Tag Archives: Varanasi

Three Stones from Three Cities – part 2

In part 1 of Three Stones from Three Cities, I discover a series of mysterious broken stones
in Mauerpark, Berlin, Germany, as my friend, Helena, and I walk around one Sunday afternoon,
looking for a place to stand
to watch Karaoke in the
ultra-crowded
amphitheater.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, Sculpture

The next afternoon I was compelled to go back to Mauerpark with my camera because of the mystery of these puzzling breaks, the Unexpected Field of Trauma as I call it.  The Karaoke singers and gawkers are gone. The park, once a strip of No-Man’s Land when the Berlin Wall was functional, is nearly empty. I walk the full length of the dead-straight road, which is about the length of two American Football fields and runs the full length of the park, parallel to where the outer and inner walls of the Berlin Wall used to run. The eastern facing, or outer wall is to my right as I walk North up the road, and a section of this wall is still standing.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, Sculpture

After my inspection along the whole road, I see that the only area of trauma, these strange fractures in the cobblestones that I described in the previous post, is where I initially saw them – by the Karaoke amphitheater.

“Hmm … interesting.”

I kneel down to look closer: yes, the breaks are mostly on top, fractures on the surface and some of the stones are worse than others and the breaks sort of go around the stone, and then there is the softening of the sharp edges, similar to how the sharp edges of ice, as with an ice cube, soften as it melts.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureThree_Stones_2nd_Frame_02Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, Sculpture

The pattern of breaking has no radiation out from a center, as what would occur with an explosion or a downward blow of a hammer. Nor are they directional, like let’s say if a force ran over the top of the stones in one direction, breaking the top layers, like I fantasize would happen with a tank tread or some piece of machinery capable of directing a powerful, continuous force. And, significantly, the stones aren’t disturbed within their housing. However these breaks happened, they didn’t happen in a way that disturbed the position of the stone. My guess is that this happened a while ago, i.e … at least not last week … debris has filled the cracks. But, how? Still not convinced it is the natural cycle of freeze and thaw, I snap a few quick photos. It begins to rain. I run for cover and then leave the park. I take shelter at Friendly Society, a Boutique–Coffee–Bar–Gallery, that is a few blocks away. I talked with Gregor, one of the co-founders, as I sit out the downpour. (If you’re by Mauerpark, take a special detour to have some great coffee and to see their line of clothes you won’t find anywhere else!)

I go home and I forget about the Unexpected Field of Trauma at Mauerpark. I have other pressing issues. Two days later, I am looking through the 5000 plus images I took while in India, because the real reason I have cloistered myself in a Berlin sublet for the summer is to come down from these India Travels, clarify my own questions and develop what next for Cairns – Shards – Pieces.

A significant aspect of India – and it is rather extreme in Varanasi – is that everywhere you go, to one degree or another, people are living or lounging outdoors, essentially camping, and that includes all the concomitant activities such as building fires of all sizes and for various reasons. It is like there is a fluid, but perpetual, state of camping all around you. With few exceptions, even I could have built a fire just about anywhere and just hung out, with impunity. In one of my images of the ghats, I notice someone had built a campfire right next to the ghat steps and, to my surprise, the stone was fractured to the point of not really being a functional step anymore: the heat had burst and broken the stone,
making them … not steps … rather a slope … and … Wow … That’s it …

“How, Now, Watson: make the connection…”

Yes. Fire breaks stone in this way …

“…Excellent!”

… I know, because I’ve done it with an acetylene torch early in my art career; I also have made plenty of campfires that have heated stones and fractured them. Yes, that’s it: a campfire! People built campfires along that cobblestone road in Mauerpark. Fire is the answer. Fire breaks stone, and that’s what caused the Unexpected Field of Trauma. Has to be! It’s my inference to the best explanation, at any rate; and seems to conform to Ockham’s razor.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, Sculpture Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, Sculpture

The wall comes down. No-man’s Land is no longer No-man’s Land. People reclaim the space and turn it into a gathering place. The park is built, the amphitheater is built, the cobblestone road is built and the strip of land is reinforced as a natural gathering point. People hang out here, late into the night; at this time, Berlin must not have subtle, oppressive cultural powers executing rules of arbitrary propriety and people make campfires for their fellowship around the amphitheater and on the cobblestones. That has to be it. I’m sure of it. I go back that afternoon to confirm, but will spare you the analysis.

So, this Unexpected Field of Trauma was created by campfires build on top of the stone road. Although all three are important, neither material nor history nor action links the Unexpected Field of Trauma at Mauer Park to my cobblestone in New York City; but rather, it is a question: how did it get that way? And, that is the connection.

The real reason why I write this post is that there is another undercurrent to this inquiry. That is I had another notable, albeit at present unexplainable, experience with another stone while in India. It is an approximately 6 x 2 foot paving stone at one of the Ghats that I discovered during my first walk, ever, along the ghats, during my first day, ever, in Varanasi.  It, like all the stones that comprise the ghats, is subject to the yearly rise and fall of the Ganga where it is covered by Himalayan sediment and then, when the river recedes, the people clean it off by spraying river water at it. For some reason this stone got singled out and I haven’t been able to write about it, I haven’t been able to process it, I haven’t been able to make sense of it – I still can’t – I don’t know what questions to ask! India was too overwhelming, and there are too many factors beyond my own empirical and anecdotal evidence collecting that makes me truly uncomfortable because I just don’t know enough about them. Some of these factors revolve around the socio-economic forces at play in India as well as the country’s conquered and colonialist history. All of this has inhibited any rapid-fire posting (of the sort social media is biased for) during my travels and is partially what I am referring to when I say that I don’t know what I am looking at.

I won’t try to explain the Indian paving stone; except to say that this discovery is a cross between the punctuation I experienced with the New York cobblestone and the puzzlement of the Unexpected Field of Trauma at Mauerpark, times the first 7 primes in the base 12 number system and a Goat in a sweater (or something). That’s it. That is all I can say. It is at Rana Mahal Ghat, and here it is:

Samuel Nigro, India, Varnasi, Drawing, Sculpture Samuel Nigro, India, Varnasi, Drawing, Sculpture

I write this post to you today as a way to ease my way back into writing about and telling you about
my India experiences and the things that caught
my curiosity …

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Three Stones from Three Cities – part 1

I spy this fracture pattern in a cobblestone one Sunday afternoon, as I walk through Mauerpark
in Berlin, Germany, with a friend, Helena, who is visiting from The States.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing

Mauerpark is more than two American Football Fields long and almost the width of a Football field wide. It is oriented North-South and was once part of No-Man’s land between the inner and outer rings of the Berlin Wall. The Western edge of the park is where the Wall that greeted West Berliners stood and now a simple wire fence demarks the boundary between Mauerpark and the Flea Market, which is bustling every weekend. The Eastern edge of the park is up on a slope, where the outer ring of the Wall once stood and there is a section still standing as a reminder. At the base of this slope, there is a cobblestone road that runs straight through the full length of the park. Roughly at the midpoint of this road, in the center of the park, embedding in the hillside, is an amphitheater with a circular, stone stage and the cobblestone road is tangential to it.

This Sunday, Helena and I are standing on the Cobblestone road at the circular stage of this outdoor arena, which is packed with people waiting for outdoor karaoke to start.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing

We look up at the tiered seating on the hillside and decide to make our way up the slope to the top, find a place to stand and have a look down onto the stage. We are being jostled by the throngs of people, who are walking, standing about, exiting and entering the arena area, waiting for the singing to start or cruising and looking for some other excitement in the busy park, carrying bottles of Berliner Pils, bouncing basket balls, kicking soccer balls, pushing strollers, walking bikes. This is both a Berliner and Tourist hotspot – it’s the same deal every Sunday with the Flea Market packed and the promise of both awesomely embarrassingly hilarity and bust’n live beats of Top Forty swing-a-ding-ding from the Karaoke singers who do their best (or worst) in front of about 500 people: we are hoping to see people embarrass themselves with a Nicki Minaj or Miley Cyrus song or, perhaps, we’ll get some old-timer East Berliner giving his best Frank Sinatra imitation – in German! We move along this road out of the congested area, and I glance down to give the cobblestones a cursory look.

See: as a sculptor, I work with stone, I’ve done work with found cobblestones, and I had a notable experience with a New York City cobblestone that I relate in this blog, as it was a stone I had walked over for years, but for whatever reason I had never noticed it until that day and, given the different context, it triggered an avalanche of thinking about important historical moments in the field of Science and pointed towards a relevance of stone for our present day and reminded me why I work with this material, in the first place. Here is a picture of it:

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing

As I prepared for my trip to India to find Indian granite to work with, I made both mental and physical lists of the kinds of work, the kernels of ideas really, that I’d mull over while in India, and one of my ideas had to do with comparing, contrasting and relating this New York Cobblestone with other stones I find else where. I didn’t know how I’d execute this – I suspected through drawing – but it was part of the mental database I would bring with me to India … more about this in part 2.

As I glance down at the cobblestones along this pedestrian roadway in Mauerpark amidst the sea of people, I am conscious of the fact that I may be artificially trying to find significance in another urban stone by making some obtuse or forced connection, but then something irregular jumps out: a cobblestone that has a bizarre – decidedly ‘un-urban’ – fracture pattern. I can’t help it and I am hooked. Here’s an expanded image of that first stone I saw:

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing

This triggers three simultaneous, yet distinct mental activities, like the clap of thunder accompanied with a flash of lighting and then the smell of Ozone – I wonder; I scan; and a cascade of thought pours in. I see the initial stone:

1. I wonder: “What … is … this? This is unexpected.?!.?!.”

2. I scan and see another and then another and another with a similar odd breaking pattern: a small grouping here, a larger grouping there. These are common cobblestones, so the strangeness isn’t the material but the breaking. There are deeper fissures and lesser fissures; there are voids of missing stone; there are places of more and less stone damage, scattered in an indiscernible pattern around the area we walk. The damage is subtle, most would not even give it a second glance, but the pattern doesn’t fit. Something is off, as the lesser breaks stay shallow along the upper layers of the stone, not deep and penetrating like you would find if erosion and changes in temperature and weather were the cause.

3. The cascade of thought happens quicker than one can chug a full glass of water and include:

“But, not one cobblestone sticks out: this doesn’t fit … my symbolic expectation.”

“Ignore. That is not important … Breaking … Looking …”

“But, this is not an identification with an individual cobblestone
or a decisive event of recognition and insight. What is it you are looking at and why is it significant?”

“Wait: your expectations can blind you … hold on … Processing …”

“Ok. This is outside your mold; deal with it. Discard your present system of analysis and observe. Take in more than you usually do, more than you are comfortable with. Wake up. Pay attention!”

“This break in the stone is not normal, unexpected. Period. Looking …”

“A mystery … Cogitating … How did they get this way? Not by any means you’re familiar with.”

“Observing …”

“But no one else notices.”

“That’s right, no one else cares, but that doesn’t mean there is no mystery … and they are no concern of yours, anyway … Thinking …”

“Trauma here; Trauma there. Geez, about a dozen cobblestones in this one clump, pummeled, broken, abused. What force did this?”

“The cracks are too strange to be the consequence of the freeze and thaw cycle … You highly doubt it was the freeze and thaw cycle … You’d be surprise if it was the freeze thaw cycle – erosion, too slow … these leave distinctive breaks and you can see how it follows the weakness of the stone. There are patterns to … usually that follow a natural, weak contour of the stone and … Freeze-Thaw? Can’t be?”

“This is explosive. What?”

“Dubious. What? … Move … these are fast breaks. How fast? Simultaneous?”

“That’s important …”

“How long has this road been here? Long – the road has a wear and polished surface of vehicle use. But these could be recycled stones from another road.”

“What? What?”

“Possibilities … all and any …”

“First: historical context …

“A grenade during the battle of Berlin, a shock wave from an allied bomb, a tank tread from the time Mauerpark was part of No-man’s land?

“Road most likely not old enough … What does that even mean?

“Could this have been deliberate? A sledgehammer? A carpenter’s hammer? More than a boot strike. But in such random places? And the characteristic that is so strange is that these cracks don’t go deep into the stone, but in and then along the surface… then there is a strange mellowing of the newly exposed surface. What is that?”

“Large machinery parked here for a construction job close by, but unrelated to geopolitical conflicts?”

“For these things to be confirmed, you need to know the history of this park: was it always a park? Like before WWII? When did it become a park? Were there homes in the field to the west, and were they then destroyed by bombing or to clear the area between the outer and inner Berlin Wall? Was it always a field, a park? When, What, Why … This Road?

“A force from below: What is underneath us? Different forces? Different times? Tectonic – naw, no way, not even close. Breaks mostly on top …”

“What other force could have broken these stones?”

 “Create a mental map. Create a mental marker. Remember this: we are walking through an unexpected field of trauma. An individual cobblestone is not the issue. Something occurred to these stones, but What? I have never seen this kind of pattern before … and a municipal force could have fixed them … why not? … why?”

“How, now, Watson! The game is afoot!”

This transderivational search goes on for a bit longer. It was a quick glance and rapid-fire thought. We move and are jostled among all the people and are now walking up the slope. Helene has no idea what I am thinking as I didn’t break stride with her. We were talking about her painting and I decided not to overtake our conversation with my unformed thoughts; besides, we already have plenty to talk about. We move up the slope to the top of the arena.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing

I knew my initial thoughts were accurate only in the sense that there was a mystery. I didn’t really think those military reasons where possible, but, given the closeness of the history, it was easy to go there.

I remember reading somewhere: “Everything is the way it is because it got that way,” and those stones were not broken by magic.
I needed more information … or did I?

Then, I drop it. However …

Over the next 24 hours, I kept finding this mental marker for the Unexpected Field of Trauma
peering out from my much higher priority thoughts and daily tasks …
until the next afternoon, and I could not let this lie.
I go back to Mauerpark
with my camera.

To be continued … (part II here)

Three_Stones_First_003 Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, Sculpture Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, Sculpture

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Traveling North: a summary – part 1 of 2

My last post was a summary of the sculpture I made in South India; and, thus, finishing one of three important tasks for this India Trip.
It’s been awhile since I posted, mainly because I’ve had to devote time to my work and to plan what’s next.

South India was amazingly productive. When I made my first Cairn and I got back in the car with the quarry owner and his son to drive an hour and a half back to Bangalore, I breathed a sigh of relief because I had – in fact – just accomplished a major goal of why I came to India, to establish contacts with quarries in India and work with upwards to 50 tons of granite … and, let me be clear, I am grateful for the help:

Samuel Nigro, India, Bangalore

I stayed in Bangalore for a few more weeks, and I continued to talk with people, meet with people, visit quarries and I could have stayed longer, much longer, because there were many more quarries to visit, many more interesting people to spend time with. I had to make a difficult decision to move on to the east coast along the Bay of Bengal, south of Chennai, to find stone carvers and people who could help me create and execute some different ideas. It took some searching, but I found a master carver, whom I’ve dubbed MUR, who was open to my work and helped me create Project II and III from the previous post. The man below is Samura and he was the one who spoke the best English at MUR’s shop.

Samuel Nigro, India, Bangalore

It was Samura who was instrumental in explaining what I wanted to accomplish at MUR’s studio. In the middle of our introductory meeting as communication was not happening, Samura kneels down. MUR and I stay standing and watch: he grabs a random shard and quickly breaks it with a bigger, but equally random, shard; and then, he takes the broken one and stands. Speaking quick Tamil, he holds the two pieces and puts them together and takes them apart, puts them together and takes them apart; he does it to me to get affirmation; he does it again, a number of times, to both me and MUR. I nod and nod and nod. I say “yes, I break the stone … not cut with a saw.” MUR nods; he understands. Samura is about to throw the broken shard away. I extend my hand with a slowness that beckons him to stop, to stop and not throw the stone away. We catch eyes, and, mirroring my steadiness, he places the broken piece in my hand. I put it in my breast pocket and say: “This is shard #1.” MUR gives a deep, guttural, resounding Tamil “Yes” (I think it meant “yes”???) which sounded something like: “Hummhhahhhhm”

Samuel Nigro, India, Bangalore

Samuel Nigro, India, Bangalore, Sculpture

I left South India on March 17th, 2014 and traveled back to Varanasi. This was another difficult move because once I headed north to Varanasi, I knew wouldn’t have time to come back south and I would be foregoing a number of trips and activities, such as visiting a handful of sculptors in Orissa that I met and seeing many recommended sites, like Hampi; and, most importantly, going back to Varanasi meant I wouldn’t be going to Calcutta this trip to see Rathin, who is the reason I started this whole India trip in the first place. I had about 20 kgs stone sculpture I’d be lugging around with me, and couldn’t easily carry it with me for sightseeing and detouring to Calcutta. Also, there was so much stone at MUR’s place that he would let me work on; so, another difficulty was to leave it all untouched. I still could be working down there. Some day soon … I’m working towards it.

Yes, the move back to Varanasi was difficult, and not to visit Rathin, but I know that there will be another time. The itinerary was getting tighter, as I knew I had to finish up in Varanasi and then head north for the third leg of this trip and seeing the Himalayas.

I get back to Varanasi and it is much hotter. The weather, the atmosphere and the tone, tenor and efforts of the people had all changed. It was still cool in the evening, but like wearing a lead suit between 1 and 4 pm when outside because of the intensity of the sun. In February when I was planning my trip south to find Indian Granite, people told me to go to the south early because it was going to get hot in March and viciously hot in April. I was making plans to do just that when I found out about the Stone Fair and raced down. Bangalore has very pleasant climate, but the coast was another issue – it was hot all day and night and got progressively hotter as I was there – not so much like a sun-hot, but a “I’m hot, the sun is there, but the heat is coming from somewhere else and I have nowhere else to go” sort of hot, if that makes any sense (don’t know, that the best I got now, still processing all this. Oh, yeah: there were plenty of nighttime mosquitoes, too). So, although Varanasi was hot during the day, it was a different sort of heat and a relief from the south. I noticed another change between Varanasi in the winter, and Varanasi in March/April. In January and when the fog lifted, the days were clear, crisp and refreshing and I got clear, vibrant photos, and the Ganga had a smooth silkiness to it. In April, the pace of the city changed, and something happened to the light and air, and, thus, the City, the Ghats and the river were not so photogenic during the heat of the day. The river was much lower and oozed forward like a lumbering milk shake … or something … Amazingly, it wasn’t even summer heat, yet; and, I could understand why people told me that May, June, and July were unbearable in Varanasi.

Anyway, I got back to Varanasi and threw myself into my work and stayed at the residency mostly; I had plenty of work to do before I headed north. If you’ve been following my facebook posts, you may have seen my updates about waking up very early unplanned. Here’s one:

Samuel Nigro, India, Varanasi

Walking the ghats early this morning, a consequence of another unplanned 4 am wake-up, I saw a heart-warming scene, three kingfishers frolicking against a clear blue sky.

I got back to Varanasi and I just couldn’t sleep, consistently couldn’t sleep, like every morning, like I was on a different schedule, like my mind at 4 am said, “time to work, get up,” and like I wasn’t tired, but agog at what I was doing – if I got out of bed as late as 6 am it was only because I was laying there since about 4:30 am, and it wasn’t because of the heat either; mornings where quite pleasant and I had ac in the studio. Not going to dwell on this, because this post is just a quick summary to get caught up to where I actually am; but, I mention my early rising because I took to riding a bicycle to the ghats before the sun came up and walking around before it got too hot. The city was quiet and vibrant and pleasant and, besides, the sunrises were outstanding. Here’s a few morning shots of the Ghats:

Samuel Nigro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, VaranasiSamuel NIgro, India, Varanasi

I shared the residency with two new artist, David Bruce and Camila Santo, during this time; and, like the artists whom I met during my first two month in Varanasi and the list of themes I promised to address before, and for the sake of brevity, I have to wait to share our mutual experiences. I regret to have to do this, because these people are integral to my experiences here; but, time clicks on and the third leg of my trip is calling … and, again, this is a quick summary and I either spend one week writing about each day in India or I process most of this later. Besides, I don’t want to rush these ideas, because they deserve more time.

I’ll conclude with a pic of my daily companion outside my studio window:

I shared the residency with two new artist, David Bruce and Camila Santo, during this time; and, like the artists whom I met during my first two month in Varanasi and the list of themes I promised to address before, and for the sake of brevity, I have to wait to share our mutual experiences. I regret to have to do this, because these people are integral to my experiences here; but, time clicks on and the third leg of my trip is calling … and, again, this is a quick summary and I either spend one week writing about each day in India or I process most of this later. Besides, I don’t want to rush these ideas, because they deserve more time.   I’ll conclude with a pic of my daily companion outside my studio window.

and a gratuitous Monkey pic:

and a gratuitous Monkey pic:

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Monkeys on a Train … or … The Secret of High Energy – part I

Samuel Nigro, Varanasi, India

I found out about the Granite conference in Bangalore at 2 pm, Monday.

Thanks to Anil, a trusted tuktuk driver of Navneet and the residency, who makes himself available for people associated to Kriti Gallery, I was able to make it to the travel agent by 5 pm in Assi Ghat. This travel agent, another friend of the Gallery, somehow got me a ticket for a train to Bangalore leaving at 11:30 pm that night to get me there by Wednesday evening at 10 pm, so I’ll only miss the first day of the stone conference. Booking on the Indian Train System is notoriously difficult because of rules against overbooking, and late trains and high-demand; and it is unheard of to get a ticket the day of your travel. You usually have to book it weeks in advance. I am grateful to Anil for driving me around at the last minute to get to the travel agent, ATM and few other stops around Varanasi. He negotiated rush hour traffic with a Gandhi coolness and gets me back to the residency by 6 pm, without honking once. Anil is a gem. My India plans just turned on a dime in finding out about this stone conference, and I have to go – it is overdetermined that I go – it is an opportunity that I can not pass up, but …and … uhmm … doubt …

Rise to the Challenge, Sam … It will work out.

Ok. Ticket in Hand, I am back at the residency and I walk into my room. It is 6 pm. I have three hours to pack and prepare. The train station is not in Varanasi, but at a town about an hour away. In my studio, I have papers and notes everywhere, flow-charts, lists, mind maps. I sit at my CPU, files and files of unfinished essays, quick notes, quotes, facts, figures, bytes and bytes of images. Books – I’ve accumulated a few, “Which am I going to bring? I can’t bring them all?” See: I’m coming back to the residency. The original plan was to leave the residency for good and go South and find Granite to work with and finish my project, then who knows. Navneet and Olga both made it clear to me that I am welcome back to the residency after my excursion south or whenever I need a safe place to be. (That conversation was a week ago and a relief.) I pull down my piece of luggage and I click into “speed/stealth” mode. I grab, pack, make quick decisions about everything and don’t look back. I run to the kitchen and the laundry room. Thankfully, I did laundry that morning and thankfully my clothes are dry. It is getting progressively hotter in India and dryness wasn’t really a question, but cleanliness was and I am glad all my laundry is done – luck, randomness, foresight … doesn’t matter… it’s just the reality. Clean clothes. Now: food.

So, from my research, I had already determined that I wasn’t going to buy anything to eat or drink from the train: the risk of sickness was too great, because I had to be my most capable at this conference; I can’t afford a few days or weeks lying sick in a hotel room. And, I was told that you don’t have time to get off at train stations to buy stuff. If you can believe it, I have yet to but any food in India. I’ve only eaten at the residency, hotels and restaurants … oh … and I’ve eaten food that I brought with me from America – still have some walnuts left and I throw them in my bag. There is not much in the kitchen, and Chinta, the cook, is gone and even if she were here, she’d have no time to cook anything for my trip. Ergo, I am on my own and I need go out and buy provisions for two days. I walk out to the street vendors, it is dark and I walk to the first guy with a cart full of fruit. The negotiation begins. I grab a huge bunch of bananas:

“How much?”

“40”

That’s cheap, because it is a huge bunch, or rather about 3 hands of bananas; and I suspect he said 40 just out of habit,
because I’ve watched other westerners buy bananas
and no matter how many are grabbed
the vendor usually says … “40”

one ­– 40
ten – 40
3 hands – 40

I point at oranges and indicate to put them on his scale. 3 … I exhibit hand movements for more … 6 … I use both hands to say “keep it coming” … 9 … I beckon a few more with the first two fingers of my right hand … 12.
He weighs and I grab the bag and they are heavy.
So much for traveling light …

Don’t worry, Sam. You’ll eat them.

 I hold up the bag and ask how much.

“150”

That’s fair, I think, sorta. I grab another, smaller bunch of bananas – about 2 hands – and place them with the first group.

“How much all together?”

“250”

“Wait. What?!”

I point: 40, 40, 150 – 230. He points at the original bunch of bananas
and does a mock count, then booms, “50!”

“no. no. no… you said forty.”

“50 … !$%*!”

“You said forty and the other bunch is smaller than the first.”

“Ok. Ok … 50 and 50”

This is comedy. He says “OK” and keeps his inflated price …

[– an aside —

I have been in India for about two months and have developed a paradigm for negotiating within this particular and other similar Indian situations. I’m willing to keep it flexible and change and be challenged on this, but here is the current iteration:

1. It is a game – and therefore not about money but about respect, so for respect you have to be discerning about the pricing and engage with the discussion; western views of “market-value” and “invisible hand” rubbish will cloud your thinking.

2. Have compassion for the playing field – by almost any calculus you use to examine yours and the negotiating parties financial dockets, there is zero economic parity here. A few rupees extra means a lot, so relationships matter, kindness matters, reputations matter; this makes a one time interaction – like buying bananas at a random vendor – much more raw, so the better the history you have with someone … well … you’ll get better service with people you’ve built relationships with and everyone will get a fair price; but, if you pay too much – especially with those one time interactions – you not only do a disservice to others who come after you, but also warp the local’s sense of their economic strength that can then harm their own, future negotiations, I don’t know what the balance is, but there is one; and,

3. Protect yourself because context is everything – you’re not going to know all the rules of the game or the terrain of the playing field because they both not only morph, but also have been shaped by historical, economic and political forces that have been in play for a long, long time and way beyond all of our control, you are a cog in a machine that is the clashing of horns where East meets West, so trust your instinct, protect your person and learn how to say “No.”

My understanding of this changes and evolves, because the more I learn about the people and culture the more complex, deep and layered this all becomes. Please note: nowhere in this paradigm is there a function for ruddiness or cordiality, they apply but not the way you think. Better to just forget – rather, cross-out – your perception of these two qualities. For example, a “No” could be a look, a shift in body posture or a mixture of all of the above. It took me a while to learn when it was appropriate to add a second sentence to a verbal “No,” which is “Get away from me.”

It is obviously not appropriate to apply this paradigm to All of India. This applies to a very specific interaction, like buying fruit from a street vendor or hiring a rickshaw … and even, as you will soon read, buying groceries from the grocery store or standing in a train station – I am open to being corrected about all of this, I’m still new and still learning, but this has helped me find a way to operate here.

— end of aside –]

… we are haggling about 30 cents and my clock is ticking. I will pay too much no matter what: I need to go. I pay the 250, and it is fair-ish – just don’t like how he changed in midstream­ – I let it go and trot back to the residency, drop off my close-to-20-pounds of fruit (approx. I don’t remember, but it was heavy), and run back out to the street to the grocery store that is in the opposite direction of the fruit stand. It is very dark out by now and rush hour traffic is in full swing, and I am weaving in and out of dogs, cars and tuktuks (Oh, look – there’s a puppy siting on top of a cow …), breathing in plenty of dust as I run. Honk. Honking. I had been to Spencers before, but had no clue as to what to buy or what I would even want to eat … I grab a jar of honey and a couple of large bags of pistachios in the shell and a couple of packets of these combo packs of nuts and dried fruits. I walk over to the aisles where the processed food is and – and it all looks Hindi to me – and I try to determine if there is anything I’d like to eat, chips, cookies etc … hmm, nothing … I glance at the produce … Ugh … I tried this before, and no luck. This trip is going to be a Spartan culinary experience.

I get to the checkout counter. The tally is high and I hand over my credit card and my unconscious mind throws up a yellow warning flag. This is not going to go well. It’s his body language, the way he moves the credit card machine, the nervous movement in his eyes and shoulders that ripple all the way down to the hesitation in his shuffling feet. I’ve been through this before. He goes through the motion of swiping my credit card. We wait and wait. He looks at me, shrugs and head movements. He hands me back my card, but I don’t take it: I stare. He stares back. I say:

“Make it work.”

He stares. I stare. I point at the credit card machine:

“Make … it … work.”

He goes through the motions again. We wait and wait. He picks up the machine and shows me the digital read out
and I already know what it is going to say: “Card denied.”

“The Card is good. Make it work.”

There is a line forming behind me. People are getting anxious and push up against me, wanting to pay. Time clicks on. I feel bodies pushing, rubbing up against me. I push back at the groping and turn and summon my inner Harry Callahan and say: “BACK … OFF ….” This is the clash of horns of East and West, where all circumstances are out of our collective control but we behave within a machine that was set in motion long before we were born. We will change because of it and be neither east nor west – something new has got to arise for the good of us all. I gesture for him to put down the credit card machine. I contemplate Indian Closeness and the exercise of Indian Quietude:

“The Card is good.”
“Make … it … work.”

Pause.

“This … is … how … I … pay.”
“Make it work.”

He talks with the other cashier in Hindi, goes around me and walks to another credit card machine. It works. I sign. I walk out the door with my train food and don’t look back. I jog to the residency with my ruppees that I had gotten out of the ATM when I bought my train ticket back at Assi Ghat intact – i.e. not spent on food but ready for the contingencies to come, and there will be some … I’ll bet on it.

I’m in my room, again. My papers, which are representative of my ideas, efforts and progress, are everywhere.
I can’t face my CPU: so much undone … the tension …

Take the time and eat dinner, Sam.
The important tasks are done.
All is good.

 Yes, ok. Dinner is waiting in the kitchen and the last time I ate was breakfast. But first,

I check my water filtration system: it functions. I am reassured, but redundancy doesn’t hurt. I gather the empty water bottles scattered around my room and put them in a bucket that seems to be a common appurtenance of an Indian Shower System. I use my bucket for easy carrying between my studio and the kitchen. I walk in the kitchen. Olga: “Are you ready, Sam?”

“Umm … basically … uh … barely”

Tom and Sharon are there. Haven’t introduced them but they are a married couple from New York. We are the only artists at the residency at the moment. They have been at the residency for less than two weeks and one of my disappointments is that I probably won’t hang with them again in Varanasi. Our immediate paths are different and I hope to see them in New York.

We have light conversation as I fill my water bottles at the water cooler for my journey. I spy a loaf of bread. Olga, “Take it.” I put it in my bucket with the bottles filled with fresh water and I sit and eat: preoccupied … more conversation. This post is getting too long, so I’ll move it forward. 20 minutes later I excuse myself. It is 7:30 pm. I have an hour and a half before I climb into my taxi.

I get back to my room and there is a lot of admin to do: backing up the computer, storing hard drives, filing notes and deciding what stays and goes… then, there is my digital presence… I kind of hate this: what is the most important thing here? One is to complete the tasks I set out to do while in India – a project with Indian Granite. I look at my sketchbooks I’ve worked on in Varanasi, “All that will have to wait.” I leave them, but take my video camera, leave the tripod, take my first aid kit, but leave the secondary emergency pack and leave my reserve toiletries, trying to take just the minimum.

But, the tension between blogging vs. writing vs. creating vs. digital presence vs. questioning vs. what I am doing here … a big mental welter – ugh! The common thread is curiosity and the tension comes from its outward expression; and I know that I have to drop all my preconceptions, because my path has just changed. Stepping through the threshold of my studio room into the Varanasi evening, I’m not sure if I made the choice or if it was made for me: I let it all go.

“Huh …” I think, “that was easier than I thought.”

I am outside with my bags.

9 pm, Monday – the 0th hour.

I give Olga my key. Hugs. She wants me to let her know when I get there. I tell her I’ll be in touch. I wish Anil could take me, but the trip requires a real car, not a tuktuk. The cab driver takes my small bag, and lurches at the weight of it. “Don’t worry,” I adopt Indian quietude, “It’s water. I’ll take it.” He goes for the piece of luggage and lurches again. Sheepishly, “It’s food. You can roll it. I’ll help.”

I’m in the taxi and I am gone and I fear that am not ready for this.

Yes, you are …

To be continued …

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7 seconds and Hanuman Strikes Back

If you’ve been following my Monkey saga, you know that Monkeys
gain their power from Hanuman, the Monkey God of Hinduism,
and that – even so – Round 3 went to me …

Shortly thereafter, Rain poured down upon Kriti. As I sit watching the storm, I was overtaken by the urge to understand why even the rain feels different in India.
I grab my video camera and go out to my covered balcony. I need to get closer to the rain they call the retreating monsoon.
I think, “I mean it’s wet like in North America and falls from the sky down to the ground like in the Midwest … Yup …
the law of gravity functions here, but … something … just different ….” My thoughts trail off.

I fumble with my camera, not even sure what I’m doing or where I am going to point it.
I press Record and … I was shown the power of Hanuman

I’ll give you one guess what Hanuman’s traditional symbol is …

I have experience with lightning, but still …

Round 4: Monkeys.

Drats … HAAA…NUUU…MAN!

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