Tuesday, June 20, 2017

One Year Ago

The Xe-Don River in Pakse, Laos flows into the Mekong. You can see where the two rivers join in the back of the photo. The Mekong is the darker shade of brown. 

Last year at this time I was in southern Laos photographing the fishermen on Don Khone in the area known as "Four Thousand Islands." Pakse, a colonial town at the confluence of the Xe-Don and Mekong Rivers, is the gateway to Four Thousand Islands and a worthwhile destination in its own right. 
A woman sells baguettes in the market in Pakse. Lao food (especially from this part of Laos) is very similar to Thai food but Thailand doesn't have baguettes like this. French colonials left behind their bread.

Tourists don't usually spend too much time in Pakse, and it's their loss. There's a very nice morning tak bat, which is not over run by tourists (when I photographed it last year, I was the only non Lao person I saw on the street at that early hour). There are a couple of nice markets, one in the center of a town and another a few kilometers from town. 
There aren't many taxis in Pakse but there are lots of tuk tuks. In this case passenger bench seats bolted onto motorcycles.

The downtown area wasn't heavily bombed during the American War and most of the colonial architecture is intact. It's relatively compact, making it easy to walk around to see the sites. 
A good selection of colonial architecture survived the American War. 

The new market in the center of town. The Mekong River is in the background. Not too many local people shop in this market, it seems to be aimed at tourists. 

The markets, especially the one outside of downtown, are jammed with local people doing their shopping and it's a great place to see some of the bounty of the Lao countryside and Mekong River.

In town, in addition to the colonial era buildings, the temples are very nice. The people in this part of Laos are very closely related to the Isaan people of Thailand. The share the same language, religion and culture. So if you speak Isaan Thai (or you're learning to speak Isaan Thai) you can practice it in Pakse. 
Produce for sale in the Pakse market. 

I'm glad I went to Pakse and 4,000 Islands when I did. My main purpose in going was to photograph the fishermen on Don Khone and 2016 was the last year they were allowed to set out their fish traps in the Mekong.

There are more photos of Pakse and 4,000 Islands in my archive.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Trump Tries to Turn Back Time

Cuban students march on the US Interests Section in Havana during the Elian Gonzalez crisis in 2000. I made this picture during my first visit to Havana*.

In December 2014, President Obama dragged America's foreign policy into the 21st century when he announced a normalization of relations with Cuba. At the same time, he set in motion a loosening of the US trade embargo against Cuba. 

Almost immediately, American businesses started taking advantage of the openings. The Minnesota Orchestra travelled to Cuba for a series of concerts, Conan O'Brien brought his TBS show to Cuba. Sun Country Airlines, soon joined by other American flagged carriers, started flying to Cuba. 
Father and son on a beach in Trinidad, Cuba. 

Some reactionaries in the Cuban-American community were outraged by the President's decision. They complained that the Cuban government was a state sponsor of terrorism and had a deplorable human rights record. 

These concerns may have masked their true concerns, which was losing their (and their families') special status in Cuba. 

When upper and middle class Cubans fled the island in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Castro regime expropriated many of their properties and businesses and turned them into public housing (in the case of seized residences) or state enterprises (in the case of businesses). The Cuban emigres object to any normalization of relations with Cuba until their property issues are addressed and resolved (in their favor). Since they are a vocal minority in the GOP and a large voting bloc in Florida, their influence is far greater than their actual numbers indicate.
On the beach in Trinidad.

While most Americans were prohibited from freely traveling to Cuba or spending money there (under the terms of the "Trading With the Enemy Act"), Cuban-Americans were allowed to make annual trips to the island to visit family and to send money from the US to family members in Cuba. The comparatively easy access to US dollars means Cubans with family in the US lived much better than those without familial ties to the US. 
Cuban cowboys at a rodeo in the countryside. 

Despite opposition from the American radical right, President Obama persisted and his opening was a success. American businesses were doing business on the island and American travelers visited the island in increasing numbers.

Then came the 2016 election and the shocking win of Donald Trump. Trump campaigned against President Obama's Cuban policy and right wing Cuban-Americans flocked to his side. 

Last week, Trump announced he was rolling back President Obama's openings to Cuba. The most immediate impact will be on travel to Cuba. 
A Cuban woman on her wedding day at a Cuban government wedding office in Havana. Many Cubans were married twice, once in a civil ceremony and then again in a church, if they were religious. 

I think Trump's decision to roll back President Obama's Cuba policy is a mistake. 

Trump cited Cuba's human rights record and other Cuban canards as justification for his policy shift.

If Trump was really concerned about human rights, he would be rolling back US relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, nations that have much worse human rights records than Cuba. 

If he was concerned about terrorism, again he would have to look at Saudi Arabia since 15 of the 19 terrorists who attacked the US on September 11 were Saudi nationals. 

Trump extols the virtue of autocratic leaders, like Putin (Russia), Erdogan (Turkey), al Sisi (Egypt) and Duterte (Philippines). They all have wretched human rights records. This exposes his concern about Cuban human rights as a fraud. 

It was interesting that Trump did not mention his own failed efforts to open hotels in Cuba. Newsweek reported in October 2016, that in 1999 the Trump organization engaged in secret and back channel negotiations with the Castro regime to open properties in Cuba, a clear violation of US law. 

Trump's rollback of travel regulations means Americans who travel to Cuba will have to go in large packaged tour groups. This is exactly what the Cuban government wants because it means Americans will be on predictable routes, seeing the people and sights the Cuban government want them to see. There won't be many Americans wandering independently, having private contacts with Cubans and talking about touchy issues like democracy and economic freedom.

Finally, our allies, every single one of them, trade openly with Cuba. Canada and Mexico have wide ranging economic relations Cuba. Thousands of tourists from both countries go to Cuba every week. The UK and EU trade with Cuba. The United States is alone in its lack of relations with Cuba. 
A Santeria ceremony in a Havana home. 

I'm not excusing or condoning the Cuban government's human rights' policies. 

I am suggesting that they need to be put in perspective. Human rights are held in higher regard in Cuba than many other countries the US works with. 

Cuba has an excellent education system and does the best they can with health care (given the US embargo may block many medicines from reaching the island). 

Cubans are not massacred in nightclubs by terrorists with easy access to military grade rifles. They're not gunned down in random drive by shootings in their urban areas. 

If Trump was really concerned by human rights and the economic opportunities of regular Cubans he would expand President Obama's opening to Cuba, not narrow it. 
*I went to Cuba several times in the early 2000s, before travel restrictions were lifted. Even then, Americans were allowed to travel to island (which is less than 100 miles from Florida) if they traveled under certain conditions. I traveled as a student with the Maine Photographic Workshops (now Maine Media Workshops). During the few years the Maine Workshops traveled to Cuba they brought hundreds of American photographers to the island for workshops with industry leading photojournalists. I was a student in workshops taught by Maggie Steber and Bob Krist.  

Friday, June 2, 2017

A Parade in Samut Sakhon

Men carrying the deity honoring Samut Sakhon through the city streets at the beginning of the parade during the City Pillar Shrine festival in the coastal community. 

City Pillar Shrines are common in Thailand. They are shrines that, tradition holds, protects the city. There are festivals to honor the City Pillar Shrine in most of the towns that have one and one of the best festivals is in Samut Sakhon, about 30 miles south of Bangkok. 

The deity honoring the City Pillar is paraded through the streets by attendants who carry it, sedan chair style, and then sailed up and down the Tha Chin River on fishing trawlers who make Samut Sakhon their home port. (Samut Sakhon is an important fishing port.) 

People pray as the deity is paraded through the town. 

The river divides the town in half, so after the shrine is sailed up and down the river, it's carried through the other side of the town. 

Parade participants on fishing trawlers in the river. 

The trawlers, 7 or 8 trawlers participate in the parade along the river, bring the celebrants to shore for the continuation of the festival. 
Volunteers help a devotee disembark from one of the trawlers. 

Men who lead the parade get off a trawler. 

The deity is carried to shore. 

Thousands of people line the city's streets during the parade, many kneeling and holding incensing, in prayer as the parade passes them. 

The parade goes through town...

And people with incense pray as it passes them. 

I've photographed in Samut Sakhon a lot. There's frequent and inexpensive train service to the town, so it's easy to get to and, I used to go there a lot to work on stories about the salt fields just outside of town, the fishing industry, and Burmese migration. 

The City Pillar Shrine festival though is one the most enjoyable things to photograph in the community. The dates (the festival last for four days) change year to year, but it's always in June. Usually early in the month. 
Dragon dancers accept donations during the parade. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Early Morning Commuters

A commuter on the first Chachoengsao - Bangkok train of the day catches up on the news. 

I went back out to Chachoengsao to photograph morning commuters who take the daily trains into Bangkok. Chachoengsao is a pleasant provincial town about 75 kilometers (45 miles) from Bangkok. The fact that it takes at least 90 minutes to drive to Chachoengsao is a testament to how traffic there is between the two towns. The trains, when they run on time, take a little over an hour for the same trip, making the train a much quicker option. A lot of Bangkok workers live in provincial towns like Chachoengsao, where rents and property prices are much lower, and commute into Bangkok. 
A student gets off a Prachinburi - Bangkok train while commuters line up to get on the train. Prachinburi is the largest town past Chachoengsao. The train, a local line that stops at most of the communities between the two towns, brings many students into Chachoengsao. 

Thailand has a well established rail network that goes to most corners of the Kingdom. Third class trains are not air-conditioned and they have hard wooden seats but they're cheap - my train tickets to and from Chachoengsao were about .75¢ each way - and reasonably reliable. I qualify it by saying "reasonably reliable" because the Thai rail network, once the pride of Southeast Asian rail networks, is falling on hard times. High demand combined with limited investment in maintenance means that trains are frequently late because of crowding on the tracks, break downs, and track failures. (One problem is that it's not unusual for tracks to be washed away during monsoonal flooding.) 

To their credit, Thai authorities recognize the problem and are trying to make deals with rail companies in Japan and China to help maintain and improve Thai trains, especially the implementation of high speed rail. 
Waiting for a morning commuter train to leave Chachoengsao. The relatively short train ride means a worker can catch a 7.30 train and be in the heart of Bangkok by 8.30 - 8.45, in plenty of time to get to work by 9.00. Assuming everything is on time. 

I like photographing on Thai trains, especially the third class trains. It gives you a chance to meet interesting people and see parts of the countryside. Living in Bangkok, it's easy to forget how really lush the Thai countryside is, especially during the wet season. We've had so much rain this year, the fields are practically glowing green. On my ride back to Bangkok, I shared a seat with Thai man who started our conversation by saying "How about that Donald Trump. What do you think?" I laughed and switched the conversation to the weather. 
The commuter trains are frequently standing room only. 

I went out to Chachoengsao expecting the morning commuter trains to be jammed. That turned out to not be the case. The morning trains to Bangkok were not standing room only. Interestingly, the afternoon trains from Bangkok to Chachoengsao were jammed - so crowded I couldn't walk through the train to photograph. 
On the first train of the day, a vendor packages meals for her customers. The train pulled out of the station just after sunrise. 

There are more photos of the Thailand's trains in my archive

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.