ARCE – 2009

 

ARCE stands for the American Research Center in Egypt and runs a number of projects throughout the country, primarily with funding from USAID. Holding the concession for Khonsu temple at Karnak in Luxor, ARCE teams work on different projects focused around conservation and preservation at the temple and surrounding complex.

 

As ARCE photographers for the 2008 season, myself and Sara, the other ARCE photographer, shoot pretty much everything pertaining to the comings and goings at Khonsu. The fair explanation would be that Sara shoots a series of talatat blocks while I run around photographing everything else, from small flecks of gold no more than 3mm across, to large wall sections 20m by 10m. So far it’s involved scrambling up scaffolding, lots of creativity, imagination and patience. It’s also involved just plain getting dirty, so my inner 4 year old has been well satiated, and looks to continue to be so well into 2009.

 

The existing Khonsu temple dates to Ramses III, a new kingdom construction devoted to the child god Khonsu (son of the god Amun-Ra and goddess Mut). However, multiple inscriptions to subsequent rulers and high priests hint at different construction phases, while reused blocks in the bark sanctuary area date to Amenhotep III, providing clues as to how the temple was built and with what materials. The complete complex is roughly 70m long by 27m in dimension. To north lies the great temple of Amun, while a smaller temple built to the hippopotamus goddess Opet, borders directly to the west.

 

It appears many of the blocks used in Khonsu’s construction were borrowed and/or pillaged from other temples; those built under the reign of previous rulers. Thus blocks used in the foundation of Khonsu may have, in an earlier phase, belonged to a lintel on the west bank of the Nile dedicated to Amenhotep III. Figuring out what blocks come from where and what inscriptions they hold is of great interest to a team of epigraphers from Chigago House, working in conjunction with ARCE.

 

Egyptian temples are generally constructed to mimic a primordial creation myth — or so I’ve been told. Land rising from a swamp supporting the first means of human life, or perhaps in this scenario, sustained agricultural practices allowing a transition from hunter-gather societies. In addition to leaving mineral rich soil deposits suitable for crop production, the annual Nile flood inspired those who depended on it for life. Receding waters would leave a series of high ground islands on which temples were built, mimicking and paying tribute to the entire flood process. On entrance to any number of temples, one would find themself in an open air series of colonnades, full of light, extending upwards to the sky, signifying the present. On procession through the temple, space would gradually recede in scale, and the light in intensity, finally breaking into a series of small dark rooms at the heart, or back, of the complex. As one moved through the temple, they moved not only from front to back, open to closed, light to dark, but in time, from the present to the primordial origins of life. Or so the interpretation goes. How old are we again? And how do we measure that? One death, fossil records, rock, sun, moon? (The truth of the matter is that “we” — whatever you take/interpret “we” to be — can’t/don’t exist without out stories and myths… It’s part and parcel. Alexander had a handle on this when he arrived in 331 B.C. One doesn’t just rip everything down, and build from the ground up — one subverts, matches God for God, builds bridges between systems of worship, societies, and peoples, redefining the us/other relationship… But even then, divided up and cut into neat little sections, one section compared to another, but how does one, or perhaps, how do we, divide one thing, that through being that very one thing, is indivisible? And so the paradox reveals itself. The truth Ruth, begins with a “t”, but that “T” don’t mean jack without it’s 25 friends.)

 

Wall engravings, carved reliefs and statues within the temple generally depict, or establish which ruler built the temple as well as what god the structure is dedicated to. Additional carvings may record historical moments of significance within a specific pharoh’s reign. Unfortunately, or fortunately – depending on your position, time and place – the means of erasing a ruler who fell into disfavor, while at the same time establishing one’s dominance, consisted of chiseling off the engravings specific to said ruler, re-mortaring the surface, and then inscribing one’s own name and achievements.

 

In the late 60’s, French and American teams realized that many of the monumental pylons at Karnak had been built on the back of previous temples, ripped down and used as fill for these structures. What made the construction/deconstruction process relatively easy was the size and shape of a standard block. One “talatat” measures approximately 54cm by 30cm, or roughly the measure of full length arm by the distance from hand to elbow. When the initial temples were finished, large sections of wall were inscribed and painted with various scenes depicting rituals, daily life and offerings. Their subsequent deconstruction and reuse, unknowingly began the world’s first (and potentially) largest 3-dimensional puzzle; the first step in recreating the pylon fill facades being the logging, photographing and stacking of talatat blocks that continues to this day. Several sections have been successfully pieced together and are on display in the Luxor Museum, but there are many, many, more blocks that have yet to be excavated.

 

Initial estimates of the talatat blocks that Sara, and a team of conservators working on the project had to photograph and record were 16,000. Divided by the 9 month time frame for the project, it meant roughly 100 blocks a day, at approximately 10 minutes a block. Unfortunately logistics never work as smoothly in the mathematically arena as they do in reality, and this certainty coupled with multiple faces on a 1/3rd of the existing blocks (5000×2) as well as more than a few crumbling facades in need of a little “TLC” has made for a slower pace than anticipated. They’ve just broken 1000.

 

On the linguistic front, ancient Egyptian gets eerily similar to Japanese in the way Hirgana, Katakana and Kanji are combined to form written communication — thus there are set of symbols with one phonetic reading which remains consistent regardless of context, combined with pictogram derivatives, that have different contextual readings. The large wall section I’ve been shooting at Khonsu has a number of symbols I recognize but have no idea of meaning or reading. Perhaps in time…

 

In addition to the work done by Chigago House epigraphers and the talatat project there are 5 other projects (give or take) on the go revolving around Khonsu. Ed Johnson runs a field school training a cadre of egyptian conservators in temple evaluation and preservation techniques, while Dany Roy heads up a team of stone masons cutting block and reassembling broken sections in situ. Pam Rose digs holes in the floor and fills them them pretty consistently, and a team of Italian conservators have just arrived to clean two rooms in the back chapel.

 

I’ve been lucky enough to run around photographing pretty much everyone. It’s kept things even keel so to speak. Since arriving at the end of October I’ve done everything from macro shots of gold flecks about 2mm across, to large wall montages on the south pylon facade of Khonsu roughly 20m by 10m. In addition I’ve started shooting for the SCA (Supreme Council of Antiquities) on their recent excavations at Karnak as well as at Luxor temple on another ARCE project documenting salvage finds from sewer-line construction a few years ago.

 

Some of the work has been pretty challenging, and there are times I’m left scratching my head wondering about the best way to light a certain scenario, but at the same time these challenges are what make the work interesting. So far my favorite solution has been, flash-on-stick with the white underside of reflector shield used to bounce the flash and create high contrast relief lighting for inscribed surfaces. I’m not allowed to post anything I’ve been working on, but after the contract has finished and I’ve gotten written approval from the SCA there’ll be posts to the blog and updates to the portfolio section. My big hope is that ARCE will agree to let the Khonsu wall montages be published to the web using the same technology employed by google earth, thus allowing the viewer a comprehensive means of zooming in and out of the facades and really making the most of the resolution of the photographs…

 

Sara and I have wound up meeting a lot of other photographers working in the area. One of note is Yarko Kobylecky, who’s been affectionately dubbed the Obi wan Konobi of photography in Luxor (quite possibly all of Egypt) It’s like having a photographic great Uncle or Grandpa who comes along at all the right moments with all the right hints and suggestions. Although it’s never been voiced, at the heart of Obi wan Yarko’s teaching is creativity and imagination — transcend those limitations, and photographing at Khonsu becomes a game among games.

 

It’s been really nice to explore Luxor and Egypt with another photographer. Sometimes a little creepy how similar the thought process can be, and although we wind up with similar shots some of the time, there’s enough stylistic difference to make it complementary. There’s talk of a few projects/books in the works if we can ever find time away from work. Check out Sara’s work — she captures moments with the best of them, and her name leads me to believe she’ll be famous some day: www.saralafleur.com

 

In the months to come there will be lots more archaeological photography and it’ll be interesting to see what lies in store. At some point I’ll have the opportunity to teach a class on photography basics and the premise underlying archaeological photography. So yes, more to follow; periodic and thorough I hope  — I don’t find writing easy, but will try.

 

The Bedouin Experience – 2008

 

Sri Lankan Airlines: : Serendib Magazine

 

It is not even midday yet, but the sun beats down regardless – it’s hot. From the sway of a camel’s back, a desert landscape emerges: sand dunes carved from wind; stunted broken trees scattered scarcely about, blue, blue sky, no hint of clouds. Here in the middle of Oman’s Wahiba Sands – a series of 250-kilometre-long golden-red sand dunes that run north-south – my thoughts have turned to water and Wilfred Thesiger. One can only imagine how this intrepid British explorer, who lived amongst Oman’s Bedu during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and wrote about their nomadic lifestyle in Arabian Sands, survived such harsh conditions. Back at the Nomadic Desert Camp, Abdullah Al-Mughairy offers an explanation: “No AC, no cold water, just warm water, a little bit, sip-sip – [you] get used to it.” In other words, without jumping from extremes, one becomes acclimatized and adapts, as Thesiger did, to the conditions dictated by environment. Unfortunately, I’ve only been in the desert for a day.

 

 

A stable, thriving country on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman might be better known through tales of Sinbad the sailor, or from the mention of frankincense borne by three wise men of biblical renown. Although developing oil interests later than neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Oman has proved itself a fast learner, with the ability to manifest change within mere decades. Before 1970, the country had only two primary schools, next-to-no hospitals, and was in a state of civil unrest. It now boasts locally-run hospitals, government-funded universities and vocational colleges, a vibrant economy, well-maintained infrastructure, and electricity that reaches even the remotest of mountain villages.

 

No wonder, then, there is a healthy respect and admiration for Sultan Qaboos, the man behind the reforms, who travels the country annually in a “meet-the-people” tour, and has proved himself a distinguished peacemaker in the international arena. There’s a sense of pride reflected in the faces of Oman’s population, from elders in a small fishing village who enjoy universal healthcare, to the smiles of their grandchildren, for whom tertiary education is now not only free, but encouraged.

 

 

Oman is no fool when it comes to resources, and although “peak oil” is a hotly contested subject, economic diversification has already proved an important strategy for a country that had limited supplies to begin with. An average of one million tourists visit the country annually already, and development is in the works all along the coast. Aiming for the tuna of tourists, the goal is to lure a wealthy clientele with luxury hotels built on prime ocean real-estate. But surely a Sultan with a demonstrable commitment to the environment recognizes what has been an increasingly global shift to ecotourism over the past 5 years? If the next-door, Middle East Conference on Sustainable Ecotourism Development held this past January was anything to go by, the answer would be yes. But whether smaller-scale community-based initiatives receive as much support as their luxury-styled brethren remains to be seen. Oman’s opulence is not outshone by its smarts though, and it wouldn’t be surprising to observe the development of both over the coming years, especially if the country continues to balance a tolerance of foreign customs and values, while at the same time showcasing its own heritage – something it seems to have managed admirably already. Wealth lies not only in luxury resorts, but also in enriching cross-cultural interactions encouraging visitors to “learn while at play.”

 

 

Back in Wahiba Sands, the Nomadic Desert Camp offers guests the opportunity to do just that, relaxing in a Bedouin environment while learning about the culture. For the Al-Mughairy family, what started off as an occasional service for ex-pats living in the Muscat of the 1980s has now turned into a successful business catering to tourists from all corners of the world.

 

“I want to show people what life was like before,” explains Rashid, 32, the eldest brother of an eight-sibling family, and de-facto manager of a business that supports and involves almost every family member. He adds, “I’d like to show the spirit that exists in the desert – of helping each other and of welcoming strangers into our homes.” Since opening for tours officially in 1999, Rashid has helped his father grow the business through a strong word-of-mouth connection, as well as some smart networking. In addition to the traditional Bedouin-style camp, the family organizes desert crossings and tailors trips according to client requests – from one day, to two weeks – enhanced by relationships with English, German and Swiss agencies specializing in unique travel experiences. The trick has been to keep a local focus while building a steady clientele of repeat customers. “I love to meet people from different cultures,” explains Rashid. “To shake their hand at the end of a stay and hear about their experiences – that’s important.”

 

 

 

Apparently a mind reader as well as adept desert navigator, my guide for the day, Sultan (the 3rd son) pauses to magically produce a water bottle from camel-bag. Thirst quenched, we dismount and give the camels slight reprieve from their cargo while making our way down off the dune. Shade under an Acadia tree on one of the flat, hard-packed corridors that separates dune from dune provides shelter, and Sultan is soon preparing a traditional Bedouin meal. First, coffee laced with cardamom is boiled over an open flame and accompanied by dates. A simple flat bread is made next: flour, water and a touch of salt kneaded together, baked in a pot, then torn into pieces and soaked in milk. Apples round out the meal, leftovers are given to the camels, and the fire easily buried. We rest for an hour and give the sun a chance to move over in the direction of clouds that have appeared on the horizon, then make our way back to camp.

 

 

As the sun sets on Barasti (palm frond) huts, guests gather in a communal open-faced Arabian Majlis for tea and relaxation before the evening meal. As one might expect in a desert camp modeled on the Bedouin experience, not all amenities are available. There are showers, but no hot water, and once the sun has set, the only light to be found is in the glow of lanterns and the moon overhead. Dinner is served to an eclectic group of guests, including the German Ambassador and his wife, travelers from Austria and Germany, as well as Dutch and French ex-pat families from Muscat. As the stars begin to peek out, we enjoy halwa, a traditional Omani dessert made from dates, saffron, cardamom, almonds, nutmeg and rosewater, boiled in a huge copper vat, and stirred for hours. Then we retreat to the campfire or retire for the night after a thoroughly enjoyable glimpse into Bedouin life.

 

He Digs Adventure in the Desert – 2008

 

Canwest News Service: He Digs Adventure in the Desert

 

 

Tish Prouse would be the first to admit that his interest in archaeology stems from a boyhood love of Indiana Jones.

 

But the Edmonton native had no idea his interest would one day lead him to Turkmenistan, a Central Asian country of brutally hot summers, bitterly cold winters and a pockmarked landscape that invites comparisons with the moon.

 

So why is he here? The answer is Merv, an ancient city along the Silk Road that was once a thriving metropolis, one of the largest and most important in the region for over 2,500 years.

 

Little remains of it today, mostly depressions, lumps and rubble. But beneath this desolate landscape, you can find “buildings, industrial complexes, mausoleums, minarets, streets, markets, and houses,” says Prouse.

 

In other words, it’s an archeologist’s dream and part-time home to this graduate of Strathcona Composite High School.

 

Prouse candidly acknowledges that his childhood interest in archeology comes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the adventure movie starring Harrison Ford.

 

He earned a B.A. in archeology from the University of Alberta, then a master’s degree in archeology from the University College of London in England, and that in turn led to an invitation to join the research at Merv.

 

From his studies he also picked up some “important” tips. Prouse winks: “The first year in university when I started seriously studying archaeology, my professor said the three things one had to do to become a good archaeologist were: get a good hat, show an appreciation for scotch, and smoke high quality cigars while excavating.”

 

For Prouse and other archeologists, the interest in Merv lies in its fan-belt location in the Kara Kum Desert. Fed by the Murghab River, which flows down from the Pamir mountain range in Afghanistan, a succession of cities were built on separate sites extremely close to one another.

 

First came the fortress citadel of Erk Kala, later expanded to the city of Gyuar Kala, in turn abandoned for the city of Sultan Kala. Collectively, these cities are referred to as Ancient Merv.

 

The fact that Merv encompasses three distinct cities makes it huge, coming in at a combined total of just over 600 hectares. The archeology remaining at the site is vast.

 

As Prouse points out, “If the funds were available, you could employ 10,000 separate teams, with a core of 20 workers all doing their own section, and they wouldn’t get in each other’s way.”

 

The trench where Prouse is working has already yielded much of interest — along with a few prerequisite snakes, there is evidence of a Mongol sacking and the skeletal remains of an old woman with two youths trapped below a collapsed mud-brick wall.

 

But the most interesting aspect of Prouse’s trench lies in a canal system and series of pipes discovered over the past two field seasons.

 

“What you’ve got is an amazing system of pipes which twist and lock together, fitted with resin to keep water from seeping out of the seams. Not only that, but the clay itself is ridiculously solid, so even when it’s buried and under pressure, it still functions properly.

 

“These locking systems are incredibly similar to what we use with modern PVC tubing, sealed to maintain air pressure. Even with a minimal amount of water the same pressure is maintained in these 1,000-year-old clay pipes and they won’t cave in.”

 

This is the first time a functional water management system has been uncovered at Merv, and the discovery raises many questions about the technology used to build it and what the pipes were for — perhaps providing fresh water or removing waste.

 

“The thing I enjoy about my job,” says Prouse, “is that like Indiana Jones, there is a certain amount of adventure. I’m thrown into situations where most normal people don’t go, I interact with locals on a different level, I explore places people haven’t seen in a thousand years.”

 

But the real treasure lies in understanding how a city was built and functioned, and that’s what Prouse’s excavations at Merv seek to contribute.

 

“Unlike Indiana Jones, the serious aspect of academic research is teaching, researching, talking to colleagues, and documenting evidence. It’s not just walking into a temple and taking out the long-lost relic.”

 

“One has to record as much information as possible so that other scholars can come back to the same place and use your evidence to draw new research insights into how humanities evolved and functioned.”

 

 

An Aging Population & Low Birth Rate – 2007

 

Preface: I’m a firm believer there’s no better place to be than where one finds themself – peaceful communities arise through the acceptance and acknowledgment of those in their midst, peaceful individuals arise through the acceptance and acknowledgment of the communities they inhabit – both function well with a measured level of respect, humility, understanding and consideration, regardless of national border or personal identity. Culture, like language, is a living embodiment of interactions between individuals in a society, and on a metaphysical level, between the individual and society. Life, it might be said, is the narrative spun both through, and by these interactions.

 

To call Canada and Japan the same would be akin to showing someone an apple and a cherry while trying to convince them they were the same thing – regardless of name, even blindfolded the subject’s countenance might register a markedly different taste. But despite taste, and texture, color and feel, apples and cherries find themselves fruit in the same manner that Canada and Japan find themselves countries. In particular, both are faced with an aging population and low birth rate.

 

Although the latest figures show a slight rebound in Japan’s birth rate, the total fertility rate needed to avoid population decline has itself been in decline since 1973. Even if the birth rate were to increase during the next decade, the number of Japanese women having children is set to shrink sharply over the coming 15 years. Such figures coupled with a rapidly aging demographic are cause for concern: projections for 2050 forecast an elderly population that outranks the young by roughly 3:1. The outlook in Canada is eerily similar. Despite an increase in births since 2000, Statistics Canada reports show a fertility rate in overall decline since the 1970s: by 2031 seniors over 65 years of age will outnumber Canadian children under 15 by approximately 2:1. Make no mistake, Japan and Canada have populations that are still growing – but over the next 20 years they’re set to age – rapidly.

 

With these figures come a plethora of concerns: feasibility of pension and healthcare systems, social security issues, the economic burden placed on a young generation, not to mention the future outlook for both countries.

 

Over the past five years, Canada’s immigration policies have made up for 60% of it’s population growth, attracting nearly 200 000 new immigrants each year – a far cry from Japan’s closed-door policies. However, even if Japan seriously considered immigration reforms to address domestic labour concerns, neither country would find immigration alone the requisite answer to an aging population and low birth rate. The solutions, it seems, need to run deep and find their roots in programs that encourage and support family structure, regardless of whether that family finds themselves newly arrived immigrants in a land of multi-ethnicities, or multi-generational heirs to traditional land. Canadian and Japanese families need to be encouraged to have children and supported with policies that allow parents to be parents: fully funded maternity leaves, flexible employment practices, child benefit allowances, and a reinvestment in early education. Both countries need to address the ramifications posed by a rapidly aging population and low birth rate, and realize that as with the environment, family concerns are implicitly tied to future economic realities.

 

Sakai-san: Prelude – 2006

 

Running late. Nothing new – it’s the norm. Taking short cuts, familiar back routes through the rice fields of Toyama on route to something else; always something else, some reason, some rush, some… Rarely a drive now, for a drives’ sake.

 

65km/h, bend in the road, bridge ahead and on it an old man. He’s waving a hand and with it, an umbrella. I slow down thinking maybe he needs directions or some help – waiting for the moment he looks at my face only to wave me on having predetermined I can’t speak the language. Not today. Window goes down – face peeps in. Old, white hair, crooked teeth, split level glasses slightly dirty; umbrella in hand has wavered down, too.

 

“Tsurete iku?” (take me with you)

 

Caught off guard – he’s asking for a ride… Nobody hitch hikes in this country, nobody asks – it just doesn’t happen, if they do they’re young and elsewhere other than back roads.

 

“Tsurete iku? 10pun dake…” gesturing in the opposite direction of main road, towards the mountains.

 

A car passes – I’m late already, no time, caught up in a moment: ears open, mind closed. However, it’s raining, and he’s old, stooped with what looks a heavy bag in the other hand…

 

“Amari jikan ga nai – tomodachii to yakusoku ga arun kedo…” (I don’t really have time – got an appointment with friends, but) I open the door.

 

“Uchi made, sonanni tokuani – koko kara 10pun dake” Not far to my house, only 10 minutes from here.

 

“Shiteru ne?” Nod of the head. (You understand [Japanese] don’t you)

 

“Un” (yes) I do– a little, but right now I’m thinking I’ll just drive you as far as I can – 5 minutes perhaps, halfway maybe, then see whether you can’t get a lift from someone else…mind elsewhere – preoccupied…

 

His name is Sakai Shouta, and he lives off in the mountains of Osawano. No family, by himself. Or rather, with two cats – “it’s a little lonely you see”… He’s just been into town to get some groceries; tinned food, wrapped with newsprint carried in a plastic bag next to umbrella on the thigh of slightly unkempt trousers.

 

“Things aren’t like they used to be in the old days, not many people in the mountains anymore – all moved to the cities. Used to be able to live off the land completely – healthy Japanese food – lots of fresh vegetables, and so many fish…”

 

“Takes a long time to walk this road – perhaps an hour and half for an old man…meet a bear and that would be the end,” he chuckles…

 

“You know if you go straight on this road it’ll take you through Osawano onto the 41, down into Gifu – only in the summer mind you – winter’s a different story”…

 

I’ve started listening now – rather than automatic replies, rather than thinking about the next place to drop him off. As the road continually narrows, my mind has opened ever so slightly.

 

“What do you do in Winter?”

 

“Not much – stay in my house – can’t go anywhere, the roads aren’t open.”

 

“What about food?”

 

“Buy some in the village…”

 

“But the roads are closed…”

 

“Un” (yup)

 

10 minutes, 20 minutes, late, not late- it’s all relative. Sakai-san has a mouth full of teeth ready to drop out; black, crooked – two missing on either side of a front tooth, withered away by the years. His suit is old, dirty in all the spots that show wear easily — I’ve noticed now — Sunday best from 20 years ago, and perhaps without cleaning since then either. But behind split level glasses, and gap-toothed mug are eyes that smile and conversation that’s genuine. I drop Sakai-san off at his house – in the middle of nowhere, on a road scarcely wider than a car; abandoned houses scattered around lonely rice fields surrounded by forest. Boarded up, splintered roofs, crumbling walls…

 

“Lot’s of green out here” Sakai-san remarks. He tries to push money into my hand for the ride, but I won’t accept it.

 

“9 gatsu gurai, uchi e iku to hanashite mo ii? Yes he’d like that, it’s lonely up here all alone – nice to have someone to talk with, other than the cats.

 

“Out in the mornings mind, around in the evenings.” Old man with crooked smile, young man with time on his mind: we’re both looking towards September…

 

Sakai-san: Part I – 2006

 

Sakai-san is 78-years old.


Born in 1927, Namerikawa, Toyama, youngest of seven children and a second son.

 

“Ha—ha-ha-ha—.” A wheeze of a laugh, gap-toothed mug, purple hair and smiling eyes. “Didn’t have much money then, see, and if you don’t have money, you have children. They help out. More mouths to feed, but more people to help. Ha-ha—ha—ha—ha-ha . . . Yup, six older siblings, one brother, five sisters.”

 

“And Sakai-san is the youngest? Are any of his brothers or sisters . . .?”

 

“All passed away now. All dead.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear . . .”

 

Silence. A smile.

 

“What about their children? Nephews, nieces?”

 

“Sure. Must be some, but I didn’t really know them. Don’t go out to Namerikawa anymore now. Hard to get out there. Don’t really know them.”

 

Silence. And another smile.

 

Perhaps if Sakai-san weren’t senile, he wouldn’t forgive me — and then again, maybe he would. What’s remembered, what’s forgotten, conscious or not, are decisions that bound the realm of willpower and presence. What makes it all fit together is that Sakai-san’s lack of memory matches perfectly with my inability to comprehend. What doesn’t come the first time, comes the second, third, fourth, fifth . . . Something a little different revealed in each telling, a process of refinement leaving consolidated thought, rich, crystallized memories —not to mention the opportunity to pose the same question repeatedly. We both say the same thing, again and again and again. For a second, intent seems to preclude means, attaining a level of truth that is as quick to make its presence known as it is to vanish.

 

“Brother went to China, part of the military.”

 

“And Sakai-san . . .?”

 

“Never wanted to join the army, but had to. Eighteen years old when we entered the World War II. It was conscription — no choice. War is stupid, but it put money in my pocket. Foolish. Was working for a company at the time, and didn’t have much of a choice . . . Army base is where the university is now, can-you-believe-it — big garrison there, bunkhouses, the whole deal. [The] Americans fire-bombed us at night; they knew what was going on. Everything in the city [Toyama] burned. I remember, commanding officer sent me and another fellow out on an errand that night, out into the countryside, and when we came back, everything was gone — burned, leveled. Yup, I remember that . . . We knew what was going on too, though. A lot of families left their houses in the city, fled to rural areas. Yeah, I remember that.”

 

“And what about Sakai-san? Where are the children to help him?”

 

No children, never married, plenty of chances, though.

 

“Didn’t want to get married to someone a lot younger — nothing to talk about, not much in common. Imagine a 40-year-old marrying a 20-year-old. Used to happen, but not for me. No, the single life is better, I thought,” said with a sigh in the eyes.

 

“Living alone is sad, isn’t it?”

 

“The truth, yeah, it’s sad, it’s lonely. I talk to my cats and I work. Work is what makes my life fun . . .”

 

Sakai-san is senile, slightly or severely, perhaps somewhere in-between, like his split-level bifocals. Call it anterograde amnesia, short-term memory loss, a lack of lucidity, Alzheimer’s. Call it what you want, Sakai-san remembers who I am, but forgets questions he’s asked only a few seconds before, forgets what he’s doing in the middle of doing it, forgets whose pot is whose, and what’s in it -— genuinely surprised to find soup in the nabe he’s convinced is mine.

 

Sakai-san sells art.

 

“Got a list — all the big companies here in Toyama. I go to see the guy in charge, right to the top.”

 

Sakai-san sells art.

 

“Making a list —you know, big companies around Toyama, I go to see the guy at the top . . . It’s difficult sometimes. Have to take photos of what I’m selling. Can’t just take the original, now, can I — too heavy!”

 

Sakai-san sells art.

 

“Think 70,000 ¥ is expensive for a painting? It’s not. Tokyo people, they’ve got money. Might not even think twice about buying a picture this size . . . [gestures] Yaa, that’s where the money is. Here in Toyama, well . . .”

 

Sakai-san sells art.

 

“Hard to get down to Takayama now. That’s the furthest I’ll go.Transportation issue, really. Trains aren’t too good. Next year I’m thinking of stopping.”

 

Sakai-san: Part II – 2007

 

It’s dark now when I get there . . .


Five-fifteen. But already dark, winter, soon December, soon snow. A moment of unrecognition, then the familiar gap-toothed smile . . .

 

“Ha, wow! Today I’m lucky. First my niece and her husband, and now you. I’m happy.”

 

I don’t catch it the first time ’round, focused on what appears to be the broken burner in Sakai-san’s hand.

 

“Not even a chair for you. Oh, here we are . . .”

 

The desk has disappeared from its usual position, and there’s more food around.

 

“My older brother’s daughter and her husband just came, brought me some food!” Sakai-san is sitting down to a healthy meal of rice and fish.

 

“Coffee, tea?”

 

“Ran out of canisters for the stove there. That’s the one you brought me, right?”

 

“I’m sorry, I should have brought more.”

 

“It’s useful; I just keep forgetting to buy more. Put memos inside my wallet, but still forget. You know, so when I’m going to pay for something, I’ll take money out and see the memo, but . . . always, I’m forgetting! Forgot to buy oil for the stove too! Ah – I’m an old man, always forgetting!”

 

Scattered around the room are some new large-sized books. Handsome foreigners in expensive suits grace the cover, and I ask Sakai-san if I can take a look. They’re old fabric sample books, and I realize he’s burning them to stay warm in lieu of the oil heater. On ignition, they burn a deep, dark smoke. Through it, I can barely see him, spitting up kernels of rice with words — one seems to slip out as easily as the other — but then again, Sakai-san doesn’t have many teeth to speak of.

 

“Ah, when you’re a single man, this is how you do things [burning fabric swatches]. They burn nice and hot. Keep me warm for a while.”

 

“Okay, but please be careful. Easy for other things to catch on fire this way . . .”

 

“Yeah, my niece and her husband come and visit me three or four times a year. Always bringing so much food! . . . I get by with the old-age pension money — every month, the post office delivers it here — but I want to move to Toyama city. I know there’s got to be some free places to live there, too; everyone’s always building new houses. I just want one of those old ones, in the middle of a rice field, a place someone will say, “Here you go. Live here, please — rent-free.”

 

I ask Sakai-san about the past again. “After the war, what did you . . .?”

 

“Oh, lots of things, but when my older brother got out of the army, I went with him and one of my sisters, and we sold medicine in other prefectures across Japan. It’s an old Toyama tradition, you know. Used to be tons of traveling salesman, and at the time, it was the easiest thing to do. But the money, it wasn’t good after a while. People only paid for what they used, [and gradually they didn’t use so much].

 

“So then . . .?”

 

“Then I went with my brother and worked as a traveling medicine salesman.”

 

“Oh, I see. And after that . . .”

 

“Oh after that, some other things. I worked for Fujikoshi-nachi [Toyama’s largest company] for a while. Made big long pipes and
tubes, parts for machines and such. And for a while, I sold clothes —tailored men’s suits — but that’s work for young eyes and hands. Get older and it’s no good. And always I liked the arts. Couldn’t draw worth a darn, but always liked the arts, ya . . . Went to Tokyo’s top art university for the graduating show and met with the head dean. He encouraged me to sell his students’ paintings, so I decided to switch jobs. But Toyama’s people are too low to appreciate that kind of art. Too expensive. If you talk to the people at the top, then it’s okay — but only the top guy, not even number two will do . . . Left my card and lots of photos with Toyama Prefecture’s governor, but he’s always out when I call . . .”

 

“When you sleep, do you remember your dreams?”

 

“No, don’t need to. I don’t dream. Don’t have anything to worry about, so nothing to dream about. I’m living a relaxed life, not too many stresses. Ha—ha-ha-ha-ha.”

 

Sakai-san: Closure – 2007

 

In May 2007, I went back to visit Sakai-san.


House boarded up, front room barricaded, entrance padlocked shut. Cats meowing loudly from somewhere close, but no Sakai-san. In our last conversation, there was mention of subsidized housing in the city. He’d been denied the first time; wasn’t allowed to declare his old age pension as a source of income to pay rent, but now, perhaps . . .

 

I tried looking through the glass, afraid of what I might find.

 

Had he died? Did he move out? Housing projects? On the road selling art? No neighbours, no family, no memories.

 

I came back a month later to the same situation, said a few words, made my peace, and drove away.

 

On India – 2005

 

What to write about India? It is bizarre stepping into India from the air-conditioned comfort of the North Gate Hotel. The North Gate is not India, with it’s room service, laundry, and round-the-clock CNN satellite TV. Over the threshold lies a clash of realities, exemplified by western-style hotels strewn amongst street vendors, beggars and chai stalls. Internet boutiques sit under partially completed freeways. IT infrastructure support students make their way to KFC. Cart-drawn oxen contest 3-wheeled scooters, passed by Mercedes-Benzes.

 

What is a clash of realities, on reflection, reveals itself as the experience of place. And so the air-conditioned Northgate Hotel is India. Just as much as the limbless, blind beggars it towers next to; no more so than the young, white, pink-gowned Harry Krishna converts wandering it’s streets. Shiny new call-support centers, staffed by university graduates paid in American dollars, next to malls showing the latest Bollywood sensation. Such is a cross-section of India that cuts close to the moment: impatience with the present, hope for the future, reflections of the past – tradition, religion, belief – in a blender.

 

I’ve read – been told – that India is ‘in transition’, if such a thing is possible – to isolate one country from 193, and view it statically. One perspective from 6.1 billion. A-zoom-in-freeze-frame of an entity that is by definition, “[in] passage from one form, state, style, or place to another,” and yet through the simple state of existing, could be nothing less. It ‘is’ unfortunate the linguistic structure of English fails to encompass past, future and present in one tense. Or rather, perhaps this ‘is’ it’s greatest downfall – in so doing, relying on separate cognitive symbol-associations that make possible the process of disassociation; present from past, past from future, future from present. By this ‘is’, I hope to include not only, ‘was’ and ‘will be’, but ‘might be’, ‘could be’ ‘should be’, ‘won’t be’, ‘has never been, ‘will always be, etc…To further this, perhaps language’s greatest downfall ‘is’ (was, will be, wasn’t, won’t – substitute whatever you wish) to difference between ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’, thereby creating the skeleton framework on which a common reality is built. Is there a language that doesn’t differentiate? Where my, ‘is’, doesn’t inflect on your ‘isn’t’? Where the plural ‘I’ and ‘we’ are one and the same? Perhaps such a language would cease to be language, and, neither voiced nor written, cease to exist.

 

After all, these terms ‘are’ neither here nor there; they are self-defining opposites, co-dependent on one another in their attribute-value existence. Remove one, and the other ceases to, “be”. In a similar way humans recognize individuality, nations draw borders, and economic theorems create value. That is to say, none really exist, and are merely abstractions of consciousness. Perhaps language is the first layer in interpretation that constitutes myth. Thus language ‘is’ myth: “A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society”. Wordy to be sure, but perhaps not far from the mark; language formed and encompassed as myth explaining reality, a rationalization that in turn substantiates reality.

 

And so this freeze-frame is an effective manner of simplifying, interpreting, decoding, structuring, comprehending –on a superficial level– the statistical, socio-pop-economic ramifications of the world it has created. A world of layered myth, tangled together in a web of blood and bone, roots and stone, neutrino and clone, then smelted in the subconscious fires of 6.1 billion into an entity. EarthTM v.4.63 beta.

 

And so, from one perspective amongst 6.1 billion, a freeze-frame of a moment. An analytical observation of the India that separates me from you, us from them, now from then. A myth, a myth, and song and a dance. It could be nothing more, and it is nothing less.

 

A Letter Home – 2004

 

I’m writing from Toyama, Japan, a main-island prefecture nestled between mountains and sea, roughly 4hrs Northwest of Tokyo by bullet train. For the past four months I’ve been teaching English to children ranging 3 – 14 in the town of Ohyama. Or perhaps more aptly surmised; for the past four months I’ve been attempting to teach English to children both young and old, with a couple of their parents thrown in for good measure, too. Attempting to teach English is an interesting task – a combination of human tape recorder, stand-up comic, dictionary, and jungle gym. Although it’s half-a-world-way in many regards, the duality of classroom dynamics is ever-present: there are students who love to learn and students who hate it, students that try super-hard and students that sleep in the back of class under their textbooks; hyperactive students, attention deficit students, hungry students, rich students, poor students, happy students, depressed students – those whose only concern is the next minute, and those who walk as though they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Elementary students are highly excitable – live-wire bundles of energy – running, shouting, playing, laughing, learning, all part of a larger game; junior high students in the awkward stages of transition – unsure about being cocksure, too cool yet at the same time, not cool enough.

 

As Vincent Vega (John Travolta) comments to his criminal cohort Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in Pulp Ficiton, “It’s the little things that make it [culture] different.” Japan, like Amsterdam, is on the metric system, thus a Quarter Pounder with Cheese over here is called a McGrand (pronounced Mi-ku Gu-raa-n-do). But perhaps even more impressive than McDonalds burger schemes is the Katakana alphabet in which they are written – an alphabet separate from the phonetic Hirigana, and character based Kanji alphabets, in which anything foreign is translated to a Japanese-friendly vowel-consonant combination. Or maybe it’s the belief promoted by Den Fujita, “the eccentric billionare who brought McDonald’s to Japan three decades ago”…”eating McDonald’s for a 1000 years would make his countrymen taller, blond-haired, and fair-skinned” (Fast Food Nation). It must come as quite a surprise that in only 30 years it’s made believers fat and unhealthy instead, although in this regard, Japanese youth are right in line with the N.American ideal; what milkshakes, fries and burgers haven’t been able to transform, bleach-blond hair-dye, punk music and pump-heels has. Not that embracing any of these ‘N.American-isms’ has made Japan any less ‘Japanese’. If anything, the reverse is true; Japanese pop-culture exists as a testament to the surreal – a sort of Dali-esque pastiche of various cultures and generations injected with high-tech gadgetry and neon lights that culminates in a, who-dropped-a-tab-of-acid-in-my-bowl-of-rice experience. Young woman with platinum blond hair wear mini skirts, pink feathered boas, sheepskin boots, and accessorize with bling and T-shirt’s that read: “Give me strength! Are you serious? Pise myself laughing” or, “Daddy was a street corner. Know your limitations, my mother said.” Toilet seats are heated (and if you’re lucky, hydraulic), public transport arrives exactly at the specified time, a synthesized ‘Big Ben’ plays over the intercom to signal the end of each class, beer vending machines stand next to coffee dispensers, bears threaten the existence of small towns, and everything – absolutely everything – from baked cookies to batteries in a box, is individually wrapped in plastic. There’s a shirt I’ve seen on several occasions that embodies the heart of the matter; in bold letters it reads, “Same, same, but different”, and there’s really no better explanation.

 

Under the initial onslaught of culture shock lies something more tangible. Peel away the thin veneer of glitz and pop, look behind the facade of trend and fashion, and there is the realization that despite the often bizarre, superficial differences, individuals the world over face a similar set of challenges. Albeit for many in the first world, the primary set of challenges are not so much challenging as an unconscious pattern of actions taken for granted; food is in the fridge, heat comes from vents in the ceiling, and water comes from a tap. Japan is no exception; rice comes from the rice cooker, heat from your AC unit, water from the tap. However, in expressions of individuality and conformity, quirks and idiosyncrasies, cultural context is revealed and the fabric of society on which routine intertwines with daily drama, unfurls. How does a student express frustration? What discipline is appropriate for the disruptive child? Why does nobody speak when asked about East-Asian political tension? Or, rather – how is a student expected to express frustration? Is disciplining a disruptive student beneficial to the class? Why is it inappropriate to express personal feelings about controversial topics in a social setting? The answers to these questions, indeed the questions themselves, belie one of the main differences between East and West: the dynamic of individual vs group. Unfortunately, four months has only begun to hint at this insight, and I’m afraid there’s not too much I could write now that I wouldn’t disagree with later – so I’ll stop this digression, get back to the original intent of the email, (which was to wish all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year) and leave you with a description that could only come from Japan at Christmas – something I’ve heard about, but yet had the pleasure to see. In the back of a department store, amongst rows of stuffed reindeer, origami christmas cards and miniature snow globes, lies a destitute tree ornament looking for a better home: Santa Claus nailed to a cross.

 

Bic Rouge – 2002


The time is unclear
. It could be 3:00 pm, maybe 4:00 pm, perhaps 2:30 pm. Time trickles so slowly it appears to have stopped; like a rivulet of sweat perched on the tip of a whale’s nose, both suspend belief. And hot, so hot — a damp, wet, humid hot that fills one’s lungs with moisture, and leaves clothes clinging to skin. I should be sleeping like the others, napping while the sun is at its crux. But everything is too new for a nap, and isn’t that what the night is for, and instead I’m drawing, sketching sorghum (a wheat-grain) at the base of our compound. Or rather, Perré is sketching sorghum, and I’m watching, enthralled.

 

Perré is a day guardian. He arrives a little before 6:00 each morning and stays well after dusk to ensure belongings remain put; magazines on coffee table, water bottles by tap, solar panel on tin roof. I’ve discovered Perré a fellow illustrator, and Perré has just discovered my Tupperware container of drawing supplies.

 

“Lessorgo, lessorgo.” Perré gestures at the adjacent field.

 

“En Mafa?”

 

“Enmafa, sahlawey, sahlawey.” Slurred, jumbled vowels to the ears, peculiar intonations hard to distinguish. Perré pauses, his free hand rummaging through the Tupperware container. “Beekrouge…?”

 

Caught off guard. There are more pens than I know what to do with in the container; surely there must be a…

 

“Beek-rouge?”

 

Sounds French. Small springs in the brain creak under weight, cobwebs are swept aside, spiders scuttle, and off in the distance, a bell rings faintly. Memories of junior high French class come wafting back. The scent of lavender mixed with a sweet synthetic perfume. Potpourri. In a glass jar, on the desk, next to a stack of jumbled papers, and cahiers. There’s a poster of a famous French-Canadian rock star hanging on the wall. Caught in mid-wail, gaunt mouth strained open, fluorescent pinks and yellows shout out her name: Celine Dion. Je me, Tu te. I’m reciting something, but there’s no “beek-rouge”.

 

“Beek-rouge?” It’s a question. Perré smiles. I’ve got no clue.

 

The others are awake now, and I wander to the open veranda where they are seated. Beek-rouge, beek-rouge? Surely they will know. “Oh, beek-rouge. Yes, that’s a Swahili adaptation of a French verb in the past tense pronounced by clicking the tip of your tongue against the inside of your left cheek. It means feather duster”. Or more likely, “Oh, beek-rouge; that’s French for felt-tip, didn’t you know?”

 

But the others don’t know. They are as puzzled as I.

 

“Beek-rouge, by golly, what’s that? Sounds funny – isn’t even in the dictionary.”

 

Beek-rouge? Beek-rouge?? What on earth could it … Bic. Rouge. Bic-rouge! The others watch bemused as I return to the rocks and sorghum and Perré, paused from frenzied sketching, waiting intently. I hand him the new addition to the Tupperware contingent.

 

“Bic Rouge.” It’s a statement.

 

“Beekrouge.” Perré smiles nodding his head in agreement as vibrant lines of color flow from the tip of a red ballpoint pen.