Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Secret of IRAN

Gate of All Nations at Persepolis
Armenian Church, Isfahan
Aghazadeh House

I’m lying in bed trying to piece together the events of this last trip that just ended after a 48-hour day of transit. Of all my trips, this ranks among the most memorable. Yes, the architecture, history, and pageantry are astonishing, but it is the people that made this trip magical.

Shahcheragh Shrine, Shiraz.

As some of you know, I study humans’ relationships with the body through intentional alteration, temporary or permanent, and frequently in the context of a religious experience. It has been a dream of mine to attend Muharram for the Ashura ceremony of Shi’ah Muslims. The biggest hurdle being the best places to witness this ceremony: Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iraq haven’t been accessible or felt safe to visit. Thanks to Obama and Rouhani, this seemed like the right time to visit Iran; either the door of tourism will slam shut or burst open. And now with the blessing of the supreme leader Khameni (not to be confused with Khomeini) clearing the way for a deal to lift sanctions, I would bet the country will open up.

Muharram flagellant procession, Shiraz

Mic and I are celebrating our 20th anniversary. Twenty years ago I trained him to pierce when the Gauntlet hired him and he’s been in and out of my life, mostly working for me since then. Taking him on a trip was to say “thanks for your awesomeness.” Jon John started traveling with me to far off places a few years back. I want to thank both of them for trusting in me enough to take a trip that almost everyone we talked to thought we were crazy and pressured us not to take.

Walls outside the former US Embassy, Tehran

I had gotten so tired of the unsupportive responses to my then upcoming trip that I had stopped telling people I was going to Iran. With less than a handful of exceptions, even well-educated and liberal friends would question my sanity. “What’s in Iran besides crazy and dangerous fundamentalists?” was the general line of questioning. Even with my background in anthropology, research into current international affairs, and numerous travel precautions, such as factory resetting my phone, I still felt 10% anxiety underneath my 90% excitement. It’s hard to shake the constant rhetoric of “axis of evil” from our side and “Down with USA” from their side. When Mic and I checked in at San Francisco International Airport, the airline rep reacted to our final destination with shock, "Why the hell are you going to Iran?! Are you guys nuts?!" And he was from Morocco.

US Embassy has been renamed, "US Den of Espionage." When you take into account the evidence of 2 prior CIA planned coups, the Iranian government has a point. "We reap what we sow."

I think a cursory overview of Islam is in order. I’m neither a Muslim nor a scholar of religions, so bear with my missteps. There are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Approximately 85% are Sunni with most of the rest being Shi’ah. Of only 5 countries where Shi’ah are the majority, Iran is by far the strongest and most stable. The fundamental split between these two sects occurred after the death of the prophet Muhammad stemming from a difference of opinion on succession of leadership. Those that came to be known as Sunni (which basically means “people of the tradition”) believed the leader should be elected by a council, where as those that came to be known as Shi’ah (which basically means “followers of Ali,” who was the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad) believed the leader should be mandated by Mohammad’s bloodline. Shi’ah also believed they were in keeping with Muhammad’s directive for succession. There was much early political maneuvering, warring, and assassinating, etc. in the 7th century CE (Western calendar).

Mosque, Shiraz

The split solidified with the gruesome massacre of Husayn, his infant son, and his brother Hasan, the last living relatives of Muhammad, by the disputed Islamic leader Yazid. It is the slaughter of Husayn that is remembered and grieved during the month of Muharram every year. This ritualized grieving ceremony is enacted through singing, theatrical performances, and nightly processions of participants chanting, drumming, flagellating, and/or chest pounding through the streets. From a functionalist perspective, the ceremony solidifies group identity and a sense of belonging. Politically, the ceremony critiques the injustices of the present by linking them with the atrocities of the past, in what Khomeini called “the eternal now.”

Mosque fountain stained blood red for Muharram, Eqlid.

The 10th day of Muharram, known as Ashura, marks the day of the atrocity and the culmination of the main grieving practices. Forty days after Ashura, Shi’ah are expected at some point in their lives to make a pilgrimage to Karbala in Iraq to visit Husayn’s and Hasan’s tombs. This 40th day is also filled with intense physical and ritualized expressions of grief. Forty is an extremely auspicious number in that part of the world, like the Buddhist’s usage of the number ten thousand, it is a numeric expression of the infinite. (So remember that when you hear the Old Testament quote “It rained for 40 days and 40 nights...” it wasn’t literal, it was an expression of a very, very long time.) It was primarily the Ashura festival that brought me to Iran and it is the warmth and generosity of the people that I will always remember.

Eqlid Ashura boys

Iran doesn’t make it easy for Americans to visit (and vice versa). Currently as Americans, we are allowed in the country 1 day before and 1 day after a compulsory tour. We are instructed that we must be with a government approved tour guide 24/7. As Westerners, we have to pass a prescreening background check, prior to applying for the actual $189 visa application (plus an additional $200 for a private company to transport the passport, since the only official-unofficial consulate is in DC). All the research showed that travel should be safe for us, however, visas can be denied and no explanation will be given. We all agreed to comb our hair, remove our facial piercings, and cover up our tattoos for the photos and for clearing immigration. Thanks, Kryolan, your makeup works! By the way, none of the time spent removing jewelry or applying multiple layers and shades of makeup was probably necessary. Certainly once in the country, tattoos and piercings weren’t a problem at all, just a curiosity. For women, it’s another matter. It was a strange site to see a plane load of Persian and foreign women pull out head scarves upon landing in Tehran. There hadn’t been a single woman wearing hijab when we had boarded our plane in Vienna.

Iranian woman with a mosque-loaned chador, Shiraz.

Jetlag and a quick scan of the Khomeini international airport melted my final fears of deportation. The government officials were the same lackadaisical bureaucrats that you would find anywhere else. The exception being they were physically warm and verbally funny with each other. Their equipment was worn and dated. There wasn’t anything that signaled I was dealing with a paranoid and fanatical police state. They did pull us aside without an explanation for 1 ½ hours. Turned out they wanted to finger print us, but couldn’t be bothered to get around to it (when they finally did, it took 5 minutes). They asked what I did for a living…no interrogations, not even a bag search.

Ebrat Museum, Tehran

Mic reposing at Golestan Palace tea house, Tehran

Tehran is a city of about 9 million. I had expected more beauty and antiquity. It’s there, but it’s buried behind the typical concrete crap that you find everywhere these days. It’s sprawling and chock full of vehicles. Motorbikes use the sidewalks and red lights are a suggestion. As a pedestrian, you cross up to six lanes, one lane at a time, weaving between the traffic flurry. The secret is to cross with the locals and walk at an even speed so the cars and motorbikes can project a trajectory. The worst thing you can do is panic. Bolting and freezing makes it more difficult for unbreaking vehicles to miss hitting you. Fortunately, they have a subway and Mic was able to turn our trips into impromptu comedy shows with a captive audience. They loved the loud laughing, gregarious foreigner!

"Apple" store, Tehran
I’m not sure what sanctions do? Commerce appeared to be thriving. There were few bargains. Everywhere we looked we saw Apple, Sony, and Panasonic products. Clothing brands were mostly Iranian knock-offs, but again locally made benefits the Iranian economy. However, like the US, China was the overwhelming manufacturer of products. I’ve often wondered what cyber thieves do with stolen credit card numbers. I found out from an Iranian that many of those numbers are used by regular hardworking Iranians as a workaround to the sanctions. Regular folks (not stereotypical criminals) buy the stolen numbers to gain access                                                                                     to Apple software updates for their iPhones.

“Nothing is permitted, but anything is possible.” One of my two favorite expressions from this trip. It’s a common expression, particularly among the younger, more secular Iranians. Satellite television is haram (prohibited by Islamic edict), yet millions of Iranians own them. After the Green Party protests, the government banned and blocked Youtube and Facebook, yet every Iranian I talked to accessed these sites through VPNs and special apps. These app companies are even advertised on satellite broadcasts. To the unacquainted, the Iranian’s varying departments of security and enforcement are a bit confusing. While we have our own array of TSA, NSA, CIA, FBI, ABC, DOJ, DHS, ATF…etc., the Iranians have the Morality Police. They enforce the hadith (Islamic understandings of morality derived from the Quran). The MPs have checkpoints at a few intersections to see if unmarried males and females are fraternizing in public. They also check that women and men are dressed appropriately, for women that means their heads, necks, ankles, and arms are covered and for men, no shorts or sleeveless shirts. The wearing of the black covering, chador is common, but not compulsory. I never saw a burqa (the female cloak that also covers the face), it’s not an Iranian practice. You can easily spot the more secular females since their designer label and usually decorative hajib will only half cover their head. For the average Westerner this may all seem outrageous and sexist; however, they have no rampant problems of alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, uncared for mental illness, public displays of sexual harassment or disrespecting of females, teen pregnancy, litter, human and animal feces, or used syringes in the street…all the things I witness in San Francisco on an hourly basis. Make no mistake, I’m not moving to a country that criminalizes homosexuality anytime soon and that technically has fatwas (religious rulings) against tattooing and male beauty treatments such as eyebrow plucking, however, they at least offer real solutions for problems that have plagued large populations for millennia.

Jon John captivating girls with his tattoos, Kahkaran village

Iranians and Shi'ah are not ISIS/ISIL; they’re technically at war with them. Considering they are situated next to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with Syria a stone’s throw away, the average citizen (and airport security) are surprisingly relaxed. Obviously in the “Islamic Republic of Iran,” Shi’ah Islam comes first, however there are Sunnis, Christians, and even Jews. “Despite all the different races, we are Iranians first.” “Iran” comes from the word Aryan, which reportedly, they all consider themselves.

Qashqai Nomads

Locals' shisha bar with "Abe" and Jon John, Shiraz
In shiraz, I met a Jewish Iranian named Abraham and asked him about what it was like to live in Iran. He said he experienced no problems for being Jewish. There was a strong but small Jewish community and that they were all accepted as Iranians. However, he had no delusions that he lived in a theocratic state in which morality, holidays, politics, and social status were dictated by the dominant religious group. Abraham showed me around the mosque, helped me buy a black shirt for Ashura, gave me his personal scarf and insisted on paying for our shared shisha (hookah pipe).

Shahcheragh shrine, Shiraz
Nasiralmolk mosque, Shiraz

Iranians will offer you the shirts off their back, they’re socially obligated to be generous. However, you should always refuse the first several times to make sure they mean it and that they’re not just performing generosity, as is the custom. Much like how polite Westerners may arm wrestle for a restaurant bill or jockey to open the door first, Persians have taken this etiquette dance to the level of fine art. They call this taarof.

Imam mosque, Isfahan

“Jews, Muslims, Christians, they’re all family having a family argument.”This was expressed to me by a brought-up-Shi-but-now-secular Iranian. This perspective cast new light, for me, onto the Palestinian issue. But have you ever tried to butt into a family argument? Not pretty. And this is a weaponized family fighting over inheritance.

Armenian church wall mural, Isfahan

Old town passage, Yadz

Lotfollah mosque, Isfahan
(the most beautiful mosque I have ever seen)
This may come as news to many, but Muslims believe in Jesus. They believe, like Mohammad, that he was a great and wise prophet, but not the son of God. They also have an entire chapter in the Quran on Mary. Jon John and I were invited to attend the reenactment of the burning of Husayn’s tent. I filmed a mountain-of-a-man on the rooftop with me sobbing during the recitation of the horrific massacre of Husayn. Afterwards, the young gentleman navigated Jon and I through the streets of Yadz back the central Arab Square. As we wandered without explanation through unknown alleyways, I joked with Jon that we were his easiest kidnap victims. Our imagined captor didn’t speak a word of English and we never figured out his name, but during the meander, he pulled out a pocket knife crucifix from his pocket and pointed to it, then to us, then to him and signaled his hands in prayer. As best he could, he was signifying a human connection through a commonality in these two religious beliefs. His simple gestures spoke volumes for generosity, love, understanding, peace and forgiveness. Albeit, though cute and little, it still was a knife… ;)

Okay my Joons that is it for this travel journal. Iran is one of the most amazing countries I’ve been to. GO!

(Joon means “life” in Farsi; it is a term of endearment and is commonly added on as a suffix like, “dear.”)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The relaxing last stretch for home... Aug 20, 2005

August 20, 2005

The relaxing last stretch for home...

Hanging out in Kandy for about a week has been a brilliant decision. It's a wonderful city with plenty to do, and frankly running from one small town to the next, no matter the beauty and adventure is exhausting!

So the mad Englishman loved his "Black Forrest (ish?)" birthday cake surprise.

The next day we headed off for the stunning botanical gardens near by. They have a Javan Fig tree that is 1600 square meters (my american non-metric friends...that's BIG)! They have manicured it perfectly in the shape of an umbrella with minimal shooter roots (picture enormous tree trunks) for support. We reckoned you could fit an entire village under the canopy. Their other big show stopper is Burmese Bamboo, the largest bamboo in the world, growing up to 120 feet tall! (Yeah I know I sound like a "size queen"...but the beautiful little orchids were nice and they knew how to display them ;)

Liam spent the last hour or so taking the locals attention off my tattoos by doing back flips, (thanks monkey-boy, I needed a break!)

So, having witnessed the Pera Hera procession about 4 or 5 times now, we are pretty "festivaled-out." When you can announce the next section that will appear in a 3 1/2 hour parade before it happens, you've seen it too many times! It was splendid and we did discover more subtle a section of the Tamil-Hindu boy troupe wears blue eyeshadow and ruby-red lipstick?!? And a rather mannish trannie brings up the rear? hmmm... Actually transgender male-to-females have a definite place in Hindu culture. They are considered spiritual beings not to be messed with! They will often show up unannounced at wedding parties and will perform, singing and dancing, (basically taking the place hostage!) until paid...then they leave. As a hindu, you wouldn't DARE throw them out. Fortunately she had the good sense not to do a daylight appearance during the final procession...our trannie looks a little rough by torch light, she might have been downright frightening during the day!

Love her! werq.

I finally paid my respects to the Temple of the Tooth. It's a massive complex (smaller than the Forbidden City, "but bigger than a bread-box"). One room was dedicated to the history of the tooth...from it being plucked from Buddha's funeral pyre to the present, much of the first 600 years I would say is mythical but about 2000 years is traceable! All of a sudden it hit me...this was not only a holy object but the "living" representation of this entire country's civilization, from it's first cut stone monuments to the present...It was a big "WOOOOOW!" Think if the Declaration of Independence was 10 TIMES as old with 10 times the history! It could be a dog's tooth or not even truly exist for all any of us know...(and that's not being blasphemous, that incisor has changed hands and kingdoms a dozen times)...the point is it's one hell of a powerful symbol of national identity as well as their most venerated religious relic.

Tomorrow is my last day. I plan to sleep in, go play in the jungle with the monkey-boy and catch a very, very long flight for home.

The next message will be photos of the trip after I've had a good rest and a sweet snuggle with the "honey."

Love ya, and hope you've all enjoyed this trip as much as I have!


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Roll back the clock....hundreds of years. Aug 18, 2005

August 18, 2005

My journey is winding down. It's now the 18th of August here, and I head home on the 21st...still nursing my sunburn.

My itinerary has always been to end my trip in Kandy, the ancient city of the hill country, and the last bastion of traditional Sri Lankan culture to fall to the British. For more than 300 years, the Kandian Kingdom fought off the Dutch and then the British before finally being subjugated. Since they were able to remain out of the hands of British control until the mid 1800's, they have retained many of the old dances and customs, including a very strong belief in Buddhism. In fact this is considered the capital of culture and the Buddhist religion in the country. The monks carry great political sway in laws and policies of the Sinhalese. (We won't discuss the assasination of a Prime Minister by a Monk for what he thought was jeopardizing the future of Buddhism in Sri Lanka). Trust me, they are very serious about protecting their buddhist heritage.

And with some good reason...For at least 1500 years south India (Chola / Tamil) have been making "sorties" into the north of Sri Lanka trying to usurp the island and for 1500 years the Sinhalese people have been fighting them off. However, with each incursion, many Tamils (a branch of Hinduism) have stayed. (As well as the British created a Tamil Diaspora from Southern India, throughout all the British colonies, including Sri Lanka, for exploitation as cheap labor). So now in the North they have a long, rich, and developed history. Sometime in the 1970's, the Northern Tamil voice grew louder; they wanted some say in their government. Fair enough, but things got real ugly...let just say it is actually the LTTE (Tamil "freedom" fighters), which is recognized as the creator of the "suicide bomber" and not the Palestinians, who merely thought it was a good idea and adopted the tactic. Are you getting the picture that this war is no easy "cease-fire agreement?" (Since writing this entry, the war has officially ended).

So the Foreign Minister that was just assassinated was 1 of the 3 remaining moderate Tamils sitting on the parliament, and he was actually lobbying the U.N. to classify the LTTE as terrorists and to list them as one of the armies forcing children to fight...not a safe move. Another friend just told me that the country was now under marshall law...honestly I couldn't tell the difference, there's been loads of security the whole time I've been here. No one seems the least bit concerned, so really neither am I, (and nor should you be...;)

So back to Kandy. Liam (remember the mad Englishman?) and I have met up again. It's his B-Day today, so I'm off to surprise him with a present after this entry...We are staying in a bit of a dingy guest house with an amazing balcony overlooking the Temple of the Buddha's Tooth. Ground zero for the Pera Hera celebrations underway. And we're paying for our location during the festival...the room which is normally US $5 a night is now $40! Quite a mark up. But when a city of 100,000 or so doubles in size, you can name your price! The crowds (and the security) are unimaginable! For the 10 day festival people are camping out daily to stake out their seats, sidewalk crowds are daunting at 20 people thick, with roadside seats being sold at US$50! (That's a hell of a lot of money here, probably equal to US$500!) And perhaps 1000 Bikkhus (Theravadan Monks) are watching from the front rows (comps of course).

So each night celebration begins with an hour of chanting in the temple, then a cannon goes off to mark the beginning of the procession. About 10 young men lead the march all thunderously cracking 8 to 10 foot whips. They're followed by the fire jugglers, (for those in the know, picture "Burning Man", 300 years ago!?) Some are spinning kerosene drenched iron balls around their necks like hula-hoops, only from a distance you can't see the chains and they look like orbiting comets. Others are dancing with 2 fiery orbs suspended from chains, while still others have fire wheels spinning around their heads like halos which are then tossed high into the air twirling, dropping, then caught. Really impressive, especially when some of them were doing these acts while on stilts or balancing on someone's shoulders!

After the fire line come the drummers, the flutists, and the stick-clapping groups, each busting out their own little choreographed dance, that has been past down through countless generations. There are familiar looking "may-pole" dancers (like what you would see in medieval Europe or Mexico) and very unusual regal dancers, dripping in interconnected silver medallions wearing the oddest hats?! Picture a red dunce cap with a moving whip coming out the top, the front bill looks like a silver fan, then stick 2 silver mickey mouse ears on the side, and there you have it, tres chic! Actually it was amazing to watch them bellowing their chants and prancing about colorfully animated, like male peacocks!

Do you like elephants? Well I've never seen so many in my life! All dressed up in their Sunday best. Some with sequins or mylar, others with blinking christmas lights, (They cleverly disguised, then balanced car batteries on the Elephants heads to power the light show!)

Every once and a while a VIP, dripping in gold threads, literally from head to toes, (very asian pimp!), accompanied by a circle of (body guards?) servants would stroll solemnly by...

It was over the top grandiosity and pomp~! A true spectacle and really wonderful. The highlight was a big Tusker flanked by two slightly smaller but still stately male elephants balancing the Buddha's tooth reliquary on it's back and marching down the streets.

The whole event went on for hours and hours. At times I could hear the street symphony of noises to my front, sides, and behind me, creating an intoxicating whirlwind of sound as the procession extended through the city.

To my surprise, one of the local Tamil Hindu temples had a place in the parade? This was a temple to Kataragama, (Skanda / Maruga) so that meant what...? More hooks! This time the young men were all color coordinated in red pants, with a red clad elephant leading the way, carrying 8 foot lances, chanting, singing, and dragging along their "drivers" down the streets by the hooks through their backs!

I asked about the Tamil presence in what is considered the most sacred and important Buddhist (and thus also political) festival in the country. I was told it was done as a sign of religious inclusiveness and tolerance.

I thought that was pretty cool.

Two more nights and one more day till the festival is over...wonder what's in store?!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dirt Magnet.... Aug 16, 2005

August 16, 2005

I don't know why it is, what I'm wearing, how I look or if I smell different, but I always seem to attract dirty old men!

I can be hiking through remote villages on Sumba, trying to relax in Budapest or lying on a beach in Sri Lanka with no one around for 1/2 mile and an aberration of a pushy, bald, (80 if he was a day!), old man will appear from nowhere and start coming on to me?!?!?!

At first I thought he was just being friendly, then he flashed me?! Then he flashed me again! Then he flashed his bum?! He was parading back and forth walking a Parisian runway (in his mind) just for little ol' me! Then it hit me maybe he was the ghost from x-mas future and I was scrooge? Maybe this is what I have to look forward to? Maybe I just need to throw on some saffron robes and take a vow of celibacy before I turn into the walking (sexual) dead?! Chilling

So I splurged and got a (legitimate!) massage; it was of the South Asian variety called Ayurvedic. This Sri Lankan rendition involves sitting you in a chair and working handfuls of mysterious oils into your hair and scalp, then progressing down the torso. Afterwards, they lay me down on a slab of wood. Years of sweat and tinctures oozing from the grain made my body hydroplane. And you know it was the most comfortable board I've ever laid on! Anyways their fingers do more of a poking-swishing dance on your skin, rather than a slow methodical, intense pressuring like the Thai. Speaking of Thai massage, I think the US government should employ about 100, 4 foot 9 inch Thai grannies to massage "the enemy." Trust me if they really do know anything, they'll talk! And it will keep us from violating the Geneva convention.

So the massage ends with a spanking?! (At least I know I got my money's worth???) And then I'm thrown into what looks like a giant wooden hot dog steamer. They like to conclude the makeshift iron lung steaming with a suspended vessel dripping hot oil onto your forehead. Sounded a little too medieval for me, I passed on that part of the torture.

yes, this is a real phot that I took...adorable, huh?!

Monday, April 23, 2012

The first wave rolled in slow. Aug 15, 2005

August 15, 2005

The first wave rolled in slow.

It did a great deal of low-land flooding, but that was about all. When the first wave receded, it created the craziest low tide the locals have ever seen. A few took it as a warning and headed for higher ground but many more were entranced by the newly exposed ocean floor, more than 1/2 mile (over a kilometer) in places.

Villagers including fishermen, women and children went out to explore this unprecedented act of nature. No one had ever even heard of this before. Fish were flopping everywhere, free for the taking!

What they did not know, (and how could they?), was that the great absence of sea was the vacuum caused by the next wave about to come in. Some say it was 30 or more meters high, about the size of a 4 story building. It completely pulverized the coast. Nothing breathing nor man-made withstood the pounding.
Many of those not sucked out to sea sought refuge on the remaining rooftops or in trains. The 3rd and final wave showed no mercy. Close to 1000 people died on one train alone.

On the Eastern Coast most who survived in the zone had scrambled to elevation after the first wave.

Now 8 months later (December 26, 2004), I am told much of the eastern coast is still in ruins. The people are in a quandary. The government has the money thanks to foreign governments, but will only rebuild 100 meters from the sea. So those who only own property closer to 100 meters have no land to build on. They are left living in tents or wooden shacks until the bureaucracy is worked out. Some of the real "smart ones" quickly threw up fences and secretly rebuilt their houses outside of governmental approval. Of course without an early warning system they are still very much in harms way.

I have only ventured to the coastal southwest. Here there are very few telltale signs of destruction. A few piles of bricks here, some abandoned railway ties there, other than the photos proudly displayed in restaurants, homes and businesses showing the before and after rebuild, you would never guess the disaster had reached this far. The scars have been cosmetically filled but it will take the Sri Lankans years to recover  from the emotional and financial losses.

If you have the inclination, I would highly encourage a trip to this friendly and beautiful country...they could use the support and most of you could probably use a vacation! Besides its now one of the ONLY countries that doesn't hate "America"! (Reminder, this was written during a prior administration...)


Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Vel Festival...Aug 13, 2005

Saturday, August 13, 2005

ahhh high speed connection ;)

I think I stumbled into the only highspeed connection in the country, in the middle of a mall?! (I think the Sri Lankan Prime Minister is sitting next to me, she probably can't find a decent connection either...)

Speaking of the government...I saw a bunch of police the other night milling about...leave it to a friend stateside to tell me that the Foreign Minister just got assassinated?! Honestly, you would never be able to tell's not in the papers or anything...then again my Sinhalese is a little rusty... :o)

So I'm sitting in Colombo and have decided to cut my two day trip here down to one. Not that the day hasn't been aboslutely brilliant, 'cause it has...but it's sweltering! It cools down to about 90 degrees F at night...It's monsoon season, all that means is it's a little cooler ?!?!?! and a LOT more humid, I've been drier in a bathtub! You know it's bad when no matter how much water you drink, you don't pee...and just sitting creates a puddle!

So "Arugula"...for 2 hours today I thought the Tamil Hindus were chanting about a leafy vegetable?! Then I think I sorted out the chant to either "Alugala!" or "Alohara!"

Today was indeed the start of VEL! For those back in SF you heard me whine more than once how I was going to miss the HUGE Tamil festival, Kataragama, because the SL government posted the wrong dates...well lets just say I don't think I would have been ANY more impressed by the Kataragama festival than by what I witnessed today! Keep in mind, I'm a little experienced (ok jaded). I've seen my fair share of Hindu festivals... to start off with I found this one unusual in that some of the participants were children! I'm talking about 9 year old's with pierced cheeks clenching a silver cobra head in their teeth and parading down the street for miles carrying decorated frames on their shoulders! The older kids (teenagers) would have the ubiquitous Tamil Hindu hooks in their backs, sometimes 4 or 6, sometimes a couple of dozen. A slight variation for this festival is a friend would stand behind them with ropes attached to the hooks and pull them in only to hurl them out, like a human yo-yo! As the procession progressed some of the tranced-out teens would be swung in circles by the ropes, (remember "crack-the-whip" as a child?)! The Caller would shout out "ALUGALA!" or sometimes "VEDI VEL!" and the chorus would mirror back the chant. After the swingers came the 5(!) chariots of Maruga, Skanda, etc., all were beautifully decorated giant, wooden vessels for the gods, painted up, with incense waifing. Four men would sit on top, handing out blessing in the form of flowers or coconuts. The Coconuts would be offered up, (smashed), in front of the chariots. It was gorgeous.

You know me, I've saved the best for last...So following the chariots were pick-up trucks. Not ordinary pick-ups, but portable swings for the young men to suspend from flesh hooks! The swings were created by extending 20 foot masts from the bed over the front of the truck. The poles were decorated with leaves and garlands. From the tip of the pole, ropes came down and attached to the hooks that penetrated the surface skin of the back, calves, shoulders, and thighs. Sometime the men were suspended face up and one was suspended in sitting position! The trucks would excelerate forward 10 feet then slam on the breaks to create swinging motion, sometimes friends would grab their arms and twirl them around. It was AWESOME! (yeah, of course I took a ton of photos...)

But believe it or not, I was even more impressed by the men and women who rolled like logs along the entire route, mile after mile on the baking tarmac, in the blazing sun, through the unmentionable filth.

I also got to meet a Sri Lankan tattooist...s-c-a-r-y! He was certainly nice, had cool designs, but I can't get over my western hang-up of wanting a sterilizer! He just reuses the same needle person after person...
(Traditionally in Tamil and other Hindu festivals, tattooists will be found offering their services of providing talismanic or commemorative tattoos).

Anyways, I'm off to the movies (more about the aircon than anything!) Tomorrow I will head south for the beaches before the final festival climax, the Pera Hara, The Procession of the Buddha's Tooth!


Saturday, April 21, 2012

This Country is one, cheap date! Aug 12, 2005

August 12, 2005

So I thought I would start off with throwing some figures around...

-Bus Ride (US) 5 cents
-Hotel room $ 3.75
-Dinner with beverage and dessert $ 1.80
-Coke 40 cents (probably overcharged)

-9 hour train ride first class observation car $ 5.70 (3rd class would have been only $ 1.80, I decided to loosen my usually tight purse strings and splurge a little).

-And for the grand finale!!!! Avocados the size of my fist! for 5 to 6 cents each! I'm considering importing them~! If U.S. Customs wouldn't have a cow, I'd fill my back pack with them and have guacamole for a year! (of course I'd share;)

-Oh and I apologize to my two favorite hair-cutters. Joe and've been replaced. I'm bringing home my barber-boy who does a great fade-cut for 60 cents and will throw in a full scalp massage plus facial for 20 cents more! (The eyeball massage was a bit much, but we'll work on that...)

I haven't said much about the people...they're WONDERFUL! (once you leave Colombo of course...;)

My friend Stan insists you do not need to share the same language to carry on a conversation. I had an experience that very much confirmed his assertion. I met a Sri Lankan man on the way to the hills who starting pantomiming that he liked to swim, surf, dance, and that he was a brown belt in took me about 5 minutes into the "conversation" to realize he probably wasn't talking with any of the Sinhalese because he was a deaf mute. Long story short, he's a wonderful man who wants to be a tour guide for deaf people around the world coming to Sri Lanka (he already had quite the resume of hearing customers!) So if you know anyone, pass on the info...I'll vouch for him.

Salman Deaf (no, not a joke)
Nawala Pitiya Rd.
Sri Lanka
(FYI- this contact information is now 8 years old...)

I had a wonderful time in the "hill country" (the "hills" looked like mountains to me, maybe they reserve that title for the Himalayas?). One of my most favorite creatures in the world lives here in abundance. Picture the cutest fox you ever saw, but it eats only fruit, then put 3 feet of bat wings on them and you have the Flying Fox, (a fruit bat, really). Their dark shadows fill the sky, blotting out sections of stars...they'd be hella scary if they weren't so gosh darn adorable!

I also saw "Lipton's Seat." A truly unreasonable 3 mile climb up then back down the side of a mountain to look out over Sir Thomas Lipton's Tea Estate, (yes, this is where that hideous abomination of British bagged dirty leaf juice originally came from). It made me sooo miss my friend Scott. He and I , well ... we are Tea-Heads (sorry I'm breaking your anonymity). I'm more of a daily user or "Maintenance" tea drinker while Scott is a full on binger! After a day of drinking the "King's Brew," he'll wake up not knowing where he is or who he slept with...come to think of it, maybe he's just a senile slut...(love you, Scott!)

On a serious note, the next time you drink a cup of tea (and I'm sure coffee is no different), join me in thanking the countless people that make it happen. Men and women had to blast through mountains and break stone by hand to lay train tracks to carry the tea that is picked by young and old women, who carry the tea bags on their heads, hour after hour, day after day, for about US $30 a month. It has to be picked by hand because only the top budding new growth is acceptable for brewing. It's not a clear cut human rights /labor abuse issue. Yes, the Tamil people live on the plantations (sound familiar?) But they are free to come and go and marry... School is provided for the children...but I think most of them grow up to work on the plantations...And if you don't drink tea or coffee you're not off the hook, because 40% of the Sri Lankan economy is textiles of which 60% fuels the U.S. textile market...Nike, an outdoors or athletic company and they run sweat shops here. The Sri Lankans don't mind the basic work, just as long as they are given the opportunity to form Labor Unions and have decent working hours, conditions, and pay...anyways enough of that...

Back to the day trip...What made that hike so ridiculous is I had already done a 3 1/2 mile hike through Horton's Plains to "World's End". This place is completely out of character for Sri Lanka, for those that know San Francisco, picture Mount Tam on a cold foggy drizzly day! I'm running around in a t-shirt and flip-flops like I'm back home and the poor locals are wearing WINTER coats, hats and all! Once you have walked through winding trails past waterfalls and unending grass that grows like pom-poms,you're rewarded with a view over an 800 meter sheer cliff! Gorgeous folks...

I've just arrived back into Colombo from the "Hill Country."Tomorrow starts the VEL festival (I think...ask 3 different people, get 3 different answers?!) So if it happens and if I find it I'll tell you all about this wild, Tamil Hindu festival where they pull chariots through the street chanting and piercing their bodies...stay tuned ;)

much love