Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 14 2021

Revival song

Spring is usually difficult as the temperatures fluctuate so wildly…usually the weather varies between sun and rain, but this year we’re getting precious little rain. Regardless, it tends to put me in a foul mood.

I was all ready to just go back to the Water Curtain Cave and just fall into bed after work today, but one of my students has an exhibition in the space above NOW Coffee on Yanping South Road, so I headed that way to take a look, stopping at my favorite lunch place sandwiched in between two historic buildings near the North Gate.

As I was looking at the exhibition, a raucous chorus of horns and firecrackers announced the approach of a temple procession. I went downstairs to watch it pass, and as they’d neglected to stop traffic on the street, the procession was stop and go. So I decided to hang out. Some scantily clad women danced on top of various vehicles, surrounded by men with cameras, and people in god costumes and people bearing palanquins and banners strode around, stopping at each stoplight.

“Come on, give it a shot!” one of the temple horn players said, thrusting one of the instruments at me. I took it and gave a few blasts, which they seemed to enjoy. I drew the line at the offer to try out one of the god costumes, though. My mood was much improved.

Chenbl called, saying he wanted to meet after he got off work to give me some tea we’d decided to try, which meant spending all afternoon in town.

I decided to more or less follow the temple procession, drifting off when something else caught my interest. I spent a half hour amid the unbelievable Donki Store crowds looking at cheap Japanese produce, then followed the temple procession noise to the Tianhou Temple, and then deeper into Ximending. Luckily I had ear plugs because the firecrackers were quite loud, not to mention the brass band and drums.

The procession made a large loop of the area, ending up at a temple on Luoyang Street. I went back over to the exhibition to sign the guest book and found my student there with some other photographers. But I couldn’t stay long; I had to meet Chenbl at Houshanpi Station for noodles and to get the tea.

After dinner, on the 270 bus back to Ximen to catch the train, I listened to Blues in C Sharp Minor by Teddy Wilson, a perfect song for old Taipei at night.

posted by Poagao at 8:56 pm  
Apr 08 2021

Clubhouse talks

I’ve been using the (for now) Apple-device only application called Clubhouse recently, mainly for photography-related talks, but also sessions on other topics as well. It’s part podcast, part radio show, part voice chat, and the moderation system allows it to flow relatively seamlessly without most of the usual trolling that occurs in places like Facebook and Twitter. Though such talks I’ve been able to listen to some fascinating views and discover some very interesting work from people whom I’ve never heard of before. Celebrities from several fields have been involved in conversations, allowing access to verbal interactions with them that has hitherto been unthinkable.
So I’ve found it both useful, educational and entertaining. But is it the game-changer people are making it out to be? Some have claimed that direct voice communication creates greater empathy and is more able to actually change people’s minds. Earlier this morning I was listening to a Clubhouse session headed by podcasting luminaries Chenjerai Kumanyika and Ira Glass; the topic was stories about people changing their minds based on a specific CH conversation, and I could actually hear them wincing as person after person was brought up on stage specifically to share such stories, when nearly none of them actually had such a story, or indeed any story at all. As we know, Ira’s podcast work centers around stories, and he seemed particularly exasperated at the apparent and continued lack of stories despite constant and clear instruction that this was meant to be a conversation about such stories. This isn’t to say that the people themselves were not interesting or didn’t have anything to say, of course. But in general they were more interested in what they had to say than addressing the topic.
 
It was an interesting experiment, but though I had been quite interested to hear such stories as well, they clearly were not coming, so Ira fairly quickly suggested that they were done. Perhaps if they had waited longer, or if they had promoted it even more strongly things would have been different, but it’s disappointing that, even when two of the most renowned and brilliant podcasters in the world put out a call for stories about people having their minds changed by CH sessions, virtually nobody could bring up concrete examples.
 
What does this say about the nature of Clubhouse conversations? The difference is supposed to be that personal voices elicit closer connections than such conversations can have on text-based social media such as Facebook and Twitter, et al.
But people insist on being people, no matter the medium. I’ve attended several conversations that were supposed to be about street photography, but where the conversations were nearly always centered around non-SP matters such as portraiture, wedding photography, models, clients, etc. I’ve tried to take part in conversations that couldn’t proceed because the moderators of the room didn’t respect ideas different from their own. To be fair, I’ve also been surprised at how welcoming other rooms centered on things like photojournalism have been towards the practice and theories of SP. But if I’m being shouted down in a conversation or if I feel nothing interesting is being said, I will simply hit the “Leave quietly” button and probably not be inclined to join that particular club’s rooms going forward.
So there is a limit to how effective these conversations can be in terms of influence, especially when rooms are not welcoming of reasonable views that might differ from those moderating the space. Personally, I’ve found that even with VR apps such as Altspace, which has been the most effective media in that respect, only so much can be conveyed. And the cynic in me can’t help but note that Clubhouse has made monetization a greater priority than making it cross-platform, which shows me where their priorities lie. My hope is that it turns out to be more than just be another path to hell, just with witty banter along the way.
Clubhouse and its inevitable ilk definitely have a future, especially once they bring Android users into the fold. What kind of future I can’t say, but the risk is that once user numbers reach critical mass, the conversations will Balkanize even further into mere echo chambers, and at best we’ll be right back where we started. No matter what form our communication takes, it seems that with sufficient numbers the specter of tribalism that has governed human interaction for so many millennia inevitably works to direct our conversation, sometimes for the better, but too often, if we let it, for the worse.
posted by Poagao at 12:10 pm  
Mar 15 2021

Feeling a way

Been in and out of various moods lately. Who hasn’t? It’s 2021, the world has changed, is still changing. Nobody knows where things will end up. Reassessing priorities has been the name of the game.

We here in Taiwan, of course, have been fortunate to be living under responsible governance, which makes for conflicting emotions when we see the vaccines we don’t have access to being so widely spread in countries where people felt free to ignore competent advice. They need it more, obviously. But remember, please, why they need it more.

Last weekend revolved around a St. Patrick’s Day gig at Bobwundaye. I don’t particularly care about St. Patrick’s Day, but we hadn’t played at Bob’s in a minute, so it was a long-overdue show. Cristina is getting ready to have Baby Paradise, so it was her last show before the big event. I saw some familiar faces, which was nice and got me back into a more social mood than I’ve been in lately. The show went well, and I shared a late-night/early morning taxi with Slim back to Xindian afterwards.

Sunday was spent recovering. In the morning I chatted with some folks in VR, meeting a fellow from Maitland, Florida, where I grew up, reminiscing about various landmarks. Later I walked down to the area just downstream from the Bitan traffic bridge, where they’re revamping the catchment infrastructure to allow fish to traverse it. I talked with some of people fishing in the river there for a bit before returning to the Water Curtain Cave for a dinner of questionable pasta leftover from my pandemic-induced shopping spree last year. Verdict: Ew.

I’ve been getting on Clubhouse chats lately…it’s a kind of mixture of talk radio, podcasts and chatrooms, with moderated talks where listeners can participate. It’s Apple-product only so far, which has added to its aura of exclusivity for some reason. Rammy, ABC and I founded a Street Photography club on there, and have had a few interesting sessions so far. Quite a few other SP clubs have cropped up, some of which do discussions almost on the daily, but we’ve elected for a quality-over-quantity approach. Still, who knows how this thing will develop.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve also been working, slowly, on a photography book. My floor and walls remain covered in prints, but the work is now largely a matter of presentation. Of course it changes every time I get new advice, but slowly it seems to be taking form. It’s difficult as I am so close to the subject matter and the photos, and objectivity is hard to find sometimes. Also time is more of an issue these days as the semester has started up again. Again with the violin, although I feel I’m stuck at my current level, most likely as I am loathe to practice.

Been feeling stuck in many areas recently. Last week after work I took train out to Keelung to walk around and say good-bye to the old pedestrian overpass by the harbor. Usually walking around with no particular agenda helps me get out of my head and reconnect with the world around me, but it was rough going for some reason. I walked over to where the Taima Ferry docks, and while I was walking away the ship entered the harbor and docked. It was something I would have liked to see, but I missed it. Then, after I walked back over to see the ship and was walking away again, it departed…another thing I would have liked to see and missed. It felt like a metaphor for life lately. I keep missing things. Perhaps it’s time for a reset.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 12:05 pm  
Nov 16 2020

15 Years in Bitan

Fifteen years ago this month, I purchased and moved into my current residence, aka The Water Curtain Cave. Looking back at pictures I took then, it hasn’t really changed that much. Shortly after I moved in I changed the curtains and painted it, and then bought the low-res Sharp LCD TV I use to this day. My old PC on which I edited the movie has long been dispatched in favor of a couple of iMacs, the place now features natural gas lines instead of relying on canisters, the wifi is probably faster(?), I have a washer/dryer combo so I no longer have to use the laundry room downstairs, and that’s about it. The water still gurgles through the pipes, and the shouting neighbor couple have become quieter after the elderly husband died last year. Oh, and 15 years ago I might have been mildly surprised to know that I’d be able to ask verbal questions and get answers from various devices in there.

But 15 years is significantly over twice as long as I’ve lived anywhere else (the second closest was Florida, where I went to junior high and high school, but that was only around six years), and I remain happy with it and thankful for the opportunity to live where I do. Though occasionally I wonder what it would be like to live downtown again, and am sometimes tempted by fantasies of getting a place on Dihua Street with big windows and high ceilings with wooden beams and tea cabinets that could only manifest by winning a lottery or two, nothing comes close to crossing that bridge and looking out at the mountains at whose feet I sleep every night.

The neighborhood has changed a bit over the time I’ve lived there as well. Most notably, some friends have moved away, and others have moved in. The nice shady area around the stream that feeds into Bitan is being “greenified” which apparently means cutting down all the trees there and pouring concrete all over the area. The convenience store downstairs became a pharmacy, but we now have three other convenience stores. A church moved in under the police station. Favorite cafes such as Pancho and 1974 have come and gone. Livia’s Kitchen still serves a tasty weekend brunch one can enjoy in the company of friendly dogs, and good pizza is now available at the other end of the bridge from The Shack. A new mini mall is opening at the metro station building (“Coming Soon”, it will have a grocery, a Muji, a coffee shop and 17 hot pot places), and of course we have the usual compliment of Starbucks/Louisa/KFC/Formosa Chang over there, but not on my side of the bridge. Until recently, neither Food Panda nor Uber Eats delivered here, but I think at least one of them does now. Likewise, scooter-sharing services such as Wemo and Goshare draw the line at the river, declining to serve us heathens.

But civilization is just a bridge away. I get the feeling that things have been like this for a while. Most people in Taipei see Xindian as this far-flung, hard-to-get-to wilderness, a decimated mess leftover from Taipei County days. Further out than places like Danshui or Beitou, even. And before that, it was literally the wilderness, indigenous territory not to be ventured into. Now it’s a 20-minute trip on the subway to Xindian from Taipei Main Station. But it’s hard to change people’s minds.

Granted, that might not be a bad thing. “It’s very…local down there isn’t it?” one long-term expat asked me with a great show of concern around 2003 when I first moved to Xindian. He lived in Tienmu and only spoke basic Mandarin after living in Taiwan longer than I’d been alive at that point. I didn’t know how to answer him, but I did realize it’s probably far better for everyone concerned if expats of that sort just stay in Tianmu, so I nodded.

 

posted by Poagao at 12:17 pm  
Oct 07 2020

A strange trip

It was a strange trip, this last one in Taitung. I’ve been feeling disconnected lately, and was hoping some time away from the Big Smoke (as nobody calls Taipei) would hook me up again.

Of course it was good to get on a train, especially one headed south through tunnels towards the cliffs of the east coast. The Pacific had just come into view when I learned that Trump had been infected with COVID19. The rest of the trip was spent talking with Slim and looking out the window at the ocean, wondering where we’re all headed.

In Taitung, we took cabs over to the Tiehua Village, dogs roaming around, familiar faces among the staff. The others disappeared; I consumed some fried chicken in the upper window of a nearby KFC as the sun set and the lanterns came out.

The gig was fine. We signed a bunch of CDs. It was a nice crowd, and it’s always nice to have trees growing through the stage. I saw my friend Josh there, along with his girlfriend. He was making a tour of the east coast, and was heading to Orchid Island afterward. The staff were the consummate professionals. A chalk drawing of one of our albums graced a metal plate thick enough to stop a bullet.

Then it was over, and everyone left, everyone else in Thumper’s minivan, while David and I called a white plate “taxi”. The driver, of the Paiwan tribe, felt that the monstrosity on the beach should at least open and give local people jobs. I guess that makes sense. Better than simply falling into more ruins, which helps no one.

We arrived in Dulan and put our things at the hostel, aka the fish and chips place. The local 7-Eleven was our meeting place, and the Mayor of Dulan, a fat orange-and-white cat the locals call “Little Tumor” presided over the proceedings.

I messaged my old classmate DJ, who is a person of interest in that community, on Saturday. Our soundcheck at the performance space up the coast happened at noon, and we spent the whole day there before playing that night, following some of the indigenous greats such as Kimbo. DJ was getting a tattoo on the floor of the culture space, the artist wielding a small hammer. The show went fine. People danced. The locals and the foreigners all seemed okay with what we were doing. The moon stayed away, however, though Mars made a brief appearance through the clouds. I had brownies with caramel sauce, wrapped in leaves.

A bright Sunday morning brunch at Roen Misak with DJ after meeting him at the house of well-known indigenous singer Suming. He is staying there at the moment, and was on the phone talking about academics with, I presume, another academic when I climbed over the board at the door. Suming’s father sat in a tiny chair in the lovely old kitchen adjacent to the entrance space.

I always go to Roen Misak when I’m in Dulan, so the owner knew me. “You’re back! It’s been a while!” she said. Of course she knows DJ and chatted with him in Amis. I showed DJ one of my photobook dummies, and he got quite a chuckle from it, though that was not my intention. Still, I’ve known him long enough to realize that he is amused by the absurdities of observed dissonance, so I feel like I did get something across. More will be forthcoming.

After brunch (delicious seaweed sandwiches, ice coffee, and waffles with locally sourced mulberry sauce), we walked over to a shop DJ describes as his Amis classroom, introducing to the older woman who runs the store and her son Ah-hsiung, who was watching TV, and a couple of other older women. We drank some beer followed by some coconuts that Ah-hsiung chopped open for us. As we were talking various people would stop by, asking for this or that.

One of DJ’s friends was taking him up to the performance space to see the show that night, but he was leaving right away, and I’d wanted to have some fish and chips with the band before heading over. I should have taken the offer, for the band had disappeared. Instead I wandered around the town, up to the junior high school campus to look at the afternoon sunlight reflected on the trees lining the track. The dimpled mirror by the school that I’d enjoyed making selfies on had been replaced, alas.

It was late by the time the band reemerged, and we called Ah-hsiung to take us up the coast for the show on the final night of the music event. DJ was nowhere to be found, but I had another brownie and walked around the wide grass field and took pictures of the moon, which had deigned to grace us with its autumnal presence. Everyone had their phones out, the field dotted with artificial stars.

Monday dawned, and we were still in Dulan. The reason for this was that David was unable to purchase tickets back to Taipei until that night, so I missed work as well as a violin lesson. I was not upset about this. David and Conor had gone surfing. Thumper was river tracing. Cristina and Zach were camped out above the wind-thrown sandstorm that was the beach. I walked around town and over to the “water running uphill” attraction, which did pretty much what it says on the tin. Then down towards the beach, past the eerie former cemetery with its broken, empty tombs, looking for all the world as if it was ground zero for a zombie apocalypse, and the RV park, which is just as creepy but in a different way. As if all the zombies had one day just decided to change our their cramped concrete coffins for the more spacious RVs. The ocean was whipped up by the wind as I sat on the blanket with Cristina and played the Shostakovich duets Chenbl and I have been practicing recently.

The day had started out sunny and warm, but became cool and overcast as I returned to the hostel. I’d wanted to eat, and ducked into a coffee shop the hostel owners had recommended to ask about food, earning a look of dark annoyance by a white woman reading a book inside. I settled for some 7-eleven snacks, and while I was there I purchased a bright pink brush for the Mayor; she greatly appreciated the gift, as she apparently hadn’t been properly brushed in a long time.

A shower and a change into warmer clothes later, I returned to the 7 to wait for Ah-hsiung to come take us back to Taitung (Thumper was still river tracing and would drive back himself later). Ah-hsiung had already taken DJ to the station early that morning as DJ needs to work on maintaining his visa until his project is complete, and this apparently necessitates a great deal of red tape concerning several different government bodies.

Ah-hsiung arrived with another ride, and I patted the mayor on her head before getting in the car. Dulan is a strange place; I’ve always felt it was different, but this trip had a darker tone than prior ones. Part of this is no doubt due to the passing of our good friend Brian Kennedy, with whom we will always associate that place and time. The weather and my feeling of disconnection also contributed to my discombobulation, but there was something else, a readjustment that has been going on for some time, with the world, with me, with everything, that can only be perceived in relation to the ocean itself.

We stopped for pizza on the way at Pete’s Pizza, across from a bread shop and a blue school designed in a faux Arabic style. Pete himself serenaded us with music and regaled us with stories as we munched on the pies we’d ordered, but I wasn’t into it. To be honest, I hadn’t been hearing much of what the foreign residents had been saying during my time there (with the exception of DJ, who is neither foreign nor local but in his own space as usual). But the shop isn’t far from the coast; I could feel the ocean lurking on the other side of the buildings. It wasn’t saying anything, it just was.

I didn’t talk much on the train as it made its way up the night coast, though the tunnels along the steep cliffs above the dark sea, flashing past villages and through empty stations. I’d had enough, I think. In any case, it’s Double Ten in the Capital, with all the electronic light shows that implies.

 

posted by Poagao at 11:35 am  
Sep 07 2020

A gig in Hsinchu

This last Saturday we went down to Hsinchu for a gig. Our van driver was the ever-reliable Mr. Gao, with his hair arranged in a Japanese-style topknot, and traffic was mostly smooth. Cristina had pulled a muscle in her back and was on pain medication. The weather was fine, Hsinchu’s famous breeze kept things cool…fall came with the arrival of September this year, quite punctually. The air has lost its core heat, and suddenly breezes have an actual cooling effect. Being outside without instantly breaking into a sweat feels quite novel. Chenbl predicts that this means the winter will be especially cold. I don’t think anyone is looking forward to Winter 2020 and the threat of recurring virus waves; all we can do is keep our guard up and trust those in charge know what they’re doing. Which is more than a lot of countries seem able to do, unfortunately.

We arrived at Hsinchu Park on time and did our soundcheck, but they hadn’t arranged lunch, so I went across the street to get ice coffee and a cinnamon bun. Just after I’d ordered, David called and said the organizers had moved things up and we had to go back early.

Alas, I was not back early. Which turned out to be fine as we started on time anyway, but it did become a kind of theme for the day. We did a thing where we played while walking up to the stage, bringing back memories of marching band, and then we had three hours to kill before the main show.

The park was becoming crowded, with too few people wearing masks for my comfort, so I went for a walk around town, first over to the railroad tracks, taking photos of scooters and shadows in the underpass, then over to the train station, where the light on the platforms was exquisite. It was too bad that I couldn’t get on them. I mulled using my Easycard to get on the platforms and then just leaving, but I decided against it and kept walking, taking the tunnel under the tracks and back towards the park, passing the corpses of ancient trees by the rear entrance.

I skirted the park again, heading through nearby neighborhoods, happy to be just out and walking on my own for a bit, when I stumbled across a raised canal running through the apartment complexes. It must have been used for irrigation at one point, but now it was a pleasant little river, with hardly any odor. A man was taking pictures of an orange-and-white street cat while a few feet away a rather large pig snuffled through the hedges. I followed the canal towards a pleasant park filled with artificial wetland bogs, elderly people sitting around with caretakers, a dog and another street cat that had appropriated one of the benches. The canal continued into the back of Chiao Tung University’s Boai campus, but I couldn’t follow it much further as I had to get back. I passed through some older one-story house communities and brand-new buildings with wraparound balconies that would surely be closed off. Developers here seem to think Taiwanese people will love balconies and use them for enjoyment, but hardly anyone ever does. People like the idea of balconies, in that they see themselves as the type of people who would enjoy a balcony if they just had one, but that’s not the way it works out in practice. They most often end up enclosed and/or full of boxes and other detritus.

Showtime had been moved up, of course, so it’s good that I got back to the park early. The show went well, or at least I assume it did as the lights were so bright I couldn’t really see the audience. The Thai chicken boxed meals were delicious and the drive back smooth, but it had been a long day; when Mr. Gao dropped us off at Xindian Station nobody thought of hanging out by the river as we often do.

 

posted by Poagao at 11:41 am  
Jul 20 2020

A weekend jaunt

Went travelling for the first time in a while over the weekend. Chenbl and I met up on Saturday morning and caught a bullet train south to Kaohsiung, complete with window seats and breakfast on the train. Drinking ice coffee and looking out the window at the scenery flashing past at 200mph …just the act of getting on a fast train to the south felt wonderful, and I haven’t seen that lovely port city in a minute.

After arriving we descended into the dark, humid depths of the Kaohsiung metro, which doesn’t seem interested in providing air conditioning or light in as generous capacities as its Taipei counterpart, and headed over to Yanchengpu, where our friend Lee Ah-ming was having his exhibition opening. The weather was brilliant, the sun white-hot but with a breeze unfamiliar to those who dwell in the windless Taipei basin, where the streets radiate heat. Kaohsiung is cool enough if you stay out of the sun, and the sparsely populated streets made me think most were avoiding going out during the hottest part of the day.

The exhibition was interesting, good work on the subject of Taiwan’s beleaguered migrant fish workers, and it’s always fun talking with “the other Ah-ming” as well as my painter friend Cheng Kai-hsiang, who was also there. But I never do well in spaces filled with people on the periphery of art-related activities, so I tend to shut up, lurk and listen.

Afterwards we all walked over, across the Love River, which stinks much less these days (and in fact hasn’t for a long time, but the occasional whiff makes me think some of the tributaries still need some work), to a three-story restaurant, also with no air conditioning. Dinner was good, just sweaty, so we had to order some shaved ice afterwards at the lobby of one of the other hotels where some of our students were staying.

And then to our hotel, the Fullon in Yanchengpu; Chenbl had scored some kind of discount, possibly to entice people to travel during these Covidian times, and we had a large, nice room overlooking the harbor in the distance. Oh the joy of a strong hotel shower and fresh hotel bed sheets! It’s been too long, and I enjoyed it, as well as the generous hotel breakfast the next morning. The place has a pool, but we’d neglected to bring swimsuits, and at any rate it was full of kids.

We walked around the area, taking the light rail to Xizhiwan and then down to the docks. The place where I took a photo of a kid playing on a giraffe statue has changed completely and now features a carousel and small merry-go-round.

Then we took the still stifling subway out to a mall, where we waited some time for taxis out to Qijin, where we were meeting Ah-ming for a delicious lunch featuring sashimi fresh off the boat. Then he showed us around the docks for a while, exploring the nooks and crannies of the area, talking with Ah-ming about the publishing industry and his next book, all the while as a line of storm clouds crept up on the horizon. We timed it just right, arriving back at the High Speed Rail station just as the rain began. A doze-filled hour and a half later we were back at Taipei station having dinner upstairs.

It was so good to get away for a bit, I’ve missed it.

posted by Poagao at 11:46 am  
Jun 05 2020

An afternoon

I didn’t get off work until after 1 p.m. today. I took the subway to TaiPower Building and had a quick but delicious lunch at Sababa, where they know what I want before I order as I always order the same thing there. Then it was off to check out a Black Lives Matter Taiwan event held near the NTU dorms. There, in between the large buildings, was a small group of young people, mostly white, several holding small cardboard signs. A Black woman and an Asian woman were leading the group in singing “We Shall Overcome” followed by “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. People stared at their phones, searching for the lyrics. The leaders spoke and took questions, we knelt for five minutes in silence for George Floyd, and some slogans were shouted before they took a group photo and disbanded. I’d gotten there late and apparently missed the start. Most people left, but some broke up into little groups to talk. My friend Casey says there are more activities planned, but he was busy today and wasn’t able to make it. I felt awkward and apart, as I usually do in groups of foreigners, standing off to the side and listening.

After that I walked over to the NTU gates and up through the campus, wishing I could take a dip in the campus swimming pool due to the heat, and then over to the neighborhood where I used to live in the early 90’s after I graduated from college. There, at the old abandoned Military Police station, I saw two women on a scooter looking at one of the basement windows. Inside was a mewing grey-striped kitten with a smudged nose and grey eyes, one of them half open; they were trying to get it to come out through the grate. They had put some nuts on the ledge to entice it, but it wasn’t having it. “They sell tuna in cans at the 7-Eleven over there,” I said, pointing across the intersection. So they went off to buy tuna while I sat with the kitten on the side of the derelict building. So I told it a story:

“You know, little cat,” I said. “I was once in a bit of a fix myself here, long before you were born. It was 1991 or so, and I’d just lost my first job. I had no money and had never lost a job before. I didn’t know what to do. So I walked over to this spot, which was then a fully operational Military Police installations, in the middle of the night. It must have been 3 or 4 in the morning, and there was a single guard on duty outside. He couldn’t have been much older than I was.” The kitten meowed, so I continued.

“I told him I was feeling down, that things weren’t going so great. Here I’d thought things were going pretty well, even though I was struggling to work on a native-level position with less-than-native-level Chinese and even worse Taiwanese. But I’d failed, it was my first big failure, and a disaster in my mind. I would find another job, but I didn’t know that then. But just being able to talk about it with someone was an enormous relief, you know?”

The kitten didn’t say anything.

“So now I see you here in a jam, all alone up here on that ledge. It could be that your family isn’t around any more, and you’re on your own. Maybe you need someone to talk to as well? Oh, I know you need more than that, but it’s all I got for now. I hope you can have a good life, but it’s likely that if you get through this there will be even greater challenges in the future waiting for you. People will try to help you, but you have to accept their help, so please take a few steps and have something to eat, ok?”

The kitten turned around and meowed. I blinked slowly at it, and it slow-blinked back. It seemed drowsy. Maybe it was exhausted. The women on the scooter came back with the tuna, and they placed some on the ledge, but the kitten didn’t move. A young woman walked by and suggested that we were scaring the kitten. “Well, we tried!” the women on the scooter said, and took off. I sat down with the little furball for a while, but it wouldn’t come near the grate, so I pushed the tuna as far as I could towards it. “Good luck, little cat, I wish you well,” I said.

I checked out my old residence nearby, a tiny room I’d rented for NT$3,500 a month, recalling the haphazardly put-together Wolf 125cc motorcycle I’d been riding at the time (the one on which I’d scared my friend and roommate Boogie into never riding another motorcycle again). Walking alongside the school where the old shanty town used to be, an older man hailed me in English. After I responded in Chinese and we’d exchanged a few sentences, he suddenly realized he had someplace else to be.

I walked up to Heping East Road, where I was passing a cafe when a young man stood up and called me over; it seemed he’d seen a recent interview I’d done, and we sat down to chat on the sidewalk for a bit. It was very pleasant. He wore a white Tiananmen baseball cap and seemed well-travelled. But I couldn’t stay long, as I was meeting Chenbl and his parents at the Surviving Eslite near City Hall. Chenbl’d spotted a good deal on some Bluetooth headphones, and as my phone’s port has been annoying me, I needed some.

Later, on my way back across the bridge to the Water Curtain Cave, I spotted the misty full moon, and wondered how people were doing. It pains me to see what’s going on in the U.S. these days. It’s pained me for a long time, the needless slaughter and indifference. I speak up when I can, but it’s hard to cut through the noise. We can’t stop trying, though.

posted by Poagao at 10:39 pm  
Mar 20 2020

The virus

I know, it’s been a minute since I posted on here. A lot, needless to say, has been going on. My sister came out to Taiwan from Oklahoma for a month-long visit encompassing the month of January, my birthday gift to her. We also took a trip to Tokyo in early January for about a week, and I took her around northern Taiwan to see the sights, etc. The Muddy Basin Ramblers even gave her a private show, as we weren’t playing any gigs during that time.

The timing of the trip was a close thing, in retrospect. Even a week later and things would have been different. The day before she left, we went out to Jiufen for the day, spending the cold afternoon sipping tea and eating cakes at an old tea house overlooking the sea. The very next day, after I took her to the airport for an early morning flight, hundreds of passengers from the Diamond Princess (yes, that Diamond Princess) flowed out of the ship docked in Keelung and, yes, some of them visited Jiufen.

You know what has happened in the time since: The world has basically shut down, especially after the virus hit the U.S. and people started to belatedly take it seriously. Having been through SARS, and not being privy to the WHO’s prevarications, Taiwan knew what was up early on, closing down flights from China, which, ironically, had already helped out by limiting tourists from coming here in order to “punish” us for daring to have free and open elections. Most people began to wear masks on subways and buses as well as in crowded environments, and many mass gatherings were cancelled. Schools delayed their opening for a month or more.

Many countries have recently closed their borders; Taiwan did so a couple of days ago when it became blindingly obvious that most of the cases we were seeing were travelers from infected countries all around the world rather than just a few countries. All arrivals now go straight to quarantine…at least that’s what they’re supposed to do; there’s always those selfish, exceptionally unaware individuals who think they know better and effectively ruin it for everyone else. We saw it with SARS, and we’re seeing it now, even though the government has been issuing fines up to a NT1 million to people breaking quarantine.

Hopefully Taiwan will continue its stellar record fighting the virus; international media have mostly been ignoring this fact, instead pointing to other countries like South Korea, but that’s to be expected as most media don’t want to piss off China. In a way it’s somewhat comforting; at least people won’t be seeing Taiwan as a safe haven and trying to escape here. In fact, the border closings are causing a furor among expats who aren’t residents and have been living here on visitor visas, as they’re not allowed to go out and come back in again on a new visa as they’ve been doing, some for many years.

Watching as the virus ravages other countries, however, has been painful, countries such as Italy and Iran, and now even parts of the U.S., which delayed its virus response while Trump pretended it wasn’t a thing, and then just a small thing, easily dealt with. U.S. government officials, we’ve now found, knew about the threat but hid it from people while they sold their stocks, an act that is both illegal and unconscionable. Gun stores are being cleaned out, which is alarming. Jobs are being lost and/or suspended, yet landlords are still demanding rent. People who can’t work from home are bearing the brunt of the impact. Some states are at least trying to take up the slack for the federal government, acting to protect their citizens. I still see people, mostly Americans, pooh-poohing the virus, calling it “just a bad flu” or even a “plot by the democrats to make Trump look bad”, etc. There was one at the Altspace campfire just last night (VR seems to be taking off as more people around the world are on lockdown). Notably, everyone else blocked him, and he disappeared. The looming election looks like it will be a choice between two very old, very white men, both with cognitive problems and questionable records, and has thus been lost in the noise. If this is akin to a “wartime” situation, a narrative Trump seems to pushing now with his insistence on calling Covid19 “the Chinese virus,” his reelection is virtually assured.

For now, things here in Taiwan aren’t bad, relatively speaking. Cases here just passed the 100 mark yesterday, and we have one death so far; community spread has thus far been limited. Most schools and businesses are still open, if sparsely populated. Masks and rubbing alcohol are being rationed, and masks can even be ordered online. Legislation has been passed to deal with the economic and social impacts of the situation. I live on the outskirts of town, and I haven’t been hoarding; indeed my fridge isn’t big enough for more than maybe a week of supplies, but I’ve been buying a little more than I need every time I go shopping. I spend a lot of time at home anyway, more lately as I work on some books I’m in the process of making. I am in a way fortunate that I live alone; Chenbl lives with his elderly parents, and we all need to be especially careful.

When this is over, if it is over, I suspect the world will be changed, at least in view of the fact that the curtains have been torn down from many realities people were hitherto unwilling to face. Whether we go back to our previous state of ignorance remains to be seen.

posted by Poagao at 11:23 am  
Oct 29 2019

Cuba Trip! Part two

Cuba was basically an encapsulation of conservative Americans’ fears of socialism, I wrote in my notebook as we drove on the eastbound road to Matanzas. I’m still not sure what I was thinking when I wrote that. I’d chosen Matanzas basically by looking at it on Google Maps: A sleepy port town, not on the tourist track. It seemed a better choice than touristy Vinales, and I’d always liked port towns; I wasn’t particularly interested in cigar manufacturing or horse-riding. And even Ms. D was with us on this excursion. As we drove, a military convoy consisting of two (2) motorcycles hauled a poorly disguised boat onto the highway, stopping traffic for a short spell before heading back off.

After a couple of hours in a van that apparently had no high gear, we drove through town and up into the hills a little ways to visit the famous caves in the area, supposedly discovered by a Chinese miner by accident. We took the tour, quickly falling behind the rest of the group as everyone was taking selfies. Several other groups passed us, and the local photographer/videographer who’d been tasked with recording our visit with a handicam gave up, going on to shoot other tourists. The caves were, well, caves. The guide mentioned how in the early days there were no restrictions, so a lot of the stalactites and stalagmites had been removed by visitors. I was expecting instructions about not touching anything, but he was pretty much: “Hey, touch anything you want! See that pool of water? That’s lucky water! Go play in it!” When some of the group was posing people leaning on a formation for photos, the guide actually helped.

By the time we were done with the caves it was time for lunch, which we had at a place across from the waterside railroad tracks, at the suggestion of our drivers. It wasn’t bad, but of course with the group it took forever; I didn’t get the impression that they usually had that many customers at once, and we rather caught them unawares.

So by the time we were done with the caves and lunch, it was getting on in the day, the day I’d hoped to spend exploring the city. As a result, we only had a short time for people to walk quickly around for a little bit. I found the other end of the now-defunct Hershey Train, and chatted briefly with some fellows standing next to a lovely vintage green Mercedes-Benz, but I didn’t get a chance to actually see much.

We stopped at Cohimar as the sun set, wandering around that seaside village under the gaze of the Hemingway Statue there for a bit. Some of our group insisted on making a Beatles-style lineup shot on top of a fort. Ms. D was setting up shots, putting her straw hat on small local kids and taking their shots. Dinner was lobster at a touristy place off the Cathedral Square back in Havana, and the ensuing wifi access pretty much ensured that we were sitting there the rest of the evening, me tapping my foot impatiently while the others checked their social media for a few hours.

We got up early the next day. Early morning light in Havana is quite nice, especially in Centro just south of the Malecon. It seemed to be the first day of school for some groups of kids, standing in the street outside their school and singing patriotic songs while proud parents looked on. The group ran around photographing, free of fear of retribution, which made me pause. If you don’t usually take that kind of photo in a Western country, would you do it here? If not, is that a double standard? Even if it’s not a double standard, it’s something I’d think one would want to at least be aware of. I kept seeing scenes that I felt sure I could have photographed with a certain amount of concentration and empathy had I not been flanked by five or six camera-wielding members of our group, none of them actually looking at the people in front of them, eyes rather fixated on their LCD screens. Using the Leica Q’s 28mm didn’t help matters, as that camera rewards getting closer, more personal and more intimate, not sniping away from afar in a group as someone could do with a longer focal length. So I passed over scene after scene, feeling more numb to it all. I’d made a point of promising myself nothing on this trip; I knew it would happen and purposely lowered my expectations. But I was still depressed and tired.

Later in the day, men were offloading dead pigs at a market near the train station, which now seems to be under renovation (it was derelict the last time we passed this way). The area has, since our last trip, always been one of Chenbl’s favorite parts of Havana; he kept wanting to go back there. We stopped to chat with a drum maker, hovered around the scene of one of the many broken-down trucks being repaired, but generally just kept walking.

Eventually, as late afternoon approached, I decided I needed a haircut. Usually I just do it myself, but it had been forever since I’d had a nice cut in a Black barbershop, and Havana has no shortage of these, so while everyone else went back to Las Maletas, Carlos, Chenbl and I stopped into a local place, and I enjoyed having what’s left of my raggedy-ass hairline shaped up by the barber as we were treated to the latest tunes from Kendrick Lamar and Future. Though I didn’t understand most of the Spanish banter going on inside, it was pleasant and a good way to regain my peace of mind. Afterwards we walked through the posh, upgraded hotels near the Capitol, past an upscale camera shop with LEICA emblazoned on the front, to the old city and our hotel.

At dinner (lobster, which explained the cats milling around our legs as we ate), a very blonde teen stopped in front of our table and started sketching on a piece of paper while staring at me. Scam, I thought, and shook my head at him. Undeterred, he presented me with a laughably amateur scribbling. “I am no Picasso,” he said, demanding money for the sketch. That much was true; not only was he no Picasso, he apparently didn’t understand that Picasso was basically creating photo-realistic artwork by his age; only later in life did he go for the more abstract pieces he’s known for. But though I was a jerk and didn’t pay up (I told him he should have at least asked me first), I did watch the kid scam several other tourists in this fashion. I wondered if he’d have dared do the same thing or meet with the same success if he were Black; I doubted it. It was just part of the atmosphere in Cuba, something we didn’t really encounter the last time, before the crackdowns both there and abroad.

I should add here that Carlos was extremely helpful not only by helping us translate and provide context, his thoughtful, measured pronunciation of Spanish helped me realize that I could slow down and get my pronunciation right rather than tripping over my own tongue trying to get phrases out too quickly.

We got up early again the next day, our last full day in Havana, and we told everyone we’re just going to walk around…y’all just do your own thing. We took the ferry to Regla, toured the Black church with actual Black Jesuses (Jesi?) depicted inside, and then walked the streets for a while. People in the group started to get hungry and complain, so Chenbl bought nearly every biscuit a local vendor on a bicycle had on him, and handed them out. Back in Havana, we visited the tourist market, which was another long, achingly long stretch of frustration. Desperate vendors, schpiels, the same merch in every stall…the market had shrunk by about a third since the last time we were there, but it seemed interminable just the same.

Then, as the sun began to set, we set out through town again. I had to visit the park that David Alan Harvey had told me the location of, where at least three well-known Magnum photographs had been taken. The playground has since been renovated, but I could still make out where the Magnum photos had been taken. It seemed that both David and Alex Webb had taken nearly the same shots just at the entrance of the playground, which is interesting. The light was nice there, and I would have liked to have stayed, but we had to go. Again.

We walked through Centro again, making for the National Hotel, which was such a long way that before long only a couple of the group were still with us. Kids were playing baseball in the streets. Beggars followed Chenbl, one so persistently that Carlos and I had to flank him and suggest that he might want to move on. Back at the hotel, as we arranged for vans back to the airport later that night, the landlady told us how she basically had to go to Mexico to get anything, and customs was a nightmare.

My room was unavailable that night, but it was ok as we had to leave at 3:00 a.m. so I just slept in the security room. Our flight was at 7. At one point on the dark drive, I awoke from a nap and realized that we were no longer on the main road, but rather taking a shortcut on backroads, passing near what looked like a incarceration facility. For some reason at that empty hour a sudden fear sprang into my mind, that something had gone horribly wrong, the drivers had set a trap, and we were actually being delivered to prison. But the feeling passed as we drove on and the airport came into view against the glowing horizon.

We bade Carlos farewell; his plane, bound for Honduras and then Guatemala, was parked next to ours, and leaving right after us. It felt a little like Hoth. I didn’t feel sorry to be leaving; unlike the last time we’d gone, this trip had been frustrating and a bit of an ordeal. I don’t know what lies in store for Cuba. Better things than now, I hope. I wish them the best.

Toronto was colder than when we’d left. We arrived way too early to check in to the Comfort Inn, and it was drizzling outside, so at Karl’s suggestion, we spent most of the day at a huge mall. Something -dale…Yorksdale: Massive, but seemingly very repetitive stores. The sun came out for a moment, dazzling everyone, and then hid again. An obviously armed security guard came up to Chenbl and I, asking if we were looking for anything in particular. I assume this had something to do with the fact that I was by far the worst-dressed individual in the mall at the time, and that’s saying something. The next day Karl showed us around the St. Lawrence Market, Eaton Mall, and the fountain made up of happily vomiting dogs, all in between periodic cups of coffee. We also perused the World Press Photo awards.

The sun was out in force the next day, though it was still chilly. We traveled into town via the circuitous bus/subway combination that everyone was convinced took far less time than it actually did. When we exited the station downtown, we were greeted with very lovely light flashing down from many different buildings at once. I wanted to explore this scene, seeing several wondrous possibilities within walking distance, but the group had to make a birthday song video for Carlos first. This took a while, of course, and by the time we were done, the light had moved on, becoming rather mundane. Oh well. It was probably a trap anyway.

We took a ferry out to the islands on the other side of the harbor. Quaint little places, forest paths, docks full of cleverly named sailboats. On the other side was a pleasant little beach with the water of Lake Ontario lapping gently on the sand. A man in a wheelchair rolled up and gazed at the water for a while. We walked along the island through disc-golf courses and waterways filled with swans and other wildlife to the central part, where we had some lunch at the Carousel Cafe, where the salmon salad and mac and cheese we ordered arrived with surprising alacrity. Chenbl was initially dismayed at the sight of mac and cheese, but after a taste was convinced it was a good choice.

Back downtown, the light was becoming quite nice. Karl had told us that he’d be around a certain intersection, but apparently we missed each other. But ducklings gonna duck, and just for fun after noticing them following me I walked in circles for a while before they caught on. Then I spotted a nice series of columns across the street, and quickly crossed over to take a few photos there. Periodically people would walk by, but nobody took any notice of me.

…until the others showed up, having crossed the street at the next intersection and come back. Flanked by several people, all holding their cameras up, I began to notice the people on the sidewalk throwing us annoyed looks, even though I was no longer taking any pictures. I should move on again, I thought…but wait; perhaps they need to know that this kind of thing has consequences, apart from simply the usual bad photos. So I walked up to one of the windows along the wall and took a shot of my reflection. It wasn’t even a shot of any of the people there, but one woman,  unsurprisingly, spoke up. “Hey, could you all stop taking pictures of people here? It’s really rude.”

“My apologies for the inconvenience,” I said, meaning it. “We’ll go.” I just hoped that the people in our group had taken note of what had just happened.

I was pretty much done in any case. Chenbl and I had some dinner at the Eaton Mall before browsing Best Buy, where Chenbl was powerless to resist the call of the big-ass boombox on display (it did sound amazing, I will admit), the price a fraction of what it would be in Taiwan. We lugged the damn thing on the subway as a group of white teens spouted ignorant homophobia and racist nonsense to a younger boy who was obviously in high heaven to be amongst his heroes. Then it was the bus back to the hotel to prepare for yet another late-night flight.

It was a long flight, 15+ hours just to Hong Kong. We flew over the north pole, and it felt like it as the plane was so cold. Back home, it has taken me a minute to get my mind right again. Chenbl’s been asking me where we should go next, but right now I. just. can’t. even. In any case, though it was a bit of an ordeal at times, I hope that you’ve at least enjoyed reading about it.

posted by Poagao at 4:22 pm  
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