The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

Posts from the “photography” Category

Projects

Posted on April 8, 2015

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The clouds were whipping by and I was having doubts. The feeling was compounded by my ominous setting: I stood at the flat peak of Bokor National Park in the midst of a colossal development project that was set to take off but never did, like a dead bird in an open cage. This collection of structures and points of interest provoked various degrees of depression. A half-empty mega resort whose lobby smelled like damp rice, a waterfall that totally succumbed to the dry season and was instead small pools of sticky green water, and the place where I then stood, outside an abandoned concrete casino. The views of the surrounding hills were painted by a thick curtain of light gray, a daunting canvas in a sky with no beginning.

There are moments in travel when I’m not sure I want to do it anymore. This is a painful thing to write, like saying something unsavory about someone you deeply love. But that unsavory something escapes your mouth anyway, and you don’t regret it entirely.

It was Easter Sunday, and I was people-sick for my mother’s laugh and food-sick for my grandma’s steaming pot of zurek, a thick sour rye soup with hard-boiled egg and smoked kielbasa, so rich it’s practically still smoldering. I wanted nothing more than to hug my dog and take her for a long walk in the mellow spring. I wanted to put on fleece pajamas and play Bananagrams with my siblings. I wanted immediate answers to my most pressing and difficult questions. I wanted to know precisely what I was doing there at Bokor National Park in southern Cambodia, and for the first time my usual answer of “Just to see what’s there” wouldn’t fly. Vulnerable in blinding opacity, in the fog there are no facades to cower behind. And I am too self-aware for most brands of self-deceit.

I filed into the abandoned casino with a dozen domestic tourists who quickly dispersed. I stood in the main hall, a space that was only grand because of what it could have been, like those deep-sea scenes of a rusty Titanic slowly merging into a marvelous candle-lit ballroom, alive with twirling petticoats. The hall had a hollow square dent that once promised to house fires and a tall looming ceiling that oozed a grandeur undeserved. In short, the casino echoed with the subtle terror of unrealized dreams.

I began harboring harsh sentiments towards Casino. I was angered by its futile existence, by its jagged walls devoid of color, its chaotic slapdash blueprint. The thought of this particular project – ill-timed, ill-planned, ill-funded – was suddenly infuriating, the incompetence and waste of it all. I thought of all the avenues that could have benefited from this money but instead sat at the top of this godforsaken mound in the form of ugly vertical concrete blocks glued together in haste and false hope.

What was it doing there? What was it for, I wondered with a furrowed brow. Did it realize how pathetic is was as a building that served no one? I desperately wanted Casino to answer me, and I wanted an answer that was so decent and whole it would relieve me of my own burdens. I stood alone but the room swarmed with my projections.

The air up there in Bokor was alien. Down below, down where water slaps the land, the air was hot and thick and subject to the unrelenting sun, and everything took on an orange hue. Up high the clouds obscured everything, whole monuments even, and you could watch them careening around the mountain like drunks looking for something to hold on to.

One of these clouds came with a forceful icy gust and I rattled in my light beach clothes. I looked in a glass sheet leaning against the wall. If my eyes were murky gray before, they at once looked crisp and turquoise.

I rubbed one of Casino’s dusty walls as bits of debris fell at my shoes and whispered: “I’m so sorry Casino. It’s not your fault you were abandoned.” And I eased my tense shoulders in palpable remorse.

As I walked to my bike the sickness, the demands, the questioning resolved themselves without any resolution. They dissipated like the clouds in which I floated, destined to come and go in the tradition of most things.

February in Myanmar

Posted on April 5, 2015

A man grills and feeds us delicious fish, complete with a homemade sweet sauce and charred greens. Street food in Myanmar is notoriously dirty, but health concerns can generally be quelled if you go to places with high turnover! Insein Road, Yangon. A child monk in the village of Man Loi. Especially among impoverished families, it is common in Myanmar for children to be at least partially educated in the local monastery. Children play in the streets of downtown Yangon. A rice farmer, five kilometers outside of Hsipaw. We rested in the shade of his house while he offered us homemade rice wine. It is easy to feel small in the expansive symmetry and disarray of Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest of its kind in…

Burmese Days

Posted on February 18, 2015

These days I’m in Myanmar, and these days reliable Internet isn’t a thing anymore and neighborhood-wide power outages are very reliable. All my writing regarding this country so far is scrawled on the backs of forlorn receipts and tickets, and I’ve nowhere to put them (Posting a post about why I can’t post has taken me two hours.) For the best, though, as Burma is one of the most compelling places I’ve ever been and it would be a shame to squander it in a dusty Internet cafe surrounded by teenage boys playing World of Warcraft. So until I’m forced to leave this place that has so captured my heart, so much so that I’m seriously considering moving here, The Squeaky Robot will take…

Pookie

Posted on February 9, 2015

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I spent my last night in Bangkok watching older women doing Tai Chi in Romaneenart Park. I intended to sit there and read a little, but then Pukky (pronounced “Pookie”), a freelance business consultant, joined me. We talked for a long time about all things, and when her Tai Chi friends took a break, they sat with us too.

As much sensational attention as this city gets abroad – the Red Lights, the drugs, Khao San – these places in reality cover a few blocks of pavement out of thousands. What is left is everything else: a city just as chaotic and calm as the next, with people from more walks of life than our tiny brains can fathom, and troupes of smiling ladies doing light cardio together in the purple glow of dusk.

Phitsanulok

Posted on February 5, 2015

Phitsanulok is a place you go if you want absolutely nothing to happen to you. In the best way possible. A quick Google search of the small city will reveal that it was the birthplace of kings and the epicenter of central Thailand’s ancient military strategies. But the place is devoid of foreign faces, making it a sweet departure from the tour-ridden roads of Old Chiang Mai.

What was left was color and schoolchildren walking home and people carrying on, glimpses into a Thailand that is just for Thais.

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The cat wasn’t sure if I was real and I wasn’t sure if the cat was real.

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They were snipers in another life.

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Sweet Waan

Posted on January 27, 2015

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In the ancient capital of Siam, Ayutthaya, crumbling ruins, palaces and monasteries decorate the earth. Decadently-carved prangs, a Khmer-type tower common in Buddhist architecture, protrude over tree tops and buildings. Their deadness suits this sleepy river town, and their lofty presence coexists in modern life with impressive nonchalance.

One of the most grandiose sites to see is Wat Chaiwatthanaram, built to commemorate King Prasatthong’s victory over Cambodia. It was once the King’s home and later a royal cremation tower. Royal people would go there to become royal ash, like Prince Thammathibet who was beaten to death in 1746 because he indulged in scandal with one of his father’s concubines.

Inside such a weighty and resplendent monastery, the hallowed grounds of venerated kings where powerful people lived and burned, sat two tiny people eating tiny bananas: yours truly and a seventy-year-old named Waan. She sat in the cool shade of one the prangs, only in the company of a giant stone Buddha adorned with flower offerings and ceiling murals of wood and black lacquer. She was selling these bright yellow flower necklaces to the tourists who would sporadically file in, for the place was mostly deserted save the 120 gilt lacquered maravijaya Buddhas that lined the square periphery (maravijaya, my one-dollar guide book tells me, is a pose that Buddha adopts immediately following the triumph over death and evil).

She called out to me, pointing to her flowers. She told me in rough English that they’d give me luck if I gave them to the deity who sat cross-legged over her shoulder. This seemed like a good deal to me, so I bought one and dressed the Buddha.

I couldn’t think of anything else to do in that specific moment, so I sat down and started talking to Waan. She was an enthusiastic conversation partner, asking about my age and origins, career and travel plans. “How many children do you have?” I inquired. “8,000,” she said smiling, showing off the gaps in her teeth. We continued to talk at each other for a while in a playful way, when she hurriedly began opening her bag of mini chartreuse bananas. She gave me one and she gave herself one, and we ate them together like feasting kings in a happy, thick silence that couldn’t be described, only felt.

Welcome to Bangkok

Posted on January 21, 2015

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I left Hanoi over two months ago. There was no real reason I left, other than my mom said she missed me. So I flew home.

And now I’m back. You can expect some photos and some words regarding Southeast Asia, both mainland and maritime, and probably definitely beyond. I’ve obviously got none of it planned. This lack of commitment is deeply satisfying.

Here is a picture of some monks in Wat Pho preparing for their Pali examination (Wikipedia tells us that Pali is a “dead language that is widely studied because it is the language of many of the earliest extant Buddhist scriptures.”) It made me think: how different I am to a monk! And: what can someone like me learn from their lives of steadfast dedication?

Black Hmong & Red Dao

Posted on November 4, 2014

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Even a short three-day trek reveals the diversity of the Tonkinese Alps. There are five ethnic groups in Northern Vietnam and they all have boundless subdivisions, each with its own culture, dress and dialect. The way to say “hello” in one village would not pass in the next!

If you find yourself wandering to the region, consider a trip with Sapa O’Chau. It’s an amazing community development project that gives work and education to local youth.*

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