Category Archives: Travel

Hitchhiking by air in Cambodia (part 2)

This is part two in a two-part chapter in my “All the dumb things” series

The other types of aircraft I used to air hitchhike in were civilian cargo planes. In 1974 there were still a lot of old WWII aircraft flying in Cambodia and I got to see first hand, aeroplanes that I’d only ever seen in books. The most common were the Curtis C-46, Douglas C-47 (aka as the Dakota or DC-3) and also the Douglas DC-4.

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The Curtis C-46 above was operated by the imfamous Air America
(I never asked them for a ride… they were just sooo serious)

The planes were usually loaded with rice or fish as a cargo. Incidentally, the area around Tonlé Sap Lake is one of the most productive food producing areas in the world.

Most of the civilian pilots were Philipinos and generally as such, were a friendly happy-go-lucky bunch. Most of the cargo planes had two crew, the foreign pilot and a Cambodian loadmaster. The relationship between the pilot and loadmaster, looked to me, like that of master and servant. There didn’t appear to be much crossing over the gulf of class, education and culture between them. The pilots didn’t fraternise with the loadmasters in a social way. The pilots sat up the front in the cockpit and the loadmasters sat in the fuselage with the cargo, each by themselves.

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I once commented to an American journalist who could speak Khmer, that I thought it must be fascinating to understand what the locals were saying. His response went something like this: “not really, the average Cambodian is an illiterate farmer who has no concerns other than his crops and that is all they talk about”. So I suppose, that attitude goes some way to explaining why the pilots had any interest in having anything to do at all with a young naive fool from Australia like me. At least I spoke English and prattled on about other things besides farming.

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The hand loading and unloading of a cargo plane by the loadmaster and a few locals from where ever we landed, took quite a while, so the pilots used to have a fair amount of time to kill. It was during these times I got to have extended conversations with the pilots, as they waited, smoking, in the shade under the wings of their planes. Most of them saw themselves as nothing more than glorified truck drivers. Flying air-cargo in 1974 by yourself (no co-pilots), in old dilapidated, ill maintained crates, during a war, landing quite often on dirt roads, in the heat and humidity of Cambodia was a long way from being glamorous and they knew it. Most of the pilots looked like they were in their fifties and I’m sure the novelty of flying had worn off many years beforehand.

Cambodia at the time didn’t seem to have any law other than that which could be bought. Which in turn meant that any safety codes that were deemed “inconvenient”, were just ignored. Nothing seemed to get “enforced” anywhere in Cambodia at that time. A lot of the aircraft I flew in looked like they didn’t get much maintenance. For example many of them had some broken windows and dents along the side of the fuselage.

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 The cockpits in many also had loose cut wires sticking out in the air. One DC-3 I flew in had a metal maintenance plate in the cockpit that said something like: Air India, Bombay, Last maintained 1947. At least that was the last time it probably got a real thorough maintenance.

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On a few occasions I was present when people tried to load more weight, in cargo, than the plane was rated for. The pilots would be yelling at the loadmaster not to load any more, while the local, whose cargo it was (these sorts of things usually happened when we landed on dirt roads out in the middle of nowhere), would start to get out large wads of cash to try and smooth out the matter. Not once did I see a pilot knowingly allow too much cargo to be loaded. They always stood their ground. After all, self-preservation is a strong motivator. Large wads of local currency weren’t impressive in Cambodia. In one of the banks I frequented in Phnom Penh, due to the rate of inflation, they used to use bales of 100 riel notes to hold up the customer counters.

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The pilots had a fatalist attitude towards the state of their planes. One pilot told me that when he was flying his DC-3, he was always looking downwards at a 45-degree angle looking for landing places, just in case the engines failed. He said, very matter of factly, “these DC-3s don’t glide too well, they just sort of fall, at about a 45-dregee angle”.

Now days you’d have to hold a gun to my head to make me go up into the air in such aircraft. Then again, I don’t go into countries that have wars in them anymore either. Safe experiences don’t tend to lead to entertaining horror stories, which of course, are what tales of (mis) adventure consist of. In short, adventure often stems from bad decision-making.

By cadging flights, I got to travel all over Cambodia, which was illuminating on many levels. For instance, I know for a fact, that Kissinger lied when he denied that the Americans were carpet-bombing the country, and when he was caught out, said that the American air strikes were confined to areas near the Vietnamese border. From the air, in some areas far from the Vietnamese border, vast swathes of land, densely pockmarked by perfectly round pools formed in bomb craters, were visible in every direction, as far as you could see.

Here’s a link to map prepared by Yale University showing how far from the Vietnamese border the Americans bombed: http://www.yale.edu/cgp/us.html

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In this particular case, I don’t think that carpet-bombing caused the craters around this defensive position.
On a technical photographic point, the dark streaks are caused by insufficient agitation during development

It was also instructive to see how rag-tag and disorganised the government forces were once you got away from Phnom Penh. They were more of a militia than an army. When I look at the photos I took when I was in Cambodia and I see the photos of the boy soldiers (kids really, just like me at the time), I always feel an uncomfortable twinge, as I wonder what happened to them when the Khmer Rouge finally won the war. Many of the soldiers had anti-Khmer Rouge tattoos. The poor and the ignorant always get dealt harsh blows by changes in history.

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Enough of that morbid stuff, here’s “all the dumb things”.

One time when I was flying in one of those old scrap heaps I noticed a window with a large jagged hole in it. I tentatively stuck my hand a short distance out and felt the warm air rushing past at about 380kph (approximately 150knots or 170mph). I made a small wing out of my hand and was playing with the air (like when I was a kid in the family car). As timed passed, I got a little bolder and stuck my arm out further and further with (surprisingly) nothing bad happening. One of the things that I always wanted to do on a plane was look straight down at the ground, I was getting a bit bored with looking across at the horizon all the time.

Sooo…

I stuck my head out of the window and immediately the force of the wind rushing past my, much fatter than a hand, head, almost snapped it off. The loadmaster couldn’t hear me screaming for help, above the sound of the engines. There I was, all by myself, without anyone but myself to save me. My neck was bent at a severe angle while it was being pushed into the jagged plexiglass teeth of the broken window. My head was fully out of the window, being pressed, hard against the outside of the plane.

I couldn’t just pull my head in and I was starting to freak out. The force of the wind was so strong I couldn’t straighten my neck to get my head back through the hole and inside the plane. Every time I tried to pull my head in, the jagged plexiglass digging into my neck, dug in further and held me fast. I felt that I was going slit my throat (don’t want to cut the carotid artery now, do we?). I eventually got out of my predicament by pushing myself, with one hand against one of the fuselage’s ribs (against direction of the air-flow) and then reaching around with my free hand to grab a hold of a large hank of my hair and pull my neck straight enough to get my head back into the plane.

Won’t be doing that again!

For you photographers out there, the film I used was Tri-X. I had the film developed locally and since the ambient temperatures were so high, most of my negs were over developed and that’s why they look so grainy and the skies look so blown out. The higher temperatures also meant that the development times were accelerated, making problems caused by insufficient agitation (bromide streaking), much more likely.

Part 1

Cos-play-zoku in Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan

A year and a half ago I revisited Japan with my wife. I hadn’t been in Japan since 1976, so I thought it would be interesting to see how the Cos-play-zoku scene on Jingu Bashi (The bridge that leads into Meiji Jingu, a most beautiful park) in Harajuku had changed over the years.

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In the mid seventies the punk scene had just started and rockabilly had been rediscovered. Which meant that those were the prevailing fashions on display on Jingu Bashi . Lots of Japanese interpretations of Elvis and Sid Vicious were strutting their stuff. I thought I’d illustrate this with some photos but when I looked into my box of mixed up slides I decided that’s a huge task for another day.

Meiji Bashi is still the place to go if you want to see people, wanting to be seen and have their pictures taken with tourists.

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The more recent (mid 2005) cos-play-zoku fashion seems to be divided into three main groups. The first being a type of sleaze-punk-gothic.

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The Japanese love “cute”, so one can expect a little “cuteness” to be thrown into the mix.

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The second type of style one will see is a sort of pierced fetishised French shepherdess-baby doll. More Japanese cuteness gone awry.

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When in Japan it’s not uncommon to come across sexualised images of pre-pubescent girls. My wife and I were shocked to see a book in an art book store in Harajuku, that consisted of nothing but drawings of pre-pubescent girls in various fetish costumes with black eyes or fat bleeding lips in provocative poses, lifting up their skirts to expose infantile crotch. Very bizarre. I can tell you one thing though, if you published something like that here in Australia you’d attract the attention of the police, quick smart. So it looks like there is a desire in some sections of the Japanese populace to conform to such tastes.

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There has been a disturbing trend here in the west to sexualise children in advertising and I think the warning signs about where this leads to, are walking on the bridge into Meiji Jingu.

The third type of fashion that may be seen on Jingu Bashi is a sort of “Hello kitty” look. To me this is a more “pure” type of teen Japanese visual expression. Cute as a Kewpie doll and as colourful as a pachinko parlour whilst still being quite childish. This cartoonish style seems to be based on the manga aesthetic that was invented and developed in Japan.

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Hitchhiking by air in Cambodia

This is part one in a two part chapter of my “All the dumb things” series.

Back in 1974 when I was 17, I was travelling around South East Asia. I ended up in Cambodia about six months before the war there came to an end. One of the reasons why I went to Cambodia, is that I met a Belgian guy when I was in Laos who said it was possible to hitchhike in Cambodia by military aircraft or civilian air cargo.

I stayed in Cambodia for about six months and found myself various jobs teaching English (not being qualified, didn’t stop me). Road travel at that time was impossible as the government only controlled the cities (if you could call them that) and several of the larger towns. The Khmer Rouge were in control of the rest of the country.

When I wasn’t working (which was often) I used to hitch a ride down to the Phnom Penh airport,

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walk out onto the tarmac (Ahhh the bad old days when safety just didn’t seem to matter) and ask pilots for free rides as their planes were being loaded. I didn’t care where I went and most of the pilots were happy to have someone to shoot the breeze with on their flights. I used to get flights with civilians and the military.

 

The military flights were always on a Fairchild C123-K (known as the Provider). The C123-K was designed to take off and land on short makeshift runways and it had a big rear ramp for quick loading and parachute drops. The plane had two propeller engines for level flight as well as two auxiliary jet assist engines to enable the aircraft to take off and land in short distances .

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 The inside of the C123-K was basically a big square box with webbing benches running along the inside walls. At the front of the plane there was wall about 3 or 4 metres high with a ladder up into the cockpit. The centre usually had a payload of weapons and ammunition held down with a webbing net that clipped to the floor on the way out of Phnom Penh. Refugees and valuable civilians goods (like fancy furniture and motorcycles) were carried on the way back.

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My first experience in a C123-K was a real education. The pilots had trained in Sale, Victoria here in Australia and were pleased to host an Aussie. I was given a tour of the cockpit and treated like an old friend. They told me they were going to Kampong Soam on the southern coast and then back to Phnom Penh. The take off was very fast and steep as there was the possibility that the aircraft could come under small arms fire while flying under 10,000ft. The jet assist engines were incredibly powerful and I was surprised how quickly we reached cruising altitude. They just didn’t muck about!

The airport at Kampong Soam was in pretty good shape and the plane landed like a normal plane and it dropped off some soldiers and a few boxes of ammunition. About 30 refugees and a few motorcycles were loaded for the trip back. Unbeknownst to any of us passengers, we went back to Phnom Penh via Takey, which had a short makeshift runway.

The Cambodian refugees were just poor, uneducated farmers, most of who had probably never been in a car, never mind an aeroplane. The refugees were quite pathetic in that they were plainly destitute. Most were women who didn’t have any shoes or anything else except the dirty and threadbare clothes they were wearing and perhaps a half clad child on the hip. These were people who obviously had gone through some very hard and harrowing times.

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The military just herded the refugees into the plane, where they sat where they could. Some on the floor around the ammo crates and some on the webbing benches next to me. I tried to explain as best I could, using broken sign language, that they should put their seat belts on. Most just didn’t get it, and the few soldiers who were with us just smirked at my efforts and made no attempt to enlighten the other people.

Landing on short runway at Takey came as quite a shock. The C123 just dove steeply, hit the runway with an alarming thump and with the help of the jet assist engines, came to an abrupt halt. The only troubles were, that the cargo netting broke and there were unfastened refugees. Those of us who were strapped in stayed where we were. Everybody and everything else that wasn’t strapped down went hurtling forward at a terrifying speed, smashing into the wall at the front of the plane with sickening force. Crates of mortars, women and babies went past me in a blur. In the midst of all this, a little woman, with an iron grip, grabbed my leg as she flew forward and horizontally fluttered off me like a flag until the plane stopped. The most amazing thing is that every body walked off the plane unscathed, even the ones who were thrown into the wall with all the very heavy ammo boxes smashing all around them. It’s was a wonder that no one was killed.

Part 2

Morocco (an introduction)

This is the first in what I hope will be a long line of stories that I will be posting on this blog. Things will get much crazier later on.The thing to know about Morocco, to better understand the place, is that Morocco has for centuries been a gateway for trade between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. The Moroccans have made their livelihood from the traffic that passes both ways through their country. One gets the impression when in Morocco that you are passing through a kind of colourful, sticky money sieve. It seems anything that you come into contact with, inexplicably extracts some money from you.

One can’t leave their hotel without being beset by touts. The touts offer to be your guide, which means they will either drag you around to places they have “arrangements” with or they will follow you around trying to get a cut of whatever transaction you make. In fairness most Moroccans are dirt poor and there aren’t any social safety nets. Basically, the average Moroccan is on their own without much means of support and the average European tourist looks like a large overfed moneybag in comparison. Another consideration is that many people from the “first world” treat travelling in poorer countries as an extended shopping spree.

The longer I stayed in Morocco, the more I could identify with the herbivores of the Serengeti. There I was, an overfed target of seeming plenty for the ravenous circling predators. After a while the constant badgering of the touts begins to pall and no amount of polite refusal of goods or services is heeded. To give you an idea of what it can be like, I’ll relate this short anecdote.

When I was in Chaouen, a small town in the north of Morocco a local who wanted to be my guide approached me on a number of days. On all occasions I politely refused, as I didn’t want to have to interact with anyone who’s only objective was to drag me around to places where he’d get a cut of any purchases, including any food, I bought, while relentlessly blabbing in my ear. I just wanted to poke around on my own (the predators could see the straggler who had wandered off from the herd and saw in him an easy feed) in peace, but this guy was very persistent. I was constantly being probed for information so he could engage with me. My last interaction with him went like this:

Q. “Where are you from?”
A. “Australia.”
Q. “You come from Sydney?”
A. “Yes.”
Q. “Very beautiful place, no?”
A. “Yes.”
Q. “Where do you go?”
A. “Walking around”
Q. “I will be your guide?”
A. “No thanks, I’d just like to walk around by myself.”
Q. “I can take you to my uncle’s carpet factory?”

 

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A. “No thanks I don’t want a carpet and I don’t want to buy anything.”
Q. “You want jellaba (a sort of full length pullover smock with hood that the locals wear)?” I know where you can buy a very fine jellaba!”
A. “No thanks and I told you I don’t want to buy anything.
Q. “Ahhh! You want hashish?”
A. “No thanks, I just want to be left alone.”
Q. “You want a girl?”
A. “No and please leave me alone.”
Q. Looking around and in a low voice, “you want a boy?”
A. “No and go away!”
Q “You don’t want carpet? You don’t want jellaba? You don’t want hashish? You don’t want girl? You don’t want boy (in exasperated disbelief)? Why did you come to Morocco you f#%king Australian Jew!

I threw my charming interlocutor against the wall and made it clear to him he was in great risk of receiving some grievous bodily harm, he ran off and didn’t bother me for the rest of my time there. This experience and several others in a similar vein taught me a few things though. The Moroccan guides I came into contact with tended to:

1. Be desperate.
2. Not understand, that not all foreigners wanted to shop all the time.
3. See politeness as a sign of weakness.
4. Understand force and aggression.
5. Think being a Jew is a bad thing (Not that I am).

For what it’s worth, I met a hilarious Italian traveler who told me that his way of being left in peace is to scream at the touts, as they bothered him, that he was Italian while making a slashing motion across his neck. His rational was the mafia operated in Morocco hash trafficking and they had a reputation of being very dangerous.

As a result of this experience and many like it, I’ve come up with a way to reduce doing things I don’t want to do. Whenever I get approached by people, to do something, I go through the following mental routine:

I first ask myself if it would please me to please them (by doing what they want). If the answer is no then I don’t. If it pleases mi to please them, then I will go along with them.

Many people in non-western countries are quite happy to exploit western politeness and a desire to be liked. While we here in the west have the luxury of thinking (or possibly deluding ourselves) that friendship is offered and given for the sake of friendship only, many people in poorer countries are so desperate they see any foreigner as a ticket out of their poverty and so seek profit from any overtures of friendship.

The Cambodians have a saying: “Never trust a poor man.” And there is an Arabic saying: “It is a sin to tempt a poor man”

 

Having said all that I still recommend engaging with the locals in any country that you visit, just keep your eyes open, your wits about you, and don’t do anything or go anywhere that makes you feel uncomfortable. Listen to your inner self, it’s quite often right.

 

So there you go, a trip to Morocco, unless you go to a resort, isn’t really a vacation, it’s an experience. Somebody (I can’t remember who) once said, “Adventure is discomfort remembered in comfort.”

If you ever go to Morocco and stay for a while (outside of the resorts) you’ll definitely come back with some stories. I certainly did.