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Chilean Fjords 25 November 2009


Leaving the small town of Chacabuco in Southern Chile, we travelled the Chilean Fjords, navigating through a myriad of small islands, most of them sparsely inhabited, all part of the remote Magallanes. Islands had names like Desolacion (Desolation) and Ultima Esperanza (last Hope) that surely reflected the way the earliest settlers, many of them European, must have felt. Narrow channels bracketed by towering mountains partly explained the calm waters and isolated outposts. Maritime traffic consisted mainly of small craft like the one in the picture and with the mountains in the background, it was an opportunity for a snapshot that only partly succeeds in capturing the breathtaking and awe-inspiring scenery always evident in the Chilean Fjords.

POSTSCRIPT: This picture was published in the Toronto Star Travel section, “Where In The World” on 23rd October, 2010. 

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All dressed up and going nowhere?
It’s understandable why Honda is the ubiquitous name for motorcycle. With a population of over 80 million, more than ten percent of the people ride the two-wheel transportation vehicle. There are 500,000 motorcycles in Hanoi alone, with double in Saigon and motorcycle usage is increasing annually, along with casualties at the rate of 300%.
I took these pictures from a bus and we were also going nowhere fast. I didn’t have to worry –we were on vacation. But what about the people who have to work for a living and rely on transportation to get there? Chaos can sometimes result, along with insane driving habits: riding on the wrong side of the road, making left turns from the right side of a lane, weaving, speeding, using high beams, inconsiderate passing and overloading. And the effect is a cacophonous, mind boggling, ear splitting medley of sounds that defy imagination.
Only 3% of riders use helmets, even though they are mandatory. Result? The most common accident fatality is due to a broken skull!

Cambodia 2009: The Genocide Memorial


Bizarre. Chilling. Macabre.
These are a few of the words to describe the Genocide Memorial in Cambodia. But as I stood there looking at it, I couldn’t help thinking that there are no words adequate enough to define one of the most horrendous and tragic events of the 20th century.
1975 marked two momentous events for Cambodia.
The first was the end of their civil war.
The second was the coming to power of the victorious Khmer Rouge [Red Khmer]. Their leader was Pol Pot, an admirer of Maoist and Chinese communism and he set about to “reconstruct” Cambodia into an agrarian classless peasant society.
The Khmer Rouge forced the inhabitants of towns and cities into collective farms. They abolished civil and political rights, shut down factories, closed schools and universities, and banned music. Religion was forbidden; all leading Buddhist monks were killed and their temples destroyed. Children were taken from parents and placed in forced labour camps. It was possible to be executed simply for knowing a foreign language, wearing glasses, laughing or crying.
By the time the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by Vietnam and a peace agreement signed in 1991, nearly two million Cambodians had died from execution, disease, exhaustion or starvation. This amounted to about twenty percent of the entire population of Cambodia!
Mass graves discovered since 1995 reveal the extent of the genocide. Reconstructed bones and skulls have been preserved as a memorial of the dead in the Killing Fields where people were slaughtered mercilessly.
The exercise of power simply to prove that it exists or Man’s inhumanity to Man?
PS: In case you’re not impressed enough, there is a close up view of the memorial.

POSTSCRIPT 27 June 2011:
Having waited for three decades to see architects of the Genocide brought to justice, the people of Cambodia will finally see four surviving leaders go on trial in a UN backed court in Phnom Penh. 
One of the four is Khmer Rouge security chief Kaing Guek Eav, aka Comrade Duch who ran the notorious S-21 prison where more than 14,000 adults and children were tortured and killed. Another is 84 year Nuon Chea, deputy to Pol Pot and known as Brother Number Two.
And the reason why it’s taken so long to bring them to trial? Is it because the current Prime Minister is a former Khmer member? Or could it be that the country has acquired a case of collective amnesia?

London, England: QUEUES

As if there is not enough of a problem caused by British Rail on-again, off-again strike that has resulted in an unexpected crush of people in the Victoria terminus in London, I discover that the overnight coach to Penzance is two and a half hours late –something to do with battery trouble I’ve been told.
Somewhere deep down in my stomach, I can feel anxiety trying to raise its ugly head. What if, when they eventually get the coach going, it breaks down in the middle of nowhere. What if my contact at the other end did not receive my letter? I seek consolation by telling myself I am not the only one in this predicament and that tomorrow is the start of a weekend, so there’s no need to rush.  But first I have to go to the ticketing area, an enclosed room to the left where everyone seems to be heading. As I enter and see the enormous huddle of people, I take a few seconds to decide which queue to join. There are about ten lines, most of them stretched out of the building, losing semblance to a straight line somewhere beyond the rope guide that is about ten feet long. At the back of my mind is a notion of something I have read, about people’s propensity to gravitate towards the right whenever they join a queue. With this in mind, I join the one to the extreme left, the one furthest from the entrance to the terminus and I am pleased with myself, since this seems to be shortest one.
It’s a strange thing I have noticed about queues over the years; they can never quite retain the shape intended for them. Try as hard as they will, the people who contrive to keep control, whether by containing people in-between artificial barriers or by posting signs, can never manage to succeed, and before long order breaks down. Chaos can even result sometimes.  Perhaps it’s the natural inclination of the people far from the head of the line who lean to the right or left to see ahead, to determine why it is taking them so long to move up, and before long everyone has to lean further and further, breaking the natural rhythm of the line.
I am one of those people leaning to the left now, wondering why the only moving sensation I have experienced in the last five minutes is a shuffling over the same fifteen square inches or so of floor-space that my feet occupy. The guy ahead of me keeps looking at his watch, perhaps anxious that he might not make his coach; the lady behind is trying to calm her child who is fretting. I suspect, from the concerned looks on everyone’s face that they are all wondering, like me, why it is that the other queues are moving and ours is not. I am starting to doubt the wisdom of joining the shortest queue. I realize, too late, that it’s another strange thing about queues: the shortest one inevitably ends up taking the longest time; there’s simply a valid reason why people have been avoiding it in the first place.
There’s a commotion ahead, close to the wicket. A woman is demanding to see the supervisor who finally arrives only after she raises her voice several more octaves. She appears to have missed her coach and is trying to convert her ticket to another one which is now sold out. It means a three-hour wait for her. She is insistent that the supervisor do something about it and she is indignant that no one considers she is handicapped with a broken leg; and why is it that someone told me over the phone that there would be plenty of seats…and is it any wonder why this company is losing business to British Rail…
The supervisor has to be aware of the grumbling coming from our queue. Perhaps afraid of open revolt, he asks the lady to step aside and he leads her into the office to resolve the matter. The queue finally begins to move. I notice that the woman who joined the one to my right three minutes earlier, has already purchased her ticket.
Now that I have secured my ticket my fear of the unknown surfaces again and is about to reach paranoid proportions. Something tells me that I might end up boarding the wrong coach and find myself being let off in the middle of nowhere, or, if I am lucky enough to find the correct coach in all of the dozens departing for destinations all over the country, I might discover that there are not enough seats for all of the tickets sold. I check and recheck my ticket to confirm it’s the right time and correct destination, find my coach and decide to join my queue ahead of time. I discover I’m not alone in my obsession; the line is already twenty deep. Panic, it seems, is infectious.
From my position at the rear I can see what’s going on around me.
The people in my queue are all stationery: a man slumped over on his duffel bag on the ground; a woman’s face buried in an open magazine; a couple bracing each other for support. Not ten feet away from me, braced against the wall, is a Black man looking much older and worn for his number of years. A few minutes earlier, I had seen him rummaging through the garbage can where he had retrieved a foam cup and a cigarette butt. He sipped from the cup, tilting his head far back to drain its contents, and when he was satisfied that it was truly empty, he tossed it aside. He stood there, in white shoes now covered with a layer of grime and grease, his hair hanging in knotted curls right down to his long black coat, his beard disheveled and flecked with fluff. His entire body was suddenly wracked by an awful spasm, as if he had been bracing against a power line and had suddenly come into contact with it. And his eyes, I could not see his eyes –the eyeballs were both rolled back into their sockets, to the point where only the whites of his eyes showed.
In the other queues to the right and left of me there’s the usual shuffling of baggage as passengers move slowly to the coaches that are ready for boarding. To my right I notice a soldier with a large canvas bag on his back and he is three-passengers away from the head of the queue.  There is something incongruous about him. Not just the fact that he is East Indian, wearing a turban and standing out from the rest of the Anglo crowd; or that he has no ticket in hand like the rest of the people in the queue; or the way he is dressed: in ragged army fatigues, long sleeves shirt; a jacket with zippered pockets along the arms and chest; pants with folds frazzled and torn, heavy boots showing through the strips at the bottom. It is that as the line moves up closer and his turn comes up to board, he drops out and joins another queue a few feet away, as if someone had just whispered in his ear that he’s about to board the wrong coach. His posture is that of a soldier on parade, his shoulders held back, erect and stiff.  My curiosity intensifies when I notice that, as he reaches at the head of the next queue he again drops out and joins another.
By the time I finally start to move I have noticed that the Black man is rummaging through another garbage can and the Indian with the turban has repeated his exercise several times. It is my first experience with someone who joins queues for the love of it, and I marvel about how some habits seem to die hard in old military people.
At last I am aboard. I look at my watch and experience the impatience of those who are late, and having caught their train or coach, wonder why it’s taking so long to get going, blissfully ignorant or uncaring of those last minute passengers rushing to board. But it’s still fifteen minutes to go. Although I am entrenched in my seat, my baggage stowed safely on the rack on top, I am conscious that I am still clutching my ticket in my left hand, just in case. My breathing comes in quick gasps; I think that nothing is certain until the coach actually moves off.
There is a queue in the aisle and when it finally dwindles the coach fills up quickly. Couples pass me in my aisle seat, heading to the rear. A man comes in with his wife and small child dressed in a pink coat and they prepare to occupy the seats three rows up front. The child sees me looking at her and moves to snuggle next to her father while he is about to shove the baggage on the top, so he pushes the child aside roughly. She starts to cry. The mother has seen what he has done and calls the girl over to comfort her. The man and woman engage in a low-key conversation, the wife now looking irate, the man impassive, the child distraught. In the row across from me two teenage boys take up occupancy. They are carrying large backpacks. One of them pulls out a canister from his pack, takes off his shoes and proceeds to spray his dirty white socks, but not before the odour has wafted across to me. It is as if he has suddenly released a toxic fume that he’d been carrying around with him for a long time. I tell myself: it looks as if it is going to be that kind of a night.
And then an altercation breaks out up front.
The conductor refuses to allow the coach to depart. He appears to be invoking all the powers invested in him by the authorities, to deny passage to someone who is seated near the window in the fifth row, just where the shadow cast by the overhead light on the luggage rack, has left a pool of impenetrable darkness.
“You must leave the coach madam,” the conductor says firmly to the person.
“But why? I have a ticket, here is my ticket,” a female voice responds.
The conductor towers over the woman where she sits buried in her seat and he is silhouetted against the glare of the overhead light. Because of this she has to lean forward and tilt her head at an angle to look directly at him. This then creates a chain reaction since she wears glasses with an obvious bi-focal prescription, so now a hand and a head emerge from the shadow, the hand moving the glasses up and down.  It creates an eerie sensation, of seeing someone without a torso carry on a conversation.
“The coach will not depart until you get off, madam.”
I am amused he still address her in this fashion, but it seems so English: to keep it civil, perhaps right down to the end.
“But I am a passenger. I have my ticket like everyone else. I have a right to ride the coach.”
“I must insist that you leave madam.” This time he pronounces each word slowly, deliberately, with a slight trace of contempt creeping into his tone. “Or I will have to forcefully take you off.”
All the other passengers are looking on, some of them no doubt wondering, like me, whether this might prove yet another stumbling block and for heaven’s sake, what’s the big deal; why doesn’t he give the old lady a break?
The lady grows indignant over his attitude. “You can’t treat me like that. I have rights too. Why, you wouldn’t treat your dog the way you are handling me,” she cries out.
“My dog wouldn’t mess on the seat, madam.”
She ignores the remark. “How am I going to get home without the coach? Surely you can let me ride home, just this once?”
“The police said you cannot ride on National’s coaches madam. Leave or I’ll call the police.” The contempt in his voice has dissipated now; he is almost apologetic, but the damage has already been done. She says nothing, simply stands up, collects her several plastic bags, proceeds towards the exit up front, the ticket still protruding from the fingers of her left hand.
I don’t sit back until the coach pulls out and we’re several blocks away.

On The Streets Of Mumbai

Mumbai, India’s largest city, has a population of sixteen million people crowded into a 603 Square Kilometer area, making it the second most densely populated city in the world. Twenty three thousand people occupy a square kilometer. Compare it to Toronto with a population of two and a half million and a density of 793 people!
Mumbai, India’s richest city, called the City Of Dreams, also has close to one million homeless people. Thirty-five thousand of these are street children. This little girl in the picture is one of them.
I came across her early one morning as we were heading out to the airport and our car was stopped at an intersection. Families have lived for generations on the streets, establishing and colonizing their own section of the pavement where children are born and raised. With just the barest necessities of life most of them know no other existence. Pedophiles prey on the weaker ones and gangsters offer drugs to lure children to a life of begging. For them there is no Slum Dog Millionaire ending!
Time and again, I have revisited this picture and can’t help but wonder about the little girl’s circumstances. Is she doomed to the same less than marginal existence that her parents have survived on for years –a life of misery and deprivation? And yet, despite the missing front teeth, the dirty pants and shirt, I marvel at the quiet dignity that seems to pervade her features: She seems to be taking great pleasure from the simple act of washing her face that morning.


NEW YORK: 1975
Think of The Big Apple and the mind instantly conjures up images of The Rockettes at Radio City Music hall, the lights of Times Square … and the graffiti riddled subway system.
It was my first trip back to New York after many years.  Now I was eager to see the results of the smart revolutionary method the Transit Authority had adopted to overcome the graffiti problem, a method that involved the use of a new material that was both paint proof and washable.
As I sat there in the J Train heading for Coney Island, I could see that this had worked for the greater part: the walls were now clean and free of the mostly bizarre art which had once threatened to strangle the entire system.  But now, as the doors of the carriage opened at the stations down the line, it was obvious that the artists had looked upon this as a challenge they could not ignore.  The artwork had moved to the high domed ceiling, to the pillars, and even on the advertisements hanging on the walls.  And I wondered: how did these aspiring modern day Michaelangelos manage to find the opportunity and means to reach up so far to the ceiling to paint?
It was not too long before the carriage was crowded.  People stood along the center aisle, they braced against the doors, they hung on to the overhead straps suspended from the roof of the carriage.  I looked at the advertisements framed high on the wall.  They were a strange bunch, these ads, selling services and products I had never seen offered anywhere else.
The first one that caught my eye was over the door.  It read: “D o you suffer from Anal Warts and fissures?  Manhattan Medical Clinic can get rid of them through their revolutionary laser method – no surgery required.  “
Directly across from me, standing in front of the door as the train slowly made its way on the elevated line, was a tall man in black clothes with matching sneakers and curly hair.  His eyes were focused on the guy in the three piece Grey suit seated next to me reading, minding his own business, like so many other people on the train who were engrossed in novels, magazines, newspapers, or had earphones plugged into cassette decks or radios.
The Man In Black continued to stare.  He had a black wrist band on his right hand and every now and then his index finger stabbed the air in my direction, like someone in the throes of a voodoo incantation and about to cast an evil spell.  A black duffel bag hung on his left shoulder and he had to reposition it several times to prevent it from slipping to the floor.  Just about the only thing not black about him was his pearly-white teeth that flashed every time he opened his mouth to mumble something under his breath.
On my right, a woman who was already on the train when I boarded, was half asleep, gravitating ever so closer in my direction every time her head bobbed down to her chest.  From the corner of my eye I saw her wake suddenly.  She smiled, a wide effusive smile as she mumbled something under her breath.  Then she laughed, clapped her hands as if she had been suddenly made privy to something funny, closed her eyes and nodded off again.
The Man In Black was tall, so tall that he had to stand with his head bent along the curve of the roof, to the point where he touched the ad on the wall.  It read: “Tired of living the high life?  We can help if you have a drug problem.” And the Mid Town Crisis Clinic offered a serious solution to a growing problem.  And right next to it another ad:      “Manhattan Footcare.  Let us fix your feet right the first time.”
At the end of the aisle, next to the small conductor’s cabin, the door slowly slid open.  The sign that said: “Warning.  It is dangerous to walk between carriages” retreated into the door cavity and then reappeared behind the woman who entered, slowly making her  way to the center of the carriage.  She stopped, almost in front of me and waved a Daily Mirror in the air.  She said: “Ladies and Gentlemen.  Could I have your attention.”
There was a shuffling of shoes on the floor, the rustle of paper, a noticeable change in activity throughout the carriage as all heads turned towards her.  She said, above the harsh clatter of the wheels on the tracks, “Please buy my newspaper.  I’m being put out of my apartment.  Please help me out.  I appeal to you.” And without waiting for a response she continued her way to the door at the other end of the carriage, passing close to the Man In Black who pulled aside to make way for her, mumbling in an audible baritone: “Crazy woman.  Why don’ she leave people alone.”
Still more ads on the wall.  “Say goodbye to wrinkles.  Competent Plastic Surgeon will give you the lift you need in life.” The one that really caught my eyes was right next to this.  It read: “Torn Ear Lobes?  We can fix it.  Quickly.  Painlessly.  Cheaply.” I looked around my fellow passengers  to see how many people were really going around New York with torn ear lobes.  And how in the world did they ever get that way?
The Man In Black had made his exit at the previous stop.  We were now on the outskirts of the borough of Queens, coming up to the end of the elevated portion of the line, almost into Manhattan.  We passed houses, apartments, business, all merely feet from the tracks, even closer at times as the train screeched its way around curves, sending sparks through open apartment windows.  At eye level: iron bars on windows; entrances with metal encasements for storm doors; an air conditioner hanging outside a window, a steel mesh surrounding it. There were children playing in hallways, people staring from open windows, curious about who was riding the train, as inquisitive as I was over who lived there.  And which had come first?  Which half crazed city planner had actually zoned apartments so close to a train line?  Or which deranged engineer had thought of placing a subway line in such proximity to a residential area?
Then below: abandoned cars in the middle of the street, stacks of tires, construction material, litter, and empty lots overgrown with weeds.  In the middle of it all, an oasis: a field, lush, verdant; a green palette splattered with bright red tomatoes, purple egg plants, yellow string beans hanging from vines.
Still more signs on the train.  “If you’re going to do it, do it right. Use a condom.” Sponsored by NY Aids Hotline.  And: “Safe abortions. No risk.  The best pre and after care in Manhattan.”
We were now passing a cemetery.  Huge tombs, sparkling white and adorned with flowers, filled the landscape.  They all looked alike – the same size, same structure: arched roofs, pillars holding them up, like a miniature version of a Roman temple.  And the names on the walls facing the train: Zylberg, Sandberg, Isenberg.  Next to the cemetery, a Mason Works, a yard filled with pre-cast concrete slabs, blank headstones lying around, waiting to be claimed.
As we pulled into Brooklyn, into rail yards looking like Concentration Camps with barb-wire curled in huge spirals high above street level, I thought of Stalag 17. There were even watchtowers overlooking the yard.
I took one last look at the ads on the way out.  “Pregnant?  We can help.  NY Abortion Clinic.  Free Walk In Consultation.” And: “Designer Braces.  We can brighten up your smile today.” Also: “Hernias need not be a problem.  Let us take the weight off your feet..” Next to it: “Show off your skin.  Don’t be ashamed to come out into the light – NY Dermatology Clinic.” Then there was: “Tooth Savers Dental Center of NY.  Don’t wait for the Tooth Fairy.  We can save your tooth.” Finally: “Madame Zola.  Put yourself in my hands. Fortune Telling.  Palmistry – know what the future has in store for you.  “
As I stepped on to the platform, with walls now sparkling clean and looking almost sterile, the thought struck me: Had the city really licked the problem; or had the graffiti  moved  within the carriages and become institutionalized?


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