Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bangkok Halloween

After searching out a symbol for Halloween, I eventually chose the above McPumpkins. I had considered going with something macabre, or something eerie, or something vaguely tropical; in the end, I went with something simple and nostalgic. As a child, the approach of Halloween was always heralded by a number of commercial events: the setting up of the masks and candy aisle at Walgreens, the appearance of Creamland Goblin Nog (actually just Egg Nog with a retro Halloween packaging) in the dairy section of Furr's Supermarket, and the arrival of the McPumpkin pails at McDonalds. So this simple watercolor of McBoo, McPunkin and McGoblin is my tribute to my childhood fondness for the 31st.

We've also been trying to recreate Halloween in the kitchen. We've cooked pumpkin in likely every dish possible: we've had pumpkin stir-fry, pumpkin shakes, and pumpkin soup; and, with the aid of our new oven, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin muffins (above), and delicious pumpkin bread. Despite our efforts at recreating the feeling of the holiday, I couldn't combat the sunny skies and tropical heat of Bangkok. This was not the season. In the end, I had to simply accept that I wasn't really going to get an Autumn Halloween here.

But Bangkok actually held a few surprises for me. After shopping on Thong Lor, Bordeaux and I decided to find coffee. We stopped in at After You Dessert Cafe, located in J-Avenue on Soi 15. There, among the unusual selection of desserts, we spotted this Halloween cobweb cupcake. I had it with a cup of warm spiced apple cider, which complemented it perfectly.

Over the past week, the nights have been slowly growing, swallowing the afternoon light earlier and earlier every day. Then this morning, we woke to an overcast sky, with a cool wind curving through our balcony kitchen. A soft drizzle was falling by the time I arrived at school. Bangkok had given me autumn just in time for Halloween.

So tonight, Bordeaux and I will settle in under early nightfall, enjoy some pumpkin pizza, have a pumpkin chocolate chip cookie or two, and watch a pirated Alfred Hithcock DVD that we picked up at Pattpong. I hope your Halloween is filled with as many unexpected turns as mine.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

In the shadow of Devil's Peak.

One of the things I loved most about living in Cape Town was how varied the landscape was. The city is stretched over an angular peninsular, broken apart and divided by hills and mountains, and pressed tightly against the sea. Within a relatively small area, the metropolitan landscape ranges from urban center to oceanside resort, from lush suburbs to tumbledown townships. The differences in terrain are only made more pronounced as the seasons change. In autumn, my neighborhood of Sea Point became gray and fairly dull, with listless colors dripping off moping shopfronts. Around Table Mountain at my university, it was rather more pleasant, with a misty blanket of fog that gathered above the treetops. Further around Devil's Peak however, autumn was displayed with incredible beauty and atmosphere; the suburban forest of orange and red leaves parting in spots to reveal the odd gable of a colonial manse, puffs of smoke curling from its chimney.

On a particularly beautiful day last autumn, Bordeaux and I followed the M-1 around the curve of Devil's Peak to Constantia. We drove in past thick white plaster gates, to Groot Constantia, an historic 17th Century wineyard and plantation home.

We wandered around the grounds, between empty wine cellars and small museum displays. We passed ducks playing in a fountain, workers tilling the earth, and locals at lunch among the winery's cafes. Toward the end of our visit, we strolled down between ruddy fields to the graveyard. The wrought-iron gate was hanging open, inviting us in. Before us, there were bone white tombstones standing askew on the leafy ground. Beyond the graveyard walls, dry tree branches bleed red leaves into the sky, and white fog grasped the fading afternoon light. It felt miles and centuries away from my Sea Point apartment.

Bangkok Snapshot: Legs up in Pattpong.

Pattpong is known mainly for it's burlesque shows, creepy Western men, and illicit tradings, but it was the sprawling sidewalk market that drew Bordeaux and I to the neighborhood. There, one can buy cheap t-shirts, tacky souvenirs, and a wide range of illegal DVDs. It can also be good place for some intriguing sights, like these bags of legs that Bordeaux spotted down a dank alley.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Wepener.

Writing about the color pink in a recent entry, I thought back to this pink gem of a hotel that Bordeaux and I encountered in South Africa's Free State. It looked as though at had been quite stylish back in the '70s, but I loved it in its current state of disrepair.

The Ethnographer's Messenger Bag.

The ethnographer lives in two worlds; he divides his time between academia, and life in the field. This valise, designed for me by Bordeaux, is versatile enough to fit both. The exterior is a serious brown suiting, while the interior reveals a bold exotic stripe. It's designed vertically, so that notebooks can be quickly grabbed from the divided interior. Though it has a stylishly thin silhouette, it's wide enough to hold my camera and a few choice paperback ethnographies. It even has a special slim pocket on the back, perfect for holding airplane tickets or folded maps. View more photos and read more about it at his blog.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bangkok Colors: Pink

Though I'm not generally a huge fan of pink, I chose it as the first color for my Bangkok Color series because it says so much about the city. Pink is the color of plastic ambition, of taxi traffic and neon fashion accessories. But it isn't all shallow: it's the color of faithful devotion, in bottles of Strawberry Fanta and pale lotus blooms left at spirit house altars.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bangkok Snapshot: Green Tea Table

Some of the more prosperous street-side stands have their own low tables, where patrons can uncomfortably sit while enjoying their tea. I loved the pattern on this one; it wouldn't go with my apartment, but I wish I could this as my coffee table.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Autumn Lay-over.

In Autumn of 2005, I spent 5 hours in Munich. I was passing through on a half-day layover between Los Angeles and Istanbul, and though I was unsure of whether or not I would have time to make into town and back, the helpful man at the airport's onward travel desk assured me I would. I took the train into the city, passing through a suburban forest of pale-yellow trees before arriving in town. I knew nothing of Munich, and had no guidebooks or maps, so I just wandered around the city center blindly. It was chilly out, but I enjoyed the day; I had just enough time to wander around the Marienplatz, buy a huge pretzel, and enjoy coffee at a stylish cafe before heading back to the airport.

Monday, October 22, 2007


As much as I love Bangkok, the gray skies and grimy streets can be a little wearying at times. And so it was with a sense of relief that Bordeaux and I found Agalico. Located off Sukhumvit on Soi 51, Agalico is an elegant English tea room, with a chic all-white interior, and a lush tropical garden. Though the interior was invitingly air-conditioned, Bordeaux and I ordered our tea for the garden. We were alone outside in the sticky morning heat, so we were perfectly able to enjoy the secluded ambiance of the secret garden. We spent a leisurely late-morning reading among the mossy statues and fountains, drinking vanilla tea and eating scones with jam and clotted cream.

Note: Relaxation for weekends only: Agalico is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 6 pm.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bangkok Snapshot: Thong Lo color.

Yesterday Bordeaux and I explored Thong Lo, an upscale Bangkok avenue featuring design stores, coffee shops, and numerous sois lined with boutique shops. I was on a search for color, and loved the combination of gold leaves and fallen pink petals through this aquamarine gate.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Curious finds at a Bangkok antique market.

Bangkok certainly has no shortage of markets. There is the Khlong Toei market, selling fresh fish, meat and produce; the Suan Lum night bazaar, offering hip t-shirts and generic souvenirs; the Chatuchak weekend market, selling practically every dry good imaginable; and countless smaller markets, selling cut flowers, sewing supplies, illegal DVDs, and knockoff Levi jeans. Last weekend, Bordeaux and I visited one of the strangest markets yet. We were headed out to Chatuchack, but rather than getting off at the station closest to the entrance, we disembarked early at Saphan Kwai. Along the sidewalks of Paholyothin Road between Saphan Kwai and Chatuchak are a string of vendor's stands. Antiques and Buddhist amulets were the main goods on offer, but there was also cheap clothing, vintage Thai movie posters, and funky retro furnishings.

There were a few very intriguing finds among the cluttered card tables and blankets. We very nearly bought a set of 6 retro blue mugs, but couldn't justify having to buy the entire set. Bordeaux tried on bizarre sunglasses, which were both to funky and too expensive. And while I was browsing among a table of antiques, Bordeaux picked up and began playing with a strange toy camera. I was shocked when I saw it- I had the same Fisher-Price camera when I was a kid! In fact, I had the exact tape that was in the camera- Disney's 'Lonely Ghosts'. By closing one eye and winding the red dial on the side, you can watch cartoons in choppy animation.

But the best find (and the only one I took home) was this rather unusual vintage postcard. I found it among a pile of antique photos and postcards. It is undated, but states that it was 'Made in Japan', and features the English caption: "Alligator Hunting." At best I can surmise that the image depicts an event that took place in Africa, and that they are actually hunting crocodiles. I loved the faded hues of the image, the romanticized African setting, and the strangely monstrous depiction of the crocodiles (I have a fondness for river monsters). I imagine it will look rather handsome framed, on a bookcase or in a study.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Autumn in the African Alps.

In the year and a half we've been dating, Bordeaux and I have lived on three continents, and traveled in almost ten countries together. This is a pattern we set very early in our relationship. In April of 2006, after knowing each other for less than a month, Bordeaux and I took our first international vacation together. Our school's autumn holidays overlapped, so we decided to take a road trip. We left Cape Town, crossed the winelands into the Karoo, spent an unsettling night in the Free State, and finally entered the ZA-locked country of Lesotho. Known in travel guides alternately as the Mountain Kingdom or the Switzerland of Africa, Lesotho is a ruggedly inspiring country of staggering summits and vast desolate spaces.

After spending a night at Thabo-Bosiu, near the capital, we departed for the lodge at Semonkong village. We drove for hours along a winding, pot-holed road, passing neither towns nor other drivers as we made our way higher and higher among the barren peaks. We continually questioned whether or not we were lost, and we wondered what would happen to us were the car to break down. We finally reached a high mountain pass (elevation: 2,600 meters), where a tiny hand-painted sign announced that we were approaching the tiny town of Semonkong. Despite being so isolated, Semonkong is actually a tourist destination, offering pony trekking and a tall-but-unspectacular waterfall. The town itself is pleasant: quiet, with an abandoned airport, simple houses, and miles of surrounding farmland. The lodge at Semonkong is set at a nicely wooded curve in the river, tucked between craggy red cliffs and towering trees. The highlight of our visit for me was the early peek at the African autumn. Though summer was still lingering in Cape Town, the season had already changed in Lesotho. The trees around the river were clad in gold, and a soggy carpet of fallen leaves was already settling on the ground. Bright, sunny mornings turned gray with afternoon rains, eventually darkening into damp, chilling nights.

Despite being beautiful, the lifestyle at Semonkong was a little rough, and the comforts few. We spent our days hiking, alternately admiring the rolling hills as we slogged through muddy fields, and seeking shelter from the rain. We'd return to the lodge for lazy afternoons; we had packed a coffee plunger, so we enjoyed long-life milk lattes as we read in the camp kitchen. After dark, we ate in the lodge's bar, sipping near-tasteless Maluti beer alongside the simple vegetarian dinners, which were made with Soya mince. The nights were freezing, and we struggled to stay warm in our tent. Considering how little we knew each other, the trip could have been a disaster. Thankfully, it only made us want more.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Incident at Organ Pipe.

On our roadtrip through the American West, Bordeaux and I spent one night in Organ Pipe National Park. It's in a desolate corner of southern Arizona, almost to the border with Mexico. After looking around, we set up camp, and prepared dinner as the sun rapidly disappeared. Once the light had receded over the surrounding hills, darkness enveloped us, and the air quickly grew cold. During the day, every inch of Organ Pipe had felt alive. But in the total darkness of night, with just the sound of kangaroo rats scratching over the sand, we could truly feel our isolation.

I've always found deserts to be beautiful. Part of what makes them so intriguing, however, is that they have an aura of the forbidding. Their barren appearance suggests loneliness, the landscape of the abandoned and forsaken. At night, they only get more eerie. Surrounded by the towering shadows of saguaro, it seemed the proper theatre for some old-fashioned spiritualist photography. We created our own ghosts, the camera becoming the instrument for a desert séance.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bangkok Snapshot: Pigeons at a Spirit House

Apparently displaced spirits aren't the only ones who enjoy finger bananas and red Fanta.

Sea Point After Dark.

"Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city's moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding.

"Our line of sight chooses an area of concentrated brightness and, focusing there, silently descends to it- a sea of neon colors. They call this place an "amusement district." [...] The district plays by its own rules at a time like this. The season is late autumn. No wind is blowing, but the air carries a chill. The date is just about to change."
-After Dark

I just finished reading Haruki Murakami's latest English-translated work, After Dark. It is perhaps his most subtle novel, yet one of his most engaging and unsettling. Set over the course of one night in Tokyo, it documents the passage of twilight hours by some of the cities nocturnal inhabitants: an antisocial young girl, the gruff manager of a love hotel, a battered Chinese prostitute, and others. Written from the perspective of a detached viewer, it explores the landscape of quiet spaces that they occupy: anonymous diners, empty parks, and seedy hotel rooms. The novel is marked less by the occurrence of momentous events, and more by a feeling of anticipation and unease, that grows as the hours of the night tick slowly by. It's a beautiful description of the way that the city changes, and changes its inhabitants, after dark.

The nighttime landscape described in After Dark reminds me of the world that I used to inhabit. Living in LA during college, I was almost wholly nocturnal. I'd stay up with friends on campus, go out to 24-hour diners, take night drives through the city, or just hang out watching tv in the student lounge or killing hours online in my dorm room. When I moved to Cape Town, my schedule had to change drastically. I didn't know anyone in the city, so there was no one to hang out with at night. I didn't have a car, so I was either confined to my neighborhood or forced to walk the streets alone at night. And I had neither a tv nor the internet, so when I was alone in my apartment, I was truly isolated.

Photography was one of the key means through which I adjusted to life in Cape Town. I could document the city in effort to understand it, to make it familiar and make it my own. I carried my camera everywhere, documenting the city as I grew to know it. While I photographed different neighborhoods of the city throughout the day, my nighttime photographs were taken almost exclusively of my immediate neighborhood, Sea Point. These images, some taken from the windows of my high-rise apartment and some taken while exploring the neighborhood on foot, show the transformation of the neighborhood after the sun set.

I had chosen to live in Sea Point primarily for the view of the ocean the apartment offered, and for the strange charm of the area. It's a neighborhood of high-rise apartments, set on a rocky shelf between Lion's Head and the foamy green waters of the Atlantic. It's an odd part of town, with traces of a glamorous ocean-side history that has long since faded. Once the sun has lowered beyond the sea, and the lights of the apartment hallways have stuttered on, Sea Point changes quite drastically. Prostitutes and rent-boys stroll the promenade, drug-dealers become a bit more open in their offers, the alleys become a little seedier. More subtly, spaces became a little quieter, a little more desolate.

With my camera, I attempted to take a role much like the uninvolved observer of Murakami's novel. I was an ethnographer of quietly passing crowds, a portrait photographer for shadows. Through photographs of darkened apartment blocks and glowing street lights, I attempted to document not just the changing light and look of the neighborhood, but to show the side of the city that can't be seen during the day.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bangkok Snapshot: Blurred Tuk-Tuk, Banglamphu.

This is a fairly commonplace image from Bangkok, taken in the neighborhood of Banglamphu. I was drawn to this wall for the contrast between the orderly windows and the chaotic paint job; it looked almost as though a child had gotten to the wall, and scrawled all over it with a set of crayons.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Bangkok Commuter's Bag.

Though most people complain about the labor of commuting in Bangkok, one of my favorite things about the city is that there are so many ways to get from here to there. There are buses and cabs, skytrains and subways, and boats and ferries plying the city's waterways. Last week, Bordeaux finished work on an impressive new messenger bag. He had designed it for use in his regular commute; in addition to pockets for his ipod and his phone, it has a special long pocket to hold the Bangkok Post. So in order to show it off on his blog, I took photos of him all around Bangkok, using it on the BTS skytrain, the MRT subway, and the Chao Phraya riverboats.

An Oktober treat at Bei Otto.

On a gray late-morning last week, Bordeaux, a friend and I headed down Sukhumvit Soi 20 to visit a favored coffeeshop. Unfortunately, as we approached it we noticed that the lights were off; at the door, we discovered that they don't open on weekdays until 3:00. As we stared through the locked doors into the darkened interior, it began to pour rain. We headed back up Soi 20 toward Sukhumvit, in search of a refuge where we might find some coffee. We finally came across Bei Otto, a strange little building designed to recreate the look of a German hamlet. Curious, we ducked inside.

Inside, we found a well stocked deli, with an array of cold meats, shelves of imported candies, and a lavish pastry counter. The waitstaff seemed oddly distracted, but we eventually managed to get a menu from one of them. The only breakfast offering was a 'German Breakfast', which is apparently a platter of eight or nine different slices of meat. While that wasn't too tempting, the pastries were. We ordered some coffee and each selected something from the counter. Given the wide range of baked goods, it was a tough choice; Bordeaux eventually selected a poppy roll, his friend chose a savory crossaint, and I picked an almond danish. We settled into a booth near a window, and watched as rain flooded the soi outside.

The pastry was actually quite amazing- perhaps even comparable to Cafe 1912. The pastry in my almond danish was nicely flaky yet soft inside, and topped with sweet gooey icing and an ample amount of crunchy almond slices. The atmosphere, however, was not comparable to Cafe 1912. While the deli itself is inviting enough, the seating area is a fairly bland side-room with three booths and several uncomfortable looking high tables. There were some odd suggestions of decoration, and frighteningly, some 'bread art' screwed into the wall (how long ago did they bake that bread hat?). So while I definitely recommend that you come in and browse the deli at Bei Otto, try some of their delicious pastry, and perhaps order a sandwich- I suggest you place your order to-go.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

An October love-note.

Last week I bought a set of watercolors at a small art store in Banglamphu. In college, I was always working on at least one art project, spending hours in the painting studio or the sculpture shop, or working on illustrations in the drawing room. I especially miss doing that around Autumn; I have great memories of taking a break from the studio, the smell of paint thinner clinging to my t-shirt, and crossing the lawn of dead leaves on the way to the campus cafe to get a coffee to refuel. While it would be impractical to work on any large scale oils during my time in Bangkok, water colors provide an art form more suitable for nomad living. I'd really like to do a watercolor for Halloween, to send out as cards to family and friends back home. I've never really worked with water colors though, so it's proving a bit of a challenge. My first effort, a deep green Thai pumpkin with pale yellow flesh, came out pretty muddy. By the time I'm able to paint something worth sending home, Halloween will likely have passed.

I can't imagine anything more likely to rekindle the feelings of Halloween than a little craft-time. My earliest memory of the season was of planning a Halloween party while in Kindergarten. My mother drove me out to a small stationary store on the other side of town, where I was to pick up supplies to make invitations. After a few diversions along the way, like admiring the changing leaves along the Rio Grande and stopping outside a farm to look at their Bison, we made it to the shop. In my memory it was a sweet little book and stationary store, but in reality it was probably in a strip mall. I selected several sheets of Mrs Grossman's stickers, featuring grinning jack-o-lanterns (like above) and tiny black bats.

While my taste might no longer run toward Mrs Grossman's, I still think sending some Halloween correspondence seems like a good way to inaugurate the season. I found the above card from EmptyGeorge at Etsy; I think it nicely combines some classic creepiness with a nice touch of style- and I like seeing something for Halloween that isn't just in orange. However, if you feel like making your own cards, it might be fun to get some colored paper and a few rubber stamps. The eerie stamp below comes from Alpha Stamps' website, which offers a number of Halloween designs, including a few inspired by Mexican artist Posada. If my watercolor skills don't improve soon, I may have to order one myself.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Street-side kitchens.

For lunch, Bordeaux and I were craving street-food. Thankfully, there are a number of stands crowded on the sidewalks and alleys around the school where we teach. Within ten yards of the school's gates, we'd found a delicious plate of fried rice. It was perfect in a satisfyingly greasy street-food way, and served with a wedge of lime that added a nice slightly tart note.

Watching the woman prepare the dish out on the sidewalk was of course part of the fun. I'm always impressed by the way these chefs set up their street-side kitchens. They need to have everything that they'll need with them, right on hand. Some of them have it easy; all the pancake makers need, for example, is a griddle and a plastic pitcher full of batter. But others, like the woman who made our fried-rice, have to devise far more complicated set ups. She needed a container for her steamed rice, a basket of eggs, a bowl of raw chicken, several plates of fresh vegetables, small dishes for chili powder and spices, a cutting board, and a few bottles of seasoning sauces, all within reach of her wok.

We walked down the street a little, feeling almost full, when we were tempted by the local samosa lady. She also had an interesting set up. She made two kind of samosas, savory or sweet, and next to her wok she had each of the ingredients in a separate bowl: mushrooms, cabbage, cashews, onions, and carrots. Not only is it an easy form of organization, but having all of the fresh, tasty ingredients on show acts as a great method of advertisement. I'd had a sweet samosa before, made with cashews and custard. Today we tried a savory one: it was served in a plastic bag, hot enough to burn my fingers, and with a white-pepper flavored filling that tasted like an American egg roll.