Cyclo driver. Somewhere in Cambodia. 1974

I wonder how the rest of his life went?


His care worn face seems to me, to show a prescient knowledge of the terrors that were advancing just over the horizon. I wonder how the rest of his life went?

Some people have such hard lives that I think it’s almost criminal for us in the first world to complain about our circumstances. I look at such faces and I know that I’ve got it easy and I count my blessing and I’m grateful.

A flood of memories from Cambodia in the early 1970s

Two days ago my hot water tank developed a leak that flooded the storage area under the stairs. After getting the, “ooo that’s bad news”, from the plumber over the phone, I organised for a new hot water heater to be installed the next morning and got down to the business of mopping up and clearing out all the camping equipment and various other junk from under the stairs.

I have a general rule about accumulating junk I try to adhere to; if I’m surprised about coming across something that I haven’t seen for years and haven’t missed it, it goes in the garbage. So I threw out an old turntable with a ceramic cartridge and a Nakamichi cassette player (they used to be considered the best). All of the camping gear gets used, so there was no culling there, but then I came across an old model aeroplane made from the detritus of war in Cambodia back in the early 1970s.

A real memory trigger

All of a sudden like a pin ball machine, my mind started to light up with a flood of memories. I knew instantly that I still valued what many people would consider a pile of junk. It was all covered with dust so I cleaned it off as best I could and I’ve put in my living room where I can look at it again.  I wondered why I hadn’t had it out on display. Then I remembered that up until recently, I didn’t have any where I could put it without it getting more damaged.

I bought the model plane in a small town called Takeo, while I was doing some hitch hiking by air. The plane was made by a soldier called Kong Chuon (he wrote his name on it), and he’d called it a Dara X Supersonic.

Kong Chuon in Takeo

The fuselage is mostly made of M16 stripper clips and loaders. The Bombs are made from .50 calibre bullets and rounds from AK47s (all emptied of course). Stuck on right wing of the aircraft is a little scrap of paper with a hand written anti communist slogan which says;

“The bomb can negotiate with the VC for the peace in South East Asia”

I carted this model plane around with me for over ten years in my backpack as I wandered around various countries. I always thought the plane was pretty cool and it was my intention that I’d put it on display when I finally settled down. After years of moving around, jammed into a pack the poor old model has taken a beating.

I remember the day I bought the model. I didn’t have any English teaching work on that day, I so I hitch hiked out to the airport and then walked out onto the tarmac to ask  pilots for a lift. I did this quite often, because of the war it wasn’t possible to travel by road as the government only controlled the towns and the rest of the country was in the hands of the very dangerous Khmer Rouge. It was the only way I could afford to see the country I was making so little money at the time, I was literally starving.

As I was asking around, I met a one armed American guy on vacation from his job in Saigon who was doing the same thing as me. We hit it off, so we hung out for the day cadging lifts all over Cambodia.

Apparently my new found friend (who for convenience sake I will call Sam, because I’ve long forgotten his name) lost his arm because he was kicked so hard during a football game. Sam came from Colorado and the things he missed the most, living in Asia were Coors beer and Dr Pepper. Sam just raved on about Dr Pepper (which at that time I hadn’t tried) and how good it was. As for Coors, I was informed that they made it from “pure mountain spring water” and Sam assured me that if I ever went to the States that I wouldn’t be disappointed with his favourite beer.

My travelling companion was mobbed by children in Svey Reng

It was Sam who suggested that I buy the model plane. He explained that they were very popular with the G.Is stationed in Vietnam and he bought a few of them to take back home as presents. For me at the time, the $2.50 that I paid for the plane was a real extravagance. I was ashamed to tell Sam why I couldn’t buy more of them, especially when he kept urging me to because they were so cool and so cheap.

Now as I look at my beat up little plane I can’t help but wonder what ever happened to Kong Choun and all the little kids in the photos above. I suspect that that many of them either had a very hard time or came to a bad end. I always have these feelings when I look at my old photos that I took in Cambodia.

I often wonder about the fate all the Cambodian people whose images I have.

On a lighter note, several years later, I went to the US and of course I was very keen to try Dr Pepper and Coors.

The verdict; Dr Pepper tastes like stale marzipan and is just horrible. I guess it’s one of those things you have to grow up with. A bit like Vegemite which so many Aussies rave on about (disgusting, salty rubbish). As for Coors, it’s just so bland that I can’t imagine why anyone would bother with it.

As I was looking through my old negatives to illustrate this article, I came across a few other photos of people in Cambodia that I’ll post over the next couple of days.

Revelations and lessons learnt. Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA 1979

I first posted this article back in July 2007 but since I used to get so few visitors to my blog back then, I don’t think many people read it; so here it is again.

Back in the middle of summer in 1979, at the age of 23, I had some time off from my job as a laser light show operator in the carnival, so I visited the Grand Canyon by myself.

I literally had my breath taken away, when I first saw the Grand Canyon.  As I stood at Bright Angel point and looked over the edge, I was so awestruck that I could hardly breathe.  I was also overcome by a feeling that I would be sucked into the chasm, and I had to push myself from the barrier and turn my head away from the vista, just so I could breathe and stop myself from fainting. I always thought such things were the stuff of purple prose, and never in my wildest dreams did I think, that one could have their breath taken away by natural beauty.  I was gobsmacked.

When I got my breath back I turned around and drank in the view for at least an hour.  It was my intention to hike to the bottom of the canyon the next day, so I went to the National Parks office to put myself on the permit list, only to be told that I would have to wait three days, because only 75 people are allowed to stay in the canyon overnight to preserve the fragile desert environment.  I had a week off from work, so I didn’t mind that much.  I just was a bit concerned about how I was going to spend my time, in the interim.

Back in those days I used to think that sleeping on camping mats was for softies, and I also thought that staying at hotels was a total waste of money.  So I used to just camp out in the bush in my sleeping bag without a tent or mat and that’s just what I did at the Grand Canyon.  In the morning I would just pack up all my stuff, put it into my backpack and leave it with the concierge at the Bright Angel Lodge for a small fee.

As I waited the three days for my hiking permit, I sat at the cliff edge and boggled on what I saw. 

 While I was staring into the chasm for hours on end, I couldn’t help but think about how much time had passed as the multitude of geological strata had built up.  The bottom layers of the Grand Canyon were so much older than the beginning of life on Earth.  I found myself thinking about entropy, while contemplating the erosion.  It seemed to me that solidity was a manifestation of time and given enough time, everything was basically liquid as entropy caused matter to succumb to gravity and flow to the lowest point.

As I had this revelation I reached out my hand to get the attention of whoever was next to me and tell them about what I’d thought.  But I was alone, and as my arm swung through the vacant air, I realised that there was no one there.  I felt bereft.  It occurred to me that all my life, up until that moment, I had never really felt lonely, in the sense of needing to have the company of other people for company’s sake.  The reason why I felt bereft was because I had wanted to share the moment and my thoughts with someone who mattered to me.  It came to me in a flash that this was the first time in my life I realised why people formed relationships for other reasons besides money or amusement.  Up until that point I thought that couples were in relationships just because they found each other attractive and wanted to have sex with each other rather than share their lives.  No wonder I wasn’t in any long-term relationship at that time. I was too young anyway.

The three days eventually passed and I got my permit to hike to the bottom of the canyon, and stay overnight at Phantom Ranch.  At the beginning of the hike I met two other travellers, and we hiked down to the bottom and stayed at Phantom Ranch overnight.

myself with two other travelers

The next morning we left fairly early and started on the long hike back up out of the canyon.  We left early, because in the morning, it was still a bit cool and at the bottom of the canyon temperatures can get up to about 50°C (about 120°F) as the day wears on.  At the same time that we left, a little old lady from Austria, who was about 70 years old, also set off. 

Being a couple of young guys, we tore off up the track, until the going got steep, and we had to stop and rest at frequent intervals.  As we were standing around in the shade getting back our breath, the little old lady from Austria would catch up to us and we would take off again.  This tortoise and hare race happened about 4 or 5 times, until the little old lady said to us “boys, boys, boys, you’re doing it all wrong!” Then she said to us, “ walk with me and I’ll show you how to walk up steep hills”.  So off we started again, and before we knew it, we almost left her in the dust again, but as we noticed we were leaving her behind we slowed down, until she caught up with us again.  Our Austrian hiking coach explained to us that if we walked in very slowly we wouldn’t get tired.  So for the rest of the day we walked with her at her slow pace.  Sure enough, we didn’t take a break for the rest of the day and made it up to the top without a stop. 

Jeans were a bad choice to hike in

Thanks to what that little old lady from Austria taught me on that day, I have been able to enjoy walking up long steep hills without being constantly out of breath.

Red Mesa, Arizona, USA. 2005

The south western states of the U.S. is one of my favourite areas in the world. There’s something about the wide open spaces and big skies there, that I can’t put words to, that resonates so deeply within me. It’s not a landscape that provides an easy living to people born there, let alone someone like me who is genetically more suited to cooler and wetter places and for that reason it puzzles me that I’m so attracted to it.

My attraction to such landscapes reminds me of some dialogue from the movie, “Lawrence of Arabia”. Feisal says to Lawrence;

“I think you are another of these desert-loving English.
No Arab loves the desert.
We love water and green trees, there is nothing in the desert.
No man needs nothing.”

The triumph of the philistines. Seven Hills, NSW Australia. 2009

As I was filling my car up with petrol at the end of the day on Friday, I looked up and saw one of the most intensely coloured rainbows that I’ve ever seen in all my life. Then it occurred to me that the Mc Donald’s sign was in the way and it instantly angered me. 

A quote of Ogden Nash came to my mind.

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.

In this economically rational capitalist world I live in, there seems to be no place for the naturally beautiful. Big garish plastic signs have taken the place of natural vistas. Even something as magical as a rainbow is lost in the ubiquitous visual cacophony imposed on us by philistine corporations. I just hate the idea (and the people who spread such ideas) that nothing should exist in society unless it makes money. A pox on Ayn Rand and people like her!

Whatever happened to the idea of towns and cities being beautiful places to live?

What is it with the people who decorate their homes with advertising materials from a bygone era? Why is it so “collectable”? It was visual pollution back then and it’s just old crap now! When we have so many people who are completely brain-washed by the advertising industry, what hope is there for nature and beauty? As Joseph de Maistre once said, “Every country has the government it deserves“; and I suspect that’s why we, as a society don’t legislate against such ugliness.

Playing around with light painting. Sawpit Creek, NSW, Australia. 2008

Last year my wife, Engogirl and I went down to the snow country to do some camping and skiing. We camped at Sawpit Creek and since there wasn’t all that much to do at night we played around with some light painting.

Engogirl gets painted with light

The picture was taken at 1600 ISO at f5.6 for 30 seconds. During the exposure I “painted” in the trees and my wife with a small AA torch (that’s a “flashlight” to you Americans out there). I had Engogirl move her arms to give the shot a little more interest.

What you looking at? Bangkok, Thailand. 2007

Many people travel to see foreign places and people. Which of course means that foreign people get to see them and therefore the observer becomes the observed.

On a side note, it was instructional to be in a country that didn’t use Roman script on road signs (or just about anywhere else). The situation helped me understand what it’s like to be completely illiterate. I’ve been to plenty of places that don’t speak English but they tended to use Roman script (even in places like Japan and Morocco) so I still found it easy to get around using maps. What wake up call I got in Bangkok, when I was trying to use a map that was in English to give a address to a Thai cab driver by pointing to the map and he couldn’t read Roman script and I couldn’t make sense of his map in Thai script. From that situation onward, I’d ask hotel staff to write out my destinations in Thai script.

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