Back Streets

Varanasi, India.

     Off the beaten path and well out-of-the-way of the tourist trail, the back streets of Old Varanasi are a maze of catacomb-like alleyways. I would highly recommend walking them as much as possible. There are sights back here that would be hard to find anywhere else, including museums. From thousand plus year old statues and architecture to people just living out their lives.

     You enter what looks like tunnel only to come out into a thin strip of lighted roadway, paved with ancient cobblestones, only to have to side-step a cow, look up to see an ancient statue over the archway of a newly appointed guesthouse, people working and washing in the street. A maze of wires above, turn the corner and there are none, turn another only to run into a temple, round another for another amazing view. It all sounds quite quaint and normal here, on the internet, but its anything but, almost anywhere else in the world but here that is. If you’re there, don’t miss the chance to walk these streets, it’s well worth the effort, the heat, the smell and everything else you can’t experience in a picture.

 

Panning for Gold

Varanasi, India.

     Another shot that goes well with my recently posted story on Varanasi. A shot of what I think has to be one of the worst jobs in the world, or at least that I have witnessed. The guys in the water, well, they’re panning for gold. No, that’s not bad really, until you realize they are in the Ganges, at the Manikarnika Ghat, and the fire in the foreground is not just a fire, it’s a funeral pyre. The Manikarnika Ghat is a cremation ghat along the Ganges River. There is a body in there. OK, so they’re panning for gold in front of a burning body, no biggie, right? Wrong. They are panning through the ashes of the dead and burned looking for any gold or precious stones or metals that may have gotten through. Gold teeth, jewelry, hair pins, etc, etc. They are panning peoples ashes. What makes it worst is that the occasional body part makes it through the fire, which they just toss further into the river, yikes.

     It’s a holy river, it’s a revered site, it’s considered very lucky to die and be burned here. I’m not arguing that, and I do have to say that it is fascinating (to me at least) but man, I wouldn’t want that job, no way. It’s a different world though, and I’m sure I would be happy just to have a job if I lived there as well.

Choice

Varanasi, India.

     One of the three men I met on the streets in Varanasi, just waiting there to die, from the story posted here. Maybe they couldn’t choose how rich or how poor they were in life, or how they were going to die, but they could, and did, choose where they would die. That’s a lot better than most in my opinion, and they were quite happy for the choice.

     When I was looking at the pictures of this particular man, after talking to him and sitting with him on the street, I couldn’t help but think …the body may be saying die, but those eyes, they say live. He is probably gone, for a while now really, but who knows. He may still be sitting there on a street, above a ghat, waiting, watching, smiling, still happy for the choice of where. Who knows…

Among the Dead

Varanasi, India

     It’s one of those places. The places that you see in pictures, on TV, on the internet, in books. One of those places that can’t really be fully understood until experienced. One of those places that you can spend all day, week, month or year researching and still never know what it is truly like. It can be imagined, but never really fully understood. You form expectations and conclusions based on your own mind and experiences, a picture that you can wrap your thinking around, but can never truly understand without going there, walking the streets, seeing and talking to the people, smelling the air, listening to the noise. It’s one of those places where all senses are needed, as well as assailed, at every twist, turn and corner. 

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Incense

Hanoi, Vietnam

     The Altar of Confucious inside the Temple of Confucious, located in The Temple of Literature, Hanoi. Just like the name, too big to convey a real sense of this place through a picture, so just a sliver here.

      From what I’m reading right now, this is the oldest architectural complex in Hanoi, being built in 1070 during the Ly Dynasty. Ha, …about four times as old as my country. I just wonder how many sticks of incense came before these…

 

 

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

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…