25 May 2006

Murakami v. Carver

Haruki Murakami has fallen in with a category of contemporary writers I like to refer to as "The Recommended." Milan Kundera, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen, David Sedaris are all writers who are consistently and overenthusiastically recommended to me. The recommendations pile up... but Murakami, most recently, has become the recommended author of choice from people who know that I read. And so not willing to dive into the 500 page Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, I decided on a short story collection, The Elephant Vanishes, that had on the cover:

"A world class writer who takes big risks .... If Murakami is the voice of a generation .... then it is the generation of Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo." -The Washington Post Book World

This quote, edited beyond intelligibility, is profoundly the opposite of Murakami's writing. His writing would benefit from such swift editing. His verbosity is exactly what keeps him from taking "big risks," and his generation's voice is that of the man standing in the kitchen cooking spaghetti. Two stories are narrated from a man cooking spaghetti. I can feel him writing this book. It was when I got to the passage below that I decided I'd had enough. I thought, "How would Raymond Carver tell this story?" The edits I was making while I read made me laugh out loud. I was on a downtown number 3 train. The woman sitting next to me was reading a book by Haruki Murakami. She looked like she was watching the news.

I am aware of the fact that this is a work in translation, but all the quotes on the front and back covers are based on the translation, not on the original Japanese. They read the same book I did. And now you shall read a paragraph or two.

Here is a passage from "A Slow Boat To China." In boldfaced text, I tried to simulate how Raymond Carver would tell the same story. I do not believe that the bold type alone is any less a story. In fact, I think its the only readable version. But I'll let you decide.

Carver Doing Murakami

Anyway - or rather, that being the case - my memory can be impressively iffy. I get things the wrong way around, fabrications filters into fact, sometimes my own eyewitness account interchanges with somebody else's. At which point, can you even call it memory anymore? Witness the sum of what I'm capable of dredging up from primary school (those pathetic six years of sunsets in the heyday of postwar democracy). Two events: this Chinese story, for one, and for another, a baseball game one afternoon during summer vacation. In that game,I was playing center field, and I blacked out in the bottom of the third. I mean, I didn't just collapse out of nowhere. The reason I blacked out that day was that we were allowed only one small corner of the nearby high school's athletic field, and so when I was running full speed after a pop fly I smashed my head into the post of the backboard of the basketball court next to where we were playing.

When I came to, I was lying on a bench under an arbor, it was late in the day, and the first things I noticed were thewet-and-dry smell of water that had been sprinkled over the baked earth and the musk of my brand-new leather glove, which they'd put under my head for a pillow. Then there was this dull pain in my temple. I guess I must have said something. I don't really remember. Only later did a buddy of mine who'd been looking after me get around to telling. That what I apparently said was, That's okay, brush off the dirt and you can still eat it.

Now, where did that come from? To this day, I have no idea. I guess I was dreaming, probably about lunch. But two decades later the phrase is still there, kicking around in my head. That's okay, brush off the dirt and you can still eat it.

22 May 2006

2005: Yukon Territory, July 21 and July 31


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Construction projects this far north complement the landscape's magnitude. The first of several half-hour to hour-long stops was in the southern Yukon's stretch of the Alaska Highway. In a typical roadwork scenario, cars are stopped for a few minutes while paving or restoning on one side allows for one-way traffic to proceed. Up north, these one-way paving jobs placed two men with radios a full ten miles apart. Waiting for the other side to radio required that you wait for the "FOLLOW ME" vehicle to drive 10 miles, pick up a few RVs, and drive those 10 miles of blown-out dust highway at 10-15MPH. A lot of lonesome driving time was broken up with lonesome standing around time or idling in the car time.

Due to the traffic's infrequency, most of the stops I would encounter found me waiting all alone with this alien species known as: The Yukon Construction Site Radio Guy. He would stand in the cool breeze of blown dust, hundreds of miles from the nearest electric lightbulb. He and I would stand and stare by my car, smile, nod, then not talk. What does a man who has driven 14 hours in a dayhave to offer as conversation? What does the guy holding a STOP sign for 14 hours a day have to say for himself? I would stand and take pictures, looking absurd to one man who looked absurd to me. Eventually an RV would pull up and the driver would hit me up about America or gasoline or tires.

The photos below capture a taste of the sparsely-inhabited Yukon. Since the sun barely sets in this region, the time of day matters little to the photographs. What the pictures fail to capture is the sky's majestic grey swirls, moving violently, throwing sunlight and rainfall down in fits and seizures. After a picture was taken, the sky would change in an instant. This is something that can't be adequately described, but must be seen.

Also, there's a pretty hideous barbecue restaurant in the capital city, Whitehorse. Population 19,000. Two Dairy Queens.

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20 May 2006

2005: British Columbia, July 19-20 and July 31

Driving British Columbia was grueling. But I drove entirely the length across it, and I cannot say that about Alaska or the Yukon. As I took the same route from top to bottom twice (the only paved road), and drove around 100mph, I didn't get much more than a glimpse. But that glimpse, however majestic, was dwarfed by everything I saw further north.

Still, I'd like to give you a taste of the view from the Alaska Highway through British Columbia. Uploading these photos made me painfully aware of the fact that I was sitting at the helm of a PowerBook, not a rental car. I hope someday to match that sensation of driving, but I will have to search some other remote corner of the globe to do it.

Below are pictures of the highway landscape, the cautionary signage, the (massive) reason for such signage, and the absolutely beautiful Muncho Lake, which is worth a trip to itself.


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There were ten other bison just to the side of the highway. This one felt like standing on it.


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A good 25+ hour drive (at 90ish MPH) from the Washington State border, at the northern edge of BC, its probably a place I will visit only once more in my lifetime. It is certainly worth the trip, and worth staying for a while, I'm sure. This is also where I picked up Clancy the Hitchhiker (from the previous post).

19 May 2006

Clancy's Pathological Journey to The Southern Hemisphere.

Last July my Brooklyn apartment was hot as all hell. I'd had enough. Out of nothing more than the desire to go somewhere not hot I flew to Seattle, rented a car, and drove to Alaska. On my way back into British Columbia I see this guy standing by his backpack, drenched to the bone in cold-ass Canadian Rockies mist. I say to myself, "Pick him up." It's not my first hitchhiker, but I have never been so grateful for my own spontaneity. His name is Clancy (he never liked his first name and never wanted to tell it to me). He's an Aussie: has been away from Australia traveling the globe for over two years, has been from Iceland to Alaska, is headed to the southern tip of Argentina. I drive 95 mph while he's in the car, talking the whole way, and when we get the Fort St. John, BC, he says he's going east to Alberta. I drop him off at 2am along the main drag and he sets up his tent and goes to sleep. I drive off.

Since then, I've been getting periodic email updates from his starts and stops down the Western Hemisphere. Some of the following emails are mass emails, some are to me. I tried to meet up with him in January but he was in Ecuador and I was in Venezuela. The last I've heard from his was on April 25.

Here's a few excerpts as to what he's up to. Clancy is a traveler of the most incredible pedigree - a genius for misadventure and mishap. If anyone is willing and able to chase this guy around the continent come January, let me know. I'm in like Flynn.

----
from various emails

August 14, 2005

g'day all
Just cracked the 10000km(6000mi) hitchiking mark so thats been pretty eventfull. Met loads of cool people along the way. In Ontario Canada at the moment, probably fly to sth america some time in september. Heading for Niagra Falls today, thats the rough plan anyway. Well thats the basics covered, will try & get online more often to reply to people, until then, take care.
clancy


September 5, 2005

Hey mate
How's things? Went into N.Y State after the Falls but was stopped by the cops for hitching twice in 3 days so headed back up into Canada. Met some cool people on the way though. Might catch you in oz some day, cheers for the ride
clancy

September 18, 2005

G'day all
The Canadian trip has come to an end. Was an awesome trip though it wasn't all a bed of roses!!! The hitching caused a few long waits, had a couple of dangerous drivers, one guy that hated the world, will be in the news as a serial killer, no doubt. Was also in a semi when a guy dropped his cigarette, lost control of his car & ploughed into us, dickhead!! In alaska jumped in a pick up with the centre console full of bullets & the riffle on the back seat, thought that might've been the last lift!!

Got to meet the law a couple of times, twice in the states for hitching & was woken by the police once in canada for camping on a baseball outfield but he was cool.
Had a tent pole stolen which was a real bitch as that was my home!!! Met some 10am everyday drinkers, beer & whiskey they were hardcore!! Stayed with some others who turned out to be everyday crackheads!! I was attracting them all!!

Also had a barmaid in the us serve me from 7:30pm till 2:30am & charged me for 1 beer, i'm still in love!!! 3 old ladies picked me up on their way home from church & took me back for tea & blueberries, they prayed for the aussie hitcher in their mist!! I'm saved!!! Camped in peoples yards, even slept in beds!!! Was invited to dinners, bbq's & for beers!!! Sensational!!
Met loads of cool, friendly people all accross canada, thanks guys & i'd recomend the trip to everyone. I'm off to sth america now to tackle spanish & portugese, i know cerveza(beer) so i reckon i'll be fine!!!
cheers clancy

October 5, 2005

g´day mark
Sounds like you had a adventurous ride back to NY!! Have you seen any missing person pictures of your young hitcher yet!! Free alcohol´s always a bonus but there must be easier ways!!

Where in sth america do you plan to attack in those couple of months. I´m skiping Brazil due to visa issues so heading to columbia in the next week or 2 then heading down to argentina that way. No real travel plan, will just take it as it comes and get ideas off locals hopefully. Been a bit dissapointed with the girls but have been assured that will change in columbia. Trying to learn some spanish at the moment but my memories shit!!.
Anyway keep in touch, as you say i paths my cross again down here
cheers clancy

October 9, 2005

G`day all
As seems to be the case in all my trips, the turbulance continues!! I hit the brazil embassy as soon as i arrived in venezuela to be rejected of a visa due to not having a ticket leaving the country. My flight from the states wasn´t good enough. I tried to explain i´d leave when i made it down to argentina in 2- 10 weeks. Not much else i could do, i can´t stick with a 2 day plan so no chance of a long term one!! Strike brazil!!. I will now be tackling colombia a bit earlier than i would`ve liked but such is life! My spanish hasn´t really improved from cerveza (mind you that works!!). At 60c a bottle, it`s great!! Met some english speakers in the capital, "i help you my friend" yeah, help me empty my wallet in their direction!!! I´ve been in what must be called a bus rally!! It was an awesome trip, horn blowing at every corner, hands moving in unison from the left to the right on the seat in front of them, holding on for dear life. Reminicent of a bobsled team!! At the end people were doing the sign of the cross & i was hoping the blueberrie ladies haden`t forgotton me!, as it was the only way out! I`ve been in a vehicle accident on all my trips & i`m sure this ones just a matter of time! Been stranded without cash over a weekend as the atm`s are shit! That`s frustrating. I ended up in the back of a jeep with the locals & the latino music blasting, a lot of smiling & pointing. It`s been great.

Spending heaps more than in canada due to buses & sleeping in hostels. I need to become rich & famous in a hurry, not sure what for though. I can`t act, sing (nor can kylie but she`s got a better bum) or dance. I can`t even think of any wildlife that needs wrestling!! Anyway must run
clancy

November 29, 2005

G´day all
Colombia was awesome, managed to survive it with a few minor dramas. Travelled a fair bit of it with a portugese guy, an english girl & guy so that was cool. Smooth sailing while i was with them. After i left them i was given a lift home at 7am by the cops, 3 on the motorbike, me in the middle of 2 cops. The next night some clown tried to rob me with a knife, we had a bit of a fight then these guys that saw what happened took me into their club, gave me free drinks & got me a cab. Was searched about 3 times by police on the streets but never had anything so paid no bribes. Then me & another aussie guy were kicked out of the hostel for bringing to many people back for parties, such is life. The people in general were friendly as & i´ll definately come back to colombia. I also did a weeks spanish which basically taught me what i allready new, that i´m F$%"=D!!!!!.
Anyway in ecuador now about to start a new adventure, hope all´s well where ever you are
clancy

December 7, 2005

Hey mate, how´s things? I thought colombia was awesome, heard panama is pretty good aswell but was a bit disapointed with venezuela but that was probably because everything had to be done by tour. I´m in ecuador at the moment about to pick up this 250 honda i hired to ride up the volcano, should be pretty cool. The girls are easy everywhere down here aswell, which is a bonus!!! Must bail, clancy

January 11, 2006

G`day All,
I trust you all had a great xmas & NY. Mine was huge, no real suprises there!!. I can`t remember too much of xmas day but a few reliable sources have told me i enjoyed it. It definately beat last years pot noodles in the camper in England, that i do know!!

I`m still in Ecuador, not the smartest bunch but a beautiful country. I visited the womans prison on new years eve. Nearly gat raped inside the gate, was out numbered & out sized. I don`t think i`ve ever been so scared!! Was amazing. I visited a few foreigners as there is over 100 in jail in the capital. Mostely drug related. They showed me around the whole place. Anyone heading this way should do it.

I`ve also purchased a Honda XR600, i really enjoy the freedom. Having a few drama`s with it at the moment but i don`t expect anything to run smoothly on my trips. Off kayaking tommorrow for a few days then will make my way sth into Peru.

No major plans of course.

Not much else to say, drinking, laughing, spending loads too much & not remembering too much, nothing really changes.
Have an awesome 2006
clancy

February 15, 2006

G´day all,
A group email wasn´t the plan but shit happens & it´s happened! My whole trip has been full of drama, drunken broken ankle, things stolen ( 3 times), vehicle accidents (4 times) etc.

Well this is up there with the broken ankle effort. I purchased a motorbike in Quito, the mechanic said it had a really good motor, i spent more than i planned. I did a few short runs then a 6hr ride were it started making noises, i took it to a mechanic who said it was the timing chain. About $200us, not good but i could survive. We stripped the motor down, it was f*¨´%"¡. $1300us later & a month i get the bike back so i head to Peru, no go!! At the border they tell me it´s not possible for me to ride it in Peru, F¡%[¨*!!!. I have to head back to Quito, 20hrs by bus. I tried to sell it on the border were we discovered the mechanic had switched the motor casing & i now had no serial n.o, shit!! Now selling becomes a problem.

I showed a great deal of patience, not something i´m well known for but i was that calm the Ecuadorian custom guys fed me lunch then took me out for dinner & beers before i camped at customs, all for free!!!

The next morning i headed in a hurry to Quito, One of my craziest rides ever, which is saying a lot!! Dodging pigs, donkeys, cows, landslides & on coming traffic in my lane as the grass is allways greener on the other side! Well the pig was the next problem in missing one i ended up in the grass, managed to stay on but twisted my knee in the process, i thought i felt it tear but i rode on. I made it to Quito in 13hrs. Getting on & off the bike for fuel, passport checks & being stopped for overtaking on double lines (anyone who has caught a bus in sth america would know this is a laughable offence!) Tha amazing thing is they don´t speak any english until it comes to i´ll let you off, how much?

Well i´m back in Quito, violence solves nothing is the moto, though i´m not convinced, i know i´d feel shitloads better but Ecuadorian jail sounds as inviting as Peru.

On the positive side i met some great people & it´s free rum & coke tommorrow night at the hostel. I hope your all having more luck than i. Take care,
Cheers Clancy

April 25, 2006

G´day all,
Sorry for the lack of personal supplies but i hope you´ll understand, if not tough shit!!!!
Firstly the bike drama continues to haunt me. I tried bribing a lawyer but that eventually fell through. Next option was to track down the owner who had the bike before the guy i got it off. That took a while but we made an appointment at his office that he never showed for, had to keep trying.

Then we had a drunk irish men, causing heaps of shit at the hostel on rum & coke night, trying to fight most people before running off along the neighbouring roof tops until he finally fell through one into a 17 yr old girls room only to climb out & continue on his dickhead mission until he fell through another!!!! It took the police 3 hrs to catch him, warning shots where fired & the hostel invaded by the pigs. He was locked up & had to pay the people not to press charges. Our punishment for this twat was no drinking in the hostel except in our rooms for a week. Hence my room got a huge work out.

The next stage my luck started to pick up, i finally got that new bike contract, 1 step closer!! Tommorrow we would go to the judge for the 3rd time. That night we drank in my room as it was near the pool table. The next morning, i had no wallet, bankcards & licence stolen by some low life!!! No money or cards to see the judge & i´m stuck waiting for new cards. Have borrowed some money off the other regular inmates of the hostel so life goes on. So basically the clancy luck continues to shine as my new contract got a ripe in it & we´re not sure if it will still be valid!!

I hope where ever & whatever your doing your lucks a great deal better & you had a happy & safe easter. To the aussie & kiwi contingent i grant you had a smashing anzac day. Take care all & get to personal replies when i´m cashed up again,
cheers clancy

16 May 2006

2006: Top 100 of All Time, Cedar Tavern; April 29

Listmakers of the world united on April 28, as the blogosphere and non-blog-related companions journeyed into the undrenched wilds of pre-flooding Massachusetts coast to celebrate the marriage of Bryan and Jill. It was a momentous affair, far less scandalous than I had predicted; one can't muster much filth in Gloucester. Jaron tried (there was some dancing with a child, if I remember correctly). In a pathetic attempt to be the biggest badass in Eastern MA I shoplifted some corn syrup from a 24-hour convenience store. All I have as a claim to fame is that the elderly woman watching over the store didn't die before I pulled off the heist. The reception itself, at least from the auspices of table 13, was a classy affair. The ceremony was in one of New England's most picturesque churches; it was most likely built before any of our families had arrived in America. And the rocky coast of Rockport lived up to its name. I have amazing pictures of twins on the beach, though that sounds better than it looks.

Sometime during the reception, placated with every possible luxury from unlimited cake and coffee to unlimited booze and asparagus, the idea of a NEW list circulated. "The Listmaker" himself was busy freeing his new wife's hands from around the DJ's neck, so Rob, Pat and I hatched the idea of putting together the Top 100 of All Time. The criteria for nominees was quite simple. Anything goes. The list required only a night of drinking at the Cedar Tavern on 12th and University Place, a few hours after returning from the wedding.

The list honors "The Top 100 of All Time," and vaguely captures the spirit of all things magnificent. If any of you would like the complete list, just drop me a comment. Some of it is not quite publishable, for the fear of Google-able references that might scare the daylights out of those mentioned in its text. But I feel all of us can appreciate the fucking awesomeness it attempts to inspire. Here's a sampling. If you find that it ain't quite authorative enough for your tastes, come up with your own. Nominating is half the fun.

from The Top 100 of All Time

1. Horse Latitudes
2. “Room To Live”
3. The Children’s Crusade, AD 1212.
4. pro bono
5. The 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics
6. Dowling’s “Rack”
7. urinal cakes
8. Swift Boat Veterans For Truth
9. The Pelican Brief
10. training bras
13. "The “Fireman’s Carry”
18. “Baby Jessica”
19. The other Dale Harris
29. Gay Congdon
30. Third-Base Coach Dads
34. ABC TEN’s Steve Caporizzo
36. The Law of Modus Tollens
39. “eye crusty”
40. The Arch Deluxe
45. “Damn this Sideways House!!!”
54. “Escape from Sobibor”
60. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
62. rotaries
63. a la carte
64. Alex Carte
71. Crash Man from “Mega Man 2”
76. Bob Dylan’s “Empire Burlesque”
80. 1874
82. The humongous savings store, Huck Finn’s Warehouse & More.
93. “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitus 17 times in a row.” – Vitas Gerulaitus.

10 May 2006

2005: Coastal Uruguay, 2-4 Jan

Before I finally wrap up my series of photographs on southern South America from January 2005, and begin posting Alaska and Panama/Venezuela pictures, I'd like to offer some pictures from a country I completely skipped over. We were advised in Buenos Aires by many other travelers not to go to Uruguay, that it was a disappointment and not worth the hassle. Despite these warnings, and the very "hassle-free" 3-hour ferry ride, our three days in Uruguay were a trip highlight. When we arrived in Montevideo, 1,000 children were dancing in the streets. No joke. The Children's Festival. And the Children's Festival went late. We arrived during the year's biggest party. The rest of our time there was paradise. I got sunburned to a near-hospitalization red.

Some random snapshots. Enjoy.

Montevideo, capital of Uruguay


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08 May 2006

It's Fucking Over.

Our lease expired April 15th. We wanted to find a new place, something bigger, closer to the train. After seeing every two-bedroom apartment in Greenpoint from March 15- May 1, my roommate and I nearly had a breakdown.

Nassau Ave and Manhattan Ave:
The first day I looked, I saw an apartment that was, unbeknown to me, swiped by another broker's client the day before. And that was the one I wanted. Tin ceilings, old fans, huge windows, beautiful living room, McCarren park across the street, bar downstairs. Danielle and I rang the other tenant, went to two bars that the landlord owned, found her, tried to persuade her to give us the apartment instead. She said, "Oh, I heard about you two. The broker said you were the sweetest two people she'd met. Oh, sorry, I rented it yesterday." Then she stared at us like a sad puppy. We were the sadder. This apartment became the yardstick to which all others were compared.

From then on, we saw some of the most uninspiring concrete bunkers, prison cells, half-finished monstrosities, and 1-bedrooms any two people can stand. Every single apartment we saw was overpriced, and usually carrying a stiff broker fee. We gave up looking for our own apartment.

The next move was based on this logic: All the good apartments in the neighborhood have been taken. Its true. My friend June will never move out of her palatial 2BR at Humboldt and Ainslie. Never. In Williamsburg and Greenpoint, these kind of apartments do not go for up for rent. They get passed on, shuffled around, but never given up. We decided to look for people who needed two roommates, who already had great apartments.

We saw four apartments where two roommates were needed. We were asked to move into every single one of them. We turned them all down. The places were far more beautiful in the minds of our prospective roommates than they were in ours. We gave up doing this too.

But then last week I found myself on craigslist once again, feeding my addiction for a better apartment. I sent out two emails. One for an apartment in Park Slope. One for a loft in Williamsburg.

The Park Slope apartment was amazing. Roof access. A floor of a building. Three bedrooms, a huge backyard, a big kitchen. Right on 7th Avenue, at the corner of 13th Street, at the apex of Park Slope's restaurant district. Two blocks from the movie theater. Two blocks from Prospect Park. With an another upstater, aged 25 years. It was perfect. David called me last night to let us know it was ours. 5 for 5. I told him, "No thanks."

We took the other place after a grueling roommates interview on Saturday. Questions like, "What's the worst thing that's happened to the both of you while traveling? Mark, if you were Danielle and you weren't in the room, how do you think she'd describe you as a roommate?" Other questions involved volume levels during intimate moments.

Enduring that, we were the perfect fit. The apartment is a four-bedroom loft on the corner of Kent and North 4th. We will be having some incredible dinner parties at this apartment. Here's my address as of June 1, 2006. It's in the link below, #109:

The new.

2005: The Beach at Miraflores, Lima, Peru; Jan 22

At the bus station in downtown Lima, the world is a complicated place. All roads leading out are dirt roads. The station itself is paved but for whom? Local buses are around the corner, but I can't see them, I can only hear their engine's idle. A stretch of cabs are waiting in the dirt outside the station. The cabbies, who do not stand by their cars, are kept out of the station in full force by these menacing security guards who have the dual role of opening the gates for departing buses. Everytime a bus leaves the bus station 12 cabbies are nearly run over. They shout at Danielle and me. We stand in the parking lot, 90 degrees perfect sunshine, with a hotel reservation. No map. No chance of getting one. This is our last moment of "instinctual travel," 2 days before flying back to New York, 1 hour before we resign ourselves to restaurants and beaches. We are hungry to shower, relax, recoup, do nothing. We've been on a bus 20 hours, the single most dangerous bus ride imaginable. The only thing we have to do is go to Miraflores. In any other part of the trip we would've taken the bus. We decide to hail a cab. As travelers, this is the first time where Danielle and I get a little lazy. We make mistakes. Not even mistakes. FATAL ERRORS.

1. We hail a cabby who is not standing next to his car.
2. We walk to where his cab is parked.
3. The cab has no labels at all. It is not a cab.
4. The cab has no key. He hotwires the cab.
5. The cab has no windows.
6. I get in the back, the cab has no seats. They've been torn out.
7. There are no doorhandles on the inside. An exposed wire seems to be what opens the door.
8. His first stop after hotwiring, stalling, hotwiring again, is the gas station.

Our cab driver pulls up to the pump and looks at us, sticks out his hand.

My roommate and I answer simultaneously, in perfect Spanglish, "Are you fucking kidding me?"

He gets the equivalent of .33 cents of fuel and we're off. Of course the driver hasn't got a clue where we are staying. He starts asking the police, other cab drivers. We stop at a payphone so Danielle can call the hostel. Still no luck. So we drive around. In circles. Somehow the guy finds the place. He wants more money than the agreed fare of course. He's getting pushy. The hostel owner comes out. He's a 25-year old bodybuilder. Puts the fear of death into the guy.

We look around. There are two rooms in our hostel. The hostel is on a seaside cliff overlooking the ocean. It looks like this.

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We go to the beach. It looks like this.

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But on those giant rocks, in 90 degree sunshine with zero humidity, I get the best tan of my life. I don't even tan. I bronze.

And the big filth of Lima, the whole bubbling cauldron of 10 million, is tasted but never touched, preserved in the memory for another trip. We waste our first day on the beach; at night we ate lobster, scallops, octopus, shrimp, trout, and baby goat. The next day we went to the monastery and serious travel found us once again. But for that one day; bourgeouis pleasures, like showering. Oh how I showered.

05 May 2006

2005: Hillside Shanties, Downtown Lima, Peru: Jan 23

03 May 2006

2005: Monastery, Lima, Peru; Jan 23


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The San Francisco Monastery in Lima, Peru has never been hailed as much of anything. Popular guide books gloss over it in a sentence. Few maps include it. And even the monastery’s own tour guides - who with professional indifference traipse through its foggy ruins of history and Catholicism - offer little more than what can be ascertained with your eyes. Through its dusty splendor and open-air decay, one thing is certain. This is one of the world’s most resilient buildings. Its calm in the face of destruction is unparalled.

Built between 1512 and 1544, the church survived its first brush with ransacking in 1586 at the hands of Sir Francis Drake. The earthquake of 1618 made rubble of much of the surrounding city. Following that was the even more devastating earthquake of 1656 (the church was repaired in 1672 in time for), a smaller earthquake in 1746, with a last one coming in 1970. Although both nature and the world’s most famous pirate had their intentions of obliterating this quiet monastery, nothing can compare to what I witnessed: the destruction caused by direct sunlight, smog, and the flashbulb of my Canon SD500 digital camera.

What traveling is supposed to do is allow us the freedom to act like ourselves until we forget who that is. Once we’re no good at routine, we’ve “gotten away.” The plan for Danielle and I, when we arrived in Lima, was to do nothing. Nothing is quite difficult; as Jerry Seinfeld once said, “Before you know it, nothing has turned into something.” But we took all the necessary precautions. We booked a private hotel on the beach in Miraflores, a neighborhood on the cliffs over the Pacific Ocean. The bus station – same logic. We solicited the first cabby we met, determined to move quickly. He hotwired his own car, jimmied the door open with a hanger, and we were on our way. A cab driver stopping six times for directions may have struck you as odd, but we knew that it could only have been our good luck. If he doesn’t know where we’re going, the odds of us doing anything more than collapsing on the beach are very slim. The odds of us learning anything… experiencing the culture? Even less so. My traveling companion and I had set out to do nothing, and Miraflores has a Starbucks. Getting away? How about a Pumpkin Spice Latte south of the Equator?

Our month in South America hadn’t started out like this. In the twenty-five days prior to our arrival in Lima, we had visited four countries, four capitals, fourteen cities, and traveled by: car, train, bus, horse, plane, bicycle, minivan, taxi, boat, and golf cart. The bus travel alone tallied 135 hours. From Rio Gallegos in Argentina’s Patagonia, to Lima, Peru, we’d traveled on a bus the equivalent of a Greyhound from New York City to Costa Rica. Lima meant a return to New York’s winter was only a day away. I had the intentions of experiencing this smoggy city of ten million inhabitants when I booked our return flight, but when I arrived all I could think was, well, nothing. After all, we’d just left Machu Picchu. This is where I learned to stop worrying and love the inner tourist.

I had been researching a trip to South America for years, but as my reading went on I began toying less and less with the idea of visiting Machu Picchu. Briefly, Machu Picchu is the name given to an abandoned Incan city near Cusco, Peru, rediscovered by a western explorer in 1911. Deserted since the 16th century, it lay mostly in quiet ruin but otherwise untouched by the invading fingers of colonizers. The reason is that it rests on the peak of a mountain in southern Peru 9,000 feet above sea level. I first learned about the ancient city from Pablo Neruda’s epic poem, “The Heights of Machu Picchu.” His writing, and the story of the city’s discovery (but mostly his writing), had created a special place for Machu Picchu in my imagination. However, it has become South America’s number one tourist attraction.

But Machu Picchu stirred in me the fascination that is peculiar only to ruins. Sure, I became a tourist for the day. It was our first guided tour of the trip (on our 23rd day), but it let me embellish the role of a tourist in an environment where such embellishments were nearly the only option. A four-day hike through the Inca Trail from Cusco is the ideal way to visit the site. But when you’re plane leaves in three days from an airport a twenty-hour drive away, you visit the site in a day and sit on a minibus crammed next to Americans because you are one.

I arrived in Lima with a mind full of ruins. The San Francisco Monastery in downtown Lima is a new kind ruin; you can feel it when your mandatory guided tour begins. Imagine for a second that you are part of a tour guide’s group at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The slim-fitted business suit with the shoulder length blonde hair approaches Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates” in The European Wing and proclaims: “This painting is made with paint and canvas. It depicts a man named Julius Caesar who is about to be given a chalice of poisoned whisky by Sir Lee Harvey Oswald. The year is 1605.” I spend the entire tour at the San Francisco Monastery with my face pucked thuggishly, perplexed at the history I hear from my guide as it is mashed in a Magic Bullet with the grace of the hostess at a suburban cocktail party. We walk into the monastery to buy our tickets. We wait. We see guides. We read posters in Spanish about flash photography and cameras.

Our tour begins. First I’m told that we’re in a monastery built by Saint Francis of Asissi, who has left Spain with 800 followers to establish a Franciscan order of monks in Lima. My initial reaction is (and in hindsight I voiced this too rhetorically) “What the living hell was Francis of Asissi doing in Lima?” Danielle takes a more tactful route.

“Isn’t Asissi in Italy?” We’re told he’s buried here. We’ll see his grave. William Faulkner ruminated on St. Francis’ dying words, “Welcome my sister, Death.” I am in the place of famous words. I should be more respectful. Then I remember St. Francis of Asissi lived in the 13th century. My tour guide now becomes a constant target of my questions.


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Our first room is like the smell of a bookstore if you’ve worked in one, except every shift boiled into a breath. In the room are texted fanned out for viewing, and faded spines lining the shelves in all directions. The endless bindings lined along the receding walls look pockmarked, burled by some degenerative disease. That disease is nothing more than Lima’s perfect sunlight streaming in from the windows. Countless texts, from the 1400s and upward, sit open for your viewing. The books are testament to paper and words at their most fragile moments. These books, which we are invited by our guide to snap at with flash cameras, will be waiting for you when you visit the monastery. But the words on this page will outlive them. I give the library at the San Francisco Monastery thirty years before you can sweep it off the floor with a broom.

Our guide begins dragging us from room to room. “What is this room for?”

Tour Guide: I don’t know.
Me: Why not?
TG: The Chilean stole all the documents from the church in the war. But they did not destroy the building, we did.
Me: Why?
TG: To build the streets of Lima.
Me: How much of the monastery was destroyed?
TG: I don’t know.
Me; Do you have a percentage? 50%?
TG: 40%. Maybe 80%. No one knows that either.
Me: Can’t you look that up?
TG: No I told you. The war with Chile. They stole the documents.
Me: When was the war?
TG: Before we rebuilt the streets. In the nineties.

And of course we use this kind of language in New York to distinguish The Pixies from Pavement, Pulp Fiction from Kill Bill. I let confusion exaggerate itself on my face.

TG: The 1890s. In the next room is some painting done by the school of Peter Paul Reubens.

We enter the only room in the entire monastery that has adequate lighting. It is too much to bear; in the Met any respectable curator would dice it up into several galleries. On the wall, a conspicuous placard among tilework: “This gallery was restored with a donation from JP MORGAN CHASE.” The entire museum is crumbling around this room.
On the walls is a series by the workshop of Reubens, a famous Flemish painter. In the center is a retelling of The Last Supper. It has Christ at the center of a round table (as the most memorable meals and the best rounds of poker are displayed). Judas is at right, a devil whispering into his ear. In front of the painting, a stairwell leads to a small space under the room, with maybe five feet of headroom. A small velvet rope keeps you from tumbling blindly into the casket of Saint Francis Solanus, who ran the already completed and named monastery after leaving Spain in 1589. This information is not featured on your tour.

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There are rooms where the intricate tiles have fallen off and been replaced by other tiles from other parts of the monastery. There is a serious of oil paintings that have darkened, as they line the hallway that creates the courtyard’s perimeter. Underneath these is a fresco series that predates the arrival of Saint Francis. Our tour guide has no idea who painted them, or when (or why) someone scratched the heads off of all the fresco’s main characters.

I think we are ready to see thousands of femurs and skulls at this point, because nothing can silence the beast of unsatiated knowledge quite like death. In the basement are the catacombs. There we find troughs filled with the remains of nearly a hundred-thousand. We walk quietly passed the other tours, who have arrived here with us although we saw them nowhere previously. Each guide offers different information.

“The catacombs were used from the 1600s to the 1900s.
“Do you see the skulls in a row? The archaelogist did that. They were bored.”
“We have no poor people or Peruvians buried here. This was only for the Spanish.”

When we emerge from the catacombs the tour ends. In fact, the entire monastery closes. I had overheard a man on a tour in the catacombs make reference to a small series of caves mentioned in The Last of The Mohicans near my childhood home. He’s outside, and I ask him, “Where are you from?” I already know the answer, and it will be the first question I’ve asked in an hour that will get a clear response. I am a bit unsure if I can even ask questions anymore.

“Long Island. I live upstate now.”
“Why are you here?”
“I’m here with my wife.” He points to a small Peruvian lady, she smiles without purpose.
“You’re just visiting family?” I ask the vaguest question I can find.
“Yeah. Visiting family.”

When you meet someone who isn’t worth describing, you leave them out. Unfortunately, in the San Francisco Monastery, even the vaguest of marital relations or acquaintances are cause for embrace. First hand information does not exist, except when you are discussing the extent of the building’s decay. It is a ruin, with masterpieces of western culture that we do not attribute to ruins: oil paintings, coffins, literature, and pews. This is a very special kind of ruin, as you can see it ruining. It is not erosion, wind, or the Spanish. It is you.

Saint Francis Solanus, a Spaniard who traveled to Lima after the monastery named for a different Saint Francis had already been completed, sits in a tomb in the middle of the floor. I took two flash photographs of the coffin and the branches laid upon it, a woman from the museum sat a desk behind me, pretending not to have to see me do it.

I did not reach into the half-lit bins of skulls and spines and pluck one out for a souvenir. I did not touch the frescos or take one single tile from the hallways where missing tiles lay scattered in shards on the floor. I did not scrawl my name upon the walls of the catacombs, searching out immortality in limestone. But I did have the opportunity to act on these impulses at every single second of the tour. I could have been capable of extraordinary destruction when left to my own devices, and lucky for me the sacred is not defined by any one religion, law, culture, or history; I feel an awkward awe for all things we attempt to preserve. At a yellow monastery in Lima, where pigeons swirl in the courtyards and summer never ends, you are not a tourist. You must simultaneously preserve the place you’ve been and participate in its destruction.