Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

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  
Oct 28 2016

A day in Seville

We had to pick up our tickets, so we decided to have breakfast at the train station; this turned out to be a good idea, as even though the place we picked apparently only had two people running it, the sandwiches were quite good. After spending too much time seething over missed shots in the lovely light while waiting for the 32 Bus into the old town, we boarded the crowded vehicle.

The old part of Sevilla kind of reminds me, this time around anyway, of the Old Quarter of Hanoi in Vietnam. This is not a compliment. I mostly missed Sevilla during my last visit due to a stomach illness requiring me to be bed-ridden for three days, subsisting on cherries. This time I got a better feel for the place, and I came away kind of wanting to wash my hands.

One of the first things we saw upon disembarking was a huge, long, vast line of mostly young women in line for free make-up at a cosmetics store. The second was a large, raucous protest by people in medical garb demanding more hospitals. We made our way to the big cathedral from which that bastard Christopher Columbus embarked on his genocidal journey, and where he finally ended up. Or his body did, anyway. There was a long line, of course, and there were protests when we joined Chenbl, who had saved us a space. It turned out, however, that Chenbl, who has a cold and a runny nose, had ducked into a pharmacy and bought some cold medicine that was so strong it nearly knocked him out. So while the others toured the cathedral, I sat by a sleeping Chenbl on a bench in the atrium making sure he didn’t get robbed blind.

The cathedral, at least what I saw of it, was magnificent of course. It was also partially under reconstruction, and the workers glared at me when I took their pictures instead of the gilding on the altar. Classical music was being piped in from somewhere. In one of the chambers, an older man decked out in the latest, most fashionable attire (his leather bag was “The Bridge” and his pant legs were folded up to his pasty white calves) used one of his two digital Leicas to take snaps of the jewelry on display. Though a shame, it was actually rather appropriate. The other tourists cast quizzical gazes at me when I took a shot of the Leica Man. Sorry, Ted from Wisconsin…I just couldn’t help it. As we left the cathedral, fat women in scarves tried to give us leaves. I knew better than to accept anything of this sort and had to issue a severe glare and a sharp “No!” to stop the “Chico! Chico!” Carlos forgot himself and took one of the leaves, and I could hear behind me the woman insisting that he pay her for the leaf. Carlos turned around and said GRACIAS in a tone that shut her up.

Chenbl was still under the influence of the cold medicine, so we elected to take a horse cart tour around the city. This was fairly pleasant, the driver telling Carlos about the history of the city, Carlos translating it for me, and me translating it for Chenbl. With all of the translation going on, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chenbl didn’t end up thinking Seville was founded by Martians, especially in his state of mind.

After the horse cart ride, we boarded one of the open-topped tourist buses. Chenbl promptly went to sleep again, but I listened to a recording of a bored English woman tell me about the various landmarks we passed. This was actually a good way to see more of the real Seville, especially the parts across the river. Some of the descriptions of the rusting, derelict displays left over from the “Five Centuries of Oppression” celebration in 1992 were sad and pathetic, but I suppose it’s at least good that they’re on the tour.

What is it with women walking dogs in Spain? Why are there so many?

We got off at Plaza de Espana and walked around looking for a bathroom. Public bathrooms are pretty scarce on the ground here, it seems. When we approached the staff of the Citroen Bar as they were preparing to close, they flatly refused to let us borrow their restrooms, so we ended up at a nearby food fair. There we had some sausages, beef, rice and noodles, before looking for a bus back to the hotel. Chenbl was feeling better by this point, however, so we looked up a flamenco place someone had heard of. We nearly missed it, but when Carlos questioned a large, burly bald man in a suit at a door, it turned out that that was indeed the place.

The vibe inside was weird, to be honest. Water dripped from the ceiling onto the wooden tables, colored lights straight out of a dorm room flashed on and off; the bartender yelled at Carlos for some reason. We chose seats by a wall and waited for the show to start. When it did, the performers were barely visible behind a tall woman who was determined to avoid using her own eyes to gaze upon the show, looking at it through her cellphone instead. I liked what I saw of it, more than any other of the total of one flamenco shows I’ve seen. The kitchen staff seemed eager to get in on the act, bashing pans around and breaking ice at a volume greater than that of the performers. Some of the Asian members of the audience seemed to be trying to clap along, unsuccessfully.

But Chenbl was tired again, so we left and made our way back to the main road, where a large crowd was eating outside a restaurant. There we caught a bus and, accompanied by a loud, overly friendly drunk passenger, traveled back to our remote hotel location.

posted by Poagao at 6:24 am  
Oct 27 2016

From Granada to Sevilla

A couple of good nights’ sleep has me feeling better, or perhaps I just like Granada. Despite the sub-par Alhambra experience, I still have warm fuzzy feelings for this city. Even though I can’t claim I really know it at all.

The weather was a bit cloudy as we checked our bags at the hotel and set out in search of breakfast. We ended up at the cafe where Ray, Gordon and I ate seven years ago, just as the sun broke out in full, blasting our table with lovely light and making the meal full of wincing, and not just because the waiter accidentally spilled Ewan’s coffee all over the table. Another waiter rushed over to help, but the first one just shouted at him. I assume there’s some kind of ongoing argument between them. The food was good when it came, however, and I managed to take a panorama without anyone having two heads for once.

After breakfast we split up, the girls and Ewan going shopping or something, while Carlos, Chenbl and I caught a bus up the hill opposite Alhambra. We got off halfway up and walked the rest of the way up to the observation deck, where a small band was playing and a group of schoolchildren were lined up on a wall, reading. Alhambra lay across the valley, shrouded in mist so that little more than its silhouette was visible. We bought some castanuelas and got instructions back down the hill.

The stream that runs down the valley is lovely indeed, and if I were to move to Granada, I’d definitely consider something in that area. We got some pomegranate juice and met up with the others in front of the cathedral before settling down in one of the many squares in the belltower’s shadow for some delicious paella. The restaurant was called “El Doseo” and the manager couldn’t have been nicer.

The walk back to the hotel helped some with our digestion, and I found myself, as I usually do when I’m about to leave Granada, that I’d like to stay. Perhaps someday I will.

But not this time. Instead, I got on a bus with the others and went to the bus station, where we switched to a long-haul vehicle for the trip to Sevilla. This was a surprisingly strict process, and I wondered if they have a serious problem with people getting on buses they haven’t bought tickets for.

On our way through the town, I could see that Granada is not just the old town, the suburbs are far less entertaining, which is no suprise. I passed the time taking photos of the truck drivers we passed on the highway and looking out at the scenery, rough landscapes gradually becoming tamer as we went. The driver had neglected to tell us what the wifi password was, and there was a sign over him that read “Do Not Talk To Driver,” so we were stuck enjoying the trip the old-fashioned way, something that was made more difficult due to the nonstop static-y radio that played the whole time.

When we arrived in Sevilla, we were first told there was no bus from the bus station to the train station except for the airport bus, which makes no sense at all. Then we found that there was a bus, but it went a bit out of the way. None of this constituted a good first impression.

When we finally got to the area where our hotel is located, I was reminded more of southern China than Spain: Blocks of apartments, tiled sidewalks…I even caught a whiff of stinky tofu, but I think I might have simply walked through someone’s sneeze.

We took a bus into the old part of town, but we hadn’t gone far when the driver pulled over, hopped out and ran over to a police van. He brought the cops over, and they escorted a guy off the bus. After talking with him for a while, they told us to go get another bus, so I assume the bus itself was guilty of some crime and needed to be interrogated. Carlos said that this kind of thing was a common occurance in his native Guatemala. When we got to the old part of town, we went in search of a restaurant someone had heard of online, but when we found it, the waiter/manager yelled at Carlos to get the hell out. I suppose they really must be making too much money, and we decided to help them out of this predicament by not only not eating there, but leaving our impressions on various online sites as well. We did manage to find a decent place in yet another square. We’d gotten halfway though our meal when a cello and guitar group set up on the sidewalk, played a tune rather badly, and then the guitarist went around with a hat for donations. When he came to our table Chenbl just stared at him. “No? Fine,” the guitarists said in a huff as the cellist struggled through arpeggios.

When we told the restaurant manager out our troubles at the previous place, he actually gave us free drinks. So there’s that.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 7:07 am  
Oct 26 2016

Day in Granada

Thankfully, it wasn’t raining in Granada when we set out from the hotel this morning. A bit cloudy, but clear enough and warm enough. We walked down the main road towards Alhambra, stopping to buy stamps (I know, who buys stamps these days? But my travelling companions are apparently in that demographic), and stopping into a busy restaurant for a breakfast of ham and cheese on bread eaten while standing at the counter. The place had the air of customers who come every day for years. The older man who shoved our juice at us took apparent umbrage at our misplacement of the olive oil bottle after using it. “Look at you, you’re making such a MESS!” I scolded Carlos in a mocking tone. Then we ate lemon pie.

The people of this city seem quite purposeful in their stride, or perhaps it was just mostly people going to work, but I sensed a bit of impatience in people making their way around us on the sidewalk. I noted a lot of dapper older men in swank hats and fashionably elderly ladies walking around with dogs. Perhaps Granada is kind of cut off from the rest of Spain? It kind of feels that way. It’s certainly cleaner, trendier and more grafitti-free than it was before.

We took a peek inside the big cathedral, decided against paying money to see the rest of it, and then ducked into a neighboring church that was free. Then we passed a young man playing metal drums in the style of Phillip Glass. We stopped and bought his album to show support, and he let us have a go on the drums.

The bus took us up the mountain to Alhambra, first carrying an elderly nun and then, after she got off, a group of muslims. It was a good thing we had reserved tickets, because that day’s tickets were all sold out, we heard people inquiring at the gate. Inside we followed a babbling brook up to the Generalife Gardens, tasting the water of the fountains as we went, and then down to the main part of Alhambra. We took in the hotel, formerly a Franciscan monk hangout, and then waited in line, dodging French would-be line-cutters, for the interior of Alhambra.

The last time I was here, in 2009, I was amazed at how eloquent and amazing this place was. But management has changed. The lovely audio guide telling the stories of Alhambra’s every corner has gone away, and the staff are no longer friendly, but rather imperious. Much of the interior is under construction as well. One self-important tourist was trying to boss everyone around. “Don’t touch that!” she yelled at Chenbl after he brushed against a wall. “Wear your bag on the front!” She yelled at me.

“But your bag is on your back,” I said.

“That’s my purse,” she said, though her purse was as big as a backpack. “It’s different.”

“Ah yes, arbitrary definitions; the spice of life,” I said. I was about to ask her why she really wanted to work as a nanny at Alhambra, but she’d moved on to yelling at other tourists, Spanish tourists who were much better equipped to tell her to fuck off in their own language.

The church was dark and boring, and the ramparts had closed once we were done fucking around and wasting time, so we made our way past the free-roaming cats, down through the magnificent gate and onto a bus back down the hill to downtown where the fountain was lit up.

We enjoyed a street flamenco performance, and then stuffed ourselves with hot and cold running tapas at a nearby restaurant, snatching a table from under the noses of a henpecked British couple.

We walked down the tourist streets looking at stupid shops and digesting the tapas. I bought some slippers, and got a snazzy hat for Carlos so he doesn’t have to wear that baseball cap any more. Then it was back to the hotel. I’ve enjoyed Granada again this time, though the experience at Alhambra was sorely disappointing after treasuring the memory of my first visit there for the last seven years.

 

posted by Poagao at 5:27 am  
Oct 25 2016

Still in Spain

Up at four in the god-damn morning today, so we could check out and haul our asses to the train station, where we stored some of our luggage in lockers utilizing a clever Jenga-inspired approach to stuffing things in other things. Ewan had to piss, but he decided for some reason not to wait until we were on the train, electing instead to run back to the hotel to do the deed. But eventually we all got on the train, and soon enough we were heading seemingly backwards down south, eating some of the delicious Guatemalan biscuits Carlos had brought.

It was pitch black outside, rain streaking the windows all the way down. The sky didn’t make itself noticeable until after 8 a.m., and of course it was pouring as we pulled into the station at Cordoba. We shouldered our way through the downpour to get on a bus that took us out to the Roman bridge, which we crossed to go see the cathedral. “No hats,” said the the guard as we entered.

“Ok, ” I said. “Can I have something to keep my head warm? Like a slightly stiff piece of cloth or something?” Apparently I couldn’t. But the cathedral was impressive, even more so when I got an audio guide to tell me about all of its history, being passed back and forth between Christianity and Islamic forces.

Afterward we had some “tortillas” at a place just outside the compound, though the chunks of potato were the farthest from the word “tortilla” I could think of. The pigeons liked it though.

After walking down some alleys, we chanced upon what appeared to be Roman ruins, which turned out to be home for many stray cats. Down at the riverbank, I noticed a bleating/clanging sound, and I noted to Chenbl and the others that there was a large herd of sheep charging across the opposite bank. It took a bit of convincing the others that this was actually happening, but eventually I got through, and we rushed over the bridge to observe the phenomenon.

The weather was nice and hot by the time we again crossed the Roman bridge. Tourists were everywhere. But we got on a bus back to the train station and another one to Granada. The ride was amazing, gorgeous, winding through ever more mountainous terrain with rolling fields of meticulously space olive trees and white-walled towns crowned with ancient castles and cathedrals as the sun cast longer shadows. Occasionally we would stop in a town to let someone off, the big bus maneuvering through tiny alleys with surprising alacrity. The sky was barely light by the time we pulled into the old grey bus station in Granada. A local bus ride later we were at our hotel, next to giant old city gate. It took a while, but we here now.

posted by Poagao at 5:53 am  
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