Walkabouts and wonders

"A life not examined is a life not lived" – Socrates

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The Shwedagon Pagoda

The Shwedagon Pagoda from the West

Schwe Dagon_2The Shwedagon Pagoda is a Buddhist temple complex that lies a little way apart from the centre of Yangon, in its own parkland. Local legends suggest that the first temple on the site was built more than 2,000 years ago. The present structure is more recent  – the gold plating originating with a Queen Shinsawbu, who ruled Burma in the 15th Century. In the decades following it has been added to, repeatedly to include hundreds of shrines and meditation halls.

Once I’d arrived at the west gate, a huge structure in itself,  I found that I was still 200 yards and 200 feet below the summit of the hill on which the temple stands. A long climb, but this is what I saw when I got to the top

In fact, this picture is a bit of a happy accident –  the place was actually teeming with visitors – quite a few European types, but mainly Burmese, for this is a country in which religion still plays a large part in peoples’ lives. In many part so the world, people circle the stupas clockwise, chanting as they go, but here people wander everywhere alone or in groups – families or friends; walking, talking, pausing to offer a prayer, or sitting to meditate.As part of their devotion, a line of people sweep around the stupa, in unison.

One of the only group devotions - a line of people sweep around the stupa, in unison.

One of the only group devotions – a line of people sweep around the stupa, in unison.

A solitary monk meditates in one of several shrines

A solitary monk meditates from one of many shrines that face towards the stupa

Shortly after I arrived, I started to hear a group of people chanting – intrigued, I went in search of the source, expecting to find, perhaps a group of novice monks at prayer. Instead I found this group of teenage girls, many in uniform, chanting but also preparing some kind of meal, and occasionally, it seemed catching a moment to swap some gossip.

Schwe Dagon_9

I spent about an hour circling the central stupa myself, engaged in my own self-alignment exercises, before I thought it was time to go, struck by the ease with which I had been able to formulate and enact the exercise. Returning downhill I paused briefly at the side of the steps, only to catch the eye of an older local man who was limping towards me. “You are just in time”, he said but the next few words were obscured as he walked past me, pointing as he went; “…… bats ……., wait …… picture…” was all I caught. So, naturally, I stopped and waited…. and waited…… and  waited….. And then they were there, thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of small bats flying in a thick stream out from under the temple roofs and off into the gathering sunset. Despite it going on for nearly half an hour, I got few good pictures, but these may give you a sense of it.

The first swarm of bats flying low above the covered walkway in.

The first swarm of bats flying low above the covered walkway in.

The bats heading westward

The bats heading westward

Well pleased, I eventually walked off to find a taxi back town.

Yangon – bridging moments

The landing point.

The landing point.

There is a ferry landing, made up of lashed together floating docks and barges, that juts out into the Rangoon river, away from the centre of Yangon. Through an early morning haze, dozens of small motor boats ferry in workers from the cheaper villages on the south bank of the river, threading their way between the fast-moving freighters that supply this former colonial city.

The ferries themselves

The ferries themselves

There are no intermediate steps or stages, so the passengers help each other to scramble over the sides of the barges and cross the planks that span the gaps between them, before they reach the bridges that lead to dry land. Two women spread food and sundries across stalls in the shade of a shed built on one of the barges. As I watched, they are passed by a small group of teenage monks, laughing in their freedom from early-morning disciplines.

Boys will be boys

Boys will be boys

Standing there, I felt a first connection with the land and the people of Myanmar. Even though the immigration official returned my smile as she handed back my passport (sorry – immigration official? smile? – yes – it happened) it didn’t really create much of a bridge. Completing this writing a week later, the feeling of that first day’s connection is less tangible, but still there – the people have a cheerful buoyancy that was a great contrast to the hurried urgency of Mumbai. Bartering is still done hard but with a smile and a shake of the hand, whereas there was always a more desperate edge in Mumbai. It’s not that Myanmar isn’t poor or that people don’t need the money, but it is not so overwhelmingly overcrowded and the extremes of poverty are not so evident, at least in the city centre. But I owe the people of Mumbai a bit more than that – they have their dignity and their courtesy, too, as I found in the slums by Bandanga. Perhaps it is under more continuous and corrosive threat in Mumbai, and therefore it has to be more fiercely held and defended.

By the entrance

By the entrance

Back in Yangon, close by the landing, is the small monastic compound from which the teenage monks had come and across the road from there, is the Botataung Pagoda. The entry-way is thronged with early morning supplicants, and I wonder a little at what chance there might be for quiet contemplation, as I pay my $3.00 to the government official who guards tourists’ shoes in his hut[1].

The pagoda from the dockside

The pagoda from the dockside

Around the central spire of the pagoda, there is constant movement; young and old, city workers, school-children, labourers and the like, pausing for a few minutes or staying the whole morning, to meditate and pray in one of the dozen halls and shrines that are dotted around the site. A few monks are in evidence, here and there, but these are Theravada Buddhists – their approach to enlightenment emphasises individual dedication and development; so only a party of school-children and the odd group of Europeans has any obvious guide or leader. All is covered in gold, including the hollow pagoda[2], which is reputed to hold a hair of the Buddha himself, within its walls.

One of the shrines, across a pond full of terrapins

One of the shrines, across a pond full of terrapins

As I turn towards the gates to make my exit, I realise how quiet I have become – whatever its outer bustle, something about this place allows me to relax into the peace of my inner self. This peacefulness stays with me for much of the rest of the day. I wonder where it really comes from and what I might do when I return from this walkabout, to make such connection more conscious.

Dedication, family style

A family cleaning one of the shrines, as you do…

The main meditation hall

The main meditation hall


[1] Foreign tourists are expected to pay entry fees at each of the great temples. I am quite happy to do that, but suspect that much of the money goes into the dubious pockets of a government that has been described as amongst the most corrupt in Southern Asia.

[2] Nearly all other Buddhist pagodas and stupas are solid structures many reputed to contain offerings and relics of either the historic Buddha himself or one of his kind. After the Botataung Pagoda was fatally damaged in bombing during World War II, many such objects were found an are now openly displayed inside the rebuilt structure.

Fun in Singapore (?) 2

Who knew? – Singapore houses the best modern museum of art and culture that I have ever seen (at least in Europe) in the form of its Museum of Asian Civilisations. I am sorry to say that I couldn’t get enough decent pictures to do the place justice –  just a few steps beyond my current skill-levels – besides there weren’t just artifacts and stills, but multimedia presentations on where they came from and how they were made, interactive bits made for children and amateurs like me and so on. And it probably has the best and most intelligent presentation on Islamic art and its foundations in that faith, that I have visited. Frankly knocks the Victoria and Albert Islamic and Chinese galleries in London, back into the 19th Century (sorry guys – the Singapore museum even has a nicer restaurant attached).

If you think I am going a bit over the top, go have a look at the website for an idea of its rangeº and, if you live in Singapore or get a chance to visit the island, let this place surprise you.

http://www.acm.org.sg/home/home.html

And although I didn’t go all the way through them, what I saw of two other museums – the National and the Peranakan was pretty impressive, too.

Fun in Singapore (?) 1

To be perfectly honest, when I realised that I was going to spend the better part of five days in Singapore, I thought, “Here’s a chance to catch up on the emails and sort all the pictures”. Actually, if you are happy to play along, there is an energy and forward-looking verve about the centre of Singapore that goes some way to explaining its extraordinary success. Take some of the architecture…….

Let’s start with something you might have been expecting –

Banganga_9

moving onto a guy who clearly wanted to open our minds..

Well, what else can you do to make shutters interesting?

Is it a boat, or maybe an open sub with cheese and a salad garnish….?

Banganga_7

Whereas this guy was just providing a practical solution to the problem of getting space for a garden……

Banganga_12

But I have to end on what happens when demands for new convenience, in the form of cool air, get bolted onto older technologies; the refurbished waterfront district that now houses the ex-pat bar and restaurant district….

Yes, those really are air-conditioners; all of them....

Yes, those really are air-conditioners; all of them….

Down Malabar Hill

As I first looked over a map of Mumbai, I spied a word that held a strange magic for me – Malabar. In my childhood, HMS Malabar was the name of the Royal Naval station in Bermuda; the last remnants of its dockyard were part of a boy’s paradise of real and imagined dangers, amongst the abandoned buildings and rusting cranes, deep moats and empty magazines of Britain’s fortress of the Atlantic.

The view South East, to Old Mumbai.

The view South East, to Old Mumbai.

So, before I even really knew what it was, I was determined to visit this other Malabar and discover what might have linked the two places. I have to say that I haven’t yet discovered that link – it may after all have been no more than (navy) gin fuelled whimsy – but my afternoon walk provided some intriguing glimpses of life in one of the oldest parts of greater Mumbai.

The “Hanging Gardens” lie close to the summit of Malabar Hill, which turns out to contain the highest natural point above the city. Here, young and old stroll through flower beds and winding paths that give haze filled glimpses of the heart of the former capital of the Raj, below. The first steps away from these summit views took me through a children’s playground – there were certainly children around, but the swing area was entirely occupied by a group of young women, thoroughly enjoying an afternoon amongst friends.

Girls on the swings

Girls on the swings

A roadside cobbler - to his left the entrance to the Government guesthouse - a huge palace.

A roadside cobbler – to his left the entrance to the Government guesthouse – a huge palace.

The main road down the hill is a broad avenue between huge buildings, each with high gates and very serious looking security guards. Aware of how tense city police still after the terrorist attacks in 2010 and the riots in 2011, I refrain from transgressing public rule number one – no photographing government buildings. So, I have no pictures, save for this of a roadside cobbler.

But, with the help of a passing cab, I eventually reach the entrance to a narrow alley that I am told leads to the Banganga Tank, a large, open fresh-water reservoir, reputed in some local stories to be the centre of the earth, itself.

This gave me another small set of photos, making too many for this single posting, but see my second post of this series – “By Banganga Tank”.

Then, as I skirted around the side of the tank, I saw this small alleyway off to my left, through which I could just see the sea. As I walked down it, an older man, sitting with his family, caught my eye. Instinctively, I performed a Namaste, bowing slightly. At first surprised, he returned the traditional greeting to the spirit, and then rose to shake my hand, welcoming laughter in his eyes.

The alleyway to the sea

The alleyway to the sea

This mutual ceremony of dignity respect was, I think, the reason why no further heed was paid to either me or my camera as I took these last shots in the failing light of my first day here.

Sunset at the bottom of the hill

Sunset at the bottom of the hill

The other beach life of Mumbai

West along the shore

Singapore

Chinatown, Singapore - yes, I know its not a great pic, but can you feel the energy? No? What, are you de....

Chinatown, Singapore – yes, I know its not a great pic, but can you feel the energy? No? What, …….

Just arrived for the first of four nights in Singapore, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the energy of the place – should be interesting. And my hotel is right in the middle of Chinatown where they are already getting in the mood for Chinese New Year (still two weeks away, unfortunately for me).

Also, I should mention that over the next few days I will be posting some fresh items on my blog from visits to Mumbai and Yangon. Stunning places, for all sorts of reasons. Each article should re-post onto both Facebook and LinkedIn but you can make sure you don’t miss any by visiting the blog and pressing the button to get email alerts. Enough of the promos and greetings to all of you at home, wherever that happens to be.

Has Photography Lost its Soul?

I met Patrick Keough on a street-corner in Vienna when we were both lost looking for a photographic exhibition. Later on, after we had found the exhibition he mentioned this blog – enjoy!

KeO BLoG

Photography has a rich and illustrious history and is a relatively new medium compared to other art forms.  I mean painting has been around for 0ver 30,000 years compared to photography’s relatively short history. Photography has also borrowed much of the visual language from painting and applied it for both composition and content translation purposes.

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I personally believe our true goal as photographers is visually translating external /internal references (landscape, nature, people, architecture) and metaphorically (symbolically and/or blatantly) translating our expressive/emotional response to our subject matter into a conceptual bridge (path) for deeper awareness and understanding of the world around us spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. This can be accomplished realistically or in more abstract / conceptual ways.

Last week I spent 2 days reviewing photographic portfolios in Bratislava for the European Month of Photography and also have attended many photo exhibitions and opening during my travels in Eastern Europe over…

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Why all the aussies?

Over recent months, I have noticed that a lot of the “likes” I get on this blog are from Aussies – given that wordpress seems to be dominated by Americans, I have wondered why that is. For a little while, I thought it might be just the time of day I post my blogs – usually late at night. This means they are probably being picked up on the WordPress threads around lunch-time along the East coast. But the thing is, I am now writing from India, which is five hours closer, but  it’s still happening. So, unless these particular people like being up at 6.00 in the morning….

So then, I think,”Could it be the incisive but easy humour and deep perpective quality of my writing? But there’s a catch – most of the Aussie likes are from photographers – female ones, at that, a fact which appeals to my vanity until I am reminded that its the writing I am really interested in doing – the photos are supposed to be there just for illustration…..

All of which goes to show that you really shouldn’t try to analyse your audience, too much. Just be grateful you have one, :-).

Around home

Today I woke to the latest in a series of dry and sunny days that we have had in the UK, after weeks of rain, snow, wind and rain, again. Finally, I had a chance for a walk in my local woods and fields, and the weather to do it in. Very few pics, but that is because I was trying to resist the camera in favour of the moments (see Cameradrama 2) of which I am pleased to say there were many.

Aroundhome1In a couple of weeks’ time, I shall be off on my grand tour around the world, so much of it so very different, but to this I will return – how fortunate am I?

Which brings me to something that I am curious about – in each of these shots that I preserved out of so many, why the roads or corridors or pathways that go off into the distance? Is it just me, or is this one of those archetypes of imagery that everyone is drawn to? Is it what is in the picture, or what lies as yet undiscovered, just beyond that gate, those trees, that corner?

 

Aroundhome2

 

 

 

Aroundhome4

Cameramadrama 2

Today, a month after getting this new camera, I gazed out upon a beautifully snow-filled scene and realised, to my horror, that my feelings about my surroundings were being overwhelmed by the desire to get a picture of it. “Hey”, said I to my brain,”This camera was bought to be able share what moves me. Impressing others with pretty pictures is just so, not the point!”.

So, when it came to walking out into that stillness, the camera stayed firmly in its bag. It took about half an hour for those feelings that herald natural connection – expanding awareness – peace, to appear. Only then could the camera be allowed to join the process.

It would be nice to report that this led to getting a better series of photos. Not as such. But here is a shot of something.

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