Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 30 2017

Fukuoka 2

I started out the day dog-tired after a night of very little sleep, but the day was nice, and I was woken up further by the loud students begging loudly all along the way to the station. We had some very nice katsu don in the basement maze of restaurants before heading upstairs to the train platforms, passing the very Japanese smoking rooms, complete with instructions.

The air was murky despite the sun. Our train almost immediately met countryside and then back to suburbia on our way to Yanagawa, which took over an hour. It was nice to be speeding along on a Japanese train again.

Yanagawa is a small place, and I was wondering where the bucolic canal scenes were being hidden. We took a bus on a long journey of about 20 feet to the pier, where we got into a small wooden boat with a dozen other tourists and a happy old man, who pushed us out into the canal accompanied by a long, complicated, and no doubt fascinating diatribe about the history of the area, none of which I understood. I did understand, eventually after we went under several low bridges, that he was trying to decapitate us all. He also sang songs. I held a bottle of coffee in the cold water with one hand while doing a Facebook Livestream with the other. It was a lot of fun, and I’m sure living right on the canal would be a very neat thing. It kind of reminded me of the canals we used to ply our little boat on when I was growing up in Florida.

We disembarked, all of with our heads more or less intact, at an old Western-style building full of souvenirs. Chenbl deliberated buying mud-skipper instant noodles (“made with real crushed-up mudskippers!”) but decided against it, wisely I felt. Then we walked around the nearly empty neighborhood for a bit before deciding to eschew the tourist bus and walk back to the train station.

This took a while, but it was interesting walking along the canals and fields. Chenbl kept facetiming various people, so we had a host of friends along for the walk, which included some eel with rice enjoyed on the side of a canal.

The day was cooling off by the time we arrived back at the station, and we endured the annoying idiotic pseudo-English of a mainland Chinese family while we waited for our train to Dazaifu, which we’d already paid for.

Dazaifu was almost completely deserted by the time got there just before 7 p.m. We walked up a row of empty shops and tori gates straight out of a Miyazaki film into a temple complex that made the shops seem like they weren’t even trying. Huge thousand-year-old trees, ancient shrines…the works. All shut down, however. We were too late. It was kind of eerie, but somehow comforting. Like we had Japan all to ourselves for some reason. Or we’d slipped into another dimension somehow.

Luckily, the I-lan noodle shop by the train station was still open, and I swear I had the best noodles EVAR there. The fact that we’d hardly eaten all day might have also had something to do with it. The shop closed after we were done, and we caught a train back to Fukuoka.

I was still full of noodles, but Chenbl wanted to sample some of the food stalls along the river, so we walked through a loud crowd along a waterfront every bit as splendid as the one in Kaohsiung would be if Kaohsiung were serious about creating such a thing. The food was ok, nothing to write home about, but it seems to me that the people of this town, and it is, I have to say, a town I quite like, are noticeably more boisterously happy than in other parts of Japan. I wonder if this impression is going to hold out.

Dunno what we’re doing tomorrow. Couldn’t tell ya.

posted by Poagao at 11:50 pm  
Apr 30 2017

To Fukuoka

I’m sitting in a small room in a hotel in Fukuoka. Though the flight was at 5:15 p.m., getting here was an all-day affair. Of course I left all of my preparations to the last minute, so the morning was spent frantically throwing things into a backpack before meeting up with Chenbl at the new Airport MRT station.

Finally! We have an airport metro line. It was the first time I’d taken the “express” train to the airport, and I was disappointed to find not only that the seats were less than comfortable, but it wasn’t terribly fast. For some reason, even though eating, drinking and smoking are prohibited on board, small trays with round indents in them that could have been either for very low drinks or ashtrays were installed in the walls of the train. But all in all it’s a huge leap from that dirty old bus.

The day was brilliant…if I hadn’t been traveling I would have liked to have taken a bike ride by the river or something. We got the airport and breezed through the almost completely automated process. The only thing that remains a pain is the security line, but it wasn’t too bad. I’m thankful that it’s not as barbaric as it is in the U.S., though.

Though we had a leisurely lunch and took our sweet time about it, we still got to our gate so early the last flight hadn’t left yet. So we occupied a couple of lounge chairs and waited, Chenbl snoring and me posting random images to Instagram, before our flight was at last ready to board. I got a brief talking-to on the subject of photographing the stewardesses (mainly, don’t do that), but the sunset was lovely.

As it turns out, there is no metro station at Fukuoka’s international airport (haha, take THAT Japan!), so we had to take a bus to the domestic airport to get on the metro into town. I had to supress a small squeal of glee when we got on the metro, because I’ve always loved Japanese metro cars, with their comfy carpet seats, heating vents and the general 60’s vibe. It’s been a while (three years, actually) and I’d missed them.

Since we’ve got a small portable wifi network with us this time, it was a snap to find the hotel via Google Maps, and after putting our things away and marveling at the small size of the room, we went out to make our way through the drunken mobs of Tenjin to have some dinner at one of the little portable food stands. It was delicious, and we talked with a group of Koreans who spoke Mandarin. In fact, it seems that most of the people around here speak Mandarin; it’s a little disconcerting.

We have no idea what we’re going to do tomorrow. I guess we’ll figure something out.

posted by Poagao at 12:13 am  
Jan 10 2017

Rogue One Spoiled Just for You

I saw Rogue One the other day. It was…ok. Thanks to the wonders of IMAX© technology, I spent altogether too much time wondering what the hell was wrong with Darth Vader’s neckpiece. Did they use CG reanimation for any other humans besides Tarkin and Leia? Because those two completely took me on a run down the Uncanny Trench. Of course, because I knew that they weren’t real, I was probably being overly picky and looking for imperfections, but those dead eyes were just. so. dead. Even with Tarkin, who is supposed to be unsettling. Just. So. Dead.

But even with the actual live characters, I had very little sympathy. It was like a bunch of wood blocks running around Forest Whitaker and Donny Yen. “Wait! Why are you leaving me behind?” Whitaker might as well say when they flee the Necessary Plot Point/Explosion.

“As a black actor in Hollywood you really should know this trope!” They shout back at him from the escaping spaceship. “Otherwise nobody would believe that it’s 1977!”

“Oh…” replies Whitaker, and sighs, thinking, you all gonna die anyway.

So they all die. I kind of knew this going in, and it depressed me, but it wasn’t just that: If they had started out with a scene from the time of Episode IV or later, a la the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia, it would have made the audience accept this from the beginning and proceed without that nagging thought throughout the film, e.g. “Are they really all going to die? Every single one? Maybe someone won’t die. Let’s see…nope, they all died. Oh, well.”

It was a fascinating concept, and an excellent idea. I would have liked to have seen the story, but it was hidden behind explosions of bad writing (and actual explosions). Perhaps the writers were also thinking: Well, they’re all going to die. We can’t have the audience actually identify with them, so we’ll have them run around the plot for a little bit, smother everything with luscious, shivery familiar music and scenery to take them back to the good old days, and INSERT STEP TWO HERE (Note: This means explosions)…and Win!

For the record, I loved The Force Awakens. I cried like a baby in the theater; I saw it twice. Even though I’m still pissed that Leia completely ignored Chewbacca’s suffering after Han died, I was actually interested in the characters and where they were going. Perhaps the Star Wars writers should take a note from this: Make us interested in where the characters are going more than where they’ve been. Episodes I-III were about where Anakin had been…turns out we really didn’t want to know. We don’t want spoilers. Heaven forbid! But we at least need stories that make us want to cover our ears when a friend start out with, “So I saw…”

posted by Poagao at 11:36 am  
Jan 09 2017

Digging the city once again

I didn’t feel like going home today. After lunch at my usual buffet place in Ximending, I walked north, intending to visit the Golden Finger music shop on Zhongxiao West Road to inquire about a new euphonium case (the old one is disintegrating rapidly at this point). I stopped along the way to take some photos of the workers erecting the new bus stop, then went into the train station to get something to drink. On the other side, more workers were putting up another bus stop underneath Civic Blvd. I then circled back down Zhongshan to the Golden Finger.

Which wasn’t there. It’s gone, replaced by a music tutoring place called 0.3 for some reason. They referred me to another shop, and though I could have gone another day, I didn’t feel like going home. I was out in the city with no agenda, and I was feeling happier and more at ease than I’ve felt in a very long time. So I walked along Zhongxiao, over to Huashan, where I wandered among the little shops and theaters, and then sitting in an empty dog park thinking that if I lived on the park, my windows would be open to it.

The shop I’d been referred to turned out to be another tutor shop, but I did find another musical instrument place that said they’d look into seeing if they might be able to get their hands on a baritone case. They also said they might just be able to spruce up my aging Stradivarius. We’ll see. 35 years isn’t that old for a trumpet, is it? I can still remember how it looked brand new.

At this point I headed in the general direction of the Zhongxiao-Xinsheng MRT station, but all the alleys seemed so interesting, I just traversed back and forth, enjoying being in the moment. I wasn’t getting any particularly good shots, I was just feeling as if I needed to keep walking, looking, choosing random corners and alleys at a whim. I stopped in a park for a bit and listened to the kids shouts and their older minders ministrations. I passed what looked like an interesting bookstore, but when I walked in, a woman came up and told me that it would be NT$100 just to enter the place. I repressed the urge to either try and bargain her down or perhaps ask her loudly, “So all of these people (insert sweeping gesture) paid NT$100 just to browse?” No sir, I’m a class act; I just laughed scoffingly and left in a huff.

I was taking photos of scooter riders stopped at the traffic light on Xinsheng and Renai when Chenbl called. “Are you running amok again?” he asked.

“I am. You mad, bro?”

“No.” He knows me pretty well. Just then someone called my name. It was Maurice and Brian, who were walking up Xinsheng. We chatted a bit on our way to the subway stop, but I balked at the entrance…I just couldn’t let the day go. I was too into my state of mind, enjoying the city too much. So I made up an excuse and set out again, circling the alleys, craning my neck to watch the hazy moon appear over the high-rises as apartments began to light up within. Cooking smells began to waft out into the alleys. People getting off work coasted by on bicycles.

And I was getting hungry, and I had to piss, so I gave in to these mortal needs and, after one last lap through the area (Ooh, look, that old Japanese house is now a restaurant. I wonder if it’s any good. But there’s a line, so…), I descended into the subway station and boarded a train heading south.

Back in Bitan, I had some fairly good fried rice and spinach for dinner. Crossing the bridge to the water music show they’re doing in the evenings these days, looking up at my building, the Water Curtain Cave seemed so much more desirable and welcoming than usual. Was it the walking? Or was it whatever feeling led to the walking? I ain’t complaining; I’ll take it. I have no idea what it is, but I needed it.

posted by Poagao at 8:26 pm  
Dec 27 2016

Separate but not equal

2016 has sucked. And Christmas 2016…wasn’t wonderful. I’m going to leave it at that, just as an explanation why I found myself lying awake in bed at 5 a.m. on December 26th with no urge to do anything but distract myself. The day just happened to be the very day that the marriage equality bills were set for review in the Legislature, and two large protests, for and against, were set to begin in the vicinity that morning. So I decided to go take a look before heading into work.

I took the subway to NTU Hospital Station (I would have named the station after the park but I’m weird like that), so I approached the Legislature, as I usually had during the Sunflower protest, from the west. This meant I first encountered the anti-equality protest site. As before, they were doing their best to resemble a Klu Klux Klan rally, uniformly dressed in white, mostly wearing masks and sunglasses, and reluctant to be photographed. I couldn’t help but wonder what the point of showing up was if you didn’t want anyone to see you: The shame’s baked right in! I decided to make my way into the crowd to see if there was anything interesting or (especially) bizarre. I could feel disapproving stares, but thankfully nobody stopped me, and I didn’t speak to anyone. The guy on stage was spouting anti-democratic rhetoric, lies, insults and outright slander that I won’t bother repeating. A man in red was talking with police, and another man, tall and bearded, silently lifted sandbags into a truck alongside the sweaty driver. I had no idea at the time what the sandbags were for.

Members of the Christian clergy were again quite visible among the leadership; men holding inaccurate pie charts that would make a statistician wince talked to the media (no, 50.75% is not actually 3/4 of the pie). The crowd, while mostly middle-aged people, seemed to be seething like an angry toddler. A couple of protesters, bizarrely, wore aboriginal garb, the only note of color in the scene besides the man in red.

The police had formed an empty no-man’s land between the protests, so I had to walk around the block and up Linsen to get into the pro-equality protest site, which had only one entrance (the anti-equality site was open at one end). The mood there couldn’t have been more different from the first site; young, spirited, optimistic, creative. Never have I seen such a clear distinguishment between Taiwan’s sordid, authoritarian past and its democratic, diverse future. The broadcasts of the speeches on stage included a sign-language interpretation. Nobody wore masks, unless you counted the guy dressed in an animal costume. It was a welcoming scene.

defenseBehind the stage, facing the no-man’s land where only a handful of police stood in the street, a group of mostly bears stood three-deep, the first row standing at parade rest, the two lines behind them seated. Every so often they would rotate the lines. When I asked, one of them told me that they were all volunteers, to be on hand in case the anti-equality mob decided to attack. They would be there as long as they had to be, they said.

Such fears were not unjustified; as I left the area to go to work (bumping into Larry Tsung, an old co-worker from my newspaper days in the subway), the anti-equality crowd began an assault on the Legislature, throwing smoke bombs and rushing the wall, attacking police in the process. I saw photos on the news sites of both the man in red and the tall, bearded man leading the charge. Over a hundred people were detained, most of them incredulous at the reaction. “The law means nothing to me!” one middle-aged woman protested, “I only answer to God!” I wonder if she would like what she saw if she Googled that.

When I got back to the area in the afternoon after work, the subway station was flooded with pro-equality protesters heading home. When I reached the site, I was told that the bills had passed the readings in the Legislature, and the next step would be in April. They’d won the day, it seemed, and everyone seemed very happy at the news. I wondered what the reaction was at the anti-equality camp, and decided to walk west along Zhongxiao to take a look. A group of organizers at the subway exit were advising against this. “Please take the subway from here,” they were telling protesters, the message being: It isn’t safe. Those people are dangerous and will hurt you.

When I got to the anti-equality site, hardly anyone was around. It was a bit dystopian; the loudspeaker was playing sounds of an outraged crowd, but the sound was cutting in and out like a recording left on too long. Large screens glowered down on empty asphalt littered with trash. Someone got on the PA and said, “We will fight this to the end! Everyone, head to the Presidential Office!” I texted my friend J. Michael Cole, telling him where they were headed.

“I’m already here,” he texted back. Of course he was.

I had to leave, but the videos and stories that have made their way out of the protest in front of the Presidential Office have been dismaying; actual media reporters and other observers have been harassed, harangued, assaulted, and removed “for their safety”. The crowd seems to squarely blame the DPP for their loss, oblivious to the fact that some of the bills and support come from the KMT and KMT legislators. Then again, I would have liked to have seen more condemnation on the DPP side of the DPP legislators who have made attempts to thwart the process with their bogus “separate but equal” propositions. That aspect goes both ways, but there is clearly no moral equivalence here.

In any case, we’ll have to wait and see what happens. Of course there are larger issues at hand, both in Taiwan and worldwide. But it seems to me that this is a watershed moment, a tipping point. What we do next is important, because odds are that we won’t be coming back from whichever road we take from here.

posted by Poagao at 7:02 am  
Dec 11 2016

Of Rights and Rambles

This weekend has gone non-stop. It started Friday night when I piled my instruments onto the 650 bus to Liuzhangli so I could make a gig with the ramblers at Bob’s. And not just the Muddy Basin Ramblers, but famed bluesman Rambling Steve Gardner as well, who flew in from Tokyo for the Tiger Mountain Ramble on Saturday. We met Steve at the Yokohama Jug Band Festival a couple of years back, and we’ve stayed in touch, always prodding him to make a trip over. The gig was a riot, and Kat served up tasty meat pies, potatoes and pizza afterwards.

After hauling my ass out of bed Saturday morning, I put on some Rambler-approved clothes and again hauled my instruments out and took the subway to Ximen, where I stashed them so that I could proceed unhindered to the Marriage Equality event on Ketagalan Blvd. Even though it was just starting, huge streams of people were joining from all directions. It was difficult to get into the crowd; I haven’t seen that many people there since the Sunflower protest, so I mostly just walked around the periphery. Suming gave a short speech and sang, and there were other performers with the MCs on the stage.

It was heartening to see so much love, hope and idealism, a real contrast from the previous anti-marriage-equality protests, which were mostly driven by hate and spite as well as stacks of cash from American Christian groups. For one thing, the anti-equality protests were much smaller than reported, even though the churches bussed entire congregations up to Taipei, and populated mostly by middle-aged people; so many of them were dressed in white and wearing masks that it was alarmingly similar to a Klan rally in all but name; “Straight Power” was pretty much the theme, and people there would throw their hands up in front of their masked faces when I raised my camera to take a shot. A good 10-20% of the protesters were actual Christian clergy, priests and nuns in full garb. One tall Western priest stood by one of the “praying” priests, and I managed to not enunciate my hope that he would get deported for taking part in the protest.

But that would never have happened, as the Christians (who claim homosexuality is a “foreign influence, oblivious to the fact that Christianity is much more of a foreign influence than homosexuality ever was), carted in an Australian woman who has some kind of personal vendetta against her parents, Katy Faust, to actually address the Legislature on what she clearly knows nothing about. The appropriately named Faust has no expertise on either homosexuality or Taiwan, yet not a single lawmaker saw the obvious violations of the actual law that her visit incurred. The media hasn’t really been on board with Reality either, e.g. articles like this from Focus Taiwan, which calls the event a “concert” that only “thousands” attended, even though official estimates run from a quarter million and up, and highlights claims of “bullying” of Christians on the subject.

As I was wandering around the East Gate and up the road toward the Presidential Office, it occurred to me that these people, not just the people at the marriage-equality protest, but other similar groups like the Sunflowers, et al, are the very people who were targeted by government forces during the White Terror period. Forward-looking people, people with inspiration and ideas for the future. In the awful times after 2/28, all of us would have been on those lists.

And who would have been writing those lists? The people who showed up in white robes and masks to protest equal rights.

I would have liked to have stayed longer, but I had to go retrieve my instruments and head over to the Tiger Mountain Ramble, where we were playing in the late afternoon. The mountain road was apparently so difficult to navigate that my cabbie shushed me when I tried to tell him where the place was. “Don’t talk to me!” he said. “I’m trying to concentrate on these GPS coordinates!” He found the place despite this.

The ramble was a little behind schedule when I got there, putting my stuff away and greeting friends. The cloudy skies threatened rain, and someone had started a bonfire. Steve presented me with a lovely gift: His photobook, from his days as a photojournalist on the theme of the American South, specifically the people of Mississippi, entitled Rambling Mind. It is a beautifully printed, large-sized book, one of only a handful left from the print run. The photos inside are wonderful as well…it’s a real treat, and I’m so happy to be able to add it to my collection.

It started to rain as we climbed the metal steps of the mobile stage and began our gig. It was a raucous affair, and most everything went right. There was much dancing in spite of the rain, which got heavier as we played. Afterwards we had to slog through the mud to get back to the storeroom, and everyone was huddled around the former temple for shelter. I was tired after a day of walking around as well as the show, so I packed up and headed down the mountain on foot, pulling my cart behind me. I met one of the other bands on the way, and they said some very nice things about our show, and I returned their compliments.

This morning (Sunday) I had to head out again, this time to lead my photography students on a walk around Keelung. We met up in front of the train station at 10 a.m. to find a large gathering of Indonesians, including dancers, martial artists and singers, as well as stalls selling food and attire, and a stage. It was all very festive; I bought three nice new hats, but we couldn’t stay long; we had to catch a train to Keelung.

Of course it was raining, because Keelung. We got off at the brand-new train station, which is worlds nicer than the awful old station, which itself was…much more awful than the old Japanese station. Some people were a bit peckish, so we had some food at a breakfast shop where the owner told us how to get to the big KEELUNG sign at the top of the hill. “You go up,” he said helpfully.

So we went up, following alleys, complimenting one household in particular on their delicious-smelling curry rice and dodging the scooters that would occasionally charge up the steep slope. One of these was a Gogoro electric scooter, with no less than two people on it. Impressive.

We paused at the big KEELUNG and then proceeded up to the platform at the top of the hill, caught our breath, and then went back down again, this time taking a different, more circuitous route. Eventually we found ourselves back to the main road behind the station. We crossed over the old blue pedestrian bridge that’s been there forever, and walked towards the Miaokou market, where vendors were hauling their stalls out into the rainy streets. It’s always difficult to lead these photowalks because I remain a firm believer in the benefits of solitary ventures. “I’m just showing you this place and some of the possibilities,” I often find myself saying. “You can come back on your own sometime and really see it!” It might seem odd for me to be telling this to native Taiwanese people, but they almost always have never really been to the places I take them, or, even if they have, they never really noticed what was there. I think it works; several of them have come a really long way in their photography, which makes me happy. And after this rather fucked-up year, I appreciate such things more than ever.

posted by Poagao at 9:39 pm  
Nov 06 2016

Back

The next day, our last in Barcelona, dawned clear and bright; the girls went to see museums, while Carlos, Chenbl and I took the subway downtown and walked around a food market. Outside the door was a duo playing 1920’s jazz, with old Pepe on the trumpet and Russian Mikhail on the stand-up piano. Both were very good, and we bought one of their CDs before sitting down to have lunch while listening to the music. Pepe’s trumpet was a very old Schilke, the original silver plating gone, revealing the brass. “We played at a beach for a while,” said Pepe. “That was when that happened. I used to have a Conn, but it was stolen. This is just as good.” I asked him if I could have a go on it, but he would only let me play if I’d brought my own mouthpiece, which I hadn’t. “It would be like letting you kiss my wife,” he said. Fair enough. The group also included a banjo player, but their permit for the market space was only for two musicians. After their allotted time was up, they packed up and left, Mikhail shoving the piano down the street. The next act was a heavily tattooed duo who played the same song twice. It included a lot of shouting, so we kept walking over to La Rambla, where I saw a black man being pulled over by police. Thankfully he wasn’t shot or beaten as might have been the case in the U.S.

The girls Lined us and said they were going to see the Picasso exhibit, so we tagged along. It was located in the old family palace of the Aguilars (I think?), and was nice except that it jumped over four decades of Picasso’s work. I was interested in seeing his progression from a formal artist into a far more abstract and surreal one, but the jump from 1917 to 1957 was abrupt and somewhat disappointing. Afterwards we walked to the nearest train station, where you could apparently just walk onto a train. I thought this might mean trouble when we tried to exit at our destination, and sure enough, the Filipina manager there took personal offense at our transgression, and detained us for a far longer time than it should take for people at a train station to find out the price of a train ride.

We packed up our stuff at the hotel, which was actually pretty nice, and boarded the high-speed rail back to Madrid. Chenbl watched the Phantom of the Opera on his tablet while I dealt with more ear pressure problems. I’d caught a cold earlier on the trip and was all stopped up.

The best thing about our hotel in Madrid, the “Sleep ‘N”, was that it was quite near the train station. Somewhat worse was the fact that they disregard requests for double beds and just give you whatever they have. “It’s just the way we do it,” the clerk said. I suppose, then, that giving bad reviews to such behavior on online review sites is just the way I do it. The rooms were also tiny, the wifi unworkable, and the walls paper-thin.

Chenbl, Carlos and I had a big breakfast the next morning at a corner cafe with a classic boomerang-shaped counter. It was good but salty. After that we saw Carlos off at the airport bus station. I was dizzy from cold medicine, so we resorted once again to the tourist bus, riding around the route three times before I spotted a sign familiar from my childhood: Steak ‘n Shake! When we got off the bus and entered the store, however, we were disappointed to find that the kitchen was broken, and all they had were shakes. We went to the Five Guys burger joint on Gran Via instead, and I counted far more than five guys in there. It was good, but I was expecting a bit more after watching the “Oh My Dayum” video.

The tour bus people had said that service stopped at six, but the bus just ordered everyone off at a random point on the tour at around 5:40, so we had to take the subway back. The airport bus was late, of course, this being Spain. But traffic was light, and we arrived in plenty of time. When we tried to get a tax refund that everyone had told us could be done at the airport with receipts, they told us that they needed special paperwork from all the vendors, so…Spain again. The China Eastern flight was late again as well, of course, and the plane was full of rather rustic types who propped their bare feet up on the seats, shoved their way into bathrooms ahead of people who had been waiting, and planned excursions to sneak into first-class for the night. The cold medicine helped me sleep, however, so I didn’t really care about any of that. When we got to Shanghai, the other passengers rushed the bus to the terminal like it was the last flight out of Saigon. We had time to take the subway into Shanghai to walk along the Bund and turn down many offers of fake watches. Dinner was at Yershari, a Mongolian affair with lots of lamb. The subway ride back was interminable, and I kept nodding off. Before we retired, we had a midnight snack at a roadside stall off the highway. Fried noodles, at last.

The next day was the last of our trip, but our flight wasn’t until the afternoon, so we caught cabs to the subway. Our driver, a plumb middle-aged woman, couldn’t figure out how to put the Volkswagen Passat into reverse, which was slightly alarming, but she got us there in one piece. The sun was out, but the smog cast a pall over everything. On the subway, we stood and watched as any available seat was snagged immediately.

In Shanghai we got off at the Qinghua University stop and met one of the girls’ friends, an old classmate apparently. She took around looking at the old houses of the foreign concession quarter from old colonial times. It’s now very ritzy. I thought that I’d spotted the same foreigner, a middle-aged skinny white dude with a beard, several times before I realized that that area is (once again) mostly foreigners. It’s more Tianmu than Tianmu ever was. Rich, affluent businesspeople, trendy joggers in shorts and sunglasses. Fast walkers discussing stock options and answering each other in loud, clipped declarations while their golden lab sleeps on the sidewalk beside a salad dish of filtered water.

It was interesting, but I would have rather sought out any of the few remaining old hutongs and wandered around there. But perhaps those have vanished as well; they were being torn down right and left the last time I wandered around the city in 2006.

That afternoon at the airport, the Chinese immigration officer asked if I was mixed. I said yes, not wanting to include the fact that I am not actually ethnically Chinese. It was good enough for her, anyway. Although my ears were giving me hell on the flight back, I was delighted to see the lights of the Taiwanese coast appear on the horizon. This trip has been eventful, but I am quite glad to be back home.

 

posted by Poagao at 1:35 pm  
Nov 02 2016

A Day in Girona

I wasn’t in the best of moods when we left the hotel this morning. Oh, the weather was fine, and Beatriz and hubby had picked out a place for us to visit for the day, but something was just off, and I was irritable and moody…at least more than I usually am. Which is saying  something.

We got onto the big double-decker train that would end up in Paris in six hours, and got off at Girona, north of Barcelona and near the French border. The pleasant square in front of the station cheered me up a bit, and my mood improved more when we came across an entire construction wall covered with the characters from my namesake and favorite childhood cartoon, Top Cat. I took a selfie with the original TC and kept walking.

I was making a silly video on a bridge when I spotted someone who almost certainly another street photographer, from the way he held his small Olympus EM-10 on its wrist strap. He came over and asked me if I was me, which, it turns out, I was. He turned out to be one of my Facebook photographer friends, Jordi Simon. He had somehow recognized me, and we chatted a bit, mostly with me speaking in Chinese to Beatriz, who translated to Spanish for Jordi, and vice versa. It was a nice coincidence.

We proceeded into town and I spotted more street photographers. One guy had stationed himself at the foot of the red bridge with a long lens, which I thought strange. Another was taking mirror-in-windowshop-reflection shots a la Friedlander, and yet another was stalking a tall clown downtown.

What is going on? I thought to myself. Am I about to see a bunch of Girona shots in the HCSP queue? Sure, the light was nice, but nice light is found in many places, and is often a trap in any case.

We kept walking, and I turned a corner to find none other than Gueorgui Pinkhassov sitting outside a cafe, in the midst of ordering a creme brûlée. He and I have had conversations on Facebook before, but we’d never met in person, so this was an extraordinary coincidence. It also explained the plethora of SP activity in the town that day. We chatted for a bit about various things before I let him get back to the workshop he was teaching; at least some of his students were also seated around the table. I told him that I’d originally planned to take his workshop in Tokyo a while ago, but had submitted too late. He invited me to sit in on this one, but I thanked him and declined, feeling that it wouldn’t be fair to the students who actually got their submissions in on time and paid a great deal of time and effort to be there.

img_1967We continued walking up the hill to the obligatory cathedral, and then back down some more alleys to find a restaurant with extremely slow service, so slow that we had to rush back to the station to catch our train back to Barcelona. We could have taken our time as the train was very late, and this being Spain I had to piss like a racehorse once on the train due to the lack of public facilities.

The reason we had to be back in town was that we had tickets at the Palau de la Música Catalana, a lovely old concert hall, to see an organ concert played to the 1926 silent film Faust. The screen was a bit small, but the magnificence of the theater’s interior and the wonderful organ performance made up for it. After the show, we tried to take a look at the third floor balcony, but appparently it’s a secret, so don’t tell anyone.

After the show we walked over to the 4cats restaurant, where Picasso hung out as a moody teen, for a delicious dinner that was a bit more expensive than we could really afford. The servers were very good, and there was a mediocre live band that consisted of piano, double bass and a singer. Carlos and I both guessed that they were moonlighting students.

posted by Poagao at 8:16 am  
Nov 01 2016

Where were we again?

Sorry for the delay…been running ourselves ragged as usual, too tired at the end of the day to post. It’s after 1 a.m. now, but I’m too far behind.

We got up early once again (I suppose that’s a given by now), and Chenbl, Carlos, Ewan and I took the metro to the bus station, where we had some breakfast downstairs before going up to join the long line for the buses to Toledo. The line moved fairly quickly, however, and not long after we were on our way. The weather was fine until we headed up in to the hills, when it turned cloudy so quickly I thought there must be a large fire nearby.

I’d decided I wanted to see the city after viewing the countours on Google Maps 3D, and if you’ve been there you know what I mean; Toledo is located on a big hill surrounded mostly by a winding river, and I’ve always loved 3D cities. Though it was cloudy when we arrived, the sun came out again as we rode a series of escalators up the hill into town. The altitude did nothing to hide the stink of piss, however. If only there were some way to provide people in public with a place to relieve themselves…but I suppose only the geniuses of the future will have an answer to that age-old question. At least the Spanish urologists must be doing a brisk business.

We stopped into a soap shop, which is a terrible idea if you want to do anything else for the next hour or so. Chenbl ended up giving the shopkeepers massages and a bottle of Chinese massage oil; he should have done that before the bill was settled, alas. The light outside was lovely but deceptive; nothing worked, photographically speaking. I swear, I have not taken more shots on this trip than any other I can recall.

We took a little “train” tram around the city, sitting with a group of smarmy blonde German kids who rolled their eyes at the slightest provocation, and then walked around, encountering many interesting renaissance instruments. One of the musicians, a middle-aged woman, had hidden a speaker under her dress, I suspected, as the bass line simply couldn’t have been coming from her violin. Or could it? I have no idea. The effect was quite nice, though.

We walked around some cathedrals, etc. The town was no longer a town, I realized. It was empty of everyone but tourists, a mere shell of its former self, which lent it a rather sad feeling. We did pass a wedding ongoing in a chapel. Chenbl had walked right in on the ceremony, not understanding the sign outside, gaining glares from the participants.

The sun had set by this point, and we caught a taxi back to the bus station, and an old, smelly bus back to Madrid. Dinner was had in the same square that I’d visited on my last trip, but where it was cold and empty then, it was now full of revelers; Madrid was celebrating Halloween, it seemed, and police were everywhere. Helicopters hovered overhead while we ate, and occasionally police convoys would speed through the square, lights flashing. This would be a good night to get in early, I thought. But it was late once again when we finally got back to the hotel.

Due to daylight savings time, our originally horribly early wake-up time of 5 a.m. became 4 a.m. in effect. So after only a few hours of sleep, we were up again to catch the 6:20 a.m. (really 5:20 a.m.) train to Barcelona. Why so early? No idea. Just the way these things go.

For some reason, the air pressure difference on the train was even worse than that of an airplane flight. What the hell? My ears were stopped up most of the way. I know Madrid is higher in elevation than seaside Barcelona, but damn. We traveled through some fog, but Barcelona was sunny when we exited the station.

We met our friend Beatriz at the hotel, and we walked over to a round mall that turned out to be a former bullfighting ring. It was converted after bullfighting was prohibited, but I swear you can still smell beef. The view from the top was nice, even in the haze. Tourists stared at us from a neighboring rooftop pool.

Walking past a massive cosplay event, we walked up to a kind of museum with a massive fountain in front, and Chenbl made a beeline to the vendors selling scarves and fold-out baskets that were surely made in China.

Our next stop was La Rambla, famous site of many thefts and mugging over the decades. We actually stayed here last time, and I’m glad I didn’t know then what I know about it now. Thankfully nothing untoward occurred this time. We went down to the harbor, and I greeted the Mediterranean once again, laughing at the fact that the Columbus Tower in Chinese sounds more like “Colon Puta”.

We stopped by the cathedral, the old Gothic one with the horrible pan flute player out front, and decided it wasn’t work the seven euros to go inside. Then it was a subway to another restaurant (why is everyone on the subway so well-lit? It’s like a studio on there) with good food while Beatriz went off to take care of some business.

Beatriz showed up with her husband, and we all walked along the harbor amid the skaters and young thieves. Dinner was eventually had at a fancy place called Mussol, where they forgot about us, let others ahead of us, and finally let us sit down after a fair bit of haranguing. The food was worth it, though, in that it was good and we were hungry.  Still, I’ve found that the Spanish brand of rudeness is rather special, tinged with arrogance in a way I haven’t seen in too many other places.

The next morning we embarked on a Day of Gaudi. First we went to the big-ass cathedral he spent most of his life working on. I have the feeling that if he were to come back and take a look at it today, he would just shake his head in disbelief. It is too big a project, has taken too long, and been mixed with too many other visions. The details of the original place are brilliant, but the entirety is just a mess.

It was only when I went down to the museum underneath the cathedral did one of the staff yell at me to take off my hat, which I found amusing as during the two hours I’d spent in the cathedral itself nobody had mentioned it. Also, it seems really arbitrary; why a hat? Is wearing a scarf ok? Why? Does it matter if you can come up with some bullshit reason for it? I wanted to point to the photos of the pope on his visit and say, “Well, that guy wore a hat in here…make up your minds!”

Our next stop was a building Gaudi had renovated, followed by an apartment complex he built, and while they were gorgeous in the details, I don’t think I could live there. For one thing, there are no right angles in the places, and I would just get turned around. But my real concern would be that Gaudi’s architecture seems downright dangerous, which no thought for safety in the face of his curious designs. They say that he never didn’t anything without a purpose, so perhaps he just had it in for clumsy people.

We had to wait in line for one of the places; the tickets specified that we get there at 2 p.m., but that was apparently a little joke at our expense by the ticket people (“Oh, you thought there would be a TIME? Oh, dear lord, you ARE naive, aren’t you, precious?”). As we waited, a professional beggar woman moaned and wailed until someone gave her some money, after which she would pipe down until that person had moved a few feet away, whereupon she would start up again. I thought I saw what might have been her handler giving her signals to turn on the waterworks when a likely mark was spotted, but I couldn’t be sure. From what I hear, they’re collected into a van at the end of the day with all their earnings.

After the last Gaudi house (the sunset on the rood was brilliant), we went down and sat on the corner of the broad avenue waiting for Beatriz. Although Chenbl was muttering, “Where is she?” every few minutes, I was glad for a pause in our hectic routine, for once not rushing off to some place, or waiting for someone to catch up, etc. I just sat and watched the people walking, the bicycles and cars, the old man who sat near us for a while before his wife arrived. I wondered who else had sat on that bench. Perhaps even Gaudi himself had sat there at some point. It was pleasant, just sitting and watching and thinking…possibly the most pleasant part of the trip so far. I could have sat there much longer, but Beatriz arrived, and we were off again, into the rush of shopping and dinner and distractions.

 

posted by Poagao at 8:53 am  
Oct 29 2016

Back to Madrid

Chenbl, Carlos and I elected to seek out our breakfast at one of the little shops on the street rather than partaking of the hotel’s breakfast, which wasn’t included in the room price. We found a decent restaurant and sat at the bar while the gangster-esque boss tossed our plates at us. After we returned to the hotel, we sat around the pool in the back talking about earthquakes and looking at the planes overhead. Iris undertook an elaborate photo shoot of a pomegranate’s journey around the pool.

Our train to Madrid was at 12:45, so we got some lunch to go at the station. When we departed, we noticed that we were again facing backwards for some reason. Also, the sun refused to touch the western part of the sky even though it was well after noon. I suppose we must have been travelling more east than north for most of the trip. The train provided some nice jazz music accessible through the seat jacks, but no USB or wifi.

We retrieved our luggage from the lockers at the station in Madrid and headed out to our hotel, and then, once we’d rested up for a good five minutes, headed out again to the museum, supposedly the third largest in the world after the Lourvre and the British museum. It was impressive, but as we’d only arrived after 6 p.m. and it closed at 8pm, we didn’t see most of it. I was impressed, however, at just how much martyrdom went on back in the day.

Dinner was some delicious Greek food at an upscale food court, and then a taxi back to the hotel.  During the ride I heard Carlos speak more than I’d ever heard him speak before as he waxed lyrical about his beloved bamboo to the taxi driver.

posted by Poagao at 5:03 am  
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