|Seoul ->Bucheon->Tokyo-> Chicago|
|In this week:
The flight from Bangkok literally flew by. Each blink would sink me into a deep sleep and I would open my eyes an hour later very disoriented, and, for me, the 6-hour flight to Seoul felt only a few minutes long. Before we landed, a very lengthy video in Korean and English was played explaining the importance of declaring all animal or vegetable matter in your luggage. A very official young woman narrated images of aggressive flora and fauna ravaging the Korean countryside and insisted we must all do our part to keep alien species out of Korea. The whole video ended with a tableau of customs officials smiling under a big quarantine sign.
Finally landed and groggy, I rode the moving walkways of Incheon International Airport to passport control. I walked with the Indian monks I had befriended in Thailand. When we got to passport control they got in line ahead of me. The first monk got his passport stamped only after several minutes of questions and holding his documents up to the light. The second monk stood behind a big yellow line with me. When he was called up he looked back to me and shrugged. Within a minute, he was escorted by boarder officials behind a thick, black metal door.
When I stepped up the officer didn’t even look at my picture page. He just gave me a stamp and said, “Thank you very much”. The first monk leaned against a wall near the baggage carrousel and waited for his partner. That was the last I saw of them.
It was still early morning and the sunrise shot right into the glass atrium of Incheon, a thoroughly modern and spotless structure of glass and white metal. I tried to negotiate the complicated ATM instructions, but seemed to come up moneyless with every attempt. The on-screen instructions were convoluted and required a series of inputs for foreign card users. I didn’t figure this out until days later. So, reluctantly, I exchanged money at a currency office and paid a hefty commission.
But I was finally armed with Korean Won and could take the bus to my hostel. Korea was by far the hardest to navigate without knowing the local language. I never did find anyone who could explain to me in English where the right bus stop was amongst the dozens of stops outside the airport. This is of course not a fault of the Koreans, and I felt guilty about not knowing more Korean before arriving.
I was eventually directed to the right place by a wall map in both English and Korean. Seoul is the home to most of Korea. It is actually several large cities that have over the decades of urban expansion melded into one giant metropolis. The airport was in the city of Incheon, which essentially is Seoul. But to get from there to my hostel in central, or old Seoul, cost 8000 won (about 9 dollars).
The airport itself is on one of the many islands that dot South Korea’s western coast, and to get onto the peninsula we had to cross a series of bridges. It was still morning and mist blanketed the waters surface. As we drove over the bridges it looked as though we were above the clouds and islands in the distance had the illusion of being mountain peeks high in the air. The landscape alternated between emerald green hills of lush foliage and white concrete apartment buildings. The green hills were so deeply green and the concrete so very clean.
The apartment buildings often had large authoritarian numbers written on their sides, such as “A-3”. The letters themselves were stories high. This is presumably for efficient identification. But it made them look more like industrial warehouses than homes.
The bus driver wore white gloves and had a complicated assortment of computer screens beside him. Change was dispensed by an automatic machine and every seat had a button to release a footrest and to adjust the headrest. There were also seat belts, and the Korean businessman beside me buckled his immediately upon sitting down. I felt compelled to do the same, but I certainly hadn’t had a seat belt while taking buses through congested mountain passes in Eastern Europe, and that I now had one in the safe and regulated traffic of Seoul it seemed almost humorous.
At each bus stop a soothing woman’s voice would announce the stop in English and a harsh male voice would announce the stop in Korean. The ride through the city took almost 2 and a half hours. I am always amazed by the major cities of the world. I revel in the seeming endlessness of people and buildings. It both baffles and excites me. And the expansiveness of Seoul certainly did both.
The bus dropped me off across from the gates of a feudal Korean palace and around the corner from my hostel. I rolled in around 9 am. A skinny young man with trendy glasses was at reception. I gave him my reservation, and he looked very intently at his ledger. He stood and looked at a calendar behind the desk. He scrunched his face and handed me a key. All this was done without exchanging a word. The key was for a room right next to reception. Reception and this room shared a wall. I went in and found an en suite single with cable TV. I took the two steps back out the door to see if this was right, as I had reserved a room in a 10-person dorm. The skinny young man said, “ok ok ok ok.” And for some reason unknown to me (since I lacked the Korean to even ask) I was upgraded from dorm bed to a lovely single for no extra charge.
I spent the rest of the day sleeping off my travel on the three thin mats laid on the floor for me. I woke up in the late afternoon and was fiercely hungry. Admittedly Korean food has always been a favorite of mine, and I looked forward to eating Korea’s food as well as seeing Korea’s cartoons. Bulgogi (marinated and barbequed beef strips) has always been my favorite. So I headed out on a quest for bulgogi.
Although the hostel was near a large road (where the bus dropped me off) it itself was on a narrow street only wide enough for a few pedestrians. But this is not uncommon for this part of Seoul, which is called Insadong. It one of the oldest parts of the city and still has a lot of 19 th century buildings which are linked by vast networks of little nameless roads, making it an easy and fun place to get lost. On one of these nameless roads, not much wider than my shoulders, I found a little restaurant. I asked if they had bulgogi. By ask I mean I said bulgogi over and over with big animated gestures. They responded with great shakings of the head and “bulgogi anio” (no bulgogi). They then looked at me and said something in Korean. I just nodded and sat down. Apparently in the exchange I had ordered tripe dumplings. Although not bulgogi it was very good.
Like any Korean meal, it came with several small plates of spiced, seasoned, and pickled side dishes, with one of the side dishes always being kimchi. Kimchi is salted and preserved cabbage. A museum exhibit I would see later explained that kimchi was an essential source of sodium and other nutrients in feudal Korea. Rural populations survived during the winter on the preserved cabbage. Modern kimchi is a little more elaborate. It is heavily spiced and rather tasty. However these spices didn’t arrive until Portuguese traders brought chili and pepper in the 16th century. But over this history from being an essential staple to a tasty morsel, kimchi has remained a part of every Korean meal.
Food was to be a recurrent theme throughout my time in Korea. And on my way back to the hostel I passed the “food museum of Korea”. I had to go in. It was small but interesting — mostly mannequins in tableaus with plastic food. There was a lot of written information but it was all in Korean. One exhibit was in English and explained that the coming weekend was the fall festival for Korea and traditionally families make a food called tteok, a sort of sweet, rice flour candy. The exhibit went on forever showing how to make boiled, grilled, stewed, pickled, and anything else tteok. Just below the museum was a café which for the upcoming holiday was selling “gourmet tteok” at its counter. Of course I needed to try it. I got a little round ball with a green tea leaf delicately placed on it. I sat outside and took a bite. Sweet is not the right word to describe it. Perhaps starchy is better. The exhibit opened with a proverb translated into curious English. It read: “Oh what a lucky boy you are you have many tteok“. After my taste of tteok I didn’t feel so lucky. It wasn’t bad but it certainly didn’t rank as a delicious candy.
From the museum I somehow found my way back and slept again for hours. I woke sometime after the sun had set. I decided to go back towards the palace and see the city by night. Armed with my camera I walked the quiet moon-drenched alleys. To the north lay a large but gently sloping mountain range. Occasionally I would catch a glimpse of a moonlit peak between buildings. I sat on the stoop of a church for a bit. Korean children played just down the street in the bright yellow aura of a street light on the otherwise blue darkness of the road. It was almost 11 and I thought it great that children could play in the streets of Seoul safely until late.
I continued walking. At many intersections groups of men gathered around steaming carts and ate rice cakes in pepper broth from plastic bowls. Skinny boys in shorts gathered around televisions set up on the street and played video games in the brisk evening air. I eventually broke through the labyrinth of little roads and emerged near the Grand Palace and the National Museum. I followed the palace’s massive walls until I was at a vast intersection of several multilane roads. Opposite me stood a row of hulking skyscrapers crowned with giant video screens silently playing commercials on loops. I crossed the intersection in one of the many labyrinthine underground passages.
I didn’t see another person until I emerged and walked near a central government office building. Outside a few hundred women sat quietly in the shadows of the office gate. They had banners and placards propped up against the curb and they seemed prepared to be camped out for the night. It was some form of sit-in or protest, but I was unable to tell the cause. I stood and watched the sleepy protesting women from behind a garbage pile of food wrappers and drink bottles that had accumulated. From the size of the garbage pile they had been there a while. I continued my walk along the now skyscraper lined streets. At one point I stopped to watch a vendor press a ginger root the size of my arm and extract a juice he then mixed with seltzer. Eventually I turned homeward again. It was very late and I stole past the skinny young man at reception as he dozed on his ledger.
The guesthouse provided breakfast. By breakfast I mean white bread with jam and a sweet yogurt drink served in vessel the size of a shot glass. A hand-written sign declared in militant print: “One yogurt per person”. In the small breakfast nook I met a Singaporean woman and two Vietnamese sisters who had all just arrived in Korea for sightseeing. I had an appointment at a cartoon museum that day, but we all agreed to meet later in the night to get Korean barbeque and, we hoped, bulgogi.
I then set off to the Korean Cartoon Museum and Archive. I jumped on the subway for what I thought might be a short ride. But after the 2nd hour on the train I realized this was a bigger mission, showing just how vast Seoul is and how expansive is its public transportation. The subway eventually emerged from underground and raced along through residential blocks.
Korea has a negative birth rate and has had one for many years. It was explained to me that it is just too expensive to have children, so young couples prefer not to. I don’t think that is the complete answer. In any case, Korea has an aging population. Walking the streets you can see this. The elderly are a sizable and visible population in the city. And parks are full of old men sitting on benches in the warm sun. On this ride I rarely got to sit because there was always someone older than me in need of my seat. I had flashes of America as the baby boomers really hit retirement. In a few years perhaps it will be impossibly impolite to sit on New York subways. Others stood with me and watched movies on their cell phones.
After a few hours I got off at Bucheon station. I had e-mail from the museum outlining directions in questionable English. It instructed me to exit the station and find bus #3. Unfortunately this station had six exits onto different streets. After finding no bus stops at the first three I went into a post office. The man behind the counter spoke no English but a man in line instructed me to once again cross into the station and take the 17 bus to the station.
Just then my stomach got the best of me and I slid into a little restaurant next to the post office. As far as I can tell, all Korean restaurants are very similar. Silverware is kept at the table. There are always metal chopsticks and spoons. Water is kept in a cooler at the front of the restaurant with metal cups stored along side. There is always a man who seats you and takes your order from the photo images of the food. Then there are two women in aprons behind a counter preparing the food. Always one man and two women. I witnessed this more often than not.
It was just after the lunch hour and before dinner so I was the only one in the shop and as I ate my dumplings the man who seated me sat at an adjacent table intently watching me eat. When I took a bite and gave a thumbs up in approval, he proudly smiled and returned with a plate of small salted fish for me.
After lunch I made my way to bus 17 but couldn’t find it. I tried to ask people on the street but no one would or could understand my questions. Eventually I just followed a stream of buses none of which were 3 or 17 until they pulled into a largish terminal about a mile walk from where I had started. There a bunch of smoking bus drivers were crowded around. I showed them the address I wanted to get to, and they put me on yet another bus all together.
I rode this bus for almost half an hour before being told to get off at a construction site. I wandered aimlessly for another 20 minutes until I found a police station. I went inside and a kind female officer who didn’t speak any English took me to a large aerial map of the area. It was here I realized I wasn’t in Seoul anymore. I had ridden the train to another city all together. Bucheon to be exact.
Together we hunted on the map for my destination and found it to be only a few blocks away from the police station. I thanked the policewoman with much bowing of my head and waving. I walked the rest of the way in high spirits.
I was eventually greeted by an archway dotted with large fiberglass cartoon characters. This gateway let unto a sports arena, and I came to realize the museum was in the basement of a soccer stadium. Not sure what to make of it, I made my way into a little dark glass door behind the entrance for grounds crew. Inside a young woman was seated behind a desk and in a frightened voice said, “English?!?” I nodded and she handed me a manila folder with a walking guide to the museum in English.
I had had correspondence with someone from the museum and had planned to meet him or her. All I had though was a name on the e-mail. I had hoped to show up and have a chat. I showed the scared young woman the name and she just looked at me blankly. She retrieved an older man and he gave me an even blanker look. We didn’t share enough language for me to even explain that I was looking for a particular person. After a long awkward silence I just gave up and entered into the museum.
This was really something. It was expansive and had a section on cartoon history in Korea tracing its origins back to early cave paintings and later screen painting. It then went through a detailed time line of the 20 th century outlining changes and trends in comics, animation, and political cartoons. I was in heaven. The displays were new and I was so impressed that there was demand for such a place in Korea. I wasn’t alone either. A few families and a few older men walked though the halls with me.
At the end of the exhibits was a mock up of a 19th century Korean newsstand with reproductions of graphic media art from the period and alongside this was a large room of comfy chairs book shelves full of comics. A few white-capped old men dozed in the seats with comics opened on their tummies.
As I left I tried one last time to find my contact. The man running the gift shop was called over by a young guard and all of us just stood awkwardly until I thanked them and left. I was impressed to see how well archived everything was, how well designed it all was, and how there was a clear popularity for cartoons in broader Korean society. Even though it was harder to find than Atlantis, I’m glad I went.
On the way back to Seoul, just before I jumped onto the train, I ducked into a grocery store. Just my luck — it was sample day! I spent the next 30 minutes going from stall to stall tasting different types of kimchi and Korean ice cream and coffee and a large variety of fruit I’ve never seen before. All the sample servers were young women in gogo boots and mini skirts. It was an odd visual juxtaposition to see Korean grandmothers being handed kimchi by these done-up young women.
I bought a new notebook and then jumped on the train. Again it took 2 hours and I arrived back at the hostel right about dinnertime. The Vietnamese girls had just returned from sightseeing and we were all hungry (despite my many samples tasted). I convinced them we needed to find bulgogi, as it was already three days into my Korea visit and I still hadn’t found it.
We headed out into the dim narrow streets of Insadong. We eventually settled on a brightly lit diner with glass tables. We sat down and as usual my request for bulgogi was met with confusion and refusal by the server. The server then suggested something else in Korean and we all shrugged and said OK. Soon we were brought two bubbling stone pots of seafood and spicy tofu, a sizzling platter of spiced ground beef and an entire grilled fish studded with garlic. Not what we were looking for but absolutely delicious, and quite the feast.
The two girls are sisters whose family had moved to Canada when they were teenagers. Now one works as a nurse and the other works for Exxon. “It’s not exciting work but it pays for travel.” She explained. They were touring Korea, China, Japan, and Thailand. They had spent last summer backpacking in Vietnam and got me excited about the possibility of visiting. They had some very interesting things to say about returning to Vietnam after so many years and how they felt like absolute outsiders and were treated as such by the local Vietnamese.
After dinner we somehow still had room for more food and as we wandered back towards the guesthouse we stopped in a little convenience store. We wanted ice cream but found in their freezer only two types of deserts. One was called “Lots of Red Beans!” and one called “Sweet Cheese”. Of course we tried both. They were exactly as they advertised themselves: A bean and a cheese frozen novelty. We couldn’t stop laughing, as again Korean sweets were a little less than sweet. There really is nothing like biting into a frozen clump of lightly sweetened beans.
They were leaving early in the morning for Beijing and we said goodbye in the lobby, which incidentally was also my doorstep. I drifted off to sleep with a full stomach of too many things to even remember.
The next day I felt I needed to see the proper touristy sights of Seoul. So I made my way towards the royal palace of the last dynasty. On the way, I had to pass by what to all appearances was Seoul’s Soho. I kept passing gallery after gallery and inevitably I got drawn in. I’m too much of a sucker for art. There was a lot of forgettable abstract painting but some lovely resin sculptures. The most interesting was perhaps a gallery doing an exhibit of 20 th century American Art. There were quite a few big names including Robert Rauchenberg, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel. I had no idea that Seoul was such a hub for art and for high-quality, highbrow art. It was Saturday morning and lots of Korean students my age seemed to be wandering the galleries. It would rain off and on and I ended up having to hide from a downpour in a café that itself looked straight out of Soho, complete with student art on the walls and lots of mismatched overstuffed chairs. I got a coffee and it cost about six dollars. I had been warned that coffee in Korea costs more than a full meal. The warning was right. But stuck between rain and café décor, I thought it would be OK to get a cup of joe.
Eventually the sun returned, however bashfully, but for the rest of the day would often duck behind clouds. I made my way to the vast grounds of the royal palace. I passed the guards done up in 18 th century costume. I got a close look and saw their false Fu Manchu mustaches falling off just a bit. One could clearly see the strings of gum attaching the false hair to their upper lip. Japanese tourist snapped pictures of the costumed guards as I passed. I rarely saw any western tourists. They seemed to be exclusively Japanese or Singaporeans, with the exception of the Vietnamese girls.
The palace was everything it should be. There were refined pagodas behind lovely ponds. Each building was an exercise in refinement and design, a sort of antithesis to the ostentation of the Thai palaces, but equally impressive.
Attached to the palace were several museums. The most interesting to me was a museum housing the archives of the last dynasty. There has been for centuries a government ministry to record history and to document the lives of the royal family. Granted, it serves a political historical function to write your own history, but when I compare it to East Africa where there is no history written at all and where archives are non-existent, it was fascinating to come to a culture where they have been meticulously recording, saving, archiving, and sorting information since the dark ages in Europe.
Just to walk the grounds and take in the exhibits took all day. I didn’t get back to the hostel until it was dark. It was quite late and I couldn’t find anyone my age in the common areas. So I just took advantage of the time to read and do laundry.
I had been intrigued by the comics museum and wanted to see how modern cartoon art intersected with modern high art in Korea. So after rising late I jumped back on the train and made my way to the Modern Art Museum of Korea. Like the cartoon museum it was far out of town and in a strange special context. This time it wasn’t a stadium but an amusement park. The museum, as well as a planetarium and children’s amusement park, are on the outskirts of Seoul in a large green park stretching into the mountain.
I had to walk past roller coasters and swinging pirate ships to arrive at the museum. I couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The whole ground floor of the expansive museum was being dedicated to a special exhibit of a survey of Korean art of the last 50 years. I didn’t need to search through catalogues and print rooms. It was all already hung on the wall for me. I was so impressed by Korean art.
This exhibit blew me away. There were abstract expressionist artists who rivaled any of the big names in the west like Rothko, Pollack, or Dekooning. You name it, it was done in Korea and possibly better. I was baffled that I had never seen any of this stuff, and the artist’s names were completely new to me. Work of the last 20 years really spoke to me: Fantastic institutional critique, great identity politics pieces, and then just amazingly simple and brilliant conceptual pieces. I just walked around shaking my head in disbelief. If anything, this exhibit made more palpable the cultural hegemony of the west. How it smothers the possibility of other centers for art. This work is reactionary. It is always referring to the west and the west never refers to it. My ignorance of this art just is one more example of this. I spent all day filling a notebook with names and notes about the use of cartoons or cartoon elements, which is a very present visual trope in contemporary Korean art.
Happy and thinking, I went for a stroll through the park. I circuited a lovely little lake and then made my way to the train again. On the paths, families strolled together. Vendors were everywhere selling all sorts of fun food. I was amused to see a row of cotton candy sellers and a grilled squid seller at the end, and the Korean children lined up in front of the squid seller.
I got home after dusk and didn’t feel like going too far away. Just around the corner was a little restaurant. I popped in and asked for bulgogi again. The man who seated me smiled and said OK. I did a double take. Bulgogi I asked in disbelief? Ok he said. Finally, but inadvertently I had found it! As all hope was almost lost, bulgogi fell into my lap. That seems like the wrong turn of phrase. In any case, they grilled it up for me and I ate almost an entire cows worth. The man who seated me chuckled as he saw me happily clean a huge plate of bulgogi. After I was done he brought me a bowl of sweet tea. It was the best meal I had had in a country of terrific meals. I took the restaurant’s business card, but it’s all in Korean. I hope I can find it again in the future.
As I had been traveling so light, with only a single carry-on bag, I had not purchased any souvenirs for friends and family along the way. But as Korea was my last stop I thought I should pick up a few things. So early in the following morning I set out for the markets. I thought Bangkok had big markets. Seoul has bigger ones and every day of the week. I spent the whole day walking in crowds and negotiating carts full of junk. Sections of the markets were selling expensive clothes and housewares but if you walked long enough you would find rows of army surplus gear. There were rows of women tailoring garments on the street with pedal sewing machines, bins full of scrap metal and rips of fabric, and old men selling just a few army medals and packs of tissues. Hip flasks and flack jackets were everywhere. Every few hundred meters food sellers would clump together, and I made a point of eating lots of dumplings.
It was fascinating. I don’t like shopping at malls but I loved shopping in Korean markets. You name it you can get it. If I really needed 20lbs of false eyelashes I now know where to get them. There was even a guy selling just phonographs — big coned phonographs with wax cylinders. I spent all day buying just a few trinkets, but as the sun was setting I was feeling very accomplished. I had easily walked more than in any previous day from early morning to dusk just soaking in the crowds and the junk. Back at the guesthouse I collapsed in a contented sweaty heap.
The next day I woke early and called a contact I had made through a backpacker I met in South Africa. This guy promised to show me the graffiti of Seoul. We met at a subway stop in the early afternoon. Bill is a Korean American now living in Seoul and working as a radio DJ. He had originally come after college to teach English but hated that work and stayed on to do translation and DJ’ing at a radio station.
We rode the subway to an area he said was thick with graffiti. We talked a lot about his coming back to Korea to live. He said it was a closed culture in a lot of ways. He is even Korean and speaks the language but doesn’t totally belong. He spends all his time with other American-born Koreans. Throughout our conversations he would stress that his view of Korea is very narrow, that of a particular upper-middle-class English speaking life and perspective. So he felt uncomfortable speaking about Korea as a whole.
We got off the subway and boarded a bus that took us into one of the ritziest areas of Seoul. There were little boutiques and big condos. We walked these streets until we approached the river and a network of tunnels. Inside was indeed a lot of graffiti. There were the usual visual references to American hip hop. But here there were also blatant advertisements for Korean businesses that had hired graffiti artists to tag their logos.
In short, graffiti in Korea, as in much of the world, follows wealth. When graffiti in an out-of-the-way tunnel is advertising a shoe brand in one of the most expensive areas of Seoul, you know the audience that is seeing this graffiti is at least middle class. The kids doing this art climbing those tunnels have the time and money to do it, and generally the confidence that if caught they will not be hurt or killed by the police.
This time, this money, and this confidence doesn’t exist for blacks in South Africa, the poor of India, or Kurds in turkey. I don’t want to definitively say graffiti is one thing or another but there seems to be a correlation between economic affluence and its production for reasons even more numerous than I have listed.
We hung out in the tunnels and talked about media in Korea. A suspicion of mine was corroborated, he agreed with me that the only foreign news that Korea reports is about China, Japan and North Korea. He went so far as to say people didn’t even really know what happened in Lebanon. No one really cares. He said that the papers are generally rightist but there is a growing number of leftist-based periodicals on the web and perhaps more Koreans go to the web now for their news anyway.
We jumped back on a bus and went to his neighborhood were he said we could find anti-Japanese graffiti.
Korea and Japan have a curios relationship to say the least. There is still a lot of animosity left over from the war. The Japanese essentially raped and pillaged the Korean peninsula and left it war-torn and impoverished. This was after centuries of minor and not-so-minor conquests in various dynasties. The two cultures are historically intertwined, culturally similar, yet so profoundly different. This difference the Koreans declare proudly.
In the neighborhood, stenciled graffiti reading “Fuck Japan!” written in English had been appearing over the past months on sides of buildings, on sign posts, and even on the sidewalk. It took us a while to find them, but once we did we couldn’t stop finding them. This type of graffiti can only be understood in the context of the complex relationship between Korea and Japan and is a really fascinating bit of cultural production.
It was about dinnertime and my host suggested we eat seafood. I asked that we eat something really weird. He suggested live octopus. I said awesome. We walked a few more blocks and grabbed seats in an open-air tent restaurant. We sat on stools at a low plastic table. Beside us was the kitchen, which was really nothing more than tanks full of water and seafood and several cutting boards. The place was packed and three men in aprons slung squids and eels with mechanical efficiency and speed, cutting off heads and slicing them down the middle before placing them on plates to be delivered to the low tables.
I let my host do the ordering. For a drink he got soju. This drink is ubiquitous in Korea. It is supposed to be a rice wine. But after the war money and food were scarce so a chemical version of rice wine was developed as a cheaper alternative. This chemical version is soju. It is essentially paint thinner, and often comes in a juice box. Even with a booming economy it has remained part of Korea for the better part of 50 years. I had a Coke.
Soon the live octopus arrived. The aproned men had severed the head from the tentacles and bisected the bunch of tentacles to make it easier to handle. These tentacles wriggled off onto the table. I caught them with my chopsticks and dipped them in a bowl of sesame oil that had been placed in front of me. The best part is the taste, which is really quite delicious. The worse part is having the suckers suction to your teeth. We ended up getting a second plate.
After dinner we walked to a café and chatted over plum tea. I thanked him for the lovely day and headed off to go pack. I was up late trying to stuff everything back into my little carry on bag. I ended up throwing out most of my clothes and all of my toiletries.
My plane was the next day and very early in the morning. I rose well before the sun and caught the same bus back to the airport and watched the same mist roll across the sea. My time in the airport was swift and unmemorable.
I had a short flight to Japan where I switched onto a flight to Chicago. In my short hour in Japan I chatted with an 80-year-old man from northern Japan, who was on his way to climb a glacier in Canada. On the flight from Tokyo to Chicago I was seated next to a young Korean woman. She sparked a conversation when she saw Hongul characters on my jacket. She was on her way to Columbus, Ohio to finish her final year of a PhD in concert piano. We talked off and on throughout the flight between sleep and movies. I finally got to see Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. It was not as good as I was expecting but better that it could have been.
When we landed many, many blurry hours later in Chicago I stood in a short line to get my passport stamped. The officer took a good look at my passport and said, “Well, you’ve been a few place haven’t you?” A little nervously I explained that I had just been around the world. “Wow, that’s a once in a life time experience”, he said. I smiled sheepishly. Before he stamped my passport he gave me a big grin and said, “Welcome home.”
With that, there I was. I went Chicago to Chicago in just under 100 days by only traveling east. I’d been to four continents and 14 countries. I never got sick, I never got scammed, I never got hurt and I never got (too) lost. This was only possible because of the kindness of the people I met along the way. It’s hard to quantify just how momentous this trip was. The fruits of this labor have yet to be picked, but I have a suspicion I’m going to enjoy the harvest as much as the cultivation. Enough with pseudo-romantic metaphors: I had a blast and am still reeling from it. I am writing this from the Northwestern Library after my first full week of classes in my senior year. And even though my life is back to normal I still have flashes of images from the trip, of motor biking in Bangalore and the gates of Auschwitz.
I think the most curios part of the return is that I don’t feel like the trip is over. If anything, it feels like I’m biding my time before the next plane or train. This trip didn’t stem my wanderlust. It stirred it. My senior year is just one more stop on my loop around the world, or of many loops to come. I don’t think of Chicago as my last port of call. It will again be my point of departure.
Circumnavigators Club Scholar Summer 2006
|Back to top.|
|Bangkok -> Ayuttaya -> Seoul|
|In this week:
The Thai have a long history of sheltering travelers, travelers of all sorts, both humble and nefarious, in times of peace and in times of war, whether they be early Buddhist monks out of India or Japanese troops in WWII. As early as the 16th century, western Portuguese merchant ships unable to reach China in monsoon season would dock on the coast of Thailand (then Siam). Today wealthy Gulf Arabs unable to get visas to America come to Thailand for medical care. For much of its history Bangkok has been the port of entry and exit for them all.
While still in Belgrade, I met a long-term traveler on his second loop around the world. He had been through Bangkok many times. He told me Bangkok is what ever you want it to be. It can be seedy sex shows or the ballet. It can be dingy street markets or malls with glass elevators, opulent temples or tenement housing. He explained Bangkok as a sort of urban buffet with everything on offer. Whatever your appetite Bangkok can satisfy.
to alleviate the traffic-congested streets of the center city. Experts who lived in Bangkok for many years remembered how it used to take 3 hours to go a few blocks. They joked that generations of Thai school children never had a home cooked meal, because they had to always eat breakfast and dinner in traffic to and from school. The sky train has helped (the papers say), but in all honesty to ride it is still too expensive for many Thai’s. A one-way ride costs between 80 cents and dollar, which for many is a significant amount of a day’s budget.
its grocery section, dazzled by all the fruits I had never seen before. I decided to get the most alien one. I was later told it was dragon fruit. It’s about the size and shape of a Nerf football, but electric pink in color with bright green nubs jutting out. When I ate it later that night the taste was subtle and sweet, somewhere between and apple and a cantaloupe, not the fiery intensity I was expecting from its exterior.
sculpture. It’s overwhelming in size and breathtaking in execution. You can’t take it all in from any one vantage point. The huge hall it occupies snuggly fits it. You have to gaze at it from the narrow periphery around its base and between the exterior wall.
The next day I found out that the paper I was set to visit had gone out of business. I was a week too late. I had also received an e-mail from a cartoonist at one of the English papers that in no uncertain terms said he didn’t want to meet with me. So a little dejected I went walking again. This time I walked the path of the sky train until I reached a little neighborhood called Ari. As usual I bought out all the papers at a newsstand. Then I spent the afternoon at a soup stand clipping and cataloging cartoons. Again it began to rain. And I hurried back, jumping from awning to awning, trying to keep my cartoons dry.
you can see all manner of depraved things. One would image it to be a
dingy stretch lit only by the flickering red lights strung above, with questionable men obscured by shadows speaking in whispers and ducking
into smoky doorways. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. It is a
busy well-lit souvenir market with lots of t-shirts and useless “oriental” objects and a Starbucks at one end.
|Back to top.|
|Dehli -> Bangkok|
In this week:
I arrived in Delhi by 8 am. I had been seated next to a red-robed swami most of the ride, and as we exited the plane onto the tarmac the sun was brutal. The swami kept raising his robe to wipe his brow. While in Delhi people often were amazed I had been traveling in the South. I was told several times the South is far too hot to visit. But Delhi was far hotter than Bangalore, and I couldn’t convince anyone of this fact.
I lined up to get a pre-paid taxi. The line was at least 50 people long but moved quickly. Outside the door of the airport was a wall of people. Several men tried to convince me the pre-paid taxi was no good and I should take their car. Several more asked if I had a hotel. Eventually I made it to the line of police-regulated taxis. I was ushered into a clunky little mini-van. The
driver was a large bald man with his shirt wide open, and he would rub his tummy absently and hum as he drove.
I had been pre-warned about some scams in Delhi. The most famous and perhaps most frequent is as follows. A traveler jumps in a taxi and names his hotel. The driver drives around without finding it. The driver pretends he is lost and drives up to a “random” travel agent to ask for directions. The travel agent comes to the traveler’s aid and offers to call the hotel. He then informs the traveler that his reservation is lost and that he can kindly book him into a different hotel for a small fee. Everyone gets a juicy commission and the traveler ends up in some dive paying way too much.
The taxi driver kept asking in half-Hindi, half-English if I had a hotel. To avoid any scam or confusion I just told him to take me to the central train station. I insisted I had a train to catch with a ticket in my pocket. This seemed to work and we drove most of the way in silence. As this was a prepaid taxi, I was given a receipt to hold until I reach my final destination. The driver will then take the receipt to the police post to get paid. I was warned never to relinquish it. The driver will often ask for it early relieving him of the responsibility of taking you all the way to your final destination and allowing him to drop you where ever he feels like. The only conversation on our ride was his few attempts for me to hand over the receipt.
Once out at the train station I gave him the slip, and the same swarm of taxi men and hotel touts fell upon me. Just opposite the train station is the main backpacker area of Delhi, Pahar Ganj. It is several narrow streets that arefull of souvenir shops and hostels. It is close to both the bus and train station and has become thick with guesthouses and hostels for travelers arriving in Delhi before traveling farther afield.
I wasn’t in Cottonpet anymore. Every other person was a western tourist. Tourists to India seem to wear a special uniform. Girls wear flowing, brightly colored pants and open-necked cotton blouses covered by elephant print shawls. Men wear multi-colored tunics with embroidery around the collar and coarse cotton pants. I think I was the only one wearing a t-shirt and sneakers.
To go fifty feet was a battle. Every shopkeeper and rickshaw driver demands your attention. But your attention is dedicated to avoiding stepping on the beggars or under the wheels of the traffic. Somehow cars do make it down these narrow streets. How they do it is still a mystery to me.
I had made reservations at a hostel on this strip that was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. I’ve become skeptical of Lonely Planet during my travels, but I was landing in Delhi without my bearings and needed something. While walking to the hostel a man followed me for a good hundred meters asking me to stay in his hotel. “I opened it two days ago,” he would say. “No thanks.” I would say. And he would get very confused, “but I opened it two days ago.” and insist upon this fact with dramatic hand gestures. “No thanks.” I would reply. He eventually stood still and let me pass saying quietly to himself, “but I opened it two days ago.”
I found the hostel, which has a lobby that is open to all this street madness. They wanted to charge me 500 rupees for the room, but I was able to fight my way down to 300 rupees. This is still the most I paid in India for lodging. A young man with a pencil thin mustache showed me to my room. I was tucked into a far corner on the second floor and for some unknown reason several unused mannequins were being stored in the hall just outside my room. The switch for the lights in my room were outside the room in the hall, and this would prove troublesome when people going to a bathroom just down the hall from me would inadvertently turn off my lights.
When the man pulled back the covers to show orange splotchy sheets, I just had to look at him for him to rush out and fetch fresh sheets. The room had no windows and just a ceiling fan that did little more than remind me how stale the air was in the room. With fresh sheets and a perfectly clean en suite bathroom I was content to just stay and not go back out into the crowd to hunt for a new place.
I hadn’t slept the night before so the rest of the day was spent alternating naps and showers to cool down when I would awake sweat-drenched in the sweltering heat of Delhi. I only ventured out briefly, down to the lobby to order some food from a conjoined restaurant calling itself the “German Bakery.” I had an Indian rice dish. After I took my malaria medicine I somehow made it back to my room and slept the rest of the night.
The next morning I had nothing scheduled so I was anxious to do something touristy for a change. I stumbled down to the “German Bakery” ordered a chai and struck up a conversation with a young couple at the next table. Her name was Renee and she was Canadian, his name was Tomer and he was
Israeli. I told him he was the first Israeli I’ve met while traveling. He said I must not have been traveling in India. A quick look around the room and at the menu revealed that everything was written in English and Hebrew. There wasn’t German food at the bakery but there were a lot of Israeli things.
After Israelis are done with their military service they come to India for months to travel. Renee explained that Israel has a population of about five million but she thinks at any given time half of them must be in India. Tomer just shook his head and said it’s not that bad. But the Israeli influence upon the tourism of Delhi was noticeable. The Israelis usually stay north near the Himalayas. They rarely go south accounting for my surprise upon arriving in Delhi. They think the south is too hot.
After we finished our breakfasts the Indian waiter squared the bill with Tomer in Hebrew. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. Renee, Tomer and another Israeli girl seated near us agreed to join me for sightseeing. The Israeli girl spoke very little English and I never did learn her name. The four of us stepped out into the man swarm.
This was the first time I had seen daylight since the previous day. We didn’t have to go far before Tomer was haggling in Hebrew with a rickshaw driver. Renee had suggested we visit the Bahai Lotus Temple. Tomer had been in India for three months and was a fierce haggler. He would throw up his hands and walk to the next rickshaw. Each rickshaw insisted to take four passengers was illegal and we needed to pay extra. Or they would cut us a deal and halve the price if we visited a gift shop they would get a commission for taking us to. Eventually Tomer got us a rickshaw for 80 rupees and no gift-shop stops. This took about 15 minutes of haggling.
The ride out to the Bahai temple was long. We drove and drove. The heat was even stronger this day. And when we would stall in traffic next to a bus the rickshaw was at just the right height for the hot exhaust to blow right in our faces. We passed the central government buildings and the main financial district and then kept going on six lane overpasses.
We arrived at the gate of the Bahai temple about 40 minutes later, we each paid our share of the fare (about 35 cents). Tomer made a deal with the guy to wait for us and drive us back to the city when we had finished. Once we were past the gates it was a different world. The intense heat and hustle of Delhi fell away as we entered a well-groomed and sizable garden, and the heat was tempered by large pools of water. The Bahai temple of Delhi was constructed in the 1980’s to look like a nine-sided lotus flower. It is a rather impressive structure but the look of its concrete exterior dates it as a very 80’s building.
After a long approach through the garden we were asked to remove our shoes to enter the temple. The interior was quiet and airy, and the whole place a placid contrast to the rickshaw ride. We stayed about 30 minutes in all before thirst drove us back to our rickshaw in search of bottles of water. Just outside the temple we found a vendor, but like usual we had to haggle to get a decent price for the water.
We had the rickshaw driver take us to the Red Fort. This impressive structure in the center of Delhi was the last stronghold of the Muhgal Empire. It is so named for the red sandstone that constitutes its massive walls. It is an impressive sight to see. It is now a military base and tourist attraction, and once a year the President of India delivers a speech from its ramparts. We strolled the extensive grounds and imagined it in its glory during the last great Muslim empire in India.
There were several museums tucked into the buildings but there was only natural lighting and it was impossible to see the displays in the dim light. One exhibit was on Mughal miniatures, but I could barely see my feet in the room let alone intricate hand-painted panels.
The sun was hot and we were hungry so again our bodies rushed us out of the site. Tomer and Renee said they rode the new Delhi subway the other day and it was air-conditioned and spotlessly clean. So, we jumped a rickshaw and asked to go to the subway. He dropped us off at steps going beneath the pavement with a big sign that read subway above. We got out and walked down. There we found dozens of homeless families taking refuge from the sun. The subway was nothing more than an underpass. We realized what we wanted was the “metro.” A little discouraged and still a lot hungry we hailed another rickshaw. Tomer had his mind set on Chicken so we decided to just take the rickshaw straight to the center of town so Tomer could have KFC. Five minutes of haggling finally achieved a reasonable price.
En route the rickshaw started sputtering and when we pulled onto a four-lane roundabout it completely died. To be out of gas and stranded in Delhi traffic is not an ideal situation. We all had to get out and help move the motor-rickshaw to the outside lane. It was like some sweaty Indian version of Frogger. Once at the curb the man insisted we pay more than agreed on. We weren’t even at our destination, and we ended up fighting with him before storming off.
We were close enough to walk and Tomer’s face lit up when we finally made into the air-conditioned KFC. This was the first American chain I had been into on my travels. But not my first KFC food. I had had it as hors d’oeuvres at the American Consulate in Istanbul. I ordered the Indian Vegetarian Platter. I got a fake chicken veggie patty and fries. We all had ice cream for desert. Over our late lunch Renee and Tomer said they were also on their way to Bangkok. They hadn’t found a ticket yet but hoped to be leaving the next night. We said we should meet up in Thailand when we arrived.
The Israeli girl I didn’t know the name of explained that she had to catch a bus that night to head farther north in India. I was ready to go back but Tomer and Renee wanted to do some shopping. Tomer’s father owns a bridal shop and he was hunting for shawls to resell. So the Israeli girl and Ihailed our own rickshaw back to Pahar Ganj. It was late in the afternoon and I decided to call my contacts and set up my appointments for the following days.
My first call was to Samitha Rathor, the first and only woman cartoonist I had encountered on my travels. She asked if I could meet that night. I said sure and she gave me directions to her house. It was far enough away that I had to head straight back out and find a rickshaw. I spent far too much time bargaining with guys who only wanted to take me to shops. I gave up and walked, almost ran, to the train station. If you keep a really brisk pace the touts don’t seem to bother you as much.
At the train station was a prepaid taxi post. I showed the address and they issued me a receipt. Even at the cashiers window touts come up to you and try to tell you its all fake. I jumped in a taxi. My driver was a Muslim man with cap and long beard. He looked at me and gave a thumbs up. “Israel ok,” he said. I didn’t bother explaining. We rode to Samitha’s house without incident. There was a moment I was sure I was being scammed. When the driver pulled into a gas station to fill up. I was sure I would be hit with the bill. No problem whatsoever.
Samitha lives in a pleasant part of the city called Nizamuddin, which is populated mostly by professionals and journalists. She let me into her lovely house and we sat and chatted for a few hours. She began in advertising but decided she hated it. She was living in Bangalore at the time and took a workshop on cartoon drawing. She fell in love with it then and started working for the Bangalore papers. Eventually she tired of that too. Now she has a weekly cartoon in a national magazine and does freelance work on the side in addition to finishing her masters.
Samitha proudly declared herself different from other Indian women. She is married but has no children (something that is slowly becoming more acceptable in Indian urban society), she is going for an advanced degree later in life and, most notably, she is a cartoonist. She is a rarity in most of the world in that respect, not just India.
She had a deadline that night so we agreed to meet again the following day. She said she knew some other Delhi cartoonists I should meet, and she got on her cell phone and set up some meetings for me. After that she called me a taxi and I went back to Pahar Ganj without incident.
The next morning I repeated the process of walking to the train station and getting a pre-paid taxi to Samitha’s. I arrived around lunchtime and we grabbed another taxi to a small market area close to her house. We had lunch at an Indian version of Bennigans. There was lots of pop imagery
on the walls. All the wait staff was Chinese. We had fish and mashed potatoes. We talked mostly about things unrelated to cartoons, but we had a hard time talking over the blaring pop music in this trendy eatery. At one point Samitha pointed to a man with white hair at the next table. She
explained this was a very influential politician with the ruling party. He was dining with what seemed to be his family.
We were in a very upper-middle to high class area of Delhi. Prices were equivalent to America, which when you compare it to my usual 50 cent Indian meal shows how well off this area was. When the check came I offered to pay for it but Samitha insisted we go Dutch. She is a way cool modern Delhi lady.
Next we stopped by a cafe for lime and mint sodas. Here we talked more about the media. Her husband does programming for one of the new radio stations and we talked about the recent introduction of FM into India. The cafe began to fill up and we were asked to leave or buy more drinks. We left.
I had taken a few books from Samitha’s library of other cartoonists she respects. I wanted to photocopy them so we went to a copy shop. The woman behind the counter saw I had several books and said she didn’t want to copy them. Samitha explained that in Delhi people don’t like to do anything extra. She would have made 10 copies from one book but not 1 copy from 10 books. Too much bother. So we had to find another copy shop willing to take on the burden of flipping pages.
Somehow the day had slipped past us and we parted at the market getting separate taxis just as dusk was beginning. I went to Pahar Ganj and Samitha to the veterinarian to see to her ill dog. I thanked her for everything and said we would definitely stay in touch. Bank in the Ganj I had an overpriced meal of Illy, which is a favorite of mine from southern India. The place didn’t seem to actually have it and I saw the waiter leave and return with it in a plastic bag. It was not very good and three times what I was used to paying. But, that is the Ganj. Sleep came soon after.
The next day began like the previous one. Wake up, chai at the German Bakery, fight through the gauntlet of touts to the train station, and get a pre-paid taxi. This time I was off to meet Samitha’s contact, a man named Ajit Ninan who works for the huge English-language newspaper, Times of India. It was Sunday and the office was nearly shut down, but I had security guide me through the darkened cubicles to Ajit’s office. Like most cartoonists his work is never finished, and even on Sunday he was racing a deadline. We chatted for about an hour until he looked at his watch and got a worried look on his face and realized he needed to get back to work. During the time we talked he was wonderfully insightful into the nature of Indian cartooning, the divide between urban and rural, censorship and the relationship between editors and cartoonists. It was a very successful meeting and at the end Ajit offered to let me stay with his family. I was however leaving for Thailand the next day, and was unable to take him up on his offer. He left if an open invitation when I visit Delhi and I thanked him. We exchanged contact information and I let him get back to work.
Next I raced over to the offices of India Today, which is sort of a Time Magazine for India. I was early and had to sit in the reception area and drink a few teas before my appointment time. Eventually I went in to see Ravi Shankar. He is another cartoonist who is originally from the south. He began drawing during Indira Gandhi’s emergency period. We talked a great deal about that time in Indian history and how the political cartoon was different then. We also talked about now and how hard it has become to make it as a cartoonist. Ravi is more a columnist than a cartoonist now but still does a weekly cartoon for the magazine.
Back at the Ganj I went to one of the many rooftop restaurants, which, of course, sell Israeli food. I struck up a conversation with two young travelers from Tel Aviv. They recommended an Israeli dish that was sort of like a calzone. We ate and talked about current events. Both of them had been traveling since the violence in Lebanon began, and were unsure of the specifics, and unsure of their own stances on the issue. One had served in the military and had just finished; the other had pleaded insanity to avoid service.
Both said it is very easy to plead insanity and get out of the army. But it is hard to deal with the social and family pressure to fight. We stayed up late drinking mint tea, another Israeli favorite, and playing Yanif, an Israeli card game. They too were on their way to Bangkok in a week or so. Before I went to bed we exchanged e-mails just in case we would be in Bangkok at the same time.
The next morning I checked out and put my bag in storage. The storage room looked anything but secure, but I paid my 10 rupees and went for breakfast. Again, I went to the German Bakery for chai. Lo and behold there were Tomer and Renee. They had purchased a ticket for a flight that night. It was the same flight with Thai airlines I was taking. They thought they might find me here.
They said I could leave my bag in their room at their hotel down the street. They were paying extra to keep their room for the day. I thanked them and got my bag out of the moldy closet that was called secure storage. We walked to their hotel, which was a marble-floored affair with elevators. It was tucked in amongst all the backpacker dives. I ditched my bag and we went out again. Tomer had purchased pants at an underground bazaar and we went back there to return them. Again the hassle with rickshaw. Again the endless bargaining. Again the ridiculous traffic. Again the aggressive beggars and touts. Exchanging the pants was no problem, and we were in and out of the shop in 10 minutes. By the time we got back to the Ganj I was to call Ravi. The number I had didn’t work. When I sat down at an Internet cafe to check it against my e-mail. I noticed that my ticket and my itinerary for that day’s flight didn’t match up.
My Itinerary read for that night but my ticket was for the next day. I then had to find the number for Thai airways, but it too was wrong. I eventually had to call several travel agents until someone gave me the right number. I called Thai airways just before they were closing and learned I was indeed confirmed for that night and everything was ok. But I had lost all my time to call again and visit with Ravi.
Renee, Tomer, and I returned to the agent that sold them their Bangkok ticket and ordered a taxi service to come pick us up at their hotel. We paid in advance. In the remaining hours in Delhi we went out for tandori chicken at a place they had found. It was quite good. I had a final dosa and we rested a bit in their hotel room while waiting for the taxi to arrive.
Half an hour before the taxi was to arrive we hauled our luggage down to the lobby and they checked out. Then we waited and waited and waited. The taxi didn’t show up for 35 minutes. Because of the heightened security alert we had wanted to get to the airport with enough time to deal with the extra procedures. This was not going to happen.
When the taxi eventually did show up it wasn’t the car service we were promised. It was an old diesel cab. Strangely, there were two men in the cab. As we were loading our things into the cab the second man told us to hurry up. This rubbed Tomer the wrong way, as the taxi was nearly 40 minutes late.
Once we were in the second man kicked me out of the front seat and had me squish in with Renee and Tomer. We drove about a hundred meters before the car started shaking violently. Tomer said we’ve got to get out. He tried to open the door but the second man in the passenger seat tried to
stop him. There was some pushing and eventually the car was stopped and the door open, the luggage was quickly pulled out and as we walked away we saw the left back wheel fall to the ground. The driver came out and tried to force it back on. We rushed back to the hotel and had the desk get us any taxi as time was running out. It came in ten minutes. We loaded up again and set off. But things were not in out favor. Again two guys showed up. We insisted that only the driver take us. It is always better to outnumber the scammers.
We jumped in and drove. But at every gas station he insisted he was out of gas and needed to pull in. His dashboard meter read full. And we were sure he was trying to scam us. At each station a shouting match would begin where we would insist he take us directly to the airport. At the last turn of before the airport he didn’t take it and instead drove into a gas station. We yelled at him and said we weren’t paying upon which he jumped back in and drove back to the turn-off the wrong way through two lanes of oncoming traffic. Again we all were screaming at him.
Somehow we did get to the airport. I held the prepaid receipt from the hotel until all our luggage was out. I gave it to him and he stuck around waiting for tip. We huffed off. The lines were tremendous at the airport. There was one security check just to get into the airport. There was another if you had checked luggage. A special tag was needed for carry-on. There was bag check at the check-in counter. And all this before you got a boarding pass.
I got my ticket with no problem. Renee and Tomer were behind me. When they got to the counter they were there for a long time. When they finally came away Renee was silent and Tomer explained they were sold counterfeit tickets. They were totally scammed. That was the last I saw them. I never found out if they made it to Bangkok.
After two more security checks and watching all my toiletries being thrown out I was finally on the flight to Bangkok. Delhi had exhausted me thoroughly. It is a city that will take you if you’re not careful. and often takes you even if you are careful. The man on the flight seated next to me tried to tell me that even though his ticket had a different number he still had a right to sit in my seat. I didn’t budge. He then insisted that the armrest was entirely his. I didn’t budge. He refused to raise his seat for landing and take off and got into a confrontation with the stewardess. It wasn’t until I actually got my passport stamped into Thailand I felt I could let my guard down: throughout the flight I was on Delhi High Alert.
|Back to top.|
|Bangalore -> Dehli|
|In this week:
Bangalore was different. When we stepped off the train the sky was blue — not the monsoon gray of Mumbai. On the train ride to Bangalore a quiet Spaniard had occupied the bunk below me. We spoke very little in the 24 hours we shared the same few cubic meters. But once we arrived he gladly guided me through the mob of touts who were trying to get me onto a rickshaw or into their hotel.
The Spaniard was in his second year of travel in India with no return date. He was headingfurther south but had passed through Bangalore several times. He had to walk to the bus station and offered to walk me that far and give me directions to a good hotel from there. He drew a crude map on the back of an ATM receipt and pointed me down the right road. We said adios and I headed off by myself.
He told me the hotel he recommended hosted just Indians. No foreigners. His distain for foreign backpackers was clear in the way he said it. Somehow I didn’t fall into that category. As soon as I left the main road near the bus station I was in a network of narrow puddle-filled streets with as many cows as people. The narrowness of the streets didn’t alleviate the traffic. Cars, buses and motorbikes buzzed through at astonishing speeds. Avoiding pedestrians and livestock was like being inside a three dimensional video game. The exhaust fumes were thick. To wipe my brow meant to see brown sweat bead up on my fingers. The very air laid grime on my skin.
This is where the working class of Bangalore lives. It was congested, garbage strewn, and polluted, but also lively and lived in. Kids toted bags of groceries home. Women hung laundry from windows high above and men stood around tea stands talking with animated gestures.
If you weren’t paying attention you would miss several temples. Tucked in every nook and cranny in every lane were shrines; Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Muslim. My instructions were to walk to a police station where I would find my hotel was just across the street. As I approached I passed a row of three open storefronts. Here the street narrowed as metal barricades had been erected to control the lines forming in front of these storefronts. Inside were three Hindu shrines for health. Mothers formed lines from 8 am to midnight carrying newborns to be blessed. Inevitably, every mother’s head turned as I passed, and the whole crowd watched me with amused curiosity.
I found the police station and the hotel, a freshly painted, blue, four-story building in a row of cement gray-and-black-soot one-story buildings. On either side were state lottery booths. Just as the women filled the shrines, men filled these betting houses until they closed at midnight.
I entered the hotel. The Spaniard had told me I could get a room for 150 rupees. When I asked the price the clerk told me 400. I was eventually able to bargain him down to 200, and decided to let the extra 50 rupees slide (the equivalent of a dollar.). A boy, not much older than ten, showed me to my room on the 4th floor. All smiles, he showed me how the water faucet turned on and off, and how the TV volume worked. He then filled up a big jug of water from a faucet in the hallway. Before I could even give him a tip he gave an even bigger smile and quietly let himself out. During my stay I would see this young boy many times. He would often carry burlap sacks twice his size up the stair and up past my room. One morning I went up to see where he was going. The roof of the hotel was completely filled with coconut shells drying in the sun. I asked the clerk about the boy many days later. Apparently he is just a neighborhood kid who works in the hotel doing odd jobs. But he himself collects the coconuts from groceries and dries them to resell the shreds of dried coconut flesh. I asked if he went to school. The clerk didn’t know. When I asked the boy he didn’t know enough English to answer.
I had arrived early in the morning and there was still a lot of daylight. I walked back towards the bus station looking for food and an Internet café. I walked unimpeded by anything other than the stares of the mothers in the streets of the neighborhood, which was called Cottonpet. But as soon as I crossed out of the area and near to the bus station the touts swarmed. I quickly made a u-turn and ran to hide in my little dingy oasis of Cottonpet.
Bangalore is an interesting place. It is not really a tourist destination, but it is an IT destination. Many technology companies, both Indian and American, have offices here. There is an area of the city called Mahatma Gahndi Road (MG Rd. for the locals) where many pricey western style hotels have sprung up to serve people visiting on business. Backpackers who usually come through on their way to some place else stay near the train station in an area ironically called “the majestic”. It’s more commercial than Cottonpet, but also more seedy. The Lonely Planet only gives listings in this area. One day I walked around it avoiding touts as I went. Back in Cottonpet I was
I stopped into a restaurant with most of the tables full — usually a good sign. I ordered a dosa and chai. It came on a banana leaf and of course, no silverware. I washed my hands in a basin in the corner of the restaurant and dug in. This seemed to be a popular place. I was squeezed into a bench seat with two men in suits who were talking languidly and eating from huge platters of mixed curries.
Bangalore is in the state of Karnataka. Karnataka has its own culture. There is a beautiful style of painting which comes from the city of Mysore and is only found in Karnataka. It has its own languages. The primary language in Kannada. At first I thought it was pronounced Canada, but I was repeatedly corrected that the middle “N” is held in a long “N” sound, making it totally
different. It has its own alphabet as well. Road signs will be written in English, Hindi, and Kannada throughout Bangalore. It has its own ethnic groups. In Bangalore I was significantly taller than the people on the street sometimes as much as two heads. So in a crowd I literally stuck out.
All this made clear the impossibility of making any generalization about India. It is such a huge and varied place. This is a fact that both excited and frightened me as a researcher. Even to study a topic as limited as Indian Political cartoons began to look like a Herculean task.
I sat sipping my chai and listening to the Kannada being spoken. I finished and paid, it cost about the equivalent of 50 cents for my meal. Although Bangalore is not a major tourist destination, there are still sights to see. So I walked the winding streets of Cottonpet allowing myself to get lost, knowing as long as I headed south I would hit the city market.
As I walked school children who were out for lunch bounded down the dirt lanes in their starched white shirts and navy slacks and skirts. Some kids crowded around street vendors and others piled into rickshaws to head home. Rickshaws full with 10 five-year-olds would buzz past me. I found a
lovely little catholic church with a rose garden. It was, however, permanently shaded by a highway overpass that blocked the sun. It stood pristine against the piles of wet garbage building up outside its gate.
As I approached the market the traffic changed: trucks with supplies, men with bunches of bananas on their heads, and others riding bag-laden donkeys and horses. These animals often looked so emaciated that they looked more like balsa wood models. I had flashes of Raskalnikov’s dream in
Crime and Punishment, when I saw a white horse, gray with grime, being whipped mercilessly when its cart got stuck in a pothole and its hooves couldn’t find traction on the dust. The road became more and more congested with men loading and unloading all matter of carts and trucks. Sometimes to pass I would have to climb onto the carts and over. Other times I would have to step over the head of a reclining cow.
The market hummed like a beehive. People were everywhere: sitting; standing; selling; shouting. A line of blind men holding onto one another passed through the crowd crying out for alms. Woman beat away mangy dogs with sugarcane poles. I stood on a pile of crumbled concrete to get a good view of the vast swarm. The smell was somewhere between rotting carrots and fresh flowers, pungent and stinging but still had hints of things familiar and fragrant. Here again I moved about unimpeded. People seemed unconcerned by my presence, and when I stopped to buy something or chat they were all smiles.
The market is focused around a large concrete warehouse where people came to trade mostly perishable goods. Streets radiated from this central warehouse and each was dedicated to specific categories of goods. They seemed to be mostly wholesalers. One street was just flower garlands. One
was just coconuts piled into pyramids by size. Some pyramids reaching 10 feet in height. And one was just banana leaves. I started humming “Electric Avenue” replacing electric with “banana.” A toothless old woman selling candy started laughing. I don’t think she was laughing at my parody.
I walked on pausing only to help a woman selling oranges. A cart had come too close to her blanket and the vibrations sent her oranges rolling away from her and down the street. I gathered them and returned them to her. Very few words were exchanged.
Just south of the market was a palace. Karnataka was the seat of a powerful Muslim sultanate in southern India. They were some of the first to use artillery in Indian warfare. They even existed for a significant time into the British occupation. The Sultan Tipu had constructed an airy summer
palace where he could have official audience and also be close to the commercial center of the state. Mostly made of dark wood, the remaining pavilion is a nice structure of repeating Arabic arch work.
The real surprise here though was that there was toilet paper in the bathroom. I hadn’t seen this since Budapest. I didn’t know what to do except to thank the guard as I left. He didn’t understand a word I said.
Outside the palace a gang of dogs flowed by. Istanbul is known for its street dogs that roam in packs of six or seven. In India they move in packs of twenty. Not bothering anyone they just strut though traffic like they own the place. And frankly they do. One doesn’t want to upset the tranquility of 20 dogs.
In the late afternoon I went to a web café that promptly lost electricity. I was used to this from Africa. In India however they insist it will return in 5 minutes. In Africa it was gone for good. The 5 minutes turned into 15 and then 30. The passage of each five minute interval was punctuated by a new assurance it would return in five minutes. I gave up eventually and left to use a payphone to call my contact for the following day. We arranged to meet after lunch and he would come to my hotel.
With nothing much left to do, I walked back north allowing myself to get lost, knowing I would eventually hit the bus station. When I was almost home I saw a cow duck her head into a grain store and start munching away. A slight old man behind the counter got up to timidly to strike the cow on the head with a rolled newspaper. The cow was unmoved and the old man frantic.
I returned to the same restaurant for a late afternoon snack. I ordered what the guy next to me was having. It was called illy, a white mealy patty you dip into lentils and curry. Nice and light it was just what I needed. Back at the hotel I could smell the day’s adventures on me. And my bandanna was wringably wet. I took a shower and did laundry in the sink.
The TV in the room had nearly 100 channels of cable, most in English, including Animal Planet and Discovery, but I ended up watching VH1. There is something nostalgic and familiar about watching music videos of the 80’s and 90’s. It felt like a vice to be watching cable with India outside, but I gluttonously took in every popup video. I passed out with exhaustion while “Pimp my Ride” was still on.
The next morning I woke late. I went out to photocopy all the work I hand written up to this point. It was all in notebooks and it needed to be backed up somehow. It took a while to find a photocopier in Cottonpet. There were lots of scrap paper vendors, and lots of print shops that hummed with enormous black metal presses behind small wooden counters, but no photocopy machines.
Eventually I found one in a cell phone store, of all places. I stayed with the proprietor for almost an hour making copies of the huge number of pages I had amassed. He spoke little English and even less Hindi. My Kannada was only one day in use. So, we mostly just looked at each other. Every
now and again he would look at the mounting pile of photocopies and the mound of books yet uncopied and cheerfully would ask “Why?” and I tried to explain and he would just smile and nod in utter confusion.
I rushed back to the Hotel by noon expecting to meet my contact. Luckily he was late. I got time to freshen up and sort the copies. Eventually reception called and they sent up Mr. Panduranga Rao, the founder and ex-president of the Karnatak Cartoon Association. Originally from Mysore, he is now retired and lives with his wife in a suburb of Bangalore. He would come to be my greatest ally in my hunt for Indian cartoons.
Panduranga is a slight man with thick glasses who always dresses in a white shirt and slacks. He sat down in the lawn chair that was part of my room’s décor. We had spoken very little before, only a few e-mails. He wanted to know exactly what I was doing in India. I explained the project and he
thought a moment. He went into the hall to make some phone calls. He returned to say we could go meet some cartoonists, but others were ill and we could try later. I was thrilled. Being in the association he was connected to a lot of cartoonists, and being retired he had the time and was kind enough to take me to visit them.
Panduranga himself is an interesting man and cartoonist. After he married he got a job working the furnace in a steel plant. For this thankless, hard and dangerous work he moved his family to the plant in central India. The factory employed tens of thousands and was like its own little city. It had its own newsletter. Panduranga began doing small cartoons for this newsletter.
Eventually management picked up on it and offered him a job in PR. He moved from the fiery furnace door to an air-conditioned office. He says he owes a lot to cartoons, not the least of which is his health, middleclass life, and happiness.
He said the meeting place was close. I assumed we would walk. But outside Panduranga jumped onto a sleek blue motorcycle. “Climb on” he said. I knew this to be my mother’s nightmare, but I jumped on anyway. The idea of riding the streets of Bangalore on the back of a pensioner’s motorcycle was
too good to pass up. And I’m certainly here to tell the story. We zipped through traffic weaving between trucks and carts and people and cows. It was really fun.
We drove about 10 minutes bypassing grid locked traffic by driving between cars. We arrived at the Vijay Times, one of the larger regional papers. There we met their staff cartoonists. All three of us went to the canteen to eat onion rings and chai, and of course talk about cartoons. India has a rich and diverse print media culture, and Karnataka is no exception. There are numerous Kannada language papers only sold in this state. Vijay has both an English and a Kannada edition. What became interesting during this interview is the fact that they were without cartoons until recently.
Cartoons had existed in the big English papers in the major cities for decades, R.K. Laxman being the most famous example of that. But in the regional press they had not had the technology to print cartoons. Offset printing only came in the last 20 years. Before that cartoons had to be etched or made as a woodcut, which was feasible for already resource-poor papers. My host was the first staff cartoonist at the paper and he had been working for only 8 years.
The political cartoon is rather new in rural India. I didn’t have the time to validate this fact, but multiple people mentioned it. Also a recurrent theme was the proliferation of cartoonists in the south. Most of the cartoonists even those working in the major English papers were born in the
south. R.K Laxman was born in Karnataka. Many of the people I was to meet in Dehli had spent time in Bangalore, and still other famous cartoonists have come from Goa and the Malayalam-speaking areas (both in the south). Some people said it was because of the good humor in southern culture;
others said it was the water.
Before we left, a journalist passed us in the canteen and began talking to us. By the end he wanted to write an article about my visit. We agreed to meet the next day at my hotel. Panduranga and I jumped back on the bike and rode to Cottonpet. Panduaranga had to make the long commute home
before it got dark so we parted ways promising to see each other the next afternoon. My night was then much like the previous one. Ate at the same restaurant, home to shower and do laundry, then fall asleep to VH1.
The next day the journalist arrived as promised. He sat in my lawn furniture and scribbled notes in Kannada. Midway through the interview Panduranga popped into the room. We wrapped up quickly and all went out for lunch which was dosa of course. I tried to pay, but Panduranga would have nothing of it. The two men watched with delight as I happily munched on my local food. They were surprised I would even like it. Little did they know I loved it.
After lunch, Panduranga had a plan all set up. We jumped back on his bike and rode through the city. I got to see the state capital and all the colonial architecture of the city. In between the city buses we would whiz around. We arrived eventually at the India Express newspaper office. My time here is kind of hazy. It was a whirlwind of meetings and interviews in which I was both the interviewer and the interviewee. In the course of two hours I was interviewed by three papers, met with multiple cartoonists and illustrators, and drank enough chai to make Earl Grey blush. Before I left India I was able to get hard copies of two of the articles about me and had my Indian friend
send me e-mails of the rest. So even though I didn’t make it into a Bollywood movie, I made it into all the newspapers of Karnataka.
It went on for quite some time, but eventually Panduranga and I broke away. There was much shaking of hands and exchanging of e-mails all around, and many people I must stay in contact with, especially if I return to India . But soon we were back on the bike. Panduranga invited me home for
dinner. We rode and rode. I realized how much time he was committing to me just by driving in to get me everyday. I was quite flattered.
Panduranga took me to his nice, two-story, white house in a placid little neighborhood a good hour from the center of the city. We were greeted by his wife who is a quiet-spoken woman with a bright smile. We sat in the family room and I saw pictures of his family. His daughter now lives with her husband in Ohio. His son is working in Mysore and they are working to arrange a marriage for within the next few years. I asked for a tour of the house and in a side room his wife showed me her instrument, again something particular to Karnataka. The vena is a stringed instrument that
looks like a sitar but is played like a steel guitar. An impromptu concert was performed and they were all smiles to see my fascination with the instrument. They showed me their family alter and all the various Hindu dieties they worship. In a small golden frame they had an image of Saraswati the Hindu patron god of learning. I was quite taken by the image of the young, four-armed woman who represented scholarship. They explained that she always sits upon a stone to symbolize the
stability and security of knowledge, whereas her counterpart Laksmi, the patron goddess of money sits upon a lotus, which like money can wither and fade. Some days later I got myself an image of Saraswati.
We sat down for rice and pickled mangoes. It was nice, and we talked about the Ganesh sculpture that has been drinking milk miraculously and been in the Indian news of late. After dinner Panduranga took me to his study. It was a detached room on the roof. We tried to transfer some photos from my camera to his computer but with no luck. He showed me his work and we talked a little more. As we stepped out back onto the roof, I thanked him for everything he was doing. His response halted me. “It is my duty.” He explained that there are many people doing cartoons, and there is no one to record it, no one to archive it, only a young man who has come half way around the world, and the least he could do was assist me. There is a whole culture that is slipping away in the cartoons of Karanataka and unless an effort is made no one will ever know they existed. He made my project sound so important. I got a little choked up and quietly thanked him again.
He walked me to the nearest bus stop. The bus stop was on a path leading to a Hindu temple and at the crossroads was a giant demon sculpture looming over everything. But demon-guarded bus stops are just an everyday thing in India . He put me on a bus that would put me right next to Cottonpet and we agreed to meet again the next day. Again VH1 and sleep.
We met quite early, and jumped right onto the bike. Panduranga took me to an arts college in Bangalore, an experience worth an essay in its own. One of the lecturers is a painter and freelance cartoonist. We had tea and chatted a while. After he took us on a tour of the school, he explained
that 10 years ago it was unheard of to be an artist. People would always ask him what his real job was. But now things have changed and artists get more respect in India, hence there has been more focus on arts pedagogy. There is a big fight between traditional forms of craft, western fine art
techniques, and new technology. The battle is far from resolved. It was interesting to meet lecturers in the canteen and around the school.
The school was in an old colonial building surrounded by banion trees –quite a lovely setting to learn art. We walked through studios where live models were being sketched. They were old men and women earning a little extra money. There was also a museum attached and we got special permission
to enter the collection while the museum was closed. It had a lovely room of Mysore-style painting from the 18th and 19th century. Panduranga tried to explain to me the Hindu myths being depicted, but they were so epic and complicated we would barely get into a story when the next picture would
elicit the naming of 40 more gods and heroes and legendary battles.
We thanked our host and biked over to yet another newspaper office. The cartoonist was out so we went to have some coffee and dosa on the street. We were on MG Road so all the eateries were a little pricey. Again Panduranga wouldn’t let me pay. We talked about the arranged marriage for his son and the remnants of the caste system still in India. The practice of dowry isn’t done here, but he said in the merchant caste and certain parts of the north it’s very important. I was fascinated by it all.
After our snack we went to the Deccan Herald where again I met many cartoonists and illustrators and was in turn interviewed. Then we made our way over to the “Times of India” and met their staff cartoonists.
Prakash Babu was an interesting man who is also a painter and filmmaker. We ended up talking a lot about the Indian art scene and film scene. He also introduced me to the work some older cartoonists in India. Also from the south, some of them were very radical thinkers and really outside the system. I would love to come back and learn more.
It was getting late and Panduranga had a long commute ahead of him. So we left that paper without an interview, and drove back to Cottonpet. We stopped briefly at a newsstand to buy the paper with my article in it. We parted ways near the bus station and I thanked him for everything and we said our goodbyes as I was leaving for Dehli the next day. We thought there might be chance to meet before my flight but we said goodbye nonetheless. We didn’t end up meeting again. I hope to return to Bangalore someday and repay some of his kindness.
I stopped at a net café. It was being run by a 13-year-old boy who spoke terrific English. I gave him some Tanzanian Shillings and he was thrilled. He kept trying to give me the rupee equivalent, but I insisted it was a gift. By the time I left his friends were gathered around looking at the foreign bills. They asked me if I had any more and I had to say no. They all let out a sound of disappointment. VH1 then sleep.
The next day was prep to leave Bangalore. I gathered my materials and mailed them from the most curious little post office near the city market which was tucked between two fireworks stores. I could only mail two kilos — still a lot of cartoons. For some reason they couldn’t handle more
than two kilos. I sent it for about 11 dollars. I just found out it arrived in America a little less than two weeks later.
I arranged some meetings in Dehli and arranged my taxi to the airport. The hotel let me keep my room until my late night taxi ride. I spent the idle hours talking to the desk clerk. A young man named Shiva Swami. His family has a sugar cane farm outside of Mysore where he works for weeks at a time and then comes to the hotel for weeks at a time. He was excited to speak English and we talked for quite some time about being a village farmer in India, or more precisely why he doesn’t want to be and how he is handing more and more responsibility to his brother. Shiva is unmarried and wants
to move to the city permanently. Later that night the Spaniard appeared again. He didn’t like it farther south and had just returned to Bangalore for a while on his way to Goa. We chatted a bit, and wished each other safe travels.
The taxi arrived around 2 am and I rode silently to the airport past all the darkened IT offices. The domestic airport was closed when I arrived and I sat outside on my pack. The ticket I bought was for a domestic budget airline, many of which have popped up in India in recent years. For 75
dollars I took a two-hour flight to Dehli instead of the 42-hour train. There was no food served or even assigned seating and they crammed in an extra two seats per row. But it was fine and it got us there on time. After my weeks in India I thought I was ready for Dehli. I was wrong. Dehli was a
whole new story.
|Back to top.|
|Aug 13 19|
|Bombay -> Bangalore|
|In this week:
And much, much more…
Subtlety is something reserved for British comedies and Japanese teas, whereas there is nothing subtle about India. The crowds are thick, the beggars aggressive, the food spicy, and the cows unmoved by traffic. That’s what makes it so fantastic.
The morning I landed in Mumbai there was a lot of press declaring a heightened threat for terrorism. I had spent an hour or more on the Internet in the Dubai airport trying to book a room, but was unable to find anything. Housing in Mumbai is incredibly difficult. Even for the locals. It is the most densely populated city in India . With almost 18 million people all crammed into a few square miles people literally live on top of each other. My first nights I would see piles of homeless men lying in crowded stoops. I too in my hostel hunt was feeling the space crunch of Mumbai.
When I landed and got through customs I had no idea where to go. I stopped by the tourist info booth and got the phone numbers of a few more hotels. I wanted to have a reservation before I left the airport. In my CNN induced paranoia over the terror threat, I didn’t want to be wandering around Mumbai aimlessly. I went to one of the stalls where they book hotels for people. The tour books warn you not to use these guys, but I felt a little bit at sea. Not even he could find an open room. So I was stuck trying to make my own calls. This is easier said than done in an Indian airport. To use an Indian payphone you need a one-rupee coin. I exchanged 50 bucks and got big 500 rupee notes. I asked for change and they looked with great confusion “one rupee coins…we don’t have those.” I went to every merchant in Arrivals. Each one successively looked surprised and upset that I wanted one rupee coins. I was reduced to standing outside of customs and asking arriving Indians if they could break my bills.
This paid off and a Sik man in a pinstriped suit just gave me a rupee (its worth about 2 cents). I called the first hotel. They were full. The phone ate my rupee and I was back where I started. This is the time when caution is appropriately thrown to the wind. A friend a while back had mentioned he had stayed in Salvation Army hostels in India . I had no idea if there was one in Mumbai, but I decided to find out. I hired a pre-paid taxi for about eight dollars to take me to the Salvation Army. The man behind the counter didn’t blink. Apparently there was such a place.
I left the airport still full of misconceptions about India . I was expecting to be swarmed by touts and beggars and then be caught in the melee of Kashmiri separatists. I stepped out and a warm pleasant breeze greeted me on a nearly empty sidewalk beneath a lush canopy of trees. I walked the few hundred meters to the Taxi queue and a man half my size and three times my age smiled and took my voucher. I jumped into the back of his black compact. The rear window was stenciled with the likeness of a swami. I asked who it was, but even after the man said, I couldn’t make it out. It became obvious quickly we shared little language. I knew a few words in Hindi, as did he, although he was a local and spoke the state language of Marati.
We drove mostly in silence. He would look back in the rearview mirror and I would smile and he would return it with an even bigger smile bobbing his head back and forth in seeming agreement. As we drove we rode on overpasses that flew by endless rows of 20 story tenements. They were gray to black with soot and grime and laundry hung from every window. If there is to be a Platonic form of slum it is to found in Mumbai.
Next we passed the river. Recent floods had killed hundreds who live on the banks in shacks or worse. It had also driven them miles each day to find water and food. There was editorial discussion of price gauging in areas where these displaced people had walked half a day just for bread to find it too expensive to even buy. The waters had receded and already people had reclaimed the shade underneath sewage pipes and raised tarp canopies.
The driver switched on the radio and looked back in the mirror with to see if I approved of it. I gave him a thumbs-up and he clapped with joy. India has a long tradition of print media a shorter tradition of TV media and a much shorter history of radio. It is only in the last five years the government opened FM frequencies to private concerns, and the AM frequencies are still highly guarded. We listened to one of Mumbai’s new FM stations, which plays almost exclusively the soundtracks to Bollywood films. We passed a few buildings and he would point to them and tell me what they were in English. By the fourth building I figured out he was just reading the signs. When I told him the next building was the Department of Energy he nodded in agreement and smiled. We reached the tip of Mumbai and looped around in view of the Indian Ocean . Tucked behind Mumbai’s oldest, most expensive Taj Mahal hotel was a modest three-story stone structure with a tilted Salvation Army logo hanging above its door. I gave the driver a tip, which in retrospect for India was quite lavish but was only 2 dollars. A tout came up to the window and asked if I needed a hotel or taxi. The driver of my taxi yelled at him till he went away then bobbed his head back and forth in friendly goodbye.
I went in to the building and asked for a bunk. There were plenty of openings. I sighed a relief. The bunk cost about 2 dollars a night with breakfast and put the price of my taxi ride into perspective. I paid in advance and as I was heading towards the stairs the deskman asked if I wanted to see Bollywood. I was sure he was selling a tour so I said no thank you.
In actuality he was asking if I wanted to be in a Bollywood movie. India produces dozens of movies a week at a rate that makes Hollywood look lazy. For this they are in constant need of white skinned extras. The deskman gets a small finders fee for roping in backpackers, and the backpackers get food and 10 dollars for their time on set. Sort of a win-win situation. Some packers make a career of it and save up enough money from shoot to shoot to travel more. I was to find all this out much later.
The men’s bunk hall was 3 floors up, and with no sheets, no towel, and no pillow, it was truly no frills accommodations. The room had about 10 bunks with a shared bathroom at the end. The room was clean but all the windows were broken or cracked letting through the air and the pigeons. The birds roosted in the rafters above the toilet. The only time I saw bird poop was when it was in the toilet. They seemed to have potty trained themselves. Some biologist should research the learned bathroom behavior of Bombay pigeons.
With no frills there was little keeping me in the bunk so I went down stairs to the lobby. Once there I met a South African woman who was thrilled to know I had just come from there, and thrilled that I was aware that she could be both white and South African. Rose was in-between jobs and had decided to come to India for a month or two to sort things out. She had already been south to Goa and had come north to Mumbai. She had been in several Bollywood movies and told me I should do it.
I checked my e-mail in the lobby but I was charged one rupee. I had to write an IOU. Rose and I went out for lunch. Our hostel is in Colaba which is an area specifically mentioned as a terrorist target in the alert. It is the hub for western hotels and western tourists. At one end is the Gates of India, an opulent arc erected for the British Viceroy on his arrival in India . It wasn’t actually finished until his departure. On the other end are the museums of the city. The cream filling of this Mumbai sandwich are streets crowded with silk sellers and cheap souvenir shops. Peddlers and westerners dart around zooming traffic in these congested streets.
Every corner always had a balloon peddler. I read some other travel logs about Bombay . These bloggers and I have been equally puzzled and amused by these balloons. The balloons are the size of an ox carcass. Huge and misshapen in festive colors the peddlers hold them with their hands and kick them with their feet as they walk. Why anyone would buy this is beyond me. Why anyone would sell this is even more beyond me. Rose and I stopped into a bustling eatery full of Indians.
We ordered thali a sort of sample platter of many chutneys and masalas circling a mound of rice. We also ordered sweet lassi, which is curded milk mixed with sugar. It was all fantastic. The bill came to about $1.75 for the both of us. With prices like that I would have been insane not to treat her to lunch. Back out on the street we strolled slowly along a road lined with tarps covered in books. India has a wonderful selection of paperbacks on the street. One can find everything from the Marquis De Sade to Winnie the Pooh. The only catch is they are bootlegged prints. The paper is like tissue and it’s not uncommon to be missing a page here and a chapter there. But for 20 cents a book I couldn’t resist. I picked up Herman Hesse’s “Glass Bead Game” and Nietchze’s “Beyond Good and Evil”. I told the bookman that there was something about India that made me want to read German Philosophy. He laughed. His English like most on the street in Bombay was excellent.
Monsoon season was supposed to have finished the previous week in Mumbai, but it was extra long this year, and Rose and I raced back to the hostel sheltering our new books from the sudden and intense downpour. We stopped only long enough for me to buy an umbrella. It cost $2.50, but standing in the rain I wasn’t in a position to haggle.
We changed and met again in the lobby. There we sat for a bit. Also there was a young Asian looking man. I asked him his name and where he was from. “I’m Joel I’m from Nagaland.” I shrunk as my geographic knowledge failed to place Nagaland. Seeing my confusion Joel pulled out a well-worn map of India and pointed to the easternmost province before Burma . “I’m Indian but no one believes me.” His appearance was more Philippino than Indian, and Rose even asked him if he had Philippinos in his family. “No he said with tired patience, the people of Nagaland are descended from Mongolians.” Joel had come to Mumbai to take a course in hotel management. He was working in the kitchen as an intern at a 5 star hotel down the road. He’s a student, not an employee so they don’t pay him. Though he spends most of his day in a 5 star hotel he sleeps at the Salvation Army. It was Sunday, his day off. He had been in Mumbai for 2 months and always in the Salvation Army. He’s gotten used to explaining Nagaland to ignorant tourists, and he started carrying around the map as a visual aid to the regular barrage of questions.
Joel has been looking for an apartment but like everyone in Mumbai he can’t find housing. The Salvation Army is better than living on street he argued. And rightly so. But just outside our door slept a family and a man with a dog who read a battered copy of the Upanishads perpetually all day.
The rains had stopped and Rose, Joel, and I decided to go walking. We went and took pictures at the Gates of India. We walked passed the art gallery, but when Rose saw the foreigner’s entry fee she refused to enter. For an Indian to enter it was 2 rupees for a foreigner it was 150 rupees (about 3 dollars). This blatant markup upset Rose, and she could not be convinced to pay it. Even arguments that it should be cheap for the poor Indians and we have the money to spare as tourists met deaf ears. As she saw it, it was unequal fleecing.
Joel said he often has trouble getting the Indian price because people in India don’t know about Nagaland. They sometimes doubt his Indian drivers license especially in Mumbai. When he speaks Hindi their jaws drop. He, like all Indians, had to take it in grade school. Having passed up the museum we agreed to just keep walking. Whenever we would pass an interesting food vendor Joel would make us stop, and say, “When you are in India you must try this.” As it was my first day I was a little hesitant to jump headlong into munching on street food. “I’ll eat it as long as it’s cooked,” I said. “This one isn’t cooked” said Joel. “As long as some are cooked,” I said. By the end of our walk I had tasted such things as potpourri (corn filled puff balls with spicy gravy), fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, and Pan (tobacco candy). Joel refused to let Rose and me pay. He said it was his pleasure. Even though he sees a lot of travelers, I got the impression Joel interacts with very few. He lives a rather solitary existence for such a nice guy. He was thrilled to be out with us that afternoon. And by the end of my time in Mumbai, Joel and I spent every evening together and became quite good friends. We walked along the train tracks not too far from Church Gate station, which was the destination of the trains that tragically exploded in terrorist attacks the month before. Joel said it was scary that day, but by the evening the trains were running again and by the next day life was back to normal. Mumbai had to keep going. He shrugged and we passed the giant cricket stadium for Mumbai.
I had no idea before arriving how big a deal cricket is here. Kids play it every night in the alleyways. The TV is constantly broadcasting it, and every paper dedicates its back page to cricket news. Eventually we made it to Victoria Terminus or Viti as the locals call it. The stations façade is an elaborate and intricate colonial period building that looks more like a German fairy tale castle than an Indian rail station. To cross the street and enter the station you must pass through a tunnel beneath the road. At the mouth of the tunnel is sign with the smiling likeness of Mahatma Gandhi the sign reads, “cleanliness is next to godliness.” The sign itself is browned with grime. The tunnel reeks of rot and black puddles dot one’s path. Somehow it was all so appropriate.
We went in to inquire about train tickets for me to Bangalore , my next stop. A portly woman behind the information counter said the ticket office was closed for Sunday. She asked us all where we were from. “Oh you’re from America …do you know any movie stars?” No I said. “Oh you’re from South Africa …have you ever seen a lion.” “Yeah but only in a zoo,” said Rose. “Ohh you’re from Nagaland…(pause)…that’s a nice place…” We left soon after. Joel sighed because yet another Indian had shown she had no idea what Nagaland was.
We walked back in the rain huddled under my new umbrella. We split up at the hostel. I did laundry, Rose went to nap, and Joel went to his bunk. At about dinnertime Joel fetched me and we went out for food. We stopped into a little dinette a few blocks away. The wait staff all knew Joel. “I eat here every day”, he said. “It’s not Hindu so you can get beef”, he explained. We had chili beef with roti bread. It was delicious. After dinner we went to a bar where again the wait staff all knew Joel. Joel explained he wants to open the first starred hotel in Nagaland. At 25 he is quite the character. He was set to leave for Edinburgh , Scotland in the fall after his work here in India to get an actual accredited degree in hotel management. Somehow it came up that he was a Rotarian. I looked puzzled. “Yeah, I own some property and a lot of fisheries.” Already an accomplished businessman in Nagaland, he’s very serious about making a go of his hotel.
Back at the hostel I was tired but had to stay awake long enough to take my malaria medicine. I had not slept in the last 30 hours of travel from Tanzania to India . So Joel stayed up with me and we played cards. He had never played poker so I taught him as best I could though I too have rarely played poker. We created some other game in the attempt to approximate the rules of poker and enjoyed it just as much.
The next morning I rose late and read a bit. At around lunch a car arrived for me. I had made arrangements to meet with the head of marketing for “India Today” magazine. She was a friend of a local Chicago circumnavigator and her connections to the press made her an invaluable ally. She sent her driver and nephew to pick me up. Without knowing each other, the nephew and I passed each other a few times within the hostel before we realized we were looking for each other. We jumped into the spacious car and drove through the city. He was just 22 and was originally from Jaipur but was in Mumbai to take his GMAT’s he was interested in attending an MBA program. His family already runs a successful furniture factory, and he wants to coordinate the expansion of the business.
At the office we met with Mohini Bhular at India Today. She said she would pull some strings and get me some interviews with big names. But today all we could do was wait for the strings to get pulled. So in the meantime we went for lunch. We dined on a lovely Italian meal. Over lunch I told her what I had eaten on the street the previous day. Her nephew laughed, and she got the stern look of a mother and told me not to gamble with my stomach like that. We don’t let our own children eat those things she said and eventually laughed herself.
Over lunch Mohini stressed a theme that would be recurrent: that freedom of the press is very strong in India ; that there have been attempts to control the press, notably Indira Ghandi’s attempted freeze on national papers, but they have all failed. The people and its press have been irrepressible in Indian history.
The day before I had stopped by a newsstand to buy my normal batch of local papers. Just the Sunday morning editions in Bombay numbered more than 40. I laid them out and they filled the bunkroom floor. To repress such a vibrant and diverse print culture would be a feat for any government.
After lunch we had Italian gelato. I was this was the first gelato restaurant in Bombay . Istanbul opened its first this year as well. It is odd how one can map affluence by ice cream. The Italian restaurant as well as Mohinis office were in a recently gentrified part of Mumbai. It used to be the old textile mill area. After modernization and automization in the rest of the country Mumbai’s mills failed, leaving a barren landscape of mid-century steel buildings.
Mohini explained the only thing more Indian than freedom of the press is bureaucratic red tape. Only in the last 5 years has the government opened the land again for development. It has quickly been snapped up and converted into pricey condos and offices in the space-starved city. Prices in Mumbai for real estate have been skyrocketing. Two-million-dollar apartments are as common as the urchins who live on less than a dollar a day.
The rains hit again and we dashed back to the chauffeured car. We drove Mohini back to work and she said she would keep me updated on possible contacts. I thanked her and the driver took me back to Colaba. I killed some time reading the papers I had amassed and clipping cartoons until Joel returned from work. While he changed clothes I struck up a conversation with a young Scottish traveler. He had just made his way from China via Mongolia and Tibet . He was flying out of Mumbai for Australia via Bangkok the next day. He wanted to be a journalist and said he was testing his cultural adaptability on a long vacation. He thought it might help him be a foreign correspondent.
Joel, the Scotsman, Ajay, and I went to the same beef restaurant. Then to the same bar. The two of them kept ordering drinks. I was so exhausted from the day that I dozed off in the booth. Eventually they caught on to my fatigue and we all made our way to the hostel.
The next day was Independence Day. On this day in 1947 India declared itself a self-governed democracy and broke with the British Empire . There was nothing noticeably different about Mumbai on this day. We were told that perhaps there was a flag raising ceremony somewhere, sometime, but none of the locals had the slightest idea of when and where. The only difference was the sudden proliferation of small Indian flags. Every peddler held big bunches for sale. Every fruit vendor stuck a flag in his produce. Many people walked around with Indian flag stickers on their lapel. That was as festive as it got.
One group of street children thought I would be a likely purchaser of their flags. Their salesmanship was lacking, however, as their strategy was to hit me in the shin with the flags. It was all somewhat slapstick as I walked comfortably down the Mumbai street with 4 children hunched over slapping my shins. I was afraid people might mistake me for some guru with these children doing some ritual of devotion. After a block all parties tired of the effort, and they ran off to find the next pair of shins.
I spoke with Mohini and she had secured an interview with R.K. Laxman. I was thrilled. It’s hard to quantify how big this guy is. He has had a daily cartoon on the front page of the Times of India for well over 50 years. There is a statue erected for him in Pune, India . He is more than a household name; he is synonymous with the idea of Indian satire. I’ve racked my brain to find a similar personality in America . Perhaps Walter Cronkite is the closest approximation. Laxman is someone who has given expression to all the significant events of Indian history in last half century. Also Mohini invited me for dinner, as her apartment is only a short walk from R.K. Laxman’s.
I decided to take a walk. Ajay was bumming around the bunkroom, so I asked if he wanted to come along for the walk. He said sure, and we strolled first to the University of Mumbai campus. There was a large grass space pocked with deep muddy puddles, but hundreds still gathered to play cricket all across the field. We watched for a bit and then ducked into a bookstore when it again began to drizzle. I went right for the R.K. Laxman books. Penguin publishing has released dozens of his collected works themed by topic, such as medical or political cartoons. I couldn’t resist and bought a few. Ajay bought a volume of Robert Burns’s poetry. I accused him of being a proud Scotsman. “That I am.,” he said and beamed.
By the time lunchtime struck, Ajay was already thinking of turning back. I convinced him to have lunch with me and we stopped by a non-descript eatery for thali.
After lunch he went back and I caught a bus for the next leg of my walkabout. I rode it to Chawpati beach, which is the only swimming beach in this part of Mumbai. It is well known for its carnival-like atmosphere and as a hide-away for smooching couples. It was midday and rainy no such lively atmosphere or young lovers were to be found. Still, droves of young boys bathed naked in the ocean despite the rain.
The next day papers were reporting that the sea had turned sweet at this beach. Thousands began flocking to collect the now sweet water by the bucket. It was deemed a miracle by some and a huge public health concern by others. I was too early to witness the crowds of sugar-sea searchers.
I walked along the coast until I reached Hasan Ali mosque, a terrific structure on an island in a small inlet north of Chawpati. The mosque can only be accessed at low tide when a causeway emerges from the sea. I was there just as the sea was retaking the path and watched hordes of people scurry the several hundred meter path hounded by crashing waves.
From here I doubled back, stepping over cows and beggars that congested every open space until I reached Warden road. This is the diplomatic hub for Mumbai. Most of the consulates are here as well as R.K. Laxman’s apartment. I was early so I stopped by a small diner and ordered a sweet lassi, which I had become quite partial to.
When it came time to meet R.K. Laxman I psyched myself out and became quite nervous. I was invited in to his apartment and shown to a spacious living room filled with paintings. I was offered coffee and in a short while Laxman entered in his wheelchair. He is well over 80, his health has begun to fail, but he continues to draw his daily cartoon. It was a curious encounter. We talked for a little more than an hour. At the beginning I was noticeably nervous, and he was noticeably impatient with my clumsy interview. But as the time wore on I became more at ease as did he and when we started to talk philosophy we really broke the ice. He had lived in England for some time and was happy to show me the caricature he drew of Bertrand Russell. “Nice man,” he said. He also showed me the caricature he made of T.S. Elliot, whom he knew personally.
I was a delight to meet a living legend. I got a few pictures and his autograph. His wife asked me to send her the photos when I get back to America . I promised I would. When I left there was a line of people outside the door waiting to have an audience with Laxman. I had been given preferential treatment and was not rushed to finish. I was quite thankful for that.
I walked to Mohini’s in the rain. Once inside I changed out of my wet clothes into a fresh pair I was smart enough to carry with me. Mohini’s niece was staying the night in her spare room so we all sat down for dinner. We talked a lot about Mohini’s life. About how she was a young girl during partition living in modern Pakistan and had to be shuttled across the border by Catholic nuns. She talked about how, for a Sikh, there have been periods of intense discrimination in Indian society and also about her experience as a successful businesswoman in Indian society.
After dinner the deserts kept coming. Mohini would ask if I’ve ever had this or that fruit. I would say no. And she would have a plate prepared for me. I tasted four or five new fruits. I quite enjoyed the custard apple. It sort of looks like an artichoke but is filled with creamy white sections of flesh.
I thanked her for the dinner and had a taxi called for me. I jumped in the taxi and asked the man to turn on the meter. He didn’t respond and by the time we were down the street I asked again and he said no meter. 150 rupees, he said. I sighed and said ok. When we got to the Salvation Army I handed him 200. He stuck it in his pocket and said “ok now”. I looked at him for my 50 rupees change. He said “no problem you go”. I stared him down. Then I put my hand on his shoulder and stared harder. I was a full head taller than he and much bulkier. He immediately tensed up and got a frightened look. He quickly gave me my change and looked almost tearful. I stepped out of the cab somewhat unsure of what just happened. I had no intention of intimidating him like that. But it seemed to work. I doubt it would work a second time.
It was late and everyone was already in bed with the lights out. I jumped into the bunk and went to sleep to the sound of pigeons cooing inside and the rain falling outside. The next morning over breakfast I was approached again to be in a Bollywood movie. I turned it down as I was waiting for another interview. Mohini was trying to get me an interview with Bal Takray, the leader of a political party and a standing MP. He began his public life as an editorial cartoonist. His celebrity status from that launched him into politics and now his party is quite powerful in the Marati-speaking area. It is a fiercely nationalistic party with a stated policy goal of expelling Muslims from India . He is hugely controversial figure, and I was crossing my fingers that I would get to meet him.
I passed up the Bollywood offer and went to a net cafe with a phone to await a call from my contact to the politician. By mid-day I got the call, but I didn’t get the interview. Rumor has it he has fallen quite ill and isn’t permitting any audiences so as to keep up his image as the strong man, the LION OF BOMBAY.
With my day lost and my Bollywood offer gone I went to have another lassi. In the restaurant I spied some guys from the bunkroom. I joined their table. They are from Sicily and had been traveling for 5 weeks. They were scheduled to leave for home just after they were done eating. Also dining with them was a young British girl from London who works with adults with learning disabilities. Her name is Zoë. She was taking her third vacation to India . There was also Irena, a younger Russian girl who bought a one-way ticket to India and had come to Mumbai to try and get money in Bollywood to get her home.
Soon the Sicilians jetted, literally. I convinced the girls to go to the museum that Rose had refused to enter. Irena couldn’t pay so I offered to pay for her. She thanked me and we strolled around the small modern art museum. Even now it’s hard to remember the unremarkable collection.
Independence day had been the previous day but we found ourselves in another holiday as we exited the gallery. This one is a Hindu holiday to celebrate the birth of Ganesh. Late the previous night clay pots had stuck between the limbs of trees and on buildings at tremendous heights. During the day groups of brightly dressed men ride around in flat bed trucks looking for the pots. They create huge human towers tall enough to reach the pots, which they then shatter in hopes of finding money inside. Some pots have lots of cash, some have little, some have nothing. From morning to night the city is filled with roaming gangs of men and human pyramids. The paper reported it a good year as no one died in a collapsing pyramid. The rate of broken bones had remained constant, however. Just outside the gallery on a quiet street men were massing to build a pyramid. A crowd also gathered to watch and vendors came to sell the crowd food. We stayed a bit, but it takes hours to build the tower and we were cold and bored. We went to an Internet cafe. After we had finished I left to buy my train ticket to Bangalore , and the girls went back to the hostel.
Taking the bus and buying the ticket was not difficult. But then, disaster struck. I looked into my bag and found my notebook missing. This was the notebook in which I kept my interview notes. It was gone. I raced back to the Internet cafe, but to race in Bombay traffic is an oxymoron. By the time I had returned there was no notebook. I had remember taking a notation from the Internet and that was the last I had seen it. It could have been pick-pocketed or left on a seat of a nameless bus. Who knows? It was a new notebook however with very little written in it, but it did have my interview with Laxman. I had lost all my direct quotes from him. I immediately sat down to write some notes from memory. But it became imperative that I make copies of my other notebooks somehow.
Dejected I returned to the hostel. Joel and Zoë tried to cheer by taking me to dinner, and succeeded. Irena tagged along and pulled me aside and asked for money. I broke down and gave her 200 rupees. She said she would pay me back. But I knew I was leaving too soon even if the offer was genuine.
After dinner we decided to take in a Bollywood feature. It started 9:30 and I didn’t realize the standard length is four hours for a movie. This movie was no exception. Joel bought everyone soda and popcorn and somehow we made it through all four hours and two intermissions. I had to take my malaria medicine in the middle of a deeply romantic scene. When the film was over it was late, but I had loved it. It was exciting seeing a movie in a huge, full theater with a thousand or so people in attendance. And even though it was in Hindi the dance numbers were extravagant and the plot simple-minded enough for even me to follow.
The next morning I had wanted to be in a movie, but when I asked the deskman if there was any shoots he said there were none today, but I could do something tomorrow. I unfortunately was leaving for Bangalore and had lost my chance to become a major Indian film star. So I decided to go see Elephant Island . Zoë wanted to come along too. Elephant Island is a series of caves with carved Hindu images of Shiva. The origins are poorly known. When the Portuguese found it, they found on it an elephant sculpture and called it Elephant Island .
To get there you have to take an hour-long boat through the choppy bay waters. The boats leave from the Gates of India. And the way is lined with scammers. I almost fell for one when a man walked with me onto the boat and tried to sell me a counterfeit ticket. We were on the boat so I assumed it was OK until the real teller chased him away. The boat was a two-story ferry open on all sides. It was an extra 10 rupees to stand on the top deck so Zoë and I opted to sit on the bottom deck in the variety of lawn chairs and theater seats that were amassed there. The ride was choppy and about an hour long. Monsoon season made the sky on oppressive solid sheet of gray. Midway through the trip one could look back and see just how massive a city Mumbai really is. The peninsula and eight islands that make up the city looked like encrustations of concrete buildings upon rock jetties.
We talked intermittently but found it tiresome to yell and try to hear over the hum of the engines. Once on the island things were different. The boat docked on a long concrete causeway. Running the length of the causeway was a miniature train to take tourists the few hundred-meters distance for a few rupees. It looked like something Walt Disney rejected from the first Disney land. The engine was no bigger than a meter long and its original festive red paint had faded to dull rust. A group of 6 German tourists crowded into the miniature caboose. Zoë and I walked. We reached the gate before the engine even putted half the distance.
It was off-season and there were very few tourists. Really just us and the Germans. But I learned that the island swarms with people in the high season, and the little engine that couldn’t beat us would be a welcome respite from fighting for a spot in the crowd. On the empty, placid, island it was pleasantly absurd. From the causeway we could see the still natural island rising before us. It was thick with dark green trees, and monkeys could be seen jumping from branch to branch. The shore was lined with crescents made of floating Coke bottles. A local woman inspecting them with a net made me think they were small fisheries. At the entrance to the tourist site old women with pots on their head were lined up. With shrill voices they called out “Picture Picture.” We dodged them and made our way up the many steps leading up higher on the island and to the caves.
Somehow on the steps the Germans over took us. As they walked in front of us a monkey jumped from a tree and landed behind one of the girls. In one swift motion it snapped a bag of potato chips she was eating from her hand and disappeared with it. Everyone froze a moment and then started laughing at the precision primate assault.
The caves themselves were tremendous. Deep chambers are cut into the side of the mountain. Originally a Buddhist tradition, it was taken up by the Hindus in later centuries. This complex was a temple to Shiva, and as you walk deeper in and let your eyes adjust you are rewarded with huge full and bas-reliefs of Shiva in his/her various forms, sometimes as a creating dancer, or a destroying skull bearer.
I was struck by the sophisticated composition of these stone reliefs. Each scene was a complex mix of figures and objects swirling into allegorical scenes. Each scene fit well within its rocky alcove and worked as an organic image. I had never seen Indian art so up-close and personal. I was in awe.
The crowning piece is a three-headed bust of Shiva occupying the central cave. Massive yet delicately conceived, the three-faced head towered over me in the gloomy cave. Bats hung just under the hairline of the head. I stayed and stared at it for some time, long enough for Zoë to poke me and nudge me towards leaving. As we were leaving a group of Indian naval officers entered, apparently off duty but still wielding machine guns. They were laughing and joking with each other, which somehow made their semi-automatic weapons all that more frightening.
Back on the boat a cheery, plump young man plopped down next to Zoë and me. As we waited for the boat to launch back to the city he introduced himself as Chris. He had just begun his walkabout. It was day one of his two years of travel away from Australia . All he knew is that he had two years and had to get to London by winter. He was very eager to hear what I had to say about East Africa .
Another man on board overheard us and chimed in. He was a Swiss man who had done a safari in Tanzania . The way he talked about the country was so alien to me. He spoke of nights in plush hotels and afternoons in Masai villages, where he said with animated awe: “The Masai are the ones who circumcise their boys.” None of us were sure what to make of his enthusiasm or even the content of his comments, and we soon changed the topic back to India .
Back on land the Swiss man broke from us to rejoin his tour group. Chris, Zoë and I went for lunch. I had my first experience of a food I would come to love and have had far too much of since that day. It can be prepared many ways but normally it is a crisp savory pancake filled with a potato curry with melted butter on top. It is so good! Zoë said it is a region specialty of Bangalore. I was thrilled that I would be going there next.
After lunch we ran some errands together. Zoë needed a towel. As I mentioned before, bureaucratic red tape seems to be a real part of Indian culture. There is always a middleman or an intermediate step in everything. For Zoë to buy the towel she had to first get a floor man to show her the towels. He then wrote her a slip for the one she wanted. This was taken to another counter and stamped. The stamped slip was taken to a pay booth. Where it and the money were exchanged for a new slip, which was signed. The signed slip was then taken to a different counter by the door. There it was stamped and put in a folder before Zoë was handed a small bag with her 50-cent towel.
After all that we decided to get some tea. Chris an Australian, Zoë a Britain , and I, an American, found loads to talk about comparing our governments, especially when it came to health care and education. They were blown away by the price of college in America , and were themselves just becoming aware of managed health care in their own countries.
At the teashop we ordered a variety of sweets whose names I never knew. They were similar to Turkish deserts only more so. The Turks use a lot of sugary waters in their deserts — the Indian use even more. It was intense like everything here. A day on the island and big meal left us all wanting naps.
We split up and bid Chris safe journeys, and Zoë and I returned to the Salvation Army. On the stoop we ran into Rose from South Africa . She had just come from the Salvation Army central office and had decided to stay on in Mumbai and volunteer at their orphanage. She soon dashed out to have a meeting with an official.
I couldn’t sleep in the muggy afternoon, so I left to go work on my blog. I wandered to the same net cafe I had been frequenting. I started working and the time just flew. Hours later I was tapped on the shoulder. It was Joel and Zoë who had come to find me for dinner. I was touched that they had hunted me down. So we left together. I had thali again, and after dinner we all went to Joel’s regular bar. Zoë was a little worried. “I’ve been hassled drinking in public in India ,” she explained. Apparently people make their disdain for women who drink known to her. Joel assured her it would be fine and we were seated in a special room where women are allowed drink. The three of us had for some reason very quickly become good friends or whatever the backpacker equivalent is. And we spent the last half of the evening in prolonged goodbyes and tentative plans to meet up in the future. I would love to come and stay with Joel in Nagaland and finally put an image to this mysterious place.
Back at the bunkroom Joel gave me a scarf with Ganesh on it as a memento. I thanked him but had nothing to give him. We hugged and went to our separated bunks. I woke early the next morning before the sun was up. I shook Joel and wished him goodbye and then went to Viti to catch my 24-hour train to Bangalore . The early morning streets were still scattered with the sleeping forms of hundreds of the homeless tucked into bus stops and onto doorsteps. However, it was quiet and I walked unmolested for some distance until I caught a bus the rest of the way.
The train started boarding soon after I arrived. Joel had warned me not to take the sleeper car, that I must take the A/C three-tier sleeper, which was one class higher. I didn’t listen and bought the 12-dollar ticket for the standard sleeper car. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The carriages were old but sturdy. There were no cabins per se, just clusters of bunks three high lining an aisle that ran the length of the car. I got a top bunk and climbed up onto my stiff, blue, plastic mattress. I had my own industrial-style fan and with the cool monsoon breezes it was quite comfortable. Up on the top I could watch everything that went on below. It was quite a show. Walking the aisles were vendors selling food, musicians asking for money, kids doing acrobatic tricks for a rupee and hermaphrodites blessing people. Hermaphrodites walk the trains asking for alms. It is apparently good luck to give them money as they cannot have children and it is a true act of charity. They come into the cabin clapping and singing and touch the forehead of anyone who gives them money. They wear women’s clothes but do up their faces like men.
Up on the top bunk no one seemed to notice me, and all this I watched with quiet curiosity. I had been traveling pretty hard and for the next 24 hours I mostly slept. I tried to read but would fall asleep. I tried to write but fell asleep. I tried to watch the amazing scenery out the window but fell asleep. The steady rumble of the train would knock me out within five minutes of being awake.
I am so glad I took second-class to see all this. Apparently in the AC class the windows are tinted and sealed so you cannot even look out. The landscape was astonishing. Deep valleys covered in thick green canopies are only interrupted by numerous threadlike waterfalls. From watery plains of lotus flowers where men bathed with their cattle to small villages where children chased beside the train to looming purple mountains in the distance, all this I saw from my second-class window.
I was both thankful for the sleep and thankful for the time I was awake, and even though it took 24 hours I was glad I rode the Indian rails. It was an experience I desperately want to repeat.
In a bunk not to far from mine was a Spanish man. He had been living in Indian for a few years and had no plans to return to Europe . He recommended a place in Bangalore for me to stay. When we reached the city he walked me half way to the hotel where he left me and went to the bus station to continue his journey south.
Bangalore was immediately different from Bombay . To reach the hotel I had to negotiate a surly herd of cows and motorcycle traffic so thick it looked like a swarm of giant wasps. The hotel the Spaniard recommended was everything he said, cheap and clean with a nice staff. For about four dollars a night I got a private room with a bathroom and a TV. I flung down my pack and went out for food. Of course I had dosa. However this time it was served on a banana leaf and not a plate. I knew I had come to the right place.
See related images in Photo Gallery 3.
|Back to top.|
|Dar Es Salaam – > Bagomoyo – > Bombay|
In this week Alex:
Arabic slavers and German lynching trees
Finally finds Sanifu
Finds himself outside art
and much much more…
By the time I got back to the hostel the soccer team had already packed and left. I asked Shakila where they went. She said they went to begin the tournament. I was to find out much later that they won the tournament and retained their standing record as undefeated in the Tusker Beer Cup. Dusk hit swiftly again. Nina and I had dinner in the now nearly empty hostel then parted for the night by 9 o’clock to only the sounds of frogs chirping in the distance.
The next morning there were some new faces at breakfast. Two Dutch girls had arrived in the middle of the night. At breakfast they explained they were organizing a theater group to travel to elementary schools and do skits about AIDS awareness. They were young and giggly and were given funding by the Dutch government to come and recruit local actors. That day they had a meeting at the Ministry of Birth and Death, they said and laughed. Apparently AIDS awareness initiatives falls under the auspices of this ministry, not public health or education as they had expected.
We all rode into town together. My confidence had been restored during my days in the village and was ready to get back into the city. We split up near the water, they to go to their ministry and I to the central library.
The gate of the library was rusted open and the sign declaring it a library was nearly black with soot, obscuring the lettering almost completely in places. Peddlers milled about outside the steps, selling roasted corn and sweet potatoes. In the library it was packed but silent. Rows of people of all ages sat flipping through books and papers. Kids in their school uniforms bounded out past me. There were several security gates at the entrance but no one guarding them. I slipped in and wandered the first floor completely lost. Eventually I found a janitor who directed me to a desk. There I purchased a day pass for about a quarter, although clearly no one was checking such passes.
I was directed to the periodicals storage in the basement, and had to again go outside to find the proper staircase down. The courtyard had old gray trees with monkeys sitting like sentinels, stoically watching me pass with much more attention than the security guards. Once in the basement I was surrounded by waist-high stacks of papers in a vast room with window slits a foot above my head. I went even further into another room thick with shelving and a small table pushed into a far corner. This table was overcrowded with people reading silently. A woman approached me and asked for my pass. She didn’t seem to like the looks of me.
I asked if they had Sanifu. No. I asked if they had Macho. No. Kesheshe. No. I went through the litany of cartoon periodicals I assumed to be in abundance. Sani I asked finally in a pleading tone. “Yes we have that”, she said now almost laughing. She disappeared and I squeezed in at the table.
Half an hour later she emerged from the gloom of the stacks with bunches of papers tied with twine and plopped them in a plume of dust in front of me. The whole table coughed. Sani began in the mid eighties as a humorous magazine. It was never political in content but was where the late, great Philip Ndunguru got his start and forged his characters. I did what I could but there was no order to the piles. The other problem is that Sani didn’t date its copies until after 2000. The only way to tell the date is to guess at the year from the price. Some of the copies cost 7 shillings. They now cost 1000 shillings. The only way to date them is to track the inflation. But again, I didn’t have time for that.
My study is on political cartoons, but that is a hard thing to pin down, because even humorous cartoons can become political. One such cartoon I found in Sani. It is a soccer cartoon about the epic matches between the Bush Stars and the Home Born teams. The Bush Stars come from the villages and use magic to win. The Home Borns come from the city and use technology to win. It is a perfect analogy for the modern state of Tanzania. Although not overtly political, it makes a profound socio-political commentary.
I wanted to make photocopies, so I approached the librarian again. Asked about copies and she disappeared without a word a few moments later she emerged with a young teenage boy. He took me by the hand and started leading me. He spoke no English and responded almost inaudibly to my Swahili, but I did find that he wanted me to call him Bob Marley, and that he loves cartoons.
We left the library past the monkeys and the peddlers across the road and into a crumbling office complex. Still in hand we went into a small room with a copy machine and a ceiling fan shaking so violently I was certain it would drop and decapitate us all. It didn’t and we made all the copies I needed. Communicating with smiles and pointing. I dropped Bob Marley back at the library and thanked the librarian before heading back into the street. The sun was hot and gray clouds were gathering on the horizon.
Just as the rain hit I slipped into the National Museum, a white compound of 2 or 3 boxlike buildings. They had an exhibit about the evolution of man and photography of the wild life of Tanzania. When I got to the section on the history of slavery in Tanzania I was surrounded by a group of school children in uniform. One took the initiative and introduced himself. Then in fast incomprehensible Swahili began to explain the displays to me. The other children watched quietly as he took command of the situation. I too followed him silently through the gallery nodding in false understanding as he pointed to a portrait of Tanzania’s first president and gave a 3-minute lecture. Not more than 12 he put the rest of us in our places. Eventually I was ready to leave and my tour guide followed me out with the train of silent classmates. At the gate a round woman, apparently their teacher, snapped. The kids froze. She approached me and asked if they were begging. I said no. Good she said and chased them back into the gallery.
The rain had stopped but the palms that lined the streets of Dar es Salaam continued to drip water from their leaves. I walked around a bit more and then went to buy a toothbrush. I decided to head home early and avoid the rush hour melee on the dala dalas. I was rewarded with a window seat in the far back corner. As we drove I took note of the other dala dalas. Each has been personalized by the driver and have curious sayings painted on the rear and front windows. Things like “Jesus’ family Toyota” and “Nuf Said G-Unit”. I started compiling a list of my favorites as I passed in these long rides to the village. Back at the hostel I caught up on some writing and enjoyed a deep and early sleep.
The next day was National Farmers Day. Nina and I had planned to visit Bagomoyo, a city an hour’s drive from Dar es Salaam with Peter and Lucia. We rose early around 6 and walked to the appointed meeting spot. We had been told that today was a national holiday and everything would be closed. But out in the village and even at the university everything seemed bustling with life and normal operation. It seemed to be a holiday for only some. As we walked we saw mongoose and monkeys staring each other down as they both vied for a taste of a pile of garbage. We didn’t wait around to see who won.
When we got to the appointed spot at the base of the university, Peter and Lucia blew past us in a white sedan and then threw on the breaks and flipped around to great us, having seen us a little late. We climbed on board and were introduced to Sisi and Kairo, their son and daughter. Kiaro is only five with the charisma and iron will of Winston Churchill. Even in Swahili he knew he could charm his way around. His mother called him “Mr.Trouble” and gave a hearty laugh. Sisi is ten, a sweet and bashful girl with a different sort of aloof charm from her brother.
As we drove out of Dar es Salaam, Kairo climbed onto his mom’s lap and kept asking his father if he could drive. He was persistent and his father is a stronger soul than I. I would have been convinced by thisfive-year-old’s arguments to let him operate heavy machinery. He was just so darn cute.
As we drove we passed many seaside villages that have sprung up along the new highway connecting Dar to Bagomoyo. They are ramshackle clusters of houses arranged around small stands at the highways edge selling papaya and charcoal. As we drove we passed as many bicycles as cars and each one was laden with ever more boxes of chickens and bunches of bananas. The horizon to our right was a solid and uniform line of palm trees beyond which, I presumed, the Indian Ocean ebbed. To our left groves of cashew trees stretched far towards green rolling hills.
I told Peter and Lucia they had a beautiful country, they cried out with “ASANTE” thank you in Swahili. Sisi fell asleep on my shoulder as we neared Bagomoyo’s limits. We rolled into town and she stirred blurry eyed as we bumped along the poor road. We pulled up to a white colonial stone building. When we got out men ran up and formed a row of carved wooden figures at our feet while others came with palms full of German and British colonial coinage for sale and still others laid out sea shells. It was off-season, and we were likely the only tourists they had seen in quite some time.
Peter quietly said something in Swahili and the whole wooden menagerie was packed up and the crowd dispersed, save one man in a bleached white shirt. He and Peter clasped hands like old friends and smiled and laughed. Then Peter pulled out some money and handed it to the man, who promptly introduced himself as a tour guide to colonial Bagomoyo. I asked Peter if he knew him from before. He said no, of course not. It was not the first time in Tanzania I witness the greeting of perfect strangers and mistook it for the meeting of old friends.
Bagomoyo was the end of the trade route that brought ivory from the interior to the coast for export. Slaves were used to carry the Ivory for months until they reached the shores of Bagomoyo. Eventually slavery became lucrative in its own right as French and Portuguese plantations farther along the coast demanded more labor. So after being captured and forced to carry elephant tusks the slaves were then re-shackled and shipped off to the slave auctions in Zanzibar. As the guide repeated this familiar narrative, Peter and Lucia shook their heads.
We were standing before the German colonial fort. The Germans took over from the Arabs and set up their administrative capital at Bagomoyo. They refurbished a slave traders stone home into a military barracks and build a defensive wall around it. The guide took us through the unimpressive empty structure that stunk of bad guano. Kairo darted off to run along the parapets.
After WWI the Germans ceded the land to the British who moved the capitol to Dar es Salaam and let Bagomoyo drift into unimportance and obscurity. The German fort was converted into a jail for the ever smaller and sleepier city and remained in that use until the 80’s when it became a United Nations historic landmark. We circled the building and were met by another man in the parking lot who greeted Peter like an old friend. More words were exchanged in Swahili, and we all jumped into the car including this new man. Kairo sat on his lap in the front seat. I was pretty sure he was a new stranger and I found myself surprised that Kairos parents were so calm as their child sat with this complete stranger, which only goes to show how deeply the my American anxiety about strangers can run.
We drove through some dense forest to a small cemetery. We could see the white sand beach just beyond the headstones. We strolled, Kairo ran, and Sisi stayed close to her mom. Nina, being German, could translate the headstones and everyone was rapt with attention as she translated the epigraphs. We didn’t leave until she had translated every last one. In the distance a rock and roll band was practicing and we could faintly hear Smoke On The Water being played. With that as the soundtrack, the last grave she read was for a six-day old baby. We left in silence.
We then walked a short distance to a tree used by the German colonial government as a gallows. We didn’t linger here but instead headed to the beach. Kairo took my hand and pulled me along the sand in the blistering sun. The tide was out and men worked on the undersides of boats layed up on the sand. Bagomoyo still has an industry creating traditional Arabic fishing dhows. We walked by some of the men who didn’t look up from their filing to see us pass. Peter ran back to get the car and met us further down the beach at the German colonial customs house, also in complete disrepair.
The man bid us adieu and we all climbed back into the car and drove through the town. Walls were still covered in political posters for the national elections more than a year old. Lucia said no one minds — why bother taking them down? How can you argue with that? We drove to a church tucked away in a shady grove.
This was the first catholic mission established in East Africa. The complex composed of a church, a clinic, and a convent. The old convent was now a nice little museum about the history of Bagomoyo. On display were slave shackles and various documents of sale. One of the early projects of the mission was the purchase of slave’s freedom. This is all documented in a nice half-Swahili half-English display. The museum also has artifacts from Tippi Tip, a Black African slave trader from Zanzibar who become incredibly wealthy in the 19th century from the sale of humans. He is a curious, enigmatic character I would like to learn more about.
Just behind the church is a baobab tree. Common to this part of Africa, they are squat trees of incredible width. 20 men couldn’t hug this one. Kairo tried to but his five-year old arms only covered a small fraction of the massive trunk. We soon all jumped back in the car and drove to a seaside restaurant for lunch.
As we drove Peter stopped the car and rolled down his window and spoke to a man as if they were old friends again. When he rolled his window up again and drove off I asked if he knew him. Peter said it was his nephew.
We dined on fish, sitting in large wicker chairs and talked about Peter and Lucia’s other children, now away at boarding school. We talked about Lucia’s travels in America and her surprise at the treatment of the elderly. She couldn’t understand the idea of a retirement home, and spoke eloquently about the joy of taking care of her aging mother and having her interact with her children.
We also talked about Peter and Lucia’s military service during the socialist years. Both said it was terrible and they have never returned to the areas they were posted out of disgust for the experience. There is talk about reinstating the draft for both genders again within Tanzania. Lucia doesn’t think it will happen.
When the bill came I insisted that I pay for lunch to repay for their hospitality and as a gift from my parents and their gratitude for helping their son. Peter would have nothing of it. He physically held my hands together so I could not reach for the money and in a stern voice insisted it was his pleasure. Lucia laughed and laughed until I finally gave up and accepted yet more of their kindness. “Such a lunch only happens once a hundred years you must let us pay,” said Lucia. How can you argue with that?
Lucia’s sister was arriving that evening from Germany, where she was visiting her son. Peter and Lucia needed to pick her up at the airport. So we all jumped back into the car and raced to Dar es Salaam. With the warm sun of the afternoon and tummy full of fish everyone in the car fell asleep within minutes, but luckily Peter stayed awake at the wheel. As soon as I shut my eyes we were back at the university. Nina and I disembarked and thanked them again for their wonderfulness. Kairo and Sisi waved goodbye through the windows until the car was out of sight.
Nina and I went to a small commissary in the university. She got some soap and I got a T-shirt that has the seal of Tanzania and reads in Swahili “Freedom is our Right”. For a quarter how could I pass that up? I found out later it is about 3 sizes too big for me but has since made an excellent travel towel, which I wish now read “Drying is our Right”.
Back at the hostel with daylight to burn I decided to sit down and finally finish Catch-22, which had been with me since Istanbul and had been trying hard to find time to read between interviews, sightseeing, and exhaustion. By night the Dutch girls returned. They came in and in haggard voices said they needed showers. When they returned washed and refreshed they said their taxi broke down. Their driver then took out a metal pole from his trunk and in the total darkness of the village night they made their way to the hostel by passing the pole in front of them. They felt bad for the driver who had to sleep in his car until daylight came so they gave him an extra five bucks. They sighed and said that’s life in Africa.
Hearing this odd story, Nina related an event from her first day. All alone in Dar es Salaam, she was befriended by a cheerful Tanzanian man. She was thrilled to practice her Swahili, and he seemed nice enough. They went around for half the day then went to a popular market. He led her to a deserted street where two other men were waiting. They surrounded her and asked her to relinquish all her money. She did, and then they apologized for the inconvenience. They gave her enough money for the ride home and her hostel for the night said goodbye and disappeared with a few hundred dollars. Of all the banditry stories we had heard this seemed like the most genteel. Even Nina was surprised at how polite they were at all times. She sighed and said that’s life in Africa.
That night I finished Catch-22 and fell asleep in my clothes under my mosquito net. The next morning I walked the country roads to the university again. I went to the library and tried to finally make some photocopies of the things I had found earlier. When I approached the front desk, they didn’t want to let me in. “You need a letter” they said. I got in before without a letter I explained. They assured me I didn’t. “What letter do you need?” I asked. A letter from someone explaining why I was visiting they explained. “Could I write the letter?” I asked. They thought a moment, and said yes. I asked for a piece of paper and a pen and wrote this short note:
To whom it may concern,
I Alex Robins give reference to Alex Robins for the use of the Dar es Salaam University Library.
This was accepted and stamped, and I passed through the gate. Once in the stacks I met a Harvard student doing his PhD on African Union military development. He was a young officer from the German military and had just arrived from Ethiopia. He said his thesis will have a classified section for the military and an unclassified section for his degree. I said that sounded so dashing and cool to write classified information. He said it was a headache. You can’t type it on any computer except specially designated secure computers in certain military bases. When it is finished he won’t have the clearance to read it again, and its all a lot of extra paper work. I still thought it sounded kinda cool.
At the photocopy machine everyone in line wanted to meet the white fellow with a stack of books as tall as a man. When I explained my project everyone got excited.I ended up laying the books out on the floor and showing the colonial cartoons I had found as my little audience gathered around. The room was small but people gathered round to see what I was showing. This was the only room in the library with air conditioning. The unit continuously dripped water into a large, gray plastic garbage can that was completely full of water. Each drop hit the meniscus and I was sure the next one would be the critical drop that would send the water cascading down and onto the endless documents filling the room. I watched this out of the corner of my eye as I showed a group of cartoons done in the 60’s in Nairobi.
A young man in the crowd asked where I was from. I said Chicago. He asked if I knew Northwestern. I said I went there. His jaw dropped. His name was Charles, and he said he had just been accepted to Northwestern Law. I said we should get lunch before I left Dar es Salaam and we could talk about life in Chicago. He agreed and we made plans for the following day.
I finished at the library by lunch when Nina appeared on campus. She, the German officer and I went for lunch in the cafeteria. They talked in German and I shoveled beans and fish. Ben, the officer, asked about hostels and we explained about ours. Apparently Harvard, in a misguided attempt to curb reckless spending on research trips, provides five nights funding for accommodations. But they don’t care where you stay. So everyone stays in the most expensive places for five days. Ben was staying at the Movenpick, which cost a little over 400 dollars a night. After five days everyone goes to a hostel to live as cheaply as possible. He argued that if Harvard would just fund his hostel stays for a month, they would save money rather than spending all that money for only five days. Regardless, it seemed pretty cushy to be doing PhD work at Harvard.
After lunch I took the dala dala into town. I found there was a power outage in the center and took another dala dala to meet make my next interview. I was to meet Massuad Kipanya, perhaps the biggest celebrity in Tanzanian cartooning. He has his own morning radio talk show. He has his own clothing line and is trying get an animated cartoon made with his character Kipanya.
Kipanya is a little mouse who sits on the sideline of each political cartoon and makes cynical and humorous comments. When asked how much of himself is in the mouse Massuad said “only about 110%”.
We talked a long time. We talked about the rise of political cartoons in which he played a major role. He is now in his late 30’s but honestly looked younger than me. He is the youngest looking granddaddy of Tanzanian cartoons.
Before the private papers there was no venue for truly critical, truly satirical cartoons. When he started making them for a small paper in Dar the circulation went from 4,000 one week to 60,000 the next. People found it sensational to insult the government like that in print, and it sold. Massuad proudly has always tried to be sensational and stir up some trouble.
At one point Massuad drew a picture of the acting Secretary of the Parliament. One day he saw the man enter his paper’s office. Because he looks young the man passed him by and without even thinking stormed up to the editor’s desk and started screaming for Massuad’s head. Massuad just slipped out the back and never heard from him again.
When his editor censored the image of a politician friend (then the president), Massuad quit in protest. The same politician, for a different cartoon. called Massuad to Parliament to answer for his drawing. Massuad didn’t show up, knowing the constitution well enough to know they had nothing on him.
The only time something stuck was when Massuad, a Muslim, drew an image of God commenting in a cartoon about gay bishops in America. His mother got call after call from the mosque in outrage that Massuad had gone and drawn God. He felt compelled to apologize about this one. “I don’t apologize about anything else.” He said.
Massuad was another founder of Sanifu and I related my trouble tracking one down. He said he too didn’t know where one was but though he might know someone who did. He made a phone call and gave me a number of a man who had been helping store Massuad’s materials. I thanked him and we parted ways. He told me to stay in touch and let him know when I come again to Tanzania. He grabbed a taxi and I grabbed a dala dala home.
By the time I got to the university the dala dalas to the village had finished. Two men walked by and I asked if they were going to the village. They said yes and I asked if I could walk with them in the moonlit night. What little Swahili I had learned had come in so useful yet again. Moonlight cast the path in a blue hue and it didn’t look like the same road I had taken so many times.
We walked mostly in silence, but once and again my companions would say “happana happana” or “just a little further” apparently reassuring me it was a surmountable distance we were walking. They left me at the hostel and wished me a good night. All the lights were off and everyone asleep when I got back.
I had very little to accomplish the next day beyond preparations for my departure for India. I went into town and to the Internet and found a slew of e-mail from friends and family informing me about the new terror warning for Bombay. The US consulate had issued a warning for Americans for just the 3 days I would be visiting Mumbai. I was to fly in less than 20 hours and I didn’t quite know what to make of the whole thing. I went to the travel agent to confirm my flight and ask about any more threats. She said it shouldn’t be a problem.
I jumped back in a dala dala and went to meet Massuad’s friend in a random roadside café. I met the man and he handed over a pile of papers. Five copies of the long sought after Sanifu! My quest was finally over. I had retrieved the grail. I thanked him before he had to run off to work.
On the street in front of the café men sold octopus stew from big boiling caldrons. It is served in communal cups. As dusk dropped everything was lit by candles as I again found myself at the mercy of power rationing. In the candlelight the woman said goodbye and Fred finally appeared.
We walked along the highway until we reached an outdoor pool hall. We played a few games and got a few drinks. I ordered French fries cooked with eggs, which is really quite good. Fred, unlike most, was college educated in Art. We talked about the artists we liked in common but found very few. His knowledge of the western tradition was limited and sporadic. He knew Pollack and Smithson, but not Warhol or Rothko. He knew Picasso but not Van Gogh. He was fascinated to hear about them, but he said he just never encountered them before.
For contemporary art in America, it is so important to engage art history. To refer to big artists and big movements. Art must repeat, appropriate, or assimilate that history. Or, at least, that’s what critics like to see. But for someone like Fred to engage that history is literally impossible. Pop Art is as meaningless to him as the art of the Tinga Tinga tribe is to the New York gallery scene.
We also conspired that someday we would like to work together on a book about Christian Gregory, who was the cartoonist for UHURU the government paper in the 70’s and 80’s. His work was not political but rather social humor. Although it didn’t fall directly into my research it fell close enough that I made it a point to collect his work. Fred says he knows the Gregory family personally, and they are living in a destitute state. He suggested writing a book and giving them the rights and royalties to try and help them out. I said that was a great idea. And we talked at length about what we might do. Something may still happen with this idea.
We played some more pool and then I began to get tired. We hailed a cab and Fred rode with me back to the village. I thanked him for the evening. He said to keep in contact I promised I would.
The next morning was hectic. I quickly packed before jumping in a taxi with Nina to go to the airport. She was departing for Maffia and I for Bombay. We hugged goodbye in the taxi before she sped away to the domestic terminal. I bought my last round of papers from an outdoor stand and then entered the airport. I had a surreal experience as I looked at a picture and headline reporting record lines at the airport and then to look up and see the very same lines in front of me. It was all very normal from there on out, although it took three hours to wait for the lines to move.
I landed in Dubai and saw the passengers from New York and London carrying their belongings in the clear plastic bags provided by the airlines. I learned that this was an anti-terror innovation in response to a foiled plot in London. I still had some Dirams left over from my last stay in Dubai, so I bought a copy of the Economist and a coffee and waited for my plane to come in.
Dubai airport conveniently has free Internet terminals, and I spent the rest of my time trying to find a good hotel in Mumbai amidst all the terror warnings. I got a few numbers and prepared to make a lot of calls once I landed in India. The plane left at 4:00 am and I slept all the way to Bombay.
Flying from East Africa to India, one must have an up-to-date Yellow Fever inoculation. I had my card but was nervous about it being filled in correctly. I had heard some travelers’ lore that if you showed up in India without the proper medical documents they would strap you down and force a needle into your arm inoculating you whether you like it or not. I don’t know the truth of this rumor.
When I got to immigration, I handed over my Yellow Fever card. The guard looked at it and handed it back without even inspecting it. He stamped my passport and I was now in India, terror warning or not.
|Back to top.|
|August 1 to 5|
|Dar Es Salaam ->Chaganikane|
|In this week:
You say safari I say safari…
Simba is not a lion.
Goat meat and Fishballs!!!
It takes a village to raise a cartoonist
And much much more…
The guard at passport control laughed heartily when I asked how to say thank you in Swahili. A moment later his mood reverted back to that of a cold-faced bureaucrat and he handed back my passport and a crinkled brochure on HIV and AIDS prevention, and hollered, “next”.
Even in the airport you could feel the humidity hit you like an unwelcome shower. As I passed the machine gun-wielding guards and stepped outside the airport I was greeted by a lanky man in a starched white shirt and Greenbay Packers tie, clutching a white board with even lankier fingers with my name on it. I introduced myself and he asked me where my wife was. Puzzled I informed him I was traveling alone. He got a deep contemplative look and then ran into the airport past security, who didn’t flinch, past passport control and disappeared around the corner near the visa purchasing counter.
In his absence I strolled to a newsstand and asked for the best paper in Dar Es Salaam. The woman asked government or private paper? Both I said, and she laughed. Just as I was paying my pickup driver emerged with a young white man dressed all in black. This was apparently my wife. His name was Nikko. Originally from Finland, he now studies in England and has been working in South Africa for half a year. Our driver had been unsure of the gender of someone with a name like Nikko, but everything was sorted out. And not once did the machine gun-toting guards seem concerned about the unrestricted movement into restricted areas of the airport.
We threw our packs into a white sedan and jumped in the car. We were no longer in South Africa or even Kansas anymore. As soon as we pulled out of the airport we drove along a road lined with shacks and stands built of drift-wood-quality planks. Women strode about with baskets and buckets balanced on their heads. Masai men from the north moved in groups in their distinguishing red robes. Bikes laden a meter high with water jugs, rice bags, and charcoal weaved between cars. Kids lay on their back in the dust throwing homemade balls into the air catching them again on their stomachs. We passed an area occupied mostly by carpenters who built, displayed, and sold their work in a ditch by the road. Some made cabinets, some coat racks, but a noticeable number made coffins.
A second-page article in the paper I had just purchased said that businesses are having a hard time retaining unskilled labor, because in recent years these workers have been unreliable. The reason given is that they miss work to attend so many funerals from the AIDs epidemic. Quite a boost for the coffin industry.
Our driver spoke good English but was not very talkative. Nikko and I asked him a few questions but got short and precise answers followed by silence. So Nikko and I talked amongst ourselves. Both coming from South Africa we talked at length about segregation in the country, breaking to point at monkeys in a papaya tree.
Nikko has been doing a hip-hop show on a township radio station where he plays local and African hip-hop. He was not too sympathetic to American hip-hop. He was so proud of his station. The show that follows him is completely operated and DJ’d by 6 blind men. He also noted that the population they serve doesn’t have TV or read, so their listenership is bigger than any station in Finland.
We drove into a more residential area and saw women cooking outside in wok-sized iron skillets, smoke rising from these homes receding into the distance. Nikko and I then started talking about our plans for Tanzania. I explained my research, and he expressed a desire to stay in Dar and take lots of photographs and absolutely not go on safari. Going on safari seems to be the standard thing for anyone visiting Tanzania.
I said that when I applied for my visa there was a blank to fill in specifically to say which safari company I would be using. It is so common it is actually expected. I had to send a special letter explaining how I wasn’t going on safari. Speaking to friends later, I was told that nature tourism makes up almost a quarter Tanzania’s gross national product. For those in the business, it is very lucrative, but the money does not spread very far, and the poor of Dar es Salaam see little benefit from the 500-dollar-a-night hotels around Kilimanjaro. Nikko made a few wise cracks about elephant guns and I about pith helmets. The conversation dwindled and we asked our driver if he worked for the hostel. He said, no, just helps them out from time to time. He actually runs his own Safari company. More silence. We wanted to apologize but we weren’t sure if he was insulted. More silence.
We drove through the University of Dar es Salaam, a vast expanse of land on the outskirts of the city dotted with concrete buildings. Then we drove further into lush green groves of trees. Then we just kept going. We drove onto dirt roads with potholes so deep the car would dip 45 degrees before leveling out. Nikko and I looked at each other in confusion. Is the Hostel in Dar es Salaam we asked? No, was the answer. Nikko unlocked his door for a possible quick escape before winding up in the jungle with an insulted safari organizer. But soon enough we were pulling into the parking lot of our hostel. The hostel was amidst a small number of huts and one or two cement constructed homes. Children ran up as we stepped out. They waved and cried out “Mzungu”. In cheerful reply I waved back and cried out, “Mzungu”. The driver said, “that means white man”. I just kept waving.
We were technically in the postal code for Dar es Salaam but dirt roads, groves of palm and cashew trees, and open hut houses in this area looked like anything but a capitol city. The Internet is a powerful tool and both Nikko and I confessed we found the place advertised online. Skeptically we stepped into the dining area under a vast palm canopy. “Karibu Welcome” a bright-faced woman greeted us from behind the bar. We were signed in and were given our keys and shown to our rooms by a gardener.
The place is a newly built two-story building with single rooms that ring a central courtyard filled with flowers. It was nice, cozy and spotlessly clean. Not quite the questionable jungle den with bugs and snakes I was expecting and secretly desiring to experience. I threw my bag on my bed and unraveled the mosquito net hanging from the ceiling. I splashed some water on my face and returned to the bar to figure out just where I was.
Chaganikane Village was the answer. Is there a grocery? No, the bright-faced woman said, but if you want something we will make it for you. It was getting dark rather early, as it was still winter in Tanzania. And as soon as I noticed the dimming light it was already pitch black. Dark near the equator drops on you like a guillotine on a French nobleman. Seated next to me at the bar was a young fellow. I sat to read the paper and he asked if he could have a section. I of course offered it and we began talking.
His name was Vedastus, and he explained he was a soccer player. As we chatted, more athletic looking young men started to mill about coming from their various rooms to await dinner. “That’s my team,” he explained. He said they were “Simba” and I just smiled and nodded. I was to find out days later that Simba is one of the most important teams in Tanzania, and they were staying at this guesthouse in preparation for a game the coming weekend. There were many Tanzanian youths who would have given an arm and a leg to be in my situation.
Tanzania has never been good at soccer, but they are still fanatical about it. Large sections of the newspapers are dedicated to soccer reporting, and the major clubs (such as Simba) have their own newspapers. They have never qualified for the world cup and have rarely qualified for any regional or African cups. But like I said, that doesn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The country is divided in loyalty between Simba, whose symbol is the lion, and Yanga, whose symbol is a sandal. People wear there their affiliation proudly with stickers, t-shirts and bandannas. I had no idea that the wiry fellow I sat next to was a national celebrity.
As we talked, more players began to encircle us and listen to the conversation. Vedastus spoke excellent English. When the others were introduced it became clear they didn’t speak English very well. Vedastus has a university education and had even started his own IT company in his western Tanzanian city, but decided to take time off and play national soccer. At a certain level I think he was showing off to his teammates how well he spoke English, but I certainly didn’t mind. We all ordered dinner. I got chicken and kisamvu, a mash made with pounded cassava.
Over dinner I had the team give me a lesson in Swahili. By the time I was successfully conjugating “to go” in the present tense the whole team had gathered round, and my lesson became the event of the evening. I would point to an object and everyone from goalie to wing would say the Swahili word in unison. We ordered rounds of drinks and kept conjugating for a few hours, periodically breaking into thunderous laughter when I would mispronounce a word or ask how to say something rude.
They had to be up at 5 AM for training and their gruff Brazilian coach rushed everyone off to bed by 10 o’clock, but not before there was much high-fiving and exchanging of e-mails. After the team left there were still a few other guests in the dining area and I took a seat and tried to introduce myself.
I sat with a British doctoral student who joked about my raucous Swahili class. She herself had just been working in a hospital in Malawi. She was getting her degree in psychiatry and said that they were so understaffed at the hospital that she was given her own ward. She was just a student but she had to manage 50 patients completely solo. She had to treat everything from depression to drug-induced schizophrenia and she certainly didn’t speak the numerous tribal languages of her patients. She just shrugged and explained she was now in Tanzania for a safari. I nodded in understanding. We both popped our malaria medicine and bid a goodnight. I slept hard.
The next morning I was awoken by the sound of the soccer team preparing to leave. The sun was already up so I sat and read awhile. I met up with Nikko and Rachel, the British medical student, at breakfast. We all needed to run errands in the city. Shakila, the bright-faced girl from the day before explained how to take the dala dala. The dala dala is a small bus about the size of a soccer mom’s van that gets filled to the brim with people. To get in you have to push and be pushed. It is not uncommon to lie across people. When taking the dala dala your body assumes the most peculiar angular positions as you are forced to contort to whatever open space is available. It costs 12 cents to ride.
A gardener from the hostel walked us to a barren strip of land on a dusty road and said to wait here. A man nearby spoke with the gardener in Swahili and said he would wait with us until the dala dala came. Just across the road women were doing washing in a stream. Young girls carried empty coke bottles refilled with water on their heads towards their village homes. A little boy passed us with a pail full of the water. It was yellow and sinister looking. Our hostel had clear running hot and cold water but clearly our neighbors weren’t so lucky.
Soon enough the dala dala came barreling along the road kicking dust into large dramatic plumes behind it. You could hear the Tanzanian pop music blasting from a great distance. It came to an abrupt stop just next to us and we peered into the sardine can-like interior. “Is there room?” I asked? “There’s always room,” said Nikko, and we pushed our way in. I am a good head and a half taller than your average Tanzanian, and I stood with a neck crooked 90 degrees left against the ceiling clutching exposed wiring for balance, while the rest of the passengers stood below me, smooshed but not hunched.
Then we drove on the same pothole-filled road the taxi had brought us in on. All and all by the time we got into town we had spent about an hour in the dala dala. The crowd had shifted with people getting in and out and when we did finally arrive I had just gotten a seat near the back.
The man that had waited with us had jumped into the dala dala too. As we walked he followed us. We asked him what he was doing. And he said he was told to be our guide today. We said no thanks, and he asked for 15,000 (about 12 dollars) shillings for bringing us into town. We looked at him in disbelief. Eventually we talked him out of charging us for services we never asked for, but did give him enough money to take the dala dala home. He quickly disappeared.
We stopped into a grocery and picked up some lunch items. I got some bread and cheese and some cashews, and we all sat outside on the curb eating our purchases. I was to find out later that eating in public is very rude in Tanzania. Even small stands on the roadside offer a bench behind a tarp to eat your food. At this point we didn’t know and we unabashedly ate and drank as Tanzanians shook their heads at the callous mazungus.
Nikko had had enough of living out of the city and went off to find a new hostel while Rachel and I went to find a phone. Finding a working pay phone in Dar es Salaam is about as easy as finding an open seat in a dala dala. So we went from one booth to the next finding phones without receivers, receivers that hissed and everything in between. Eventually our search took us to the central phone offices. To get there we had to ask for directions and each successive person asked us for money. This really rubbed Rachel the wrong way and she would stamp away indignantly each time. I didn’t know what to think.
At the government’s central phone office we found the only working phone in all of Dar. Rachel called to book a hotel in Arusha to stay at before her safari started and then ran off to run a few more errands. I started calling my contacts, and in the course of 15 minutes set up all my interviews. One was to happen just after I hung up the phone.
I walked to the Nyerere Cultural Center to meet Fred Hala, who is a middle-aged editorial and strip cartoonist in the city. He was having a meeting with several other artists later that evening at the Center and offered to meet me beforehand. Fred had also been part of the original team that made Sanifu.
Sanifu was a satirical periodical that always featured political cartoons. I had learned about it from an academic paper published in a media studies journal this spring just before I left the states. I was excited to come to Tanzania and see how Sanifu operated and integrated with the society. Fred laughed and said it ended in 2001. This was the first but not the last time in Tanzania that my faith in academic scholarship was shaken.
We talked about 2 hours and he said he had to go to his meeting but that I should stick around and we could go to a gallery opening together. I wrote and read and in a bit Fred returned with two other men, Godfrey and Mailka, two artists from the city whose exhibition we were going to. We jumped into Godfrey’s chauffeured car, and Fred playfully said, “you know these are successful artists — they have cars.” Godfrey blushed. But in a country like Tanzania it’s true.
We drove past the sight of the old American embassy that was bombed several years ago. There is a national day of remembrance now in Tanzania for the Americans and Tanzanians who died in the blast. I felt embarrassed for not even remembering that it had happened. We drove past the ocean to a small but ritzy strip mall by the coast.
The show was the culmination of a workshop held three weeks prior where the two artists I knew and several others worked together with oil pastels. The pieces were tacked onto room dividers in a semi-enclosed rotunda of the mall. A handful of white people milled about with glasses of wine. When the artists arrived they were the first blacks in the place. We looked at the price list. Most were selling for between 50 and 100 dollars. Because the market is so small for buyers, that is as much as they can get.
We went to the refreshments table and got drinks and munched on peanuts as more guests and artists arrived. Fred took me under his wing and introduced me to everyone he could. I met the British ambassador. I met a Catholic nun who has been active in organizing cultural events like this one in Dar for almost 20 years. I met a film student from the states who kept name-dropping that he worked with Scorsese, but I wasn’t sure why he was even telling me that in the first place.
Another one of the artists there was named Micky. He also does political cartoons and we had an impromptu interview in the gallery. Micky’s mother was half British and half Tanzanian and his father was half British and half Chinese. Micky himself has a distinguished appearance, with long hair tied into a tight braid. He had never been to university, and as he let me know, neither had any of the other artists. Higher education in Tanzania is still for very few.
Of the British colonies of East Africa, Kenya was the most developed. The British built roads and phones and especially schools. Tanzania was more agricultural and the British didn’t develop it as well. When independence came in 1961, they say there were only 3 degree holders in the country, one of which went on to be their first president, Nyerere. The University of Dar es Salaam was started a few years later, but still in 2006 only has an enrollment of 10,000 in a country of over 30,000,000. In fact, it is only in the last 15 years that primary school education became universally available. Obviously a diploma is a rarity, even more then I ever imagined.
Also, before I left the states, I had read an academic journal that made passing reference to the important work of the contemporary Tanzanian cartoonist name Philip Ndunguru. Fred introduced me to his younger brother, and they both informed me Philip died in the 80’s and never actually did political cartoons. Philip’s much younger brother is now an artist too. But before we could get deep into conversation all the lights went out. In the gloom Paul explained that the city’s power fails regularly and that in large section it is rationed to only evening use. Eventually we heard the whir of a gas-powered generator and the lights flickered back on. A glass was clinked and everyone moved to the center of the room for a speech.
We took Paul’s car to an outdoor restaurant. And another carload of artists drove behind. All and all there were 9 of us. We sat around and orders were made very briskly in Swahili. They assured me I was taken care of. Soon plates of fruit arrived, followed by a huge plate of goat. We all washed our right hands in the sudsy basin the waiter brought around and dug in. I derive a great deal of pleasure from eating with my hands I’m tempted to do it at a Northwestern cafeteria.
The goat was terrific. A little chewy, granted, but flavorful and bountiful. We all ate our fill. Over dinner everyone started joking with Godfrey about the fact he is 30 and not married. Godfrey said he’s thinking about taking a few wives. I thought he was joking, but my hosts kindly explained to me that while polygamy is not common anymore it is legal and possible in Tanzania.
I sat near Paul and we started talking and I found out he had been to Minnesota. He came to teach African Dance to suburban Minneapolis high schools for 2 months. “I came in December and January, it was kinda cold.” He understatedly said as we sweated in the 79 degree dead of Tanzanian winter.
It was getting late, and we started heading home. Paul offered me a ride and Fred came along too. Now a little tipsy he repeated wistfully, “these are the successful artists with cars”. We briefly stopped to pick up Paul’s almost 9-month pregnant wife (as I write this I remember that the baby has already been born) from visiting friends and dropped her off at home. Then we drove out to my jungle village. Fred cursed the bumpy road and Paul chuckled as we just kept driving. On route we passed Fred and Paul’s old dormitories at the university. These two were both university educated and were quite proud of the fact. After a few missed turns we got to the hostel. I thanked them for everything and sneaked quietly into my room and under my mosquito net.
The next day I had a series of interviews scattered across the city. I was new to the city but already felt like a pro with the dala dala. I set out by myself. In the first dala dala a woman older than me offered me her seat. I tried to decline, but that was even more impolite. I was the guest and she insisted I sat there. This would happen frequently to me. On buses and dala dalas people would go out of their way to make me comfortable. It was such a clash of cultures though. It was unthinkable for me to let an old woman stand while I sat, and it was unthinkable for her to have a guest stand while she sat, but when in Rome let Romans win, I think is how the saying goes.
I met with Popa Matamula, another founder of Sanifu. I asked him if he still had a copy. He said no, but I should try the central library. We talked only briefly before I had to run off to another meeting.
Gado is east Africa’s pre-eminent political cartoonist. He is originally Tanzanian but now lives and works in Nairobi, where the pay is better. I was in contact with him before I arrived, and he suggested I meet his brother who is also a cartoonist but still in Dar es Salaam. I met with Robert at a fast food joint on the outskirts of town. He was a bright and fiery youngish man. He had a lot to say, especially about working in the newspaper industry.
Tanzania is a very interesting place to study media. For decades after independence it was a socialist nation with only its government paper. When the country liberalized in the nineties it also opened up for private papers, and started a new industry but had few people to staff it. There were tons of new papers starting up but no one with any experience to run them. Robert complained about un-professionalism from profit-driven editors to untrained journalists down to lousy layout designers. “But what could you expect? We had never done anything like this before,” explained Robert. But Robert had had enough and he stopped doing editorial cartoons a few years back to start his own software company. Ultimately it is not worth the hassle he explained. Cartoonists are not respected and are poorly paid. There is a large unemployed population in Tanzania and lots of them are willing to draw a cartoon for almost nothing, which keeps the going rate for a freelance cartoon at about 5,000 shillings or a little less than 4 dollars. For Robert it just didn’t pay.
As we chatted, an Indian man, but a Tanzanian national, broke into the conversation. He wanted to add his two cents to Robert’s newspaper comments. I wasn’t sure how to handle this I didn’t know how to note the interruption in my interview notes and I didn’t know if I should stop it or moderate it. Robert happily engaged the man and eventually all three of us were chatting freely. I just put down my pen and we all talked for almost an hour about these topics and the future of Tanzania. Eventually Robert realized the time and had to jet. The Indian man and I talked a bit more about world politics, he asked me my name and said he’d look for me in the news someday. I blushed and headed for the dala dala.
It was packed. And at each stop it got progressively more packed, but instead of being pushed deeper in I kept getting pushed out. By the time we neared the village I was hanging on the outside. Whoever reads this blog, please don’t tell my mother about my reckless dala dala riding. I got back in time to dine with the players and drift off to sleep.
At breakfast I met a German researcher from Frankfurt. She is a social anthropologist doing work on the integration of environmental conservation policies and indigenous people on an island south of Zanzibar called Maffia. She had arrived and was waiting in Dar es Salaam to get her official research permit to proceed to her site. She, Nikko and I all decided to go into town together.
As we turned a corner we saw a flood of people walking past. We got a little closer and saw the marchers were carrying anti-Israel and anti-American signs along with pro-Hezbullah signs. I was to find out later on the news it was a 30.000 man march towards the UN center in Dar es Salaam to demand international action on the situation in Lebanon. We stopped for only a moment to watch the procession from a side street. As I stood there a man turned to me and says, “don’t tell them you’re Jewish.” Startled I just looked at him. He looked back and said, “I know you are…” I turned and almost ran. Nina, the German researcher, chased after me. Nikko went to take pictures and disappeared into the crowd. We stopped after a few streets near a Laundromat/internet café.
Seeing 30,000 people angry with my Jewishness and my Americanness and having someone actually identify me as such was a little nerve-wracking. We ducked into the internet café. Twenty minutes later Nikko showed up, guessing we would be there. He got a lot of good pictures. I was still a little spooked when we all got hungry. Nina ran off to deal with her permit and Nikko and I went to a South African pizza chain next to the British embassy. For some reason I thought that would be safe. In retrospect I was overly cautious after the march. But Nikko kindly accommodated my cowardice without a word.
I still had plans to visit Zanzibar in the coming days and we stealthily made our way to the docks. Trying to keep a low profile, in retrospect, probably gave us higher profiles as we moved around like secret agents in the streets of Dar es Salaam. I can just image the Tanzanian peddlers watching us in amusement as we sneaked around buildings with Ninja like movements.
Down at the docks we were approached to buy drugs, then prostitutes, then drugs and prostitutes again, all before reaching the ticket counter. I got a timetable for the Zanzibar ferry and we got out of there before we could be offered any other combination of drugs and prostitution. At the dala dala stop it was a mad house. We had timed things poorly and walked up at the start of rush hour.
Dar has a lot of infrastructure problems. There are only two roads that link the downtown to the rest of the city and only one to the area we needed to go to. After being pushed out by the crowd in two dala dalas and with my lingering anxiety, we decided to get a cab. We came up to the taxi dock near the central post office and were immersed in a haggling war as each driver tried to undercut the other. When we offered too low a price the whole crowd thew up their hands in disgust and half walked away only to return with an exorbitantly high counter offer. We eventually arrived at 5 dollars.
The taxi ride took almost 3 hours. As I said there was only one road to take and we were deadlocked for most of the time. When we did eventually move the car kept overheating and the driver would jump out of the car and race to the gutter where he would fill a coke bottle with brown water and then race back to the smoking engine to cool it off. This would happen every 10 minutes or so. But eventually we got to the hostel and feeling bad about the overheating car decided to give the guy an extra tip.
At dinner I did some hard thinking about the days events, and decided I didn’t really know what the situation was like. I didn’t really know if it was a liability walking around the city or if tensions were actually high enough to pose any sort of a threat to me. So I decided to just play it safe. I had already had a few productive days so I would spend the weekend in the peaceful village where my hostel was and then reevaluate in the following week. In light of the days events the idea of going anywhere, even Zanzibar, by myself became less and less desirable upon consideration. I had planned before arriving to visit the Rwanda genocide trials in Arusha but was informed by my contact shortly after arriving that they were on an emergency break and would not resume activities until after I left Tanzania. So it was settled. I would stay in the village.
The next day Nikko changed hostels to be in the city, and I broke my plan. I followed Nina to the university instead of staying put. It was Saturday but we sweet-talked our way into the stacks using her academic credentials. We made our way to periodicals. She looked for things about Maffia Island and I, of course, for cartoons. I asked if they had “Sanifu” and was directed to where it might be. I was shown to the newspaper section, which was 6 or 7 long bookcases with bound volumes strew about in no particular order. A stroll down the aisle revealed the German colonial press next to a pop tabloid from 2004. Beyond were stacks of unbound loose papers. In essence it was a pile of books and nothing more. I had always taken for granted the goodness of a well-organized library. A usable library is a great privilege. The librarian sat with me and helped me look. He was a very nice man and a Simba supporter and was thrilled about my story of knowing the Simba players. He said there just isn’t the staff or money to make this a proper archive. A few hours later we gave up. We did a pretty good search, but no “Sanifu”. I said I would return later to make photocopies of some other things we found along the way. Nina was ready to go and we traveled back to the hostel.
On the way I bought a “fishball” from a street vendor. I don’t really know what it was. But it was tasty and not fishy at all. Nina was not interested in tasting street food called a “fishball”. It sounded like a “foodpoisonball” she said. I lived.
Several years ago my mother had come to Tanzania as part of group to help support local Tanzanian women running for political office in the fledgling multiparty democracy. While in Tanzania she had made friends with a woman lawyer from Dar es Salaam named Lucia. My mother helped me get in contact with her, and that night Lucia and her husband Peter arrived at the hostel. They came bearing fruit and lots of it. With whoops of laughter I was hugged and Peter shook my hand firmly smiling from ear to ear and I was laden down with bags of oranges, fresh papaya and bunches of bananas. Within the first few seconds I knew these were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. We all sat in the dining area and talked. Peter saw Nina sitting reading by herself and immediately called her over to join us. He disappeared to the car and emerged with bags of fruit for Nina as well.
We sat and ate papaya and talked into the night. Peter works for a company putting broadband Internet into the country, and it was very interesting to discuss technology and infrastructure with him. Lucia is a banking lawyer but very active in grassroots efforts to get women elected into decision-making positions. She said that in the last election there was enormous success, especially from women lawyers, and there were now more women in Parliament than ever before. She is also interested in the discussion in Tanzania about opening a family court. Currently there is no family court and child abuse and spousal abuse cases get slowed down in endless bureaucracy moving through the normal courts. Sometimes these situations are so dire they cannot afford to be caught up in red tape. She says if things go well there will be a national family court within a few years.
Eventually it was time for bed and Peter mentioned that the following Tuesday was a national holiday. Farmers Day to be precise. And that he would be off work and would love to take Nina and me sightseeing. We agreed to go see Bagomoyo, the old Arabic and German colonial capital of Tanzania before the British moved it to Dar es Salaam. It was agreed and there was a great profusion of hugging and goodbyes.
The next morning Nina and I breakfasted with a recently arrived Swedish linguist who was casing a language in the Raziki delta region. I learned Nina had a degree in African linguistics and had actually taught Swahili in Frankfurt. I was caught in the middle of real shoptalk. They were talking fast and furious with linguistic terms that sounded more un-understandable than the languages they were studying. But I learned a great deal about the structure and origins of Swahili, which is a rather contemporary mix of Arabic and Bantu tribal languages. Nina was also familiar with its earlier alphabet, which was based on the Arabic and not the Latin alphabet.
After breakfast the two European ladies went into town to deal with official research stuff, and I decided to wander in the village. This was one of the best decisions of my trip. I walked the length of one road and ended at a small stucco church surrounded by simple concrete homes with metal roofs. I passed puddles overflowing with spawning frogs. I passed yards where kids and chickens scratched about together. I passed women hanging laundry to dry.
Their sheets are always so spotlessly white and all hand washed. I’ve been hand washing my laundry in the hostel sinks but can’t seem to get anything as clean as I think it should be. I wish I knew how they did it. At the church I turned and walked as far as I could the other direction down another dirt road lined with papaya and palm trees.
Everyone I met gave me a cheery “Hello, how are you?” in Swahili. Young children would cry out Mazungu! and pause in their playtime to gawk in wonder at me, older children would bow their head and say “Chikamo,” a greeting of respect reserved for those older than you. It was a lovely walk and if I went on my tiptoes I could see over the hedges down a glen and past another hill to the Indian Ocean. I surprised an old woman carrying water on her head so that she almost dropped it when I had a simple conversation in Swahili with her.
A little further into my walk I was accosted by a group of 10 children who circled me and told me to come with them. In their yard I was introduced to their mother and chatted with her in my broken Swahili, the kids kept jumping up and down and asking for me to take their picture. But before I capitulated, I mentioned to the mother I was in Tanzania to find cartoons she perked up and went into their one room home. Soon she emerged with a man. In English he explained he was a cartoonist and welcomed me into his home. The home was a one room concrete structure with a lean-to kitchen coming off the back. It had two mismatched couches and an easy chair where the woman, who I met earlier carrying water, was seated. “That’s my mother,” he explained.
We sat at a small wooden table on stools and he would disappear periodically to go find more of his drawings. The 10 kids watched with rapt attention and sat quietly, all 10 of them squished onto one couch on the adjacent wall.
This man is the type of man the other cartoonists would complain about. He has no steady job and does whatever he can to provide for the family, which consists of himself, his mother, his brother’s family and children, and an aunt. All in that one house. So he draws cartoons to make a little extra. He also draws horror comics, and illustrations for textbooks. But he can’t do it full time, as hunger comes before artists’ checks clear.
He showed me cartoons he did criticizing Nigerian politics and Kenyan politics as well as Tanzanian policies. I asked him if he buys papers regularly to keep up on the news. He said no he doesn’t have the money to buy papers. He tries to watch other people’s TV’s for news. It is an interesting country where its cartoonists can’t afford to buy the paper they are published in.
After a bit, he asked me to join the family for their midday meal. It was boiled spinach and ugali. I felt a little ashamed eating their food, but also felt honored. The kids watched with glee as I delicately made balls with the ugali and instructed me to take bigger lumps and make bigger balls. When I did it was too hot and I burned my finger in comic distress. They all laughed and rolled on the floor. We returned to the main room and finally took pictures and there was such joy when they could see the pictures on the display screen in the camera. I asked the father if he ever used color he said no he has never had the money.
I said I had a present for him, and I would return. I ran back to the hostel and made a small packet. I got the watercolors I bought in Istanbul and the watercolor paper I bought in South Africa along with some nice inking pens I had with me and some Sharpies from the US. I packed it all together and ran back to the house. When I presented it the father was touched and the kids rushed to see what it was. He stood, and we went outside together leaving the kids in the house so that he could look at it in peace. He was thrilled with the watercolors and kept shaking my hand. He walked me back to the hostel barefooted. Just as I was giving my final goodbye he got an embarrassed look and asked if I had any more sneakers, and if he could possibly have mine. I was torn. He clearly needed shoes more than me in a lot of ways, but I decided I needed these shoes for the duration of my trip and I said no. He smiled and thanked me again and went on his way. The rest of my day was spent reading and thinking about the days that had just transpired.
See related images in Photo Gallery 3.
|Back to top.|
|Jo’burg -> Durban -> Jo’burg ->Dar Es Salaam|
|In this week:
Joburg behind glass
Surfless in surf land
The new generation of African cartoonists
Treason Trials and Big men!
Dar Es Salaam August 4, 11:51 am
South African English differs quite a bit from American English. A traffic light is a “robot”. Sandals are “staps”. A barbeque is a “braii”, and if something is good it is “lekker” (a carry over from Afrikaans). And to have set an appointment at noon means to actually have one at 2:30 pm.
Being late is truly a state of mind. So far my time in Africa has shown that patience is not just a virtue it’s a survival skill. This all began when I waited two hours outside the Johannesburg airport for the pick-up van from my hostel. I passed the time chatting with the other people waiting. One Indian Muslim man recognized me from the flight from Dubai and we chatted quite a bit. He is a Nissan distributor for South Africa who lives in Durban but commutes often to Dubai. He has been on Haj three times and we talked about the experience. He said it was truly amazing, but he also said he witnessed the horrible stampede and crush that killed so many last year. He says the figures released on those dead and injured were greatly understated.
He was born in South Africa and was beaming with pride for his country. He wanted to answer any questions I had. He was also a huge proponent of the tap water. “The best and cleanest in the world”, he said. I have since tried it. It seems mostly like water. Eventually Hein, a large Afrikaans man from Pretoria (the administrative capitol where the high court is), rolled up in a white minivan, rolled down the window and gave me a big hearty “Are you Alex? Well then hop in.”
We buzzed through Jo’burg towards the suburb the hostel is in. Most accommodations are pushed out to the periphery of the city. It’s a rough town and even in the suburbs the houses are bounded by 10-foot walls topped with razor wire.
We passed through Hillbrow. In the 80’s it was the place to see and be seen for the ruling white population. It used to be full of clubs and art galleries, and to have an apartment there was the coolest thing south of the Sahara. Since then it has fallen into urban decay. We passed a chop shop and saw the sidewalks lined with people peddling and sleeping. Hein pointed to a few buildings and said, “This one’s hijacked.” Building “hijacking” has become a big problem in central Jo’burg. The paper covers it regularly. Apparently gangs and thugs of various sorts decide rent should be paid to them instead of the landlord. The tenants stop paying the rightful owner and start paying protection to the gang. Both the tenants and the owners are at the mercy of the usually violent hijackers who walk away with the cash.
To a great extent the buildings of Hillbrow have just been abandoned. Owners have washed their hands of the situation. And in that state there is no upkeep and no control. People get piled in dozens to a room and the sanitation is deplorable. Jo’burg is a big city and as close to the first world as Southern Africa has. There is a large immigrant and refugee population that comes in looking for opportunity. But South Africa is still struggling economically and opportunities are scarce. So Jo’burg has an ever-growing number of shantytowns and hijacked slums. Hein snorted a bit and said, “It’s those darn Nigerians and their drugs and Zimbabweans bringing weapons.” I didn’t reply.
Immigration is a huge political topic here. Of highest concern are people from Zimbabwe and Nigeria. The stereotypes are strong and just under the surface. To start a conversation about immigration inevitably brings on a conversation about the ills of other African nationalities. At a governmental level the debate is similar to the discussion of illegal immigrants in the United States, with people wanting to close the borders completely to people wanting a better process towards citizenship. It could be a central issue in the coming presidential election
Mbeki has served two terms and there is a lot of talk about the upcoming election and who will succeed him since he cannot run anymore. There are a few contenders but they all seem to find their support along racial lines, and some friends have speculated that there could be open conflict between the supporters of the black populist candidate (Zuma) and the white elite supporters of the black businessman (Ramapoza).
We drove through a Portuguese neighborhood. The Portuguese are still a prominent minority in South African society. There is even a popular fast food chain for Portugese food. We picked up a Welsh family at the bus station and sped off. Eventually we rolled into the hostel, which was really more of a compound: three buildings tucked away in an alley behind thick concrete walls and a steel gate. As we entered the father of the Welsh family, asked, “Is this Brown Sugar?” the name of a competing hostel. Hein turned around and said, “No, this is Diamond Diggers”. The man went white. “I think we got in the wrong pick up.” Hein thought a moment and said,” That means our pickup is still at the station”. He jumped back in the van and drove off with the Welsh family. Presumably it all worked out. But here’s a tip for getting transport in Jo’burg at both the bus station and airport. If you see a backpacker waiting you can assume they are getting a pickup. Just wait with them. The drivers never know exactly whom they will pick up and they can take you to a safer part of town.
I jumped out before all that confusion and was greeted by the staff. They showed me to my bunkroom and told me about the nearest grocery. “You can go left as far as you want but if you go right more than 2 blocks you take your life in your own hands” said Dan the manager. Joe the other staffer said, “Its not that bad, don’t worry, Jo’burg like any other big city”. I decided to play it safe and went left.
I bought a few papers and sat at a little hole in the wall and had fish and chips. I was surprised just how much the fast food carried over from British colonialism. I had quite a few meals on fish and chips and shepard’s pie while in South Africa. I walked back to the hostel past some men giving haircuts on the side of the road and children returning home from school in their trim navy blue and green uniforms.
Back in the hostel I fell asleep sitting up reading my paper. Travel had really taken it out of me. I woke up around 10 pm and wandered to the hostel’s bar. The big steel gate was now closed and leaving was not in the cards. It was dead inside. Apparently I arrived a day too late to see a hopping bar. The previous few days the hostel had been hosting a Norwegian girls volley ball team. The bar tender looked at me and went, “nuf said.” The only other guest at the bar was a Korean woman who had been going overland from Namibia to Mozambique and eventually to Kenya. She was elated to know I would be coming to Korea. She sat with me for almost an hour teaching me Korean and basic Hongul writing. She is a physical education teacher at Pusan University and said I must contact her if I get to Pusan. I said I would and thanked her for the offer.
Soon after, in a sleepy daze I made it to my bed. The next morning I had a meeting with the cartoonists at the Sowetan Sunday times. Which is actually a daily. It was in an office in a place called Commando Rd Industrial Way. I was afraid of having a taxi drop me at some military arms factory. But two guys who I met at breakfast offered to drive me if I paid to fill up their tank. The driver was named Brit; originally from Durban he had come to Jo’burg to look for work. It had been 2 weeks sleeping in a backpacker and still no bites. He was more than happy to take me around and get some gas in his car.
His partner in crime was named Myer. Originally from Zambia he grew up in Denver and has returned to Africa in hopes of starting a recording business. He, like Brit, had had limited success planting seeds in Joburg. “It’s bloody hard to find work,” they both agreed. But they had made plans to split an apartment in town when the time comes.
None of us were exactly sure where we were going and we ended up on a desolate highways a few times. But in the meantime we talked a great deal. Myer actually has a degree in philosophy from a mission school in Uganda. We talked about racism and how a car with both black and white guys like ours would have been pulled over in a second years ago.
Britt said, “You know I just learned that whites are in the minority here. I saw it on a documentary.” That was the first glimpse of the peculiar way South African society is still structured. We all agreed that though it is rare to have overt racist interactions in everyday life, the fact that Britt, a native south African for over 30 years, just recently learned that the whites are outnumbered speaks to just how segregated the country still is. “Weird isn’t it?” said Britt. I had to agree.
Eventually we made it to the newspaper office. Even getting as lost as we did we still made it in time for my meeting. They dropped me off and gave me Myers cell phone for when I wanted to be picked up. I went in and was told that Sofiso, my contact, had just stepped out, so I went to the cafeteria to buy some lunch. I got a beef stew and cabbage with a ginger beer to drink. Really quite good. Half way through my meal a stylishly dressed young black man approached me and said, “The secretary said there’s a white guy looking for me.” “I think I’m that white guy”, I said. We shook hands and he sat with me as I ate. He brought his laptop and we looked through his published images.
Sofiso Yalo is an interesting character. Born near Cape Town he was formally trained in fine art in Durban. He began cartooning in Durban and eventually got an opportunity to become the first black daily cartoonist in Jo’burg and one of the few in the country. He’s now just 26 and by all standards quite successful. “I know that because I’m young that means I never got to draw about apartheid or struggle, but I make due,” he joked.
We talked at length about censorship. He has had many run-ins with his publisher about his images, mostly of public officials. In general it is still touchy to draw insulting caricatures of specific individuals in South Africa. It is counter-cultural to insult a person of stature even if he is a corrupt politician. Sibosa is Zulu for “big man” and refers to people of prominence. In these matters they are considered an important person worthy of respect. Even the president of Zimbabwe, Mugabe, a person who is disliked widely in South Africa for his cruel authoritarian government, cannot be drawn disrespectfully. That being said Sofiso added, “It was Mugabe and the awful things he does that made me want to start editorial cartooning.” His editors have censored several of the images of Mugabe that Sofiso has drawn.
On the same topic, probably the most prominent cartoonist in South Africa who goes by the name of Zapiro is being sued for his images of the ex Deputy President Zuma. The trial will likely be thrown out but his images still got official attention for their seeming impropriety.
Before too long Mr. Yalo had to run off and start work on his next day’s cartoon. It was 2:00 and his deadline was 3:00. He said he would be fine. I thanked him and used his desk phone to call Myer. I was picked up quite soon and we sped back to the hostel for an afternoon tea. Eventually Myer and Brit asked me to join them on their way to East Gate, southern Africa’s largest mall.
It was indeed massive. None of us really had any money for shopping so we just window-shopped. The two guys were quite interested in buying some crystal to spruce up their future apartment, but when they heard the price they laughed and walked out. It was like any other mall. Commerce has a great leveling affect. A few chains were unfamiliar to me like Mr. Price, a South African discount clothing store, and Steers, a burger joint. Otherwise there was your normal Levis, Woolworth, Timberland etc., etc., etc.
Without money a mall is hard place in which to spend a lot of time, and within half an hour we were back in the car and back to the hostel. It’s winter here, so it was getting dark not too long after five. By the time we were in the car it was getting dark, and instead of looking for greener pastures it was agreed to return to the hostel for safety’s sake.
It was hard to tell whether crime is bad in Jo’burg. People talk and act as if it is. Heading home at 5:00 just because it’s dark is an example. I never had any problem, but then again I was surrounded by people who played it safe. And I spent most of my time behind glass buzzing around in cars. I really can’t say if Jo’burg is dangerous or not.
In any case, the hostel was nearly empty again. I spent some time talking to the staff. Hein, the guy who picked me up, confessed that he had dreams of starting his own safari company. This launched us into an hour-long conversation in which he subjected me to the hard sell to convince me to join his maiden safari. Where I’ve visited in Africa, it seems like everyone and their mother runs a safari company, and if they don’t, they can arrange one for you. He tried to sell it to me at cost. Then he said I could go for free if I recruited six others. For the rest of my stay he would bring me brochures with pictures of the animals I would see, and inform me on ways to cut the price.
That night I drifted off to bed not later than 9:00. The manager was interested in my project and interested in graffiti and said he would show me some in Jo’burg. The hostel was so slow he said he could take the morning off so we set out early the next morning with his girlfriend and Joe the other hostel worker. We dropped Joe off in Chinatown where he was helping a friend network computers. Then we drove to Newtown, which is actually an old part of town where there are a few museums and some nice cafes. We sat and had French toast.
My host was an ex-cop still only 24. He had quit for a variety of reasons and was now working as the hostel manager. He knew the owners and it seemed like a good job to take while waiting until something better rolled along. We talked a great deal about his time in the force. The stories he told were both sad and scary. He confessed he once shot a carjacker. When they recovered the man he was clutching a bone wrapped in grass sown up in newspaper. This charm was supposed to turn any bullet into water, and this man ran thinking he was protected by the charm and died for it.
Tribal magic still plays a role in South African society. Driving along you can see street markets where such charms are sold as well as tons of herbal medicines and future-telling shamans. We talked about AIDS and how 1/3 of South Africa is HIV positive. My host said he worked child protection and said a big problem is people sexually attacking minors because they presume them to be HIV free.
The prevalence of odd popular ideas about HIV prevention claimed national attention when the ex-Deputy President Zuma remarked in his trial for rape that he never got AIDS because he always took a shower after unprotected sex. This was great fodder for the political cartoonists and the opposition parties alike.
After breakfast we walked around looking at graffiti and trying to find the artists. Apparently from his cop days he knew quite a few. But it was a slow morning in new town very few people on the street. Eventually we split up and I went to the Museum Africa. I visited their archives to research the communist journals of South Africa’s past. There were famous treason trials here during the fifties when hundreds of socialists and communists were imprisoned. They were documented in several leftist papers that also had cartoons. Some of these cartoons and caricatures were drawn by the accused in the trials. They were drawn on smuggled material and done in secret behind benches in the court. Really interesting stuff.
I stayed a few hours and then called for a pick up from the hostel. I was picked up by two of the black staffers. I spent the ride learning simple phrases in Zulu. They would laugh uproariously at my poor pronunciation and then enthusiastically teach me more words. Back at the hostel we continued our lesson but eventually had to stop when they drove off to pick up another traveler. While I was out more people had arrived. They included three buses worth of French high school students and two filmmakers from LA. I ended up hiding from the French teenagers with the filmmakers in a corner of the bar.
They had just finished filming a movie in Mozambique and were taking time off before flying home to edit. They wanted to get down to Cape Town. Both had been philosophy majors. As the accounts my travels have shown there is an unspoken bond between philosophy majors. They had just finished shooting and they spoke in groans and laughs about the difficulty of filming in East Africa. “ Our boom operator would disappear regularly…we lost our script and couldn’t find internet to get a new copy for days…when we needed sun it would rain and when we needed rain it would be dry.”
The director had been in Mozambique for Peace Corps and spoke Portuguese, the national language, but still had trouble directing the local performers. They both would look at each other and shake their heads with big grins on their faces. Pip the director gave me the name of a friend who is a radio DJ in Seoul and said I should crash with him. He is yet another philosophy major.
After our conversation I played a game of pool with an older man from the neighborhood who had come into the bar. We played 8 ball but not an 8 ball I had ever seen. “This is African 8 ball,” he told me. Every fault meant a different punishment. Scratching was the loss of two turns. Hitting the wrong ball first with the cue ball was a loss of a few more. Needless to say I lost…horribly. I’m not sure if he made these rules up as we went along but it was fun nonetheless. Sleep was next.
I had been playing phone tag with a cartoonist in Jo’burg for the previous few days and he kept having to cancel and reschedule. So instead of waiting in Jo’burg and twiddling my thumbs I decided to take the bus to Durban.
I decided to take the day bus and try and get a glimpse of the countryside. So at 8 am I got a drop-off at the bus station and boarded the 8-hour express to Durban. The bus was nearly empty. Just myself and 2 people dozing as they listened to their headphones. The bus was an air-conditioned double decker and I got a seat on the front top to maximize my viewing possibilities. The bus had an attendant who would bring around tea and coffee and with so few people on board he came to my seat quite often. I must have had 10 cups of tea. This was only a problem because we only had one bathroom stop halfway through the trip.
The landscape between Jo’burg and Durban was desolate. Granted it was winter, but it was large expanses of browning sage grass and far in the distance from the highway large flat-topped mesas dotted the horizon. Cattle herds would occasionally come into view, but in general is was empty highway and empty grassland as far as one could see.
The entertainment on board was The Horse Whisperer shown on small screens at the front of the cabin. And as it was an 8-hour bus and only a 2-hour movie they felt compelled to show it twice. I got a little misty eyed the second time around.
Once in Durban I haggled for a taxi to take me to my hostel. I arrived at Home Hostel, which was just that. A modest one-story home in suburban Durban. Cheap but a bit out of the way. I was however able to do my laundry and kick up my feet on a couch.
Also staying at the hostel was portly Afrikaner named Pieter. He smoked a pack an hour and had a full yet gravelly laugh. We started talking. He was stuck in the hostel waiting for paperwork to go through at the Durban port. Durban is one of Africa’s largest ports on the Indian Ocean. It is the 3rd largest city in South Africa and attracts businesses for its deep harbor and attracts visitors for its warm swimable water year round.
Pieter was getting a big rig truck off-loaded from a ship from Australia. In it he will transport a massive hydraulic drill to Lusaka, Zambia. He failed to get a permit to pass through Botswana and had to go through Zimbabwe. He said it should be all right if he just keeps moving. Never stops or slows down. His biggest fear was having his gas siphoned out of his truck. With international sanctions and a devastated economy there is no gas to be bought in Zimbabwe. The locals will run along beside slow moving vehicles and literally suck it out of the tank. And if you run out of gas in Zimbabwe you are completely stuck until you steal it from another slow moving vehicle.
Zimbabwe itself is experiencing tremendous inflation, over 2000 percent in the last few months. At the bus station a South African a man who had just returned and wanted to exchange his Zimbabwean dollars approached me because no currency exchange would touch it. He was out of money and hoping to trade with someone for his now worthless Zimbabwean dollars. An NGO worker I talked to said people go shopping with suitcases full of bank notes. A bag of rice costs its weight in paper notes.
Pieter was going to make the trip with his brother and his brother’s American girlfriend. We all stayed up chatting, and they invited me to join the caravan up to Zambia, but I had to decline. Although an adventure sounded attractive, I couldn’t see how my running off in a big rig bound for a central African copper mine would fly with either my parents or my grantors. Pieter and I played a few games of chess and then I went to bed.
The next day I called my contact in Durban, a man named Andy Mason who wrote the book on African cartooning. Literally the only one. Published only a few years ago, it is the result of extensive research into images of resistance in cartoons from the end of apartheid until the first democratic election in 1994. He, himself, was also a big player in the underground cartooning world of the 70’s and 80’s. We agreed to meet after lunch and he said he could pick me up.
As I waited I chatted with a middle-aged woman who was with several other middle-aged women all waiting for a shuttle. They were all from Pietermaritzburg, a city just north of Durban. They were getting trained in as clerks for a bakery opening there. They were all 40 or older and all wanted to emigrate from South Africa. They were also all white. Pieter the trucker echoed similar sentiments that after the new government, it’s to hard for whites to find jobs and most people want to go to Canada or Australia in search of work. These women said they were lucky to find a bakery job. Among the working class whites of South Africa the affirmative action initiatives taken by the government in South Africa are a source of difficulty.
Some days later I would meet a south African DJ from a Cape Town radio station. He argued that the number of available jobs for whites was always based on an artificial standard. Blacks are the majority but were kept out of decent jobs. What feels like unfairness to the white population is only a small step towards a truer fairness. Regardless, the desire to emigrate for a lot of whites is there. This is an issue that reached newspaper headlines recently, especially with doctors emigrating by the planeload.
Andy arrived. He is a man with a full mane of white hear and a full white beard. He strode in and shook his head saying I was really in a backwater part of town. I just shrugged and jumped into his car. Andy had a few errands to run and let me tag along. His first obligation was to pick up a friend.
The friend was Paul Simbisi, a township artists who has been working since the 70’s. He has a small studio in a broken down and deserted school in an area called Cato Manor. Cato Manor is the most infamous area of Durban. Historically it was slums for blacks run by Indian slumlords. When the residents rose up to protest the squalor of their living conditions the white government bulldozed the whole place with people still inside. Over the decades it was rebuilt but has remained a place for the poorest of the poor. In recent years there have been government initiatives to fund the area and the road we drove in on was newly paved but the houses were sheet metal shacks.
Mr.Simbisi and a few other artists had been given these rooms for free by the local municipality to do their work in. Paul’s studio was about 8 ft by 8 ft and lined with large works on paper. They are done in a sketchy style, with depictions of township scenes. One was of a crowded bus, another of children playing ball in the street. All were in black and white and he confessed to me that he hasn’t the money to buy coloring supplies. So until he can save up the money he will just keep composing in black charcoal. As an art student he had traveled to America as a goodwill ambassador and spoke so glowingly about his time in New York, Philadelphia, and California.
Paul got a ride back with a different artist, and Andy and I ran off to his place of work. After a career as a comic artist and doing illustrations for some civic publications, Andy decided to open his own publishing company. One of his workers is Themba Konswela. He is a black cartoonist who works for a daily paper in South Africa. Andy introduced me to Themba and let me have an interview while he attended to office matters.
Themba and Sofiso Yalo trained together. Sofiso has now gone to Jo’burg but Themba remains here living in the township. A soft spoken and gentle man, he has been shown in several international exhibitions in Europe for his cartooning. He was hoping to get into animation eventually but quite enjoyed his current position. He both does editorial cartoons and a regular strip about kids hanging out in the township –kind of like a South African Fat Albert. This strip is in Zulu. He tried to translate…but as usual, going from one language to another generally renders a joke humorless at best and unintelligible at worst.
Thembas fiancée came to pick him up not to long after and I thanked him for his time. Andy finished up quickly and said he would take me to a much more happening hostel.
We drove through Durban past a great deal of new construction. The next World Cup is to be played in South Africa and a number of games are slated for Durban. They have already demolished their old stadium and are preparing to make new huge one. Everyone is thrilled about the possibilities. Andy’s publishing company is already prospering, as every business wants new materials printed with World Cup logos and World Cup info. There is however a lot of debate about whether South Africa will be ready in time. Asking around it seemed to be 50/50. Half say yes it will be ready; half say no chance.
The Durban waterfront is being completely remodeled. Newly designed colonial era houses are being constructed. The waterfront is going to look like a quaint 19th century African colonial port but its all being thrown up in concrete and plastic within a number of months.
Andy lives in an area called the bluff. It is one of the two big surfing spots in Durban. We drove into a hostel that was more of a surfer’s hangout, a small compound of tiki hunts with surfboards leaning against them. We popped out of the car and were greeted by the owner. He and Andy were old surfing buddies from way back when. Immediately they jumped into a conversation about surfing, and before I could be introduced they were deep into a talk about waves, winds and boards. I stood dazed and confused a while before they realized I was there. I was shown to my own beach hut, and Andy and I conspired to meet a little later at a seaside restaurant for dinner not five minutes walk from the hostel.
I settled myself, and Andy ran off to pick up his wife. We met at the Green Dolphin soon after. Andy and his wife Kat were a delight. We dined and talked about art and politics and philosophy and obviously cartoons. Kat joked about how similar Andy I were. After dinner there was much hugging and Andy agreed to pick me up in the morning and take me into town.
Back at the hostel I quickly joined the conversation of a group of people who looked about my age. I was right about that and not only were they my age but they were all academics. Unbeknownst to me, Durban was hosting the World Sociology Conference, which is a huge event in the sociology world that only happens every 5 years. 4000 sociologists from all over the world had descended upon this coastal town for the weekend. I had had difficulty booking a hostel from Jo’burg, and I now knew why.
A lot of big names were in town. A large contingent from the New School in New York was in town, and of interest to me was Patricia Hill Collins who wrote some books that were very influential to my thinking in the past year. Those at my hostel were a mix of PhD students from the Netherlands and professors from Italy. One was working on new methods of socio-historical analysis and another was working on the so called “peace parks” of South Africa. These parks are game reserves that are supposed to help preserve wildlife. But they are all artificially created spots of land, and in their creation great numbers of indigenous people have been relocated, as this land is now being used to raise animals to stock hunting reserves.
Everyone there was preparing to present his or her work. We stayed up talking until quite late. Eventually we got shushed for being too loud. It is a rare occurrence when discussions of sociology keep people awake.
The next morning Andy took me into the office and let me have my run of the copy machine and his cartoon collection. I copied hunks of his book and a great number of earlier cartoons from South Africa. Midday I ran off to get some lunch at a mall down the street. When I returned Andy said he was going to take me to meet his son Luke. Luke, another philosophy major, attends Durban University.
Luke lives with his mom and I was invited to sleep at their place that night. Andy dropped me off at their beautiful 19th-century house. Luke’s mom publishes elementary school textbooks and half the house is her business. The other half is a nice living area with a view of trees filled with monkeys. We all chatted over tea and toast and fresh avocados. That night Luke and I went to the house of a friend of his for a barbeque and poker game. It was nice to be with kids my own age for the first time in months. We just hung out, which was a nice for a change. We stayed out until quite late.
The next day was an all day music festival in Durban called Uprising. Luke and I decided to go. Before that I joined his mother for a morning walk to a local market. We had breakfast in a nice little park cafe before returning home. While we were out a friend of Luke’s called and asked if he could drive one of the bands from the coast to the Uprising concert. The band was called the Rudimentals and is a South African institution. They are a ska band that has been around for decades. Luke jumped at the opportunity, and I jumped in the passenger seat and we were off.
They were staying at a beach house about half an hour from Durban. It was a 10-piece band of brass and electric guitars. The members of the band have changed over the years and range in age from late fifties to early twenties. Their founder and still director is Doc who is an actual MD from Cape Town. He likes to say he started the first punk band in South Africa, “The Sucks”.
We spent most of the day hanging out back stage with the band or watching the festival from the front. It was stuck in a back lot of a mall. The crowd was almost exclusively upper middle class and white. The music was mostly punk and ska, and the kids all dressed like skate boarders and surfers. I was taken by just how similar youth culture is across the world. I could have been standing in Chicago. The only difference was it cost rands to get in, not dollars.
I also met a local jam poet named Ewok. He desperately wants to get to the States as it is the Mecca of slam and jam poetry, a style highly influenced by hip-hop. He has competed internationally and has had some success in Europe, but because he is a white South African people scratch their head at his performance. A white South African practicing a distinctly black American art form doesn’t always go over well.
After the concert we all loaded back up and drove to the beach house. The bassist for the band, who is a 300 or more pound black Rasta with dreadlocks down to his feet, made chicken a la king and we all stuffed ourselves before collapsing to the sound of the Indian Ocean lapping the shore.
The next morning I rose early and walked along the beach myself. I was really struck by thoughts of my time in South Africa. Notably just how segregated I was from black South Africa. Without paying attention, I had spent most of my week in the company of white South Africans. However, it would have taken an effort to spend time with black South Africans. The cities were still greatly segregated. I was rarely in black sections, and the businesses I inevitably ended up in catered to whites. Even though apartheid has ended, there are still not-so-subtle reminders of the past.
Back at the house everyone was already up, and we loaded the cars to drop the band at the airport so they could rush off to another gig in Cape Town. I rode with Doc and we talked the whole ride. As a medical doctor, he talked about the recent introduction of managed health care to South Africa and how it’s making his private practice so difficult. We talked about how he and his then pregnant wife were arrested for protesting township relocations. And we talked about AIDS. As a doctor, he thinks the country has about three years before the HIV cases turn into fatal AIDS and it becomes a visible part of life. Now it’s still kept quiet and behind closed doors. But when a third of the population starts to fail it will be rough.
From the airport Luke and I drove to Andy’s house for breakfast. After breakfast I was finally able to interview Andy more directly about South African cartoons. We had planned to talk for an hour but ended up talking for 4 hours. By the time we finished my notebook was full and he was late for the Amnesty International auction.
We hurriedly scrambled to the car. Kat and Andy dropped me off at a Middle Eastern restaurant so I wouldn’t have to pay the 50-dollar entrance fee to the auction. I had a lamb dinner and spend the rest of the night reading and writing. I chatted with the waiter and the owner a bit. They were Israeli but had lived in Durban for many years. When Andy finally returned to pick me up I was given a nice send-off from the restaurant with a free coffee.
Andy and Kat dropped me off at the bus station to board my bus bound for Joburg so I could catch my flight to Tanzania. We agreed to stay in close contact and ran off to the bus office. Once inside I realized I again had had one too many coffees and needed to find a bathroom. “Oh no sir the bathrooms are too dangerous you can’t go there,” said the attendant. So I decided to call my parents to take my mind off the bathroom situation.
I talked to my parents and some good friends of the family who were over for lunch. As I was at the phone, I noticed two guys casing me. I abruptly had to hang up the phone and race back to the office. But it was all all right and I made it to safety no problem, even though they hung around outside the office awhile. Eventually they left and I jumped right onto a bus.
This time it was packed. I was squished in a back seat between two Indian men who kept offering me potato chips. The seat in front of me broke half way through the night, and the man in front of me came spilling onto my lap. It was totally broken and he had to sleep rigidly upright so as not to crush me. He kindly did so.
Once in Joburg I had breakfast at a bus station diner at around 5 am. It was a big old greasy spoon breakfast of eggs, toast, bacon, coffee, and in South Africa you must have a fried tomato with it. This is a nice addition I think I’ll take home with me. I finished it off with a fat cake, which is a sort of savory puff pastry filled with cheese or egg or both. I had cheese and was so stuffed.
I pulled the old trick and just went outside to look for other backpackers waiting for a pickup. Sure enough, there was a girl from the Netherlands waiting for her pickup. I just jumped in and in no time I was at a hostel. This one was in another suburb but, luckily, within walking distance of the post office. I spent this, my last day in South Africa, dealing with posting all the cartoons I had collected. I also tried to find an Internet cafe and ended up all the way in Chinatown. I only found it after seeing a little Internet Explorer symbol painted on a wall. In that part of town no one spoke English or even Zulu and navigating was quite hard.
That night I finally made contact with the last of my Jo’burg cartoonists. I took a taxi to a pub to meet Jason Bronkhurst and Rico. Jason does magazine and newspaper illustrations and Rico draws an influential cartoon strip called Madam and Eve. The premise of the strip is that a dumb rich white woman has a smart black maid and they get into all kinds of humorous conflicts. It is one of the few strips dealing closely with post-apartheid race issues. The strip has now been turned into a TV sitcom and is reprinted all over the world.
We talked for a long time about everything from art school to finding jobs in magazines, and this includes adult magazines. This has actually been an unusual thread from country to country. Some cartoonists can find extra money doing burlesque cartoons for adult magazines. Most famously in South Africa the founders of a comic called Bittercomic started publishing in an Africans adult magazine. This caused quite a media sensation and eventually made Bittercomics a cult classic in South Africa.
After a few hours Jason offered to drop me back at my hostel. En route we picked up his fiancée. She works at a speech therapy clinic. Originally trained in voice performance she now makes a nice chunk of change training black South Africans to speak more like white South Africans, especially blacks in the business world. I wasn’t sure what to make of all that.
They dropped me off and I set to mosquito proofing my clothes for the malaria zones of Tanzania. I spent a good long while soaking my gear in toxic stuff. I fell to sleep after taking a long shower to get the gunk off me as best I could. The next morning was an easy drop off to the airport along with a Dutch man who does population control for game in an animal preserve in Zambia.
The only hang up was when three American students accidentally boarded my flight to Dar Es Salaam but were actually supposed to be on a flight to Kilimanjaro. We taxied to the runway then had to taxi back and have them escorted off the plane by airport officials.
The flight was fast, only about three hours, and once in Tanzania I passed quickly through passport control and was greeted by my hotel pick up. When I saw “Mr. Robins” hand written on a white placard surrounded by a crowd of peddlers and hawkers, South Africa became a thing of the past. I was now in the heart of East Africa.
See related images in Photo Gallery 2.
|Back to top.|
|July 17 – July 25|
|Istanbul -> Dubai -> Jo’burg|
|In this week:
July 26, Johannesburg 9:08 pm
“And this is a camel farm”
“Where are the camels?” I asked.
My guide for the day, Kelci, an American now living in the United Arab Emirates , parked along a desert road somewhere between Dubai and Abu Dabi to gaze at a then deserted camel farm. The temperature was 45 degrees Celsius in the shade (113F). But there was no shade to be found, and the BMW we rode in was working extra hard to furnish us with air conditioning. Dubai is famous for its camel races, but in the heat of the summer the Emeratii and their prized racing camels head to cooler climes.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. This story really began a month ago as I passed from Poland into Slovakia . Somewhere near Liptovsky , Slovakia the travelers in my train cabin were abruptly woken by passport control. Blurry eyed, I handed my passport to a zealous border official who, with laudable energy and thoroughness, prominently stamped the last clean page in my passport. I didn’t even realize this fact until I reached Istanbul.
The story continues in Izmir where I visited the summer camp I worked for last summer. One of the new counselors grew up in Dubai , and we talked at length about the UAE ( United Arab Emirates ). His family is still there and he said I could call him if I was ever in the UAE. I thanked him though I was sure I would never be taking him up on his offer.
But when I got to the ticket counter in Istanbul ready to board my flight for South Africa , only minutes before the gate was closing, the attendant for Emirates Air informed me I would not be allowed on the plane.
“You need one clean page in your passport to enter South Africa . We can’t let you on the flight.” And there was the Slovakian stamp, now somewhat faded, staring me right in the face. After a little persuasion they allowed me to board my flight to Dubai but only if I signed an indemnity form, relieving Emirates Air of all responsibility for dropping me in South Africa without the proper documents. I signed it, the manager signed it, an airport official signed it in triplicate, and then I ran with my own carbon copy with just enough time to squeeze through the door as the gate was closing.
And at 2am on Wednesday morning I landed in Dubai with no blank page for South Africa and no open embassy on the entire Arabian Peninsula to sort everything out before my flight to Johannesburg. So I was in Dubai — an unexpected stop but an interesting adventure.
But before going into that it’s worth wrapping up my last few days in Turkey. I last wrote from the mountain home of the family I was staying with. The mountain plateaus and has a small but beautiful lake. We spent the afternoon sipping tea and watching the water. Mid afternoon we had another massive meal with baklava for desert and Turkish coffee.
It is a folk tradition in Turkey that one’s future can be read from your coffee cup. When Turkish coffee is brewed it leaves a thick sludge at the bottom of the cup. To have your fortune read you invert the cup onto the saucer and let the sludge cool and harden. From this action certain shapes form. These shapes, if read correctly, as the tradition goes, can tell your future.
The oldest matriarch of the family did the honors. She examined the cup thoroughly, turning it this way and that and furrowing her brow in deep mystic concentration. Then she started pointing to various lumps in the cup. This lump she explained meant I would be flying shortly, which for someone with a round-the-world ticket would be a good guess. This open area on the saucer meant my spirit was calm and I had very few worries. And the clump near where my lips touch the glass indicated that within five years I would be a head of industry. She was adamant about this point. I told her I study philosophy, and she just shrugged and said, “It could happen.”
We left for the city at dusk. Later that night I went out with friends to smoke nargile , a tradition in Turkey in which tobacco is smoked in a water pipe. We talked until late and then walked along the yacht harbor joking in Turkish.
The next morning I woke early. Tried to rush out the door without breakfast, which to a Turkish mother is a cardinal sin. So I was scolded until I returned to the table and had at least 3 plates worth of food. After that there was all the necessary kissing, and saying of ” gule gule “, which in Turkish is a common goodbye meaning “to go laughing”, a sentiment I have always liked.
I took the boat over to the old part of the city and met up with some backpackers I had met in Belgrade . They had just toured the southern coast and we planned to get lunch together.
I walked them through my favorite streets near Aksaray, the poor but delightful area I wrote about earlier. We stopped for lunch in a nondescript restaurant with all the usual kebab and doner menu. At the table we talked about current events. The day prior Hezbollah’s rockets had hit Haifa , and America had said it would not intervene in an Israeli reprisal. People in Turkey were unsure what it all meant. The American embassy in Turkey had advised American’s to keep a low profile. I assured the back packers, both Australian, that the area we were in was safe.
At the beginning of the meal, our host brought us menus poorly translated into English. But after taking our orders he realized I spoke Turkish. When our meal finished the owner personally came over with a tray of tea and dessert. In Turkish he addressed us with, “I am a simple man but this is something I can do to help relations between Muslim and Christian nations.” He sat with us as we munched on his kind gift. We talked about western fear of Islamic nations and how the events in Israel/Lebanon could only make this worse. I translated for the others, and we all left with much cheek kissing and well wishing, and he wouldn’t let us pay more than half price for our meal. Although pleasant, this event was a curious shock wave of the bombs falling in the Middle East . Even in far removed Istanbul, a sincere restauranteur felt compelled to defend the kindness of himself, his country, and his faith.
In a previous dispatch, I had mentioned the satirical journals of Turkey , with Penguin and LeMan being the top. They are bitterly competitive with each other. Both groups had invited me to join them on their Monday night paste up. But the people at LeMan were closer to my age, and they offered me page space for my own cartoon — that is, if I was funny enough. Turns out I wasn’t, but I still had a blast.
I arrived early in the evening and the other cartoonists started trickling in after dinner. The whole team was amassed by 9 o’clock . I introduced myself and we all sat down, about 20 of us in all. The goal for the night was to conceive, draw, and design two pages in the coming week?s journal. The other pages are reserved for individual artists and their serial cartoons.
I had brought with me some old Turkish satires from the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, and they were passed around with great interest. At about a quarter past 9:00 the editor entered. All chatting stopped. Everyone scooted their chairs in and the editor asked for sketches and ideas. Everyone pulled out flat files and portfolios and threw images and written descriptions into the middle. Any new ideas were presented one by one and written down. Then each idea and piece of paper was passed to each member at the table. Everyone gave a number rating from 0-5. Those with ratings near 5 were put aside. After all was said and done the editor took this pile, paused briefly over each image, and either put it to his side or put a big x on it and passed it back. All was silent for this.
None of my ideas made the cut. They were ultimately too American in their content. And the humor and my subjects didn’t translate, so much so that I would have had to explain them. If you have to explain your cartoon, you know something is off. It should be immediate in effect.
After this, a few people were assigned to draw or finish the cartoons chosen in this democratic fashion. Most of the cartoonists left. Another handful stayed, and we went to the roof of the office building. Each floor we passed was another part of the journal. One floor up was the calligraphy room. Two men sat at long tables meticulously writing the text for each cartoon in the uniform font for the magazine. The next floor up was color, almost exclusively done on Photoshop. You can tell what generation a cartoonist is from in Turkey by the color they use. The old cartoonists still use only yellow to accent their black and white images. At one time this was an economic necessity when printing was more difficult. But younger cartoonists use full color from computer programs. The old guys are still stylistically stuck in their yellow ways. It is, however, an aesthetic I almost prefer.
The next floor was layout and still more rooms where the serial cartoonists were feverishly finishing their pages for their dawn deadline. Finally on the roof, I was treated to one of the best views of Istanbul I’ve ever seen. We were on a hill with a vantage onto the whole of the Golden Horn . I could see Topkapi palace, the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia all the way up to Eyup Mosque (where Mohammed?s standard-bearer is buried). All were lit up and looked like jewels against the purple-black sky of the city.
We talked until late about cartoons and cartooning — about how it’s really not a bad job in Turkey. One can really make a living at it, especially the serial cartoonists. Most do supplement their work with advertising graphic work, but some can live exclusively on cartoons. We talked about how this was not the case in the Balkans. Everyone was very interested in my travels through Eastern European cartoondom. But as the hours went by I realized I needed to make my way back across the Bosphorus and to bed. I got many invitations to come back and stay with the cartoonists and, of course, to stop by the office anytime. It was a great climax to my time cartoon hunting in Turkey. An all night cartoon binge, who could ask for anything more?
The next day was reserved for dealing with post office bureaucracy. I woke early and rode down to the waterfront to a central post office fully prepared to spend my day in lines. But when I got there no one was there save the kind, white-haired man behind the counter. He took my box, taped it up for me, and gawked in disbelief as he saw I had nine kilos of cartoons to ship home. Within 15 minutes it was packed and shipped off on some freighter bound for America. And I then had an unexpected day to myself.
I walked around some of my old haunts in Asian Istanbul. First to a nargile cafe I used to frequent. The owner remembered me immediately, and we sat and talked over tea for a good while. Nothing had changed. He wore the same shirt I remembered him in, he sat in his same spot, he smoked the same cigarettes, and he had the same hearty laugh. Next I went to a news agency I would always buy the Herald tribune from. They did not remember me there.
With all my extra time, I decided to go across the Bosphorus again and visit Istanbul ’s new modern art museum. It opened last year to much Turkish fanfare. It is a converted warehouse near the docks, and I had wanted to see it since it opened. Inside, I was struck to find a piece by Tony Tasset called “squib”. It’s a video installation owned by a museum in Frankfurt. Mr. Tasset is a Chicago artist, and I have heard him speak. His wife is one of my professors and the chair of the Northwestern Art Department. It was an odd moment of globalization yet again. A Chicago artist one degree removed from me creates it, a German gallery buys it, and a Turkish museum shows it to a group of French tourists and myself. There is sort of a convoluted and cyclical poetry to it all.
That evening, I made plans with another friend to join him and his wife for dinner at their house. She’s American and he is Turkish. Their daughter is a star horse-jumping champion. She was off to Romania to compete with the Turkish national team. They gave me a tour of their new garden, and we had a pleasant evening eating and talking about our families.
The next morning was spent packing my bags and secretly painting a watercolor for the family I was staying with. At lunch I presented my painting and the mother just kept kissing and kissing my head. I left with the son to say goodbye to the father at his office. We had tea as usual and said our goodbyes. Then his company driver took me the rest of the way to the airport. We had allotted several hours to go the few kilometers to the airport. But Istanbul traffic has a mind of its own, and we were gridlocked only a short distance from the airport. I became very familiar with the driver. He had never passed high school but since he has so much time to read as he waits to drive people, he is more well read in English and world lit (translated into Turkish) than most people I’ve ever met. We discussed Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the state of Turkey , homesickness for his small village in the east, and his new baby daughter who is just 3-months old.
By the time we reached the airport it was almost time for my plane to depart. So I rushed to the counter flustered and sweaty. Then the trouble with the passport ensued. They learned I spoke Turkish, and for my first time in Turkey I was not prepared for them to speak Turkish to me. They very quickly threw a heap of complicated diplomatic jargon at me, and I had to have them slow down and repeat it in English.
A solution was found by letting me take the leg to Dubai and figure it out from there. On the flight over, I was seated by a seasoned traveler, a man in his 60’s who has been the president of a diesel engine company that sells to Africa and the Middle East . I explained my situation to him, and he assured me there was nothing to worry about. I still was a bit nervous all the way to Dubai.
This man had seen a lot in the past 30 years. He was in Iran when the Shah fell. He was in Libya when Qadhafi rose. He was in Ethiopia for the revolution. I asked him, “Is there any major revolution in the region you haven’t witnessed?”
“If there is, I don’t know about it,” he said. There seemed to be a correlation between his presence and major political unrest. I wasn’t sure showing up at the same time in the United Arab Emirates with him was good luck.
We also talked at length about his company trying to get employees out of southern Lebanon . Apparently one worker’s family was able to hire a taxi to drive them to Jordan . Now the family and the taxi driver are living together in Amman in a company apartment. Others haven’t been so lucky.
Soon enough we were landing in Dubai. The air traffic that comes through that airport is tremendous. They just don’t have the docking space for all the planes, so we were bussed from the tarmac. Stepping out of the plane into the hot and humid desert air fogged my glasses immediately. The airport was teeming with people. I made my way to the phones and started calling my family and various embassies and consulates.
I was advised not to continue to South Africa . If I was caught without the proper passport I could have been shipped back to America , effectively ending my circumnavigation. It was too big of a risk. I had to get to the American consulate in Dubai to get new pages. But I arrived early in the morning of Thursday, which is the beginning of the weekend in the Middle East . The consulate would not reopen until Saturday. There was just no way around it. I tried to convince the duty officer at the consulate to open up for me early, but he explained that is only done for American citizens who are in mortal danger, in jail or dead. Needing extra pages in a passport was not a mortal threat. Indeed it was not, and I slept a few hours more in the airport and then made my way into the city.
My hotel smelled slightly of onions, but it was air conditioned and had a shower. I bathed and then collapsed after my all night diplomatic debacle. I woke at 7:00 pm as the sun was going down and I felt rested enough to see the city.
My hotel was not far from the main gold-trading area of the city. So I decided to walk through the many winding streets of gold stalls through to the docks and past all the importer/exporter stalls. Everything was available from zippers to rice. As per my usual, I visited the newsagent. This was hard to find — tucked away in a back alley, but when I found it I made an observation I was not prepared for. In Dubai there were no Arabs to be seen.
The newsstand had dailies from Pakistan , India , the Philippines , West Africa , China , the English world and only one from the Emirates. Dubai is a city of foreign itinerants and immigrants, and their newspapers reflect that.
Dubai stretches for miles, tightly hugging the gulf coast. The sand from the inland desert mixes with the evaporating sea to create a yellowish haze over the whole city. It is hard to see long distances. I was in the old city and only could faintly make out through the haze the constructions cranes down the coast.
Dubai has always been a prosperous city. Initially its wealth came as a port that was well situated between Africa and India. It has always been a hub for gold trade on both continents. Its shores have also provided a hearty crop of pearls for centuries. But when the local tribe struck oil in the 20th century, the money only increased.
A long narrow inlet called locally “the creek,” bisects the city. In the 40’s this was deepened and the banks strengthened to permit even larger ships to move ever-larger cargo in and out. Needless to say all these factors have made Dubai a very rich city.
But none of this money was to be seen in this part of the city. Most of the buildings were dingy and in need of repair. Everyone I saw was either working the docks doing grunt labor or was likely working construction in the newer parts of the city.I crossed the creek on a communal boat called a “souk”. People pile on until its ready to capsize and then it casts off and takes you to the other bank. I went to find dinner and had it in mind to eat Arabic food. But like the newsagent, there was nothing Arabic to be found. I instead had samosas from an Indian street vendor. I went back to the hotel early and watched Kofi Annan address the United Nations on the growing crisis in Lebanon and Israel .
I had a balcony onto the street and was struck by how many people came out once the sun went down. The street was hopping with people from every nation. Juice bars lined the street below and were packed. Vendors were calling out to sell their goods until the wee hours of the morning. Even though it was dark it was still hot. Almost 40 degrees Celsius (104F) but without the punishing sun this is more manageable.
The next morning I checked out and called the family of the friend from the camp in Turkey . His parents were visiting family in Minnesota , but his sister was still in the city. She worked outside the city but agreed to meet me and take me around that afternoon. It was Friday and technically she wasn’t supposed to be working, but most companies still do and no one enforces the laws. We agreed to meet at one of Dubai ’s many malls.
I took the bus. Waiting at the stop with me was a man from Oman . We struck up a conversation. Eventually he told me that I shouldn’t be wasting my time in the UAE — that Oman is the loveliest place on earth. As we were loading on the bus the call to prayer went off and the driver stopped the bus to wait for the call to end. The Omani man threw up his hands in frustration and hailed a cab.
After the call I boarded and sat in the front. I kept getting a lot of looks from everyone on the bus. I thought it was because I was the only Westerner on the bus, but I eventually realized it was because I was sitting in a seat reserved for women. The first 6 seats in all Dubai city buses are reserved for women. I figured it out eventually and the bus driver gave me a thankful nod. I got out of the bus across from the mall and a young Chinese girl got off with me. We walked, staggered a bit, and then she offered me the shade of her umbrella. I thanked her and we introduced ourselves.
She introduced herself as “Joy”. She is 22 and born just a month earlier than me. She had graduated with a degree in Chinese literature and had to look for a job. She got a three-year contract to do secretarial work in a Chinese trading house in Dubai . It was Friday, so she had the day off to go to the mall. But later that night she would have more work — 8 hours from 4 to midnight . She lives in a small apartment with four other Chinese. She was thrilled to practice her English, and so we sat and had a coffee in the mall.
I soon learned her name is not Joy. That is just the common answer given by Chinese nationals so they don’t have to explain their more complicated given Chinese names. “Joys’” story was one I feel is very common in Dubai : One of loneliness. Everyone has friends and family somewhere else. People work themselves to the bone and hide away in separate air conditioned buildings. There was a melancholy about Joy and Dubai as a whole. Even I felt extra lonely in the city. In that environment people are so happy to chat. A few days later I met a Philippino man who just talked my ear off about nothing in particular, but was happy just to talk.
As we chatted I finally caught glimpses of Arabs. This upmarket mall had many possibly Emiratii or Saudi or Kuwaiti. A lot of people from the Gulf come to Dubai explicitly for shopping. Women wore all manner of veils, from simple scarves that cover just the hair to full black gauze that obscure every inch of the face. Men strode about in long white cotton robes.
Eventually Joy ran off to do some grocery shopping before her work started, and I met my American host in one of the three Starbucks in the mall. Kelci is a recent graduate from Penn State and is now working for a Halliburton logistics center in Dubai . We talked a while in Starbucks before heading to the beach.
We decided to do the tour of Dubai ‘s modern architecture. I’ve heard that 20 percent of the worlds’ construction cranes are in Dubai, and after visiting I think it’s more. As we left the old city around the Creek and drove north towards the newer construction, it was eerie. Giant hulks of buildings jutted out of the desert floor hundreds of feet into the air. They were in all phases of construction but most empty. It looked like an atomic bomb hit and knocked out all the windows — except it was the opposite and the windows had yet to be installed. The highway was lined with billboards with computer images of forthcoming construction projects. This Dubai of huge construction projects and opulent malls was not the Dubai I saw the night before.
This Dubai was being built on the labor of the Dubai of the previous night. Most of the Indians who work these construction sites send half their incomes home to their families. We drove past the gates of palaces from the royalty of the local tribe. All we could see were guardhouses. We pulled up to a nice public beach near Dubai ‘s most famous architectural landmark, a ritzy hotel in the shape of a sail. Not far from this was a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree. There is also construction underway for a series of islands shaped like the continents of the globe.
We took off our shoes and waded in the water. It was hot. We talked about her work a bit. I was curious if politics ever come up? She said, not really, everyone just does his or her job.
We took all the sun we could then ran back to the car. Kelci told me people are constantly getting sick because they go from the heat to air conditioning repeatedly all day. This shocks the system and people get sick very easily.
We drove further to yet another mall. This one is designed to look like an old Arabian bazaar. I was fascinated by this modern constructed faux Arabia . All the mud brick was made of concrete and the tile work was made of plastic. Kelci treated me to a lemonade with crushed mint, apparently a favorite throughout the Middle East . It was delicious.
I said I wanted to see the desert, so we left the mall and drove inland. That’s where we found the camel farm. On our way we passed an f-1 speedway that has only been used once – a huge modern raceway left empty. We passed the horse track that famously has races but no betting. We passed the site of the planned Dubai World, which when completed will be one of the largest theme parks in the world — but is now just sand dunes. Dubai knows its oil will run out and so is banking on tourism to keep its income up.
We finished our day at another mall. I finally found my Arabic food at a small stall in the food court. This mall also housed an indoor skiing hill and snow park. We watched as covered women and Arab children had a snow ball fights, then decided to head home.
Kelci, like most in Dubai , lives alone. Her company buys her lodging and her car. She had a nice two-bedroom house in a gated community. I had an entire king-sized bed to myself. I fell asleep to thoughts of just how different my days had been, from views of the poorest to the most affluent of Dubai.
The next morning was Saturday, the beginning of Dubai ?s work week. I rose early and took a taxi to the American embassy. I had hoped to get in early, but after arguing with security for a good while I realized I would not get in until noon . So I had 5 hours to kill. I took another taxi to the local English daily?s office and asked to see their staff cartoonist, a man named Babu, who is Indian and who does two daily illustrations. But the receptionist had no idea who I was talking about and further told me that the editorial staff has Saturday off. I killed more time in their lobby then went back to the consulate.
The consulate is in the Dubai world trade center. Also in the same building is the Dubai stock exchange. I followed a series of signs to the public gallery for the exchange. The guard informed me I could not enter wearing shorts. I left and went to the bathroom to change into pants. When I returned in long trousers the guard got a huge smile on his face and thanked me for my respect.
The exchange itself was not much. A circular room with a few men sitting on leather chairs under TV monitors. Not the wild yelling match one sees on Wall Street. As I left the guard apologized that is was so slow — apparently, like the camels and the editorial staff, everyone was on vacation.
At noon I finally got into the consulate. To get my new blank pages took all of 10 minutes. But I had waited almost 90 hours for the chance. The next flight to South Africa was at 4 am . So I went to yet another mall and to yet another Starbucks, bought a coffee, and read most of Catch 22.
As it was approaching 10 pm I made my way to the airport in the cooler air of the night. I got on a waitlist for the 4am flight and waited again. Luckily I got a seat and I ran through the Dubai airport thrilled to be finally on my way to Africa . On the plane I gave a sigh of relief. My time in Dubai was incredibly interesting. I was able to gather cartoons from all over the world, and I met some amazing people. I was, however, anxious to see Africa.
When I landed in Johannesburg and passed through passport control, the agent stamped on of the full pages in my passport and didn’t even look at the new clean pages. A truly fitting ending to this unexpected detour to Dubai.
See related images in Photo Gallery 2.
|Back to top.|
|Week 5 (part 2) & Week 6|
|July 9 – 16|
|In this part
And much much more…
Doing research in Turkey in the summer is a mixed blessing. No one stays in the city. As soon as the days get long the whole country goes to the coast. From rich to poor everyone has a summer home. They may be simple one-room affairs or vast mansions that make Versailles look modest, but for weeks at a time Turkish families go to them to escape the heat and hustle of the cities. I’ve hypothesized that it’s a cultural remnant of the nomadic Turks who took over Anatolia centuries ago. Although modern Turks are not riding horses across the steppes or living in tented camps, they still change their location seasonally. This being the case, when I’ve called to set up interviews with various people I’ve found them scattered across coastal Turkey. Inevitably they invite me to join them. So in one afternoon of phone calls I was invited to nearly every port on the Aegean. As I said, a mixed blessing. I can’t find anyone, but I can visit some of the most beautiful beaches in the world in the attempt. This would be a great way to spend an entire summer but I only have a few days. I was so close to dropping everything and going to visit one of Turkeys oldest cartoonists, the creator of Avni (sort of Turkey’s Mickey Mouse), at his summer home in Bodrum. But it would have taken me 2 days of travel there and back for just a chat and a cup of tea before rushing back to Istanbul for my flight to South Africa. So I’ve had to decline many of these offers and make the most of my appointments with those still in the cities.
Life on the road occupies most of my attention. I have to make a conscious effort to acknowledge my hunger, thirst, or fatigue over my seemingly more immediate concerns of translating signs and finding bus times. I thought I was doing a good job, but one day I was proved wrong. I slept though
most of the day, and woke up in the evening only long enough to join a local friend at the nearby cinema. The movie was two and a half hours and I could feel my eyelids drooping. We watched Lost City, a recent American film about life in Havana just before the revolution, dubbed in Turkish. There is something amusing about characters that are supposed to be speaking Spanish, actually speaking English, only to be heard in Turkish. Is that good or bad globalization? Hard to say… I don’t think I would have liked the film in any language.
The next day I was to visit Mr. Koç, the president of the Turkish Cartoon Association for the Aegean region. He is also a lawyer in downtown Izmir so we met at his Office. This was to be my first interview conducted entirely in Turkish. I had found out over the phone he spoke good German but not a word of English.
On the bus over I was quite nervous. I’m not sure why exactly, but I was pretty sure I would inadvertently insult somebody. This would not be the case until much later that day. I arrived at his Office and his secretary could see my nerves. In polite Turkish she told me to chill out. She gave me a glass of water. After I went into Mr. Koç’s office I really had nothing to worry about. We talked easily for a few hours entirely in Turkish. What I didn’t immediately understand he kindly spent the time to explain to me. Near the end of our meeting he off-handedly remarked that he had been arrested for a cartoon he himself had drawn. I choked on my tea a bit. I asked him to tell the story. What would have seemed to me to be a very important event he talked about as if it was inconsequential. He showed the cartoon that portrayed a judge as a vampire. He explained he could have spent 6 months to 3 years in jail for insulting the Judiciary. Ultimately he got off without any time in jail, but still had the police take him away in cuffs before everything was sorted out. Being arrested almost seems to be a normal part of being a cartoonist in Turkey. In both Mr. Koç’s case and in the more publicized case of Cumhuriette newspaper 2 years ago, the images seemed very tame to my American sensibilities. One portrayed a judge as a vampire and the other the Turkish president as a cat. Neither seemed insulting enough to warrant all this trouble. When I ask people about this, it’s hard for them to explain why it is so insulting, but they assure me it is.
Another paper regularly portrays the president as a caveman. I would have thought this more inflammatory than a cat. But this is all very interesting for my project as it highlights cultural differences, both in how cultures apply meaning to different images (cat or vampire) and in how cultures react to those images (police arrest). After that I met with a man who is an advertising designer by day and a caricaturist by night. Originally he trained in theater design but he couldn’t make any money at it so he went into advertising. At the time I met with him he was preparing for an exhibition of his work, which was to open the following weekend. It was to be shown at a small gallery in the seaside town of Cemse. He said he was hoping to sell to Swedish tourists. Swedes flood the Aegean coast in the summer. It used to be other Western Europeans and Brits, but post-911 they’ve disappeared. This seasonal Swedish invasion was the topic of editorial cartoons even during my stay. We chatted exclusively in Turkish. Towards the end of that conversation I was feeling really proud of myself. I had spent all day speaking Turkish and I felt unstoppable. I felt beyond fluent. But pride goeth before a fall. Near the end of our chat the topic of Jean Michele Basquiat came up. Basquiat is an African-American painter from the mid-eighties who is often considered an important neo-expressionist. We both agreed he was one of our favorite artists. I then wanted to ask a question far beyond my Turkish abilities. A great deal of why Basquiat is interesting is his commentary on race in America, which is a topic I would think translates oddly to the Turkish context. I tried to ask how, as a Turkish observer, the issues of American racial antagonism came through the work. But what I think I actually said was something akin to, ‘do you know why I am such a racist’. He just looked at me with a nervous smile. The more I tried to explain myself the worse it got. Eventually with a wave of his hand he said, ‘lets move on’ in Turkish. So we did and all was well. But when I left I was shaking my head all the way back on the bus, as I kept reliving in my mind the ambiguously racist moment I had just had. I was set to leave on another night bus back to Istanbul. I said my goodbyes at the camp. As expected this took a few hours, as every person requires multiple hugs, kisses to the cheeks, and well wishing before it would be considered a polite goodbye. I went back into Izmir for dinner with some of the Americans working at the camp this summer. One is a girl from Northwestern who applied for the job after I told her about it at a party last year. One was a grad student from the West Coast. Two were recent graduates from the California university system, and still another was a woman who trains horses but wanted a break from her routine so she took this job in Turkey. She trains horses for fox hunts. We talked about this for quite some time. It is a pastime in America that I thought only happened in England. I showed the people what cartoons I had collected that day. The Americans were very interested. It was quite reassuring to have people happy to listen to me blather on about cartoons. We said our goodbyes with the quick American handshake and I rushed off to the bus station to catch my bus. The man seated next to me was a heavy smoker, and although he couldn’t smoke on the bus his clothes smelled like he perpetually had one lit. He and I exchanged some nice small talk, but I still found it hard to sleep in such close quarters.
Eventually I dozed off but only lightly and for a few hours. We pulled into Istanbul around 7. I made my way to a friend’s apartment. I had known the Uz family since my time living in Istanbul. They have two sons my age and are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I rolled in just in time for breakfast. The Uz family owns the building they live in and have a very close relationship with the doorman. The doorman has a 3-year-old son who has his run of the place. Berkay, the three-year old, decided to pay a visit. He was quite fond of a peek-a-boo variation we came up with. So we played together for a long while. Berkay was eventually fetched by his father. Mrs. Uz told me that Berkay and his family are leaving in a week. They are originally from Sivas, a city in eastern rural Turkey near the highly disputed Kurdistan. They had come to Istanbul 2 years ago and found work with the Uz family. They live rent-free and salaried. The Uz were planning on paying for Berkays private school when the time came, but family is everything in Turkey and Berkay’s family was desperately homesick. Mrs. Uz just shook her head and wished they would stay but wished them well. Now they are searching for a new doorman. In just a few weeks they have seen almost 1000 applicants. They line up outside the building in a well-to-do neighborhood in Asian Istanbul just after dinner. They come in all manner of dress from suits to shoeless. It is an interesting index of the unemployment in Turkey. Mr. Uz is a trade lawyer and conducts the interviews after returning from work. He speaks quickly to the people and takes their name and contact. After an hour or so
they close up shop regardless of how many they’ve seen. So far he has not met the right applicant. After Berkay left, I thought I would just shut my eyes for five minutes and then race into the city with renewed zeal. I shut my eyes and didn’t open them again for five hours. Taking a night bus doesn’t actually seem to save me a day. I end up sleeping anyway. That night, to celebrate my arrival, we went out for kebabs to a place we all used to go to three years ago. The waiters didn’t remember me but pretended they did. We talked about how time moves so quickly and how it seemed like last week and not three years since we were eating kebabs here together. The Uzs toasted me and we all got a little misty eyed and nostalgic. Feelings of longing and belonging seem so much nearer the surface here in Turkey. To be friends in Turkey is an intense and important distinction. The quality and character of friendship is just different here. It took me months to appreciate it. In Turkish, there are even several different words to distinguishrelationships from acquaintance to closest friend. This is a far richer vocabulary for friendship than in English. After much eating, much laughing, and much kissing, the parents took a taxi home. Their son and I — we are the same age — went to a cafe on the coast to meet a few of his university friends. All of them are well off. All are attending a private college. Since private universities are new thing in Turkey, they are all enrolled in some of the first graduating classes from their universities. Before 2000 the university system was exclusively public. The top school was Istanbul’s Bosphorus University. But five years ago the parliament allowed private schools to open. The result has been mixed. The degrees obtained here are equivalent to American and European standards, so their students are much more likely to get jobs abroad. But this is only an option for the richest youth of Turkey. Negatively, this has caused a brain drain from the public schools as professors are being seduced to teach privately. The pay is more than double and the hours kinder. I attended classes offered within the Department of Philosophy at Bosphorus University three years ago, and now most of my professors have left. Who can blame them? We talked about how these new graduates are supposed to be the next heads of state and business for Turkey, but how much they didn’t necessarily want to be. One is off to Russia to work in marketing. Another will be going to America. They are really unsure about their future relationship and responsibility to Turkey, if any. We didn’t return home until late. The next morning I was set to meet a cartoonist in from the islands for the day. Just off the shore of Istanbul are a series of islands called the Princess Islands. I called him at midday, and he said he didn’t catch the ferry so he wasn’t coming in. But such are the pitfalls of summer research in Turkey. So instead I went to visit another old friend. He runs a pharmaceutical company and has an office in the middle of the city. It is actually a beautiful little house with a great garden that the city built up around. I just dropped in and we had tea in the garden as the traffic whizzed by beyond the garden wall. An old friend of his was there and the conversation made its way to Marx and Engels. We only stopped our discussion of political philosophy when a mutual friend gave a call. Kaya, whose garden office I was in, had a few things for that friend. I offered to hand deliver them. I thanked Kaya and his friend for the nice talk and headed off to our other friend’s office. To get around Istanbul is not an easy thing. I’m still getting used to it. Istanbul is a city of 17 million and geographically enormous. To get from A to B requires a stunning variety of transportation methods.
I got a car ride to the subway that took me to a tramline that got me to a bus station. I took a bus and dropped off the package. Then, to get back home I walked to the docks and boarded a ferry to cross the Bosphorus and then took a dolmus. A dolmus is a shared taxi. It looks more like a minivan, but crammed with at least five people more than the normal capacity. I took this the rest of the way.
Although complicated I have come to love the diverse nature of getting around Istanbul. That night the niece of the Uzs was having a birthday party. We all took a taxi to the coast of the Sea of Marmara. We arrived at a restaurant to find the whole family in its glory. Tons of cousins and aunts and brothers were there. Of course everyone has to greet with much hugging and kissing. One becomes quite use to kissing men’s cheeks in Turkey. Also men who are friends or family hold hands. In Turkey, unlike the U.S, this is a neutral sign of affection.No matter how similar the world becomes across borders, little things like this are culturally distinctive.
The dinner was a multi-course feast for dozens of people. As we ate the stars came out. There was an ensemble playing traditional Turkish music and as the toasts increased and raki (an anis seed liqueur) poured more freely. People began first to sing along to the music then to dance. Eventually the whole family was on its feet dancing languidly in the hot Istanbul night. Sweaty, happy, and exhuberant we all ate and drank and danced until 3:00 am. Even the young and old joined the late night revelry. It was such a communal expression of joy and togetherness. Times like these reaffirm one’s faith in humanity. There is something profoundly simple and satisfying to eating and dancing. Nothing more.
The next day was a market day, so the streets of Asian Istanbul overflowed with stalls. Sellers called across the heads of women sorting through bolts of fabric and fresh tomatoes. Anything you wanted you could get here. I decided to splurge and got a nice travel watercolor set. There was still plenty of time in the day so I decided to go a part of the city I had never seen before. Kuzguncuk is a ways North from where I was staying but still on the Asian side. A friend of mine
had written her dissertation on this area. It is a sleepy neighborhood on the shores of the Bosphorus and famous for its diversity. Historically Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Jews lived side by side here. The cemetery is a potpourri of headstones from different religions. — an integration that is interesting in itself.
Kuzguncuk occupies an interesting place in the Turkish national imagination. Television shows often show street shots of Kuzguncuk to represent the ideal image of Istanbul. When non-Istanbulites think of Istanbul it is not unlikely they picture this small neighborhood. The neighborhood occupies a valley. Running down the middle is one central road lined with a butcher a baker and actually a candlestick maker. Little alleys break off this main road and give unto lines of 19th century Turkish houses painted in bright colors under the canopy of birch and fig trees. It is quite a beautiful place. But it is not an accurate representation of the crowded, concrete, and complex Istanbul.
I walked the streets and ate some ice cream, then returned to the Uz home. The weekend is upon us. Everyone who isn’t already at the coast will be going. I was invited by the Irish ambassador to join him and his wife for the weekend but they won’t be returning until Tuesday. I couldn’t afford to be gone that long. So I have gone to the mountain home of the Uz family. I have spent the day swimming in their pool and eating copious amounts of food. I plan to catch up on some much needed reading and writing, get things squared away for my departure to Africa, and plan to make the most of my final days in Turkey.
|Back to top.|
|July 4 – July 9|
|Istanbul -> Izmir|
In this part
Alex is homeless
Diplomats and Dunking Donuts
Cartoon Gang Wars
Fishing for cosmonauts
“Is this your first time on the midnight express?” an Irish woman joked with me on the bus crossing the Turkish boarder just after midnight. “No it’s not, but if the border guard doesn’t like me it may be my last,” I retorted. I’ve crossed into Turkey from Europe a few times and it’s always unnerving. Once I found under my seat several cartons of cigarettes and realized I was inadvertently a mule for cigs into Istanbul. Of all my crossings this recent time was the most pleasant. I got my visa without the usual hassle over exchanging lira and dollars. I got through customs with just a stick poked into my backpack by the officials, and I got a smile when the passport control agent stamped my visa. Still, it took 2 hours in the chill air of the Thracian night.
The Irish woman turned out to be a sports writer who splits her time between Turkey and London. She was most recently in the city of Edirne to cover its oil wrestling competition. She’s had an apartment in Istanbul for a number of years, and we mused about how things have changed. I lived in Istanbul in 2003, and now just 3 years later a great deal has changed. You can attribute it to desires to enter the EU, a good spell of economic luck and 2 years of no inflation, or maybe just fate. Regardless, she said she bought her apartment in Istanbul 3 years ago for less than 20,000 dollars and now her neighbors are selling their flats for 120,000 dollars.
I chatted with the crowd, had a few cups of tea and in no time I was offered a place to stay. A kind woman named Nancy offered me a bed. She is retired and living in Istanbul. She was from LA and used to do animation, so my project was of great interest to her. She had done a lot of interesting work. She was on the original design team at MTV back in 1981, and helped found Cartoon Network. Bored with the business she dropped everything and moved to Istanbul. She wanted an apartment with a view and got a lovely two bedroom overlooking The Bosphorus. She’s living alone until she moves to Italy to stay with her niece and help care for the soon-to-arrive grandniece.
She kept apologizing that because she wasn’t expecting company she didn’t have anything prepared. But she still whipped up a great pasta dinner. We ended the day talking about cartoons and world politics until very late. We argued over what constituted mass culture. She wasn’t sure that MTV was a good force in the world. I argued it’s useless to think of culture in terms of good and bad. We saw the sun set and the night boats emerge on The Bosphorus. Tired out by the previous night at the border, I slept like a rock.
Before I left I chatted with Mr. Akgul and he gave me an autographed book of his work. He was surprised at my age and interest in cartoons and kept calling me, “young one”
It was an interesting reception to say the least. All the food and beverage were provided by American companies doing business in Turkey. There was Pizza Hut pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken, with Burger King Whoppers on offer. You could wash it all down with a Starbucks coffee or Jack Daniels whiskey before having Dunkin Donuts for dessert. Waiters from TGIF Fridays walked around in their striped shirts with excessive buttons offering piña coladas while a military marching band played “Stars and Stripes Forever”. I was definitely under dressed. It was a very black tie affair. But it was great to see women in black Armani dresses and men in formal garb enthusiastically chomping on KFC chicken legs. In the course of the evening I was introduced to the ambassador, diplomats from several countries, and several prominent lawyers and academicians. The Irish consulate general invited me to stay with him and his wife at their beach home the following week. I had a lengthy conversation with the ambassador from Northern Cyprus about how she cannot get invited to events like this at European consulates. She talked about how the situation about recognizing northern Cyprus is too touchy that she can’t even attend cocktail parties at many foreign embassies. The fact that there is cocktail diplomacy was very interesting to me. I got a lot of business cards from people but had nothing to give to them. Future circumnavigators should make business cards before embarking.
weekly. I began my hunt at a café I used to frequent that was also the haunt of the artists for GirGir magazine. I inquired if they would be in later, but the staff there was new and really had no idea. So I went to the newsstand and bought out the place. I got every cartoon journal I could buy. I found each of their addresses and then set out into the city. Now this would be easy if Istanbul had street signs. But to find a place in Istanbul requires asking locals who will inevitably give you directions that involve turning right at a sleeping dog. Fortunately the dog is always there.
The group apologized that it was so slow in the office that Friday afternoon. They invited me back for their paste-up that next week. This is where all the artists show up to show their work to the editors, who in turn give it all to the layout artists and they all work through the night to be ready to print the next day. I thanked them and agreed to return. I took the tram back to the Cartoonists Union office, and met with one of their officers. He was very helpful and gave me the names of several contacts in Izmir, which was my next stop. He is an English professor and amateur cartoonist. We talked a good few hours. We talked a lot about the legal assistance the union gives to artists and a lot about the upcoming cartoon competition in Turkey. His desk was overflowing with packages from around the world. I saw addresses from China, India and Poland.
I left the office and walked the waterfront near Eminonu. 3 years ago there used to be boats bobbing in the Bosphorus with little charcoal grills. They would pull fish out of the water and grill them right on the boat, throw them into a hunk of bread, squeeze some lemon onto it, and hand it to you piping hot. It was fresh and delicious. As I said Istanbul is changing and these boats are gone. They have been replaced by sleek looking grill stands on the land. It wasn’t quite so romantic anymore. I still got a sandwich, which was also double the price it used to be. I ate as I watched the commuter boats zigzag the golden horn. It’s times like these, when the city is particularly beautiful in the late afternoon sun, with the boats and the minarets and the cloudless blue sky, that I wonder why I ever left Istanbul. Despite the changes, Istanbul’s ability to halt me and dazzle me is still the same. Feeling a wash in nostalgia for Istanbul I walked slowly to a net café and spent the rest of my night writing. Near midnight I grabbed a minibus and rode out to the edge of the city to catch a night bus to Izmir.
common in the military culture. We have lived very similar but profoundly different lives. I was wondering what my life would have been like if I had enlisted, and he was clearly curious about what his life would have been in academia. We went out for coffee and some kumru sandwiches. Then we called it an early night. The weekend was over and I had to get back to the grind. There were cartoons to be found and cartoonists to meet. More later . . .
|Back to top.|
|July 1 – July 4|
|Sofia – >Istanbul|
|In this week:
And much, much more…
I had visited Bulgaria once before, and had loved the place. I had been warned that it was a dull and gray post-soviet nation with bland food and a difficult language. This was not the case in my first visit or this time around. Bulgaria for me is a beautiful country with snow-capped mountains you can hike to reach aged monasteries. I have memories of plush, green, plains and small, slow-paced cities, abundant food and people so nice it defies logic. All this for cheap. This last observation however would come back to haunt me, as I had to confront the poverty that keeps Bulgarian prices low.
I had been almost a month in the company of backpackers who I met in my hostels, which has its good points, but can get old. I was done speaking English for a while. An ex-camper of mine, from when I was a camp counselor, lives in Bulgaria. I stayed with his family before and planned to stay with his family again. When I reached Sofia I gave them a ring. The mother said Radoslav, the boy, was studying for a major high school entrance exam to be taken the next day. I said I would visit them after the exam, so Radoslav could focus.
So, I had an evening and a morning to kill in Sofia. So I booked a hostel room for another night in backpacker Dom. A few Australian backpackers I had met in Belgrade were staying at a hostel down the street from the hostel I chose. I dropped by and we all went out together. Amanda and Grant had both quit their jobs and gone traveling. They had been doing the Eastern European route but decided to meet a friend in Turkey. Sofia gets a lot of backpacker traffic but no one stays more than one or two days. It is a jumping off point to and from Turkey. They were staying just one night.
At their hostel I talked to the owner about backpacking tourism in Bulgaria. She confirmed my observation about Bulgaria and especially Sofia being a transit point. No one stays to really see it. Many people go to the Black Sea coast of Varna or Borgaz, but not the cities. But hey! For most of June and July Bulgarians themselves are on the Black Sea coast vacationing.
We talked about how the Lonely Planet guides have become the backpacker’s bible. Ten years ago you would have seen a variety of tour books spilling out of packs. Lets Go, Foot prints, Rough Guide etc. But now, Lonely Planet seems to have a de facto strangle hold on the market. This is a lot of power. The owner of Grant and Amanda’s hostel was feeling the negative effects of this power. In the latest edition of lonely planet it reported that the staff of this hostel spoke no English, their price was double the other hostels in Sofia, and there was no food included in the price. In fact the staff speaks excellent English (good enough to make puns), they are cheap, and you get breakfast and dinner with your bed. I saw the entry in the Lonely Planet and I saw the actual hostel, this was oddly upsetting. I, like many, had invested the Lonely Planet with a lot of authority. Maybe this was because it has a well-known brand name or people I know seemed to like it. Whatever the reason, I felt a little embarrassed for believing Lonely Planet so unquestioningly. I knew they were mediocre for relating historical information, but I though they at least had their hostels sorted out, as they advertise themselves to budget travelers. The moral of this story is that to trust one source of information is a mistake, which is a truth about traveling that has had repercussions on my research. More about that later.
Grant, Amanda and I walked the rest of the day. I turned into a guide myself and showed them what I had seen my last visit. We saw the national theater, the building of the former Communist Central Committee, some fantastic Bulgarian Orthodox churches, and ate a lot of street food. While I had taken a pleasant night bus the two of them had taken the train, and while they did not get gassed they did not get to sleep. People kept coming in and out of their compartment eyeing their expensive packs. One man, who got onboard in central Bulgaria, fell asleep next to Amanda snoring loudly with one eye wide open. This kept Amanda amazed and awake for many hours. They were tired and we called it an early night. I returned to the Hostel.
I met a guy who does computer consulting for the Fulbright Foundation. He has little do with the grants themselves but said my project sounded great. I met a Swiss computer engineer who had traveled extensively but had never been to Istanbul. We traded travel tips, me about turkey and he about India. He made me even more excited to visit India, but also gave me the sober truth about the distances I want to cover. I will likely have to fly or take many short trains, which will be days of travel. He said it will be easy to figure out once I’m there. He said that I should get the Lonely Planet (even after I’d told him about the mistakes in the Bulgarian guide) but to buy it off the street for pennies in India.
The next day I woke up late and had a leisurely breakfast in the city with two Australians. One was Andrew who I had also met in Belgrade and the other was Shea who was on her way to go hang gliding in Croatia. I waited until the afternoon to call my Bulgarian friends. Eventually Radoslav was done with his exam, I called and they came to pick me up.
His mother is a sweet-faced woman with lots of curly brown hair that she sprays and teases into a wispy mass around her head. Before she arrived I bought flowers as a token of gratitude. She drove up in an old taxi. It must have looked like I was proposing to the cabbie as I presented the bouquet. We hugged on the street and I jumped in the car. I was thrilled to be leaving the world of hostels and English. The family speaks very little English and I can just barely conjugate present tense verbs in Bulgarian. This visit was to a welcome excursion into Bulgarian domestic life. The mother, Ivana, was a professor of mechanical engineering, but with Bulgaria the way it is, she made peanuts teaching. Now she does office work for a cosmetics company and makes almost three times as much. Her husband too was an educated engineer but now works on Mitsubishi transmissions. It seems all for the best. Unlike many in Sofia they own a house, they have two cars (even if one is an old taxi) and they have everything a western middle class family would have. Radoslav, my camper, gave me a big hug upon my arrival at their home. Immediately the mother handed Radoslav a grocery list and we were off biking to the market. Sofia is small so most of the houses are on the hills just outside the city center. We biked along green rolling hills with hulking mountains in the distance. The grocery was literally a hole in the wall. It was an open window into the street.
Radoslav handed the list and a woman behind the window disappeared. In no time we had bags of tomatoes, onions, bottles of cola, and fresh meat. We biked back on the hills with the bags on our handlebars. As we rode we sang the only English song Radoslav knew, which was obviously Gloria Gainor’s “I will Survive”. Radoslav’s bags kept getting into the spokes of his bike, and little by little holes were developing in the plastic sacks. As we made the final turn onto his street I was sure all the groceries would fall through the bottom of the bag. Radoslav just smiled and rode faster. We parked the bikes and carried the groceries in to the house. It wasn’t until Radoslav handed his bag to his mother that the bottom gave out and the contents spilled. It was all timed so well everyone started laughing.
That night the Ivanovs invited their friends and neighbors over for dinner and to watch the World Cup. We dined outside and conversed in broken English/Bulgarian. My arrival was the big event of the night. Everyone was curious about my feelings of Bulgaria, confused why I had returned a second time, but thrilled to learn I loved it here. We talked about the war in Iraq and corruption in Bulgarian politics. One man at the table had to bribe his doctor earlier that week just to a get an appointment in the state hospital. I talked about my trip. Several of the men had been to South Africa, and were excited to know I would visit. Another had been to Korea, and still more to Dubai. All had gone to work and sent money back to their families. One man had been to America several times. In Bulgaria he’s a police officer but goes to America regularly to work a drill press in a machine shop just to earn enough money for the coming year.
We ate from 7 pm to 1 am. The food kept coming. They tried to relate a Polish saying to me. As best I could understand it was, “If you have fewer than six dishes on the table it’s not a meal.” I was stuffed but my host, like any good Eastern European host, would forcibly re-pile my plate with food as soon as it began to look empty. Just before I went to bed that night with a stomach overly full of Bulgarian food I was offered coffee and ice cream. They are too nice to say no to. I had to eat it. I don’t think a person exists in the world who can deny the culinary hospitality of a kind Bulgarian family. If you’ve never experienced it you will have no idea how hard it is to say you’re full and refuse further helpings. Only after my 3rd dessert was it OK for me to go to bed.
The next day it rained. We’d had plans to go to the mountains. Every Bulgarian I’ve met is greatly proud of Bulgaria, which has a history and culture poorly known outside the small country. Radoslav wanted to show me around, but we stayed in most of the day. Even small children are ready to say a few things about Bulgaria’s history, of which an interesting chapter is their relationship with the Turks. Several times I was informed that, “For several hundred years the Bulgarian people were under the Ottoman yoke.” Even school children would say this in perfect English. They would not know the word for “shoe” in English but they would know “Ottoman yoke”. I asked Radoslav if there is a Bulgarian Boogie man, he said it’s the Ottomans. If children don’t go to sleep the Ottomans will get them. But they have neutral feelings about modern Turks. The Ottomans are not popular but modern Turks are seen in a different light. The historic relationship to Soviet Russia is equally complex. Some talk of the Communist era as a military occupation but also as a time of longed-for political stability.
That rainy afternoon I read and wrote and Radoslav studied for a second exam he had the following week. Later in the afternoon when the rain had abated but clouds still hung low we went with his father to the Bulgarian National History Museum. I’ve been to several such museums which are usually large structures full of artifacts stretching back to Roman times, 19th century handicrafts and geological samples, but as usual all the placards were in Bulgarian and the pieces’ significance was lost on me. My 12-year old guide, Radoslav, tried so hard to translate. He did his best, but was at a loss to explain historical terms in English.
That night we visited friends of the family. They were a couple of driving instructors. The wife was having her 30th birthday. My little book of conjugated Bulgarian verbs and phrases I’d picked up was a big hit. Everyone was excited to point to objects and have me jot down the Bulgarian name. Again we dined outside, this time under tents to avoid the rain. One man tried very hard to speak to me in English. We struggled for several minutes then he ran inside and fetched some pictures. They were images of the flood that had ravaged that part of Sofia the year prior. The house we sat in was then six feet under water. Flooding has been a major problem for the southern Balkans. Even now Romania’s southern border is being devastated by floods. Again we didn’t finish eating until late and until I was completely stuffed. This time there was birthday cake.
The next day was like the day before, crummy weather but time to catch up on reading and writing. I mentioned I wanted a pair of swim trucks and a replacement for my now broken tape recorder. So, armed with umbrellas and pocket change I followed Radoslav into the city to the central bazaar.
Taste is clearly a cultural thing. The clothes on sale I found un-wearable. There were jeans with superfluous pockets, and lots of animal prints. Radoslav was a like a detective helping to find clothes I would like. He would pull me to a stall in the open-air bazaar near the national football stadium (I was reminded many times that Bulgaria got 4th place in the Chicago World Cup). There he would smile and hold up various garments. I would shrug and say, “no thank you”. The market was crowded even in the light drizzle. A noticeable proportion of the shop owners were Asian. I tried to ask if they were Cambodian but we shared no common language. Eventually we found a pair of green shorts that I was OK with. I walked away three dollars lighter with a new pair of GAP knock-off shorts.
I treated my host to doughnuts at the bazaar. This was a bucket of freshly made mini-doughnuts covered in powdered sugar and caramel. Again, I was stuffed. Soon his mother picked us up and we went to the office of the Education Ministry to learn how Radoslav did on his exam.
His scores were 5.25 in Bulgarian Literature and 5.75 in math. Each is graded out of 6 and to get into the best high schools you need to score at least 10. At 11 Radoslav can go anywhere he likes. His parents were thrilled and we celebrated that night with another large dinner. Radoslav says he wants to attend the high school of history and philosophy. His mother leaned over and in her best English said, “He wants to be like you” I was flattered and blushed.
The next day was my last in Bulgaria. It has been a filling but relaxing weekend. In the morning Radoslav and I made our way to the central bus station I purchased my ticket for Istanbul. After that we went to the Bulgarian Natural History Museum. It is a small concrete structure filled with fossils and displays of geodes. Nothing too flashy. Again there was nothing in English. I actually quite enjoy going to such museums around Europe. Such museums are a remnant of an older era of knowledge accumulation. At one time one would have had to go to such a place to be exposed to objects of earth science. But now one can travel more easily to geological wonders, or to more significant collections. In some ways the internet can fulfill some of the museum’s function. Museums of this kind almost feel quaint. And the falling plaster and dust on the displays spoke to the disuse of the museum itself.
After the museum his mother came to pick Radoslav up in the taxi. We all hugged and they wished me well and said I always have a home in Bulgaria. It was the first business day after a long weekend and I had set up an appointment to meet a cartoonist in the afternoon.
I had learned about Ivalio Tsvetkov and his work in international exhibitions from my contacts in Serbia. I met him at the national theater around 5:00. He brought with him three other cartoonists, and a full program for that evening. From the theater we walked to a small exhibition of political cartoons with a theme of Democracy. Then we were off to a book signing by a cartoonists and animator in Bulgaria and then dinner at a journalists club. This was all great and unexpected.
Interviewing the cartoonists became difficult as English was scarce in the group. Some had taken free English courses with the Mormons, and some had never spoken. So, I just went with the flow. In broken English they said a girl from California came just this summer to make a documentary about them and Polish cartoons. All they could remember was that she was from California. I am still curious as to who she was and what she learned.
The exhibit was modest and tucked away in a newspaper office. Each cartoonist proudly showed me his own work and tried to explain its significance or humor. This was a difficult prospect. It would have been difficult even in perfect English. The cartoons caricatured prominent members of Bulgarian politics in the past 17 years and some used common Bulgarian idioms, all of which was lost on me.
One of the cartoonists invited me to show my own work at an upcoming festival. I was honored and said I would indeed send him work. Despite the communication issues things were going well. I had actually e-mailed some Bulgarian cartoonists months ago asking about interviews in an official sounding letter that explained my fellowship and my capacity as a student researcher. I got no reply. As I neared Bulgaria I sent a simple message saying I was a cartoonists and would like to learn about cartoons. This got a reply immediately. Two reasons I think. The first e-mails had complex English and it may have been unclear why I wanted to speak to cartoonists. Even if they understood my phrasings it would have been odd for a student to come all this way. But it makes more sense for a cartoonist to do these things, and we can talk about cartoons from a mutual perspective. All the people I’ve interviewed ask if I do cartoons. They are thrilled and seemingly relieved when I say I do, and even more so when I show them my work.
From there we went to the Bulgarian Hunters Union, a building in downtown Sofia that is dedicated to hunting and fishing. The halls were lined with stuffed animals and other odd taxidermy. Donna Donav, an old animator and illustrator from Bulgaria, had just illustrated a volume of humorous hunting stories. The press conference for its release was in the main hall of this hunting union. Surrounded by stuffed lions and elk we watched a small podium as various people came up to tell their own funny hunting stories. The crowd was loving it. Apparently they were mostly cartoonists. I was told there are about 60 members to the Bulgarian graphic artists union but only 15 of them are registered as cartoonists and only 6 of them do it as a full time profession. If those numbers are right they were all there amidst the stuffed gazelles and warthogs. I ended up buying a book and getting an autograph. The whole thing was done quickly. But I could have stayed longer in that absolutely absurd setting, a veritable frozen zoo of Bulgarian hunting trophies.
But we were off, a big group of us, to a journalists’ café. It was tucked in an alley and up five floors. Inside was a small bar and a few tables full of smoke. At each table sat people who, I was told, are the major journalists of Sofia. We got a table and talked a lot more easily. Over the previous couple of hours everyone’s English and Bulgarian had gotten better. We talked a lot about life as a cartoonist and the international competition circuit for cartooning. Only two of the men at the table can support themselves on cartooning. Most work a few other jobs. A cartoon in Bulgaria can bring five leva, about three dollars. They all bemoaned the fact that the cost of the paper is the same as the payment they get for the cartoons they draw.
The ones who can do it are full time staffers at the major dailies. Each of the cartoonists tries to supplement their income with prizes from cartoon competitions. In a country like Bulgaria where you work like a dog for 150 euro a month to win a cash prize of even 100 euro from some of these contests is an exciting prospect. This month there is a competition in Greece, which will give a winning cartoon over 10,000 euros. But it’s not as simple as sending a cartoon. One man only had the money to post one cartoon a month to an international competition. He just didn’t have the funds to buy the postage. He sardonically commented that all that work landed him 11 honorable mentions, but honorable mentions don’t pay the bills. It was here I began to really feel my own affluence.
My bus for Istanbul was leaving soon so I ordered dinner. One of the cartoonists was modest about the fact he had no money to buy drinks or food. Eventually he was convinced to order some potatoes from the kitchen. During this whole ordeal I was having a hard time struggling with the fact that my backpack cost as much as a months work in Bulgaria. I had travelers check in my money belt worth a years work. I honestly felt embarrassed. These amazingly kind and witty people were simply poorer than I was. I felt guilty about explaining my trip. I was doing something unthinkable for most Bulgarians. A leisurely tour of the world is such a profound luxury. My travels, which I thought to be an interesting conversation point, felt like a badge of my affluence. It unsettled me greatly while sitting at the table. I’m still unsettled and unsure about how I relate in an economic way to the rest of the world.
I paid the tab. There was much hemming and hawing but they eventually let me pay. Ivalio and his wife who had joined us walked me to my bus. Ivalio had been a street painter all over Europe and was in Berlin when the wall came down. He even stayed for the Pink Floyd concert. We had a lot in common and we regretted not meeting earlier. He and his wife were so kind and both quite talented. She is a photographer. At the bus station they had me promise to visit them if I return to Bulgaria, and joked they would find me the perfect Bulgarian wife to settle down with. I thanked them and they stayed waving from the station until my bus was out of sight. This was one more of the amazing acts of kindness I experienced in my time in Bulgaria.
See related images in Photo Gallery 2
|Back to top.|
|June 27 – July 1|
|Belgrade – > Sofia|
|In this week:
and much much more…
Sofia July 3, 2006:
150 years ago, this month, a child was christened Nikola Tesla, in a Serbian orthodox church in modern day Croatia. Later in life he would he would conduct theoretical work that would form the basis of all modern AC electric power systems. With such a presitigious personage in their national history one should hope that Serbian rail would have an amazing electrical system. But by hour 4, sitting on the tracks in rural Serbia outside the broken down train, I was beginning to doubt its strength. We had been told it was electrical problems, and watched as one repair crew after the other arrived in little engines and began tinkering loudly near the rear of the train.
We had left Budapest earlier that afternoon due to arrive in Belgrade by 8PM. But as the sun got lower in the sky that likelihood began to fade with it. People camped out on the adjacent track next to the derelict train. Inside it was deadly. In the absence of electricity the air-conditioning had failed. The train was fairly new and was supposed to have a totally controlled environment in the cabin. But with no air conditioning, and with windows unable to open it became a veritable oven. The day was one of the hottest in memorable history for the Serbians on board. They blamed global warming from Industrial nations.
Before we got out, we had been riding in the closed compartments for almost 3 hours as the temperature kept rising and rising. Sweat literally drained from my pores. My shirt was as wet as if I had run through a sprinkler. The air in the car was thick with all the trapped perspiration of the full cabin. Stopping the train became a mortal necessity, as old women and children were on board and suffering more than anyone. The train finally came to a stop in middle-of-no-where rural Serbia, and people stumbled out into the sun. It must have been 98 degrees outside, but felt like the arctic after riding in the train itself.
On board I had met a pair of Canadians, Pat and Sue. Pat was a fierce supported of Newfoundland succession, and Sue had run away from home to join the circus when she was younger. Needless to say they had good stories. They were traveling to Belgrade to meet a friend. Their friend, Dayon, was a Serbian refugee during the war. His father had died in prison under Milosovich, and Dayon had to escape to avoid being enlisted by the same regime that condemned his father. Dayon, without any English, arrived in Newfoundland, Canada and began looking for graphic design work with his degree from an art school in Belgrade. Somehow he was referred to Pat who does TV commercials. One night he showed up at Pat and Sue’s door. Without any English he stood there, and Pat and Sue invited him in. Since then they have been great friends. Dayon now speaks great English and has a cushy job doing advertising design. He is, in a sense, living the Canadian dream.
For all the things Dayon could do in Canada, he could not return to Serbia. That is until this month. His Canadian naturalization went through and was able to return to Belgrade on a Canadian passport. To commemorate the event Pat and Sue decided to visit him in his ancestral home. Over the years Dayon had declared everything in Serbia “the best” (the best food, the best nature, the best women, etc., etc.) So Pat and Sue wanted to see “the best” for themselves. As a refugee, Serbia must have loomed large in Dayon’s imagination, and indeed was “the best” for it was also “the unreachable”.
“I hope this isn’t what Dayon meant by Serbia “has the best trains,” joked Pat, as he wiped the sweat from brow. Sitting on the tracks I pulled out my harmonica and played a few Woody Guthrie songs. Even though I was in Serbia, it still seemed fitting to sing American folk songs about riding the rails. Everyone was bored. Everyone was hot. And eventually everyone had had enough of my harmonica. A few Serbian college aged girls joined Sue, Pat and me. We ripped up sheets of paper and had an impromptu lesson in basic Serbian to pass the time. Pat was determined to learn a few pick-up lines as Sue rolled her eyes. By the time we had conjugated a few simple verbs in the past and present tense the conductor blew his horn. Back on we got into air-conditioned comfort.
Canadians, the college students and I sat together. As we rode, our conversation went from lighthearted pickup lines to a serious chat about the current state of Serbia. It was here I began to see the profound divisions that exist in Serbian society. One girl made an off-hand anti-Muslim comment, and another girl chided her for it. One girl wanted to see Serbia become a full member of the EU, while another wanted Serbia to remain independent. Some said the World Court in The Hague was a positive organization, while others said it was defunct and was needlessly crucifying Serbians. Some were bemused by the secession of Montenegro and unconcerned about the possibility of Kosovo fully separating, while still others in the cabin saw independent Kosovo as a personal insult. These contradictory opinions were shared freely and tempers and emotions never rose. These seemingly antagonistic positions existed peacefully amongst this group of travelers. It is this kind of contradictory co-existence that would become a theme to my trip to Serbia.
This quality is ever-present. Just a look at street signs will show it. Serbia has 2 alphabets. Latin and Cyrillic. There is no rhyme or reason to what alphabet a sign will be written in, and is very confusing for a tourist. Walking those same streets you see crumbling buildings struck by American missile strikes, old world buildings from the height of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Turkish architecture, and communist era slab structures. History mingles visibly with the present.
Also consider that what constitutes Serbia as a nation is constantly contradicting itself too. The national borders change quite regularly. Just last month Serbia became a new country when Montenegro separated. Bureaucracy can’t keep up with all the changes and, Serbian citizens still have passports bearing an insignia of a Yugoslavia of the 80’s. I asked if Montenegro would stamp my passport. The question was laughed at — to think something like passport stamps would be prepared and organized in the country was absurd. In short from politics, to history, to alphabet, to national identity, Serbia is divided.
By the time we arrived in Belgrade, we all felt like the oldest of friends. Hugs and handshakes were given all around. When the Canadians and I stepped onto the platform, a man came rushing up and bear-hugged Pat. It was Dayon. He had been waiting patiently at the station for several extra hours. I tried to leave and let them have a tender reunion, but Dayon insisted I join them. His family’s apartment was too small to accommodate guests, so he had reserved beds in a local hostel for Pat and Sue. He insisted that I come too, and he’d help me get a bed. I had reserved at another hostel, but the idea of hunting for it in the middle of the Belgrade night seemed as unappealing as another ride in an oven-train.
Dayon’s smile reached from ear to ear, as he was able to show his dear friends his dear home. We walked to the hostel, there was indeed an open bed for me, and then went to grab a quick bite to eat. We went to some all-night diner where Dayon ordered all of us Borek. Borek, a meat pie of Turkish origin, is a culinary remnant of Ottoman control. Regardless, it was delicious. In fact we all agreed it was “the best”. Stuffed, sweaty, and tired, we all crashed hard that night.
The next day Dayon, Sue, and Pat went to a lake outside of Belgrade, and I set to my research. By 9am it was already blisteringly hot. I did my usual mass purchase of periodicals. The old Serbian woman working the newsstand watched me with wide confused eyes. I wish I could have explained in Serbian why an English-speaking kid was buying all her Cyrillic newspapers, 10 at a time. I sat in a park and ripped cartoons from the pages. This too turned some heads. The sight of a foreigner ripping up paper in the park is not an everyday occurrence.
At noon it was even hotter. I made my way to the Center for Cultural Decontamination, a gallery and organization used by a group of Serbian artists who campaigned against the Milosovich regime. I was to meet with their head of visual and graphic arts. When I arrived no one spoke English. I eventually got to speak to the director, who informed me my contact was in Berlin. She gave me his phone number and I left.
To walk outside was to melt. So the rest of the day was spent hiding in the shade of the hostel patio. There I met a guy from San Diego on this 21st month of travel. He was heading back to Europe after bussing most of central Asia. He’d had a lot of interesting tips. I asked about places I plan to visit, such as Bangkok. He enigmatically said, “Bangkok can be what ever you want it to be”. He’s been through it many times. Sometimes after weeks of living in nomadic tents, you just want to ride an escalator. Sometimes after staying too long in Western hotels, you can find the culture shock you want. Bangkok is what you make it and changes based on the direction and duration of your travel. I can’t wait to see.
When the night finally cooled the pavement down, Pat, Sue, and Dayon returned, and we went out for “the best” pizza. At dinner we joked about Americans sewing Canadian flags onto their packs to avoid unwanted attention. I said I would prefer a Serbian flag. Dayon said, “what so everyone will hate you?” It was lighthearted, but spoke to how Serbians perceive themselves which too is divided. Back on the train one of the girls had related a story about a time she visited Italy. A store clerk found out she was Serbian and called her an “animal”. There seems to be a perception that they are despised by the outside but a strong pride about being Serbian. This is connected to many things. Serbia is both the home of Pricip, the man who shot Franz Ferdinand and started WWI, and its army was the violent and criminal agressor against Bosnia and Kososvo. While in Belgrade I collected some German cartoons with very anti-serbian cariacatures from 1914, and the Nazi era. These were very racist, and even spoke to the Nazi plan to exterminate Slavs in general. How they think they are negatively percieved by the outside world has a long and complicated genesis race, war, and politics. Dayon’s jokes makes more sense after considering this. After dinner sleep soon followed.
The next day I had plans to visit the head of the Serbian cartoonist association, but not until late in the afternoon. Walking around the city, I had found the office building for the Politika newspaper, one of the major dailies in Belgrade. So, armed with my letter of reference from the Circumnavigators Club, I just walked in and asked to speak to the editor. Security handed me a phone, and I was connected with her secretary who spoke perfect English. I was to find out later that in the 80’s she was an exchange student to America. She recalled fondly shaking Jimmy Carter’s hand. In any case, she happily set up a meeting there and then with the staff cartoonist.
Novitza Kovich has been drawing cartoons since the 60’s. He was even arrested for an unflattering caricature made during Tito’s reign. Now he does a front-page cartoon once a week for Politika. He spoke perfect German, but my German is as good as my Serbian, so Vanya the kind secretary translated. Mr. Kovich was surprised that anyone would want to talk to him, let alone take his picture, but he was more than happy to chat at length with me. We talked a great deal about drawing through the turbulent history of the last 40 years. We sat at his desk covered in paper and inkwells. Above his head was a picture of Milosovich next to a picture of Sadam Hussein with an equal sign drawn between them. He said he was always anti-Milsovich, but his ex-editor wasn’t. In fact, the editor of Politika during the 90’s was a close personal friend of the Milosovich family. Nothing negative could be published in his paper. So Mr. Kovich resigned himself to doing a-political society cartoons. But at the end of the war he started up his political drawings again. Eventually a pile of paper was dropped on his desk. It was what he requested so he could make his cartoon that day. He said he has to read more than any journalist he knows, just so his cartoons can be smart and well received. Before I left him to his work he handed me a pin with an American flag and a 2nd Yugoslavian republic flag — a real artifact of a bygone Serbia. I thanked him greatly and left.
Before I left the building I sat and chatted a bit more with Vanya the secretary. She was very candid about life in Belgrade, which is a poor life. She and the others in the office remember fondly the communist days. They say they disliked it then, and everyone had very little, but they have even less now under democracy. The UN sanctions loomed large in her retelling of the last 15 years. She even got a little choked up talking about citizens of Belgrade who committed suicide rather than starve to death during the sanctions. When they started, she bought a plane ticket to Montenegro. That same night she paid more than the price of the ticket for an apple. The inflation for 6 months was unbelievably crippling. She was working for Politika then too. Before the 90’s being a journalist was good job. Leisurely hours and adequate pay led to a bubbling intellectual community in the cafes around the office. Now a journalist works long hours and gets paid between 100 and 200 euros a month. The news station attached to the paper hasn’t given their workers a paycheck in 6 months. The employees keep working, hoping someday to get a paycheck. Needless to say the cafes are empty.
More recently a slew of factory closings throughout the country have again led to a slew of suicides. There is also anxiety about the future. Decades of war and emigration have left Serbia with more women than men and significantly so. Vanya said it was as bad as three girls to one guy. Others I spoke to said it was as bad as five girls to one guy. Regardless, walking along the streets of Belgrade you see a disproportionate amount of women out and about. Most of the service workers and store clerks are all women. Vanya, like many women in this environment, is unmarried. She said men are few and most don’t want to settle down with such good odds in their favor. Most of the educated ones leave and the rest seem to stay at home with their parents, and cynically she added, “waiting for them to die so they can take the apartment without working for money.” The ultimate result is a negative population growth and a non-existent younger population to take care of the aging work force. “Things have been better but can always get worse, so count your blessings,” seemed to be a common mantra in Belgrade.
For all this gloom and doom, I never met an unhappy or unpleasant person. Everyone I encountered was warm, witty, and wanting to talk — even if the talk was morbid. I thanked Vanya for the talk and went off to my later meeting. I met Yugoslav Vlacovich in a cafeteria near by. They served varied stews from a hot table. We talked as he ate.
Mr. Vlacovich had been a camp counselor at a summer camp in Wisconsin many years prior, so we talked nostalgically about the mid-west. Later in life he was a staff illustrator for the New York Times. His work has been shown all over the world, and, again, he was surprised anyone wanted to talk to him and take his picture. He was currently organizing an exhibit on cartoon censorship to be hung on July 4 (a date with no significance in Serbia). He had great material on Serbian censorship under Tito, under Milosovich, and under the UN. It was fascinating.
One of the most interesting things were anti-Milosovich cartoons that were openly published that Milosovich in turn used to prove to the international community that freedom of the press existed in Serbia. This inversion of subversive imagery I found very interesting. That was just the beginning of the good stuff Mr. Vlacovich had. We talked for quite some time and eventually went back to his office. His son was there, who is also a cartoonist and illustrator, and I spent the rest of my time talking with him about being young and drawing in Serbia.
He admitted that his real passion was metal music. He and his girlfriend have a gothic metal band in Belgrade with a cult following. Abanos was their name, meaning ebony in Serbian, and he was excited to play their music for me. It was getting late and Jaksa, the son, offered to walk me around the downtown. He showed me a few great bookstores and a few metal music stores. Eventually he had to run off and finish something for a deadline, but we made plans to meet again the next day.
The next day I called the Center for Cultural Decontamination again. I was told to stop by, but when I did I was told everyone was too busy to meet me, which was a little off-putting. So I just walked and walked. I eventually made it all the way past the super highway to a large park, which houses Tito’s grave. The only other people there were an old Australian couple who were thrilled to see young blood like myself doing offbeat travel. I walked back over several hours through industrial parks and residential areas and saw a lot of the poverty Vanya was talking about.
I returned to the Center. My contact ran outside and talked to me for less than 5 minutes before dashing away. I asked him for further contacts. He wrote out a list in my notebook, and I set off trying to meet these people. One was a professor at university no one seemed to have heard of. Another was a gallery that didn’t exist anymore, and third was a man named Dragon who arrives at a certain café at 9pm. I was to go and ask for him. None of it panned out. To boot, I never got through on the phone with my Goth metal friends, so I ended up back at the hostel playing cards with some Dutch travelers.
The next day I was set to depart for Sofia. The only thing left to do was mail home all the material I had gathered. I thought my post office experience in Poland was harrowing…I had yet to visit a Serbian post office. The tellers were militant, and the forms were all in triplicate. The whole thing took 3 hours to mail a package, and there was great confusion as to whether it was sent airmail or not. In line with me was a man from Kosovo now working for the UN mission. He was involved with issues of property disputes. We talked a great deal about the Kosovo and independence, we did, however, talk in hushed voices. His help at the window made my visit only 3 hours where it could have easily been 6.
My return wasn’t till late, so I convinced a couple packers to go out for dinner with me. The topic of conversation: Where one should start a hostel. Johnny the Brit in the group earnestly wanted to start one, but to start one in the next big backpacker destination. Two years ago Belgrade had no hostels. Now it has 20. It caters to people traveling the newly popular Eastern European circuit from Zagreb to Prague. It’s obviously too late here for Johnny to invest. He wants to be on the ground floor somewhere. Vietnam is a closed market. Croatia is a very saturated market. We each swapped stories and ideas about where to go. I thought Montenegro, and Andrew from Australia thought Albania. Both have untouched and beautiful coasts, but neither has adequate transportation infrastructure. So ultimately we rejected those ideas. I hope Johnny figures it out one day.
I said goodbye to the guys, and took an uneventful night bus to Sofia. What happened in Bulgaria? That’s for another entry…
See related images in the Photo Gallery.
|Back to top.|
|Week 2 Part 2|
|Budapest -> Belgrade|
In this part:
Alex and Bush take a trip together.
Lenin’s and Stalin’s and bears oh my
Exploding phone booths
And much much more…
Sofia July 2, 2006:
It’s hard to separate fact from fiction on the road. Backpacker culture is full of fantastical tales of traveling dangers. One such tale is about the overnight train from Krakow to Budapest — a train I had to take. As the story goes, shadowy figures pump sleeping gas into the train cabins knocking the passengers out cold. When the poor travelers wake up again they find themselves stripped of all their belongings without a memory of what transpired. I was assured several times by Western packers that they had a friend that knew somebody whose brother had this happen to them. Regardless of the truth of this tale, that night on the platform, as I prepared to leave Krakow, all my fellow backpackers had heard it and were on edge.
The likelihood of a mysterious person pumping mystery gas via some mystery device into a cabin with open windows that mysteriously knocks out its victims without any side effect, sounded a little too, well…mysterious for me. My skepticism was met with disdain by the other travelers who were sure that rogue gassing was a major hazard in Eastern European rail travel. To calm anxiety backpackers grouped up. Safety in numbers, as it were. I rode in a cabin with two Brits, a Brazilian and French gal. Needless to say, we were not gassed, or even hassled (by border guards or pickpockets).
I arrived in Budapest the same morning George Bush did. As I left the train station for my hostel the streets were empty. Transportation had been rerouted all over the city to provide extra security for the Bush. All the streets were lined with white and blue police tape and very little was moving in downtown Budapest. It was eerie walking through a city as large as Budapest and seeing only a few cars on the road. Bush had dropped in to commemorate the 50th year anniversary of Budapest’s historic revolt against the Russians. All the locals I met were very confused by this. There is a national holiday to celebrate this event, but not for 3 months. There was a lot of cynicism about this. The cartoons that day reflected it. Many thought that Bush was only using his visit and this important time in Hungarian history as opportunity to promote his own idea of Democracy and the war in Iraq.
That day he gave a speech to a small group of officials and the press. It was delivered atop a fortified hill with a panoramic view of the city behind him. He spoke of how the citizens of Budapest fought for their freedom and democratic liberty as the Iraqi’s are doing now. This was not a welcome comparison to people I talked to. In the middle of the speech he quoted a famous Hungarian poem, but quoted it incorrectly. It was more fodder for the cartoons the next day. Those who were not insulted by the visit were uninterested by it, and no one was thrilled by the traffic delays. There was some actual policy being discussed in this visit and not just photo ops. Hungary is trying to make it easier for Hungarians to get Visa’s for the US. The news the next day was pessimistic about the possibility of anything changing in this respect during a closed-door session with Bush and the Hungarian president.
So while Bush did his thing I went off to do mine. I had visited Budapest once before, and had longed to visit the communist statue park but had run out of time and had to skip it. It is a park outside of Budapest supposedly full of soviet era statues that were torn down after the iron curtain fell. It sounded so cool and I made it a priority to see it this time. To get there is not simple. You have to take the subway to a tramline and ride it to the end. From there, you must walk to a special bus station, where you wait for a yellow bus…not a blue one (I was corrected on this several times)! This bus drives you half an hour outside of the city and drops you off on the wrong side of a busy road, which you have to cross someway, somehow.
I had wanted to see this for a long time and had taken the most convoluted transportation to see it, and when I finally got there all bright eyed and ready to be amazed, all I found were a handful of moderately sized statues in a small gravel lot. Some of these statues were not even necessarily communist just from the communist era. I stood there a while taking it in, in all its mundane glory. I went back to the ticket seller and asked if there was anymore. She said, “NO!” in a strong yet forceful accent and then stared me down. She seemed to be the best remnant of Soviet Communism there. I met some equally bemused Dutch travelers there and we snapped a few pictures for each other. But after 10 minutes you felt you had really seen everything…twice. The absurdity of my dashed hopes left me giggling all the way back to the yellow bus stop. NOT THE BLUE BUS STOP!
That evening I had plans to visit a symposium on art and technology at the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art. Once back in town I decided to walk the length of the river until I got to the museum, which is on the southernmost tip of the city center. I was hoping the symposium would be more pertinent to my project, but ended up focusing on the role of magnetism in art. Although there were some interesting comments made about the relationship between art and the Internet, which is central to my thinking about cartoons. I now know a lot more about new-wave electromagnetic art.
When I left the lectures storm clouds were brewing. The long walk had put me far from the hostel. I was not faster than the rain and I had to make my way dashing from awning to awning along the boulevards to avoid being completely soaked. Back in the hostel I found the other guests hostile. No one wanted to go out, swap stories, or even swap small talk. So I ended my night alone in a cafe nursing an espresso for almost an hour. This seemed to amuse the waitress greatly.
The next morning I visited the National Library. It was yet another European temple to the printed word. Although modest on the exterior it was opulent on the interior with row after row of hardwood bookcases. They were having an exhibit of Hungarian Illuminated Manuscripts, which was unexpected and lovely. The librarians spoke no English but were still eager to help me. Unfortunately we got nowhere by the time I had to leave. But I had to apply for a 10-year library card. So if anyone needs something from the Hungarian National Library just let me know.
That afternoon I was to meet Joe Bekesi, a local cartoonist. He said he would have something organized for me when I arrived. We met in the lobby of a central hotel and then jetted off to a gallery in Budapest that specializes in the sale of cartoons. On the way we talked about travel and my schooling. He knew a lot about me. He had Googled me, and had printed off everything about my fellowship, had seen some movies I’ve made on campus, and knew that I had competed in Quiz Bowl a few years ago. The Internet is a powerful tool. Luckily this tool was being used by Joe, who is a jolly fellow now retired who spends his days sculpting and gardening, and not by some sinister ex-KGB operative creating a dossier on me.
At the Gallery we were met by a small but important group of Joe’s cartoon colleagues, and we all sat down for a round table discussion about cartoons and life in Hungary. Cartoon satire is a significant part of Hungarian culture. We discussed the large market in Hungary and also what life is like as a cartoonist. One man there, who works under the name Marabu, said that in the 20 years he’s been drawing he has been able to take one vacation. He planned to go hiking in the hills of Romania. When he reached the border he got a call on his cell phone. His editor was on the line saying the Iraq war had just started and they needed a cartoon ASAP. He had to turn back and never went hiking.
We talked at length about the Danish Mohammad cartoon. The consensus at the table was: They should have known better. Sure the Danes were free to draw it and publish it, but they shouldn’t be so surprised that people were insulted and violently so. This was not the opinion I was to hear in
Joe, in reference to cartoonist’s sensitivity, said he drew a cartoon of a blind man but knew that it would be improper to try and sell it in America, where the culture has a different sensitivity to handicaps. One of the cartoonists there named Rak Bela handed me a cartoon he drew of a barking dog holding its own leash. He said this is what it is like to cartoon. The idea of self-censorship has been a recurrent topic in my conversation with cartoonists, and has been a source of great curiosity for me.
We also talked about cartoons under Communism. Joe had a great story about how he came to cartooning. In the 80’s jobs were scarce and Joe needed some work. He found a Xerox machine and set up a small copy shop in Budapest. People started coming to him to print anti-communist material or material deemed illegal by the regime. He became quite active in the nameless underground that produced and circulated illegal print material. It was in these so-called “samizdat” that he began his career. I asked if “samizdat” are archived anywhere. They all shook their heads furiously, but
each admitted to having one or two still stored in their homes. It would be great to come back to Hungary and hunt down door-to-door old “samizdat” and document them. It is a piece of dissident history that has yet to be told.
After the meeting Joe and Marabu walked me to the train station to help me buy my ticket to Belgrade. Without even asking, they apologized profusely that they couldn’t show me more of the city on my last day in Budapest — they both had family obligations the following day. Marabu’s young daughter was graduating elementary school while Joe’s daughter was graduating a Masters program. I assured them it wasn’t necessary and that such events were more important than showing me Budapest. We didn’t part ways until I said I would return and take them up on their offer to show me the city. Some day I hope to come back and accept their hospitality.
I cooked dinner in at the Hostel. The new crowd of travelers was more social this night. I spent a good few hours talking with a British post-doc now working in Iceland on String Theory. She filled me in as best as she could to a layman about the exciting new ideas in theoretical cosmology. I became friendly with two French Canadian girls who were thrilled to know I had visited Montreal, and I finished the night with a few games of chess with the hostel owner.
The next morning Jess, the string theory girl, and I went to visit the Parliament. The building is so complex in construction it looks straight out of a fairy tale. The line took 40 minutes to get through and the tour took only 20 minutes, which goes to show just how many tourists are in Budapest in the summer. They pack them in and then push them through. This was her first time to Budapest, so after the Parliament we split up. She went to see things I had already seen and I went to Margarite Island, an island in the Danube with a few interesting churches. The highlight was a not the churches, however, but a tacky fountain that spouted water to the 1812 overture played over loudspeakers.
I stopped back at the hostel briefly to see if anyone wanted to join me for a concert in the main square. The symphony was to play Beethoven’s 7th in a free outdoor concert. Most people couldn’t be bothered to miss the world cup, but one British girl named Ally came along. On the way there we stumbled across a movie set. The FX guys were rigging up a phone booth to explode. Security let us watch them set up for a while but then we decided Beethoven was more important.
Ally was 19 and had decided to forgo college to perpetually travel, stopping for a few months in London periodically to work and save money. She had plans to work in Canada for the ski season than travel Latin America. We talked about this as the symphony was tuning up and got dirty looks from the Hungarian crowd. I guess they like to hear the sound of violas tuning unmolested by English voices. Regardless, we didn’t stop chatting.
When the concert started in earnest the crowd was subdued. But when the 7th finished the conductor kept coming back for encore after encore, each one an ever more lively waltz, presumably Hungarian. The crowd went wild. By encore 4 they were on their feet clapping and yelling bravo. After the last encore we followed the crowd.
A few young people turned into a diner. So we did to. We ordered “1.” We had no idea what “1” would be, it turned out to be a bowl the size of a hollowed out watermelon filled with a sort of creamy potato glob, a square of fried cheese and a hunk of bread — all for less than 3 dollars. The two of us had a hard time finishing it together. It was the closest thing we had to vegetables while in Budapest. At the grocery store there were no fruits or vegetables to be found. We think there must have been a separate green grocer somewhere, but we couldn’t see one, and the Hungarians
seemed baffled when we asked about one. Either that or fruits and vegetables don’t exist in Hungary.
That night was museum night. All the museums were open till dawn. The city was abuzz with people. Kids ran around at midnight in the center of the city, old couples were strolling the streets at 1 am. It was like the whole center was turned into a carnival. There were even booths selling cotton candy. The lines to get into the museums were too long for Ally and me, so we just walked around in the jubilant atmosphere. We ordered a “1” at a little stand. I still don’t know what it was. Some sort of a pastry made of twisted dough served piping hot. It was amazing, even when I burned the roof of my mouth on it. We got back late and I fell asleep with my clothes on reading my book.
I said my goodbyes and walked to the train station to board the 1:35 train to Belgrade. Although I wasn’t gassed on it, it’s still a good story…
See related images in the Photo Gallery.
|Back to top.|
|Week 2 (part 1)|
|June 18 – 21|
|Krakow – > Budapest|
| In this part:
and much much more…
The day was still far from over when I last wrote from Krakow. I was planning on reading or walking or something banal like that. I brewed a cup of tea and had sat down to flip through some newspapers, when two German packers ran in. We had become friendly the night before over dinner, and I learned they were two Poliitical Science students from Hamburg visiting Krakow for just a few days.
They ran into the hostel all sweaty, with their faces splattered in bright colors. They knew about my project and my affinity for political art and told me to come with them. We left quickly with the tea still cooling in the hostel kitchen. They explained as we went. Earlier that day they had met a group of Polish youth. Somehow it came up that they were all Graffiti artists. Graffiti by virtue of its use of public space, its deviant or subversive uses, is de facto political art. The Germans and the Poles had conspired to cooperate and “tag” some walls in downtown Krakow. Krakow like a number of world cities has “legal walls”: places reserved for graffiti. It was to one of these “legal walls” we were heading.
They had already finished one wall south of the old Jewish ghetto and were about to start their second when they came to get me. We arrived at the wall, which stretched the length of a public park opposite a school. The mood was jovial. About twenty people milled about, some with spray paint in hand others sitting on the grass drinking and eating. The scene had the placid look of Seurat’s “La Grande Jatte”, except with more concrete and spray paint.
The German’s (and I minimally) set to work beginning their “tag”, or graffiti image of their name. Tags are distinctive to the graffiti artist, who must remain anonymous. They are coded images that bear the hidden name of the artists. Tags can be large or small, simple or complex. But virtuosity is honored in graffiti culture. So the faster the execution, the bigger the size, and the more compositionally complex tags the better. Graffiti is in some sense a competitive sport. A tagger wants to have the best images in the best locations. That day the inherent showmanship and competitiveness of graffiti art was in full force. As the Germans worked, the poles adjusted their “Tags” to out do the Germans. Then the Germans would counter with a graphic flourish. The competition was good spirited and often both camps would erupt in laughter.
Intermittently they would take breaks, grab some water and chat. The Germans spoke near perfect English (both had been exchange students to America), but the Poles spoke very broken English. The conversation was generally reflective however. The Germans were thrilled with the situation. They often mentioned how great it was to be working with other graffiti kids who didn’t share a language but still could communicate through the art. They also said graffiti in Germany is an underground populated by the upper middle class. Here in Poland it was a lower-class affair. Most of the taggers were out of work. Some of them go to Germany or the Netherlands for construction work when it’s available, but otherwise they live hand to mouth in the gray urban blocks of Krakow.
The Germans were quite touched by the lack of classist or national pretensions that day. It was just about the graffiti. The paint that we used was all provided by the Poles, a gift that is not cheap, but gives evidence to the kindness and openness of the Polish taggers.
Openness was a quality of it all. In Poland graffiti black books still exist. There are books where fellow graffiti artists write messages to each other on techniques, locations, and how to read tags. These are not common practice in America or Germany any more, as they can be used to prosecute taggers where graffiti is illegal. In Poland the stakes didn’t seem so high, and the repercussions ? less dramatic.
The crowd surrounding the wall was a mix of young kids watching the older kids work. The girlfriends of the older taggers watched them spray (tagging is still a very gendered scene). Just as in Germany and in America, the crowd bore the markers of Hip Hop culture. The taggers listened to rap on a battered (dilapidated means that stones are falling off it) cassette player. Their polish sentences were sprinkled with English words like, “wazzup” and “my homie”. Their clothes emulated rappers of America, and some of them even claimed to be talented (but undiscovered) rappers themselves.
To be in that Polish schoolyard, and seeing these symbols of contemporary AfricanAmerican cultural production, spoke to the surreal and pervasive nature of globalization and its mass culture. The mediation of race and nationality that was occurring in this unlikely location speaks to the curiousness of culture and specifically of youth culture today. But one can speak volumes about these things. The Germans and I tried, but a day in the sun and the paint fumes had exhausted us and sapped our vocabulary for social theory. The tag was done, goodbyes and hugs were shared around, and then we left as the sun was setting.
Back at the hostel the Germans fell fast asleep. I met a group of recent graduates from the University of Florida doing the traditional eurail trip around Europe. I went out with them for the evening. The conversation was similar to one I might have had in America: news, politics, movies etc. Nothing too unusual even though we were in a foreign and unusual land. It was a stark contrast from earlier when I was discussing the influence of Rap with a 14-year-old Polish kid named Sam.We got back to the hostel late. The others went to bed but I stayed up to talk to Anna, the attendant who was working the front desk.
She was very nice and wanted to improve her English, so she was eager to talk. She had worked the graveyard shift at the hostel for 3 nights in a row, and she said it was taking a toll on her studies. She also talked about the youth emigration from Poland and her anxiety over the rightist swing in the Polish government. She was baffled at the cost of living in America, and said the monthly price of my apartment in Evanston was more than the monthly salary of a Polish teacher. Teaching is the profession she is planning to enter.
The next day was a day of foiled plans. I was supposed to visit the mountains outside of Krakow with the Germans and the owner of the hostel. But the owner had a car accident on the way to pick us up and had to put his car in the shop. But perhaps it was for the best never to drive in that car.
Instead I went to the Krakow University Library a day early. This was the most confusing catalogue I have ever encountered. The library, one of the oldest in Europe, was a massive temple of the printed word, and newly outfitted with modern robots that retrieved your book from some unknown chamber deep below the reading rooms. It looked like a library made by Willy Wonka. But here I was foiled again. I filled out my request slips incorrectly twice. I got confused by the card system involved and then got some of my requests rejected.
Eventually, hours later, I got some materials to examine. I was hoping to find more anti-Semitic work from the 30’s, but alas I couldn’t navigate the catalogue to find any. I did however look at Polish papers that were published in America and then distributed in Poland during the war. They were full of pro-American cartoons. It was not what I was expecting but it was interesting nonetheless.
I called my publisher contact in Krakow and he cancelled our meeting, asking me to call again the next day. Again, feeling frustrated I decided to prepare to leave. I bought my ticket to Budapest and booked my next hostel.
For dinner I bought a frozen pizza, but as it was the day of foiled plans, I burned it. At dinner two new British backpackers came to the hostel. The Germans were in the kitchen as well preparing their dinner. Over dinner the topic of Auschwitz came up. The Germans treated it with an unexpected amount of deference. They mentioned a bill in Germany being proposed that would require any German youth to visit a death camp before getting their drivers license. The Brits said that was a stupid idea just to make the Germans feel guilty. The Germans themselves rejected this. Their reply was sincere: “It is not about guilt it is about confronting a history too important to forget.” I remained largely silent, the Brits remained largely unmoved. Bed came soon after.
The next day I woke late and hurriedly made my way to my meeting with Andrej Mlecko. He has been drawing since the 70’s and has become an institution in Polish cartooning and Polish society in general. He set up to have his assistant translate, and we chatted over coffee in his gallery for about half an hour. Eventually they had to get back to work and his 3-year-old grandson arrived. He gave me many cartoons to take with me and asked me to keep in touch. He is particularly interested if his cartoons are funny outside of Poland. I promised to show them to people around the world and report back.
After that meeting I called my publisher contact but again he cancelled, and I had run out of time. I was leaving on a train the next day. I packed all my materials into a box and mailed it home. Almost 3 kilo’s of Polish and British cartoons are now on their way to America.
Mailing this was an exercise in Eastern European bureaucracy. It took almost 2 hours, as I would get in one line only to be told to go to a new line, only to reach the teller to learn I had the wrong form, and be sent to yet another line where the process would repeat itself. I now know what Kafka had in mind.
The rest of the day it rained and rained hard. Krakow is different place with lightning and thunder. I hunkered down in a cafe to write post cards and read until the rain abated, which wasn’t until quite late. The streets were deserted after the rain, and I felt as though I had the city to myself. All seemed in place and back at the hostel I fell effortlessly to sleep.
After the tranquility of the previous night, that morning I decided to visit Auschwitz. I had been apprehensive up to this point, but decided to press on. Some distant relatives of mine died in these camps or ones like them, I had had very strong reactions to the Holocaust museum in Washington, and I just didn’t know if I could see it without souring the mood of my trip. For reasons far harder to explain, than the reasons not to go, I went.
On the minibus to the camp, I kept up small talk with the other tourists. I sat next to a girl named Helen just finishing her Peace Corp duty in Georgia. She and I joined forces and spent most of the day together. You could see the tour buses from far away. And the crowds swelled outside the main visitors gate. It is strongly suggested that you take a tour. But the idea of being ushered around in groups from bunk to bunk had a frightening similarity to the actual activity of the working camp itself. I did not want to be in a line or be ordered to a new location when visiting a place like Auschwitz. Helen and I then decided to forgo the tour, and we bought a walking tour booklet and went in on our own.
The hardest part was the first few minutes. The gate you enter the camp with has a morbidly ironic German phrase declaring “work brings freedom”. I got four or five steps past that sign and fell apart. I walked out. If Helen wasn’t there I would have left all together. But being with another person made me put on a brave face as it were. Teary and puffy eyed I nodded and we went back in. For the next six hours I didn’t cry. Which was unexpected. Granted it is hard to weep for six hours, but that aside it was not the right expression in that place. Perhaps it was the large groups of tourist unceremoniously snapping pictures or the tour guides breaking the silence with broken English, in any case it was not an environment of quiet reflection — it was one of just getting through it all. One can’t dwell on the piles of suitcases knowing that a pile of gas canisters the height of man is in the next room and a pile of children’s toys lies in the next. It took on a kind of mechanical movement to get to each atrocity in time. Reflection came later — as did a sleepless night.
The quality of that reflection has been at the front of my mind this week. In the first bunk you enter there is painted on the wall a the heavily quoted quote by Santayana that “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.” But it struck me that this is easier said than done. This simple phrase is more complex than it lets on. What lessons can we learn from a visit to Auschwitz or, more broadly, from considering the Holocaust? How do we remember history? And how do we avoid a repetitive doom? More precisely, when do we call our lives a repetition of history?
My research in Poland focused on the satirical images in years before the War. They were deeply stereotyped images of Jews, which preceded the forced registration of Jews, their ghettoization, and their eventual systematic murder. One can read Santayana’s quote and believe that this history has been learned and its repetition avoided. But perhaps it’s not that simple. We must consider how we see ourselves and how we measure it to a history. In what ways are the Mohamed cartoons of Denmark like the anti-Semitic cartoons of Poland? In what ways are our discussions of global Islamic terror networks like discussion of global Zionistic terror networks used to justify hatred of Jews? In what way are the discussions of registering immigrants similar to registration with the Nazi’s? In what ways are the modern urban hyper-ghettos like the ghetto of Warsaw? Granted we don’t make mass death camps, but how much of the process do we dare repeat, and how do we tell if it is a repetition or something new entirely? How close and how far are we? I fear neither I nor Santayana has an answer to that.
I did not visit Birkenau. I had had enough. Back on the bus I spoke to Helen about these things, and our conversation focused on racism and its manifestations. She is Korean American and spoke of times that identity, politics and culture had collided in her own life. As we neared Krakow a man leaned over and asked Helen if she was from China. It was a naive but honest question, but after our conversation, it was met with awkward silence. Back in Krakow I walked Helen back through Old Town. Said goodbye and prepared my pack to leave on the night train to Budapest.
TO BE CONTINUED….
See related images in the Photo Gallery.
|Back to top.|
|June 11-18, 2006|
|Chicago -> Montreal -> London -> Warsaw -> Krakow|
In this week:
Real French Canadians.
Alex sings “The London Tube Blues”
How to gain Welsh independence and other bar tricks.
Where to find communist comic books in Poland.
And much much more…
Krakow 4:02PM June 18
I was afraid that my haircut would get me into trouble. Just before setting out I decided to buzz my hair very short. I thought I could weather the summer heat better and save on shampoo. The ultimate result made me look like a militant at worst and a soccer hooligan at best. Sure enough, American airport security did not like the looks of me. They had me “randomly searched” twice. The second time was at the gate, steps away from the airplane. But after some small talk with the police about the Cubs, and some hard-looking at my malaria medicine, they sent me on my way. And there it began, 100 days of travel crossing 16 national boarders.
I was on my way first to Canada. The land of the noble Mountie and the majestic maple tree. I unfortunately saw neither mounted police nor trees in my time in Montreal. This, however, only made me resolve to return.
I had always known that French Canada existed, but I didn’t believe it until I arrived. For anyone still out there doubting the existence of Quebec, I assure you all that it is indeed real and everything is indeed French. So, I decided to make the best of my nine-hour layover and make my way to the downtown.
I have had a few years of high school French, and thought this would aid me in my quest downtown. Instead this would be the beginning of many mis-communications that landed me in a distant terminal of the Montreal airport. There I finally gave up the hope of speaking French and asked directions from a well-dressed couple in English. They got me a map, explained the bus and subway system, and even gave me correct change for the shuttle. Then they sent me on my way. I made my way to the subway and to the city center. I walked around for a few hours, and ate a few peanut butter sandwiches I packed from home. They had been squished in my pack. So they were more like peanut butter nuggets. Everyone was out on that Sunday afternoon. The streets were bustling with people. I was immediately struck at how cosmopolitan it all was. As I walked I heard French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and what I think was Cambodian. Everyone was strolling and mingling, and the city felt very exciting.
I stopped a few times to join crowds gathered round electronics stores to watch the World Cup in the window. As I stood there Mexico won its first match. Within minutes groups of Mexican teenagers spilled onto the main street. Wrapped in flags and singing and chanting they weaved through traffic. Within 15 minutes they vanished just as quickly as they appeared. And all returned to bustling-cosmopolitan-normalcy.
I watched a juggler and a group of high schoolers filming a school project about vampires, then decided to make my way back to the airport. As I boarded the flight for London I was convinced this city of French Canadians, disappearing Mexicans, and vampire movies needed another look. I hope to come back some day.
I slept through most of my flight to London. Ok, I admit I stayed up to watch Tom Hanks in “Big”. The man seated next to me kept giving me dirty looks when I laughed. It should be noted he was reading “The Rise of the Third Reich”. When we landed I woke refreshed and ready to rush out into London. Full of vim and vigor I dashed through the gate, only to find the line for passport control stretching hundreds of people long. Two hours later I was still in line. A Tibetan monk outfitted
in his robe, started shaking his head and muttering to himself. If a Buddhist monk, the paragon of tranquility and peace, is getting frustrated . . . you know it had to be bad.
Finally out of the airport I boarded the tube with rejuvenated enthusiasm. Upon reaching our third stop a voice came over the speaker telling us that service had been cancelled. All the passengers and their luggage were unceremoniously dropped off in the western suburbs of London. As I said I was full of vim, so as other passenger awaited busses, I decided to walk to the next station.
The tube had bumped me off in “Northfield”, which is the name of my childhood town in Minnesota. I thought this was a good omen. I even took a picture of how quaint it all was. But after nearly an hour of walking the quaintness wore off. Nearly 2 hours later I made it to the next station only to find it shut down and the police roping off the place. The crowd was thick and information hard to get. I still don’t know what happened at that station. A rumor filtered through the crowd that the central line was still running. So a pack of people broke off. I followed close behind. This pack started splitting itself, half down one street, another down another. I had to choose one to follow . . . I chose the wrong group to follow. It whittled down to just one old woman who kept looking back at me with the most frightened face (I think it was the haircut). If I’d approach to explain myself, she would speed up and away. She led me into the narrow deserted residential lanes of Acton Town of West London. She eventually scuttled into a house and quickly shut the door behind her.
Alone, utterly lost, and feeling guilty for frightening an old woman, I tried to retrace my steps back to the shutdown tube. En route a portly fellow, the iconic image of a jolly British man — how I always picture Joe from “Great Expectations” — came down the road. With a laugh at my situation he set me on course for High Street. Once there it was quite easy to find the bus towards the city. Nearly 5 hours after I expected to arrive, I got to the British Museum. Hot and exhausted I merely set up arrangements for my visit the next day and went straight to flat of my friend to spend the night.
My friend Matt graduated a number of years ahead of me from my high school. He decided to give London a try a few months ago, and now lives with two roommates in a neighborhood of South London called Tooting. Tooting is a working-class neighborhood that has historically been the “holding tank,” as the men at the pub said, for new immigrant populations to the UK. Usually associated with Indians, it is now the center of the growing Polish community.
Matt works at a corner pub pulling pints for regulars. So after I showered and changed we went over to the Crowne and Scepter. Matt mused about the fact he knows no one under 50 in London. The
clientele are all old timers who have been coming there for years. The funny thing, though, is that the pub is now corporately owned. It was purchased by a chain called J.P. Witherspoons. When asked what they thought about the corporate takeover to their local pub, most mentioned how the beer was worse but cheaper, so it all evens out in the end.
As the night wore on I was introduced to a host of characters. There was G from Nigeria who worked the grill. He wore checkered pajama pants and liked U2. There was the waiter Marcin. He was a Polish man who came to London three months prior with no English, but now conversed easily with anyone. “Sir” Harold, not really a knight, but an old regular who insisted on the title. And finally Jeff and Mark the managers who were two Welshman who grew up together.
The conversation waxed and waned depending on who was buying rounds. The Welshmen were particularly interesting. There was a lot of complaining about corporate meddling into local affairs, and after a few hours an earnest discussion about Welsh/ British antagonism. Mark was proud of his Welsh heritage and openly wanted independence from Britain. “We are not violent though…but if a British person wants to build a summerhouse in Wales, their building supplies may just disappear.” and he winked.
Being in a working class neighborhood, the variety of British accents was dizzying. I was introduced to cockney rhyming slang. Apparently a ot of street slang is done to rhyme. For example, if I want to go upstairs I say, “I want to apple and pears.” Keeping up with the conversation was harder than navigating Montreal in French.
The managers treated me to fish and chips and we all stayed up until quite late. As the night was closing, Marcin, the Polish man, said, “You see if I am in trouble in the desert.” (Who knows why he chose that example.) “I can call Maffew (my friend) and he vill help me…I sink the English vord is ‘networking’. Yes?” Networking is the most important sing.” All of us, from Nigerian to American had to agree. As we sat there, none of us were British but all of us were together in Britain. With Marcin’s comment there seemed to be poetic closure to that
night. When Matt and I got back to his flat I felt happy I had spent my day in the poor and dirty pub of Tooting. My next day however would be quite different.
I rose early to make my 10am appointment at the British Museum print room. I gave myself extra time for tube stalls and the like. I got there just in time. Once at the museum, getting to my appointment was a bit like being a secret agent. I was instructed to go to gallery 33 and find a telephone tucked in a corner. I was to dial a code and give my name. After that I was to stand near a terracotta Buddha. After about a minute a woman emerged from a hidden door in the wall. She led me into an elevator and we went down three stories. After all this I found myself in the reading room. I was assigned a museum assistant and given free run to use their unrivaled collection of British prints and drawings.
The museum, along with the British Library at Kings Cross, has the largest collection of political and personal graphic satire from 1600 to 1883. I spent the whole day going through as much of the millions of cartoon pieces in the collection as possible. It was amazingly productive for my project and, secondarily, I found some interesting omissions in the catalogue, especially for satire made after 1883. Maybe someday they can hire me to fix the collection’s index.
I stayed until the print room closed then strolled the museum proper. It gave me a thrill, but made me take pause to see all these treasures of civilization collected as spoils of empire. But putting historical geo-politics aside, I sat and watched school children sketch the Elgin Marbles and joined a group of young Muslim men getting a tour (presumably from their Imam) of the Egyptian collection.
It should be noted that for British Muslims, tensions were high while I was visiting. The day I arrived the police raided the home of two Muslim Arab brothers. The police assumed they were terror suspects and in the raid the police ended up shooting one brother. It turned out the men were totally innocent.
After leaving the museum, I went to the flat of a different friend, also from Minnesota. We had met doing theater many years ago. She has just finished a philosophy masters at King’s College and lives in a very chic area of town with her lawyer boyfriend. This was to be the exact opposite of where I spent the previous night.
She lived in the London Bridge area, which has become gentrified in the last 10 years. Apparently it used to be the roughest place this side of the Thames, but young professionals and organic grocers have made that a thing of the past. She gave me a walking tour of London, from city hall to Westminster. It was record heat that day and, again, it was recommended not to ride the tube, as the system is old and has no air conditioning. The sight of people fainting is fairly common. So we
just walked everywhere. The streets of her neighborhood had chic cafes and, of course, a J.P. Witherspoons Pub . . . but this time the customers were only trendy 20 somethings with their mopeds parked outside. It was all very nice, and a real 180 from the previous night. I felt privileged to have seen such contrast in such a short time.
We made dinner in the flat: pasta and organic berries for desert. I had been having bad luck with eating out in London. I had always heard British food was bad, but like Montreal I didn’t believe it until I got there. I had a cheese sandwich from a canteen just that afternoon and had to scrap half of it. The bread was even more plastic and chewy than Wonder bread. I’ve always believed you can tell a lot about a nation by the bread it eats. Pre-sliced industrial bread speaks volumes about the UK and US, while thick rounds of rye or baguettes speak to French and German sensibilities.
After dinner Amie, my friend, her boyfriend, and I stayed up drinking Evian water and watching the lights of the city from their balcony. We talked mostly about politics and philosophy, namely John Rawls and globalization. The contrast from the night before struck me at every moment. Eventually we all started yawning and went to sleep. I woke early, said my good byes, and rushed off to the airport to catch a late morning flight to Poland.
This time no tube blues. Soccer hooligans are a dime a dozen over in the UK, so I passed through security even with my haircut. I grabbed a few newspapers and clipped their cartoons, then boarded my flight. I sat next to a Polish man in his twenties, who like many his age, got his degree and moved abroad. He now lives and works in Jersey. There is a lot of fear that there will not be enough young people in Poland to care for the aging population in the next decade. He echoed these
worries but said that the work is better and the money is good. He was returning home to see “Guns n’ Roses” play in Warsaw. We spent most of the rest of the flight musing about 80’s heavy metal music, which although 20-years past in American culture is still going strong in Poland.
I got into Warsaw about 4pm. More than once I would be told that, “Warsaw is the biggest village you will ever visit.” It certainly seemed to be. For a city of two million, I had no trouble quickly getting from my airport to the hostel. I would also, in the days coming, keep seeing the same people over and over. Small village indeed!
That night I went out to wander by myself. I walked the river, and through the former Jewish Ghetto, which was utterly destroyed and is now entirely new construction. There is no sense of the history of the place, unless you go to the museums. That night Poland played Germany in the World Cup. So the streets were deserted. I walked freely in the roads unmolested by traffic. I passed by a movie theater. From inside emerged a college-aged girl who rushed after me. She spoke almost no English but pulled me to tell me of the movie theater. She explained to me that in order to screen a movie she needed 5 people. With the World Cup, attendance was so low she could not show the movie. The girl wanted to see the movie, so she grabbed me. She and I then went on a wild goose chase for 3 more people to watch this German film about Brazilian dance. But as I said, it was World Cup night, and no one was to be found.
We gave up the idea of the movie but ended up at a cafe. Her English improved as we chatted. She was a masters student at the Univeristy of Warsaw studying theater. I was able to explain why I was in Poland and my project. At that she smiled and said her good friend was named Raczkowski. Rackowski was a cartoonist I had tried to get a meeting with but never got any reply from him. She called him then and there. He didn’t speak to me over the phone. But she relayed that it was possible to meet but we should call him the next day.
I thanked her and she walked me back to my hostel. As we walked we saw the last two minutes of the Poland/Germany match through a Kebab shop window. Poland lost and the streets were even quieter
The next day I woke early and decided to stroll the medieval part of Warsaw. Warsaw was completely leveled during the war, so for the most part it looks Soviet and post-1950 in its architecture. One area was partially saved and is now greatly reconstructed. Called Old Town, it is a good place to see modern Poles dressed in traditional costumes they only wear for tourist season. It was Thursday, but a holiday, so everything was closed. Just as it was deserted for the World Cup, no one came out for this holiday to honor the Virgin Mary. The sheer lack of people being out made the city feel hollow. I started getting the impression that Warsaw was just a movie set constructed for my visit. I went to see if the Caricature Museum of Warsaw was open. Alas it was closed. I went to see if the National Library was open. Alas it was closed. I ended up sitting and reading on the steps of a closed lingere store for the next few hours.
By mid-day a little life stirred in the old city. Nuns and friars could be seen dashing about in small groups. Military men began patrolling, and children in white tunics and dresses walked the streets. It all seemed to be preparation for a parade. I however never got to test my suspicion, and had to run off to an interview.
I was to meet with Zion Holman, a cartoon publisher. We ended up walking and talking in Warsaw for 5 hours. He told me the history of polish comics and cartoons under communism as he had experienced it, and how he and his friends started the first major publishing house in Poland after 1989. A young guy, who also helps run an independent film distribution house, he had his thumb on Polish youth culture, and was an invaluable contact. He also gave me a lot of print material and
images for the project. We ate kebabs and I mentioned Raczkowski. He publishes Raczkowski, and he said that it would be unlikely to interview him. He is apparently unfriendly to such things. Sure enough when I called him later my request for a meeting was denied. Szymon however did give me the name of another publisher in Krakow and got me a meeting with him, and the number to contact a new cartoonist in Krakow. Raczkowski closed the door but Szymon opened the window.
The most interesting thing about Polish comics and cartoons is the fact they almost died away after 1989. They were a vibrant part of official communist culture. The amount of publishers was largest then. When the wall fell the market dried up, and between 1990 and 1994 many of these publishes went out of business. The artists continued to work however in underground newsletters and pamphlets (which are very hard to find and I’m still looking). Then in 2000 Szymon started his
company and things are starting to get back together.
He showed me an old traditional Polish beer hall. It was hidden amongst tourist traps where beers cost 4 dollars or more. But if you just go down one storefront to this bar, the old man and woman working the tap for 40 years still pull the beer for pennies. It is a secret of Warsaw I was privileged to find. We parted ways and I thanked him for the informative and fun day. After that I was exhausted and called it an early night.
The next day was to be my last day in Warsaw. Even for it’s lack of people, I came to really like it. I retraced my steps of the previous day. I went to the caricature museum first. It was open. It was however one room, without a caricature in sight. The man running the till smiled broadly but spoke no English. The art was theatrical posters from the nineties. Not what I was looking for.
From there I went to the University Library. With a lot of help from English-speaking students, I used their vast catalogue to look at some of the oldest graphic satires in Poland. The libraries of Warsaw are awesome. Huge hulking buildings that go on forever. I stayed until about lunchtime then made my way to the National Library. There in their archives I found the oldest archived satire in Poland. I took a digital photo of it, and the librarian almost screamed her head off. They were not happy about the picture. C’est la vie.
My father’s mother’s family came from Poland. My grandparents and great grandparents spoke little if ever about Poland, so what information we have about their lives before leaving Poland is small and incomplete. Sitting in the National Library looking at satire from 1900-1940, I got a sense what the atmosphere was like. It was frighteningly anti-semetic. I couldn’t finish my work. I was quite overcome with the images. Grotesque stereotypes of evil baby-eating Jews filled the newspaper pages and satirical journals. To think this was the artistic prelude to the horrors of 1940-45 was halting. The social and political use of the cartoon against the Jews of Poland in these years speaks to the profound nature of the medium. It both mirrors a society’s ideas and helps solidify new ones, here around ideas of bigotry. This only reinforced my conviction that this is a worthy study. But how would it have been to my great grandfather, a Jew reading the newspaper, to see only hateful cartoons day after day? One day of research was not enough to answer this question. Clearly there is a chance for further scholarship to be done here.
Later that night I met with Mo, the girl from the movie theater, and her friend Stanislaw. He is a PHD candidate in art history and we talked a great deal about Polish art. He informed me of a print collection that was once owned by the king but now is housed in the university. I hope to return someday to use it. We said our good byes and exchanged e-mails. All this happened at an intersection where a horrible car accident was being cleaned up. The heartfelt goodbye with a backdrop of calamity was all very surreal. I regret not getting their pictures. Back at the hostel all was quiet, and I made my way to bed.
I took the morning train from Warsaw to Krakow. It was very nice with coffee and cake served. I got a lot of reading done. Once in Krakow, I spent most of the day walking the aged streets. Krakow, unlike Warsaw, was spared the ravages of war. It still stands in all its old-world glory. The buildings are ornate, the streets narrow, and the character intact. Midway through my walk a vendor was grilling sausages. They looked to good to pass up. It was then that my preoccupation of being a vegetarian completely evaporated. It was really good. I saw the old university, the castle, and the old Jewish quarter (featured in Schindler’s List). I found out information about visiting the death camps, but I’m putting it off until my last day in the city. I don’t know if I can handle it. It may be just too overwhelming, so I’ve reserved the right to back out.
I found a lovely and quiet hostel tucked away in the Jewish quarter. It’s cheap and all the clerks are American Studies majors at the University of Krakow. They have been widely informative about public ideas of cartoons. For anyone planning on visiting I recommend “Goodbye Lenin Hostel”. I spent much of the first night reading and chatting with other backpackers.
This morning I woke and went to an antique market I was told could have old satires and newspapers. It did not, but I was glad I went. The poverty of Poland became very evident. The market was in a square 20-minutes walk north of the tourist district. I was far from anything familiar. The square was packed densely with elderly men and women with blankets covered in knick-knacks. It appeared to be the poor and sick of Krakow who come here to sell whatever they
can. Everything from 8-tracks to ax handles. No 8-track players or ax heads, however. Everything useful was someplace else. It was all somewhat sad, as it seemed like an inventory of desperation.
I ended up buying a comic book from the communist era called “Captain Kloss”, which is about a Polish man who infiltrates the SS to foil Nazi plans.