When Wolves help kids (right here in LA)

I wrote this to support the program as it was looking forward to a chance at a grant from Mazda/NBC, but I evidently tried to submit it for review shortly after they closed the submissions. Rather than just slide it into a folder, I thought I would add it here and possibly deliver a message to a possible set of eyes that may feel the compulsion to help out as well, in any capacity.

As a photographer and artist by trade, I have long come to realize I will never be “wealthy.” That is defined by the fact that here will be no homes on the ocean with sweeping views that I have dreamed of nor will I fall asleep to the rhythmic lullaby of waves gentle lapping the shoreline.

 

But defining the term “wealthy” and the currency used to gain it, has taken on a completely different meaning lately in my life. The experiences I get to live out on a weekly basis whether it be to traveling to a distant shore, getting inside looks into the lives of celebrities, sport stars and all the common families that help build this country is something I was hoping to do when I retired from my 9-5, suit and tie gig.

 

The currency I was going to save in order to do all of this was based on years of saving and sacrificing what’s left of my youth. For the record I am in my 50’s and consider myself as youthful, if not more so than most 25 year olds. But I know my clock is moving so much faster.

 

The past ten years has blessed me with the chances and recourses to do something I knew I was here to ultimately do; give back. There are a few causes I like to donate my time and services to. One of which is the Wolf Connection (WC), in Acton California.

 

Here, the combination of love and thoughtful direction towards the misunderstood diverge in a perfect symphony of altruism. Abandoned, mistreated and often abused wolves are joined here with their human counterparts and where true healing and hope begin to take root.

 

I have been on hikes through the hot, dusty and steep hills with the leaders of this unique pack, accompanied by select wolves and the at risk kids, who at first often maintain a cool and at arms length disposition. As a photographer watching everything, including the attitudes and body language through my lens, it becomes apparent to me very quickly who is taking this serious and those who choose to keep their protective walls up. However, that will eventually change and that’s where the wolves themselves make their mark along with the stories told by the WC pack members themselves.

 

While the wolves can’t talk directly to them, the level of communication is undeniable. Concepts such as trust, humility, confidence and family will be introduced in simple terms to each child that’s willing to listen.

 

At times I walk with the kids to hear the conversations and a gain sense of their understanding of these new concepts. Last hike I heard terms “I can’t” or I’ll never” referring to their idea they can ever break away form the bad neighborhoods they live in or the broken family they come from.

 

The Wolf Connection offers a place they can learn to understand how to build the foundation for these foreign concepts and hope; strength and a plan to climb out the dark hole they currently find themselves in. The wolves themselves keep a healthy distance to those who aren’t ready to humble themselves by breaking down the rough exterior and walls. It’s when the kids earn their trust when the magic happens. A kinship in the purest and most primal form has planted its first seed and the foundation for a new understanding of how they value themselves as worthy recipients that will translate to the outside world they return to at the end of the day.

 

The idea is the new value they have in themselves keeps them away from the constant street fights, drugs and misleading fraternities within a gang. The very idea of hope is taught here. The direction it takes to be involved so the chance to climb up the ladder and out of their situation, school family and those in the community who are true leaders will appeal to them.

 

Like with wolves in the wild, it’s all about surviving and being associated with the right pack. And like these wolves here, abused and left behind, the hopes for second chances are realized. To move forward, forgiveness, humility and a solid plan path their new road from Acton to Watts.

 

By the end of the hikes, I have often witnessed the “I Cant’ attitude change to many questions of how they can, and this step to these kids is invaluable as the seed has now been planted. The program last several weeks to properly water and feed these them so the roots can spread in an otherwise barren pot. The impact to each kid cannot be measured, as its impact on the community they live in eventually will.

 

If kids who leaned towards the idea of the easy dollar or sense of community through crime and civil disobedience can be show the road to a more fulfilling life, the community itself is exponentially healed. These kids cannot only be the students, but more importantly the teachers. How does one put a value on that that is not understated?

 

In life every thing boils down to currency. In my case, my currency is the gift of trust I ultimately get from many of these kids. To have a child who has literally been left behind by their community, friends and even family ask advise from me or want to bounce an idea of me makes me a very wealthy man. I am honored to contribute to such a program.

 

As for the currency and what it means to (WC), the motor that drives the operation is not cheap. Housing, feeding, caring and medicine for the wolves is expensive. The manpower it takes to maintain the acreage and support the programs for the kids and is paid in US dollars. A donation from Mazda/NBC of this amount is a game changer would help level the playing field for so many more who can’t see that they can also be “wealthy” too.

 

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..

Machu Picchu magic (if you are open to it)

Machu Picchu 2014

Why does every single person here have ridiculously big smiles here? Same question for the small foothill town of Augas Calientes just below Machu Picchu? Maybe it has more to do with an energy we can’t quite put our fingers on or wrap our brains around. Even the street dogs are all incredibly friendly.

There is no doubt an energy here that I can feel. But what is it? It appears that everyone I see and have seen here now and before can feel it as well. I suppose that the kind of people who would be attracted to such a site can explain some of it. I doubt most who’s idea of adventure travel is going to Las Vegas to see pyramids, towers, palaces while being waited on by overly made up and under-dressed women serving weak drinks at cards tables, pack their hiking boots and cameras while leaving home their hair gel and favorite cologne or perfume are the types to make such a trip. Although it’s much more than a back-packers paradise, it does tend to bring those more intrepid travellers from all four corners to make this journey to see and feel what is here. So maybe they(we) are just more open to it?

Either way, it is worth digging into more.

Not too far away neighboring town of Ollantayambo there is a really interesting story. It’s not folklore or some passed down from one family to the next bed time story either. This sleepy little village is still under excavation and under the watchful eye of archeological societies in Peru and far beyond.
The constant quest for understanding of how the Incan people moved such monolithic rocks to build any number of temples, schools and other buildings as well as agricultural plateaued marvels like Machu Picchu remained a mystery for so long and serves as a possible answer to my initial question.

In 1993, the town decided to try and recreate this feat by strictly abiding by 16th Century drawings rendered by the Spanish monks as described by the Incan people at the time.Rock moving
America sent in a scientific team led by Jean Pierre Protzen, from U-Cal, Berkeley to prove or dispel all the rumors and myths regarding the legitimacy of how these huge stones were moved more than 500yrs ago

As they followed the images to the last detail and used the same rope material as the Incans, the test failed over and over. The ropes that cradled the huge rocks snapped under the strain much to the contrary of all the mathematical calculations indicating otherwise.

Many in the academic community swiftly pushed aside the theory that the monks had laid before them.

Ironically the locals, who were the ones from this small-uncivilized town had their reservations front he get go. The academics were missing one very large component to this inquiry.

The locals explained to the puzzled scientific community that they never permission from the Earth Mother, Pachamama.

Really?

Yup, so with all the effort that went into everything to that point there was no reason not to at least try to get a shaman to ask the Earth Mother for the permission according to Incan tradition. Basically the community members asked the scientific community to proceed and leave science out of it.

A shaman was then asked to and performed this ritual blessing the ceremony of moving the huge stone. As the “putuno” (an Incan ceremonial horn) sounded once again to begin the pulling, the local people fell into some type of hypnotic trance and began to once again pull.

The rock began to move and the ropes held while the rock moved with relative ease 200 yards from the church to a town bridge.

The video footage stands as proof of this and the scientific and stringent care to detail measuring the physics of this are all documented. The ropes that snapped like weak strings were the same for each attempt.
The point I guess here is that other than being a cute story with a hokey ending is that we really are connected to this earth in a sense most dismiss so willingly as it does not fit their dogma and possibly threatens their entire belief system.

We all know what happens when this sacred part of each of our lives becomes threatened. Just look currently at the caliphate in the middle east and beyond killing innocent people in the name of their God. Say what you will about who represents what in any religion, but with historical evidence before us all its easy to see which sectors of society and religion use it for peace building, benevolence, inclusiveness and above all respect for each other and which are not. Religion is like any other part of life and evolves along with each of us. So it’s not fair to base opinions on what happened centuries ago and not look at the good or evil that is conducted under that particular veil today. We need to ask if our faith is based on hate, killing and undermining the basic freedoms every human should enjoy with out repudiation, or not.

It appears though, I am afraid that we never ever seem to learn and history will continue to repeat itself over and over until is beyond the point of no return. As a believer in my God, (as described in the Christian faith) I don’t feel my relationship with him is in any way compromised as I walk on the sacred ground of Pachamama. In fact, I feel more connected and free than before.

The warmth, love and light that is simply undeniable in a place like Machu Picchu is a welcome energy I would never ever turn my back on. No matter where it comes from. God knows, I have felt the darkness as most everyone has in their lives at one time or another. The difference is undeniable.

I certainly would never tell the people of this area that they’re entire way of life is wrong as they have a different inherent belief than I do. Why would I?

I’ve been here before and felt the same warmth and sense of awe. So whatever it is, I thank God for it.

It’s time to take a hard look at contemporary doctrine and see it for what it is as opposed to what it was. If we do this it will be so much easier to get along.

If Jihad and Sharia law is in your heart you are no better than the Spaniards who came here long ago and completely trashed an otherwise peaceful civilization the name of their God.

All I can say is that there are things; forces much bigger than us. But nobody has to believe in anything, as it’s our will. But what a sad ending that would be to eventual end; if that were true.

Time to start being nice to each other and holding the ones accountable who aren’t.

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.