Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Pox on the Brooklyn Bridge

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The most beautiful part of the Brooklyn Bridge is a metal rod protruding from the edge of its pedestrian walkway. This rod is on the south side of the walkway, closer to Brooklyn than Manhattan, covered in rust and connected to a large pipe daubed with gloppy grey paint and plastered with graffiti stickers.

The most beautiful things on the bridge that are not part of the bridge itself are the dozen or so padlocks dangling from this metal rod.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Theater of the Tunnels

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Screeches, wails, electronic static fuzzing the edges of some irrelevant PSA—“This is an announcement from the New York Police Department”—out of such bedlam come the sounds of another subterranean monster. Its lights glow in the distance. The columns separating the tracks break up the scene, like the edges of film frames flickering across a screen. Your train and this other train are edging closer, smoothly eating up the distance between them, looking like they will converge into one.

Then the tracks straighten out. The trains run parallel, two bits of flotsam in the same current.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dragonfruit and sugarcane

New York: the city of lights, of sounds, of dreams of the future and visions of the past, city of sewers and parks, of Walt Whitman and John Lennon and the Village Voice, of the Port Authority and Occupy Wall Street; the village of the Dutch and city of the world, an archipelago anchored to the mainland by a single poor peninsula but yearning, like the huddled masses called by its fabled statue, to breathe free.

All of that. But this post is about Elmhurst.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

October Chill

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I mostly receive expressions of sympathy, and sometimes of alarm, when I tell New Yorkers that I’ve never been through a real winter.

“Oh,” they say, looking me up and down, eyeballing my wardrobe and estimating fat thickness. “Do you have winter clothes?”

“I’ll get some,” I assure them cheerily, not bothering to admit that I am in fact already wearing what I consider my winter clothes – jacket, shoes, and a hat when it really gets nippy. Which it hasn’t, not by New York standards, though my Mississippi-California-Philippines background has established a rather different set of definitions.

So I found myself stumbling through the winter’s first snow two weeks ago, wet and cold from the slushy mess sweeping down Seventh Avenue. I had spent most of the day staring out of the windows of the bookstore, transfixed by this small amount of snow that quickly eclipsed the one significant snowfall of my youth (a sprinkling, but to us Gulf of Mexicans a blizzard). The bookstore was warm and homey, its soft lights inviting, and it felt like nothing so much as a well-kept cottage in some snow-swept northern village.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Coney Island, maybe

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Aside from the maddening carnival-music-loop droning from one of its beachside amusement parks, Coney Island on a Sunday in mid-October was almost the opposite of its own lore. The boardwalk, particularly at its western extremity, was quiet and desolate. A stiff wind blew clouds of sand in from the beach. Now and then a headbanded jogger puffed by, blinking the grit out of squinted eyes.

Coney Island is a far jaunt from Queens, thanks to the dearth of trains connecting my borough with Brooklyn. I rode the F train the whole way, rumbling west under Roosevelt Island, making the familiar dip into midtown and then looping back onto Long Island. The car emptied steadily: Manhattan ate most of the riders, and the remainder trickled off as we approached the beach. My last companion exited at the stop before mine, and I was all alone for the final few hundred meters.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, occupy the world

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“Are you press?”

I couldn’t tell if the man was wary or excited by the prospect. I had just taken a picture of his little daughter. Amid the slow-moving ocean of protesters, gawkers, cops, journalists, and a couple of girls very keen to make it across Times Square to the Best Buy, she was balanced on his shoulders, bearing a sign calling for a books-not-bombs fiscal policy.

I assured the man that I wasn’t the press, though even as I was saying it I wondered what that word even meant anymore. The Occupy Wall Street protests have been documented far more comprehensively by amateurs, including the protesters themselves, than by the mainstream media.

That seems to be changing rapidly now as the protests gain steam in New York, Boston, London, Rome and many other cities. The loosely-affiliated protests have their own particular goals – Tokyo protesters, with the memories of Fukushima still fresh, have united against nuclear energy – but they are all flames from the spark struck by the bands of campers who converged on Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan on September 17.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Wall Street’s Day of Irritation

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Like the two photos above, September 17’s “Day of Rage” in lower Manhattan sent mixed messages. Inspired by this year’s protests in the Middle East and northern Africa, and named after Chicago’s Days of Rage activities in the late 1960s, Saturday’s activism was… well…

What was it, exactly?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pebbles on a mountain


(Above) This is where I traveled.

(Below) For some perspective…
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It’s a big world.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Five Vietnam: Hanoi and the End

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Hanoi’s Old Quarter is tiny streets and miniscule alleys packed with sellers of all things, from vegetables to headstones. The roads have baffling twists and mysterious termini: you may round a corner and have a beautiful lake filling your view, or you might find yourself on the doorstep of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In sheer numbers, the bodies and machines filling the streets can’t match Ho Chi Minh’s frenzies, but Hanoi’s more constricted environment makes every road crossing or packed sidewalk an obstacle course.

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The Quarter certainly does feel old. Beautiful aged buildings are everywhere, and traditional markets line some of the winding alleyways. While it’s also the hub for budget-minded tourists, most of the locals – except for the ones catering directly to foreigners – go about their business without so much as a glance at the intruders.

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Preparations for Tet were in full swing: everywhere I saw people carrying huge bunches of flowers, and orange trees – apparently a common gift and decoration – filled up Hanoi’s parks. Unfortunately, my flight was on the morning of February 2, the eve of Tet, so I didn’t get to experience the New Year in Vietnam. When the day turned I was somewhere in the air between Guangzhou, China and Los Angeles.

The energy of the Old Quarter was undoubtedly my favorite aspect of Hanoi. It could get exhausting – but then, it felt like a place that should be exhausting. At the same time, greater Hanoi was an attractive, park-spotted city, well-oriented for rambling. One afternoon – after failing to see the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, which was apparently open only in the morning – I took some back alleys, the kind to which you’re never quite sure there’s an exit until you hear the traffic from a real road up ahead. I ended up at a large pond entirely surrounded by multistory buildings, with entrances only large enough for motorbikes. Along one side of this pond was a long wall separating the walkway from a row of apartments; smack in the middle of this wall, a mirror reflected a man’s half-shaved face and his engrossed barber.

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I was definitely struck with a sense of last-chance-to-see, since Hanoi was my ultimate stop. This gave me the odd idea that I should be doing something in particular to mark my final days in Asia – seeing some famous sight or throwing major dong at a special meal. But I realized that nothing would be more appropriate for the end of my trip than simply looking and listening. With rare exceptions, I never set out for a place with specific intentions, and usually I’ll gladly take aimlessness over an itinerary.

So I looked: at joggers around Hoan Kiem Lake, women washing dishes in buckets on the sidewalks, people taking in laundry under the sullen grey skies. I listened: to the chatter of men in the coffee-drinking circles, the admonitions of mothers to their children, and the insistent hum of engines. Everything ordinary – that’s what I wanted for my last couple days.

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Fittingly, my grand exit was more of a sneaking crawl under cover of darkness. I woke up before 5am, when the streets were miraculously quiet, and tiptoed downstairs to shake the hotel proprietress awake so she could unlock the doors. She was sleeping peacefully on the lobby couch, protected from the chill by a thick sleeping bag. After clearing my throat ineffectually, I reached out and tentatively applied the smallest touch to her ankle region. I did this probably half a dozen times, increasing the pressure almost imperceptibly each time, before she woke and sat up blearily. I felt terrible. I had told her the day before that I had to check out early, but that fact assuaged my guilt not at all – especially since she and her husband had been extremely kind and helpful during my short stay.

“Did you pay?” she asked, rummaging around for my passport. “Yes, last night. I paid the older woman. Your mother?” I guessed. “Older woman?” She seemed confused, but let it pass, and finally handed over my passport and opened the doors, shivering as the chill cut through her pajamas.

“Thank you so much,” I said guiltily. She smiled slightly.

“And Happy New Year."

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I walked the dark, empty streets to my airport shuttle. I sat in the cold airport. Boarded the plane. We took off.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Four Vietnam: Drops of Hue

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In Hue it rained, and most of what I saw was filtered through a café window. I never had to brave any downpours; instead the clouds decided to drip just enough to discourage too much exploring. I embarked on two expeditions to the Citadel, Hue’s old walled imperial city, and turned back both times. (This was due to a combination of rain and a general lack of interest in seeing the country’s tallest flagpole – which I was able to glimpse from afar, in any case.) I did enjoy walking along the banks of the Perfume River, a wide expanse blanketed in mist and dotted with colorful tourist boats, but the raindrops made me pay for the sight.

So really, I didn’t do much in Hue. I sat down with endless cups of Vietnamese coffee and wrote in my journal and read Banana Yoshimoto’s N.P. I tried to stay warm. I ignored the sounds filtering through the inexplicable window that linked my bathroom to the hotel room next door. Pretty soon it was time to go, and with a handful of peanuts and a squished butter cake (a gift from Hai) to sustain me, I boarded my last bus. My final stop was that fabled capital of old Indochina, city of lakes and temples: Hanoi.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Three Vietnam: Finding Luck in Hoi An

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In keeping with my belief that unplanned travel is often the best, Hoi An ended up being one of my favorite stops. I forfeited the remainder of my ongoing ticket to Hue, but a new ticket for the next day was only about 3USD and the extra was worth it.

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Hoi An’s primary tourist attraction held no interest for me whatsoever: the town is known for its tailors, and clothing shops abound. One store proudly displayed a letter from a foreign customer who, along with his wife, ended up buying somewhere north of sixty clothing items during their stay. Unfathomable. Perhaps more than any other place I went in Vietnam – where tourists were in general easily found – the foreign contingent in Hoi An asserted itself with a kind of selective interest: I saw almost no foreigners outside of a half-dozen or so streets that form the town’s core. I was also greatly amused when I came upon a Highly Interesting Cultural Event being held on a sidewalk – some locals burning trash. Two separate international types were videotaping this while the Vietnamese laughed at them.

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What I really liked about Hoi An was the river, which was green and sluggish, and the buildings, which were yellowed and old. The river flows alongside the Ancient Town, a collection of narrow streets and alleyways that harbor the typical tourist requisites along with many, many cafes. My favorite part of my brief stay was walking these streets and talking with the local artists about their work. There were several photography galleries as well, mostly displaying the output of a local photo club.

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As always, there were also lots of people angling for foreign dollars. I’ve found it pretty easy to turn down overpriced trinkets and vegetables and motorbike rides, but I was willfully suckered in Hoi An by Dao and Tuan, a couple of shrewd kids who insisted that I needed to buy a buffalo zodiac pendant for luck. (Apparently the Vietnamese substitute a water buffalo for the ox of the Chinese zodiac.) I got them to cut their price by two-thirds but knew I was still getting swindled – especially after, realizing they were out of buffalo, big sister Dao handed Tuan a fraction of what I paid to go get me a buffalo pendant from some unnamed third party. I respected their polite tenacity and also appreciated their willingness to chat. I may have lost points with them when I tied the buffalo to my wrist instead of around my neck, but after some consideration Dao decided that it would bring me luck nonetheless.

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And now the bit about food. Thanks to an abundance of international restaurants I mostly ate western food in
Hoi An, and it was mostly good. I’ve talked about the coffee and the pho, but another thing I’ve loved about Vietnam is the crusty baguettes that are frequently served with meals. It’s something I only recently realized that I really miss from back home.

More than anything, Hoi An was simply picturesque. As I moved through Vietnam I saw more and more preparations being made for the February 3 Tet holiday, and Hoi An was in full swing: altars bearing food and incense were being set up along the sidewalks, red banners and decorations adorned many of the cracked walls in the Ancient City, and dragons were in conspicuous attendance. All of these preparations were set against a town that, while catering to tourists, still managed to maintain its own separate spirit. The morning before I left, I was out early on the streets watching worn old women carry impressive loads of bananas and peppers on their backs. A girl stepped out of her shop and performed a brief, private ritual with sticks of incense. And the fog rolled on the river.

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Compared to the rest of my bus trips, the hop to Hue was brief – only four hours – but it gave me my best look at Vietnam’s countryside. This was because, for unclear reasons, the driver yanked me out of my seat halfway through and made me sit on a fold-out chair right at the front of the bus. (I think my booking agency screwed up my ticket, and as a result I had to forfeit my seat to someone else.) This ended up being great for me because I had more leg room, more fresh air and the best view of anyone. Some of this view was Da Nang’s ugly urban sprawl and some of it was the feeble walls set up by developers building resorts on fabled China Beach – I had at one point considered going to China Beach, and this ride made me glad I didn’t – but we also rode through rather beautiful mountain passes and valleys.

I also had the pleasure of watching the bus driver threaten to toss off a group of young Vietnamese men who had gotten a bit too rowdy. He literally turned off the highway, stopped the bus and turned around to chew them out. It was fantastic.

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Throughout it all, drizzle plunked down onto the windshield. Since Ho Chi Minh I had been hoping for a respite from the grey weather, but I wasn’t getting it now… and I wouldn’t get it in Hue.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Two Vietnam: Grey Skies Over Nha Trang

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It was on my bus out of Ho Chi Minh that I realized I had been living on a relatively small island for the past two years. The bus just kept going and going and never seemed to be going anywhere; it took us thirteen hours and around 450 kilometers to reach Nha Trang, and I kept thinking… where’s the water? Are we going in circles? On Panay Island, where I lived in the Philippines, 450 kilometers would have been sufficient to cross the entire landmass several times over. In fact, a list of land-routes in the Philippines exceeding 450 kilometers would be short indeed – crossing Luzon north-south and Mindanao both ways, and that’s about it.

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This was my first “sleeper bus,” though it was a day trip and I didn’t sleep. These buses basically have seats that recline almost to horizontal, which is great, but there’s no place to put luggage, which is not. Everything has to go in the compartment under the bus or, if you must carry it on, behind your seat… which prevents it from reclining all the way. I had my laptop and camera in my backpack, so I wasn’t about to let it leave my sight.

Even so, the sleeper buses are more comfortable than regular ones for long trips. I would much rather have taken a train, but I managed to time my trip to coincide perfectly with the two weeks before Tet, when Vietnamese all over the country are returning home to celebrate the holiday. The tourist scene has been relatively tame – I’ve had no problems at all finding accommodation and frequently I’ve been stuck with half a dozen restaurant staff staring at me as I eat, being the only patron in the place – but transportation has been a touch more complicated. I had hoped to ride some trains in Vietnam, but they seem to have been booked solid for weeks.

So buses it has been. I would say my sleeper buses (which cater to tourists) have been roughly two-thirds foreigners and one-third Vietnamese. I was seated next to one of the latter group for much of my trip to Nha Trang. We attempted to converse, and after a lot of scribbled notes and gesticulating we were still a long way from understanding each other, but it was an enjoyable way to spend several hours. Hai was a college student in Ho Chi Minh returning to her home in Phan Rang for either the weekend or the holiday. She asked me to help her with English, which I did awkwardly and inefficiently, and in return she taught me some Vietnamese phrases that I still can’t pronounce. We shared some food and laughed together at the sleeping Russian kid next to me – his tongue lolling and eyes rolling – and she made the usual comments about my hair.

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Nha Trang itself was different from what I’d expected, probably because the only really developed beach-resort-area I’d been to in Asia was Boracay. Boracay was a beach, with lots of hotels and resorts and restaurants and stalls thrown directly onto that beach. Nha Trang seems much more intentional: the beach is contiguous with a substantial city, but most of the structures are built off the beach itself and separated from the sand by a road. And the beach is more park-ish, with walking paths and playgrounds and whatnot.

The place was less raucous than I was led to believe – no doubt thanks to the time of year; Nha Trang certainly contained enough tourist infrastructure to host a Little Paris, Germantown and other suchlike transient international communities – and I saw nary a patch of blue sky during my entire stay. That was fine – it never got too cold, and the ocean was pretty in the greyness even if I didn’t swim in it. Mostly what I did in Nha Trang (this is going to become a tiresome refrain, I’m afraid) was eat.

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I stayed four nights – I hung about for a long time here because I wanted to relax and recover from a lingering illness – and I managed to avoid ever going to the same restaurant twice. Including coffee breaks and dessert stops, I probably hit at least twenty-five cafes during my time there, and almost all the food was good. Actually, the only thing that disappointed me was the pho, which was much inferior to what I had gotten in Saigon.

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I did explore the town to some extent and found some lovely winding back alleys. I was a bit skeptical as always about the foreigner-friendly market with its brand-name t-shirts. Sure, there were also rows of bottled and preserved scorpions for sale, but in context they seemed about as exotic as jars of pickles at a grocery store.

On a positive note, I also visited a photography gallery exhibiting the work of a local Vietnamese artist named Long Thanh. It was marvelous. His photos – which he takes on black-and-white film and develops himself – are stunning scenes of daily life in Vietnam. They’re exactly the kind of photos I admire most: the kind that recognizes the beauty in something mundane – the kind that shows the photographer’s love and admiration and respect for his subjects.

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My next destination was Hue, but I didn’t make it to Hue. After twelve hours or so on the road, we had to switch buses for the last stretch. As I and my fellow passengers stood in the drowsy early-morning air, waiting for the pickup, I looked around at the pleasantly old buildings and and thought… Actually, this looks good. And so I trudged off to find a place to stay for one night in Hoi An.