The DPRK on the Brink of Peace ~ Moonlight Over Pyongyang
Posted on June 28, 2013
The brink of peace? OK, perhaps it is just the absolute stillness of the night, the crisp fresh air (anything is fresh after a few days in Beijing) and a calm that penetrates the dark night that gives me this feeling of ‘peace’. Having just arrived in the DPRK, I am still in a bit of a bewildered state. [FYI: this will be a first in a series of posts written while in the DPRK last week].
I am not sure what to expect, as there does not seem to be anything restless with this calm, nothing but a sense of relaxation. Of course, being from the USA that immediately sets off alarms as we are taught early on that the DPRK is evil (actually an “axis of evil”), so there must be something dark and menacing out there, correct?!? The US media and government never distort the truth, do they? Regardless, my paperwork made it through and I have arrived (although no stamps in the passport…).
♬♪♬♪♫ Moonlight Over Pyongyang… ♬♪♬♪♫ Nice title for a song, and I’d love to be able to write something moving to celebrate the peace and tranquility that rests over this city tonight, and I assume every night. Being a bit ambitious, perhaps a symphony to capture the spirit of people, their hopes, loves and dreams that create such great places as Paris, Hong Kong, NYC and even Cairo. All places where people are allowed to have beautiful thoughts and dreams, and transform them into great works of art.
Why can’t Pyongyang and all of the DPRK one day provide the world with the same? Strange thoughts on my first night, as I admit I am quite skeptical of just about everything the DPRK could offer.
That said, flying into the DPRK and to the capital city of Pyongyang, I was pretty stunned by the beauty of the countryside. A blanket of green consisting of mountains, trees and farmland that left me wondering what was in store for the week as we descended into the city.
With only one evening in the DPRK under my belt, I’m not sure I am qualified to attempt any such eloquence as song or poetry. Perhaps on my way out of the country, inspiration will hit and I can try out my talents on DPRK Immigration officials. For now, the only thing I can offer are my expectations coming in.
Expectations are easy. As I mentioned, I am American and we are pretty much programmed to expect a brutal regime where its citizens will look upon us with some disgust. These days, internationally, that may be par for the course as the US government makes Americans easy targets in the international community. While discomforting, it does emphasize why I love the USA all the more, as freedom should never be taken for granted and understanding the good along with being able to speak freely of the bad makes a true patriot.
Of course, growing more cynical as I get older, I trust all media (and governments) about as much as I trust the Pyongyang Times… A wonderful paper, if you like pure propaganda at its flowery best (it gives the old China Daily of the 90s a run for its money). Something to think about: propaganda machines are just about everywhere (FOX news, CNBC, Pyongyang Times, etc.), whipping up stories with sensationalism to back a belief they want to be taken as fact. Difference here, in the West we have a few more choices and resources to find the truth for ourselves.
Funny thing about the Pyongyang times, in the DPRK a photo or image of the great leader (Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il and current leader Kim Jong Un) must be treated with “great respect.” What does this mean? Well, for example, the copy of the Pyongyang Times that I received on the plane should not be folded in half as it would create a crease on the leader’s face.
The newspaper we were given on the plane were given to us flat, so when it came to putting the paper away, the only way to get around this was to fold the paper in thirds. Pretty easy solution, except when I went to read the inside pages, I had severely creased all the other photos of the “great leaders” on those pages…which upon viewing, the person sitting next to me joked “We’ll see you again in about 10 years when you’re released…” Sometimes, there is just no way out.
Also, another great piece of info to pass on: throwing a newspaper away with the photo of one of the great leaders on the cover is disrespectful as well…so I suppose you will forever see me holding a “folded-in-thirds” Pyongyang Times from here on out.
One person said upon hearing this: “where the heck do they put all the old papers if they can’t throw them away?!?” Good question.
So as I look out onto Pyongyang, I wish for some solitary music, something to catch the spirit of this place. I come up empty. Rather, I can imagine a deep, somber beat of footsteps trudging onwards playing in my mind…music to represent the worry about the life their children may have: uneasiness, with little opportunity for expression. Perhaps it is this silence that I am hearing. Silence like this tends to make men and women fight to create a better tomorrow…although I expect if I mentioned this to one of our guides, they would say “Of course, that is what happened on June 25th, 1950 and we achieve this goal.”
While I have had very little time to get a feel for the DPRK, it does not take a sociologist to understand that there is a chasm between “us” and “them”. A very stoic society, and with all this deification of their Dear Leaders blazing from almost every building and being pushed onto the local population…can they even grasp what “the real world” is like?
With the rain coming down as we came in, I did not see many people out and about, so the quiet, greying weather perfectly matched my expectations on what I would see in Pyongyang. A dull, grey machine that does not have any noticeable human parts. Not to be trivial, but the DPRK does not have the best PR in the States. Whether my feelings will change after a week, who knows? It will be fun to see how I picture this place after a few days, and hopefully the weather will pick up.
As for our hotel, it is actually pretty brilliant. Fills every expectation of a pre-80s Soviet/Communist Hotel: dated, but solid and with a little bit of intrigue. We are staying on Yanggak Island at the Yanggakdo Hotel, also know as the Alcatraz of Fun (via the Lonely Planet guide-book) as foreigners are allowed free rein on the island, just don’t think of leaving the island on your own. Hotel California may be a better name.
Ryugyong Hotel – Still Under Construction
It would have been great to have had the opportunity to stay at the above pictured monstrous Ryugyong Hotel, which pretty much dominates the Pyongyang skyline (the largest building), yet after 36 years since construction began, it is still unfinished. I believe that falls into the category of “white elephant.” It does serve as an example of how the fall of the USSR hit the DPRK hard, crippling its economy and stopping all major construction. Not sure what its future will be, but there are still discussions of the Ryugyong becoming perhaps another ‘Hotel California’, an enclosed enclave for foreign guests.
As for now, I sit at my Yanggakdo Hotel window very tired and smugly admiring my Canon 70-200mm lens. I say “smugly” because technically it is illegal to bring a 200mm lens into the DPRK…nothing like being a little bit of a rebel. Although, truth be told, the worst that could have happened is they would have taken the lens and held it until I exited the country, and I brought the lens specifically as I heard that DPRK customs have been flexible with foreigners bringing in a 200mm lens (I am not that brave, especially with my camera equipment).
As one of my good friends told me: “taking your 200mm lens that is technically illegal to bring into the DPRK…yeah, I can see this is going to be an eventful trip for you…” My final shots of the first day:
Looking west of the Taedong River (right hand side), you have the Juche Tower in its nighttime glory (along with the lights of the Workers Monument and May Day Stadium).
Looking east of the Taedong River (left hand side), you have the Folklore Museum, Kim Il Sung Square, Mansudae Theater and Pyongyang Pavilion and department store.
I would like to imagine that in those well-lit areas of the night, the streets are teeming with people strolling, kids playing and lovers dreaming…but the silence I hear outside makes this thought far-fetched. So the symphony I wish to compose will just lay in my head, waiting for another day. I heard there is karaoke, a casino and bowling alley in the basement of the hotel, so I just may head there instead…
- Cheeseburger in Paradise Island (economist.com)
- “Immortal Feats for DPRK-China Friendship” (vtncankor.wordpress.com)
- Springtime in Pyongyang, North Korea (americaninnorthkorea.com)
“I’m Back in the DPRK…You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are”
Posted on June 6, 2013
All apologies to Lennon-McCartney for borrowing their line…great song.
For my last post before I head off to the DPRK. To keep consistent with my latest post on the Golden Hour of photography, I have put the below shot as a send off. With this photo, I need to give thanks to our the men & women in uniform who ensure our liberties and freedoms ring strong and true. Thanks for making all this so.
See you at the end of June.
The Golden Bewitching Hour of Photography
Posted on June 5, 2013
In my previous post on the ‘Blue Hour’, I insinuated shooting the blue hour provided more of a challenge to achieve a great exposure than one could get in the golden hour. Quite a few people disagreed with me, with the complaint that shooting into the sun (and handling the glare of the sun) was much more difficult to manage.
Granted, these two aspects of shooting a sunset can be difficult, but my point was that if you are shooting the sun, it is your only subject. There are no other distractions to worry about, and if you are not incorporating the sun into your shot, you have the greatest light in the world to work with. Conversely, with a lack of light and quickly changing shadows on your subject during the blue hour, the photographer needs to juggle more variables and therefore an inherently more difficult task.
However, I do agree with the difficulty of shooting into the sun, as I love the flare of her rays; a testament to the original beauty and variability of every singe sunrise/sunset. Some examples:
- You can capture a great set of Sun rays, while also highlighting the beauty of the land at the time of dusk.
- You can capture a great silhouette of the beauty of the outdoors and outdoor activities.
- You can capture the glow of the warm light on a number of beautiful things: landscape, cityscape, people and even wildlife.
- Unfortunately, you can also capture a bunch of lens flares and blown highlights, as seen below that can disappoint…
The great thing I love about the disappointment of seeing lens flares is that while I know most stock agencies and companies would refuse such a photo…I still find the photos themselves pretty awesome to view. Not to say flares are bad, because if you can get it right in a photo – nirvana. And while I may be disappointed in the result of the flare, I do learn from my mistakes and slowly these errors become fewer (or, I am just blocking them out…).
But for me, the Golden Hour is a time of pure adrenaline because weather permitting, it produces a precious light handed down from the Gods, and that makes it hard not to take a good shot. Therefore, I do stand beside my belief that the Golden Hour sunrise and sunset is the easier environment of the two “magic hours” to photograph. As for a choice between sunrise and sunset, as there is nothing more difficult for me that the pre-dawn battle of crawling out of bed: sunset wins.
One thing I have not yet mentioned in either my Blue Hour post or this Golden Hour post is inspiration. The bewitching hours of photography are perhaps the most inspirational time any artist will always have at their disposal.
Whether you are a writer, musician, poet, painter, photographer or simply enjoy the skills of other artists (which is where I fit in), the golden hour is the time of the day that excites the soul. The lighting is special: slightly cool in the morning but with a glow that you can carry into the day…and in the evening, you can wrap yourself up in the warm light and its creativity. Inspiration.
Speaking of inspiration, to all the bloggers out there that share your great ideas. You all spark the creative fire in others. From a post back in February from Yinyin in Vietnam (http://yinyin2412.wordpress.com/), I caught sight of a nice photo on her site of the sun breaking the horizon…with a great caption of “the scent of sunshine” which I loved.
“Scent of the Sun” is a perfect description, especially for a sunrise. I think every artist has a feel for the sun, besides just making the body feel good (and giving us vitamin D), the sun can open a corridor between our soul and the outside world.
So, to loop back to the beginning of this post: Blue Hour is the most difficult to photograph and is part of the reason why I like it so much: if you get it right – it can be amazing. However, when I was looking at what photos to add to this blog…I could not believe the number of Golden Hour shots I had to choose from in my collection. Viewing photos on the internet or in magazines and you will find that sunset shots not only dominate – but almost all of them are terrific shots.
My feeling is therefore, the Golden Hour is like the golden child…everyone loves her, for she is beautiful, intelligent and can do no wrong. The Blue Hour is the less appealing little brother who pales in comparison to the more famous golden child. Personally, for me growing up the only brother in a sea of three sisters, I think I can rationalize my admiration for the Blue Hour as I relate to its “unfair situation.” 🙂
Photography, and to a certain extent my writing, has been my artistic release, but perhaps my calling is more towards admiring the work of others.
A couple of weeks ago over lunch, a friend was planning to go to Lamma Island to shoot the sunset, and asked for advice. While I told him I am not the right one to be asking, there are three general pieces of advice I can give (or rather pass on from what I have learned):
- Bring a tripod, and shoot off the tripod for sharp and crisp shots.
- Vary the focal lengths of your shots.
- Wide-angle lens for landscape (as you can tell, I like to incorporate the sun with this lens although lens flare issue are huge).
- A zoom lens (200mm or more) the more traditional approach if you want to feature the Sun in your shots (tripod is often necessary).
- Experiment with Exposure
- Fast shutter speeds for silhouette shots (facing the sun)
- Slower shutter speeds for detail (focus on the warm light, not the sun)
- Bracket your shots and incorporate HDR techniques
And then the best advice I gave him was to go and checkout the work of others on the Internet. Check out what the professionals do, and then try to dissect how they achieved their shot.
For me, the big three: John Shaw, Darrell Gulin and Adam Jones. And then, from my time in San Miguel de Allende (https://dalocollis.com/2013/05/25/a-holy-time-in-san-miguel-de-allende/), Raul Touzon is one of the more creative users of light in photography that I have seen.
One thing that I have picked up from Shaw and Jones, is that the details in landscape and the nuances with how light works in those compact areas require a zoom or longer lens. In the past, rarely did I ever pull out my zoom lens (200mm), instead I shot with my wide-angle or mid-zoom lens. It was through looking at their work where I really learned the value in pulling out my longer lens for landscape and sunset shots.
I figure we will all continue to evolve, as photographers. New equipment and ideas will ensure this happens, but also every time we go out we see & learn something new.
The idea to capture as much of the beauty I saw in front of me, often led me to pull out my wide-angle, to bring it all in…but instead at times I would miss out on the wonderful nuances of her beauty that are even more stunning. Be flexible and creative in these hours, and go for the original shot.
FYI: For the next 3+ weeks, I will be in Northern China and the DPRK and will not have access to the Internet. So see you at the end of June.
- Golden Hour Photography (goldenhourphotographysite.wordpress.com)
- The Golden Hour (k67winn.wordpress.com)
- Great light comes early, or late. (theshutterstories.wordpress.com)
- The Bewitching Hours of Photography: The Blue Hour (dalocollis.com)
- Golden Hours (thewatergipsy.wordpress.com)
The Bewitching Hours of Photography: The Blue Hour
Posted on June 3, 2013
Through ‘bending of light’, an artist is able to create unique, emotional and stunning photographs. Unfortunately, light also is the most destructive force as well, as I have an endless supply of photographs with blown-out highlights or underexposed noise (aways sad news after a shoot, but good to learn from those mistakes). I have learned that while the scene may look beautiful, if the lighting is flat and harsh, it is more difficult (if not impossible) for the camera to capture all the beauty we see.
Light is the piece of magic that fuels photography, and there is no better time to ‘bend the light’ to your imagination than the bewitching hours of photography:
- The golden hour (roughly the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset)
- The blue hour (the hour before dawn and after sunset).
During these hours, the creativity of the artist is allowed to flourish as the lighting provides a window of opportunities…the artist is allowed to dream, and if everything flows together the results can be spectacular.
The blue hour is the topic today, mainly because I found out that historically the ‘blue hour’ meant the time between 3:00pm and 6:00pm where the pubs in England, Wales and Scotland by law had to close their doors. Very sad for photographers, as in the summer those are the hours when light is often at its worst (harsh and flat), and to enjoy some spirits during that time would help the creative process prior to the magical shooting hours…
Why I am attracted to ‘dawn and dusk’ is simple: great blue hour lighting is rarer than great golden hour lighting. The photographer needs to pay more attention to both exposure and the subject at this time, more than at any other time during the day. A great sunset alone is worth a photo without regard for any specific subject other than the light. However, once you get into the blue hour, having a nice subject to help accentuate the wonderful light is needed.
The above shot at MaWan is perhaps 15 minutes after the official ‘Blue Hour’ but the glow of dusk to the right made this an interesting shot, so sometimes it is worth while shooting deeper into twilight.
Another reason I enjoy the blue hour so much, is from an explanation I received about the electricity of dawn from a photographer in Hokkaido, Japan. She poetically said: “Dawn is the time where the air is freshest and the electricity of all our dreams we had during the night are there for us to see, like frost resting on the trees along the Setsari River (Tsurui, Hokkaido). And it is at dawn when our dreams sparkle in hope that today will be the day when the dreamer claims them…instead of once again being tossed aside. This makes the moment before dawn so special.”
As a photographer, we have the opportunity to shoot and record such scenes…to keep the dreams alive. I also really liked her description, kind of a reminder that each day is a time to start anew, to look beyond at what the day can and will be. The above shot was taken in the fleeting moments of dawn with the sun ready to breakout in the bitterly cold, grey morning on the Setsari River with red-crowned cranes.
The blue “hour” is a bit of a myth, as the length of time varies greatly, but on average there is about 30+ minutes of great shooting. The website: http://www.bluehoursite.com is an excellent tool to use for planning your shoot. Once you have your time worked out, then choose an area that has interesting subjects: landscapes and cityscapes work well and also think creatively with some soft light for portraits shots; a bit more difficult due to slower shutter speeds but results can be interesting.
The fisherman shot above was f/4, and hand-held. Jacked up the ISO a bit and shot wide-open, but overall the results turned out OK.
Probably a good idea to also think ahead about “How to Shoot Blue Hour”, a worthwhile topic and I have been fortunate to shoot with other photographers who like to pass their wisdom on to others. The piece of advice I have always received: checkout the landscape, the time of year and weather because each day the available light will be different and so your exposures and shooting plans may change.
With limited lighting, it is important to determine how the slower shutter speed is going to affect the shot. Camera shake is the first issue, so a tripod is needed. If there is any motion in the scene, then take into account that there will be blurring and then try to make that an interesting part of the shot.
For the Blue Hour, generally I shoot at f/11 or higher as I want that great depth of field and detail, and by stopping down I am better able to achieve that ‘starburst’ quality with distant lights that can create just a little more intrigue within the shot. However, it can also be fun to shoot wide open, especially with great foreground activity, and being wide-open gives greater stability and allows you better opportunities to hand-hold your shots.
Getting the exposure correct during Blue Hour is a bit more complicated as well, so fire some quick shots and check your histogram. For Blue Hour, I use both spot and center-weight metering, depending on the shot, and will meter off the darkest point of my composition that I want to bring out. Checking the histogram (even if you bracket, which I often do), should result in technically better photos.
If I am shooting any landscape, I bracketed my shots (3-7 depending on lighting conditions), so I have the option of layering my photos in Adobe or run my files through the HDR program Photomatix, which captures the details of the shadows without blowing out those bright points of lights that make the scene so attractive.
For choice of lens, it is a personal preference but a fast wide-angle lens is one I use predominately, both to capture the “total essence and ambiance” of the scene…and when the camera is off my tripod, a quicker lens allows me to shoot crisper shots during the light-deprived Blue Hour, such as the above shot of a ferry, on a ferry heading to Hood Canal.
Blue Hour shooting is fantastic, as it also serves as a good warm up to shooting a sunrise and a warm down from shooting a sunset. Either way, you are going to learn a lot more about both photography and the area around you. Creative lighting situation always can be little challenging (I have walked away from many shoots with nothing to show), but there is always something new and interesting to gain.
- Capturing Fall Colors (shutterfly.com)
- Blue Hour (efratadenny.com)
Of All the Tea in China, One Place Rules…
Posted on May 29, 2013
The sweat of migrant workers is essential to bring the famous West Lake Dragon-Well Tea (西湖龙井茶) to tea mugs around the world. It is in the village of Meijiawu, the heart of Longjing tea production, where the workers proudly offer us these roasted green tea leaves, and do so with smiles on their faces and laughter in their hearts.
Today, as I sit back and watch the dancing tea leaves swirl in rhythm with the spring water in my mug, my mind drifts back to the hills surrounding a village outside of Hangzhou city, the origin of the green tea I am enjoying. This tea is commonly known as Longjing tea, the most famous green tea in China and therefore, I believe, the most famous in the world: a true delicacy among tea connoisseurs.
The West Lake Longjing green tea I am now enjoying is special: one of the first lots of Longjing tea picked in the West Lake area this year, and with only 168 square kilometers making up the West Lake Longjing tea area there is a limited supply. Through a farmer (Mr. Yang) in the village of Meijiawu (梅家坞), I was able to explore and experience this region for a few days and accompany a group of migrant workers into the hills. Every morning, after a breakfast of steamed buns and pickled vegetables, we would make our way into the hills and pick the highest quality tea leaves available (or in my case, just photographing the picking…a much easier task!).
For me, this trip was completion of a decade long dream and one I almost failed to make as both exhaustion of travel and travel delays left me stranded elsewhere. The small harvest window for these special tea leaves (perhaps a week or so depending on the weather), made getting to Meijiawu a priority and I ended up putting together a 48-hour trek to arrive in time.
Arrival at my room at Mr. Yang’s guesthouse was pleasant enough, a place to lay down and hot water is all I need, but one surprise my first night was that Mrs. Yang was also hosting a small group of Shanghainese women for the night… and there was only a paper-thin wall separating me from a very energetic mahjong game that went strong until 3am. The ladies were very polite and hoped that I would play, but I have had many expensive mahjong lessons in China, so while it is a beautiful game, it is best to stay away from the pros!
The long night did make the 5 a.m. start a bit difficult, but the hilarious and upbeat group of peasant ladies that took me in during my time there made the mornings wonderful. One of the women, Ms. Li, provided many of the details: they were all from the same town in Anhui and have an annual contract with Mr. Yang. Every year they return to work his fields for they admire his tea (they describe it as more beautiful than the rest) and since his tea is known to be one of the best, it gives them face as well as better pay. Laughter did erupt after this explanation, as the other ladies joked “she put pay last, but actually it is our first reason!”
I have found that the migrant tea leaf pickers come to Meijiawu and the surrounding area for about one month for the tea harvest season, generally Mid-March thru Mid-April. And as in the States, when harvest season arrives all available sunlight means time in the fields. The premium tea is picked the first week, followed by later picks (and lesser quality tea leaves).
The first evening I arrived, I took a long walk up through the hills to check out the area so I could have an idea of what to shoot, with some apprehension on how open the workers would be with me photographing them. As some of the workers were preparing to return home I politely asked them if I could take a few photos of them, expecting a shake of the head or wave of the hand…but was met with laughter and teasing among the women about their future stardom. Every group I talked with enjoyed discussing their work, explaining their ideas about tea and their history in harvesting the famous Longjing. Seamlessly, photography would work into our discussions and, without a pause, the words would continue to flow as the shutter started clicking. Extreme pride in their work and their role in the industry.
The group of ladies from Anhui on my first morning were no different. After our morning introduction at breakfast there was endless joking and laughter with not too many hints of shyness or discomfort that many migrant workers have. It surprised me. Perhaps this is linked to the knowledge that:
1. They are here for only a month, and while the work is hard, they are all here with a family member or friend from their home town.
2. They know their contribution to this fascinating niche of the 龙井茶 tea industry is invaluable… A billion RMB industry annually, and without experienced migrant workers – the local plantation owners could not efficiently harvest more than a fraction of what they do now.
The spirit of these women is absolutely inspiring. The commitment to their work and the harvest reminds me of the farmers in Eastern Oregon, breaking their backs to make a living and provide for the rest of the country (and world). Being reflective and considering my work and salary (quite a bit higher than these great ladies), and I am not just humbled, but a little embarrassed… especially when after a couple hours of shooting the first small plot of land, I excused myself to go back to the guesthouse to get a few more zzzzzz’s.
Above photo: preparing the leaves prior to roasting (Longjing tea does not “ferment” as other types of teas such as Oolong, Black Tea and Pu’er).
Above photo: roasting of the tea leaves is done after picking, and while there are electronic roasters most of the high quality tea leaves are done by hand.
Above photo: sorting after roasting is an important step, making sure that only the top quality leaves are kept especially since the tea culture in China is so advanced that buyers (large tea companies or individuals) will look at the leaves presented in front of them and immediately be able to tell the quality. This makes presentation of the tea outside individual stores important as well (below photo).
There is always something special about drinking or eating a product fresh from the source, at the source. A Guinness at St. James Gate outside of Dublin, fresh oysters or salmon while sitting along side the shore on Hood Canal in the Puget Sound, or sitting in the fresh air with a glass of fresh 龙井茶 (LongJing tea) brewed with local spring water…nothing, it seems, could ever taste better.
One of the first lessons anyone will ever learn about drinking tea: water quality can be just as important as the tea itself. This is why, as it was explained to me, that almost 400 years ago, Longjing tea was declared an Imperial Tea for its exquisite flavor and appearance, and because it was brewed with the sweet Meijiawu spring water, it became historic. It is great to see how much pride there is with the locals and their tea.
Over my first cup of this year’s harvest, Mr. Yang made clear that from the tea pickers to the roasting and sorting (which him and his wife control), there is a pride knowing they are contributing to a very ancient and important craft that remains vibrant both culturally and economically in China. Along with this cultural significance, he added, the long friendships and camaraderie that is created and shared every season makes this a wonderful life. Pretty cool.
The final day ended on a fun note. As we were returning to the house, we ran into a good friend of the ladies who for the past three days was too shy to have her photo taken…but finally through the determination of the team we got the shot. I told them I would e-mail them a copy of the photo, and Ms. Li said “no, we have decided that you must also come next year and you give us all a copy of your photos…and this time, you will actually pick your own tea leaves” which ended up in laughter as we learned earlier in the day that my tea leaf picking skills are atrocious.
The immediate impact this trip has had on me is pretty obvious, and that is I have a huge affair going on with my Longjing tea right now. Granted, nothing will replace that first cup of coffee in the morning (the influence of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest), but recently putting a couple healthy pinches of those roasted tea leaves into my mug after lunch has been invigorating. Endlessly refilling my tea mug throughout the afternoon, as Longjing tea holds its flavor for a very long time, I not only get to enjoy the dancing tea leaves but I also get to reminisce about the wonderful journey of my tea from the hills of Meijiawu to my glass.
- What’s in your green tea? (mcphsnaturalproducts.wordpress.com)
- Why America Loves Tea (wellnessenreprenuer.wordpress.com)
- The most common varieties of green tea (chineseteaing.wordpress.com)
- Geochemical Study of the Growth Environment of Longjing (dragon Well) Tea (teahealthstudies.org)
A Holy Time in San Miguel de Allende
Posted on May 25, 2013
There are angels who walk on Earth, and they can be found in the sleepy town of San Miguel de Allende of the central Mexican state of Guanajuato…which I suppose is not so sleepy any more, as it has become an art & culture center for much of Central Mexico. The people of San Miguel de Allende have become well-known for their great artistic skill as well as their incredible hospitality. From my experience of Holy Week, the city and festival is a perfect testament to the brilliance of the people, creating not just a fascinating city, but a home. Perhaps not a physical home for those just visiting, but definitely a home for the heart.
In early spring, to celebrate and honor the Holy Week of Easter, the town comes alive with pageants and processions that express the passion of the local people and their religion. There is not a better time to understand the local culture and gain new experiences and memories of new friends sharing a day. Throughout the week, I had often been told “this is a city where at dawn the city is full of strangers yet at sunset full of friends.”
While the city and area has much to offer, being there during the Holy Week festivities created an atmosphere perfect for photography and contemplation. Of the many different processions of Holy Week, the San Juan Dios Procession was my favorite as I was there with a group of photographers and it was a great opportunity to lose myself in shooting…to focus on the scene, people and the lighting so I could extract the emotions of the day. It was made easier by the continual warm reception we received by the local population and the participants of the day’s procession.
When it comes to shooting a moment like the SJD Procession, there is always a fear that the presence of a camera could create some tension and take away from the day, the reason being is pretty simple: photographers, at times, can generally be viewed as a disruptive bunch when they do not take into account their surroundings and only shoot for themselves. Fortunately, such fears vanished quickly as I was stunned at the opportunities to shoot people in a relaxed, natural state…there are not too many places in the world where that is possible. It seemed all photographers were keenly aware that this event was for the community, and took a back seat to the events.
One of the main reasons of the relaxed nature of SJD Procession was the number of children with their parents and friends, all smiling and accepting the day for what is was: a celebration. Even as I started the day with the intention of focusing fully on my photography, I could not help but become removed from my role as a photographer and instead dive into my role as a participant. The reception, as is often the case with warm cultures, astounded me as all of my subjects had a smile to share and a helpfulness that creates a mood where we are all one big family.
As I sat down to watch the procession with my camera in hand, protecting my prime shooting position I had claimed, a group of young children from across the street with whom I had joked around with earlier in the morning, motioned me over to come sit with them. I do admit that my immediate concern of photography and leaving this prime location almost caused me to shake them off, but it was only for an instant and I quickly jumped over to the other side of the street instead and sat on the curb with my new friends.
A big thanks to Araceli Moreno Bustamente and Josefina A. Hernandez, whose children and friends sat me down and immersed me into the festivities, culture and their celebration…even if just for a brief period of time. It was such a great time laughing with them, trying to translate words/expressions with my poor Spanish (which was the endless cause of laughter with the kids), and the beauty was simply watching this large family interact so effortlessly and take in all the day offered.
The SJD Procession was definitely the highlight of the trip, perhaps not so much for the photography as it was for just ‘being there’. Culturally, I felt very much a part of the procession, which I did not think was possible. If there was another moment where similar feelings were created, it had to be the evening of Good Friday when the ceremony of Via Dolorosa and the Procession of the Holy Burial took place. While this procession was much more solemn, it also contained more intense emotions. The timing of this procession was perfect, just getting underway as dusk began to darken the town, setting the scene perfectly. Starting at dusk, as photographers, we have the great challenge of shooting with limited light even though by now I had learned that photography definitely takes a back seat to all the emotions and pageantry that the participants bring and share. This procession did not disappoint as the participants engulfed us all to become part of the somber celebration.
To have such waves of emotions around you with a camera in your hand, is the golden time to create ambiance within your photographs, such that you can be transported back into the scene again and again. I suppose that is the beauty of photography, it allows you to contemplate life while previewing the current scene and selecting the piece of life you wish to “immortalize” in your shot. As you later go back and review the shot, be it days or years later, you again contemplate your mood and the scene… an experience we have all had with photography. The ambiance within the photo you created also gives the opportunity for others to view the scene, contemplate and perhaps create their own story and mood. Ideally the photo sparks a thought that blooms within the mind of others and the creativity of the shot continues. For photographers do not shoot photos just to shoot, they shoot photos to be experienced…
For this incredible ride that Holy Week and San Miguel de Allende provided, I have to give a big thanks to go to my sister who made it possible. The early morning coffees, discussions of photography and most important enjoying the food and margaritas after a day of a long shooting made it a great week. A cerveza or two during our breaks in shooting with the locals didn’t hurt much either! At the end of October every year, there is also the annual “Day of the Dead” festival in San Miguel de Allende, and I hope to travel back to this wonderful land a create another week or so of magic.
An important note to add: the experiences of Holy Week were made possible by an incredible number of people, and specifically through Raul Touzon, an absolute master of light and thus a master of photography. His work can be found on http://touzonphoto.com/ . My photography improved greatly through watching him work and perhaps more by viewing his work. Even today, when I receive his newsletter and see his latest work, I notice how he “bends light” to suit his needs…and I learn a little more. Inspirational.
The internet has been a blessing for all photographers, as there is such a great mountain of superb photographic work out there, it can do nothing but inspire me to push the envelope even more and improve.
The Mighty Egyptians
Posted on May 4, 2013
There are few places on earth where I feel like I have slipped into a mythical time period, and Egypt is one. The ancient Egyptians were geniuses, creating some of the greatest marvels of the world. During my visits, the historical sites were never-ending and always impressive, but what intrigued me most were the people. Incredibly insightful, and very willing to discuss life, politics and cultural issues over tea. The openness of the people was surprising, and enjoyed talking with them more than I enjoyed the tourist sites (don’t get me wrong, the sites are truly incredible achievements). Over tea, we could delve into these discussions of politics, history and philosophy, all of which added to the flavor of country and its culture. The one consistent trait that seeped into every conversation I had with my Egyptian friends, was their great pride in their country and their astute eye to Egypt’s problems. The pride is deservedly so with their rich history, and the criticism mirroring their frustration in seeing their country fall from once a great empire to one rife with political struggles and a growing lack of opportunities for their population. True patriots.
Cairo still fosters great philosophers and ideas, but outside the large city the educational infrastructure is in tatters. An educational system in tatters does not bode well for the future, and Egyptians understand this yet are paralyzed with the current changes within their country. Egypt is a country rich in tradition, from the Bedouin to the arts and sciences, and more than one Egyptian believed that it is this same rich history that has the power to pull the country apart at the seams.
“What is our next step as a country?” was the frequent question, and then as if to acknowledge the futility of an easy answer, they would ask my thoughts about the last historical site we visited. While I did enjoy the smaller villages and great historical sites with Karnak and the Nile Valley perhaps being the highlight of the trip for me, nothing came close to the relationships (however short they were) developed with the people, our guides and security team that accompanied us. Cairo has always fascinated me, and will always remain a city where I would like to spend more time even though I doubt that could ever be possible. When mentioning to my Cairo friends that we were going to the Sinai Peninsula, they immediately told me to take time for an early morning hike up Mount Horeb, (also known as Mt. Sinai). The hike is about 7,500ft. change in elevation, and roughly a 2.5 hour climb starting at around 3:30am to ensure arrival at the summit prior to the sunrise. One friend, Ain, stressed that at sunrise we would be able to feel the history of a great Egypt and with the morning energy it would then be possible to successfully head into the future and one day return the promise to return to Egypt in glory.
The words were prophetic, as we made it to the summit prior to dawn, ate a small and simple breakfast and as a few more hikers arrived, together we witnessed a beautiful sunrise. Among strangers, we all shared that great moment and I wondered just when I would make my return in glory to this great land of Egypt…
As the hikers began to leave, I started prepping for the trek down when one of our guides and a security agent told us (3 other Americans in the group) that we could stay awhile, and they would prepare a smoke on the hookah so we could enjoy the serenity and talk for a while before heading back down. I realized why I have enjoyed travel: rooted in most cultures is a desire to learn. Sitting down to share ideas, be it over tea, coffee or a smoke. Ideas that may be contradictory to the other, but nonetheless concepts that are shared. Looking around at the peaceful surrounding, I thought it pretty cool to have the top of the mountain secluded for another great learning experience.
The current strife and chaos within the Egyptian political system is very disheartening, especially as many Egyptians understand the country needs to be engaged with the west and the US. While I have yet to make it back to Egypt, there is much to share, learn and grow between us. More conversations over tea, coffee and smokes are needed to bring greater understanding and peace. Wish my Egyptian friends the very best.
Power of Nature and Change
Posted on May 1, 2013
I hadn’t planned on writing another blog entry on Cambodia, but then it is a good excuse to show some of the more iconic shots of the power of nature at Ta Prohm and discuss the inevitable change around us. Of all the photos I have seen of Cambodia, these tend to be the most common: nature coming in to continue the cycle of change…to return everything back to its source.
Change is a challenge nature throws our way, and how we reconcile change within our lives makes us who we are. Today’s world has undergone a paradigm shift in terms of how technology has removed us further from the physical world. A change that has many people struggling to understand what lies ahead. Where in the past we had a better understanding and thus security, today we float through ethernet cables from quarks to parallel universes. Yet fear not.
This is the beauty of evolution. When we understand that change is the only constant there is in our lives, it makes it easier to recognize our own purpose and meaning. We either adapt or struggle (e.g. blaming politics & the world until our last breath). At times, I have been terrified of change and struggled until realizing that change brings experience to life and, in essence, brings out a hero quality we all have inside.
This is perhaps why I find Ta Prohm so fascinating. Mother Earth has taught us: change & evolution is inevitable and in the future more great monuments may become covered in brush & vine as society decides to moves on.
The Hall of the Dancers at Ta Prohm intrigued me the most, mainly because some locals were filling me in on its history and I walked away knowing that it is futile to fight change. Understand change, embrace its inevitability and continue to move forward and add value to our lives and to those around us.
The 16th verse of Laozi addresses this well:
Empty your mind and heart and be at peace, while around you is turmoil: endings become beginnings and beginnings will end. Everything flourishes and everything ends, it is what it is: the cycle of life. If you do not understand your source and nature, you will stumble and life will stagnate.
Understand your source and you can fulfill your destiny. Be tolerant among change and you can deal with all life brings your way until you are ready for the cycle to begin again.
My simple take on this verse: By allowing yourself to accept change, you to return to your source (your nature) where you are able to begin to understand how your world really works. With this understanding, you are ready for all life can offer…thus will accept the end.
Cambodia: Beauty of Angkor Wat
Posted on April 29, 2013
Angkor Wat is famous for a very good reason: it is stunning in its beauty as well as its mystery. The largest religious temple (Hindu) ever built almost a millennium ago and hidden from all until just recently. While photo opportunities lie everywhere, the ambiance of this vast piece of art is felt only by wandering through its amazing halls and structures.
While there is a peacefulness that surrounds the area, I cannot help but wonder about all the strife and tragedy that has occurred over the past thousand years…taking what was once a mecca of Khmer life and while never fully abandoned, fell silent as the forces of nature took over as regional politics and war ebbed and flowed.
In the jungle north of Angkor is one of my favorite spots, the Preah Khan temple, and unlike Angkor Wat, it has remained in ruins as there has been very little (if any) restoration. However, the lack of restoration actually creates more electricity for me. The temple is full of sacred images of Khmer women protecting the temple with their auspicious presence and as I sat down with my lunch (the fried cakes shown a couple posts earlier), I contemplate how vivid life must have been almost 1,000 years ago.
I admit to a certain naiveté, wishing that I could have been an explorer back in those days, understanding that it was a very hard life, for sure, but I imagine the unexpected delight that around every corner was possibly a new & vibrant culture to be experienced would have been worth the struggle.
My advice to any and all people can be best expressed by an article Jeff Goins wrote, I think it should be required reading for all: http://goinswriter.com/travel-young/
Cambodia: Morning at Bayon…
Posted on April 27, 2013
The first morning light brings with it the promise of a new day, and with it new dreams.
Morning can be difficult to claw yourself out of bed, especially pre-dawn. However, once your up and feel the anticipation of the day and the peacefulness that surrounds, there is not a better feeling. Bayon, outside of Phnom Penh was such an oasis. In the pre-dawn darkness, alone among ancient ruins, ruins that at the time were some of the greatest in the world, it was a blissful feeling.
Starting each day with dreams and hopes of happiness allows us at the end of the day to reflect on the beauty the morning brings to us. Reflections in photography are a powerful way to express an emotion of that time when you released the shutter. When what you felt can be reconciled with what you saw, and can then be shared with others.