jet lag sux

Before I left I asserted cavalierly to all who would listen that I didn't get jet lag going to or from Asia. "Europe is much worse," I claimed, flashing my cosmopolitan credentials.

This morning I was awake at 4am for the second day in a row. Actually, make that the fourth or fifth day in a row, but the first couple days back from Asia I made a vain attempt at going back to sleep. This meant I tossed fitfully, sleeplessly, mind racing anxiously, tempestuously, until 7am or so, whereupon I would fall asleep for five or seven hours, thus further screwing up the next night's sleep schedule.

Yesterday, having mostly recovered from the flu, and having gone to bed at 9:30pm, I made the bold move of not going back to sleep again when I woke up at 4, and then working assiduously all day, thinking that surely that night - last night - I would be so tired that I would get a good, long night's sleep. Ha! I went to bed at 10:30 and again woke up at 4. I guess recovery from the flu is going to have to be measured in hours less than 7 I can sleep at night and still function.

I'm sure this is endlessly fascinating to everybody.



Oh yeah, that other not-so-natural disaster

For anyone who may have been feeling a bit of a twinge of discomfort at sending contributions only toward the relief efforts in Southeast Asia while our government devastates another part of that continent, here's a way to help refugees from Falluja.



Home safely

We're home safely from the trip, in case anyone's worried. I've got a very bad cold and a lot of work to do in a short time so I may not blog much for a while, though I'd like to reflect on the trip a bit.

I'm also really saddened by the news about the devastating earthquake and tsunami. And speechless about it -- I won't try to write anything more except to say that a list of organizations accepting contributions to help victims appears here.



And A Very Merry Christmas To You Too, Bangkok

I remember now why I scheduled us only for the absolute minimum amount of time in Bangkok. Whenever I'm here I have a disappointing, frustrating, or downright infuriating experience, usually involving being separated from my money in some stupid, gratuitous way by con artists of one kind or another.

We had to get up early to be picked up at 8 for our "canal tour," and the night before this experience we couldn't sleep for hours because of all the Christmas Eve revelry. I woke up with a sore throat. I managed to snag a quick cup of coffee from the bad breakfast buffet at our hotel, which the guidebook claims is "straddling the mid-range to top-end divide." I think the guidebook writer may have seen the rooms, but they definitely didn't try the breakfast.

So, at some time after 8 the minibus driver arrived. This is where the con begins. But it's a bit hard to identify exactly who committed the fraud. If we'd known what we were getting into, it wouldn't necessarily have been anything but a crappy, tourist-trappy experience that, perhaps, some tourists actually enjoy. We'd asked the travel agent at our hotel for a canal tour. "Just Bangkok canals," I said. I'd been on two before, one with Mike and one by myself. When I went by myself, we stopped at temples and explored some of the smaller canals. When I went with Mike, we didn't stop at all (or only for a bathroom break, he reminds me). We might have bought a coke from a woman in a small boat who pulled up next to ours. So I thought I had an idea of what the tour would be like. Canals = spending most of the time in the boat, right?

Actually, no. First, the minibus driver took us to the pier, where he introduced us to a man he referred to as "Thai Mafia," pointing to his belly -- which was really only a medium-sized belly. "Only kidding," he said. He said Mr. Thai Mafia would tell us what boat to take and it would do the tour and come back and he would come pick us up and take us back to the hotel. Mr. Mafia told us to wait five minutes, which translated into twenty, but that still didn't seem so bad. It's Thai Time, which Thais themselves will tell you, and you learn to get used to it. Mafia finally told us to get on a boat and we got on and it started going.

A guide spoke over an audio system that, we sequentially learned, blasted the eardrums of those sitting in back while barely coming to the notice of those in front. Anyway, the guide's English pronunciation and grammar were so bad that we could understand about one out of five words he said.

First, we stopped at a souvenir shop by the side of the canal, and here they expected my grandmother to clamber up over the side of the boat. I asked if we could just stay in the boat, and they said "no, you take break," or something like that. We didn't want any of the low-quality, high-priced souvenirs, so we stood waiting for the boat and guide to come back. Then it emerged that the break was to last a full half hour. It was hot outside the shop, and there was no place to sit -- the better to force us to shop. This, however, was not a good arrangement for my grandmother, so I swiped a stool from one of the vendors for her to sit on. (I wish I'd thought of this earlier; by the time she sat down it was almost time to go.)

I wondered at this point why there were so many people around with guide's badges hanging from their necks. This would only be explained later, when, after a short ride from the souvenir shop, we got to the crocodile farm, where we were told that we would spend 40 minutes and 100 baht to look at the crocodiles.

(I think the boat tour we went on back in Cambodia -- which seems such a long time ago now -- is aspiring to be THIS boat tour. I wish it wouldn't. There, we were taken to an overpriced souvenir shop-cum-zoo, with crocodiles -- but it was just one stop we didn't have to pay to see the crocodiles.)

We didn't want to spend 40 minutes and 100 baht, so we asked if we could get a water taxi back to the pier where we'd embarked. No, we were told we had to wait. But first we were asked who our guide was. We didn't have a guide. But, we now discovered, all the other tourists were in small groups led by a Thai guide.

When we'd gotten off the boat this second time, we noticed teenagers snapping photos of us. Ugh, I thought, they're going to try to get us to buy these pictures. As we sat waiting outside the Crocodile Farm (fortunately, seating was provided) the teenagers began bringing plates out. Ugh, I thought, they're going to expect us to order food if we want to sit here. But no -- in fact, they were putting the plates on a rack near the water facing where the tourists would come out of the Crocodile Farm. The plates were apparently for sale. And yes, you guessed it (or did you?) the plates were tacky souvenir plates, produced on the spot from the photographs, each one with one of the tourists' faces on it. Yes, we were expected to buy these plates in order to take them home and put them in our display cases of tacky souvenirs. Either that, or eat off them. Would you want to eat off a plate with your face on it?

We got back to the pier in Bangkok (am I missing anything? was there anything else bad about this trip?) and when we got off, Mafia said we had to take a taxi back to our hotel. I argued and argued with him about this, since the minibus driver had said he'd pick us up. Finally Mafia agreed to pay for the taxi himself. Of course, since the taxi driver was paid in advance a fixed sum, he would not take us all the way down Khaosan Rd. to our hotel, but made us get out and walk. But that's pretty much par for the course.

Back at the hotel, the travel agency was being staffed by a different young woman, so I couldn't (as I'd intended) ask for our money back.

This has been a really wonderful trip in all kinds of ways, and I'm sorry to (once again) leave with a bad taste in my mouth about the capital of Thailand, Asia's "City of Angels." Next time, maybe we should exit through China instead.



Visual Culture

After dinner yesterday I met up with my Thai friend Thasnai, who is back in Chiang Mai now doing a PhD in cultural anthropology and development studies (or something like that) while teaching a theory course in the new Media Art and Design program, of which I witnessed an embryonic version last summer when I lectured here at the university. Thasnai used to live in Chicago, and he's really the reason I originally came to Chiang Mai -- first for an art festival and then for last year's stint. He asked me to do a couple of lectures while I'm here. One of them is on a subject he proposed: why is it that "visual culture" became a hot topic in academia at a certain moment? (That moment, I'd guess, is sometime in the early to mid-90s.)

This is a tough question, because we're still living in that moment, even if visual culture as a field, or a subfield, seems a bit past its cutting-edge prime now. Part of what I'd say is that it's an outgrowth of art history that tried to be more inclusive of lots of different kinds of visual media, and to think about them in somewhat more anthropological than genealogical terms (i.e., the "history" of art history is about development through time, and tends to make some assumptions about progress toward something better, while the "culture" of visual culture is more about the range of aspects of culture in a given moment). I might say that "visual culture" as a term for an area of study carries within it the seeds of its own demise, at least as far as art history is concerned, because art history was never just about the eye (the "visual"), but also about the hand, the body, and the other senses. So visual culture seems to lose something that art history possessed. When visual culture first arrived on the scene as a hot new thing in the 1990s (as opposed to its earlier incarnation in the new art history of the 1970s, when it was first coined by Michael Baxandall) many people criticized it for being 1) a facile way for academics to indulge in fluffy explorations of pop culture 2) part of a reduction of everything to appearances, and a forgetting of things that really matter, like relations of production (this would be the marxist view). In an issue of the journal October (in, I think 1996), people criticized visual culture as a symptom of digital media. If I remember correctly, the argument went something like this: digitization destroys the materiality of the image, and with it, history. It makes everything the same, a collection of 0s and 1s.

On the other hand, these same things, or similar things, were said about film and television; so why didn't "visual culture" displace art history then? My optimistic instinct is that part of the difference in the 90s is the potential for digital media to release creative energies in sectors of society that could not, say, talk back to the television. Broadcast media are one-way; digital media are two- or more-way. The image is fundamentally changed when anyone can get ahold of it and edit it. Hence the race on the part of big-money capitalism to prosecute music downloaders, and to claim ownership of digital reproductions of famous art objects (my department is dealing with the consequences now, and it may, at least for a while, have a big impact on how we teach).

I have a sense of why art history started thinking differently about images; it had to do with absorbing theoretical developments from other disciplines, and with the advent of digital media. But I'm not so sure I understand why other disciplines all of a sudden started noticing them. That's probably a chapter for another day.

For today, I might say that it's also a tough question in my own personal context at the moment -- being in a foreign country where I have only a tenuous grasp on the language and culture. I have developed an instinctive grasp of certain things but am constantly surprised by others. (How do you know which dishes in a restaurant are assumed to be shareable? It's still a mystery to me. And does the style of the restaurant sign have anything to do with its pretentions to gourmet status? Tonight we ate at a Vietnamese restaurant in a very chi-chi garden resort guesthouse down a dark soi. I would never have guessed from the sign on the street how fancy the guesthouse was. Style is something I still can't read here.)

This morning I went with my dad and grandmother and Mike to Doi Suthep, a mountain just outside of Chiang Mai where there's a famous temple that has become a kind of Buddhist pilgrimage site. There's a good example of how visual culture is not just visual, but aural, tactile, olfactory too. We were splashed with holy water, listened to bells being rung over and over again, and to fortune sticks being shaken; we smelled incense and watched people taking picture after picture (and took a whole bunch ourselves).

In the afternoon we went to the center of town, which, on Sunday afternoons, is closed to motor traffic and becomes a kind of market -- just like every evening in Luang Prabang (except the version in Chiang Mai is more sophisticated, with many more kinds of products, and many Thai people along with all the tourists). Thasnai mentioned something about how this idea of creating temporary pedestrian streets has caught on in the region in a kind of unreflective way. Every city has to have this practice and it becomes naturalized so people think they've always had it, and nobody knows exactly why. It's nice to get to walk in a slightly more relaxed way in a city where it's pretty dangerous to walk around (because of the traffic hazards and poor sidewalks). But you can't be all that relaxed, because there are people everywhere and there's no relief from all the buying and selling. It turns what could be public space into a shopping mall, not a walking city, though that's what they call it: "Walking City." (Like every other government program here -- Amazing Thailand, One Tambon One Product -- it has to have its slightly off-kilter English name.)

But I suppose that was visual culture too. Perhaps that's the problem with the idea of visual culture; how do you know where its boundaries are?


Street Memes

This is interesting.
I'll let y'all know if I see any of these in Thailand.



Back in Chiang Mai

So, I'm back in Chiang Mai, where I spent the summer of 2003. It feels like home, except my Thai is extremely rusty, and I can tell I won't have much opportunity to work on it in the short time we're here; when I was here before I spent most of my time far from touristy places and this time that just won't be possible. (It's amazing how I see this place in a different light when staying in a hotel -- it becomes much more like all the other places I've been a western tourist, i.e. with guys lurking outside the hotel trying to sell their services as drivers, restaurants where the staff speak English, etc.)

I remember feeling very free when I was here before. No one was putting any demands on me -- in fact, I sort of wished at the time that they would! (I was supposed to be conducting a research project about the museum here, on how they document performances and exhibitions, and in order to do it I tried volunteering my services for anything involving English -- mainly, I hoped, editing English translations of Thai texts for catalogues and so on. The staff quietly but resolutely refused to take me up on my offer.) But I really had my time entirely to myself. Getting around was not so easy, because I'd made the mistake of getting a bicycle rather than a motorcycle.

But then there was the great pleasure of pedaling my bicycle at night down a quiet soi (alley) with frogs croaking in nearby marshes. I hadn't felt so relaxed in a long time and certainly not since.

This visit isn't quite so relaxing, because we're trying to pack in more activity and travels. But I'm enjoying being here with family members, and it's certainly a nice break from my usual life.

I'm having odd dreams. I had a dream in which I rescued cats, which is pretty much par for the course. But then I arrived late at the movie set (which movie set? THAT movie set--the one in Portland, Maine) because my car, or rather my bicycle, had broken down, or at least that's what I told the tall, blonde director (because actually, it was just that I was driving so slowly, in that dreamlike way). She was saying FINALLY, Rabbit is here, and then I remembered that I had auditioned a few days back in my high school gym (but I hadn't known I had gotten the part, and anyway it was a very small part!)! Then I saw a friend who said "guess who I'm playing" and I couldn't guess. Then I realized I didn't know my lines. And then I realized she was playing Tina Turner. And then I realized that one of the actors had friends who were in the Latin Kings and one had brought a gun and a fight had broken out and they were waving the gun around and pointing it at people's heads.

I need to find a way to study Thai again, and I need to find a way to make my life less stressful.



mountains and rivers

Just a quick post from Luang Prabang, Laos, before we go back to Thailand. Mike joined us yesterday after a harrowing few days of airline, baggage and hotel screw-ups. Luang Prabang is beautifully situated -- a sort of peninsula between two rivers -- and has lots of interesting old temples (we went on a trek to see some hidden forest temples today; I took lots of pictures). It's also kind of touristy, though, with one main street shut off to motor traffic every night for the local version of the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar -- with just about as many sellers and tourists! It's a bit chilly at night (nothing like the climate in Cambodia) and very atmospheric when you get away from the tourists, partly because of the wood smoke (from slash-and-burn agriculture) that infests the air.



on the other side of the world

Here I am in Phnom Penh, where the motorcycle traffic is fast and the internet connection is slow. I'm here with my father and grandmother, on a quick leg of our journey, basically to see the National Museum, after a great 4 days at Angkor Wat (and surrounding temples). I have pictures I can't upload just yet, but I'll try to do that soon.

Phnom Penh is a big, hot, dusty, hectic city. It's Bangkok without the wealthy elements (and without automobile taxis -- only tuk-tuks, the motorcycle-trailer kind). It's been repopulated very quickly after the massacres of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge; you'd really never know it had happened just from a look at the surface of the city.

In addition to going to the National Museum and the royal palace grounds (with the famous Silver Pagoda), we went to a shopping complex, the Sorya Center, that had been recommended by the lady at the service desk at the hotel as a place to find an electrical adapter so I could recharge my laptop in the hotel room. It was a crazy, hectic mall much like the MBK Center in Bangkok, and -- along with the streets full of motorcycles -- probably gave us the best sense of urban life, at least among the young, in Phnom Penh; there were very few tourists there. It felt a little funny just jumping in a tuk-tuk and asking the driver to take us to a place of whose location I had not the slightest idea. (He was a very helpful and nice driver -- as all of them have been, despite the sense of onslaught when you walk out of the hotel or tourist attraction and they accost you en masse: "tuk tuk, sir?...) Still, though, it's a little weird, having some sense of language and geography in Thailand, and then coming to a place that's superficially pretty similar (the languages are related, and Khmer script looks like an ornate version of Thai script) that ends up being quite opaque, and feeling totally dependent on strangers about whom one knows nothing.

Finally, a portrait of Phnom Penh computer users through the titles of their blog posts (which came up as a menu of options for mine). They're not very diverse, it seems:

Cornerstone Academic College
English slang around the world
ESL Listening Quizzes
From Vietnam to Cambodia
George Lakoff
influence of planting deapth and plant population
king's english
Reading Worksheets
Rob Burvill Cambodia 2004
The Pimsleur Method
Word Games and Puzzles Online from A Game A Day

I'm intrigued by the George Lakoff one, myself. With everybody talking about him in the blogosphere, even as far away as Phnom Penh, I think I'm going to have to read his book pretty soon...




I'm off to the other side of the world for a few weeks. I'll try to blog while there!

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?