Maguindanao Massacre

If you look at a map just right — try squinting or unfocusing — the islands of the Philippines together look like the profile of the head of a donkey. I assure you this is no commentary on the character of the Filipino people. In fact, I was born in a small town in the eye of that ass. Alas, I am not actually a Pinoy, but I still can’t help but share in the highs and lows of that country. Some 10 days ago I rejoiced with them when homeboy Manny Pacquiao once again triumphed; from that high, we now get tragic news of a mass slaying in the South. Monday, right in the mouth of the donkey, 100 armed men slaughtered 52 unarmed civilians, many of them women, in order to prevent their participation in elections.

The political extremes in the Philippines are astounding. On the one hand, it is a nation that endured decades under an oppressive (CIA-backed) dictatorship, then promptly embraced democracy by electing a woman, a womanizer, and a born-again believer. This is the nation which has had two non-violent coup d’tats, both successful, and one of which I personally participated in. Their peaceful revolutions, and the attendant concept of alay dangal, have motivated pacifists worldwide. On the other hand, it’s a country still rife with political corruption from top to bottom, usually of a form more overt than what we know in the US. The beauty of People Power is unfortunately starkly contrasted with the deep ugliness that can also characterize Filipino politics, an ugliness made violently manifest on Monday in Maguindanao. GMA, a major media outlet, echoed my thoughts:

The crime that occurred in Ampatuan was uniquely savage, but it was also an extreme example of the violent tendency in our politics. At the other extreme are the many citizens who are bravely committed to the difficult and complex process of peacefully deciding who our leaders should be, such as those souls who perished on Monday. It is this tension between savagery and peaceful process that has marked our electoral history.

I wish I felt much hope for the capture and prosecution of those responsible, but I don’t really, especially since the alleged perpetrators appear to have tentacles reaching across vast swaths of power. Tomorrow, Thursday, is a National Day of Mourning.

Yanks in Yangon

Last week my father & I made a quick two-day jaunt to Myanmar to visit some local pastors and see their seminary in Yangon. It was a bit of a shock going from Bangkok to Yangon, a city which feels about 30 years behind the times (LCD TV stores notwithstanding). I couldn’t shake the feeling that TinTin would show up soon and reveal the mysteries hidden in the pagodas and markets.

We did most our sightseeing on the day we arrived; most notable was a trip to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, which is just one part of an enormous Buddhist temple complex. It felt like 50% of the entire country’s wealth was contained there. It cost us $6 each to get in, but I think locals go free so there were a lot of people just sitting around, napping, eating lunch, etc.

I should’ve expected this, but I was still surprised at how much Yangon is influenced by India. We celebrated this fact on the last night by eating at a massive hotel buffet that featured Indian cuisine. Plus I snuck in a bit of sushi and an eclair. Otherwise, Indian.

Photos of the trip (mostly featuring Shwedagon) can be found on Flickr.

There was a lot of downtime between engagements with the pastors & students so I spent a lot of hours tearing through Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. I really dig Johnson’s manic style: I read Jesus’ Son in one sitting a year ago and only took 3 days to devour this 614-page epic. It’s a very remarkable novel, and I think sitting in Thailand & Myanmar reading a novel set in Vietnam & the Philippines really added to the experience. Very different countries, sure, but all Southeast Asia — the grime & sticky heat of Yangon provided a better context than, say, a winter cabin in Vermont.

B.I.F.F. Day 5

Just got home from the last film of the Bangkok International Film Festival and still bummed I knocked out all the best films straight off, though Everyone Else was minor redemption in my otherwise consistent slide to the bottom. Tonight’s full house screening of Mammoth was no exception, sadly.

mammoth_detMammoth (trailer)

Country: Sweden
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Length: 124 mins
Grade: D-

Synopsis: “Leo and Ellen are a successful New York couple, totally immersed in their work. Leo is the creator of a profitable website [a Kongregate rip-off] and finds himself in the world of easy money and big decisions. Ellen is a dedicated ER surgeon who devotes her long shifts to saving lives. Their eight-year-old daughter Jackie spends most of her time with her Filipino nanny Gloria.When Leo travels to Bangkok, he unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will have dramatic consequences on himself and his family.”

Don’t believe the synopsis. Leo (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) does nothing even vaguely similar to setting off a chain of events. In fact, the film is offensive simply for pretending there are “dramatic consequences” for this family. Because Leo & Ellen (Michelle Williams) aren’t just “successful,” they’re filthy rich to the order of tens of millions of dollars. The most dramatic thing to happen to them, and this is ridiculously underscored in the parting shot even, is that they no longer have a live-in nanny/maid and will have to find a new one. That’s it, and I’m not exaggerating. That’s the big conclusion. Yawn.

The fact is that Mammoth is a wholly pointless and utterly plotless movie that rightfully met with a vigorous chorus of boos at the Berlin International Film Festival. Blues Clues has more of a plot than this movie, at least for 80% of the film. In the last 20% director Moodysson attempts to salvage his movie by punishing all non-white, non-rich, non-Soho-dwelling characters in the film. And does this for no discernible reason. Mammoth is like a less-offensive Babel clone, except unfortunately it’s still a Babel clone, by which I mean to say it’s terrible. Beautifully shot, with excellent actors, on fantastic locations**… all in service of a banal script that’s knee-deep in elephant shit. I almost rated this better than Jamila and the President before realizing that Mammoth is equally pretentious, except here the whole brouhaha is simply to make this point: sometimes life is sad, I mean, like real sad, for us rich folks.

** A Swedish / German / Danish production with Mexican & caucasian leads playing a New York couple with a Filipino nanny, Singaporean business partners, African-American coworkers; shot on location in Soho, Olongapo, Bangkok, and some Phuket-esque beach… wowee, it’s all so multi-cultural, isn’t that cute? How precious, just precious.

The Choo-To Train

A lot has happened in the last couple days, but I wanted to share my cultural experiences from Thursday. After class that day the founder of BAIS took Rachelle (another TEFLer; very fluent in Spanish) and me to look at a few apartments. We had to take the subte a number of times and so we learned lesson #439 about BsAs: avoid the subway between 4-8pm. It was — I never thought this was possible — more packed than what I saw in Korea. It costs like 30¢ per trip, but the experience is so apocalyptically claustrophobic that it hardly seems worth it.

Apt. #1 was pretty much what I expected and something I’d definitely like… except it was $1k/mo. Half the size & twice the cost of my Ohio apt. You could theoretically get 2 people in there, but that’s still too expensive for me. The next place was an absolute dungeon — absolutely zero windows and tons of people crammed into like 3 bedrooms. Just a total hellhole. Diego from BAIS had to leave us after this but sent us to a pretty decent place in Barrio Norte (I think). It had 4 bedrooms, 3 of which were occupied by students from France, Mexico, and Brazil. The people were very friendly and very funny, especially when it came time for an impromptu English lesson. They all had apparently been debating how to say “to” — as in, “to go” or “nice to meet you.” But the Brazilian seemed hellbent on “choo” and, despite our gentle correction and the cackles of his friends, just could not seem to make the hard “T” sound. “Nice choo meetch you” was followed by a say-and-repeat dialogue:
Us: “To”
Him: “Choo”
“Very nice! Well done!”
“Oh ok, so is ‘choo’?”

…and so on. It was good prep for week three when we’ll be actually doing our own English lessons in front of a whole class. The Brazilian & Italian guys who had shown us the place were heading for sushi @ 9pm but we politely declined and finished out the night by finding a little eatery that seemed to cater to locals, unlike the places right around me in Congreso. Baked chicken + fritas + Fanta naranja for $4 ain’t too shabby.

So since I’ve been in Buenos Aires for a week now, I thought I’d give a list of observations & things I’ve learned since arriving. (more…)