I’m into my second year of medicare, have been retired for a long time, have grandchildren, a big dog, a small apartment, a ten-year old truck and a helluva lot of life experiences to filter the lenses on my Canon. I have had many teachers: a career in education which allowed me to be taught by my students, that devastating disease which attacked my son when he was sixteen, a year-long sailboat trip with my daughter, my father’s life, my father’s death, too many homes around the country and not enough journeys to remote places and cultures. All of them teachers. Thousands of lessons taught. Some of them even learned and taken to heart. All of them life changing by some degree. I am grateful and shocked at the same time.
This stream of consciousness is written for my benefit and for those who know me. You see, it serves as an explanation of who I am and how I got here. As my mother slips more and more into forgetting what brought her to where she is, I realize the importance of writing your own story. No one can tell it like you can!
I am a father, a grandfather, a son, and a brother.
I am a teacher, a student and an observer.
I am a musician, a photographer and a traveler.
I am a Buddhist, an environmentalist, and an evolutionist.
I am Gay.
I’m not writing to impart wisdom or create great inspirations for bumper stickers. I’m just writing. You should do the same.
Two days ago, I spent the afternoon just outside of Mongkol Borei at the Cambodia Academy. The school year doesn’t begin for four more days, so the grounds were empty of anyone but the principal, the vice-principal and me. The countryside was quiet and oh, so hot! The gentlemen were painting trim around the windows of the cafeteria and I was wandering around getting some B-roll and just imagining the children returning in a few days. Principal So Viet took a break and I asked him if I could see a couple of the homes where the students live. We hopped on his motor bike (something I promised my mother I would never do) and off we went.
The house where we spent the most time was just down the dirt road from the school. I was greeted by a young boy, a student, some family members, some less than friendly dogs, some skinny chickens and a cow! My first impression was one of very deep sadness, hopelessness and a western-minded pity (useless feeling, btw). There are no walls, just a tin roof and any belongings they had were either strewn on a table and some plastic chairs, or hanging on any cross pieces supporting the roof. There were a few flat palettes that were their beds, a pile of cooking pots and utensils around chunks of charcoal, a couple of plastic wash basins by the large earthen jars for storing rainwater, one hammock and the area where the children sleep…adjacent to where the cows spend the night…under the roof and inside for protection.
The parents had moved to Thailand to look for work and the children live with their grandmother. An unthinkably difficult life at best…
After being shown around by this young boy, I asked if I could take his photograph. He nodded, then I asked him what he thought about going to the Academy (So Viet translated…though the boy’s English was certainly better than my Khmer!) The expression he threw at me took my breath away. Amidst this life he happened to be born into, his face reflected hope, confidence, peace and contentment. He is proud and so very appreciative that he is able to go the school, to learn English and to broaden his world beyond the few square kilometers that he knows. Because of the Academy, he is part of a community that values learning, that allows thought and dreams to incubate… he can enter into a safe space to be a child.
Each time that I visit Cambodia and the families in the countryside, it reboots, to factory default, my all too crowded mind and lifestyle. I thank the universe for the life I am able to live. Any one of us could have been born into the situation that these children find themselves. We, like they, would know nothing more of the world than just our few square kilometers. It’s an overused expression to say that we take so much for granted…but come on! We REALLY DO! Take a few moments right now, before reading on, and examine how you do that.
Now… look at this child’s face. No more words. Just look at his home and then at his face. Be still, breathe and be with him for a bit…
Get out of the house….
So… I often spend too much time wishing that I had a formal photography studio. You know…where I can leave all my stuff set up and not have to move all the furniture in my tiny living room to make way for a shoot. Wouldn’t I feel so much more professional with a white room, open space, a polished cement floor, 14 foot ceilings and a Keurig Espresso maker with which to impress my high paying clientele? Hell Yeah!!
But then…..I’d have to lock it up tight and worry about security and leases and insurance and….well… you get the idea!
And besides, it’s almost time to return to my world studios in Siem Reap and Monkol Borei, Cambodia. My studios that are nothing more than a place in the world and the equipment I can carry with me.
There are stories to be told there! This entry will be a run on, no framework stream of consciousness with revisions appearing whenever I get a chance. I have set projects with shot lists and story boards. I have marketing images to get, donor encouraging images, and a story about childhood. And that’s just for starters. I have new sites and sights to discover, guided by dear friends I’ve met over the last three journeys there. And then, there’re all the unplanned adventures that will surprise me…my favorites!
Time to Get Out Of The House!
As I sit here, waiting for Hurricane Irma to finish her assault on South Florida, I have tried everything I can to not hang on to the thoughts rushing through my mind. We are only getting a glancing blow from this storm, but there are 100 mph gusts, sustained tropical storm force winds, storm surge, tornadoes…. Well, you get the idea. The noise is very unsettling. Since we were fortunate enough to board up the entire house, there is no seeing what’s going on outside. We should be getting some relief late tonight as the eye moves up the west coast, 90 miles from here.
We have no power, no cell phone, no wifi. The landscaping is all being torn to shreds. There is, believe or not, looting going on in the city…even during the height of the storm! There will be little fuel or food around for a few days…no a/c…no television…etc. I did prepare and have the supplies I need for several days.
So many people, acting out of fear and stress, were rude and not at all “team players” in the days leading up to the storm. Our lives seem a bit turned upside down. We don’t know what we will find tomorrow or how long the aftermath will affect us.
I feel a great deal of fear as my children are on the west coast of the state and tonight will be dealing with a much more powerful version of Irma. There is nothing I can do for them except wait and hope we get some communication to each other very soon.
When I think of my children and what they will face tonight…
Fear….. what to do with all my fear…
In the days ahead of this storm, I meditated about compassion. In my travels, I have been lucky enough to meet and make friends with some folks in Siem Reap and Mongol Borei, Cambodia. They are wonderful, generous people who treasure their families and do everything they can for them. They live without a/c, Publix, cars, big computers…some of them with only seasonal work. When there is a natural disaster such as a flood or typhoon, their only choice for shelter is their home, built on stilts and made of tin and bamboo. Some have walls, some do not. There is no safety net or FEMA coming. There is no Super-Doppler radar or Max Tracker.
As difficult as it is NOT to latch onto to my fearful thoughts and the stories I imagine, I am trying to catch those moments of compassion. This experience may be a once in a lifetime for us, but for so many people, it happens every year. As I go through the fear of not knowing what those noises are beyond the shutters of plywood, how long this will last or what it will take to rebuild, I will TRY to experience the feeling and think of those who know it better than I. I hope my children will do the same. I hope we all will.
For this one, Don’t Get Out of the House…till it’s over.
Update: It’s over and we fared better than many. Now the compassion and assistance goes out to those who need it…and there are many… Namaste
There are a few things that I consider very personal: just mine, with a special, specific and emotional connection. First of all, there are my kids and my grandsons. My immediate family and chosen family. My oldest and dearest friend, Kate, who was in the first choir I directed way back in 19….well, never mind. Just know that I taught a lot of years and have been retired for almost twenty! Then, of course, my dog, Nuada. I also consider some photographic work I have done, and continue to do in Cambodia, very personal. More on that….MUCH MORE… later.
Let’s see….”Duty and Dignity”, a personal project I began about four years ago. I began this to raise awareness, through portraiture, of a population of United States Veterans who, through one reason or another, find themselves homeless.
Duty and Dignity, artist’s statement
Every man featured in this exhibit served his country in the United States Armed Forces.
He also is, or has been, homeless.
For the past few decades, our country has been honoring the Wounded Warriors and Fallen Heroes in great ways. We revere the dedication, service and sacrifices of these men and women, young and old who have given so much to keep us free in this country. There is, however, an underserved population of Veterans…those that find themselves, for one reason or another, homeless. We have dedicated men and women who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness and unemployment.
How many of us look away when we are near a homeless person?
Who of us takes a moment to question their story?
How many of us are careful NOT to make eye contact?
I challenge each person who views these photographs of our Veterans to look into their eyes and consider what they have sacrificed and what their story might be.
The adventure I am on now, a few weeks of wandering through the Carolinas, has connected me with some wonderful, caring folks that want to help my personal project reach more people and raise more awareness. The inspiring team of the Forsyth County United Way (Winston-Salem) will be working with me to create a Duty and Dignity Project for their homeless Veterans population. The members’ enthusiasm and brainstorming bring new ideas to the table. They have contacted the art department at a local college and the students will do the matting and framing for the exhibit, a brilliant idea! Nothing like finding ways to get more community involvement!
I had a meeting yesterday in Transylvania County ( yes, that’s right!) with a retired journalist who has arranged a meeting tomorrow with the president of their United Way. They, in turn, will have contacts with Asheville, NC.
In my last post, I wrote about not really planning an adventure. Let it run its course and be open to what it brings. This adventure has really gotten personal!
Get out of the house….
To plan or not to plan…
Certainly if I am headed to SE Asia, a lot of planning is necessary to get there and back safely. My next big adventure is closer to home. Nuada and I are packing up the camping gear, photography gear and heading to the Carolinas. Family and friends to see, portraits to make and a project meeting with the Forsyth County United Way in Winston-Salem. The only thing that is set in stone is the meeting on 7/13. Whatever happens there will dictate what follows.
When I was teaching, I knew what I was going to say every class, everyday and every year I taught…27 in all! Lesson plans had to be turned in and I had a clear outline for what would happen. Objectives, and techniques and measurable outcomes. When directing theatre, I had a carefully calculated vision of what the production would look and sound like when opening night arrived. I live with calendars filled with details of my working life,traveling life, social life, etc. Seems that everything is planned out carefully!
So after the truck is serviced, the camping gear is checked and stocked with supplies, the presentation for the meeting is prepared and we are on our way, I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do! All I know is the adventure is open-ended. Now, I “just” have to quiet my mind, give up my hyper-planning tendencies, and live the serendipitous life. OMG!!!
Years ago, when my daughter and I lived and traveled aboard our sailboat, I’d spend countless hours going over charts, trying to figure out what the next day would hold. Where would we anchor? Where is the slip in the marina? Which way does it face? Port or starboard side to? What REALLY made me crazy was that I knew I had no idea and would just have to wait until I got there.
Enter Buddhism and meditation. How the hell do I quiet the monkeys in my head insisting I plan out every detail? How do I live moment to moment when I have trained myself for a lifetime to do just the opposite? Breathe, Hank, breathe! Time to sit and allow the unknown surprises, lessons and adventures unfold as they will. They’re going to anyway. If I can even attempt mindfulness, I won’t miss them!
So, now I think back on the many, many wonderful, unplanned moments and experiences. Monkey mind, be gone! I have adventures ahead!Get out of the house!
So…how do you meet locals? Well, on my first trip to Laos, I took a very touristy excursion to ride elephants in the jungle outside of Luang Prabang and met Phan at the facility. In visiting with him, I discovered that he was also a “TSA” employee for the Laotian government at the airport. We ran into him again on our way out of the country. Phan and I became Facebook friends and kept up with one another for several months. I discovered that he was teaching English to the novices at a small temple in Luang Prabang and he invited me to come visit him and hang out at the temple next time I was in Laos! Well! That’s all I needed to get me out of the house…
He became a good friend and taught me about how they practiced Buddhism there. I was able to talk with the monks, chant with them (at 4:30 in the morning!), follow them as they gathered alms, ate with them and basically got to see what their days were like.
The monks all fought for the chance to practice their English with me and as I tried to learn to say a few phrases in Laotian, they laughed hysterically at me.
After spending a few days at the temple, Phan said we would go visit his family’s village about 50 km from Luang Prabang. So I packed a backpack and hopped on the back of his scooter and off we went into the mountains. THIS was an adventure! No one except Phan spoke any English! Here are the accommodations I was to find myself in for two days.
And again…as in Siem Reap…the people have so little, but are so generous. Everyone in this little village was thrilled to see Phan and were anxious to hear who the hell this tall, skinny white man was. After I was explained and introduced, I was family as well.
That night, there was a feast and a blessing ceremony for me. Much Lao Lao was consumed…local moonshine that tasted as if it had aged about an hour and a half! Those who know me can just imagine what that did to me. Since I was the honored guest, I received the best part of the meal to begin with…. a chicken head and the feet. Luckily, lots of vegetables and broth followed. Oh..and…no matter what you hear, rat does NOT taste like chicken!
The next morning, Phan announced that we were headed up into the mountains for some “trekking”.
Our little group was Phan, his brother and sister (who insisted on carrying my backpack and gear) and me. Quite a troupe!
This was definitely off the beaten path of the tourist industry. It was wonderful! We went through villages that didn’t even speak Laotian, but a dialect that even Phan struggled with. Beautiful kids and simple, hard lives led…but all we met welcomed us. One woman insisted we share some soup she had made. A group of “partying” men in a dark room invited us in for a drink of god knows what! I faked drinking through the straw they gave me and gestured and winced at how strong the drink was…much to their delight. We had a great time and they were REALLY drunk by the time we left.
And then the children we met…
We trekked our way back to Phan’s village for one more night before heading back to the city. There was one person who I had not yet met and wanted to: his grandmother who happened to be the oldest person in the village. 97! Just think of what she has seen and has been through. She was a little shy, but warmed up quickly and visited with me (through Phan) for quite a while. Her family and mine had so little in common and yet everything at the same time. It was an amazing encounter for both of us, I think.
Who could have known that this adventure, having started with meeting a young man on an elephant excursion, would have come to this. When I travel, sure, I see all the “postcard” sights, but then I start to wander. I am enriched and challenged, thrilled and distraught by what I see and experience. There is a commonality across the cultures that I am now understanding in my soul. Not because I have read about it or have seen it on Netflix or heard about it in some lecture hall…I have been gifted with the experience. Heartfelt thanks to Phan. And to the rest of you? Get out of the house…you never know who you’ll meet..
That’s what my Mom said when I told her where I was going. “Why the HELL would you go to Cambodia?” Well, it was a pretty simple answer. A friend of mine is the treasurer and board member of a non-profit that operates a school about 60 km NW of Siem Reap. He needed photos to document the school and I am a photographer. That’s all I needed to know. I’d never given much thought to Cambodia, but it was a gig, you know? This October will mark my fourth trip there. The image above was from my second trip…a solo one. I visited the school and when I arrived the kids were lined up to applaud and welcome me. They led me to a plastic chair, shaded by a tarp and I was presented with a beautiful dance from this older student. Almost three hundred kids gathered and watched her dance for me… a remarkable and humbling experience.
Cambodia is filled with remarkable experiences. I stay in Siem Reap at a wonderful little hotel named the Rambutan, about a five minute walk to the night markets and Pub Street. While sitting at the bar one night, I remarked to Sea, the bartender, that I wished for a way to see the part of Cambodia without so many tourists. “My brother has a car!” And so, I discovered my keys to the country: Sea and his brother Sout. We went to temples out in the country that are seldom visited. Many of the ones I saw had no one there but us…remarkable. I rode with Sea on his motorbike so he could take me to a locals’ market out of town…frightening!
We went to temples so I could see what went on in the daily lives of the monks and the locals who prayed there. You hear music around a corner? Go and see who’s making it. This little band was playing just outside a tiny little room where some sort of celebration was happening. Don’t ask… I have no idea!
Sout drove me up an impossibly rough road to hike to a waterfall. Again…very few tourists, though the locals were very fond of it.
The people of Cambodia are so welcoming, it seems, to everyone. The country is desperately poor, corrupt and war-torn, yet they are happy. They struggle with a system that has no safety net for those who fall, yet they make it work. There is a respect for family like I have rarely seen. And that respect is oftentimes extended to guests. One evening, after a long day at Ankor Wat, I asked Sout if I could meet his parents and family, as they live less than a kilometer from the temple complex. When we arrived, they were getting ready to eat and his mother insisted that I eat with them. So I sat on the floor and shared dinner around a single candle illuminating the room…this was generosity!
We take much for granted here. The first time I visited Cambodia, I was walking with friends down the streets and noticed that there was no one around that was my age. I mean, it was VERY noticeable.When I remarked on that, someone reminded me that a whole generation was murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Imagine what those years must have been like. To this day, many people are killed each year,working in their fields, by hitting a mine left over from the Viet Nam war era.
And still they are a welcoming culture. So many lessons there to be learned.
And then, there are the children.
Some are able, through generous benefactors, to attend schools that prepare them for a still uncertain future. Some live out their lives as generations have done. But kids are kids!
They are the ones who draw me back again this year. I can’t wait to go wandering with Sout and see whatever he wants me to see. He is proud of his country, his family and his culture. He gives me an insight that I would never get otherwise. So many lessons to learn!
That’s why, “Cambodia”!