Archives for posts with tag: travel

A fama had a wall clock, and each week he wound it VERY VERY CAREFULLY. A cronopio passed and noting this, he began to laugh, and went home and invented an artichoke clock, or rather a wild-artichoke clock, for it can and ought to be called both ways.
This cronopio’s wild-artichoke clock is a wood artichoke of the larger species, fastened by its stem to a hole in the wall. Its innumerable leaves indicate what hour it is, all the hours in fact, in such a way that the cronopio has only to pluck a leaf to know what time it is. So he continues plucking them from left to right, always the leaf corresponds to that particular hour, and every day the cronopio begins pulling off a new layer of leaves. When he reaches the center, time cannot be measured, and in the infinite violet-rose of the artichoke heart the cronopio finds great contentment. Then he eats it with oil, vinegar, and salt and puts another clock in the hole.

Julio Cortázar

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Buenos Aires is a city out of time. A place which seems to look to the past, be stuck within a certain slice of Iberia circa 1990, where steak and wheat is always on the menu, and which a gothic cemetery is among the principal attractions. It’s seen better days, but still seems to ride on its reputation as the “Paris of the south” (not much of an endorsement to me). So how about it?

Argentina is economically dysfunctional. Our Airbnb host, Diego, is an anomaly in Argentina—a quick moving entrepreneur who shrugs his shoulders when describing the byzantine difficulties of importing items into his country. Countless items that would arrive in two days to an American household can simply not be bought in Argentina, so he ships purchases to Brazil or Paraguay and moves them by land across the border, or buys electronics on trips to the US for use in his Airbnb apartments and brings them back himself. Inflation is 40% per year.

“We don’t really buy new clothes for several years,” shyly admitted his girlfriend Nati, a microbiome researcher.

Everyone changes money on the black market. The official exchange rate when we were there was around $8.5 pesos/$1 USD but the “blue dollar” hovered around 12.5. We traded our bills by asking the Chinese grocer next to us if he knew where we could change money, having been told he himself, of course, was a money changer.
“Yes, I can,” he said in Chinese, with merely a short glance.

Other money changers that had previously been open a week or two before were now shuttered.

One day Diego showed us a list of all the different unofficial exchange rates pegged by various institutions and rates. It was like looking at a multi-city bus timetable.

“The pink dollar, the blue dollar, then there’s the white rate..”

Books + Tank > Books or Bombs?

The military dictatorships are gone but tanks of books remain. It’s a literary city.

The Argentinean economic climate is a complex and longstanding matter, like the rhythms of fog in San Francisco,

“convoluted to the point of incomprehension,” said my friend Chris.

Like grey weather, there seemed to be a consistent gloom about many Porteños.

“You could be falling down in the street here and no would help you,” remarked Diego, whom, along with his girlfriend, is from the far Northeast, Misiones province, a short drive to Iguazu Falls.

Despite the large size of the city and its dense apartment buildings, I was often surprised by how dark it was at night. This lent an eeriness and occasional malice to the streets.

“Yes, they are empty, a lot of foreclosures,” Diego said, “Perfect for airbnb.”

My favorite anecdote from Diego concerned his attempt to start an online fishing rod business. Apparently fancy fishing rods are a big thing in Argentina, but like most of the economy, has typically been done in a traditional brick and mortar setting; he thought by doing an online business he could significantly cut costs and sell the rods for cheaper with the help of his brother. It seemed to be successful, but it didn’t last long; soon other fishing businesses were threatening him, asking him to raise his prices. They tried to find out his address, a deliveryman quit after fearing for his safety, and finally Diego and his brother decided it wasn’t worth it.

“Too easy to be killed here if someone wants you gone.”

No matter how sexy some people want to play up tango, beef, and dilapidated colonial buildings, constant inflation and a lack of security in one’s own currency are not great aphrodisiacs.

Not vegetarian-friendly or gluten-free

The Argentinean diet is pretty much steak, pizza, pasta, empanadas, and pastries. Tomatoes and peppers count as vegetables, there’s surprisingly little fruit given the relative proximity to subtropical climates, and plenty of Italian pastries.

A misleading picture

A misleading picture

And there’s gelato. The gelato is actually the best in the world I’ve come across, and deserves its own section, but for a non-meat loving gluten-free person, Buenos Aires sucks. Argentinean cuisine is unhealthy and I can’t imagine most locals possess a high diversity of intestinal microflora.

Spain, circa 1990? Lisbon 1996? Buenos Aires 2015?

Gelato from n-dimensional spacetime

What makes the gelato in Buenos Aires so good? Certainly it was one of the consistent highlights in an often-gloomy cityscape reminiscent of a Spanish or Portuguese city…25 years ago–right down to the mullets, faded coats, and 10 PM dinners. Most people didn’t even seem to bother coming out at night until 1 AM.

Our search for holy gelato led us to intense flavor and a particular creaminess that I have never seen in ice cream or gelato anywhere else. The texture was often vaguely reminiscent of soft serve frozen yogurt but much richer, and produced, I’m sure, by different mechanisms. The Pampas, infinite grazing ground for high quality cows is surely part of this, but is probably only a partial answer. We visited a few of the most acclaimed gelateria:

Volta, in Recoleta, with its sleek interior and hanging topiaries, would not be out of place in San Francisco, were it not for the somewhat old fashioned uniforms worn by the staff (a mark of better gelato places, we decided), and all gelato sold in styofoam containers in sizes up to a heart-shattering 2 kilograms. Each scoop was flavorful, creamy, and introduced me to that particular sticky quality unique to Argentinean gelato.

Jauja, was small and modern in the upmarket Palermo Soho neighborhood, with more casual and friendly staff, and we felt, more unique and even intense flavors than Volta. Also very creamy, but perhaps a bit too sweet. It had a local café feel to it, various middle-aged people in too many sweaters were talking in a heated manner in that 1990 Italian style. Very low tables.

Arkakao, saving the best for last, once again in Recoleta (that neighborhood of old wealth and slumbering hotel doormen we weren’t enamored with but couldn’t seem to escape), was like a fashion parlor cum gourmet café, an event onto itself. The staff certainly seemed to think so. Compared to many other places, this was one of the only that showed their gelato totally exposed in a refrigerated container (as is the norm in the US) rather than the submerged metal pots elsewhere in BA. Before going to Argentina, the Italian owner of a relatively new gelateria in Berkeley tried to convince me his use of these covered metal parts was part of the reason his gelato was supposedly superior to other offerings.

Clearly it is not the deciding factor. This was the best gelato I’ve ever eaten in my life. All flavors were intense, rich, extremely creamy, exactly the right amount of sweetness. If only we hadn’t waited to go until our last night.

No Camellia sinensis to save your life but plenty of yerba mate

A street vendor with her mate and thermos.

A street vendor with her mate and thermos.

Curing the mate is a delicate process. We picked up a nice one on our way out of the airport and then fretted for weeks that we were cultivating a new species of mold rather than a suitable vessel for brewing. I enjoyed this little leaf, a stimulating healthy green particularly valuable in a sea of morose concrete and car fumes (Buenos Aires has one of the lowest tree cover % per person of any major city in the world, less than hyper dense and developed Tokyo).

A homogenous city of mostly European descent

We saw virtually no one of African or Asian descent. Sometimes people, especially kids, stared at Cathy and called out, “chino!”

This ties in with the other strand of BA being a place stuck in the past in some similar but imagined continent—in its faded elegance, mirrors of other places that are sort of like what they purport to be, but not exactly, one can understand the forces that one foment a Borges, a labyrinth of self-similar parts and out of time quality that would appeal to a hermetically sealed writer. A Borgesian city.

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Some high quality street art interspersed with a lot of graffiti and dog poop
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Not intended as art

Not intended as art

Western fringes of BA, where I practiced aikido one night

Western fringes of BA, where I practiced aikido one night

On our last afternoon we wandered through the famous Cementerio de la Recoleta, an imposing place of grandeur and one of the top tourist attractions in Buenos Aires. The contrast with the surrounding blocky apartments and a luxury McDonalds across the street couldn’t have been stranger, and I felt an intense heaviness from being in this Parisian simulacrum patrolled by endless mangy cats.

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And then we went to Arkakao.

The best part of Buenos Aires?

Our wonderful Airbnb hosts, Diego and Nati! Seriously, we spent more time talking to them, sharing tea, enjoying delicious home made flan with dulce de leche, and eating steak than probably anything else we did in the city, especially on days when we didn’t leave the apartment until late afternoon (good luck going to bed before 2 AM).

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Gracias..but next time just take us to Misiones.

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In 24 hours I will be on a plane to Buenos Aires via Houston. Pictured above are a few of my unique travel accessories. Almost everyone who travels, or just lives their daily lives (of a certain band of socio-economic class) predictably carries and uses certain items: clothes, food, phone/music player, toiletries, books/information/means of reading. These substances are inextricably part of most peoples’ daily lives. Like everyone else, I bring them with me when I travel, but I also bring some other items that provide an encapsulation of my essence, those material items most dear to me because they somehow enable my particular strand of activities and use of time on this Earth.
Here are mine, which I think may be a bit different than most travelers:

1) Martial arts dogi, for practicing at aikido dojos. When I traveled across Europe 10 years ago, I periodically dropped in on different dojos all over the place, in just plain clothes. This led to some of my most interesting local experiences and info, a common bond and passion between people I could sometimes not even linguistically communicate with.

This warmth I experienced ranged from a Sensei in Granada telling me in halting English, after practice, “Whenever you come here, this is your home,” to a Copenhagen Sensei nonchalantly instructing at the beginning of a class, “Today we have a visitor from America, so I’m going to teach in English.”

Now that I’m a black belt (not pictured–already packed), I find it a bit unseemly to just show up in sweats, so I don’t mind packing one of my lightweight uniforms.

2) Tea pots, cups, and leaves: Anyone who has spent a bit of time with me knows I am a tea, and specifically, pu-er afficianado. While my depth of knowledge still can’t hold a candle to innumerable old Chinese men and seasoned bloggers like The Half-Dipper and Marshal N, it’s still astonishing for most people in most of the world to see me whip out these tiny ceramics and strange leaves all because this particular brand of ceremony and qi is so valuable to me.

3) Digital recorder: It boggles my mind to think I lumbered across Europe for 6 months with a huge guitar in the past. When I traveled through Japan 2 years ago, I decided I didn’t want to mess with that anymore and satisfied myself with occasionally playing guitars of various qualities (usually crappy to mediocre) that I came across and temporarily bottling my musical urges into other pursuits. After thinking about it for several years, I finally acquired a digital recorder this year, which I’ve been using to capture musical ideas, ambient sounds, and aiding me in my own music production. I hope to use this as part of my documentation and impromptu jam sessions on the streets and mountains of Argentina and Bolivia.

It’s liberating to be a backpacker because it forces you to carry everything that is useful or holds value for you. Make no mistake, I still prefer having access to my multiples gis and wooden weapons, my guitar, bass, synthesizer, and computer, and bings and bags of semi-aged pu-er, but it’s a worthwhile experience to encapsulate these traits and possessions while on the road.

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While I was in Vancouver visiting my good friend Chris, one day we took B.C. Ferries out to Bowen Island. It was a rare, clear winter’s day–cold, but beautiful. A lush temperate rainforest surrounded by water and nearby fjords was our landscape. At the end of our hike, as we sat by the water, waiting for the ferry back, the only sound was of a man bringing his ax down upon logs outside his house by the water. We sat in silence, reflecting upon our day, as it began to drizzle.
I’m not sure when exactly it began, but by the time I was on the plane back to SFO the next evening, I had something of a thought in my head: I need to create a song that captures this place. This thought was still in my head when I opened up the newspaper three days later, and saw that Kaki King was playing that very night in SF. The last and only time I had seen her play was a whole 9 years ago, in L.A., the night before I had left for my big Europe trip. At that time, she was just starting her career, and far fewer people were aware of her. I remember her talking about Doestoevsky, being funny, and generally thinking, “I would like to play guitar with this person, and also be friends with her, I think we would get along.”
The recent show here was great, held at an intimate, somewhat faded venue–upstairs at the Swedish American Hall–and as anyone who was there could attest to, the promoters seemed to be compensating for the profits derived from the small crowd size by not spending any money on heating, as it was only slightly warmer than outside.
Part way through her set, I was completely shocked as she was introducing the next tune, and said, “this one is called ‘Bowen Island’.”
Apparently we had had the same inspiration! I can say she beat me to the punch, since the album it appeared on was released over a year ago, but the timing of it was uncanny. After that, I felt that I definitely had to make my own interpretation of Bowen.
I had a few ideas and motifs I was playing with. Finally, I woke up the other morning and just decided to record something in the early light of consciousness, feeling that it was the right moment. Still imperfect, but here’s my own semi-improv intepretation of Bowen Island, a magical place, recorded with my $100 Blue mic and some reverb added to capture some of that penetrating sustain that I always feel in such environments, massive trees stretching wild roots, cm by cm over hundreds of years. The world of underground tree-competition is brutal.

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It’s 4:30 AM. This is the second day I’ve woken at 3 AM. I returned home 2 nights ago from 5 weeks in Japan after almost 24 hours of door to door travel: Nankai Osaka airport express train–>Osaka–>Seattle–>LAX–>Oakland–>BART–>walking–>home.

So tea is in order. Enjoying some good-value sencha from Ippodo (which has tons of outlets all over Japan, btw, so not quite as exclusive as its US presence would suggest, like much in Japan). Among other things, I brought back a combined ~600 g of sencha, gyokuro, and matcha, from both Uji and Shizuoka, the two most esteemed tea growing areas of Japan.

Per ounce, good quality matcha is somewhat poor value (aside from those $40k bings one reads about).

Here is a picture of my early morning setup, suitable for the eclectic monk I have apparently become, due to jet lag. It includes some new pieces of equipment I acquired, as well as tried and true ones from nearby, Taiwan, and Korea (feel free to guess what is from where).

Over the past 5 weeks, I ate more sushi and sashimi than I probably have in the past 5 years, and less fruit than..any point in my life. I went to Tokyo, Takao-san, Kamakura, Kanazawa, Nagoya, Nara, Kyoto, Osaka, and Koya-San.

Kyoto is the most overrated city in Japan. Osaka is one of the most underrated.

I took more than 1,000 pictures, filled a 230 page notebook with the ugly handwriting that only I can read, (deceivingly filled with beautiful words and astute analysis), and emptied my pockets of approximately $3,200 in total.

Much more to follow, in myriad forms.

Sanshin in Yoyogi park

Stumbled upon this nice troupe on a warm day in Yoyogi park yesterday afternoon. Like a magnet, I was drawn to music, and watched from a distance until a member of the party invited me to come closer. It turned out it was a party-reunion for friends, half of whom had gone to school together in Okinawa and moved to Tokyo as adults.
There were a few nice people whom also spoke English well enough that I was able to talk with about a variety of things with them, while listening to traditional Okinawan songs. The Sanshin is such an instrument, and closely related to the Chinese San xian, both being 3-stringed instruments with a snake-skin stretched over a resonator without a sound hole. Not too surprising considering that Okinawa was historically closer to China than mainland Japan. I also drank some aowamari, which is, again, strongly reminiscent of Chinese baijiu, both strong drinks.
A guy there had a crappy half size guitar I played for a bit, for which I was complimented on. Sadly, I think that outside Spain and possibly South America, it is still not the norm to own a good guitar, if you own one, or actually know now to play it well. The guy who owned it said he played mainly punk music, which apparently means, “this instrument has been kept badly out of tune and the strings desperately need to be changed.”
Outside the Latin-sphere, guitar is not taken seriously the way “proper” orchestral instruments are in America and Europe, or say, Guzheng or Koto is in China or Japan.
I wish I could have talked to this woman playing the sanshin and singing, about music, but she didn’t speak a word of English, which is normal here. Nonetheless, there was communication through music. I will never be a real linguaphile, but I think I can say that bring able to practice the musical and martial arts has opened up a lot of doors for me all over the world, even when there was no common spoken language between me and the other people. Science/math are also universal languages in a way, although among native English speakers, it might as well be Chinese, for most people.
So far I’ve been here for 2.5 days and eaten sushi almost every meal. I’ll get tired of it eventually, but it’s pretty awesome that you can eat a pretty filling lunch of fish that’s fresher than what you can get in many US restaurants for <$10 if you buy it from a supermarket. Japan isn't necessarily expensive, but service here is expensive, because of the extensive nature of it. Which a kind of comfort. And comfort, like power, is all corrupting. So for now, I take note of the (fake) smiles, bows, and superlative thank yous, and walk with my take-out, trying to find music and conversation where I can.

When I was 5 or 6 years old, my mom was still in law school at UCLA. We lived in a modest place in Beverly Hills, which she shared with a roommate, Joan. One day Joan brought home a Nintendo. It was originally played by her and my mom, to relieve the stress of their classes, but I soon got ahold of it and became entranced by Mario. And so, the influence of Japan entered my life.

For many years, this particular, (somewhat) geeky strand of Japanese culture was my primary association with the place–probably not unlike many of my generation. You see, not only did I love video games, and still want to design them up through my senior year of high school, but I grew, specifically, to love Role Playing Games, simply abbreviated as RPGs. Although well acquainted with every manner of side-scroller at this time, and numerous player vs player fighting games, it was long, story and character driven RPGs that took perhaps 40 or 50 hours to finish, which really held my attention. After Atari lost its influence, virtually all console games were developed in Japan for a time–gradually, that stopped being the case–yet the vast bulk of console RPGs still kept being produced Japan. Although video games became progressively mainstream, and more arcade-like with improvements in graphics, these lengthy and involved RPGs were more of a modern electronic throwback to their American forebears, such as Dungeons and Dragons.

Many of these games offered a quirky sensibility, inhabiting strange hybrid-worlds of fantasy and sci-fi, but from a distinctly Japanese perspective (the students all in uniforms as in the Persona/Shin Megami Tensei series, liberally sprinkling in crosses and demons with Shinto shrines), also reflecting many anime sensibilities. I thought it was great. I spent hours of my youth weaving my mind through these worlds. This was my earliest and longest exposure to Japanese things.

Next came martial arts. I first did aikido when I was 14, then really started it in earnest when I was 16, due to an influential English teacher who had recently begun practicing. Our teacher was a dedicated French master of Yoseikan Budo, who had studied with the founder of the style in Japan for 7 years in the 70s. The dojo was first in Palos Verdes, then in Torrance, one of the hubs of the Japanese community in California and the USA. Patrick Auge Sensei spoke fluent Japanese, French, and English. We had many students, including “normal” Americans, like my English teacher, Mr.Brown, Stu, a jovial Polish-American from Michigan with a strong liking for Japanese women, Japanese-Americans, like Takeo, the 2nd-generation son of a plastics company CEO, and actual Japanese people–the most notable of whom was sensei’s wife, Kaoru Sensei, a 5th dan herself.

One of my most memorable classes was a day when no one showed up for some reason. So it was just me, a teenage white belt, and my 6th and 7th dan teachers. I was nervous, and lucky. In our dojo, at the end of class, usually the most senior student did the sensei ni rei and shomen ni rei, “bow to sensei, bow to the shomen.” This was one of the only times I did it, and certainly the first. When my dad picked me up from practice that night, Kaoru Sensei smiled with pride and mentioned to my dad that I had done it for the first time, although of course he didn’t grasp the significance of it–although he did drive back and forth between Manhattan Beach and Torrance/PV many, many times, before I got my license and was able to borrow the car. Thanks, dad!

Around this time I also started studying Buddhism, and meditating, which happened to coincide with my introduction to existentialism and absurdism–good bedfellows–I believe I may have been the only person in my AP English class who felt deeply moved by The Stranger, the rest, apparently expressing boredom and confusion. It was in this dojo that I had my first introduction to meditation. Sometimes I sat after class and would sit on the tatami, practicing, even though I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to be doing yet.

“Here, this will make it easier,” Auge sensei said once, turning out the lights for me. He always knew just how much to push.

These early beginnings into the nature of mind probably also influenced my (several-year) desire to become a neuroscientist, leading me to take courses in college on philosophy of mind, psychology, neurobiology, and attempt to apply my mathematical-systems approach towards both differential equations and self-identity, while continuing to take ukemi and sit in zazen at 7:30 in the morning with a bunch of old Claremont hippies.

Looking back, it’s safe to say that few of these interests were really shared by my classmates at Harvey Mudd College, who were, on the whole, more interested in tackling purely  technical and mathematical problems, building complex devices, and puling off crazy pranks. Anime and video games, were in abundance, however, and I met at least one expert cosplayer (those people who dress up in accurate costumes of their favorite characters at anime conventions).

Upon leaving this dojo for college, I thought I would get a big celebration party like some of the other students who had left, but Auge sensei announced, “We are not going to throw Nick a party..because he is not really leaving..he is always welcome here.”

Damn! I wanted a party!  I thought.

I only fully appreciated this gesture years later.

“You have great talent..but you’re restless,” was what he told me. That stung; but he was always perceptive.

I watched some anime, I delved into Japanese cinema–first Kurosawa, gradually, Takeshi Kitano and Hirokazu Kore-eda. Despite his massive influence, Ozu has failed to peak my interest, but perhaps I’ll re-cross that bridge at some point. In high school, the local community college offered Japanese and I thought about taking it, and would have–if I hadn’t already been filled to the brim with Honors and AP science, math, English, and history classes–a problem that would re-occur later in college, with Chinese. Non-essential language study is not particularly well-suited for the strongly academic, and especially, scientifically-oriented.

Due in part to the influence of a room mate who had spent time there, and Peter Hessler’s marvelous and groundbreaking book, River Town, I somehow ended up going to China and learning Chinese instead of Japan and Japanese. Part of this is was wanting to see the insanity and rate of change offered by China for myself, and its enormous influence, size, and humanity, both great and terrible, which Japan seemed almost irrelevant in comparison to, by this point. Partially due to my interests in various aspects of Japanese culture, and knowing that much of it could ultimately be traced to China, I knew I had to go there, despite the extent to which it has been utterly wiped away.

So I started studying Chinese, for much the same reason that I had once looked at higher-level math textbooks and thought, “I need to understand what this means.” I needed to understand what Chinese meant. It bothered me that this writing system perplexed me, I needed to get some sort of competency in it, and try to figure out this perplexing and disturbing culture. Even before I knew anything about the Japanese or Chinese writing systems, I can remember being at LAX and looking at signs in various languages and training myself to tell the two apart.”Chinese is blocky and overly complicated looking, Japanese is more squiggly and not as dense,” I remember thinking.

Now that I can read Chinese and complex math books, I no longer have a strong desire to learn Japanese. For that matter, I no longer have a strong desire to teach myself differential geometry, old English, or play God to fruit flies.

So, as I embark to Japan in 9 days, it’s under a different backdrop than the overjoyed 17-year old who would have loved for the opportunity to go 12 years ago, and in that sense, is a long-awaited and overdue full-circle trip I have been keenly anticipating, yet, I believe it is also happening at the right time (except maybe with respect to weather). My head has been so full of ideas and images about and related to Japan for so long, that I expect the actual experience of being there will be somewhat unreal, and at the same time, probably significantly less shocking and exotic than it is for many, due to having previously lived in China and Taiwan, and travelled all over Europe.

It seems this (rarely and erratically updated) blog has become largely about tea and odd art projects, though was previously started in part to document my time living in Taiwan. Despite the unrevealing and unrepresentative pieces of my life portrayed here, my life back in Berkeley has continued to go on, and the past year was largely characterized by a soul-gripping, frustrating commitment to a dysfunctional middle school. Now that I’m on break and am free to idle my days for several months without having to wake up for anything, I can continue the process of unpacking writing that is in various stages of completion, continuing with Taiwan, bits and pieces of my (full and lucky, despite its temporary problems) life here in the Bay Area, and looking forward through Japan. Besides continuing to teach, make music, and practice aikido, my main two goals in the medium-to long-term that I would like to come to fruition are 1) Publish writing and 2) Start a tea business.

I will try to write a bit on here during my time there, if anyone’s reading, though will also be taking several notebooks. Almost ready!

Right after landing in Incheon, one of the things that threw me off was seeing a couple kiss, completely out in the open.  In public!  You never see that in Taiwan.  In America it’s normal, but not in Taiwan or China.  Something else you don’t see in Taiwan are the large, sprawling apartment complexes that are present in Seoul, which I’ve already mentioned.

It took me 15 minutes to find my way out on the first day.

The subway stations in Seoul are the most hi-tech of anywhere I’ve been.  Everything is electronic, automated.  There are screens showing visually, how far away the next train is, and touch screens with built in google-map functions to find anything.  Even when you pay for a single ticket, you don’t deposit money directly into the gate; you pay for a card at a machine, and then you return that card and get your deposit back after exiting.  Taipei has many of these elements, but in Seoul, everything was just a step ahead, and much better integrated.

On the train (the widest I’ve seen for a subway), people were bundled up, and thoroughly engaged in their ipads, ipods, iphones, or more likely, the LG or Samsung equivalent.  Seoul is the most wired city on Earth.  Even more than a Caltrain at 6 PM out of Mountain View.  Despite this level of futurism, there was still a healthy amount of earthiness present, which one doesn’t see in places where the transition from agricultural to Pradacultural hasn’t been so sudden.  Vendors set up stands selling vials of honey-ginseng tea, clothing, sunglasses, rice cakes, big bushy bundles of cavernous roots which could have only been hand-picked from some frigid field.  Gradually, the smells of Seoul did start to seep into my consciousness, under all those layers of clothing–alcohol, sweat, kim chi.  Just enough grime to even out the steel. This was also how I found Seoul to be over all.

I got off around the center of downtown next to a historic Buddhist temple.  There was chanting going on inside, and outside, there were huge piles of cabbage being sorted.  I ordered a handful of red bean manju from a vendor, and they were perfectly crisp and warm, gooey red bean on the inside.  The contrast with the dry, cold, blue sky made them particularly delectable.  After coming back to Taiwan I ordered the equivalent treat and was disappointed–soggy with too much sugar.

There was a sign next to the temple which stated that during the Japanese occupation, the temple’s name had been changed to a Japanese one, and since Korean independence, the name had been changed back, restored, and since purged of “Japanese influences.”  This was a particularly interesting tidbit, since everywhere I went in Seoul, it reminded me of my conception (having not yet been there) of how Japan or Tokyo must be–a city bursting forth with interesting design, art galleries, pedestrian walkways, food and small bars everywhere, temples mixed in with creative glass skyscrapers, wiry wandering streets which know no particular dimension, addresses ordered more by “gu” (district) and “dong” (neighborhood) than “gil” (street).  Unlike Japan, which I think of as a stifling place where politeness and order take precedent over humanity, Seoul seemed to me to be somewhere between the chaos of Chinese society, while still having many elements of the swishness and order of Japanese society.  That is, an organized, well-run place, where people are polite, yet also yell at each other (as underlying, essential feature of Korean language and society), where you can duck into a cozy cafe and wander the back alley-ways of Innsadong, but still eat spicy seafood stew in little tents on the street, and drink soju with your dog.  I found these contrasts fascinating, and endearing.

Modern Korean society, though, is definitely demented.  This modern infrastructure reflected a relentless drive to copy the West; while I have always felt that the Chinese want to copy the wealth, style, conveniences, and their conception of the lifestyle of Americans and some Europeans, the Koreans are the only people I have seen who literally seem like they are trying to rip their skin off and be a (high-class) Westerner.  Case in point: I asked a male friend I made in Seoul about the widespread practice of plastic surgery in Korea, and was told, “about 99% of my female friends have had it.  Some, multiple times.”  Many of these surgeries are for eye-widening/double eye-lid (compared to many Chinese, and especially Taiwanese, Koreans typically have much narrower eyes and looked much more “Asian” to me in a way, or perhaps just Mongolian, with their large physical stature and accentuated cheek bones), chin-reshaping, and breast enlargement.  While Chinese and Taiwanese people will often talk in depth about their collective history with only the slightest urging (whether truly ignorant of it or not), Koreans seem to downplay their (actually long and rich) history, and it seems it is only starting to be remembered in light of recent prosperity, combined with the realization of tourist potential (within the Seoul downtown area, there are several major historic palaces that date to the 1400s or so, as well as remnants of old city gates).  A typical example of this attitude was talking to this same friend about the Korean equivalent of tsua bing–shaved iced with various sweet toppings.  He told me it was one of his favorite desserts until a foreign friend pointed out to him that he was just eating ice and fruit, at which point he felt it was stupid, and stopped eating it.

Korean culture is extreme.  They eat live octopus, as well as dogs, which are traditionally hung upside down and beaten to death so as to produce maximum adrenaline for supposed virility effects.  The previously mentioned friend told me a chilling story of his youth whereupon he came home one day to discover that his grandparents had cooked the family dog.

“We have a special surprise for you,” they told him.  “We cooked something very nutritious for you.”  They didn’t tell him what it was until after he’d finished eating.  He immediately went to the toilet and threw up.

On the plus side, I’ve never been to a place where people stay up partying so late.  Taipei is a ghost town by comparison.  The energy was vibrant, colorful, and a bit excessive–closer to San Francisco than Taipei.  At 4 AM crowds of people still clogged Itaewon, drinking, eating, going in and out of clubs to numerous to count, and another night in Hongdae, Young and I stumbled onto a silent dance party in full swing–that is, a dance party outside where there’s a DJ, but all the sound is distributed through headphones, so that the effect is something like monkeys manically jumping around for no apparent reason.  Also like something I would expect to see in Japan (ironically, as Taiwanese fancy themselves as the primo facto Japanese copiers, yet Chinese society is fundamentally distinct with Japanese culture, despite decades of colonization).  On the negative side, this is undoubtedly a reaction to mainly conservative, high-pressure, high-obligation society, and I’ve also never seen such public drunkenness.  Some girls were  already wobblin’ like a dreidel at 9 PM.

Something else I wasn’t expecting about Seoul is that there are craggy mountains both in the middle of the city and on the periphery.  I climbed a couple of them.  It was great!  I also talked to to a couple from Jilin and took a couple pictures for them, and was reminded how indecipherable regional Chinese accents are as soon as you get used to one.  A recurring thought I had during this trip was “huh, Korean would be a much easier language to learn than Chinese.”  No tones.  No characters.  A logical alphabet.  Actually, I was picking up vocabulary left and right, as they still use characters for many purposes, so that I was able to teach myself Korean by looking at the Chinese, in many cases–in fact, a huge amount of Korean vocabulary consists of Chinese loan-words, and in many cases, they’re almost identical (three-san-sam, gate-men-mum, Gwanghwamun-光化門/GuangHuaMen-radiant burning gate?)

One thing I’ve long been curious about was the presence or absence of tea and tea culture in Korea.  I know all about Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese tea, which are well regarded and too numerous to list, but had never heard anything about tea in Korea.  Well, perhaps like many things in Korea, it exists, but you wouldn’t know it from the outside.  They actually grow a fair bit of tea, particularly on sub-tropical Cheju island–mainly green, but also a little bit of oolong.  I bought some, and tried similar varieties in various cafes–very similar to Japanese Sencha.  For whatever reason, they don’t really seem to export their tea–I’ve certainly never seen any for sale in the US, or elsewhere.   Pu-erh, as everywhere, seemed just as prominently displayed in the teashops I visited.  Tea culture exists, but they seem to have distilled the elements down to the essentials, and coffee culture is quite strong.  In teashops in Taiwan, HK, and China, it’s easy to get yourself invited in for hours, \ drinking cup after cup while answering all sorts of questions about yourself.  That never happened to me in Seoul.  I was regarded kindly but rather indifferently, and simply asked what I wanted.  I wasn’t offered any samples.

In Taipei, the constant evenness of the weather and the people sometimes brings out the edge in me, for lack of one in my environment.  In Seoul it was the opposite–the intensity of the weather, the food, and the people, made me feel more introverted, walk more slowly.  I felt like a different person.  It was a nice change to be in a place where one could actually feel the impact seasons have on humans.  On my last day I got lost coming down Bukansahn, and an old guy who barely spoke English grabbed my arm, walking with me all over town, asking every person he could, until he was sure he would get me to where I was going.  Along the way he asked me what I thought of Korea.

“What is your…impression?”  He shouted, searching for the word.

“Good, interesting.  I like the food.  Bibimbap, soon do boo, kim chi.”

“Soon doo boo!”  His eyes lit up.  “Ah, very good!”

Then he got on the bus with me.  Two of them.  At that point, he animatedly explained everything he knew about me and my predicament to everyone on the bus, as far as I could tell.  One guy said, “don’t worry.”  Another woman grabbed my arm and said, “I’m getting off at this stop, follow me,” at which point I was handed off.  “Where you from?  Pakistan, India?”  She asked.  When I told her the real answer, she smiled, telling me she had spent ten years in Australia.  I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that kind of generosity.

Hats off to you, Seoul.  I’ll be back.

As the plane descended into Seoul, my Korean seat-mate put on a sweater and a wool hat, and assumed an expression befitting one embarking on an expedition.  The temperature outside, the captain announced, was 1 degree Celsius.  I was coming from sub-tropical Taipei, where it’s often still warm enough in December to wear shorts and a t-shirt, and was wondering what I had gotten myself into.  I was well prepared–my single messenger bag was stuff with a fleece, gore-tex jacket, gloves, scarf, and both lower and upper long underwear.  I was no longer in the land of bananas and innocent girls in short skirts; no, I was about to spend four days in a cold land of jagged mountains, kim chi, and accented-yelling.

Waiting for the shuttle between terminals, I made small-talk with some Taiwanese, who, of course, were surprised that I was speaking to them in Chinese.  They were giddy as clams, and I kept reminding one woman that we were in Korea now, it was very cold outside, and, had she brought some pants? (she was wearing a short skirt).  She giggled and assured me that she did. As we were ascending an escalator into the main area, some sort of Korean star was sighted, and a wide cacophony of camera shots and phony “anneyaseo!”s was heard from the Taiwanese contingent.  By contrast, the Koreans were dignified, and silent, and the Cantonese members of the flight crew (as it was Cathay Pacific) stood by with weary disinterest, icy, and elegant–very Hong Kongish of them.  Within this new environment–more modern, serious, professional–the Taiwanese seemed like children to me.

In the small amount of research I did leading up to this trip, one of the things I learned is that the Seoul area is the second biggest metropolitan area in the world (after Greater Tokyo), encompassing almost 24.5 million people–greater than the total population of Taiwan, half the size of California.  Therefore, it came somewhat of a surprise to me that at Incheon national airport, the bus-ticket staff barely spoke English, a recurrent theme in coming days.  Somehow, they couldn’t figure out my bad pronounciation of Taereungipgoo, until I discovered the proper way to say “Tae,” at which point I was able to buy my ticket to where I was staying for the first two nights, at the home of a Korean couch surfer.

The bus journey was long, and by the time I got off, it was 11 PM.  I had precise directions written down, but no working cell phone, so I had to make sure I got them right.  There’s moments like this you have when you travel in foreign places as a cheap/independent traveler.  That is, it was 11 PM, I was in a foreign place where I didn’t speak the language, and English didn’t seem to be widely spoken.  I was staying with a random stranger who had kindly agreed to take me in, but didn’t have a phone.  I was dropped off at a nondescript suburban looking area next to a section of the Han river, full of bridges, cars, and sky-high apartment complexes that all looked the same.  It felt definitely below freezing to me.

Somehow, I navigated successfully, and found myself walking next to giant towers whose only distinguishing features were large numbers painted on the sides:

107

111

114

Each building had several entrances, each with their own electronic security barriers.  Eventually, I finally found the right building and the right entrance, and was buzzed up by Jean, my affable host.  Immediately, I was greeted by a smile, a cozy apartment, and within minutes, a home made dinner of miso soup, veggies, and kim chi.  I settled in, and had long conversation with Jean about Korea, China, Taiwan, travel, art, tea shops, and other things I don’t remember. She asked me what I smelled when I stepped off the plane in Incheon.

“When I was in Taiwan, right away, it smelled different..it smelled like Taiwan.  What did you smell when you came out?  Kim chi?”  She laughed, a wonderfully joyous laugh.

I admitted that I hadn’t yet smelled any particular smells, but it was striking how much drier it was here, and I’m sure I would come up with something, after I had been here for more than a few hours.

When it was time to go to bed, she showed me to my room, and laid out a sort of comforter on the heated floor, the traditional way of sleeping for Koreans.  I added on several layers on top, and the interior warmth was delicious after being in the piercing cold.  I was reminded of the beginning of Moby Dick, as the protagonist finds himself in bed with a tattooed, spear-carrying Polynesian whaler, in an icy Nantucket room.  Once these “personal” details are sorted out, he takes great pleasure in the warmth and comfort of his lodgings, in light of the abominable winter outside.  Herman Melville writes,

“Truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”

And I slept, relaxing into the comfort that I have always felt from sleeping in a place that is not my own, but which I am welcomed into.

Sitting on the airport express, the train hardly makes a sound.  We whiz by improbably tall towers while the on-board tv replays clips of business “commentary.”  The question being discussed by the American hosts—why are startups so sexy?  Can Microsoft compete with Facebook and Google at luring young graduates?  Numbers flickers by on the screen like divinity readings .  Crack bones over the fire, read the flickers of stock values rising and falling like an ever spinning roulette.  I look out the window and wonder where I am.

It is quiet, clean, efficient.  No one talks. This is the sound of modernity—sterility, anonymity.   In the American subconscious, there is a romantic idea of making love in the backseat of a convertible.  Can you imagine making love in this commuter train?  If so, you might truly be a master of your surroundings.

Arriving first at Central-Hong Kong station, my impression is one of a Western city with mainly Chinese people.  I am surprised to see a girl in plaid with a nose-ring, another with a skateboard who glares at me when I find myself looking at her.   Silent, serious people in monochrome skirts and suits look mechanically at smart-phones. They have successfully copied the trends of urban images everywhere, and a smooth disinterest for the current moment is written on peoples’ faces.

I accidentally try to use my airport-train ticket on the subway at first, and some youths try to help me, in fluent, British-accented English.  Coming from Taiwan, I am stunned by their utter lack of any Chinese accent, and by the fact that no one attempts to talk to me in either Mandarin (or Cantonese) before switching to English.

Finally, I take the MTR one stop over to Tsim Sha Tsui, to begin my journey at the infamous ChungKung Mansions, well known as one of the cheapest places of accommodation in all of Hong Kong.  It is nearly midnight and I need to find a room for the night.  Upon exiting, the first thing I notice is the evenness of the streets—large sidewalks, and the glow of signs—it feels like I am in any major western city, say, New York, a world away from Taipei.  Due to the lateness of the hour, not too many people are milling about, but as I approach my destination, it is clear that I am in a somewhat unsavory area.  All the telltale signs are there: characters standing by the side of the road with eagle eyes, smoking cigarettes, doing nothing, but looking for something.  Right away, a wiry young Indian man approaches me.

“Room?”

“Ok.”

I smile, knowing that I am being drawn into a game, but confident that I know how to play it, if I can remember how.

“How much?” I ask, right away, as I follow him.

He starts saying something, and I think he is talking to me, but then realize he has a headset in one ear, already in business with someone else, even as he manages me, just another fly.

We enter the building and he has not yet responded to my query; but, no matter, the mansions are full of literally dozens of guesthouses.  If I don’t like it, I’ll simply find another.  As we walk through the doorway, an unlatched opening in an array of metal bars, the shabbiness of the place immediately reminds me, once again, that I am definitely no longer in Taiwan; this has the look of those many downtrodden places that exist in contrast to the rich places they inhabit, the flip side of the developed/undeveloped 1st world/3rd world divide that coexists most anywhere there are haves and have-nots.  Which one am I now?

Trash is strewn across the floor.  Weary corners snake out on all sides.  Immediately I am struck by the colorfulness of the people there.  There are Indians, Affricans, Southeast Asians, Chinese, Caucasians.  Little stalls are all along the hallway, selling Halal foods, cell phones, clothing, with many more shuttered for the night.  The Mansions is split into “blocks” horizontally, adding to the feel of a prison, and each block has two elevators; one for even floors, one for odd.  We walk to the end of the building, over at “E” block, where there seem to be many Indian guesthouses listed on the directory.

Exiting on the 5th floor, we finally begin negotiations for the price of the room.

“Right now, it is the Hong Kong _______  [insert excuse] convention” so rooms are expensive.  500 HKD per night.”

I chuckle, knowing he is merely testing to see how big of a fool I am.

“Too expensive.  I’m looking for something cheaper, more like 200 per night.”

We’re walking into the guesthouse.  It’s a doorway into an extremely narrow corridor that’s surprisingly well kept.  Again, it snakes around corner after corner, creating a feeling of claustrophobia.

“For you, I will give you to you for 350 a night.”

I call his bluff.

“No, too expensive.”

“Come here, see the room.”

There is an Indian/Pakistani man, lying on the floor under a blanket opposite the door.

The room is tiny, but actually quite nice.  It has its own bathroom, and as he points out, “tv, wi-fi, air conditioning.”

“You like?  Only 350.”

I linger, not committing.

He fakes a move of conciliation.

“Wait, I will talk to my boss.”

He picks up the phone and starts speaking in a language I don’t understand.

“Ok, 250 for tonight.  But you have to leave tomorrow, we have a checking.”

I feel that I have won, but I take it a step further just to see what I can get away with.

“how about 200?”

“No, 250.”

“Ok, 225.”

“250.  Passbook.”

I sign my information.

“James,” he says, writing down my middle name, for some reason.  Has he never looked at a passport with three names before?

“Now give him the money.”

Him, being the laconic man lying across from the doorway of my room.

I hand him the money and attempt small-talk.

“So you are the owner?”

He stares at me and says nothing.  I decide to set my things down.

After assessing the 40 –odd so square feet of my room, I go down for a walk.  Passing through the building to the outside, the seediness and sense of desperation is like the blast of humidity that hit me when I first stepped off the airplane in Taoyuan. I am approached by more Indian touts, whom I brush off.  I have forgotten this sense of tension and hunger in peoples’ eyes; in contrast to much of the urban world, it just isn’t something one encounters in Taipei.

At night, the area around Tsim Sha Tsui looks like one big shuttered department store.  Giant photos of women wearing expensive jewelry and clothing adorn the sides of towering buildings.  The scale seems inhuman, and these images are just as strange and disturbing.   The emptiness of the area at this time of night only adds to the effect.

The women portrayed in these ads are glamorous, yet seem to be cooly indifferent to everything.  They don’t seem particularly happy, or particularly anything.  They are alternatingly Caucasian and Chinese, the two races of prestige here, although the combination of make-up, a detached, pseudo-sexual facial expression, and the preference for ultra-light skin, creates a homogenizing result, towards some kind of uber-woman, stripped of all identifiable cultural markers. Perhaps that’s the point—whiter than white, passing for luxury and power in any sphere of influence as necessary.

I pass by a bar and hear music, so of course, I enter.  It is full of Caucasians in business attire, with the occasional pretty young Chinese woman sitting next to a man.  There is a Dixieland-type jazz band playing on-stage.  I am struck by the foreignness of the scene.  A sour-faced Asian (Chinese? Southeast Asian?) waitress approaches me and gives me a menu.  I listen to the band for a bit and look at a drink menu, pondering the novelty.  Shortly afterwards, another waitress starts to hover over me.  I stall for time and retreat back into the menu, thinking about whether or not to stay.  Thirty seconds later, she returns.  And I thought people in Taipei could be impatient.  There’s not even a pretense of friendliness here. The band seems to be wrapping up.  I leave.

As I exit the bar, looking around, a Cantonese taxi driver with a sleazy face starts talking to me in broken English.

“You want taxi?”

“No.”

“What you want?  You want fun, want to drink?  Good bar over here.”

“No.”

Unresponsive, he continues.

“You want girl?  What you want?”

“Nothing.  Just to walk around.”

His face seems to continue moving, but he no longer talks.

I wander around, and mistakenly make eye contact with an attractive woman who seems lost or tentative.  It seems as though she shouldn’t be walking around by herself at this time of night, here.  I reach the end of a street, then turn around, passing her again from the other direction.  She calls out to me,

“Sir, sir..”

I take that as my cue to keep walking.

Back inside the Chungking mansions, I eat Indian food, and I almost want to cry, because the flavors are so beautiful, even as it’s merely street food that’s being reheated, the first time I’ve had real Indian food of this caliber since Shalimar, in San Francisco.  This is food for fellow Indians and Pakistanis, not for a foreign palate.  I want to grab someone and cry, “We can’t get this in Taiwan!  Oh my god, it’s so good!”

Of the late-nite diners, there are people of all stripes, including some British guys whom I make small-talk with.  One of them never looks away from the TV and has the rigid, austere accent of a humorless, high-class Londoner, but the other, who seems to be Hapa, is talkative and has been living in Guangdong for the past five years.  They are both here for business, and the conversation immediately turns to costs and salaries in Taiwan and other places, discussions about money I rarely have, but that I would find myself having more than once in the coming days, in this shrine to Capitalism.

Still high on the differentness of this crazy place of towering buildings and hungry eyes, I briefly walk around the ground floor, past the African and Filipina prostitutes that loiter in a “come, hither” pose that seem out of a movie, and take the elevator back to my floor.  There are several Indian men sleeping on the corridor floors I have to step around.  I turn on the tv and watch CCTV for awhile before drifting off to sleep at about 3 AM.  It occurs to me that, despite using different currency and having semi-soverignty, I’m technically back in China, once again.  It’s a little unsettling.