“Whaa … but they’re so comfortable,” my Feet said.
But they’re old and ragged. The insoles are worn and the under-sole is coming apart. There’s a tear in the front and it gets soggy when it rains.
“But we fixed that, remember?” Feet said. “The cobbler across the street, at the HDB sidewalk? She used an old fashioned needle and hook to sew it up. You waited crouched on a 10inch high plastic stool and we wore borrowed flip-flops. Surely you remember? For $9 it was a deal!”
But the shoes are at least five years old and I’ve bought a brand new replacement pair.
“And what a five years! We’ve traveled to more than ten countries. Tramped through concrete jungles and tropical rain forests. We’ve toed them on & off at over six hundred temples. We’ve trekked through mud, dirt and dust roads in Chang Mai, Bali and Vientiane. We’ve battled through waist high briar bushes to get to perfect sunset shots. We’ve clambered over thousand year old ruins to take incredible pictures of Angkor temples and Buddhist monks …”
Yes, Yes. All this is true and we can do it again, with a new pair of shoes. To all good things comes its time.
“But can’t we wait a little longer? Just for one more season. Before we return to the land of mukluks and winter boots?”
Well, I suppose one more season won’t hurt. The new shoes will not spoil and these old ones are truly comfortable.
It’s hot in Saigon. At 10 o’clock in the morning it’s already thirty degrees with a mounting noon day sun. Rivers of sweat stream down my chest and my t-shirt is wet against my skin. We’re in the market area of old Cholon, the Chinese quarter of Ho Chi Minh City. I avoid a passing motorcycle and hug a shade on the sidewalk.
Up ahead Arnaud our photo guide, is telling us to use f3.5 for close-up portrait shots.
“You muss go in cloze,” he says.
Arnaud is a Frenchman living in Vietnam and enjoying the life of full time street photography. His enthusiasm is passionate and relentless. We’ve spent three hours walking and he hasn’t stopped talking once. Lucky for me, he latches on to my Paris born husband and lapses into French.
Two street vendors set-up stalls across a narrow pathway; one selling food, the other selling flowers. I take a quick shot of the flower vendor. She seems familiar. The set of her mouth, the curve of her nose, the slant of her eyes. She reminds me of my grandmother.
Her friend across the street calls out, laughing and a little jealous of her attention. I take her picture too. I’m rewarded with a bright mischievous grin
Up ahead Luc and Arnaud are circling a bemused old man. He’s been caught waiting for his wife. Arnaud’s behemoth Nikon hovers near the man’s face. He catches my eye and I shake my head apologetically. After they’ve moved on, I take my shot from a respectable f5.6 and 35mm distance.
“Are you Japanese?” he says in perfect English.
I shake my head and un-mindfuly say “Chinese.”
“Wo shi hua ren,” he says. He holds his hand three feet off the ground. “Wo li kai zhong guo shi, hai shi ge xiao nan hai.”
I catch the words ‘zhong guo’ for China. I gather that he’s originally from China and that he left for Vietnam when he was very small.
Later when I look at the map of Vietnam, I realize how close it is to China. It shares a border with Guangxi, the southern most province and homeland of my great great grandfather. Looking closer at the old man’s photo, I see the familiar Han nose and hooded almond shaped eyes. Clumps of stiff white hair bristle from his cheek.
It reminds me of my father, who at eighty three years doesn’t see or shave as well as he used to. In fact this man has an uncanny resemblance to my father’s friend, Uncle Louie. I call him uncle not because he’s a relative but because it’s the traditional term of respect for Chinese elders. When I was little I used to think that I had the biggest family in the world. Maybe I wasn’t half wrong.
It’s a not-Salad Niçoise made from ingredients found in Singapore.
Ingredients like ‘granola washed’ Brastagi potatoes from Indonesia, ‘crunchy crisp tomatoes’ from Malaysia. Bottled olives from Spain, Carrefour mustard from France and Kewpie mayo from Japan. The eggs are brown not white, are never refrigerated and sold only in multiples of five, not twelve.
Why is it not Niçoise?
A classic niçoise is made with olives, tomatoes, beans, eggs and anchovies – never potatoes. I don’t like anchovies. I do like potatoes.
What makes it Singaporean?
That not an ingredient is made or grown in Singapore.
That everything is imported.
That it’s a mixture of savory, salty, bitter and sweet.
That it’s food and it tastes good.
Is it there a recipe?
There can be. But it is here and not here. Because this not a recipe blog.
One of my favorite bands is a Canadian group called July Talk.
If you’re from Toronto and like a certain type of high spirited, alternative rock then you’d know this group. Bandcamp.com describes their music as “Tom Waits and Amy Millan shouting whiskey-soaked lullabies while backed by Crazy Horse”. I don’t know these artists but if the names mean anything to you then maybe you’d like July Talk too.
I’m sharing the song “Beck and Call” because it features Tanya Tagaq, another Canadian, known for her talent in Inuit throat singing.
Ever heard of Inuit throat singing? Me neither. I had to look it up. It’s a form of harmonic chanting, practiced by Inuit girls, usually sung in competitive duets. Called katajjaq, the sound is rhythmic, guttural and animistic.
When I first listened to “Beck and Call” I had a hard time identifying Tanya Tagaq’s voice. After watching this video I learned what to listen for. You can watch the follow-on video with an improvised performance by Tanya. Be forewarned, it’s not the most accessible of music.
What I like about “Beck and Call” is its combination of hard rock with layers of traditional, non-traditional sounds. Individually I don’t care for the music of Tom Waits, Amy Millan, Crazy Horse or Tanya Tagaq. Pulled together though, with the innovative talent and unique energy of July Talk, it’s a great song.
The fact that July Talk is from Canada, a country which prides itself in diversity, tolerance and multiculturalism – that’s a bonus.
In my last post I talked about the many temples of Myanmar. Have you ever wondered what’s it like to take these pictures? Where for instance does one go on the level Plains of Bagan to get a horizon shot?
You go up of course.
If you have a couple hundred dollars to spare, you take a hot air balloon ride.
Or you climb to the top of a pagoda.
Sometimes the pagodas have steps on the outside leading up. Other times the ascent is from within.
Remember though that these pagodas were built hundreds of years ago. People were a lot smaller then. The steps and stairwells for these internal ascents are … interesting.
Narrow, dark and steep best describe them.
At 155cm I am not a big person but even I felt cramped in the stairwells. My size 7 feet barely spanned the steps and the sharp sixty degree rise made for a precarious ascent.
The good news was that with the walls so close, I could brace my shoulders against them for support. I really appreciated this when, at one point the floor fell away to a patchwork quilt of air and brick.
“Watch your step here,” our guide said. His tone I thought, too casual for the situation.
On the way up, I didn’t take any pictures of the stairwell.
I was a bit preoccupied.
But here’s a picture of me contemplating the descent.
Scrolling through my Facebook page I realized that I had posted not one but five sunrise photos of Myanmar.
True, the images were fantastic – that’s not a vanity, a good camera and tripod is all that’s needed – but it made me pause. What could I say about these photos that was more than the picture? What could I say about the place? Myanmar, the land of a thousand temples.
Over a thousand years ago Bagan was the center of the Pagan empire. It was a kingdom that united the regions of what is now Myanmar. Between the 11th and 13th centuries more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built. The empire fell with the Mongol invasion and in the millennium that followed earthquakes, war and destruction reduced the number of temples to 2200. Even so, present day Bagan is the most dense location of temples in the world. Sheer numbers exceed the wats of Angkor in nearby Cambodia.
Traveling through Bagan it is impossible to not see a temple. It is part of the landscape. They stand by the road ways, in villages, in single homesteads, in fields of cultivated crops and wilderness brambles. Cow herds shuffle by isolated pagodas on the way to watering holes. Goats tread on the platforms surrounding restored temples. Farmers use the courtyards to dry shafts of sesame seed bushes. The temples are venerated but common place. Ancient, old and restored.
Evidence of restoration is everywhere. In August 2016 a powerful 6.8 earthquake hit central Myanmar and damaged hundreds of Bagan temples. Today many of the pagodas are under construction and restored buildings show a disconcerting mix of ancient and new facades.
I asked our guide how the restorations were supervised.
He replied that all of the temples are centrally managed by the Ministry of Archeology and that anyone could fund a restoration. The tribute stones at the temple indicate donor names and dedication.
It was a fine answer but it didn’t address my question.
Perhaps the truth lay in that restorations are somewhat supervised.
Certainly more so than in the 1990’s when the military junta initially applied for UNESCO World Heritage status. They were refused, partly for political reasons but also because of corrupt management practices and shoddy, makeshift restorations The 2016 earthquake destroyed many of these faulty renovations.
Today Myanmar has UNESCO support for repairs honoring archeological integrity. The new government is committed to steady and measured restoration. There is renewed hope in getting heritage status by 2018.
It’s still January right? I can still reflect on last year and highlight my Best of 2016?
Actually, this started out as a post about my Best of 2016 until I realized I was choosing photos for which I hadn’t yet published a story.
Why not? Sometimes it was because the story wasn’t big enough and the photo was all there was of the telling. Other times, it was because the story was too big and I wasn’t up for the telling.
In any event, here are some of my favorite photos of 2016 and the stories that were never published.
Omoide Yokocho in Tokyo
Omoide Yokocho or “Piss Alley” is a small, iconic bar district in Tokyo.
It’s not the most friendly place. In fact, one of the bars on the outskirts has an explicit “No Tourists” sign (written in English for those pesky foreigners).
However, further inside the boundaries where the yakatori stalls are cheek to jowl with the izakaya bars, the hosts are friendlier and the atmosphere more welcoming.
I was waiting on my kushiyaki plate and fiddling with my camera, when I noticed this gentleman across the alley. A quick nod was all I needed to take this shot.
Tokyo, Japan. January 2016
MAG marker in Laos
In Laos I learned some new words.
MAG. UXOs and Bombies.
Mines Advisory Group. Un-eXploded Ordnance. Little bombs.
During the Vietnam war there more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos. That’s equivalent to one bombing every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Thirty percent of these bombs did not explode. They remained dormant but live and were (are) hidden dangers to civilians years after the war had ended.
Walking through Laos we learned very quickly to stay on MAG cleared paths. Random rambling could be deadly. UXOs are still being found today.
These little blocks indicate MAG cleared safe zones. They seem so innocuous. Faded rocks on well trodden foot paths. Stepping stones on quiet streams. Gentle reminders that bucolic rice fields were once war zones.
Plain of Jars, Laos. February 2016
Border Guards at the DMZ South Korea
Our coldest and wettest day in South Korea was spent at the DMZ/JSA. It was appropriate weather for visiting a site that was bleak, dark and overwhelmingly desolate.
The tale of border patrol between North and South Korea is sad.
On the North side of the Joint Security Area (JSA), there’s a heavily armed soldier aggressively watching the border for South Korean attacks and North Korean defections.
Behind him, a heavily armed soldier aims a gun at his head, aggressively watching him for his possible defection.
On the South side of the JSA, the ROK guards maintain a constant intimidation stance. They watch the North and South side of the border.
Across an expanse of about 500 meters, the South Korean guard stares down the North Korean guard.
It’s a stare down that’s been on going since 1953.
Panmunjon, South Korea. May 2016
Hometown Burger & Fries
After a photo crawl through Toronto’s Graffiti Alley we took a break in a nearby Queen St diner.
It had been a perfect summer day.
Warm but not hot.
Fresh Canadian air and brilliant sunshine.
Vivid street murals which had popped with vibrancy and life.
It was a visual respite to hide out in a cool and dark diner.
And the burger & fries were excellent!
Toronto, Canada. July 2016
Hong Kong Red
The first time I visited Hong Kong was after a year of living in Beijing.
After the rough and tumble turmoil of China, I remember wanting to drop to my knees and Thank God for my return to urban sanity, order and control.
Since then much has changed. I’ve lived in and visited better and worse cities. But I will always have soft spot for Hong Kong.
For me, this photo captures the city’s essence. The mural’s wild graphics and kooky clown portray Hong Kong’s frenetic energy and character. The blur of the pedestrian adds the feeling of motion, a constant in this city that never sleeps.
One of the best ways to experience a place is to visit its markets. In Bagan, which is relatively large, the market is open every day and is a bustling hive of activity and traffic. In the Inle Lake area, the market rotates through different towns by day of week. For both, vendors arrive at dawn to setup stalls of fruits, vegetables, meat, fresh and dried fish, cooked food, thanaka wood, woven bamboo walls, books, baskets … you name it. By early morning the centers are packed with people.
Markets offer a sensory delight in visuals and aromas with more than few surprises.
… and no, the shaggy dog was not for sale.
In the scene below, a mother was busy covering her children’s faces with yellow paste. This is thanaka, a traditional Burmese cosmetic made from the ground bark of the thanaka tree. The paste is typically applied to the face and acts as a cooling agent, anti-fungal cream and sun screen.
Normally, it’s applied in light circles around the cheeks, eyes and nose. In this case, the mother’s applied it liberally with a very heavy hand. Something her daughter seems resigned to accept.
While wandering through Nyaungshwe market, we came to a wall of shuttered stalls. At first we weren’t sure what they were but as we waited an elderly man came along and opened one of the doors.
Inside he uncovered an ancient barber shop chair. It was so old that the wood was bleached through and the metal rusted white. The seat had been re-covered in yellow tarp, but the solidness of the wooden arms and embossed metal base spoke of vintage quality. With methodical care and pride, he wiped down the chair. Minutes later he was open of business.
Whenever I travel I take lots of pictures. After the trip, it takes me a while to sift through them all. I discard the (many!) uninteresting and bad shots; select the context and story shots and choose the ones that I just plain like.
I always prefer pictures with people in them. Inevitably my favorites are portraits. For me, the sense of place is best captured in the expressions and character of its people.
Here are a few from my trip to Myanmar.
Peanut farmer (Bagan)
Market vendor (Inle)
Buddhist Nun (Bagan)
Betel leaf chewer (Inle)
Book Reader (Inle)
Cattle herder (Bagan)
For whatever reason, I almost never take pictures of children and cats. Don’t get me wrong, I love children and cats. Some of my favorite people were children once. Cats even. But as photo ops? Not so much.
Except for this one. This little monk had just gobbled up a special treat. He’d claimed a small cake included with the rice in the daily alms collection. I love the expression on his face and the overall delight in his posture.
My absolute favorite portrait from Myanmar?
That would be of the Cheroot smoker. It was taken on our first day in Bagan. We’d visited the early morning market and she was setup right at entrance. Over the next eight days I took hundreds of photos but this one, taken in the first hour, is my favorite.