Travel Planners and Pantsers

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.

I slowly tap out  “Visa requirements for …”

Singapore. June 2017

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These shoes are made for walking

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I think I have to throw out my walking shoes.

“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.

Hmm. I think though, I might need a new hat.

“Whaa …!”

 

Singapore. April 2017

2016 Review

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

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

MAG maker in rice field

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

North & South at the DMZ
North & South at the DMZ/JSA

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

Queen St Diner

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

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.

Hong Kong.  November 2016

Oddly Different

And now for something completely different …

On YouTube I arbitrarily clicked on this music video and was immediately hooked.

Let’s make one thing clear: I am not a bluegrass fan.  Name me a country music star and see my total lack of recognition.   Show me a banjo and I’ll break out in hives.

So how come I enjoyed this video so much?

  • The singer in the opening scene didn’t look like a typical country cowboy
  • He was playing a cello
  • The other guys weren’t wearing typical country cowboy hats
  • The city  didn’t look like a typical place down-south US
  • In fact, it kinda looked familiar … hey, that’s the CN Tower in Toronto!

Turns out the band, Dead South is a Canadian group from Regina, Saskatchewan.  They’re relatively new and been successful touring  Canada, US and Europe.

They’re also not typical country bluegrass.  Or so I tell myself.

Toronto, Canada.  January 2017

Odd Signage

Signage and message are not always the same. Sometimes understanding comes only with context.

For example these two signs were placed two meters apart along a narrow pathway in Singapore. Ignore one and beware of the consequences.

Other signs could mean anything or nothing at all. Like this introduction to the latest in customer service, Japanese style.

Some signs imply more by what is not said.  For instance, what does this say about a country’s non-bottled water?

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Bottled water in Myanmar

And some signs … perhaps they say too much.

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Edgy advert for a popular Waxing Service in Singapore

Taking it to the next step … and stumble

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.

spidec42016-0995Sometimes 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.

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Pictures like these encourage me to continue. But my next lesson will be on the Fundamentals of Light.

Singapore. December 2016

Workshopping

eystreetogws-0460One 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.

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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.

Singapore.  November 2016

Hakka Heritage Food

The Sandy Food Chronicles

My friend Linda Anusasananan recently blogged a video post of her making Hakka Stuffed Tofu (niong dou fu) with fellow author Lorraine “The Chinese Lady” Witte.   Her version of niong dou fu looks delicious.  It is also quite different from what my mom used to make.

Notes on Jamaican and Suriname Chinese 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…

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Toronto Street Art

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I know I’ve been away too long when I discover parts of my hometown that I’ve never seen before.  Less than a block from where I used work, there’s an alley festooned with street art and urban murals.  Made famous by Rick Mercer, Graffiti Alley runs parallel to Queen St West and stretches from Spadina to Bathurst.

Hubby and I were en route to Ossington for a photo crawl but stopped at Bathurst for a quick look.  Our quick look turned into three hours of roaming and photo shooting.

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The street art was amazing.  Vivid and vibrant, the murals thrummed with energy and colour.   In Seoul, I’d been impressed with the city’s attention to art in public spaces.  The art in Toronto is different.   It is  brighter, edgier;  more street-wise.  The murals are complex, detailed and quirky. They reflect the diverse make-up of the city.

Graffiti

Although visually appealing to look at, the murals don’t always make for good pictures.   My favorite shots were juxtapositions of art and real-life.  Sometimes, art and reality transpose themselves.

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Queen Street West, Toronto.  July 2016

Curious Finds in San Francisco’s Chinatown

The first hint that someone had been through our luggage were our books.  They’d been moved from the bottom of the suitcase to the top.  The second hint was the printed notice from the San Francisco TSA saying they’d searched our bags.   I wondered what they’d seen to provoke them riffling through our dirty laundry.  It might have been this.  Can you guess what it is?

Fresh on the heels of my failure at bak chang wrapping, I’d discovered this unique device to hold and mold the pesky leaf wrapped dumplings.   I found it in San Francisco’s Chinatown under the ignominious name “Chinese tamale mold.”

Ceramics with purpose

The shop’s name was The Wok Shop and it was a treasure trove of kitchen supplies.  As you can guess, it’s main line is woks and although I was madly tempted, I kept my purchases to small packable items.  Like these cute ceramics with purpose.

The blow fish is a Japanese wasabi grater, perfect for scraping fresh ginger root.  When not in service, it’s just right as a decorative spoon rest.  The tiny little flower bowls were irresistible.  I bought two as mise en place containers for shredded ginger and garlic.

I don’t think the luggage inspectors were perturbed by my ceramics but I could see them being alarmed by the mold.  It’s metallic and nefarious looking.  That plus the accompanying heft of five kilos of books must have triggered concern. Once you handle the mold though, it is obviously innocent.  A lightweight, empty aluminum frame.  Still, unless you’re in the know, it’s hard to guess what it could be used for.

Here’s a video to explain.

 Toronto. July 2016