24 September 2007

"Sometimes music is the only thing that makes sense, play it loud enough, it keeps the demons at bay."

I think we forget how important life is, how sometimes all we have to do is just sit back and take it all in and stop pummeling through it like we can't wait to get it over with. It's sad, because most of the time we only do this when we've reached our lowest points or we're really frustrated or tired or disappointed with how our lives are going.

What does this have to do with a drum corp of Guatemalans?

The past week was rough, composed of the kind of "My So Called Life" moments that make you just want to curl up in bed and shut out the world (let's just say there's been a lot of "journaling" lately) but this morning I heard this band outside my window and realized I hadn't taken any photos of the drum corps who walk through Antigua. I stopped feeling sorry for myself, grabbed my camera and ran down the street, and then I shot for about an hour, the drumming vibrating in my chest, the complete energy of everything hitting me straight on, the kids in the street stunned silent, proud mothers taking pictures of their kids and bringing them water in between sets. I watched a man take his abuelita by the hand and lead her across the street after the band passed by, both waiting to cross out of respect for the music, and then it struck me how happy I was to be alone, because I was so choked up I just sat there and stared, so grateful I got to see it.

I send photos home and I imagine what people see, what it's like to view Guatemala like I once did, as a poverty-stricken, war torn country with little to offer the people who live there.

I find myself wanting to use images to explain just how wrong I was, that these people are some of the richest people I have ever met, the love of life they carry is profound, something you couldn't buy even if you wanted to. I find myself wanting to soak up as much from them as I possibly can. What I saw today was the same drum corp that goes through the streets of Antigua every single week, and in the crowd I saw the same people I see everyday in the market, in bookstores, in cafes, but I took more away from just siiting their watching them through my camera lense then they will ever know or understand. The drum corp jam is like most things in life, at first it looks really hard, complicated, like something you could never do in a million years.

But then one day you pick up a snare drum, or one afternoon you rock out to a Stevie Wonder album, everyday gets easier and you learn a little bit more with each step, and pretty soon you're jamming right along with them.

What I saw today is going to stay with me for a while. It reminded me that what I'm going through or experiencing isn't all that important in the grand scheme, there are more important things in this world, there is life going on all around you, even when you don't take the time to stop and notice it.

20 September 2007

No phone? How about a conch shell and a mountain top

IMORONA, MADAGASCAR – Dear John, I’m writing by the flicker of candle light from a village called Imorona, where a group of farmers sell vanilla on the international market. When I arrived this morning, ass-chapped and sore from a jolting ride in the back of a pickup truck, I climbed a dirt staircase up a mountain to take a in the lay of the land. It is absolutely paradise here. A river snakes through the feet of mountains, leaving the lime-green patchwork of rice paddies in its path. The mountains are still covered, mostly, in dense forest. And the ocean is a kaleidoscope of blues. It is striking to me how untouched this place is, at least by outside influence. Last night, for example, word came to town that a tsunami had hit southeast Asia … and that the wave might be headed here. That news came from a concerned relative who drove here, several hours, on a motorcycle, just to deliver it. Once it arrived, a moderate panic set in. About 500 people, the mayor told me, assembled in the middle of the night on top of the mountain to assess the situation in sure safety from any rising water. The planning of that meeting is what’s particularly awesome. Did they call everyone on the telephone? Of course not, they don’t those. Did they interrupt the usual television programming? Nope, no electricity here. So an official climbed the mountain, high above the town, with a conch shell in hand. When he reached the peak, he blew hard into the foot of the shell: “OOOO-EEEEEE!!!!!” He let out a high-pitched call that all the town could hear. Everyone scampered up the mountain right away to see what was the matter.
In an interview today, the mayor imitated it for me. The shell is the “telephone Malagache,” he said. It’s so cool that places like this still exist. Love, John

"Answer me these questions three ..."

Hours on bus: 14
Rivers to cross, without bridges: 6

[When you don’t have bridges, men with 50-foot bamboo poles push you across your truck across rivers on a shaky raft. The hollow poles pushing off the river bottom sound like plastic straws digging into slurpies. – SUTTER]

15 people, me, 14 hours, and the back of a Toyota

IMORONA, MADAGASCAR – Dear Ben, I got in to this small village this morning after riding for a total of 14 hours in the back of a pickup truck, on a sideways wooden bench, crammed next to 15 other people. It was crazy. We were so close together, our arms were thatched together like palm fronds on a mat. Our feet and legs were like tangled tree roots. All the while, the truck is jerking back and forth with the force of an old wooden rollercoaster. We were driving so slow. Bicycles were seriously passing us because the roads were so bad. They looked like this: (insert craggy line here). The back of the truck was covered with a metal cage and a green tarp, to protect us from the rain. That was nice, but it also made the space fill up with exhaust as the truck heaved its way through muddy red ruts as deep as my thighs. It was worth it though, for one reason – the music. Just as I would think I was going to puke on/kill everyone around me, my fellow passengers would start singing. I couldn’t understand a word, but the soulful harmonies lifted me right off of that bruising seat and put me somewhere wonderful, a place where I could see the magnificent beaches and misty mountains on our path. A place where the ocean breeze snuffed out the tail pipe fumes. The world is terribly unfair sometimes, and we should do everything we can to change that, but the power people have to life themselves out of shitty situations, if only in mind, is truly amazing. Love, John

Malagasy love them some pro wrestling ...

MAROANTSETRA, MADAGASCAR – Dear John, It’s not very PC to say this, but Madagascar makes me totally feel bi-polar sometimes. Earlier this afternoon, I was so discouraged and lonely – it felt like none of my best-laid plans were coming through. Then I went for a walk at twilight (random sidenote: the French call that “la nuit americainne”) and I couldn’t stop smiling. The people here in Maroantsetra are beautiful, friendly and love WWE wrestling. Random combo, I know. Keep reading.
My walk took me not far from my bungalow, just down a dirt road to the local market, which I can still hear buzzing with chatter and motorcycle engines. When I got to the market, I made eye contact with a big woman who was sitting on the ground in front of rows of dead fish (also on the ground). She was frowning. I said “Hello” in Malagasy, “Hope your day is good.” Her eyes lit up – so fast. Then she flashed an enormous, toothy smile and greeted me in return, nodding her head in thanks. From that simple instand on, I was back on a high. I bought a bundle of bananas (10 cents), three blocks of fresh bread (30 cents) and two bottles of water ($1.50) … all for tomorrow’s car trip, assuming I get to go.
On the walk back, I took in the smells of raw fish, charcoal smoke and earthy rice dust with joy. When I got back here to the bungalow at Hotel Ebene, the owner was watching a WWE wrestling DVD from 2005. In the program, a guy with a flattop, wearing jean shorts and bulging bare chest showing, beat a older dude in a skimpy speedo. We all muttered “oohs” and “uhhs” together as they traded body slams on the tiny TV. I was the only one who laughed at flattop man when he paused the match to pump air into the tongues of his Reebok Pump shoes. I hated watching WWE in the US, but here it was hilarious and wonderful, because it was something we all could understand. Love, John

Learning a little patience (Mora Mora)

MAROANTSETRA, MADAGASCAR – Dear John, I’m sitting outside my palm-roof bungalo in another NE Madagascar town that looks like it is a cross between something on “Lost” and the Wild West … they use more wood here than elsewhere. So far, this stay has had just one goal – figure out how to get 50 miles south of here, to reach the village I plan to write about. Easier said than done, as between me and Imorona (the village) lies a stretch of road that is muddy year-round, to the point that trucks sink down to their wheel wells. It is crisscrossed by six rivers with no bridges. And it bounds up and down several mountains along the coast. “Bush taxis” normally run the route, but the one that starts in this town is broken. So, tomorrow at 6 a.m., I will find out by phone whether I’ve been able to sneak my way into the bed of a private truck, as cargo. There will be a sideways bench (wooden) for me to sit on, if it’s a go. My ass is going to be super sore, because the trip is 12 to 24 hours, I’ve heard, depending on the road conditions. If I don’t make it on this truck another probably won’t leave until Friday, which is too late for me. If nothing else, hopefully this trip will leave me with a heaping dose of go with the flow-style patience. Here, they give that a phrase: “mora mora.” And everyone seems to have it down.
I’m doing my best to smile my way through the hiccups. Love, John
PS: a rooster just walked behind my chair.

My stuff is moving today, in Oklahoma

John M. and I are moving to a new house in Oklahoma City ... this is a diagram of our old place, which John moved out of on the 8th. The landlord found a buyer and offered up some money to cut the lease short ... Sappy, I know, but it's weird to be moving while you're on the other side of the world. Drew this on the beach at sunset. -- John

Zen and the art of watching chameleons

SAMBAVA, MADAGASCAR – Dear John, Went running on the beach in Sambava to clear my head. Scheduling woes, and you know me, planning stuff is not my cup of tea. I wanted to get out to this awesome national park because I’m stuck in this town until Sunday, but I don’t have time. Ah well.
On the run, I saw a man and pregnant woman herding cattle (zebu). The hoof-prints made the running interesting, and I I was laughing out loud by myself about the whole scene. I ran so much that I got blisters and cuts all over the bottoms of my feet – woops. The beach is a little more like glass shards than powder. In reality, I’ve gotten a lot accomplished on this trip to vanilla land. I’m just frustrated that I have to wait around for this one tour, and I’m kind of – OK, really – lonely here. I want my head to stop spinning. Good thing there are insanely beautiful ocean and mountain view are here to help me chill out a bit. Nature is about the only thing that’s keeping me sane here … oh, and I saw the COOLEST chameleon the other day, walking across the beach one slow, controlled step at a time, his eyes darting around in all directions before he’d put a new foot down in the sand. He made it to a mini-palm tree and rested in the shade (eyes still darting) while I watched the waves. Love, John

Vanilla trip begins

SAMBAVA, MADAGASCAR -- Dear Fam: I’m up in northeast Madagascar, the world’s best region for growing vanilla. When you walk down the streets in Sambava and Antalaha, the smell of vanilla drying in the tropical sun hits you with a force strong enough to stain your hair and clothes for the day. The smell isn’t everywhere, it just pops out of the windows of the concrete bunkers where workers sort dried beans with the speed and precision of Vegas card dealers. They put beans in various tubs and piles, corresponding to a number of categories: length, color, moisture, weight, texture and, above all, smell. The smell was one of the things that’s surprised me the most about vanilla production … because it’s grows. Opening a bottle of McCormick’s vanilla extract makes you think of cookies and ice cream and summer and such. Dried vanilla smells like raisins. Maybe caramel. And both are kind of alcoholic-moldy.
Once the vanilla is properly dried and sorted (that takes nine months) then it is exported for the most part, to you in the U.S. People here don’t use the stuff.
Wishing you love from a Chinese restaurant that smells like caramel raisins. JOHN

16 September 2007

I am constantly blown away by the kids I meet here, most of them know more about life than they really should. Geovani is 11 years old and he walked up to the bar last night like he owned the place. He was selling these chocolates wrapped in foil gold coins and I told him I didn't want any but if he was tired he could sit at the bar and I'd get him some hot chocolate. Just as I was thinking that it probably wasn't the best place for him to be hanging out, i realized he'd already lived a harder life than any of the european tourists i serve during happy hour ... and he could probably drink them under the table.

He's originally from Nicaragua, the coins are only his side job, he told me. He drums in the street with his father and brother most of the time. My mouth dropped and i realized he was part of the family of street performers i photographed when i first got here. I showed him the photos I'd taken of his dad and his brother and he told me he remembered watching me shoot them while he took a rest. Then he swigged down his cocoa like a man, wiped his mouth on his flannel sleeve and grabbed his coins before walking out the door.

I went back to work, and so did he.

It was kind of a rough night before he wandered in, and i realized after he left that i felt happy just knowing i would be able to find him again, two streets to the right and one street up, and there he'd be, drumming in the same spot i left him two months ago. on the face of it, life has dealt kids like him a tough blow, but i think that's too easy, the passing glance "Oh that's so sad" before you walk into a store and plop down 3 bucks on a latte, i guess the way i make it okay in my over-contemplative head is to think about it like this: they are no better or worse off than me, they've simply been faced with a different path, and sure it might be tought than mine, but I think they'll be better people because of it.

Just another pinata milestone...



Carlito, the son of my Spanish instructor, turned 10 years old yesterday and I finally got to see why she's been dragging me all over town this week to pick out his party supplies. She was really worried about the pinata. Carlito wanted spiderman and she couldn't find one and she flipped. I didn't see what the big deal was until she pulled out the photo album and showed me. There he was, Carlito, age 3, using a small stick to beat the crap out of a life size paper Snoopy.

Carlito, age 4, pinata in the shape of a pokeman action figure.

Carlito, age 5, he and his friends surround a pinata in the shape of superman.

The carnage continued ages 6 thru 9.

So, we went out on Friday and found the kid a spiderman in the market, bartering an old women down to 30 quetzales. Alenka, my tutor, asked me to take photos at the party and i was really jacked about it because we've been going through a rough patch, the kind only people who spend four hours a day with each other can go through.

I could only stay at the party for a little bit because I had to go to work, and I was kind of happy I had an excuse to leave.

It was a wierd feeling, but a familiar one, it's that awkward place where people have welcomed you into their lives, but there's also a certain distance because of the circumstances, i mean, to this woman i am "a job" and it was hard not to look around the room and realize i was the only american. You kind of get the same vibes when you're a journalist, when you hang out with people long enough they invite you into their lives, but no matter how much you blend in, it's you who's holding the notebook, or in this case, a camera, and you're the one who has to go back to the office and stare at your computer screen until it makes sense.

But all of this aside, I left the party realizing I wanted to stay, knowing that these people had let me into their lives not because i was a journalist or an American or someone who could do something for them like put them in the newspaper, for about an hour I was simply part of the family. - Jessie

White guy hiking town to town in rural Madagascar

[9/16/07 IMORONA, Madagascar. Dear Christian, I was reminded of our biking trip in the Appalachian Mountains yesterday. I walked a few hours down dirt road through the jungle and rice fields to get to this town, Mananara, on Madagascar’s east coast. Let me assure you that a white dude hiking alone with a massive pack is way more shocking to onlookers in Madagascar than we were – in spandex – to Appalachian people in Virginia and North Carolina. Kids saw me coming first. Some rushed to tell their parents of my arrival. “White person! White person!” Some said it with excitement, others with fear, running back into a bamboo home with arms flailing overhead. One kid ran out to the road, pointed at me, then screamed at the top of his lungs and spun around in circles. Then pointed again. He was excited, like I was Oprah or something. Although I guess she would stand out less. I tried to always flash a smile, no matter how I was received in these villages. I offered up a few Malagasy greetings (“any news in your family?”) Usually more shrieks followed. People here are way more excitable than they are back home. Commonplace stuff causes quite a stir. The animals play along with the game, too. Every morning, the rainforest shrieks with delight when the sun starts coming up. I imagine the frogs, birds and chameleons as cartoons, yelling “Oh my God, the sun, the sun!! Hurry, hurry, wake up. It’s the sun! It’s back!!” Hopefully I can bring some of that enthusiasm back to the states with me. This was all going through my head while I trudged down the hot and muddy road, thinking in my head “Just keep walking, just keep walking.” Like Dorey, the inquisitive but confused fish on Finding Nemo. –SUTTER]

The 5 a.m. pollinator

[9/16/07 IMORONA, Madagascar. Dear Grandma, People here in northeast Madagascar are dedicated, gentle and quick. They have to be to succeed on some of the best vanilla plantations in the world. Six days a week, Séance wakes up at 5 a.m. to pollinate the orchid flowers on vanilla vines. The climb up the side of a steep and misty mountain. He walks for an hour – down a dirt road, down a cool stream and through a rice paddy – to get there. In Malagasy, the name of the mountain means “rising sound of moving water.” (Lots of names here are cool and literary). But no time to ponder that now, I’m worn our from following Séance all morning, and I think I’m going to take a nap. People here – just like in Oklahoma – are so proud and hard-working. Darting around the hills to pollinate flowers is just the first of Séance’s several jobs, and he lives in a bamboo hut that’s just barely bigger than a king-size mattress. I’m doing my best to learn from everyone here … Hope you’re doing well. Love, John]

15 September 2007

Don't call me spelunker

[9/15/07 Dear John, Thanks for all of the messages from Austin City Limits (ACL). I’ve been thinking about you guys and I’m sure you’re having a blast. Drink a Texas Martini for me (holy Jesus, that sounds so awesome right now). I’ve been out of cell phone range in Imorona. I stayed with Tom and Faith, a married couple in the Peace Corp, who lived in Austin before coming here. They’re totally interesting people. They met in a “caving” club. Just don’t call it “spelunking.” I made that mistake. Tom quipped: “Spelunkers are people who, like, walk around in caves with sandwiches and flashlights. We’re, like, serious. We have equipment.” OK sure. Tom and Faith got engaged on a Friday and married on the following Monday. They say Austin is a “cavers” heaven. As you know, it’s pretty good for food, too, and Tom and Faith fed me some amazing food during my stay. Everything is rice here, but you can do some cool stuff with it. I think when I get home, I might join some clubs and learn to cook. Their domestic settledness is appealing, because they keep the adventure alive too. Love, John]

07 September 2007

Vanilla beans are just strung-out raisins

[9/7/07 SAMBAVA, Madagascar. Dear Fam: I’m up in northeast Madagascar, the world’s best region for growing vanilla. When you walk down the streets of Sambava and Antalaha, the smell of vanilla drying in the tropical sun hits you with a force strong enough to stain your hair and clothes for the day. The smell isn’t everywhere, it just pops out of the windows of concrete bunkers where workers sort dried beans with the speed and precision of Vegas card dealers. They put beans in various tubs and piles that correspond to important categories for beans: length, color, moisture, weight, texture and – above all – smell. The smell was one of the things that surprised me most about vanilla production … because it’s gross. Opening a bottle of McCormick’s vanilla extract makes you think of cookies and ice cream and summers. Dried vanilla, to me, smells like raisins. Once the vanilla is properly dried and sorted (no easy feat, and one that takes nine months) then it is exported, mostly to the U.S. People don’t use the stuff here. … Wishing you love from a Chinese restaurant (where I’m writing this) that smells like raisins. –JOHN]

(image caption: negative image … beans are black and the tie is usually a palm frond)

Nude beach (but only if you're a zebu with a big horn)

[9/7/07 SAMBAVA, Madagascar. Dear John, Went running today on the beach in Sambava, to clear my head. Scheduling woes are – you know me – not my cup of tea. I wanted to get out to this awesome national park because I’m stuck in this town until Sunday, but I don’t have time. On the run down the beach, I saw a man and pregnant woman herding cattle (zebu here). The hoof-prints in the sand made running interesting, and I was laughing out loud to myself about the whole scene – me on a de-stress run and encountering a herd of horned cattle blocking my path and coming right for me. I ran so much that I got blisters and cuts all over the bottoms of my feet – woops. The consistency of the beach is a little more like glass shards than powder. In reality, I’ve gotten a lot accomplished on this trip to the vanilla-growing region of Madagascar. I’m just frustrated I have to wait around for this one tour of one vanilla factory – and the down time is making me pretty lonely. Good thing the beautiful ocean and mountain views are here for that. Nature is about the only thing keeping me company (and sane) here at the moment. Love you, John]