Travels through Sudan VII – The Temple of Soleb

…continued from: Travels through Sudan VI – Dune

     The next morning we wake to an uncomfortable chill in the air and the rising sun. It’s amazing how cold it feels at night relative to the heat of the day, with the temperature difference last night dropping 70° F: 120° during the day to 50° during the night. Looks like we had some foxes in the camp last night, which is becoming a common occurrence during the last month. As the sun rises so does the heat, and within an hour of waking the temperature has climbed at least 20° or 30°. A quick breakfast, pack up, and we’re off for another day of sand and sun.

     We skirt the dune of the night before, I wave goodbye to Mr. and Mrs. Scorpion, the kids are probably off to school by now. This will be day five without a shower or bath. It’s not so bad, it’s a dry heat. Ha.

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Hanoi, Vietnam.

     One more from the Ol’ Irish Wolf Hound in Hanoi. Last one …for at least awhile, I promise. I’ve been going through photos and just love these for some reason. Not for the “technicals”, but more for the memory really. No, not really, just actually.

     Right around the corner from our hotel in the Old Quarter. Rush hour. The sun going down, almost sunset. The setting sun aligned perfectly with the street direction. Ice cold beer. A “shady” alley right across the road, filled with tattoo covered sailors playing cards, as well as other “not-to-nice” looking undesirables. The door to the right, a cheap brothel entrance. A woman serving phð right next to our table. A little girl weaving in and out of the chairs, playing and filled with laughter. The cyclo drivers, the bikes, the bicycles. Women in pajamas, girls in Ao Dai, the national dress of Vietnam, coming home from school. Walking, riding, simply gliding. White dresses fluttering in the wind and seemingly light enough to catch and be lifted by the sunlight in its folds. The conical hat, so symbolic, so useful, so Vietnam. It’s everywhere, from the heads of the working ladies passing by to the souvenir store on the corner. A symbol of a nation and a symbol of a people.

     It’s getting later, the last light of the day slowly being filtered through the dust and exhaust of another Hanoi day. The owner of the bar brings out a bottle of Tequila. Cuervo. We have talked to her before. She has no one else to drink with. The natural light of the sun fades, the light of Hanoi takes its place. Nguyen shows up (pronounced “Gwen”). Shots are poured and, before drinking, lit on fire. After a while, Moon shows up, ready for a few starters before heading to the club. From the alleyway across the street comes a big man, Mongolian, Ulaanbaatar we soon find out. It’s a party now. Three Vietnamese girls, one Mongolian guy, one Thai girl, Two American brothers. International. This is what I live for, I love this sh*t. Kick forward a few hours and I probably learn more in that time than ten thousand dollars in Princeton would teach me.

     We get to talking, that is after the Mongolian drags, and I mean drags, screaming, the bar owner back into the alley. Nguyen says it’s no thing, they know each other. Ten minutes later they are back, sshhhreeewww, it doesn’t look like a good alley. The shots continue, the owner parades her power, yelling to the bartends for buckets of ice and clean shot glasses, showing up somewhere around two seconds after her request.

     I get to talking one-on-one to the Mongolian man. Heavy russian type accent, actually Mongolian. A fisherman, tattooed up and down with burns from what looks like cigars. “The Russian Mafia” he explains. “They are nothing, small men. I am only Mongol on the boat”. Jesus, I say under my breath. He has never met an American, but loves em’. He has heard of their strength though. He wants to arm wrestle, gulp. I poke one of his “burns”. He doesn’t like that. I tell him he’ll kill me in arm wrestling, being a Mongolian fisherman that is used to being burned by the”small” Russian mafia day after day, not to mention looking like a Roman Gladiator on steroids. He doesn’t wanna hear it. Oh Jesus, here we go. Nguyen looks at me with a sideways glance. I know, I know, this is gonna happen, whether I like it or not…

     Long story short, after much “deliberation”, he beat me, but then toasted the win with much graciousness, and a bit of fire. He wouldn’t back down, and he wouldn’t let me dishonor my country or myself by backing down. I honestly wish I knew what it was like, without actually experiencing it. To be on a ship for so long, with no fiends, far from home, to land in a foreign country with nothing but your strength and your honor to rely on. Can’t be easy.

     The night goes on. We drink. Nguyen doesn’t follow Moon to the club. Hanoi is still moving, still full of life. The temperature goes down and the traffic goes the opposite way. I’ve been told it’s a city that sleeps at night, but we see anything but. The alley way across the way is still full of “traffic. The tattoo covered men are still playing cards. The Pho stand is making a killing. A city full of life, well deserved, and, honestly, well-earned…

     Cut to a few days later and Hanoi has only grown on me. An absolute gem in SE Asia. An old town that still has an old feel to it. A city that is slowly aging like a good wine.The French architecture is outstanding. The older Chinese even better. The center of a country and the pride of a people. It turned a thousand years old last year. My God. After a few days, it may be my favorite big city in the world, and certainly a throwback in SE Asia. It’s old, real old, yet if you’re looking for newer, it’s happy to provide. It’s alive, vibrant, decaying, moving, old, new, forward-looking, backward respecting, hip, rich, poor, fascinating, mind-boggling all at the same time. A city for the ages, a city caught in time, ancient yet modern, all in one.

     It’s Hanoi, It’s awesome. A place where you can sit back and relax, let the pictures come to you. Every picture here taken with a simple 50mm lens. No need for tricks. As I look back on Vietnam from here, I think of the people. Ho Chi Minh, c’mon, it’s Saigon, call it like the locals do, it’s monumental to say the least. It’s Saigon. Hoi An, ha, nothing better in the world. Da Nang, wow. Halong, Sapa, Hue, Nha Trang, The Mekong …keep fighting, it’s worth it. What a country, what a people. Hanoi, what a city, nothing like it that I’ve seen in the world.

     As for The American War, I don’t know. You could say it did exactly the opposite of what it was supposed too really. At the end it culminated a constant one hundred and twelve years of war for the nation of Vietnam and for the first time, in that time, brought the country together as one. A prosperous nation moving forward in the world with one of the most dynamic economies in the world today growing at a rate that makes most jealous. Huh. Who knew. The American War ended, unofficially but actually, with the first American naval ship sailing up the Mekong in 2003, as a friend not foe, more than forty years after the start.

The Soft Sound of Mortar Fire

Kabul, Afghanistan.

   July 20th, 2009:
    – “Daily Afghanistan Outlook” headlines: Last week – 145 Terror Attacks, 66 dead, 228 wounded
    – Yesterday: Karzai backing former jihad commander Abdur Rab Rasul Sayyaf as commander of Kabul
       forces and security …elections coming in a few weeks, fight fire with fire I guess
    – Today: cleaning people accompanied by automatic weapons in room
    – Breakfast: word is militants pouring into the city. Advised to leave now, while I still can

     After breakfast I take a ride around the city. Only 25 bombings today. It’s early. A world gone mad. Afghan military everywhere. A NATO APC in a small convoy rolls down the street, the man wielding the 50 up top pointing it at anyone and anything that comes near. You can tell he’s scared, the gun rolling from side to side like a bobble head on the Paris Dakar rally. Kids run, laugh, and point, the gunner points back. A dangeorus game but the kids are bored, and like any kids around the world, can see the fear in the gunners movements, so time for some fun. Cars slow down, weave to the outside lanes, get out of the way. The convoy quickly rolls through, dissapearing as fast as they can. 

     We stop on the outskirts of the city at an old fort. A man invites me to his home for lunch, my driver says “No, too dangerous”. Everyone wants their pictures taken, the driver wants to go. The man doesn’t wait too long, he runs off down the trail. We pass by a half stadium looking building. “That is where they tried to assassinate Karzai”, my driver says. He turns on the radio. “Taliban song”, he says.

     Sunset at the Gardens of Babur. A little bit of calm in a world gone mad. Locals picnicking, children playing. A bit of grass, newly planted trees. The women still in burkas …no pictures of women in burkas I’m told by the driver. Ah well, I won’t push, I’m sure they have enough to worry about without some American kid on vacation pointing a camera at them. Boom …in the distance. Make that 26. Time to go, its getting dark. Below, a view of the Pul-e Khishti Mosque from the Gardens of Babur in Kabul. Almost pretty, with the militant filled hills in the background, lacking any sign of the women in burkas ushering their kids home for another hot night in a house lacking electricity and running water, although the holes in the walls do provide some natural air conditioning. The sun filtered by another day of dust raised by the numerous bombings throughout the city. A picture does a great job of filtering out automatic weapon fire too…

     I get out of the car on the street at the hotel wall. Down the barb wired entry, through the two manned bunkers, around the sandbags. I knock on the outer door, someone opens and I’m in-between the two walls leading to the hotel. Through the x-ray station, around the black masked guards. I hear a call through on the radio, I wait for the inner guards to open the steel door. A bomb sniffing dog sniffs me up and down, good doggie. The door slides open, five fully armored men with autos ready are spread out semi circle around the opening door. I smile and give them a wave. Into the courtyard, I wave to the sniper on the roof-top corner closest to me, he waves back, I smile. This is insane.

     I get a half-assed standing ovation in the lobby, as well as a lot of laughter, from the mercs I met the past few days. They thought I was dead, out all day, after dark now. “You got balls, I’ll give you that” says the New Zealander as he slips another grenade into place. I talk a bit and than they are ready to go, heading out to only God knows where, fully armored, fully equipped, and apparently ready to make some money.

     I head to my room and eventually go to bed. You can hear the rat-tat-tat of automatic weapon fire throughout the city, the occasional boom-boom-boom of something bigger. The soft of sound of mortar fire in the hills surrounding Kabul lulls me to sleep, calming and almost soothing, like the croaking of frogs and the clicking of cicadas in the country night, Afghan style. Sounds like the boys are making a lot of money tonight…

Brown …James Brown

Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso.

     Sorry for the disappearing act folks. I have just been very busy and not too motivated in posting lately. I figured if I force it, it’s only going to result in some bad posts…

     I have been going through some pictures from my trip to Burkina Faso back in 08′ though and I came upon this one and just had to post it. James Brown’s grandson, …and friend, gulp, :). As for Burkina Faso, if nothing else, it’s got some of the coolest city names I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Bobo Dioulasso, Ouagadougoo, heck Burkino Faso. Great country, great people, great culture, great names. …and it does have plenty else, believe me. If you wanna get “off the beaten” track, Burkina Faso is probably in the top ten of countries with the least tourists.

Kan-Tucky Born

Udaipur, India.

     That’s right. Born in Kentucky, USA. Surprised the hell out of me.

     Me: Grunt (lift camera). Photo. (shake camera)
     Him: Nod of head
     Me: Snap, click, click, click
     Him: Nod of head
     Me: Cigarette (actually just lifting the pack)
     Him: Where you from?
     Me: (surprise, he speaks english) America
     Him: No, where at in America (in a deep southern draw)
     Me: Philadelphia
     Him: Born in Kentucky
     Me: No shit…

Damn. It is a small world. India, surprising to say the least.
Never did find out why. Just took it as India. Things happen.
People change. People stay.
I still wonder what he was thinking…