Thursday, March 15, 2018

Imbibing Bibliophile #51

In Search of Tusitala, by Gavin Bell
Secret Mission Pale Ale, Y Market Brewing

On the turntable:  Gomez, "In our Gun"

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sunday Papers: Joseph Conrad

"'A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line."

On the turntable:  Foreigner, "Double Vision"

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Imbibing Bibliophile #50

Three Trapped Tigers, by G. Cabrera Infante
Neko Nihiki, Ise Kadoya Brewery

On the turntable:  Ghost, "Temple Stone"

Friday, March 09, 2018

A Tale of Two Samoas III

The airport is a mere concrete block beside a long strip of grassy tarmac. I am not a good flyer at the best of times and I dread what is to come, especially after we too are weighed along with our luggage.  The plane when it comes seats nine, and all seats are assigned.  I am a little envious of LYL who gets the co-pilot seat, which seems appropriate since that is also the name of her type of Ray-Bans.  I am just behind the pilot which allows allows me a good view, particularly of him as he busies himself with the switches and knobs, then occupies himself with his iPhone for most of the short 20 minute flight.    During this time the plane seems to trace a mere parabolic arc up and over the sea and the Date Line to American Samoa.  We aren't high enough to get the usual view of little atolls that never fail to impress, like little ringworm scars on the surface of the earth.  But I do get the flotilla of shadows drifting beneath clouds.

The drive to Pago Pago is again 45 minutes.  The villages are more built up, of concrete and corrugated iron, a far cry from the more organic materials of the other Samoa. Western culture as superimposed on the tropics.  I attribute this to the American influence, but as a lapsed American my eyes tend to the flaws associated with my birth country.  Not a good thing, admittedly, and perhaps a good New Year's Resolution.

For it is December 31 again, and Sunday, and the television hanging over the bar of Sadies by the Sea is all NFL.  The hotel is a good oasis for the holiday, with a nice swimming beach and functioning pool, though the latter is filled with rambunctious kids.  We laze about for most of the day before going over to the original Sadie's Inn for dinner.   I am normally drawn to more historical hotels, particularly those closely associated with one of my favorite writers, Maugham, whose best-known short story "Rain" was set here.  The story was three times adapted by Hollywood, and the rooms bear the names of the actors of those films:  Swanson, Crawford, Hayworth.  José Ferrer too is here but no Maugham, nor can I get an answer about which room had been his.  The rooms are indeed more quaint, but the location not as ideal as the sister hotel up the road.  I do like the vibe though, especially as the few diners here are all expats, and overheard conversation is rich with anecdote. It gives the place an end of the world feel, peopled with characters that are Maugham characters writ-large.          

I don't usually stay up for New Years anymore, and having done so the night before has wiped me out.  I sleep a couple of hours until 11, then LYL and I go out to join the party at the bar.  Unlike the revelries of the night before, this party is a bust, just a few tables occupied by bored-looking hotel guests.  Only the Russian seem to be enjoying themselves, the only ones to dance.  LYL and go sit out on the seawall and look out at the lights over the harbor.  Few things mark the passage of time better than the flow of water.  We simply want to greet the year and go to bed. Then the DJ surprises us by doing the countdown 10 minutes early.  Maybe he too just wants to leave.  But everyone goes through the usual kiss and champagne motions. LYL and I wait, puzzled, trusting only our own time pieces.  A strange anti-climax to the double New Year scheme concocted two decades again, by a more party-friendly young man.

It was an easy prediction that nothing would be happening on the holiday itself, so we've arranged a driver to take us to the National Park of American Samoa, a geographical anomaly too good to miss.  We trace the shape of Pago Pago Harbour, past the Charlie Tuna processing plant, then up and over to the island's quieter north shore.  Following NFL seems to be an important past time here, considering that American Samoa has provided a good number of linemen for the sport (Samoans by contrast  tend to prefer playing rugby).  Each fale has been tagged with the logo for a team, and many houses have flags expressing their particular patronage.  I forget to ask the Chinese owners their favorite, as we stop at their small general store off the road.

We stop at the Lower Sauma Ridge Trail, and our driver immediately pulls off his shirt and leans against the pillar of a fale.  I soon realize that he has the right idea, as we sweat and slip down the steep slope which opens onto an incredible vista of deep blue broken only by the swell of white crashing onto the black of rock.  Seabirds swirl below us, protecting their nests.  Nearby is a prehistoric Star Mound, once an important place in the spiritual life across the Samoas, but today just an nonchalant little bump on the hill.   It is harder work climbing back up through the cloud forest, but it goes more quickly than expected, and we arrive back at the hotel by late morning.

The heat isn't quite up yet, so we take a kayak out into the harbour, riding just inches above the coral heads easily visible through clear water.  We spend the rest of the day down by the same waters, enjoying their cool breezes beneath the restaurant's fale, for it seems hotter here than on Upolu. Behind us, the TV cycles through the usual collegiate bowl games.  Then the sun finishes the first of its 365 rotations.  As man is naturally attracted to that which is light, it seems obvious that we would allow the sun to dictate our relationship to time.  Yet isn't it the moon, now rising as a massive and brilliant orb behind Rainmaker Mountain, the true keeper of time, as it dictates the flow of water, the cyclical nature of women to give birth.  And cultures too, ever guided by this greatest of satellites,  which inspired the mythology of the ancients, and harkens the poet to verse.  The sun of course enables us to live, but it is the moon, which allows us to live more fully.  

On the turntable:  The Getaways, "LA Getaway"

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

A Tale of Two Samoas II

It doesn't take long for the island itself soon to lull us into the right frame of mind. One day we arranged a driver, Sulu,  to take us around a few of the sites.  Naturally the hotel neglected to tell him what that actually entailed, and he wound up working later than expected.  He ultimately missed joining his family for the ferry ride over to the neighboring island of Savaii for the holidays.  I think I was more bothered by this than he, and he actually asked me at one point if I were okay.  

My highest priority on Samoa was visiting Vailima, the final home of Robert Louis Stevenson.  An early start ensured that the day's heat wouldn't yet be up for the hour-long hike to Stevenson's grave on the adjacent Mount Vaea.  Nevertheless it was a sticky affair, through dense jungle that held humidity like a sauna.  But the beauty of this nature reserve is an easy distraction, the broad leaves challenging my concept of the color green.  The foreign accents of birdsong soothe us as we go, though I occasionally stop to look around when I hear a bird call that sounded like the panting of a big dog.   But most of all we focus on our feet, moving over ground sodden by the storm that raged through the night.

Finally we reach the top.  Stevenson's grave is a simple block of stone set beneath a large tree.  With the overlap of mountains on one side and the sea on the other, it is easy to see why he loved this view and made the trip often, a surprise really considering the poor health that plagued the man all his life.  

He must have found great comfort in the home he built down in the valley below, with its broad verandas, spacious rooms, and even a couple of fireplaces.  The house looked like something more often seen in the hills of his native Scotland, and it is easy to imagine the peace he found here, as exemplified by the stories that this Pacific idyll inspired. 

We inch back up the shaded drive and through the mountains that form the island's spine.  Not much is happening so close to the New Year, so we simply ride around the island taking in some of our driver Sulu's recommendations.  Water is a constant theme.  We view the towering Papapapaitai Falls from afar, then a short walk brings us closer to the broader span of Togitogiga, the white dazzling upon volcanic black as the waters rush over.  A few foreigners rest on the stones below, their drivers waiting in the shade of vehicles back in the car park.  I enter the water myself at To Sua Ocean Trench, down a long ladder to this giant swimming hole formed from a collapsed cavern. I later rejoin LYL above, who gazes out over the sea, already betaken with island time.

Aside from lunch by the sea at the small village of Lalomanu, there is nothing really to do but to parallel the sea along the coastline.  One could get sleepy counting all the fale.  Concrete and cinder blocks and rusted out cars were a common thread.  Families, lots of families.  (It is refreshing to see children being taken care of by their fathers, a far cry from what I usually see in Japan.)  An old railroad-type bridge across one inlet, with steel-girder railings and long wooden planks laid for the cars to get over.  Dogs and pigs with teats distended.  Cows in clusters, camouflaged by trees; horses standing in the open, alone, silhouetted against the crashing blue beyond.  A fisherman snorkeling beneath the shade of an umbrella. A few kids with almost blond hair, which I later learn has been lightened with lime juice.  Strange myna birds picking at the carcasses of roadkill.  Those bizarre kiwi-type birds that race across the road looking like dinosaurs.  Lumbering past it all are the buses with their old truck chassis upon which a school bus frame has been mounted.  Each has been creatively decorated by their owners, and brings to mind the lorries of India, or the jeepneys of the Philippines.  Each village has its own church, and I imagine that you are born into the denomination of your neighbors.  A few churches are mere ruins, and I wonder if that brings with it spiritual crisis.   

The fales of multiple colors, many with creatively-painted pillars.  The poorer villages built directly atop the volcanic rocks, no flourishes here, less concrete, more wood.  The shoreline villages that shore up their roofs with the rubber molds of beach sandals.  The tidy homes and yards, unlike other places in the world, where people living in similar economic simplicity often live amidst their own rubbish. Perhaps the difference here is that a lot of the rubbish is organic, and the goats, dogs and pigs will take care of that.  I do know that the refuse does get picked up frequently, the bags piled atop little towers and out of the reach of animals.  A lot of the economic assistance (and the churches for that matter) come from afar.  Japanese development has left its mark with a lot of schools, but the billboards telling us so are old and faded.  The newer-looking signs give thanks for the money coming in from the Central Kingdom.  

Volleyball is the sport here, and many families play on the grass beside their fale. In one village, one boy has created a Sisyphusian sport of his own, pushing a tire up the slope toward the road, then letting it roll back down again  Another boy runs with what looks like a shield and a sword, an organic sword of a child's imagination picked up in the forest. But most people just laze about their fale. One guy has a T-shirt that says "Hustle," and I think, "Yeah, right." We drive past a funeral, the body soon to be added to the number of  above-ground concrete graves that have been laid before the family homes. Some of these graves have laundry lines strung between them. (We wonder what happens to these graves if a family chooses to move.) 

The absurd, out-of-scale sizes of the people here, after decades amongst the diminutives of Japan. It still feels quite odd to be one of the smaller beings on the landscape, dwarfed as I am by giants.  But even they are dwarfed by their environment.  The incredible color scheme, the richness of blue scoured of moisture by the morning storm.  The multiple hues that the sea takes: the green along the shore, fading to blue where it deepens, and the abundant turquoise beyond the reef.  The greens of the jungle, bearing all that fruit, all that wealth.  And looking into that lushness there's a comfort somehow, as if somewhere in the deep primordial DNA is a recognition of that place from where we all began. 

Our final stop is Return to Paradise Beach, named after the 1953 film based on another of Michener's books.   I'd been told by islanders how beautiful the place is, and upon reaching it am horrified to see why.  On what I'd expected as a stretch of pristine beach I find a new resort hotel, with groomed lawns and an admittedly fine ocean frontage.  I wonder at land rights, and understand the Samoans to be very protective, and one is cautioned to ask permission before going for a swim.   A villager returned from New Zealand apparently sold the land here, and I appreciate the irony of this "outsider' inspiring development. That said, it is an attractive place yet simple place, and at least the resort is owned and run by local Samoans.

We roll slowly on, toward the hotel.  Nowhere is island time better exemplified in Samoa than in the driving, where most people crawl along at only a handful of kph.  There are few stop signs at the crossroads, but then again the traffic is light, and the people aren't moving all that quickly anyway.   I can't recall if I've even seen any stop lights, outside of a few in Apia.  One car in front of moves so slowly that I can almost read the label on the back of the driver's shirt.  I am tempted to say to our own driver, "Warp speed Mr. Sulu," but I know he'll just quietly smile and keep pottering on.   

The last day of the year is Sunday, and all through these devout islands all is closed.  We have a taxi drop us at the burial mounds of former island chiefs, including the ones used as pawns by the Germans and the British, to which Stevenson dedicated a large portion of words.  All is quiet today.  We walk back down the peninsula and through the sleepy town, peeking at the colorful lava lava sarongs hanging in the windows of closed shops.  A few locals do business at the market, but most stalls are similarly shut.  Apia, and its environs remind me a lot of Oahu's North Shore, but with smaller waves. 

We wind up at Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, with its small fale and rope swings shaded by the massive canopy spreading above.  I rent a snorkel and fins and swim halfway to the reef, to the place where a buoy marks a steep drop-off.  It is a tough swim against the current, which pushes me back toward shore at least, and thankfully not out to sea.  My reward is a rainbow of fish below.  Keeping in a single place is tough going against the current, and I tire easily.  Far more preferable to rejoin LYL in the fale, and enjoy a book and some strong tea. 

The Eve finally rolls around.  Our hotel is hosting the biggest bash in town, and by the time we go to the lobby at 10pm things are bustling.  It is difficult to get close to the bar, and even harder to get your drink order heard over the music.  A DJ is working hard, under the flashing lights and optical effects of another era.  It is a younger crowd, each in small familiar clusters.  I had hoped to chat with some locals and expats, to get a better sense of the island, as I recognize that my own impressions are shallow ones.  But no one seems willing to socialize outside their own, and the music is too loud to talk over.   

So LYL and I go sit out by the dry swimming pool, in a patch of dark that lets us see the stars.  We try to find ones specific to the Southern Hemisphere, but soon settle on merely counting them, until it is time instead to count down the minutes of the old year. 

On the turntable: God Speed You Black Emperor, "Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada"

Monday, March 05, 2018

A Tale of Two Samoas

The initial idea was twenty years old.  Amidst all the fears of Y2K, and the inane debate about which year was the true end of the millennium, I thought it would be interesting to cross the International Date Line when the calendar clicked over from 1999 to 2000, and welcome the New Year twice.   Unfortunately, life had other plans, and I instead passed the holiday with my dying father, who left us a few days into the new year.  As he was a professor of mathematics, I like to think that he chose the timing.

As a July baby, New Year's Day marks for me the midpoint of each particular biological year  And this year, age 50, marks what we for some reason arbitrate as the chronological midpoint of life.  In keeping the theme of midpoints, what better time then to celebrate New Year's eve twice, in the temporal center of the world?

We'd spent Christmas with family in New Mexico, so three flights were required to get us to Samoa, just west of the Date Line.  The middle flight was especially bizarre in that it departed LAX at 9 pm December 27, arriving in Fiji at 6 am on December 29.  I've often lost a day on similar long flights  but then had regained it on the return journey.  Yet for me, December 28, 2017 would never happen.  When one of the flight attendants told me that she did this flight weekly, I joked that she was then nearly two months younger than others born in the same year.

We arrive at the quiet Apia airport, walking around an arrivals terminal not quite finished with its restoration.  Despite pre-arranging a hotel car to pick us up, it never materializes. A taxi driver quickly offers his services, and we begin a slow ride into town.  The 45-minute drive to Apia passes through villages that make up about a quarter of the island's population.  The foothold that Christianity has taken is quite impressive, and each village is towered over by massive structures, the varying denominations emblazoned in towering letters above the doors.  Aside from their heaving verticality, traditions on the island are expressed more on a level plane, namely in the form of squat one story houses and their adjoined fale: open decks with a handful of pillars to support a simple roof.  Here the resident dogs and villagers live life horizontally, dozing through the heat, as the sea beyond expresses the ultimate flat surface. 

We arrive at our lodgings.  Aggie Grey's is named for a local woman who opened the hotel in 1933, and in its heyday it hosted a number of celebrities and royalty.   A self-made businesswoman, Aggie supposedly inspired the character Bloody Mary in James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific.  Despite having requested an early check-in, the hotel didn't have our reservation at all.  After much back and forth, a room is arranged, so we decide to have lunch and kill time until mid-afternoon.  are tired and sticky in our winter clothes and look forward to a long shower.  (A swim is out of the question as the pool is currently under repairs, a questionable choice of timing at the height of the tourist season.)  As we eat, we laugh about how we need to shift quickly to island time.  Little do we know how patient we will need to be, for over our three-day stay we face essentially every problem one might encounter at a hotel, and everything told to us by the staff turns out untrue, each promise one never delivered.  I pride myself on being a pretty laid back traveler, but Samoa truly challenges me.  In the end, we try not to get ruffled by these "diminishing returns,"  and politely nudge the staff just enough to get our basic needs satisfied.  And after all, why get upset while on holiday?   Why get angry when you can get a massage?

So we sit and enjoy our first day, overlooking the bizarre layout of bungalows, meant to mimic a village, but one with an uncommon ordination.   We take nearly all our meals in the restaurant at the center, where two friendly guitar players hold court, playing to no one more often than not.  I, at least, can enjoy them, as I read on my balcony.

Yet we still struggle with patience.  During a massage, the clock hits 45 minutes, and the masseuses suddenly just stop and walk away.  Having to ask three or four people to do what is basically their jobs.  We quickly suss out who on the staff is actually on the ball, and seek them out religiously.  I learn over time that this apathy could be acculturated.  Historically throughout the Pacific region there was no real notion of individual ownership, everything being shared with the rest of the village.  This brought much trouble with the early European ships who visited them, none more so than James Cook who lost his life over it.  So why work hard then, when you'll ultimately have to share your gains with your neighbors?   That said, I notice a house being constructed across the canal, undertaken by a group of people working in harmony.

On the turntable:  Girija Devi,  "Golden Raga Collection"

Thursday, March 01, 2018

On the Great Eastern Road V

It was a spring day really, flirting with 12 degrees. a far cry from the cold wind and snow of the week before.  I am the only one off the train in Minakuchi, so the only one to hang a left and rejoin the Tokaidō.  I soon come to a masugata turn, which I nearly miss since a centuries-old trail marker (according to my guidebook) has been replaced by a brand spanking apartment building.  The theme continues, as I next find a sign telling me that here once stood a small Jizo hall, sheltering a statue that dated back to the 8th century.  Today it has been replaced by a hideous little garage built of the cheapest materials.  

Minakuchi is rapidly shaping up to be a town proud of what it used to have.  There are ample signs telling me what once stood here and once stood there.  But the things themselves are long gone. It is a bit like an aged and flabby man bragging on what a sportsman he'd been in youth.  I do find one sign intriguing, denoting a 180 meter long row of nagaya rowhouses, which, to judge from the vintage of the automobiles in the later photographs, stood here as late as the 1960s.  At least the town's people are friendly enough, and while I can't say that the greetings I receive are hardy, at least there are greetings at all.  

I pass the torii for a shrine, whose straw rope is frayed and limp, blowing in the wind like Spanish moss.  I see a tall lanky man ambling toward me,  a squat bespectled woman at his side.  Prior to reaching me, they veer toward a house and ring a bell.  The woman's handbag is filled with pamphlets, and from the way that the woman hides them with her body, I know immediately that they are Jehovah's Witnesses.  Typical Saturday morning in the Japanese suburbs.  

I angle out of town past a curious little graveyard whose grave markers consist of little wooden stakes that extend from mounds of soft dirt.  I've seen this a couple of times before, and haven't a clue why they look that way other than a possible high water table.  The river is close by, and could be prone to flooding, at least back when there was a proper river here.  It must have run fast, for the stone marker where the ferries once departed is far down the opposite bank.  On this side there is a nice little park, with curious stepping stones.  These sorts of things are always lovely, but I always find myself wishing that the municipality had allocated some of the budget on decent directional signage for walkers.  But alas, the car is king, and has been for decades.     

I come to a tunnel cut through a large berm.  There are steps up on the other side, and a small Taishi hall stands shaded by a towering cedar.  Beside it is the path of a small river, it too now dry.  I find out later that during the frenzy to build new temples for the recent import of Buddhism back in the Nara period, most of the surrounding hills had been shorn as bald as the monks themselves.  After a heavy rainfall, silt and earth would pour down with the waters, eventually raising the river itself above the level of the surrounding land.  A tunnel had been built through it in 1886 for horse carriages to pass beneath.  Most amazing to me is that it is still in use.  I'll eventually come to a corresponding tunnel further on, which makes Kosei something of a fortified town.   Midway through town I come to a sake brewery, and take a few samples to fortify myself against the cold.  

The next town, Ishibe, has a pleasant little walker's salon with a few nice photos and artifacts.  I fall into conversation with a chubby little man on an expensive road bike, who I noticed stopping at each landmark to take a photo.  I'd also passed a number of walkers, something I see little of on the other lesser roads I've walked over the years.  I appreciate the "brotherhood of the road" as its called, appreciate the sharing of interests. 

The Tōkaidō had kept its narrow, traditional look all the way from Tsuchiyama on my previous walk, making for hours of pleasant scenery.  This look begins to break down outside Ishibe, due to the quarry work going on the hills outside of town.  I have a choice here, to follow one of two routes, the latter having come into existence in the late 1600s.  Neither choice is particularly good, as they both flank the quarry, but I choose the one that loops through the hills, albeit on a rather forlorn road. (I get a look at the other route later from the train, as the line runs beside it.) 

The sight of Omi-Fuji is welcoming, as I know that I am not far from the Lake, and my final destination of Kusatsu.  I imagine that those who walked the entire route from Edo would have found great joy in this view, as they knew that Kyoto was just a day away.  As for me,  I am pleased that the nice old houses return, with the old road leading between. 

I realize just outside Kusatsu that I had gone wrong due to a massive construction project.  I reconnected with the trail soon enough, and quickly saw that it would have been  impossible to stick to the Tōkaidō anyway since the works going on had severed her for a hundred meters or so.  Kusatsu's river too had risen above the town, and as it has been decades since it has seen any water, the powers that be have decided to pave it and make a park.  I can't believe that they'd so willingly bulldoze away their history, but then again I can, having lived in Japan long enough.  

And just beyond I come to the confluence with the Nakasendō.  I nearly miss it since a bunch of people are milling about, all of them engaged with their phones.  One bicyclist hovers over the stone marker, which I only see once I step around him with neck craned.  When I passed through here on the Nakasendō in 2012 I kept pushing on, but today I purposely allowed myself time to look around.  I circle back around and up the viaduct.  Despite my initial reaction, I have to admire the new river park, and think how pleasant it must be for the dwellers of the surrounding apartment blocks to stroll along.  The people I see are all young and well-dressed, befitting this modern Japan in which they live.  Clean, safe, and a bit dull.  And in no way do I blame them.  Then I drop back into an older, crustier part of town, which is after all, what I came all this way to seek out.  

But I'll go no further.  I've already walked the last section between Kusatsu and Sanjo Ōhashi, as part of the Nakasendo since from here the two routes become one. Granted, I came then from the opposite direction, but it is too many miles over tarmac, through bland characterless suburban neighborhoods.  And Shiga-ken has proven time and again to have the worst signage nationwide.  No, I think that for this particular route, this is far enough. 

I take in the town on my way to the station.  There is one of the last remaining Honjin inns, and there is a flower arrangement school shaped like a wedding cake.  There is a centuries-old tea shop, and an apartment block about to bury an archeological site, the findings outlined in chalk as if a crime scene.  And it is all perfectly well.  For this is the dichotomy that intrigued me as a teenager, this tension between old and new, which allows me too to live a pretty easy life, until it is time yet again to bemoan what once was. 

On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "Solo Acoustic Demos"
On the turntable: Isak Dineson, "Winter Tales"