The Rain Falls In Schoelcher
There was a time in my younger days when I fantasized about living in a shitty Chinatown SRO where I, completely alienated by my surroundings, would find solace and respite by pounding out brilliant fiction on either an aging Remington or my aging Mac Plus. Chez Daily seemed particularly well suited to this pursuit: One room with a bed, desk and kitchenette and unlike actual tenements in cities across America he even got his own bathroom. The fact that the shower was nothing more than a raised plastic dias with a drain and a hand-held shower-head wasn’t daunting; my travels in Japan had me well versed in this style of bathing. For someone who wants to be utterly focused on their studies, fiction or research of whatever, the apartment in Schoelcher seemed a blessing. The fact that Truman Capote and William Faulkner had decided to use the island for stories (the latter in his re-write of Hemingway’s”To Have and to Have Not“) was icing on the cake.
Chickens in the backyard to either side, crowing and scrabbling around in the dirt. It felt more authentic than residing in the lap of luxury, being catered to by a staff of robed servants pouring tea and cooing “Bonjour” whenever you passed. We had descended into the foreign now and it would be up to us to make it through to the other side. The apartment sat behind a mechanic’s shop: Two corrugated metal walls with enough room in between for two small cars. It was owned by Daily’s landlord who was a strong proponent of “creole economics”– the mechanic shop, Daily’s apartment and a building across the narrow street were all sources of income. My imagination ran wild, expanding the delusions of younger days to incorporate laboring as a skilled “jack-of-all-trades”. Reality reasserted itself when Daily began to regret not having told his landlord that I would be staying there for the next several days. While the mechanic shop was closed the fact that Chez Daily sat above the landlord’s son’s house and across a concrete corridor from the landlord’s sister suggested that my presence would be observed. I thumbed through my trusty phrasebook struggling to figure out how to explain to someone that I was visiting my friend who lives here, I swear.
A more immediate concern was that Aaron had booked himself a room at Le Lafayette, a hotel in downtown Fort-de-France, and that he would have to check in. A couple hours were whiled away to allow the rain showers to pass and the sun to cool before we considered embarking on the half-hour hike down into the city. By the time we began descended the metal stairs of Chez Daily the air was filled with the distant pounding of drums. We were a couple miles away.
Daily had found as efficient a path as was possible but the layout of Shcoelcher required innumerable twists and turns. Many of his immediate neighbors kept guard dogs who barked, howled and growled as we would pass, running along the fence, lunging and feinting. I was quickly lost but the overwhelming foreignness was more distracting than the fear that I might have to find my way anywhere. Leaving the narrow alleys onto a main road lead to tripping over cracked and sunken sidewalks hugging the walls and fences of houses, some of which continued to be patrolled by angry dogs; to make matters worse the people of Martinique had long abandoned the concept of the pedestrian making each intersection a death-trap. “Don’t challenge cars here” Daily warned us, and the puzzled looks we received from drivers thundering past echoed his instructions. Fortunately traffic was light so we could progress along in the street, ducking in between cars or back onto the sidewalk whenever it became necessary. We juggled Aaron’s bag along the way, ducking down past the Radio Caraibe headquarters and onto an even broader avenue. Occasionally we would pass another defensive walker or someone waiting for the taxico and greet them, “Bonjour”. Everything I’d read about the happy island people of Martinique led me to believe that their old fashioned ways demanded this bygone courtesy. Their almost startled replies led me to believe that they had read the same books.
Descending the hill into the heart of Fort-de-France revealed the impact of European investment. Towering multi-storied hotels had begun to loom over the city bringing with them the stench of recycled air-conditioning, chlorinated pools and fabric softener. The island is a major port-of-call for major Caribbean cruise-lines and the economy survives, second to direct assistance from the French government, from tourism, but visitors seem to require a homogeneous experience when it comes to their accommodations. Despite our recent stay at Cap Est there was little interest in supporting these abominations; Le Lafayette was integrated with the buildings around it, as much a part of Fort-de-France as the houses we passed. We could also see the impact of Carnaval, encountering a long row of cars which had taken residence on the narrow, crumbling sidewalk we were depending on more frequently to safely avoid the passing motorists. The drumming was joined by the indistinct murmur of a thousand conversations.
The European Invasion
A hundred thousand conversations, choking the narrow streets of downtown Fort-de-France. People were lining up before police barricades to cross Canal Levassor, vying for entry amongst gangs of teenagers on dirt-bikes and motorcycles. Daily spied a second bridge closer to the bay and guided us through the quickly crowding street, but we found ourselves attempting to enter a staging ground for the parade. Some French was employed, our destination was made known and the barricade parted way to allow our entry. Merci! We were followed by a dozen motorcycles.
There was respite from the speeding cars, but now faced the danger of being run over with the danger of being suffocated by the masses. Daily cut a path along the waterfront where, by virtue of an open expanse opening to the ferry docks, space was less of a premium. We skirted food stands, groups of people wandering aimlessly, motorcycles, hopped traffic barricades and low fences of chain and somehow weaved our way three blocks. Smashed against the roller doors of Aaron’s hotel and a hundred people tried to shuffle through us we read the note: Use Night Entrance. We negotiated passage with security on the corner and hopped over the barricade. The metal gate to Le Lafayette buzzed us in and we stormed up the narrow stairs– this was definitely not Cap Est. While Aaron checked in with the harried clerk Daily and I were attracted to a small balcony colonized by blue-haired tourists gazing out over the crowd below. The clerk coughed and gagged and insisted we couldn’t. We weren’t allowed in the hotel after this, he said. Ah, okay. The greatest appeal (except for Aaron who mostly wanted a bed) of a room at La Lafayette was its prime location during the ensuing craziness; being surrounded by a drunken crowd can only be handled when you have an escape, some safe haven to catch your breath and use the toilet.
The room was nothing more then a bed, wardrobe, TV and air-conditioner. The bathroom was clean but for some reason the toilet seat was propped up against the bowl, not actually attached. I suggested Aaron make mention of this at the desk but he made sure it sat correctly and shrugged his shoulders. There was a list of rules on the back of the door to the hall: Do Not Touch the TV; Do Not Touch the Air Conditioner; No Guests; No Food or Drinks… We ditched the bag and nodded to one another. It was time to face the music banging and roaring outside.
No need to be reckless, tho. As the crowd was restricted to major avenues by barricades the interior streets of downtown were almost empty so we decided to wander through the calm. We walked in the middle of the streets, closed store-fronts to either side– the entire city seemed to have shut-down except for the hotels and, ah, McDonald’s. No surprise there but the KFC a block away was certainly unexpected. Eventually we ran out of quiet streets so we found a less crowded outlet into the throngs and rejoined the meandering progression, but instead of going with the flow we battled back towards the Canal where Daily’s internet cafe, Cyberdeliss, sat.
The keg of Lorraine had been drained and the bottled were all warm so we had a round of this horrible Brazilian swill, some sort of malted-whiskey beer. Plastic cups were required but we could at least sit outside hoping for a rare breeze drifting in off the canal. A couple other tables hosted quiet but lively conversations held by people more dressed for the occasion than us. We let time drift a little, choking down the beer as best we could and ordering a round of the superior which had been given time to cool. A kid came up and asked Daily for a sheet and Daily tried to hand him a zig-zag. No, no, no, hashish. Oh, non merci. My resolve had been dealt a severe blow when we were barred from La Lafayette but the prospect of whiling away Carnaval here was restoring what confidence I could muster. Plus the toilet seat was actually attached.
A parade of sorts had broken out now that the sun had set, troops of people in ramshackle costumes marching and drumming segregated by the occasional truck with a massive sound-system or, better yet, a band. Along the route women sat selling beer and sodas out of coolers, paper funnels of peanuts and candy-bars, shaved ice cones topped with rum. We slowly made our way along the parade, catching the large government buildings, heading to the main thoroughfare of General-De-Gaulle Boulevard. The going was slow but without any sense of urgency or tension– people seemed quite content to mosey along at a slow gait. An ambulance lit up behind us and everyone very quickly made way, including the parade troupe dancing in the middle of the street. Somewhere in the chaos was a strong sense of order and I began to suspect it was made of up everyone’s personal sense of responsibility.
As overwhelming as the evening was you can only walk so many kilometers before you need to eat. Aaron was stricken with a temporary bi-polar disorder, dragging us to the waterfront with its bustling food stands but intimidated by the prospect of attempting to identify and order something with a stick shoved in it. His most confident moment resulted in our finding the one place on the island that seemed to be grilling hamburgers. There was an restaurant open across the street but my memory of reading the internet began to insist we see if the downtown Snack Elize was as well or if McDonald’s had cornered the market on late night fast-food. And by late night I mean ten. Fortunately they were lit up and ready for action, tho of a less intense variety that their contender. As soon Daily explained what tuna was I began babbling at the woman working the register who very patiently asked me a question I couldn’t understand. Daily prompted me and I ended up ordering a combined meal, bumbled through a side of frites instead of rice, and successfully procured a Biere Lorraine. Originally my intention was to buy everyone’s dinner but things quickly became complicated so it was everyone for themselves. However this left me standing in line with my order tag waiting for one of the girls working the serving counter to take it from me. One did and said something in French, then she came back and placed a tray on the counter. She said something else and I nodded, sagely. Another girl came up saying something and looking at my order, to which I smiled and nodded again. This repeated itself a couple of times before Daily was issued his own order form and he explained they were just keeping me aware of how things were going. I’ll be damned. When the meal was finally packaged, the beer finally produced, I thanked them graciously but they all refused to fall in love with me. At least they allowed me to believe I had pulled off the exchange without them catching on I was oblivious to what they were saying.
When I had heard about Snack Elize I remember it being described as fast-food. When we walked up I was a little taken aback with the florescent lighting and plastic furniture and the menu dedicated to hamburgers. Popping the little carton open my mind was absolutely blown– grilled skewers of tuna and onion were dripping goodness on the frites. And it was fucking delicious, I shit you not. And they serve beer. And it was relatively cheap. And it was a place where normal, everyday Martinicans seemed to come and eat, hang out, live their lives and move along. I once tried to explain American culture to a French girl while we waited in line at In-and-Out, citing the ample evidence of worthlessness and filth and degeneration which surrounded us. She probably just wanted me to shut up, but relaxing in Snack Elize, eating surprisingly good tuna-kabobs, quietly enjoying conversation among kids out on the town gave me a pretty positive impression of the scene in Fort-de-France. It was a little irksome that you had to use a code printed on your receipt to access the bathroom but, well, at least they didn’t just hang a sign on the door saying it was broken.
By local standards we were raging party animals and should head to bed. We left the restaurant and walked Aaron back to the night entrance of Le Lafayette. Plans for the morrow were made and as we parted ways the rain began to fall. There was an umbrella sticking out of a trashcan but, wouldn’t you know it, the spines were poking through the cap and we returned it just as quickly. Even so it was warm out and the rain was an almost welcome change. The streets had cleared out almost entirely, all activity now focused along the waterfront where the food stalls were still smoking away. Traffic had begun to flow again, the cars parked on the sidewalk were gone. You would never know that hours before hundreds of thousands of people had filled streets. It was strange, there wasn’t even that much trash strewn about in the gutters. Read more…
Roses strewn across the bed– they mean business in Cap Est and they have a flock of robed attendants waiting to seat you in the cool, open lobby and serve you a glass of sweet iced-tea. The mint leaf kept getting stuck in my mouth and I gave up trying to surreptitiously get it back in the glass with my tongue, swallowing it instead. This is not the kind of place where you pick at your teeth. This is the kind of place where they carry your bags to your room and serve you iced-tea. We had been led around the grounds by a young man who spoke English but who seemed slightly embarrassed either at his communication abilities or his station. There was a door leading to the spa where massages, soaks and steams took place. There was an open bar quietly being stocked. There was a koi pond, then a restaurant where breakfast would be served in the morning, dinner at night. Along the infinity pool, ringed with deck chairs upon which the most elite of Europe’s elite must lounge in their unwholesome swim-wear must sit, across a grand expanse of grass and under a line of palm trees. The Atlantic shimmers off into the horizon, the water glacial blue like something you’d paint in elementary school with water-colors. There was a detached building off to one side, the lesser restaurant for lighter fare. We were led around the a series of bungalows that sat above the pool, then through a tunnel made of hanging vines and stopped at the edge of a small pier. Another entry to the Atlantic, with a couple floating decks drifting about bearing more lounge chairs. We were led back towards the lobby, past the small fleet of cleaning carts where each worker nodded respectfully or dutifully as we passed. A customer had been locked out of his suite and one of the women would take care of him, take his hand and open his door again. We were led to our own. The tour continued, taking in the front room which led out to the private deck, next to the private plunge pool. There was a couch, a mini-bar, a table and upholstered chairs. The next room had a plasma screen TV with DVD player and, of course, the big gay honeymoon suite bed. With roses all over it. The remainder of the tour, the bath and outdoor shower, remained a blur.
We had unpacked, or at least rifled through our bags wondering if we should bother using the drawers available and examined the quarters. Luxurious was a word that sprang readily to mind, and this caused some minor confusion. What do you do with luxury? We changed into swim trunks and tried not be be embarrassed. Aaron sat in the plunge pool and tried to convince me it wasn’t cold. I stood on the steps leading down and shivered but he claimed once immersion was complete it wasn’t cold at all. I plunged and realized he was lying– my chest hurt it was so cold. But we sat in the plunge pool for a spell until the luxury ran out, then changed into more appropriate clothes and wandered back to the lobby, said bonjour to all the girls in their flowing robes which elicited a uniform choral response, then into the attached library. There was a selection of DVDs to borrow, rows of books in French, and a computer. Aaron discovered wi-fi and took his laptop out into the lobby. It seemed like a lot of trouble to download the new episode of “Lost”.
A consistent theme, tho. The day before Aaron was to fly down from Seattle in the morning, hang out with his parents for several hours, then they would pick me up and we would return to SFO for our flight to LAX. My answering machine had a message, however, relaying that his flight had been delayed and was now being re-routed to Oakland. Not an auspicious start to our vacation, but according to the internet only arriving flights were being delayed because of a low ceiling (fog), unless you were flying out to Chicago. Hours later he was in California, and hours afterwards his parents drove over to pick me up. We checked in at the automatic kiosk which was originally under the impression that my name was 210 Texas, then was concerned that I was using a passport to check in. An attendant came over to verify that I was me, then we shuffled off to security where I was resoundingly guilted for attempting to smuggle hummus onto an airplane. Actually I was ridiculed for trying to smuggle the hummus and then guilted by security because I would take the hummus out into the unsecure portion of the airport to give it away. “We’re going to have to throw it away,” he said to me. “You can have it,” I suggested, but he again insisted I was starving the Africans and Chinese by not unburdening the offending food on hapless strangers. Eventually I walked away from the situation and we made out way to the Admiral’s Club which, despite the name, is a cramped collection of cut-rate motel furniture crammed into a stifling airport room that has its own bar, free snacks and wi-fi. Aaron turned the thermostat down and began to download “Lost” and I began to practice my “je vous drais” a million times. He would laugh periodically.
When they began paging people to the Admiral’s Club desk our curiosity to piqued and since our flight was showing delayed Aaron went to investigate. Through my valium dosage I watched while he kept excitedly turning around to regard me while conversing with the staff, then watched as he hurried back. “We have to go now” and we were grabbing our bags and heading out the door. The flight we were on would land too late to catch our connection so we were being put on the previously delayed flight that was finishing boarding; the people working in the Admiral’s Club were pissed that the boarding gate hadn’t paged us. We were the last ones on, walking through the seated masses, and found whatever was available. Upon take-off I realized that perhaps I should have taken two valium.
Lost in San Juan
After landing in LAX we followed a group of Kiwis off the plane, then turned the corner and walked right into the next gate that had just begun boarding. Since we were flying first class we had every right to step on the pregnant mothers, children and elderly they were trying to squeeze in the door. The passengers collected in the terminal watched with utter disgust as we kicked the needy to the curb and were treated with utter veneration by the flight staff. Back up in the air I ordered a scotch (I’d had one on the previous flight but it had cost me so I was making up for it) and received something that looked and smelled suspiciously like vodka. The stewardess who was serving me insisted that despite the clarity of the liquor and the ice I had specifically asked not to be included it was my drink. “She made a double” she encouraged, and so I drank a double vodka on the rocks. Then I had a beer. Dinner was served in courses and the flight coasted towards Miami. I might have taken another valium, then a tylenol as I realized that when someone had mentioned “air-pressure” and “fillings” I should have paid attention.
Passenger Collapses En Route
The flight was marred by an ugly incident: a woman sitting near the front in coach had gotten up to go to the bathroom and collapsed in the aisle. I suddenly found it very difficult to get more scotch and turned to realize what was going on. Calls for a doctor were made (I don’t actually remember that part but Aaron says so) and one of the stewardesses did get the oxygen tank down at one point. A group of people stood clustered over the woman for quite some time as Aaron and I debated whether this would translate into an emergency landing in Texas. The rest of first class less involved in their self-interest, not even bothering to look up from their magazines. Eventually the woman was coaxed back from the brink of death and seated; Aaron and I drank ourselves into a light slumber for an hour or so, then awoke as we neared Miami.
We located the Admiral’s Club and Aaron began to download more “Lost” while I socialized with a cruise-bound group of blue-hairs and experimented with the two automatic espresso machines and the breakfast snack buffet before taking another valium for the next leg of the journey. Although it was a short flight we were served breakfast before landing in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We checked in at the Admiral’s Club there and were informed that while we didn’t qualify for free entry (there is no first or business class when flying to Martinique) she would allow us to stay because we’d been flying for so long. This was exceptionally sweet because it allowed us to hide our bags for a while and leave the airport, right into a sweltering mid-morning sun. Good thing I had this cool new hat. After a very brief discussion about cabbing into town for food we wandered the grounds of the airport and then returned to the Admiral’s Club to download “Lost” and engage the free snacks. As the last flight loomed I tried out the private bar which, it turns out, is as expensive as the bar available to everyone in the rest of the airport, and took my last valium of the day. Despite the cost it was a wise move– they didn’t serve alcohol on the flight to Martinique.
Still, the hour and a half wasn’t time enough to clear my head before trying to clear customs. I sat on the flight trying to focus my eyes on the page specifically designed to get through customs without a cavity search and kept mumbling the same two phrases over and over again. Walking up to the immigration gate I could barely carry everything because I was clutching the book so tightly. Bonjour! I screamed at the guard. He didn’t look at me, just my passport, which he stamped and returned without a word. Bienvenue!
A ride had been arranged by the luxurious Cap Est Resort and I had been terrified of being greeted at the gate by a white-gloved house-negro bearing a name placard. The fact that this didn’t happen would have been an immediate relief had someone been there, but it was just a small airport lobby with all the signs in the wrong language. We wandered up and down wondering how exactly we should proceed and I tried to extort money from an ATM which spit a receipt at me without any money. Ah, yes. We stepped outside into even more sweltering sun and looked around. Aaron went back to the gate to see if we had someone how missed the driver. I stood outside with our bags trying my best to look like a tourist. Theory one proved to be true and I was introduced to the cab driver who most certainly would never be seen in white gloves pandering to anyone. He had, in fact, spent ten years in the military. He tossed out bags in the back of the minivan serving as our cab and we took off. Aaron told me that the sign had read: “Mr. and Mrs. Tuller”. Where are you from? San Francisco.
The countryside between the airport, which sits towards the center of the island, and Cap Est grew from rolling hills into fairly mountainous terrain. After clearing the populated regions we sped through copses of sugar cane and past old plantations. The houses dotting the hillsides, every building in fact, looked like they had co-starred in any expose on Colombian drug-wars. Everything looked lush, aged and burdened with heat. Meanwhile the cab driver is asking about the Democratic primaries (which were just about to hit California at the time) and I tried to figure out how to explain why I wouldn’t vote for either front-runner were I to vote for any Democrat. In the end I let the conversation drop by staring out the window and young banana groves, the fruit bundled in blue plastic. “To protect the bananas” he said, alluding to the recent hurricane. And then we were pulling through a gate and up into the roundabout, met at the curb by beautiful smiling island people.
I walked back through the lobby, bonjour’d the girls again, and stood out front in the roundabout to smoke a cigarette. Down the driveway the shuttered gate began to trembled, then open. Monsieur Daily forced his way through the portal, cab behind him. Somehow it just made sense, all of a sudden, standing on the expansive grounds of a resort on a tropical island in the middle of the Caribbean; it was really just a trip to see Daily who walked up with his bike messenger bag slung over a shoulder. We walked into the lobby and collected Aaron, taking Daily to the bungalow to unload his shit. Then we cruised around the grounds showing off all the things we had just learned, hanging out on the small pier beyond the hanging vines as the sun sank from the skies.
After the charm of dusk had faded we cruised down through the lobby, bonsoir!, and to the bar where a couple sat secluded in quiet conversation. I insisted, in my sleep-deprived and heavily medicated state, on handling the first order of the evening and strode unsteadily to the counter where my French was immediately repelled by a barrage of English. Alright, I conceded, ordering three ti-punch, but next time this is happening in French. He smiled and agreed, but refused to let me stand there waiting for the drinks to me made. We found a table and waited, surprised when the bartender walked up bearing a plate of pate’ on bread and a glass full of battered cod. Shortly thereafter the three glasses of ti-punch arrived, the drink of Martinique. It turned out to be much less refreshing than a mojito: Ti-punch is a splash of cane-syrup, a measure of white rum and a lime. It burns the throat and spins your head around and sits smoldering in your stomach daring you to argue. We polished off the snacks and chatted as another couple of patrons arrived, including a couple with a toddler in a carriage. It seems a funny place to bring the kids, but then again the three of us must have seemed quite odd to everyone else. At some point, immediately following one of the random heavy downpours that float overhead and disappear within minutes, I went back to the room and discovered a cat keening outside the sliding door. I let the animal inside, wondering if it was a lost pet, and since it was quite accustomed to people I picked it up on my way out and walked to the lobby. The beautiful girl working behind the counter (I insist that she looks like Thandie Newton in “Flirting”) who had the tendency to giggle whenever I attempted French watched as the cat immediately savaged my arm, then began to giggle as I asked the best I could if the cat was okay to be here. The girl didn’t seem at all perturbed by the little bastard’s presence so I let it gently down and it scampered off– I bid au revoir to the both of them and returned to the bar.
Courtesy of Cap Est
The next round was ordered in French but it consisted of two Biere Lorraine and some sort of champagne cocktail Aaron thought sounded good. I’m not sure if the bartender could actually understand what I was saying but the transaction was completed, as was my paying with my card which, thankfully, worked. After the incident with the airport ATM I had my doubts I would have any access to money at all. By now the restaurant down along the water had opened for dinner and we walked across the lawn to inspect. While this may have been the lesser of the two on-site restaurants you would never know by the service or the fare. Aaron and Daily split an entree of Tuna Tartar and a campari a piece, then lamb over roasted vegetables and seared tuna steak over roasted peppers, respectively. I enjoyed a multiple-cheese panini over frites and another Biere Lorraine, feeling a little under-class for all the finery. By the end of the meal they were asking for the dessert menu and I was wondering where the top of my head had gone. I can remember getting the key for the bungalow but not getting back to it, nor do I remember passing out on the couch. After 36 hours awake, four flights over twenty hours, four valium and the contents of your mom’s liquor cabinet was suddenly awakened after Daily had been forced to crawl through some bushes and come through the sliding door leading to the deck. Their knocking could not wake me.
If you just want to see embarrassing pictures we pooled them on flickr. They’re unfortunately not in great order (each chunk is by one of us) but almost all of them have clever little descriptions so we expect you to look at each one. Otherwise, please carry on: Read more…
Map of Martinique, by the CIA.
My life was untroubled by the existence of Martinique until Daily announced his intentions of living there for eight months in order to research his dissertation. As his degree relates to French Colonial History the presumption was that Martinique was formerly a French Colony, which is correct, but it never would have occurred to me that it remains an actual part of France to this day. Like its Caribbean neighbor Guadeloupe, Guiana (not where Jonestown was) in South America and Reunion (which produced Miss France) near Madagascar, Martinique belongs to the Overseas Department of France. Each place is treated, to my understanding achieved through little effort, similar to various states here in the U.S., with direct representation in France’s government. Unfortunately this also means that they use the Euro which, if you haven’t noticed, is kicking the dollar’s ass these days.
Understanding that our friend was stranding himself in a foreign country where he knew no one Aaron and I began to discuss the possibility of selflessly throwing ourselves into the tropics in the dead of winter to visit. Phone calls to the MVP Gold representatives of Alaska Airlines were made, long slogs discussing logistics complex enough to cause mere calculators to explode in confusion, and a flurry of modern communication ensued between the States and the tiny island of Martinique. Miracles were performed and so it was set in stone that Aaron and I would journey from our comfortable northern climes and descend into the sun-soaked paradise at the beginning of February. Then the flights were changed and we accrued an additional leg and a couple of extra hours.
Suddenly I had gone from a routine entrenched spoil-sport to a globe-trotting member of the international jet-set. This required renewing my passport and finding some way of ensuring I would not be fired or evicted from my home. The gears were set in motion and the pieces fell into place as effortlessly as, eh, whatever the metaphor would be in this case. I even went so far as to borrow a French phrase book from a co-worker who jabbered foreign at me one afternoon without any provocation, assuming that she owed me for this grievous offense. The fact that I hardly cracked the book open during the first couple months of its occupation in my life can only be explained by revealing a complicated series of tragedies and misadventures inspired by Greek myths. With time running out I began mumbling phrases in mixed company and adjusting to the red-hue my cheeks assumed.
However feeble my attempts at incorporating a second (or third, I suppose) language, my research into the place I would ultimately see was first-rate. Martinique subsists on the French government but this economic aid does not mean there is no industry on the island. Tourism accounts for most employment as it requires a large service sector, and there are agricultural exports such as sugar-cane and bananas; the former is mostly dedicated to to the production of rum, for which Martinique is renowned. During the hurricane season of last year, tho, the island lost its entire banana crop. This disaster was followed closely by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake which caused one death (heart attack, I believe) and some destruction. Statistics available were slightly out of date and deviated slightly source by source but unemployment seemed to hover around 28%– higher perhaps this year due to the bananas being destroyed. So far as I understood it I would soon be traipsing through a tropical wonderland where they make a lot of booze and no one has a job, standing out like an albino, speaking the wrong language and probably wearing some garish garb with the mistaken idea that everyone on the island thinks hawaiian shirts and linen pants are the best way to combat the heat and humidity. The only available evidence that Martinique was not an impoverished death-trap like Haiti or Jamaica was that my pale-face friend was able to wander around on his own with no horror stories beyond every yard in his neighborhood being patrolled incessantly by enraged guard-dogs.
After being disappointed with the available literature on the internet (the Martinican tourist site focuses mainly on rum and food) I found a blog written by a British woman named Lindsay who is currently living on the eastern side of the island teaching English to school-children. Her experiences furthered my understanding of what was to come: flying cockroaches the size of baby birds; Dengue Fever. Fortunately she did vouch for the existence of food in supermarkets which could be stir-fried which implied that, were I to escape any untimely demise by insects, disease and kidney-thieves, I might be able to eat; that there would be seafood available (I’m that kind of vegetarian) was a given. Didn’t check into the mercury content of the Caribbean, tho. Her travails with cat-calling lecherous old-men in town seemed unlikely to cause me any problems, for which I was grateful. Maybe if I were blond.
Mount Pelee Erupts, 1902
There are also volcanoes, or at least one. Mount Pelee sits above the town of Saint-Pierre along the northern coast. The city had been the original capital of the island, referred to historically as the Paris of the West Indies, until 1902 when an eruption obliterated the town along with close to 30,000 inhabitants. In under ten minutes. Despite the tears it was exciting to be able to travel to the rebuilt Saint-Pierre where excavations allow you to poke around ruins looking for petrified babies and heads.
Except transportation seemed to be a tricky deal. The towns are separated by large swaths of heavily forested mountains. Car rentals seemed pretty cheap but testimonials suggested attempting to drive alongside the locals was invitation to heart attack because they are all insane. There’s no railroad and the country seems to lack a cohesive transit system beyond an unofficial bus known as a taxico: Large vans or small buses that run normal routes between two cities and just picks people up on the side of the road– you scream in foreign to get out wherever you need to get out and the driver decides how much you’ve cost him.
So what I knew before going: A small island populated by French speaking blacks, guard dogs, mosquitoes, giant flying cockroaches and my friend Daily. It would average 85 degrees during the day and maybe 75 at night with a breeze and the humidity would be high. It would be expensive due to the fact that not only is the island on the Euro but almost everything has to be imported. We would be at the mercy of a ramshackle public transportation system or mercenary cab drivers. If the hurricanes don’t kill you the next earthquake or volcanic eruption probably will. There may be thousands of impoverished people whetting knives waiting for feckless whitey. Then we found out we had booked our trip for Carnaval week.
At least this was more than many people knew when conversation came round to my imminent leaving. Of those who had any idea the place existed most could only recall it floated around somewhere in the Caribbean: It’s one of the lower islands in the Lesser Antilles which cut the Atlantic from the Caribbean close (geographically speaking) to Venezuela. Fewer understood that it was French, not just culturally but politically. One person, I discovered days before taking off, had actually been there before and suggested I take a rum distillery tour. The idea of being hung-over in a tropical climate made less sense than me being in a tropical climate.
None of this really explains how a small island in the Caribbean close to Venezuela became an overseas department of the French Republic, but since my return I’ve asked some questions and done some reading. Wrong order of events, of course, but something of the history: Read more…
Everything is just the same. We’re all part of society. Think we’ve got what we want. Think we’ve got variety. We like to watch television, listen to the radio. We like to read the Sunday paper. We believe what we’re shown.
There are those who disagree. They don’t like what they see. Different faces, different cases. Fighting all the apathy.
I call it revolution.
It’s not the usual jaunty number I find myself singing as I step out of the shower but somehow I seemed to be channeling what was going on hundreds of miles away. My old friend Lance Hahn died today.
I knew him before I ever knew him, y’know? When I was just getting started with music one of the first 7″ I bought was by an old band called Cringer, who had broken up before I was even aware of anything other than my sister’s tapes and MTV. The memory is pretty clear– Zen Flesh Zen Bones used at Neurotic Records for about two bucks. It wasn’t their best but the name was all over thanks lists from my favorite bands of the time, Green Day and The Mr T Experience and Crimpshrine, so I picked up the far superior Perversion is Their Destiny for a similar cost from Epicenter Zone and I had the bug. A collection of sharp, impassioned, literate (enough) but immediate and raw political and personal songs. The lines were blurry– it wasn’t exactly hardcore but it wasn’t too poppy. The lyrics were directly political and yet distinctly personal. The character of the band bled through the wax and the cover, dripped in your hands. These were people you could find yourself talking to on the street, at a show or at a party. There was no detachment from life, no separation brought on by the stage. These were people.
If I had your pen I’d write this song again, and let someone else write the next lyric. Every single day we have something to say, or at least have some appearance. I can’t be right all the time. I plagiarized the next line. I can’t say that I feel shame. If everyone did the same there’d be nothing left to blame.
It’s hard to believe– in anything– til everyone– does everything.
And so Cringer became and has persisted over the years as one of my favorite bands. Not because they never released a bad record or wrote a bad song but because the spirit of their existence and the heart and soul of their songs came to exist within me. More than probably any other band Cringer single-handedly is responsible for my drawing lines between my personal existence and the political implications of my life on the world around me. Lance wrote love songs that sounded like political treatises and political songs that were a conversation between two lovers unconscious in their struggle for control. Kit and fucking kaboodle…
When I started working at Epicenter we came to know one another and it was a little incongruous, the man and the records that had taken part in the shaping of the younger me. I never told him just what exactly his songs had meant to me and continued to mean– frankly it was embarrassing and he was a little more dorky then I had expected. Not that I was star-struck, possibly because from the connection of me and that band there had been that underlying understanding that we were on equal terms. Maybe it’s because he was so dorky. It just kinda happened, us knowing one another as people. I would sit behind the counter drinking a 40oz and smoking, spitting on the ground and irritating customers (both of them) by playing country records and he would walk in in his AK Press sweatshirt and maybe some fried tortellini from Mr. Pizza Man. It seemed like neither of us had anywhere else to go so we sat there, sometimes for hours, sometimes with others. We started staying well past closing, Lance and Kate and I most often, watching movies and talking massive amounts of shit. Non-stop shit talking. A never-ending torrent of shit was talked.
I’m watching for signals, they turn every night. It’s making me restless but nothing ignites. Oh, you know that I wanted this to be so much more, but I know we both know I should head for the door.
After a couple years Epicenter became financially and, honestly, culturally un-viable. I was pretending to live in Minneapolis while the collective dissolved itself, but at the same time Lance was seeing doctors and learning that he had a congestive-heart issue that was crushing his lungs against his rib cage. While I crawled the streets along the Mississippi at three in the morning he was getting blood work twice a week and working desperately to save his life. By the time I returned to help lay Epicenter down he was out of the worst but now had a permanent condition which would require constant monitoring and medication. You would never have known by talking with him unless you knew. Because he was so full of life and something like a potentially fatal disease was not going to keep him from hanging out and talking shit all night.
Epicenter was what brought us into orbit and when it was gone things changed dramatically. Kate’s house wasn’t as conducive to hanging out and now Lance and Liberty had started going out so we didn’t see too much of either of them. Eventually Libby decided to go back to school for linguistics and got into a program at the University of Texas in Austin. Lance continued to play in his post-Cringer band, J-Church, and continued to run his record label, Honeybear Records, through two house-fires which not only left them homeless but also destroyed his entire collection of records and priceless artifacts of his personal and punk rock history. We didn’t keep in touch, never having been the closest of friends and no longer having the common bonds we once shared. The last time we spoke was several years ago when J Church was on tour and played Bottom of the Hill. I skipped the show, not yet having attempted to listen to the band (a common feature of knowing Lance shared by everyone seems to be not being able to like whatever band he’s in when you know him– oh shit, except once I saw them play when I loaned them my PA to do an in-store at Howling Bull but I was busy kicking the amp trying to squeeze volume for the mics out of it so I didn’t really notice much except Lance had the guitar slung around his ankles and was bending chords by kneeing the neck), but we hung out afterwards before the van moved on for Portland. I was working a dead end job at a dying video store, the same as when he moved away. “I’m doing the same thing” he said. “Neither of us has changed since I moved” Well, I’m living at home tho, that’s shit. “Fuck, I’d live with your parents if I could. Your parents are cool.”
Okay, once he did spend the night at my parents’ house but they were out of town at the time.
Some months ago I heard through the grapevine that he had begun to experience kidney failure and had been placed on dialysis. There was talk of a waiting list for a transplant. It was bad news but something made me shrug it off, just as I shrugged off countless benefit shows and eventually a benefit compilation CD. I mean, this is Lance we’re talking about. He’ll be fine. He’ll be up and running in no time. J Church will go back on tour (maybe this time he can play Japan and wouldn’t it be funny to actually roadie this one now that I have money and he’s not having to go to the hospital every day) and he’ll release more records on Honeybear, write another newsletter and another historical essay on a long forgotten Peace-Punk band for MRR. He’ll be back and talking shit somewhere in the wee hours eating fried tortellini or telling a story from some Polish tour way back when.
But he went in for dialysis on Friday and collapsed. He slipped into a coma and on Sunday, October 21st, he slipped out of this world. I came home to two messages on my machine telling me and I spent some time on the phone talking about it and other things. Two people who I haven’t been very good about keeping up with but two people who are friends in the truest sense of the word and who deserve a little more effort on my part. And Lance did too, of course, even if it wouldn’t have mattered to him. Once again I have someone who I had stored away in the memory file assuming that we’d meet again and, when the time came, I could just reach back and grab that information, open the folder and begin where we left off. Not so, he’s gone. And despite the distance and the time in between the last time we spoke and now I will miss him.
Trapped in the back of my mind, is the thought too little too late. So when I try to define, I tend to over-complicate. When I’m told, again and again, ‘that’s just the way things go’. It leaves a bitter taste with me, because I think that we should know.
But at this time, I would have guessed
that we could rise above the rest.
But at this time, I guess I know
there are things we still can’t show.
Trapped in the back of our minds is a single ideology. Yet we bicker and we battle about what it means to be free. We never seem to have the courage to live the life we choose. So we lost what we should have won, because our numbers are diffused.
But at this time, I would have guessed
that we could rise above the rest.
But at this time, I guess I know
there are things we still can’t show.
Trapped in the back of my mind, trapped in the back of our minds. Trapped in the back of my mind, trapped in the back of our minds.
In between heaping handfuls of artificial-butter flavored popcorn film critics will argue the merits of cinema until their faces turn blue and their arteries clog with smegma. Despite the insulting utterances of these arrogant fiends who’ve no business orating anywhere other than from the depths of the dumpsters where they belong there comes from the horde rare observations which blind by virtue of their sheer brilliance. The particulars escape me, possibly severed from my retrievable memory by my own mind, but I once witnessed one such studio crony escape the tired opinions of his rank and question: do films from bygone eras appeal to modern audiences because of their inherent achievements or because of a collective nostalgia?
When I was growing up my summers were often spent falling asleep on the couch watching TV20 before the rape and pillage perpetrated by the WB. Original Star Trek episodes aired at midnight and, if you could stand the excitement, The Untouchables (starring Robert Stack as Elliot Ness, narrated by Walter Winchell) followed. More than anything (certainly not syndicated episodes of Perry Mason which my sister loved to watch) I think that this constant exposure to hard-nosed G-men tommy-gunning rum-runners for God and country eventually relinquished my dependence on color when watching movies. The show, which originally aired from 1959-1963, was shot on film, expertly lit and well crafted. The dialogue and acting was, admittedly, less refined but that’s hardly important when you’re eleven and get really excited when people are riding running boards through the streets of Chicago shooting up speakeasies.
As I’ve never really gotten over the cheap entertainment of pulp I still find a fair share of detective stories and back-lot productions to kill my life an hour at a time. The deeper you dig the worse you find but my tolerance for crap of this kind is far greater than that which is churned out these days. Bad acting, insulting plots, dialogue a deaf-mute could’ve written and cheap sets are just part and parcel of the experience. You forgive the movies because they come from another time and another place and your irritations are washed away by stylish old cars and trench-coats, smokey diners, cheezy swing-bands, wise-cracking cabbies and roustabouts working the pier. And the dames? Ah, the dames!
It could have just been an honest geek-fixation but I started to get pretentious and watching movies with subtitles. At first I just assumed this interest came as a result of my obvious superiority in matters of taste and intelligence but after hearing some snobby poppycock on the television about nostalgia as a spice I started scrutinizing these nickel and rupee three reel deals a little more, trying to look through the exotic for the inexcusable faults which anchor our major productions to the bottom of the bowel. There’s been some success: recently a Russian movie which made the rounds and earned rounds of applause on the indie/arthouse circuit earned nothing but my displeasure because of obvious pandering, shallowness and exploitation. I don’t want a Russian movie made for an American audience, I want Russian movies about fucking Russia for Russian audiences. I want quality, taste, intelligence, emotional resonance! Maybe if I read the back of the boxes before I borrowed these things I could spare myself some wasted evenings but that’s a no-no unless it’s a documentary…
The Turkish film “Journey to the Sun” isn’t great by any measure. The acting comes courtesy of, reportedly, amateurs culled from the streets and there’s little doubt in my mind that this is true. Overall the story is serviceable but elements can cause involuntary cringing (particularly the cheap, pre-fab romantic sub-plot) and not the empathetic embarrassment you get from “Rushmore” but the revulsion of seeing old 1940’s melodramas still seeping into film. Loose ends are tied together a little too cleanly with convenient twists cropping up at just the right time, reaching across the table for the salt and maybe that gravy’s gonna slop and stain the linens. There’s little room for directorial detatchment but even allowing political content there’s ways to make a movie without having your thumb in the frame. It’s not a great movie at all but I would sit and watch it again this very evening.
There’s a little window in my living room, a window into the world. It’s the streets of Istanbul and not the streets they have in tourist pamphlets or posters in travel agencies. It’s peeking in on people struggling to survive, struggling for identity and struggling to be. Through it you see the news, you see history, you see things that make you feel richer for having witnessed and you feel ashamed for not throwing open the sash and screaming. Not to reveal too much but this is a movie about two people who’ve moved from their impoverished provincial towns to the big city, one from the east and one from the west. One knows the score and one’s about to learn the hard-way that life isn’t just unfair but it calculatingly fucked. One’s a Kurd and one’s a Turk but the difference suddenly becomes negligible.
The film’s writer/director, Yesim Ustaoglu become a filmmaker while working as an architect. With some short-films for which she won some awards under her belt she eventually dedicated herself to a feature film, 1994’s The Trace. Turkey became more volatile as Kurdish separatists and government troops became increasingly engaged in what would amount to war and Ustaoglu, being from eastern-Anatolia, decided to focus her lens closer to home. In interviews after the film’s screening in various festivals Ustaoglu talks about how she became increasingly depressed and despondent about the second-class status of Kurds and wanted to understand more about how things had come to be the way they are today. From her research and reading came the script and eventually the movie. Her reasoning is my favorite thing about this movie, but also a reminder that I don’t know shit about shit… Read more…
Here in the west coast, the youngest outpost of civilization the world knows, there is no collision of the past and the future. It is undeniably a modern place where the culture, the technology and the culture operate in a particular harmony of now. You would have to travel east to find any example of the gulf of time, to Boston where Paul Revere lies at the Granary Burial Ground down the street from a Radio Shack improbably manhandled into the basement of a three hundred year old brick building. Philadelphia is home to Elfreth’s Alley, the longest continuously inhabited street in America. You can walk down the cobbled street lined with narrow homes before turning the corner onto a busy street lined by boutique galleries. Travel farther east and you find the most severe dissonance of all, Japan, where the most advanced vending machine ever developed will sell hot coffee and cold soda to people living in houses that have stood since the middle ages.
But that’s just part of why Japan is a curiosity for the world. Somehow the ancient and the modern blend into a mysterious whole of wafer-thin cell phones and shinto shrines. Just as in San Francisco where internet use in coffee shops in as ubiquitous now as seeing two old men silently wage war across a chess-board once was ten years ago. Cafes have long been a place for the cutting edge, from the social rejects who became Bohemians to the folkies and art-fags who exhibited their talents and personalities in the corners and on the walls. Somehow it’s less an surprise to see two people sharing a table yet completely absorbed in the separate world of their laptops then seeing a cluster of people debate the merits of cubism or a person quietly reading a book of poems over a cappuccino. If advertisements are hip to the trend laptops are flooding the world, leveling the playing field for people everywhere, but it’s still hard to imagine the saffron-robed Dali Lama checking e-mail.
Odd as it may seem recent efforts by a disparate cluster of people have made the internet a reality for an ancient people normally considered to shun the modern era and the trappings that come along with it. Since the Chinese absorbed Tibet in 1950 a large immigrant population has found homes in the northern mountains of India. Many found placement in Dharamsala where a population of over 100,000 Tibetan exiles now live and who have been working to rebuild their shattered community since the Dali Lama arrived at the end of the 50’s. It’s a small city in the harsh frontier where running water and electricity can’t be relied on so much as hoped for on any given day. Yet somehow it is here that a major technological coup has taken place.
Israeli ex-patriot Yahel Ben-David came to visit a friend who was on a spiritual quest and found himself leaving behind his high-paying position with a Silicon Valley linux firm to begin life anew among the refugee population. Finding the plight of the Tibetan people unconscionable Ben-David began to formulate a method of providing some service to help them advance beyond subsistence. He knew networking so he scoured the city for old computers, fax machines, modems, phones– anything linux oriented that he could take apart to rebuild. Over time he began to have prototypes which he would have to take back to Israel in order to test; India originally forbid open wireless networks. He introduced his ideas to others, he accepted donations of old parts from abroad, he waited.
And when India finally opened a limited amount of bandwidth for WiFi he was ready, manually placing his first antennae that same day. They sprung up in trees, off balconies, from the spires of buildings and the roofs of temples. Adjustments, repairs, re-placement, checks, tests– day by day searching for the signal and trying to keep the monkeys from fucking everything up. Then there was the wireless mesh. From his efforts there is now a grid of over thirty satellite relays spreading a blanket of connection over Dharamsala, reserved exclusively for the Tibetan people. Temples and schools host the server computers and the antennae and a small fee for maintenance, everything operated from the Tibetan Technology Center, housed by the venerable and long-standing charity the Tibetan Children’s Village. Now the kids, some of whom are third generation exiles, can learn network administration and web design along with their culture, traditions and history.
It’s not perfect– they had to block porn sites almost immediately because the network couldn’t support the interest and Tibetan script isn’t something that keyboards recognize just yet– but the Wireless Mesh Project has effectively provided internet access to over two thousand computers in Dharamsala alone by recycling technology and sharing knowledge. The relays operate on solar panels making them more reliable then any of the utilities provided by the local government. When one tower drops there are others all around keeping the signal strong. Something has been created in a rural Indian mountain town that hasn’t been effectively achieved in the heart of Silicon Valley by industry leaders. There’s been efforts to improve upon the technology- a telephony expert has travelled from Australia to work on incorporating VoIP connecting settlements spread out along the Indian/Tibetan border- and it has spread to other refugee communities. The Dharamsala mesh has been joined by three others all built and maintained by a team of Tibetan and foreign geeks. The exiles hope this window to the outside world can help them grow economically (there’s unfortunately talk of developing call-centers like in other Indian cities as well as online cultural curiosities for sale ala’ arrowhead necklaces and turquoise statues off the res) while strengthening their connection to their history and displaced communities. As the Chinese have repeatedly made attempts to destroy anything historically Tibetan in the occupied land ancient texts have been smuggled out where they’re being preserved digitally and passed from computer to computer. There’s hope that becoming a presence online can help bring the plight of the Tibetans back into the public-eye and exert pressure politically without having to deal with any Beastie Boys. The hard work seemed to pay off with Boingboing writer and globe-trotting internet personality Xeni Jardin introducing the world of NPR to the world of Tibet online.
Not everyone is pleased. Soon after an article was published about the wireless mesh project a DDoS attack temporarily disabled the network; although the evidence wouldn’t stand up in court (or courts without executions taking place on the roof) it does suggest the attack originated in China. So after struggling with bitter cold, savage mountain winds, poverty, out-dated technology and primates Ben-David and his band squared off with monkeys of another breed. Fortunately friends have been made around the world, the global computing community seems pretty on board.
If we were still living in a world where Tibet was like the opening of “The Golden Child” you would have trouble believing someone named Oxblood Ruffin installed encryption software for the Dali Lama but we’ve left that and debates about Cubism behind. Hackers and phreaks have found common cause and it seems the roots of Hacktivism can be traced to the implementation of The Great Firewall of China. In addition to helping set-up and secure the Tibetan grid there have been concerted efforts to tackle the Chinese directly. Applications such as Torpark, which randomizes the IP address visible to a network administrator while encrypting the user end of the signal, and methods of encryption such as steganography which hides sensitive data within, eh, insensitive data are now out there helping people achieve something very basic– an unrestricted access to information. In the states this is some big-money shit, this is an entire industry that works with budgets that use the world billions. In Tibet it took a sense of what was right, some left-of-center thinking and a way of keeping the damn monkeys from fucking shit up.
Activism for Dummies has, on page one, the saying “One Dollar, One Vote”. It’s the simplest way to make a statement without actually having to stand up and make it, less demanding of your time then writing letters to the intern who volunteers for your congress-person and more hygienic than slopping gruel in tin cans at your local soup kitchen. Everyone buys shit so there’s only the slightest impact on your day to day lifestyle– feel the warm rosy glow?
Some chapters in you’ll see inspiring pictures of groups of people wielding signs and marching. Pretty popular in these parts but probably less of an every day event where the thermometer carries more weight in daily planning. Mass inaction has been credited with drawing (un)popular attention to issues that some find important as well as, in some rare cases, prevented unsavory meetings between powerful men and women from proceeding, trains from carrying nuclear waste, scabs from crossing the picket line. In recent years the advances in communications technology have enabled these group whine-fests to more effectively occupy the police and cause general disruption. Cell phones allow people to orchestrate without immediate contact. After the US invasion of Iraq (Part Deux) downtown SF was “pure anarchy” according to the police and business was hardly carried on as usual. Those of us who were home or at work could follow along with events by watching the constant updates provided by Indymedia or various pirate radio stations.
Obviously we have quite a homegrown history of these sorts of actions and we’re a pretty cutting edge town when it comes to having the coolest, latest gadgets science & business can concoct but the rest of the world seems to be catching up. Recently in the coastal Chinese city of Xiamen a Taiwanese company began construction on a chemical plant which, according to the Xianglu Group responsible for the factory, would produce massive amounts of P-Xylene and would be doing so about a mile from the city limits. Citizens were understandably concerned and requests were made through government representatives to relocate the site. Despite these efforts the local environmental bureau announced that the plant passed its evaluation, saying the plant would discharge half the national standard of various toxic waste. Of course, the national standard is lowering average lifetimes throughout China but context is context.
So the people of Xiamen took to the streets as per usual, waving banners and shuffling along the accepted route into the wall of bored police. But the numbers grew, and continued to grow. Pressure began to mount on local government officials– the usual motley collection of hippies and pensioners suddenly was a swell of popular reaction against the plant. As a result the local bureaucrats rubbed heads and decided to stop development until a second (possibly even a more stringent) environmental evaluation could be performed. Read more…