Feb 032018
 

The joy of writing and receiving multipage handwritten letters is a lost pleasure. My letter output now is no better than the average 21st century yahoo, but I was a prodigious letter writer in the 1980s, while working in Asian animation studios to finance extensive travel. In the pre-internet & iPhone era, travel abroad might mean weeks with no real conversation in your own language, and getting a long letter from home was a lifeline to sanity. To pass time spent in airports, planes, buses, ferries and trains, I’d pen long letters to friends and family (often including illustrations of my adventures, photographs and travel bric-a-brac) and this investment reaped dividends when receiving letters from back home.

My childhood friend PETER was getting his degree in metallurgy in the mid 1980s but would reliably pause his studies to write me back, sometimes expressing frustration at being distracted by my missives from exotic locales, that sent his mind wandering to faraway places… I answered that we should pledge to meet when he’d finished his studies, and travel together.

And so we did.

Via letter writing to and fro in 1988, we hatched a plan to meet the following year in LIMA, PERU. I can’t remember who chose this meeting place (I suspect it was Peter) but my memory of the selection process was that it had to be somewhere ‘exotic‘ that we’d never been to before. I knew nothing about Peru (wasn’t Paddington Bear from there?) but it seemed fun to meet a childhood friend in a faraway place that we knew nothing about. 1989 being long before the days of internet search engines (for planning) and cellphones (for easy communication) we had to carefully arrange our meeting. From a travel guidebook we chose a budget hotel in central Lima where we’d meet on the appointed day. My experience with such books was that even the most recent edition was researched long before publishing, and could be out of date when you needed its info, so we had Plan-B, C, & D options, in case our chosen hotel was out of business when we arrived.

I’d enter Peru from North America, after backpacking (in Canada, USA and Mexico) and doing animation work (in Chicago) whereas Peter entered South America a few months earlier, to wander about Chile and Argentina. We were unaware that Peru had widespread civil unrest that year, and much of the country had been taken over by the SENDERO LUMINOSO (AKA the “Shining Path”). My first inkling of this particularly toxic Maoist guerrilla group came while getting immunised and looking into the specifics of entering Peru while in Los Angeles. The American State Department travel-hotline had a scary advisory (which can be summarised as “Bro! Don’t go!“) but by then I’d bought an airline ticket and Peter was incommunicado anyway, so I was soon on a VARIG flight from Los Angeles to Lima.

Arriving past midnight APRIL 13 1989, the other passengers grabbed their bags and quickly disappeared into the night. LIMA‘s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez was strangely quiet and understaffed, and when the driver of a hotel shuttle-bus assumed I was an American business traveler and waved me aboard I complied, not having any better idea for getting to the city. The hotel was probably the height of cool in 1941 but seemed a relic of the past in 1989, yet its prices were futuristic. My guidebook listed $2 or $3 dollars for hostel/guesthouses, whereas this beyond-its-prime establishment was over a hundred, meaning that I spent as much on that first night’s accommodation as for the subsequent 6 weeks. (My trip notebook shows all meals, accomodation, & transport in Peru & Bolivia – including a domestic flight – cost US$840). I opted to stay anyway, too shagged to find anything else at 1-2AM. The next day, I checked in to the cheap hotel chosen for the ‘rendezvous’, pinned a message for Peter on the lobby message board and looked around Lima till his arrival.

While eating in a nearby cafe, posters & calendars of Japan caught my eye, and I wondered if they perhaps identified the owner’s Japanese heritage. In 1989, my shitty Japanese was at its least shitty (having spent the previous year in Japan) and I enquired in craptacular Nihongo if the family running the cafe spoke any themselves. They didn’t (being 2nd or 3rd generation Peruvian) but soon presented an ancient patriarch from the back room who I communicated with in a pidgin of Japanese, my few Spanish words and his few English phrases. I ate exclusively in this family’s cafe for the next few days and regret that photos of these lovely people have not survived (as my camera and rolls of film were soon stolen).

On the appointed day (APRIL 15, 1989) I looked for Peter’s message on the hotel noticeboard. Although there was no message for me from him, someone named STUART had left me a note, explaining that Peter was delayed but on his way. Stuart had travelled with Peter in Argentina & Chile and having no plan thereafter was only too happy to meet me in Peru to pass on Peter’s message (such was the way of communication before email & mobile phones). I’m so glad that Stuart joined our reunion-party, as he and I are friends to this day.

When Peter arrived a few days later we three hit the road as quickly as possible, heading south on a night bus arriving early in NAZCA early next morning. Reading up on the area around Nazca now, there are many interesting archeological sites to see but in 1989 those excavations were not yet complete. Nazca was a flyblown little dustbowl and the only draw was the famous NAZCA LINES pictographs. Some can be seen from a tower erected near the road overlooking the desert, but we opted for a better view than can be seen from the cheap seats. The lines are best seen by plane (or spaceship, according to Erich Von Daniken) and through our hostel we arranged a driver to take us to the airfield. He showed up in a beat up old American 1950s car. 

We planned to fly over the lines that very morning, sleep during the day, catching another night bus out that same night.  At the tiny airstrip we climbed into a Piper Cub and flew over those huge cartoons etched into the desert. These lines were etched into a 280 square mile area of desert about 2000 years ago, depicting geometric patterns & animals by revealing a yellow layer of subsoil beneath the reddish surface. Virtually invisible from the ground, these mysterious cartoons were not properly studied until people had the ability to fly over them in the 1920s.

Upon landing, our driver wanted to show us something ‘interesting’ and drove us out across open desert to see a pile of human bones & hair in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by recently smashed potshards. A very unsettling sight.  The driver claimed that these were remains of ‘los Incas’ but 1989 guidebooks made no mention of any such site. We’d already heard stories of the SENDERO LUMINOSO ‘disappearing’ folks they didn’t like (small town mayors, police chiefs, and teachers mostly) so that’s where my fevered imagination immediately led, wondering if somebody sprinkled potshards over recent human remains simply to make it look more ‘archeologogical’. By the end of that trip though, we’d learned that in addition to bloodthirsty Maoist guerrillas, 1980s Peru had a problem with archeological theft, and recent reading makes me think that what we saw in 1989 was a legit archeological site that had been pillaged. Such grave remains were reassembled in the 1990s into a recreation of a traditional Nazca pit-style burial grounds, the CHAUCHILLA CEMETERY.

After the creepy bones, the driver drove us back to our hostel for our siesta, while telling us about a new archaeological dig being conducted by Italian archaeologists, unmentioned in any guidebook. The driver arranged to pick us up before sunset so we could have a look, and after our snooze the old car returned but driven by a replacement, as our original driver had taken sick. Directions to the dig site hadn’t been made clear to this new fellow, who was vague about where we were supposed to go, stopping frequently to ask questions of peasants gathering firewood. Finally, he drove us across the desert and gestured at some huge mounds that we scaled. With nothing much to see at the top except more dunes, we posed for a photograph against the backdrop of a sunset on the dunes (I can’t find this ‘album cover’ pic at present). Recent reading makes me think that the site was the CAHUACHI ARCHEOLOGICAL DIG which was excavated in the 1980s (an Italian-led dig too).

From atop the dunes we saw our driver frantically gesturing far below and figured our time was up. When we descended however, the driver was beside himself with fear. He’d been warned by a peasant who’d just wandered by that the Italian archaeologists had been beaten up and chased from their dig by none other than the SENDERO LUMINOSO that very day. Yikes. Our drive back to Nazca took much longer than the drive to the dig, because we were driving in the dark and the driver refused to use headlights, presumably to be less visible to murderous Maoists. He frequently stopped the car & listened carefully, giving every impression of a man in fear of his life. It’s hard to say if there was any truth to what he’d heard, but it was clear that he believed it and was scared shitless. I remember being grateful that this man, who obviously feared that bloodthirsty thugs might kill him for associating with lick-spittle running dog imperialist foreigners, nevertheless didn’t leave us stranded in the desert and flee to save his own skin. Even at this very early stage of the trip, Peru was feeling pretty stressful.

We caught our late night bus for the 9 hour trip to AREQUIPA. Having been told that the bus journey itself and our destination bus station were both hotbeds of pickpockets, we resolved to stay awake for the entire journey and watch each other’s bags. Arriving at Arequipa bus station very early in the morning, we hit the ground like a SWAT team, ignoring all the touts, tricks and traps that we’d heard about, making a beeline for the flophouse we’d chosen in advance. We hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep for 48 hours, combined with the stresses of the previous day, and were shattered with exhaustion when we finally checked into our hostel, found our room, and fell into our beds like stones. As we slept like corpses a cheeky sleazebag entered our room as we slept and..

..nicked my bag.

Each of us had distinctly different approaches to packing. One extreme was Stuart’s huge backpack, that contained more stuff than even such an enormous bag should possibly hold (like Mary Poppins, Stuart was always pulling supplies out of his magic bag). At the other extreme were my two tiny day backpacks; one (worn on my back) containing clothes and toiletries and the other (worn on my front) containing camera and sketchbooks. Peter was Goldilocks of our trio, with a backpack size in the middle. The contrast between my approach and Stuart’s became more pronounced as my two tiny bags were reduced to one by the theft of my camera/sketchbook bag. It was a sickening feeling to realise that I’d lost my beloved Nikon FG20 camera (which I’d taken across Asia and North America). Also lost were many rolls of exposed film, notebooks of my travels, addresses of people met on my journeys (never contacted again) and several travel sketchbooks. The thieves were definitely elated to snaffle a camera, but these personal treasures were undoubtedly tossed in the trash, even though they were to me the most valuable loss by far. Locking hostel doors had not yet become second nature, but certainly became a habit thereafter.

Thankfully, this devastating theft didn’t render me utterly destitute. In those bygone days when you couldn’t rely on foreign ATMs to spit out cash on command, globe trotters had to carry cash and/or travellers cheques everywhere they went. Having been away from home for 3 years in 1989, I had travellers cheques and US dollars stashed throughout my luggage and secreted in various places upon my still-scrawny person, and in baggage left with friends in other cities, lest I lose it all in just such a calamity. The failsafe, the redoubt, The Keep if all else were lost, was an emergency stash in the lining of my shoes, which survived the attentions of Peruvian pick pockets (perhaps camouflaged by the odiousness of my socks). Peter was my Spanish interpreter, escorting my pouty & glowering self to enquire into theft restitution at the police station.

The fact that stereotypes and cultural cliches are to be avoided in fiction, doesn’t mean that living breathing cliches can’t be encountered in real life, an example being the cartoonish cop at Arequipa police station. With ornately tooled cowboy boots propped nonchalantly on his desk, his uniform a mosaic of braid & medals, broad grin revealing a golden tooth, mirrored sunglasses and high crested fascistic cap favoured by South American police, he gave me an expressive ‘there’s nothing we can do senor‘ shrug – like Peter Sellers playing a tin pot South American cop in a 1960s comedy, instead of the 1980s real article. He advised me to visit the BLACK MARKET where I might find my camera and buy it back. I was aghast at this casually amused pragmatism (though I must admit it was handy info).

One of the highlights of the Arequipa region is the COLCA CANYON which we duly visited. Sadly, I barely have any memories of this magnificent place as I was glowering about the theft of my camera, sketchbooks and journals. As Peter & Stu snapped photos of majestic condors whirling within one of the deepest canyons in the world, I stewed in my own thoughts, and I’m amazed that I have barely any memory of the stunning vistas I was standing in that day. My one takeaway from that trip to one of the most magnificent sites in the world was that if Peru was going to serve up such sites, I’d definitely need to replace my camera.. Back in Arequipa, I had no luck in finding my camera at the Black Market, so bought a replacement at a nearby camera store. The name & address written on the strap, hinted that this replacement was probably stolen too (I later sent a letter to a SWISS address but I never heard back). I own that camera to this day; a NIKON FM2. These photos of Arequipa’s SANTA CATALINA CONVENT are the first pictures I ever took with it:

In a cafe in Arequipa’s Plaza De Armas, we met two ex-military Israelis who’d recently lost almost all their bags in a distract-snatch-and-dash. In an attempt to lure and trap their thief, they later filled their remaining backpack with rocks and left it in the plaza as bait. Several thieves snatched the bag, but were slowed by its unexpected weight.. allowing the Israelis to catch up and unload a whirlwind of Krav Marga, translating their frustration into a world of hurt for the bag-snatchers. Though never finding the ratero who had taken their stuff, the Israelis explained that bashing the bone-marrow out of random thieves was therapeutic nonetheless. Hearing such street-wise guys were also taken in by thieves made me feel less stupid. 

After flying in to our next destination of CUZCO I was light headed; ‘Oh yeah, high altitude sickness is a real thing‘. We spent a few days getting used to the 3,400 metre altitude (11,200 feet) certainly the highest I’d yet been to. Cuzco was the historical capital of the Inca empire, the gateway to many Inca ruins and an interesting city itself, with architecture a combination of original Incan buildings overlaid with Spanish colonial architecture from the early 16th century. The Spanish had the good luck to invade just as an Incan Civil War was underway, and were thus able to divide and conquer relatively easily. Cuzco Cathedral is half Inca stonework (the temple of Kiswarkancha) with Spanish trimmings, and the altar too is a Inca/Spanish hybrid; pilfered Inca silver reworked into a priceless altar piece (‘pilfering’ is a common theme in many of my memories of Peru.)

When altitude no longer gave us headaches or shortness of breath, we took buses onward to several Inca ruins. Those at PISAQ had spectacular views out across the valley, as an American hippie guy wandered through the ruins doing mystical mumbo jumbo with a water divining rod. From Pisaq village we rode another ‘bus’, which turned out to be the back of a flatbed truck. Standing crowded into this jalopy like a herd of llamas taken to market, a nearby peasant stared at me intently, as if to say; ‘I have to be here, but why the hell are YOU here, gringo?’ After a bouncy ‘bus’ ride, we stayed overnight at URABAMBA and ate at a cafe run by a small family where the wife was Inca and the husband was Peruvian-Japanese. They had two cheeky little girls who kept calling us ‘gringo’ throughout dinner, to much hilarity from the girls, chiding from Mum & Dad, and laughter from us.

After an early breakfast with them next morning we caught another ‘back of the ute express’ to the ruins of OLLANTAYTAMBO, and we had our lunch amongst fantastic examples of the distinctive intricate Incan stonework.

Next, we connected to the train to AGUAS CALIENTES; a distinctive little village, in that its main street is actually the railway, with restaurants and cafes opening directly onto the tracks (as far as I could tell, the only way to access this town was by rail). After staying at the night, we rose before sunrise to hike up to MACHU PICCHU and be there when it opened at 6AM. Our pre-dawn walk up that hill was where I saw my first humming bird, which seemed an otherworldly fairy to me; a magical bejewelled creature flitting through the jungle. On entering Machu Picchu, we had the place to ourselves for a few serene hours. 

Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is one of the few tourist destinations I’ve visited that was much better than any photograph can convey. The weather and lighting constantly changes; one minute mysterious & misty, and brilliantly sunlit the next. The 360° experience of the place defies capture within the borders of any picture. We were very lucky to have seen Machu Picchu that particular year. Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s been there since describes it as inundated with tourists, but even at its busiest in 1989, Machu Picchu wasn’t busy at all (thanks perhaps to the bad PR of the Sendero Luminoso) and remote areas of the site were empty. 

A gruelling hike up Huayna Picchu allowed us to look back down on the entire site; it was was spectacular and completely empty, but for a few llamas munching the grass. After a full day exploring this wonderful place, we walked back down the winding path to dinner by the tracks at Aqua Calientes, and to write and post letters.

In 1989 it was still possible to ride a local train all the way back to Cuzco, which we did the next day. In many of my travel adventures I rode trains, and I regret not taking more photos of those wonderful old machines, the engine and smokestacks of steam trains I rode in particular (in Burma and China). When looking through my old photographs I’m aghast at what I’ve no record of, but in those days of analog photography I had to be frugal, often down to the last few exposures on a roll of film. Replacements were not readily available in remote areas, so I had to be choosy. But I did get a few shots of riding the trains in Peru.

Back in Cuzco, I bought an exercise book for notes and scribbles (the sketches were all work related, sadly) but some notes survive:

notebook entry, May 2nd 1989 – Cuzco Peru:
“The start of a new diary as my last one, along with my camera, was stolen two weeks ago from my hostel room in Arequipa while I was sleeping. I’ve more or less replaced the camera already with an (obviously stolen) Nikon I bought at a camera store two days after the theft. The diary will be harder to replace of course. I’ve seen the highlights sites of Peru with Peter and his friend Stuart. All we’ve got left is to visit Lake Titicaca and then head on to La Paz in Bolivia”

On a 6 hour bus trip to lake Titicaca, I sat next to a very cute child that reeked like a very smelly llama. Mind you, I was no fragrant rose myself at the time. In a region where water was still carried to your basin, a bath was the last thing you’d waste it on. Thankfully, this funk was offset by something refreshing; as the bus jounced up winding dirt roads fragrant eucalyptus forests reminded me of Australia. These trees, native to my homeland, were planted in the early 20th century in arid regions of North and South America. Growing well in dry soil, they stabilise it from erosion and flourish in the conditions of the Peruvian altiplano. Recently there have been efforts to replace the eucalyptus forests with native trees, but in 1989 there were still many such forests near Lake Titicaca, and the smell of gum trees brought on a wave of nostalgia for a certain Australia who’d not been home for 3 years. 

In PUNO we met a big Kiwi bloke & his girlfriend, anxious because he’d been bitten by what might’ve been a rabid dog, and the local clinic didn’t have specialised needles for the procedure. Stuart dived into his bottomless blue Tardis (cloaked as a blue backpack) and pulled out a full set of rabies needles. Stuart really outdid himself that day! The Kiwi scurried off to begin his course of injections. Later, we 3 were in a restaurant eating our regular of  ‘pollo con arroz & Inca Cola‘ when a gaggle of happy kids walked by outside. They noticed 3 gringos, and reflexively went into an elaborate pantomime of abject misery, asking for money. We’d seen such zombie beggar performances before all across Peru, often prompted by the kids’ own parents, but this time the theatricality of the routine was so plain that we called the kids on the artifice. They gave some “you got me” shrugs, laughed, and went back to being natural kids again..

From Puno we rode a boat across LAKE TITICACA, stopping briefly at one of the famous ‘reed islands’, a huge raft woven from reeds and caked dirt. It seemed a very grim existence to live there. The children were all beggars hassling for sweets and pencils. Our eventual destination though was AMANTANI, a beautiful island with no electricity, plumbing, or tourist amenities of any kind. Local families came down to the little jetty to offer accomodation to travellers in their own homes.

notebook entry, May 6th 1989 – Amantani, Peru:
Stuart Peter and I just arrived on this (Amantani) island about an hour ago after a 4 hour boat ride across the lake from Puno. The altitude (12,000 feet) means that the sky is deep blue and the atmosphere is clear, almost to the point of suggesting that there is no atmosphere at all. Upon arrival we arranged to stay in two separate homesteads. Peter and I in one, and Stuart in the other. The place we are in is probably little different to a peasant cottage of Middle Ages Europe. This island seems untouched by the rampant begging that one can see in frequented areas of Peru.”

On Amantani people had a weather beaten look, and even young children often had noticeably old looking hands. I took this to be the effects of the strong sun at high altitude and a life spent working out of doors. We stayed in a little stone farmhouse with a young family, and the courtyard was teeming with guinea pigs scurrying this way and that. How cute! As we were taken to our room I heard a distant SQUEE! and soon our hosts served a dinner of something scrawny; ‘Ah, Guinea Pig! Magnifique!‘ (it had about as much meat on it as a baby’s hand). Après pig, Peter and I went out on the roof, only to witness the most beautiful night sky I’ve ever seen. The view of the Milky Way is much more spectacular in the Southern Sky but is utterly magnificent when seen from 12,000 feet in an area with no pollution & no electricity (and thus zero light pollution). I’ll remember that sight for the rest of my life.

Back in Puno, we met the Kiwi (rescued earlier by Stuart’s needles) and a likeable scrappy Aussie, and all traded travel tales over a meal. I have many memories of such conversations while travelling, where people shared personal disasters to comedic effect. The Kiwi told a cringe-ably hilarious story of being mugged by caca on Titicaca; diarrhoea on his own trip across the lake. Oh no… The boat was merely a big dinghy and had no ammenities. With no choice but to hang his huge white arse over the side, he was given a bucket by the captain to uses as a loo. This added an amplified WAH WAH acoustical effect to an already mortifying predicament, much to the horror of a captive audience of locals also riding the boat (and the hilarity of us listening later). I commiserated with my own similar terror toilet tale. We all traded Peru ripoff horror stories, and again, I remember thinking that if so many others had been ripped off too, then perhaps I was in good company.

At COPACABANA we crossed the border into BOLIVIA, and onward to LA PAZ. In 1989, Bolivia was so much more relaxed than Peru. A multilingual Canadian at our hostel (who’d traveled repeatedly to the region) said the reverse was true just a few years prior, when Bolivia had been tense and Peru had been easy going. When reading about La Paz today, it seems to be crime-ridden again, so perhaps it has taken its traditional position ahead of Peru in the pick-pocket pecking order. For many years I had a few trinkets I bought at the Witches Market in La Paz, from a charming old lady. I’ve lost them now sadly (whatever they were they were, they clearly weren’t LOSS charms).

The ‘witches’ market’ in La Paz.

notebook entry, 16th May 1989 – La Paz, Bolivia:
“I have had my first ever game of golf at the highest golf course in the world here in La Paz; 9 over par on just about every hole. Another sport I can add to the long list of games that I don’t particularly enjoy. Stuart has gone back to England, in fact he’s probably just about touching down now as I write.. as we head off to Cochabamba. Today we went up to 4,800 meters (15,700 feet) to visit a beautiful ice cave. We shared a taxi cab out there with a few English people, a Scots lady & her Spanish boyfriend. “

My first ever game of golf, at the highest course in the world.

The US$/Peruvian INTI exchange rate almost doubled to our advantage while in Peru, so the free-falling economy wasn’t all bad news (says the foreign carpet bagger). Before his departure, Stuart bought an obscene amount of almost worthless devalued INTIS, to use as business cards when he got home to the UK.

The ice cave visited outside La Paz is a non event now, melted due to global warming. I cannot remember the name of that cave, so I can’t be totally sure, but it appears that you must go much further and mount quite a strenuous hike these days to see such a sight, whereas in 1989, a bloke was able to drive us practically all the way there, and it was only a brief hike from the road. Next, was a 7 hour bus ride to COCHABAMBA.

notebook entry, 18th may 1989 – Cochabamba Bolivia:
“Sitting in a kind of cake shop in the (Cochabamba) town square. Caught a bus ride from La Paz day before yesterday, an overnight trip of about 7 hours that arrived at about 4 in the morning. The bus station area was very busy until daybreak with buses arriving and unloading the huge high stacked piles of luggage from atop their roof racks. Peter and I ate at a street stall table till daylight. It reminded me of a similar stall I spent a few minutes at while changing buses in Dali, in China; a blue black sky and a full clear moon and the little halfway village ringed with mountains, (and in the similar memory) old Chinese people doing Tai Chi in the streets already hustling and bustling a 4 or 5 in the morning.”

After a brief visit to Cochabamba, Peter & I went back to La Paz briefly, before heading back to Peru. La Paz back to Lima was done in two MEGA BUS TRIPS. Firstly, La Paz-Puno-Arequipa, a route with particularly steep and windy roads. One time it was Pete’s turn to act as luggage-guard in the aisle seat as I slept. I awoke with my head against the window to an utterly heart stopping view out my side of the bus; a precipitous sheer drop, falling away thousands of feet from the road as the bus wobbled along a windy mountain trail. Peru’s winding hillside roads were frequently dotted with little crucifixes, each representing a traffic accident, and it was a sobering thought that each of those crucifixes thus represented about 60 people, if each bus was as crowded as the one we rode in.

La Paz, Bolivia.

After a night in Arequipa beat kinks from our spines, yet another MEGA BUS TRIP took us all the way back to Lima. Having had experience with the dodginess of Peruvian bus travel in general, and Arequipa in particular, we decided not to budge from our seats on this last marathon bus ride. If one of us went to the loo or buy snacks at a rest stop, the other guarded the bags. This worked well for the first 15 hours of the gruelling 16 hour trip, but was thwarted when the bus driver kicked us off the bus, just outside of Lima. We made a fuss but he shooed us off anyway. Grabbing our luggage, we grudgingly got off and had a proper sit down meal together. When the signal came to re-board, Pete went to the loo in the restaurant and I was the first at the door when the driver unlocked the bus. As I took my assigned seat there was already a dude already sitting behind me, which struck me me as weird, but I didn’t think too much about it at the time. Peter rejoined the bus from his potty stop, the bus filled up with the rest of the passengers, and we were on our way again.

Not far from Lima, the bus went through a security checkpoint. A posse of soldiers came aboard, bristling with weaponry, checked IDs, searched here and there, then got off and waved us on. About 10 minutes further down the road to Lima, the bus inexplicably stopped again, out in the desert near a few cars parked by the side of the road. I felt a weird sensation under my arse; “What the?” and turned to see two shady characters behind us, pulling about 8 bags of coke (or heroin, or god knows what) from slits under our seat cushions, flashing we two gringo patsies shit-eating grins as they left the bus… It was a sobering moment when we realised what had just gone down, and what would have happened had the soldiers found the illicit stuff, whatever it was, under our seats. The bus driver must have been ‘persuaded’ by these goons to vacate the bus, giving them time to plant whatever they didn’t want the soldiers to see. Out of 60 seats, they’d chosen the two young gringos as fall guys. I was fed up with such nonstop shady shenanigans, and was looking forward to getting the fuck out of Peru by this point.

Lenticular Norwegian Jesus birthday card bought in Cuzco, Peru.

notebook entry, 28th May 1989 – Lima Peru:
“Other than the possibility of having been the unwitting accomplices to drug smuggling operation, the trip from AREQUIPA to Lima by bus went smoothly. Hopefully only a few days away from departure to LA. At present I’m wait listed for next Tuesday evening’s flight. Hopefully by Monday I’ll get onto the reservation list.”

In a neighbourhood out by the beach (that could have been LA if you squinted your eyes) we visited Lima’s MUSEO de ANTROPOLOGIA. It was meaningful to see its archeological artefacts after visiting the sites where they’d actually come from. Display after display mentioned the by-now common theme of theft, with a new angle; foreigners (sometimes galleries & museums) stealing priceless artefacts from Peru. Not long after this trip, perhaps sometime in 1990, I saw one of the INDIANA JONES sequels. The famous adventurer archeologist struck me as a monumental dick this time around, as he galavanted about the 3rd world nicking cool shit from the various peoples of remote planet Earth. That fact was completely lost on me the first time, when I enjoyed Indy’s derring-do along with everyone else, so this understanding of the ramifications of his actions was something acquired on this Peru/Bolivia trip.

Not long before we left Peru, I was helping Peter take a long exposure nighttime photo of Lima’s Government Palace, not far from our hostel. As we hunkered down and fussed about with cameras and tripods, our equipment drew the attention of jumpy palace security guards, armed to the teeth as usual. It was startling to be engrossed in something so mundane as setting up a tripod to take a photo, only to be eyeball-to-muzzle with machine guns wielded by grim-faced, leathernecks with eager imaginations..

Presidential Palace, Lima.

notebook entry, 30th May 1989 – Lima Peru:
“Sitting in the Japanese cafe across from the hostel. These are some of the friendliest people I’ve met in Peru. It’s quite a laugh communicating in a mix of Japanese and Spanish. I first met them 6 weeks ago, on my first or second evening in Lima. Just saw Peter off on his bus to Ecuador, it turned out to be an enjoyable trip. My flight leaves tonight. Judging from the number of entries in here about my flight, it’s easy to see that I’m keen to leave this country!”

I had envied Stuart’s beautiful Fedora, and decided to splurge on one of my own in my last few days in Lima. I arranged a ride to the airport via a connection at the hostel, for a very late departure, at around 1AM. My passport departure stamp says; MAY 31 1989, arriving in Los Angeles around lunch o’clock.

—————————

I soon forgot that Fedora on a Greyhound bus. I bought myself a lovely hat a few times in my travels, but lost them  very soon after (the first hat was bought in Korea and lost in China, the second hat was bought in Peru and lost somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco). I can keep a crummy $5 ball cap for 15 years, but will probably lose a lovely Fedora within a week.

Mostly I went travelling by myself. I’d meet people along the way, travel side-by-side for a day or a week, but inevitably separated ways. The trip to Peru & Bolivia was the only time I traveled the length and breadth of a country with companions, and I’m glad of that, because traveling through Peru in 1989 on my own wouldn’t have been enjoyable. It was a very tense time, with politics topsy turvy and the economy in free fall. My trip to Peru at times harrowing, and the fondness I have for the adventure is because I did it in the company of two fine friends, one had since childhood and the other made on this trip.

Jun 202017
 

The Japan Rail Pass was grossly expensive to someone used to meagre 1980s Australian animation wages but I forked over my hard earned cash anyway, for a chance to explore the length and breadth of a country I’d long wanted to see.

Only available for purchase outside Japan, The JR Pass is valid on ferries and trains (even snazzy Shinkansen ‘bullet trains’) for up to 21 days. In 1986 it was almost as expensive as an air ticket to Asia, and was an exorbitance for a 22 year old who barely payed his rent, but its bargain-value was proven upon seeing crazy Japanese prices. While thoroughly exploring Tokyo I hatched a travel-plan; head north on the main island of Honshu, catch the last snows of Winter up in Hokkaido, travel back down Honshu to the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, and end my grand tour in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto.

However, when trying to validate my JR Pass at Tokyo Station I learned it was invalid with the type of visa in my passport, and could only be refunded outside Japan at the office where I’d bought it. Thoroughly deflated I sulked around Tokyo while deciding what to do. I could no longer afford the itinerary I’d set my heart on, tried to find work (without any luck) and considered heading to Korea or China instead. An enterprising traveller at my guesthouse urged me not to give up on the JR Pass, reasoning that its rules might not be common knowledge. The officious bureaucrats in the JR main office knew them in detail, but somebody in another station might not. Sure enough, I eventually found an employee who saw a ‘foreigner rail pass’ held by a foreigner, and cheerfully stamped my JR Pass without checking my visa status. BINGO! With a start-date of March 6th, 1987 I had 3 weeks to see as much of Japan as I could.

Leaving Tokyo, with my JR Pass and a small bag (containing clothes, camera, guidebook, rail-timetable, & sketchbook) a map of Japanese Youth Hostels was my second most useful possession. These days I can book accommodation anywhere in the world from my cellphone, but in the pre-internet age it was daunting to find lodging in countries where you couldn’t speak (or even read) the language. The Youth Hostels Association provides a network of budget accommodation, and in 1980s Japan it was extensive. Typically, bathing was in the Japanese communal style and beds were in dormitories, giving you a modular posse of like-minded travellers if you wanted it. Breakfasts were usually a raw egg in a bowl of rice and seaweed to wrap it in, a strange concoction initially, that eventually I looked forward to. My first stop was Nikko, to see the Tosho-gu shrine (burial place of  the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate) and countless other shrines and temples in a beautiful mountain setting. In subsequent visits to Japan I came to realise that I’d not seen Nikko at its best that first time (my favourite season is Autumn) even so, I was floored by the beauty of the place and the wealth of things to see.

This trip was where my enthusiasm for travel began, kicking off a several-year period where I lived out of a bag and put many miles under my feet. However, I was a meandering traveller and rather lazy about it at times. That was soon to change, due to the influence of a local dynamo:

JOURNAL ENTRY, MARCH 7, SENDAI: “The blistering pace in which I have surged up and away from Tokyo is in part due to the itinerary of a diminutive local known, to me as Matsunaga-san that I have been travelling with since Nikko, where we met in the youth hostel. His idea of travel is to zip from one site and onto the next. The best example of this happened this morning when we arrived at the railway station with half an hour to go until the next train. We jumped into a taxi and sped to the very next town to a museum. He said “please hurry we must leave Museum at 11 AM for train!” It was 10:52. Slightly disgusted but amused also, I declined to shell out (money) to blast through what was potentially an interesting museum in eight minutes. Rather, I waited outside and took photographs. He emerged breathless and hurrisome as ever, and our waiting taxi driver sped us back to the train station where we just caught our train. Once again we zipped to another site, This time a Castle, (Aizu Wakamatsu) with barely enough time to pause and take a photo.”

I recently found a bag of maps, tickets and tourist pamphlets from 1987, including my youth hostel cards. Each hostel in Japan recorded a stay with distinctive stamps, with rewards if you collected enough. Perhaps Matsunaga-san was obsessed with these, or maybe he was simply one of those goal-focussed types.

JOURNAL ENTRY: “While in a temple I may become distracted by an old lady sweeping the stones, or a photography session going on by the gates. Matsunaga-san is hopping from leg to leg with impatience while I stand to observe these things. Thankfully I have not tried to sketch anything yet; that would certainly cut into his schedule.”

My tendency to dawdle, or sit in a coffee shop and look out the window was automatically corrected by the 21 day time limit of the JR Pass. Sloth was already being mauled by frugality without the extra bustlings of Matsunaga-san, and we amicably parted at Matsushima. Supposedly one of the ‘3 great views of Japan‘ back in the days of Basho, and by 1987 it had clearly been a tourism mecca for quite a while. After checking out the great view, you’d turn 180° for the great view of the crowds looking at the great view, and beyond them the great view of the shops selling views of the other view. This was perhaps my first trip where I reflected on the absurdity of being a tourist who was annoyed by the ravages of tourism. Something about seeing a place changes that place itself (quantum tourism mechanics) and in Japan, where there are so many people doing the seeing, such realisations are quickly brought into focus. Celebrating my freedom from the hectic scheduling of Matsunaga-san, I luxuriated in a daylong walk along The Bay of Matsushima, famously dotted by hundreds of tiny islands.

24 years later these islands shielded Matsushima from the full force of the 2011 tsunami, and places heard in the news leapt from memory as towns I’d stayed in long ago, including wave-pounded Ishinomaki. Nearby Onagawa was devastated by quirks of its geography when a funneled inlet amplified the tsunami’s force and 10% of its citizens were washed away. This fishing village (where I long ago transferred from train to bus) became a site of tragic heroism when Mitsuru Sato, the manager of a fish canning plant, rescued all his trainees but was swept away himself. I remember an early morning bus ride, winding through rainy valleys and past misty factories, strangely beautiful the way such places can sometimes be. That looming industrial shadow may have been heroic Mitsuru Sato’s factory, but internet maps reveal another candidate; the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant. Though much closer to the epicentre than the failed Fukushima plant, this reactor withstood the destruction. The difference was building on higher ground, choosing higher safety over lower cost. The foresight of engineer Yanosuke Hirai saved Onagawa’s reactor, and the building became refuge for a community whose homes had been washed away.

I was passing through this area to see Kinkasan, a tiny island at the the end of the Oshika-hanto peninsula. With a population of 32 people, 240 monkeys and 600 deer, it had been called ‘one of the holiest places in Japan‘. Half expecting a holy site ringed by trinket shops selling tea-towels of the holy critters, I arrived to a good news/bad scenario. Kinkasan was every bit the serene island of scenic beauty I’d heard about, but I’d not done my homework and its infrastructure shut down November to March. Accomodation was closed and there were only 2 daily ferries, so I contented myself with ambling about the misty island and barely took a photo, let alone sketch. The island was so pretty that I considered sleeping rough outside, until a fall of light rain brought me to my senses. It would be unpleasant to be out all night and cold and rained on. Wistfully, I got on the last ferry and plotted my next move. Retracing my ferry/bus/train steps got me to Ichinoseki well after hostel curfew. Sleeping in a bus stop held no allure whatsoever, and in fractured Japanese I enquired at the railway station about hotels. A worker understood my plight and walked me to a nearby minshuku where I got a room, and spent the rest of that evening in a lounge squatting at a kotatsu drinking with off-duty rail workers, already several beers into a good night. Their jovial companionship briefly convinced me that I was conversing in Japanese, whereas it was simply that such conversations follow the same pattern anywhere, and misunderstandings are smoothed over by good spirits (and spirits).

Even 30 years ago my next stop was reputed to be overly touristed, but I was pleasantly surprised by GeibiKei gorge. Even a tourist trap can be charming if you’re the only tourist in the trap; I had a barge all to myself, poled up the river by two bargemen, a glass roof allowing me to admire the gorge while sitting by a heater, sipping tea. It was another misty day, serene and beautiful and the bargemen were cheerful. Seeing as there was only one tourist, and him a foreigner besides, the lads stopped at a few shrines along the river to gather money. I doubt they’d have openly raked this loot in front of your typical praying Japanese punter tossing coins for good luck, but with only me, they figured what the hell; “Oi, Kenji, save us a trip and hop out and grab the dosh.” Next, I hopped the Shinkansen to Morioka where it terminated (in 1987) and transferred to Aomori, catching an early ferry next day to Hakodate on Hokkaido, where I met two American Mormons on their ‘3 year mission‘. In contrast to frosty Tokyo Gaijin, these missionaries were eager to talk, and not simply to proselytise (I got the impression that they were lonely). Hakodate had a great atmosphere, helped along by its old wharf area buildings, wooden trolley-cars and whimsically musical pedestrian lights (playing ‘comin’ through the rye‘). At the end of my whirlwind 1987 tour of Japan, Hokkaido was one of the places I’d wished I’d lingered longer (eventually travelling all around Hokkaido in 1989).

Back on Honshu, I was eager to see Hirosaki Castle, which I’d read was the real thing rather than a postwar reconstruction in concrete (as at Aizu Wakamatsu) but it didn’t fill my expectations. I’d eventually realise that Japanese castles couldn’t top memories of childhood visits to British castles, with their foreboding silhouettes, dungeons, murder holes and torture chambers, setting my morbid little-boy imagination afire. The aesthetic of Japanese castles is completely different. Rather than projecting ‘menace‘, they’re ‘pretty‘, and these cake topper cuties are better compared to a chateau, another building made to impress but in a completely different way. Show pony rather than war horse. Japanese castles were lacy confections made of paper and wood, meaning that few survived the 1945 exertions of General Curtis LeMay (and his OddJob; Robert McNamara). Any castles not destroyed in WW2 had already been flattened countless times by typhoon, quake, or fire (or all of the above). Truly ancient castles just don’t exist in Japan.

A long train ride on The Gono Line took me along Honshu’s northernmost Japan Sea coast, where the tracks were very close to the sea, revealing stunning vistas of bleak grey beauty. I’m not a train-nut by any means but enjoy countries with well-developed rail networks for the simple reason that I can’t drive, making countries like Australia or the USA problematic to navigate in anything but the most perfunctory fashion. Japan’s extensive rail infrastructure gave me scope to explore, and I enjoyed switching from high-tech Shinkansen to dinky trains (with only 2 or 3 cars) to see remote parts of the archipelago. Staying in a tiny coastal town called Fukaura, I walked further along the coast the next morning, before another long train ride took me inland to… a dead spot in my memory. Unsure of which route took me to my next remembered destination, no maps jog my memory, nor is there any ticket stub, photo, or sketchbook-doodle that clarifies those lost days of my 21 day journey. Such voids are a reminder how frail memory can be. Without photos, letters, or conversation to keep neural pathways alive, our experiences wither. Moreover, the memories we do have are often exaggerations or simplifications of what really happened. Several trips, conversations and people become consolidated over time, and who said what gets jumbled around. Crosschecking photos and documents from that time reveals a sequence that differs from the memory I’d been carrying for 30 years. I’d forgotten visiting some towns, even though I’ve proof that I’d been there. These inconsistencies are part of the motivation to write memories down, before they curdle or evaporate entirely. Which is a long winded segue to my next remembered stop;

I arrived by twilight to a snow covered hostel run by a cheerful family near Tazawako, a beautiful lake in snowy Akita prefecture. The woman running the place cheerfully urged me to have bath before dinner, and I was led to a bathhouse a short walk away by a little boy holding an umbrella, to shield me and my toiletries from the thickly falling twilight snow. It was a beautiful night as he chattered at me happily, led me to the ‘sento‘, gave me the umbrella and scampered back to his Mum at the hostel. As I sat in the lovely Japanese style tub, soaking in hot water up to my earlobes, I thought of  the wholesomeness of the ‘bathhouse’ concept in Japan, made all the more beautiful by the snowy setting. Growing up in Australia, I had seen snow laying all around only once or twice, and even then it was patchy slop. My plunge northward to Hokkaido was partly an attempt to find deep snow, but the snow in Hakodate was slush. At Tazawako, snow was piled thickly and there was nobody around but me, as early the next morning I walked partway around the lake, before heading onward by local train to connect with a bullet train back to Tokyo, spending the night before heading onward the next day by Shinkansen.

The most beautiful of the many castles I saw on my first trip to Japan, Himeji Castle loomed on a hill in the centre of town, finally delivering the skyline-dominating profile that I associated with a defensible castle. I spent a day walking around Japan’s largest castle, taking photos in misty rain, until night fell and light finally failed. Atypically, Himeji Castle is largely authentic construction from the early 1600s (though the site dates from the 1300s). Though the city around it was firebombed in WW2,  the castle survived when the firebomb dropped on it failed to detonate. The next day I went onward to see the sobering Peace Memorial Museum at Hiroshima, a reminder of the further industriousness brought to bear on the Japanese after those fire-bombing missions ended. A people long-pounded by typhoons, quakes and tsunamis had developed a resilience that is hard to overestimate, but Oppenheimer’s crew finally broke Japanese wartime tenacity, at terrible cost. The information within the museum wasn’t presented hysterically, and didn’t need to be. A simple statement of the ghastly facts of 1945 was enough to set mental wheels in motion, extrapolating frightening destruction if the latest generation of slaughter-tech (proudly crafted by our best and brightest) were ever unleashed. Coming out of the museum, I was hollowed out by the experience. Hiroshima was the only time I saw money gathering in Japan, and the people soliciting donations were from a charity for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Every person coming out of the museum gave generously.

After visiting beautiful Miyajima nearby, I rode the Shinkansen to its westernmost terminus, which in 1987 was in Fukuoka, Kyushu. The timetable indicated my arrival would be mere minutes before departure of the local train I needed. Bigger Japanese train stations can be overwhelming (a statistic that stays with me was that Shinjuku station served 3 million passengers daily in 1986) and I doubted I’d be able to get my bearings and make my connection in time. Normally this wouldn’t matter as trains were so frequent, but I needed to connect to a local train, and from that to another, to get to my intended hostel before curfew. Time was of the essence. Arriving at Hakata Station, I took the easy way out, simply doing my by-then standard pantomime of a confused foreigner, hoping to find a sympathetic soul. Remarkably (and typically for Japan) I did. He was an average Japanese ‘salaryman’ in suit and brief case and no doubt had his own connections to make, but when barraged with questions delivered in broken Japanese (and frantic pointings at maps with circled destinations, and timetable connection times) he immediately grasped my situation. Snapping into action, he bustled me through the crowded station, urging me to follow him with all haste, down stairs; Hai, Haiyaku! along a corridor teeming with people; Oide! up some more stairs, and along again. He got me to my train and seated, with time to spare. After thanking him profusely and waving our goodbyes, he reappeared at my window a moment later with a simple meal he’d bought for me from a platform vendor, just as my train departed. I’ve often thought how lucky I was to have my first solo travel adventure in Japan. I later learned that in other countries throwing yourself on the goodwill of the locals can be to paint a ‘fleece me‘ sign on your head, but in Japan the people were always gracious, helpful, generous and honest.

One of Kyushu’s many scenic railway journeys took me past views of early Spring blossoms to Aso-San, one of two active volcanoes on the island. As the train came within sight of the volcano I was awestruck to see red lava flowing down the mountain! When I checked in to the nearby hostel I was told that the ‘lava‘ streams were actually thousands of people bearing flaming torches in a fire festival. Wonderful! I couldn’t wait to attend, but discovered that this distant spectacle was in the process of ending. I became shrill; Surely there must be a taxi service or something? Can’t I just walk there? But as far as I was able to discover, there was no way to get to this spectacular culmination of the month-long ‘end of winter‘ celebration before it ended. Dame Desu! I suspected the truth was that hostel staff didn’t want the kooky gaijin wandering off into the night to play with fire, after he’d signed in and become their responsibility, but I had to make-do with watching the fire orgy as it climaxed from a few miles away. The next day I went up to the crater, in the company of other young travelers from the hostel who’d been up there the night before and assured me that the festival was utterly sugoi!

Impressive though it was, unfortunately my imagination had been set ablaze the night before and it was hard not to smoulder.

JOURNAL ENTRY: “I saw an active volcano at Mount Aso. No big deal really. It belches out smoke while dried out old ladies sell souvenirs on the lip of the crater.”

That’s the bitterness of a thwarted 22 year old kicking himself for not researching his trip more thoroughly (and those old ladies were actually sweeties). Just one day earlier (4 hours, even!) and I could’ve participated in the fire festival rather than merely watch it impotently from afar. I realise now how lucky I was to see what I saw. To stand in one of the biggest active volcano craters in the world is no small thing, and the Aso-san crater is often overwhelmed by sulphurous fumes, or cable-car access is closed due to earthquake.

Kyushu still had another active volcano and I bustled further south to see it, via another beautiful train journey down the west coast of Kyushu. The closer I got to Kagoshima the more excited I became to see Sakurajima, the iconic volcano belching fire over Kagoshima, like a Japanese Vesuvius. But it was another case of vulcanus interruptus. Bucketing down with torrential rain, it was hard to see (or do) anything in Kagoshima.  The weather still hadn’t changed after staying the night, so I kept moving, contenting myself with a few looks at colourful posters rather than Sakurajima volcano itself.

I went up the east coast of Kyushu, then inland to Takachiho Gorge. This beautiful area was accessible in 1987 via the Takachiho Railway from Nobeoka, before that line was swept away by Typhoon Nabi in 2005. In Japan you’ll often hear of destruction wrought by earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, and every temple or castle you visit has been repeatedly rebuilt (no wonder a people so often pounded by nature and science would invent Godzilla, the ultimate city-smashing temper tantrum). The train followed the river all the way to Takachiho, with town after town nestled in nooks between water and tracks. This area was another I could have spent more time in. The weather was lovely and the scenery beautiful, but with only a few days left on my JR pass I pressed onward to the Kyushu east coast and Beppu, a hot springs town where any hot water bubbling out of the ground is fenced off so a fee can be charged to look at, sip or sit, in it.

I walked through these places with a French woman I met at the hostel and neither of us were impressed, until stumbling onto a pretty spring garden with small hot springs completely ignored by the crowds and the guidebooks. Minimal entrance fee, cups of tea served by a nice old lady in a quiet teahouse. Best of all, I found round the back one of the tourist traps a wonderful boilerhouse, presumably sitting over a geyser. Marvellous thing it was; belching steam, alive with pipes and valves, all covered in mineral salts. This was often the pattern; I’d head towards a ‘destination’ that might be a disappointment, but there was usually something else around that made it worthwhile (life itself is often like that too). A quick ferry ride from took me to Yawatahama in Shikoku, the smallest of the 4 main islands of the Japanese archipelago.

After staying in Uwajima, and walking to the castle there, I went onward by local train to Kochi and looked around its castle too, which retained prewar splendour high on a spectacular hill. Kochi was a deserving of more exploration, but I moved on. After chasing elusive volcanoes and castles, I was in the mood for scenic beauty which Shikoku has in great abundance, and I wanted to get as far as the picturesque Iya Valley before my JR pass finally expired, on March 26 1987, the day I drew these sketches;

The hostel I checked into that day was a treasure. Japanese Youth hostels of the 1980s were always clean and affordable, but could be be either an ugly spartan blockhouse or a lovely traditional building, and you could never be sure which until check in. It was hostel roulette. In the Iya Vally I came up a winner, as the hostel was affiliated with a temple and the building and grounds were lovely. As I soaked in the tub of the hostel’s bathouse, I was startled by a shadowy monster emerging from the surrounding steam. This looming leviathan was the pendulous netherbits of another guest staying at the hostel (one of those beanpoles that becomes a tripod when their pants are off) entering the communal tub. He was a likeable fellow from Tennessee, and over the next few days he, I and a Canadian woman (we 3 were the only hostel guests) explored the valley. Firstly, we went on long hikes, but eventually hired bikes and took on a mountain bike course. It took us 11 hours and we were exhausted as we stumbled into the hostel way after curfew. Ouch. Next day we went on another walk, got lost again, and dreading being late again back to our hostel, we hitched a ride from a very sweet woman who took pity on us when we stuck out our thumbs.

After the Iya Valley, I took a train north and stayed in Takamatsu,  visiting the wonderful Ritsurin garden (before departure of my overnight ferry back to Honshu). Later that same year in Suzhou, China, I saw many classical Chinese gardens being rebuilt after the ravages of the not-then long ago Cultural Revolution. Interestingly, consultants hired by the Chinese government to retrain the Chinese how to do Chinese gardens were traditional gardeners from Japan (which of course had learned how to garden from the Chinese in the first place) and Ritsurin supplied some of the expertise.

JOURNAL ENTRY, APRIL FOOLS DAY 1987, NARA: “Coming into Osaka Bay at 5:30 AM is quite breathtaking. The light at that time transformed an otherwise ugly harbour into something magical. I walked through Osaka fish market and the city itself most the day, before coming onward to Nara, a pretty town with by far the largest concentration of historical buildings I have yet seen. For what it’s worth I can say that I’ve been on all the major islands of Japan.”

Doing the travel blitz is OK for a few days, but maintaining that rhythm for weeks is a drain (as snippy asides on these sketches show). Blasting around seeing a different town every day blurs it all together, and occasionally staying in one place is essential for me to really get to know a country, at even a superficial level.

By the time I arrived in Kyoto, I’d been a proactive power-tourist for long enough, and was again ready to meander and relax, spending a few weeks enjoying the cherry blossom season of April 1987. I stayed in a guesthouse occupied by both temporary travellers like myself, and longterm tenants living & working in Kyoto. Most were young, probably just out of college, and very similar despite coming from various countries, but one tenant was unlike any other I ever met in years of traveling.  He was much older, possibly as old as 45 (gasp) and didn’t fit the typical backpacker profile. He was a short-haul truck driver from Tacoma Washington, with mixture of broad American mannerisms and a childlike wonder about his present situation. Always sunny and kind, I gradually inferred some sadder parts of his history, which only appearing as sidebars to the main conversation and were never worn on his sleeve. The more I got to know him the more impressed I was that this fellow had plunged into the unknown. When asked what set him on the road, his answer was very much like my own; he’d always been fascinated by far away places. He had little money, apart from somebody renting his truck back in Washington. He was under no pressure to head back home and we explored Kyoto together before it was time for me to leave.

When I’d thought the JR Pass wasn’t going to work, I’d been told that Japan was a wonderful place to hitchhike. Though the Japanese did not often hitchhike themselves, and may look askance at those Japanese who did, they were generous in picking up foreign hitchhikers. With JR Pass expired and my funds low after months in Japan, I hitchhiked from Kyoto back to Tokyo, getting rides from an outgoing truck driver in a garishly decorated truck (in the Japanese style) and a businessman whose car would PING PING berate him when he went over the speed limit, much to his chagrin (I later found out such nagging cars were standard). Back in Tokyo I picked up the bulk of my bags from storage, before heading to Korea (and later China).

My first trip to Japan had started in Okinawa (via ferry from Taiwan) then onward by ferry to explore Tokyo, before activating my JR Pass. What a bargain it had been, giving me a whirlwind introduction to a country I’ve revisited many times over the years, and love to this day.

May 102017
 

21st century Shanghai, with its ultra modern skyline and high fashion boutiques, is barely recognisable as the time-stuck town I visited in the 1980s, when the dominant fashion designer was still chairman Mao. Even Shanghai hipsters of those days still wore blue worker’s smocks and caps with the little red star, and the architecture of the city was unchanged from the 1940s, though what was once a posh hotel under the British might have been turned into a factory under the communists. This great city was my port of entry into China, and I enjoyed exploring it.

It was while wandering randomly through the streets and back alleys of Shanghai in 1987 and taking photographs of whatever took my fancy, that I got a sudden red alert from my lower intestine; PURGE. I have no idea what had precipitated the crisis. Dodgy dinner the night before? A greasy breakfast that very morning? Or a simple case of travel tummy? Whatever was kicking up a ruckus downstairs, it was urgently shoulder-charging my emergency exit and I needed to find a safe place to deploy, preferably free of women and impressionable children, all of which were in abundance in a crowded Shanghai back alley with no lavatory in sight. Sweat broke out on my brow as I concentrated on a full body kegel.

I’d learned a few survival words of basic Mandarin while working in Taiwan the year before, and one phrase of special importance was “廁所在哪裡?” which I used to ask a local man the way to the nearest lavatory. While my pronunciation was probably terrible, my body language was eloquently telling him that something wicked his way cometh. He gestured emphatically down one end of the street and I dashed away, while he made to clear the blast area himself. Sure enough,  a little further along I saw a hand written sign in Chinese characters, I recognised as “MEN’S TOILET“, and an arrow pointing down a side alley.

I’d already been in Asia long enough to know the necessity of always taking toilet paper wherever you go, as most toilets won’t have any. Clutching this small packet of toilet tissue in my hands like a magic talisman, I hobbled along as urgently as I could with buttocks clenched tighter than the fists of a Kung Fu master. It wasn’t the first time (nor the last) that I struggled with that oh-so delicate balance between moving quickly but not so fast that I’d precipitate the inevitable. At the end of that alley I followed another arrow pointing to another alley, and more arrows pointing up a rickety staircase, along a landing and down again, then out along a muddy track into a vacant lot to a simple concrete shed with a tin roof. A sign identified this as my target, and with great relief I dashed into this crude outhouse with all possible speed.

It was one big room with a concrete floor in which were two room-length trenches piled intermittently with human excrement. Amazingly, some fellows who’d made a few such piles had decided to hang out, enjoy the ambience and read their newspapers as they squatted astride this mess, rather than seek a more pleasant atmosphere elsewhere. “I can’t do this” I thought to myself and immediately walked back out the door I’d just come in. “Get back in there, NOW!” barked my bowels. With a deep sense of dread, I re-entered, straddled the poo-sluice, dropped my pants and squatted, telling myself I could pull the pin on my gut-grenade and depart the reading room before the dust settled, and anyone was any the wiser that I’d even been there. So intent were the other gents on their own business, that none of the members of this elite gentlemen’s lounge had noticed me.

YET.

Imagine blowing a tuba into a bathtub full of rice pudding and you might come close to simulating the hellish cacophony that ensued when I assumed ‘the position’ and finally released my tenuous hold on the situation. It was a monumental case of heinous anus as the poltergeist inhabiting my nether regions was exorcised, and flew out of me like the malignant ghosts fleeing Indiana Jones’ Lost Ark, accompanied by the sound of a flock of psychotic cockatoos all playing the kazoo. Every other man present in this doorless, toilet-less toilet was startled by all my sound & fury, and turned around as-one to survey the source of this loo-hullabaloo. Judging from their expressions of immediate surprise and delight, I can only imagine that in 1987 finding a westerner straining red-faced in their communal squatter was a first for these fine gentlemen of Shanghai.

Abandoning their Worker’s Dailys they stood up and gathered around me, gesticulating in my direction and having an animated discussion, as I continued bearing-down on my gruelling chores, still trembling like a sick chihuahua. I was aghast when one old guy went around behind me to examine my efforts with what appeared to be great interest, as if he were merely inspecting a broken drain-pipe (as, in a way, he was). I tried shooing him away, to much guffawing and hilarity from the rest of my standing ovation. It was one of the most ghastly embarrassing moments of my life (until 25 years later when paralysed in hospital, and daily supervised trips to the lavatory became my crucible of horrors). As my reactor-core cooled, and my aftershocks echoed sonorously throughout the tin shed and died away, I frantically finished my business to peals of laughter, then scuttled off back the way I’d come, distancing myself from this arena of my humiliation.

Over the next few years of backpacking through out-of-the-way places, I came to learn that most long-term travellers have similar experiences, where one’s own gizzards conspire to rebel against the hapless wanderer at the worst possible moment, and in fact I’d gotten off lightly. At least I’d made it all the way inside what was locally considered a toilet, rather than being caught out in public by an intestinal-highjacking, as had happened to other poor unfortunates I met. It was hearing such horror stories, compounded by my own mortifying experience of this particular day, that taught me to always travel with a packet of IMODIUM, which is a kind of concrete stopper for the colon. Even though using it must be like conducting a laboratory chemical experiment in one’s own innards, I’d chew tablets of the evil stuff as if they were Chiclets when backpacking in certain countries, preferring to freeze-dry my digestive system rather than ever again be Shanghaied.

Jan 132015
 

In late 1996 I was in a mood to travel. There was an impasse in my life and, as with similar confusing junctions before and since, I hit the road, spending Christmas in Britain with friends, planning to head to Paris in the New Year, by way of the train through the CHUNNEL.

Paris1996_97_RERParis1996_7_gendarme

Nobody was riding the EUROSTAR train that year, and with good reason. In addition to a recent tunnel fire, The IRA (an Irish terrorist organisation) had tried to blow up The Chunnel from the British side, and not to be outdone, The GIA (an Algerian terrorist group) had vowed terror strikes from the French end, while labor strikes (a Brit terror tradition) were threatened at British Rail. The general public was wary of being caught in the crosshairs of technical failures, industrial disputes, two terrorist plots and mother nature– being flung at high velocity through a claustrophobic tube beneath the British Channel was still a relatively new concept in 1996– and people who wanted to cross it flew instead. The panicked marketing departments of both British Rail and France’s SNCF offered great deals as an incentive to put caution aside and ride the flaming-undersea-terror-express, so I did, on a nearly-empty train from London’s WATERLOO INTERNATIONAL STATION (Eurostar service switched to St. Pancras Station in 2007).

This wasn’t my first time in a high-speed train. Earlier, when working in Paris in 1990 I’d ridden the TGV, and earlier than that, when living in Japan in the 1980s, I often rode the ORIGINAL Bullet Train, the SHINKANSEN (an Aussie friend in Tokyo hilariously observed; “that thing goes faster than a sharp stick!”) So my experienced eye was initially unimpressed by Eurostar. Though it looked the part, it dawdled till the coast because British Rail hadn’t yet upgraded the tracks from London to the Channel, and the Bullet Train couldn’t truly ’bullet’, lest its 1990s high-tech slickness was shaken to pieces on the 1890s tracks. Thankfully, it picked up speed in the Chunnel and when it made landfall in France hit a cruising speed of 176MPH for a remarkably smooth and speedy ride to Paris. I’d made the Paris-London flight several times before, and although the flight itself is markedly quicker than the train, that speed is more than offset by getting to your departure airport, check-in, customs, immigration and bag retrieval, and the journey from the airport into the city at the opposite end. The Eurostar was downtown London to downtown Paris in about 3 hours.

paris1996_7_DaveCigarParis1996_97_TonyReading

Weeks earlier, when planning the trip, I’d told Tony and Dave that I’d lived in France, and smugly assured them that Parisian winters were mild.. cross-dissolve to: France’s frightfully cold winter that year. We spent most of our time indoors, enjoying Paris’ wealth of bistros, bars and museums with our pals Simon & Tanya, and had a great time. Nevertheless, we were in the “City Of Light” and felt obliged to see Paris, and occasionally braved the arctic weather to ‘enjoy’ the scenery through chattering teeth. After traipsing through the picturesque cold, Tony, Dave and I and paused to take in the view from the middle of one of the beautiful bridges across The Seine.

As we leaned on the guard rail, we saw some rubbish drifting by in the water below us; an LP record album cover of Simon and Garfunkel‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” floated into view in the swirling eddies under the bridge. We each saw this freakishly-apt moment of coincidence at the same time, looked at each other with a wide-eyed laugh, then watched “Bridge Over Troubled Water” meander in the currents of the Seine and float off under the next bridge. Cheered by this quirky piece of random chance, we headed into a nearby bistro to discuss the joys of synchronisity and 1960s folk-pop over a chocolate chaud and a croque monsieur..

A few days later, we three travellers went our seperate ways, and I took a side trip to Denmark before heading back to London on the Eurostar from Paris’ GARE DU NORD STATION. I entered a totally empty train carriage, put my bags in the baggage rack near the door, and took a seat up the other end. It seemed I’d have the luxury of an entire carriage to myself until just before the train pulled away, when a large group of largish men bustled aboard and occupied the back two rows. Brit athletes in suits, I thought, perhaps returning from a game in France? The Eurostar depated and I enjoyed the French countryside zipping by until the train entered the Chunnel, when I went to the dining car to eat and write letters (on-paper letters, remember those?) telling family and friends about Chartres Cathedral, the Catacombs and other tourist sites I’d seen in my brief forays into the frigid French winter. I finished my writing and went back to my seat.

Paris1996_97_SimonDrawing

Paris1996_97_Tanya

Pulling into LONDON a mere 3 hours after departing PARIS, I went to get my luggage from the luggage rack by the rear door of the carriage, and absent mindedly noted that in the midst of the large group of very large men was a smaller, rather ugly fellow. Perhaps he was the manager of this burly group of be-suited athletes. He looked like a balding Mr Bean with glasses… Wait, is that Rowan Atkinson? I did a double-take, I knew that face.. it was unmistakably SALMAN RUSHIE, surrounded by his bodyguards. For a time, Rushdie must’ve had the most recognisable ugly face in the world. His hooded-eyed mug was always in the media back then, after The Ayatollah Khomeini placed a Fatwa on him for writing the Satanic Verses. Many famous writers could be passed in the street without being recognised (it must be a pleasantly anonymous occupation for a famous person to have) but not so with Rushdie. He’s highly recognisable even now, but more so back then at the height of his notoriety, when his Bond villain gaze was on magazines and TVs almost daily. As I pondered these things, the rapidly spinning wheels in my mind must have been audible to Salman’s wall-of-muscle, and they gave me their undivided attention with intense alphadog stares. I grabbed my bags and scuttled away.

As I stepped off the train, I thought about my brief brush with fame. In the past, it had already struck me (as it has many others) that famous actors were much shorter in real life. Based on my brief meeting of Rushdie, I wondered if the similar principle with plain-looking famous folk is that they are even uglier in person? Being instantly recognisable must be one of the curses of fame even at the best of times, but extra uncomfortable when under a Fatwa; a game of “you’re it” with homicidal nutjobs weilding rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs.. Clearly, Rushdie’s security team had chosen this mode of travel precisely because there were less people on the Eurostar that year. Their entourage was less likely to be ’made’ by the loons, and there’d be less collateral damage if they actually were. Then it hit me; I’d not only had a brush with fame by meeting Rushdie, but had worsened my odds in my brush with terrorism too. As well as the two terror groups I already knew about, The IRA and the GIA, who’d vowed to blow the Chunnel and therefore had me in their sights by proxy, I’d been riding a train that had been a potential target of a third terror group; the deadly yo-yos unleashed by the Ayatollah. Had they known Salman Rushie was sitting behind me, they would most certainly have shown up, guns-a-blazin’..

a BULLET train indeed!

Jul 102014
 

popeye_firstIn 1988 I was living and working in Tokyo, and I had a few steady illustration gigs to supplement my other jobs, which were some English teaching when I first arrived in Japan, and then working at TOEI animation studio when I got better established.  It was a busy time. One of the magazines I did a few illustration jobs for was the men’s fashion magazine POPEYE, which is in a big building in the Ginza district called MAGAZINE HOUSE. When dropping off an assignment, I’d enjoy reading in their big international magazine library, including periodicals from back home in Australia. In the pre-internet years, discovering a resource like that was a real treat when far from home.

popeye_spread

popeye_last

The MAGAZINE HOUSE building must have contained production for at least 6 or 8 different magazines, and I did little spot illustrations for a few of them. This article here was about international shopping trips and the various deals that could be had for Japanese abroad. In those fat years of the 1980s, when the Yen was absolutely booming, bargains could be had just about anywhere, apart from at home. The prices in Japan were nutty back then, and the area where MAGAZINE HOUSE had its offices, the Ginza district, was hands-down one of the most expensive. I remember getting a cup of coffee, and a very expensive spit-take ensued when I got the $10 bill. If that sounds steep NOW, it was excruciating for a backpacker 25 years ago.

Jun 152014
 

TROPPO_1
TROPPO_2
TROPPO_3
TROPPO_4
TROPPO_5
TROPPO_6
TROPPO_7
TROPPO_8
TROPPO_9
TROPPO_10

This is the first comic I ever did, for an anthology made by the staff of the animation department of Colossal Pictures way back in 1992. Originally, my contribution was printed as a 4 page story and the end pages were added later. (I have split the pages in half here to make an 8 page story, plus intro and outro pages, that reads more easily on a computer screen.)

I can’t remember who had the idea for doing a collaborative comic, but once that scheme was hatched, Bob Pauley was the brains behind actually getting it made. He found an offset printing company, designed the book, organised the art and did the paste up (yes, old school 1990s style; with glue!) and he had a neat comics story in the book himself to boot. Bob also came up with a nifty idea for the covers, which was a clever use of offset printers printers’ ‘waste sheets’ and some stickers. We titled the anthology “48X21” (because it was 48 pages made by 21 artists) and we all split the costs of print production between us, and we each got a share of the print run, in time to sell or give away as Christmas presents that year.

This bit of visual nonsense was my first time doing a comic, and it was a lot of fun to do. Whenever you see a texture, I just cut or xeroxed those out of magazines. Some of the miscellaneous objects in the background were likewise xeroxed out of books. It makes no sense at all, but hopefully has an internal logic all of its own. I called this trio Los Troppo Drongos and its members were named Nob, Wuz and Dag, and I had some other equally pointless adventures for them thumbnailed out which, sadly, I never got around to completing. A few years later, when I self published my first solo 32 page Rocket Rabbit comic, I reprinted this story (with the first and last page you see here) as a support feature.

Apr 182014
 

July 15, 1986, I left Australia for what I thought would be a 6 month or one year trip at most, but it ended up being an overseas jaunt that lasted the rest of my life.

1986_Hong_Kong_sketch

View From the Tower Restaurant, 1986

I’d worked in Sydney animation studios since 1982, saving money for a trip to Japan. By mid 1986, I’d got my passport, bought a Japan rail pass, and after years of dilly-dallying was preparing to finally go. But before I’d bought a plane ticket, Janine Dawson offered me a job in Taiwan at a big animation studio. Despite years of saving, I was still functionally broke, as my limp 1986 Aussie dollars wouldn’t last long against the booming Yen. However, this brief work detour would be a chance to top-up my meagre funds with then-robust US dollars, so I bought a plane ticket to Taiwan instead, planning to catch a ferry to Japan from there when my assignment ended. I sold, tossed, or stored my belongings, let my flat go, and off I went, on a flight to Taipei, via a stopover in Hong Kong.

As I lay down across 6 seats on an almost empty Qantas Jumbo jet out of Sydney, I realised that it was a good news/bad news thing; it was exciting that I was finally on my way! On the other hand, I had no idea of what I was doing.. I pondered this dichotomy for the 10 hour flight, till the thrill ride landing in Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport, when the Jumbo seemed to slip in between the sky scrapers and apartment balconies (where I swear I could see people eating their dinners) and land almost in the city itself. To underscore my greenhorn traveler status, I was ripped off by the first cab driver I ever hailed abroad, who drove me NOT to the hotel I had pre-paid for in Sydney, but to a crummy hostel, and left in a frenzy of spinning tires. By the time I realised what had happened, I decided to pay for a hostel bunk in a room full of snoring travellers, rather than hail another cab and go through the entire humiliating process again.

The next day, I checked out of the hostel and did some liesurely sightseeing before my evening flight, till I realised with horror that I didn’t have my passport!! With my heart in my mouth, I scuttled back to the hostel where thankfully, my passport had been turned in. But what if it had not been? An alternate-universe of misery- where I lost my passport on my very first day abroad -lay down that turnoff, and I’m glad to have missed it. Perhaps it was the stomach churning terror of that moment, or the tropical heat, but I was bathed in sweat, and decided to go to the airport EXTRA early and cool off. Despite this, I almost missed my flight out to Taipei; the departure time on my ticket was wrong. “Quick! You might just make it if you run!” I was hurried from one person barking into a walkie-talkie to the next, through immigration, as I clumsily lugged my bags, there being no time to check them in. Airline employees frantically pointed me to the gate in the distance and cleared my path to the waiting plane, as hot, sweaty and exhausted, I wheeze-thumped my way down the connecting-tube to stagger, flustered and sweat-soaked onto a planeful of faces glaring at me.. I was so glad to make it out of Hong Kong in one piece, that I had a misplaced dread of that town for years. Much later, I had to do a visa-trip there, and to my surprise found it to be a wonderful place. (Which goes to show that state-of-mind influences the impressions of places, as much as vice-versa)..

1986_Taiwan_ChungChengRoad

Cuckoo’s Nest Studio on Chung Cheng road, XinDian, 1986

Thankfully, my arrival at the other end was smooth, and my friend Janine met me at Taipei airport to ensure I made it to my hotel without incident. The next day, I went to fill out paperwork and get situated at Cuckoo’s Nest, which was perhaps the biggest animation studio in the world at that time. They were doing 13 different TV series (each having 13 episodes) whereas the Hanna-Barbera studio that I’d worked at in Sydney could handle only 2 or 3. I was introduced to the new layout department, and the other foreign supervisors that I’d be working with, but would not start work until the next day. Every expat I ever met who worked at Cuckoo’s Nest back then had the same experience at the end of the first day; while you’re still thoroughly culture shocked and jet-lagged, someone from the studio took you to a seedy place called “Snake Alley“. I’m not exactly sure why this ghastly place was chosen to be the ‘local colour’ that introduced us all to Taiwan, but it’s part of the ritual of travel that tourists go to grotty areas of foreign cities they’d avoid at home (Sydney residents who’d avoid Kings Cross will happily visit a similar sleazepit in Amsterdam, for example). Snake Alley’s particular brand of Red Light tawdriness was combined with animal torture. I saw a guy literally peel the skin off a live snake, drain its blood into a shot glass which was then downed with great gusto by another dude, before the dying snake’s heart stopped beating. Thus fortified, he then set off in search of hookers (a shot of snake blood was the Taiwanese version of Viagra, apparently). I’ve never felt so sorry for a snake in my life. It was a surreal and unsettling David Lynch-style end to my first day. (That’s just how it was in the 1980s.)

My first proper day on the job, another turn off to an alternate-universe- the one where my animation career ends by losing an episode -was only narrowly averted. I’d been given an entire show’s animation layouts to check, and in the pre-digital age, that was about 300 scene-folders full of artwork. I sorted the show into two piles; one big pile placed on the floor and labeled ’scenes ready for animation’, and another small pile labeled ‘scenes to fix’, placed on the small shelf available to me. Then, I was called away for lunch. When I returned, the big pile had been taken away, and I sat down to work through the art-fixes. Pretty soon, a production person came by and asked how it was going (as they do) and left delighted when I told her that most of the scenes were already in animation. Within about 10 minutes though, she came back with a quizzical look on her face, and asked me exactly who’d taken the scenes. I said I didn’t know, because they’d taken them when I was at lunch. She went away again, looking confused. I worked some more. She came back again, looking very worried and asked where exactly had I placed the pile? I gestured to the space on the floor.. “You don’t think the cleaners would have..” The production person looked utterly panicked.

We both rushed down the stairs that led to the alleyway outside, and I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say we saw a garbage truck with the animation scene-folders being dumped into the back. The core-temperature in my bowels must’ve shot up about 15° in an instant. We rushed over to explain that the artwork on its way to the dump was in fact terribly important to us (though given the quality of the shows we made back then, the dump would have been the right place for it..) Thankfully, everything was returned undamaged. At every studio I’d worked in before, the cleaning staff was under strict instructions never to touch any artwork at all, on the floor or elsewhere, and I’ve never before or since seen cleaning crew hauling stuff away in the middle of the day. But a studio of around 1000 artist-employees generated such massive loads of waste-paper that that’s how it was. The humiliating end to my animation career thus dodged, I got back to work. Though I was a generally clueless 22 year old, I did however have a fair bit of experience in animation by that time, since I started working at the age of 17. Even so, looking back on it, the Taiwanese crew must’ve thought I was an upstart pipsqueak at the mere age of 22 to be a layout supervisor, but they certainly never gave me any bad attitude about it.

1986_Taiwan_Mark

Mark Marren Sketching in GongGuan

Taiwan is where people began calling me ‘Jamie‘ rather than my real name of ‘James’. Someone from the translation department (which was essential for us expat supervisors to communicate with the Taiwanese crew) said my name of James would be too confusing, because it was already associated with the owner of the studio, James Wang (who was such a big shot that nobody else could even use the same name). When asked if there were any other names I was known by, I said Sydney friends had called me Jimmy, to a gale of embarrassed giggles from the translator. She made it quite clear that ’Jimmy’ was not going to be an acceptable name, and wouldn’t tell me why, no matter how much I asked. (Perhaps someone can tell me if there is a word in Mandarin -or maybe Taiwanese- that sounds like ’Jimi’ but means something filthy, like ‘aardvark penis‘ or something? I’ve always wanted to know.) Instead, I chose Jamie because that was what I was called by my family when I was small, and what my mother continued to call me until she died. I never knew this name would stick, but it’s a pleasant reminder of her.

The standard workweek in Taiwan was six days, and one day off each week didn’t allow for sightseeing. The entire 5 months that I was working in Taiwan, I only ventured out of Taipei 2 or 3 times, because I was exhausted on my day off, and didn’t have the energy for dealing with transit systems with incomprehensible (to me) signage. I just wandered around Taipei randomly for recreation, and had many late night dinners in Taipei’s abundance of of novelty restaurants with the other expats. We foreigners were thrown together quickly by the twin pressure-cookers of work, and culture shock, and I met an amazing number of people who became lifelong friends while in Taipei, considering that it was only a 5 month gig. We’d joke about our ’tours of duty’ or time on ’pork chop hill’; combat metaphors where people bond under stress. A group of us went to see the movie ‘Aliens’ with the Taiwanese crew that year, and much of Bill Paxton‘s paranoid dialog became our catchphrases; “We’re in some pretty shit now, man!” and the like.

Culture shock was an almost constant issue. Working six or seven day weeks is stressful under any circumstances, but takes on a surreal quality when you’re in a country where you don’t understand the rules. Sometimes we dealt with this with hilarity, sometimes paranoia. I remember coming back to my hotel after a long day of working, late one night. I was tired, and hungry but the hotel restaurant was closed. Nearby, there was a convenience store where I saw the perfect treat to reward myself for busting arse all day; a jelly doughnut. Just what the doctor ordered to soothe my jangled nerves. I bit into it, but instead of tasty raspberry jam, it was full of cold vegetable curry. BLURG! “What the?!” This small moment of culture shock shows how expectations are often pranked, and depending on the state of your nerves, you might explode in a fit of cursing, sob uncontrollably, or burst out laughing. Eventually, after several years straight living in various Asian countries, I got used to being the full-time foreigner, and learned to see that my own assumptions about a situation needed to adjust, but in Taiwan, I was experiencing it all for the first time, and sometimes the combination of work stress and culture shock was potent.

Joe Sherman and I were walking along a Taipei river bank in late summer. It had been a pleasant Sunday away from the stresses of production, we found an outdoor restaurant and sat down by the water to order our dinner. It was a warm evening and everything was going along swimmingly when our food arrived and we tucked in. When Joe bit down on his piece of fried chicken it was rock hard. He pulled it out of his mouth with his chopsticks, and the batter fell away to reveal the grisly image of a half-chewed chicken head, its dead eyes staring up at him reproachfully. He dropped the gruesome morsel: “Oh, God WHY?!” The interesting thing about culture shock is that there is a certain amount of it that is specific to the country you’re in (fried chicken heads are not universal, for example) but a great deal of it can be experienced anywhere. This was brought home to me years later when listening to Japanese friends who lived in Australia describing the things that drove them crazy about my country. Some were specific complaints that could only happen there, but many were exactly the same things that got my teeth on edge when I was living in their country. Because a certain percentage of the issue is simply a feeling of alienation, of awkwardness, or of feeling that your instincts no longer work. Which is to say, don’t grab the piece of battered chicken shaped vaguely like a chicken head and assume that’s not what it actually IS.

Taipei was a humid place, and had smells that I’d never encountered before. Even the regular smells of a big city; exhaust, trash, and the like, had a tropical pungency. Exotic spices were everywhere and to a western nose, even some of the food had outrageous smells.  There was one particular sour odor, that I’d assumed was blocked drains, until one day the smell that had haunted me for weeks was coming from my own dinner; a famously stinky tofu dish. After a few months of this sort of experience, the tables were turned when we foreigners organised a fun pizza night with our co-workers. We expats craved some western food, but had not allowed for the smell of the various cheeses, and especially the Parmesan cheese, being off-putting for many Taiwanese. Hilariously, one fellow said the Parmesan cheese smelled like baby vomit. I’d never made the comparison before but I realised he was quite right! (Later, I learned that the Japanese also find the aromas of traditional Western foods, specifically cheese and butter, have a distinctive smell.)

1986_Taiwan_market

Alley market near my hotel.

The early 80s was a bad time for the animation industry in general, and a terrible time for my wallet in particular. As a freelance animator in Sydney, I earned about AU$170-$200 a week, which is just as little money as it sounds. When I got the job in Taiwan however, I got a substantial pay rise for being a ‘supervisor’, and for first time in my life had the money to catch cabs, and dine out, but more importantly, I was able to save enough to travel freely for a few months after leaving Taiwan. Because of currency control restrictions, we were paid in cash rather than a bank transfer, and had to go to the bank each week to deposit an astonishing wad of bills, which we didn’t always have the time to do.  Kevin Richardson and I were walking home from the studio very late one night when we were surrounded by some louts. I didn’t think much of it until Kevin muttered out of the side of his mouth that he had two weeks pay in his bag. We were grateful for the ever present Taiwanese taxis that swarmed about constantly. We saw one, hailed it and skeedaddled.

I spent a lot of time in Taiwanese taxis, travelling to and from the studio each day. They were each uniquely decorated inside, sometimes with mirrored tiles, tassels, or with disco balls and lights, and a few times I rode a cab with a full sound system and karaoke microphone in the back. (Taiwan was where I first encountered karaoke. I did not, and still do not, understand the appeal of paying to caterwaul in public, or hear other tone-deaf folk mutilate songs of their own choosing. I remember thinking that this was a distinctly Asian phenomenon and that karaoke would never catch on in the west. Oh, how wrong I was; there are now karaoke nights in all the pubs in my own home town.) In the swarming, raucous Taipei traffic, there were a lot of motorbikes, scooters and mopeds, frenetically darting about, often with precarious and even dangerous parcels balanced on the tank; gas cylinders and so on. Sometimes, an entire family piled on one motorbike; Mum, Dad and 2 or 3 kids. Nobody wore helmets and the typical bike-rider might have flip flops as they blasted along. I imagine there must be some atrocious accidents, amongst the careening streams of high speed humanity, but in five months of dealing with that traffic every single day, I never saw one.

1986_Taiwan_bikes

Assorted Taipei vehicles.

Joe, my fellow culture shock-trooper, would often share a taxi with me from the hotel we both stayed at, to Cuckoo’s Nest. There was an almost daily ritual where we’d pass by a particular doctor’s practice that had ghastly illuminated signs of the various skin ailments they’d treat; ruptured cysts, extreme rashes, and other stomach churning delights. For blocks in advance of this particular intersection of horrors, I’d warn Joe: “You know what’s coming up, it always gets the day off to a bad start, so THIS time, don’t look, okay?” There wasn’t one single time that I rode with Joe, that he didn’t swivel his head at the last second to see if the ghastly sign was perhaps a mere figment of his imagination… with predictable results: “Oh God! I can’t believe it! Why would anyone put up a sign like that?!” Cue the culture shock melt-down du jour. I eventually learned to navigate public transport in various countries where I couldn’t speak the language, but given my lack of travel smarts, general ineptitude, and punishing work hours in 1986, I’m glad I didn’t have to do it that year, and had enough money to hail a cab, and simply show them the business card of the place I wished to go (written in Chinese of course).

1986_Taiwan_ShiMnDing

Ximending shopping district.

When I left Australia, I didn’t bring a camera and quickly realised that this was a tremendous oversight, as I was surrounded daily by visually interesting stuff. So I bought a Nikon FG 20, and Taipei was where I learned how to use it, jamming it into every situation, much to the hilarity of Tony Stacchi my good buddy then and now, and a frequent companion on my explorations of Taipei. I’ve hundreds of pics taken in Taiwan, and I’m happy to have their record of that period, and I think he is too, despite the long-ago teasing for my being a camera-wielding dork. Tony stood out amongst the other young Americans at the studio, not just because of an accent unlike any I’d encountered in a lifetime of watching US television from afar (“is he a Pom who’s lived in the US? or the other way around?”) I quickly learned that, being Bostonian, Tony was a Smart Arse of the highest possible order. Constantly ribbing me hilariously from our very first meeting, he ensured that we’d be friends for life.

Taiwan is not only the place I learned to take photos, it is also where I learned to sketch. Prior to traveling, I had never drawn from life before, and looking through old piles of drawings before Taiwan, there’s no location sketching. I drew caricatures of my pals, or amusing moments that happened at work, but it never occurred to me to draw something in front of me. Yet once I was in a foreign environment that changed, and these sketches here are literally some of the first sketches from life I ever did. The influence of other expats around me, who had CalArts or Sheridan on their resumes, also played a part. These fellows had fancy book-learning and had acquired the habit of sketching at school and I followed their example. I remember being asked where I’d gone to college to study animation, and people were surprised when I said nowhere; I’d been trained on the job, like an apprenticeship, which was the standard in Australia at the time. For my part, I was surprised at the North American approach; “You mean, you went to university to learn how to draw Saturday Morning cartoons?” I asked. “Why yes, I have a bachelor of animation from California College of the Arts”, I was earnestly told. Of course, I’m used to it now, but in 1986, getting a B.A. diploma to draw ‘Care Bears‘ was an absolutely hilarious idea to me.

1986_Taiwan_RockBand

Pub Band, Tien Mu.

I experienced my first earthquake in Taiwan. At dinner earlier that same night, we’d talked about ghosts, because it was ’Ghost Month‘ (AKA ‘Chinese Halloween’) when the dead famously come back to Earth. Thus, when I fell asleep in my hotel, my mind was already primed to think of poltergeists when my bed started to shake, followed by the whole building and then the entire city. Still half asleep, my mind took a while to adjust to what was actually happening, and against all earthquake safety advice, I groggily got of bed and chicken-walked across a room that was dancing to and fro, over to the window of my eighth story hotel room and looked out at the city. Neon signs on buildings across Taipei sparked off and on- GZZT! GZZT! -as the shockwave moved across the town, and my mind finally properly awoke and understood what was happening. At the precise moment I realised that standing at the window of an 8th floor room was about the worst place I could possibly be in an earthquake, it stopped. Only the rumbling echoes continued, slowly dying out across the city, as the building itself subtly swayed to a stop. Not long afterward, we had to leave work early one day, and prepare for a typhoon. I was told to fill my bathtub full of water, in preparation for water supplies being cut off, which thankfully did not happen. When the typhoon finally hit, I had a great view from the eighth floor of all kinds of random junk flying around outside in the torrentially horizontal rain, including great long lashings of wire which had come loose and were whipping around the street dangerously. Ghosts, Quakes and Typhoons; never a dull moment in Taipei.

I really enjoyed the fact that in Taiwan, all the movies were subtitled in both English AND Chinese. This wasn’t the case in most other Asian countries I spent time in, where the only time I could understand a film was when it was shot in English. The grammatical quality of the subtitles were sometimes hilarious, but I could at least understand every movie I went to see, and I saw quite a few in the five months I was there, and was exposed to the wonders of Chinese movies for the first time. The 1980s was an energetic and creative time for Chinese cinema, and I loved being at ground zero for the renaissance. A particularly vivid memory is the first time I ever saw a Jackie Chan film. Earlier that same year, I had seen the latest in the Indiana Jones series, supposedly the best thing that Hollywood had on offer at the time, but Jackie Chan’s film roundhouse kicked the crap out of that, then leaped off a building besides. I simply could not believe what this guy could do, and could not understand why I had not heard of him before 1986, but I’ve been a big fan of his ever since.

My time in Taipei also introduced me to the works of yet another cinema master. Just before we layout supervisors left Taipei, after our TV series work was done, we held a series of layout classes for the new minted department. It was while preparing for one of these seminars that I was looking through the Studio’s video library and discovered the films of Hayao Miyazaki. The first Miyazaki film I ever saw was Nausicaä, and I’ll never forget it, even though I watched it in Chinese on a VHS tape at the studio after work, and didn’t understand a word. Despite that fact, I watched it utterly enthralled from start to finish. I made a mental note to track down more of his work, and did just that on my next stop, when on December 14 1986, I left Taiwan from the port city of Keelung, on a ferry to Tokyo via Okinawa.

1986_Taiwan_restaurant

At a restaurant not far from the studio.

Taipei’s XinDian area has surely changed enormously in the almost 30 years since I worked there, and I doubt that it occupies that border between city and countryside that it did in 1986. Today, there are unlikely to be any water buffalo ploughing within site of the building we used to work at back then, nor the nearby pig farm that announced its presence to our noses on hot humid days (I often wondered which manufactured more excrement; the animation sweat factory, or the pig farm). By the time I worked in Taiwan, I’d already begun to wonder if the animation industry would last, and the numerous projects that Cuckoo’s Nest was doing that year (which must have represented a substantial percentage of the industry output of 1986) bore that earlier impression out. You could see at a glance that none of it was any good, and even if the industry did somehow survive, I was ambivalent about doing more of the same for my entire life, as much as I loved animation.

Yet even then, there were signs of change. ‘The Brave Little Toaster’, was being finished up at Cuckoo’s Nest by Steve Moore just as I arrived, and the Taiwanese crew was excited about finally working on something of quality. It was the shape of things to come, and other quality projects being made in the mid 1980s (such as ‘The Family Dog’) began to finally turn the animation business around. By the early 1990s, the animation biz was back, and I went on to have a 30 year career that I could never have even imagined in 1986. My being able to participate in the animation renaissance was largely due to working at Cuckoo’s Nest, and the contacts I made there..

With some choices, you’d end up at the same place later, even if you’d taken the other option, because your life is heading in that general direction anyway. But this trip to Taipei was a turning point for me, where so much of what came later in my life; key people that I met, lifelong friends that I made, places I worked, relationships I had, and countries I went to, would not have happened if it weren’t for that 5 month gig when I was 22 years old, working at Cuckoo’s Nest.

Jun 282011
 

Many years ago my friend GORDON CLARK hatched an animated project about a bio-dome of cattle lost in outer space. It was called CATTLESTAR GALACTICA.


While the Sci-fi set-up is a cross between “LOST IN SPACE”, “SILENT RUNNING” and “SPACE 1999”, this story would have been largely a musical, with the bufoonish space cowboy singing lots of goofy songs to his sidekicks (a robot and a lost Russian cosmonaut Dog) as they all sat around an electronic camp fire, between whacky adventures in space, dealing with the manic CAPTAIN COW; An intergalactic bovine warrior who wants to set the cattle free.

Having been conceived by Gordon, it was bound to be a very funny show, coz he is a very funny man. Sadly, it was long ago consigned to that ever-growing pile of “would have been great” but “never got made” projects that I’ve been involved with over the years, which is a pile containing my favourite projects ever. This marker sketch is some of the pitch art (and character designs) I did for it.

Jun 102011
 

More from the archive; a magazine illustration done while living in JAPAN, for a story about the TOKYO CAR SHOW (in ball-point pen and water colour).

The article claimed that the prestigious CAR OF THE YEAR award was won not on the merits of the car itself but on how much money was spent in the media campaign to win the award.

—————-

I used to do illustration as a side job while still working in the animation industry and I kept it up for several years, mainly because, back then, I didn’t think my animation career was going to last. Almost from the day I began working in animation, it appeared that the business itself was done for. All the older artists said so, and it was hard to disagree when looking at the quality of the work that was being done; not just by us, but at the best studios in the world.

Of course, a few years later everything turned around. We started to see things like THE FAMILY DOG, ROGER RABBIT and then the renaissance of DISNEY, which led to the founding of Dreamworks, Pixar and a host of other successful studios. But before that happened, I had to think what I would do if, as everyone was predicting, the biz was not going to last. And illustration was my PLAN-B.

I started doing small illustration jobs while still living in Sydney and continued, even when living in Asia. In Tokyo, I had a few magazines that I would do spot illustrations for each month and I really looked forward to those assignments because, as I said, the quality of the animation I worked on back then was not very good. The illustration assignments were my chance to have some fun.

These days I channel most of that extra energy into pottering about with personal projects but I sometimes think about doing some illustration again someday…

Jun 042011
 

I recently found the drawing that got me my first job here in the USA. These rough character designs of Marty McFly & Doc Brown ultimately landed me an art director job at Colossal Pictures; my favourite company of the many I have worked at.


When I faxed this from France in 1990, I was working for the Paris Disney Studio (on direct to video movies and TV series) and I’d spent the previous 5 years essentially living out of a backpack; following animation jobs (on crummy Saturday Morning shows) from outsourced-country to outsourced-country, with the occasional side adventure to interesting parts of the world. It was a very fun period that I look back on with great fondness, but by the end of it, I was looking for any chance to stay for a LONG stretch someplace, preferably a nice town where I could understand the language and hopefully settle down a bit and make some FWENDS.

Which is exactly what DID happen.

My good friend Tony Stacchi (another veteran of the Porkchop Hill of overseas Saturday morning animation) recommended me to Colossal Pictures’ directors John Hays & Phil Robinson at around the time that Colossal was getting into animated TV series. The original plan was for me to work in San Francisco for a few months alongside the “animated BACK TO THE FUTURE TV series” pre-production team and then go to Taiwan to supervise production of the show (an area I had some experience in by that time). However that plan was revised, happily, and I became one of the two Art Director/Character Designers on the series (John Stevenson being the other) and then stayed at Colossal for many more fantastic years (working on all kinds of fun projects) made a ton of lifelong friends and made San Francisco my home.

All in large part due to this silly, simple drawing.