Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Culture as currency

Kris asked me when we were in Peru why I like to travel. We were taking a lovely walk down from the Pisac ruins and having a conversation about what we want to do with our lives. If I were to sum up the trip so far in colours, it would be the blues of the Pacific Ocean and the greens and browns of the terraces that day. My answer was quick. I said that I travel to experience new cultures and be humbled by rugged beauty. In retrospect, that wasn’t really a complete answer as I would have to say that realignment and healing is certainly why I am on this particular trip. Her (paraphrased) point was that “Why do you feel that these passions can only exist during your sparse vacations? Why can’t you have that in your everyday reality?” I didn’t have an answer to that obvious contradiction at the time and I still don’t.

I think that the most striking thing that I have seen in the rugged beauty category is the face of Annapurna II (I can’t remember which side) and the time I climbed down from a high part of the west coast trail, sat by the ocean while watching a pod of whales pass by. The stark white snow and the deep blue of the high altitude, Nepalese sky; the brownest browns of those rocks on Vancouver Island that day. I’ve realized that I am deeply affected by colour. I suspect more so than most, but that’s not something that you can really gage. The Pacific Ocean at night, seeing all the shades of blue-y black and grey in the moonlight. Gazing at Macchu Piccu while sitting by the Inca bridge and looking down at the Andean mountains. I pour myself into these landscapes. I merge. I become beautiful and raw. That’s what I’m talking about. This is one reason why Toronto is so dangerous for me and one reason why the cottage is my favorite place to be. This whole thing is a tangent mind you; I want to talk about culture.

I went out with a bunch of the guys from the camp on Saturday night. We went out to a restaurant opening and then across the ridgeline to a few bars on the other side. It’s pretty fun to walk around with a pack of fighters. I started to think about the word “currency”, in that this group trades in a currency that is so foreign to me. Stitches, bruises, broken ribs, their fight records and the quality of the pain they have inflicted on their opponents all carries clout. A yellow-black eye here, a bandaged head there. I couldn’t figure out why one of the guys had words tattooed upside down on his forearm. Then I put myself in the place of a guy on the ground with elbows raining down from on high and it made more sense. All of these aspects are traded and they all carry prestige in these parts. I had a thought that night “Isn’t the essence of culture simply a different predominant currency?” Politics, religion, passions and ethics – it is all just what people value and are willing to trade and for what.

In Toronto there are a tonne of different cultural divides. Everything from hot dog vendors, tattoo artists, cabbies, all kinds of churches and religions, club culture, the service industry, teachers, the gym, the cube farm, the College St. clique, the Kensington market crowd, etc. It is just so close and seemingly accessible that it feels banal and yet these types of cultures exist overseas and somehow feel exotic if you are exposed to them more than in passing. Take from each what you will, but they are culture in their own right. Just like prostitution, haggling, bribes and street markets. Faith and politics, sailing or Muay Thai camps.

While riding back there was an awesome electrical storm in the valleys. Just the sound of the bike and the empty roads to fly through, the rain and the pitchest of blacks hiding who knows what. It was a pretty incredible space to occupy. The night met both my yearnings of travel, but I guess it could have been anywhere. Even Toronto, but I never would have had the inkling to be exposed to it. Why?

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