October 23, 2008

public service announcement

It occurs to me that I haven't really mentioned that I'm now blogging irregularly and semi-regularly, respectively, for both tor.com and The Walrus. Click links to see indexes of my posts. There should be a new one on both sites sometime today, actually.

October 11, 2008

pick up linguistix

This is the wealthiest country I've ever been in where packs of feral dogs still prowl the downtown streets.

Any symbolism is left as an exercise for the reader.

I checked into tonight's hotel entirely in Spanish, which isn't that impressive, except that five days ago I would have been totally incapable of doing so. It's amazing how language immersion cues the brain; I think pretty much everything I picked up in Peru and Bolivia five years ago has returned. (Which, um, really isn't saying much, but still.)

Spanish-speaking countries are frustrating. It's close enough to French and/or English that I can generally get most of the gist of signs, placards, museum writeups, etc, but when they go on for more than a paragraph the effort gets really mentally wearing - I actually got a headache figuring out a long historical explanation written on a wall in Cartagena's Palacio de la Inquisicion (sic?) yesterday. And in person, sheesh - until today, at least, they might as well have been speaking Uzbeki.

I once wrote that language barrier is a misleading term; more accurate would be to say "language stupidifier." I am effectively a mentally damaged idiot. And you know what, that's no fun at all.

Places where the language is entirely foreign are, ironically, less frustrating. After the first couple of days in Russia I taught myself to convert Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, letter-by-letter, and then it became a game to try and find words that made some kind of sense when so converted. Though there at least the sounds made sense. In Omsk we bought a ticket to Krasnoyarsk from a woman who spoke no English with the aid of patience, a sense of humour, my Rough Guide phrase book - and the ability to convert written phrases to recognizable sounds, at least roughly. An ability you kind of take for granted until you find yourself in, say, China.

Which was the first country I ever really travelled to, and in 1997 at that - before the Internet - which, in retrospect, was kind of crazy. Maybe in a good way. I still feel a fierce nostalgia when I remember my awkward, pudgy, undersocialized self sitting on Muni buses or BART trains late at night, probably going to or from another repertory movie theatre (or maybe Fiddler's Green to play Shadowrun), listening to basic Chinese language lessons I had bought a few months in advance of the trip. On cassettes, no less. Cassettes. Ah, those were the days. Thank God they're over.

In 1998 my French was awful, I'd studied it for all of four years in high school, but it was enough to navigate - albeit clumsily - around French-speaking West Africa by myself when need be. Nowadays it's much improved, and on good days, in quiet places, and with Europeans, or others who speak it as a second language, I can have actual conversations in the language - although I regularly make horrific comprehension or grammatical errors, and I lean towards the "I don't know the right word for this so I will use twenty words instead" school of logorrhea.

(I wouldn't want to try it right now, though; I feel like I only have one second-language slot in my brain, and right now my truly miniscule pidgin Spanish is trying to occupy that space. Maybe I need a new motherboard.)

Weirdest of all is travelling in developing countries where they speak really confusing dialects of English, as in India, Nigeria, or Glasgow. Of the three the Indian English is easiest to understand. There's an amazing spectrum of fluency there, from perfect to broken, which seems, oddly, to be only loosely tied to the economic spectrum. (I got dissed on BoingBoing by some Indian guy who complained because broken English was spoken by an Indian character early in Invisible Armies, and claimed that that would never happen because everyone there speaks fluent English. If so, many of them hide it well.) I do love the flowing, archaically formal English of the Indian newspapers - "The miscreants absconded with their ill-gotten gains" and the like - though I'm told that sadly, that's on the wane.

I sometimes feel guilty about being monolingual (OK, fine, 1.5-lingual) when I spent three years living in Montreal and three months living in Paris and so many of my friends are bi-, tri-, or in one case, octolingual - but hey, is it my fault so much of the rest of the world has adjusted to English's linguistic hegemony? Also, when I found that in those periods when I put a lot of effort into learning French, my written English suffered, and, y'know, it is my livelihood.

Anyway, another couple of generations and it will be everybody's second language, for want of any better candidates. (Assuming technology hasn't obviated the need by then.) Or, more accurately, everyone will think they speak English as a second language ... but they still won't understand each other.

Anyway, my point is -

Oh, right. I don't have one. I'm just writing up where my thoughts took me on the five-hour bus ride to Santa Marta. Mark Twain would presumably be pleased.

October 06, 2008

tragedy in translation

Gring(o|a) Meets Chic(o|a)

a play in five acts
transcribed from Lonely Planet's Latin American Spanish, p. 112-118.

Act I: A Party Gone Wrong

Would you like a drink?
What star sign are you?
Shall we get some fresh air?
Do you study or do you work?
Do you have a light?
I don't take drugs.
I have...occasionally.
Do you want to have a smoke?
I'm high.
You have a beautiful...body, eyes, hands, laugh, personality.
No, thank you.
I have a boyfriend/girlfriend.
Excuse me, I have to go now.
Your ego is out of control.
I'm not interested.
Hey, I'm not interested in talking to you.
Leave me alone!
Piss off!

Act II: S/he Appears

You're very nice.
You're great.
You're very attractive.
I'm interested in you.
I like you very much.
Do you like me too?
Can I kiss you?
Will you take me home?
Do you want to come inside for awhile?

Act III: A Night Of Passion

I want to make love to you.
Do you have a condom?
I won't do it without protection.
I think we should stop now.
Let's go to bed!
Kiss me!
I want you.
Take this off.
Touch me here.
Do you like this?
I (don't) like that.
Please stop!
Please don't stop!
Oh my god!
Oh yeah!
That's great.
Easy tiger!

Act IV: The Morning After

That was amazing.
It's my first time.
I can't get it up - sorry.
Don't worry, I'll do it myself.
It helps to have a sense of humour.
Can I call you, meet you tomorrow, stay over?
I'm in love with you.
I love you.
Do you love me?
I think we're good together.

Act V: Torn Apart

Are you seeing someone else?
He/she's just a friend.
I don't think it's working out.
We'll work it out.
I want to end the relationship.
I want to stay friends.
I never want to see you again.


Somehow I didn't expect my phrasebook to be such a wrenching emotional experience.

October 04, 2008

The ones that got away

Prepping for my upcoming expedition has me thinking nostalgically about previous ones, and places I failed to see while in the neighbourhood. Not such a bad thing; when you depart a region you should always leave at least one (possible) gem behind you undiscovered, to have an reason to go back, and to cure the disease of feeling that you've "done" a place.

(Besides, as I've long said, you can't go everywhere, and you probably shouldn't try.)

Anyway, a few of those gems left buried in my wake:

Asia 1997: It'd be great to climb Mount Fuji in Japan, and to hike along Tiger Leaping Gorge in China. (And to go back to Yangshuo, but "places I'd like to go back to" is a different and probably longer post.) In Indonesia, didn't make it to Java to see Jakarta and Borobudur, nor to Komodo to see the dragons, though I had vague intentions to do both; and while I did make it to Lombok, I never got to chill out at the Gili Islands.

Africa 1998: Hmmm. We moved slowly, so there wasn't all that much we missed. I would have liked to have seen Senegal and Dakar. And Lake Volta, oddly enough, for the hacker tourism. We almost went to Lagos, but didn't, which I regretted, and of course there's masses of Cameroon I'd like to explore further.

Plus, the whole goal of the trip was to go overland across the Congo, which we didn't do due to a rather inclement civil war in progress at the time. But someday I'd still like to take a riverboat between Kinshasa and Kisangani.

Also, I roared through Botswana in about ninety minutes (during which we saw about 200 elephants) and I'd like to go back and see the Okavango Delta.

Asia 2000: well, Rajasthan and the Thar Desert, one of these years, not that that was ever really on the itinerary. Actually there's lots more of India I'd like to visit. In Nepal, I'd love to go on the Langtang and/or Everest Base Camp treks in Nepal (I'd also happily - no, ecstatically - do the Annapurna Circuit again) and visit Chitwan National Park. In Malaysia, I kind of wanted to explore Borneo and dive at Sipadan, and I would have liked to have seen the north of Thailand, though even at the time Chiang Mai was said to be touristed out. And I'd like to go to a full-moon party on Ko Pha Ngan...once.

Australia/PNG 2002: Well, I'd like to go back to Oz time and again, especially to Western Australia, and maybe circumnavigate the whole continent on the National Highway. In PNG, I'd definitely like to go to the coast and do some diving at Madang or the buried city of Rabaul, and hike the Kokoda Trail.

Balkans/Egypt 2003: It'd be nice if they were to let me into Macedonia, and I'd also like to visit Budapest, though neither feel particularly pressing. I would like to get to see Abu Simbel, which I failed to visit due to aircraft failure, and to go on a long 4WD journey across the Sahara.

Oz/NZ/South America 2004: See above for Oz. I'd basically like to spend six weeks wandering around all of New Zealand. I regretted not managing to either go on a long boat journey down the Amazon (though I did manage to spend a fair amount of time there), and I was unable to see Bolivia's fantastic Salar de Uyuni because nationwide strikes shut the roads.

Africa 2005: Would have liked to have gone trekking in the Ruwenzori, and to have climbed the volcano in Goma, and taken the boat across Lake Kivu to Bukavu, all of which were plans that fell apart. I'd really like to wander down the Mozambican coast, and to go back to South Africa, maybe live there for awhile. Above all I'd like to see a free and happy Zimbabwe again, but, well, we may have entered fantasyland here.

Trans-Siberian 2006: The Kremlin was closed when I was there, though that might not be enough to get me back to Moscow, which I didn't much like. You wouldn't exactly have to twist my arm to get me to tour around those parts of Lake Baikal I didn't see. And the thought of returning to Tibet and circumnavigating Mount Kailash on foot is extremely appealing.

People who say "it's a small world" and mean it generally haven't seen much of it.

October 01, 2008

fame if not fortune, mine at last

I spent most of the last week in England, Belgium, and Holland, and let me just inflict some pictures on you before I get to the newsy part of this post. Click on any pic to see it bigger:

drowned-bicycle in-brussels dejected-ursus elf-giraffe elephants-charge preying-mantis

As you can see, it was a fantasyland of mythical bicycles, buildings, and beasts.

And I came back to discover that Page Six (how ironic!) of my alma mater's Engineering Alumni Newsletter is all about me. (breaks into song) Me, me, meeeee! I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Brunel! See for yourself. (Warning: that's a PDF link. Here's the HTMLized Google cache.)

And whaddya know, some more pre-lettered pages from The Executor have snuck onto the Internet.

Soon I will blog about some blogging news. How meta! See you then.