Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 10 2019

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posted by Poagao at 12:18 pm  
Mar 21 2019

The nature of the conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted by Poagao at 11:51 am  
Feb 13 2019

A new camera

The first-generation Sony A7r I’d been using for the past five years was showing its age as 2018 drew to a close. More and more error messages, more instances of failing to wake up after sleeping, more having to shut it off, remove and replace the battery and turn it on again before it would continue working. It was maddening.

It was also no great surprise. A couple of years before it had stopped working altogether, and, after Sony demanded a good portion of the camera’s cost to repair it, I left it with a small repair store while the repairman searched for the components he needed in other, discarded cameras. It took a month or so, but he managed to fix it for a fraction of the price Sony had wanted. “Just don’t expect too much,” he cautioned me afterward.

With this in mind, I’d been considering what camera would eventually replace it, as more companies entered the mirrorless fray. Sony’s own full-frame mirrorless offerings had grown appreciably bulkier, without any ergonomic or color science improvements that I could see, in the years since the original A7 debuted. Though they had improved the awful shutter sound/feel and introduced a larger battery, the startup time of the third generation of cameras seemed to not be appreciably better than the first, though the admins of review sites like DPReview claim that this parameter is no longer applicable to the practice of photography*.

As for the other brands, who were seemingly lining up to present new mirrorless options: Canon’s EOS R was even larger than the Sonys, nearly as large as a 6D DSLR, and the controls were a no-go from the time I picked it up, discovered I needed two hands to turn it on, kept accidentally brushing the control bar, and fiddled with the selfie screen. Nikon’s Z series was promising; it felt good in the hand, if a little large, with a fast startup time and good EVF; it would have been promising if they’d had any nice small lenses, but alas, there were none, nor did any appear on the roadmap. I’ve also never been much of a fan of digital Nikon colors.

I could have simply scrounged for another used A7r, but though the files were nice, the hesitant, indecisive shutter that sounded and felt like a large coin dropping through an old payphone, the slow startup time, and the wonky yellows and blues made me itch for something else. The Fuji XT/X-pro series beckoned with its superior ergonomics and color science, but as nice as it is (the X-pro2 shutter in particular is one of the best sounding/feeling shutters I’ve used, up there with the Leica M3), I didn’t want to go back to APSC with no reduction in size; the Ricoh GRII I was also using for wider shots was certainly better than the phone I’d been using before to get wider shots, but I’d become accustomed to full frame.

I’ve also been using a silver Leica M6 classic to shoot film for many years now, as film is how I learned photography back in the day, and I haven’t abandoned it (yet). But a digital M10 would have been prohibitively expensive, as well as quite heavy. As lovely as I’m sure it must be, I just couldn’t justify it, and even though I already have two lenses I could use for it, they are older 35mm and 50mm summicrons, and I seldom shoot 50mm these days.

But then there is the Leica Q, that strange fixed-lens full-frame digital Leica whose f1.7 summilux lens likely costs more than the camera, which itself costs a fraction of a digital M. Not one of the small Panasonic knock-offs with the red dot and huge mark-up, but an actual Leica. I’d gotten a chance to handle my friend Aik Beng Chia’s Q last year when I met up with him during a BME workshop in Bangkok, and I was surprised at how well it handled. A three-year-old model with a fixed focal length? But I used the 35mm on the Sony for pretty much five years, and only when I wanted to go wider, as I’ve been doing more and more these days, did I get the Ricoh. But here was a camera that felt like a camera, much more so than either the Sony or the Ricoh.

So I got a Leica Q of my own, my first digital Leica. Now, I have always been wary of the effusive praise many photographers show for Leica, especially the abstract, oddly indescribable “something” they claim it provides, particularly at the prices these cameras go for. The “You plebeians would never understand” attitude of some people who ooh and aah over Leicas has always irked me, as it seemed like a cover for their lack of ability to say exactly what about these cameras helps them get the photographs they desire.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to spell out in practical terms how this camera has changed the way I photograph, and why I like where it’s taking me.

First off, using exclusively a 28mm frame took a while to get used to; it pushes me into the action. I find myself taking fewer shots, but liking the shots that I do take more. Shots I could have gotten from further away with the 35mm require that I either move towards the scene or forget them. So I notice things closer to me more now than things that are further away; I suspect it might bring a greater sense of intimacy to my photos.

Of course I’d tried the Sony 28mm f2 on the A7r, but it never appealed to me, perhaps because of that lens’s distortion, or perhaps because, while 28mm will bring you into a situation, the rest of the camera, especially the shutter, does not encourage staying there long; you’re left in the middle of a situation with a loud, obnoxious shutter and an awkwardly laggy camera. It’s doable, but not ideal.

The Q, however, rewards you for getting closer; it starts up and wakes up much quicker than the Sony ever did, and the leaf shutter is virtually silent; you’re in the midst of things, but not a bull in a China shop. The wider angle means most people don’t suspect that they’re in my frame, and I often find myself inches from someone who is oblivious to my presence. With the Sony, after waiting awkwardly a few seconds for the thing to finally come to life while the people around me pick up on my anticipation, I’d often get one shot in before everyone in the vicinity was looking around, wondering where all that clacking noise was coming from, as if a slot machine from another realm was calling to them. I’d become used to it, but I think that it translated somewhat into my body language, a sort of telegraphed cringe.

With the Q, since I know that nobody will hear the shutter, when I raise the camera, I do so with a nonchalance that slips under people’s radar. The relative lack of shutter lag meant that at first I was taking shots too quickly, getting the moment before the one I wanted for a while before getting used to the Q’s responsiveness. The lack of the Sony’s long blackout, replaced in the Q by a barely perceptible stutter as the EVF holds on the moment of capture for a split second before resuming, also works much better for me. The viewfinder on the Q is also larger than that of the A7r, brighter (you can’t change it) and more detailed. The diopter ring turns too easily, however, so I had to tape it up.

The Q controls are simple and effective, i.e. standard Leica. Like the Fujis, the aperture, shutter speed and shooting mode are right there at a glance, regardless of whether the camera is on or not. The Sony does show exposure compensation on the camera body, while the Q requires that to be something you do in the viewfinder, which works for me as I tend to use it once or twice and then go back to normal. I’d gradually come to know how the Sony metered in its priority modes over the years, how it stuck to f4 and 1/60 in shutter and aperture priority modes, respectively, right up until it no longer could. But to know exactly what the major settings were exactly meant that the camera had to be on and that I’d have to read them in the viewfinder (as I kept the backscreen off most of the time). I originally took issue with the mode placement of the off/on-single/on-continuous button, but when I think about it, it makes sense. Turning it to single shot is just matter of getting used to it. Should Jimi Hendrix suddenly descend from his UFO for a split second and I need to shoot more than one frame, I will be mashing the lever as far as it will go, right to continuous.

With the Sony I would occasionally take high and low shots with the tilting screen; I do that far less with the Q because it lacks such a screen, and I’m still on the fence as to whether that’s a good or bad thing. I suspect shooting what I see with my own eyes may be better in the long run, rather than guessing what I would see if I were taller or shorter and spending time approximating those perspectives. But there are advantages and disadvantages to both ways of doing it.

The Q is in crazy mad love with f1.7, I found while shooting it as I had the Sony using priority modes. It’s better, I soon realized, to shoot it like a manual M camera. The body already feels like an M; even the lens feels like an M lens, buttery smooth focus ring and all, so it’s not a huge difference. The AF is fine, snappy and accurate, but if you enjoy hyper focal and zone focusing with no lag, the Q is just as ready and willing to play, with the distances marked clearly on the lens barrel.

As for the resulting files, I’ve been happy so far, though the Q’s DR isn’t as malleable as that of the Sony, and the resolution less (though sufficient). But the colors…oh, the colors are far nicer. It tends to underexpose in auto modes, which suggests Leica knows how ugly the blown-out bits can get. The preview files, be they viewed in the EVF or on the backscreen, are quite ugly, full of blotchy greens and purples instead of greys. This, I’ve been assured by Leica, is a known issue and possibly one to be addressed in future firmware updates, but it’s obvious from my inquiries on Leica forums that most Q owners don’t really mind, or at least go to great lengths not to think too much about such things. Fair enough, I suppose; the files do really need to be viewed on a large computer screen in any case.

The battery life is slightly better than that of the A7r, which admittedly isn’t saying much. As the wakeup/startup times are much quicker, it’s easier to let it go to sleep or even turn it off, instead of continually prodding the shutter to keep it awake as I had to do with the Sony (occasionally taking unintentional shots in the process). The camera is also not designated as “weatherproof”, although to date there don’t seem to be any actual standards other cameras are held to with such claims, and the Sony’s claims in this regard are rather suspect. For such an expensive camera that also begs to be used in all kinds of conditions, I would think that would be desirable.

I never use the macro mode, and personally would have preferred a smaller lens without that option. The Q also features optical image stabilization and an electronic shutter, neither of which I’m entirely sure I’ve utilized. I’m sure they might come in handy at some point, but they’re not musts for me. In fact, while trying out other systems with IBIS, I’ve been annoyed at the frame not shifting with my aim due to the IBIS, but I haven’t observed this phenomenon in the Q.

A new version of the Q will most likely arrive in the near future, possibly updated with an M10 sensor, but I am quite happy with this camera as it is. Should Leica wish to attract current Q owners to add the new version to their collections, they could implement a different focal length, e.g. 40mm, in the next model. But the Q still sells so well that I imagine they could do very little and still maintain robust sales.

On paper, moving to the Q may seem more like a step sideways from the Sony, for appreciably more money. Who in these fast-paced times would spend so much on a digital camera that came out that long ago? But cameras can’t be rated so broadly on fixed parameters; as I tell my students about “good” and “bad” light, there aren’t so much “good” and “bad” cameras as much as there are suitable and unsuitable cameras, based on what the individual photographer needs to achieve their vision. For my purposes, the Q is more suitable than the Sony; even if it is lower resolution and more expensive, it’s better where it counts.

Some have observed that Sony makes computers that take photos, whereas other manufacturers such as Fuji and Leica, make cameras. Such absolutism feels rather extreme to me, as any box with a hole in it will do the job, but after using the Q for a few months, I can understand why people say this; the companies approach the task of building a camera coming from different places.

And that’s fine; if a Sony, Fuji, Hasselblad or a goddamn Transforming Barbie-cam does the job for you, brilliant! I’m truly happy that you can get past this stupid gear-centric phase and get on with the vastly more important business of developing your photographic vision. This is simply my experience based on my personal style of photography, as well as an effort to delineate why I like this particular camera rather than issue some half-assed “It’s just that Leica look/feel/glow/aesthetic/whatever” we’re always seeing. In short, it works for me.

 

*I was told by an admin that they dropped it when “start up times ceased to be an issue with most cameras.”

posted by Poagao at 3:10 pm  
Jan 28 2019

E-scooter questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted by Poagao at 10:05 pm  
Jan 27 2019

Back from Yangon

Getting up this morning was super easy (barely an inconvenience) considering the fact that we watched The Master, a stupid early 90’s Jet Li movie, until the wee hours of the morning last night for some reason. Possibly because it was so very, very bad, it was good. But we managed to get everyone in taxis to the airport, where shopping ensued to the tune of Another Day in Paradise, played on repeat for some reason. The inflight movie was Smallfoot, which I liked.

And then we were back. After the last nine days, Taiwan feels space-age modern, clean and convenient. I’ve spent the evening unpacking and downloading files. Tomorrow it’s back to work. I feel like I needed this vacation; we’ll see what comes of it.

posted by Poagao at 11:10 pm  
Jan 26 2019

Last day

The drive back from Hpa-an was more pleasant than the drive out by far. For one thing, we left at a decent hour, after a decent breakfast at the hotel. Han gave us lyonghi as parting gifts, and we took a group photo by a lake in a park, mostly successfully avoiding the multitude of construction workers building various things.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant that I did not have high hopes for, but it turned out to be quite good, with our driver showing us how to eat the more diverse dishes. We stopped in a town called Waw a few hours later to let the driver rest while we walked around for a bit. We saw lots of kids, barbershops, and a small mosque. One of the fellows at the mosque could speak basic Chinese, which he said was gratifying as he didn’t normally have much use for it.

Traffic got exponentially worse as we neared Yangon, and we sat in traffic for a long time before finally arriving at our hotel.

This morning we got up early again and took another route to the train station, this time crossing the overhead walkway and then down to the platforms. We then delved into the adjacent village, which is cris-crossed with incredibly polluted waterways, more trash than water, and what water there is is grey, brackish stuff. I have to say the Myanmarese treatment of their environment isn’t the best.

We walked over to the Bogyoke Aung San Market, and I bought some more Muslim hats at shops nearby before we walked back over to the docks we’d visited before. This time not only were there three boats instead of two docked there, but the water level was much further down. We dodged the passengers and workers on the docks for an hour before the boats were scheduled to depart at 4 p.m. The actual time of departure was more like 4:30-ish, but I made sure everyone was off the boats by 4:00, just in case.

We then walked back towards downtown, admiring the crumbling old buildings left over from the British. There’s just…something about dusk in this country, be it in Yangon or in the countryside or small towns. It’s a combination of the light, the air, the people…I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s often sublime. Of course, I’ve always liked that time of day above all others, but here, it’s immensely satisfying for some reason.

Dinner was at a place in Chinatown, and then back to the hotel. Tomorrow it’s breakfast and then off to the airport. It’s been a good trip…frustrating at times, but all in all a welcome change of pace and a good way of getting out of my head for a while. I can’t bring myself to think about going back to my regular routine just yet.

posted by Poagao at 10:42 pm  
Jan 24 2019

A busy day

We set out in the van with our local tour guide and Han at 5:45 a.m. so that we could arrive at a picturesque monastery as the sun rose. The monastery is located on and around a big, ungainly rock in the middle of a lake. It was postcard stuff, but a pleasant time. As the students squatted on the shore of the lake, I wandered around the adjacent rice fields. After the sun came up, an older monk and a small entourage proceeded across the bridge into the monastery.

The hotel breakfast was good. Hotel breakfasts tend to be pretty good IMHO. It’s kind of like airplane food, in that I tend to be happy that I’m traveling, and thus I have a higher opinion of the food involved, or just happy that there’s food at all.

Next on our list was one of an incredible amount of caves in the area. We had to take our shoes off before entering. The was a cave in the cave, with a small opening and a line of rude French people. The moment I squeezed into the space, which featured the usual bit o’ Buddha, I regretted it; it was stuffy and uncomfortable, and I couldn’t wait to get out again.

We then stopped off at a place where a man would climb trees and drain the fruit to make a sugary drink, and then to a village where we sat in a hut and drank tea with a fellow from Laos who has to go back to the U.S. to maintain his passport every so often. A girl from Taipei sat with him, and we were all surprised to meet each other in this of all places.

Lunch was a spread nearby outside a Myanmarese house. I’ve been noting little boxes, mostly with colored glass, sticking out from the houses here, always on the other side from the door. Han explained to me that there are “Buddha boxes” where figurines are placed, so that the people in the house can pay their respects, but, as the homes are where people live, not Buddhas, the boxes are technically outside the house. It’s quite interesting. I have come to really appreciate Myanmarese house design: Everything is open, it’s like a huge campground, but the porches and LED lighting and the Buddha boxes all make for a very welcoming, comfy feel.

After lunch we went to another cave, which ended up with us getting into boats to float under a mountain and through some rice fields. There were too many dead things in the water for my comfort, but it was a pleasant ride. Then we drove to another cave, but this one had the water feature beforehand. Recent graduates and monkeys frolicked in front as we got out of the van and made our way to some very small, flat-bottomed boats. For some reason, our boat was overloaded, the water only a couple of inches from the edge, and people kept rocking the boat. When the Myanmarese passengers began wondering if this was an entirely good idea, I began to have a bad feeling about all this. Fortunately the boat rower agreed, and we switched to a larger boat midstream before paddling into the dark caves.

They said that foreigners love these caves, but it seemed a little monotonous to me. We’d been seeing the same group of Westerners all day, or perhaps they all just look the same.

We rushed through the cave to a platform on the other side of the mountain just in time to glimpse the last of the setting sun. Winded from the climb, we hung out there for a bit as the sky got redder and redder, and then proceeded back through the cave, barefoot of course, wincing as we trod on every little sharp piece of rock.

Dinner back in Hpa-an was good, and then it was back to the hotel. Tomorrow we’re driving back to Yangon, probably stopping once or twice along the way.

posted by Poagao at 11:49 pm  
Jan 23 2019

Mawlamyine and Hpa-an

Our van was waiting downstairs; we set off at 5 a.m. If there are highways in Myanmar, we didn’t take them. The roads were bumpy, and the van lacked a high gear, so it was a lot of vibration and motion. Keith Secola’s classic “Indian Car” kept running through my head. Our driver is a careful fellow, though, which is a good thing as the roads also lack lights. An hour or so after leaving Yangon, the sky began to lighten, and we stopped at a rest stop for coffee and bathroom breaks, and then kept on. The sun baked the front seat where I was sitting, but the view was nice.

The countryside was pleasant, except for where people had dumped trash. People here have that unfortunate habit. The houses tend to be on stilts, LED lights are in vogue on temples, and lovingly garish colors decorate everything. Forests planted in rows, and tolls for every road, though the roads aren’t in the best shape.

We met our friend Han for lunch at a riverside hotpot place in Mawlamyine, workers diving into the muddy water to repair a boat outside the restaurant as we ate. Then Han took us to see a couple of old churches, one Baptist and the other Catholic. The Baptist Church people got mad when I stepped on the altar, and the Catholic church was full of The Story of White Jesus and His White Frenemies. Urgh.

We then drove up a hill to look at the town from above. Exercise equipment was piled to the side of the observation platform, which was bordered by various Buddhist institutions. We met one of Han’s friends and drove down to the market, where everyone spread out to walk around. We found the old part of town, and I found a hat store, purchasing a black hat I liked. When I put it on to walk around the neighborhood, the stares turned to friendly smiles, and the ubiquitous “Hello!” turned into “Salaam Alaikum!”

After meeting up again, we headed down to the waterfront to watch the spinning seagulls, and then we headed to Hpa-an, which happens to be Han’s hometown, as well as where his several businesses are located (He’s in the mobile phone biz). We had dinner at another place on the river before retiring to the hotel, where I’m currently writing this.

Tomorrow’s a full day of sightseeing in the area. It should be interesting.

posted by Poagao at 11:30 pm  
Jan 23 2019

In Yangon

So I’ve been in Yangon, Myanmar, for the past few days. There are 15 of us (!) on this trip, so things have been rather restricted, with super-organized days and a disturbing combination push/pull that is constantly going on when everyone is going at different speeds.

As our flight was at 7 a.m., I had to get up at 4. It felt strange, fleeing in the night like that. One bumpy little 737 ride over seas and shining deltas and we were in Yangon, still in morning garb; we put our stuff in our rooms, and then walked around. I was in an odd mood; everything seemed hectic and out of focus. I was seeing photos I couldn’t get because of the nature of my circumstances, and it was screwing with me. Our friend Han and some of his friends met us at the airport, photographer friends who wanted to meet us I guess, but I wasn’t showing any particular photographic prowess, or any prowess at all for that matter.

We had lunch at a place the hotel, 999 Noodles or something. It was full of white tourists, and quite busy. One plaid-attired dude was showing off his new Nikon camera, which he promptly left on his seat when the group left. “Dude, you forgot your camera!” I yelled at him as he descended the stairs. He went back, sheepish. Are things this desperate here, cuisine-wise, that we have to eat with tourists? I thought. I thought of Vietnam, where excellent food is everywhere.

Later, local photographer Ye Min came out to meet us in the park near our hotel. We walked together through more streets and alleys, ending up at the small but interesting Puzundaung railway station. We then caught taxis to a restaurant, but our taxi got so hopelessly ensnared in Yangon’s incredible traffic that we had to abandon it halfway and get another one. I hope it survived.

There was a band at dinner; they weren’t terrible. Then Ye Min took up up to the rooftop restaurant overlooking the city, where we drank rum and chatted until late.

The next day we headed through Little India to Chinatown, walking down alleys, through markets, over overpasses. It struck me that the Myanmar greeting of Mingalaba sounds like bells. The weather here is a little hot around noon, but otherwise quite pleasant, with no hint of rain anywhere. We passed temples, churches, mosques, hindu temples…it’s a fascinating mix of cultures here. We ended up at a mall, Junction Centre Something, where everyone went off on their own for lunch. Chenbl and I had lunch slurping noodles as an Indian man washed his tires a couple feet away. Han and his friend Myat Thu walked with us over to the riverside, where we walked out onto a jetty and onto a couple of ships that were docked there. That was a fascinating scene, people with huge packages, chickens, goats, families camped out, crew painting things. If I lived here, I’d probably be over there all the time.

After the jetty, we got into taxis to go meet Ye Min, but we’d only driven a block when we hit a traffic jam. Our driver surprised us  by getting out and walking off. We were thinking of just driving off when we saw that there’d been a small accident ahead, actually involving one of our group’s taxis. Fortunately no one was hurt; it was just a trishaw making a bad u-turn.

We met Ye Min at the People’s Park, an amusement park, and he showed us where some students like to practice their dances, and some fountains, etc. Apparently he shoots there quite a lot. The sun was setting as we prepared to enter the Shwedagon Pagoda, which requires that visitors remove their shoes before embarking on a series of escalators up the mountain. This seems like a recipe for disaster; as we were passing through security, I noticed quite a lot of blood on the floor; one of our students had cut her foot on the escalator, and security escorted her up to the clinic to clean the cut. I wonder how often this happens.

The complex is magnificent, truly. All that gold, the statues, all of it. Amazing. There’s not much else to say about it.

We ended up back in Chinatown, on a street that reminded me a little of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, but better than that chaos. Ye Min introduced me to a couple of his photographer friends here, but their English wasn’t up to direct conversation, so we had to do a lot of translating. It was fun, though, and the street people finished what we couldn’t.

The next day we walked down to the river to catch the ferry to Dala. On the way we passed what looked like old British government buildings, one of which, it turned out, seemed to have become a mosque. The waiting room was filled with 1950’s songs by the Ventures.

The ferry was by its nature interesting, plying across a river that is soon being bridged. We were met by a barrage of trishaw drivers on the other side, but eventually escaped to walk the dirt roads. We talked with some people from a church, and then were invited to join a Hindu ceremony at a temple, including dancing, good music, and lunch, which was delicious, served on large leaves and eaten with our hands.

We kept walking for a bit; I preferred to stick to the waterfront roads, but the others seemed to want to stick to more inland roads. Oh well. We then took a couple of decidedly air-conditioning-free vans to Twuntay, another fishing village. There we walked around the market and then back down by the river. People kept inviting us in to see whatever they were doing; it was rather fun. We met one boxer to gave us a little demonstration of his skills by knocking Chenbl on the head. Fortunately, Chenbl’s head could take it.

We pretty much literally flew back to Dala; the van drivers had wanted to go back earlier and were trying to make up for lost time, so we blasted past traffic at alarming speeds. The sun was setting when we arrived, lighting up the city on the opposite bank. Some of the students went back first, while some of us remained for some extra shooting as I wanted to cover the waterfront for a bit more. As we walked and looked, a huge red orb appeared on the horizon…the moon. It was time to go back on the ferry.

This morning we got up early again and walked to the old train station, arriving with the sunlight reflected off nearby glass buildings. We checked things out a bit before going back to the hotel for breakfast, returning to stalk the platforms. It felt a little like the station in Bangkok, with the old trains, the people from the countryside with their packages, etc. We hopped on and off trains, and eventually got on one of the trains that ply the circular route. It was like a little market, vendors walking up and down the aisles hawking their wares. We had some fresh corn that was really not bad. The train proceeded at roughly the pace of a middle-aged jogger, but I didn’t mind; I like trains.

We got off at a market; I didn’t realize it was actually a station, as I had to jump off the train while it was still moving, but apparently it was. The market was chaotic, so we walked around the nearly village. A couple of monks at the local temple showed us which statues indicated which days of the week and which directions they faced. Many of the monks I’ve seen here sport elaborate tattoos; it makes for an interesting appearance.

I was all for taking the train back, but the students were hot and wanted air conditioning, so we hopped on a bus that took longer than the train but was cooler.

Back in Yangon, we got off, and a discussion ensured among the others concerning the changing of money and where and how it should be done. It was late afternoon, and I just stood and watched the scene, the traffic, the buses and cars, the vendors and their wares amid the crumbling old colonial buildings. The discussion went on and on, but I was happy because I was free to just stand and observe, not even really taking photos, just being there. The drone of the city resolved itself; Yangon finally felt good to me.

Too soon we had to go; they’d Googled a place for dinner, which turned out to be pretty fancy and full of white hipsters in skinny jeans and boots staring intently over their beards at laptop computers. All I wanted to do was to go back to that corner, or just walk around the city, perhaps down to the riverfront, or wherever I felt like, just looking, but of course I couldn’t do that. So I sat and ate and wondered.

Tomorrow we’re getting up early again, of course, and taking a van to some other placed in the country for a few days. But I thought I’d get this much down for now.

posted by Poagao at 12:36 am  
Dec 03 2018

Dulan, etc.

I was watching the clock all Friday morning, as I had to set out for the train station at noon on the dot so that I wouldn’t be late for our Puyuma Express to Taitung. Fortunately I made it, but it seems that pre-trip trepidation is worse than it used to be.

We gathered in front of the station and spent a few minutes rebuffing the overtures of a lady selling gum before heading down to the train. The journey was lovely; the east coast is so picturesque; the three-hour trip passed quickly thanks to a window seat and conversation. Then it was taxis to the Railyard Village where we were playing. The area’s cool, artsy vibe has increased in the years since we played there last. Soundcheck was thorough and professional, and after a lone dinner at the standalone Mosburger, we took the stage and played a very tight, thrilling show. It was one of our better shows, if I may say myself. Everyone was listening to each other, playing off each other; it was tight and fast, just the way our music should be, and the audience at it up. Our old friend and my old co-worker Brian Kennedy showed up for the show, and we hung out afterwards.

As the night wore on, we piled into taxis out to Dulan, where Tim and Conor headed out camping, Slim and Cristina headed to one hostel, and David and I to another. The next morning I got up first and found some breakfast at a local place, and then wandered around the town for a bit. I followed the sound of loud music to the temple, in front of which an aborigine wedding was taking place. I took some photos and texted my old college roommate DJ, who is familiar with Dulan as he stays there when he’s in Taiwan. It turned out, no doubt to the surprise of no one, that DJ knew the happy couple as well as many other people there, and I talked to many of them, including Suming, the singer. It was a lovely, warm atmosphere, so much so that I had to leave at one point to get my bearings, have some coffee and walk around some more on my own, talking with some people I met.

By the time I returned, the party was over; a few people remained taking down the settings, but they soon piled into a truck and left. Suming sent me a message on Line that they were at the groom’s house, though he had to leave for another gig. I walked over the bridge and to the groom’s house, where the party was in full swing, with joyful, coordinated dancing that was so much more fulfilling to watch than the usual tourist dances that they always seem compelled to do.

But we had another show to play, so I walked back to the hostel and got my things to take to the Sugar Factory. It was kind of strange leaving the aboriginal wedding group and entering the backpacker/expat sphere that is another component of the town. We played a one-mic show and it was again a wonderful performance. I drank rather a lot of mead, and afterwards we talked into the night while sitting on benches by the highway, accompanied by a very nice cat.

Our train back to Taipei on Sunday wasn’t until evening, so after some nice pho with David, he and the others all headed out on various ventures, some went river tracing, others to the beach. Slim and Brian sat around the Sugar Factory talking with the two couples who sell coconuts and quiche, respectively. Unfortunately, some of the conversation brought back some of the BS that I’d wanted to escape recently, so I went for another walk around town. I walked to the junior high school, empty on Sunday except for a few students, and then up towards the mountains for a bit. Then I walked back down through town again, to the sea, where I watched the waves. A miniature expat drum circle provided unwelcome musical accompaniment to the waves, but the light was very pleasant.

Then it was back to the factory, where we’d gathered up to go back to Taitung, onto the train, and back to Taipei.

posted by Poagao at 11:36 am  
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