Monday, March 29, 2010

Wake of the Flood

There is a very special corner in central Jakarta. 

In 1998 the Asian economic crisis led to unrest in Indonesia, and the eventual ousting of Suharto, the second President of Indonesia. Suharto's New Order, a centralized, military-focused government, was known for suppressing dissent and censorship. When the economic crisis hit Indonesia, the people rose up and held rallies. When students were killed while rallying, Jakarta plunged into chaos, rioting and pillaging. Suharto stepped aside. In those chaotic days, photojournalists from around Indonesia began to congregate near the Hotel Indonesia in central Jakarta. At the heart of the city, and adjacent to a police station, they found relative safety and could share up-to-the-minute information on the situation, years before the advent of Twitter.

Now, 12 years later, the photojournalists still congregate. Not through Facebook or any other website. They still meet at the corner they call "Ha Ee"(HI). 

I met an Indonesian photojournalist, Jefri, through a photojournalist website. I had questions about a handful of places I wanted to see in Indonesia and he had answers. When I sent him my rough itinerary he said we should meet when I got to Jakarta and he'd show me some of those sights.

Jefri picked me up at my hotel my second morning in Jakarta and greeted me with a double hug; far more genuine than one generally expects from a virtual stranger. He took me to a streetside warung where we had some beef sate and I told him about my trip so far. He mentioned the harbor which I had pinned on my Google map and said we should go check it out after lunch.

The Sunda Kelapa harbor in north Jakarta was packed with wooden sailboats seemingly from another era. The ships carried goods to and from Indonesia's various 17,000 islands. Cranes lifted tons of cement, rice flour, and cookies from ship to shore and back, with crews calling to each other and coordinating their efforts. Jeff pretended to be a tourist, shooting photos with his little pocket camera while we explored the docks. Jeff explained and then demonstrated that Indonesians enjoy being photographed and invite others to visit their world. As I shot from the docks, sailors and their families would call us up onto the ships to come and photograph their quarters and the view from the helm. And Jeff, with his pocket camera, still managed to nab a shot that was good enough to be published online the next day.
Lifting sacks of cement onto a ship

Barrels of palm oil from Sumatra

After the docks, Jeff invited me to meet some friends, and that was when I was introduced to the crew at HI. We parked Jeff's motorcycle near the police station, where Jeff explained, people don't bother the bikes because they could belong to a police officer. As we approached the corner, I realized everyone there had cameras around their neck, waist, or next to them. Numerous laptops were open, with people hunched over Photoshop. I was introduced to a flurry of names, Beyandry, Alan, Astra, Tri... I'd never remember them all. Each person greeted me with with a huge smile and warm welcome. Each person was employed by an agency, a newspaper or two, or the Associated Press. Photographers and editors.This was like rubbing elbows with a very elite group.

A tea was purchased for me, and Beyandry, who I was told to call Bey, engaged me in conversation about my trip and my life.
"So, what kind of images do you go for? Human interest? Labor? Industry? Nature?"
It was interesting: I hadn't categorized what I shoot before, but it was evident that it was how the folks at HI think of their work.
I asked what he had shot that day, and he said he had been lazy and hadn't left HI, but that in Indonesia you don't have to look far for great images. He held up his Canon and showed me a set of pictures of children jumping off a culvert into a drainage river. They were gorgeous.
"That was right here, next to HI!" he shouted, pointing to the little river that flowed next to where we were sitting.

Bey and I philosophized on politics, on the meanings of colors, on photography and on life, and well after dark, when Jeff was ready to return me to my hotel, I was handed a handful of names, addresses, Facebook pages and phone numbers.
Except Bey didn't use the Facebook.
"Too many women! I can't have them knowing each other, or it will just lead to trouble!!" he said with a huge laugh.

The next morning, Jeff and I met and talked through my rough itinerary over local Javanese Java. The plan was for me to head back to the harbor to photograph shipbreaking, something Jeff had shot before and had connections to get through security. Jeff's phone rang and he started speaking quickly. Something was up.
"There is a flood a few hours from here; the agencies are looking for coverage. You can go to the shipbreaking, or we can go shoot the flood..."
The correct answer was obvious. Shipbreaking could wait.

Good to know you got shoes to wear, when you find the floor

A couple hours later Jeff, Bey and I were in West Karawang, careening down the highway with another photographer named Alan, and an assistant who never really said much to anyone and whose name I didn't catch. Cell phones were blowing up and everyone was chattering away. As we first glimpsed a flooded field, the tones of voices were raised and the excitement was contagious. I don't know the words they used in Indonesian,  but they sounded like the were saying "Aha! Bingo! This is it!"

Traffic ground to a halt as the roads ahead were totally flooded. We drove as far as we could and then parked alongside a handful of police officers directing traffic and residents soliciting cash relief donations in cardboard boxes. I knew we'd be getting wet and I hadn't come dressed for the part: I was in my only pair of hiking shoes, and those had to stay in the car or the rest of my trip would be pretty uncomfortable. What to do?
As I stepped out of the car barefoot, I looked down and on the shoulder and found an abandoned pair of sandals. They were dirty, broken, but just what the doctor ordered.
As we reached the flooded street, a throng of children ran past us, splashing and shouting and clearly having a great time.

Children playing in the floodwaters

It was an eerie scene, first reaching the homes. It was generally quiet, the water starting out ankle deep, and quickly increasing to hip deep. Our crew split up, with Jeff and I taking the same alleyway. Houses closes to the road were flooded a few feet deep and people had piled up their belongings, stacking their stuff so that they could stay at home and sleep an inch or two from the ceiling. They dangled their feet in the water and invited us to photograph them.

Flooded home

As we went deeper into the neighborhoods and into the water, we walked carefully, unaware of what laid beneath the opaque brown water. Despite the water, the sun bore down so hard that I was drenched in sweat as well, it burning my eyes and I trudged and hoped that I didn't step in the wrong place.
We found small islands in the neighborhood, places where locals had strung tarps to create shelter, and had set up beds and dressers, as if they lived in these tents full-time. Meals were being prepared and quite a few people were fishing in the now-proximate river.
As I reached water that went well beyond my waist a villager approached me with a raft made of bamboo and styrofoam. It wasn't new and had clearly been used in situations like this before. He offered me a ride and pushed me through the flooded streets, allowing me to shoot photos all along the way.

Pushing the raft

Occasionally we would reach more islands, which were often used to corral chickens and ducks. The resulting slurry proved to be a vacuum for my broken sandals and made walking in them impossible. Meanwhile, the sandal's stiff, broken plastic gouged my foot, opening me up to untold pathogens as the poultry slurry and floodwaters met the wound. I ditched the sandals entirely.
Life went on, a women combed another woman's hair while they floated on a raft, children swam, men fished.

Child with a raft

Fishing in the flood

I sailed along, balanced carefully upon the raft until I found Jeff again. He was on the roof of a house, steadily shooting photos and waving at me. I sailed over and joined him. When we were done shooting, I returned to my raft and Jeff was to join me. He told me to sit forward and hold still. As we departed the home we were balanced on, the raft began to take on water.
"Sinking!" I shouted to Jeff. The boat rocked a bit and, desperate to protect the ten thousand of dollars of camera gear between us both, gripped the side of the raft just as it rocked to the side. The boat righted itself and stabilized, but not without ripping my thumb backwards and causing me to yelp in pain.

We sailed back to shallower waters and carried on by foot. As we trudged through a knee-deep alley, I noticed that my thumb began to swell.
"Everything OK?" Jeff asked.
"Yeah, no major injuries," I said and at that exact moment I stepped into what had previously been the gutter. I disappeared another foot deeper in the water, but kept my gear raised high.
"Still OK?"
"Yeah!" We both laughed.

Been down before, you just don't have to go no more 

We regrouped with the others and went off to "see survivors" as Jeff said. We reached a camp of temporary housing just as the storm returned. Within minutes, the sky went dark and torrential rain and strong wind tore through the camp as officials struggled to get tents assembled.
The guys poured into the camp with confidence, firing off rounds of photos in the swirling chaos. I followed, and was close behind Jeff when he took a sudden step backwards. I braced myself by putting out my injured hand and he cracked my thumb backwards again.
As the rain intensified, we all dove into tents to seek shelter. There, families sat and laid on the tarpaulin floor and ate and talked. Similar to the scene in the neighborhood, folks were laughing, joking with each other, and generally seeming unfazed by the situation around them.
"How long will people live in here?" I asked.
"Don't know. It could be a week, it could be a month. Not until the water is gone."
"I think I might be smiling like this on day one, but starting on day two, I might not be having so much fun."
"These are Indonesians," Jeff said with a smile.

Eating in the tent

We stayed for a while and once the rain let up a bit, we hustled back to the car. A while later, we pulled up to a restaurant, five drenched and filthy men draped in camera equipment. As we sat down, kretek clove cigarettes were lit, Acer eees were opened, Photoshop was loaded, and satellite connections enabled. The guys cropped, tuned levels and trash talked.
"Photo contest!" Alan explained.
In my opinion, Bey's was the best looking: children splashing under a rail bridge as the train sped by overhead. Jeff's photo of a man swimming in his house, up to his neck, with a portrait of their President mostly submerged on the wall behind him.
"Interesting how Indonesians are all smiles, yeah?" Jeff asked me.
"Yeah, it seems that even in this disaster, they are carrying on like it's natural."
"Yes, always smiling! But you know which pictures the newspapers will publish..."
He was right. It was fascinating to see whole story of the flood: sure it was an inconvenience, but it seemed to be one that the residents were practiced at managing. And on the whole, folks seemed pretty upbeat. Looking at my photos, it would be easy to portray the flood as a party or as a travesty. In a world where newspapers have a bottom line, it was likely that Jeff's photo would be carried farther.

As we drove home from the restaurant, I asked Jeff if he was any drier yet.
"A bit. Did you see me up to my waist in there?"
"Yeah! I was too!"
"Yes, I think it is important to suffer a bit when shooting something like that. It gives the photos some soul."
I think he was right. I showered and slept in air conditioned comfort that night, cleaned my foot wound and iced my thumb, but by comparison, my suffering was minimal. Perhaps not routine for me, but it was best to face it like the flooded Indonesians: with a smile, which I couldn't help if I tried.

(I really want to post more photos with this article, but the connection is terrible and I'm up way too late. I will try to republish again later with more edits and photos. No guarantees though: Indonesian internet sucks.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

See Fernando

If you want to go where they chain up the sun
See Fernando

The driver Ziyan connected me with in Colombo, Harold, turned out to be a mild yet excitable guy. He'd been a guide working for a local company, Heritage Expeditions, for several years and had been formally trained and approved by the Sri Lankan Tourist Board.
Harold had a few days off and was in possession of the company car, so he agreed to drive me for the rest of the week. Harold was an endless source of knowledge, able to talk history, politics, and shed light on all of the little details of things I'd seen in the streets and markets.

Harvesting rice

From the start, Harold understood that my main destination was Jaffna, the northern city where the civil war with the Tamil Tigers had recently ended and life was supposedly returning to normal.
Due to his employment at the Expedition company, Harold was well versed in the main tourist route within Sri Lanka, but in his entire life he had never been to Jaffna. This would be a great opportunity for him as well.
After a day of exploring some of the key temples in Yapahuwa and Anuradhapura, my brain was sufficiently stuffed with Buddhist history. It was time to head north.

Ruwanweliseya Dagoba
Buddhist bathing pools (no longer in use)

Stabilized, motorized, insecure or fableized

The LTTE conceded defeat in their 30 year civil war back in May of last year. Presidential elections were subsequently held without any significant issues, and Parliamentary elections are scheduled for April 8, two weeks after I left Sri Lanka.
The war ended with the capture of several key LTTE strongholds and the subsequent assassination of the LTTE's founder and leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. As a man I met in Kandy later said, however, "the leadership is gone, but the weapons remain. We must just wait and see whether the organization will regroup or whether they have given up."
One road heads north through the Sri Lankan jungles to Jaffna, the A9. As we passed through the city of Vauvniya, the military presence outstripped any I'd ever seen before, even in the occupied territories in Israel. Soldiers were posted all throughout every city in Sri Lanka, automatic weapons hanging on shoulders in virtually every neighborhood. As we reached Vauvniya, small bunkers started appearing along the side of the road. Each bunker was a mound of earth capped by a tin roof which was supported by a pile of sand bags. Soldiers' eyes were visible inside virtually each bunker, watching out for anyone who might be carrying dubious cargo.

Empty bunker

Police check points were routine in Sri Lanka, though we rarely were stopped at any of them. Most cars were ushered through, while trucks got a more thorough screening. Rather than stopping each vehicle, everyone drove through, but stopped if an officer blew a whistle. I asked Harold what would happen if someone didn't hear the whistle and kept going.
"Oh, they'd shoot first and ask questions later."

Despite decades of war, the roads were quite passable, and many had recently been rebuilt. There were long stretches of crumbled and destroyed roads, as well as long stretches under construction.

Heading north on A9

As we passed through Vauvniya, the bunkers increased until they were appearing about every minute or two. We passed the Sri Lanka Air Force base, where double-layered razor wire fences separated us from huge fields full of bunkers and soldiers running through drills.
North of Vauvniya we passed a huge refugee camp. Similarly barricaded from the rest of the world, the internally displaced camp was tucked behind a college, giving the appearance that it was a highly secured campus, but the countless tents stretching off into the distance and the makeshift toilets around the perimeter told the real story.
The Sri Lankan government has been telling the world that with the onset of peace, the internally-displaced persons (IDPs) have been returning to their homes, and rebuilding after the war. Pressure is coming from western governments to ensure that is the case, but the razor wire fences showed that many thousands are still held captive, unable to do anything but subsist on food and water brought into the camps.
In Omanta, we got the whistle as we passed a military check point. Harold grabbed his Tourist Board ID and I pulled out my passport. A soldier spoke to Harold in Sinhalese while another came to my door (the window didn't roll down) and asked me questions in English.
"Where are you going?"
"North, we'd like to see the northern cities."
"What is your nationality?"
"United States."
"Oh, I am so very sorry."
Sorry? I've been embarrassed about my nationality from time to time, but had never gotten a response like that before.
"Let me see your passport. Americans can not travel to Jaffna right now."
Harold produced an article I had printed out from the government-owned Sri Lankan Observer, which claimed that hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists had visited Jaffna in the preceding months.
The soldier closed my door, called to some other soldiers, and some higher ranking men approached the car. Harold got out and left with them into the adjacent bunker.
I could see Harold calmly answering some questions while the remaining soldiers smiled at me through the window.
When Harold returned, he pointed the car south as he recounted what the soldiers told him: foreigners were not allowed to travel north of Omanta by A9 as of a few weeks ago without permission of the Ministry of Defense.
Harold was pissed.
"I have never seen Jaffna. The soldiers say it is safe, but we need permission. What can we do?"
Harold pulled over and started rifling through his glove box. He had the number of the Ministry of Tourism and could get the number of the Ministry of Defense. In the meantime he told me to call the US Embassy.
I'd never phoned my own Embassy before. They weren't helpful.
"We're generally not encouraging Americans to visit Sri Lanka right now, and we are not encouraging people to travel on A9 because the road may be full of landmines."
The landmine threat was clearly a fabrication, as this is the one road that goes north, and carries thousands of trucks daily.
Harold finally reached the Ministry of Defense and handed me the phone. I asked how I could obtain permission to go to Jaffna.
"You'll need to facsim your requests and papers to General Fernando." She gave me a fax number.
"OK, Harold, we need to find a fax machine and we're set."

Harold in the sweat box

We returned Vauvniya and entered a communication point, a tiny sweatbox draped in wires and crammed with tiny phone booths. I got a piece of paper and did my best to handwrite a formal request to visit Jaffna.
As a representative of the largest travel agency in the world, surely if the government was declaring Sri Lanka to be free for tourism, they wouldn't want to restrict my travels, right? And with Sunday Observer articles telling the world that people were free to visit, I surely wasn't going to be the only disappointed guest.
The papers were placed in an old, yellowed fax machine and sent to General Fernando, Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense. And then it was time for lunch.
Harold and I hopped into a small restaurant and grabbed some rice and curry. On the way out, Harold joined a crowd gathered around a Bajaj motorcycle and a man on a microphone. A lottery. Harold bought a ticket and won 20 rupees in his first scratch.
"Maybe today is our lucky day!"

Harold's winning lottery ticket

Tired of talking, talked out
Ticked off or toughed up

We returned to the sweatbox and no return fax had been received. I phoned the Ministry of Defense.
"Yes, I am a foreign tourist looking for permission to visit Jaffna."
All I could hear were the motorcycles and trucks outside, the chatter of others on phones inside. And faintly a woman's voice on the phone."
"Hello? Hello? Tikka tikka..." Click.
I called back.
"Hello? Hello? Tikka tikka..." Click.
Again and again, finally the woman understood me and connected me to others, who transferred me to others, who hung up. Dozens of calls later, I finally spoke with someone helpful.
"I will review your papers and send them to the right person. Call again in a half hour."
Harold and I spent the next half hour talking with folks hanging around the communication point. Theories about why we weren't traveling easily to the north seemed to focus on the refugee camps: with Western pressure to close the camps and let everyone rebuild their homes, they don't want foreigners and especially foreign media to show the world that the camps are still in place and how many thousands of residents occupy them.
Back into the sweatbox. I crammed into one of the phone booths and used an earplug I had left in my camera bag to block out the racket outside. Drenched in sweat in the suffocating coffin, I went through another dozen hang-ups and transfers before I finally spoke with the Defense General himself. After some discussion, he gave his final answer:
"Foreign tourists are allowed to go to Jaffna, but you must fly. We do not want you on the A9 road, which may have land mines. You are welcome to return to Colombo and book a flight."
"I already tried that: Expo Air and Aero Lanka are both forbidden to fly to Jaffna right now."
"You can use HeliTours to charter a helicopter."
"Do you have any idea what that costs? Look, I know the road is safe: countless people travel it every day because it is the only route between north and south."

Fernando ignored my point. "Foreigners are not allowed on that road. It is for the best."
No amount of debate was going to sway him, and it was apparent that the article published by the Sunday Observer was simply fabricated propaganda. Hundreds of thousands of tourists were most certainly not traveling by helicopter to Jaffna.

Forget about what you ain't got

I was a little let down, but not nearly as much as Harold. I hadn't hung my hopes on that one destination and was enjoying everything I'd seen in Sri Lanka. Plus, I still had weeks of travel ahead, full of new destinations, maybe just not ones that had recently emerged out of war. Harold, however, finally had an opportunity to see something completely new in his country and the opportunity disappeared as quickly as it came.
While I wasn't able to see the city that I wanted to see, I was able to see a bit of what Sri Lanka did not want me to see: that there are still refugee camps in the north. That tourism to Jaffna does not exist as it is described by the government's newspapers.
As we headed back south that afternoon, deciding the next city to spend a night in, we did come across some sights to make up for the loss. First, a large wild peacock cruised across the road in front of us. And later, as dusk was approaching, Harold slammed on the brakes.
"Look, out in the bushes! There!" Harold exclaimed in a hushed voice.
Just a few hundred feet away, in the brush along the side of the road, two wild elephants were munching on the shrubbery. We got out of the car, and approached them, keeping a somewhat safe distance considering the short amount of time it would take for an elephant to charge and squish a running human.
The scene was serene and wholly unexpected. If we weren't going to be able to see bombed-out colonial buildings that evening, wild elephants would suffice.

Wild elephant near the road

View South Asia 2010 Actual in a larger map

Feeling the Pull

Well I'm heading back to pack a bag
To head out on the road

Every time I travel, I'm asked what I take with me, how I manage with only a small backpack. I've got this backpacking thing down to a routine now, and have arrived at the right number of shirts, socks and toiletries to keep myself in humble yet reasonably clean shape for months on end.

Below is the contents of my backpack for this trip, arranged in my best approximation of my friend Ellen's style of arranging her groceries for her food blog.

Everything that I've taken with me is in that photo except for a small bag containing my camera and an extra lens, my shoes, the pair of pants I wore on the plane, and my small toiletry bag. The packing list is as follows:

Clothes (all quick-drying, moisture-wicking)
3 pairs shorts
2 pairs pants
3 pairs socks
3 pairs underwear
Sturdy shoes
3 T-shirts
1 collared shirt
Spare glasses

2 bottles Dr. Bronners (used as soap, shampoo, laundry detergent)
Deet 20% lotion
Razors/Shaving cream
Emergency toilet paper
Allergy medication
Doxycyclene (anti-malaria)
Cyprofloxacin (antibiotic)
Hair product
Fingernail clipper
Bandages/first aid
Travel towel (quick-drying)
Hand Sanitizer (2 bottles)

Tools, etc
Pocket notebook
Dust masks (I’m going to some pretty stinky and dirty places)
Retractable cable lock
Small combination locks
Silk sleep sheet
Bug nets (1 bed-size, 1 head-size)
Ear plugs
Watch with alarm
Maps & books
Ziploc bags
3 Clif bars (emergency snacks)
Medevac insurance
Sleep mask
Cell phone & charger
Travel clothesline
Travel pillow
Glasses cloth & cleaner

Camera bag
3 lenses
Point & shoot
Battery chargers
Spare batteries
Portable hard drive

That's it. As I packed and endured nearly 24 hours of flying to reach Colombo, Sri Lanka, I thought about how living light like this requires no small effort. The planning, the negotiation for the time off, the nightly washing of clothes, the sweat and the dirt, the discomfort for days-- in order to sign up for this stuff, I really have to want it.
And while I thought about all that I'd done and all that I would go through, I had to ask myself, do I really want it, or do I just do this stuff out of habit? As each year passes, I feel compelled to try something like this again, but I was asking myself why.

I'm feeling the pull
Dragging me off again
I'm feeling so small against the sky tonight

I arrived in Colombo at around 3:30 in the morning. I'd flown for the better part fo a day, stopping off in Bangkok long enough to catch up with some old friends from my first visit to Asia, as well as a daylong run through Asia's wildest marketplace: the Chatuchak market. After sleeping a few hours in Colombo, I awoke a little tired, a little confused. It had been upwards of 103 degrees in Bangkok and Colombo would be no respite. I took my last deep breath of air-conditioned oxygen and stepped out into the crushing heat.

I was staying in the Fort neighborhood, so-called because the Portuguese, Dutch and British jockeyed for ownership of the colonial fort located there, along with overall colonial domination of the island for production and trade of cinnamon, coffee, and tea.

Crumbling colonial buildings stood adjacent to the modern World Trade Center buildings, under which a people scurried about: some off to work in the office buildings, and many offering up food, tuk-tuk rides, or headed off to less fancy places of work.

Looking for a way to ease into the heat, I turned off the main street into an alleyway where I saw a truck being loaded with enormous bunches of fresh bananas. Behind the truck was a warehouse, and in the warehouse the noise of the city gave way to a gentle murmur of voices haggling over prices and quantities of the green-skinned fruit.

I chatted up the man overseeing the operation. He’d been in the business for a couple decades, taking over hi s father’s business. The warehouse itself was nothing short of atmospheric. The lighting and colors were surreal. The grimy walls were illuminated by sunlight sneaking through the cracks in the rotting ceiling. Green bunches of bananas were hauled from one trader to the next, while handfuls of grimy currency were handed back.

Banana Merchant, Colombo

As a kid, my favorite rides at Disneyland were those that created a world I could get lost in. Where each dead end had the sound of a dripping faucet, a creaking board, or something else that would suggest the rest of the story around that particular place. Warehouses like this are my grown-up version of Disneyland: I imagined the hundreds of years across which food and spices have been traded within this very same building.

Peppers & Limes, Colombo

I spent half the day exploring Manning Market and the nearby bazaar. I stopped for a couple teas, sweetened and frothed by pouring them at an arm's length from the cup. As afternoon arrived, I played marbles with some kids in an alley and Carrom board with some youths along another street.

Carrom Board, Colombo

Sleeping Tigers

My intent in Sri Lanka was to get north, though. I wanted to go to Jaffna, just recently declared peaceful after about 30 years of civil war with the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers.

The LTTE represented one of the two majority races in Sri Lanka: the Indian, Hindu Tamils, who vied for leadership and political representation against the majority Buddhist Sinhalese. The Sinhalese have led the country from the south for many years, while the Tamils have fought to secede Jaffna and the north. The armed struggle brought the concept of suicide bombers to the world, and took around 100,000 lives.

In May 2009, the LTTE admitted defeat, however, and the war was said to be over. Reports were conflicted as to whether the A9 highway was accessible and open to foreign tourists, but multiple articles published by the government-run Sunday Observer led me to believe there was a chance I could be one of the first tourists to see Jaffna in decades.

I took a long and circuitous tuk-tuk ride to the offices of AirExpo, an airliner said to serve Jaffna. One rumor was that tourists had to fly north and then could drive back south from Jaffna, so this seemed like a valid option. When I got to the offices, a young man with a shaved head overheard my request for an air ticket to Jaffna.

"Oh, I am sorry, broddah: we're not serving Jaffna right now. The government has restricted flights up north. Perhaps Aero Lanka is still serving Jaffna."

The man, who I later learned was named Ziyan, picked up hi mobile phone and started asking questions in Sinhalese of someone on the other line. Simultaneously, he snapped his fingers at another man who handed him another cell phone and Ziyan balanced both conversations while ordering me a glass of water, telling me to make myself comfortable, telling his coworkers he'd have a drink with them later and asking someone, anyone, for a cigarette.

"Here's the deal," Ziyan explained, after several phone calls. "With the election coming soon, no flights are going to Jaffna. You can charter a helicopter, but that is going to be massively expensive."

Tea stall owner explaining the upcoming election

"What about the road? How about I just start taking buses and if I get turned away, so be it?"

Ziyan then got down to business. It turns out that he has to entertain a lot of out-of-town guests for his business. Ziyan knows people. he explained that he knew a chauffeur well who could drive me wherever I wanted for a few days for the same price I would have paid for that one-way flight. Was I interested? "Excellent. First, let me give you a quick tour of my city, then you'll meet Harold the driver, and then you'll meet my family, have some dinner, and then we'll go for a ride in a propah kitted-up performance car. You ready for that?!"

I was. Ziyan is in the process of expanding a side business; a small car repair garage. We swung over to the garage and chatted with the grubby guys while they rebuilt a car engine. Cows ambled by while the guys used makeshift tools to resuscitate the car. We then cruised over to his home and met his wife and kids. He lives in a nice, suburban home with a large tile living room where his boy rode his training-wheeled bike in circles while we caught up on Facebook and ate some dinner his wife provided.

Ziyan introduced me to Harold, the driver, and explained what I wanted from my trip. And in-between stops, Ziyan convinced his boss' son that I was new in town, about to move here for a year on business and that I was in the market for a turbo-charged car. He needed Hassan to take us for a spin to show me the car.

Hassan has a souped up Subaru WRX, with turbochargers and all the racing kits. He took us to a quiet residential area where apparently street races take place on the weekends where the stakes are the car you're driving. Hassan hadn't lost yet.

With a flat affect, Hassan listed the sales points of the highly customized car, the asking price of 2.2 million rupees, and tips on how to make the most of the loud turbochargers. And then he punched it up to a mindbending speed within a block, and smoothly brought us back down to a tight, controlled turn around the next roundabout.

In one short day, I'd seen a lot. From poor, working-class folks trading food and spices in an ancient building, to up-and-coming suburbanites in race cars. I answered my own question that night: This is why I endure the heat and the hassle. If I had to stop traveling at some point, I could probably carry on with life, but full days of adventure like this make it tempting to push for these trips any time I can.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Maps, they don't love you like I love you

Recently my parents found a photo of my first bedroom. In it was the crib I slept in when I was brought home from the hospital, and on the wall above the crib was a map.

"Ah... maybe that's where all of this began," my mom said.

Maybe she's right.

I do have a fascination with maps. There's something satisfying to me of seeing a place from above, and seeing how it connects to the places around it. When I first started traveling, I also discovered a satisfaction in being on the ground and seeing the shapes that I remembered from maps.

For the past few months, I have been spending an inordinate amount of time zooming through Google Earth and plotting interesting points on a Google Map of my own creation. With a quart-sized iced mocha within easy reach and keeping me energized, I dug through countless news and Wikipedia articles, tallying up places in the world where interesting things are taking place, and plotting those places on the map.

I looked at weather patterns and chose places that would be hot and reasonably dry during my travel dates, and I stuck to the southern hemisphere for the simple reason that I have never crossed the equator.

As the map took shape, three routes came to the forefront:
1) Haiti, Guyana, Suriname, Bolivia
2) Yemen, Somaliland, Madagascar
3) Sri Lanka, Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea
As I tallied up interesting issues, and as catastrophe, government warnings, and time limitations eliminated some of the options, I settled on route three, less Papua New Guinea.

View Possible Trips in a larger map

This evening, as I pack for this trip, I am downloading maps into my new GPS. I've printed out a stack of Google maps and plotted some of my Google maps points on the GPS and in my Lonely Planet books.

I'll make it to some of the points on my maps, and I will miss others. I'll be taking each day as it comes.

Over the next four weeks, I hope to post more maps, revealing the points of interest that caught my attention, and the interesting things that are happening in those places.