Non-Places of non-Augé

Here’s a post that might sound bit boring for some of you in contrast with all the crazy travel stories or weird fieldworks notes. I apologize. It was just that some months ago one of the world’s most recognized anthropologists Marc Augé visited Tallinn, Estonia. I was excited, as contrasts between modern cityscapes and village life sincerity has always intrigued me, as well as marginal places, contested places, and even those which Marc Augé would call non-places.

I was asked to cover the intensive seminar that took place in Tallinn University for an article in Estonian cultural newspaper Sirp. The English version got published in MaterialWorld blog.

But here’s the start for you:

Notes from an intensive seminar Places and Non-Places: Thinking Anthropologically with Marc Augé

Estonian Institute of Humanities and the Graduate School of Culture Studies and Arts, Tallinn University, 12th-13th October 2012

When visiting Delhi in 2010, I remember a slight cultural shock from one of the city’s recently completed subway lines. Not that I found something bleakly intrinsic to India, but on the contrary – I was intrigued by the lack of it, or by strange intersections between this ‘lacking’ and various existing or imaginary layers of culture. The new transportation system seemed to be far from what I had remembered from my earlier visit to India. In this heavily conditioned and rather silently sliding subway you could perhaps imagine to be in Singapore or Seattle. There was a Hindu dressed in a bright purple sari scanning over the London-styled subway signs, until from the announcements articulated in high-end English she recognised her own. The doors opened automatically, she drove along the escalator down to the lower floor and stepped from the white floor onto the dirty streets. Among dozens of noisy taxi drivers she waved down a rickshaw-taxi, in which she probably had to sweat for the next half hour in a traffic jam.

According to the French anthropologist Marc Augé these and other similar visible manifestations of globalization can be called “non-places” – a concept he first coined in 1992 in his “Non-Lieux, Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité” (published in English in 1995).

Augé writes in his book about supermodernity as the opposite side of the coin of which post-modernity shows us only the backside: this is the affirmation of negation. He tells about major changes in our society, which are the excess of events in time and acceleration of history, overabundance of space and the individualisation of references. The direction expressed in these changes, that Augé calls supermodernity, has peaked in remarkable physical alterations, including the reproduction of such places which he calls “non-places”. He opposes this to the concept of a sociological “place”, which traditionally has been associated with space and time limited in a specific culture. If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then it is a “place” – the rest would be “non-places”, such as for example highways, airports and supermarkets.

…….Read the rest at MaterialWorld blog here! please continue to catch the stalkers and the kind.

Dubai, 2006

What is your life for?

Zopa Rinpoche is supposedly one of those Buddhist Lamas, whom you would name just within the next few important lamas following His Holiness Dalai Lama. As me and Kiwa accidentally stepped in the monastery located on ridges of mountains, we were invited to be part of the special ocasion when Lama Zopa is in person here and gives a lecture of about 4-5 hours.
In the large hall with high ceilings a giant Buddha statue instantly attracts all my senses. He is so powerfully effective, as if he essentially fills the entire room. Monks, nuns and other soul-searchers sitting in a lotus position on the pillows seem to be shifting in slow-motion, serene glow in their eyes as if they are just a stone’s throw away from reaching nirvana. Obviously, we were here in this  Buddhist world the only two layman, as after an hour-long waiting (/meditation) Lama finally walked in, the whole room quickly took a position of humble greeting, which in our case remained a very clumsy copy.
When Zopa had taken his seat on the throne and we all had worshiped him three times (i.e. full-length cast on your stomach), then at the first place I could only hear some noisy mumbling in the microfon. Fortunately, his verbalisations went clearer with the time, but in general it was difficult to follow the teachings of Lama. Lama began to sing prayers, and with each of his resonating voice in a low grumble line I dissapeared deeper and deeper into myself.

An illusion, a drop of oil, or a bubble
A dream, a flash of lightening, a cloud
See conditioned things as such!

This last line was what Lama raised in focus with an emphasis during his speech. This is to see through the conditionality, and yet not to forget even for a moment that the life experience of the human body is unique – we have this precious human body, in which we were born. Lama speaks that kindness, openness and love will lead to happiness; brutality, selfishness and closeness will lead to suffering. Lama says that with clearing your mind you will reach the meaning of OM, when you can see past, present and future at a time. You will also see the hell and suffering of humanity. But then you reach the light. Lama sworns us to ask ourselves, what is our biggest wish. While this may sound like an ego-tripp, he was joking, we all should have it written on the cover of our notebook or on the fridge door: Why this life? And from there on – whether I’m living it for myself or countless others?
Again, I sunk deep into myself, trying to meditate on the philosophy he had risen. What is your life for… Precious human body… Happiness, suffering…

These thoughts kept on resonating my mind even when we were seeking the way down the valley  through the dense rain at night with Kiwa. Cold, wet, horrible – what a suffering. And at the same time – what a blessing it was to actually experience this ghostly black wet beneath and around us in the mountains, when running down the hill, hand in hand.
In this emotionally polarized state of mind it seemed to be impossible to contrast the happiness and suffering to the end. Because isn’t it that all we lose (and we constantly lose something) includes some suffering, and on the other hand, each new breath of air brings us again some happiness.

All wet, freezing, but happy because a randomly passing car just picked us up on the half way, we ordered some tea from the last café still open. While silently sipping our tea, I read the lines by Dalai Lama on the walls of the café:
Every day, think as you wake up. Today I’m fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have precious human life. I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightment for the benefits of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others. I am not going to het angry or think badly about others. I’m going to benefit others as much as I can.
(14-th Dalai Lama)

Indian secret chests vol 2

Manu is filled with joy like a small boy who’s got a hold of his grandfather’s whisky bottle without the grandfather’s slightest suspicion. Papa gains inspiration to bring another bowl of dhal. But evening is about to come and this usually means rain and the blackest darkness of all here. Here, in Ban Gotu village, there’re kilometers of mountains between us and the “civilisation”. The hostess once again asks me to spend a night at their house, just like the hostess of the previous household, but the thought of worrying Kiwa, my travel-mate who decided to stay in today, down in the valley doesn’t let me apply for the highest class of vagabunds.
At this moment I realize that I really am cut from the entire world. I have no phone nor contacts besides the uncountable number of Anands and Anurands who, showing their utter helpfulness, have jotted down their numbers into my notebook. I also have no documents. If there is something to happen with me, I’d be the only witness and this would be it. No one has a clue where I am or what I do, I have only a few hundred rupees in my pocket.
But the feeling of freedom I have stating this. Once again I feel as if I’d been in chains for years, which is why every minute I get to move not depending on anybody, along the route that seems the best for me seems like a gift from god. I also knew there was nothing that would happen to me – instincts are stronger than fear.

Manu eagerly dashes along the mountain paths. We find ourselves admiring an astonishing sunset, which in a dominating overcast here is extraordinary. Darkness rolls over the valley, but luckily we manage to find a car from a nearby temple, which would take us back to Dharamasala. When Manu wants to take a sip of whisky while sitting on the backseat of the taxi, he does it with utter cautiousness, he bends down so that nobody could witness his decadence.

Down in  Dharamsala we once again get to sense the chaos so common for India when together with other people not in the know wait for the bus to McLeod. Then Manu wants to take me to his favourite restaurant Karpet, which appears to be the same Carpe Diem, where the friends of Parvez from Delhi work. The world shrinks a bit again and the party continues. It lasts so long that we have to walk to Bhagsu, our home village, because those in transportation business are long having their night rest.
At our home gate the side of Manu, which hadn’t let me trust him from the beginning, finally appears. The strong army man falls into the fascination of a white woman and he can’t let her go. So far the positions had been fixed, he’d been able to honour the set distance between a man and a woman. But one should never trust an Indian, especially not the one who’s drunk half a bottle of whisky. All the stupid struggle ends with the  situation that poor Kiwa, already comfortably in bed, has to witness the soldier’s courageous incursion into our room, because „I want to meet him, I want to see him!”
The men shake hands, one a bit more puzzled than the other, and instantly Manu disappears from our sight, for ever.

Indian secret chests

Our friendship started from the moment I decided that I’d escape from the arms of backpacker spiritualists’ and the world’s most hippie chill out zone to go to the “real India”. Transportation between McLeod and Dharmsala is carried out by small jeeps which carry about 12 people. So, there I sat, officer Manu sitting next to me. I told him I’d like to go to a village. Why, Manu seemed to protest at first. “It’s in an utterly cut area, there’s no car that would take you there, people go there on foot, and it takes hours to go over the mountains!”

But this was exactly what I watned. I wanted to see the pride and sadness written on the faces of the villagers, or find something else. Manu said he’d come with me, if I liked him to. Of course I was a bit astonished of such a courageous start. I hesitated, trying to gain some time to read his eyes: to trust or not to trust.
I decided to give him an opportunity, but I also decided not to trust him utterly. Never trust an Indian man. I sensed that something about him might become unpleasant, but I couldn’t sense what it would be. Unlike me, he could speak the local language, and this is what made me decide for him. This is how I spent two days under the care of strong Manu, who was so emotional while promising to protect me, no matter what, because Indian men are strong. Indian men are something.


I had wanted to see the pride and sadness written on the faces of the villagers. But I also found beauty. Indian women do their laundry on the shores of a creek, dressed in a full sari, pearls around their necks, bindis glowing in the secrecy of the sixth sense. In the background there are beautiful women gently walking, shyly peeping from behind their veils and later serving some tea for you. In the same tiled yard there’s a cow chewing hay, and beautiful people sitting in the shade looking at her with a sacred look. Where ever you look there are massive green mountains raising towards the sky, which in their curdled looks seem to announce the all mighty eternity of the time. Basically, life is very easy, there’s no hurry, but of course life is difficult too, and you have to earn your future just like it’s the responsibility of every father to earn his daughter’s future. The moment there’s a daughter born a family starts to save to marry the daughter in the future. A guest is offered a special tabacco, which the host’s father used to smoke, and since the host doesn’t smoke himself, there’s no one but the guests who’ve ever touched the pipe.
I wonder when was the last time somebody used it when I lay my eyes on the dusty and awing pipe with an ancient aura. The host tosses the carbon on the tobacco and turns the pipe towards me. Should I, the stranger, start the hookah? Maybe that’s a custom in India? With my first breath I find a huge black bulk and various grindings in my throat. Spitting wouldn’t be nice on a roofed terrace as nice as this one, what is more, a lovely lady, dressed in a light pink sari, is following each of my move with a curiosity of a child. I’m in the limelight for the reason that with fewer tourists they become more and more noticeable.   With the next go I’m stuck with a bitter liquid that I’d probably dipped out from the bottom of the ancient pipe. I’d rather die from a poisoning than spit before the lady dressed in pink sari. I swallow and in my mind say good bye to the world.

Pretending to be calm I puff the pipe and with the help of Manu talk to the old couple about their lives. Crossing the mountains, their daughter walks two hours a day to school, and two hours back. The father works in the town as a stonemason, the family lives a safe life on an idyllic mountain ridge, and it’s usual in India. The daughter, who seems to be a beauty pageant competitor to me, serves tea. Good that I had bought a box of biscuits in the morning because I’d now do anything to cheer the lovely children of the mountain village.

In the next house we visit Manu bargains for a local booze he actually had been dreaming about for hours. At first the men seem to be at a loss. Then Manu curageously approaches the host, proudly portrays me as a loony (wanted to climb here to visit you!) writer and photographer, and then tells how besides the honour and joy of being here we’d gladly taste a local booze. A boy dashes to the neighbouring farm and reappears with a bottle of transparent liquid. In a moment the host leads us to a dim bedroom and sits us on his high bed. Then he brings two glasses and a bowl of dhal, a popular lentil food in India. There’s suddenly a shine in the old man’s eyes when he sees the appetite I have for the dhal he’d made for me, and it is really good. The best dhal I’ve ever tried in India. We flush it down with a sugar-cane wine, which a hardy estonian would immediately call a watery soft slipslop. Manu and me drink a whole bottle, but he doesn’t leave it like that. At first he presses some rupees into the papa’s palm, then he cleverly lets the old man soften from the view of me enjoying the last bites of his dhal.

And only then does papa take a key and opens a mysterious chest in the halter. There’s something hidden from the high Indian moral, something really secretly, the real and strong whisky the old men in Indian mountains make of brown sugar.
How many times my vagabund life has taught me that in order to win you sometimes need to surrender, but again I seem to be surprised of that. Some Indian secret chest open only this way.

Is India mainstream?

I remember the anxiety before my first trip to India five years ago. It was the trip that took the virginity of me and Berit. At the time I could only count on the one hand fingers the people who I knew who had visited India. For me India was this great and mystic faraway land, though on arrival everything seemed more at its place than I had initially imagined. I could quite easily find an affordable accommodation, and rikshaw drivers did everything for you. For a piece of rupee everything could be arranged. But more or less everything had already been organized for you – guided tours or cafes, money exchanges or internet, laundry or a language course – all close at hand. Everything is there. And it works out well.

Yet right next to the well-arranged part of India there is always the good old India that’s amazing. In the shadows of the beaten tracks trampled in by the wheel of tourism there is still the real India, which startles, excites, and makes my head dizzy. But still, I could not swallow the shock just a half years ago when I heard someone calling India a mainstream travel destination. Could such a puzzle of cultures and chaos and madness ever be a mainstream travel destination?

Mainstream destination for (well, at least Estonian) hotel pool-loving tourists is probably Egypt and the Canaries. But spiritualist backpackers should drive well ahead to India. The spirituality flows here in through the doors (of perception?) faster than one could ever imagine, it seems to be written on those hundreds of colorful posters, flyers and distributed through tens of healing centers!
All that is probably much more tensed in this valley blessed by the presence of His Holiness Dalai Lama. But everyone choses his own means. If you want immediate and quick spiritual purification, go to the area of Dharamshala. If you just want quickly get tanned and rested, go to Sharm el-Sheikh.

And here we are now. This is not India. Although we are located in India, but it’s mostly a place for some certain mindset-developing for foreigners. But even here the India is resonating in each of its cell of life, so it is not so far at all, this real India. Even here between the hotels are some slum huts and rikshaw drivers are getting their evening booze somewhere nearby.
The white hippie is a bliss for them. He brings us the money! Everybody is happy. Everybody is happy is India.

Having lived near LcLeodGanj for five years, a retired flutist with blue eyes, who traveled to India across the continent from Athens for the first time during the Summer of Love, as a poor hitch-hiker, sleeping on the tree or in a riverbed, was mentioning it with a sigh – each year India becomes more and more touristic. But all this must be great, right? Right here grows the global responsibility, green thinking and the free flow of identity. And Indian rupee gathers its strength in turn.
Also, I remember that German sex worker Ulla from Shantaram (!) book, saying for the surprise of all guys in Leopold In Bombay – India has a big and beautiful future.

Brin, who also earns his bread in tourism sector, however, said that all that has made India a mainstream tourist destination has been only the initiative of the locals.  The Government hasn’t done anything to catch the tourists flows to India. On the contrary, for example, they have shortened the visa for Israelis from six months to three, and for Israelis it seems to be a very popular life-pattern –  after two-year war service they become a hippie  in India. Many restaurants have already printed their menu in Hebrew language. Also, they are pinching the Russians’ possibilities for a month-long rave parties. Russians are the ones joking, that they have their own state in India – Goa.

Mainstream or not – India is sufficiently large and colorful, so that it certainly leaves some space for the mainstream chill’n’smoke’n’sandwich leisure and for real hardcore travelling. However, if  you want to enjoy comfortable and affordable life – read, write, learn Nepali language, or do yoga – I couldn’t know a better solution than is offered by a “mainstream” India on the foot of the Himalayas.