Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Cheers from the past: A visit to Qingdao

In “The End of History Illusion,” Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson measured the “personalities, values, and preferences” of nearly 20,000 people from the ages of 18 to 68. All “believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future.” Try as I might, I suspect that I likewise would’ve fallen neatly into this sample.

Ten years ago, I had never been to Mongolia or Aruba and couldn’t have imagined my current relationship to these two places. In fact, I spent most of my time editing math books and pitching travel articles! This post was originally sold to Rezoom, a relatively short-lived site designed for aging baby boomers . . . 

Cheers from Qingdao

Because we were never properly introduced, I called him “The Screamer.” Nobody else paid any attention to the guy, who stood facing the Yellow Sea, bellowing a full-throated challenge to the dawn. With his mouth closed, he would have been just another member of the early-morning crowd—the women in one-piece tank suits and bathing caps, the men in nylon briefs—most of them over 50 years old and exhibiting no concern with either the chilly October temperatures or the American obsession with body image. They fished, swam, jogged, played volleyball, practiced gymnastic routines. While he screamed. I’m sure there was a reason for all the shouting, but I couldn’t muster enough Mandarin to ask.

I hadn’t learned much beyond the basics before this trip, just the traveler’s bare minimum of nihao (hello), xiexie (thank you), and yingwen maidan (English menu). That’s probably insufficient for a visit to some of China’s so-called “second-tier” cities, but it seemed to work in Qingdao, the cheerful home of what might be China’s most widely recognized foreign export: Tsingtao Beer. Despite the current difference in spelling, the name of the city and the brand are the same. Literally translated, Qingdao signifies “green island,” although it also sounds suspiciously like a word meaning “to pour.” Fortunately for vacationers, both definitions apply.

Although Shanghai and Beijing capture most of China’s first-time visitors, a smaller city like Qingdao can provide a less overwhelming introduction to the mainland. Its history mirrors that of the other former concessions in China: colonized by Europeans (in this case, Germans), invaded by Japanese (twice), liberated first by Nationalists, then by Communists, and most recently, by Capitalists. There are no tourist destinations on the order of Tiananmen Square or the Bund, but the city does have a lively pedestrian market, a regional cuisine based on fresh seafood, a fine old temple that’s been converted into a museum of folk customs—and much better air. Our well-traveled, sometimes finicky family of four, including a 9-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy, was never bored.

The most-quoted description of Qingdao goes something like this: “red roofs, green trees, blue sea, azure sky.” Not your typical jingle for an industrial city of 7 million, but stroll along Lu Xun Park’s seaside paths or hike to the top of Signal Hill and you will immediately recognize the aptness of this expression. 

There are still crowds, of course, but the density during our visit rarely surged past an entertaining level. I like watching people enjoy themselves—especially in China, where the faces are astonishingly varied and various: newlyweds posing for a photographer, formally attired in flawless white (except for the tennis shoes); grandmothers and grandsons, trousers rolled to the knee, netting crabs in tidepools; decorous old men airing their caged birds in a neighborhood square. As for the Screamer, who knows? Maybe he was really a cheerleader, practicing for 2008, when Qingdao hosted the sailing events for China’s first Olympic Games.

We stayed at the Huiquan Dynasty Hotel, for its strategic location—across the street from the No. 1 Beach. (From west to east, the city’s beaches are designated 6, 1, 2, and 3, in that order. The relatively quiet No. 2 became our family favorite.) We started each day with breakfast in the revolving restaurant on the 25th floor, then returned in the evening for foot massages, a few games of shuffleboard, or a bucket of balls at the indoor driving range.

Hotel restaurants in China can occasionally surprise you with good value and high quality. The Japanese restaurant at the Huiquan Dynasty served reasonably tasty sashimi, udon, and yakitori. Its Chinese counterpart, however, provided the sort of memories that will be forever accompanied by a rueful chuckle. The waitstaff alternated between staring and inattention. The dish we can’t forget was called “Laoshan vegetable,” after the famous nearby mountain. Intrigued by its spongy, almost fungal, texture, I made several inquiries regarding its source and preparation. All were in vain.

We enjoyed a much more satisfying feed at Chun He Lou (Spring Peace House), 146 Zhongshan Road. Although a plaque declared this “A Designated Unit for Foreign Tourists,” we noticed only one other obvious foreigner in the crowded, second-floor dining rooms. The house specialties included crispy chicken, crab with ginger and scallions, three-flavored dumplings, and chrysanthemum leaves with garlic.

West of Lu Xun Park, open-air seafood restaurants lined the road to the Navy Museum and Xiaoqingdao (Little Green Island). The day’s offerings were displayed curbside in rows of aerated tubs. You made your selections from this living, splashing menu, then chose the style of cooking. The best meal of the trip featured tender clams seasoned with small red chilies, scallops steamed in the shell, hairy crabs trussed with palm fibers, and several tall bottles of cold Tsingtao beer. All of that, plus a fine view of Huiquan Bay.

The Tsingtao Beer Museum traces the history of malt beverages from the ancient Sumerians forward to the contemporary Clydesdales. Between encounters with traditional fermentation vats and the “mystic yeast,” you could also pick up a few tips on beer appreciation, such as “serious swirling might easily be thought pretentious.” The 50 yuan admission fee included a souvenir glass, a taste of unfiltered brew, and a pitcher of draft. As the saying goes, “History is centuries old, but Tsingtao Beer will be fresh forever.”

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What We Don't Know About Bonefish

After five years on Aruba, I sometimes feel like I know each bonefish by name. This is not true, of course, as I only name the ones that follow the fly head down, for several seconds, before unkindly refusing it. Nevertheless, I feel like I know a significant proportion of our resident fish, and am rather fond of one or two.

But yesterday something happened that made me realize that I don't know them at all.

Based on past experience, I would've said that conditions were not good for bonefishing. A northeast swell had churned up the water near shore. Standing at the edge of a sea-grass flat in thigh-deep water, the occasional wave would smack me in the chest. And there was so much sand and loose seaweed suspended in the water column that I couldn't see my feet.

I hooked a couple of houndfish by stripping a deep-eyed anchovy imitation quickly through the shallows, then paused for a moment to scan the surface, the line dangling from the rod tip.

That's when the bonefish struck, angling up through the murk to take the fly. It quickly made off with all the line in the stripping basket, then pulled off a few yards of backing for good measure.

I don't know how it could see the fly in all that mess, or how—if it could make out its target—it didn't also see me. Nevertheless, it happened: bonefish on the fly, taken with the same sort of inattention that has yielded only a precious few individuals of other, less-discerning species. (Think farm-pond bluegill or hatchery rainbow.)


Later in the fight, a pelican (you can see it in the upper left-hand corner of the frame) dove on the bonefish with the intention of swallowing it. We had a rather intimate conversation, that pelican and I, about appropriately sized prey, and then I bade farewell to both bird and bone . . .

Monday, November 3, 2014

Duet for Cornet and Kayaker

One of my favorite things about the tropical ocean is its capacity to surprise. On Sunday afternoon, with the island's tourist engines in full roar, I joined the kiteboarders north of the Ritz-Carlton for an hour on the kayak.

Because of the twenty-knot breeze, I stuck relatively close to shore, chasing the roving schools of jacks with a small anchovy imitation. I was watching a far-off pelican dive on a school of bait when a blue-spotted cornetfish took the fly.

Cornetfish are a miracle of nature, closely related to seahorses and sea dragons. We often see them while snorkeling, as they sometimes hunt along the same flats and reefs where I watch for bones. (In the Red Sea, cornetfish have been known to devour the invasive lionfish. It's unknown whether our local species does the same, but we can hope.)

Calling this fish "blue-spotted" is a serious understatement, as their vivid hues are unlike anything in humanity's own drab palette. This individual came to hand without too much fuss, though it remained shy of the camera, like a wary backyard cat.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When Your Time Comes

While dragging the kayak up the sand on Sunday, I met a man who has been coming to Aruba since the mid-1970s. In those days, he used to fish in the October tournaments sponsored by the local yacht clubs. He participated every year until 1995, when one of his best friends had a heart attack on the boat and died. We agreed that there are worse ways to go; even so, he didn't have to explain why he now fishes from the beach.

In the twenty years since then, the man has caught only two fish. He sees them swim by—jacks, bonefish, snook—and he casts for them, but whether he catches them or not is unimportant to the experience.

As it turns out, he landed the second fish just last week: a snook that topped thirty pounds on the scale his wife uses to weigh their luggage. A young couple pointed the fish out to him as it cruised along the beach. "Is that the kind you're trying to catch?" they asked.

The fight took him a few hundred yards north, then south again, scattering bathers and drawing a small crowd. (Aruba being a friendly place, I actually heard about the fish on the day it was landed.) Somehow, he and the snook managed to avoid all the arms, legs, buoys, and other obstacles that might have intervened. When the leader finally snapped, the fish was too tired to swim away. "It was my time," the man said, gratefully.

Which reminds me that my own time is coming. Soon I'll be back in Mongolia for a tenth season on the river. You can spot me at the oars in this short video by filmmaker Juliaan Braatvedt, who visited us in Mongolia last season, or read about our work in this article by writer and photographer Rasmus Ovesen. (In that story, I am "the guide.")

And though it's hard for me to say if this is a sign of success or a signal of depravity, Mongolia River Outfitters was recently mentioned on TheRichest.com (number 4 on their list of "can't miss" flyfishing destinations).

While I'm gone, look for "Why I'll Hunt, Again" in the November issue of Gray's Sporting Journal, or visit Total Carp's website for the story of an unusual hatch in Tokyo.

On Flydreamers, you'll find an homage to the underappreciated lenok, and on Wattpad, a short story set in the Florida Keys that originally appeared in the fall 1994 issue of Onion River Review.

Here's to autumn . . .

Thursday, August 14, 2014

In Good Company: 2014 New Rivers Press Books

Am very proud (and not a little relieved) to report that the New Rivers Press Electronic Book Series did not perish under my influence. In fact, the number of titles has now tripled.

This year’s winners include Click, a novel by Rebecca Cook, and Up the Hill, a collection of stories by James Calvin Schaap. The opening of Click propels you into the story at astonishingly lyrical speed, with great lines like “a face just to the left of lovely.” Schaap’s stories, by contrast, proceed with the measured grace of a voice from beyond the veil. As one narrator notes, “we're fluid up here.”


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

May Bones

On Aruba, April showers don't bring May flowers, because it rarely rains. (Not in April, May, June, or July, for that matter.) But this year, May brought bonefish to the inshore reefs, where I found them busting schools of glass minnows against the rocks.

The fish hunted in packs, their dorsal fins creasing the surface. And when they began feeding in earnest, some leaped clear of the water in pursuit, just like tuna or mackerel. I caught several by stripping a small minnow imitation very fast, and several more by twitching it like a crippled baitfish.

The bones were beautiful specimens, sleek and strong, with prominent bars of darker green on their backs.

Fighting in relatively deep water, each fish treated me to a series of short, fast runs, surging between boulders and changing direction at whim. Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway)—I am looking forward to summer.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What to Read When You're Absolutely Buried

Sometimes you feel like two vast and trunkless legs of stone standing in the desert, even if you actually make your home on a tropical island. In that state of mind, the thought of opening a full-length novel can seem like an invitation to despair.

Rather than submit to such hopelessness, I've been reading short books. On the nightstand for the past few months: The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, John Steinbeck's The Red Pony, and The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide.

The Invention of Morel was first published in 1940, with a prologue by Jorge Luis Borges. Though Borges called it "perfect," I think that description misses part of the book's great charm. It's science fiction in the same sense that Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" is science fiction, and has inspired adaptations for screen or stage by many notables, from Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet to Richard Colton and Jared Green.

One of my favorite passages occurs as the fugitive-narrator contemplates the possibility of an afterlife: "this island," he thinks, "may be the purgatory or the heaven . . . (the possibility of several heavens has already been suggested; if only one existed, and if everyone went there and found a happy marriage and literary meetings on Wednesdays, many of us would have stopped dying)."

The 2003 edition from New York Review Books includes the original illustrations by Borges' sister Norah.

The four so-called chapters in The Red Pony were written from 1933 to 1937 but did not surface in print together until 1945. Understanding this fact up front might help you to negotiate the expectations created by the title story. I was unaware of the book's publishing history and read it with a combination of awe and wonder: in awe of its power, and wondering how in the world it would end. In a line like "Jody liked the things he had to do as long as they weren't routine things," Steinbeck reveals great sympathy for human frailty but offers scant comfort.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide first appeared in 2001, although readers of English had to wait for New Directions to publish a translation in 2014. The book's rise to bestsellerdom has been attributed to a review by NPR's Juan Vidal, which might be true. On the surface, it's the story of a copy editor and his wife, living in the suburbs of Tokyo, hunting for a new apartment, making friends with a neighbor's cat. Perhaps I found it so affecting because all of those details once applied to me, personally, but the more likely source of its success are sentences like these: "They were the color of topaz, and several iridescent violet streaks ran down their backs. If you poured boiling water over them, the purple streaks turned to bronze." Or: "I'd read in a book that the male of the species is solitary and tends to stake out a fairly extensive territory, and prefers being near water."

Friday, April 25, 2014

Angling for an Addiction

You can read my story on the addictive nature of taimen fishing in the newest issue of Fishing Fanatics, available for iPad, iPhone, and Android.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Aruba's Bonefish Nursery?

Schools of juvenile bonefish are again cruising Aruba's beaches—in some places so abundant that they show up in the cast nets thrown for sardines and other baits. While this individual was released unharmed, it's a sad fact that many are destroyed as bycatch, in the same way that adult bones are often killed in set nets.

Last week my father caught a dozen in one evening. Each was returned to the water, and all were surprisingly powerful for their size: a tantalizing hint of the fun they could provide if allowed to reach adulthood.

This periodic abundance reminds me again of how lucky we are in Aruba, of how significant our island's nursery areas are for the life of the surrounding seas, and of how much more productive they could be with even the minimum of resource management.

A small marine protected area—stretching from the new Ritz-Carlton to Arashi Beach, for example—could provide an invaluable sanctuary for young fish that would later repopulate the island's flats and reefs. Area regulations would ban netting, spearfishing, wastewater discharge, and the anchoring of boats. Diving (on approved moorings), snorkeling, and catch-and-release fishing would be encouraged, and displaced commercial fishermen fairly compensated.

The proposed park would include some of the island's most popular tourist sites, including the wreck of the Antilla, visited last year by the Catlin Seaview Survey, part of an ambitious project to create a baseline record of the world's coral reefs. In their expedition report, project scientists were amazed at "the plentiful juvenile fish that roamed" the island's waters, "an indicator that these reefs are ecologically important." And, like others, they expressed concern that "the reefs of Aruba aren’t currently protected, especially because we have clear evidence of the great potential."

Since 2010, the Aruba Marine Park Foundation has been working to build public and government support for a protected area, so far with limited success. You can add your voice to the chorus by visiting their Facebook page and donating to the Save the Reef program.