Delhi/Jaipur/Agra: The Unholy Trinity

Part I: Delhi

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Yo.

I’ve been in India for a week now, and I have to say – save one night with my good friend Jasdeep – it’s been a bit of a disaster. While sitting on the roof of the crudely-named ‘Lord Of The Drinks’ bar in Delhi, knocking back cheap Indian whisky with Jas was obviously a most excellent way of spending time, the rest of my adventures across Delhi and Jaipur have been arduous to say the least.

This is the first time on my entire round-the-world trip where I’ve been completely and utterly shocked by how incorrect my predictions had been about a prospective destination. Sure, Tahiti was surprisingly bleak, and Easter Island surprisingly mindblowing, but India has just totally undone me. I mean, let’s be realistic; we all know India is a developing nation, and struggling with a population of over 1bn while attempting to put together a viable nationwide infrastructure for even the simplest facilities is a huge undertaking, but I have to admit I did not expect it to be at such an early stage of development.

Because of it’s purportedly rapid ascent through the gears of infrastructural advancement, people often refer to India as one of the select few countries that fall under the category of ‘second world’ – which I’ve always seen as a bit of a vague catch-all or a cop-out. As far as I can tell, it simply defines a country as ‘not as technologically or infrastructurally advanced as the first world, but with enough industry, democracy and, say, paved roads, to not be considered third world’.

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My parting gift to Changi Airport

It’s because people are now afraid of saying the now-apparently-insulting ‘third world’ that this new category has been clumsily wedged into modern Western parlance. And India, for me, will always sit at the pinnacle of this wave of pretentious revisionism – it is the nuclear warhead at the tip of the rocket of righteousness. In Western eyes, I’ve always found that India rests in this bizarre bubble of worship, and any criticism of it is often called out as racism. There’s an undeniable cult of India. People gaze upon its grand expanses of natural beauty and its enviable ancient religious aesthetics with unrivaled awe, and so they should; India is a vast nation of hundreds if not thousands of different cuisines, languages, religions and landscapes. Yet at times I feel some people go a step too far and mistake quantity with quality.

The number of people I’ve met here (or people who have been here in the past) who choose to unequivocally praise every aspect of this complicated, confusing nation is staggering to me. It’s total nonsense; India’s social, economic and infrastructural problems are numerous and vast, and it’s utterly ridiculous to pretend they’re not. Why would you even attempt to simplify such a complex place into ‘it is good’? Is it your guilt over the British Raj or some other unspoken bollocks? All this attitude does is serve to make you look like you’re either an idiot or are so wrapped up in your new-found ‘spirituality’ that you choose to see past the hoards of people shitting in the street. Which is ironic considering how many of said people talk of feeling ‘enlightened’. Enlightened to what? Believing only what you want to believe?

India is so intense that it retrospectively makes Japan feel about as exciting as Eastbourne. Stepping out of the extremely delayed plane onto Indira Gandhi Airport tarmac, I was hit by the most suffocatingly thick mist of smog and sadness. Delhi is an absolute assault on the senses, the most notable being smell. Spend more than a few hours there and you’ll have your own personal cloud of exhaust fumes and human excrement buried deep inside your sinuses, because, I’m afraid to say, Delhi is a godforsaken shithole. The most foul-smelling, eye-wateringly stuffy and unfriendly city I have ever been to, even its long list of pristine temples and shrines are not even close to compensating for the mountains of shit you have to put up with. And I mean that literally; after getting an Uber from the airport to my hostel, I stepped out to a dude just squatting right there in front of me, next to a dead dog and an overflowing sewer. On the street. Then just pulled up his pants and walked away.

I mean – and this is the first time I’m gonna use this word without censoring it on this blog – what the fuck. Just shitting in the street? What kind of developing nation is this? Something I found particularly amusing was that I then walked past a news kiosk with a magazine that referred to an interview in which some Indian celebrity was quoted as saying ‘I find it insulting that India is referred to as a developing nation. It is developed’. Yeah sure mate, you keep believing that.

Entering the hostel, I was hit by a wave of ferocious air-conditioning, which was sweet relief from the 41 degree heat outside. After a night there, I attempted to head out the next morning to explore, but, as all guidebooks and fellow travelers will tell you, this is not really a ‘thing people do’ in Delhi. Aside from the absolutely brutal heat, the roads are also insane deathtraps, and the people of Delhi are pretty interesting. Or should I say ‘interested’. They are absolutely fascinated by Westerners, whether just to intently stare at, or to scam money out of. You step out of your hostel and ten people will come straight up to you with their shitty little auto-rickshaws, screaming ‘Where you going?! Where you going?!’. At first it seems the logical option is just to wave at them in a ‘no thanks’ gesture, or to politely decline. But by the time you get to even the end of the street, you’re practically elbowing them out the way and screaming things at them that you never thought you were capable of. To some of the more persistent ones who will not take ‘no’ as an answer, you have to just shout at them, or swear at them, and they’ll get the idea. Or maybe that’s just me.

Either way, I bailed on Delhi as soon as I could. That city is the shame of India. I went to Akshardham Temple which was pretty cool, but the queues combining came to 3 hours of standing around, shouting at queue-jumpers and sweating until I was at -100% body fat. I went back to the hostel, cruised across town in another luxury Uber, then got on a bus to Jaipur.

Part II: Jaipur

Disaster struck as soon as I arrived in Jaipur; within about 5 minutes of stepping off them bus, I knew I would hate it just as much as Delhi. It’s cooler than Delhi, it’s quieter than Delhi, and it’s less intense than Delhi, but by the rest of the world’s standards it’s still absolutely batshit insane. Rather than being just spoken to by everyone on the street, I actually had people grabbing me as I walked past, pulling my shirt, stepping into my path and holding my forearms to try and stop me, all while spending most of my waking hours jumping over puddles of raw sewage and dodging suicidal motorbike drivers as the careen onto the pavement to avoid the emaciated dirt-encrusted cows that rule the streets. Contrary to the theory that Jaipur is more palatable than Delhi, it’s still absolutely filthy. And the city’s claim of being the ‘Pink City’ is absolute bullshit; without meaning to sound incredibly middle-class, it’s not pink, it’s terracotta.

On the first day, I got up in the morning, headed to the (admittedly amazing) Jantar Mantar observatory, then to the Amer Fort, Jal Mahal, Hawa Mahal and City Palace. And then it was 11am and I realised I’d exhausted the entirety of what Jaipur’s tourist board could offer me. So I headed back to the hostel and realised something needed to change. Something about India was really not working for me. Well actually it was many things about India that were not working for me. So I took a big risk. I booked a trip to Ladakh, extending my time in India by two weeks. Come Wednesday I’m flying up to 4,000m, surrounding myself with mountains, monasteries and buddhists and basically living as a hermit for 12 days to finish off my intense round-the-world trip. Sounds good to me.

However, this meant I was now going to be in India for longer than the UK government suggest you should stay in India without vaccinations. So after much research and deliberation I headed to Jaipur Hospital to ask what the situation was, as hospitals in India seem to be lagging well behind the email age. I was told that I could come back the next day and they’d sort it for me, for £3 per vaccination! That’s insanely cheap compared to the UK, where you’d be spending well over £100 on the same thing. I left the hospital very cheerful, but then began my walk home, during which I saw some of the most bizarre shit I’ve ever seen in such a brief period of time. Here we go.

I turned onto the main road, where I saw a man driving a camel-and-cart backwards down the street. I don’t mean he was going up the wrong side of the road either, I mean he was literally reversing a camel up the road. Just turn the goddamn thing round, man. Next block, a row of guys chatting to each other while synchronously shitting in a ditch. I skipped past them as fast as I could, to turn the corner and see a perfectly working public toilet that they could quite easily have been using. A dog then bolted inside and after much splashing and canine panic, it emerged with a live pigeon in its mouth and proceeded to rip its wings off by shaking it violently in its jaws. I crossed the road and entered a small market where a man with polio went scooting past, dragging his ass through the dirt faster than I was walking, then darted into the bank I was about to withdraw money from. I went inside and saw that the ATM wasn’t working, so I turned to the bank clerk to ask if I could withdraw money via him, to the sight of said bank clerk sitting behind the desk with a full-face crash helmet on. I asked him about the money and he addressed me totally normally, muffled through the helmet as if nothing was unusual about him sitting in a bank looking like he was expecting a mortar shell. After being told I couldn’t get the money, I left and went past a number of small shops containing people preparing meat with gigantic cleavers. One of them chucked a big leg of meat out into the dirt of the pavement, a couple inches from a pile of burning feces. I assumed he was discarding it, but then proceeded to follow it out of the shop and begin preparing it actually on the pavement, inadvertently rolling it around in the shit and dirt before chucking it back on the pile with the other meat. If there was ever an advert for not eating from untrustworthy food sources in India, that was it. I walked past to see that they also had a pile of sheep heads with the corresponding pile of sheep brains next to them, dangling off the edge of the table, and a few of the little things had thrown themselves off the side completely, where a small chicken was pecking at them. Godspeed Dr Chicken, I assume you’re next for being rolled around in the dirt. I made haste across the road, but suddenly a middle-aged man sat in a plastic school chair in the central reservation stopped me and asked where I was from. I said London, and he went off on the most baffling tangent about how Indians named London; apparently the UK didn’t have a name for London, so they asked their overseas subjects to submit prospective names for it, all of which were rejected. Then, after this happened (which it didn’t), India stepped forward (which they didn’t), and said ‘what about London’ because ‘London’ means ‘dick’ in Hindi (which it doesn’t) and they were tired of the UK always asking India for names for things (which they weren’t), and so the name London is just one big Indian in-joke (which it isn’t). I told him that I’m pretty sure the name London long predates the British Raj, and can be traced back to at least the Roman name Londinium. He didn’t understand me so I left. As I got to the other side, a tuk-tuk driver asked where I was going, as they always do – nothing weird here. But then after he sped off, I bumped into him again about a kilometre down the road. I started walking past him from behind, and just as his face came into view, I realised he was chugging a massive bottle of whisky. In an exaggerated upward sweep, he shook the last few drops out into his mouth, then chucked the glass bottle into the gutter where it smashed and showered shards all over my feet, and zigzagged his way down the thankfully-wide avenue, almost hitting a one-eyed man who was sat cross-legged in the middle of the road. While contemplating how incredibly lucky I was for not having gotten into that particular tuk-tuk, a man shouted at me from across the street – ‘Ey! Ey! Marijuana?!’. Way to be subtle about it dude. Not only was he shouting it at me across 6 lanes of traffic, but it was also the middle of the day. I feel his conspicuous dealing technique may not go down so well in other countries. He’d be first for the old cane (and maybe a little hanging) in Singapore, I tell you that. In India, you often see guys at the side of the road with giant churning cog-laden machines that they feed sugar cane into to produce sugar juice, and next to Mr Marijuana was one of these guys. Just as he was halfway through his third rendition of ‘Ey! Ey! Marij-‘ a large fragment of sugar cane came bolting out of side of the mechanism and slapped him upside the face. He shot to his feet and ran at the sugar man, who proceeded to also just… run. He left his machine running and just sprinted off into the distance, drug dealer in tow. I decided it’d be better to get a taxi home, so I jumped in the nearest one and headed back.

Next day I turned up to the hospital nice and early for my jabs. The receptionist told me to sit in the waiting room, which I did for 40 minutes. Halfway through, a surgeon, complete with blood-stained scrubs, approached me – a dude sat in the corner wearing sunglasses and listening to music – and said ‘Hello! Are you doctor?’. ‘Huh? Am I a doctor? No, of course not’. He shook his head with a bizarrely huge grin on his face and walked off. The nurse came in and said ‘The doctor is refusing to give you the vaccinations’. What?! Why?! ‘We don’t have them here. Go to the government hospital’. For God’s sake, fine. As I stormed out of the exit, the surgeon ran to the door behind me and waved me off with a hearty ‘Farewell doctor man!’.

I wound my way across town to the government hospital and… in all honesty the scenes were difficult to put into words. It was the most depressing, disturbing hospital you could ever hope to see. I felt like a less helpful Florence Nightingale after the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was absolute chaos; a mix of dried and fresh blood on the floor, dead people being wheeled around on gurneys, hundreds and hundreds of people crammed into a tiny waiting room, and the smell of rotting flesh mixed with vomit. I’ve never seen anything like it. With my sleeve covering my mouth and nose, I waded through the sea of people before arriving at the reception desk. Surprise! He spoke no English. He then led me to a different guy in a different building. That guy then led me to another building, then another, then another. Then after wandering around for over an hour, dodging the strangely-located queue of elderly male amputees in the ‘mother and child’ department, I found a guy who spoke perfect English. An Islamic man with a gigantic beard, I asked where I could get these jabs from. He walked me all the way across the neighbourhood to a totally different building, and led me to a small door and said ‘vaccinations are done in here! But it’s closed today’. I almost had a heart attack.

Part III: Agra

I have nothing to say about Agra. It’s very dull, impoverished, hot and ugly. The Taj Mahal was undoubtedly impressive close up, but that’s about all this city has going for it. The famous ‘Red Fort’ was absolute shite, and I’m glad I didn’t pay anything to get in (take that you bastards – how dare you charge £0.15 for Indians and £5 for foreigners). However, you might not know this (because photos are strictly forbidden inside), but the interior of the Taj Mahal is totally bland. It has pretty much nothing in it. It’s a mausoleum, so naturally it has a couple of graves in it, but the walls are just plain, smooth marble, and is fairly small. It’s also tiny, so in 42 degree weather with seemingly the entire population of Uttar Pradesh crammed into it, it became the most intolerable little sweatbox imaginable.

Also directly across the street from my hostel is the Jalma Leprosy Colony.

No, I’m not joking.

Gabe

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Nagasaki: It Was The Best Of Times…

Part I: Death Stare

Nagasaki is very, very different to Hiroshima. There’s not a chance in hell I’m going over all the stuff I talked about in my last post, but there are a number of things about this city – particularly in regards to its history – that I find a little… unsettling.

I’m currently bolting out of Nagasaki on the Kyushu Line, to join the Shinkansen back to Tokyo at Hakata. That’s a nine-hour train journey right there, so plenty of time to reflect on the four Japanese cities I’ve seen in my time here. To sum it up succinctly, Tokyo was insane, Kyoto was beautiful, Hiroshima was peaceful, and Nagasaki? Well Nagasaki is a total enigma. First off, it’s not particularly pretty. It’s surrounded by some spectacular mountain landscapes, but the city itself is mostly concrete with the odd cobbled street thrown in. Kyoto, untouched by the war and full of ancient shrines, has a mysteriously likeable imperial feel to its aesthetic set-up. Hiroshima too had an almost-Scandinavian quaintness to it with small sidestreets, tree-lined avenues and a calming atmosphere. Tokyo is a sprawling monster of a megalopolis but even that had a certain something about it, just by the sheer force of its visual intensity. Nagasaki, meanwhile, is nothing to look at. Though the natural bay it sits in is absolutely stunning, the fact that it sits here also means it’s a big churning industrial port that never sleeps – its proximity to both China and South Korea means gigantic ships come and go at all times of the day and night. Combine that with a city centre that is about as grey and boring as possible and you have a pretty boring city aesthetically.

That is not to say that the city itself is boring. Far from it, in fact. And yet, it’s the first place I’ve been that I’m not sure I’ve liked because of that fact. Nagasaki constantly keeps your mind ticking. Sometimes it’s when you’re going up the side of a mountain in a cable car, sometimes it’s when you’re getting a boat across the harbour, and sometimes it’s when you’re near anything related to the bomb.

Oh, the bomb. How much you have ruined this city. Not only am I sure it was once a pretty little harbour town, but I’m also sure it was once populated by sane people. The bomb changed both of those things. Remember how I said it felt like Hiroshima had come to terms with their bomb and had moved on to promoting peace? Nagasaki pretends to do the same, but it’s total bullshit and I don’t buy it for a second. I don’t mind this city as there’s enough to do aside from bomb-related things, but anything regarding the bomb just made me furious.

Before I came to Nagasaki, I met many people in Japan who said they’d also liked to have gone but that it was too far away, or they didn’t have time. I met one person who heard from someone who heard from someone who had once gone, that Nagasaki is still very angry about the bomb, in a way that Hiroshima isn’t. I thought that couldn’t really be right, and that it was just something people would say because nobody else has been to Nagasaki to prove it. But holy shit were they right. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, which is far more developed and flashy than its Hiroshima counterpart, is like – and I’m not joking – stepping into North Korea. It is so laden with anti-American sentiment and cloying, sentimental, self-pitying bullshit that I literally couldn’t believe they were getting away with it. We all know the bombing was a bad thing, whether it ended the war or not. Even if it was our best option and gave us the optimal conclusion, that doesn’t mean it was a good thing. Yet the museum at Nagasaki acts as if the Allies dropped the A-Bomb for shits and giggles, like they were all sitting around at Potsdam chuckling to themselves over their brandy until Churchill got drunk enough to dare Truman to drop it on Nagasaki.

What this museum did that Hiroshima’s did not do was discuss the context of the bomb. Or at least it attempted to; it had a giant wall devoted to a timeline of the history of the atomic bomb, but it only showed the progression of the Manhattan Project, not its correlation to the war. If you didn’t know already, it would have looked like the Americans were just blowing shit up in the Nevada desert for fun and then randomly dropped it on Japan for no reason. The timeline made it look like there was no war.

Or that was until the last panel. Two big photos sat side by side; one of Harry S. Truman, the other of US Army General Thomas T. Handy. Handy’s photo had a big caption that pointedly and accusingly read ‘Thomas T. Handy – the man who gave the order to drop the bomb’. Truman’s photo was captioned with a quote from just after the bombing; We have used [the bomb] in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young AMERICANS‘. Just like that, with the word ‘Americans’ emboldened and capitalised, as if to say ‘Look at these evil allies, only caring about themselves!’. It’s war, genius. Every man for himself.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally appreciate the gravity of the situation being discussed here. As I stated earlier in the week, the bombs indiscriminately killed hundreds of thousands of people. It is both morbidly fascinating and stomach-churningly disturbing to look through the artifacts laid out in the museum, like the row of children’s lunchboxes that have been melted, or bone fragments fused to brick, a two-foot thick iron girder bent out of shape like spaghetti. It really hits home the insane destructive power of the bomb, and highlights that yes, we really did make people suffer and that is something that can never be erased from history.

Yet if you were to look at from the other side, using this museum as a proxy, you’d think it was all for nothing. By playing itself up as the victim, Japan whitewashes its history leading up to the bomb. We bombed Japan because the Japanese were refusing to surrender. We dropped the bomb because, whether they agree with it or not, we truly believed we would be saving more lives. I understand it seems like ‘special treatment’ in a negative way, because it was; that type of bomb should never have been used on people.

But Nagasaki isn’t interested in what we think. Hiroshima, with dignity and patience, debated the morality of the bombing with great philosophical endeavour and intelligence. Nagasaki comes out all guns blazing. Hey look at this photo of a kid with a melted face. Hey look at this letter a mum wrote to her dying baby. Hey look at this really sad testimony of a man whose wife died. I don’t come to museums to be told what to think, thanks. I know enough about this subject to know that the curators should have been far more restrained and respectful – by showcasing images of the dead in such an exploitative, tasteless fashion it not only degrades the subjects, but negates the whole point of discussing the bomb at all. If you cannot internally debate the ethics of the bomb, you should not talk about the bomb, full stop.

And then on to what I found to be the most outrageously offensive thing about this museum; its patrons. I was the only westerner in there, which is fine – you’re the only westerner in most places you go in Japan. That’s not the issue. The issue is this; at Hiroshima’s museum, we were stood around looking at a scale model of the city, with coloured lights being flashed onto it to denote shockwaves and fireballs etc, to demonstrate scale. Everyone stood hunched over the model in concentrated, respectful silence. Put the corresponding Nagaski model in the museum in that city and what happens? A bunch of bullshit is what happens. In the most absurdly un-Japanese fashion possible, the room turned into Kim Jong-Il’s funeral; gasps and yelps of despair suddenly lit up the room just as the spotlight lit up mini-Nagasaki in a bright orange glow. I looked up to discover that all of the women and girls present, which comprised just over half the people standing around the model, were crying.

This is a scale model of a city with a light on it. Save your crocodile tears for the photos of dead babies if you’re going to so openly play your victim card. I do not care how heartless any of this sounds – I’m not having this melodramatic nonsense – and if you were there you too would’ve seen how incredibly fake it all was. Although it’s a bit odd to say, I think realistically we all know what real crying sounds like, and trust me, this was not it. Also, this model city is the first thing you come across as you walk into the museum. It’s literally 5ft inside the front door, and already you’re all bursting into tears of grief? Looks suspiciously like you turned up ready to cry on demand, considering literally every single Japanese person in the museum at Hiroshima could keep their emotions in check; even if they secretly wanted to drop a million bombs on the US as revenge, they quietly wandered about, respectfully observing the exhibits and not openly showcasing how they felt about it. Funny how they managed that while you guys in Nagasaki couldn’t make it three strides through the front door before having a public breakdown.

And so I walked around getting a lot of something I would end up getting rather used to; the death stare. From what I could gather, and perhaps understandably, Nagasaki-ites don’t like Americans. Problem is, they also appear to think that anyone who looks vaguely western is American. I would walk around town and talk to people in shops/restaurants, and most would either shoot me a look that could kill a man, or ask me if I was American. Yep. Not ‘Where are you from?’, but ‘Are you an American?’. I got this maybe seven or eight times during my time here. I would always say ‘No. I’m English.’, which usually brought about a big smile of relief and an ‘OK!’ symbol with their hands (like we had nothing to do with bombing). However, when a cashier at a 7/11 in town frowned at me as I got to the counter asked me the same question again, I lost it. You’re working in a chain convenience store, don’t ask your customers shit like that. ‘Are you American?’ echoed down the noodle aisle, and with a big smile on my face, I said; ‘No I’m not a goddamn American but I can become one if you don’t mind your own business and serve me the coffee I asked for’. He had absolutely no idea what I said. I don’t really have any idea what I meant. There was a pause, and with a look of defeat I said ‘English’, to which his face suddenly exploded into a grin – ‘OK good!’ he exclaimed and he ran off to get my coffee. Good? It’s good that I’m English and not American? I’m loathed to be too self-righteous about this sort of thing, but if the positions were switched and I said ‘Are you Korean?’ and was visibly relieved when he told me he was Japanese, wouldn’t that be considered fairly racist?

Back in the museum, I was reaching the final few exhibits. I got to the end of the interactive exhibit room where I found a small corner with a couple of touchscreen TVs in it, and a series of buttons numbering 1-5. I looked up at the contents. Button #3: Sino-Japanese War. Aha! I’ve finally found some discussion of historical context for the bomb.

‘… the hard-fought war between Japan and China continued as Japan took more territory from the Chinese, culminating in the Japanese taking the city of Nanking, where they committed a massacre’.

… That’s it? Seriously, that’s all you can say about the Rape of Nanking? You can devote an entire multi-storey museum to the suffering caused by the atomic bomb, but all you could muster up for one of the worst war crimes in the history of humankind is half a sentence on a screen hidden in the corner? Oh yeah you looooove going into gratuitous gruesome detail about the things we did to you, either beating your chest as a show of nationalistic defiance or weeping like little bitch, but when it comes to your atrocities, you hurry the narrative along as it suits you. Tell me, where are all the women from earlier? Why aren’t they here, huddled around the screen, crying for the rape, torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese men, women and children? Where are their tears now? Seems like their tear ducts dried pretty sharpish.

The bomb caused unimaginable pain, suffering and heartache. As someone born in a country that was on the opposing side to Japan and facilitated the bombing more than any other country outside the US, I am openly willing to admit that. It was awful. Of course it was, and it was our doing. But why can’t this museum treat me with the same respect? To this place, the bomb was 100% wrong, the Rape Of Nanking is just a footnote, and the Americans are the very essence of evil. If anything it was that very brutality that the Japanese military showcased in China that led to the dropping of the bomb in the first place; by looking at past behaviour, Truman could tell they weren’t going to give up without drastic measures being taken, even if they were on their last legs by August 1945. They were going to fight – mercilessly so – until all their soldiers were dead.

And yet, what really hurt me more than anything was that the people that were crying the most, and making the biggest show of their grief, were my age. Mid-20s at the oldest, early teens at their youngest. What were they weeping for? I bet their grandparents barely remember the bomb, let alone them or even their parents. By contrast, the two oldest people in the museum- the only couple present who looked old enough to have potentially been able to remember the bomb – did and said nothing. They just observed silently.

To me, this symbolised a really dangerous precipice that Japan is sat on. As I said in my last post, the Japanese education system has faced criticism recently for whitewashing Japan’s war crimes out of its national curriculum, including the events at Nanking, and the infamous Unit 731. Were these kids, stood across the room from me, not being told about these things? And what sort of bizarre nationalism had they been force-fed to persuade them to stand weeping in public in such an incredibly inauthentic fashion? It was an absolutely surreal, confusing and, above all else, grossly insulting sight.

And on the flip side, the museum was always going to be fighting a losing battle trying to make me feel guilty. I’m the same age as the people with tears streaming down their face at what they perceive to be a great injustice – born a full 46 years after the bomb was even dropped. My country might have dropped the bomb, but I sure as shit didn’t. I mean Jesus Christ, I shouldn’t have to say it but it would be the same as me expecting a German my age to feel guilty about the Holocaust. I’m self-aware enough to know it would be an utter embarrassment to even think that, and it is that exact lack of arrogant self-awareness that will forever taint this museum in my memory.

The city of Hiroshima has come together as a community, and tried to heal its wounds with a graceful acceptance of the horror of the Second World War. Nagasaki has done no such thing. Nagasaki was handed an unenviable place in the history books, so it ripped out the page, burned it and wrote its own. I hurried through the remainder of the Nagasaki propaganda museum, gave back my headset, went the memorial hall, bowed to the cenotaph (I’m not going to hold this museum’s twisting of the truth against those who were killed), and promptly left.

*      *      *      *      *

Part II: Big Man

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Awesome technique on the skins

One thing Nagasaki definitely has going for it is trains. Being positioned at the very far western end of Japan, you’d think it’d be a simple one-line terminus. Oh no. Nagasaki’s got a bunch of lines branching off all over the place. Including, I discovered, the Ōmura Railway, a cute little two-car train that runs up and down the northwest coast of the island of Kyushu. Which, as it turns out, is absolutely spectacular. I discovered that in the period after the war, the US had an army base in the small seaside town of Sasebo, about two hours up the coast from Nagasaki by train. In 1950, they officially introduced the burger to the Japanese. As a result, it’s now known as ‘Burger Town’, and has a group of restaurants that all make their own special burgers. Hungry and a little bored, I took the coastal line all the way up to Sasebo to check out what it was like (plus after the museum I was not in the mood to hang around Nagasaki until I’d calmed down). The Ōmura Railway, leading from Nagasaki, snaking around Ōmura Bay to Sasebo, is one of the most scenic train journeys I’ve ever been on. Looking out across the water to the mountains on the far side of the bay was a sight to behold, punctuated by tiny little fishing towns with a one-way train line meandering through them.

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Someone locked the Colonel in at 3am

Then I got to Huis Ten Bosch. Yes, despite being a ‘town’ in Japan, it has a Dutch name, but all will become clear in a moment, for Huis Ten Bosch is maybe the weirdest example of Japanese audacity and abnormality I had seen so far. Listed online as a theme park, it has no real attractions. Instead, it is an exact replica of a Dutch town. With shops. And restaurants. You pay £40 to get in, and then you’re just… in a town. It’s like a holiday for people who can’t pay to get to the Netherlands. Balls to paying that much, so I just peered in as we skidded past on the train – it was absolutely bizarre. Little cobbled streets, a neo-gothic clock tower, and a palace modelled on the Huis Ten Bosch Palace in The Hague, Netherlands. What on Earth was the point in this? Well, I looked it up, and it was something along the lines of ‘to strengthen ties between the two nations’. Really? You could just hold a meeting of leaders or do a state visit, you don’t have to go batshit insane and replicate an entire town. It’s like the diplomatic equivalent of a serial killer tearing off someone’s face and wearing it as their own.

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Sasebo Harbour

I got to Sasebo, which is a fairly unremarkable little town, and found a ‘burger map’, listing each place and their speciality burger. I chose one called Big Man, simply because of its name, which did a bacon & egg burger with special homemade Japanese mayonnaise. My kind of burger. I wandered over to discover that it was a tiny little place with about four places to sit. I took the only available seat and had my truly excellent, juicy burger with some fries on the side and a pot of their mayonnaise for them. Holy shit that mayo. It was absolutely spectacular. I’ve only ever had better mayo in Belgium, and that is saying something. Who’d’ve thought the most remote corner of Japan would be the home of mayonnaise that bloody good? I certainly didn’t, but by sitting in Big Man with my fantastic food, overlooking the harbour as the sun went down, I had given myself one of the highlights of my trip.

I also decided that I would spend all my time in Nagasaki alone. Which has been quite fun, but also pretty challenging. Very few people speak English in Japan, and even fewer do in Nagasaki. Plus, romaji, Japanese written in the Latin alphabet, is pretty much nowhere to be found around here, so I can’t even tell where I’m going or what I’m doing most of the time. However, every once in a while you find some English translations that are absolute gems. I found a pachinko arcade (a type of Japanese gambling arcade) with this written on the front door;

“Ladies and Gentle man,

Buckle your belt, the adventure is about to commence.

It is in our nature to serve you with excitement and your fun,

so we will be learning much about the universe in this place.

What joy! What fun! What good! Enter at once!”

It’s an arcade, not the space shuttle. Relax. Trust me, you have no idea how much I wish I’d gotten a photo, but my phone battery was too low. I had to hurriedly write it down on my arm with a pen from my laptop bag for all to see. Also on that note when I was in Kyoto I had a subway map that accidentally referred to it as the ‘Kyoto dubway’.

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Hashima Island

This morning I had to get up at retard o’clock to make my reservation for a tour of Hashima Island. Hashima Island (also known as Gunkanjima – ‘Battleship Island’) is a miniscule-yet-notorious island about half an hour off the coast of Nagasaki. In 1810, this tiny little lump of land sticking out of the Sumo-Nada Sea was discovered to be totally surrounded by undersea coal deposits. By the end of the century, it had been developed into a huge mine, contained around 5,000 workers, and the island had been artificially expanded to about three times its original size. In order to house the workers, Japan’s first ever high-rise apartment blocks were built on the island. At that point it had a population density nine times that of Tokyo. This island is literally about 100ft x 400ft. For 5,000 people to live there is crazy. Then in 1974, due to a mixture of coal going out of fashion and it being an insanely dangerous mine stretching to 350m below the seabed, it was closed. The workers moved back to Kyushu, and the island was abandoned. And it’s stood like that ever since – a partially-ruined mess of apartment blocks, mine shaft entrances and shrines. Half the buildings have collapsed, and the remainder are just concrete shells. Pretty cool stuff.

In fact, so cool and such a part of the country’s industrial history is the island that in 2015, Japan submitted it to UNESCO for approval as a World Heritage Site. At which point South Korea and China both went ‘Hey isn’t that the island where hundreds – if not thousands – of Chinese and Korean forced labour workers were kept under appalling conditions?’, to which UNESCO responded with ‘Yo Japan is this shit true?’. Japan offered a half-hearted acknowledgement of the issue, and that’s all UNESCO needed; they passed it later that year. I should probably add that North Korea also took issue with the proposal, but North Korea bitching about forced labour? Gimme a break. Then again you could probably say the same of China. God, who knows.

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Abandoned stuff

The island was cool, to be fair. It’s a little expensive to get to and the sea on the way out is choppy to say the least, but it’s still worth seeing. One problem is that you absolutely cannot stray from the guided group, and you can only stand in three designated ‘viewing points’, all of which are squished at the western end of the island. Which reminded me of how, when I was in Tallinn, Estonia, I went to Paterei Prison, which was surprisingly similar – an abandoned former prison that was left to ruin – you could pay €3 entry to just go in and mess around. You could go into any building, climb any ladder, walk on any rooftop. Nothing was off limits. I mean, the Japanese approach is the more sensible, but be honest, which sounds the more fun?

Lo and behold, neither my guide, nor the English-language leaflet I was given on the island, mentioned any form of human rights abuses. What a surprise. They just talked about the depth of the mine, the danger of working in it, and the living conditions, which they seemed to suggest were rather good. Buuuuullshit my friend. I personally loved this note from the leaflet;

“Completed in 1958, the Hashima Hospital and Quarantine Ward was built to protect the health of the mine workers who risked their lives in the pit, and the families living on the island. For the people on Hashima, the existence of this hospital was undoubtedly reassuring.”

2016-03-29 11.02.28Oh yeah I can just imagine being kept to do forced labour on a shitty little concrete island, thinking ‘well at least if I get hurt doing this incredibly difficult and dangerous job I’m literally being forced to do, I’ll be saved from the sweet embrace of death!’ Also ‘their families on the island’? Somehow, I doubt the Chinese and Korean workers were that lucky. I also get the feeling these workers probably didn’t feel the full benefit of what was – according to the leaflet – the extremely beautiful, calming rooftop flower gardens on the island. We sped back on the boat across the sea, making some nice jumps on the way. I got to the harbour, went to the hostel to pick up my suitcase (which now has no wheels rather than one), and, after an epic slog across town, carrying the suitcase on my head, I got on the Shinkansen.

And so ends my time in Nagasaki. It’s been weird and wild and I’ve had a lot to say about it. The night view from the top of Mt. Inasa was mind-blowing, Hashima Island was intriguing, and the museum was many things, but at least it wasn’t boring. One more night in Tokyo, then I fly to Singapore. I’ll do another blog post as a perspective piece on my experience of Japan as a whole before I leave.

Wow, that was a long post.

Gabe

Tokyo: Assorted Sausage

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Well hello there

I am in Tokyo. At pretty much every point in my life up until the moment I clicked confirm on a booking form that accompanied an itinerary that contained the words ‘Tokyo Narita International Airport’ in December 2015, that is not something I thought I’d be saying until much later in my life. I had always been under the impression that Japan would be an exotic pipe dream until I’d actually bothered to not be unemployed any more, but no; I currently find myself sat in K’s House Backpackers Hostel Tokyo, mug of instant coffee in hand at 1am, writing a blog post about the most insane 24 hours I’ve ever experienced in a new country.

 

I know it’s incredibly trite to describe Tokyo – or Japan as a whole – as ‘crazy’ or ‘intense’, but once you set foot in the Land of the Rising Sun, you quickly realise that those labels come with concrete backup. Evidence of Japan’s unrivaled insanity flows through every sidestreet, hangs from every luminous facade and permeates the walls of every 7/11 that sells spaghetti carbonara in a vacuum pack with soy sauce.

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A classic British dish from the British pub – assorted sausage.

Flying in to either Hanida airport or the far-less-conveniently-located Narita airport, you are treated to an endless stream of magnificent vistas, ranging from tropical islands forming stretches of dots to the horizon, to the indisputably obvious grandeur of Mount Fuji, to the neverending skyline of Tokyo itself. From the sky, it’s clear that Tokyo is practically a country all of its own; rather than the classic centre/suburb structure of pretty much any major city on Earth, Tokyo is a blurry jigsaw of cities smashed together to form a whole that, in all honesty, doesn’t really stand together as a whole. For instance, I’m currently staying in the Asakusa neighbourhood in the northwest of the city, but I don’t have to travel for anything – Asakusa has its own chain shops, its own tourist sights and its own centre, as do all the major neighbourhoods of Tokyo. In fact, so far I’m not entirely convinced Tokyo has a ‘centre’. I’ll attempt to find out tomorrow, even though I could quite easily just look it up now.

 

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‘The Scramble’, Shibuya

After landing at Narita (thanks Jetstar), I had to navigate my way through the Tokyo subway using only a Japanese-language map, which, to put it lightly, was nearly impossible. I somehow ended up catching an express subway to Aoto station, at which point I jumped on the next train in a total gamble which luckily paid off, and I ended up at Kuramae station, a 200m walk from my hostel. I trudged in and to my room with my oversized suitcase, and immediately turned round and headed back out the front door to track down some food. On Edo Street, right outside the hostel, there’s a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Burger King and… a random little hut with a name and menu entirely in Japanese. I know which of those I’m gonna choose. I headed in, sat cross-legged on the floor at a shin-high table, and was handed a menu. And so began one of the oddest meals I’ve ever eaten. We can all agree that sashimi is a highly popular dish all over the globe for good reason, right? Well I guarantee you, whatever kind of sashimi you’ve been served at any point in your life, it may have been delicious but it’s some inauthentic bullshit, because there is no justification or place in the modern world for what I got given when I ordered an assorted sashimi plate in what I subsequently discovered was an actual sashimi restaurant in Tokyo.

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Not the best choice of name

My beer, which was for some reason poured by a beer-pouring robot that sits in the corner, arrived first, so I chugged it down to get myself mentally and physically prepared for what was on its way to me. About two minutes later, a remarkable sight; a wooden board laid out in front of me with an assortment of different shimmering, raw seafood items. I recognised my good friend octopus on the right, and the big chunks of salmon next to it, but the rest was a total mystery. There was a pile of grey-brown fish slices, then a few rolls of strangely transparent flesh next to that, then some prawns, and finally an awkwardly-placed fish head/tail combo at the far end. First, the octopus, which I mistakenly smothered with wasabi before taste-testing, and I had to sit there wincing, tears dripping into my beer for the next two minutes. It was the most intense wasabi I’d ever been in the vicinity of, let alone having put in my mouth. I pushed it to one side and continued with my marine quest. Raw octopus is kind of bland and tough, so I moved onto the salmon which was extraordinary – easily the best salmon I’ve ever eaten. However that was in short supply, so I picked up the strange transparent thing and gave it a go. It was chewy, flavourless and rubbery, with a strip of thick fat running through the middle. I called the waiter over to ask what I was eating, and he flipped the menu over and pointed at ‘whale bacon sashimi’. Right. I’d been in Japan about two hours and had already accidentally eaten whale. Onwards and upwards. Next was the brown-ish fish, which was also excellent, though very pungent. And then the prawns. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten prawns totally uncooked, but there’s two things you’ll have noticed about them if you have done. One is the fact that when you take the head and tail off, there’s blood. Like proper red blood. I don’t know why but I found that really odd. Second was how utterly revolting they are. They can be categorised as slimy, squishy and leaving a nasty film over the inside of your mouth.

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AVE SOME OF THAT

I called the waiter over again and pointed at the only two remaining things on the plate; the fish head and tail. I made a hand gesture as if to ask ‘do I eat these?’, hoping to God he would turn around and laugh me out of town, which is kind of what he did. He said ‘no no no no no!’ and took the plate away, much to my relief. However, about three minutes later the head and tail was returned to me, having been shallow-fried. I froze for a second and looked up at him. I slowly raised my hand to my mouth, apprehensively making the ‘do I eat these?’ sign again, to which he nodded, said something in Japanese and pointed at the kitchen. I turned all the way around and saw that the two chefs I had walked past by the entrance had come all the way over to my table to serve me this plate of fried Japanese fish head and tail and wanted to watch me eat it. Talk about pressure, man.

I went for it with my chopsticks but the guy told me to eat it with my hands. I broke off some of the gill and ate it. It actually wasn’t that bad, and seemed to satisfy the two chefs, who bowed and went back to their sweatbox kitchen. However, the waiter hung around like a cloud of intestinal gas made a ‘eat it!’ gesture with his hand. I hope you’re all proud of me cos I just f*ckin’ went for it. The whole head down. Boom. Sure it was bony, but really I felt like I got off kind of easy; it was just like… fish. It actually was kind of nice. Anyway, I rewarded myself with another robot beer, paid up and left, at which point I discovered that the waiters at this restaurant follow you outside as you leave, and bow as you walk away. That was kind of cool.

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Meiji Shrine

Next day I woke up and set out into the world of Tokyo, just to see what was up. No plan, no nothing. I ended up navigating the painfully weird subway system across town to Tochomae and went up the government building which famously has great views, and the observation deck is free. Suck on that, Tokyo SkyTree. I saw the Meiji Shrine in the distance so walked over there, did the whole handwashing ritual and went inside. The shrine is a really awesome place, and is a tiny little beacon of quiet in an intensely noisy city, but it’s also jammed full of tourists, which is odd. There are guards telling everyone to be quiet, so you’re surrounded by hundreds of other people, none of whom are making any noise. It was surreal to say the least.

I walked across to Shibuya to see ‘The Scramble’; the famous intersection featured in every band’s music video if they persuade their label to allow them to film it in Tokyo. It’s not much to shout about, it’s just a very busy junction. I assumed it would be surrounded by a wall of restaurants and bars that look down onto it, but no – the only thing that sits up high and looks down on Shibuya is a goddamn Starbucks. Thanks but no thanks.

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The world’s saddest selfie

To me, the most notable tourist attraction in Tokyo is Tokyo itself. Rather than walking from one amazing sight to another, the surprising and culturally baffling sights present themselves to you as you make your way between destinations. There are obviously the clichés we all know; every street coated in neon lights, every man wearing a black suit, every girl wearing the most over-the-top plaid school uniform. Then there are other things that pop up unexpectedly. For instance, one example is that nobody in this city locks their bikes up. Obviously bike theft is just literally not a thing in Tokyo. Rows of hundreds of bikes, bunched together, and all totally open to just… taking away. Another is that the subway has ‘women-only’ carriages on their trains on weekdays; a fact I learned when I accidentally ended up in one while travelling to Asakusa. However, the Japanese are much too polite to make a fuss, so I just sat there with a lot of uncomfortable gas-mask-clad women giving me glances out of the corner of their eyes until I slunk off.

 

It’s just random little differences like that, that seem so inconsequential in the long run, that are the most troubling as a foreigner. I’ve been here for about 48 hours, but trust me, culture shock is no joke. The hostel I’m staying at is populated mostly by Japanese people, so there’s limited scope for meeting people who I can hang out/go out with due to the lack of English speaking natives. As a result, I’ve spent the last few days totally alone, 6,000 miles away from my home, with a time difference that means I can’t really communicate with people in London very easily, in a country where nobody speaks English and has an alphabet I can’t read. While intense and visceral and insane, Tokyo is simultaneously wearying, alienating and, surprisingly, lacks warmth. That’s what has hit me the hardest since I’ve been here. Everything is so clinical and, really, rather cold. It may sound like a good thing that the streets are freakishly spotless, the people are efficient and determined and everything you could ever want is available in every shop at all hours of the night, but somewhere in the middle of it, Tokyo is just so crazy that, to an outsider, it’s more of a performance piece, Synecdoche New York-style, than a real functioning metropolis. It’s the kind of place it’s absolutely mindblowing to visit, but I could never in a million years envisage myself living here.

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The concept of the 24-hour clock takes on a new twist in Japan

And on that note, I’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation about 50,000 times in my life. It’s been one of my all time favourite movies since I first saw it in 2003. I’ve read a number of theories about both its popularity and how accurate its portrayal of Tokyo is, and the more outspoken views tend to come from one group of people; self-righteous westerners who have never set foot in Japan. Seriously, the amount of shit this film has gotten for being ‘offensive’ towards the Japanese is not only total bollocks, but also totally misses the point of the film. Take, for example, these two quotes about the film from North American publications;

 

“[The film] says, as racists often do, that foreigners, in this case Japanese, are inherently comic and stupid. Of all the Japanese in the film, not one comes across as much better than a cretin.” – Robert Fulford, The National Post

 “[The film] is an ethnocentric compendium of unpleasant stereotypes, indicative of the way foreign workers often view Japan.” – Steve Burgess, Maclean’s

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View from the Government Building

The first is plain wrong. It is not a film of mockery, it’s a film of observation, and – whether you like it or not – accuracy. At no point does it say or do anything that may be even misconstrued as overtly offensive toward the Japanese, it merely shows Japan as a country that developed at the same rate (or perhaps faster than) a country like America, and so stands as a monument to cultural differences and their impact on the growth of a nation. Americans have supermarkets that sell cheese in an aerosol can, while the Japanese have supermarkets that sell – as I discovered yesterday – sandwiches that contain strawberries. They’re both weird to me. It’s not a detriment to Japan, nor its people, nor its culture. Also, the insular perspective of the film is down to its two main characters being deeply flawed people who are noticeably introverted and unwilling to blend in. That in itself is more of a slight on American tourists than it is Japanese natives. The whole point is that there are no Japanese characters in the film, so how, as you say, can they be portrayed as ‘cretinous’? Sounds to me like you’re the one that extrapolated that conclusion.

The second quote is just bizarre. Isn’t that the whole point of the film? In fact, by saying that Lost In Translation is ‘indicative of the way foreign workers often view Japan’, doesn’t that technically mean that the film succeeds in exactly what it’s trying to do – portray the confusion, exhaustion and constant state of comparison to home that accompanies spending time in Tokyo?

I could write so much more but I know nobody wants to hear it. I’ll move on.

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Where am I supposed to keep my commuting skis then? God dammit.

So I was in this bar last night after heading out into town on my own, and after knocking back a few Suntory whiskeys (yes that is the brand that Bill Murray’s character is advertising in the film – this was coincidental), I called the bartender over and pointed at the menu. ‘Shochu’. What on Earth is that? I know Japanese whiskey is big these days, and sake is obviously very famous, but shohcu is not something I was familiar with. He spoke no English, so he brought a giant bottle over (I mean literally the size of his torso) and put it in front of me. It was all in Japanese. I couldn’t read it. The guy next to me then went ‘potato’, but in an accent that was quite strong, so I asked him to repeat it. I also wasn’t expecting him to speak English so I was a little taken aback. ‘Potato! Potato potato potato potato potato’. I was sat at a bar with a man saying potato at my face. At this point I realised he may not have been able to say that much in English. I, foolishly, said ‘potato?’, to which the bartenders and the guy again piped up with a grin-laden chorus of ‘potatopotatopotatopotato’. I said ‘potato!’, and pointed at the option to mix it with oolong tea.

 

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Sean Connery’s napkin range

Just as it arrived, the guy next to me attempted to ask where I was from. I said England, to which he went ‘Ah England! You know Dad Bakaim!’. Dad Bakaim? I asked him to repeat himself. ‘Dad Bakaim. Football. Football football football’, each repetition partnered with an upward flick of the head. ‘Ohhhh David Beckam!’, ‘Yes Dad Bakaim yes yes’. He pointed at my drink. ‘Potato?’. ‘Yes it’s very good!’. It wasn’t. It tasted like unsweetened oolong tea mixed with potatoes, probably because that’s exactly what it was. ‘Barry!’ he then exclaimed. I didn’t know what to think. Was he going down the football path again? Was it Gareth Barry this time? Of all the players. ‘Barry?’. ‘How say? Barry?’. I said ‘Yes, Gareth Barry’. He got his phone out, did a quick Google search and opened a web page in Japanese. He point at the title and said ‘Gareto Barry’. I couldn’t read it so I said ‘English?’. He hit translate and so opened a translated English page about barley. Oh shit. I said ‘Ohhh you meant barley? In my drink?’. ‘Yes, barley’, he said, pointing at the glass. ‘No potato?’ I asked. ‘Yes, potato potato and Gareto Barry’. What have I done to this poor man. I left, stepped outside into the pouring rain and looked across the road to see a big advert for H&M featuring Dad Bakaim.

 

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Yo.

This is kind of a ‘Part I’. I have so much to say, so more to follow once I finish my pile of egg mayonnaise with prawns and onions. Genuinely delicious.

 

ALSO I’m meeting up with an old friend tonight so THAT should be fun. Though I don’t know why you’d really care.

Gabe