travel inspiration

Sneak Peek: Myanmar

Balloons at sunrise over Bagan, Myanmar.

I’ve been very remiss lately in posting updates and new images. Here are a few sneak peek images from my recent trip to Myanmar (Burma), a place I first visited back in 2005. A lot has changed there over the years, but the unique culture and stunning scenery remain very much intact. As I edit my images I’ll be posting stories and some technical tips for photographing in Southeast Asia.

Buddha in a 12th century temple, Bagan, Myanmar.

Woman smoking a cheroot,  Myanmar.

Nat spirits at Mount Popa, Myanmar.

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Easy peasy: Iceland

Iceland. Vik i Myrdal. Black sand beach.

Black sand beach at Vik i Myrdal.

 

 

Seriously: how many times do I have to tell you people to go to Iceland?!

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I wish someone had found me several years ago, shook me by the shoulders and said, “Just go! Don’t worry about it! Don’t bother with those other places right now. Iceland!”

Your doubts, banished:

It’s so far!

No, actually it isn’t. It’s way closer than Europe. From Seattle it’s only a 7 hour flight. That’s scarcely longer than it takes to fly to NYC. And you do that without complaint. Well, maybe you don’t but I do. Suck it up, it’s not that long.

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It’s so expensive!

Well, yeah. But there are always ways around that. Take a clue from how the incoming passengers at the airport get dumped directly into a duty free shop that’s basically selling just alcohol. Stock up on some bracing (local hooch) Brennivin, pick up a bottle of wine. Or a 500cl of scotch. Liquor taxes are high there so buy duty free and don’t worry. Beers in a typical bar are nearly $10 each, so you won’t be having many of them. Then, stop by a supermarket and pick up sandwich fixings. Worried about keeping things refrigerated on the road? Don’t be. Surprisingly, they sell peanut butter there (most non-Americans find it disgusting), and jam does not need to be in the fridge if you’re going to be going through it pretty quickly. Hotels serve breakfast with the price of the room, make your own picnic lunches and just worry about dinner. See? Look at all the money you’ve saved.

 

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It’s so… lonely!

It is, but in a really wonderful way. It’s lonely in a wide-open-spaces way, not a “feels like a serial killer must be stalking me” kind of way, like some other places can (I’m looking at you, Hoh Rainforest)

Iceland. South Region. Lomagnupur.

 

Don’t they have erupting volcanoes?

Sure, they got volcanoes. But so does the West Coast of the US, and you never even think about those. Granted theirs are a bit more restive than ours, but that just adds some fun to the mix. They’re also incredibly well studied, not likely to blow up without warning.

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Do people speak English?

Yeah, they do. Better than you do actually, so prepare yourself. They also have a charming accent.

 

Is driving hard?

Well it is, but probably not for the reason you’re thinking. The landscape is so incredible, the scenery so breathtaking, that you do run the risk of running off the road if you’re not paying attention. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you want to go off road, you need to get a 4WD vehicle or the rental car company will have your head, so make sure to price that out as it will add more to the cost.

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Two final things to know:

The hot water smells like sulphur. That’s cause it just came from the ground and is, in fact, full of sulphur.

Yes, they really do sell minke whale and puffin in some Reykjavik restaurants. Please don’t buy either. The locals don’t eat it, and so these days it’s only served as a touristy gimmick you don’t want to encourage.

 

Whale Watching in Monterey Bay, California

I realized several years ago that sometimes, between trips, I needed a way to get out and practice my photography. And by practice, I mean shooting in situations that are new, or not that familiar, in order to get myself up to speed before a big trip. I’m not one of those that carries my camera around with me all the time. That’s what my smartphone is for (results on Instagram). There really isn’t that much that taking photos of graffiti around San Francisco can prepare you for when you’re heading to the Arctic, you know what I mean?  So the trick is to find something near by that approximates some of the shooting conditions you’d find in the place you’re planning on going and then go and shoot there.

So before heading to Antarctica, last fall I went out whale watching to get some more practice shooting from a boat (and really exercising the VR capabilities on my new lens). It was so much fun, that I decided to do it again this summer when word got around of the big run of anchovies in Monterey Bay and all the humpbacks that had some to take advantage of it.

So I ended up going out two weeks in a row, and here are a few of the shots I got:

The wildness around us

This past week has been crazy busy, so I’ve fallen behind on the blog-writing, but it seemed like a good time to remind everyone (living in North America that is*): we have amazing wildlife, and great opportunities to photograph it, all over.

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I think some of us, myself included, get a little jaded since we can just drive a couple hours (or even less), sign up for a whale watching trip, and photograph humpback (or gray) whales like it’s no big thing. It is a big thing! Just ask anyone from Europe. I didn’t understand this til I was on a whale watching trip in Iceland, and when we spotted a whale spyhopping in the distance, a French woman half-gasped, half-screamed when she saw it. She had never seen a whale. I see them often enough that if it’s not close, if it’s not in good light, I can hardly be bothered!

Iceland.

The trip photographed here was last year during a sardine run — there were so many humpback whales in Monterey Bay that we simply lost count of how many we saw — it got to the point that people would just gesture into the distance and mutter under their breath “whale” every time they saw one, as opposed to the excited pointing and yelling that were going on at the beginning of the trip.

Iceland.

So while dreaming of faraway destinations where you can view and photograph exotic wildlife…. don’t forget that you can go out and photograph whales, flocks of migrating birds, deer, bears, eagles, coyotes, etc in pretty much every part of the United States and Canada — we have so much wildness around us.

And with that note, I’m going down to Monterey Bay to try and spot some humpbacks feeding on big schools of anchovies.

Iceland.

*I know there are lots of places in Europe with wildlife very nearby, but I feel it’s more immediately available in North America, with it’s shorter history of cities and large groups of people. We really did move into wildlife’s territory and that’s very clear sometimes when they come and take it back

African Safari Research – choosing an outfitter

These are not wild giraffes

These are not wild giraffes

So I’ve mentioned before how I have one last “big” thing to take care of travel-wise: I’ve never been to Africa. So that is one of the things on my shortlist for 2015. Now, given that I am so very into photography, I want to find a safari that specializes in doing trips for photographers. This means: fewer people on the trip, only 3 people per land rover for better photo opportunities, dedicated locations for charging up laptops and camera batteries, and most importantly: a schedule that is crafted around the animals, not people’s normal waking hours. This means we’ll be getting up before dawn, coming back for a clean up and rest in the heat of the day, and heading back out in the late afternoon to evening, all to have more opportunities to see the animals out and about doing their thing.

I’ve not been doing a huge amount of research for this trip so far, aside from perusing some travel brochures and reading up a bit about the different destinations one can visit. The preparations for my visit to the Arctic and trying to get some overdue photo editing done was taking up a lot of my time.

While I was on that trip I met people who had been to Africa several times. Everyone talks about East Africa being the place to see sheer numbers of animals, and while that’s interesting, I’m really drawn t0 two things: elephants and big big cats.

So it seems like Botswana is a great place to get both of those things. One guy on my trip had lived in Southern Africa and suggested that if you want to see elephants, Botswana is the place to do it. There are also several people running photo safaris that specialize in predators in Botswana as well:

I’m actually planning this trip with a friend that I met on my Antarctic trip, a woman who is very interested in photography and more importantly interested in photographing nature red in tooth and claw, which is awesome! I want to see nature, damnit, not a sanitized disney version.

So after much studying of websites and checking itineraries and looking at dates and locations and prices (prices for this kind of trip don’t vary too widely, but for sanity’s sake I don’t want to spend more than $10K), we’ve decided on Wildlight. Yes, you can definitely get safaris cheaper than that, but remember: this is a special photo safari — the last thing I want to do is to be in range rover with a half-dozen tourists who are hot, tired and want their dinner so we have to go back to camp just when the light starts to get good.

So incredibly excited I can hardly stand it! It’s well over a year away, but booking in advance is awfully useful sometimes, especially to lock in a good deal and to make sure you get something at the best time of year for you.

Now, comes all the planning. Another new wardrobe of khaki pants and floppy brimmed hats to add to my collection of long johns and fleeces from the polar regions. I’m gonna need a bigger closet.

Sneak Peek: Svalbard!

I’ve just returned home from my most recent adventure, to the land of the midnight sun* in arctic Norway. I’m still editing pictures, but wanted to be able to share a few images from the trip. There are many more to come. We had fantastic weather, and saw a wide variety of wildlife.

Atlantic Puffins, Fjortende Julibukta, Svalbard, Norway

Atlantic Puffins, Fjortende Julibukta, Svalbard, Norway

We saw quite a lot of birds, but everyone’s favorite is always the puffin. I’d seen them before in Iceland, but I never really knew the way they hop around on these cliffs — it’s as if they don’t quite know how to walk, so just improvise something to get some forward locomotion. It’s adorable.

 

Rich tundra at Varsolbukta, Bellsund, Svalbard, Norway.

Rich tundra at Varsolbukta, Bellsund, Svalbard, Norway.

The tundra here at Vardsolbukta was incredibly rich and varied – several species of tiny flowering plants, mosses of a half a different shades of green, various lichens and such. The ground in places was like walking on pillows, the moss was so soft. It felt really strange. Things take forever to decompose in the arctic, so there are all sorts of bones and reindeer antlers, skeins of shed reindeer fur and various feathers lying around to be studied. It’s the kind of place you want to walk around bent over at the waist so you don’t miss anything.

Polar bear on the drift ice in the Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway.

Polar bear on the pack ice in the Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway.

And of course: a polar bear! The trip would not have been complete without one…. in the end we saw seven, a very unusual number. This one was particularly photogenic in the bright sunshine and sporting a healthy sleek coat.

There really is something incredibly special about seeing a huge predator like this in the wild. There is that little chest-tightening frisson of excitement the moment you spot it: ” *gasp* BEAR!” — even more exciting if the bridge has not announced its presence yet.

There are many more images to come, including some surprises — things I never would have expected to see on a trip like this.

*A note on the “midnight sun” — I’ve never really experienced this before. What it really is could best be described as: “noon all the time” — there is essentially no modulation in the strength of the sun at any time of day. If the sun is out its at the same height in the sky all the time. Most disconcerting. Bring an eye mask. A good one.

How To Save Money For Travel

Everyone makes choices in terms of how they choose to spend their money. I am usually choosing to spend it on travel.

Cambodia. Siem Reap. North Gate entrance to Angkor Thom.

By now, this is somewhat of a habit; I’m used to these trade-offs and don’t even really think about them anymore. To an outsider though I know it can seem a bit of a mystery. “I spend all the money in my paycheck, how can I save any?”

Simply put: stop spending money without thinking.

Everyone has a list of things they are unthinkingly spending money on. The idea is to examine each of these things and decide if that really is how you want to spending it, or if spending it on… say…. a flight to Southeast Asia is more interesting to you.

These are the things I’ve been able to examine, and cut, from my own budget:

  • No cable TV. I gave up cable tv a few years ago, and have never looked back. I bought an antenna to watch local news, and have Netflix and Amazon Prime for my streaming needs. I don’t miss it at all. This represents at least $100/month.
  • No landline phone. I had one installed when I first moved into my apartment, but cancelled it a couple years ago. Savings: $30/month.
  • Brown bag lunch to work every day but one day a week. This saves $150/month.
  • I don’t buy coffee drinks every day, I make it at home before I leave. $100/month.
  • I go out for few big restaurant dinners; I do get takeout once a week and do occasionally have dinner out with friends, but it’s not as often as most folks in San Francisco. This probably saves ~ $200/month.
  • No DVDs. Ever. I don’t buy them. I also buy little new music, listen to Pandora or Spotify instead. I buy few new books, usually only ones related to upcoming trips. New clothes only if I really need them. This probably saves  $200/month as well.

So what does that total to? $9360 a year.  Yep, I checked the math. There are probably a few things I’m not listing here that I’m not even thinking of cause I don’t regularly spend money on them, so I bet you could stretch this to $10,000 if you really tried. You save that, and you’re going to be going on a couple (or three!) nice trips every year.

Angkor Thom, Cambodia

It’s all about your priorities. It really is. Do you really want to travel? If you do, you can make it happen. I was doing an international trip (and a couple of domestic ones) every year when I was making less than $30k. It was rough, don’t get me wrong. I was eating beans and rice and shopping at the discount grocery store, but it’s possible.

One of the best ways to get started I think is to decide how much money per month you’re going to save, let’s say $250/month to get you started. Cancel cable, or the landline, or whatever else you have to do, then set up your direct deposit to put $250 into a savings account every month. That way, you don’t ever see the money, and it’s not there in your checking account tempting you.

Do that for a while, then cancel something else. Cut down on going to the movies, stop shopping as a way to spend your weekend or hang out with your friends. Start bringing your lunch to work. Crank the savings up to $500/month and keep going.

Cambodia. Siem Reap.  Tuk-tuk ride through Angkor Thom.

You should still have treats, don’t get me wrong. Get lunch with your coworkers every Friday. Get takeout sometimes. Go out for happy hour. But make these choices consciously, knowing what the trade-off is.

Then book that flight to Bangkok.