Archive for the ‘Travel’ category

New Mexico Pilgrimage

September 27, 2013

We’ve just returned from a trip to New Mexico.

As recounted elsewhere (Of Money, Marriage, Dogs and the Nahanni Valley), my parents first met while attending classes at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  This was not long after the Second World War, in 1947-48 or so.

My father probably arrived direct from Michigan, where our family on his side were mainly farmers, except in the case of my grandfather, who for a time was the owner of a furniture factory.  There’s still a hamlet in Michigan, Bristol Corners, named after those who lived and died there for a few generations.

Dad had returned home after savage fighting as a Marine in the Pacific against the Japanese.   Before the war, he had painted sensitive oils and hunted with a passion.  After the war, damaged in some ways, I think he returned seeking the most peaceful thing he knew, and tried to study art at the University of New Mexico.

My mother was there from her home in Illinois, the daughter of an executive who spent the war in Washington, D.C. as a “dollar a year” man, and of a housewife and church organist.  Political science was her major as befitted an opinionated and socially conscious young woman.

My parents met, and decided they wanted to raise a family rather than wait to complete any degrees.  They married and departed New Mexico, poor as winter, drifting first to San Francisco and then eventually to the Pacific Northwest.

But their photos from that time, and the few items of the southwest we had about us as I grew up — a colorful patterned cloth, a rough Navajo rug, the Hopi prints they gave my grandmother — always seemed to me to be of exotic and adventurous origin.

The few black and white photos especially, the stark shadows and brilliant light on adobe walls graced by noir characters in wide-brimmed hats, have always lurked in my memory.

So when casting about for a new place to have a vacation, the thought of New Mexico, and making it a kind of casual pilgrimage to where my parents once found themselves together, made sense to me.  Both my parents are long gone, my father in his forties and my mother in her early sixties.  The trip in part became a way to reconnect with who they were.

Flowers By the RoadI’ve briefly travelled in neighboring Arizona and did not much like it — too hot and desert desolate for me, at least where we crossed.  But New Mexico, as my wife and I started our journey in Albuquerque and eventually travelled to Santa Fe and Taos, seemed  to be an environment of more interest — nubby pines, occasional rock hills in subtle earthen hues with mountains in the distance, even some greenery and flowers from recent heavy rains and careful irrigation.  And the skies!  The big sparkling blue skies, often filled with the most amazing clouds.

We stayed at a hotel on the outskirts of Old Town in Albuquerque, and took a day to visit the University of New Mexico.   I wanted to see if the university could possibly have any record of my parents.

It’s a big, modern campus: young people scurrying to classes in bright sunshine with iPods and smartphones in hand.  We tried to find an administration building, and finally found an office where I was given a phone number and an email address for an assistant registrar.  In a campus Starbucks, I used my wife’s iPad to introduce myself, and hoped he could check the school’s records.  We didn’t hear anything back immediately, and we went on to explore Old Town for the rest of that day.

(If you ever get to Albuquerque’s Old Town and want a meal, be sure to go to the Church Street Cafe — the best southwestern food we found all trip.  Nothing too fancy or trendy, just tasty and reasonably priced.   Huevos rancheros!)

Eventually we ventured by rental car to Santa Fe for a couple of days, then on up to Taos and the pueblo there, and back to Santa Fe, and then Albuquerque for the flight home.   We enjoyed Santa Fe a lot — there’s a surfeit of art galleries everywhere and we even ventured to narrow Canyon Road and its end-to-end galleries. Santa Fe also has an opera house out of town in the desert.  One of our neighbours, an opera buff, recently attended there for a week of performances in August.   It’s not a huge structure but large enough, with open sides that let the audience take in the sunsets as they watch Madame Butterfly or whatever is being performed.  (I’m not an opera buff.)

And Santa Fe also has the Georgia O’Keefe museum.  Its paintings reflect her passion for the New Mexico landscape, which was a coming home for her to a place she had never seen before.

Taos too had its charms, primarily the pueblo which has had people living in it for roughly 1000 years.

Taos PuebloIn Santa Fe we heard by email from the university registrar.  Their electronic records only went back to 1950.  They would have to search hard copies by hand.  What were my parents’ birthdates?  1918 and 1927, I sent back, a little shocked since not really thinking about those dates for many years, how far back they are now surprised me.  I realized that had my father lived until today, he would be 95.

We’ve returned home now and not heard more from the university, although I hope some young assistant continues to burrow diligently through their dusty records.  But whatever they find, or if they don’t, is not so important.

When my father was in art school there, he seems to have been fascinated by Roman Catholic iconography.  He was not a religious man at all, he had no use for organized spirituality — although I remember he always emphasized that he was agnostic rather than an atheist.  But I recall, and my brothers may still have some samples, the stylized and detailed colored woodblock prints of St. Francis of Assisi and the small squared-off sculptures of St. Francis that he had done and kept for years where we lived.  This is interesting to me, given my father’s necessarily cruel and violent life during the war and his pre-war affinity for hunting juxtaposed against St. Francis’s storied love of man and animals.

I too consider organized religion pernicious, although I have Buddhist and Taoist sympathies, but I made it a point to stand next to the ornate doors of the small St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe and have my photo taken by my wife.  I’m sure my father and mother must have been there at some time.

I like to think my father stood where I stood, and looked out into the New Mexico sunshine.



Photos from top down —

1) Along the road, driving to Santa Fe.

2) The pueblo at Taos.

I will be posting photos from the trip from time to time on my photography blog, The Suspended Moment.


Hanging Out In Shanghai

March 2, 2013

I travelled once more to China with my wife this year for Chinese New Year’s, visiting my wife’s parents and relatives for the brief period of just over a week.

The week of Chinese New Year, this year from February 11, and the week preceding it is a time of travelling chaos in China.  The whole country is on the move.  Children of all ages are expected to visit their parents wherever they may be. International students and others from abroad must return to visit their families, so flights are crowded.

But we made it there for the rounds of constant banquets and socializing, which is a nice trick for me since my Chinese is only of the most rudimentary kind.  There was a lot of gesturing going on, and occasional words of English and French to help along the way.

For a camera this time, I took along my fairly new Olympus XZ-1, which is basically a bunch of electronics in support of a pretty fine lens (down to f/1.8) for a compact camera.  I played around in Photoshop for some of the resulting photos.

This first photo is in one of the downtown areas with the typical masses of residential apartment skyscrapers moving into the distance.  The smog in Shanghai is much less of a problem than the infamous stuff in Beijing, but is still present.  (I was pleased to see blue skies in Shanghai while we were there.)

This downtown location has what amounts to a private garden in the midst of the surrounding apartments.  There are a lot of gated residential areas here.

Shanghai Downtown and Park

The next photo is the interior of an older Shanghai hotel where my wife went (with me in tow) to order a select menu of dishes for one of the banquets.

This is an intense matter, I observed, for Chinese, and especially for the women who pour over menus in great detail looking for just the right items for the occasion.  Notes are made, discussions with hotel staff ensue, crucial decisions are made.

The weather was just above freezing when we were there, and like most places the lobby was not heated.  A chilly breeze blew in the door when anybody entered, and all the hotel staff in the lobby wore heavy winter coats.  But then the sun came out….

Shanghai Hotel

Of course, getting around in Shanghai is most easily done by taxi.  The next photo is from the backseat, on the driver’s side.  A common complaint of taxi drivers these days, my wife says, is that business is down due to so many people buying their own vehicles (and as the frequent traffic jams display).  There was a marked difference from even a couple of years ago in how often one could find an available cab.

Usually in the Shanghai cabs, from the backseat position on the passenger side you’re looking a small TV screen with ads for watches or liquor cycling over and over again.   On the driver side, I noticed the ad like a seal shown here in the lower right corner.  It proclaimed that Chrissie Chau, one of the Top 100 Sexiest Women in the World would be appearing at a nightclub called Richbaby in March.

This amused me.  In a country of approximately 750 million women, to be in the top 100 sexiest is surely a staggering achievement.  How are such things measured?  And who does the measuring?  Apparently in this case the magazine FHM (formerly For Him Magazine) has taken on this massive if arrogant chore.

Shanghai Taxi Back Seat

I’m fascinated by city alleys anywhere…. they always give me a sense of off-stage life.  Particularly in China, the alleys intrigue me, since especially in the older areas they were how most people used to access where they lived.  Shanghai as it modernizes has lost a lot of that old alley culture, but it still persists in many parts of the city.


One day we went to the  Qi Bao area of Shanghai, which is an older heritage part of the city, I guess you could say.

It was a day off for many people, so the streets were jammed.  On the way to one of the main streets sat this musician playing for his supper.

Shanghai Street Music Linear F2

There were shops selling knickknacks, bakery goods, dried fruit, paintings and much more.  Here’s an example from one of the knickknack stores… an ersatz stage with strange players.

Shanghai Knickknack Shop

This is an area of picturesque canals as well.

Qi Bao Canal

I was happy to catch this shot of a boy enjoying a snack.

Shanghai Boy Eating

Besides alleys, I find doors evocative, the symbology of leaving and entering, of thresholds and openings and privacy.  Here’s one….


And finally, a shot that’s been manipulated to look as timeless as possible, of a Qi Bao canal and its bridge:


That’s it!



Thoughts on Visiting Shanghai 2012

May 4, 2012

The last few years I’ve been going to China, and Shanghai, about once a year.  My wife’s family is there, especially her elderly parents.

This year, in mid-April, was my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday party, so it was a big occasion.  Besides having an extended family of brothers, sisters, cousins along with many friends, both my wife’s parents have been very well known endocrinologists their entire lives.  So they have quite a few generations of students and colleagues to also pay them tribute.

Outsider at large

I’m always an outsider, of course, not so much in the family which always welcomes me warmly, but in China and Shanghai.  I thought I would provide some impressions and photos from this year’s trip.  Some of the impressions are new, and some are the kinds of things that seem to register with me every time.

One of them is the Chinese way of counting birthdays. My mother-in-law, who by the way is completely inspiring for someone at her age with a strong voice and intelligent manner, is 89 years old by the way we count in North America.  In China, the gestation period is counted as one year, so everyone pops into the world already slightly aged.

Banquets are another experience in China different than in North America (except perhaps with Chinese in Chinese restaurants here).  Cold dishes are brought right away to start at big round tables usually sitting 10. It will have a lazy susan so the dishes can revolve around the table.

Me and Davy Crockett

As I was brought up in a way more similar to loggers, mountain men and Davy Crockett than to anyone cultured, it has taken me time to develop the patience to politely take just one small morsel with chopsticks and place it on my plate.  I wait for a moment so as not to appear as famished, greedy and starving as I might be, then bring it slowly to my mouth until I get to swallow it.

It sounds painstaking, but eventually enough dishes come, and people loosen up enough so you feel not so abashed about helping yourself more freely. You do get enough to eat eventually, especially as a guest or Westerner since your neighbours at the table will tend to drop things on your plate so you don’t have to commit the gaucherie of reaching for the good stuff yourself.

The area in Shanghai where my parents-in-law live has been massively redeveloped over the years.  They live now in a cluster of apartment towers. Such clusters may have their own manicured grounds and are usually gated with security guards.  These gated groups of apartments are just about everywhere in the widespread newly developed residential areas.

But something new this time I hadn’t seen before were beggars on the sidewalks outside some of these areas.  One was doing fake karaoke warbling with an amp and dramatic gestures; another, with one missing hand, held the other out, also misshapen, for money.

I don’t know if this phenomenon is just new for this area of Shanghai where I always visit, or whether it’s a more general reflection of the growing disparity between rich and poor in China.  Perhaps some of both.

Vehicular traffic follows quite different rules than in North America.  For starters, any vehicle has more right-of-way than pedestrians, from bicycles to scooters to motorcycles to motor cars.  Step off a sidewalk, and you’d better be sure there’s nothing coming.  In a paradoxical way, it may be almost safer, because you have to be alert and not assume vehicles will stop or pause for you.

With the number of people, it almost has to be that way, otherwise the steady stream of people on crosswalks would bring traffic even more to a halt.

And on the sidewalks, scooters and motorcycles expect to motor on past you as well.  Some sidewalks are halved with a line for motorcycles on one side and pedestrians on the other.

Since I first visited Shanghai and China back in the 90s, the respect for traffic lights and lane markings has increased substantially, although one can still occasionally experience in a taxicab a very flexible notion about where the lane is, even with oncoming traffic.

The prevalence of smoking is much higher than what is typical nowadays in North America.  I don’t see the giant posters for the rugged cowboys of the Marlboro Man ads anymore, but they’ve accomplished their Chinese mission, apparently.  Enclosed rooms in restaurants still provide ashtrays; smokers welcome.

Most Chinese air-dry their laundry. And most will hang them off poles extending from their apartment window balcony.  Some will dry them hanging  on lines or hooks just above or at street level, underwear and all.

Shanghai’s redevelopment has taken away a lot of the sidewalk commerce, from shoe and bike repair to street food, which I am partial to.  But still pockets of the older Shanghai remain in between the KFCs, the Starbucks and the McDonalds.



Notes on images, from top down:

1) There are still many little storefront restaurants for busy office workers.

2) At first we thought this fellow had a really nice voice for a street singer, but after a moment of careful observation, we detected he was doing a bad job of lip-synching.  Not sure about the function of the sitting attendant with the big stick, but maybe he’s there to beat off those who want to retrieve their donations after being taken in by the “singer”….  Also note the laundry hanging nearby.

3) A cart of bright fresh oranges. There’s a lot of fruits and vegetable sold directly from carts like these, and they also are an integral part of the traffic between suppliers and shops.

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Shanghai Photos 1993-2010

June 13, 2010

Sparked by a comment from lookingforbeauty, I thought it would be interesting, for me at least, to look at some of the photos I’ve taken in Shanghai from the early mid 1990s to the present.90s Bike Commuters HDR copy

Over the years, the balance between bikes on the road and motor vehicles has changed drastically towards the latter, although there are still plenty of bikes. This photo was taken in 1993 or so. The streets were often quite empty of cars and trucks.

90s Alley HDR

This was a typical courtyard and residential alleyway from the mid-1990s. Although many such residential areas are gone now, and the buildings and surroundings considerably more modern, there is always a little house like the green office in this photo where a low-level security guard or two keeps an eye on what’s going on.

Tai Chi Sword HDR sepia-2

Every Shanghai park, some of which you have to pay a token fee to get into, has its groups of folks in early morning doing tai chi or varieties of kung fu, fan or scarf dancing, western ballroom dancing, or even Chinese versions of disco. Here an elderly group practices tai chi sword.

My favorite to observe were the more solitary chi kung practitioners walking backward with those chiming exercise balls rotating in their hands or standing quietly in front of a tree waving their hands slowly up around the trunk.

Dancing Exercise HDR

Not in a park, but some kind of local festival required group dancing in the street. Doing a lot of things together like this used to be characteristic of Chinese culture, but increased urbanization is causing such community feelings to wane in big cities like Shanghai.

Shanghai Gentlemen HDR

I’m not sure of the occasion… perhaps just an afternoon meeting of a local retired gentlemen’s club. This was on a downtown shopping street. It’s odd, as in this photo, how advertising used, and to this day still often uses, non-oriental women’s faces.

Nearby Water Village HDR

Just outside of Shanghai are some “water villages” which remain as more traditional destinations both for domestic and foreign tourists.

Pudong Postcard

This was a postcard we picked up in perhaps 1994 proudly showing the massive overhaul of the Pudong area of Shanghai. Before 1990, this area was mostly farmland and wetlands. Then the Chinese government decided to change it into a special economic zone.

You can see how few vehicles are on this interchange. The bridge uses the same design as the earlier Alex Fraser Bridge over the Fraser River in the Lower Mainland of BC where I live.

The wind must have been blowing hard on the day this photo was shot to see blue sky like that. Mostly there is smog, and in our first trips it was rare to see the sun on a summer day. These days the situation has improved somewhat and one does see an occasional blue sky, but the smog in Shanghai and elsewhere in China is still rampant.

Chess Players HDR

Moving into the 2000s now, Chinese chess is a common scene in the parks, although not usually on such a large board. It is considerably different than the western game, more tactical, even I dare say, more exciting. And everyone can play, from grandmothers to little ones.

Street Food HDR

Street food is one of the joys of Shanghai life, which sadly too is giving way before increased urbanization. But, it can still be found if one knows where to look. Here steamed buns are being served. We’re always careful to eat either freshly steamed or deep-fried food on the street, for fear of hepatitis C and other unpleasant realities.

Skyscraper HDR

Reminding me just a little of a building from Blade Runner, this is only one of many futuristic skyscrapers in Shanghai. It looks almost like a postcard, but actually it’s a photo I shot from a treed area in central Shanghai.

Street Scene HDR

A downtown pedestrian mall, shot in the early 2000s. This shows more typical atmospheric conditions.

streetcobbler HDR

Occasionally one can still find streetside shoe cobblers, bicycle repair or similar services. As with the street food, the price for services is very reasonable. Before the advent of the ubiquitous air conditioners in every apartment, the street was the only place that offered a slight refuge from summer heat.

Yam Seller HDR

Get your hot yams here! This fellow, probably one of the millions of migrants in the city struggling to make a living, is selling yams kept warm on his drum barrel stove on a cold winter’s day. This was from a couple of trips ago in an increasingly modernized area… we haven’t seen any such merchants the last time or two near the same place.

Shangai Morning Skyline HDR

Early morning in a residential area of Shanghai — many, many highrises of apartments.

And finally, from this year’s trip, a shot of the Old Town tourist area from a restaurant window…

There’s your tour…


Ruminations On Shanghai

May 23, 2010

I’ve been to Shanghai every two to three years over the past 15, although the frequency lately seems to be increasing: last year for Chinese New Year and now this year for the Shanghai World’s Fair.

I travel there so often because Shanghai is where my wife comes from, and both her parents are alive to visit along with innumerable cousins and other relatives and friends. Her parents, who have received me warmly into their family and have become surrogate parents in a way since mine are long gone, are now becoming frail in their eighties. Both still work as doctors in high demand for consultation on difficult cases but their health is increasingly uncertain.

Street ladderShanghai has changed noticeably even to me over the 15 years of my acquaintance. The first couple of times we went back, the old Shanghai was strongly evident: people in pajamas or without shirts on the street in summer having meals in front of their small shops or apartments; hordes of bicycles swooping down the streets like swallows; the courtyards and alleys everywhere in various states of disrepair; the relative paucity of private vehicles and the chaos and disregard for traffic rules of any kind by taxis and small motorized transports; the wonderful variety of sizzling street food sometimes served by vendors on their haunches over low stoves on the sidewalk.

Shanghai today has become a modern city of skyscrapers, billboards and automobile traffic on the level of New York or London or Vancouver. One would not recognize it necessarily as being part of a “developing” country. It has amenities similar or more advanced than most places in the western world.

As only one example, there are the traffic signs coming into the downtown area of Shanghai that are computerized to light up and show traffic congestion in a simple schematic of main thoroughfares. One can see that up ahead certain red lit portions of roads are to be avoided.

Pink Dog EarsHuge areas of the city have been torn down and redeveloped. Many people, especially poorer residents, have been paid off one way or another and relocated outside of the main part of the city. Resistance was futile. China’s unique combination of capitalism, corruption and one-party state coercion allowed this redevelopment to proceed at a feverish pace.

As somebody who likes to take photographs and look for inspiration for paintings, I heartily disapprove of all this progress. I prefer the quaint and rundown as my subject matter. But as the Chinese I know point out, only Westerners would like to keep the old crumbling courtyards and other such reminders of a bygone Shanghai. The Chinese want to live in the 21st Century, or what they imagine it should be, with its traffic jams, pollution, cold urban sophistication and all.

Fruit VendorYet, if you know where to look you can still find many areas that hearken back to Shanghai before the most recent transformations. Courtyards and alleys with utilitarian bikes parked askew, low apartments with drying laundry thrust out perpendicularly on long poles, a shoe repairman’s iron equipment at an alley’s opening, where he takes on all comers. Although officially discouraged as not reflecting the modern Shanghai of the Party’s dreams, I even observed one fellow nonchalantly strolling down a busy city street in slippers and plaid pajamas, smoking languidly and walking his little dog on a leash. (Dogs are very popular in Shanghai these days, a trendy status symbol, and too often a hazard by what they leave behind.)

The last couple of years I understand a lot of the development was spurred by the construction of the site for the 2010 World’s Fair in Shanghai. The World’s Fair location is massive, on both sides of the broad Huangpu River that cuts through the city, and incorporates major pavilions from most of the countries of the world. The Chinese government has something to prove and spent billions on the Shanghai Expo, more than on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, on a site that covers over five square kilometers (about 2 square miles).

planet-shanghai-pajamas-1The World’s Fair began on May 1, and the following day my wife and I and her parents were lucky enough to attend as part of a special tour. At one point to get into the grounds, we were in long, long lines that snaked through what looked like white tubular cattle fencing. I endured some perfunctory airport-style security screening without having to remove my belt and shoes and at long last we were through.

No expense appeared to be spared with quite a few of the pavilions. There were many architectural marvels, including the British pavilion which looked like a giant squared-off hedgehog with each of the exterior’s 7.5 metre rods protuding like quills and said to act as fibre optic elements to illuminate the interior.

We toured the organically shaped Spanish pavilion, the French pavilion which gave pride of place in one interior courtyard to the contemporary art work of Chen Zhen, and the American pavilion.

Shanghai Expo SpainThe latter was a slightly strange series of three video presentations. To introduce the first one, a big guy who could have been in his off-hours a blond surfer dude rattled off jokes in perfect Mandarin, according to my wife, to the laughter and amusement of the Chinese hordes. The videos contained presentations from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama welcoming all to the pavilion and continued through humorous displays of Americans trying to pronounce simple greetings in Mandarin to end with a piece on building community. Each of the three videos was viewed in a different place in the pavilion. All in the mode of typical propaganda, to apparently innocuous ends. And then one left the last viewing areaShanghai Girls into a vast hall with products being promoted by Dell and GE and Johnson & Johnson and the whole panoply of American corporate interests.

We saw the Canadian pavilion from the outside. It had wood on it, so we could be sure it was from Canada. We didn’t have time to go in, although as Canadians my wife and I felt derelict in our duty. But in the main Shanghai Expo pavilion, interestingly enough, there was a surround-the-room promotional video which contained excerpts contributed from several nations, including Canada.

In the Canadian segment, which the producers must have done tongue-in-cheek, we are shown a sunny snow-covered scene of what we’re told by subtitle is Edmonton, Alberta.  In an older suburban area of the city, we see a young couple don bizarrely fluffy fur hats, and believe it or not, leave their house to whistle for their dog team.

We watch as they triumphantly make their way over white fields and streets past snow-bound vehicles, mushing their dogs as the snow flies. Talk about stereotypes. One of our Chinese tour guides asked me if this was how Canadians usually travelled in our cities. I had to say no, and then further advised her that nobody wore those ridiculous hats either.



Notes on images:

All photos are mine except where noted.

From top down:

1) You still see a lot of people on the streets like this: workmen with carts or people balancing bicycles piled high with goods or scraps.

2) The middle class in Shanghai is dog crazy. This fellow and his pet were snapped at a street magazine kiosk.

3) Just outside of the city of Shanghai, a fruit vendor sells his wares by the road.

4) The height of pajama fashion: from Neatorama, a review of the book Planet Shanghai by Justin Guariglia.

5) The Spanish pavilion at the the Shanghai World’s Fair.

6) Shanghai girls, like girls everywhere.