|December 21, 2012 | Asia, Photos By J.Yuenger, Travels
The church is covered with orange lichen.
The church is covered with orange lichen.
I went to Tuol Sleng today. I’m not going to say anything about it except that I’ve seen some bad things in my time, and I have a pretty high tolerance for horror, but after this particular experience, I wanted to spend the rest of the day in nice and pleasant places. The courtyard at the National Museum is particularly beautiful.
Thai cigarette cartons are now mostly covered with horrific cancer photos and giant warnings. If you’ve ever smoked, you’ll know that this won’t deter anyone.
1. Go to a Hmong village, buy fresh, handmade noodles.
2. Go to a restaurant on the side of a mountain. The restaurant makes the noodles into pho ( pretty much the same as Vietnamese pho, except the Lao pronounce it more like fur ). Eat pho with driver and guide. #nowthisisliving
Also. Mr.Tey, the guy on the right, told me a joke based on an experience he had. Last year, he took a busload of Dutch tourists to a Hmong village. The driver was going slowly and carefully, but he ran over a chicken. They got out and went to the hut the chicken had been in front of.
Mr. Tey : ” Madame, is this your chicken? We are awfully sorry, but we have killed it with our bus. “
.. I don’t know if it’s the zen state of mind I get into when I travel, or what, but that’s the funniest goddamn thing I’ve heard all week.
And so it is that I find myself in a village in Laos.
We are at the workshop of a man who is a farmer, but who supplements his income by making spoons, as well as bracelets and other trinkets, out of the aluminum parts of the bombs, rockets, and downed airplanes that are always turning up here.
War junk’s all over the place ..
.. and I get used to handling things which would seem pretty crazy at home, but are normal in this context.
He is a friendly and hospitable man, and he boils eggs from his ducks and serves them with homemade chili paste, which we eat with the war spoons.
He pours numerous shots of lao lao whiskey, which is infused with some sort of root ( it looks like ginseng, but it’s definitely not ginseng ). We look at the green mountains, and we get pretty fucked-up, and it’s good, and .. what was I saying again?
Phonsavan, Xieng Khouang Province, Laos. I had to go to the police station today to get a permit to do some sightseeing. In front of the station, there are big stacks of mortar shells, machine guns, bombs, warplane fuel tanks, and tank turrets from the Pathet Lao / Vietcong / Hmong / covert U.S. war. We bombed this country every eight minutes during this period, and the results of our foreign policy are quite evident here, even today.
Chiang Mai, Thailand. Young novice monks watching TV with golden buddhas. There were No Photos, Please signs about, so I took out my phone and squeezed one off as I walked past ( I am the Ugly American ). I also saw a monk talking on a cel phone, and another one with a bottle of rice whiskey. There probably aren’t rules against any of these things, but I was surprised.
You make a donation, pick a number, and receive your fortune :
” Be faithful and firm. Watch your step. Support can be obtained from among honest people. Bad omen foreseen. Refill oil to the lamps at this place, and unfavorable situation will be alleviated. Patient recovering. No Child forthcoming as yet. No luck. Legal case defensible. Refill the oil. “
Thursday, December 6, 2012 • on the 12-hour train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai – somewhere in the middle of it, but I’m trying not to look at the clock. There are some Swedish dudes across the aisle from me, watching South Park and Arrested Development on a laptop, alternately both plugged into an iPod, making guitar faces, and I wish I knew what they were listening to. They’re nice guys, but they stink. They smell like dirty balls.
There’s a German couple ( she’s much taller than he is, and that makes me uncomfortable, make of it what you will ) behind me with a kid who’s 3 or 4. He’s singing little songs to himself and he’s got a doll, a full-on babydoll – so I guess his parents are doing the non-gendered toy thing, which is cool.
There’s a Thai family in front of me who have a 2-year old ( I’m guessing – she can walk, but she’s still sucking on a pacifier ) who is playing a learning game on her Mom’s iPad ( she has two Moms : the iPad belongs to her butch, shaved-headed Mom, not her lipstick Mom – her lipstick Mom has a dolphin tattoo on her wrist, and I wonder, what is it with lesbians and dolphins? It is seemingly universal ) and she is deftly pinching and expanding and toggling through windows, and the game’s in English too. Watching her doing it is kind of mesmerizing.
Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Manila, Philippines. You might think, if you’ve taken a taxi in New York City, that you’ve experienced a crazy hell-ride, but you don’t know what that really means unless you’ve been in a cab in one of the anarchic mega-cities of the future, like Manila.
The driver swerves wildly and repeatedly to avoid hitting people crossing the street, and my walk the day before ( a sweaty 5-mile trudge* up Taft Ave., across McArthur Bridge, up Rizal Ave., and right on Aurora to the entrance to the Chinese Cemetery ) showed me why pedestrians are all over the roads : what sidewalks there are, are completely packed with parked jeepneys, cars, trucks, and motorbikes, so that you’re forced to walk in the gutter. You get used to breathing dust and diesel fumes with vehicles whipping by six inches from you, or you don’t walk anywhere. There are few crosswalks, and the traffic never fucking stops, and if you want to cross the street, you’d better run.
He is young and slightly rakish ( ‘rakish’, here, meaning Oakleys and a bootleg Ed Hardy t-shirt ), but there’s a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror, and he’s very polite, like everyone here. Mass on Sundays and a baby at home, at least one, I betcha.
Me: Is this Linkin Park?
Him: Yes .. do you like this music?
Me: Um, sure. You? ( it seems rude to say anything negative, and I don’t know how to communicate something diplomatic like“ it’s not my cup of tea “ )
Him: Not really. I like Bad Religion!
Me: ( smiling ) Oh, you’re into punk?
( he pauses, not knowing what I mean )
Him: I also like Bon Jovi!
Me: Oh, so, you enjoy music that has loud electric guitars?
Him: Very much!
I spend the rest of the trip gripping the upholstery tightly and contemplating what our music sounds like, and means to, people from other cultures. I try to imagine what rock n’ roll would sound like to me if I hadn’t ever heard it before, and what I’d make of the distinctions between different styles. Not much, probably.
These aren’t taxis, they’re jeepneys ( learn about jeepneys here ), and although I was intrigued ( I’m not sure why shiny sheet-metal with hand-machined chrome parts isn’t standard elsewhere; these things have a sort of 1940s aircraft-aluminum look to them, and it’s wicked-cool ), I didn’t work up the nerve to ride in one.
* To put it in perspective for New Orleans people : imagine that it’s August in the Dirty Dirty., and you’re walking from the Uptown Whole Foods to Molly’s on Decatur, sucking on black fumes and nearly getting hit by a car every 30 seconds. I swear, if I wasn’t hardened to the weather in the Deep South, I would’ve wilted like a little flower. I managed to figure out how to take the Metro back, thank god.
Goodnight, Moscow. Tomorrow, we fly to Anapa, the Black Sea resort where the final show of the tour will take place.
” Moscow is capitol city, is not actually real Russia “, Andrey tells me. ” Tomorrow, you will see real Russia .” We board an Aeroflot jet ( I notice that the airline still uses their Soviet-era logo, with the hammer and sickle ) and fly into a regional airport, the kind of place where you get off the plane, walk across the tarmac, and you’re in the parking lot. There are no carts, and I find myself humping gear, which I kind of enjoy. There are certain things I unexpectedly miss about touring, and one of them is the spirit of camaraderie you get when you have a group of people and a pile of equipment which must be moved, and each person goes for the heaviest thing. Which is usually the drum hardware case. And a curse upon you, drummers, for that.
We pile into a couple of vans and take off, and this is, in fact, the Russia of my imagination : farmland as far as the eye can see, dust, fields full of melons and grapes, cracked pavement, the occasional battered Soviet bus stop ( Do you know about Soviet bus stops? Check it out ). This is the Real Russia, the country no foreign army could conquer. I have a reverie about doomed German soldiers on a troop train, grasping, as they pass through this endless place, the enormity of the country. I think about the Trans-Siberian Railway, which traverses nearly all of Russia. You can take a train from Moscow to Vladivostok, a journey of about six and a half days. The longest railroad in the world! I would do that. Why am I not doing that? Home is just some other place, with a door and a lock, where you keep your stuff.
The hotel is on the beach, and it’s a new building, but we are surrounded by cracked concrete structures in various states of repair. Rebar and sand. It’s windy, the sky is grey, and when Eugene gets out of the van and takes a look around, he says, ” Huh. Looks like Chernobyl. “
After check-in ( Which is chaotic, because the place is full-up with bands and festival-goers, and because the hotel has just opened, so a lot of things, like toilets, don’t work. There is no elevator, but there is a tour manager, so I don’t have to navigate this mess alone. I am grateful. ), we load up at the buffet in the basement ( good Russian food, stuffed peppers and kashi and cucumber and tomato salad, and I can tell from the freshness and lumpy, non-uniform nature of the fruits and vegetables that it’s all local ) and head outside to the bar. Night falls, and a Russian guy gets in the DJ booth and starts playing shitty remixes. There’s an immediate air of ” oh, HELL no “ among the band, and Pedro goes and gets his CDs and takes over, much to the relief of everyone present. A backyard reggae party ensues.
It’s exactly like backyard reggae parties I’ve been to in New Orleans, and I forget where I am. One of the groups playing the festival is The Skatalites, and a couple of them are sitting by me, and they are cool old people, hanging out, bobbing their heads slightly to the music. It dawns on me : I am listening to Jamaican music with some Jamaicans who helped invent it, in Russia, on the shore of the Black Sea. Everything is everything. Another round of Baltikas, спасибо.
I get up way too late the next day, and am surprised, like everybody else, that it’s nice out. The sea is light blue and warm as bathwater. Sergey, who is Russian, who is standing in the surf next to me, tells me about the many lovely beaches ranging down the coast from here.
GIG. You are probably familiar with Gogol Bordello, so I’m not going to talk about how entertaining the band is ( very ), or that every one of them can play their asses off. What I will say is that I find them to be genuinely interesting and different from all the other bands, and that, while watching them play, I become invested in the transaction between performer and spectator, and I start clapping and hollering, which is how it’s supposed to work. I have FUN. You know?
L→R : Oliver, Pedro, Michael, Thomas, Eugene, Sergey ( Yuri and Elizabeth are somewhere else ).
I’ve seen the band quite a few times, from the audience ( the first time was in New Orleans at TwiRoPa – one of those giant mega-clubs with multiple stages, built in old warehouses and factories, the sort of place I grew up going to .. which got badly damaged in Hurricane Katrina and was torn down in 2007 – and my reaction that night was, what the FUCK is this? This band is crazy! ), and then from the side of the stage. I make my way through the crowd ( what I mean is that I make my way through a crowd of a couple thousand well-to-do Russian kids in swimwear, who are dancing and waving big flags – of soccer teams, the Jolly Roger, and various South American countries – and the festival has a tropical theme, and we are on a beach, so I could just as easily be in The Bahamas or somewhere like that ) and climb up into the soundbooth.
This is my favorite way to watch the gig, from Frank’s perspective. Frank’s running the show up here, but he’s also, in a way, jamming with the band – mixing each song as its own thing, toggling through compressors, pushing different elements to the front of the mix and pulling them back in. Frank is rocking out as hard as anyone on stage. Sergey saws completely through his violin bow and throws the shredded thing into the crowd at the end of the encore. I ask Frank if this is something which happens often, and Frank says, no, but sometimes, when he is playing in his own country, Sergey gets excited.
The crowd files out. This is the last night of the tour, and I have a feeling that we’re going to be up much later than the hotel bar is going to want to stay open, so while the guys are packing up, I drift around backstage procuring all the wine and beer I can get my hands on.
Next : Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Western Russia, in the countryside somewhere. That’s Gogol Bordello soundman Frank Lievaart standing in front of me, photographed – by monitor engineer Jon Lammi – in such a way that our faces are perfectly melded together. Frankie does not have a moustache, nor is he as pink as I am, and I do not wear glasses.
Tagansky nuclear command bunker, Moscow : Oliver prepares to initiate the launch sequence which will begin WWIII. Considering that he’s a half-Trinidadian drummer from Los Angeles, the Russian army hat they put on him looks strangely appropriate.
I feel funny, waltzing in at the end of a long, grueling tour when it’s time for sightseeing and fancy hotels and partying, but I’ve toured as hard as anyone ( I’ve slept in vans in Summer, likewise in unheated squats in Winter, been searched by soldiers with assault rifles and dogs at border crossings [ often ], driven hundreds of miles to play to two people, you name it ), and I tell myself that this is a little reward.
Moscow itinerary :
* Hotel bar ( meet charming and perky tour guide )
* Kremlin, Cathedral Of The Archangel ( gigantic bells, Tsars are buried there, awesome )
* Subway tour
* Taras Bulba Korchma Ukrainian restaurant ( Boysenberry Kompot = crack in a glass )
* Tagansky bunker
* Red Square ( GUM Department Store )
* Cruise on Moscow River ( seen : among other things, the famous ugliest statue in Russia )
* Hotel bar ( fade )
A thing which people I know who travel a lot have been talking about : in other countries, if you’re an adult, they trust that you will act like an adult, and that if you do something dumb, you will accept responsibility instead of suing them. When we all crack beers in the van, the driver turns around and says, ” Is new carpet. Be careful, please. ” — and in the bunker, where there’s rebar sticking out of raw concrete and puddles and unlit corners, the tour guide says, ” Is dangerous. Be careful, please. ”
Moscow subway stations : CW from top left, Komsomolskaya, Novoslobodskaya, Mayakovskaya, Belorusskaya.
The entrance to the Bunker is in what looks like a nondescript Moscow apartment building : we climb down 18 flights of stairs and pass through immense blast doors. We walk through endless tunnels and every so often come to large vaulted rooms lined with massive interlocking steel plates. We’ve heard that there’s a nightclub down here and at one point see through some open doors what looks like a disco ( there is a definite smoking-drinking-partyparty vibe ), but our bunker guide, a young guy dressed like a soldier, seems unwilling to tell us about this. His tour spiel English is mangled to the point that we can barely understand him, and we decide that he has learned his lines phonetically.
In the command center, amidst piles of vintage gas masks, there is a multimedia presentation. Screens show images of 1950s schoolchildren, missile silos, fields of grain, Soviet fighter planes. The guide calls for two volunteers to man the missile launch console, and, in tandem, they press various large buttons. Andrey translates the voiceover for us, which is about the cold war arms buildup, nuclear capabilities, and Russia’s heroic confrontation with a dangerous, imperialist USA. The operators insert and turn keys, and the screen goes white : obliteration. Our guide’s version of the story : ” And, uh, nuclear war is declared. Etcetera. “, which gets a big laugh from the crowd.
We exit through a room filled with old military equipment and communications gear, and you can put on a Soviet army uniform and be photographed playing with this cool junk. There are even a couple of AK-47s, and when we examine their bolts and fire selectors, we realize that these are, in fact, fully functional automatic weapons.
Paul, Gogol’s tour manager.
Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow : Gogol Bordello and crew are a truly multinational force, holding passports from eight different countries.
Places Visited :
* Moscow, Russian Federation
* Anapa, Russian Federation ( shore of the Black Sea, Krasnodar region, sandwiched between Georgia and The Ukraine )
* Belfast, Republic Of Northern Ireland
End of trip : GB Intercontinental Airport, Houston : waiting for the third flight of the day, which will get me back to New Orleans, finally. I was looking at misty green Irish countryside and cows this morning, and I am experiencing culture shock after being away for only eight days. On deplaning in the USA after even a short trip, I tend to think of my fellow countrymen as You People, as in, ” what the fuck is with you people? “ — I know it sounds pretentious and ultra-snooty, but, you know what? Europeans would never wear flip-flops on an airplane, and men there tend to dress like men, not little kids in pajamas. If airports get any more casual, we’ll all be flying in diapers.
I haven’t heard any news for days, and I see on the boarding area TVs that there has been another mass shooting, this one perpetrated by a white-power fucktard ( I reserve the term skinhead for people who polish their boots fastidiously and have very good Jamaican music record collections, which they dance to while drinking lager : skinheads : a subculture of which I am rather fond ). They’re talking about the dumb bands the fucktard used to play in, and I assume that these bands are awful, because white-power bands always are. Not interesting-awful, like, say, The Shaggs, or fun–catchy-awful, like, for example, Jan Terri, but boring-awful, which is an inevitability when the band members have so little going for them that they’re proud of being white. ( BTW, All Skrewed Up doesn’t count : they weren’t Nazis yet. )
Arrival : Moscow : the day has been almost flawless, as a travel day can be when you’re heading away from the USA. It’s when you’re heading towards it that there are multiple delays and you have to go through security three times in a row and they take away the tiny screwdriver you use to tighten the tiny screws in your sunglasses. Andrey, the band’s young Russian fixer, meets me at the airport, and we take a cab to the hotel – which is quite swank ( Moscow is, famously, one of the most expensive cities in the world, and I worry about this, but I’m getting a group rate, which isn’t too bad – we are, on the other hand, in the hotel bar every moment we aren’t sleeping or showering, and I make up the difference in $15 beers ) and has mural-size photographs of life in the old Soviet Union on every surface. The table in my room is decorated with marching soldiers.
Later : I head back to the airport with Andrey to meet the band and crew, and we take the subway, which I am excited about. Have you heard about Russian subway stations? No? Check it out. We enter the newly re-Stalinized Kurskaya station and take steeply angled escalators deep underground; Andrey tells me about his life. He’s from Perm ( the city where these airplanes are made, it tuns out ), and his day gig is translating helicopter technical manuals into English, although he is increasingly engaged in tour managing, festival promoting, and playing with his band, Pyatiy Korpus ( Пятый Корпус : The Fifth Corps ). This song’s called Svoboda, Comrady! ( Свобода, Комрады : It’s Freedom, Comrades! ).
The Fifth Corps : It’s Freedom, Comrades!
Kurskaya station entrance, a second before Andrey warned me to not let any cops see me with a camera.
Domodedovo Airport, Moscow : Gogol Bordello have been on tour for 6 weeks, hopping around Europe by air during much of that time, and they’re tired, and everybody’s frazzled because the airline has lost all the in-ear monitors and Eugene’s guitars. In spite of all this, they appear to still like each other — in fact, I’d go as far as to say that they’re the most pleasant, friendly band I’ve ever met.
Next: in and around Moscow, travel to Anapa, Kubana Festival gig in Anapa.
The former ministry of transportation, one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters.
Places I’ve been where people think I’m a local :
* Czech Republic
Places I’ve been where people know right away that I am not a local, and most likely American :
* Everywhere else
Day 1 : up before everybody else for a solo walkabout. I used to marvel at old peoples’ propensity for early rising, but, you know, that’s usually how things turn out. Seize the day, etc. etc. Feels good, man, this sensible living, although I am informed that today’s sightseeing will be highly alcohol-fueled and that we will be meeting in the hotel bar at 10AM for a pint. We are in the center of town, where it is quite ritzy, all high-end coffee and sushi, so, pretty much the same as any big city. I was asked for directions twice ( I do, in fact, look like these people, except for the very pale eyes many of them have ), and I could only shrug, which I hate, but I know exactly 5 words in Russian – yes, no, hello, goodbye, and thank you. It’s all bustle, as it is in any very expensive place, and the stereotype of the heavy-set Russian lady is very much not in evidence : high heels all around, short, tight skirts. It’s very summertime-pretty here, and there’s an air similar to European cities I’ve been to – Munich, say. Moscow, so far, does not feel innately foreign to me.
Summertime, and things get heavy. Last night she was on the porch, and her old man ( I mean old – I guess they live on his disability check, because they don’t work, they never sleep, they never leave, and they never go inside the damn house — they just sit there on the porch all day, watching ) was smacking her. He’d been yelling all day, but now he was hitting her – not that the intensity matters one bit, it’s the act itself, but he was smacking her the way some people would swat a little kid who won’t follow instructions. Him red in the face, her cringing but not backing away. No, I didn’t do anything. She hates me, and has ever since I had to kick her out of the bar for stealing tips. I’m pretty sure she’s the one who kicked that dent in my car, too. Fuck it. Later, gunshots, down by the river. I heard someone say, ” should we call 911? “, and, although I wasn’t looking, I could sense a collective shrug.
Motörhead : Leaving Here
But, goodbye to all that. This morning I’m flying to Russia, the last place I thought I’d go next, somewhere I haven’t been since I was 5 years old. I’m going to tag along with a band on tour for a little bit, and then I’m going some other places. Photos and thoughts if and when I have the time and the internet.