ARMAND THOMAS: Blog http://www.armandthomas.com/blog en-us (C) ARMAND THOMAS armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) Wed, 14 Feb 2018 17:52:00 GMT Wed, 14 Feb 2018 17:52:00 GMT http://www.armandthomas.com/img/s/v-5/u670231135-o670587856-50.jpg ARMAND THOMAS: Blog http://www.armandthomas.com/blog 120 79 2017: A Very Montreal Summer http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2017/9/2017-a-very-montreal-summer 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

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) blography celebration montreal photojournalism quebec reconstruction street photography summer travel http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2017/9/2017-a-very-montreal-summer Sun, 17 Sep 2017 18:39:56 GMT
Durango Diner http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2017/8/durango-diner 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

 

 

 

 

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) blog blography colorado diner durango durango diner las vegas photography roadtripping street travel uta http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2017/8/durango-diner Fri, 25 Aug 2017 18:28:14 GMT
free-flowing America http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2017/7/free-flowing-america 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

 

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) americana blography photography photojournalism roadtrip travel http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2017/7/free-flowing-america Mon, 10 Jul 2017 14:08:49 GMT
Phoenix on the fly http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2017/5/phoenix-fast 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/

 

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) Arizona Phoenix downtown homeless photography row skid travel http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2017/5/phoenix-fast Tue, 23 May 2017 19:08:07 GMT
Christchurch Mending http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2016/2/christchurch-rebounding 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.

 

 

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) Christchurch Cirque du Soleil New Zealand Photography Quidam Quidam closing Travel blograghy containers earthquake rebuild http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2016/2/christchurch-rebounding Mon, 22 Feb 2016 03:40:29 GMT
Water Dragon, No Worries http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2016/1/no-worries 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.

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) australia blography breast feeding byron bay travel water dragon http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2016/1/no-worries Fri, 29 Jan 2016 02:11:33 GMT
Laos - land of enchanting sorrow http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/12/laos---land-of-enchanting-sorrow 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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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) blography bombs buddhism enchanting laos luang prabang magical monks photography poverty tak bat travel vietnam war http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/12/laos---land-of-enchanting-sorrow Sat, 19 Dec 2015 11:42:59 GMT
Vang Vieng & Friends http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/11/vang-vieng-vong In the grand tradition of scruffy, shoe-lace travel, Vang Vieng is where tie-dyed young and old let their braided hair down.
On the bumpy road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, this town doesn't have a stop sign, much less a traffic light. It's picturesque alright, jagged limestone cliffs and lush greenery with the Nam (river) Song running through it. But it's far from tranquil.
This is Laos' party town, toned down somewhat since the government cracked down on the excess of debauchery, vulgarity and drugs more than a decade ago. But it's still a place which survives mainly on foreigners' frivolity.
You can go tubing, rock climbing, zip-lining and caving - all of which I'd rather pay not to do, at the moment. But for those seeking organized adventure, the promise abounds, as do the sprains and broken limbs reported at the ramshackle local hospital. In town, you can find the more sedate types sprawled out on soiled cushions at open-air restaurants, swigging Beerlao or slurping noodles while hypnotized on reruns of Friends. This is no joke: every eatery with a mounted flat-screen TV (many of them) ran episodes of that ridiculous American sitcom, which is more curious in that most latter-day beatniks in Vang Vieng were Germans, Koreans or Aussies. 
Once again, I sit back and chuckle at the notion that my friends back home are imagining I'm bathing within the womb of exoticism. It happens, yes, from time to time. But travel in our times is mostly a mundane journey of dubious busses, lumpy beds and reflective solitude. All worth it, it is hoped, for the occasional jolt of wonderment.
Renting a motorbike is great to get out of the frenzy and enjoy the outskirts. No fuss, 5 bucks a day. Laos is so lax, you'd never be permitted to do that in Cambodia or Vietnam. Then again, in Vietnam, you'd be a fool to even try. In mid afternoon, I came across une ecole elementaire that was letting out and all the kids and teachers circled a flagpole besides a giant tamarind tree to sing the national anthem and lower the banner. I found a bona-fide 10-lane bowling center tucked in the jungle - I had to go inside to believe my eyes and there they were: 10 lanes and a shimmering parquet. (oh, those Chinese tourists!).  I saw a bunch of incongruous tourism panels that made you wonder if you were in Idaho, perhaps (iPad shot here).
But what captivated my camera most in Vang Vieng was the "art" of bicycling while holding an umbrella." (No pics just yet, all still in the camera). Seemingly, everyone on two wheels is perfectly adept in shielding themselves from the hot sun with one hand, and negotiating the rubble roads with the other. It was a gorgeous image I couldn't get if I was rafting down the muddy rapids. 

~ dedicated to my friend Marvin, in my thoughts on the road - RIP

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) armand blog blog blography caving laos outdoors photography travel tubing vang vieng http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/11/vang-vieng-vong Sun, 15 Nov 2015 15:25:52 GMT
Laotian sun http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/11/sun-loasian 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. 

 

 

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) exercise loas tuktuk vientiane http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/11/sun-loasian Fri, 13 Nov 2015 00:16:24 GMT
Seoul Digest http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/11/seoul-digest 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.

Should they?

Please use the link below for my new Seoul photo collection, and click the "Slideshow" button to add music

http://www.armandthomas.com/p553070895/h6f31341b#h6f31341b

 

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) Seoul Soju South Korea baseball blog blography caffeine crime dog meat meat photography suicide travel vegetarian vice http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/11/seoul-digest Sat, 07 Nov 2015 17:55:46 GMT
Korean Split http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/11/korean-split 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

 

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) conformism dna korea korean blog legacy north korea seoul south korea http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/11/korean-split Thu, 05 Nov 2015 04:59:04 GMT
Celling Yin and Yang http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/10/celling-yin-and-yang 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:

 

seoul subway cells

 

 

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) addiction broadband individualism korea mobile phones paradox seoul seoul metro smart phones subway technology wireless yin and yang http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/10/celling-yin-and-yang Tue, 27 Oct 2015 13:54:17 GMT
54 Party! http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/10/54-party Thanks to the fab Q crew for making the Seoulful night glitter!
Fast and dirty, here's a short montage.

 

 

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/10/54-party Mon, 26 Oct 2015 13:58:57 GMT
The palette of Seoul http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/10/the-palette-of-seoul Quidam, in Latin, means an “anonymous passerby,” and that’s who I’ll try to be as I rejoin my original Cirque show on tour, first in South Korea, then Australia and New Zealand. Over the next four months, I hope to regale you with a BLOGRAPHY – a series of writing and photographs without 

any preconceived agenda. I’m also taking a personal side-trip to Loas in November, while the tour is on break.

So, here we go: prologue in Seoul.

~

It’s not something you notice straight away.

Traffic in Seoul looks fairly normal, heavy at times, yet always orderly, like so much else in this megalopolis of 10 million inhabitants. Koreans are respectful and intrinsically conformist: commuters line up on the right side of escalators to keep the fast lane open; TV sportscasters bow to each other when their program ends; spectators pick up their own trash when exiting the big top. Courtesy is a collective mentality.

The same sense of civility is true on the road. Not only is traffic tidy, it’s also strikingly affluent with its bevy of luxury cars – gleaming sedans with tinted windows, chromed wheels and winged hood ornaments. There’s nary a clunker in sight. By the look of it, you can tell the economy has been pumping on all cylinders lately.

Is that it then? Is this what’s peculiar? Is it the sheer number of Lexus, Mercedes, Audis, Porches and, of course, those high-end Equus - Hyundai's posh combination of limousine

and sports car?

 

Is that it then?

Uhhhhhm, no…

Lessee, what’s different, what’s odd with this picture?

And then, Bam!… It hits you. Like one of those pixelated eye-quizzes that slowly reveals what is perfectly obvious:

There are no colored cars!                                       

​Just about every vehicle on the road - save for the ubiquitous orange taxis - is black or white or a shade of grey.

Oh, there may be the occasional beige car, or an audacious dark blue, and every once in a while, outrageously, a maroon in the lot…

But they stand out like the lumps of coal in a snow drift.

I did a little background check.

In Korea, status and social conformity is paramount, and colored cars, it turns out, are seen as flippant and frivolous.

Henry Ford would have loved this.

Hyundai, which accounts for nearly three quarters of all car sales in South Korean, said the three shades make up 98.8 percent of its full-sized sedans sold in the first nine months of this year.

The company’s chairman was quoted as saying: "My personal theory is that, in the premium segment, it's about prestige, and when you have a black or silver car, it looks prestigious."

And in this land of reverence and abiding trends, when a social perception takes hold, it’s like an edict from the Emperor.

Koreans have much to be thankful for – riding a wave of prosperity and an enviable standard of living nearly unrivaled in the Far East.Seoul is a slick and modish capital with gleaming towers and ancient temples; a place of youthful energy and innumerable coffee shops; fashionable women tote Chanel handbags and dapper businessmen strut in finely pressed suits.  Things run hyper-efficiently, crime is quasi inexistent, commerce is thriving.

And yet…

Yet.

I’ve only been here for one month, and can’t pretend being an authority on modern Korean society - but something sure seems amiss.

For all the virtues, there seems to be a palpable sense of repetition, of numbing conformity, as if decency is programmed, clean but flat and laced with that inscrutable Asian righteousness, a sort of success bereft of warmth and somewhat monochromatic - like the cars.

~

Coming soon – a new Seoul photo gallery on this website.

Click here to view previous collections.

www.armandthomas.com

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) Automobiles Cars Hyundai Korea Seoul blography conformists luxury photography street traffic http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2015/10/the-palette-of-seoul Thu, 22 Oct 2015 17:10:29 GMT
Colorful Little League World Series http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2014/8/black-n-white-little-league-world-series Excellent baseball being played by these strapping young boys and girls in the 2014 Little League World Series - but have you noticed the US Championship game today pits an all-black team from Chicago versus an all-white team from Las Vegas? Maybe that's a wonderful sign how racial diversity has settled comfortably in this land, where only hacks like me double-take a non-story; then again, maybe it's evidence that in some instances, whether in organized sports or the streets of middle America, skin color remains an issue of contention. new orleansnew orleans

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) america baseball black championship chicago diversity kids las little league race vegas white http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2014/8/black-n-white-little-league-world-series Sat, 23 Aug 2014 20:48:28 GMT
The Beautiful Game - FINAL http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2014/7/the-beautiful-game---final Fittingly, the series closes with boys playing in a dirt patch in Téfe, province of Amazonas, in northern Brazil.

To view earlier photographs, click on the Facebook link below.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152461061226558&set=a.10151232947406558.509238.686626557&type=1&theater

Gooooaaaaaallllllllll!!!

TEFE, BrazilTEFE, Brazil

www.armandthomas.com

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) Football amazon brazil final goal playing soccer stilts téfe world cup http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2014/7/the-beautiful-game---final Sun, 13 Jul 2014 17:55:30 GMT
The Beautiful Game (no.10) http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2014/7/the-beautiful-game-no-10 EL MINYA, Egypt - No.10 of a series of soccer being played around the world.

Visit previous postings here:

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152461061226558&set=a.10151232947406558.509238.686626557&type=1&theater

ANCIENT CEMETARY of MINYA, EgyptANCIENT CEMETARY of MINYA, Egypt

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) Egypt Minya cemetery football series soccer world cup http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2014/7/the-beautiful-game-no-10 Thu, 03 Jul 2014 17:28:10 GMT
The Beautiful Game http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2014/6/the-beautiful-game BOGOTA, Colombia - No.9 of a series of soccer being played around the world.

Visit previous postings here:

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152461061226558&set=a.10151232947406558.509238.686626557&type=1&theater

BOGOTA, ColombiaBOGOTA, Colombia

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) bogota colombia football goal soccer world cup http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2014/6/the-beautiful-game Sun, 29 Jun 2014 19:30:56 GMT
King of Diamonds http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2014/6/king-of-diamonds  

Driving home after 9 hours of poker, I thought about some hands I played. I should have shoved with those 6s when the pot was big; I shouldn't have pressed the King-Queen-suited so early out of position…
And so on…
The Golden Nugget tournament began at noon with 109 players, I was knocked out in 18th place.Six spots out of the money. 
Dang, so much work - er, I mean fun - on my day off, and no reward save for more experience.
Hmmpt.

Up ahead on the freeway, I spot a 50s Cadillac Eldorado, pale colored, beautiful curves and dramatic fins.
I pass it on the left and look at the driver, none other than Elvis A. Presley himself, black hair coiffed back, gold metal sunglasses, rhinestone jacket...
I chuckle to myself and think: Ahh, Las Vegas, you sure are something…
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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) Eldorado Elvis Golden Las Nugget Poker Vega http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2014/6/king-of-diamonds Fri, 27 Jun 2014 22:49:49 GMT
As the World Turns http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2014/1/as-the-world-turns < Last of the blogging while tripping in Vietnam and Cambodia >

As is customary at the end of a trip to an impoverished part of the world, my thoughts turn to my parents, and my eternal gratitude for having emigrated from Egypt in 1966. My parents’ risky move gave us a chance for a better life, for prosperity, education and human rights.

I adored visiting Vietnam and Cambodia, exotic and intoxicating nations, historical and cultural landmarks, but also distressed and corrupt, nations struggling to recover from tragic pasts. And I am once again reminded of my own good fortunes, and how not to take them for granted. Because there, for the love of Buddha, could have gone I.

Despite threads of melancholy in my writings, it was a trip filled with wonder, both sublime and ridiculous. How these people have such easy smiles defies their meager means. How there aren’t a thousand crashes at each of Saigon’s busy intersections defies logic.

Angkor Wat artist

So many elusive memories over three short weeks.

I chatted with a group of young monks inside Buddha school in Phnom Penh for a half hour – just walked in off the street and climbed a set of stairs to a classroom…. I had a haircut in Siem Reap in one of several shops soon to be added to my Barbers photo gallery… I had 50-cent dinners and 4-dollar cups of coffee, obviously not at the same place. I hung out with a young painter in Wat Prohm (near Angkor) and bought one his watercolor artwork… I treated myself to one cheap massage, but couldn't fathom getting a Happy Ending from a pitiable young girl… I walked in the footsteps of my all-time hero, English writer Graham Greene, whose classic A Quiet American was set partly at 151 rue Catinat (now called Dong Koi) in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). That very arcade now features art shops and a tasteful café called L’Usine… I handed out small bills like tissues at a funeral, and gave kids hologram 3-D stickers of African animals bought at the 99-cent store in Vegas… I got my legs splashed by fish so fresh at the locals market, they were still writhing in a shallow basin of water… I rode passenger at the back of a motorbike "taxi" with my heavy backpack through the dizzying Saigon traffic and for all the gold in the world, I wish I had a GoPro camera on my useless plastic helmet - terrifying and terrific all at once… I found Wifi everywhere and veggie offerings hardly anywhere, thus packing on an 10 extra pounds through a diet of rice, noodles, pasta, crackers and bread… Too Fast Too Furious blared on the TV monitor at the front of the bus as we bounced along a rural Cambodian road, swerving to avoid cattle, deep ruts and sputtering tractors from the 1950s… I bumped hard into an ancient column walking dazedly around the Angkor Wat ruins, and exclaimed "Now, who put that there?!" (but none of the Chinese tourists found this hilarious)… I bought small inexpensive souvenirs galore, not so much from the need to have as from the goal to give… Why then, at times, did I haggle over a huge amount of 15,000 dong when in the end, it amounted to 75 cents?... I was bedazzled by the sweetest 7-year-old in Cambodia who sold postcards and could recite 1 to 10 in ten languages – switched the camera into video mode in time to capture the last 5… On a Saigon city bus (yes, I hopped on those to mingle with locals) I sat next to an old man, maybe 80, who's eyesight was failing, but spirit still robust. He railed to me, in Vietnamese, with relentless passion. "He complains about the communists," the girl behind us explained, in French. She had just come back from studies in Paris and noticed my Cirque t-shirt. Got that on video too… I loved my new gear – the tidy Olympus OMD5, the Lowe Pro messenger bag and the mini iPad… all small and subdued and exceptional travel companions.

A delightful trip, yes - but one of conflicting emotions. One moment supremely awed, the next wholly disgusted. I couldn’t get the Cambodian tragedy of Pol Pot out of my head. Two million people wiped out, the quarter of the population. Just 40 some year ago. “My uncle he die from no eat,” the painter at Wat Prohm told me, a line that I wrote in dread and earnest. Vietnam too can have wrenching poverty, but there’s entrenched desperation in the Cambodia. And a more vile government, not coincidentally. Beggars, amputees, child labor, sex tourism, relentless flogging, peddling, pleading… Hardship comes at you in many ways, and if the heart doesn’t break it does not beat. That's the price of traveling in the real world. We go see not only for pleasure, but also to know, to become aware. To be of the world. To appreciate what matters.

Soon, I’ll be back home, mending my garden, watching hockey on television, polishing my motorcycle, complaining about my job, living the privileged life and trying not to feel guilty about all the disparity.

(Jan 23)

See previous blogs at www.armandthomas.com/blog

Photo gallery of Vietnam and Cambodia coming soon...

 

 

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armandthomas@cox.net (ARMAND THOMAS) Cambodia Graham Greene Saigon Temples Vietnam art disparity hardship joy poverty prosperity travel http://www.armandthomas.com/blog/2014/1/as-the-world-turns Sat, 25 Jan 2014 06:41:02 GMT