Friday, July 31, 2009

Manly Ferry

I woke up the next day in fine form around 10AM, having slept well, and went to make myself breakfast in the hostel kitchen.

A cheerful Irish girl named Elizabeth made me breakfast, on account of a series of strange circumstances that had involved missed breakfast and provided ingredients the previous morning. Over breakfast I chatted with her and a very sweet young Korean who had moved to Sydney on a work Visa with an eye towards waitressing, improving her English, and traveling around the country.

In the end, I scrapped my intentions for the Wildlife Expo and Maritime museum, and went along with them on a Ferry ride to Manly. We took our time on the walk, enjoying the sites and the company of fellow travelers.

Sydney is built along a river leading to the Sea, and Manly is the tiny seaside town at the mouth of that river where white men first landed in the Sydney area in 1788, and now has a beautiful European seaside feel, but with a much better beach and a good surf.

We walked down to Circular Quay, the main ferry port, and caught a ferry around 1PM. Elizabeth was quite the talker, while Niki was the sort of somber Asian girl that is eternally listening to what everyone else says and about once an hour asking a random question.

So it was that I spent the day in the company of a shadow of the east I'd so recently explored, and a chattering Irish lilt that told stories of travels to India and Turkey and the adventures of living in London as a teacher.

Our ferry provided us the best possible views of the Opera house as we pushed away, and we got a few fantastic photographs on the way out of the city. Elizabeth commented on how pretty and surreal it was, like "it'd bi'n maed by aliens!"

Manly is really just a far-flung suburb of Sydney at this point, and the ferry ride was less than an hour. We arrived in high spirits and wandered down to the beach, where a dozen men in wet suits were practising their surfing skills and a few women and children wandered the sandy shoreline. We sat for a time and chatted, and took a few pictures along the way.

The architecture of Manly is actually quite pretty, and when we'd done with the beach we wandered back through the small town and found a place that made pies and coffee. I had English Breakfast Tea (courtesy of Elizabeth) and a wonderful Pumpkin and Feta and Coriander pie with a flaky crust and an incredible flavour. It was really yummy and I would love to figure out how to make it when I get home.

Around four we caught a ferry back to Syndey, taking more pictures along the way. Niki is at the very beginning of a year's work here in Australia, and desperately concerned about improving her English, and so I pestered her a bit and we taught her a few new words on the ride back, while Elizabeth would randomly derail the conversation to topics like music, politics, interesting places she wanted to go, or the adventures of her gay friends.

When we returned, we walked out to the end of the point where the opera house is located. As we approached, Elizabeth's mind changed like the wind in Manila.

"Y'know I rather think it's really ugly!"

I laughed at her. "not two hours ago you said it was pretty!"

But she insisted that the tile roof and modern feel of it looked horrendous up close and the view of the city from in front of the opera house was better than the view if you turned around and looked at the building itself. I laughed at her and told her I thought it looked pretty, and I walked around it hunting for one of those photographs that will someday make a really great desktop background (yes, it's an odd way of thinking about photography, I realize, but the results are often remarkable).

She and Niki stayed and chatted at the corner while I hiked the 300 meter square around the building, and on my return we walked up to the entrance so that Elizabeth could check the prices to satiate her curiosity. As we climbed the steps she looked at the glass entrance. "Well, now that's quite nice! It's like sem soart of noo chaurch!"

I laughed and shook my head. The fickleness of most women knows no bounds, of course, and I should be used to it by now.

We walked to a nearby train station in downtown, and Niki caught a train to visit a Korean friend of hers. Elizabeth and I went back to the Hostel so that she could pick up her bags, and she was off to visit a friend of her own, and I settled in for a very entertaining evening.

As it turns out there's a local dance bar that does a big celebration on Friday nights, and so our hostel does barbeque around 7PM ($5 AU, for a beer and a plate of fantastically good food and seconds if you want them) and then everyone hangs out in the courtyard for three hours and then heads out at 10PM to the club. This helps quiet down the hostel and keeps people from partying in the courtyard and keeping everybody awake.

There is some sort of prize for the most brightly dressed person, so after the barbeque had been finished and the drinking was properly kicked off, people started disappearing and showing back up in neon dresses or sequined skirts. Several people were wearing glowsticks as jewelry, and a couple of guys disappeared and came back with reflective safety vests. One of them was sporting a neon afro and bright yellow arm warmers. It looked like some sort of rave-slash-carnival.

Through all this quasi-drunken revelry I am sitting in the kitchen area, finishing writing this and shaking my head. The club scene has never really been my thing, but if I knew a few more of this garrulous, lighthearted crowd I'd probably go along to watch the train wreck that I'm confident this evening will turn into.

Truth is though, that I know it would be just another deafening club full of people wasting time shouting small talk in the sides of each other's heads like seals with ear fetishes and trying to make a great time out of developing hearing loss and getting slowly pissed on crappy drinks. Admittedly there will probably be loads of attractive, scantily clad women out tonight, and while a little girl watching sounds like (frustrating) fun, I am going to pass on that as well, and read a bit instead, then turn in early.

Egads, I'm a grumpy old man at twenty six.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tashka and the Blue Mountains.

The next morning I was inexplicable awake at 0440, and tossed and turned until around 0730 when Tashka texted me and asked if we could meet up and do a day trip out of Sydney to the Blue Mountains.

The Blue Mountains area runs north and west of Sydney in a series of rolling hills that are a mixture of sandstone and eucalyptus and jungle and little towns along the railway. It was something we had both been considering as a day trip, her with her dad, me with a group trip the hostel can organize, but when her dad's schedule for Friday went to hell and confined him to the city, she decided to see if we could do a bit of the adventure together.

We arrived a few minutes late and missed the first train, so we wandered through Sydney's picturesque downtown and made small talk, telling stories about our backgrounds and the places we'd lived and loved. An hour later, we caught the next train to Katoomba, a small town with some of the best views of the mountains.

The trip took about two hours, and we made discoveries as we went, figuring out that the hop-on-hop-off bus was frivolous and we could walk through town to Echo Point, where we took a few photos and had a look around. The scenery surreal and beautiful, and afterwards we hiked around to a viewpoint that should have given us a nice view of one of the cascades, but by then it was dark and the cascades weren't too amazing from several hundred meters up. I did get a nice picture of a Cockatoo though. He's caught in the sunlight and it makes him look rather surreal, I think.

Along the way we played on the cliffs and took a picture or two. Tashka told me about what it was like growing up in South Africa, attending an overbearing Christian American school, and wandering in the mountains a few hours from her house every chance they had. The mountains there, it seems, were actually very similar to these, with foliage and half-caves that reminded her of 'home' at every turn.

After we'd finished our hike, we wandered back into town and checked for a train home so she wouldn't get back too late. We settled on a train running at 1724, so we had about an hour and a half to get lunch/dinner and then make it back to catch the train.

We settled on a Turkish place that served Kebabs and Pide. Pide are the curious Turkish Calzones I'd discovered in Fremantle a few days before, and we had a really wonderful meal of Doner Kebab and Pide that ran relatively cheaply and left us both pleasantly overfull. While there she modeled the Australian coke bottle for me, which is inexplicably marked with "Buddy." It was about the only way I could convince her to let me take her picture.

Unfortunately for our stomachs and waistlines, we'd seen a cake and pie shop on the way to the Kebab place, so on the way back we stopped in there and neither of us could resist getting two things. Each. She got Chocolate custard and I got crème brûlée (they made it with a Graham cracker crust, which was surprisingly better than I expected) and we each bought a slice of their chocolate cake, which looked astounding. We headed back to the train and ate our first desserts en route back to Sydney, but found ourselves so stuffed by the first that we had to save the cake for later. I'll probably have it for breakfast tomorrow.

We parted ways at the train station that evening, and I headed back to the Hostel.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sydney Downtown and a new South African Friend

The next day, I decided I would spend wandering the city. The interesting parts of Sydney's downtown are spanned by less than two kilometers of walking, and so when I awoke late in the day I took a brief shower and wandered down to Roy's. Roy's is a local pub with free internet and great (if slightly pricey) food. Ignoring the price though, it was enough breakfast for two. For about $12 US I had coffee and the best damn eggs benedict (with really fantastic Ham and perfectly poached eggs) that I've had in ages. After breakfast I headed into the city on Sydney's metro system, which spat me out in the heart of their downtown district on the waterfront.

From there I wandered, through parks and gardens, past fountains with brilliant rainbows made by misty water and minotaurs being defeated by naked greeks. Eventually I wandered my way to the Australian museum, which is a fantastic mix of science and lifestyle evangelism and history and culture.

The museum had some really incredible biology exhibits. One of the more intriguing ones was the skeletons exhibit, which spent a lot of time on the more obscure things about bones that we don't really consider. For example, check out this photo. It turns out that "unhinges it's jaw" is too simple a term to describe what a python does when it swallows food. A better expression might be "explodes it's whole friggin' head"

They also have a great mineral collection (though I think Perth's might be better), a really remarkable exhibit on dinosaurs and Austalian wildlife (ancient and modern), and an amazing exhibit on the indigenous people's of Australia and their struggle with the government over the past 100 years. It even spent a good deal of time talking about the criminal behaviour of the government that resulted in the programs that generated the lost children, which I'd only recently learned about through conversation with my mother. It was a really amazing exhibit.

The lifestyle evangelism came into play in a very meticulously created exhibit on climate change, and how humans must change their behaviour (by lowering our carbon footprints and transitioning as much as possible to renewable energy based on external sources like tide capture machines, hydroelectric dams and solar energy). It was very carefully worded, explaining how scientists might disagree on timing and severity but were still in the main convinced that the shifts in climate that are coming in the next few hundred years were primarily the result of human actions, and could be reigned in by us exercising restraint. It was actually a pretty cool exhibit, and did a decent job of talking about how we can become more responsible citizens both of our countries and of our planet.

In addition, it made use of some really badass technology that included microprojectors, recycled cardboard alternatives to drywall, and a giant, projector-based touch screen technology which let you play a "lead a country to ecological responsibility" game. Granted, the game was typical liberal bullshit, rewarding you for implementing programs that would waste money and resources, but the system itself was pretty badass, and I must say I'm tempted to build one when I get back home. If only I had time amidst the million other projects I want to start once I knock the dust from my boots and have a little free time again.

When I left the museum, I wandered across a few parks and into the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which turned out to be a pretty decent Art collection housed in a really gorgeous building.

The gallery spanned multiple floors and included art from Australians and international artists. The classical art was mainly paintings, even the best of which photograph poorly, so I'll have to apologize that my pictures are from the modern art selection, which I largely wandered with my normal squint and mutter. Still, that wall spanning "light" sculpture--made poetically of neon, was stunning and I thought my mom would appreciate it. And "innapropriate shapes" made me stop and give pause to a very real question: why do we look at those six images and assume the bottom three are the ones with flaws?

In any case, a few of the pieces were really quiet remarkable and not half bad, and it was over one such piece (a giant installation of concrete and rebar) that I struck up a conversation with a young South African lady.

She was a pretty, heavily-freckled bottle redhead in tight jeans and a top to match, and despite her obvious admiration for modern art, I couldn't resist starting a conversation. It turned out her name was Tashka. She was smart and well-traveled, a recent grad with a mother in Singapore and a father here in Sydney, and we told each other stories of places we'd been and eventually settled on getting together the next day and spending some additional time getting to know each other and the city. Here's hoping it works out well.

After we parted ways I walked down to Mrs. Macquaries Point, which affords one of the most remarkable views of the Opera house and the dual downtowns of Sydney. I was lucky enough to arrive just after the sun had gone down, and so I hung around for a time, first getting the requisit picture of myself. See there? Now I have proof that I've been to Australia, and seen one of the world's most iconic buildings.

After I had it though, I did manage to take a few somewhat more artistically valuable shots of the view.

On the way home, I stopped at a great little place on the warf called "Harry de wheels" which is a pie shop chain strewn throughout Sydney. Ironically the night before had involved viewing the last two thirds of "Sweeney Todd" and yet I wasn't thrown off at all. I wound up with a really great beef Pastie and mashed peas, and it made a delicious dinner, with a great Australian Lemonade called Solo (and sold as "Lemon Tang") thrown in, the whole dinner still cost less than $6, so the Australian food choices aren't all overpriced.

So that's my dinner, and a damn fine dinner it was, too. I'm going to learn to make these mashed peas when I get home, and Beth (and anyone else who makes a face when English peas are mentioned) will just have to avoid my house on certain nights of the week. No worries though, there's plenty of other good food for which I'm bringing home the passion, and I'm sure all and sundry will be more than happy to visit me on those nights.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Idiot in Reverse

At 9 the next morning Geoff and I were up and moving, Geoff made breakfast for us (egg and bacon toasties, how I love thee) since he was starving and I was about to board a low-cost airline where food would cost me my firstborn child and maybe one of my appendages.

I climbed aboard a Virgin blue aircraft at 1000, and landed in Sydney around 1630. The flight across Australia is about the same length as the one across the US, and you transition through two time zones in the process.

I often take these night shift walks when the foreman's not around
I turn my back on the cooling stacks and make for open ground
Far out beyond the tank farm fence where the gas flare makes no sound
I forget the stink and I always think back to that eastern town

The views were fantastic. I flew over Kalgoorlie, the place I hadn't bothered to go, and it was as boring and brown as Ash and Geoff had described, then we skipped along the coast, between the Australian bight to the south and the Nulaboor plane, and I (looking out the north side) could see the vast desolate emptiness that is central Australia. The clouds hung in little puffs immobile and cast little black dots upon land that was an otherwise featureless morass of brown and orange. It was like flying over 2500 kilometers of Texas. I think this place would drive me pretty bonkers if I ever had to drive across it alone.

I remember back six years ago, this western life I chose
And every day, the news would say some factory's going to close
Well, I could have stayed to take the dole, but I'm not one of those
I take nothing free, and that makes me an idiot, I suppose

I became absorbed in my Rudyard Kipling book during the flight, and the next time I looked up we were only twenty minutes from landing, and the landscape was entirely different.

The hills were rolling and green, with orange only peeking through on a few cliffs in the otherwise unbroken lushness of New South Wales.
The green was a sharp contrast to the dusty brown of Perth, and the vast emptiness between the two.

I thought about Stan Rogers and one specific song of his called "The Idiot" written about Canada many years ago. In Canada the land and the economics work somewhat similar to the way they worked out in Australia, with the hard work and independent lives being lived in the dust of a newly industrialized and heavily mined west, and the work drying up in the beautiful and picturesque eastern towns until many of them were left with rolling green hills and a dependence on government money.

So I bid farewell to the eastern town I never more will see
But work I must so I eat this dust and breathe refinery
Oh I miss the green and the woods and streams and I don't like cowboy clothes
But I like being free and that makes me an idiot I suppose

I've always loved Mr. Rogers work and especially his narrator's voice in the Idiot. That narrator sings with an impassioned insistence that no matter how bad things are, he'll always scrabble for his independence and give a finger to the handouts of a corrupt and mollycoddling government. I could see now the nightmare that the sacrifice must have been for the miners and factory men that chose to leave NSW and move west and build mines and factories and farms. It is not a decision to be made lightly, but it is one I'll always respect.

Coming in I had a remarkable view of the city, and I wish I had had the good sense to have my camera in hand, even if they would have been shots through the plane window, which I typically hate and avoid taking. The Opera house and the waterfront were bathed in a the stark gold of late afternoon in winter, and the city looked like a thing touched by divinity--a shining glimmer descendant upon it in the waning light of day. Brightly illuminated clouds seemed to cling in the sky, reluctant to wander far from the site, as if they might evaporate outside the radius of its influence. It was a view worth savouring.

So come all you fine young fellows who've been beaten to the ground
This western life's no paradise, but it's better than lying down
Oh, the streets aren't clean, and there's nothing green, and the hills are dirty brown
But the government dole will rot your soul back there in your hometown

I called my hostel when I arrived, and they told me a shuttle driver would pick me up, and I climbed into a small van with a curtly polite mid-eastern driver who barreled through the streets of Sydney like a man who has just learned his mother's been hospitalized. Two other girls, a Perth native and a girl from Redding, UK, were also staying at this place, and they said it came highly recommended.

When I got there, I found it was the kind of meandering, interesting building that makes a really great large hostel, with a huge kitchen and open courtyard and PAY BY THE HOUR WIFI.


But aside from that it was actually a really neat place, and after going out for a bite to eat and a couple of beers (an absolutely top-hole steak sandwich and some draught of which I didn't catch the name, at a local place called Roy's) I spent the remainder of the night relaxing in the common areas, washing clothes and reading. Tomorrow, I plan to wander Sydney for a bit.

So bid farewell to the eastern town you never more will see
There's self-respect and a steady check in this refinery
You will miss the green and the woods and streams and the dust will fill your nose
But you'll be free, and just like me, an idiot, I suppose.

lyrics: Stan Rogers - The Idiot

Monday, July 27, 2009

Last Day in Perth

So the next morning Geoff and I drag ourselves from bed around 0700 like a couple of trolls, and with a bit of cursing and mumbling and plenty of blinking and a bit of tea, finally get ourselves in a car and head for the airport at 0810. There we meet Solomon, Geoff's incredibly cool son, who is about 5, and Jackie, Solomon's mum.

We stand near the baggage conveyor and talk about their trip and do introductions while Solomon, with a strength that belies his frame, stops the first bag (larger than himself) until his mom can lend a hand, and pulls the second two (one of which I carried, and appeared to be full of bricks, books and cannon shot) from the conveyor on his own. To use an American expression, the kid's a hoss. If Geoff doesn't break down and start training heavily again just so he can teach this kid to rip people apart with his bare hands, I think it will be a significant loss for the martial arts community.

Since peak traffic in Perth on a Monday morning is an unfriendly thing, we decide to head back to a cafe very near Geoff's house, which is only 10 minutes from the airport, and have a bit of coffee and breakfast before we return them to Jackie's place on the other side of downtown.

The restaurant is excellent, and serves a bacon and egg toasty that Geoff and I agree is the best bacon and egg sandwich we've ever paid for--though with the arrogance of all domestic chefs, we both admit that we think we've made better ones ourselves at home.

After breakfast, with traffic mostly clear, we head over, drop off bags, woman, and child, and hit the road back to Geoff's part of town. Rather than heading for the house, we instead decide to run a few errands and head for the local forum, a combination of malls and outdoor shopping centers where Geoff wants to check some prices on fish, pay the rent, and pick up cigarettes.

En route, Claire calls and says she's had a very efficient day and is able to knock off work, though it's only around 11AM. I'd told her I was in town for a couple of more days and wanted to catch up more thoroughly than our hasty Dim Sum exchange, and so we agree to meet for lunch at the forum, and after we've run our errands she meets us at a local secondhand bookshop.

We spend perhaps half an hour there, pouring over their sci fi and fantasy sections. Much of the time is spent discussing the likes of Stephenson, Niven and Dick. It's fun conversation, and I'm reminded that most people who were as vocal on the internet as frequently as we all were in the late 1990s share this common bond--a passion for genre fiction, be it fantasy, history, absurdity, cyberpunk or sci fi, and a love of the written word in general, especially when it teaches us something new while feeding our imaginations at the same time.

When we've exhausted their meagre selection and all picked a book or two and paid, we head for the food court. There, in between discussions of red drawf, monty python's appeal to the the modern generation, miscellaneous training stories and encouragement that I go and visit Rat (ne Pheonix) in Brisbane--though it's an additional airplane flight away--Geoff and I order really great kebabs and Claire (with a comment about rice being a necessity for all Asians) gets a salmon and rice box from an asian deli. Geoff also hunts up a couple of Brownes, a local cold, sweet, milked coffee drink served in a carton that's an oversized version of the milk one you get in educational cafeterias.

We sit there for perhaps an hour, conversations weaving and threading through personal stories, talk of the various experiences and adventures we've had in the past 5 years since we all sortof drifted away from posting regularly to MAAC. It's an odd shared experience to draw from, but it informs us of each person's character, their motivations, and their peculiarities to a surprising degree.

If you've never made friends through fierce and impassioned discussion of a shared interest, in an open forum where you will one day be expected to back up everything you've claimed you can do with physical demonstration, and where every assertion is challenged, panned for truth, and tossed aside or kept based on whether it holds its own in debate against the assertions of others, I can't recommend it enough. The fest events in Knoxville and Louisville seemed just as valuable but less odd, since at the time I was still regularly conversant with the community, but sitting at this table, half a decade after the fact, and still knowing these people and respecting them as friends really drove home the way that good public debate can influence your choice of company for the better.

I also drag out my phone, since I've not brought along the Canon, and get Geoff to take a blurry here's-me-with-the-mythical-creature shot of Claire. See, she is real!

Around 1400, we have to start going our separate ways. Claire is on a 6AM flight to Adelaide the next morning for work for which she has to prepare, and Geoff has to start work around 1530. I have writing to catch up on, and for the first three hours that Geoff is gone, I pound away at my tiny keyboard, cataloguing my experiences in Perth up to the previous day while they're still fresh in the mind.

Around 1900, a couple of hours before Geoff will be home, and just before Joe and Daniel get back from her busy day at Uni, I head out to the back patio. All our discussions about training had made it impossible for me to avoid the temptation of the heavy bag any longer, and so I change into shorts and t shirt, drag the drinking-and-talking table out of the way, and go to work on the bag for a while, trying to dredge up old knowledge of obscure strikes, remind my body how to put power from the ground, through my legs and hips and shoulders and all the way out into the varied surfaces of my hands. Because it occurs to me I might not see Geoff again, I realize I'll need at least one picture of him in a drunken posture, and so I play with my camera and the bag a bit, ensuring that the picture will at least come out.

When Geoff gets in though, I tell him my flight details for the return from Sydney, which give me one day back in Perth before I head out to Hong Kong, and he says "well that's great, because I was thinking it was regrettable that we didn't take some time and do a little training during one of the days you were here, and I'm not working that day, so this way we can do it when you come back!"

So now there are plans to meet up again when I return, and one day during which we can spend the day talking technique, actually trying to show each other a thing or two from the distant past along the way. Plans laid in, we spent the remainder of the night on a couple of nicer bottles of red wine (a Tayman's Shiraz that's incredible, and a Barking Owl that's not half bad) and a youtubing session, showing each other video to convey stories and impressions.

He showed me Tim Minchin's "White Wine in the Sun" (just audio and a freaky photo of Tim) which conveys with delicious poignancy how an athiest and an Australian feels about Christmas and the ties that bind families together, as well as some music video work for which Geoff did the video switching and directing. I showed him Rob's Paranovian's Pachebel rant, and Taylor Mali's Def Poetry "What Teachers Make" which is the sort of thing that puts your heart in your teeth every time you hear it. In between we told stories about how much we love to rant, and how we share a common character trait that we both have very mixed feelings about--the habit of unintentionally picking up other people's vocal inflections, energies, and accents when we speak to people we like or respect as authority figures.

We also discuss our various levels of flexibility, and how Geoff is naturally flexible, even when he's not training. He's surprised to discover I can't touch my toes unless I've been stretching regularly, and so he puts his face against his own knees, and this is a man who hasn't trained in years.

It's ridiculous, really, and it makes me jealous. So, as a passive aggresive response, the first picture of Geoff to be posted to The Road is this one, of him getting his face as close as possible to his own unmentionables.

We finally cut our talk short around 1AM and forced ourselves to bed so we could get a decent bit of rest before tomorrow's trip to the airport--I was off to Sydney.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Fremantle, Poker, Cheap Wine and Priceless Friends

Editor's Apology: For some reason I wrote this entry in a mixture of present and past tenses, and I can't be arsed to rewrite it just now. I promise I'll fix it once I get back to the states, but for now it's just a little. . .odd.

Fremantle is a small suburb of Perth on the coast of the country, pressed between the sprawling city and the Indian ocean, it's a harbour town, with plenty of nice restaurants, a touristy market, old buildings, and even the occasional street performer.

Geoff's only real errand for the day is to make a couple of spare keys, so I'll be able to get around on my own when he's working, and then wander the area. He used to live in a flat in downtown Fremantle, so he knows it pretty well and doesn't mind showing it off to a visitor, and we walk through markets and squares and up to Fremantle prison (known to every ACDC fan as the place that Bon Scott was incarcerated briefly).

We also get to walk out to the harbour and visit the shipwreck museum, which turns out to be a very cool little place that contains all exhibits that have been reclaimed from the sea. It's full of ship's bells, old spanish silver, disected cannon, and even the deteriorated hull that comprises almost 20% of a midsized schooner that went down off the coast on its way to Australia.

In all, Fremantle is a very pretty town, and I had an eye to wander through it with my camera glued to my face, while Geoff had work around 1600, so after walking town for a while, he split having given me directions on how to take the train back to the house.

I explored for a couple of hours, taking pictures of miscelaneous buildings and sights, and eventually wind up back at the waterfront for dinner. I bought a minced lamb Pide (a sort of middle eastern Calzone) from a brilliant little Turkish restaurant, and ate it as I ambled back to the waterfront in time for a really stunning sunset.

Afterwards I bought cake and coffee and watched the birds, then eventually caught the train back to the house. Geoff made it back around 10, and we spent another pleasant evening drinking boxed red wine (Yalumba--which is startlingly decent) and telling stories. Most of these turn to martial arts training, and we related tales of derring do, dumbassery, and dexterity, all with the aplomb and amicable appreciation that comes from being ancient acquaintances.

Something interesting about meeting Geoff is that it does not seem at all odd to say I've known him for ten years, it feels like a really natural thing. It's remarkable, really, how strong a bond one can generate simply through discourse in a completely textual medium over years and years.

The next day Geoff has to work from midmorning until around 1700, when there is supposed to be a free Poker tournament starting up at his pub, so I promise I'll meet him there.

I wake up around noon, make myself a delicious duck egg sandwich (they have a dozen muscovies penned in the backyard) and spend the day fussing with my computer, catching up on e-mail, updating photos and putting the polish on the next few entries in the road, and around four I knock off and head out to Goeff's pub.

I get turned around, having neglected to take a proper look at a map before I leave the house, and wander a couple of miles (and about thirty minutes) out of my way, but it's all good. I've now been lost on foot and found my way again on every continent I've visited, which is kinda cool, I guess.

So Geoff and I play a bit of Texas Hold'em poker, of all things, but get bounced around a bit (there are four tables to start and we keep getting moved to balance play) and neither of us are really that interested, and so we eliminated ourselves rather quickly (though I do feel good that I lost on a hand that someone had to chase on the river, and would have taken the hand elsewise, so at least I wasn't playing terribly). We finished up around 8 and head back to the domocile, and there I got to try Vegemite.

I wasn't particularly hungry, having had such a large lunch/breakfast so late, but I wanted something in my stomach before another night of drinking, and noticing it on the sideboad in the kitchen, I asked after it and was provided advice (spread it very thinly, more like butter than like jam) and made toast and had a taste.

I had a second slice, and I must say it's a powerful stuff. I don't think I've ever tasted a saltier substance, gram for gram (and I think I include salt in that comparison), and the pungent bite of it is certainly strong. I imagine it is the sort of thing I might have from time to time, but it wouldn't be a regular part of my diet.

We retired to the patio and had another night of storytelling and drinking, this time muchly about education, both our theories and our personal experiences, and it's good stuff, but we have to force ourselves to stop earlier since we've got to be up early the next day--we're picking up Geoff's son and his son's mother at the airport and chauffeuring them back to her house, and I'm going along to help carry bags and make acquaintances.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Dim Sum and Downtown

The next day, Geoff had the whole day off, and Joe (his sister) was free as well. Ash stuck around that night (being in no shape to drive anyway) and we piled into Joe's car around 11 and headed off for Dim Sum.

The Dim Sum place in question was one James (Geoff's Kung Fu instructor) had introduced him to many years before, and Claire was to meet us there. It turned out to be an absolutely great place, where I got to try Chicken feet (not bad, though, to borrow Geoff's brilliant description, they were "fiddly") and had lots of other amazing Dim Sum--prawn dumplings and steamed beef rolls and beef tendons and squid tentacles and cup after cup of really fresh Chinese tea.

Five minutes after we were seated, a bright eyed young Asian lady with high cheekbones and a perpetual smile flurries in and joins us. Her accent was remarkable to me--clear, classic Aussie coming from an Asian body is not something I'm used to, even though I work every day with a bunch of Asians who have distinctly American accents.

Geoff does introductions, and so it is that I meet the irrepressible Junglebunny (Claire, AFK), who immediately helps us order (she's studying Mandarin on the side just now, and it's improving her Cantonese food-ordering skills as well), starts telling us about the recent adventures of her Australian Rules Football club (which she captains) and pulls pliers (!) and metal from her purse and begins completing a bracelet. The weave is really unique and. . . well, here's a picture. It turns out the bracelet is a gift for me, and she sizes my wrist and completes the last few links at the table so that it will fit correctly before slipping it on my wrist.

Despite my normal aversion to jewelry, and actually rather like this piece, and I couldn't be more pleased that I have a wearable memory of my trip that was a gift made by someone I know, rather than than something I purchased for myself.

Part of the reason I like the piece, of course, is that with the practicality of a martial artist, Claire has made it with a simple set of copper links for the last centimeter of the bracelet leading up to the slip-through clasp, meaning that in a tight spot it will fail long before it has any hope of injuring its wearer.

When I've been fitted with my gift, and lunch has finally defeated all of us to the point that we can't eat another bite, Claire takes off (as she has an afternoon appointment) and we eventually clamber up, perform some bistromathics to pay for lunch, and head out again.

Joe has shopping she wants to do, and decides to take her son, Daniel, along, figuring that we'll tire him out with walking in our afternoon's perambulations. So, with promises that there will be dinner at home when we return, we set out into the city of Perth.

It's a pretty neat place, with a mixture of modern and victorian style buildings and a distinctly British architectural influence. I mention that I love to hit museums in new cities, because they're such a good way to learn about local culture, environments and history when compared to trying to read up about it on your own, and the boys point out that there is a pretty great museum just a few blocks away, and we head off to it.

The museum is mainly natural history, with lots of preserved animals that I won't be seeing since they're bush creatures, and plenty of history thrown in. I've got two of the best possible guides, since Geoff is a voracious reader who, through working a pub for the past few years, knowns plenty of old Australian legends that are examples of its current social condition and history, and Ash, as a miner and all-around smart guy, has an encyclopedic knowledge of rocks and minerals that kicks in as soon as we get to the geology section. We tell stories about learning both in and outside of traditional educational settings, and they teach me more about Australian history, culture, and ecology than I would have learned in a month of Sundays if it was up to me to read it.

After that, we wander through town for a bit, the two of them stopping and being patient while I take random shots to convey the feeling of Perth, and we stop for a half a pint of Stout at a local pub and talk for a while, then catch the train back to Geoff's neighborhood and walk to his place.

We arrive in time for dinner, and Joe has made a really fantastic roast chicken, with potatoes and carrots and pumpkin to go along with it, and she's got Ice Cream and homemade Apple Turnovers for dessert. It's really wonderful comfort food, and absolutely delicious. Peter comes home just in time and we dig in and chat about my plans over dinner.

My tentative plans were to leave for a little mining town on Saturday if I was overstaying my welcome, but when I mentioned it to Ash and Geoff they responded with "Why the hell would you want to go there?" and discouraged me, and so Geoff told me to stick around Perth for a couple days instead and we'd see the sights when he wasn't working.

Happy to have a place to lay my head that felt so much like home already, I readily agreed, and so Geoff sat on the back porch until midnight telling stories about our lives both before, during, and after our time on the MAAC forum. The next day, we decided, we were going to Fremantle.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Perth Rocks, Telstra does not.

So the next day, I spent the morning relaxing and then I was off to the airport for an afternoon flight to Australia, specifically, I was going to Perth.

I was going to meet Geoff, from the forums that so many of us frequented so very long ago. Oddly, he is one of very few people that I think of by first name, rather than alias (Goldenmane was what he went by in those days). At one point, when the shit was really hitting the fan in that place (and that long and epic saga is really quite remarkable) he was voted in as the interim Moderator, and wound up serving as guide on the site for a time.

Since it was his day off, we'd agreed that I'd just call him when I landed, and find out if he was at home, or elsewhere, and then get there by Taxi, as he was likely to be in no condition to drive by 10pm, when I had made it through immigration and baggage claim.

My assumption (HAHAHAHAHA) was that the Australian telco situation, being close to Asia, might be somewhat similar, and I could pick up a cheap sim card, top it up with five bucks, and call Geoff from my newly Australian cell phone.

In fact, this is categorically untrue.

So I get through customs and integration (where I'm treated with more suspicion, actually, than any of the other countries I've yet visited), and I head for the Vodaphone booth. It's just after 2100, and there have been adverts for Vodaphone traveler's services (rent a sim card!) throughout the airport, but the Vodaphone booth is completely empty. It's closed for the night.


So I go upstairs to the shops, and find a newasgent's that has Telstra quick connect packs (SIM card, $30 credit, all in one package). They don't have anything less than $30, so I shrug and bear it. I'll probably be making a fair number of calls throughout the coming week so I figure it won't go entirely to waste.

I buy the package, sit down, install the sim, and attempt to call Geoff. Because it's already got $30 AU on it, it shouldn't need to be topped up, right?

No, instead it needs to be activated! Apparently there are some really bullshit telco laws in Australia that make it impossible to just buy a phone number, you have to register it and bind it to your personal information!

Well, crap. Ok, how do I activate this thing? I can call them! Great, the phone can make (free) calls to the Telstra system. By now it is 2200.

So I call the number, and it says "You can register online!" (I don't want to register online, the Perth airport is tragically behind the times and doesn't have free internet yet) "Or you can use our phone based registration system during normal business hours!"

(borrowing an expression I picked up from Geoff) "Fucking what?"

These people have zero 24 hour phone support. None.

I hang up, in disgust.

At this point, I can't really return the thing, and I still need to call Geoff and confirm he's at his place before I get a taxi down there.

So I wander until I find a kiosk of internet boxes (at $2 per 13 minutes, they're a ripoff, but whatever) and log in, navigate to Telstra's online service, and try to activate the damn number.

Of course, it requires you to provide Telstra with an address and phone number, and these. cannot. be. international. I try to enter my international address first, and it throws back an error.

Pardon my angry, angry French, but why the fuck do you sell a SIM card in an airport if not primarily to international travelers?

But of course it's probably tied to some bullshit telco law that the telcos no-doubt love, since it lets them jack around their customers (Moo!). So I have to try to make up an address and phone number, using Geoff's as a rough template.

Somehow, I've not got it believable enough (don't know the post code correctly, which is a problem apparently) and the system, after two additional attempts, decides that I CANNOT ACTIVATE THIS PHONE ONLINE.

So now, my "quick connect" package is completely dead in the water until the phone support center opens the next morning.

I fire off a thoroughly pissed off message to Geoff which is summed up roughly as "Hi, I'm on the ground, your phone system sucks, hope there is alcohol wherever you are" (I shouldn't have worried) "gonna try a payphone now." and logout of the internet terminal and head downstairs.

Since the payphones are also a Telstra product, I wonder if they will be working, since it's after business hours and who knows how competent these people are, but thankfully they come through and I get in touch with Geoff and get confirmation that he's home and waiting and that I have his address correctly written down.

In fact, making the situation even more pathetic, the following day when I called to activate the phone, I was to discover that it would take Telstra up to 24 hours to actually free up the number and assign it to me, once I'd gone through the activation process. "Quick connect" my ass.

Telstra will receive a very strongly worded letter from me once I return to the states.

Thankfully, there's a cab at the taxi queue and I hop in, bark the address as politely as possible and smoulder my way through the dark streets of Perth on a Thursday night. We roll up to Geoff's house around midnight, and I jump out, grab my bags, and pay the cabbie.

Geoff himself, (he's real!), threads (weaves might be a better word) his way between the cars parked in the drive and greets me at the curb.

He and an old mate from Uni (Ash) are catching up on the back patio, which explains the fourth car in the drive (the other three are Geoff's, Geoff's sister, with whom he splits the house, and Geoff's sister's partner, a very cool fellow named Peter that I'd meet the next day).

I get the ten-cent tour of the house, drop my gear in the spare bedroom, and we return to the back patio, which I discover is the designated spot for sitting around and drinking and talking on most nights.

Those of you that are longtime readers will remember Adrienne's hazy recollections of visiting my French family in the Alps. Hanging with Geoff is to prove pretty awesomely similar, minus the skiing and with different (but equally delectable) food. In the next couple of hours, we demolish a bottle of Whyte and Macay Scotch (damn decent stuff, by the way) between the three of us, and the conversation gets progressively more delightfully scattered and meandering until we succumb to exhaustion.

So it is that Geoff and Ash and I sit and make acquaintance and talk until almost three, when we finally surrender, since we'll need to be up the next day around 10:30 to clean up and head out, as we're doing Dim Sum for lunch with friends*.

*yes, friends includes Claire, another person I'm very excited to meet, but you'll hear about her tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An Expat in Singapore

I departed Manila and arrived in Singapore under the cover of night, slept like the dead and awoke around 10AM the next morning, just in time to catch breakfast before they stopped serving it.

The hostel is the sort of professionally run place that you occasionally see in Europe, all Ikea decorating sensibility and Austrian scheduling, though the desk staff are a mix of cool twentysomething Malaysians, a race I can only recognize by the fact that they seem like a cross between Indonesians, Thai, and Cantonese.

I had been recommended the Night Zoo, but I decided to skip it, due to the combination of expense and inconvenience (it's on the other side of the island and would have involved both MRT and Bus rides). Plus at the end of the day, it's a zoo. We have zoos in America.

What we don't have in America is a downtown district shaped by 130 years of British rule, endcapped by a short period of Japanese Occupation preceding another 10 years while the world figured out it wouldn't stand for colonialism anymore (except in places like Hong Kong).

So I got on the MRT to downtown (and no-one searched my bag! Weird!) and wormed my way out through a sprawling underground mall into a park that runs along the waterfront.

There I found a fountain (victorian era, it's sat in the same place in this park since the mid 1800s) two memorials (one for the Indian Army men that fought and died in the first and second World Wars, one for a particularly passionate (and conveniently dead) Malaysian guerilla fighter that the British raised up as a hero after the War--you'll note a trend among local heros raised up by occupying forces: The never have a heartbeat. Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, was chosen in part by the US for similar pulse-related reasons. And finally, one memorial to a memorial.

What is a memorial to a memorial, you ask?

Well, the Japanese may have been brutal and heartless sons-of-bitches hell-bent on Asian domination, but they weren't idiots.

So when you occupy a place like Singapore, that is chock full of Indians who have lived under British rule their whole lives, and many of whome are trained military men, what do you do?

The answer is, you don't leave them sitting around, getting bored and waging a guerilla war against your occupying force--you arm them, train them, equip them, then send them home to liberate India from the British.

Let's be clear, the Japanese had no interest (that I know of) in liberating India, but they had plenty of interest in keeping the Brits busy in between India and SE Asia so they could more effectively set up shop in the rest of Asia.

So they created the Indian National Army, and sent it to fight the British in southeast Asia. As a moral booster, they erected a monument in Singapore to the unknown soldier of that fighting force. The monument was finished just months before the British reclaimed Singapore. When they were back in power, of course, the British promptly tore it down.

In 1995 a set of 11 sites in Singapore were chosen as historic sites to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, and one of them was the site of the former memorial, where a small plaque was placed. The plaque was hardly worth photographing, though, so all you get is this story. Sorry.

I wandered through downtown Singapore for most of mid-day, taking pictures and watching tourists, avoiding Indian Fortune tellers and Bicycle rickshaw tourguides.

Judging by the ongoing construction in the harbour area, I'd say Singapore's reaction to the current Economic adventure is "Recession? What recession?" and it doesn't seem to be doing them any harm at present.

The architecture is some of the most delectable I've seen in ages, Victorian-era hotels and government buildings smashed up against glistening modern skyscrapers. It has that absurd look and feel of a city build during the height of British Imperialism, and it's incredible. I wandered for a couple of hours and eventually found myself at the waterfront, where I chose a place almost at random to have a couple of overpriced beers and read Kipling for about two hours while the temperature slowly lowered.

When the sun had settled lower in the sky and my beers (and a couple of short stories) were finished, I made my way back to the subway station and from there back to my Hostel, where I dropped off my day bag and wandered Little India for a while.

Little India is a magical place. Since the East India Trading Company was so heavily involved in Singapore's growth, India has always had a connection here, and many Indians have moved here to work in Singapore and throughout the Subcontinent. Every construction worker I saw throughout my walks in Singapore had clearly Indian features. Little India is the logical starting point for the dreams of many an Indian trying to make a name and a life for himself and his family outside of India, and it retains the same "Tourists are not unwelcome but are irrelevant" feeling that you get still in certain alleys and restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown--this is truely a tiny snapshot of a nation, existing withing a completely foreign city, and it's quite remarkable.

There are occasional souvenir shops, certainly, but they seem an afterthought crammed between secondhand stores, sweetshops, gold sellers crammed with Indian men debating over the latest jewelry, and small spice shops with so much incense burning that it looks like there has been a fire inside. The occasional tourist, Malay and Chinese seem to be an oddity to be glanced at and then left alone while the daily business of keeping a tiny lump of city prepared to support the half-million expatriate Indians who live and work throughout the surrounding region and who rely on this place to import the majority of their food and clothing and everything else.

They say that the place is a madhouse on Sundays, when those half-million come home to this tiny stretch of Singapore to relax on their one day off each week, but unfortunately I won't be here to see it.

I wandered through the streets just as they were coming alive around 7, everyone just getting off work and making their way home or out to shop. I finally found a little restaurant with plastic chairs and tables on the sidewalk and crummy lighting, and more Indians than anyone else eating at the tables. The place screamed "CORNER DINER" at me and I walked up, grabbed a menu and told the first person who asked me what I wanted that I'd have butter Chicken, Egg Curry and Rice.

I should have picked just one, but the dishes were cheap, and they both sounded great.

Of course that was with good reason--they both were great, but it was a lot of food for one man to finish, even one who had only had one real meal so far that day.

Unfortunately for my health and safety, I'd seen a shop a few blocks down when I was wandering earlier that said "Savories and Sweets" and so after my incredibly good dinner I threw myself on the tender mercies of that shop, buying 5 of their most popular treats and wandering home, stuffed but still eating.

It was in this bloated, happy fashion that I discovered that the Indians make a dessert that appears to be literally sugar, a little milk, and pure butter, crystalized into a sort of bar. There don't appear to be any other ingredients, and I'd estimate that judging by the flavour, they've got at least four or five pounds of Sugar and Butter crammed into each two ounce creation. It actually glistens when you bite into it, and your heart beats an extra measure in a combination of sheer fear and gleeful anticipation. It took me over an hour to eat the thing, as I actually had to take a break and write this entire post and check my mail in between times to give myself the strength to finish it. It. was. delicious.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ayala and Sunset over Manila Bay.

I woke the next morning, packed up my bag and checked out, leaving my bag with the others in the hall. I've been testing the notion that Asia is incredibly free of crime throughout my time here, and so far it seems to be holding, even in places like Manila, where the taxi drivers lock their doors between fares.

I headed out to the local grocery store (PureGold) and there bought water, a cheese spread called Eden, and a snack cracker sort of thing. The cheese spread wasn't too bad, imagine a cross between laughing cow and velveeta, but the snack cracker had a filling that was "hot dog and cheese flavoured" and was one of the most horrible things I've tasted. Imagine one part bad 'cheez' from American snack crackers, one part poorly made liverwurst, and one part honey, and you've got the idea. It was wretched. I threw the rest of them away, and forgot to get a picture first, unfortunately. So it's difficult for me to warn the rest of you using a photograph with the giant international NO symbol stamped over it.

Anyway, I spent the entire afternoon at the Ayala Museum. Created as a combination of art, cultural, and historical museum for the Filipino people, it is, of course, in a mall.

Since I arrived during lunch, I decided to catch the Lunchtime Mass at the nearby Church-in-the-Mall that you might remember from my previous writings. Here's a different view of it. The mass was pretty much identical to all the others I've attended throughout the world, save that half the hymns were in Tagalog and the homily's English was heavily accented, not with the Polish softness I've become accustomed to, but instead the Philippine's curious and unique lilt. The best I can call it is the audio equivalent of an entire meal of Tapas wrapped in an egg-roll.

Anyway, Mass completed, I was off to Ayala museum.

The museum spans four floors, with the top currently being information about ceramics, gold, and native fabric. Apparently the Philippine people were importing Chinese ceramics long before the Spanish arrived, their clothing was already fairly sophisticated, and they were wearing gold adornments that involved basic smelting and some advanced metalwork. I saw four kilograms of gold woven into a chain (likely a ceremonial sash-style holster for a weapon) and it made your mouth turn to ash just to stare at it. Here was almost ten pounds of gold, strictly for decoration. Remarkable stuff really.

The third floor was work from the Philippine artist Zeldo, and it was some of the more compelling abstract work I've seen--really different use of textures and lines that he developed originally through a series of experimental paintings made using hypodermic needles. Cool stuff, in the end.

The second floor was where things got really interesting. There was the Ayala Diorama collection, 60 tiny scenes from Philippine history chronicling the story from early hunter-gatherer groups all the way up to the 1940s when the US finally restored freedom to the Philippine nation.

There was an audio guide that went along with it that gave great detail and insight, and I spent almost three hours in this part of the museum, pouring over each scene and listening to the stories. It's a remarkable tale of oppression by Spaniard, Catholic, British and Yankee alike, and by the time you reach the scenes near the end showing the combat between US soldiers and Philippine guerilla's, it's hard not to root for your own men to be shot down, retroactively.

When my visit there was over, I took LRT back to Taft Ave and then walked to the Mall of Asia. I was under the impression this would only be a kilometer, but it seemed to be about three, and took me more time than I expected.

I walked there because it had one of the best views of the Bay of Manila, which officially I hadn't seen yet. The sun was just setting, but the cloudcover was thick and a haze had settled on the city. Visibility was low, and there was no real hope for a good view, so I didn't bother with my camera. In all, it felt like a summary of my entire experience with Manila--beautiful and haunting, but also less than it really should have been.

Perhaps next time I can manage to avoid being there while I'm sick, and there is a Typhoon on.

I caught a taxi to my hotel, and another from hotel to Airport, and managed to walk almost directly onto the plane. I had cut it quite fine because I hadn't assumed there would be much traffic on the road, but it all turned out ok, and I arrived in Singapore around midnight and found another taxi (much more expensive--welcome back to the first world) to take me to a hostel. I'm staying in the Little India district, an I think I might spend some time walking around this afternoon and then attempt a visit to the Night Zoo, which is supposed to be one of Singapore's more interesting attractions. We'll see.

BUSted (but not like that).

I haven't talked about Security here but I probably should. Whatever you think about security theater in the US, it has nothing on the Philippines.

At every major mall and LRT station, there is a table at the entrance, every person entering the building is required to show the contents of their bag to the security officer, who will poke a stick in it.

This isn't like, an electronic bomb sniffer, or a flashlight or anything, it's just a stick. I suppose at most it tells the guard that the bomb you're bringing into the mall/station/whatever is smallish.

Some of the guards will also run their hands along your lower back as you pass to check for concealed weapons.

There is massive variation, of course, from guard to guard. One will barely glance at your bag, the next will open it carefully and peer to the bottom as if he expects to find a vein of gold ore there. One will wave you past without a single touch, the next will carefully run his hand from one side of your body to the other, the next will only check your right hip, or your left (oddly, they checked people's left hips for weapons more often than their right, I don't know why).

For this reason, when I woke up the next morning at 6AM, I took a taxi.

See, I was supposed to go to Tagaytay, a town near Taal, a volcano in the center of a lake formed by the detonation of the previous, much larger, volcano.

A group of Couchsurfers were getting together there and going trekking, and despite my trepidation about riding a horse which was required for part of the trip, I was excited--I'd been invited spur of the moment, and as a rule these have been some of the best experiences during my travels so far.

I was supposed to stay with a CSer who hosted in Tagaytay, so I needed to get there before the rest of them so I could drop my big backpack at her house and then go to meet the group with her. This meant taking a bus to Tagaytay before 0730.

No one had provided me with really good instructions on where to find the bus. The best that I could do was to look up the information online, where everyone basically said "go to the Pasay bus area (below the Taft LRT station) and get a bus there."

Due to the crazy security at the stations, and not wanting my entire big backpack taken apart by a zealous guard I caught a taxi instead of riding the LRT.

I didn't bother trying for a meter now that I knew how fucked up my ride was likely to be as a result, and instead just bartered a rate up front.

When I got there, I discovered that the Pasay Bus Area is not meant to be used by anyone but locals.

There are no signs, the buses have no central mustering area--each major bus line has it's own parking area that is independently scattered around the major intersection, and none of the buses are known for going directly to Tagaytay. The rest of the buses simply drive through and people try to wave them down. They typically have signboards in the windows showing a list of destinations. During an hour of searching, not a single signboard listed Tagaytay. Apparently the kind of people who go there go in cars, not buses.

For more than the next hour, I wandered from bus to bus, asking people how to get to Tagaytay. I asked bus drivers, transport callers (guys that wave down buses for you) and bus station security guards.

Of course, each one had a different suggestion--one would say to walk further down this street, the next would say to walk back up it. One said I could take the bus going to Buendia, but the driver of that bus said he didn't go through Tagaytay, and I would need to walk further down. Further down I met a man who swore I would have to take a Jeepney to the major bus, but couldn't tell me where I would need to get off to make the switch.

The entire thing was a clusterfuck of people only going places they had already been. It was the least welcome I have ever felt in any city I have traveled--basically all for the lack of a handful of signs--and this stands in stark contrast to the fact that the Philipino people are some of the nicest I've met.

Around 7:40 I declared myself out of time, now even if I found the bus I would have been late arriving to Tagaytay, meaning I would either have missed the group's departure or delayed it on my account. Even though I'd originally planned on going to Tagaytay alone before I heard about the group trip, by the time I reached 0730 I was so angry, frustrated, and sick of it (and of feeling guilty for letting down the group by claiming I'd be there and failing) that I gave up and walked the two miles back to my hostel and checked back in.

I spent the rest of the day hiding from the world, writing and reading and trying to decide how to spend my afternoon.

It probably doesn't seem like much to syou readers at home. So what, I missed a bus? Big deal.

It's hard to explain. I've managed the chaos of Thai Trains, Spanish Alleyways and Greek Ferries. Yes, there are sometimes hang ups, sometimes a sign is missing or a strike happens or you just miss your boat and have to wait until tomorrow to get the next one. That kind of thing is normal.

This felt nothing like that. This felt like a concerted effort on the part of an entire culture, not just to confuse visitors, but in fact to build a bus system that keeps people in their place--so that only those who are going somewhere simple, that everyone is going, can find out what to do. It was a fuedal bus system, if that makes any sense, and just thinking about it now makes my stomach turn over and my mouth run dry.

I would refer to it by the English translation T.R. Reid gives a distinctly Japanese idea: it was "a social embarrassment."

I wound up throwing away my entire afternoon in my room, and didn't leave again until almost nightfall. I didn't want to be reminded how perfect the weather was for hiking, or that I had no other plans and didn't even know where else I wanted to go in Manila.

Clinical depression runs in my family, and while I wouldn't say I have a serious case of it, I was raised around the symptoms and I know I've got a vein of my own that runs pretty deep, if not particularly rich. In my case, it creates a feedback loop--one of the easiest ways for me to get depressed is if I fail at something that should be easy--especially if I perceive the failure as being the result of poor planning on my part. I'm not an overachiever, but if I think something should be simple but fail at the attempt, it shames me and generally lowers my spirits.

Problem is, when I get depressed it makes me introverted and makes me want to hibernate. I want to close myself up in a small room and read and sulk and nap. Of course, this makes me more likely to continue failing to complete whatever it is I was trying to do, and depression, like all powerful diseases, wins by creating a feedback loop--now I'm getting less and less accomplished and this means I'm more and more hibernatory.

Thankfully after a while stuck in any small room my word-whore gene kicks in and I start reading whatever is handy, and it is difficult for me to remain in a blue funk for long if I am reading consistently, so this generally doesn't last more than a day, even a day like this one, where the thing that I wound up reading was "The Courtship of Dinah Shadd"--one of Rudyard Kipling's darkest and most depressing short stories.

Still, when you're on the road and your time is limited, it is frustrating to lose a day in this fashion.

I really wanted to visit Corregidor island the following day, but it would put me over budget, and I really wanted to avoid that, so I decided against it, instead putting off my plans for the Ayala museum until the next day and doing that instead.

Funny, isn't it, that I'd avoid doing something I may never get another shot at, just to save $40? Ah well. I suppose it will force me to return here some day. . .

In any case, the Ayala museum turned out to be pretty darn cool, so that helped save my conflicted opinion of the Philippines overall.

Walk This Way!

Carlos Celdran is a genius.

The next day I was feeling good. I'd gotten a little overview of the Jeepney system with Ruthie the day before, so after grabbing my breakfast I hopped a Jeep up to the Intramuros district with some assistance from a security guard and a couple of my fellow passengers. It deposited me about two blocks from my destination, where I waited for about half an hour with a slowly gathering crowd that eventually turned into almost fifty people, fairly evenly divided between Filipinos and Caucasians.

Most of the visitors I met were where on business, not pleasure, either researching or working some job that put them in the country for several weeks and using their weekends to tour the place. I thought it might be nice to have a job like that, where I get to travel that far afield, but oh well.

Eventually, our guide showed up. Imagine a half-Mexican, half-Asian cross between Napoleon Bonapart and The Mad Hatter and you've got the visual about right. Now make that person one of the best orators and actors you've ever met, and you're there. He arrived in a preposterous top hat, assembled his amplification kit, and walked us through fort Santiago. He told us, as we went, about the architecture (all Bamboo) before Spanish occupation, how all the 'good' stone you see is imported for China and the local stuff is volcanic ash--he compared the walls of the fort behind us to "making your house out of chocolate cake", and then he went into the most remarkable lessons about the history of the Philippines.

I can't expound upon them all here, as it would take me hours and I would still leave out the vast majority of it.

I'll summarize this way though: no study of history has ever left me, as an American, feeling more responsible for a situation than the one here.

Let me tell you a parable, rather than the history, and you can see what you think.

My name is Sam. I am a farmer, I own about thirty franchise ranches that are all quite spread out--organized under me but independently owned and run. I get in an argument with my neighbor, Jose, who owns five small farms outright. When the dust settles, he gives me all five farms for very little money.

So now I have the thirty independent franchises, and the five places I own directly.

Some of those places are very far from me, and in fact, some of them are much nearer to another Farmer, let's call him Hiroshi. But this farm is great, as it allows me to grow exotic goods, and also trade in them with other farms nearby that I don't own, so I pour many resources in. I help import foreign technology and I make my little farm the jewel of all its neighbors--it flourishes under me, but its people are still slaves, not franchise owners like the rest, but there are promises that all that will change in the next few years. Meanwhile several major diseases are wiped out, I send schoolteachers to help all of the local children learn to read and write, and I even help them build the first air transport service and train line of any farm in the area to serve the far reaches of the farm.

But Hiroshi has an eye towards unifying all the farmers near him. He wants to rule as lord over them all.

So he sends his heavily armed and totally heartless farmhands to all the farms near him (including two of farmss--which some of my own hired men are guarding), now my men are asleep when Hiroshi attacks, because they're slovenly, inattentive and overconfident, and so my farm is captured.

Over the next three years, I slowly send men to fight back, and Hiroshi has to abandon the farm, but his men cannot leave easily, and so he commands them to murder every man, woman and child in my farm before killing themselves.

To stop this quickly, I burn the farm to the ground. Twenty percent of the farm workers die as a result of Hiroshi's soldiers and my fire.

The farm never recovers, even as it's neighbors are slowly pulling themselves back up, all is lost. My thought to make them a franchise is changed--instead I franchise the little place where Hiroshi attacked first, even though his attack at this farm began a mere 6 hours later, and previous to the war it had been our jewel. I abandon them, they become a farm of poor men, while the other farms around them flourish, this little farm struggles to find any identity left amid the rubble.

This is the story of the Philippines. And you and I, as Americans, were the farm owner.

In Berlin, in Hiroshima, we devastated cities of civilians, yes, but still cities in enemy territory. In the Philippines we surrundered Manila through poor military action, and then, to stop the murder of Philipinos by the trapped Japanese (and it was a massacre--75,000 murdered in three weeks) we bombed the whole city to the ground. No allied city save Warsaw took more damage than Manila, and it was from American bombs. 120,000 civilians died in the bombing of Manila. People who had depended on us, people we had shamelessly bought from the Spanish and then turned into the gateway the orient--people dependent on technology we sold them. People who, to this day say "Kodak" as a verb meaning "to take a picture". We abandoned them to the Japanese, then slaughtered them en masse on our return trip.

The only place I know where Americans behaved worse might be in our treatment of the American natives during the early 1800s under Andrew Jackson.

And then, as far a I can tell because Hawaii was in the popular eye as the point where we'd 'first' been attacked in Asia, we made Hawaii our fiftieth state instead of the Philippines, and left the devastation of an island that had been our responsibility to a man named Ferdinand Marcos, who seemed hellbent on making sure no one really rebuilt with any success during the cold war.

As an American, if you contribute money to overseas relief, if you feed starving children, if you do any of that, consider changing your donation and finding some worthwhile charity here in the Philippines to support. It will never cancel the national debt we owe this place, but it might in some small way atone for your personal contribution--we won the war in Asia by walking on the broken spines of these Islands that we owned and abandoned.

The tour obviously left an impression. I was sad that he wasn't doing his Chinatown or Corregidor island tours during the rainy season, and that I'd missed the Imelda tour on the previous day. When I come back to Manila, if he's still doing this, I will be sure to attend another time.

When the tour was over, I wanted to walk back through the area that Ruthie and I had wandered in the gathering dusk the night before, and so I got directions from Carlos that would take me back to the bridge to Chinatown on foot, so that I could walk it then.

A pleasant young Czech named Martina, who is currently a student in Sweden studying abroad and performing research in Singapore, overheard me, and she asked if she could tag along. I said of course, and we wandered through old Intramuros and Chinatown taking pictures and talking. I did find the Capitol theatre again without trouble, though the weather was bad, so the pictures will need extensive post processing if they're to be worth much.

After we'd wandered for perhaps an hour, we realized we were both hungry (my appetite was still depressed from being sick) and so we stopped at a small Chinese Dim Sum place and sat and ate and talked politics and history. She told me about the frustration of being from a place everyone associates with Russia, even though their connection with Russia was only 40 years, and is now long past. She also explained to me the distinction of "central" Europe, so I wouldn't carelessly lump the Austro-Hungarian Empires holdings into Eastern Europe as I have been doing.

I told her that I've been considering my next few long trips in earnest while I've taken this one, and that one of them might be through Russia, Scandanavia, and Central Europe, but I wasn't sure, and she gave me good advice and told me I would enjoy myself there.

She spoke about the alliances of Europeans in words that almost mirrored the stories that Washington would tell about soldiers in the new world--she would say that no matter how much she might change, she'd never really be Swedish, even if she became a Swedish citizen she'd still be a Czech in her heart, and the differences ran too deep.

I thought about the EU and the strides they have made, but about how long those divisions have been present in Europe, while in our little confederation of states the lines were new and everyone was an immigrant from somewhere else besides. Making Americans of immigrants may prove to be easier than making Europeans of natives.

I'm curious to see how the next fifty years of European politics play out, because so many of the steps are there for them to become closer and closer knit, and yet the differences run so deep. We shall see.

When I was done I rode the LRT for a while, seeing different parts of Manila to the north, and then met Zel for dinner.

When I decided to try to make friends in the Philippines, I made the mistake of contacting several people all at once, assuming that some would be busy and some would be uninterested in meeting a visitor.

Of the ones I contacted, several wrote back and expressed interest, and so my time in Manila has turned into a series of blind dates with locals, which has been fun, but challenging to juggle.

Zel turned out to be a tiny (like, maybe 4'7") cheerful bio/chem student in her final year of University, and since the weather had been so treacherous earlier in the week, we stuck to the mall and talked instead. First we went and had the most amazing tea (although I think we might have inadventently gotten each others orders, I wound up some an amazing morrocan mint tea slash hot chocolate that was to die for) and sat and told stories about school, and afterwards we split a pizza and talked about travel and life in the Philippines until it was time for her to catch a bus for her Uni around 9pm.

It was Sunday, which meant the LRT closed early (surprise!) but thankfully I half-understood the Jeepney system by then, so I found one that ran within a few blocks of my hotel and used that to get home.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Day with Ruthie

I wasn't kidding when I said a rooster woke me up the day before. People keep them as pets here, even in the downtown of a major city. It's odd to hear the typical bustle of new york or paris (honking horns, the rumble of engines, people buying and selling in the street) and see skyscapers all around you and then hear the clear COCKADOODLEDOO! Of a rooster announcing the dawn.

I was up fairly early, and I put together my day bag and struck out to meet Ruthie at the junction between the two LRT lines. I reached there before 11AM, our chosen meeting time,a and read for a bit in the station.

Ruthie turned out to be a softspoken, pleasant girl with extensive European travel experience, a Nikon D90, giant hipster glasses and a Broken Social Scene T-Shirt. I found it hard not to like her right off.

She took me to her old University, by Jeepney. A Jeepney is a distinctly Asian vehicle that serves to provide bus services throughout downtown, rather than a bus system. It serves the same basic function that the Songthaews served in Thailand--a sort of roving flexible light bus sytem, although in Manila the Jeepneys are a somewhat more organized thing and tend to run more consistent routes, which are generally written on the front and sides, though finding them amongs all that decoration can be tough. They are incredibly cheap, with an average ride costing about 10 Pesos (20 cents) and are the standad way of getting around for the average Philippine moving through the city without car or motorbike. Generally you take the light rail as close to your destination as possible, and then grab a Jeepney for the last kilometer or two.

We wandered her Alma Mater's grounds while she told me stories, like how the Lagoon was reputed to have aborted babies hidden in it (?!). I suppose every campus has its ghost or horror stories, but this one seemed especially morbid.

We spent a while just taking photographs, and she showed me their statue of a naked man (the model for the statue was actually the father of one of their now-famous action movie stars) symbolizing Academic achievement and we finally ducked into a place called "Chocolate Kiss Cafe" near the campus where she used to go as a student.

The food was excellent--I had the traditional Philippine meal of Bagoong Rice, which is a sort of rice pilaf with egg and finely chopped vegetables and seasoned chicken. We split a sampler of chocolate cakes after that was excellent, and spent much of the time talking about music and travel and our experiences with photography. We saw eye to eye on a lot of things, and that was nice.

Afterward, we took the LRT down to another station--Cubao--and wandered there for a while. There was supposed to be a large concert that night, but I decided against sticking around since I was still feeling worn out from being sick, and I was going on a walking tour the next morning. Instead, we rode down together to a stop near the Intramuros/Chinatown area, and walked through part of Manila thats seen better days.

We walked first through the Voodoo market which runs down Rizal ave and up next to the Churches. Despite the Catholic church's best efforts to stamp out superstition here, you can still buy herbs and ingredients for potions and hexes and curses right here in the squares, directly under the watchful eye of the crucific of our lord and saviour. It seems an odd set of things to mix, but the Filipino people are untroubled by it, and Catholicism instead got into the act with candles that you buy for good luck, and then people burn for you while you say a prayer.

Ruthie is raised methodist, and shrugs at the entire spectrum of it and says she really doesn't know the details.

Interestingly, the voodoo market is also the tactical shops market, directly across from where you buy your good luck charms and hexing ingredients you can buy more practical things like collapsible batons, knives, combat boots, military patches freehanded on the spot (even for the wrong organizations--I considered buying one that said "Lockheed" for myself), and it seemed like every AR-15 accessory ever--stocks, shrouds, hand guards, optics, it was all there, mixed in together. It is an odd mix of things.

We wandered past two cathedrals and through the old theatre district that runs alongside Chinatown. Ruthie pointed out some of the architecture to me, though the light was failing and I had to promise myself I'd come back if I wanted any good pictures. The Capitol Theatre here (which you'll see in tomorrow's entry) was especially beautiful. Eventually we got to logical place to part ways, and she directed me to a Jeepney that would take me back within just a couple of blocks of my hostel, and off we went.

She went home to spend the evening with her family, and I went back to my hostel and rested up. I didn't know it yet, but tomorrow was going to turn out to be a very big day.