The Bartender – Kanchanaburi, Thailand

I’m in Burlington, Vermont. In a couple of days, a very close friend of mine gets married to a lovely girl. I approve, not that it should matter if I didn’t.

Anyway, that’s completely irrelevent to this post. Before landing in New York City, I spent a month back in Thailand, a land previously very close to my heart (7 months, straight out of high school, will do that to a person). There have been other returns to Thailand, and specifically Bangkok, where I was based in 2006. However I found this trip to leave a different impression. Things changed, for the country, sure, but mostly in myself. My values and beliefs no longer seem compatible with the lifestyle found in Bangkok, Thailand. Also relatively irrelevant to this post.

Now, relevantly. I had to get out of Bangkok. Bangkok had always been the one city I always claimed I could move back to in an instant, if I was offered a job there… but this visit proved completely different. I wasn’t enjoying my time there, I felt stagnant, and uninspired in the capital, so I left. I found myself in Kanchanaburi and made some friends. One of whom was Jeejee, the bartender at one of the 10 baht shot bars. 10 baht is roughly 30 cents. We spoke, became friends, and through her and the other friends I made, I broke my 2 weeks of sobriety at that same 10 baht bar. The bargain was too good to refuse. And she and her bar made a nice subject to shoot.

So, this is Jeejee.

 

I’ve had a few beers tonight. It’s a reunion of old friends, deal with it.

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The Net Mender

His name was Ali Ibrahim. It probably still is. In all honesty, I know virtually nothing about the man.

But, I was in Malindi, walking off the beach, and saw him sitting in a rundown shed, mending his nets. I started to walk off, paused, knowing he would make a good subject. Approaching random people to ask their permission for a photograph has been my biggest weakness as a photographer, and I have missed many opportunities because I wasn’t comfortable asking the question (the problem is magnified by my oft-inability to speak local languages). This time, however, I was with Wawi Amasha (more on her later). Wawi is a constant inspiration to me, and her presence coaxes me to push myself to achieve more.

I almost walked off, but I knew I would be disappointed in myself, like every other time it happened. Instead, I asked Wawi to help me translate, and I entered this rather ramshackle wooden shed. This Ali Ibrahim, in our brief encounter, had one of the warmest, most genuine personalities I have come across in a long time. He granted me the courtesy of shooting while he worked, and I only stayed for a few short minutes, before he gave me his address, for me to send some prints to him.

Walking away, I reviewed the photos, and felt I could see his gentle personality in the eyes of this portrait. I was so grateful to him, for allowing me into his personal workspace, and to Wawi, for unknowingly forcing me out of my comfort zone, in my endeavour to become a good, if not great photographer. That’s the goal, anyway.

When I return to Kenya, I must return to the red wooden Malindi Co-op Fishing building, and if I find him there, I can hopefully have a real conversation with him. I’ll probably need Wawi to translate again…

Battling Travel Burnout in Bangkok

“If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please” – Epictetus.

I’m here in Bangkok, Thailand. A city I have, many times, said I could gladly move back to in a heartbeat. But, this time it’s different. There’s a multitude of possible explanations for this feeling, but regardless of the reason, the end-product is the same. I’m uninspired, unenergetic, and uninterested. I know there’s a multitude of interesting destinations within easy reach, yet I simply don’t have the desire to go.

I know I’m not the only long-term traveller who has experienced this feeling. I also know that most of my family and friends won’t understand this, and certainly won’t sypathise. They would all be of the opinion that: I’m travelling, and have been. virtually carefree, for the last 2 years, while they have been back home, working and what-not, so what right do I have to feel flat about it? In truth, the only people who could truly relate to this concept of travel burnout are those who have done something similar. There’s stories scattered around the internet, touching on this issue, but they’re all self-help articles on “How To Avoid Travel Burnout” and similar, all stating basically the same obvious tips.

I have my suspicions on what has caused this fatigue. The obvious cause is that I have been doing this for 2 years. That’s 2 years of consistent exposure to interesting situations, cool people, and beautiful sights. It takes a lot to take my breath away now. Extended long term travel has made me a little jaded, and I think I need to either revitalise that interest, or take a break and find a real routine for a while. My visit home no doubt had a role in this also. I was reminded of the comforts of family, and my brother, and the prospect of having a job to go to, and actually making some money, the chance to get back in shape, learn boxing, set up a makeshift photo studio. I want to put time into really developing my photography, and that would be easier if I was stationary. Don’t get me wrong, I would probably get over the stagnancy after 6 months or so, then be on the road again, with a fresh, open mind once more.

More immediately, after spending the last 6 months in Kenya, and exploring snippets of East Africa, Thailand is lacking impact. In a few ways, it feels like a G-rated version of East Africa (apart from the sex tourism). Flame me all you want for this comment, but this is my opinion. After East Africa, Thailand, specifically Bangkok is just too easy, there’s too much technology, too little to get me out of my comfort zone, too familiar even, considering the cumulative total of 9 months I have spent here, over 3 separate trips. But these are just excuses to justify this mood.

It seems contradictory then, that I’m very eager to get to the U.S.A. But I’m excited for my birthday in New York City. I’m excited for my mate’s wedding in Vermont. I’m excited, yet skeptical, about my required $17/day budget, but I’m excited for my intended hitch-hiking  trip across the country from New York, to Big Sur, CA, where I will be meeting up Wawi, the girl most responsible for Kenya having such an impact on me. I’m very excited for that.

But that’s the future, and this is now. I feel I should do something drastic, to really change it up, and shock myself out of this burnout state. Maybe I’ll leave behind the laptop, and go to Songkhla Buri (on the border with Myanmar) for a week, to disconnect from everything. Maybe no internet or phone will let me just experience the moment, and appreciate it. Or maybe I just go laze around an island.

I wonder if this has anything to do with my self-imposed alcohol ban. Coming up on 7 days without a drink now…

I’m not in Nairobi anymore

Boarding ticket stubs. Ergh

I have actually been back in Australia for a month now. I planned for this return to let me catch up on writing and editing, but instead I have squandered my time here. But I’m ok with that.

The decision to return sprung up quickly on me. I had been staying at my mum’s house in Ngong, Kenya, for most of the last 6 months. She was returning to Australia to see the family, and she wanted me to come back too. Being a mother, she realised that the only way she could guarantee that her, me, and my little bro would be in the same room again, was if she offered to pay my ticket back.

I almost declined, I thought about it, but then I got continually more and more excited about the idea of seeing my brother (20 months since I had seen him last). So, I agreed, and about 2 weeks later I was flying out, on a different set of flights to my mum (it was cheaper when I booked). Nairobi – Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi – Bangkok. Bangkok – Hong Kong. Hong Kong – Sydney. Sydney – Albury. So 5 flights, 6 planes (one plane had a mech issue), 6 hours sleep, 6 beers, 7 meals, and about 48 hours later, and I surprised my unknowing brother by walking off the same plane as mum.

That was a month ago. In that time, I have gone drunk camping, thrown out/given away/prepared to sell half of my belongings, gone boxing, eaten far far far too much western food and desserts, gone boxing more to try and counter the food, hitch hiked to Wollongong, visited friends there and in Sydney, photographed Simple Plan, caught a ride back to Albury, and gone snowboarding. I did succeed in doing some editing, and I do plan on writing about my backlog of adventures in East Africa, but they will no longer be in a chronological order, because:

Tomorrow (was meant to be Thursday but I pushed it back twice) I hitch hike to Melbourne, and on Monday I fly to Bangkok.

The Internet Banking Ordeal and My Regression to the Digital Age

In mid 2009 I bought a Canon 40D, and a Sigma 24-70 2.8 to accompany it, as a reward to myself for scoring well in the GAMSAT (graduate medical school entrance exams, it may be obvious I decided not to pursue that path anymore). That camera/lens combination served me well for concerts, clubs, mountain biking, snowboarding, street and travel photography. In late 2010, I was exploring the abandoned Bokor hill station on the Cambodian coast, when I slipped on my ass, and busted my lens. It was repaired in Hanoi for $40US, and worked for another 3 months, before it died a final death in Bruges, Belgium. The Canon S90 point and shoot I bought in Phnom Penh, as a substitute, continued to serve me until it was stolen in April 2011 on a train in Italy.

Just before the Italy theft, I was working in a hostel in Split, Croatia. Since it had been a few months since I had checked my bank account, I logged on to my internet banking to see how much money I still had. At least, I attempted to log on. 3 times in a row, I forgot my password, and subsequently my netbank was locked. Easy enough solution, I just had to phone the bank and answer my secret question, to reset the password. Of course, I had a job at that time, earning a solid $10/day working at this hostel. So I figured “What’s the rush, I’ll sort this out later. If I leave it locked, it could stop me eating into my savings. Besides, I’m earning enough to live on.”.

August rolls around. After becoming manager of the hostel, I had a falling out with the owner, quit, and went travelling around Western Europe for another month with my girlfriend at the time. I returned to Split, moved into an apartment, and started working for the pub crawl in town (there’s only one true pub crawl in Split: Tower Pub Crawls. Ignore the imposters.). During this time, in true tightass style, I would walk into the town centre, sit against a shop wall, and pull out my netbook to take advantage of the free internet. Concern was developing at my potential lack of future funds, so I started a weeklong attempt at Skyping my bank. After finally getting through, I forgot the answer to my secret question, three times in a row (It was “What was the first country I visited”. Don’t ask, I genuinely thought it was a trick question). As a result of forgetting the secret question, I was then required to fax a copy of my passport to the bank, so they could confirm my identity. Who the hell still uses fax?

“Eh”, I figured. “I still have this pub crawl job, and if I work hard I’ll make enough cash to get me to Turkey, for my flight to Kenya”. Combine this thought with my utter laziness and disdain in searching for someone with a fax machine, and I decided the email could wait. After all, I was living and “working” (read: Paid Partying) in Split, Croatia, renowned for it’s beautiful beaches. I didn’t want to waste good beach weather on a fax machine hunt.

September, 2011. I found myself in Skopje, Macedonia. Having befriended an American photojournalist, I was feeling severe withdrawals from the photography world. In a back alley antique store, I found an old Minolta SRT-101, with 50mm f/1.7 lens, for 40Eur (after bargaining). Ignoring the fact that I hadn’t seen my bank account in over 6 months, and had NO idea how much money I still had, let alone had access too, I made an impulse decision and bought it.

October, 2011. I had successfully hitch hiked to Istanbul. I fell in love with the city and spent 2 weeks exploring it before my flight. The Minolta was well-appreciated here, and I couldn’t imagine my stay without it. Five days before I flew out, I found a mint condition Minolta 28mm 2.8, for $80US in a camera store. By this point, I knew money was low in the 2 accounts I had access to, I mean, it just HAD to be running low, but, with a new friend getting a tattoo that afternoon, and I couldn’t resist the 28mm (Wide-angle super-grainy black-and-white film… I could just picture it). With just enough in my wallet, I chalked the purchase up as 2 less bottles of vodka. Two days later I ran out of money. Regretting my earlier laziness, I emailed my mum, who deposited money in my travel account (Thanks, Mum) and had enough money to get to Nairobi and buy my Kenyan visa.

January, 2012. I had tried numerous times here to fax my passport to the bank. First, the faxes were too faint, then they were too dark, then I faced numerous power outages each time I tried to send a new fax. I finally succeeded in sending a fax the bank would accept. Next problem, the signature on the passport didn’t match the signature on file from when I opened the account at age 13. F*&$. Correspondence with the bank followed, and I was left with the only option of trying to remember/guess every signature I had ever used up to this point. If that failed, I would have to unlock the account in person. Passports endorsed by the Aussie High Commission wouldn’t fly. Using my mother’s legal Power of Attorney wouldn’t fly. No choice but guess the signature or go home. Should be easy, I would only have to fly back to Australia and walk into a branch to do that. Shame all my money was in an account I had no access to, so I’m not sure how they expected me to buy the ticket home. Desperation peaked, with a trip to Zanzibar just 2 days after this new development.

April. It’s been a year since I forgot my internet banking password. It’s been more than a year since I have seen how much money I actually have. For a year I have suffered the frustration of having money, but also having no access to that money. As much as I wish I could say I made it on my own, I unfortunately have some small loans owed to both parents. But, after hassling my father, brother, and grandmother, I have finally had success. My brother made some inquiries, which unfotunately didn’t solve my issues. My father sent me an email saying “You should have dealt with this earlier” or something along those lines. Thanks Dad, I realise this, and am suffering the consequences, but thanks for the constructive suggestion. My nan, however, was able to sweet-talk the lady at her local branch (who apparently recognised my name) into pulling a few strings, and ignoring some red tape, and boom, I was allowed back into my account. Nan called me specifically to hear my reaction when she spelt out the new password, chosen by her (and dedicated to her too, it seemed). Ninety minutes later I bought new lenses for my 40D.

Now, truth be told, I love film photography. Many people over the last 6 months here have heard me explain my choice to shoot film only (partly a lack-of-money decision, but mostly for the feel of it), and I stand by everything I told them. Film is a dying medium which need to live. It’s a beautiful way to make photographs, and can carry so much more emotion, depth, and character in each frame than digital. But, as much as I love film photography, and will continue to shoot and promote it, Kenya has kicked it in the nuts. After losing 7 of my last 15 rolls, mostly due to poor developing, I started to lose willpower to continue with it. After all, how can you continue to dedicate much effort to shooting, when you have an almost 50% chance you will NEVER see the photos. I still have 15 rolls in the fridge, and will shoot them, but developing will have to wait until I’m somewhere with reliable developing services.

Now, after 18 months, my Canon has itself a new Sigma 17-50 2.8, and a beautiful Canon 85 1.8, which after just 30 minutes shooting, I have already justified spending the money on. All the photos are from the children’s centre my mum manages..

The man, the legend. Kingstone

Mum's foster daughter, Diana

The pose deserved the processing. First time doing PP in a long time

Two Weeks as an African Overland (Trainee) Tour Guide

There’s been a bit going on around these parts lately, and a definite backlog, but I just wanted to write about this one now. A month ago, a good friend of my mums told me that one of the overland truck tour companies were desparately looking for tour guides. After a lot of “Apply, you’ll be great for it”, I conceded, applied, and a few days later found myself meeting the crew, and packing my bag on to the truck for a 2 week trial trip to Uganda.

For those who don’t know, overland trucks (NOT a bus, as you will be told) run tours, traditionally between Cape Town and Nairobi, or as far as Cairo. They are an organised way for travellers to see the “rugged heart” of East Africa, while camping in secure campsites with frequently warm water and cold beer, and working as a group to cook tasty western food. The largest concerns for the guests are where they will find internet, safe water, and washing services.

I don’t mean to sound cynical, or pretentious. Honestly. I’m just calling it how I see it.

Anyway, back to the training. I was one of two trainees, the other a cool Kenyan dude. There was a driver and the tour guide, and 6 guests (plus an awesome Welsh couple for one week of it). While I won’t go into the specifics, the two weeks was spent driving from Nairobi to Kampala over 3 days(with a game drive in Nakuru, which the other trainee went on while I went shopping), Kampala to Queen Elizabeth National Park, where I did see elephants and hippos, Q. Liz to Lake Bunyonyi, where I did very little around the allegedly second deepest lake in Africa (or first, or third), while the clients went gorilla tracking, Lake B to Jinja, where I did little, went on a booze cruise (free for crew) and went white water rafting again (also free), then Jinja to Nairobi.

From my two weeks, I came to a couple of conclusions.

Firstly, overland trucks do a LOT of driving. In the 14 day Ugandan circuit, we were driving 9 days, 8 days were between 4 and 8 hours of driving.

Second, you don’t sleep in. I logged maybe one day after 6am, probably four 4am starts, with a clear majority at 5am. I’m a traveller, I’m not used to this. It also makes it exceptionally hard to rise after some drinks, which leads into:

Third, you will drink a lot. I did, anyway. When it comes to alcohol, the constitution of my “nah I don’t need a beer tonight” is exceptionally weak, I succeeded 2 days in a row, and one was a result of me leaving the tour group early to get back to Nairobi to get my new passport, but I’m counting it. The real problem here, although disguised as a perk, is that, at least on my trip, the guests were always offering to shout drinks. Now, I’m a poor, young, Australian backpacker, it’s almost criminal for me to turn down a drink offered. But, it’s lucky they were shouting so many drinks, because my bank account is minimal, which wasn’t helped by:

Fourth, the pay is rubbish. Training wages (which last for 6 months, that’s 2 CT-Nbi-CT circuits) with my company, was $80US/week. And I was a lucky one, some companies won’t pay their trainees. Now, if I was paying my own beers, each weeks’ pay would have been drunk by Thursday. The maximum wage is $200/week for fulltimers ($250ish for part time), but the policy says one pay rise a year, based on performance, and it’s unlikely you would get a pay rise from the lowest to the highest straight away. They say you don’t get rich, and you do it for the love of it, but hell:

Fifth, as a trainee at least, you will be working from 4-5am (you have to be up 1 hour before breakfast) until you go to sleep, or leave the bar. By working, I mean you need to stay relatively personable, cheery, and polite, and can’t resort to your normal self, whether that be bitchy, drunk, or sweary. Basically, that means game face is on for 16-20 hours of the day, every day, for $10/day. I said it wasn’t about the money, but hell.

Sixth, a trainee is basically a glorified assistant. Your responsibilities seem only to be helping out with the setting up and breaking of camp, helping preparation of breakfast, lunch and dinner and cleaning, and mingling with guests on the drives. Not hugely laborious, admittedly, but I thought the idea of a trainee was that they were “trained” on how to do the job. Rather than teach us any of the accounts, or how to get groups through immigration, or organise local safaris, we were just used to make the boring jobs easier.

But, end of the day, it’s a paid way to see Africa. I mean, you get to travel from Nairobi to Cape Town, with accommodation, food, travel, and beer money (and some free beers) all covered. And when you arrive at a campsite, and everything is set up, the guests are free to go wander and explore, but:

Seventh, as a trainee tour guide, you stay behind to start on dinner, or try and get information out of the guide. When the guests go out on excursions and such, technically your time is yours, but if their return time is unknown, the guide training you probably wouldn’t be impressed to see you return After the guests, or not have started on dinner, or done anything productive.

It’s easy to see why it’s a “dream job” for some… Assuming you are ok with travelling with a mix of foreigners, all spending big money, and are ok with passing through numerous towns, mixing with a very limited handful of locals, and staying in secure campsites with other tourists every night. It’s a GREAT job, if you want to see the campsites of East and Southern Africa, drive through some villages without stopping, do cool activities for free, and get drunk and try to sleep with girls from other trucks. But that’s not what I was looking for.

As for me and my situation, while not the main reason for quitting, the final push was the fact that the tour guide training me and the Kenyan trainee, showed favoritism to the Kenyan. Call me petty or whatever, but when he lets the other guy go on the game drive in Nakuru while I’m left to set up camp and prepare dinner, and then chooses the other guy to go on the 3 day Maasai Mara excursion, while I’m told to stay in Nairobi due to a lack of space in the vans… that just didn’t sit well with me.

But, at the end of the day, the issue that kept nagging at me, was simply that it’s not the way I intended to travel Africa. I wanted to be out, hating life while cramped on local transport, getting stranded on the outskirts of random villages when the minibus breaks down, meeting locals in countries like D.R.C. and Burundi, and basically having adventures and stories I find to be worth retelling. I wanted to be out, riding the 3-4 day train from Dar Es Salaam to Zambia, volunteering with the IAPF (International Anti-Poaching Foundation) in Zimbabwe, and basically, having the freedom to make my own choices. I have never been a fan of the Contiki/Busabout type tours, where a bunch of travellers pile onto a bus and rush through an area, spending 1 night here, 1 there, drunk a lot of the time, and shopping the rest. As someone who has only observed, it appears that, on those tours, you see a place but don’t “see” it, and the overland trucks remind me of that, just with a grittier marketing angle. After all, it’s a truck, not a bus.

West From Zanzibar

I was in Zanzibar a few weeks back, for the Sauti Za Busara music festival, with a large group of friends. Over the week there, I shot 12 rolls of film. One roll was misloaded, 2 rolls were lost, and another was developed wrong by the studio. While some photos were of the  music performances, most were shot around the streets. I still haven’t got everything developed, and I have been busy since, creating a backlog for myself. While there is plenty more, it will have to wait…

For now, here’s one. Wandering Stonetown one evening, I happened across an appropriately named “Soccer Beach”. I gathered the name from the graffiti at the entrance, and from the group of boys playing soccer on the beach. Obvious huh. Anyway, as the sun was setting, this dhow sailed between it and myself, allowing for a cliched photo opportunity.