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DAILY MISSIVES

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I was awoken this morning by the worst two words that you ever want to be surprised by. 

“Happy anniversary.”

I had completely forgotten. 

I had completely forgotten to the degree that I couldn’t even fake it. 

While I haven’t always been the best anniversary partner, I had at least never cconpletely forgotten it before. I guess I’m 7 for 8 — that isn’t bad, right?

Bu I felt bad. It was the exact opposite of what I should have done to show my appreciation for the person who took care of my two kids so I could run around the world doing research for books and making documentaries. 

Somehow, I would have out to make up for it. I put off working and headed out with my wife and kids to celebrate. I don’t know who made up this rule, but, apparently, you’re supposed to give ceramics as a gift for an eighth anniversary. So we headed out to a local ceramic factory that makes the bottles for Kaoliang liquor. It seemed appropriate. 
Taiwan is the fifth different country that we are celebrating an anniversary in. 

For our first anniversary my wife and I were in the jungles of Guatemala. Petra was still a baby — a couple of months away from her first birthday. We found a babysitter and went kayaking down a river only to find that we kind of sucked at kayaking. Later on we went skinny dipping. We were a little better at that. 

For our second anniversary I was in Iceland and my wife was in Maine. I had yet to establish the fact that I would sometimes be traveling away from the family for work. However, at that time “work” consisted of blogging on Vagabond Journey, so my position then wasn’t as cinvincias it is now. My wife’s family took her out for Mexican food to make her feel better. 

For our third anniversary we were in China, staying in a small tier-4 city called Taizhou. I believe we went out to a restaurant called Water Paradise. 

For our fourth annniversary we were still on Taizhou, and one of my wife’s coworkers took Petra out shopping so Hannah and I could go out. We ate steak. 

The next year we were in Xiamen, in the southeast of China. Petea went over to a friend’s house to stay the night for the first time. I bought Hannah a new dress and we went out and drank some cocktails.

On our sixth anniversary Hannah was fully pregnant. We got hamburgers in Bangor. 

For our seventh anniversary we were in Krakow. Rivka was sick. Hannah had been holed up in a hotel room with her for days. She hadn’t really eaten anything in 72 hours besides little pastries that I would bring to her. It was miserable. But I talked her into leaving the hostel for an hour or so to get hamburgers, cake, and a latte. 

Our anniversaries haven’t always been the best of days. But there is something about this that I kind of like. It is easy to be with anyone when the times are good — how much fun you have with someone is irrelevant. It’s in  the tough times, the less than perfect set ups, the long roads that you just want to come to an end that you really need somebody — where someone’s true mettle really comes out. 

Each anniversary I feel really satisfied with myself — real fucking smug, in fact — because I chose/earned/lucked out with an inordinately incredible person. I won that lottery. 

This is a woman who married a travel blogger with next to no prospects and believed in him — believed in him enough to fully support the entire family for a year so he could write his first book. I think back to that period and I’m still absolutely awe struck. That really happened. That person really did that for me. 

Anniversaries are really difficult days for me. It’s really tough to come up with something to show how much you appreciate someone like that. 

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You Own Your Own Story 

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When you set out to document your life you are inherently documenting the lives of the people who are around you. The problem comes in the fact that some if these people may not want to be part of your stupid blog. So what do you do?

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My wife’s great uncle was Richard Bellman, one of the creators of the atomic bomb and someone who is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest mathematicians to ever live. After he met Albert Einstein he referred to him merely as a “good physicist,” which is a bit of a dig when coming from a mathematician. 

Bellman’s biggest contribution to knowledge was perhaps a mathematical equation for solving impossible seeming problems by breaking them down into smaller, solvable parcels. This system laid down the groundwork for AI and can also be used in everyday life — quagmires of travel are especially solvable via a dummied down version of the Bellman Equation. 

But one thing that I found especially interesting about this guy was that he openly publish random ideas — virtually unedited, unadulterated ideas in the raw. 

“If in the middle of the night he got an idea he would get up, write a paragraph about it, and then publish it in some journal,” his daughter once told me. “Sometimes a colleague would read it and find some mistake in it and would bring it up to him. He would just respond, ‘That’s great, now publish a paper about it saying why it’s wrong.'”

This was a move that was all about advancing knowledge, and he seemed to understand that missteps along one road could be enough to put someone else on track to continue the journey. 

For a writer, the equivalent of this is blogging. 

A blog is a testing ground for incomplete ideas. It is a place to shoot off random observations, opinions, and less-than-conclusive conclusions. This is done for a reason: putting such raw ideas and observations out there is a way to see how well they hold up, it’s a way of testing how far they can go. 

Sometimes doing this is just going to make you look amateur, but sometimes it will lead you to somewhere you would never get to otherwise. 

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Why I Keep Coming Back To Kinmen

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Kinmen island is a version of paradise. 

What I mean by this is that it’s the kind of place that a certain swath of people envision when they close their eyes and think of the place they’re longing to escape to. 


It’s a Sinologist’s fantasy: a hidden dot of China virtually frozen in time by a protracted military conflict. The place was under martial law until the 90s, and for decades few people other than soldiers would come in — the outside world kept firmly at bay. Though hardly 3 kilometers away, it wasn’t until a handful of years ago that the border opened up to mainland China. 

Kinmen is full of homes and shops of various types and styles, a menagerie of influences from old Minnan culture, colonial SE Asia, Japan, and the modern concrete era. This kaleidoscope of architecture is arrayed in traditional villages and along the streets of small cities. 

I rented out a courtyard home here for $199 per month. There is a stone gate in front enclosing a good sized patio and in front of that is a small playground. 

My seven year old daughter can just yell that she is going out and go. She can run around the village on her own, embarking on little adventures with the local kids or just going out to swing for a while by herself. She’s never had this much personal liberty before. Usually, she’s caged up in some high-rise, a hotel room, or Bangor, ME — a place which could be rather accurately described as a white ghetto. I like the fact that my kid has a little more room to roam — as I had as a kid growing up in the countryside of Western New York.


Like all proper paradises, landing on Kinmen comes as a relief — like a colossal exhalation, that proverbial weight being lifted. A smile comes over your face as you walk through the ferry port or airport because you know that you just stepped into a realm that is still somewhat insulted from the outside world — insulated from the outside world in a good way. You can settle in here and just forget that everywhere else exists.

That’s the definition of a paradise, isn’t it?

This is my forth or fifth time here. I keep coming back for a reason. 

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How To Keep Ants Out Of The Kitchen

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Either my wife massacred a cucumber in a whirlwind of rage or she was trying another hippie remedy to keep ants out of the kitchen. 

It ended up being the later. 

We are staying in an unrestorated traditional courtyard home in a village on Kinmen island. This is a very rural place — things other than humans actually live here. The house is on a hill and a cool breeze comes in through the wide open front doors and circulates through all the rooms. The windows are kept open, the cracks and crevasses of time provide additional ventilation. An array of insects wander in and out at will. 

These include ants. Lots of ants. 

A train of ants making their way across my bed isn’t anything to bother with, but that same train heading into my food requires a very different reaction. 

My wife tried dish detergent, lemons, and some other stupid shit that she read about somewhere, but what actually worked was probably the least likely seeming: cucumber peels. 

She spread cucumber peels over the sink right in the path of the ants. By the next day they were gone. 

Apparently, this works because the ants taste the peels, don’t like how they taste, and then determine that everything else in the house tastes equally as shit, so they move on to the next place like a gaggle of food snobs in a tourist town. Apparently. 

So now we don’t have ants in our kitchen — instead we have rotting cucumber peels scattered around everywhere …

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Fan Tuan Man Still Here

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The first time I came to Kinmen was in 2012. I walked into Jincheng from the port and the first thing I did was get a roll of fan tuan from a guy selling it in the street next to the bus stop. The guy smiled, asked me some questions, we had a little talk. He was the first person on Kinmen that I ever met. 

Two years later I returned, and the first thing I did was go and get some fan tuan from the same little street stall. He remembered me. Not only that but he remembered what we talked about. I was impressed. It kind of felt good to have been remembered. 

Going to meet the fan tuan man then became one of my Kinmen arrival rites. The next time I came I introduced him to my wife and daughter. 

This time though was the real test. I hadn’t been on Kinmen since early 2015. I arrived, went into Jincheng, and the fan tuan guy wasn’t there. Where did he go? How could he just leave? The guy and his stall are landmarks in this little city. 

A day went by and I came back into town this morning. I lackadaisically peer over in the direction of where his cart usually sat as I walked out of the bus station not expecting to find him there. Instead, I found him looking back at me waving. 

Travel long enough and you will find that you are no longer homeless anymore. You return to places many times that start to feel familiar, places that you get to know through an extended series of temporal waypoints. And sometimes, every once in a while, these places get to know you too. 

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Kinmen is a set of islands of Taiwan 3km from the Chinese mainland. To the north, west, and south is PR China. The main island of Taiwan is an hour’s flight over the sea away.

Little Kinmen is so close to China that you can look over the narrow expanse of water and see the other coastline clearly. I once had a base of operations on the other side in Xiamen. I had an apartment on the beach, and each morning I would wake up and look out at Taiwan.

While Kinmen has traditionally always been inconspicuously referred to in conjunction with Xiamen, it has now become a historical oddity. It was, and still is, the last stand of the Guomindang — the KMT, Sun Yat-sen’s and later on Chiang Kai-shek’s posse who helped overthrow the Qing Dynasty and more or less ruled China as a republic until the Communists gave them the boot.

But what is seldom spoken of is the fact that the Mao-led Chinese communists never fully won their civil war. The Nationalist government that they rose up against fled to Taiwan, leaving the Kinmen islands as the final frontline, where they bunkered down and have yet to be rooted out.

This is why the Taiwan issue burns PR China so bad: it’s probably the People’s Republic’s biggest failure.

Technically speaking, the Chinese Civil War never ended. Officially, at least, the Communists are still at war with the Nationalists. The frontline is still Kinmen, where I should be for the next two months.

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The Two Sides Of Any Art

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There are two sides to any art: mastering it and communicating it. 

One skill set is basically irrelevant without the other. You may be the best in the world at what you do, but if nobody knows it then what’s the point? Likewise, you may be able to sell a sack of shit, but if that shit isn’t grade A you’re not going to get very far. Being the best is not good enough– you have to be able to make us believe it too. 

While I wouldn’t say that learning the art itself is the easy part, it is what most people tend to focus on. In any given art there will be far more people who are proficient at it than there are available spaces for. There is only a certain amount of slots at the feeding troth for those who wish to make their art their living, and once you get up to a certain level everybody is going to be exceptional. Skill alone is not enough.

Those that make it are not only those who are able to produce the goods, but those who are able to communicate what they do, who are able to make right connections, who are able to make people believe that they are among the best — those who are well liked and offer something to the people around them that goes beyond the art that they’ve mastered. 

It’s that something else that gets you there. 

You may call this superficial, and you may be right, but it’s this superficial element that is incredibly difficult to master — it’s an art in and of itself. 

It’s the same game in journalism, music, academia, painting, architecture, urban design, running a start-up, sports– pretty much any sought after profession where the row of cows is far longer than the trough. 

When I got my first book deal I was confident that I was able to do the art — actually writing the book. What I was less sure of was the other side of the profession: being able to sell it (i.e. being able to sell myself).

I am incredibly lucky because when I began this venture I was so incredibly bad at communicating that I had to approach it like an entirely new mission, like I was going to have to learn something incredibly complex from the ground up. By viewing this as something difficult it became something interesting, and, in a way, fun — an entirely new art to learn and master.

It was just another game to play: let’s see how far I can get. 

While it’s not all about who you know, it is half the game. 

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Arrival On Kinmen 2017

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We arrived. At this point I don’t often describe journeys as being long. If it’s a journey, it’s long. That’s normal. But the journey down from Bangor, Maine to Kinmen island of Taiwan was long — proverbially and otherwise. 

A month or so ago my wife informed me that the status quo of me traveling around the world working on various projects while leaving her in Bangor with the kids had come to its end. She just wanted to return to the USA to have our second child, not to stay there indefinitely. She wanted to get back to traveling. 

Story here:

She said that she didn’t care where she goes just so it wasn’t Bangor, Maine. So we put it to a vote:

Kinmen won, so here we are. 

The trip here?

Well, a big weather delay out of Portland left us with thirty minutes between the time our flight touched down in JFK and the scheduled departure of our next flight to Seoul. We had to change terminals. We shouldn’t have made it. But Korean Air held the flight. We made it. 

Skip ahead a long flight and long layover and like a full day later and we’re in Taipei. We stay there for two days and then flew to Kinmen, which is around three kilometers from the Chinese mainland. 

My daughter Petra is a born traveler. She takes the road well. Traveling is just normal for her. Through the dirges she sits and reads or sleeps, when she’s bored she starts conversations with the people around her, when it’s time to run, she runs. 

“Can I call myself a world traveler?” she asked me the other day, showing that she’s starting to identify with — or is succumbing to — the title. 

My daughter Rivka, on the other hand, is a little more, let’s say, normal. She cries, she whines, she wails when on planes and busses. She squirms, she demands constant attention, she gets ravaged by jet lag. Rivka is a bit of a landlubber. She wasn’t born on the road, and it shows. 

I won’t get into the rigors of the trip here — it’s nothing beyond what anyone would expect. But we’re here now: a traditional Chinese courtyard house on a sort of remote, highly traditional island. The place is a version of paradise. I’ve written about it extensively here:

http://www.vagabondjourney.com/asia/east/taiwan/kinmen/

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Filming A Documentary In Songdo

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I just finished up two weeks of filming a couple of short documentaries in Songdo — a massive new city built on reclaimed land near the Incheon airport in South Korea. While I’ve worked on documentary projects, video news items, and other film related endeavors before, this was the first time that I ever attempted to shoot a film solo.

I quickly discovered that there is a reason why filmmakers tend to work within crews: it’s not an easy thing to do alone. It’s basically three jobs rolled into one: setting up the engagements, doing the interviews and arranging the scenes, and doing the actual filming. Basically, you’re answering the phone and responding to texts, talking with the people in front of you, setting up multiple cameras, asking questions, and plotting out a narrative at the same time. This project made all of my other solo journalistic endeavors seem rather simple, but by extension it was probably one of the more rewarding pursuits I’ve done yet.

I’m trying to develop a faster, cheaper, better model for making films. I’m not attempting anything that hasn’t been done before, but I’m tying to find my own way of doing it. I just spent a year working on a big documentary project that apparently got canned due to a lack of funding. The producers were looking for someone to give them $3 million, and when that didn’t happen the project fizzled out. The film would have been a record of a major global paradigm shift that isn’t being properly documented, and in a way the film had a long-term value far beyond whatever educational or entertainment value it would have provided in the present. It was to be a history in the making.

The fact that it won’t be made due to what seems to me to me an archaic funding model left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. That bad taste isn’t directed towards the people who were working on the film but towards the conventional method that filmmakers have for acquiring funding, which seems to be little more than an ongoing cycle of begging and waiting. We waited, waited, and it never happened.

That said, I tend to have a rather excessive “just go out and fucking do it” type of disposition that occasionally isn’t calibrated to reality.

That said, the sheer ignorance of the thin threshold between possible and impossible is probably among my most valuable assets. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now if I plotted out my steps with any semblance of rationale. The journey here was nothing if not absurd.

However, I know that one thing is for sure: new funding models for journalism are needed. We live in a strange time when quality international coverage is perhaps wanted and needed more than ever but its value is less than ever. When even the largest, most respected publications are struggling financially, those who can come back with the story for less are going to be the ones with the opportunities — or, put another way, are going to be the ones actually out doing the cool shit. Which is, ultimately, what I’m in this for.

So I went out and filmed the Songdo docs alone. I made some mistakes, but most were of the type that you analyze, laugh about, and never make again — i.e. the valuable kind. I’m editing these films now, and should have them finished by the middle of next month.

So what is Songdo?

I’ve been covering new cities for the past five or so years. First in China, which was the topic of my first book, and then along the Silk Road. Songdo is one of the most successful examples of a new city that was rapidly built up from nothing and really exemplifies the process of modern new city building — both the positives and the negatives.

This is important because there are currently dozens of massive new cities being built across Asia and Africa as a way of handling the excessive amount of urbanization that is quickly becoming the hallmark of the 21st century.

New Songdo rising in the distance.

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