Travel Stories, part 2
We had read that snowfall was near record levels over the past winter, and so our trip in early June to Yosemite promised lots of waterfalls.
It was time for another reunion trip with lifelong friends that I had first met in the Navy and an...ahem...Air Force spouse. We had visited Spain, southern France, Santa Fe, and the Grand Tetons together in years past, and we were looking forward to beautiful hikes and some great meals together. We are staying in Fish Camp, California, just outside Yosemite, which provides great access to the park. Yosemite is big. Really big.
Today, the weather is cloudy, cool, and damp. We linger over breakfast and wait for the morning mist to clear and then leave Fish Camp in two cars. Unfortunately, we have to turn back for a forgotten item and now our cars are separated. Back on our way, we try to raise the rest of our party on their cell phones, but with virtually no coverage in the area it looks like we are going to be split up for the day. Through the south entrance of the park, turn right, and we are heading up towards Mariposa Grove to see the giant sequoias. These famed redwoods are massive, and they hold an aura of great power. And then to see fallen sequoias is further testament to the power of nature.
We begin our hike which takes us steadily higher in elevation. Most kids are still in school in early June so while Yosemite is usually crowded in summer, we are here just before the rush and so it's very quiet in the grove. There is a cool mist in the air and as we get towards the station at the top, there is snow on the fallen trees and some on the ground. We reach the Upper Grove at about 6,500 feet, and stop to rest. I shoot "Mariposa Grove" with the peaceful cabin in the background.
We see a half-empty tram preparing to return to the bottom. It looks tempting, but we don't have tickets, so we will have to rely on our feet to get us back down. On the way down, we pass a rushing stream and I photograph "Running Water Yosemite." As we meander down, morning turns to afternoon and the weather begins to improve. The temperature warms and as the sun peaks through, I capture the rich and intricate detail of "Verdant and Restful."
We return to our car and start back towards Yosemite Valley. We pass the Wawona Golf Course; a golf course is a strange site inside a national park. On a subsequent trip past the golf course, I see a magnificent wild canine, which results in "Yosemite Coyote." But now it's lunch time and we stop at the famed Wawona Hotel for a warm and comfortable lunch. The Wawona Hotel dates back to 1879 when it was rebuilt after a fire that claimed the original structure that had been constructed in 1856.
Refreshed, we are back in the car and headed into Yosemite Valley. We stop at various sites along the way, including Bridalveil Falls. We are lucky to find a parking spot and start the short walk up to the base of the falls. But we never make it. The volume of water exploding off the falls is too much and a photo would be impossible. We'll save that for another day and walk back to our car with a few brave-but-drenched souls who made it to the falls.
The afternoon wears on and we finally reconnect with our friends. Before long it is time to make the 25-plus mile return trip to the park's entrance and the house in Fish Camp. As the sun falls lower in the summer sky, I'm excited about the prospect of getting a bear photo. I have my camera in my lap as I ride in the passenger seat and adjust the settings for a possible low-light interlude. Several years ago, I got a quick shot of a bear in Wyoming that had wandered down to munch on some berries. Unfortunately, I did not have sufficient time to get the right composition as the bear began to move back up the mountain shortly after I had arrived. Now this evening, I'm hoping to get another chance.
The winding, narrow two-lane road bisects the large Yosemite hills and we chat a bit, but I'm focused on finding a bear. This evening, I get lucky. Really lucky. As I peer out the window, I see it: a black bear in the meadow. "Bear! Pull over!" I exclaim. "Now where am I going to pull over?" asks my friend. "Anywhere. There!" I point to a small shoulder up ahead. My friend obliges. I hop out of the car and walk quickly back to where I had spotted the great beast, a distance of 75 to 100 yards. The others wait in the car.
I reach the clearing and look down and there he is. A nice black bear, maybe 100 yards below me in the field. Excitedly I lift my camera to my eye. And that's when I hear her. I hear her before I see her. In my excitement to take the picture, I failed to look up the hill on the other side of the road. That area is now behind me, and that area is where a HUGE black bear takes a deep breath. The hair on my neck stands up and I begin to turn my head, and then suddenly she races past me, a mere 30 feet to my right. She runs down the meadow toward my planned subject and now they are both sprinting and then another bear darts out of the trees. With a shaky hand I snap off a quick shot which will later reveal the bear's massive claws. In a few seconds they are gone.
Adrenaline pumping, I now look all around me and make my way back to the car. I reach the vehicle and knock on the driver side window. "Did you get a shot?" my friend asks. "Did you see it?" I ask in reply, the hair again rising on my neck. "See what?" he asks. "The huge bear that ran across the road and down the hill right next to me!" No, he had not seen it.
My heart pumping, I climb back into the car. I know I'm lucky. I'm lucky the bear didn't maul me, and I'm lucky to have witnessed the speed and power of the great animal up close. I make a mental note: next time avoid tunnel vision and pay more attention to the surroundings! I smile and wonder how long it will take for the hair to sit back down on my neck.
I had never heard of Bayahibe and so we climbed into our rental car with some trepidation. A few days earlier we drove through the bustling town of San Pedro, Dominican Republic. Motorcycles and scooters came at us from every direction--two wheeled vehicles use every part of the road in this country. In fact, motorcycles heading in the opposite direction seem to prefer the right shoulder of our side of the road over the traffic lanes to our left. Go figure. Fortunately, we had our trusty rental car. Unfortunately, our car could best be described as a modern-day version of Mr. Magoo's vehicle (am I dating myself?).
We are headed to Bayahibe to go scuba diving. Dive shops plan their morning dives so they can get the boats back into port by lunchtime, so we leave our hotel just after 7am and drive east. Thankfully, the traffic is light, and there are no large towns in this direction. The motorcyclists still pass us on all sides, but we're getting used to it. We have to cross the River Chavon, where a new bridge is being built. The car takes the severe downslope like a champ, but then coughs and whines up the other side.
I'm a bit anxious about the directions to Bayahibe, which were delivered to us in Spanish. Although I understood the directions, I am nonetheless concerned about statements like "...then, turn right near the old church." "Does the road have a name?" I ask. "No se," the clerk shrugs. U.S. and European churches are big and obvious, community churches in developing nations are sometimes...well...less so. I've also learned that when a local person responds to a directional question with a "No se" it is sometimes best translated as "Uh-oh."
After a few turns, I'm relieved when I see my wife is pointing out the window, "Yes, that's got to be the old church!" We turn south and enter the tiny seaside town of Bayahibe. The Mr. Magoo car squeaks to a stop outside the dive shop. The buildings have those vibrant Caribbean colors but the town also has a bit of a New Orleans feel to it with some second floor balconies.
I stretch a bit and let the gentle breeze wash over me. The weather is perfect for diving: sunny skies, warm weather, flat seas, and only a soft breeze. The dive shop is painted bright yellow on the outside, and bright blue inside. Its doors and windows are wide-open to the fresh Caribbean air.
We head inside and I'm met with the familiar smell of neoprene. Certification cards are checked, sizes are taken, and paperwork is completed. Before long we are walking the short two blocks down to the tiny port area. There are two roughly 40 yard wide entrances to the port, separated in the middle by a rocky outcropping. There is no pier, there are no ships, just a tiny, bustling port of small boats. We wade out a few feet to our boat and climb aboard. The dive shop owner is an American and he will be leading a small group of new divers who are completing their qualifications. Our divemaster is Dominican and he will be taking a second group of experienced divers down. He speaks excellent English, but I soon learn that he also speaks enough German, and French to help the other members of our group. The staff is friendly and highly efficient: the gear is stacked neatly on the boat, the tanks are prepared well in advance, and there is a high-touch effort all around. The staff attaches the customers' regulators (hoses and mouthpieces) to their buoyancy control devices or BCD's (these are like inflatable jackets that attach to the air tanks), which is a nice touch.
It only takes about 15 minutes to reach our first dive site, an exotic sounding reef dive called Guaraguao 2. Along the way, the water has changed from a pale green at the port, to a beautiful, rich blue. We bound into the water and are soon about 50 feet under. Our divemaster leads the way and before long, he's pointing at the coral. I swim over and see a six foot green moray eel which slithers silently through the coral. While eels are pretty shy, they are fun to see and they never fail to give you a menacing look from their hiding spots.
A few minutes later, I spot something strange. It's a fat, unmoving creature, which is bluish-grey, but it has two beautiful, small purple/blue marks where it's exoskeleton hinges. I've never seen anything like this. Since I can't yell underwater, I swim over to our divemaster and tap him on the shoulder and bring him over for a look. We stop. We stare at it. He seems interested. He then looks at me and gives me a smile and a high-five underwater and waves the others, who have circled us, in for a look. I still have no idea what it is but I figure it must be a good find, because I've never gotten a high-five underwater. We're back cruising around the reef and see a bunch of rays of varying sizes, and an outline in the sand where a massive ray must have rested.
I check my air gauge and conclude that we must be nearing the end of our dive. Then I spot two big antennae from under the coral. I know what this is, it's going to be a Caribbean lobster. Unlike their coldwater relatives, Caribbean lobsters have no pinching claws, just massive antennae jutting from their heads. I swim over to get a better view and notice another massive pair of antennae next to this one. These are twin Caribbean lobsters, and I'm thinking each of these tails have to be at least two pounds apiece. Suddenly, I'm feeling very hungry.
Back topside, we strip off our dive skins (thin wetsuits) and dry off. The air temperature is in the low-80s, but I've lost some body heat in the 45 minute dive and don my trusty ski cap for warmth. After a few minutes, everyone is back in the boat and we are off to our second dive site, Viva Shallows. It's a good time to ask about the strange creature so I climb over a few divers and their gear to reach our divemaster. I learn that this animal is called a Spanish Lobster (you can Google it for pictures). It really looks more like a giant lobster tail with a few short legs. By now the owner joins the conversation. "Can you eat them?" I ask. "Hell, yeah!" says the American owner. "I like them better than regular lobsters. They have a slightly different taste, but they're very good." Now I'm even hungrier.
couple of the dive students are sitting near us as we take the short ride to the next anchorage. The young woman in the bright yellow bikini is freezing. I've heard her speaking French, but I don't know if I remember enough French to suggest she remove her wet neoprene jacket, since wearing it only makes her colder. I try Spanish instead. She pulls off her wetsuit top and directs her male companion to do the same. She does not have a towel with her, so I share mine with her. Unfortunately, they both still look cold when we arrive at the second dive site, yet they retain the enthusiasm of new divers.
ur new dive location is just a couple hundred yards offshore. Now I have to pull on my own cold, wet dive skin. I look at the water and think there may be a current running here. I check with our divemaster and he looks up from his pre-dive preparations and peers over the side. "Yeah, maybe," he says, and then goes back to his gear. In a flash, we are all back in the water and our group meets at the bottom of the anchor line. The plan is to swim around a small reef and then back to the boat. Since this is our second dive, we are shallower here and will have a slightly shorter dive. A few minutes into the dive, my wife and I look at each other. There's something wrong: we are never going to get back to the boat with the speed of this current. I imagine this is what it feels like when birds fly in a strong downwind. We look over at the divemaster and he seems unconcerned. We continue along our way, enjoying many of the small, brilliantly-colored fish and the rich diversity of corals in the area.
After a half hour, I'm starting to get cold and am relieved when it's time to return to the surface. Whereas we usually surface on the anchor chain, this time there is no chain to be found and we resurface as a group. We pop up and look for the boat...where's the boat? Where are we? The current has pushed us a few hundred yards astern of the boat. Fortunately, our divemaster is well-prepared. He inflates a brightly colored beacon with the air from his regulator and begins to blow a whistle. The boat finally sees us and a few minutes later we are back on board. The newbies who have finished their quals are happy and chatting excitedly as we head back to port. I enjoy the brief trip as the dark blue sea gradually cedes its color and returns to the pale blue/green of the port. It's been a fun trip and I'm happy to be on shore as I notice a storm that's begun forming out to the east.
Now comes the best part of scuba diving: lunch! We ditch our gear in the Magoo car, express our gratitude to the dive shop and its owner and wave good-bye. As we depart, we ask our divemaster for a lunch recommendation, and he points us to a locally-owned place along the water. It's a pasta joint that sits on a tiny peninsula's that forms the western side of the little port. It's open air, no one speaks English, and...it's perfect.
The restaurant is empty, so we grab a couple seats with a nice view, and order lunch. The pasta with fresh lobster sounds delicious. My wife orders a red wine, and I order a Coke. The soda comes in a large, thick glass bottle that reminds me of my childhood. There is something elegant about the heavy, distinctly-shaped Coke bottle that plastic cannot replicate. We enjoy our view over the water as we sip our beverages and recount our dives.
There's a group of men under a few palm trees to our right hammering away. It looks like they are rebuilding part of a seawall. I grab my camera and shoot, "Dominican Boats" which are tied up near the workers. A young man strolls by with a single drum. He walks over to the men, but I guess they aren't interested in any music and he reverses direction and disappears. I grab a photo of him and some of the other foot traffic along the port for my personal collection. I also take the panoramic photo "Dominican Midday" from just outside our restaurant--like I say, we have a very nice view. Service is slow, which is fine by us: we are right where we want to be.
We notice a small flat boat pulling into port, and watch as a bare-chested man walks back and forth unloading about four foot long fish into a wheel barrow. These are Dorado. I grab my camera and ask him in Spanish if I can take a photo. He retorts, "Quickly, these are heavy." That photo becomes "Bayahibe Dorado."
Finally, lunch arrives just as the skies open up and it begins to pour. Steam rises from the freshly made pasta inside the restaurant, while rain falls in sheets outside. The streets empty as everyone seeks cover from the rain. The storm lasts for maybe 10 minutes, and as quickly as it came, the rain ends. I've had my eye on an open air art store across from our restaurant that is rich in reds and oranges. As the storm retreats and a soft, flat light returns, I snap "Bayahibe Art" with its vibrant colors and Caribbean feel.
We finish lunch and pay our bill and unfortunately, it's time to be on our way. I tell my wife, "I've got a new favorite small town," and secretly promise to return someday.
I'd had enough. I actually had had more than enough. I was working a lot of hours, not sleeping, and stressed out--sound familiar? So I quit my job. And that felt really good. During my long work day--that often turned into work nights--I kept thinking about what I was missing and how much I was giving up. So quitting wasn't enough, I needed to get away. Warm, cheap and wide-open sounded pretty good to me, so I was off to the Everglades. With family already on the west coast of Florida, I had explored previously Big Cypress National Preserve, which yielded a few nice wildlife photos (see "Egret" and "Alligator Lurking"), so I was excited to see what Everglades National Park had to offer.
Logistics were pretty easy: 1 plane ticket to Fort Myers: check. Camera gear including a new, huge 90-250mm zoom lens: check (this lens weighs just over 7 pounds, so I was not looking forward to lugging this). Hiking pants, long sleeved shirts, hat: check. I kept thinking I was forgetting something...but I just wanted to get going.
The one thing I still needed was a car. Fortunately, my in-laws, with their unceasing generosity, lent me one of their vehicles. If you want to explore a swampy tropical area, I highly recommend the Lincoln Town Car. You may have been thinking a rugged Jeep, or some type of SUV. Nope. The first class seats, wide elbow rest, air conditioning, and easy steering beat those other vehicles hands down, and it's a real head-turner. I actually stopped to help a guy in a work van who had slid off the road and was stuck in the mud. I'm sure you can imagine the driver's expression when the old Lincoln Town Car stopped to lend a hand!
I left the west coast of Florida just before dawn and enjoyed a nice sunrise while driving across Alligator Alley. A few hours later I was in the Park, camera in hand and ready for a few days of digital hunting.
The Everglades has three distinct ecosystems: Pineland, Sawgrass, and Mangrove Swamp. The upper reaches are the Pinelands and look like most of southern Florida, with dense vegetation and lots of palm trees and palmettos. My first stop in the Park is the easy Anhinga Trail, which really should be called Vulture Town. The first thing I notice when I turn into the parking lot are the dozens of vultures climbing on the cars. These rather inelegant creatures have an unexpected affinity for rubber. They peck at whatever rubber is exposed on a vehicle: wiper blades, edging around windshields, and yes, even tires. The experienced Everglader (Evergladian? Evergladiator?) come prepared and cover their cars with tarp; I did not. Hesitantly, I leave behind the borrowed Town Car and head onto the Anhinga Trail. This is a short paved/boardwalked trail, and anhingas and vultures are indeed plentiful here. They seem accustomed to humans--I walk within 4-5 feet of these large birds and they remain perched on the boardwalk's handrail. Note: be wary of vultures overhead--during a prior visit to the west coast of Florida I saw a poor gentleman doused by a vulture - it sounded like a bowl of soup landing on his head! Not a pretty site. Anyway, the trail meanders back into some swampy areas where, thanks to the "cold" December weather, I find several alligators sunning themselves in the marsh. Hmmm, maybe I should load some of those pictures onto TousJour.... Anyway, I shoot "Everglades Flower" and "Palm" not far from this trail.
The Sawgrass region in the middle of the Park is dominated by wading birds, shallow swamps, and an abundance of Dwarf Cypress trees. This attractive and peaceful region gives me "After the Sunset Everglades;" I really like the outline of the bird in one of the trees. I also shoot "Egret Reflections," "Everglades Egret," and "Heron in Hiding" over a few days.
I have selected an inexpensive hotel close to the Park's main entrance. My routine is to wake up early, head into the park until lunchtime, come back out, grab lunch and a nap, and then return for sunset. The schedule is designed to capture good light, a few sunrises/sunsets, and if I'm lucky, large wildlife. I am off for an evening stroll around Mahogany Hammock which I had scouted earlier in the day. A "hammock" is a small hill in the middle of the Sawgrass swamp where a little ecosystem builds around a few hardwood trees that have found footing on solid ground. As I'm searching for snakes below the boardwalk, I sense a sudden movement just behind me. I turn and only see a branch bouncing up and down. Upon closer inspection I find a small, but spectacular frog which is now "Green Tree Frog." Since I am in the middle of the hammock, and it is getting close to sunset, there isn't much light. I quickly attach my fast 90-250mm telephoto lens and fire off a few shots. Fortunately, the light cascades perfectly, and this shot remains one of my favorite today.
The lower region of the Everglades is predominantly mangrove swamp. And here is where I realize what I have forgotten: bug spray. The upper and middle reaches of the park are essentially mosquito-free in December; the mangrove swamp, much to my chagrin, is not. On my first attempt to walk Snake Bight Trail, I get about 50 yards in before I must turn back. Long pants and long sleeves are simply no match against these voracious pests. I run, yes run, the last 10 yards and jump into the Lincoln Town Car, and begin to swat madly at my back and arms and legs. Everything itches--even the spots which have no mosquitoes still feel buggy. I augment my self-flagellation with an occasional kill on the windshield, which feels rather rewarding. The Snake Bight Trail leads out to the bay with a southern/western exposure. I pledge to return the next day to try to capture sunset, but first I need to get massive quantities of deet.
When I arrived the next evening, I can almost hear the mosquitoes laughing. The agony starts the moment I get out of the car. I spray the deet generously on my exposed skin and head off down the dark, tree lined, swampy path. At about 70 yards, I turn around and once again, run back to the car. Repeating the frantic smashing of the day before, I crank up the air conditioning--perhaps a blast of cold air will make them slower? Or less hungry? The mosquitoes of Snake Bight Trail have won; it's time to move on.
The day after the bloodletting, I drive to the southern end of the Everglades. Just before Flamingo--a quasi-town that is more of a boat launch and snackateria at the Park's southern tip--is a trail out to Bear Lake. This sounds interesting...Bear Lake...perhaps bears? Or at least something a bit larger than the mosquitoes? I had scouted this path a few days earlier: it has a long, muddy, desolate road that parallels a creek/tributary. Prime alligator territory. When I was in Big Cypress a few years back, a fellow enthusiast had told me that I had just missed an alligator that had jumped out of the water and ate a wading bird. Perhaps I can capture something like this? So off I go. The mosquitoes up at Snake Bight Trail must have let their southern relatives know I was coming, because this hike also proves torturous. I douse myself in deet and then decide to spray it all over my clothing. Every puddle I passed is buzzing with mosquitoes, who would gladly leave the their miserable mud puddles to attack me as I pass. I feel like a pied piper because each time I look back, I see many mosquitoes following me. Unfortunately, the only wildlife in this region are these biting pests and a few birds. I only take a handful of shots, but I gain a much greater appreciation for hydrocortisone.
If you go to the Everglades, bring your camera, bring your bug spray, and I'd say even bring one of those mosquito nets that attaches to your hat. Or just stay in the upper two-thirds of the park. Either way, it's an environmentally important and pretty area to visit.
Funny how a place you've never seen can capture your imagination. You try to envision it, you read about it, but in the end, you just have to go. I had put Belize on my must-visit list years ago after I learned that about 20% of the country is nature preserve. And that they have jaguars. It was only a matter of time, I had to go.
My wife took care of all the trip details, all I had to do was pack. We're both scuba divers so this trip would mix scuba diving with beach time, and a dedicated day in the jungle. My wife tells me we are staying on Ambergis Caye, an island just north of San Pedro. The resort is named Journey's End. My mind races. Wait, did she say Journey's End? I ask her if she's certain of the name; of course she is, why do I ask? I tell her Journey's End sounds more like a retirement home than an eco-tourism resort. Will this be fun or boring? We'll know in a few hours.
It's Thanksgiving week and the weather is perfect: warm and sunny. My wife has selected a package that includes breakfast. We have a friendly waitress all week with the warmest smile. Her name is Norene. We eat breakfast in the open, thatched roof dining room, while a few large iguanas sun themselves each morning on the roof. The food is fantastic: banana pancakes, eggs and breakfast burritos, and local specialties like Johnny Cakes (kind of English muffins made with coconut milk). I like the food enough to buy a local cookbook in town: "U Toucan Cook Belize." Fun title.
The diving has its ups and downs. One of the challenges is the reef. Belize features the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere and the second largest reef (at nearly 200 miles) in the world behind the Great Barrier Reef. We don't have to get across that big reef, but we do have to get over a reef that protects Ambergis Caye. To cross the reef, the captain has to slice diagonally and then turn directly into a wave. The key is to race over the wave before it breaks. This proves exhilarating: we clear the wave, but the boat is now airborne--the wave has fallen away and we shoot out into the air. Moments seem like minutes, but the boat eventually slams back onto the water.
The diving is a bit disappointing. We have some fun interactions with turtles and many nurse sharks (we pet one when turned upside-down by a dive master), but there are also strong currents and higher seas. Getting back into the boat takes strength and timing. The most disappointing part of the dive is the staff. They boat crew is stand-offish, unfriendly, and generally annoyed with the divers. Most dive boats are friendly affairs--the divers are excited about their adventures and the staff usually seems well-medicated and interested in making a tip. But not in Belize. Maybe we're just unlucky, but after a few days of diving we decide to cancel our last afternoon dive because of the crew. Too bad.
The most exciting day is our trip into the jungle. My wife has arranged for a private guide to take us on two hikes in the Cockscomb Preserve. This huge preserve is well south of the capital, Belize City, and it takes some effort to get there. First, we need a boat ride from our resort. Ambergis Caye and its resorts are accessible to the main land and the largest town in the region, San Pedro, via coastal taxi. But we need an earlier boat to make the first flight out of San Pedro. So we arrange for a pre-dawn pickup and then walk through town to the local airport. This is a tiny tiny airport: there is covered open-air deck for passengers and a ticket window, and an airstrip that ends in a dirt patch. The aircraft are old, mostly single prop planes that fit maybe a dozen people.
We make the first flight back to Belize City, which is beautiful. We fly low over water as the sun rises. It is a great way to start the day. We catch an early connector flight from Belize City down to Dangriga, a small town in the south. We are met there by a gentleman who lived most of his life in the US driving trucks. From there he takes us to a small village, where we wait for a local guide, Julian, to hop in the back seat. He is of Mayan descent, short and stocky, friendly and polite. He speaks English perfectly. We drive another 20 or 30 minutes and hop out of the car with Julian. After a brief chat on logistics, we start our hike into the jungle. I want to see big game, but I realize that it's probably too late in the morning to see anything dramatic. I make a note to one day come back and spend a few nights here to get a pre-dawn start.
oday we're headed to the top of a large waterfall known as Ben's Bluff. Getting there is quite a hike; at parts its straight up, with hand-over-foot climbing. This is not your US National Park; there are no warning signs, guardrails or park rangers. It's muddy and slippery in parts but there's little wildlife, other than a couple snakes and lots of termites. We can hear the falls, but can't yet see it. Julian cracks off a piece of a termite mound and invites us to smell it. Remarkably, it smells just like carrots.
At the top we are treated to a wonderful view: a two-part waterfall with a bathing pool in the middle. I have to climb out to the middle of the falls. The rocks are very very slippery and the only thing below me is 100-plus feet of falling water. I haul out my camera, balancing myself carefully on a couple small rocks, and take a series of photos. I've since stitched these into a nice panorama for my home collection. But what a feeling--standing on top of a waterfall in Central America overlooking the wide expanse of jungle. No people, no cars, no emails. I am alive, I can breathe. I can see. I can hear.
Our guide Julian is surprised we don't want to swim. "Wildlife," I tell him. That's our top priority. Getting down is faster, but more difficult than getting to the top. On the way up, my wife and I had a hard time keeping up with Julian, but on the way down, we are pushing him. I am soon reminded why he is going slower as I slip a short way and fortuitously grab a hanging vine for safety.
Before long, we are back in the car and off for another half hour ride to another part of the Cockscomb preserve. Or so we think. Soon the car pulls off the road. My wife and I look at each other. We are parked in front of a small one-room building: it's a barbeque stand. We all get out and order lunch: pork or chicken? We'll take the chicken. We sit on a broken picnic table and chat and wait. And wait. A couple of paper plates appear with barbequed chicken and rice and beans. Guess what? It's delicious. The chicken is moist and fresh; I'd like to order seconds but I want to get back into the jungle.
In the afternoon, we are off to another section of the park. Julian has listened to us and made note of our interest--he takes us to a part of the park where he thinks we can see wildlife. This is a flat hike and he points into a dense underbrush. "We used to live right over here." Where? It's dense jungle, there are no buildings. But things grow fast in these moist, tropical climes. Julian proceeds to tell us some amazing stories about his childhood, how the Brits (before independence Belize was known as British Honduras) came and took the mahoganies and hardwoods. There was a whole community of native people who lived here and supported the forestry business. Unfortunately, there are few mahogany trees remaining, but when we see one, we understand their allure. They are huge, thick, elegant trees.
Julian tells us how the owner was also an outdoorsman. There was a small airstrip nearby, where the owner would come and go. Then he tells us about the jaguar. The owner wanted to capture a jaguar, so he had the men assemble a mahogany trap to capture the big cat. They tied a young pig inside and set the trap. Julian and his brothers would go out each day to check the trap and feed the pig. Until one day, all they found was blood and smashed mahogany. I can't imagine the power of the animal to rip apart mahogany and escape the trap. Score one for the jaguar.
Julian and his family lived here until the hardwoods were gone and the Brits pulled out. We look again at the underbrush, I still can't see any signs that anyone has ever lived here. Julian is only about 35 years old.
We continue on, add a bit more bug spray, and I hear my wife let out a yelp as a pencil-thin 10-inch snakes wriggles like mad to get across the path. We continue on and then Julian points up. At the top of the canopy are howler monkeys munching on leaves. They are larger than I expect and are beautiful. But it is dark in the dense jungle, and it is hard to get a good shot of the monkeys who are in constant motion. I have a couple photos in my personal collection, including one of the monkeys hanging upside down from the tree. My wife and I are thrilled. We hang out and watch for a while, until they hop across the top of the canopy and disappear. We feel blessed to have witnessed these creatures.
All too soon, we are back in the car and headed to Dangriga airport. But first, we have to drop off Julian in his village. We thank him and wave to him and his family as he returns home from his day of work. We drive through Dangriga and see the children dressed neatly in their school uniforms also on their way home.
We thank our host, and catch our flight. While airborne, I capture "Flight into the Jungle." I like the shadow of our plane on the lush green carpet below. We arrive in Belize City to catch the last flight up to San Pedro. The sun is setting, the flight is tranquil and beautiful. I smile at my wife. She says "Pretty cool, huh?" Yeah, pretty cool.
The tranquility of the flight gives way to a mad rush. The Belizians have inherited the British sense of punctuality. The water taxi leaves on the hour, that's 10 minutes from now. We gather our belongings and run through San Pedro to the beach and then up the narrow, commercial beach to the water taxi. We make it, but the laughter echoes behind us.
We spend the next few days diving, wandering the beach, and sailing the resort's little catamaran. Along the way we find huge orange-red starfish, and plenty of wading birds, including "Egret Belize." The water and skies are spectacular, I get "Belize Pier" one day on our walk down the beach to lunch. When I look at this photo, I feel like I am being pulled away from my routine, daily life and back to the limitless potential of travel and nature.
On one of the last nights we take the water taxi into town for dinner. They aren't really taxis, they're more like buses, since there can be a large number of people on the "taxis" getting off at different stops. As we head out to the pier, I take the "Waiting" photo.
While we wait for the next taxi, the Journey's End staff arrives as they start their evening commute home. While the taxis depart on time leaving San Pedro, the return trip is more variable and depends on the number of stops the taxi must make and how many people are in the boat. We wait for a while, and then a boat arrives. It's not a water taxi. It's a slightly larger boat with two huge engines. The boat is pretty bare, but it is designed for speed. Why a stripped down boat would need such large, expensive engines in Central America is open to speculation. We have our theories. But the staff hop into the boat and they give us a friendly smile inviting us onboard. My wife looks at me. They seem happy, there are women onboard and they don't look nervous, we want to get to town...let's go for it. We hop in. While the water taxis make a load roar as they race up and down the coast, this boat simply purrs. It gets up on plane and glides across the water. The sun has set, we're moving fast, and the warm rushing air is exhilarating.
The boat has no running lights. I turn back and look at the shirtless long-haired Belizian at the helm. He's relaxed and chatting with his buddy. I look at my wife and shrug my shoulders. But then something goes wrong. Instead of continuing down the coast to San Pedro, the boat banks hard to the right and heads directly for the mangroves. I can't really see where we are going, but wherever it is we are going fast. My wife asks me where we are headed; I don't know. But the women onboard still don't look nervous and they are chatting comfortably, so I'm still feeling okay.
The boat banks a little to the left and we fly into a small opening between the mangroves. On the other side is a tiny boat, which we barely miss. We're still going very fast. A few minutes later we start to see the lights of the town. I've got it; we're coming in on the bayside, the backside of town, instead of the Gulf of Mexico where the water taxis dock. The captain backs down the engine; my wife reaches for her wallet to get money for a tip. She looks at me; I shrug my shoulders again. The engines reverse, the boat slides to the dock and the mate hops out and ties off. The captain is the second one off the boat. In an instant, he is gone. I tell my wife that I don't think the captain needs our tip, I think he makes plenty of money ferrying whatever cargo requires such a fast boat.
Now we get to see the real side of San Pedro. There are people everywhere, and there is a dimly lit soccer field. It has no grass, just dirt, but a lively game is ongoing and there are even spectators. Surprisingly, there is a walking path that dissects midfield. On this path are all kinds of pedestrians, including older women carrying groceries, and mom's with small children. The game goes on around them. We decide to skip the path and go the long way around. We find a nice place along the beach for a delicious dinner. On the way home, we catch a water taxi, and I unintentionally donate my baseball cap to Atlantis. It's been an unforgettable evening.
Our resort faces south and east and other than the early flights to the jungle, I'm too lazy to get up for sunrise. Instead my wife and I remain in our stand-alone bungalow, complete with a high post bed, ceiling fan, and mosquito netting. The resort is clean and pretty and the staff is friendly. I capture "British Cannon" but all too soon, we are headed home. It has been a magnificent trip.
Paris: it's as much a feeling as a location. My wife and I love the city and we love tennis, so we pick a week in May that coincides with the French Open. After learning a bit more French, buying a few overpriced tickets for Day 1 at Roland Garros, and using a boatload of miles for some business class tickets, we head to Paris for a week.
I like the overnight flights to Paris because when you arrive, the city is just waking up. The Rues and Avenues are quiet except for the street cleaners, a few cafes are open and the pain au chocolat (chocolate croissants) are fresh and warm. We want to avoid bland American hotel chains, so we have selected a quaint hotel in the artsy St. Germain de Pres area on the Left Bank (see "Left Bank of Paris"). From here, we have access to many of the cities best-known sites like the Louvre, but also the less touristy places that can give us a deeper sense of Paris.
We check in and drop our bags in our room. I say "drop our bags" because I love to travel with a big backpack when on vacation. I need to distance myself from the ubiquitous rollerboard of streamlined American business life. Our second floor room is perfect. It is quaint, tastefully appointed, and has massive windowed doors that overlook the street below. We head out and down the street to a local cafe. I wonder which one to choose, but my wife reminds me that any of these places will have good chocolate croissants. We select a cafe with a few locals in it, and order an alarming number of these biscuits. You see, I don't drink. My wife loves wine but I love chocolate. So the Paris experience for my palate is centered on these tasty devils. Once sated, we return to our room, close the massive curtains and take a nice long nap.
After a deep deep sleep, we awaken several hours later. While the room is dark, we can hear the sounds of the city: the horns and engines, the prototypical bee-baw of a police vehicle in the distance. We could sleep for longer but I'm excited to explore the city.
We shower and dress, I grab my camera gear, and we head downstairs. We've caught the end of the hotel's Continental breakfast; I get fresh juice and my wife gets coffee. Sugar and caffeine--they both give a quick jolt of energy. I jump in head first with my "navigable" French. By that I mean I have enough French for basic, polite conversations with strangers, such as asking directions, or buying un cadeau (a present) at a specialty store, and the like. I also learn later on this trip that I have enough French to explain to a pharmacist that I needed drops for an itchy eye but still want to wear my contact lenses. Obscure but necessary.
The hotel's manager and the staff are the polar opposites of the Parisian stereotype: they are happy to help, friendly, and extraordinarily patient with my assault on their elegant language. Later in the week, I'm at the front desk again, asking for directions. This time there is a new clerk and he begins to respond to my query in English, but the manager tells him to speak in French. I take this as a compliment, but then get woefully lost in his response.
Our tickets to the French Open are for Sunday. We take the subway from Mabillon over to the western edges of the city and Roland Garros. The subway is clean, very clean, and the trains run with their windows open instead of air conditioning. This is very, very different than the NYC subway.
We arrive early at Roland Garros to avoid the lines. Quick aside: we learn that Roland Garros is named after the French fighter pilot in World War I. We wait in a short line about 30 minutes before the gates open. As time passes and the queue lengthens we are surprised to learn that we are going to be entertained. Two young people on stilts appear and a few large beach balls are dispatched into the small crowd. People laugh and whack the ball and chat with the people on stilts, and then with each other. This contrasts the US Open, where the staff walks around screaming about the two lines--one for those with bags, the other for those who don't have bags--and then they bark about what types or sizes of bags are permitted. I can hardly understand them; I wonder how a non-native English speaker must feel. At the US Open you certainly don't talk to people around you. Sure, I'm a tennis fan and the New Yorker behind me must also be a tennis fan, but speak to him? Never! I can't help but think how the aggressive feel in New York contrasts with this carnival feeling in Paris.
Once inside, the warm red clay is captivating and the food is fantastic. The main court, Court Philippe Chatrier, is much much smaller than the football size concrete ensemble in Flushing Meadows, and we have perfect mid-court seats. Wayne Odesnik, the lefty "Americaine," plays France's Gilles Simon who enjoys the support of the local crowd and rallies to their chants of "Allez!" I've had enough and after a good game from Odesnik, I jump up and scream "Give 'em hell, Wayne!" I am tugged back to my seat by my wife. Odesnik loses a good match to Simon and my consolation prize is the "French Open" photo.
After the match, I meander toward the outside courts. I'm fiddling with my camera gear, and then I look up: 20 yards directly in front of me is Roger Federer and a security entourage. They are headed directly at me: he is so close that I have to get out of his way. Star struck and with little time, I capture only a semi-focused picture of the Hall of Famer. The day leaves a lot of memories, including getting lost trying to find the Subway station back to Mabillon. I make the mistake of asking directions from a fellow American, rather than a Parisian, and we pay for this with a 40 minute walkabout. My wife restrains her impatience; she has earned her glass of wine, whenever we make it back....
The rest of the week we walk everywhere. On Monday we walk about 10 miles, the weather is perfect: springtime warmth and low humidity. We stop at a cafe for lunch where we order a light repast: french fries, bread and cheese, a glass of wine and a coke (it comes in a glass bottle, I love it). While waiting for our food, I hop out onto the street and take "Paris Streetview," (I like long, narrow street shots, and have hundreds of them from various places) and shortly after lunch I take "Les Journals."
Now my city guidebook recommends an off-beat trip to Les Egouts, made famous in Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. It is a maze of subterranean tunnels that includes the sewers. My wife looks skeptical, but the day is warming up and it will be nice to get out of the sun. We have a hard time finding Les Egouts, but there is a small kiosk on the street with a gentleman who takes our Euros, slides us tickets and a brochure. He points to the entrance. We enter: it is dark, and cold...and it smells terrible. Our eyes eventually adapt from the bright sunlight to the darkness of Les Egouts, but our noses never adapt. This is the sewer system after all. But this is not any sewer system, it is Paris's centuries-old sewer systems and therefore it must have exhibits and a small gift counter. Really? Gifts from the sewer? To whom are these gifts being given?
We begin to walk the path that leads through this "museum." At one exhibit a group of school children have gathered--it's field trip time for school kids in May. There is a man lecturing in front of a glass case to the children. From our angle, we can't make out what is behind the glass, but then we see it: it is a large stuffed rat. We walk even faster now as we pass the open stream of water (let's just call it water, I'm not exactly certain what to call it either in English or French). We now race past the gift counter--nothing for us, merci--and hurry outside. Sorry, no good photos for TousJour, but I have to take one of my wife in the sewer system. I don't think anyone would characterize her expression as a smile.
The rest of the week follows a similar routine--up at the crack of mid-morning, Continental breakfast, massacre a pile of pain au chocolat, and then out walking for the day. On Wednesday, we visit Les Invalides, a beautiful and sacred site for the French, which was originally built by Louis XIV as a place for soldiers to recuperate. The arches and light at this time of day make great natural frames and I capture a few good shots of my wife. I like to shoot photos of identical things that are lined up in a row, and I spend some time shooting the canons, where I capture "Les Invalides Paris." On Thursday we pass over the Seine, and I look below. I see a young couple in each others' arms on the footpath, and I get "L'Amour Paris."
On Friday, my wife has a Thai massage at a local place recommended by the front desk. She's never had a Thai massage, so we don't know what this entails. I drop her off at the "spa" and since she neither speaks French nor Thai, I decide to cross my fingers and hope for the best. I have about an hour to kill. The store adjacent to the spa sells natural soaps; they mill their soap and sell it, unwrapped. I get permission to take some photos from the pretty young woman in the back, and capture "Savon Naturel." I want to spend the whole hour in this store. The front is all glass and there are lots of light and many bars lined up in neat rows of varying colors, shapes and sizes. The place smells wonderful. But this is a business, and I have to respect that. I buy an oatmeal bar for my wife and head out.
I stride over to Jardin du Luxembourg, a huge park that is bursting with spring. A few days earlier, we visited the park, where children were floating little sailboats in the fountain, people were out sunning themselves and playing tennis, and children were riding amusements and ponies. I had captured "Jardin du Lexumbourg" and a bunch more photos for my private collection then, but now it is a weekday morning and the park is quiet and I don't have has much time. I meander a bit, and then it's back to pick up my wife. This should be interesting, I think to myself. I arrive at the spa and wait for a few minutes and my wife returns with a small Thai woman. A few "mercis" and we pay the bill and head out.
"How was it?" I ask.
"Interesting," she retorts.
"Interesting?" I was not expecting that phrase. Here comes a story. I hear that they first asked my wife if she wanted to be on the floor or the table. She thought that was a strange request; all her massages to date have been on a table, so she picked the table. She then tells me that this petite Thai woman proceeded to climb onto her back and pushed, pulled, prodded, and step on her for an hour. My wife seems neither happy nor angry about the experience so I think I'm going to be okay. I ask her how she is and I get the lamentable four letter f-word: "Fine." End of conversation. We go to lunch.
On our last night in Paris, we have an early dinner in St. Germain and then head out for a walk. We wind up on the famous Pont Des Arts bridge at sunset. It is hard to walk; the bridge is teaming with people who are seated for sunset. They have wine and bread and cheese and are enjoying the end of a beautiful spring day. I find a spot to set up my tripod and wait. I am rewarded with a warm blue photo of Pont Neuf just after sunset: "La Nuit Au Paris." Paris. What a great feeling.
I meet my sister and my young nephew and niece at a kiss-and-ride lot on the outskirts of Denver. I hop out of my rental car and into their minivan for the six hour drive along I-70 to Moab and Arches National Park.
One of our companions along the way is the railroads. Railways make interesting photos since the tracks lead viewers into the image and give a two-dimensional medium a 3D feel. While in western Colorado, we pass a freight train and then speed up in the hopes of finding a spot to take a photo. My sister knows a rest area up ahead, and we race there to park. I have plenty of time to set up. We hear the train before we see it and it finally emerges around a bend. There's a mountain behind it, and the rushing Colorado river in front of it. While I take the photo (which is in my personal collection) the kids wave madly at the conductor. It's a good start to the trip.
Back in the car, hours pass and we're finally off I-70 and headed south to Moab. Another railroad has appeared on our right as we approach Moab on US-191. I pull over and walk over to the tracks and take "Western Rail Tracks." Strangely, there are lots of dead cattle along this stretch of tracks, and the air has an unpleasant odor. I'm guessing they were hit by trains, although I don't see trauma. Electrocuted? I don't know; I get back in the car.
A few minutes later, we arrive in Moab and check into the motel. I've told my sister that I want to get an early start so I can get good light. She says it's no problem. Though they are only 6 and 4 years old, these are Colorado kids: they are already outdoorsmen and have gotten up early for long hikes in the past.
Morning arrives all too soon, I roll out of bed and start moving. Surprisingly, the kids are ready in a few minutes and soon we are at the entrance to Arches National Park. This is a simple park: a main road, a few overlooks, several parking lots and trails that branch out. My sister and her family have been here before, local knowledge helps. She suggests we start at the Windows section. It's cold. It's actually very cold. We had a light dusting of snow overnight and the pre-dawn temperature is in the 20s. We park and get out into the cold early morning air. I grab my camera backpack and tripod. I hoist the tripod over my shoulder and walk a path up to Turret Arch and Windows. This is high desert (about 4500 feet), and the air is light and bitterly cold. In less than a minute, I feel great pain in my exposed hand. I switch hands. This continues for a few more painful minutes and then I settle in and get "Windows," and "Rushing Sunrise."
We get back into the van and I crank the heater. The cold walk has awaken the children. I can tell they are wide awake because they are talking. If the kids are tired, they stop talking; all other times they are talking. I guess when you have that much energy, you have to get it out. The day is underway, snacks are passed around, and we are off deeper into Arches.
The beautiful arch formations are carved by the wind which erodes the soft sandstone over time. About 300 million years ago this part of Utah was a large inland sea. Over time, the sea has filled and emptied more than two dozen times. It's hard to imagine this dry land as a sea. I remember seeing an exhibit at the Denver Airport that showed fossils from the region. It showed fossils of trees and plants that revealed the Denver area was previously a tropical rainforest. These two facts still amaze me.
Mornings and evenings are our focus times, we have lunch and take naps back in Moab. Along the way in and out of the Park, I take the rough-hewn "Utah Juniper," and "Drama in the Sky." On the southeastern periphery lurks the snow covered LaSal mountains which present a dramatic backdrop to many vistas. I framed "LaSal Mountains Panorama" as a Christmas gift for my sister and her family, and I enjoy the rich blue post-sunset hues of "LaSalMountains."
We venture out to Delicate Arch, a 1.5 mile hike uphill. It's mid-afternoon, the sky is overcast and the light is flat, so I know the photos will be only so-so. But Delicate Arch is worth the trip, it sits out on a ledge and is quite beautiful. The wind begins gusting, the weather looks a bit threatening, so we walk the 1.5 miles back down.
As it turns out, the first morning proves the best for photos, but we have a couple wonderful evenings. Late afternoons yield "Park Avenue at Arches," "Rock Fins at Arches," "Evening on Park Avenue," and the sliver of light on "Arches Light BW." At day's end, I am rewarded with "Sunset over Arches," in the Fiery Furnace region of the Park. I also shoot "View Across Arches," but "Sunset on Balanced Rock" is a more frenetic story. We're running late to get out to Balanced Rock for sunset, but we finally make it. I have time to set up my tripod and capture the beauty and solitude of sunset in this great land. Then a slight repositioning and we're ready for a family photo. I set my timer and race 20 yards back to everyone for a group shot. This elicits screams and laughter from the children.
I am thankful for family time, new memories, and a few good images. I think about how many of life's special moments have come while I've had my camera, and hope this will always be the case.