The days were mostly spent packed in an old trusty 4x4 rolling through a bright, vast seemingly lifeless colored landscape. The sun is deceptive at 12,000 feet. Miss a spot with the spf and you'll burn, quick and easy. The nights were cold. I layered up to creep away from the bunks and out into the black. Turned my back to the light of the camp and walked a hundred, two hundred paces, then laid down on the rough salt to stare heavenward at the milky way striped across a glittering infinity.
There's a stop where they let us out for exploring. It's an intricate maze of red orange stone. It's a playground. The rock is dry and rough and grabs onto the soles of shoes. The narrow gullies like hallways are perfect for climbing. There is a kind of rabbit-like chinchilla, the vizcacha, that lives throughout this rugged land. For some unknown reason, I get it into my head to play a game of chase. Whooping with the excitement, I match it bound for bound, running up, down, leaping across. The joy of it flushes through me, as hands and feet grip and push. There it is, not two steps ahead of me, and my eyes widen trying to see every step the instant before I commit.
Xelaju, they said, is the old name of this city, many hundreds of years older than any of your own. The mountains rose on all sides, framing clear blue, sending cold air down to dance with the hot sun. I had coffee in the mornings. A jar of instant sat in the middle of the table. Where was the famed Guate coffee I've heard so much about? Yeah, my host mother told me, all of that is exported. It's so expensive here. This, she said, shaking the jar filled with brown lumps, is what everyone here drinks.
I traveled North past Huehue to Nebaj, an entryway to the Ixil people. From there I walked into mountainous countryside. These communities, this people, were caught in the charnal house between both armies during the Guatemalan Civil War and suffered greatly. I walked past a silent hillside cemetery with identical concrete markers. We don't know how many disappeared or what their names were, but here is where some from this village rest.
Faces of Lhasa, Tibet
Butter tea takes some getting used to. First off it's salty. Second, if you're a guest in someone's home, sitting at their table not having any words but thank you and shared smiles, then the tea is about half rancid yak butter. And your mug is bottomless. But, if you were, like I was, at a cafe, then it was about a third rancid yak butter. If you were sitting at breakfast with the children at the orphanage, it was less than a quarter. It is delicious regardless. It is cold unless the sun is on the streets. So, I sat for a while, sipping my tea, nibbling on white steamed buns, looking out the cafe window waiting for the day to brighten. I would start walking at the Jokhang. I always started my walks at the Jokhang. Round after round I would walk, exploring side streets, spinning wheels casually, wandering, but always, eventually, drifting back. Eyes exploring every corner, every exposed roof beam. I returned every smile, every wave, every furtive look. I would pause, struck by something, perhaps my shutter would click or perhaps not, and I would walk on, around and around, spinning slowly like prayer wheels, like time, like planets and moons, suns and galaxies, around the Jokhang.
Jatson Orphanage, Tibet
The students' days start early. Mornings were for tsampa and butter tea. Tsampa is a traditional Tibetan food, a mainstay, the staple of the plateau. Grab a bowl and a mug from the pile, and move along the line behind the kids. Call out your greeting to the kitchen crew. Receive your roasted barley flour and mug of tea. Sit down wherever there's space. I always sat with the kids. Dribble some of your tea into the flour and mix with your fingers. Look to the kids at your right and left for guidance. You'll want a consistency that feels dry, but still holds together. Show them your bowl, and hopefully you'll get a smile and a nod, if you get a frown, they'll probably help out, often their own fingers would land in my bowl mixing magic. Roll the dough into small bite-sized balls. Pop those one at a time mind you, into your mouth and chew. I never got to like Tsampa like I did the butter tea. But, once, and then several times afterwards, one of the kids ran up to me at breakfast wearing a slightly worried look. He held his hand over my bowl. He opened it and out rained another small miracle...sugar. My eyes widened. I looked into his face again, and it grew into a great big glorious smile.
Some afternoons, I would sit on the low wall while the students did their day. I remember when one of the younger girls came to sit next to me. I never heard her speak, not to me, not to anyone. But, that day she sat there and we watched the bustle of the afternoon pass us by. After a minute, she reached over and slid her hand in mine. On some of my harder days, I go back to that afternoon and check in on the goings-on at Jatson. Gratefully, we are sitting on that low wall still, hand in hand.
Tibet is mostly wide open, rocky, mountainous landscape. Prayer flags at the mountain passes were often the only evidence, besides the winding dirt road, of humanity. Then the towns and villages would appear in the distance, like oases in the desert. These were inevitably quiet places. Wind, I remember the wind. And the vastness. I remember how slow things seemed. I remember feeling that I could get lost in that calm. The hundreds of thoughts and dreams and hopes and fears, the crowded rush hour press, the busy, the stress, the due, the deadline, the shoulds and shouldn'ts all flapping around my mind like a murder of crows. I climbed out of the truck at 16,000 feet and walked over to the mass of prayer flags, and in a moment I understood what those flags meant. I reached inside my brain, inside my heart, felt for the thread and pulled, and pulled. Crow after crow came forth, endlessly. With gratitude, with tears, with joy and sorrow, I tied my colorful flags to the post, adding my stream flapping in the ceaseless wind.
The Swiss Alps
Spring in the Swiss Alps was a quiet affair during my wanderings. Mountain towns were half empty. The days were perfect blue with lofty white clouds. I wore sturdy boots and remembered to pack my gaiters. Trails were easy to find, but hard to follow. At times, I sank waist deep into snow, and looked for animal tracks to guide me along mountain routes past still boarded-up cabins. In the mornings before my treks, I would stop at the market in town and buy fresh baked bread and soft cheese. At lunch, I would slice into the crust with my pocket knife, spread the cheese, sit back and eat in the new grass with the breeze trickling down with the snow melt, taking in mountain views no photo could capture.
Memories of springs past
Into the woods
Getting the band back together
Country house detail
Always a good time for bubbles
The Silk Road - Western China
I headed west along China's Inner Mongolia. My course also paralleled the Great Wall of China. Built sporadically over more than 2000 years, the Great Wall remains a symbol, an idea, that inspires those bent on division, separation, a fictional us and an envious them. The vastness of the undertaking didn't really hit me until I had traveled 1000s of kilometers to its final end in Jiayuguan. This marks the edge of the empire that the Ming sought to protect. Beyond this wall was the unknown. Wide-open, dry, magnificent places. Sometimes frightening in their bleakness, the landscapes shifted from desert to seeming wasteland, from ancient crumbling ruin to nomad rest stops. In the far northwest, the Kanas Lake region, bordering Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia, is oft likened to the Swiss Alps with its tall pines and snow capped peaks. The Karakorum Mountains in the far west are steep, dark and mysterious, and beyond them lay the Pamirs and to the south, the Himalaya await. This place is the very definition of hardship. Yet I found so much beauty within it and the people who call it home.
Passageway in the Great Wall of China
Mountains on the Karakorum Highway 1
Mountains on the Karakorum Highway 2
Ger on the plain
Ger on the lake
Farm in northwest China
On the trail
Taking a nap on the foothills of the Karakorum
Where the mountain meets the desert
Sand dunes in Dunhuang
Morning in Dunhuang
Faces of The Silk Road
The silk road split when it entered modern day China, into an area long inhabited by a Turkic people called the Uyghur, to skirt the barren, shifting and often cold sand dunes of the Taklamakan desert. Today, there is still a diversity of peoples in this region. I spent my time with the Hui, Uyghur, Tajiks, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz. The northern route of the silk road, the summer route, can be traveled by train today, so its difficult to see the cities in their historical light - as oases, as symbols of hope and relief from the hardship and grit of the vast expanse of red sand. And yet still they remain symbols, as they hold onto a culture under siege. China has held this land as long as they have Tibet, but the Uyghur do not have a spokesperson like the Dalai Lama, and they are Muslim. Maybe that is the reason their plight is mostly ignored by the west. Regardless, I found nothing but warmth, kindness, and welcome on my journey. In my noodle bowls, I would often receive chunks of sheep fat, a coveted favorite. Come, a Tajik woman said as she waved me to her yurt, I am making tea.
The material world, this our physical world, is full of so many things, options, ideas and expressions of those ideas. Buddhism calls these distractions. The Tao labels them the 10000 things. The hours of the day are ensnared by one or many of the 10000, and we perhaps barely notice. China can feel full. Of people, of activity, of change. I crammed myself into rush hour trains in Shanghai. I joined the throngs surging through downtowns. Soon, I became drawn to the quieter moments. The soft. The still. In Beijing, I stayed in one of the city's few remaining hutongs, old quarters with winding maze-like narrow streets. I spent 5 days visiting the city-park tea houses in Chengdu, sitting for hours sipping tea, eating sunflower seeds and letting time slip gently by. I strolled. And I looked for the side of China that was unconcerned with the bustle. Here and there, patiently amidst the 10000 drummers, a cicada sang, a donkey brayed on a hillside, old friends clasped hands. I rode my bike on the gridded paths of rice fields and stopped at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. During the Moon Festival, I joined a gathering of family and friends in the countryside. The young ran around the yard, delighting in sparklers while the adults ate slowly, with many stories told across the table in the lamplight.
Buddha's hand polished by the faithful
Rice threshing wheel
Tea House. Chengdu, Sicuan
New Year's Show. -25C. Harbin, Heilongjiang
Prayer flag poles
Cityview through the ice
Weeding the cobbles
Rice. Yangshou, Guilin
Mud, straw, sticks and stones
There must be water
Crossing the sand
Walk around La Paz for a few minutes, fresh off the plane, and maybe you'll start getting some messages from your body. I got my first call from my lungs. The second from my brain. I half stumbled into a cafe near gasping, exhausted, and with my brain in a juicer. Coca tea, I remembered reading. Chocolate, I remembered too, or dreamed I remembered; sometimes its hard to tell the difference. I sat at a table against a far wall, tea pot brimming with boiled water and green. I nibbled and drank. When my pot was empty, I lifted the lid, remembering my lessons from Chinatown, wondering how things might work over here. Smoothly, without the need for words, my pot was filled, fresh water, fresh leaves, and sugar. She must have noticed that I neglected the sweet that, I quickly learned, is custom here. I smiled, feeling right at home.
I went to the Dominican Republic in 2009 as a translator for a friend and photojournalist investigating HIV/AIDS in Haitian migrant communities. For decades, Haitian migrant workers were brought in to work the cane fields. However, when the companies abandoned or moved their operations they also abandoned these workers and their families. These communities remained, unclaimed and unwanted by both nations.
We hiked up in the early morning dark, to get the best chance of a good view. The snow, the rain came on us as we ascended. The snow at Fitz Roy kept us huddled together as we sat leaning against a probably giant imposing rock pillar of which we could feel but barely see. The rain at the Torres chased away my friends and nearly all others who stumbled out of their tents at 4am. I sat next to a man who, when he arrived, promptly climbed into his sleeping bag and fell asleep. He said, "kick me if it looks like it might clear." At 8:30, three wet hours later, I kicked him. And as we hiked down Fitz, disappointed and cold, the sun came out and melted all the snow on our hats and jackets, we turned and declared, "Oh! Wouldya look at that."
Torres del Paine
Torres Del Paine Park
The Iguazú River flows over a plateau on its way to meet the Paraná River in northern Argentina and southern Brazil, creating Iguazú Falls. The falls are spread over 2.7 km, making this not one but a collection of nearly 300 waterfalls (depending on the season). The roar is impressive. Standing at the top of the Devil's Throat, where the river pours in on three sides, with wind and mist rushing up from the crush was exhilarating. The pathways get close enough to look down into the throat and imagine the violence going on under the white. There is a native myth of forbidden love associated with the falls, where a scorned god split the river while the lovers tried to cross dooming the pair to an eternal fall.
Demonstration Buenos Aires
Demonstration Buenos Aires 2
"...the wings of our dreams..."
First things first
Banff and Jasper
I drove through Yoho National Park on my way to Banff. Yoho is one of British Columbia's finest National Parks. However, the road that cut through this once stunning mountain forest passed through a graveyard. The mountain pine beetle. Native to the North American west. This beetle has been ravaging forests up and down the Rockies for the last 2 decades or more. When I say ravaging, I mean that pine forests are dead or dying across 10 US states and 2 Canadian provinces; I mean millions of trees are kaput. All because it got a little bit warmer and a little bit drier. This is what climate change looks like. Without the trees, the ecosystems that they are an integral part of are going to change. There'll be a new normal. When I went to the ranger station to fill out my camping permits, I asked about the forests I would see on my trip. Many areas in the parks, she told me, are dying or dead. We're doing everything we can to slow them down. The beetle is also moving east, she said. It's finding new species to breed in. Take a good long look, she said, because this place might not be the same when you come back.