Friday, April 29, 2011

Chance Meeting in Sandakan

The family's busy- the kids mainlining YouTube or sleeping, my wife and our friend taking a hike- so it's my chance. I skip down the steps of our hostel, past the magic-markered endorsements of the place on the wall, and onto the streets of Sandakan.
This is a working-class town, a port city on the east coast of Borneo. From the washrooms in our hostel you can see the Sulu Sea. Unfortunately, that's about the best interaction you can have with the sea here. Long monopolized by business, the town has no recreational purpose for the blue waters next to it. For a vast tropical island, Malaysian Borneo has little in the way of pristine, enticing beach attractions.
Unloading fruit at the Sandakan market dock.
Sandakan isn't much to look at. The drive in goes past suburban industrial zones, a mix of hovels and mansions- the usual Asian random zoning. Then over a hill and down into the town centre, which offers little more.
Five or six off-white, block-long apartment buildings dominate the downtown. Four stories tall, their sides are festooned with rusting balconies, satellite dishes, air conditioning units, and iron gratings. Washing hangs down from the sides, years of dye staining the paint dull hues- where the monsoons haven't peeled it away to the concrete. The odd tree has taken root in a crack or abandoned balcony. With the clothes, they bring much-needed colour to the drab exteriors.
Sandakan was once the capital of Malaysian Borneo. Bombed and burned out of existence during WWII by both the Japanese and Allies, it never really recovered. Local pamphlets, though, still recall better times, when logging and palm oil shipments made the city boom. Once, we're told, there were more millionaires here per capita than anywhere in the world.
Those times are long gone, forgotten like the English author who lived here in the 40s, her stately home still a tourist site looking over the city. Now, young men stand on street corners, hawking packs of cigarettes.
I walk along the manageable sidewalks, the storefronts darkened by the second-story balconies a foot or two over my head. Sunshades at street level block the blistering afternoon sun from baking the clerks inside the jewellery and cellphone shops.
Tourists aren't uncommon in town, but I still get stares from the locals. Obviously not many wander this far into their daily lives. I make a brief attempt to walk out of town along the shore road, but turn around after a few blocks as the residences give way to into industrial docks, well-maintained but devoid of life.
I step down onto a sidewalk and catch the eye of a local sitting in a restaurant. A few nice words are exchanged and I throw a Hail Mary down the field of Meeting the Locals. I sit down with him and in a few moments he helps me order a roti and bottle of water.
Turns out he's a tour guide. I get the sense it's a freelance job, that he picks up his business where he can. A young man, his English is excellent. It's also pretty clear that he's not on the meter: there's no pitch coming. We just exchange pleasantries about our countries, our lives.
I've got my PADI,” he says. “I hope to go to Indonesia to work for a dive shop there.”
I marvel that he'll go to Indonesia, where wages are even lower and standards somewhat worse than here. “There's work there for me. A chance to see somewhere else.” Sandakan doesn't have that opportunity. One day he hopes to have his own business.
The roti comes- its excellent- and we chat a while longer. He helps translate my bill payment, I wish him goodbye, and I'm on my way. I realize it's one of the few plain conversations I've had with a local- no business in the offing, nothing sought other than a few moments of unusual company.
It hasn't happened often enough.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sabah: Animal Welfare

The bus ride from KK to Sandakan is not far in kilometres, but takes hours as we wind up and down the mountainous terrain. Borneo is gorgeous country. As the bus drives along a ridge, the land falls away on both sides into deep valleys, only to rise again in big plates of rock. Homesteads and mansions perch on the tips of the hills, permanently enjoying the spectacular Swiss-like views.
For us, though, the vistas are temporary, and as we fall to the coast the mixed farms and terraces give way to palm oil plantations. For kilometre after kilometre, rows of stubby, thick-trunked palms, carefully placed in geometric perfection, move off into the distance.
I've mentioned before the effect is like a Photoshop clone-stamp; it looks like a lazy game designer quickly pasted the backgrounds of Donkey Kong Country into the landscape.
Unfortunately, the parallel doesn't end there. For real-world monkeys, the geometric landscape is dangerous and threatens their existence.
An orangutan hears the dinner bells.
The monoculture forests have brought great wealth to one ape- us- but impoverished all our distant cousins who've lived here for millions of years. Oranguatans, macacques, proboscis monkeys, and a half-dozen others have seen their natural orchards bulldozed and burned, wiped out for inedible palm fruit. Even if they could eat it, it's doubtful humans would let them. So they starve, if not shot or poisoned.
We visit two sanctuaries for the simians. One, the Sepilok Orangutan Centre, is supported by government and NGO programs. It was opened in the 1960s, and has decades of experience in professional animal care and management. The brown-orange apes, when found orphaned, sick or in captivity, are brought here for rehabilitation. A video show at the centre informs us this can take years, or even decades; some never leave at all.
The well-funded centre holds carefully-orchestrated public feeding shows for visitors. For about ten dollars, we're let onto a walkway that skirts the edge of the 5500-hectare rain forest preserve.
We are asked to be quiet, and the elevated wooden path opens up to a platform for viewing. A few metres away, ropes in the trees lead to a series of wooden platforms. The morning crowd of about 200 is hushed and expectant. It's all very respectful, very dignified.
Orangutans are solitary creatures, but will come together for feeding events. This is one of them. Soon a quiet murmur runs through the crowd, people pointing and the click of cameras. Children squeal in delight and are shushed. Silently, gracefully, the apes swing down the ropes to the stations.
Two professional but slightly bored-looking attendants step up onto the platforms and pour out melon rinds and bananas. Fruit is the orang's natural diet. There's no rush, no scramble, among the orangutans. Small young females and larger mothers carefully climb over and around each other to pick up fruit to eat. The only chaos comes from the smaller, more hyper macacques, grabbing, fighting, and hissing over the pieces they steal from the mellow  orangutans.
An older park ranger comes up and points to the trees behind us. “There's a male, a wild one,” he says. “Not from the park.” Half-hidden, three stories up in the canopy we glimpse the wide, grey head of an adult male. “He's here for the females,” the ranger smiles.
There are less than 10,000 orangutans left in the world, and it's thought they could be gone in a decade. This preserve will be one of the last stands. The orangs we see today will slowly be weaned off human feeding, taken to more distant points in the preserve, hopefully to return to more wild behaviour. Maybe to mate with the male just up in the trees here today.
We feel privileged to have caught a glimpse of a wild male. So few left. Such need.

The next day we're taken through more plantations, and past giant artificial ponds for growing shrimp, a half-hour from Sandakan, closer to the coast. We're here to see the proboscis monkeys of Sabah.
The proboscis, from its name, has a large, flappy brownish-pink nose. It sort of looks like a caricature of Jimmy Durante, made even more humourous with the addition of a good-old boy pot belly.
You can get close enough to touch them.
The orangutan centre was a scientific and professional animal management facility; the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is different. It was set up by the owners of the company whose palm-oil plantations have helped wipe out most of the monkey's habitat. A video about the monkeys (viewed during the tour) informs us the owners, two brothers, saw a troupe of the animals after they tore apart a worker's shack. They took pity on them. They decided not to wipe out the scraps of mangrove forest remaining to eke out a few more ringit from the swampy land. They left it for the monkeys.
A noble deed, but so much of the monkey's habitat has been wiped out there's little hope they could survive for long unaided in the area. Thus, twice daily, troupes of the orange-brown monkeys come down from the trees to feeding platforms. Sanctuary workers and tour guides call out to the monkeys and spread food out. It's all pretty casual. Walkways allow groups of tourists like us to watch.
It's an amazing sight, I have to admit. The proboscis is a big ape, the largest ones the size of a 10 year old. It has a leaping gait, throwing itself forward as it moves. Its huge fangs belie the fact it's a herbivore. Mangrove leaves are its food. It has to eat a lot of them, thus the huge pot bellies of the classic healthy proboscis.
These monkeys are acclimatized to tourists. They leap onto the platform as human guides call them. They wander within arm's distance of me, watchful but calm. It's an absolutely thrilling, unique experience. And sort of sad.
I notice these monkeys don't seem that fat. The company handlers are feeding the proboscis melon rinds and bread. They fight the most over the bread scraps.
These monkeys are being fed the equivalent of junk food, juicy, soft fruit and bread instead of the tough mangrove leaves of their natural diet. The better to attract them to the cameras, I guess. They take the food out of tourists' hands as we pose beside them.
These wild animals have been acclimatized in a way that would make any good Yukon park ranger cringe. A fed bear is a dead bear, we say in the territory. A fed monkey...?
The video about the monkeys says the company has pledged to restore more habitat for the proboscis to survive. I wonder if those good intentions will last through the company's next hard times, or the next corporate owners. It all seems a little too little, too casual, too late.
And I watch the little proboscis babies, clinging to their mother's fur. Will they even have a taste for mangrove leaves, after a lifetime diet of fruit and bread?
For the welfare of these monkeys, we'll have to get them off human welfare.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Soundtrack, Part 3: Lost in Kota Kinabalu

So send me the URL to this post next time I claim to be an expert navigator.
In my defence, I'm not bad. I can find our way through most city mazes, I can keep maps of building floor plans in my head. I've become the go-to guy in our group of five for weaving our way around subways to our hostels and guest-houses.
So it seemed like a slam-dunk when I loaded the directions to a hostel into my iPod Touch's mapping app when I was in Kota Kinabalu. I had screwed up my reservations, booked for the wrong days, and wanted to go explain my no-show to the hostel we had stood up (it seemed right to do).
The little red and green pegs set, the grey line of the route clearly displayed, and I was ready. The direction finder promised me it was a one-kilometre walk, just 12 minutes.
I plugged in my new headphones, set the music to shuffle, and headed out the door.
KK, on the northeast coast of the island of Borneo, is the capital of the Malaysian province of Sabah. It's a resort town that figures it's more famous than it is; they take reasonable pride in their history and reasonable care for the physical plant of the city. It's clean and neat, a government and tourist town. Large docks move palm oil and fish around the world from here.
The location, just five degrees off the equator on the edge of the South China Sea, translates into hot and muggy April nights. But the full moon was out, fuzzy in the humidity, and the ocean hinted its presence in the night air. A good night for a walk.
I headed east, following from the red pin on the map. The hostel I was seeking was on the same street as the one I was staying at, around a corner. Easy-peasy. The iTunes and my feet on autopilot, away I went.
Jah Wobble is an artist who's name sounds nothing like the music he produces. He came out of the late seventies new wave, but quickly turned into a kind of quirkier Brian Eno. The Celtic Poets is an album of his I only came upon indirectly, but it's grown on me. A combination of poetry done in a gravelly voice, and long etheral instrumentals. Arabian-style drums and horns, slowly progressing melodies. As I walk along the darkening streets towards my destination, the palms casting shadows across my path in the moonlight, it makes a perfect background.
Kota Kinabalu is a working town, a port city. No building is particularly tall, and the architecture alternates from red-brick tourist attractor to metal-clad utilitarian.
Where I'm headed, though, is growing more industrial as the streets darken. I check the map on the iPod, and a song from from Genesis' early days, Supper's Ready, begins to play. I shrug and keep heading east.
Written in the early seventies, Supper's Ready is one of the British prog-rock groups' anthems, a 22-minute work that wanders through medieval imagery, goofiness and love song, repeating a complex musical riff every seven or eight minutes.
But now I'm two-thirds of the way through, getting to the sad part ('I've been so far from here/Far from your loving arms') and I start to realize I've been walking a lot more than 12 minutes. The buildings are decidedly more dock-ish; I have to skirt around tractor trailers dropping off palm oil, and small groups of men sitting around in the sticky night, at work but playing guitars, bored. The silhouettes around the open campfires here and there don't give me comfort.
I check the map again. I have been following the right road, it has been following the shore, but somehow it's petered out, and I'm standing in the dark in a dodgier part of town. I decide to bail, to try again in the morning.
I head back, wrapping up Supper's Ready (it's that long) as I near my hostel. I check my map again. Then I notice a landmark listed near my destination pin, 'Jesselton Hotel'. I look up. There it is across the street; and my hostel is next to me.
I had headed in the completely opposite direction, thinking my starting pin was my destination.
It's not late, so I decide to press on. There's no shortage of pharmacies in KK, and most are open late. I enter a Watson's chain store and grab a cold drink.
Sweet air conditioning. While I'm waiting in line Grande Finale from Alice Cooper's 'School's Out' album comes on. The album has the everyone-knows hit, but a couple of nice offbeat tracks as well. The last cut, on now, is Bob Ezrin way over-producing Cooper, banks of horns filling out a simple rock tune. But it's great summer music, music for hot nights and humidity. I can feel the sweat on my brow evaporating in the clinical pharmacy air. The clerk, a little creeped by my moist look, tries not to touch my hand as he give me change for my Diet Coke.
I head back onto the street, this time turning the right direction. Dave Matthews comes on the iPod, a cut from a summer concert recorded years ago, another great background for my walk in the sauna.
It's just a few blocks, quickly covered. I see my first KK rat darting under a parked car. A couple of young girls, in tight skirts and heavy makeup, lean against a street light. More port life. They look at me without interest as I walk by. They laugh to each other and kill the time until their next date.
I find my destination- easy once you know- and enter.
'You look hot,' the owner says obviously. He hands me a cool bottle of water, and I explain my no-show. I'm still on the hook for the 100 ringit, so he's fine. No offer to waive the tax on my stupidity.
I head back outside, and decide to take a different street, in the right direction, back to my hostel. The iPod pulls out 'Marquee Moon' by Television. The unmistakable guitar lick, the plaintive wail of Tom Verlaine. Long instrumental breaks just call out for hurting youth and long-lost days, of steamy Ottawa July nights and FM radio.
The song lasts right to the door of our hostel. I head up the painted cement stairs to the second floor.
The iPod's map function may have got me lost, but iTunes never does.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Korea: The Undiscovered Country

The long ride from downtown Seoul to Incheon airport offers plenty of time to contemplate. The 45-minute trip, punctuated by only a few stops, is fluid and uneventful. The Kubrick-esque polished floors and chrome, and buffed upholstery, and the soothing voice of the quadri-lingual announcer reassure and relax.
It took a nuclear accident to get us to Korea; our plans were initially for Japan, flights booked a week before the plate shifted and the sea fell on the earth.
Korea was a good backup, though my knowledge of the country was pretty well limited to the opening sequence of M.A.S.H. and my daughter's obsession with Korean pop stars. Other than that, the country was a mystery; I hadn't even bothered skimming the CIA Factbook before arriving. Kim Jong-Il, kimchi, Hyundai. Japan, watered down and split in two in a cold-war leftover. What else did you really need to know?
Initial impressions confirmed the stereotypes. Seoul was massive, forests of what must be soul-destroying apartment blocks, punctuated by uninspired office towers. Garish signage plastered over buildings, occasional English brand names providing partial context to the dominant commerce of an area. Left-hand driving, traffic lights, wide boulevards, not enough trees.
But the people seemed friendly enough, and we ventured into town time and again, forays from our guest house. The neighbourhood pleasant, the shopping malls indistinguishable from North America.
We had one major trip, a three-hour dash cross-country past more faceless apartment blocks and ginseng farms to the southern port of Busan.
And that's when I started to get the hint I was experiencing something a little different.
It wasn't the city itself; Busan is little more than Seoul writ small, the same franchises dominating the street and corporate logos the skyline.
It was in the subway that my perception of the country began to change.
We were surrounded by Koreans, and really, no one else. The country is overwhelmingly a single race, a monoculture. More old folks in Busan, more working class. But all Korean. And no tourists. Anywhere. We were stared at, brown-eyed gazes shifting away quickly when we turned towards them. As North Americans, we were a novelty act, something unusual in town.
You could go the day and not see another European face. We realized we were out on a long limb, off the beaten tourism track despite the city's modern surroundings.
On this trip we've been to several places described as 'exotic' or 'remote'. In Laos, supposedly one of the last frontiers of tourism, we were boating south down the Mekong River on a two-day trip. We were in one of six boats that hauled anchor that morning, each packed with over 100 European tourists. That pilgrimage is repeated daily, filling the hotels and swelling the local economy downstream in a daily pulse. We were not unusual, our experience not unique by any means.
Koreans love large public art- another fact you don't
 know 'til you get there.
It was the same elsewhere. Swaths of 'mystical' Bali are an Australian cesspool. You can get a decent chocolate cheesecake and cappucino on the edge of a Jurassic-period forest in the centre of Malaysia.
In short, few locations touted as places to explore are much more than well-oiled tourism machines anymore. How exotic is a place where you have to wait for another European tour group to get out of the way before you take your photo?
But here I was, in modern, metropolitan Korea, a complete stranger in a strange land. Clerks could not speak the language. I could not speak theirs. I didn't look like them or act like them. Getting lost meant frustrating jabs at maps with uncomprehending locals. I had to watch and understand their way of doing things. I was illiterate, innumerate, and at the mercy of strangers. And there was no one like me to turn to for help.
It became a wonderful thing.
I began to realize you don't need bamboo and palm leaf roofs to experience an exotic locale. Connecting with a foreign culture is just as hard- and rewarding- and authentic- six stories underground in an ultramodern subway station.
The Koreans are busy with their lives. Walking the streets of Busan or Seoul or any one of the uncounted towns means seeing locals really living their daily lives and culture- far more honestly than any 6:30 cocktails-and-buffet gamelin show.
And when Koreans do show off their traditions, interestingly, it's more for themselves, not foreigners.
The day before we left we took a cablecar up Namsan hill in Seoul. There's a CN Tower-style communication antenna at the top, remnants of an ancient shrine, and mid-20th century concrete fortifications. I was bracing for the perfect tourist-trap. There were drummers, dancers, and warriors, all in 18th century garb.
But surrounding the open-air stage were almost exclusively locals, watching and politely applauding the dance and martial displays. A handful of non-Koreans were there, but it was clear the Koreans were doing this for themselves, not for outsiders.
It was the same at a local palace complex, and walking through a neighbourhood of traditional residences.
Koreans are busy remembering, re-living, and re-learning.
It's hard to realize, seeing the sophistication and intricacy of civilization in South Korea, that 50 years ago this state had the GDP of Ghana. That starvation wandered the land. That the people here, in a country with no oil, no iron, no hydro potential, built itself up from nothing to be one of the top 20 economies in the world.
And they are still busy doing it. So busy they are just learning the tricks of the tourism trade, catering to the foreign curious and international time-wasters. So cultural exhibits and events display a charming innocence here, ham-fisted attempts at building a market for the culture of leisure they've worked so hard to join. We're welcome to join and watch, but we're not essential to the equation. Tourism here hasn't the careful slickness of Thailand, the sad sycophancy of Cambodia, the vile mendacity of Bali.
Which makes this trip, to Korea, perhaps the most honest cultural interaction we've had in the last six months. And I just began to realize this as the train pulled in to the airport station.
Korea is very much an undiscovered country. I will be back.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Korea doesn't give a f*** (and you'll like it)

   I'm standing waiting for a subway train in one of Korea's ultra-modern stations, six stories beneath the street, when I notice a huge poster before me. It proclaims that 2010-2012 is Korea's 'Year of the Tourist'. A smiling face of a life-size Korean woman greeting the world is displayed.
  I find the poster puzzling- if not for the bad math, it's the idea that Korea is welcoming tourists. Cause, from what I can tell, Koreans don't give a fuck.
No, you ask if you can get the rice with no sauce.
   We're here in the early spring, so I'm not surprised that there aren't a lot of tourists.    What I do find surprising though, is that there are no tourists.  
   On our daily expeditions into the city, we might see a handful of non-Korean faces. They are few and far between. In a city of 20 million, I see maybe five or ten people a day who might qualify as actual tourists like us. Other Europeans, and there aren't many, generally tend to be ESL teachers.
    Our subway rides have been in seas of black hair, with the locals staring at us with unblinking brown eyes (so it seems). We were told to expect that, and it's harmless, if a bit unnerving. It actually makes you feel like you're a stranger, and strangely adds to the adventure. They don't see folk like us ever day.
   This is a country of people who have been busting their asses for the last 30 years, building world-leading shipping lines and auto assembly plants from the hardscrabble and devastated land they inherited from their parents. The country has hardly learned yet to cater to tourists' business.
   Outside of the automated voice on the subway line, English is barely heard on the street or spoken by service folks. Signage is almost exclusively in Korean script. Tourist brochures, oddly, are mostly in Korean, and only the occasional restaurant deigns to let you know the contents of the dishes they serve.
   And this is a shame. I passed dozens of restaurants and cafes where I would have liked to hang out (and spend money) but knew I would face near-insurmountable communication problems. When you've got kids with you, your explorations on a menu can be limited. So we ended up, more often than we'd like, at a Burger King or Starbucks, letting the clerk practice his or her high-school English.
   Less welcome is when you are met with little more than a peremptory grunt from an older clerk in a convenience store, or just a wave to go away from a taxi driver. They won't even try to take your money. We're told it's shyness about speaking, and that's understandable, but it can be off-putting.
QED: An ad in Busan
   Let this not be a reflection on the Korean people themselves. We have found them generally to be kind, helpful, and caring, once you begin to interact. We have never felt safer on our trip. And never felt more as equals.
   And that's the flip side-the good part- of not giving a fuck.
   After four months of touts, come-ons, hustlers, liars and obsequious servitude in the rest of SE Asia, it's nice to be invisible, to count for nothing. I walk the street and no one's approaching me to rip me off. I can look people in the eye and not expect a pitch for a ride or a request for a donation. They can do without my business, just fine.
   And transactions are transparent and honest. While it's hard to work out, and give and receive the proper change, doing business as a tourist in Korea is refreshing. I pay the same, standard amount for a good or service as a local Korean. And I get the same amount of goods or services that the local would get. No haggling, no shorting, just honest dealing.
   It is such a pleasure doing tourism 'business' in such an atmosphere. Just wish I could do more of it.
  'Korea: we don't give a fuck'.
   Could be the slogan for the 2013-15 Year of the Tourist.  

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Watching Korean pop magic being made

   Men, be careful what kind of fatherly wisdom you offer your children. You could end up as I did- freezing outside a Korean office building at seven in the morning.
It's clear, but cold, in the plaza of another futuristic office complex in Seoul. We're lined up with about 70 raven-haired Korean teens, hoping for a chance to see a concert by Korean pop stars.
The show's taping is tonight, but to get in, you have to come out before the sun rises to get tickets.
Finally a security guard comes by, taking down names. In the complicated business of getting in to the studio audience for “MNET Studio Countdown”, you have to be registered twice, present at certain times and places during the day. Thus the 5:30 wake-up call on an early spring Thursday morning.
“They are here, they are live, and they are adorable.”
Photo by Jane Robinson-Boivin
The guard, a black-suited young man with a perfectly superfluous Secret Service-style earphone, takes an extra half-glace at me and has us write our names on the list. We are #64 and #65. If we show up tonight at 5:10 exactly, we're in.
We decide to head back to our guesthouse for a quick nap, but my daughter is so excited that's unlikely to happen.

'Too many girls just like the same music their boyfriends like,” I told her five years ago, when my word still meant something. “Don't be like that. Find your own path in music.”
What I had hoped my sage words would mean is I'd eventually share my Genesis and Van der Graaf generator albums with the girl. Instead, she went and found her own path-and it's artists with names like U-Kiss, Infinite, SHINee and B2ST.
Most North Americans have never heard of Korean pop music. But take what you might have pictured about Japanese music, dose heavily with American rap, hip-hop, and disco, and you are starting to get the idea.
Korean pop music is huge in this country of 50 million, and growing rapidly all over Southeast Asia, China and Japan. With massive corporate backing, and slickly produced videos, the star's faces are familiar in every household and on the street. Larger than life posters are ubiquitous, the stars being used to hock everything from cell phones to fashion to face cream.
Wannabe stars are put through years of training, and sign five-to-ten year contracts with studios to work for them, exclusively. Most aren't though high school yet, live in company dorms and are contractually bound to remain 'available' for their multitude of prepubescent fans. The band members are disposable and interchangeable at the company's whim. But the payoff for the successful ones is fame for life.
The music itself is mostly forgettable- studio manufactured dance tunes and ballads, ranging from bubblegum pop to faux-ghetto rap. Just broken hearts, no teenage rebellion. The odd performer stands out- like a Canadian hip-hop artist banned from the airwaves a couple years back for lyrics critical about the government.
The ban made him even more popular. All in all, it's not much different from North American pop music.
My girl's been lucky enough to see her idols once on the trip already- in Singapore, at an arena. But tonight, we're going to see some up-and-comers, live in the studio.
We meet a pair of young American women, foreign exchange students, who are also coming to the show tonight.
“I can't wait,” says one breathlessly. “They are here, they are live, and they are adorable.” The three of them laugh.
I roll my eyes. This will be a long night.

Bismark said if you love the law or sausages, you should never watch either being made. The same goes for television.
We are ushered into a large sound studio, walls curtained black with a large stage to the back. The audience is coralled between the main stage and a side presentation area for the hosts, packed in enough to hike the audience energy.
The fuss and bother of pre-broadcast preparations flow seamlessly into the actual show. There's no big announcement, no flash or dazzle. Suddenly, the hosts appear to the side of the stage, and announce the first act. The stage lights come on, and a young woman sings a ballad.
About halfway though, a bored-looking stage director comes on stage, and waves at the performer. The girl stops singing- at least, her mouth stops moving. Her song continues to play over the speakers. She bows to the audience, smiles sheepishly, and exits. There's a smattering of applause.
This happens another two times. Groups of young androgynous men, and lolita-like girls, come onstage, singing and dancing. Then they're pulled off mid lip-synch.
And the winner is, for the 153 week in a row... corporate profits!
 Photo by Jane Robinson-Boivin
I can't quite figure what's going on until I glance to the side and see a monitor playing the feed. The bands have pre-recorded their acts, which are going out 'live' to the air. Their appearance here tonight is mostly to top-and-tail the show production.
Most of the audience, oddly, isn't even paying attention to what's on stage. About a quarter are watching monitors stage right, another quarter are sitting cross-legged on the floor texting friends, and another handful have their backs to the performance, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols as they walk backstage.
It's no wonder they don't have a camera on the audience.
The performance, such as it is, continues, and the energy increases as the show progresses. It's a countdown of the top radio and tv pop songs of the week, and the hot bands are saved for last. More of the audience starts to stand up, there's screaming and some weeping, scarves waved and heart-signs flashed.
Finally all the acts gather on the stage, and a winner is announced. There's a bit of forced congratulations all around by the bands- the decision who'd win, after all, was actually made in a boardroom months ago. Fireworks go off, confetti falls, spots sweep the studio, credits roll.
The crowd leaves, sweaty and happy.
It's dark as we hail a cab for the short trip home. My girl is happy- she's seen some of her favourite new bands tonight. She asks if she can go again next week.
What the heck, I figure, and agree. “If we're still here,” I caution.
Sure, her music sucks to me. But I'm old. Her music should suck- the way my music sucked to my parents. There'd be something wrong if I really liked her music.
She's found her own path, and it's lead us here, far away from home.
I couldn't ask for more.