When I’m bored and need something Photoshop-y to do, I sift through my photo rejects and see what I can do to give one image a second life. In this example, the original SOOC image was very boring, mostly due to the drizzly weather that grayed everything out. But the subject matter, an old fortress in Bhutan, looked cool when shot from below. It just needed something.
I added some crackly textures, a few dabs of color to the vegetation in the foreground, and some golden lights on the facade. I never really know what these images are going to look like before I get started on them. I don’t go for a particular tonal range, or try to achieve a certain atmosphere. It just sort of happens organically as I try out different textures and effects. The final image reminded me of the paintings of Jan Van Goyen, a 17th c. Dutch painter. Below is his painting titled Estuary with Round Tower.
6:15 am. For the second morning in a row, a tiny songbird came into my bungalow in Ban Sop Houn, perched itself on the roof beam above my bed, and sang me awake. When his morning melody was done, and after he had gently brought me out of my dream state into the waking world, he dropped a very tiny turd, a dry inch of brown and white, onto my mosquito net before flying away. That was my alarm clock.
This song-and-turd routine was followed by a brisk, invigorating shower that promised to be hot but managed to be tepid at best. I am never completely satisfied unless I step out of the shower or bath resembling a steamed crab, red and glistening. Breakfast at the Sunset Guesthouse consisted of an onion and tomato omelet, thick coffee with condensed milk, and a crusty baguette. Peps, my neighbor, joined me for breakfast, and let me know he was checking out today and traveling north by boat to Muong Ngoi.
I headed out alone along the banks of the Nam Ou, on a rutted and narrow dirt road that wound along the river’s edge, steadily climbing uphill, past the morning mist. The teak trees multiplied alongside the road, now little more than a path, until the trees finally yielded to the sovereignty of bamboo, their stalks as thick as an elephant’s leg. Butterflies fluttered about in the sunny clearings where the road left the mountain’s shadow. There were more butterflies than I have ever seen at any one time, but I find them impossible to photograph. They stop only long enough to tempt me, but never long enough to allow me to compose and shoot. Springs issue forth out of the limestone karsts, some but a trickle, and others gushing forcefully. For nearly two hours I walked lazily, passing a man and woman on their way to the village to sell their vegetables, and later a rickety truck that hardly seemed to manage the ruts and potholes in the road.
I arrived at a Hmong village, a cluster of bamboo shacks around an open yard where chickens pecked and scrabbled and where laundry flapped in the breeze like faded flags. A few women waved at me as they went about their domestic business, offering comical sabaidees that sounded like contestants in a hog-calling competition. A few young children, the youngest sans culottes, rushed out to meet me with emphatic greetings, and I paused to take their photos. One little girl grabbed my digital camera and expertly handled the controls, flipping forward and back to peruse my images. She examined them with a critical eye and grinned when she saw herself and her playmates.
I pressed on down the road and reached a small schoolhouse. In one classroom, a circle of little ones no older than four or five were singing a song with their teacher, a pretty, well-dressed woman in a sweater set and sinh, the typical Lao long skirt. I hardly spoke any Lao at all but could ascertain that they were learning a song about personal hygiene. The children copied their teacher, who mimed washing her face and brushing her teeth, before putting joined palms against her cheek, the universal sign for going to bed.
There was another village further up the road, but it was nearly one o’clock. I had a good hour and a half walk before I arrived back in Ban Sop Houn, so I headed back. Along the way I met an elderly woman, bent forward at the waist from decades of harvesting rice. She looked up at me and asked me a question, and I could see her mouth stained black from betel juice. She wasn’t asking for money, so I smiled confusedly and shrugged. She continued on her way, muttering to herself.
Back in Ban Sop Houn I paid a return visit to Mekara’s Restaurant for laap khai and ginger tea (23,000 kip = $2.70 USD) and chatted with the owner. He was working on his motorbike, a Russian Minsk painted dark green with a solid gold star on the tank. “Good moto; break a lot,” he said. I pondered the contradiction.
The afternoon was spent in the hammock, with the added bonus of listening to a man sing in Lao in the near distance. In the evening, I headed back to Mekara where I met two Dutch travelers, Tinneke and Rob.
“I’ve traveled alone,” said Tinneke, “and I always liked to have someone to dine with. May we sit with you?”
I pulled out a rickety chair and motioned for them to sit. I think I have one of those faces combined with an easy-going demeanor that encourages people to chat me up. It happens often, and I’m usually grateful for the fellowship of other travelers. Once in a very rare while I have an undesirable encounter with someone I’d rather not engage. And worst of all, I am unable to see the moment as a slice of absurdity. On one particular flight from Chicago to San Francisco I met Ivan, a Bulgarian poet, who was such an overbearing bore my eyelids started to droop with sleep. I can only surmise that, after many years living under a totalitarian regime in his home country, the taste of democracy finally allowed him to unloose his self-importance. From time to time, he took out a packet of antibacterial towelettes and vigorously scrubbed his hands and wrists, and then proceeded to lecture me at length about fine arts.
“So, what is your area of expertise?” he asked, finally allowing me to get a word in.
“I have a degree in fine arts from a prestigious college in Washington DC. I work as a creative director in interactive design. Technology is my passion.”
“Do you draw?”
“I do, but photography is my avocation now.”
“You should draw. You should draw on your photographs.”
Eventually, I had to put a stop to Ivan’s irksome ramblings by pretending to sleep, and failing that, by doing some calisthenics in the rear galley while eavesdropping on the flight attendants’ gossip. But I digress. Tinneke and Rob were not Ivan the tedious poet, but an affable couple whose company I enjoyed until my eyelids started to droop. But this time, I really was sleepy.