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Friday, June 29, 2007


Narrowest hotel in the world?

In Melaka, in the colonial era, houses were taxed by the width of the frontage. To avoid the tax, land was divided with narrow frontages and stretched sometimes as far back as 100 metres and more. The terraced houses filled the space.

Here in Hanoi, the situation was apparently similar but more extreme. The narrowest house I have seen so far was not worth photographing. The view of it was blocked by an electricity pole which almost obscured it.

In Melaka, they designed the houses with a courtyard or two to let in light and air. Most houses in Hanoi are too narrow to effectively do this. The stairwell takes up the full width of the house. Air flow is almost non-existent. In hot weather they can be very stuffy without air conditioning. And many of these houses are now hotels.

I did move house after a few days in the relative luxury of my previous place. I'm now in one of those narrow hotels. My room can't be much more than two metres wide, if that. But it's long. It has it's own bathroom with hot and cold water. Though why anyone would want hot water in this climate is beyond me.

The only thing I miss is the in-room internet cable. I could sit in comfort and stay online as long as I wanted. But considering that the top rate in an internet cafe here is less than A50 cents an hour, it was hard to justify staying in the old place. The only problem is that the internet cafes are also in narrow buildings and usually lack air conditioning. It doesn't encourage me to spend hours online.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Do hawkers sleep well?

I recently received an email from a friend in Australia which said '...you need to be very cautious as the population obviously thrives on fleecing tourists'. Please friends, don't lose any sleep over my challenges in Vietnam.

I wonder if my recent blog 'Hanoi hawkers' might have been an overreaction. Did I bring my friend to this belief? If so, I need to revisit the subject and put it in a different perspective.

When one arrives in Hanoi everything is new. Even though I've spent much of the past four years in Asia, this is different, so I walk the streets with eyes wide open. I see the hawkers in the street and stare. Naturally enough, they zoom right in on me. I am unfamiliar with Vietnamese prices, or at least that is what they expect, so some see it as an opportunity to milk as much money as possible from me.

However, this is not all hawkers and lets face it, only a small proportion of the 3.5 million people living in Hanoi are hawkers. Most of the people I've spoken to here are friendly and helpful. Some of the hawkers have even got to know me and say things like 'Oh, we are friends now and still you won't buy anything to help me.' Guilt manipulation? Perhaps, but with the tongue wedged in the cheek.

What is a fair price? We in the west are conditioned by the concept of the 'recommended retail price'. We think there is a correct fair price for everything. If we pay less it's a bargain. If we pay more we've been ripped off. This is our culture. Please excuse the people of Asia if this is not theirs. They have a right to their own culture.

So, when you visit an Asian country the first thing to remember is: There is no such thing as a fair price. The second thing to remember is: The correct price is whatever the customer is prepared to pay and the vendor sell for.

When a vendor sells their goods to a local there is no point in asking a highly inflated price. The local either can't afford it or simply won't pay it. So they ask a reasonable price, perhaps a little higher than they expect to get. The buyer makes a counter offer, a little bargaining takes place and a price is agreed on. Correct? Fair? Who knows? It is simply the price that both buyer and seller have agreed on. Both had the option to decline at any time.

When a vendor sees a foreigner they know either from experience or hearsay that foreigners are crazy and will pay anything. Think of a number and multiply it by ten. Is that the correct price? It is if the foreigner is stupid enough to pay it. You have choices. You can make a counter offer or you can walk away. You don't have to pay it. If you choose to do so, don't blame the vendor. You have a choice.

After spending a little time in a country a few things happen. First I stop staring, second I start to get a feel for the usual (I almost wrote 'correct') price for the goods. I hate bargaining. Therefore I probably pay more than the locals. Occasionally I get ripped of badly but usually we are talking about a few cents. In Australian money I am still getting a bargain.

I walked up and down the market this morning comparing prices of mangosteen. I love this fruit and it is said to be very healthy. The first vendor asked for 20,000 dong per kilo. I immediately compared this to what I had paid for lichees, 5,000 dong, and was shocked. I tried other vendors. The best price I could get was 25,000 so I went back to the first vendor and bought my kilo. I was disappointed when I got home. Half of them were off and I had to throw them out. But it's not a big deal. The whole kilo cost me a total of $A1.50. Mangosteen are rarely available in Australian supermarkets and when they are there is no way I can buy half a kilo for $1.50.

Is our culture more moral than theirs? What did you pay the last time you bought a t-shirt? I've seen t-shirts in Australia 'on sale' at $79. On the other hand I've paid as little as $A2 for t-shirts in Cambodia and Malaysia. Who is making the big profit? Certainly not the vendor in an Asian country. When Billabong buy there t-shirts in bulk from an Asian factory what is the price they pay? I don't know, but my guess is that it is less than $A1 a piece. What price do you pay for that same shirt in Sydney or Brisbane?

Mr Billabong sleeps in his extravagant beachfront mansion on the New South Wales north coast. The Asian hawker probably sleeps on a rattan mat on a concrete floor. I wonder who sleeps more soundly.

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Monday, June 25, 2007


Eating in Hanoi

Most people in Hanoi seem to eat on the footpath on small tables that might be used in a western kindergarten. I was taken to such a restaurant for dinner one night. The tables were cramped together. We had to squeeze between the other diners to get to our table.

I've always enjoyed Vietnamese food that I've eaten in Australia. And the food from Vietnamese restaurants in Thailand has also been enjoyable. I realize we in the west don't get the real thing in our home country when it comes to Asian foods. It's adapted to suit our taste buds. So, I'm not too surprised to find that food here is at times different from what I've eaten in the past. But my Vietnamese friends agree with my main complaint that it can often be too salty and too oily.

I like to eat where the locals eat. Looking for somewhere for lunch one day I found a restaurant that was fairly crowded with Vietnamese. It had tables and chairs inside and they were full size. This probably adds a few dong to the price of the meal but I don't mind. Out the front there was a menu in English. You can't look at such a menu without having someone come out and hover to encourage you inside. They had chicken and cashews. I pointed to it and said, 'Does this come with rice?'

'Yes rice,' he answered.

I ordered it and found myself a free table. When the meal came I was quite disappointed. Most of the pieces of chicken were straight chicken fat. And the cashews...well, they weren't cashews at all. They were peanuts and I'm allergic to peanuts. I called the waitress over. I pointed to the peanuts. 'What are these?'

She smiled, went and got the menu and pointed to the item where it said, 'chicken and cashews'.

'No,' I told her. 'These are not cashews. These are peanuts. If I eat them I will get sick.'

She kept smiling and said nothing. How much she understood I do not know.

When I got my bill, to add insult to injury, they charged me extra for the rice. I accept that this was a communication problem but it did not help to allay my disgust with the place. There were a couple of other westerners contemplating the menu. I waved to them and beckoned them over. 'I don't recommend this place,' I said. They quietly left.

Before I left I told the waitress I would give her a correct translation of what they served me. I wrote on a piece of paper they gave me, 'Chicken fat and peanuts'. I hope they get around to updating their menu soon.

At another restaurant I was given a mixed plate that included silkworm larvae. No, I didn't eat them.

But it's not all bad. For breakfast I usually go to the market around the corner from my hotel, sit on a kindergarten stool among the Vietnamese and eat noodles with green veges. I never see another westerner there.

I am happy to report that I can also buy fresh lichees at less than A40 cents a kilo. I'm told I should be able to do better than that. There must be something wrong with my bargaining powers. That's as low as they'll go for me.

Fresh fruit juices here are great. At one cafe I buy a mix of mango and custard apple. I'm fussy about additives in my juices. They commonly add milk and sugar but I can report from the texture and flavour that I judge this to be 100% fruit. Delicious. After a morning of walking and photography I found a place where I could buy cool 100% durian juice. Once again, delicious. Each of these cost less than $A1—a bargain.

And for lunch and dinner I must admit I'm now usually eating in restaurants frequented by at least one or two other westerners.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007


Home life in Hanoi

Anyone who knows me is aware that one of my objectives in travelling is to be able to see the world through the eyes of the people who live in the countries I travel to. Sometimes this is difficult because of my own insecurities. However, if I let go of those insecurities I may have opportunities to share the lives of these people.

My friends in Cambodia once told me I am not like other westerners. 'How is that?' I asked.

'You trust us.'

I don't trust everyone. But I'd never had any reason to mistrust those people. I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt and they took me into their lives.

Here in Vietnam I have befriended a family who invited me to visit their home on the outskirts of Hanoi. I would like to share with you some of what I observed.

I was taken to the village on the back of a motorcycle. We rode down a narrow lane between houses. At the end was a row of four terraces. Each was perhaps four metres wide. We parked the bike outside the second one and went inside.

Three people live in the house. The mother, 62, is divorced and lives with a daughter, 28, and son, 19. The daughter is a teacher in a secondary school, that's years six to nine here I believe. Secondary students have three months holiday at this time of the year, so teachers do too, without pay. The son has just finished high school but failed to obtain a high school diploma so has to work in a noodle factory for which he is paid 20,000 dong ($1A is about 13,500 dong) for a shift. This is not enough to pay for his food. The mother doesn't work. She gets some benefits from the government but I'm not sure if she actually gets a pension.

The front room of the house is the living room. It is not much deeper than it is wide. There are steepish narrow stairs without a rail going upstairs. There is a rather fancy wooden cabinet but all the other furniture is plastic. Behind this room is the bedroom in which the mother and daughter sleep. Not much room beside the two beds. The third room at the back is the kitchen. It is smaller than both the other rooms. There is a bench on one side. The larger part of the room is partitioned by two brick walls of about two metres high. In one section there is water storage. The next has the stove. The third has the shower and toilet with only a curtain separating it from the kitchen. The back door is made of wood that looks like it's been scavenged from a rotten boat. There is a backyard about 1.5 metres deep with concrete walls on all sides.

Later I was taken upstairs. There are two rooms. One where the son sleeps and a semi-open area used for hanging washing. A roof has recently been built over this section, not well though. It slopes backward so that rain water runs inside and seeps through to the rooms beneath.

While I was sitting in the front room a guy came to the door. He and the mother were talking in Vietnamese and it seemed they were arguing. Voices were raised. I was looking out the door just taking in what was going on. The daughter had gone to the kitchen and came to call me back there. She explained that this man was the garbage collector. There is no municipal garbage collection. In Cambodia the situation is similar but people either bury or burn their garbage. In this home there is not room to do either. On the opposite side of the lane are plastic bags piled about two metres high and along about three. This is their garbage from the past couple of months. It had not been collected because there is some dispute with the collector. I was told, 'You should not look at him. Because him see we have foreigner friend. Now him want to charge more money.'

They invited me to stay to dinner. After checking what I like to eat the daughter went to the local market. She returned and cooked an extremely delicious dinner and plenty of it. I haven't eaten so well for a long time.

I felt warmly received in this home. As in other parts of Asia I find that people who have so little are often the ones who give the most.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Hanoi hawkers

Never before have I been bombarded with so many hawkers. And never before have I met hawkers so persistent and who ask so much more than the real price. In the old quarter of Hanoi there are hawkers everywhere. When they see a westerner they smile because the sight of a westerner means an opportunity to make a lot of money.

I have experienced this latter aspect in Cambodia. But the Cambodian hawkers are not so greedy nor so persistent. They usually accept 'no'. Of course this phenomenon is created by tourists. Ask yourself, if you were an extremely poor vendor and every foreigner who bought from you gave you a tip, how long would it take before you put the price up to include the tip?

However, some vendors have another tactic they use on top of overcharging. They try to make you feel guilty if you refuse to pay their price. They argue, 'You very rich. I poor. You can afford to pay.' Among others, I heard this argument from a guy hawking pirate copies of books such as Lonely Planet guidebooks. He was asking only a dollar or two less than the recommended price of the authentic book. The quality was nowhere near that of the real thing.

I go out walking each day. The streets of Hanoi fascinate me and I take lots of photos. This morning I was walking through a market when a guy pushed past me in the crowd and told me he would fix my sandal for me. I bought these sandals soon after I arrived in KL three months ago. They may be cheap but they are still good. He put his stool down on the footpath ahead of me and got out his needle and thread. He's was pointing to my sandal and saying he would sew them up for only one dollar.

'You're kidding!'

'OK, 15,000 dong.' One US dollar is about 16,000 dong.

'No thank you.' I continued to walk on down the street.

'12,000...10,000' He continued to follow carrying his stool.

'If you do them for free I don't want you to sew my sandals.'

He turned, said nothing and walked away as if to snub me.

One morning I was walking along the lake shore. It was hot. I was a little tired so I sat on a bench to rest in the shade of a tree. An easy target.

A book vendor was the first to approach me. I'd been there long enough to know their prices and their quality. I got rid of him quickly.

A pretty young girl came and sat beside me with a basket of souvenir gift items. She sat with me for about ten minutes going through all her items one by one. 'You have daughter? She like purse?' The purses were very nice and she only wanted 30,000 dong for one. But I wasn't biting. She took out a fan and showed me the beautiful craftsmanship and began fanning my face.

'How much do I have to pay you to sit here and fan me like this all day?'

'100 dollars.' She smiled.

I told her that I really didn't want to buy anything but if she wanted to sit I was enjoying chatting with her. She stayed. Occasionally she showed me something else which I politely rejected.

While all this was going on I noticed there were other westerners walking along the lakefront. A vendor would approach and they would not engage with them in any way. They wouldn't even say 'no'. They would make no eye contact, just walk briskly past.

I think this is unfortunate. To me, the most enjoyable part of being in a different country is to be able to engage in some way with the local people and to try to see the world from their perspective. Tourists such as these might see the sights. They might go to a cultural show but surely the real culture is to be found in the people themselves.

After the delightful young lady had decided I was a lost cause and moved on, another came and sat beside me. She looked very young. 'I have to sell to make money to go to school,' she told me. Yes, I'd encountered this phenomenon many times at Angkor Wat.

'I'm sorry, I don't want to buy anything,' I told her. 'But if you want to sit and chat that's OK.'

She did but every now and then would hopefully show me an item. Unfortunately this didn't last long. A security guard came along, gave her a talking to and sent her away. When I got up to continue my walk she was on the other side of the road. She beckoned to me but I didn't bother.

So, am I totally as hard as nails? Four years in Asia has made me immune to even the most pathetic beggar but occasionally I do get caught.

In Vietnam many women carry their goods in a couple of baskets hanging from a piece of wood across their shoulders. One tried to sell me some pineapple or bananas. I declined. She followed. Then she offered, 'Take picture.' She smiled as she pointed to herself. She was quite photogenic. I was tempted but I figured that would have a price too.

Eventually she gave up. But it wasn't long before another started following me with similar goods and the same patter. When it got to 'Take picture', I said, 'I'd love to take your picture but you will want me to pay you.'

'No money,' she said.

'No money?'

'No money,' she was already posing.

'OK.' I took a few shots of her.

When I'd finished she put down her baskets and said, 'Now you buy bananas.'

I could have walked away but I didn't. 'How much?'

'30,000 dong.' I knew the price was over the top (for Vietnam) but I figured I'd been done, so I paid up gracefully. It would have been cheaper to just give her a dollar to take her picture. But then the bananas were quite nice.

No sooner had I completed the transaction when the previous vendor turned up. 'You buy from her. You not buy from me.'

'Tomorrow,' I said and walked off. She followed me for a few blocks but eventually gave up.

This happened the morning after I had arrived in Vietnam. I did a lot of walking that morning without any plan, in no particular direction. Some of the streets had sweeping curves and eventually I lost my sense of direction. I found a fairly major longish street and headed off in the direction I thought would take me back to my hotel. After a while a motorcycle-taxi driver offered me a ride. I took the opportunity not for a ride but to ask directions. I showed him the card I'd been given by my hotel. He pointed in the opposite direction to the one I was heading. I thanked him and headed off.

Five minutes later I had still not found any landmarks I knew. I stood for a while trying to make sense of the little map printed on the back of the hotel's card. I was approached by a little man with a bundle of stamp albums and sleeves of coin collections. He didn't try to speak English or even Vietnamese, just grunted as he shoved them at me. 'No thank you,' I said.

As he walked off I thought I could see that he had a map or two amongst the albums. But he'd gone. I was still standing there trying to get my bearings when he approached me again. Once again he tried me with the stamps and the coins, then he pulled out a map. It was a street map of Hanoi. 'How much?' I asked.

'Six dollar.' He could speak English. Well it was more of a grunt but I could understand.

Six dollars for a map printed on one single sheet. Does this guy think I'm crazy? 'No way! Forget it.' I would rather stay lost than be ripped off.

'Five dollar.'




'How much you pay?'

What is a fair price for such a map in Vietnam? Can't be much more than a dollar surely. I offered him 20,000 dong.


I accepted, paid my money, got my map and found my way home.

A few days later I was in another part of town. I discovered a bookshop and went in for a browse. I was interested to see what they had in English and also if they sold that map. They did. Their price? 7,000 dong.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007


What I love about Hanoi...

the tree-lined streets,

the colonial architecture,

the busy-ness

and the happy smiling faces

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Sunday, June 17, 2007


You too can be a millionaire

...well assuming you can afford a fare to Vietnam and still have $A75 in the bank. Catch a plane to Hanoi, go to an ATM and withdraw your $75. Of course you have to withdraw it in Vietnamese Dong. Out of that machine will come a little bundle of portraits of Uncle Ho worth a cool million, a million dong that is.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007


Budgeting accommodation

Last year I lived in Cambodia for nine months. I went to teach English at the Buddhist monastery, Wat Xam (sometimes spelled Ksam). At the time, I gave serious consideration to becoming a monk. I chose to not do so. I'm sure it would have helped me on my path. However I look at it this way, I'm the sort of person who creates rules for myself about how I live. Monks live by the rules of the vinaya—200+ rules handed down by the Buddha 2,500 years ago. While I'm sure all those rules are admirable, I wonder how relevant they are for me today. Some are, and those I willingly adopt without wearing robes, but I prefer to have the choice of rejecting those rules I consider irrelevant to me. As a monk I would have been obliged to follow every one. I chose to not do so.

Even so, I was offered a room at the wat. I could have gone there and lived among the monks without having to follow the rules. Once again, I seriously considered this. I love those guys and really enjoy hanging out with them. But had I done so I would have had to reduce my standard of living way below what I am used to.

As someone who has chosen a life 'on the road' I have to choose accommodation that fits within my budget otherwise I can't survive in this lifestyle. If I was travelling for a short holiday I could spend a lot more on accommodation but in my situation, whatever I spend has to be sustainable permanently.

Within my budget what I get depends on where I am. In Cambodia I was able to rent a half-reasonable house for way less than the budget. In Thailand I can usually find something reasonably comfortable. In Melaka I can stay at Sama Sama guesthouse which isn't five star but certainly has a lot of charm to make up for what it lacks in comfort. In Singapore I can't reasonably stay for more than a few days. One night in a budget place in Singapore costs the same as a week in Sama Sama. You get the picture?

For the past two weeks in KL I went way downmarket. KL's not as expensive as Singapore but for the price I pay at Sama Sama you don't get much there. You get a bed, reasonably comfortable, in a tiny room, shared bathroom and not a lot more. It's reasonably clean but I certainly don't get excited about it. I think of my friends, the monks at Wat Xam and for that matter many of my friends in Cambodia who aren't even monks, and I know I can cope for a week or two.

Yesterday I flew from KL to Hanoi—my first visit to Vietnam. As I was arriving in the evening I didn't want to be mucked around. Many of the cheaper guesthouses in this city have a reputation for not honouring bookings (check out the travel forums for details) so I booked myself into a two-star hotel. Still not exactly grand but a little better than I've become used to. They picked me up at the airport. My room has air-con. It has its own bathroom with hot and cold water, good plumbing and it even has a real bath. It has a wardrobe. And most importantly, it has an ethernet connection in my room.

My original plan was to just stay here one night and then move into something more within my budget but hopefully better than I had in KL or would have had at Wat Xam. But I'm liking it here and decided I can afford to extend my stay a little longer. Not sure how long that'll be. I'm enjoying Hanoi so far. It's possible I could stay a whole month. Watch this space.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007


Flash flood

The picture shows Sungai Klang (Klang River) at its normal level. At times I would look at it and wonder about the depth of the banks. I estimate there's about four or five metres between the water level here and the bridge. With the added width above the current water line the banks should be able to contain quite a large amount of water.

This is the rainy season. The rain usually falls in the evening. The river is quite close to where I'm staying in KL but until last Sunday I hadn't been near the river at night. Sunday I spent the day with a friend exploring some interesting areas out of town. It started raining before I returned. It was still pouring down at the time I reached Pasar Seni station. You can see it in the top left of the picture. From the platform I looked down to the river and the water was lapping the bridge. I was told that one hour of heavy rain is all it needs for the rain to come up like this. Sorry, I didn't get a picture of the flooded river, it was too dark.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Catching butterflies

I've always admired people who can photograph butterflies and wonder what the secret is. Butterflies don't often stay still and no matter what I try I rarely get a good shot of one.

Not far from the bird park in Kuala Lumpur is the Butterfly Park. The setup is similar. The whole area is covered in mesh and the butterflies fly free. It costs RM15 for a person to get in and RM1 for a still camera. Video cameras are a little extra. I decided to spend a few hours there and see what I could do.

Spending time in the park is quite pleasant because the environment they have created for the butterflies is a very attractive one for humans too. It's also environmentally friendly. They have to control pests by biological methods so they don't kill the butterflies.

And how did I go with the photos? At first there were quite a few blurred ones. I reminded myself that I had all day if I wanted and there were thousands of butterflies. So I took my time, tried a few different settings and soon I was taking photos like this one.

While I'm a long way from being an expert, I think I have discovered the secret: patience and a plentiful supply of butterflies. A good camera also helps. If you'd like to see more of my butterfly photos, I'll be uploading them to my flickr page in due course. Hang in there; I've been taking a lot of photos lately.

If you are in KL and decide to go to the Butterfly Park you'll get better shots, of the stationary butterflies at least, with a tripod but don't bother, they won't let you bring it in. I don't know why. I forgot to pack mine so it wasn't a problem.

PS: to see a larger version of these pics, click on them.

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Monday, June 11, 2007


Getting close and friendly with the birds

Recently I visited the KL Bird Park which is promoted as the 'world's largest walk-in free-flight aviary'. I guess I bought what that says and expected all the birds to be flying free so I put down my RM30. I figured it was well worth that even though Malaysians pay around half the foreigners' rate. With the long zoom on my camera I should be able to get some pretty decent shots. I figured I'd be happy.

When I got inside I discovered that probably half, or perhaps more, of the birds are in cages. I realize there are huge logistical problems with having all the birds flying free but that's what the promotion material suggests and it didn't live up to the expectations.

After I'd spent a couple of hours there—it really is big—and worked hard to get a few good shots despite the wires, I discovered that for RM5 more I could take pictures of myself with a tame bird or two. I declined. Considering the promotion I figure it is a bit rich to expect you to pay more for what you expected to get included in the entry price.

Having got that off my chest, I must say that the park is quite well run and has a good range of birds. It is a pity that more Malaysians don't take advantage of what is a very good price (to them) for such a facility. I visited during school holidays but it wasn't crowded and I think the vast majority of visitors were foreigners.

I managed to take quite a few shots. The pick of them will soon be showing on my main photo page (see sidebar).

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Photographer for a day

On Saturday Tzu Chi held its annual Charity Fair. I was asked if I'd like to lend a hand. I agreed and was given the job of collecting garbage. They didn't call it that, they said 'recycling'. And that is what they actually do. The garbage collectors—sorry recyclers—wander around with trolleys. In each trolley are several large heavy-duty garbage bags and any garbage they collect is sorted; paper in one, cans in another, glass in yet another and so on. It seemed my life at Tzu Chi had gone full cycle. When I first offered to volunteer three years ago they asked me to come one evening a week to sort paper for recycling.

Friday afternoon one of the photographers asked if I was coming to the fair. 'Yes', I told her. 'I'm going to be a gar...sorry, recycler.'

'What! Are you sure? Why? Can't you help us? We need an extra photographer.'

'I don't mind. But you'll have to square it up with the recycling people.'

It was arranged. I became a photographer for a day. A bonus was that I didn't have to arrive until 8.30 am. The recyclers were starting at 7.30.

At 8.30 I turned up with my fz20, loaded with a 1 GB memory card, a spare battery and the battery charger. I even wore the Tzu Chi volunteers' uniform (for the second time). When I got there I put the spare battery in the charger while I went off to shoot. My main focus was to get as many shots as possible of busy volunteers. They were good subjects, most of them simply stayed busy which is what was wanted. The odd one would turn and give me a nice smile. Nice for me but not what Tzu Chi wanted.

After a couple of hours the battery was flat. The card wasn't full but I took the lot in and while the photos were downloaded from the card I swapped batteries and then back out to capture more volunteers.

Tzu Chi sure gets a lot of support. I was thinking of how a press photographer would cover such an event. S/he would spend probably half an hour there, take the necessary photos and be off to the next assignment. They have to make each shot a good one. They won't have time to return for another go. On the other hand we had six or more of us, each staying the whole day. I estimate I took between 600 and 1,000 shots. Multiply that by six. I trust Tzu Chi should have one or two good shots out of that lot for their website and monthly journal.

There was a big crowd there. I think it could be said that the fair was a great success. I did have a secondary job to do but that is perhaps interesting enough that I'll save it for another blog.

It was a hot day and by time I'd downloaded the third lot of photos I was worn out. I only kept the ones from the third battery charge. I haven't had time to process many yet. The photos you see here are just the start. Like to see more? Take a look at my flickr page (see sidebar) in a few days.

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Monday, June 04, 2007


Candid Market

I had been living in my present home in suburban Melaka for about three weeks or more before someone told me there was a night market every Thursday just a few blocks away. I enjoy markets, not that I have a great urge to spend money. I just like the environment of traditional markets. My friends took me to the market that week but I didn't take my camera. I enjoy candid photography and markets create good opportunities to indulge this hobby. It was about two weeks later before I had a chance to return to the market with my Panasonic fz20.

The fz20 is not a small camera. It's a bit hard to hold it up to my face to frame a shot and not be noticed. People either smile, stick their hand up in one gesture or another or run away. The picture on the left will help you see my set up for candid photography. The tripod is fixed to the camera but compacted. It is only there to give me something to hold to keep the camera steady. The camera sits hanging from my neck. The remote shutter button is inserted and the cord for this goes around my back. In this picture I am releasing the shutter with my left hand while I sit looking in the mirror. After a while I get used to taking shots like this and can get a pretty good idea what I'm taking. BTW, I don't usually look directly at my subject. I look to the side of them and frame the picture in my peripheral vision. If I am concerned about shutter noise I either turn that down or off. I want nothing to suggest to people that I am taking photos of them. And of course using a digital camera means I can take as many photos as I want and discard the duds. Surprisingly most of them are quite good. I don't worry too much about settings. I leave the camera in auto mode and let it take care of that.

This was one of the early shots. It was late in the afternoon but there was still plenty of light so the photo is quite sharp. Do you think the girl and the guy in the helmet are on to me? Or are they just staring vaguely while they wait to be served?

The market does attract its share of beggars. This young woman is not one of them. She is blind and is selling small packets of tissues.

I'm not sure if she was onto me but this girl seemed to be trying to figure out what I was doing. Then again, I was probably the only foreigner at the market. She probably didn't realise that while I appeared to be staring at a stall on the other side of the road I was actually taking a photo of her.

The woman on the right is making vegetarian popiah (spring rolls) and there's a queue. I came back later and got a couple for my dinner.

By now it's quite dark so the image is a little blurred but I love the blue colouring in the sky.

This girl is making some kind of coconut confectionary, she inserts the mixture in bamboo tubes and her mother cooks it. It must be good because there's quite a crowd waiting, so much so that I can't get a shot with my usual process. This is the only shot that night for which I held the camera in my hands. I had to, to get it over the shoulders of the people in front of me. But I still didn't use the flash. The EXIF data tells me the exposure was 1/4 second. Between the anti-shake in the fz20 and my steady hands, I was still able to get a reasonable shot.

For this one the camera is back in the dangling position but this stall is so well lit that the camera can get a sharp shot with a 1/10 sec exposure.

You can see these photos a little larger by clicking on them. If you'd like to see one or two more from this night, take a look at my photo page (see sidebar).

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