In this time of social distancing and cancelled work assignments, I found myself looking through my archives for some kind of inspiration. When I landed on my wildlife images, I noticed how drawn I felt to photos of wildlife sharing affection and physical contact. Perhaps because these two things are so scarce in our own lives at the moment and we’re by nature such social beings, looking at photos of other species sharing physical contact feels especially meaningful and uplifting. I pulled together a collection to share with you all in the hopes that they will have a similarly positive effect on you.
“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”–Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
I took some time between assignments in South Africa recently to document Cape Town’s water crisis and was struck by what I found. Here one sees the cracked, dry bed of Theewaterskloof Dam–the largest dam in the South Africa’s Western Cape water supply system. The dam, which usually supplies Cape Town and its population of over 4 million people with 41% of its water, is now at critically low levels. Last year, Cape Town announced plans for “Day Zero”, when the municipal water supply would largely be shut off, potentially making Cape Town the first major city in the world to run out of water.
While “Day Zero” has now been pushed off till 2019, the water crisis is still dire and local residents are adapting their lives to deal with it. Below are some images capturing life in Cape Town and its outskirts during this unprecedented time period.
What can I say in a few paragraphs about a country as beautiful, complex and mysterious as Vietnam? While many people’s first association with Vietnam may be that of the US/Vietnam conflict and all the horrifying and iconic imagery that accompanied it, what we discovered on our recent three week exploration of the country couldn’t be further from that.
Vietnam these days is a bustling, colorful, dynamic and geographically diverse country with a beauty, mystique and gentle quality all of its own. From the first day we arrived in Hanoi’s “Old Quarter” and were immediately greeted with fresh mango juice by our hotel’s friendly owner to the last part of our trip during which we cooked catfish Pho with our hosts on the banks of the Mekong Delta, we found Vietnam’s people to be disarmingly friendly and open. We were also consistently struck by the beauty of many of the places we visited–Halong Bay with its hundreds of limestone islands and blue waters, the cathedral-like chambers of Phong Nha’s extensive caves, the French colonial architecture and colorful lanterns of old world Hoi An, the lush green rice paddies on the outskirts of many towns and the dramatic coastal vistas of the Côn Đảo Islands. We were also seduced over and over again by Vietnam’s absolutely delicious food. Ginger, garlic, lemon grass, fresh herbs, interesting textures and creative combinations made every meal an exciting adventure and possibly one of my favorite countries food-wise.
And if this isn’t all enough to convince one to start dreaming up a trip to Vietnam, the country is also remarkably inexpensive to travel in. While many hostels, homestay and low-end hotels can be found for under $15, even the plusher hotels rarely go much over $40. For us this meant we could enjoy our journey, eat like kings, explore the
country on bicycles, paddle boards, motorcycles, boats and buses and embrace grand adventures we would perhaps not have been able to afford in a higher priced environment. The trip was beyond memorable and left us wanting to encourage others to replace their own associations of Vietnam with more positive and and current versions. On that note, I leave you with one of my favorite travel quotes and some of the images I created along the way:
“Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
A quiet Sunday morning in the beautiful town of Hoi An.
Paddle boarding in Halong Bay.
I photographed Thanh Nhàn– surrounded by the paper lanterns she sells at one of the tourists craft shops– at “the Citadel”, an archeological site in Hue. Thanh told me her passion is to make paper flowers and for each of her creations, she writes an accompanying poem. I was struck by her sweetness, by the beauty of the flowers and poems she creates and by her determination to soon open her own shop selling her flowers and poems.
A sweet and colorful moment I captured while bicycling in the rain through a very quiet village near Phong Nha.
I photographed these two young women surrounded by Hanoi’s colorful cherry blossoms in Hoan Kiem Lake Park.
A woman sells bananas on the side of the road while motorcyclists sit stuck in the glut of motorcycle traffic in Hue. I was struck by the massive number of motorcycles ones sees in Vietnam–one of my least favorite aspects of the country–and the constant honk of horns that accompanies them.
A group of Vietnamese women play a card game in downtown Hue.
A woman bicycles through a village in the Mekong Delta Region.
A woman reacts joyfully to seeing a friend while wearing traditional clothing at the Imperial “Citadel”–the one time home of Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty–in Hue.
School boys ride their bicycles through the chaos of pedestrian and bicycle traffic in Hoi An.
Just a few of the many lanterns that light up the town of Hoi An–a UNESCO Heritage Site filled with beautiful French Colonial architecture on the banks of the Thu Bon River.
A cat and dog communally observe the world from their home in Hoi An.
Fishermen are illuminated in the morning sun while fishing in the Thu Bon River in Hoi An.
Young men use a net to fish in a canal beween the rice paddies in Hoi An.
A colorfully dressed woman sells bananas at the local market in Hoi An.
Fishermen return their boats to port after a day of fishing in Con Son Bay in the beautiful and mysterious Côn Đảo Islands.
One of the many house boats from which people sell wholesale fruit, agricultural products and specialties at Cai Rang floating Market in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region. During early morning hours, the waterway becomes a maze of boats packed with goods and food.
A man purchases watermelons from a wholesaler at Cai Rang floating Market in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta Region.
A beautiful young woman is photographed in the traditional Vietnamese hat which is kept on the head by a cloth (often silk) chin strap. Vietnamese women are very conscious of protecting their skin from the sun as paler skin denotes higher social status and indicates the fact that the woman doesn’t have to work in the fields so many women not only wear a hat but also use a cloth to cover much of their face.
I was struck by this man napping in a rather uncomfortable-looking position outside a barbershop–despite the loud honking of horns and general city noise–in the bustling city of Can Tho in the Mekong Delta.
A scene from the night food market in Can Tho in the Mekong Delta region. Street food is exceptionally cheap in Vietnam so many locals purchase their evening meal (often for under a dollar) at one of the night markets.
One of those sublime moments of travel on Con Dao Island.
The Cuban Revolution affected women’s lives and gender relations dramatically and on paper, it offered them equality and gave them access to more channels of political and social power. But what is the reality of women’s lives in Cuba today? Having long explored issues of female identity and experience in my work as a photographer, I was interested in looking at the lives of modern Cuban women and finding out what their experiences were in Cuba’s current post-revolutionary political and social climate. The portrait series that emerged–which was shot solely with a Leica camera and includes in-depth interviews with each of the women–is an intimate look at the struggles, perceptions, hopes and dreams of its subjects.
“Nature has been for me, for as long as I remember, a source of solace, inspiration, adventure, and delight; a home, a teacher, a companion.”— Lorraine Anderson
Having spent my childhood in South Africa, I began an early love affair with the wilderness. Some of my most vivid memories are of lying awake at night listening to the roar of lions accompanied by a string quartet of cicadas, imagining the secret nighttime rituals happening outside in the dark.
My blog–Apertures and Anecdotes–strives to be an interesting place of discovery–a place to share beautiful photos, discover new places and people and lose oneself in this extraordinary medium. If you or someone you know would like to receive new blog posts directly through your email, please sign up directly on my blog site–Apertures and Anecdotes (in the right hand column)–or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
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On the first day of the Samburu Women’s Photography Workshop in Kenya a few weeks ago, I was greeted by the wonderful sight of my workshop attendees singing and clapping their hands as they slowly processed into Sabache Camp—a community owned and run camp—where the workshop was to be held. Adorned in their colorful clothing and intricately crafted beadwork, their beautiful voices rose up and mingled with the sounds of birds, cicadas and other small wildlife in the bush around us. It was a joyful moment for me and was somehow a fitting start to this unusual adventure for us all.
I’d come to this wildlife-rich and remote part of Kenya to teach a photography workshop to a women’s empowerment group–The On’gan Women’s Cooperative–made up of tribal Samburu women. The group was formed in 2008 and brings women together in collaboration to start their own initiatives or businesses and includes micro finance programs, vocational training programs and is generally a community resource to build self-determination and autonomy. While I’ve taught photography to children in Rwanda over the last two winters and have spent quite a bit of time in East Africa, I knew little about the Samburu tribe or how these women might respond to the workshop.
The photo workshop was a collaboration between myself and a local college professor/lead lion researcher at the Lion Conservation Fund, who has been working closely with the Samburu community for years. She had told me about the women’s empowerment group and together we’d come up with the idea of the workshop which she then presented to the community, the cooperative and the tribal elders.
After their approval and with the help of a local Cape Cod photography shop, Orleans Camera, who donated nine point and shoot digital cameras, as well as funds from the sale of prints and calendars at my recent “Uncommon Journeys” photography show and a few other private camera donations, I arrived in Kenya ready to share my enthusiasm for photography with women who had never even seen a television before. I had also brought with me a small printer so that we could make prints of the women’s work for them to take home with them and for a community board where others could see the prints.
Having worked with children in Rwanda at the Through the Eyes of Hope Project, I had first hand knowledge of how empowering and joyful photography could be. There was also the thought that the photography workshop could help document the Samburu women’s lives and stories and elevate their voices. As ancient cultures change and rapidly disappear across the globe due to globalization and development, these stories and images could be instrumental in helping them document and record their culture and traditions from their own perspective before they are lost forever. Most importantly, I hoped this would be a fun, empowering and useful experience for the women.
The Samburus, who live in the Rift Valley Province of Northern Kenya, are closely related to the Masai tribe and are semi-nomadic pastoralists which is one of the reasons they’ve been targeted. They live in small clusters of homes called “bomas” made of mud, hides and grass mats strung over poles. Cattle, sheep, goats and camels are central to their way of life and their diet is made up primarily of milk as well as roots, vegetables, tubers and some blood from livestock. Since the Samburu tribe has been relatively isolated from western culture, despite the pressure to settle into more permanent settlements, their culture remains quite intact and they live very much as they have for generations—another reason they’ve been targeted by external groups who see them as “culturally backward”.
Over the days that followed my arrival, the women learned to use the cameras, looked at many images on my computer as I presented ideas about composition, light, creating portraits, capturing “moments” etc. and had a great time photographing everything in their path. Women’s empowerment group coordinator and translator, Naomi, translated our back and forth communications and I was immediately struck by the women’s sense of humor, their openness and their connection to each other.
I knew that many of the women had had the experience of being photographed by tourists but had never had the opportunity to capture their own lives. Now they joked over and over how they were “Mzungus” (white people) and a few even hatched a plan to whip out their cameras next time a safari vehicle pulled up beside them with a bunch of tourists eager to photograph them.
When they returned to their villages, I asked them to photograph the things that were important in their lives and a few days later when they came back, I was enthralled with the worlds I saw unfolding as I edited their images. Their homes, their children, goats, camels, beautiful Mount Ololokwe—it was clear to me that they had fully embraced their assignment and had lovingly captured the world that was so familiar and meaningful to them.
I was touched by the fact that some of the women had even made special pouches in their skirts to hold their cameras so they would have them close at hand. After editing images, each woman chose a few to take with her and I posted many others on the community board. I relished watching as not just the women but the men and others who had not been part of the workshop, joyfully looked at the photos together.
When it was time for me to leave, my only regret was that I didn’t have enough cameras to leave behind for all the women who had come to participate in the workshop. I promised myself that I would be back with cameras for those I didn’t have enough for this time around. Below is just a small selection of images from the workshop. Thanks so much to all the people who helped make this workshop happen and enjoy the photos!
If anyone has a used point and shoot digital camera they no longer use, please send me an email at email@example.com. Thank you!
This blog strives to be an interesting place of discovery–a place to share beautiful photos, discover new places and people and lose oneself in this extraordinary medium. If you or someone you know would like to receive new blog posts directly through your email, please sign up directly on my blog site–Apertures and Anecdotes (in the right hand column)–or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
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From the first day of our adventure traveling up the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island along the stunning rocky coastline, through a few sparsely populated little towns and copious fields of sheep, I knew this journey would challenge my usual photographic instincts. As a photojournalist whose work is generally centered on people and wildlife, photographing in such a sparsely populated place was at first a radical and sometimes uncomfortable departure for me. After a few days, I stopped looking for humans and began seeing what South Island offered up on another more sublime plane.
From our first few days in the Marlborough Sounds—described as a network of “sea-drowned valleys”—where we spent a surreal morning paddle boarding over large winged stingrays and thousands of jellyfish—I felt like we’d entered a magical new realm best described in shades of blue. I noticed how the water constantly shifted hue and texture as the island’s weather patterns rearranged light and wind.
Everywhere we went, the intersection between weather and water seemed to play out in a complex dance. In the North, Abel Tasman National Park offered up golden beaches, azure lagoons and long tidal flats that appeared mirage-like with their ribbons of color and occasional horse riders. In contrast, on the west coast, the waters were turbulent and unbridled, wearing the rocks into strange pancake formations and pounding the shoreline incessantly.
We spent an evening bicycling around the coastal town of Greymouth—once a bustling port for coal export that now seems a bit lost in time—stunned by the purplish evening hues and a whole new pigment we didn’t know water could acquire.
And then, further down the coast, there were the ice-blue glaciers rising up so unexpectedly after we emerged from rainforest. How can one make sense of a place so raw and elemental and seemingly connected to a geological past few of us understand?
And just when I thought the incarnations of water couldn’t get more dramatic, we spent an evening kayaking in pouring rain through Millford Sound’s interior bays surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise up 4,000 feet with thousands of waterfalls streaming down. Milford Sound—which is actually a fiord created by glacial erosion—was its own mythical country, full of rich Maori tales, dramatic tree avalanches and more rain than most of us can imagine standing.
Rounding the bend to South Island’s Catlins, we discover the rich marine life I’d been hoping to see and photograph. At Curio Bay—known to be a nursery for young dolphins—we watched these playful marine mammals surf waves and spring out of the water with seeming limitless enthusiasm.
At nearby Waipapa Point, a a harem of sea lions lay about in fat, happy arrangements, the large male occasionally rising to fend off a curious male challenger. Further up the coast, the ocean offered up the extremely rare and endangered yellow-eyed penguins. In the evenings, they’d be spat back onto shore after a day of fishing only to be accosted by their hungry chicks—mouth open, squawking, begging for food. Nearby, seal pups frolicked on the beach like energetic puppies while oyster catchers stabbed hungrily at shellfish.
Even heading inland to the interior lake region, I was struck by the unusual watery sightings like Lake Wanaka’s lonesome tree growing quite unexpectedly out of the water and the exquisite hue of Lake Tekapo, the turquoise blue of the Greek Isles. Apparently this remarkable color is the product of glacial sediment turned into fine dust particles suspended in water whose interaction with light creates the unusually bright blue hue.
And of course, beyond New Zealand’s sublime waters there is so much more—rainforests so green and moss-laden, the vast, raw Southern Alps, volcanoes, geysers and rollings greens pocked with sheep and cows. With the limitation of this blog post, I cannot begin to do justice to these beautiful places but in the meantime, here is my photographic experience of this rather unpeopled, transcendent place.
Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary is located on a magical little island in Lake Victoria, Uganda, and is home to 48 orphaned chimps rescued from Uganda and neighboring African countries. At the end of a month teaching photography to kids in Rwanda, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend four days on the island. I was there on assignment to document the chimpanzee sanctuary for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), one of the sanctuary’s founders and continuing supporters.
When I first stepped off the small boat that brought me the 45 mins from Entebbe, I was struck by the intense chirping of birds. I soon discovered that the island is not only home to the chimps but to literally thousand of weaver birds as well as egrets, monitor lizards, fruit bats, otters, fish eagles and a variety of other small creatures. The island also houses an exceptionally caring staff who feed the chimps, clean the compound, educate visitors about the sanctuary’s work and generally ensure the chimps’ wellbeing. Innocent Ampeire, one of Ngamba’s most experienced caregivers, was the first staff member to welcome me and, wearing a shirt that read “98.7 % chimp”, proceeded to introduce me to the extraordinary microcosm that is Ngamba Island. With the birds singing, the chimps calling and hooting in the distance and the beauty of Lake Victoria all around me, I felt like I’d stumbled upon a little piece of paradise.
The Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary was founded in 1998 with the idea that it could serve as a home for confiscated chimps who could not be returned to the wild. The island is about 100 acres, 98 of which are forested. Of the remaining two acres, one acre is used as camp quarters for staff and researchers and the remaining area, located between the forest and the viewing platform, is where the chimpanzees are fed during the day. While the chimpanzees spend the majority of their day in the forest, they do voluntarily return to the feeding area several times a day to eat as the forest’s natural food resources are not enough to sustain a group of that many chimps. Most of the chimpanzees also return at night through a long caged corridor to eat their evening meal and sleep in enclosures where they use straw to make a bed on their own personal hammocks.
In advance of my arrival on Ngamba, I did a little research about chimps to better understand what I would be photographing. I was immediately struck by the fact that we share 98.7 percent of our genetic material with chimpanzees. Like us, they have complex emotional and social worlds and even have different cultures depending on the region they live in. They experience joy, anger, grief, sorrow, pleasure, boredom and depression and also comfort one another by kissing and embracing. As Jane Goodall discovered during her well-known study of chimps in the 1960’s, chimps use tools such as stones to crack nuts, twigs to probe for honey or ants and even spears to hunt small animals! Their gestation period is very similar to humans, their body temperature is the same, they have opposable thumbs on their hands (and on their feet!) and, like humans, eat a variety of vegetables, leaves, fruit and animal protein. They enter adulthood at around 13 years old and, like us, share life-long bonds with their children. The primary difference between chimps and humans is that they don’t have language although they do communicate using a complex system of of sounds, facial expressions, gestures and body language.
As I spent time observing and photographing Ngamba’s chimps and learning about their personal histories over the days that followed, I became fascinated with how different they all were from each other, not just physically but emotionally. Innocent and the other caregivers know the chimps intimately and speak of them almost as familiar friends. They’d say things like “Medina seems depressed today” or “did you see how one of the others tried to steal Baron’s security blanket?” and then a discussion of the given chimp would ensue. They also make detailed notes in logs books about the chimps’ behavior and activity at the end of each day. I found these snippets of conversation about the chimps compelling and began to read and ask questions about each chimp’s personal story.
As I mentioned earlier, like humans, chimpanzees have close familial relationships so early separation from a mother–as most of the Ngamba chimps experienced–leaves deep emotional scars. Some of the stories I heard simply broke my heart. For example, Baron, who found a rag in the forest and holds onto it as a security blanket, was taken from his mother and kept in a wooden cage for a year along with sibling who died. Another chimp, Ndyakira, was confiscated as an infant from illegal wildlife traders in Uganda. She had been sent first to Russia and then to Uganda where the dealers were intercepted and she was found malnourished and traumatized. When female chimp, Medina, arrived at Ngamba Island, her canine teeth had been removed and her front teeth smashed. She was malnourished with a bloated stomach and was believed to have worms. She was treated and recovered steadily and is now a friendly and generous chimp. These are just a few of the painful stories I learned about during my stay.
While many of Ngamba’s chimps struggled to integrate, showed signs of depression or had behavior issues when they first came to the island, almost all have since managed to adapt and seem to be thriving. Hearing their stories and seeing what a rich and full life they now have on the island made me realize how special the sanctuary is and how important it is to have places like it in the world. With chimpanzee populations threatened by habitat loss, hunting and disease, there are few places where our closest relative can live peacefully and I feel honored to have spent time capturing this exceptional little spot on earth.
After my experience last year teaching photography to students at the “Through the Eyes of Hope” program in Kigali, Rwanda, I knew without a doubt that I had to come back. For those of you who didn’t see my blog post last year, here’s a bit of back story. “Through the Eyes of Hope” was founded by photojournalist, Linda Smith, in 2006 and is wonderful program that seeks to empower kids through photography. The program not only enables them to express themselves creatively but also means they can earn a bit of money through the studio they run where they primarily provide passport photos for locals. The students’ work has been shown in exhibits in both Rwanda and the US.
After I left Rwanda last year, I was determined to get more cameras for the kids to use since they were sharing three consumer-level cameras. I approached fellow professional photographers as well as local Cape Cod camera shop, Orleans Camera, about donating older generation cameras that they no longer used. I was so touched by the generous response I received and was thrilled to be able to send six professional-level digital SLRs with lenses and cf cards back to Rwanda.
What drew me back to Rwanda after last year’s experience was the kids’ enthusiasm, appreciation, exploding creativity and complete lack of entitlement. When I arrived at the airport three weeks ago, I was joyfully greeted by four of my students and received big, welcoming hugs. Since arriving, I’ve been training the students on the donated cameras, pushing them to improve their technical skills and also working on capturing “moments”. Since there are few photo studios in Kigali, we’ve especially been focused on improving their studio skills since they’re in unique position to offer professional studio photos to clients at a reasonable price. Together we worked towards preparing for an “open studio” day which we decided to make on Valentine’s Day, during which we would offer community members a free photo session and print. The idea behind this was to show the community the amazing work the students can do, create some positive PR for the studio and hopefully create some future customers.
During the days before Valentine’s day, the students had several assignments to create interesting studio portraits. I was thrilled with how enthusiastically they approached this task and what beautiful work came out of these assignments, some of which you will see below. When Valentine’s day arrived, I knew they were ready. Word spread quickly about what we were offering and we soon had a steady flow of community members coming in for the photo session and print. I was so happy and moved to see the customers’ consistently smiling responses when we handed them the glossy 4×6 print. Of course I was also elated to see what good work the students were producing, some of which is included below.
Beyond working together on their photography skills, we also made several field trips. The first was to Nyamata Church, a genocide memorial site where 10,000 Rwandans were brutally murdered during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Only seven people survived the attacks at Nyamata and these were all children who went unnoticed because they were hidden under adult bodies. None of the students had ever visited the site before. While they’ve grown up learning about the genocide at school, I thought seeing the memorial site in person would be powerful for them as well as for me and open up a dialog about Rwanda’s painful past. It did turn out to be a very difficult but meaningful experience for us all which I don’t really think words can describe.
Then, last weekend, some of the students joined me for a trip to Akagera National Park about two and a half hours from Kigali which again, most of them had never visited. Having grown up in South Africa myself, visiting the wilderness and seeing South Africa’s incredible wildlife was such a rich part of my childhood and it pained me to think that these Rwandan students had never seen the rich wildlife in their own country. It was wonderful to see their excited reaction to zebras, giraffes, hippos, a crocodile and the many other amazing wild animals we saw during our visit.
As my time with the students winds down, I think of all the moments in which I’ve been moved by my experience here. One particular moment that struck me most powerfully was during our drive to Nyamata to visit the genocide memorial site. The students are all passionate about music and they spent much of the drive singing together–primarily Rwandan religious songs–harmonizing beautifully and just having so much fun. As their voices rose up in the car, I found myself with a huge smile on my face coupled with a painful lump in my throat. How strange and beautiful to be driving towards this reminder of Rwanda’s traumatic past with a new generation joyfully singing their hearts out.
This blog strives to be an interesting place of discovery–a place to share beautiful or disturbing photos, discover new places and people and lose oneself in this extraordinary medium. If you or someone you know would like to receive new blog posts directly through your email, please sign up directly on my blog site–Apertures and Anecdotes (in the right hand column)–or email me at email@example.com. Thank you!
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Nestled 7,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains and almost entirely circled by the Urubamba River is a mysterious Incan city that up until just over 100 years ago, was completely unknown to the west. The story goes that in 1911 a Yale archeologist, Hiram Bingham, was searching for the lost city of Vilcabamba–the last Incan stronghold to fall to the Spanish–when a local farmer told him about some ruins located at the top of a nearby mountain. Bingham was then led by an 11 year-old boy to the site that has astounded archeologists ever since and also ignited a custody dispute that went on for almost 100 years, catalyzed partly by the fact that Bingham took artifacts from the site back to Yale for further study. What was particularly remarkable about the site was that the Incans had managed to keep it a secret from the Spanish for over almost 500 years and as a result, it remained relatively intact–a true icon of Incan civilization, architecture and engineering. Of course I’m referring to the now famous archeological site of Machu Pichu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited tourist destination in all of South America.
During a visit to Peru last month, Machu Pichu was, unsurprisingly, on the top of our list of things to do. The journey to Machu Pichu itself is worth mentioning–the usual planes, trains and automobiles, then long snaking lines to buy tickets in the rain at the “Ministry of Culture” in the launching city of Cusco, more lines to buy bus and train tickets at a local tourist agency, another bus ride, a beautiful train ride through the Andes, a fairly intense but exquisite 2 hour hike up steep and mossy Andean steps from the town of Agua Calientes (for those who don’t want to hike, there are buses that take you directly to the entrance) and then the final ascent into the site itself which, at over 7,000ft with high altitude oxygen levels, is not made for the average couch potato. Or, for the really ambitious, one can hike the extraordinary 4-5-day Inca trail which passes through cloud forest, alpine tundra, tunnels and many Incan ruins. Despite the intense journey and the enormous number of tourists exploring the site–most with selfie sticks extended in front of their faces–I, like Hiram Bingham, could not help but be astounded by my first glimpse of the sublime city. Shrouded in clouds, and punctuated by the intense green grass and vegetation of the wet Andes, the stone city seems to have been created with a unique aesthetic sensibility, functionality and awareness of the surrounding environment. If, as archeologists now theorize, it served as a sort of retreat and ceremonial site for Incan rulers, it’s clear these men knew how to retreat and ceremonialize in profoundly thought-out style. In short, Machu Pichu is truly as beautiful and otherworldly as the guide books proclaim (albeit with way too many humans and selfie sticks).
Separated into three areas–urban, religious and agricultural, the structures are so perfectly matched with their surroundings. While the agricultural areas, with their well-defined terraces and aqueducts, make use of the natural slopes and the urban areas–which housed farmers, servants, teachers and the like–are built in the lower regions, the religious areas are located at the top of the city, with soulful and inspiring views of the beautiful Urubamba Valley far below. Perhaps one of the things that surprised me most was the fact that even though many of the stone blocks that make up Machu Pichu are massive–perhaps 50 tons or more–they are precisely cut (or sculpted?) and fit together almost perfectly without cement or mortar. Also, I was amazed at being able to imagine so well what life must have been like in this high altitude world. For instance, the many houses have stone shelves for displaying objects, high windows to allow enough light to enter at sunset and sundown and notches next to open stone doorways so that residents could lock their doors! There are baths and storage rooms, temples and of course the well-laid out terraces extensive enough to grow more than enough food for Machu Pichu’s residents. For a place that appears to be of another world, its details betray a city very much made for humans.
Of course there is so much more to be said about Machu Pichu’s intricacies–its Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, the Room of the Three Windows and the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock but perhaps these places are best left to be explored in person. These days, besides the overabundance of tourists (whose free-wheeling explorations of the stone structures have put the Machu Pichu on the endangered archeological site list), there are also, surprisingly enough, a herd of free-range llamas whose heads occasionally pop up between the granite stones. Seemingly oblivious to the tourists trying to snap selfies with them, they wander about, occasionally stopping to take in the view between bites of lush Andean grass which they keep at a perfect length. They are, perhaps the only truly consistent and natural residents of the site and their peaceful presence and lovely dromedary-like faces amidst the beautiful ruins are what I held onto as we hiked back down the mountain.
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As a dog-lover, I always notice dogs and their general well-being when I travel. In many countries, I’ve learned that dogs are seen less as family members than as security guards. Frequently, they’re kept on short chains or slinking around the shadows of the family’s back yard, nervous and ready to snap at the smallest infraction. Alternatively, they are street dogs riddled with ticks or infections, mangy or so thin one can count each rib from a distance. Often, in these same countries, dogs are perceived as dirty (which they usually are because of lack of care) and people balk at the idea of petting a dog or taking him into one’s home. I know that poverty plays a significant role in how cultures treat their dogs. When there isn’t enough food for humans, it’s understandable that dogs too will go hungry.
So happily, one of the first things I noticed in Peru was that dogs are ever-present, well-fed and Peruvians seem to love them! Every corner I turned–whether on the streets of Lima or the tiny towns of the Sacred Valley or Colca Canyon–I joyfully witnessed a new vignette of canine bliss. I saw dogs being scratched, cuddled, played with, fed with market scraps, or simply allowed to sleep peacefully, curled up close to human companions. While I noticed few collars and rarely a leash on these Peruvian dogs and they seemed to wander the streets peacefully with a traffic savviness my own pooches certainly will never attain, they did not seem to be strays or gather in packs as street dogs sometimes do. They simply looked like there were going about their days, exploring the usual nooks and crannies, visiting their doggy or human friends and then wandering home at the end of the day for a good meal.
Who knows why dogs are so integrated into Peruvian culture in a way they aren’t in so many other countries. I know that the Peruvian hairless dog breed dates back to pre-Incan times but whatever the reason, I was so inspired by this canine-loving culture that I thought I’d share some of my favorite Peruvian doggy moments.
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The Amazon jungle has always inhabited a special place in my imagination. Mysterious, faraway, full of ominous and beautiful creatures, it seemed out of the range of possibility to actually experience it. Which is why it was all the more extraordinary to find myself motoring up the Tambopata River–a tributary of the Amazon river in southeastern Peru–on a small wooden boat heading into the Amazon basin for four days earlier this week.
The air engulfed me like a hot, wet blanket when I first walked out of the airport in the Amazonian town of Puerto Maldonado and I was surprised to see how sunny it was given that this time of year it can rain for days without stopping. My second surprise came a few hours into our boat ride when we came upon a small creature swimming across the river. At first I thought it was just another log like the many we’d passed close to shore and then I saw it had eyes, a mouth and a very determined expression. Our guide, Jair Mariche, excitedly exclaimed it was a three-toed sloth and told us that in all his years of guiding, he’d only seen a sloth once and certainly not one swimming. This was only the first of a series of extremely lucky sightings we had during our four days of exploring the Amazon.
The days that followed were full of extraordinary (and very muddy and sometimes wet) adventures during which we saw numerous snakes, spiders (including a family of tarantulas), wild pigs, giant river otters, monkeys, macaws, an electric eel, a wide variety of frogs, extraordinary selection of insects and birds and of course, vegetation that grows on a scale I struggled to wrap my mind around. At the end of each day, I was struck by how much my fantasy of the Amazon felt accurate. I couldn’t seem to get enough of the fact that the wildlife in the Amazon operates independently of human existence, that each creature seems to have found a unique niche to inhabit and thrive in and that all the Amazon’s creatures represent endless adaptations that have allowed them to survive in their complex and competitive world.
A spectacled caiman, also called a “white caiman”, hunts for food after dark in the Tambopata
river. While other caimans such as black caimans are hunted for their skin, the white caiman
has bony deposits forming scales on their skin which means it is not desirable for leather
products such as bags, shoes etc.
A juvenile “chicken spider” tarantula waits for prey outside its family’s den. This young tarantula,
which is about the size of my hand, is only a third of the size of its mother! Apparently the name
“chicken spider” comes from the fact that these creatures have been known to eat chickens!