Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 10 2024

A long-delayed trip

So I recently traveled to the U.S., specifically Oklahoma, to visit family for the first time in nearly a decade. I had originally planned to visit in 2020, but, well, pandemic, etc.

The airport express was packed; Chenbl met me at Beimen Station and we set out for Taoyuan…it had been so long since I’d traveled, especially by myself, that it was rather surreal. We had a dinner of rice at a ramen place downstairs. I wasn’t in the most talkative of moods, but I was glad Chenbl was there as I was filled with anxiety with the prospect of this trip, so unlike past ones, and the feeling only increased after I left Chenbl at the security check (he doesn’t go to the U.S. on principle, which I respect). I had checked my rolling suitcase and just had a large backpack. Fortunately, my new passport (My fifth! Time flies) maintained e-gate functionality. Chenbl had said there was a free lounge on the second floor, but that turned out to be false, so I sat on a couch for an hour or so before heading to my gate.

There, a huge crowd of people in wheelchairs was spread out in a large array before the entrance, some kind of travel group, and it took quite a while to get them through when the time came. I had chosen a window seat towards the rear of the plane: safer, better view from a window seat, and closer to the bathrooms and galley, though lots more wiggling motion as tends to be the case in the tail of the plane. The two meals Eva Air provided were ok, as were the movies. I managed to get some sleep by stretching my feet under the seat in front of me and resting my head on the side of the large window, the eerie scene purple daylight outside resulting from the polarized windows as they wanted it to feel like night on board. I was thankful for the 787’s higher humidity and lower pressure; my ears barely felt a thing and I wasn’t as dried out as I usually am after trips on other planes.

The view of the sun setting under the gold swath of clouds as we flew into Seattle was sublime. After retrieving my bag (which took forever), immigration went surprisingly smoothly; a pleasantly curious but understanding officer got me through quickly and efficiently, which is basically why I chose Seattle for transit over someplace like LA.

Outside the airport, however, I discovered that the hotel I’d reserved, the Red Roof Inn, was somehow the only one not contactable from the courtesy phones at the bus stop, and my phone wouldn’t work with local numbers. The hotel was technically walkable from the airport, though online reviews advised against it, and it was cold and rainy. I managed to borrow the phone of a sympathetic security station manager to get in touch with the hotel so they could send a van over. The hotel itself was basic, an older place with no toothbrushes, razors or breakfast…just a basic room with a shower and towels.

I might as well have stayed at the terminal as I barely slept at the hotel, getting up well before my 4:30 a.m. wakeup call to get the crowded 5 a.m. shuttle back to the airport to catch my 737 Max flight to Oklahoma City, though I was picking all the worst lines throughout the made-up farce that is U.S. airport “security” these days. It’s such a waste of time and money, and I noticed that nobody was wearing a mask despite the crowded conditions. I just had time for a 12-dollar turkey sandwich before we boarded, which was fortunate as only drinks and cookies were available on the domestic flight, a far cry from days of yore when a meal would have been de rigueur. The Max is suspect these days, especially those flown by Alaska Airlines, but I figure it’s the best time to fly those shunned planes as everyone’s hyper-aware of its issues, or at least that’s what I told myself. I honestly didn’t know it was the plane we were flying until I boarded.

The older man sitting next to me had a Chihuahua with him in a bag; he let the little dog, who had never flown before, out to sit on his lap during most of the flight as it was scared, though that is against regulations. Fields of gigantic windmills spread across the plains appeared as we approached Oklahoma City.

The weather was brilliant. My big sister Leslie was waiting for me in the airport lounge, and we drove to her very nice house in Norman, a suburb of Oklahoma City; later we went to some of her friends’ house to watch Resident Alien, which they really liked but was nearly incomprehensible to me as I was not only passing out due to jet lag and just a lot of food, but also because they were already on a later season whereas I’d never even watched a single episode. That night I slept on Leslie’s sofa, which wasn’t too bad. Her dog Emmie is a lovely corgi-beagle mix, very friendly and bouncy. Leslie, always the cool older sister, is a lifelong animal lover as well as the only member of my family to have visited me in Taiwan.

We drove south the next day to the town of Ardmore, where our parents live and where our father grew up. My older brother Kevin had arrived the day before; it was the first time we’d all been together since the last time I was in Ardmore nine years ago. We all drove out to a restaurant in one car, just like old times except I wasn’t sitting the way back of an old station wagon as I usually did when I was little. On the way, our parents pointed out various places that were different now, what they had been, etc. Leslie went back to Norman that night as there were only two spare bedrooms in the house, but she came down for a lunch the next day.

Kevin was driving back to Fort Worth on Easter Sunday to see his daughter Avery, who is now a student at Texas Christian University, before catching his flight back to Kentucky. I decided to go down with him so I could at least see Avery if not his older daughter Katie or her husband Derek, who also live in the area but were going to be busy with Easter-related activities, so I booked a $20 train ticket online back to Ardmore from Forth Worth later that afternoon. The TCU campus is quite nice, and Avery is as enthusiastic about her studies as a college student can be. Kevin’s younger son Jack is going to be studying there as well soon. The three of us went to a nearby restaurant for drinks, and Kevin and Avery worked on one of her projects. It was heartwarming to see my brother so engaged and interested in helping his daughter succeed.

After an extremely filling lunch, we dropped Avery back at her dorm, and Kevin took me to the Kimbell Art Museum, which was frankly amazing. So many lovely, fascinating works on display in such a well-designed space, and so accessible! I actually got a warning from one of the guards when I gestured a little too closely while gushing about the use of reflected light in one of the paintings.

Kevin then drove me to the train station downtown, where I got on an Amtrak train back to Ardmore, the horn blasting out before each and every crossing; surely the people working on the train must either hate that or have become deaf, I thought as the staff talked loudly among themselves at the front of the car. The route was lined with rather depressing new developments, endless rows of cheapish identical houses, and I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of lives would be lived there. My parents picked me up at the station in Ardmore, noting with surprise that the train had actually been on time. Either trains are often late, or my parents don’t really mess around with trains that much.

The weather had been pleasant so far, warm and sometimes sunny, but storms were forecast for that night, with the possibility of tornadoes. That afternoon I helped dad fix an arbor in the back yard, and he blew out the shelter they have in the garage floor just in case. When dad and I got back from a trip to the store, we found mom sitting on the dining room floor, unable to get up. I wrenched my back and arm lifting her; dad said he couldn’t have done it on his own. This, combined with an annoying cough I’d picked up somewhere (not exactly a surprise in mask-free territory), didn’t exactly make the rest of my trip as comfortable as it might otherwise have been.

My parents have a cute little white dog named Sophie Jane who doesn’t bark and is very friendly. As my parents are avid Newsmax/Fox News viewers, I would often go back and look at old family photo albums, and Sophie would walk into the room, take note, and just walk out again. The albums were interesting, but unfortunately mainly chronicle my mother’s side of the family, though for some reason many of the photos had been removed or even cut out; my dad’s family is barely covered at all, alas.

One evening Chenbl facetimed me, grinning as he pointed at his office, which was in a state of great disarray. “We just had a huge earthquake!” he said. It was the largest since the 9/21 quake a quarter century ago. Thankfully everyone seemed to be ok, and the damage and casualties, while significant, could have been much worse. I hoped that the Water Curtain Cave wasn’t affected too much; it’s built on bedrock unlike the loess soil of the Taipei Basin so I wasn’t too worried.

My parents drove me back up to Norman on Wednesday morning. I’d told them Leslie could have picked me up in Ardmore but they wanted to see Leslie’s new house for themselves.

I should note that some things happened that I am not at liberty to write about here. The U.S. is such a strange place to me these days; I don’t think the people who live there really see it as much as it’s all they’ve ever known. From the outside it may seem puzzling or even amusing, but being there in the midst of it is far more alarming, for while the things many Americans believe may not be based in reality, the beliefs themselves are frighteningly real. If they were amenable to being persuaded by facts, they would have long ago figured out what was actually going on, but that is simply not the case. What can one do when any discussion runs aground on mountains of misinformation, when manufactured outrage is so easily canned and sold?

I wish I knew. I also felt how difficult it must be to photograph there as most people are isolated, both physically, socially and intellectually, from each other most of the time, not to mention the fact that a significant proportion of the population is armed. Everyone is just so spaced out, in more ways than one. I hardly took any photographs, partly due to not being familiar with how that society works and partly due to not being in the state of mind I can maintain elsewhere.

Unexpectedly, I did manage to try out an Apple Vision Pro at the mall’s Apple Store; Leslie sat nearby during the demo, clearly bemused at this VR folly of mine. The headset screens were amazing, but the field of view and weight were not great. So it’s a pass, not that I could ever afford one. I was tempted to pick up a Quest 3, but I’ve resolved to wait for the Pro 2 or something similar; the Quest 2 is good enough for now.

The next couple of days in Norman, Leslie treated me to some tasty Mexican food, and I treated her and her friend Kelly to an Indian meal, and Kelly gave Leslie money to treat me to breakfast at Ihop on Saturday morning (they offer grits now, or, rather, grits-flavored soup; I knew something was off when the young white waiter suggested putting sugar in them…que horrible). Leslie took me shopping at Walmart, where I stocked up on the usual various treats as well as some new ones.

The night before I departed the States, Leslie’s friends Kim and Scott threw a party at their house, which was very chill. Kim let me use her waist massager on my sore back, and I stuffed myself on grilled chicken, potatoes, fruit salads (Leslie’s was very good, and introduced me to the practice of “zesting” fruit peels), and two kinds of birthday cake (they were properly celebrating Leslie’s birthday, which had actually been a few days earlier). We got back at nearly midnight, late for everyone concerned. I didn’t sleep particularly well, but Leslie’s shower, bed, food, and dog made my stay there quite comfy. Oklahoma is just so dry; I was using lotion all the time, whereas I normally only use it occasionally in Taiwan.

The check-in people at the OKC airport the next morning didn’t seem to know what was going on, skipping all the boarding groups while verbally threatening anyone who dared to bring rolling luggage onto the crowded flight. For some reason, active service military personnel always board first; is that new? The plane itself, another 737 Max alas, was ratty and well-used. I’d been assigned a window seat, but the window was so dirty I might as well have had an aisle seat.

We made it to Seattle in one piece, and I settled in for the long, nine-hour wait between flights, charging up all my devices while looking down at the planes coming and going out on the tarmac as night fell. I had considered taking the light rail into town to have a look around the city, but as it was cold and rainy, and my back was still sore, I decided to just hang out at the airport instead. I did notice that U.S. restroom stall walls are all rather high off the ground…is there a reason for that? I don’t really see that anywhere else.

Dinner, when the time came, was a cheeseburger and fries that weighed on me. I still had four hours to go before my flight, so I tried the upstairs lounge called “The Club” that costs like US$50; not cheap, but, oh well. Turned out that I hadn’t needed to eat dinner as they had food inside, and they also had showers, which was nice. The atmosphere was dominated by the sounds of loud children and louder parents from all over the globe.

The flight back to Taipei, again on a 787, was again very full; a Filipino family across the aisle was constantly dropping things that rolled all around the cabin floor, resulting in them crawling around looking for things for a significant portion of the flight. This stretch was significantly longer than the 10-hour trip out, at 13 hours. I’d chosen an aisle seat so I could move more freely around, but I just couldn’t get comfortable as there was nothing to lean on except for the occasional roaming Filipino, while passengers and crew kept bumping me as they walked up and down the narrow aisle space. I also missed the view of flying over Tokyo at night, which I would have liked to have seen. My ears were giving me a lot more trouble on the trip back than had been the case going over, possibly due to the nagging cough I’d picked up, necessitating holding my nose and blowing violently to regain pressure equilibrium, and my ears still aren’t quite right even now, days later. Breakfast on the plane was slow; if it had taken any longer, we would have all been eating on our way out the door.

It was raining when we arrived at Taoyuan Airport just after 5 a.m. For some reason we parked way, way out, meaning a long walk to the arrivals made longer by my aching back, but at least my luggage was being unloaded just as I made it out of immigration. An ABC couple was having trouble communicating with the metro operator while buying easy cards, but despite the delay I managed to hop the airport express into town, unsure of exactly what music would suit my muted mood as I watched the ghostly buildings of Linkou slip through the mist outside the oddly silent train.

Back in Taipei, grateful for the temperate, humid weather of the muddy basin, I had another breakfast with coffee at a cafe near my office before going into the office, despite feeling like I’d been on the losing side of a brawl…I felt I might as well get those hours in, and I needed to stay awake during the day so I could sleep at night. It made the trip last until the afternoon when I finally returned to the mostly unmolested Water Curtain Cave, though I was and remain exhausted and wonky from the trip. Coffee keeps me up as I go through the few photos I took, until it’s finally time to sleep.

So that was my trip, the first in a long time, and by no means typical for me. I’d been so anxious about it for so long, and now that it’s over, I’m not sure how I feel. In addition to a handful of photos, I did take some video with my phone, and here is the resulting video.

As always, thanks for reading.

posted by Poagao at 11:08 am  
Nov 03 2022

Tainan memories

Chenbl had got his hands on some hotel coupons, so we decided to spend a couple of days in Tainan, along with his elderly parents. Chenbl’s father is from Tainan, so he enjoys the nostalgia of trips back there.

We took the bullet train, Chenbl’s parents enjoying the plush purple business class seats with complimentary coffee and champagne or whatever it is they serve there, while we watched the brilliant green of the rice fields flash by as we consumed our brown-bag breakfast in the still-spacious blue standard seats. Tainan’s high-speed rail station is rather out in the middle of nowhere, as several of the stations between Taipei and Kaohsiung seem to be, no doubt thanks to land speculation, but no matter: We were going to experiment with the i-Rent online car rental system to save Chenbl’s parents, who are in their 80s, a bit of walking. I used my phone to locate the car, took some photos to show it wasn’t damaged, and then we were off.

It’s been quite a few years since I drove a car, but it didn’t take long to get used to piloting the white Toyota Yaris down the rural roads. The trick, I’ve learned, is not to get emotional while driving. Other drivers will do stupid things all the time, but if you leave enough space and think ahead, things generally work out. Not being able to see the front edges of the car was annoying, however. Never had that problem with 80’s cars, he grumbled oldly.

Chenbl had constructed an intricate itinerary with Google Maps, noting all of our potential destinations, and he used the service to issue navigation orders from the passenger’s seat, occasionally telling his parents to be quiet when they started suggesting oblique routes from half a century ago that may or may not still exist. Our first stop was at a market in an old row of buildings; we parked behind a factory near what was either a motorcycle that had been nearly consumed by weeds or a motorcycle-shaped bush. Chenbl bought snacks while I explored the strange blue-tinted light of the nearby alleys, and when I returned he was talking with one of the shop owners, who gave us free samples of their sausages. Tasty.

Next was the huge, elaborate Buddhist Daitian Temple complex at Madou. The place was very “sensitive”, Chenbl explained, as he is attuned to these kinds of things. The gods were kept behind ornate iron gates to keep them from being damaged by the huge crowds that visit during religious holidays. Behind the main temple is a huge structure in the shape of a dragon, full of scenes of whatever the temple’s founder envisioned heaven looked like in 1979. Chenbl’s father was going to go take a look inside until he found that the entrance fee was NT$40. We went instead, and the experience was indeed probably not worth NT$40, being a series of “It’s a Small World”-esque motorized figures depicting various deities having tea parties on lawns. There was a Monkey statue, however, so of course I had to get a picture with The Poagao, whom I’m fairly sure didn’t pay NT$40 to get in and probably had some tea party paraphernalia in his pockets.

Next to the exit of the Heaven experience was a gate to the Hell experience, which was also NT$40 and probably didn’t include air conditioning. We declined the Hell experience and went back to the main temple. Chenbl pointed at a palanquin parked outside, surrounded with surly young men in temple garb. “Someone is visiting,” he said. We went back inside to see a couple of elderly mediums shaking and shouting and pounding the table, while other devotees standing by interpreted all of this. After this we went to another structure, a large round edifice with very nice statues of the four Directional Deities inside, each one a different color. I hadn’t known about the Directional Deities; Chenbl’s father was filling me in when Chenbl suggested we take our leave due to my photo-taking causing a few mutterings from the staff.

Our next destination was Laotanghu, an “art space” out in the middle of empty fields. Apparently some enterprising painter had gotten the land for cheap and assembled the place out of stuff he’d found in an old village. Large buses disgorged tourists into the complex, where you could have your picture taken dressed up in cartoonish “traditional” garb, and a musician played guitar by the banks of the “lake”, which was most likely an old rice field. We got on a small boat to go out to a peninsula on the other side of the water, manned by one of the staff. When we’d all gotten on, the young man called out to the tourists at the front of the boat, “Hey! Start pulling the rope! This boat won’t move itself!” It was a neat trick; Tom Sawyer would be proud.

On the other side we encountered a group of Real Photographers surrounding a model in one of the traditional costumes. They saw me with my camera and beckoned. “Now you try!”

“Thanks, I’m good,” I replied, as I’d already been taking pictures of the scene, and I didn’t want to get in their way. They laughed.

The sun was edging towards the horizon, so we headed out to the coast to see some piles of salt. This is apparently a huge photography spot, and the area was swarmed with people hauling some serious gear around getting shots of an array of small piles of salt as sunset approached. The actual sunset was rather disappointing, as a passing typhoon was making Tainan’s usually sunny skies overcast and grey. We walked out to the windbreak, where a young woman posed for selfies and an older man shot invisible birds with his slingshot by a small earth god temple.

We set out again for a Michelin-rated restaurant Chenbl had read about, the Dongxiang. It was also in the middle of nowhere. We arrived just in time, though, as almost immediately a large tour bus pulled up, flooding the place with dozens of Women of a Certain Age, all chatting loudly. When the food came, I could see why they were so highly rated. The oyster noodles in particular were so good that Chenbl ordered another after we’d finished the first plate.

Driving back to the hotel at night was smooth, though again it had been a long time since I’d driven at night, so I was especially cautious, leaving plenty of space for the inevitable scooters weaving in and out of my lane. We were staying at The Place, which had been connected to a mall pre-Covid, and the severed connections had yet to be re-established, so we took an elevator to the basement, walked a few feet to another elevator, and then went up to the mall. There we did mall things until we tired, and went to back to our room to sleep.

The Place has an expansive breakfast that we took full advantage of the next morning. Outside, unfortunately, pouring rain had thrown a monkey wrench into the day’s plans. We set out, me driving even more cautiously in the rain, and found a small temple that Chenbl’s father had known when he was a young man. The table top in front of the altar was scarred from generations of mediums’ pounding. Chenbl’s father said that the temple had barely changed over the last 60 years. Almost every place we stopped required me to dig out my old parallel parking skills from high school. Thank you, Coach Munson, for teaching me an actually useful skill.

As we drove on, Chenbl’s father would sometimes point out spots he remembered. “That’s the stream we forded when we were fleeing the Americans’ bombs during the war!” We stopped at another old neighborhood to find the first house he had purchased, the last one in a row of two-story structures. After walking a short distance, Chenbl’s mother knocked on a door in an alley. A middle-aged woman answered, and she turned out to be Chenbl’s cousin, and one of his father’s family members with whom Chenbl’s mother had gotten along with the best. She even remembered Chenbl, even though he left Tainan when he was a small child. The group had a nice long chat in the alley, asking about this relative and that.

We then stopped by the house they’d lived in next before moving up to Taipei, finding the old well they used back in the day. “That used to be a machine shop,” Chenbl’s mother pointed at an old Japanese-era wooden house nearby. “I had to borrow their telephone to call the hospital when the kids came down with fevers. We didn’t have one of our own.”

The original plan had been to drive out to walk around several seaside villages, but due to the rain we limited our choice to just one. Chenbl’s mother stayed in the car after we looked at the inevitable temple facing the harbor. A bunch of local people hung out at a shop next door, chatting and laughing, and a group of students practiced violin nearby. We wandered the adjacent alleys in the rain, finding old wells that apparently represented Dragon’s eyes according to the fengshui masters, and chatting with some of the people we met, me testing the limits of my Taiwanese language abilities. There weren’t many people around; the area seemed largely deserted, with the foundations of long-demolished houses here and there. At one house we passed a large black dog, its age showing in its grey muzzle, barked furiously at us from through the mail slot. Its owner, a middle-aged man, told me not to take photographs after I took a few shots of the dog. “I’ll bet he uses that dog to intimidate people,” Chenbl muttered as we walked back to the car.

We drove around a few other interesting villages, but the rain showed no signs of letting up, so we gave up and drove back to the high-speed rail station, returning the Yaris early and trading our original return train tickets for earlier ones. The whole i-Rent experience was smooth and reasonably priced, and I can see using it more in the future, especially if they further expand their network.

The trip back was spent dozing. I’ve always enjoyed driving, but spending all day keeping my attention on the road was tiring as I’m not used to it. We’ll have to go back in better weather to get a better look at some of those old villages, or even, dare I say, one of the larger piles of salt. One can hope.

posted by Poagao at 12:16 pm  
Oct 11 2022

Weiwuying Gig

So the Ramblers played a show in Kaohsiung on Double Ten day, at the Weiwuying Arts Center, taking the bullet train down from Taipei at noon for an afternoon soundcheck. David had shown us photos, but nothing prepared me for the actual sight of the place we were to play. “That’s no stage…that’s a space station,” I couldn’t help but whisper as we were ushered into a giant atrium that looked like we were hovering underneath an upside-down starship. Hard, curved surfaces everywhere. Surely the acoustics were impossible? But somehow they made it work for the soundcheck. And they provided bento meals, which we took back to our hotel, which was about a half hour’s walk away. Once outside, I pulled down my mask for a moment to inhale the mix of small- and medium-sized industry fumes and scooter exhaust with just a hint of coal and thought, yes, this is Kaohsiung alright. Each city has its peculiar scent. Take out the coal and humidity, and then add a bit of incinerator smoke and you’ve got Taichung. All of these take me back to the days of my youth, inevitably.

I sampled the free hotel ice cream and took a nap as night fell, before heading back to the arts center for the actual show. I took a circuitous route through the park and around the large outdoor stage with its pop show and screaming fans. The show went well enough, but, possibly because some of us had consumed way too much caffeine, we played nearly ever song about 20% faster than usual, resulting in a rather frantic pace. Afterward some fans came up and told us what they thought of the show, and it was mostly nice things. Then back to the hotel, putting instruments away, plugging in whatever needed charging, relieved at wrapping up another gig. Some of our foreign fans had come to see the show, and everyone ended up in front of the nearest 7-Eleven, drinking, chatting and sampling questionable convenience-store versions of fancy cuisine. I didn’t stay; I was tired and not feeling talkative, so I went to bed, actually sleeping better than I do at the Water Curtain Cave.

Of course that might just be a function of traveling, of being in a different city with the prospects of the kind of discoveries that only aimless, solitary wandering can achieve. Even just a few hours of this can do wonders for my mood. Would it be so hard to just take a train south for the weekend, just to decompress and unwind, spending a night or two in a cheap business hotel? I used to do it; perhaps covid has thrown a wrench into such things, but I miss doing that kind of thing. Chenbl loves to plan everything Just So, with itineraries and restaurants and things to see all at certain times, but my ideal day is just open and unplanned. Perhaps this is why I have failed to accomplish so many things I otherwise might have, but I can’t help but brighten at the thought of what might happen if I just allow the space for it. But yes, that does usually involve some amount of planning.

The next day dawned bright and warm, and I went out for a walk around the area, crossing across parks and alleys in the areas and exploring the interesting Guandi Temple with, for some reason, statues of large-eyed Europeans in crusade drip at the foot of its stairs. Inside were huge, marvelous god statues, though. But I had to get back, have some hotel breakfast and a shower before we caught a mosquito-ridden cab back to the High-speed rail station at Zuoying where our train departed just before 11 a.m., speeding north through brilliant rice fields, towns and, eventually, mountains. An hour and a half later and several degrees colder we were parting ways in the grey, indefinite climate of Taipei Main Station, them to who knows where, and me back to the office. We’ve got lots of shows coming up; it seems that many of the gigs that were put off during covid are coming back now, and October is always a busy month regardless. At least I’m playing so much that practice is virtually guaranteed.

As per my last post, I did sign up for TinyLetter for a newsletter-type setup, but for some reason this has made me extremely hesitant to post. It all still feels pretentious to me; I feel that if people are waiting for me to write things, with Expectations and all that, they will most likely be disappointed in the random rambling accounts that have dominated this journal for the past two-plus decades. Then again, everyone has a Substack account these days, so is it really all that different from the original blog era? Perhaps, but in any case, screw it; I write what I write.

posted by Poagao at 3:37 pm  
Aug 02 2022

Busy days

Things are getting busy again, on several levels. Despite all the Twitter-based hullabaloo about Pelosi’s upcoming visit to Taiwan (most of which can’t even be called journalism and completely misses the point), life goes on as normal here as ever.

Last week the Ramblers played a three-day-long gig at the Lin Family Gardens in Banqiao, in a courtyard out in front of one of the old halls. My instrument cart no doubt scuffed several of the centuries-old stone door frames on my way in, but I’ve always liked the place so it was nice to play there despite the oppressive heat. The staff were nice, providing us with tasty bento dinners, souvenir photos of us playing in cute frames, and even umbrellas when a heavy downpour followed our second performance. Thumper and Red Man missed the first show, so Sylvain filled in. Our old friend Chalaw worked wonders at the soundboard to make us sound good, and despite not having played in a good while we managed to put out three solid shows in three days. In between the brutally hot soundchecks and the shows later in the evening I would walk around the neighborhood exploring the various alleys and bridges, the markets and temples. Police on scooters zoomed around checking people’s IDs. After the shows it was cool to be able to wander the complex at night, when it’s usually closed, imagining all the shenanigans and goings-on that happened there back in the days when it was an oasis of culture and taste amid empty fields and swamps. Now it’s an oasis of culture and taste amid apartment buildings and shops of every description.

On the morning after the last show, I met up with Chenbl  and his parents at the Taipei high-speed rail station; we had breakfast on the bullet train south, arriving in Taichung in short order. Chenbl’s parents were staying at The Lin Hotel, a ritzy place near the National Theater, whereas we were staying at a place called simply The Place in another part of town. The neighborhood is crammed full of  swank high-rises now, totally unlike when the Ramblers performed at Tiger City so many years ago, the bitterly cold wind blowing across empty lots as we played. We took a train to the impressive Nantian Temple, which features a giant statue on top, and then a bus to the Second Market, a hexagonal affair, where we had delicious noodles for lunch.

We then strolled through the city through the artsy West District. It’s been too long since I visited Taichung; I miss it. Chenbl’s father commented that Taichung seems to have more potential these days. While Taipei’s been content to rest on its laurels as the capital, Taichung these days seems more about exploration and experimentation. It’s also more physically spread out, which makes a second metro line a must  if the city’s going to continue developing.  Residents apparently don’t even have to pay for bus trips under 10 kilometers. We walked to the Place where Chenbl and I were staying, put some stuff away, and headed out again when what had seemed like imminent rain did not manifest.

As a lot of walking was going on, we all packed light, though Chenbl’s father insisted on carrying several heavy bottles of water in his backpack. I only brought one bag as it was just one night and all I needed to bring besides what I usually have on me was an extra shirt. After going through a series of cheap bags whose zippers would break almost immediately, not to mention a Domke that eventually disintegrated, and on the recommendation of some local photographer friends as well as the badge of approval of DPreviews’ Chris Nichols and Big Head Taco, I recently spent bag to get bag from Wotancraft, a local company, and so far I like it a lot. It looks heavy but is actually quite light and comfortable.

Sunset was seen from the odd and interesting roof of the National Theater, which reminded me of that of the Casa Mia apartment building in Barcelona. Chenbl’s parents were fine dining at The Lin’s popular restaurant, so Chenbl and I headed over to the food court at Tiger City for some excellent beef rice bowls.

On Monday morning we took a bus over to The Lin, and then walked to Taichung City Hall, a trim and efficient pair of buildings linked up in the middle. We browsed the exhibition and then took a bus at one of the failed BRT “stations” to another part of town to look at Literature Museum which features a huge old tree in the courtyard. As we were wondering how old said tree was, rain began pouring down. Chenbl’s mother was the only one of us with the sense to bring a real umbrella; she took refuge in a small pavilion while Chenbl’s father and I moved to a tin structure where we could feel the rain pounding on the roof reverberating throughout the entire structure. Chenbl had found a handy arcade. There we all waited for the rain to ease, and it did after about an hour. Chenbl’s father is always full of interesting stories and advice, so the time went by quickly. We then walked to the old martial arts hall, and then took a bus back to the train station, where we spent the rest of the afternoon having ice cream treats and dinner at the Miyahara Confectionery, previously an Optometrist’s office but now more like a rebranded Harry Potter exhibition with cookies. At one point Chenbl and I popped out to get some of the obligatory suncakes. Chenbl refused to be seen carrying the other store’s suncakes into the confectionery, as apparently there’s some rivalry going on there, so he made me carry them instead as I apparently DNGAF about such things.

Chenbl’s parents were itching to get back home, so we took an early train from the huge new station, dwarfing the stately old one next to it, back to the high speed rail station, and then back to Taipei and home. It was good to get out of town for a bit; we need to do it more often. Chenbl and I are scheduled to get our second booster next week, and case numbers are dropping steadily, though I still suspect that when the new variants might arrest that trend, but most people seem to still be wearing masks (despite all the white dudes on those sites howling in protest all day), so perhaps we can still get through all of this ok.

posted by Poagao at 12:00 pm  
Mar 21 2022

Hengchun jaunt

Thursday night was spent getting all my stuff I needed for our series of weekend gigs at the folk music festival in Hengchun, the southernmost town in Taiwan, into either my instrument cases or a small backpack. In the end I managed, but it was a close thing. It had been a while since I’d taken such a trip. Indeed, it had been a full cycle, 12 years since we last played there, in 2010, which was also the Year of the Tiger. Tiger to Tiger, as it were.

I lugged the whole kit to work on Friday morning, nearly forgetting to print out the set lists before heading over to the train station to meet up with the others on the train. Electronic tickets make meeting on the train doable, avoiding the anxiety produced when someone or other is late. Thumper was missing from our ranks this time, alas, due to family issues. Zach was filling in as best as he could amid all his other duties, including being a parent as he and Cristina were bringing little Miss Scarlett Danger with them, but Thumper’s reassuring rhythmic sense would no doubt be missed.

I snagged a window seat and let my mind unwind as we slipped out of the basin and away south, away from offices, classes and the daily grinds. By the time we hit Kaohsiung an hour and a half later I was in a much more appropriate mood, but the longest part of the journey remained, as there is, alas, no railway to Hengchun; it’s a glaring example of the lack of resources devoted to the southern part of the country. Politicians haggle over whether we need another metro line out to Keelung, but Hengchun remains accessible only by a long, two-hour traffic-ridden coastal road to this day. Fortunately the organizers had sent two nicely appointed vans to take us down, and even though conversation made the ride go by quickly, it was night by the time we pulled up to our hostel. Or rather, what we thought was our hostel. It turned out there were two similar ones, so we got back in and drove down the road a bit to the second one, the Lovestar Lakeside Hotel, which, unlike the first one, is not actually on the lake (thus the confusion). As David and I walked into the lobby, a man in glasses and a green shirt rushed out from behind the front desk, exclaiming, “It’s you!”

We looked at each other, confused. “You’re TC Lin!” he gushed. “I’ve seen all your videos and interviews!” Then he asked me to sign his shirt. It was all a bit discombobulating, but he was very nice. In fact the whole staff there were very nice, and got us all sorted into our rooms while we waited for some Uber Eats dinner to enjoy before heading over to the event for our late-night soundcheck. The West Gate square, where we’d played 12 years before, was filled with a huge stage and a lot of people. A classical violinist was doing his soundcheck, and groups of elderly women with traditional instruments sat in groups behind the stage, chatting. Out along the square some interesting cafes and art stands made the place seem quite different than it had on our last visit. The sound staff were professional and did a great job.

Our first show was late Saturday night, so we basically had all day to ourselves. After a nice breakfast of Eggs Benedict and coffee provided by the hotel, most of the others headed down to the beach, but I headed out to walk around Hengchun. I’d wanted to take a bus but a cabbie offered to take me for NT$50 so I hopped in. He dropped me off at the south gate.

Hengchun’s old city wall is remarkably well preserved; most cities tore theirs down long ago, but for whatever reason Hengchun kept most of its wall and all of its gates. Unsure of where exactly to go, I chatted with a restaurant owner by the gate as he played with a hefty grey cat sitting at the door. “Is that an M?” he asked, spotting my camera. It turns out he uses an M4 and does a bit of photography himself. We exchanged IGs and he suggested following the wall. This I did, and I was surprised to find streets lined with hip and trendy cafes, art spaces and restaurants, tourists and other young people walking around snapping shots and staring at laptops. Was it usually like this? I had no idea.

I continued to walk towards the West Gate and then through the town. Once I left the trendy old street area things got pretty quiet. I somehow wandered into a construction zone and then found myself on a school campus without knowing how. Lunch was salmon quiche and coffee at a cat-themed cafe that, like many of the places I saw, I can’t find on Google Maps because it’s so new. “Why have that?” Chenbl complained when I told him about it on the phone. “You should be having local delicacies!” He was right; I was just enticed by the cats.

A bus took me back to the hotel, where I rested up before getting ready for the night’s show. Standby was 9:30 as we were the last act, but we went over earlier to eat first. When we got there, we found that apparently the entire population of the southern peninsula had arrived; the square was packed with people. One of the reasons for this was the fact that the Taipei Philharmonic Orchestra was playing. Police led various officials through the crowd to the stage to give speeches. We found some of our friends from Taitung and Dulan who had set up stands nearby. I tried to get up on the West Gate but apparently there was a musical group up there as well, so I wandered on the periphery of the crowd instead.

Photo by Zany Feng @zanyfeng

Zach, David and me on stage. Photo by Zany Feng.

Our show, when we finally got on stage, went well. Perhaps too well, as shortly after we’d started one audience member, a tall man in light blue shorts, sauntered up on stage, first filming us before being escorted back down, then coming up to “sing” before being escorted back down, and then actually taking an empty CD cover David had placed there and setting down a NT$1000 note on the stand to pay for it, before being escorted back down. The crowd apparently knew him and roared their approval whenever he came up; we just smiled and kept playing. Later the man’s friend, who had been trying to keep him in check the whole time, apologized, saying that, even though he was quite drunk at the time, he was pretty much like that when he was sober too.

After the show we got in the vans and, still high from the show, drove out through the west gate, which was much more thrilling than it sounds. It felt like a magic portal.

Our show on Sunday afternoon was listed as a “workshop” rather than a show, but the organizers had planned for it to be simply another show on the big stage. We realized, however, that it would be quite cool if we went down off the stage and actually had more interaction with the crowd, explaining how to play some of our more interesting instruments, the background of our music, etc. One older fellow claimed the washtub, so I quickly taught him how to play it, and a young woman did a great job playing the washboard. The crowd loved it, as did we; it was a great success. In fact the whole event has evolved beyond recognition of the last 12 years in fact, and it bodes well for Hengchun’s cultural development. After the show I got some local delicacies, including some delicious crispy basil danbing and green bean ice. I also had some nice ice cream and coffee from a lovely place on the square, located in a renovated building, called Spoon in Pocket.

Too soon it was time to go; we piled into the vans and headed back up the coast. I put some tunes on my portable speaker and hung it from the window to provide a soundtrack for the journey through the heavy traffic. Fortunately we made it to Zuoying Station with enough time to get some dinner; I picked up a Mos Burger meal and headed down to the platforms to find our High Speed Steed awaiting, but none of the others had shown up. I got on the nearly empty train wondering if I’d got the wrong one, but eventually everyone showed up and we were speeding north once again. Slim and I caught a cab; when the cabbie asked if he could take the elevated expressway we agreed, happy to see the lights of the basin.

If I’d had my druthers, I wouldn’t have minded spending a week or two in Hengchun, getting to know the place a bit better. It seems like more young people are moving back there and opening new businesses; there’s a real feeling of potential. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

Now all they need is a railway link.


posted by Poagao at 12:44 pm  
Oct 07 2020

A strange trip

It was a strange trip, this last one in Taitung. I’ve been feeling disconnected lately, and was hoping some time away from the Big Smoke (as nobody calls Taipei) would hook me up again.

Of course it was good to get on a train, especially one headed south through tunnels towards the cliffs of the east coast. The Pacific had just come into view when I learned that Trump had been infected with COVID19. The rest of the trip was spent talking with Slim and looking out the window at the ocean, wondering where we’re all headed.

In Taitung, we took cabs over to the Tiehua Village, dogs roaming around, familiar faces among the staff. The others disappeared; I consumed some fried chicken in the upper window of a nearby KFC as the sun set and the lanterns came out.

The gig was fine. We signed a bunch of CDs. It was a nice crowd, and it’s always nice to have trees growing through the stage. I saw my friend Josh there, along with his girlfriend. He was making a tour of the east coast, and was heading to Orchid Island afterward. The staff were the consummate professionals. A chalk drawing of one of our albums graced a metal plate thick enough to stop a bullet.

Then it was over, and everyone left, everyone else in Thumper’s minivan, while David and I called a white plate “taxi”. The driver, of the Paiwan tribe, felt that the monstrosity on the beach should at least open and give local people jobs. I guess that makes sense. Better than simply falling into more ruins, which helps no one.

We arrived in Dulan and put our things at the hostel, aka the fish and chips place. The local 7-Eleven was our meeting place, and the Mayor of Dulan, a fat orange-and-white cat the locals call “Little Tumor” presided over the proceedings.

I messaged my old classmate DJ, who is a person of interest in that community, on Saturday. Our soundcheck at the performance space up the coast happened at noon, and we spent the whole day there before playing that night, following some of the indigenous greats such as Kimbo. DJ was getting a tattoo on the floor of the culture space, the artist wielding a small hammer. The show went fine. People danced. The locals and the foreigners all seemed okay with what we were doing. The moon stayed away, however, though Mars made a brief appearance through the clouds. I had brownies with caramel sauce, wrapped in leaves.

A bright Sunday morning brunch at Roen Misak with DJ after meeting him at the house of well-known indigenous singer Suming. He is staying there at the moment, and was on the phone talking about academics with, I presume, another academic when I climbed over the board at the door. Suming’s father sat in a tiny chair in the lovely old kitchen adjacent to the entrance space.

I always go to Roen Misak when I’m in Dulan, so the owner knew me. “You’re back! It’s been a while!” she said. Of course she knows DJ and chatted with him in Amis. I showed DJ one of my photobook dummies, and he got quite a chuckle from it, though that was not my intention. Still, I’ve known him long enough to realize that he is amused by the absurdities of observed dissonance, so I feel like I did get something across. More will be forthcoming.

After brunch (delicious seaweed sandwiches, ice coffee, and waffles with locally sourced mulberry sauce), we walked over to a shop DJ describes as his Amis classroom, introducing to the older woman who runs the store and her son Ah-hsiung, who was watching TV, and a couple of other older women. We drank some beer followed by some coconuts that Ah-hsiung chopped open for us. As we were talking various people would stop by, asking for this or that.

One of DJ’s friends was taking him up to the performance space to see the show that night, but he was leaving right away, and I’d wanted to have some fish and chips with the band before heading over. I should have taken the offer, for the band had disappeared. Instead I wandered around the town, up to the junior high school campus to look at the afternoon sunlight reflected on the trees lining the track. The dimpled mirror by the school that I’d enjoyed making selfies on had been replaced, alas.

It was late by the time the band reemerged, and we called Ah-hsiung to take us up the coast for the show on the final night of the music event. DJ was nowhere to be found, but I had another brownie and walked around the wide grass field and took pictures of the moon, which had deigned to grace us with its autumnal presence. Everyone had their phones out, the field dotted with artificial stars.

Monday dawned, and we were still in Dulan. The reason for this was that David was unable to purchase tickets back to Taipei until that night, so I missed work as well as a violin lesson. I was not upset about this. David and Conor had gone surfing. Thumper was river tracing. Cristina and Zach were camped out above the wind-thrown sandstorm that was the beach. I walked around town and over to the “water running uphill” attraction, which did pretty much what it says on the tin. Then down towards the beach, past the eerie former cemetery with its broken, empty tombs, looking for all the world as if it was ground zero for a zombie apocalypse, and the RV park, which is just as creepy but in a different way. As if all the zombies had one day just decided to change our their cramped concrete coffins for the more spacious RVs. The ocean was whipped up by the wind as I sat on the blanket with Cristina and played the Shostakovich duets Chenbl and I have been practicing recently.

The day had started out sunny and warm, but became cool and overcast as I returned to the hostel. I’d wanted to eat, and ducked into a coffee shop the hostel owners had recommended to ask about food, earning a look of dark annoyance by a white woman reading a book inside. I settled for some 7-eleven snacks, and while I was there I purchased a bright pink brush for the Mayor; she greatly appreciated the gift, as she apparently hadn’t been properly brushed in a long time.

A shower and a change into warmer clothes later, I returned to the 7 to wait for Ah-hsiung to come take us back to Taitung (Thumper was still river tracing and would drive back himself later). Ah-hsiung had already taken DJ to the station early that morning as DJ needs to work on maintaining his visa until his project is complete, and this apparently necessitates a great deal of red tape concerning several different government bodies.

Ah-hsiung arrived with another ride, and I patted the mayor on her head before getting in the car. Dulan is a strange place; I’ve always felt it was different, but this trip had a darker tone than prior ones. Part of this is no doubt due to the passing of our good friend Brian Kennedy, with whom we will always associate that place and time. The weather and my feeling of disconnection also contributed to my discombobulation, but there was something else, a readjustment that has been going on for some time, with the world, with me, with everything, that can only be perceived in relation to the ocean itself.

We stopped for pizza on the way at Pete’s Pizza, across from a bread shop and a blue school designed in a faux Arabic style. Pete himself serenaded us with music and regaled us with stories as we munched on the pies we’d ordered, but I wasn’t into it. To be honest, I hadn’t been hearing much of what the foreign residents had been saying during my time there (with the exception of DJ, who is neither foreign nor local but in his own space as usual). But the shop isn’t far from the coast; I could feel the ocean lurking on the other side of the buildings. It wasn’t saying anything, it just was.

I didn’t talk much on the train as it made its way up the night coast, though the tunnels along the steep cliffs above the dark sea, flashing past villages and through empty stations. I’d had enough, I think. In any case, it’s Double Ten in the Capital, with all the electronic light shows that implies.


posted by Poagao at 11:35 am  
Jul 20 2020

A weekend jaunt

Went travelling for the first time in a while over the weekend. Chenbl and I met up on Saturday morning and caught a bullet train south to Kaohsiung, complete with window seats and breakfast on the train. Drinking ice coffee and looking out the window at the scenery flashing past at 200mph …just the act of getting on a fast train to the south felt wonderful, and I haven’t seen that lovely port city in a minute.

After arriving we descended into the dark, humid depths of the Kaohsiung metro, which doesn’t seem interested in providing air conditioning or light in as generous capacities as its Taipei counterpart, and headed over to Yanchengpu, where our friend Lee Ah-ming was having his exhibition opening. The weather was brilliant, the sun white-hot but with a breeze unfamiliar to those who dwell in the windless Taipei basin, where the streets radiate heat. Kaohsiung is cool enough if you stay out of the sun, and the sparsely populated streets made me think most were avoiding going out during the hottest part of the day.

The exhibition was interesting, good work on the subject of Taiwan’s beleaguered migrant fish workers, and it’s always fun talking with “the other Ah-ming” as well as my painter friend Cheng Kai-hsiang, who was also there. But I never do well in spaces filled with people on the periphery of art-related activities, so I tend to shut up, lurk and listen.

Afterwards we all walked over, across the Love River, which stinks much less these days (and in fact hasn’t for a long time, but the occasional whiff makes me think some of the tributaries still need some work), to a three-story restaurant, also with no air conditioning. Dinner was good, just sweaty, so we had to order some shaved ice afterwards at the lobby of one of the other hotels where some of our students were staying.

And then to our hotel, the Fullon in Yanchengpu; Chenbl had scored some kind of discount, possibly to entice people to travel during these Covidian times, and we had a large, nice room overlooking the harbor in the distance. Oh the joy of a strong hotel shower and fresh hotel bed sheets! It’s been too long, and I enjoyed it, as well as the generous hotel breakfast the next morning. The place has a pool, but we’d neglected to bring swimsuits, and at any rate it was full of kids.

We walked around the area, taking the light rail to Xizhiwan and then down to the docks. The place where I took a photo of a kid playing on a giraffe statue has changed completely and now features a carousel and small merry-go-round.

Then we took the still stifling subway out to a mall, where we waited some time for taxis out to Qijin, where we were meeting Ah-ming for a delicious lunch featuring sashimi fresh off the boat. Then he showed us around the docks for a while, exploring the nooks and crannies of the area, talking with Ah-ming about the publishing industry and his next book, all the while as a line of storm clouds crept up on the horizon. We timed it just right, arriving back at the High Speed Rail station just as the rain began. A doze-filled hour and a half later we were back at Taipei station having dinner upstairs.

It was so good to get away for a bit, I’ve missed it.

posted by Poagao at 11:46 am  
Oct 29 2019

Cuba Trip! Part two

Cuba was basically an encapsulation of conservative Americans’ fears of socialism, I wrote in my notebook as we drove on the eastbound road to Matanzas. I’m still not sure what I was thinking when I wrote that. I’d chosen Matanzas basically by looking at it on Google Maps: A sleepy port town, not on the tourist track. It seemed a better choice than touristy Vinales, and I’d always liked port towns; I wasn’t particularly interested in cigar manufacturing or horse-riding. And even Ms. D was with us on this excursion. As we drove, a military convoy consisting of two (2) motorcycles hauled a poorly disguised boat onto the highway, stopping traffic for a short spell before heading back off.

After a couple of hours in a van that apparently had no high gear, we drove through town and up into the hills a little ways to visit the famous caves in the area, supposedly discovered by a Chinese miner by accident. We took the tour, quickly falling behind the rest of the group as everyone was taking selfies. Several other groups passed us, and the local photographer/videographer who’d been tasked with recording our visit with a handicam gave up, going on to shoot other tourists. The caves were, well, caves. The guide mentioned how in the early days there were no restrictions, so a lot of the stalactites and stalagmites had been removed by visitors. I was expecting instructions about not touching anything, but he was pretty much: “Hey, touch anything you want! See that pool of water? That’s lucky water! Go play in it!” When some of the group was posing people leaning on a formation for photos, the guide actually helped.

By the time we were done with the caves it was time for lunch, which we had at a place across from the waterside railroad tracks, at the suggestion of our drivers. It wasn’t bad, but of course with the group it took forever; I didn’t get the impression that they usually had that many customers at once, and we rather caught them unawares.

So by the time we were done with the caves and lunch, it was getting on in the day, the day I’d hoped to spend exploring the city. As a result, we only had a short time for people to walk quickly around for a little bit. I found the other end of the now-defunct Hershey Train, and chatted briefly with some fellows standing next to a lovely vintage green Mercedes-Benz, but I didn’t get a chance to actually see much.

We stopped at Cohimar as the sun set, wandering around that seaside village under the gaze of the Hemingway Statue there for a bit. Some of our group insisted on making a Beatles-style lineup shot on top of a fort. Ms. D was setting up shots, putting her straw hat on small local kids and taking their shots. Dinner was lobster at a touristy place off the Cathedral Square back in Havana, and the ensuing wifi access pretty much ensured that we were sitting there the rest of the evening, me tapping my foot impatiently while the others checked their social media for a few hours.

We got up early the next day. Early morning light in Havana is quite nice, especially in Centro just south of the Malecon. It seemed to be the first day of school for some groups of kids, standing in the street outside their school and singing patriotic songs while proud parents looked on. The group ran around photographing, free of fear of retribution, which made me pause. If you don’t usually take that kind of photo in a Western country, would you do it here? If not, is that a double standard? Even if it’s not a double standard, it’s something I’d think one would want to at least be aware of. I kept seeing scenes that I felt sure I could have photographed with a certain amount of concentration and empathy had I not been flanked by five or six camera-wielding members of our group, none of them actually looking at the people in front of them, eyes rather fixated on their LCD screens. Using the Leica Q’s 28mm didn’t help matters, as that camera rewards getting closer, more personal and more intimate, not sniping away from afar in a group as someone could do with a longer focal length. So I passed over scene after scene, feeling more numb to it all. I’d made a point of promising myself nothing on this trip; I knew it would happen and purposely lowered my expectations. But I was still depressed and tired.

Later in the day, men were offloading dead pigs at a market near the train station, which now seems to be under renovation (it was derelict the last time we passed this way). The area has, since our last trip, always been one of Chenbl’s favorite parts of Havana; he kept wanting to go back there. We stopped to chat with a drum maker, hovered around the scene of one of the many broken-down trucks being repaired, but generally just kept walking.

Eventually, as late afternoon approached, I decided I needed a haircut. Usually I just do it myself, but it had been forever since I’d had a nice cut in a Black barbershop, and Havana has no shortage of these, so while everyone else went back to Las Maletas, Carlos, Chenbl and I stopped into a local place, and I enjoyed having what’s left of my raggedy-ass hairline shaped up by the barber as we were treated to the latest tunes from Kendrick Lamar and Future. Though I didn’t understand most of the Spanish banter going on inside, it was pleasant and a good way to regain my peace of mind. Afterwards we walked through the posh, upgraded hotels near the Capitol, past an upscale camera shop with LEICA emblazoned on the front, to the old city and our hotel.

At dinner (lobster, which explained the cats milling around our legs as we ate), a very blonde teen stopped in front of our table and started sketching on a piece of paper while staring at me. Scam, I thought, and shook my head at him. Undeterred, he presented me with a laughably amateur scribbling. “I am no Picasso,” he said, demanding money for the sketch. That much was true; not only was he no Picasso, he apparently didn’t understand that Picasso was basically creating photo-realistic artwork by his age; only later in life did he go for the more abstract pieces he’s known for. But though I was a jerk and didn’t pay up (I told him he should have at least asked me first), I did watch the kid scam several other tourists in this fashion. I wondered if he’d have dared do the same thing or meet with the same success if he were Black; I doubted it. It was just part of the atmosphere in Cuba, something we didn’t really encounter the last time, before the crackdowns both there and abroad.

I should add here that Carlos was extremely helpful not only by helping us translate and provide context, his thoughtful, measured pronunciation of Spanish helped me realize that I could slow down and get my pronunciation right rather than tripping over my own tongue trying to get phrases out too quickly.

We got up early again the next day, our last full day in Havana, and we told everyone we’re just going to walk around…y’all just do your own thing. We took the ferry to Regla, toured the Black church with actual Black Jesuses (Jesi?) depicted inside, and then walked the streets for a while. People in the group started to get hungry and complain, so Chenbl bought nearly every biscuit a local vendor on a bicycle had on him, and handed them out. Back in Havana, we visited the tourist market, which was another long, achingly long stretch of frustration. Desperate vendors, schpiels, the same merch in every stall…the market had shrunk by about a third since the last time we were there, but it seemed interminable just the same.

Then, as the sun began to set, we set out through town again. I had to visit the park that David Alan Harvey had told me the location of, where at least three well-known Magnum photographs had been taken. The playground has since been renovated, but I could still make out where the Magnum photos had been taken. It seemed that both David and Alex Webb had taken nearly the same shots just at the entrance of the playground, which is interesting. The light was nice there, and I would have liked to have stayed, but we had to go. Again.

We walked through Centro again, making for the National Hotel, which was such a long way that before long only a couple of the group were still with us. Kids were playing baseball in the streets. Beggars followed Chenbl, one so persistently that Carlos and I had to flank him and suggest that he might want to move on. Back at the hotel, as we arranged for vans back to the airport later that night, the landlady told us how she basically had to go to Mexico to get anything, and customs was a nightmare.

My room was unavailable that night, but it was ok as we had to leave at 3:00 a.m. so I just slept in the security room. Our flight was at 7. At one point on the dark drive, I awoke from a nap and realized that we were no longer on the main road, but rather taking a shortcut on backroads, passing near what looked like a incarceration facility. For some reason at that empty hour a sudden fear sprang into my mind, that something had gone horribly wrong, the drivers had set a trap, and we were actually being delivered to prison. But the feeling passed as we drove on and the airport came into view against the glowing horizon.

We bade Carlos farewell; his plane, bound for Honduras and then Guatemala, was parked next to ours, and leaving right after us. It felt a little like Hoth. I didn’t feel sorry to be leaving; unlike the last time we’d gone, this trip had been frustrating and a bit of an ordeal. I don’t know what lies in store for Cuba. Better things than now, I hope. I wish them the best.

Toronto was colder than when we’d left. We arrived way too early to check in to the Comfort Inn, and it was drizzling outside, so at Karl’s suggestion, we spent most of the day at a huge mall. Something -dale…Yorksdale: Massive, but seemingly very repetitive stores. The sun came out for a moment, dazzling everyone, and then hid again. An obviously armed security guard came up to Chenbl and I, asking if we were looking for anything in particular. I assume this had something to do with the fact that I was by far the worst-dressed individual in the mall at the time, and that’s saying something. The next day Karl showed us around the St. Lawrence Market, Eaton Mall, and the fountain made up of happily vomiting dogs, all in between periodic cups of coffee. We also perused the World Press Photo awards.

The sun was out in force the next day, though it was still chilly. We traveled into town via the circuitous bus/subway combination that everyone was convinced took far less time than it actually did. When we exited the station downtown, we were greeted with very lovely light flashing down from many different buildings at once. I wanted to explore this scene, seeing several wondrous possibilities within walking distance, but the group had to make a birthday song video for Carlos first. This took a while, of course, and by the time we were done, the light had moved on, becoming rather mundane. Oh well. It was probably a trap anyway.

We took a ferry out to the islands on the other side of the harbor. Quaint little places, forest paths, docks full of cleverly named sailboats. On the other side was a pleasant little beach with the water of Lake Ontario lapping gently on the sand. A man in a wheelchair rolled up and gazed at the water for a while. We walked along the island through disc-golf courses and waterways filled with swans and other wildlife to the central part, where we had some lunch at the Carousel Cafe, where the salmon salad and mac and cheese we ordered arrived with surprising alacrity. Chenbl was initially dismayed at the sight of mac and cheese, but after a taste was convinced it was a good choice.

Back downtown, the light was becoming quite nice. Karl had told us that he’d be around a certain intersection, but apparently we missed each other. But ducklings gonna duck, and just for fun after noticing them following me I walked in circles for a while before they caught on. Then I spotted a nice series of columns across the street, and quickly crossed over to take a few photos there. Periodically people would walk by, but nobody took any notice of me.

…until the others showed up, having crossed the street at the next intersection and come back. Flanked by several people, all holding their cameras up, I began to notice the people on the sidewalk throwing us annoyed looks, even though I was no longer taking any pictures. I should move on again, I thought…but wait; perhaps they need to know that this kind of thing has consequences, apart from simply the usual bad photos. So I walked up to one of the windows along the wall and took a shot of my reflection. It wasn’t even a shot of any of the people there, but one woman,  unsurprisingly, spoke up. “Hey, could you all stop taking pictures of people here? It’s really rude.”

“My apologies for the inconvenience,” I said, meaning it. “We’ll go.” I just hoped that the people in our group had taken note of what had just happened.

I was pretty much done in any case. Chenbl and I had some dinner at the Eaton Mall before browsing Best Buy, where Chenbl was powerless to resist the call of the big-ass boombox on display (it did sound amazing, I will admit), the price a fraction of what it would be in Taiwan. We lugged the damn thing on the subway as a group of white teens spouted ignorant homophobia and racist nonsense to a younger boy who was obviously in high heaven to be amongst his heroes. Then it was the bus back to the hotel to prepare for yet another late-night flight.

It was a long flight, 15+ hours just to Hong Kong. We flew over the north pole, and it felt like it as the plane was so cold. Back home, it has taken me a minute to get my mind right again. Chenbl’s been asking me where we should go next, but right now I. just. can’t. even. In any case, though it was a bit of an ordeal at times, I hope that you’ve at least enjoyed reading about it.

posted by Poagao at 4:22 pm  
Oct 24 2019

Cuba Trip! Part one

I started this trip in a state of apprehension; too many things going on. I’ve missed that old feeling of just setting off into the world that I used to get; it’s been too long since those days. I keep hoping it might return someday. I got an inkling of it as we took the metro, but at the airport more details pulled me back into limbo. Students began to appear, part of our group, as well as their friends and spouses along for the ride, to get a glimpse of whatever this whole “street photography trip” thang was. But I felt obstructed, like I was in everyone’s way. Our reserved seats were gone? Ok, fine.

Hong Kong airport, when we got there, was awash in the migraine-producing afternoon sun; the students ran around in groups holding their cameras in front of them like filled diapers, succumbing to the trap of “good light”. I looked at the people getting on the plane and wondered how many of them were going into exile. How many were starting new lives elsewhere, never to return?

The ensuing flight to Toronto was one of the longer I’ve taken, worth several movies I hadn’t seen and a few I had. A season of Black-ish. Some Bob’s Burger. Nothing happened outside the plane, or inside for that matter.

In Toronto, we found the old van that was the hotel shuttle, and then for some reason found that our rooms had all been reassigned from the original website booking at the airport Comfort Inn, many double bed rooms were now singles; the woman at the desk said that’s what our reservations were, and when I looked, that was indeed what it said. It’s not us! she said, talk to the booking site. Fortunately Chenbl had made pdfs of the original bookings, and so I had an online chat with the website customer service, who assured me all was well. The desk woman then called up, affronted that I would do exactly what they told me to do when I complained by taking the matter up with the website. The website apparently called the hotel up and said WTF.

I had disliked Vancouver when I was there last, but Toronto felt different, more earnest and less insecure. Or perhaps that was because it wasn’t freezing so I wasn’t in as nasty a mood. We walked around the cloudy grey of downtown, through the recently deserted square where they’d held Nuit Blanche the night before. A huge scarred model of a Pentax K1000 stood in the middle of it. A group of subdued protesters marched through the square, chanting education slogans.

Chenbl and the others wanted to see Niagara Falls, so we hopped on a bus there, stowing our stuff at the Ramada Inn we’d reserved there for the night. The rooms, and the hotel, were much nicer than the Airport Comfort Inn. There was no breakfast, but an iHop downstairs and a Buddhist monastery next door. We hopped on a bus down to the falls and looked at all the water as well as all the people looking at the water. Across the river was the United States, and with all the signage and bars they made sure everyone knew it. The place felt like I imagine a small version of Las Vegas would feel. We walked back towards the hotel after the sun set, bathing the eerily empty town in lovely golden light, and I could think of nothing but a sudden realization of why Alec Soth was so smitten by this place that he made a book of it. I could have wandered, but now everyone was hungry, so: dinner at a steakhouse, looking out the large windows while everyone discussed what meal to have. Next time! Except there is no next time; there never is.

We took another series of buses the next morning up to a little town chock full o’ preciousness called Niagara on the Lake. The-King-stayed-at-the-Inn!-Well-More-Like-Passed-Through kind of place. Lovely houses, tourists everywhere. Chenbl and I walked the precious streets, noting the bees inside the glass cabinets full of cookies and cakes. Bees! So it must be good, Chenbl noted, nodding. We all love bees these days. We used to hate them but now when we see a bee we ask how it’s doing and if it would like some water or something.

Then we took a cable car that went nearly all the way over the river before heading back to the falls. Some of the group wanted to take the boats to under the falls, but I didn’t feel like getting myself and my camera soaking wet, so Chenbl and I decided to take a zipline by the falls instead. It was fun, but too short. We wandered the town some more, from the strip of gaudiness by the falls, neon signs, Ripley Believe it (or Nah), etc. to the quiet motels and empty shops. Beautiful dusk light as we walked to a bar to get burgers for everyone waiting back at the station for our late-night bus back to Toronto.

The next day we met up with Karl Edwards, a local street photographer, and shot for a bit at a salmon jump near Old Mill…groups of kids on field trips scampered around, but precious few salmon were jumping. I didn’t care, but Chenbl perched himself on the edge of the dam and waited for a long time to get some fish shots. Then Karl took us around downtown, which was now brilliant with sunlight. It was difficult to keep everyone together…someone was always complaining about us going either too fast or too slow. Photography in such a state is quite difficult…Oh well. Next time! We took the UP train back to the airport. The UP line is fast and convenient. But people in the group were complaining because they didn’t like to buy tickets each time, but they didn’t feel like buying the Presto card, which would have been cheaper and meant buying tickets every time, which meant everyone waiting around for the group to get their tickets…so…?

Karl walked with us again the next day around Chinatown, and he even suggested dimsum for lunch. The light was very strong, the cable cars running up and down. Chenbl and I walked around a bit on our own, having sent everyone off to do their own thing for a few hours. We stopped at the art museum before heading back to the airport. I still liked Toronto more than Vancouver…it just felt more chill for some reason…though like Vancouver there are far too many hulking blue skyscrapers. I’m sure there’s nowhere I could afford to live in either town.

But we had a redeye flight to Havana to catch, which was mainly why we’d elected to stay by the airport. The terminal was swank, with iPads for everyone and a bar so everyone could get drunk for the party flight down. The fully booked jet waited far out on the tarmac as we were taking the cheap Rouge option with no frills; everything on board cost money, so I drank water and listened to Spotify for entertainment. Both the flight and Customs were smooth, and we met our old friend Carlos, just flown in from Guatemala to join our excursion. Outside the terminal in Havana, our two hotel bus drivers were apparently expecting “LIN” to be a svelte young Asian woman, and were visibly disappointed to find my ugly mug instead. But they took us into town anyway.

At the hotel there was some bullshit when one of the students (a former student, so this was not entirely unexpected behavior) took issue with not all the rooms in the ancient edifice being exactly the same. Ceiling heights were a factor, apparently, as ludicrous as that sounds. It was as if she didn’t know nor care that she was in Cuba, FFS. There was a lot of sighing and drama and accusations, but Chenbl and Carlos and I agreed to switch rooms with Ms. P. Donna and everyone finally got to bed around 3:30 a.m.

The next day we just walked around the area, letting everyone get accustomed to the place. There were lots of difference from the last time we’d been there a year and a half ago; everything in the city seemed to be under construction; mostly old buildings being refurbished, but some new buildings as well. More new cars, restaurants, even new cruise ship terminals, all in preparation for the opening to the world that Obama began and Trump then crushed. Some serious private money had been spent before the Large Orange One pulled the rug from underneath them. Of course the Cuban government also deserves its share of the blame for utter mismanagement and corruption.

We stopped by the mojito bar again; the drinks were better this time, and the band was good. Most of the bands here are good. Our group, many of whom had put on hats, sunglasses and facemasks so that they resembled an Invisible Man Fan Club, ran around holding their cameras out in front of them, fixated on the little screens, and of course taking photos of whatever I was photographing or looking at. I could turn around at any point and see a line of them standing behind me, cameras held out in front of them. It was amusing the first couple of times.

Chenbl found a barber to get a haircut, which is always fun. Then we walked down to the Malecón and then into Centro for some lunch of ham sandwiches on the street as a couple of dogs watched from a barred window across the way. Then we headed back through the square where we’d spent so much time waiting for buses last time, and then to the Chinatown Gate. A man approached Chenbl, wanting to show him his ramshackle house, and of course Chenbl went with him. Sighing, I followed, for there were sure to be shenanigans. Sure enough, the man started going on about feeding his children, etc. Chenbl gave him some money, but he wanted more, so I moved away, towards the exit, and Chenbl followed my lead. It was sad all around. I was sensing a greater desperation in people than the last time we’d been there, which should have come as no surprise. The hawkers were more insistent, more people weren’t even bothering to even pretend to offer anything, simply coming up and asking for money. They’re feeling the squeeze, but of course the government isn’t feeling it, so the wrong people are being squeezed. Needless suffering, i.e., politics. Seeing this, as well as knowing the history of repression of the people, made me more hesitant to take photographs. I knew and they knew that they could get into serious trouble if they messed with tourists.

We made our way back to our hostel, the Las Maletas, which was great; I’d recommend it highly. Located in a lovely old building in old Havana, close to just about everything, the hosts were gracious and understanding, the breakfasts good, and they helped us plan our days as well as they could. I had a room at the top of the stairs in the back, with only a tiny window looking out on the adjacent dance studio, but I loved coming back there after a day of walking around the city, listening the music and voices wafting in from the street as I took a cold shower. The only rain we saw was at night. Like Camelot, but not, because the poor state of drainage on the streets meant nearly constant puddles everywhere. Nice for reflection shots; not so nice for walking.

The next morning Chenbl and some of the others had to go to the bank around the corner to change money…that gave me a little time to walk around on my own taking photos…alas, all too soon we were all together again, moving ducklike through the lively streets. We stopped into a shop to get some cigars, and then went to the old square, where a man straddled a stage he was constructing. I took a few photos, and when he came down I gave him some vitamin water to drink. After lunch we took a glance at the Peter Turnley exhibition, which wasn’t all that impressive. But then I’ve never really been a huge fan of either Turnley. It’s nice that they have that little gallery space, though.

Nearby a school was letting out, the parents waiting for the kids outside. Of course our group stood in a line, surrounding the door, cameras held up and at the ready. Oof. I had to go sit down a little ways down the street until they finished.

We took a ferry across the harbor, something I usually enjoy, and were asked for candy from some of the kids fishing at the dock. Carlos was sitting with a brother-and-sister team who were quite the comedians. A hot walk up the hill later a few of us were looking at the Christ statue. A group of Russians, including a woman in a scarf, was taking selfies while making poses in front of the statue. Then we walked back down to the ferry, as most of the group hadn’t been in the mood to follow.

That night we took vans out to the recently re-opened Factory de Arte, and I spent most of the time watching a fantastic Black trumpeter who shared the stage with a timid but also not bad white saxophonist and a young white woman playing the flute who really had no business being on the stage. There was also an extremely self-indulgent photo/art show upstairs. Everyone who’s anyone in Cuba was there; it was interesting, though I am no one and thus effectively invisible in such places. Which is fine with me.

The next day we (well, most of us…Ms. Donna graced us with neither her august presence nor financial contributions ) took vans out to Fusterlandia, a tiled home that has become a tourist attraction, but the surrounding village turned out to be more interesting than the exhibit. It’s astounding how much potential there is in the people of Cuba, their resourcefulness and ingenuity, I thought as I walked around the area. If they leapfrogged the petroleum industry and went straight to electric, it would be utterly amazing. I walked alone towards the seashore, passing through a junkyard that had been a playground. A trio of young boys played on the broken swing set, and I paused to engage in a short conversation in my broken Spanish with a man who was working on a house. It wasn’t his house, he said, resigned. He could never afford it. Carlos often told me my Spanish was better than I thought it was, but to be honest it’s just not good enough for anything more than basic conversation.

A magic dog bustled around a busy market, but our lunch was to be quite posh, on the water at Hemingway Marina, built for use by foreigners who are allowed to use boats. The waiter tried to add US$50 to our bill, but two of our number are accountants, and they weren’t having it. Chenbl still tipped him. We drove a ways out of town in the afternoon, Universal Studio-esque clouds building up as we walked around a run-down neighborhood. Though everyone was friendly, some of them told Carlos that parts of it might be dangerous, that we should avoid going a certain direction. Everyone seemed to think Carlos was Mexican, and he was constantly correcting them.

On the way back to old Havana, we stopped for a bit at Revolution Square to wonder if the giant heads came alive at night and compared selfie counts (Che always wins, and it drives Cienfuegos CRAZY). It rained hard after dinner as we walked around the old town, filling up the puddles for the next day, so we waited under the eaves of a large government building, ignoring the calls of passing, well-lit cabs.


posted by Poagao at 6:13 pm  
Jan 27 2019

Back from Yangon

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

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

posted by Poagao at 11:10 pm  
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