Interior Design by Edgar Allan Poe?

The Crypt

The Crypt

How do you wrap your head around a holy shrine so beautiful and yet so ghastly and repulsive? This question is what went through my mind when I visited a huge cathedral in a tiny village in southern Peru.

I was on a “photographers-only” tour. The dozen or so of us had been or would visit the usual sites in Peru such as Machu Picchu. However, the tour also included places well off the typical tourist paths.

We had been traveling for hours in a bus through a very dry and barren area and eventually arrived at this town called Lampa. The town itself was an eerie place because it seemed deserted. I was hard-pressed to see three or more people anywhere at any time.

Incongruously, there was this huge Catholic cathedral in the town center. It towered over Lampa and its size and presence seemed more appropriate in the Vatican rather than a little place like this village that could scarcely have had a couple hundred people.

Children's Choir

Children’s Choir

Our tour leader and local guide took us around the outside then into the building. It was dark and oppressive in there, not comforting and uplifting like many churches I’ve been in. A small group of children were being led in a choir song and they were the only other people inside. We walked around the sanctuary and viewed the artwork, murals and other paintings on the walls between columns. It was art, but only in name. By this I mean most of the art portrayed various scenes of the Bible in lurid, gory detail. Blood didn’t just flow from people it gushed! People didn’t simply die of small polite wounds but were eviscerated and carved open like slaughtered livestock. It was like the shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho but with the violence openly displayed.

In the Lampa Cathedral Catacombs

In the Lampa Cathedral Catacombs

We visited the catacombs below and behind the sacristy. This basement of the macabre contained skulls of the faithful long since dead and now part of an exhibit. It didn’t really creep my out, as I had seen photos of things like this before in places like Paris.

What I did find disturbing was found back on the first floor in a relatively new wing to the building.

We walked into the area and at one end was a domed structure with four arched windows to allow people to view inside. The other photographers immediately crowded the windows and began photographing the interior. I held back and did some work to document the room and this structure within.

When they were finished, I walked over to have a look and couldn’t believe what I saw.

Dome above the Crypt

Dome above the Crypt

Below the dome and floor level had been built a cylindrical crypt. At the floor bottom was a huge black cross, lit from beneath, and surrounding it and lining the wall were hundreds of skulls and dozens of complete skeletons. We were told that when it was built, the designers dug up the bodies of people buried outside the cathedral and used them to decorate the walls.

I guess, for the people of Lampa, it was an honor to know your great Uncle Manuel and his mother Guadalupe were used as wall treatments in the town church.  To me, that crypt reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre short story The Pit and the Pendulum.

I know,  I know.  As a foreign visitor I’m supposed to look at this kind of thing without judgments.  Sometimes, however, what I see is so overwhelming I can’t fight the urge to say “Are you out of your minds?”

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The Beginnings of My Wanderlust

Wall Carving, Persepolis, Iran

Wall Carving, Persepolis, Iran

My trip to Iran in November 1977 is what got me hooked on foreign travel.  The friendly people, their intensely interesting culture, customs and  country instilled in me the desire to visit more places outside the USA.

How I got to Iran was by sitting sideways in a USAF C-141 cargo plane for hours and hours with a couple dozen other American GIs and tons of ground equipment.  We were all stationed at RAF Lakenheath UK and were sent to Shiraz AB to participate in a joint exercise with our hosts the Iranian government.

Upon landing and deplaning, I was struck at how different Iran was from England.  In November, the UK was a cold dreary damp place, overcast most of the time and very green.  Iran, on the other hand was clearskyed, warm, dry and brown.  I liked the sun, but as most other caucasians who had been in England for at least a few months discovered, our skin turned pink after exposure to the unfamiliar and bright sunlight.

The first day, I was busy getting equipment set up and I assumed others were too until two guys confided that they had already been to town, met some prostitutes and had gotten laid.  Really, are you kidding me, in a country were the women wear head-to-toe black traditional Islamic clothing and never, ever touch men unless he is a family member?  Weren’t we told to keep things ultra-clean and not do anything risky?   Sheesh!  How they found the ladies is a mystery to me, but thinking back on it now, I have to give credit to the American GI’s ability to find and patronize a brothel no matter where, even if it was encased in lead, buried under ten feet of sand, silt and whaleshit in the deepest underwater canyons of the Marianas Trench or in a place like Shiraz, Iran.

The Air Force jet we worked was the F-111F fighter-bomber.  About six followed us to Shiraz, and, aside from a few maintenance problems after arriving, they were in good shape.  As the exercise progressed and the jets flew and flew, they stayed happy planes and required little work to stay that way.  So one day, we earned a day off and a field trip to Persepolis.

I, like many Americans, didn’t know much about Iran, much less Persia, even less about the Persian Empire that existed in Persepolis 300 to 500 years before Christ.  It was destroyed and looted by Alexander the Great in 330BC and was a beautiful capitol before being sacked.  It was my first exposure to something much older than America and I thoroughly enjoyed the visit.

Shadows of Columns and People, Persepolis

Shadows of Columns and People, Persepolis

Everything was so exotic to me, even the local market.  Another GI and I went to a bazaar off the main drag into town.  Just walking through the opening sent me into a another time and place.  The heady aroma of the spices being sold inside, the jostling of the people there to buy and sell, seeing gold and silver being made on the spot into jewelry and bowls and plates was completely new to me and remains fresh in my memory.

Market Entrance, Shiraz

Bazaar Entrance, Shiraz

The Iranians wanted to show off a little, so they flew in their air demonstration team Shiraz AB and gave us a show using American-made aircraft sold to them and painted to resemble the USAF Thunderbirds.

Royal Iranian Air Demo Team Aircraft

Royal Iranian Air Demo Team Aircraft

I liked the airshow, but do you wanna know what I was most struck by?  I had been reading an American magazine I had purchased in a hotel lobby in Shiraz (It was probably a Newsweek).  In it was an article about the newest Paris fashions, what the models wore and who the designers were.  Standing there watching the airshow I looked over at the review stand with all the brass and the wives of the Iranian pilots who were flying loops and rolls overhead.  At first glance I saw that the women were dressed in Western-style clothing but then I realized those ladies were also wearing what was only a few weeks ago on display in Paris and in that magazine.  Those women were obviously up-to-date on fashion, Western fashion, and were proudly wearing it.

Wrecked Iranian F5 fighter on the Bombing range

Wrecked Iranian F5 fighter on the Bombing range

Towards the end of the exercise, the Iranians treated us again with another trip.  This time we were flown via an Iranian C-130 airplane to their bombing range to the far south of the country.  For a couple hours we were allowed to visit actual target areas and see up close what large explosive ordnance can do.  Everywhere were huge craters blasted out of the desert, mock convoys with destroyed vehicles, wrecked airplanes, shrapnel, bomb fins and unexploded shells ejected from airborne gatling guns.  Later from a distance we were permitted to watch as our jets dropped live bombs and USAF and Iranian F-4s launched missiles at the area we had just inspected.  We were three miles away from the explosions and the concussion slap in the face made me take notice.

After about four weeks the exercise was over, and again I was riding sideways in a C-141 back to dark and damp England.  I had met a lot of very friendly people in Iran, just ordinary people on the street who were a lot nicer to me than most people back in the UK or the USA.  The few places I visited were very memorable and stirred in me a desire to visit other places away from the USA and especially in the Third World.

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Of Mother Teresa’s Tomb, Flying Chicken Heads and Other Things

Nun at Mother Teresa's Tomb

Nun at Mother Teresa’s Tomb

Do you ever have a thought or memory you can’t get out of your head? It’s as though the thing is sticky, like a ball of tape. Sometimes it can be something mundane as a song. Sometimes, and in the case of my trip to Kolkata, India, it is a memory of two places, which comes to mind. The troubling thing is I don’t understand why these two stick in my memory.

The morning after arriving in Kolkata, I was standing in the shrine dedicated to Mother Teresa. The room was tiled with cool, soothing polished marble.  At the room center was Mother Teresa’s Tomb, a massive stone sarcophagus in which her tiny body had been placed. For a while it was just me and a cleaning lady present in the room. I snapped a few photos. Then a young nun, barefoot and wearing the pure white and blue-bordered habit of her order entered and knelt at the monument. For a time she prayed silently but then she began to weep. Who knows why this place caused such emotion. Maybe it wasn’t the tomb at all but some memory of Mother. Maybe it was that she had some difficulty in her life she had come to unburden herself of.  I felt somehow like I was witnessing a very strong event in this woman’s life and didn’t want to disturb her.   After a while, I could hear outside the room that others were about to enter; so to preserve the memory of seeing this place and the emotion of the young woman in my head, I left as other women filed in.

Butcher at Meat Market

Butcher at Meat Market

Over the remainder of that day and the ones subsequent, my guide and I visited a huge flower market (Hindus love flowers and use them in many ceremonies.); the Royal Calcutta Turf Club to watch the horse races there; the yoga studio where Bikram Choudry developed his “hot yoga” style, a mosque; a large meat market; Hindu shrines where blood sacrifices were being made; ritual crematoriums; a riverbank in the evening where the locals came to relax; and the Indian National Day Celebration and parade. All interesting places and events.

Woman selling flowers

Woman selling flowers

My guide could tell I liked the unusual, especially for the purposes of photography. So he suggested going to see the chicken market down the street from my hotel. He said get up early, well before dawn, and walk over. So I did.

What I saw was nothing I’d seen before. Here were parked large lorries almost overfilled with wicker baskets each crammed with live chickens. Every basket was about five feet in diameter and shaped like a toroid. I guessed that somewhere outside of town were huge chicken farms that early every morning shipped into Kolkata thousands of white-feathered chickens. After offloading, men would sit on the sidewalk next to a basket and yank chickens out one-by-one and sort them, tie their feet together and throw them into piles. Then other men, presumably from restaurants or market vendors, would ride up on bicycles, select and purchase the birds, loading them by the dozens on their bikes and pedal away. I watched and photographed until dawn, then wondered down the street. It was there I saw the next profoundly memorable site of my trip.

At the Royal Calcutta Turf Club

At the Royal Calcutta Turf Club

The first thing I noticed was the birds, huge black ones, crows most likely. Soaring, swooping, dodging and fighting each other mid-air; they seemed to be interacting with a man standing on the sidewalk. As I got closer, I could see he was throwing something to them. He would reach into a bucket and grab an object, then twist his body like a mousetrap spring and fling it into the air where a crow could catch it.

National Day Parade

National Day Parade

Overhead it was like watching World War II aerial dogfights as crows banked towards the flung objects and picked them out of the air. Just as I got underneath the swirl of birds and near the man, one crow lost grip of the thing it had caught and it tumbled out of the sky, plopping at my feet. It was a chicken head. Eyes frozen open, mouth agape, it looked like it had been severed just as it had uttered the last “AWK!” of its life. I then realized the man was feeding the crows chicken heads. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. Apparently, some of the chickens I saw being sold down the street ended up being slaughtered here, the heads collected and then the crows showed up for their morning aerial feeding. I was so overwhelmed by the spectacle I forgot to photograph it. I just stood there, mouth open like the severed bird head at my feet, and just watched it. It was like Alfred Hitchcock was doing a remake of his movie The Birds.

Chickens on a Bicycle

Chickens on a Bicycle

Now a year later, when I think of Kolkata, I first visualize Mother Teresa’s Tomb and then those flying chicken heads. I don’t know why. The sacred juxtaposed with the profane? I guess if I spent some time in expen$ive psychotherapy, I would discover the reason. However, I’d rather use the money to fund more trips overseas. I’m OK with being a slightly neurotic American with a camera, as long as I can still travel.

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Bangladesh Trip Part 3

Loaded Bus

Loaded Bus

Exhilaration and dread.  Those two emotions have always been what I felt when traveling by road in Asia, but this time it was more intense.

My two guides and I were blasting down a mountain road in a beat up old Toyota Land Cruiser on our way back to Ruma.  The road was barely wide enough for the Cruiser and in Third World style we were traveling fast, regardless of the conditions.  The driver was sounding the horn to alert anybody on the road that we were coming.  Loud Banladeshi music was playing from the driver’s MP3 device hotwired into an amplifier and speaker crammed into a hole in the dash.   The driver, his assistant and my two guides were talking and laughing loudly to be heard over over the road noise and music.  Trees, bushes and the occasional human or cow blurred the windows.  Dust plumed behind and followed us like smoke from a downed WWII fighter plane.  My mind flashed between the head rush of going that fast on a dirt road and the nightmare thoughts of going off the road and down a mountainside with no seat belts and rolling rolling rolling until we were just a bloody broken mass inside a crushed vehicle.  Several times the driver stomped hard on the breaks to avoid someone.  One time we rounded a corner to find a large people-filled lorry completely blocking the the road and speeding towards us.  The lorry cut to our left and we to our right, rolling up the embankment and skidding to a stop.  After some backing up, pulling over, and a few negotiations back and forth, we barely squeezed by sideview mirror-to-sideview mirror.  Despite all the drama, however, my fears never became reality, and we rolled into town without even so much as an additional scratch or dent on the already scratched and dented four-wheeler.

After unloading in Ruma, we said goodbye to the second guide.  He had been a lot of help speaking the languages of the hill tribe people we met in and near Boga Lake.

Our next leg on the way back to Chittagong was via a pickup truck.  We climbed in the bed and away we went  to catch a bus that would take us further down the hill.  Again, this was an adventure but not like the Cruiser ride, with the roads wider, paved and less crowded.  The only problem was the dust.  My handkerchief or shirt sleeve kept most of the dust out.  After another hour or so, we were at the bus stop.

Safely on the bus and moving sanely down the road, there were now no more worries for me, just sit back and watch the landscape and the people.  The big bus was loaded wall-to-wall with locals making their commute, probably to Chittagong, like me.  Everybody was chattering happily.  I had my camera bag in my lap, feet resting on my small backpack, curling me into a loose fetal position.  Then–to barrow a line from the movie Sin City–…and everything seemed to be going so well…“, I heard the front wheels lock up, the tires skidding with a sickening long squeal, then BANG! our bus hit a parked logging truck.  My face smacked the headrest in front of me and then snapped backwards.   I felt my face and expected to be injured but somehow I wasn’t.  I looked to my left to check on my guide.  His knees were banged up and bloody from striking the seatback in front of him, but otherwise he was ok.

He pulled me out of my seat and dragged me by the collar out of the bus, pushing the other shocked travelers aside.  At the exit door opening we crunched over the broken glass of the smashed door and windows.  Once outside my guide said “Fuck!  Fuck!  Fuck!  This makes Bangladesh look so bad!”  This was the only time I ever saw him lose his cool and under the circumstances I could understand why.  However, I didn’t see the accident as a Bangladesh thing.  So, in an attempt to console him I replied,  “Well, shit happens.”

Down by the River in Bandarban

Down by the River in Bandarban

After collecting ourselves, we caught the next bus coming down the hill.  No more accidents that day.  We made it back to Bandarban where a private car and driver awaited us.  To relax a little, we walked down to the river and I did some photography.  Then we walked to a monastery and paid a short visit there before heading to Chittagong.

The next day I was taken to the airport and had to say farewell to my guide.  He had been a great guy and I loved his company.  He was cheerful and very patient with me and my photography.  I learned a lot from him and had a great adventure.  Bangladesh is a impressive country and the people were pleasant, even after a bus crash.

One of my last photos in Bangladesh.  A monk with dust mop.

One of my last photos in Bangladesh. A monk with dust mop.

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Bangladesh Trip Part 2

On the road to Boga Lake

On the road to Boga Lake

I wrote in Part 1 that I go to places like Bangladesh for the photography.  This is only partially true.  I like seeing how other people live, hearing what their concerns are and observing their customs.  Think of me as an amateur cultural anthropologist with a camera.

 

The night before leaving on a hike to Boga Lake, we met up with the second interpreter-guide. He, like my first guide, was half my age and taller than me but didn’t speak English. Instead he spoke the languages and dialects of the people we were to meet on the hike and the Mru people who lived very secluded lives near where we were going. Round-faced and quiet, he was also Christian, the first I’d met since arriving in Bangladesh.

The morning of the hike, we ate at one of the little restaurants the locals liked. It was very simple and frequented by Muslims. The proprietor, a Muslim, was making flat bread when we walked in. The town we were in, Ruma, was mostly Islamic, though there was a Buddhist monastery there.

Of course, sitting in a place like that, I stuck out like a nudist in a nunnery. Soon, there was a man sitting near us having breakfast who got up the nerve to talk to me. The man repeated several times a word I couldn’t quite understand. Each time he spoke it he gave me the thumbs up. Finally, I realized he was saying “Obama.” He was Muslim and he was obviously trying to compliment my country’s president and me. With the few words of English he knew, he said that Obama was very good but with a thumbs down said Bush was very bad. I agreed, but for different reasons than his, I’m sure. The year before when I was in Havana, Cuba, it was obvious that Obama was a darling to them too. Obama plays well overseas, whereas George W Bush is generally hated. I don’t think Americans, especially the dimwits who watch Fox News, have any idea the damage GW Bush has had on American reputation overseas.  And to their further discredit, they don’t give a shit.

We were off hiking after breakfast and the little town was soon behind us. My guide said it should take about 4 – 5 hours to get to Boga Lake, where we would homestay for two nights. Before leaving for Bangladesh, I wasn’t aware I would be hiking 22 kilometers on this trip, so I hadn’t trained for it. My guides did the hike several times a month, and, combined with their youth, could do it without any trouble.  I struggled.

Man breaking bricks to make road

Man breaking bricks to make road

The terrain was hilly; the road dusty and would be a challenge for most any four-wheeler. The road was “paved” here and there with brick. I say “paved” because the road wasn’t built in the way I was used to. Apparently, Bangladesh doesn’t have readily available stone aggregate to use to build a roadbed. However, there is clay and this can be molded and fired to make brick. The bricks are manufactured, trucked to a remote area and dumped. Then a man or woman would sit on the brick pile with a hammer and break each brick into pieces that resemble stone aggregate.  This effort might take days. Once the pile of bricks was made into “aggregate”, many people with shovels and picks would dig the road, use the brick-rubble for fill and then place whole brick over the handmade aggregate to form the top surface. Extremely labor-intensive, I know, but there is lots of cheap hand labor available in Bangladesh.

Woman and child hiking to Boga Lake

Woman and child hiking to Boga Lake

About every hour or so during the hike, there was usually a little store-restaurant to be found alongside the road. We would stop and rest and have a bottled water or Coke. I’d haul out my camera and photograph. The little kids from the area heard there was a white person nearby and soon I would get a visit from them.

This young boy heard an American was passing through his village and had to come see for himself

This young boy heard an American was passing through his village and had to come see for himself

Again, like the breakfast topic of conversation, Obama would be mentioned by the locals also sitting there having a break. Thumbs up again for Obama. Bush was mentioned again. Thumbs down again for him but this time the thumbs up/down was coming from Hindus and Buddhists and Animists and Christians, not just Muslims.

It took six hours, but we got to the little village of Boga Lake. I was very tired, but I liked the challenge.  My two guides were patient and for the last mile or so up a steep slope carried my backpack.

The plan was to stay at the restaurant-house of the mayor. Well, he was sort of the mayor, I guess. He was the wealthiest man around at least. His place was a two-story building made of boards and the first floor was dirt. The front of the building, facing Boga Lake, was his restaurant with the kitchen in the rear. The second story was where we were to sleep. I had a separate room with a door that sort of locked and a window that didn’t. My bed was a bamboo mat and over it was a thin pad with blankets.  There was a mosquito net stretched above it all. The toilet was back down some steep stairs and out behind the kitchen–Asian toilet of course. I was in heaven.

Very young girl in red dress at Boga Lake Village

Very young girl in red dress at Boga Lake Village

We ate and met the mayor and his wife, the cook. After dinner we grabbed some soap, a change of clothing, and walked down to the lake. I’ve never washed in a lake or river before. Considering it was also the water supply for the village, it was a new experience to bathe in the water that I might drink. After cleaning and drying off, I had my guide fetch some local rice wine. Let me tell you, like the Mongolian vodka I’d had the year before, Bangladesh rice wine is strong enough to stun even the toughest drinkers.

The next day was another hike. This time was to visit a Mru village. They lived very near Myanmar and through the centuries migrated back and forth across the border. The religion of the people we visited were Animists, Animist-Buddhist or Christians. Their houses were on stilts. Here again we were invited to visit the mayor of the village. Again, I was the nudist in the nunnery.

Sitting on the floor of the mayor’s floor was where I had one of the more illuminating question and answer sessions in Bangladesh. How I would communicate was to ask in English my first guide my question. He would then ask the second guide the question in Bengali. The second guide would translate again into the local dialect. However, the Mru were more interested in hearing about me.

Me at the Mru Village

Me at the Mru Village

The big topic, one that I’d seen being discussed with great emotion on Bangladeshi TV a few days earlier, was concerning family size. The men of the village wanted to know if I was married and if so how many children I had. I said I was married and that I had no children. This news was bizzare to them. They told me they wanted many children. When I asked how many they wanted ideally, the answer was “twenty”. I was shocked. Twenty kids? It was no surprise that Bangladesh ranked 12th for population density among large countries.

Woman fetching water from Boga Lake

Woman fetching water from Boga Lake

On the hike back to Boga Lake, we stopped at a small inn for rest and bottled water.  There was a village man sitting there in his longyi, which in the USA would be called a skirt.  Men and women wear them in Bangladesh and Myanmar.  I was curious if the men wore underwear beneath their longyis.  So I asked the first guide who asked the second guide who asked the man.  He said that yes, he wore underwear.  Some men didn’t, however, and when they didn’t it was called “freestyle.”  I told my guide that in the USA when guys wear shorts or pants without underwear, it was called “going commando.”  He roared with laughter.  I have to admit that it is a funny expression.  I guess amateur anthropology can be amusing at times.

That night, my guide decided, wisely, that we couldn’t get back down to Ruma in time to meet the bus for Bandabon, so he talked his boss into arranging for a jeep to come get us. It arrived late that night.

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Bangladesh Trip, Part 1

After my face smacked the headrest in front of me, I sat in my bus seat and thought: “Wow. I survived.” Other than a little numbness in my upper lip, I felt fine. For several seconds all was silent in the bus. Everyone was stunned. Then came the crying, screaming and chaos. After struggling to get out, I found out that the bus I had been riding in with my guide had slammed into the back of a parked logging truck.

Bus Crash on the way out of the Hill Tracts

Bus Crash on the way out of the Hill Tracts

A week earlier, I had met my Bangladeshi guide in the Chittagong airport. Half my age, tall, thin and dark skinned he was happy to see me. After the customary introductions, I explained why I came to Bangladesh: foreign travel photography.

He was a Hindu of the Brahmin caste. I’d never traveled with a Hindu before and was glad to finally do so. He said the Hindus of Bangladesh were preparing for another celebration and so he took me to the area were there was an authentic god and goddess factory. This place was a good way to introduce me to Bangladesh.

The god factory was an area covering a few acres. Alongside narrow twisting roads only a few meters wide, and laid out like a rabbit had designed them, were dozens of little shops, each with at least one man who specialized in some aspect of making a god statue.

A god in the making

A god in the making

The process was pretty straightforward. To begin, someone would shape the rough form of a god with straw. Then another would mold clay around the straw to shape the torso, arms and legs. Someone else would make the face and head from a detailed mold. Another would carve details like eyes and fingernails. Then came painting the skin, face and eyes and mouth and tongue.  There was one man who tailored the clothing to order and dressed the statue. His was the last step before it was lifted into the rear of a truck and it went off to be used in a ceremony. Very elaborate the celebrations were I was told. And after all that effort making it, and being used as a god incarnate, the statue was finally tossed in a river.

Henna-dyed hair and beard

Henna-dyed hair and beard

Chittagong was not to be the focus of the trip, however. The bulk of the trip was to be spent in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, visiting the villages and villagers in that region east of the town of Chittagong. The plan was we would travel by car to Bonorupa, then Rangamati then to Rupa by public bus, homestaying or in hotels as required.   From Rupa we would hike to Boga Lake, stay a few days then return.

My guide informed me that there was a rumor the city would be disturbed by riots the day we were to depart. So he advised we leave very early to avoid trouble. Our first stop was Bonorupa.

Crossing a river by ferry

Crossing a river by ferry

The early morning drive to Bonorupa was uneventful. There were no burning cars or angry people. We arrived in the afternoon after a few stops here and there. Then we went on to Rangamati. It was here I saw something amazing and also troubling. My guide and I went to the Rajbana Vihar Buddhist monastery. After the usual tour around to see a shrine I was invited to view the mummified corpse of the Venerable Banabhante. A young monk, who was very enthusiastic about Banabhante, explained that this man had attained arahantship. He was one who had attained perfection, nirvana and then died.

Monks at Rajbana Vihar

Monks at Rajbana Vihar

As the monk lead me into the shrine area where Banabhante’s mummy lay, I was at first struck by the odor of the embalming compounds. To me it smelled like “moth balls” that my grandparents used in their closets to repel insects.

We walked up to the mummy. It was incased in a clear plastic or glass coffin. Standing only inches away from Banabhante’s bare feet it was explained to me with great reverence what a great man he had been. I looked down and saw that several Buddhist novices were kneeling and were praying. This I didn’t understand. What little I know about Buddhism, if the man had achieved Enlightenment he had left Samsara (the endless cycle of birth-suffering-age-sickness-death-rebirth) and was no longer part of this universe. If this is true, there is no Banabhante to hear their prayers. Why do this? My impression of Buddhism up to this point was that aside from a few superstitions, it was free of anything I’d call bizarre. This monastery keeping a mummy around to pray to was something I couldn’t wrap my head around. My Bangladeshi guide, a Hindu, didn’t understand it either.

The next day we went to Ruma and here, again at a Buddhist monastery, I had yet another amazing and troubling experience.

My guide had told me about this little Buddhist monastery that we would visit. It had a dormitory and was very modest compared to others I’d visited. The abbot there was a young man who, in addition to teaching the dhamma to the locals, also told fortunes. To me, fortune telling is grouped with snake oil salesmen and just about everything Andy Warhol ever did.

This man was on our bus going to Ruma.  I have to say I admire the henna-dyed hair.

This man was on our bus going to Ruma. I have to say I admire the henna-dyed hair.

Anyway, we met the abbot and after a question and answer session (I always like to ask about whether or not abortion in immoral to a Buddhist.), the abbot asked if I wanted my fortune told. I said “sure” and after answering the abbot’s few questions (What day of the week was I born and what was my birthdate?) he began to mutter to himself and as if he were reciting chants under his breath. Soon he began to tell my guide a few things about me I know I’d never told my guide. The abbot was able to state accurately that I had gone through some tough times, how long the period lasted and when it was. When I heard the fortune, I had to stop and think and remember it all over again to verify. I was shocked. Maybe there is something to fortune telling after all. However, my opinion of Warhol remains unchanged.

Woman making rice cakes.  Face is covered with Thanaka.

Woman making rice cakes. Face is covered with Thanaka.

That evening we had dinner at a woman’s house. She was preparing rice cakes and feeding us. She was unusual in that her face was covered with thanaka, a white paste first saw used in Burma. I would see more thanaka faces in the coming days.

The next day we started our hike to Boga Lake.

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Doing Night Photography in Nepal

Going to someplace like Nepal is very enjoyable.  There are lots of things to see and do, and the things to see and do don’t stop at sundown.  For me, just looking up at the night sky and photographing it is at least as rewarding as, say, visiting a Buddhist monastery or witnessing a festival dance.

In the industrialized world, light pollution is everywhere.  I’ve grown up with it.  When I get away from cities and look up at night, the stars and nebulae are staggering in their brightness, clarity and presence.  With a digital SLR camera, a lens and a tripod I can photograph the sky and show people back home what they are missing.

On this trip to Nepal, I made some photos that I thought were very impressive and shows what I mean.  I also added a little illumination to the scenes to make the effect even more surreal.

For a most of the trip, I stayed in a tent which gave me a great opportunity to simply roll outside and photograph.  This first photo was taken in an apple orchard.  It is just a simple sky shot but with trees in the foreground and the hills beyond setting the bottom of the frame.

Night Photo in an Apple Orchard, Nepal

Night Photo in an Apple Orchard, Nepal. Made with a Canon 60D DSLR, using ISO 12,800, Canon 15mm f2.8 lens set at f2.8, 7 second exposure

I spent a lot of time experimenting with ISO to get this photo.  Higher ISO (6400 and above) on my camera creates a lot of sensor noise.  Sensor noise is little spots of color on monochrome areas of the image that are not truly there but instead are superimposed by the limitations of the sensor.  So I usually start with as high an ISO as the camera will do, make the photo and look for noise, and if there is too much, adjust down the ISO and make another photo.  The photo above was shot with an ISO of 12,800 and has quite a bit of noise.  It is ok, especially if you like Impressionist  technique called pointillism.

Later in the trip, and higher in altitude than the apple orchard, I was again living in a tent.  This particular night, one of the other travelers was experiencing altitude sickness.  We were at 13,000 feet so it was understandable.  The trip leaders called for a jeep to take her down to a town that was about 1000 feet lower in elevation.  I mention this because the jeep helped make a cool night photo.

Night Photo of Buddhist Monuments with Jeep Illumination

Night Photo of Buddhist Monuments with Jeep Illumination. Canon 60D DSLR, Canon 8-15mm f4 lens set at f4 and 11mm, 30 second exposure, ISO 3200

 

I set up again just outside my tent to photograph the sky.  I started with high ISO (12,800) and worked down.  I found that ISO 3200 worked best, giving acceptable amounts of noise and a short enough shutter speed (30 seconds) to prevent noticeable star trails.

I could first hear the jeep coming for the sick woman.  Then the headlights lit up the hills and trails.  For several minutes it made its way up to us and I kept photographing.  Finally, it was at the edge of the village we were in and it followed the road that led between these two pyramid-shaped Buddhist monuments I was photographing.  As the jeep made the final turn towards me, I opened the shutter.  I thought to myself, “The jeep will either destroy the photo or make one hell of a great one.”  As it turned out the jeep’s movement, headlights and taillights worked beautifully create an image that was beautifully illuminated and surrealist.  I was using a Canon 8-15mm zoom Fisheye lens that really distorts things and this added even more of an “otherworldly” feel.

This last photo was taken in the town of LoMonthang.  There were two Buddhist chorten monuments there and incongruously a wrecked blue truck dumped near them.  Again I set up on a tripod with ISO 3200 and 30 second exposure and my zoom Fisheye lens.  This time, however, I had two others to help me illuminate the scene.  Each had a flashlight and once the shutter was opened I directed them to pass the light for a few seconds over the chortens and truck.  This technique of “painting” the foreground I learned from National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson.

Blue Truck with Chortens, LoMonthang.  Canon 60D DSLR, 8-15mm f4 lens set at f4 and 10mm, 30 second exposure and ISO 3200

Blue Truck with Chortens, LoMonthang.
Canon 60D DSLR, 8-15mm f4 lens set at f4 and 10mm, 30 second exposure and ISO 3200

With a few trial exposures, I finally got the photo I was looking for.  It had just enough light from the flashlights, starlight above and dramatic clouds ringing the stars.  The blue truck, even brand new, never looked so good.

Night photography I truly love.  Usually I am alone and this allows me to think and experiment without feeling rushed.  In some cases when I need assistants to illuminate, I can get better photos and they get to join in the fun in creating something truly amazing that you can’t get in light polluted areas back home.

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Mt Kilimanjaro

My cheapo Casio watch said it was about 4am. The battery was so cold and weak the liquid crystal display was barely visible. We were already four hours into our summit assault on Mt. Kilimanjaro and we still had at least four hours to go.

In the group of about a dozen I was climbing with there were Kenyans, Tanzanians and Americans. We had met only a week before and were part of an Outward Bound East Africa expedition to Gilman’s Point at an altitude of 18,760 feet on Kilimanjaro.

Me on Gilman's Point

Me on Gilman’s Point

Someone said that Outward Bound was “Club Med for the Masochist” and that certainly was a good characterization. At the main camp every day we got up early, exercised, jogged, ran an obstacle course, hiked. The food for the climb was nothing special and whatever we had bought at the street market in Loitokitok, Kenya. We didn’t have porters carrying everything up the mountainside for us as we lugged a large portion of the camp ourselves. Our water was what we found in the runoff from the glaciers, and that turned out to not be much; for the summit day I had about two quarts of water left. Outward Bound prides itself on being tough on its students.

We were told the final climb would be through eight or more hours of loose scree. Scree to experienced mountain climbers means “hell.” The problem with scree is it consists of little rocks that slide under foot. You lift your leg and plant it uphill. Then lean forward and pull up. The scree breaks loose and the climbing leg slides down about half to two-thirds the distance you had hoped that footstep would take you. So a climb of 3000 vertical feet actually becomes in affect a climb of 4500 to 6000 feet. Imagine every time you typed three letters you had to delete two. Scree is frustrating at first, and after hours of it, it becomes a grind.

We stopped for rest about every hour, and along about the 5am stop, it was getting exceptionally dark. I know, it is dark at midnight too, but for some reason, in the few hours just before sunrise it seems as though the sky is hopeless, like there will never be another sunrise and the air temperature is as low as it is going to get. The night sky, though, was stunning. The stars at that altitude are sharp points of light as no atmospheric shimmer is noticeable. The summit of Kilimanjaro is south of the equator and so the wealth of stars and nebulae there is something few people from the northern hemisphere ever see. At that altitude and latitude, the Magellanic Clouds and Southern Cross are easily visible. The Magellanic Clouds are actually irregularly-shaped galaxies, filled with millions of stars, and these orbit our galaxy, the Milky Way. Sitting there resting, I wondered why it took Magellan to discover and name them? The star formations of the zodiac were known and named millennia before Magellan, and surely some proto-astronomer must have visited this hemisphere and wondered about these objects. Why were they not named and given a mythology?

Me and the Gang.  I'm the only one standing

Me and the Gang. I’m the only one standing

If the stars were majestic, the dark monster we were climbing was even more so, but in an entirely different way. Kilimanjaro looked like a huge black hole stretched from below us and into the sky. There was no moonlight and we were hundreds of miles from any city, so there was nothing to light the mountainside. The thin air was windless and when no one spoke or moved there was no sound. The scree and the mountain acted like an enormous sound and light sponge absorbing any energy that might reflect. Sitting between the stars and the black soundless hulk of the mountain gave me this eerie feeling of being between two universes, one of light and substance, the other an oppressive void.

Hours and hours of climbing through the damn scree brought us higher and finally there was a sunrise. On or near the equator, sunrises happen very quickly. It seems as if suddenly it is light. Even so, with the sunrise and the advancing day, the summit wasn’t visible. Funny how when from a hundred miles away, I could see the glaciated top of Kilimanjaro. However, just a thousand, or perhaps several hundred vertical feet from the top, the summit wasn’t to be seen. The day’s objective was hidden by its proximity and the mountain geometry.

As the morning sun began to heat the mountain, a slight wind picked up. One of the sayings in mountain climbing is “speed is safety”. It is an imperative in climbing that you need to get up quickly and get down quickly. The reason is a big mountain like this creates its own weather. When the sun’s heat begins to spread across the rocks and sand and glaciers of a mountain, it lifts into the air and can soon turn a calm, peaceful day into its exact opposite. Today, though, the wind stayed down and the sky was clear.

At about 8:30am, my group made the summit. Only a few feet from the rocks that reside there and mark the definition of the mountain’s altitude, we could see those who made the climb before us. They sat on the rocks or stumbled around them taking in the view, looking down at us waving a welcome. Summitting a great mountain like this was emotional for all. Most either wept or laughed.

After taking the obligatory group picture and one of me holding the yellow “Gilman’s Point, 18760 ft” sign, I took a couple minutes to admire the view. The glaciers of Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro were on the opposite side of the volcanic crater rim. There the bluish-white glaciers, massifs and other formations appeared huge, but I couldn’t tell how so as there were no visual cues for scale or distance. The other side of crater could have been 1000 or 5000 feet away. The glaciers could, have been the size of a house or a football stadium. The bare rocks and scree were gray-brown. To the north was the border with Kenya and south there was more of Tanzania and everything on the continent of Africa was below.

Standing on the summit, two things came to mind. First, at 18,000 feet I was above half the Earth’s air. The effect on me was the continuous malaise in my head from the low oxygen and I can best describe the feeling as the one you get just before coming down with the flu. It was a dull feeling, an ache in the head. My heart rate also was continuously elevated, even when sitting still. Standing up quickly was a very bad idea as it gave almost instantaneous dizziness.

The second thought I had was when I looked straight up into the very pale sky. It occurred to me that the top of Mt Everest is almost two miles higher. It is so high that the peak cuts into the jet stream, a weather phenomena that wasn’t discovered until high-altitude bombers of WWII flew through them. There are people who actually climb that high. It’s so high these people take oxygen and some superhumans summit without oxygen. When people die up there sometimes the bodies aren’t recovered and are left to become mummified cairns for later climbers. Two miles higher than me and I’ll bet to them what I just did wouldn’t feel like a warm up. I gained tremendous respect for those who could climb a rock like Mt Everest.

Years of dreaming about that day, months planning it, weeks getting there and I only spent about 20 minutes on Gilman’s Point. In this way I was a like other mountain climbers: no one goes there to stay and most not for long. Five hours later I was at a camp at 13,000 feet drinking a full canteen of glacier water.

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Listening for Birdsong at The Killing Fields

Skulls at Memorial Stupa

Skulls at Memorial Stupa

One by one, the other tourists and I stepped off of the bus and walked the hundred or so yards to the memorial stupa at Choeung Ek.  Though a modern building, its design was traditional Khmer architecture in appearance with a spire rising high above it like a lightning rod.

It had twin entrance doors, two stories high and very narrow. As we approached, our Cambodian guide, a woman who lost all relatives to the Killing Fields, explained what we would see when entering.

Memorial Stupa at Choeung Ek

Memorial Stupa at Choeung Ek

I walked to the doors.  A very small thin man with dark skin and eyes, quietly opened the doors and stepped aside allowing me to enter. There just a few feet inside were layered horizontal platforms and on each were hundreds and hundreds of human skulls, packed and stacked like rocks at a quarry. There were no femurs or lower jaws or tibias or other bones. Just skulls.

Inside the Stupa Doors

Inside the Stupa Doors

A little space was between the platforms and the outer walls. So I had to walk carefully so as to not bump into the wall or touch a pale skull, each with empty eyesockets staring at me. There was no rush for us to look and leave. We could stand and try to absorb the scale of the murders. I am pretty analytical and sometimes it seems as though I analyze things coldly so I don’t have to face emotions like fear and horror. I looked closely at a few skulls nearest me. There on many, at the rear of the head, was the evidence of what killed each person. Most had a large cut through the bone or a significant area of the cranium missing. After a few moments to look and analyze, I took my first photos.

The conversation that brought me here in 2006 occurred in 1978. I was an airman in the US Air Force at RAF Lakenheath, UK. It was swing shift and being bored with nothing to do, I was playing darts in the shop where I worked. My opponent was a tall black sergeant who had served in Viet Nam during that war. As the match progressed he described to me how people from different countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam) looked, the color of the skin being the tell; Cambodians were the darkest. Rumors of atrocities in Cambodia at the hands of the Communist Khmer Rouge were being heard more and more often and this was the reason he began to talk about this region, its people and the war. It was a simple conversation, really, like the darts, just to pass the time, but it stuck in my mind. When he was done talking and due to the rumors and news of the mass murders, I was hooked. I wanted to see this place.

img319After a period of silently walking around inside the stupa of skulls, we were directed to move outside and behind the memorial. The ground there was dry with little vegetation and pock marked with craters. It was from these depressions the skulls we saw in the stupa were found, dug up and then placed on those platforms. The people doing the excavation in this area found 86 mass graves and 8985 victims. We were then told that this place, infamously called The Killing Fields, was one of many, many killing fields throughout the country. Millions of people had died, being murdered by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 just after the Cambodian Civil War.

There were two things that disturbed me most at Choeung Ek. The stupa skulls didn’t bother me. I don’t know why, maybe because it was peaceful inside there, those skulls stacked quietly. What troubled me most was to walk around the craters outside where the skulls were found and to be near one particular tree.

Bones and Clothing and Dirt

Bones and Clothing and Dirt

The craters weren’t just holes in dirt. The craters were holes in remains, human remains. As was pointed out to us, if we looked down at our feet, the dirt at the crater edge was filled with bone shards and the remnants of the clothing of the dead, a kind of aggregate of death. Some effort had been used to cover the deceased with dirt, but there were so many bodies, the mass of the remains must have been greater than the dirt covering them. Over the decades rain erosion caused dirt to wash away exposing pale white bone and the mostly dark gray clothing of those who died there. To walk around those excavation craters was to tread on the very remains of the victims.

Killing Tree

Killing Tree

Next thing to distress me was a tree. It was an ordinary-looking tree, massive and tall but with a gruesome and brutal history. The Khmer Rouge, in its ardor for communist purity, wrecked the economy. Simple things like bullets for guns were scarce. So people when people were brought here to be killed, they were clubbed to death and not shot. Or I should say the adults and older children were clubbed to death and not shot. Young children and infants were executed differently. Small children, small enough that a man could easily handle one, was grabbed by the legs and swung like a cricket bat and the head smashed against the trunk of this one tree. The dead child was then discarded into a hole. That tree eventually would be named “Killing Tree.”

On the way to SE Asia I read Edward A. Gargan’s book The River’s Tale a Year on the Mekong to prepare for the trip. Among the many places he visited was Choeung Ek. When he saw the stupa he wrote something that, like the conversation back in 1978, put a hook in me, like a tune you hear and can’t get out of your mind. He thought about the people who had been brutalized and then marched there and what was on their minds. He wrote, “I wondered: As they stood waiting for death, did they hear the birds sing?”

As I walked around I thought about what Gargan wrote and I listened for sound. No birds sang. All I could hear was the ground where the bones and clothing of the dead lay crunching beneath my feet and the wind blowing through the Killing Tree.

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The Mustang Kingdom Trip, Part 2

My Nepali Horse Oh-La and Grand Nepal

My Nepali Horse Oh-La and Grand Nepal

I could hear my horse’s hooves below making a pleasing clip-clop-clip-clop and his neckbell staying in time with a musical ding-ding-ding-ding. The dry high altitude air of Nepal was on my face causing the scarf covering my nose and mouth to flap. The horse’s movements I felt through the saddle. With my eyes closed, these were the only sensations I had.

Then I opened my eyes.   The Himalayas rose above on both sides of the riverbed the horse and I were paralleling. Mountains exceeding 20,000 feet, topped with glaciers and snow, were visible everywhere with an azure hemisphere sky above. In front and behind me on the trail were my traveling companions riding calmly on their horses, each taking in the awesome vastness of Nepal. We were riding the pilgrim trail to Lo Monthang, in the Mustang Kingdom, to witness there the annual Tiji Festival.

Overlaid upon these sights and sounds were my thoughts, which were how this horse trek contrasted with the one the year previous in Mongolia. I had been on the trail a few days before I began to realize that Nepal and Mongolia were opposites. The terrain, horses, houses and traveling couldn’t be any more different.

Mongolian Horses and Nomad

Mongolian Horses and Nomad

Since I’m an animal-lover, in both countries it was the horseback riding I remember the most fondly. The Mongolian horse trek required lots of preparation. First of all, I was encouraged to take riding lessons before arriving, which I did. Then once in-country and at our base camp, it was then necessary to listen to a safety lecture before approaching the horses. Mongol horses I was told are half-wild, prone to kicking, biting, or bolting into a gallop with no warning. They were dangerous to the unwary, like riding a live hand grenade with fur and hooves and one hell of an attitude. When walking, trotting, cantering or galloping, these horses did so with their heads high. They were intense, proud animals bred for attack.

Me on Oh-La my horse in Nepal.  Photo by Mindi Counts

Me on Oh-La my horse in Nepal. Photo by Mindi Counts

Oh-La, my Nepali horse (Mongolians don’t name their horses so I named mine Spencer), however, was calm, always calm. No safety briefing required. Just get on him, take the reins and ride. He didn’t gallop or canter or trot but would walk and walk and walk all day without complaint. Once at a destination, and I was off his back, his head would droop, then his eyelids, and he would doze. His bearing was like that of a Buddhist monk. On the trail he moved with his head down studying the terrain ahead and under his hooves.

If he were human, I can imagine Oh-La reciting Buddhist sutras and serenely contemplating their meaning. Spencer the Mongol, however, would have played Grand Theft Auto video games and watched Fast & Furious movies.

Nepal Village

Nepal Village

On the trail and passing through villages I noted that buildings in Nepal were completely different from Mongolia’s. A typical Nepali structure was made of mud brick and sometimes rounded river stones and roofed with dirt and wood. The floor plan was irregular. They were stationary dwellings for a people who were born, lived and died in one place.

Mongolia’s nomadic encampments by definition were not stationary. The Mongolian nomad world was of change and movement and attention to the seasons and their homes reflected this.

Mongolian Nomad Ger

Mongolian Nomad Ger

Their gers were disassembled, transported and re-assembled four times a year. Constructed of wooden poles they were arranged in a bicycle-spoke pattern covered in thick felt and over that a heavy white cloth. The apex was left open to the sky. They resembled a white Native American teepee but squat to the ground.

Cliffs and Caves in Nepal

Cliffs and Caves in Nepal

The terrain in Nepal was rocky and dusty and without much greenery. This surprised me, these hues of brown and red, the rugged cliffs pockmarked with caves, the white-capped mountains. I guess I had in mind the rich colors and topography of the Swiss Alps. Everywhere the evidence of glaciers was apparent in the way the cliffs formed, the mountains cleaved and riverbeds formed.

The Mongolian landscape, conversely, was mostly rolling hills, some high rocky mountains but mostly flat plain, thinly covered in brown or gray-green grass. This area had been mountainous hundreds of millions of years before the Himalayas were formed but had been subdued by the force of time and the work of the elements. Mongolia’s flat plains seemed to me to be made for the horse and for the horse to gallop and gallop hard all day long. Aside from the occasional ankle-twisting marmot hole, the surface wasn’t hazardous to hikers, horses, riders, or tour buses, kind of like millions of square miles of Astroturf.

Getting around Nepal was a challenge. Our flight to Jomsom, our starting point where our horses and Sherpas waited, required risky mountain flying—low and fast through mountain passes. Sitting behind the cockpit and observing what the pilots saw and did, I could see that we were potentially seconds and a few hundred feet away from smashing into a mountainside. For the flightcrew, there was no sitting back, flipping on the flight director and letting the plane do the thinking and flying. The pilots were on full alert and hand flying it from takeoff to touchdown.

On the trail with our horses, the elevations we climbed were dramatic: up the trail hundreds of feet vertically with Oh-La lugging my fat American ass without grievance and then off him to scramble on foot downhill or alongside cliffs. While hiking I had to be totally absorbed on the trail condition. The dirt, gravel and rocks being the surface that would either hold me to the Earth or cause me to stumble off a cliff. Oh-La taught me never take your eyes off the trail while moving.

River Valley in Mongolia

River Valley in Mongolia

Mongolia was easier to travel in at least one respect. There large areas were crossed by bus. However, the greatest challenge was the horseback riding, which we did for adventure and to get from camp to camp. Being astride a Mongolian horse morphed us travelers into aggressive beasts ourselves. Many times I enjoyed the exhilaration of galloping across the wide expanses, behaving not as mere travelers but as conquerors.

After several days of hiking and horsebacking, sleeping in chilly tents under crystalline dark skies we arrived in Lo Monthang for the annual Tiji Festival. The town was windy and dusty as all the others were but active with Festival preparations. From Jomsom, the elevation had increased from 9,000 to almost 13,000 feet, and with the change, the air got drier and cooler. Dust had penetrated my clothing, skin, sinuses and lungs and I already had a good start on chest congestion that would take a month or more to cure.

While traveling, Nepal engulfed and surrounded and towered over my fellow travelers and me and we relished it. The landscape was potent, sharp, harsh, and breathtaking. Moreover, at least I think in my case having the experience of Mongolia the year before, made this trek even more special, more vivid.

Horses in Nepal

Horses in Nepal

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