Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hotel Chelsea

Wired's Listening Post blogs about one of my favorite NYC haunts, the Hotel Chelsea.

I first stayed at the Chelsea on my virgin visit to the city, en route to Spain to study abroad for a year. My then boyfriend and I showed up with no hotel reservation, no list of affordable hotels and addresses, and not a single phone number. Naturally. So, we jumped in a cab at the airport and requested that the cab driver take us "somewhere affordable in Manhattan." After two attempts at some not-so-affordable hotels, he ended up dropping us at the Hotel Chelsea. We knew nothing about its history, we only knew that it looked like our kind of place. And it was. As we were staying for 5 days, we managed to work out a reasonable extended-stay rate, and were put in a large room overlooking the street. To this day, my favorite detail of the Chelsea is the crown moulding: although it was large and highly detailed in the antique style, you wouldn't have known it for the hundreds of layers of paint that had been lathered over the wood. If an ethnoarchaeologist were to conduct a study of the paint, surely the equally layered history of the Hotel's residents would emerge, providing an elaborate cross-section of beauty, blood dust, and betrayal.

After spending a few nights there, we came to learn of the Chelsea's famous residents and their histories, tragic or otherwise. More interesting than the ghosts of artists past, though, were the ghosts of artists present. Chimeric works of art were scattered haphazardly throughout the Hotel, and any amount of wandering and (slightly tremulous) corner-turning would always bring you upon some new and disconcerting discovery. Some of it was good. Some of it was not. But some of it still haunts me today, and I wonder what became of the artist whose works I passed every day along the wrought-iron staircase.

I recently revisited the Chelsea, bringing a friend and long-time resident of the city to the Hotel for her first time. And even though more than four years had passed since my initial encounter, I was still instantly transported into the time-warp that the place is, taken back into an undefinable era that was nevertheless unquestionably not this one. There is something about a building in which the light is always somewhat sinister and the ghosts are never quite silent that sends a chill up your spine on even the warmest summer day. But then again, that's exactly why you go there.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Read how you want. Just as long as you read.

“Print is Dead” might well be the defining maxim of this day and information age: since the advent of electronic publishing, a vast number of articles, essays, and books have attempted the divine reading of hard copy’s viscera, and the final verdicts are about as telling as a fortune cookie. It’s true that printed books will never become obsolete, because as all book fetishists (as they’re deemed) will attest, there is no substitute for the sensual experience of a book. You can’t walk into a digital library and shed a tear at the beauty of the stacks, and you can’t get that antique bookstore smell in a bottle, at least not yet. However, the unquestionable importance and potential of digital media cannot be dismissed. Pioneering e-projects such as Project Gutenberg,, Internet Archive, and even Wikipedia have categorically proven that the future of educational information dissemination lies within the virtual realm. When one compares and contrasts, in principle, the viable effectiveness of Room to Read’s noble mission to build educational infrastructure in developing countries (initially by focusing on bringing physical books to negligible or non-existent libraries) with the potential efficacy of any online organization with similar goals, the result is clear: virtual is better. And considering that humanity’s existence, proliferation, and ability to improve quality of life is directly linked to our ability to educate ourselves, this is an important point. As Brewster Kahle notes in episode 144 of TwiT, “People are turning to their computer now to answer questions…If it’s not on the internet, it doesn’t exist.” But, fortunately for book fetishists and bibliophiles, the two mediums are not mutually exclusive. The Observer's literary editor Robert McCrum best sums up the symbiotic relationship of print and e-publishing in a fascinating article recapping the last ten years in the literary world: “…the Kindle and its e-book competitors will not kill the book but happily co-exist with it in a bright new bi-literary environment.”

On both sides of the battle, though, it’s two steps forward and one step backward. In a positive advancement for print publishing, a new company called Read How You Want has jumped on the customizability bandwagon, providing a wide variety of printing methods for special-needs readers. Whether a reader simply requires large print or something as particular as textual assistance in word tracking and character distinguishment, the company offers research-backed, individualized custom printing solutions, as well as e-books and MP3 audio books. By recognizing the long-tail viability of printing marginalized content, Read How You Want is joining the ranks of related print-on-demand publishers. Joanne Hamilton-Selway, quoted in a Publishers Weekly article about the company, hits the nail right on the head: “People are more vocal about what they want and about their right to have it…They consider it both a privilege and a right.” And it is – if one can get customized toenail clippers, one should surely be able to customize something a tad more…important. But as the saying goes, “every party has a pooper,” and that’s where Indiana’s state law regarding sexually explicit materials (e.g., books, magazines, etc.) comes into play. This new law mandates that any person who “intends to offer for sale or sell sexually explicit materials shall register with the secretary of state the intent to offer for sale or sell sexually explicit materials and provide a statement detailing the types of materials that the person intends to offer for sale or sell.” Oh, and said person must also pay $250. Why, when print publishing and physical bookstores are already having such a hard time keeping up with the Joneses, would a government act in such a futile and counter-productive manner against print?

On the flip side of the coin, one sees similar advances and backtrackings in e-media. As renowned economist Robert Solow grumbled, "You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics." In the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts report entitled “To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence,” it appears as though Solow’s proclamation rings true. Although internet access coupled with the quantity – and occasionally, quality – of content has exponentially increased over the past few years, people’s ability to synthesize this gluttonous wealth of information has simultaneously decreased; it is widely accepted that people’s attention spans have dramatically decreased, as well. Thus, this conundrum begs the question: if people are less and less able to meaningfully utilize the near-infinite amount of information at their fingertips, what benefit is there in having said information accessible? Before your head explodes, understand that I am no Luddite. I firmly believe that *all information should be accessible at all times, because ultimately even the most mundane “orphan book” might be useful to someone. And of course, the only viable way to achieve such a goal is via the Internet. However, before we as a world society get too bogged down in the debate between print versus electronic publication, we should focus upon how we can employ this “bi-literary environment” to regain what we are on the verge of losing, what we gained at the beginning of history when writing was first employed: the ability to meaningfully communicate.

*with considerations of appropriate context, maturity, etc., of course

Update: nowhere is the importance of reading more eloquently stated than here.

Sometimes I aspirate without realizing that I'm breathing

According to an article in The Chicago Tribune, Senator Phil Boots, in response to the controversial Indiana Law 1042 regarding sexually explicit materials, said that "some of us vote without realizing what we're voting for...I think there might have been more opposition if people had actually considered [the proposition] more."

Democratic Representative Matthew Pierce elaborated upon his colleagues' propensity to vote by closing their eyes, holding their arm out with their pointer finger extended, and spinning in a circle, saying "I think a lot of people figured, 'I'm not going to put myself in the position of having to explain why I voted against protecting kids from sexually explicit material. If it's unconstitutional, the courts will take care of it.' "

In other news, Ken Blackwell pokes an innocent bystander's eye out while playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sand. Turquoise Waters. Manta Rays.

Back in Thailand, we spent about 6 days on the beach of Koh Phi Phi Don, an island with no roads (its sister island is where Leonardo Dicaprio's movie The Beach was filmed, and was also one of the islands worst hit by the tsunami). We were quite excited to just lay still for a moment after having spent the past month and a half running around like maniacs. As Koh Phi Phi was nauseatingly touristy (see previous post re: Vang Vieng, Laos), we opted to escape to another nearby island that had no people staying there beyond us and the national park rangers. On that island (which shall remain unnamed) we camped in tents, and spent just around an hour walking around the entire island; on that walk around, we met some fisherman who let us taste the stingray they were barbecuing. We bought 2kg of crabs from them and took them back to camp. The park rangers barbecued 4 of them along with 5 other fish they just gave to us, and boiled the other 4. They also gave us a bottle of Mekong rice whiskey, a bottle of red wine (expensive in SE Asia), beer, and mango for dessert. A regular feast. We spent the evening using our broken Thai and their broken English plus a dictionary, sign language, and pictures to communicate and teach each other card games. They also gave us an enormous papaya two of the three mornings. Scrumdiddlyumptious.

After Koh Phi Phi and the secret island, we headed to Khao Lak, the place worst hit by the tsunami in Thailand. There, we saw a boat that had been washed 1 km inland (a boat as in a steel navy ship), trees that had been broken off by the wave at the top (around 10 m), and saw where the shore used to stretch out 1 km, but had been washed away by the wave. From Khao Lak we departed on a 4-day scuba diving liveaboard with Sea Dragon Dive Center to the Koh Similans and Koh Surins, some of the best diving in the world. We did a total of 13 dives there, and saw amazing underwater life, including two enormous manta rays, the last one circling around us for a good 10 minutes. It swam right over my head, and with my arm extended, my hand was about 2 ft. away from touching the beauty of a beast. On the liveaboard, we were served three amazing meals a day, and stopped at various secluded beaches for a swim and to climb up the rocks and watch the sunset. Quite a stellar way to end the trip - Emily and I tearfully headed back up to Bangkok to spend two more nights there before jumping on our respective planes back home.

Barely Scraping the Surface in Cambodia

Cambodia was fast and frenzied, as we unfortunately only had a week or so to see the main highlights. We spent two days in Phnom Penh, and while there visited the infamous S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields run by the Khmer Rouge, perpetrators of the mass genocide in Cambodia during the 1970s. Horrific and nausea-inducing. From Phnom Penh, we took an incredibly hot and miserable bus ride (past the worst traffic accident I've ever seen) to Siem Reap, site of Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world. Superlatives are the only available forms of speech when trying to describe the experience of exploring Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples - it was nearly impossible to process the fact that these stupendous temples were built almost 1000 years ago. Additionally, Monika, Emily and I celebrated our April birthdays on a big night out, accompanied by three guys we had previously traveled with for a few weeks, and a bunch of their (random) friends. I actually got to see the sun rise behind Angkor Wat on my actual birthday, which I figured was a pretty good way to offset my quarter-life crisis.

A (proper) return trip is definitely in order.

North Vietnam (yes, it was safe, and yes, people there are nice)

Here are the highlights from this entry, as I know most of you probably won't read the whole thing, esp. as this one is particularly long:

- I ate dog
- I ate the still-beating heart of a cobra, accompanied with snake wine (i.e., snake blood from a snake killed tableside, poured into a glass of rice wine, as well as snake gallbladder and bile poured into rice wine), accompanied by various different preparations of the snake and snakeskin.
- I ate "essence of giant waterbug" (read the post for a detailed description)

(yes, I'm still vegetarian: when in Rome...)

Vietnam, Hanoi specifically, has been the highlight of the trip so far. Definitely less touristy than everywhere else we've been...and so hectic. Every time you cross the street you have to just close your eyes and walk forward at a steady pace, blindly assuming that you're not going to get hit by a bus / car / moped + die...We were fortunate enough to attend a performance by the Hanoi Philharmonic of some Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky pieces at the Hanoi Opera House (performances only happening a few times a month) the second night after our arrival, have dinner at one of the best restaurants in Vietnam, and then have delicious drinks (and smoke a delicious Cuban cigar) at what Conde Nast says is one of the finest hotels in SE Asia: the Sofitel Metropole. We wandered around through markets the next day, and for dinner went to a restaurant that offered "essence of giant waterbug / ca cuaong" as a special flavor-addition to the menu. Apparently, waterbugs are harvested only during a short season, and it takes the glands of 3-4 waterbugs to make one drop. Unfortunately, the taste was largely underwhelming: my impression was of weak anise + mint. Still worth the effort to get there, though. Then, the next day, we visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and actually saw the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh himself (his body is sent to Russia for 3 months every year to be preserved using secret techniques), went to the Temple of Literature, the Fine Arts Museum, and had High Tea at the Sofitel Metropole, at which the main attraction was a chocolate buffet. Yeah, we definitely ate ourselves sick.
From Hanoi, we took a night train up to Sapa, which was beautiful but super touristy. The main attractions there are the terraced rice paddies, and also the "ethnic minority" hilltribes. Read: ethnotourism. We hiked for two days through villages and terraces, and stayed overnight in a village (homestay). Then, immediately upon our return to Hanoi, we departed again a few hours later for Cat Ba Island, which is situated right at the lip of the famous Halong Bay. From there, we spent two days / one night on our own private boat, traipsing around the bay, stopping to see some amazing caves / karst formations / lagoons, and kayaking around. Highlights from this: seeing the phosphorescence (bioluminescence) in the water at night (we dropped anchor in a glorious area surrounded by nothing but karsts and one or two other fisherman boats), and seeing Monika get attacked by monkeys. Literally: they bit her. Many times. But she's okay, so it's kind of funny now. Our last night in Hanoi, we went out to "Le Mat," which is a snake village on the outskirts of Hanoi. The proprietors of the restaurant in which we ate actually pulled a live cobra from a bag, split it open right down the middle with a knife, drained the blood into rice wine, cut out the gallbladder to mix with more rice wine, and then dropped the heart into the glass of blood and rice wine. Which we then drank. Like a shot. I swallowed a cobra heart. Whole. We then ate the rest of each of our own snakes, prepared in many different ways. It was interesting.

Laos: From Lost in the Wilderness to Buckets of Lao Lao

Our first jaunt after arriving in Laos was the Gibbons Experience: definitely one of the coolest and most intense things I've done in my life. Although ziplines were not the key part of the experience, we did one (more than once) that was 580 meters long and 200 meters high (do the math, you non-metric-system people), and ziplined in order to cross valleys around 8 times each day. I was especially pleased to do so much hiking, which involved at least a few hours a day up to 6+ in an area so remote that proper roads don't exist within a 2-hour walk of the beginning of the trail...Both nights we stayed in treehouses that were approx. 150 meters off the ground, accessible only via zipline and surrounded by nothing but trees and gibbons. The second treehouse even had running water and a shower (completely open to the forest: talk about a view).

From there we moved on to Luang Prabang, Laos, a World Heritage Site that was a beautiful little town full of markets and monks and meandering...Then we left for Vang Vieng. VV is a backpacker's ghetto, designed specifically for amateur tourists that want nothing more than to travel around the world and get wasted. The main highlight there is to tube (think tubing the Guadalupe), stopping every 20 meters or so at the next bar to drink buckets of cheap liquor (mostly Lao Lao, the equivalent of moonshine) and trapeze off rope swings. Emily ended up with a bruise covering her entire right thigh as a result of landing incorrectly. Mind you, we had a great time, and had our fair share of happy shakes, but also managed to do some legitimate sightseeing (involving biking to some remote, monstrous caves and swimming holes)...We were so elated to get out, either way. We also visited an organic mulberry farm there, and had fried mulberry leaves with honey, mulberry mojitos and mulberry wine, and starfruit wine, which were all elements of a truly delectable meal. One of the best things about Laos is that there are maybe a total of 20 ATMs in the entire country...We went from there to Vientiane, the capital of Laos: we kayaked most of the way down, and took a songthaew for the remaining hour of the distance. After a crazy dance party on the shore of the (currently empty at that latitude) Mekong River, we left immediately for Hanoi. Getting to Hanoi involved being on a disco-lit bus for 24 hours and passing through a customs that had: no formal lines; people inexplicably disappearing with your passport; you crawling through a gate to the other side; a fog rolling in that obscured all of this completely inefficient nonsense.

More on Hanoi and Vietnam next.

Thailand (The Land of Smiles)

Highlights so far: eating ridiculously amazing street food all the time (and not getting sick), especially grilled bananas; being blessed by a monk at one of the holiest wats (temple) in Thailand; hiking through the woods to sit beside a few waterfalls; taking a bamboo raft trip (just Emily, Monika and I, plus the two men paddling the boat - no engine: really, ALL bamboo, in every manifestation of the plant you can imagine) for 2.5 days from Chiang Mai to Chaing Rai, during which we ate amazing meals cooked by our crew (including a full fish per person each night, barbecued on bamboo spits over a campfire), visited a few tribal villages, bathed in hot springs, and rode elephants (I sat in the driver's seat, on the elephant's head! and got punched in the stomach by an elephant's trunk!); riding on a bus that was probably built in the late 50's that seated about 30 people, but actually transported about twice that; hour-long massages that cost $5; happening upon some people farming (pulling shallots) in the fields, and randomly helping them farm for an hour or so, during which hilarious bouts of laughter ensued; and the amazing warmth and friendliness of Thai people...

Next stop, Laos and the Gibbons Experience.

Running Amok in San Francisco

I had a wonderful first visit to the city. Highlights: saw Olafur Eliasson's installation at the SFMoMA; had a picnic in glorious weather in Dolores Park (on the aptly-named "Hipster Hill"); drove up to Carmel Village (smaller and less touristy than Carmel proper), stopped at a few vineyards on the way, and ate a full-on gourmet dinner at the Cachagua General Store (complements of the catering company A Movable Feast) in front of a trailer park up in the mountains beyond Carmel, complete with lots of free, scrumptious wine from the neighbor's vineyard; almost got arrested on the Golden Gate Bridge helping a friend with an art project, and got written up in the SF Weekly (print and online) because of it: story (and video) here.

Coming to Terms with Personal Hypocrisy

That's right. I'm a raging hypocrite. All that frustration and furor I shot toward one-post, year-old blogs occupying my desired blog name (This Must Be the Place, Qualia, etc.) must now be redirected and rain down upon hypocritical little me: it's officially been 8 months and 11 days since my first and only post. I could quibber and stammer and proffer excuses regarding travel, new jobs, and the like, but there's really no justification. So, in an attempt to revitalize a barely-breathing blog, I'm going to post a few stories from my last extended travel and some other writings. And then, I'm really, really going to buckle down and write on a regular basis, exploring themes I initially introduced and whatever else makes me pick up the figurative pen. At least my current track record won't be hard to break.