Belated Travelogues: Bhutan (Part 1)

Belated and how…I went there in like 2017. Every time I travel I make myself solemnly swear I’ll do a proper travelogue and 9 times out of 10 I’ll make a very confusing draft and then forget all about it. Yesterday, I was talking to the friends with whom I’d gone for this trip and that made me finally give myself the ultimatum to do this. I travel a lot, sometimes for work, most often just for fun. My favourite mode of travel is shoe-string budget backpacking which not a lot of people are adventurous enough to join me in so I end up doing a fair mix of properly-planned group trips and my own figure-out-as-I-go solo backpacking. The latter is meditative for me and I’ve always ended up meeting the most amazing people along the way, many of whom are still friends. Some I’ve lost touch with but we’ve got the memories.

Bhutan was a group trip though so there was a proper tour package, hotels, transport, and a tour guide. It was adventurous in its own way though because I’d just dislocated my knee a month before I went (doc gave me a go-ahead as long as I didn’t trek Tiger’s Nest so it’s on him). I decided to break this into two parts because there is a lot to cover honestly and there are some stories which I also want to note down. I’m trying to locate the drive where I saved all my photos so for now will just use utterly random images which are there on my laptop or images from the net whose source I am linking.

What is Bhutan?

Bhutan is a primarily-Buddhist kingdom situated between India and China. It’s a very small country ruled by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (I like people with short, easy to pronounce names). The people of Bhutan LOVE him and the queen and I’m saying that from experience. Pretty much everyone I met had a lot of respect for the monarch because apparently he has a very people-centric approach. More on him later. Bhutan’s land area is only 38,394 Sq. Km. with its capital at Thimpu. It’s population is a very small with only around 7.8 Lakhs people (that’s like two Mumbai neighbourhoods). It’s mostly just mountainous terrain and is very, very, very beautiful.

The Bhutanese Visa

Well, this is fun. It’s like all or zero. So if you are an Indian citizen, you don’t need a Visa and can pretty much just show your passport or voter ID to go. For Bangladeshi, Indian, and Maldivian citizens there is no visa requirement. For everyone else, it is extremely regulated. Not only is there a visa requirement but you need to have your stay pre-booked through a government-approved travel agency and there is a mandatory per day charge which varies from $200-$250 depending on when you go. This is a country which has tourism as its top industry but they practice a lot of discretion in terms of who they let in. You don’t just show up to Bhutan so if you are not from those three countries and going, please do your research on the current regulations very well before you go.

How to get there

If you are going from India, then you can drive down from Bagdogra, take the train, or take a flight. If you are going from China, there is a border dispute so as far as I know you can’t go directly. There are no direct flights from China (no offence but why does China keep fighting with absolutely everyone?) so you need to get to another airport like Singapore or Kathmandu and then fly to Paro.

Flying to Bhutan is quite the experience and that’s what we had done. You get to see Mt. Everest from the flight and land at one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Because there is such a dearth of space and the terrain is hilly, the airport is in the city of Paro rather than the capital Thimpu. You can only travel through Druk Air or Bhutan Airlines since only a handful of pilots in the world are equipped to land on that airstrip. When I had gone, this number was 16 and I don’t think it would have gone up much from that.

It’s quite the experience because as you are landing, trees and hilly slopes are very close to your craft and you can understand the kind of precision training anyone flying a plane through that would have gone through. This video gives a view on it and if you want to know more on the reasons for the difficult, you can read this article. They are extremely skilled though and on the return flight we had clicked a photo with our pilot. Keep in mind though that weather dictates flights a lot and that’s why a lot of people prefer to drive down, including many who do biking trips.

Why you should go there

Many reasons really. For starters, it is the only place where Mahayana Buddhism is practiced so if you are into spirituality, it is a good place to be. As a tourist also, Bhutan offers quite a lot in terms of beauty and experiences. If you enjoy hikes or treks, you can go to the Fertility Temple or to the Tiger’s Nest monastery. If you like history, it has bucketfuls of it. Food is ok-Bhutan has some of its own dishes and some mashups of its neighbours. People are very nice. It has gorgeous scenery and architecture and honestly you can cover the country across its major destinations in a week or so if you are doing a normal visitor trip. It’s not too modern and I liked that about it but some may not. It’s also fairly economical if you hold a passport from the three countries I mentioned above but if not, then it’s a daily spend of $250 which is kind of steep. I’ve got a lot of stories from that trip so maybe I’ll write another one on those.

Airport Stuff

So I had a ‘hidden level-unlocked’ moment just now at the Mumbai airport. I’m in T2 and that’s the pretty one. Have been here at all random hours in varying stages of wakefulness over the years but I never knew that the Gates 45 A to D were located on a special lower level till today. Now the airport has some nice pieces of art on the upper level like the below which I’ve seen often

But for whatever reason they seem to have gone nuts with it on this lower level. The concentration of art here is way more than anywhere else and I don’t know why. I still clicked as much of it as I could though the quality of images is questionable because it was all pretty high up and I can’t fly. Anyway, adding them here to remember for posterity and also curious what else is hidden in other parts no airline ever sent me to.

Macross Plus: The Masterpiece Almost-fake Macross

So I love Macross as a whole but when I compare Macross Plus with the overall Macross Franchise, it is both very much Macross and very much not Macross at the same time. It’s got the basics but it executes them in a very different way and I feel this is because of the involvement of Keiko Nobumoto and Shinichiro Watanabe who brought in a very different style of storytelling, while still sticking to the base motifs of Macross, that was also seen later in Cowboy Bebop and some of Watanabe’s other works.

I can’t comment much on the newer Macross stuff simply because I haven’t seen a lot of it but legacy Macross is what I fell in love with…like everything up to Macross 7 so I am comparing this to that plus some reading I did on the newer instalments. Macross Zero recently caught my attention and seemed very promising so that’s a pending watch.

Why I love the Macross Franchise

It’s really quite simple-the storytelling is great considering the context. It manages to touch upon deep themes, has a strong focus on human relationships, and doesn’t take itself all that seriously. Sample the below for instance-one of my favourite sequences in the entire franchise. These are two Zentradi, a race which segregates males and females, displaying a kiss to their hostages ironically in order to make fun of human “culture.” It goes on a while and Lap’Lamiz, the lady involved, is clearly annoyed when it ends commenting on how the “culture” was just getting good. This is during a pretty serious sequence in the show by the way. Doesn’t take its own super-scary villains seriously. Total goofball moment.

Macross will generally involve long multi-episodic storylines which may get extended into OVAs with generally some sort of ongoing conflict with aliens or some external enemy, a love triangle of some sort, and the use of music as a weapon, sometimes to evoke the humanity in the opponent, other times to use as a force or energy of some sort. It’s been a while since I watched Macross in full and I do have real life commitments which don’t leave me time to revisit things like this as often as I would like to so I am writing about everything beyond Plus from memory. If I make any factual errors or deviations, please feel free to highlight.

Why I call Macross Plus the “masterpiece but almost-fake Macross”

Like I mentioned at the beginning, it takes the same raw materials but executes them very differently and in very signature Watanabe/Nobumoto styles.

A Story of the Human Experience / Absence of External Villains

Watanabe/Nobumoto stories generally tend to be ones of human conflict rather than a “them versus us” scenario. Spike Spiegel is ultimately struggling against the fallouts of the relationship with his best friend gone wrong. The Bebop crew may go up against a cult in one session or try to catch a drug peddler but they will ultimately end up being stories of people and their lives. Despite being set in space, Bebop does not have space invaders or alien armies. Similarly, Jin, Foo, and Mugen in Samurai Champloo do not have some ultimate “dark lord” they are fighting but their own pasts and, despite the theme of samurai, the show is more about their own emotional journey and learnings. I could go on.

The Macross franchise always involves external villains, largely space alien warriors, but Macross Plus has a very obvious lack of anything of the sort. In fact, peace with the villains who were being fought in its predecessor is actually called out in it and one of our protagonists is part-Zentradi thus eliminating even the legacy motif of villains and telling a story from a fresh slate. Macross Plus is simply a story of the emotional journeys of its main characters dealing with their own pasts and their mutual relationships gone wrong even as they go about their everyday lives which also happen to feature transforming fighter crafts.

There is something of a villain in the form of Sharon Apple but she is again very much not an external villain. Just like the cult leader Londes in Bebop’s episode of ‘Brain Scratch’ who is just a manifestation of the dreams-gone-wrong of a hacker in a coma or the satellite MPU in ‘Jamming with Edward’ which begins to draw patterns on earth because it got lonely, Sharon spiralling out of controls is also a manifestation of human actions and emotions gone wrong. She is not someone who comes in from outside and attacks our heroes but a fallout of Myung’s devastated state of mind caused by the conflicts in her relationships with two men who meant a lot to her.

There are many other very poignant themes also touched on like the fallouts of misplace egos, consent, man-machine interface etc. which again make Macross Plus much more of a “human experience” story than other parts of the franchise.

The Love Triangle

In typical Macross the love triangle will run alongside the overall story but in Macross Plus it is very much the story. Like I mentioned above, since it is more focused on the interpersonal journeys of its protagonists everything in it ties back to it. Isamu and Guld’s conflict is driven very much by one incident involving the same woman and that is called out again and again as they get into unnecessary fights when their focus should be on the crafts they are test pilots for.

There is also the added layer of their own former friendship with each other that often trumps even whatever they may feel for Myung. The end of the series with Guld’s realisation and the boys patching up is actually the major conflict-resolution post which everything else falls in place as well. Even the scenarios of AI going wrong are built into the love triangle with Sharon’s spiral mirroring Myung’s own suppressed feelings for Isamu. I’m not saying that the love triangle is everything (I mean Marge did solid work to fuck up things too) but it is way more centre-stage here than it would be in other instalments of the franchise. It is also very reminiscent of the later love triangle of Spike-Vicious-Julia from Cowboy Bebop which essentially drove that story but I’ll write more on that when I compare the two series.

The Power of Music

This is again a very key Macross motif where music may be presented as this ultimate weapon capable of magically disarming scary villains. Going again with the subtle and much more mature style of storytelling signature to Watanabe/Nobumoto, the role of music here changes completely. Music becomes a symbol for Myung’s loss of her own self since she gives up singing after what happens with Guld and Isamu. This in turn causes music to become a weapon but not for eliminating villains but rather a weapon against humanity with Sharon spiralling out of control. It is finally restored to its original Macross motif as a defender of humanity when Myung sings ‘Voices’ to Isamu causing him to snap out of the trance Sharon has placed her in.

Ultimately, this entire arc seems to me a representation of a very key theme in Macross Plus which is man-machine interface regarding which the general stance of the series seems to be that technology replacing humans completely is a dangerous path to take. Human involvement needs to be balanced with technological advancement so we are not reduced to mere toys in the hands of a machine incapable of judging right from wrong or replicating human actions and emotions without the sentient capacity to actually understand them. The same music in Sharon’s hands becomes a weapon as she thinks she is acting out of love for Isamu, an emotion she cannot really understand as a machine, while coming from Myung it is a healer since it comes from a space of true love for Isamu which she as a human is actually capable of feeling.

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Macross Plus OVA vs. Movie: Part 2

Heavy Spoilers: Second part of comparing the Macros Plus OVA vs. the Movie

The movie jumps directly post this to Isamu getting scolded by Millard and getting banned from flying for three days followed by his and Lucy’s date while the OVA goes post the introduction to a sequence with Isamu researching the fighter craft and a simulation training which he does badly in making Yang yell at him for not taking things seriously. Both narratives converge at the date sequence which is just Isamu driving rashly and catching a note of Sharon’s song which reminds him of Myung.

The next scene is in the cafeteria where Guld’s colleagues are joking about Isamu being pulled up and their chances of winning being good. In the movie, they are happy Isamu has been banned for 3 days while in the OVA it’s more about just him screwing up. In both, Guld warns his colleagues to not underestimate him. This is a very powerful scene because while both have just been shown fighting each other passionately in both versions, this scene is Guld’s quiet acceptance of his past association and familiarity with Isamu. It’s a very private moment of him delving back into a time when things were better between them.

Myung’s press conference is running in the background of this sequence in both versions and Guld becomes aware of it, realising Myung is there in the city and managing Sharon. The conference is played out similarly in both versions with a reporter raising concerns on a computer-generated voice being emotionless and Raymond defending it claiming Sharon’s feelings will be hurt by the claim.

The OVA then proceeds with the scene of Myung and Sharon showing up to the crowd which is shown at the beginning of the movie followed by shots of Sharon’s concert being set up and the scene with Myung supervising Sharon’s adjustment. Marge shows up but just to inform Myung her taxi is here with no warning on the media. She departs and goes to Star Hill followed by a sequence of Isamu and Lucy flirting with each other while on their date.

The movie on the other hand skips to a sequence which does not happen in the OVA between Raymond and Myung where he asks if she would prefer to sing in place of Sharon and she informs him her singing days are over. She talks to him about how Sharon has won so many hearts mentioning that she will be out of work if Sharon does become complete but she is happy as long as fans are happy. Raymond wonders why Sharon doesn’t awaken even though her system is complete which Myung attributes to her own emotions perhaps not being strong enough. Raymond also seems to have a romantic interest in Myung which she sort of pretends to ignore and divert by focusing on a fake flower in his vase.

There are three key themes of the series addressed in this one scene. One is a woman’s consent and unwanted romantic attention, the second is a human-dependent machine’s efficacy being as good as the person it relies on to run (Sharon functioning inadequately since Myung’s emotions are lacking and Guld’s craft not performing optimally due to his own tripping up at the hands of his Zentradi blood), and third is the redundancy of a human at the hands of a machine. Makes it a rather important scene and hence I feel it adds value to the movie. I also find it interesting that Raymond mentions Sharon’s AI is complete in this scene while in the OVA it is clearly mentioned it is incomplete and hence there is a need to rely on Myung. Since both versions do feature the microchip later, I get confused if the intention is to show Sharon’s AI in different states in each.

Both versions again converge at Star Hill for Guld and Myung’s meeting followed by Isamu and Lycy showing up which is played out in the same way so I won’t go into it much. Notable here is Myung’s attempt to appear as if all is ok and Guld realizing nothing is alright and offering to help her which makes for a very powerful sequence during a rewatch. I am always struck by how much reconstruction Myung has done for herself after being abused by one friend and abandoned by the other. Guld informs Isamu he will get neither Myung nor the project, almost reducing her to the status of a commodity while Isamu claims he is only interested in the project. Myung stays caught between the egos of these two men, another major theme in the series.

There is one change here which is in the dialogue when Guld first accosts Isamu. Since the first dialogue of Guld calling Isamu a traitor didn’t happen in the movie, it was changed. This dialogue is actually quite significant since it foreshadows the understanding the audience later get of Guld believing Isamu to have assaulted Myung when actually it was him.

The next sequences in the movie is a fairly benign mashup of the two YFs being test piloted by Isamu and Guld which are actually clips from much more dramatic sequences in the OVA. This is shown as a montage sequence occurring over some time interspersed by Myung being immersed into the AI in preparation of the concert.

This is followed by the scene of Guld looking up Isamu’s records and his Zentradi blood acting up which was shown earlier in the OVA but it’s interspersed with scenes of his memory of Myung’s assault which he believes was done by Isamu. In the OVA the trigger for his Zentradi blood seems simply to be his rivalry and hatred for Isamu while in the movie it’s specifically shown to be triggered by this sequence again enunciating slightly different motifs.

On the other hand, the OVA takes a very different approach depicting Isamu and Guld’s first test flight together where Guld is easily able to outshine Isamu initially. He is more focused on the task at hand in this sequence than Isamu who is lagging and trying very hard to match up to Guld out of rivalry. However, Guld loses control of the YF-21 as there is disruption in his brainwave connect and he flashes back to the scene of seeing Isamu with Myung right after the assault. He is angry since under the impression Isamu was the culprit.

He goes into free fall as a result and Isamu rescues him finally on Millard’s orders. However, just as they land safely Guld imagines a scenario where he causes Isamu to have an accident and his craft responds by manifesting it. Isamu is livid, accusing Guld of having done it on purpose. The other man mocks him but also apologises stating it was an accident. This is again a pretty critical scene going back to the motifs of fragile masculinity and ego clashes between two men. Guld takes a step back in this case and apologizes.

Guld flies the YF-21 and the sequence is followed by Myung supervising Sharon Apple’s programming where Marge shows up to warn her that reporters are catching on to there being a flaw in Sharon’s software so she should be careful during the press conference.

I won’t do a separate observation bit here. Rather, I’ll post the third and fourth parts and then do a combined observation bit.

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Kotaro Lives Alone: Trauma and Stories

Trigger Warning: Whatever I write on this show now will be based on my own experiences with children from abusive backgrounds or some other personal experiences and what I found resonating with those in the series Kotaro Lives Alone so please skip this if those themes may be triggering. Also, heavy spoilers.

Disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist but I’ve done things which put me around kids like this for a while. When I watched this series, I found a lot of it hit home with that. Also, resonance from years of experience with a very, very close friend who had a similar journey through childhood abuse and neglect. There were some things from personal experiences too, especially what is covered in this particular article. I’ll write from that mixed informal lens and nothing else so if you read, please do it with that disclaimer in mind. That’s why I’m not even referencing any formal papers or books on this topic because you can google them. This is just experience-sharing in case anyone is interested in it.

Why the depiction of abuse and trauma feels unique in Kotaro Lives Alone

While childhood trauma may be mentioned liberally in heroic action anime to provide compelling character backstories, rarely does something sit down with it in such a simple setting and actually look at how it may play out in the lives of everyday individuals. I’ve not seen it done like this in anime at-least. It was cathartic for me to watch and my friend with the history of abuse had the same experience watching it. We both felt that the biggest reason behind our feeling this way was probably the fact that most often child abuse goes unacknowledged or a victim may be so gaslit they refuse to admit to themselves what they experienced was in fact abuse so watching media which goes into it like this, acknowledging it from all subtle lenses, showing “normal people” coping with it, can be both relatable and validating for someone who has experienced it whether first-hand or indirectly.

This show also made a space with me because it reminded me of two different personal pieces I wrote here sometime back. One was Stories of Significance on how sometimes a work of fiction can help you find something to relate to when there is nothing left in your own life and reality to anchor you. The other was Kindness of Strangers, basically found families who support you when you need it most, so I decided to also build in some of those themes as I write. This one is of course, around the stories as a coping mechanism bit which is tied in with my own similar experience. I will do one or two more on my wider experiences through others as I find headspace for them since these are dense to write.

Story of Significance: Kotaro and Tonosaman

In my watch of the first episode, due to Kotaro talking about enemies and battle, I was wondering if this was going to be a sci fi or fantasy show where Kotaro would turn out to be an alien or some mystical creature who had battled demons in some faraway world. But as I watched a much sadder reality emerged of the demons Kotao is fighting being those of his own life, basically neglect and emotional abuse at the hands of his own parents.

In the first episode, Kotaro shows up to Shin’s house to watch his favourite show Tonosaman claiming his television will be delivered the next day but we see in a later shot that he already has a TV. This spills over into the next episode as well where he shows up again and Shin notes the show is terrible. However, Kotaro repeats each dialogue said by Tonosaman and seems to have picked up all his formal mannerisms, style of speaking, and identification as a feudal lord from there. Kotaro eventually admits to Shin that he knows the story is not great and he doesn’t watch it because he likes the character. There’s a child his own age throwing a tantrum in front of them whom he goes and counsels, commenting later to Shin that this child will be fine because he will not need to seek guidance from a TV show in the middle of the night and that’s when you finally realise why he has picked up his entire personality from Tonosaman.

However, in the next scene he also tries to brush away his dependence on the show by claiming to Shin that he has grown into an exceptional adult and therefore does not need guidance from a show any longer. He does but him admitting his dependence on Tonosaman to Shin is a vulnerable moment of weakness for him. This is a child for whom such moments have probably not been a reality, for whom being vulnerable or weak may have meant the difference between surviving and not surviving, and hence he immediately feels the need to disown his dependence and hide himself away again. We are also shown a very poignant sequence where Kotaro sits with a board “selling” his Tonosaman impression to people but paying 10 Yen each to them instead, only to the ones who smiled, since their smiles remind him of his mother (who otherwise was revulsed by him to the point that she used gloves to touch him) smiling at the same act of his.

This is when it begins to solidify as the story of a boy who has adopted the persona of a superhero to fight his own reality. We are later shown that his mother could not stand to be around him and was neglectful while his father likely went down a wrong path and also had anger issues. With adults like this who are unable to give him the care and protection he requires, he builds Tonosaman as the role model he never had, a character who is seen again and again protecting a child in trouble. However, Kotaro does not identify with the child but rather models himself on the individual strong enough to fight the child’s battles for him, essentially trying to become his own guardian, parent, and protector in the absence of one in his life. He also uses the story to cope with the absence of his parents, pretending they are ninjas and using that cover to convince his classmates why they don’t live with him or do not show up for any of his school events. Having nothing else to relate to, he latches on to this one very terrible story because it shows the things which resonate with his reality.

What I was writing about in Stories of Significance was exactly this. The story I wrote about there is world-renowned and a fan-favourite but honestly when I look at it, it’s not even my favourite anime and I do not look up to its characters even one tiny bit. They are not people you are supposed to aspire to be. But it was significant to me when I first saw it as a teen because I needed something like that to be able to relate to at that point. These were people who found themselves in circumstances they did not want to be in and had not planned to be in. It’s the course their life took and the actions of people who did not hold up their end of the bargain brought them all into the highly destructive and sad circumstances they were in.

Given my particular circumstances, I could find resonance with them. They felt like my friends. I could not relate to anyone else at-all, people my age or within my circle of existence, at that time because their lives were so different from mine right then. But this messed up crew of misfits felt like a space of belonging which temporarily coasted me through till I could find other anchors. I did not grow up to be an adult like them, quite the opposite rather, but for that moment in time they helped me find a sense of belonging. For Kotaro also this story is a temporary solace which, as he finds people in his life who genuinely care about him, he may eventually abandon it but it helped him get through the worst parts of his life and that’s why it is significant.

Quick Note: I also want to call out here that humans have used stories as entertainment and forms of escapism for a long time. Could be in the form of a series, movies, video games, role play whatever. These are always great to indulge in as long as you don’t take it too far and begin to identify as or model your life on fictional characters. What’s written here is specifically from the context of using stories to deal with trauma temporarily and then moving on from them. I do not condone unhealthy obsession with fictional characters.

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