Travel and street photography of people and places around the world.  Photo and travel blog by Armand Thomas

Coast-to-Coast in Northern England

July 31, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

From the Irish Sea to the North Sea, the Wainwright Coast-to-Coast walk is an unofficial and mostly unsignposted footpath in Northern England, covering nearly 200 miles of jaw-dropping (and often grueling) scenery. This was my 14-day adventure in May-June of 2018. The Epilogue is followed by the chronological posts along the route. 

** click here for website PHOTO GALLERY - hit on Slideshow top-right for music

North Yorkshire MoorsNorth Yorkshire MoorsLion Inn, N Yorkshire Moors EPILOGUE – July 2018

Up on Blakey Ridge, as steep as it is breathtaking, the old Lion Inn sits like a citadel, a remote outpost for weary hikers. Plodding into the courtyard, I slipped my backpack off with a theatrical grunt, letting my poles clatter to the ground, and said to a man having a pint of beer at a picnic table: “I don’t know why I’m doing this!”

As if on cue, the stranger leapt to his feet and blurted back: “Neither do I!”

“Aaayyyeeeeeee“ – his Scottish accent echoing against the inn’s stone walls.

He had driven here to meet friends, covering in three hours a distance that would take us 14 days on this 200-mile coast-to-coast walk.

We shared a laugh, half in earnest and half in jest, because we both knew good reasons often breed insanity. Not to suggest the beloved Wainwright trail is crazy hard; the world is filled with more daring challenges. Still, it can be surprisingly arduous, especially if the weather turns sour, especially for those who have never long-distance trekked before, like me.

This was day 13, crossing the North York Moors National Park toward Robin Hood’s Bay. You could almost smell the salty North Sea. Fatigue is refueled by adrenaline as the finish nears, the sheer magnificence of scenery inspiring each step forward.

The Lion Inn, the halfway mark of this day’s long 20-mile walk, was a splendid location to reflect on the journey, soaking in the present before it becomes memory.

Why am I doing this?

The lure of the great outdoors? Northern England is indeed enchanting, the trail varying one day to the next, from slippery fells to humid pinewood forests, flowery fields to shimmering tarns, squeezing through stiles and crossing countless wooden gates into enclosed pastures – sheep and rock walls everywhere; moorland, stony summits, bucolic dales, slate-roofed hamlets … It has all been mesmerizing, even for a city guy, gobsmacked by street scenes as much as by natural wonders. But that wasn’t the answer.

To get fit and lose weight? Fat chance. English cuisine used to be an oxymoron, but no longer. The food along the way is simply stupendous, even (or especially) for vegetarians at the ubiquitous inns and pubs, where muddy boots and paws are welcome.

Because I have blood cancer? Because I wanted a physical adventure, five years after being paralyzed with Guillain-Barré syndrome? Because I hoped to shoot great pictures? Because I yearned for a spiritual experience?

All noble causes, but again, not exactly.

I am doing this because, as comedian Steven Wright wryly said: “Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.”

Simple as that. Yorkshire DalesYorkshire DalesYorkshire Dales

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REAL TIME POSTS

May 20, 2018

From the Irish Sea headed east, inland across fields of heather and purple bells, pastures of sheep and grazing cattle, through enchanting woods of conifer and pine, winding up atop a plateau and back down steep inclines to scraggly valleys of sedge brush and babbling brooks, day 1 of the Coast-to-Coast walk, 15 miles to Ennerdale Bridge in northern England, is a site to behold.

May 22

Every step counts. One wrong footfall can end the long walk abruptly. Day 2 of the C2C journey, 15 hilly miles from Ennerdale to Rosthwaite, was a mix of tricky terrain - strewn rocks in the fells, sharp slippery slabs of shale, boulders and climbs to negotiate... You must look down at your feet as much as up at the magnificent scenery. Still, stop, breathe in the clean crisp air, listen to the water rushing down the mountain, consider your luck.

May 23

Unless you have a GPS gizmo, compass savvy or divine guidance, it’s easy to get lost along Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, the least signposted trail in Britain (because it’s unofficial, albeit highly popular). Day 3 began with a wrong turn out of Rosthwaite. Up a clearing we went, into a humid forested hill, scooting tangled branches and mossy stones, covering a half mile in 30 sweaty minutes, a footpath for sure, only one that headed north, as we soon discovered, not east to Grasmere, our next target 9 miles away. I scrambled down and met an elderly couple out for a short hike. They were amused by our waywardness, the woman saying in her gentle motherly way: it matters not, just enjoy wherever you are. 
Words of wisdom for another day of dramatic climbs, first a constant slope up the flanks of a valleys then up a rocky ridge so steep it loomed over us like the temple of Zeus; two thousand feet high, far above the melting water flows but still amid bleating sheep, we hoisted ourselves up on hands and knees against gnarly rocks tinseled with tufts of wool. 

 

May 24

Whoever said England is flat is invited to try the Wainwright Coast to Coast trail. Starting from the west, the stunning Lake District serves up altitude - mountain after mountain for the first four days of the 14–day excursion, gifts that keep on giving over some 60 miles. Granted, it’s not like attacking the Matahorn: there is no mountaineering involved, just grueling ascents and descents on often rocky, wet terrain that’ll have your legs burning, lungs heaving and pride tingling when you raise a cold pint at the end of day. 
The views from high above never fail to awe, and the marshy plateaus are images of serenity, with shimmering lakes, stone walls extending down the dales, and windswept moors speckled white with Cotton Grass in the springtime, when everything is lush.
CumbriaCumbriaHaweswater
The exertion was tough (and perhaps underestimated) but we thanked our luck with every step as sunshine and cooling breezes prevailed each day - which is unusual.
The next 8 days are tamer in elevation, but we will have gone up and down the equivalent of Mt Everest by the end of the 200-mile journey, at the shores of the North Sea in the east.

May 26

Early morning, I stood on a rising hill, off the trail, before an old wooden gate enclosing a pasture and grazing sheep, a rustic barn to my left and green fields of the Lake District rolling beyond. I raised the camera to my eye and lingered, patient for composition, hoping for the sheep to turn just so, when I noticed a fellow hiker, an Englishwoman of about 60, standing by my side. She watched quietly, her partner (another woman about the same age) waiting a little ways off. I shot a few frames, then greeted her by asking with complicity, “Would you like my spot to take a picture?” She demurred and said, “Oh no, thank you,” and began swinging the gate open. “I’m going for a moment of comfort.” Good for you, I said, and thought: how wonderful, she chose this splendid location to rest her wary bones. She added: “It’s not that easy for us, you know.” I took this to mean ‘women of a certain age’ - it sure is a strenuous walk for anyone along the C2C walk. I said: “You have all my admiration,” and went on my way. It was many steps later that I realized, a little foolishly, that she had been talking about going to the loo.

May 28

The trail is full of wonders, but the small towns and villages that dot the northern English countryside along the Coast to Coast Kirkby StephenKirkby StephenKirkby Stephen track, like Kirkby Stephen, are simply delightful.

May 29

Leaving behind the Lake District for the North Yorkshire Dales, the hills turn kinder, the fields glisten yellow with meadow buttercup and ox-eye daisy, and the constant parade of sheep becomes more varied, some with elongated faces like llama, others wooly like carefree bleating hipsters. Every which way, dry stone walls of incredible workmanship etch the land like lines of domino tiles awaiting the first push. On the high plateaus, the wind rumbles across the grassy moors, deafening and cold, and by sheer luck of unusual dry weather, keeps the bogs from swallowing us whole. It’s a delight to the senses. In Keld, the Coast to Coast trail marks its halfway point, 100 miles from either the Irish or North Seas. Nearby, along the rocky, meandering River Swale flanked by bucolic valleys, sits Muker - a quintessential English village of stone houses and mining history, where today wanderers and tourists can have midday tea and scones (with clotted cream and strawberry jam) amid ravishing beauty. There’s ample reason to cheer making it this far, but no hubris please, there’s still a long way ahead.

May 30

Dry (no mortar) stone walls are mesmerizing, by their grace, strength, age and ubiquitousness along the Coast to Coast walk. Most in northern England were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, when land was granted to common folk, and the need arose to contain stock and create boundaries. The stones usually came from within the property, dug up by clearing the fields for grazing. The rockier the terrain, the thicker the walls. It’s baffling, if not unfathomable, how such solid structures lining the landscape were built so artfully from grunt work.

OrtonOrtonSheep and Church, Orton May 31

Like generations before me, I succumbed to the charm of Richmond, a gem of a market town in North Yorkshire. Rather than walk a relatively plain 23 miles to Ingleby Cross, the next stop along the Coast to Coast trail (through fog and rain and soggy fields as it turned out), I chose to stay put, roam about the cobblestone streets, poke through twisted alleys and soak in the quaintness and history. Richmond grew around an imposing castle built by Alan of Brittany in the 11th-century to repel the Scots. Nowadays it remains an iconic structure open for visits and offers great views from the tower of the locality. This week, alas, a roving fair with rickety rides and carnival games vulgarized the town square, like cheap trinkets in a noble house. So be it, a little color. Everyone I met was so friendly and eager to chat. Like that councilman carting off yellow cutouts of bicycles that decorated the streets for the Tour de Yorkshire, a leg of a recent road race. Like Jefferson, who served me the most savory tomato and grilled pepper soup in his grocery RichmondRichmondRichmond, Frenchgate street café, a place the size of a snooker table. Like the Turkish barber who was proud to let me photograph his shop as part of my global ongoing series. Like Edwina, who served me high tea at, well, Edwina’s, a local favorite bakery. What a fine way to take a break (and a few footsteps) from the 200-mile walk (which resumed today, I assure you).

 

June 1

Just another day for a nice stroll in North Yorkshire, across forests of silver birch, slippery terrain thick and rich brown like chocolate mousse, open moorland swaying with heather, hamlets graced with relic graveyards and climbs rewarded by magnificent vistas. Two days to go in the 200-mile Coast to Coast trek, from some hilltops we can see the North Sea.

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June 2

One last day, one last mountain, one last moor, and a final 17-mile push along the coast to coast trail in North Yorkshire, heading to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea, and the completion of the 200-mile walking journey. My feet will hate me for weeks, but I’ll have stories to tell for some time.

June 4

With every stretch traveled, my posts have gotten plainer, eloquence worn down by fatigue. I’m knackered. My calves are popping, my knees are creaking and my blistered toes are suing me for damages. Walking northern England’s Coast to Coast from St-Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay, 200 miles in 14 days, is a euphoric adventure and a test of endurance. You point at a farm in the distance nestled in a kaleidoscope of green pastures, or at a range of mountains jagging the misty horizon, and you exclaim out loud in mock disbelief: “We have to walk all the way there?” Because it’s funny, because humor (or at least a lightness of being) carries you forward as much as muscle, because striding for 9 hours can be mind numbing, because distance no longer matters when you’re crossing a country. 
At Grosmont, an aptly named village at the foot of a fat hill, we panted like ladened mules working our way up a hill so steep our noses scraped the pavement. A woman emerged from her yard. “You live here?” I snipped comically, implying: Are you crazy. “Oh no,” she said, “We’re just staying here.” I said: “Of course you’re staying here, because once you go in, you don’t want to go out!” She laughed. How many Coasters has she watched lumber by? “Yes, I know it’s a killer, but at least you can work off those fish and chips.” Cheeky woman, couldn’t she see my plumpness was entirely vegetarian?
It was our last day, our final push to picturesque Robin Hood’s Bay along the North Sea, where hills like a rollercoaster awaited us along the high cliff shore. We arrived disheveled from a long day of rain, through slick forest beds where the pungent scent of garlic flowers permeated the humid air, slogging across boggy moors that sank our feet to the ankles, dodging highway traffic where nature’s paths ended and started up again, into a viscous trail of gnarly roots, deep mud and slippery rocks, and yes, amidst extraordinary beauty, having succeeded out of stubbornness and joy.

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near Robin Hood's Bay, North Seanear Robin Hood's Bay, North SeaNorth Sea coast near Robin Hood's Bay


2017: A Very Montreal Summer

September 17, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Montreal is celebrating its 375th birthday this year but the grand old dame is thick in reconstructive surgery. Everywhere you look things are being built up, dug out, renovated, bulldozed or just left in disarray for its turn on the jackhammer list. rue St-Denis, festivalrue St-Denis, festivalMONTREAL2017

It’s as though a whistle blew and everything, everywhere, had to be done (or redone) all at once, not just imploding freeway interchanges or excavating canyons for more condo towers, but sewer systems in the leafy side-streets, or tennis courts in the central park, or the gravelly path leading up the mountain. Entire new districts, like Griffintown by the canal, seem to have sprung up like glass and concrete mushrooms. I haven’t been back to my hometown for nearly two years and, from some angles, I couldn’t recognize the Montreal skyline. I mean, it’s always a bit crazy in the summer, when the ravages of ice and salt turn the streets into pot-holed slalom courses, making the season a boon for shock absorbers and wheel alignments. But the quantity of unfinished work this year is truly breathtaking – astounding as it is infuriating.

On the bright side, in this incredible disorder on this very special year, with a record number of people visiting, Montreal is clearly declaring itself as a city of the future, no question. “Excuse our Dust” – that should have been tourism ministry’s slogan.

or:

* Orange Coneville has Zest!

* Pylon Our City

* Detourtown This Way

Call it what you want.

Yet one thing remains unchanged, unflappable. Leonard CohenLeonard CohenMONTREAL2017

To the mess and chaos and frustration, add: Effervescence. Exultation. Exuberance.

When the warm days arrive, nothing can stomp the Montreal spirit, its joie de vivre, its euphoria.

An old joke says: “There are three seasons in Quebec: July, August and Winter.”

That’s only a slight exaggeration.

Summers are not only short, they are precious, personal triumphs over the interminable harsh winters. There is not a moment to waste. Each day seems filled with ambition, with purpose and levity, a restoration of the soul incomprehensible to anyone who has not endured the cold dark stretch of November thru March.  Summer days could be hot and humid but who’s complaining? The evening air is pierced by cicadas promising a fine tomorrow. Rain literally falls on parades.

Summer is like rapture, attained at big public shindigs or in solitary walks in the park.

You could see it on people’s faces, hear it in their voices when they stop at street corners to chat with friends, straddling their bicycles, unhurried; how they relax on their balconies on sultry evenings, lawn chairs unfolded and beer flowing; how terraces across the city overflow with hardy folk shedding cabin fever.

Montreal is a walkable city, urbane but cozy, fairly safe and very charming; it has a sidewalk culture, where unlike, say, Las Vegas, being out does not mean knowing where you’re going. Chances are there’s something to see, a festival somewhere: Jazz, Dance, Song, Fireworks, Comedy (Just Pour Rire); a festival for Beer, for Murals, for Gay Pride, and even oddly a Lobster festival!

There’s the annual Formula 1 Grand Prix, the Film Festival, the indie Osheaga multi-day music & arts festival, the Tennis Open, pro Football, pro Soccer … but no baseball. Not any more. Honestly how can a team survive playing in a dank, domed stadium when so much indulgence, so many temptations, beckon outside?

Let it all out. Suck it all in. Time is a bubble. Blvd St-Laurent @ NapoleonBlvd St-Laurent @ NapoleonMONTREAL2017

Not surprisingly, this year, despite the inadvertent (and bungled) Construction Festival – Montreal celebrated its 375th with more pomp, particularly around the old town, with large-scale projection shows, historical tributes, art exhibits, street performances, food fairs, music concerts or some sort of revelry liable around any corner.

So happy birthday “Ville Marie”, “City of a Hundred Steeples”, my forever home! As we both age, we both change, and I continue to see you with fresh eyes.

Please visit my photo gallery here for some of my favorite shots made over a 4-week span this summer 

(NB: if you click on slideshow (top-right of page) on a computer, you also get classic Quebecois music!)

Sept 2017


Durango Diner

August 25, 2017  •  1 Comment

The Durango Diner is a throwback. Long Formica counter, a dozen swivel stools, a wall scattered with picture frames, lots of stainless steel and just enough room for patrons and staff to squeeze by each other on either side. A couple of tables up front by the window, flanked by photos of cowboy John Wayne and Cheyenne Indians. A cozy place, with old-style friendliness. 
I had first visited Durango, a small town high in the southwest mountains of Colorado, in 1983 - on my first cross-country drive to discover the world. I remembered it as charming, rugged and remote. It may still be this way 34 years later, but it has also become chic, hip and gentrified.  Bright white mini-lights wrap around the tree trunks on Main Street; exotic restaurants cater to an affluent tourist crowd; the landmark Strater Hotel is remodeled; the old Woolworth is replaced by trendy shops. 
Durango DinerUta at Diner No stopping progress, I reckoned, sidling up to the counter for breakfast.
I had loaded a picture I took of Main Street in '83 on my mobile phone, which I ached to show to someone.
“Do you remember this?” I asked the silver-haired lady at the cash register.
“Oh, my, I used to have lunch at the Woolworth cafeteria,” she said, startled and smiling by the memory.
A haze of nostalgia washed over her face.
Her name was Uta, and she’s lived in Durango most of her life, after marrying an American GI she met in her hometown of Stuttgart, then-West Germany, in 1974.
“Ssscchhtutgaahdd,” she pronounced it, her voice soft and lilting with just a hint of old accent. 
“Oh, it was against my father’s wishes, but I went off anyway!” she said, trailing off with that little laugh of reminiscence. “But the marriage only lasted 5 years – one day, he just never came home.”
Her father never visited the United States, but she has never regretted her move.
“I didn’t want to go back. I stayed, and got remarried to a geologist who had studied at the University of New Mexico.”
They lived in Albuquerque for a few years until her husband retired, then moved back to Durango.
I was touched by her gentleness, how she shared her own intimate story in such a boisterous setting. 
I wasn’t pressing as much as fascinated by how an entire world unravels at such unexpected times.
In that same spirit, I told her a little of what I was up to, my road trip across America to Quebec, and now stopping here on purpose in my drive back to Las Vegas.
“There’s a Las Vegas in New Mexico too,” she said. Yes, I said, a lovely town, I’d been there, not far from Taos. “And there’s another town called Miami nearby,” I chuckled. 
“And a Cleveland too,” she chimed in, enjoying the banter. “I knew a trumpeter with the New York Philharmonic who was from there … we went to his burial a while ago.”
Oh, I thought: a conversation cooler. But not at all.
“Imagine,” she continued, lost in reverie, “having so much success in life coming form a small town like that!”
I liked this woman. I wondered if she even realized the aptness of her words.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” I said, “what matters is where you live your life.”

August 2017

Durango Diner Durango Diner

 

 

 

 


free-flowing America

July 10, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The trip is the trip. Time is ethereal when going 70 mph seated. The constant purring of tires, the hypnotic white lines keeping you honest and safe, the privacy and freedom of the open road, the American landscape whipping by like a free-flowing stream of consciousness. Heading northeast, the desert terrain becomes fertile, Navajo jewelry gives way to Hillbilly crafts, roadkill alters from armadillo to possum to raccoon to skunk the further up you go; flatlands dotted with grain silos (seen from a distance like castle turrets, like NASA rocket launch pads) give way to rolling hills and forests of lush birch and evergreens; big grim penitentiaries fenced within bucolic farmland are heralded by road signs that read “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers”; one-horse hamlets of clapboard houses and swaying crimson barns have names like Athens and Rome and Cairo and Mexico; the slowness of village life coming to a virtual halt on the 4th of July holiday, no crush of merrymakers here but rather a deep lull — do these dusty old shops and shuttered eateries ever really open? Along small-town main streets, "Hometown Hero" banners flutter on lamp posts, honoring soldiers from wars past and present — a patriotic ode to military power ingrained in the American psyche; metro areas like St-Louis or Syracuse or even Wichita tug and tempt and intimidate all at once, places where history occurred, where the present pulsates, where culture and vibrance and maybe even a falafel sandwich can be found, but also where squalor and decay and despair too often reside.

And that’s just a start. But first, pit stop: Montreal.

canton, PA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

route 13 PA

 


Phoenix on the fly

May 23, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

PHOENIXPHOENIXRevolver Records If Scottsdale is swanky, a vibrant township of leafy privilege and manicured lawns, then nearby downtown Phoenix is decrepit, a steely urban grid of business and blight. At least that's how it felt, on a superficial level, on a quick weekend visit. The sunbaked streets were devoid of traffic, no major events taking place at one of the hulking stadiums clustered in the hub. Like many inner cities on the American landscape, the area felt abandoned, save for pockets of revitalization, stretches of trendiness, funky or formal.

Saturday evening I drove down a main drag, heading west by the Sandra Day O'Connor courthouse and City Hall. Gorgeous sunlight bathed barren buildings, a palette of colors jarring against the quiet eeriness. It was a scene out of the Dawn of the Living Dead. Then, suddenly, two blocks to the left at a cross street, I glimpsed a flurry of activity, a bevy of people milling about... what? A string of restaurants? An entrance to the theater? an open-air festival? I pulled a U at the next turn to check it out. As I got closer, I slowly rolled on, aghast, realizing the sad truth: this was skid row.

PHOENIXPHOENIXWindsor Hotel

 

I don't know the population of homeless and downtrodden in Phoenix, but it's not small. And this is their neighborhood. They congregate here for support, food, shelter, safety and friendship - the very embodiment of misery loving company. People spilling everywhere, like a refugee camp, like an outdoor fair. The cluster extends for blocks, shocking as it is heartbreaking. I've seen skid rows before - in LA where it's of biblical proportions, and at home in Las Vegas, just a few steps north of the dubious fantasy of the Fremont Street Experience.

What hit me in Phoenix is how so little else seemed alive in the city core.

Photos of Phoenix, Arizona gallery: http://www.armandthomas.com/p573487416#h8b4eabf6

View other galleries at homepage: http://www.armandthomas.com/

 


Christchurch Mending

February 21, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

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.

Container WallContainer Wall

 

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.

 

 


Water Dragon, No Worries

January 28, 2016  •  1 Comment

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.


Laos - land of enchanting sorrow

December 19, 2015  •  3 Comments

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.

Consider this:

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.

Who knew?

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.

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