Monday, August 21, 2006


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“Sucking a condom up your nose is like standing on your head.” – Sagittarius

“Sex in Iceland is so advanced we have to stick condoms up our noses. Maybe you will develop that far in 2000 years.” – Leo

(Last Night)


After five weeks of existential boredom in my small Bosnian town, having loved and lost (seriously, violently), I decided to go back to something I’m good at: meshing with English-speaking travelers. For a week I did this in neighboring Croatia, at the beach in touristy Dubrovnik, at the beach in touristy Hvar; later, I met friends from these four days at their hostel in Sarajevo.

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For a time before this I’d felt an anger, the type of anger which creases your face when you think about it. This black cynicism wasn’t focused on anything specific. It was reflective of a lack of charity for the things surrounding me and probably a projection of my feelings for myself (a constant mental refrain: What the hell am I doing here?).

That night, surrounded by sharp and hilarious Anglos, calling each other by our star-signs and revealing more than is probably wise, I felt at peace here, satisfied for the first time in a while. We developed a catch-phrase: “What happens in Sarajevo stays in Sarajevo.” I wished I could oblige.

They left the next day. I am now back in Visoko, typing on my computer in my peach-walled hotel room. The calendar says I have six weeks left. Among my friends, the over/under for me staying here was a month. I’ve beaten the under. I’ll make it these next six weeks, I’m pretty sure.

Something’s changing in me. When I came here, I was horrified by the lack of organization on the project, I was wearing fancy sneakers, and I asked for a Macintosh laptop to work on (I received a 1999 Powerbook with a Swedish OS installed. I can laugh about it now). Now my sneakers are brown with mud and I have a new philosophy: “Let’s party for the apocalypse.”

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I’ve started to hitchhike, and talk with the locals in my poor Bosnian more often. This mostly consists of me saying odlicno (excellent) and je sam gladan (I am hungry). I walk around town during the day instead of reading the New York sports pages on the internet. I’ve decided to be more open, and see where it gets me.

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Until recently, I was bothered by my place in this zany project, I felt like it was splitting me down the middle. On one side, I needed to do PR/web reportage building up the project and extolling the dubious qualifications of everyone involved. On the other side, I’m still an editor at a New York magazine, I have a college education, and I’m used to thinking critically. It was a mess and I did neither well.

So I’ve decided to be of one mind. This was already the case, I was just lying about it. But I don’t want to be a cynic anymore. I’d rather be in love and be a fool than not be in love and be a fool.

I’ll start now.

Sizing it up - 7/10/06

I am swayed easily. This has always been the case. On one side, this is good, for like a child I have no natural prejudices. Or rather a few, secretly harbored, deeply held.

Today I am not on the side of the underdogs. The pyramid project in Visoko has incurred my cynicism, which is like poison to a hope like this which relies so deeply on blind faith. Let me take you through my introduction to this project and see if I am unfair.

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Nancy is a 24-year-old Mediterranean beauty, smart, fiery, direct. She is an archaeologist on Mjeseca, the Pyramid of the Moon – the best on this project, the worst on some others, to hear her tell it. “This is because there is no method. I am the only one with a method. They ask me, ‘Nan-cy, why don’t you believe in pyramids?’ I am always the bad guy, because I believe in science. This is why I am leaving.”

We got acquainted over drinks the night before, and I listened to her thoughts. She said she has no friends here, but I could tell what she really meant was she has no allies. She sounded embarrassed to have supported this project against better judgments. I listened to her arguments and complaints, and my great hopes were suddenly tempered.

We are at the foot of the mountain, meeting some of her colleagues. It rained the whole night before, but the local workers still chip away at the hillside. I stand around waiting for someone to tell me what to do. Nancy is only too glad to oblige: “You want the tour? Okay, then sit down. The tour starts with you sitting down.”

(My tai chi teacher once told me the pyramid is the most resilient structure in nature. However, in my pocket, the isosceles edges of my hotel keychain poke uncomfortably through the fabric.)

Nancy smokes a cigarette. I don’t smoke with her or much at all – within a week I will smoke a pack every couple days. The few people with us joke a bit under cloth overhang, I answer questions about my former life in New York and glance over at workmen swinging pickaxes and laughing crudely. She takes a few more puffs and tosses it in the mud. She says, “C’mon!”

The workmen stop for a minute as Nancy and I edge single-file into their square. “Zdravo!” Nancy says in loud, brusque Bosnian, “Kako si?” The night before, she told me this was a rare greeting for these workers to receive, proof of her good mood. “Dobro!” they say with happy force.

Walking past, we step into the first exposed section of the pyramid. It’s impressive, these mostly uniform rows of sloping, golden bricks. It’s too patterned to be the result of nature’s whims.

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“When I first came here, I thought this has to be man-made. I don’t believe in pyramids, but I thought maybe this is an old Roman road. See the slope, how one side goes downward into the hill.

“People wouldn’t build a pyramid like this. I kept on looking for something.

“I was working fifteen hours a day, harder than anyone here.” The workmen are taking a break now, leaning on their shovels, smoking and laughing.

“I found a nail on the site where I was working [site 12, Moon, a structure first publicly speculated to be a possible tomb or entrance to the pyramid] right when I started, a couple of inches into the ground. Okay, it was near the surface, but it was in situ. Everyone said it must have been from the workers. I knew what it meant but I kept digging.

“Then [Italian geologist Dario] Andretta came. He showed me where the tiles continue,” she points to an unexposed strata with jagged stone edges, “in the hill. There are three levels right here. No one would build something like this, layer upon layer. It would be too much work.

“I kept digging. I just wanted to figure this out, whatever it is. The blocks on this square are so uneven, the workmanship is so poor. Eventually I found six or seven nails, four feet into the ground. I excavated 5 cm by 5 cm, recording everything so no one could tell me they were from the workers. Maybe it’s from WWII, it’s probably not even that old.

“I stopped digging.”

We're now in square 12, Nancy’s square. It looks abandoned, tarp hanging low in the muddy earth that fills the pit. Nancy has no problem jumping in, pointing to the places where she found nails. I watch, perched on wet ground and trying not to slip, from the high edge of the square.

She takes me up the hill, past several less remarkable sites. “Look at this, all shit!” I nod agreement. It’s not that I am making a sound judgment here; I have a hard time disbelieving such conviction.


I hear things from both sides, evidence for and against the existence of these pyramids. I try to look in their eyes, to measure the logic in their tone. But the most convincing evidence most have for themselves is a feeling. And I can’t trust other people’s feelings.

Nancy tells me, “Archaeology is the search for facts, not truth,” one morning over coffee. I think she’s right. What does context matter when there’s nothing to frame?

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

An Interesting Situation / Problem A

A Bosnian joke: An ant in a jungle sees a beautiful lady elephant up above him. He tells all his friends he's going to fuck her. They say, "You talk too much!" "She won't even feel you!"

One day he climbs up her leg. He's there, he starts fucking her. He's really getting into it. A coconut falls on her head, and she screams out. He yells, "Suffer, baby, suffer!"

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I've been here three weeks, and I still don't completely get it. It's not that life here is so different. I have friends, I have a girlfriend, I have a job. We go out for coffee, we play foosball, we have fun, we get bored. We joke around and talk about life. What could be more ordinary?

But things here are strange. The hospitality is enormous, bordering on wasteful. It is unheard of to take a doggy bag of your leftovers. People never split the bill; if you have enough, pay the whole thing, if not, don't worry (the saying 'don't worry, be happy' apparently came here recently, and is very popular). They expect you to be as generous as they are, in every way. I've gotten calls at 2 am on nights when I came home early, a testy friend, asking, "Where the fuck are you?"

People here are often missing teeth from water shortages in the war, from careless negligence. It's not a big deal, they still have wide smiles. If parallel parking isn't your thing, pull into a spot diagonally, it's understandable. Once, driving with Semir, we pulled back sharply, winging a dumpster and amputating the passenger rearview, leaving it dangling by a cord. We didn't even stop.

And of course, there are the pyramids.


I know what you're thinking: "There are no pyramids in Bosnia. How absurd." I'm going to tow the company line here: That remains to be seen.

Actually, the company line, paraphrased from one of Semir Osmanagic's more lucid explanations: "These are monumental structures, which we believe to be man-made, in the shape of pyramids – therefore we call them pyramids."

Semir Osmanagic, the man behind the project, the originator of the project, who bravely stood in the hills of Visoko two years ago and said, "I think we have pyramids here." Semir Osmanagic, called Uncle Sam by the people here, who have been fairly raking in the cash, "the kind of man Jesus must have been" by a recent interview subject, who has a profile on the SETI@Home website, a "cult leader" by a member of my small circle of "pyramid agnostics" (I'm proud of this expression, this response to my observation that, when asked what they think of the pyramids, 9 out of 10 locals will say, in stilted, perhaps corrupted English, "I believe in pyramids"). As for me, I'm still not sure, and I'm trying to keep an open mind. I will try to be kind, Semir, but you scare me. A question I ask myself: Why am I more comfortable with swindlers and charlatans than with people who believe they are telling the truth?


A soundbite from Semir's interview with Amra Agovic, Bosnian-born, Australian-accented for SBS, a 16-affiliate Aussie radio network: "When I established this foundation, I said it should last for 200 years."

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I get up every day at 8 or thereabouts, get a coffee, then hitch a ride to one pyramid or the other, trying to find some heat. I call myself a "web journalist." I do 400-word interviews and some information gathering, a lot of sitting around.

More impressive is my situation: I stay at the Motel Piramida Sunca (formerly Motel Hollywood – still, above the threshold of the restaurant, gold letters spelling 'HOOLLYWOOD' remain), where many of the project's international types stay. I currently have meals with Robert Schoch and Colette Dovell, superstars of the alternative history circuit, their ideas very much in line with Semir's. They seem like solid people. I never much trust first impressions, but here, with the line skewed so far from center, the difference between the open-minded and the conspiracy theorists gets easier to detect.

More valuable to my thinking was my introduction to Nancy Gallou, a Greek archaeologist who I spent most of my first ten days with before she left, exhausted and frustrated with the project. The girl is an absolute gem. One day, turning to me before either of us had had our coffee, she said, "Do you want to know what I think of journalists? I think journalists should be strangled from birth."

Nancy is a skeptic, but one open-minded enough to spend two months volunteering on the project. She is a kindred spirit who I still talk to regularly, from her new base at a paleolithic cave exploration in Greece ("a real archaeological project," she tells me, with some venom), and one of two monkeys on my shoulders, fighting a war between my ears.

The other is Semir. When Semir says, "This is a new kind of archaeology," Nancy says, "This is bugger archaeology!" (actually, this is [former Croatian professor of archaeology] Sonja's line, on seeing bulldozers knock off a section of topsoil from the Pyramid of the Sun). In the eyes of the scientific community, these crude methods of digging invalidate any potential findings. You can't ignore 500 years of scientific method because you feel it doesn't apply to you, then turn around and ask for the approval of those for whom this is dogma. When Semir asks, "What about the scratches and symbols we found on those rocks?" Nancy answers, "Maybe it was the workers with their pickaxes."

This is Problem A.

This place is like a theme park.


Every day the unskilled workers cut more of the hillside away. They find rocks which look like tiles, some which don't. They form these rocks into shelves, in the style of the step-pyramids which adorn the digitally-altered postcards of Visoko. Fuck me if the thing isn't well starting to resemble a pyramid.

So it's here I get to the crux of my argument, the best reason for me staying on a project whose stated prospects are unlikely at best.

Maybe we're not learning how some pyramids were built or what super-civilization could have been responsible, but why people built them in the first place.

This quote of Semir's is out of context, and perhaps he gave away more than he meant to at the time. In any case: "The newest adventure is the Bosnian adventure."

Friday, June 02, 2006

Skeptical but hopeful

A 2,000-year-old date palm seed was found at Masada in Israel, the site of a mass-suicide pact, and germinated last year. The young date was a message in a bottle, a millenial, era-straddling time capsule. It grew, with white leaves at first, running to gray and weakly-veined. Months later and closer to the sun, shoots grew green and healthy.


The first thing I learned about the scientific approach is that a theory cannot be indisputably proven, only disproven. The things we are most sure of in the world are only our best guess. The scientist keeps an open mind.


Visoko, a town 20 km from Sarajevo, may hold pyramids greater than Egypt's. This is a matter of much debate. Some believe it’s a historic development, while others think it’s a hoax and a crime. So, for either reason, many are keeping their eyes on the 5 pyramid-shaped mountains outside the city. This is not strictly why I am going.

There is something happening in Visoko, this much we know. There is an energy there, fresh hopeful energy maybe for the first time in the ten years since the war ended. 5 buried pyramids to counterbalance 600,000 undetonated landmines, monuments of the past to weigh against its burden. There is possibility.

For three months, I will be living in Visoko, volunteering on the Archaeological Park: Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun project, digging the mountain and working in the PR office. I’ll be living with the people there who probably feel much like I do, skeptical but hopeful. I see it as the scientific equivalent of the search for origins, for God.

Sorry if this is all very dramatic.