Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Young Ladies of The Capuchin

There is a very special home, run by a group of dedicated Catholic Sisters, for abandoned and abused young girls in The Philippines, known as the Capuchin Family Home. I had the honor of being a part of their lives, an experience that I will cherish all my life. How anyone could hurt or give up any one of these girls is beyond my comprehension, for each of them are unique precious gems.

Here are just a few of them...

Pieces of Manila

Diminishing to Darkness

He once dreamed a paradise, once thought he knew what heaven meant, a place where two birds flew amidst an ocean of dancing lilies...

...where the colors of the sky never remained the same, a kaleidoscope of rainbows flowing across their path in all directions, where nothing mattered except the wind keeping them afloat. He once dreamed of something everlasting where nothing in reality mattered, where life neither started nor ended, a place where time knew no existence, a never ending journey engulfed in that that familiar gentle touch of rain, cleansing away all history, all pain, all fears, all loneliness, soaring through an endless universe of love. But that paradise faded from him as fast as it came when the other bird fell away. She fell far and fast away from him until soon she could not be seen. She was gone forever.

It was then that he realized that there was always only just one bird that existed at all, only one that flew alone. His dreams, his desires, were but ephemeral wisps of gentle warm air which brought him to new heights, only to then drift away, and without the air beneath his wings, he would fall back to the depths of his loneliness, his fated place in this world to exist as one and only be as one.

The colors faded to gray, and then finally to black. The sounds diminished into emptiness. Darkness within his reality would always prevail.

And he misses her so..

In Love of Lines and Contrasts

Just to break away from the photographs I took while visiting Viet Nam earlier this year, I wanted to share with everyone these shots which I took while visiting my parents in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. These were the first few pictures I took with my new Nikon D80, which I so deeply love! I hope you will enjoy the lines that run through these shots as much as I enjoyed seeing them in person.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Viet Nam - Sapa

20 January (Sunday)
I was completely exhausted by the time we arrived in the town of Lao Cai at around 6:30am the next morning. Grateful for their help, the two gentlemen who shared the cabin with me ushered me to the many minibus drivers preying on tourists and negotiated a good price for me to take the hour-long drive up the mountains to Sapa. Meandering up the winding roads overlooking the valleys during twilight and through passing clouds was an experience I will never forget.

The sun had risen by the time we reached Sapa. The village, which was more expansive than I had imagined, blossomed into colour as clouds drifted away and sunlight flooded the land. Immaculately clean the architecture reminded me of the quaint towns you find in parts of rural Europe. The minibus dropped me off at my hotel, called Chau Long Hotel. The hotel is one of the first major hotels as you enter Sapa village, somewhat hidden down a narrow lane just off the only real main road in town.

As it was only around 8am, and time for check-in would only be in another one and a half hours, I asked the receptionist with the sweetest voice I could muster from my weariness, where would I find the best pho to eat in town? And with an even sweeter voice and a delightful smile, she pulled out a photocopy of the town map and with a red pen she traced the route to what she promised me would be the best pho I would ever taste. So with a bad back from a restless sleep and grumbling in my stomach, I headed towards my pho paradise. In my tiredness I mistakenly read the town map backwards and headed out of town rather than into town! When the town sort of disappeared and left was only empty landscape, I came to my senses and turned around. With the kind help of local boys offering motorcycle taxi rides around town, I was pointed in the right direction. Up along the main road in Sapa and on the other side of the town square down another road to the northwest of town, my tired legs finally stopped when I found a stall selling pho, just opposite the town bus station. The sign above the stall read “Tung Ha Noi, Pho Gia Truyen” and it was packed with local and tourist Vietnamese. I thought, “this has got to be the place”! Chancing upon an empty stool, I sat down and ordered “ph obo, cam on”! Within a couple of minutes, another hot and steamy bowl of pho was placed before me. Everyone seemed to be watching me, waiting for my reaction to the first mouthful. For, I suppose, many obvious reasons, I am always viewed as a foreigner in Vietnam. No one ever suspects that I am not only part Vietnamese, but that I was actually born here. Frustrating at times, but in many ways it creates the opportunity to speak with the locals and, without fail, they are always thrilled to find out that I am actually Vietnamese. Anyway, back to my pho. After adding some beansprouts, coriander leaves, and squeezing in some lime, I slurped up my first spoonful. I’ve had pho all my life and it is, as you can probably tell, is one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes. So, I guess I’m somewhat of an expert when it comes to knowing a really good pho. I could not stop myself from breaking into a great big smile as I quickly grabbed another spoonful and gulped it down, relishing every flavour I could taste. It was, as the so very kind receptionist told me, the very best pho I had and may ever taste! I could sense that my instant love affair with my meal was amusing the other patrons. After finishing every last drop of my pho, I went to the girls preparing the dishes and thanked them with the biggest smile I had. Utterly contented, I took a few pictures of the stall and headed back towards the hotel.

Along the way back, I stopped at a small coffee shop that had an outdoor bistro area that overlooked the town square and the mountains beyond. With a cup of Vietnamese coffee, I spent the next hour watching Sapa coming to life with people. Along with the Vietnamese inhabitants, which make up roughly one quarter of the inhabitants in the area, Sapa is home to eight main ethnic groups: the Hmong, which makes up more than half of the population, the Dao, Tay, Muong, Hao, Xa Pho, White Thai and Giay. Each group has their own unique dress and set of cultures. One of the most outstanding attributes of the tribes, whether old or young, male or female, are their native costumes characterized by an exuberance of colour and design. What is even more astonishing is that most of them design and sew their costumes, including jewelry, themselves!

Tourism, albeit on a smaller scale than in more known destinations such as Saigon, Hanoi, Hue and Hoi An, has become a major source of revenue for the tribes. Along the main street in Sapa and around the town square are filled each day with people from the tribes, mostly women, selling their goods, including colourful hand made elaborately embroidered jackets and vests and jewelry. So persistent are they in their effort to sell that would walk the entire length of main Sapa road with you to win your few dollars. This might be annoying for many tourists, but for me it was fun. Yes, they are difficult to brush off. But even after they end up without a sale, they bid you farewell with the most gracious of smiles.

Eager for a steaming hot shower I headed back to my hotel. I was booked into the new wing that claimed to have a great view. What greeted me turned out to be much more. It was a room with a view on paradise. Its balcony overlooked the Sapa valley, blanketed with a layer of low clouds. Above rose the ridges of the nearby Hoang Lien Son mountain range forming a contour with the clear blue skies above. I must have stood there taking in the magnificence of the view for at least an hour.

Recharged, I set out on my first trek to the nearby Hmong tribe village of Cat Cat, just four kilometers from Sapa. The walk was easy, with wonderful views of the Sapa valley, the nearby mountains and the terraced rice fields. Occasionally, the journey was met with a passing cloud, obscuring view to just a few meters and peppering you with minute drops of water, to then pass allowing for the bright sunshine and clear blue skies to reveal the lushness of the landscape. From the narrow winding road a checkpoint points the direction to what seems an endless series of wide steps that leads you down through the village. The walk down the steps goes on for about fifteen minutes passing wooden houses with mud-thatched roofs, all of which were proudly displaying their handmade goods outdoors hoping for a sale from passing tourists. Children could be seen scattered here and there playing in the fields. Women, even very young girls, could be seen embroidering their colourful cloths. At the bottom of the steps ran a stream that cascades from the mountains, and forms columns of waterfalls. An old steel bridge about thirty meters in length spans across the stream, leading you to a row of stalls selling goods and food. I approached one stall where a young woman sat on a low stool and grilled boar meat, marinated with lemon grass and garlic, over a small stove. With an order of 333, the very popular Vietnamese brewed beer, I had my first taste of boar meat. With delight, I ravaged through two skewers. Simply delicious! Two other young women accompanied the charming chef and we spent an hour just chatting and laughing. Despite their hardship and their poverty, the people of this area are full of warmth and friendship. It was such a delight to enjoy the day with them, surrounded by the beauty of the land and the sounds of the waterfalls. After short hikes up the ridge on this side of the bridge and taking as many pictures as I could, I decided to begin the arduous climb back up the steps. It didn’t take long before I realized just how physically strong are the people here. Children, adults, and even the elderly climb up and down these steps several times each day in what clearly appears to be without tire. For me, by the time I reached the top I was drenched in sweat, my legs were killing me and I was utterly out of breath. With utter relief, I spotted a nearby cafĂ© which a view to the Cat Cat valley. The view was immensely calming and peaceful as I watched the clouds drift in and out of the valley.

Back along the main street in Sapa town I decided to stop for a hot cup of coffee at one of the many restaurants that lined both sides of the street. One of the larger restaurants in Sapa, very close to my hotel, had a veranda where you could sit and watch the busy life of this small town. Inside the restaurant were walls filled with photographs of people and landscapes of Sapa. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet the owner of the restaurant that afternoon. Known simply as “Anh Tung”, the charismatic and down to earth gentleman turned out to be the photographer of all the charming pictures displayed. He moved to Sapa eight years ago having, as many people have, fallen in love with the valley and its inhabitants. Now, together with his lovely wife and three young children, Anh Tung runs three restaurants in Sapa. But his love remains in photography and he continues to pursue his passion in expressing the beauty of Sapa to the world.

My first long day in Sapa ended with the pampering of a wonderful relaxing massage at the hotel’s spa and a warm bed for much needed sleep.

20 January (Sunday)
The morning light drifted through the windows dawning a very different day in Sapa. The weather was cold and the entire area was engulfed in thick clouds and constant drizzling of rain. After a quick shower I headed straight away for what would be one final bowl of my favorite pho at Pho Gia Truyen, since today would be my last day in Sapa before continuing with the rest of my journey throughout Vietnam. The cold and wet weather made the pho even more welcoming.

I then set out to rent a motorcycle from the hotel, as I wanted to visit another tribal village known as Ta Van, which was nine kilometers from Sapa town. The ride was bitter cold and visibility was limited to just a few meters. Riding slowly down the narrow winding road was precarious. I could hardly see anything as I rode tediously through the clouds and rain. In fact I ended up missing the turn off to Ta Van village and rode for another six kilometers before I realized I had gone too far. I finally reached the village after riding for almost an hour in the cold. An old bridge marked the entrance to the village. I parked my motorcycle and began along the path that wound uphill into the village. It didn’t take long before I was surrounded by the villagers, offering me their goods to buy. One young woman followed me all the way into the heart of the village and, with surprisingly very good English, she told me about their history and culture. She even led me to the town’s only school and brought me in to see the children busy studying. It still is so hard to believe I once sat in a similar classroom as a small boy in my hometown in central Vietnam. I was grateful for her conversation, as the weather was terrible for taking photographs. She then brought me to a shop further into town selling hand carved stone crafts to tourists. Although very beautiful and skillfully produced, most of the items were typical of those found in tourists shops scattered throughout all of Vietnam’s major cities. However, one particular item caught my utter attention. It was a circular shallow white vessel. Its lid, which covers the top and sides of the vessel was carved to such magnificent detail that I could not tear my eyes away from it. A network of intricately formed dragons, phoenixes, turtles and lotuses intertwined across both top and sides of the lid. When asked about its price, I was told it was three hundred US dollars. How I regretted not bringing enough cash with me for it is a rare occasion that you get to come across things in life that touch your heart deeply and you know that you will keep it in your memory forever. Noting my dismay, an older gentleman approached me and elaborated on the vessel and how it was made. Not only did I soon discover that he was the owner of the shop, but that he was also the creator of the vessel! How delighted I was to meet him. We spent that afternoon talking about his work, his inspirations and his challenges. Before we bade farewell he gave me his telephone number and told me to give him a call one month before my next visit to Ta Van so he can create a new vessel just for me! Making his acquaintance, forming a new friendship, along with Anh Tung, and the others who I had the pleasure of sharing time with on this trip, formed a deep love for this place. It is rare to find a beautiful landscape accompanied by a gracious people.

Riding slowly back to the hotel the cold and rain persisted, but they no longer bothered me. Instead, their touch on my skin warmed my heart and made me feel as though I was being touched by the beauty of Sapa.

After one last stop at Anh Tung’s restaurant for coffee I bade farewell to my new friend and headed back to the hotel to depart back to Hanoi to start the next phase of my journey through Vietnam. As we drove in the minibus back to Lao Cai to catch the train to Hanoi, I replayed in my mind all the places I had seen and the people I had encountered while here for just two days, and I hoped that the rest of my journey would also offer such cherished memories to me as Sapa had.