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My Trip To South Africa & Dubai (#travel, #SouthAfrica, #Dubai, #safari)

My Trip To South Africa & Dubai (#travel, #SouthAfrica, #Dubai, #safari)

In early November I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa for the first time in my life, which included a visit to a private game reserve, Sabi Sands, in the Kruger National Park region. My prior knowledge of Africa in general and South Africa in particular was derived from things like the autobiography of Roald Dahl, the novel The Power of One, various history lessons about European colonialism and WW2 and assorted contemporary news articles about violence and poverty in post-independence South Africa. Clearly, none of it could really prepare my mind for what South Africa was as I experienced it, and certainly it couldn’t capture the majesty of experiencing exotic wildlife up close (sometimes as close as 6 feet away, protected only by the elevation of an otherwise open vehicle) in its natural habitat, much better than the idea captured by a “living zoo”. As a collection of experiences packed into 11 days of travel, it would be exhausting to fully catalog as a blog post, so I’ll try to stick to some high level perspectives and recollections as far as piecing this entry together goes.

Our trip started in Cape Town, which we transited to through the UK and which involved two day/night cycles which made for truly disorienting jet lag on arrival. Despite being an international airport capable of servicing large, long-distance aircraft like ours, the terminal was “sleepy”, with little people and activity aside from the recent arrivals. Security and customs was a joke– no disembarkation card to fill out, no questions, just a quick stamp in the passport book and then on our way. It suggests South Africa is either quite welcome to having visitors and tourism, or doesn’t take border security seriously. Either way, I appreciated it as a traveler.

The ride from the airport to our destination downtown took us by numerous shantytowns along the roadside. I learned later that these shantytowns are normally populated by recent immigrants from bordering African countries which are even more poor and unstable than South Africa. South African law allows for squatters rights after some short period (may have been 90 days) at which point the shantys can’t be removed. It doesn’t seem like there is a concerted effort to remove them in the meantime as the towns were numerous and expansive. Trash develops along the roadside wherever they spring up but they otherwise appear to be orderly places, with electricity, running water and satellite TV. I don’t know if satellite TV would be the most important use of my funds as an impoverished immigrant and I am always surprised to see how the “destitute” manage to be able to shell out for what appears to me a luxury item. But who am I to judge?

Something that struck me being in and around Cape Town was the number of construction cranes on the skyline! Cape Town by no means has a “scenic” skyline. The architecture is largely dreary and uninspired, it looks like the kind of semi-Soviet concrete structures that populated many Third World countries during itinerant booms in the 1970s and 1980s. But it seems that Cape Town is participating in the same global boom in downtown real estate prices and thus experiencing the regenerative development patterns that can be seen in every other major metro from LA to London to Tokyo. From my hotel balcony near the water front I could see 8 different construction cranes, and I did not have a full 180 degree view looking back toward the city. Surely there were more that escaped my notice.

The other thing I noticed about Cape Town is that it is geographically scenic. Framed by Table Mountain in the background, Cape Town appears to offer many retreats and activities for the active bodied resident. And standing on Table Mountain you can see all that you might like to see– Cape Point and the southernmost part of Africa, the Stellenbosch wine region and dramatic, glassy ocean blue views. With international shipping routes converging at the cape, the horizon is peppered with interesting longhulled ships here and there. There are opportunities for ocean sports, hiking, climbing, air sports, “extreme sports” and more.

We took a tour of the wine country, Stellenbosch, and I found it both scenic and idyllic. And the wine was fantastic. I chatted with a friend before my trip who is a wine snob, who insisted “South Africa doesn’t have any good wine.” I just don’t know what to say to that kind of ignorance, it is demeaning to the country to even treat the objection seriously.

When I visit some place new I always try to ask myself, “Could I imagine living here?” My biggest stumbling block is usually thinking about what value-added service I could provide to have a comfortable income in this new place. Nothing stuck out to me in terms of economic opportunities during my short visit in Cape Town. And while I don’t think I’d rush to find some place to live there, I could see myself enjoying my lifestyle there.

After a few days of acclimating in Cape Town, we were off to the bush for the safari. We took a small aircraft (jet) from Cape Town to a municipal airport in the northeast of the country, and from there boarded an even smaller aircraft (twin propeller) where luggage weight was a concern and flew directly to the game reserve’s air strip about 15 minutes away. Here we were picked up by our guides and trackers in their Land Rover trucks and proceeded directly into the reserve. Not knowing what to expect, I was quite shocked when a few minutes later we spotted a herd of elephants in the brush, thinking that we needed to drive to some “attraction” area to do some animal spotting. This would be a theme throughout the visit, the unexpected nature of animal sightings which occurred nearly everywhere.

Before going further, I want to talk about health risks in the bush. November in South Africa is the beginning of the summer rainy season, and the rains activate insects which have lain dormant through the dry winter period. The health recommendation for the trip was to take vaccines for Typhoid, Hep A and Malaria (and/or anti-malarial pills). According to the CDC, the country is a known risk factor for the first two and the particular area we were going to for the safari, near Kruger, is a known malarial zone.

Prior to the trip, I agonized about whether or not to take steps to protect myself. As a general rule, I am a vaccination skeptic. I also was trying to think about the risk of getting ill and/or bringing something home with a pregnant wife near term. After doing a lot of research and thinking about it, I decided not to take any vaccinations nor to take the anti-malarial pill regimen. My reasons were many. First, I found out that typhoid and hep A are extremely uncomfortable symptomatically, but they are not considered lethal nor do they cause lasting tissue damage, and a normal person can fight the disease and heal on their own if they contract the disease. I also studied the transmission mechanism for these diseases, which is contact with bodily fluids (specifically blood or feces) from an infected person. I was never going to be anywhere on the trip where I expected to be exposed to that kind of hygiene problem, and I didn’t see why I was at more risk of this transmission mechanism at home versus in South Africa. Googling and reading stories on TripAdvisor confirmed these suspicions– people with more competent doctors were laughed at for considering these precautions on anything but remote mission work, and even then.

As for malaria, I did a lot of research and realized that we were unlikely to encounter a lot of mosquitos at this point in the season. In addition, most people reported success in warding off bites (which are the only vector for the disease) with simple bug spray repellant. Finally, while malaria can be lethal, if it is contracted it is pretty obvious and can be treated with anti-viral medications at that time with a high rate of success. The side effects of anti-mallarial medications are well known and include horrible nightmares, vomiting, diarrea and other miserable flu like symptoms, which seem to occur with some frequency.

I decided to take my chances and I am really glad I did. I experienced my time in Cape Town as quite “civilized”, at no point did I feel there should be a reason for there to be a heightened risk of transmission of typhoid/hep A via food contamination, the most likely vector given that I don’t do intravenous drugs or hang out with prostitutes. In fact, many parts of Cape Town came across as very “hip”. I think hygiene is something they understand in this part of the world and the economy, which is so dependent on tourism, would really suffer if they were poisoning all their visitors with careless, avoidable disease transmission.

As for malaria, I didn’t see one mosquito the entire safari, nor receive one bite of any insect or spider (I saw many insects and spiders). The day we arrived was the first day of rain after the dry season, and we were leaving four days later, which happens to be the normal gestation period for the larvae once they receive water. So we lucked out in that sense. However, I spoke to the guides about this and they kind of laughed at the idea of taking anti-malarials. None of them took any and none even wore bug spray. They felt it was an extremely small risk and treatable if it occurred. These are trained ecological scientists (more on that soon) and wilderness survival professionals, not snooty dorks from the city that read anti-vax hoaxes on the internet. They just found operationally it wasn’t a risk in their area.

Meanwhile, many of the other people on the safari who had taken the meds had horrible side effects to the point that they were crippled with symptoms for several precious days. When the rumor got around that they might be experiencing side effects, they one by one stopped taking their meds and recovered instantaneously, enjoying the remainder of their trip in perfect health. Aside from spraying myself with a citronella bug spray before going out more out of habits back home than anything else, I did nothing to preserve my health on the trip besides eating well as I always do, getting sleep and being aware of my surroundings. This seemed to work just fine.

The safari experience is hard to describe to a person who hasn’t enjoyed it. It is not simply like being inside a zoo exhibit, because at a zoo animals behave differently than they do in an expansive habitat. They live on a kind of rhythm created by their feeding schedules and the coming and going of people as the park opens and closes. They lose their instincts, they stop mating, they no longer hunt to survive, they no longer have to avoid predators. Often times they become depressed or deranged. So going on a safari is not a “super zoo”, but a qualitatively different experience entirely. You now are watching animals do what they always do as if no one is watching and nothing disruptive has happened in their life. You are watching them be truly natural. Modern humans struggle to understand this, but what is natural is often fundamentally different from what is man-made.

On our safari we road around the massive acreage of this game reserve in a Land Rover, with our guide driving and our tracker sitting on a chair hanging off the hood of the vehicle. It is quite noisy and obvious moving along the trails (and quite ferocious in terms of mastering the terrain, able to climb and remain balanced in steep slopes, operate in deep water, crash through small trees and other brush as necessary) but it doesn’t seem to disrupt the animals. They perceive it as a large but unthreatening animal moving through their environment, as long as the humans all remain inside.

We’d start with a 430AM wakeup, gather for a quick snack and coffee and depart by 5 or 530AM. The sun rises around 330/4AM, so by this time it has been up for awhile but it is not yet warm. We would drive and see what we could see for a couple hours, stop on the trail and make a snack and second coffee on the hood, clean up and continue driving for another hour and a half, ending around 830AM. The rest of the day was to be spent at leisure at the lodge, until afternoon tea again around 4PM, followed by the afternoon drive at 430/5PM. A similar pattern ensued, with a break for a snack and the last half of the drive occurring after sunset at which point the Land Rover headlights come on and the tracker sweeps the horizon with a floodlight rhythmically, looking for the glint of reflection coming from a hidden animals eyes.

The “Big 5” on the safari that everyone hopes to see are the leopard, the lion, the rhino, the elephant and the buffalo. We managed to see all of these, and more. We were truly spoiled as we often saw some of them more than once, or doing unusual things (mating, recovering after a kill, with newborns, etc.) We were often so close that, while I never feared for my life because we were with professionals who understood the risks, my own instinct was to tighten up and remain still not wanting to make any sudden movement unintentionally. It felt like that sudden move could invite a beast to come lunging into my lap in one snap motion!

Things that can’t be communicated in photos, and only poorly in videos, are the sounds of the safari. Warning cries. Combat sounds. Horseplay noises. Mammals, birds, insects. And of course the smells! At this time in the season, the bush and the grass are well eaten away and some of the animals are on the verge of starvation. An entire season’s worth of shit of every conceivable species is littered over nearly every square foot of ground and while it doesn’t smell bad (even when it’s fresh, most of it is essentially grass and leaf material, it is the meat-eater feces which smell putrid) it adds something to the environment. So does the occasional rotting carcass, which can literally be smelled from a mile away and which is totally revolting at proximity when driving by.

And then there are just general landscape items that are hard to capture because they become almost monotonously mesmerizing as they are passed by repeatedly. Hundred year old termite mounds that look like small hills dotting the landscape every fifty or sixty yards. Trees being slowly consumed by strangling vines. The nearly endless variety of grasses, bushes, trees and other plants, some of which have still not been cataloged and fully speciated.

All of this stuff we were whizzing past for hours every day for four days, all of it so different and unusual and unassimilable in my normal experience parameters that I was amazed at how quickly I became inured to it as a stress-induced response to being incapable of taking it all in in such a short period of time. Something funny that happened again and again was the way I’d get a photo of an animal, and then we’d come across another specimen of the same one I had photographed earlier, and I decided to set my camera aside and just watch because “I’d already seen this”, and the animal would proceed to exhibit some unusual or unexpected behavior and I’d be cursing myself for setting the camera aside! But simultaneously, I was fighting that urge to just be present and let my memories develop organically rather than trying to catalog everything at risk of missing out on actually perceiving it live and honestly.

The highest praise I can give the safari experience is that it is one I will be eager to share with my children at some point in the future. They can certainly live without it, anyone can. But it is a trip worth taking if you want to take a trip. It is just so different in terms of the sights, sounds, smells and sense you get in “being there” that it has no comparison to any other travel I’ve done up to this point in my life (and I think it’s taken the crown for most “exotic” from my trip to Japan in 2001, an experience that has not been surmounted despite a recent return trip to Asia that touched many other countries).

On our way home, we decided to stop over in Dubai for a day and see the sights. I will keep this brief. I was not impressed with Dubai. In fact, I was a bit offended with how impressed I was supposed to be. To me it was a depressing place– a false city of gilded monuments to a capability that doesn’t belong to the people who live there, constructed with resources that other people discovered and learned how to produce. It is the most sickening welfare society I have yet come across and I couldn’t get over how phony it was, with it’s attitude of “we’ve brought the best the world has to offer to one place, our city!” trying to paper over the fact that there’s nothing remarkable or noteworthy originating there.

I was really happy we only decided to spend a day there!

Pictures From Buenos Aires (#travel, #BuenosAires, #Argentina)

Pictures From Buenos Aires (#travel, #BuenosAires, #Argentina)

Somehow we never got to blog anything about the last part of our trip to South America in 2013, which ended in Buenos Aires. Here are some pictures from the visit:

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The public buses look like NASCAR-racers.

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Residential architecture example.

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This was a multi-course steak dinner at one of the finest waterside restaurants in the city near the financial district that cost us about $40/pp (USD) including wine and appetizers. Good exchange rate dynamics!

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I remember taking this shot in the “plastic surgery” neighborhood, just as an example of what a nice area feels like on the street. BA has higher-than-average rates of plastic surgery amongst women, much like Seoul, South Kora.

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An example of the European-influenced architectural styles prevalent in the city. I was told by a tour guide that building materials from Europe were used as ballast on ships making the transoceanic commute, so in a sense BA has literally transported European materials and style to the city which is why it’s easy to think you’re in Paris or Rome or some other European capital when walking around town.

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Equine statute of a martial hero in the park.

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I liked the way the trees made a “tunnel” on this street in the Palermo district.

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The Capitoline Wolf! In a park in Buenos Aires.

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I believe this is the central bank building.

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An old church.

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More architectural examples.

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This was an old school pizzeria we visited, where many BAers like to come for a pizza, a beer and a futbol game on TV.

 

Skeptical Remarks About Dog Ownership (#dogs, #lifestyle, #criticism, #skepticism)

Skeptical Remarks About Dog Ownership (#dogs, #lifestyle, #criticism, #skepticism)

I own a working breed dog, but I do not have a working purpose for the animal as I live in a suburban community that is at least a one hour drive away from the kind of terrain and property arrangements where one might actually be able to put a dog to work. Currently, I also live in a smaller-sized apartment with my wife, the Wolf, which meets our space needs in large part without being wasteful, but which is not ideal for the dog who would do better with a yard to run free in. I have several friends who think our dog ownership decision is something of a lifestyle mistake– they see only costs and are unclear on the benefits.

In the interest of trying to think objectively about my life choices, I want to explore their skepticism as if it were my own. Why do I own a dog? What am I getting out of this seemingly parasitical arrangement?

In many ways, owning a dog is like having a child who never grows up:

  • the dog is dependent upon you for its feeding and care
  • the dog imposes additional costs in terms of food, occasional medical attention, dog equipment (leash, collar, dog toys, etc.)
  • the dog has limited communication capabilities and often leaves its owners guessing as to what its needs are and how they might best be resolved
  • the dog has a penchant for behaving in unpredictable and undesirable ways (barking at strangers, pacing about the bedroom late at night, distracting visitors)
  • the dog puts severe constraints on your ability to travel and come and go as you please, requiring special arrangements anytime you’re out of town for extended periods of time
  • the dog thrives on routine and predictability, which means your life becomes more routine-based and therefore monotonous to the extent you decide to cater to your dog’s needs
  • the dog represents a commitment and the responsibility which entails can not be shed at a whim

These shortcomings and limitations of dog ownership are very real. I have counseled many a friend and young family member to think twice before taking on the responsibility of a dog while single and resource-light. The demands of letting the dog out throughout the day and giving the dog substantial exercise can be extremely stressful to a young professional or amateur careerist operating on their own, not to mention the hindering effect dog ownership has on the attempt to have a nightlife and with it, a sex life! Taking on a dog before you take on a full time partner is like turning on a homing beacon for the irresponsible and imbalanced that simultaneously sets off an ear-piercing frequency that can only be sensed by the collected, cool-headed types you’d ideally want to attract but are instead unwittingly driving away.

And while the ongoing costs of dog ownership are fairly minimal (dog food is the gag fate of impoverished elderly people everywhere for a reason), dogs seem to have a nasty habit of swallowing things, breaking things or otherwise becoming near-fatally ill in the most costly and inconvenient manner possible for those least able to bear the financial strain, and such situations can be an impressive financial setback for those just starting out in life. How would you like to shell out $2,500 cash for surgery on a recently discovered tumor your poor old dog has developed? Or spend multiples of that treating an animal who is congenitally predisposed to the painful and debilitating disease known as degenerative myelopathy?

One of the supposed joys of dog ownership is taking your dog out in public as you traipse about town. But in doing so you take two major risks. The first is that you will attract a crazy person with an obsessive compulsion to pet or otherwise inappropriately interact with your dog. The second is that your dog will become frightened or alarmed by another animal, ideally a small child, and bite, at which point you will now have a dead dog (put down by the authorities) and a costly lawsuit to defend yourself against from the animal’s owners (parents, other dog-owner, etc.) which you will undoubtedly lose.

To avoid such troubles, you might think of taking your dog to the park, where it can roam and run and chase a ball to its heart’s content with little risk of an upsetting interaction with a stranger. But if you live in a town like I do, with strongly enforced leash laws and bans on dog activity on school grounds, which constitute a majority of the open public spaces nearby, you’re kind of out of luck on this draw. You can’t let your dog, legally, off its 6-foot leash which doesn’t make for a fun game of fetch, and you can’t, legally, even go to most of the places otherwise suitable for playing with a dog unless you’re interested in attracting a dog catcher and paying a fine and/or losing your “privilege” to own a dog (said privilege operating on two levels of irony given the tenor of this post so far, and the views of this author on the role of governments in society).

In that case, you might go to a dog park. These are specially designated areas where a variety of dogs of differing size, temperament, training discipline and owner profile all congregate and go nuts on one another, rolling in fleas, transferring diseases to one another, pissing and shitting all over the place and more than occasionally getting into fights. Many of the owners are the same caliber of insane as the standard weirdos who might try to approach you when you’re out about town walking your dog, which is also enjoyable. And you can still get sued if something goes wrong. (You could also be mauled yourself!) A dog park is actually a good case in miniature for a broad policy of social segregation, of dogkind and mankind alike.

It’s actually difficult for me to think of anything I enjoy about owning a dog that I could not enjoy without the dog itself. I could say that owning a dog is a good excuse to get some exercise and walk the neighborhood, but I could surely do that without the dog and in fact many people do, some jog instead of walk but nonetheless they get it done without a four-legged friend. I could say that a dog is a good home security system, but it’s probably inferior to today’s WiFi and app-connected DIY home monitoring system technology in both cost and effectiveness, and unfortunately this “security system” goes on vacation whenever you do, needing to be boarded at additional expense away from home when you’re away. I could say that a dog provides one with warmth and companionship, but that’d be an indication of an imbalanced, emotionally needy mind that could probably get that relationship more authentically from another human being after some workouts with a qualified therapist. And I could say that a dog adds a playful spirit of spontaneity to one’s life, but I’ve never been fond of jumping out of airplanes and I imagine you could accomplish much the same thing that way if you really wanted to do so. Besides, as I said before, where I live there’s no place to play with my dog and it’s hard to be too spontaneous in the living room in the small hours of the evening.

What value, then, is there in owning a dog? For someone with a working purpose connected to their lifestyle (shepherding, farming, mountain rescue, police/security work), dogs probably make sense. In fact, anthropologists and evolutionary theorists posit that dogs were domesticated thousands of years ago precisely because of the important functional relationships they could establish with hunter-gatherer societies.

But we don’t live in those societies anymore, at least, I don’t, and for the modern, non-rural person such as myself a dog doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose.

And since we all live in interventionist welfare societies now, maybe it doesn’t make any sense to have children, either.

Assorted images from the southeast Asia tour (#travel, #photos, #Asia, #Singapore, #HK, #Taipei)

Assorted images from the southeast Asia tour (#travel, #photos, #Asia, #Singapore, #HK, #Taipei)

I went through the posts of our recent trip to southeast Asia and realized all the image links had broken. I have fixed them all now, though there were some places where I couldn’t figure out what I had intended to feature in the spot where a photo once was. I also found a lot of images that I thought were interesting, and I remember intending to include them in a blog post somewhere, but somehow I didn’t get to it.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the “lost” photos from the trip:

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This was from our first dinner in Singapore. Fried shrimp heads in chili sauce.

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A strange toilet rating touch screen at the Changi Airport bathroom in Singapore. I did not rate the toilet, having just washed my hands.

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Colorful shutters in Tanjong Pagar neighborhood, Singapore.

img_20160420_074714The Wolf got this cool shot of these lanterns in Singapore.

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A refreshing koi pond found in Singapore.

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Eggplant in Singapore!

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Modern skyscrapers overlooking a humble hawker center in Singapore.

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Feeling a bit claustrophobic in the urban canyons of Hong Kong.

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Outside our breakfast spot one morning in Hong Kong. They use bamboo shoots to build scaffolding when doing construction work.

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Funny cultural knick-knacks at a shop in Hong Kong near the Mid-Levels.

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Bull iconography near the International Financial Centre.

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Our first dinner in Hong Kong, at a hip Korean joint. No complaints here!

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An old temple in the city in Taipei.

img_20160412_125229An amusing handbill advertisement seen in someone’s mailbox in Taipei.

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A power control switching board made of marble and iron in the water pump building in Taipei.

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CKS’s mausoleum, a bleak place visited on a bleak day. He began construction before he died, clearly concerned about how he’d be venerated after he passed away.

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A miniature koi pond out in front of a restaurant in Taipei.

 

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Looking down Yongkang Street in Taipei.

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An old residential building built during the Japanese administration, in Taipei.

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Our streetside breakfast spot one morning in Taipei.

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A children’s public school in Taipei, near Da’an Park.

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Construction cranes and steel superstructures in Taipei.

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Statues in Songshan Creative Park, Taipei.

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A lonely soup dumpling on my plate in Taipei.

Review – Restrepo (#film, #war, #documentary, #politics, #NationBuilding)

Review – Restrepo (#film, #war, #documentary, #politics, #NationBuilding)

I watched a NatGeo documentary last night called “Restrepo.” It’s about the conditions and objectives of a small US Army platoon in the mountainous wilderness of Afghanistan.

Very little happens in this movie over its 1.5hr runtime. There is a lot of buildup and talk about how often the base is attacked, and this is depicted several times, but overall nothing happens. I don’t know if this was an intentional part of the plot (“the futility of the Restrepo mission”) or if it’s bad editing or belies a fraud about the claims being made in the film about what it is like for these troops, but it is not entertaining. And by that I don’t mean, “Gee, I wish there were more poor, dumb soldiers getting wasted in this real life documentary” but rather, “Gee, what am I getting out of watching this film?”

That being said, this is not good propaganda for the US government’s desire to nation-build overseas. Why does the military allow journalists and documentarians to embed with their troops? Restrepo is an offshoot of a slightly larger but still insignificant base tasked with enlarging the “security bubble” in the area so that a road can be safely built connecting two hapless economic regions into one, which is supposed to bring jobs, incomes and peace and happiness to the land. Every bit of tactical maneuver in war seems really stupid when studied by itself — “50 men gave their lives for a bridge that was ultimately destroyed by the enemy anyway, why did 50 men die for a bridge?” — but the Restrepo mission seems especially stupid not because these men are fighting and dying and accidentally murdering local civilians for an unbuilt road, but because the premise behind building the road is itself very stupid. Do the local Afghans even WANT this road? If they did, why didn’t they build it before the US Army showed up?

Is military Keynesianism a viable structure for developing foreign economies? Keynesianism doesn’t seem to work to develop domestic economies. And the military, professional murderers and demolishers, don’t seem to be the right people to task with building things, let alone people’s economies. Wouldn’t it make more sense to send overwhelming military force through the area, wipe out/expel the organized Taliban elements and then let civilian diplomats and construction contractors come through and negotiate new power structures and infrastructure plans?

The Korengal Valley itself, where the drama unfolds, is truly magnificent geography. It reminds me of the valleys I hiked on the Inca Trail in Peru on my way up to Macchu Picchu. In fact, the remoteness, the terraced cultivation and the “primitive” lifestyle and social organization of the Afghans looked nearly identical to what I saw in Peru. It seems like a perfectly nice place for the locals to live and you get the insane idea watching the movie that they never asked for the US Army to invade their territory and murder their wives and children in helicopter gunship assaults, and they’re not all that thankful for their service now that they’ve shown up. Would it be unpatriotic, dare I say even treasonous, to suggest that the Afghans are getting a raw deal here and it’s hard to wonder why they wouldn’t want to overtly or covertly support the Taliban in these circumstances?

That old quip about “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you” runs hard through the film’s narrative. We see again and again the way the local commander makes big promises and doesn’t follow through– he murders a guy’s cow and offers no agreeable compensation, he disappears a local who he suspects of being an accomplice of the Taliban and then offers the vague assurance that he’s being treated nicely and will soon return though he doesn’t, and he responds to an attack by calling in a fire mission on a neighboring village that kills and maims several women and small children. I don’t care who someone is fighting for, if I had to hold the charred body of my innocent two year old in my arms and watch a bunch of crude monkeys rifle through the smoking remains of my home looking for contraband after such an incident, I think I’d lose my shit.

And what IS the best solution to murdering someone’s cow, anyway? If you could get your higher-ups to release the $400-500 cash to pay the guy back (I think the village elders took the US Army for a ride on that request, by the way, there is no way a cow is worth half a grand in the mountains of Afghanistan) doesn’t that incentivize them to let more of their cattle wander into your concertina wire whenever they lack liquidity? And if you can’t get that cash released, aren’t you guaranteed to keep pissing off the locals while insisting you’re there to win hearts and minds?

The long and the short of it is that imperialism is a terrible idea in the first place, but the United States government isn’t even good at imperialism. It is very half-hearted and half-assed in its attempts to brutalize and control foreign peoples and spends more time apologizing and groveling about its numerous mistakes than making any meaningful progress in terms of rapine and pillage. It makes you wonder the whole time how such a pointless and ineffectual system can sustain itself, until you realize that the people who are really getting mulcted in this process are the guileless American people “back home.”

And the poor, dumb US foot soldier is the tool used to tug at those people’s heart strings while picking their pockets clean. “Thank you for your service,” indeed.

2/5

Longshan Temple and the Night Market (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

Longshan Temple and the Night Market (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

This is a post from Taipei that didn’t get up in time because my battery was dying on my phone and then I forgot to go back and upload it when I had a charge.

We took a free walking tour with Tour Me Away – Taipei to see one of the nightmarkets. This was our 2nd or 3rd night in town.

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This is a lion statue near the Longshan Temple MRT stop, about a block from the temple. I love these things, I never get tired of seeing their slight variations around town.

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This is the entrance to Longshan Temple. The central doors of big temples like this are often closed off and only opened for visiting dignitaries or major holidays. Like most of the temples we found, you enter on the right side (out of frame) and leave from the left side. Each side is guarded by an animal, I believe it is the dragon on the right and the tiger on the left. Going in this order is Feng Shui and gives you good luck because the dragon is a positive luck symbol and leaving out of the tiger is like avoiding its jaws and danger. So going in reverse is just the opposite and bad luck– tiger gon’ eat ya!

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This is an image of some of the detail on the temple.

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Detail of a lantern. My Nexus 5 camera obviously doesn’t do great in varied lighting conditions but I still think this lit lantern is interesting.

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Detail of a dragon statue.

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This is the inner temple. I don’t know what the proper term is but that’s what I am calling it. Inside this structure are the various Chinese gods that the temple goers worship at for luck, happiness, marital bliss, a good crop, what have you.

On the right, out of frame, is a “hospital” area where a person can go buy what is essentially like a lottery ticket. The funds go to the temple to provide alms to the poor and keep up the structure. It’s almost like an indulgence. You get this little lottery ticket and it has a lucky number or some kind of fortune cookie saying on it that is supposed to calm your anxiety and help you on in your troubles.

It’s really smoky inside the entire temple despite so many outdoor areas because people are just constantly burning incense and waving it around.

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This incense urn in the inner temple sports a couple of Dutch colonists who have been condemned to bear the heavy burden of the urn cap. We were told by the young tour guides that this was a kind of damnation for their cruelty during the colonial occupation of Taipei. I guess the locals and the colonists didn’t get along.

In the back of the outer courtyard surrounding the inner temple, more Chinese god statues were being prayed to for various purposes. One common one is a God that grants students success in their tests for school. Another is a God that grants good luck in finding a partner. Pursuants grab a pair of red banana-shaped tokens and cast them on the ground near the idol. The way the tokens land indicate different results in terms of the hoped for outcome. It’s common for pursuants to throw the tokens repeatedly until they get three signals in a row for the outcome they’re after.

Back in the main temple, more luck and gods favor games. This time one with numbered sticks and corresponding numbered drawers with the fortune paper on it. While explaining and demonstrating these processes, one of our guides unnerved a worshipper mightily because she had removed some of the sticks from the jar without using them, thus throwing off the cosmic chances of achieving a particular lucky combination.

All I could think was, isn’t that part of your luck, to not get a fair draw? The irony of using ones rational intelligence and purposeful efforts to influence desired outcomes was completely lost on this person.

The grounds around the temple are now and traditionally have been a kind of safe place for vagrants and the down on their luck. This is because the temple historically has served as a conduit between the charity of the wealthy who provide it and the indigent who are in need of it. It creates a somewhat seedy atmosphere around the temple which is only reinforced by the night market.

Now, night markets are perfectly innocent. They’re mostly markets that are open late with hawker food stands and the odd vendor of trinkets and trash. But there is a reason these vendors are open so much later than everyone else and the atmosphere is strangely marginal. Some people (like the Wolf) find them interesting but I don’t too much, and most of the food just doesn’t appeal to me.

So we walked around, saw the restaurant where people eat snakes and take the 5 shot challenge (snake blood, snake urine,…) Walked down the alley where the brothels pose as some kind of men’s parlor and are tolerated by the community, toured the hawker stands and then went home for the evening. We were bushed and its a lot of excitement to take in late at night.

The grand finale (#travel)

The grand finale (#travel)

We returned to the US and the first text I received when I turned my phone on was a friend notifying me that Andrew Jackson is being replaced by Harriett Tubman on the $20 bill.

If this country’s main priority for improving things is to debate which racially charged historical figure should be on the toilet paper money, then this country has problems.

More images from Hong Kong (#travel, #HK)

More images from Hong Kong (#travel, #HK)

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Creative outrage at Chinese Communist party social priorities.

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Graffiti temple dragon murals

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Pagoda and pond in a park, or as the signage refers to them as, a “sitting-out area”

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Burning incense bells in a street side temple

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Another small temple

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A view down a street in the hills

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More towering buildings and density

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“Dog parking” in Stanley

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“Dog latrine”

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Chungking Mansions, “the most globalized place on Earth” reportedly home to people representing over 130 nationalities and a notoriously seedy public housing project turned marginal trading post

Passing through Taipei (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

Passing through Taipei (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

We’re on the second leg of our trip home, connecting from Singapore in Taipei. I remembered that I forgot to share about our visit to the Taipei Municipal Water Museum when we were here last week.

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This building and pump system was constructed by the Japanese administrators after Taiwan was transfered to Japan by the Qing Dynasty. It was constructed around the 1920s, maybe earlier, I don’t remember. We have to assume the city didn’t have anything like this prior to the Japanese building it as I saw no mention of it replacing any previous water sanitation system.

The system is fed by gravity from a canal that diverts water from a nearby river. The dirty water is pumped up an incline to create pressure where it is gravity fed into a filtration system below. The water passes through various sand compartments and is filtered of particulate. The clean water then enters the second half of the installation and is pumped back uphill to create pressure and is then gravity fed into the distribution network of mains around the city.

The project is fascinating for its technological complexity. It required knowledge of hydraulic engineering, metallurgy, electricity, biology, physics, masonry, and mechanical engineering to construct. It undoubtedly took the labor of hundreds of people to construct and operate. While the pumping station has been replaced by modern equivalents, the filtration system is still in use and has been expanded and the general principle of operation remains the same.

The Japanese left many legacies like this behind them. Setting aside the brutality of their occupation, they left many cultural, edible, and practical social improvements behind them that the Taiwanese admire to this day.

Why did the Japanese feel they must expand their influence through militarism and conquest? Why couldn’t a Japanese engineering firm have been hired to construct this project on the basis of market principles and freely entered contracts?

How much different could history be, and how much further ahead socially would southeast Asia be, if the Japanese had been captured by a more peaceful ideology?

Singapore cabbie anecdote (#travel, #Singapore)

Singapore cabbie anecdote (#travel, #Singapore)

I had a conversation with our cabbie on the way to the airport in Singapore that was worth memorializing. It’s one man’s perspective so the anecdote must be put in that context, but it’s still interesting.

Our cabbie told us that rents for nice 1 and 2BR apartments on the outskirts of town run S$3500+, and the same apartments in the CBD are closer to S$5000+. He said many foreign manual laborers were earning S$1-1500/mo ten years ago and make about the same now.

Foreign expats who come to take corporate jobs are often on contract and sign up to make S$10-12,000/mo by his estimate. While they could choose to live outside the city and save money, many live in the CBD and obviously rent consumes a substantial portion of their income each month. As a result many feel that Singapore doesn’t offer the opportunity they imagined and look to leave when their contract ends.

He said that if he didn’t have a wife and kids, he’d be looking to move to Australia, New Zealand or another economy like that as he thinks the job and living standard opportunities are better. But he thinks it’s too hard to do it if you’re not single and flexible. I thought this was interesting because to me it says a lot about a place if people want to immigrate in or emigrate out.

I asked about the press. He said the press was completely controlled by the government and they painted an often comical picture of reality compared to alternative views people can now freely access on social media. He said they don’t seem to understand how that has put the truth to their lies but nonetheless it is not a free press.

He said that the different races mostly get along, and there are no ethnic political parties, they’re all mixed, but he said it wasn’t so simple as everyone getting along with everyone else and there is definitely some stigma toward the darker skinned manual laborers from India and similar areas.

He said life is not bad in Singapore, but it just isn’t quite like the official story and a lot of people are beginning to struggle to get by and can’t manage to save, and the government doesn’t seem to have a good plan for managing this.