Zinio Magazine Giveaway

I used to swear that I’d never read a digital magazine. I’ve always loved the tactile feel of a book or a mag, but after receiving a tablet for Christmas (thanks, ma!) I’ve given the digital hordes another chance.

One of the major benefits of digital mags is price; a digital subscription is often little more than the price of a couple of issues of your favorite magazine. To that end, I was asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing a new program from Zinio, the world’s largest online newsstand.

The Z-Pass program gets you 3 magazines for $5/month – not a bad deal at all. You can even try the program for 1 month for free.

Zinio has given me 10 free subscriptions to give away – or 9, after I keep one for myself – so drop me a line if you’re interested. AFAR, Conde Nast, Esquire, Men’s Health, American Photo and Reader’s Digest are but a few of the titles you can choose from.

Read on!

-flash

USA Today Travel: Mystery Trip 2013

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On Friday morning I’m heading out on the road for USA Today Travel’s Go Escape magazine – but I won’t know where I’m going until I get to the airport. Awesome concept, and it should be a ton of fun – though I don’t know how much fun Alaska would be if I’m stuck wearing a pair of briefs for two days. They’re more of a beach accessory.

I’ll be tweeting live once I know where I’m headed with the hope that local folk in the know will point me in the direction of some good times, so follow me on twitter @FlashParker and stay connected with me on Facebook as I upload photos of my trip.

Here’s a brief rundown of what I plan on taking with me – my USA Today survival kit.

The bare essentials for my mystery adventure.

Clockwise from left:
1. Underwater camera (I hope they send me to Hawaii!)
2. Checkered shirt so I look good in whatever brewery I explore.
3. Bear Grylls shirt, so I look good in the wild.
4. Passport, so I can get into North Korea, should that be where I end up.
5. Canadian flag – can’t leave home without it (also have the tattoo) and evil spirit amulet.
6. Canadian coins, to impress my American cousins (toonie!)
7. Random currency – you never know.
8. HoldFast Gear Money Maker camera strap – the best piece of photo gear I’ve ever owned.
8. Inova flashlight – to watch my step on the way to the restroom
9. Utility knife – to battle ghosts on my way to the restroom
10. Moleskine notebook – I do have to write a story about this
11. Hockey puck – aka Canadian currency
12. Fresh Flash undies! 1 pair, four wears
13. Voice recorder – for evidence
14. Olympus OM-2n – probably not coming with me, just filling space for the D800.

Track me down on twitter at FlashParker, and follow my adventure on Facebook here!

Asian Geographic: Eyes on the Prize

Eyes on the Prize

This article comes from Asian Geographic, Issue 2, 2013: Death & Decay. I’ve included the article as it appears in the magazine, as well as my original text.  Once again, some great images from contributing photographer Majid Saeedi.

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 2, 2013

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 2, 2013

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 2, 2013

EYES ON THE PRIZE

For Asian Geographic Magazine

By Flash Parker

It’s one thing for a student to claim that a dog ate her homework, but another thing entirely to say that she couldn’t see the homework in the first place. Recent studies have revealed that between 80-90% of students graduating from schools in East Asia – from countries including China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan – suffer from short-sightedness, a condition otherwise known as myopia. A person with myopia is unable to focus on objects that are more than 2m away from them at any given point, a result of the eyeball elongating in an irregular manner. Most humans are born long-sighted and over time our eyeballs lengthen in order to allow us to focus better on objects both near and far; if this growth pattern is disrupted or affected by external forces, we may end up short-sighted. We’ve all had parents and teachers warn us not to spend all day in front of the television or sat with our noses buried in a book because it can impair our vision, but a lack of scientific research to back up these claims relegated them to superstition status. Besides, the commonly-held belief was that bad eyesight was correlated to bad genetics, and not our study or social habits. However, new research suggests that myopia, which can eventually lead to impaired vision and even blindness, may have roots in a number of environmental factors, and not be based solely on genetic predispositions. In fact, myopia may be directly linked to how much natural sunlight students are exposed to on a regular basis.

Independent studies conducted by researchers from the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence in Vision Science have associated an increased number of hours spent at school and studying at home and a lack of exposure to sunshine to increases in incidents of students with myopia. One study conducted on students from Singapore’s three predominant ethnic groups – Indian, Malay, and Chinese – concluded that environmental and outside influences, specifically time spent at school and time spent studying versus time spent outdoors under natural sunlight – have increased the number of reported cases of myopia by more than sixty-percent since the early 1990s. Of the students reported in this group, as many as twenty-percent have symptoms of high myopia, a condition that hinders vision of objects near and far, and can quickly lead to blindness if left untreated.

Myopia is not an unknown condition among East Asians; scientists have studied the ailment for decades, but have been unable to agree on whether myopia should be attributed to genetic factors or the severe educational demands placed upon students in major urban centers. As countries like China, South Korea and Singapore introduced aggressive new curriculums in the 1990s, myopia rates increased exponentially. Common risk factors for developing myopia, including the amount of time students spend reading books and pouring over homework at close levels, received a great deal of attention. However, Professor Ian Morgan of the Australian Research Council Centre wondered whether the amount of time students were spending indoors was impacting their eyesight. For example, high school students in South Korea regularly attend core curriculum classes from 8am until 3pm, and then attend afterschool study programs from 4pm until 10pm. As new educational initiatives increase the amount of time students spend buried in their books, the amount of time they may be exposed to natural sunlight decreases substantially. A secondary contributing factor is the increased availability and use of wireless telephones, personal computers, and tablets in Asia – rural and urban – over the last decade. People are simply finding more reasons to avoid going outdoors, thus robbing themselves of an opportunity to prevent myopia. Natural sunlight triggers the release of retinal dopamine, a chemical that inhibits the growth and reshaping of the eye. Sunlight is often more than ten times brighter than artificial light, and is the only practical stimulant of dopamine available to us. Without enough dopamine released into our system, our eyes can grow out of shape.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary some groups remain convinced that myopia is rooted in genetics and not associated with environmental factors. Troublingly, some students and their parents have resorted to self-medicating in order to prevent the symptoms of myopia; refractive surgery has become popular in affluent East Asian nations, while the drug atropine is more commonly used in East Asia than anyplace else on earth. Some schools in rural China are now experimenting with various ophthalmic devices, including contact lenses, reading glasses and spectacles, with an eye towards slowing the progression of myopia or reversing its effects by artificial means. Scientists argue that if myopia can be prevented by increasing the amount of time students spend outside there is no need to conduct trials with ophthalmic devices; furthermore, early data suggests that when used for lengthy periods the beneficial effects of these ophthalmic devices is drastically reduced. Magnifying reading glasses, for example, force students to focus deeper than they would without the use of glasses, and once their eyes become accustomed to the effects of magnification, the strain on their eyes is significantly increased, and the risk for peripheral hyperopic errors (considered one of the main triggers of myopia) increases substantially. Researches have cautioned school administrators to refrain from experimenting and exposing students to these devices until enough scientific data has been collected, while administrators have argued that exposing students to more sunlight on a daily basis is simply not an option; current academic curriculums require a specific amount of study and homework time, which leaves little hope that students will be afforded opportunities to spend more time outdoors.

Myopia frequency among children of European decent living in Western nations has always been much lower than rates found in Asia – occurring in as few as ten-percent of students in Australia and Canada. Ethnic variances were frequently used in the past to explain away the differences, while Western study habits and time spent in the classroom were thought to be contributing factors (being much less rigorous in comparison). Yet students from Australia, Canada, the United States and other Western nations generally spend a great deal more time outdoors – recess and lunch breaks are longer (recess is non-existent in some East Asian curriculums), and children frequently walk to and from school. Furthermore, few Western students enroll at after school study programs, and thus have more opportunities to get outside. Professor Morgan’s research revealed that students in Singapore spent as little as 30 minutes a day outdoors, while Australian students were exposed to sunlight for an average of three hours per day. Morgan contends that if students from the West spent as much time studying and as little time outdoors as their East Asian counterparts, they too would be at serious risk for developing myopia, again debunking the myth of the gene as it related to short-sightedness.

Studies similar to the one conducted by Professor Morgan have concluded that students won’t necessarily become myopic if they spend a lot of time studying, and that ophthalmic device trials should be viewed as a last resort from the perspective of academic institutions or government bodies. A study by the University of Cambridge concluded that an extra hour per week spent under the sun reduced the risk for myopia by two-percent; if students spent two hours per day outside each day, they would reduce their risk potential by a whopping thirty-percent. By spending that much extra time outside, students would quell the overuse of their near vision, increase the use of their distance vision, expose themselves to much-needed ultra-violet light, and increase their blood circulation.

Millions of current and former students are now staring in the face of a lifetime of vision problems. The World Health Organization warns that a majority of people living in Asia will suffer from some form of myopia by the time they reach 50 years of age; twenty-percent of these people will be highly myopic by the age of 70. This is more than a case of old people needing reading glass – this is a serious public health issue that will eventually threaten the eye health of most people on earth. There is no cure for myopia, so it is extremely important to be aware of the signs and remain equipped to combat early-onset symptoms.

To keep your peepers peeping, look out for these signs, and consult your family doctor or an eye specialist if any symptoms persist:

- Headaches while reading/studying

- Squinting while watching television from a distance

- Frequently irritated eyes

- Excessive blinking

- flash

 

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Asian Geographic: Trouble in Paradise

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 2, 2013

Trouble in Paradise

This article comes from Asian Geographic, Issue 2, 2013: Death & Decay. I’ve included the article as it appears in the magazine, as well as my original text.  The photos provided for this article by Dr. Glenn Losack are stunning – I think this may be the most daring cover I’ve ever seen from a major publication. Pick up a copy of the magazine if you get a chance.

 

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 2, 2013

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 2, 2013

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 2, 2013

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 2, 2013

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 2, 2013

TROUBLE IN PARADISE: Not all Bacteria are Created Equal

For Asian Geographic Magazine

Shoal Bay is a slice of the Australian idyll, a postcard-perfect stretch of sand in New South Wales’ Port Stephens area. Shoal Bay is one of Australia’s most popular tourist destinations; the view from the Nelson Head lookout features in nearly as many holiday photographs as the significantly more famous Sydney harbor skyline. Shoal Bay is popular among holiday makers, fishermen, landscape photographers, and adventurers set on exploring the pristine backwaters of the Tomaree National Park. This is a destination that is basically paradise incarnate, a place to cultivate lasting memories and images of happiness. It’s not the sort of place you expect to come face to face with death, disease, and destruction, yet one fisherman’s visit to Shoal Bay ended with him catching something that nearly cost him his life. His tale is a cautionary one for anyone looking for their next great adventure.

On November 10, 2006, Tom Maher and his wife Lorna launched their beloved sport boat from a ramp at Buffalo Creek with an eye towards a day fishing some of Shoal Bay’s rewarding tide holes. Before high tide Tom took the pair up the mouth of King Creek in the hope that he might have a shot at landing an elusive metre barra – a term used to denote an Australian Barramundi fish of over 1m in length. Landing a metre barra is akin to joining Australian fishing’s high society, but on this day Tom and Lorna came away empty handed. Tom decided instead to meander across the sand flats on foot when the tide was low, dropping lures as he went. Lorna continued fishing from the boat.

As the tide bucked the shore, one of Tom’s lines caught a snag – he didn’t think much of wading out into the knee-deep water to free his lure, his attention focused squarely on the barra he was intent on landing. And that’s when Tom’s vision of Shoal Bay changed forever. Something swam between Tom’s legs and gashed his right calf, inflicting a three-inch wound that made it difficult even to return to the boat. Lorna managed to dress Tom’s wound and stop the bleeding, but the pain in Tom’s leg was excruciating – and frighteningly, it began to spread. The tide would remain out for a few hours, but Tom needed medical care. Lorna raised the coast guard on the boat’s marine radio and made arrangements for emergency responders to meet them at the boat ramp as soon as they could manage the tide. Five hours would pass between the time of the injury and Tom’s first encounter with professional medical personnel. Sated by painkillers, Tom assumed that his wound would be cleaned and stitched up, and after a few hours he would be on his way home, a sore leg and a fresh scar his only souvenirs from a day on Shoal Bay.

But a few days later the three-inch gash had become a gaping hole a big barra could swim through. Three weeks later Tom was still in the hospital, on a steady regiment of high-powered antibiotics and resting in the hospital’s sterilized hypobaric chamber. This was Tom’s introduction to the waylaying scourge known as Vibrio, a bacteria carried by numerous sea creatures, found in most warm water coastal areas, and frequently transmitted to humans who consume raw shellfish. Certain pathogenic species of Vibrio manifest as flesh eating diseases, and are generally lethal. Tom may have encountered the species known as Vibrio vulnificus, the same species that wreaked havoc on New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and raised the global profile of pseudo-flesh eating diseases. Tom may have been bitten by a shark or a baby crocodile, stung by a ray, slashed by the fins of any number of spiny fish, or cut his leg on a piece of broken glass – the cause of the injury is inconsequential, since the water itself was the carrier of the pathogen. Without proper medical attention Tom‘s symptoms would have steadily become more grave – aside from the staggering pain, Vibrio infections lead to severe vomiting, blistering, explosive diarrhea, and, in a shocking number of cases, septicemia and death. Once Vibrio has settled in the human bloodstream, mortality is 50 percent – even when the bacteria are battled with the best in modern health care. While Tom’s story has a happy ending – his doctors defeated the infection and he received a skin graft to repair the damage to his leg – though his vision of paradise was certainly altered by his brush with a bacteria that is found in all the world’s tropical waters. That’s right – no paradise is safe from these severe bacteria. And some places are less safe than others.

That doesn’t mean that you should avoid going to the beach and instead holiday in Siberia – though reindeer sleigh rides do make for high adventure. Thankfully, cases of Vibrio are relatively rare, but that hasn’t stopped the media from praying on the imaginations of travelers the world over. Headlines abound with shocking first-hand accounts of travelers in exotic locations succumbing to vicious bacteria and flesh eating diseases, though the media rarely takes time to inform the public about the differences among diseases and how they may be avoided, treated, or cared for, choosing instead to toss most conditions under the same umbrella. The media has run wild with stories like Tom’s over the last half-decade, and tropical destinations have suffered for it. But the truth is, not all severe bacterial infections are created equal; many don’t even need tropical humidity to spread and infect humans. Some bacteria can just as easily be contracted on the barren steppes of Mongolia as others can be caught on the beaches of Thailand, some are more deadly than Vibrio, and some are little more than a literal pain in the neck. The media has even managed to equate flesh-eating diseases with leprosy – the old ancient biblical killjoy of a disease, though the similarities are (pardon the pun) skin deep. Causes, effects, and the social stigma associated with leprosy in contemporary Asia is an entirely different paper for another time.

So no thanks to the media, we know that Vibrio isn’t the same flesh-eating disease that hitches a ride on the back of our nightmares; that honor belongs to the condition known as Necrotizing fasciitis, a fast-acting infection that can actually be triggered by a number of different bacteria. Streptococcus bacteria are one of the most common triggers, which is frightening when one considers that streptococcus is wide ranging and common. Cellulitis and strep throat are infections caused by Streptococcus bacteria; imagining that a simple case of strep throat – a condition hundreds of thousands of people suffer from every year – could lead to something so sinister is sobering indeed, though the way in which the conditions manifests is obviously more complex than that. Whereas Vibrio is a single bacterium, necrotizing fasciitis has numerous catalysts and may be triggered under numerous conditions. And where Vibrio is generally found in saltwater and can be transmitted into open wounds as well as through the consumption of raw shellfish, necrotizing fasciitis occurs much more randomly, and does not necessarily need to use water as a transit medium.

Frighteningly, cases of necrotizing fasciitis often begin on the operating table, when a patient is being treated for an unrelated condition. Contaminated surgical tools, bad water, and even respiratory droplets have been known to infect surgical patients, with one famous case in Hong Kong making international news in 2010 when a young woman, in the process of giving birth through a C-section, contracted necrotizing fasciitis and had to have her arms and legs amputated. Necrotizing Fasciitis can wreak havoc on individuals with compromised immune systems, and if not treated with strong regiments of antibiotics from the outset, can render devastating results to the individual infected. Yet while a number of high-profile cases in recent years have led to speculation that necrotizing fasciitis is becoming an epidemic, the opposite is actually the case. It is far more likely that you will come down with a mild case of Vibrio after a minor accident in the ocean than you will contract necrotizing fasciitis, and while that may not exactly sound comforting, consider that necrotizing fasciitis affects roughly 1 in 450,000 people globally; that means in the whole of China one would expect to encounter fewer than 3,000 cases, while Singapore would see fewer than 10 cases annually. That’s a long way of saying that your chances of contracting any form of flesh-eating disease while on vacation in paradise – tropical or otherwise – are rather remote, so long as you take proper precautions and use common sense on the road.

Limited global cases of flesh-eating diseases also mean scientists have a small sample size within which they are able to conduct research related to cures and treatments – making combating these fast-acting bacteria even more difficult. But when scientists began focusing on wound cleansing prevention solutions rather than bacteria-battling cures, a breakthrough occurred. American scientists from Atlanta, Georgia recently pioneered an antibacterial wound cleaning technology that makes contracting bacteria like Vibrio or staff difficult in the first place; the wound cleaner, pioneered by Dr. Branson Ritchie and known as Silvaklenz, attacks the cell membrane of the infecting bacteria, and helps injured areas transform from chronic to acute in a fraction of the time conventional antibiotic treatments do their dirty work. The product is being deployed all over the world, though associated costs – the biggest factor in combating dangerous bacteria and infectious diseases – means that Silvaklenz may not be available to a wide Asian marketplace for a number of years. But swift FDA approvals in America mean that generic licensing agreements may soon make it available at a fraction of the price all across the world. Dr. Ritchie is convinced that Silvaklenz will eventually become a mainstay in hospitals and a fixture in first-aid kits sold around the world; had Tom had Silvaklenz in his medical kit aboard the boat on Shoal Bay, he could have avoided the infection that nearly cost him his leg in the first place, and been in and out of the hospital in a few hours to fix the cut like he originally envisioned.

Dr. Ritchie often references the case of 24-year-old Aimee Copeland, an American girl who was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis after cutting herself when falling from a broken zipline. The infection cost Aimee, an otherwise healthy adult, her left leg, right foot, and hands. "If [Aimee] got the wound and this would have been in her first-aid kit, the wound would’ve been cleansed immediately; it would have been soaked down with the Silvaklenz,” Dr. Ritchie said. “Then those bacteria may never have gotten started. And if they hadn’t started, we don’t have to worry about them continuing to do damage to her body." Dr. Ritchie and his medical research team have showed in controlled lab trials that their product is able to prevent necrotizing fasciitis, and is also effective at treating forms similar to the aeromonas hydrophila bacteria species that afflicted Aimee.

Popular media would like us to believe that one bacterium is as good as the other and is just as capable of doing us grave harm, when in reality all bacteria are different – and all bacteria affect all people differently. Not all bacteria are created equal, and some are easily enough defended against by the human body. But there are certain super strains of bacteria that can yield devastating effects on even otherwise strong, healthy individuals – as seen in the case of the disaster at Shoal Bay. While it’s unlikely that antibiotic superdrugs like Silvaklenz are currently part of your travel kit, you can minimize your risk of exposure to dangerous bacteria by exercising common sense near coastal areas, estuaries, or gulf streams – and/or any area where pathogens have been known to occur, as in the case with necrotizing fasciitis.

Helpful tips to avoid bacteria when traveling:

1. Cook all seafood caught in coastal waters

2. Avoid raw oysters or any raw shellfish

3. Do not expose broken or damaged skin to sea water

4. Treat any injury promptly; clean and dress all wounds

5. Seek medical attention as soon as infection begins to spread

- flash  

 

PS: I’m much better at updating my Facebook page, so if you’re so inclined, head over there for the last goings on from the empire. Click to join me on Facebook

An Approach to Portraits – Chapter 2

It’s been a while since I last worked on the portrait guide. The last update was in late July. Yikes. But we’re always better late than never, so here we go with part two.

After writing the first chapter I was slammed for not providing in-depth analysis on how to capture a good portrait. It seems as if suggesting “go out and practice…” isn’t the sort of advice some people are looking for. This time around I’m going to break down my though process with regards to a few specific images. So, yah. Be careful what you wish for. Today we’re focusing on couples and group shots; adding extra people to a scene makes it much tougher to come away with evocative images.

I’ve written at length of my preference for shooting on location versus shooting in the studio. There’s nothing wrong with shooting in a studio, and some shots are easier to accomplish in a totally controlled environment. Yet by and large, I believe that I can do 90% of the things I would ever do in a studio while on location, while I would never be able to do most things I do on location in a studio. Confused? Hang in there.

Engagement sessions are a prime example of shooting on location versus shooting in the studio. While some e-sessions can benefit from that totally controlled environment, by and large it’s easier to work with couples somewhere that makes them comfortable. Most couples you’ll shoot in your career will have next to no modeling experience, and putting them in front of a black or grey background and telling them to pose can often result in disaster (awkward smiles, strange expressions, raised eyebrows). It’s better to find a place where people can relax and be themselves. It’s all about capturing them together, right? But that means introducing a new variable into the mix; the weather.

The Weather

Yeah, that’s right. The weather. You can never be 100% sure what you’re going to get when you step outside. You can’t control the rain, snow, or tornado (it can happen). You can’t control the cloud cover, and you can’t control the intensity of the sun. All you can do is hope that the natural conditions mesh well with the couple you’re shooting, and the look you’re going for. Sure, you can try and overpower Mother Nature by going strober-kill and using 55 lights on any given scene, but that’s going to make for a long day – and it’s probably not what your couple is expecting. I work most efficiently when I’m shooting under natural light. When I’m working efficiently, I’m working quickly. When I’m working quickly, I’m making my clients happy. Again, if they’re not professional models, they’re not going to be used to someone dicking around with a light for 10 minutes between each press of the shutter. I mix things up; I make sure that my shot list leans heavily to the side of natural light, with a few key flash set-ups mixed in for good measure. If the weather works against me, I can get flash heavy. When it cooperates, like it did on this sensational shoot with Brad and Lindsey, I can focus all my attention on the couple.

The Portraits

Time to break these down.

When I’m shooting people who aren’t used to being in front of the camera I know that the toughest part of my job is going to be to getting them relaxed so that the photos we put together look natural. I start these shoots by talking the couple through my plan for the day – when they know what to expect, they don’t have to worry about what’s coming next. I make sure that we’re always talking, and that no one is standing around wondering what to do next. That’s what happened here; Brad and Lindsey were talking to one another while I was setting up. I had put them into a position I thought would look nice, and gave them enough time to forget about it. When I could tell they were comfortable, I started firing away.

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Once I knew they were relaxed and that we were ready to go, I knew they would probably be comfortable in taking direction. Most people ask me to tell them what I want them to do, but if someone isn’t relaxed in front of the camera, it doesn’t matter how hard I work at posing them. That’s why I always wait a bit before working on more intimate images.

Oh, these first three images were shot under natural light; breaking their focus with flash wasn’t something I wanted to do at this point. Not when we were staring on a roll.

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With light this silky smooth I wasn’t even tempted to break out the lights – not while we were working against the corn backdrop at least. I didn’t have to spend time thinking about the conditions for once; I could focus all my attention on the couple, and the images we wanted to craft.

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One of the keys to this sort of photography is never asking your subjects to do things that they normally wouldn’t do – or that you wouldn’t find comfortable yourself. These aren’t fashion models today – they’re real people, and I’m shooting their engagement photos. There are inherent expectations associated with this type of photography, and posing people in strange or foreign positions is only going to make your job harder (and it’s probably going to look silly). Keep it simple, and keep it natural.

I meet plenty of photographers who are hesitant to give direction. Why? It only makes your job easier in the end. “Hold hands and walk toward the bar…” is a direction. It’s a simple one, but it gives our couple something to do. Would this have been as affective if they were turned around and staring at me? Probably not.

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“Go dance with one another” is direction too. Simple? Of course! That’s the point. The worst thing that can happen is that the image doesn’t look right, so you try again. Asking your couple to do things like this has the added benefit of lightening the mood; if they’re really bad dancers (and I’m not saying these guys were at all!) everyone will have a laugh.

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And don’t forget one of the reasons you decided to shoot on location in the first place: the environment. Use it. Make it work for you. Why would I trot anyone out to a remote location if I didn’t have an idea for what I wanted to do when we got there? You can bet that this frame was near the top of my shoot itinerary for the day.

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So, yeah. The environment. Use it as frequently as you can. Don’t limit it to the background; have your subjects engage with that background. Give them something to do so they’re not constantly wondering what to touch or where to look.

I’ve shot at this old barn a few times. I love it because it’s beautiful, but also because it offers endless opportunities to get my subjects involved in their own images. Again, when you’re not shooting people with a ton of experience in front of the camera, it helps to keep them occupied with something other than the camera.

Maybe you’ve noticed something in common with the images I’ve shared here; none of them feature our couple looking at the camera. Not that there’s anything wrong with looking at the camera, of course – but when your subjects are engaged in one another like this, what’s the point of breaking them out of it to stare at the camera and smile?

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However, every now and then you want your subjects to stare at the camera and smile. You still want them nice and relaxed; let them have a little fun before you get into the typical portrait stuff. That way they may even give you a genuine smile or two, and not a half-cocked fake one that leaves them looking like they’re about to sprint for the bathroom and do bad things. Clients rarely like looking at photos like that. The toughest part of your job is making people happy, and making people smile. Get good at it. Learn how to tell the difference between a fake smile and a real smile, and never settle for anything other than authenticity.

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What about props? Props are huge – I can’t tell you the last time I saw an engagement shoot where the photographer didn’t have a chalkboard, balloons, or some fancy blanket handy. I’m cool with props; they give your subjects something to focus on that isn’t the camera. Yet I prefer props that are connected to the people I’m shooting: maybe it’s the travel photographer in me, but I live for a good environmental portrait.

If that prop just so happens to be one of the cutest puppies the world has ever seen, well, you’re golden. Concentrate on getting your subjects in focus, and you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Play off the residual happiness (it’s a puppy – come on!) and keep firing even when your fuzzy prop exits stage left.

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Contrary to popular belief, shoots don’t have to last all day, either. I’ve written about the (many) times I’ve worn out my subjects and or clients; I’ll probably never forget the six-hour session I had with musician Greg James Hanford a few years back (and he’ll probably never hire my snap-happy ass ever again). Sometimes less is more. If you have a plan, if you execute that plan, and you come away happy with an image, why not end on a high note?

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Then there are those times that all the planning in the world doesn’t help. I had tried for months to get a great environmental portrait of my cousin. I had shot her and her boys numerous times, but nothing ever seemed quite right. I tested their mettle one afternoon by putting them through the ringer on a poorly conceived family photoshoot (I think I deleted three hours of work the second we were done) where we tried numerous looks and setups. Frustrated, I started packing up my gear. The boys, dead tired after posing for such a long time, jumped into their mom’s arms to be carried up the stairs. I had my camera in hand, and a light on somewhere. Good thing that I did.

Lesson? Be ready. Sometimes the images come to you.

That wraps Chapter 2.

- flash

10 Most Inspiring Cities in the World

I’m not Johnny Cash, and I ain’t been everywhere, man. I haven’t been to Tallapoosa, Oskaloosa, Grand Lake or Crater Lake, for Pete’s sake. I have been to Fargo, but don’t ya know, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But I have been around the block a time or two, and I’ve visited some amazing cities along the way. Half of my job is photographing beautiful places; the other half is writing about them. These are the ten most inspiring cities I’ve ever visited, places that spur creativity unlike anywhere else I’ve tread.

No two places are the same, of course. I love Dublin and Yangon, but the reasons couldn’t be more disparate. Seoul has a very different vibe from Porto, and a weekend in Montreal is a totally different experience from ten days in Luang Prabang. Difference, of course, is what makes travel so exciting. In making this list, a city need only qualify under two criteria; it must inspire photographic curiosity, and it must stir literary ghosts.

Keep in mind that I’m focusing on cities alone – if it were a list of my ten favorite travel destinations, things would be different. But since most of my work begins and ends in large urban centers, I thought I’d kick off my first “Top 10” list with a bang.

I’ve included a trio of places you shouldn’t miss for each destination. Quirky cafés, world-class brew pubs, boutique hotels, secluded temples – that sort of jazz. Little things that help make a place unique.

 

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Dublin, Ireland

Arguably the world’s finest literary legacy. Crumbling Georgian architecture. Noble Celtic heritage. St James Gate and Guinness by the barrel full. Atmospheric Liffey River. The green lung of St. Stephen, and the tortured liver of Temple Bar.

If you succeed in removing yourself from the pubs, cafes, and bookshops, Dublin’s hardscrabble streets hold plenty of intrigue for intrepid travelers.

Don’t Miss:

1. The Porterhouse | Brew Pub

16-18 Parliament Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2, Dublin

porterhousebrewco.com

 

2. The Winding Stair | Café & Bookshop

40 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1, Dublin

winding-stair.com

 

3.  Glasnevin Cemetery | Cemetery and Museum

Glasnevin Museum, Finglas Road, Glasnevin, Dublin 11, Dublin

glasnevintrust.ie

 

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Seoul, South Korea

To the world Seoul is bright neon lights, fuel-efficient cars, genetic research, and mountains of kimchi. The Land of the Morning Calm is deservedly lauded as a spreading ground for future tech, and well known as the K-pop powerhouse, and rightfully so – just try and pretend you don’t sing Gangnam Style on your way to work – though Seoul is furiously rebranding as a design-centric, green-focused hub to East Asia, and a welcoming haven for the independent traveler.

Some of the world’s best street food, Korean BBQ, ancient palaces, bustling markets, and a furious nightlife scene make Seoul one of the most exciting places to visit in East Asia.

Don’t Miss:

1. Namdaemun Market

49-1 Namchang-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul

Subway Line4, Hoehyeon Station

 

2. Gyeongbokgung Palace

161, Sajik-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul

 

3. Anyang Art Park

Anyang 2-dong, Manan-gu, Anyang, Gyeonggi Province

 

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Yangon, Burma

Burma, Myanmar, the mystical python kingdom, is a place where nothing is ever as it seems, and expectations are shaped on the fly. There is a side of this country that few visitors ever get to experience, even though it exists right before their eyes. Yangon is a vast, quixotic city, home to busy thoroughfares that shoulder ancient pagodas, an absurd chicken market, a vibrant, colorful Indian Quarter, crumbling colonial architecture, and some of the world’s friendliest people.

Watch the breathtaking Shwedagon Pagoda come to life at night, dine on succulent Shan noodles at a hole-in-the-wall café, swap black-market currency in Chinatown, and walk among the ghosts along Strand Road at midnight.

Don’t Miss:

1. Chicken Wholesale Market

Outside Yangon, near the airport

 

2. Shwedagon Paya

Dagon Township, Yangon

Daily: 5:00 pm–10:00 pm (closed on Saturday and Sunday)

 

3. 999 Shan Noodle Shop

No. 130 B 34th Street, Kyauktada Township, Yangon

 

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Montreal is more than just curds, fries, and gravy (if you’re not familiar with poutine, then I feel sorry for you). Montreal sits at the epicenter of one of the most unique cultural enclaves in all of North America. Old European charm, contemporary art and design, raucous nightlife, fine French dining, invigorating green spaces, and enthralling boutiques, galleries, and museums culminate in Quebec’s marvelous cultural capital, and imbue all who visit with a certain joie de vivre.

Montreal also serves as Canada’s craft beer capital, which may put a serious hurting on your early morning photographic designs.

Don’t Miss:

1. Patati Patata

Dining in Montreal begins and ends with a trip to a local poutine shop. Poutine is a unique Quebecois dish of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy. Patati Patata is a favorite among young locals. 4177 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal, Quebec. 9am-11pm.

 

2. Dieu du Ciel

Craft brewers like Le Cheval Blanc, and L’Amère à Boire have been brewing brilliantly for years, but Dieu du Ciel sets itself apart with masterpieces like the Corpus Christi Rye Ale and the Peche Mortel Imperial Stout. 29 Avenue Laurier Ouest, Montreal, Quebec. www.dieuduciel.com

 

3. Atwater Market

Shop for artisanal breads, cheeses, and chocolates at this robust market built in the 1930s. Dig a little deeper for gems like seaweed caviar, salted codfish, and fresh pig’s feet. 138 Avenue Atwater, Montreal, Quebec. www.marchespublics-mtl.com

 

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Chicago, Illinois, USA

Chicago is a city on the cutting edge of gastronomy, urban design, contemporary culture, and, well, gigantic metallic beans.

Chicago is unlike any other place in America. It’s more than the Midwest’s biggest hitching post; Chicago’s culinary dreamscape is every bit as nuanced as New York’s, and not half as pretentious. Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, formerly home to about a million slaughterhouses, is now the ultimate pit-stop for haute pub grub (Haymarket Brewery); the Market District has a fancy new tenant in the beloved Schwartz Pickle Factory (One Sixtyblue); and that notorious deep-dish death sentence pizza is never more than a few blocks away (Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria).

Chicago is so enticing, in fact, that even Batman decided to relocate here on Christopher Nolan’s wishes. It may have been the skyline that brought the Dark Knight West; one look at the shimmering towers from Lincoln Park or Northerly Island at sunset is enough to make anyone want to pack a toothbrush into their utility belt.

Don’t Miss:

1. Lincoln Park

For brilliant views of Chicago’s skyline.

2045 North Lincoln Park West, Chicago, IL

 

2. Haymarket Brew Pub

737 W Randolph St  Chicago, IL 60661
Tel. (312) 638-0700 haymarketbrewing.com

 

3. Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria

805 S. State Street, South Loop, Chicago, IL 60605

Tel. (312) 786-1000 loumalnatis.com

 

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Hong Kong, SAR, China

Arriving in Hong Kong is to step into the future – at least how I’ve always dreamed the future may look, so long as the future is a curious blend of Bladerunner style and Disney-sponsored endorsement deals. HK is the financial wunderkind of the east, and the post-modern skyline reflects that; skyscrapers stretch from one island to the next in an infinite concrete and glass conflux. At times the city seems so foreign and impenetrable that it’s hard to wrap your head around – you want to see more than high-rise apartment blocks and shopping malls, but you can’t figure out how. That’s half the fun, of course; exploring this psedo-dystopia is one good time after the other, once you realize that you’re never too far away from world-class dim sum, a traditional Chinese Market, a 7-star hotel spa, planet earth’s wildest grey market, and an armada of traditional dragon boats built to cruise.

Don’t Miss:

1. Fragrant Lotus | Restaurant

160-164 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong

Tel. 852-2544-4556

 

2. Peninsula Hong Kong | Hotel

Salisbury Rd, Hong Kong

Tel. 852-2920-2888, peninsula.com

 

3. MacLehose Trail | Hiking Trail

Sai Kung District, New Territories East, Hong Kong

 

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Luang Prabang, Laos

Tangerine-robed monks toting parasols through the mist. Elephants crashing through the jungle. Asia’s most underrated cuisine. Dark Beer Lao. Waterfalls demanding ill-advised cannonballs. An incredible open air night market (the best place in the city to sample traditional Lao food), a vibrant local arts scene, and more Buddhist temples than almost any other city on earth. Just thinking of our time in Luang Prabang has me yearning for hotpot by the Mekong River, sausages infused with lemongrass, canoe trips on the murky water, and chilly bottles of Dark Beer Laos – seriously, I can’t stress how much I love this beer.

Though it is not known as a land of superlatives – there is no highest mountain here, no longest river there, no park of pagodas anywhere – Laos offers opportunities to experience something different every day, whether you’re looking for excitement on the river, adventures in the jungle, or relief from the urgency of humanity in the most elegant of Asian cities. The slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is indeed a pilgrimage of a certain kind, while Luang Prabang itself is the sort of place where you can unwind until your visa runs dry.

Don’t Miss:

1. Villa Deux Rivieres | Hotel

One of my favorite hotels in Asia; next door is a really unique vegan restaurant serving traditional Lao food with a veggie twist.

Kingkitsalath Rd 43 Unit 02, Luang Prabang

Tel. +8562077377571 villadeuxrivieres.com

 

2. Phou Si and Wat Chom Si

Climb to the top of the hill in the center of town for fantastic views of the city and her rivers. Evening views are spectacular, but remember a torch for the walk down.

 

3. Ock Pop Tok | Retail Shop

Handmade textiles, arresting bric-a-brac; runs textiles workshops and tours to local villages.

73/5 Ban Vat Nong, Luang Prabang,

Tel. +856 71 253219

 

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Porto, Portugal

Porto is the birthplace of Port Wine. If that doesn’t do it for you, then you don’t like travel (or you’re not a raging alcoholic, I guess). If you manage to dig yourself out of a port cellar long enough to explore the city, you’ll find gorgeous medieval architecture in the form of ancient fishing apartments along the beautiful Duoro River; the Ribeira is a UNESCO World Heritage area done right. A river cruise is a great way to spend an evening, but you can’t go wrong exploring Porto’s litany of churches and cathedrals, testing your mettle on the city’s towering bridge during a storm, and rewarding your bravery with a sinfully delicious Francesinha sandwich.

The whole of Porto’s old center is a photographer’s dream; ferret warrens connecting one crumbling building to another, caves concealing quirky cafés, and hilly terrain marked by galleries, shops, and restaurants.

Don’t Miss:

1. Bufete Fase | Restaurant

Rua de Santa Catarina 1147, 4000 Oporto

Tel. 351 222 052 118

 

2. Sandeman Port Cellars

Largo Miguel Bombarda 3, Vila Nova de Gaia

Tel. 351 223 740 534 sandeman.eu

 

3. Mercado do Bolhão | Market

Rua Fernandes Tomás, 4000-214 Oporto

Tel. 351 223 326 024

 

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Hoi An, Vietnam

A sleepy Vietnamese town on the Thu Bon River, a place where colorful shops loom over ancient cobbled streets, lanterns illuminate the path through a grandiose covered bridge, and tiny men pilot tiny skiffs across the glassy surface of the water. At the river’s edge, crates have been turned upside down and stand in as tables, with tiny plastic stools nearby. A plump, jovial woman places a steaming bowl of Cao Lau before visitors – tongues wag in awe. Cao Lau is a regional dish made with hearty flat noodles, pork, and veggies. The noodles are made with water from an ancient Cham well, while the recipe is a closely guarded secret (if you believe what you hear on the road. I try to believe as much as I’m told).

Dining on the river in Hoi An is a quintessential Vietnamese experience. Foodies flock here to sample what may be the best-tasting noodle dish on the planet, But Hoi An is more than a place to stuff your face; it’s one of Asia’s most charming and laid back travel destinations (quite a feat for a country with roughly 400 million motorbikes). I’m a huge fan of sipping frosty beer by the river for pennies a glass, shooting the beautiful Japanese covered bridge (especially when there’s a local wedding taking place), sampling what seems like an endless array of local culinary delicacies, haggling over prices on shiny suits (none of which I ever buy), launching paper lanterns over the Thu Bon River as night falls, and reveling in the solitude of a slow boat ride out to sea.

Don’t Miss:

1. Morning Glory | Restaurant

106 Nguyễn Thái Học, Hội An

Tel. +84 510 3241 555

 

2. Hoi An Photo Tours

54 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hội An

Tel. 090567198, hoianphototour.com

 

3. Japanese Covered Bridge

At the West end of Tran Phu St., Hội An

 

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Jodhpur, India

Just about any city in India could have made this list, but I decided to go with the one that pissed me off the least. Delhi is insane, and a fantastic place to photographic, but a bit of an overwhelming, nightmarish glut of humanity. Agra has the Taj… and that’s about it. Udaipur’s stark whiteness is mesmerizing, but when we found a dead cow floating in our fishing hole, it was disqualified from this list. Jodhpur, then, takes the title! And why not? It’s as bright and vibrant as any other city in India.

Jodhpur’s market is a buzzing hive of human activity – but it’s unlikely that someone will grab your ass or touch your face at random the way they might in Delhi. Views of the Blue City from Mehrangarh Fort are sensational – so long as you brought a telephoto lens to compress the perspective. The giant clock tower at the center of town (in the middle of the market) may help you get orientated after wandering through the endless maze of ancient alleyways, while the shopping is apparently fantastic (I avoided it like the plague – which I think I got from a rat in one of the havelis. Learned my lesson about flip-flops in India).

Don’t Miss:

1. Mehrangarh Fort

The Fort, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, 342006

Tel. 0291 254 8790

 

2. Sardar Market

You don’t need an address for this. Follow your nose – or look for the clock tower at the heart of the market.

3. Ice Cream Shop

We wandered down the main drag south of the clock tower for about 30 minutes to find this place – and for the life of me, I can’t find the name in my notes. Oops. The secret dies with me.

 

There you have it – the cities that have inspired me most. Some were a lock from the start (Dublin, Seoul, Yangon) while others made it in at the last second (Jodphur, Chicago). I’d love to know what cities have inspired you!

 

Honorable Mention:

Chiang Mai, Thailand | Toronto, Canada | San Francisco, California | Galle, Sri Lanka

Beijing, China | Jogjakarta, Indonesia | Pokhara, Nepal

 

- flash

PS: I’m much better at updating my Facebook page, so if you’re so inclined, head over there for the last goings on from the empire.  Click to join me on Facebook

Asian Geographic: Conversations with Invisible Men

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Conversations with Invisible Men

This article comes from Asian Geographic, Issue 5, 2012: Hands and Feet.

I’ve included the article as it appears in the magazine, as well as my original text.

 

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Conversations with Invisible Men

By Flash Parker

Asian Geographic Magazine

There was not much flesh on the Buddha’s hand. I found a bit of meat on that space between the thumb and forefinger, but otherwise the Buddha’s hand left me grasping for something more substantial. It looked beautiful next to the rockfish my host had sautéed in salt, pepper, and garam masala, but I suspected the Buddha’s hand was tossed into the pot as a nothing more than a garnish; the Buddha’s hand, for those that don’t know, is a bright yellow citrus fruit known for its fragrant aroma and limited use in the kitchen. Priya, my host, was in her mid-20s, and carried herself with an air of regal dignity, wrapped as she was in the bright colors of her native India. Priya was for a few years enrolled at the University of Toronto, and learned a thing or two about culinary extravagance from an uncle that owned his own Indian restaurant. I asked if her Buddha’s hand and rockfish recipe was an ancient family secret. She dipped a bit of fish into olive oil, and then she shrugged. “I learned it from the internet,” she said. “But if you are really interested in the secret of the Buddha’s hand, I know someone you should speak with.”

MEET THE RACONTEURS

The raconteurs are a group of elderly men who wander the streets of Udaipur, aggressively debating the nature of existence and all that life has to offer. Mohanlal is the youngest, brashest, and loudest of the bunch. It was his voice I heard booming from the rear of the Jagdish Temple.

“I don’t believe in having conversations with invisible men,” Mohanlal said. Mohanlal appeared to be substantially less destitute than his friend Vikas, as if Mohanlal had yet to experience all that life on the streets of Udaipur had to offer. Vikas tugged at his long white beard and listened attentively. “What has your God, or any other God for that matter, done to help me? What has any God ever done to help you, Vikas?” Mohanlal said. “Speaking with invisible men is a waste of time. Religion is a weapon used by clever people to appease the oppressed. If the poor and the stupid are promised a better station in their next life, then they have no reason to complain in this one!” Mohanlal rubbed his grubby hands together as he made his point.

Vikas looked deeply into the eyes of his friend, smiled, and turned his attention to me. “Do you agree with this man?” Vikas asked. I said that I didn’t know whether I agreed or not.

“I was hoping that you could tell me something about the Buddha’s hand,” I said.

“Then you are just as stupid as the rest of them,” Mohanlal said.

Vikas took my hands in the gnarled roots that passed as his own and faced my palms outward, my fingers pointed at the sky. “This is the abhaya,” Vikas said. “This is the gesture of protection. Do you feel as though you are protecting me when you make this gesture?” I said that I did not. “This is because you do not believe it,” Vikas said.

Mohanlal spit a jet of crimson betel nut juice onto the ground. “Foolishness,” he said. Mohanlal touched the tips of his thumb and index finger together and pointed his three remaining fingers at my face. “This is the gesture of debate,” he said. “But if I really wanted to start an argument with you, I would be better served by poking you in the eye.”

Mohanlal and Vikas carried on like this while my mind dialed up a memory from East Java, Indonesia, and the ancient temple of Borobodur, where I had first heard of the mudra. My guide at the time explained the concept of the five qualities of the Buddha, or the Five Dhyani, and how they embody the principles of enlightenment. I didn’t quite grasp how a simple repositioning of the hands could hold power over the cosmos, but with Vikas, Mohanlal, and their friends perched upon the balustrades at the Jagdish Temple before me in this bustling Indian city, I began to come to terms with how much sway belief has over the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

“Disbelief is the single biggest obstacle we must overcome in our lives,” Vikas said, “while opprobrium for what we do believe in can be every bit as problematic.” I thought of the Buddha’s hand. In its natural form, the fruit has little to offer. But in my mind I can imagine it becoming more; with the proper tools, I can make something nourishing from it.

“A conversation with God is no different,” Vikas said. “I cannot see him, nor can I hear him. If I believe that the Buddha’s hands are empty, then they will be empty. But if I allow myself to believe that they can point me towards enlightenment, then they possess something very powerful indeed.”

THE CAWING OF CROWS

I’m not a spiritual tourist, and I am certainly no hagiographer, but it is difficult not to get caught in the spirit of things when people like Vikas are holding court for a grand audience. Yet Mohanlal also made what I thought was a sound argument. Therein lay the problem for people like me who sit on the fence with regards to this whole religion thing; the pages of history are filled with stories of men and women who offered the world to the devoted with one hand, and swiped away their dignity with the other. The concept of the hand as the driving force for change and belief is a big one, especially in Asia, where tactility drives nations forward. In India, men and women work with their hands. What those hands are able to do has a direct bearing on where they may find themselves on the sliding scale of the cycle of life at any given moment.

After listening to Mohanlal and Vikas communicate with invisible men, I went for a walk around Lake Pichola in an effort to make sense of what I had heard. I crossed a small bridge where two boys were fishing; the older boy was teaching the younger boy how to fix bait to his hook. On the opposite side of the bridge, an older man stood waist-deep in the water, washing his face and brushing his teeth. Beneath me, a dead cow was pushed into deeper waters by a teenaged boy. I know of no artist in the world who could have so succinctly drawn a picture of the cycle of life. I wondered what drove these men; I wondered what they believed in.

Standing on that bridge, I couldn’t help but reexamine Mohanlal’s skepticism. Where some men see a prophet, Mohanlal sees a false idol. Mohanlal does not believe because he is told to believe; he demands proof. Buddhism, Hinduism, mudras, the principals of enlightenment, and the infinite power of the cosmos have been around so long that by their very nature they seem infallible – the codes and tenants of these ancient religions exist because people believe in them, and people believe in them because they exist. The Buddha’s hands hold the key to enlightenment because they have always done so. Modern profits have had a difficult time making magic with their hands, as the people of India know full well. Śri Sathya Sai Baba worked his way into the national conscience by claiming to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi, a beloved spiritual seraph. For three-quarters of a century Sathya Sai Baba performed acts with his hands that were considered miraculous among the devoted and deceitful among skeptics. Sathya Sai Baba claimed to be able to heal the sick, materialize inanimate objects from nothing, and levitate. Sathya Sai Baba drew legions of believers, but also amassed a great mass of skeptics who claimed he did little more than take advantage of poor, unfortunate souls who yearned simply for something to believe in. Sathya Sai Baba claimed that in his hands his followers would find salvation; when he heeled the sick, he compared himself and his abilities to Jesus Christ, saying that "Jesus Christ underwent many hardships, and was put to the cross because of jealousy. Many around him could not bear the good work he did and the large number of followers he gathered. One of his disciples, Judas, betrayed him. In those days there was one Judas, but today there are thousands. Just as that Judas was tempted to betray Jesus, the Judases of today, too, are bought out to lie. Jealousy was the motive behind the allegations leveled at him." By likening himself to Jesus Christ, Sathya Sai Baba left his followers to decide whether the modern man was capable of performing miracles with his own two hands. Many of these followers decided that they would be better off believing.

PALM TO PALM

Hands, in the context of faith, are handled in quite a different way across different religions – they are not always used as a key to the door to enlightenment, as instruments of deception, or harbingers of magic. The teachings of Islam discourage physical contact on the grounds that contact may lead to familiarity that is unwanted on the part of females; the shaking of hands, in particular, is considered especially taboo. The hands are considered powerful tools, but not because they have the ability to shift cosmic energies, bring inanimate things to life, or turn water to wine; hands, as an extension of the human body, and therefore the human spirit, have the power to create desire. Desire can lead to lust, and lust can lead to wanton action. Wanton action, of course, is sinful action. Sinful actions are always to be avoided, so touching the hand of a woman is to be avoided. This makes the human hand a very powerful thing indeed; if there is so much potential sin emanating from a simple handshake, what sort of temptation and immorality lay in the palm of the hand?

As reported by al-Tabaraani from the hadeeth of Ma’qil ibn Yasaar, the prophet said, “It is better for you to be stabbed in the head with an iron needle than to touch the hand of a woman who is not permissible to you.” A man whom places his palm in the palm of a woman has wronged himself; while he may repent, he has invalidated his ablution, and for all intents and purposes he has sullied his character and spirit.

Generally speaking, all things that lead to temptation are prohibited by Islamic Law, though many scholars argue that this is out of a base respect for the rights of women. These scholars often refer to a verse from the Quran that reads, “"O Prophet! When believing women come to thee to take the oath of fealty to thee, that they will not associate in worship any other thing whatever with Allah, that they will not steal, that they will not commit adultery, that they will not kill their children, that they will not utter slander, intentionally forging falsehood, and that they will not disobey thee in any just matter, then do thou receive their fealty, and pray to Allah for the forgiveness (of their sins): for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Al Mumtahinah 60:12). When women accepted the conditions of this verse in the presence of the prophet, he received their oath of allegiance by word alone, refusing to shake their hands. Born of respect, this tradition continues today.

AN ORTHODOX APPROACH

Similar attitudes towards physical contact, and restrictions relating to the hands, can be found in Judaism. Orthodox Jews distance themselves from most forms of physical contact on the grounds of respect; by refusing to touch one another, by refusing to shake hands with laypeople, Jews are reminded of the sanctity of their most important bonds – both familial and marital. In the eyes of nonbelievers, this can be seen as a form of disrespect; in Western societies, where shaking hands is a casual form of greeting or an important part of business making, the refusal to shake hands can be viewed as off-putting, or even offensive. Yet Orthodox Jews view a prohibition on physical contact as an acknowledgement of the latent attraction between women and men, and a handshake, however innocent it may seem, may lead to something more severe. The hands, again, possess latent power in and of themselves. By refusing to allow them to fall into the hands of another, hands allow the faithful to reaffirm their respect for one another – and exclude any notion of casual sexual intimacy from even the most chance encounters.

HOT IN INDIA

Yet the Jews like to have a little spiritual fun of their own, characterized by the myriad symbols, motifs, and ornaments related to hands.

One of the most popular symbols in Jewry is the Hamesh Hand, a motif often found on pendants and bracelets. The symbol features an inverted hand with an eye at the center, and is used to represent the Hand of God. The Hamesh Hand is used as protection from the evil eye, a malevolent spiritual force aroused by jealous and envy. Historically, the concept of the evil eye has been associated with Judaism, though many other religions connect the spiritual power of the hand to the malevolent forces of the eyes.

In fact, the Hamesh Hand is known in Araabic as the Hamsa Hand, or the Hand of Fatima, and is similarly used to ward off the evil eye. There is some speculation that this apotropaic amulet predates both Islam and Judaism, and represents the hand of a Persian goddess; when this goddess placed her hand over the face of any man, their symptoms of envy and jealousy would abate. Hindus have their own way of dealing with the evil eye; often, when the evil eye is suspected of falling upon a member of a house, that member must crush dried red chilies into a powder and then burn the powder in their palm. I was tempted to raise an eyebrow in Mohanlal’s direction and present him a bag of chili powder, but thought better of this idea when I considered what sort of curse I may inadvertently lay upon myself.

THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD

Some folks need tactile evidence of a miracle in order to begin believing. Some folks need only to believe in the possibility of a miracle. I wondered how Vikas and Mohanlal would react in the presence of the world’s most famous hands.

If Jesus and I were skipping stones across Lake Pichola, I would ask him to turn the tepid water into wine. I want to believe in miracles, but I require that they happen before my own eyes. I am a skeptic by nature, but only because I know what the hands of man are capable of. The hands of the ordinary man are every bit as flawed as man himself – at once capable of great and evil deeds. The hands of Christ, so I have been told, were capable only of kindness and compassion. I wonder what Mohanlal might have said after shaking hands with Jesus; Jesus had a soft spot for beggars, after all. Jesus saw life through the eyes of skilled tradesmen and common folk, and it was with them that he connected. Like them, his hands were rough, calloused, and strong; they were capable hands. Jesus was a carpenter, and with his hands he built great things. What would Mohanlal have made of those hands?

I imagined Jesus presenting his palms to Vikas. As light illuminated from the palms, Vikas would have known that salvation was at hand. Mohanlal would have required Jesus to use his hands to build something of worth in order to believe in him, while Vikas would have required nothing more than an assurance that his faith would be rewarded. In the end, both would have believed, in their own way, in the power held in the hands of the crafty carpenter.

A PROPHET AND A PAINTER

Asia has long been a spreading ground for prophets who would do miraculous things with their hands – and ended up dead because of it. The Iranian prophet Mani has been forgotten in even his own native lands, the Manichaeism gnostic religion he founded no longer practiced. Yet I think Mani would have made an impact in India, if not in Udaipur; he believed that reality is little more than a base conflict between good and evil, or the light and the dark, and that the battle can be won by those who placed their faith in his hands. It didn’t hurt Mani’s cause that he believed himself to be an apostle of Jesus, and the reincarnated spirit of Buddha, Zoroaster, and Ganesha, putting a whole lot of cosmic firepower at his disposal.

Since Mani saw the world in definite black and white, it would have been interesting to see how he painted a picture of Udaipur; Mani was known as a great artist, and he used his paintings to captivate, provoke and motivate his followers. I wonder what Vikas and Mohanlal would have seen when they looked upon the easel; would they see images of heaven (where Mani claimed to have spent much time), or would they have seen a much darker reality?

People are drawn to miracles in dark times – whether those miracles are real, perceived, or something else entirely. Hands, for many, are the vehicle of deliverance. They are the driving force of change, and they carry the hope some people need from one heart to their own. Whether or not men like Sathya Sai Baba or Jesus Christ were able to perform miracles with their hands means little next to the perceived good their hands were able to do; when people are no longer able to take responsibility for their own happiness, they turn to others for guidance. The Buddha’s hands can lead anyone to enlightenment, but only if they chose to believe it is possible. Belief, like Vikas intimated, is the only real secret worth discovering.

- flash

 

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Asian Geographic: Vampires of the Steppe–Part 3.

AsianGeographic2012Issue6-46

VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE

This is the largest piece I’ve written for any magazine to date. A robust 5,700 words, this piece featured in Asian Geographic 2012, Issue 6. It was split into three sections, so I’ve split it into three separate posts for anyone who may be interested in reading the entire piece. Original text follows the spread as it appears in the magazine.

 

AsianGeographic2012Issue6-47AsianGeographic2012Issue6-48AsianGeographic2012Issue6-49

VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE

How Turkic Blood Changed the World: Part 3

By Flash Parker

BLOOD, FANGS, AND SPEARS

I write a note at the top of the page reminding myself not to spend too much time on this crazy witch-hunt. I know the idea that Attila the Hun and Dracula are connected by blood is preposterous, and I know that Dracula is a myth. Yet I also know that most myths are rooted in at list a little bit of truth. Is it possible that Dracula had a bit of Hun blood in him?

I know I can’t approach Ark Raider claiming I’ve found a link between the Anatolian Tiger and Dracula – that would be insane. First of all, the fictional Dracula, the one who sprang from Bram Stoker’s imagination and claimed to be a Székely by birth (and may have had a tenuous connection to the Huns if this were true), never actually existed. The historical Dracula, Vlad III, the Prince of Wallachia, was in fact a Wallachian; the Wallachians would eventually become the modern Romanian ethnic group, but they were never ethnically Turkic people. Furthermore, Vlad III waged numerous campaigns against the Ottoman Turks during his lifetime; for his disobedience Vlad III was imprisoned by Ottoman Sultan Murad II, and subsequently beaten, tortured, and broken. Upon his release Vlad III’s character had changed markedly – he displayed a pathological hatred for the Ottomans, yearned for battle, and began displaying the bloodlust that would stain his character and define his legend forever. In case you didn’t know, Vlad III had a thing for sticking people on pikes, and he may have done it more than 100,000 times.

The fact that the real Dracula was a Wallachian and not a Turk is supported by volumes of historical evidence (and provides me with no small measure of comfort). For a moment I feel as though I have stumbled upon another dead-end; another bloodline that ends in the Middle Ages, another people disconnected from the Turkey of today. On one hand, I’m relieved that Dracula’s progeny no longer walk the earth. On the other, I thought it might be fun to be credited with finding a modern piece of Dracula’s genetic puzzle – I might have even won a Pulitzer for my troubles. At any rate, by drawing Ottoman blood, Dracula has opened the door to a new possibility – one I should have recognized from the very beginning. If Mehmed II was powerful enough to dispatch Vlad the Impaler, perhaps his bloodline has endured to today.

A HOUSE DIVIDED

The Mongols did serious damage on Anatolia soil during the 13th and 14th Centuries. Infighting, politicking, and general foolishness at the highest levels of government didn’t help matters much. The Byzantine Empire was crumbling, the Mongols were retreating to the steppe, and the fractured clans of the former Bulgar kingdom could not agree on where to graze their cattle, let alone on who should rule an empire. Out of this chaos rose the Ottoman Empire, led by the first sultan, Osman I.

The empire flourished for more than six centuries, and was only dissolved in 1923 – though more than 100 years of political maneuvering against the British Empire, the Crimean War, and a rising wave of ethnic nationalism that swept across Eurasia had reduced the Ottoman Empire to a shell of its former self, and it was never to regain the glorious standing it enjoyed on the world stage during the 16th Century. Aligning itself with the Central Powers during World War I was simply the last gasp of a wasted kingdom.

Sultans ruled uninterrupted from 1299 to 1922, an unprecedented reign for any modern empire. Ertuğrul Bey, a leader of the Oghuz Turks and the father of Osman I, set the stage for his son to found the Ottoman Empire in the face of Byzantine rule; the House of Osman would send 36 sultans to the throne. Some, like the great Suleiman I, reigned for 46 years. Meticulous records have been kept dating all the way back to Ertuğrul Bey, even as they relate to the Imperial Harem.

A sultan’s harem often included dozens, if not hundreds of concubines, and while it is conceivable that concubines bore sons and daughters that were never recorded in historical texts, it is unlikely that the Anatolian Tiger was born as a result of one of these extra-matrimonial arrangements, and unlikelier still that he is a direct descendant of the House of Osman. The entire house was declared persona non grata under a provision of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, and the sultan and his family were banished from Turkey. The family was allowed to return to Turkey some years later, and were even afforded an opportunity to apply for Turkish citizenship in 1974, though most Turkish citizens are in no rush to retreat from a democratic parliamentary republic and return to life under an absolute monarchy.

There are currently 24 princes standing in the line of succession behind Osman Bayezid Osmanoğlu, who would have been styled Grand Sultan Bayezid III had the sultanate never been abolished; some of the men in line after Osman Bayezid Osmanoğlu are businessmen, some are foreign diplomats, and some are comedians. Some live in Turkey, while others live in France (where a large number of the royal family sought refuge after being exiled), the United States, Germany, and Canada. In addition to these 24 princes there are hundreds of Osman princes and princesses who are officially linked by blood to the empire. Whether or not descendants of the House of Osman are welcomed with open arms into the Turkish business community is a matter of debate, but one I’m not likely to be having with Ark Raider’s Anatolian Tiger.

As I fill pages with ethnogenetic trivia, I realize that I’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole to ever come back. By digging deeper and deeper into these bloodlines I have come to realize that they are all connected in some way. The Anatolian Tiger may share a blood link with Suppiluliuma, Attila, Dracula, or Osman, he may be connected to all of them, or he may be connected to any one of the Turkic peoples I have failed to mention – I could delve just as deeply into the bloodlines of the Turkmens, Uyghurs, Kyrgyzs, Sejjuks or the Gogturks and I may arrive at the same conclusion. Attila’s grave has never been found, and scientists are on the whole afraid to swab Dracula’s fangs for DNA; suffice to say, unlocking ancient genomes is not likely to happen any time soon. We’ll never know if greatest is a genetic trait, or a fluke of history.

Turkey has one of the richest genealogical histories the world has ever known; I could spend a year attempting to break the code of a thousand bloodlines, and I would be no closer to solving this mystery than I am today. If I wrote a book on Turkic genealogy, it would be titled Chapter One – if I followed it with 500 volumes at 5,000 pages each, I would hardly begin to understand how Turkey came to be. This is an awesome thought, at once overwhelming and wholly disheartening, for now I must admit to Ark Raider that I have failed in my quest to uncover the secret of the Anatolian Tiger’s bloodline.

Dejected, I interrupt Ark Raider and his friend. I place my notes, my family trees, my sweat, my blood, and my tears upon the table before them. I begin with an apology. I tell them that I could not solve the mystery – I don’t know where the Anatolian Tiger is descended from, and I do not know which line of Turkic blood is the greatest of all. Ark Raider and his friend exchange worried glances. “You are missing the point,” Ark Raider says, laying a hand upon my shoulder. “All of these lines are great. Each has produced great people, and each holds an esteemed place in Turkic history. But none of these men is an Anatolian Tiger.”

Confused, I look over my research. There must be an answer hidden in here somewhere. Ark Raider consoles me. “You see, we know the identity of the Anatolian Tiger; the tiger is a great city or a state, not a man or a woman. A tiger is built by these great people: for the Ottomans the tiger was Constantinople; for the Bulgars, it was Bolghar; for the Hittites it was the city of Hattusa that lay here in ruins.”

I may have misunderstood Ark Raider in the beginning, but I now understand what he meant all along, and I am bolstered by this revelation; every great civilization, ever great people, has the capacity to bear a tiger. Each of these bloodlines was great in its own time. A city cannot become a tiger without a great bloodline to build it, to facilitate its rise, and to preside over it. The real power of blood is in the potential, and any bloodline may rise to the occasion.

In the end, Ark Raider asks me a question. “I will tell you the name of the tiger if you ask,” he says. I consider his offer, then respectfully decline. I’d like the secret of the tiger and the bloodline that brings him to prominence to remain a secret as long as possible. Besides, I’m still just a little upset that Dracula doesn’t have anything to do with all this.

- flash

Asian Geographic: Vampires of the Steppe–Part 2.

AsianGeographic2012Issue6-40

VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE

This is the largest piece I’ve written for any magazine to date. A robust 5,700 words, this piece featured in Asian Geographic 2012, Issue 6. It was split into three sections, so I’ve split it into three separate posts for anyone who may be interested in reading the entire piece. Original text follows the spread as it appears in the magazine.

 

AsianGeographic2012Issue6-41AsianGeographic2012Issue6-42AsianGeographic2012Issue6-43AsianGeographic2012Issue6-44AsianGeographic2012Issue6-45

VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE

How Turkic Blood Changed the World: Part 2

By Flash Parker

THE SCOURGE OF THE STEPPE

With an exasperated sigh I set down my notebook on the edge of the table and look out over the Turkish countryside. I have failed to shed a drop of the tiger’s blood, and now the scent has left the air. The tiger is not descended from a lost Turkic civilization – that much I am sure of. I scratch my head and twist the corners of my mustache, hoping to come to some sort of revelation. If the tiger’s blood were in some way connected to Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, or Sargon, I would have no problem finding the blood link. History has a way of remembering merciless despot warrior kings, after all. Is it possible that Ark Raider is making an erroneous link between his tiger and the Great Khan? It wouldn’t be a stretch; as many as eight-percent of men currently living in former Mongol territories share Y-chromosome similarities with the Ghengis line.

I decide to eavesdrop on Ark Raider for clues. “The tiger is already fierce,” he says. “Powerful, ambitious, and hungry.” His friend considers this for a moment. “But ambition left unchecked can quickly become prejudicial,” the friend says, “especially when the tiger does not get his way. Then the tiger may become the scourge of the steppe, bloodthirsty and angry.”

I slap my hands together so hard I’m sure goats six towns over are having heart attacks. Why didn’t I see the link before? Why did it take until now to realize that Ark Raider was talking about the man whose legend made Genghis quake in his boots? The scourge of the steppe must be another name for the Scourge of God – the one and only Attila the Hun.

Attila the Hun was kicking ass on the steppe long before the mighty Genghis was even a glint on papa Khan’s bloodstained sword. Attila’s vast armies spread across the countryside the way my spilled coffee spreads across the white linen table cloth. Just as my waitress is nonplussed at the sight of my transgression, so too did Attila piss off just about every man and woman he happened across. Being Attila the Hun, he didn’t put up with much gruff; disrespect or dissent was likely to be met with a yak-hide boot to the chops, while more serious contraventions met with more serious punishments: some legends hold that Attila trained his horses to eat human flesh, and he would feed them the still-beating hearts of his enemies. Historians reluctantly concede that Attila’s nomadic Hun’s were forbearers of the Turkic people, despite genealogical claims from every corner of the globe. If I could get away with it, I too would claim Hun ancestry, though my ineptitude with a sword would certainly give me away. Suddenly I feel as though I’m on the right track this time.

I apologize to my waitress, tear the ancient history from my notebook, and begin looking deep into the tiger’s past. I consider pricking my finger and writing this chapter in my own blood – it seems like something Attila might do.

I understand that claiming a direct link between the tiger and Attila is presumptuous; historians have been making the same concerted efforts for hundreds of years. Chasing a single drop of blood through history is a daunting task, even if that blood belongs to a historical juggernaut like Attila the Hun. His DNA was never harvested by a mosquito and then locked in an amber marble, so it seems unlikely that scientists will ever unlock the secret code to his genome and populate a remote island with snarling, sword wielding proto-Turks. Yet there are some clues as to how the Huns may have contributed to the modern-day Turkish gene pool. Sorting out who tossed a chlorinated DNA tablet into the deep end is another matter entirely.

The Huns descended from a line of ancient nomads who ruled the Mongolian steppe, coexisting with the Han Dynasty between 206 BCE – 220 CE; these nomads were known as the Xiongnu, and they were a force to be reckoned with long before Attila appeared on the scene. In fact, the Xiongnu were so ferocious that they terrified the Chinese into building the first sections of the Great Wall. When the Han Chinese finally mustered the courage to launch an all-out assault on the Xiongnu, some Xiongnu clans headed west, pillaging and plundering along the way. One particularly battle-hardy clan landed in Scythia, and proceeded to pummel all adversaries into submission. The Scythian tribes that were not obliterated joined forces with this new power, and the Huns were born.

When Attila was born in 406 CE, the Huns were a scattered alliance of nomadic herders. Each clan had a separate king, and clans frequently warred with one another over territory, livestock, and tributes. The Roman Empire pitted clans against one another to serve their own purposes, such as when they needed mercenaries to dispatch hostile nomads from distant territories. Sometime after 420 CE, Attila’s uncle Rua brought the Hun clans together by killing these feuding kings; Rua subsequently united the Hun clans against the common Roman enemy, and demanded tribute payments in exchange for keeping the peace – and the odd freelance mercenary assignment. With the tribute gold received from the Eastern Romans in Constantinople, the Huns were able to transition from relying on a pastoral economy to one based on currency and the exchange of goods; this allowed the Huns to build cities and centralize their government, as they were no longer required to follow herds of livestock across the steppe.

When Rua died, his nephews Attila and Bleda took power, and sough immediately to expand the Hunnic Empire. The Huns waged war for a time in Persian territories, but a defeat at the hands of the Sassanian Empire forced them to turn their attention – and their bloodlust – on the Romans. Bleda and Attila ran roughshod through a number of Eastern Roman cities before Constantinople again bought a measure of peace – for a price so steep that the Huns were able to build great cities of their own, and pay for thunderous campaigns Attila would soon launch against his enemies.

A BARBARIAN LOVE STORY

Attila took control of the Hunnic Empire upon Belda’s death in 445 CE; again Attila attacked the Eastern Romans, this time taking the Balkans, and steadily marched on Constantinople. The Romans paid the Huns for their trouble yet again, saving their great city in a last-gasp effort. The intervening years would see Attila mount a series of campaigns against the Romans and other enemies, while the Romans attempted desperately to assassinate the leader of the Huns in an effort to exert a measure of control over the steppe.

A watershed moment in the history of the Huns occurred in 450 CE. Attila had formed an uneasy alliance with Emperor Valentinian III of the Western Roman Empire, joining forces to sack Toulouse, at the time a part of the Visigoth kingdom. Attila had previously assisted the Western Romans in their campaigns against the Bagaudae and the Goths, and he enjoyed a good relationship with the powerful Roman general Flavius Aëtius.

Shortly before attacking Toulouse, Attila received an entreaty from the Roman princess Honoria (sister of Valentinian III): Honoria had been betrothed to a man she feared, and she begged Attila to rescue her. Attila interpreted Honoria’s entreaty as a marriage proposal – she had sent a ring to the king of the Huns, after all – and demanded half of the Western Roman Empire as a dowry. Valentinian III refused, and Attila promptly marched his great army into France and Germany, pillaging and plundering his way to claiming his new wife.

Attila met his old friend Aëtius on the battlefields of Catalaunia. With the assistance of numerous vassal states the Romans were able to keep Attila from riding roughshod through all the European territories – and wiping Christian Europe from the face of the earth in the process. Attila had failed in spreading his bloodline deep into enemy territory, and was unable to claim his Roman bride, markedly altering the course of Hunnic history.

Infuriated at his defeat in France, Attila turned his attention to Rome. Italy had been devastated by a famine in 452 CE, and Attila saw an opportunity to lay waste to the Roman Empire once and for all – he also saw this as an opportunity to take Honoria as his bride. If Attila couldn’t wipe out the Romans, he would reign as their Emperor instead. The Huns sacked Milan with ease, but did not anticipate the effects of the famine on their own warriors. Subsequently, they were forced to retreat from Italy, as the Pope sighed with no small measure of relief.

Attila died soon after, and his death rocked his empire. His sons quarreled for control, again splitting the Huns into feuding clans. Attila’s oldest son Ellac eventually won control of the throne, but not before the Huns lost most of their own important vassal states. The Huns were forced out of major strategic posts in Europe, Ellac was killed, and another son, Dengizich, took control of the crumbling empire. The ambitious Dengizich deigned to reign supreme as his father had, and looked to exert power over the Eastern Romans once again. The young Hun demanded tribute from Constantinople, but in the process lost the support of his brother, Attila’s third son, Ernakh; Ernakh turned his back on his brother, and left Dengizich to face the Romans with a relatively small band of warriors. Dengizich was defeated by the Byzantines; the few warriors that remained after the slaughter joined Ernakh’s ranks, and integrated with the Bulgars – precursors to today’s modern Bulgarians. The Huns, as they had been known, were finished.

A CHANGING OF THE GUARDS

The Bulgars make the most substantial claim to the line of the Huns, through their connection to Attila’s sons, yet while they were of Turkic blood, they were never wholly Hunnic; the Bulgars were from the beginning a mix of Scythians, Iranics, Finnos, Suars, and numerous other ethnic bloodlines. The Bulgars thrived in the power vacuum created by the demise of the Huns, and established a modest kingdom on the Pontic steppe, as well as the Islamic state of Volga Bulgaria.

The Bulgar king Kubrat was the nephew of Ernakh, son of Attila. Kubrat was educated in Constantinople, and raised a Christian; he used religion as a tool to unite many Bulgar tribes, and established the kingdom of Great Bulgaria. Great Bulgaria expanded to encompass lands from the Danube to the Volga River, and enjoyed friendly relations with the Byzantine Empire. Kubrat’s death saw his sons seize command of various outposts, engage in numerous expansion battles, and influence bloodlines through Europe and the Near East forever.

Great Bulgaria was eventually annexed by the Khazar Empire, leading to the establishment of the Bulgarian Empire; Kubrat’s son Asparuh ruled the Bulgarian Empire and mounted campaigns against the Byzantines that earned him great respect among his brothers and contemporary clans. When Asparuh signed a treaty with Constantine IV in 681 CE, modern Bulgaria was established. Asparuh’s branch of the Bulgar tree was broken when his people were assimilated by Slavic peoples in the 10th Century.

Kubrat’s son Batbayan’s control over Black Sea territories was likewise stripped by the Khazars, and his Bulgar clans were converted to Judaism. They spread throughout the Balkans and are considered ancestors of the Balkars.

Volgar Bulgaria, ruled by son Kotrag, converted to Islam in the 10th Century, and built great cities that controlled trade throughout the region prior to the Crusades. Volgar Bulgaria stood until Ghengis Khan’s army took the capital of Bolghar in the 13th Century. Bolghar became an integral part of the Golden Horde, but Bulgar culture endured; the people that remained after the Mongol invasion are now considered the ancestors of the modern Tatarstans and Chuvashia peoples, of southeastern and central European Russia, respectively.

Kubrat’s sons Alcek and Kuber settled their Bulgar clans in Italy and Macedonia. These clans were extremely multi-ethnic, and splintered often through history; historians have in general failed to link these ancient bloodlines with any contemporary peoples.

Looking back through history and down the line of the Bulgars, through the Huns, and all the way back to the Xiongnu, it quickly becomes evident that making a real, substantial link to the house of Attila is difficult, if not impossible. I see no end to this odyssey, no end to my frustrating search. For every solid line I discover, ten crooked tangents shoot off in another direction. A kingdom fell here, and a people flourished there – clans rise, tribes fall; some kings procreate, and some great lines turn to dust. One book convinces me that the Chuvashia are the true descendants of Attila, while another persuades me to believe that the Magyars, also known as the Hungarians, have the persuasive power of popular ethnogenesis on their side. Academic journals ask me not to forget about the Khazars, while the Székelys merit some attention for slipping in through Transylvania’s backdoor and claiming Hun ancestry as the gatekeepers to the Carpathians. There is no dearth of claims to be made on Attila’s misshapen crown; even Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula was based in part on a nonfictional Székely lord. It’s frightening to think that even Dracula himself drew the blood of Attila the Hun.

Suddenly, my blood runs cold. A chill races down my spine, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. What if I’m wrong about Attila? What if it is possible to trace his bloodline through the ages? When Ark Raider’s friend made mention of the blood-thirsty tiger, perhaps he was doing so in the most literal sense imaginable. I lower my head, pull my jacked up nice and snug around my neck (one can never be too careful), and slink low into my char. I need to know whether or not the Anatolian Tiger is a descendant of Dracula, and I need to know it now.

- flash

Asian Geographic: Vampires of the Steppe–Part 1.

AsianGeographic2012Issue6-35

VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE

This is the largest piece I’ve written for any magazine to date. A robust 5,700 words, this piece featured in Asian Geographic 2012, Issue 6. It was split into three sections, so I’ve split it into three separate posts for anyone who may be interested in reading the entire piece. Original text follows the spread as it appears in the magazine.

 

AsianGeographic2012Issue6-36AsianGeographic2012Issue6-37AsianGeographic2012Issue6-38AsianGeographic2012Issue6-39

VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE

How Turkic Blood Changed the World: Part 1

By Flash Parker

Blood runs thicker than water. Thicker than oil too, depending on whom you ask. About the only thing in the world thicker than blood is the Turkish coffee that is currently wreaking havoc on my nerves. In case you don’t already know, Turkish coffee is as black as midnight, kicks like a mule, and comes sprinkled with a little bit of magic. I came to Turkey to climb up and down Mount Ararat looking for Noah’s Ark, find an Eastern Karadeniz hamlet to hold up in between summer meadow picnics, trek the Kackar Mountains, and explore the ancient ruins of Hattusas. I even had plans to visit the rock-hewn Sümela Monastery with a basket packed full of anchovy pies, Aryan salted yogurt, and a few Akcabat koftesi meatballs for good measure. Now, with the world’s strongest coffee coursing through my veins, I can hardly remember why I wanted to come out here at all. I suppose even the best laid plans have a way of unraveling.

From my perch at a little café in the remote village of Bogazkale, ancient Hattusa unfolds before me on the steppe. Where moments ago there were only ruins, now the great city stands in all its mighty glory. My mind wants to tell me I’m hallucinating – I’m not much of a coffee drinker after all – but my heart begs me to believe that the city, annihilated more than 3,000 years ago, really does exist. A great wall, six kilometers long and some eight meters thick, protects the outer perimeter; ramparts rise to meet great gates, guarded by fierce lion simulacrums; serfs work the fertile plains; a great chariot thunders towards the southern ramparts carrying a proud king, returning home after the conquest of another distant land. My vision encapsulates the entire ancient kingdom of Hittite; I realize I can’t drink any more coffee.

Voices bring me back to reality. The men at the table next to mine are engaged in a heated conversation. “This is the personification of the Anatolian Tiger,” the gentleman closest to me says as he slams his tiny cappuccino cup down on the table. He’s dressed in a plaid shirt, slacks, and has a scarf wrapped around his waist in a manner that makes him look like he’s about to raid an ark. Ark Raider continues; “the blood of ancient Turkey is pure, and it courses through his veins. Istanbul recognizes this, and she is afraid; soon he will rise to take his place among the greats of history and rule this nation. This is the destiny of the Anatolian Tiger.”

Ark Raider accentuates his point by jabbing his fist at the air; his companion nods, as if everything Ark Raider says is true. For some reason, I want to agree. I’ve heard the term Anatolian Tiger used in casual conversation, even seen it pasted on newspaper headlines throughout the country. As I understand it, an Anatolian Tiger is a businessperson of significant entrepreneurial aptitude, a mover and a shaker, an industrial giant, someone for whom commercial, cultural, and industrial conquest is the rule, and not the exception. In short, an Anatolian Tiger is someone who rules the country.

Synapses firing on meta-human levels, caffeine saturating my brain cells, I start making minute connections. Ark Raider’s Anatolian Tiger must be descended from the royal line of Hittite kings – rulers of the city state of Hattusa – a great civilization that once flourished on this very domain. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians are widely regarded as the giants of the ancient world, and each had a hand in shaping the cultural landscape of what is today modern Turkey, yet the Hittites themselves were at one time as powerful as any of them – perhaps even more so. If Ark Raider’s Anatolian Tiger is in some way connected to these ancient peoples, I want to know how.

As far as most people are concerned, the only Hittites of note were the biblical characters of Uriah and Bathsheba, a warrior in King David’s army, and his wife, respectively. The love triangle between these characters conspired to bring about King David’s downfall, and while this biblical account makes for exciting reading, it is preposterous to think that Ark Raider’s Anatolian Tiger could in any way be linked to the line of the King of the United Kingdom of Israel. The only plausible connection to be made concerns the historical Hittites, the former lords of Anatolia.

My originally planned journey is no longer of consequence; I understand now that my task is to unravel this mystery, and discover the clues to whose blood courses through the tiger’s veins. In short, I must know who had the greatest bloodline of all. I order a fresh pot of coffee, flip to a fresh page in my notebook, and dip my pen in ink. The first lines in the sand have been drawn.

THE BIRTH OF THE TIGERS

The inhospitable terrain of the Anatolian steppe had been home to various peoples for millennia, but the Hittites were the first to lay the foundation of an empire. Hattusa sat at the core of this empire, a strategic stronghold that grew powerful enough to rival the great Egyptians under the leadership of Suppiluliuma I. The royal line of the Hittite kings was considered by many to be divine; these kings sent consorts to far-flung reaches of the empire to spread royal blood and expand the sphere of empirical influence. The ultimate goal of many Hittite kings was to inject Anatolian blood into the Egyptian line of pharaohs. The Egyptians, fearful of the emergent Hittite power after the death of Pharoah Akhenaten in 1336 BCE left the Egyptian line of succession in question, facilitated a covenant to marry the Pharaoh’s widow to one of Suppiluliuma I’s sons. The widow Dakhamunzu, commonly referred to as Nefertiti today, sought to unite the two titans and create the most powerful bloodline the world had ever known. The Assyrians, fearful of this union as a portent of their own downfall, assassinated Prince Zannanza, Suppiluliuma I’s son, and began a campaign of purging Anatolia of Hittite royal blood. The Hittites were enraged; they had long sought an ally with the strength and resources of the Egyptians, and had they succeeded in marrying Zannanza to Dakhamunzu, the next Pharaoh of Egypt would have been a Hittite, and the Hittite line would have changed history forever. Bound by blood, the unified kingdoms would have been able to defeat any army and conquer any territory.

The Hittites struck back at the Assyrians. Strong, disciplined, resourceful, and technologically advanced for the age – the Hittites also had a number of great pyramids in their capital city, but they didn’t brag about them like the Egyptians did – the Hittites engaged in a long campaign against the Assyrians that would weaken their overall power and crack the very foundation of Hattusa – and the Empire. Mursili II, another son of Suppiluliuma I, took the reins of the empire’s mighty chariots – the most feared weapon of war at the time – and dealt a blow to Assyria that was severe and devastating. Bolstered by his triumph, Mursili II sought to reclaim great swaths of Hittite land, spreading his armies thin in the process, though he did manage to send emissaries into the Greek territory of Achae in an effort to inject Hittite blood into the Hellenic lines.

Mursili II and future Hittite kings would war with the other great empires for control of Kadesh, an eastern Mediterranean littoral that had held strategic importance for hundreds of years. The Hittites engaged in open battle against the Egyptians and the legendary Ramses II for control of Kadesh in what was the greatest chariot battle ever fought, while at the same time the Assyrians assailed their flanks. With many soldiers engaged in campaigns in remote outposts of the empire, the Hittites were ill equipped for battle on two fronts. Though they defeated the Egyptians at Kadesh, the Hittites were weakened, and they had no choice but to sign a treaty with Ramesses II; this treaty, the first of its kind, was signed in 1259 BCE and ended more than 200 years of battling over Mediterranean territories between the Hittites and the Egyptians. Hattusili III, a son of Mursili I and king of the Hittites, signed the treaty and wed one of his daughters to Ramesses II. The Egyptians aided the Hittites in their campaign against the Assyrians, and for a time it seemed as though the empire would again flourish, and the great kings of the Anatolian steppe would finally see one of their own rule over the Egyptian Empire as great pharaoh.

Proud, powerful, and headstrong, the future kings of the Hittites spilled as much blood as they spread, as Hattusili III’s sons Tudhaliya IV and Suppililumas II struggled to defend the empire from emergent threats. In the end, it was Hattusa’s remote location that would doom the empire; for ages Hattusa existed as the paragon of strategic military defense, cut off from the rest of the world, impervious to attacks from the sea – the closest major river was hundreds of miles away – and protected by one of the ancient world’s most formidable defensive perimeters. Yet this isolation meant that Hattusa’s supply lines were always vulnerable; the enemies of the empire took notice, and they struck hard. The Assyrian’s pushed deep into Hittite territory while the Phrygians and Kaskas attacked supply lines and trade routes. Hattusa was razed in 1175 BCE, and the last Hittite king’s blood was spilled on the soil of the steppe.

Though the empire had fallen, Hittite kings had succeeded in injecting royal blood into Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian lines; numerous Hittite vassal states were also infused with royal blood. The suddenly mighty Phrygian Empire was also linked to the Hittite through King Gordias, founder of the Phrygian capital Gordium. Historians disagree on accounts of the king’s lineage, but most concede that he had a son named Midas, who donated a great throne to the Oracle of Delphi. King Midas himself had strong Greek ties, but doomed his own line when he accepted the gift of the golden touch from the satyr Silenus. Under the vain and treacherous Midas, the Phrygian line destabilized and disintegrated. Over time the historical and mythical versions of Gordias and Midas have fused into one rich, multi-layered lyrical tapestry, where truth is little more than the thread that binds the narrative together. Whether it was the golden touch that doomed the Phrygian Empire, or the rise of the Cimmerians, or the renewed vigor of the powerful Assyrians that hastened their downfall, the Hittite bloodline was, by all historical accounts, wiped clean from the ancient slate. By the time Hellenistic powers were rising in Anatolia and Alexander the Great was conquering the world, blood that had flowed for centuries had ceased to ebb.

- flash