November 14, 2009

The Masked Neocolonialist

The mask is a public-health measure designed to protect the population, and ourselves, from flu. When we arrived, there had been one confirmed case of H1N1 in the entire country, and a few days later, there were three more, all of them in our little compound. While we were in Muhanga, an hour from the capital, a couple of us felt sick and went to the central hospital in Kigali for tests, which came out positive. A third tested positive shortly afterward, and the public health officials told us to wear masks (we informed them that masks had been shown to be of zero value, but they weren't listening). I kept my mask on for about two minutes, not long enough to learn to put it on properly.

I never developed any symptoms, owing in part to the fact that I belong to the least susceptible age group of Americans, in part to having drunk about a gallon of black elder berry extract over the past weeks, and in part to not giving a shit. I've made friends with my inner germ, and if it wants me it knows where to find me. Otherwise it can go bother someone else.

Most of my colleagues remained under house arrest while Pamela (the other uninfected mzungu) and I traveled north to see some mountain gorillas. In Muhanga, a sound truck cruised the streets announcing that Americans had brought disease, and to keep away from us. When we walked through the streets, children covered their noses and mouths and turned away. The Rwandan newspaper New Times had an article about us.

It was Columbus and the Indians all over again. We came to serve, and wound up bringing a new disease. Except that in this case, we apparently managed to keep the bug away from the natives: Costa was flu-free, and our houseman Gigy, a hip young guy about whom more needs to be said at some point, tested negative despite wandering around in an enervated red-eyed funk, mask securely fastened.

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November 13, 2009

Rwanda photo 1

Hi folks, here's the first photo I'm putting up from the Rwanda trip. There are many more, and I'll try to get some of them sorted out this weekend.

Thanks to all of you who commented on or read my posts from the road, and it's especially nice to get comments from a few new names. Just to repeat for the latter: I went to Rwanda to see a dear friend, Costa, and meet his family, and do some volunteer work having to do with rebuilding traditional mud brick houses and facilitating a self-help inquiry method called The Work of Byron Katie. Costa and his activities are supported by Groundwork Opportunities, a small new nonprofit org whose founders I've met. They're young, hard-working, committed, and knowledgable. A higher percentage of their donations go directly to their projects than just about any foundation's, and they've received funds from the Bill Gates Foundation and elsewhere.

Taken in the front yard of Costa's house in Kigali. Clockwise from top left: Pamela, Isabelle, Denise, Richard, Brenda, Bernadette (Costa's wife), Yves, Gentil, Queen (on lap), Costa (our leader; my brother), Christina, Jon.

I did stick my hand in my wallet pocket, NY style, when in crowds, but the precaution was unnecessary. I have never felt so safe or so welcome. I had no jet lag, no intestinal problems, no flu (though a couple of us had flu or flulike symptoms), no mosquito bites. Just the time of my life.

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March 28, 2007

Stately Homes of Austin: The Conjoined Twins

I believe these to be a single multi-unit rental.

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March 25, 2007

Cafe Mundi

I like to sit outside at the Cafe Mundi when the weather's nice. A four-season patio shaded by crepe myrtles and bordered by bamboo. Baby palm trees and bronze and stone sculptures. Movies on Monday nights, music most other nights, art exhibits on the interior walls. Grackles in the trees, their droppings dotting the cement tables. (Well, sorry, this is a realistic blog.) Excellent Greek salad with organic mixed greens, and sandwiches and breakfast specials, and surprisingly tasty vegan pastries. Fancy beer, unfancy wine, yerba matte, Mexican soft drinks, Italian syrups, the whole shebang. It's hard to find, on a back street in a warehouse district in east central Austin. Lots of inexpensive Mexican restaurants and cantinas; a recycling center; a film production studio; a new mixed-use complex of apartments and boutiques, spottily rented.

I sit reading Louise Gluck's The Wild Iris and Althea Horner's The Wish for Power and the Fear of Having It, both of them revelatory in their different ways. I focus my ears and keep my head half-turned from the conversation at the next table, which I am eagerly straining to hear: two women, seasoning their talk liberally with profanities, analyzing a friend who has an exhibit opening somewhere but, judging from what they say, appears to be a pitiable creature unable to advance herself in the world without their advice. All my life I have loved to listen in.

My self-image is of someone twenty years younger than these people. How long can a human being keep deluding himself?

The view across the street.

UPDATE: Cafe Mundi has a website. (h/p: reader iam)

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March 20, 2007

Tiny Homes #1

Maybe I'll start a series of photos of small houses. Why? I don't know, what do you think I am, the answer man or something?

The problem is, the first house will probably be the smallest, making the rest of the series superfluous. Well, less work for me, anyway.

This is the smallest house I know by sight. I've never been in it, but I would imagine it has room for a kitchenette, a minimal bathroom, and a bedsitting room. Hard to imagine why it's set apart within its own frame and not stacked up wiht a lot of other equal-sized boxes in an apartment complex. (I know, pioneer houses were often smaller. I'm not talking about them.)

The photos make the place look bigger than in person.

It's a rental house, I think, and I wonder who's rented it over the years. For the same monthly payment, you could probably get a modern two-bedroom apartment. The ideal renter for this house would be someone who craved enclosure, someone seeking a life of coziness, whose ambition was to become a character from The Wind in the Willows. Walk home from the market with a brown paper bag -- one brown paper bag to hold a week's groceries -- and heat water in a kettle and serve four cups of tea: one for yourself and three for your animal friends. Someone who thought it was her duty to occupy as little space as possible in this world. Maybe someone who spent very little time in that house, who spent most of her time in a huge office building with frightening vistas of endless aisles of cubicles; who shrank further and further into her cubicle and longed for the end of the day, when her shrinking would be thankful rather than scared, because she'd be returning to her proper refuge, candlelit and potpourri-scented, with a narrow bed, and stuffed animals lined up beside her so she wouldn't fall.

Different from the Tiny Homes movement that's been written about here and here. Not as extremely tiny as those, because not part of a self-conscious movement. Not trying to make a point or sell a novelty. Just trying to remain unharmed, snugly overlooked but sometimes smiled at, amid the terrible bigness of everything else.

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March 11, 2007

Times Reporter Dares to Buy Sliced Brisket

I've been thinking about this New York Times article since it came out a few days ago -- an article on the barbecue craze in New York and whether the barbecue there meets Texas standards, or has to.

But that part's not what I'm thinking about.

What I'm thinking about is this line describing Kreuz Market, the legendary barbecue joint thirty miles down the road from here (page 3 of the article, fifth paragraph from the bottom):

A friend related a story of visiting Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Tex., one of the high holy shrines of Texas barbecue. He tried to describe the vibe in the room while he was eating: a low, throbbing, violent, ready-to-rumble hum that he felt and felt part of.

Well, gosh dang. I've been to Kreuz Market numerous times, some of them with my 65ish mother-in-law, and it's about as violent and ready-to-rumble as the local supermarket. It's a big, multi-room place with almost no decor, and you wait in line to order your meat from a counter in front of a smoky pit, and it's sliced and weighed and wrapped by polite, quiet Mexican experts, and you pick up a sampling of the minimal side dishes, maybe a tomato or an avocado and some jalapenos and pickles and onions, and you sit with your family at a wood-stained formica table, eating off butcher paper and wiping your hands and mouth with paper towels from a roll on a spindle. There are kids and parents and elderly couples and young couples, black and brown and white people, and maybe some groups of workers breaking for lunch or a solitary worker at a small table thinking about his relatives on the other side of the border. (Was he the one the reporter thought was about to kill someone?) Nobody is starting anything. Nobody is looking sideways at anyone. They're just a bunch of ordinary Texans. But they've got the Times writer all aflutter.

You are not a simmering street fighter or an in-the-know sophisticate by virtue of buying a slab of pork ribs in a place listed in every guidebook, in a town where you don't have to look before you cross the street.

Why does everyone in this country have to brag about how tough they are, how hip they are, how mean the streets are down which they walk? When did it start? With Brando in 1954, vrooming through town in leather bomber jacket and shades and never imagining how he would end up? Or John Wayne, who didn't serve in World War II but could beat up anyone on the screen? Or Hemingway, who advised Midwesterners where to eat in Madrid after paying to watch other men risk their lives?

We've been copying those acts for almost a century, and it's bullshit, Americans, it's just a load of it. It's damaged the national character, all this vain posturing. It's why some of the most gifted craftsmen in the nation spend their careers making the same gangster movie over and over, saying millions of dollars' worth of nothing. It's why the most popular genre of music in the past generation, hip-hop, is based almost entirely on empty, juvenile boasts of sexual prowess. What a dead end for all that talent!

I'm in a cafe -- this was Friday, with the kids after school -- and a guy with a long graying ponytail swings his leg over a barstool cowboy-style. Starts jawing with the barista about how much caffeine the two of them have been swigging.

"Got your afternoon fix, eh?"

"Yeah, one of the perks of working here."

A low, throbbing, violent, ready-to-rumble hum drifts past the espresso machine, past the rack of alternative weeklies, past the wall exhibit of photos from a faculty member's trip to Florence, past the plastic tub where you put your dirty cups and spoons.

Ponytail orders a second espresso.

"All right, dude, go for it!" the barista approves.

"Hey, it's the weekend, it's my wild time, bro, I need to stay up, know what I'm sayin'?"

"After this one, you won't be gettin' no sleep till, like, 4 am."

"That's it, that's what I'm after."

It's pathetic enough when guys brag about how much beer they've been drinking. These guys are bragging about drinking coffee, like it's 1700 and it's the very latest from Istanbul.

Do they realize that they sound like children bragging about how late they stayed up the night they had a babysitter?

Hey, lemme tell ya how many lollipops I had tonight...

And for those of you who would like a glimpse at the menacing black hole that unnerved the Times writer, here are some photos the lads and I took at lunch today:

its deceptively placid exterior

a pair of desperadoes reading the guest book

a forbidding menu

Smile when yuh say that, pardner.

assault on a rib with a deadly weapon (photo by Agent 95)

plate-equivalents, napkin-equivalents, and utensil-equivalents

an outlaw gang planning its big heist

Was this sign what got him a-shakin' in his boots? (photo by Agent 97)

Agent 95 said, "Dad, I think the New York Times was just jealous because Texas has better barbecue than New York."

'ppears I raised him up right, then. Makes a man feel right proud.

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February 26, 2007

Ithaca: Reality and Dream

Don't wait around for any gritty, hard-hitting dramatic series about the Ithaca police department any time soon. This cute little yellow Beetle, with its rear windshield slogan "Cops, Kids, and Toys," is on special duty at the downtown Commons to persuade kids to stay off drugs -- although the lingering influence of 1960s psychedelia is not undiscernible on the car itself. The department also has normal cruisers, you'll be relieved to know; there was one parked in the Beetle's place later that night, with wet flurries speckling it.

Ithaca turns out to be a cute, old college town about the size of downtown Madison, with grand stone churches and brown-red brick homes. It's surprisingly hilly, but unlike San Francisco which has hill after hill after hill, here there's one immense main climb, with Cornell University at the top and the downtown area at the bottom, so if you're a student who lives downwtown you get great exercise walking to and from campus every day. Most students live at the collegiate top of the hill, though, and rarely go downtown because then they'd have to walk back uphill drunk at three every Saturday morning, punctually punching the ol' bar-crawl clock as they do. In both areas there are a lot of rundown student apartments -- one can only imagine how much profit the landlords, who have owned those houses forever, are making, considering the minimal amount of repair they seem to do.

Ithaca is the only city in my experience in which, if you're waiting to cross a street at a trafic light and you press the Walk button, you can see an immediate, direct, causal relationship between pushing the button and the light changing to green. Because of this, Ithacans go around happily pressing the Walk light button at every opportunity and waiting a split second for the light to change, even if there's no traffic in sight. Not only that, but at major intersections a woman's voice comes on, floatging thrugh the air to tell you things like, "Begin crossing Oak Avenue..." and five seconds later, "Do not begin to cross Oak Avenue if you are not already in the crosswalk." Then a little birdie cheeps twice.

The restaurant/cafe scene is rather thin; if a student brings his visiting parents to dinner, there are only a handful of choices, as in Madison circa 1980, and so at every place we stopped last night we ran into my son John's fellow law students. The places we did find were good, though. The coffeehouses, Stella's and Gimme! Coffee, both had dark reddish walls with little artworks and mirrors, creating an old-fashioned atmosphere (more so at Stella's because of its solid, dark wood booths) where you could linger and imagine yourself drinking absinthe and writing French poetry. For dinner we went to Za Za's, a family-style Italian restaurant in a big, 1950s-swank room with white tablecloths and chairs, an arched, padded ceiling, and a wonderful, completely unused Art Deco bar with a big hourglass-shaped lamp and a sky ceiling, dark blue with pinprick stars. If I lived in Ithaca I would hang out there and sip gibsons and make it a hip discovery amng my (imaginary) in-crowd. (But what kind of restaurant wwebsite requires Macromedia Flash? If you're searching for a restaurant online, you have to have that software on your computer in order to figure out whether to eat there.)

After Za Za's we walked through wet snowfall (a sign of the unusually warm winter in upstate New York this year) to Felicia's Atomic Lounge, a likably grungy hangout with an unobtrusively sapphic vibe, tin squares on the bar wall, and a Leo Kottke-imitating singer-guitarist who was impressive and enjoyable when he fingerpicked his acoustic, and obnoxious when he plugged in and sang his magnum opus denouncing the sexual promiscuity of Paris Hilton, recruiting three young women from the audience as backups to sing a chorus of the crudest, most misogynistic insults.

Well, what do you expect in one of our leading university communities?

Earlier, Ann had been with us as we stalked the downtown area in search of things to quip about. Ann's got a good post about that part of the day, culminating in a YouTube video in which she, John, and I riff off each other about the window display in a used record store. Unfortunately, most of my witty remarks are scarcely audible, the microphone having been at a distance. Listening, I remember the riff extending over seventeen years (including my relative inaudibility), covering every passing phenomenon that intruded into our fields of vision, and ranging in tone from full symbiosis to raging hostility.

As I reach a certain point in life, it seems in retrospect impossible to tell reality from illusion. What did one really feel, what was one convincing oneself to feel, what was one convinced by others to feel, why doesn't one feel it anymore, what happened to change it, was the change positive or negative? I'm not just referring to a specific marriage but to any kind of love, any attraction or repulsion, including my current satisfaction with solitary life. Yet more than any time in the past twenty years or so, I want to touch once again my memories of long-gone people and places, to try to reclaim who I was and what resemblance remains to who I am now. To reclaim all of myself, past present future. Otherwise it's like breathing thin air. Deep companionship is bleached to casual acquaintanceship overnight; I visit someone I've spent the past almost two decades with and think, "What a beautiful woman, I'd like to meet her." (Notice I'm conflating two marriages here. That's part of the illusion-building process. Sometimes I don't know which I'm remembering.)

Maybe the mystery of changing identity explains the dream I had early this morning: I was visiting Ithaca New York, but it looked like a Greek island, with rocky cliffs to which I sailed on a little ferry. The natives were old-style New Yorkers, cordially rude Italians and Jews, and they worked and shopped in big underground caves that looked like subway stations, and I was baffled and worried but as I stayed and found my way I began to understand.

Snow flurries again this morning. This afternoon I fly to Austin via Detroit. The scenery keeps shifting.

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February 24, 2007

Take a Load Off

It was so windy in Ithaca last night, even hardened Wisconsites were squealing, "It's too cold!" So we slipped into restaurants and lounges and drank brandy and port and laughed about things we'd done, until people at the next table wanted to hear the story too and I told them, "It's too embarrassing!"

This morning I wake to this view:

Unlike those who might wake up to this view.

So after a trip to the complimentary continental breakfast bar and a dash outside to sample the air, I retreat to my room and take a look at something pretty:

Later, a country drive, assorted cafes, and a night of music from talented students.

h/t: Amba the Revelator

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February 23, 2007

Strait is the Gate

Which way am I supposed to go, I wonder?

I expect I'll see a similar sign at the entrance to the Pearly Gates.

Meanwhile, though, I'm sitting in a major airport hub, waiting for my traveling companion. I expect she's blogging away somewhere in the concourse, maybe even at the gate, but a glance at her site shows she has not yet posted about her travels. It's 15 minutes till boarding, and I wasn't sure I was going to figure out how to get the photo from my borrowed camera into my computer and onto blogger in time -- but I have, I have! That makes it worth the $8/day internet service at DTW.

The first airplane flight I ever took landed at this airport, in 1969 when it was called Detroit Metro Airport. Looking out the big windows, I recognize the flat land, the thin snow, the bright blue, still, winter sky. The airport itself is much expanded and improved, but this time I'm not paying $24 dollars for student standby ($48 full fare), and this time we had to wait standing in the air of the tiny plane so that the short-handed airline could track down an employee, somewhere, anywhere, any employee, to connect the jet bridge to the plane. Moddin times, mon.

That first flight could be a post in itself: a waiting area full of New York college kids on their way to Michigan, getting to know each other on the fly, asking what dorms we were in, orming spontaneous groups to hunt down refreshments... I was waiting with my father, who'd driver me from the Bronx to LaGuardia, and when someone invited me to join a group prowling the airport, I first said, "No, I have to stay here with my father," but when I looked to check with Dad, he told me it was my choice; and I chose to go with the peer group, and that was the beginning of leaving home.

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