customs

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008 at about 10:52 am

Last night’s romp through a Gothic nightclub behind me (and, thankfully, an early taxi ride home so I could get up for work this morning), I spent today working on the Wireless ISP in a Box project we’ve got going at work. Progress is slow, but noticeable. If I find the time I’ll post a summary of what it’s about, as it’s actually pretty interesting I think (or at least to anyone interested in tech and/or the developing world). But for now, Landman (the guy who remained unnamed in the God’s Window epic) is having a braai at his house, which is quite close to here. I’m curious, and, I mean, who doesn’t love meat. I think it’s the equivalent of Sunday barbeque & beer in the US, but we’ll see.

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by j. android

day to day

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008 at about 4:41 am

My existence is transient here — I never know quite what’s going to come next, even to the point of not knowing how I’m going to get to work in the morning. Things just keep working out, though. And what’s more, every time I think I’m about to have a little downtime, which might be the start of a long period of nothing to do (I was beginning to fear, last week, that I’d be bored here, since all there is to do is work and sit around the palace-prison of a house), something comes out of the blue and occupies me thoroughly — whether it’s another guest at Villa Africa, or Hendrik and his friends calling, as they did last night just minutes after I got home and was anticipating a quiet evening (my first in a while). They’re going out, he says, and would I like to join them. I can’t possibly say no, but eventually I could really use some downtime.

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by j. android

Company

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008 at about 4:38 am

The first week here I spent largely with Elektra and Sebastian, two German uber-techs working on the same project I am (Sebastian is essentially leading it). After the weekend, though, they went back to Germany, leaving me to sort of piece through the project and what to do next on my own. That’s been fine, I’m actually enjoying the work immensely. Elektra was at Villa Africa when she was here, so it was nice to have someone to go to work with, etc. That role was briefly filled early this week by Larry, an ineffectual Australian socialist-academic type also working with Meraka to try to get some grant funding for a project. He was kind enough to give me a ride to work every day, which was nice since I didn’t have Sebastian’s bicycle yet, and we went out to dinner on Monday and Tuesday. We got lost in our own subdivision trying to walk to the restaurant on Monday, despite his insistence that he knew the way, but this annoyance was temporary. I got some good recommendations of where to go in Amsterdam, to boot.

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by j. android

God’s Window

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008 at about 4:26 am

or “Defining the Roadtrip”

Woke up on Saturday with nothing to do. A pity, but make the best of it: ask for a cab downtown, to go check out the government buildings. “Oh, you want to go on your own? Or do you want a tour? Jaco’s brother, he’s 23, he gives tours”. Sure, why not. Forty minutes later he’s here, Hendrik, in a ten-year-old Mercedes. We head out. “First we’ll stop by my friend Puly’s,” he says. Puly’s a Rastefarian bus driver and mechanic who lives in Mumeradi, the township to the north of Pretoria. We get there around 11am. It looks a little like Mississippi, people in the streets, shack houses next to areas of newer government-built houses.

We drive around the townships some more. We drive all over the place. We stop for a drink at a kind of strip mall, get sodas at the South Afrian equivalent of a KFC. Continue on. As we’re driving through a market in one area we make sure to lock the doors. “I was hijacked the other week,” Hendrik says. We get to see the government buildings I was going to go to originally. Quite pretty, up on a hill with views of the city. Not many people around at all.

We head down towards Hattfield, the student area near the University of Pretoria. Get out of the car and walk around a bit. Stop for a drink at a bar, brandy and cokes while a rugby games blares on the television. Australia vs. France. I don’t know the rules and the announcing is all in Afrikaans, so it makes little sense. We move on.

We go to the downtown center of Pretoria. There’s a lot of people, almost all black just like in the township areas. A group dancing by a fountain in the square. We get a late lunch at a small restaurant on the square, sitting at a table outdoors. Move inside when people start hassling us.

One of our last stops is a park in Pretoria East, near where I’m staying. We walk around for a bit. Hendrik’s been on the phone with a friend of his off and on all afternoon. They’re considering going ot a concert out in the bush, a festival. “You can come if you want”. I’m there.

We stop by Villa Africa, where I’m staying, so I can quickly pack some clothes. 30 minutes later we’re in the car, picking up Hendrik’s friend. The three of us head for mountains, 300km away where the concert is. They have a mutual friend in Nielspruit, quite close to the concert. Hours later when we arrive, after a car ride spent pleasantly but in relative silence (no radio, since it got stolen when Henrik got hijacked). We pick up their friend, drop our stuff at his house, and head for the concert.

The concert is all Afrikaner music. We see the last two bands. One’s pretty standard rock (prime circle), the other a weird hybrid of electronic, rock, and goofy — DJ Ossovald is 4 guys, one in a kind of yodeling getup, one with an accordian, the other two slightly more normal. They sing some upbeat music in Afrikaans and say something nasty about the English during one of the breaks. We make it back to the house in Neilspruit. Around 4:30 I can’t take anymore and crash. The others soon follow.

Wake up at 10 on Sunday morning. After a semi-repulsive breakfast of cold hotdogs with cheese on buttered buns, side of eggs, we go to God’s Window, way out in the bush. It ends up being almost a two hour’s drive from Neilspruit. We get lost a couple times, but mostly need to go slowly because of the incredible mountains. It was beautiful. We first go to Pilgrim’s Rest, a small town near the attraction. 40 kilometers later we’re to the place itself, a tangle of trees way, way up a huge bluff overlooking a long valley. It’s a quick climb to the actual attraction, a series of sites where you can look out over the entire valley below through the trees and some walls of the bluff. It’s stunning.

We then climb back up to where we were and further, past the viewing areas, out onto the actual top of the bluff. We emerge for the trees into the bush proper, just grass and the occasional rock, along with scattered aloe plants. In all directions the land stretches down away from us, to our left slowly sloping, to our right dramatically down the bluff face. The sun is beginning to slant down as the afternoon wears on. We need to head back. We want to get as far out of the mountains as possible before darkness comes on.

We drop Edgar off, have some quick food, and get back on the N4 headed for Pretoria. 300 kilometers later we’re there, at about 11:30 at night. I’ve got to get up for work at 7:30 the next morning. I phone Elaine, talk to her for a while. Half past midnight I finally crawl into bad, illuminated by what I thought would probably turn out to be a boring weekend.

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by j. android

Sidetrip

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007 at about 5:41 pm

“Well, I didn’t want to say anything before, in order to not be rude,” Charlie said, “but if you want to see gardens you’ve really got to go to Suzhou.” Five days later, given the opportunity upon our arrival in Shanghai from Guangzhou (the location of the “lesser” establishments we had explored that formed the butt of Charlie’s comment) I took his word for it. Early in the morning on the second Wednesday of our two-week trip to China I prepared for a day trip to the city of Suzhou. In my bag were: a camera, map of Shanghai (for finding the train station), guidebook, a notebook in which I wrote the beginnings of this story, a Mandarin phrasebook, sunglasses, my iPod, an apple, orange, and granola bar, and some other assorted oddities of travel (pens, aspirin, etc.). After breakfast at the hotel, I was off.

The exceptionally punctual and gleamingly clean Shanghai subway deposited me within 100 meters of the railway station. Buying a ticket proved surprisingly easy, thanks to the presence of an English speaking service window. The next train wasn’t until just after noon, in a little over an hour and a half. I amuse myself by exploring the area around the station. Nothing too interesting, but there’s a post office, so I write and mail the few cards I had been carrying around in my bag for several days.

The train ride itself was splendid. I had some trouble finding my seat, not realizing they were assigned (the writing on the ticket is all in Chinese, so I just guess). I got kicked out of the seat I had claimed, then needed to ask the train attendant to help boot whoever was in my properly assigned seat out when I found it. The train reached speeds in excess of 200 km/h en route so the strikingly modern cars arrived in Suzhou a mere thirty minutes after leaving Shanghai.

An examination of the map in the guidebook revealed that there were two sites of interest within about a mile of the train station. I decided to hoof it rather than dealing with non-English speaking taxi or rickshaw drivers. It was a nice day anyway, so the walk into Suzhou is pleasant. Suzhou is the smallest city I visited (at a measly six million people it’s barely a blip on the map in China) so it’s interesting as a more local version of eastern mainland China, in contrast to the big cities of Shanghai or Beijing or Shanghai.

In a few minutes I arrived at the first of my two stops, the Bao’en temple. It features, among other things, the nine story Beisi pagoda. The pagoda towers above the surrounding temple and city, all of which doesn’t extend much above two stories. Inside the temple there’s a giant, amiable stone Buddha statue, past which is the pagoda and a series of temple buildings. I walked back past the tower and into some of the temple buildings, which are all full of ornate and beautiful altars to various deities (the temple seems devoted to the Chinese folk religion, with a lot of Buddhist and other influences. There are a lot of Buddhas and statues of other gods and goddesses). Tucked into the back corner of the temple complex is a lovely and wholly unexpected garden, just a pound surrounded by a couple buildings and on one side a hill. I walked across a picturesque little bridge and into this area, around the water and then to the small tea house that was set up next to the water. I sat down and had a drink next to a couple from Denmark; it was what was to be the first of several encounters that day. Westerners are rare enough even this far outside the big cities that they’re of interest, both to the locals and to any other Westerners who happen to find themselves there. We spoke for a few minutes, about our travels and ourselves. Then they were on their way to catch a train, and I decided to finally tackle the enormous pagoda. I walked up the nine flights of stairs to the top and looked out over the vast semi-urban expanse that stretched before me in every direction. In the distance there were some larger buildings that must form the downtown. Everywhere else there were just low one to three story buildings disappearing out of sight, although the outer edge of my vision was made closer by the ever-present pollution. The view was nevertheless commanding.

I walked from the temple to the Humble Administrator’s garden. Along the way there were plenty of people heckling tourists, and since there weren’t many other people around they all had plenty of attention to give to me. But they never followed or really bothered me. After gaining admission to the garden I took a relatively quick tour around it. It is, as Charlie had promised, the largest and most beautiful Chinese garden of all those I visited on my trip, although even this one was small. Chinese garden design emphasizes putting a lot of well-choreographed nature into  a small space, so even this magnificent garden was still easy to fully explore in an hour. As I walked through the entrance hall into the gardens proper a couple of girls tried to take a picture of my without me noticing (again, Westerners, especially Westerners who aren’t middle aged and on organized tours, are a rarity). I wandered through the gardens, admiring how well composed it is. There are a lot of small pavilion-like things on top of small hills that look like mountains; I chose one and sat down on it to eat an orange from my bag. While sitting a Chinese couple walked up the minute hill the pavilion was perched upon and sat down. “Where are you from?” the man asks, in what is the typical opener for Chinese trying to make conversation with a Westerner. We talked through some other basic questions for a few minutes (”First time to China?” “Where else are you going?”). I didn’t have quite the energy or desire to find out where they live and what they do, so I just answered their questions and in a few minutes they’re on their way.

The afternoon was wearing on, so I decided to head back to the railway station. It’s again a little over a mile’s walk, so I think about trying to get one of the rickshaws I saw on the way over to take me back. It could be fun, and I know exactly where I’m going and can ask how much it would be ahead of time, etc. I dug out my phrasebook to figure out how to say the necessaries in Chinese. The rickshaws that were everywhere and constantly asking if I needed a ride before, however, were nowhere to be found now, so I just walked back to the train station. The mess of construction surrounding the area the train station is in made it a little hard to find, but I eventually did. There’s an English sign for the ticket office, so I walked right in.

Buying a ticket back to Shanghai proved much more difficult than getting out to Suzhou. There was no English-speaking service window, so I just picked one at random and walk up armed only with my phrasebook and good intentions. I did manage to get a ticket, but for hours later on a local train. This was the only thing the girl behind the counter seemed able to sell me. I took it and explored the ticket office some more, hoping for some inspiration on how to improve this. I didn’t find any. I looked harder for any sign of someone or something in English, but there was nothing. I went outside to see if there was another ticket office elsewhere, but no luck. I stared at the Chinese timetable for a while, and was beginning to work out that there *were* sooner trains, and faster ones, but still had no idea why I couldn’t buy a sooner ticket when someone (finally! I had been hoping badly) came up and asked in broken English if I needed help. He was young and didn’t really speak much English, but was really willing to try. I eventually explained that I wanted to change my ticket for an earlier one. He took me to the one window that allowed you to change tickets (they were labeled, apparently, but I couldn’t tell). The woman behind the glass changed my local ticket for an express an hour earlier. This was still not for an hour and a half, but it was better than nothing.

I walked to the train waiting rooms. On the way I stopped by a convenience store and bought a can of beer and a bottle of the iced tea that I had learned was easy to drink (and quite tasty!). There were people selling food from carts, and I was hungry, so hankering for some adventure I threw caution to the winds and bought something that looked reasonably safe. It was a kind of think pancake or crepe with scallions, wrapped around some fried dough. It tasted quite all right. I went in to the train waiting room and drew in my notebook and listened to my iPod while waiting for the train. The girl sitting across from me was super cute, also listening to her iPod and looking a little bored, but even though this time I might have welcomed a conversation none came. I contented myself to draw.

When the train was announced and everyone queued up I found myself once again talked at, however, this time by someone who (of all things) recognized my “Urbana, Illinois” shirt. “Illinois!” he said, “that’s where Abraham Lincoln is from?” This was so unexpected I had him repeat it twice before I understood what he was talking about. But indeed, he just really liked Abraham Lincoln. I told him Lincoln once practiced law in my town. This inspired a quiet awe in him that seemed so profound I almost felt bad saying it. We talked for a while. He was 24, a recently graduated English major from a local college. He was going to Shanghai to try to find a job. I told him I was a university student as well, and again about the requisite details of my trip (first time to China, Hong Kong/Guangzhou/Shangha/Beijing itinerary, etc). We went our separate ways when we boarded the train, since we were in different compartments.

On the train I put my headphones back in and drank my can of beer, enjoying the speed of the train and the scenery. Soon I was again interrupted by the man sitting to my right, though. We talked for the rest of the trainride, in a little bit more detail and with a bit more range than others because his English was better and we had nowhere to go. He looked to be about in his mid-thirties and worked for 3M doing some kind of IT services. I think he was out in Suzhou just on business. He had spent some time in the UK working, which explained the English. When the train arrived, he asked if I knew how to get where I was going. I assured him I did, although we were taking the same subway line so we left the station together. I hopped off at my stop and that was that.

I was too late to meet Charlie, my father, and the others for dinner, so I stopped by a small Cantonese place the guidebook recommended in the former French Concession near my hotel. I guessed my way through ordering and got some exceptionally tasty shrimp and dumplings and some rather uninspiring chicken. Washed down with a liter of Tsingdao, it made an excellent end to the day. Back in my hotel room an hour later, I gratefully slept off the day’s exertion 20 stories above ever-bustling, always-lit up Shanghai.

Posted in General
by j. android

late August

Thursday, August 30th, 2007 at about 11:13 pm

A few minutes ago the clock ticked into August 31st. The end of a month is here again, and again I cannot believe the rapidity with which it passed me. I distinctly remember being _surprised it was July_, and that doesn’t seem like very long ago. In a little over 24 hours I’ll be leaving for China, halfway across the ruddy world. I’ve been thinking and talking (and talking) about this trip for half a year now, always held up as the crowning jewel of what I was going to do with my summer (a question I get asked a lot). And here it is, after months due preparation the bubbling hyperbole is about to come to a full boil. I have the highest hopes, I think it should be an absolutely excellent trip. This is again something I have been saying for days to anyone who asks about it, but again I don’t think that means it isn’t true.

Beyond the mountain of this China trip lies school, a return to familiar things in one sense and a sort of new adventure in another. Things will be a little more serious in all ways this year, I think. Certainly the school work will be more… focused, out of necessity, but also I think my exposure to the larger campus will be much more broad and familiar though not in an uncomfortable way. It’s not really about newness anymore. Certainly there will be new things, indeed I’m frequently amazed by how absolutely little I took in during freshman year, but the entire experience isn’t novel anymore. But I hope that this will be advantageous. There are improvements to be made. I have this frantic drive within me to do everything, I am never convinced I am making the most out of the opportunities I have. It’s a bit compulsive. But I think I will very rarely have the kind of opportunities I do now, at least to do certain things. So I’d better do them! I’m glad I don’t take this impulse too seriously, it’s more of a nag than anything else. If I acted on it, I would be such an overachieving, exhausted person. As much as I’m frustrated with some people for overwhelming themselves with fascinating commitments (I’m looking at you here, Anita) they’re at least getting a lot done. That’s part of the compulsion. Needing to have “something to show for myself.”

But enough of that annoyance. Some nice things about August:

the last few days at the beach, absorbing the beauty
the fifth century party
Katie, and things
solitary night-time bike rides, possibly ill-advised

Less nice was saying goodbye to everyone (again! It gets easier, it seems). And not having my own space as much as I am used to, even when it’s just me and my dad as it often is in the summertime. But it was nice to have a full house, too, to have family again.

As an endnote, the one thing I do have to show for myself this August is a set of poems. I tried to write one a day. I counted some of my more poetic blog entries (although I’m counting this one, which I admit is more than a bit of a stretch) but have basically kept with it. I’ll write a last one tomorrow, the day before leaving, and I will have 30 (I started this project the 2nd of the month)… things. Poorly written first drafts, mostly, but at least it’s something. I had been looking forward to fixing some of them up for the fall, but have discovered the only poetry class I have a chance of taking is a class exclusively on the prose poem. Still, there might be some adaptations in there. Time will tell, she’s such a gossip she always does.

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by j. android

The Fifth Century Party and other recent phenomena

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007 at about 3:30 pm

August has proven to be thus far almost exactly what I had hoped it to be: quiet, relaxing, but with no shortage of fun. I don’t feel useless as I normally might when unemployed and largely unoccupied because I’ve been writing regularly, if not terribly prolifically. I’ve been writing a poem a day and will continue for the duration of the month. I’m not sure this is necessarily the best way to write, but it’s certainly gotten some things out of me, and I’m again happy to just have something to show for myself. I convince myself there is nothing less than an infinite multitude of things to do in this world, yet spend a surprising portion of my days watching television or other such things (the latest incredibly delightful distraction: Neverwinter Nights 2, but best thing to happen to computer games since Baldur’s Gate II. Yes, I am a dork). But with a growing pile of things written down at least I’m documenting the experience. I think the documentation obsession stems from the desire to leave a mark on the world that can last longer than myself. It all goes back to the fear of one’s own mortality. But this isn’t the time for more circular introspection. It’s the time to once again catalogue recent activities, knowing that I won’t remember them and hoping that some day I will be happy to have a partial record of what the hell I did with my youth (or, say, early twenties).

For my birthday we had an amazing party, toga-adorned and game faces worn. I could ask for little better, my birthday falling on a Friday and a venue conveniently available. I wore golden laurel leaves along with DJ, whose birthday had been the week prior. We had 30 kids over, pretty much all old favorites (the elusive Mr. Berman even made an appearance). The dress code adherence was fairly high, to my delight, although eventually it was too hot and / or impractical to continue wearing togas and many people changed or shed theirs. I wandered upstairs to sleep around 3:30, woke up an ungodly 7 the next morning and cleaned the house with Katie. I caught a ride home with the last people to leave, went home and slept.

Last Thursday Anita and I went hiking at Fox Ridge State Park, located a few easy miles outside of Charleston. It rained torrentially in the morning and early afternoon and even on the drive down, but my careful study of the weather maps paid off: as soon as we arrived it cleared up, just as we had timed it. We walked up and down the ridges and around the lake until the humidity got the better of us and we retired back to the city. Still, it’s nice to get out, and save for one person working on something who we caught a brief glimpse of we were the only people in the park. The advantage of going on a rainy day, I suppose.

Yesterday I babysat for Suzanne’s stepkids in the morning, caught up with her when she got home, then went and saw Superbad with Lydia. It was funny, I cannot deny it. A little stupid, but definitely enjoyable. After the usual dinner at home I went to Colette’s for a “birthday wowohoww” hosted by Colette and Lucy. Another enjoyable all-class gathering (or at least, the part of the class who I ever actually see).

Today was all errands, the beginnings of a full-scale onslaught of China preparation. I leave in 12 days. This is intense. Summer, I love you unconditionally, but you know I can’t stay.

Posted in General
by j. android

Onward

Saturday, August 11th, 2007 at about 11:22 pm

Written on the first day of my twenty-first year

For all my fear of regret, its actual appearance as a real entity is rare at best: I am always too distracted by the ever-varied and wondrous present to dwell severely on could have or should have been. Paths not taken are recognized as such, and sometimes sadly, but always with the understanding that there was a fairly definite reason a different path was chosen. But even beyond that, there’s little time to think too hard on it without wasting the precious present and time spent on the infinitely-more-appealing-to-consider possibilities of the future. Indeed, my fear of the limitation of opportunities as time progresses and anxiety about capitalizing on the incredible variety of life is probably part of what stymies this regret; there’s just too much else to think about to waste time regretting too heavily. The fear of regret staunches it, in some unlikely way.

And armed with this knowledge I will hence enter my twenties in full acceptance of the ceaseless acceleration of time as well as my own inability to experience all but the slightest sliver of what life has to offer, but nevertheless empowered by my resolve to attempt to make that sliver as large as possible. Yes, it is scary and leaves an unpleasant feeling in my chest to consider the fact that I am no longer a teenager, and never again will be one. But lying before me is a whole vast array of new possibilities, and I would be a fool not to throw myself at them with a vigor that will, in the future, forestall any chance of regretting that I didn’t do enough.

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by j. android

Against Age

Friday, August 10th, 2007 at about 12:19 am

Written on the eve of my twentieth birthday.

I am afraid of change. I am afraid of getting older, and of the ceaselessness of time. I am afraid of regret. I fear not what comes, but what remains undone: the limiting of possibilities, the paths untaken and their possible consequences, joys, and terrors. I wish only to experience the world to it’s utmost; that is to say, I wish for the impossible everything. Every passing day marks the further limitation of that which I can still achieve. Perhaps this is a disguised fear of mortality, of the inevitable end. But I consider it a passionate love affair with the glorious present: I am never ready to move on, there is always more to be discovered, to be done. It is with the deepest reluctance that I relinquish every conceivable division of time, as witnessing any period becoming static saddens me. Tomorrow my teenage years end. Already have I lost to stasis the freshman year of college, all of high school, my early childhood, most summer breaks, uncountable trips to places I may never visit again, and as many last nights spent before saying goodbye to friends, lovers, family. If there was anything I wanted to do as a teenager, I need to have done it by now. That periodic is now forever unchanging, that perspective no longer available. I regret only that I did not do more, as there is always more to do. It is a losing battle, to attempt to experience the everything. But it is one worth fighting.

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by j. android

spoiler

Thursday, August 9th, 2007 at about 9:59 am

I feel the need to just say that Harry Potter 7 was amazing, and that I, for one, am sad that the entire Harry Potter saga has now drawn to a close. But what a way to go! The final book was excellent, not in some richly metaphorical, cultural, or even linguistic way, but just in terms of the sheer appeal of an intensely compelling story. Reading it is all I’ve done for the past several days. It infected my dreams; I was in the Battle of Hogwarts casting spells at some fictitious brainy things that then got stuck together, then finished them off with a killing curse. Waking up from this dream was alarming. So here’s to Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived and a kid that my generation grew up with.

Posted in General
by j. android