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Review: Black Swan

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A few years ago, putting this opening at around December of 2010, I remember being brought to a theater with some friends to see a new movie the likes of which I had zero prior knowledge.

“It’s called Black Swan,” one of my friends said. “It’s a movie about Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.”

We were in New York City, it was cold, and considering the company with whom I shared the evening, it was not as though I had a choice. Why not, I said, completely unaware of the story premise and what kind of movie we were about to see.

That film was something I would later hear described as “Natalie Portman goes bat shit in a tutu.” While not overly fond of that description, I cannot argue against how apropos it is.

Black Swan is a confusing movie, best understood only at its conclusion, and even then it has left people wondering what they just watched. I remember my sister-in-law calling it a Sexual Psycho-Thriller, and that about sums it up, and if you happen to be familiar with the director’s earlier work (The Wrestler), you’ll draw some parallels. Same director, same music composer, and a similar premise.

What we have in this movie is the story of a young performer’s descent into madness, and when I say descent, hoo-boy does she fall. The protagonist, Nina, seeks to attain the star role in a new rendition of the “done to death” performance of Swan Lake, a story (and orchestral arrangement) with which most of the Western World is quite familiar. Whether or not you know the ballet or Tchaikovsky, I think it’s a safe bet that if you’re reading this you would recognize this.

All I know is that no matter what I say, I will have been type cast forever as liking this movie for no reason other than the lesbian love action that happens about two-thirds in. While the movie would limp on without that particular scene, it does in fact add to the plot, unlike a lot of other meaningless sex scenes in films.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. People usually watch stuff to be entertained, after all. But the reason I linger on that note is because it’s most noticeable in comparison to moments in countless movies where that kind of thing establishes one of two things: The predicable love story culminating into what all animals strive to doOR merely a chance to draw the audience back into the movie by showing some skin.

Again, not saying a steamy scene is in itself a detriment, but it has been done before with little other point in mind. In Black Swan, it actually adds more to the plot than “and so these characters really do love each other.”

In fact, in this movie it kinda does the opposite.

So this movie is confusing to viewers, and that’s mostly why I like it. Much like we all teach people how to treat us, directors teach us how to view their movies. Something like Black Swan teaches that we cannot trust what we see; that what we watched may or may not be truth.

And I love that. It’s so sublime and applicable to real life that I wager most folks find it uncomfortable.

Told from the perspective of Nina, the story in this movie never leaves her perception of things, in a manner I like to refer to as Harry Potter Style. In J.K. Rowling’s famous writings, the point-of-view almost never leaves the eyes of the titular character. This has its benefits, as well as its challenges, and of course there are innumerable other writers who do the exact same thing – I only call it Harry Potter Style because it was around the time when I was reading her books that I came to realize this concept.

They probably teach this in a writing class somewhere. If you know the term, feel free to let me know!

At any rate, it is because we never leave the perspective of Nina that are never shown “true” events – we are only shown things that she sees, that she experiences, and hallucinates about. Whether or not what we see is true is up to us as viewers, because hell, our guess is as good as that of the character.

They touch on the concept of being haunted by a double, as well. Doppelganger if you’re into German folklore. It’s not explored in Black Swan to any great depth, though, as no mention is made of the words ‘double’ or ‘doppelganger’ or anything like that by any of the characters; however there are plenty of mirrors and hauntings/hallucinations that lead Nina – and the audience – down a delightful path of paranoia and fear.

Add in the whole white swan/black swan dichotomy going on in Nina’s head and we’ve got a wild ride.

In short, I totally dug it. You should see this movie, but bear in mind it’s NSFW.

~~~

Today’s track comes from the film itself, the ending credits. I read that while the movie received or was nominated for a variety of awards, the soundtrack was deemed ineligible for Best Musical Score on account of not being wholly original. No surprise there, since much of the music implements portions of Tchaikofsky’s work, and to great effect.

This track is not peaceful, and to most it is probably not particularly calming. It does, however, sum up the movie well. It begins with elegance and grace, reaching a pinnacle of confusion as glass can be heard shattering – no doubt representative of the inescapable symbology of the mirror – then it dies down, like the release of tension about half-way. The remaining half of the track then deepens with elongated cellos, threatening to pull us down as it descends into a place dark, and cruel, and eternal.

That screeching “crowd of birds / strong instruments” sound out at the end really gets the hairs on my arms standing up.

One can try to exemplify insanity through music consisting of confusing sounds or inconsistent melodies. Perhaps instead with lyrics that either spoon feed you the meaning, or leave the meaning open enough to be interpreted however you like. But this piece, to me, sounds like the theme of true madness in fiction, the underlying darkness that many of us successfully fend off every day.

Stranger In A Strange Land

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In recent months, I’ve felt both mad inspiration and discouraging slumps. Last week I talked about an instance where I overcame a bout of Writer’s Block. I like to imagine every post on the matter – gathered from every writer, everywhere – as a crumpled piece of paper, all occupying a single place on the internet. A massive slosh to which every writer and blogger contributes.

Advice on how to get over writer’s block, memes making comedic light of it, how I overcame it, how you can too. Systems, apps, substances.

And I certainly don’t claim to be different. More than once I’ve written a blog post consisting of little more than a “Why I Can’t Write Anything,” topic. But the visual makes things a little more fun.

At any rate, today’s topic will actually concern my work-in-the-making, which I almost never talk about for a variety of reasons. Most of those reasons are variations of 1) being vainly and arrogantly afraid that someone’ll copy + paste my stuff [I’ll share everything in the future, when it’s finished] and 2) it takes so much backstory just to get the blog-reader up to speed on what the hell I’m talking about that I don’t bother.

I have, however, gone into some detail in the past.

It’s hard to celebrate the inspiration for a conspiracy surrounding an organization that spans over multiple worlds…

Or the excitement I feel when I make a connection between characters from different countries and cities…

And even the deep lore behind a weapon the likes of which I’d spent years sitting around thinking up the story behind…

…when next-to-no-one has read a page of your work.

I’m not complaining about that, though. I’m just into sharing a bit of inspiration through an experience, and how it will be directly affecting my work.

My novel would fall into the category of Fantasy (big surprise, considering the title of the blog), though precisely which type of fantasy is as much up to you people, when it’s released, as it is mine as I write it. Suffice it to say there’s magic, lots of myriad peoples and creatures, the worlds in which the stories take place are anything but shallow.

For the first novel, still in progress – but so close I can clicheically taste it — I have multiple character perspectives. This is nothing special on its own, most writers can (and should) be able to do this. I showed the rough scheme for my chapter layout some time ago, though it’s in fact changed a little since then.

The “Radh Arc,” that is, the string of chapters telling the story from the perspective of the character named Radh, closes on a peaceful note with an air of tension of tension that is at last ebbing (or is it?). The character is settling in a new environment, in a new town, surrounded by new people, and he is thoroughly out of place. A veteran war hero posing as a civilian in a small-but-busy quarry town several days away from the nearest city. People would look at him strangely, as there are aspects of his appearance that make him stand out. I’ll give you a hint as to why.

He isn’t human. Not technically.

The character is visibly different from the locals, which is something I had conceived and written about many years ago. Which means the idea was put to paper during a time when I had virtually no experience in what I was trying to convey.

Turns out the Flux Capacitor Effect happened again — the pieces to a puzzle were there, clear and in plain sight, and it took but a simple thought to arrange them in a certain order so as to be assembled into inspiration.

I think it hit me in the shower.

I’m currently living in a situation where people stare at me. All the time. My physical appearance is so different from that of the millions of locals around me that most of the time, I am regarded with a sort of distant trying-not-to-stare attitude (though pretty often a lot of folks here in the outskirts of Sai Gon don’t even try to hide it). I’m basically a freak for choosing to live here, though my favorite term is being viewed “as some sort of strange animal that has escaped from a zoo.”

Most of the time I’m the one without the camera.

It’s almost like some really weird, subconscious, self-fulfilling prophecy. I originally wrote about a character moving into a new environment more than ten years ago, and now that I’ve rewritten the scenes multiple times, my life has also somehow taken enough turns to lead me into a situation perfect for writing this section of the novel from experience. It also seems oddly coincidental that I’ve reached this exact point in the 3.0 revision around the time in my life where I find myself essentially transplanted into an alien environment.

So the mantra: As a writer, how can I use this?

Living here, I’ve come to realize that on a constant basis — and I do not mean daily, no, I truly mean constant for as long as I am seen in public — I am being judged and assumptions are being made.

Sure sure, we’re all being judged at any given moment by our family, our peers, and especially strangers, but has someone ever assumed you were rich because of the sound of your voice? That you’re ignorant because of the color of your eyes? Or the amount of hair on your arms is directly proportional to how masculine you are (true story)?

Hairy arms aside, I’ve found one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to deal with here was how utterly out of place I look.

Psychologically, I’m fine. People looking at me funny is nothing all that new, actually, though the reasons have changed, and this direct exposure to peoples’ assumptions about my attitude, hygiene, standards, personal wealth, religious beliefs, politeness and even how I dress, is all chalked up to me just being some foreigner.

In other words, while I endeavor to be as respectful as I can, for all practical purposes no matter what I do, the majority of people I interact with, or who at least see me, will assume I am the way I am simply because I’m not one of them.

Only a select few in my close circle know that I’m a weirdo back in America, too.

All this translates into the conclusion of the “Radh Arc” chapters, and while I’m happy to share and celebrate my little joy here (because if I don’t, who will?), but also send a bit of encouragement.

You’d be surprised what inspiration, or missing puzzle pieces (I tend to think those two concepts are interchangeable), are right under your nose, or right around the corner.

~~~

Today’s music piece comes from Diablo 2, a popular Blizzard game from a decade ago. More specifically, the track comes from its expansion, Lord of Destruction, and this “cold music” is the ambience for a mountainous barbarian town.

Whenever I listen to this track, I am not only taken back to days when I used to play the game, but also to a point in the novel that, I’ve always felt, this track expressed perfectly. One can almost hear the sound of snow falling as the calm of this track paints a picture of a stoic, isolated town, warm hearths within and cold darkness beyond the wall. There is a not-so-far-off tension in these instrumentals, setting the stage for some serious action in the near future of the people.

Overcoming That Pesky Block

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This is as much a public self-accountability call to act as it is a blog post. Considering the length of previous posts, I’ll try to keep this one comparatively short.

The truth is, I’ve almost lost track of my passion. Almost.

But how is that possible, one might ask?

The answer is infuriatingly simple:

Distraction. And my productivity and sense of inspiration appears to run on a pendulum, swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other at regular intervals, ranging from excitement so great I can barely contain it, to feeling so down that I can barely lift myself off my grubby couch.

Maybe I rid myself of the thing.

I’ve come to realize that it takes very little for me to get distracted from things. It is a character flaw that I have struggled with for some time, but only in recent years have I come to really recognize it as an issue. I know not whether I have some form of diagnosable Attention Deficit Disorder, but the idea has been suggested to me more than once.

I would not be anything special were I to confess that I have difficulty concentrating or focusing, least of all on my writing.  But what is worse, being bereft of the solution, or knowing the solution and then simply forgetting it?

The most effective thing I’ve ever done when I’ve wanted to be productive, whether it’s with fiction-writing or editing, is set aside time in a dedicated workspace. Jevon Knights outlines this most effectively in his blog post about the Criteria for the Perfect Writing Space, and not unlike my own tactic, his idea encourages finding a place away from home.

You should really check out his ebook, The Knights Scroll. It’s a collection of short stories, both Science Fiction and Fantasy, and you can download it for FREE. I’ve read it, I dig it, and anyone who reads my material or is remotely interested in the stuff I do and like will enjoy it.

Regarding writing spaces, though, there is seriously no shortage of cafes in Sài Gòn. I mean, you couldn’t throw a shuriken without it sticking into the sign of some cafe nearby.

Please do not try this, or at least if you do, don’t tell anyone I gave you the idea.

I have, however, settled in a is looking to be more of a permanent living situation (a new house), and only recently have I established a secure internet connection, as well as a room dedicated to office work.

The result has been phenomenal.

That and two cups of càphê sữa đá significantly uplifted my mood and filled me with much needed motivation.

I’ve always been averse to being dependent on any form of substance.

But is coffee a terrible thing to want to drink when one’s life purpose is to focus and write?

I think not.

The success of people around me has also been inspiring.  I have no excuse; yes, there are life distractions and responsibilities, but one always had time – even just one hour a day – to write. It’s mostly a matter of getting organized and forming a system.

In fact Lifehacker.com has here a great list of for How To Stick To A Writing Schedule.

Surprise surprise, one of their bullet points is setting aside a place to write.

For me, it’s more complicated than getting up earlier, or walking to a nearby cafe and ‘setting up shop’ every day, which are things I’ve tried and have worked. But now, with a home base and office that feels more secure and organized, I find my stresses and creative energies more easily managed.

It’s almost as though my home, wherever that may be, is a real-life metaphor for my brain. If my home is a mess, then my brain is distracted. If things are in order and my home is clean and organized — even if my workspace is in fact away from home — then I can focus. Perhaps that is, or at least part of, the code I can use to understand my inner-psychology to harness creativity.

And, of course, sweet coffee in the middle of the day helps.

Now to train myself to remember that.

 

 

 

Concept: Markets and Trade in Fantasy

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Something often overlooked in a lot of fiction, fantasy or otherwise, are the economics in place that allow a writer’s world to exist. When it comes to worldbuilding, the writer must take all things into account if they wish to really weave a believable setting.

It’s serious labor of love. When was the last time you thought about the how your hero’s village makes its clothing? Where they acquire the cotton/wool/linen etc. for their textiles? Do they produce the raw material themselves, or do they trade with neighboring communities?

How about the infrastructure between villages? Is it sophisticated enough to allow weekly, monthly, or annual runs between villages?

Or does the story take place within a city, where doubtless everything is acquired from beyond the city walls? Or, conversely, like in the Hyborian Age, or as might be found in any otherwise swords & sandals-type fantasy … where the idea of civilization is usually more concerned with guarded cities and villages, while everything else in the world consisted of patches of hazardous wilderness between towns.

The fact of the matter is that most communities, even today, are largely agrarian. Producing food through farming and animal husbandry is sorta kinda what makes the neolithic era so important, and a large portion of the world’s population is, to this day, still largely concerned with the production and acquistion of food.

So in a fantasy realm, only prosperous trade cities or otherwise similarly-run commercial centers will have little do farming, whereas the “quiet village our hero called home” is, nine times out of ten, some kind of farming community.

Now, the readers need not know the intricacies of your world’s economics, unless of course the economics play a direct role in the plot (such as the story for the tremendous game Baldur’s Gate, which had an iron shortage). I’ve touched on the importance of economics in the past, and I thoroughly believe that it is the responsibility of the writer to consider some of these thing when fleshing out their world – even if only briefly. A great way to do this is to simply look at your character – better yet, if you have a sketch or character sheet of some kind, ask a pile of questions about what they’re wearing.

This is the female knight class from Final Fantasy Tactics. Gods, that game was so good.

Looking at the above artwork, we can ask a variety of economic questions largely separate from the character herself.

What metal is her sword made from? Where was the metal mined, refined, traded, and forged? Same for her armor.

How about the dress? Cotton from her home town, or fibers traded from a distant land? Perhaps the cape was woven from a rare, material acquired from mountaintop flowers that symbolize her devotion to whatever faith to which she might subscribe.

The leather of her gloves – that of common bovines, or an animal more exotic, or is it not even leather at all, but a fantastic material impervious to weather?

The dyes in her clothing would have to have been produced somewhere, as did the cords holding everything together. Even unseen things, like the lining of her boots, the oils along the blade of her sword, the perfume used to mask days marching on the field, or of course whatever obscured jewelry she might possess.

These are all things that, if presented with answers more interesting and complicated than “she got them when she enlisted,” or “found them in some hole that a trio of trolls called home,” or – especially – the cliche “they were passed down to her from her father.”

Like I said, the reader need not know the intricacies of everything, lest the writer fall into a Tolkien-esque level of description, but the more the writer knows, the more subtleties can be embedded, enriching the world.

When I was in Thailand, a day after the unforgettable experience with the tigers, I took the time pursue a newfound hobby: perusing the markets and bazaars. Chiang Mai is a city known as much for tourism as anything else, and with tourism there come markets geared especially for foreigners looking for souvenirs.

A shot of one of many of Chiang Mai's Sunday markets, set up near the Tae Phe Gate
One of Chiang Mai’s many Sunday markets, set up near the Tha Phae Gate, on the east side of the Old City.

The Sunday Market of Chiang Mai was nothing short of fun for me, because I was on a simple mission of looking for interesting things to send back to my home country as gifts.

I was also able to practice my haggling skills, which – to my surprise and growing delight – makes the whole process all the more enjoyable. As a foreigner, prices are of course inflated accordingly when I ask the price of things, but the very fact that the prices are flexible means that bargaining for trinkets and clothing becomes essential.

Besides, who would you respect more: the person who simply accepts the price you tell them, or the person who is a bit more shrewd and puts up a fight?

Learning from the example of the Chatty Swede from earlier days, and drawing experience from conversations with Firebeard in days of yore – not to mention simply reading about stuff all the time – I gradually learned what various items were actually worth. As well as the whole haggling process. I do not claim to be a master haggler, of course not – but I am something of a penny-pincher, which comes off as a hard bargainer anyway.

I bought a dress for a friend back in my Old Hometown, initially something in order of 180 baht ($6), but talked the teller down to 150 or so (so, $5). At that price, I decided to buy two – much to the joy of the merchant. Small successes fuel bigger ones, and I found myself haggling for even minor items – a hairband-like thing, initially 90 baht ($1), I talked down to something like 60. We’re talking the difference between dollars and quarters here, which to them is of course a big deal, but from my perspective, it’s not necessarily the amount of money that makes acquisition of these things so special. Rather, the fact that I haggled, drove down the price to even lower than what was already reasonable to me, makes the cloth and bracelets (and even a lamp) feel really worth that much more.

In once instance a more brazen merchant, with very good English skills, did most of the talking. He was selling chopstick sets, which I found interesting enough to look at, but had no inclination to buy – however in the markets, even the slightest bit of interest (or even showing the slightest politeness by stopping to address someone who tugs your sleeve or shouts for you to look at them – politeness which can easily be misinterpreted as interest) is like the scent of blood to sharks.

The man proposed his price – something like 400 baht ($12.50-ish). I kept silent, nodding my head as I calculated the amount in my head.

“Okay,” he said, seeing that I was not leaping on it. “I will give you a discount. 350 baht!”

I nodded, looking at the plastic-wrapped set, admiring it’s beauty and wondering to myself whether I actually needed this. After all, I had about two-dozen chopsticks at home already. The merchant proceeded to demonstrate the toughness of the included mat by stretching it taught multiple times.

“It cannot break, or your money back,” he said, and informed me that the chopsticks themselves were made by his family. Very special, also very strong, and they’ve been making chopsticks for decades. I offered compliments that the things did in fact seem quite nice, but made to place the set back down. No doubt he could see that I was interested, but not interested enough, and in truth I sought means to politely escape.

“You are the first customer of the day,” said the merchant, “so I will give you first-buyer price! 300 baht!”

Not bad, I found myself thinking, especially since I didn’t say a thing. I tried to leave, but he handed me a calculator. “Name your price!” he said, “Tell me what is reasonable to you.”

I took the calculator and entered 250. Or perhaps 280. I can’t quite remember. ($7.50 or $8.50).

The merchant hastily agreed, no doubt glad to have made a sale.

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And here it is. A pair each of chopsticks, chopstick “holders,” placemats, napkins, and cup mat things.

Not only that, he proceeded to ask me questions, seemingly showing an actual interest in me as more than some walking white-skinned wallet. He seemed to be especially intrigued that I lived in SouthEast Asia, that I wasn’t his typical customer – the usual clueless tourist.

That or he had practiced his act well.

In any case, I complimented him on his English, on his skill at selling (he did win, after all, since I confess I had no intention of getting the chopsticks in the first place), but they felt special, and more than the money spent or the value in the item acquired, I got the memory.

And the experience.

Who knows how much this was actually worth. I probably over-paid regardless.

Markets like this can be found also in Viet Nam. The legendary Ben Thanh Market, the central hub of Sai Gon – which I have experienced only once, during my first few days after landing – is a veritable nest of hagglers and merchants. I actually look forward to returning there to practice bargaining with peddlers, arguing over $5 garments and trinkets I don’t need.

Yeah baby, this was the backbone of Sai Gon, and remains strong !

In fact, I rather look forward to the day I can acquire clothing, textiles, objects, whatever, and perhaps sell them abroad. Such a thing would be more of a pet project than a real source of income, as the process is new and fun to me.

And it all contributes to writing. It’s all connected to the economics of the settings of our myriad stories. Production of goods is just one chapter in a book of economics in fantasy – how about trade? Haggling and bargaining in bazaars and markets has been a long-standing tradition of cultures around the world for… probably about as long as the idea of “trade” has ever existed.

 

Thai Adventures (Pt. 2) Tiger Kingdom

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When I went to Thailand, I saw a variety of things, but among the utter coolest was being in the presence of living, breathing tigers.

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I have often subscribed to the identity of a variety of animals. Between growing up in the forest and taking the phrase “monkeying around” to a whole new level with my habit of knuckle-walking, it may come as little surprise that I found characters such as Tarzan (particularly from the Disney animated movie) to be quite boss.

tht
This is how I legit walk around when crouched, do push-ups, or nudge open doors or press buttons when I prefer to not touch dirty door handles, such as those found in a public bathroom.

But as much as I enjoy to emulate apes, there are a number of other animals to which one might simply call my totem creatures. No, I did not learn any of this from some shaman, nor did I have any animalistic dreams where I spoke to one or more of the following creatures.

These are merely beasts whose traits I either find admirable or familiar.

I’ll feel a kinship with wolves when I am in the company of most dogs. A sense of brotherhood, common goals, or when I otherwise simply feel inclined to work with others as a cohesive unit. Humans are pack animals after all (though considering modern trends, one may be more inclined to say “heard animals,” *cough cough* Black Friday), but generally when it comes to following the crowd or going with the flow, I’ve always identified with the whole Lone Wolf stereotype. Lone wolves generally don’t lead happy, productive or comfortable lives, though, and part of their loneliness may or may not be ascribed to over-confidence in themselves (or perhaps a downright lack of confidence in others). In any case, I dig wolves, for both their ability to work together as a team, their demonstration of intelligence and even compassion.

When I’m feeling more solitary, I’ll identify with bears, but not in that same lone wolf sense. Merely lumbering throughout life with simplistic goals and desires; sleeping, eating, sex’ing. Granted all animals have said goals, but when it comes to a typical bear’s life, they don’t have a whole lot to worry about except the distance between meals. I feel bear-like (not to be confused with bearish) when I’m feeling peaceful, going through the day(s) at a slower, easy pace, with nothing particularly unpredictable or stressful happening. Just going about life as a simple “natural” individual, using one’s skills (like a bear uses its strength) to overcome a variety of obstacles in the world.

Then there are tigers.

These are creatures I’ve always liked as well, but never really had the chance to really appreciate. Wolves I’ve met vicariously through thousands of dogs, and bears are a common neighbor in my childhood home.

I’ve identified with cats when I’m feeling aloof, independent, even selfish. Unlike canines, many felines tend to be solitary by default, and in their natural state don’t seem to regard other creatures with the respect we might see within a pack of wolves, or humans for that matter. And while solitary, they differ from the attitude of a bear in that while a cat, no matter the size or species, is a stalker, not a bumbling forager.

Granted, I’m fully aware there’re a number of bears that will hunt and kill, but in terms of overall attitude I suppose I’m referring to that of a black bear, which is not a particularly aggressive species (and one with which I have a passing familiarity having grown up in the Catskills of New York).

But being around a tiger is more than being around some over-sized house cat.

Having left the Chiang Mai old city by a “bus-taxi” vehicle, I attempted to reach my Swedish Sister, but as had been the case since using getting my Thai-based traveler’s SIM card, outbound calls didn’t really work; only inbound calls, WiFi access, and limited 3G.

At any rate, having arrived Tiger Kingdom, and unable to reach my contact, I did the next best thing: I walked into the open-air lobby, filled with trinkets and shirts and other tiger-themed merchandise, and introduced myself.

“Jesse,” I said a second time, “Friend of Vicky.” The girl at the reception regarded me for a moment; a fedora-sporting, blond-haired white guy with a bulbous backpack, and must of decided I looked thoroughly touristy enough. She lead me ten paces away to someone standing with a posture that screamed gate keeper.

“Hello, I’m Jesse, friend of—”

“—from Viet Nam?”

“Yes,” I said, relief washing over me. I turned and saw that from the open-air lobby/tourist-receiving area, I could see right into one of the multiple enclosures. Within, though distant, I could see a black-striped, creamsicle-colored animal pacing calmly along the far side. White tourists in tank-tops and shorts stood or walked nearby.

Upon confirming who I was, the gate keeper, who went by the name of Louie, announced to the mostly-vacant lobby that all ticket-holders would now follow him in as the next group was allowed entry. He gestured I follow him with a jerk of his head.

Free admission after all, eh? YES.

Considering everything I would see, it would normally have cost upwards of maybe 1,000 baht ($30 or so).

A short walk later, and I was brought to my Swedish Sister. There she sat, chatting with some Thai co-workers, and as I approached the chattiness for which I remembered her most fondly quickly reinstated itself. We caught up on a variety of topics; things we’ve done, our romantic lives, progress on our respective language-exposure and acquisition.

I won’t say whose learned more in the last two months, but it is safe to say she knows more Thai than myself, and I’ve come to learn more Vietnamese than her.

Which is, of course, nothing unexpected.

The Chatty Swede then went about showing me around Tiger Kingdom, and I found myself treated not only to seeing what tourists saw, but also a few behind-the-scenes areas as well. I saw enclosures containing lounging juvenile tigers, cages housing a few screaming newborns, a pen in which scrambled rambunctious cubs, and in the distance (where tourists were not allowed), I saw the pacing of majestic adults.

I asked my questions, as I harbor a curiosity for absolutely everything, both in regards to Tiger Kingdom as well as the animals themselves, and I learned a lot that day. Eventually we came back to the area where there rested our backpacks, and sat on the concrete stoop.

“Are you ready?” she asked. I blinked.

“Ready for what?”

I knew that having an inside-contact would allow me to actually see and touch the tigers, but now that I was finally here, seeing the great cats had me feeling more than a little hyper-aware of my surroundings.

These were some big animals, and while the keepers played with them, fed them, cleaned them, and the tigers were overall very healthy and happy-looking, not a moment passed when I did not look upon the creatures and think: “Yes. That is a tiger. This is a top predator that could end me in about as much time as it would take me to realize I would be ended.”

I asked whether there were any special concerns I ought to be aware of. Thinking back on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, I recalled the part where the animal-expert Sarah Harding informs the other characters that the dinosaurs’ sense of smell is so advanced they’ll detect cigarette smoke, deodorant, or any otherwise unnatural scent and probably be irritated by it.

With a laugh, undoubtedly at my expense, I was assured that my deodorant would not be an issue.

Inside the enclosure, behind a set of air-lock-like portcullises, the tigers were calm, and the keepers/trainers employed a simple technique that allowed visitors like me to come in and touch them. With toys made from leaves tied to the end of bamboo sprigs, the tigers had the majority of their attention focused on the fast-moving objects in a most cat-like manner.

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Being near a tiger, calm and unthreatened as they were, I found myself acutely aware of everything. I paid attention to the way they moved, the direction of their ears, what they looked at when walking or laying down. They moved about with carefully measured steps as one might expect from any feline, but also with the heavier, slow pace of bears. Though the largest ones I got near were still not fully grown, the tigers were immense, and as I stood taking pictures and video, I remember a moment where I felt inclined to inform my Swedish Sister that while I was not exactly afraid, I senses were on high alert.

It was at that exact moment I looked over my shoulder and saw a particularly large tiger laying down right behind me. The animal did not exhibit any abnormal behavior; it merely felt inclined to situate itself comfortably with a view of my back, just barely at arm’s reach.

Visitors were always discouraged from touching the tiger’s front paws and face, even with the cubs, and the tigers themselves were always reminded to not follow people – as their instinct is to keep behind other animals.

I saw tigers nuzzling, playing in the pool, lounging stresslessly about. As I touched – actually touched – tigers, I could feeling their hair comparable to the springer fibers we use to scrub our dishes. Corded, rippling musculature flexed beneath beautiful coats, and even holding a tiger’s tail, all in itself, was a memory to cherish. You’d be surprised how heavy a tiger’s tail is.

These are all details that are easy to forget when writing not only about a tiger, but about large animals in general. I will always remember this experience not only because it was simply awesome, but because contact with the tigers broadened my scope of description. When I write about fantastical creatures, aspects of animals I’ve been around, such as these tigers, will hopefully be enriched by such an experience, translated to words on the page.

The tigers demonstrated playfulness not only with each other, but with the trainers. These were tamed, sociable, intelligent creatures with individual personalities and quirks. It ought to come as no surprise that the more we study any animal, the more likely we are to find staggering discoveries that hey, you wouldn’t believe it, but animals are more intelligent than we give them credit for.

I’ve heard it said (usually by religious people) that animals are bereft of feeling. This, of course, is merely self-serving nonsense that allows for people to consume them, or otherwise exploit them, with minimal guilt.

I’ll cut that particular rant short and stop there, as that’s quite the tangent.

Almost nothing compares to being the presence of tigers, and when encouraged to kneel and pose for pictures with the things, I was described, in terms of types of visitors, as “one of the awkward ones.”

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And why oughtn’t I be? [This was not posed.]
But, apparently, there are tourists who show very little regard for the rules set by the trainers, rules I consider to be common sense.

As a respecter of most animals (as I derive comfort from the notion that, somewhere, there is a special place in some cosmic hell for parasites like mosquitoes and ticks), I find it hard to believe that any fool would enter a tiger kingdom and try to do precisely what the trainers tell them not to do.

Then again I have a hard time understanding the behavior of fools in general, though there are those who would undoubtedly think of my own life choices as foolish, not least of which getting in a cage with a tiger.

At any rate, it took some time for me to get used to being around giant carnivores that people like my Chatty Swedish Sister had spent months around. It was an experience I will never forget.

Not only was it my first visit to Tiger Kingdom, it was also my Swedish Sister’s last day there, so I accompanied her with not only the juveniles, but also in saying goodbye to a few of her favorites. We spent time with the cubs as well, whose behavior felt and looked more akin to puppies than that of big kittens, and the baby tigers alone were unforgettable.

It took considerable self-control to refrain from grabbing and hugging the things, but even little tigers have claws, and one of the chief characteristics I noticed among all the tigers was the sheer size of their paws.

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Their paws are immense in proportion to their bodies, especially in comparison to that of a tabby cat. Which I suppose, also, ought to come as no surprise.

But it’s one thing to read books, see pictures, watch videos of these things. I had seen documentaries about tigers, enjoyed their appearance in movies such as The Jungle Book (1994), though I never saw The Life of Pi.

Is it any good?

It is quite another to be inches away from them, to kneel and stroke their fur, to make eye-contact and be disregarded.

The facilities are clean, the trainers genuinely love the tigers and their jobs, and the level of care for the animals is quite good. I know this not only as an observer (who among other things, saw a variety of signs that encouraged visitors to report whether trainers were witnessed abusing the tigers or trying to sell “souvenirs” like claws and whiskers), but also with the assurance of a reliable friend.

It is comforting to know that this is a good place, and I would recommend it to anyone who happens to find themselves near Chiang Mai.

The following day, though lacking in tigers, was no less astounding, as I would be treated to visiting a mountain-top temple.

Thai Adventures (Pt. 1)

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One of the best parts about being in South-East Asia is its proximity of varying countries nearby.

After spending about three months in Viet Nam, nearly to the full extent of my first 90-day tourist visa, it came close to the time where I would have to renew it.

Some of you may recall my adventures alongside the Chatty Swede, during my first few days in Sài Gòn. She and I had kept in sporadic touch since then, as her plan took her out of Sài Gòn and north, then back west through Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. There in Thailand, the Chatty Swede remained for upwards of two months, volunteering at an elephant camp and a tiger kingdom. The names of both places are most apropos.

This would more or less be my last opportunity to see my Swedish sister before she embarked to continue her backpacking. Not only would I probably never again get such a chance to see the tigers she worked with, but after being away I would arrange to have a fresh, new, 90-day visa when I returned to Sài Gòn.  Thus, we devised a plan for me to visit her there, leaving my home for about five days.

Arranging everything turned out to be mostly painless. Had I booked my flights earlier, I might have saved about twenty or thirty dollars, but as it turns out a two-way flight between Sài Gòn and Bangkok ran me only a little over a hundred. So, leaving my motorbike in the safety of my home behind locked gates, I took two buses out of my home area of District 9 to the airport, after which I managed to catch my flight without incident.

I remember glancing at my phone, having flown out of reach of 3G range, and flipped on the GPS to see where we were. I happily had a window seat, and looking outside, I saw rolling forested mountains that in truth did not look all that different from not-s0-far from Sài Gòn. Once my phone triangulated my position – oh yes, they always say on those flights that use of phones is forbidden, but come on, whether the things are turned on or not, they would be interfering with the flight signals regardless – I saw that my plane was about half-way between Sài Gòn and Bangkok, making the immense lake (Tonle Sap Lake, for those of you who care) I saw and the forests below to be smack-dab in the middle of Cambodia.

So unaccustomed to short flights was I that the hour it took to reach Bangkok felt about as easy as the jaunt between my old home and family I had in New Jersey. By car.

At the Bangkok airport, my first order of business was acquiring a SIM card for my phone, which proved to be easier than ever expected. There I saw booths offering 7-Day Traveler’s SIMs, with unlimited internet access and 3G ability, for less than ten dollars. Not bad, I figured, though throughout my travels in Thailand the majority of my connectivity was pretty bad. I know not whether it was the 3G available, or perhaps my phone, but only WiFi at cafes seemed to be reliable enough to send and recieve any messages. I would not hear from the Chatty Swede until later.

Thai folks really know how to make their cities look like a bag of candy.

Getting to the Hualamphong Train Station turned out to be easy. I hopped into one of the bright yellow-and-green taxi cabs (though vivid fuschia ones seemed just as inviting), and for 500 baht I was taken across the city. In retrospect, of course I know I could have gotten there for cheaper, but I knew not the train schedules and every bit of advice I had ever read or received about Thailand urged to book as early as possible. I felt I had not time to fumble with public transit.

And so I justify over-spending on a taxi-fair in a foreign city. Not for the first time. 500 baht comes to about $15.00 USD so I’ll live, but I would later find out how cheap and easy it is to simply use the subway.

At least I got to meet the taxi driver, a gentleman whose named sounded like “Soap Sock.”

We got to the train station in good time. Arranging my two-way from Bangkok to Chiang Mai turned out to be just as easy, and any anxieties I might have had about getting a ticket (as one cannot book them online in advance) disappeared. In fact I had about an hour before my train departed, so I took a moment to peruse the Hualamphong food court.

Vegetarian food is delightfully easy to find in Thailand.

And, much in the manner I encountered in South Korea, most street signs (or otherwise important ones) are accompanied by English translations. Bangkok is a noticeably more developed city in a noticeably more developed country than Việt Nam- evidenced by their public train systems, number of cars (as opposed to motorbikes), and of course international population. It really shows in its ease of accessibility to foreigners, and many Thai people (especially in Bangkok) speak English; all of whom I’d met wore big smiles and were happy to help. I know I looked the part of the typical tourist, walking around, taking pictures, pausing at every sign and checking my notes or phone to ascertain where I was.

But aside from the sudden lack of motorbikes, among the first things I noticed in Bangkok, both on the way to the train station and even on the train itself, was the architecture. While much of Bangkok itself is indeed “modernized” office buildings and the like, and the view from the highway in particular passes over large swathes of shanty-towns as I’m familiar with seeing in Sài Gòn, there are temples everywhere. I also happen to find the Thai script simply beautiful to look upon, as unintelligible as it is to me.

Having boarded the train, the first ‘sleep train’ I had ever attempted, I found my assigned seat to be near a trio of delightful old Thai ladies. Only one of them spoke English, and interactions were fairly limited as I found myself mostly interested in the what zoomed passed the train out the window, but I learned they were in their sixties, that they were headed to Chiang Rai (further north of Chiang Mai, the city to which I was to debark) and that they – or at least the one who spoke the most – was also vegetarian. They were all quick to laugh, and quite chatty; while the entirety of the car had pulled its curtains shut and settled to attempt to sleep through the night, the three old Thai women went on in their incomprehensible language. I happened to not mind, and sleeping on the train took some getting used to.

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A peek out of my bunk.
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Besides, the Thai Trio fed me this, too. I have no idea what it is, but it tasted like a mooncake.

The next day, I awoke two hours before the train would stop in Chiang Mai, and passed the time talking to a friendly Thai gentleman who spent nine months of the year in Florida. Our arrival in Chiang Mai put me in the city at around nine in the morning, and I would have about five hours of free time to explore the city until I would at last meet my chatty Swedish sister. Looking at the maps (as well as the one on my phone), the way to the Old City from the Chiang Mai train station was, graciously, a perfectly straight line.

Getting there was more a matter of avoiding the insistent tuk-tuk drivers, whose behavior I found virtually identical to the Vietnamese xe ôm drivers.

I actually didn’t take any pictures of tuk-tuks, so here’s an awesome rendering by artist frattozero over at DeviantArt.

In those five hours of wandering about Chiang Mai, keeping myself within the confines of the Old City – which was more than big enough to occupy one such as myself – I found dozens of temples.Wats, they call them.

SAM_0994Every wat, and most other remotely traditional-looking buildings that I saw, seemed to always have symmetrically placed statues of naga, which at first I confused to be dragons, but a local corrected me when I asked.

How about another shot of one these beauties?

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Naga have been popularized in fantasy as snake people, but in Buddhist folklore they seem to often play the part of a guardian, but they’re not always benevolent.

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I found myself often looking around to make sure whether or not I was trespassing, as I did, in fact, accidentally let myself into a monk’s private study while exploring. Just once. Everything after that, like this place, was completely open to the public.

I visited temples, dropped a few baht coins in a donation box at one of them, and eventually needed something to eat. Remembering that I had jokingly insisted the real reason I had chosen to come to South East Asia was to in fact try eating authentic pad thai, I set out to find some of the real stuff.

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Vegetarian pad thai. Tasted about the same as restaurants I knew back in New York; sweet with only a hint of spice. I suspect it is because I had it in a touristy area.

The next time I find myself in Thailand, probably to see the White Temples of Chiang Rai, I will make it my mission to seek out real, authentic pad thai.

I spent the remainder of my time waiting visiting various touristy things; with more than enough temples already perused, I found two museums (where I learned a wealth of information about the ancient Kingdom of Lanna, of which Chiang Mai was the capital in ancient days) and a cultural center, primarily centered a stone’s throw away from the Three King’s Square.

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Eventually, enough time passed that I decided I ought to head to where I would meet my Chatty Swedish Sister.

I got there without incident, riding in the back of a “bus taxi,” one of many such vehicles, that appeared to be little more than a pickup truck outfitted to hold a pile of people in the back.

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Nothing could have prepared me for the experience at the place where I’d meet my friend, the place she had spent the last few months working.

The Chiang Mai Tiger Kingdom.

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Concept: Those People

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You know what people I mean. Those people.

I’ve always found it interesting human behavior to highlight differences between us.

And, being human, I’ve been there, done that. C’mon, I went to high school.

But just as interesting to me is finding commonalities, similarities, between folks. Particularly from different cultures. I’ll never forget a line I picked up from Raymond E. Feist’s Magician series, some dialog (which I will now butcher) spoken between two people from different worlds, and after being subject to the haggling of a peddler:

“It does not matter what world you’re from; merchants’ children always seem to be starving.”

My time in Việt Nam, short as it really has been thus far, has been nothing short of a tremendous contingency of experiences. But today, I’m not even going to talk about the local culture, no – I’m going to talk about a very specific breed of human the likes of whom I have encountered here quite often.

I’m talking about the traveler, of which there seem to be two species that frequent Việt Nam: the backpacker and the expatriate. Lets start off with but some basic definitions.

A Backpacker, usually someone of college/university age (either before or during attending, or even after graduating), is someone who lives out of their backpack. It’s a common thing in Europe and increasingly common in SouthEast Asia, and you can easily identify a backpacker by – you guessed it – the massive backpack they’re hauling around.

An Expatriate (or Expat, for short) is someone who has simply moved from their home country to work in another. Backpackers might become expats, and expats might do a little backpacking. The difference is that, usually, expats are semi/permanent, whereas backpackers are usually just passing through; an expat may or may not have a long-term plan to return to their home country, whereas a backpacker usually does.

You’ll just as likely see an expat in a business suit and tie as you’ll see a backpacker with dreadlocks and an unkempt beard.

But for all things that might set them visually apart, they have a strong trait in common.

I’ve come to learn that it takes a very special breed of human

to just up and leave your home behind.

Some folks might leave on these adventures simply seeking adventure; many folk I’ve met go about their days without much of a plan in mind, and as most of these travelers are level-headed people with social skills and open minds (usually), things work out. You’d be surprised how universal a smile and a kind gesture is, and how many things in common you have with someone who was raised on a farm in a country that only recently opened up to the outside world.

Others might leave their homes behind permanently; whether because they have no home to abandon or, perhaps, as is the narrative of many adventure stories, because “home” is a less-than-preferable place.  Harry Potter and Princess Mononoke come to mind for some reason.

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But there has been a recurring conversation that I have with a lot of these people. The above quote at the head of this post was given to me by a French former-roommate whom I’ve come to hold in high respect. This was a guy younger than me, but with essentially the same education (a two-year degree in a major that did not open doors), who came from a small town, and came to Sài Gòn in search of something new and different.

The conversation entailed thinking back on our home towns. Thinking back on the people behind us, our friends and family. I remember at the time I was vocalizing and orchestrating my thoughts, and he helped me organize them in a manner that became coherent. Here is, essentially, the common understanding that I’ve not only come to adopt, but come to realize many other travelers – especially expats – have.

Travel broadens the mind. Seeing other cultures, interacting with people different from you, tasting foods you never knew existed, and living in conditions that would otherwise be called “sub-standard” build character. And I’m not saying that as a writer pun, no, I mean these are things that are really good for the mind and body. We can throw spirit in there too, if you care about that sort of thing. I am not a religious person, but it can be said thatk there is something spiritual about being itinerant.

Traveling changes you. Or, more accurately, it helps reveal your inner self.

We think back on the people we’ve left behind, and we wonder what it would be like if we had never left. In the case of the French former-room mate, he actually had visited home and come back to Việt Nam a few times, and his story sounded exactly as I might have predicted. The people back home were the same. The home town had not changed. His old friends still worked the same jobs, had the same monotonous days, and despite the praise and encouragement offered, showed no interest in breaking free of their simple, closed lives.

There is no dishonor in this, not really… but it is most certainly not the life for me, or him, or many other a traveler. Having kept in touch with a handful of friends from back home (none of whom read this blog, I’m sure), it came as a two-sided coin of shock to me when I learned my own loved ones have pretty much zero interest in what I do – at least not in that actionable sort of way. Friends and family will always be “interested” when you talk to them, and I am surprised, actually, at how many people outside my circle of close-friends-from-back-home have emerged from the wood-work to remark on how encouraged, interested, and in some cases inspired, by reading about my adventures.

This was something of a surprise.

I tend to share the interesting parts of my life in snippets on Facebook, so in the off-chance you’re reading this before having met me there, friend or follow me should you be so inclined.

At any rate, we came to the conclusion that we do not pity or look down on folks who decide not to travel. It’s all a matter of comfort, of standards, whatever you want to call it. But then, Firebeard once told me, when I expressed mixed encouragement from my family about coming to Sài Gòn, that one really ought to watch out when someone actually voices the opinion: “Don’t travel.”

People who say this are the kind whose opinion that backpackers and expats simply, by definition, cannot abide.

Those people.

I know that when or if I return to my old home, I will not be the same. And locals will look upon me, probably with a sneer as I struggle to contain myself from sharing and comparing cultural moments and experiences, and assume I think myself better.

Nah. Not better.

Just different.