Choosing the best food photo was most difficult, with photos of dead snakes, live rodents, cow brains, pig heads and fried cockroaches to choose from. We ate some marvelous food (Thailand having my favorite)--but I would not have eaten a lot of that delicious food without first choking down this meal. This meal was in Cairo, very early in our trip. I had always known in my mind that I would have to cease to be a picky eater on this trip, but this is the moment when I finally accepted the reality of it. Here, I am eating a meal I could not pronounce, ordered from a menu I could not read, brought by a waiter who could not speak English. I sampled all of the items, and none of them tasted like anything I had ever eaten before--and I don't mean that as a compliment. The last straw occurred when a cockroach sprinted down the wall to my right, onto the table, and toward my plate. Needing to act quickly before the determined beast reached his destination, I grabbed a piece of pita and crushed the cockroach, perhaps irrevocably damaging my karma, but at least stopping the would-be free-loader from eating my food. (The deadly pita slice is pictured on the table, next to the wall and my water bottle.) Then I calmly continued eating, considerately waiting until after Shane finished his meal before telling him of my victory over the bug. Since that day, I ate in far shadier places, killed many more cockroaches, and even ate food from a street vendor with a pet rat, but never again did I feel the repulsion that I overcame at this meal. Another thing to understand about my unsettled state at the time of this photo is that I was, for the first time in my life, adjusting to life in a Muslim country while being self-conscious of being an American--especially as the Iraq war was underway. For instance, late one night, we heard angry Arabic shouting coming from a megaphone just outside our hotel room. Simultaneously, Shane and I turned to each other and wondered aloud if the speaker was shouting: "The infidels are in room B-15. Get them now!"
To overseas travelers, toilets can be a cultural experience in themselves. I have plenty of photos of the worst hole-in-the-ground toilets you've ever seen, but I chose to spare you those. I also narrowly decided not to put include the photo of a crazy phenomenon in Bangkok malls: female cleaners are continually posted in the men's toilet. The women stand posted by the sink, wearing facemasks, staring at the urinals. None of the women fainted while I did my business at the urinal, but at least none of them laughed. Singapore is a city that may take cleanliness a bit too far--I once had to go to three restrooms before finding one that wasn't closed for cleaning. In Vietnam and Cambodia, there is no need to bother searching for a restroom, men are content simply to pee in public. And in Egypt, we came across the pictured restroom. Yes, that is a palm tree growing in there. And yes, the bathroom has no ceiling. Interestingly, there was a multi-story apartment building next-door, with windows looking directly into the restroom. I guess there's just no privacy in the desert.
I received the most comments about the story of me watching the Colts play the Chiefs in Bali. I'll reprint that below, but first this photo brings to mind another point. Almost everywhere we went in Asia, the West, and America in particular, is a major focal point. We heard American music everywhere. Evidence of American movies, television and culture could be found in almost every city we visited. Almost everywhere, it seemed, people were curious about America and eager to talk about it. I was asked over a dozen times how someone could get an American visa. The following exchange with an Indonesian woman was typical: I asked, "Have you ever been to America?" She responded, "Only in my dreams." And perhaps this fascination with America helps explain the reaction I received in the pictured bar.
Here is the story behind this photo. On our first night in Bali, I left our hotel at 2:30 a.m., searching for an all-night bar which would show the Colts' playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs (airing between 3:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., local time). Finally I located this disco/bar which had an unwatched satellite television in a far corner. I got the bartender to switch to the game, ordered some orange juice (I swear) and hunkered down to watch the game. But there was a problem. People kept approaching me, striking up conversations, trying to give me back-rubs, pulling at my shirt, tousling my hair, trying to sit in my lap, trying to get me to follow them to the dance floor or heaven knows where else, etc. Saying "no" seemed to only encourage the crowds of clearly drunk Balinese men and women (and some women whom I suspect were really men). It was like a ship-load of Balinese sailors had just docked and I was the only eligible bachelor on the island. I don't really understand why I got this hyper-aggressive treatment--it was as if, for one night, I had been transformed into Brad Pitt. Anyway, after fighting off scores of "admirers" through the first quarter of the game, I realized I would not be able to stand the situation as it was. Yet, I had been searching all over town and I didn't think my prospects of finding another place open until 6:30 a.m. with satellite television was very good. So like the Colts, I decided to take the offensive. I called my three most persistent "admirers" over to me, and I explained the importance of this game, using terms they would understand. I told them that this was my "Galungan festival" (the name of Bali's biggest religious festival), and the people in the blue uniforms were like the good "barongs" (Bali's name for gods) fighting the evil people in the red uniforms. Then (and this is when I really got their attention), I offered to pay them to be my bodyguards for the next two and a half hours. Their job was to make sure everyone left me alone for the entire football game. For this service, I offered them the equivalent of $3 U.S. each. Well, by the way they screamed with elation at this figure, I probably overpaid. But I felt like I received a bargain for the amount of effort they expended. They formed a protective ring around my area of the bar, and I wasn't bothered for the remainder of the game. The lady (I think) on my right actually stopped the bartender from coming over to me. She also located a small fan to put on me when I made a comment about the smokey haze in the poorly-ventilated bar. After a while, they became involved in the game, squealing with delight when the Colts scored and cursing in disgust when the Chiefs scored. (Actually, I don't think they watched the television so much as mimicked my reactions.) Finally, the Colts emerged victorious, and I was so happy, I bought my each of my bodyguards a drink as a bonus for their hard work. By this point, Shane appeared--he slept back at the hotel during most of the Colts game--in order to watch the next football playoff game, featuring his favorite team, the Philadelphia Eagles (who also won). As for my loyal bodyguards (pictured, with Shane and the drinks I bought them), I never saw them again, but I can honestly say I will always remember their names. Why? Because all three have the same name: Wayan. That's because they were all the first-born children in their family. The Balinese have only four names that they recycle over and over, based on the birth order of the child. The first born is always named "Wayan," the second born is "Madi," the third born is "Nyoman," and the fourth born is "Ketut." When naming children, it doesn't matter if the child is a boy or a girl, it only matters what the birth order is. If a fifth child is born, the cycle starts over and he/she is named "Wayan," but generally a nickname will be used to avoid confusion. Before I heard this system described to me, I had noted the number of business signs that had the name "Wayan" on them, such as, "Wayan's Internet," "Wayan's Massage Parlor," "Wayan's Bar," etc. I was beginning to think this Wayan fellow owned half the island!
Most powerful cultural experience: The Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, Cambodia. It's difficult to imagine that between two and three million people--one-third of Cambodia's population--were killed in the span of just four years--1975-1979. When the American army withdrew from Cambodia in 1975, it freed the way for Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge to storm the country and embark on his maniacal plan of killing everyone with any education and transfoming the nation into a rural collective run by brain-washed children. I'll not soon forget the how the Khmer Rouge transformed a former school's exercise equipment into implements of torture, and the photographs of the faces (pictured) of thousands of innocent men, women and children who were executed.
Most powerful cultural experience # 2: visiting Robbin Island and touring Soweto, South Africa. This photo of the South African flag and Table Mountain towering over downtown Cape Town, was taken from the ferry to Robbin Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for over 20 years. The tour of the prison is made more powerful by the fact that the guides are all former political prisoners. Although South Africa's apartheid laws were abolished over a decade ago, their effect on the country continues. Under apartheid, while blacks and "coloureds" (mixed race) comprised over 80% of the population, they were forbidden to live on more than 8% of the land. Now, the living conditions for many blacks have yet improve--"soccer families" (referring to the fact that the families have enough members to field their own soccer team) still live in tiny houses in former townships (Soweto being the most famous one), often lacking electricity and running water. And yet for other South Africans, there exists great prosperity and the most modern of amenities. For black and white alike, the threat of crime still hangs over the country like the clouds which so often gather above Table Mountain. One interesting result of the crime problem: everytime we parked our rental car in Cape Town, someone (not police, but self-employed "entrepreneurs") would approach us and ask for payment for guarding the car. We always paid, and nothing every happened to our car. If we had not paid? Then, according to locals, it was a near certainty our car would be vandalized or stolen--by the very same "entrepreneurs"!
This is one of my favorite photos. And it was a mistake. It looks to me like the middle Buddha-face is in focus, while everything around it is swirling out-of-focus. This certainly wasn't intentional, and if I wasn't looking at it, I wouldn't even think it is possible without some kind of trick photo-shopping. Better yet, the fortuitous mistake makes an excellent point. Daily life in Asia is often noisy and hectic. Now that I'm back in the States, I'm amazed at how quiet and orderly the roads, sidewalks, shops, and other public areas are compared to those in Asian cities. So maybe it's out of necessity that daily prayer and meditation seems to be more a way of life for Asians (whether Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Muslim) than for Americans. In a very real way, religion forms the calm center in an otherwise harried existence. And if anything, religion plays an even more prominent role in daily life in the Middle East. In Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (as well as the other Muslim countries we visited, Malaysia and Indonesia), every mosque is equipped with loudspeakers from which prayers and chanting are blasted five times a day (including the middle of the night). Interestingly, during the daily prayer times, the overwhelming activity of the cities did not diminish to any perceptable degree: the cars still raced with horns tooting, the venders still called out for attention, the cafe dwellers still played backgammon, sipped tea and smoked their water pipes. But during the prayer times, we also saw hundreds of men (never women), organized in long lines, bowing repeatedly in the direction of Mecca. The commitment required by these prayers became graphically clear when we learned the cause of the black or dark grey marks on so many men's foreheads: they are callouses caused by a lifetime of repeatedly pounding their heads to the ground five times each day. Luckily for us, the attitude of most Egyptians and Muslims in other countries wasn't hostile toward us; it was summed up by one fellow as follows: "I hate the American government; but I love Americans!" And Christianity is at least tolerated: I attended a Sunday service in a thriving Christian church in the heart of Muslim Indonesia. (Of course, had I gone searching for a synagogue, it might have been a different story.) By the way, on the subject of the mosque loudspeakers, I read an English-language translation of a Cairo daily newspaper, the Egyptian Gazette. In a front-page article, I learned the content of at least some of the words broadcast throughout Cairo on the mosque loudspeakers during non-prayer times. According to the front-page article, there is a city-wide "loudspeaker matchmaking service," whereby the father of a "potential bride" (or her brother or the woman herself) "presents an application" to the preacher, giving "her qualifications." The preacher then announces the woman's availability and qualifications to as many of city's 20 million inhabitants as possible, whereupon "potential husbands" can respond with "their details, including their financial status." After all, the article stated, "research shows that matchmaking in the mosques is nearly always successful." And if a future bride's parents choose to take advantage of this matchmaking service, not only will they be "suitably rewarded by God," but "it means they're good people, not the kind who would let the daughter 'go fishing' for a husband on her own." But not all Egyptians use this service. We met an Egyptian named Said, who told us he was in the market for an American bride, and he had been spending quite some time on internet dating chat-lines. He had narrowed his choices down to two: a woman in Texas and one in Georgia, both of whom were divorced and over ten years older than him: "Age means nothing to me," he announced. He asked us all sorts of questions, such as: "Would someone in Georgia who works in 'customer service' be considered rich?" "How tall is five feet, four inches?" (Egypt is on the metric system.) "Is 180 pounds heavy?" "Is there a large Muslim community in Amarillo, Texas?
My 20 favorite sights: 1. McKinnon Pass view, New Zealand (during the Milford Track, see photo later in this album); 2. Pyramids and Sphinx, Egypt (pictured, built an astonishing 45 centuries ago--prompting the proverb, "Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids"); 3. Angkor Wat, Cambodia; 4. Sydney Harbour, Australia.
My favorite sights, continued: 5. Great Wall of China (pictured); 6. Victoria Falls, Zambia; 7. Grand Palace, Thailand; 8. Cape Town view from atop Table Mountain, South Africa; 9. Hong Kong Skyline at Night, China.
My favorite sights, continued: 10. Temples of Abu Simbel and Luxor, Egypt (pictured); 11. Terra Cotta Warriors, China; 12. Halong Bay, Vietnam; 13. Terraced Rice Fields, Bali and Sri Lanka; 14. Burj Al-Arab Hotel, Dubai.
My favorite sights, concluded: 15. Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Sri Lanka; 16. Edinburgh Castle, Scotland; 17. Li River karst formations, China; 18. sunrise atop Mount Sinai, Egypt; 19. Roman Baths, England; 20. Stonehenge, England (pictured; and had we been a little less cheap and paid for admission, maybe it would have been higher on the list!).
My 10th best experience: visiting the Perfume Pagoda, Vietnam. I joined the million pilgrims who, each year, visit the "Perfume Pagoda" cave temples during the months surrounding the Vietnamese New Year. The pilgrimmage process has remained unchanged for centuries: travel by boat along a beautiful river (pictured), climb thousands of steps into the heart of the "Mountains of Fragrant Traces," and place brightly-colored trinkets by shrines and pray for blessings for the upcoming year. As I squeezed and squished my way through the thousands of worshippers, I felt more like a shopper in a particularly busy after-Thanksgiving sale than someone witnessing a religious experience, but maybe it's a tribute to the Asian talent of finding the sacred in even the most hectic of circumstances. But like most of my travel experiences, it was made particularly special by my interactions with the people I met along the way: from the fun members of my tourgroup to the trio of elderly Vietnamese women who managed to make me their packmule.My 9th best experience: seeing movies in "Gold Class" theaters. I went for weeks at a time not only without seeing a movie, but without being in the same time zone as a theater showing English-language movies. But I also sat in what must be some of the most luxurious public movie theaters in the world. I saw movies in "Gold Class" or "Emperor's Class" theaters in Scotland, Singapore, and Bangkok. The seats are plush, they recline all the way back, the popcorn and drinks are served in crystal, pillows and blankets are provided, and the tallest NBA basketball player would have plenty of leg room, and wouldn't obstruct the view of the people sitting behind him. Since I'm on the subject of theaters, I'll mention three other interesting movie experiences. First, in Thailand, before every movie, the screen goes black, you are commanded to "pay your respects to the King" and the Thai national anthem is played over a montage of the King (always shown when he was thirty years younger than his current age) doing regal things. If you don't stand during this, you face arrest and imprisonment (seriously). Second, when seeing American movies, because most of the audience reads the subtitles instead of listening to the English-language soundtrack, they react to jokes before they are actually verbalized. Probably because most people are reading the movie, they feel free to answer ringing cell phones and engage in full-volume conversations. Third, most Asian countries censor the language, violence, nudity and other objectionable content in Western movies. For instance, in Thailand, movies can't show children smoking, so I recall a scene in an American movie where three kids and two adults were all standing in a line smoking. Each time the kids put the cigarettes to their mouths, a fuzzy blur would obscure their faces. When they removed the cigarette from their mouths, the blur would disappear, and we could clearly see them holding a cigarette and exhaling smoke. (As if no one could figure out how the smoke got in their mouths!) The adults were never blurred. For awhile, I thought it was some kind of arty trick by the filmmakers, and I was trying to discover the director's message! But my favorite example of censorship is Indonesia, a very religious (Muslim) country, which doesn't seem to care about curse words, but which censors all religious terms--even when they are not being used in a religious context. For example, in Disney's "The Kid," which I saw on HBO in Bali, the main character kept saying "holy shit!", but all I could hear was, "[bleep] shit!"
My 8th best experience: a three-day felluca (i.e. Egyptian sailboat) ride down the Nile. Prior to this, we had been moving at a rapid pace through Egypt, and it was nice to be forced to slow down, read books, talk with the shipmates, eat questionable food, observe life along the Nile, stop to see the occasional temple, and most of all, simply watch the Nile flow during the day and watch the stars illuminate the sky at night. On either side of the Nile were rural fields and green trees for a few dozen meters, and then an endless stretch of desert in either direction. Buffalo lazed in the river as birds swirled overhead. Occasionally, children could be seen swinging farm tools at each other, running to and fro, like children everywhere, playing when they were supposed to be working. I had a great time talking, eating and playing cards with our shipmates (three Brits and two Swiss). But as with all of the friendships made during the trip, they were tinged with the knowledge that the friendships likely would be short-lived. On the road, the entire arc of a friendship is condensed--meeting, learning about each other, talking, eating together, laughing, and then saying farewell--an entire friendship within a few days, and oftentimes within the span of just a few hours. At times, this made me feel sad. But at least the next wonderful person was always just around the corner. And the condensed friendships often seemed more intense and real, knowing that they would be over soon. Moreover, as I met funny, kind and insightful people from countries too numerous to list, the world now seems smaller, less foreign and forbidding, more friendly and delightful.
My 7th best experience: safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa. During the safari, we saw many animals in the wild, including all of the "big five"--lion, leopard, elephant, African Buffalo, and rhino--which are so named because they are the five deadliest animals to human hunters. During our "bush walk," the beginning of which is pictured, we nearly had a run-in with a herd of angry African Buffalo (and the ranger shown loading his handgun seemed quite annoyed that we weren't more scared of the apparently dangerous beasts), a deadly African elephant, and a sinister crocodile--yet none of these were the scariest animals we saw. The scariest were the guys with the guns. The two white rangers had spent their lives in the bush, except for the time they went to university to get degrees in wildlife management. But because of affirmative action (due to the years of apartheid), they were both losing their jobs, forced to leave just as soon as they finished training their replacements. And they were unlikely to find other jobs considering the fact unemployment is hovering around 50%. They angrily pointed out that their replacements, such as the ranger in the foreground, are all from the cities, and up until a few months earlier, had never been near the bush or wild animals. The white rangers were angry, bitter and seemed almost hopeful that tourists would be killed by lions or buffalo due to the incompetence of the new, black rangers. They also used what we learned was a common Afrikaner (i.e. most white South Africans) greeting: "How are you?" "Apartheid was great." These guys also made no bones about hating America, whom they saw as being hypocritical in its condemnation of apartheid. One proclaimed proudly that he had never been to America, and he wouldn't ever go, even if a plane was just scheduled to stop in the U.S. for refueling. But despite having never been there, he had very firm ideas about America. For instance, no amount of insistence by me and Shane could shake his conviction that 50% of all Americans are lawyers and that less than 2% of Americans have passports. Thankfully, we managed to emerge from the safari having learned a great deal about wild animals, both human and otherwise, having met some nice people, and having managed not to get shot.
My 6th best experience: bungy jumping off the world's highest bungy jump (Bloukrans, South Africa). I really didn't think I would be scared at the prospect of doing a bungy jump. And I was quite brave, nonchalant even, as I joined my fellow jumping companions--all members of the British Army's "Red Devil" parachuting team, many of whom were just returned from service in Iraq--in walking out to the middle of the world's highest single-span bridge. But when the two workers wrapped the elastic life-line rather loosely around my skinny ankles, my resolve weakened. Not that I had a chance to voice my doubts. Worker #1 kept reminding me to keep my arms outstretched and telling me, while looking distractedly at his watch, that everything looked good. Worker #2 insisted on continuing a one-sided conversation about how ridiculous America's out-of-control litigation system is, which has prevented the New Zealand-based company from operating in the States: "Why, we have three lawsuits pending from American tourists right now," he said, without any apparent concern for the emotional distress he was inflicting on me (an actionable tort in America, by the way). The workers had me hop to the edge of the bridge, and for a second, as I strained to keep my balance against the wind and vertigo induced by my first good look at the 700-foot drop, I decided jumping would be crazy and I wouldn't do it. It seemed all wrong: Where was the railing, for goodness sake? Don't they know someone could fall off? Then the workers counted to three in unison, and, without hesitation, I jumped. And I learned how lengthy and memorable five seconds can be. Five seconds is the length of time the free-fall lasts, before the bungy-cord begins breaking the jumper's fall. As you can see, the five seconds finally ended for me, and the rope stayed attached to my ankles. And I bounced a few times (notice my arms were still out-stretched--I was going to follow instructions until the bitter end), before finally being hoisted back up to the bridge by the fellow at the bottom of the photo (how would you like his job?). And thankfully, the trees you see below didn't have to break my fall.
My 5th best experience: whitewater rafting on the Zambezi River/hiking around Victoria Falls, Zambia. What's that you say? Where is the Zambezi River in this photo? Well, it's in my hair, in my shirt, my pants and my shoes. After braving crocodile-infested waters, a lightening storm, and a near fall over Victoria Falls, you are looking at the smile of someone who feels very happy to be alive. My soggy smile continued all through the next day when we were tossed about the fastest and most difficult stretch of whitewater rafting in the world.
My 3rd best experience: hiking New Zealand's Milford Track. Really this is a collection of many amazing experiences, from running (literally) a few miles uphill for the pictured view at McKinnon Pass, to being knocked off my feet by the torrent from the world's fifth-highest waterfall, to spending evenings resting by the fire with a great group of fellow hikers.
My 2nd best experience: simply spending time with Shane, who managed to make even the countless hours of downtime (waiting in airports, on buses, on trains, in hotels, on curbsides, etc.) real highlights of the journey. Shane and I never had a major argument (Shane screaming, "I never want to speak to you again!!", doesn't count as "major", does it?), and we remain the best of friends. In short, the writing above the pool table (in Aswan, Egypt) says it all.
My best experience. I enjoyed Cambodia's Angkor temple complex (the world's largest religious structure), pictured, but it was not my best experience. So why this photo? Any photo would do. (Though I do really like this shot of me ambling toward a deserted Angkor Wat.) My #1 experience was soaking in the sight, smell, sound, taste and feel of each place. Each country, each city, each street, alley and dirt road was like a new song, evoking its own stream of thoughts and feelings. And now these photos are like my CDs, where I can hear the songs again and again. Thank you for joining me in listening to some of my favorites.