Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Photo Journey

      I am not an exceptional photographer but whatever I have learned about that craft is a product of my travels in the Third World. Developing skills in such an interesting undertaking is a very welcome byproduct of my voyages. Over many years of visiting different parts of the world, I have taken a multitude of photos which I brought home to share with my family and friends, much as most tourists do as a matter of course. Who does not take a camera with them for beach visits or voyages with friends? That is what I did for many years. It was only some 20 or so years ago that I upgraded my camera to an SLR with two lenses so I could expand on scenes I was unable to capture before. I had always had a decent sense of how to frame a scene but I surely lacked any of the other skills that go into photographic expertise. On one occasion however, I was at my local camera store picking up some 8" by 10" prints to frame for my walls at home when the clerk commented about how I had captured some really fine shots. There was a woman standing next to me in line who looked at the prints and suggested I had some real talent and should consider joining her camera club. I eventually took her advice and that changed my investment in photography from a casual interest to a serious pursuit.

       I had a lot of beginner's luck in the club competitions I entered after I joined. Most of that I ascribe to the subject matter of my work. My New Guinea witchdoctor or mudmen and Peruvian llama herders were just such wonderful things to photograph, it was hard not to get a decent picture wherever you pointed the camera. I began to think if myself as a decent photographer as I delved more deeply into the technical aspects of camera work. Yet I think it has always been the interesting subjects who surround me on my adventures who account for whatever succcess I have had. I have never sought out high quality lenses or professional camera equipment of any kind. On my trips, I carry a bag with an additional lens, a separate flash, a small tripod and a few extra batteries. Most of the accomplished photographers I know are likely to add another camera body and lot more sophisticated equipment but my focus has always been on the travel so I do not burden myself carrying a big, accessory bag the way some others do.

      Another difference between me and my competitors at the camera club are the number of photos I take and the amount of work I do with them afterwards. I have learned some Photoshop but I use it to get my shots clearer and sharper and brighter, not to rearrange parts of the photos or seek perfection in the quality of what I photograph. It was only after a trip to tribal India, however, that I came upon the major distinction between me and certain dedicated camera addicts. I met a man about my age who proclaimed that he had won many prizes and whose wife lauded him as a very superior and widely published portrait photographer. Since that is my favorite kind of photo I was immediately interested in his work. And it was good. He invited me to join him in touring the red light district and another area in Mumbai where we met on our way to a tribal tour. I went along with him. I found it quite disconcerting and intrusive when he occasionally leapt out of our cab to point his camera right at the women, something I might term "zoo photography." His subjects were not happy to have such attention nor were some folks at our next stop who were sitting along the street and begging alms from strangers. He did not ask for permission for his photos nor did he show any sensitivity to the privacy of his subjects. That is not the way I photograph nor is it a courteous or respectful way to deal with people. I lost my interest in his photography quite rapidly and quickly understood how he came to take such good portraits. He was insulting and rude. Not for me.

      I have seen others behave the same way and wanted no part of that whatsoever. The same man asked me to take a walk with him along the street of the next town we stopped in. I had not yet learned my lesson so I acceded to his invitation. What followed was his practically pushing his camera right into the face of passers-by without even an acknowledgement that normal behavior would have required at least a request for permission to take a photo. Embarrassed and insulted Indians walked past us rapidly, unquestionably feeling on display for the pleasure of a very rude traveler. We his prize winners worth that price? Absolutely not. My lack of willingness to do "rude" photography has not prevented me from winning some prizes and using my photos for many travel lectures with success.
I will settle for that.

      I cannot think of a single photo I took before or after that experience without clearly obtaining permission from the person whose face I wanted to capture or whom I failed to engage in some conversation to bring us closer. I make it a point to avoid scenes of poverty, illness, desperation and other circumstances which most people take no pride in and prefer not to share with others. I will just have to settle for second prize, I imagine. That is a price I am willing to pay. For me, the tourist footprint is more important than his pleasure.

Kuna Indian Woman,
San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunday, August 12, 2012

It is a Matter of Taste

     I read an article the other day about the ten best places to visit in Mexico. When I finished, I had this question floating about in my mind, "Whose ten best places?" If I were a beach goer or wanted to stay in the most secure and popular locations in the country, the article would have been informative. But the suggestions were hardly the ten most interesting or informative or entertaining places in that fascinating country. What stood out for me immediately was the omission of Mexico City, one of the richest and most varied travel destinations in the world. Yes, in the world! And it did not make that list. Just to note a few things that are located within easy reach of the center of Mexico City we begin with the Zocalo itself, a central square that is the most impressive in the New World. It is encircled by the Metropolitan cathedral, the array of colonial government buildings including the National Palace which houses Rivera's famous murals of the history of the country, and the Templo Mayor, one of the finest digs in pre-Colombian times where the  city of Tenochlitan once stood before its destruction by the conquistadors. Add to these the nearby Palace of Art, the Museum of Anthropology which is my favorite museum in the world, and the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe where Indians come on pilgrimage from the distant hills in full regalia to dance and to celebrate the saint they revere, and more. This was not on the list. I had to wonder if the author was ever there. One can also take the short drive from the center of Mexico City to view one of the great archaeological sites of the world, the ancient, mysterious city of Teotihuacan. The pyramids uncovered there are are almost as grand as those in Egypt. It is strange to me that anyone could leave this historical landmark off any travel list.

      Of course the most spectacular features of the Mexican landscape are the Mayan religious centers some built a thousand or 1500 years ago. The one small and relatively insignificant mention of these was Tulum, perhaps because it was near Cancun and more easily available. But one of the ten best choices- hardly. It is a minor site and not worth going out of the way to see. Omitted were the spectacular ruins of Palenque, Chichen Itza (the Castillo) and Uxmal (the Palace of Magicians), as well as many places in the Yucutan which are far more interesting than Tulum. The great underground series of wells or cenotes used by the Mayans for their sustenance makes for many beautiful visits in the countryside. If one tries to travel through Mexico without seeing the great pyramids at those sites, the most important destinations in the country have been missed. The vast variety of architecture from Mayan times and from the Olmecs, Totenacs, Mixtecs and other Indian cultures make a trip to Mexico worthwhile in itself. That notion did not make the list either nor did the beautiful museums Mexicans have built to highlight the sculpture and arts of those cultures get mentioned. I consider the archaeological museums of Mexico to be the finest in the world.

     Another important and fascinating site is Oaxaca where colorful handicraft villages fill the surrounding area and a variety of interesting architectural sites are located. The central square or Zocalo of this town is lovely. The Copper Canyon with its beautiful vistas, its thrilling train ride and the cave dwelling Tarahumara Indians should not be missed either. The city of Puebla features a multitude of fine colonial buildings and a gigantic local market one can get lost inside of. I could go on but I should mention the beaches. Many of those are familiar to Americans. These are relatively accessible and are rather inexpensive and more attractive for the most part than those along the American coastline. While these get and deserve mention, they are not among the most interesting or productive destinations in Latin America. Puerto Escondido at the top of the list in the article is a simple, moderately attractive and partially developed resort. It is better thought of as a side trip from Oaxaca. Mexico is a great place to visit but be careful whose best locations list you follow

The Coastline, Mazatlan, Mexico

Friday, August 3, 2012

Roads to Remember

     Driving along Third World roads, usually in a relatively broken down buggy, is occasionally a nerve wracking experience. I have mentioned a few such occasions in earlier blogs but these are frequently part of my travel experience. In some places, the vehicle provided is lacking in such amenities as good tires, clean oil and gas, etc. That makes the prospect of getting where you are going somewhat iffy. Along the Karakorum Highway (a misnomer if there ever was one) that connects Pakistan with China, it would be exceptional if one did not encounter a series of hazards. The road itself is laden with surprises like avalanches, dislodged rocks, the absence of any warning signs or directions and very few sources of auto sustenance. At one point, about 16,000 feet high, our van came to a glacier which crossed the road we were on. We had to get out so that the driver and guide could push our vehicle to a dry spot some 200 or more yards ahead. The alternative would have been to basically retrace our entire journey. Not a welcome interruption. We made it. After crossing the border, our Chinese car was about as beat up as any rental vehicle one can imagine. In that stretch of road, we wound up with two flat tires between towns. Fortunately, the driver had an air pump which he used for the second flat stopping every few miles until we limped into our destination and were able to get the car serviced. I suspect there was no inspection of the rental vehicle before our driver picked the car and us up at our previous hotel.

     On another occasion, we had an interesting stop in West Africa when the car stalled somewhere in nowhere land and there was not even a village in sight. It was a dangerous stretch of road our guide stated and not a good place to be stranded. As I described in an earlier post, the recollection of our driver that there was a village up ahead with a mechanic in it was life saving. He hitched a ride and corralled the mechanic while we kept starting the car and moving along a few feet at a time. We met in the village, the mechanic skillfully cleaned and replaced the carburetor and we were on our way. Just another short way stop between villages. Some of the roads themselves which connect villages in remote places can be quite lacking as well. There is a road that circles Lake Toba in Sumatra which takes one through a series of picturesque towns and colorful farms. One spot was enough to bring a measure of trepidation to the hardiest traveler. It was a bridge over a small river which apparently did not make any of the recent repair lists. It consisted of two tracks semi-covered by a few planks of wood. The rest of the space was open. We got out and tiptoed over the boards on the bridge while our driver and guide worked together to bring our car across the precipitous planks which had to be carefully maneuvered so that the vehicle did not fall into the river.

    But these are only dramatic instances of everyday occurrences. I wrote about the flood in China earlier and other such experiences but there are many places where the signage is insufficient and getting stuck on a mountainside or missing a turnoff are common. We have reached the end of a rural roads in Mexico or South America and had to turn back a considerable distance. We have driven basically with no discernible gasoline in our tank because we did not know the actual distance to the place we were going. With a guide, the tourist faces eventful and unplanned emergencies all over the Third World. Without one, getting lost is commonplace. So just get in the car, head for your destination and hope that fate is good to you.

Along the Karakorum Highway
Pakistan-China Border