Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Epic Summer: Cambodian Adventures

Rice patties and sunshine

   Since high school I've dreamed of road tripping across the United States and photographing some of its high points. After many years of dreaming and a few years of rough sketching and route planning, I finally decided that the summer of 2013 would be the one for the trip. I was excited and a little nervous as I began acquiring all the necessary supplies for what I then thought would be a 2-month road tripping adventure.

     Two weeks before I was to board the ferry for my first destination, Isle Royale National Park, a Michigan island that sits just off the shore of Minnesota and Canada in Lake Superior, we met a friend of my mom's at church and everything changed. 

    The lady at church was the wife of the Dean at Mercer University's School of Medicine. Her and her husband were leading a mission trip through Mercer and were looking for a photographer and wanted to know if I would be interested. There were just 2 issues with that, the first, they were going to Cambodia, the second, they were leaving in a week and a half. 
The in-flight display of our flight path

    Now I had been out of the country before, once, as a tourist, to Canada, in middle school. But Cambodia isn't Canada, and this wasn't a tourist trip. Cambodia, by itself, is one of the poorest countries on earth. It's hard to say exactly how poor, because it receives so much in foreign aid that half of its government's budget comes from foreign sources. This massive amount of foreign aid is in response to the Kmer Rougue’s social reengineering that devastated the country in the 1970’s and left it bereft of nearly all educated members of society. We visited some of the more notorious sites of this genocide (S21 and the killing fields). Cambodia is slowly putting itself back together but corruption in the government hampers its progress.
S21 Tuol Sleng execution center
Skulls from the "killing fields"
View from the former high school
 converted to S21 to hold
political prisoners
A monument filled with skulls of the dead
Rules for the prisoners to speed up executions

The tree that held the loudspeaker to down out
the screams of those being killed.

            I cancelled my trip to Isle Royale, and with help from Dr. Bina (the Mercer’s School of Medicine’s Dean) managed to get a ticket to Cambodia on the same flight as the rest of the team. I had a passport and the necessary shots already, which was fortunate. We left from Atlanta shortly after lunch and flew 14 hours to Incheon International Airport in South Korea. I love flying, but being stuck on a plane for more than half a day while flight attendants attempt to impose a new circadian rhythm upon you is not enjoyable. After a brief layover in South Korea, we were back on a plane heading for Phnom Penh. This flight was much shorter at only 5 hours, and at that point in the day (if it can really be considered a ‘day’ after all the time zones we crossed) I was so used to flying/just sitting there that the 5 hours went by rather quickly. Because of the time zones that we crossed, we arrived around 9pm to a hotel room with broken air-conditioning and pale lizards crawling in the hallways. I had attempted to adjust my circadian rhythm by staying awake until we arrived in Phnom Penh, and was successful for the most part. I will say, lying there on a hard bed, on the other side of the world from everything that was familiar, with the oppressive Cambodian heat beginning to weigh upon me, I felt the most intense feeling of homesickness I have ever felt. I think the main reason for that feeling may have been the realization that home was 19 long hours of flying away. (Which may qualify as a ‘first-world problem’ because, until relatively recently, people had to take boats across the oceans and that took weeks to months).
Our bus ride to our hotel

The hotel lobby

The view of Phnom Penh from my hotel room

Inside the royal compound
            We managed to get the air-conditioning working, but only after knocking the control panel through the wall and replacing the batteries on the remote control. The next couple of days involved us acclimating to the country and city as well as touring Phnom Penh. The city is a strange mix between old and new, opulence and poverty. There are western restaurants (a few of them) with shiny floors and professional layouts alongside local hole in the wall (sometimes literally) establishments that would test even the bravest of souls (ok so maybe it’s not that bad, but still). We toured the royal palace, home of the reported poorest king in the world. The palace looks nice from the outside but the inside suffers from neglect. 
It’s not like the neglect is blatant, it’s the little things, like dusting off the multimillion-dollar solid gold Buddha or the gemstones from the royal family. The decorations are a mix of ancient ornate carvings, primarily in stone and precious metals and modern “made in China” trinkets that you would expect to find in your local party store. After touring the palace we visited the National Museum and saw some of the statues from temples across Cambodia that had been moved to capital in order to better preserve them for future generations.

            After we had been in Cambodia for a few days we headed to the countryside, to the town of Kampot. 

Dirt paths like this one are the main way rural Cambodians travel from home to the main road
Sunsets were always beautiful
the view of the mountains from the river
The Bungalows main "room" where large group events took place
The restaurant and lounge area of the Bungalows, on the river

Kampot served as our home while we did clinics in churches in more remote areas of Cambodia. We left early every morning from the bungalows were we stayed and drove about 30-45 to our clinic each day and returned late in the afternoon.
A rare house visit to provide more help to a man in need
The "pharmacy" at our first clinic location

A man in clinic

 The days were long at first, especially for someone like me who doesn’t have a medical background. I didn’t do anything that necessarily required a medical background, but I still had to learn the lingo to function as a member of the team and to participate in most conversations. We worked 3 different clinics at different churches around Kampot. 
This was our nicest clinic location, and one of the nicest buildings we saw outside the major cities
A church where we did clinic with patients waiting under a tent
A group photo on the last day of clinic, with Korean missionaries 
The churches were plants of Korean missionaries which surprised me, because I didn’t know the Koreans got around that much, but also made me very happy to see the Church active all around the globe.
            For one weekend we took some time off and visited the coastal town of Kep.
Towers interrupt our walk through the jungle
Some of the local food supplemented with french fries
The pool in Kep
The view from our crab shack in Kep

We relaxed by the pool and explored the national park that bordered the place where we stayed. One afternoon we took a boat to a small island in the bay of Thailand to enjoy the beach and go kayaking. I went with another guy on the team to a smaller uninhabited island nearby in our kayaks to go exploring, and as we climbed to the top of the island in our bare feet, we discovered a barbed wire fence that bisected the island. 
The boat we took to Rabbit Island before boarding kayaks
The fence was a little odd as the island had rather steep sides all around it and was barely flat at the top and measured at most 30-40 meters long. My initial thoughts were perhaps someone had used this island as grazing land for goats or something, but it would hardly make sense to divide up such an already small island, so then my thoughts turned towards war. Cambodia has a rough past and has been involved in many skirmishes and wars with nearby countries, which left the country’s landmarks marred by bullet holes, and its fields filled with landmines. Many of the landmines have since been removed, either by purposeful safe removal or through accidental detonation. The US State Department still advises visitors to avoid border regions and wandering off roads or paths anywhere in Cambodia. With this knowledge in mind and the existence of this seemingly pointless fence, I became concerned about possible landmines on the island, but the adventure was not to be stopped, so we continued exploring and made it off safely with a Jackfruit for our efforts.
A child waits outside of clinic

            Our last weekend in Cambodia, after we finished the clinics, we flew on a local airline to the city of Siem Reap, which is famous for its ancient ruins, namely Ankor Wat, the giant temple. We toured temple ruins for several days, which was really cool because everything looked like something out of National Geographic magazine (b/c they’ve done several articles on Cambodia). Along with temples we also visited the ancient ruins of Ankor Thom, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire. Probably the biggest difference between these ruins and sites in the US (besides the size and age) are the facilities. In Cambodia there are no facilities, no cleverly disguised gift shop, no designated area for eating, no systematic method for trash collection. They do a good job of keeping the iconic views clear of clutter but just outside of the frame are rickety stalls of wood and plastic tarps selling souvenirs and refreshments. I suppose it’s a relatively good way to earn money for the stall owners, but if they weren’t there it would really seem as if you were back in some ancient time, just coming across some ruins in the jungle.

This famous Banyan tree covers ruins in Ankor Thom
A lone monk rests in an opening in the upper level of
 Ankor Wat

            Leaving Cambodia I experienced the longest “day” of my life. My day started at 4:30 or so in the morning when several of us woke up early to catch the sunrise over Ankor Wat. I have never seen as many people that early in the morning as I did at Ankor Wat. The reflecting pool was crowded with photographers and tourists waiting to get the perfect shot. Unfortunately the clouds obscured the sun and the perfect shot was not to be had (I’ll be back!). After more sightseeing during the day, we waited around the hotel at night for our 8pm departure to the airport. Our flight left Siem Reap around 11pm in the pouring rain destined for Incheon, South K

orea. After our layover in South Korea we boarded our flight for the beautiful Atlanta, Georgia in the United States of America. I had attempted to change my sleep schedule to match that of Atlanta in an effort to reduce jetlag, but since sleeping on an airplane is harder than staying awake, I didn’t end up sleeping until I arrived back in Atlanta, 53 hours later. I learned a lot of things while in Cambodia, many of which are outside the scope of this blog but I hope, through the images and video that you can get a sense of the Khmer way of life.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

   I went hiking several months ago with some friends up Yellow Mountain in North Carolina, and let me just say that hike is one I will never forget. We hiked over 3 smaller mountains in our approach to the summit. Through valleys and switchbacks we hiked. It started lightly snowing a couple miles miles in and then shortly after lunch the snow and clouds became so thick we couldn't see the mountains in the distant. It soon stopped and we were left to hike the rest of the way in the bitter cold and 20mph+ winds.
   When we arrived at the top we were met with a barren summit save for an old fire tower, now a historical landmark. We had originally planned to stake our tent in the open, but with the gusting wind and the forbidding clouds to the west we set the tent inside the base of the tower and covered the entrance with the rain cover.
   As you can tell from the pictures we made the right call. The winds never let up and several inches of snow blew in during the night. A brief trip to the north face of the mountain sent us hurriedly seeking shelter from the icy cold wind. The night was long and cold and the flapping of the rain cover in the wind sounded like someone was constantly trying to get in. We also realized that we don't know very many card games, and didn't bring nearly enough food.
   The morning after greeted us with a gorgeous sunrise that looked like something out of a movie, and we were all extremely glad we'd made the trip and lived an adventure.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Fair + Camera = Awesome

Fair, originally uploaded by Harris Clayton.
I took my camera to the fair with me this year for the first time in my life. I was blown away by the amazing opportunities that the fair presented. From the amazing sunset to the people to the rides there was always something to shoot.

This photograph of a spinning swing ride is one of my favorites. The riders seem suspended and the colors give the photo a very vintage look.

The next step: riding with my camera!