Saturday, June 13, 2015

Climbing to Faith in Ethiopia

A footpath leads to the cliff-top church of Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.
Living in Kenya, and traveling throughout Africa, you tend to become accustomed to quoted prices for trips and excursions ballooning through a number of unstated, hidden costs. Guides are extra, sometimes you have to pay for fuel. Every trip is different, but normally you will be asked to pay more.

A scout working to help visitors up the sheer 20ft wall leading to the church known as Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, Ethiopia, extends his steady hand to aid in the climb. The church was founded in the 5th century, and was carved into a monolithic rock face 2,500ft above the valley floor by hand over 200 years.

So when I embarked on a day trip to the Gheralta Mountains in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, I expected to pay a bit above what was originally agreed. However, when my guide showed up and asked me to rent a climbing harness and ropes, I was surprised, as I had no idea I was about to embark on some real mountain excursion. This was not the type of extra cost I was expecting.

A covered window at the rock-hewn cliff-top church of Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.

I was headed to Abuna Yemata Guh, an Ethiopian Orthodox church buried in the Gheralta Mountains north of Mekele. It was said there was some climbing involved, but ropes and a harness imply more than just scrambling on rocks. As an avid rock climber myself, I wasn’t worried, just excited for the adventure to come. I was also surprised this little side trip wasn’t more promoted.

A young priest of just 24 years stands in the entry-way to the Abuna Yemata Guh church in Tigray, northern Ethiopia. The church was hand-carved into a monolithic rock spire 2,500 feet above the valley and is only accessible by scaling vertical walls and traversing 600 foot cliffs.

In most guide books, Abuna Yemata Guh, and the churches in northern Tigray, are just a paragraph. They are significantly less well known than the famous churches in Lalibela. In fact, the trip wasn’t even recommended to me, I had to go and ask the local travel agency for the details. Most people come and go through Mekele to visit the Danakil Depression. They usually start and end their trip in the city, spending bookend nights in the hotels before jetting back south. This is a mistake.

A holy book is held open by a priest inside the cliff church of Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.

The church of Abuna Yemata Guh, I found, is spectacular. It is located in the middle of a monolithic rock spire 2,500 feet above the desert in Tigray. But unlike normal buildings made of bricks and mortar, this church was hand-carved into the rock over the course of 200 years, starting in the 6th century. It is a church and at the same time a man-made cave. Its paintings and frescos are hundreds of years old, if not more than a thousand. And the climbing is real. After an hour-long hike across the desert and up to the base of the spire, there is a 20 foot vertical section of rock that must be scaled before crossing a ledge that features a rock wall on one side, and a 600 foot drop on the other. Shoes cannot be worn at the monastery, but foot and handholds are solid, having been worn deeply and smoothly into the rocks over more than 1,500 years.

A young priest stands in the doorway to the Abuna Yemata Guh church, perched roughly 2,500 feet above the ground. Began in the 5th century, it took 200 years to carve into the rack face by hand, and has served as a holy monastery for those following the Orthodox faith of Ethiopia.

Climbing to the church, it’s impossible to not feel a connection to the rest of humanity. This little church - the inside is not more than 30 feet long by 25 feet wide – has existed just like the rock from which it was painstakingly hewn. It has surpassed dynasties and wars, the formation of countries and the rise and fall of governments. By placing your feet into the holds in the rock, you are literally walking in the footsteps of 1,500 years of faithful history.

A young priest at the Abuna Yemata Guh church in northern Ethiopia looks out over the view from just below the entrance to the church carved 2,500 feet above the valley into a monolithic rock face.
Looking out on the spires of the Gheralta Mountains from the mouth of the church you have a first-hand view of the majesty that is this world. The passage of time, explicitly visible as sun and shadow play their daily game of cat-and-mouse, makes you feel both incredibly insignificant, but incredibly powerful. You understand that while your role in this world may not be large, you’re a part of it nonetheless, a part of this unending dance of magnificence, grandeur and splendor. While I’m not an overly religious person, I do understand how others would find God in this place.   

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Bees and Honeycare in the hills of Kitale, Kenya

Just because you're wearing a bee suit doesn't mean you're not going to get stung. This is the first fact that all people venturing into beekeeping should know. I wasn't so lucky. My realization that bees still penetrate the suit came with my first sting, a relatively alarming occurrence when you're embedded with a team of beekeepers performing maintenance on aggressive hives in the rural hills of Kenya in the pitch dark of night. 

"Um, guys," my shaky voice warbled, thinking the hundreds of bees swarming the outside of my face mask were suddenly about to swarm the inside of my face mask, "I'm getting stung."

Daniel, the senior beekeeper in this outfit looked up at me and said, "It's fine. I've already been stung about ten times." And then he went back to work brushing down the interiors of the hives he was tending. His calm demeanor didn't reassure me especially as I could feel the now harmless bee, his stinger embedded in my arm, still crawling around my sleeve.

But what was I to do? I had asked to come here. And these guys were professionals so they should definitely know. Both Daniel and Jacob, the other beekeeper diligently cleaning hives despite the pain of beestings, worked for an organization named Honeycare in Kenya. The group works to support local farmers that keep bees on their property. While the farmers own the hives, they don't tend to the bees themselves. This is the job of Honeycare. They travel throughout the countryside tending to the bees until, after about three months, the honey is ready to be harvested. They consolidate all the honey across Kenya and sell it to major grocery stores in the country.

I had arrived at my present situation in the darkness of Kitale via a five-hour matatu ride north from Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya. I didn't know what to expect and had no real knowledge of beekeeping prior to this. All had been set up through Kiva in Nairobi, who normally works to support the individual farmers in purchasing their bee boxes. Most of the hives you'll find in Kitale, and definitely all those I encountered, featured the four letters of the organization boldly on the side.

When I arrived, I was surprised to find that the workers only open the hives in the darkness, which isn't great for a photographer. Apparently the bees in the hives are aggressive, and may attack animals and people that happen to be in the area if the hives are opened. For this reason, they only work at night using flashlights. While I didn't know how this would affect my images, which was the purpose of my journey, I agreed to meet Daniel and Jacob at 6:30pm and as the sun set, we ventured by motorcycle into the hills of Kenya.

Kitale, although well behind the other main attractions of a country like Kenya, is absolutely beautiful. Despite being smack in the middle of the dry season, the rolling hills were still green and monstrous trees dotted the roadside. Off the main roads the beauty increased, as narrow but well-maintained pathways of red clay dirt were bordered by tall hedges and even taller trees. 

We arrived at the first set of hives to be opened just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, casting its last brilliant hues of orange over the Kenyan landscape. I was anxious to get a few photographs of Daniel and Jacob in their bee suits before complete darkness and this is when I recognized how surreal the situation was in which I found myself. Here we were, in the fading light of day, stood on a dirt road, all wearing bee suits that made us look more space invader than bee farmer, with motorcycles in the background. It reminded me of a scene from a horribly written science fiction film, but this was my reality at the moment.

As the final rays of light fell and the night enveloped us, we trudged into the woods, I with my camera and tripod, and Daniel and Jacob with their tools. I imagine working with bees at any point in time can be disorienting. As the boxes are opened they literally swarm and encompass every part of your body. The bee suits we were wearing were white and as I looked down through my mesh face mask I could see hundreds of tiny black dots scurrying along my body. It's enough to induce a panic attack. In the darkness its worse, as your sense of hearing becomes heightened and the roar of thousands of wings drowns out everything else.

Photographing in a bee suit is difficult. Or this is what I found. You're not really able to look through a view finder because doing so would compress the face mask against your skin, which allows the bees to sting you. Face stings are always un-wanted. Always. So you pretty much point, shoot and hope for the best. Luckily I have a digital viewfinder on the back of my camera which helped me frame my shots but really didn't help with the focusing. And neither did the stings. 

But, it was a small price to pay - especially as I'm not allergic - for what happened next. The guys finished tending the first set of hives, which meant we had to travel to the others in the area. As the bees were still swarming, we couldn't remove our suits which meant at roughly 1030pm I found myself riding on the back of a motorcycle in a full bee suit, under a beautiful sky of stars. As I looked up I couldn't help but smile to myself about this incredible experience in Kenya.

To find out more about Honeycare you can find them online at 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Angel's Pool and Victoria Falls

When I arrived in Livingstone, Zambia, I had one goal: to reach the Devil’s Pool on the edge of Victoria Falls. When I arrived at the park just before sunset I was ready to go but was instead told that the information I’d been given earlier about booking the trip had been wrong. This mishap, seemingly common in places in Africa, was disappointing, but provided me with the opportunity to visit another of the pools, Angel’s Pool, and to get to know a wonderful Zambian guide in the process.

While Devil’s Pool is a small eddy at the very precipice of the falls, inciting feelings of danger and adrenaline, Angel’s Pool is serene, sunken and surrounded by high walls of basalt. During the dry season, when the flow is the lowest, the walls rise 15 feet above the surface of the pool.

To get there, I hired a guide from the park who I had met that morning for 200 Kwacha, or roughly 30 dollars. His name was Obino Simwaba. Obino had been working in the park for seven years and said he loved his job. He is a bespectacled man of roughly 30 and despite his tan park ranger uniform, looks as though he could be teaching at a university. 

He began to lead me through the upper wash as the sun was setting, which is a series of small and medium sized streams separated by rock, sand, and stranded flotsam, all of which are part of the mighty Zambezi River.  We walked on dry rocks until the only path was wading through the streams, at which point we removed our shoes, and with an extended hand, Obino said, “We hold hands so we don’t fall.”

I took his hand and stepped into the surprisingly warm water onto the surprisingly slick rocks. Most of the wading distances were short, just 50-100 feet, but the algae on the rocks made crossing difficult, especially with a large backpack of camera gear on my back. Obino was steady though, diligently picking the safest and easiest path, based on years of experience.

The slippery riverbed was in stark contrast to the sharp dried moss that thickly lined the dry rock after the wading was completed. Obino, who had done this trip countless times, had feet accustomed to the surface. I picked my way gingerly, always falling slightly behind. Obino took only one detour, to quickly backtrack and tell some travelers to stay off the ledge of the falls. I noticed he had been watching them as we passed, muttering to himself “It’s not safe.”

We arrived at the Angel’s Pool about 30 minutes prior to sunset. Because of the low flow, the pool was hidden behind deep walls of basalt, and would have been difficult to find without a guide. As I explored Obino stood watch, and when I came close to the lip of the falls, he only said two words to me, “Take care.”

The water in Angel’s Pool appeared dark due to the black basalt rock that formed the basin. But it was deep and warm and calm, with my splash being perhaps the only disturbance through the entire day. As the sun dipped lower in the sky, Obino continued to stand watch, a silent sentinel constantly vigilant despite my perceived lack of danger.

The sun set lower, and as I’ve seen only here in Africa, didn’t produce a glowing orange sky, but simply became an orange and pink orb that hovered above the horizon. Obino and I watched as the sun disappeared behind the mist and the thunder that is the main falls, and then turned to pick our way back through the rocks and streams in the blue light that is the beginning of dusk. Just before we reached the final embankment, we rounded a corner in high grass, Obino in the lead, and stumbled upon a bull elephant. Obino immediately turned and brought me back from where we had come. There was no time for a photo. “These are wild animals. This is their territory. We must go around,” he said. With his guidance, we made it back to the park gate just as the light left the sky.

Angel’s Pool indeed. But who, in fact, was the angel?

Comments are questions are always welcome. To see full resolution images please stop by my galleries at

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Desert Forest

I'm writing this post after the fact, as I'm no longer living in Tucson, Arizona.  This was the last photography project that I completed prior to leaving.  Tucson really is full of surprises, none more unexpected than the forest landscape that emerges from the mountains that border the city.  While Arizona is one of the hottest and driest areas of the country, a gain in elevation is all that is needed to cut through the desert landscape and reveal a forest of towering trees.

I was able to spend a weekend on the summit of Mount Lemmon, a 9157' peak and was constantly struck by the stark beauty of this world.  Trees grew from the dry ground and although the green was expansive, a view from the top showed how quickly this growth dropped back towards the desert valley.

Despite the trees, this forest could never be described as any type of Eden.  The desert was always too close, encroaching at every opportunity.  Lighting storms that frequent the summit had reduced many of the trees to greyed scarecrows, whose shriveled limbs appeared as if rain had never brought life through their bows.  These corpses seemed a constant reminder of the harsh life below, perhaps even a warning, as if the desert was kept at bay only by the lack of oxygen.

There certainly was no lack of sunshine at this elevation.  In fact, at times even though the temperature was less than in Tucson, the height of the peak was noticeable as one felt the gain in proximity to the sun.  It felt as if it was resting on your shoulders throughout the day, forcing the visitors of the park to take cover under any shade the trees could provide.

 As with most things in the desert though, the transition from daylight to dusk is more magical than in most any other part of the country.  All the inhabitants breath a collective sigh of relief as the sun makes its retreat from the daily onslaught that is desert living.  The beauty that comes from these sunset hours can only be explained as the sun congratulating those who have not perished on a battle well fought, while the colors emitted breath a beautiful warning of the harshness to return at next dawn.

To view the rest of this series please click here.

Comments and questions are always welcome.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Freighthoppers and Lunch with the Homeless

I didn't know what to expect when I set out to photograph some of the travelers - some would call them homeless or vagabonds - that often can be found on 4th Avenue in Tucson. What I did find though challenged any preconceived notion that I might have had about those living on the streets.  I believe the general opinion of those without homes and means is that they are dirty, unhappy, riddled with addiction and hopelessly lost.  What I found in my brief encounter with a group of five travelers can only be summed up as happiness and beauty.

I met this group of travelers in front of the local Goodwill store and as they asked for some money for food, I decided to enter their world and facilitate some photos by buying them lunch. Fifteen dollars bought some turkey, tortillas and cheese and they agreed to have lunch with me. What then happened challenged the first assumption of all homeless being filthy. While these people were covered in dirt from riding the rails as their form of transportation, each of them went into the Goodwill restroom to wash their hands prior to eating. Then, as we began to talk, I realized that this group had in fact freely chosen to live this life without homes and that they were, overall, extremely happy to be living and begging on the streets. Smiles and laughter were much more common than any complaints.  One traveler in fact, was heading to California to meet his newborn son and couldn't hide his pride in the fact that he was a father.  Even their pet dogs seemed to relish the freedom of this lifestyle, despite not knowing were they'd find their next meal.

While this is only a single meeting out of millions of homeless around the country, and that my short encounter is not indicative of these people's entire human experience, it did help me solidify the idea that a book should not be judged by its cover. Not all homeless have addictions, or are hopelessly dirty, just as not all those with comfortable jobs are happy.

For a more comprehensive look at the lives of those riding the rails as a form of life, I recommend that each of you follow this link to Mike Brodie's incredible work.

For my full online portfolio please follow this link here to visit

Comments and questions are always welcome.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Dessert at Food for Ascension Cafe

I recently created some images for a local cafe in Tucson that specializes in vegan and gluten free food. As I work to finish my MBA I can't help but be drawn to restaurants who are progressive and are creating really healthy food. I'm not vegan, so I'm not referencing that directly, but simply stating that I respect those who are concerned about what goes into our bodies as our fuel. Everyone has to eat and so many in the United States make choices about their food that can be based off of information that may not be correct or in their best interest. These decisions have lead our country to a place where so many are getting sick and the rate of diabetes, while already high, is growing at five percent every year. Because of this, whenever I get a chance to help out a restaurant that is dedicated to health and well-being, I get really excited.  

The Food for Ascension Cafe is located just off of 4th Avenue in Tucson, AZ.  They source local food and when possible grow their own.  The desserts looked absolutely delicious and really are a great option for those who are looking for foods that may fit their dietary restrictions.  

Above is an image of their home-made truffles.

Above is an image of their blueberry and lemon-vanilla ice cream. I was lucky enough to try this after the photos before everything melted and it was amazing.

The last image from the Food for Ascension Cafe. Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Me Gusta Explicar - Juan from Huacachina

I recently spent a month in Peru prior to attending business school and have wanted to share some of the stories of the people that I was able to meet and photograph along the way.  My very favorite encounter happened in an oasis town named Huacachina where I met Juan, the “man who likes to explain.”  Huacachina is an oasis straight out of the Middle East, except this is Peru.  It sits about two miles outside of Ica, and is surrounded by miles of giant sand dunes.  I arrived planning to stay for two days, and ended up hanging around for four. 

I met Juan on the afternoon of my first night in town.  There is a walkway with restaurants and shops that surrounds three-quarters of the lagoon, and Juan sits at the far end, where the sand engulfs the sidewalk.  He works building and renting sandboards, and has been doing so for the last 19 years.  I took a couple of photos of him working, and he called me over, telling me that I looked like a person who would be interested in hearing a story.  I spent the next hour with him, listening to him describe ruins named Choquequirao that are larger than Machu Picchu, but listed in few guide books.  He said, “me gusta explicar,” which translates to “I like to explain.”

I asked him if I could bring my girlfriend the next day to hear another story.  He told me that if I came he would tell me of the time when the waters of the lagoon used to be red and yellow from the minerals that seeped in through the natural spring.  When we arrived he described a time when Peruvians believed that the waters had leading powers, and even through the sulfur would sting their eyes, people would come to bathe, hoping for a miracle.  It all ended when the adjacent city of Ica grew and tapped the spring that fed the lagoon.  The waters are now pumped in artificially and most tourists who come are international.  He spoke of the magic of Huacachina, which remained for me, but had waned for him as time had passed.

I’m not sure of all the reasons why I am drawn to people like Juan and the stories they tell.  I do know that I feel a deeper connection with any place I visit through the people that live there.