Monday, December 31, 2007

Boeing 747: The Dream Machine


No other aircraft in history cuts a more impressive form than the Boeing 747. Since they went into commercial service in 1970, 747s have flown about 3.5 billion people, or slightly more than half of the world's population.

But in addition to being an incredible feat of engineering, the 747, more than any other aircraft, has sparked the growth of the international travel industry, opening millions of peoples' eyes and minds to different countries and cultures along the way. To me, there are few things more exciting than seeing a bunch of 747s from all kinds of different countries lined up outside an airport's international terminal.

The 747-400 pictured here shortly after takeoff from Hong Kong International Airport has six million parts, 171 miles of wiring, 8 miles of tubing, and between 300 and 400 passengers excitedly looking forward to arriving at their next destination. Fully loaded, this puppy weighs about 100 tons.

Every time I see or hear a 747, I immediately think of the people on board, and wonder where they're going. And whether drinks have been served yet.

And then, depending on how long it has been since my last vacation, I often become extremely jealous of them, because wherever they're going, they're doing it in a 747.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hellish Job #437: Bangkok Bus Driver


Traffic in Bangkok, Thailand used to be the stuff of legend, with 3-hour jams a regular occurrence. Over the years, Thais grew accustomed to spending long stretches trapped in cars and buses, and accepted that as part of the price one had to pay for living in the big city.

But things have improved greatly in the Thai capital since the opening of two metropolitan mass transit systems: the BTS Skytrain and the Bangkok Subway. While not priced within the reach of all Bangkok citizens, these systems have managed to lessen the load on the city's bus system, to the point where riding the bus in Bangkok doesn't resemble a trip to Hell as closely as it used to.

Still, Bangkok bus drivers -- especially ones on non-air conditioned routes -- have one of toughest jobs on Earth. The traffic jams haven't gone away. And it's still hot as hell most of the year, and there is still a rainy season during which floodwaters can reach the windows of city buses. So when I see a bus driver like the guy pictured here, I really wonder what's going through his mind. Probably something along the lines of getting off work and retiring to a dark, air conditioned room -- and a refrigerator full of beer.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Aftermath of a low speed minivan crash


This shot was taken in Calcutta, India, about two minutes after this minivan drifted onto the center divider, was launched up into the air, and came to rest with a loud thud in a large bush on top of the roadway's grassy median. I literally watched the whole thing happen right in front of me, as a passenger in a taxicab right behind the minivan.

Although it was traveling very slowly, the minivan had been swerving back and forth wildly for several minutes, prompting my taxi driver to hang back and give it plenty of space, while cursing loudly and muttering oaths under his breath. The minivan driver was paying so little attention to the road that it almost looked like he was giving a puppet show to the other occupants of the minivan.

After the crash, a crowd quickly formed around the wreck, and the occupants of the minivan spilled out, none of them with injuries more serious than scrapes and bruises. The driver is seen here peeking through the shattered windshield, still obviously in a daze, and probably trying to how he was going to explain what happened to the minivan's owner.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Hey, I think I can see New Jersey!

Kids growing up in North America used to always talk about digging a hole all the way to China. Well, kids in Asia also believe in this, just in reverse. In this photo, these Laotian children were exercising their imaginations by picturing the exotic, awe-inspiring sights to be discovered at the other end of this pipe that's embedded in the Earth.

So I went over to the pipe and had a look for myself: All I could see was the parking lot of a Target in New Brunswick, N.J. It was packed with shoppers -- apparently they were having some sort of holiday clearance sale. The mood was tense, and I heard the muffled din of what sounded like a parking rage incident taking place.

But the kids were so amazed by the sight that I didn't have the heart to tell them there are far more interesting things to look at in the American landscape.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

"It's the perfect plan - and it'll definitely work"

OK, here's what I'm planning: I'm going to throw a surprise party for my wife's 50th, and I'm going to surprise the living hell out of her!

This is going to be great!

Anyway, so here's how it's gonna go down: I'll take her out for a nice birthday dinner, we'll come back, and you guys will all be hiding at my house, and when we walk in and turn on the lights, you'll all jump out and scream "Happy Birthday"! She'll have no idea what's coming, and that's the best part!

Actually, to make it even more of a surprise, I think everyone should dress up in costumes: I'm thinking grizzly bears, but I'm open to other suggestions, as long as they're scary! That way, when we all jump out, she'll think (at least for that split second after you jump out) that she's about to be devoured by hungry animals! Isn't that funny? She is going to LOVE it!

Oh man, I seriously can't wait for this! We're gonna be giggling like cartoon mice when we see her shocked expression! It's going to be the best birthday surprise ever!

Friday, December 21, 2007

First Glimpse Of the Himalaya

The late, legendary photojournalist and explorer Galen Rowell, in a book about Tibet entitled 'Mountains Of The Middle Kingdom', describes one of his first glimpses of the eastern Himlayan range thusly: "It was a sight off the scale of my comprehension."

That's very similar to the way I felt the first time I caught a glimpse of the Himalayas. It was February 1999, in the northeast Indian town of Darjeeling, from which one can get a pretty stunning view of the eastern portion of the world's highest mountain range. That is, as long as weather conditions cooperate.

Darjeeling isn't easy to get to, but like all truly unique places in the world, it's well worth the effort. After arriving in Calcutta, I took a 10 hour bus ride north to the city of Siliguri, then hired a driver with a very beat-up Land Rover to take me the rest of the 4 hours to Darjeeling. From Siliguri, the road quickly rises and transforms into a seemingly endless series of hairpin turns, with the views of steep alpine ravines becoming more breathtaking with each turn.

Our driver, an old, grizzled Indian gentleman, had what I would describe as a penchant for sadistic behavior. But thankfully, he also had a good sense of humor.

As we climbed higher and higher, the driver would take his hands off the steering wheel in the middle of each successively more scary hairpin turn, look back and me and the other passengers, and laugh maniacally as he allowed the Land Rover to veer towards the edge of the road, which of course had no guardrail. My fellow travelers and I appreciated his sense of humor, but wanted to strangle him by the time we reached Darjeeling, which lies at about 7000 feet above sea level.

I spent six days in Darjeeling, and for the first five, clouds blanketed the mountains and obscured the views of the eastern Himalayan range for which the town is famous. But on the morning of the sixth day, I was able to capture this shot of Kanchenjunga, which, at 28,169 feet, is the world's third highest mountain.

This photo is grainy, and probably isn't the best shot I've ever taken. But I'd have to say that it's definitely one of the most rewarding, especially in light of the amount of time and effort I spent getting to this very special place.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Visible Memories Of An Ugly War

It's amazing, the little details you'll encounter while wandering around the capital city of a Communist country. I was checking out a decrepit, crumbling government building in Vientiane, Laos, when I came upon this statue depicting a solider with his boot defiantly perched atop a U.S. bomb. It was 1998, and I remember thinking at the time how strange it was to be visiting a country that many experts believe to be the most-bombed nation in the history of war.

And most of this bombing was done by the U.S. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. conducted more than 580,000 bombing raids over Laos, during which some 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on the country. Although the bombing stopped more than three decades ago, several Laotians -- many of them children -- are killed each year by unexploded bombs.

And yet, despite being from the country that dropped the bombs, I was welcomed everywhere I went in Laos, and never saw anything but smiles from the people I met there. And I hear the same is true for U.S. travelers in Vietnam.

Hanging Out At A Calcutta Bus Stop

These guys were having a very spirited conversation about something when I happened to walk past this bus stop in the suburbs of Calcutta, India, not far from the international airport. This was in February of 1999.

Although I couldn't understand them, they may have been discussing the cricket match that had taken place the day before, in which India lost to Pakistan, much to the chagrin of about 1.2 billion people. Although the match was a 'friendly', people still took the loss hard. You could have heard a pin drop in the evening hours after the match.

But on this day, these guys appear to have shrugged off the loss. They gave me friendly smiles as I walked past, and didn't flinch when I took this photo. As I walked away, I could hear them burst out in laughter. Usually when that happens, I assume that someone's making fun of me, but I didn't get that vibe from these guys. Not that I don't provide rich fodder for ridicule.

Afterwards, I imagined that these guys settled back into whatever they were doing before I walked past -- like sipping tea, watching the world go by, and talking about how India was going to kick Pakistan's ass the next time they met up for a cricket match.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Phil Collins: My Brush With Classic Rock History


As a teenager growing up in the mid-1980s, I spent much of my life cringing - and I mean cringing -- every time Phil Collins' songs came on the radio. Then, in one of life's ironic twists, a decade later I had the chance to interview him.

I was working in Bangkok, Thailand at the time, as an copy editor with the Bangkok Post, an English language daily newspaper. It was March of 1995, and our staff of Thai reporters had their hands full with other stories, so when the record company called with the offer to interview Collins during the Bangkok leg of his Far Side Of The World Tour, my boss asked me if I was interested.

I jumped all over it. The only problem was, at that point in time, I had almost zero reporting experience. But having always been someone whose ambition has far exceeded my ability, I figured that the worst that could happen was that I'd ask some stupid or inflammatory questions and Phil would shoot me one of those withering, "Who the fuck are you?" looks that rock stars often give to rookie reporters.

Now, let me just say that I recognize that Phil Collins is a rock legend from his time as the drummer and lead singer of Genesis. He deserves respect. Kinda.

But here's the problem I have with his music: When I was growing up, Phil Collins' solo songs were as inescapable as the sunrise, with a steady stream of radio hits like 'Sussudio', 'Against All Odds' and 'Groovy Kind of Love' insinuating their shallow platitudes and romantic visions in my naive teenage mind. To the point where I began to believe that in life's endless bends and turns, I might actually find me a "groovy kind of love". Or at the very least, a 'Sussudio' (which to me, to this day, still sounds like something dirty. Is that weird?).

Needless to say, in the circle of friends I grew up with, it wasn't cool to like Phil Collins. One kid I know had a cassette tape of Collins 1985 album 'No Jacket Required' found in the back of his car by some other kids, and he was actually beaten up. I mean, c'mon, he might as well have had a collection of Cabbage Patch Dolls!

In the run-up to the interview, I spent lots of time thinking of questions and rehearsing them, to get a picture of what the experience would be like. I really wanted to ask him what it was like to be in a band with Peter Gabriel (who, in my opinion, is ten times the musician Collins is), but decided that would probably wouldn't go over well. I had also been urged by the record company to ask Phil about his film career, which at that time consisted of a lead role in the 1988 film 'Buster'. Yeah, I never heard of it either.

The day of the interview, I was pretty nervous as I gathered my tape recorder and the notebook in which I'd scribbled a bunch of questions that I thought would be both provoking and insightful.

I arrived at the hotel and met up with Jang, the record company rep who had set up the interview. There was a crowd of other media people already there, most of them television reporters and camerapeople, and the lobby was buzzing with excitement. Jang led me through the crowd and down a carpeted hallway, and into a very large banquet room. Sitting there, alone at a table in the middle of the room, was Phil. Looking pretty jetlagged, actually (he'd just arrived from Jakarta that afternoon, in fact).

The interview didn’t get off to a great start. I figured I’d kick things off by asking him what age he began to develop an interest in drumming. Big mistake.

Phil sighed -- theatrically and with obvious frustration. “Five,” he snapped.

OK, this wasn't good. Phil hadn't given me the "Who the fuck are you" look yet, but I could tell it wasn't far off. As I glanced nervously at my questions, I saw him glance at his watch. I thought to myself: 'Quick, come up with a good one, you're going down in flames here!'

So I asked him about what it was like to play both the London and the Philadelphia legs of the legendary 1985 megaconcert Live Aid. "Oh, it is the 10th anniversary now, isn't it?" said the suddenly interested Collins.

Phil then proceeded to launch into a long winded but interesting account of July 13, 1985, the day he played with Genesis at London's Wembley Stadium in the morning, then took the Concorde to New York, and a helicopter to Philadelphia, making it in just enough time to greet old friends Robert Plant and Eric Clapton and then take the stage as the drummer for Led Zeppelin's first ever reunion.

The rest of the interview went smoothly, as I had apparently hit a good nerve with Phil by asking the Live Aid question. He even answered my 'straw man' question about what he would say to critics who've labeled him "a mindless crooner of insipid love ballads", a description I told him I'd seen in Rolling Stone, but which actually came from me.

Before long, I shut off my tape recorder and said my goodbyes, shaking hands with a guy whose solo music I always loathed, but who, at least, had rubbed shoulders with what I consider to be true classic rock legends.

P.S. - Here's the article that appeared in the Bangkok Post, April 5, 1995