I didn't need to look at the weather forecast when I arrived in Hanoi. The clouds were orators, speaking with purpose. Riding into the city, I was certain that I would spend much of my four day Vietnamese getaway indoors. Eighty percent... Ninety percent... A hundred percent bet that I was going to be snuggled up reading a Murakami novel and wishing that I was at home instead of a hotel room. At least that was what the realist in me muttered through the half cracked taxi window on the way to Hanoi's Old Quarter.
I hadn't come to Hanoi to work on some grandiose, longterm project. I was not on assignment for any magazine. There was nothing in particular that I was curious to shoot. I had come to Vietnam for two very simple missions. First, I wanted some "me time." Secondly, I wanted to take some damn photographs. I was determined to complete both objectives. At least that was what the optimist in me boasted as I chucked my bags on the hotel bed and opened the room's minibar.
I quickly downed an airplane bottle of Jack Daniels. The whisky I had just consumed would be, for most, a celebratory gesture. At that point, I had done absolutely nothing worth celebrating (other than surviving another plane flight). Realizing this, I stood up, grabbed my gear and headed right back out the door.
For the next several days, I forced myself into the constant drizzle (and occasional downpour). No poncho. No umbrella. Just my camera bag, water bottle and positive attitude. When the rain forced me out of the streets, I ate. When it let up, I pulled out the camera and got to work. Four days and roughly three thousand snaps later, I was headed back to the airport glad that the realist in me was wrong.
Gyeongju, South Korea
Tucked in the southeastern Korea, Gyeongju was the capital for the Silla Kingdom for 992 years (57BC-AD935). During this time, it flourished as a center of culture, art and learning. Today, more than a thousand years since the city was the peninsula’s governmental seat, Gyeongju is known affectionately as the “museum without walls.” The nickname is well earned seeing that UNESCO deems the whole of Gyeongju as a World Cultural Heritage site.
Understandbly, Gyeongju is high on the tourist ‘to-do list’ amongst Koreans an foreign tourists alike. Walking through the streets of Gyeongju is akin to walking through time. Meandering around the old city will see you weaving between traditional hanok houses where time has stood still, discovering unexpected pockets of life, visiting tiny shops whose owners seem as old as the city itself and catching the last light of day reflecting in the royal pond of Wolji.
It isn’t just strolling by imperial tarns that you can feel close to the kings of Korea. Gyeongju continues to physically cradle Silla royalty. A multitude of earthen tumuli (tombs) command respect and remind onlookers of the dynastic power in their midst. Yet, the ancient Silla kings were not solely interested in power.
Royalty steered the capital city, and thus the kingdom, towards Buddhism. During the 6th century, affiliation with Buddhist tradition not only strengthened royal power but also united the people under a common tradition. The lasting heritage of Buddhism can still be experienced today through cultural relics such as Seokguram Grotto. Perhaps the very essence of Korean Buddhist tradition is also found in Gyeongju. Bulguksa temple provides visitors with a glimpse of Korean Buddhist that is preserved and recognized globally.
The city and its surroundings are dotted with temples, palaces and artifacts from Korea’s history. However it is the people of Gyeongju that really make it what it is today. They are friendly, welcoming, down-to-earth people who love a great time. While life seemingly runs at a slower pace in Gyeongju, the city has a lively atmosphere that feels far removed from the hectic urban trance of Seoul.
As I left Asia for Europe, I thought back to April of 2005. I had completed my stint at university and was ready for a massive change. I remember handing my mother with my university diploma, packing a bag and being pushed out of a car by my good friend Tracy at Charlotte Douglas International airport. I was ready for my first jump into expat life.
While I had never been to the Czech Republic, I felt it was where I needed to be. Though I had no clue what wait waited for me there, I knew Prague would be drastically different from my life in Asheville, North Carolina. At the time, the change of location was exactly what was needed.
I felt pressure boarding the Czech Airlines flight. Moving to a new country is inherently much more drastic than say, backpacking for a summer. While I knew I would feel like a traveller for the first months in my new foreign home, in a strange way I was deeply worried that I wouldn't not be able to hack expat life. If I turned back, I wasn't coming home from a trip or a grand adventure. If I returned "home," I would be a failure. As my plane took off for the trans-Atlantic flight, I decided that, no matter what, I would not be beaten by my new environment or my own fears (I admit that I have way too much pride that has caused more harm than good throughout the years).
Over the next months in Prague, I learned the tricks of the trade needed to survive as a young expat. I learned how to pinch pennies (even more than I did in university). I learned how to quickly assemble a group of friends (No man is an island). I learned how to spot cons and how to minimize my footprint as a foreigner. I learned that it is okay to be lonely. It is okay to ask for help. I learned that heartbreak and isolation compliment each other perfectly.
It was also in Prague that I first learned that a camera can teach you how to craft a unique vision of the world. Wandering around the cobblestoned alleyways and twisting around the gothic spires, I learned to see the minutia of the world and became keenly aware of everyday scenes that usually go unnoticed. Having solitude, and therefore time, I was able to actively SEE (something I had really never done before). That newly found "sight" was, oddly enough, directly related to a viewfinder and a couple hundred rolls of black and white film.
Almost a decade later, I boarded a train in Salzburg and crossed the Moravian highlands for Prague. The minute I stepped out of Staromestska station, I was twenty two again. The spires and the stone-lined alleys hadn't changed a bit. Yet, this time, I wasn't wandering around the Czech capital with a analog camera and pockets full of Ilford monochrome film.
For this encounter with the glorious European city I had my wife, some good friends and a Canon EOS 6d. I was no longer worried about failure or learning how to become an expat. I simply focused on having a great time in one of the world's most beautiful cities.
More Travel Photography
The term business trip says it all. Simply put, it is a trip you take to work., not "work it." Before arriving at Chitose airport outside of Sapporo, I wondered, "Do I check the business or the pleasure box?" I left a little check in the business square but began to contemplate, "What constitutes business? What defines pleasure. Are they mutually exclusive?"
Japan has always remained a mystery to me. Though it was the second time touching down in the island nation, I still felt as though I had never been there. I knew that this brief trip across the sea from Korea was not going to yield an understanding of Japanese history. It was not going to offer a glimpse into the modern Japanese psyche. It would simply be an opportunity to get some work done, take some photographs and glance over Sapporo.
After a day of meetings, I was eager to get into the bustle, devour some of Hokkaido's best soup curry and take a look around. It was nearly dark and my colleague Christy and I were both tired. But, I didn't lug the Canon gear across the Sea of Japan for not. Moments after my camera came out, Christy turned in.
Once alone, I decided to do what any other photographer would have done... For the next sixteen hours, I got click sick, doing all that I could to creep into that snap happy bliss that most photographers know all too well.. For most of the evening and into the morning, I limited myself to four square blocks, shooting anything and everything.
Leaving Japan, I had a feeling similar to when I arrived. A few blocks and the road to the airport won't cut it. Four square blocks is nothing. I still can't claim to have seen Japan. However, I am now certain that no business trip can be simply that.
When I think about Austria, naturally I become sixteen again (going on seventeen). But despite what Julie Andrews might have led us to believe, the Austrian hills are not alive in the middle of December. The grass is a muted green and there is very little frolicking through the countryside.
Though I did not get the Sound of Music experience, I did get the chance to catch a few sunrises along the river in Salzburg, tiptoe in the Unterberg Alps (carefully in Sanuks) and sip some Hot Captains in the quaint Christmas markets. Basically, a travel photographer's paradise.
Thailand or Bust
When the ginko leaves start to brown, you know it is about to get cold in Tokyo. With a long winter ahead, I usually daydream about hot weather, airplanes and Thai iced tea. I also dream about travel photography. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when Flash Light Expeditions invited me along to co-instruct their annual Thailand tour.
The Photo Tour
From the umbrella manufacturers of Bor Sang to the Loy Krathong Festival at Mae Jo, this expedition had something for every traveler. Participants from America, Malaysia, Vietnam, Korea and Holland battled through curry lunches, barbed wire fences, sweltering heat, massive crowds and an incident with chocolate milk to capture hundreds travel editorial images.
Thanks to all of the shutterbugs who came out for the tour as well as Southeast Asia Backpacker magazine and Flash Light Photography Expeditions for having me along. I look forward to seeing you at next year's Chiang Mai tour!