I’ve been away travelling for the last six weeks and it was the first week-end back. I made a big Sunday dinner so that Daniel, my son would come home to visit.
My boy is going to be twenty two soon. It’s his final year in Engineering but it’s still hard to think of him grown up and living on his own. Well, not on his own exactly. He’s sharing an apartment with three other boys young men, all engineers.
“So what’s new Daniel? How’s it working out with your house mates?”
“It’s fine,” he said.
“No more eating their food?” I said, referring to the first week when he’d unceremoniously opened and cooked food from someone else’s stash. He’d said the food had been sitting there untouched for days. Shortly after, house rules were clarified in an impromptu meeting.
“It’s fine,” he said.
“How’s the house keeping going?” I said, dusting out a memory from my own university days. I vaguely remembered a fall out, something to do with the shower and hair.
“Aah. Sometimes I get fed up and just do it,” he said.
I am stunned. Daniel, getting fed up with mess and cleaning up. My son. Where did he go?
“Yeah. I’m the only one who doesn’t eat onions but there’s always bits and pieces of onion peel all over the kitchen. I wear socks and it was gross. I had to clean it up.”
I am so impressed. My boy is growing up.
“But then I realized I was the only one not wearing slippers. So I got some slippers and I don’t do that anymore.”
My mobile phone lights up and vibrates with a new text message.
“Packed and ready for you trip?”
Putting my paperback aside, I painstakingly thumb back
“Not yet. I’ll start tomorrow.”
“Aren’t you leaving tomorrow?”
How does she do that? Type so quickly, almost instantaneously. But we’ve had this conversation before. Maybe she has the text on instant recall. My phone doesn’t have this feature and so I slowly tap out my reply, backspacing and re-tapping my typos.
“Not until aftrtoon pm. ill pack in am.”
My friend and I are two different beings when preparing for a trip. She’s a Planner. I’m a Pantser.
A Planner is someone who researches and maps out every detail of a trip. They consider each aspect of their journey and etch out an itinerary with all hours spec’d out. They know the place’s history, the must have foods and must do activities. They pack their luggage three days ahead of time.
A Pantser packs three hours before departure.
OK. OK. Maybe I do myself discredit. I do have some short-cuts in preparing for a trip. I have a checklist of things I must pack and stuff I must do. I build on that list, incorporating corrections to mistakes from prior trips.
Mistakes like forgetting essentials, like reading glasses, toothbrush and toothpaste or preferred conveniences like full-sized bars of soap (to circumvent those evil slivers of hand soap and un-lather-able shower gel.) I pack first aid items of antiseptic wipes, antibiotic cream and miniature sewing kits. I have ziploc bags pre-filled with un-mime-able-in-an-emergency supplies of feminine product, antacid and Imodium. I also have a list of clothes (clean or near so) that I can throw into the suitcase just before leaving.
It helps that I know enough to not pack for activities that will never occur. I don’t pack for cruise ships and dinner theater. I don’t need strappy sandals, beady handbags or high heels.
I do pack hiking shoes, dark glasses and cotton scarves. Hiking shoes because it’s always hot, dusty or muddy. Dark glasses because traveling in an open tuk tuk is the surest way to get dirt in your eyes. Cotton scarves because they work as sunscreen, gear cleaner and ground cover for outdoor photo shoots.
I always bring a small purse to hold local currency. Something small enough to hold a room key, a take-me-home card and change for bottled water. I also scribble down the value of each bill note and sort them into bundles according to denomination.
Hmm. That last bit sounds almost anal retentive. Very un-pantser-like. Buu-uth …
I never adequately prepare for the places I’m about to visit. I used to buy travel books and pour over the glossy pictures and hi-lights. I used to tote these volumes on the trip, adding unconscionable poundage to my carry-on. But then I realized that I never actually read them. That anything listed was assuredly included in bus tours. Tourist expeditions for which I would assuredly never sign up. Not since that first time on the Yellow River Dam, where I was held captive in a tour bus and tortured with details of dam construction, shouted through a tinny megaphone in loud and incoherent Chinese.
Instead I do research after the fact, when I look at my pictures and review my trip notes. I look for the reasons why the Padaung women wear neck rings and why there’re so many refugees on the Thai borders. I read up on the Vietnam war and why my Hanoi Kids city guide had such a different view from my Saigon photo guide. I research the White Buildings of Phnom Penh and the withered ideals of Le Corbusier’s Utopian city.
Maybe in the process of not planning the trips, I miss the big ticket tourist items. Like The Grand Palace of Bangkok or the gilded Schwedagon Pagoda of Yangon. I miss the crowds and the press of tourists clambering for two fingered selfies.
No. I miss it not.
My mobile shudders again with a new message.
“Did you remember to get your visa?”
Aiyo! I forgot to check my checklist two weeks ahead of time.
“Whaa … but they’re so comfortable,” my Feet said.
But they’re old and ragged. The insoles are worn and the under-sole is coming apart. There’s a tear in the front and it gets soggy when it rains.
“But we fixed that, remember?” Feet said. “The cobbler across the street, at the HDB sidewalk? She used an old fashioned needle and hook to sew it up. You waited crouched on a 10inch high plastic stool and we wore borrowed flip-flops. Surely you remember? For $9 it was a deal!”
But the shoes are at least five years old and I’ve bought a brand new replacement pair.
“And what a five years! We’ve traveled to more than ten countries. Tramped through concrete jungles and tropical rain forests. We’ve toed them on & off at over six hundred temples. We’ve trekked through mud, dirt and dust roads in Chang Mai, Bali and Vientiane. We’ve battled through waist high briar bushes to get to perfect sunset shots. We’ve clambered over thousand year old ruins to take incredible pictures of Angkor temples and Buddhist monks …”
Yes, Yes. All this is true and we can do it again, with a new pair of shoes. To all good things comes its time.
“But can’t we wait a little longer? Just for one more season. Before we return to the land of mukluks and winter boots?”
Well, I suppose one more season won’t hurt. The new shoes will not spoil and these old ones are truly comfortable.
It’s still January right? I can still reflect on last year and highlight my Best of 2016?
Actually, this started out as a post about my Best of 2016 until I realized I was choosing photos for which I hadn’t yet published a story.
Why not? Sometimes it was because the story wasn’t big enough and the photo was all there was of the telling. Other times, it was because the story was too big and I wasn’t up for the telling.
In any event, here are some of my favorite photos of 2016 and the stories that were never published.
Omoide Yokocho in Tokyo
Omoide Yokocho or “Piss Alley” is a small, iconic bar district in Tokyo.
It’s not the most friendly place. In fact, one of the bars on the outskirts has an explicit “No Tourists” sign (written in English for those pesky foreigners).
However, further inside the boundaries where the yakatori stalls are cheek to jowl with the izakaya bars, the hosts are friendlier and the atmosphere more welcoming.
I was waiting on my kushiyaki plate and fiddling with my camera, when I noticed this gentleman across the alley. A quick nod was all I needed to take this shot.
Tokyo, Japan. January 2016
MAG marker in Laos
In Laos I learned some new words.
MAG. UXOs and Bombies.
Mines Advisory Group. Un-eXploded Ordnance. Little bombs.
During the Vietnam war there more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos. That’s equivalent to one bombing every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Thirty percent of these bombs did not explode. They remained dormant but live and were (are) hidden dangers to civilians years after the war had ended.
Walking through Laos we learned very quickly to stay on MAG cleared paths. Random rambling could be deadly. UXOs are still being found today.
These little blocks indicate MAG cleared safe zones. They seem so innocuous. Faded rocks on well trodden foot paths. Stepping stones on quiet streams. Gentle reminders that bucolic rice fields were once war zones.
Plain of Jars, Laos. February 2016
Border Guards at the DMZ South Korea
Our coldest and wettest day in South Korea was spent at the DMZ/JSA. It was appropriate weather for visiting a site that was bleak, dark and overwhelmingly desolate.
The tale of border patrol between North and South Korea is sad.
On the North side of the Joint Security Area (JSA), there’s a heavily armed soldier aggressively watching the border for South Korean attacks and North Korean defections.
Behind him, a heavily armed soldier aims a gun at his head, aggressively watching him for his possible defection.
On the South side of the JSA, the ROK guards maintain a constant intimidation stance. They watch the North and South side of the border.
Across an expanse of about 500 meters, the South Korean guard stares down the North Korean guard.
It’s a stare down that’s been on going since 1953.
Panmunjon, South Korea. May 2016
Hometown Burger & Fries
After a photo crawl through Toronto’s Graffiti Alley we took a break in a nearby Queen St diner.
It had been a perfect summer day.
Warm but not hot.
Fresh Canadian air and brilliant sunshine.
Vivid street murals which had popped with vibrancy and life.
It was a visual respite to hide out in a cool and dark diner.
And the burger & fries were excellent!
Toronto, Canada. July 2016
Hong Kong Red
The first time I visited Hong Kong was after a year of living in Beijing.
After the rough and tumble turmoil of China, I remember wanting to drop to my knees and Thank God for my return to urban sanity, order and control.
Since then much has changed. I’ve lived in and visited better and worse cities. But I will always have soft spot for Hong Kong.
For me, this photo captures the city’s essence. The mural’s wild graphics and kooky clown portray Hong Kong’s frenetic energy and character. The blur of the pedestrian adds the feeling of motion, a constant in this city that never sleeps.
What’s the first thing to learn about Street Photography? You have no control of the light. You can chase the light and wait for it but you have no control. I enjoy doing street because frankly I am a point and shoot type of person. I keep my camera in A-(aperture) or S(-shutter) mode, never ever M(-manual) mode.
Last week I decided to take the next step and learn more. I signed up for Portrait Photography lessons. I should have studied up on light.
Portrait photography is all about controlling light. Over two days we spent hours looking at light: natural light, studio light, speed lights, strobe light, light modifiers, reflectors etc. All shots were in manual mode. I took so many shots with so many different settings and modifiers that I lost track of which was which. Some shots were pretty bad; clear indicators of a person without a clue.
Once in a while, with lots of help from my light gaffer (Hubby) who knew what he was doing, I managed to take a decent shot.
Sometimes with a bit of luck, I even managed a nice one. Like this picture of our teacher Peter Soh. It was taken in full sunlight, with back and front flashes to get a halo effect. Peter’s hair was perfect for capturing highlights. Luck came in clicking at the right moment of an impish smile.
Pictures like these encourage me to continue. But my next lesson will be on the Fundamentals of Light.
One of the things I do is write. Not only blog writing like this, but short story and creative non-fiction writing. An essential part of writing is reading and as every creative writing student knows, an essential part of reading is learning how to give feedback.
For every novice student a dreaded ordeal is the writing workshop where your work is critiqued by peers. After a couple hundred times the ordeal becomes less so and the learning value becomes apparent. The value of work-shopping is for both the writer and the reviewers.
I’ve never thought much about the similarity between writing and photography. In my mind they were totally different things. Writing, particularly fiction writing was about making stuff up. Photography, particularly street was about capturing real life images on the fly.
I recently attended a Street Photography workshop with Hubby. We’d registered months before, it was a sold out session but I seriously hadn’t been in the mood. We’d just come off a ten day trip where we’d spent our time shouldering through the 1.2 billion crowds in China. Given a choice, I would have really preferred to retreat from humanity and hide out in my cave.
Instead, bright and early on a Saturday morning I was in a room filled with amp’ed up men strung out on coffee and DSLRs. They strutted about pointing their cameras at each other, talking in that f-stop-shutter-speed babble-speak that photographers like so much. The session was in a Leica store and I walked around looking at sleek new cameras housed in artfully lit glass boxes. Cameras so expensive that they didn’t have price tags, just discreet cards advertising savings ‘starting at $1800.’ A dull roar of excitement announced the arrival of our workshop leader Eric Kim.
Eric was an electrifying, high-energy, enthusiastic guy. He talked fast and short, in a voice pitched slightly above normal. With his close cropped hair, bright round eyes and frenetic smile he reminded me of a manic Asian Tintin. I didn’t know it at the time but Eric was a famous street photographer. I just thought of him as a kid, young enough to be my son and way too peppy for 10AM in the morning.
I won’t go into how the day progressed. It was good. I took pictures. Learned some stuff. Talked with the DSLR men, they weren’t so bad. Waited for Eric to calm down.
My big revelation came in the feedback session when we each shared our Three Best photos and critiqued them as a group. While work-shopping I suddenly realized that there were many parallels between writing and photography.
Both are created realities, encapsulated in word or form. The best pieces are those that tell or hint at a back-story. Both have complexities of layers – the ones we see and the ones hidden below the surface. The best works are those that invite the viewer to look around, to think about what happened before, what will happen next. Good stories make an emotional connection. Good pictures do, too.
One of Eric’s nuggets of advice was “Do not take pictures, make them.”
That’s what creativity is all about – making stuff up.
The other thing I learned was that I had a photographic style. Much like a writers voice, photographers have an individualistic way of capturing scenes and people. It shows in the way they tell their stories and take pictures. Without attention that style is unconscious, intuitive and raw. With attention, it can evolve.
When Eric projected my Three Best he asked the room what they thought when they viewed them as a whole.
“Secrets,” someone said.
“Strange,” I thought. I wouldn’t have described them that way. But when I looked again I saw what he meant.
I also understood why I had selected the ‘Girl’ shot. Of the three, it had been my favorite but I couldn’t have explained why. With that single comment, I knew.
It was an ordinary shot about an ordinary girl who had a little bit of mystery. The half space background, leading lines and rain slicked pavement gave a sense of loneliness. The turned away figure to the left emphasized her isolation. The light and shadows on her face were pensive but her slight smile showed hope.
De-constructed, these were the elements that provided the first impression or initial read, of the photo. The second were the questions. What happened to the girl before this? What was she thinking? What were her secrets?
In creative writing we’re encouraged to show and not tell our stories. In photography, we tell our stories in what we show and what we don’t.
So in that single comment I had a personal epiphany. Suddenly I had insight into the types of pictures I faved and those that I made. I also saw what I didn’t make. In reviewing other peoples’ shots, I analyzed what I liked and more importantly, why liked them. I saw techniques that I could use or at least try. I saw compositions around the edges that took me out of the frame but added to the image. I saw accidents of light that worked and wondered how to make them deliberate. Suddenly, by being conscious of my own style, I recognized all the things that I had not been doing. Techniques that I could adopt, adapt and evolve into my own.
So that’s the value in work shopping. It’s something that I’ve appreciated in my creative writing group and something that I’ve come to appreciate in photography.
Food notes on Jamaican and Suriname Chinese cooking
Which reminds me of a conversation I had a couple weeks ago with fellow Hakka foodie, Stuart Lee. This was right after the 2016 Hakka Conference in Toronto, during which I’d listened to some fascinating talks about the Hakka diaspora.
Hakkas are known as the ‘gypsy’ or ‘guest’ people of China. They were originally from Northern China but in a series of migrations (between 317 AD and 1860’s) they drifted south into the regions of Guangdong and Fujian. After the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) the Hakka people were persecuted for…