Monday, July 3, 2017

MotoLao (Flounder's stat version)

We decided to rent a motorbike to ride around Northern Laos. Sarah had been around the region on a motorbike that she bought a few years ago, but I’d never been to Laos. We had to choose between a 150cc road bike (with somewhat knobby tires) or a 250cc dual purpose (but much more expensive). On the map, the roads looked paved so we went for the cheaper one.

I'm glad Sarah made me turn around to get a photo in this spot

We left a bag at the guest house and loaded up. I had to buy more bungee cords to feel the luggage was more secure (I’ve had several break while riding). The trip out of town was fine, the first roads were well maintained and fairly straight. We stopped for lunch where Sarah ordered me soup (like Laotian pho), by just saying one food (no menu here!)

Good soup

Nong Khaiw, which is hard to capture
Two-thirds of the way to our first destination, Nong Khaiw, the roads got a bit worse—smaller, with potholes, and lots of curves. This was the still better than the roads for most of the next few days. There were so many ups and downs (285m to 1600m) and hairpin turns. Overall, we travelled over 800 kilometers, our best average speed over a longer stretch was probably like 50kph (30mph). Sometimes we were averaging more like 20-25kph. I had to yell “BUMP!” often so Sarah could prepare for a giant pothole. Our last day on the best roads, we went 260ish KM to make it back to Luang Prabang.

The roads were too curvy for bikes, much less tanker trucks!

The first day's bike ride.

Kids at one of our stops
Along the way we saw so many rivers, every river was surrounded by a village. It is also how people commute, bathe, and wash clothes. So many mountain tops, many of them also had villages. It seemed like every sort of animal we saw had babies: pigs, ducks, cows, chickens, water buffalo, dogs…humans 😊 Kids waving and yelling hello (or bye) is a common occurrence. Lots of adults did as well, which makes me feel more welcome than the kids because kids do it everywhere.

some of the many animals we encountered

Rice fields and villagers working them
There was a lot of slash and burn agriculture—corn, bananas, rice. The valley bottom rice paddies seem more sustainable to me, but people are trying to make a living. You can feel the presence of NGOs in many towns, they are newer houses (although the mix of houses probably has as much to do with ethnicity as money), schools, water sources besides the river.

One of our more memorable stops was on the Plain of Jars. Thousands upon thousands of Neolithic stone pots over many sites. No one is totally sure of the origins, but they are probably more than 2000 years old.

the biggest jar

plain of jars
The sad thing is that this area was the most bombed area in the most heavily bombed country (per capita). The US had 9 years of bombing runs, nearly 580,000 missions, every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day. This had to be terrifying and many fled the country or lived in caves. Almost one ton of bombs were dropped for every person in Laos at the time. Many of these bombs were cluster bombs that broke up into hundreds of bombies that are still found all over the country. Many people are injured and killed every day by these, including children who mistake the small bombs for toys. Farming and construction are especially dangerous enterprises.

Luckily, organizations like MAG (link) have been working on uxo (unexploded ordinance) removal for decades, clearing many areas. Please consider a donation to them if you can.
bombs and bomblets

The trip, minus side roads we also took 
Sarah's selfie with the bike

the roads will be straighter when this tunnel is complete (I assume it is a road tunnel)

Rain in the distance

Slash and burned landscape with bonus ant on the lens

Sunset over the rice paddies from one of our hotels

Friday, June 9, 2017

Should we get off the bike? The struggle to appreciate overwhelming beauty in Bagan.

By Sarah

My mission in Bagan was simple: find a good sunset spot. In an area with nearly 3,000 temples, surely I could find one that was high enough to see over the tree line, neighbored by interesting and varied temples, and remote enough that we wouldn’t have to fight to find a perch from which to watch the sun sink and the rusty orange of the surrounding structures glow.

Through force of habit, I did a quick google search. The same three temples were recommended over and over. Even some new friends we met by the pool of our hotel told us they found a great sunset spot, then proceeded to recommend the one listed prominently in Lonely Planet.

But I wanted a 360 view from a quiet temple. I imagine sitting on top, just Flounder and I, meditating in peace as the light faded and the air lost its sticky heat.

So we set out from our hotel at a reasonable time in the morning, for we are not sunrise people. “The only time I want to see the sunrise is if I’ve been up all night,” Flounder says.

Within a minute, we began to see temples of burnt orange on both sides of the road. Some were rounded at the base and pointy at the top like stupas (or, for Fairfielders, like the kalashes atop the domes), others were rectangular, or pentagonal. Some were carved and embellished, others were plain. Some were overgrown, with tree trunks and vines, and some were pristine.

I began pestering Flounder. “Pull over! I want to see if I can climb up that temple!”

He went with me the first few times. We were full of enthusiasm and awe. “Look at those ones over there!” we’d point, stop, and explore.

When I found a temple that might fit my criteria, I’d mark it on the map. ‘Possible sunset view?’ Then move on.

But soon even I tired as we passed hundreds of perfect, unique temples. Thus is sightseeing, the tragedy of being surrounded by the most fascinating places and noticing how quickly that fascination fades.

“Another example of fine craftmanship? A bridge to ancient cultures? The finest specimen of its kind? No, let’s not get off the bike, I can take a quick picture from here.”

And as the heat mounted, the energy to leave our little electronic bike, to poke my head into dark spaces and search for narrow staircases up to a sunset view, that energy faded. So we got lost a little. We navigated sandy paths, we startled scrawny, lithe squirrels and upset dozing birds trying to hide in the bushes from the midday heat.

Soon we came across horses pulling tourists in wooden carts and knew we must be near the “highlight” temples. We ducked into the large, cool structures and I noticed about as many pilgrims as tourists. The area of Bagan, a stop on every tourist itinerary in Myanmar, is also a profoundly important site for the many devout Buddhists in the country. So I covered my legs and shoulders, removed my shoes, and tried not to get in the way of the worshippers praying, circling the inner shrine, or paying to apply another square or two of gold leaf to the statues of Buddha.

In the afternoon, in the full heat of the hottest part of the day, I found The One. It had a 360 view, was relatively isolated, and had stairs big enough that Flounder wouldn’t need to crawl to get up them. It was perfect and I knew immediately.

So we went back to the hotel pool (side note: get a hotel with a pool. During the 36 degree afternoons, there was nothing better than to dip in and out of our pool, reading a book, and chatting with other travelers.) then rode back out in the cool of the late afternoon to The One.

We had the temple almost to ourselves; it was just us and a man selling paintings. But after we sat down to meditate, he started to pack up and soon it was just us and a panorama view of the temples big and small surrounding us, glowing softly in the setting sun. Their golden warmth was offset by the green of trees and fields and the white of stubborn cows being pushed by small laughing boys, heading to a home between temples built nearly a thousand years ago.

That’s the thing about sightseeing. It’s easy to become blasé about the most amazing things, to not even muster the energy to get off the bike. But then, sometimes, you find yourself with a person you love watching the sun setting over breathing history, and the beauty of it catches in your throat.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

At loose ends in Mandalay

By Sarah

“So how do we get from the airport to the city?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I think there’s a taxi or a share taxi?” Flounder answered, nonchalantly.

We were standing in the check in line at the Bangkok airport, about 90 minutes before our flight to Mandalay, Myanmar.

Beautiful teak monastery in Mandalay

How could he not know? And then because I have no filter, I asked him, “How could you not know? It’s your job to research these things!” I smiled cheekily.

“Yeah, I think I just don’t care as much. I know now that things will just work out.”

This was a shift. A shift from our early days of traveling together, when Flounder liked to plan every aspect of a trip—book every hotel, know where we were going and how to get there. But also a shift in the unassigned but assumed roles we’d fallen into in our relationship. He was the planner, the researcher. And I was the on-the-ground communicator. He did the work before the trip, I the work during.

Airports can be hectic, full of scams, and we were going to a new country.

But Mandalay’s airport was a surprise—calm, organized, plenty of agents. Our evisa was processed quickly, our customs form accepted immediately, and there was no one waiting for departing passengers, trying to usher us into their overpriced taxis. Instead, we took out money from the ATM, bought two sim cards (for a total of $3), and booked a seating in a waiting van that, for less than $4 apiece, would take us directly to our hotel.

Beehive boxes on the side of the road

The drive from the airport was lovely—about an hour through mango groves and green fields dotted with palm trees and pagodas.

It's mango season! Mangoes are everywhere

When we arrived at our hotel, the streets dark and unlit around us, I asked Flounder, “What do you want to do tomorrow?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

Neither of us had done the research.

I loved seeing spotting these symbols around town

So we did what we love to do. We rented bikes and rode around the city. We rode to the jetty on the shore of the Ayeyarwady river and asked about boats (none in the wet season). So we ignored the early hour and sat at a riverside beer station, Flounder drinking a breakfast draught while we both watched the kids splash in the water below and the women wash laundry and hang it from the ropes tying wooden boats to the shore.

Action on the Ayeyarwady River

Flounder enjoys a fresh beer and pets a friendly kitty. A perfect combo!

Taking a break from cycling in the heat

We rode on a teak bridge, struggled making left turns into relentless traffic of all speeds and sizes, saw monasteries and temples, searched for a buffet serving food from the Shan region of Myanmar, ignored the Thai imported durian and bought local instead, ducked inside when the afternoon rain started, rode along the moat and walls surrounding the royal palace, and chuckled at the antics of roly babies (so many children!), their faces covered in the soft thanaka paste so emblematic of the country.

Teak bridge

An overloaded cyclist (is there any other kind in Southeast Asia?)

There were many things that we didn’t do, and some things that perhaps we could have done with advance research. But we ended the day full, happy, and with a taste of Myanmar that left us excited for more.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Tentacles (Bangkok residency)

My studio space
Summer is my time for residencies and travel. This summer I had one in Bangkok. Sarah was in Thailand, but 4 hours away teaching a writing course (I’ll let her write about that if she wants). I hadn’t been back to Thailand since Sarah and my first 6 months together when I visited her in Thailand. I was excited to go again.

the gallery cafe/meeting area
My residency got moved at the last minute and I ended up at Tentacles Art Space, but there were several other residents so I was happy. Maybe I should explain what a residency is for those of you who are unfamiliar. It is basically time and space to just think about, research, and make artwork, free of other duties (such as teaching and service). It is an amazing gift to be able to do. I am lucky that this falls under professional development from my university as well!

gallery hopping
I was busy finalizing grading before I left for Bangkok so I hadn’t had much time to think about the trip. But I was picked up at the airport by two interns, Christine (American) and Boyd (Thai who studied in the US). These were the first of many helpful interns and gallery staff. Pretty quickly upon arriving there were two art happenings around the city which were nice, since the other residents and several gallery people went to each.

eating durian in Chinatown after TCDC opening
Two residents, Ajoon and Zefan, were there for a month before we arrived, they were both Indonesian. Kate is Korean American and arrived the day after I did. Kate and I did an internal presentation to kick things off and show people what we’d be working on.

found object
So, what was I working on? I brought my microscope to do some photo and video. I also brought my 3D scanner with the plans to make it mobile, but never did so it languished on my shelf the whole month. I collected items from an area of Bangkok that regularly floods. Basically, anything that I could find on the street that would fit in a small bag, I picked up and labeled. I also collected water from several places. Flooding is predicted to get worse in Bangkok as the climate changes and I was interested in looking at this through a scientific tool, but an artist’s mindset.

The residents and gallery staff took a fun fieldtrip to another town, Ratchaburi. We visited an amazing ceramics factory/artist space. We also toured a local museum. One of the highlights (besides good food and company) was these small local shops that had been part of an exhibition that was dispersed throughout the city. We visited a couple of interesting artists who had a great space for projects as well as running a graffiti mural project in town. It was a really interesting and fun day!
The ceramics factory and art space

Finally, I got to visit Sarah in Chanthaburi! We stayed in a cute hotel on the river. The next day we went to where she teaches so she could show me around. I’d only ever seen it in her photos. It was great seeing here after our longest separation since we moved in together almost 5 years ago!

Back with my love! (temporarily)

Basically Sarah's personal Durian tree

 Work progressed at the residency, although it was quieter with a couple of staff away and the residents doing their own thing. I started putting stuff under the microscope as well as trying many output experiments.

found plastic prayer flag under microscope
Polyurethane coating prints, epoxy resin was better!

Eventually Sarah joined me in Bangkok and we celebrated my 39th birthday! I’d met some fun video game design from France and we went to a board game café. We went to a lecture on Art and Science by TeZ, had some pampering (massages and my first pedicure), finally some drinks with the residents and staff (including a new one, Catherine from New Zealand).

my birthday (I don't know what the fuss is with pedicures)

experimental video

Then almost too soon, it was time to have an open studio and lecture to wrap things up. It went well. I am happy with my experiments. I don’t feel like anything was finalized, but I learned some new software, learned some new resins, and continued developing the microscopy work.

my open studio setup
So many thanks to all the people that helped me at the residency (hoping I don’t forget anyone or massacre anyone’s name): Bow, Henry, Pon, Noll, Anna, Katie, Shanita…and, of course, my department chair--Woodman and AUD for sending me!