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A few days in Berlin

Between the ages of two and five, I lived with my parents in a maisonette close to the racecourse in Krefeld, a small industrial town in north western Germany. A Jack Russell called Lummell lived in the back garden–he was my best friend–my mother and I used to go to Hortons for breakfast every Wednesday, and I would spend my days playing in the spielplatzen with the children of the other jockeys at West Germany’s racecourses.

Yes, that’s right. West Germany. This was the early 1980s and the Berlin Wall was still physically dividing homes, families, and a city, and ideologically dividing a country, a continent, and the world.

The Berlin of my childhood imagination was an exotic, far-flung place shrouded in mystery. Visiting west Berlin was an undertaking; east Berlin was entirely off-limits. It was a closed, grey world that demonised my four-year-old dreams. How does one explain communism to a four year old?

Trippy at the Wall

Following re-unification in 1989, the image of Berlin formed in my memory remained, and remained fast. It had somehow cemented itself, entrenched, and I struggled to overcome the fear associated with it. For another twenty-five years, Berlin existed as an exotic, untouchable world in my mind.

Then I was invited to attend the EyeEm Festival and Awards. This wasn’t just an opportunity to visit a city that had plagued my thoughts and thereby banish the demons of stone-cold communism, but to do so in the most fitting way possible. EyeEm is a highly successful photography start-up, a phoenix of the bright young things who shimmered and glittered in pre-war Berlin reanimated for the twenty-first century. Where east Berlin once existed in miserable isolation, EyeEm connects anyone with a phone and an eye for a photo across the globe. Where Berlin was once the chicest, trendiest place to sip champagne and dance the Charleston, EyeEm is part of the start-up culture helping to re-elevate the city to its former glory.

The Festival lasted for two days; I took the opportunity to spend a few more wandering the city, exploring what remains of the wall, walking across Tempelhofer Park, cruising the Spree, and drinking coffee and beer and eating cake and pommes. I was somehow able to reconcile the Berlin or my mind’s eye with Berlin as it is today. The fearsome, barbed memories remain. As do the feelings of jubilation, and relief, on seeing pictures of the wall falling. But now I have my own vision of Berlin, not that projected with mutual fear and loathing in the 1980s.

Riding off into the sunset

I think I’ll be going back.

Daniela and Josh, arriving eventually at the hotel of their destination…

Josh and I have stayed at three different hotels over our ten day trip to Israel. Reaching two of them has proved to be a testing experience for our perambulatory stamina.

Let’s start the recantation of our tales of suitcase dragging in Jerusalem, on none other than Yom Yerushalayim. That’s Jerusalem Day to those not initiated into the cult of pig-reviling, candle-lighting Judaism. So that’s a day that shuts down huge tracts of the city in order to celebrate it and marvel at its wonders. It’s a super festival if you’re a Jerusalem resident who likes parades and singing songs and flag-waving. It’s not such a super holiday if you’re trying to reach your hotel located in the pedestrianised zone close to Jaffa Gate and best accessed by Jerusalem’s rather snazzy tram. That snazzy tram isn’t running through the centre of Jerusalem.

After struggling through Jerusalem’s central bus station, which is a multi-layered affair that, if converted into a cake was satisfy Marie Antoinette or the most grizzly Bridezilla, Josh and I made it onto Jaffa Street from where the trams (did not) depart and plenty of buses ran. Knowing that I needed to take the tram to Jaffa Centre, it seemed best to ask for a bus that would do similar. A kindly attendant said to try an 18, but check with the driver. When eventually an 18 turned up, and I asked in my best Ivrit if it went to Jaffa Centre, I was treated to a tirade of epic proportions from a bus driver who was no doubt entirely frustrated by re-routes and hold-ups, and stupid tourists. Humiliated, frustrated, and none-the-wiser, I turned on my heel, probably ramming my suitcase into various others, and declared to Josh that we’d have to take a cab.

We would have been better dragging our suitcases along Jaffa Street to our hotel.

Forty-five shekels later we had been deposited outside the wrong hotel that was somewhat closer to the Damascus Gate than the Jaffa Gate and therefore still no closer to where we were staying. In normal circumstances, I’d whip out a map and we’d figure out a plan. But these weren’t so normal because we’d left our map of Jerusalem in the UK. A note to fellow travellers: don’t leave your maps at home, they’re not so useful there. And while I’ve spent plenty of time in Israel, all of my time in Jerusalem has been in the company of locals, which means access to cars and intimate knowledge of buses. Thus using a combination of street signs and the tram lines, we attempted to navigate, nay schelp, ourselves from somewhere in Arab East Jerusalem to our hotel close to Jaffa Centre.

Despite the heat, the crowds, the parades, and one truculent wheel on my suitcase, we eventually rolled into our place of hospitality for the next five nights. Heavens were we pleased.

Five days later, we would have to transfer ourselves from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. This time the trams were running, we were able to locate the ticket office at Jerusalem Bus Station easily enough, and although we couldn’t get on the first bus to Tel Aviv, we only had to wait 20 minutes for the second. We’d located our hotel using Google maps, we’d drawn up a list of viable buses, we thought we were set for a relatively easy journey there. Of course we weren’t.

Our first minor hitch was taking the 405 into Tel Aviv Central rather than the 480 into Tel Aviv Savidor. This threw us a little when trying to find a city bus to catch to our hotel at the other end, but we were helped by a kindly stranger who told us that a 16 or 17 would take us to Allenby Street and from there I knew that we could walk easily enough to our hotel.

Where Google Maps said the hotel was

Where Google Maps said the hotel was

This is where we came monumentally unstuck. For reasons that remain unknown, Google Maps placed the hotel where we had a booking on the correct street, but at the wrong end of it. That might not have been too much of a problem, except that Rechov HaYarkon is one of the longest streets in Tel Aviv, spanning practically the entire beach-front. Given that Allenby Street is closer the bottom end of Rechov HaYarkon and the hotel was closer to the top, that walk wasn’t easy as we thought it would be. We made it, eventually. Hot and bothered but relieved, when we checked Google Maps, that we hadn’t got it wrong.

Where the hotel actually was

Where the hotel actually was

The moral of this story? Don’t trust Google Maps.

Never get on a bus around Agrippas Street

Ehm… Daniela, I think that this is the end of the line.

Yes, it was indeed the end of the 30 bus route and instead of taking us to the Israel Museum, Josh and I had wound up at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. Not that there’s anything wrong with Ramat Rachel per se, and given that one of the major works that Josh is exploring in his Master’s thesis is Naftali Bezem’s the The Defence of Ramat Rachel, to say that we’ve been there&emdash;if only to alight one bus and board another in the return direction&emdash;is rather gratifying. But it wasn’t the Israel Museum.

As my friend Arieh were to extol later that day, our mistake had been to catch the bus ‘anywhere around Agrippas Street.’ The buses run in counter-intuitive directions there and while it seemed entirely logical to me to catch a bus pointing in the general topographical direction of the museum, it would actually take us in the opposing direction. Towards Ramat Rachel.

Of course, we could have avoided this entire magical mystery tour had I either asked the driver or read the bus’ direction of travel. There were, however, two particular issues with either of these courses of action. The first being that my previous interaction with a Jerusalem bus driver, two days prior, requesting directional confirmation had resulted in my turning heel and getting off the bus after he had shouted at me with such vehemence that I felt nothing but humiliation. I wasn’t prepared to go through that again. The second was that there was no direction of travel listed on the front of the bus. All I had to go on was its number. This was not helpful. Hence us jumping on a bus going in the wrong direction.

While buses might be cheap and frequently efficient, they do carry with them an air of mystique and vagary. There is a dark art to reading timetables, acquiring tickets, and understanding intersections. It doesn’t matter which bus network you use, in which city, governed by whatever language, there is always immense potential for screw-uppery.

Thankfully, our detour didn’t detract from our plans, despite it being a Friday and the museum closing at 14:00. We were able to saunter through the Israeli art galleries, take in some Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, enjoy the Avedon exhibition, and even grab a high-speed peek at the Dead Sea Scrolls. Then we caught the bus back to Jaffa Street, this time travelling in the right direction.

The moral of the story? Never get on a bus around Agrippas Street in Jerusalem.

An unexpected trip to Holy Island

On Sunday morning I found myself throwing a random collection of belongings into a bag and driving for six hours across the country because someone I love needed me. It wasn’t exactly on how I had planned on spending my Sunday, but something unexpectedly lovely came out of the tension and the worry. On the return trip, after establishing that the person I love most in the world hadn’t inflicted terrible damage on himself and he’d be fine in a few days’ time, my father and I made the trip over the causeway to Holy Island. It was a glorious, blue-skied spring day. And I didn’t have a camera. Well, I did. But not my usual dSLR that bends to my every whim and for which I have plenty of lenses. It was my iPhone 4 that still runs iOS 6 and has a wildly compromised battery.

Photographers will always tell you that the best camera is the one that you have with you. So that’s what I used. Some worked, some didn’t. These are my favourites.

Oh, and I’ll be going back, with a camera bag laden with lenses.

The return of the pocket-knife

Just before I left for Thailand I was offered the opportunity to review a camera bag for a large retail site. I took an age to decide which bag would simultaneously be of most use to me as a workhorse for my trip and as a review model for Photocritic‘s readers. My deliberations led me to a Crumpler Jackpack and I dropped a note back to the retail site saying that if they could get me one before I flew, that would be super. To my disappointment (I’m a sucker for camera bags), they couldn’t get a bag to me, and I was left loading camera gear into my Lowepro Event Messenger at the last minute.

If you’re intested, the Event Messenger is great as a car-to-place-where-you’re-staying or carry-on bag for a limited quantity of gear: camera body, two or three lenses, laptop, and a few personal bits and pieces. It’s not so great for out-and-about shooting, however. It’s a bit too bulky.

What does this not-very-tale-of-woe have to do with a Victorinox Crystal pocket-knife, I hear you ask?

In my haste to pack up my gear, I overlooked that I’d left my pocket-knife in one of my camera bag’s myriad front pockets. Pocket-knives are pretty useful additions to camera bags, but not when you’re about to board a plane. Despite any number of reassurances that you’re a photographer and not a terrorist, security aren’t so thrilled by inch-and-a-bit blades in confined spaces.

Interestingly, I didn’t have a clue that I’d left it in my bag and it seems that when I passed through security at Heathrow, they didn’t have a clue that I’d left it there, either. No one stopped me, my bags weren’t searched, and I wasn’t asked to deposit it in one of those forlorn bins of useful objects rendered useless by the threat of terrorism.

And no one spotted it, stuffed between two hankerchieves and a some sanitary towels, when I switched planes at Muscat.

Little Victorinox Crystal sat undisturbed in my camera bag throughout my entire stay in Thailand. It wasn’t until I tried to get through security at Bangkok airport that somebody noticed it. I was pulled aside, asked if I had anything forbidden in my bag, and then asked to tip it out when I couldn’t answer in the positive. There it was. I was a agog.

Seeing as poor little Victorinox Crystal had made it that far, and I rather like it, I was incredibly reluctant to toss it into their ‘You are forbidden!’ bin. I asked if there were a post office at the airport. An unflinchingly stern gentleman who thought that he spoke better English than he did escorted me down a flight of stairs and behind a barricade to the post office. He was very good at telling me that I couldn’t take my little knife through security but very bad at understanding how it got there. When I said to him ‘You’ve not understood a word I just said, have you?’ he looked at me blankly. Or maybe he was just humourless.

Anyway, at the post office I needed to queue for longer than it had taken me to get through security, but it cost me the grand total of 41 baht (90 pence) to pop little knife in an envelope and mail it back to the UK. I had no idea if it would survive the trip or be halted by overzealous Customs officers or pinched by postal workers, but it was better to give it a chance rather than abandon it.

Errand complete, I climbed the stairs and attempted security a second time. On this occasion there were no unexpected hitches, but the queue was longer. I tried not to think about my poor little knife, my own absent-mindedness, and the lack of reassurance I felt from security at Heathrow. If it made it, it made it. I continued to try to forget about it, ten days after returning home.

This morning, a little damp and slightly rumpled, an envelope addressed to me in my own hand and with a Thai stamp dropped through my letterbox. Little knife was back!

Crossing the bridge to Myanmar

From the western Thai town of Mae Sot it’s possible to cross the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge and make your way into the Burmese town of Myawaddy. The border here has been open more-or-less permanently since summer 2013, and while it bustles with Burmese workers, it’s not a crossing made by a huge number of Farangs, or Westerners (literally ‘guavas’), unless they work for NGOs. It is, however, becoming more a popular route with people completing visa runs. And there are the occasional people like me, who decide to visit for the day because they can.

For anyone wielding a passport other than Burmese, it’s a relatively straightforward affair. On the Thai side you’re waved to a window where your departure card is taken and your passport is stamped. There was no queue and no questions were asked. Then you head towards the no-man’s-land of the bridge and Burmese immigration on the opposite bank.

On the Burmese side you are invited to take a seat in an air-conditioned office. Here you are asked the purpose of your visit, to which my ‘I just want to look around and have lunch,’ was met with a bemused smile, asked to pay a 500 Baht fee, relieved—temporarily—of your passport, presented with a receipt, and told to return before the border closes. In my case, this was 17:00. I was under the impression that the border closes whenever the guards decide that it will.

As you enter Myanmar, you face a chaotic, littoral space. In Thailand, cars drive on the left; in Myanmar, cars drive on the right. Trucks loaded sky-high with goods ranging from scooters to linen to mechanical parts struggle to cross lanes against the armies of people and the cavalry of scooters. The road is lined with money-changers, ready to convert Baht to Kyat, taxi drivers of many vehicular descriptions, offering to take you places although where, I’m not quite sure, and the Burmese equivalent of the public telephone. It’s confused, confusing, and loud.

When you compare it to Thailand, it’s same-same-but-different. The Burmese will transport anything on a scooter, just like the Thais. Every taxi driver across South East Asia wants to know where you’re going and to take you somewhere. Both Thai and Burmese pavements are scarcely for walking on, but an extension of a shop or an opportunity to set up a stall. Still, you know it’s a different place and not just because everyone wears sarongs and faces are covered in chalk to protect against the sun.

Turn off the arterial road that leads out of Myawaddy and deeper into Myanmar and you’re faced with unpaved alleys, lined with wooden huts where people cook on open fires, that are no less thronging but very different. Here, you are presented with unequivocal poverty. I’ve seen poverty in many places, but somehow, this felt different. I’m reluctant to call it hopeless, because denying someone hope might be denying her or him all that they have. Perhaps the appropriate adjective is helpless.

The poverty that I’ve seen in Indonesia, in Morocco, in Thailand, is squalid and miserable but it never felt without opportunity or quite so crushing as it did in Myanmar. While these countries might be unstable or have governments that are perceived as corrupt, they’re also cosmopolitan, they have a backbone in tourism, and there’s at least the insinuation that the authorities can and do act in the interests of the people. Their economies aren’t black holes of persistent reliance on NGOs and minimal foreign investment.

Myanmar is recognised as the poorest country in South East Asia: approximately 32% of the population lives in poverty. Although it now functions as a parliamentary democracy, its economy is still recovering from years of corruption and mismanagement under a military dictatorship, and arguably still suffers these vices. What wealth there is sits concentrated in the hands of the very few; there is minimal foreign investment in the economy, and little infrastructure, both in terms of ultilities and in human capital, to tempt it. Myanmar’s poverty exists adrift in a vicious circle of corruption, poor infrastructure, lack of external investment, and insularity.

However much the Burmese people are determined to help themselves, who is balancing them on the other side of the equation and is able or prepared to help them in kind?

My morning in Myanmar let me meet children who were overjoyed to be photographed so that they could see themselves on the LCD screen of my camera; speak with an 86 year-old gentleman whose English was mind-bendingly good; eat lunch for 500 Kyat (roughly 30 pence); see young boys playing in the street; marvel at stands of sarongs; smile at men with their moveable feasts; and answer that no, I didn’t want a taxi. There’s a sense of determination and resilience rising from these people, amongst their bowls of washing and open fires, but they need more than just that, and me with my smiles and my camera and my intrepidity.

It’s an experience that I’m pleased that I’ve had. It is, however, one that left me feeling incontrovertibly sad.

A protest marches on its stomach

I arrived in Bangkok five days before the Thais were due to go to the polls in a general election. However, amid growing discontent and dissatisfaction with Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, many people had taken to the streets to protest. Rather than face a ballot sheet comprising the names of Thaksin cronies and shills, they wanted reform first.

The loudest calls were for elections to be delayed until an unelected people’s council had been installed and had swept out the corruption and profligacy. While I’m not entirely convinced by the notion of an unelected people’s council (what can possibly go wrong there?), I do sympathasise with an electorate feeling that they have Hobson’s Choice and that there is no prospect for improvement under the current regime.

Protestors had gathered in force across Bangkok under the slogan ‘Shutdown Bangkok; restart Thailand.’ Major roads and intersections were blocked; public parks were over-taken; and government buildings were barricaded. For the most part, it was a peaceful movement with quite some support and certaily some impact.

The hotel where I was staying was sandwiched between two of the main protest sites: Lumphini Park 500 metres to the left and Rama I Street 300 metres to the right. Right up until I left Bangkok, the protest sites felt far more festival-like a child-friendly than I would anticipate from a political show of discontent. I spent quite some time wandering amongst the protestors, most of whom were happy to be photographed. Many of my photos focused on the food available to the protestors, either free or paid-for. After all, a protest marches on its stomach.