The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

Posts tagged “history

Tale of Two Cities, or Good Bye Viet Nam

Posted on July 25, 2015

My last sights of Vietnam are from the humming nadirs of Saigon’s scraped skies, gazing up at this city in marvel with that flat smoky jungle Hanoi forever the backdrop of my mind. How different these cities are. There are even cutesy illustrations about how Vietnam’s pair of beating hearts differ in their consumption of pho, preferred altar fruits, work relationships with superiors and general communication patterns (the rough translation: Saigon’s talk is straightforward and efficient, Hanoi’s calls for finesse and indirectness). I ask young locals here about their perceptions of Hanoi. Most answers implicate backwardness and a lack of excitement in Vietnam’s capital city, half the size of Saigon at around seven million people. “I wouldn’t be able to live in Hanoi,” says…

Land of a Million Elephants

Posted on May 9, 2015

While in the small city of Pakse, a man named Akamu told me a story. We sat in a noodle shop at lunchtime draining our hot bowls of their contents. Every ten seconds a rotating fan found our table, blowing our dirty napkins away. “It’s a story about a giant jar in the sky. How Lao people came to the earth.” He said how a ‘big evil’ grew from the land, and at its end hung a jar that blocked the sun, casting darkness unto everything. “The gods came to cut the big evil, to give the world light.” Only when the big evil was vanquished and the jar fell, presumably, could humans emerge from the jar. Then came the animals, the “rocks like…

Sweet Waan

Posted on January 27, 2015

DSC_0595

In the ancient capital of Siam, Ayutthaya, crumbling ruins, palaces and monasteries decorate the earth. Decadently-carved prangs, a Khmer-type tower common in Buddhist architecture, protrude over tree tops and buildings. Their deadness suits this sleepy river town, and their lofty presence coexists in modern life with impressive nonchalance.

One of the most grandiose sites to see is Wat Chaiwatthanaram, built to commemorate King Prasatthong’s victory over Cambodia. It was once the King’s home and later a royal cremation tower. Royal people would go there to become royal ash, like Prince Thammathibet who was beaten to death in 1746 because he indulged in scandal with one of his father’s concubines.

Inside such a weighty and resplendent monastery, the hallowed grounds of venerated kings where powerful people lived and burned, sat two tiny people eating tiny bananas: yours truly and a seventy-year-old named Waan. She sat in the cool shade of one the prangs, only in the company of a giant stone Buddha adorned with flower offerings and ceiling murals of wood and black lacquer. She was selling these bright yellow flower necklaces to the tourists who would sporadically file in, for the place was mostly deserted save the 120 gilt lacquered maravijaya Buddhas that lined the square periphery (maravijaya, my one-dollar guide book tells me, is a pose that Buddha adopts immediately following the triumph over death and evil).

She called out to me, pointing to her flowers. She told me in rough English that they’d give me luck if I gave them to the deity who sat cross-legged over her shoulder. This seemed like a good deal to me, so I bought one and dressed the Buddha.

I couldn’t think of anything else to do in that specific moment, so I sat down and started talking to Waan. She was an enthusiastic conversation partner, asking about my age and origins, career and travel plans. “How many children do you have?” I inquired. “8,000,” she said smiling, showing off the gaps in her teeth. We continued to talk at each other for a while in a playful way, when she hurriedly began opening her bag of mini chartreuse bananas. She gave me one and she gave herself one, and we ate them together like feasting kings in a happy, thick silence that couldn’t be described, only felt.

Backstage

Posted on March 6, 2014

DSC_1153 DSC_1190 DSC_1135 DSC_1130 DSC_1175 DSC_1141 DSC_1160 DSC_1184 DSC_1228
DSC_1236

The woman in the rice hat is my fashion hero.

I was invited to attend a celebration of Vietnamese history and culture. I was pulled into the section where the actors wait to make their entrance, and it gave a perspective that perhaps most audience members never experience. The costumes shimmered in the floodlights as the dancers depicted the rebellion of Vietnam against China, led by the Trung sisters, the country’s first female king and general. But all I could think about was, what are these actors thinking about? Grocery lists? Squabbles with loved ones? How they could use a cigarette right about now? Were they just enjoying the show and the movements they rehearsed a million times over? Or why is this white girl in their way?

On an Edge with a Fire Behind You

Posted on February 27, 2013

In Russian, voicing the word “Murmansk” properly would mean to voice it intensely, with the accent on the “u” and a pitch that naturally deepens. The tongue should roll with the “r”, and it should conclude definitively with a crisp “k” click, allowing the word’s powerful phonetics to ring in pulsating waves emanating from the speaker’s vibrating throat. The name Murmansk was born from the local Sami word murman, meaning “the edge of the earth”. My friends and I stepped out of the train station into a thick fog produced by our own heavy breaths. The immediate city was gray and coated with a crust of dirt, apart from the sea foam green façade of the station, a circular building with a garish obelisk…

Moving East: A Film Photo Story

Posted on September 23, 2012

A background song, if you’d like?

Krakow: A pretty girl who hates being photographed is photographed.

In the center of Warsaw lies a tiny room. The space in the room is mostly occupied by a large Photoplasticon and a few stools. The viewer sits and the Photoplasticon rotates to show three-dimensional pictures of Warsaw from the years 1915 to 1918. This particular photograph shows market vendors working on Szeroki Dunaj in the year 1916.

Take a break in Warsaw’s botanical gardens.

A visit to the Photoplasticon is a delightfully fitting frame for my next point: Warsaw is changing rapidly and blatantly. There are two types of Warsaw of my own label – “static” Warsaw, or the parts of the city that will never change due to historical significance and the honoring of architectural and aesthetic traditions, and “dynamic” Warsaw, the areas that have adopted the modernism of London and the sleek minimalism of Scandinavia. Pre-war brick structures are now being fitted with glass walls and ceilings. Newer restaurants look like the one pictured; this pizzeria also happens to be named after one of the oldest cemeteries in Europe, Powazki Cemetary, its neighbor across the street. People don’t discard old things in Warsaw; they simply allow them to grow and change with the times. For better or for worse, this mix amounts to quite a cool city.

Behold: the unbelievable beauty of a Russian autumn in Novgorod.

A friend and I were walking along Novgorod’s residential streets. A woman picked us off the street and ushered us into her garden. Tatiana was her name. She gifted us with kilos and kilos of produce: apples, plums, cucumbers, and homemade pickles. We were positively giddy.

She is so uniquely beautiful.

Hand-carved and painted domovoys. They are meant to protect your house. I couldn’t walk away without one.

If I were a guy, I’d move to Russia (but with that logic, Brazil would work too):

A Petersburg kind of night. I don’t want to be anywhere else.

Soviet Secrets are Forever

Posted on August 20, 2012

May, 1991: Antoliy Dyatlov Kills Himself by Way of Rope. This isn’t true, of course. Dyatlov died in 1995 of heart failure. * * * There was a cartoon published in the New Yorker shortly after the incident. Two dogs are having a conversation. One dog says: “They attributed it to human error”, and the other replies: “But everything in the world is due to human error.” * * * “The one common thread through all of these accidents is the complete failure of the Soviet system to manage modern technology in a safe manner. This failure is due in large part to the secrecy that was endemic in Soviet society and to a lesser extent in twist Russian society before it. Society existed in compartments,…

On History, Poland, and its Woods

Posted on May 17, 2012

The Second World snugly finds its place between the First and Third worlds. These are constructs of the Cold War, antiquated political categorizations that pigeonhole the world as we know it into a neat, fun, digestible grouping of three. The Second World isn’t halfway between ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’, but simply denotes countries that are communist or have recently been communist and have retained a certain Leninist flavor in their renovations, despite progressive efforts, in some places, to try to dispel it. In fact we don’t really hear the term anymore, probably because modern day communism fails to resemble traditional communism in any shape or form. Direct observation of China’s version of communism tells me, for example, that it’s little more than capitalism on steroids.…

The Story of a Book

Posted on March 2, 2012

It’s seldom that I see anyone perusing the stacks of the library. While this indicates that too many people aren’t taking advantage of a different type of infinite wealth of knowledge and wisdom they have at their keyboard-stroking fingertips, this also means that I have unlimited literature all to myself. I can skip along the aisles in utter joy, dragging my fingers along thousands of leathery bindings and there is no one there to obstruct my path. I can, theoretically, build a blanket fort anchored by books, one with bookshelves for walls and two password-guarded exits (hint: it’s the invention in Cat’s Cradle that destroys the world). This is nothing but a silly theory, but it is one I am determined to test. And there would…