Travel and street photography of people and places around the world. Photo and travel blog by Armand Thomas
Five years ago on this day, February 22, at 12:52 pm, an earthquake struck Christchurch. It devastated New Zealand’s ‘Garden City,’ killing 185 people – 115 of them when the Canterbury Television Building collapsed. At least half of the buildings in the downtown core, many of them national landmarks and heritage sites, were damaged and marked for demolition. Some are still standing today, ghostly monoliths awaiting their final collapse.
Christchurch today is a mix of rebuild and relic. It’s surreal, like an enormous film set going up in one swoop, or a giant Meccano toy of cranes and girders.
There are stark reminders of the wreckage everywhere; it is widespread and mesmerizing. But there’s also a palpable sense of optimism and opportunity and hope. As one local Kiwi put it: “We don’t give a toss about brick and mortar… nothing is permanent.”
Indeed, the recovery itself is now what visitors gawk at in this once genteel Britannic town where even the river is called the Avon.
Besides the new-wave glass and steel structures going up, there are shipping containers everywhere – some transformed into shopping and eatery outlets, others stacked in sturdy columns in front of beloved old buildings in case they fall before being saved.
Swaths of areas are fenced off in what was once downtown: banners proclaim a new Performance Arts Precinct coming here, a modern Convention Center Precinct there, A Retail Precinct, A remodeled Town Square, a refurbished riverside park – the city is a quasi-blank canvas for creativity and possibilities.
We’re here in this special city at this peculiar time, enduring early morning construction noise and late-night tremors, to close Quidam for good on Friday night, Feb 26.
We’re delighting sold-out crowds at the Arena, as folks have both affection for our show and a longing to cheer something magical. It’s a fitting venue to end a remarkable 20-year run, providing us all an example of resilience, a backdrop of courage and a reminder that if you feel the earth shake and see the sky fall as the end comes, it’s time to dust yourself off, take a deep breath and forge ahead. Renew.
CHCH2016 Photo Gallery here
Hit the slideshow button (top-right) to rock it with LedZep.
Having brekky on a terrace overlooking Byron Bay this morning when I was startled by a rather large reptile waddling towards me. I waived the waitress over and pointed. "Oh, that's just Jerry," she said, amused. "He's a regular." How about those Australians, completely at ease with breast-feeding in a restaurant.
The Lao resemble the Buddha.
Not the laughing, big-belly Chinese type - but the elongated, closed-eye, meditative figure - the image of serenity and peacefulness.
It's a beautiful face, one that reflects a soft-spoken, sweet-tempered, fair-minded people; a Zen-like face born from years of isolation and tranquility within the secluded forests of Southeast Asia, you would think.
And you would think wrong.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic -- and the many kingdoms that once comprised its territory -- never had it easy.
Tough neighborhood, for eons.
Never strong nor populous, Laos has been dominated in one form or another, by one overlord or another. Landlocked by its powerful neighbors - Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia and (gulp) China – Laos has been the proverbial pawn on the Indochinese chessboard for centuries. When the Western colonial era began in the 19th century, followed by the rise of Communism in the 20th, the geopolitical squeeze only got hotter.
Then came the Vietnam War. And the collateral damage on Laos.
From 1964 to 1973, American warplanes dropped over 2 million tons of bombs over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions, the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours-a-day, for 9 years.
You might want to re-read that paragraph, because it boggles the mind.
That’s more bombs than were dropped on Germany and Japan combined in WWII – making docile, charming little Laos one of the most heavily bombed places on earth.
At that time, too few.
It was called the Secret War. Technically, Laos was neutral following the Geneva Convention and the US did not publicly acknowledge waging one of the most intensive bombing campaigns in the history of warfare. The intended target was the North Vietnamese, and notably the Ho Chi Min trail that snaked through Laos into South Vietnam.
When the war finally ended, not only was Laos very literally blown to bits, but it's educated class - who in large supported the royalist anti-communists – were either neutralized or had fled. Brain drain, money drain, land drain. In 1975, Laos officially kicked out the monarchy and became communist - realizing America's fears of having the red hammer-and-sickle fly over the nation.
My apologies for this glib nutshell of history.
It’s against this backdrop that travel in Laos comes into focus – at once enchanting and disturbing. It’s a place of wonder and humility, where feelings of awe and shame tug at your heartstrings. And so while I marveled and succumbed to the mystique of Laos, I also shuddered a lot.
I loved renting a scooter and riding out across suspension bridges, following dirt roads flanked by rice fields and limestone hills, stopping at hidden temples and isolated hamlets, where homes have dirt floors and meals are cooked in blackened kettles over wood fire, where weaving looms are as common as satellite dishes and the air is pierced by the screeches of schoolchildren playing during recess.
I hated that 80 million cluster bomblets (about one-third of those dropped during the campaign) failed to detonate and remain buried in the countryside, maiming and killing hundreds of people each year, a generation after the horror ended. Bomb casings and shrapnel are so common they have been turned into artifacts, pieces of jewelry, road signposts and souvenir trinkets.
I loved strolling aimlessly in the towns, admiring colonial architecture, photographing everyday scenes that to me seemed magical, and meeting locals with a Sabaidee, which was always returned with a warm smile. I’ve rarely been among more gracious, unassuming people.
I hated how tourists, entitled and immodest, made a circus out of tak bat – the monks’ solemn morning collection of food and alms – breaking the dawn light with their frenzy of camera flashes and loud ignorance, and turning a ceremonial way of life into a gaudy spectacle..
I loved the ingrained, almost mythical beauty of Luang Prabang, a gem of city once the seat of the Kingdom, spared from destruction 50 years ago mainly because it inhabited the American allies. I regret how it has become a tourist magnet, but alas, that’s the fate of progress, and the cost of repute. Fancy restaurants, flourishing markets, adventure tours, boutique hotels – the secret of Luang Prabang is waning.
Most notably, LP is home to about 30 golden temples and one thousand monks. In there bright saffron robes, they are iconic to the fabric of the city, and are often very eager to meet foreigners in their courtyards.
It’s here, at Vat Sop Sickharam in the old town, that I made new friends in young novices: Nark, Mong-ki, Throng, and Alien, so nicknamed by the others because he was, well, a peculiar prankster.
Nark is 17 and has been at the Vat for 7 years. He hopes to stay another 5, then be accepted to a monk university, a highly competitive privilege which leads to more opportunities. Nark is ambitious, he craves to practice his English, as many do, but his eagerness is resolute.
I spent a few mornings with him over the course of my week in Luang Prabang, going over the difference between “For” and “Since”... explaining to him as I formulated it to myself.
We practiced verb tenses and read paragraphs from a book he was given by a foreigner, Nark using his busted-glass smart phone to look up new words, relying on the spotty Wi-Fi signal from a nearby hotel.
We chatted about meditation, having conviction (his word), the “merit” lay people earn by delivering food to the temple, and his wish to return to his village one day to help others learn English.
Other novice monks, young boys in orange robes, came and went about us – making jokes, carrying laundry, playing games, casual and unhurried in this morning lull between tak bat and school. These encounters brought me as much pleasure as it did them.
I asked Nark if he followed world events, through his smart phone or whatever. He did not. But he liked to watch American movies, to hear the language, if the Wi-Fi was strong enough.
I asked if he knew about the history of Laos, what had happened in a past not so very long ago. I was conflicted asking this, wondering if I was being indecent, as if sullying his purity with the dirty truths of humanity. But no, he did not know. He heard there was a lot of fighting, but not much more.
Oddly, I felt envious. Here was the very embodiment of ignorance being blissful. And I wasn’t about to upset that.
In the grand tradition of scruffy, shoe-lace travel, Vang Vieng is where tie-dyed young and old let their braided hair down.
~ dedicated to my friend Marvin, in my thoughts on the road - RIP
Umbrellas were open when I departed Seoul and so they were when I arrived in Vientiane, buy that's where the similarities end. From the drizzle to the sizzle. I've soaked through 7 shirts, 3 shorts and 4 pair of undies in just over 2 days in Laos. I've taken 9 showers and tanned 2 shades of brown. And this is the dry season! But it sure feels good to be in this Asia of tuk-tuks, saffron-robed monks and easy smiles.
Vientiane, the capital by the Mekong river, was once known as Vien Chang, but the French colonials of Indochine days changed the name and some of its culture forever. Street names begin with rue, the national Library is the Biblioteque, housed in one of the many exquisite (and faded) architectural gems of the Belle Epoque, and bakeries everywhere offer succulent croissants and baguettes.
Off with the business suits and high-heelded fashion - hello sarongs and flip-flops. The people are sweet-natured and unhurried. Traffic is heavier than you'd expect, far too many cars, motorbikes and SUVs for the narrow streets, which clog easily and become putrid with heavy fumes, somewhat spoiling my idyl on a rented scooter the other day.
Even the most languid of capitals can't escape the stench of progress.
As the sun sets, the riverside comes alive with a night market, a campus of tents and stalls set up along the main strip. On an empty parcel overlooking the Mekong, with Thailand across the water, people gather for a energetic fitness aerobic class. Not exactly what you'd expect to see on your first night in this faraway land, but really, what was I thinking? A herd of elephants bathing by the shore? Agh, get real.
Any nation that loves baseball so much can’t be all that bad. Ok, the passion may be as much for the spectacle in the stands as the sport on the field, but it’s still the grand ol’ game.
Seoul has a lot going for it: a humming economy, high employment, virtually no crime and no garbage on the streets. In fact, there aren’t even any garbage bins around, so if you treat yourself to a roasted ear of corn at a stall, be ready to carry the damn nub around. There are no dirty magazines either. No teenyboppers showing their undies to commuting businessmen (hello Japan!). No titty bars or porn on the Internet (hello Big Brother). Tattoos are a rarity – way too provocative for the mainstream.
A colleague of mine on Quidam was requested to cover his leg ink if he wanted to work out at the hotel gymnasium. The radical!
The last time anyone consumed drugs in South Korea was Ben Johnson in the 88 Olympics – or so it seems. I never appreciated what a scandal that truly was until now.
Seoul is literally safe and figuratively sober – even the Buddhist monks here dress in grey. But getting drunk on Soju and staggering out of bars is as much a rite of hardworking salarymen as it is for their Tokyo sake-swilling counterparts. The most prevalent vice, if it can be called that, is an unadulterated addiction to caffeine. Coffee shops abound nearly as much as Korean BBQ joints, and both are flooded with patronage day and night. It’s as if nobody cooks at home.
Whether due to diet, genes or stress, fat people are as rare as vegetarians. I, for one, am both - no thanks to the scarcity of options at restaurants. A veggie meal here can include chicken, or beef broth, and a high likelihood of being infused with fish sauce. So, bring on the bread, cheese, pizza, and pasta … and pounds.
Koreans do love their meats. Pork, Beef, Chicken, Dog. Yep, hot Dog.
“Gaegogi” is not as common today as it once was, but still part of the menu in many traditional restaurants and local customs. In the past few years, vocal groups have decried the practice, especially for its brutality and inhumane butchering methods. Legend has it that the more the animal suffers, the more invigorating the medicinal properties of its meat.
Some 2 million dogs are slaughtered for meat each year (and about 100,000 cats, why not?). Most are bred in farms, but some start off as pets before they're turned into stew. I’ll spare you more details.
On my last days in Seoul, I found this so appalling and abhorrent that I wanted to go out into the neat and tidy streets and kick people’s shins, piss on their sublime subways, throw mud on their cashmere coats and run a key across their swanky Hyundais.
How could they?
But my indignity for Fido turned into cold reflection – every year in America, 35 million cows, 110 million pigs, 9 billion chickens are turned into food.
Koreans, some of them anyway, don’t really see the difference between man's best friend and other animals. At least not on the dinner plate.
Please use the link below for my new Seoul photo collection, and click the "Slideshow" button to add music
How odd to be in this futuristic, gleaming city of fashion, skyscrapers and international pop stars, and to know that just over there, beyond a border 35 miles away from Seoul, the kinfolk are oppressed, malnourished and pretending to adore the haircut of their dictator, that nice Mr. Un.
In fact, it's only the Demilitarized Zone that's so close, a large swath of land so vacant of inhabitants that wildlife has flourished in the area. The infamous DMZ, the most fortified checkpoint in the world, where rival soldiers stare each other down with pointed rifles, is a tourist hotspot, where visitors (from the South side of course) can pay $40 to feel the tension and absorb the absurdity.
But it's no joke, sadly. The Koreas declared an armistice 62 years ago, so technically the war never ended. Hostility is as real as the difference of ideology – and while one side regales itself in the lap of luxury, the Hermit Kingdom is the embodiment of paranoia and hardship.
What did Frankie Valli croon? “So close, so close and yet so faa-arr…”
Odd. Very odd. And it’s not as if we’re contrasting neighbors like Mexico and America, or China and India. Here, we have shared lineage, ancestral legacies, brothers and sisters, family. They are one, save for the politics. Like Germans once were after WWII, only weirder.
Yet, in Seoul’s everyday life, the situation is practically invisible. There are occasional demonstrations, anti-communist rallies and spikes of protests that hit the news - but on the whole, the divide is not topical. It doesn’t command attention or interrupt the idyll. Like a lousy breakup you’d rather forget. It’s too painful to dwell upon, perhaps. At least, that how it looks like to us strangers.
It’s always hard to tell. Koreans can be inscrutable. Theirs is a bowing culture, full of ceremony and decorum. They are demure, reserved and
regimented. Posh and proper Seoul is orderly, people conform, abide by the rules, adhere to programmed efficiency that breeds success. That same sort of indoctrination, propaganda - call it brainwashing - is at work in the North, where fear and tyranny make the populace appear in step with its leadership, united in its cause, disciplined and resolute.
The pandemonium fans display at a baseball game in the South eerily resembles the hysterical cheering North Koreans lavish on their Supreme Leader. It’s manic yet calculated, a way of life, of fitting in, of compliance, of self-preservation.
You can rip the nation in two, but you can’t split the DNA.
New Seoul photo gallery coming soon on this website
Everyone, any place, all the time in Seoul seems to be clutching a mobile phone. It’s not just common. It’s spectacularly pandemic. And when not transfixed by the lighted screens or tapping away at the glass, they’re
carrying the device like precious treasure, elbow crooked and hand for holster, as if plugged into a human battery pack, a life-support appliance, an extension of their very being in this futuristic world.
Trend-happy Koreans perhaps feel uncomfortable, untethered, without their mobiles - out of step, out of order. Naked.
It makes for a droll and twisted conundrum, like a Steven Wright joke (remember him? “Why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways…”) – Why are folks in the best-wired city in the entire world so virtually disconnected?
The answer flutters right there on the South Korean flag (and no, that’s not the Pepsi Cola logo, you wags!)
Yin and Yang – the duality of life, the opposites that compliment, the light that gives meaning to darkness, the give and take, the sweet and sour, Abbott and Costello… ok, you get the point.
Korea, as much as anywhere else on the globe, is a culture of paradox, of profound contradictions. It’s a society at the confluence of tradition and modernity, of ancient temples and imposing high-rises, of booming prosperity and a dreadful suicide rate… And, of unrivaled broadband and a zombie-like citizenry that lives within cyber-bubbles.
There’s a price to pay for high technology beyond the monthly fees.
Crossing the street, riding a motorbike, behind the store counter, out for dinner, inside the big top … the addiction is unremitting.
And nowhere is the mobile phonemania, I mean phenomena, more prevalent than in the sublime Seoul subway. No, I haven’t seen every metro system in the world, but good luck finding one that equals Seoul’s, in its ultra efficiency, cleanliness, citywide coverage, and meticulous design.
It must also be the quietest, most passive and orderly mass transit system anywhere, not because of soft rubber tires or stern policing, but because everyone, or just about, is enrapt, consumed, hypnotized by their very, very smart phones.
Riding the phenomenal (and tranquil) Seoul Metro - VIDEO:
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