Penman No. 69: The Girl with the Ukulele and Other Random Jottings

IMG_0021Penman for Monday, October 21, 2013

WHENEVER I travel, I jot random notes down. These notes are observations of the local scenery, things I’m likely to forget five minutes after I’ve seen them unless I find the compulsion and the patience to record them. Note-taking is a habit that anyone starting out as a writer should cultivate, whether mentally or physically. It keeps you attentive to detail, and even the most cursory image (“green umbrella”) can regenerate a whole scene and situation when you look at it again, once you have it down on paper or at least on some silicon wafer.

Ironically, I was never much of a note-taker in class, priding myself in storing whatever my professor had to say in what used to be a prodigious memory; I even found a perverse delight in walking into an open-book exam with nothing but pen and paper. Such was the foolish brashness of youth, since undone by crumbling synapses and flickering pinpricks in the brain.

When I signed up with The Philippines Herald and Taliba just before martial law, I learned how to use a notebook—the classic reporter’s notebook with the spiral top—and a Parker Jotter ballpoint. While not much of a ballpoint fan, I’m convinced that there’s still nothing more efficient than a button-operated Jotter for writing notes on the fly; the more popular because pricier Cross ballpoint—everyone’s idea of a Christmas present in the 1970s and 1980s—required two hands to put in business. The rollerball and the felt-tip pen (remember the Paper Mate Flair?) gave you a much smoother glide on the page, but they needed to be uncapped, and the ink offered the best proof of Murphy’s Law by drying out at the worst possible times.

At some point, I acquired and used a matte-black Sheaffer fountain pen—I still have it in the collection—but as dearly as I’ve come to love fountain pens, I’d be the first to admit that they’re not the best tools to carry on the road for random note-taking, as they combine all the clunky disadvantages of the other pens (two-handed operation, uncapping, sudden dryness) and usually cost more besides. Also, fountain pens need a steady supply of ink, and some of that ink will inevitably find its way to your shirt pocket in a blue-black bloom.

Another problem that often comes with fountain pens is the lack of suitable paper. Unlike ballpoints and rollerballs, fountain pens and the inks they use tend to feather and bleed through on porous paper—you’ll see the ink running into the fibers of the paper, making a thin line look fat and splotchy and the letters barely readable. Unfortunately, most of the paper used on notepads these days (including that in the iconic Moleskine) isn’t fountain-pen-friendly. I do persist in using fountain pens to write some notes with—for how else would I justify carrying two to three of them with me at any given time—but to avoid feathering and bleed-through, I use a Midori notebook, whose paper has a much tighter grain (you can find good, inexpensive paper at the bookstore, through trial and error).

Like many other human activities, note-taking changed, of course, with the advent of digital technology, and I eagerly embraced the Palm Pilot when it first came out in 1997, sticking with it through its many incarnations until the Treo in the mid-2000s. (My favorite of the lot was the sexy, blade-like Palm V.) The Palm had its own unique simplified shorthand, and I got pretty good at it, using a stylus. After the Palm came the BlackBerry, whose nifty keypad I also mastered well enough to write whole articles on.

And then came the iPhone and its total lack of a physical keypad or a built-in stylus. While I was one of the earliest adopters of the iPhone in 2007 (and yes, before you ask, I just picked up a 5s, which I’m calling my iPen), I had a hard time shifting to a virtual keypad. Indeed, if not for Apple’s FaceTime—which allows me to chat almost everyday with my daughter Demi in San Diego and my sister Elaine in Virginia for free—I might’ve stayed with the BlackBerry, which ironically has also morphed into something iPhone-like in the meanwhile.

But practice makes perfect, and I’ve trained myself to tap and peck away using the iPhone’s and iPad’s Notes app for everything from casual jottings to scenes for the novel-in-progress and paragraphs toward a column like this one. The beauty of the process is that you can simply email the note to yourself when you’re done, and thereby move it to your laptop or desktop for the final touches.

And what, pray tell, did I take note of during my recent trip to Jakarta? Herewith, my passing observations (in italics) and subsequent commentary:

Silaw. The Indonesians have the same word for “glare” or “blinding light”; also for “leech” (linta), which was brought up, not surprisingly, in a discussion about politics and politicians.

Stylish new buildings without the quirky bling of the Shanghai skyline. I was much impressed by Jakarta’s urban architecture, if only by its clean lines, with hints of native elements. Again, nothing as showy as Shanghai on the other side of the river. Like Manila, however, Jakarta could be 21st-century upscale one minute and Third-World, fish-sauce funky the next, just around the corner.

Bajaj. Pronounced bah-jay, the Indian motorcycle brand, now applied to Jakarta’s version of our tricycle and of Bangkok’s tuk-tuk.

Menteng. A district in Jakarta, where our Ibis Budget hotel was located. At the same time, said our host, “This is where Jakarta’s old rich live,” to which I replied, “Ah, we have our own Menteng, but we call it Forbes Park.” Huge, tree-shaded mansions.

Jalan Surabaya. A few blocks from our hotel, Jakarta’s antiques row, aimed at the tourist market; some real artifacts, to be sure (among them, curiously, an LP of Nora Aunor titled “Let Me Try Again”), but many items probably dodgy. Was looking for vintage pens as usual but didn’t find anything beyond a bruised Sheaffer Targa or two. Ho Chi Minh City’s Le Cong Kieu Street is vintage-pen heaven by comparison.

7-11. They were all over the place—one in front of our hotel, with knots of people forming just outside the door. Why? Ah, the free wi-fi, which you can access on your phone.

Girl with the ukulele. One of the first sights that greeted me, late at night on a street in Menteng, as my hotel-bound taxi whizzed by: a girl of about 15, carrying a baby, presumably her sister, and a ukulele. Behind her was an older man, also with a ukulele. What was going on? Likely the Jakarta version of our streetcorner seekers of alms.

Dilarang merokok. “No smoking”—but they do, anyway. Indonesian cigarettes are advertised all over, even on TV, although they never show anyone really puffing away.

No forks. The conference I attended offered packed lunches of rice, chicken, some kind of fish sauce, veggies, kropeck—all good—but only a plastic spoon and no fork. Everyone around me dug into their lunches, one-handed and fork-free.

Busway. They don’t have a subway, but they do have busways that segregate the buses on major roads from the rest of the traffic. It seemed very efficient, and I naturally wondered why we didn’t have the same thing in Metro Manila (we do, but they’re busways in the mind, eminently negotiable, not on the road; Jakarta’s busways were blocked off by a fixed concrete ridge).

Airport tax 20 USD. Or 150,000 Indonesian rupiahs, which is considerably less than $20, but which I didn’t have by the time I was leaving, because no one told me about the airport tax. I hate airports (like ours) which charge you a fee for using them, as if you had any other choice. Heck, anytime I’m in an airport, I’ve already paid someone a lot!

3 thoughts on “Penman No. 69: The Girl with the Ukulele and Other Random Jottings

  1. When you travel, do you bring a bottle of ink with you or do you purchase locally? I’m glad airport personnel don’t consider the fountain pen a dangerous weapon because of its pointed tip, and after all, it is mightier than the sword. Sorry, couldn’t resist the joke.

  2. for long trips of a few weeks or so, i bring ink in a leakproof nalgene bottle (used for medicines); otherwise i just bring cartridges (at least for modern pens). yes, i’ve been asked to take out my pens a few times by airport security–understandably so, since they do look like weapons (one of my pens, a schrade, is actually marketed as a “tactical weapon” because it can break glass windows in an emergency!). i just make sure i uncap them myself–most people who don’t know pens will simply yank the caps off and strip the threads 😉

  3. i read your blog.. our neighbors like indonesia is very rich in language and that i beleive ours in the philippines is a descendant from theirs. your fortunate to have experienced traveling abroad and shared with our culture in a way. good to know that we have similarities specially in terms of our language.

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