Did We Learn from The Ruins of Angkor? by Art Zaratsyan

Walking through the ruins of the great capital of once magnificent empire I can't help but to wonder: are we the proverbial those who don't learn from the past, condemned to repeat it?

Angkor, the great ancient city, solemn symbol of old power and might. Once home to over a million inhabitants, until a handful of decades ago it was a forgotten shadow, lost in the jungle. To us visiting this wonder of the world is an adventure. We walk for hours through its vast area, land of hundreds of great temples and thousands of beautiful sculptures. We scurry around struggling to find a quiet corner to snap a photo free of the masses of tourists swarming the place. We try to imagine life back then, what sort of people used to inhabit this city, build these massive structures. We drop our dollars, euros and yuans in the collection trays, light incenses and buy souvenirs. And we leave, taking home gigabytes of images, suitcases of gifts and flurries of memories.

How many of us pause to draw a parallel between the fate of Angkor and our world today? How many of us realize the fragility of life as we know it? How do we know centuries from now another civilization will not find ruins of ours, swallowed by jungle, wondering who we were?

"That won't happen. We're different, we're smarter!" you might say, and I'd ask: based on what?

ISIS, Ebola, drone warfareUkraine, CAR, tar sands, climate change, Fukushima, Uganda, Sudan, Gaza, Syria… The list is growing. The stakes get higher and higher. Our Angkor today is the entire planet.

Rooms: Hot Shower Optional by Art Zaratsyan

Remember the last time you stayed in a hotel. What did your room come with? Internet access? Air conditioning? A television, a mini-fridge? Did it have hot water, running water, electricity? A telephone? How about a working toilet? Clean towels, clean sheets, toilet paper and soap?

“Well, yes of course!” you’ll say. These things are all a given.

Now, imagine having to choose between having only some of these “givens”. Which ones would you give up? Can you stay in a room without most of these? How about none of these?

If you answered yes to the last question: you should consider a career in humanitarian photography!

I’m kidding of course—but only to a point. Staying in hotels in different corners of the world has taught me to appreciate certain luxuries. The farther you go from urban centers, the deeper you enter the less traveled areas of the developing world, access to these obvious to us hotel room comforts begins to get spotty. And, as they gradually drop off, new, life-saving features begin to make an appearance, like mosquito nets or ceiling fans, strong fences decorated with barbed wire and manned with armed guards…

I’m not trying to scare anyone, it’s just the way it is.

So, it occurred to me that it would make a fun little series to describe on this blog some of the rooms I’ve occupied while working as a humanitarian photographer.

I’ll start with the most recent one: a room in the heart of the little town of San José De Ocoa, Dominican Republic, where I stayed for two weeks this June while covering the work of ADESJO, a local development NGO.

The hotel I stayed at the first night in town was nice. A popular location, it had the largest pool in town and a big restaurant/nightclub—lost on me, but hey, it was there! The rooms were clean, comfortable, but I had to leave nonetheless… No wi-fi. Correction: there was a wi-fi signal, but it was dead, no connectivity to internet. I’m a Westerner who speaks only a bit of Spanish, in a town for two weeks all by myself. Faced with a choice of wi-fi over anything else in such a situation, I will always choose wi-fi.

In the morning I moved to the second hotel. Right downtown, three blocks from ADESJO offices, it was a perfect place to stay. The wi-fi was solid. The room was 700 Dominican pesos per night, roughly $17 US. I liked it right away: no bugs, old but clean sheets, had luxuries like a television, a mini-fridge and air-conditioning, not counting necessities like a ceiling fan to keep mosquitos away at night—a must-have with thechikungunya epidemic running wild in town, even though it makes one feel like they’re sleeping in a wind tunnel. A nice little family-run place with a restaurant downstairs. What’s not to like?!

Only that evening, when I came home after a long, hot, exhausting day of shooting in the mountains and stepped in the shower looking forward to a relaxing evening, I realized what I had given up for it: hot water… I could only sigh and shrug. Or was it me shivering? Hard to tell.

Were two weeks of cold showers worth having a solid wi-fi connection? You bet!