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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).

Help and Health in Capayque, Bolivia

This is post #4 in an ongoing series that started here.  This is what the trip was really all about.

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Carolyn Williams — my aunt — screening a patient outside the new Capayque medical clinic

 

The First United Methodist Church of Stillwater, Oklahoma has – for many years – sent mission teams to South America to provide healthcare in remote, rural areas of Bolivia.  My aunt, Carolyn Williams – an R.N. (blond hair, visor and scrubs in these pictures) — has been a hero and mainstay of those teams for sixteen years.  This year, she invited me to come along to take pictures.  There were 14 of us from the U.S., assisted by a handful of Bolivians from La Paz and from Capayque itself.

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Dr. Don Crawley of Stillwater examines a patient in Capayque

 

Over the course of five days, Carolyn and the two American doctors (Don Crawley and Doug Wilsey, both of Stillwater) saw about 300 patients from Capayque and surrounding communities.  It was surely the first time many had seen a doctor in their lives.  The doctors dealt with an array of conditions ranging from pregnancy to worms to earwax to virtual blindness, all the while trying to share preventive health tips like handwashing, tooth brushing, nutrition and water safety.

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Linda Allen (center) was the group’s acting lead pharmacist

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Dr. Don Wilsey

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The challenges of interacting and helping the Capayque people were heightened by the fact that many of the locals speak only the indigenous people’s language of Aymara – not Spanish like they speak in La Paz.  So often a single doctor and a single patient required two translations – Aymara to Spanish, then Spanish to English.

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Meanwhile, team members put some of the finishing touches on the medical clinic the Methodist group started 3 years ago.  They did lots of shoveling and wheel barrow-ing, and they recruited help from dozens of townspeople.  Though my primary role was as the group’s photographer, I spent some time with a pick or shovel in my hands, too.  Even some of the little local ladies with the wacky hats joined in.  The new clinic will look pretty basic by U.S. standards, but it is far and away the nicest building in the town.  It will be staffed (funds permitting) year-round by a local Bolivian nurse (a great guy named Basilio), which will make it the finest healthcare facility for miles around.

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Doug Valley has overseen the construction of the new clinic since its inception in 2012.

 

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Ray Kinnunen recruited a small army of Capayque townspeople to help with a big construction project at the new clinic.

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There were activities for local kids, too.  Some were just for fun and some — like the hand washing lessons — aimed to teach some basic, helpful lessons we Gringos tend to take for granted.  These pictures were taken with a smaller group, but attendance hit about 75 by the last day.

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The team and its mission were one of several such mission teams coordinated by the Methodist Church in Bolivia.  I’m no Methodist — and my views on religion surely varied from the rest of the group — but that made little difference.  Perhaps the most basic belief underlying these efforts was simply that the folks of Capayque needed help  — and that good and decent Americans ought to try to do something for people whose typical standard of living is essentially unheard of in the U.S. (except perhaps among the homeless).  You don’t need any particular religious faith to have profound respect for what these teams are doing for fellow humans who need it badly.  It should restore your faith in humanity.

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The Team met daily to eat, coordinate activities, and for some religious songs and talks. Above, Ken Morris of Stillwater sings a hymn in the dimly-lit dining and meeting room.

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I need to give a big thanks to a Houston-based charity that was a huge help.  Medical Bridges accumulates surplus and donated medical equipment and supplies, warehouses them, and distributes them to worthy international healthcare relief missions just like the Methodist teams in Bolivia.  Capayque got a generous load of supplies far better than anything it had had before.  Thanks to George and Dorothy and all the folks at Medical Bridges, and to my friend and Medical Bridges board member, Jeff Thomas, for making the connection.

And thanks again to my Aunt Carolyn, for suggesting that I come along.  The U.S. team consisted of Rev. Mike and Leanne Chaffin, Linda Allen, Carolyn Williams, me, Doug Valley, Dr. Don Crawley, Dr. Doug Wilsey, Ken Morris, Ray Kinnenun, and four Oklahoma sisters whose family played a big role in sponsoring the clinic:  Allyn Bigelow, Karen McKinney, Ora Morgan and Becky Szlichta.  Our heroic La Paz based translators/coordinators — Wilson Saucedo and Lauren — were untiring, unflappable and invaluable.

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The Stillwater mission team poses with the crowd who showed up for church on Sunday.

Kiwi Springtime: Queenstown, New Zealand

New Zealanders refer to themselves as “Kiwis.”  And of course most Americans are aware of the brown, furry fruit of the same name.  But if you’re tracing the original source of the term “kiwi,” be aware that the chicken-sized bird came before that egg-sized fruit.

A Polynesian tribe known as the Maori are considered the aboriginal people of New Zealand.  Apparently, they arrived by seagoing canoes (from Tahiti, perhaps) around the year 1300 — about 350 years before Dutchman Abel Tasman first arrived on New Zealand shores.  “Kiwi” is the Maori name for a brown, round, furry-looking chicken-sized flightless bird that’s native to the islands and which has become the national symbol and namesake.   The fruit originally known as a Chinese Gooseberry first became a popular agricultural crop in New Zealand in the early 20th century, and was renamed “kiwi fruit” about 50 years ago.

The first leg of my Kiwi adventure has centered around Queenstown — a smallish town on New Zealand’s larger, southern island.  The nearby mountains  (the ones beneath those pink sunrises) are aptly named The Remarkables; my late spring (October/November) arrival is too late for skiing.

I know all too well that photographers can use Photoshop or similar tools to make some fairly ordinary scenes look spectacularly wacky.  That’s not what’s happened here — and not really my ‘thing’:  the light and the colors really do look this way.  I use some of the same tools to try to get a realistic image that does justice to this spectacular scenery.

Queenstown was my first stop in a country roughly the size of Colorado (if you stretched Colorado out and pulled it into two parts).  Onward.

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Most of these shots are around Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu — almost all in the early morning or late evening.  The ones that look like a golf course are a golf course called The Hills — apparently a famous one and one that’s covered with modern-ish art sculptures.  The two long skinny horizontal pictures with water in the foreground and the tree-in-water and sailboat pictures are at at Lake Wanaka — about an hour northeast of Queenstown.

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Photographers:  3 or 4 of these pictures are “HDR” shots that use 3-4 different images (same scene, different exposures) and crunch that down so you can see both the deep shadows and the bright skies and sun.  Hopefully you can’t tell which ones.   Mostly I get the same results with the D800 + Lightroom.  I tried to force myself to use a tripod, especially on scenes where I’m ‘bracketing’ multiple images for HDR.  But I hate it — it slows me down and cramps my (literal) style.  It’s amazing how well the software can align handheld shots.  I’m putting that damn tripod back in the suitcases.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sydney: World Upside Down

Australian sundials are numbered backward.  If you want to navigate your way around Sydney, it might help if you understand why.

 

 

 

Since America is well up in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun’s daily path for us is mostly an arc through the southern skies.  As we face south and watch the sun move east to west, it moves from our left to our right.  If we’re looking at the sun, it’s moving left to right.  If the sun is in your face and it’s roughly the middle of the day, you’re looking south; left is east; right is west.  Unless you were literally bent over backward, every time you’ve ever looked at the sun in the northern hemisphere, it was moving left to right .  This is burned into my subconscious.  Left to right.

When I got to Australia, I was ready for cars driving on the wrong side of the road.  With a 20-hour trip crossing eight time zones, I was ready for jet lag.  I’ve been to the Southern Hemisphere before, so I was ready to hang precariously by my feet from the bottom of the globe and to see spring flowers in late October.  I can deal with hurricanes and toilet drains that swirl backward (though that last one is mostly a myth).  But what I cannot mentally process is that the sun moves from right to left.  It arcs across the northern sky.  It’s clearly moving right to left, so I’d swear it’s rising in the west and setting in the east.  (It’s not.)

I’m not the only one who’s noticed, of course.  On a northern hemisphere sundial, the numbers that indicate the time count up clockwise.  Southern hemisphere sundials reflect the left/right reversal of the sun’s apparent path, with the numbers ascending as you go counter-clockwise.  Your trusty northern sundial is no good down under.

For millenia, we humans have plotted our courses through the day and across the earth by keeping track of the relationship between the sun’s location in the sky and the actual time of day.  A great book called Longitude, by Dava Sobel, teaches this lesson in the context of 18th Century nautical navigation.

I’m usually a pretty good intuitive navigator, but it’s a cruel triple-whammy to jet-lag my body’s internal clock, capsize my brain’s intuitive internal sundial, and drop me in terra incognita.  So I guess I was a little dazed and confused during my two day layover in Sydney.  Fortunately, I was almost always in sight of at least one of the city’s two main iconic landmarks – the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House.  So while I was sometimes confused about where the sun would be coming from in my photographs, I never actually got lost.

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The Sydney Opera House was celebrating its 40th Anniversary the weekend I was there.  I wasn’t invited to the party, but I did get to overhear some of the big celebration concert (ironically held outdoors) and grab a couple of quick pictures of the unexpected 15-second fireworks display.  The shots that look like aerial photographs were taken from atop one of the granite “pylons” of the bridge.

Those weird swirls up above the bridge are birds (gulls) and bats (“flying foxes”).  They’re up there eating the moths that are attracted by the bright lights.  Because the  shutter speed on the camera is so slow at night, the bird/bat travels several feet while the shutter is open, leaving a trail of its path in the image.

Photo friends:  Most of the night shots (except the fireworks) of the bridge and the opera house are on a solid tripod, using ISOs close to 100-400, playing with different shutter speeds (up to 30 seconds, triggered by the self-timer to avoid moving the camera) to get the different looks for the moving boats and waves.   The shot with mostly skyscrapers at night is handheld, with ISO 6400, f4, 1/6 sec.

Wichita FALLS: We’re Not in Kansas, Toto.

A company in Wichita Falls sells T-shirts reading :  “We’re Not In Kansas.  We Never Were.”  Apparently, a good chunk of the U.S. population doesn’t know which state they should look in (Answer:  “Texas”) to find the place.

For the tenth year in a row, some good friends and I were among the 14,000 or so riders in town for the Hottern’ Hell Hundred bike ride – the biggest 100-mile bike event in the country.  In the spirit of Hottern’ Hell Weekend, I was even more amused by another T-shirt option:  “Wichita Falls – A City in Heat,” but Dorothy’s “Not in Kansas” line from The Wizard of Oz won out as the more-fitting title here:  It doesn’t much resemble the Land of Oz, but Wichita Falls can feel like a very unusual place.

Near the finish line of the race, the local Wichita Falls Police auxiliary was holding a fundraiser — raffling off an AR-15 semi-automatic assault-style rifle.  Five bucks a ticket.  Need not be present to win.*  Proceeds benefit the Wichita Falls Police Department.  You won’t see THAT in your big fancy cities.

A few hundred yards away, on the side of the race course itself, was a nightclub (not open during the race) called Texas Playgirls, whose claim to fame is apparently that it is “now … the cheapest topless bar in Texas.”  I guess they know their target market.  This reminded me of a conversation with the desk clerk at our LaQuinta a few years ago:  Someone commented that Hottern’ Hell weekend (when 14,000 road bikers converge on the town from all over the country) must surely be the craziest, busiest time of the year in smallish Wichita Falls.  She disagreed, insisting that the ‘swingers’ convention earlier that month had been just as busy.  Who knew?!

A couple of years back, a Wichita Falls cab driver told us about her “Puke Fee” (charged mostly to intoxicated airmen from the local Air Force base):  “Fifty bucks; seventy-five if you get any on me.”  When I asked if she got much argument when people learned about the fee, she responded (emphatically), “Oh, they all know the Puke Fee!”  Of course they do.

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This year’s race was pretty run-of-the-mill for a Hottern Hell.  No mosquito attacks; no wrecks; no delusional riders.  It was hot (sometimes it isn’t!) but not crazy hot (sometimes it is!).  The biggest innovation this year was the addition of Bjorn Hegelman to our team.  Bjorn is a 6’7” German (now U.S. citizen).  Lest there be any doubt, that’s him in the middle of the picture below.  Bjorn is a former German pro basketball player.  It can be tough for  big guys to adapt in the cycling world, and Bjorn has only been riding for a year or so.  But apparently being strong as an ox has at least some advantages and gave him a pretty decent head start.  Our group had one of the fastest, strongest, most solid rides we’ve ever done – at least for the first 90 miles or so when the (metaphorical) wheels did start to come off just a little.  Funny how it’s always that last 10 miles or so that are the toughest.

Prior posts from Wichita Falls are here (2012) and here (2011).

*Yes, of course I bought a ticket.  The guy explained that I’d definitely want to get a scope for it if I won.  I really hope I do not win.