Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Istanbul or Cat-stantinople?

Bangkok cats

Alley cat - Bangkok
Like cats? Then it might be time to put Istanbul on your must-visit list if it isn’t already there. The new documentary film Kedi reveals that the city is full of street cats of all, er, stripes - charming, imperious, streetwise, affectionate, tough, shy, roguish…and all of them on the prowl for food. The camera often gets low to slink along with the felines as they easily negotiate the docks, crowded sidewalks, and subterranean levels of a bustling city that is losing prime urban cat habitat to development. This danger to the Istanbul’s long-standing cat population is part of the narrative, but doesn’t dominate the proceedings. The movie mainly focuses on a handful of specific cats as they make their appointed rounds, some confidently demanding entrance to, or striding into, businesses or residences they have co-opted as their own, while others patiently (well, sometimes) wait outside cafes to be served alongside the paying customers. Then there are the hunters and the expert pilferers (yes, cat burglars), whose stealth and acrobatics are so impressive that even their victims have to admire them.

Lazing in Lumpini Park (Bangkok)

Though the focus is on felines, Kedi is just as much an appreciation of the people who unconditionally feed and care for them, recording their generosity and philosophical musings about the nature of cats, humans’ relationships with them, and occasionally matters of a more spiritual nature. Certainly cats have served as saviors to some of those interviewed, though the film doesn’t reveal much about the interviewees (just who was that woman with the body modifications who spoke about her therapist?). Then again, it doesn’t have to - the filmmakers do an excellent job showing, not telling, the aspects of their personal stories that relate to the film. We might not know much about the people, but it is easy to instantly connect with them through their kindness and obvious affection for their charges. Remarkably, many of the people who don’t own cats (assuming “owning” a cat is ever possible) have their own veterinarians, and often a running tab.

Kyoto kitty
Istanbul and its vibrant sidewalk cafes play a vital supporting role throughout, with a compelling soundtrack, featuring pop songs dating back to the 1950s (including “Uska Dara” performed by Eartha Kitt - how appropriate to have Catwoman on the soundtrack!), helping to establish the city’s hip and exotic vibe. Often the camera soars up from the sidewalks, affording us beautiful bird’s-eye views of the venerable port city, which clearly retains its charms despite the inevitable march of modernization. That persistent rumbling undercurrent of threat to not only the cats’ way of life, but also potentially to that of the residents of the city, is disturbing, but Kedi is still ultimately an uplifting meditation on cats and the people who open their doors and hearts to them. If you’re like me, you’ll be left wanting nothing more than to repair to an Istanbul cafe for a leisurely session of drinking tea, watching passersby, and, of course, pampering the inevitable cat or three.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Caffeinate Your Holidays

Waking up at Kasem Island Resort (Thailand)

It was a long time coming, but I finally got hooked on coffee. I've always liked the taste, but now I've become attached to the ritual nature of it, the comforting aroma and that first hot sip that signals the official start of the day. Given the number of people walking around trying not to spill any of the latte clutched in one hand on the cell phone held in the other, I'm in good, or at least numerous, company. At least a gazillion people now drink coffee, which means that you or someone you know might appreciate the gift of coffee. So with the holidays fast approaching, I’ll let my other plans for posts, uh, percolate on the back burner, and instead write about a few great sources of coffee-based presents.

Recently I’ve started grinding my own coffee, which really has resulted in better-tasting brews. I often buy a bag of the Counter Culture  selection sold at Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Beaner Bar when I stop in for a spicy Mexican Mocha. Beaner has great drinks and food, as well as cool artwork (there's a different featured artist each month) and small gifts, so it’s a great stop for warming up and re-energizing.  

If I don’t stock up at Beaner, I’ll usually order one of the excellent offerings from 44 North Coffee, custom roasters located on a small Maine island. I’ve always received
I leave the designs to the experts...
prompt service and great coffees. Note: I’m decidedly not a coffee expert; I just know what I like. I’m currently drinking their Bolivia brew and loving it. For something quite different, try the Cascara, an intensely flavorful coffee cherry tea. It’s allegedly high in caffeine content, but I haven’t had a problem falling asleep after drinking it, though that probably says more about me than about the tea. For a look into the small company/shop check out this video. (Warning: it will make you want to immediately head for Maine or the nearest coffee pot.)

Coffee Labs Roasters in Tarrytown, NY has been a favorite for high-quality coffee drinks and baked goods, but I never purchased its beans until I picked up some at a local supermarket when my home supply ran out. The coffee, I think it was “Witches Brew,” was superb, so based on that and knowing how dedicated, knowledgeable, and nice the owners and staff are, I’d recommend the mail order as well. There’s also free shipping until the New Year with checkout code “holidayship," which is a nice incentive to take one of their coffees for a test brew.

Fresh-brewed coffee needs an appropriate delivery system, and what better way to inspire (or terrify) than with a Henry Rollins Search and Destroy mug? I don’t have one yet, but they are not only spiffy but also guaranteed to develop your grip strength! Ok, I made that last part up, but at 19oz, it is a formidable mug worthy of conquering the groggiest of mornings. Disclaimer: no matter how much coffee people drink from the mug, they still won’t be able to accomplish as much as the peripatetic Mr. Rollins. Occupants, his book of photographs (and commentary) taken in far off and often little-traveled places, such as North Korea, makes an interesting coffee table addition. I knew I could bring this back around to travel!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sew What?

During my last visit to Bangkok I discovered a rip in my shorts, thankfully before it became too embarrassing. I decided that rather than pull out my needle and thread and risk excessive blood loss, I would seek expert help. I didn't have to walk far: sidewalk seamstresses and seamsters are a common sight in the city, perched behind sewing machines and often working on a bagful of alterations while ready to take on quick-turnaround work.

The process, as illustrated below, was simple: walk to nearest or preferred tailor (there were at least 3 within 300 or so meters of my guesthouse on Phra-a-thit road in the area near Khao San road), hand over shorts, entertain artisan's children (or grandchildren) with a lively game of "push the skateboard," take some portraits of the kids, leave 5 minutes later after paying a dollar or two for a repair durable enough to withstand my daily regimen of walking, crouching to take photos, and eating way too much.

It might not have been a grand adventure, but the experience illustrated that one of the best things about Thailand is that even the most mundane of tasks can turn out to be unexpectedly entertaining.

After selecting matching thread, she was ready to get to work.

Luckily, he didn't ask me to ride it!

Giving a farewell "wai."

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Bangkok Protest Photos

On a recent visit to Thailand, I visited and took photos at an encampment of political protesters at Democracy Monument. (I’m not going to try to explain the politics behind the protests - suffice it to say that the last decade has been politically rocky, to say the least, for Thailand. Bangkok and other parts of the country have been racked by protests several times, with occasional outbreaks of violence leading to protesters and police being injured and killed.)

I decided to visit after speaking to a number of Bangkok residents, all of whom felt that there was little or no danger of any action breaking out. Indeed, the political unrest had been remarkably easy for visitors to avoid, to the extent that some tourists strolling through the site, which is a short walk from the popular Khao San Road area, had no idea what it was. (I visited a week before protest leaders put into action their announced plan to “shut down” Bangkok, which has made it more difficult for tourists to roam the city unaffected by the political turmoil.)

The peaceful encampment resembled a street fair as much as anything: souvenir and food vendors lined the blocked-off street, musical acts appeared as often as political speakers on the stage, and friendly volunteers doled out free food, coffee, and water from several “kitchens.” As with everywhere I’ve visited in Thailand, people were friendly, often pointing me toward the free food and water and enthusiastically posing for photographs.

I should point out that I’m not saying that it is (or was) safe to visit the protests - it’s important that visitors educate themselves about the constantly-changing situation and know when actions and counter-protests are planned. To date, 9 people have died during the demonstrations, which began in late fall; the situation has escalated with a recent daytime grenade attack on protesters.

To be safe, tourists should stay away from protests. If you are in Bangkok or planning to visit soon, this Bangkok blogger’s site may be helpful. I say "may" because I just found it so I'm not that familiar with it, but it seems reliable.

In case you missed the link above, click here for a slideshow I made from the photos I took at the protest site.  Note: I don’t claim to know the politics of anybody pictured. These photos just document a couple of days at and around Democracy Monument. (Music: “Put It On” by Bob Marley and the Wailers)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lazy Laos Sunday

Sunset on the Mekong River
Nothing much to do on a lazy Sunday in Vientiane except walk along the Mekong...not that there's anything wrong with that!

Fishing the muddy Mekong

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Better Late Than Never?

Time for soup!
Things I wish I had been told a little bit earlier:

"I've heard some of the roti vendors have TB."
"The long boots [you forgot to wear] are helpful because there are cobras."
"If you eat too many of those and you're not used to them, you can get food poisoning."
"The woman next to us just found a [mollusk] shell in her soup so I don't trust the water in our soups."
"It's the rainy season." Oh wait, I knew that one already.

 Sabai Sabai!

On the Western Ostrich

Great Smiles: Sanook in Khon Kaen
I was watching a vendor make my banana and egg roti, when the white couple walked up. It was a long holiday weekend, when the historic Wooden Bridge and Sangklaburi town itself were full of tourists, but these were the only farang (westerners) I had seen all morning.

From their accents, it was clear they were from the States. They stood next to me, occasionally exchanging a few words with each other, but never acknowledging my presence, which just seems weird to me.

It's certainly not the first time I've encountered this sort of thing - another westerner, perhaps the only other one in a remote town, will studiously examine the ground as we pass by each other on a narrow sidewalk - but it still bothers me. It's especially perplexing in Thailand where residents almost always return my smile with a warm expression of their own.

Maybe it's just the tourists' determination not to let anything familiar intrude upon their immersion in a foreign experience. An insistence that what they are doing is unique, despite evidence to the contrary. But it seems a bit rude, if not plain delusional, to not at least give the "Hey, you're riding a motorcycle too" nod that recognizes shared experience, especially
if you're standing next to each other at the same food cart.

Heck, I would have said hello to anyone in that situation. Maybe I'm a sap, or just more inclined to talk to others because I'm traveling alone, but we're all waiting together so why not be friendly, especially in a place that values friendliness and the concept of "sanook" (roughly: life should be fun). I've had great conversations with Thais and tourists alike while waiting for buses, food, flights, and most everything else a person finds himself waiting for.

So after a minute or two, I looked over at the couple, smiled, and asked, "So where you from?" "Ratchaburi," came the unexpected response. "Really," I wanted to say, "I could have sworn from your accents that you were from Chiang Mai." Instead, I made polite conversation, learning they were teachers who had lived in Thailand for less than two years and eagerly awaited their imminent return to the States. We chatted a bit until I got my roti and left.

Nothing earth-shattering or particularly memorable, but still pleasantly sociable. Was that so difficult?
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Gotta Gettaway by Josh Lewis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.