Before i Forget : Simon Jones's blog

November 2005

Photography and TravelSunday, November 13th, 2005, (1:00 am)


This time last year I was on my way back from India at the end of what I can only describe as one of the most deeply moving experiences of my entire life. When I returned I did post some pictures on here of my time in India, and I promised (as I so often do) to post more, but only after I had taken the time to really process what I had seen. Little did I know it at the time, but it would be months until I had actually managed to put my brief experience of Southern India into some kind of context with my life so very very far away.

Now, twelve months on, perhaps you will allow me this momentary self indulgence to look back on a trip that opened my eyes to the tragedy of poverty yet at the same time the beauty of humanity and the depth of spirituality.

Someone once said to me the hardest part about going to India was getting there. They weren’t referring to transport though, instead they were talking about the fact that India seems like a far away place and culture so different to our own that it is somewhat daunting. But going to such a place for the first time is like making that first brave dive from a scarily high diving board at a swimming pool, once you’ve done it you wonder why it is you never did so before.

As we flew to India on November and the plane slept in the darkness of a night we had sprinted toward, I watched the onboard skymap on the plane and noted the names of countries and places I’ve only never come so close to before. We had stopped for a while at Abu-Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. It’s airport, a mixture of cultures, strangely reminded me of a scene out of star Wars where Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo are in a bar frequented by all manner of strange looking aliens. It felt like an intersection of the world, a global stop light, a place that is simply on the way to somewhere else.

I hardly slept on the connecting flight to Thiruvananthapuram in Southern India. I knew I ought to, especially given the fact that from there we would still have a five hour road journey to Tamil Nadu. But how could I sleep as the dawn began to break over the Arabian Sea and the distant peaks of the Sahyadri mountains veiled in the mist of clouds that hung in the air like secret angles that would soon depart for the heavens once more. It was a most spectacular dawn, perhaps all dawns in this part of the world look just like this, but how would I know, this was my first India dawn.

You’ll hear many people say that one of the first things to hit you about India is the smell, and I can’t disagree. It was not one smell though, it was a symphony of aromas from burning wood to curry, from gasoline to fruit, not unpleasant and not familiar. My senses could hardly consume the scenes that enveloped me. It was a beautiful chaos of color and life, but one that strangely lacked any feeling of danger or suspicion.

Over the next few days myself and my co-traveler, Jeffrey, worked our way through a gruelling itinerary. The point of our trip was to see and understand the work and needs of a local based charity that we would be raising money for among corporations back in the UK.

As we arrived at our various planned locations we would be greeted by school children who would put garlands, called Haars, around our necks. Then we would commence some kind of tour meeting people, shaking hands, and talking through our interpreter Charles. It very quickly began to feel like a State visit of some kind, and I found myself appreciating the work of Royalty who make this kind of thing look so completely effortless.

On many occasions we were greeted by entire villages that would then hold meeting to listen to us speak and answer our questions. At times I felt almost embarrassed because we were just a couple of ‘nobody’s, but here we were being given the ‘red carpet’ treatment, if only they had red carpet.

At one particular village I decided to break away from our planned route through the mud hut lined streets. As Jeffrey spoke with some villagers I made my way up a little side street accompanied by two officials from the charity walking a little way behind me. As I made my way along the street people came out of their huts to greet me, shake my hand and often just look at me. Pretty soon a crowd had gathered and were following me. As I walked along they quickly realised that shaking hands was a gesture of friendship, and before long every single person I could see around me wanted to shake my hand. I was having to reach over people to shake hands, it was amazing! Eventually the crowd became so large that the officials had to help me find my way back to the main path, which let me tell you wasn’t as simple as it sounds!

I know it sounds wrong to say this, but as I walked along and this huge crowd of people gathered and wanted to touch me, I felt like Jesus! Perhaps a more familiar picture to describe would be that of a rock star walking through a crowd of fans reaching out to touch as many as he could. This was exactly the situation I was in. It was quite simply amazing and though it doesn’t sound like it, it was actually very humbling.

We’ve all seen pictures of poverty of television and thus I had mentally prepared myself for what I might encounter. However the truth is that no matter how much TV you’ve watched you simply cannot begin to comprehend what real poverty is like until you have seen it. That being said though, I had prepared myself for sadness and some degree of emotional distress. Instead, and to my amazement, quite the opposite was true. The poorest people I have ever seen all seemed to be at least outwardly happy. What’s more is that the feeling of community was apparent as was their hospitality. Villagers would want us to visit their homes, shacks, mud-huts and makeshift tents that were home for them, and homes they were proud of.

I wondered how I must have made them feel. Arriving with my cameras, my obvious wealth compared to them, and amid an invisible cloud of sweet smelling deodorant spray. But then I realised that as alien as these peoples lives were to me, mine was equally as alien to them. My shell necklace was often of particular interest with me often being asked what it meant. I felt so shallow not being able to give a better answer other than “I though it looked nice.” An answer they were often politely puzzled by.

Among the various places that we were visiting our hosts also took us to some of Tamil Nadu’s famous temples and monasteries. India as a whole is known as a land of great spirituality, though practices varied widely in ways of worship, gods they worshipped, symbols, temple construction methods and rituals. There were temples everywhere, unbelievably intricate in design and construction these were simply architectural wonders. The magnificence of these Hindu structures is made all the most awe inspiring when you consider that some were built long before Christ walked on the earth!

As I stood in the grounds of a temple that dated back to the 4th century before Christ I wondered how anyone could even suggest we live in a Godless world man was building these beautiful structures in honour of something they only knew on a spiritual level. Surely if God does not exist then so many religions across the world throughout time would not have driven or inspired to go to so much effort to acknowledge their own spirituality. Something made men do this.

One the day before our final day we were taken on a scenic trip to the coastal town of Kovalam via the ancient Padmanabhapuram Palace in Kanyakumari district. When we arrived it was pitch black but as we sat by the beach having dinner outside of our hotel the sky began to light up with fireworks celebrating Hindu festival Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights. In the distance a lighthouse beam would sweep across the beach every few seconds and as Jeffrey and I relaxed this time of relaxation began to feel like a vacation, an entirely separate trip. We sat in the warmth of the night for hours talking and drinking. The Jeffrey went to bed and I went for a walk along the beach and lay in the sand looking at the stars listening to the sound of the waves.

The following morning I was awoken early by the sound of men chanting. It was still very early but I got up to see what the noise was. To my amazement the fishermen were hauling in the nets they had cast in the night by hand. This took many hours. I had time to get up, watch them for a while, take a long shower and then make my way to patio for breakfast. Eventually though I couldn’t help myself. I stood up and announced to Jeffrey that I had to go and join the fishermen, and with that I ran off to where they were. I motioned to one of them and he made room for me, much to their collective amusement, I then mimicked the chants they were doing which made everyone laugh! It was great!

The rest of the day I spent swimming in the sea and walking around the local shops. That evening Jeffrey and I had dinner then sat and enjoyed the sunset. I smoked a cigar, despite the fact I don’t smoke, it just seemed like a cigar kind of moment in life. The Arabian Sea, a sunset and the end of an adventure. And while this might have been the end of this trip, I had a feeling that in reality it was more likely to be the begin of a much bigger story.

Regional map of India
Salt of the Earth (The charity)
Pictures from another world (Part 1)

PhotographyTuesday, November 8th, 2005, (9:09 pm)

Photography is an immensely powerful medium. I imagine that all of us, at some point or another, have been totally stunned by a picture, an image that sets itself apart from any others we are used to seeing. In our media saturated world we are constantly bombarded with images rich in “shock value”, so much so that we are able to see and forget some truly horrifying scenes. But despite this, every once in a while you may see an image that becomes embossed into your memory, an image that your mind won’t let you so easily erase.

I’m not sure how my sharing the images that moved me will be received. I am not doing this in order to be gruesome or sensational. I’m not trying to shock either. I’m simply showing you just a few of the images that have stayed with me since the moment I saw them. They’re hard images to see, sobering while at the same time quite amazing because of what they communicate. These are, of course, just a tiny selection of the pictures that have been taken that go way way beyond words.

Friendly fire
As an evacuation helicopter rescues a group of American soldiers after their vehicle had been hit by friendly fire deep in the Iraqi desert near Baghdad on the last day of the Gulf war in 1991, US Sergeant Ken Kozakiewicz learns that the body bag next to him contains the body of his friend. What struck me about the photograph was the isolated nature of the soldiers.

Photographer David Turnley said of his photograph; “While I was out in the field, I got wind that much of the TV coverage was portraying a kind of sanitised war, one in which big technology was being used but that no human life, and particularly not American life, was at risk.”

He went on to say. “As we approached the town of Nasiriya on the Euphrates River, we could see that a Bradley fighting vehicle had been severed in two by a missile. Two injured soldiers were loaded into the helicopter – those are the two you see in the photograph. They didn’t seem to know what had happened – they were very disorientated. The body of the driver was put into a body bag. One medic handed over the dog tags belonging to the dead soldier to another medic and, at this point, Sergeant Ken Kozakiewicz realised that his best friend had been killed by ‘friendly fire’.”

After the previous day of bloodshed on China’s Tiananmen Square in which student were demonstrating for democratic reform, a lone man stands in the path of a line People’s Liberation Army tanks that were part of an army that just moments before had once again opened fire on crowds of demonstrators killing and injuring many of them.

Photographer Charlie Cole describes the event. “We saw a young man, with a jacket in one hand and a shopping bag in the other, step into the path of the tanks in an attempt to halt them. It was an incredible thing to do, especially in light of what had just happened with the APC machine-gunners. I couldn’t really believe it, I kept shooting in anticipation of what I felt was his certain doom. To my amazement, the lead tank stopped, then tried to move around him but the young man cut it off again. Finally the PSB [secret police] grabbed him and ran away with him.”

“Numerous inquiries have been made by various agencies and magazines trying to uncover the young man’s identity and find out what happened to him. I’ve seen a number of accounts that name him as Wang Wei Lin, but that isn’t a certainty. Personally I think the government most likely executed him. It would have been in the government’s interest to produce him to silence the outcry from most of the world. But, they never could. People were executed at that time for far less than what he did.”

Starving boy and a missionary
April 1980. A starving boy places his emaciated hand into that of a missionary in the Karamoja district of Uganda. The picture won photographer Michael Wells the World Press Photo of the Year award in 1980. However, Wells felt indignant that the same publication that sat on his picture for five months without publishing it, while people were dying, entered it into a competition. He was embarrassed to win as he never entered the competition himself, and was against winning prizes with pictures of people starving to death.

Vulture awaits
This picture is tragic in every sense. A starving child collapses as it crawls toward a feeding station in the famine struck country of Sudan in 1993. In the background a vulture waits for the child to die. The horrific and haunting picture was published around the world and became an icon of Africa’s anguish.

The South African photographer, Kevin Carter, who already well known in South Africa for his fearless coverage of deadly township violence, had headed north of the border with Silva to photograph the rebel movement in famine-stricken Sudan. Seeking relief from the sight of masses of people starving to death, he wandered into the open bush. He heard a soft, high-pitched whimpering and saw a tiny girl trying to make her way to the feeding centre. As he crouched to photograph her, a vulture landed in view. Careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself for the best possible image. He would later say he waited about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. It didn’t, and he eventually chased the bird away. The girl gathered her strength and resumed her journey toward a feeding centre. Afterward he sat by a tree, talked to God, cried, and thought about his own daughter, Megan.

Carter was already a deeply troubled man who struggled to cope with the horrors he saw on an almost daily basis in his chosen profession. TIME magazine’s Johannesburg bureau chief, Scott MacLeod, said of Carter. “Few journalists saw as much violence and trauma as he did. But to go into that kind of danger over and over again requires a strong sense of mission or idealism.”

The photograph is undoubtedly hard to look at. The New York Times explained in a rare editors’ note regarding the picture, that while the girl did indeed resume her trek, the photographer didn’t know if she had survived.

In May of 1994 the photograph earned him the Pulitzer prize, but unable to escape the trauma of what he had witnessed and beset by difficulties, Kevin Carter committed suicide just two months later. He was 33. His suicide note spoke of the ghosts he could not escape, the “vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain,” and the “starving and wounded children” ever before his eyes.

The world press 50 years gallery
More about the ‘tank man’ picture

GeneralSaturday, November 5th, 2005, (12:47 pm)

So you guys have the 4th of July as your day to let of fireworks all over the place, and we have the 5th of November – tonight – Guy Fawkes night!

More commonly known as ‘bonfire night’, tonight is a night when everyone goes out into the biting cold and stands around a great big fire, roast horse chestnuts and make whooing and whaaing noises as they watch a firework display.

I don’t know how many of you Americans are familiar with this tradition in Britain, probably none of you right? I mean, why would you. Surely it would be like me asking someone over here when Presidents Day was in America or some Canadian thing right?

Now I appreciate that none of you will really be that interested in the history of the event but allow me, if you will, to take a couple of moments and tell you why we celebrate today, and why we choose to do so with fireworks.

In a nutshell it’s a celebration of the fact that ‘we’ overcame an act of religiously motivated terrorism. Yep, we were overcoming that stuff way before Yahoo Bush came along with his war on terror (had to get a political stab in there didn’t I!).

It was 400 years ago that religiously motivated plotters attempted to blow up The Houses of Parliament during its state opening. The group were well-connected Catholics radicalised by continued persecution under King James the first. Their aim was to kill the King, his heir, and all the bishops and lords, and that by doing so they would throw England into a crisis and thus have the opportunity to put a Catholic on the throne.

The leader, Robert Catesby, found a Yorkshire mercenary calling himself Guido Fawkes who had honed his skills with gunpowder while serving for the Spanish army in the Netherlands. Another of the gang, Thomas Percy, leased a cellar under parliament. Fawkes worked with them, loading it at night with gunpowder from a store on the other side of the Thames. In total they loaded 36 barrels of gunpoweder into the cellar room under the House of Lords in the new Parliament building, that’s two and a half tonnes! However, he was caught on November 4, a day before the state opening, and put under arrest. After six days of being tortured on the rack, he gave full details of the plot, though his injuries were so horrific it was another six days before he could be questioned again. (Sounds like Guantanamo Bay if you ask me.)

Catesby, Percy and two others who had fled north were shot dead. The rest were captured and put on trial for high treason the following January. They were sentenced to be publicly hung, drawn and quartered, a practice that included castration and being disembowelled alive.

Today, in a rather macabre celebration of the fact that the plot failed, we just burn effigies of Fawkes on fires lit on the evening of November 5th. Firework displays light up the sky across the country and due to the cold air this usually leads to a murky fog and smell of fire for the rest of the night. It’s all good fun really, though I wonder how many Brits truly know the depth of the story involved?

Anyway, it’s a great excuse to get together with friends and let of fireworks that make really loud bangs! So tonight that is exactly what I’m doing.

Wikipedia : Guy Fawkes : Guy Fawkes
What if Guy Fawkes had succeeded?

GeneralFriday, November 4th, 2005, (1:00 pm)

So The Duchess of Cornwall and the Prince of Wales, otherwise know as Camilla Parker-Bowles and Prince Charles, are ‘stateside’ on their first official visit as a married couple. Today they leave Washington DC and head to the ‘Bible belt’ to shake a few more hands and attend a few more luncheons and stuff.

Twenty years ago the future King of England visited America with his then wife, Princess Diana. The Princess of Wales was a huge success. Young and beautiful, the Americans, like everyone it seems, were enthralled by the Princess.

Camilla Parker-Bowles will of course been unfairly compared to Diana, that much is inevitable. The British public haven’t warmed to her and British newspaper cartoonists often cruelly portray her as a horse! A woman in her fifties, not accustom to the kind of media focus that she now has, Camilla has often seemed ill at ease in her new role as Dutchess of Cornwall and wife to the would be King.

The harsh truth is that Camilla is simply never going to compare to the image of Diana that will forever be locked as a beautiful and tragic Princess. For a start Camilla is in her fifties and to be fair, she isn’t exactly the stuff of magazine covers. Indeed, for the next few years at least, Camilla will have to try and weather the comparisons to Diana. In order to help her improve her image and adjust to her new life, a legion of image and PR consultants have been hired.

The trip to America is being watched closely by the media of course. In his speech at the White House banquet, Prince Charles talked of people looking to the US to take a lead on the most crucial issues facing the planet, something that has been widely interpreted as an attempt to nudge the president to take a stronger line against global warming. But the real media attention is on Camilla, how she is coping. There were some rather rude comments in New York about Camilla’s clothes, with one tabloid calling her Frump Tower.

The brutal truth is that a happily married couple in their 50s does not set editorial pulses racing. The British media tell us you’re not really bothered. So how do you feel about the Royal visit to America?

Found on the webThursday, November 3rd, 2005, (1:44 pm)

So I thought I’d share a couple of funny/cool links with y’all. Links that are suitable for work avoidance and the such.

The first is an episode from ‘Ill Will Press’ in which the little animal (not entirely sure what it is) tried to order a large coffee at Starbucks. Of course Starbucks don’t sell large coffee’s, they call them Venti, and who knows where that word came from!

She blocked me‘ is a funny little song and cartoon about a guy who gets blocked by a girl who he’s been getting to know on IM (or iChat for all you Mac people out there). It’s particularly funny as I have a friend who recently went through the very same experience and comicly created a second IM user to see if he was indeed being blocked.

Gaybar is just plain ol stoopid. It’s a flash animation to the song ‘gaybar’ by Electric Six, a band who I am pretty sure will dissapear into the world of “who the hell were they” very soon if they haven’t already. Nonetheless, this dumb little animation made me laugh, though maybe it’s a guy thing, an English guy thing at that too.

For thos among you who enjoy short films then check out Canadian website ZeD. My favorite shorf film of the moment is How to know when a relationship is over. A British film about… well, it should be obvious what it’s about.

How about trying your hand at a cool and completely addictive little game called Babycal throw. It’s a Russian game invented by… err, Russians. But don’t panic, America and Russia are friends now so you won’t get into trouble for playing it. The premis of the game is that you should click the little guys who run across the screen, then these little things fly off them and hit, if you’re any good, the other little guys. Okay, I know I didn’t explain it very well, but try it and I’m confident you’ll figure it out.

The Ill Will Press
She blocked me
How to know when a relationship is over
Babycal throw

GeneralWednesday, November 2nd, 2005, (8:44 pm)

I’ve started a rigorous new fitness program at my gym. I’ve hired a personal trainer and I’m going to get into great shape. A couple of years ago I was really into going to the gym. I got into the best shape I was ever in. The reward of having the hairdressers come outside in the summer months to chat with me as I worked on the garden was an ego boost. But you know how it goes, you get bored of running to nowhere on the machine, rowing but not reaching anywhere interesting, and lifting weights that make you huff and puff like the big bad wolf about to do bad things to a house of three little pigs. Eventually the only reason for my regular trip to the ‘gym’ was to actually just use the hot tub, sauna and steam room. It became all about relaxation, and not much about getting and staying fit and healthy.

The other day I read somewhere that cardiologists insist sex three to four times a week cuts down chances of a heart attack. I’ll admit that right then, as I read on, I thought to myself that I should also try and marry a cardiologist.

The article continued that “vigorous lovemaking raises pulse rate from a normal 70 beats per minute to 150. Up to 250 calories get burnt up as a result and this is the equivalent of 15 minutes of jogging or a game of squash.” It’s also pretty obvious surely, that as much fun as jogging or playing squash might be, it can’t beat a really good roll in the hay.

Still, working out at the gym is going to help me look better, or at least that’s the plan. All those machines and stuff will help me tone up according to Chaz, my personal trainer. Though I am slightly nervous at his suggestion that by March I’ll be fit enough to run the London marathon. A few little tests in my fitness test revealed that I have very good stamina, which Chaz said would be good for my marathon hopes. Suddenly they were my marathon hopes?

I’m off to a good start though. Yesterday I did all kinds of things that by about 6pm today I was wishing I hadn’t. But oddly enough I like that pain, it motivates me to go to the gym and inflict more pain on myself. I like the kind of workout that leaves me shaking and feeling really light headed! Seriously, I do!

So I’m feeling good about this stuff. I’m going to review my diet too and I might even try getting up a little earlier in the morning, like normal people! Who knows maybe I’ll get that six pack I lost somewhere back in my twenties (though I am worried that I may have actually just drunk it).

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