07 December, 2008

thefive-o

no, not the cops, but the number of full years one of our favourite guys, Jill's dad, has been alive as of last December. though we missed it in 2006 while we were in Asia, his birthday usually occasions a pretty big family outing. this time, rather than going snowmobiling, we went down to Moab, Utah and rented a Jeep to go four-wheeling over the red rocks around Arches National Park.



the man himself, proudly proclaiming the day.  below, Jill and i at the top of Dead Horse Point, with Canyonlands National Park below us, one of the most awesome sights i have ever beheld.



Jill's parents rented a house in Moab for a couple of days, and in addition to the main event, we enjoyed eveningtime entertainment consisting of Wii games (the Wiis were brand new at that time), a piñata (that we put up indoors and attacked with a spatula), and watching National Treasure 2 at the local three-screen megaplex.  before this trip, i had only been to Moab twice: once while in high school to ride the slickrock trail on a mountain bike, and once to take our Japanese friends, the Kusudas, to Arches National Park.  this time, we skipped Arches and headed over to Canyonlands, taking some snow-scattered, cliffside mountain trails in the four-by-fours.



Jill and i pose atop the able rented Jeep with Gooney Bird Rock in the background to the left.  below, despite being asked not to, i decide to put that Jeep's abilities to the test.  it passed.

video

those often scary trails eventually led us up the mountains to arrive at Dead Horse Point, the main feature of an eponymously named State Park. basically, it is a very narrow section of plateau that sits high above the Colorado river in Canyonlands National Park, and was used by horse thieves as an easily guarded place to keep their spoils. a little bit of fencing and a guy parked at the narrow entrance made it just about ideal for rustlers, as long as you don't count the lack of space, food and water, which often killed the animals. oh well, at least it has great views. i mean really great views; once you've seen the Grand Canyon, you pretty much think you've seen all the good holes in the ground, but i can't remember seeing a landscape that impressed me as much as did the view from this place. it's easy to take for granted the scenery or attractions near where you live, so i don't often have a great desire to explore Utah until we're off living somewhere else, but this is one part of our big empty state that's well worth seeing.  thanks to Jill's dad for being the reason i got to, and since it's almost that time again, happy 51st in advance!

02 August, 2008

theotherSAR

and now to spoil the mood. in keeping with my craze of adding more stamps to our passports, Jill and i decided to leave the relative haven of Hong Kong for a day trip across the Pearl River delta. i had been warned not to go, but that stamp was just itching to be had, the guidebook had made our destination look wonderful, and even the mode of transport to get there would be fun. so what if Macau was known to be a seedy vice den? we weren't going to the casinos.



the famed, if not drab, Casino Lisboa anchors a whole strip full of such seedy joints, which bear resemblance to their Las Vegas counterparts only in gaudiness.  apparently several of the Vegas magnates have opened rather plush hotels in Macau since we were there, but back in July 2005 this was as good as it got.  and i wasn't even allowed in--because i was wearing shorts!  below, our transit to the former Portuguese colony came in the form of this Boeing 929 jetfoil boat; yes, it really is made by the aeroplane people, and yes, it really is powered by a jet engine.



though we had wanted to take a helicopter, we opted for a jetfoil  boat because it was considerably cheaper, and while in some ways i still wish we had shelled out some extra bucks for a scenic flight, i wasn't disappointed by the boat.  when they were finally able to crank up the jet engine as we reached the edge of Victoria Harbor, the giant ferry rose up on its foils and cut so smoothly through the still choppy waters we might as well have been flying.  it was a beautiful sunny day and that whole stretch of the South China Sea was bustling with craft of all kinds going to and fro everywhere.  it was awesome to see how fast we passed other jetfoils coming back from Macao, and the whole journey took only 45 minutes one way to cover more than 40 ocean miles.

the only problem with all this, as it turned out, was our tickets.  to save a few Hong Kong dollars and to ensure that we'd be back to Kowloon the same day, we had bought and booked seats for our return journey at the same time we booked them for the outbound leg.  which would have been fine, if we had ended up needing a whole day to see Macau, as we had thought we reasonably might.  so it was a little distressing when we discovered that we still had six hours to kill before our trip back when we had seen everything--literally, everything--that we were interested in seeing on that hot, dirty peninsula.



some of the few worthwhile sights of Macau, clockwise from top left: the centerpiece fountain of the Largo do Senado (Senate Square) plays in the sun in front of the arcaded front of one of the Portuguese colonial buildings; Jill stands in front of the facade of the church of São Paulo, the last remainder of that edifice; the tiled sign set in the wall of a corner building demarcates the beginning of the Largo de São Domingos, or St Dominic's Square; a line of pedicabs in front of the Casino Lisboa; and Jill in front of the Igreja São Domingos, the interior of which forms the backdrop for this collection of pictures.  below, the hilltop lighthouse at the Guia Fortress rises above the whole Macanese enclave.



there are some good sights to see.  the two churches, of São Domingos and São Paulo, are rather impressive, the former set on a pleasant square that is surrounded by colonial buildings and floored with black and white cobblestones arranged in gentle waves, and the latter set on a plaza that is surrounded pretty much by obnoxious Chinese tourists.  Fortaleza Guia, or the Guia Fortress, sitting atop a central hill is almost worth the phenomenally sweaty trek to the top, if not for the smog-ridden view then at least for the cannon riding opportunities (see below).  built in 1638 atop Macau's highest point, the fort was joined by an upstart young lighthouse in 1865 that still functions with a light visible for over 20 miles in clear conditions, which i take to mean under 20 yards in normal conditions.



the view from the Guia Fortress looking approximately southwest-ish, and below, the occasional special view at the Guia Fortress, where the ghost of an ancient warrior rides his surdy cannon into battle... or something.



a word here about guidebooks.  i suppose it's the job of pretty much any such work to make its subject seem appealing, and the types of folks who are apt to write such books are bound to be lovers of travel.  however, i can't help feeling that the folks who wrote the book we used on this trip were either a little punch drunk on, or at least blinded somewhat by that love.  having been reliving this excursion through writing this post, i have felt a little softened toward Macau due to the pictures of the good bits.  but really, i don't think i could ever recommend Macau as a destination to anyone, as much as i love seeing new places and as much as i wanted to like this one in spite of the warning i had received about it.  i could happily live in Singapore or Hong Kong, but i'd be severely aggravated at having to spend just another hour in Macau.  incidentally, we used a Rough Guide to Hong Kong and Macau, while we had a Fodor's book that covered all the other countries we visited on the Southeast Asia trip.  it's not that the Rough Guide is bad, indeed, we started off the Japan trip with another of those, but its authors were a little effusive about some of the features we found most dubious in Macau; in any case, we used the Lonely Planet books for our Taiwan travel and have pretty much got used to them on our trips since, so that's what we usually recommend.

anyway, i'm not expecting anyone to try to make me live in Macau, but then again, i wasn't expecting my first foray there to be so awful, so who knows. we tried to salvage the trip by searching for the highly recommended junk boats that take you on a ride around Macau and under the bridge that connects it to the other two islands of the colony, Taipa and Coloane. unfortunately, we couldn't find any such dock as was mentioned in our book, and nobody seemed to know what we were talking about, so we called the whole thing a big bust and headed back to the jetfoil terminal to see if there was any way to get out of there on a much earlier boat than the one we were booked on. oddly, in a perversion that may have actually made our trip for us, the demand to get to Macau by jetfoil was a lot higher than demand to leave the awful place, so we got onto the next boat with no problems at all. and after just five hours in town we settled back into our plush seats for the comfy, quick ride back to civilized, blessed Hong Kong.

24 May, 2008

thetoros

it's probably been a bit difficult to follow the timeline of many of these posts, with me reporting events way after the fact and not in orderly fashion. but this post, though older like so many others lately, happens to report an event exactly two years old today. to mark this celebration of relative antiquity, and possibly to diminish the appearance of its age, i introduce the topic with some really vintage words:
At the first bullfight I ever went to I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the horses. Everything I had read about the bullring insisted on that point; most people who wrote of it condemned bullfighting outright as a stupid brutal business, but even those that spoke well of it as an exhibition of skill and as a spectacle deplored the use of the horses and were apologetic about the whole thing. The killing of the horses in the ring was considered indefensible. I suppose, from a modern moral point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is certainly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it. To do this I must be altogether frank, or try to be, and if those who read this decide with disgust that it is written by some one who lacks their, the readers', fineness of feeling I can only plead that this may be true. But whoever reads this can only truly make such a judgment when he, or she, has seen the things that are spoken of and knows truly what their reactions to them would be.
so saith Ernest Hemingway, who penned these words more than 75 years ago, and who, at least in the English language, is perhaps the most studied observer of modern bullfighting, modern here being within the last century. i have lived most of my life thinking that my family had attended bullfights during our trips to Spain when i was a young child of three or four; apparently i was wrong about that but i'm sure i wouldn't have remembered my reactions even if i had attended one those many years ago.


the postcard advertising the bullfight we attended on our honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. 300 Mexican pesos was about US$27 at the time, and worth every penny.

nevertheless i have been somewhat fascinated with the idea of bullfighting, so i jumped at the chance to see a real live bullfight when Jill and i were last in Mexico, if only to make good on an event i thought i had observed a quarter century before. Jill was game too, which was convenient since we were on our honeymoon and it wouldn't really have done for me to go alone. even though it was held in the small bullring of Puerto Vallarta, a tourist town, the fights themselves were very authentic and it turns out that the fights are quite popular all over Mexico, and almost as much as in their native Spain.


me outside the Plaza de Toros in Puerto Vallarta, just before the appointed time.

if you've read this far then it's safe to assume that at least the idea of bullfighting doesn't put you off. i can understand how it would, and warn that there are some pretty graphic images to come, so i will understand if you take this last chance to bail out. but as Hemingway says, it's impossible to know your reaction to the spectacle until you've seen it, even though you may--very reasonably--never intend to do. unfortunately, there are some of the tourists in town on that day who had made up their minds about the barbarous event before it even started--why they still went was beyond me, it's not like anyone made them. one such woman insisted on shouting through the whole event and heckling the matadors and their peones, or underlings. she could have left, as several people did after or during the first fight, but her display not only served to confirm opinions that Americans can be obnoxious and culturally insensitive, but displayed a complete lack of understanding of the the whole bullfight.

though no excuse for her behavior, this ignorance is understandable, and comes from a basic misperception of the nature of the event. given that fights and matadors are given similar press coverage to the final four and NFL quarterbacks, it makes sense that we would think of the bullfight as sport, though sport it is really not:
The bullfight is not a sport in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word, that is, it is not an equal contest or an attempt at an equal contest between a bull and a man. Rather it is a tragedy; the death of the bull, which is played, more or less well, by the bull and the man involved and in which there is danger for the man but certain death for the animal.
thanks to Senor Ernesto for the for the correct definition. the bullfight is art.



the paseo of the bullfighters and their staff, or
cuadrilla, occurs at the beginning of the event and allows a sense of occasion and a chance to salute the Presidente, the authority for the fight. below, the bull is announced before he thunders into the arena.



about an hour after the matadors have begun their highly ritualistic dressing in their ornate trajes de luces (suits of light), the late-afternoon event begins with a procession across the plaza de toros, or bullring. some important person, perhaps a local dignitary, will have been chosen to officiate at the fight, and this presidente will, upon being saluted, throw down the keys to the toril, or bullpen. the bulls are kept in semi-darkness for several hours preceeding the fight, so as to calm and rest them and hopefully keep them from splintering their horns by ramming the enclosure walls. the fighters will have sent trusted members of their staff to examine the bulls and draw for them, each one hoping to have a brave, usually meaning aggressive, bull. generally, three matadors will each kill two bulls; at the fight we attended there were four young matadors who each went up against a single toro.

the bulls are announced just before they are allowed to charge down the tunnel that leads out into the bright sunshine of the ring, which most do explosively, though one or two at our corrida, or running, required a jab in the hind quarters to get them going. perhaps oddly, these are the most dangerous bulls for the matadors because they will be unpredictable in their charges and will also require the most risk-taking in citing to charge. in any case, this is when the matador first gets to judge the character of his bull, as the man stands behind the barrera, the red wooden fence that surrounds the sandy ring and provides some protection from the bull's charges. the other matadors and the current fighter's own staff will enter the ring with their capotes, large, heavy capes used to attract the bull's attention and steer him in this prelude to the fight. they will often use them to lead the bull away from a horse or a man in vulnerable position in a maneuver known as a quite, which is also usually taken as a good chance to show off some fancy cape work.


one of the matadors uses the heavy rose and goldenrod-colored capote to attract the bull. you can tell that this is a full matador and not a peon because the ornaments of his traje de luces are gold.

during all this beginning activity, before the first of the fight's three acts, or tercios, has begun, the matador will be studying his bull to detect signs of cowardice or tendencies to prefer one horn over the other for hooking, or to veer to the left or right in charging. many of the actions taken during the fight will have the express purpose of correcting any of these undesirable traits. after a few minutes of observation, the matador himself will enter the arena and finish the introduction with a series of veronica, gaoneras, or other studied operations, citing the bull to charge past the cape as it is swirled in this way or that past the raging beast. this demonstrates the artistry of the fighter and also, after the media-veronica, a final half spin of the cape, serves to plant the bull in its last position, allowing the matador to walk away with his back to the horns, hinting at the mastery he hopes to gain over the bull in the coming 20 minutes or so. indeed, the killing of each bull is a relatively short procedure, and necessarily so due to the bull's being so quick to learn. after too much experience in the ring, any given bull becomes far too dangerous to fight, he knowing just what is going on and just how disrupt it, and so must be killed rather speedily. this is also why a bull will almost never leave the ring alive, whether the matador is able to kill him or not--he will never be able to be fought again because that next time he will surely kill the man, and though that may seem more sporting to some, remember that letting the bull have a chance is one thing, but letting him have an equal chance was never the idea.


the picador on his these-days-heavily-armored (and blindered) steed drives his pica, or vara, a long lance with a disc just to the rear of the point to prevent too-far penetration, into the shoulder muscle of the bull as other toreros, or bullfighters, wait to make the quite and lead the bull away from the horse after the encounter.

so now the first act of death commences, the tercio de varas, in which two picadors, or lance-wielding men on horseback, begin attacking the great hump of muscle that runs from just behind the bull's horns to the middle of its ribcage. much of the time in the three tercios is spent weakening this mass so that gradually the bull's head and horns will droop and enable the matador to reach in over them to secure his kill. the bull will usually be picced two, three or four times during the tercio de varas, and will still appear strong and high-headed afterwards even though a sheen of blood may be coursing down his flanks (which actually helps to lower the furious animal's blood pressure, keeping him from death by extreme acute hypertension). the picador should not have ruined the bull by piccing him in the ribcage or by grinding or twisting the vara, but should have, among other things, helped lower the furious animal's blood pressure, thus keeping him from death by heart attack, thus properly setting the stage for the next act, the tercio de banderillos.


some colorful banderillas with their barbed points hang awaiting use in the callejon, the narrow walkway separated from the ring by the red wooden barrera.

banderillas are two-foot long sticks with harpoon-like points at the end and covered the length of their shaft in brightly colored paper. the majority of the members of a matador's staff, or cuadrilla, are banderilleros, or placers of these sticks. the idea is again to jab them into the bull's hump of muscle, a pair at a time, only this time to remain under the hide, hanging by the barbs of their points. a banderillero, and sometimes the matador himself, will place one of up to four sets of banderillas as close together as possible by citing the bull for a charge and then running at the bull in a sort of arc and thrusting them downwards with arms extended high over the horns to allow them to come within range of the man. the following video demonstrates this reasonably well, though you will be able to see that the pair were not placed in great proximity to each other:


a peon places a pair of banderillas with some grace, if not much care. at least he got them on the correct side.

you should also have noticed that all of the banderillas had been placed on the right side of this bull, which was undoubtedly ordered by the matador to correct a tendency of that animal to veer or hook one way or the other. by the end of the tercio be banderillos, the bull should be as corrected as possible, and should have been weakened enough that the final series of cape passes will drop his head sufficiently for a kill, but he should not have been destroyed by being rendered lame or timid.


this bull follows the cape in its low arc along the sand. having finished the placement of the banderillas, we are now in the third act.

thus begins the tercio de muerte, the third of death--that of the bull if all goes correctly. it is with this third that most people in non-bullfighting nations would likely be familiar, the matador now doing his work alone with the small red muleta cape. probably less well known is the sword he will also have with him during most of this time, which he will use both to spread the cape and also to kill. somehow, we rarely get those last images, but it is that final moment that the whole fight has built to, a crescendo to a dramatic final showdown. without this it all comes to nothing. the moves with the cape in this act are collectively known as the faena, and are meant to highlight both the man's artistry and his mastery over the bull, not to mention his bravery. it is here that he can choose the degree of danger to which he is exposed by carefully controlling the distance from his own body that the bull's horn pass. his nervousness may be given away by feet that slide involuntarily away from the huge beast as he tramples past, or his fear may be revealed by great gaps between his skin-tight suit and the hooking horns that seek to deliver him a cornada, or goring. all the while seeking to avoid these giveaways, the matador must also strive to execute his passes with as much grace and beauty as possible.



some moves of the two most appealing fighters of our day at the ring: Pepe Murillo above, and the show-stopping Antonio Garcia below. some of Garcia's actions were pure theatrics, but he played the crowd well and knowing that he had planted the bull with a fine series of passes, could both kneel before it and turn his back on it without fear.



we didn't seem to get many pictures of Rodrigo Merino, the afternoon's first fighter, though i remember him seeming a bit awkward and lanky. Pepe Murillo was likewise tall but seemed graceful and was a pleasure to watch, though his kill was somewhat troubled and unremarkable. Antonio Garcia was anything but unremarkable, a bit over the top even, but the stars were aligned for him on that day and his work was tremendous in just about every way. and then came Christian Hernandez.



Christian Hernandez demonstrates a pase with the muleta; note his sword holding out the cape to make its area larger. a careful inspection will also reveal a nice low pass, intended to further tire the bull's shoulder muscle, but due to overzealousness in piccing (see the large tear in the flesh between the lower two banderillas) this bull is worn out enough to be brought almost to his knees. below, Hernandez sizes up his bull before citing for another charge. i like this picture so much (taken by Jill of course, to whom i dedicate this post as a reminder of our great honeymoon) that a copy hangs in my office.



following Garcia must have been difficult, and unfortunately Hernandez made it look just that. his passes were functional but not especially attractive, and his kill was actually quite disturbing, he seeming to have entirely lost his nerve by the time he actually took the sword. his bull didn't seem especially big but it may well have been a more difficult specimen than my untrained eyes could detect. despite these problems, the best pictures of the final phase of a fight came from this last matador, whose ever-redder face betrayed a growing embarrassment at the state of his corrida.



Hernandez salutes the presidente before the hora de verdad, or moment of truth, asking his permission to kill or perhaps dedicating the bull to him. below, Hernandez goes in volapie, sort of. this method of killing sees the man charge the bull, going in over the horns with the sword while keeping the bull's head down and steering him past with the muleta. sadly, Hernandez can be seen here already running away from the bull before he has even got close, which netted him a sword through the poor bull's lung and a loud series of whistles from the crowd. as a side note, you may wonder about the caked mud on the bull's rear; this is there to prevent messes in the ring.



so how does one kill a bull? after all the preparatory work is done, it comes down to (hopefully) one shot with a long, very sharp sword, called an estoque, which should be inserted between the shoulder blades in an opening that is formed as the bull's head is carried lower and lower. if done correctly this will sever the aorta, and the bull will very soon be dead, often before he hits the ground. the act of the estocada is done in one of two ways, the more common volapie, or "flying while running" toward the bull, style, and the more dangerous recibiendo manner, in which the man stands stock still and hopes the bull charges his muleta in a very straight path. it is at the moment of death that the bull really gets his best chance of the fight, that if the man is doing his job properly (ie, not like Christian Hernandez is doing above), the bull can raise his head for the last time and deliver a good and possibly fatal goring to the matador who seeks to put him out of commission. this is the hora de verdad: to see if the man will give the bull that chance. the following videos show first, what it looks like to run at a bull with the intent of killing him, and second, what it looks like after you've done that correctly:



Pepe Murillo demonstrates an estocada that is more or less correct, if not particularly pretty. you may note that the point of the sword has actually exited the bull, which may say more about the animal's size than it does about correct placement. you will note that Pepe is quite pleased with the result. below, you can see how quickly Antonio Garcia's bull drops after having received the sword from him on a first attempt. he is justly elated at the nice rounding out of what was a virtually perfect fight for him.



since we're watching videos, it may be worth taking a moment to note their wonderful soundtrack--indeed, the soundtrack of the bullfight itself. a corrida relies to some degree on the presence of live music, a band that sits by the presidente playing various paso dobles that are quite often fairly incongruous to the sight before you. in any case, they do a pretty good job with what they have, and it all adds to the atmosphere and, in our case, helped to drown out that large, obnoxious American woman. all the shouts of ole! as each pass was made helped there too.


the noble beast is dragged out of the plaza in a rather unceremonious fashion. at least there's a brass band playing.

but what happens if you can't kill the bull, as in the case of poor Christian Hernandez? you try again, and possibly again, until the crowd starts their loud whistling, petitioning the presidente to either end the butchery or allow a particularly valorous bull to be put out to pasture as a stud. if he is to be put out of his misery, the matador may be allowed to use a special sword or even a dagger to sever the spinal cord just at the base of the skull. this is what Christian had to do.

how about in the case of a clean kill? just as the one Garcia demonstrated, the matador cites the bull to charge and drags the muleta, held in the left hand, low to keep the bull's head down, making him pass to the fighter's right, while he leans in over the horns to drive home the estoque with his right hand. as you saw above, the bull will remain standing for only a short time before he collapses. and rather than whistles there will be a waving of white handkerchiefs, signalling to the presidente that the crowd favors the awarding of trofeos, or trophies. these will be an ear or two and may even include the bull's tail in exceptionally proficient cases, and will be added to the victory lap of the ring that a clean kill will inspire. Garcia was awarded both ears of his bull.


after his fight Antonio Garcia thanks the crowd and again salutes the presidente, before taking his lap of the ring with his trofeos of two ears in hand. the blood on his traje de luces indicates the closeness with which he worked the bull during the faena.

and then the fight is over. the matadors retrieve their ceremonial capes from the people in the audience to whom they had entrusted them as a sign of respect at the beginning; if one is draped over the barrera in front of your seat and the fighter does well it is a mark of great honor, if he does less well you may be tempted to slink away from it after the fight. the matadors and their cuadrillas gather to pack their equipment and talk about the bulls, perhaps offering encouragement to the fighter of that very difficult one.



the torreros gather following the corrida, with members of the cuadrilla gathering the swords and capes from the callejon. here again you can see that the full matadors, with the exception of Antonio Garcia, in white, have their trajes ornamented in gold, to distinguish them from the peones. below, a solemn senior banderillero carefully folds a heavy capote for future use.



so as we begin the summation it's fair to note that the corrida we saw could be indicted on a number of grounds, not least of which were certain annoying spectators. besides that the bulls were small, the fighters generally worked with too great a margin of safety or too many tricks, and you could even argue that it, like all bullfights, was just a barbarous, cruel business plain and simple. we didn't see any of the horsey trauma Hemingway said we would, due to the extensive padding those animals now get to wear, but i suspect that any such deaths would be more troubling than any we did see. a horse, when killed, is good only for glue or dog food, whereas the bull is actually taken and his parts used practically in their entirety. i'm not going to be an apologist for the bullfight, and i really do understand how someone could have a real problem with it, but i'd say it's better that the bull get to provide a show and demonstrate his bravery than that he gets a simple, unceremonious mallet blow to the head in some filthy slaughterhouse. besides, that person with the real problem is welcome to stay away. though they are never allowed to fight humans while growing up, these bulls are bred for fighting and are kept just as you would expect very valuable animals to be: as kings. their time in the ring is their end purpose in life.



the fights are a serious business and will be reported in the press even in the case of a minor venue like Puerto Vallarta. above, Antonio Garcia is interviewed on camera, while Jill and i pose with the victor below.



and so having seen it, i can now make my end judgment, and tell you whether i have that fineness of feeling spoken of to revile this slaughter. alas, i do not. while i might not say i have developed true aficion for the bullfight, i am interested by it, and it is definitely a fascinating spectacle. Jill, too, decided that she really rather enjoyed it, and we have plans to see another running later this year. i'd have to say that looking at the pictures and videos is actually a lot less interesting and perhaps more troubling than seeing the real thing live, so if you got to this point, without any trouble or upset you're probably ready for the real thing. next time you're in Mexico, or better yet, Spain, or even a number of other South American countries, try to catch a bullfight and if nothing else discover what your true reaction to it is.



for reference, should you like some on this topic, a few recommendations follow. certainly the place to start would be Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon, pretty much the English language bible of bullfighting. though somewhat dated, having been first published in 1932, it is still an excellent and thorough guide and would be quite profitably read before seeing a bullfight for the first time. his other work of nonfiction, The Dangerous Summer, about a season of dueling matadors, is also a good read, and the fictional The Sun Also Rises has some nice references to the art and is highly enjoyable as a novel as well.

for immediate satisfaction, the Encyclopedia Britannica has a lengthy and informative article online, and the Wikipedia article isn't that bad, although it does change from time to time. there is a very helpful FAQ available online from a company which runs tours to the Tijuana bullring, which answers a lot of basic questions quite well.

ESPN Magazine has an interesting article about a young Mexican matador which includes some great pictures, and its Sports Travel website has at least a couple of bullfight articles that may be more or less useful. finally, there are apparently a number of bullfighting clubs right here in the United States that maintain websites, including the LA Bullfight Club and the Club Taurino de Chula Vista, both members of the National Association of Taurine Clubs. i didn't know there were that many either.

03 May, 2008

theSARs

we were fortunate on the next leg of our Southeast Asian journey in that there was no good way to make it by overnight train, and even though we didn't get to fly Singapore's reportedly awesome airline, we did plump for a plane again. the destination was the "Special Administrative Region" of the People's Republic of China known as Hong Kong, a former dependent territory of my own native land, Britain. Hong Kong is an intense visual experience, with all the stereotypical images of bright, neon east Asia, like all that we had seen at that point in our international experiences taken to the next level and squared.


the hustle, bustle, neon and glow of Nathan Road's famous Golden Mile in Kowloon.

of course the best way to see the view and the lights of Central is from Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island. getting up there means either a long, hard walk or a short, scenic ride on the Peak Tram, a tourist attraction in its own right. with a rise of almost a quarter of a mile over less than a mile of track, and maximum gradients of nearly 50 percent, the ride can feel pretty hairy at times, but the views are spectacular.



the 120-year-old Victoria Peak Tram that winds its way through the densely populated hills of Central. below, Jill and i wind our way through the densely populated star chambers of Madame Tussaud's Hong Kong wax museum, clockwise from top left: Jill gets intimate with her longtime hero, Indiana Jones--who knew?; i take a moment to catch up with my old buddy Tony Hopkins; then get my just desserts for listening to Madonna; finally Jill and i get to know the (sort of) locals, taking the time to hoop it up with Ming Yao.



before we get to those views, however, i should mention the cool views we got at the Madame Tussaud's wax museum in the Peak Tower at the top of the tram. you can't see many stars in the sky with all the light pollution emanating from the Central skyline, but they're all visible inside, and up close and personal. they even have some displays with closed-circuit cameras pointed at them so you can see yourself on TV giving a speech with George Bush or stepping off a plane to greet the crowds with Hu Jintao. but we soon had to leave our friends to continue our tradition of watching the sunset from a high spot in a world city, so we stepped outside and staked a great vantage point complete with a piece of railing to steady the camera so we could take pictures as the lights came on in all the buildings. there are a lot of them on Hong Kong Island, and that view is a sight to see; it's a little boggling to think of all the people that live and work in such a small space.



the awesome Central skyline at dusk, taken from Victoria Peak. below, a shot taken from sea level of the afternoon moon rising over the coolest looking building ever, the Bank of China Tower. it was designed by I.M. Pei, the same architect who did the Louvre pyramids; apparently he's a fan of triangles.



when we had had enough of funiculars and skyscrapers we decided to take in some of the shopping for which Hong Kong is famous. first we took a bus down to the south side of Hong Kong Island to see Repulse Bay and Stanley, site of a famous outdoor market known for its silks. Repulse Bay, as the name hints, was initially important for its maritime connections, including both piracy and naval maneuvers. now however, it may be better known for having a wide building with a huge hole running right the way through it, put there on purpose apparently so that the feng shui spirits would be better able to pass through on their way from the hills to the ocean. or something like that. closer to where we were staying, we checked out the Golden Mile of Nathan Road, which began right about where our hotel, the Eaton, stood. incidentally, the Eaton is a really nice hotel, with a great buffet dinner and particularly pleasant, if a little small, restrooms; the reason i feel qualified to mention that is because the only time i got sick on these travels was after eating a mango-sauce covered soft-serve ice cream at McDonalds on Nathan Road, and i spent the next several hours hugging the bowl in my bathroom at the Eaton. in any case, the Golden Mile seemed like a bit of a bust, being principally a place for overpriced cheap electronics and overpriced expensive jewelery, but there were a lot of 7-11s, which always had a supply of Hi-Chews and my favorite drink from Britain, Lucozade. i was pretty much in heaven, and must have had about three or four of those delicious concoctions each day we were in Hong Kong.

we had a great time in Hong Kong. we had good accommodations, as we had almost everywhere else on our big trip, mostly thanks to our travel agent in Taipei, Jeannie Leng. incidentally, while we usually think of travel agents as being a lot more expensive than making the arrangements yourself, in Asia the opposite seems to be the case. apparently, the agents have networks in each of the other Asian countries that they use to get better prices, and there aren't a whole slew of discount booking sites, at least that are available in English. so if you want to travel around while you're there, just get a travel agent. anyway, back in Hong Kong, most things are written in English, so even though hearing Cantonese was very strange to our Mandarin-accustomed ears, we could generally understand where we were and what to do from the good signs. we got to visit the LDS Temple in Kowloon, which is a lot more boxy looking than most of the others, and which our pictures, and those on the Church website, manage to make look both small and uncrowded, even though neither of these is a correct impression. it's a very efficient space, but really crammed in.



the Hong Kong Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, crammed in on Cornwall Street in Kowloon. below, one of the double decker buses that took us (and our stuff) all over Hong Kong, literally. the Eaton Hotel is the red brick and glass building just to the rear of the bus in this picture.



we also got to take a small side trip out of Hong Kong, one that was supposed to be a day trip to the other SAR, but that ended up being so much less, in every way. i may write about it in another post, but i won't spoil the mood here. because when the time came to make the short flight back to Taiwan, we became very pleased with our sojourn in this administrative region, and with one of its people in particular. we had taken another double decker bus on the long ride from Kowloon to Lantau Island, where both the world's largest seated buddha and Hong Kong Disneyland live, along with the new Chek Lap Kok airport, so we could catch our plane. the airport is the bus terminus and it was only after we and the other passengers were all disgorged from our carriage that we realized that Jill's prized souvenir umbrella, heretofore strapped to her backpack since its purchase all the way back in Thailand, was still on that bus as it trundled back into town. after checking in for our flight we went to the offices of the bus company and asked them how we could get the item back, and basically when the two agents sitting like bank tellers selling tickets to folks out on the sidewalk determined that lost and found wasn't in their job description, they suddenly became a lot less proficient in English and started ignoring me. now you have to understand this about Chinese people in general: that they don't like conflict, and in my experience will do anything, including pretending you're not there, to avoid it. thus being ignored may have made me more contentious however, and soon they were sending out a manager to try to get me to calm down, though not to fix the problem. how could he if we were leaving the country in a couple of hours? he reasoned. i wasn't so concerned about this problem of his, and i realized we may never see the umbrella again, but the least he could do would be to just tell us he would try to get it back or send it to Jill, even if it wasn't true. later on, that's what i thought was happening, after i had secretly followed that manager back into the office while the locked door was still swinging closed behind him. i needed better answers than he had given me, but the folks on the inside got in a real flap that i had come into their space and they didn't seem to know how to get rid of me. eventually, they called in a supervisor from somewhere else, whom they used to lure me back outside for a meeting, and he told me that he would get the umbrella, even before we left the island. finally, someone was at least pretending to take us seriously, so we went along with what we thought was just a placation and grabbed a Lucozade in the terminal building to pass the time until we were due to check back on his progress.

we did check back with the office, a couple of times, each time with the remaining staffers telling us he had not returned, confirming, we supposed, our hunch that he had been putting us on. but then, not many minutes before we were to board our aircraft, an empty double decker came roaring into the bus depot--empty, that is, except for that lone supervisor and Jill's umbrella! this guy had taken a whole bus and sped it all the way out to Hong Kong's mainland to track down our bus, stop it and get our left item! what a guy! that was customer service, at least if it wasn't self preservation. i did feel a bit sheepish when he actually delivered the item, but i guess all my pushiness paid off. so we still have the umbrella, and at one time it was actually decorating a room, but the moral of the story is, if not taking care of your belongings, that using intimidation to get what you want from Chinese folks who have a hard time saying no often works. but be careful, there may not always be a guy who understands Western negotiation with a spare bus hanging around. good luck!

22 April, 2008

theparadise


paradise indeed. this picture pretty much sums it up.

apparently Milton never made it out to Indonesia, because a couple of weeks into our legendary Southeast Asia tour we found paradise there in a big way. the tiny island of Bintan is one of more than 17,500 in the Indonesian archipelago, and conveniently sits just a few miles to the south of Singapore. after restless nights on trains, and days of backpack-laden wandering around hot city centers, a couple of days on a deserted white sand beach was just what we needed. plus, i wanted another stamp in my passport. (in fact, that was the only reason i wanted to go, but i had to sell it to Jill on the grounds that it was only a 45 minute ferry ride away and there was a beach.)



the awesome "turbocat" ferry that took us on the short hop from Tanah Merah in Singapore to Bintan Island, Indonesia--a very beautiful ride across clear blue-green waters. below, upon arriving, we found our old friend the humble durian was equally as discriminated against as it was back in Singapore.



the ferry was one of the huge turbocharged catamarans that seem to be so popular in this part of the world. through large windows we looked out over pristine waters glistening under a beautiful blue-sky, and leaving the Tanah Merah ferry terminal turned exhilarating as we sped into an ocean channel teeming with huge container ships and buzzing speedboats. the trip was brief and we soon found ourselves pulling into a bay whose wooden huts looked like they could have been plucked from the 19th century. going through Indonesian "customs", which was really just a money grab--$20 each for a three day visa, US currency only, please--and arriving at the Nirwana Gardens resort with its "no durian" signs quickly brought us back to the present though, despite the refreshing remoteness and primitive feel of the resort.



the secluded pathways and beach front chalets at Nirwana Gardens. below, one of the diversions in the open-air lobby of the main hotel makes Jill and i feel like queen and king for the day.



there wasn't a whole lot to do on the island, but then that was the point, and for a only couple of days lounging on the beach or in the horizon pool it was pretty much perfect. so we rested and recouped, we ate in the restaurants and we drank the best smoothie concoctions i've ever had at the swim-up bar; we even had our picture taken by the very enterprising barkeep. but all the relaxation threatened to come to a premature close when we were presented with the bill for all this fun and it ran to more than half a million Indonesian Rupiah! all's well that ends well, however, and a quick crunch of the numbers revealed that our two days of splurge had cost only 50 real bucks, so we sailed back to Singapore calm in mind as well as in body. incidentally, while foreign money often feels like play money, nowhere has this been more true than in Indonesia in my experience. i still have a worn 1,000 Rupiah note, small and dirty--and worth about a dime. you wonder why they don't just drop a couple of zeroes to revalue the currency; maybe counting in hundreds of thousands is easier than using decimals? in any case, it's their business, and i feel like we got our money's worth. and i'd definitely use some more to go back and explore more of the paradise that is Indonesia.


Jill and i get our picture taken by the multi-tasking tender of the pool bar at our Bintan Island resort. he also turned out a mean "snowy": Nirwana's smoothies made with ice cream and orange and raspberry juices.

20 April, 2008

thephotographed

a big part of writing posts for this blog is actually just selecting the pictures that should go along with and will best illustrate the story. the pictures are chosen to fit the text, and often the text is shaped by what pictures are or aren't available. fortunately, there are usually more pictures available for everything i'd care to write about than i could ever reasonably use, and we all know who's mad camera skills are responsible for this good fortune. on the flip side of that however, is that all too often her beautiful face doesn't get around to the front of the lens, and i'm not usually in photographer mode so i don't think to ask if she wants her picture taken. i've noticed recently that there are comparatively few pictures in our huge collection featuring just Jill, and while this is an oversight of mine that needs to be corrected, i thought i'd brighten up these pages with just a very select few pictures that i do already have of my girl.



very shortly after we met, in Taiwan, Jill and i became fast friends and visited all kinds of places all over the island. here Jill stands in a dry riverbed in Taroko Gorge with the Eternal Spring Shrine behind her. below, she graces the Singapura sign inside the Sentosa Island Merlion in Singapore.



there are more than just these pictures of Jill, which fact, though i have tended to favor pictures of the two of us together, will give me the chance to put up some more just of her in future. and it may remind me to invite her out from behind the camera a little more often, which you can see would be good for all of us.


okay this one i stole, as it was taken by one of Jill's sisters on our wedding day, but it's such a good one i couldn't resist.

15 April, 2008

themerlion


welcome to Singapore...

though once again it's been a while, and by now the story may be getting just a bit disjointed, the last time we left Southeast Asia we were skipping out on our tour guide Dr Nick's tip at the KL Sentral train station. this time we were going as far as it was possible to go by that method of travel, all the way down to Singapore. this ride was just a few hours but was even more jarring at its conclusion than the trip into Malaysia had been. as the sign above, taken in a subway car, demonstrates, Singapore can be a pretty strict place. don't get me wrong, it's a very nice place, a clean place, an orderly place; but upon stepping into a cool, modern train station to go through customs one is little prepared to be greeted by a phalanx of paramilitary-looking guys holding submachine guns and demanding... that you spit out the gum you're chewing and hand over the rest of the pack, evil foreigner! no fines for possession, just a volley of bullets from a teenage Rambo. a bit scary, but did i mention Singapore is clean?

other than the nagging terror of being an outsider in pretty much a police state, i really liked Singapore right from the get-go, it providing a welcome contrast to the clamor and bustle of all the other places we had been for the previous six months. i liked it for the same reason i liked Japan: that it was organized and quiet and people give you some space. not that there's much space to give, mind you, as Singapore sits on just 271 square miles of land, at least 30 of which are man-made or reclaimed from the ocean (to put that in perspective for the Utahns among us, Salt Lake county is just over 800 square miles). but people there speak English, just like in Malaysia, it being the most official of the four official national languages. the others are Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

but if one can't chew gum in Singapore, and it's small enough that you could spit a piece cross-country, what does one do, i hear you cry? fortunately, we had asked the same question before leaving Taiwan, to a young native of the tiny nation, a missionary of the LDS Church named Elder Merican. though he gave a long list of things to do during my hour-long conversation with him, i quickly got the point that Sentosa Island came at the top, so it was there we went first.



the Sentosa island Merlion, majestic symbol of the city-state of Singapore; and below, Jill beautifies the view from his crown over Keppel harbor. Singapore is said to have the world's busiest port in terms of tonnage shipped (or second busiest, behind Shanghai, depending on whom one listens to).



funnily enough we didn't see much of the island, which we thought small at the time but is actually rather large, with several five star resorts and long beaches made of white sand hauled in from Malaysia. a lot of the attractions there were also placed since our trip in mid 2005, but there was at least one important structure we got a very thorough look at. the Singapore Tourism Board explains what it is and why we went looking for it:
The Merlion has a lion head and a fish body resting on a crest of waves. The lion head symbolises the legend of the discovery of Singapura, as recorded in the "Malay Annals". In ancient times, Singapore was known as Temasek, a Javanese word for sea. In the 11th century A.D, Prince Sang Nila Utama of the Sri Vijaya Empire rediscovered the island. When the Prince first landed on Singapore's shores, he sighted a mystical beast which he later learnt was a lion. The Prince then decided to name the island "Singapura" which in Sanskrit means Lion (Singa) City (Pura). The fish tail of the Merlion symbolises the ancient city of Temasek and represents Singapore's humble beginnings as a fishing village.
beginnings indeed; Singapore has grown so fast and been so economically successful that it's considered one of the four "Asian Tigers" and even ranks up with the world's wealthiest countries. nevertheless, it's still a tropic with its fair share of jungle and wildness, which we decided to experience in a couple of very different ways. first, there was the incredible Night Safari at the zoo, which is just what it sounds like but even better. the problem with safaris in general is that most of the animals are nocturnal and so asleep when you're driving around to look at them. not so in Singapore, where they are awake, alert and on the prowl as the open sided bus conveys you around the park, stopping whenever Malayan tapirs cross the roadway or come to sniff the passengers. amazingly, when you're done with the motorized tour, you can wander almost the whole park on a series of paths that in many cases cut right through the animal habitats, all of them totally open and lacking any type of enclosure! and we're not just talking about tapirs and sloths either, there are lions, tigers, hyenas, elephants, giraffes; you name it, it's out there wandering around with you in the dark. awesome! it seems hard to imagine Singapore having lax liability laws, so we couldn't figure out how the safari keeps folks from being attacked. our best guess is that in addition to keeping the animals very well fed, there may be some kind of ultrasonic fence system in place around the areas of the scarier beasts.

well, even after all that we hadn't quite had our fill of dangerous creatures, so the next day we bussed and hiked out to the middle of suburban nowhere to try and find one of the most highly recommended attractions in our guidebook. it was a very odd thing indeed, and made me wonder about the zoning laws in Singapore; we had thought for sure that we were way off track when we finally got to the place as directed. but lo, to our astonishment, set back a little way from the rows of other houses in the neighborhood, was a sign for the grandly named but highly unassuming Singapore Crocodile Farm. they do have a website though, on which we read:
Six decades ago, not long after the end of the Second World War, an enterprising Chinese man, Mr. Tan Gna Chua, decided that he wanted to share his home with these unloved reptiles. With the help of his family, he transformed the one acre of land that surrounded his home at Upper Serangoon Road into a reptile farm, which was the first of its kind in Singapore. They started with only ten crocodiles. With careful breeding, the numbers grew rapidly. Being the entrepreneur he was, Mr Tan opened his farm to the public. Within its premises he set up a factory, where the crocodile skin was processed, made into various products, then sold at the gift shop as well as overseas. Visitors were free to come in to take a look around, without having to pay an entrance fee - and this is still the case today.

the Singapore Crocodile Farm, clockwise from top left: a house that ended up serving as offices and a shop for the farm, complete with all the handbags, watch straps and souvenir crocodile heads you could ever want; and at least there's more out back if you don't see something you like: a not very deep pool full of caymans is one of several that sit where other folks would have their back yard; this may be the industrious Mr Tan himself, who spent a good 15 minutes stringing these chicken heads onto some kind of wire before throwing it to the crocs at precisely 11am, just the time this last fellow likes to be fed, apparently.

despite its distance from everything, making the trek to Mr Tan's place was one of the most singular experiences i have had while traveling. it's totally surreal that in amongst all these very dull houses there are pools and pools of various teeming crocodile species, and that if you show up at just the right time you can see them snapping at each other to get to the food that is so unceremoniously tossed them. the folks there were indeed set up to receive tourists, but it was clear that this had never been the point of the place--we were the only visitors there at the time, and they carried on with their operations as if we hadn't been. truly remarkable.

as long as we're talking about wildlife, we should mention another kind that is prominent in this part of the world, one that despite its total inertness and vegetative state may be as potentially harmful as many of the creatures heretofore mentioned. i'm talking about the humble durian, a fruit that is banned not just from underground trains, as the first picture shows, but from most other public places as well. the lack of a specific posted fine suggests to me, rather sinisterly, that getting caught breaking the durian rules will net you an encounter with another squad of riot police rather than just a ticket for a few hundred bucks (incidentally, each Singapore dollar was worth around 60 US cents while we were there, to give you an idea of the magnitude of those fines). this is a very strange thing, especially considering that the cantaloupe-sized delicacy is extremely popular and can be had quite cheaply on any number of street corners all over the city. and it's really very good. so what gives? that it only seems to be sold in the open air is a clue: durian basically consists of a full-frontal assault on the olfactory system, each one containing the sulfurous pungency of a month-old crate full of rotten eggs. they also look a bit dangerous, as the picture suggests, but they really are very tasty. if you can get past the smell. and you don't get arrested for possession.

so as long as you can stay out of jail, there are a few other things you should see before leaving Singapore, one of which is actually a giant concert hall and performing arts center whose shape and design are said to be inspired the durian, belying a national love for the eggy treat. i'll leave you to check out the Esplanade website for an idea of what the center, which is also reminiscent of a pair of bug-eyes, looks like, and then i'll leave you with this cool picture of the sign in front of the buildings, one of the most entertaining bits of modern art we've come across in all our travels. and it's true: