, but the handiwork is unmistakable nonetheless -- tight stitching, bright silk thread, embedded mirrors. One craftswoman explained that the embroidery for a pillow cover would take about 10 days to complete. From their needles, animals emerge: horses, elephants, peacocks.

From what I’ve been told, in Bhujodi, every household has a loom for weaving -- and there are approximately 200 households there. From the shop, I could hear the clacking of the looms; each house can make one shawl a day, ranging in materials from a soft, imported Australian wool to a more rough, textured Kutchi wool. Shawls were stacked waist-high on the floor of the shop. As I stood deciding, he examined a recently-made one, a quick quality-control check.

It’s somewhat of a given that the highest-quality items are usually sold through high-end retail shops, like Shrujan or Qatab (both have, I might add, a strong development focus and conscience). The shops in the small villages themselves tend to have lower-quality items, but with the cheaper price tag.

You get what you pay for, and that counts for both fabrics and NGOs.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Greetings from: LODAI

According to Mr. Jethi, who organized my tour today, Lodai is the Gujarati word for earthquake -- a sudden jolt. My auto-rickshaw driver would take me around to some of the village east of Bhuj which were damaged by the earthquake, with Lodai being the nearest large village (relatively speaking) to the epicenter.

I had some sightseeing stops along the way. In Kotay, I hiked a small ways up the hill to a tiny temple to Shiva that squeaked with bat calls. It had suffered some damage as well, but it was still in excellent condition for a temple that used no mortar in its construction (if you ignore the wooden poles holding up the temple from the inside). 1700 years old, I was told. The exterior had sandstone apsaras -- some had eroded away into skeletal shapes, remanats of divinity. But those in corners had preserved well.

The epicenter itself is in the Rann of Kutch, a desert expanse of salt plain and brush. Very little grows there, and what does has sharp, snagging thorns. You can still see pockets of upheaval -- craters with sides of fine dust -- and an earthen rift that my guide said once stretched all the way to Ahmedabad. Seven years have passed for the rains to smooth over the rip, for the winds to even out the edges.

Several villages have been completely rebuilt with the help of different aid organizations and religious charities. The new houses, most of them built of bright pink concrete, stand against the landscape of dry hills. The reconstruction is heralded with proud arches, plaques, and roadside signs.

Looking at it now, you’d be hard-pressed to say that Lodai had sustained any damage at all. But a few steps from the tiny town center, and you come across a Hindu cemetery, the dead commemorated with white, rectangular pyramids marked with orange dots. As I approached, a woman waved at me. I assumed I was headed for sacred ground and was trespassing. She indicated I should sit next to this man whom I assumed to be a holy man -- he wore the long flowing clothes of one and had a wooden necklace that looked like a string of dried dates. Again, the language barrier: we could only gesture futilely to each other. Soon enough, his son, Hari, who had a passable grasp of English, arrived on a motorcycle with his own son. Hari’s seven year-old son had dark Hindi kohl smeared around his eyes and apparently was hooked on the WWF. Four generations of the same family sitting in the shade.

I explained I was from America. I was here to study the bukum. I made a shaking gesture with my hands when I said it. Hari said that played drums for wedding ceremonies. And would I like to stay for lunch?

We sat on the tile floor of the Hari’s porch, just past the cemetery. Hari’s wife, mother and sister-in-law also present. His older son shot a toy laser gun; his infant son stumbled around, cooed after by his grandmother, mother, aunts. This was a different thali from the Prince Hotel: still all-you-can-eat, still with food remorselessly slapped onto your stainless-steel plate, but a humbling experience. The chapattis were dense and tasted earthy; the vegetable was green beans in a thin, spicy tomato sauce. The mother poured me a glass of unpasteurized milk -- slightly sour, slightly rich. She broke open an onion with the edge of her hand and put it on my tray. A simple meal, served simply. I promised Hari that for my wedding, I’d fly him to America so that he could play for the guests. And I thought, This is something the earthquake could never destroy.

Greetings from: various restaurants around town

I’m not one to rhapsodize about food; it’s not my forte, and it’s a secondary consideration: I’ll go see some sights, then eat something. But since most of my day was spent either napping or eating, I’ll talk about food.

As promised, I had a Gujarati thali at the Prince Hotel. The restaurant was packed, and rightly so -- it’s an all-you-can-eat for only 100 Rs. Whereas most Indian buffets in America consist of last night’s tandoori chicken served in a different sauce, this came piping hot. It reminded me somewhat of dim sum, with each server carrying a different item (12 in all). But instead of picking and choosing what you want and paying separately for each, the servers here took the initiative and scooped the items into the stainless steel bowls ringing my tray. Maybe I just looked that hungry.

So along with the vegetable items (okra, potato, cabbage, bean), I received two soups (one dal-based, one yogurt-based), a vegetable pastry (much like a Jamaican patty), breads and a flat, sesamed noodle roll. Slightly overwhelming, and it wasn’t soon before I had to keep waving the servers away. The boy with the jalabi seemed disappointed, so I took more than I should have; their sweetness made my teeth ache. The saffron-flavored custard was more up my alley; I could have eaten it for days.

But, truth is, I only have 6 days. I told myself that I wouldn’t eat at the same restaurant twice, no matter how much I liked it. This hasn’t been the case, however. I stopped into Delhi’s Banana Leaf a second time for its pizza-sized uttapam and its fresh watermelon juice (when ordered, they pull a whole watermelon from the refrigerator and hack off pieces to feed into the juicer). In Darjeeling, I ate at Kunga -- a Tibetan restaurant -- thrice, a different configuration of momos each time.

Based on the suggestion of a commenter, I tried the bhel puri at Anandos, and if I hadn’t filled up on a bottle of Thums [sic] Up cola, I would have finished it. Puffed rice, onions, tomatoes and pomegranate seeds in a spicy tamarind sauce -- the combination of mouth textures (crisp, squishing, crackling, bursting) makes each bite unique.

If I were to become a vegetarian, I would do it in India, no doubt. The Indians’ knack for concocting meatless meals beats the American reliance on iceberg lettuce salads. Of course, that said, when I get back to America, I’m going to have a steak the size of a small child and deplete the ocean’s breeding stocks through sushi.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Greetings from: Aina Mahal

Bhuj is a small city, perhaps one square mile altogether, not counting the outlying colonies and relocations centers. So how I keep getting lost continually is beyond me. I suspect three culprits:

1) the city’s lack of street signs or notation (in English)
2) my lack of a comprehensive map
3) my general crappy sense of direction.

The Aina Mahal is another beautiful building damaged by the earthquake. But unlike the Sarad Bagh Palace, there’s reconstruction at the Aina Mahal. The workmen toil in the sun outside, the dust and bricks piled outside the entrance. The curator says that the government has given some money for the rebuilding effort -- it’s a slow process, and the money is nowhere near enough. But still.

Inside, there’s a blue tiled floor and an ornately carved ceiling. If you’re going to have a palace, might as well make it over the top, right? Though the interior of the palace is kept dark (better to enhance the feeling of escape, otherworldliness), along the back wall, stained glass lets in blue and green light. The main bedroom is lined with old mirrors; most of the silver backing of the mirrors has oxidized, so that they reflect nothing but black. The wall has an inlay of semi-precious stones in a sinuous floral design. The legs of the royal bed are made of solid gold. The opulence may now seem threadbare, but you get a sense of how the royalty spent their time. Namely, collecting porcelain dog figurines.

I’ve had tremendous luck in finding good food here in Bhuj. The number of proper restaurants seems limited, but so far, eating has been a pleasure. Even if one waiter misheard my request for a “kashcamber salad” (I imagined it to mean “cucumber salad”) for a kashmiri pulao, I much preferred the pulao, a sweet rice dish with dried fruit and cabbage (at least, as the Ash Restaurant served it). Tonight, I had a mixed sizzler at the Nilam Hotel -- imagine vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce served hot on a fajita plate. The manager dissuaded me from ordering more; the sizzler would be more than enough for me. He was correct. Next up on my culinary adventure will be a Gujarati thali, for which I’ve only heard rapturous praise. That is, if I don’t get lost on the way there.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Greetings from: Sarad Bagh Palace, Jubilee Hospital

Today, two new words: bukum, the Hindi word for earthquake. And wabi, the Japanese word for a beautiful image of destruction.

The gardens surrounding the Sarad Bagh Palace are shady and peaceful, with plenty of nooks where lovers can sneak in quick moments of intimacy. It’s a break from the sun and the strong wind blowing today, carrying sharp bits of dirt to bite into your skin. A one-floor summer house holds the Palace’s treasures: chandeliers, silver mail holders and pheasants, pictures of dignitaries, and a distressing number of dead animals. Two stuffed tigers, a stuffed leopard, long, graceful elephant tusks, and heads mounted in a taxidermy roar. This was the time of the Great White Hunter -- or in this case, the Great Brown Hunter.

I can only imagine what all that must have looked like in the Palace itself. The yellow building must have been beautiful once, embellished with ornate carvings and graceful arches; now, these had fallen in upon themselves, held together with good intentions and hope. Sealed up doors, shuttered windows; the crumbling top floor of the Palace houses nothing but pigeons.

I came across the Jubilee Hospital quite by accident in my wanderings; I’m not sure I could retrace my steps. And even if I could, as eerily beautiful as the hospital is, it is equally heartbreaking to think about what had happened here. Along the railing of the second floor, people tied mementos -- ribbons, prayers, memories. Like the outpouring of candles and teddy bears at any American disaster area. But how they got there, I don’t know; no staircase remains to the second floor, though the hint of where one had once attached to the wall remains. Contorted I-beams, a mound of concrete blocks, some wobbly bamboo poles: this is the only access to the second floor now.

The debris of everyday hospital workings -- a temperature chart, a water bottle, a rubber slipper -- still lie haphazard amongst the debris, as if the earthquake had simultaneously both destroyed the moment and frozen it in time. The painted “please no smoking” sign seems almost cheerful in its anachronism. I imagine a nurse in her crisp whites frowning at a visitor and tapping the sign with her pen. What’s the point now? The rooms are empty, the windows broken. The dead, the dying who were once trapped here are long gone, and now the building has been left to decay. One sky-blue metal door stands half-open, as if waiting to receive patients again. Just outside of the hospital was a temple. To honor the dead? I wonder. It was closed.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Greetings from: BHUJ

Traveling in the well-known cities offers you a safety net. You can draw upon the experiences of former travelers; better yet, you can meet fellow travelers and caravan. Bhuj, however, offers no such luxuries. As I walked through the city, the heat staved off bravely by occasional breezes, I felt like the only foreigner for miles around. And I probably was, too.

But it’s made bearable because the people here are exceedingly friendly. I’m ashamed to admit it, but India has made me paranoid and suspicious. When someone approaches me, I try to figure out what they want from me, what his angle is. But here in Bhuj, people seem genuinely curious. They stare at me (not a problem, since I tend to stare right back), simply because I’m a novelty; I don’t think many tourists come this way. But people are generous with their smiles, with their good-natured humor.

The women’s clothing here is a riot of prints; from what I understand, the different patterns denote different tribes, ethnic clans. It’s beautiful -- the full-throated colors, the draped layers, the jewelry.

They sell a brand of bottled water here called Blister -- no kidding.

Greetings from: various points of transit towards AHMEDABAD

The Taj Mahal is off the agenda. It’s something that’s better done as a couple -- going there alone is like having a restaurant’s Valentine’s Day special solo. All the happy couples cluck their tongues and look at you pityingly.

I had my craziest auto-rickshaw driver yet. He spoke no English, and I spoke no Hindi, but we got on together swimmingly. Well, other than he didn’t know where he was supposed to be going, mistaking Asaf Ali Road for Ansari Road. But at the India Gate, we saw a woman smacking around a teenage boy with her slipper, and with hit, he cheered her on. H jerked the auro-rickshaw one way, made sudden stops -- the most close calls I’ve had thus far. When he scraped the end of a parked auto-rickshaw, he glanced at the damage, then moved on.

The combination of cars “temporarily” parked in driving lanes and narrow streets leads to explosive situations. While two lanes and directions of traffic tried to squeeze past in one lane, one driver got out of his vehicle and pushed around a much older rickshaw driver. All the while, my driver was honking, trying to get things moving, directing traffic around his auto-rickshaw with only inches to spare. He remained good-humored throughout and kept speaking to me in Hindi -- we were somehow on the same wavelength.

On the way to the airport, my taxi driver, shut the side window on the hand of a female beggar who had come up to the car. He didn’t do it hard, because she continued begging even as he yelled at her. I felt somewhat bad (but not bad enough to give up a coin). Besides, it beats getting your foot run over by a car (which happened earlier this morning). My sneaker took the squooshing like a trooper, and my toes avoided harm.

At the airport, a stylish young man carried a square, leather man-purse studded with rhinestones along its edges. Thankfully, the limited American definition of “gay” has not yet come across the ocean. McDonald’s has, however, serving McVeggie and McChicken burgers (would you like chapatti with that?). There’s the Indian version of Starbucks, Café Coffee Day. There’s the Indian version of Panda Express, Yo! China. And there’s the Indian version of Coke, which is also called Coke and has the same color and carbonation, but tastes nothing like Coke.

In Ahmedabad, my luck ran out. Getting to the bus stand from the airport at 9:30 p.m. was no problem, but once there, the ticket taker, a hearty, middle-aged man, informed me -- through awkward, broken language -- that the bus to Bhuj was full. Others attempted to get on the bus, and he steadfastly refused them. He didn’t know when the next bus would be, and even so, the ticket office was closed. I wouldn’t be able to reserve myself a seat. By this time, I was carrying a unwieldly number of bags: my carry-on, a laptop bag, my day bag, two hanging suits, and an umbrella. I could either try to catch the 11:59 p.m. train, or I could find a hotel and arrange transport to Bhuj tomorrow. He pointed another bus that was going to Bhuj, and as it started moving, people swarmed onto it, one hand on the bar, the other on their luggage -- and I understood how people get trampled to death at Indian train stations.

Perhaps the driver took pity on this lost foreigner, looking pitiful and bewildered. But before the bus pulled out, he waved me on. The cost of the bus to Bhuj was less than the taxi ride from the airport to the bus stand. There wasn’t an official seat available, but I could sit behind the driver on a ledge, near the gear box. The ticket taker handed me a cushion. I think this was where he normally sat, but there was room for two -- barely. An elderly gentleman in the front row offered up his seat so that the ticket taker could relax. We sat together, this gentleman and I, as the cool Gujarati night came through the window. As the other passengers reclined their seats and let the breeze come to them, we two kept a vigil with the truck drivers flicking their high beams so that it looked like flash lightning; with the factories lit from within like a Christmas light stuck inside of an eggshell; with the passing cars and motorcycles, playing symphonies with their horns; and with the three-quarters full moon, reflecting the puddles of the salt marsh so that the ground glowed phosphorescent.