Archive for March, 2007

Day 1: Chinatown, North Beach

(Updated: 04.02.2007)

The air smells something sweet in the way only San Francisco air can, and there’s a gentle breeze rolling off the bay – never a better way to start off a trip.

My girlfriend Janice and I started out the day with bagels and coffee at Momi Toby’s Cafe, a perfectly bohemian spot serving a mean onion bagel and chilling the atmosphere with some Indian-influenced lounge music.

After a liesurely breakfast, we strolled around Hayes Valley – the neighorhood we’re staying in – which oozes original character: from trendy sake shops to hole-in-the-wall organic grocery stores. The buildings are all like vintage clothes: broken in, homey, unique and decidedly hip – a welcome change in a time when many urban areas are going the way of sterile modern design.

We headed up Market St. and then up to Chinatown, slipping into trinket shops and bakeries and milk-tea joints. I absolutely love the Chinatown vibes – it’s like a slice of Beijing…only a bit friendlier because it’s in San Francisco.

Lunchtime we noshed on sandwiches and beer at the San Francisco Brewery with our friend Danielle – who’s generous enough to put us up this week – and chatted about the direction of our lives. She thinks we need to move to the city…we agree.

The rest of the afternoon was spent bookworming at City Lights bookstore (famed as the quintessential beat literary haven) and moseying around North Beach – we walked in the sun, just drinking the city in until our legs hurt.

And so now we’re waiting to go to dinner – sorry for the lack of links and pictures, but we’re still on the run. Expect more details soon!

Happy Travels!


Heading to San Francisco tonight, and I’ll be out for a week – but don’t worry faithful reader! I’ll be packing a laptop this trip to post pictures, happenings and reflections.

Until then, enjoy one of my favorite YouTube flicks: a crazy SF bike ride.

PS. The background track is Def Leppard’s Run Riot. Get your bicycle on!

The Tibet Dilemma

Anyone who’s traveled has been there: the infamous “tourist area,” where everything seems to have a false veneer just waiting to be peeled away; the atmosphere is watered down, the people are louder, and the locals are just passing through.

It may seem ironic to the true traveler that it is because of them (or, us) that these touristy spots even exist (although I suppose we could make a distinction between “travelers” and “tourists”) and that the touristification of sites and cities is ostensibly the result of foreign governments wanting to put on a pleasing face for visitors.

Herein lies the rub: how can one travel to a foreign place without in some way contributing to this process of watering down local culture?

If you have, will or want to travel to Tibet, this is a question you should be asking yourself.

China announced yesterday that it will invest nearly $13 billion in Tibet’s infrastructure – to be spent on the region’s first railway, the world’s highest airport, and other more pragmatic needs like clean drinking water, electricity and telephone lines (Reuters).

But I can’t imagine that China won’t be looking for a significant return on its investment in terms of tourism – a Shanghai-based company here has already put together travel packages to the region.

[Lhasa, Tibet, originally uploaded by moniqca.]

That’s not so bad though, right? Healthy economies need tourism, no doubt – but we should be worried about how a tourist boom will affect one of the world’s most sacred and reclusive cultures. Look to Beijing and you see the threat manifest: a Starbucks in the Forbidden City – and people are debating whether this is ok? (PS – An interesting article on that issue here)

And so we feel torn inside. We want access to destinations, and places to stay and eat, but with this access begins the erosion of pure culture. How sacred is a temple once it is featured on a postcard? When we buy trinkets, are we supporting the livelihood of locals, or reinforcing the idea that tourists only come for souvenirs?

Perhaps what is most important is that we are conscious of our choices and of our intentions. If traveling to Tibet (or anywhere) is percieved as a means to an end – a destination to check off, a postcard to send home, a way to become spiritual – then something is lost.

We should travel for its own sake, for the sake of having new experiences and being open to meeting real people.

[For a resource on Tibetan life and travel, check out Life on the Tibetan Plateau blog]

Burma’s New Capital

Burma (or Myanmar) has officially opened its new capital – Nyapyidaw – about 400 km north of the former, Rangoon. The BBC runs an article and photoseries today, as journalists were allowed to enter the city for the first time.

The official Burmese government has yet to offer a reason for moving the capital, although rumors continue to circulate that it was done out of paranoia and fear of student protesters.

The Burmese gov. is quite possibly the most oppressive regime in the world today – but China’s thirst for cheap energy from the nation has stifled opposition from the international community.

Pres. Bush renewed sanctions against the military junta last year, which at least symbolically I agree with (I know – me and Bush agreeing? Hell must be freezing). With Burma’s regime especially, I have no doubt that any material wealth coming in is going straight to military leaders.

It’s difficult to know what it will take to catalyse progress in Burma, as the new capital is further evidence of the government’s reclusiveness and apathy.

For more Burma news, check out Fifty Viss blog – an ethnic Burmese blogger out of California.

Empty Apologies

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been reluctant to admit that Japan was responsible for wartime sex slaves, “apologized” today – choosing his words very carefully:

Mr Abe said, during a debate in parliament’s upper house, that he stood by an official 1993 statement in which Japan acknowledged the imperial army set up and ran brothels for its troops during the war.

“As I frequently say, I feel sympathy for the people who underwent hardships, and I apologise for the fact that they were placed in this situation at the time,” he said. [BBC]

Of course, he stopped short of actually taking responsibility for causing their “situation,” which was the direct result of inhuman perversity in the Japanese war machine during WWII.

Sorry Abe, but your words ring hollow – “apologize” as much as you want, but unless the government owns up and stops editing the history books, there is no justice for these women.

It will be interesting to hear the reaction from China and Korea to the PM’s latest remarks (China’s premier cut his visit to Japan short last week on account of Abe’s continued denial) – but until then, it may be better to consider how these countries can help these women realize justice in their own way; The Metropolitician wrote a great post on how Korea’s sex slaves have become nationalist symbols – to the detriment of their cause.

You know the line: “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.” The same goes for those who deny history’s darker corners …

Not For Tourists

Perhaps you’ve seen a hip New Yorker step off the the 1 train down on Canal Street as they slip an inconspicuous black book out of their tote – then hustle off to some unknown destination. What was in it, you’ve wondered, and what the hell does “NFT” stand for?

I found myself wondering the same thing when I took a trip to the city last August, and my friend put me in the know. NFT stands for “Not For Tourists,” and though the title might sound a bit haughty, even pretentious, it’s actually more of a statement of fact – this guidebook is not necessarily for tourists.

A description from the official NFT site explains it like this:

Not For Tourists is a growing series of guides to major cities. Our philosophy is simple: people need to use the cities they live in, commute into, or travel to effectively. They need to use their city’s transportation systems; its governmental infrastructure; its shops, restaurants, and nightspots—and they need all of this information while they’re on the move in a format that’s more accessible than the Yellow Pages, more informative than Zagat’s, and more useful than any tourist’s guide.”

But that doesn’t mean this guidebook isn’t for travelers to America’s major cities. What sets NFT apart from a book like Lonely Planet or Let’s Go is type of information and the way it’s presented: simply put, NFT has all the options there – every full color map is dotted with locations of restaurants, cafes, and bars, as well as locations the resident may be more interested in, such as copy shops, gas stations and even community gardens.

Where most guidebooks would focus on a few locations per neighborhood, NFT lays it all out: the ambient corner cafe with the Starbucks, the farmers’ markets with the supermarkets, the sprawling bookstore chains with the small socialist bookshop – every nook and cranny in the city. The back section of these guides offer very short descriptions of bars, restaurants and shops, lists of hotels, information about transportation, landmarks and an extremely helpful street index.

But indeed, all of the information is brief. Perhaps this is meant to inspire a wandering spirit – a go and see attitude – or perhaps it’s more for the sake of keeping this little black book, well, little.

I’ve yet to travel test the NFT guide, but I’m happy to have a chance to in my upcoming trip to San Francisco (expect a thorough usefulness review next week) – but I can attest that it’s definitely worth checking out. So hit up your local bookstore, or check out NFT’s “On our radar” blogs and PDF maps online.

Updated: 03/26/2007

The New Horror

Continuing with the movie theme – I want to bounce around some ideas about the value (or lack thereof) of new wave horror films, to go along with a New York Times article that ran today.

The NYT reports that Hollywood is bracing itself for the release of a new study on how horror films are marketed to youth – a topic that caught massive attention post-Columbine, but perhaps even more so since North America went (excuse the language) completely fucking mad last fall, when more than three school shootings occurred – in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Montreal. Granted, only half of these were perpetrated by students.

In recent years, Hollywood has seen an influx of high-profile, bloody, grisly, gut-wrenching horror flicks: Saw (I, II, & III), Hostel, The Grudge (I & II), The Hills Have Eyes (which was a remake), etc. And they keep on coming – studios are set to release The Reaping, Dead Silence, and Captivity within months, among other (as the NYT puts it) “movies about killing.”

All of this reflects what is to me a disturbing trend: As people are being brutally murdered, kidnapped and beheaded in the real world – as ethnic, religious and sectarian conflicts rage with unthinkable violence – American movie makers are flushing theaters with increasingly grotesque scenes of carnage and death, depicting plots conceived of nightmarish imaginations.

It’s as if there weren’t enough soul-shattering images in the news, that our culture should supplement itself with more images of blood and gore.

But here’s the real issue – these films are by and large without art or merit. I’m not trying to knock free speech or horror as a genre, but the way the genre is going. Frankestein and Dracula were heart-stoppers in their time (1931), but surely there was artistic value in those films. Many of today’s horror releases are so intensely gory that audience members feel like they might be sick in their popcorn – an aspect marketers frequently play up as some perverse draw to viewers.

I don’t mean to sound like the preachy Catholic mothers of the early 1900s worried about “magic-bullet” effects on our society’s kids, but I think it’s worth questioning why we go see movies like this – why in god’s name we would be attracted to vivid scenes depicting the vicious slaughter of other people? In a time of endemic violence, what is the value in adding more?

Whatever the findings of the new study, I’m not an advocate for government regulation over Hollywood – I think the best regulation in this scenario is the one over the self and one’s children. If nobody saw these movies, the money would dry up, and perhaps filmmakers would get the message that we’re tired of the violence – both in reality and fiction.

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