Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Tag: travel (page 1 of 2)

It’s a Weird World After All – China’s Foreigner Theme Park

chinese pyramid (1 of 1)

It’s a Weird World After All – Roads and Kingdoms

“The white form of Christ the Redeemer, standing considerably shorter than his Brazilian counterpart, spun in slow motion atop a yellow pedestal on an orange, artificial mountain. Candy-colored gondolas bobbed gently above the Christ’s outstretched, beseeching arms. A waterslide, painted blue and rimmed with green, snaked down the side of the mountain. The scent of cumin-flavored lamb skewers hung in the air. Off in the distance I could see an ersatz Egyptian pyramid; the white and shining spire of a Western-style church; and the Guinness World Records-certified world’s largest public bathroom. Beyond the attractions, across the wide brown expanse of the Yangtze River, rose the green and hazy hills of Chongqing, dotted with white apartment buildings still under construction.

I was at an international themed Chinese amusement park, and it was exactly as weird as I’d expected it to be.”

Sometimes I still travel write! Special bonus offer – this Flickr album has all the photos I took while I visited Meixin Foreigner’s Street.

foreigner street full view (1 of 1)

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Some Things I Approve Of in Chiang Mai – Sausage, Khao Soi, Night Markets

khao soi accompaniments

Khao Soi

Khao soi is my favorite noodle dish in Asia, and that’s really saying quite a lot, considering the dizzying biodiversity of noodle soups in this region of the world. Thought to be of Burmese origin, the dish has been modified in Northern Thailand, and is, I think, superior to the original.

The essential deal here is a combo of spicy and richly flavored coconut milk broth flavored with a pungent curry paste, tender chicken or pork, chewy yellow noodles, and a topping of crispy deep fried noodles, sometimes substituted with fried pork skins. With a bowl of khao soi, you’re also given pickled cabbage, raw shallot, lime juice, and usually additional chili paste, which can be applied to taste.

Yes please.

Yes please.

The final result, with plenty of lime juice and supplemental chili in my case, is among the more sublime lunch specialties in the world – a perfect mix of spicy, sweet, tangy, and crunchy. I’ve found myself managing to work in two bowls of the stuff a day in khao soi country, especially as every restaurant seems to make it in a slightly different way. Chicken is usually the more common variety on offer, especially as it’s considered a Muslim-influenced dish, but I’m partial to the pork version when I can get it. Sometimes, chunks of blood are also thrown into the broth as well, especially up near Chiang Rai. You are welcome to quietly pick them out.

Hunting good khao soi is a pleasant endeavor, but I can suggest a little cafe right off the city wall with excellent khao soi. I didn’t get the name, but you’ll see it on the left if you are headed towards Arak Road Lane 5 on the main Arak Road (on the side of the city walls), right after you pass Sinharat Road Lane 2.  Here’s a Google Maps link to the approximate location.

I came upon the place after unsuccessfully hunting another khao soi joint, and was glad I gave it a whirl: deliciously flavored, thick broth, and pork chunks as well as meatballs in the soup. I believe I *maybe* paid the equivalent of $3.

chiang mai art market

Saturday Night Market

Chiang Mai is home to a number of well-known universities, and with higher education, comes hipster kids with weird aesthetics and  a burning desire for pocket money. This means that while the Saturday Night Market on Wualai Road (near the Chiang Mai Gate) does contain the usual assortment of generic Thai crapola – wooden frogs, obscene key-chains, those horrid elephant pants – there’s also a pleasing variety of interesting stuff, produced by young, local artists.

I usually come away from here with a pleasant selection of eccentric, cheap things. This time, it was a tote bag with watercolor paintings of fish on it and the word “Mackerel,” as well as a large sticker of a tiger’s head with “FUCK COMIC SANS” written on it. It’s the vastest night market I’ve ever run across in Asia, bustling along until well after 10:30 PM, and walkable for what seems like almost a mile. Tentacles of night time commerce spread off into the side streets from the main event, prompting pleasant wandering out of the heat of the day.

Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.

Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.

The Saturday Night Market also has a nice selection of food stalls, with authentic Thai specialties and not-so-authentic, as well as buskers and performances. The vibe of the event is perhaps its biggest selling point, with a particular, local energy that is quite fun to jump into as a visitor. Finally, there’s spectacular people-watching — well, if you like seeing backpackers clash with Thai hipsters, annoyed looking elderly food sellers, and befuddled looking middle-aged Aussies in singlets. And of course you like that, everyone with any taste likes that.

chiang mai sausages better

Died and found myself alighting in Pork Heaven.

 A Dizzying Array of Delicious Pork Products

chiang mai pork rinds

Thai pork rinds.

My family hails from the Southern United States, a part of the world with a deep, spiritual relationship with eating pigs. Northern Thailand shares this intense porcine affinity with Appalachia, and Chiang Mai’s food markets offer a delightful array of pork products, all at highly reasonable prices and with intense flavoring.

A particular standout is sai ua or Northern Thai sausage, produced with a combination of minced pork, curry paste, herbs, and Thai spices. The end result is a delightfully fresh and unexpected snack that is likely unlike anything you’ve tasted before, at least if you hail from the West. Sai ua is usually sold in long links, and is typically eaten plain, although some clever person needs to take this Thai hot dog concept to the slavering, food-truck besotted masses of Silicon Valley or Portland.

Yet another delightful Northern sausage product is fermented pork sausage (sai krok Isan), which is made with a combination of pork and rice – for you Louisiana people, it’s essentially Thai boudin with a tangy, funky additional kick from the fermentation process. It’s completely addictive and I find it very difficult to step away from stalls that sell it, usually packed into small balls that can easily be scooped up with a cabbage leaf and a fresh, incendiary green chili.

Also worth seeking out are meaty pork rinds, which are of course nothing more or less than deep-fried pork skin. Much of the world seems to find the idea of merrily consuming fried pig epidermis to be deeply disturbing, but both my noble Southern ancestors and the people of Northern Thailand consider them to be a marvelous delicacy, perfect with a beer or three. Not all pork rinds are created equal – some are fresher and meatier than others, while some feature a nice dusting of spicy chili – so it’s worth experimenting from Chiang Mai’s sundry meat-selling ladies. If I can, I like to toss them with some vinegar-based hot sauce, in the finest New Orleans style, but they’re quite delectable without.

Tamarind leaf salad.

Tamarind leaf salad.

Isaan Food

It’s tragic, but the Isaan food typical of Northern Thailand and adjoining regions of Laos is very little known outside of Southeast Asia. True: it’s spicy and often features ingredients that can charitably be described as eccentric, but I’m very partial to its freshness and unabashedly pungent nature. Pungent, rustic-style fish sauce, chili, pickles all sorts, fresh herbs, sticky rice, and smoky flavors are all typical of Isaan food, as well as “jungle” curries more reliant on herbs than they are on rich coconut milk and large quantities of meat.

If you’ve had and enjoyed tangy, eye-bleedingly spicy papaya salad (som tum) before, you’ve had a bit of exposure to Isaan food. In the Lao and Northern style, it’s made with more fish sauce and chili than the versions you’ll find in the South. It’s been written that Isaan food is so aggressively flavored in an effort to make residents of the traditionally poor region be content with padding their meals out primarily with sticky rice. It sounds legitimate enough, especially when one takes into account the fact that sticky rice has a habit of expanding in one’s stomach.

Pleasingly, Chiang Mai is a great, central place to sample good Isaan food in all its variety, and there’s tons of restaurants to choose from. Some places may bill themselves as Lanna or Northern Thai in lieu of Isaan, but there’s considerable overlap in style between them.

Nam phrik (Thai dip or "salsa) with tomato and eggplant.

Nam phrik (Thai dip or “salsa) with tomato and eggplant.

Considering that most Isaan restaurants are fluorescent lit mom-and-pop affairs – which is fine, but sometimes you’re perversely interested in a hint of ambiance, or at least clean tables – I was particularly impressed with the contemporary design of Tong Tem Toh, a Northern Thai restaurant located close to Chiang Mai University.

Up the almost painfully hip 11 Nimman Haeminda Soi 13, it’s popular with young Thais, and has an extensive menu of dishes that are distinctly hard to find elsewhere – though in the evening, there’s plenty of charcoal grilled meats on offer for those in your group with cowardly palates. Always be sure to emphasize that you want your food spicy when dining as a Westerner in Isaan establishments,, as Thais, usually correctly, assume that foreigners can’t hang.

I’m fascinated by the array of nam phrik (Thai “dip” or “salsa”) specialties available in the North, which are a handy answer to Mexican-style salsa bars. Here, we enjoyed a bowl of nam phrik ong, which is best described as Thai bolognese: minced pork, tomato, and smoky chili, served with fresh vegetables for dipping and scooping. It was entirely addictive and I’m learning to make it. The menu also has nam phrik num, a green Thai “salsa” made with roasted green chiles that would fit in beautifully on any given enchilada.

issan bamboo shoots

Bamboo shoots in coconut milk with pork.

We also tried fresh, herbaceous tamarind leaf salad with a fish sauce dressing and a liberal topping of pork rinds, as well as bamboo shoots cooked pork and a little bit of coconut milk and chili (which could have been a little warmer). Joining these dishes was a tasty serving of egg, rice, and pork sausage (jeen som mok kai) with peanuts and fresh garlic on the side, as well as a tasty version of sai ua with lots of pungent flavor.

Best of all was the Northern style pork belly curry, with big chunks of tender, fatty pork in a complex, smoky-tasting sauce, with peanuts and tamarind juice and a bit of coconut milk. We offset everything with little balls of sticky rice from nice woven bamboo containers, and a hefty quantity of Chang beer.

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Why I Hate Backpackers: An Illustrated Guide

ALWAYS WITH THE KRAMAS

ALWAYS WITH THE KRAMAS

I am regularly asked by acquaintances and friends why I hate backpackers. They are used to seeing my anti-backpacker screeds on Twitter or when they meet me at the bar, ready with my latest story about those horrible people who wear elephant-patterned pants and talk incessantly about spirituality. They conclude the obvious: I loathe backpackers and if I do not wish harm upon them, I do at least wish acute bedbugs.

Allow me to be honest: I don’t really HATE backpackers. Hate is a strong and meaningful word, a phrase that should properly be reserved for things that warrant it – such as, say, ISIS, neo-Nazis, and people who walk a bit too slowly on sidewalks. I would rescue a drowning backpacker. I would save a backpacker from feral dogs. I might give a backpacker marginally accurate driving directions. (I would not lend a backpacker money).

While I do not actually hate them, per-say, I do find them obnoxious, and that is really the root of all the effort I exert on mocking them, and why most expats I associate with share the same low opinion of their ilk.

For, picture this common scenario: you are over the age of 22 and a person of moderate aesthetic expectations residing in Southeast Asia. You spend time and money journeying to a supposedly bucolic island in the middle of nowhere, and on that glorious white sand, you find a pack of American frat-boys drinking Smirnoff Ice and hooting at one another. You are displeased. You thought you left this behind.

Someone proceeds to mock you for asking them to turn down the repetitive dubstep music. They are all doing shrooms and making out with each other and they are not even sharing their beer. Your displeasure turns to raw, vicious hatred.

The list of grievances – beyond this oft-repeated scenario – goes on. Backpackers show up at bars with acoustic guitars in the angelic hope of being scouted for “talent.” Backpackers will occasionally grow emotional for no particularly good reason and read you their poetry, which is inevitably heavily inspired by both Bukowski and that Kings of Leon song that really touched their hearts back in high school. Backpackers noisily demand that they be able to enjoy the trappings of home, from Family Guy reruns to chilled Snickers bars, wherever they noisily alight – cackling and domineering, like a flock of shitting starlings. Backpackers smell funny. Backpackers have better iPhones than you.

I could continue in this fashion, but it wouldn’t be very interesting. So, I thought I would explain with the assistance of some illustrations why I think backpackers blow, and maybe even offer some explanations for why I – and so many other expats – feel this way.  (Hint: it comes down to self-loathing, kind of).

jackals-finished

BACKPACKERS ARE THE WORLD’S LEAST OPPRESSED PEOPLE

Backpackers make for convenient targets because they are roughly the exact opposite of an oppressed group, the antipode of the world’s wretched, starving, and afraid. This makes them convenient: it’s true that making fun of disabled people, impoverished women, or the gravely mentally ill is cruel sport that is justifiably condemned by everyone with a conscience.

But backpackers are by definition among the planet’s most fortunate people. Unlike most everyone else, they are able to spend a good portion of the most productive and physically fit bits of their lives knocking around the world and doing inordinate quantities of shrooms.

Most are either attending a nice university or will soon head off to do so after gaining “life experience.” Most have nice families who care about them and wish they would get on Skype more often. Most will walk into decent jobs that appreciate how “worldly” they are after they finish contracting skin cancer in Sri Lanka.

All this makes them delightfully guilt-free targets — the Diet Coke and rice cakes of cruel humor. Mocking a backpacker does not harm them beyond the occasional bad feeling, but brings great pleasure to bitter expats undergoing existential crisis. Further, most backpackers are completely disinterested in the opinion of weird expats wearing business clothes in the first place.

Everyone (kind of) wins.

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BACKPACKERS ARE HAVING WAY MORE FUN THAN US

Backpackers exist at an absolutely infuriating distance from real life, a division that often manages to annoy the piss out of locals and expatriates alike. Locals are often merely scraping by in their native country, subject to the whims of corrupt governments and poorly-planned economies. Expats usually are at least making a good faith effort at sustaining themselves in their new country (with varying degrees of success), and are subject to the usual concerns of paying their rent and soliciting paying work.

Into this situation, then, the backpacker saunters onto the stage with savings, a trust fund, or seriously poorly-advised credit decisions, and then proceeds to do nothing whatsoever but chill and eat marijuana-infused pizza.

At the same time, everyone else is selling fruit, closing real-estate deals, teaching English, driving tuk tuks, or analyzing political affairs — all pursuits a lot less fun than doing body shots off of mysterious but sexy Australians.

This can do nothing but breed a certain amount of resentment among people who are incapable of fucking off for two months to cover themselves in glow paint and drink buckets full of questionable liquor. Angry muttering ensures.

Backpackers, it’s true, do have their uses, as anyone who runs a business that caters to the drunk and stupid backpacker market will tell you. Purveyors of fine happy truffles or pizza, ladies who sell cans of Coca-Cola at Angkor Wat, the guy who does thousands of “tribal” tattoos each week: they acknowledge the economic usefulness of backpackers, but they’re probably not overwhelmed with love for them, either.

Expats aren’t often economically dependent on the backpacker market but will usually (under duress) cede one use for backpackers and their obnoxiously free-spirited ways: they are convenient if you find yourself lonely and questioning your existence at the dance club at two in the morning. And they don’t know any of your friends.

backpacker-money

BACKPACKERS ARE CHEAP BASTARDS

Despite their obviously blessed position in life, backpackers are cheap bastards. Young Breeze may reside in a mansion in Malibu during her summer holidays, but while vacationing in Vietnam, she turns into a merciless penny-pincher – arguing virulently with aged women attempting to mark up cans of Coca-Cola by 50 cents in front of tourist attractions. They will always take the cheapest bus, even it has been known for decades that said bus is run by a professional thievery cartel and occasionally plummets off of cliffs. Hotel rooms filled with cockroaches, festooned with poorly-concealed blood stains,  and set directly over a low-end strip club? No problem –  it cost $3 less than the other place.

Backpackers are regularly seen savagely chiseling people over tourist trinkets, t-shirts, and things that have very visible price tags stuck to them. Some will even attempt to bargain with the wait staff at restaurants, apparently unaware that that is not actually a thing that happens. They will occasionally attempt to whittle down the price of a $5 souvenir t-shirt while at the same time texting on their latest-model iPhone.

Backpackers are also known for walking out on hotel tabs, absconding with random items in guesthouses and restaurants, stealing the toilet paper, and attempting to “borrow” $20 from you because they just haven’t quite been able to to get their mothers to Western Union them spending money yet. (Do not lend them $20. It is a trap).

They find their cheapness to be a point of pride, and will express both awe and derision if you mention spending more than $6 on basically anything. It usually goes like this: “You spent $12 on a three-course French meal, with wine? Ugh, are you insane? I just eat canned tuna for every meal, man.”

Despite their relentless bargaining, backpackers are more than willing to spend the average annual salary of a Cambodian farmer on liquor during their adventures through Southeast Asia. Pointing out this logical inconsistency only annoys and occasionally enrages them.

You know who they are.

You know who they are.

BULLSHIT SPIRITUALISM

Backpackers are founts of bullshit spiritualism, a habit most likely directly resulted to the fact that they’re not actually worrying about making a living and thus are filled with a sense of serenity and happiness. This curious, opiate-effect of word travel is well known: many young people in Asia have informed all their friends on Facebook and thus the world that they are traveling to the Mysterious Orient to Find Themselves.

That’s fine to a point, I suppose, but the problem comes when you’re just trying to have a casual chat at the bar and someone wants to rave at you about how awesome Jack Kerouac is, or how that time they did pyschedelic drugs on the beach with roughly 15,000 students at Leeds University really saved their life man, or how they’re totally going to become a Buddhist monk next month, really.  (I also believe that the movie “Into the Wild” – the point of which everyone seems to miss – ought to be banned with extreme prejudice).

This fondness for silly manifestations of spirituality is often wildly inflicted on the locals, who are dubbed “deep” and “so beautiful” by moon-bat travelers — who seem unable to appreciate that the locals are actually just fellow human beings trying to live their lives like anyone else, instead of exotic zoo animals with funny accents.

This grows especially ridiculous in Cambodia with its attendant Khmer Rouge history, where backpackers seem to feel the need to wax lyrical about how Khmer people “smile all the time, despite all the loss they’ve suffered.”

You are expected to nod and agree with the profound depth of this statement, as you are expected to smile and nod at all statements made by a backpacker with the faintest whiff of spiritual depth.  Claiming you in fact think these observations about the solemn oneness of the universe (or whatever) are hilariously stupid will be greeted with mute incomprehension.

OH JUST A LITTLE SELF LOATHING

I freely admit that my public emissions of hatred towards backpackers are deeply rooted in self-loathing. I suspect this is not uncommon, and is part of the reason why backpackers are treated with such keen hatred by the expat community in most places.

The fact is that I often find it hard to figure out what differentiates me from them.

I mean, look: the below illustration is a typical backpacker.

awful-backpacker-not-like-me

And this is me definitely NOT being a backpacker. Somehow.

note i do not differ materially from the backpacker portrayed above

I think I’m not alone in my near-biweekly identity crisis. Most expats with functioning consciences are keenly aware of being interlopers in a foreign land, and we are also aware that in terms of both our appearance and our bank accounts, we are often rather hard to tell apart from the backpacking brethren.

Local people add to this sense of insecurity, scrutinizing us with amusement and saying “Oh, you LIVE here!” when you say something halting in the local language or express some vague knowledge of local geography.

I am often very afraid that someone in Cambodia will insist that I do NOT live here – and indeed, it has been a while since I really have. If I do not live there, where exactly do I live? Does that mean I’m just a backpacker who regularly showers and on  very rare occasions collects a paycheck?

How terrifying.

I take out this insecurity and lack of confidence in my social position on a convenient target: backpackers. Sure, I might be inept and suck at the language, but I’m not wandering around monasteries with my be-furred nipples hanging out of an Angkor Beer shirt. Nor am I haggling with an old woman over 50 cents.

I have fallen, perhaps, but they have fallen so much farther and don’t even *know* about it.

This helps me sleep at night.

This is why I hate backpackers.

 

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Chengdu: First Impressions

motorbike lights (1 of 1)

Chengdu falls neatly into the orbit of massive, bustling Chinese cities that the West has given almost no thought to. Certainly I hadn’t, beyond a vague sense that it was in Sichuan and was where people went if they wanted to go see pandas. I was not expecting an immense, modern metropolis with a Metro system, massive designer shopping outlets, and a mall that so huge that it has an actual, simulated beach in it. Such are the wonders of modern China.

I mainly came here for the food, after a life-time spent being intrigued by the kind of peppers that make your mouth go numb and strange upon consumption. I flew in from Shanghai, catching a late afternoon plane from the immense and disturbingly empty Pudong airport.

The new Shanghai airport is like someone’s vague, poorly-expressed fever-dream of a welcoming and luxurious international airport, with gate upon gate laid out in a grey and very clean expanse, with nowhere to buy much of anything beyond a single Famly Mart convenience store, as well as some souvenir luxury food emporiums that sell little beyond very strange-looking beef jerky. Thankfully, my China Air flight was on time, which left me with only a bit of time to enjoy my ready-packaged tuna fish sushi roll.

The hostel sent someone to pick me up in Chengdu, and we drove into town – allowing me to immediately appreciate how enormous the city really is. I had a vague idea of Chengdu as being Northern and largeish, but no comprehension of its true scale: it is in fact China’s 5th largest city and has a population of 14 million. For reference, the 2012 population of New York City was 8.337 million. (Some fudging may have been done on the municipal area vs. the city proper – this link puts Chengdu at a respectable 39 on the world scale of biggest populations, between Hyderabad and Lahore).

Street crawfish in Chengdu.

Street crawfish in Chengdu.

As we drove in, I saw the curious neon expanse of the New Century Global Center, which is supposedly the largest building in the world. Coming in, I tend to believe it. That’s big enough to house 20 Sydney Opera Houses. China, as is evident to anyone paying attention, is going hell-for-leather to rack up as many world records as humanly possible.

I stayed at the Chengdu FlipFlop Hostel, which was a deceptively large place near the Chunxi Metro area of the city – near the glitzy International Finance Square mall, which has an entire wall covered in lightbulbs compelling you to buy exceedingly expensive  Louis Vuitton products.

The hostel happened to be near a nice food area, and I walked down the street watching Sichuanese promenade on a Friday night. Slightly less accustomed to a sea of foreigners than those in Shanghai, young men said “Hello!” to me as they went by on their silent electric scooters. Hot pot place after hot pot place lined the streets, as well as small BBQ places selling fish and squid and small birds on sticks.

There were also small tuk-tuks selling noodles, and numerous restaurants filled with hard-drinking and very sociable Chengdu natives. I noticed a rough collie – the Lassie-type dog – standing by a BBQ stall, shaved down with a summer cut like all the other furry dogs with owners here. There were also crawfish, which I wish I could get the chance to try.

beef fried with pretzel chengdu (1 of 1)

Eager to use a picture menu, I opted for a restaurant. Eager to try Sichuanese food in its native home, I walked into a popular looking spot and walked in. Pointing wildly at the menu while a disenchanted looking Chinese woman stared at me, I ended up with a delicious dish of stir-fried beef with Sichuan chiles, peppers, ginger, and – curiously enough – chunks of breadstick and peanut. The combination was delicious and entirely unusual, with the oil-sodden breadsticks adding a tasty, carby influence to the stir-fry.

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I also enjoyed ordering green beans with stir-fried eggplants, which is a typical sort of Sichuanese thing. There’s a photo of the restaurant sign up above, and someone could do me a favor and translate for me if they’re feeling compassionate.

 

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China: The Shanghai Museum

shanghai museum

From WikiMedia Commons, because I forgot to get a photo.

Wherever I go, I always visit the museum, operating off the assumption that a people’s hand-picked selection of interesting objects are always worth seeing. Provincial or national – I love them all. The Shanghai Museum, unsurprisingly, is a particularly worthy entrant. Most pleasantly? It’s free.

The Shanghai Museum is situated near the People’s Park area of the city, and is built in an aggressively modernist but not unpleasant building, with pinkish brick and a large circular arch over the top of it. You won’t miss it unless you are very stupid.

The downside of a free museum is that everybody wants to go, and there always seems to be a considerable line to get in, which is slowed down by the required security check. You do not have to check your bags, and cameras are permitted, which is a nice touch. I’d suggest coming here on a weekday to avoid spending an hour waiting in line in the sun with a lot of other sweaty, mildly exasperated people.

Split into four floors, the museum has a particularly interesting selection of ancient artifacts that were found in the vicinity of Shanghai, proving China’s authority as one of the oldest cultures on the planet.

There are also bronzes, including bells and some immense drums, a wide selection of Chinese landscape painting, a display encompassing China’s ethnic minorities and their traditional outfits, and even a display of ancient coins. Signage usually has some English translation.

Here are some photos of the things I liked best in the museum, in no particular order whatsoever:

clay dog (1 of 1)

A clay statue of a dog from the Eastern Han tradition, likely dating from between AD 25 to 220.  This charmingly realistic beast hails from an interesting tradition of dog art, crafted to guard the tombs of the dead – many of whom, presumably, were particularly fond of their pets. Dogs were divided into watch dogs, hunting dogs, and dogs for eating, per the Liji (Book of Rites) from the era,

scratchy dog (1 of 1)

A Tang Dynasty lion sculpture, likely from between A.D. 618 and 907.  Like most of the lovely objects here, it was likely a tomb decoration. More information was not forthcoming from the museum, but you can read more about the Tang tradition of funeral statuary here.

bulls on jar (1 of 1)

I’ve always been particularly taken by ancient Chinese metalworking, which is intricate, exotic, and far more impressive than its contemporary works in the Western world. This cowrie-container with eight yaks on top likely hails from the Western Han, from 206 BC to AD 8.  Cowrie shells are thought to have begun to be used as currency during the Shang Dynasty, around the 16th to 11th century BC, and continued to be used as such up until the Ming and Yuan dynasties in some regions of China. This proves that these shells have value beyond adorning the necks of annoying people from California.

shrimp ornaments (1 of 1)

This is a pair of spectacular gold hairpins in the shape of shrimp from the Ming Dynasty, unearthed at the site of what is now the Huili Middle School in Shanghai’s Huangpu District. The Internet Oracle reveals very little about this dig beneath a middle school in the heart of Shanghai, but I’d definitely like to hear the story. Regardless, I wish this kind of thing was back in style, although I also know I’d lose them within five minutes if I owned them.

buddhist relief shanghai museum (1 of 1)

This rather Byzantine-looking Buddha relief is from the rather short-lived Northern Qi Dynasty, which ruled between 550 and 577 AD, and was the successor state of the Eastern Wei Dynasty. Buddhism is thought to have arrived in China during the Han Dynasty, and by the time of the Northern Qi, it had many well-matured customs within China proper.

Much art of the era demonstrates a distinct influence from the styles practiced in Western Asia, indicating considerable cultural exchange. I’ve recently been very interested in the Buddhist art of Afghanistan, and it’s interesting to see how these traditions spread across Asia and picked up influences from the Greek art brought over as early as the time of Alexander the Great.

wooden men shanghai museum (1 of 1)

These are processional figures from the Ming Dynasty tomb of Pan Yongzheng, who was buried in the current environs of Shanghai.  (He is NOT the Western Qing Emperor – I can tell you were getting confused). I would like to tell you more about him, but I am encountering the existential limits of Googling for Chinese historical information in English.

bird shanghai museum (1 of 1)

This painting is entitled “Peasant, Bamboo, and Chrysanthemum,” and was painted by Hua Yan in the Qing Dynasty – sometime during his lifespan of 1682 to 1756. A native of Shanghang in Fujian province,  he relocated to the art centers of Hangzhou and Yangzhou as he aged – becoming one of the famous “Eight Eccentrics.”

We should all aspire to become a big-e Eccentric in our twilight years.  On an additional note, I’ve always thought the Chinese were better at painting birds than anybody else.

ox shaped zun statue (1 of 1)

This ox-shaped zun (wine vessel) hails from the Late Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history, from the early 6th century to 476 BC.  It’s a stint in Chinese history particularly known for impressive, stylized bronzes, which I’ve always been partial to.  On a related note: plowing through Chinese history again in an effort to add some context to all the nice museum pieces I see.

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Some Thoughts on Shanghai

 

the bund (1 of 1)

I arrived in Shanghai at the totally uncivilized hour of 5:00 AM – and, unsurprisingly, saw that the airport area was surrounded in a thick bank of typically Chinese-style haze. (For a moment, I convinced myself it was fog. Lies). Going through customs proved painless enough, and I spent a while wandering the airport trying and failing to find a currency exchange operator open at the aforementioned ungodly hour. I also wandered from one side of the immense terminal to the other to find a taxi stand with anyone at it in the early morning. But I eventually found a small brown car that would convey me to downtown. The freeway into town was called, as are most Chinese freeways, a Ring Road, and it was Sunday and rather vanishingly empty.

I’m staying at the Marriot as I’m here to live-blog the Asia Microfinance Forum for the Microfinance Focus Website. I was very pleased that the hotel was willing to let me into my room early, and I proceeded to draw myself a bath and do battle with the VPN system – finally settling on Astrill, which mostly allows me to access all my seditious websites.

Old buildings near the Bund.

Old buildings near the Bund.

After a red-eye flight recovery nap, I set out into Shanghai, in the general direction of the Shanghai Museum, which is quite close to the Marriot. My first, totally unoriginal impression of Shanghai was that it was very much like New York, from the viciously humid summer weather to the ceaseless landscape of skyscrapers and wide avenues and well-kept up leafy trees. It didn’t feel quite Chinese, I thought, at least in this downtown area: you could replace all the signs with English and it would be rather hard to tell the difference. There was at least one specialty coffee shop on every corner,and sometimes two.

The Shanghai Museum turned out to have a long sweltering line set up in front of it, and I sensibly decided that was a terrible idea and shifted my plans: to the Bund.

The Bund is the strip of historical architecture you see in every single promotional image of Shanghai ever – a long strip of colonial-era Western buildings in the monumental fashion, looking out over the water and towards the Blade-Runnneresque skyline of the other side of the river. It has a long and illustrious, complex history which I admit I don’t have time to go into here: suffice to say there is more than meets the eye, and I’m glad it survived China’s tumultuous recent history.

I wandered along the cement walkway of the Bund for a while, watching the remarkable profusion of ferry traffic headed up and down the water, including one barge carrying a massive shipment of logs from who-knows-where. There were plenty of tourists and all of them looked roughly as poorly hydrated as me.

roof shanghai peace hotel (1 of 1)

I split off from the Bund and found myself at the Fairmont Peace Hotel, once the most elegant hotel in Shanghai and still quite the glamorous Art Deco edifice. I asked about happy hour at the jazz bar and the receptionist looked at me with an expression of mild terror. “There is no Happy Hour,” she said. Noted. (I may come back yet, if I can handle a $10 beer).

I walked down the street and found myself in an exceedingly busy shopping area, with all the major US and European brands represented, and lots of people banging into each other with enormous shopping bags. There was the occasional shop selling grilled beef jerky, dried fruits and candies, popsicles, and other snacks, and the usual Asian profusion of glittery multi-story malls. I was not in need of Cartier, and so I walked to the outside.

Somewhere off Fangbang Lu.

Somewhere off Fangbang Lu.

After a stop back at my hotel, I went out again in the evening, heading to one of Shanghai’s remaining food streets. It’s called Fangbang Lu, and I should say now that I got the cab driver to drop me off at the wrong end of it: the fancy mall bit which begins at the cross-street with Henan Road. Enter Fangbang Lu at the other side.

moon in shanghai (1 of 1)

This lovely scene was in the fancy mall area, which was very pretty but actually consisted largely of Starbucks emporiums and places to buy either very expensive jewelry or very cheap jewelry. And the usual profusion of wandering salespeople who think I want to buy a pair of light-up bunny ears. The good news was that the authentic food area was at the other end of Fangbang Lu. Well, not exactly: the street stalls are off Sipailou Lu and other allies. Just keep a sharp eye out. The street itself is largely cheap clothes stores and oddly enough, toy emporiums selling knock-off drones.

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I came across a man making dumplings and another man making shwarma while dressed in a very uncomfortable looking pig costume. I cannot explain this.

hand pulled noodles (1 of 1)

I wandered the area and saw lots of stinky tofu and squid on sticks and fried pork buns on sticks and other delights, and I mostly couldn’t make up my mind, even with all the vendors shouting HEY LADY at me. I hadn’t had a bowl of Lanzhou pulled noodles since I was last in China in 2007, and I enjoyed the cinnamon-inflected broth, although it could have done with more meat.

Night games.

Night games.

I walked and kept on walking and found myself on the way to the Bund – the bulbous pink and green mass of the Oriental Pearl skyscraper just peeking above the tops of the under-construction buildings lining the way. For one or another reason, there was a huge screen playing football matches and a group of people playing badminton below it.

I hit the main drag to the Bund and found myself walking under an immense skyscraper being worked on, a welder some sixty stories up dropping uncomfortably large sparks down to the street below, which fizzled out just before they became truly worrisome.

Old Bund buildings at night.

Old Bund buildings at night.

Soon enough, the full expanse of Shanghai at night opened up before me, and I watched as a full-color I <3 Shanghai sign scrolled itself out in neon colors across one of the buildings, while the others glittered on and off, or sparkled in rainbow colors, or blinked, or did some other hyper-actively shiny thing, far into the night. All the lights made me feel as if this was some sort of mild commentary on Western cities, most of which can only manage one or two aggressively illuminated edifices

“Look what we can do, jerks,” the buildings seemed to be saying. “I bet your buildings don’t project cute messages at the exact same height as Godzilla.”

Making Chinese burritos.

Making Chinese burritos.

I finally found myself back at the Marriot, and realized I wasn’t entirely sure what was around the general vicinity of said glittering edifice. Maybe there was more food. I walked around the corner a couple of blocks, and soon enough found a couple grilling up what can only be described as Chinese burritos

. They had skewers with different kinds of meats and vegetables, and you selected the ones you wanted to be charred to perfection on a nice greasy hotplate. You also could point at a piece of flatbread, which would be cooked with egg and chives. Then, your skewers are placed on the eggy flatbread, and doused in spicy sauce, flavored salt, and some cilantro if you want it. The whole thing cost me about $2. I sat on the stairs of the shady hotel behind the street stand and ate the delightful thing entirely.

 

 

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Taiwan: The Maokong Gondola, Ignore Hello Kity

The Maokong gondola.

The Maokong gondola.

Taiwan’s tourism board is very intent on getting you to go try out the Maokong Gondola.  A gondola system imported from France, Taipei hails it as one of its top tourist destinations, allowing visitors to be conveniently ferried from the Taipei Zoo to the Zhinan Temple without having to clog up the roads or hail a cab.

As more than a bit of a contrary dick, I’m normally suspicious of tourist attractions that people are very aggressively trying to get me to go see. Especially when they’re thoroughly emblazoned with Hello Kitty, which is exactly what the powers that be have done: little cartoons of Hello Kitty greeting pandas. Hello Kitty riding the gondola – expressions of Taiwan’s national romance with a bizarre little mouthless cat.

Farmer at Maokong.

Farmer at Maokong.

Regardless. We went and did it, and we were very happy we did, because the Taipei gondola system is a remarkably relaxing (and pleasingly cool) way to spend the day.  To reach the gondola stop, we jumped on the endlessly convenient MRT and rode to the Taipei Zoo Station, which we could readily identify from the sea of panda images at the stop. A nice young college student who attended Michigan State made sure we went to the right place, as often happens in Taipei: a concerned local will find themselves wondering if you have any clue what you’re doing, and will steer you in the right direction.

Views from the gondola.

Views from the gondola.

Gondola passes were inexpensive, and we were able to swipe ourselves into the boarding area with the same EasyCard we’d purchased and filled up on our first day here. You’re charged based on how many stations you exit at. Even though it was a Friday afternoon in summer, we got there around 10:30 AM and were pleased to find there were no lines.

Skipping the zoo — sue me, I think pandas are evolutionary dead-ends who should be chastised — we decided to ride all the way up to the final stop, the Maokong station. This proved to be a wonderful 30 minute ride over dense jungle, with immense views of the Taipei skyline, the highways snaking off into the distance, and the blue, jewel-box expanse of the Taipei 101 Tower. The only annoyance were the Hello Kitty stickers that had been thoughtfully affixed to the windows, though one could pretty easily see over the top of the eponymous cat’s bulbous white head. It was almost silent inside the gondola, and we were well ventilated by the wind. It was in fact so pleasant that my dad fell asleep at least twice.

We didn’t know what to expect at the top, but got off anyway. Maokong proved to be a pleasant little tea growing community, with leafy walking trees and a wonderful high-altitude breeze that was a far cry from the infernal temperatures of Taipei in the inner city in summer. Tea houses and small restaurants dot the walking path in either direction, as well as small-scale temples and the occasional summer home.

Maokong, interestingly enough, translates into “cat empty.” This has nothing to do with the actual population numbers of felines here, but is probably a Japanese bastardization of the original  Taiwanese Hokkien “jiâu-khang,” a name for the little natural potholes that dot the rocks here.

Buying a very excellent onion cake.

Buying a very excellent onion cake.

It was quiet up here too, with only a few tourists in evidence, and a couple of exceptionally hardy (and sweaty) hikers huffing past on the way down to somewhere. We stopped and bought a flaky and delicious onion cake with egg inside from a woman and her young daughter, then walked to view a small temple, brushing flaky crumbs off our clothes.

“If you move to Taipei, you want to know someone with a place up here,” my dad observed, as another quiet little breeze swept past us.

dragon fountain 2

We walked back to the gondola stop after a while and descended down the hill to the Zhinan Temple stop, intending to check out the remarkable Chinese edifice in red and blue that we’d spotted on the way up. At the MRT stop, we walked to the left to check out the decadent water and garden feature outside, featuring a golden dragon, an artificial waterfall, and well-thought out spritzers of cool air.

dragon head derp

There was a path through the forest with represetnation by different animals of the Chinese zodiac, but we turned around and walked to the famous Chi Nan Taoist temple itself, the other direction below the MRT line. Founded in 1882, this exceedingly majestic mountain-side temple is devoted to Tang dynasty scholar Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals of Chinese mythology. Getting here was once an exhausting affair consisting of well over 1,000 up-hill steps, but in recent years, a bus route and now a highly sophisticated gondola allow anyone with a pulse to view this sacred site – so goes progress.

temple hill

We wandered through the red and yellow halls and looked at the offerings of fruit and snack food to the Immortal at the central Chungyang Baodian chapel. Locals filtered in and out, carrying offerings of purple orchids, incense, and fruit to be placed at the shrine. An attendant informed us that the temple had free water and tea, and we poured some out from a large silver jug.

The aggressively bearded Lü Dongbin is known to be the patron saint of barbers and their “immortal patriarch,” in case you were wondering about this kind of thing. He’s also supposed to be very good at delivering people from poverty and seducing unmarried women, although I admit I did not find myself seduced by an immortal Taoist scholar during my visit. (This is almost disappointing).

Tree on the path near Zhinan Temple.

Tree on the path near Zhinan Temple.

Unmarried couples are traditionally warned not to come here for this very reason, although I submit that this is the most excellent excuse for a breakup I’ve ever heard. “I’m sorry, it’s not you – it’s the irresistible influence of the spirit of Lü Dongbin.”

Proceeding to the basement, we were impressed to find a room full of golden tag-like offerings and statues of the Eight Immortals, with a ceiling painted blue with tiny lights meant to represent stars.

Trees with golden offerings on the path to Zhinan.

Trees with golden offerings on the path to Zhinan.

We came out again and decided to walk down the covered path towards the farther off temples — with great views of the temple behind us, and a brief respite from the direct sun.  Eventually, we headed back to the MRT stop and another highly relaxing aerial trip back down the hill.

Regardless of your stance on Hello Kitty and popular tourist attractions, you should take the Maokong Gondola ride if you’re in Taipei. When I return here, I’m especially interested in taking the gondola ride at night, which will guarantee a remarkable night-time view of Taipei and a quiet evening meal at the restaurants up at Maokong.

 

maokong view

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Taiwan: Taipei Night Markets

cooking night market

Night markets are likely Taipei’s most iconic attraction, and probably the one most visible to those who have never visited the country before. Food Adventurers like Anthony Bourdain regularly traipse through them with a camera crew following behind, sampling this and that from different carts, beneath a canopy of red-and-yellow lights.

Not that I’m going to be contrary, regardless of my opinion on Xtreme Travel television shows. Taipei night markets are awesome, and the food is unmissable. They’re huge, walking food-courts, and if you do manage to find a place to sit and eat, they provide remarkably pleasing people-watching, with all of Taipei’s different subcultures on display.

All are united by one thing: the desire to eat something inexpensive, tasty, and preferably exceedingly fully-flavored. And they do mean full flavored: as a friend of mine observed to me yesterday, “I think Taipei is the stinkiest city in the world.” (In the good way).

Kids gambling for prizes.

Kids gambling for prizes.

We visited a few different night markets in Taipei but were particularly taken with the Ningxia street variant. It’s an easy stroll from the Shuanglian or Zhongshan MRT stops, and you’ll know it when you see it from the surrounding commotion on any given evening. Friday evening found the place packed face-to-back with strolling, hungry people, perusing the wares from stands that seemed to be intentionally packed uncomfortably close together.

Once you get over the closeness of the situation, you quickly realize that English signage has been provided for your convenience (well, probably), making it a bit easier to determine what you’re actually getting. Not that it’s too important: if it looks good, point at it, pay a rather nominal amount of money, and you’ll be eating it within five minutes.

taiwan oyster pancake

Taiwan has unusually fantastic oysters – tiny and briny, with a delicate texture. It’s considered essentially mandatory to order oyster omelette at the night markets here, which is made with egg, oysters, green onion, and some starch to give the whole affair a characteristically glutinous texture.

making oyster pancke

The starch is tossed into the skillet, the eggs come next, and then come the oysters. It’s all served with a slightly sweet, savory sauce that’s placed on top, and there’s chili sauce on the table. It’s a pleasantly filling and briny comfort food, the sort of thing I wish you could just order ordinarily for breakfast at American diners.

spicy chicken nuggets

They didn’t really look like much, but it turns out that the Taiwanese have, through some dark pact, become some of the finest chicken friers in the world. We were exceedingly impressed with this bag of dark meat chicken nuggets, coated with a pungent dusting of five spice powder, chili, some sugar, and who-knows-what-else. Also keep an eye out for fried Taiwanese chicken served with a distinctive vinegar sauce, an elegant combination of flavors.

sea urchins

Seafood is an immense draw at the nightmarkets, with great assortments of prawns, lobsters, sea urchins, and oysters large and small displayed on ice and ready for grilling or stir-frying.

grilling scallops

It’s beautiful, fresh seafood that would be the envy of any locavore snob with a fixed gear bicycle in San Francisco. (Taiwan, of course, has its own complement of people with ironic facial hair who ride fixies and have very strong opinions about food.)

squid stands alone

Both squid and chicken cutlets are flattened to remarkable dimensions and flash-fried here, providing one with a conveniently hand-held slab of protein custom built for walking around and looking at things. Sitting while eating is not considered particularly important in Taiwan.

stir frying

We also tried the “aboriginal style pork sausage,” which tasted pretty much like a standard Asian style sweet sausage but was quite tasty. Beyond that, we simply wandered around taking in the energy of the place, and enjoying the photographic potential one is accorded by a place with a whole lot of different kinds of lighting.

Night time in Taipei.

Night time in Taipei.

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Taiwan: Longshan Temple and Shaved Ice

Longshan Temple roof.

Longshan Temple roof.

On Tuesday, I went to the Mengjia Longshan Temple, one of Taipei’s largest and most long-standing places of worship. It’s been around since 1738, albeit in different incarnations, and was last extensively rebuilt in World War II following bombardment by Americans.

Lighting candles.

Lighting candles.

On a Tuesday morning, the place is choked with worshipers lighting incense and candles and making the rounds, flanked by nuns and monks in light grey robes, many of whom have prayer beads and other knick-knacks to sell. The ambiance is like that of a Chinese temple most any place, but it’s a nice little look into popular religion in Taiwanese.


Of particular appeal are the lush grounds, featuring a waterfall, plenty of Rubenesque koi fish, and this fantastic dragon fountain that spurts water.

Tasty.

Tasty.

The area around Longshan is a busy shopping district with a lot of Taiwanese Sports Lottery storefronts, appliance stores, and the usual glut of Family Mart and 7-11 emporiums. I wandered around for a while, growing increasingly hot, and ducked into a Taiwanese buffet for lunch. It’s less of a buffet and more of a point-and-eat: lots of appealing food is laid out in a row and you point at what you want.

A severe looking woman spoons your food onto a platter and also hands you a bowl of rice, and you’re welcome to select a pot of soup as well. Mix your own sauces, then eat. Cheap and delicious, especially the eggplant and the braised spinach with tiny white fish.

sun yat sen statue
I hopped back on the remarkably pleasant MRT and headed to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, which commemorates the other national political hero of the Taiwanese people. Dr Yat-sen had a remarkably adventurous life and attempted to carry out numerous revolutions before his ultimate success, a fact that the displays here are keen to remind you of. There’s signs in both Chinese and English, and it’s a pleasant way to learn about how Taiwanese democracy came to be — although I admit I’m not much closer to entirely grokking the fiendishly complex 20th century political history of China. It’s a start.

changing of the guard sun yat sen

Much the same as the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, there’s a constant guard here that changes on the hour, which is fun to watch for a while if you’re willing to brave the crowds that apparate within two minutes of the ceremony beginning. The rest of the hall, which encompasses four stories, includes adult classrooms, galleries with a somewhat random smattering of art and photography exhibits, and an air conditioned and very popular periodical room with lots of people taking naps. There’s also a cafe and a gift-shop, in which I purchased a t-shirt featuring a jade cabbage. This made me happy.

taiwanese shaved ice

In the evening, I decided to find a place to locate Taiwanese shaved ice, which is sliced off a big block in pretty much the exact same way as gyros meat. (The flavor is different, you’ll be happy to know).

It’s a specialty that has made its way to Silicon Valley in recent months, to the general acclaim of some of my friends, and I wanted to try the stuff in its native land. The Smoothie House came highly recommended, so I made my way to Yong Kang Street, which was full of wandering snackers at 9:00 PM. Mango is the big hit here but decent strawberries are rather harder to find in Southeast Asia, so I went with the strawberry sorbet option.

The menu.

The menu.

Verdict? A pleasingly light and rather immense dessert, with a curious but highly enjoyable “fluff” texture. Rather like eating frozen cotton candy, flavored nicely by the sorbet on top and the fresh strawberries. This is probably the ideal way to restore one’s electrolytes after a face-meltingly hot day of tourism in Taipei’s heat.

Mango Snowflake facade.

Mango Snowflake facade.

 

 

 

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Manila and Intramuros

manilariverboat

 

The Philippines is looked over.

The visitor to the Philippines from the US is confronted with a large archipelago full of people who are very much aware of your homeland, who you yourself remain distinctly unaware of. All Californians grew up with Filipinos at school and in the neighborhood, but somehow we still looked through the reality of their place of origin.

Filipino restaurants didn’t dot the neighborhood, the local community college was unlikely to offer Tagalog lessons, and no one (other than Filipinos) spoke of saving up their money for that dream trip to Manila. Thailand and Vietnam seemed more real: even history books restricted the Philippines to a curious footnote in the remarkable career of MacArthur, or a paragraph or two about the Marcos regime, and Imelda’s fondness for footwear.

It is the overlooked Southeast Asian nation to the north, unless you’re a scuba diver: a long-term expat friend observed to me that he suspects the bulk of visitors are Hong Kong residents desperate to escape their peninsula for a long weekend. And there, Manila is only a brief plane ride away.

abigchurchwedding

It is blighted perhaps but not all of it is blighted. In the rare event of seeing an image of Manila in the Western media, it is inevitable that a dump be portrayed. Perhaps a correspondent will be standing atop this remarkable monument to filth, looking concerned and talking about the Plight Of The Poor.

Manila’s not-so-poor warrant not a mention, and the decline of the corrupted but very interesting Marcoses has rendered even the elite unimportant. “There’s no there there,” one imagines Gertrude Stein observing of the place, circa 2013.

But Manila also possesses skyscrapers – great canyons of them, a skyline “that encircles you” as my friend observed — and universities with mowed grass, and an old Spanish center, and suburbs with single-family houses and a profusion of joggers. Also there are mallls, malls that would fit into Iowa City, with everyone nipping in for Taco Bell and the latest sale on Vons sneakers, and walking down long marbled corridors of entirely American-origin shops, with not a single hint that you are in fact in Asia.

A hefty percentage of the crowd is wearing a shirt with a NFL team logo on it, or the American flag, and even the children are outfitted in Adidas.

The entire city strikes me as some parallel American re-imagining in some ways. In some ways, it makes me feel embarrassed. We – nationally, in nationalist terms – did not do well by this country.

sebastianfort

I decided to visit Intramuros because I am fond of Spanish colonial architecture, and also because I tend to feel that a good way to begin understanding what a city is all about is backtracking to where it first started from.

Manila was Intramuros and Intramuros was Manila before the slow progression of the city across the face of southern Luzon: here was the first Spanish feint into building their Ever Loyal City, populated by religious men, traders, and the local “Negritos” (as the locals, who were presumably both small and dark, were unkindly dubbed).

cooltricycle

The sameness of the Spanish colonial experiment is remarkable to me, and it is also comforting, as someone who has spent a hefty percentage of my life residing within various bits of the former Iberian empire. The same cobblestone streets and high ceilings; the same growths of palm trees and yellow-washed walls, and courtyards with austere fountains in them, the same brown signs and road-side lanterns.

navyboys

A stroll through Intramuros was very much akin to a stroll through the French Quarter (first built by the Spanish) or Ybor City in Tampa: I was disappointed to find that no one had thought to set up a shop producing hand-rolled cigars, though tobacco is not a primary Philippine export.

The San Agustin church in Intramuros was buit in 1589 and is one of the only structures still standing after the bombardment of the old city by WWII: it is an interesting mental exercise to stand here, and note that this church predates the oldest standing structures of the Spanish colonial experiment in New Mexico. The church itself is violently Iberian: a stone Roman Catholic edifice dotted with fading tapestries, chipped wooden sculptures of Christ and the disciples, and lightly-flickering candles. I was in Southeast Asia, but I was most reminded of my 2009 visit to Spanish Toledo: it was an entirely new form of exoticism.

manilacathedral

San Agustin is also known as the wedding capital of the city, and for good reason: there was one going on the morning I was there. I spied upon the extremely long ceremony from behind a grate and from the balcony where the antique pipe organ sits:  I never did manage to see The Kiss The Bride Part, and indeed, found it difficult to determine exactly when the ceremony ended. Thus is my knowledge of Catholic weddings.

I headed for lunch at the Ristorante Delle Mitre, acros the street from San Agustin. The restaurant is themed in a fashion that can only be described as “bishop,” with an extensive Philippine – Western menu where most of the dishes are named after either saints or former bishops.

porkplantains

Nuns in red and white habits circulate the place and man the kitchen, and the entire ambience is exactly that of a Cuban cafe in Tampa or in Miami. I ordered seafood chowder and an enormous pork knuckle in tomato sauce with plantains  and was deeply satisfied. They brought me San Miguel in a frosted mug the size of my head, with lime in it. I did not try the cafe con leche: for a nation that grows excellent coffee, the coffee that is actually served in the Philippines is an exercise in disappointment.

I left the church and walked a block off Intramuros, the street beside the Manila House Museum, and you are back in the Phillipines: I walked down a Sunday street populated by people sitting about doing nothing in particular, as befits the Sabbath, listening to music and eating deep-fried bananas. “Hey girl!” a middle-aged man in a tank top said to me, waving from the corner.

I waved back. Waving back is a good idea here.

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