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Fresh off the spool…hammock shopping in Mexico
I love seeing this portrait of a local Mayan woman putting the finishing touches on a beautiful hand-crafted hammock for me. I drove around Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for several days looking for a traditional homemade “hamaca” that I could bring back to my parents. Not that it was on their wish list or anything, or that they would ever use it. All they ever ask for is either a magnet or some sea salt. But I once bought them a rug in Morocco that was most likely manufactured in Taiwan (it had to be, it was way too cheap), so I was aiming for a little redemption here. Besides, the origin of the hammock dates back over 1000 years and is credited to the Maya. If anyone knows how to weave a proper hammock, it’s these people. So, with a few inquiries to the locals, a kind villager directed me to the town of Tekit, where I was told to look for the “blue house”. (That’s how directions work in this part of the world. No addresses, just colors.)
After erroneously knocking on the door of the first blue house I saw, I ended up finding the right “casa azul”, as I saw this woman carefully crafting a lovely, tropical-colored 10-footer that was hanging in her workshop. I don’t know if I was just craving Skittles or what, but this rainbow of intricately woven fibers caught my eye immediately. Major score! Now, there’s a difference between “homemade” and “handmade”. Handmade just means it was made by someone’s hands. Factory workers in China make “handmade” items all the time. Doesn’t mean it was made by a local artist, or that it isn’t a replica. Burgers at McDonald’s are handmade. They’re crap. “Homemade” is exactly what it says it is…you get it from someone’s home, sprinkled with love and genuine family-coated TLC. It’s like grandma’s banana bread. Always best to get it straight from the source. (If you get a homemade item in Spain it may come sprinkled with the scent of cigarettes. But hey, I’d much rather have an aesthetically inferior item of authenticity over a polished replica any day, albeit tobacco-tainted.) Nothing more discontenting than getting excited about purchasing that local Peruvian alpaca scarf, only to find the all-too-familiar “Made in Indonesia” tag sticking out from the bottom (unless you’re actually in Indonesia – but even then, alpacas in Indonesia?).
I didn’t even negotiate the price, which is common practice down in Mexico. I was so happy to be getting an authentic item of the finest local quality and variety, directly from the artist (who’s ancestors invented the thing). To me, this is the equivalent of a gallery curator being handed a Rembrandt from the man himself. Authenticity is at the core of “real world” life experiences. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll hear me preach about it often. Can a brother get an “amen” up in here? I could have saved some valuable time and energy and bought a hammock from any of the numerous roadside tourist souvenir shops I passed along the way to Tekit, but I’ve grown weary of the typical (and universal) salesman’s pitch of “100% authentic”, “handmade”, “indigenous”, “local artisan” – blah, blah, blah. If you pay a lot of money to go somewhere or purchase something, you want it to be legit. It’s an investment in great experiences, great memories or a product you will be totally satisfied with. After all, that’s what travel is really all about. If you don’t care about having a true experience, cancel that trip to Paris and take your butt to Las Vegas. You can visit Paris, New York, Rio and Venice all in the same day for a fraction of the price (unless you get sucked into that stupid Wheel of Fortune slot machine at the Rio. I emptied my wallet on that rigged-ass money-guzzler. To this day, I still curse at the sight of Pat Sajak every time I see him on TV.)
Only thing left for me to do now is to teach my mom how to lay in a hammock without flipping over like a sunscreen-slicked fat kid jumping on a wet intertube at the community pool. I never get tired of seeing that though. 🙂
Of course, I gotta give a shout out to the kind gentleman who pointed me in the direction of the “blue house”. He wasn’t selling his hammock that day. Hope he got a commission though, or a plate of whatever she was cooking up in the kitchen that afternoon.
The best drunk photo I’ve ever taken
I thought I was seeing things for a minute. I had just stumbled off the tequila tour. Not the tour of the town, which is actually named Tequila, but the tour of the fermented blue agave juice that made this Mexican town famous. Yes, you can find some pretty good tequila in Tequila (unlike the town of Gin Gin in Australia, which produces no special selection of gin to brag about). I had sampled a good variety of the notoriously potent local spirit that day. My brain was buzzing an amplified “buzzz”, like listening to an alarm clock stuck in a bee hive. My palate was saturated from the variety of flavors of the agave’s “sweet nectar” (almond, vanilla, fruity, earthy, nasty, etc.) and the sugary staleness of a burnt churro that I picked up on the way back to the main square. In my intoxicated state, I found myself staring up at this gorgeously sunlit church, face filled with awe like Elliot and his little sister looking up at ET’s spaceship. Suddenly, a swarm of birds began to circle the church dome like they were caught in some sort of holy orbit. “Look at all those DAMN birds”, I thought to myself. “Wow…wait, is that one bird or many? Shit, am I seeing centuple here?” My head is already spinning from the multiple (let’s say 8) samples of La Cofradía and this orchestra of synchronized birds busting endless 360’s around this church isn’t helping my mental equilibrium. All I knew was that I had to get a photo of this “heavenly” sight or I might wake up the next day and forget it ever happened. The late afternoon light was absolutely gorgeous…stunning…and I’m not just saying that cuz I was wearing tequila goggles. It was an epic scene of divine symbolism being blessed by nature (a vision which may inspire a future book entitled “When Mother Teresa met Mother Nature…”). I pull out my camera, fumble around with the settings a bit and fire off a round of 3-5 shots every time those birds circled around and exposed their sunlit underbellies. I did this for about 15 straight revolutions, ending up with around 50-60 shots of the exact same thing. I’m pretty sure the ratio of bad (blurry) ones to good (sharp) ones was about 20:1, so I had to make sure I had this shot nailed. (They don’t teach you the “rules of composition while under the influence” in photo school.) This was one of the good ones:
I believe this is the best “drunk” photo I’ve ever taken (besides that one at Mardi Gras in ’96 where those two young college girls from Lithuania were…whoa…). I also like to imagine it as the best photo of this church ever taken, considering the level of intoxication of the photographer. Not easy to focus on still objects after a half-dozen shots of tequila, let alone flying ones.
It’s both ironic and poetic: The best photo I’ve ever taken (“shot”) while under the influence of tequila happened in a town called Tequila, standing in front of a church named “Santiago” (which translates to Saint “James”), and it was in the state of Jalisco, which can be translated as “plastered”…of which I was quite at the time. Another irony is that the one and only thing I collect from every place I visit around the world is a shot glass. However, I forgot to pick one up in perhaps the most symbolic place in the world to get one. I blame the host of my tequila tour for that one…though I do appreciate the generous sample session I was offered that day. Well worth the price of admission and a burnt churro.
Getting ill in a “Tropical Paradise”
I got pretty sick once while I was in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. An “ill”-advised bit of teeth cleaning at the border with some tap water was most likely the culprit. I took one bite of my chicken and rice dish at a local food joint and I had to throw in the towel, as my stomach was the first organ to checkout on whatever schedule I had planned for my weakening body that day. I noticed this little boy who was standing there looking at me with a curious and innocent grin, so I invited him to join me and help me finish my plate (when I say “help me finish”, I really meant “please get this greasy pile of Caribbean grindage away from my face before the waitress is gonna have to call for a mop and some sanitizer at table #12”). Bad shape. This kid eagerly accepted my invitation and kept me great company while I battled fatigue, nausea and frustration with the fact that the only “tropical paradise” I would see for the next 24 hours was a fading logo on his soiled t-shirt. Nonetheless, I made a local friend that day and he got treated to a great meal. That’s all you need sometimes to make your day.
Foto Friday 3.28.14 – “Film!”
This is a #GringoWithAGreenBag Foto Friday “Film” edition ladies and gents! Ahhhh yes, the nostalgia I get when I remember the days of shooting 35mm Kodak ELITE Chrome 100 with my sexy silver Nikon N50…the beauty and eye-popping color of slide film…waiting anxiously for several days while the lab processed the images…having an entire album of physical prints from every trip or special occasion…and paying $300 for image developing after shooting 35+ rolls on a 2-week vacation (in addition to purchasing the film itself)! That was the turning point right there folks. I would soon enter the “Digital Age” with the purchase of a Nikon D70 and film would inevitably become an honored and beloved art form of the past. (The N50 has since been retired and is now living a life of luxury on my closet shelf.) But while it was in it’s prime, my N50 camera was an international stud! It served as my portal to the world of travel photography, helped to open my eyes to countless unfamiliarities and was the most loyal travel companion one could ever ask for. (Sniff, sniff.) That baby earned it’s badge as my #1 deputy ambassador in the field, with flying colors.
(Me and my N50 at Iguazu Falls, Brazil)
The difference between film and digital is more about economics than image quality (some actually prefer the quality of film). Those of us on a budget had to be economical with our shutter releases. It forced us to get the shot right with a lot less takes, something that nurtured patience and critical attention to composition and detail…qualities that are imperative to any photographer. The economics of digital photography don’t dictate the # of shots people take. The days of thinking about “.20¢ per click” are long gone. The tradeoff is having to spend an incredible # of hours in front of a computer to edit and process our digital images. If you adhere to the ideal of “time is money”, then digital is not really saving you much. But is sure does make our lives easier (especially to a generation of fiends for instant gratification). The irony of it all is that the only way my old film shots ever get viewed nowadays is in digital form (having spent countless hours with a scanner and a dust brush). I’m just glad I can still easily share them with the modern world without having to carry around a bunch of old portfolio binders and coffee-stained albums with the title “Damian’s European Adventures”. I’m also very grateful to have learned the art of photography in the age of film. Though it often depleted my perennially slim wallet at the time, it really helped to make me the best photographer that I can be, and for that I say “Long Live Film”!
Here’s a few images that I dug out from the archives, shot on film and scanned to digital. I hope you have enjoyed this Gringo With A Green Bag “turn back the clock” moment. 🙂
“Diario de Viaje”
Travel has rewarded me with an incredible perspective on the world. There is no better way to connect with our fellow humans than to look one another in the eye, exchange a smile, a hug or a laugh and to try and better understand the unique life that we each live through observation, dialogue and compassion. A common sight for me over the years of traveling has been one that reflects a very challenging lifestyle for many people. For some, it means getting by with the bare minimum of necessities and a life of hard work. For others, it can be a sad tale that echos a daily struggle for survival. Through it all, I’ve experienced an amazing amount of warmth, generosity and hospitality from a great number of people who live under these very circumstances. Though we are different in our upbringing, culture and lifestyle, we share a common interest in bonding with one another through the mutual gifts of curiosity, love and compassion for our own kind. Here is a clip I put together of some of the people and images that reserve a special place in my memory, as well as in my heart. It is a reflection of the world as I have experienced it, and a reminder to be forever grateful for the blessings that we take for granted in our lives.
Foto Friday – 2.21.14
Yesterday was Ansel Adams’ 112th birthday. Though I didn’t receive any notification on my Facebook feed, I would have surely posted a tribute photo along with a “Happy Birthday AA” message on his wall (had he been alive and kind-hearted enough to accept my friend request). Though I’ve never really “studied” his work per se (I was a bad student), I have always recognized, respected and admired his talent and vision, his contributions to the medium of photography and his true craftsmanship, which took place in the darkroom. Inspired by his love of the land, he brought images to life using primitive equipment, his vivid imagination and his mastery of techniques during the developing process. These days, the “darkroom” of a digital photographer doesn’t even have to be dark. My “digital darkroom” is right next to my dining room window, consists of a computer and a mouse, and the only chemical in sight is the screen cleaning solution (which never gets used). But the fundamentals of photography remain. The relationship between your subject and the light that falls upon it is paramount, and no one nurtured this relationship better than Ansel Adams. In his timeless nature photography, he understood that “the natural landscape is not fixed…but is as transient as the light that continually redefines it.” (Kind of like girls in the nightclub when the sound-activated strobes are in full effect.) His iconic black & white images which evoked a powerful sense of compositional balance and perspective helped to establish photography among the fine arts. For him, the most important approach to his art was “beauty comes first”. He pretty much nailed it folks.
Here are a few images that I’d like to share as a humble tribute to the legendary Ansel Adams. Of course, I had the benefit of digital technology, photoshop and a camera that didn’t weigh as much as a bowling ball when I snapped these. Though he probably stepped foot in several of these same spots at some point in his career, there is no doubt that he put a lot more work and “previsualization” into his images…and spent a whole lot more time watching them come to life.
Beyond the surface – exploring Mexico’s “underworld”
What if I told you I knew of a little place on the map where its truest beauty runs deep beyond the surface? A dark, sacred world that nourishes the roots of the storied land above it. A mystifying place where an ancient civilization once conducted ceremonies of worship and made sacrifices to its dieties. What would you say if I told you that for a few dollars and a shower you can visit this exotic and mysterious world and swim in its pure, crystalline waters under a natural dome of stalactites, subterranean roots and Neotropical bats? You’d most likely freak out with excitement at the opportunity…or simply just freak out. This isn’t a theme park attraction at Universal Studios folks. This is an amazing natural feature of the ancient Mayan land. These are the unique sites found in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula: Cenotes.
I had first heard of the cenotes (natural water-filled sinkholes) while researching my initial trip to the Yucatán several years back. Like most travelers to this part of the world, all I knew about this area was that you can climb a pyramid in the jungle, spend your days lazing on a dreamy beach and that there is a mega nightclub named after a frog somewhere in the city that represents the world’s premiere Spring Break playground. I had no idea that there was action beneath the action…like people swimming underground, diving through a network of water-forged cave passages and taking photos in their swimsuits and snorkel masks with insectivorous bats flying overhead…all while the rest of the world above is busy footslogging through Mayan ruins, sipping colorful rum concoctions and applying Aloe Vera to their sun-baked backsides. This created a fascinating level of intrigue to me…and to honor rule #3 in my Gringo With A Green Bag Travel Handbook: When the Gringo is intrigued, the Gringo must explore!
So, months later, I found myself on the outskirts of a little village called Chunkanán in the heart of the Yucatán. I was here because my research, and some trusted natives, pointed me in the direction of a town called Cuzama, where they said some of the best cenotes were located. I had heard that there was a way to see 3 amazing cenotes via a guided horse-drawn “truck” tour in this town, which lies only a short 45 minutes from the Yucatán capital of Mérida. But my introduction to the cenotes would not happen via this tour, rather via a result of my independent traveler-intrigued mind and faulty navigation, which led me to mistakingly pass the town of Cuzama and end up parked near a sign on the side of a dirt road several miles away that read “Cenote Aktun-Ha”. There were no tour guides here, no horses, no people, no rental cars, no hotels or post-card stands…my idea of paradise my friends! I had to see what the hype was with these cenote things. So, left turn down a road seemingly to nowhere…this is how it’s done.
I arrive at a traditional Mayan thatched hut with a few dogs outside and some children’s toys and clothing scattered throughout the area. A woman comes out of the home with a little girl by her side and I greet them with a “buenos dias”. I told the woman that I was looking for the cenote. She pointed to an area behind the house and said that she would lead me over to it. She politely asked for a donation of about 40 pesos ($3) to see the cenote. I eagerly paid her, and suddenly found myself face to face with this…
“Whooooooaaaaaa!”, I uttered in Spanish (it translates the same, I think)…then proceeded to back up a bit.
Are you kidding me?? Now I’ve done some risky & adventurous stuff in my lifetime, and have always come out alive, but usually I can see what the hell I’m getting myself into. I can’t even see the bottom of this thing! It’s pitch black down there! Holy Sinkhole, Batman! Heck, even the Dark Knight himself would probably think twice about scaling down that iron death rail. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what it is…an old rail track from the henequen industry days, welded to another one below and converted into a ladder. Look at how it’s rigged…rusted chains and weathered rope bound to a suspect piece of rock…is there an insurance policy included in that 40 pesos?? And what was that other rope for? To carry out the remains of unfortunate tourists who never made it back up?? Ok, calm down…after a few deep breaths and a reinforced blessing of confidence by my host, I tightened the straps of my green bag, checked the structural integrity of the ladder and headed down into the darkness.
Descending the vertical railway into this dusky cavern was an adventure all to itself. It felt sturdy enough (a bit wobbly), but at about 40 feet up from the bottom, there was ZERO room for error. One slip and you’ll be considered the next sacrificial subject to the Mayan Rain God, Chaac. I slowly lowered myself down in true baby step form, headed towards a glimmer of water down below at the base. (You really don’t want to look down, as they always say.) I noticed a good number of spider webs criss-crossing the corroded metal frame that was functioning as my life support, which led me to wonder when the last time was that someone had actually been down here. Then, all of the sudden I hear an eerily familiar “squeek, squeek” sound. Yup…you guessed it…freakin’ BATS! Two feisty bats zipped right across my head, with several others hanging from the ceiling of this crazy underground Legend of Zelda looking labyrinth, which just made me want to get to the bottom faster. I finally get to the last few steps and find them submerged in about a foot of water. Damn. Off go the shoes I guess. There just happened to be a bucket within reach on the end of that rope, which I’m sure is intended for retrieving water and not for storing Nike cross-trainers. But walking around all day with soggy feet sucks, so it served a practical purpose for me.
Once I was able to secure my footing and get a 360 degree view of this place, I was left stunned. You can’t even imagine that something like this exists below the ground above, which is pretty much a flat, consistent layer of porous scrub jungle. This was an outer-worldy underworld. What time was the warlock returning to close his sky roof I wondered? It’s obvious why the Maya viewed the cenotes as sacred sites and portals to the next life. This place emitted strong metaphysical vibes concealed under a dome of unimaginable beauty. The fresh cenote water (home to a rare species of eyeless fish) is as strikingly blue and clear as you’ve ever seen. Formations of stalactites and stalagmites above and below face off like armies on opposite ends of a battlefield. The air was thin & humid and I was melting like a snow cone in Sedona. A splash of crisp cave water on the face never felt more refreshing. I spent a good 45 minutes down here all by myself (except for those bats dangling overhead), photographing the details of this murky and fascinating underground lair while sweat steadily dripped down on my dewey camera with the frequency of a metronome. This was an amazing experience. And to think, had that little section of limestone rock not caved in from above, this place would have never be seen by a human being. That’s the beauty of the cenotes…there are literally thousands of these throughout the peninsula, most of them still undiscovered. Luckily for us, many of them have been discovered, and you don’t have to go far from wherever you are in the Yucatán to see one. Now, hold that ladder lady, I’m comin’ back up!
Since that initial Indiana Jones escapade down into my first cenote, I’ve had the opportunity to explore many more, and they are all glorious. They definitely earn top rank as the highlight of my experiences in the Yucatán Peninsula. Besides their remarkable beauty, they are all so unique in size, ambience and form. While most are found underground (easy to access, thanks to the locals who maintain them), there are also many that lie right on the surface. To attempt to describe each one with a worthy level of descriptiveness would grossly over-estimate my ability to do so. Therefore, I’ll shut up and let the images do the talking. All I can say is, if you come to the Yucatán, kick off your shoes, put your adventure hat on and get to know these unique natural wonders that the Maya dubbed “Ts’onots” (“wells”), referring to any place with accessible groundwater. Some are more easily “accessible” than others (as I learned from my first cenote experience), but the true adventure lies in one’s willingness to explore the unknown.
Contrary to popular belief, the Mayans never attempted to predict the “end of the world”. However, they were among the lucky few to discover sites like these…where the physically familiar world we know ends, and an unfamiliar one begins. That, my friends, is what draws me to travel. Encounters with the unfamiliar always result in fresh ink in the diary of life experiences. So get your pens ready and add Mexico’s cenotes to your bucket list. Just don’t forget your shoes on the way out. 😉
A quick hop around Kangaroo Island, Australia
For me, traveling to Australia was a BIG deal mates. BIG country, BIG planning, BIG airplane, BIG fella sitting next to me on the plane stealing all my elbow space, etc. I had a long list of things that I wanted to do and see on this trip. There was the obvious, of course: see the Sydney Harbor, try a Vegemite sandwich, guzzle cold Aussie beer at some pubs, avoid severe sunburn, see some kangaroos. Of all those, the latter was the most important on my list. I mean c’mon, who hasn’t watched Jack Hanna or Steve Irwin play with the ‘roos on TV and not thought that would be the coolest thing ever?? I wanted to see some ‘roos. Plain and simple. You can’t go to Australia and not see the ‘roos. It’s like going to Chicago and not eating a Polish dog…or seeing a Polish person for that matter. And I’m not talking about seeing them in the Sydney zoo man. They’ve got ‘roos at the San Diego Zoo an hour and a half drive south of me. I don’t need to fly 7500 miles to view a wallaby in a playpen. I’m talking in the wild…untamed, free-roaming, curious…the way nature was meant to be enjoyed! So I booked a side trip to a remote place off the coast of South Australia called Kangaroo Island. Not that a place’s nomenclature necessarily guarantees the existence of its particular reference (the “Island of Women” near Cancun is a perfect example. But hey, whatever draws tourists), but it sounded intriguing. I did my research, like the savvy traveler I am. This was the place to see and be seen (if you’re a kangaroo looking for a good time, that is :P). Besides the surging population of ‘roos, I heard this island was one of the most wildly beautiful places on the entire continent. Sounded like a hot ticket…book it!
After a week traveling the amazing East Coast of Australia (where I hadn’t seen one stinkin’ ‘roo the entire time, wth??), it was time to punch my ticket to the island. The ferry ride over from Cape Jervis was a beautiful and relaxing 45-minute voyage to a remote piece of land in the Indian Ocean, far enough removed from the mainland to validate its “wild” reputation. My first impression upon seeing the rugged coastline and piercing blue waters: “Yeah baby, it’s on! I’m gonna go buckwild photographing this place!”. I guess that doesn’t really say a whole lot, since I have the same reaction when I arrive to a family reunion or a local chili cook-off. But lemme tell ya, this place is special…and you can sense it before you even get off the boat. The port town of Penneshaw is very accommodating. I was treated to an upgrade 4WD SUV vehicle when I arrived at the rental agency, as my reservation had been lost in cyberspace, which worked out to be perfect since it would serve as my hotel during this 2-day excursion. It was also an ideal vehicle to have while driving along the many dirt roads that make up the island’s transit terrain.
At first sight, the island seemed like a bushman and fisherman’s dream. It’s craggy interior and over 340 miles of pristine coastline creates such a dramatic contrast that I was salivating to get my camera out and start going photo bonkers. I took the first unpaved road I saw and began to explore the unspoiled wonders of this vast adventure-seeker’s paradise. I saw landscapes here straight out of the imagination of a fine-art painter’s dream portfolio. Things just look different here. The ultra-golden hues produced by the sun created colors that were indescribable. The terrain is so diverse and raw. The trees are wicked-crazy looking. The colors of the dirt roads are a deep hue of reddish-orange. The sky and sun seem more intense. The beaches are awe-inspiring. You’ll see bizarre things like the Remarkable Rocks, huge naturally-carved boulders over-looking the sea that look like something out of a Tim Burton movie. Animals roam freely about the land and the roads wind like a maze through the thick vegetation and hilly island turf. It is “wild” as advertised, and you won’t see many people once you leave the arrival port of Penneshaw. As a matter of fact, the further you get away from the coastal towns, the more you get that feeling that you are all alone on an isolated island full of insane beauty and teeming wildlife, just teasing you to be explored at every turn. It would be wise to stock up on gas, water and Peanut M&M’s at one of the towns near the eastern end of the island (Kingscote, Penneshaw or American River), as it’s just you, the native wallabies and the birds & the bees for the majority of your drive throughout the island. (Not the birds & the bees your mom told you about in the 3rd grade. Kangaroo Island is a bird refuge and is famous for its Ligurian bees, which produce some of the finest honey in the world. But feel free to get as kinky as you want over there.)
The coastline is definitely one of Kangaroo Island’s highlights. The azure ocean crashes against the rugged, rocky shores at some points and gently glosses over stunning white sand beaches at others. As I hopped from beach to beach (pun intended), I was blown away by how different each was from one to the next. Some harbored wide stretches of soft sand and pellucid blue waters which seemed quite inviting for snorkelers and swimmers. Others were formed by intensely colored red rocks and jagged cliffs which greeted the crashing waves head on. The one common feature of all these stretches of coastline: no people. If you want a sequestered beach all to yourself, you’ve come to the right place. On the southern end of the island, you’ll find massive sand dunes that trickle down to the sea. This area, called Little Sahara, is popular for sand boarding, one of many outdoors activities that Kangaroo Island has to offer. Australian Sea Lions and New Zealand Fur Seals may be your only companions out there as you explore the untinged coast of this fascinating island paradise.
Now, about those ‘Roos. The entire time I was driving on the island, I had an eye peeled back looking for those bad boys. Where the heck were they?? I knew they were out there. I mean, I didn’t expect they’d be hanging out at the gas station bumming Funyuns or anything, but I was frustrated that I hadn’t seen one in a whole week in Oz, and especially within my first hour on an island named after the damn things! I saw a few dead ones on the side of the road, but that didn’t really satisfy my visual appetite (or actual appetite) if you know what I mean. But with scenery like that, it’s easy to forgive the island for not producing what I was obsessing over right off the bat. I had already seen an abundance of wildlife: sea lions, koalas, sheep, cows, rare birds, possums, fur seals, various reptiles, small wallabies…someone even mentioned seeing penguins somewhere. But I was after the ‘roos. My dedicated research should have reminded me that most kangaroo species are nocturnal, as well as being crepuscular (check out the vocab on this gringo ;)), meaning they are most active near dawn and dusk, often using these times for feeding. Ok…so I just had to wait until dusk I guess. No problem Jack.
I had some time to kill, so I decided to go on a little bushwalk (hike). With one-third of the island protected in conservation parks and Wilderness Protection Areas, you don’t have to go far to find a good route to stretch the legs. I came across what looked like a decent trail, packed my bag with water and electrolytes and hit the bush. Now, I’m not even kidding when I tell you this part of the story. My wildest expectations wouldn’t have prepared me for what was about to occur in the first few minutes into my hike. So I’m walking along this path, surveying the landscape to compose a photo. I decided to stray from the trail a bit in order to gain a better visual vantage point. I had to meander through what I remember to be a ramshackled and rusted barbed wire fence to get where I wanted to be. It was thick scrub here so my visibility was limited to whatever natural obstacle I had to maneuver around next. I carefully pass through some scraggy vegetation, turn a corner…and BAM! Big ‘ol kangaroo sitting right there! Less than 12 feet away! Ka-BOOM! Scared the pasty vegemite right out of me (almost literally)! The furry freak of nature grunted, leaped up and bolted out of there like a…well…like a scared kangaroo that had just been abruptly rolled up on from behind by a beef jerky scented bushwalker! It happened so quick I couldn’t even snap a decent photo, just this semi-blurry one (as my parasympathetic nervous system wouldn’t allow me to compose myself properly). We were both startled, and my jumpy little marsupial friend was long gone before I could even say G’day. Ladies and gentlemen, I had found my first ‘roo! 🙂 An extreme close-up encounter in the wild! Though brief and heart-jolting, it was awesome! My days of envying Jack Hanna would soon be a distant memory.
As sunset neared, I would get several more opportunities to see the local ‘roos that day, as they began to emerge from their mid-day shelters to explore the land and find food. They would even hang out on the side of the road near dusk, which makes for a very adventurous “video game-like” driving experience (remembering the roadkill I had seen earlier). I was able to get pretty close to a rather large one that evening. As the late Steve Irwin would say: “She was a beauty, mate!”. They are quite timid animals in the wild. It kept an eye on me with an equal amount of curiosity as I did with it, but remained calm and even let me approach within a surprisingly intimate distance. When you see a kangaroo close up, you realize how well these animals are equipped to seriously whoop some butt if they need to! With those hind leg muscles, 2-inch claws and a powerful tail as thick as an anaconda, you don’t need instincts to tell you to keep your distance, just eyes. In saying this, they seemed quite peaceful and gentle in my experience with them. They are a special creature to witness and interact with. I snapped my photos, set my camera down and hung out for a while, enjoying this amazing scene of one of Nature’s most exotic animals in its native habitat, allowing me to be an uninvited and trusted guest into its placid domain. This was an experience my mind could only wishfully imagine for prior to coming here. This was Kangaroo Island. I had come a long, long way to see it, as have many others…and another satisfied visitor was about to return home to share its wonderful story.
Here’s some more scenes from my 2 days on Kangaroo Island…
Familiar paths, familiar faces…
On my first trip to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 2011, the one thing I was most fascinated to learn about and photograph was the lifestyle of the modern Maya people. After all, it is among the most mysterious and renowned cultures to ever make it into the history books. If I were gonna travel here, I was gonna be sure to experience some true modern-day Mayan flavor…and not let the movie Apocalypto haunt me with images of black jaguars and savage natives chasing me through the jungle. I also had to find out about all of this “end of the world” ballyhoo. So, I set out to explore some villages in the Mayan heartland to meet the locals and take some “authentic” photos of life beyond the tourist decoys, sunburned drunks and tequila-soiled beach bars of Cancun and the Riviera. Not that I have anything against sunburned drunks, I’ve been one on several occasions. But I have matured as a traveler, far beyond my port-crashing Navy days of old, and my mission for this particular visit was to ensure that the best “shots” I would get during the trip would be the ones produced by the camera, not by Pedro the bartender.
During my 2 weeks there in 2011, I visited a dozen or so villages and met some of the nicest and most generous people that you can imagine. I would speak with them, accept an invite into their homes (have a few beers at some, play with the kids at others) and learn a little about who they are and what life is like there. It was exactly what I had been looking for. This was the “real life” that most travelers never get a chance to see. Of course, before I would bid farewell to each of my new friends I met on that trip, I had to work my camera into the game. I would kindly ask for a photo as a keepsake for my travel archives and would be pleasantly, and sometimes shyly, granted permission every time. Luckily, the Maya are nothing like those stuck-up broads at the Playboy convention who demand $15 per photo.
So, on my return trip to the Yucatán this past April with my girlfriend, I thought it would be really cool to visit my village friends once again and present them with a copy of their photo. It was the sort of project I had wanted to do for a long time, but was just waiting for the right opportunity. I whipped up about 14 prints, ironed out my maps and made my way back through the same village route that I had traveled back in 2011, on a mission to find each of my photo subjects where I had originally met them. How would they react? I had no idea, but would soon find out. My first stop was the village of Nuevo Durango, 6th house on the left. I had met Señor Jose here a year and a half earlier. Señor Jose will always represent my introduction to the world of the modern Maya, as he was the first person I met in my travels there. I remember first seeing his innocent, puppy dog eyes and smiling face as I entered the village. It struck me as an irresistible opportunity to get a nice portrait of a local Maya man in his traditional home. I knew I had to stop and say hello. In that initial encounter, I introduced myself to him and commented that I liked his house. Next thing you know, he invited me in and showed me the inside of his rustic, one room “palapa” hut. This was my first time inside a Mayan dwelling. It was awesome to see. The simple life is truly defined here…hammock for a bed, a weathered wingback chair, basic cooking and eating utensils, an old television, mini-fridge, and plenty of tools for collecting food and cultivating the land. He spoke of his life there and gave me some delicious guava fruit from a tree in front of his house. I asked for a photo, and he agreed. After getting a great portrait, I said goodbye and I left feeling like I’d just had the coolest experience I would probably end up having on the entire trip…first village, first stop, first encounter. Upon arrival this second time around, I was eager to reconnect with Señor Jose . Unfortunately, he wasn’t home when we arrived, but his son who lived across the street told me he was around town and didn’t know when he would return. His son was probably wondering if I was a government liaison looking to bring his father in for questioning or something. I explained how I knew his father and showed him another portrait of a gentleman I had met in one of the fields on the outskirts of the same town. I asked the son if he knew where the other guy lived. He responded, in Spanish, “Yes, that’s Don Siviliano. He lives 3 houses down.” Luckily for me, the average village only has about 200 people or so. A local directory service probably isn’t in high demand when you can just stop and show someone a photo of who you’re looking for. 🙂 So, I decided to go knock on Mr. Siviliano’s door while I waited for Señor Jose. My girlfriend and I approached the house and saw a man lying undisturbed on a hammock inside. I walked up to the door and greeted him. I immediately recognized the face as Mr. Siviliano’s. He appeared to be dressed more in “vacation mode” than when I first met him working in the corn fields under the harsh mid-day sun in 2011. His flowing silver hair was naturally impressive, as its shorter version had been tucked under a hat when I last saw him. I asked “Do you remember me?” He grinned instantly, nodded, and was sort of speechless with surprise, as you can imagine. I mean, how often do foreigners show up to your door with a photo of you that they took on a previous trip to your country? I’m guessing never. I imagine it doesn’t happen in the remote villages of Mexico much either. After his initial bewilderment settled, he thanked me for the photo with a humble grin and asked me, “How much do I owe you?”. My girl and I melted from his warmth (in addition to the blistering heat of Mexico’s interior) and explained to him that it was a gift. I told him that he looked thinner and younger and he responded with a chuckle and a “muchas gracias”. The universal compliment, works every time. :] After a brief conversation and “catch up” session, he graciously posed for an updated portrait, thanked us and wished us well in our travels. That was something out of the “super cool” book right there. I knew right then I was really gonna enjoy this journey. After visiting Mr. Siviliano, we decided to drive through the village hoping to spot Señor Jose. I handed my girlfriend his photo and directed her to “look out for this guy”. We saw an old man approaching us on a bicycle cart (typically used by locals to haul wood, food, or building materials). With an exuberant tone, I said “This could be him, it looks like him.”. As he got closer, sure enough, we confirmed his identity and were both elated with excitement to find the first friend I had ever made in the Mayan world. I stopped the car, showed him his picture and he immediately displayed that infectious smile and made the instant connection with the same amount of enthusiasm as Mr. Siviliano. We decided to meet back at his home to reminisce a bit. Señor Jose is one of the most endearing people you will ever meet. He opened his doors to us and welcomed us inside to chat and escape the heat. The inside of his home seemed like nothing had moved since I first saw it almost 2 years ago, almost like some sort of exhibit. He seemed really pleased with the photo and the efforts we made to visit him. He just kept thanking us and giving us hugs of gratitude. He shared his story with us that his wife had died 25 years ago and that he’s lived by himself ever since. He is a genuine, hard-working man who seems to endure with the guidance of the blissful memories of his past. I really enjoyed visiting with Señor Jose. I politely set him up for his “2013 portrait”, he posed graciously and he hugged us each once again as we made our way onward to our next destination. I hope to reunite with Mr. Siviliano and Señor Jose again someday. Maybe I’ll bring my DJ gear along and we can throw a block party. The next stop on my quest was in the village of Tres Reyes. I had met a family there with whom I had spent the most time on my previous trip. A few new roads in town threw my bearings and memory off as to the exact location of their home, but a nice local villager pointed us in the right direction upon seeing the photo of the family. This was the home of Doña Dora. This was a really interesting visit, because when I said goodbye to them last time, I mentioned that I’d like to return sometime and they gave me a phone number and said that I should call them if I ever came back so they could prepare a nice meal and provide accommodation. I view that as friendly dialogue, sort of a general and casual invitation, not really expected to be acted upon literally. So, I didn’t call. Just showed up. I guess I like the element of surprise. In hindsight, a deliciously prepared home-cooked meal would have really hit the spot upon arriving the second time around. The family was really surprised to see me walking up to the house, unannounced, with some photos and a few toys for the kids, as they would let me know: “Wow, you should have called us, we wanted to cook you a nice meal! We were waiting for your call last year but never heard from you.” They really wanted to show off their cooking skills apparently! This family is sweeter than Mayan Chocolate Cream Pie. (The Mayans did cultivate the first known cocoa plantations ya know.) Visiting with them and seeing their home is how I would describe the typical Mayan family living in the 21st century. There are 5 kids and 3 adults, all living under one roof constructed of palm fronds layered over a frame of vertical wood beams supported by a concrete foundation. The doorways seem designed with the height of a Smurf in mind, which is always fun for my 6’1” skeletal frame. The home is divided in two, separating the living space from the kitchen space. All you’ll find inside are the bare necessities to get by. There’s some hammocks, cooking utensils, pots and pans over an open fire pit, a wooden table, buckets for storage and carrying water, farming equipment, and some scattered clothing and toys for the kids. They raise pigs, chickens and turkeys for food and commerce and access water from a well behind the home. When you talk with them, you would think they live the most comfortable lifestyle in all of the Peninsula. They all smile from ear to ear, and seem generous beyond words. It was a real treat to see how a family of 8 can live a happy and self-sustaining life with the absolute minimum of resources and amenities. I actually had 4 photos to give to them, as the kids were so adorable to shoot that last time around. They delightedly posed for a few new photos, showed us around the house and reinforced their invitation for next time with an updated phone number. Believe me, I will be redeeming that invite for some Mayan home cookin’ next time ’round! I had several more stops and photos to hand out in the remaining days of the trip. To my delight, I would find everyone I was looking for in a handful of villages scattered throughout the area. From the cute kid who had painted his face like a Mayan warrior to the lady who crafted beautiful hammocks in her front yard…they were all just there, not waiting for me to come by, obviously, but it had almost seemed that way. They all expressed the same sense of shyness, gratitude, surprise and openness to being photographed once again. There was one lady, however, who wasn’t quite ready to have her new photo taken upon my arrival and request at an early hour of the morning. Though she did ask me if I could come back in an hour so she could put some makeup on, lol. Women will be women no matter where you go! She did clean up pretty nice, I won’t lie. Then there was another old lady I was looking for who I had met in an outdoors market, but the market was closed upon arriving the second time. I was about to throw in the towel on that one until I got up off the stool for the 12th round and I decided to ask a few ladies that were sitting next to my rental car watching a soccer game if they happened to recognize the woman in the photo. When you get a response from a random bystander of “That is my mom!”, that’s when you know this was all meant to be. 🙂 She asked her young daughter to take me to find “grandma”, who was not too far from where I had photographed her the first time. Grandma was wearing a similar traditional Mayan dress as she was in my original image, so I knew it would be a great photo to show the “then and now”. Her friends giggled as I set her up for a photo, and she maintained her composure while I snapped a few images and thanked her for being such a wonderful model.
After finding “grandma”, there was only 1 portrait left to deliver. I knew finding my last photo subject would be a little tricky, as I had met him at a roadside fruit stand on the side of a highway about 3 hours south. Luckily, I was able to narrow it down to about a 25-30 mile stretch. Keeping my eyes peeled among the dozens of roadside fruit vendors, I eventually recognized the stand where I had found the man with the blue shirt and smartly-styled straw hat, but it was an empty stand. My technique of asking around to locate someone hadn’t failed me yet, so I gave it another shot. The vendor across the street confirmed the identity and location of my photo subject, saying he would probably show up in about an hour. My thoughts: “Hmmmm…an hour…man I’d love to hang out and present him with his photo…but I have a long drive back and a full day of snorkeling and beach bumming lined up…what if an hour turns to 2 hours??…time stands still for everyone in this part of the world…who knows when he’ll show up…but it’s my favorite photo of them all…he’ll be thrilled to see me…I really want a new photo of the guy…Caribbean is calling my name…hungry girlfriend in the car…damn it’s hot out here!…agghhhhh…ceviche and cold beer with my feet in the sand…uh…SOLD!” I’m a sucker for ceviche and cold beer! So, here is the photo of the man with the blue shirt and smartly-styled straw hat…left exactly where I found him, with a little note tacked behind. I would have loved to see his face when he arrived to find a mysteriously placed 8×10 portrait of himself waiting for him at his workplace later that day. I imagine his smile would stretch even further than it had in the picture. Maybe I’ll have another opportunity to find out from him someday. Like I said…it was all meant to be. 😉