sábado, 6 de septiembre de 2008

My final Watson report

Its been a long time since I decided to stop writing in this blog, infelizmente....

I thought I would post my final reflection report, hope you enjoy.

Final Watson Reflection
by Marlon Bishop

Beyond being the world’s best independent research opportunity, the Watson Fellowship is a unique psychological experiment. Fifty intrepid souls get the unique chance to decontextualize themselves, to step outside of the environments and cultures that shape their every gesture and color their every perception. Cultural relativity rears its ugly head in just about every facet of our lives, and most people who spend anytime abroad talk about how much bigger their world becomes afterwards. They realize their way is but one way, that the world contains multitudes and that every certainty has its exception. But we Watsons live so many miniature lives in so many places, with so little routine or structure, that something else begins to happen. We become unstuck.

At first, the joy of Watson travel, especially in the so-called “third world,” is about the discomfort of it – as we are imposing our projects on the world we are accosted by difference, sounds and smells, mannerisms and mores. This can be both exhilarating and maddening. Every action, from buying toothpaste to securing an interview, is infinitely more challenging, every success more elating. The fruit being sold out of the donkey-pulled cart, the crowded and inane public transportation system, all of it is profoundly uncomfortable, and the adrenaline of negotiating and translating that discomfort burns a smile onto your face. But at some point in the year, I began to realize that what surprised me most was how incredibly comfortable I had become everywhere and at all times, the nonchalance with which I encountered the previously unimaginable. I was unstuck. I was everywhere and anything. I could be one moment riding in a pickup truck down a pothole-studded dirt road through a jungle-studded sky and the next interviewing a successful musician in a swanky urban hi-rise, and while it could still put a smile on my face, I was no longer surprised. Commuting on a canoe through the mangroves wasn’t some exotic novelty anymore, it just was what it was. Where once there was a catalog of possible occurrences, now anything was possible, and even probable. This is an sensation that I really wish everybody could have. It’s like being a superhero, like being water, omnipotent and formless. Unstuck in place, we roamed, and we flowed through the cracks in the wall as they spread out like spider webs.

The unsticking process was not at all easy. I don’t think I could have imagined how bad my first Watson weeks could have been. I was deeply unprepared in every sense for this trip, but I had already traveled in developing countries, had lived abroad, spoke the language well – I figured I would be fine. Yet I arrived in the Dominican Republic fearful and sad. Terrified. My tenuous contacts hadn’t gotten back to me in a while, and I didn’t really understand why I was leaving home, towards what ends I was thrusting myself into uncertainty. I pulled up to the pensíon that I reserved in the crumbling and gloomy Old City of Santo Domingo, fittingly the first city founded in the Americas, and stumbled my way into the unfriendly room in what I soon discovered was more or less a brothel. I talked to nobody for about a week, retreated into self-pity. I reread my ex-girlfriend’s goodbye letter every night and trembled. Every fruit laden donkey and pothole was threatening. I found myself in the neighborhood phone-center not because I needed to call anybody, but because I craved its cold institutional cleanliness. I couldn’t believe it, Marlon Bishop of all people found himself desiring the easy and familiar over aventure.

But then one night of week two I was aimlessly wandering through the gloom and stopped for a coffee at the ancient nameless café on my block, too atmospheric for its one good and perpetually filled with old men arguing about chess and politics and women. One drunk old bohemian – I still remember his name, Monchy, a long retired merengue singer from the good old days – began to talk to me. We talked for hours about music and every other thing, and at the end he wrote down the numbers of some musician friends on a crumpled yellow piece of paper. It was a first moment of endless connections, but more importantly, it was a sign that I could make this happen, a first step. At first I started interacting with old people and children – the former charmed by me and the latter curious. Then I began to work with branching out to everybody in-between. And a few weeks later I had negotiated the contract on an apartment, attended a syncretic pilgrimage, broken my life-long vegetarianism on a meal with a vodú “queen”, played the mandolin on a very large stage, and was at least knee-deep in the Dominican folklore scene. And it never ceased to amaze me, you inflict yourself on the world and it responds, you do something and then it happens, the realities gather like magnetic filings as intention is translated into action. It seems so basic, but wow oh wow.

The unsticking is fundamentally about adaptation. I’m always amazed by how adaptable human beings really are, how we can make anything our own in just a short time. On the Watson Fellowship, one adapts to constant change as the norm, and new stimuli become a part of everyday life. And so, a life so clearly extraordinary becomes mundane, and its hard to imagine any previous life, when things were so static. There is no other way, one begins to take it all for granted, ignores the jungle mountain view and focuses on the tiny tediums. But every now and then it would hit me like breaking news where I was and what I doing, like a revelation. I would survey the plummeting valley or the soaring skyline and shake my head in disbelief that this could really be my life. I would kiss the skies and thank the ground. Stepping outside of myself in those rare moments, it seemed madness that someone could be given such a gift. As exciting as that original traveler’s plunge may be, this new feeling, this becoming unstuck, is something far greater. Having shed my context, I can float freely between contexts and realize that apart from all of it, I am still profoundly me. It’s the sensation of wearing the whole world like a comfortable shirt. The sensation that I belong everywhere.


I spent my year studying the endless manifestations of African music in the Americas. I listened to the lost voices of a story that is often told in part, hoping to stitch together the missing strands of its narrative. It is a story that affects nearly every person in the world, every single day – almost all modern popular music carries the heritage of the musical syncretism that happened in the New World when diverse African and European peoples were forced to share the same soil. Everything from Bollywood film music to Japanese pop has a New World beat lurking somewhere. This is mostly due to the dissemination of American popular styles such as rock and roll by our massive culture industry in the 20th century, but there have been other pathways – Cuban rumbas are the root of modern African dance genres like the Congolese soukous, Jamaican-rooted ska is protest music of a generation of Spaniards, and Argentinean tangos gave birth to modern folk styles from Helsinki to Tokyo. What happened in New World was, in my opinion, the pivotal moment in the history of music. However, the story as normally told omits the great swath of forgotten Afro-American musics. Scattered across the continent are abandoned and isolated black enclaves who make deeply African music, music that has been barely recorded and disseminated internationally. There is so much to be heard. It is a story that is hard for the musicians themselves to tell, because it is a story of incredible pain. The music exists only because of what is perhaps mankind’s most awful sin – the African enslavement that upon which the wealth of modern Europe and America was built. The music is so often more than music – its religion and lament, rebellion and vindication as well.
I spent the year chasing these lost sounds. I took lessons and interviews with gnarled masters and young academics; I attended barrio dance parties, countryside religious rituals, and city concert halls. I recorded everything that vibrated in rhythm. I traveled up and down rivers and coasts in remote regions searching for somebody who remembered the old ways. I found some traditions alive, vibrant and dynamic and others nearly lost, kept going by a few hardworking souls and bastardized on the stage by folkloric dance groups. I found people who took me in as a son and others who didn’t want to talk to me at all. I found richly recorded and documented styles such as bumba-meu-boi in Brazil’s Maranhão province and vast traditions never fixed on any medium such as the marimba dances of Ecuador’s Esmeraldas. Mandolin jury-rigged to my back, I played with everybody I possibly could.

While there are certainly a lot of people who know a whole lot more than me, there are probably few people who have witnessed first hand as many styles of Afro-Latino music as I have. In retrospect, my haphazard roadmap for a survey of Afro-Latino styles was actually pretty well designed. I went to one country in each major region of the Americas – the Caribbean, Central America, the Southern Cone, the Andes, the Pacific Coast, and the Atlantic Littoral. In each of these places, local contexts, histories, demographics, and geographies have shaped the rhythms, instruments, and thematic content of the musics, as well as the place in society that those musics hold today. The differences are great – Ecuadorian 6/8 curulaos played on untempered marimbas are a world apart from the Uruguayan candombe banged out by fifty drummers down Montevideo streets. Of course, there are intense areas of intersection. I’ve listened to a great deal of musical theories and formed many of my own, and here is not the place to really expound very deeply upon them, but I will try to give an overview of some elements present in the music.

I try to avoid the stereotype that the sole African contribution to syncretic music is rhythm, because African melodies, harmonic systems, and texts also have influenced New World music greatly. Yet there is no doubt that Africans brought a rich rhythmic understanding to the New World. Most Afro-Latino styles are steeped in polyrhythm, the layering of differently metered musics on top of each other. Musicians play in 3/4 and 4/4 and 6/8 all at once, and the artistry in the music becomes playing with these pluralities, musical games of mind-boggling complexity. Indeed, Afro-Latino music often surpasses African music in complexity because so many different African peoples intersected in the New World – Mande and Fula, Bantu and Wasalu all in the same place for the first time in history. The European influence is often almost non-perceptible, yet it is there – in the Spanish language, in the melody of a Catholic psalm. Most Afro-Latino music is also somehow related to a clave – a repeating musical pattern that sits behind everything, a world that fittingly means “key” in Spanish. The claves differ, but almost all are rooted in the Cuban habanera, a popular colonial dance style exported all over the continent in the 19th century. Indeed, three little notes kept cropping up all across the continent, the result of African 6/8 music forced into the square-like 4/4 of European dances, the squashing of African polyrhythmns into something the colonizers could understand. The same sounds could appear anywhere –the interlocking tambourines of the Dominican spiritual salve is sped up and beat warlike on Andean bass drums and becomes the Bolivian saya. Instrumentations change, tempos change, subtle accents change, and the music says something completely new.

One important difference between African-rooted music in the former English colonies and in the former Spanish colonies is that in the latter, enslaved Africans held on to their drums. The English, often said to have been much harsher taskmasters, understood the power and importance of the instruments and took them away, and so African music manifested itself on European snares and tom-toms. In Latino countries, however, drums are present in staggering numbers and varieties – the Dominican Republic alone has well over twenty classes of them, each with their own musics and mythologies. Across the continent, I heard echoes of the same strands of lost traditions in African drum making – how the tree must be felled on a new moon, the skins cured at dawn. This was the first time in my life that I spent a lot of time playing and thinking about drums, and I soon learned that there is so much more than the rhythms you can write down on paper, that their languages go far deeper than I thought. A drum hides hundreds of tones like syllables waiting to be coaxed from its skin, to be strung into words and sentences. A drum can tell stories. Everywhere I went, I met old toothless men without a drop of musical education whose hands intuitively played things the greatest jazz drummers never dreamed of, things miles away from the wildest avant-garde. In my interviews, I’d ask these men how they learned and they would always reply with the same mantra, “its in me, I carry this in the blood.” Looking at their 3 year olds barely speaking but already playing it seems like a true statement. But I don’t believe musical talent is genetic, rather, it is in the tradition - a deep relationship with body and time, an understanding of the richness within rhythm, cultivated over thousands of years and still maintained by communities 500 years removed from their ancestral homelands. In some places, drumming was the last surviving element from traditions that once included many kinds of instruments, and even the cynics boldly claim that the beat can never be lost. The colonizers tried to ban and burn them, but the drums survive. One close friend of mine in the Dominican Republic was brujo or spirit-medium named Giovanni, a man whose eyes seemed look into other worlds. He saved me on the night of my fundamental Watson trauma – an armed assault by 6 men. There I was: left penniless, hours from home in the slums in the infinite night of a Caribbean blackout, and he found me and got me home safely. Giovanni always wore a totem around his neck, a magical object that he claimed made him invisible to his enemies, that protected him from evil. That empowered him to help me on that very night. It was a small model drum, hanging close to his heart.
Afro-Latino music always dwells very close to spirituality, and there is no greater example than the Dominican Republic, where complex drumming traditions act as the direct conduit to the gods in the omnipresent syncretic cult vodú. There I witnessed more crystallized versions of something I found all over the continent, the very thing that has attracted me to African and black music my entire life, to the cosmology of George Clinton and P-Funk – a spiritual concept that seeks personal transcendence through communities moving together in music. It is a mystical tradition that emphasized a physical, even musical, relationship with God. Even in countries where Afro-syncretic religion died out long ago, this idea is central, built into the music itself. Most Afro-rooted styles are based around a simple repeating pattern or chorus with improvised drumming and singing woven through. The same thing repeats again and again, and while the music doesn’t expressly change over time, something changes. The musicians play that one pattern more and more perfectly, they delve deeper into a single moment. They groove. And when done right and done together, the reduction of everything to this single thing brings us somewhere higher. All over from Honduras to Uruguay, musicians will play one two-beat rhythm for hours and hours. At Dominican devotional festivals, musicians play up to twenty hours straight, past where their hands become numb and raw; the audience sings and dances until sunrise. They are searching for being perfectly where they are, and when they hit it right, there is no doubt in the world that we can rise above. That we already are perfect.

When I decided to spend the year going deeply into the hidden regions of Afro-Latino music, I don’t think I understood what that meant completely. I grew up in the multiculturalism of public school New York and then marinated in the intense racial atmosphere at Wesleyan, where identity politics is serious business. I didn’t want this project to be about, race, it was about music, the great unifier. However, there was no avoiding the glaring questions. I spent my year in black communities in Latin America, without a doubt some of the most abandoned and poor places in the hemisphere. Racial realities are complex in Latin countries in part due to a history of racial mixture but also due to governments who have promoted color-blindness as a way to bind diverse societies under national banners, to stem the tension between the white elite and the vast dispossessed, indigenous, and black. In Bolivia, slavery effectively ended for the tiny black community in the lush Yungas coca fields with the passing of a land tenancy act fifty years ago. In the arid Chota valley of Ecuador, slavery effectively continues to this day. Laced into the narrative are stories of cimaronaje, blacks who escaped to isolated havens in the mountains or forest. For example, Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province, hidden in splendid isolation by inhospitable wetlands, served as a free black enclave for all its history. Everywhere there are remnants of African words that emerge in song, powerful uttering that have lost their original meaning. African-influenced cooking, dialect, religious practice, and craftwork survive as well. These are difficult places, and the struggle and pain of a vast history of mistreatment is reflected everywhere in the music. In Honduras, there is the parranda, the lilting Garifuna blues that tells of nostalgia for their flourishing home on Saint Vincent before the English expelled them to Central America in the 19th century. Then in Uruguay, in the historically black Barrio Palermo, a community remembers a more recent injustice, the senseless demolishing in 1970 of the Ansina tenement where the greatest candombe playing families lived side by side, now scattered rootless throughout the city. On Sunday nights when they get together to play and march sixty strong through the streets, they turn to the hulking ruins of their own ancestral home in salute. Although it looks like a mobile dance party, the candombe drummers call its guerra - war. It is a great seething cry of pain and joy and anger all at once, endlessly reverberating through the spooky grey quiet of the old city.

Racism is deeply imbedded in Latino society. Social discrimination is everywhere; economic and educational opportunities for blacks often virtually negligible. I was easily accepted into all the communities I worked with, and this was partially because so few outsiders had bothered to be interested in their music, but also, I suspect, because there is very little racial consciousness in these places. The extreme case is the Dominican Republic, with 95% of the population said to have African ancestry and where complex self-directed racial prejudice has led the darkest Dominicans to believe themselves the decedents of Taino indians and for skin-whitening creams to become the most commonly sold beauty products. However, in every country there are nascent black solidarity and black consciousness movements that have begun to make real strides, often inspired by U.S. heroes such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. Along the trip, I came to realize that as much as music means to me, the communities I worked with have much more in stake. For the small black enclaves across Latin America, the challenge to gain some kind of voice is seemingly insurmountable. Music is not only the binding glue of a community, not only a living link to that community’s history, but their greatest political asset, the most powerful way to gain desperately needed attention, funding, and respect from their societies at large. It is so deeply laced with importance.

I found some musical traditions that were teetering on the verge of extinction. In Honduras I traveled the fishing villages of the North Coast and the Mosquitia rainforest looking for the famous guitar-slinging Garifuna bluesmen and found nearly none. Cultural workers such as my host, Aurelio Martinez, world-class musician and national senator, could do nothing but watch a unique culture unravel and diffuse into the reggaeton-grinding Latino mainstream, watch as the youngest of generations chattered in Spanish instead of the Garifuna language during their beachside soccer matches. As the practice of living off American family remissions replaces subsistence fishing, the contexts change and the music must find a new space to survive or die off. Then in Ecuador I found one of the most bizarre musical morphologies of all. The banda mocha of the Chota valley is a traditional orchestra of instruments made out of vegetables. They transform squashes into tubas and trumpets; they play orange-tree leaves like virtuoso clarinetists. Whereas once, every town in the valley had a banda mocha, now there is only one scraggly group, most of its members well over eighty. In a few years, it may be gone forever. Elsewhere in Ecuador, the gorgeous ring of Esmeraldan marimbas struggles to be heard above the booming car stereos. The tradition lies on the backs on a handful of devoted men like Alberto Castillo, who continues to build marimbas even though he must sell them at a loss, who remembers not eating for days to save up for travel expenses to gigs that paid nothing. Men who sacrifice everything to keep the traditions from dying.

I found other musical cultures very much alive. In the Dominican Republic, a vast richness of Afro-Latino styles played every day in the fields of the poor and the basements of the rich, kept alive by a popular religion that manifests itself daily. In Uruguay, the black minority’s candombe has become music of Carnival and the symbol of a nation, played by the descendents of Germans and Italians as often as blacks. Afro-Andean bomba has become essential at any dance party in the Northern Ecuadorian Andes. The intersection of African rhythms and indigenous melodies has proved a winning pop combination for the Quichua-speaking peoples who live in the area. In remote Northern Brazil, the frenetic tambour de crioula drums sound nightly downtown as young Brazilians delve into a old tradition supported heavily by state-funded workshops. Even when it seemed a music style was dying, its traces would appear in other places – in the rhythm of the church bells, in a sauntering gait, as a sample embedded in the heart of a new hip-hop song.

I imagine most Watsons will say that the highlight of their trip was the people they met. Like others, I relied on the kindness of strangers, from people who would help a poor lost gringo find the correct bus to those who took me into their homes for weeks at a time. In order for my project to succeed, I relied on musicians to open up their world to me and teach me their secrets, to trust this wandering fair-haired stranger. I had the privilege to meet some of the largest personalities in Afro-Latino music, some of the most unforgettable characters to have walked this hemisphere. They often led very simple lives with little recognition from the world at large, but exuded a power, an easy confidence, a mystical knowledge of things. Pure undiluted gravitas. Among them is the recently deceased Sixto Minier, king of the congos spiritual brotherhood, an ancient man saddled with the responsibility of guarding and playing twenty-one sacred drum beats for the funerals of living saints, whose giant yellow-tooithed smile lit up the barrio. In Honduras I met Pancho, a legendary guitarist who still lived in a thatched, dirt-floored dwelling while his neighborhoods built concrete palaces, who could hollow out a drum trunk with a chisel in an afternoon and spend two nights at sea fishing in a canoe, whose gnarled voice sang like the mountains. In cosmopolitan Montevideo, I got to know Perico Gularte, king of the repique drum, whose battle scarred hands read like roadmaps of a life heating and beating drum skins on phantasmal Sunday evenings. In Ecuador I visited the riverside stilt village of Papa Roncón, the greatest marimba player to have ever lived, who lounged shirtless in his hammock and spun tales, recounting how the devil visited him and taught him the chords of a guitar, back in his youth when he worked canoeing goods up and down the emerald waterways, before the first roads came to the province and brought hopes and false promises. Endless more, people of unshakable vision. People who make everything one can ever become seem so small.


There is a tried and true truism that “music is a universal language” – and it really is true. Though I became very fluent in Spanish and Portuguese over the course of the year, my year was really made possible by the ephemeral connection that musicians around the world have There is a feeling that we share a vital experience, a certain something we carry inside us, something that ordinary people don’t perceive or understand. I’ve often thought that playing music taps you into a special nameless part of the universe, opens one up to another class of knowledge. Playing music with other people forms such strong bonds because it involves a form of communication in some ways deeper than the limiting symbols of speech, a language much more basic and primal. I think music made it easier for me to make lasting and meaningful bonds with locals of every class, race, and age than it was for some fellows – after all, most of my fieldwork sites were places where people drank whisky and danced. I fell easily into music circles everywhere I went, and the cultural currency one gets from being a musician overcomes the heavy prejudice against Americans, overcame differences in race and culture. Many of these friends will stay with me for life. My Afro-Dominican guru Jose Duluc, as wild a rockstar as Jim Morrison and as wise a revolutionary as Bob Marley, became a father to me in those emotional three months. The guys of Vieja Historia, the Uruguayan indie-bluegrass band with whom I toured around that little country. Along the trip, I came to realize that as much as music means to me, the communities I worked with have much more in stake. For the small black enclaves across Latin America, the challenges to overcome overt racism and gain some kind of voice are seemingly insurmountable. Music is not only binding glue of a community, not only a living link to that community’s history, but their greatest political asset, the most powerful way to gain desperately needed attention and respect from their societies at large. It is so deeply laced with importance.

Despite my ease of making connections with musicians, the Watson Fellowship is hugely about being alone, about being taken out of our hyper-socialized environments and endless tiers of personal responsibilities and seeing what happens to a person who spends the bulk of their time alone. On one side, the experience of solitude is loneliness, something every Watson fellow is familiar with. Cooking yourself rice and beans by candlelight in the thundering rain; riding past heartbreakingly beautiful mountains and having nobody next to you to rave about them to. On the other side, there is the joy of self-reliance, of being comfortable in your own head. I learned to cherish all that time spent thinking, nurturing an internal life that sometimes we are only aware of on the peripheries of consciousness, too distracted by relationships and activity to perceive. When all the alone time gets overbearing, I would let some of that Latino gregariousness take over and talk to anybody who would listen to me about anything. Old men and children were a safe bet.

I’ve now said that the Watson Fellowship is fundamentally about a lot of different things, but really, for me, it was fundamentally about freedom. Freedom from responsibility to one’s friends and families and lovers, freedom from one’s past, and freedom from one’s future. Freedom from one’s culture with its morals and mores, and freedom from your own preconceptions about the world and how it works. For me, language was an incredible variety of freedom – these beautiful Spanish words were not laden with a lifetime of mind numbing subtleties, not yet worn out or heavy in their myriad meanings. In Spanish, I could rediscover the act of expression with new words, say everything in the most honest way possible without self-consciousness. The obvious freedoms of being able to go where one pleases and when one pleases. For me, it was the freedom to fully be the person I’ve wanted to be, to be concerned only by how to best take advantage of that very freedom. The freedom to be so completely myself.

It shouldn’t surprise me that I adapted just as easily to being home as I did to being anywhere else this year. We humans are adaptable creatures, us Watsons even
more so. The moment that I arrived home to that familiar block, the magnetic warmth of home competing internally with the desire to flee back into the great unknown, I knew how it would all instantly disappear dreamlike back into the comic-book fantasy it so often seemed. How soon I would wear my old ways comfortably. Yet a month later, I still feel sometimes this stasis of place and meaning is actually the lucid dream, that I will wake up and be out there somewhere, mandolin in hand and jeans rolled up to my ankles, sunshine in my eyes. I shouldn’t worry – everybody says that “the Watson stays with you forever” and I imagine that has to be true. It is jarring, though. All year long I spent building this formless something, a thing composed of all my successes and failures, project and personal. A symphony rising out of your own life and how you relearn to live it, motifs from the past, thematic innovation everywhere. Only to see it sort of shimmer and vanish like jungle air.

What I have is what I have learned, and I have learned so very much. Pictures and endless journal entries aimed towards freezing the present will inherently fail, those mechanical and psychological interpretations of objective realities. But knowledge is not meant to freeze time, but to guide the way we live our lives, to provide framework with which to interpret future realities. From the humblest communities I learned about what community actually meant, about resourcefulness, about dedication, and about how a good dance party does not require a big budget. I have learned about how to give from people who had nothing. I learned about joy, about how to scream out to the heavens that you are happy to be alive when it doesn’t look like there’s much to be happy about. I learned that my apathy was misguided, that we have an imperative not to live our lives in ways that hurt other either directly or indirectly. I learned that people can and will always surprise you. I learned how much we all dehumanize the dispossessed without even realizing it. I learned our beautiful America (we are, north and south, one America afterall), her every curve. I learned that I am proud of the United States and its mind-blowing dynamic cultural climate, and that I will stand up for that. I learned that I like to talk about serious things with strangers in foreign languages. I learned some practical skills, like how to negotiate loudly with landlords and taxi drivers, and how to cook many kinds of vegetables. I learned that no matter how-street-smart, a fresh-faced gringo can simply not wander into the slums at will. I learned about being alone, about loving quiet as well as the thundering music. I learned about something indescribable and unspeakable of great beauty, the meaty center of Afro-Latino music that has no name but sends shivers through one’s soul. I learned about how different people can be and how similar all of us are. I learned about darkness and silence and about not having electricity or water. I learned about thankfulness. I learned about yearning and about need. I learned so much more, unquantifiable lessons that I hope will continue to inform my existence and make me smile or cringe in random moments of repose. Most of all, however, I learned from the incredible musicians I worked with this year, people of such pure hearts, of such deep vision. Thank you, everybody, so much.

jueves, 24 de abril de 2008

Cokoo for Coca: Bolivia part 2

I came to Bolivia to take a quick listen to a music style called saya afroboliviana, a little known groove played by Bolivia´s tiny, unrecognized black population – some 30,000 people who live almost entirely in a few rural villages in a lush coca-growing region called Los Yungas, the descendents of enslaved Africans forced to work in the gigantic silver mine of Potosi, a mine so gigantic it made little old Potosi the biggest city in the world at its time of glory. Before the 1980s, the community was so isolated that most Bolivians had no idea that afrobolivians existed, and then people started coming to the city to study and work, and now the going to a saya party played by the group in La Paz is common for cultural savvy paceños. I went to one such party, at a swankafied bar, with the drummers at 2 in the morn beating giant drums on the bar as the whitest of all Bolivians got very down. But this was just a taste, I really needed to go to the Yungas and see what was really going on for myself.

Luckily I got an invitation to stay with a family from Tocaña, the biggest afrobolivian village, and down I went. The Yungas are geographically close to La Paz but a world apart. At thousands of meters below, until the 50s, the only way to get to the city to sell produce was climb the mountains with a pack of donkeys. Then the built a road, which the UN declared the "worlds most dangerous road", a tiny dirt track hugging the edge of mile-long cliff drops and crossing slippery waterfalls and curving around giant mountains. Buses, I am told, would pass each other despite the complete lack of space, entailing hanging the back wheels off the cliff long enough for the other to get by. Some 12 buses would fall off a year. Just last year, they completed a new sexy paved road, leaving the old road to become one of Bolivia´s top tourist attractions – "bicycle the road of death!!!", which sounds great, but then somebody died doing it a couple of days ago, oh so they were serious about that road of death thing.

The journey to Las Yungas was really, in the only word I can think of to describe it, breathtaking. The sheer scale of everything in Bolivia makes everything feel so tiny, the mountains loom so high, the valleys cut so deep. First, the road climbs to the top of the Bolivian Andes into bleak bare landscapes filled with, literally, thousands of llamas. Llamas, which are a stable food and pack animal here, just about everyone's got them, still manage to fill me with wonder and awe, but godamn, the llamas are just everywhere, being led around my hardcore little cholas. Then the bus descends, curving into ever greener sceneries, and then all of a sudden, it's the yungas, impossibly lush and covered in coca fields on impossibly steep hills, green everywhere you look except for the explosion of bright purple flowers that cluster like sunspots, and huge condors sailing the air overhead, and tiny evil bugs that bite you incessantly below. Every hour or so we pass a roadside village where the ubiquitous course-faced little women hawk every manner of delicity, empanadas, dried llama meat, skewered chicken hears, touristic llama-printed everythings.

I arrive in this village, and I must say, for all my journeys hardcorness, this was as rustic as things have gotten, I had never been smack dab in the middle of the campo before, and it was immensely beautiful and difficult all at once. David and Maxima took me graciously into their home, having hosted all manner of musicologists before me and used to dealing with gringos. They were absurdly good people, but so hardworking, they get up every day at 5am and go harvest in the coca fields until 5 again including weekends, and hustle to transport and sell their products, and build things, and fix things, and still barely scrape by, chewing coca at noon to curb mid-day hunger, and godamn Bolivia makes the inequalities so incredibly glaring.

But first a note about coca. Everybody in Tocaña survives only because of coca, in fact, most of Bolivia survives because of coca, and nearly all of them turn a blind eye to where their little cocita is going. A huge amount of it goes to local, traditional use, that is – just about everyone in rural Bolivia chews a wad of the pungent leaves in the side of their cheek, producing a mild less-than-a-coffee boost, curbing hunger, and making your cheek lining novocaine-numb. Another large quantity goes to Coca Cola, who swoop down in spaceships once a year and buy very large quantities of the stuff for their secret "addicting" flavour. And the vast majority, lets be honest, goes to feed the endless American hunger for cocaine. But it's something everybody is part of and nobody talks about. There are endless narcotrafficing checkpoints on Bolivian roads, but its all winks turned heads, Bolivia is producing HUGE amounts of cocaine. The friendly US, realizing at some point that curbing demand was just not going to happen, started a program to curb supply, the Bolivian curse word "eradication." US AID signs are everywhere, advertising the construction of a sexy new mountaintop basketball court or spacious cultural center, and in return, don't get mad at us, because we will burn your coca. So to be cool, the Bolivian government destroys coca fields. But the farmers just plant their coca again, because they can't survive on any other crop, coca fetches a good price, and grows three times a year. The government says plant coffee instead, but it just isn't gonna happen as long as the people keep going hungry. Of course, now, the president is the former head of the Coca grower's union, and a fiery anti-Yankee, and the truth is, cocaine production is only surging, and with increased difficulty getting the stuff northward, markets emerge in the comparatively-developed world of Argentina-Uruguay-Chile-Brazil, in the form of pasta base, low-grade crack. And in Montevideo 8 year olds in the street hobble around blasted off their brains on pasta, and in Tocaña poor farmers pick the stuff all day long so that their kids might get some education, and can you point fingers at anyone?

Whoa. That was an exhausting paragraph.

So in the morning I woke up on my straw palet, and having nothing to do, followed maxima to work, romping down paths through the thickets with a four year old on my shoulders, and ending up on one of those absurdly steep coca fields, the world's most breathtaking view beyond me, and I spend the morning harvesting coca, which is really women's work, and the ladies laugh at how pathetically slow I am, and slap my hands when I break valuable stems. I collect my little leaves, and can't help but wonder where this is going – straight into the nose of a Wesleyan student? Into a Coke drank by a Taiwanese schoolchild? Or just mashed up in the spittle of a stale little campesino?

At mid-day, I skip work to wander and try to get some interviews. I meet many strange people in this little mountain paradise – one Pulga, an escaped Bolivian anthropologist who built a little house on the mountain who makes general hippy crafts and entertains passing hippies that somehow make it here. He was brewing coca tea for a couple of Zambian NGO workers in La Paz. Then I ran into an old cane-wielding Iranian novelist, who came to Tocaña for break a writers block, who told me about how he disguised himself as a Bolivian woman to see where they sold their coca, who was trying to get an audience with the black king (oh yeah, afrobolivians have a king, recently recognized by the state as a political figure) so he could compare him to Pushkin. WTF.

On that note, I have to say, probably the greatest single aspect of this journey is the endless people I meet constantly – every conceivable size of gringo traveller, Latin American rich kid bohemians, simple country folk, insane characters from another universe.

At night, I had the luck of catching a town birthday party. People drifted town the midnight dark roads with their flashlights to the hotel at the end of town, and I was fed countless passion-fruit and moonshine drinks and raspy old guys played cuecas and boleros on guitars and drums. I spent the night hanging out with my age demographic, and was really amazed at how these kids – living so far from modernity, in a place where a shower is pouring water on yourself out of a bucket, a place where dinner is picking up a guinea pig off the kitchen floor and throwing it into a pot of water (Andean delicacy) – that these kids, were so on the same wavelength. We talked about how dope Calle 13 is, about all conceivable things, and got along really amazingly. They knew what was up. And for all the 200 years of sweat and toil and really the equivalent of modern-day slavery, the youngest generation is all in college, all going to be managers and maybe doctors, and will probably leave the town and the old ways, but its what needs to happen. Two of them are coming to New York to study on a grant. Opportunity does exist in Bolivia, it would seem.

Old feisty ladies spent the night flirting with me, and cracking up making fun of me and my vegetarianism, and the time came to drift back down the mountain to our homes, and I went solo, stumbling lost and drunk in the hissing night, throwing rocks at brave barking dogs, and somehow managed to find my little house and avoid tripping over a chicken.

I went back to La Paz, and green receded into grey and purple flowers transformed into llamas, and the warm turned to bitter cold again, and there it was.

I then went to a beautiful Incan ruin island, also llama-licious, in the middle of the world's largest lake, but I have no finger energy to make any comment about that.

And actually, right now, I'm in a strange bohemian neighbourhood of Lima, Peru on the seaside, filled with esoteric graffiti and spicy cold potatoes, awaiting Vladimir, who will journey with me in 8 hectic days to Ecuador.

miércoles, 23 de abril de 2008

Something Else: Bolivia, part 1

Bolivia is, truly, something else.

But before I get into that I would like to nominate myself for the award of worst blogger ever. I mean seriously. It’s been months. All of you dedicated readers have lost your faith, and for that I apologize. I’m going to start this up again. And I really do want to inform you about Carnival, how I became a Uruguayan rock star, and other tales, but that will have to be later. Now I will tell you how I came to be a coca growing farmer in the Bolivian lowlands, because that’s what’s on my mind.

My three peaceful and accommodated months in Uruguay were a respite from the journey that is to follow – the pace of my journey has changed dramatically. After spending a couple of days in Buenos Aires, I flew to Sao Paolo, Brazil to meet my pops and drop off my luggage, and three days later I landed ABOVE the clouds, into the impossible mountain fantasy world that is Bolivia. I decided sort of last minutely, against all possible odds (read: having to apply for a visa like any South American dose to get to the US), to make a short trip to the poorest South American nation to take a listen to the saya afroboliviana, and to be a little hardcore again after three months of languishing in delicious first world excesses.

I’ve been feeling quite a bit like some international man of mystery these days, or some jet setting famous person, hopping from country to country a couple of days at a time. Sao Paolo is a shocking and incomprehensible place. It’s one of the biggest cities in the world, some 25 million people, and buzzes like some science fiction nightmare, endless towering skyscrapers as far as the horizon in ever-stranger shapes and clapboard shantytowns creeping through like kudzu, clinging to spare spaces, hoping to be invisible. Traffic moves at a standstill day in and out, a cloud of smog hovers above the city at all times, and it all just makes you tired. The amount of wealth that is in that city is just staggering, there is no place in Latin America with so much stuff, and in the fashionable Jardins district you might as well be in Beverly Hills. Of course the favelas are never too far away. It’s a strange place, and I’m sure it has its pleasures, but it seems so inherently un-Brazilian, un-caipirinha and invisible-bathing-suit and un-unapologetically insane, that I can’t wrap my mind around it.

La Paz is a dream world in a different way. The city, which is the highest large city in the world at 12000 something feet, started out in a broad valley in the cruel Andean altiplano, has since sprawled up the sides of the mountains that surround the city, the little brick houses clinging to steep hillsides looking like shining stalactites in every direction. The Bolivian tourism association advertises the country with the vomit-worthy catchphrase “where the authentic still exists”, but for those of us who kind of get off on going back to a time before the shoppingmallification of the universe, they kind of have a point – Bolivia is, basically, really hardcore. It is the most indigenous country in the Americas, with some 60% of people pure blooded Aymara, Quechua, or one of endless other tribes, large swaths of the population don’t even speak any Spanish, and life outside the city in many ways goes on as it did in pre-Incan days.

La Paz is an incredible place because modernity lives side by side with the ancient, briefcase toting businessmen hustle by wrinkled witches selling dried llama fetuses, and nobody blinks an eye. Old colonial glory, soaring skyscrapers, and tin huts all compete for eye space and it all kind of fits in, in a way. The most characteristic Bolivian character, by far, is the chola, or traditional indigenous woman- mouths full of gold, these ladies of deceivingly small girth wear countless layers of patterned skirts, scarfs, and a comically small, high bowler hat pinned to a head of long tough braids- these incredibly tough mamacitas line the sidewalks of the entire city hawking every possible product imaginable, and occasionally throwing a rock at a tourist who dares to take a picture of their ancient glory. But, especially now with the pro-indigenous socialist government of rabble-rouser Evo Morales, being chola is kind of hip in its own way, and the Aymara ladies of the aliplano villages and La Paz shanties wear their top hats with pride, even the youngest of generations.

I’ve said this about a lot of places, but I think I’ve never seen a place with as much bustle as La Paz, even if Santo Domingo wins for the hustle. The streets are just clogged with celphoning mestizos, llama toting cholas, lost gringos, every which kind of vehicle flying in every direction town impossibly steep hills, it’s a functioning madness, but the conspicuous lack of traffic lights that makes crossing the street and exercise in blind faith. This has led, though, to what I think is probably the best-conceived social program in the world- the government has hired people to dress in zebra costumes and dance in intersections to direct traffic during rush hour. Swear to pachamama.

The other drastic change in my lifestyle was rapid reinsertion to the international traveller scene – my first week in La Paz I was staying in a place called Loki Hostel, and its just absurd, hundreds of beautiful young Europeans drinking cocktails day in day out in a bar swanky enough for your local bohemian hood, mostly in Bolivia to go dance at all-gringo clubs and go on three day coke binges in the cities many barely-concealed drug dens, and really I cant help but being a little disgusted by it all, and remember to feel lucky that I managed to avoid the gringo trail almost entirely on this trip. At the same time, I’ve met a lot of great people, and had some quality hippy sing-along, and finally adapted to remembering how to speak English, but I was kind of freaked out for a moment.

The other shocking random tidbit is that there about 300 Israelis currently in La Paz, which has become one of the biggest post-army backpacking destinations, leading to a whole industry of countless falafel restaurants, Israeli-specific hotels and bars, just to cater to the masses. I now have entirely new concepts about how one should dance to electronic, just watch some wilding Israelis. And those of you who know me intimately know about my very intimate relationship with falafel. But it’s another element in the mind-blowing bizarreness of this place.

Part two and pictures to be added tomarrow!

viernes, 22 de febrero de 2008

Fast Times in The Switzerland of the Americas

Ok – so I admit it, I’ve been terrible at keeping up with this blog lately. Two months in Uruguay and nothing. For all you dedicated readers, if you exist, my bad.

Currently I’m living in Montevideo, Uruguay researching candombe, percussion-battery music that dominates Carnival here, which as Uruguayans love to point out, is not the biggest Carnival in the world, but the longest. Living in Uruguay is quite a change of pace from the last bunch of countries I’ve been in. Nicknamed “The Switzerland of the Americas,” Uruguay is unusual for Latin America for being economically and politically stable for most of its history, It’s the only country in Latin America that has no official religion – Easter Week is renamed Vacation Week and Christmas is Family Day. Uruguay also has the distinction of having completely killed off the indigenous populations who once lived here, so unlike Argentina which basically tries to pretend that a large mestizo population simply does not exist, Uruguayans are almost entirely the descendents of European immigrants: Italians, Spaniards, Jews, Russians, etc.

I’ve come up with a list of criteria for how I know I’m living in a pretty developed country. If you live in a country where people voluntarily leave their homes and sleep in a tent for vacation, you ain’t too third-world. When there are meters in your taxis, hot water in every apartment, and an Urban Outfitters in your city, and more art cinemas that you can count on one hand, you ain’t too third world. My hippie friends hate to lose their developing world credibility, but I have to say, my life here in Montevideo is not to different from my New York life, in a lot of ways.

This of course isn’t the whole story – there are glaring inequalities, and despite a large middle class, a huge wealth gap. There are shanties on the edges of every city, leading to the growth of a vaguely criminal and very visible sub-culture of planchas, who can be found in all parts of Montevideo intimidating people into giving them money and cigarettes. This is how you recognize a plancha: skinny dudes with Nike baseball caps tilted upwards, Nike sneakers, soccer jerseys, capri jeans going to their ankles, bling in one ear, and brilliant bright dyed blonde hair. Especially where I live, I got accosted constantly by such people, but they never really seem to be dangerous, and besides, I can’t feel too intimidated by gangsters who kiss each other hello.

Right now I’m living in Ciudad Vieja, the historic old city that is filled with tourists and bankers during the day and stalked by junkies by night. It’s a strange, bipolar and melancholic neighborhood, and there is a lovely sort of loneliness watching the cargo ships get loaded up by rusty old dinosaur cranes every night and head off into sea. I’m sharing an apartment with a diverse crowd: an Iranian quantum physicist, a Mexican fashion student, a Dutch biomedical engineer, and an Uruguayan acupuncturist. My first month however, I spent couch hopping in various apartments of friends of friends (all leading back to my Argentine host-family) until it seemed inevitable that I should find a permanent place to settle in. One such house was shared by Uruguayan blugrass-indie-rock musicians, funk aficionados, and a socialogist who founded Uruguay’s Marijuana Liberation Party. (Go to viejahistoria.com and closet.com.uy to see the websites of the bands I was living with). It was an absurd place, and my housemates were very amused to learn from me that they were perfect specimens of hipsterism. Theres no word for it here yet, but hipsterism is incredibly alive here in Uruguay – bicycling tight-pantsed, pink wearing, gigantic sunglass-toting, armchair philosophizing hedonists who live in former ghettoes are everywhere.

My first week here I had my first taste of hostel living with the international-South American-backpacker crowd. Montevideo tends to be a one-day stopover for people on their way from Buenos Aires to the famed beaches of Uruguay, such as super-luxurious Punta del Este, where as everybody knows, Shakira summers. As such, the hostel was re-populated by another 60 people every night, ranging from Brazilian backpackers to large groups of Australians who would get funnel beers and piss in the plants. (As a side note – I find it funny that of all the people I’ve met on the road, its rarely the Americans who are the biggest assholes, though I still find most people amazed that I am not an ignorant war-loving capitalist). There was something both fun and maddening about telling my life story to 60 new people every night, but the worst part was being suddenly surrounded by the one-upsmanish of travllelers, who tout their travel experiences as unique badges of hardcoreness and passive-aggressibly criticize everyone else in order to protect themselves from realizing that other people share those experiences. I found myself completely guilty of this myself, and decided I needed to get out of there as fast as possible to not become that asshole.

Uruguayans are mostly chill folk, but if there’s something they get riled up about, its not being Argentina. Argentines, on the other hand, casually all joke that Uruguay is just a province of Argentina. After all, there are just 3 million people in this little country (that’s less than the population of Brooklyn), and they share mate, tango, good meat and Italian last names with their big Argentine cousins. The one-sided rivalry (something like the Boston-New York baseball rivalry) has heated up because of a bunch of paper mills Uruguay put up that Argentines claim will pollute touristic parts of their river, and there are protests and harsh words being exchanged on this silly topic all the time. I have to say though, that after living here, I have to agree that Uruguayans have their own thing going on – the culture is just more chill, maybe because of all that beautiful beach, and Brazilian music and culture has a big impact here. Cumbia and other Latin Music is popular here, if not as popular as rock nacional, and people front just a little less. I think I’m being converted, despite my love for Argentina.

But none of this has anything to do with why I’m here – which is Carnival, the central event of the year for millions of Uruguayans (the other million can’t stand it). For those used to seeing pictures of Brazilian Carnival with their scantily glad samba dancers and mad tropical fornication in the streets, you will have been misled. As one might expect, Uruguayan carnival is more, well, relaxed. The month focuses on competitions and performances by groups in various categories, but the most important are murga and candombe. Stages, or tablados, are set up all over the city ranging from rickety barrio productions to corporate-sponsored arenas, and local street-parades in various neighborhoods go on every day. This all prepares for the competitive event, nightly performances in a huge open-air amphitheatre called Teatro de Verano, where groups get one hour to show what they got. (To former Stuyvesant students – think a large scale Sing!, because that’s really what its like.)

Murga is a weird but great Spanish-decended type of comic opera, in which 15 dudes dressed in ridiculous medival-looking costumes sing political commentary in crazy four-part harmonies to a battery of bass drum, snare, and cymbals. Strange as it is, this is immensily popular here, espcially among the lower-classes. I guess I was kind of skeptical the first time I went to see one, but its actually incredible. Even understanding only around 15% of what they sing, its hilarious, and the harmonies are really amazing. This has led to Uruguayan music in general to be really on top of vocal harmonizing. Here’s a clip.

On the other side of the spectrum, is Candombe. Coming from the relatively small afro-Uruguayan minority, the drums of candombe have exploded into the top symbol of national culture, with kids from every race and social class enthuiastically picking of drums and marching through the streets during Carnival time. The biggest event of Carnival is really Las Llamadas, a two-day parade in which 30 plus candombe groups thunder down a narrow cobbled street in the old decaying Afro-Uruguayan neighborhood, and its immense. If I wrote about it now, this blog post will never end, so I’ll have to continue at a later time. Heres a taste of what a candombe comparsa looks like, however:

jueves, 7 de febrero de 2008

Till Now: Hippie Pirate Islands, Broken Heads, and Other Tales

Coming back from the jungle, I was officially on vacation. Well unofficially. But with visits from Irina, the family, and Lynas in row, I had a basically a month for not being by myself in the middle of nowhere, and yes, I know that a vacation from what is essentially a year-long paid vacation sounds decadent, and I have nothing to say about that.

Irina and me decided to go check out Utila, one of the famous Bay Islands of Honduras lying jewel-like off the Caribbean coast, and Honduras’ top tourist draw mostly for what is know as the cheapest scuba certification in the world. Of the three islands, Utila is known as the dirty-hippie-backpacker island, and the best place in the world to see the whale shark, which is a very very big fish. We thought this was a great combo.

Arriving in Utila Town from La Ceiba, Honduras is similar to the experience of arriving to another planet, I imagine. Getting off the boat on the little dock cluttered with cinder blocks and other flotsam, we were immediately accosted by a chorus line of 30 or so be-dreaded and bearded hippies aggressively pushing their dive shop in various languages, which we avoided nimbly, only to find ourselves in a very strange place, a seaside English village a surreal dream. Utila is definitely a unique place. The “locals,” both black and white, are the descendants of English pirates who marauded the Central American coast and immigrants from nearby Cayman Islands, and speak the world’s strangest English, a sort of salty, crackheaded Irish accent mixed with Jamaican English, that is almost completely unintelligible. Most are crew-cutted, tatted-up, wifebeater-wearing sorts, with a sort of inbred-looking flair among the white islanders especially. The town has one road stretching along the coast, dotted with English-style homes in various states of disrepair, ramshackle seafood eateries, crunchy Oregon-style cafes with Wesleyan-worthy vegan menus, traveler-friendly bars. The islanders, once living on this bizarre island in relative obscurity, now share the island with adventure-sport-type hippies who bartend and work at dive shops, salty old sea captains of various nationalities who drink beer and play horseshoes all day, and enterprising Hondurans attracted by the thriving economy.

Transportation on Utila is a fascinating concept. There are virtually no cars on the island, yet the narrow paved road is usually jammed with a combination of ATVs, motorcycles, golf-carts (I shit you not), pedestrians, bicycles, scraggly dogs. We once, on foot, were stuck in such a traffic jam actually unable to move. By nightfall, the famous Utila nightlife comes alive, in what is really a vaguely post-apocalyptic display of firecrackers, roadside barbeques, ATVs and motorcycles zipping past at Roadwarrior-worthy speeds, and country music. I noticed the country phenomenon in La Ceiba, but its serious here, with Nashville ballads blasting out of all the islander clubs, legend has it because the fishermen back in the day could only pick up Alabaman gulf coast radio on their boats when out at sea. The traveler scene, on the other hand, follows a strict schedule of starting out drinking in a swanky bar built into a treetop, and then to the oceanside bar-clubs. We went to a party on the beach, where there was techno and fire-jugglers. The concept of a place where you could walk around at night in Honduras was amazing. I never really left the house after 5pm in Ceiba, those back-pocket pistols being kind of a deterrent.

We stayed in what might be, and I risk exaggeration, the most zany hotel in the universe – a nearly indescribable complex called Nightland of walkways, tunnels, catwalks, overhangs, gazebos, cabins, all covered in colorful class bead sculptures and kitschy plastic toys, a sort of slightly more sinister Dr. Seuss universe. This is all the personal vision of a vaguely autistic Californian artist who reigns over his acid-inspired kingdom, spawning a slew of mixed-race Jewish hippie island children.

Then it rained. After all this is Honduras, and it rained and oh it rained, kind of forestalling further adventuring plans to other islands, but really this only became a problem on the day we tried to leave, in which on arriving at the port it was announced to a group of angry travelers that the port was closed, and there were no boats leaving the island for days. This led to a Lost-like dilemma of “we have to get off the island!”, in which people were frantically calling to charter planes, boats or anything they could to catch their flights out of Honduras. Together with some Israeli girls we considered leaving with island dude who insisted he could make it in his little boat, which seemed sketchy to us because he was a crew-cuted, tatted-up, wifebeater-wearing dude on a motorcycle, and decided not to risk it in the end. (We later saw said dude, who turned back after 15 minutes because the seas were too rough). Luckily, the port opened up in the afternoon and we managed to make it home, but it was dramatic for a while.

Then began my journey to Buenos Aires - it essentially started with hitchhiking down a jungle mountain near la Ceiba with Irina and an old dude with a machete, and ended in posh, fondue-restaurant laden Bariloche, Argentina. Which is quite a contrast. Inbetween, there was a brief and awkward drama with Aurelio’s son who may-or-may-not have tried to steal my iPod, many buses. Then the Miami airport, with the deja-vu rituals of Doritos, stocking up on American magazines, other consumerist pleasures, waiting in the evil Miami security line trying to pick out what spoken Spanish came from which country, unconsciously sneering at ruddy-faced screechy Floridians, and boom, another live lived, and other lived died and there I was back in Argentina.

Arriving in Buenos Aires from Honduras is some serious culture shock. Honduras, for example, has maybe one building over 4 stories in the whole country. Driving through the endless urban jungle of Buenos Aires, its buildings, cafes, and people and then staying in the fashionable neighborhood of Reccoleta with its face-lifted, Gucci-toting chetos – I was a world apart. I was guiltily excited for it, after all Buenos Aires is like a second home to me, and I was looking forward to being around cool young people with their cool clothes doing cool things, and jazz scenes, and streetside café-con-leche sipping afternoons, the mullets, and other vanities of the comparatively “developed world.” (Did he say mullets?). I did eventually come to enjoy these things (they are here in Montevideo too), but my first impulse was a sort of unavoidable repulsion. Being in the Mosquetia just weeks before, I couldn’t help but being weirded out by the excess of luxury, even hot-water showers seemed unnecessary to me, the obsessive self-consciousness of porteños.

Yeah, I got over it. That’s the good and the bad about people – we adapt like you would never think you could. As easy as I fell into comfort with third-world material reality, I fell into old excesses. That’s just the way it is. The secret is to see if one can not forget what it felt like to be part of another past reality.

Back in old Buenos Aires, I delighted in remembering the streets I once knew so well, complained about the hike in taxi fares, marveled at the new skyscraper projects undertaken. Ate gnocchi. Though in some way I realized that Buenos Aires belonged in another time, and I felt a strange emptiness too a city I once thrived in. Been there, done that, I suppose. My family had come to visit for Christmas, and it was great to have the comforts of home for a week. Then Lynas came down for a week of bike journeying through southern dilapidated neighborhoods unexplored, live music, and hanging out with the incredibly cool Jimenez clan (Lynas’ relatives in BA). I stayed in an unmarked hostel owned by an old friend, and marveled at the joys and vagaries of constant Internet access.

Among the extraordinary that happened in these weeks:

Firstly, when hiking with my family on a glacier in Patagonia, I foolishly did not wear sunscreen. Glaciers reflect sun, in your face, strongly. It burns you. It burnt me, second-degree blisters all over my face that hardened into lizardy scales. I looked like a monster, besides being in incredible pain, but got the unique experience to seeing how people treat you differently when you have a grotesque skin condition. Then, in incredible bad luck, I had a very geriatric accident – I fell in the shower, hard, and split open my head. In the moments of adrenaline, I leapt out of the shower, spurting blood all over the place in great quantities, and managed unlock the door before I lost too much… the incredible luck is that I was 10 feet away from my mom and her boyfriend Noel, two emergency physicians, who quickly and calmly wrapped me up and brought me to the hospital to get stitched up. Eight stitches in the head, thank you. The incredibly irony of this is that the one time I seriously hurt myself, I’m not gallivanting in drug-smugglish regions of the Honduran jungle, but in a luxury Buenos Aires apartment 10 feet away from my family.

A week later, I was waiting outside of Lynas’ apartment on my bicycle at, lets, say 2am (Argentine early evening), and in my boredom, making music with the bicycle bell in what seemed to me, interesting polyrythms, but I imagine to anyone else, the most annoying thing a person could do, at 2am. All of a sudden, a bucket of water is poured on me from a balcony above. No “Quiet down you rapscallion”, no “Va fa culo”, or “Callate hijo de puta, concha de tu madre”. Nope. An annoyed neighbor handled the situation with a well-aimed bucket of water. I couldn’t be mad, it was too hilarious.

In another episode, me and Lynas were at a country-house of his relatives in the outskirts of the city, on our way home in an ancient car, when something happened that was, as Lynas put it, very reminiscent of 28 Days Later. Going over a muddy road, we get stuck. We’re really stuck, and we can’t push the car out of the trench. Meanwhile its getting dark, and on the periphery of our vision, zombie-like types from the nearby shanties seem to be congregating. We rush to find dry grasses to put under the tires and propel us out. It works, I like to think, in the nick of time. Don’t fuck with zombies.

Then there was New Years, with the reveling Peruvians of Abasto lighting off absurd quantities of fireworks in the street. The presence of firework stores in the middle of a city larger than New York is just great. Petition anyone?

Then there was tango, that old obsession, the beauty and darkness of the milonga and the crash of the bandoneon and the sexy slinkiness of tangueras and the heartbreaking bittersweet melancholy of it all.

And then there was Uruguay – Lynas helped me transfer my absurd quantity of luggage to Montevideo, and then we skipped to distant Punta Del Diablo, a windswept and quiet surfer town, where my former host-cousin was renting a beach house with his friends. We had fun. Fin.

And after weeks of this fun nonsense, I’m here in my third country, then 5 months through with my journey, and zipping around like busy ethnomusicologist again, now in a much different sort of place. Updates on all this to come.

jueves, 24 de enero de 2008

Into The Jungle

So what in the world happened to Marlon Bishop? It’s been well over a month now since I’ve last written here in the blogosphere – the truth is that I’ve been constantly on the go since then, basically on vacation from my vacation, with visits from all sorts of loved ones. I’m secretly here in Montevideo, Uruguay, living among the liver-destroying hedonism and squalor of hippie-laden hostels, and I really can’t wait to find myself a nice little Montevideo apartment. But anyway, ignore all this, because now I’m going to write a couple of entries detailing the ample adventures of this last month.

In my last weeks of Honduras something unexpected and amazing happened – a Brazilian documantarian decided to come to Honduras to do an episode on Aurelio and the Garifuna for Brazilian TV. The amazing part, is that they decided to film it as a road trip with Aurelio and his band to his hometown of Plaplaya, the most distant Garifuna town of all nestled in the middle of the Mosquetia rainforest, the biggest and baddest patch of jungle in the New World outside of the Amazon. I naturally decided to tag along for the ride.

Being in the jungle is really about getting to the jungle, and its no easy task. It involves cars, boats, rafts, rivers and seas, the end result total peace, hammocks, and killer mosquitoes. From La Ceiba we stuffed the pickup truck with speakers and other types of gigantic musical gadgetry, spent some hours waterproofing it all, and headed on our way. The crew: the great Aurelio Martinez, the aforementioned Chiche Man – giant-baby-genius, Luis – a skittish and sprightly little Brazilian man with a very expensive video camera, and Luisito – a small and soft-spoken ladino piano player who both looks and talks exactly like the Beaker from the muppets, and who’s only true loves in life are classical music and prostitutes.

After some hours, including various stop offs with brief visitations to some of Aurelio’s illegitimate children sowed across the country, we arrive at Bonito Oriental, the place where the paved road ends and thus a sort of frontier town bustling with the commerce of people who only come once a month to buy things from stores. From here on out its straight-up Discovery Channel mode, and as we turn past the police checkpoints and hurtle down a poorly-kept dirt road into the lonely expanses of the rainforest with the setting sun, the warm tingle of the unknown settles into my toes. From there on its hours without passing a house or car or be-muled campesino, we hurtle past crater-sized potholes and across various rivers. Many of the bridges are busted out from the recent rains, so we just drive through the river. Soon its getting dark though, and it becomes obvious that we are not making it all the way today. At the same time, we are passing through a string of Garifuna villages, Aurelio stops to chat, flirt, and thunderously laugh with passersby, he’s letting the world know that THE Aurelio Martinez has come back to the jungle, and youguns’ who never met him shriek with boy-band-induced hysteria, soon everyone will know we’re in town.

We stop off for the night in a nearby town just in time for the inauguration of Honduras’ very first hospital in Garifuna lands, of course put together by the tireless Cuban doctors that, of all the 5 million NGOs from 17 thousand countries operating in Honduras, seem to be the only people actually doing anything. Aurelio is convinced to play a song, but once Aurelio plays one song, he can’t stop, and soon word spreads through the region and two-by-two the people arrive with their flashlights and what follows is the true Garifuna musical experience, four hours of unmitigated wilding, of course replete with miraculous bootyliciousness, and raucous sing-a-longs, all in the near complete darkness of a land before the time of electric light. I try to grab a bass or piano when nobody’s looking, and play until Aurelio shoots me a disapproving look. When it finally winds down, the Cubans are drunk and clamoring for salsa; when salsa is finally delivered they begin to dance like professional actors in a movie about people dancing in Cuba, it is unreal to me just how amazingly they danced salsa, and I am suddenly filled with envy, knowing that as a un-Cuban person I will never be so effortlessly cool. We of course don’t know where we are going to sleep the night, but it is of course nothing to worry about given Garifuna hospitality, we are quickly put up in an empty old house. Luis, Chiche, and I hang out for a while by candlelight conversing, smoking spliffs, and grubbing little cooked fish with cassava out of a plastic bag. This strikes me as amazing, how in the lord’s name has the universe conspired to but three people from entirely different worlds in empty house in the jungle in the middle of the night, eating little fish and discussing universal topics like morning bowel movements in a language that none of the three grew up speaking. You can’t write poetry that good.

At 5:30 in the godamned morning Aurelio wakes us up, the inhuman senator/pop star of course fresh as a freshly bloomed daisy, and we get back in the pickup for yet more journey. We eventually meet up with family (everybody more or less seems to be family) who are waiting with a boat in a river – load up said boat, and head out to the ocean through a river, where we travel at seemingly insane speeds along the shore for two hours, jumping over very tall waves and landing with very big splashes which comically seem to deposit several gallons of water exclusively on me, every time. We head back into a river, and all of a sudden it’s the jungle for real, not in the flippant way I might use the word to describe any place jungle-ish, but the real deal motherfucking rain forest, and its breathtakingly beautiful.

Plaplaya, for the few days I was there, felt like Paradise. It was, puzzlingly, comparatively prosperous next to the rain-beaten miserable stick hut villages we passed by, and its people did remarkably well for themselves considering their myriad challenges of living in the middle of the jungle. The town was all stilted wood houses with thatched roofs, flimsy porches overhanging majestic rivers for drinking beers on, upturned canoes dozing on shores, endless empty windswept beach, lying in hammocks, killing the ceaseless onslaught of malarial mosquitoes, sitting outside an talking about things, playing soccer, fishing, eating freshly picked coconuts, and no running water or electricity to be seen. We spent our days walking around town and catching up with people Aurelio hadn’t seen for years, all somehow related, playing music, lounging in hammocks. I imagine a town probably seems friendlier when you come with its most famous citizen ever, but I couldn’t imagine being treated better. We spent our nights drinking beers with whoever was around in open air bars, mostly talking about music, laughing nervously every time Luistio said something about wanting an underage girl, turning off the music and hushing when one of the drug-smuggling boats slinked guiltily by in the middle of the night, eventually walking home in a darkness and silence that I never knew possible – with no refrigerators buzzing nor televisions flickering, there is a true peace, freedom from the white noise of modern life, only the white noise of your own over-active brain to worry about, and then there’s just the night and its countless mosquitoes.

Plaplaya is really only Garifuna town in the Mosquitia; the vast forests are mostly populated by the Miskito, another Afro-Indigineous mixed ethnicity with a whole different language, culture and history, who very successfully live from lucrative but dangerous lobster-diving and other junglish pursuits and mostly don’t bother to learn Spanish. Alongside are various enterprising ladinos (mestizos, but disparagingly called “indians” by the Miskito) driven to the jungle by land shortage and hoping to burn down a little homestead for themselves. In recent years, the jungle has been a major conduit for Colombian cocaine, which has made some of the Moskito towns both rich and dangerous. Further upstream live the Takawah and Pech, the real original inhabitants, now surviving off selling to the Miskito giant canoes outfitted with little motors (tuk-tuks), the general means of transportation in these parts.

The amazing thing to me is that this bizarre world of rivers and canopies more-or-less works. Quite a large number of people live somewhat modern lives here without roads or telephones, and despite the enormous difficulty of getting any kind of goods or services to such a godforsakenly inconvenient place, there are nice wooden houses and functioning schools and corner stores and canoe-buses punting the rivers with 10 foot polls getting people around. Far from stereotypes of clueless “traditional” indigenous people, everyone I met was well educated and well spoken in their second language, many having traveled the world in fishing boats and oil tankers, seeing everything and eventually coming back home. And – try not to roll your eyes at Marlon-style romanticism – people say they are really happy, and wouldn’t leave unless they had to. Plaplaya, at least, was fairing a whole lot better than the urban slums of Santo Domingo or the rural poverty of inland Honduras. And despite encroaching modernity threatening the Garifuna from every which way, the traditions are strong here, and the kids still speak, and people still live from the bountiful land instead of waiting for fat New York checks, and its in some ways its really a better deal.

Soon after arriving, Brazilian Luis found out that his camera equipment got royally soaked due to poor placement in the boat, and proceeded to blood curdlingly scream, then cry, then whimper, in a pathetic human puddle on a dock facing the river. This was not cool with Garifuna. Whatever you do, you have to be chill. Aurelio spent the rest of the trip snickering at his wimpy documentarian when he wasn’t looking. The show went on, however, and we organized a badass spontaneous concert for the community, and I took many interviews, and it was good.

I didn’t want to leave, truth-be-told, but it was time, and because we couldn’t get a ocean-side boat all the way to our car, we had to start off at 3:30 in the morning in order to catch the 5 o clock trucks that provide the only land transportation to and from the Mostquita. We squeezed a good 20+ people into the boat, and wove our way through twisted rivers in the crisp sunrising morning, past various Miskito towns with their English-style little wood houses, past all sorts of river traffic already out and about in the extremely early morning. We tied our speakers and guitars to the top of a converted pick-up, settled down on skinny wooden benches in the back, and bounced down paths leading out of the Mosquetia, dodging fatal branches coming to decapitate. Here we passed the most traditional villages in the country, places of unprecedented hardcoreness, hurricane battered collections of huts where tough women in tall boots lugged huge loads of firewood across hills while presumably their husbands were catching sustenance for the day. When the path ended, the truck lumbers onto the beach, where for the next several hours drives in the surf. This, to me, is insane. The most insane part, however, is when it reaches every one of four rivers too big to ford (think Oregon Trail, again), they have to put the truck on a raft, block the wheels, and a guy on the other side pulls it across with a rope. After the fourth time, we get to the dirt road, and things are relatively sane from there on out. The whole experience, however, was definitely the greatest travel adventure of my life, thus far.

More updates of what I’m doing in Uruguay and how the hell I got here, to come.

viernes, 7 de diciembre de 2007

Livin´ La Vida La Ceiba with Aurelio Martinez and other tales

Here I blog in the last days of my La Ceiba existence - tomarrow I head into the Mosquito Rainforest with my host Aurelio and a team of Brazilian documentarians, which I am incredibly excited for, and then there are visitations and plane rides and then holy shit I´m in Argentina.

I´ve mentioned a bunch of times that I life with a pop-star/senator named Aurelio Martinez, but I don´t think I´ve communicated exactly what its like to live with a popstar/senator named Aurelio Matinez. Well first of all, he´s a pop star. Hailing from Plaplaya - the deepest, most isolated, most traditional Garifuna town in the country - he played with a bunch of Punta Rock conjuntos untill leading his own called the Bravos del Caribe, who became famous with the subtly-named "pompis con pompis" (ass to ass), which as maybe you can imagine comes with a special dance. Since then, he´s departed into the lucrative and less bootylicious genre of "world music", exporting deliciously sad Garifuna blues to all over. Then, at about age 30, he got elected as a sentor - the first black senator from his province in Honduran history. He´s basically the man.

With amazing kindness, upon hearing that I came all this way to study Garifuna music, Aurelio offered to put me up for practically nothing. Living in his half-built mansion in the ghetto is hilarious. Being the man, he decided not to hire archeticts and instead design the house himself. As a result, its basically the strangest house ever, huge (on Honduran standards) but with no space to do anything, filled with endless hallways yet no rooms. You walk through the bathroom off the kitchen to get to his office; rooms are bizarrely shaped and uneaven. On top of this, its decorated entirely in motel-quality landscapes alternating with endless award plaques he´s won over the years. Our little family consists of Aurelio, his brother, his son, the maid, and a rotating cast of people, whom I honestly still can´t figure out who they are and what they´re doing there. It´s really a wonderful and bizarre place to live.

I realize I tend to give Aurelio a hard time, due to his slightly megalomanical personality, but the truth is he´s an amazing guy. He´s basically a born rock star - the kind of guy who can do or say anything and people will think it´s cool. He possses a certain level of swagger that makes you not question him when he walks around in a white jumpsuit with a USB pen around his neck. He has an electric and spontaneous personality, a thunderous earthquaking laugh, insane dance moves, and a magic touch with the ladies.

On top of being a rockstar, he really works himself near to death, selflessly fighting for his people in a senate characterized by sticky-fingered old-money crooks. Being Aurelio´s friend has given me access to Garifuna communties in an incredible way: he´s incredibly loved and respected, and people assume that if Aurelio is down with me, I´m allright. Countless times I´ve showed up to a village and knocked on doors of freinds of his, and have been instantly treated like family.

I´ve spent a lot of the last few weeks teaching Aurelio how to record himself with his shiny new Macbook, and we´ve basically put together a demo of his new album. Recording with Aurelio is humbling. I never realized how great a musician he was untill we began to overdub him playing every godamn instrument, nailing the parts on the first time, inventing harmonies on the go, like clockwork in time with the metronome. With one shitty mic, Garage Band, and my minnimal recording know-how, we´ve made some really incredible recordings, and its just proof that serious talent is really all you need. Maybe he´ll let me put one of the songs up here, who knows.

I´ve also been going out to a nearby, incredibly tranquilo village called Corozal to take lessons with a guy going by the name "Chiche Men," which is Garifuna for "Baby Man." And in a way, he is like a big, grown-up, genius baby. Chiche lives in a former cassave factory in a little room filled with endless instruments, and basically spends his days jamming, eating delicious food brought to him, and smoking giant blunts pretty much constantly. To give you an idea of the kind of skills this man posseses, Belizian Gariufna music producer Ivan Duran calls him his "secret weapon," responsible for the arrangments on Andy Palacio´s recent WOMEX-champion album. Lessons with Chiche were more like long musical chill-sessions, as sometimes he´ll just take a nap in the middle, and then we´ll go hang out on the beach and play dominoes, and then play some more music. He´s kinda like a big teddy bear that teaches you everything you ever needed to know about Garifuna music.

Other than that - I took a trip last week to Tela Bay to visit some more villages and meet musicians. Triunfo, a town of endless bycicles driven by children and old ladies heading in endless directions, was especially alive in culture, and I interviewed anciently-wise and kind Neta who runs the best folkloric troupe around. Then I headed to Tornabe on a bus stacked to the seams with fish, bus the bus broke down, so I had to walk a bunch of miles, and pay a dude 20 cents to ferry me across a river with a canoe, to get there, wherupon I hung out in a similarly ridiculous mansion owend by Victor Arzu, a former Spanish-reggae star and NY-based producer who was really the nicest guy on Earth, possibly.

Played my last expat-gig (on Honduran TV yet again, but no dancing this time!), said goodbye to the crew, and ya me voy volando.