Monday, December 29, 2008

Arriving in Bangkok

Flying is more an adventure now than it really should be. Going through the security line at 6AM on Christmas morning, I had a feeling I would have to have to tolerate some shenanigans from the staff because my camera bag consisted of a sort of utility belt. The design removes the weight from my shoulders and distributes the weight to my hips, much like a fanny pack. My other carry-on bag was a small cotton tote with my MP3 player and a few books. Sure enough, security claimed that I had too many bags and would have to check-in the "bags" attached to the belt. Thinking ahead, I put a large plastic bag in my tote. I pulled off the belt, dropped in the bag and, as far as security was concerned, I was no longer a threat to the flying public.

The initial leg of the flight was uneventful. I had an eight-hour stopover in Los Angeles. The original plan had me renting a car for the day and driving out to Hollywood, but the rain and cool weather put a damper on that idea so I crashed in the lounge for the day. Not the most productive use of my time, but I was on vacation. After a few hours, I discovered that the lounge had shower facilities; something I greatly appreciated given the long flight to Thailand I'd soon be experiencing.

Whether stepping down the stairs of a small plane or entering the skyway from a jumbo jet, your first impression of a tropical land comes through your nose. While I can not describe it, the smell of Thailand is distinct and the memories of previous trips returned as I made my way though the delightfully modern airport. After clearing customs, I ran the gauntlet of taxi drivers touting overpriced rides into the city and bought my 150THB bus ticket.
Although I had to check in early in the morning, my favorite hotel, the Bangkok JW Marriott, was able to get me into my room right away. I had mixed feeling about the room. It was gorgeous, but a bit small. It also had the typical hard mattress so favored by the Thais. I planned to do some serious sleeping in.

The biggest disappointment was the fact the hotel was doing some renovations and decided the holiday season was the best time to make it happen. The gym, one of my favorites, had been temporarily moved to allow for the installation of new flooring and the executive lounge, my very favorite was closed completely. On the plus side, the closing of the lounge enabled me to eat breakfast in the main restaurant. On the plus-plus side, Chef Dieter was back in Bangkok and in charge of the restaurant.

The Bangkok JW Marriott had my favorite brunch in the world. It was resplendent in every imaginable breakfast dish to accommodate the many nationalities the hotel hosts. Two years ago I stayed at the Jakarta Marriott as was blown away by the quality of the food and service there. I met a chef in the elevator and told him what I thought of the Bangkok Marriott and how impressed I was with his kitchen staff and their work. It turned out that he was the chef that ran the Bangkok Marriott and was now working the Jakarta property! This explained everything. I was delighted to see that he was back in Thailand, but unfortunately he was on holiday during Christmas and New Year.

One evening I got a message that the executive lounge renovation was complete and I was invited to come for breakfast in the morning. It was well worth the wait as the new look of the lounge is simply delightful and the staff were very happy to pose in their updated work space.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


I had Saturday all planned out. I'd wake up early, get some photos of Trafalgar Square, walk to Covent Gardens for breakfast then head to Knightsbridge to do some serious shopping at Harrod's. In the evening I'd check out a show. It was not to be, however. On my previous trip to London, I tried to convince my friend Sokyou to visit me. She was at a school a couple hours train ride from the city. Of course she tried to convince me to visit her, but I was determined to see as much of London as I could. On this trip I tried to get her to come into the city again, but she had just started at Cambridge and could ill afford to take a day off.

I pondered my plans for Saturday. I really wanted to do a lot of things in London. Then I thought of all the hard work Sokyou put in to get herself into such a prestigious university and how seldom she would have friends or family visit her. I figured I owed her lunch if nothing else, so off to Cambridge I went.

What's astonishing about southern England is that only an hour outside of London you're suddenly in rolling green countryside. I passed through numerous little villages that have probably been there for centuries. Somehow, much of England escaped the suburban sprawl so common in North America.

I arrived a bit earlier, so I had some time to inquire into appropriate historical pubs or restaurants in which to dine. The most interesting was a pub where the RAF hung out during World War II (unfortunately, we ended up in a fairly ordinary restaurant across from King's college). The narrow streets were packed with shoppers and students and I had to frequently step out into the street to avoid the throngs.

For some reason, I thought Cambridge was a blend of small town and large university. It turns out that it is indeed a town, but the university consists of collegiate enclaves strategically dotted about, each with their own exclusive territory. I was familiar with a few of the colleges, partcularly Kings College, but I had no idea there are thirty-one colleges! Each one we visited consisted of a quad with a green lawn in the middle (dare ye who trod upon said lawn for the wrath of the caretakers shall befall thee!). Some quads were quite small, while others, like Trinity, were large enough to host a rugby match.

Some of the colleges had outstanding chapels. King's College is particularly noteworthy. I've seen few buildings that manage to look both gigantic and intimate. The building is exceptionally long and comparatively narrow. The stained glass casts a beautiful glow over the interior of the building.

Aside from the amazing architecture, the wondrously winding cobbled streets, the air of academia and total Englishness of it all, I was quite taken aback by the students. So many of them wore their college scarves (or jacket with their school emblem) that you could identify them almost immediately. Even on a Saturday afternoon they had a just-returning-from-class look about them. The whole time I was there I kept looking around for a film crew, convinced I'd walked into a movie shoot.

Sokyou called her friend and the two of them guided me through the various campuses. You would think that after a few hundred years the different schools would pool their resources and start to merge, but they remain fiercely independent with strong individual traditions.

With only a few hours to explore, I missed a great deal of the place. However, the brief view I received was enough to encourage me to return some day. While I missed the shopping and the show, I managed to spend a bit of time in Trafalgar square before calling it a day. More importantly, I got a taste of a very different, yet familiar part of England.

A few more photos can be found here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Skyline Drive

Started as a public works project during the depression, Skyline drive stretches over a hundred miles across the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia. This is the only road I know that was built for the pure pleasure of driving - and a pure pleasure it is. The road winds back and forth between the North West and South East sides of the ridge so one is afforded fabulous vistas from both sides. Although there are many short stone walls to keep the traffic away from the sometimes steep slopes, there are plenty of places to pull off the road to admire the view.

A lovely place for a drive.
I woke at dawn to make the journey. I was giving myself plenty of time as I'd planned to make frequent stops and do a bit of hiking along the way. Despite the chilly autumn weather I was determined to enjoy all of the sights and sounds, so I bundled up in my warmest clothes and put down the convertible top. It was cold, but well worth it! Driving beneath the canopies of trees felt like passing down the nave of a leafy cathedral.
When deep in the forest, always look up.

What I failed to consider is that the first portion of the drive was in deep shadow so it didn't make for the best images. On the other hand, in that early hour there were few other vehicles so I had the road mostly to myself.
Rolling landscape beneath a darkening sky.

As the day progressed, more and more tourists appeared on the road. There were a few photography clubs traveling around in vans. The photographers would explode out, laden with gear, and dash about trying to get as many unique photos as possible before piling back into the van and dashing off to the next scenic spot. It may sound like a Keystone Cops scene, but the equipment they were using, and the unusual angles they were shooting, demonstrated that these folks knew what they were doing.

Autumnal hillside.
It's always fun to meet fellow travelers on these trips. I ran into a group of girls with backpacks, sitting well away from any vehicles. I learned that they were hiking the entire Appalachian trail and had been doing so for a few months. I simply can not fathom taking that much time to go on a hike.
A scruffy looking pine tree clings to the hillside.

Looking down into the valley.

An animator gazes out the window.
When I reached the end of the drive, there was still plenty of light so I visited the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia. The organization finds ancient homes and moves them to the site to recreate historic life. I thought they were reproductions at first, but the place has the actual buildings, some hundreds of years old, dismantled and reconstructed. This living museum includes animators performing the traditional roles of their day. Of particular interest was the blacksmith, hammering out wrought iron in the traditional fashion.

Irish farmstead.
The next day I drove along Skyline Drive in the opposite direction. I started later so the day was warmer and there were far more cars on the road. In fact, there were few auto clubs touring that day. As I rounded a curve, a string of more than twenty sports cars, all the same model, drove by in the opposite direction. It would have made for an impressive shot had I been prepared.
At the mid-point of the drive is an expansive meadow. Despite the late season, it was flush with color. I can imagine how glorious it must be to see in the spring when the alpine flowers bloom.

Photographers try to sneak up on the colorful foliage.

I'd been on Skyline Drive a few times as a kid, but I can remember nothing more than the feel of the road winding through the peaks and woods. Not a single memory came back to me as I drove along in either direction.

Driving back from the park, I spotted a most archetypal scene. This stately drive leads to a farm. It was a perfect visual dessert for day.

You can see the full size images here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

St. Francis Xavier Homecoming

I never intended to go to homecoming. Years ago I decided that the only people who went were the terribly successful who wanted to show off, or locals looking for an excuse to party. Falling into neither category, I gave no thoughts to homecoming. So it came as a surprise when I found myself thinking about St. F. X. U. and the people I met during my time there. I booked a flight and hotel.

Antigonish is a pleasant town and the university is its jewel. I finished my degree there and stayed on to work for some years after. That gave me an opportunity to get to know a lot of students during my time there. When I left to go back to school, I gave no thought to returning. I figured I might return one day, but had no real plans.

Although I passed through the town some few years later, it was a quick visit, pausing only long enough to stop at a couple of my favorite shops before continuing on. There were a few changes, but those were expected. I returned once more in 2004 when I worked on a project in a nearby town. I decided to take a short drive back to visit my alma mater. It had changed. The trees that once lined the drive leading into the old campus were lost to the ravages of Dutch elm disease. In fact, all the magnificent elms in the town were gone. The athletic facility, where I spent most my time had been expanded, wiping out one of the playing fields. There were parking lots where once were playing fields. New buildings were plopped down were they shouldn't have been. I was devastated at the changes. After driving around the campus, I left.

Arriving at the registration desk, I quickly checked the lists to see who I might meet. I recognized many of the names. As my memory reeled back, I noted that many names were missing. Why were they not here? It didn't occur to me that they might posses the same philosophy I recently held.

I started recognizing people. Some were staff who had stayed on all these years, some were former classmates who barely changed, some were former students (many of whom changed a lot), and some were former employees. My class had a breakfast on Saturday morning so I was able to meet up with several familiar faces. So many were immediately recognizable but a few I knew not at all.

I did my best to avoid the typical questions one would expect at a reunion. Instead I asked such questions as “What one thing do you wish you had done while a student?” and “What was your biggest mistake?” I would have thought that they, like me, would have been in a very reflective mood, but the questions caught most of them unprepared. I was surprised by some of the answers.

Many responses were to do with career choice. Few of the people I met were working in their field of study. Some responses were to do with relationships and social life. Some wished they’d studied harder, some wished they’d not spent so much time buried in books. Generally though, people were happy with how things turned out.

I couldn’t help but wonder about the people who were not in attendance. Where was my old pal, Gary? Where were the guys from my residence, Mike, Jim, Harry, Donald and the rest? I had mixed feelings about the fact that none of my old loves were in attendance. They are so sweet in my memory; my psyche might not be able to deal with fact that they would have changed so much over the years.

The football game was, of course, the center of attention for the alums. Although I had a ticket, I could not possibly sit down for a football game and was compelled to return to the sidelines to photograph the event. It’s the only way I’ve ever seen a football game and can’t imagine any other way.

The stands were full to see the X-men go up against a higher ranked Huskies. At the end of the first half, our team was humiliating the other side. Unfortunately, due to some fumbles and bad plays, we humiliated ourselves in the second half and lost the game.
I managed to sneak off to watch the rugby matches. I couldn’t help get excited, wanting to don my gear and run out on the pitch to join in the fray. I can’t watch a game without imagining myself playing.

I recognized more people after the game. She was in my residence. I taught him. That guy worked for me. I'd see her around. Those two were dating as students and they’re still together. Usually I wouldn't recognize them until after they passed.
The most astonishing thing about my trip, which I didn’t notice until weeks later, is that I hardly took any photos. Although I had my camera with me all the time, I just didn’t use it. I’m not exactly disappointed; perhaps I was satisfied with the memories and didn’t want to disturb them with the reality of a digital image.