Travelogue: Veterans Day in America

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This was my first time being in America on Veterans Day – a public holiday shared with Australia and New Zealand, and I felt like capturing something commemorative. I did not expect to actually spend time with veterans and photograph them.

Living in the Santa Monica area means that you’re pretty close to the expansive Veterans Park, which houses a few hospitals, postal offices and a whole lot of abandoned buildings. I’ve been wanting to do a photowalk in this area for a while, and thought that today was the right occasion to do so. The park spans over 400 acres and is known to be quite lonely, so it was helpful to know that there were going to be many people around on this day.

Although I wasn’t too excited about photographing buildings, I thought that was all I was going to get, so I tried to survey the area in the best way possible – until something caught my attention.

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It was an old Barber’s Shop; the only colourful and happy looking thing in the entire vicinity. The longer I looked at it, the more multifaceted it became. It resembled a miniature farmhouse, a space that promised gaiety and a sense of community.

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While I was gawking at it, the door suddenly popped open. There stood a welcoming figure who behaved as if we had an appointment. I entered the RV and was bedazzled by an overwhelming array of iconography. The shop was more like a time capsule, filled with knick knacks of 60’s pop culture, military artefacts, modern slogans about gay marriage – as well as a magazine cut out of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. My sense of focus almost went ballistic until the man started to introduce himself.

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Dreamer served in the US Army during the Vietnam War. He set up the Barber’s Shop around 50 years ago, when he felt that it was time to give his fellow veterans some positivity in life. Everyday he is visited by people who are sad and have hit rock bottom. As he grooms them he heals them with his wisdom in spirituality – something that was passed down to him by his ancestors. Dreamer is a Native American of the Apache Tribe. He started cutting hair at the age of nine, when he was taken away from his family and sent to a boarding school.

He doesn’t subscribe to the idea of a ‘self’ and enjoys practicing the art of slipping into different realities, which he believes are all around us.

“We aren’t like animals. We’re more complex. We have the choice to be free, which means detaching ourselves from ideas, labels and a shared sense of ‘reality’. None of us know what reality really is. To be human is to have freedom.”

Upon noticing the pendant around my neck (which is shaped like the sun), he started telling me about ancient people who crossed many lands, following the movements of the sun and moon.

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He explained the history in such a detailed and enchanting manner, that it had an overpowering effect on me. I felt unusual and faint and haphazardly stepped outside for some air, interrupting him in a jarring manner. Dreamer was astonished and asked if I was entering another reality right then. In my uneasy state I just blurted out that it was my time of the month, and fanned myself with one of his old books. Although I completely ruined the moment of mysticism, Dreamer was empathetic and gave me a bottle of ice cold Yerba Mate that his customer just paid him with.

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According to Dreamer, women are incredibly powerful and are capable of superior magic, compared to men. He feels that lesbian shamans are the most potent of all, and really respects them.

It was time for his next customer.

People who get their hair cut by Dreamer are never in any sort of hurry. They don’t mind if he stops mid-snip to explain some theory or other, and they often linger till he finishes his stories. I definitely felt his talent for distracting one from life’s stresses. He speaks of unfamiliar things while boosting your spirit and giving advice about life. Although we didn’t talk about his family, it was evident that his heart had been broken very badly.

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The Veterans’ Park is full of people with tragic stories. Some suffer from trauma that manifest in unsettling ways. I experienced this at one point when Dreamer was busy cutting hair and a man from Brooklyn, who was ‘just passing by LA’, popped his head in. As he inquired about the shop’s hours he got a gist of Dreamer’s spiritual beliefs and at once became disgruntled. He started barking about how he grew up with Christianity and knew that his God was better than anyone else’s. He wanted to know whether Dreamer would try to cast some sort of spell on him, if he got a haircut. The moment made me feel uncomfortable. I hoped that the man’s aggression contained itself to only verbal insults, while I saw flashes of possible news headlines. The man left after Dreamer diverted his attention to Doctor Strange and have gave him a flier about the Veterans Day barbecue. I took a sigh of relief before learning that the area we were in was specifically dedicated to psychiatric hospitals.

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A calm customer who was getting the ‘flat top’ hairstyle was once a patient a the psychiatric hospital. He was a Korea and Gulf War veteran who met his wife during his first military service. He saw her at a local bar in Seoul, winning hand after hand in poker. It was love at first sight. They were married for 30 years until August, when he lost her to cancer. He recently enrolled himself in a technical trade school to study renewable energy, as a way of keeping his mind occupied.

As I left Dreamer’s shop, he gave me some tips on how to reverse my thinning hair, along with two parting requests; 1) that I should guard my soul at all times, and 2) that I should look at life as a linear, forward moving path rather than a cyclical progression.

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While walking out of the park I was surrounded by people I had nothing in common with, yet deeply respected. I am not in favour of war and do not know what inspires people to become soldiers – but I think it’s fair to be supportive of them. Spending time getting with veterans on Remembrance Day felt like the right way to commemorate people who’ve fought for their countries. Learning about Native American culture and getting to know Dreamer, was incredibly (if not more) important. It reminded me of the battles that native populations have had with outsiders, who’ve forced their way into lands they’ve decided to defend. We shouldn’t forget the men and women who have died for their countries; including those who weren’t soldiers of the American, Australian, New Zealand or British Armies.

Travelogue: Seriously Coburg

After leaving India I find myself missing the seedy side of life sometimes. There are only a few places in Melbourne that allows you to be around people who aren’t caught up with being sophisticated too much.

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Sydney road (in the area of Coburg) is a very vibrant and practical place. It has shops filled with the things you actually need, restaurants cooking the food you really miss and outdoor sitting areas occupied by people who talk about problems or juicy bits of gossip that are really pressing them.

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It’s also a district with a concentrated population of people from the Middle East, Turkey, Lebanon and Pakistan.

Sydney road can also be a little rough. I usually only carry my camera to click people, but after a few attempts I got yelled at, scolded and cursed pretty badly.

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One gentleman sitting outside this repair shop was decent enough to ditch the company of his old friend (who didn’t want to be photographed, which was a pity, since he was impeccably dressed) and came around to talk to me. He was really adamant that I didn’t get his face in the frame – I guess for reasons that I should be a little concerned about… Nevertheless he let me in on his life, which was charged with a tale of a great journey about hard work.

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Below is a sound byte of his story which you can hear if you have 5 minutes. In the middle of this a guy absolutely high on ‘ice’ (a drug that is consuming Melbourne by the hour) comes about and offers to get some ‘German cousins’ over for me to click, I would like to warn you about the crazy number of time he drops the F word; in any case it is a glimpse into what kind of people you bump into at Coburg.

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It was pretty nice talking with ‘Mr Venice’, who gave me some career advice as I walked away. He is a strong supporter of women in construction and this was a nice thing to hear as I went to treat myself at this amazingly scrumptious cake shop I don’t know the name of. The sign was in Greek and the lady behind the counter didn’t think I would remember it if she told me.

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And this was for $3. The chocolate was rich, cream – fresh and cold, bun – soft and spongey. I wanted this yoyo to adopt me.

The trip was eventful, overall. It’s not a swift ride if you travel by public transport from the east, but it’s a small distance to cover if you want a taste of a different world.

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Travelogue: Melbourne Alley Ways

A while ago, I had been experiencing little ‘phlump’. Nothing catastrophic, it was more like a cloudy Sunday… that lasted for three weeks. I was very relaxed, had (A LOT of) time to think and met some people I didn’t expect to shoot the breeze with. What also happened was that I kind of stopped thinking about the future. As in, no planning, no goal-setting and no cover letters. I was employed by a Social Research Centre, which got me doing what I love most; talking to strangers and asking them personal (read: intrusive) questions about the umpteen number of issues our present society is shoved with. In another post I will be generous enough to reveal some jaw-dropping comments I heard over the phones, but for now I will tell you what kind of person the phlump and research job turned me into….

An ‘Alley- Ambler’. The alley ways in Melbourne are cozy spots where people can quickly turn into and have a little breather. You don’t find drug peddlers here (yet)… (where the heck are they and do they think they’re too good for alleys now?) and they don’t smell like old urine. Obviously with these factors mentioned, alleys are practically the best places to hang out with cronies and chums.

Melbourne alley ways are pretty and serene. It’s as if the city has these little arms waiting to embrace you, when you need it.

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Gritty and Gratifying

Sometimes it’s good to change things up, whether it’s a work schedule, ice cream flavour, dermatologist and what you do on a Sunday. For me what’s important is to flip the scenery, especially if you’re in a place that is so redundant. Sure, routine can be comforting, but when you’re looking for adventure and have an itch to explore, comfort is the last thing you want to feel. I mean that icky skin crawling, gut melting sensation claws at me when I’m in that state of mind. I can’t describe it too well, but I think you know what I’m talking about. It’s strong enough to make you scream, leap out of wherever you are and run till your legs fall off…

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So in order to subvert such an extreme and irrational chemical/ emotional reaction within me, I went to a place called ‘Kembangan’, which is towards the south. It’s an area that doesn’t receive many visitors, since it’s so suburban, filled with construction yards and tiny timber or metal factories. This is precisely why I went there. I went location scouting with my partner, for a short film that we wrote (titled ‘Balu Hitam’) and wanted to get a garage for a fight scene. We caught a trail that led us through the backyards of really cool, mansion-like link houses and landed up here…

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It was a cul de sac of training warehouses , for construction workers to learn about and practice the rules of safety. It was perfect, with hooks and bars inside, but later on proved to be quite an expensive venue to rent for a single day of shooting. We walked on.

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It was amazing to find street upon street of these yards and factories, where people were welding god-knows-what and making a whole lot of great sounds. After living in India for 3 years, I guess a part of me misses that constant background score of things crashing, collapsing, getting knocked into places and fusing together with other materials. It felt like home, strangely enough and I let the noise bathe me.

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The place was so different to the rest of the country, it made me feel as if I was looking into a time capsule; this is how the country must have been in the past without the high rises… This is what it might have looked like without the regulations and economic advancement.

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The best factory of them all, was the long forgotten ‘Umbrella Factory’, which looked really shady. This was the perfect set for the lead gangster in our film, since it seemed like a legit front for some thing else…illegal. The lady inside thought we were fooling her when we approached her about renting it for a shoot. The fact that a bunch of foreigners came to that part of town to make a movie must have seemed ridiculous to her. I don’t blame her…well not too much at least.

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The trip came to an end, and it got me constantly looking for places or things that seemed edgy and different, yet often ignored by people here. What enriches a city is the little signs of decay which make it seem like a well- lived in place that has aged and allowed parts of itself to turn ugly, exposing certain layers which prove that there’s more than what meets the eye.

Places Like These Surprise Me at Times

Last weekend I was called by a friend to her cafe in a leafy and unusually quiet place in the capital of Malaysia. It goes by the name of Danau Permai Cafe. I was pleasantly surprised to see this chilled out, open air pool bar-restaurant thing in the middle of a cluster of condo blocks.

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As tranquil as it was, the funky decor of the cafe seemed incongruous to its surroundings of course, yet was refreshing in its own way, since the tropical exterior could get quite monotonous after spending a day in a city like that.

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It was as if I was transported back to the late 70’s, because of the red and black colour scheme. It was a little unexpected as not many cafes really go with such a look, but I let my judgement slide and enjoyed the 90’s music, that went pretty well with the whole experience. The cafe is one that speaks of nostalgia, I definitely got that.

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Oh but it also looked like fizzy fun, I mean the cola display and cheery staff made me want to give it a shot.

So I did.

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And oh my god, no country makes better ‘roti prata’ than Malaysia (sorry south east Asia), more specially than the men in this cafe. It was crispy and tasted a lot like love.

The piece de resistance was to follow:

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Oh yeah . This is the milo teh tarik. A concoction of delicious chocolate-malt milk in frothy chai, that was ‘pulled’ or made like this…

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It would be great if good old Coffee Bean or Starbucks could come up with a blend like this, maybe it would be enough to make me forget about my surprisingly good time at the Danau Permai Condo Cafe. Yup that’s all it takes to make me happy, food. I’m glad I dived in.

Clickity Click from ‘Rangoon’ to ‘China’

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On the way to Little India, sensing impending mayhem
No journey can start without the breaking of auspicious coconuts!
No journey can start without the breaking of auspicious coconuts!

I walked further along in my quest to find pawnshops and accidentally walked into this…

A Store Room of WATCHES!!!
A Store Room of WATCHES!!!

It was a store room of…you already know. And they were all Casios. So amazing.

Here was the star of the show:
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There wasn’t much to talk about, since he was filing his orders. I walked down the street and found a framer’s warehouse.

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Glass and wood panels
Glass and wood panels

And the star framer was at it with a very bright painting:

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We talked about how framing was a dying craft. He learned the skill from his ancestors, and went on to open this shop. 40 years later his business is thriving, but there’s no one to learn from him…

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Walking along, I noticed a studio that was capable of practically anything, with its posters. You want a photograph? You got it. A head shot with your face emerging from the Singapore skyline? YES!

Digi Studio's Hall of Fame
Digi Studio’s Hall of Fame

_MG_8030I tried to click this as peacefully as I could, there was some uncle having his midday peg who decided to give me photography tips like: “Hey you got wrong angle, click from up, so you get the down building. You’re from Italian aren’t you, that’s what I thought..”
Silly drunkard. This shot is just fine! He wanted me to get pigeons flying, which was a great idea, but not something I could orchestrate.

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Mr Karim. The face of little India’s authentic sweet shop. My meeting with him was great; he told me about how he came over to Singapore before my father was born, and worked in this sweet shop, which was established in 1947. The barfis in his shop look amazing, all chunky and soft, not to mention multicoloured. I ate a gulab jamun from a plastic cup. It was spectacular.

Coming anywhere near little India, means stuffing your face. Although I came here on an assignment, I couldn’t help my primal instinct when it came to 4pm Appam Hour at Woodlands.

The Hand of the Appam Master
The Hand of the Appam Master with his seasoned pan
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A ‘katori’ of coconut milk to make the Appam heavenly…

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And then we (my camera and I) went to Chinatown. It was raining like crazy and that didn’t stop folks from waiting in line for pizzas and pork.

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CANDY CANDY YUMMY
CANDY CANDY YUMMY

I had never been inside the People’s Park Mall, because I never knew it existed. It was interesting.

Eat my...Yeah.
Eat my…Yeah.

I think it was because the items inside were pretty outrageous and un-wearable…if you know what I mean.

Fun day though…I’ll be going to Chinatown again really soon…like in two days time. However, I’ll get to be in the main flea market area. Exciting times ahead.

New Sights with Old Friends

Tonight I tagged along with my parents and their friends… That’s what cool people like me do during semester breaks when everyone’s out doing ‘rad’ things with their lives. I had, however, very little time to be all gloomy, because the scene was so darn cool!

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And that was a minute of a live rock performance at the waterfront

While going back, we saw some dudes skateboarding under a bridge

Wheeling and Dealing at Arab Street

It was a Sunday and we felt like doing something festive and adventurous, despite the heavy tropical downpour. Living in such systemically run city, our inner thirst for chaos took us to Arab Street, tucked in a fold of Bugis Street, Little India and China Town, in the centre of Singapore.

Turkish Inspired Cafes
Turkish Inspired Cafes
The Sheesha, of course.
The Sheesha, of course.
Even the alley ways in there are beautiful..gosh
Even the alley ways in there are beautiful..gosh

We ate at the famous Victory cafe (established in 1908) and let our fingers take us along shops of fabulous fabric and BEADS!!

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French Chiffons as soft as…well air, and lovely Thai silks. What caught my attention was the amazing designs in cut work
Good deals on pisses too (Okay, pieces)
Good deals on pisses too (Okay, pieces)
Pandora Beads, from a Wholesaler
Pandora Beads, from a Wholesaler
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The lovely couple who own the shop, they were so helpful in yanking out the boxes with the right beads in them

Each bead was within the range of $1 – $3, packets were about $2.

It was easy to move around, stores are in neat rows that intersect each other. The more important thing was that we did one whole section of Arab Street (well, there are many streets in this locale, but they are collectively and generally known as ‘Arab Street’)  in an hour flat. You could spend the entire day there looking at pretty things, clicking and eating about, I know I will.

(If you want to see the end product of my bead buying spree, check out my next post!)