Tail tucked firmly between my legs

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Filled with fear? Possibly just ignorance.

Don’t know how else to explain it.

Usually once a week, on Wednesdays I take my pooch, Henry to a dog park in El Segundo as it is much larger than his usual spot in Manhattan Beach and it gives him a chance to play with other buddies he otherwise does not see. It’s a real pain with all the morning traffic and takes a while but he loves it so I just do it begrudgingly.

Each time I go I have noticed that there is always a car parked along side the park with a man sitting in it with his dog. Pretty sure he is listening to music and the dog just stares longingly at the dogs playing in the park. I find myself glancing over form time to time and he’s constantly there. In fact he’s never not been there. The site of that little face staring with the fog spot on the window where she breaths on deflates me each time and my heart always goes out to her.

Many times when I leave the park, I walk right by them with Henry and the dog just sadly stares at us. It leaves me with such a crummy and empty feeling each time. My ride home is ultimately consumed with the plight of this poor dog and how his owner could be so cruel.

After several more time to the dog park, I noticed my resentment for this man growing. As this anger inside me continued to snowball, I decided I simply could not take it anymore and decided to go over.

To say what? Do what? Had no idea. If nothing else maybe just ask the guy if it would be okay if I watched over the dog in the park while he sat in his car listening to his music. There was no real plan. But I had to do or say something.

While I was headed there one of Henry’s best friends came in and distracted the situation. It did so long enough for me to ask the other dogs owner, who lives close by what the story was with this guy. Pretty sure I asked in a snarky tone as well.

She proceeded to tell me the man lives in the tree section of Manhattan Beach. His dog has a rare bone condition that does not allow it to play with others. So he sits there with her for as long as it takes until all the dogs are gone so he can take her into the park and allow her to run around and sniff stuff to her heart delight.

The woman basically saved me form myself. I was speechless and confused how I never considered that possibility. I pride myself in placing myself in another shoes and trying to see a situation form their perspective. Not only did I not do this, but felt like such an indignant jerk.

Suddenly my complaining about the traffic one day a week to make my dog happy was insignificant. I was embarrassed for myself. This man does it every day, and waits for as long as it takes to give his pooch one shot each day to be a dog in a safe place.

I needed to do something or tell someone as I know I could not be the only one who had the same line of thinking. I am sure this initial reaction was to undo a wrong I had done as fast as possible. Even if that wrong was never manifested itself outside my own confused brain.

Talk about serendipity; a woman of another dog I know and whom I just photographed for her store, came to me and asked what the deal was with the man in the car with the dog.

And talk about a chance to confess to someone what a buffoon I was!

It was as if she was directly sent to me to shed some light; a very warm and heart touching light on such a heartbreaking situation (or heartwarming, depending on your view.) The weight was lifted.

The impact however will never be. Lesson learned, again.

Zion

Two carefully chosen words Merriam-Webster Dictionary uses to define Zion are “Heaven and Utopia.” Although, these references represent more of a symbolic idealism based from Judaism, after hiking for the second time through the grand cathedrals of colored sandstone walls, I think it is safe to say, this reference can easily be shared amongst many faiths.

Morning greeted us with shades of blue in the sky we simply don’t get in Los Angeles. With the absence of clouds, thoughts of flash floods quickly evaporate in the 110 degree heat as did the residual stiffness left from the seven or so hour long drive from Los Angeles.zion

Another colorful greeting came to us riding the warm current of air above the river on the wings of Monarch Butterfly’s as they fluttered about through out the hike. They lead us down into the winding torrent of small rapids, springs, waterfalls and golden reflected pools of surrounded by hanging gardens of shooting stars, evening primrose, larkspurs, monkey flowers even orchids to name a few which sprung from seeping water from the confluence of the canyon walls. The contrast is stunning for an otherwise hot and arid desert terrain and is highlighted with colorful oasis blooms throughout the canyon.

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Entering the shade provided by the Narrows combined by soaking in the cool Virgin River away from the dry, skin cracking heat of the surrounding Valley, was very much Heaven. In fact, it was the word that popped into my mind first as the temperature dropped immediately. The word utopia was not far behind it either. In an instant, sore legs and toes began to tingle with life once again. Suddenly I’m prepared to continue through the next leg of the 16 mile journey as the chilled water swirls around my calves in a soft massage easing the burden of the pack pulling from my shoulders as well.

The river leads us into the cool cover of shadows cast by breathtaking walls as high as 2000 feet and with widths of only 20 feet in some parts. It becomes increasingly hard to move swiftly into the winding corridor as the footings is anything but sure with moss covered rocks underwater and the views that are mostly above.

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It is truly a feast for the senses and the eyes are continually seduced away from the next footprint I will leave as they are constantly scanning the expansive rock formations etched by flash floods, runoff and snowmelt.

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 12.40.52 PMSpring fed waterfalls, outlined with local flowers

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It’s easy to look around and see how millions of years shaped this place into what it is, but the canyon is still being sculpted as I walk through it even today. The river carries sediment and large rocks as well as small grains of sand which make their way down the river, grinding and carving new formations all the time. Add wind, ice and rain to the mixture and the result is a living, evolving creation which goes straight through your eyes into the depths of your soul.

Below, ghost like formations serve as a reminder of what the elements and father time does to us all. In this case though, turns solid rock into an art form.

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No matter what journey brings you to Zion or how you feel before you enter the Narrows, one thing for sure; you will feel closer to whatever your particular notion of Heaven or Utopia is long before you leave it.

To me Zion is a slice of Heaven

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Thanks to my Three Amigos for enhancing this experience as it is always better to share paradise amongst the special ones in our lives.

Insignificant; or NOT

From a scribbling I put together a few yrs back with a few small changes. But the spirit of thankfulness, perspective and inspiration remains. I thank God every day for the gifts I have to use at my disposal and why perspective, inspiration and gratitude will always be a theme that dominates my writing.

Like most of my longer training rides on the bike, the goals are simple. Ride until eventually my body learns to the art of minimizing my muscles demands for oxygen to metabolize an increase in blood lactate and increase overall aerobic thresholds. Usually my journey begins with pain in the legs but usually ends up taxing everything from between one ear to the next and back. Tonight’s ride should be no exception.

As turmoil has been a steady companion of late I guess I should have known better. After 2 hours plus of burning the quads with several climbs, I suddenly noticed one of my favorite things in life. The sky was turning all shades of red and blue and the South Bay was preparing for a spectacular show as the sun fell behind the sea. I glided to the end of Hermosa Beach pier and just sat there in a now cold sweat, watching the sky and the water try to outdo each other as if it were a duel of master painters. It was chilly and I was wearing nothing more than swim-bike shots, lycra form fitting vest and arm warmers. But the cold never affected me as I stared at the show like a kid at a first circus waiting for the next thing to happen.

Then the inevitable began to happen….I began to think…Shit; too late now as this ball had already started to roll. For those who can’t sleep at night due to a restless mind know what I am talking about. I stared deep into and beyond the swirls of color mixing the waters currents and then upwards beyond the colors of the sky until the colors were all but gone. Suddenly I could see a star shining over the horizon and it did not appear to be a planet. My astrology is lacking so I can’t tell which star it was, but it caused me to do what most of us have done one time or another; feel really, really small..

I began to think about time and space and my place in it. And in the end how do my problems even matter? How could they? But to me they freeze me in my tracks; every time.

A “first down” in football is ten yards. It takes light to travel that far in about 30 nano-seconds and light can go 300 million yards (or 30 million first downs) in ONE second.

The same little beam of misguided light would take 1 1/4 seconds to get to the moon and to the sun (which is BTW 109 times the size of the Earth) and would take little Mr light beam 8 minutes to arrive.. Hang with me, there is a point.

Jupiter is further out and would take 40 light-minutes to feel the love and Pluto is a whopping 5 ½ hours away for the train to reach its station and far too many first downs for me to figure out.

Now for the amazing part.. That twinkling and insignificant wobble in the sky is no less than 4 ½ years away for that wayward beam of light to arrive. Beyond that, my head just really begins to hurt. It must be from slamming it into that brick wall they built at the very end of the Universe back when the UFO’s also build the Pyramids of Ghiza. It’s enough to imagine our little hub of insignificance in all of this expanse too large to wrap my mind fully around.

But if I were to try…..

The nearest cluster of Galaxy (the Virgo Cluster~only remembered because I am one) is
50 million light years away and to totally blow the top of your head off, the visible edge of the universe is 13,700,000,000 (yes, billion) light years away. Or as Cal Sagan would have said “beillionn.”

So back to our little flickering and dim light in an otherwise endless forest full of Sequoia Christmas trees we have to ask ourselves the same question. Do we count? Do we matter at all in the end?

From events unfolding form warring nations, all the way down to even the little kid crying because Santa’s gift this year wasn’t what was wished for and everything else in between, it’s just a pimple on a pimples ass in the end of a flea no less. That is if fleas actually could get a pimple of course. One day it will be dead silent here and really dark and cold. Somewhere zillions of first downs away and even more zillions of years something will be crawling out of the mud to choke on it’s first breath. Or two overzealous leaf bearing zealots will hook it up again,…But life will come to be. Somewhere out there..

Whatever happens, will they eventually stand at the end of a pier one year and look out to the sky and begin to feel just as small and even insignificant?

As I turned my bike around to ride several, but not too many first downs back to my home, a father and son ( I presumed he was his son) approached me for a picture. I said sure and suggested we use the faded light of the ocean for the background as I reached for the camera. The father said no, it was his son who wanted the picture with me. I just stood there and didn’t know what to say. I was sure they thought I was someone else. It’s happened plenty of times before. So I kept on saying nothing and smiled for the photo with my arm around the kid.

The smile on the teen aged kid was enough to answer my question with out a word being spoken. I was not about to discourage that amazing smile.

Hell yes, I mattered, I mumbled to myself under my breath.. Or at least the guy they thought I was did…It really didn’t matter. I connected with someone the very second I asked this silent question and it was evident.

If this was not significant in any big pictures and about my place in it, then what does that say about me?

I glided back down the pier with my bike toward home.

He glided back down the pier in his wheelchair..

Sometimes you just need to ask

Sometimes getting the right shot takes a lot of planning, good equipment and a lot patience…Sometimes, though it just takes a nothing more than a little luck. And if luck is often elusive, sometimes you just have to ask for it. A very good friend of mine recently asked me how I got the “Soft Shoulder “shot of the Grizzly bear in my photo section. I told her I simply asked for it.

However there were a string of events and special circumstances that needed to occur before I could ever be put in the right spot for the shot first. Semi blind-luck got me into Denali National Park in the first place with a road lottery pass days before the park officially closes. (The “semi-blind” refers to the point that we have to at the very least put ourselves in a position initially to even be open to luck in the first place. That is, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t at least buy a ticket.) This lottery road-pass allows me and a few other lucky souls to drive anywhere I want in the park alone and pick and choose my spots to stake out while the rest of the park was closed to the general public.

 

Now I was not lucky enough to actually win a lottery ticket for myself the conventional way, despite sending in more than my share of entries. I had a few days left over after I flew out of the Katmai peninsula photographing the coastal bears, a much larger cousin of these inland Grizzlies.

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I had already hit the jackpot there and if I had seen nothing more than a few ground squirrels for the rest of the trip, I would have still been thrilled and able to practically fly home to LA with out the help of the a jet airplane. I was as close to walking on air as possible but I thought it was worth taking my chances and doubling down in Denali even with out a pass into a closed park. After all, now I was playing with house money. I packed up the car and headed north for the 4 hour scenic drive. When I arrived at the Perch, a little place I used to stay to visit a friend in the past, I immediately headed to the restaurant to see if there were any people who may be lounging around to say hello to. After more than a week alone in Katmai and I was ready for some human company and hot blueberry pancakes. There was one older couple drinking coffee and it wasn’t too long before they asked me where I rolled in from. After a little idle chit chat, I told them I planned on going to the Denali gate in the morning to look pathetic as possible and try to hitch a ride into the park They said I didn’t have to do that because they had an extra lottery ticket and had no need for it. I almost choked on my pancakes. I couldn’t believe my luck and wanted to hug the both of these old folks so hard but I was afraid I might hurt them. They were happy to see how much it lit me up and turned me into kid at Christmas and settled for a handshake and a free cup of coffee. I offered them more and would have paid a kings ransom for it, but they were having none of it. It was as if the sun was just following me around every corner. I have eluded to my spirituality and feeling of overall connection to the Earth in past blogs in places like this. I can’t help but think that my senses of awareness are heightened and that someone is really listening to me here. The presence I feel here in Alaska is undeniable and just can’t be felt to this degree in any man made structure I’ve been in yet. It is said that the Aborigines are so in tuned with their environment that they simply ask it for food, water or shelter when they need it and somehow they find their way to it or the other way around. To a lesser degree, I feel the same connection to this land and often ask for something I’d like to see. Somehow, someway I stubble across it or visa-versa. I know the park pretty well and Sable Pass is the place to see Grizzlies. Of course there are no guarantees, but the odds definitely go up there. As I drove slowly through the pass there were no signs anywhere and decided to pull the car over. There happened to be a soft shoulder sign and pulled right up in front of it. I closed up all the windows, locked up the car, packed up the camera gear and set off across the spongy tundra. When I hit a big wild blueberry patch, I thought it would make a good place to sit tight and see what crossed my path out here. Besides even though the berries were a bit on the sour side, it gave me something to nibble on while I waited. A very dark single cloud formed directly over me and it began to pour. As I looked around the valley, it dawned on me that it was only raining on the area where I was. Sun drenched the rest of the valley and mountains. I thought maybe my luck was changing and hunched over my camera to keep it dry. It was amusing though to me that this lone cloud found its way directly above me and just let loose. It wasn’t long until a complete rainbow extended from one side to the other. I began to shoot pictures of it and began to think the shots would need something else to really capture the magic of this park. I asked myself “why not?” I looked directly up in the rain and asked for a bear.

I remember how ridiculous I sounded because I had already been given so much previously on this trip and felt a bit greedy, but as I said before I was playing with house money and had nothing to lose. As if on cued , A dark brown male appeared from behind a knoll about 200 yards away and began to lumber his way out into the open grazing on the berries. I could do nothing more than grin from ear to ear and position myself better to get the entire shot. Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but I needed to have the rainbow drop on the bears back. So I began to walk then run across the open area most likely grabbing every predators eye in an effort to position myself just at the right angle to get a few of the following type shot.

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Of course ole Yogi caught a glimpse of me scurrying across like a really large ground squirrel (their other favorite snack) and began to work his way over in my direction. I appreciate the way he did it though, not ever really overtly paying too much attention to me. He just began working his way towards me while munching away on the berries in front of him. I’m sure he was humming la, la , la to himself the whole time. I all of the sudden felt very exposed in the wide open area and the wind shifted in his direction. It was time to make my way back to the car that was close to a mile a way or I may as well at least start pouring A-1 sauce once so I least tasted ok.

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The mile looked so far away and there was no chance to run for it. Grizzlies can easily reach speeds of 30 mph and compared to the 10 -15 or so mph I could muster even if I dropped all my gear, I did not have to be a math major to figure out it I had no chance if he decided to make a move first. Now this bear of course may have had no intention of doing anything more than just investigating me and that chance would most likely be high; but at this point I would have been pushing my already incredible luck and took no chances. I back-tracked to the car never turning my back on him and realized his pace was slightly faster than mine since I had unsure footing going backwards on an uneven terrain. Half way back he was with in 100 yards and by the time I was in safe running distance to the car, he was only 10 or so yards from me. I picked up the pace a bit and found myself on the drivers side looking over the hood as he sniffed the wheels on the passenger side. This is when our little dance began. He began to move around the car mumbling something to himself in low bear grunts. I just continued to walk the opposite side never taking my eye off of him even once. A few times he disappeared only for me to catch him peeking under the car at my feet. We locked eyes several times. I saw him and started my conversation to him starting with “peek a boo.” I scrambled for my camera but he moved back up and around the car again, this time mumbling to himself a bit louder.

Bear: “Grrrrr Grrrr” Chris: “Hey you, how does it feel to be outwitted by one of the slower ones form my species?”

Bear: “Grrrrrr” (louder)

Chris: “Who’s on top of the food chain now, Yogi?”

Bear: Nothing…. (giving me the silent treatment or finally getting bored playing with me)

Chris: “Hey, Yogi there’s a nice big sign post behind you. You can’t tell me that wouldn’t feel nice against your back” The bear literally and once again as if on cue made his way to the very thing I mentioned out loud and attacked this Soft Shoulder sign with his back. His eyes rolled back while letting out the loudest sounds of bear ecstasy and I snapped a way as he practically dislodged the post from it foundation.

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I was laughing my ass off as I shot off two rolls of 400ASA film as it was all I had. He was at it for well over 10 minutes and when he had his fill, he fell down to all fours with a thud and made his way away from me and the car. I sat there on the hood, watched him slowly stroll back to the endless sea of blueberries and this magical field of dreams. I thanked everyone responsible for making this happen and absorbed exactly what all this meant. There were several other instances equally as powerful that that happened to me that day (one including a lone wolf) that made me realize I was just about as lucky as anyone I have ever known. But I had to ask for it first.

 

Postscript: a few years later a British Newspaper bought the images and story. I have to admit it was more than entertaining to read all the “experts” in wildlife, bear behaviorist and even camera “pros” offer their opinions how this is impossible and how obvious it was that these images have been manipulated in PS. A few insinuated the bear was super imposed onto then pole itself. 

All I can say aid I am not that good in photoshop..Not even close..And oh yeah, still have the negatives to prove it…I guess they never had the courage to ask for a small miracle here and there..:) 

All we can do is ask, and next time hopefully save better quality film for getting that special shot..

Escape from Iquitos,…. (literally)

Sometimes traveling to special or exotic places means getting needing to get through some that aren’t so much. Many larger cities require stop throughs in order to get to the ultimate destination. To me anyway, Iquitos is one of those gateways.

I am sure there is beauty, grace and elegance that can be found just about anywhere in this world if we look in the right places. To be fair I have only been to Iquitos twice; once in the dry season and now in the wet season. My experiences here are simply mine, however they are genuine of course and come from an honest yet western perspective. 

To properly set the stage for the insanity just to get to the airport and ultimately my flight back to Lima, a description for those who do not know this place is necessary and the mindset of the people who run this place.

The fact that the tributary that feeds this beautiful river that eventually empties all the way to the Atlantic Ocean of the other side of Brasil is depressing to say the least. It runs directly through the famous or infamous south eastern barrio, Belen (little Bethlehem) where every vile piece of garbage, including human and animal waste, plastic bottles and every other conceivable piece of trash floats out and down river as if was a giant toilet being constantly flushed. Case in point: when I asked  how the kids can swim in the water, brush their teeth in it, swallow it, the response I got was ” no problemo, the water just takes it all away. It was simple as that and said a self satisfying smile assuring me it was all Okay. There was no consideration to where this vile waste of every imaginable description goes. I’m not even convinced there is ever a second thought by most here.

Even hours down river evidence of the plastic bottles can be found everywhere. The amazon is so big, deep and wide that it will eventually disperse it to a point if you go far enough down river; it’s aesthetic beauty remains in tact. So coming out of those areas back to Iquitos can be a tough challenge for some one like me, who cringes at the prospects of loosing such important raw wild places like this to urbanization and lack of respect for the resources and gifts that are literally being pissed all over daily.

Iquitos is a stark contrast to the utter peace, quiet and non chaotic temperate balance of the jungle. It’s a tough place to assimilate back to the World after such an experience, but before I detour completely away from the purpose of this article a focus on the temperament of it people is necessary starting it’s elected officials, who are mostly corrupt and are responsible more crime than protecting against it. 
When asking an ex-pat, Gerald Mayeaux who publishes the only bilingual monthly publication here,(The Amazon News),he elaborated on an event I had no idea was about to happen and find myself in the middle of. He even published a carton of a woman and a their fighting over her purse in a tug o war. Originally there was a police officer completely ignoring the incident. Gerald toned it down a but to exclude the office and add the wild, wild west slogan with a clear warning to travelers and locals alike; “open your third eye!!! See all around you to avoid risk!!!” Basically that sums up this city, unfortunately.

There are a large group of construction workers here who are supported by buddies in the local government and police who are nothing more than common thugs who will seize any opportunity to pray on the weaker, unsuspecting and more benign crowd that lives here as well as tourist with their guard down. Just like the gangs back home in the States, they recruit and embolden the youngest of the boys also to prove themselves in the usual machismo to run the streets like wild dogs. The idea of a mob mentality is triggered here in an instant and can easily get out of hand.

Until breakfast, the day before my flight to Lima I had no idea that the very thing I have been describing was about to erupt in a planned 48 hour “protest” which goal is to shut down every store, resource, bank, gas station and airport. A few days with out business as usual is about all it takes to shut down the city and cripple it financially for a while. This along with the blatant disorder which leaves car windows smashed and the streets ablaze with fires on each intersection is an attempt to intimidate through lawless anarchy. It’s also an excuse to many to get drunk and run the streets and further disregard the limited laws that would normally otherwise protect visitors against such disarray. Another words, it’s party time and maybe a time to et free stuff thats not secured down well enough. We’ve seen it right here in Los Angeles; why not there?

Being here in the low season is wonderful as there are very few tourist compared to the dryer months. However for every plus there is a minus; and this one revolved on my ability to blend in. A 6’3” 215 lbs gringo here can not blend in, no matter two hard I try. So when the sun slipped behind the horizon and darkness crept across the streets with enlogated shadows, it was time for me to get inside.

I was invited to stay with one of the locals here and his place had extra security for he and his family and I was grateful for that. Right about midnight I could hear people clamoring around out on the streets. This would be followed up by random yells, other loud noises and even a few small explosions. By 2:30 am I had to take a peak, but the bars in the from room only allowed me to look directly straight into the street in front. There was no way I was going to undo the 2 x 4 plank which secured the large metal door from the inside and venture out for a better look and open myself and this family to any insanity outside that wanted in. So I went back to bed and listened to the noise hoping the louder they got, the more drunk they were and ultimately the heavier they would sleep in the morning, which hopefully was an opportunity for me and my driver to scramble for the airport. My host, Guido told me there would be no taxis as they did not want to risk broken windows or worse. As for the motorbikes or 3 wheeled tuk-tuks, the fear was branches or broom handles being shoved in between spokes from other cars or motorcycles who obviously were out to sweep the streets and ensure no one gets in or out of town. He had a friend who would help me out but not with out a lot of hesitation. So I offered quadruple what a normal taxi to the airport which he accepted.

At first I thought this was a scam, but it only took a few minutes into the ride to see that it was anything but. Many out there had flat tires from all the glass and our tuk-tuk kept throwing its chain. It was easy to feel very vulnerable sitting there with my two bags full of camera gear while he scrambled as fast as possible to reengage the chain and speed off again before anyone took notice. As we approached the airport after about 25 minutes of weaving in and out of glass, trash, tree branches and cinder blocks I could not have been happier to see the entrance for the airport. I knew if something happened here I could at least make a break for it and take my chances on foot. In fact, thats about what happened.
There was a group of angry people at the gate along side airport police who informed my driver he could not go in.

I jumped out and explained to the officer my flight was flying today and after a few minutes of him talking to my driver and another cop allowed me to pass on foot and carry my bags into the terminal area. It was sweltering and each step produced streams of sweat but I did not care as each step into the basically abandoned airport was one more step away from this place and closer to my friends waiting in Lima for me.

I always keep one set of clean clothes for occasions just like this. After changing and washing up and holding an actual ticket in my hand was one of he best feelings I could imagine.

As I recounted the nights and this days events, I struggled between the idea that I missed some more of this story by not going out and witnessing it with my own eyes and the fact that I had enough understanding of this place to know that would not have ended up well for me or anyone around me. Maybe just reading about the Swiss Associated Press photographer (Anja Niedringhaus) who was just killed by a member of her own security team (the unit commander) while on the way to cover the elections there helped me. A week later I reflect back and am thankful I did not risk more than necessary and count my blessings I never was cornered or directly threatened.

Iquitos is no Afghanistan or any other place like it, for sure. But the point here is some of these remote places are no joke either. Especially where extreme poverty and corrupt politics and police services all are intertwined. I still struggle with the idea of random acts of violence which can erupt anywhere in an instant at the drop of a hat. Do your homework and always have a plan B and understand that our rules don’t apply abroad. Never mind bullets, one brick, rock or bottle can change everything; and even end a life with out warning.

The cartoon in the local newspaper nailed it telling everyone to keep you heads up and on a swivel. Loose the smart phone and take off the head phones for a while and get an idea of the place you are exploring and understand the pulse of the people around you.

It just may save your trip and possibly your life.

One for our troops

One for our troops

While shooting for an agency of this 10 yr old boy, it was easy to tell he was done with all the outfits with bow ties, polo shirts and several others. We needed to get through yet another wardrobe change before calling it quits.
So I promised him that if he did this one last change and showed extra enthusiasm for the last part of our photo session, he could then go into his closet and pick out anything he wanted to photograph as a bonus.
He gave me a big smile and I began to get intrigued with what he’d pick. His dad played in the NFL for many years and is in the top 10 all time in scoring. So I was imagining him in one of his many uniforms with a helmet. When he walks out in the gear in the photo I took attached, I was floored. His heroes all revolve around our troops and his knowledge of US military history was amazing..
So I asked the obvious question; why this outfit?
He did not hesitate as he thought it could be a nice Christmas tribute to all of those men and women over seas fighting for our country and ultimately freedom, as they must really miss their families during the holidays. We obviously were shooting in late December and like most shoots I do, there are always surprises.
This one was no different and was an honor to photograph and learn more about JD, an amazing kid

Little Trouble in Big Bangkok

Serendipity is an amazing thing.

As I was looking through some old photos from a trip to Thailand a few years ago, I noticed many of my favorite shots and memories were a direct result of the least favorite memory I had over there.

After a sleepless and long flight from LA, through Tokyo and on to Bangkok, I found myself completely overwhelmed as the cab dropped me off in his words “somewhere very close to my hotel.”  One of the few things I do when traveling to a remote or unfamiliar place is book the first night or two after reading several reviews from various travel sites. I like to get a little bearing on where I am and find better places once I am there and develop a loose itinerary. 

Only problem was that this hotel was on a walk street that looked like the one right before it and the one right after. Aside form the fact that the signs were really of no help, that it was 2:30 am and oh yeah, the sidewalks were crowded as if a major sporting event just ended, I just clutched my camera bags as hard as I could and made my way through the crowd asking anyone and everyone who knew possibly where my hotel was. FInally I got lucky with one old man who with out ever looking directly at me, just pointed me in the right direction through the maze of drunks, peddlers, and tourist (who could be described in the “drunks” category as well.

After 30 or so minutes wandering around with both arms starting to cramp from the death grip I had around everything that was valuable, finally found the Dynasty Inn. It was an understated, small and friendly place and the english was pretty good. It may as well have been the Four Seasons for all I was concerned and with how tired I was. After a non eventful and quick check in, it was upstairs to a cool shower (as it was still sweltering out) and a very deep sleep.

Not so fast. It donned on me I had not sent word back home that I made it in here in one piece to Laura. So I dried off threw my clothes back on and headed downstairs to have them help me with hooking up to the wireless internet. When I was told it was down, I reluctantly headed out back into the chaotic and seemingly intertwined mass of people under neon lights celebrating God only knows; where I remember walking past an internet cafe before.

It was only a block and a half away, but was no easy walk as there simply was no room to walk on these sidewalks. From the tailors or suit brokers trying to fit me for a brand new suit, street walkers walking right up to me, and food vendors wanting me to buy things I have never ever seen before. On top of all this the cool shower I took 5 minutes ago became a distant memory as felt like 95 degree and the humidity was as thick as molasses, the last thing wanted was any human interaction at all. I vividly remember one instance where I was avoiding a female(?) “masseuse” as a running back would an aggressive linebacker and practically had to stiff arm her as I bumped into a man walking the opposite direction. I said “excuse me”, shed the masseuse and scurried along to the cafe. Thats pretty much all I remember from that night.

When I woke up to the filtered glare of the sun streaming through the blinds, I just felt great. I was so excited to finally see Thailand, photograph it and feel the vibrations of a place I have only dreamt about until now. As I showered yet again. (Showers were a normal breaks in the day for me as carrying around a large camera bag filled with lenses in this heat was not comfortable.) But I would have time to get used to it and acclimate. (Loose, baggy and light clothes work best here but pay special attention in Thailand to the colors you decide to wear as there is more than a passionate rift between the Royal Thai Gov’t or the Thaksin Regime which is a monarchy and those who oppose it. Stay away from Yellow as it can show support for a party you never intended to do so and just be neutral.)   As I dug through the pockets of the pants I wore from the airport and out to the internet cafe last night, my heart began to pump more and more frantically with each pocket that did not contain my wallet, and with with all the credit cards and (14) crispy, brand new $100 bills, drivers lic., etc, etc…

The panic consumed me as neither the pants, or anywhere around the chair I folded them over had any clue of it. At about this time I realized in my tired state last night, I committed the cardinal sin of traveling to a big city, anywhere. I left my wallet in my back pocket and never gave it a second thought. I believe subliminally, when I made it back safely last night to the room with all my camera gear present and in tact, I had “made it” and I basically turned off my overly stimulated brain once and for all.

I dropped my guard and simply never gave the wallet or its contents another thought. Lesson forever learned. I now travel with money belts, and have good hiding places and always spread out cards and cash any time I ever travel anymore. The image of that man I bumped into suddenly flashed like a white light and the realization of what happened to me crashed down on me with a thud. I had been pick pocketed!

Reflecting back, I remember being so upset with 2 things more that anything upon that realization. One would think that right at the top of that list would be loosing my entire cash savings and all my credit cards along with needing to replace all my other cards like drivers license, scuba license, gift cards (which I also have no idea why they were even in there) and a great lesson to anyone traveling to ONLY bring the absolute necessary cards and information and leave the rest at home. I mean, why bring a drivers license if you are not going to drive and have a passport, right? I also highly recommend you xerox a copy of your passport and carry that with you around during the day while you keep the original locked in a safe in the room as well. Well I accomplished all of this with in the first hour of setting foot here.

Anyway, I digress. The 2 most infuriating points stemmed from the fact was that I know better than this. First, only a complete novice would stick a fat wallet in a rear, unzipped or otherwise protected pocket in a city like this and expect anything less. Knowing what to do is one thing, actually doing the obvious while tired is a whole different thing. I still have problems reconciling the fact that no matter how tired I was, I simply knew better.

The second thing that to this day, a few years later that chaps my ass is that I actually apologized to the actual thief. I can clearly picture him splitting the cash and cards with accomplices as I am sure there were a few, and giggling not over the amount of money and cards, but the fact I actually apologized to him as he was taking my possessions. “stupid American, maybe next time he will thank us too.” There wont be a next time dirt bag. I hope 🙂

So when I was not on the phones for long hours with banks and credit card companies blocking all charges (and there were already many piling up out there) except for the hotel that swiped the card, I had to find things to do in an around Bangkok, with only 200 baht (basically $6US) for another few days until more funds arrived through my bank to a Western Union.

First of all, thank God I was in one of the cheapest cities in the World to get by on basically nothing. If I ate, and got my water from the hotel with the card on file, I really didn’t need any money walking around with my camera as much as with many other places I have been. In fact, if I woke up early enough, as I did the next few mornings, I could see the streets, quietly and with out the crowds and possible see Thailand for what it really is; a place where hard work and family values is revered as paramount and the people friendly and of course visit the amazing Wats (Temples) the Buddhist monks all attended to pray each day.

I walked with one particular group of monks before the sun rose as they collected alms through out the streets before they headed to the temples and prayed for World Peace amongst other chantings. The elders were gracious to allow me to watch, listen, learn and photograph them from them as long as I stayed respectful and did into interfere. Store keepers and early shoppers (all Thai) for food and flowers showed such compassion and reverence for each barefooted, orange cloaked monk old or young, and gave something for them to use for that day and in return were further blessed.

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As I listened to the low hypnotic, reverberating chanting in Wat Arun and the sun began to rise in the sacred place they also call the Temple of Dawn, an incredible sense of peace swept through me as I realized that I most likely would not be here unless I got ripped off. The initial plan was to hop on a train and head down to Pucket and on the first ferry to get to one of those beautiful islands surrounded by the warm, emerald Adaman Sea.

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As a Christian, it felt like such an honor to be invited with a smile into someone else house of worship with out judgement and as if I was just one of them and with complete acceptance. The monks were benevolent, friendly and had their own sense of humor especially with the kids I adored. To witness all of this in an amazing temple artfully built sometime back in 1656AD before relocated on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River a few hundred years later was almost overwhelming. More so, I had the entire place including the grounds to myself. The gates did not even open to the normal tourist until 8am as I just slipped in with my new pals both mornings. By then, I was gone…Image

Then I prepared myself for the long walk back and visited other hot spots along the way, like the Giant Reclining Buddha one has to see in person to actually believe as it is so big. Al the while no retuning warm smiles to the locals who I am sure were not used to seeing westerns up so early it the morning here. But that’s just a guess. I know I did not see any.

The real point of all of this and the revelation I made here and now take with me every place I go can serve as a great tool for anyone who travels and things don’t go as planned.

Just because my own stupidity led me down the wrong path I regret, I have to own it and not blame anyone but myself. Doing so, wont allow the incident to take ahold of my ability to enjoy this trip the way it as meant; with an open heart.

As soon as this little internal conversation concluded, I was walking down a very wide sidewalk outside the high walls of another Temple I did not know much about. It was just about 8 am and my entire day was a complete success. But there was a shifty looking Thai man somewhere in his 50’s, who I noticed on the other side of this walkway headed my way who kind of switch lanes which ultimately would lead us into each other if i stayed the course. I didn’t. I put my head down and kind of meandered to the other side of the walkway and when I looked back up to gauge where this guy was, he was suddenly right there in front of me..

My guard was still up as one camera over my shoulder was clear for everyone to see and the bag behind me obviously packed with lots of other goodies was revealed as the straps pulled the front of my shoulders back. The article I read on the airplane over about the tuk tuk drivers ripping tourist off and should be avoided at all cost was not helping me here as they were buzzing by every were I walked.

So I am now literally face to face with this guy who I felt 100 yrds or so back was eye balling me for God knows what. I began to move to the side to let him by. He smiled this big smile (for the life of me, I cant remember his name, but could never forget the big gap in his teeth as he smiled) and asked how I was doing.

Here we go; right?

What am I going to say to this goofball to just make him go away and not be rude about it. So I said I was just fine and headed back to my hotel to unpack and catch a train.

Now anyone who knows how to avoid someone will be scratching their head at this knowing this is way too much info to give a stranger who I think is about to roll me, or try to. But something funny happened to me in the middle of my reply which made me elaborate just a bit more than I would have. I repelled my initial sense about this guy almost by strong-arming the feeling right out of me..I reminded myself of my pledge not to allow the stolen wallet change my outlook and strip me of whole purpose here.

I added that it was a tough day and a half in Bangkok, and told him what happened after he asked why in decent english, but a thick local accent. He asked me if I had seen a few of the sites like Wat In, Wat Saket and rattled off 3 other places, to which I said I had I had not. Also unfortunately there wasn’t enough time as the train was leaving in 3.5 hours to head to the islands. I also added that I was also out of money as well and could not take a cab to those places and pay for it except for a few Baht left over.

He then took the paper I had in my hand and wrote down a list of 5 places and underneath it wrote 50 Baht. He handed the paper back to me and the always universal proclamation of “No Problem” slipped out on cue and he smiled again and said I could see them all in a few hours as they were pretty close.

Before I could say no, as my head was now swirling and I was actually considering dong this, he whistled for a random Tuk Tuk who sped over and stopped abruptly with a screech. He gave the paper to the driver and talked to him in Thai for me. After a few points and head nods, they both looked at me and waved me over. Are you kidding me? 50 Baht or $1.50 US to be chaffered all over the city to visit and explore these sites and then dropped back at the hotel. Hell, the gas cost more.

I gripped the camera bag a little tighter, took a few steps and hopped aboard. I shook the mans hand and thanked him, still not 100% convinced if this was legit or a scam. Maybe the fact I outweighed them both together give me a false sense of bravado, but I felt safe, never the less.

The driver bolted off into the traffic and I looked back at that man who was standing there watching us leave and waving bye. Good deed done for the day?

As the driver pulled up to the first place “the Gold Mount” I began to fully understand that the benevolence of this little strange man back on the sidewalk was sincere. Although he went out of his way to connect with me as I did the opposite. He reached out as a friend & I wondered if I was going to get jumped. By the time he smiled to say hello, I began to think in a completely different way. In short He was one of my many life-teachers on this day. And he did his job well.

The images I got from these place are to me so special in so many ways the best I’ve ever taken. The freedom I felt to snap each shot was an exercise in gratitude for getting so close to the very things in life that have always been out of reach in the past. It’s amazing what an open heart and a little well placed trust can do.

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I will admit there were a few narrow side streets or alleys we raced down between destinations. My eyes were frantically scanning the darker corners and I was on alert, but soon we were back out into the sun and busier streets and to the next stop.

In the end, the driver delivered me to all the places and allowed me to take as much time as I needed to soak on the site and take photos from every conceivable angle. He said virtually nothing, but smiled at every chance (which is yet another reason to travel and get out of Dodge from time to time. Allow yourself to smile, say hello to perfect strangers and have the sentiment returned in a visceral, natural and unstrained easy way. When was the last time walking the streets of LA, NY or any big city in the US and 

have your smile returned to you with a stone faced expression as if you had the Alien Squid monster laying an egg down your face?)

Pick a destination that you’ve always wanted to go see and learn more about. Find a friend if you can to go along (harder than you think), or just go alone and explore. Feel the excitement or in other worlds LIFE surge through your veins as the familiar becomes very unfamiliar and take a calculated chance or two and learn something deeper about your self in the process..

Here are just a few more images from a few hours that morning..All of which would not have been memories for me at all, unless I gathered my emotions and channelled the bad energy out of me due to one bad incident. There was only time to own it, then make the absolute best of it..

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