Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Things They Carry

A porter carries a heavy load on the Machame route of Mt Kilimanjaro in front of Mt Meru in Tanzania.

The Weight of Pride

The great travel writer Paul Theroux says, “Go as far as you can.” But what happens when you take this advice, only to reach your destination and find everything you tried to escape has arrived before you? This was the situation in which I found myself on Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. The trend of “glamping,” or glamorous camping, had overtaken the mountain. The air of true adventure was erased. I hadn’t gone far enough.

In place of genuine exploration was a vivid imitation. While the mountain and the altitude are real, the experience caters to a high-end lifestyle, which has removed many difficulties. Clients have to carry only their own water and clothing for the day, and in certain cases, not even this. Faithful porters meanwhile are responsible for humping all equipment necessary for five nights in the alpine terrain up the trails. But, the things they carry far exceed the typical requirement of gear.

Tables and tablecloths, chairs, personal toilets, and banquet tents are just some of the items porters stuff into their sacks to support the lavish lifestyle on the mountain. So much is required that porters far outnumber their clients on the hills. In large groups, the ratio of porters to climbers is at least 2:1; with the ratio becoming more and more lopsided as fewer clients climb. I completed a solo trip and was shocked to find that seven porters were joining me up the mountain. A van arrived to bring us to the trailhead, and I felt ridiculous with the understanding that seven men were required to bring me safely to the summit.

Climbing is indeed a team endeavor, which many don’t realize, but the situation on Kilimanjaro feels a bit colonial. My head kept conjuring images of the wealthy white man standing atop a summit he didn’t earn. It’s a hard image to escape especially with the number of clients that summit each year.

Water is carried from a small stream below the base camp on Kilimanjaro's Machame route, up one of the steepest sections of the trail. Full buckets can weigh 40 lbs or more.

Many companies boast as high as a 96% success rate of reaching the peak, which sounds extraordinary, until you understand how pampered the clients actually are. Every night, after several hours of lugging extra clothing, sleeping bags, chairs, and tents up the mountain, the staff of porters falls into hardware mode. Tents are almost always erected prior to the arrival of the client, so they can immediately fall onto their sleeping pads for an afternoon nap. The reason I mention tents in the plural is that even in my case, as a single hiker, there was a special enclosure for eating, which was complete with a table and chair, and a separate tent for sleeping, all of which is carried from camp to camp. This means that the porters, with no specialized equipment of hiking shoes, made it up the trails significantly faster that I did, all while carrying at least four times my load.

Other examples of “glamping” abound. On the very first day of climbing on the Machame route, the lunch break takes place roughly two hours hike from the park gate. I arrived to find a group of porters furiously assembling a set of 20 chairs and roughly five different tables, so their clients could have a place to sit and eat their lunch. The makeshift restaurant was promptly disassembled after the meal, at which time the porters ran it up the rest of the trail, passing their clients on the way, so they could reassemble the seats for dinner.

My situation wasn’t diferent. The lead porters of an expedition earn extra money by immediately transforming into a waiter upon arrival at the nightly camps. These guys set the table in the food tent, call you for dinner when it is ready, and bring all the courses of your meal, of which there are usually three. My interaction with my waiter, a friendly guy named John, typically went like this. “Hi Jeff. Everything OK? Anything you need? Anything you want?”

Then, upon arrival at camp four, the final camp before the summit, porters have to ditch their load and descend again to the valley to fetch water, as there is none available on the higher slopes. Clients don’t lift a finger even though their very trip depends on this effort. No water means no camp, and no camp means no summit.

With the help I received from my team, I was able to reach the peak without any major issues. Considering the lopsided nature of what I have to carry versus their load, this should be the case. But I found that others are not so lucky. Descending from the base camp it is impossible to miss the numerous metal trolleys that litter the sides of the trail. My guide Nick told me they were there to carry down sick or injured climbers. He told me a story of a woman who needed a trolley after her knee gave out. It took three different porters four hours to guide her of the steeper parts of the trail until she could resume walking on gentler terrain.

Descending from the summit of Kilimanjaro trails pass numerous trolleys used to carry injured, or incapable climbers off the steeps.

Looking around at the people on the trail and at the camps, I understand why so many porters are required. The clients all look the part, dressed mostly in their branded, and often new, hiking gear. But what’s missing is experience, fitness and sometimes youth. Many want an adventure, just not all of it. But they exist in a world where the lofty prices commanded for “glamping” are within reach. They pay to have the trouble removed. It’s like bowling with gutter guards. Their goal is the summit, the destination, but not the journey, or at least not the parts that aren’t photo-worthy.

And so we have the porters who exist in the ether of this mountain. They are constantly present, but often are not seen, except when quickly passing a group of clients, with the things they carry, our things, gracefully balanced atop their heads. It seems though, at the end of it all, the porter’s loads far exceed the material possessions we pack into their bags. They carry our hopes and our dreams upon their shoulders, and our pride within their hands. We return home, victorious, after climbing one of the Seven Summits, boldly joining the conversation of global travel “who-done-its.” But really, the victory belongs to these porters, who carried us, sometimes literally, the entire way.

The attitude of macho is apparent in the porters on Kilimanjaro, especially considering they choose to smoke in the thin air while carrying enormous loads.

Attitude at Altitude

“Do you fear the altitude,” the porter asked as I took a long drink from my bottle at the sign-in station at camp three on the Machame Route of Mount Kilimanjaro. I turned to face him, a bit surprised by the question and wondering if I had heard incorrectly. He repeated himself, as clear as day. “Do you fear the altitude?”

“No,” I answered, trying to keep the defensive undertones out of my voice. “Why do you ask?”

“We porters only drink if we fear the altitude. Me, I never drink while hiking. Only at camp.”

This was my first major introduction to the mindset of the porters on Kili, the local name for the highest peak in Africa. The mountain is more than a job. It's a manly undertaking, a point of pride, especially because it's so difficult. My guide, and main informant, Nick, shared his feelings on the first time that he climbed Kili as a porter.

“It was awful,” he said. “I almost wasn’t able to do it. And when I was done, I swore I’d never again step foot on that mountain.” That was seven years ago and now he’s proud to call himself a guide and lead expeditions for those looking to summit. But, after learning about the desire to climb without water to prove himself a man, I watched to see if Nick drank anything while we were climbing. Not surprisingly, he didn’t. It made me wonder if his first time was so difficult because of the climb or because of extraordinary, self-imposed challenges and restrictions.

Nowadays, most climbers of the mountain use a special high altitude medication, called Diamox, meant to reduce the effects of thin air on a climber. Even still, many people suffer from headaches and severe nausea when nearing the final camps and the summit, which is just south of 20,000 feet. While the porters don’t summit, and only reach the final camp at just around 15,000 feet, climbing without water is borderline irresponsible, especially considering the loads the porters must support.

The initial weigh in of all bags happens before porters leave the park gate. Porters are restricted to 20kgs each.

Roughly ten years ago, the Tanzanian government imposed a restriction on the porters, mandating they carry no more than 20 kilograms each. The rules are strictly enforced, with weigh-in points at the start and finish of the first two days of climbing. Even so, 20 kilograms is a heavy burden, exacerbated by the fact these porters have little or no training, and even less gear that would help to balance the loads on their backs. Most simply throw their day’s load into a waterproof sack, sling it over their shoulders, and walk. They don’t wear appropriate shoes and if they happen to have
an internal frame pack, like most would use to complete such climbs, they don’t use the included mechanisms that would reduce their burden.

While climbing on the fourth day, I encountered a porter with his 20 kilograms stuffed into an old and fraying Jordache branded bag. But the waist strap was open, putting all the weight squarely onto his shoulders as opposed to his hips. I asked him if he wanted me to show him how to use the waist strap, saying it would make things easier. His response was quick. “I don’t need things to be easier.”

Old and fraying backpacks and gear are the best you'll typically find on the porters of Kilimanjaro.

Apparently, being accepted into the porters “club” at each camp is more important than avoiding an aching back over the course of an entire week. Which brings us back to the discussion on drinking water. Altitude sickness affects individuals at random, regardless of their physical condition. Some people respond well, others don’t. Marathoners have had to turn back on Everest while mere mortals, couch potatoes in comparison, get only minor headaches. That being said, one of the major ways to stave of the effects of altitude sickness is to drink copious amounts of water and to stay hydrated. This is impossible if you refuse to even fill your bottle.

Beyond this, it’s rare that many of these porters, before climbing the mountain, have any experience at altitude. Kilimanjaro is a freestanding volcano, the largest in the world. It isn’t part of a larger range like that of the Andes or the Himalayas. It descends from the summit sloping slowly to the savanna that Tanzania is famous for, the Serengeti. There is no other high altitude in Tanzania from which they can come, being already acclimatized or having grown up in thin air. This can wreak havoc on the lungs, but still some porters manage to bring cigarettes up the hills to puff as they take a "break." 

The lack of water, heavy burdens, and relative inexperience at high altitude could produce a perfect storm, and indeed, some porters need to retire every year, and some do die. This threat though isn’t a deterrence. Most make it to the top, and at the end of the day, almost all have smiles on their faces despite their aching backs and heads. Drinking water would increase their comfort, but reduce their self-respect. It’s a testament to their toughness and in a culture of macho it’s all that matters. 

Climbing Kilimanjaro as a porter is boring work, and porters look to do anything to pass the time quickly. But on low salaries they have to make due with entertainment, like this radio, that only increases their burden.

A Tip as a Wage

Being a porter on the slopes of Kilimanjaro is first and foremost a job. The closest town named Moshi, the starting point for all things Kili, has an economy centered on the mountain. Tanzanians hoping to support themselves and their family head to Moshi from all over the country, some with the hopes of lugging bags up the steeps.

The draw is obvious. Westerners come willing to pay between $1,000 and $5,000 dollars to enter the park and climb to the summit. My trip alone cost $1,555 dollars. This amount exceeds the GDP per capita in Tanzania, and my impression was that it would more than cover the needs of my team. I was severely mistaken.

The evening before my last day on the mountain my guide Nick gave me a sheet where I was supposed to write down the tip amount next to each of the porter’s, waiter’s and cook’s names. Based on the high upfront cost, I expected to pay a tip, but didn’t believe it would break my bank. I hadn’t received any information from the guide company regarding appropriate amounts and didn’t give it much thought. Nick told me the tip recommendations and I literally gasped. Porters were hoping to receive an additional ten American dollars per day, waiters $15, cooks $20, and guides $25. These were daily recommendations over the course of a six-day trip. In short, the team was asking for $600 total, or an extra 40% on top of the total trip cost.

I had two problems with this: the first being the lack of information regarding this expectation. In my financial situation, working as a volunteer business consultant in Nairobi, I only received a stipend of $1,200 dollars monthly. I couldn’t pay an additional $600 on top of a trip that already cost more than I earned in a month. I had based my decision to hike, and my ability to pay, on the up-front, quoted price and had turned down other outfits that cost more.

My second issue was the amount requested wasn’t a tip; it was a wage. A tip is supposed to be something extra that isn’t mandatory and is given to reward good service. This didn’t feel like “something extra,” this felt like the bulk of any income that would be received. Further, there were seven people to support. Maybe not all were needed. But with carry weight restrictions of a max of 20 kilograms per porter many strong backs are required to support the “glamping” that many expect on Kilimanjaro for the prices they pay.

My guide, Nick, and his signature colorful beanie, makes his way up the Machame route of Kilimanjaro on the first day of climbing.

While tips from a generous client may even things out, a living wage for these porters should not be left up to chance or the mood and ability of a hiker to fork over enormous extra amounts of cash. In the US, the tipping culture is more prevalent than in other developed countries, but we still expect to pay between 15 and 20 percent of the total. In my situation, this was less than half of the recommendation, which wouldn’t seem capable of providing porters with a viable income.

It’s strange the government and park service would work to restrict porters’ burdens but turn a blind eye when it comes to enacting a minimum wage. Perhaps it’s a question of influence. It’s obviously easier to enforce rules inside the park than to hold authority over the companies that exist externally. If that’s the case, then clients have the responsibility of purchasing only from companies that pay their workers fairly.

I remember feeling defensive when I went to an ATM to withdraw the $220, or just about 15% of the trip total, and the porters asked for more money. “I’m not a bank guys,” I said.

It was clear they were disappointed. It placed a dark cloud over the last days of the trip for me, creating a situation where I felt I couldn’t ask for anything from guys who I had theoretically already paid. But as I complain, I know the situation for the porters was significantly worse. Perhaps their entire month would be ruined, based on a lack of income, in comparison to my uncomfortable goodbye on the “trip of a lifetime.”

If this tip money really is the majority of what they earn, then giving one-third of the asking can be disastrous. But I still didn’t know their actual wage and was afraid to ask them to their faces after disappointing them. I had a full day in Moshi town, and so I decided to investigate the economics of these companies. I met Ziggy and Jose at a curio shop where they both made artwork to sell to tourists. Ziggy was a painter and Jose carved wood. They told me they both work as porters when the jobs come around. They have porter licenses with their photos on them and it all looks very official.

A portrait of Jose, a porter on Kilimanjaro and a wood carver, at an abandoned train station in Moshi, Tanzania.

When I asked how much they typically made as a porter they quoted a range between 6,000 and 10,000 Tanzanian shillings daily, which converts to roughly three to five dollars a day. This is abysmal even considering they are fed and sheltered for a week on the mountain through meals of bread and ugali, which is a mashed corn porridge typical in East Africa. Further, it confirmed my suspicion that the tip was meant to be the majority of the income received for a week’s work.

Costs to run these trips are certainly high. A park pass is roughly $100 dollars daily for a non-Tanzanian resident. But after food and equipment costs have been tallied, it seems the most important element of the climb, the actual workers, have been left out of the equation. Even with a high wage of five dollars a day, my five porters (the cook and guide make more) account for only one tenth of the price charged to clients.

Companies, in their effort to attract hikers, exploit these porters to keep quoted prices low. While there is a Kilimanjaro Porters Association, Ziggy told me that porters overall are afraid to take a stand because there’s always someone else willing to do it for cheaper. This has driven the daily prices down as low as they are, and as Ziggy says, in an economy that is struggling with people who cannot make ends meet, “the job you have is better than the one you don’t.” 

The things the porters carry on Mt Kilimanjaro far outweigh our material possessions. They carry our hope, our pride and sometimes even ourselves.

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.