cloud and light

There is something unique about Southern California light. Morning light is too short for the gold, midday leaves the gentle colors washed away, but at sunset when the blossoms close the alluring shades of light are flushed with an apricot tint with a lovely hue of lilac and pastels colors are reborn – or maybe it’s just the smog.

Journal Entry: March 30, 1999 / Marathon des Sable / Morocco / Sahara Desert.

“This is our fourth day of covering the Marathon des Sable; so far we’ve managed to lose our way, we’ve been blasted by a sand storm, we’ve run out of toilet paper and are now surviving on granola bars, turkey jerky and hot bottles of Coca-Cola. I have no idea how many miles we have traveled or how many times we’ve managed to get stuck in the sand. My driver, Nouh, speaks no English and smokes three packets of Marlboro Lights a day.  He’s also fond of breaking wind each time he exits the Land Cruiser.

What I can tell you, should you not already know, is that the Marathon des Sable is a stage race that lasts 7 days and covers 243km/151 miles. To make things even more difficult, each competitor has to carry everything they may need for the duration of the race (apart from their tent) on their backs in a rucksack – their food, clothes, medical kit, sleeping bag, etc. In addition, runners’ water is rationed and handed out at each checkpoint.

The backdrop to this event is the Sahara Desert. Not only is the Sahara the largest desert on earth, covering an area of 3.5 million square miles, (which amounts to 8% of our planet’s surface area), it stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the west across half of Northern Africa, to the Red Sea.  It then extends down to the highlands of Ethiopia with temperatures recorded as high 40° +Celsius / 120° + Fahrenheit. The Sahara is a great leveller, making all men equal regardless of their station in life. So, when you come across another soul within this vast arena of sand, you stop, share, and remind yourself that here, we are all brothers.

 

Depending on whom you ask, the estimated population of the Sahara Desert varies from 2.5 million to 4 million people – so you would think finding a singing rabbit would be easy. Oh contraire.

The singing rabbit is competitor Derek McCarrick of the UK. Mr. McCarrick has been running marathons for Leukemia and Breast Cancer Research for the past 20 years and is still going strong at the age of 73.  Mr. McCarrick has personally raised a staggering £200,000 ($ 319,920.00) for charity, an achievement which is all the more impressive as he has completed each race dressed as the cartoon character, Roger Rabbit!

Eureka! On the horizon we spot a lone figure of a man with the head of Roger Rabbit tied to his backpack.

 


‘I’m the only rabbit in the world that’s run across the Sahara,’ Mr. McCarrick once told me. He also added, ‘People think I’m bonkers!’ In 2008, this former coal miner was awarded the MBE (Order of the British Empire) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. For those who are not British, an MBE award is one of the highest distinctions that can be gained by a British citizen.  Not bad for a chap from Minster on the Isle of Sheppey.”

 

IMG_2824“If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Away from the gaggle of tourist, there is a sweet spot just west of the of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There Anthony Aquarius pays tribute to Jimi Hendrix as he performs  Jimi’s heartfelt song, The Wind Cries Mary. Busking on weekends, Anthony plays in the late afternoons with the expectation that the power of his music will move the out-of-towners for voluntary donations. Standing before Anthony a small child is taken captive by the power of the song as the currency of notes and lyrics floats off the polished Walk of Fame. Just out of frame Jesus is talking to Alice in WonderLand discussing methods of wooing tourist to have their photo taken with the guise of their character. Motionless, the young child is rooted to the pink terrazzo and bronze star of a bygone era actress Dorothy McGuire as Anthony’s guitar licks echo off the wall behind him and is suspended in time for only a moment. Anthony begins to sing
After all the jacks are in their boxes,
and the clowns have all gone to bed,
you can hear happiness staggering on down the street,
footprints dress in red.
And the wind whispers Mary.
Live on Jimi, live on.

Today weather forecast for Los Angeles, California. (11/11/2021 )
Near-record high temperatures were predicted for most coastal and valley locations through Friday. Santa Ana winds gusted across Southern California today with sweeping skies clear and raising fire concerns. Forecasters have not issue red flag warnings but did predict elevated to briefly critical fire weather conditions. Fires can spread easily under these conditions.

Here’s how it works. When heaven and purgatory collide over the Great Basin of California and Nevada, the upper atmospheric pressure is so great that cold air begins to sink violently downslope compressing with the warm air. The temperature rises, the relative humidity drops and birth is given to the Santa Ana winds. As the Santa Ana exhales across the barren land an invisible assault of unpredictable chaos ensues. Beneath a sun splash sky the searing dry winds descent upon the Southland. It is the “Season of Suicide’ as the onrush is channeled through the passes and canyons that surround the City of Angels. Descending pass the sage, red willows and prickly pear the veiled breath of the devil sears the stems, exposed roots and unfolding blooms. Parched ravines become arteries of frenetic winds fraught with sweltering heat and are escorted with manic depression and bizarre behavior to the lost souls below. The mind-altering impact on some unwitting citizens can be explained away with the alibi, “the devil made me do it”.

The winds create turbulence manifesting vertical wind shear, which litters the sky with plastic grocery bags, splintered Styrofoam and showering pieces of debris. The decibels intensifies mixing the wailing of the protagonist with the sounds of dismembered trees and wind gust that sound as if vast swarms of locust have arrived. A spark spawns Dante’s purgatory in paradise; sirens resonate across the Southland as the atmosphere is flushed with crimson and ash. The vast canvas of the Southland is painted with a dry brush of heat, valley fever and paranoia as the Santa Ana takes to the red carpet in the city of Angels.

The hot easterly wind is properly and historically called: SANTANA, not Santa Ana! Sailors have a phrase, “Beware the devil wind Santana.” Refer to two years before The Mast, published in 1840, by Richard Henry Dana Jr. The original spelling of the of name of the winds is unclear, not to mention the origin. Although the winds have been commonly called Santa Ana Winds or Santa Anas, many argue that the original name is Santana Winds or Santanas. Both versions of the name have been used. The name Santana Winds is said to be traced to Spanish California when the winds were called Devil Winds due to their heat.The origin of Santa Ana Winds with an Associated Press correspondent stationed in Santa Ana who mistakenly began using Santa Ana Winds instead of Santana Winds in a 1901 dispatch. Be safe out there my friends.

Excerpt from Cue The Camels, Chapter Eight, Dog Biscuit and Noah’s Ark 

We waited another half an hour after the Turkish patrol had disappeared out of sight before we hauled ass off the apron of Mt. Ararat and on to flat ground. My knees were shot and my feet were thrashed. We crossed numerous gullies, sliding down their drops then trudging back up their inclines, which rapidly depleted our Mt.Ararat-On plainremaining energy reserves. 

Stumbling forward, my boots scraped against the rolling rocks as I repeatedly stabbed with the ski poles for an opening between the rocks to right myself. The flare must have burned out because it became dark again. I faltered a number of times but kept an eye on my fellow climbers Cronuck and Stublich and watched them move at a steady pace towards the faint yellow and white lights of Doğubayazıt on the horizon – which I affectionately call Dog Biscuit

My feet felt warm and soggy which was a sure sign of blood. 

Mt.Ararat-2nd paragraph-BlogIt was at this point – stemming from many things, such as dehydration and sheer exhaustion – that I fell into mild delirium and David Byrnes of Talking Heads became my chaperones. 

‘And you may find yourself in another part of the world. And you may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?’

‘You know, David, you’re holding me hostage with that broken record. I mean, I can appreciate your words but after a while it gets a little old. Know what I mean?’

I didn’t get a straight answer from David; instead, he gave me his advice. ‘The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I’m getting used to it now…’

                 At that moment, a second flare burst in the night sky. It was a couple of seconds later that we heard the low boom of the flare gun, which meant there was a good distance between us and the Turkish military. I made it to the edge of the stone field; Cornuke and Stublich stopped long enough to ask me if I was okay. My lips were cracked, my tongue was swollen and all my saliva had evaporated. I could only answer with a nod and a whisper: ‘I’m okay.’

Ahead, I could hear Dick slapping the iridium satellite phone repeatedly, trying to get enough charge out of the dead battery to make a call to Micah, our Kurdish fixer, so that he could meet us at the predetermined rendezvous point.

George grumbled. ‘This is fucking stupid. Let’s go to the main highway and catch a ride to town.’

Mt. Ararat  3rd Paragraph Sepia-BlogDick stopped smacking the sat-phone and directed all his attention towards George. ‘Shut the fuck up, George. The Turkish military use that road all the time. What do you think they’ll assume if they come across us on that highway with all our gear?’

George didn’t listen and relentlessly argued his point as the sound of the dogs’ howls grew louder. There was a gunshot in the distance followed by the hiss of another parachute flare. That was all the motivation we needed; the five of us turned and hauled ourselves across the plain. David followed nearby. ‘We make a pretty good team. Don’t get exhausted; I’ll do some driving. You ought to get some sleep.’Mt.Ararat-003-Blog copy

‘You know, David, it must be Mercury in retrograde with all the hurdles we’ve had to clear,’ I muttered.

There was no response.

We’d been tramping about in the darkness for hours and we were spent, physically and emotionally. We walked on autopilot, using the light of Dog Biscuit as our beacon.

‘You know, David, I could’ve stayed in L.A. picking up work shooting a mindless sitcom and watching a celebrity with two soft, protruding organs give us the local weather report. I could have, but I wouldn’t have had this wonderful field trip to remember. Know what I mean?’

David paused then caught up with me. ‘You may ask yourself: well, how did I get here? You may ask yourself: where does that highway lead to? You may ask yourself: am I right; am I wrong? You may say to yourself: my God, what have I done?’

While researching material for Cue The Camels, I came across this old journal entry from a shoot I did in Egypt. Which was included in my book Cue the Camels.
Assorted images from my years in the Middle East

Northern Alliance, Afghanistan

Saqqara, Egypt
High Atlas Mountain Range, Morocco
Northern Alliance, Shibar, Afghanistan
Sahara Desert, Morocco
Sahara Desert
Bedouin Girl, outskirts of Jerusalem
Passport Lane, Kabul, Afghanistan
Mt. Ararat, Turkey

On a cool March morning before sunrise, we left the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and made our way to the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge to enter Jordan. The windows of our suburban were down, the cool desert breeze reviving those of us that did not get a full night’s sleep. We sat silently, lost in our own thoughts, as the rosy-pink morning sky brought a new day. 

Mark sat up front, reading the day’s itinerary, as Shmuel Bernstein, our Israeli co-producer, drove; on reaching the border, Shmuel was not able to enter Jordan with us. Sitting next to me was Jim Glove, Associate Producer, whose responsibilities included keeping my blood sugar up, which explained the many protein Balance bars and Snickers bulging from his pockets. 

We were as prepared as possible for a smooth shoot without incident or delay. In our arsenal, to ensure all went well, we had: an envelope of money for baksheesh, passports, visas, and our carnet for the camera gear. We had just one day to shoot the segment in Jordan and fortunately, Bethany Beyond the Jordan was about five to ten minutes from the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge. The border didn’t open until 8 a.m. for crossing and, as it is strongly suggested you arrive early, time was of the essence. 

Once we crossed into Jordan, a Jordanian government official, two security men, a production assistant, a tourist bus and a driver were due to meet us. As we approached the border, the suburban suddenly filled with a very sweet fragrance; as we queued, several large trucks bearing mountains of oranges lined up beside us on their way to market in Amman. Waiting for the Israeli army to inspect each truck took hours and we could see our Jordanian officials waiting by a small bus, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. We could do nothing but wait. We opened the back of the suburban and made coffee on a small stove, stealing oranges from the last truck for breakfast. 

After two and a half hours we showed our visas and lugged cases of our gear for inspection. Finally, we crossed into Jordan and met our officials, handing over a little baksheesh. We continued to the archaeological site where we met Muhammad Waheeb. Muhammad was the lead archaeologist at all excavations carried out at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, which began in 1996. Jordan was attempting to follow Israel’s success in biblical archeology which became a major factor in their increased tourism. It’s believed that Jesus’ baptism took place on the Jordanian side of the Jordan River, at Wadi Al-Kharrar. This location was therefore touted to evangelical Christians looking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

 Already three hours behind, we shot a seated interview with Mr. Waheeb then B-roll of the dig site: the Jordanian workmen, close-ups of their hands and shovels, the terrain, and a walkabout with Mr. Waheeb as he surveyed the excavation. We rushed to capture as much footage as we could before we left for the border which closed at midnight. And we needed to be there at least three hours before this, to unload all the gear for inspection and show our visas to the Palestinian Authority.

Despite getting some great footage, we felt that we were missing a key shot, that of Bethany by the Jordan and the Wadi Al-Kharrar riverbed. Mark, Jim and I went on the hunt, wandering down a makeshift path lined with an old wooden fence. We’d just passed some Jordanian workmen who were extending the dirt path through a dense thicket of bushes and shrubs when we stopped at what appeared to be a promising location. Beyond the fence, facing west into Israel, was an open field. Within this was a mound of earth that offered enough elevation to clearly see the east bank of the river.

‘Jim, you take the tripod. Mark, give me an extra camera battery and tape,’ I said. 

I handed the camera to Mark as I hopped over the fence, Jim following me with the tripod. As we had little time left I forged ahead in a quick march, across the barren patch of earth. Mark stayed behind and sauntered back to the Jordanian workmen we’d passed to shoot more B-roll with his mini DV camera. Jim and I were near the mound when our attention was caught by the workmen. ‘Hey! Mr! Broom, Broom! Mr….Room!

‘Dave, what are they shouting about?’

‘I’m not sure,’ I said, confused. ‘Something about a broom.’

‘Why would we need brooms?’ Jim murmured.

Standing next to the shouting workmen Mark looked bewildered. He threw his arms up in an ‘I don’t know’ gesture.

‘Hey, Mark, what’s all the hoopla? What’s going on?’ I shouted.

‘I don’t know what they’re saying, guys. Something about a broom. Or a room…there’s a lot of commotion,’ Mark shouted back.

The workmen rushed to the fence, shouting, with Mark in tow. At that moment, storming down from the top of the trailhead, our short, squatty Jordanian escort – we called him Mr. Security – was running towards us, arms flailing and leaving a wake of dust. 

‘Nooooooo!’ he yelled.

As Mr. Security got closer to Mark and the workmen I could see his round face was sweating profusely. There was a big, wet spot on the front of his shirt underneath his suit jacket. 

Jim shouted, ‘Hey, guys, what’s going on?’

Mr. Security stepped up to the fence. Leaning as far forward as he could without losing his balance, he cupped his hands. In broken English, he yelled, ‘No, no! Stand still! That area has not yet been cleared of landmines.’

‘Oh, great!’ Mark shouted. ‘That’s just great! Jesussss!’

‘Dave, what did he say?’ Jim asked.

‘I think he said we’re in a landmine field that’s not been cleared. The Jordanian guys were saying ‘Boom, Boom’, not ‘Broom, Room’.’ 

‘Oh. Well, uh, what do you think?’

‘I think I would rather be at IHOP having pancakes,’ I sighed.

‘You know, I think that’s a good way to look at things. Let’s just relax and breathe in. Breathe out. Calm, calm, calm,’ suggested Jim, letting out a nervous chuckle. 

 He was about two meters behind me, with the tripod over his shoulder and Snickers bars in his pants. We both stood perfectly still, squarely balanced on both feet that were planted into the earth. The sun seemed suddenly hotter than it had been only moments ago and my grip on the camera had become more difficult as sweat ran down my arm. For a split second, I swore I could hear the ocean. Perhaps it was my mind playing tricks on me, in an attempt to take me away from reality. How we’d managed to get into such a scrape, I didn’t know; there’d been no signs and nothing had been mentioned about landmines.

  ‘Jim, I think I just threw up in my mouth.’

‘That’s got to be unpleasant. Do you have any gum?’

‘Yeah, somewhere.’ I paused a little before searching about my body. 

After intensely focusing on the ground around us, I looked up at Jim. I could see he was also processing our situation. 

‘Dave, did they say it hadn’t been cleared of landmines? Let’s think about it. They said ‘cleared of landmines’. Being this close to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Elijah’s Hill and other archeological sites – not to mention this big push to bring in tourism – they may not know if landmines have recently been cleared. Just beyond that hill I can see the tops of willow trees, which means we’re very close to the Jordan river….’

‘I found the gum!’

‘What?’ Jim asked.

‘I found the gum.’

‘Oh, great, Dave. Can we just focus on this, please? I think, if we really focus on the ground, we should go for it.’

My ears suddenly snapped into action. ‘Elijah’s Hill? Isn’t that where Elijah’s ascension into heaven was in a whirlwind of dust, at the appearance of a chariot of fire?’

‘I’m not sure. But it sounds biblical. I’m trying to recall any movie I’ve seen where the characters are in a landmine field, and how they might have got out of it.’ Jim paused. ‘Hey! Do you remember the movie ‘Lethal Weapon 2’? Where Danny Glover is on a landmine? No, no, that’s not right….it was a toilet mine,’ he muttered.

‘Jesus, get real,’ I said. ‘It’s a ‘what would MacGyver do?’ issue. You know, I worked with Richard Dean Anderson on General Hospital back in the day, before he was MacGyver.’ 

‘Really? You never told me that,’ said Jim. 

‘Yeah. We’d race wheelchairs across the studio between taping scenes, then sneak behind other actors and hang clothespins on the back of their clothes. We even pinned the executive producer, Gloria Monty.’

‘Dave, Dave…you’re rambling. I think I have cramp in my legs.’

‘Hey, Jim! How about we scoop up pebbles and toss them in-front of us?’

‘That’s a great idea. I wonder if that was ever used in a movie?’ 

With my feet firm, I bent down and gently scooped a pile of small stones and earth. ‘I’ll go first,’ I told Jim. Holding the camera in my right hand, I closed my eyes and threw the handful as hard as I could. There was no explosion.

Jim laughed. ‘You throw like a girl. Well, we’re almost at the bank of the Jordan. It’d make a great establishing shot.’

‘Yeah, I know,’ I said.

Despite the weight of the Betacam and the daypack full of batteries and tapes, balance became paramount. I leaned forward, ready to take a step. With each footstep the crunch of dry earth, dead roots and unusual lumps in the earth became potentially volatile underneath my boots. I stopped and turned to Jim. ‘Well? Should we keep going?’

‘Let’s go for it, Dave. Who knows, maybe the History Channel will do one of those screen credits: In memory of Dave Banks and Jim Glover, who made this program possible.’

‘I doubt they would. The History Channel’s like most networks – drowning in corporate culture and more interested in making money by selling commercial airtime than giving credit to anonymous producers like us on the front lines.’

Frenetically chewing my gum, I took another step, feeling every little step in the dry soil. Another step…nothing. Another step forward…nothing. Jim followed, placing his boots in my footprints. We reached the top of the mound.

‘Wow! We made it,’ said Jim.

‘Yeah, well, it’s not the best establishing shot, but it’ll do.’ I glanced back at the fence, where the workmen were squatting on the dirt path with their hands covering their ears, as was Mark and Mr. Security.  

Really? You guys can’t have a little more faith that we’re going to get out of this? 

Jim and I set up the tripod and shot the Wadi Al-Kharrar riverbed, zooming in and out of the Bethany Beyond the Jordan excavation and panning the horizon. ‘I think we’ve as much B-roll as we can get. You ready to head back?’ I said.

‘Before we do, let’s raise a toast with a Snickers bar,’ Jim said.

‘Good idea.’

We raised our Snickers to Mark and Mr. Security who had dropped their hands from their ears. The workmen had now turned their back to us, still with their fingers in their ears. Mark gave us two thumbs up and a smile. Jim and I were in no rush to dance our way back to the path. We slowly munched our creamy, nutty chocolate, stalling for time. 

‘Have you ever eaten a frozen Snickers, Jim?’

‘Oh yeah. I love one on a hot day, especially after a run.’

‘You know, this isn’t the first time I’ve been in a landmine field,’ I said. ‘I had a shoot in Israel a couple of years back. I was shooting around Galilee in a field when the IDF drove up and told us, ‘Guys, this area hasn’t been cleared’. It appears that someone had actually taken down the warning signs. There was noindication of danger.’

‘Wow,’ said Jim.

‘I think we should walk backwards, placing our feet in the footprints we’ve already left. What do you think?’

‘Good idea. Let’s just take our time.’

‘Are you going to be able to keep your balance with the tripod on your shoulder?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, no problem,’ said Jim.

We had a plan but with much apprehension: moon-walking across a sterile field of earth that held Crackerjack-style surprises underneath. I turned my head, owl-like, and took my first steps, carefully placing my boots in the shallow imprints I’d left earlier that afternoon. Holding the camera in one hand and covering my crotch with the other, I continued backwards. Turning his head from side to side and keeping perfect balance with the tripod on his shoulder, Jim gingerly began his return to the fence. 

Mark called out, ‘Just take your time. Don’t rush…you’re doing great, guys!’

  Reaching the fence, we both gave a huge sigh of relief. It was obvious Mr. Security was very upset with us, he didn’t speak to Jim or me for the rest of the shoot. Mark slapped us on the back, pleased that body bags had not been necessary. 

We loaded up the gear and traveled back to the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge, where Shmuel was waiting to take us back to the King David Hotel. Our Jordanian hosts were given a bonus in cash, as expected. We had nearly a week of shooting left in Israel – hopefully, without any further mishaps. Shmuel turned the radio off and the three of us, Mark, Jim and I, fell asleep. 

I didn’t have a restful sleep that night with Bethany replaying in my dreams over and over again. I woke and remained tired, despite the many shots of espresso I’d downed. I moved more slowly and wasn’t as clear headed as usual. Hopefully, I’d tap into my enthusiasm at the Garden Tomb. It was an easy day of ‘talking head’ pieces. Stood in the hotel lobby, waiting to leave, there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere. It was then that I recognized a team of American Secret Service agents. They were trying to be inconspicuous in their dark suits, Secret Service lapel pins and sunglasses, doing reconnaissance.

I recalled that, before we’d departed for Israel, the shoot had nearly been cancelled by MPH Entertainment due to events of terrorism: suicide bombers, snipers and random shootings had killed 69 and left 292 civilians and IDF soldiers injured. MPH had had doubts about our safety but they were under a deadline with the History Channel. Time and money were at stake; regardless of safety, we had to feed the monster. At the last minute, Mark, Jim and I persuaded MPH to move forward with the production of ‘In the Footsteps of Jesus’. 

On the drive to the Garden Tomb, the IDF and the Jerusalem police were out in force at every intersection of the city. Shmuel told us that Vice President Dick Cheney and General Anthony Zinni were both in Israel to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Only the day before, a suicide bomber had detonated his bomb on a bus, killing 21 civilians, just minutes after we’d passed through the French Hill neighborhood, northeast of the city. No wonder security was at a heightened level with Cheney – whom we referred to as Darth Vader – and Zinni in town.  In the Garden Tomb, across the Damascus Gate, we were ready to shoot interviews against a beautiful backdrop of cultivated English garden, with stone paths, flowers and towering pines. It was a peaceful atmosphere unlike the world outside the walls. The Garden Tomb was a favorite spot for Christian prayer and meditation, and a great location to conduct interviews with little external noise. Between interviews with Peter Wells, General Secretary of the Garden Tomb, and archaeologist Dr. Shimon Gibson, we shot B-roll of the skull-like feature on the adjacent hillside, which many Christians believe to be Golgotha, as described in the Bible. The Garden Tomb also showcased an ancient rock-cut tomb that had side by side chambers which most evangelical Christians believed was where Jesus was laid to rest before transcending to heaven. After the previous day’s experience, Jim and I felt we had a right to indulge ourselves: we took it in turns to lie on the stone benches to be ‘resurrected’. 

It was late afternoon when we finished the last interview. We gathered up our gear and packed it away. It was our last day of shooting in Jerusalem. The next day would see us check out of the King David Hotel and travel to the northern shore of the Galilee. 

We rushed to get back to review tapes, clean the gear, charge batteries, pack our clothes, have a sit-down dinner and maybe, just maybe, get at least six hours’ sleep. The gods, however, were not with us. There was congestion throughout Jerusalem with the universal middle finger salute given out like candy. Honking horns, shouts and security checks hailed us at every intersection leading back to the hotel. With traffic queues stretching before us we snacked on Balance bars, Three Musketeers’ chocolate bars, and Jelly Bellys – all of which only raised our impulsiveness, bravado and reckless behavior. We were only a few blocks away from the hotel and someone had to pee – I won’t mention any names. We started shouting from the back seat, daring Shmuel to hop lanes. There was no oncoming traffic. 

‘Go for it, Shmuel! Go for it!’ we chanted. ‘Go, go, go, go!’

Shmuel looked into the rear-view mirror and gave us a ‘Clint Eastwood’ smirk. He glanced quickly in both directions then pulled the suburban into the opposite lane, making his way to the entrance of the King David Hotel. Driving up to the car port, we jumped out and started unloading our gear. We were met by a tall, red-headed Secret Service agent wearing Wayfarer sunglasses. He spoke into his sleeve. ‘Yeah, I got it.’ He then turned to us. ‘Hey! You guys can’t stop here. You have to move along.’  

‘What? We have reservations here,’ Jim said.  

‘Sorry, but you have to move, now! We’ve VIPs arriving in a minute and we need this area cleared of all traffic.’  

Reloading the gear, we jumped back into the suburban. Shmuel told us that the hotel had a rich tradition of hosting royalty, celebrities and other international dignitaries on their visits to Jerusalem. We drove across the street to the most elegant YMCA I’d ever seen: it combined art deco, Byzantine and Islamic decorative styles, and it was surrounded by gardens – the Village People would have been proud. We sat in the parking lot, waiting for Cheney’s convoy to arrive while trying to remember the lyrics and gestures of ‘YMCA’.  

Our attention was turned when a stream of black suburbans with flashing red lights came from our right. They made their way down David HaMelech Street, past Gozlan Garden. There were few privately owned suburbans in Israel, most were official Embassy vehicles; in particular, those of the US Embassy. Shmuel and his suburban were often mistaken as being part of the embassy which worked to his advantage sometimes. The motorcade passed by and, still on a sugar high, we started shouting at Shmuel. ‘Go for it, Shmuel! Go! Go, baby, go! Shmuel accelerated, making a small screeching sound in the parking lot, driving to the tail end of the convoy. We waited in line as dignitaries and security teams unloaded at the front entrance of the King David. More Israeli police came up behind us but we acted like any other official and took our turn to pull into the hotel carport. The red-headed agent we’d met earlier was not in sight so we quickly jumped out and pulled all our gear from the vehicle. Mark proceeded through the revolving glass door in a cadence of authority. Mark has that East Coast air about him and he dresses very similarly to a deputy director of the FBI. No one stopped him as he disappeared into the lobby. 

As the rest of us unloaded a couple of agents surrounded our vehicle – not questioning us but looking out to the street for any unusual activity, in protection. I could only assume that they thought we were part of the envoy.  We continued, unchallenged, into the hotel.

The lobby was decorated sumptuously and furnished with velvet couches, gold drapery and marble-topped tables, with a spectacular view of the Old City and Mount Zion. The Secret Service agents were sitting in over-stuffed chairs, their feet up on the coffee tables as they smoked cigars. They talked loudly, their bursts of laughter echoing off the marble floors and traveling down the halls. The staff of the King David tried to ignore the vocal Americans but you could read their thoughts when they glanced up, disdain on their faces for their ugly American guests. An agent near the elevators stopped me.  ‘Hey, where’s your service pin? You know we’re on lock down.’ He was referring to the Secret Service lapel pin that gave them full access to roam about the hotel. ‘It’s, erm, in my bag upstairs,’ I said, showing him my room key. 

‘You’d better wear it,’ he warned.

In our hotel rooms, Mark and Jim reviewed the footage while I cleaned our gear, packed, and charged the batteries. We ordered room service and discussed our itinerary for the following day’s trip to Galilee, hitting the sack around 3 a.m. 

*****

Vice President Dick Cheney was grinding his teeth, his head cocked to one side, as if to take aim at his plate of cantaloupe and assorted breakfast goodies. He bore an irritating smirk of satisfaction as he chomped down on the ripe pink flesh, all the while scanning the hotel’s elegant breakfast room. The room was incredibly quiet with just the occasional sound of silver spoons stirring within porcelain cups. At the entrance of the breakfast room, and at each exit, were dozens of dark-suited agents, their die-cast pins sat proudly on their lapels. Each agent had an earpiece with a clear acoustic tube that dropped down underneath their jacket collar. 

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Our table was directly adjacent to Cheney’s and, on occasion, we caught part of the staff briefing. Dick Cheney was smaller in person than his ominous persona on television, yet his 5 foot 8 frame seemed to tower over the table and his staff. There was a perpetual smugness on his upper lip that pulled to the left side of his round, meaty face. It must have been a bad day for the VP, his trademark scowl was present as he listened to the day’s agenda. We tried not to make eye contact with the agents or Darth Cheney, concentrating solely on eating our breakfasts. Eventually, we caught each other’s eyes and snickered, very much amused that however tight Cheney thought his convoy was, we’d breached it. We checked out of the King David without any problems, under the watchful eyes of the Secret Service. With Jerusalem behind us, we took our time, stopping along the way to shoot B-roll. We booked into a kibbutz at the end of the day and turned in early, eager to rise in time to shoot the sun rising over the Golan Height and Galilee. Nothing will ever top the filming of that beautiful morning at the shore of Galilee on what was our last day. With the camera on a tripod and locked off, I filmed the sunrise as it peeked over the Golan Heights. Gleaming, warm, amber rays reflected off the lapping waters of the Galilee and a new day was born. It was serene, and the closest thing to a spiritual moment that I’ve ever had in Israel. 

The waterfowl resting on the gentle surface suddenly screeched off into the distance and tranquility disappeared. Two drunken Russians floated down the shoreline in large, black inner tubes, holding bottles of vodka and singing. It was 5:39 a.m. The moment could still have been salvaged if only the Russians had continued their journey out of frame. But it was not to be, the current halted their progress in the middle of my shot. I waited for half an hour as they smoked cigarettes, laughing loudly. Perhaps God was letting me know that He had a sense of humor? Or perhaps my spiritual moments are just different to those of other people…. 

Eighteen countries, five shock absorbers, two bikers, and one amazing adventure…. That’s what the back cover of the book- Long Way Down – describe within its pages. This was an epic journey by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman across the continent of Africa on two BMW R1200GS Adventure motorcycles. The book was a good read and I am envious of their adventure. I owned a bike once. Well, not a bike but a scooter, a Vespa scooter. I was the big white guy on a Vespa scooter riding from Burbank through Griffith Park to Los Feliz on my way to work. And, I loved that little white Vespa, So, you can only imagine that while I was in Italy my love for the little Vespa was reignited. Vespa, in Italian means Wasp and true to its name and nature the Wasps are everywhere and going in every direction including the sidewalks. It is nothing to see a family of three on a Vespa or a woman on a cell phone smoking a cigarette with a baby strapped to her bosoms on the streets of  Naples or Rome. The Vespa has it own filmgrpahy that goes from, “Quadrophenia” to “American Graffiti” and the most memorable of all “Roman Holiday”. For a scooter that was intended primarily to solve the problems of urban and intercity traffic the Vespa has a rich history of adventures. In 1997 journalist Giorgio Bettinelli started out from Chile, reaching Tasmania after three years and 150,000 km on his Vespa across the Americas.  Bettinelli continued his adventure to Siberia, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania. All in all, Bettinelli has travelled 254,000 km on a Vespa. Pierre Delliere, Sergeant in the French Air Force, reached Saigon in 51 days from Paris, going through Afghanistan. Few know that in 1980 two Vespa’s ridden by M. Simonot and B. Tcherniawsky reached the finishing line of the second Paris-Dakar rally.What do you think about that Mr. McGregor and Mr. Boorman ?

For those who have not experienced the backs streets of Naples on a Vespa. Compliments of my Italian brother Vittorio and myself.

Kabul, Afghanistan

My Afghan Polaroid

Wandering the back streets of Kabul I found myself on Passport lane where Afghan citizens go to have their photos taken for government ID’s. After watching the photographer at work with a couple of subjects, I fell in line to have my photo take as well. The process was slow, about 10 to 15 minutes to shoot, develop and print a photo for each customer. Which gave me the time to study and admire the work of this real street photographer. The Afghan box camera is a giant handmade wooden box known as the kamra-e-faoree, meaning “instant camera” – I call it the “Afghan Polaroid”. Working with only natural light the photographer uses a 35-millimeter camera lens attached to the front of the box and instead of clicking the shutter, the photographer removes the lens cap for a second and replaces it. Inside the box camera is an entire darkroom – paper, developer and fixer. After the latent image is exposed to a sheet of photographic paper, the photographer inserts his hand into the box through a cut-off pants leg designed to keep out light that would ruin the print.

He develops the image by moving the paper through two trays, one holding developer and the other fixer, to create a paper negative. He then makes another exposure, which converts the negative image into a positive print. It was truly impressive to watch how smooth and precise the photographer worked.

Having been briefly banned along with music and paper bags by the Taliban the kamra-e-faoree camera is in danger of disappearing again as digital cameras become more common place in Kabul.

Lukas Birk is well aware of the historical signifiants of the Afghan street photographers and their camera. Mr.Birk  has creating the Afghan Box Camera Project. For any photographer who appreciates the history of cameras and film this is a worth while cause. Link:http://www.afghanboxcamera.com/

I waited to see if the women was going to remove her burka for the photo, she never did.