Thursday, January 31, 2008

Urban Rabbit Sighting


San Francisco's not a mega-city on par with the likes of Los Angeles or New York, but the downtown area, with its glass and steel monuments to capitalism, does have a pretty intensely urban feel. And that's why you don't often see wildlife in this part of town.

But a few years ago, this rabbit was observed hanging out at the park next to the baseball stadium, and appeared to be unphased by the presence of the people around him, many of whom expressed their amazement at this remarkable juxtaposition of the natural and modern worlds.

After a while, the rabbit slowly moved off in the direction of the parking lot next to the stadium, and a few minutes later, faded into the late afternoon shadows.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"I Can't Believe She Dumped Me"


I can't believe this. I just got totally dumped, and if you want to know the truth, I'm pretty upset about it.

I know I wasn't the greatest boyfriend, and I realize that I forgot her birthday a couple times... OK, the last four years in a row. And that I'm not the most romantic guy on the planet, and that I sometimes would fall asleep while she was talking to me. But I always thought she'd see through that kinda of stuff and would see me for who I am, and appreciate the complexities and subtle nuances of me. Guess she didn't.

Oh man, this one hurts. I mean, ouch. Never saw it coming. This hurts even more than that time in middle school, when I got dumped at the school dance on Valentine's Day. How was I supposed to know it wasn't OK for me to dance with other girls? Is there some kind of Love Handbook that I was supposed to have memorized?

Anyway, I guess I should probably try to be a better guy next time.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

On The Ground In Reykjavik, Iceland


I've always had an interest in remote, cold, windswept places, and for that reason, I've always been pretty fascinated with Iceland. In 1986, when I took a flight to Paris on Icelandic Air, we had a stopover at Keflavik Airport, situated about 50 km southwest of Iceland´s capital, Reykjavik.

At that time, not many travelers visited Iceland, but today, the country has a booming tourist industry. And that's not surprising since there's so much to do there: volcanic hot springs, amazing landscapes, mountains, drinking with friendly people. I look forward to going back there someday and seeing the country outside of the airport's boundaries.

My visions of Iceland has been shaped by watching Icelandic films, and one of my favorites is Reykjavik 101, which is based on a book of the same name by Hallgrímur Helgasonthe. It's the story of Hlynur, a comically lazy young man who lives with his mom and generally treats the world as a minor obstacle to his own day-to-day pleasure. Hlynur's mom is a lesbian, and her partner, Lola, is a sultry Spanish dance expert who somehow made her way to Iceland to teach. Hlynur ends up falling for Lola, and they have a drunken roll in the hay, but Lola's dedicated to her relationship with the mom.

At the end of the film, it is revealed that Lola is pregnant, and the implication is that it's Hlynur's baby. This realization finally spurs Hlynur to start living an adult-style life instead of sleepwalking through it in a fog like a lazy, petulant teenager who sees no future for himself or the world.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

"Damn, Wish I'd Brought An Umbrella"


The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is a sleepy, tropical town, except when there's a thunderstorm going on. Then it's full of loud crashing thunder and intense downpours. And sometimes, the torrential rains catch people unawares.

But if you consider watching thunderstorms to be a hobby, Phnom Penh is a place you'll never forget. The heat is oppressive, even in the so-called 'cool' season, but it's the humidity that really cranks things up and stokes the sky with massive, billowy cumulus clouds. Around 3 or 4 p.m., these clouds tower 30,000 feet or more above the city, blotting out the sun and developing ominous shades of gray in their lower reaches.

Around Phnom Penh, some citizens can be seen rushing around to get home before the rains begin. Others show no fear of the rain, and amble along the streets without a care in the world. But they know it's coming.

Then, usually between 4 and 5 p.m., the skies open, and the rain starts beating down with biblical intensity. The heaviest rain lasts about an hour, maybe two, and then tapers off. In the rainy season though, the rains often continue throughout the night.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

When Nature Blows Her Top, Big Lakes Often Result


Lake Toba sits smack dab in the middle of northern Sumatra, the crescent shaped Indonesian island that is almost perfectly chopped in half by the equator. Lake Toba is the world's largest volcanic lake, and about 70,000 years ago, was the site of what some scientists believe to have been the largest volcanic eruption on Earth in the last 25 million years.

Put it this way: The blast blanketed the entire third of the Earth with ash, and in one spot in central India, several thousand miles away, the ash has been recorded within the local geological strata as nearly 20 feet deep. That's almost as long as a first down!

Sumatra is one of those places that I started wanting to see as soon I got my first globe when I was 8 years old. It was the very definition of exotic, even to the primitive, reptilian brain of an 8 year old. And in 1993, I traveled to Sumatra, fulfilling my reptilian dream.

Lake Toba isn't an easy place to get to, but in my opinion, a big part of what makes the world's truly unique and special places burn brightly in the memories of those who've endured the hassle and danger of actually going there is the huge pain in the ass that you remember later.

The journey to Lake Toba began with a bothersome 5 hour ferry ride across the Strait Of Malacca from Penang, Malaysia to Medan in Sumatra. What made the boat trip stressful wasn't necessarily the constant stream of seasick passengers heading to the rail to be sick, but the fact that we were traveling through some of the most pirate infested waters on Earth. OK, that part was pretty cool, in retrospect.

After reaching Medan, I boarded a very shabby looking bus, with seats that looked like they'd been designed for a cub scout troop. For the next 4 hours, I watched my life flash before my eyes during a violently bumpy, careening journey that I was sure was going to end with chunks of me, in various sizes and shapes, littering the roadway and later being eaten by animals from the jungle that hung down on each side of the road.


But finally, I reached Lake Toba, and took a boat to Samosir Island (above), a large island that lies in the middle of the lake, and which was created by magma welling up under the lake to create solid land. Thankfully, though, I didn't encounter any magma during the week I spent in this extremely relaxing place. Incidentally, at the top of the mountain that dominates Samosir Island is ANOTHER LAKE. No, I'm not kidding.

Like all of the world's volcanic lakes, Lake Toba is DEEP -- up to 1665 feet (505 meters) in places. Its waters are extremely clear, and full of colorful freshwater tropical fish.

I stayed in a traditional house in the style of the Batak people who inhabit the Lake Toba region. The house was right on the water, and each evening, I'd sit out with the Indonesian guy who owned the place, and his Dutch girlfriend, and watch the thunderclouds roll in. We witnessed some pretty mind blowing tropical thunderstorms there. The kind I knew I'd be telling people about -- whether they wanted to hear about it or not -- several years later.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Disarming Smile


The Jama Masjid in Delhi, India, is one of the largest mosques in the country, and definitely one of the most impressive sights in the city. Comissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and finished in 1656, the mosque's central courtyard (pictured here) holds more than 25,000 people.

I spent an afternoon walking around the Jama Masjid, and while it was an interesting experience, I have to admit that it wasn't the friendliest place I'd ever been. In fact, I was followed around for most of the time by a large group of angry looking young men, who weren't looking like the local welcoming committee.

I did have a tour guide, a very friendly older gentleman, who from time to time would stop, turn, and cast a glare at the kids. While this caused them to shrink back temporarily, the teenagers still wore menacing expressions of the sort that suggested they'd be interested in using me as a pinata.

This little girl was one of the few smiling faces I saw inside the mosque. And that smile of hers lit up the courtyard like a huge bundle of roman candles. Washed away all the animosity I'd felt during the day. Her doll was cute too, although a bit on the shy side.

I snapped this photo and then watched her and some other kids running around the courtyard, laughing and chasing pigeons.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Another One Rides The Bus


This is the bus ticket for the late night Bangkok bus line that runs from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. This 5 baht ticket -- about 16 cents -- is one of the cheapest ways of getting from one end of the sprawling Thai capital to the other. However, one must also factor in a considerable amount of danger due to the frayed nerves of many of the drivers, and the tenuous grip on reality that they sometimes exhibit.

In any event, riding the bus in Bangkok can be an interesting way to see the city and spend some time trapped in a large, sweltering cargo container with wheels, and get the really unique chance to rub shoulders (literally) with a few hundred Bangkok residents, many of whom may look at you with bewilderment and wonder why the hell you decided to embark.


While this ticket may appear to be nothing more than a jumble of numbers and Thai text, some imaginative citizens have been known to collect bus ticket stubs and use them to come up with lottery numbers. This is just one of many anecdotal tidbits of information that illustrates why Thailand is one of the most unique places on Earth.

And also, why the country is so freaking exciting.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Jailbreak (a.k.a. The Last Day Of School)


Who doesn't remember the unrivaled bliss of the last day of classes? After being cooped up in stuffy classrooms for months, forced to drag yourself from class to mind-numbing class, and getting sent to the headmaster's office dozens of times by power-drunk teachers, there's something truly divine about hearing that final bell ring and seeing the school doors swing open.

And then you smell the early summer air and anything -- anything -- seems possible. Some kids even break into a sprint, just in case the school's powers-that-be decide to change their minds and extend the semester for another couple of weeks.

Of course, once you become a teenager, and life starts slapping you in the face like a freshly caught barracuda, the last day of school doesn't seem quite as special. That's because now you've got to find a job, and that makes you have to wake up early, and after a few months... you find yourself longing for the relative lack of responsibility that school represents.

Just another one of life's cycles, I guess.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Appeasing The Shadow Side


Evidence of the Thai peoples' strong belief in the spirit world can be observed in places one might expect, as well as random spots, like this impromptu offering left by the roadside in central Bangkok. It appears to consist of incense sticks, perhaps a bit of whiskey, and a small Thai dessert.

Even passing Bangkok street dogs seem to realize this these offerings aren't to be disturbed. OK, that's not true: Most street dogs would wolf down the entire offering, even the whiskey.

It's a peaceful little scene, but one that belies the fact that cars and trucks are zooming noisily by just a few feet away, belching and honking and doing their damnedest to destroy every shred of concentration and contemplation a Bangkok pedestrian might be able to muster.

Thais believe that guardian spirits oversee buildings and certain outdoor spaces, and the proper protocol for ensuring they're kept happy is to offer them small gifts on a regular basis. This is particularly true for business owners, who believe the spirits residing nearby must be placated if the venture is to have any chance of succeeding. That's why it's likely this offering was made by a nearby noodle soup or roast chicken seller plying their wares in the late afternoon sunlight.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Keeping The Peace With Grilled Corn


Zhong Wei is a security guard who managed a guard station on the Simatai portion of the Great Wall Of China, which happens to be one of the steepest, most visually striking, and downright dangerous parts of the ancient structure. It's about a 2 hour bus ride from China's capital, Beijing.

The Great Wall stretches more than 6500 kilometers (4000 miles) from the seaside town of Shanhaiguan in the east, to the desert town of Jiayuguan in the west. All along its length are regularly spaced guard stations where Chinese Empire sentries used to keep an eye out for Mongol invaders and beat back their advances, sometimes showering their foes with boiling oil and/or chopping off the hands of those who succeeded in clawing their way to the top of the wall.

Today, guards are still positioned at the stations, but in the absence of enemy invaders, they're able to focus on other, less violent activities -- like cooking corn on the cob over a fire and sharing it with tourists. In the summertime, when the heat and humidity builds, Zhong Wei often brings a bucket of ice cold beers to his post and sells them to very grateful hikers passing through his station.

Frankly, there isn't much excitement along this part of the Great Wall nowadays, but that's OK with Zhong Wei. In his opinion, grilling corn and talking with tourists is far more redeeming than chopping off the hands of enemy invaders.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Ready For My Close-Up"


One of the great pleasures of hiking in and around the hills of Ladakh, India, is keeping an eye out for colorful reptiles that seem occupy every nook and cranny. This inquisitive lizard actually followed me for a while as I hiked up to the Shanti Stupa in the Kashmiri capital of Leh, darting in between the boulders alongside the trail like a hummingbird with scales.

After several attempts, I was finally able to get this lizard to pose for a photo. Then it wriggled through a crack between two rocks and vanished. I dunno, I think there may have been something in the lizard's contract about not posing for more than one photo. Just another sign of the litigious times we're living in.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

"Whoa, That's One Thick Earlobe!"


It was one of those arbitrary changes many folks decide to make in their lives once the new year arrives. But Sam was hell bent on shaking things up in a life he often described as "mind numbingly boring", so he decided to get his ear pierced.

The only problem was, Sam's ear is of an unusual thickness, according to the earring salesperson in this photo. She actually told Sam that she'd need to use a drill bit to get through his earlobe, in a departure from the conventional piercing method. But he was OK with that. And about five minutes after this photo was taken, Sam had himself a pretty sweet faux diamond earring.

Sam told me later that although the pain of the piercing procedure was intense, the impact of his fashion statement had far reaching effects that more than compensated for the temporary misery.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"That Trip to the Planetarium Has Me Questioning EVERYTHING"


Somchai is a 64 year old dried squid seller who plies his wares on the streets Bangkok, Thailand, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood on his trusty (and rusty) bicycle, which has an attached squid drying rack. Earlier today, Somchai was bored, so he decided to take a break and spend a few hours at the Bangkok Planetarium.

Somchai had heard from a friend that this was an interesting way to spend an afternoon, but he had no idea just how much the experience was going to rock his world.

What really blew Somchai's mind was when he learned that the Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object visible with the naked eye, is 2.5 million light years away. And that Andromeda is the closest major galaxy to the Milky Way, and that Andromeda is just one of countless galaxies in a universe so big that no matter how hard we try to estimate its size, it doesn't matter because it's continually expanding.

After leaving the planetarium, Somchai very slowly walked over to his squid bike, and headed back out into the afternoon heat.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Little Bit Of Everything


Sometimes, staying awake on long flights pays off in the form of eye-popping photos. I took this one during a flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco. I'm pretty sure it was someplace over Utah, but given that it's such an otherworldly landscape, this photo might as well have been taken on Jupiter's moon Europa. They did find some traces of ancient water there, didn't they?

This photo grabs me for many reasons: it shows mountains and flatlands, green areas and desert, a vast expanse of blue water, and best of all, the curvature of the Earth and the deep, deep blue of the upper atmosphere.

Oftentimes when I'm on a cross country flight, it's either cloudy, or dark, or I'm preoccupied with thinking about some of the inane things that my mind drifts to from time to time when confronted with several hours of captivity. This time, though, I drank it all in.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Baby Boss Of Darjeeling


I'm pretty sure Darjeeling, India, has a mayor, governor, sheriff, or some other authority figure. However, the *real* leader of Darjeeling, at least as far as I could see, was this little girl.

She patrolled the alleyways of the town, making sure law and order was upheld, and that no one stepped out of line. Sure, she's cute as all get out, but if someone did start trouble... woo, boy, I can't imagine what the consequences would have been, so impressive was her air of authority.


No doubt, this little bundle of joy is an enforcer with backbone, who isn't afraid to voice her opinions. After I'd snapped a few photos, she gave me a look that seemed to say, "OK, show's over pal, better get moving now! This town ain't big enough for the two of us. Don't MAKE me come up there!"

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Golden Gate Monks


GUY WITH THE CAMERA: Wow, what an incredible spot for a photo! I'd heard the Marin headlands just above the Golden Gate bridge offered great views, but this is off the charts. The Golden Gate bridge is right behind you, and you can also see downtown San Francisco.

GUY POSING: Seriously, will you please shut up and take the damn photo? It's windy up here, and I actually forgot to wear underwear, so there's no telling what could happen if it starts gusting.

By the way, do these sunglasses look cool on me, or are they too dorky? This is a money shot and I don't want to screw it up. I hope they make me look like the Terminator -- the guys back home at the monastery would LOVE that!

GUY WITH THE CAMERA: The sunglasses look fine, but you should probably get rid of that ugly blue bag, it looks like you're carrying a purse, bro!

GIRL WANDERING IN BETWEEN: This is superboring. I mean, the view is nice and all, but there are no other kids around, and these guys are being SUCH divas about taking this photo. I hope we can leave soon.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

"OK, Is There A Bathroom Around Here?"


Oh man, this is really a bad situation! I mean, I know I'm supposed to stand guard here in Tiananmen Square, and I'm supposed to not even flinch for hours and hours, but I had a double-foam-Mochachino from Starbucks just before starting my shift, and I really gotta pee! It's still 4 hours until I get off from work, and just between you and me, I'm not sure if I'm gonna make it.

How horrible it would be to be the first People's Liberation Army solider to pee his pants while standing guard in Tiananmen Square - the guys would never let me hear the end of it!

I wonder, does that tour bus parked behind me in the background have a bathroom? Oh man, if it did, that would be so awesome. Or, maybe I could just find a spot between those two parked cars. Do you think anyone would notice if I just ran over there and relieved myself? I mean, it's not like there are enemy troops lined up on the other side of the street, waiting for me to leave my post so they can take over Tiananmen Square!

I've heard in America, workers get to take breaks during the day, during which they can actually leave their posts and go do things they want to do, like go to the bathroom, smoke cigarettes, and read magazines. Y'know, America is kind of a meddling pain in the ass to my government sometimes, but I have to admit, having a break during my workday would be profound and meaningful.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Finding Wisdom In Unexpected Places


This just in from the Department Of Randomly Encountered Truisms: Money is bad, and getting too hitched to the notion of having it isn't good either. Now, I don't usually adjust the way I live my life based on the graffiti I see in my daily perambulations, but this message painted on an air compressor sitting in front of a roadside shop in Laos did give me pause. Made me think about stuff, too.

This compressor had apparently had a lot of experience with people getting too worked up over money. It used to work at a gas station just outside of Vientiane, Laos, and for a good many years, its services were provided for free by its owner. And everyone in the surrounding area was happy to have it as an option for filling their car tires and soccer balls.

But later, the owner decided to start charging people a small fee for using the compressor. And within a short space of time, the owner had made a fairly large sum of money, and started spending it on frivolous things, like a Ferrari made of Swiss chocolate, and a gigantic glass sculpture of a dung beetle. Before long, the owner went bankrupt, and was forced to sell all his belongings, including the compressor. A cautionary tale, to be sure.

These days the compressor sits along the roadside in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, silently offering this poignant nugget of wisdom to passersby.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sir Edmund Hillary 1919-2008


Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who in 1953 became the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest, passed away Thursday at the age of 88.

Hillary, the son of a beekeeper, reached the 29,035 foot summit of Everest along with the Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953. After returning from the summit, Hillary reportedly had this to say to his old friend George Lowe, who had climbed up to the Everest base camp to meet him. "Well George, we finally knocked the bastard off."

Hillary - or 'Ed', as he preferred to be called - was a fantastic human being who lived a life defined by courage and the spirit of determination. Throughout his life, Hillary remained committed to improving the lives of the Nepalese people, traveling to the country more than 120 times and raising funds for education and environmental conservation efforts.

But what I like most about him is that he always remained humble and self-effacing, often describing himself as just an average New Zealander with ordinary abilities. But the fact remains that many climbers who have attempted to climb Everest since Hillary, even with the benefits of superior technology, never made it back from their expeditions.

This was a man whose physical and mental strength and adventurous spirit appear to have been matched only by the size of his heart.

R.I.P. Sir Ed.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

When The Camera's Eye Is On You


In life, when the camera's red light goes on, and all eyes turn to you, how will you react? Some kids will bust out their best Kung Fu moves, some will flex their muscles in shows of improvised bravado, and others, overcome by the absurdity of it all, will just laugh. Which one will you be?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Asking Mr. Tough Guy For Directions


ME:"Excuse me sir, but my friend and I seem to be lost. Can you tell me how to get to Calcutta?"


MR. TOUGH GUY:"Sure, no problem, it's really not that far at all. Just go that way (in the direction I'm pointing) about 5 kilometers, and hang a right, go about 1 kilometer, and there's a bridge that crosses the river there that will take you right to downtown."

ME:"OK, great, thanks for your help. By the way, can you help me and my friend settle a bet? What is the fastest land mammal? I say it's the leopard, but my friend here insists it's the cheetah. What say you?


MR. TOUGH GUY:"Are you messin' with me, son? I suggest you and your friend get the hell out of here before I do something rash. Don't make me haul you out of that car!"

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Which Way To the Scowling Contest?


It had been a pretty tough afternoon for Mrs. Chung and her daughter Xiao Lei. The pair had spent the last several hours shopping in the department stores of Beijing, and the hours of walking through the cavernous monuments to materialism had begun to take their toll on both of them.

First, Xiao Lei threw a screeching tantrum outside a department store in the Wangfujing district of the city after being denied an ice cream cone. Then, Mrs. Chung had gotten into a heated argument with a shopkeeper while haggling over the price of a dress she'd taken a fancy to. Then, to cap things off, a truck drove by and splashed both Mrs. Chung and her daughter with filthy gutter water from a recent thunderstorm.

But then their fortunes took a turn for the better. First, Mrs. Chung found a store that was selling these amazing red t-shirts with Snoopy and Woodstock on the front, and bought one. Then, Mrs. Chung saw a poster from a local television station announcing a unique kind of contest, in which the child with the most angry scowl would get to appear in an upcoming television commercial.

As Mrs. Chung looked at her still seething daughter, she decided to enroll her in the contest. "I'm gonna teach you how to make lemonade from lemons, girl!" said Mrs. Chung.

Friday, January 4, 2008

George Plots His Escape


George had been putting on air of resigned acceptance for several weeks, and to the casual observer, probably appeared to be just another pampered cat content with being bandied about town in his little cat carrier. But simmering tension had been building inside of George for weeks, and on this day, George's anger had finally reaching its boiling point.

"Enough is enough, this ain't no place for a cat like me," George whispered to himself through clenched teeth. "I am getting the hell out of this shoebox."

As the time drew near for George to make his escape, he began silently reviewing and rehearsing his plan, taking into account all the things that could go wrong. He'd been gnawing away at the the latch on the door of his portable feline prison for several months, taking care to conceal the signs of his painstaking work from his owner. And now, George was just one good bite from freedom.

After so many months of captivity, the prospect of escaping was delicious to George. Oh, the thought of roaming free through a fish market and loitering around the butchering table!

Right after I took this photo, George made his move, escaped from the carrier, leapt onto the sidewalk, quickly glanced left and right, and then, for a split second, stopped to glare at his owner in the haughty way that only cats can pull off. George then quickly disappeared down a narrow alley, smiling to himself over a plan that had been executed to perfection.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Wondering What's To Come


The ironic thing about sitting alongside a busy, noisy street is that it gives one the opportunity to think, deeply and with surprising clarity. Maybe it's the constant din of the traffic passing by that creates a sort of 'white noise' that allows for higher levels of concentration. Or, maybe it's the fact that cars and motorcycles and trucks are zooming by at a speed that closely approximates the speed of life. Whatever the reason, it's another example of how humans are among the most adaptable creatures on the planet.

This man -- a rickshaw driver sitting by a roadside in Siliguri, northern India -- is thinking about how happy he is that the new year has arrived, and he doesn't have to deal with hearing people wish each other well or make breathless predictions about what's going to happen. As far as he's concerned, people pay too much attention to this New Year's nonsense, and should try to focus more on what's in front of them.