Category Archives: Photography

First Look at Burma (Myanmar): Yangon

The start and finish of my three weeks in Burma were in Yangon. I’m still sorting pictures from the rest of the trip, which included everything from remote tribal villages to famous golden Buddhas to a stunning hot-air balloon ride over a thousand-year old sacred city.

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Young monks in their living quarters at Naga Hlaing Gu monastery in Yangon.

 

The United States officially recognizes the country that lies just east of India, south of China, and west of Thailand as “Burma,” even though Burma’s current government wants to be called Myanmar. Today Burma has a population of around 50 million.

 

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Shwedagon Pagoda, already busy even before dawn

 

Burma was a British colony, starting in 1824 after the first Anglo-Burmese War.  Before the Brits, the area – like most of Asia – was governed for many centuries by a series of kings, dynasties and empires. Britain’s control of Burma was mostly lost during World War II; Burma was given its independence in 1948.  A “military junta” ruled Burma for most of the last 50 years, though its grip has been loosened somewhat in the last decade. The military renamed the country “Myanmar” in 1989, just months after an especially brutal suppression of dissenters. Perhaps because that origin, the new name has been slow to catch on, and the U.S. still hasn’t officially recognized it.  I prefer “Burma” mostly because it has one less syllable and is straightforward to pronounce.

 

Also renamed was the now-former capital city: Rangoon is now “Yangon.” I stayed in Yangon three different times in my three weeks in Burma. It’s a city of about 5 million, which makes it bigger (in population) than Los Angeles, though its downtown commercial skyline looks more like Wichita Falls. Only in the past few years has the Burmese government made it feasible for ordinary people to own cars, so terrible traffic overwhelms the city streets, perhaps also trumping Los Angeles on that front, too.

 

The most famous and prominent landmark in town is the Schwedagon Pagoda. It’s a huge Buddhist temple complex dominated by one towering golden “stupa.”  Legend has it that it’s 2,600 years old, though history and archaeology apparently peg it at closer to 1300. I got there long before daylight and it was already brimming with visitors.

 

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The girls in pink are nuns; the boys in dark orange or maroon are monks.  It sounds odd to Americans to hear of young children being monks and nuns, but those terms have different meanings in Buddhist practice than they do for the Catholics. Most Buddhist boys are monks at some point in their youth – perhaps only for a week or a month. It can be about like going to church camp. They can (and frequently do) leave at any time without any resistance or stigma, so it’s a very different type of commitment. As the pictures with smartphones and toy guns hint, they’re mostly typical kids. That young nun with the umbrella looks like a set-up shot, but it’s not. We caught her walking down a city sidewalk as we hopped of the bus.

 

A Buddhist "nun" near the Naga

A Buddhist “nun” near Naga Hlaing Gu in Yangon

 

All those boats operate as rush hour passenger ferries, taking folks across the Yangon River. The activity was intense: I think they had a ferry leaving at least every 30 seconds during peak rush hour traffic. We were told that foreigners weren’t allowed on those boats – because the government is concerned about safety (of foreigners).

Scotland: Skye and the Outer Hebrides

 OKAY!  Finally — the last of my pictures from Scotland.  Yes, I’ve been home for quite a while, but these were some cool places and I still wanted to share what they looked like.

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Dunvegan Castle has been the headquarters of the MacLeod Clan for over 700 years.

Not surprisingly, Dunvegan Castle, the home of the MacLeod clan chiefs for the last 800 years or so, was chock full of old paintings of men named MacLeod wearing kilts and high socks.  After my visit there, I headed for the ferry from the Isle of Skye out to the Isle of Lewis & Harris, and the big semi next to my car said, “D.R. MacLeod Transport.”  Two of the workers who were getting me checked in on the ferry had name tags with the last name MacLeod.  Apparently the MacLeod clan is alive and well on Skye and Lewis & Harris, just like they have been since before Columbus sailed west.

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The harbor town of Portree — the biggest ‘city’ on the Isle of Skye — was my home base for a few days on and around the Isle.

The Outer Islands have their own culture.  The area is known for its strong religious heritage – mostly the Presbyterian-ish Church of Scotland, as I understand it.  On Sunday, there was almost nothing open: I finally found one café and one gas station that were (apparently) heathen-operated.

The highway and other signs in the area are written in both English and Gaelic, but a long-time local I quizzed thought that was mostly symbolic.  He didn’t believe there were many people who spoke only Gaelic. I was surprised that I had no trouble understanding the Scottish accents in the Highlands and islands, even though I could barely understand the folks down in Glasgow.  (I was briefly concerned that I was going to be detained at the Glasgow airport because I was unable to understand and answer the several security-screening questions asked in Glasgow-accented “English”).

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These 600-year-old carvings of swords, displayed inside St. Clements Church on the southeast tip of the Isle of Harris, probably once marked the graves of prominent members of the MacLeod clan.

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Looking east from the southeast coast of the Isle of Harris, with the Isle of Skye on the horizon.

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This igloo-looking monument on the Isle of Harris is a modern memorial to a group of protesting local farmers from the late 1800s. A part of it marks the spot where the local sheriff (literally) “read the Riot Act” to the protesters. The Riot Act was English law; if an unruly group gathered (creating a threat of a riot) the sheriff could read a section of the Act ordering them to disperse or else be arrested. I knew the modern idiom of “reading someone the Riot Act” — giving them a strong scolding or warning — but never knew its history!

Before I made the trip, I learned the words and music to “Scotland the Brave”.  It’s the anthem (sometimes regal and sometimes eery) you always hear Scottish bagpipers playing as an iconic musical symbol of the country.  At a minimum, I knew it would be running through my head while I was there, and I wanted to be prepared in case I was caught up in any pre- or post-Independence vote revelry and felt compelled to amuse, or to show some local musical allegiance.  I was ready play it on either guitar or ukulele.  Among the resulting disappointments:  no occasions arose where my would-be barroom antics would have been appropriate; no real patriotic revelry erupted anyway; and — worst of all — I learned that the song was a 20th Century creation (written perhaps in the 1950s).  Somehow I’d imagined it being played for those kilted soldiers who fought alongside Braveheart in the 1200s — not something written for a potential gig on the Ed Sullivan Show.

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My most-remote destination was the Uig Sands area, on the west side of Lewis & Harris. At low tide, there was a mile or so of flat sand between my 400-year-old guest house and the water. At high tide, the Sands were flooded and the water was only a few yards away.

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In one sense, the Outer Islands were a lot further from home than the mileage might make it seem.   I started toward home at about noon on a Tuesday.  A drive to the port where the ferry would leave the next morning; hotel overnight; ferry to an Inner island; drive to the town where I’d rented my car; taxi across the bridge to the mainland; train to Inverness; another train to Glasgow; taxi to Glasgow airport hotel; morning flight to Newark; airport tram; flight to Houston; parking shuttle; then my trusty Chevy Tahoe back to the house on Thursday night.  I spent almost my entire two weeks in Scotland on the out-of-the-way islands rather than seeing the major cities and sites.  I didn’t even make it to Loch Ness to see the monster.  I had a great trip, but I don’t think I’m ready to cross Scotland off my list.

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Coastal sands on the Isle of Harris

 

 

Scotland 2014: Oban, Staffa and Iona

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Dunollie Castle, at the north end of Oban Bay

Scotland’s odd little Inner Hebrides island of Staffa is famous for more than sightseeing.  The 19th Century composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote a now-famous overture about it:  the Hebrides Overture (a.k.a. “Fingal’s Cave”).  Too bad there was no orchestra around to play it when I went to visit.  (You can listen to it here if it’s not playing automatically:  http://www.vicenzapuericantores.it/mp3/mendelssohn_hebrides.mp3 ).  The Isle of Staffa is just a few hundred yards across, and is a geological fluke.  It’s a volcanic island with a huge layer of crystalized basalt columns.  Its most famous feature is that sea cave Mendelssohn focused on, now called Fingal’s Cave. It’s about 200 feet deep.

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Staffa

 

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The trip back from Staffa consists of an ferry ride to the Isle of Iona, another ferry to the Isle of Mull, a car ride to catch the ferry back to Oban on the mainland.  The church in the pictures is the Iona Abbey, established in 563 A.D. by now-Saint Columba and now a busy pilgrimage destination for folks who (for some reason) want to visit Columba’s grave.  That prominent stone cross, St. Martin’s Cross, is over 1200 years old.  The pretty pictures of the bay and from the ferry are Oban Bay.

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I was lucky to be able to travel Scotland with Jim Richardson and a couple of Scotch natives as guides. Jim is a long-time National Geographic photographer and is their go-to guy for Scotland; he’s been there dozens of times. In fact, the August 2014 edition of NatGeo has one of Jim’s photo essays from Scotland as its cover story. Great to have Jim to show about a dozen of us around  Scotland. That’s Jim in the red jacket waiting on the dock in the picture above (apparently someone from the group was late getting back to the boat . . .)

Scotland 2014: Gylen Castle

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The Scottish Isle of Kerrera is just a few hundred yards off the mainland west coast, near the town of Oban in the southern part of the Inner Hebrides.  A few dozen people (one of whom tends to 100 or so pet parrots) live there.  The sightseeing highlight is Gylen Castle, built on the south end of the island in about 1582.

To get to Gylen, you take a short ferry from Oban, then walk about three miles.  The ferry is a small one-car ferry, so you just stand where the one car would normally be.   When you get out near the castle, there’s no visitor center, no admission charge, no security guards or park rangers.  It’s just out there by itself like it has been for the last 500 years.

The castle was built by the MacDougall Clan and used in support of James I – then the king of a united England, Ireland and Scotland.   In the mid 1600s, he was at war with the “Covenanters” (crazy Presbyterians, apparently).  They laid siege to the MacDougall Clan soldiers at Gylen.  Apparently the castle’s defense systems had one big flaw – access to fresh water.  The very thirsty soldiers holed up inside were eventually coaxed into coming out voluntarily, only to be promptly killed by their surrounding attackers.

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Gylen wasn’t a true “castle,” but was more of a small watchtower or fort.  Its perch above the waters  was a perfect vantage point to watch for threatening ships entering the Firth of Lorn near Oban.  Now that same perch makes modest Gylen one of Scotland’s most picturesque spots.

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Festival in Chissi, Bolivia

I sometimes make a hobby out of choosing a random side road somewhere in the world and just seeing what I find.    ——       I should make clear that these images are from Chissi, a town far away and very different from Capayque, the village that has been the subject of several recent posts.

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I turned down the dirt road toward the Bolivian pueblo of Chissi just hoping to find a better view of the Lake Titicaca shoreline near the Strait of Tiquina.  But as I drove down the hill into town, I could see some sort of event going on in a big field — with dozens of people all in bright pink costumes.  Of course I drove right toward it.

As the pictures show, the men’s costumes were the gaudiest rhinestone-cowboy looking things you’ve ever seen – even putting aside the fact that they were hot pink.  The women’s costumes were slightly less outrageous – Bolivian women wear those tall “bowler” hats and those broad skirts all the time as everyday wear, so the costume just spruced up their usual wardrobe profile and turned it pink.

It was the day after Easter, and apparently Sunday’s religious celebrations give way to a carnival-like Easter Monday celebration with lots of costumes, dancing, a town feast, and quite a lot of beer.  I parked at the edge of the field and walked toward the action.

Besides my being out of costume, I was the tallest person in town, the only one with light-colored eyes, the only one with clipper-cut hair, and the only one who spoke English.*  It took about 10 seconds before I was invited into their circle, about 20 seconds before I was presented with a cup of beer and about 2 minutes for the crowd to form around me for a group photo, then about another 2 minutes ‘til I was put into one of those pink vests and hats and instructed to pose for more ridiculous pictures.

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The band (trumpets, baritones, drums and a cymbal) would play for 20 minutes or so (and the costumed folk would dance), then rest for 20 minutes or so (and the costumed folks would drink more beer).  At about 1 o’clock, the whole group danced down a path through town; several of my new friends grabbed me and pantomimed “comidas” (food).  We all ate the same thing:  A bowl (no silverware) with a chunk of “carne” (maybe beef, maybe not), a couple of different potato-like things, a roasted-in-the-peel plantain, and some lettuce and tomatoes.  It was a lot of food, but they’d made a big deal out of presenting it to the conspicuous gringo so I stuffed myself as best I could.

The photographic challenges were many.  The Bolivians seemed to be either painfully bashful about being photographed or uncontrollable hams, with no real middle ground.   I was almost constantly being tugged at and urged to take a different picture or try to answer a question.  As is often the case, it was hard to both participate in the event and photograph it.

I showed these pictures to another Bolivian man from the opposite end of the country.  He thought these were Peruvian traditions and costumes – and indeed Chissi is just 20 miles or so from the Peru border.   For those readers who have seen my recent posts from Capayque (in the mountains on the opposite side of Lake Titicaca), I should emphasize that this is a very different area.  Chissi is just a couple of miles from the main highway and — as the cervezas and elaborate costumes reflect — these folks clearly had a lot more disposable income than the people of remote Capayque.

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I stayed about four hours in Chissi – scrapping my plans to visit the ruins at Tiwanaku that day and putting my pitiful Spanish to the test with the simplest communications.   What country am I from?  Yes, I think your pueblo is bien (or was it bueno?).   Smile for a foto?  Comidas?  (Si!)  Mas cerveza?  (No, gracias,  I’m driving back to La Paz this evening.)  I wound up racing back to La Paz mostly in the dark, through a two-hour Bolivian traffic jam coming back into town.

There was a simultaneous celebration going on a few dozen yards away, which seemed to be some kind of harvest festival.

There was a simultaneous celebration going on a few dozen yards away, which seemed to be some kind of harvest festival.

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All this happened on my first full day in Bolivia – driving around by myself before I met the group in La Paz that went to Capayque.   My habit of turning down random side roads in search of something interesting was surely rewarded once again.

I’d like to think that if a Spanish-speaking Bolivian stranger wandered into the middle of a small town festival somewhere in America, he’d be welcomed and embraced to a similar extent, but I don’t know if that’s true.  Let’s hope so.

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Notice the Gringo in the back row.

Notice the Gringo in the back row.

 

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* I suspect I was also about the only adult who was wholly sober, and the only person with any substantial amount of hair on his face or arms.  It seemed like I may also have been in a minority who had no visible gold on the their teeth.