Sunday, March 30, 2008

What Are You Laughing At?


Max is a 3 year old herring with big eyes and funky teeth, and he's just been caught by some fisherman off the coast of China, and been brought to a fish market in Shanghai.

Max is still alive, which is surprising, as he's been out of water for over 2 hours. But Max comes from a long line of hearty fish, and he reckons he's still got a couple more hours before everything fades to black.

Max is actually pretending to be dead in this photo, and he's wearing that goofy smile in order to further that illusion. (Man, that Max sure does have some seriously funky teeth, he looks like a poster fish for the Invisalign company!

Max knows that if he even flinches or shows any sign of life, he'll be clubbed by one of the fish processing guys. And Max is saving the last bits of his strength so that he can be in a position to bite off one of his oppressors' fingers, or maybe 2 or 3 if he's lucky.

You see, Max was pretty happy before he got swept up in the fishermens' net. And while Max realizes that as a fish, he probably shouldn't be able to engage in any sort of cognitive analysis of his situation, he isn't ready to ditch his free will and become part of the food chain just yet. Unh-uh, not without a fight.

Max is a firm believer in the old saying, "He who laughs last laughs best", and I can almost hear him chuckling to himself as he prepares to relieve a fish processing guy of one of his fingers.

Friday, March 28, 2008

What's Behind The Door


Doors are kind of funny. Everyone's got 'em. Doors to your houses. Bathroom doors. Car doors. That Doors album that has been stored away collecting dust in your garage for the past 18 years. And, of course, the locked doors in some peoples' pathetically closed minds.

Some doors, when you look at them, seem to taunt you and dare you to wonder about what's on the other side. These doors seem to say, "Yeah, I know you want to know, and believe me, there is some really cool shit on the other side. But no, you can't see it. Now get out."

Other doors are more kindly and benevolent. These doors seem to say, "Don't worry about it, there's nothing interesting on the other side, you can come see for yourself if you want, but I don't want to get your hopes up."

Still other doors play somewhere in the middle, acting all coquettish in their attempts to catch the eye, but in the end, leaving it up to the viewer to imagine what's inside, and making no attempt to sway the viewer either way. In fact, these doors don't say anything at all, they just stand there silently, leaving the viewer to ponder their next move.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Merit Maker Or Bird Lover?


The concept of merit-making is a prevalent one in Buddhist societies, with the main idea being that if you do something nice for another living creature, that kindness will come back to you. Other cultures have different terms for it, and this concept can often be seen when people perform small, ritualistic acts of kindness for animals.

Yangon, the capital and largest city of Myanmar (also known as Rangoon, Burma), is a slightly dingy city with a subdued, melancholy air to it. This is surprising, because unlike other Asian cities, Yangon is full of greenery, with trees, bushes, and grass springing up just about everywhere you look.

Amidst the grime, citizens have to look for creative ways to brighten up their moods, and many have found that purchasing bird seed from roadside vendors and feeding the city's large pigeon population is one way to achieve this.


Pigeons aren't the most popular creatures in the world; in fact, they probably rank just a few notches above rats in the minds of most people, and they've even been referred to as 'rats with wings'. But that doesn't seem to matter to this woman, who appears deeply engrossed in her task of offering some small comfort to her winged friends. Is she making merit, or simply a bird lover?

It would actually be quite funny to see peoples' reaction if someone were to try this in downtown New York. Just imagine a New York cop's reaction to someone throwing birdseed to a gathering group of pigeons. It'd be something like "Whadya think you're doing, this ain't Disney World, now get the hell out of here!"

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Moon Temple


Taking photos of the moon is mostly an exercise in futility, and a great example of how the human eye can catch sights far more crisply and accurately than any camera ever will.

Shooting the moon is even more difficult because the damn thing is 240,000 miles away and is moving quickly through space, which means it jumps around the camera viewfinder, especially if you're trying to zoom in on it. This squirrelishness suggests that maybe the moon doesn't want itself to be photographed, and prefers to retain an air of mystery.

This shot was taken just after sunset in Jaisalmer, India, a small city in the desert of western India that sits about 50 miles from the border with Pakistan, and can't be reached without a long, exhausting car or train ride. The moon was rising over this temple in the way it has for centuries, and as I aimed my camera, I could almost hear the moon taunting me and saying, "Yeah, go ahead, try and shoot me, but you KNOW the snapshot won't come close to depicting the actual scene."

And, if the moon saw this photo, it would probably shrug and say "Hey, not bad, but it doesn't even come close to capturing my sublime magnificence -- and you know it."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Taking A Breather


Tuesday morning started out pretty quietly for Sanjay, a 26 year old taxi driver in Calcutta, India. A few short range pickups, a trip to the airport, but otherwise, pretty quiet. But around noon, that changed in a big way.

As Sanjay pulled up to a market, he noticed a commotion just outside the entrance. Several people were assisting a young woman and leading her to the street. Sanjay immediately realized what was going on -- she was pregnant. Very pregnant, in fact, according to the people who were screaming and shouting into Sanjay's window and urging him to rush her to the hospital. The only problem was, the woman hadn't been loaded into the car yet.

Always cool under pressure, Sanjay got out and helped the woman into the car, and jumped behind the wheel. The nearest hospital was 25 minutes away, but Sanjay knew of a shortcut through a nearby series of alleys. And it was the right time of day -- no traffic.

The woman wailed as Sanjay's cab bumped and lurched its way through Calcutta's pothole scarred streets, and it was obvious she was in the later stages of labor. Just as her cries reached the level of screams, Sanjay pulled up to the emergency room entrance, and a group of nurses whisked the woman away to an operating room.

It was a pretty intense half hour, and afterward, Sanjay's heart was still racing. He decided to hang out and catch his breath before continuing his shift. "Never a dull moment in this line of work," Sanjay thought to himself, and chuckled.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

San Francisco: Night And Day


The southern San Francisco skyline is a sweeping panorama of hotels, apartment buildings, bay views, and, on clear days, a glimpse of the mountains that frame Silicon Valley, some 50 miles away. It's a side of the city that's often overlooked because it lacks the high profile sights for which San Francisco is known, but the southern view crackles with its own energy and motion.

It's quite relaxing to spend a few hours watching planes approaching and departing from San Francisco International Airport, which is about 6 miles south of the city. The only drawback is the jealousy one feels as they think about the passengers on those planes, being ferried to exotic, faraway lands.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Don't Monkey With My Monkey


SITTING MONKEY: "How many times do I have to warn you? You know how tequila affects you, and frankly, you shouldn't have taken all those shots. I'm sorry you're in pain right now, but I have to say, you kind of deserve it!"

RECLINING MONKEY: "Wow, thanks, that's very helpful, I feel better already."

SITTING MONKEY: Well, you embarrassed the hell out of me last night, and I'm pretty pissed off about it. Do you remember wearing the lampshade? And doing that dumb little dance? I mean, come on, that's a trick from the 1950s, and not very original. People were laughing, but not laughing with you, but rather, AT you.

RECLINING MONKEY: Oh, please stop, my head is POUNDING, and you're making it worse.

SITTING MONKEY: Yeah, well I hope it pounds, maybe you'll think twice next time about getting into a tequila shot contest with the boys.

RECLINING MONKEY: There won't BE a next time -- I'm never drinking tequila again!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Dancing Eyes Of Mischief


It was a favorite childhood game of Ping's: She'd ask someone to take her photo and then, at the last moment, run away giggling. And as a result, in the digital cameras of many of Ping's family and friends, there were partial images of her very similar to this one.

Ping was a big fan of the Peanuts comics, and she equated the photo game with the old football game in which Lucy would pull the ball away just as Charlie Brown was about to kick it. Ping didn't know what a football was, because they didn't play it in Thailand, but she did love the expression on Charlie Brown's face when he realized he'd been had, again.

Later, Ping would grow up to become a fashion model, and she learned very quickly that professional photographers didn't like to play this game. But from time to time, Ping would still giggle and run away during photo shoots, and photographers would sigh with resignation and wait for her to come back. They put up with her games because Ping was one of the most charismatic models in Thailand, with intangibles that quickly catapulted her to international fame.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Surfing Life's Uncertainties


Zhao had had a busy afternoon as a crew member aboard the Harbor Princess, a 112-foot ferry boat that transported passengers between Hong Kong and Lantau island. That morning, a typhoon had passed by to the south, several hundreds miles away, but close enough to cause a pretty sizable chop that rocked the boat had several passengers heading for the rail. And then, the customary late afternoon summer thunderstorm had kicked the water up even more.

Even Zhao, who'd been working on ships for more than two decades, started feeling the effects of the large, ocean sized swell. So after his last run to Lantau, he decided to stop by his favorite crab restaurant and have a relaxing dinner before heading back to the city. But halfway through the meal, Zhao's attention drifted over to a nearby television weather report. Another typhoon was on the way, only this one was headed straight for Hong Kong. It wasn't due to hit until evening, but Zhao had a feeling the next day's ferry trips would be rough ones.

"Why didn't I just get a cushy office job like my mother always advised me to do?" Zhao thought to himself as he finished eating and hurriedly prepared to head back to his flat in Hong Kong.

Monday, March 17, 2008

When Mount St. Helens Blew Her Top


Mount St. Helens, a large volcano located about 100 miles south of Seattle, Washington, was in a bad mood on the morning of May 18, 1980. I mean, worse than normal, even. Perhaps it had something to do with the weather that day, which was gorgeous in a way that only springtime in the Cascades can pull off. Many people, when they're in a bad mood, don't want to see sunshine, daffodils, and bunny rabbits, and the same goes for large volcanoes.

Actually, Mount St. Helens' rage had been building steadily for weeks, in the form of hot magma welling up underneath its surface. And at 8:32 am that day, an earthquake occurred on Mount St. Helens that caused a huge slab of the mountain to slide away, exposing the molten rock and causing a cataclysmic explosion that blew away the top 2300 feet of the formerly 9500 foot peak.

BOOM. It was the first time she'd blown her top since the 1850s, and it was a doozy. A massive plume of volcanic ash was catapulted tens of thousands of feet into the air, later falling on 11 neighboring states. 57 people were killed. The area around Mount St. Helens was stripped bare by lava flows and poisonous volcanic mudslides. All the animals that hadn't listened to their inner sense about the catastrophe that was about to happen also perished.

But looking at Mount St. Helens today, she looks pretty peaceful. Sure, she lost her head, but that's to be expected from time to time with people, and also with volcanoes. Yep, she looks pretty calm these days, although there was a small eruptive episode a few years back. Nothing major, mind you, just a few steam plumes that brought the CNN crews in for a few days.

You have to wonder, has Mount St. Helens matured and learned from her mistakes? Or, have the authorities been keeping her on a steady dose of "Volcano Prozac" to prevent a recurrence?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

End Of A Very Long Day


It was a Friday in April 1998, the kind of day Somchai never thought would come to an end. But as the sun sunk low against the Bangkok skyline, and took on a striking shade of orange, Somchai reveled in the fact that he'd survived another day in what was easily the toughest job he'd ever had.

As a worker with Ital-Thai, organizers of the Bangkok Skytrain elevated railway system, Somchai was used to putting in the kind of long days that drain a man of not only his strength, but also his senses. The workday began long before dawn, at 4 am, but considering the sweltering daytime heat that beats down on the Thai capital with all the mercy of a drill instructor, nary a complaint was ever heard from the workers regarding the early start time.

The task of building the Bangkok Skytrain system was hugely complex, not to mention dangerous. In its early phases, workers were charged with digging holes and then sinking huge concrete pillars into the median strip of several Bangkok roadways, risking life and limb as traffic charged impatiently by on both sides. Then, workers had to position into place gigantic concrete slabs that would serve as the train tracks.

This photo was taken just as Somchai and his crew had painstakingly maneuvered the final concrete slab into place, with one guy barely escaping with his thumbs intact. The tracks were complete. Next lay the equally huge task of building the railway stations. But for now, the entire focus of Somchai's being was on a cold beer and some roast chicken and sticky rice.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Very Definition Of Remote


When I think about remote places, I usually focus on those little corners of the world that are tucked away, hidden from view, and a huge pain in the ass to get to. After all, those are what makes a place 'remote'.

Ladakh in the northernmost Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, definitely qualifies as remote. It's a land of high altitude desert valleys, sand dunes, green oases, and narrow, terrifying roads, all fringed by 25,000+ foot peaks. Getting there is no picnic, but it's well worth the effort once you get up there and starting drinking in the otherworldly landscapes, as well as the deep hypnotic blue of a sky that sits above the pollution and haze.

There are hundreds of Buddhist temples in Ladakh, maybe even thousands if you count historical ones that are now little more than ruins. Some of these temples are perched in the most precarious of places, like the one in this photo, which sits atop a foothill of a gigantic mountain. You can't help but think that this must have been planned out so that those who studied there would have no external distractions.

And you know what? That strategy has probably worked out pretty well for several hundred years - even Starbucks has yet to open up shop here.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Goa's River Princess


One of the stranger sights for visitors to Goa, India, is the sight of the River Princess, a cargo ship that ran aground in a storm in June 2000 and has been sitting -- and rusting away -- a few hundred yards offshore ever since.

What to do with the stricken vessel has been a political football in Goa, and several governments have tried unsuccessfully for years to have the ship removed. The task has been complicated by the fact that soon after the accident, local authorities drilled a huge hole in the side of the ship to keep it from drifting into local shipping lanes. The presence of the ship has led to widespread beach erosion that has sullied what is otherwise a lovely stretch of the Indian coastline.


However, workers have been reportedly working on the ship day and night for the past several months, judging from the din of banging and steel shredding to which the local community has been subjected. However, it's unclear if they're attempting to make the ship seaworthy again so it can be towed away, or simply cutting it up into pieces for scrap. The latter scenario carries with it no small amount of environmental risk, and there's no guarantee the ship, after being subjected to the elements for nearly 8 years, will stay in one piece if attempts are made to tow it away.

Either way, the day that the River Princess finally leaves the Goan coast will likely be made a local holiday, commemorated by locals with the mother of all celebrations.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Mighty Mekong


From its upper reaches in Tibet, the Mekong River winds its way in serpentine fashion down the foothills of the Himalaya and across the plains of Southeast Asia. The river gets wider and muddier in its southern parts, and for hundreds of miles, it forms a natural border between Laos and Thailand.

Despite the Mekong's status as one of the most recognizable river names, it's actually only the 11th longest in the world. Still, the Mekong is a mighty force and one that sustains the lives of tens of millions of people who live along its banks.

The river is also home to the Mekong Giant Catfish, an absolute monster of a fish that has held a prominent place in local folklore for centuries. In June 2005, a 9 foot Mekong catfish weighing nearly 650 pounds was pulled from the water by a team of fisherman.

This photo was taken from a 747 about 35,000 feet above the Mekong, where it divides Savannaket, Laos from Mukdahan, Thailand. (Thailand is to the left of the river and Laos is to the right)

The river is huge here, more than a mile wide, and its gets even larger during the latter stages of the rainy season, when the downpours are so intense you can feel them in your soul. A bit further south, where the Mekong River enters Cambodia, the river drops more than 50 feet at the Khon Phapeng Waterfall, also known as the Niagara Falls of Asia.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Destiny In The Printed Page


Confronted with a a delay such as the type that occurs while waiting for a bus or a train, some people will sit and stare into space, or fidget, or yawn and gaze at their watch as if more than a few seconds have passed since the last glance. But Sue would always relish a good delay, because it gave her time to dive deeper into whatever book she happened to be reading that day.

The ability to concentrate in environments where noise and clatter reign is not built into everyone, but it can be developed, most often by reading, and sometimes by meditating. Sue, an only child, had been around books all her life growing up in Thailand, and she had no problem staying focused on the plot. Now a teenager, Sue had developed into a voracious reader, and unlike some other teenagers, the reading materials she tackled weren't limited to comic books.

Sue's pictured here reading a Thai translation of Les Jeux Sont Faits, Jean-Paul Sartre's existential masterpiece which tells the story of a pair of a man and woman who are killed by people close to them, and discover in the afterlife that they were pre-destined to be soul mates. They are brought back to life and given 24 hours to fall in love, but they end up spending that time trying to right the wrongs of their previous lives, and in the end, they die again, without even hooking up.

Sartre's main theme in all of his books is that destiny wins out over everything else in life, and that we're all bound by the choices we make. As Sue glanced up from her book at the people rushing by at the bus station, lost in their own little worlds, she felt a rush of happiness that her destiny lay in the printed page.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Funky Monks


I met these guys in October 1998 during a trip to Vientiane, Laos. They were novice Buddhist monks doing their religious studies at a local Buddhist temple. But they were also teenagers, which meant that when we started chatting, most of them had decidedly non-religious questions to ask me. Fortunately, the Laotian language is very similar to Thai, so I was able to get most of what they were saying.

There were a few themes within the dozens of questions with which they peppered me, including: How much did a pair of Levis 501 jeans cost (this was 1998, when 501s were all the rage in Asia); did I like Michael Jackson (he was actually still big in Asia in 1998); and what were American girls like. We talked for a while in the humid mid-morning, and after some time, a bell sounded at a nearby temple building, and the monks shuffled off to afternoon classes.

For the record, I told them that Michael Jackson's Thriller album was one of the first I ever bought, and in the early 1980s was a must-have for any kid's music collection. But I also expressed my bewilderment with whatever happened to Michael that made him stop making good music, an observation that the monks didn't seem to understand.

Keep in mind that this was way before 24-7 news channels emerged and began casting their hyperfocus toward the downfall of stars' once-great careers. Still, what the hell ever did happen to Michael Jackson to make him start acting so strangely? I guess you could fill books trying to come up with an answer to that one.

On The Edge Of Bangkok


Bangkok, Thailand is big. No surprises here, since it is, after all, the capital. But just a decade ago, the outer fringes of the city were remote farmland, and when inbound travelers saw signs like this one, they usually figured that maybe someone had screwed up and put the welcome sign in the wrong spot, or that maybe some prankster college kids had moved the sign as part of some initiation ritual. Because it sure didn't feel like you'd actually entered the city.

This sign in located in Bang Na, a suburb on the eastern fringes of Bangkok that's situated along the main highway to Thailand's eastern seaboard. Bang Na is not notable for much, other than being the home to The Nation, one of Thailand's two English language daily newspapers. The Nation is known for taking more extreme views on political issues than its older and more government-connected counterpart, the Bangkok Post.

In May 1992, when government troops fired on protesting students and killed dozens (a true death toll has never been established), the Nation actually printed stories about the tragedy on its front page, while the Bangkok Post ran blank news holes. Still, the Bangkok Post remains the more well respected of the two publications.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mugging For The Camera In Phnom Penh


Phnom Penh, Cambodia, despite its tranquil setting along the banks of the Mekong River, is a pretty heavy place, although it's not a dangerous place -- that is, if you're not engaged in one of the various illicit industries that thrive there.

There's a general emptiness in Phnom Penh, and the echoes of all the evil and tragic things that happened in and around the Cambodian capital continue to make it one of the most surreal places on Earth.

One thing that's not surreal about Phnom Penh, though, is the fact that kids there have discovered the magic of digital photography. I was walking around one evening taking some photos when a group of these energetic little scamps came running up and started jumping around and striking poses. So I spent the better part of an hour taking shots of the kids and then turning the camera screen around to let them have a look.


I don't profess to know what the lives of Cambodians are like today. I do know they're better now than they've been any time in the last 40 years or so, but it's still a very poor country where life is tough, especially for kids. So anything that makes kids smile like this, in a country that's been knocked down and beaten up the way Cambodia has, is a great thing to behold.

It's hard to believe that not so long ago, people had to wait to see the images they'd shot, and weren't able to immediately light up kids (and adults') faces with digital photos. It's an obvious observation, but one that bears repeating: Digital photography has not only changed the way people capture images, it also adds immeasurably to the travel experience.

The real killer app for travelers will be the widespread ability to print out pics and give them to the folks you're shooting.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Slow Road Home


Hong Kong island is a bustling hive of activity pretty much all the time. But it's especially busy around dawn and dusk, when people flood in and out to work and hopefully accumulate enough wealth to be able to maintain the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed in one of the world's most expensive cities.

So at the end of the day, there's a subdued, exhausted atmosphere on the ferries that transport commuters to the outskirts of the city. Some people sleep, although that's not always possible, as the harbor can sometimes be pretty choppy. Other people tap absentmindedly at their Blackberries and other mobile devices, either because they're addicted to email, or didn't have the time to communicate during the hectic workday.

But once the sun dips behind Lantau Island, seen here in the background, the pace of life in Hong Kong slows ever so slightly, and people who've managed to save a bit of energy during the workday venture out for dinner or a drink, to get themselves in the right mental state to do it all over again the next day.

Ruminations On The Modern World


"It's been one hell of a long day. So long, in fact, that I can't remember what I had for breakfast. Actually, it's been a pretty long life, too. I'm old enough to remember when the Earth had a second moon, a time in which there were only a few Starbucks coffee shops sprinkled across the landscape, as opposed to being on every single damn street corner as they are today. Why on Earth they've proliferated like that I'll never understand. Who needs to be that awake all the time?"

"Like many older folks, the modern world often freaks me out and leaves me speechless. It's the excesses that I see on a daily basis that really confuse me. I read the papers, and I fancy myself to be pretty aware of current events. But then I see some souped-up hot rod car go zooming by, with crazy techno music that I feel in my bones more than I actually 'hear', and I wonder where peoples' priorities are these days."

"Me, I was never much for the loud music and the all night drinkathons. OK, maybe for a couple of years when I was in college, but that was a long time ago. Now I prefer to analyze things; to watch life's every movement, paying attention to the dynamics and interrelationships that underpin all things."

"And, I often find that applying that level of focus to today's world makes me wants to shrug my shoulders, throw my hands up in the air, and get a drink."