I love to read and there’s nothing better than when I have my hands on a good book. I just finished a little gem that occupied my thoughts for days afterwards—I also really like this. The novel is called Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese. I’ve never read any of Wagamese’s books before and now that I have been introduced... Indian Horse is on deck.
Before I continue, here’s a quick overview of the novel as per the book jacket:
Four chronically homeless people–Amelia One Sky, Timber, Double Dick and Digger–seek refuge in a warm movie theatre when a severe Arctic Front descends on the city. During what is supposed to be a one-time event, this temporary refuge transfixes them. They fall in love with this new world, and once the weather clears, continue their trips to the cinema. On one of these outings they meet Granite, a jaded and lonely journalist who has turned his back on writing “the same story over and over again” in favour of the escapist qualities of film, and an unlikely friendship is struck.
A found cigarette package (contents: some unsmoked cigarettes, three $20 bills, and a lottery ticket) changes the fortune of this struggling set. The ragged company discovers they have won $13.5 million, but none of them can claim the money for lack proper identification. Enlisting the help of Granite, their lives, and fortunes, become forever changed.
Ragged Company is a journey into both the future and the past. Richard Wagamese deftly explores the nature of the comforts these friends find in their ideas of “home,” as he reconnects them to their histories.
I will add, this read was also kind of fun for me because I typically read the synopsis before I dig into a book and this time I didn’t so the unlikely friendships and the winning the lottery gracefully unfolded. Moving forward, I may opt to proceed blindly in this manner again because it was fun to watch a plot unfold without a previous window into the story line.
OK…back to why I liked the book. Firstly, I adore it when a novel is so beautifully written that I feel compelled to go back and reread a sentence or a paragraph and this was my experience throughout Ragged Company. I would have finished the book faster if I wasn’t doing so much rereading! Wagamese is one of the most beautiful writers I have ever read. But, it’s more than his choice of words and the way Wagamese strings the words together—I would like to see the world through Wagamese’s eyes.
Secondly, I was appreciative of Wagamese’s subject matter. Of late, my reading selection has been World War 2 dominated (all good books), buuuuutttt not only was nice to deviate from this period in history it was beneficial for me to see the world of homeless through a different lens. I have certainly walked away with an even greater compassion for those who live on the streets and the tragic circumstances that place them there. I am thankful for this and, thankful for the reminder that homelessness is not only a physical state…one can live in a home with a roof over their head and not be anchored.
The third reason I liked this book is because it provided me with another reminder and that being we all have the ability to help others and it made me want to create change in my life. This is a very IMPORTANT reminder.
Without a doubt Wagamese has been added to my list of fav authors and I look forward to reading more of his work. Do you have a book that kept you thinking for days after you finished it?
A Traveller's Guide to Respectful Photography
I’d like to think…I’m a little more subtle than the paparazzi. I haven’t resorted to hiding in bushes nor, have I engaged in a high-speed motorcycle chase in the pursuit of a good photo. That said, when I’m travelling, I’m obsessed with getting pictures of local people while they are engaging in their everyday activities.
Now, I will be the first to admit...if the situation was reversed and it were me—here in my lovely Canada, pursuing the cereal aisle in No Frills and someone jumped in front of me and clicked away—I would not be thrilled. So, what is it that makes me turn paparazzi as soon as I leave my homeland?
When I’m abroad, if you are a minority man, woman, or child, nun or a monk—I am particularly fascinated with you. Fortunately, for the privacy of the latter, I haven’t overcome my shyness and feel quite uncomfortable invading someone’s personal space by sticking my camera in their face. Although, I must confess sometimes I wish there was a little paparazzi in me because I love people shots.
Not Some of My Finer Moments
During my travels, I have taken many pictures of the local people in ways that I’m not particularly proud of. I’ve skulked in a corner at a market in North Vietnam pretending to be taking a picture of a particularly interesting mound of bananas (I’m sure you will agree...bananas are fascinating), when my camera is really aimed at the hilltribe shoppers dressed in their brightly coloured traditional clothing.
From a street corner, I’ve zoomed until I can zoom no more and snapped away at a Burmese gentleman sitting cross-legged in a barber’s chair under a tree. I’ve also been horrified albeit envious by a fellow tourist’s photo prowess while out for a walk in Yangon, Myanmar. He stopped dead in the middle of a sidewalk, swung around and backtracked until he had positioned himself right in front of his subject. An elderly pink robed nun, with a red umbrella poised high over her shaved head AND she was wearing large Jackie-O sunglasses. She was magnificent! But, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t capture this incredible woman on digital.
I know, I know…taking pictures is a BIG part of the whole travelling experience. Who doesn’t want to capture the essence of the country you’re standing in? It’s not too often you hear someone say, “I don’t take pictures, I’ve got this committed to memory.”
Two Rules for Respectful Travel Photography
Sometimes, I’m pleased with my pictures but often—I’ve wished that I had the nerve to walk right over, perfectly aim and zoom right in on people going about their business just as my tourist friend did. Soooo, what do we shy polite photographers do? It’s quite simple. I have two rules for people photos.
Rule #1: whenever possible, ask for permission.
Be it from the individual directly or if I am on a tour, I will ask the tour guide before we arrive at the destination if photos are permissible. While I was in Asia, there were times when a photo inquiry lead to an open palm expecting money. But more often than not—I was blessed with a beaming smile.
I was in China, prior to the 2008 Olympics. When the torch passed through Shenzhen, I was among the throngs of people who went to witness this event. My colleague and I missed the torch because so many people were asking for our picture. We were happy to oblige, were grateful to be asked and didn't mind foregoing the torch because we met so many fantastic people that day.
Rule #2: be forthcoming and respectful.
I’m proud to say I’ve put my skulking behavior behind me. If an opportunity presents itself and I’m not in situation where I can request a photo i.e. someone was prostrating around Mount Kailash—I take a picture from a polite distance. I will never, EVER put myself right up in someone’s business even…if this means (I can now accept this)—forgoing a picture of an elderly Burmese nun wearing Jackie-O shades because I was not brave enough to ask for a photo. Besides, I figure…if my inner compass is telling me this is awkward (just as it was that faithful day) than it probably is--so don’t do it.
True to character, I will admit…it took me awhile to work my way out of this photo taking derve. As I continue to travel and abide my people photo rules it’s safe to say I’ll never be hired to do a little freelance work for the paparazzi. And, should I encounter any tourists in No Frills I can only hope their inner compass guides them to the very fascinating bananas.
Photographer in Action
Prostrating @ Mt. Kailash. I didn't get it right. I got it right.
In an effort to be respectful I have A LOT of back pictures :)
I’ve had the privilege of seeing many extraordinary things… Stonehenge, Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu to name of few. But one of the most beautiful—is not ancient architecture, or a stunning vista—it was an elderly Tibetan gentleman’s devotion to his spiritual leader.
The place was McLeod Ganj, India, home of the exiled Dali Lama, and the occasion—His Holiness was teaching. I had positioned myself outside of Tsuglagkhang Temple so I could catch a glimpse of the Dali Lama as he entered and exited the building. I stood amongst throngs of foreigners and Tibetans in the collective buzz of anticipation that awaited his arrival.
When the Dalai Lama walked past the expression on the face an elderly Tibetan demanded my attention. His eyes gently held onto His Holiness with a reverence that spilled over into every deeply etched line in his face.
He then, turned to me with his hand over his heart to ask, “Happy? Happy?”
“Yes,” I told him.
How could I not be? I had seen the Dali Lama. And, I had the honour of witnessing the beauty of pure love, which resided in the eyes of an elderly Tibetan gentleman.
I wish I were brave enough or perhaps, intrusive to take close-up pictures of people as I would love to have been able to share one of those brilliant Tibetan faces (in particular, the gentleman whom I am writing about) with this post. Unfortunately, I was not. But here is a picture from the day I witnessed pure love.
Saul Indian Horse has hit bottom. His last binge almost killed him, and now he’s a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he’s sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he’ll find it only through telling his story. With him, readers embark on a journey back through the life he’s led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows.
With compassion and insight, author Richard Wagamese traces through his fictional characters the decline of a culture and a cultural way. For Saul, taken forcibly from the land and his family when he’s sent to residential school, salvation comes for a while through his incredible gifts as a hockey player. But in the harsh realities of 1960s Canada, he battles obdurate racism and the spirit-destroying effects of cultural alienation and displacement. Indian Horse unfolds against the bleak loveliness of northern Ontario, all rock, marsh, bog and cedar. Wagamese writes with a spare beauty, penetrating the heart of a remarkable Ojibway man.
Oh my goodness, I just finished Richard Wagamese’s novel Indian Horse and hands down it is one of the best books I have EVER read. Every Canadian should read this book. It is beautifully written and, it was a hard read. The cruelty the indigenous people faced is…for someone who spends their time with words, I am at a loss to find words to adequately describe the abuse they endured at the hands of the church in the residential schools and the racism they encountered outside of their community—the best I can do is say it was a heartbreaking read and even that seems inadequate. There were sections of the book where I thought…I can’t read this, and I don’t know if I can watch the movie.
Wagamese’s novel flawlessly illustrates the beauty of the indigenous culture and the depths the Canadian Government—with the assistance of the church, went to destroy it. But, it’s also a story of survival with Saul struggling to find his place in a world after his roots have been severed. I will say it again ALL Canadians should read this book. Unfortunately, we cannot undo history, but we can come to a better understanding of the impact the residential schools had and is still having on the First Nations people.
I could not put this book down. To illustrate this point I have a little story to share with you:
When I went to TO this week, I brought Indian Horse with me to read on the GO-Train on the way home. As soon as the train pulled away from Union Station, I cracked the book open. I was in deep because the next thing I heard was the announcement for the Aurora stop and I thought great! almost home and went back to reading. I shed many a tear on that Go ride and the next announcement I heard was, “last stop train is terminating at Union Station!”
That’s right, I was back at Union Station. I learned the hard way that after a certain hour the train does not go all the way up to Barrie rather, it terminates in Aurora and from there one must take a bus to all other destinations on the line. Unfortunately, for me when I heard the Aurora announcement (or part of it) the train wasn’t retired for the night as it headed south again with a very unaware me reading away.
If you know me this story will not surprise you…it is a very crystal thing to do. In my defense, I will say, normally (and normal for me is once a week over the course of this summer) I take the train. In the morning, I get on at the first stop and I’m very alert because I get off at a station mid-route. And, in the evening I’m the last stop therefore, it’s not necessary for me to devote my undivided attention to each stop along the way for fear of missing my stop. However, this commute was different because I didn’t go directly home I went down town and had a lovely meal on the patio with a dear friend hence, my timing was different.
Compounding the situation is I was so engrossed in Indian Horse I didn’t hear the announcer state the train terminated in Aurora and once everyone had disembarked and the new crew of riders were comfortably settled--I still managed to miss the 2nd announcement stating the train was departing to Union Station. What can I say….?! It’s a good book. Wagamese had ALL of my attention and then some.
Upon discovering my mistake, yes…I was a little frazzled and rushed to make connections but because I was riding with Wagamese I was not upset by the little detour. F.Y.I. I left Union Station (the 1st time) at 7:40 pm and I arrived home at 11:50 pm! Just a bit of a commuting marathon. I was tired, but my mind was stimulated.
I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Wagamese for writing Indian Horse; Saul will stay with me. For those who do not like to read, you should watch the movie. I too will watch the movie and in all seriousness, I will not watch during any kind of commute because who knows where I’ll end up.
To all residential school survivors and their families, I am so very sorry. I wish you peace in your journey back to your beautiful culture. To all people in this world, may we one day learn from our mistakes and walk this Earth as loving and compassionate beings.
You may purchase Indian Horse at: Amazon
I remember when I finished the final draft of my novel—I was a mix-mash of emotions ranging from pride, excitement to terror. The terror being…yikes, how do I get my book into reader’s hands? Do I tackle the traditional route of trying to find a publisher or, do I opt for self-publishing?
What’s the difference between traditional and self-publishing?
Simply put, traditional publishing is when an author does not pay to publish their work and self-publishing is when an author pays to publish their work.
Before you can make a well-informed decision about which pathway you would like to take, I recommend that you consider the following:
Pros and Cons of a Traditional Publisher
Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing
The Next Step
How you decide to take your book to the next level is a very personal decision. One that is made on what it is you as a writer want to accomplish. When I was up to my eyeballs in rejection with my first novel (over 100) and time was tick-tick-ticking away MANY people voiced their opinion that I was crazy not to venture into the self-publishing world. For me, at the time, the decision was based on my priorities and that being I wanted the credibility of a traditional publishing house behind me—I was willing to slug it out and wait.
For those who are considering self-publishing, do your research and if you move in this direction do so with realistic expectations. I am confident you will be marketing the beejeepers out of your work while many other author’s manuscripts (such as mine) are still sitting in the slush pile.
Choose the pathway that is best for you. They are both great options. Best wishes in your literary journey.
As a child I desperately wanted a pet monkey. I would have gladly given up the option of having a family dog in favour of one of those incredibly cute two-legged creatures. But, I grew up monkey deprived. Over the years, my monkey love had to be satisfied with a trip to the zoo or a National Geographic documentary. Soooo, can you imagine my excitement when the opportunity ‘to walk among monkeys in their natural habitat’ presented itself?!
I was in Ubud, Indonesia heading towards one of Bali's most popular tourist attractions--The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. It's a nature reserve that is home to over 700 monkeys and sacred Hindu temples...sounds great, right?!
The Sacred Monkey Forest
With monkeys in sight, I practically sprinted to the entrance of the sanctuary. The little fellas were casually draping themselves over the entrance sign and the surrounding fence—an advertising executive couldn’t have positioned them any better. With the entrance fee paid; I was more than ready to be one with nature.
As I entered the sanctuary, the signage clearly stated:
“It is important to treat the monkeys with the utmost respect as this is their home and you are a guest in it. Moreover, if you wish to feed the monkeys do so carefully, and if they take food from you do not attempt to retrieve it.”
This guest couldn’t have agreed more.
It doesn’t take long for me to process that there were monkeys everywhere. And, I mean e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. There were monkeys in trees, monkeys sitting on rocks, fences and monkeys strolling around like they had nothing better to do. I couldn’t believe it! Holy smokes! I had to capture this awe-inspiring moment.
Not being technically inclined, I was a little nervous to take pictures with my brand new, never been used, digital camera. No sooner was the camera out of my knapsack and gingerly unwrapped from the plastic bag which was protecting it from the light drizzle falling; did a monkey sashay over and whip the camera from my unsuspecting hands.
Lady! Respect the Monkeys
Holy crap! In shock, all I could think of was…that monkey has my brand new, never been used digital camera! Much to the monkey’s disbelief—I snatched back the camera. My relief at having my camera back in my possession was only temporary because I received a VERY stern reprimand from of one of the sanctuary staff who was under the impression that I was behaving disrespectfully towards one of the precious little monkeys.
Although shaken from the scolding and the attempted theft, I wandered deeper into the sanctuary in search of one of the beautiful temples. My camera was now safely stuffed in my backpack and would remain in there for the duration of the sanctuary visit hence, the lack of pictures.
Recovered, I stopped to admire one of the temple’s architecture. It’s quite amazing what can happen in a sanctuary when you stop moving for just a second, because that’s all it took before a monkey in single bound jumped on my shoulder and then, positioned himself comfortably on the top of my head.
How lovely, I was in the middle of a sacred forest all by myself with a money perched on top of my head. A few thoughts in rapid succession crossed my mind.
I was mistaken when I thought it couldn’t get any worse. The second monkey opened his little mouth as wide as he could and sunk his crooked yellow-stained teeth into my leg. My thoughts drifted, and I found myself wondering…does my health insurance cover monkey bites? I was fairly confident that—it didn’t.
I must confess, I have always prided myself on being an independent woman who can successfully navigate herself around the globe; but at this precise moment…I wanted someone who could get these stinking monkeys off me. Much to my relief, the very helpful sanctuary guide suggested that…I ‘keep moving.’
Gee, thanks. Have you ever tried to ‘keep moving’ with a monkey on your head? I can tell you…it’s not easy. Moreover, did you know that a monkey can remain firmly planted on your head even when you shake your head vigorously back and forth? Well, as vigorously as you can with a monkey parked on your head.
Aussies & Dogs are the Best
During my travels, I have always gravitated to Aussies. They’re fun and now, I know—they’re also dependable. A very kind Aussie gentleman came to my rescue and dislodged the monkeys from both my head and leg. If he had of asked, I would have married him on the spot. As for the sanctuary guide, I was ever so appreciative of the role he played during my monkey bonding time.
It is safe to say…at that moment, I did not understand why The Monkey Forest Sanctuary is a top tourist attraction. In fact, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Once safely outside of the sacred grounds, I reflected on the last 30 minutes of my life. I concluded…as does anyone who has had the pleasure of a monkey encounter--they’re not those incredibly cute two-legged creatures you thought they were. I then, took the opportunity to deliver a silent prayer of thanks to my parents for allowing this dog lover to grow up monkey deprived.
Tips for Visiting The Sacred Monkey Forest
Should you decide to visit the sanctuary (and you should) for your safety and a more enjoyable visit than mine ensure you follow the guidelines and I've included some suggestions of my own:
OMG! Present Tense is Bugging Me
When I made the decision to go back to my novel TFTS, my first object was to become reacquainted with my main character Iphim. I was really looking forward to this because I had finished the first draft back in 2006 and with my memory the way it is…I wanted to ensure I remembered every piece of her mind and heart.
My other objectives were to fix any areas where I had fallen into 'tell me' rather than 'show me' and, to make certain it was my character’s voices and not mine coming through. Because I had already had my manuscript professionally edited I was not concerned about any major problems with my content and grammar therefore, this really was more of a “get to know Iphim” exercise. Or, so I thought...
As I began to reread my manuscript which I had written in present tense, I found that I was incredibly irritated by the flipping around of tenses, so much so, that I really wasn’t getting to know Iphim again. Finally, 80+ pages in (why I didn’t tackle this 10-pages in is beyond me…actually, not really—it’s called DENIAL and I’m VERY good at it) I stopped and dealt with the way I was feeling about my use of present tense.
I used to like to write in present tense because I wanted the reader to feel like they are going on the journey with my character as it plays out in the moment—much like a movie. To write in the present tense was very much a conscious decision and a conversation I had with my editor hence, my editor proceeded with this direction from me and 10+ years ago I was happy with this decision.
Fast forward to 2018, and I was not so happy with my decision…it was driving me nuts. Before I proceeded any further, I went back to novel writing basics and did a list of pro’s and con’s for writing in past and present tense--thank you Writer's Digest for the assistance. To all fellow writers, here's
The Advantages and Disadvantages of the Verb Tenses
Advantages of Present Tense
1. Present tense has more “immediacy” than past tense.
2. Present tense can contribute to the characterization of a work’s protagonist.
3. The present tense can reflect not only a character’s nature but a work’s theme.
4. The present tense can reflect not only a character’s nature but a work’s theme.
Disadvantages of Present Tense
1. Present tense restricts our ability to manipulate time.
2. It is more difficult to create complex characters using present tense.
3. The present tense can diminish suspense.
4. The use of present tense encourages us to include trivial events that serve no plot function simply because such events would actually happen in the naturalistic sequence of time.
Advantages of Past Tense
1. Can jump more freely around the timeline of story.
2. Traditionally used more often so readers are better acquainted with it =’s more enjoyable.
3. Because event takes place in past have the ability to further develop an event.
Disadvantages of Past Tense
1. It can slow down pace.
2. It’s easier to slip into ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing.’
Look at #2, in the advantages of writing in the past tense. Can I tell you this point jumped out at me BECAUSE…I am now one of those people who find reading in the present tense irritating. Further research revealed this is actually quite common.
A Tense Decision
Sooooo, what was a getting to know you exercise has now potentially become a much larger editing exercise. I must confess, I haven’t looked at my manuscript since I made this discovery because I want to be sure before I embark on this little revision exercise. When I have my head wrapped around what I have to do, I will do it and realistically I know what I have to do and yes, it involves using the past tense. But either way….my dear Iphim, I look forward to getting to know you again and to see how we’ve both grown over the last decade+.
What tense do you write in?
2. patrizeproperties.com/ and 3. www.huffpost.com/entry/from-stressed-to-inner-peace-to-flourishing_b_9453738
I ADORE Myanmar. My love for the country pretty much started upon arrival; when I found myself in a taxi on route to Yangon on what would be the most crazy-fun car ride I have ever been on. For the duration of the journey, my emotions alternated from throwing back my head in fits of laughter to covering my eyes.
The horn never stopped blaring because it was busy announcing our vehicle’s approach as we dodged pedestrians, bicycles and goats. When the nose of the car closed in on a cyclist’s butt, my laughter only stopped long enough for me to drop out a, “slowly, slowly,” and then, my travel companion and I would be in hysterics all over again. Our laughter was all the encouragement the driver needed. The accelerator hit the floor.
Every bump, twist and turn chauffeured us to new levels of excitement. Whenever, we were spotted, hands flew into the air waving wildly. Electric smiles, bold, friendly voices eager to practice their English called out, “Hello, hello!” To which we responded, “Hello, hello!” Followed it up with a BIG, “Mingala Ba!” and grins that stretched out to our ears. By the end of the ride the muscles in our face hurt and our arms were sore from all the waving.
It appeared we had been transported back in time. There were rickety old wooden carts being pulled by white ox, cars and tractors from the 1950’s, water buffalo in every field and creek and there were so many people riding bicycles. I thought…everyone in the country must own one. My friend summed up the experience perfectly when she claimed, “Bloody hell this is fantastic!” The taxi ride set the tone for our Myanmar adventure and it never let up.
If you were to ask me what I remember the most about this trip (besides the taxi ride) I would respond, the people. Their charming personalities are forever imprinted in my brain. Their hospitality. Kindness. Genuineness. There was a playfulness that grabbed my heart. The big beautiful smiles, vigorous waves, curiosity towards foreigners and the desire to practice English was found in every city, in every small town. I can still see their lovely faces—smeared with a pale-yellow gritty paste called Thanaka.
Physically, oh my goodness—I will remember the sweltering heat; it wrapped its arms around me and held on tight. I will also remember…peeling paint trying to free itself from tired buildings, hundreds of crimson betel stains on the streets. The sun setting and rising over countless gleaming gold and glint-white pagodas; farmers leading their water buffalo to the river for an early morning soak and young children and their mothers bathing in the river.
I will also think of bare feet stuffed in flip-flops—the perfect footwear for monsoon flooding and tropical heat. Men and women wearing lyinghis or as the Thai’s call them sarongs. It’s wonderful here. There were so many umbrellas. They came in every size and colour—pale blue, black, white, multi-coloured flowers. Everyone owned an umbrella. They were poised over peoples’ heads protecting them from the piercing sun. Walking down the streets, I encountered nuns with shaved heads dressed in pale pink robes and umbrella-carrying monks wearing deep red-orange coloured robes.
One day, I walked past a parched football field. The yellowed grass was littered with piles of abandoned robes and discarded flip-flops. Their owners—young monks were running barefoot in shorts fully engrossed in a football match.
These memories make me smile. I find it hard to believe this adventure was over 10 years ago. I often wonder…how much has Myanmar changed since my visit? Perhaps, I will return one day but until then, I wish for all who venture to this incredible pocket of the world—an experience that has you throwing your head back in fits of laughter. And, a taxi ride from the airport that leaves you with a sore face and exhausted arms!
Is a visit to the Plain of Jars worth the epic bus ride?
Cloudless cobalt sky. Heat so intense the perspiration slowly dribbled down the contours of my body. Anticipation rose in my throat because I was about to set my eyes on one of the world’s ancient mysteries--the Plain of Jars, in Laos.
Would it be worth the legendary 12-hour bus journey from Vientiane on roads with twists and turns that forced me to travel the entire distance with a clenched backside to avoid landing in the isle or in a stranger’s lap? A road that had the Laotians vomiting out the windows at regular intervals and me quadrupling up on anti-nauseous pills all the while thinking …this better be good.
The jars are situated in Northeastern Laos, in the sleepy town of Phonsavan. Depending on whom I spoke with the ‘jar experience’ varied. To some—they were just…just, jars scattered over the countryside. But for others, it was an experience worthy of a crazy bus ride. For this history enthusiast, the verdict was TBD.
A Walk to Remember
Before one can venture into the jar sights, the reality of what it’s like to be a resident of Phonsavan strikes. At the entrance to one of the three jar sights, I found myself standing in front of a red MAG (Mines Advisory Group) sign. I was mesmerized by the warning.
Now, I am a rules girl and certainly when travelling I tend to respect the signage. BUT, the message was usually ‘don’t touch the exhibits’ and the consequences for touching would be a reprimand. Or, at worst, a person could be requested to leave the premises. Not in Laos—where disobeying the signage can result in the loss of limbs or death.
Laos was Neutral During the Vietnam War
For a country that was ‘not’ involved in the Vietnam War, the impact that is still felt in this region today is shocking. In the small town of Phonsavan every week a landmine kills a person. Have you ever heard about this? I certainly hadn't. But in this small town, on the other side of the world—it’s normal. And, so is walking among the many bomb craters that litter the countryside.
Did you know...during the Secret War, the US dropped more bombs on this small neutral country than all of the bombs that were dropped during World War 2—making Laos the most heavily bombed county in the world.
The Jars Up Close & Personal
I was cognizant of every step. Despite the heat, I chose to forgo a cold beverage and risk dehydration to get to jars as fast as I could. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d seen pictures of the jars and had heard the critiques of fellow travellers, but I was anxious to form my own opinion. Each step brought me closer until I found myself face-to-face with the mysterious jars and about to get an introduction.
At site 2, one of the hills is barren except for the lone deposit of jars and the other hill has leafy green trees who offer the jars some relief from the piercing rays of the morning sun. Some of jars stand proud. Some sit among trees with twisted trunks, while others lean at varying degrees pulled towards the earth’s parched surface. Others lie flat gracing the earth in their eternal slumber.
A closer look revealed the jars are in various states of decay and perfection. Their openings are circular; the insides bare. The jars and their secrets belong to Laos—they’re majestic, magical and I couldn’t get enough of them. I must have taken a thousand pictures of jars. I took pictures from every angle—kneeling on the ground, lying on the ground, draped over and head inside. I ran my fingers over rough surfaces; touched crevasses and bullet holes in hopes that they would whisper their secrets to my fingers.
What were the jars used for?
Archaeologists will likely unravel the mystery of the jars although, the popular theory is that they were a part of ancient burial rituals 2500 years ago. But I prefer to believe the local legend and that being the jars were giant's drinking cups. Time will tell what their purpose was but in the interim, I like to envision an expansive plain that once hosted a giant party.
It was a place where male and female giants animatedly discussed the latest gossip, while others reclined—their massive bodies stretched out in the sun. Off in the distance, but within their parent’s vision, the children played. Jars filled with giant's homemade brew were scattered over the landscape's table. The antics of the children's games caused the earth to shake, some of the jars tipped over, spilling the giant's drinks all over the ground.
So, you may be wondering…was it worth it? Absolutely! I left, as I arrived—by bus. While the journey to Phonsavan was one filled with anticipation, my departure to Vientiane had me once again hopped-up on motion sickness pills, backside determinedly clenched and my head filled with the images of jars and giants.
To this day, (over 10 years later) I remain under the spell of the Plain of Jars. So much so, I included the jars, in my book Beauty Beneath the Banyan (BBTB). I also recommend that travellers who have a passion for anything ancient go to this UNESCO world heritage site. Hopefully, the road is fixed now but even if it isn’t…I say…GO FOR IT! A sunset viewing of the jars is bound to delight fellow travellers and I’m sure the giants will enjoy it too!
People Pictures are the Best
When I’m travelling, like most, I adore taking pictures of the local people. There are some fantastic faces out there. If you travel, I know you have encountered these faces and you know what I am taking about. These faces seem to hold the essence of their country. And, I want pictures of these people. I bet you do too.
One of my favourite people pictures, is the novice monk above. I’d like to share the background behind this memorable photo and how I was gifted with more than his shy smile.
My Fascination with Monks
I remember my first monk sighting was at Siem Rep, in Cambodia. I was much like a child poking my companion in the ribs with an excited whisper, “There’s one. There’s one.” You’d think the novelty of seeing monks would have died down after 6 -months of travelling through Buddhist countries and 17-days at a Thai Buddhist meditation retreat but—it didn’t.
I remain captivated—in awe of their peaceful life style, their serenity. Even the gentle swishing of their robes, as they appear to glide rather than walk over the earth’s surface causes me to stop enthralled by their every step.
Now, I am not the only one who is charmed by monks. I have seen many tourists putting their digital cameras to good use trying to capture monks as they go about their daily routine. Whether it be on the sweltering streets of Bangkok, Thailand; chanting in a candlelit temple in the darkened depths of the Bayon Temple, Cambodia; sitting cross-legged on the back of a motorcycle on a dusty side street in Luang Prabang, Laos or reading under a shaded tree in Yangon, Myanmar. Most of the monk pictures I have taken are from a respectful distance, while others have been snapped when an individual has willing posed.
This brings me back to my point (FINALLY). Out of all my monk pictures, I have a favourite. It’s not because it’s the perfect backdrop, great lighting or a flawlessly posed subject with their eyes open. It’s perfect, because I had the pleasure of getting to know the person in the photograph.
Pha That Luang Pagoda, Vientiane
While visiting Pha That Luang pagoda in Vientiane, Laos a novice shyly approached me wanting to practice his English. He was 17-years-old, very self-conscious, lean and had a shaved head which was darker in the spots where the hair would soon require another shave. His face is almond shaped, his eyes as dark as chocolate and kindness surrounded him.
As we spoke, it soon became apparent that conversing in English required a great deal of effort. He spoke very slowly; carefully pondering each word before he released it. When he was trying to recall a word, his eyes shut, lips pursed—sometimes, both hands would come up and rest on his cheeks in an effort to squeeze out the right word. He was adamant about trying to figure it out for himself. It was only after much effort, when the desired word would not appear that he would ask for my assistance. I’m not sure if the gratification that lit up his face when he remembered or, learned new vocabulary was more rewarding for him, or for me.
His veracious appetite for the English language extended to learning about the world beyond Laos. He was interested in me. In my life. Canada. He wanted to know…if I had parents. Why did I have only one sister? Did my parents really only want two children? What was it like to be a teacher? Did I like teaching? What’s it like to live in Canada? What does snow feel like? What do you wear when it’s cold?
I also wanted to know about him. His life. How he came to live in the monastery. And, here’s what he told me. He was from the south. He used to live in a bamboo-stilted house, was the youngest of four boys and from a very poor family. He came to the monastery when he was 10; because his mother had been very sick and died and, his father could no longer care for him. He told me with tears in his eyes that he still missed his mother. He missed his father. He missed his brothers and the life they had together. “We are very, very poor. But we were very, very happy.”
As I sit here and look at his picture, I am reminded that all of the faces in my travel photos have a story. People are more than just a face who I’ve deemed interesting or intriguing—a face who is picture worthy. These encounters are a gift and what travel is all about.