Here, take my child.

Parents in China tried to give me their children.

They approached me in supermarkets, on the street, in the park, and they thrust their young children into my arms.

I didn’t know these people. I didn’t know their children, and many of their children were mere babies. I didn’t ask to hold their child and I didn’t feel comfortable doing so.

Furthermore, the parents didn’t warn me or provide any explanation as to why they were handing their beloved offspring over to a random person. Well, they may have tried to explain but I didn’t speak more than a few words of Mandarin, and they didn’t speak any English.

The shock of being entrusted with someone else’s child left me dumbstruck, rooted to the spot. I just tried not to drop the poor thing. I also wondered why anyone would surrender their prized possession to a person they’d never met, in a country still operating under the remnants of the one child policy. Surely, in China of all places, a baby is a valuable commodity.

Despite this, the parents carried on unperturbed. They placed the child into my arms, smiled nervously and excitedly, then retreated. And retreated a little further, and further. Don’t go too far, I thought, I could easily run away with this baby.

Then I realised. Then I would discover why a bewildered Chinese baby was being cradled in my arms. A phone was produced and pointed at us and the parents would prance around in a frenzy, attempting to force a smile…out of the child or out of me? Probably both, I was as shocked as the child and my first reaction was certainly not to smile.

The parents would then snap away. Photo after photo while the baby became heavier and heavier in my arms. A conference would ensue, during which the parents would judge the quality of the photos.

Then, finally, one of the parents would approach. Great, I thought, now this bizarre experience is over. No, wait, the parent is not coming to take their child back, they’re just coming to straighten the clothes and fix their hair – or wipe the tears away – before retreating to take more photos.

Eventually, once the perfect photo had been taken, the child would be returned to its parents and they would walk away, many times without even a Xie Xie or a “Ni jiao shenme mingzi? (what is your name?).

It was a truly bizarre experience, which happened quite a few times. I can only explain it by pointing to the fact that I lived, and worked, on the outskirts or Chengyang, which is on the outskirts of Qingdao. Qingdao is quite a nice city, but Chengyang is not Qingdao. There’s nothing particularly bad about Chengyang, it’s just that it’s a fairly bland Chinese city, and one which sees very few foreigners. I was not a novelty, I was a freak show. Thus, when the Chinese saw a foreigner with blonde hair and blue eyes, they felt compelled to take my photo, which, in itself I din’t really mind. I just found it very odd to have my photo taken with their children.

There was another odd experience in Chengyang in which I had my photo taken.

I was heading to karaoke with some local friends, and we were in something of a hurry. We’d purchased some snacks and refreshments to smuggle into the KTV, and as we were leaving the supermarket, 3 young local women approached us and asked my friends if they could take a photo with me. Sure, as long as it doesn’t take long, we were hell bent on murdering some musical classics.

The photos were taken, the women appraised them and decided that they were acceptable. A conversation took place the whole time, entirely in Mandarin.

After the photo session concluded, I asked my friends why the young women were so determined to have their photo taken with me.

“They’re studying at university, and they wanted to show their lecturer.”

Why would they want to show a photo of me to their lecturer, I wondered, so I asked my friends,

“What are they studying?”

“English”

God bless my Taxi.

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We craned our necks for the source of the excitement. We could hear it but we couldn’t see it.

What was it?

Horns blaring, engines roaring, people shouting, music blaring, bells ringing.

From atop the hill we had a great vantage point over Zacatecas and its surrounds, yet we still couldn’t determine the source of the noise.

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Was it a protest, was it a celebration, a festival, a fiesta, a beauty contest, a football game…?

It’s often hard to tell in Mexico, as any event seems to be a perfect pretext to become boisterous. Any day, any time.

The origin of the pandemonium eventually revealed itself. A fleet of brightly decorated taxis rounded the bend and climbed the hill in a convoy of commotion. Vehicles were draped in streamers, covered in balloons and painted or wrapped in the national flag. Red, white and green dominated the scene as more and more taxis wound their way up the hill to the church.

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Why?

To be blessed, of course.

On this particular day, the taxis of Zacatecas were receiving their annual blessing from the priest and, through him, the almighty. They were asking for protection and, no doubt, many lucrative fairs for the next 12 months.

Patriotically-adorned taxis and motorised mayhem lined up outside the church and the noise eventually subsided as the drivers and their family and friends waited for the priest to bless every vehicle in turn.

While the event certainly surprised me, it was not entirely unexpected. Sure, I’d never seen taxis blessed in my own country, but I had noticed during my time travelling in Latin America that taxi drivers would bless themselves every time they drove past a house of worship.

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The procession of taxis had interrupted our quiet inspection of La Quemada archaeological ruins, so we decided to return to the city. With tired legs and the burden of history upon us, we realised the best way to return to the city safely, and saintly, was by taxi.

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My soul for your sol.

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Photographing people can be challenging.

Photographing people of different cultures, religions and nationalities can be even more complicated.

How do we photograph people while travelling without causing offence?

This conundrum presented itself to me while travelling in Peru.

It soon became apparent that many local people living and working near tourist hot spots such as Cusco and Arequipa did not like being photographed. It was also apparent that certain travellers insisted on photographing these people.In reaction, some local people demanded payment for appearing in traveller’s photos. For a few ‘Nuevo Soles’, they would acquiesce to performing the role of subject.

This arrangement led one fellow traveller to remark,

“They’ll give you their soul in return for your Sol.”

The traveller was referring to a commonly-held belief that Peruvians, and other indigenous people, are reluctant to appear in photographs because they think that the camera will steal their soul.

Some cultures forbid being photographed. Australian Indigenous people traditionally forbid photographs, even though today’s youth, even in remote communities, have fallen under the spell of the selfie.

Local people living in tourist hot spots, such as those in Peru, detest photography because they’re simply sick of it. Sick of arrogant tourists appearing in their community on a fly-by visit only to shove a camera, or phone, in their face and demand a photo.

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Analysing this phenomena theoretically or philosophically informs us of the concept of the ‘other’. Theoretically, the ‘other’ is a person or thing that does not belong to our culture and is therefore different. Our culture is the norm, and any other culture, and people belonging to that culture, are the ‘other’.

Travel, and photographing people, can be a manifestation of ‘othering’. Travellers, who journey to lands that are different to their own, seek photos with people simply because they are different. The visitor is not interested in that person’s thoughts, personality, motivations – only interested in what makes that person exotic, strange, different…the ‘other’.

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Without delving too deeply into philosophy, it could be argued that the visitor chases photographs of the ‘other’, because sharing those images with friends and family makes that person appear more travelled, more worldly, more exotic.

Some local people have responded to their ‘othering’ in a pragmatic way. Some reluctantly pose for tourists, in return for cash or in the hope that visitors will buy more of their Maasai souvenirs. Photo done, the traditionally-adorned Maasai warrior resumes playing on his smartphone.

In contrast, some local people are perfectly happy to be photographed, especially kids.

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Personally, I have never experienced any major issues with photographing people. I try to be respectful traveller, but I’m also not a passionate photographer (in fact, at the moment I don’t even own a camera) so I simply don’t take many photos.

I have, however, been in situations in which the opportunity arose for me to take a photo of a public event, even a private event that was happening in a public space, and I took the opportunity to snap a photo as a passive observer. My photo was never going to make any difference to that event.

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Photographing children is another topic altogether. Their images can appear anywhere, and be used for any sinister purpose. Such is the potential danger that a Surf Life Saving Club in Sydney, Australia, has banned parents from taking photos of their own children during ‘Nippers’ (junior life saving training). Instead, the club hires a professional photographer to take photos of the children, and parents can only access those photos through a password-protected site.

This is the world we live in.

Also, as an aside, when I first started backpacking (when I was a boy…) smartphones and even digital cameras were rare. Many travellers carried a film camera and had to re-stock on film, preciously guard their used film, and wait until they arrived home, which could be six months later, before they could process the film and see how their photos turned out.

In such circumstances, one travel buddy once remarked.

“Film is more valuable than your passport. You can replace your passport, but you can’t go back to that very moment and take exactly the same picture.”

Thus, while photography can be a fulfilling activity to accompany a journey, perhaps we should all remind ourselves to enjoy that very moment.

 

Where is everyone?

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The platform was deserted. Completely deserted. It was early afternoon at a train station in the middle of Taiwan, and both sides of the platform were utterly devoid of people.

What’s going on?

What should I do?

I waited.

Surely, someone will turn up. I waited 15 minutes. No one arrived.

Maybe a train will turn up. No train arrived.

Where am I?

There’a a sign on the platform, maybe that will help. Platform A to one side, platform B to the other side. The name of the platform written in Chinese. That’s no help, I can’t read Chinese, I can barely speak it.

I needed to know where I was, and I needed to know why I was the only person standing on the platform, looking forlorn with nothing but a backpack and a few words of the local language.

I descended the stairs and searched for a station guard or staff member. I found one, then remembered that I couldn’t speak Chinese. I gesticulated, as linguistically-hampered travellers do, and managed to convey that I was planning to reach Taipei at some point that day.

With the aid of a network map, the guard gleaned from me that I had boarded the train at a certain station, and that I was now at a different station – going in completely the wrong direction. If I wanted to reach Taipei, I should have headed north, but, instead, I had headed south.

Simple mistake, but one that is very easy to make, because Taiwan’s impressive national train network essentially performs a loop of the island. Hop on in Taipei and head either east or west. Hop on at a station in the middle of the country, as I had done, and head either north, towards Taipei, or south, towards Kaohsiung. At the previous station, I’d simply stood on the wrong platform.

Eventually the guard transmitted to me that I needed to head back the way I came and I would eventually reach Taipei. He had a good chuckle to himself and I eventually found a train to return me to the capital.

I still don’t know the name of the platform I had somehow arrived at, but I do know that on that particular day, it certainly wasn’t heaving with excitement.

Kiama Coastal Walk

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Spectacular scenery, sweeping views, sumptuous sunsets and the great Australian tradition of sun, sand and surf await hikers on the Kiama Coastal Walk, on the south coast of New South Wales, Australia.

The stunning hike meanders through beautiful bays and beaches and offers the moderately fit hiker a perfect escape from city life, as well as a fantastic opportunity for contemplation, nature appreciation, wildlife viewing and photography.

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Hikers can walk from north to south or south to north along a selection of different, connecting trails on a relatively easy, undulating path. There are some uphill sections, but the path is not too strenuous and the stunning scenery will encourage breaks for rests and photographs.

Furthermore, hikers can reward themselves with a refreshing dip in the ocean, or an exciting bodysurf, at one of the many stunning beaches which dot the route and are rarely crowded.

Hikers can choose from various routes.

Minnamurra to Gerringong – about 20km in total.

If you’re feeling fit, try the long hike. Start early in the morning to avoid the heat. Feel the sun on your back as you wander through Jones Beach, Cathedral Rocks, Bombo Beach and the suburbs of Kiama, where you can stop for a coffee or a snack. Continue towards the lighthouse and Kiama’s famous Blowhole.

If you have time, take a detour to the Boneyard and Spring Creek Wetlands or linger at Bombo headland for some great photo opportunities.

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Kiama Blowhole to Gerringong – about 11km

The next section of the walk takes you through the suburbs and beaches of the town of Kiama, where you can cool off with a refreshing dip in the ocean. Keep in mind, a dip in the ocean here will be VERY fresh in winter – at least you’ll know you’re alive.

Kiama Heights to Gerringong – 6km

Quaint and friendly Easts Beach marks the end of suburbia and the beginning of the most beautiful section of the hike. Beachside houses make way for rolling green hills and rugged cliff faces which overlook the rocky bays of the coast and provide the perfect vantage point to watch whales as they migrate to breeding grounds between May and October. It’s amazing how close they swim to shore.

Stop to explore many of the bays and hidden caves, as well as the small patch of rainforest which serves as a reminder of the vegetation which covered the area before it was cleared for agriculture.

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This section of the hike must be savoured. Enjoy it at your own pace before you descend to Werri Lagoon and the final beach of the hike, Werri Beach. You may have to remove your shoes to wade across the mouth of Werri Lagoon, but you can leave them off and feel the sand between your toes as you stroll to the southern end of the beach. Reward yourself with a swim before climbing the headland for more amazing views and a short stroll into the town of Gerringong, where eateries await.

Reflect on a beautiful experience before hopping on the train from Gerringong for the short trip back to Kiama.

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Transport: Trains run from Central Station, in Sydney, to Kiama. Kiama is the last stop on this line. To start the long walk from Minnamurra, get off the train at Minnamaurra (north of Kiama) and follow the signs to the Coastal Walk (start early in the morning).

To start at Kiama, get off the train at Kiama, walk down the street to the small harbour and turn right- you have started.

Trains also run between Gerringong and Kiama, but not very often. Check the timetable at http://www.transportnsw.info for the timetable.

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Ayutthaya. A City of Ancient Wonders.

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The allure of Ayutthaya is its history.

The ancient city is steeped in tradition and centuries old monuments, whose crumbling facades and cultural significance transport visitors back to a time of distant wonders.

Majestic temples dot the city and can be visited on foot, via tuk tuk, by bike or boat.

Ayutthaya is hot – always. The attendant humidity dictates a visitor’s schedule to early morning or late evening, which is also the best time to avoid the inevitable hordes of tourists. Large groups can destroy the serenity of your visit and find their way into THAT photo, of the Buddha ensconced in the tree at Wat Mahathat.

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Large groups can also prevent you from contemplating the lives of those who inhabited the more popular temples, although they do provide the opportunity for a free History lesson – if you just happen to walk behind the group in earshot of the guide.

Official, guided, multi-lingual tours are available at the entrance to the monuments and are a worthwhile choice for visitors who may otherwise question their passage through a pile of old bricks.

Cruising from Wat to Wat on a bicycle is popular and achievable in Ayutthaya, whose gradient makes it accessible to anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. Most bikes are in reasonable condition and can be easily hired through most hotels or close to the minivan terminal for those alighting from Bangkok. Just be ready to sweat.

Tuk Tuks are everywhere in Ayutthaya and can even be hired, for a negotiated price, to carry you to one site and wait for you before departing for the next temple on your list. Tuk Tuks alleviate the strain of cycling, but be mindful of this option if you are tall – you may need a Thai massage after a day hunched in the back of a TukTuk.

Afternoon and evening tours afford the visitor the opportunity to meander the river by boat, as the sun sets and the day cools. Tours typically visit three or four designated temples, where visitors are given sufficient time to stroll, contemplate, pray and photograph. Some tours may include a visit to Wat Phutthaisawan, although one wonders why. The stark, glass covered entrance resembles an auto parts shop and the resident guides take the form or underfed, mangy, threatening dogs. Completing the horror film tableau are the rows of menacing, child-like figurines, whose mocking eyes follow the visitor down the path like a frenzied Mona Lisa.

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Perhaps Wat Phutthaisawan serves to offset the next and final temple of the boat cruise, Wat Chaiwatthanram. The setting sun dances off the archaic, peaceful, weathered structures which are surrounded by lush green grass and are begging to star in your Instagram feed.

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Many boat cruises finish near the night food market – just in time for dinner. Try the famous Kuay Tiaw Reua.

Transport from Bangkok:

Minivans ply the route from Bangkok to Ayutthaya every day, leaving from Mo Chit Bus Station. They are reasonably inexpensive, easy to find – the touts will find you – and the journey lasts about 1 hour. The journey follows the highway, which reveals little more than Bangkok’s rapid urban sprawl.

Train: The rickety old train lurches from the charmingly rustic station in Ayutthaya and through scenery far more bucolic than the view from the window of the minivan. Trains leave from Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok.

Boat: Many Bangkok based tour companies provide one day boat tours to and from Ayutthaya.

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Getting around in China.

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The streets of China are bursting with vehicles. Cities and towns of every dimension are clogged with an array of transportation.

The country’s population explosion has led to the emergence of small vehicles which serve as personal transport, taxi services and delivery vehicles.

In the cities surrounding Xiamen, in southern China, there too existed a proliferation of small vehicles, and most of them carried one prominent appendage; sun protection.

The vehicles hurtled down the streets furnished with some form of shade, be it permanently attached or loosely fixed. A number of passengers were clutching umbrellas, and one guy was just wearing a hat. Almost everyone seemed determined to avoid sun exposure.

Why?

I can only surmise that they wished to remain as fair as possible, because in China fair skin is a sign of high status, as its bearer is said to be of sufficient wealth to avoid toiling in the sun day after day.

They can’t have been concerned about skin cancer, because most of them were destined for lung cancer due to their chain smoking. Maybe lung cancer is a more glorious way to die.

In Harbin, northern China, I caught a ride in a very unique taxi. It was coal powered. Not coal powered in the sense that the earth’s minerals had at some point been extracted and converted, through a complex scientific process, into liquid form that was fed into the tiny taxi through the convenience of a petrol bowser. No, it was literally coal powered.

The driver negotiated the crowded streets of the icy city with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a spade, which he regularly thrust into a bucket of coal beside him, and fed directly into the boiling furnace which kept the ramshackle piece of tin putting along the road.

A makeshift pipe extracted the fumes from the taxi and straight into the atmosphere. This driver was certainly doing his bit for global warming. Maybe he was just sick of the bitter cold winters in Harbin. I know I was, after only three days of traipsing around the sculptures during the famous snow and ice festival. They are spectacular, by the way. It’s just so damn cold. Too cold for me to remove my gloves and take a photo of the coal taxi. Sorry, but I wasn’t willing to risk frostbite to bring you a photo of the unique contraption.

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Speaking of fuel sources, myself and some friends caught a taxi in Qingdao, China, which was powered by gas. This in itself is not unusual. What was memorable on this occasion was being told by the driver to step out of the taxi while he filled up. For safety, he said. Thus, if we’d remained seated in the taxi, we were in mortal danger, but if we stood only one metre away while he filled up, we were perfectly safe – even as other motorists and nearby pedestrians puffed on cigarettes.

Back in Xiamen, meanwhile, vehicles were also being used for other purposes. It’s not only humans who need to get from A to B.