Saguaro Rib & Ocotillo Antenna: Images From Sonora’s El Pinacate

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This is another article in a series of pieces I am writing for The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. Send along any comments and critiques.

The ocotillo are antennas. They bloom from volcanic cinders. Near the horizon, a granite mountain range shimmers, submerged in an old lava flow. Ribcages of saguaros stand on black earth. The cholla were dancing. They’re standing still now. There is no sound. There is a feeling of drowning in the depths of sky.

The name of this place haunts the imagination of any desert lover. El Pinacate is a mirage, once discussed but seldom visited. That is changing now. Declared a national park by the Mexican government in 1993 after over a decade of lobbying by scientists and environmentalists, La Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is together with Saguaro National Park and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument one of the most important protected areas of the expansive Sonoran desert.

El Pinacate is frequently called the heart of the Sonoran desert. The volcanic geology gives it an edge, a rawness that evokes the force of the earth, the push of blood. And as park director Federico Godines Leal points out, seen from a satellite, the area even takes the shape of a heart––not the Valentines’ kind, the muscle kind. “And it looks that way from either the south or the north,” he says, a shine in his eyes. There’s a heaviness about this place that makes a visitor feel like he or she is at the center of something.

One of the first known Europeans to see this place was the Italian Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino at the end of the 17th century. What he saw from atop the Pinacate peak changed the world: the first proof that Baja California was actually a peninsula, not an island as was widely believed by the Europeans. Maps were never to be the same. Maps are portraits of the men who make them. It is healthy to redraw the maps every few generations.

After years of catering only to scientists and renegades, the park is now changing. Late last year a visitor center was opened. Years in the making, the center is touted as the largest public building in Latin America to be operated off the grid, powered completely by renewable energy. This is even more impressive considering the massive amounts of air conditioning required to make the place survivable in summer temperatures that can reach 125º F.

“The idea is to share,” says Godines Leal. “In a way, even the name ‘biological reserve’ is problematic, as if this place were reserved for only a few lucky guys, us. No, on the contrary, this reserve is open.  [The visitor center] brings El Pinacate closer to the public.”

From the top of the sand dunes of the Great Altar Desert, it’s about 50 miles as the crow flies from the mouth of the Colorado River. Govines Leal makes a point of saying that this is the sand that once filled the Grand Canyon, carried down grain by grain over millions of years. This is the remixed hollow of the canyon.

Saguaro rib // foto: logan phillips

Graceful cinder cones, sharp craters, broken black volcano bones. These are the beautiful scars torn across the earth by two million years of volcanic activity. Imagine if Sunset Crater were covered with creosote and saguaros.

The moon escapes from the granite horizon and slowly inhales, filling itself, smeared with the blood of sunset. The ocotillo are antennas, listening to something on the wind that we don’t have ears enough to hear.

The creosote bushes slowly gather sand, building their own altars. It is said that creosote bushes are among the oldest individual living organisms on Earth. Some have been found to be over 12,000 years old.

In the wind of the Rocky Point highway, plastic bags migrate. They can’t seem to remember where they came from. They’re caught up on ironwood trees, trying to ask for directions. Caught up on fences, no tongues, just a plasticine rattling, a friction played by rushing cars. That which was made nowhere has nowhere to return to.

Rainwater collects in slick stone basins, lasting most of the year without evaporating. These are called tinajas, each one a life-giving oasis in El Pinacate. Big horn sheep and mountain lions drink this water. Jets occasionally streak their trails across the water’s surface.

A road grader creeps along the visitor loop road, smoothing the damage done by the recent heavy storms. The average annual rainfall here is four inches. Earlier this year, two inches were recorded in just three days. While causing some inconvenience for park staff and visitors, the rain also means that this year will have one of the best wildflower seasons in recent memory. The river has whet its throat and is pronouncing its name. Río Sonoyta. The ghosts of floods are hanging everywhere.

UFOs glitter like cars that have driven up the sides of cinder cones and out into the sky. They wink in and out, some looking like stationary flares. Some looking like glitter. Some looking like something difficult to name. The coyotes screamlaugh among the black rock, then fall suddenly silent.

The mesquite smear along the edges of the highway like spined ink. Seen from the sand dunes, the Gulf of California makes a bright blur of the horizon. A swiftly moving silence.

“This place incites spirituality,” Godines Leal concludes, smiling. “This landscape imposes itself on you.”

La Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is about 80 miles south of Ajo, AZ just off the highway to Rocky Point, Mexico. The staff is bilingual and very helpful.  February through April is wildflower season and is by far the best time to visit the park. There is camping available, a small usage fee applies to all visits.

Street Art of Bogotá: the Colombian Capital as Painted by DjLu

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The following interview and translation is part of a series of pieces I am writing for The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. Send along any comments and critiques. More on DjLu can be found on his MySpace and Flickr.

Grenades grow on stalks of maíz and explode into flowers. A gas pump holds a gun to its head. An umbrella blocks a rain of rifles. A man is lynched on an oil pump. A soldier mounts a machine gun turret on a mule. The guy from the Men’s Bathroom sign loses a leg to a landmine. He walks using a rifle as a cane. Welcome to Bogotá.

This is the city as painted by one of its best street artists: DjLu. His work was omnipresent in all parts of Bogotá I visited, and after following his stencils through alleys and across boulevards, I was lucky enough to run into the artist in the flesh.

¿To begin, what is there to know about DjLu? Who are you?

DjLu is a visual artist from the National University of Colombia, who discovered in 2004 that gallery art is turned into a static art form by being in a private space, destined to a slow death. Then the decision to adopt the urban context as the right place for expression.

¿What is Bogotá to you?

It’s the city where I was born, the playground where many ideas are born and projects come to life.

To get into some context, ¿could you tell us a bit about the history of street art in Bogotá? I was blown away by the quality and quantity, ¿has there always been so much?

Urban art linked to politics has appeared in Bogotá since the 70’s in the form of [what we call] lyrical or poetic graffiti, and also through conceptual and social art projects like those done by Antonio Caro. Nonetheless it’s not possible to speak of a consistent and diverse urban movement until about 2000. That’s when Bogotá adopted––late but with a passion––an art form that was already in vogue in the great world capitals. Recent years have seen Bogotá flower with an infinite number of approaches to street art, from the tag and throw-up, through wild style, blocks, characters, arriving at [wheat pasted] posters, stencils, stickers and complex murals.

¿So why do you paint? ¿Why stencil?

I paint to transmit a political and social stance that puts a rock in the path of apathy. I paint to give proof, to surprise, and through that to invite better ways of inhabiting and coexisting. I also paint to exorcise my fears, to get to know myself.

The stencil is the medium best suited for my project in the urban environment, since it has been used for political and against-the-grain messages for years. It’s also good for its reproducibility, through which an artistic project can usurp advertising and reach wider reception and better effect.

You have painted all over Colombia and the world. ¿How do you see street art in your country in comparison with countries of the so-called “first world”?

From having had the chance to visit Milan, Paris, Barcelona and Buenos Aires, I can say for sure that today Bogotá has no reason to be jealous. The level of technical and conceptual skill in Bogotá is really pretty high.

¿Is it dangerous to be a graffitero in Bogotá? ¿Does the government support or repress graf? ¿What would happen if they caught you?

The legality of painting in the street isn’t very clear, so it’s up to prudence, the artist’s luck, and the attitude of the police who are on shift to determine guilt and give pardons. I’ve never had big problems, apart from a couple opportune moments where I’ve been taken into the police station, without further consequences except a small loss of time and an explanation. But I’ve known of colleagues who have been detained twenty-four hours for the same thing.

What first caught my eye about your work is the heavy dose of social content. Obviously it’s not just “art for art’s sake.” At the same time, I’m interested to know if you have a specific vision you’re looking to transmit, or if you’re just looking to create images that are as provocative as possible.

I definitely have some specific interests and worries that are born not just of the local political situation but also of the worldwide context and world problems. I’m interested in bringing to light the conflicts that we’re involved in at every level, beyond understanding war as the only type of conflict. I’m worried by war as a business, by social displacement and by the changes in the ways that we use the earth: this earth where we plant mines instead of seeds.

The images become provocative in the sense that the immediate reaction of the viewer is to feel assaulted or deeply effected by them. And that their day-to-day apathy is interrupted by a reflection of our errors.

Your images play a lot with symbols of violence, and Colombia continues to be a very violent country. ¿What is the relation between violent images and true violence?

The work is born of my experiences, of a life immersed in a state of violence at every level: from the government, guerrillas, paramilitaries, not forgetting of course street violence and even inside the family. Although it has advanced a lot, Colombia is still bottled up in a war basically motivated by money and totally off-track from its social ideals. I’m interested in highlighting the relationship between fighting wars and playing games, the manner in which a conflict is absurdly driven by hidden interests––a game in which we all lose.

Nevertheless I don’t believe that my images are violent in the sense that they’re not explicit, they’re symbolic and that takes away the aggressive tone. There aren’t any bloody images or bodies in mass graves. There are silhouettes of pistols, rifles and soldiers which are part of a process of hybridization where two or more images are put together to alter their original meaning. This incites the spectator to come to their own conclusions and in the end to involve themselves in the search for solutions. These symbols appear in the streets to draw attention to situations that we are unconscious of, yet complicit in.

¿Does free speech exist in Colombia? ¿Is graffiti part of that?

From my position as an urban artist I’ll say that there is a large dose of free speech in Colombia. My project is still seen for its artistic character, even as it’s heavily loaded with politics. I should say that I haven’t felt any type of pressure, persecution or discrimination for the work I’ve done, including when I have ended up being very direct in my critiques against the government of the moment.

I believe that street art is one of the least manipulated forms of expression that exist today, though we couldn’t say that it’s completely free speech. Factors such as fashion and advertising negatively influence the freedom that street art promises. But the city-space still maintains, with an ever-increasing force, that tendency of being the voice of the voiceless, the pressure valve of the oppressed, the shithouse of the radicals and the canvass of the artists.

In general I believe that that any artistic practice is a way to stay on the fringes of the lifestyle currently imposed upon us, a chance to be more critical of the archetypes that we’re always told to accept as truth.

¿What is the most important thing that people in the U.S. need to understand about Colombia?

The problem of misunderstanding is bilateral. It’s not just that people in the U.S. have a biased view of us, in general the world is imbued with preconceptions that distort the reality of every country. We should form opinions based on specifics not generalizations. By that I mean that not everybody in Colombia is a drug runner and not everybody in the U.S. is an imperialist gringo. In Colombia we not only have a multicultural country filled with riches and natural beauty, but also––more importantly––a population with an incredibly human quality to it.

Thinking of the theme of this interview, I can tell everybody this: if you like street art, don’t hesitate in coming to see what’s happening in Bogotá.

¿Anything else?

Live happy, ¡juega siempre!


Bienvenido a Colombia: a Brief Story of Militarization and Rebirth

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The following article marks my return to The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. I wrote for them in 2006 and 2007, and they recently asked me back to their pages, which I am very grateful for. Thanks Chuck and Meredith! Expect new writing on Colombia for the next three months or so, posted on the first day of every month. Send along any comments and critiques.

“Colombia’s back” proclaims the travel guide Lonely Planet in its new introduction to the country. But back from what? The violent abyss of past decades? The cocaine-flavored stereotyping by foreigners? The guerilla forces that choked the highways like cholesterol? Well, yes, that’s what they mean. But how did it happen, and what’s changed?

To answer that question, a good starting point would be Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Colombia’s strong-arm president was first elected in 2002 with the campaign slogan “mano dura y corazón grande,” promising something like compassionate conservatism but with guns. Reelected in 2006 and currently enjoying an approval rating of 70% while contemplating a constitutional referendum allowing himself a third term, Uribe has brought about change in Colombia on a scale that Obama could only dream about––not that their objectives are at all similar.

“Bogotá is safe again,” a man selling cellphones in Bogotá tells me. “And now you see luxury cars cruising the streets, stuff like that. Before, you’d never see that. So I think Uribe has done us alright, the money is flowing.” Right there, seen from the street level, are two of Uribe’s principal gifts to his country: security in the cities and foreign investment.

As if to drill the point home, a taxi driver in Cartagena tells me a few weeks later: “Look, you can say what you will about Uribe. But really, without Uribe, you wouldn’t be here talking to me.” Like Lonely Planet alluded to, visits by foreigners are way up as of late, especially among Europeans.

The increase in security has also kicked off something of a rebirth in the arts as well. An entire generation of middle-class young people in Colombia were raised behind closed doors, their parents fearful of the violence in the streets. Now in their roaring 20’s, they have taken to those same streets, bringing with them an explosion of música, new activism and graffiti (more on the street art in a future edition).

This is the boom that resounds through Colombia today. It can be heard in bands like Bomba Éstereo, Tumbacatre, Choc Quib Town, and La Makina del Karibe. It can be understood by watching a crowd of fifty sitting in a plaza listening to a young street poet, or on the faces of tens of thousands indigenous people marching toward Bogotá in search of recognition. It can be seen in the pops and locks of a lone breakdancer busking in the centro to a soundtrack of “Brass Monkey” on repeat. It can be felt as a collective exhalation.

Not that everything is aerosol and roses. Those dark associations that might jump to mind when the word Colombia comes up––blow, the FARC, Pablo Escobar––have hung in the collective psyche of people in the U.S. since Colombia was big news in the 1980’s and 90’s. They are the same living ghosts that haunt the country today.

Take coke, for example. Colombia is of course still the world’s largest producer, and it is mostly Colombian cocaine sold to party people in the U.S. that fuels the “narco-violencia” slaughterhouse spiraling out of control in Mexico––between 3,500 and 4,000 dead so far this year. (Le Monde Diplomatique México, September) The cocaine is imported to the U.S., guns exported to Mexico and dollars exported to Colombia––dollars from both the illicit drug trade and from the U.S. military aide sent to combat it.

Which brings us to the FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the rebel group formed in the 1960’s as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party. The consensus today seems to be that by now the FARC has lost any relevant ideological motivation and has become entrenched in a posture of perennial resistance and marred by the use of kidnapping and cocaine as their main income sources, yet the government still estimates their numbers at around 11,000.

It is in this context that the group has suffered many defeats during Uribe’s presidency. While offering other armed groups the chance of peacefully demobilizing, Uribe has embraced the view of the FARC as terrorists and has launched a no-holds-barred offensive on the group. Perhaps his motivation is partly personal––Uribe’s father was killed in a botched kidnap attempt by the FARC in 1983.

But, like all things in Colombia, it’s just not that simple. Violence has been played like bloody tennis for decades, tit-for-tat massacres and tactics that have left all sides tarred. For instance, the genocide waged against the Unión Patriótica political party in the late 1980’s. What began as a hope-filled ceasefire and an opening to a political solution to the left’s grievances ended in a dirty war that has made all government talk of demobilization since very suspect. (Dudley, Steven. “Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia”) And then there’s the more recent example of the “falsos positivos.”

“False positives” is the name given to young men who are kidnapped by the Colombian army, transported hundreds of miles to zones of conflict, dressed as members of the FARC and shot. This is done to increase the body count, helping the army to look as though it is winning the war against the rebels. Though documented cases go back to as early as the 1990’s, a new scandal broke in 2008 when more than a dozen falsos positivos were identified and many more suspected.

Even the infamous Pablo Escobar seems still able to haunt society 16 years after he was gunned down in Medillín. His pet heard of hippos has continued to grow since his death and has begun to escape the confines of the sprawling hacienda that once belonged to the drug king. Ecologists fear disaster, though surrealism is alive and well.

So why does it matter that “Colombia’s back” thanks to Uribe’s militarization? Well, because as you may already expect, they are your tax dollars that are at work in Colombia. The massive U.S. aide package known as Plan Colombia was set into motion in 2000 in the name of the larger U.S. “War on Drugs.” The majority of the $7.5 billion package goes for military equipment and training. Chided as “Plan Nueva Colonia” by critics who see the plan as disguised interventionism and a doorway to a new colonialism, the program does speak to Uribe’s closeness to Washington. The connection was made yet clearer when former President Bush awarded Uribe a Presidential Medal of Honor shortly before Bush left office in January.

Now key parts of Plan Colombia are set to expire, it was leaked in July that the U.S. has been negotiating with Uribe an agreement that would allow up to seven Colombian military bases to be used by U.S. armed forces and private contractors––all of whom would be operating with impunity from persecution for any potential crime committed in Colombian territory. This is worrisome, given the spotty reputation of U.S. forces in Colombia, a reputation tarnished by incidents such as the rape of a 12 year-old girl in Melga by U.S. soldiers participating in Plan Colombia.

It’s important to know what’s going down in Colombia because Colombia is the front line of the U.S.’s current foreign policy in Latin America. And because at the same time the country is producing some of the most interesting music, art and culture of anywhere in the hemisphere. So for the next few months expect more words and sounds from the south, and expect them to come not from the usual talking heads, but from graffiti artists, human rights promoters and musicians. There are many stories to tell.

Colombia 2009

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“Colombia’s back” proclaims the travel guide Lonely Planet in its new introduction to the country. But back from what? The violent abyss of past decades? The cocaine-flavored stereotyping by foreigners? The guerilla forces that choked the highways like cholesterol? Well, yes, that’s what they mean. But how did it happen, and what’s changed? READ MORE...

Into Venezuela: words have a hard time keeping up

Life is so busy being lived, words have a hard time keeping up. Divine how that happens sometimes. A week ago I was set to enter Venezuela, which seems about a lifetime ago. The bus from Bogotá took 17 hours to the border. It was the longest buss-butt I have ever endured, and over the course of the trip I laughed, cried, and ran through just about every other travel cliché there is. In the end, I made friends with the three guys who took turns driving the buss, throwing it down mountain roads and through pueblitos. A good thing I endeared myself to them, they ended up offering to make me a reservation at the hotel they always stay at in Cucutá, the Colombian border town that was the final destination. At midnight I checked in to a cement square with a TV, toilet, sink, shower (PVC pipe), bed, AND AC for five American dollars.

Up early, showered & out the room. Traditional breakfast of eggs, beans and rice (can never go wrong), walked down the rutted dirt road to the highway, taxi to the Terminal de Pasajeros. Bad rumors had been getting thicker as we had approached the border the day before. Chávez is riled up again and Colombo-Venezuelan relations have once again deteriorated. This time Chávez has a pretty legitimate complaint: last month it was leaked that Colombia has agreed to allow the establishment of five US military bases within its borders. It was a pretty direct flouting of the 1994 Colombian constitution (given that the agreement was made without public scrutiny) and is seen by Colombia’s neighbors as a legitimate threat to their security. You have to understand people have a pretty cynical view of the US military here. History has not left our country in a good light.

So, Chávez is rattling sabers and generally being a pain in my ass this morning. He had previously closed the border to all cargo trucks carrying everything except food, causing a kilometers-long backup on the border highway and chaos in Cucutá. I had received some advice that I would be better off to cross into Venezuela at a much smaller crossing an hour north. So off I went, feeling pretty good about myself, timing and Life in General as I walked through the craziness that accompanies every international border, even at 8:30am.

There’s a single Colombian soldier posted at the bridge. I ask him about an exit stamp from Colombia, and he tells me that the only migration office is back in Cucutá, an hour away. Or, he says, cross and see what they tell you over there, maybe you don’t need one. So off I went, among the motorcycles and women crossing the dull metal of the bridge shoved between the two shores of a lazy tropical river of wide mud. Entering Venezuela I offer myself up to the soldiers on the other side, asking about passport stamps. They are sweaty and look at me only as if I only intend to make them sweat more. They do not want to sweat. But they like to make others sweat more than them, so they themselves feel less sweaty. This is as much as I understand them. They ask  me to unpack my bag, laying out everything on a small table for them. Particular interest in the unopened jar of chunky Jif peanut butter I’m carrying (reaction: disgust). Particular interest in my blackbook, leafing through the pages slowly (reaction: mutual sweatyness).

Moments like this one are something that few writers in the US have experience with. When a soldier is leafing through your notebook, what you have written or are thought to have written can suddenly get you into a lot of trouble. I have the habit of taking travel notes more in English than Spanish for this reason, and usually switch out the names of dictators for less impressive, Anglo equivalents. Fidel is Frank and so on. Words can be as dangerous as bullets (verbo = bala) or, as was pointed out to me later in VZ, as calming as arrows of peace. In the end, a lot of nothing happens. Information about the border stamp? Just continue on, I’m told. So off I go, to wait 40 minutes for the next transport to the next town for the next bus.

Venezuela is the most militarized country I have ever traveled in. Whereas Cuba is an elderly revolution, mostly concerned with reliving its past, both real and imagined, Venezuela is a militant youth with strong ideas and eyes on the future. There are checkpoints about every 300 meters, it seems. As soon as the soldiers see me (and they always see me), we are stopped and everyone is asked for ID. The first two checkpoints are military, and I’m cleared through without and trouble other than sweat on my part. Then, we hit the National Guard checkpoint.

Lots of flipping through my passport. Looking for something. Looking for something that isn’t there. And then my passport isn’t there at all, it’s walking across the highway to the head honcho. Here we go. Could come here plees? I’m asked. Speak Spanish? And now the question: fake ignorance, or talk my way out of it. I of course go for the verbo. Turns out that my passport doesn’t have an entry stamp (!), and I am in Venezuela illegally. But qué pasó with the soldiers telling me to continue on? “Mah, those are just soldiers,” he says, “just like any soldiers in the world, the only thing they know about is war.”

In addition to being militarized, I now learn that VZ is also very corrupt. We dance the classic 1-2 of good cop / sweaty cop, meanwhile the van and all its other passengers wait on the other side of the highway. If I pay a bribe now, I’ll be paying bribes for the rest of my time in this country. No go. The van driver seems reluctant to leave me with the cops, but I reassure him, and off he goes. Eventually the good cop tells me there’s a migration office just down the street from the village we’re in. Back I go.

Same thing in the migra office. Stamp? “We have no stamps here. But please, sir, let us give you the run around while we practice our Englitch upon you. You attend college? Batchelor? Me too.” Fantastic. We’re overeducated with nowhere to go, all of us at once. I invite you to high-five with our respective deplomas, sir.

The batchelor eventually sticks out an arm and stops a car passing by the office. He tells the guy driving to give me a ride back to the border bridge. Back I go.

Six hours from when I was last there, I find myself sitting at la Terminal in Cucutá. It is now 3:30pm and the heat is like Venezuelan diesel fuel: cheap, everywhere, and the locals seem to live on it. Also like the heat are the rumors, which have gotten thicker as the day has gone on. I’m told Chávez has closed the border completely. Or maybe he hasn’t. Or he will. Or there’s a two hour line. Or that diplomas and passports are being smoked like cigars by the Venezuelans. At least that I know not to be true.

In the end, lucky break, I met the right group of guys with the right car for the right price. The right price being five American dollars for what will turn out to be a four hour trip and two stops for migration. The right car is, during this particular day in my life, a maroon Chevy Caprisse that looks like it has dealt with this heat and these rumors everyday since 1985. Off I go, five other men and me, roaring through the swarms of motorcycles and carhorns.

Only a 20 minute wait to get the exit stamp. A brief moments of international limbo, then the entry stamp into VZ is almost instant. I sink lower in my seat with every checkpoint, lots of trunk popping, but we get through OK. Conversation in the Caprisse is interesting. I can tell the driver is a armchair (or driver’s seat) philosopher and political analyst, the kind that holds a diploma from university of Constant Conversation. At one point he says “en este país uno trabaja como negro por intentar vivir como gringo.” In this country one works like a black to try to live like a gringo. He’s a Chavista (pro-Chávez), he says, but only because he’s also an oportunista.

I daze in and out of coherence. We arrive at San Cristóbal as dusk is folding down the hills. I pay the driver his 10,000 pesos, he’s all smiles and solid advice. Just in time: the last buss for Mérida, my destination, leaves in 30. Hand shaking with the men. Off I go. Toilet, call ahead to my friend in Mérida, eat some fried bananas, take another Dramamine, the bus leaves. Six hours of intense air conditioning and a soundtrack dominated by karaoke versions of modern pop hits, as interpreted by keyboards set to sound like Andean pan pipes. Torture by excessive comfort and suave.

Midnight. Mérida. Taxi to the address of my contact, Nestor. En route I realize that I copied his address but not his apartment number. My cellphone died in the Caprisse. The taxi driver plays the young punk at first, then gives in and calls Nestor for me. Nestor does not answer. We try again. Nope. I give the taxista his money and he advises me not to wander too much in this neighborhood.

I convince the doorman at the gate of the apartments to let me charge my cell in his guardshack. I have good reason to believe he is drunk. And! Turns out my Colombian SIM card won’t work here. So I make friends with another, younger, less-drunk guard who calls Nestor again. Nada de Nestor. There are hundreds of apartments here. I have visions of curling up next to the landscaping to sleep.

Then! Phone call! Nestor! Drunk in a bar in the centro! On his way home! “Voy pa’lla!” And there it is, my people. 2am, stretched out on a deflating air mattress in apartment 2-B, Mérida, Venezuela. My first night in the country.

That was just one day, over a week ago.

Words are having a hard time keeping up.

Arrival to Bogotá: impossible to be lost

I was having a conversation on the plane at 4:45am with a civil engineering professor who was coming home to visit Bogotá, which is where we were about to land. He and his girlfriend were asking me my plans for Bogotá. Namely, where I was going to stay. They both seemed mildly shocked when I told them I didn’t know, that I was planning to land first and figure it out later. Then I arrived to Bogotá but my suitcase didn’t. My senses were so dulled from the previous 24 hours of travel that I found myself just standing next to the empty luggage conveyor, blank-faced. The peppy airline employee didn’t seem surprised at my situation, and I guess I shouldn’t be either. There were three flights between two airlines, likely my suitcase just decided to go out for some drinks in Houston and didn’t make it back to the airport in time. Understandable. I recieved a couple sheets of paper, a complimentary bag of girly toiletries and a phone number to call in the next few days to see if the suitcase makes it down.

The first thing I learned about Bogotá: it’s cold in July. Just a fistful of hours ago I was in Tucson with the temperature hovering around 108F (42C), and then it’s dawn and I’m standing in a grey sunrise, 45F (7C). Pull on the jacket, catch a taxi to La Candelaria to look for coffee and a grip on things at 8200’ (2500m) above sea level.

La ciudad amanece gris. Grises las calles, grises los cielos, gris la recorrida en taxi. Y puede ser por eso que me llena de tanta emoción cuando la veo por primera vez: quieta sin viento, una filosa espada de color, violenta y alegre. No la estaba buscando, pero cuando veo la bandera colombiana por primera vez empiezan a valer la pena las 24 horas de viaje me ha costado encontrarla.

The street art here is amazing. Must be the reaction of such a vivid people against their gray capital. That’s what I’m thinking as I wander the half-abandoned streets of La Candelaria, a colonial neighborhood near the centro. I had been sitting on a park bench for a few minutes with my blackbook, watching the shoe shiners set up for the day, and the street people wander through, complaining to anyone who would listen. And now, walking, I realize I had unconsciously been worried about getting lost when another thought occured to me. If I have little idea of where I am and no idea of where I’m going, how could I be lost? Impossible.

My favorite two pieces of street graffiti poetry thus far:

"De$sarrollo es suicidio" (Proge$$ is suicide)

"Somos un . . ." (We are a . . .) Probably the artist was surprised in the act and couldn't finish the phrase, but I'd like to think it was intentional. What are we, anyway? Fill in the blank, if you can. Mad-lib graffiti.

I had contacted a potential host through CouchSurfing, an independent travel website that I’ve been involved with for a few years. Everything ended up working out, and soon I was at her place having a conversation about Hispanic American literature. She’s a professor at the university here, and a very generous person who frequently hosts travelers from all over the world. I sleep for a few hours, eat, wander a bit.

We go out with other Surfers to a show at a infamous local bar, El Quiebra-Canto. Two local bands are playing: La Makina del Caribe and Tumbacatre. The DJ is spinning salsa with some Orishas, Sargento García and Bob Marley thrown in. There is definitely something happening in Bogotá, it feels new but could be very old at the same time. Young underground culture seems to be everywhere. And I’m dancing, dancing, dancing to La Makina del Caribe, who plays chapeta, a very happy music with tropical guitar and a solid rhythm section.

I liked Tubacatre even more (see video below). They hail from Colombia’s Pacific coast and are a true force, mixing Caribbean rhythms with heavy Baltic influence. What could be better? Their name supposedly comes from a cheap aguardiente alcohol, but it literally means something like “bed breaker,” and is used to describe a woman who is energetic in the sack. As in, “Ay, manica, ¿esa es Sara la tumbacatre?” The group’s lead vocalist is an afro-colombian guy with a grin and pipes that could blow down the room. He’s six inches off the mic almost all night.

Around then I have my second revelation of the day. More of a comparison, actually. Out of nowhere I saw myself standing next to the luggage belt at dawn, despondent. And then immediately I saw myself dancing shoulder-to-shoulder with a load of new friends, drunk on the energy of this place as much as anything.

This is going to be good. 39 more days in Colombia.


Another Colombian group, Bomba Estéreo:

¡Off to Colombia!

Well, here it is, compañeros. Opportunity and wanderlust have collided again, and I'm off to Colombia for five weeks. After spending the last three months in the US (the most in over three years), it feels strangely right to be heading somewhere where nobody knows my name and living in the moment is the only way to go. I'm sitting in Phoenix Sky Harbor right now, using the last few minutes of free internet access before my flight leaves.

I woke a dawn this morning in Sierra Vista after having stayed up most of the night packing. It was a hazy, pastel, slow burn. Then to Tucson to drop of artwork at the wonderful Raices Taller, where I'll be showing prints from Arroyo Ink as part of a larger exhibition starting this weekend. My first art show... never expected that to happen. Then the shuttle to Phoenix, which today happened to be populated with large, tattooed and decidedly chatty men of every ethnicity. Now they're boarding to LAX, then to Houston, then overnight to Bogotá. I'll arrive to an unknown city at 5am Thursday.

I'll be traveling Colombia for a few weeks, then attending the NYU Hemispheric Institute of Performance & Politics' Encuentro at the end of August.

Time for the unknown. Hasta pronto.

Nicaragua Night Hotel

The man who guards the front door sings to himself as he guards the front door. There’s one huge roof over the squat hotel, hovering over the rooms on columns. The rooms are a set of cement walls and a few flimsy doors. There’s a patio in the middle.. Most of the guests try to bathe before trying to sleep through the slow tropic heat, and the showers have elaborate tiles which are old enough to be covered in something that looks like rust. Only near the door are the tiles smooth and bright, worn by feet into a thin trail. There are cement washtubs built into the corner of both small shower rooms. The guests never used to bathe with running water. Above, a single fluorescent tube is screwed into one of the vigas, the spiderwebs around it have become so clogged with dust that they have become the ceiling.

At night there are only the sounds. Men murmur to their lovers, water falls from a plastic pipe in the shower, the singing man guards the front door from a rocking chair. He will stand naked in the shower at dawn.

Then it starts to rain like teenagers throwing fistfuls of water against the fired-earth tiles of the roof. The drips start through the spiderwebs. Empty rocking chairs nod with the wind coming off the lake, which is running down the empty streets, looking for open doorways. If the guests were to take showers now, they’d run across the patio, trying to avoid the rain. They run their fans all night long, for the mosquitoes. For the sound.

A dog is echoing somewhere outside. Most of the guests are old. They’re asleep now, or laying awake waiting for drips, listening to the fans.

The man in the rocking chair also whistles. His tongue is a cello bow drawn across a bending handsaw. The flimsy doors are closed. Snoring harmonizes with the rain that harmonizes with the fans. The dog must be stuck on a roof somewhere.

The curtains are thin. The sheets are thinner. And the man who whistles a handsaw is the thinnest of all.

End of Tour // Off to Honduras

From now until July 18th, 2008 I will be mostly out of contact as I travel through Central America. I will periodically be checking email, but will only have a chance to respond to urgent messages. For Verbobala booking, please use this contact form on the Verbobala site. Gracias, ¡nos vemos después!

The problem with writing about tour is that there is rarely chance to do so. From mid-March until the end of May, Verbobala toured from Tucson to Portland, Boston to San Antonio, New York to Austin. It was our first time on tour in the US, and it was, in short, a blast.

Though Moisés (1/3 of the group) was unable to get a US visa, we were able to re-work our entire set and incorporate him through video projection. He wrote a different poem for just about every stop on the tour, recorded each one, and passed them to us the day of each show. It was incredible watching the audience react to the "mojado digital." I don't think I've ever seen an audience jump to its feet and cheer for a video projection... obviously he was able to transmit more than just his image.

In Worcester we were shown hidden speakeasies, mostly unchanged from the day that Prohibition was repealed. Adam called to the ghosts. In San Antonio we were shown an amazing time and got to meet Grupo Fantasma, a group I have loved for years. We went to Vancouver for a day and I featured at a poetry slam, which makes me feel like I've completed some crazy NAFTA-of-slam. In Tucson we debuted a brand-new full-length piece called Nobody Speaks with our sister group Flam Chen... it feels like the coolest performance I've ever been a part of. We sold t-shirts. I nearly sold out of books again. We played the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City with Patricia Smith and Jamie Caroline. Adam made his poetry open mic debut and offended everyone. We projected video onto the 60-ton, 3 story Cathedral of Junk in Austin with Show Me Tiger. We were on the radio, we scared coeds. We were called weird. We said thank you.

There is video of a lot of this, but it will be a little while before any of it goes online. Stay tuned. There is so much that could be said, so many names to mention.

I've been back in Mexico for about 10 days, catching up with Moi and other close friends. Verbobala has allowed all three of us to make a living with our art, and it feels incredible. I'm in love with this project. We'll be renting a house in Hermosillo in August to work on new material for a Mexican tour that will be September-October. Later in the fall we'd like to do some Canadian dates. There's some ideas for Argentina as well. Hopefully we can work with some people to get Moi's US visa worked out, it would be nice to tour the States again sometime. But we're not sitting around waiting for it.

Here's to hoping for Obama in November.

One thing about tour: it is definitely not vacation. It is a privilege to travel, but it's not relaxing, that's for sure. As of Wednesday, I'm gone traveling. It is time to disappear for awhile again with a blackbook and a pen. I'm headed to Honduras to meet up with a friend, then moving through Nicaragua to Costa Rica. We'll be mostly off the beaten path. As of July 18th I'll be back full-time.

Hasta entonces, amigos. Que les vaya chido.

Arizona Freeway Sunrise

The grasses are always dancing in the median,headbangers, seed sowers, dry spines twisting. Freeway flowers face early decapitation— guillotine tirewind, lit by skyfire:

here the sun is literally a star, made of beaten copper, sharp, imperfect. As the star pulls itself up again, the sky goes streaked, the improbable pattern of yellow-red, vivid.

The radio stations are just murmurs in the Spanglish static. The cities hide behind the horizons. The tires break grass necks. The flowers throw themselves like colorful, suicidal philanthropists into the eastbound, into the westbound.

Saguaro shadows are twirling sundials on the clock face of burning sand, they tick, they spin, they speak until they’re spoken to, torn down, paved over, left in piles, sold.

The rush, the hush, the hiss of wind and the immutable silence of light. The piston explosions, the cellphone syllables.

Two realities in the same moment. Two landscapes that never touch.

Arizona freeway sunrise. A breeze blowing through barbwire.

Amanecer en carretera de Arizona

Los pastos siempre bailan en el camellón, de atrás para adelante, esparcen la semilla, sus secas espigas se tuercen. Las flores de carretera enfrentan temprana decapitación; viento-guillotina de llantas, iluminadas por el fuego del cielo:

aquí el sol es literalmente una estrella hecha de cobre forjado, puntiaguda, imperfecta. Mientras la estrella se levanta de nuevo, bandas cruzan el cielo, el improbable patrón de amarillo-rojo, intenso.

Las estaciones de radio sólo son murmullos en la estática. Las ciudades se esconden detrás de los horizontes. Las llantas rompen cuellos del césped. Las flores se arrojan como coloridos y suicidas filántropos hacia el este, hacia el oeste.

Las sombras de los saguaros son manecillas que giran sobre el cuadrante de la arena hirviente, hacen tictac, giran, hablan hasta que se les habla, derribados, asfaltados, apilados, vendidos.

La prisa, la calma, el silbar del viento y el silencio inalterable de la luz. Las explosiones de pistones, las sílabas de celulares.

Dos realidades en un mismo instante. Dos paisajes que jamas se tocan.

Amanecer en carretera de Arizona Una brisa silbando entre alambre de púas.

Trad. de J. Emilio Rodríguez

I live in Cuernavaca, México.


With one hour to go before leaving Sierra Vista, the sky filled with the unmistakable darkness of monsoon. All afternoon while running errands I had been watching them dance around the San Pedro valley, a downpour over the Tombstone hills while we burned away under the Arizona sun in the foothills of the Huachuca mountains.

Then, as I was stuffing the final items into my bulging bags, the thunder broke open the sky, the wind protested and I had to drop everything, running from window to window, slamming them shut, turning off the air conditioning, unplugging electronics, putting towels under the doors. It was a violent one, one of those rains that brings pain with the pleasure. The dirt of the yard was dancing as the huge drops hit it, a million mud craters. Window panes shaking, dogs shaking, following me around the house.

I can't think of a better parting gift from this land that I love so much. I had been waiting weeks over several different visits to see this. It takes a desert to truely appreciate rain.

It was time to go. My dad and I threw the things in the car, slammed the doors and swung by the school where my Mom teaches, to pick her up after her pre-first day Open House. We drove fast down I-10, watching the sky fill on all sides with beautiful bruises. Rainbows and lighting, the kind that picks one path and pulses three, four, even five times, punishing a tree or some outcrop of rock.

Soon we drove right into it, the rain coming hard, the windshield wipers not keeping up. Everyone drives too fast on the freeway, thinking it will never happen to them. Around a bend we came upon a cowboy standing in the left lane, waving his hat frantically, trying to divert traffic from a newly-flipped car on the side of the road.

A quick bite in Tucson, goodbyes, then the shuttle to Phoenix. I listened to Gato Barbieri and it was the most perfect moment to do so.

At midnight Sky Harbor is nearly as much of a ghost town as the airport in La Habana. A large group of Mexicans and I waited for them to open the security checkpoint again to board our flight.

If Phoenix can ever be called beautiful, it is from the window of an airplane, some 5,000 feet above it at night, the green and orange designs of the city contrasting with the white flashing of the sky. Saying goodbye.

Taking notes during the flight, my pen exploded. Mexican airlines got it down: not too much noise from the capitan and free booze instead of juice and soda.

We arrived in Guadalajara some four hours later. There, after receiving yet another Mexico stamp on the passport, I settled down across some chairs for some good sleep as I passed the four hour layover until my next flight to Mexico D.F. When I awoke, I checked my watch and then flipped over and came face-to-face with an entire family of Mexicans who were sitting across from me.

"Buenos dias," the woman said.

"Buenos dias," I said, mumbling something about sleeping with an audience--performance sleeping--and smiling.

The flight which I waited four hours for of course only took 45 minutes. Then, the moment of truth: would my two heavy bags reappear? Would I lose all those books I brought? All those teacher clothes?

They were the first two to come down the belt. I strapped myself to them and stumbled through the huge airport, somehow missing customs entirely and found my bus. Ah Mexican busses, the envy of the New World. A reclining seat, a bad movie to watch ("Modern Problems," with Chevy Chase given superpowers by nuclear waste, circa 1982 or so), two bathrooms and--even new to me--a stewardess walking up and down the buss in high heels, distributing cookies and drinks.

I was in Cuernavaca by noon, and whisked away soon after by good friends, who treated me to quesadillas con queso oaxaqueña (the best) y mucho pero mucho chile. Then, a four hour siesta.

While the National Poetry Slam rages in Austin, I'm adjusting to the New Thing here in central Mexico. I'm staying with the parents of my friends, who have a beautiful house surrounded by the greenest garden imaginable. He is a fiery 72-year-old abuelo whose grandchildren think came from venus, and she is around the same age and will soon graduate from a college of traditional medicines. Right now she's in the kitchen mixing up herbs and making potions. The grandkids call her media-bruja, and laugh.

We spend a lot of time on the porch, watch storms roll in, talking and drinking water with lime and sugar.

I write, read, try to learn the ins of this new city along with the outs, think about Austin, miss my girlfriend and generally enjoy feeling my Spanish surge back through my body, up and out of my mouth.

Work starts Monday, and it will be a task, occupying most all my time, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Like some propaganda on a wall told me yesterday: "Enseñar es tocar una vida para siempre."

But for now, la señora of the house wants to show me how she makes some of the herbal solutions. Siempre hay más para aprender.

Bienvenue au Café Cheri(e): An American Poet Performing in Paris

A packed house at Café Cheri(e) on this lucid and hot Paris summer night. All up and down Boulevard du Belleville most is quiet: cargo trucks covered in graffiti, the Vietnamese, the Thai district. It’s a Tuesday, and like everywhere, slam makes for a packed house even on a weeknight. The place is bathed in a sweaty red light coming from a chandelier of red bulbs hanging over the heads of the crowd. Spring and I have to squeeze our way in. Smoking is still legal here, and it’s in full effect, the red light falling through it. 9:30pm and the sun hasn’t begun to set outside. Though we arrive after the thing has started, anyone who has been to a few hundred slams over the years (or even a few, I guess) would know exactly what was happening without speaking a word of French.

The infamous Pilote le Hot is a the helm, he’s screaming for scores from the three judges. Maybe 60 people inside, another 30 sitting at tables outside. Pilote and K’trin-D remember me after I introduce myself. We competed against each other in the same bout in Albuquerque at the National Poetry Slam last August. Pilote is in a state I recognize right away: Host Mode. The scattered brain, the running, the yelling, the grinning, all conclusive symptoms. In the midst of it though, he asks me if I would like to read a sacrifice poem before the second round, no matter the language.

“Do you think it would go over well?” I ask, unsure. So far, the widely-held belief that the French are assholes has proved false, but I can imagine that a gringo shouting at them in English from a stage could possibly push them to blows.

“Oh yes, man,” Pilote says in his trademark accent and crooked grin. “Do it.”

It doesn’t take much convincing. After being in a country whose language I don’t speak, where most things seem strange to me, being at a slam is somehow calming, a spot of familiar in a sea of crazy Europe. I drink a beer, talk to a few of the poets around, most of whom speak a little English. “All us poets speak the same language,” one of them tells me.

My heart is beating like it hasn’t before a performance in a long time. The poets have assured me that the crowd will be into it—or at least they probably won’t boo me off the stage, even if they understand very little. I think of the first time I saw Pilote perform, back at the 2003 National Poetry Slam in Chicago. Obviously a lot less people spoke French in that room that speak some English here.

Pilote is back on stage. By way of my introduction, he says “it’s not his fault that he is American,” both in English and French so that we’re all on the same page. The crowd is welcoming and claps even louder as I get on stage, rather than starting to die off, which seems to be the American way of doing things.

“Bonsoir, ça va?” I say into the cordless mic, “Bueno, hablo mucho español and I speak English but je ne parle pas français, but I’m going to learn. Thank you for having me.” I do “The Boy’s Pockets,” maybe over exaggerating the movements a little, as Pilote has told me to perform my ass off, or something like that. I forget the poem about halfway through, as I sometimes do when I’m unpracticed. I freestyle it, weaving back into the poem.

The crowd is generous. Several people approach me later to ask questions about me—and even better—about the poem. The meaning of the word matches for instance: “Lashes?”

“No, matches. To light your cigarette.” A free beer for le artiste, good cheer. They started with around eighteen poets at the beginning of the night, and the cuts are fierce in the second and third rounds. Ángel Pastor is in the house and performing tonight, which is a definite treat. The Spanish-born poet also journeyed to Albuquerque last summer and Danny Solis reportedly called him “a national treasure” after Solis featured here in Paris. And at around 80 years old, Pastor definitely is a treasure.

Standing no more than 5’5”, with long white hair and a long white beard, the man rarely uses a microphone, as he sings cante jondo at the top of his lungs. Old, revolutionary songs modified from time to time to fit modern day. The crowd always loves him and has a chant that they sing every time he comes off stage. After eleven years, the original Paris Poetry Slam (now one of many) is as developed as any slam I’ve seen. While K’trin-D is onstage, some of the other poets are mouthing her poem along with her.

France has had its own National Poetry Slam for the last four years, the 2006 event hosted sixteen adult teams from all over the country and ten adolescent teams. And unlike their American counterparts, these poets are all paid by the state to compete. Everything from rail tickets to lodging and food are covered, which is why the tournament most grow slowly—it requires a massive amount of financial support.

The French National team will be competing at the United States National Poetry Slam for the second time this August in Austin, Texas. Lead by K’trin-D and Pilote, the team will perform in French while their poems are projected in English behind them. If you’re in Austin, they’re worth checking out.

Learn more: La Fédération Française de Slam Poésie: The United States National Poetry slam: Slam Productions (France):

parisian heartbreak

paris, france broke in a great city national day of hangover after worldcup loss (header to the chest) sporatic violence and fire sher ner pall pah fransays in good health, lots of ink even this keyboard speaks french home soon

ps; if you are paris julie slamcoach... email me pps; even if not, email me

the trip told in matches

Barcelona, Catalunya From an email I just wrote to my wonderful friend Melinda:

The night of that game [Brasil v. France], the Catalans in here in Barcelona put up with more pro-France frollicking than I imagine they ever have. Throngs in the streets, bouncing and screaming France songs, climbing statues and monuments and draping them in the French flag (!), painted faces, the whole bit.

One could, if one wanted, tell the whole story of this trip in World Cup matches.

For instance, we were supposed to be in France for tomorrow night's semifinal. But apparently the French railworkers have gone on strike and no trains are running in that country right now. So we are effectively marooned here in Barcelonatown holding our Eurail passes in our sweaty, American fingers. Sure, we could take the bus, but we have these passes, bought & paid for already. We're entitled, damnit.

So likely we'll be here for France's semifinal victory and more rioting in the streets.... really, either way, since you figure Spain is the meat in the Portugal-France sandwhich. And what a delicious sandwhich, anyway.

We would've been in Paris for the final match. We still might be. Jesus. The pot is starting to boil.

(The pot being europe, the water being the europeans' tempers, the fire being el fut... and the sandwhich still being the sandwhich, which is to say, delicious.)

There's more where that came from... drunks in Ireland cheering for England until the crowd broke into 'god save the queen'... a drunk in Barcelona shouting '¡viva franco!' which was the name of Argentina's goalkeep during the penalty kicks in Germany v. Argentina, also the name of Spain's former dictator... etc...

Stranded in Barcelona, broke and taking notes. Never mind that the press mentions nothing about the strike, nor have we heard it from anyone else... could be a practicle joke on the part of the Barcelona train station... we weren't on that metro train in Valencia that took a dive at cost of 41 lives yesterday, at least theres that... the internet is too expensive here for me to be posting much... the fotos of the caos will have to wait to be posted until I'm stateside again maybe...

snowmen in cataluña

Barcelona, Cataluña, España

So these two snowmen are standing alone out in a field together, a little bored. Then, one turns to the other and says, "Hey, do you smell carrots?"

A John Kofonow joke via Nick Fox.

All the longing in the tourist ghettos, drinking and questioning, little worlds wrapped in a big one.

We can't afford anything and aren't worried.

españa venga

Madrid, España Spring Winders. Nick Fox. Logan Phillips. Between us, everything. Before us, even more. Spain spreads out as a twisting desert, yellow and orange after the green burning of Ireland and England. A twisting desert, a desert having a bad dream, tossing and turning all through the day, trying to sleep as the sun falls hard all over it.

We sleep with no air conditioning. The old streets hold no reason only rhyme. Romans, jews and moors. We wander and tear vivid fotos from our eyes. Below the city, sitting in tunnels, the women flick open their fans, rocking their wrists back and forth, sending a breeze across their glistening faces. The wind in the subway, trapped, searching. The men talk quickly.

Picasso's Guernica looms huge in my face while I try to fall to sleep, until my face rearranges, my nose falling backwards, my eyes sliding downward, searching for the sky.

Tears held by long strings a windchime in minor key. We surround ourselves in it.

Walk and write, walk and write. Blink too much, squint. Everywhere graffiti, the good kind, the street poems, the molotov portrait stencils. Still nothing like London's Banksy, a hero, but still. Lay some ink down.

North African gypsy music on the streets, the smirking streets.

Madrid is La Habana without the neglect. La Habana is Madrid, hot. This, América Latina turned inside out. Or vice versa. Vice on the streets, the vivid streets.

The cop cars speeding through pedestrian zones. Children fleeing.

These notes while running. Reading more Galeano. Sitting at Garcia Lorca's bronze feet. My tongue remembering how it loves to move.

Old. World.

London, England Kicking and alive. Ireland was good. Words to come in the July NOISE. Spain coming. A lot more soon, check back.

London Gossip II They say if the ravens die in the fortress, the kingdom will fall. If they leave the tower, the same. So first, modern paranoia-- they clipped their black wings. Then, a postmodern twist-- birdflu spread across the world. So now, to protect a legend, the birds are kept inside.