Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

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  
Mar 07 2018

2/23: Havana

Eric, Chenbl and I hopped in a crème 1959 Mercedes-Benz 190E to go over to his other place, but the driver, seeing we were foreigners, hopped up the price, so we hopped out again and walked, as the weather was once again brilliant. Eric pointed out various properties for sale, and others with several stories tacked onto the top in a fashion that caused Chenbl, who is after all an engineer, to wince. “It’s a good thing they don’t have earthquakes here,” was a constant refrain throughout the trip.

At the other place, a pair of Italian backpackers were waiting for Eric, and they chatted while Chenbl and I enjoyed another excellent breakfast there. After breakfast, we headed out along the shore and the Malecón, past a school that was just letting out so that we were surrounded with crowds of students. I’ve been seeing the typical “Cuba shots” everywhere, and while I can’t blame anyone for taking those shots, I’ve been feeling a bit reluctant to take them myself. I’ve been trying to take the shots that appeal to me, but I don’t feel I’ve really done justice to the place; that would take more time and dedication (and probably better Spanish), alas. People keep asking us where we are from, nearly always a prelude to trying to sell us cigars. Some say “Happy Holiday!” which I suppose that is to get us to ask what holiday, followed by an explanation of some holiday that requires people to buy expensive cigars.

We walked past a literal hole-in-the-wall barbershop, and after some back-and-forth on the price, we decided to get our hair cut. The guys were pretty good, and it was wonderfully comforting to have one’s head treated so tenderly amidst the Spanish chatter and batter of the Cubans both inside the shop and hanging around just outside. If you’re wondering what kind of hairstyle Chenbl ended up with, let’s just say that he stopped being called Jackie Chan on the street and started being called Kim Jong-un. I suspect this is probably even more effective at keeping people on their toes.

After a lunch of hamburgers with eggs, we walked down the Malecón and downtown again. It feels like, in just three days, that we’ve pretty much seen the city, though I realize there are many parts we have yet to see. We went to Chinatown and managed to order a couple of dishes to take away. Then we walked over to the bus station to take the bus back and spent an enjoyable evening dining on Eric’s delicious cooking in the apartment while listening to his upcoming album, which I like a lot and look forward to seeing released. He’s quite a musician.

posted by Poagao at 11:06 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/22: Havana

Eric took us to the other property he works with this morning, a nice little space with a courtyard and several rooms just a block or two from the ocean. There we had a nice breakfast of toast, fruit and fried eggs, and met Jorge, our guide for the day. Jorge is a quiet, soft-spoken young man with smoky young Elvis looks and a great deal of knowledge about Havana; it was a pleasure to have him accompany us. He led us through Centro to the small Chinatown area, where we saw Chinese restaurants, Confucian Institutes and Kung-fu temples, some with mis-written characters and bad calligraphy, but fascinating nonetheless. We’d wanted to get our hair cut at one of the barbershops, but they were all full with long waiting times, which is too bad as I really want to see what a barber who has experience dealing with African locks can do with Chenbl’s hair.

We made our way to the old district, this time not going through the touristy bits but the regular parts where normal people live, and it was quite interesting. We visited a shop full of lovely African art and carvings, and talked with the artist via Jorge. Lunch was delicious ham sandwiches at a tiny restaurant in the old quarter, sitting on stools and watching pranks being played on people on the TV, which was hooked up to a box rather than Cuban broadcast television.

We then toured the market by the harbor, where I decided, for once, to not buy a hat. Every other tourist we see is wearing a straw hat, and I’m pretty sure I’d lose it in the wind here. We visited Hemingway’s other bar (that man got around where alcohol is concerned), the one where mojitos were apparently invented, though they don’t use mint but some other similar plant that IMHO doesn’t have as appealing a flavor. Outside the bar a blind man was singing; Chenbl bought his CD, as he’s been doing here to support local artists whose voices appeal to him. I signed what looked like the only Chinese name among the thousands of signatures on the wall outside. People kept shouting “Jackie Chan!” and “Chino!” at Chenbl. “Is this Jackie Chan?” one older man asked excitedly.

“Yes, it is!” I said, a little too enthusiastically. “He gained fifteen kilograms and lost fifteen years!” But my sarcasm didn’t get across; as he eagerly shook Chenbl’s hand, I added, “Don’t tell anyone!” But he was already off to tell his friends, so we decided to get out of there before our ruse was exposed or someone challenged Chenbl to a street fight.

We walked up the harbor through the squares until it was time for Jorge to go. Chenbl and I continued on as the day grew overcast. A bunch of people on motorcycles were waiting to get on a bus…along with their motorcycles. The best of both worlds, I suppose. We then walked through another cathedral and up to the parking lot to catch a bus back to Vedado, or “Ve-ah-oh” as it’s pronounced here; the letter D isn’t terribly popular with Cubans.

Eric was waiting for us again, and after we rested a bit and put on long pants, we went out for some standing-room-only pizza, in that the places that sells it doesn’t have a license for chairs so everyone stands. It was hot and decent. Beef seems quite hard to come by here, and even chicken is a little rare; pork and ham dominate the menus.

Eric then walked with us several shady blocks to the Art Factory, a fascinating complex with strict controls, where all kinds of art are mixed together in various exhibitions…we saw photography exhibitions, ballroom dancing, and the best rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody I’ve ever heard played by a French Horn quartet. We asked the group if they had an album we could buy, but all the leader, a young man named Elio Hernandez Rojas, could do was ask if we had a USB thumb drive so we could copy it. Unfortunately, we didn’t think to bring any. As it turns out, Cubans seem to obtain all of their information, news and entertainment via the distribution (on Tuesdays for some reason) of USB drives. This is mainly because, as I’ve mentioned, the Internet here is basically unusable, with incredibly expensive rates and extremely limited speeds for the short amount of time one can get online, not to mention government controls on the content. On the one hand, this is horribly inconvenient…but I have to admit you do hear real conversations more here than in most other places, and there are far fewer people with their heads buried in phones. The few public places where the crippled Wi-Fi is available are filled with people completing laundry lists of things they need to get done online before their time/data are used up.

Anyway, back to the Art Factory: The complex was made from an actual old factory, with the additions of cargo containers, little courtyards and art spaces throughout. Many foreigners were in attendance, with English, German and other languages being thrown around. There was also a Spanish-language rap show as well as a place with bouncers we couldn’t get into for some reason. The whole was very cool, and had me feeling very strange. I don’t know why, but I’ve been feeling discombobulated, disconnected the past few days. Cuba is just so surreal. There was an art exhibit of pictures of people pointing at themselves, and recordings of people saying who they were. “I am Jose,” “I am Maria,” etc. I thought what I would say…probably: “I am not.”

posted by Poagao at 10:43 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/21: Havana

We hadn’t figured out how to work the A/C; it was a little hot, but opening the windows seemed to work fine once everything cooled down in the evening. It’s so nice to have decent-temperature air available after that awful Canadian cold. The night was filled with the voices of neighbors talking and TVs and radios playing, but I was so tired it didn’t matter. Breakfast when we finally got up was scrambled eggs, toast and fruit made by Fefa, the stout older orange-haired woman who owns the place and has a comfy living room downstairs filled with paintings and well-dressed dolls. This building used to be the garage of the large decrepit mansion in front of it, which is falling apart and partially uninhabitable but is still home to several people in various rooms. Carlos, an older man who is somehow related to the joint, came up to fix the shower drain, and Annanai came to get us afterwards. Annanai looks to be about our age, light complexioned and blonde, and seems to quite often get taken for a foreigner even though she is Cuban. I imagine this can be frustrating for her.

We walked to the wide, rather empty Revolution Square, where there are large abstract portraits of the revolutionary heroes like Che et al, and also where all the military parades are held, but we didn’t feel like paying to go in. Instead we walked around other areas admiring the old cars and colorful walls. Renting classic convertibles painted bright pink seems to be a real money-maker in Havana. We saw prices of $30 an hour, which is a lot even outside Cuba.

After we stopped by a small bar for a drink that was not unlike Taiwan’s Apple Cidra, Chenbl changed entirely too much money because only one person can approach a teller at a time and he got flustered. We then passed by the main cemetery, but you have to pay to get in so we skipped it…the graves looked frighteningly haphazard in any case, and Chenbl can be sensitive to certain things that wander around cemeteries.

We stopped by a market whose concrete entrance signs betrayed its origins as a Woolworth store. Lunch was a great deal of chicken. While Annanai called her boyfriend, we watched some workers unloading supplies for one of the rations store. Every Cuban gets a discount in basic foods, flour, rice, meat, etc. every week. Outside the shop was parked an immaculate two-tone red-and-white Ford Fairlane. Nearby an early 50’s black Volkswagen Beetle rally car was parked in front of a garage that the owner was busy welding together.

So much in Cuba just seems difficult, difficult to buy, difficult to do…it’s rather the opposite of Japan in this respect. Ordinary Cubans live by their wits alone. There simply doesn’t seem to be a real universal system in place, nor a sense of certainty, except that the air will be filled with exhaust from all these old vehicles. I suppose that air quality is not high on the list of concerns.

We hopped into one of these cars, an ancient Plymouth, and drove to the Malecón to see the big Hotel Nacional de Cuba there, the stone of its exterior scarred from an assault on one of the presidents’ factions. Apparently the mafia tried to run Cuba from there, which as we know didn’t really work out. Rich foreigners gazed across the sea towards Florida from the lawn chairs. It was actually cold in the shadow of the hotel, though it was hot everywhere else.

We then took another old taxi to the Paseo, a long walkway in the middle of the avenue, where we admired the old buildings, and then another taxi, an old Russian Lada this time, to the ferry. This took us across the bay to the site of a large Jesus statue on a hill, near an ancient fort. Security is strict on the little ferries because apparently people have tried to hijack them to take to Florida, incredibly. On the hill, tourists faced away from the statue, looking at the sun setting over the city below. It was a short hike back down the hill to walk around the area by the water, which features the remains of a railway. Music was always playing somewhere, and people talked, laughed and occasionally fought in the streets. Life without the Internet and smartphones, ladies and gentlemen. People can only access a strangled version of the Internet on their phones in parks for high rates and at slow speeds. But things might be changing in that respect.

After the ferry back, we got on a crowded bus back to our neighborhood, where we met Eric during dinner. He took us to a rock show at a nearby underground Beatles-themed music club called the Yellow Submarine (which sounds better in Spanish than it does in English). It really wasn’t bad, an enthusiastic young band full of enthusiastic and trendy young Cubans, and though I would have liked to hear more original, Spanish-language content, I wish them well.

posted by Poagao at 10:25 am  
Mar 07 2018

February 20th: Vancouver – Toronto – Havana

Breakfast at the hostel was a bright, help-yourself affair, full of earnest young backpackers shredding their gums with sugar-flavored Cheerios. The bright sun was a ruse, betrayed by the  bitter cold outside. Chenbl and I walked over to Chinatown, marveling at the familiar smells and signs and produce overwhelming the sidewalks there. The old Kuomintang building was abandoned, covered in weeds and neglect. Warming our hands with some hot Tenren tea, we walked over to Gastown. The whole thing would have been charming if I weren’t freezing my ass off. The famous clock was steaming (I assume it was steam, otherwise it really needs servicing) and hooted out the traditional clock melody at 2:45 p.m., after which we took refuge amid the cheap plastic smells of the local Dollar Store.

Later we walked back down to the harbor and browsed the signs elaborating on Vancouver’s shockingly sordid history of labor relations and all the awful things that happened in the process of labor reform. Seaplanes were taking off and landing on the water near a floating Chevron gas station; the remains of snow crunched under our feet. We chatted with some friendly construction workers who were busy renovating a house. Nearby, a large, forlorn heap of charred wood and plaster had apparently up until recently been a house.

Turning onto Davies Street, we stopped for entirely too much poutine before heading back to the hotel, where we spent a great deal of effort trying not to listen to an excruciatingly awkward flirting session between two young backpackers in the common room.

Then it was time to leave; we walked over to the subway and took the train out to the airport. The last few stops featured a shouty young drunk, but that was far less annoying than when we checked in and found that our airline not only didn’t know about any of these newfangled “frequent flyer” things all the kids are about these days, they cancelled our seat selections and put us in the middle seats to Toronto. The flight was overbooked, so the check-in staff asked if we’d take US$100 and a night at a hotel. Uh, no, we wouldn’t. But the line at the gate was truly egregious, a scene rife with insecurity as everyone wondered if they’d be picked to be a Sacrificial Passenger. Indeed, one passenger seemed to have already incurred the wrath of one of the flight attendants as we found out seats. “I’ve seen the way you overreact; you only have one more chance or I will have you removed from the flight,” the attendant warned ominously as the young man spread his hands in the internationally recognized symbol of WTF, man.

The whine of the engines drowned out the safety video and my cursing as my watchband broke, but we were in the air soon enough. Several episodes of Blackish later, as we neared Toronto, however, the captain said weather sucked there so we were going to Buffalo NY instead. The whole plane groaned; most people either didn’t have their passports and/or didn’t have a U.S. visa. Nobody could be looking forward to dealing with TSA asshattery; this was one of the main reasons we elected to go through Canada in the first place. The plane circled at the same elevation for a long period of indecision before they agreed that we would be going to Toronto after all, whereupon everyone cheered. After we landed, however, we taxied up to a gate that didn’t work; it was as if they were surprised to see us. Didn’t they call ahead? The crew tugged fruitlessly at the door for a while before giving up and having us all sit down, pack up, power up the engines, back out and head to a gate that actually worked.

That didn’t give us much time to make our connecting flight to Havana, so Chenbl and I booked it from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, embarrassingly specific final boarding accusations ringing in our ears the whole way, and just made it in time.

The flight to Havana was considerably more relaxed, with far fewer people and a party atmosphere. Everyone there, including the casually dressed but smartly competent cabin crew, seemed very happy to be leaving the frigid north behind. As we’d missed meals in our rush, we had some plane food that was bordering on ok. As we approached our destination, people began to change out of their heavy winter clothes into shorts and T-shirts.

Even though my mind was still demanding to know what the hell I was doing in Cuba, the warm air was an incredible relief. Chenbl changed money at a machine, and we caught a cab downtown to the Airbnb place where we’re staying to put our luggage down before heading out with Annanai, a Cuban woman who is more than passingly familiar with all of this.

Of course the old automobiles and colorful buildings are amazing, but I haven’t managed to figure out just how to photograph them sans cliché. All the taxis and buses are crowded, some of the old buildings are being brought back, and I apparently look like I’m searching in vain for a Cuban cigar. Brilliant musicians abound in the restaurants; the lung power of the trumpet players in particular is astounding. I brought my mouthpiece just in case I happen across an opportunity, but I doubt I could come close to keeping up with these guys.

We had cold chocolate at the Chocolate museum and then stopped into the Floridita bar, which was apparently one of Hemingway’s favorite drinking spots (he had many) as well as the origin of the daiquiri, and which features a larger-than-life brass statue of the heavy-set writer sitting at the end of the bar overlooking the field. Daiquiris were had, and we all left the place a little tipsy and wondering if the little straws were really necessary. The sun was setting before Annanai said we should go back to the apartment, so we got on a crowded bus back to Vedado, where our place is located.

Eric, the French-Canadian who runs the place, came out for dinner nearby, and we had a nice long conversation about his background and Cuba’s future.

posted by Poagao at 10:05 am  
Feb 19 2018


Even though I spent large parts of the last several days packing in a vain attempt to avoid last-minute panicking, I still managed to only just finish before I had to head out to meet Chenbl and his parents at Taipei Main Station for lunch. After we bid them farewell, we walked over to the airport MRT and boarded the express to Taoyuan. The weather went quickly from brilliant to gloomy as we descended from the heights of Nankan to disembark underneath Terminal 2, where we found a counter lady who hadn’t heard of her own damn airlines’ contract with the Star Alliance.

Chenbl is a great believer in getting to the airport in plenty of time to spare, so we sat in a movie-themed lounge watching clips from old kung-fu flicks over and over again until I had not only memorized the sequences, but the continuity mistakes.

Eventually we boarded a brand-new 787 bound for Vancouver. I’d never been to Canada before, so this would be a trip with several firsts. The plane was packed, and I had a hard time sleeping in between watching movies and playing with the polarized windows. I’ve been feeling ambivalent about this trip for a while now, and it still hadn’t really sunk in, even though I was looking at snow-covered mountains and fields as we descended.

Regardless of how I felt or didn’t feel about it, we arrived in Vancouver at around noon, and the moment we walked out into the cold wind I thought, ok, this might be a problem. Really? Canada in the middle of winter, you say? Shut up.

We took the subway into town and walked to our hostel, which is located in an older building, put our stuff down and went out to walk around in the cold. The disappearing light was nice, and we followed it down to the waterfront, where helicopters were taking off and ferries were running across the bay. After the sun set, the temperatures dived further, and we searched in vain for a public bathroom before finding one such establishment underground in a nearby park. We then escaped the cold for a while in a large cathedral, hiding in the midst of a large Catholic congregation during a Spanish-language church service.

Later we met a longtime online friend of mine, photographer John Goldsmith, at a nice ramen place, and we spent the rest of the night engaged in great conversation. After arriving back at the hostel, however, Chenbl decided he needed a second dinner, which was donair-related and delicious. The weather was bitterly cold, however, the sidewalks in front of the sex shops and pizza parlors and bars was sparsely populated. The remnants of yesterday’s snowfall are everywhere, and even locals are surprised at the coldness of the weather.

The cold’s not so bad as long as indoor spaces are heated, unlike in Taiwan where, if it’s cold, it’s cold everywhere. The hostel’s floors creak and tremble whenever anyone in the building takes a step; I guess I’m sensitive after being used to concrete structures.

I don’t know what we’re going to do tomorrow, except for catch the overnight flight to Havana.

posted by Poagao at 3:48 pm  
Feb 01 2018

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posted by Poagao at 2:29 pm  
Dec 11 2017

Not an easy weekend

Another crazy weekend with this year’s Tiger Mountain Ramble coinciding with cold, wet weather. I headed over to Bobwundaye on Friday night to reunite with our dear friend Steve Gardner for some serious jamming, and we made the acquaintance of another fine musician who came along for the gig: Jett Edwards, also a long-term American ex-pat in Tokyo. Jett plays a mean bass, and has seemingly endless energy in front of a crowd while being quite laid-back in person. Jett, Katrina and I were talking during a break about expats in general, and he mentioned that he’d encountered westerners in Japan who seemed to have “gone native” to the extent that they refused to speak English to him, only stammering confusedly in Japanese when he tried to talk to them. “Would these individuals happen to all be white dudes?” I asked him, and he gave me a knowing look.

“Of course,” he said, adding that in his experience, Black people don’t go native, at least not in that fashion. I was surprised to hear it; I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like that, and though I’ve gone through times when I avoided the company of westerners in general, particularly early on when I was studying Chinese, I’ve never gone to such extremes.

We played several sets, during which the thundering headache I’d had all day gradually subsided, but I felt a cold coming on, so I shared a cab with Cristina and Zach back to Xindian. I really should visit their new abode down there, it sounds very cool. Redman has apparently also secured a mountain lair…somewhere. I suppose he can’t be a very good spy if everyone knows where he lives. Oops, did I say “spy”? I meant “accountant”.

My cold was present and accounted for on Saturday, so I basically slept all day until it was time to head over to Tiger Mountain. I’d left in plenty of time to get there, but for some reason, after I exited Xiangshan Station, I could. not. find. a. cab. Several taxis drove by without stopping. One even stopped for a western couple standing not far away. I wondered if they too were heading to Tiger Mountain, and silently hoped they slipped in the mud and had costly dry-cleaning bills.

When I finally flagged down a cab, I told the driver about my difficulties. “Well, it’s no surprise,” he said, shrugging uncomfortably. “I mean, just look at you, dressed all in black, carrying a staff, standing on the corner there scowling at everyone…you looked like trouble. I wouldn’t blame anyone for electing to skip that fare for their own personal safety.” Well, at least he was honest; and I can’t find the lie.

The Tiger Mountain Ramble, which we’ve played every year since its inception, is always strange for me, centered around an abandoned temple into which some rather shifty local spirits have moved. It would be intimidating enough on its own, but fill it with hundreds of foreign devils, a technicolor stage truck, and several food stalls with rather expensive western foods, and it becomes surreal to say the least. The rain had stopped at least, though the ground will still muddy. I took some artsy mud shots with my phone. As one does.

Our show began after an excruciatingly long soundcheck. The sound people seemed to have little clue what was going on, and we eventually just said screw it, let’s start. Various instruments appeared and disappeared from the mix throughout the show, but the volume was painfully loud on stage. It’s a shame, because we all love playing gigs with our friends from Japan.

My ears and I all needed to rest after that, so I slipped out, luxuriating in the silence of the walk back down the mountain, though part of that silence was probably (hopefully) temporary deafness from the show.

As much as I wanted to rest on Sunday, I had to meet up with my photography students for class in the morning, followed by a trip out to Sanxia in the afternoon. We’d come up with a plan to take a bus from Ximen, and while that might have worked on paper, in practice it was rather trying. Though the light was nice, and there was a lot to shoot both on the bus and outside it along the way, the effort to remain standing on a crowded bus for over two hours as the driver stomped on his gas and brake pedals with the eagerness of a teenage Dance Dance Revolution aficionado was considerable. It was late afternoon by the time we staggered off the bus, and we headed over to the riverside for some peace. A small group of men were cooking under the bridge while another brought up some freshly caught fish for a meal.

We walked towards the main temple, which was packed with Pokemon-seeking zombies, providing a rather surreal foreground to the place, and then headed into the alleys. A few nice places have been built/renovated along the stream there, though a few pitiful remains of once-lovely structures remain. It’s a shame the owners lack the resources to fix them up; they could make a mint if they did so.

We took another bus on a thankfully much-shorter trip to the Shanjia train station, a station I recall from my army days as featuring a nice little stream running through it. The stream has largely covered by the new station, alas, but I did manage to get some photos, Nick Turpin-style, of passengers on the trains at the platform. Felt a little one-sided and fishbarrelesque.

I really would have appreciated a weekend to rest up from my weekend, but that’s just not the way things work, alas. I need to begin to work on our semester-end photobook, which means reviewing hundreds of shots from the past few months, and violin class again tonight has me thinking I probably should have practiced at some point during the week.

posted by Poagao at 12:15 pm  
Dec 04 2017


Ideally, yesterday I would have taken full advantage of my day off, getting up early to go practice tai-chi in the park, having lunch with Chenbl’s family, reading photography books at Eslite in the afternoon, dinner with Eddie, our far-rambling pianist, and many other fellow musicians, followed by a late-night jam at Sappho and in bed by midnight.

But I screwed most of it up. I didn’t get out of bed in time to make going to the park for tai-chi practice a viable plan, so I went directly to the restaurant for lunch with Chenbl’s family to celebrate his father’s birthday. The food was delicious; it’s a new place, but we’ve been going to that place at its old location for years, and the cuisine fortunately survived the move. An immaculately dressed wedding engagement party had taken over most of the new place, which is bigger and brighter than the old one, though somewhat less cozy.

After lunch Chenbl and I took a bus over to Eslite’s Xinyi branch, where he went to look at travel books and I sat down and devoured not only Chang Chien-chi’s Jet Lag, but also Koudelka: The Making of Exiles by Michel Frizot. Chang’s latest book paints a rather disconcerting picture of his life in recent years, lugging himself all over the world and hardly sleeping, inflicting a state of fraught hyper-reality to his work, as if the camera was infused with a mixture of caffeine and sleep medicine. It’s not a pleasant read, but it wasn’t meant to be; rather, it’s a hint of his experiences during that time. I realized while reading the text that the last time I met him was during that time, and it goes far in explaining the mood in which I found him at that point.

The Koudelka book was fascinating; I’m going to have to go back and read it again, if not buy it because I’m a cheap bastard and I already have too many books, including, of course, Exiles itself. It goes into mesmerizing detail concerning the photographer’s life and principles, as well as the conflict between him and more mainstream photographers, particularly at Magnum, who took assignments and had more conventional lives. Koudelka is a hero of mine, not just for his photographic work, but just the way he has managed to live his life. A bit of an exile myself in many ways, I could identify with much of what he was trying to describe, and over the years it has actually helped me deal with some of my feelings and issues on the subject.  Or, if not deal, at least appreciate his explorations of this most personal subject. In any case, it’s obvious that he has done a much better job.

The sun set over the city outside the floor-length windows as I read, sitting on the floor with the books on my lap. It was the best I’d felt in a long time, the most engaged, even though I was alone…or possibly because I was alone. I used to go to the original Eslite on Dunhua South Road all the time, staying up until all hours, of after a night on the town in those days of my feckless youth, to just sit and read, cello pieces playing softly on the store speakers. It’s gratifying that, especially after the demise of other bookstores such as the once-wonderful Page One, Eslite not only survives but thrives as a haven for those of us who need to escape for a short time.


But I couldn’t linger and read all night; I had to go meet up with the others for dinner near CKS Hall. It was good to see Eddie again, as well as the others. I lied to myself about going home early to get some sleep for work the next day; I might have gone to the jam at Sappho, gotten home at midnight and slept better than I ended up sleeping…or perhaps it would have been the same; in any case, something from the day was flying around, keeping me awake; I only got a few hours of sleep before dawn.

posted by Poagao at 12:31 pm  
Nov 29 2017


We played a rather strange gig at a university down south a week or so ago. While well-paying, it was odd; the campus buildings were plastered with ads for the institution, in addition to large posters of various white men saying inspirational sayings. The buildings themselves looked rather new, and the campus is located out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fields. We were in the middle of soundcheck on the outdoor stage when a battalion of gas-powered grass-cutters descended upon the large field in front, which was occupied by dozens of tables and chairs for the dinner that night. Apparently it didn’t occur to them to cut the grass before setting up the tables, chairs and tents. Nor did it occur to them that the noise might interfere in the soundcheck. When we asked them if they could wait a few minutes, they said, “It’s ok, your playing won’t interfere with our mowing, go ahead!”

The Important Older White People they’d invited to the academic conference were not only far fewer than expected, it seemed from the many empty tables and the achingly uneaten buffet (we were served lunchboxes in a backroom), they weren’t terribly into music either. I hoped that the indigenous singing/dancing group they’d hired were getting paid handsomely as well, but I doubted it. Halfway through our show they stopped for a highly orchestrated “flash mob"which was actually a kick-ass breakdancing group.

Though our show might have been a little underappreciated by the intended audience, when we broke out one of our new songs for the next album, “Temple Blues”, the indigenous group and the breakdancers came out and danced together to it. It was the highlight of the entire trip, and we stretched the song out so everyone could enjoy it more.

Then, afterwards, the organizers forgot that they were supposed to call us taxis so that we could get back to Taipei before midnight. We managed anyway.

My photography course is more or less back on track after the Dadaocheng events. Since we’ve been irking the janitorial staff by staying late after the night classes, I’ve decided to move some of the indoor instruction and review of shots to our outside photography days on weekends, and we now meet at Chenbl’s empty office meeting room in the mornings before going out to shoot in the afternoons/evenings. This last time we took the train out to Zhongli, where we then took a bus out to see a nice green mosque and nearby markets, before marching through empty rice fields to a recently refurbished old military village. My friend Josh Ellis buzzed in on his swank new Gogoro2, impressing the hell out of every single cat in the area, and took us to an interesting restaurant in the city. The place was on the second floor; the first floor was full of cobweb-covered antiques, and you’d never guess that there is a restaurant on the second floor. It was quite tasty. Zhongli is an interesting city, and I can understand Josh’s frustration that many in the expat community seem to look down on the place. Their new mayor is apparently a real mover and shaker as well, implementing the nation’s most generous subsidies for electric vehicles for one thing. I’ll have to make some more trips down there, which is even easier now that recently completed airport MRT goes there.

posted by Poagao at 12:19 pm  
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