Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Currency redux. Or is this just a bunch of lunatics? (Vegetarian Festival, Phuket, Thailand)

I believe this to be the best photo that has ever been taken, although tough to call. It left a very deep impact on me from the moment I saw it and continues to affect me in a profound way to this day. I even remember busting out the dictionary to look up the word "immolation" (oh dictionaries.. those where the days). The strength of conviction, the commitment to a greater cause, the passion, the command over ones body and the power of self during what was a terrible time in a history of another part of the world. This frame captured all of it and is the distillate of complex emotions during a very complex circumstance (and the cover of the first Rage Against the Machine album - whats not to be moved by here?)
[Read the story of Thich Quang Duc, or Malcolm Browne (photographer, not a lot of info on this link), or David Halberstam (writer) if you are interested.]
My entire life I have wanted to believe in something this strongly. The fact that I am striving to temper this and its derivative thoughts fills me with great angst and regret. I am sure to spend multiple sessions on a couch one day over this photo and what it represents to me.

I wish that I knew more about the meaning of today. Some of the below may be naive and incomplete. I'm going to do some research and talk to more folks so that I can hopefully shed some light on it i.e. this is what I saw and I will back fill with some info soon.

A group of us went down to a temple for the Vegetarian Festival. It is a turning over of sorts, where you "creatively" atone for your sins of last year and bank some luck for the one coming. Like me, you may think that a morning hanging out with a bunch of vegetarians would leave you wanting some excitement. I mean, how odd can things get? They don't even eat the pig! Snore fest here we come.

I milled around waiting for something to happen from about 4:30 to 5:30 and then things started to get pretty strange. Really strange. Loony Tunes having a bastard child with Lewis Carrol strange. Dudes where coming out of the temple shaking like a leaf. They would present themselves to an altar and snap a whip that was wrapped around their neck with 30 or 40 incense sticks in their hands. I'm guessing they were possessed, which you would have to be to subject yourself to what comes next: piercings. Extreme facial piercings. You could drive a Mac truck through some of the holes that got cut in these cheeks. A big conical spike of stainless steel is used to make a hole which is sufficiently large for the individuals preferred adornment. Normal stuff mind you, like metal rods, glass rods with cute little figurines on the ends, radio antennas still attached to alarm clocks, swords, axes, guns, chrome bicycle chains, parasols, tree branches.... Like I said: Boooring. They do all the piercings in front of the crowd and pictures are not only tolerated but seem encouraged. Less blood than you might think, but I somehow felt like I could taste iron all day long.

I went inside the temple (the smokiest place on earth) to see what was going on. People sitting around amicably with lots of music. Boring. Then the great Croupier of Nothingness calls out someones number and they are off like a shot. They dance and twitch and talk like a bird or moan or scream. They get fit with some ceremonial garb and get led out to mutilate for the masses.

Once everyone was sorted there was an exodus into the streets. It was a 5+ mile walk to the end of the parade route. There were porters who carried mini alters to I am not sure what (one of the things I need to figure out) and everyone on the streets threw firecrackers at them (and me). Startling lack of firecracker safety going on during this thing and some of the blasts were large and in charge. After all was said and done and we were waiting for a ride back, we actually got in a firecracker fight with four 10 year olds from across the street. Everyone throws firecrackers AT you and they rain down from long poles overhanging the street.

We were here to support this fine young man, sporting an axe and knife / gun combo. All the rage for spring. I am embarrassed to say that I don't even know his name. By the time I caught up with the group after the initial mayhem, introductions were impossible for obvious reasons. The participants were often stopped for photos by Thai and foreigners alike. He needed handlers to keep the crowd from nudging something painfully and to apply antiseptic and what appeared to be an oil to keep the cuts clean and moist in the burning sun. It was HOT, I had trouble walking the length. I can't imagine doing it with 15lbs of steel through my cheeks. He wasn't even spared the firecracker rain. It was exciting and perplexing. D-rock is coming in tonight and we are going to go again tomorrow. Frankly, it will be tough to stomach a second time.

While the sun rose, I found myself locked in a stare with a guy for a second or two. This was before we got rudely interrupted by a spear going through his cheek and his eyes rolling back in their sockets. Fear - animalistic, raw terror is what I saw. I don't know how to process it. Fear is so imminently understandable given a circumstance such as this, but I was surprised to find it somehow. I wonder if a moment not unlike this one was shared in Vietnam circa 1963? Different stakes, odds and payoffs, but there has to be a moment when the brain is able to elucidate the worldly consequence of ones devotion to an ideal.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a currency that I am not equipped to trade. However, I am not ashamed to say that I admire those who are brave enough to save it up and spend it on something that is important to them.
I took a stupid number of pictures:
One of the porters. They blew him up reeeeeal good. Check out the firecracker remnants in his hair.
I was very disturbed by this guy. Yes, those are real guns.
This was the head dude. Notice the firecrackers going off around him.
Nothing like a little self hatcheting to start the day off right.

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