Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Oh Come On, You CAN'T Be Serious"


Wait a minute, am I hearing this correctly? Your mother is coming to stay with us for six weeks? Do you remember what happened last time she stayed with us, and how incredibly high maintenance she was? Her constant nagging about the house being dirty? And her trying to indoctrinate our children with her evangelical relgious views? Does any of that ring a bell?

I'd just like to remind you that it took me 3 months to recover emotionally from that experience. Needless to say, it's something I'd like to NOT have the misfortune of having to deal with again. So you get on the horn right now and call her and let her know that six weeks just isn't going to fit with our schedules. You tell her that we're really sorry and all that, but it's just not going to happen. Heck, I'm not even sure if I can deal with her for six HOURS, let along six weeks.

She can stay ONE week - and that's my final offer.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sydney Skyline


The Sydney Tower is the largest structure in Australia's second largest city, and as one might expect, there's a pretty amazing view from the top. On a clear day you can take in the entire 360 degree panorama, from Sydney Mascot Airport in the south, to Darling Harbor, and the Harbor Bridge. This photo is of the eastern sweep of Sydney, pointing out toward Bondi Beach, and to where the harbor meets the wilds of the Pacific Ocean.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Contemplating The Journey


It was getting on toward late afternoon, and Ali wanted his passengers to get on board so the trip could commence. But apparently, some people were buying supplies at a nearby store, and were overcharged by the shopkeeper, and an argument broke out, then a scuffle, and before long, it turned into a full-on melee.

"This is actually pretty entertaining," Ali thought to himself, with a smile creasing a face full of road-induced wrinkles. He watched the brouhaha for a while, and then got fed up, and started honking the horn -- which was loud enough to wake the dead -- to warn his passengers that he'd be leaving soon, and they'd better get on board, otherwise, they'd be stuck in this boring little hell hole of a town.

It would be a 12 hour journey to Calcutta, and Ali expected it to be a rough trip. There'd been reports of banditry on some of the village roads north of the city, and encountering some local thugs wasn't a pleasant thought.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Phnom Penh's Independence Monument


The Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is a quiet place by night, where locals hang out and chat and watch traffic move slowly around a dusty roundabout. Despite its location, the monument is actually a relatively peaceful place, and people often congregate to talk about mundane things, like how damn hot the weather is.

Built in 1958, the monument commemorates Cambodia's indpendence from France, and is designed in the form of a lotus-shaped stupa, the likes of which can be found all over the Angkor Wat region. It's a little slice of ancient architecture that sits smack dab in the middle of a city, and serves as a welcome landmark for anyone trying to navigate what it a pretty confusing city in which to walk around, at least if you're a tourist.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Ode To The #48 Bus in Bangkok


One of my favorite memories of Bangkok is of riding the #48 city bus and risking life and limb as the bus careened violently along its route. The drivers, who always seemed to be complete nutcases who enjoyed bouncing their passengers into a semi-concussed mental state, often slammed into potholes without even the faintest kiss of the brakes.

The 48's route begins at the market in Minburi, which in the early 1990s was on the outskirts of Bangkok, but today is much less remote. From there, the 48 would wind its way down Sukapiban 3 Road, a fairly straight two lane thoroughfare that crossed several small canals, and into central Bangkok. At these crossings, there would be small, slightly elevated bridges, which the drivers would use as a sort of ramp.

If you were sitting all the way in the back of the bus, as I often did, you'd be catapulted into the roof, which was all great fun. The noise, the heat, and the air rushing in from the cracked or broken windows all contributed mightily to my apprecation of the bus, which was especially fitting for my most nihilistic moods.

The bus itself, from a mechanical standpoint, was in shambles, with the engine being the only component that seemed healthy enough to make the trip. The effect of sitting in these hulking boxes of rusted metal as they zoomed around the city was that of being trapped in a cargo container as it bobbed its way along the waves of the Pacific Ocean. During a typhoon.

But in retrospect, riding the #48 was a lot of fun, and even educational, in the sense that it taught me how to dance with danger without peeing my pants.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

San Francisco At Twilight


Downtown San Francisco, as seen from Twin Peaks, one of the great vantage points in the entire Bay Area, in my opinion looks its best at dusk in early October. That's when the region has about a month of the type of perfect weather that makes people spring out of bed on Monday mornings, and even somehow manages to quiet the road rage of city drivers, if only for a brief, delicous moment in time.

From this perspective, taking in the sweeping view, it's hard not to think about all the people down there, busily moving from place to place, trying to make some sense of it all. And all the worker ants, eagerly scrimping and saving for a day in the future when all this effort won't be necessary, and when (they hope) life will resemble a day at the beach. And, of course, all the deviant ants who occupy their time trying to screw the other ants out of their honestly earned gains.

Ah yes, the little details to be seen within one of these picturesque landscape photos.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"These Stacks Of Boxes Are Like Wasted Days"


"Man, it's so freaking hot, and this work is about as fun as getting a root canal. I've about had it with this box stacking BS. And to make matters worse, lately I've started realizing how these stacks of flattened cardboard remind me of all the hours and days I've wasted doing nothing to make my dreams come true."

"I'd love to settle down in the south of Thailand, buy a bar on the beach, and just hang out and relax for the rest of my days. It'd be great just to chill out and chat with the tourists passing through, and just smile and nod my head with agreement every time they gush with excitement about how great Thailand is, and how beautiful the beaches are."

"But the reality is, life in Bangkok is expensive, and my salary sucks, which means I haven't been able to save jack shit when it comes to money. I've been looking for a second job, but the economy isn't exactly roaring along right now, and besides, I'm always pretty tired after spending the day collecting these damn cardboard boxes and stacking them in this truck."

"That's what these stacks mean to me: All the days piling up, one after the other, creating heavy cardboard pillars that hold my soul down like an anchor."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A New Approach To Airport Noise Pollution


People all over the world who have the misfortune of living near airports have had to deal with noise pollution for decades. It's a real problem with no easy solution, although some cities have had some success in calming citizens' anger by regularly changing aircraft takeoff and approach patterns.

Now a group of about 100 citizens living near Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, who've been suffering from what they claim are unacceptable noise levels since the facility opened in September 2006, are mad as hell, and they're not gonna take it anymore.

They insist that when the airport was being built, city officials pledged to buy their homes, but have yet to follow through on their promises. So, the citizens are giving the city until the end of the month to pay up; otherwise, they'll disrupt air traffic by launching large helium filled balloons and small homemade rockets into the path of approaching and departing planes.

No, seriously. And according to the Bangkok Post, citizens recently launched about 100 balloons into the sky, causing airport officials to divert incoming aircraft for about two hours. Local law enforcement have sent letters to the citizens warning them not to follow through on their threats, but haven't yet made any arrests for these statements, which could, in some countries, be interpreted as terroristic threats.

Communities from Anchorage to Zanibar that are affected by airport noise are following this story closely, and there's anecdotal evidence that worldwide helium balloon sales have seen a recent spike as a result of the intrigue around this story.

(Actually, helium prices are approaching all times highs not for this reason, but in large part because it's used to cool MRI machines, according to a recent report in Scientific American.)

LINK: Residents Near Bangkok Airport Make A Threat

Friday, February 15, 2008

"To Sleep, Perchance To Dream..."


It had been a hell of a day, and Srinivas was taking a well deserved siesta. Not only was Calcutta a steaming furnace of humidity that day, but he'd also had to deal with several very high maintenance passengers, including an elderly woman who, for some reason, picked that day to go grocery shopping her daughter's wedding, and set what Srinivas was sure had to be some sort of record for most things bought in a single day.

It was almost as if she'd gone through the market and chosen only the heaviest items, and it was Srinivas who ended up loading most of them onto, and off of the bike. And to make matters worse, the woman didn't even invite Srinivas to the wedding!

But now, at least, was a time of momentary peace, and Srinivas was deep in a dream. In the dream, Srinivas was a fisherman living on an island in the Lakshadweep chain, and his days were a lot less trying than the one's he'd been encountering in real life as of later. The reverie was so intense and satisfying that Srinivas didn't even wake up when a pack of street dogs got into a snarling brawl right nearby.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hong Kong Mid-Autumn Festival


One of China's oldest celebrations, the Mid-Autumn Festival dates back to the ancient Xia Dynasty (2100 B.C.-1600 B.C.). That's a long time ago, and it's likely that the number of channels on cable television was very limited at that time.

As part of the event, also known as the Moon Cake Festival, the Chinese build and set up large, brightly lit lanterns in parks and public spaces, like the one pictured here, which was about 20 feet tall. In Hong Kong's Victoria Park, where I spent an evening strolling around with throngs of relaxed, happy people, there are hundreds of these lanterns dotting the landscape.

It's easy to fall right into their pace, and you almost forget about the busy, honking city that lies right outside the park boundaries. This year's Mid-Autumn Festival will take place on September 14.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Paris Nights In March 1986


It was March 1986, and I was on a high school trip to France. This is the view from the hotel room in Paris that I shared with my friends Mike and BHD. We'd all spent the past couple of weeks in the Alsace region in northeastern France, near the German and Swiss borders. It was there that we each lived with a French family and attended classes at the local school. And at the end of the 3 week trip, we spent a couple of days in Paris.

Our French teacher told us at the beginning of the trip that she was going to treat us the same as French adults treated kids our age (I was 16 at the time). That meant we were permitted to drink, provided we kept our heads and didn't do things that teenagers usually do after drinking a few (or several) alcoholic beverages. "Just don't do anything stupid," I recall her telling us.

I don't remember the name of the hotel. But every night, Mike, BHD and I would buy a bottle of wine, a pack of Gauloises, and hang out by the window and watch the Parisian nightlife go zooming by on the street below. One night, we discovered that the bathroom had rolls and rolls of pink tissue paper, and so we began wadding it up into balls, adding water, and tossing the sopping pink projectiles out on the window.


This, we soon discovered, was great fun. There weren't many pedestrians, so we started aiming at passing cars. The cars weren't going fast, so they were easy to hit. Especially Citroens -- the bulk of this obtusely designed vehicle made it almost impossible NOT to hit.

Since we did all this under cover of the darkness, no one ever figured out what we were doing. If they had, I'm pretty sure our teacher wouldn't have been too happy about it. But she never found out. I hope she's not reading this.

Anyway, after a while, we called some other classmates who were also staying in the hotel and they brought some more wine and joined us. We ended up staying up for hours every night doing this, but took great care not to make too much noise. Each time our projectiles would land on a car, we'd hear a very satisfying "SPLAT" from down below.

The next morning, as we boarded the bus to take us to the airport, the street in front of the hotel was so covered with pink paper blobs that you could barely see anything else. But somehow, none of the people passing by seemed to notice.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Ancient Route To Kashgar


At 17,582 feet, Khardung La is one of the world's highest motorable roadways. It's located about 37 km north of the town of Leh (11,975 feet) in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, India, and takes about 3 hours to reach by car. The first 25 km or so consists of paved switchbacks that wind their way up the steep mountainside, and then the road pretty much turns into a pitted, gravely moonscape.

This two lane roadway usually has enough space for about 1.5 cars, and very few of the hairpin turns during the ascent have a guardrail. This means that most of the time you're looking down from the edge of the roadway thousands of feet to the valley floor -- except if you're lucky and fog or snow obscures the view.

The pass, even in August, when this photo was taken, is a hit or miss proposition: It can be snowy one day, and crystal clear the next. On clear days, looking north toward the mountains of the Karokoram Range, it's easy to put oneself in the shoes of the Silk Road traders who brought their heavily laden camels and horses over this route on their way to the central Asian bazaar town of Kashgar.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Security Of Parental Protection


"I'm not really sure what to make of this... is that a camera? I don't even know what a camera is, but I probably don't like it. Therefore, I'm going to err on the side of caution here, and huddle up under the protection of my mom's skirt."

This is an older photo, taken in 1990 in Yunnan, a province in southern China that borders on Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. I was walking through a market in the Xishuangbanna autonomous region, home of the Dai ethnic minority, and the place was bustling with the energy of mid-afternoon commerce.

So, when this little guy saw me, he was pretty freaked out, and hid behind his mother, who was selling Dai handicrafts. I also hadn't shaved in a week, so that could have contributed to his reaction.

At the time, not many Western tourists traveled to Yunnan, mainly because getting there involved a series of agonizing bus rides on crumbling, terrifying roads that wind their way along steep mountain ravines and through dense jungle foliage.

I would describe it as the kind of bus trip that you look back on years later with fondness because it was such an incredible adventure. However, while you're on that bus, and it's careening down tiny little roads, all you can think about is how the wreckage will be discovered after you crash, and whether vultures will be involved.

This photo was taken with a Kodak Instamatic camera that used 110mm film, and is one of those shots that proves the point that you don't need a great camera to take a memorable image.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Votre Attention S'il Vous Plait?


Well, um, OK... I guess that *does* get my attention. And I think it probably would have succeeded in doing so even without the word 'attention'. Funny how guns can do that. Actually, it's only funny in a very dark, depressing way.

I do appreciate the randomness of this creative bit of graffiti, though. I saw it spraypainted on a concrete pillar in a Bangkok elevated railway station. What really odd is that while there are gun shops all over Bangkok, including dozens in the Chinatown section of the city, gun-related crimes are relatively rare in Thailand. Certainly not anywhere near those of pretty much any American city.

It's anyone's guess as to what statement the artist was trying to make. But I doubt it would have been as noticeable if they'd chosen to use another image, like a cartoon skunk or a creepy looking lizard.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Momentary Reflection


It was the rainy season in Vientiane, Laos, and three friends headed out into the surprisingly cool afternoon to the local market, where they planned to stock up on food. Along the way, they walked by Pha That Luang (Great Stupa), the 16th century Buddhist stupa that commands the northeastern skyline of the Laotian capital.

As they passed by, the women thought to themselves about the hundreds of times they'd seen the Great Stupa, and how each time has been quite a powerful experience. And how this monument, which has stood in this spot for centuries, is more than just a national symbol, but something that makes them stop and think about things other than the world immediately in front of them.

This realization, they thought to themselves, was a pretty powerful thing, mainly because it lifted them up and distracted them from the grind of their day to day lives.

Then the wind kicked up, and there was thunder heard in the distance. The women looked at each other, and someone might have said "Looks like rain". And they all knew it was time to be getting on to the market.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Full Throttle Scenes

A quick video that starts out in a 747 at 40,000 feet over the South China Sea; then switches to a harrowing mountain road (with no guardrail) in Jammu and Kashmir, the northernmost state of India; highlights a Golden Retriever's passion for tennis balls; and then offers quick shots of Hong Kong skyscrapers and the San Francisco Bay.