Thankfully, there’s an amusing anecdote regarding how I learned of the Wazir Khan Mosque.
I was sitting in front of the Lahore Fort, one of the primary tourist spots of Lahore, Pakistan. To my surprise, an older man came to sit next to me, trying to preach about Jesus. After telling him where I was from, he decided to invite me to his apartment in the labyrinthine old city for some delicious raita, chapatti, and curry (curiously, only the men in the family were allowed to eat, but the women helped serve the food):
We chatted for a couple of hours, during which point he mentioned the Wazir Khan Masjid (Mosque) as worthy of a visit. By then it was nighttime, so I thanked him, and made my plan for the following day.
After an embarrassing attempt at playing cricket with some local youth, as well as an excellent glass of ginger, lime, and sugar cane juice, I finally located the Wazir Khan Mosque.
Construction of the Wazir Khan Mosque took place between 1634 and 1641, and was headed by Hakim Ilmud Din Ansari, a government physician upon whom the title Wazir (minister) Khan was bestowed. Though the structure is the best-preserved example of Mughal architecture at a mosque, it was built during the reign of Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor who had the Taj Mahal mausoleum created for his wife.
Since the mosque was constructed for imperial Friday prayers for rulers taking the short walk from the Lahore Fort, its walls and minarets were ornately designed with frescoes, plaster, tile mosaics, and Persian calligraphy quoting the Quran. It also came with its own pay-to-enter hammam, or bathhouse, as well as a row of shops, called the Calligrapher’s Bazaar.
Indeed, the Wazir Khan Mosque is a must-see in Pakistan if architecture and design appeal to you. Since visiting the Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain in 2003, I’ve been captivated by Islamic art. My number one travel goal is Iran, in large part due to its immense history.
Besides, I have another anecdote about being thought of as Iranian…
The first time I visited Hong Kong, I was in awe of the countless apartment complexes juxtaposed on the subtropical hills, the myriad roads that could easily double as parts of Manhattan’s Canal Street, and a health form asking me if I had a fever, cough, or other common ailments.
Although SARS did reach Ontario, Canada, it was mostly focused on China – where it originated, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. However, given that it was much less contagious, all I recall regarding plans to prevent its spread was a temperature check at Hong Kong’s airport, that flimsy health form, and some prescient leaflets at hotels and restaurants dotting the metropolis:
See anything familiar? What’s it like eating out – if that’s still possible – in your area?
I’ve trumpeted Mexico’s outstanding food before, but how about their drinks? Does their array of natural juices, Prehispanic concoctions, liquors, and Jarritos nicely complement Mexican cuisine? Yes, quite often, I must say!
On the topic of indigenous beverages, let’s look at a couple – tejate, and pozontle – which both originate in the present-day state of Oaxaca.
Fantasy: It’s a food market in Mexico, I am invincible!
Reality: It’s a food market (in Mexico), throw good hygiene to the wind.
Yes, tejate, the first of today’s two Pre-Columbian (before Christopher Columbus) drinks, is often seen in vats at markets and bazaars in Oaxaca. Centuries before the Aztecs, the Zapotec peoples of contemporary Oaxaca were enjoying tejate. Its ingredients include water, toasted corn, pixtle (ground roasted mamey pits; incidentally, pitztli means bone or seed in the Aztec language Nahuatl), fermented cacao beans, and cacao flowers. The cacao was most likely introduced to Oaxaca from Chiapas state in Mexico through early bartering.
Generally, it is served in a bowl made of jícara, an inedible fruit from the calabash tree:
I consider tejate a light and very frothy drink, a bit bitter and not too sweet. Though there are indeed, differences in flavors, I had a similar opinion regarding the less well-known Oaxacan beverage, pozontle.
Pozontle’s four more recognizable ingredients are water, panela (unrefined cane sugar), and ground specks of cacao and corn. The cacao and corn are rolled into little spheres, which are then dissolved in panela water. The fifth ingredient, called cocolmécatl, is a vine in the Smilax genus that when ground, causes the rest of the pozontle mixture to foam.
Many of us might be quite familiar with Mexican dishes. But when it comes to Prehispanic drinks, that’s an entirely different world worth discovering.
In April 2016, the 下水報道プラットホーム, or Sewer PR Platform, decided to capitalize on Japan’s increasingly popular マンホールの蓋/ふた, or manhole cover designs, and introduced the first set of limited edition trading cards. Although April Fool’s Day is not Japanese holiday – nor is it a holiday in any country, for that matter – the first edition was issued on April 1st. And collectors are called manholers.
There’s got to be a joke somewhere in there.
Roughly every quarter since then, a new batch has been introduced, showcasing manhole cover art from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. To get them, it might be as simple as going to a visitor information center next to a train station, or more awkwardly by paying a visit to a city/town hall or sewage treatment information center. Whatever it is, the cards are free, and you’re limited to one per visit. As far as I know, English versions of the cards also exist.
Having first noticed these sewer covers a number of years back, I just wish that these were printed way back then, if for no other reason than to learn the background story to the designs. The front of a card shows a colorized manhole cover and city coordinates (and some type of manhole card collection legend in the lower right), and the back, a description of the art, as well as when the design was first executed:
After checking the invaluable Sewer PR Platform website, I decided to check out one of these sewer cards with my own eyes, this time in Fukui, the prefectural capital of Fukui…prefecture.
Although it’s best known for dinosaur fossils, according to the above, with Fukui suffering from the calamities of earthquakes and air raids, the city government adopted the 不死鳥 (ふしちょう・fushichou), or phoenix, as its symbol, and as the design on its manhole covers. Though plenty of other Japanese cities could join them in choosing the phoenix for the same reasons, the backgrounder goes on to note that the phoenix was selected in 1989, to celebrate the centennial of the establishment of Fukui as a city. Huzzah!
Coins are obnoxious. It’s not their fault…no, no, it’s because governments ’round the world can’t resist weighing down our jeans or handbags – or not, as you’ll see shortly – with coinage. Is it in deference to those of us easily distracted folk, eager to make music out of the clanging currency? Or, are they still produced so that cuprolaminophobics – look it up! – can amble over to the nearest train track to have their way with coins?
Getting back on track, I guess I used to be something of a numismatist, or coin collector. The majority of my collection consists of coins more useful these days as paper weights than legal tender – for instance, pre-euro, and something from Zimbabwe in the ’80s – but that’s part of the point of it being a hobby, no? What follows is a sampling of some of the less welcome members to pockets worldwide (and yes, I realize that they’re still money)…
The left column, with examples (top to bottom) from Hong Kong, the Maldives, Zimbabwe, and the UK, are ones that have not been eluded by the American diet. However, if one of those ever fell from your hand or pocket, you’d definitely notice it.
At the same time, are those any more obnoxious by their extremely light opposites in the right column? We have the Japanese one (y)en, the Indonesian 500 rupiah, and the bane of my consumerist existence while in China, the fen. If a cashier gives you a fen, it’s a euphemism for the country laughing at you. Bad advice: try spending it in Taiwan.
With the US quarter as a guide, the left column, with Costa Rica and the UK again, as well as the right column with Hong Kong, Belize, and the same 50p from the UK, display coins that are too darn big. Though we’re nowhere near the scale of the monolithic currency of some Pacific Islands, what’s the reason for this? Save for Costa Rica, it seems as if imperialism isn’t the only category in which the British got carried away…
The right column also shows some of the funkier shapes of coins. Someone was asleep at the switch one day, and now his/her handy work gets the attention of bloggers.
Starting from the left, we have the Japanese five (y)en, the US dime, 50 cents from South Africa, 5 sentimo from the Philippines, one tetri from Georgia, 5 koruna from the Czech Republic, and 20 colones from Costa Rica.
The first time I noticed a perforated coin was in Japan. Curious about why some coins have a hole in them? Necklaces are one reason, sewing coins into clothing, another. Thinking about it another way, the Japanese 5 en coin isn’t worth much – particularly outside of Japan – but string it onto some jewelry, and watch your coffers grow.
As for the middle column, that coinage is ridiculous small; the US penny – for its size and its denomination – and the 20 colones, were placed in the photo for comparison. I’d feel sheepish (particularly outside of their home countries) trying to pay for something with tetri, or the colones for that matter. Can you imagine a coin-only checkout line?
I hope that you enjoyed this brief tour of coins around the world. Are there any standouts in your book?
Yes, these carriers once served a purpose, be it skidding off of runways, or skidding back onto runways. Occasionally, they took to the air. Now, their memories for me last only in the form of years-old digital photos taken back when I was a more jittery flier…which, in the case of at least one of these airlines, was a reasonable reaction.
Let’s start in chronological order of when I flew these defunct jetliners.
Jet Airways: BOM Mumbai, India – DEL New Delhi, India, June 2006
First Flight: May 5, 1993
Ceased Flights: April 17, 2019
I’d like to note that at the time, I got harassed for taking photos at Indian airports/on planes (naturally, locals weren’t getting bothered); this partially explains the blurry nature of some photos. Perhaps things are different now.
At their peak, Jet Airways had hubs in Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi, and Amsterdam, covering a mix of domestic Indian routes, and key flights throughout Asia, Europe, and to New York City and Toronto. Due to its better-than-average reputation – particularly among Indian carriers – some investors look to be reviving the brand and its valuable slots by the summer of 2021.
Air Sahara: New Delhi (DEL) – (Patna PAT) – Varanasi (VNS), June 2006
First Flight: 1993
Last Flight: Purchased by Jet Airways in 2007
Air Sahara started off as Sahara Airlines, commencing flights on December 3, 1993. They most flew domestic Indian routes, though added some regional flights, as well as one to London by the mid-2000s. After Jet Airways took them over in April 2007, Air Sahara became JetLite, and then JetKonnect in 2012.
The word sahaara in Hindi (सहारा) means “help;” perhaps its owners should have thought of the repercussions of that name, since at the time of their purchase by Jet Airways, they had a mere 12% market share in India, as compared to Jet’s 43%.
Indian Airlines: New Delhi (DEL) – Jaipur (JAI), June 2006
First Flight: 1953
Ceased Flights: February 26, 2011 (Merged with Air India)
In 1953, just six years after gaining independence, the Indian government decided to nationalize its airlines. To simplify the process, Air India was strictly for international flights, and Indian Airlines – formed out of a number of domestic carriers – handled flights entirely within India.
Since they were the main event for decades for flying domestically in India, Indian Airlines also saw the introduction of the first Airbus A300, the Airbus A320, and shuttle flights (between New Delhi and Mumbai). With the liberalization of the domestic airline industry in the 1980s, Indian Airlines dominance over local traffic was conspicuously diminished.
In spite of a series of crashes and hijackings in the 1980s and 1990s, they were generally profitable; it didn’t hurt that they were owned 51% by the Indian government. Air India absorbed them in early 2011.
Adam Air: Bali DPS – Jakarta CGK, February 2008
First Flight: December 2003
Ceased Flights: June 18, 2008
Named for the son of one of the airline’s founders, and notable for its…unique livery (color scheme), Adam Air had a brief and rocky existence, reduced to dregs consequent to inexperience and cutting corners.
Adam Air’s stand-out orange and green colors, low-fares and in-flight meals regardless of the stage length of a flight were a huge hit with Indonesians looking for cheaper alternatives to the standard two carriers, Garuda Indonesia and Lion Air. However, its explosive growth in popularity was masking a fatal issue.
On a personal note, the only one of these airline trips that I vividly remember is Adam Air. I had a crazy Friday trying to get to Bali from Jakarta; at one point, I was walking waist-high in flooded fertilizer and cobwebs along the Jakarta (CGK) airport highway. It was pitch black, and I was alone.
After making to Bali (with the intent to fly to Timor Leste), my papers were rejected, but because of the severe flooding in Jakarta, I had a hell of a time getting back. Luckily, I befriended some folks at the Merpati Nusantara airline office of Bali Airport, giving them free English lessons. After eight hours of hanging out with them, one of them finally found a ticket back to Jakarta, only it was with Adam Air. To speak candidly, I was a bit nervous, but it was my only practical option. My seat had some horribly bright colors, and parts of the cabin were held together with duct tape, including by the window and oxygen masks. It was the only flight I’ve ever taken where I held my breath. Upon returning to Jakarta, traffic took about four hours to get back (usually, it was 45 minutes). UGH.
Merpati Nusantara Airlines: Dili (DIL) – Bali (DPS), March 2008
First Flight: Late 1962
Ceased Flights: February 2014
Merpati Nusantara, which means “dove archipelago” in Indonesian, took over for the Dutch De Kroonduif carrier of Netherlands New Guinea (present-day Irian Jaya province) in 1963. The merpati, or dove, aspect of the nomenclature might be related to the kroonduif, which means “crown dove” in Dutch, named after the once common bird found in Irian Jaya. Also, with Indonesia consisting of thousands of islands stretching thousands of miles, the nusantara, or archipelago, was intended to evoke the airline’s breadth.
After being bought and divested from Garuda in 1978 and 1997, respectively, Merpati Nusantara also had its fair share of incidents. With rising debt and oil prices at the time, the airline went bus in early 2014, though it seems some investors are hoping to form a Merpati Version 2.0.
Air Bagan: Bagan NYU – Yangon RGN, Spring 2009
First Flight: Late 2004
Ceased Flights: In 2015 (as Air Bagan), then lost their license in 2018
Air Bagan holds a number of “firsts” for Burma aka Myanmar: the first private airline 100% owned by a Burmese citizen, the first to use jets, the first to have female pilots, the first to introduce a frequent flyer program, and among others, the first private airline 100% owned by a Burmese citizen to go bankrupt. It is named for one of the country’s most famous attractions, the stupa and temples of Bagan (Nyaung U).
Their first flights were in 2004, primarily to serve tourists. Then, after the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Air Bagan was recruited to provide humanitarian services to the hard-hit southern portion of the Burma. In spite of these efforts, the US government authorized sanctions on the airline, which contributed to their eventual downfall. They first stopped flying in 2015, though ultimately lost their operating license in 2018. Fortunately, if they ever want to reappear, they’ve still got the domain name.
Sun Air Express: Lancaster, Pennsylvania (LNS) – Washington Dulles (IAD) – Hagerstown, Maryland (HGR), 2015
First Flight: 2012
Ceased Flights: Bought by Southern Airways Express in 2016
Formed years earlier as Sun Air International, Sun Air Express first flew in in 2008 between Florida and the Bahamas. In 2012, with assistance from the Essential Air Service program – i.e. federal subsidies for rural/remote communities – they began flights out of Houston, and Washington Dulles to regional airports…because when you think of sunny days, suburban D.C. comes to mind. Then, in 2014, they received more EAS support for flights out of Pittsburgh.
Throughout my travels, I’ve come across a heady amount of signs, ads, and menus lost in translation. Though it’s more fun when I’m able to read the original language, too, it’s very easy to bowl me over with copy that was clearly pasted into an online translator, and then pasted verbatim onto whatever deliverable for which it was being prepared.
Having spent much of my overseas time in East Asia, I can cheekily say that Japan and China share the gold medal for the volume and quality of their Engrish. However, if I had to nominate two favorites – one from each country – I think it would be these.
Let’s start with China.
In Guangzhou, one of my favorite places to wander and dine is the neighborhood of Xiaobei, known for its population of folks from all around Africa, as well being a de facto hub for Islam. The extraordinary amount of trade and commerce that occurs in this area, the seething relationship between African expats and locals, and the diverse food options all contribute to making it a unique part of the city, nay, country to visit.
In general, I would go there when hungry, either to get a bite of something Turkish, or for some superb Uyghur bread, called nan, covered in sesame or sunflower seeds:
To get back on topic, on the second floor of the same restaurant where I’d buy the nan, I would get mixed noodles with a cumin-laced soup, and a couple of kebabs.
The menu, however, had already made up its mind about who I was:
First of all, this one is so amusing in that they even got the Chinese wrong. Whereas the Chinese says 馄饨 (húntun), or wonton, their translation is of the word 混沌 (hùndùn), which alternatively refers to a chaos that existed before earth.
In other words, mentally dense.
For you see, the character 混 means to mix/blend, and the character 沌 is chaotic/murky. Somehow, when you combine the two, you get sucked up by Chinese creationist theory. —
As for Japan, it’s a shorter story, but no less risible.
After arriving in the port city of Takamatsu, I started to feel peckish. Yes, I would eat their famed Sanuki udon later that day, but for the time being, a Japanese bakery was in the cards.
For twenty years, I’ve been a fan of Japanese bakeries, starting with the corn kernel-stuffed buttery loaves, and right up to the tingly “mapo” roll found last year.
The name of the bread is – wait for it – translated correctly. クリーミ (kuriimi) is creamy, and ソフト (sofuto) is shorthand for software. But, ソフト also means soft. Of course, the folks who printed up this label – whose description reads as a “moist and soft bread with custard cream folded inside” – would have chosen more wisely – though less memorably for marketing purposes – if they had gone with the Japanese word for soft,
Would you have put these two entries in your pantheon of Engrish? Which would be your two candidates?
As a child, I used to think that the Manhattan Chinatown was one of the coolest neighborhoods to wander around, be puzzled by the Chinese characters written all over the place, and to visit a vastly different culture without needing to hop on a plane. Later on, I learned that you could get ersatz versions of Western desserts for low prices, but the standout for me was always the (Portuguese-inspired) egg tart.
In any event, after starting to travel, I realized that New York City’s Chinatowns were missing something prominent that other 华埠 (huábù) / 唐人街 (tángrén jiē) proudly displayed– a paifang (牌坊 páifāng).
Breaking down the word paifang, the pai refers to any number of communities in a fang, or precinct. Originally, they served as markers to designate individual fang, but eventually became more ornamental in purpose.
Paifang were historically inscribed with specific moral principles to obey, and/or praise the government for recent accomplishments. Thereafter, icons such as plants and animals whose sounds were homophones with auspicious words – e.g. fruit bat, which also sounds like “blessing.” Though, modern ones take a more…hospitable approach to phraseology. For example, a number of paifang have carved into them the idiom 天下为公 (天下 tiānxià “everywhere below heaven,” “the whole world/China;” 为 wèi “for;”公 gōng “the public,” collectively owned”)– this roughly translates as the world is for everyone.
With that background exposited, let’s dive into some Chinatown paifang photos from around the world…with a couple of surprises added to the mix.
What?! A paifang in China? Of course! This one leads the way to the Ge’an community (隔岸村), in the Bao’an district of Shenzhen. If you’re a tourist and you ended up here, you’ve got quite the wanderlust.
On the way to the small but bustling city of Guanajuato, capital of the eponymous state – known for silver mines and narrow streets – I noticed that some road signs on the outskirts were written in three languages– Spanish, English, and Japanese.
On January 1, 1994 NAFTA, the tripartite free-trade agreement involving Mexico, the US, and Canada, came into effect. In short (i.e. for the purposes of this post), globalization swung Mexico’s lower-cost and less-regulated doors wide-open to manufacturing. (On July 1, 2020 NAFTA morphed into the USMCA, though many of NAFTA’s original provisions still ring true.)
GM opened its first plant in Guanajuato soon after NAFTA was introduced. Years later, other countries such as Germany and Japan followed, with VW, Mazda, and Toyota as the primary brands. This is in addition to the maquiladoras, foreign-run factories, often by the US-Mexico border, which typically produce goods for the company’s home base.
For most of my life, I’ve lived close to or in big, vast cities. Vast. Wandering around them, eating all over them, and perhaps most memorably, photographing them.
Yet, after a recent cleaning of the closet, I am remiss about one major aspect of my photos from years back– for the most part, they don’t demonstrate transience in the urban jungle. Yes, of course I have shots of friends and family, but also of certain stores that no longer exist, food not readily available, and pairs of JNCO jeans too spacious even for a Missouri Walmart. But, rare is the photo that shows a building, mass transit system, or complex under various phases of construction – and on that bandwagon, how the neighborhood might be changing with said construction. Also rare, shots of the same subject during different seasons.
Only within the past decade have I thought more about this notion of the ephemeral qualities of photographed subjects; in Japanese, this idea of feeling compassion for impermanence is known as 物の哀れ (もの の あはれ), literally “the sorrow of things.”
Take this photo as an example:
Soon after the Guangmingcheng station of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link opened in late 2011, I went to the area specifically to photograph “what might become.” In other words, China is building high-speed rail stations at ludicrous speed, with neighborhoods booming up directly around those new stations. Amusingly – and ironically, for the purposes of this post – not much has changed where this photo was taken.
However, if it’s change you’ve got on your mind, then check this out…
February 2005, my first visit to Guangzhou, China. Back then, the White Swan Hotel was the swankiest place in town by a long shot, national high-speed rail was still in the planning stages, and I didn’t know any Chinese. And how about that metro rail map? Amusingly, each station has the Chinese character for station in the name (站 zhan4), in case you’d confuse the circles for donut shops.
Now, what if we look at a Guangzhou metro map from November 2019?
Apologies for the lack of clarity in the photo, but the point is made. Although mind-numbingly long and crowded, you can now travel from Guangzhou’s primary high-speed rail station Guangzhou South – to Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, with a minimum of one transfer. In fact, you can take the metro to neighboring Foshan, best known for being the ancestral home of Bruce Lee, and its own metro system. Even wilder, you will probably eventually be able to ride a metro from Hong Kong to Shenzhen to Dongguan to Guangzhou to Foshan, once – or, if – the merger takes place.
As mentioned earlier, I’ve also become more appreciate of the seasons, be it for their effect on trees, flowers, and potholes, or for the timely foods that appear. For instance, take this late spring photo of Clark Square Park in Evanston, Illinois, USA:
Looks peaceful, right? What you can’t see just beyond the trees and rocks is Lake Michigan, a large part of what makes Chicagoland livable for a few months of the year, yet what also makes it…
a torture the rest of the time! I took this absolutely frigid shot during the “polar vortex” of 2019, and I’m still shivering as a result. Nevertheless, it was this pair of photos that made me think more closely attentively about choosing certain subjects to photograph, and then sticking with them over time to document changes.
Are you interested in photography? How do you feel about photographing things that time doesn’t ignore?