Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jun 01 2019

One Down

A while back I saw a Facebook post by a former friend of mine from junior high school, letting everyone know that his father had died in his sleep the night before. Below the post were various heartfelt condolences, most from strangers but a few from people I’d known when I was growing up.

I didn’t write anything; I’d hated my friend’s father. But perhaps that’s oversimplifying things; I hated many things back then, including myself.

By the time we finally moved back to Florida from Texas in 1982, I was damaged and insecure, paranoid and closed off in my efforts to cope with a lack a friends and an abundance of bullies, a far cry from the happy, optimistic boy who had moved out to Texas halfway through first grade after my father lost his job. I’d thought at the time that in returning to Florida I was returning to society, a place where I could once again function normally, but I failed to realize that not only was I bringing the effects of the toxicity I’d nurtured in the greater Houston area with me, other factors would soon be throwing things even further out of whack.

I made friends at the mostly white Maitland Junior High School after my return just in time to start 7th grade, other kids my age, including Michael, who lived down the street, and Ben and Bill, who became my best friends, because we were 12 and that’s what one does when one is 12. We hung out together in class and between classes, at lunch, after school, talking D&D and movies and trading jokes, designing supercars on the backs of our folders and founding a secret ninja death squad. I was a quick wit for my age and didn’t hold back, something that endeared me to some and annoyed others. Ben and Bill seemed to be the former.

Ben’s father Jack was the scoutmaster of the local Boy Scout troop, which was also overwhelmingly white. I joined and was made part of the Viking Patrol. The Viking and Panther patrols were comprised of most of my friends from school and band, and for a while, things were good. I was appointed Troop Scribe, I made first chair trumpet in band, I enjoyed my classes as well as a 12-year-old boy can, and I had friends to share adventures with in camping, sleepovers, and D&D. No more were the miserable days of running taunts and constant fighting I’d endured in Texas.

It ended one day in 8th grade. Ben, Bill and I were talking in the corridor between school buildings, when Ben told me, shrugging almost but not quite apologetically, that they wanted nothing to do with me anymore. Bill, looking everywhere but at me, nodded his agreement.

That was it. We were no longer friends.

I was stunned. I hadn’t done anything; we hadn’t argued…I literally had no idea why this had happened. What had changed? What could they possibly have found out about me? It must have been something I didn’t know myself, as I couldn’t think of a single thing that would cause them to react that way. But they weren’t talking. As both my parents worked, I once again began coming home to an empty house instead of hanging out with my friends.

As I should have expected, things in scouts began to go downhill as well; I had hoped I could salvage something there, but instead I was exiled from the Vikings and sent to the Mongoose Patrol, an unlikable group who mocked me for seemingly no reason. They gave me the nickname “MD” which they said stood for “Manic Depressive” and it seemed I could do nothing right. Again, there didn’t seem to be any reason to anything that I could see. These baffling slights just kept occurring. I considered quitting, but I’d just convinced my parents to buy me a new tent (my old one was basically a large orange sleeping bag, and my plastic hiking boots had melted when one of the camp organizers had, thinking they were leather like everyone else’s, tried to brand them), and I was reluctant to give up on scouts after such a promising start and the good times I’d had.

One morning on the last day of a three-day camping trip, Jack the scoutmaster called me over the leaders’ tent as everyone was packing up. Standing next to him was a tall Eagle Scout named Grant, and the other troop leaders. Jack gave me a calculating look.

“TC,” he said, “Grant here is going to try and…make you angry.” Grant, twice my size, nodded.

“Why?” I asked. The leaders looked uneasily at each other.

“Oh, we just want to see how you react.” But had they never, in the two years I’d been a scout, ever seen me angry? I knew they had. I had no idea why they’d want to do that to me on purpose. I’d never seen anyone else receive such treatment. I wondered why I wasn’t asking more about it, demanding answers, but it seemed to me at the time that this was probably just something they did, a test of sorts that I had to pass, and I was desperate to get back into their good graces. I wanted to have friends again, to be liked. I didn’t want to go back to the way things had been in Texas.

“Ok,” I said uneasily, trying very hard to pretend that this wasn’t a surprise, or bizarre in any way, that I could surely handle someone who had told me that they were going to purposely try and make me angry. It was an assignment, a mission, and I wouldn’t fail.

But I did. Miserably.

At first it wasn’t a problem, even as Grant harassed me, giving me blatantly impossible tasks and yelling at me, telling me how worthless I was, as the other scouts looked on. Had they been informed of this? My face grew hot in embarrassment, and my movements became less coordinated under the pressure. Grant did not relent, hurling insults and calling me pathetic. Surely this is going too far, I felt, anger rising in me when I realized that this was no test, it was only meant to look like a test; they wanted to humiliate me in front of everyone. But why would they want to do that?

Now Grant began to shove me around, knocking me off balance and pulling my belongings out of my hands, throwing them on the ground and breaking some of them. I glared at him, realizing that he didn’t seem reluctant at all to be doing this, and I wondered if he’d made any kind of protest when he’d been asked. Or had this all been his idea?

The sounds coming from the rest of the camp died down as everyone watched. I was never going to get my tent stowed or anything packed if this kept up, but if I stopped going through the useless motions Grant would swoop in and badger me, pushing and pulling me around. I was sore where I’d hit the ground after Grant shoved me once particularly hard. Just how far is he going to take this, I wondered wildly. As I tried once again to gather my tent up, grabbing an aluminum tent stake, Grant pounced, grabbing me and wresting the stake painfully from my hands. I howled in anger and tried to get away, but he just picked me up by the waist and carried me across the camp upside-down, throwing me into the bushes at the edge. I lay on the ground, stunned at what had just occurred, listening to Jack tell everyone the show was over, that they should get back to packing up.

My scouting career never recovered. I had proved, after all, that I wasn’t worthy. That had been the point, I suppose. Eventually Jack called an emergency troop meeting on the same day as a band parade. I couldn’t go, but I kept getting calls the night before that everyone had to go, no matter what. My protests that I’d made prior commitments fell on deaf ears. What, a boy scout be trustworthy? Apparently not. At the next meeting, I heard that Jack had basically thrown a tantrum of his own, throwing three of the four patrols out of the troop, at least symbolically, for some perceived slight.

I didn’t particularly care, but my absence didn’t escape Jack’s notice. He called me and another scout in to the side room of the hall where we met, and gave us a dressing down. I interrupted and defended myself as well as I could, but it was no good. He took away my rank, my Leadership Corps status, and my office as troop scribe. After he’d said his piece, I walked out of the room, out of the hall, out of the scouts.

There was no going back after that. In fact, looking back I’m surprised that I stayed as long as I did. The next week, my neighbor Michael, who had apparently been appointed the new troop scribe, knocked on my door. “I need all of the troop records,” he said.

I looked at him for a moment, thinking how dare you, motherfucker, before saying, “They’re gone.”

“What?”

“Gone.”

“How?”

“Down the toilet. GONE” And fuck you, I added silently.

Michael wasn’t pleased, but I was done with them. All of them.

But I see some of them these days online, decades later…a kind of morbid curiosity on my part I suppose. They show up on my Facebook feed sometimes, yelling at my ridicule of the U.S.’s absurd gun culture, my contempt for the toxic, hateful dudebro culture that extends to the highest levels of government there. “If you had any convictions, you’d renounce your U.S. citizenship!” one of them spat at me, if one could spit through Facebook, after I criticized Brett Kavanaugh.

“I renounced my U.S. citizenship in 1994,” I replied.

In hindsight, it seemed they had all known things about me that I didn’t even know at the time, and they didn’t like what they were seeing. I was, they had somehow discovered, the kind of person they were raised to abhor and fear. In their eyes, not only was it my choice, it was my fault. How dare I impersonate a “normal” person, insinuate myself into their lives, pretend to be their friend? Something had to be done. And something was.

So I can honestly say I had mixed feelings upon hearing of my former scoutmaster’s death. One the one hand, he had a long, productive, at least outwardly successful life, raised and provided for a large family. He was a model American, straight and white and proud of both.

On the other hand, he’s dead. So there’s that.

posted by Poagao at 11:42 pm  
Apr 10 2019

Self promotion and self sabotage

I am terrible at self promotion. However, I am a world-class expert at self sabotage. I could teach a course in it if I weren’t so good at it.

Since childhood I’ve gotten an inordinate amount of pleasure out of making people think I am lying when I am actually telling the truth. I would tell people things that were improbable in a fashion that made them think I must be lying, and then spring the evidence on them to see their reaction. See, you thought this about me, but you were wrong! One example was in 8th grade when the announcement was made for honor roll inductees to go to the auditorium for the ceremony. I stood up and dramatically proclaimed in civics class, “Oh, the honor roll! That means me! Gotta go!”

“Sit down, TC,” the teacher said in a bored voice as I went about gathering my things in a very obvious manner.

“No, really, I’m sure I’m on the list. I must be. I clearly recall seeing my name there!”  I said with exaggerated sincerity. The teacher sighed and insisted that I sit my ass back down. After it transpired that I actually was an honor roll student,  the teacher gave me a D in the class, effectively removing me from the honor roll. Ironically (or suitably? I don’t know), it was Civics.

But that was rookie stuff compared to subsequent self sabotage I’ve accomplished. In film school, when the editing professor gave me the honor of using my student film to show everyone what could be done with editing, I demurred, not only turning down an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson, but ensuring that I was in that professor’s bad graces for the rest of the term. Why? I have no idea.

When called upon to promote whatever I’m doing, I tend to downplay my role in group projects and downright deny any praise of solo projects (“Just take the damn compliment, FFS!” is a phrase I am rather too familiar with), while taking any criticism as solid, incontrovertible proof of my inherent ineptitude. The success of the band I’m in, the movie I made, the collective I helped found, must, in my mind have come about due to the efforts of other people, though I contribute more than many of the other members. When I began administering the Hardcore Street Photography group on Flickr, I was happy to follow Justin’s lead in purposely not putting any of my own work in the group pool. But even when we’ve had guest curators, I  always refrain from submitting my own work. I’ve always tended to shy away from submitting to contests or competitions. Although I will teach workshops when invited along with other BME members, I spend most of my time teaching much the same thing to local students at a community college for a small fraction of the pay I’d get for teaching just one international workshop.

Whenever my publishers wanted me to promote my book, I would always feel uncomfortable about it and decline. When the original Chinese-language version came out and the SARS epidemic resulted in a thorough lack of media attention, I felt, “Yeah, that feels right, somehow.”

Though I spend a lot of time working on my photography behind the scenes, the moment it comes to organizing public shows, galleries, projects, etc., I suddenly have a million issues, problems with things not being perfect themes, not being of the quality I expect, even though I see a lot of projects out there, successful, well-known, well-selling projects, with the same or even worse issues.

Part of my justification for shunning self promotion has to do with a sense of “fairness”…at least that’s what I tell myself. I don’t usually submit to photo festivals and competitions where I know many of the judges, which, in this incestuous age of street photography, seems to be most of them. It would feel unfair to win, I always felt. Other people, people who obviously know the judges, don’t have any such qualms. They and others are all over the place, obviously, because they are “just like that.” That’s them, I tell myself. Not me.

Likewise with the book: Something about only being made to feel “special” because I am not ethnically Han Chinese rubs me the wrong way. I have always resisted, not only because it feels wrong to me, but because I have other issues on that front. Any media exposure I happen to get here based on that presumption also feels unwarranted to me. I don’t deserve this, I tell myself, because it’s not me they’re talking about. It’s their idea of a me that doesn’t really exist.

But those are all just my own personal dodges. It seems that society these days runs on self promotion; it’s been observed that most well-known artists throughout history became renowned due to the quality of their connections rather than the quality of their art. The exceptions are those who became famous after their deaths had spurned social connections when they were alive, people like Vincent Van Gogh and Vivian Maier, whose work became well known after their personalities were taken out of the equation. And they were truly great artists.

Ideally it shouldn’t be a choice between self-promotion and the development of one’s art, but there are only 24 hours in a day. And the call of simply making things will always seem like the perfect excuse to shy away from self-promotion to someone like me who has always known deep down that it is just not worth the effort. Sure, impostor syndrome is a thing, but that’s only for truly great people, no? Not schleps like me. They’re just being modest; I, on the other hand am actually justified in my lack of confidence. And by steadfastly refusing to promote myself or just botching up each attempt at it, I resolutely prove my own point. So there! I proclaim to myself when I note my utter lack of success in such awkward attempts. You don’t get it because you don’t deserve it! Do the math! If you were any good at any of this, someone would have noticed by now.

As DJ Khaled famously said, I’ve been playing myself. 

 

This state of being wears on me, to be honest. How many decades can one continue in such a fashion? In an attempt to try to keep living with myself and other people in some fashion, I’ve recently taken some friends’ advice to try a more structured form of meditation. The self-examination aspect of this process has been eye-opening in some ways, as a rigid and practical evaluation of exactly why I feel this way about myself often reveals no objective, practical reason to see things this way. Rather, my life has been lead on the fringes of various demographic assumptions and identities for so long that my subsequent lack of traditional connections with many groups has resulted in a feeling of invisibility and lack of consequence as well as a heightened sensitivity to others’ erroneous expectations in these respects. Thus the early, clumsy attempts to force others to see beyond an illusion of me.

As I don’t “fit” in the traditional fashion, there doesn’t seem to be a modus operandi out there for me, an apparently round plug not fitting in a round hole, as it were, resulting not only in the puzzlement of both the round and the square pieces, but a general dismissal from both. In fact, this was most likely one of the main reasons that I came to identify with Taiwan so strongly, it being a nation that is similarly “invisible” i.e. disconnected from the traditional mode of connection with the world around it. Especially before the Internet era, when many more types of existence came to light.

The natural response to such dismissal and disconnection is a general withdrawal into self distraction…how can one put any stock in connections that don’t work? But turning inward on oneself is a recipe for disaster, a vicious cycle of self-loathing that cannot end well. For a long time I’ve used a combination of walking and photography as a kind of meditation in this respect, wrenching the focus of my mind’s lens outward instead of inward, though always mindful of the reflections of my inner thoughts in my work, themes of loneliness and isolation and seemingly unlikely connections revealed by other people immersed in their own personal challenges to the swirl and eddies of public life. Basically getting out of my own head, because there is a reflection of reality in photography that other forms of expression lack. Though I love writing and music, it is photography that has been how I’ve dealt with the world.

I have no neat, snappy conclusion to any of this; I continue to be puzzled by myself, and these are questions to be lived rather than resolved. But I am trying to come to grips with the lack of grips amid all the illusion of said grips. The reality is that we are all connected, as Soth has intimated in his most recent work, and perhaps misrepresenting this big hot mess in terms of self-promotion and self sabotage itself is a false dichotomy that only wastes our precious time. The true nature of our connection may be much more complex than we can possibly fathom, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least try.

 

 

 

posted by Poagao at 12:18 pm  
Mar 21 2019

The nature of the conversation

I recently had the chance to pick up Alec Soth’s I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating at the Moom Bookshop off Zhongxiao East Road in Taipei. They were having a small show based on color photographers such as Shore, Gruyaert and Eggleston, so naturally I had to go. I spent hours just looking through the books on display there, especially my favorite from Shore, Uncommon Places. This time around I particularly noticed the apparent care shown in the editing and sequencing of the book. Shore’s later works haven’t resonated with me as much, a phenomenon I’ve observed with many well-known photographers.

As for Soth’s latest book, whose title comes from a line in the Wallace Stevens poem Gray Room, the work conveys connection and empathy in a way I haven’t felt since his first book, Sleeping by the Mississippi, which I’ve always loved. There is one portrait in his new book that doesn’t have the same power as the rest. It is of a woman seen in the gap between bookshelves. All of the other photos in the book resonate and inspire a wealth of stories, but this one feels…out of place. After I’d finished looking at the photographs, I read the text, and this turned out to include a fascinating interview with Soth on how the book came to be. The interview was conducted by Hanya Yanagihara, whom I recognized as being the woman in the incongruous photo.

Interested, I asked Alec about it on IG, trying to be as diplomatic as possible: “The photo of Hanya didn’t seem to belong, and then I realized she was the one you talked with.” I wondered if  there was connection between the two. “Am I imagining things?”

“Not at all,” he wrote back. We then went on to discuss the content of the book, specifically the part about connection. Soth, who is about my age, approaching 50, had a moment of clarity a few years ago in Finland, a sudden realization that “everything is connected” and subsequently reevaluated his approach not just to photography, but to dealing with people. He has said that one of the main challenges he faced as he began to engage in photography was his innate shyness, effectively equalizing or even giving more power to those he was photographing than he felt he had in the exchange. Over the years, as his fame grew, the nature of the relationship with his subjects changed; he was an internationally renowned artist, successful author and exhibitionist, a member of Magnum, the world’s most prestigious photography agency. But as his status was changing, so did the work he was doing. His “Ah-ha!” moment redefined his connection with people, his respect for his subjects, and it has seemingly made a real difference.

I’ve long wondered how so many famous photographers start out strong, with real, emotive work, and then lose that in the latter stages of their careers. The prevailing wisdom has simply been that people lose the creative spark as they get older, but reading about Soth’s experience and seeing the resulting work following his revelation makes me think something else is at play, mainly, the nature of the connection between the photographer and the subject. Soth compares it to that of two people on a seesaw.

In some circles, such as street photography, many -too many- photographers seem to assume a posture of domination and even objectification of their subjects, eagerly grabbing as much power in the relationship as they can. The reason for this might lie in the toxic mixture of social media and gadget worship that has infected the genre, which I’ve written about elsewhere, and might go a long way to explaining the spiritual paucity of much of this kind of photography. Ego, it seems, is the enemy of sensitivity, of pathos, of connection. It places blinkers on us, blinding us to all of the potential of being open to the world on an equal basis, substituting our vanity instead.

The photographers I most admire, however, tend to take a more respectful and curious approach to the subjects of their work, at least in making the work that brought them to my attention. Respect for the subjects of one’s work is also something I try to instill in my own students.

These changes in the nature of the connection with the subject might be why some photographers’ work changes as they gain fame and influence. The very nature of the relationship with subjects changes, the balance shifts, and the connection is fundamentally altered. Take an open-minded, curious photographer and stick them in a famous agency, give them interviews and assignments and minders and entourages and fans dogging their every step, looking to see what wondrous magical composition they’re going to create next, and that connection become all the more tenuous. Be they a failed art student wandering the streets of Paris, or shy man in his 30’s following the path of the river that flows through his country, the lifeblood of their work is intense observation free of the pollution of ego that so often comes to obscures our vision. Judgement threatens observation, and the whole thing can break down. For some, the only way to deal with such developments may be to abandon photography in favor of another art form. Others may move to more abstract work. And some may be hit, perhaps while on a flight to Helsinki, by the realization that they cannot relinquish the very essence of their work…the knowledge that everyone is connected.

“Your thoughts have made me see things in a different light, thank you,” I wrote Soth following our exchange.

He responded: “You’ve also given me something to reflect on. Thank you.”

posted by Poagao at 11:51 am  
Jan 28 2019

E-scooter questions

I talked to the people at the Kymo Ionex electric scooter display at Taipei 101 today, and….I have questions.

It would seem that when you run out of juice, you have to wait around for an hour or so while your battery charges before you can be on your way? I know there’s a little backup battery inside that will let you ride around for a little bit in the area, but you still have to return to get your original battery, so the whole plan seems…ill advised. Why not just switch out the batteries like Gogoro does and be on your way?

But when I asked them, they said, “Well, you might get an uncharged battery.”

“But surely the machine can tell you which batteries are full?”

They looked at me as if nobody had ever thought of this. Then: “Ok, but you might get a bad battery.”

Good lord, I thought, is that how you stand by your products? I can see the pitch now: “Oh sure, our batteries are fine…mostly fine…ok, there’s a good change you’ll get a bad one.”

As with the Gogoro, the Ionex also lets you charge the batteries at home. This might seem convenient, but only if you have a short way to lug your batteries inside, and also if you don’t mind boosting your electricity bill each month.

So I really don’t get which part of this is appealing. At all. Which is fine, as I don’t really need a scooter of any variety; I take the MRT and/or buses everywhere I need to go, or, once in a blue moon, a taxi. But I also have an inherent distrust of scooter companies that have been ripping off the Taiwanese people (and not doing any favors for the air quality either) over the last several decades.

posted by Poagao at 10:05 pm  
Jul 14 2018

Bangkok, part 6

I still felt tired this morning, even though I was kind of able to actually sleep in after several days of getting up early. Perhaps there is something to this “Early to Rise” thing after all. After a lackluster breakfast in the alley, we walked in a random direction and after a search for coffee came across the Green Bakery, lured there by the smell of freshly baked cake cooling on the counter. The cake was delicious and yes, we paid for it and the coffee. The owner was a young woman who was holding her six-month-old son as she worked. We also had some delicious banana bread muffins, and she sent us off with our ice coffee cups full of water for the walk. Very considerate. If you’re in Bangkok, I highly suggest stopping by for some of that delicious cake.

The weather was threatening to turn nasty, clouds rolling in as Chenbl did some more bag shopping at the riverside mall and I stewed at being stuck in a bag store while the whole city lay at my feet. We then we set out along another unfamiliar road and were sent the wrong way by a woman of questionable sanity before finding the metro stop we sought. We caught a series of trains to “Terminal 21”, a mall where people pretend they’re traveling, with signs and airport schedules and the like, and the place just put me off…I’m usually just fine with pretension, but something about this concept rankled me, and I was grumpy all through our fake Mexican lunch.

Chenbl bought out the entire Happy Happy Fun Fun Squid Treat shop, and, laden with packs of this delectable dish, we took another series of extremely full elevated trains though the city canyons to the workshop space, which is located in in the penthouse suite of a hotel, swimming pool and all. Fancy. The students assembled as Barry meditated on stage, and we started out with introductions. The class went well…we’ll see how and what they shoot tomorrow.

posted by Poagao at 2:22 am  
May 31 2018

San Francisco, part 1

Even though I’ve known about this trip for ages, it was the usual mad rush to get ready to go. Why do I do this to myself? Chenbl saw me to the airport MRT, and some of my anxiety began to dissolve at the sight of the lovely rice fields passing by, glinting in the afternoon sun. The airport was similarly lit, but by the time I’d made a request for a seat that wasn’t a middle seat on the long flight over the Pacific, the sun had set and the place seemed dark and forbidding.

I felt a bit more at ease when I’d gotten through the security check and to the gate, where I learned I’d been reassigned to a security row seat. So, plenty of legroom but no actual window. No matter because it would be dark most of the way. The people in the row behind us seemed to be either new to flying or just completely DGAF, or both. One of the men conducted stretching exercises on the bar that would release the emergency door until a stewardess suggested that he stop endangering all of our lives. I watched Black Panther again as well as Black Lightning, ignoring the screaming baby a few seats away, and then slept a little before we arrived in San Francisco.

Customs and immigration was smooth with the exception of three older white people, two men and a woman, who decided to cut half the line. When someone called them on it, saying “Hey, you can’t just cut through half the line!” one of the men said, belligerently, “Why?” Western History in a nutshell, folks. There were a few mutterings, including a few curses in Chinese from other other, mostly brown passengers in the immigration line, but nobody dared make a fuss. I guess the merry trio blanche knew that.

Once free of immigration-related worries, I sat in the airport for a while figuring out how to install the sim card I’d got in Taiwan that would let me use my phone here, and then how to get into the city on the subway. I used my old Bart card and was significantly overdrawn when I tried to exit at Market. The lovely lady in the ticket box, upon finding out that I only had two dollar bills and a fifty, kindly let me go with the words, “Well, I can’t wring milk from a turnip, so go ahead.” Then it was up into the cold air (yes, cold, dammit. It’s in the upper 30s C in Taipei and my body is used to that) and the bus out to Ken’s, where I met with him, Casper, Mike and CJ who were all busy mounting photos for the exhibition. I was useless and probably would have screwed up anything I did as I was exhausted, but I didn’t want to go to bed too early and give in to jet lag. So we talked late into the night before I retired to the low-ceiling room in the basement under Ken’s girlfriend’s place, where I’m going to be staying on this trip.

posted by Poagao at 2:53 pm  
Mar 07 2018

3/4: Return to Taipei

Up in the morning…we’d packed the night before, so after breakfast downstairs and saying goodbye to Pamela (Ozkar was asleep) and the cats, we headed out into the…what was this? Hail? Freezing rain? Damn. Time for us to leave. Apparently the homeless dude who lived in front of the metro station thought so, too. “Fuck you!” he shouted at us repeatedly, elaborating on this theme as we passed. Finally, a blunt Canadian, I thought.

The usual inspection routine…Chenbl’s bag got inspected hard because of the portable speaker he’d bought. We were lucky enough to be on a sparsely populated flight back to Taipei, and we had the last two seats in the back of the Dreamliner, so in effect a little room of our own. Chenbl claimed the row in front of us, and I stretched out on our seats and watched Selma, Boyz in the Hood, Thor 3 and a few other movies, while sleeping periodically. I still wasn’t feeling great, but just getting a bit of rest finally had a good effect, and the Dreamliner has a lower air pressure as well, so my ears were fine.

Back in Taipei, we went straight from the airport to the ENT doctor for our little bags o’ pills. Work the next day, as well as the first class of the semester. I’m still feeling loopy AF, but I got a gig tonight at Huashan, so I need to get my shit together.

All in all, an interesting trip. One thing I noticed was how little I missed the Internet when I was in Cuba. Other than feeling stupid for not being able to look up things at random, it was refreshing, and I will try to cut down the time I waste on social media now. Wish me luck.

And that was that. Hope you enjoyed the read.

posted by Poagao at 2:55 pm  
Mar 07 2018

2/28: Vancouver

The cold medicine I got while shopping last night worked well enough to keep me asleep all night, but today was mainly spent in nearby shopping malls and restaurants. It’s cold and rainy outside anyway, so outside of mall stuff there’s not much to do, and I need the rest.

T.I.’s “Live Your Life” was playing at the health food shop, while the disco version of the theme from Star Wars was playing at Safeway. A nice young man named Nathan at the pharmacy told me that there’s not much you can do for a cold, except wait it out.

So we ate so-so ramen and watched the nearly incomprehensible humor on TV, noting that Canadians don’t seem to trust umbrellas that much. Keebler products are absent from Canadian shelves, but I did see a few pop-tarts and Little Debbie products. Hopefully the weather will be better tomorrow, and hopefully I’ll be feeling better as well.

posted by Poagao at 11:55 am  
Mar 07 2018

February 20th: Vancouver – Toronto – Havana

Breakfast at the hostel was a bright, help-yourself affair, full of earnest young backpackers shredding their gums with sugar-flavored Cheerios. The bright sun was a ruse, betrayed by the  bitter cold outside. Chenbl and I walked over to Chinatown, marveling at the familiar smells and signs and produce overwhelming the sidewalks there. The old Kuomintang building was abandoned, covered in weeds and neglect. Warming our hands with some hot Tenren tea, we walked over to Gastown. The whole thing would have been charming if I weren’t freezing my ass off. The famous clock was steaming (I assume it was steam, otherwise it really needs servicing) and hooted out the traditional clock melody at 2:45 p.m., after which we took refuge amid the cheap plastic smells of the local Dollar Store.

Later we walked back down to the harbor and browsed the signs elaborating on Vancouver’s shockingly sordid history of labor relations and all the awful things that happened in the process of labor reform. Seaplanes were taking off and landing on the water near a floating Chevron gas station; the remains of snow crunched under our feet. We chatted with some friendly construction workers who were busy renovating a house. Nearby, a large, forlorn heap of charred wood and plaster had apparently up until recently been a house.

Turning onto Davies Street, we stopped for entirely too much poutine before heading back to the hotel, where we spent a great deal of effort trying not to listen to an excruciatingly awkward flirting session between two young backpackers in the common room.

Then it was time to leave; we walked over to the subway and took the train out to the airport. The last few stops featured a shouty young drunk, but that was far less annoying than when we checked in and found that our airline not only didn’t know about any of these newfangled “frequent flyer” things all the kids are about these days, they cancelled our seat selections and put us in the middle seats to Toronto. The flight was overbooked, so the check-in staff asked if we’d take US$100 and a night at a hotel. Uh, no, we wouldn’t. But the line at the gate was truly egregious, a scene rife with insecurity as everyone wondered if they’d be picked to be a Sacrificial Passenger. Indeed, one passenger seemed to have already incurred the wrath of one of the flight attendants as we found out seats. “I’ve seen the way you overreact; you only have one more chance or I will have you removed from the flight,” the attendant warned ominously as the young man spread his hands in the internationally recognized symbol of WTF, man.

The whine of the engines drowned out the safety video and my cursing as my watchband broke, but we were in the air soon enough. Several episodes of Blackish later, as we neared Toronto, however, the captain said weather sucked there so we were going to Buffalo NY instead. The whole plane groaned; most people either didn’t have their passports and/or didn’t have a U.S. visa. Nobody could be looking forward to dealing with TSA asshattery; this was one of the main reasons we elected to go through Canada in the first place. The plane circled at the same elevation for a long period of indecision before they agreed that we would be going to Toronto after all, whereupon everyone cheered. After we landed, however, we taxied up to a gate that didn’t work; it was as if they were surprised to see us. Didn’t they call ahead? The crew tugged fruitlessly at the door for a while before giving up and having us all sit down, pack up, power up the engines, back out and head to a gate that actually worked.

That didn’t give us much time to make our connecting flight to Havana, so Chenbl and I booked it from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, embarrassingly specific final boarding accusations ringing in our ears the whole way, and just made it in time.

The flight to Havana was considerably more relaxed, with far fewer people and a party atmosphere. Everyone there, including the casually dressed but smartly competent cabin crew, seemed very happy to be leaving the frigid north behind. As we’d missed meals in our rush, we had some plane food that was bordering on ok. As we approached our destination, people began to change out of their heavy winter clothes into shorts and T-shirts.

Even though my mind was still demanding to know what the hell I was doing in Cuba, the warm air was an incredible relief. Chenbl changed money at a machine, and we caught a cab downtown to the Airbnb place where we’re staying to put our luggage down before heading out with Annanai, a Cuban woman who is more than passingly familiar with all of this.

Of course the old automobiles and colorful buildings are amazing, but I haven’t managed to figure out just how to photograph them sans cliché. All the taxis and buses are crowded, some of the old buildings are being brought back, and I apparently look like I’m searching in vain for a Cuban cigar. Brilliant musicians abound in the restaurants; the lung power of the trumpet players in particular is astounding. I brought my mouthpiece just in case I happen across an opportunity, but I doubt I could come close to keeping up with these guys.

We had cold chocolate at the Chocolate museum and then stopped into the Floridita bar, which was apparently one of Hemingway’s favorite drinking spots (he had many) as well as the origin of the daiquiri, and which features a larger-than-life brass statue of the heavy-set writer sitting at the end of the bar overlooking the field. Daiquiris were had, and we all left the place a little tipsy and wondering if the little straws were really necessary. The sun was setting before Annanai said we should go back to the apartment, so we got on a crowded bus back to Vedado, where our place is located.

Eric, the French-Canadian who runs the place, came out for dinner nearby, and we had a nice long conversation about his background and Cuba’s future.

posted by Poagao at 10:05 am  
Feb 19 2018

Vancouver

Even though I spent large parts of the last several days packing in a vain attempt to avoid last-minute panicking, I still managed to only just finish before I had to head out to meet Chenbl and his parents at Taipei Main Station for lunch. After we bid them farewell, we walked over to the airport MRT and boarded the express to Taoyuan. The weather went quickly from brilliant to gloomy as we descended from the heights of Nankan to disembark underneath Terminal 2, where we found a counter lady who hadn’t heard of her own damn airlines’ contract with the Star Alliance.

Chenbl is a great believer in getting to the airport in plenty of time to spare, so we sat in a movie-themed lounge watching clips from old kung-fu flicks over and over again until I had not only memorized the sequences, but the continuity mistakes.

Eventually we boarded a brand-new 787 bound for Vancouver. I’d never been to Canada before, so this would be a trip with several firsts. The plane was packed, and I had a hard time sleeping in between watching movies and playing with the polarized windows. I’ve been feeling ambivalent about this trip for a while now, and it still hadn’t really sunk in, even though I was looking at snow-covered mountains and fields as we descended.

Regardless of how I felt or didn’t feel about it, we arrived in Vancouver at around noon, and the moment we walked out into the cold wind I thought, ok, this might be a problem. Really? Canada in the middle of winter, you say? Shut up.

We took the subway into town and walked to our hostel, which is located in an older building, put our stuff down and went out to walk around in the cold. The disappearing light was nice, and we followed it down to the waterfront, where helicopters were taking off and ferries were running across the bay. After the sun set, the temperatures dived further, and we searched in vain for a public bathroom before finding one such establishment underground in a nearby park. We then escaped the cold for a while in a large cathedral, hiding in the midst of a large Catholic congregation during a Spanish-language church service.

Later we met a longtime online friend of mine, photographer John Goldsmith, at a nice ramen place, and we spent the rest of the night engaged in great conversation. After arriving back at the hostel, however, Chenbl decided he needed a second dinner, which was donair-related and delicious. The weather was bitterly cold, however, the sidewalks in front of the sex shops and pizza parlors and bars was sparsely populated. The remnants of yesterday’s snowfall are everywhere, and even locals are surprised at the coldness of the weather.

The cold’s not so bad as long as indoor spaces are heated, unlike in Taiwan where, if it’s cold, it’s cold everywhere. The hostel’s floors creak and tremble whenever anyone in the building takes a step; I guess I’m sensitive after being used to concrete structures.

I don’t know what we’re going to do tomorrow, except for catch the overnight flight to Havana.

posted by Poagao at 3:48 pm  
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