Sunday, January 30, 2011

Today On I've Had It With Hollywood

Not so Biutiful.

Memo To An Egyptian Mummy

This is my fantasy, which is what would happen in a rational, commonsensical world.
Someone (preferably Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, and the rest of the international community) would whisper in Mubarak's ear:
"Dude, do you want to be remembered as the hero who liberated Egypt (from yourself, but never mind)? Or do you want to be remembered as a stubborn, dictatorial, murderous kleptocrat? You've been in power for 30 years, it's about time you step down. You want to be remembered as the father of Egyptian democracy! So instead of hunkering down, turning the police and the army against their own and taking away the people's internet (for better or for worse, the single greatest spreader of human freedom ever), why not step down and put Mr. ElBaradei in your place?
What could be cooler than Egypt having a Nobel Prize winner as a leader? Everybody seems to like him! ElBaradei would have the support of the international community and could stabilize the country while it gets ready to transition to a vote in which Egyptians would choose who they want to rule them. We are all hoping that instead of choosing a stone age theocracy, they would choose to bring Egypt into the 21st century, which is what they seem to want. Both of you would ask the army to protect the citizenry instead of seizing power, and allow for a democratic transition, even if this country has never really seen one. Egypt used to have a king, who was a corrupt scoundrel, then General Nasser ousted the king, nationalized the Suez Canal, and started a chain of tyrannical rulers, including yourself. You have kept Egypt, if relatively peaceful, with the help of gazillions of our economic aid (where has all that money gone, by the way?) and a repressive iron hand, mired in social, cultural and economic stagnation. And now you were thinking of imposing one of your sons to continue to rule, as if you people were a monarchy? No way Jose. You are not wanted any more. Don't paint yourself into a corner and make our lives a foreign policy living hell in the process. We have too many messes in our hands already. Be a good sport. Scoot over, Hosni. 
By the same token, someone would be whispering in the US Administration's ear: for the love of God, do not fuck this one up.
One can dream.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Consider The Elephant

Near Chiang Mai there is a place called Elephant Nature Park, which was founded by a woman who wants to protect elephants from abuse. Since Thailand outlawed logging and that's what they were used for, they are now used for begging, for tourist rides, or circus-like entertainments. At Elephant Nature Park you feed them, wash them and mainly stare at their ancient grace in a state of bliss for hours.
There were two babies. The girl was a sweetheart. The boy was trouble, always getting on top of her, and pestering all the other elephants. One elephant pushed him away with her hind leg.

Baby elephant!

I would like to believe that this woman is really sincere, which I think she is, and that she really is using the money she gets from us tourists to buy back the elephants that are used like trained seals. Right next to her there is a tourist attraction where elephants are used in this fashion. We even went to a tiger zoo that is just abuse of animals disguised as love of animals. Perhaps the tigers are safer in this enclosure but the fact is they should be in the wild, where they belong.

They are vegetarians

Today On I've Had It With Hollywood

A one and a half dimensional movie: The Company Men.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Today On I've Had It With Hollywood

A good movie: Blue Valentine.

Faith No More

A parable, my little grasshoppers:

So I am walking by myself through the main temple at Angkor Wat, ahead of hosts of tourists who are still clicking away at the last remnants of sunrise over the Wat, and I come across a man, dressed in a gray Mao collar shirt, who stands in front of a little shrine with a statue of a placidly (is there any other way?) sitting Buddha.
The man entreats me to offer incense to the statue. I demur. He says it will give me good luck. No, thank you. He insists, as if implying who could be so stupid and have a soul so black as to deny themselves good luck with such a simple, innocent gesture?
As he will not back down, I relent. I take the wand of incense, follow a little ritual as he tells me, and stick it in the sandy urn in front of Buddha, who remains unfazed.
I feel absolutely nothing. No relief, no joy, no peace, no anger, no impatience, no grace. NOTHING. Have I inadvertently achieved Nirvana? Perhaps.
Once I am done, the man lifts up a little piece of fabric in front of the Buddha and reveals a crisp five dollar bill. That's when I bark.
No, I say. I didn't want to do this for a reason.
I do not rant at him that it is not the money, or the fact that he is clearly a con artist, and that not all of us gullible foreigners are like Liz Gilbert eating and praying and loving our way through exotic locales.
Some of us just like our reality hard assed. We take the world as it is and deal with it.
And what does spirituality have to do with money anyway?

I do not care if your God does yoga and never breaks a sweat, if He is sitting in a throne in the sky having tantrums mostly with Himself, if He has managed to piss off the authorities enough to get nailed to a cross, or doesn't find Scandinavian cartoons funny. I have no faith, and yet my life is rich and very meaningful.
Please leave me alone.

On this trip I visited many beautiful temples.
The only place where I felt an intense urge to kneel down, bow my head, shed bitter tears and offer some sort of prayer, was at the Killing Fields in Cambodia. I felt the need to acknowledge to the bones of 17,000 men, women and children, that I was ashamed and despairing of their suffering and that they were not forgotten.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I Love This City To Bits

For some reason I got a sudden, explosive crush on New York. It happened Thursday, when I experienced the unfettered happiness of being able to pick up a prescription in the pharmacy, have my attempt at a screenplay bound at the copy place, take my bag to the shoe repair guy to have the zipper fixed (I wanted it replaced but he convinced me he could fix it for $15 less), and buy a new lightbulb for the fridge. Made it to a meeting in Astor Place 10 minutes early. Everything on foot and in the span of about 15 minutes. The soundtrack in my head is the brassy section of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. With fireworks. Top that, burbs.

Then yesterday I had lunch at the snaking counter in the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. It is one of the few places left in New York that feels like New York and nothing but. It feels like a great movie of New York, and it condenses the brisk, no nonsense energy of this town like a genie in a bottle. I order the Manhattan clam chowder (after Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco there really is no point on having New England clam chowder anywhere else, plus I am on a low cholesterol diet), which wasn't good, a fried oyster po boy which was quite terrible, the oysters having been fried and left to wither probably since the night before, and a nice little astringent glass of Verdejo, with a nose of nail polish remover. Still, best lunch ever because the place and the people in it are priceless. It's like eating in an Edward Hopper painting, minus the gloom.

Yesterday's endearing subway stories: I board the 6 train for Grand Central and as the doors of the car open, I get a whiff of the inimitable smell of rotting foot, groin and armpit gristle that tends to be exuded by some itinerant homeless the world over. I periscope my head to find the source of the sickly sweet and acid stench, and sure enough, there is one such unfortunate soul, of mysterious gender, sitting with all their possessions in one corner of the car. A vast gulf of empty seats ensues and, like a sight gag in a Buster Keaton movie, everyone else is sitting crammed together on the opposite end of the car, pretending everything is hunky dory.

Subway on the way back, car full of people but not super crowded. White woman with a bad peroxide dye job is lying prostrate on the bench, down for the count. If it wasn't for the rivulet of spit trickling down her mouth, we would all assume she is dead tired from working all day. For she is not dressed as a homeless person. She is wearing Timberland construction boots, mismatched but decent clothes, and is clutching a leather handbag between her legs. But the trickle of spit makes us all think that she is a junkie or she is unwell and who knows possibly very sick, or maybe dead, but nobody, including me, does anything. For stations. She lies there like the elephant in the room and I realize that the not doing anything is horribly contagious and quintessentially New York. I'm torn about whether to rouse her or hit the emergency brake, which would probably earn me everyone's enduring enmity, and to this day, I still don't understand what we can possibly be debating inside our heads in this crazy city, that makes us tarry if not totally ignore, the plight of someone who is in jeopardy right in front of our eyes. Finally, a man sitting across her tries to wake her. He grazes her as if he was touching a melting snowflake. She needs a neutron bomb, but that man's initiative gives me confidence so I go and give her a good shake. Or several. She wakes.
Her eyes are blue, her eyebrows black and she has bad skin, but she could be a cashier in a supermarket. Quick mental picture: lives in the Bronx, possibly drunk, abusive parents, didn't make it to high school, boyfriend who whacks her, the works. I wonder if she is drunk, although she doesn't reek of alcohol. So maybe it's junk.
Me: Are you okay? If you are not feeling well, you should get off the train.
She mumbles she is okay and then keels right over in very slow motion like the Titanic at the end of the movie, but slower. So I wake her up again. "Do you know where you need to get off, are you sure you're okay?" -- "Yes, thank you".
So I go back to my little corner of anonymity and soon she is blabbing aloud (and I bet we all think, see what happens for butting in? You have released the Krakken), yet she's not belligerent but plaintive, something about nobody helps you in this town and oh my God where is 42nd st, and where is the lady that was asking me if I'm okay. So I go back to her and tell her she needs to get out in the next station, 14th St, and go to the uptown train).  I'm told I'm an angel. I feel like telling her that nothing could be farther from the truth, but why break her heart. Then a kindly looking woman volunteers to take her to the train. And don't you think I didn't think of the possibility that she would steal from the woman's open handbag. Just like I thought of the possibility of waking her up and getting punched in the face. Or as she thanked me, of her giving me a sob story and asking for twenty bucks. We all have our reasons not to help and they are a combination of cowardice, fear of uncouthness and some sort of distorted respect for privacy, which goes by the catch phrase "none of my business".
Still, and because of all this teeming human condition, I love this town to bits.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wat Is The Wat

Ladies and gentlemen, the truly scary beautiful magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat, Cambodia:

The magnificent talents of Magnificent Arepa.

Maybe I should let you entertain the fantasy of lonely and daring exploration a la National Geographic.  In truth, in a good moment, before hordes of groups of different nationalities and cameras arrived, it looked something like this:

Still, it is breathtaking. So much so, that I forgot I wanted to see the ruins that Dean Tavoularis designed and built for Apocalypse Now, that apparently are still around. They were going to use the original, but because there were explosions involved, they sensibly decided to build a replica they could blow up in peace.

 Tavoularis at the Cinematheque Francaise with one of his sketches for Apocalypse Now.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Food for Thought

Mexican or Thai food? When I went to China I decided that Mexicans came from the Chinese. Many similarities. But after being in Thailand I am convinced that Thais and Mexicans are almost one and the same.  Sweet, generous people, with an ingrained resistance to saying no, an almost masochistic penchant for extremely spicy food and many similar tastes. I bought a bag of delicious tamarind balls rolled in salt, sugar and chili, just like the tamarindos we eat in Mexico. I saw women selling quince with chili and salt. What more evidence do you want.  You give up? The picture above is of cochinita pibil, the best I've had so far, at restaurant Azul y Oro at the campus of the National University in Mexico City.

Fried goodness. These little balls are crunchy outside and gummy inside and a little sweet.

Oodles of noodles. Siem Reap market, Cambodia.

Classic Chiang Mai curried noodles. The broth has turmeric and the noodles are both soft and crunchy. Like in Pozole, you can add your condiments: coconut milk, squeeze of lime, fiery chili, banana, shallots, fish sauce and pickled something. Delicious, although I ordered everything not too spicy. Which brings me to the problem of total lack of nuance when a foreigner asks for not too spicy, which a Thai interprets as no spice whatsoever. I could never communicate that I can tolerate a little spice. It was all or nothing.

More fried goodness. I could subsist on spring rolls.

In the market in Siem Reap you could see this gorgeous freshness...

...or fried tarantulas. To this day, I choose to think they are only for show. We also saw humongous fried cicadas, silkworms, and barbecued snake on a skewer, no doubt seasoned to perfection.

At the excellent La Noria in Siem Reap (the town next to Angkor Wat), we had a tasting menu of Cambodian food. The first course was green papaya salad, much milder than the Thai version, summer rolls and banana flower salad. Who knew bananas had flowers and you could eat them? A very delicate taste. By the way, the best bananas I ever had, I had in Cambodia. Incredibly flavorful, sweet and a little tart.

Second course was the two most famous national dishes, Amok, the subtle and elegant fish green curry, steamed in banana leaf, and a delicious beef stew. The third dish was a pedestrian chicken with cashews.

Dessert was passion fruit sorbet, warm coconut, coconut jelly and some other green jelly made of an exotic plant. They like gelatinous deserts. This meal, together with two fresh fruit juices, set us back $15 each.  Super expensive for Cambodia.

I don't know what is worse. This, or this:

 Though the name is genius. Either a blend between a pizza and a quesadilla, or a pesadilla, which is Spanish for nightmare.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

After Travel Ranting Debrief

1. There are way too many of us. Especially tourists.
The amount of people arriving and departing Bangkok airport (best airport ever) is as alarming as the amount of Thai prostitutes and of the beer bellied international sleazebags who use them. 
By corollary:
a) everyone is a tourist, except me.
b) People who wear flipflops should be barred from entering aircraft. This may not be immediately germane, but it needs to be said.
2. We are not destroying the planet. The planet is already destroyed.
I was worried about stinging jellyfish (and hungry sharks and sudden tsunamis, etc.) but all I found at the beach were legions of jellyfish-looking plastic bags and the disgusting man-made debris of civilization.
To this day, the poor insist on ignoring the advent of the trash can. They cherish everything that pollutes because it makes their lives easier (plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic wrappers, styrofoam, noisy tuk tuk engines, etc).
My advice: get rid of the poor.
I'm sure I am not the only person who endured the relentless noise and smoke of the tuk tuks in Siem Reap and dreams of a solar powered engine, silent and clean, that can recharge in ten minutes while the drivers wait in that abominable heat. I'm not an engineer but I'm sure it's possible.
(There is no evidence whatsoever of garbage, nor of much else, in Seattle. Its pristine sidewalks beg the eternal question: why is NYC so goddamned filthy?)
3. Post-colonialism sucks. 
I miss colonialism. At least they had style. Men wore linen suits and Panama hats; women looked like Mata Hari.  Malaria was in the air. Pop music was Cole Porter, not indiscriminate boy or girl groups who all want to be Britney Spears, if we are lucky, Gaga if we are not. Now everything is cheap, stupid, vulgar and generic. There is no elegance or glamor anymore. I really resent this. 
4. Guidebooks monger fear.
To judge by my Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, I should have contracted dengue fever, malaria, typhoid, Japanese encephalitis, disgusting skin diseases from stray beach dogs, poisonous snake bites, travelers' diarrhea (this did happen, because I ate at a cheap restaurant they recommended)
The only useful info they give are the strategies of the natives to divest you of your money via scams. The rest is infuriatingly misreported, for the most part, and written with a snottily superior tone, like they know the natives like the palm of their hand and you are an ignorant idiot. It so happens that Thailand is surprisingly developed, hygienic and civilized, but you read their guide and you think you are going to the jungle like Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, The Wrath of God. Only in Angkor Wat did I feel a little like Indiana Jones, if I pointed the camera at the tops of trees, where there were no tourists or hosts of annoying poor people trying to sell you shit. 
Someone has got to write better written guidebooks.
5. Cabdrivers in Cambodia get more phone calls in 15 minutes than I ever do in a year. 
And they get them while they are driving at neckbreaking speeds among the most reckless moto and bicycle drivers on Earth. What are they, Warren Buffett?
6. Thai people think they speak English. Mostly, they don't. 
I order apple juice, I get tomato. I order a fabulous sweet and spicy sauce, I get a dish with a different sauce (even while pointing at the picture). I order calamari and I get shrimp. I order a cab to pick us up at 4 am, it's not there. 
Part of this is lack of English and part is that if they don't have something, they rather die than tell you it's not available. Hence, they substitute. As the operating principle in Thailand is "do not raise a stink", and as people are so sweetly polite, I drank the tomato juice, ate the dish I didn't want with the wrong sauce and had the shrimp. 
It was all good.
Thai cabdrivers will call a friend on the phone, who also doesn't speak English, so that you can repeat to him where you want to go. They hand you their cellphone: "it's for you". This happened several times and it was always hilarious.  
Poor, annoying Cambodian children, however, speak English majestically and pester you in that and every other language. They are feisty and pick a fight if you don't cooperate with their begging. They are well trained to harass. 
7. As you may have noticed, I've had it with the poor.
They are the bane of a nice vacation. And if they are so smart and business savvy, how come they are so poor? Parents train their kids to whine and mope and try to make you feel guilty. Bullshit. Maybe they should use the same techniques to pressure their governments for better education and less corruption. Leave me and my money alone. 
8. I am writing this at 3:13 am, EST. 
Enough said.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Goodbye, My Faithful Companion

Goodnight, sweet princess.
I bought my inseparable Dakota roller bag at Altman's luggage in the Lower East Side for my first business trip ever in 1993. Yesterday, after unfailingly accompanying me through thick and thin; business and pleasure, around the world, never once breaking down or compaining of overbearing weight and manhandling, my darling, long suffering, well traveled Dakota, breathed her last, after gamely traipsing through Thailand and Cambodia for one last adventure. Though her replacement has been found -- her cousin, a Tumi bag -- I am in deep mourning.