Toward a Defense of Crap

The Prambanan Temple, near Yogyakarta, Indonesia, is thought to be the most beautiful Hindu temple in the world. Built in the 7th century, this formidable mass of volcanic rock and gravity sits not as a quiet home of Hindu worship in what is primarily a Muslim region of the country, but as a theme park to visitors of all faiths, complete with a playground, pony rides, a petting zoo, and countless vendors hocking rows upon rows of souvenirs. Replica temple keychains, shelf-top tchochkes, ashtrays, pins, and postcards: they all serve one purpose. Fulfilling the basic human need for crap.

Now, our need for crap is not exclusive to impulse buys on the way out of a sacred monument. We need crap in our everyday lives, all the time. Example: if my best friend’s mom likes… I don’t know… pigs, you can be sure that her house will be packed to the rafters with pig crap. A pig doormat will welcome you inside her home. Sitting in the kitchen, you’ll find pig salt and pepper shakers on the table and pig towels hanging from the oven door. On the counter you’ll see a fat ceramic pig cookie jar, that when you lift of his pink piggy head, her kids can grab a handful of Oreos. In her master bath she has pig slippers and a pig toothbrush holder, and a shelf full of various pigs she’s collected from her travels abroad which serve no purpose whatsoever other than being perpetually adorable.

Now there’s no logical reason for my friend’s mom’s pig fetish. She’s not working out some childhood trauma from growing up on a farm, some misguided adoption of a family livestock as a cherished pet, only to learn one chilly Fall morning that her snout-faced companion became a butcher-shop commodity at the hands of her father. No, my friend’s mom is from Cleveland and has never set foot on a farm. She just happens to really like pigs and wants anyone she knows to know it.

After leaving Prambanan, my partner, Martin, and I took the crowded public “chicken” bus back to our hostel. I asked him why he thought people buy souvenirs. “To remember,” he said, “to take a piece of their experience home with them.” I used to think that too, and I’m certainly not above this kind of justification for buying trinkets from a tourist shop. For me it’s usually magnets, because I can somehow justify a a crap purchase if it is somehow deemed useful. The result is dozens of magnets on my fridge: Bora Bora, Taipei, Canary Islands, Chihuahua. But really, who needs that much cheap refrigerator decor? Who needs to post that many memos?

Crap doesn’t help us remember. It doesn’t truly reflect our experiences and it certainly doesn’t serve particular utilitarian purposes. Crap doesn’t even make us happy… okay, perhaps for a bit, but that joyful bargain quickly evolves into yet more things to fill our storage spaces. Far be it from me to champion the virtues of a spartan lifestyle, because I tend to be a fan of collecting things I might not really need, but I think we let the crap we buy identify us for others. So others can remember us, know where we’ve been, make the tiny, subtle, assumptions and judgements about who we are and what we keep around us. There’s nothing wrong with this, in my mind anyway, because my little armchair theory really applies to any external expression. It’s all about identity, really, a subject that far exceeds the confines of this little blog post.

Indonesia is replete with inexpensive, beautiful crap. The compulsion to sift through and collect millions of Rupiah worth of wooden Ganeshas and beaded batik everything is powerful. But in the interest of traveling light, spending wise, and desiring less, I’m hoping not to quell the crap desire. I’m hoping that the experiences themselves and the photos I take serve the need to remember, and that no amount of cement Hindu statuary is going to change how others see me, or how I see myself.

Okay, maybe just one Ganesha…

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