Once a year, the delicate pink pedals of the Yoshino Cherry Blossoms bloom; reflecting as clouds in the tidal basin. A gift from Japan in 1912, the exquisite trees remind us of a century of friendship.
“Heading down the shore,” were the words I waited to hear all year as a kid. It was a week of amusement park rides, sand castles and eating pizza for every meal. Wildwood, New Jersey, the south Jersey shore, was my playground for one week out of the year. Once the sun went down, the neon lights lit up the motels: La Vita, Rio Grande, Caribbean. Droves of people filled the boardwalk in search of funnel cake and Mack’s pizza. All heading in one direction – the Pier. From ride to ride I went, my feet dangling from the swings, screaming at the top of my lungs. As I got older, the sand castles and the roller coasters were replaced with pulsating bars and cruising to the popular sounds of summer blaring from my car stereo. I never fell out of love with this place. In college, I started photographing Wildwood and still in love years later. I’ll be back again this winter – focusing on the off-season.
Late last night, I arrived home back in Washington, DC after a rainy, icy 10-hour drive from #Morehead, #Kentucky. I spent the last 5-days at Mountain Workshops where I took the video storytelling course. For my story I spent time with, Robert Franzini a professor of printmaking at Morehead State. Evenings spent back at the workshop were inspiring as coaches shared their experiences, wisdom and work. And my late nights were spent huddled in front of my computer as I edited endless video. There were moments that I didn’t know if I could pull it off. But I did. This was due to the amazing coaches, who encouraged, supported and pushed me to work harder. I’m still reflecting on what this week meant to me, but I do know this, I’m a better storyteller thanks to this experience.
My time might may have been short in Morehead, but it will have a lasting impression on me. Not just from the workshop, but the community of Rowan County. Thank you Mountain Workshops for an inspiring week! Photos taken at the bonfire on our last night together.
The name Sonnia House is inspired by the story of a young girl from Mattru Jong named Adama Sonnah.
Massah Smith returned to her hometown in Sierra Leone in 2012 for a visit and was sickened to learn what had happened to Adama, the daughter of a college friend. Adama had been conceived when her mother was raped during Sierra Leone’s vicious 1991-2002 Civil War. Her mother died a few days after she was born.
As a product of rape, Adama was considered a “cursed one.” She was taken in by her maternal grandmother, but the grandmother had died when Adama was only eight. Having no one to care for her, the child had to sell herself for sex to survive.
In 2012, when Adama was 16, she was abducted by four men who brutally raped and stabbed her. They dumped her in a cemetery and left her for dead. Someone heard her cries for help, and she was taken to a hospital, but she died from the brutal attack.
During her visit to Sierra Leone in late 2012, she learned that Adama had been murdered. Massah suddenly found her calling.
Even though the war had ended years before, Sierra Leone, considered one of the poorest countries in the world, was wracked with poverty. There was no moral compass. Lives didn’t matter. There was no system to care for children in Mattru Jong, like Adama, who have been abandoned or orphaned, or children whose families could not provide for them.
Sadly, Adama’s story was not unique. Often, the burden of poverty and homelessness leads to sexual exploitation, HIV infection, drug abuse and related violence. Massah decided to start a home for children. She’d call it “Sonnia House.”
Before she returned to her home in Alexandria, Virginia, Massah purchased several acres of land in Mattru Jong. She wanted to build a safe place where the children could be housed, fed and provided with school tuition and uniforms. They’d get an elementary and high school education – a foundation for success in life.
Once back home, Massah set about turning her vision into a reality. She recruited a Board of Directors and was granted tax-exempt status from the federal government.
Sonnia House opened its doors on February 5, 2013 with a staff of four. They began caring for 120 children – a number that continues to grow. It costs $94,000 to keep the home going every year. $40 pays for a uniform. $6 for three meals a day. $60 pays for tuition and board.
Success stories are mounting: A young girl recovered from malaria. A teenaged boy received emergency surgery for his acute appendicitis. Two children have recovered from the Ebola virus. The trash heaps are no longer populated with children scrounging for food scraps. There are smiles on young faces where there used to be none.
The food was great in Indonesia, but I dream of Panang, Moogata, Hoy Tod, Kua Kling and Gai Yang. For Stefan’s last night in South East Asia he took me to his favorite food stall. It was an off the beaten path spot where two women made Pad Thai the best I had ever had. We topped it with a little Thai barbecue to set our mouths on fire.
With our stomachs full we stretched out on the comfy massage chairs that now filled the closed streets of Rambutri. Feet first, then neck and over to our shoulders as we melted deeper and deeper in to the chairs. Completing the night with a round of drinks we sat on small plastic chairs in front of an old VW bus that converted into a mobile bar. “Prost”, Stefan said, as our glasses clinked to an amazing three weeks.
The next morning with a heavy heart I said goodbye to Stefan. He was heading to Nepal to start another adventure and tomorrow I would be making the journey back home. But I had one last jam packed day in Bangkok. Meeting up with, Juan, an old friend we set off on foot for food. We first met in the fall of 2003. It was my first trip to Thailand and some of my Thai friends in the US were concerned about their rebellious young friend traveling alone. So they sent reinforcements, Juan. Without ever meeting only just a small interdiction through email, he showed up at Don Mueang airport holding up a small sign with my name on it. He took a highlighter pen to my Lonely Planet guide, highlighting all the places I wanted to go and avoid; it really helped me in my two month journey. Staying in touch all these years thanks to the internet we meet up every time I come to town.
First stop was Khao Soi with pancakes, finished with Khanok Bueang. It was so hot out. To cool us off we ate Nam Keng Sai for dessert. Fruits, nuts, beans and sweet gelatin noodles served over shaved as cooled us off as we sat in the hot sun. In the late afternoon I said goodbye to Juan, and went on to meet up with Jesse.
Jesse, my friend’s father and co-worker from Morton’s was back home in Thailand for a short visit. It was funny seeing him Bangkok we rarely saw each other outside of work, let alone a different country. Hopping in his air conditioned car we were off. “Where do you want to go”, he said, “we can go anywhere”…hmmm I thought for a little bit as we sat idle in the traffic, “the protest camps, can we go there?” “Yes”, he said, and we turned in the direction of Lumphini Park.
The Anti-government protest started in November 2013. Organized by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, their main objective was to remove the Pheu Thai party from power. Yingluck Shinawatra was elected to Prime Minister in the 2011 elections; the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a coup d’état in 2006 and has been living in a self-imposed exile since. Since November the protests have blocked government offices and setting up camp on busy intersections. Eventually protest leaders ordered the occupation of Lumphini Park which did no longer caused major disruptions of daily life.
I didn’t know what to expect when Jesse and myself entered the camp. He told me since he’s been home in Bangkok he’s taken the Sky Train to Lumphini Park every night. My camera is encouraged as I ask volunteers at the entrance if it’s okay. Hundreds of tents scatter the park grounds as people have made this there home in a time of unrest. Men with large Thai flags waved people in as peopled blowed whistles. It was dusk and the crowds were gathering at the large stage in front in the anticipation of speeches given by the protest leaders. Free food was provided at night and long lines of people got their dinner. When finished they took their plastic bowls and metal spoons to a washing station where they were reused. Doctors volunteered their time as the sick received free treatment. People posed for photos next to cardboard cut outs of Suthep Thaungsuban the self-appointed Secretary General of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee.Later that night we went to two more protest camps. These camps were smaller in size. One was on a closed off street where sandbags and a metal fence kept police out. Guards were posted at the entrance as it was known of who went in and who out. Photography was restricted to only specific subjects. People covered their faces with surgical masks so their identity would not be revealed.
After a night of visiting the anti-government camps we headed to Chinatown. It was 11pm and the streets were still packed as people crammed into seafood restaurants. Buildings had large brightly lit signs in Thai and Chinese all along the facades. Even though the sun had retreated many hours ago the air was still hot. To cool down Jesse bought me some ice cream; sitting in plastic chairs on the sidewalk we watched all the action of Yaowarat Road. It was a great close to an amazing trip.
Arriving in Makassar, Sulawesi at night we were greeted by tropical rains. We retreated to a small room at a tiny hostel that smelled of paint and mildew, and awakened to a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky. And with that our adventure began.Boarding a large luxury Mercedes bus, we headed north for Tana Toraja. Twelve hours later we exited the buss doors only to be greeted by a sea of taxi drivers trying to earn a commission for one of the many hotels. Once a cheap room was rented we left our heavy backpacks behind in search of food. It was 10pm and most places had closed for the night, walking hungrily to the end of the main road where one restaurant was still accepting customers. After a large bowl of curry and rice we were ready to return to our comfy bed.
Picturesque landscapes surround us as we climb in altitude surrounded by rice fields on the ground and Limestone Mountains that reach the skies. Boat shaped homes are the style of Torajan villages. Made of wood and roofs of bamboo the homes are decorated with buffalo horns and intricate patterns on their exterior walls. The insides basic and plane as most of the homes are used for the sole purpose of funeral ceremonies or, to house family members and friends of the dead. Most people inhabit more modern homes close by that are modern in styles.
Life revolves around death in Tana Toraja as the funerals ceremonies are a religious necessity. Buffalos and pigs are sacrificed, it is believed that the spirit can live and carry on and leave peacefully once the animal is deceased. The dead are not buried in the ground but in caves. Photos mark where they lie. Offerings of cigarettes, flowers, food and keep sakes litter the ground.
During our visit funerals had been halted as the focus shifted to electing the next President of Indonesia making the polling stations the most popular place in Tana Toraja. Still we carried on with a motorcycle as we explored the land and visited the dead in caves of limestone.
Large markets are held outside of Rantepao with auctions for buffalos and pigs for the sole purpose of being sacrificed. Roosters crowed as people tried to set up fights or to sell their winner for big profits. Tarps above stretched for hundreds of feet as women sat under them selling fruits and vegetables escaping the bright sun.
The evenings in town were quiet, with only a few intrepid tourists arriving a month early for before the high season. We entertained ourselves with cheap bottles of rum which we brought to dinner to spice up the fresh juices.With the roads rough and the transportation unpredictable we decided to tour just the southwestern part of the island. First Stefan and I left the cool temperatures of Tana Tora for that of Bira Beach. Traveling by kijang, a Toyota made Indonesian SUV; we piled in the shared “taxi”. I sat in the back with a child dropped in my lap, while Stefan and his long legs occupied the middle seat with another man.
Ardie an Indonesian man from Makassar sat next Stefan and struck up a conversation with him. He was traveling to Watampone for his niece’s first birthday party. They talked for several hours as we left behind the mountain roads and were now on flat highways. It was already late in the afternoon when Ardie invited us to his family’s home as the journey to Bira Beach would take two days. With our legs cramped from the packed kijangs we graciously accepted.
Bone, short for Watampone pronounced Bone-eh, was a small city with over 80,000 inhabitants. The kijang dropped us off right in front of Ardie’s home. His family greeted us with hospitality and kindness as they made Stefan and myself plates and plates of food. The little kids in the villages peaked in the windows staring at us, but were too shy to say hello.Just after one of the many “dinners” at Ardie’s he dropped us off at a hotel in the center of town. In need of a much deserved beer we set off on food immediately. At shop after shop we asked for beer, and we got a bunch of smiles, but no beer. Indonesia is one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, and you can run into some dry towns. Sulawesi seemed to be more Christian than the rest of the country but that was not in case in Bone. Almost ready to give up we walked over to a group of “young adults” hoping they could point us in the right direction.
“Turn left, turns right, walk down that street and then look for the building with the big brown iron gate”. It was the only place in the town to buy alcohol. After getting lost a couple of times and we needed help of a couple locals before we found the house that they described. Walking up to the small window we saw a man, peering out from the small opening of a large iron gate. He knew what we were after, “beer and whiskey, what would you like?” Wrapping in the beer tightly in newspaper, then placing it carefully into a plastic bag, he passed the package of alcohol through the small opening to Stefan. With the town being “kind of dry”, we couldn’t take it to café to drink, but waited to open it up at the hotel. And after walking for 20 minutes we opened up the cool beers and cheers to out victory.
The sounds of Stefan’s woke me; he was talking to Ardie, excited for us to come back for a visit he called to see when he shall come pick us up. When arriving at Ardie’s house it was full of activity to prepare for Aprilia’s birthday the following day. The older women ran all around the kitchen making food while the kids helped clean. Ardie, his girlfriend, Stefan and myself acted lazy as we sat around the living room chatting away about our travels and our home countries.
When lunch was served, plates filled every inch of the tables with fresh fish, sautéed spinach with sweet onion, corn on the cob, and chicken cooked in peanuts. After eating what felt like our weight in food, we all fell to the floor taking naps while we waited for the afternoon storms to pass over us. Stefan learned how to play Candy Crush, quickly becoming addicted he searched out my iPhone when their batteries ran low.
When the sun came back out, Ardie took us Bone, through the park where teenagers skate boarded on the smooth pavement over the benches, visiting traditional homes where school children were shocked to see travelers in their town and asked for pictures.Returning to Ardie’s home in the evening we were surprised to see his family all dressed for church. His uncle was a priest and held nightly services in his parishioner’s homes. Inviting us a long we all piled into his families minivan. Stefan and I left our shoes at the door and were handed a Bible as we took a seat on the living room sofa. The small home was packed with twenty people as we sang hymns in Bahasa Indonesian. The sermon was given by Ardie’s aunt and uncle, we didn’t understand the words but from years of Catholic school I got the gist of what was being said. After the service we all were ushered to kitchen where we lined up for another amazing meal, where we sat around for several hours talking.That night we did not check into a hotel, but instead accepted the invitation to stay with Ardie’s uncle. His house was above a small English school that he owned and ran. The downstairs was filled with desk and chalkboards as the upstairs were bedrooms and a living room area with a TV. Noted this would also be the night that I would lose Stefan to football as German teams took to the field.
We could have stayed with Ardie and his family for weeks, they were amazing, but a beach awaited us. Leaving the day of Aprilia’s birthday, we wished her well with a big hug and a song as we piled into a kijang.
Arriving in paradise small rain drops fell from the sky as we got out in the center of town. The streets were empty as not many people were at the beach on a Wednesday. Feeling like Goldilocks we went from guesthouse to guesthouse, “this bed is too hard, this ceiling leaks, something smells funny, they have a pet rooster, run!” Finally we found the perfect room, with a comfy bed, our own bathroom and a balcony a hundred meters from the beach.
The droplets of rain eventually stopped but the clouds hovered menacingly above and the wind was powerfully whipping up sand into the air. The town is small; a strip of shops in bamboo huts lined the sidewalks selling cheap souvenirs and junk food. On the beach kids played while fishing boats anchored close to shores. With low tides the beach went on for several more kilometers. Kicking off our shoes we buried our feet in the soft white sand and walked. Walking all the way to another beach, Bara, we discovered a resort. The owner, Stefan, German-Indonesian, invited us in. We joked about getting the Stefans mixed up. Well the owner of the resort Stefan invited myself and Stefan back to his resort to use the comfy bamboo chairs and deck as he only had one paying guest.
Arriving back to Bira at night we found the only restaurant still open, packed with locals and tourists we shared a table with four others. Returning to our guesthouse afterwards we retreated to the balcony where we could hear the sounds of the rough waves coming to shore while listening to music on Stefan’s small speakers.
The next morning the sun was shining and the wind had calmed. Quickly applying sunblock and packing a bag we headed for the beach. More people had arrived overnight and now the town was full of college students from Makassar.
“Mister Mister”, the girls would cry as they ran up with their cameras. Sometimes I was photographed with him, but it was clear who was the real prize, the tall handsome German with blond hair.
The tides were high walking to Bara beach as we entered the water with our backpacks above our heads maneuvering around the rough rocks. Eventually the rocks gave way and the beach returned as we got closer to Bara. Palm trees lined the beach, the water calm and crystal clear we quickly dropped our things at the deck of Bara Beach resort and headed for the water.
Stefan and myself learned from Stefan (wow this is going to get confusing) of a reef just past the sea grass and that was easy to swim to. With snorkel gear and flippers on we swam and swam further and further away from shore. Eventually the sea grass was replaced with coral as small fish swam all around us. With my mind fixated on the surroundings below I became more comfortable with the distance we had traveled. The bottom was only twenty feet below. Stefan reached the corals I swam off a little ways from him to see a colorful starfish that had caught my eye. As I was looking down a SHARK with a black tip swam fast between my legs. In shock I watched as it swam away and I moved in circles trying to see if he was coming back. The shark was only three or four feet long, but my heart was racing as I swam back to Stefan. Clinging onto him and digging my nails in his back I told him of what I saw. He tried to calm me but I was panicked and we were now 500 meters from shore. We slowly swam back to shore, me in the front and him in the back to keep guard. Slowly the coral below was replaced with the sea grass of shallow waters and then finally sand where I could once again touch the ground.
I love sharks, Shark Week is like an annual holiday to me, and they are beautiful, fascinating creatures. But at a safe distance: on a TV screen, from a boat or in a cage. Back at shore we told our story to Stefan, the resort owner. He knew of the black tip reef sharks, they were mostly harmless, just a little curious when someone new enters their reef. Stefan did not see the shark but only the dorsal fin. He watched as it surfaced the water, but went back to diving as the coral still had his attention. Wanting to see them he headed back for the reef.
Feeling silly from panic and blushing red, now back safely resting in the bamboo chairs at the Bara resort I hid my face behind a much needed large beer. Once I calmed down I went back into the water ready to explore again, but the reef will have to wait until I have a boat.
Returning back to the town of Bira that night we saw the crowds had grown. The early weekenders had arrived. Karaoke bars were filled as college kids sang out of tune, pool tables were occupied and ramen noodles were devoured. A Lonely Planet recommendation restaurant that was closed the previous night was open tonight.
“We make our food with love & love needs time”, was the sign that read on the board entering the restaurant. Taking a seat at the wooden tables an older woman greeted us, Sante. Sante owned the restaurant and the adjacent guesthouse. She was locally known as the best cook in town. Originally from Sumatra she made Bira her home over a decade ago, opening up a small guesthouse, that slowly got bigger with popularity and eventually opening up a restaurant in recent years. Stefan and I ordered up Gado-gado, which literally means, “mix-mix”. Bean sprouts, potatoes, corn, cabbage, tempeh, tofu and spinach are slightly boiled and topped with a hot peanut sauce as an egg is placed on the top and surrounded by fried rice chips. This delicious dish quickly became our “usual” as we ordered it from Sante night after and sometimes for breakfast.
The next day borrowing Sante’s motorbike we set off exploring more the Bulukumba Regency. Outside of Bira just past the ferry jetty phinisi boats are built along the beach stretching from 60-100 feet long. Built of timber and traditional hand tools that haven’t changed for centuries, a group of men carry on the traditions of their ancestors. Climbing up the wobbly wooden plank, Stefan and myself explored one the boats. Men sat in the hull hammering away, while more men carried heavy logs to be shaped and sanded down.
Venturing further away from the beach we traveled through a small town where we found a coconut shop and were greeted with “hellos” and waves as we went zipping on our motorbike. As the afternoon got hot and we turned towards the coast there we found an empty beach with not a sole on it. And quickly jumped in the water and enjoyed the quiet time.
Our days became routine we would wake up, walk to Bara, swim in the crystal clear water and eat spicy seafood. Afterwards we would swim some more and walk back to Bira at sunset, we would immediately go to Sante’s restaurant to enjoy her amazing cooking. It was paradise.
Sadly you must eventually leave paradise. Stefan and myself left as we piled in a kijang bound for Makassar.On our return to Makassar we bypassed the hostel and splurged on a room at the Yasmin Hotel. The room was big, the shower had pressure and the bed comfy and the room didn’t smell of paint. Arriving in the evening, most shops had closed for the day as our sightseeing was with the food, drinks and cafes where we were serenaded by college students playing their guitars for donations.