Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Mar 19 2018


I needed to choose one of two things to do on Sunday morning. I usually like to go down to Taipei New Park and practice taichi/tuishou with the fellas; it’s good to move around, get some exercise, sun, and chat about recent news. But I also needed to practice violin, as I’ve fallen behind after not picking it up a single time during the winter break. Originally I’d thought I could do both, and after breakfast I took out the violin and began practicing with the full intent of just doing some brushing up and then heading out to the park.

Before I knew it, it was well after noon and I was still playing. I’m slowly getting the hang of changing positions; it makes more sense to me than it did when my teacher first introduced the idea, and feels more natural. Though my neighbors no doubt disagree, I actually found practicing enjoyable. But taichi was out, so I had a tasty lunch at the Pancho Cafe downstairs and then crossed the bridge to hang with my friend Casey, who’s got his hands on an interesting apartment on the other side of the river. It’s in the back of a building on a slope, for one thing, and it’s full of junk nobody else wants. Casey hauled out a bunch of moldy old cameras for me to look at…they’re probably hopeless, but I took a couple off his hands to take to the shop so they can have a look. Casey’s also into taichi, so we pushed hands for a while and I didn’t feel as guilty about missing the park.

The day had started out sunny, but it was cloudy as I made my way back across the crowded bridge to put the cameras away before heading out again. I hate crossing the bridge in the evenings these days, as Bitan is doing its inane fountain festival thing, which is basically a few water spouts on the paddle-boat docks going off while huge speakers boom out “Time to Say Good-bye” and the theme to Pirates of the Caribbean every half hour. This somewhat-less-than-spectacular display manages to attract roughly half of Taipei to see it, and the bridge strains and bucks under their weight. To make matter worse, I forgot my phone and had to make the arduous trip twice, cursing as I did so.

The reason I was heading out to the city instead of spending a comfy evening scanning old negatives and listening to podcasts at the Water Curtain Cave was that David Chen had invited me to see the last show of the Gypsy Jazz Festival at the Eslite Spectrum theater. I took the subway to the City Hall station and got a bite of pork rice before heading up to the bookstore to read more about the background of Koudelka’s Exiles before heading to the theater to meet David and Vincent, who organized the whole thing.

The concert was amazing. It was a simple setup, with Tcha Limberger on violin and vocals, Antoine Boyer and Denis Chang on guitar, and Kumiko Imakyurei on double bass, and the resulting music was ethereal, like a dream. They played many Django Reinhardt tunes, including a version of the little-performed Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure that is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I looked it up later but couldn’t find a version that came close to the one they played. Tcha’s violin sang and wept with him, and Antoine, who is amazingly accomplished for his age, played as if he was possessed. Virtually every song was mesmerizing, and at the end they had all of their workshop students come up and play a phrase during an extra-long version of the Tchavolo Swing. Some were better than others, but all of them were good. Vincent has done a great job organizing this thing, and I look forward to seeing where it goes in the future.

So it was a good day. I’d needed a good day.




posted by Poagao at 10:58 am  
Mar 07 2018

3/4: Return to Taipei

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

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

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

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

And that was that. Hope you enjoyed the read.

posted by Poagao at 2:55 pm  
Mar 07 2018

3/3: Vancouver

The weather was nice again today, sunny and not as bone-chillingly cold, so we took the subway to Waterfront and then lined up for the ferry across to North Vancouver. I snapped a picture of two guards, one Filipino and one older white dude. Of course the old white dude had a problem. “Why did you take my picture?” He demanded.

“Because you’re a great-looking dude!” I lied.

“You have to ask me before you can take my picture, you can’t just take it without asking me,” he said.

“My bad,” I said, before walking away.

The ferry trip was nice, smooth, as if the ferry was on rails. I imagine many people use it to commute on weekdays. On the other side, we walked through the inevitable market with the inevitable seagulls and the inevitable lecture on the intimate relations of bees. We then got on a bus up to the Capilano Bridge, which Chenbl wanted me to see. “Excuse me,” I started to ask the driver, but he cut me off.

“Wait til I sit down,” he ordered. I stood and waited until he had arranged himself in his seat. When he was done, he said grumpily, as if he expected a litany of problems, “Ok, what’s your trouble, sir?”

“Is this the bus to Capilano Bridge?”



It was a nice drive up, through pleasant neighborhoods. The Capilano Bridge itself is a large suspension bridge and a system of walkways through the forest canopy…it’s quite impressive, and the air was very fresh, if still uncomfortably cold. Some of the walkways are transparent, and I from their reaction, I’m guessing some of the people were afraid of heights. At least no kids were jumping up and down on the thing like they do in Bitan.

After we were forested out, we got on the free shuttle bus back to Waterfront, which featured a driver with a radio announcer’s voice. Then we took the subway out to what we’d suspected was a mall near the airport. It was disappointing, and we went back to Metrotown to pick up some electronics at Best Buy. Dinner was Vietnamese near our hostel.

Tomorrow we’re going back to Taiwan. I really wish I’d met this city under better circumstances.

posted by Poagao at 12:11 pm  
Mar 07 2018

3/2: Vancouver

The place where we’re staying is home to a family of cats. We spent some time this morning after breakfast playing with them and talking to the two Mexican assistants, Ozcar and Pamela, who are a couple. They’re bright young people, hoping to see the world. The flight to Vancouver was their first time on an airplane. They have no days off and are very tired.

It was grey and rainy, so we took the subway to a large mall at Metrotown. Before we could get there, the announcer said there was a “medical situation” at the station, so we waited on the tracks for a while before proceeding.

I got my mall fix done and done at Metrotown. So done. All the little fountains, all the shops, the tepid food court…all of it. We did find a bookstore called Chapters, where I picked up Stuart Franklin’s “The Documentary Impulse”. Chenbl and I caused a little scene when we were carefully measuring out cough medicine from the bottle to my water bottle’s cap, causing a few stares and a visit by the manager. “You guys doing ok?” he asked nervously, eyeing our suspect behavior.

“We’re doing fine,” I said, staring at him. His smile faltered and he left.

I still feel awful. I’m on vacation in Vancouver, and all I want to be doing is lazing around home watching Miyazaki movies in my pajamas.

Vancouver is quite international but not terribly diverse. Lots of Asians and Middle Easterners but hardly any Black or Latino people. There’s a strange kind of tension in the air here, a kind of desperation I can’t put my finger on. Perhaps if I lived here I might be able to pin it down, but I really don’t want to live here. It’s probably just because it’s winter and I feel like shit. But still.

We had dinner at a Taiwanese restaurant because it was there.

posted by Poagao at 12:06 pm  
Mar 07 2018

3/1: Vancouver

I was feeling slightly better but still in a haze this morning as we walked down to the water and along the banks to Granville Island, which I’m assuming once meant having to cross some kind of water to access, what with the name and all. On the way we passed an encampment of homeless people, one of them pissing on a tree in the chill air, and then we were walking through an elementary school’s recess yard. Some workmen later on asked us if we worked there, “there” meaning the construction site where we were currently trespassing, and politely told us to get lost when we answered in the negative. I keep feeling like I’m always doing the wrong thing here, in the wrong place, with the wrong goals, etc. Out of sync in a way I didn’t feel even when I was in Cuba. Chenbl, however, is happy; he loves Canada, and has been here five times.

Lunch was some tasty shepherd’s pie at the Granville Market. Then we took the tiny ferry across the water and walked up to Stanley Park. Vancouver looks like the fantasy of someone who really likes blue-green glass towers, composed of immaculate little glass boxes full of trendily sparse furniture that is completely unable to reflect an actual life. Dudes threw sticks into the chill waters so that their shivering dogs would have to go fetch them. We walked over to the array of old totem poles, situated facing their modern counterparts covering Vancouver.

Ten years ago I was in Tokyo, and as happy as I’ve ever been. It was cold then, too.

A man in a business suit was bragging into his Bluetooth: “Yeah, of course we’re on the radar as you’d expect.”

“I dunno,” I said loudly to Chenbl as we walked by the marina among the pretentious people and their tiny dogs. “Do you really think we need another yacht? Isn’t 12 enough?”

“Stop it,” Chenbl said. He knows when I’m in a snippy mood. The full moon was rising over the docks as we approached the subway station at Waterfront. We took the subway to the bus/train station to ask about the bus/ferry to Victoria. The area was empty and spooky, and a man was shouting obscenities in traffic. We could have taken the subway but, but I wasn’t as desperately tired as I could have been, so we walked. It took roughly forever, and my cold was not happy.

posted by Poagao at 12:03 pm  
Mar 07 2018

2/28: Vancouver

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

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

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

posted by Poagao at 11:55 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/27: Havana – Toronto – Vancouver

I’d had a bad night. My head hurt, my nose was blocked, and my cold was running full tilt when I finally got up in the morning on the day we had to leave Havana. We walked over to 5th and 8th to the Catedral Café for a nice breakfast. At the next table, a middle-aged white dude talked condescendingly at a couple of black Cuban guys. Back at our place, an 80-year-old man basked in the sun on the porch of the ruined house in front while a three-year-old girl played beside him. Our taxi to the airport was, of course, a green 50’s American car with bouncy seats to compensate for the lack of bounce in the shocks. From what I understand, the reason all of these cars have retained their original colors is that the color of a car is one of the main things you can’t change without government permission. Other things can be changed, from LED lights to Toyota steering wheels, but the color must stay the same.

At the airport, the Air Canada check-in system was down, and the long line didn’t move for an hour until they fixed it, while even the Aeroflot line next to us moved swiftly. That’s gotta hurt.

My sinuses did not like the flight to Toronto. There we got in the wrong line and nearly got involved in the U.S. fuckery that pervades even non-U.S. airports for some reason. You could tell it was the particular U.S. brand of fuckery because the agents at the gates in their little glass shed were all young blonde people dressed in full battle gear, standing in sleek black booths festooned with intimidating machinery. Fortunately we escaped the area to find an actual Canadian immigration officer, a pudgy Sikh bear who smiled warmly when he said, “It’s good to travel with your best friend.” But our misstep made dinner a hasty burger before the flight.

My sinuses, still reeling from the last flight, hated the flight to Vancouver. Although we were lucky to have a whole row to ourselves, my nose and ears were afire most of the time from the pressure changes. By the time we stepped into the cold Canadian air, I could barely hear from my right ear, and I felt like shit. I wanted to go right to bed, but Chenbl had shopping to do, so I shuffled vacantly around the store periodically waking up from and returning to my stupor until we were done and could return to our place, which is a nice old house in a residential neighborhood near city hall.

posted by Poagao at 11:53 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/26: Havana

We took a bus to the neighborhood around Eric’s other place and wandered around taking photos in the alleys before a grabby Cuban man had us heading inside for some breakfast and to meet our guide for the day, a handsome, tall woman named Chaneti. After telling her where we’d been and what we’d seen, she led us out to the Malecón, where we walked along the seashore listening to her tell us stories of her childhood swimming in the abandoned swimming pools there. It was a beautiful day, the sky a brilliant azure and the sea a deep, calmer shade of blue. Before the revolution it had been quite luxurious, but people swam there up until the 90’s, when Cuba’s economy crashed after the fall of the Soviet Union meant that funding from that country dried up, and the government banned all sorts of things, including seaside activities, rather than trying to regulate them. We walked over to the old district to a cigar shop located in a lovely old mansion to buy some cigars, because that’s apparently what one does here. It was hot, and I was beginning to feel tired even though it was early in the day. In addition to the usual 35mm lens I always use on my old Sony, I brought the big, not often-used 16-35mm f4, just to have it in case I needed it. I kept it on the camera during the day, switching to the prime at night, and while it is useful in crowded, narrow alleys with lots of people, it is a big, heavy mofo of a lens, and makes the setup not a little ungainly when wearing it all damn day. It’s smallest when at 35mm, so that’s usually where I kept it.

Our first attempt at lunch was thwarted by the lack of most of the items on the menu, but our second was successful and featured a house band that wasn’t bad, but mistook Chenbl’s request for “something traditional” for a desire to hear “Stand By Me”.

As we walked over to the harbor to take a bus, Chaneti talked about Cuba’s prospects and the gradual opening up that has been burgeoning since Obama’s historic visit. I felt a cold coming on, but for some reason I hoped that the hot sun would somehow prevent it. We got on a crowded bus that traveled via tunnel across the harbor and to a small seaside town where, Chaneti told us, the fisherman on whom Hemingway based his book The Old Man and the Sea had lived. Apparently they were friends. We walked out to the seaside, where a group of kids were practicing baseball. Out on the shore, an old man sat on the rocks, facing the ocean.

I was feeling poorly by the time we got back to Eric’s place for some very nice pesto noodles, and went to bed immediately.

posted by Poagao at 11:49 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/25: Havana

We woke to birdsong this morning due to the continued lack of A/C. It’s not that hot at night here so it wasn’t that bad. Since our host Fefa was out already, we had to awaken Eric in order to arrange a guide for tomorrow, our last full day in Cuba.

For  today, we decided to walk down to the ocean on Paseo Avenue. The area is quiet and full of large, nicer houses and the occasional embassy. Both the motorcycle cops and the man they caught in his grey Lada seemed embarrassed to be there.

Down on the oceanfront were a couple of hotels, including the Riviera. Which means tourists. I’ve noticed that Cubans seem to whistle a lot to call each other (they also yell). An older couple, most likely American, sat at the table next to us during breakfast. The paunchy white dude had a brand-new red-starred Che Guevara hat to match his Adidas shoes and Reebok backpack. He used sign language a lot with the waitress. Occasionally a large Cuban woman in a lovely head-dress would breeze by, offering to exchange U.S. dollars.

The light had been quite nice when we arrived. Fifty yards away, an old green Packard was parked by the ocean in a very alluring fashion, but by the time we’d finished breakfast both it and the nice light were gone. We walked out to the oceanfront walk and watched fishermen, some swimming with some kind of motor and some in boats, moving around in the water. A man in a Mariachi outfit that was much too hot for this weather came striding over from the direction of the hotel, singing as he went, and we retreated to the main road.

I find Cuban men with bellies very reassuring. They don’t try to hide them; their shirts are as tight as ever, and many even go shirtless. Another thing I love about Cuba is not just the old cars, but the colors of the old cars, as well as the buildings. Where did these colors go, these bright greens, blues, oranges, reds, and even purples? You can only find them on Matchbox cars these days. Now everything is drab and boring, auto palette-wise.

We went to a mini mall in front of the hotels. I don’t know why, so don’t ask. The bathrooms had a woman in front to make sure that nobody could go to the bathroom without paying, which would have made some amount of sense had the bathrooms been working. The mini mall did feature garbage cans instead of random piles of garbage, which is something. We’d thought of going into the store, but there was a long list of things they told us we couldn’t bring into the store, including fhones(sic), computers, tablets, and of course, money. “How can you buy anything in the store without money?” we asked, but it was moot because when Chenbl tried to ask for assistance at the counter inside, he was told everyone was out eating. Later we found that the list was apparently things you couldn’t leave in your bag to be checked before entering the store, which actually makes sense.

Later, we took a random bus on a random road. It drove west, through a tunnel, and that was the end of the line, so we walked around the area. It was a mix of nice houses and dilapidated houses, with a couple of restaurants and hostels. It was hard to tell if things were getting better or worse. Over by the ocean, Chenbl walked into an official-looking building. When I tried to follow a few minutes later, a man in white stopped me, saying that it was a military base and I wasn’t allowed. “And you’re security?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Ok, well, let me just call my friend, who is also a foreigner, the one you just let walk in with no problem just now, and we’ll leave,” I said, motioning to Chenbl, who was across the room no doubt browsing important military documents. Perhaps they just assumed he was Kim Jung-un. That is some haircut.

We passed a large building that looked for all the world like a 60’s department store, but with “Karl Marx” written in luscious script on the front as if Marx had a line of luxury furniture, and followed a group of boys towards a section of waterfront between the remains of two abandoned apartment blocks. The waterfront was guarded by a large hole, which we deftly avoided. Once out on the dangerously slippery dock, we took pictures of the boys jumping into the water for a bit before continuing to walk along the water to another largely empty mini mall, which at least had pseudo-pizza and what I think were supposed to be hot dogs. They also had knock-off soft drinks.

After that we walked on, admiring the large vulture-like birds circling in the air (which might have actually been vultures, I’m not sure…they had red things on their heads, so possibly…this is what happens when you get to rely too much on Wikipedia and suddenly lose all Internet access). Down on the beach, a family was getting ready for a picnic, the dad gathering firewood and the two sons killing a chicken.

It was rather hot by the time we got on another random bus to town. You’d think just getting on random buses would fail eventually, and you’d be right. This one took us further and further into the countryside, until the last stop, a rather desolate area. The ride’s soundtrack was provided by the boys sitting behind us, who were taking turns rapping, singing, clapping and shouting.

The bus manager at the depot asked us where we were going, and put us on another bus back into town, which was nice of him. It was good we got on at the depot, because the bus filled up almost immediately, as most buses here do. I’ve found that most buses have at least one dude with a beatbox on board. Most of the time this is a good thing. Sometimes there’s more than one, and a battle ensues.

The new bus took us on a circuitous route around the city again, but we ended up in the old quarter eventually, just in time to browse the dockside market before it closed at six. After that we walked back through the alleys to the square near Chinatown that has become our go-to place to catch random buses. It’s also popular with people wanting rides in old cars providing taxi services, and since the next bus took forever to arrive, I spent some time taking photos of the old cars. I could probably do that all night, and indeed it would probably take some time to understand the area and the pace of activities there well enough to get some really nice shots.

But a bus did finally arrive, and we got dinner at a place right by the stop that featured “beef” hamburgers before we walked back to our place in Vedado.

posted by Poagao at 11:45 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/24: Havana

Our apartment is apparently haunted. Chenbl’s been acting, well, stranger than usual; this morning he dozed off in a chair and woke up to find that he’d accidentally formatted his camera’s memory card in his sleep, in what would appear to be one of the world’s first cases of sleepformatting. All of the shots and videos from the trip so far, gone (though I told him to stow the card for now so we can look into recovering the images later with software). My portable battery stopped working, and the air conditioning inexplicably shut down and just beeped at us all night.

We decided to walk to Eric’s other place this morning for breakfast, as he is probably sick and tired of taking us. We went the wrong way for a bit and wasted time going in a few circles, but fortunately I downloaded a phone app that shows your position on a map via only the phone’s GPS, which doesn’t require a Wi-Fi or phone signal. After breakfast, I read a piece in the place’s Lonely Planet about how the mafia basically caused the revolution by propping up a corrupt government (Good thing that kind of thing never happens these days, he added sardonically).

After breakfast, we set out south, away from the ocean, through the alleys. The light was brilliant, and once you’re here it’s pretty obvious why people take these high-contrast shots of people’s silhouettes against monochromatic backgrounds, a la Alex Webb. It also explains the horrible lengths some people go to with HDR to “rescue” such shots, god help them.

As we proceeded south, away from the touristy areas and Chinatown, the neighborhoods became poorer and dirtier, flowers and garbage piles lining the dirt roads. We walked all the way down to the back of the train station, where a man was collecting what looked like white dust from a field underneath the elevated railway tracks. A couple of little girls in a doorway, upon seeing our cameras, struck some alarmingly suggestive poses. One of them wore lipstick. “You’ll be an actress one day!” Chenbl told her.

The area in front of the station was obviously affluent at one time, but like most of Havana, has since fallen on hard times. The station itself is under renovation, and the one restaurant we could see on the map had closed long ago, algae clogging up the fish tanks in the dusty windows. We settled for some ham sandwiches while standing in another hole-in-the-wall joint.

The ferry to Regla leaves from the same port as the one to the big Jesus statue, so we had to make sure to be on the right one. Regla, across the bay from Havana, is a down-to-earth industrial neighborhood that reminds me strongly of the set of a spaghetti western. There is a strong African religious element here, which is a fascinating aspect of Cuban culture. We stopped at an impromptu amusement park set up right next to a large power plant; the operators were hooking up the rides directly to the power lines, which was a little disconcerting as they didn’t even wear gloves.

Up the street we were surprised to see “Chen’s Café” in Chinese (albeit in simplified characters) on a sign. We went in and had some chicken and pork accompanied by a drink that can only be described as spaghetti sauce. The boss, “Eddie”, was asleep, alas, so we didn’t have the chance to chat with him.

We kept walking until we came to a cemetery and turned back along another road, this one leading to a small baseball stadium. Back at the ferry, men were standing waist-deep in the water of the bay, fishing. We almost missed the ferry and had to run. I suck at running, but I made it.

The old quarter seemed cringworthily fake after an afternoon in Regla. We failed to buy any cigars due to ignorance in such matters, and the market was closed in any case by the time we got back. I was tired after a long day of walking. We got on a random bus, and my phone’s location app decided to pick that time to quit working, but we managed to get off more or less where we wanted to in Centro. For the first time since we’ve been here, it began to rain, so we took refuge on the balcony of a restaurant, but the restaurant was actually just the balcony. The rain increased, so we sat and watched the splashing old cars and buses in the night against the amazing buildings that are so ubiquitous in Havana. Of course there was no water. Or bathrooms. But I’ve found that Cubans seem to provide more personal space than people do in Taiwan, so there’s that. People create more space to pass on sidewalks, and cars here tend to get annoyed with us walking in their path more than they do in Taiwan. This might have something to do with the inevitably longer stopping distances of ancient, 50’s-era drum brakes and just a lot more mass to stop than more modern vehicles.

We took another extremely crowded bus back to our neighborhood. At certain points everyone on the bus would cheer, and often they would sing along to whatever was playing on the boombox someone had brought with them. As interesting as that may seem, it was definitely not a ride I wanted to last any longer than absolutely necessary.

Tomorrow: More rain? We’ll see.

posted by Poagao at 11:32 am  
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