Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Nov 12 2009


It was raining hard outside my hotel room window when I got up yesterday, my view of Shinjuku’s roofline murky and gray. I didn’t want to spend hours on a plane with soggy feet, so I stuffed some extra socks and jeans in my backpack and figured out which subway route would give me the least time out in the weather. After marking “excellent” on every box on the hotel survey form, I checked out and set out in the rain with my tiny umbrella to the Shinjuku Higashi Station’s Oedo line, which took me to Ueno-Okakimachi Station. I suspected there might be a convenient underground passageway to the Kesei Line Station, and there was, though the signage wasn’t clear.

After I got my Skyliner ticket, I took the short escalator up to street level, just to be on the streets of the city one more time. I toyed with the idea of going across the street to have one more session of playing with the EP1s and GF1s on display at the camera store, but I only had ten minutes; in any case, I think I’ve gotten a sufficient feel for those cameras.

This is the second time it’s been raining as I’ve travelled on the Skyliner (yes, I managed to get the right train this time) to Narita. I got a window seat behind a man whose ears bent outward to accomodate a surprisingly thick neck. The suburbs lasted a long time but eventually gave way to open countryside and rice fields. The trees are really beginning to change and should be gorgeous in a couple of weeks. I suppose the timing wasn’t ideal for that, but tree-leaf photos aren’t exactly my forte anyway.

The airport was a breeze: after checking in, I went upstairs to have a leisurely lunch of soba and tempura at a restaurant overlooking the wet runway and forlorn-looking planes. Then customs and immigration, also very quick, though taking off all my bling for the scanners and then putting it back on took a while. The news on the TV in the departure lounge was all about the capture the night before of a killer who had made minor changes to his appearance. The case was being discussed by panels on TV every time I turned it on over the past week.

As I sat waiting for the passengers to finish boarding so I could get on without waiting in line, I thought that I might have stayed an extra day or so, just to see the neighborhood temple ceremony and attend the opening of flickr user Modern Classic’s new bookstore. But I was sure that seats would have been hard to get, and there’s always next time. Even after my third trip, large parts of Tokyo and its surroundings remain to be explored if I want to make another trip. Although I could read all the signs on this trip, I really should increase my spoken Japanese beyond just a few phrases.

On the plane, the moment I sat down next to a middle-aged Western man dressed in black, he called for the stewardess and arranged for another seat. I’m pretty sure I don’t smell, so it must have been some aspect of my appearance. Either that or he was one of my tails and didn’t want to get too close. In any case, I was glad to have the extra room during the flight, which was 73% less turbulant than the last one.

Once again, customs and immigration at Taoyuan Airport was quick; I don’t think I broke step to wait at all before getting my luggage from the carousel. After 10 days in a tiny hotel room, the Water Curtain Cave feels enormous, if a bit messy after my hurried departure preparations.

So that’s it, then. Hope you enjoyed the trip, and we now return to our regularly scheduled infreqent/sporadic blogging of life in general.

posted by Poagao at 10:11 am  
Nov 11 2009

Ueno and Roppongi

I took the JR to Nippori this morning, walking up the hill to the west side of the station to find the “Suzuki” guesthouse. Overlooking the rail station is convenient and all, but the constant trains and announcements must get really irritating.

Beyond the Suzuki is a huge cemetery, with many famous dead people. But I wasn’t there to see dead people, famous or not. I’d read that the area around there had more or less remained as it was decades ago, and I wanted to get a glimpse of old Tokyo. So I walked past the orderly stones and into the surrounding neighborhoods. I wondered what kind of people generally live next to graveyards in Japan, are they hyper-religious or completely non-religious? Also, how does it affect housing prices?

I came upon an empty lot, empty except for a couple of newly planted trees and surrounded by a fence with signs reading “Feel Wood.” Another foreigner, wearing all black, walked along behind me for a bit.

I proceeded down the hill and turned into an alley that zigzagged every few meters. Hardly anyone was around. Eventually I made it to Ueno Park, where old men sat on benches and fed the ducks, which swam through the rushes slurping the water.

Lunch was very nice tempura and sushi in limited quantities at a traditional Japanese place under the railway tracks, my meal interrupted occasionally by the rumbling of a train going overhead and shaking the dark wooden furniture. Outside, I noticed the same foreigner in black walking by. Does he read this blog?

After lunch I took the subway to Roppongi. The last time I was there it was in a snowstorm, and after becoming bored with the mall I trudged around the area in the snow before getting tired of it. Now it was a completely different scene, warmer and livelier with crowds of people, including many foreigners, on the streets. I walked through the area depicted in my home computer’s wallpaper, taking in the details, and then through some of the areas I’d wanted to see before but couldn’t due to the weather. The area is hilly, with slopes and dips in the roads that I miss in the flatness of Taipei.

I took the ear-popping elevator up to the top of Mori Tower, which was fogged in last time, to take in the 360-degree view. It was a hazy view, alas, but as the city’s lights came on, it improved quite a bit. It was strange looking at what was basically the wallpaper on my computer, and being able to think, “I’ll go down there in a minute and look around.”

As I walked around taking photos and video, I overheard a couple of mainland Chinese guys wondering aloud what the “H” on a helicopter pad meant. I told them, and they complimented my “Hanyu”.

“I’m Taiwanese, actually,” I said. That was the end of that conversation.

I was wondering what the people using their flashes were thinking, exactly, when I noticed the same foreigner in black walking around as well. This was getting positively weird. It was either coincidence or a really bad tail. In either case, there wasn’t anything to do, so I just kept ignoring him.

After about an hour, I left, satisfied that I’d managed to capture the scene well enough. I walked back down to the area in my wallpaper, this image, I believe, and just wallowed in the fact of actually being there.

When I was in the tower, I noted a couple of places where the freeway overpasses met in giant intersections, so I headed towards one of them to take pictures. After dinner at a cafe, I headed through a lengthy subway connecting passage, buying a hat on the way; Louis and I have noted that many photographers in Tokyo wear what he calls “character hats”, and I found one that matches the color of my Ramblers’ suit.

The second giant intersection, located over a canal, was partially under construction, but I managed to get some shots anyway. Afterwards I happened across a cool little neighborhood, full of cafes and restaurants, parks, squares and tree-lined streets where someone had parked an ancient baby-blue Porsche. Every third person seemed to be a foreigner of some kind. A wonderful smell turned out to be emitting from an old car with a wood-burning stove in the back, suspiciously near the gas tank, I though. But the driver, who was moaning a chant through a loudspeaker, was selling baked yams. I would have bought some, but after I took his picture he drove away.

I “borrowed” some wifi from a cafe and uploaded a couple of pictures from my phone before calling Louis and arranging to meet him at Yoyogi Station. After that, we went to a “photo bar” in a student-dominated area. The pictures on the wall were of a certain “concept art” type that I feel inhabits a kind of “uncanny valley” between realistic and abstract photography. The owner gave us some snacks and we drank wine while bitching about concept art.

Before we knew it, it was after midnight, and rain was pounding down outside. Louis got a loaner umbrella from the bar, and I had a tiny fold-up job in my backpack that did little to keep me from getting wet. We said good-bye on the platform at Shinjuku, and I managed to find my way back to the hotel without getting completely soaked. The crows seem to love the rain; they’re cawing louder than ever in the downpour outside as I type this.

Tomorrow I’m heading back to Taipei. I’d like to stay and see more, but I feel I’ve gotten a little better handle on this place than I had before.

posted by Poagao at 1:47 am  
Nov 03 2009

An evil lair and the other end of the webcam.

The weather was much improved when I woke up this morning, a cold yet cloudless blue sky greeting me when I set out for Yotsuya Station. I’d worked out on the map that it was the closet station to the New Otani Hotel, which was featured as the Osato Corporation HQ in the film You Only Live Twice. In the film, Sean Connery as James Bond infiltrates and then escapes the building twice.

I got off at Yotsuya and made my way along a forest path on a ridge overlooking athletic fields filled with shouting baseball players. On the other side a school was holding some kind of promotional event. It reminded me not a little of Lexington, Virginia, actually.

The path led me almost exactly to the hotel, which has obviously been completely remodeled. The famous shape is the same, however, and I walked up and down the drive where Connery ran up and down, no doubt for several takes. All of this happened years before I was born, but it’s still cool as hell. I wonder if the doorman is used to random foreigners walking up and down that particular piece of pavement. He was sneezing; I should have gone up to him and said, “Mr. Osato believes in a healthy chest.”

After I’d had my fill of imagining being rescued by a Japanese woman in a white convertible Toyota 2000GT, I walked back up to the subway stop and poked around the nearby alleys. An old man was saying goodbye to his relatives on his brilliantly lit doorstop, and as I took some shots, he said in English “Small building!”

“Small building!” I repeated, and saluted my thanks for the picture. The light was so nice I was taking pictures of everything, probably far more than I should have. The alleys were almost deserted except for huge black crows lofting heavily about. I love Tokyo alleys; there seems to always be a little surprise, a nicely designed house or clever garage, just around each corner.

I took the subway out to Toyosu Station on the Kurakucho Line, near the harbor. Using Google Maps, I’d worked out just where my favorite Tokyo webcam is located. It’s a live feed from a high building across a meeting of four channels, so it wasn’t too hard to find on the map.

Just outside the station I had lunch at a Yoshinoya, just to see how it compares to the ones in Taipei. Verdict: the taste is the same, but the Japanese restaurant’s layout is more interesting, with the cashier in a little island in the middle of the bar.

It was tricky finding my way through the maze to the spot, and I found that the buildings I’d assumed were office buildings are actually residential blocks, with half of the residents airing out their quilts. Oddly, the river-facing apartments don’t seem to put much stock in the view, with high balcony walls.

I walked to a bridge and crossed, taking pictures of bicyclists and remembering to keep left to avoid being hit, and walked down the opposite bank. The water was filled with jellyfish, which surprised me. A couple of boys were fishing things out of the river, not fish or jellyfish, but what looked like pieces of garbage.

I walked back across the bridge and around towards the tall building that has the webcam in it, passing a wannabe tightrope walker scaring his girlfriend by walking on top of the sidewalk railings. The sun was getting low in the sky, even though it wasn’t even 4pm, and I took pictures of pedestrians’ shadows on various walls.

By the time I got to the tall building, the temperature had begun to drop again. I sat on the corner of the rivers, looking with my own eyes on the scene I’d seen so many times before on my office computer. Occasionally a boat would chug past. It was very peaceful.

The sun set at around 4:30 as I made my way back to the station, pausing on the bridge to take some more shots. I took refuge in a department store for a bit to look at the cameras there before taking the subway back to Shinjuku. On the way, I found that there was no transfer point at the stop I’d assumed there would be a transfer point, and I ended up taking the long way around the city. This was fine with me as at that point my feet were sore and I could use a good rest. I’d thought that travelling via subway at rush hour in Tokyo would be a nightmare, but there weren’t that many people at all.

Back in Shinjuku, I went straight upstairs to the Bic camera store, where I was surprised to find a young, blonde Swedish clerk asking me if I wanted any help. I was looking at the Panasonic GF1 and the Olympus EP1, which were arrayed side-by-side. I’d looked at the Canon S90 but it felt poorly put together and plastick next to the M43 cameras, plus the IQ is still that of a small-sensor camera. I have to say that, despite the Oly’s slower focus and bad screen, I do like the feel of it better than that of the Panny. It fits in my hand better, and the shutter thunks as solidly as a car door while the GF1’s raps harshly against the side. And the debate goes on.

Dinner was had at a little corner shop, egg pork chop on rice while listening to the mainland Chinese tourists sitting next to me. I was really bushed by this point, so I decided to come back to the hotel.

Tomorrow I’m having lunch with my photographer friend Louis. Other than that, I have no idea what I’ll be up to.

posted by Poagao at 10:24 pm  
Nov 02 2009

Tokyo, again.

I’m sitting at the desk in my little hotel room in Shinjuku, once again writing in this account from my old Thinkpad, indecipherably labeled vitamin water and ginger-ale-flavored KitKats on the table beside me.

What am I doing back in Tokyo? For one thing, I needed a break, and I wanted to see more of this gargantuan mass of a city, preferably while not simultaneously freezing my ass off. I’d like to go back to Europe, to someplace like Prague or Budapest, but that would take a bit more time, money and planning than I can spare at the moment. Tokyo is relatively nearby, conveniently visa-free, and just far enough beyond the familiar to be interesting, while featuring many similarities to Taiwan.

Getting up this morning was difficult, as I’d gotten back late from playing a gig with the Ramblers up in Waishuangxi the night before. The song “Superchief” ran through my head as I took the subway downtown, where I managed to find a Mega bank to change some cash and hopped on the airport bus. It was a fine day, people rushing to work. I don’t usually see downtown in the mornings; it was actually refreshing.

I got to Taoyuan with plenty of time to spare. I was flying out of the old terminal, which I hear they’re planning to remodel. I wonder if it might be better to just go all out 70’s styling on the thing; I really don’t know what else they can do.

The flight was interesting. As we approached Tokyo the late afternoon sun painted the cloud landscape various shades of orange and yellow, a full moon hovering just above. Another plane was visible circling above us like a big white vulture. The turbulence on the way in was impressive, gaining many oohs and aahs from the passengers as we pitched and dove. I closed my eyes and pretended I was playing a flight simulator with really cool effects.

Other than the customs fellow being really interested in my background, Narita Airport was very efficient, and in no time at all I’d retrieved my rolling luggage and walked to the Skyliner desk to buy a ticket. Then I promptly took the escalator downstairs and got on the wrong train.

I realized might be the wrong train only after we were on our way, as it looked nothing like the pictures and was stopping at far too many stations. So I did the only thing that could have made things worse: I got off to ask. One of the drivers of another train told me I should wait for the next train, which turned out to be even slower, stopping at each and every station along the way to Nippori, where I was headed. At least I got a chance to take a nap.

From Nippori I took the JR to Shinjuku, and it was then that I noticed the rain splashing the windows. Great. In the time it took me to travel from Narita to Tokyo, the temperature must have dropped 10 degrees. It was cold! Thankfully I had my waterproof jacket on.

My hotel is located at the end of a winding forest path, a little bizarre for this part of town, but there it is. It’s a smaller building, just 9 stories, apparently built and designed in the 60’s, yet it’s tasteful. Many visible pipes in the hallways, like a ship’s interior, but the vague smell of coffee can forgive a lot. I put my things down and went out for some dinner and a walk around, but it just rained harder, so I decided, gentleman that I am, to come back here and write this little note for you.

I have no itinerary this time around, much like last time. I have a list of places I’d like to see, but otherwise I’m just going to play it by ear. I figure, why bother going on vacation if you’re going to make yourself slave to yet another schedule? I’ve been told this is a big mistake as I’m apparently missing out on all sorts of sights I should see, but I don’t generally like the sights everyone else likes anyway.

posted by Poagao at 9:45 pm  
Jul 13 2009

A rather frantic weekend

I had to catch a bullet train down to Chiayi on Saturday afternoon for a gig with the Muddy Basin Ramblers that night. I was the first person on the platform at Taipei Main Station, even though the train was leaving in 15 minutes, leading me to wonder if I’d have to run through a wall or something to reach the real platform, but soon enough other passengers began to appear, the other Ramblers among them. Chenble, who was along for the ride, got sandwiches for the trip, which was quick and smooth as always. With the exception of Taipei, the stations are all nice, modern, gleaning examples of what I love about airports, though they are just glorified train stations. They’re simply swank where no swankiness was expected, which in my opinion is the best kind of swank.

Some people from the music festival were waiting for us at Chiayi Station, and we crammed all our stuff into a new VW van (It’s amazing that VWs still smell the same; every Volkswagen I’ve encountered since the 1970’s has had that same distinctive smell). We drove out to the coastal village of Budai, followed closely by dark clouds though the sun was still shining, and dropped our stuff off at the wharf where we were going to be playing later. After the careful consumption of some very fresh sushi, it was time to explore the surroundings, which consisted mainly of a fish market and a 7-Eleven.

Thumper and I happened upon a go-kart track and decided to give it a go. An employee dragged out what looked like a prototype for a miniature version of Mad Max for Thumper’s larger frame, while I managed to fit in one of the regular cars, and we were off. For a while we traded places, but every time Thumper pulled ahead of me I was choking on the cloud of smoke and bits of rubber his car was emitting, so I gave up all pretenses of sportsmanlike behavior and stayed ahead of him for the rest of the 10 minutes. I found that I really didn’t have to touch the brake pedal, which was wrapped about my ankle due to bad planning; all I had to do to slow down was turn the wheel enough that the front wheels began sliding.

Lightning was flashing on the horizon as the time for our show approached. The organizer, a woman whose hairstyle suggested she had already encountered some form of electrical discharge, said that we’d be playing until 8:45, though I’d been promised that we’d be done at 8:30, because I had to scram by then to make my gig with Heineken in Kaohsiung later that night.

The show itself went pretty well, considering our lack of practice in recent weeks. At a couple of points some official would jump on stage in between numbers to make a speech or hold a raffle. I began to think that it was more of a raffle featuring music than a real concert. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have minded this, but time was short and I had to go. As I resisted the thought of tackling said official and thus ending their speech, David asked me if I wanted to leave early, but I said I’d stick around until we were done.

After the show, I felt a little guilty about jumping off the stage straight into the waiting car without a word to anyone else, but I had a train to catch. Luckily the driver was a local who knew the back roads well enough to get me to the station in 15 minutes instead of the 40 minutes we’d been told the trip would take, and we caught the 9:30 to Kaohsiung with enough time to spare to grab some dinner at a Mos Burger.

The Heineken gig was at Kaohsiung’s Pig & Whistle, near the harbor. I was led upstairs by Small Eyes, an intern for the group, to find the band lazing around the green room, already nicely sauced for the show if the amount of empty glasses and pitches of various liquors on the table was anything to go by. I’d changed into my green outfit on the train, so I was good to go.

Or so I thought. It turned out that some changes to the program had been made, so I got a new setlist from Small Eye. When I got on stage for my first trumpet song, I found that my mic wasn’t working. I tapped it: nothing. I tapped it again, and it fell to the floor. I picked it up and tried to reattach it, and the clip fell in two pieces. All on stage, during the piece, as Ah-ji and Ah-zheng laughed behind me. Since my part was coming up and I had no amplification over the other electric guitars, drums and keyboard in a loud bar, I forgot about the mic and just blasted it as loud as I could, marching-band stadium style. It seemed to work, but damn, it’s been a while since I’ve had to do that.

Later in the set, Noname launched into Zhang Zhenyue’s “Freedom” much earlier in the show, just after a song I played trumpet for, so I decided to play along, though I usually don’t play on that song. This also seemed to work. It was hard to say as I couldn’t really hear myself.

It was early morning before we finished, as usual. Noname had hired a bus to take us back to Taipei, but it wouldn’t be arriving until 3 a.m., meaning getting back to Taipei around 9 a.m. This prospect didn’t appeal to me very much, and I intended to attend Henry Westheim’s studio opening in Taichung the following evening, so I decided to stay in a hotel in Kaohsiung instead. Chenble had a contact at the King Town or something near the train station, so we got the last room available, a small niche with no windows just above the buffet room.

Brunch the next day was free, but it took forever as Chenble seemed to want to eat the entire thing. By the time we managed to leave the hotel, it was early afternoon and raining outside. A ride on the KRT later we were at one of the stations with waterfalls complementing the surrounding downpour. As we waited for it to stop, I took a few pictures of the place, mostly in black and white. I don’t particularly care for the colors of the Panasonic LX3, and find myself using the black & white function most of the time.

We walked over the Love River and got tickets for a river cruise just as a bus full of tourists pulled up, dozens of people pouring over into the line. Several boats motored over from underneath a nearby bridge, where they had been huddling during the rain. the sun came out in full force until brilliant blue skies, and it was a pleasant enough ride, but far too short; I don’t know why they don’t go further up the river; perhaps things don’t smell as good up there.

We walked along the river a little, but time got away from me, and before I knew it, it was time to go. I’d wanted to attend the studio opening, but by the time we returned to the hotel, gotten all my stuff, gotten back on the KRT to Zuoying, it was nearly 8 p.m. already. I was tired from the gigs and the walking, so I decided to just come straight back to Taipei instead.

posted by Poagao at 6:05 pm  
Feb 19 2009

The Osaka Video

I got a new computer last month, just before Chinese New Year: an iMac. I figured that, as I do a lot of media-related things such as photography, video and music, I’d give the whole Mac thing another shot (I had a Powerbook at one point a few years ago, but things didn’t really work out between us). I’m keeping my old PC around and have been using both, but since I got back from the last trip I’ve been gradually migrating to the Apple machine. The above video was done on iMovie, and I have to say the experience was much, much nicer than it ever was in Windows. First of all, the iMac recognized the .avi format of my little Canon SD800IS immediately. I had painstakingly imported the clips to the PC via Windows Moviemaker, the only Windows program that recognizes the format. I used to go through that and then export to one media file which I would then open in Premiere, but this time the PC steadfastly refused to export, coming up with error after error and taunting me, egging me on each time to “Please try again!” It might as well have been wearing a blue dress and holding a football.

iMovie was much easier and smoother, and I learned my way around it while slapping this thing together. I felt I didn’t need to use Final Cut Pro as my travel videos are just thrown haphazardly together for the most part and don’t require very detailed production tools. The more I use this system, however, the more I appreciate the lack of BS I have to put up with to get things done. It’s so much closer to the experience I want when working with media that I find myself missing the Mac when the PC grinds to life, Windows taking roughly five minutes to fully load and looking so primitive. Which it is, I suppose: it’s an old, loud machine with XP, and old, loud OS. Both are stable enough I suppose; I guess I must have drunk the Kook-Aid. It’s true that the iPhone is a gateway drug. I’m afraid I’m becoming addicted.

But enough crazy fanboi talk; I’m sure I’ll find plenty to bitch about with the Mac in good time. I am pretty happy with the video, however, which, in a first for me, is available in relatively high quality on Youtube and Vimeo. I did the same thing as I always do when I’m traveling alone, i.e. periodically take the camera out in public and talk to it unabashedly with no regard to the strange looks I get. I’m loathe to do this kind of thing when I’m traveling with people, but you’ll be happy (or sigh in annoyance) to know that I managed to take quite a bit of such self-absorbed and pointless video on the trip to Spain and France as well, despite the presence of actual friends. I’m curious to know how that turned out as I also got a new compact camera for such things: a Panasonic LX3, to replace the Canon, which I sold. The LX3 has a wider, faster 24mm f2 lens (and admittedly looks cooler) than the Canon and in a pinch could be used for street photography provided the light is sufficient. The IS seems to work differently from the Canon, but once I got used to it it seemed fairly smooth.

We had a week of wonderful weather after I got back from Europe, and I’ve been feeling very glad to be back in familiar territory. Two weeks abroad is long enough to get far enough away from one’s usual surroundings to get some perspective on things, just long enough to start missing home, making both the voyage there and the trip back happy occasions. Typical Taiwanese Spring weather has returned this morning, however, with a cold front bringing a barrage of rain that is far more suited to the current economic predictions than the sunnily hopeful blue skies of last week, forcing men with jackhammers to stop their outdoor frolicking and return to drilling nearby walls in my building.

posted by Poagao at 5:34 pm  
Feb 05 2009

Sick in Seville

We’d arranged a trip to Tangiers in the morning, though it was raining and blustery. It was worth a shot, and all the travel agents said it was ok, though these were of course the same travel agents who said Gibraltar would be ok.

As soon as we had entered the ferry terminal vicinity, a guy in a pink shirt waved us over, and Gordon showed him the tickets. The guy said they were no good, that those were hotel bills. I was thinking, this guy’s either nuts or up to no good, but Gordon seemed to believe him, parked the car where the guy said and then followed him, not towards but away from the terminal.

At this point I was on full scam alert, but all I could do was follow Gordon and Ray at enough of a distance that I could help out if there was any funny business. It was one thing for us to lose our trip money; that I hadn’t paid yet, but my computer was in the car, and I was sure that looting would ensue where it was now.

Pink Shirt led us back across the highway to another travel agency, as I’d thought he might, to try to get Gordon to buy another ticket from another company, I’m guessing. At this point Gordon seemed to catch on and came right back out, walking towards the terminal again. Pink Shirt followed us all the way, hoping for a tip for his “services” I suppose. Ray and I got the keys for Gordon to go move the car up into the proper parking lot.

It was all moot, of course, because we couldn’t go to Africa; Ray and I just don’t have the right visa. We could have gotten all of these beforehand, of course, but we just didn’t think of it.

Back in the car, we looked for breakfast, ending up at a seedy diner by the bus station, full of smoke, trash and shady figures, transients and drivers, taxis lined up outside as we mapped out the way to Seville.

That drive was much more pleasant, through rolling hills and green pastures with short trees and the occasional herd of cows, horses or sheep. Vast wind farms crowned every other horizon. Gordon, perhaps to make up for the terminal episode, drove at a hundred miles per hour, getting us there in just a few hours. The VW had no complaint; we’d discovered earlier that it is a turbo diesel and got excellent mileage. The weather was brilliant now as we passed towns on hilltops surrounding central church towers, ugly utilitarian sheds around the edges.

Finding the hotel in Seville was difficult; we were looking for a place in the old quarter, which is a warren of tiny alleys with no parking and no real directions. Just finding the old quarter itself was an exercise in frustration, with Gordon on the phone and driving according to the hotel’s instructions. I found myself wishing we’d taken the GPS option on the car.

We eventually parked the car at a nearby underground garage and lugged our things into the maze of old buildings to find the Amadeus, a hotel converted from a traditional home with courtyards inside. I selected a room on the second floor with a semi-balcony overlooking the back courtyard and the door overlooking the main lobby atrium. All the furniture is old, the doors tall and wooden with original metal knobs, the walls thick and the ceilings featuring wooden beams. It felt a bit like staying at Grandma’s house. It is a musical-themed hotel with various instruments lying around, mostly broken, and music performances playing in the lobby on a small dvd set. Musicians get a practice room, but alas are not eligible for a discount. And no trumpets or washtub basses to be found, either.

After we were settled in we headed out for a late lunch at a local tapas bar where the floor slopes down from the door and is covered in dust and paper. The food was very good, and my eye was caught by one of the staff behind the counter, a stocky Spanish man with a missing tooth that showed when he smiled, which was not often.
We continued to walk around the area afterwards, passing the huge cathedral and the old palace nearby. Seville is full of orange trees, now full of ripe fruit that nobody bothers eating or picking for some reason. I wondered if it would just go to waste or if the city went through and picked all the fruit at some point. Maybe it is just ornamental and tastes awful? I have no idea, but fruit was already dropping into the street. If the city had more Chinese tourists there wouldn’t be any fruit left no matter how it tasted, I thought.

Being dumb tourists ourselves, we took a ride in a horse-drawn carriage even though it was too cold; I had been lured by the sun into wearing only a thin jacket and sweater instead of my big jacket. The driver called out the names of various places we passed in Spanish nonchalantly, waving his hand at traffic. Nobody honked at the carriages, which was strange as we had been honked at incessantly on the way in. Perhaps there have been cases of horses being spooked by car horns.

As the sun set it got even colder. We stopped in another tapas place that was packed with people, mostly a party of older people celebrating the birthday of one of their number perhaps. We stood at a table for a while, and I was thankful when we were finally seated as I was beat, but not hungry. “Is he ok?” the owner asked after I only ordered one dish. Afterwards we all had shots of a caramel flavored vodka that was like eating an entire cake in one small glass.

I was still ok when I came back to the hotel, but a couple of hours later I became violently ill and spent the entire night in and out of the bathroom, throwing up repeatedly into the bidet. I think my stomach had just had too much and too many different kinds of foods, combined with the cold and other things. I finally slept early in the morning, staying in and sleeping the entire next day as well as the next night.

I was feeling better by Wednesday morning, though not exactly tip top strut stuff. I had toast for breakfast, eventually; Gordon is pretty picky about where he eats, and he was in the mood for eggs of a certain kind, and we ended up walking around a while before finding a place. Then the heavyset waitress with caramel-colored hair said we could only order eggs while sitting outside, but toast only if you were sitting inside. So we walked around some more before ending up at a trendy café on the main boulevard full of young people wearing black sweaters using Macbooks, where we got eggs and toast and listened to Spanish music videos. I watched the people passing by on the street outside, young and old, and the occasional tram. Seville’s metro currently has only four stops and runs just a short distance, but it is supposed to be expanded in the future.

After breakfast, I went alone to see the great cathedral, one of the biggest in the world apparently. This was the place where Christopher Columbus prayed for good luck before setting out on his journey to the Americas; he ended up just a few feet away as his tomb is also here, born aloft by four statues. The cathedral is impressive in its size, but it is not as focused in its construction as Notre Dame. Sure, you could play a good game of football inside without breaking any of the stained glass windows, but the space isn’t really used to great effect. Even the gigantic organ, bigger than most buildings, looks tiny inside it. I climbed the tower that was the original mosque’s minaret, dodging Spanish teenagers running down the ramps the opposite way, and found that the sunny weather had disappeared; rain was now pouring from the sky and blowing into the tower windows. A collection of bells is located at the top, each with its own name. As I looked down on the city I could see that rooftop space is much better utilized here than in Taipei. Here they have converted the rooftops into comfortable spaces with patios and swimming pools. But it was cold and wet; I headed slowly back down.

I met Gordon and Ray back down by the horses. Gordon had just toured Alcazar and highly recommended it. I needed to sit down somewhere, so Ray and I went to the palace and bought tickets and an audio guide, voiced by the same people who did the one to Alhambra. The rainy weekday meant that not many people were inside, and I was able to just sit inside the rooms listening to the commentary and thinking about old palace life as long as I liked. It is an impressive place, as it should be; Seville was the capital of course, but it is not as impressive as Alhambra with its imposing geography. The most interesting parts were the Sultan’s bedrooms, in the inner sanctums and private halls and escape routes. The gardens were closed, the staff said, due to some imagined wind problem. Ray and I had hot drinks at the café before it closed. It was sunny again outside, so we waited by the cathedral for the strong late afternoon light for a photo, but the light never quite came to the full fruition it had the day before.

It was our last full day in Seville, so we decided to take the boat tour, a short walk away by an old tower on the river. The boats would only run if four or more people bought tickets, so we waited for another group and then got on board.

As soon as we cast off, the sky clouded up again and the temperature dropped. We went down below to watch the city slide past, some historical landmarks, 60’s-era apartment buildings topped with neon signs, an old style sailing ship that might have been a replica of one of Columbus’ ships, and the depressing remains of the ’92 expo, huge structures now seemingly abandoned. I would have liked to go there and take pictures of the desolation, but the weather and our schedule wouldn’t allow it. It was interesting to think that Columbus set out from these waters, but the tour wasn’t nearly as interesting as the one in Paris.

Rain began to bead up the windows of the boat as we neared the dock nearly an hour later. I had not brought my umbrella, again fooled by the previously good weather. I was beginning to think that Seville is just bad luck for me; perhaps it is my Indian blood.

Though the walk to the river had taken about five minutes, the walk back to the hotel took about three hours, or at least it felt like it. The architects of the city somehow found a way to make the structures dump as much water on pedestrians in the streets below as is physically possible, and the streets and sidewalks made short work of my supposedly water-resistant shoes, which now need replacing. Thankfully I was wearing my big Gore-Tex jacket, which repelled the rain well enough, but my pants and feet were soaked.

Back at the hotel, I borrowed Ray and Gordon’s bathtub to soak for a bit and warm up before we headed out again for dinner. I had had only had a piece of toast in two day’s time so I really just wanted something to eat, but again we ended up wandering around the maze for about ten minutes before we found the place Gordon was looking for. It was an elegant establishment with tablecloths, folded napkins, wineglasses, an atrium and no customers; we had the entire place to ourselves. Taking it slow, I just had some salty chicken rice soup and water.

It’s Thursday morning now. I am sitting in a comfy chair in the atrium trying to connect to the finicky wifi connection that doesn’t work most of the time. We are going to check out after breakfast and head for our final stop on this trip, Madrid. Rain is pelting down on the Plexiglas roof high above me, loud enough to overwhelm the opera playing softly in the corner.

posted by Poagao at 3:31 pm  
Feb 01 2009

The Sunless Coast

It was raining yet again when I opened my balcony doors in Malaga. I’d been awakened by singing downstairs that was either remarkably drunk people sounding like cats in heat, or just cats in heat. I hadn’t even unpacked, so hauling stuff back downstairs and into the car was quick work despite the rain. We drove to the harbor and found exactly one (1) restaurant open for breakfast, and it was missing a door. “This is one of the two days a year they actually need one,” Gordon remarked. The cold wind whistled and howled through the place, but they at least had the Federer vs. Nadal tennis match on the TV.

After breakfast we headed out of the city and down the coast towards the very southern tip of Spain, passing a closed-up Catholic school, its brown walls splattered with graffiti.

This was the Costa del Sol, the Sun Coast, minus the sun; we strained to hear the Spanish radio commentary on the match over the patter of the heavy rain as we drove. The hotels, restaurants and bungalows we passed seemed ill-equipped to deal with the weather. For me, buildings should welcome people in bad weather, but these just seemed embarrassed, like an amusement park stripped of its facade.

We made our way to Algeciras, close to Gibraltar, choosing an especially swank hotel to make up for the previous night’s experiences. The décor is all glass and steel, black leather and dark wood, straight out of The Sharper Image Going Out of Business Sale Catalogue, with a view of the Rock over the shipyards.

After a cheap and filling lunch at a nearby restaurant, we headed to Gibraltar, but after being cleared by the Spanish side, we were told by the British side that Ray and I couldn’t enter because we didn’t have the special Gibraltar visa for our Taiwan passports. We ended up instead at a parking lot by the water taking pictures of the huge half-mountain. The bay was filled with all kinds of ships, including a large liner.

With nothing else to do, we decided to drive down to the very southern tip of Spain at Tarifa. The mountain roads were dangerous enough without the heavy rain and lightning, but Gordon, apparently liking a challenge, conducted a cell phone conversation throughout. It was not a relaxing drive.

We passed by more banks of windmills as we descended into the small town, known for its surf shops and nightlife, through the narrow alleys of the town to a small island connected to what appeared to be an old military fort in the sea. On one side of the bridge was a sign that said “Mediterranean” and on the other one that read “Atlantic”. Cats roamed the area, dodging the crashing surf as the blue-gray deepened into full-on night.

Back in town, we stopped by a cathedral full of murmuring worshipers and a café next door that was host to a group of middle-aged Spanish woman singing along to the songs of a man with a guitar at their table. It felt like a cheery place despite the weather.

But it was getting late, and the long road back to the hotel beckoned. The drive back wasn’t as scary as the ride there, but the road was dark due to the lack of streetlamps along the way. I was glad, though, because as we sped along the top of the hill through the rain and lightning, I could see the lights of Africa gleaming through the fog across the water below.

posted by Poagao at 7:14 pm  
Feb 01 2009

Looking for Leone

We had breakfast at Zeluan again in the morning; my ham and cheese croissant had no chocolate but was covered with sugar instead. The rain outside changed the atmosphere of the place considerably, at the same time more moody and more comfortable. Gordon was sure the weather in Granada bore no relation to the weather in Almeria, so we set off despite the rain in hopes that it would be sunny at our destination. As we drove I noticed once again the prevalence of graffiti everywhere in Spanish cities. Who draws it? Why doesn’t anyone bother cleaning up at least the obviously poorer examples of the art?

The highway climbed eastwards into the hills, and the rain turned to snow, light at first; then much heavier. Snowplows were parked along the road, and signs warned of giant snowflakes that were actually alike, a terrifying thought. The weather improved as we came down the other side, though, and distant patches of blue appeared above the fields of giant wind turbines and solar farms that dotted the landscape.

The land itself was becoming at once more wild and more familiar, at least to fans of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, which were filmed here. This was the reason we were here, actually; Gordon and Ray weren’t particularly interested, but I had to visit the place where some of my favorite cinematic moments were filmed decades ago. Watching the shadows of clouds speed over the hills, I realized that it must be the inspiration of Leone’s title sequences, the titles sliding over the mountains like clouds, no doubt painstakingly rotoscoped by some poor shmuck in the studio.

The sun was shining as we pulled into the parking lot of Mini Hollywood, the amusement park made from the old original movie sets, and as we were about to get out of the car, literally out of the blue, hail began pounding down around us, bouncing off the ground and some of the cars. A few minutes later it was over, but another one followed almost immediately. The ground looked like it was covered in mothballs before the hailstones melted.

We got our rather expensive tickets and crossed a wooden bridge over a gulch to the fake town. I immediately recognized the bank and hotels from “A Few Dollars More,” but some of the other buildings and angles took some time to recognize. The houses of both the Rojos and the Baxters are gone, but some of the buildings from the middle of the street are left. It would have been helpful if guides were on hand to explain which scenes were filmed where, but perhaps modern audiences aren’t interested in that and would rather see more touristy things.

We almost left after that, but at the last moment decided to stay for the dance show at the saloon at 4 p.m. Lunch at the canteen wasn’t as bad as I was expecting for a kitchen that is basically holding visitors hostage.

Before the show, I walked around the area, wondering what it was like when they were filming the movies, standing where I figured Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach or Lee Van Cleef had been standing in various scenes, climbing the balcony where I figure the “Me in the middle” speech took place, etc. It was actually pretty cool, though the place has been made over into a really cheesy version of itself for the Spanish tourists, complete with old video games.

The show turned out to be a kind of psychedelic can-can review, with canned music straight from “Hooked on Classics” and dancers with widely varying physiques wearing what appeared to be tighty whities under their skirts, which didn’t spend much time covering anything. It was very bizarre.

As we crossed the bridge back towards the parking lot, I was reminded of another scene, where Tuco crosses the rope bridge to the town after crossing the desert in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It seems like the same spot, but I could be wrong.

On the road to Cabo del gato, we passed more spots I thought looked familiar, such as The Small House (Marisol! I wanted to shout out the window) and the location of the final shootout in A Few Dollars More.

Cabo del gato was the last thing on my checklist, the site of the church where El Indio and his gang hid out in the second film, where El Indio gives the speech from the pulpit about a very special safe. We drove further and further into the desolate lands east of Almeria, and I began to think we’d never find it. I was already feeling a bit apologetic for dragging Gordon and Ray to Almeria in the first place, and this was turning into a real excursion when on the map it looked like a simple drive.

When we finally reached Cabo del gato, we stopped by a surprisingly turbulent ocean, faced by some kind of ancient stone guardhouse. I was nearly knocked over by the strong, cold wind the moment I stepped out of the car. We took some pictures and then got back on the road. I had nearly given up when I spotted the tower of the church in the distance, located between the coast and some nearby hills.

A sign next to the remote ruin mentioned that it was built in 1907; a centenary was held in 2007, but the church looks just as it did in 1963. I’m not sure who decided to build a church out in the middle of nowhere like that or why, or how Leone knew about it, but it is certainly a dramatic looking location, especially at that time of day. Ray and I got out and took pictures of the old church by the seaside, which was yellow in the light of the setting sun and striking against the blue sky. Not far down the road was a seaside resort of a much more recent vintage, completely shuttered and boarded up for the winter. “I never saw a town as dead as this,” I said; nobody got the reference.

I’m sure Gordon and Ray thought I was crazy for wanting to see such places, but to their credit they didn’t complain once about the detour. In any case, I’ve seen what I could, though ideally I would hire a guide and do research to find other locations such as the cemetery at the end of the last film. From now on the itinerary is up to them, though.

We drove back westwards along the southern Spanish coast as night fell. The highway was closed for most of the drive due to construction, so we took the winding regular road all the way to Malaga, where we had a late dinner of fried artichokes and fish. Gordon felt I should drive to the hostel we’d booked so that he could read the directions, but we somehow ended up in the middle of a pedestrian square surrounded by angry cops in cars and on motorcycles waving and shouting at us. Luckily they didn’t arrest us, and even guided us to the hostel, a strange, cheap affair on the third floor of an office building in an area of dubious repute. As I type this, I can hear loud conversations, scooter horns and thumping music out my balcony window. The in-room shower is exactly that; there are no walls, just a curtain, and the toilet is located across the hall. 30 euros a night. Obviously there is no Internet, so I will have to post this later. Tomorrow we might try to see Gibraltar, though Ray and I might not have the right visa.

posted by Poagao at 4:26 pm  
Jan 29 2009


I didn’t want any more last-minute rushing around this morning, so I was ready and checked out in the lobby at exactly the time we had agreed upon. Gordon was already conducting business on his mobile, telling someone off about something. The weather out was clear and cold as it has been the past few days.

The high speed train to Madrid is about as fast as the one in Taiwan, speeding along as around 300kph. I got a window seat, but the sun was shining on that side more or less the whole way, making the view difficult to see at points. Still, after all of the messy factories were left behind, amazing scenery began to appear, hills and mountains, scraggly bushes and trees, fields plowed to resemble zen rock gardens, crops of olives. Each little town had a tower or church at its center. We passed a huge, fire-belching oil refinery, painfully beautiful in the sunlight and clouds. The larger cities were industrial and ugly, the smaller towns picturesque. The weather changed many times, going from sunny to cloudy to rain and back again in the space of a few minutes’ time. And the rain definitely does not stay mainly on the plain.

We reached Madrid in about three hours, the train sliding into a long berth under a modern station roof. Freaky giant baby heads at either end of the platform greeted us as we looked for the car rental area. One of the places had a suitable Volkswagen Golf, so we piled our stuff in and were off, though Gordon stalled the car a couple of times in traffic.

We hadn’t eaten yet, though, so we picked a nearby Ecuadorean restaurant at random, sitting in the basement with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised, though; the chicken and potato dishes I had were delicious.

Then we were truly off, finding the A4 south. Gordon was still talking on his mobile, and a police car pulled up beside us, the officer inside flashing his badge at us. Apparently it’s illegal to drive and talk on your phone here. I wanted to write a quick “Gracias!” on a piece of paper to show the officer through the window, as Gordon actually needed all his attention on driving an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar city.

Not long afterwards, however, Gordon got tired, and I took over the wheel as Ray doesn’t really drive standards. It had been quite a long time since I drove any car, much less a stick shift, but it all came back fairly quickly, and soon I was driving down to southern Spain, seemingly alone as both my traveling companions asleep. I grinned to myself as the scenery floated by at 120kph outside; one of the things I’d missed living in Taiwan were long solitary drives on straight highways that vanish in the distance. This was just the thing to scratch that itch.

The weather was still being capricious, raining one minute and blazing sun the next, forcing me to learn all of the wiper and light controls very quickly. The VW was very pleasant to drive, smooth, quiet, stable at speed and powerful. I drove in silence as the sun began to set over the approaching mountains, casting dramatic shadows and then leaving only massive silhouettes with a frosting of lights showing where small towns were located.

We got to Granada about 9 p.m. or so, managing to get lost and enrage a fair proportion of the driving population with sudden U-turns, stops and other insane maneuvers as we tried to find the hotel. Eventually we managed; parking in their little underground complex required automotive acrobatics on a level I haven’t used in a long time, but I managed to get the car into the stall without any damage.

The Abadia Hotel, where we’re staying, is an old building nestled in the warrens of the older part of town, with a courtyard garden in the center. Our rooms, big with double beds and carved adornments on the (admittedly thin) walls, are on the top floor, in what was the attic, so the ceilings slant and we have skylights for windows. The satellite view shows all the buildings in this district have a similar layout, but you couldn’t tell it from the narrow alleyways. Granada looks like a very old town, but so far I get the feeling that it is a friendly place. We wandered around a bit, having dinner at a restaurant near one of the many squares. Our talkative young waiter had immigrated to Spain from Argentina only a year and a half ago.

Tomorrow we’re planning to look around the city, especially the main feature, Alhambra.

posted by Poagao at 7:58 pm  
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