January 30, 2007

I have been in Taiwan for a little over four years now. In that time many things which were a mystery to me at the beginning now make sense; maybe not perfect sense, but some sense anyways. I no longer salivate with dreams of ice cream when the garbage truck comes by. I can appreciate, if not fully understand, the chaos involved in in a transportation system where scooters rule the road. Hell, I can even enjoy stinky tofu.

At least one mystery remains though. I really don't understand the morning commute habits of many who ride the Green Line MRT. I live very close to the Xindian MRT station, which is the terminal station of that line. What this means, is that once the train reaches this station, it heads back in exactly the same direction from which it came. The station the train just came from (Xindian City Hall Station) is also the next stop after Xindian. Logic would suggest to me that this being the case, the train should empty out at Xindian. Logic fails me here though, as this is not the case at all. A good 70% of the people on the train, maybe 25 per car, remain on board, wait for the six minute stop time and head back to exactly where they came from. I just don’t get it.

Now, I am sure you are thinking, “What is his problem? What difference could it possibly make to him how someone uses the train?” Of course, you would be right. Then again, you would be wrong. It affects me in that because so many are remaining seated, I have difficulty getting a seat I like. This means a seat facing forward, next to the window. Many others seem to like these too and those who stay on board are either already in those seats, or they shift to them before I am able.   Now, since I ride for 13 stops and approximately half an hour, good seating has a real value to me.  Why these people are taking it away from me is bothersome to someone as petty as I.

Maybe I should be able to easily move on past this, but I can't.  As mentioned above; I am petty at times.  This is one of those times.

All I want is a good seat for my journey....Is that too much to ask?  Get the hell out of my seat people!!

January 29, 2007

Bombing in Varanasi:  Too Damned Close                             

I originally wrote this March 8, 2006 and it has sat on my laptop, unedited since March 9.  Upon writing this, I didn't really know the details/results of what happen that evening in Varanasi.  That was not the point in my writing; I was trying to capture my thoughts and feelings having experienced what I did.  

If you want to read some more details about the events I am talking about, it is covered in a post on Wikepedia.

It was strange.

I had my first encounter with terrorism last night, yet it took me until this morning, more than twelve hours later to find out what I had gone through. For being so close, it all seems so distant.

Last night I was ready to go from Varanasi to Agra. My train was to depart at 6:15 and I had arrived about 10 minutes early. Through the station I went, I found my train, secured my luggage and sat down. This being India, the train did not depart at 6:15, but sometime later. While sitting on the train, awaiting departure there was what I could only describe as a really loud bang. It sounded not unlike a car backfire, although you could tell at once that it was both much louder and also more distant (I realize that scientifically these two counter each other, but it was the instinct I have). The sound was enough to shake our train and it certainly caught the attention of everyone onboard and on the platform.

My first though was “Bomb!”, but I quickly put that thought behind me, actually scolding myself for being a paranoid foreigner. Looking back towards the platform, it seemed as though things were back to normal in an instant. No one was running, screaming or otherwise panicking; life was seemingly back to normal. I chalked things up to it being just another noisy event in what I have found to be a very noisy country. I couldn’t explain it, but if nobody else was stressed, why should I be? I settled back in, turned off my mobile phone and readied myself for another long and tedious train ride.

As expected, the train ride was long, tedious and pretty much without event. People started stirring about 7am, which was already about a half hour behind our scheduled arrival time. Word on the train was that we were about two hours behind schedule, but this seemed completely normal. I may have switched on my mobile and found no reception, to be honest I can’t remember if I did or not. Slowly, people began to awaken, the sleeping bunks were put back up so that we could sit again and everything was seemingly normal. Not long after this, and I can’t be certain of the exact order of things, some things did start to happen. First, the unmistakable chirp of cell phones which had received SMS messages were heard throughout the train. Also, at about the same time, we pulled into some unknown (to me) station, where some could get off, drink chai and even grab a newspaper. These two events seemed to happen within minutes of each other.

At this time though, things most certainly changed. The sound of the people on the train was suddenly quite a lot louder and with a different tone. People seemed to be moving about more on the train as well. I turned on my mobile phone again and instantly I was hit with six messages. This is hugely unusual, as there are less people than that who know the number I am using and of those who do, there are maybe two who would send a message. Six was really unique. Again, I am not totally sure of the sequence of events, but within moments, I heard from those on board that it had in fact been a bomb we had heard last night and that there were multiple deaths associated with it. The number of deaths varied and other details were sketchy, but it was no doubt a serious event that had happened not 150 meters from me. I immediately sent out a text to let those who were most worried know that I was ok, although this was after they had been worrying for more than 12 hours. Just after the text was sent, my phone rang again; a number I didn’t recognize. When I answered, it was a friend of a very good friend of mine, calling from Mumbai. I had met him a couple of times, but we were not in any real way close. There was clear relief in his voice when I answered, along with remnant fear: Apparently the group of them had been up much of the night trying to get through. Of course with my phone turned off, it was all to no avail.

The next while on the train was an interesting experience. Now, the foreigners on my car were suddenly talking to each other, trying to piece together what Spartan information was available. Those who spoke Hindi were doing the same and those conversant in both languages were often acting as third parties, or reading from the more current morning newspaper. The information from the Hindi language newspapers was more up to date, as all the English language paper had was a tiny paragraph about the bombing with no real details. On the front page of one of the Hindi papers was a sickening sight: A woman, sitting against the wall, both of them splattered in blood. I clearly recognized the area as the train station and a spot I had been in not 20 minutes before the blast. This one shot, more than anything else, is what clearly nailed down the impact of the act for me.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, I guess my safety was not really the closest of close calls: Yes, I had passed within a few meters of where the bomb went off and not too long before it did so. However, so had hundreds, if not thousands of others. I guess that since the authorities believe the devices were either set to go off on a timer, or remotely triggered, it is possible that I unknowingly walked right by the bomb, but that is nothing more than speculation.  Whether I was technically close or not, it was certainly close enough for me to think about things differently.

Anyways, there you have it: My first, and hopefully last, experience with terrorism.


January 28, 2007

Rebirth Through a Toy Camera
My first post and I am surprisingly (to me) nervous.

A few things about me, both as background to me in general and as a background to this post.  First; I am a traveler.  I have been to quite a number of spots in Asia and I am as comfortable in a low budget guesthouse in Laos as I am in my own bedroom.  Second, I am an avid photographer.  These two hobbies mesh together beautifully, and one does well in charging the other.  However, I haven't really been on a trip for six months and nothing serious for almost a year now.  The lack of travel is causing me to stagnate photographically, and while I want to change it, I just can't find my muse here in Taipei.

Well, a new and rather expensive DSLR gave me a short shot of adrenaline, but it didn't rocket me forward in any particular way.  Not that I was expecting a new camera to make me a new photographer, but one can always hope.

Enter the Holga; one of the very worst cameras ever built.  

Worst, that is,  if what you are looking for in a camera is decent build (calling the Holga a toy camera is an insult to decent toys everywhere), good light metering abilities (the Holga has none), a good, bright lens (on the Holga you get a cheap plastic lens with lots of irregularities and distortions), the ability to take a bump or a drop and keep on going; even a new Holga can use some tape to make sure it doesn't pop open at a bad time (see photo).  The very plastic body is also very famous for allowing large amounts of light to leak into the body of the camera, which is one of the only things a camera body is really not supposed to do.  Really, if I was to suddenly start a new camera company and was to hire an engineer to design the best possible camera, what I would do is to buy a Holga and simply instruct my new engineer to make the new camera everything that a Holga is not.  

The one image quality positive to the Holga is that it is a Medium Format camera, which means it uses larger film and produces a negative/slide which is 6x6cm rather than the 3.6x2.4cm most are used to on 35mm film.  This little tidbit is directly involved in how I shot my first roll.  

A Holga is much like a Harley Davidson, in that it is quite rare for their owners to use them as is out of the box.  Now, much like Harley Davidson owners, there are two types of Holga Owners.  With Harley's, one is the typical, hardcore biker and the other is the stock broker who wants the prestige of ownership, but doesn't really fit the true lifestyle.  With Holga owners, there are the hardcore, who do the mods themselves and there are the wannabes who go to those who are truly dedicated to have the modifications done for them.  I have to admit that I am the cheesy ass wannabe and I bought the mod for my Holga.  My modification is one which allows me to use 35mm film in the camera and allows for the photo to go all the way to the edges, right overtop the sprocket holes.  My choice for going this route was twofold.  First, I like the look.  Second, I have extra 35mm film in my fridge and no way to scan the 120 film normally used in the Holga.  Being a digital baby, I want the fast access that developing my own b&w film gives me.  

Being a cheap bugger, I also like the reduced costs involved in doing the processing and scanning myself too.  The downside to such an approach is that because scanner is only designed for the smaller image size, producing a single frame requires four scans and a fair bit of PhotoShop time to create a single image.

Now, above I gave a number of reasons why the Holga can be considered the worst camera ever made.  However, there is something about the Holga that also makes it one of the best ways to spend $1000nt for a little photographic fun.  There is just something really special about having a camera where the only control you have is how you frame your image, and even that isn't too accurate.  What this leads to is for me to stop thinking about the photograph and just thinking about taking pictures.  To me, this is more than just a semantic distinction.

There is also something about the distortions, light leaks and irregularities of the Holga which make for beautiful photos.  Hopefully I can show some of those in future posts.

Right now, taking photos is simple and fun again.  What more could I ask?