Photo Poems

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Spring:

A hill without a name

Veiled in morning mist

- Matsuo Bashō, Four Haiku

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

- Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

- Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

The man by the train

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

- Emily Dickinson, Because I Could Not Stop for Death

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Temple bells die out.

The fragrant blossoms remain.

A perfect evening!

- Matsuo Bashō, Temple Bells Die Out

Evermore

Watch birth and death:

The lotus has already

Opened its flower.

- Natsume Sōseki, Watch Birth and Death

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The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

- Carl Sandburg, Fog

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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,  

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless  

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run

- John Keats, To Autumn

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He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

- Alfred Tennyson, The Eagle

Dreamscape 3

There is another sky,

Ever serene and fair,

And there is another sunshine,

Though it be darkness there

- Emily Dickinson, There is Another Sky

Dreamscape 1 Final

The lamp once out

Cool stars enter

The window frame.

- Natsume Sōseki, The Lamp Once Out

:Ocotillo

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,

Thinks these dark days of autumn rain

Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;

She walks the sodden pasture lane.

- Robert Frost, My November Guest

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All is well.

Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.

One brief moment and all will be as it was before.

How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

- Henry Scott-Holland, Death Is Nothing at All

Stranded

All natural things both live and move

In natural peace that is their own;

Only in our disordered life

Almost is she unknown.

- Bessie Rayner Parkes, Peace

China 2019: Summiting Emei

It was a slow morning, to say the least. I spent last night slamming whiskey with some Thai guys at Mojar after playing a few rounds of pool with a flamboyant Uzbek friend I met there last week. Life is good in Chengdu, and the nights know no limits. I'm happy to have met so many new friends here already. This city is one to remember...

A view over Jin River from Anshun Bridge in Chengdu.
A view over Jin River from Anshun Bridge in Chengdu.

In terms of my photography, it feels like I'm firing on all cylinders. Last weekend was a high-octane adventure to the misty summit of Mt. Huajian and this weekend I plan to summit Mt. Emei, the highest of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China.

Signing off from a crowded train to work on Line 1,

Thursday, 22/08/19.

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Tonight we played cards in a cobblestone courtyard lit by both red paper lanterns and neon stage lights from inside the open-air hotel bar. As it got later in the night, the six of us walked outside the stone gate and grabbed delicious street food barbecued with Sichuan spices and sauces. After we sat back down at the table, we spent the rest of the night listening to the surprisingly rhythmic sounds of drunken karaoke singers, an electric guitar, and bongo drums. A baby cat that looked like a snow leopard stalked us for most of the night as gambling men yelled in the background...

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It was a humid night with a rare breeze, a little hotter than Chengdu but still cool enough. Emei is a relaxed city with a jovial vibe where you can enjoy the excitement of a new place away from the traffic of congested cities or tourist traps. Additionally, the small city is only a two-hour train ride from East Chengdu station and sits next to a mountain of immense beauty religious significance. I cannot wait to stand atop it by the end of tomorrow. 

Signing off from Emei,

Friday, 23/08/19

The first hour was near-unbearable. The lack of a filling breakfast and a good nights sleep, intense humid heat, heavy bag with two large waters, steepness of the climb, and the sight of a man lying broken-legged and bloody-faced in the first thirty minutes was enough to make me regret choosing to partake on this adventure...

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As the day drug on, though, breezy weather, good conversation, and the ever-nearing end in sight made the trip enjoyable. Our final destination for the day was a red dot on a map labeled Xixiangchi, a Buddhist temple in the mountains. Before we could reach it, however, a number of obstacles stood before us...

The main concern ahead was an hour-long stretch of trail referred to as the "death climb." As our stone trail snaked through the mountainous landscape, we came to a halt by a pop-up shop on a forested ridge. From this shop forward, it looked like the steps spiraled endlessly into the sky above. We knew this was it. I bought a Snickers bar and started to climb...

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As we ascended the cliffside, my legs began to burn as they had done at the start. I took a quick break and was passed by a hiker with a large bamboo stick. I assumed it was a walking stick. It wasn't. During the climb, I started noticing signs on the trail warning hikers of onslaughts from militant monkey gangs...

The first attack came during the "death climb." Our group had become fragmented, but I was able to join up with two other interns, Ferdi and Denys. As we ascended further into the clouds, a massive Tibetan macaque jumped onto the trailside fence. When we approached, it leaped towards us and jolted at Ferdi. It proceeded to jump on his back as we ran. It ended up only stealing a bottle, but because we had our wallets, visas, and passports on us, which we needed for the train from Chengdu to Emei, the situation became a bit more serious...

Shadows followed us as we moved through the mist until we came across an old wooden structure. At long last, we had reached the steps of Xixiangchi. We were the first to arrive at the temple, which looked abandoned. There were no signs of life besides the silhouettes that lurked in the distance...

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Visibility was low, so the oxblood temple complex became a maze of empty alleyways, incense-filled prayer rooms, and marble courtyards. It was difficult to discern what was a statue and what was a macaque. After exploring the temple, we sat on the steps by the entrance and awaited the others...

Once we regrouped with the others, we raced into our shared room to avoid the oncoming macaques. Dozens of them crept outside our windows trying to find a way in. Thankfully, they never did and we were able to safely enjoy our dinner. The sunset that night was incredible. The other guests staying at the temple wandered out from their rooms and admired it together in front of the complex's entrance. It was a moment of serenity and bliss, a stark contrast to the adrenaline-racing afternoon. Seeing the stars rise over the mountains and the mist creep up from the valleys below was a moment I won't forget.

Signing off from a temple in the clouds,

Saturday, 24/08/19

Eating breakfast under watchful eyes
Eating breakfast under watchful eyes

We awoke to the sound of screams as the monkeys evidently took another sacrifice just outside our door. We could hear their footsteps on the metal roof above us like rain in a thunderstorm. In the early morning, we bought bamboo sticks for fending off the monkeys that surely awaited us on our trek to the summit. Although some monkeys immediately recoil at the sight of a raised stick, some are indifferent. Those are the ones that terrify us...

We made our way higher into the mountains, further into enemy territory, pushing our bodies to the limit, sweating waterfalls, and chatting away. There came a point, however, that we reached the bus stop and, soon after, the entrance to the summit's cable car. The trail became swamped with tourists gorging themselves with food, taking photographs of fat monkeys they had just fed, and throwing used tissues over the guardrail and into the forest. As Ferdi and I struggled up the steep steps, the final push of our day-and-a-half-long journey, we received stares, gawks, and laughs from most of the Chinese tourists that passed us. They had taken the cable car up and then walked down the mountain. As sweaty Western tourists who had hiked for over twelve hours with little food and even less sleep, we became a sort laughing stock for several groups we passed. It was one of the rudest displays of humanity I had ever seen. I was disgusted by the complete and utter lack of respect shown for other people and the surrounding natural landscape. The fat spoiled tourists, some of which were being literally carried up the mountain by local elderly men, had no idea what we had been through, seen, or felt. How a cold a world was this, one that had no understanding, only comfortable ignorance. I could only imagine how the local men and women who had to carry slabs of concrete and a sack full of sand up the mountain to the construction sites that cater to this massive wave of tourists brought to the mountain by the cable car. 

There was a man we saw before we reached our accommodation last night who stopped every three steps and knelt to the ground, touching it with his forehead and rotating his hands before rising again. He walked the entire mountain this way, with little to no belongings on him. I wonder how he felt, seeing all this. There were, of course, some nice people who passed by and smiled, said hello, asked how tired we were, or stopped us for a photo. I'm not sure if the latter group only did this to show off meeting foreigners to their friends, as was common in other parts of China during my visits, or for other reasons. On the whole, however, the tourist trap was indeed what its name suggests: a trap. It's a disgusting cesspool of human indifference. Upon reaching the summit, I collapsed by a stone wall in front of Mt. Emei's giant golden spire. The sun began to shine through the clouds and the monument gleamed in the afternoon light. I exhaled and smiled, reflecting on how far I had come and what I had experienced since beginning my climb of Emei. 

The summit of Mt. Emei
The summit of Mt. Emei

The temple grounds were overrun with tourists, as expected, and portrait photographers screamed through loudspeakers into the crowd. The place felt like a Buddhist Disneyland, but I was at ease. It had been a long day and I was happy to close my eyes and breathe in the humid, cool mountain air. What an amazing world we live in. I walked around the summit and enjoyed the pleasant view and weather. Afterward, we descended the mountain by bus and grabbed a quick dinner as a dark yellow haze set in on the horizon. What a day it has been. 

Signing off from the evening train from Emeishan to Chengdu,

Sunday, 25/08/19

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. . .

China 2019: My Life in Chengdu 成都

Upon touching down in Chengdu after a long flight from Los Angeles, I found myself back in a world I had been apart from for four years. The last time I was in China, though, I was visiting with a group of some of my closest friends for two weeks. This time, however, I was alone and would be living there for over a month and a half. I have no problem living on my own, but compared to my home town the city might as well have been on a different planet. I couldn't speak the language and I wasn't accustomed to the culture, food, or social cues. What was I even doing there in the first place?

In the spring of that year, I was walking back from playing soccer with a friend of mine at university in Cardiff, Wales. On the way home, we passed by a career fair in the university's main hall, where I picked up a pamphlet for an internship opportunity in China. An online application and a couple of phone interviews later, I secured my place on the program and started looking at round-trip flights to a city I had only ever heard of once or twice before in my life.

After I arrived at my apartment in Chengdu, I dropped my bags and went for a walk. I wanted to explore the city on foot and get a sense of my surroundings. After walking for over an hour and a half, I realized that I had only passed through two high-rise neighborhoods and a business center. The city was so massive that two hours of walking eventually landed me two centimeters away from my house on a city map. I knew it was a big city from my research back in university, but being able to see the scale firsthand was much different. Even the size of the buildings astonished me. Not just the size, but the shape as well. Modern Chinese architecture is an art of its own. The attention to detail and the use of patterns and irregularity was particularly astonishing.

The photo above on the left is from when I walked past Chengdu Polytechnic University in the Hi-tech Zone on my way home. The illuminated building is the same in both images, but the second is the view of it from my room. The lights on the building would turn on at exactly 8:10 pm and would turn off at midnight.

Jet lag kept me up at night through the first weekend. I didn't mind because I found the night to be better for exploring the city than the day. Afternoons in Chengdu had two moods: windy with torrential rain or oppressively hot and humid, while nights were usually cool and cloudy. I tried to balance my walks through the city between tourist traps and local favorites. Each night, though, would bring me back to the same spot: Anshun Bridge.

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Over time, the rainbow-lit steps by the bridge became my favorite place in Chengdu. Local musicians played their guitars and sand to the crowd as pedestrians came and went. I would usually walk there late after work or nights spent on the town and sit for hours. The crowd would change every half-hour or so, but almost every person came in a group of two. University students drinking canned cocktails, a mother and her boy, a blind man and his wife, star-crossed teenage lovers, a businessman and his small dog...All of these different people sitting and listening to music together, sharing the same moment under a moon-lit sky.

Making friends on a night out in Lan Kwai Fong.
Making friends on a night out in Lan Kwai Fong.

The picture above on the right is the first hotpot meal I had in Chengdu. A group of interns and I were led through the restaurant to a private room in the back, where we were given translated menus and tea. The idea behind hotpot is that the entire group uses a pot of boiling water to cook the raw meats and vegetables they order. By tossing different ingredients into the boiling water, you basically create your own custom broth to cook the food in. Our hotpot was segregated by spice level and food preference, with the pot on the left cooking mild vegetables and the pot on the right cooking spicy meats. Hotpot is a communal experience and was a perfect way for the group to make conversation, share a few laughs, and get to know each other better. One particularly comical moment was when we ordered a pig's brain for the hotpot. The majority of the group seemed both curious and nervous to try it. Once the brain arrived, a friend of mine started to lower it into the spicy pot. Suddenly, it slipped from the spoon and into the mild vegetarian pot. The entire group screamed and fished the brain into the correct pot, apologizing profusely to the vegetarians who found the funny side of it, thankfully. As the night drew on, we realized that each person in our group of twelve was born in a different country: Israel, Poland, England, France, Lithuania, Germany, Ireland, and the United States. It was both an honor and pleasure to have dinner with such a diverse, friendly, genuine, unique, and all-around fantastic group of people.

I am not a beer drinker. If a restaurant offers any kind or quality of wine, I would happily drink a bottle of it before a beer. This particular hotpot restaurant, however, did not. Determined not to be the only person in the building not enjoying a drink with their dinner, I asked one of the internship coordinators if there was anything else to drink besides beer. He replied, "Yes. You can try Baiju." I had no idea what that was, so I simply nodded my head and suddenly a small glass bottle of clear liquid was placed before me. Baiju, I would come to learn, is a Chinese grain-based spirit. After my first sip, I instantly recognized my mistake. Finishing the bottle was a painful experience. Some people enjoy it, like some people enjoy sipping straight vodka, but I am not one of them. It was cheap, though, so if you're looking for a bottle of discount vodka while in China this is a solid option.

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Another memorable experience during a dinner with the interns was at a Pizza Hut celebrating my flatmate's birthday. Like many Western chain restaurants in China, the menu at this Pizza Hut was unlike others, sporting local favorites such as the durian pizza. It was on this night that my friend Katie and I hit a language barrier with the waiter. After the guy sitting across from us ordered a pepperoni pizza, we ordered a plain cheese pizza to share. He said that they were out of them. Katie and I exchanged confused glances and looked around for help. Another intern showed the waiter the cheese pizza on the menu and he shook his head. We asked if there were other pizzas available, and he replied with a range of options, all including bread, red sauce, and cheese. Figuring that something must be lost in translation, we asked him if we could have a pizza with just those three basic ingredients. He nodded his head, confirmed the order with us, and left. Twenty minutes later, we received the pizza pictured above. Somehow, a pizza with 'just bread, red sauce, and cheese' came out as a pizza with mayo, potato slices, and a buttery egg base. At that point, we were too tired to try again so we ate it. It was strange.

A fun day at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

Chengdu is often known as the home of the giant panda, the birthplace of Chinese tea culture, and the artistic, historical, and cultural hub of all Sichuan. For a city that’s thousands of years old, Chengdu has increasingly become a symbol of Chinese modernity. This is seen in it’s growing population of eight million residents, in the number of supercars present on any given street, and in the construction of the New Century Global Mall.

Tianfu Square from the ground.
Tianfu Square from the ground.
Tianfu Square from satellite view on Baidu Maps.
Tianfu Square from satellite view on Baidu Maps.

Back when I was applying for this experience in university, I was given a link to a list of potential companies I could work for across the city. I chose my top three, all in media-related fields, and emailed them to one of the internship coordinators. He emailed me back saying that none of the companies I chose were offering opportunities that year. He then sent me a link to a company that was not on the initial list, a company called Walkingbook. They were an event organizer looking for someone to help with social media and marketing. I jumped at the prospect and, after an interview with the leader, Karan, I happily accepted the position.

Working for Walkingbook was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Little did I know that a "social media and marketing" position would offer me so many new skills, friendships, and opportunities. Aside from shooting promotional photographs and videos from the summit of a 12,000 ft mountain covered in storm clouds, a normal day was spent at the city studio in Tongzilin designing advertisements, building the website, and managing social media accounts.

Paint & Sip at Walkingbook.
Paint & Sip at Walkingbook.

There were several days that stuck out to me looking back at my time working at Walkingbook. The first was the day of my first 'Paint & Sip.' It was a Wednesday during our first week and my coworker Alina and I arrived at the studio expecting another day of media-based tasks. When we met with Karan, however, she handed us a pile of supplies and pointed to the walls, asking if we have ever put up wallpaper before. We shook our heads and before we knew it we were wallpapering the entire studio. Six hours passed and Alina and I were tired and sweaty, taking turns standing in front of the studio's air vent. It was almost 6:00 pm and we had to finish before the night's event. After putting up the last slab of wallpaper, Karan congratulated us, poured two glasses of red wine, and asked if we wanted to stay for the event. We shrugged and took our seats in front of our easels as guests began to pour through the door.

This event is the crown jewel of Walkingbook. Hosted in our studio, Paint & Sip brings locals and visitors from across the world to a shared table to drink wine and paint whatever they want. At the end of the event, the guests share what they painted, why they painted it, and what the finished work means to them.

After everyone had shared their paintings, Alina and I stepped outside and made conversation with a couple of American visitors. They told us that they were on their way to Lan Kwai Fong and asked if we wanted to join them for a few drinks. At that point, I was already a fair few glasses of wine down and I was up for anything. We met up with Alina's boyfriend, David, and before we knew it the entire group was packed in a taxi headed for a night of hilarious memories and antics.

This was the culture. This was life in Chengdu. With each adventure, I grew to love where I was and who I was with more and more. Every day was a new story, every moment and opportunity to laugh, learn, and grow...and this was just the beginning. This was week one. I couldn't wait to see what the rest of my time in Chengdu would bring. Looking back, I'll tell you now that it did not disappoint.

. . .

Shooting to Edit: Playing with Photoshop Filters in Tokyo

Street photography has never been easy for me, which is probably why I love it so much. I love the challenge and resulting growth that it provides. In a cityscape, I'm not only looking to create something out of nothing, but often nothing out of something as well. A mega-city like Tokyo, for instance, is packed full of various colors and shapes. I found that this ocular chaos was reflected in the images I was taking. My goal in a cityscape is to find moments of peace amongst the chaos because I personally find that dichotomy to be both visually and ideologically compelling. I struggled to find such moments in Tokyo outside of the tourist attractions like the Meiji Shrine or Sensoji Temple, and I had little desire to focus all of my energy on such destinations. Instead, I wanted to create something extraordinary out of what would normally be considered mundane, like a street corner, pedestrian crossing, taxi, etc.

After struggling to create such serenity through the wires, billboards, and crowds of Tokyo, I thought of a new approach. If I can't find moments like these naturally, can I create them artificially?

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I found my solution in the post-production process. Through selective-color editing, I was able to direct the attention in my images to the subtle vibrancies of Tokyo. I am forcing the eye to focus on, for instance, a taxi, a pagoda, or a bridge. I want the viewer to unpack the city and admire its finer details, the ones I fell in love with during my stay. By simplifying the content of the photographs, I found it easier to focus on the subjects, like a man walking beside a train.

The process was incredibly simple. All I did was drop an image into Photoshop and open up the 'Hue/Saturation' menu. I then moved through each color profile within that menu and decided which color I wanted to keep. Finally, while leaving the chosen color's saturation at 0, I completely desaturated the others. After saving and exporting, I had my image.

When I first tried this technique, I was using images I had shot the previous day. After experimenting with a large range of old shots, I was ready to shoot the following morning. When my friends and I explored Akihabara the next day, I found that the way I looked at my surroundings had changed. In hindsight, this makes a lot of sense. When shooting, I always try to see the world as if it was through a viewfinder so that  I can plan and frame shots in my head long before I take them. On this particular afternoon, I was looking at the colors of buildings, cars, signs, clothes, and food, trying to visualize what different scenes would look like if I was working in Photoshop.

What defining colors were present? What shapes or subjects did the colors emphasize? Was there enough of one color to fill the image? Was I shooting a wide variety of colors or focusing too much on one throughout the day? These were all questions that played on my mind as I shot to edit.

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漫画

Manga is a widely popular variety of literature. Although it has a foothold in the United States, it is massive in Japan. Every bookstore will feature a section dedicated to manga. By appearance, it looks like a comic book on psychedelics. I wanted to pay tribute to this art style by editing images of my own to look as if they could appear in a manga.

Nowhere to go

Compared to selective-color editing, this process was technically much easier but required more experimentation. All I did when editing these images was place Photoshop filters on them from the 'Filter Gallery' menu. I simply used the filters 'Torn Edges' and 'Stamp' and their sliders to adjust the contrast and lighting of the photographs.

In the past, I had never been a fan of harsh editing practices. I always wanted to uphold the reality of my photographs and anything that could compromise that honesty was never welcomed in my portfolio. The idea of throwing a filter on an image seemed like taking the easy route. It almost looked like cheating. Over time, however, I've come to realize that this was a limiting belief. By using these edits, I was able to tell stories I never could have told before. I crafted fantasy worlds that were based on aspects of the real but deviated into the imaginary. I had access to a toolbox for storytelling that I had never even considered before, and I loved it.

Raindrops

What I found was that, as opposed to the selective-color edits, the filters emphasized the shapes, symbols, patterns, and textures of the scene. Color became completely irrelevant. At this point in the trip, I started to look through the city for both selective color scenes and black and white abstractions. Through practice, I trained myself to look for both edits interchangeably as I walked through Tokyo, a difficult feat in a city so tall, wide, and condensed. The result was a collection of images that represented both the colorful vibrancy and the architectural brilliance of the Japanese capital.

. . .

Hiroshima: Seventy-Three Years After the Bomb

It was a gloomy Tuesday morning when we arrived at the train station in Hiroshima. After getting off the bullet train, we met our local guide and started our tour through the city. Our first location was Carp Castle, erected by Mori Terumoto, a powerful lord in feudal Japan. The carp is an important symbol in Japan and is especially popular in Hiroshima, whose baseball team is named after it. The fish stands for strength and determination, as it is famous for swimming against the current.

The drive to the castle brought us through a diverse and beautiful city. Hiroshima was built upon a river delta and has grown into a city with a heritage important not only to its prefecture but to all of Japan. After our tour of the castle, it became clear that many of the residents of Hiroshima are proud of their vibrant ancient history. However, as we passed by a collection of stone shrines and other historical relics, I couldn’t help but remember that they are not the original structures. Like the vast majority of the buildings in the city, they had to have been built or restored in the last 73 years. There was an elephant in the room that had to be addressed. It was the reason we were there, after all.

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広島城

At 8:15 AM on August 6, 1945, a U.S. Army B-29 bomber known as the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was the first time in human history that the weapon had ever been used outside of testing. It detonated around 600 meters above the hypocenter, striking the city with blast wind, radiation, and heat rays of approximately 5,000 to 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The city was decimated and an estimated 140,000 people lost their lives. The aftermath was devastating as people burned to death in the streets and black rain fell from the sky. A poem from survivor Akiko Takakura goes:

Black, black rain.

Huge drops.

People craned their neck

To the sky

With their mouth wide open.

Hot bodies, so very hot,

They wanted water.

It started to rain lightly as we made our way past the Atomic Bomb Dome, which stands as a somber reminder of that horrific day. There was something so haunting about the remaining shell of the building, something surreal about the mangled metal and burned stone. We kept walking and soon found ourselves within the Peace Park, a place of beautiful symbolism. One such symbol is a fire said to stay burning until the world is rid of all its nuclear weapons. It is sadly called the "eternal flame.” Next came the museum, the part of the tour that struck me the most. We strolled through exhibit after exhibit, astounded and horrified by the images and voices around us. One room showed photographs of Hiroshima before and after the bombing. In this exhibit, there was a video display of the bombing being projected onto a circular miniature map of Hiroshima. As I began to watch, a group of young Japanese students walked in and filled the space opposite of me. The video showed a colorful, bustling city full of life and commerce. Then a bomb started to fall. It detonated above the city, turning everything in sight into a black and white heap of rubble. There I was, an American standing across from a group of young Japanese children, watching an American bomber turn a Japanese city to ruin. What I felt wasn’t exactly personal guilt, it was something much more complex. I felt out of place, like I shouldn’t have been there. But at the same time it felt absolutely crucial to be standing there, witnessing what happened and learning about the devastation from ground zero.

During the tour, I asked our guide what the perception of Americans was for the people of Hiroshima after this tragedy. She said that in the days that followed, the survivors had no time to think about the war. All they wanted to do was get back to their normal lives and find their loved ones. There was no time for hatred. As the weeks went by, more and more Western organizations and individuals, many from the United States in particular, went to Hiroshima and brought food, water, and things to help the kids. They helped rebuild the city. It was then that many survivors realized that the propaganda their government had been feeding them about Americans, the demons on earth, was false.

Strangely, that was the first moment the United States had been mentioned between us. The entirety of the tour had been based around the effects of the bomb and hope for a better future. The United States wasn’t even mentioned until near the end of the tour, where there stood a section about WWII history for those interested. The bombing of Hiroshima was spoken of as if it was a natural disaster: a bomb was dropped and an entire city was destroyed. At the museum, it isn’t recognized as an act of merciless violence from one country against the civilian population of another. The bombing is seen as a disaster of human nature. The city stands as an example of the dangers of nuclear weaponry and lives as a reminder that such a disaster should never happen again.

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That was what I found to be the most powerful aspect of the museum. It wasn’t about the violence between the Americans and the Japanese. It wasn’t about governments hating each other, with one bombing the other’s territory. It was about people killing other people and how wrong that is, not just at the scale of an atomic bomb attack but on any scale. There is a unity that has been created here, at ground zero, in the hope for a denuclearized future. It’s a hope that transcends borders.

. . .

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        I visited Hiroshima in the months before the meeting scheduled to take place in Singapore between President Donald Trump and DPRK Leader Kim Jong-un, when this issue of denuclearization was once again a massive talking point on the world stage. The issue remains prevalent today and there are many questions still to be answered. Is it possible for humans to ever live in a world without these weapons again? Is it possible for the governments of the world to trust each other enough to stop stockpiling enough firepower to wipe entire countries off the face of the earth? I’m not sure. What I do know is that the ruins of the Hiroshima bombing still stand as proud and solemn monuments of the direction humans can take the world if they aren’t careful.

Words and images by Luke Netzley

Why Tokyo Is My Favorite City in the World

Tokyo is a city bursting with color and life. From the quiet ramen shops to the hectic Shibuya Crossing, there is something here for everyone. Tokyo is a massive city full of diverse areas. For instance, Akihabara sits as a center for anime and pop culture just two stops on the train from Ueno, an area home to many ancient Buddhist temples.

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My group and I rented a small apartment in Harajuku, a perfect place for the four of us. Looking out of our window, we could see clusters of high school students chatting away in their matching white uniforms. They were most likely bound for the nearby Takeshita Street, a hub for Japanese pop culture and one of the most energetic places in Tokyo. Later in the night, university students would gradually join the crowd. After all, Harajuku is home to the College of Art and Beauty, a beautifully-simplistic building nestled into the quiet backstreets and tightly packed residencies of this modern neighborhood.

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原宿

Takeshita Street offers visitors a plethora of desserts and souvenirs to choose from. The road is densely packed with people and shops. Some larger buildings contain winding maze-like passages and courtyards, offering dinner, drinks, and trinkets to visitors.

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If you walk the other direction from Takeshita Street, you will find a much more peaceful atmosphere. A forest of 100,000 trees arises from behind the tall buildings of the bustling cityscape. The entrance to the famed Meiji Shrine is a giant torii, a Shinto religious symbol. Guests to the shrine walk beneath the entrance gate at its sides, for the center is reserved for the kami, spirits of nature worshipped by followers of Shintoism. Vast areas of natural beauty, majestic holy structures, and shaded areas for resting make up the grounds of the Meiji Shrine.

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新宿

Shinjuku is my favorite area of the city due to its harmonic blend of historic destinations, such as the famed Piss Alley, and modern creations, like the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower.

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There were moments in Tokyo when the world seemed to pause. They were few and far between in one of the most populated cities on Earth, but that only made their occurrence that much more noticeable and special. A moment that stuck with me was when my friends and I dipped into a dessert cafe to escape the summer rain. I wiped away the fog on the windows an watched the neon signs of Akihabara dance outside. We waited for the storm to pass in the warmth of the cafe, the smell of baked bread wafting through the room. On another day, we went to a hole-in-the-wall ramen bar that was around the corner from the Apple store in Shinjuku. The small restaurant was welcoming and its food was delicious. Tokyo is full of happy moments waiting to be found.

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Beloved by tourists, the Mario Kart street tours are a common sight in popular areas of the city.

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汐留

The Shiodome skyline lies within the Minato area of Tokyo. This is where my Dad spent his time in the city while here for business. The entire area caters well to visiting businessmen, with the Hamarikyu Gardens and Tokyo Bay sitting a short walk away from the massive skyscrapers. For my companions, the Shiodome area servers as a spectacle of modern architecture and contemporary beauty. I, on the other hand, felt consumed in the dizzying landscape.

Overall, I loved my time in Tokyo. It is a paradise for explorers and aims to please even the most jaded of travelers. The growing city is filled with incredible views, delicious food and interesting people. What I enjoyed most about the city is its mix of unique and vibrant cultures, all coexisting to produce a remarkable unity between the old and the new.

. . .

Eric (center), Derek (right), and I standing in front of the entrance to the Meiji Shrine.
Eric (center), Derek (right), and I standing in front of the entrance to the Meiji Shrine.

The Faces of Khao San | ถนนข้าวสาร

“We are coming up on Khao San Road. It’s a crazy street. There are a lot of tourists there. It’s very busy.”

        Raindrops started to form on the window as the car rolled slowly through traffic in Bangkok. When we finally pulled up to the curb, we were met by what looked like a Thai version of the Las Vegas strip, except condensed and filled to the brim with wandering bodies. The rain continued to pour, but that did not stop the crowd of locals and tourists from flooding the bustling road. I was glued to the pavement, awestruck by the scenes I was witnessing.

        The humid air felt thick and smelled of fried meats. The clouds had rolled through and the storm had ceased for a moment, leaving puddles and debris throughout the city. The aftermath was beautiful. The traffic lights spiraled down into the pavement like colorful veins stretching into the depths of a dark world.

        As I made my way down Khao San Road, I was greeted with smiles and laughter. There were vendors selling tropical fruits and other fresh meals. The steam of the grills danced through the wind. Everywhere I looked there were nooks to explore, shopkeepers to bargain with, dance floors to enter, and travelers to speak to. It all felt so poetic to me. I had to go further.

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        The rain returned, as it always does this time of year, and I was caught without an umbrella. A daunting orange sign looming above provided temporary shelter. It seemed as though every building was a nightclub and that the pavement itself was bouncing to the songs of the loudspeakers. The neon colors and bright lights were intoxicating, the noise relentless. I somehow felt both repulsed and drawn into the fray.

        Behind the front row of buildings on Khao San Road lies a complex network of alleys and spaces. The corridors were full of apparitions; ghostly figures floating into dimly lit rooms. I wasn’t sure where to go or what time it was, and I became tangled in it all. The winding wires and puffs of smoke unearthed a sullen nostalgia for a caring face. The seraphic beach paradise of Phuket was far out of reach both physically and mentally. Its sunlit image became just as lost as I in the dizziness of the world around me. Bars and clubs formed in the space where white sand and palm trees once stood. A discount disco ball replaced the sun. Shady men sold produce, pottery, and people.

        But I was not in danger. I was, in fact, the intended customer, the one who indulged, the one who robbed, the one who ruined. I was the young white male who was meant to arrive from a far away place and spend my money, fueling one of the most sinister industries in Southeast Asia. I felt disgusted by this game and the role I was expected to play in it. The night became more menacing as the situation became clearer. The Thai girls around the club are not brought there by their own free will. The warmth of the bar owner is a façade reserved for the customer. The police van parked down the road is not there to protect, but to take part. The stories were real, except no longer just stories to me. They became images and facts engraved in my mind, never to leave.

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        I left Khao San road late that night, accompanied by friendly faces, yet the road still stays with me. The twisted harmony between the beauty and madness of it all never ceases to astound me, and I can still see the speechless mouths and longing eyes of those who watched the frenzied madness that reigned over their home.

. . .

Words and images by Luke Netzley

As seen on The Culture-ist: https://www.thecultureist.com/2020/02/10/the-faces-of-khao-san/

Isolation: Observations from a Lahu Hill Tribe Village

        Isolation. There is a feeling of quiet isolation, a certain invulnerability, that I feel in this place. I take in a breath of fresh air. We are hidden in a small bamboo village, sitting perched on the edge of a large jungle valley. There is no easy way to get here. If large-scale development were to try to reach this place, it wouldn’t stand a chance. Ja Bu Si is a secluded oasis. We are buried in the northern mountains of Thailand, making conversation with the children who call it their home.

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        We watched the children climb fearlessly through the dense forest they call home. Astonishingly, these children are not actually Thai citizens. What’s more is that, even if they were to grow up seeking citizenship, there is a very small chance they would ever be granted it. They were born in Thailand, but belong to a hill tribe that came from the Tibetan Plateau. The Lahu people settled in northern Thailand centuries ago, yet have been shunned by most of society. Tribal people are stereotypically viewed as poor and uneducated, less than human, and have been blamed for problems like deforestation. However, there is truth in some of these stereotypes, but not at the fault of the Lahu people.

        It is true that, on average, tribal people are less educated than other Thais, for without Thai citizenship a child cannot attend a government-funded school. The older kids in our village did, in fact, go to school, but only because it was one built in another tribe’s village. They would make a long trek through the jungle to the school and stay there for days, coming home on the weekends. It is true that, on average, tribal people are poorer than other Thais, for it is almost impossible to get a stable job without education or an ID. And finally, it is true that tribal people have had to clear away forest areas in order to build villages, for it is difficult, as you could imagine, to secure land rights anywhere else without proper documents, such as identification papers. With little money, dodgy education, and no rights, the people of the hill tribes are of the most marginalized in the country and have become prime victims for the human trafficking industry.

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        Despite prostitution being illegal, Thailand is known as the sex tourism capital of the world. The Thai legal system can be described as faulty at best, as little to no arrests for sex trafficking are made. This can be attributed to both corruption and gaps in the system.

        In Thailand, there are certain bars that cater primarily to white male tourists, although locals sometimes frequent them as well. Within the bar, a customer will be seated at a table and immediately greeted by a girl or two. While at the table, the customer is allowed to do whatever they wish to the girl, such as touching or kissing. The girl’s job is to convince the customer that she adores them, with the end game being that the customer approaches the bar owner. They then pay a bar fee to take the girl away with them for the night. Herein lies the loophole in the legal system. Because the customer is paying the bar owner for the girl and not the girl directly for her services, coupled with the money not being explicitly paid for sex, it is not legally defined as prostitution in Thailand. On top of all of this, policemen can also sometimes be seen lounging in and around the bars. They are not there with the intention of making arrests.

        There are countless stories of hill tribe girls being taken from their homes and forced into the sex trafficking industry, as this group is of the most vulnerable to this situation. The way it typically plays out is that a man will come to a village and tell a girl’s family that there is a job opening in Bangkok. The man explains that their daughter will be working as a waitress in a restaurant and will be sending home around 600 Thai baht a week, the equivalent of around $20. This prospect is near irresistible to the parents, who are struggling financially. The practice of filial piety, which is essentially the belief of duty to one’s elders, is prevalent in many countries that hold Confucian and Buddhist philosophies, including Thailand. The girl is expected to do what her parents say, placing their needs above her own. This helps fuel the side of sex trafficking that is most difficult to combat: psychological slavery.

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        When she arrives in Bangkok, the young girl will be forced to work in a bar, selling herself to strangers. She becomes caught in a trap of guilt and humiliation and cannot stop working. Even if she could physically escape the establishment, the idea that the bar owner knows the location of her family is enough to quell such a plan.

        What would her parents think of her if she came home? Some parents are oblivious and do not know what is going on or where their daughter is. Others know exactly where their girl is and are satisfied with the money being sent home.

        A tourist usually pays 6,000 to 7,000 baht for a girl, the equivalent of around $200. The money is paid to the bar owner and only a tiny percentage trickles down to the girl, who is suffering physically and emotionally. That completes the cycle of internal destruction of a girl for the production of wealth and male sexual pleasure.

        Isolation. There is a feeling of quiet isolation, but there are shadows creeping around us. I have come to realize that the invulnerability I once felt was simply an illusion. We are hidden in a small bamboo village, sitting perched atop the edge of a large valley decorated in dense forest. But beyond that forest lies a road, a paved pathway leading to the heart of a scornful society. We are buried in a jungle in Thailand, making conversation with the children who are told that it is not their home.

. . .

Words and images by Luke Netzley

SAṂSĀRA: Remnants of Disaster on the Andaman Coast.

        In the height of the monsoon season, an old silver Toyota bounced back and forth down the dirt path. The wheels struggled to find a stretch of solid ground as the rain thundered on the van’s metal roof. I peered outside to get a sense of my surroundings. To my left was a small collection of misty islands rising out of the dark grey sea. To my right lay a labyrinth of mangrove trees stretching for miles before reaching the jungle-clad mountains. Small storm waves broke soundly onto the sand. The gloomy water looked peaceful, easy to forget its deadly potential. There was history here.

        The small seaside village of Ban Talae Nok rests on the shore of southern Thailand’s Andaman coast. The “Village by the Outer Sea” – an English translation of its Thai name – is home to a largely Muslim population, a rarity in a country that is almost entirely Buddhist. Sadly, discrimination against Muslim groups within Thailand is not uncommon. The religious tension occurs primarily in the south, around where we were staying, due to the proximity to Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country.

        In the summer, the men are drawn out to sea on their long tail boats to catch jellyfish for harvest. Wielding their massive nets, these fishermen can bring in hundreds of jellies per boat with each excursion. The catch is then taken to a large wooden mechanism on the shoreline to be harvested and prepared for export. This has historically been Ban Talae Nok’s largest industry. Meanwhile, on land, the women weave bamboo roof shingles, mold herbal soaps, and take care of essential housework.

        The town is a small, yet lively, place, a community situated around a paved road that runs through its center. Gravel back streets shoot off from the asphalt into the adjacent neighborhoods. During the afternoon, it became clear that the paved road was rarely used by motor vehicles, occupied instead by cows, carts, and children at play. At night, the residents return to their homes. Smoke pours out of candle-lit windows as religious hymns echo across the street. A dense mist pushes inland from the shore and snakes though the jungle valley. The evening sky turns into an ever-darkening shade of blue before inevitably falling into the endless black of night.

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        After finishing a late dinner of spiced chicken, pumpkin, and rice, the owner of the house joined us outside on the patio. She was an older Thai woman, yet spoke with youth in her voice. We were able to communicate through basic translations. Using my phone, I showed her images of friends, pets, and adventures from back home. She pointed, smiled, and laughed, showing genuine interest in who I was and what my life was like. I found it amazing that I could so easily connect with someone who spoke a different language, followed a different faith, and lived in a different country. We are all just people, after all. My friends and I told her that if she had any questions for us, anything in the world, we would be happy to answer. The first and only question she asked, relayed through loose translations, was this:

“Why would you choose to live in these conditions when you have a comfortable life back home?”

        Looking back, she had a point. Why would anyone travel from a place where they are happy and stable to a place they have never been before? It is true that change can be uncomfortable. However, change can also bring immense growth, and this is especially true with villages like Ban Talae Nok.

For two nights we stayed with a lovely family of six on the South-eastern edge of the village.
For two nights we stayed with a lovely family of six on the South-eastern edge of the village.

        As the night became darker, the wind grew stronger, carrying with it the patchy rains we had grown accustomed to during our stay in the village. From where my friends and I had sat that night, we could still hear the faint sounds of the small waves breaking onto the sand. No matter where you are in Ban Talae Nok, the shore is never far. However, the village’s relationship with the sea is as complex as the maze-like swamp between them. It has brought the people life by providing sources of food, pathways for transportation, and a gateway for trade. That being said, it has also brought them immeasurable hardships.

        On the morning of December 26th, 2004, the village was decimated by a tsunami. According to a survivor who witnessed the impact of the first wave, the water came higher than the trees, which were roughly 7 meters in height. The brunt of the damage came from the second wave that hit, however, as it carried with it the debris from the first. Out of the 200 residents of Ban Talae Nok, 153 survived. The most severe physical damage was done to the thirteen beachfront houses that were used as stay-over destinations for the fishermen during the jellyfish migrations. Ruins still dotted the sand bar as we floated past. Cruises through the mangrove swamps on long-tail boats as well as other tourism-based activities have become important streams of income for the community. The people have had to adapt to the spotlight put on them by both charity and travel organizations, as community-based tourism slowly becomes the new central industry of Ban Talae Nok.

Ruins on the sandbank where fishermen used to live during the jellyfish migrations.
Ruins on the sandbank where fishermen used to live during the jellyfish migrations.

        Through organizations like Andaman Discoveries and other tour companies, foreigners are permitted to stay in the homes of local residents, work in the workshops of local residents, and learn from the experiences of local residents. “I am happy you are here,” our host told us, “but the only problem is we can’t speak.” She was right. Even with the aid of our translator, we were only able to ask relatively simple questions. Our translations would not be exact, for our guide and our host spoke different dialects of Thai. However, we were able to grasp the essentials of each conversation and grew more and more enlightened as the night went on. We asked her about the presence of tourism in her village and how that has impacted her life. So far, she remarked, the industry has proven to have many benefits. Outsiders who come to Ban Talae Nok and meet the people who were personally affected by the tsunami can gain a new respect through understanding and bring the stories from the Village by the Outer Sea back home.

        However, tourism can also have its drawbacks. She explained, “Everything is so much more expensive in Thailand now, but the income is still the same.” Our translator knew the number, “15,000 baht, divide that by 30, that’s a good 500.” What he said was that 15,000 baht a month is a salary of roughly 500 baht a week. That’s equivalent to fifteen U.S. dollars every week. “That’s the local income of a Thai,” he said, before quickly adding, “if you have a degree, that is.”

Well, what if you don’t have a degree?

        “The construction workers get approximately 500 baht a day, but…the work is not steady. You don’t get a contract. Pickup trucks… In the morning you see them everywhere. They just pick up people who can work for the day. If you’re lucky, you receive a project for a couple of days.”

        Prices in Thailand, especially in southern areas like the resort-filled Phuket, are heavily catered to tourists. What about the local people? What about those who cannot even work? Our host answered, “For villagers who don’t ever work, the government will pay for a Medicare-like [program]…when you go to the doctor, you pay 30 baht as a deductible. So you pay and the government forces the hospitals to accept you.”

        As we were talking, two young twins, no older than 3 years, ran out to the table and climbed atop their mother. She smiled and shooed them away. The two giggled and stared at us, the foreigners, in fascination before disappearing back into the house. Our host looked off into the night. “The kids on Saturday and Sunday go to study Arabic.” It was getting late and nearly time to head back inside ourselves, but not before we were taught an Arabic saying:

Alhamdulillah.

        “It’s an Arabic blessing. May God be with you.” The saying can hold many meanings and is used within many Thai-Muslim communities. After our brief lesson, we bid farewell and retired to our mosquito nets.

Boys running back home in the rain.
Boys running back home in the rain.

        The people of Ban Talae Nok have had to be resilient and strong. Although they have had to adapt to the new and rising industry of tourism, these people are making the most of the resources at hand and are steadily rebuilding their lives. It is a truly remarkable sight to see children dancing down a village road that had been demolished by a tsunami just over a decade before. The future looks bright for this vibrant seaside community.

. . .

Words and images by Luke Netzley