Freitag, 6. November 2009

end of an affair

SUBMIT. Maybe it was the David Lynch-like surreality of the situation, maybe it was the gnawing hangover, maybe it was the physical exhaustion, but the word etched itself first into my retina and microseconds later into my cerebral cortex. my mate and i had just spent the previous week covering a rather heroic distance (when considering our complete lack of anything even remotely reminiscient of an acceptable physical condition, that is) trekking through the andes, a feat we had then celebrated the previous night at our final camp with copious amounts of pisco sour and red wine. now we had returned to puerto natales, a remote, windswept fishing town, bathing in the immensely intense light of the sub-antarctic patagonian summer sun. staggering through the empty back streets of single-story wooden houses on weary legs and in a strange disposition of mind, both of us were taken aback when suddenly a midget was walking in front of us. wearing a black woollen hat, a purple anorak and grey sweatpants, the chilean dwarf had a message for us, written in hand-size letters, across his ass, in gothic script: SUBMIT

fast forward a few years and the same word has defined my life over the past few months, kept me awake at night, gotten me out of bed before sunrise, putting me into a strange state of mind and generally taking over my personality and my life. the word "submit" hung over my life like the sword of damocles, defined my interaction with the outside world (or what little was left of it) but now the deed is done, at last. i am finally there. i have sent the final electronic version of my phd thesis to my university in durban, signed the papers, ticked the requisite boxes - i have submitted. surreal.

for all its relieving qualities, its an odd feeling. picking up my reference books from the floor, the sofa, the bed and wherever else they had ended up over the last few days of my push to finish my thesis, closing them and putting them back into the shelf had an odd melancholic air of finality about it, like when packing up your things when a relationship has ended.

and what do i do now with my life? with all the extra time on my hands? start reciting old norse poetry? learn to play the ukulele? master the art of landscape architecture? i have the creeping suspicion that my boss might already have an aswer up his sleeve to that question...

Donnerstag, 24. September 2009

northern exposure

combining the need to gain some headspace with the opportunity to visit a place i had wanted to visit since i was a child, i found myself on a plane cruising towards the faeroe islands into a pastel-coloured sunset over the north atlantic. a sea, as james joyce poignantly observed, was both 'snot-green and scrotum-tightening' (but more about that later). while the occasionally visible natural gas rigs flaring off their excess produce were a sight in their own right, i was more fascinated by the alcoohol-consumption patterns on board. eventhough i am more than familiar with the attitude of finnish and other eastern european air travellers confronted with possibility of limitless booze on a flight, i must respectfully say 'chapeau' to the faeroe islanders. standard orders for the first round to go with the flimsy sandwich of a meal were along the lines of "two akvavit, three beers, and two baileys please. oh, and two bottles of red wine too if you dont mind. and maybe a whisky, just in case." the second round was no different and during descent my neighbour ordered three beers and two red wines which he heroically downed before disembarking approx. 7 minutes later. like said, chapeau!

if there was a recurrent theme in my conversations with faeroese, however, it was the weather. i have yet to find a society as weather-obsessed as the one here. on ethe one hand, it is of course more than understandable. sitting precariously on some steep cliffs in the middle of he north atlantic and completely at the mercy of the raging elements, it is an obvious issue to worry about. nowhere else have i been served a print-out of the updated weather forecast for the next three hours with breakfast in a hostel. but, and here's the crux, it was completely off. well, not completely. sun, clouds, rain and wind are constants; low fog, high fog, sleet are variables. all one can do is guess (and discuss, at length and to no end, as i found out) is in what order they will be comning in and for how long. from my experience so far 10-15 minutes seems a good bet, leading to scenes like the one today where an older villager told me, within a space of 20 minutes, first "ah, tis a pity you come now, such bad weather" to be followed by "ah, tis wonderful weather here, no? lucky you're here now!" and not be wrong in his statements.

apart from discussing the weather, chasing sheep and doing far too little work on my thesis, i decided to go beneath the impressive, pounding waves of the north atlantic. beautiful, colourful and immensely rich with life, which surprised me somewhat. but it was also quite heavy-duty. next time i dive off the balmy waters of bunaken in a t-shirt, i'll reflect back on how i was ungraciously struggling to clamber up a kelp-covered concrete pier in the pitch-black night with almost the equivalent of my bodyweight in equipment strapped on to me, pulled back down into the icy atlantic by the relentless surf and pushed back down by gale-force winds whipping the rain horizontally into my face. in and of itself a beautiful experience, though, and one that reminded me of how easy i often have it. and not just in terms of diving...

Mittwoch, 16. September 2009

l'été indien

i'm basking in the luxury of gliding along on my bicycle on crisp, radiant autumn mornings through the tranquil, tree-lined streets and alleys of old copenhagen to retreat into my cloistered room in the academic ivory tower. two weeks to go to finalise my dissertation and i'm wondering if i'm not feeling too over-confident about the prospects of meeting the deadline.

but be that as it may, it is refreshing to spend some weeks in the rarefied air of academia, be it here or last week at a conference in a faux-tudorian country house in the rolling hills of wales. these settings are so far removed from the realities of the places i write about and so are the theoretical discussions we're engaging in here in these serene surroundings. perhaps that distance is necessary to be able to reflect and analyse, but it does seem to be at least a planet away.

but enough musing for now, the deadline looms.

Montag, 7. September 2009

not in bruges

avec des cathédrales pour uniques montagnes
et de noirs clochers comme mâts de cocagne
où des diables en pierre décochent les nuages
avec le fil des jours pour unique voyage
et des chemins de pluie pour unique bonsoir
avec le vent d'ouest écoutez le vouloir
le plat pays qui est le mien

- jacques brel, le plat pays

unlike colin farrell who was afraid of having to spend eternity in bruges, the forces of destiny (or more precisely, my workload combined with the the occasional hiccups in the services of la société nationale des chemins de fer belges) seem to want to prevent me, not from the first time, from visiting bruges. so the eternal question of whether its a 'shithole' or a 'fucking fairytale' will have to remain unresolved for the time being.

so instead of wandering in the cobblestoned streets of bruges, sampling the gay beers or checking out the alcoves (not to mention some of the more extravagant activities apparently on offer there), i have been criss-crossing le plat pays by train, taking in the immense flatness of the landscape, the medieval villages huddled around medieval churches, the networks of canals, bridges and dykes, the lone monasteries and estate houses.

what i find striking especially in the netherlands, less so in laissez-faire belgium, is the stark geometricity which has been imposed on nature over the course of centuries and which also defines the parts of the cities which have been built since the war. clear lines, marked angles, monochrome colours. in the best cases, the result conveys a hyper-modernistic sense of transparency and lightness, in the worst cases its more like a bad acid trip in legoland.

speaking of bad acid trips, i was also hoping pay homage to the works of hieronymus bosch and pieter breughel the younger. alas, it was also not meant to be, but instead i did find an old statement by werner herzog which is highly appliccable to their works as well:

"es handelt sich hier um ungeheure, gültige metaphern. ich habe nur keine ahnung, wofür."

Freitag, 28. August 2009


lost the culture, the culture lost
spun our minds and through time
ignorance has taken over

- take the power back, rage against the machine

i continued my journey from the dusty back streets of dili to a city-state which has often evoked contradictory emotions in me - and did not fail me in that respect this time around either.

it is in a way The New Jerusalem, the shining city on a hill, the model which other cities in the region want to emulate. jalan casablanca in my current hometown claims it shall become the new orchard road of jakarta when its newest shopping malls and exclusive condos are ready. its stylistic influence is more than visible in the futuristic, optimistic dreams of dilis urban utopianists displayed on posters in front of the perhaps-to-be-built shopping malls, office towers and casinos.

the real thing, in the meantime, is busy re-inventing itself with more glitzy malls, more high-rise, executive style living, more high-end shopping, and, inevitably, more rules and regulations. more courteously silent but politely insistent 'assistants' to show you with understated handsignals which side of the corridor you should walk on or which entrance you are not allowed to use. more public commons turned into private territory, more notices to make sure you abide by the rules. never is a voice raised, for they never seem to be need to be raised, be it in admonishment or in protest, for pretty much almost everyone except for me seems to not only accept the reglementations but positively embrace them - another trend the airconditioned nation has been exporting to its regional neighbours.

the benefits are of course obvious and i was able to enjoy them myself: an extremely efficient and functioning medical service; impeccable public transport services which are being constantly improved; well-kept parks, renovated old buildings and well-stocked bookstores in which to wander around; even a blue sky on an almost daily basis - a rare treat in jakarta. yet something seems amiss.

maybe its just me and my knee-jerk leftie instincts, but something to me does not seem to be quite right in a society where apparently the average consumer has six credit cards and the government has announced that spending seven times your monthly salary on a designer handbag is not excessive in these times of crisis, yet on the radio you have adverts for personality enhancement and management courses and senior government officials worry whether the average citizens 'might know the price of everything but the worth of nothing.'

i was particularily struck when i was wondering through the extremely worthwhile, eclectic and highly (overly?) ambitious museum of asian civilisations. the museum, in one of those twists of post-colonial irony is housed in a british colonial building lovingly refurbished by the former colonial subjects and which, in addition to the museum, has a franchise of a french-owned global bar which openly draws on the orientalist romanticism associated now by ex-pats and locals alike with the french colonial subjugation of cambodia, laos and vietnam. but enough about indochine, back to the museum: its excellent displays of what were basically snapshots of the immense cultural wealth of the region, of intricately crafted 3 000 year old east javanese bronze drums, of hmong hill tribe child-care and the non-linear geometry of ancient gujarati mathematics, the centuries of chinese political history, the tree-bark books of batak magic and traditional medicine written a mere 70 years ago but now almost forgotten...

all of this reminded me of something i at times forget, especially in places like singapore, jakarta, kl, manila, medan, shanghai, etc.: that there is so much here apart from the ubiquitous obsession with bmw, louis vuitton and prada; the fetishisation of western luxury goods and material wealth. yet i have a lurking suspicion that much of that rich cultural history is being lost, very fast, as the young urbanites spend their days in air-conditioned shopping malls slurping super-size soft drinks, eating western fast-food while playing online games on their i-phones.

culture, is of course not a museum but an interactive, ever-changing process of inventions and re-inventions, of appropriations and adaptations. but still the contrasting of what was on display in the museum and what i saw outside in the shopping district struck a melancholy note with me.

and yes, i do sound very old saying that.

Dienstag, 18. August 2009

new beginnings

WHOOOMP! BOUNCEBOUNCEBOUNCEBOUNCE... SCREEEEEECCHHHWHIRRRRRR.... KLONK! it was a smooth landing at nicolau lobato intl airport. a smooth landing by merpati standards, that is. so i'm back to dili, almost to the day 10 years after i first got here. and somehow it feels like a good place to restart my blog, now that i've finally found the inspiration to do so again, an inspiration that had dissipated out of me about 1,5 years ago for a number of reasons i haven't fully explored but do have a vague sense of. but, be that as it may, the drive to publish the outpourings of my cerebral cortex is back again.

so its back to t-l, and this time i'm here as a mere lowly tourist, with (almost) no other agenda, and i'm seeing the country from a wholly new perspective. instead of trying frantically to arrange research meetings or trying to get my head around the latest political developments, i finally have the time and headspace to appreciate the beauty of the morning mist enveloping the fishing boats and vietnamese freighters in dili harbour, the dignity of the old villagers sitting in the late afternoon sun, the exhilaration of cruising along the hilly coastal road on a motorbike, the colours of the vegetable market, the strong coffee, the casual conversations.

nonetheless, the place has a peculiar, almost surreal touch to it, things which i have written about earlier here as well. the co-existence, in such a small geographical space, of the parallel worlds of the ex-pat malae, the non-ex-pat foreign laboureres and traders, the nascent local upper and middle classes, the urban under-classes and the rural population. and the heavy militarisation of the place, the striking, deliberate and calculated casualness with which the young local and foreign men (and on occasion, women) in uniform strut their assault rifles in public, implicitly displaying their readiness to use violent, lethal force.

since the last time i came here over half a year ago, the stability seems to have taken root in a more, there seems to be more confidence that it might last, but the fear of a communal 'relapse' is also evident. symptomatically, the sound of the siren of a passing ambulance had the cafe staff freeze, with grave worry etched on their faces. and as always, there is a sense of foreboding in discussions about the future. 'if all goes well in october,' then we will be ok was the refrain this time, the previous time it was 'if all goes well in january,' previous to that it was 'if all goes well in august...' nonetheless, things are moving on here, places are being fixed up - strikingly, especially those with a religious connection: the statue of jesus, the cathedral, motael church, the statue of mary. i hope the reconstruction will turn out to be more than just a fresh coat of paint, in more ways than one.