Monthly Archives: December 2013

an interlude… because I can’t post images or videos

Hi all,

I’m a bit frustrated this morning siting in my studio here in India, because my internet connection is horrible: government controlled bandwidth; end of the year hoarding for institutions; lawless construction out on the street (subject of future posts). Who knows! Crap-o-la. Yawn. Pain. I can’t post.

I have plenty to post but can’t seem to get a long enough connection. So, I’ve decided to go out of temporal sequence and write about yesterday. This may be a slight rant and sorry for no images etc … But I’ve been here for 19 days and I haven’t even described my first day in full!

That’s right: I’ve been trying to upload a video of my first day in Delhi for a few days now. Ha!

Here we go. A short summary.

I’m in India on an artist residency and I am working on a new body of work. My main artist trope is the breaking of stone – I deal with this physically with the actual material and conceptually with drawing, writing, performance and video – and I am in India to work with Indian Granite. One goal: to work with blocks of granite in the order of 50 tons.

So that’s one way to put it. Here’s another: I am interested in meta-questions about not just art, specifically, but also knowledge acquisition, or epistemology, more generally. I’ve distilled this down to a framework to understand any thought or creative act, which is the intertwining of agency, contingency and strategy. I’ve written about this before and not going to hash it all out at the moment.

How does one go about making art? There is no set way, but one big danger is to follow. Follow trends, follow markets, follow other’s words and ideas – you can define “to follow” many ways. Another big danger is to be arrogant. Again, you can define arrogance many different ways and there are different words that may, in fact, be more helpful and descriptive: egotistical, conceited, self-obsessed, narcissistic, tyrannical, fanatical, fundamentalist. I know many may see these as the necessary ingredients to make it in the art-world. Different issue, for a different entry.

Anyway, there is a tension, and you could see it as one between listening and doing. When do you listen and when do you do?

What I would have said with conviction even just a year ago is that every artist has to strike a balance between these two things and the success of the art work is a judgment (or acceptance) of how this balance was reached. Today? I don’t know if that is true or even how helpful it is, but I am thinking about it, nonetheless.

Last night I read an old interview of Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith. And Roberta said: “I think each of us has a real capacity for originality, but originality is very, very hard to get to. It takes real work. I think people don’t quite realize how much work it takes to be a good artist—the drive and determination and self-criticism. You have to be harder on your work than anybody.”

That resonates with me, and particularly poignant given the day I had yesterday (or maybe it really is the last 19 days I’ve had). I find it hard to write that that sentiment resonates because it is so self-affirming and aggrandizing – but I did it anyway. So, there. Here’s a confession: That framework and artistic trope I wrote about above – I’m willing to change it all. The meta-concepts I’m more sure about, but I’ve been struggling with all this for … I don’t know … seven years as I’ve continued to make and do. “Is this what I am about? Should I continue with this stone idea? with performance? with art!?!” … and NOT “What’s next? what’s the next big thing!” … it’s “What was I doing then and What should I do, now?” Here. Listen: this is scary.

Getting lost in a strange city – not so scary. (Happened my first night in Varanasi. A 20-minute cycle rickshaw ride turned into an hour and a half through the countryside … at night. Post to come)

Starring down a maurading band of 40 menacing monkey – unsettling, not so, so scary … much. (happened yesterday morning).

Another preliminary question: Why artist residencies? well … many answers and most of which will be more eloquent than what follows, but it’s early and it’s what I got at the moment before I launch into yesterday. A general way to answer this question always seems to revolve around giving someone concentrated time and space to engage with their ideas. This is important. There is another family of ideas that involves gaining new experiences and seeing more of the world and getting out of one’s perspective, building empathy, understanding other cultures or similar forces, explaining what you don’t know and learning more about things you know nothing about and creating change blah blah (see. I told you. that’s it … more and better later, but important given why I am here and processing ­– if that is even the right word – yesterday).

So, yesterday was taxing in a slow, death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts sort of way. In bullet points, really quick:

• woke up early, before everyone else, per usual – walked outside and there was a troop of monkeys on the roof and in the trees, all around. I was warned about this. I walk toward another building and grabbed a stick that was positioned for these occasions. I turn and walk back past my room toward the kitchen. They see me. I wave the stick, pound my feet, give a little grunt. Totally, not good enough. Too passive. A female turns and locks eyes, menacing. I think: “Ok. This is not the zoo.” I keep my eyes where they are and glide back towards my door. She darts forward along the roof edge so she is closer to my door, jumping distance to me. Two other monkeys join her. We are four primates staring at one another. We make our individual guttural noises. Our boundaries are gray. My side outnumbered. Stick in one hand, I slowly unlatch the door with the other and enter and push the door closed and latch it. The kitchen is out of reach for the moment. The three let out howls, screaks and gesticulations as I stare at them through the window. Dozens jump through the trees. Remember my previous post? Well, Round One was a Draw. Round Two: goes to the Monkeys.

• Every Residency has it’s own rhythm, but whenever artists come and go the rhythm inevitably changes and that has a psychological toll. After the Monkey stare-down, I go to the kitchen, make my breakfast and bring it to my room so I can write on my CPU. I go back to the kitchen after everyone is awake and populating the kitchen. Everyone is there. British Artist, Gabby, was leaving in the afternoon. Australian Photographer and Painter, Terry, is leaving in a few days for his opening in Delhi; he’ll be back in two weeks. Amber and Kyle, a dance team from Australia, are sipping tea; can’t wait to see their finished work at the end of January, and they leave in a week for a short trip to trek in Nepal. (Each deserves to be showcased in separate posts). Olga, one the directors of the residency, and her family who are visiting from Austria are enjoying their breakfast.  Navneet, another director and whose family owns the property of the residency, is standing by the kitchen entrance. All good people. All pleasant interactions. It’s that nebulous good-bye, mingling time. I had plans to jet into Varanasi and sit at a café with my CPU early in the morning and do some digital dancing through the internet, because I couldn’t get a good connection at the residency. I changed my mind and lounged in the kitchen to catch up and chat with everyone and say good-bye. I even try a few phrases in German, which I found fun and the visiting Austrian’s found amusing and were patient.

• The Kitchen door bursts open. An Indian man with a distressed expression, whom I’ve never met but everyone clearly recognized, speaks in short, rapid fire Hindi right to Navneet, who rushes out of the kitchen. Everyone follows. I lag behind. There was an accident on the road (more about this road later). A couple of injuries to people everyone knows well. Not gonna dwell. It is out of my hands. What I found out in the evening, however, was that one of the difficulties was that … and get this … ALL THE DOCTORS IN VARANASI ARE ON STRIKE …what! So, Navneet, who is well connected, got the injured the care they needed.

• There was nothing for me to do. I said my good-byes and went out to the street to hail a rickshaw, which always requires negotiating a price. And, I just didn’t have the energy to haggle. I hoped I found someone right away who just gave me a fair price and I’d be done with it (will discuss haggling in another post).

• I have been to many residencies and with this kind of transition as artists come and go comes an emotional and psychological shift and re-acclimation. I sit in the rickshaw, put on my dust mask, reposition my sunglasses, hat and scarf and hang onto my laptop. The rickshaw bumps along and I have no problem blocking out all the honking because I am thinking about this transition …

• “What am I doing here?” That’s what this particular transition is getting me to think about. “Why are you here, Sam? Focus on your work, Sam. What is your work? Granite in America. Granite in India. Meta-questions. What’s important to you? Where are you going? Where is this world going?” I see a cow. I see a man urinating in the gutter. I see a disfigured person. I feel small and unimportant.

• I get to Assi Ghat, a central location and a hub of activity. I pay the driver, give him an extra 20 Rupees which means the world to him and 30 cents to me (another post coming, but this discrepancy is getting to me). I don’t have much time to get to the internet café before I am to meet a new friend at 11 am. So, I walk to the river Ganges, the hallmark of Varanasi and the most important site for the Hindu religion.

• I have never seen the river like this: it is stunning. I won’t be able to describe it to you in this short post. Really, beyond words. I had never seen the Ganga so clear. Its winter in Varanasi, which means cold, overcast days and fog, lots and lots of rarified fog that you often don’t realize you are in the middle of. This morning: no fog and I could see farther than I ever could see before! The other side of the river was so bright and the water was alive. The sun was out, the sky was clear. I sat at a bench I had never noticed before and I think I found what is going to be my favorite place to sit in Assi Ghat.  I sat and looked for about an hour. I breathed and breathed again. I tried to let the impermanence of the morning go and be comfortable with the doubts of my own life. The view was stunning and the river life moved about me, which requires more something to explain to you … I don’t know … it’s wild.

• I stand and walk to meet Elliot. I met him the day before. Get this: the day before, Sunday, I’m with Gabby walking down the river toward Assi Ghat and I notice she stops and another westerner stops and they have that surprised “I don’t believe it” look that people get when they see someone out of context. They know each from … get this … London. Ha. Disbelief all the way around. Elliot and I decide to meet the next day, the day in question, to explore a part of the Old City that is further north and less filled with tourists. We get a cycle rickshaw north. The driver goes maybe 100 yards and passes us off to another rickshaw. I assumed because of the weight, but found out because he was sick (or drunk or something. I don’t know). This is 11 am.

• The Old City – Now, I know why people suggest not to eat meat in India. Butchery taking place. Flies. Oh, there you can buy a kite with Spiderman on it! And, fabric; and Krisha; and, a large Shrine; and, a small shrine. There’s a cow. “Come. Come here, Sir. Buy some Sweets, Sir.” Innards. Flies. Poop. Oh, now I have good luck. A puppy licking spilled cornmeal. A goat wearing a sweater.

• We get out of there and wind our way to the river and find ourselves at the Burning Ghat. What’s that you ask? It’s where they cremate people and push the ashes into the river, one of the holiest rituals for the Hindu Religion. They build sizable bonfires to burn a body and start the fire using an ember from a fire that was supposedly ignited by Shiva, himself, over 3000 years ago. There are about 15 fires going and at the Ghat they  burn about 200 bodies a day. I’ve been here a number of times, and today I realized that continued exposure to this doesn’t bring familiarity, but rather further intensity.

• Elliot and I sit on the steps, watch the fire, breath the smoke. There is a cow that is launching a sonorous bellowing every 30 seconds or so. Think: the T-rex from Jurassic Park. Just like the movie, this cow lowers her head and moves it back and forth as she let’s out this bellicose roar. Phlegm shoots out of her mouth and snot drips from her nose. Her bellowing is rhythmic and continuous for the full 10 minutes we sat.

• A boy (10-13 years, could be 15) walks up to us, arms akimbo, places one foot on a higher step, leans forward onto his bent knee. Supremely cocky and in our face, too close, asks, “Where you from?” as saliva drips from his mouth, which is filled with Paan, an indian leaf that the men chew that is some kind of psychoactive stimulant and that generates massive saliva that they keep in their mouths for as long as they can and even try to talk this way. The boy mimics the men we’ve all seen. This drug is where he is getting his cockiness. I stare at him and don’t answer. This happens all the time; however, this boy is a bit more than I’ve experienced (more of what you ask. This is a subject of another post). This boy stands, just looking at us, too close.

• Another boy approaches with a pole over his shoulder. On the back end hangs a cage packed with about 10 live finch-like birds; on the front end is another cage that contains an owl the size of a wishnik, cute but the cage distresses. He wants to sell us the owl; rather, he wants money and then he will set the owl free. “It will bring you good Karma,” he says. Elliot and I are being blackmailed. Saliva-boy says something, spittle drips, and we ignore. We are four primates with boundaries overlapping.

• The cow roars and is now only feet away. A dog curls up against my back and falls asleep. There is a small falcon that doesn’t move, perched on the cage with the owl in it. I was still processing the owl-blackmail gambit, and I decided to look closer at the falcon. Its eye lids are sewn shut.

• I am angry. I take off my sunglasses and give a look to Bird-Boy that made him flinch. I growl: “Nahīṁ” (No – in Hindi) and then in English “Leave. Take this and get out of here.” “ Leave now.” I then turn to Saliva-Boy and stare. They get it and go their separate ways. Smoke billows. The cow roars.

OK … that’s enough. There’s more. I could go on. Elliot and I had lunch and saw more and more typical Varanasi … I go to the internet café and have zero success at connection. I met an American anthropologist from Wisconsin who knows all about cows: we talk about the water buffalo (one of the subjects I’d like to do a simple google search about, but can’t. Once again, another post on the way.) and we discuss how humans are now a geologic force upon the planet (multiple posts coming on this one). I go back to Assi Ghat and sit in a different place, a more public place, than in the morning. The sun goes down and I have a real conversation with a boy selling these candle/flower bundles that people buy for 5 rupees and light and float in the Ganga as a communication with the dead. I will revisit these children around Assi Ghat, again, in another post.

I get back to the residency. I am beat … No internet connection. I feel removed from everything. The best I can do is post on Facebook:

so frustrated *&^%@! … internet sucks in India … Have videos, pics, essays … can’t post anything! I can barely send an email!

I am heartened by the number of likes that build as I diddle my keyboard and then by the comments that tally up. My spirit is buoyed, which is what I needed after a day like today. These “likes” and comments are a small thing, but I feel grounded. I commented on the FB thread I started:

Thank for the keystrokes everyone … here’s directly from the holster: gonna try to post just a short essay this morning (just woke up: 6 am in V-town, that’s V for vanarasi to help dull your square edges) … yesterday was particularly … don’t know …”weary” seems better than “intense,” which is overused. There is just … everything is just front and center here … hmm … doesn’t quite capture it either… felt sort of unmoored, yesterday … disconnected … would like to comment on everyone’s comment, but a ‘good to hear from you’ is going to have to suffice till later. I will say to Robert Mulryan you don’t want to eat the meat here (might be subject of a future post, if it is not too gruesome) … our cook at the residency, however, is pure curry awesomeness – all vegetarian. Although, I am craving some fresh leafy greens. the dali and thali around town is also amazeball-er-ishous, if you know where to go: learning … good to connect.

That’s it. once again, this is longer than I planned and I left out a great many details. Oh, well …. I am now going to try a different internet connection before it closes…. I hope I can post … then, if you can believe it, I’m racing down to the Ghats for more…

5 Comments

Filed under Interlude, Story

Finding Hotel Broadway

Samuel Nigro, India

Hotel Broadway; Delhi, India

In my previous post I described my first morning in Delhi as I walked around looking for “Hotel Broadway.” I only got through the first hour of the day’s journey. I continue:

I am in the heart of Old Delhi at the  western side of Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, and I stumbled upon a bunch of scavenging birds that scatter as I inadvertently startled them and almost get a mouth full of vulture feathers.

The Mosque is huge and I am starring at the western face of a structure that, I guess, has a clean rectangular footprint. Neither my guidebook map nor my concierge map shows this rectangular footprint, and each map has a different configuration of streets surrounding the mosque. Ha. I am not worried because I am at a major landmark, and I’m reading the landscape as I see it, the best I can. I decide to turn right and head towards where my guidebook says Hotel Broadway is – just for a look, just for giggles, because I am betting that there is no way the hotel is around here.

This road is much wider and the buildings are set off from the road, giving the mosque its much-needed breathing space. Along this stretch each building is a storefront with, what must be, an automotive shop in every one of them. There are piles of car parts everywhere: bummers, wheels, mufflers, and stuff I don’t know what they are called but that I know fits into a car somewhere. There is a patina of grease and a few engine blocks scattered about. That’s to the right, on the outside edge of the road. To my left, closer to the mosque are parked cars, abandon cars and rickshaws of all kinds in random, dusty order.

I don’t want to give the impression that it is somehow easier to negotiate the street because it is wider, because it is not. Cows, dogs, people milling about and two-way traffic and honk, honk, honking.

“Don’t worry, Sam. You will eventually find the rhythm of India.”

I walk to the corner of this road that goes all the way around the Mosque and I can only turn left. I follow the southern edge. Still no public entrance that I can tell, and I come upon a road I’d been looking for that is perpendicular and where the guidebook says the hotel is. I first have to enter a maelstrom:

“Hello, Sir” “Where do you go, Sir” “Rickshaw, Sir?” “Where you from? I show you around, Sir!” “Hello? HELLO, SIR” “Come. Come HERE, SIR” – I am in a field of empty bicycle rickshaws and they all want my attention and I am amazed that traffic can pass because there are so many of them. At least I know that other westerners come through here (I, in fact, see a few), because these rickshaw drivers are waiting for us! I am surrounded, but keep moving. They are up close to me. Traffic tight. People bunched. This is when I decide to access my New York attitude: “No” “No” and “NO!” It doesn’t work. “Rickshaw. Yes, come.” “Yes. I take you” I feel a tug at my shirt: “where you from?” And, that crossed the line. I swat his hand away – “back OFF!” It worked, but it was too much. Said in fear and too loud that belied a lack of confidence. I’m new here and everything about me screams it. I move away toward this perpendicular road, and … it’s not really a road. It is an alley. Narrower than anything I’ve been on thus far. I don’t hesitate. I go in. The “Where do you go, SIR!” “Sir. Sir?” “Richshaw!?@?!” “SIR!?!” all fade.

I noted that my guidebook map says Hotel Broadway should be on my left a few steps in, or is it further down on the corner of the next off shoot? I couldn’t really tell. The map is not very detailed and I just assumed that a major hotel would make itself present. I’m not fazed: there is, as I expected, no hotel. But, where am I?

I walk further down this alley, which is filled with shops and what looks like doors to residences and, of course, traffic. There are no cars, but plenty of bicycles, rickshaws, motorcycles and people, people, people. The commerce spills out into the alley, taking up precious space that the moving traffic – two-way traffic! – would use if given the chance. Everything here seems more, kinda, legitimate(?) than the other streets I was on earlier. There are Knick-Knacky things and food being cooked and fabrics and stuff. People buy things with Rupees. I could also buy things here, and they wanted me too! “Come in, Sir.” “Yes. Please. Good price” “Yes. What do you want?” “Come.” I’d, however, pay a lot for it. More noticeably there are people, Indians, who look like they are going some place, like they have a destination. Regardless, I need to regroup and there is no private space, no free space, to stand and think and look at my maps, which for some reason I still believe can be useful. Honk! Honk! a motorcycle putts along at 2 mph threading a trail through the people, brushing up against women in sarees, school children with school books and a cow. I spot a door that is ajar. I move to enter: I don’t care if it is someone’s living room. I enter and it is. Or, rather I guess it is. I look at the two inhabitants sitting on the floor; they look at me. The gaze is longer than – what!? – my culture, their culture, would allow? I don’t know. I don’t move; they don’t move. We look. I give a smile and a chuckle and a half-hearted wave. I step out: forget the maps.

There is one more thing to try. I head down the alley. “Where is that other turn off?” I think. The alley slopes down, gets narrower and I think: “Naw … this is taking me into a new geographic zone, a different urban niche.” My guess, which turned out to be right, was that I was heading into an older part of the city with tight, windy alleys filled with shops and markets. I had a choice: do I abandon my original plan of finding “Hotel Broadway” and start exploring this part of the city? Or, do I solve this puzzle?

I solve the puzzle. Here is one key to exploring and to not getting lost: always have a place in your mind that if you went back to you know exactly where you are. That way if you find yourself confused as to where you are, you go back to that place and start again. I was doing this my whole way to Jama Masjid. I was making mental notes of landmarks and distances, looking behind me and seeing where I had just been, building a mental map so I didn’t need the physical map to get back to my hotel. Many people make the mistake of pushing forward when they are confused and then get hopelessly lost. Some get lost in the wilderness, walk around in circles (it really happens!) and die that way.

I turn around and start to backtrack. I plan to go back to my hotel and ask my concierge what “straight” means (see previous post). I go up the alley, pass the rickshaw gauntlet (hello, Sir. HELLO, SIR! Where you from?), go around the Mosque, pass the auto repair shops, see some loose feathers and turn down the road that lead me here. I walk for a minute or two and I catch darting movement from above. Monkeys. I had forgotten that monkeys roam the streets of India as well. These are my first, and they get on some electrical lines overhead. I instinctively move out from underneath them and closer to the center of the street (there is not so much traffic at the moment). They follow along with me for a bit and then race in front. Two Monkeys – and they perch on some wires directly over the center of the street where I need to pass under them. They stop and look at me. I walk as if I belong and give them no attention (read: no eye contact), because to do so would give then more importance than they are warranted and perhaps trigger an interaction. I pass without incident.

I walk through the second intersection I described, pass the metro station, get to that first crazy intersection, and – no  – I didn’t imagine it: the place is just madness. I get to the bridge. I step over the wooden leg, cross and find the shortcut through the alleyway. I get to my hotel and notice that the concierge watches me as I come down the alley and enter the front door up to the desk. We look at each other. Pause. I wait. He says with an Indian softness, “Hm… You walk fast.” I pause, again. I breathe. I keep my gaze and mirror his softness, “Delhi is some city” He looks down at his papers and his desk and gives a little Indian Bobble Head movement. It is 10 am, 2 hours from the time he gave me the concierge map.

I say, “I couldn’t find Hotel Broadway. What do you mean by straight? Can you show me exactly where it is on your map?” He does. We talk. We are mellow. I get explicit instructions and he adds some Delhi lore and helpful hints. I walk out …

I did find the Hotel. It is on a major road – not the one I’d chosen earlier – and it has funky décor and the menu looks good, but I never made it back because …

I was taken for a ride … the subject of my next post.

3 Comments

Filed under Story

My first day in Delhi

Samuel Nigro, India

I’ve been in India for a week and don’t really feel able to explain my experiences, but I have to begin somewhere. Let’s go back to my arrival in Delhi one week ago:

I had 3 nights in Delhi. The plan was to overcome jetlag and to see as many sites as possible. I wanted to get a sense of India, a flavor of Delhi and ease myself into this new time zone and tropical climate before I flew to Varanasi the following Monday for my artist residency and face the work I am meant to do in India. I was just going to follow my guidebook and check off the major sites. I wanted to be the consummate tourist for a change but I couldn’t keep my explorer’s instinct suppressed, which often takes me off the well-worn path and out of the comfort zone. I didn’t need much to activate this instinct – I just needed to exit the plane.

My hotel was clean and comfortable with fancy electronics that allowed me to turn on and off the lights and tv and open the shades from bed. I keep the shades closed because the view was of dilapidation and flashing neon signs, and, besides, the buildings across the street were so close the inhabitants could see my whole room. The shower had a huge glass window that opened up to the bedroom – funny! – and an electronic shade if you wanted privacy, or not – funnier!! – You could watch tv while you showered, but couldn’t hear anything – comedy!!! During the day, there was constant horn blowing from outside, which ended around midnight and kicked back up around 6am. Before I left, everyone drilled into me that you cannot and must not drink the water from the tap. So, I invested in a water filtration system so that I didn’t have to struggle to find water while in India, which I am glad I did, because those first few hours on Friday it was difficult to figure out anything much less where to buy bottled water. In retrospect, I could have easily bought it from the hotel, but I was grateful for the self-sufficiency my filtration system provided.

My room included breakfast, India style, and – even though I never tried a “Live Omelette” that they offered (see pic above) – I really enjoyed the buffet of hot food and fruit juices. That first morning, I was heartened by two pots of boiling water for tea and drank plenty and copied the Indians: one sugar cube and a dash of milk. This staved off my brewing headache from withdrawal of American caffeine. However, I was grateful for being cut off because over this past year I was drinking way too much coffee to cope with the stresses of getting my life in order for this trip. Tea is my drink for now.

It seems like everybody on the streets in India has some game for a westerner, which was confirmed on Friday when I exited the New Delhi Airport and walked the main bazar in Paharganj. My hackles get raised even in the United States if someone is so persist to take me on a tour someplace or to sell me something; the “I’m your friend. Don’t worry. I show you around” is another story for another post.

During breakfast that first morning, I scanned my guidebook and made a plan to explore Old Delhi and the neighborhood around my hotel.

First, I would scout out another nearby hotel, Hotel Broadway, which was deeper in Old Delhi and then walk over to see the recommended sites. Hotel Broadway was described by my guidebook as having good food and a must see décor and some nightlife. Perhaps, it’d be a good place for dinner that night? I was advised that hotel food was safe, certainly safer than street food, and I thought I’d try dinner, at least once, somewhere other than my own hotel. Delhi has a good subway system and I’d eventually try it, but not right away. I had no idea of the market rate for a rickshaw and was not ready to negotiate a fair price; so, I decided to walk to the hotel. A mile and a half: I can do that while counting sheep!

I ask my concierge for directions and he gives me a map and a shortcut through a neighboring alley to the main road that leads to a bridge that spans the multiple tracks and warehouses of the New Delhi Railroad Station.

It is 8 am. The city is barely awake. This bridge is a major connection between Paharganj and Daryaganj, two Old Delhi neighborhoods.

The walk across the bridge was like nothing I’ve experienced. A narrow walkway, I quickly learn you walk to your left. The staring, the poverty, the bare feet, the dust …. and then the multiple layers of commerce! People live below the bridge, amongst the moving trains, and not just one or two: it is like a sub-city, a separate city below the one I was in. The bridge is sloped, rickshaws burdened with various materials can’t be pedaled up it and the drivers have to push, sometimes with the help of a companion. Bicycle rickshaws seem to be a main mode of moving material. Cars drive around them, honking. I, then, see paddies of material with hand marks in them spread along the walkway. This is drying dung; I guessed someone’s commodity. I see a series of bundles of freshly spun thread, each the size of an average sized Christmas Wreath, draped all along the handrail, hanging out to dry in the dusty cool winter air, another entrepreneur’s commerce. There must be 40 of these thread bundles spread all along the handrail. I step over a beggar with a wooden leg so I don’t have to step into oncoming traffic. I could write a book about my walk across this bridge, but I need to keep this post going.

Once over the bridge, the concierge told me to just “Go straight” and “Hotel Broadway will be on your left.” Seemed straight forward, right? Nope.

I crossed the bridge and confronted an intersection like none I have ever experienced before: There is no “straight.” First, every square meter is occupied or seems to have a dedicated use. The intersection is like an open space, like a turn about, and like Brownian motion, all at the same time. There seems to be different levels of commerce, circling the intersection, each with their own set of customers. The traffic: Oh, Most Holy of Chaos Theory – the traffic! It wasn’t moving fast but it was constant and varied. To cross the street you had to move with it, in between buses and tukktukkes, behind cycle rickshaws, in front of autos of every kind. Each type used it’s own ergonomics, all weaving together to my eyes in a non-linear patterns of a dynamical system … or just plain old chaos. The humans seemed to know what they were doing. There was no shouting, just honking, lots and lots of honking. I look at my guidebook map and compare it to the map my concierge gave me and they are NOT the same. I tell myself they are complimentary. Ha! I found out later that there really aren’t accurate street maps for Delhi (or for Varanasi for that matter! more on this point later!) I think: “You better move, Sam. This is not a place to stand still. Move. Learn quickly. Move … but at their pace.” More and more commerce, packed together, none of which I would use or even know how to purchase and, if I tried, they’d sell it to me at 10 times the price. I mean I wouldn’t even be able to communicate with them. Then, the food: food was being cooked everywhere: open fires, boiling pots, steam.

Anyway, I reformulated my plan and steeled my resolve to find this hotel. My guidebook indicated that Hotel Broadway was right next to Jama Masjid, a magnificent mosque and the largest in India. I decide to head toward this, and build my exploration from there. Things are so crowded in these intersections that I can’t really make out landmarks or inlets of roads until I am right on top of them. I pick my route, which is sort of “straight.” Oh yeah, did I mention: There are no street signs. And, I might as well tell you, now, my guidebook was mismarked.

I am through the intersection and have committed to this road to the Mosque. The road is well marked on both maps, but I can’t be sure that I am actually on the right one. I see no other westerner, and think this is the road less traveled and that in fact – even I! –appreciate that most would or probably should stay away from here. I move forward with the idea that most of what I am seeing is just common, everyday life for these people. It is just new for me. Although I generally feel a display of confidence is helpful both outwardly and inwardly, I dropped any vestige of the New York braggadocio of  “I’m here. This is my space. Back the f*ck off” That was not going to work here, and, besides drawing too much attention, it is a sign of fear. I cultivate a sense of observation with a touch of vigilance and attention with an emphasis on perception rather than judgment. “let’s see how long this attitude lasts,” I think. I am still ultra-conscious of trying to find the natural rhythm of the street, of the culture. I try to adjust to the city’s pace, I try to find the base level of energy and behavior.

“Uhg…” I stand out so much, I just don’t fit in, I am out of place and unprepared for this. Like I said earlier, I realize that much of what I am seeing is just routine life for everyone around me and if I stay long enough, I, too, will know what is just normal. I think, “yes, but what if someone decides to address my alien nature and they don’t like it, or some event happens that is actually shocking or surprising to the people around me!?” This is fear: I let it wash through me and realize focusing on abstract contingencies is not helpful. I make it through the intersection and I start down the road I think leads to the Jama Masjid. I am stunned by a cognitive shift:

“You do not fight this, Sam. You flow. You perceive. No judgments, because you don’t know what you are looking at. Your judgments are rooted in your own guilt and shame: let the fear come; let it pass. Deal with each moment as it comes. Any surprises will be met as it happens and let yourself know what to do. This is about acceptance.”

I walk and try to differentiate the sights, sounds and people. There are clearly distinct jobs and activities being performed. There is an informal corridor of stationary people and objects at a certain distance between the buildings and the traffic – kind of where the curb would be – it seems like people are in there living rooms, cooking-cleaning-washing-conversing, just living. Maybe some are selling food – this is their commercial business? – but I couldn’t be sure. There are punctuations in the rhythm of the street: a man brushed his teeth and spits into a water-filled gutter, and I step over; another man scrapes up garbage and puts it in a cart that’s scaled for a hobbit and overflowing with street scraps and hilarious because of its diminutive size is out of proportion to the amount of garbage all around (maybe he was cleaning the front of his house); and, there were meetings of acquaintances – the spoken language was beyond me, but the body language was familiar (smiles and open handed gestures are universal); and, then there was a circle of men watching two dogs battle – really battle, a no joke battle – these dogs were fierce, and one was clearly loosing (they were in the “red zone,” as the Dog Whisper says).

Then, Cow – moo; goat – bah; dog  – wait!? After less than 24 hours in Delhi, I’m already accustomed to emaciated, skeletal dogs, roaming in oblivion to their human neighbors. But, something is wrong: this one is running too fast, it is a disturbance against the baseline that even I, the newcomer, could see. The street is crowded: people, commerce, cars, bicycles, rickshaws, garbage, rubble, holes. The dog races towards me, but my unconscious, my amygdala, reads the situation before my conscious brain can adjust. The dog doesn’t see me. He has other worries. Then, the answer: a handful of children with sticks chasing, beating, the dog. My fight, flight or freeze response is not triggered; my adrenaline held in reserve. A child races from the other side of the street to out flank the dog. The dog dodges a bicycle ricksaw and zig-zags around a stick that was whipped by a seasoned thrower of 8 years old. The dog dashes in front of me, dodges another stick and spots the flanking maneuver of the child, makes an abrupt turn and speeds off down the road right past me in the direction I had just come. The children stop chase. I continue my gate of a westerner, as if undisturbed. This is not about me.

I walk on. I can’t imagine a Hotel of any kind would be around here. But, what do I know… I keep walking as if I belong, and I keep all maps and cameras hidden. I reach a subway station that marks my halfway point to the mosque. The building is drab, run down and dust-covered, like all the other buildings except for a Metro insignia you could barely make out from under the dust. I duck in to check my map, because there is an intersection ahead and if it is like the first one, I didn’t want to wander around hunting for the road I was going to take. The only people inside are armed police manning a metal detector. I ask them for directions, show them my map, make no pretense to speak Hindi; they make no attempt to speak English. No help, no communication: they point me back in the direction from where I came. I ignore them.

I pocket my guidebook, exit the Metro with purpose, enter the intersection and keep walking toward where I think my road is. It is hard to see where road and buildings meet. There is a turn-about in the center of this intersection that is clogged with bicycle rickshaws, some empty, some with a driver lounging on top. No one asks me if I want a ride and what this tells me is that I am not in an area where fares are picked up. There are zero westerners. The stares: I was told it was common for Indians to stare at westerners because we look so strange … or something…. Anyway, I know I am out of place, they know I am out of place. This is becoming a long post so I will revisit my ideas about exploration vs. getting lost, adventure vs. danger, mental map vs. true topology another time. However, I will summarize the importance of these distinctions by saying this is the most extreme and foreign place I have ever been. I’m not afraid, per se, it is just that I am out of my element and I feel inadequately prepared. I pick my direction and walk, adjusting my posture and pace, trying to find the new currents around me. I breathe. I smell decay. I breathe and smell the beauty of spice and fragrance. I sigh and taste an air that says, “You are not home.” I feel the ambiguity of a major threshold and move forward.

Through the intersection: the next street is narrower than before; it’s crowded with traffic. I walk. Everyone ignores me and I fall in line with the pedestrians and follow their lead around broken steps, open fires, makeshift platforms, sleeping dogs, a cripple. The buildings are high; above are a jumble of crisscrossing electrical wires of all sizes that acts as a sunshade. I flow with the traffic. The pedestrians walk in single file. I follow. I see a spire of the mosque. I block out the phrase “heading in the right direction” because this will only set up an expectation to be knocked down. Ahh … there is the mosque straight ahead. I see it and it is huge. It is like a fortress.

There is a modern day fence surrounding the mosque. I am clearly at the back where there is no public entrance. From my map I see there is a road that circumnavigates the whole building. “Hotel Broadway” should be to the right. I turn and I come upon a mound of birds in a swarm of excitement. What I have not mentioned yet is that I frequently notice birds of prey and scavengers circling over Delhi, and I sometimes see them swooping through markets or perched upon a crumbling building. My first few hours in Delhi I noted that these bird are much too close, much closer than I am used to. So, I turn the corner and there is this mound of birds, big birds – scavengers, birds of prey – and tiny birds trying to penetrate the melee. The feather ball rises and the object of the ruckus falls. It is a string of meat about the volume of three loaves of bread attached end to end by thin threads – nothing recognizable. I am at the edge of the competition and my amygdala immediately turns me away. The feather ball drops again and suddenly dissipates in a frenzy. A vulture bates and takes off right over me. I feel the turbulence of launch and flinch.

Ok: that’s enough for now… Stay tuned for:

Finding Hotel Broadway

or

Being taken for a ride

11 Comments

Filed under Story

To India

India Visa

Finally putting this 10-year visa to some use!

4:00 am, Dec 12th, 2013 – last Thursday – after a sleepless night of packing and finishing up administrative details, I jumped in a car for JFK to catch a flight to India. 24 hours later, I arrived at my hotel in the Paharganj neighborhood of Delhi.

Delhi was a big shock. As I was driven into the city center from the airport,  I thought that I was unprepared for this: the dirt and grim, the noise and overcrowding, the scores of people and animals living on the street – unparalleled to anything I’ve seen before; and, I felt vulnerable, destined to be a permanent outsider. However, I knew there was some stability I could fall back on – like hotel reservations (I hoped) and gas-combustion engines, which operate by the same rules of physics everywhere; the earth still revolved around the sun, people walked upright (mostly – physical ailments, everywhere) and liquids were liquids and solids, solids, I just had to watch what I consumed of each. I flew into Varanasi 3 days later, which was yesterday morning, and had another eye opening experience as I was driven past hovels and squalor and dilapidation for two and a half hours. I have not explored Varanasi yet, but if it is anything like yesterday’s drive in from the airport, Varanasi is 500 times more … I don’t know if “intense” and “extreme” are the right words … Varanasi is 500 times MORE than Delhi … I’m still kind of speechless. There is an order and structure to India; I just don’t know what it is, yet. I’m glad I spent three days in Delhi first, because that eased the culture shock.

This morning – just to explore my surroundings – I walk out of the residency on to the road that is as wide as a Western two-lane street, but functions as one of Varanasi’s main four-lane arteries. It is a dirt road with no marked lanes and plenty of potholes and piles of rubbish everywhere, and harbors a constant flow of bicycles, trucks, trollies, carts and cars, all honking and weaving to get the best position and to avoid the pedestrians and wandering animals. There seemed to be no boundary between the traffic and the camps, sleeping dogs and commerce (like bamboo presses, coconut salesmen, and gravel depositories) that packed the sides.

To negotiate all this, I followed a herd of cows, because it was the traffic that flowed around the cows, not the other way around. It was a short walk.

This India project was conceived of over a year ago after a friend introduced me to a sculptor from Calcutta, and it has finally begun. I am scheduled to be at this residency in Varanasi for about three months, and I have a flexible itinerary to continue to travel south in search of granite quarries to make new sculpture, to travel north to see the Himalayas and to travel east to visit my friend in Calcutta. And, I bet I’ll find a reason to travel west. I am grateful to have a home base and a community of people who can guide me while in Varanasi.

Among my goals are to work with Indian Granite and to create a new body of work using all the skills, methods and media I’ve accumulated over the last twenty years as an artist.

I created this blog to find more things to be curious about and
I’m sure I’ll find a few things while in India and
I’ll definitely let you know….

Stay tuned.

16 Comments

Filed under Story