Tag Archives: Belize

Advice for Travelers: My Take

Over the past few years, photography has taken me all over the world to many fascinating places and countries. During my most recent trip to Switzerland and France, it occurred to me that I should write down some practical advice for travelers based on my own experiences. This is not a comprehensive checklist of “dos” and “donts” but rather a few subjective bits of advice to keep you out of trouble and to enhance the traveling experience. Enjoy.

The River Seine, Paris France

Don’t Be a Jerk

Yes, things are done differently here, but isn’t that the reason you came in the first place?  Instead of rudely wondering aloud how this isn’t how it’s done back home, embrace the many differences and experience something new for a change. For example, try some of the local food. The fact that it’s different from what you are used to doesn’t make it inferior. Laughing or scoffing at something new, only because it’s different, only makes you look like a narrow-minded, ignorant jerk.

Pack Light

Figure out what you think you’re going to need and then reduce it by a third. If you run out of clean clothes, you can always wash a few items in the river or a the hotel sink. In the rare instance where you need something that you didn’t bring, simply buy it locally or improvise. You will surprise yourself by how little you really need when traveling while the freedom from lugging around useless weight is exhilarating.

Foz do Iguassu, Brazil

Before You Leave, Do Some Research

I learned this the hard way. If I ever happen to meet you in person, buy me a beer and ask me about the time I narrowly escaped detainment after the Brazilian border police discovered I didn’t have have my required visa – AFTER I had already entered the country. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but hopefully you will learn never to repeat the same mistake I made.

In addition to the important stuff – like having the right paperwork – check out the currency exchange rates, maps (Google Earth and Google Maps are great tools), and any travel advisories issued for the area you’re visiting.

Children at Laguna Village, Belize

Do Not Photograph Children Without Permission 

In many countries, this can get you into big trouble. You could be breaking a law and end up in jail. You could get shot or the crap beat out of you. All of these scenarios are sure to ruin your trip.

Learn some of the local language, even if only a few commonly-used phrases

This helps you get around a little and makes you appear fractionally less clueless than you actually are. Here are a few items you might want to consider:

Hello, Goodbye (exhibits good manners)

Thank you very much (better manners yet)

Where is the toilet? (for obvious reasons)

Help! Somebody call the police! (In case you really do need help or to recognize when it’s time to make a run for it).

Where in the world am I?

Get Lost!

No matter how well you plan, the plan will fail at some point. Things never go as planned. Never. Cancelled or delayed flights, getting sick, getting lost, bad weather, and unrealistic expectations are all part and parcel of traveling. Getting mad or upset doesn’t help, so I’ve conditioned myself to expect these things to happen and consider it as part of an adventure. Your own attitude about the little obstacles and predicaments will either make the trip exponentially better or worse. And really, wouldn’t it be a little boring if everything went down exactly as planned anyway?

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A Righteous Set of Sticks

I once lost a tripod in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. I should say, for the sake of accuracy, I left it there by accident. Tripods don’t just walk off and get lost on their own.

Returning to the trailhead after an overnight backpacking trek, I tossed my gear into the rental car and drove away, leaving in my wake a perfectly good tripod in full view of the public parking area. I wasn’t even aware of this oversight until four hours and 200 miles later when a wave of intuitive dread fell over me. An inventory was performed and my fears were borne out.

The futile idea of driving all the way back to find it was quickly dismissed and replaced it with better one: I went to a bar. My tripod was just as likely to be found under a barstool at the Old Faithful Tavern as it would at a popular trailhead on an Indian summer weekend in mid-September.

The next morning, I dashed into Bozeman’s only camera shop and began inspecting their meager tripod selection. I needed something sturdy, practical, and cheap – enough support to get me through the next 9 days until my flight back East.

A salesman approached with a demeanor I recall being a bit too upbeat.

“Lookin’ for a tripod today, buddy?”

“Yeah. I lost mine while backpacking yesterday.”

“Oh. I bet there’s a good story there,” he said with a laugh.

“No story,” I snapped back. “And it certainly wouldn’t be a good one if there was.”

For nature photographers, having no tripod is pretty much…well, like not having a camera. In other words, it’s an essential piece of equipment. Yet for many beginners, a tripod remains the object of an intense love-hate relationship. They love it because they’ve been told they should love it, but they hate it because they really hate carrying and operating the wretched thing. Eventually, that relationship evolves into one of tolerance, soon followed by tepid acceptance, mild appreciation and finally, love.

Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee

The benefits of a tripod are patently obvious to most nature photographers and, as I mentioned, will become more obvious with time and experience. Camera stability will always be the primary benefit and cannot be overstated.  No matter how steady-handed you are or how good you think your image stabilized lens or camera is, be assured that comparing results on a set of large prints will humble you.

Another often cited benefit of using a tripod regularly is that it slows the photographic process down, forcing you to think through your compositions in a more contemplative way. While I believe there’s plenty of truth buried in that notion, I do have to wonder how any device that forces you to do anything can be good for the creative process. Not using a tripod and being contemplative are not necessarily mutually exclusive deeds.

Nevertheless, for the beginning photographer, slowing down the process, if feasible, can only lead to better and yes, more contemplative results.

But a tripod can have many other non-conventional and under appreciated accruements that you’ll probably never read on the glossy pages of a product catalog.

For example, a tripod can be used to reach and remove a distracting limb or branch in mid-stream that you otherwise would have to get wet to reach.  Who hasn’t performed this little trick before? I always grasp the tripod firmly near the head, and telescope a leg (always one) to the desired distance. It sure beats a day’s worth of walking with soggy, squishy boots.

A tripod also functions as an adequate wading staff or trekking pole in a pinch. You’re missing out on much of your tripod’s hidden value if its never helped steady you while hiking a particularly steep descent or provided additional balance as you rock-hop from one stream bank to another.

There are also some dark undertones of weaponry incorporated in its design, although you hope to never employ one in this capacity. I’ve not needed to fend off a crazed madman yet nor even a rabid squirrel for that matter. Perhaps the deterrent of being visibly armed with a tripod has something to do with that. Nevertheless, there have been two instances where I can recall needing to apply my tripod directly to a wild animal: a lovesick bison in Yellowstone and five-foot timber rattler in the Smoky Mountains.

The former simply invaded what I would consider my personal space and I used my tripod as a makeshift shield as I turned away each of her (his?) amorous advances. The latter was stretched out across a rocky section of a trail, peacefully soaking in the late summer sun. I carefully lifted and relocated her to a safer location, since the odds of the next hiking party being as charitable as I were not nearly as good. When it comes to dealing with snakes, humans usually kill first and ask questions later.

You might learn rather quickly that having a tripod immediately grants you professional status in the presence of certain company. In the vicinity of tourists, be prepared to be asked if you are, in fact, a professional nature photographer and how can they become one too.

This misconception will be sure to present some complications from time to time. A certain state park in Florida, for example, requires photographers to have a commercial use permit (for a nominal fee, of course) if one is in possession of a tripod. The inference being, that if you’re determined enough to lug the thing around in the standard 94-degree heat and overbearing humidity, there must be a damned good reason to do so and they want their fair share of whatever that reason is.

Xunantunich, Belize

While leading a tour in Belize last winter, the guards at a classic Mayan archaeological site, Xunantunich, wouldn’t allow us to enter the premises with tripods. Not on the grounds of aesthetics, environmental impact, sacred tradition, or limited working space, but rather it was assumed we were a group of professionals and that was somehow a bad thing. The guards had semi-automatic machine guns so I didn’t feel it was an appropriate time to argue a point of principle. Instead, our group assembled some improvisational tripods from sticks and rocks and that seemed to get the job done well enough, considering the circumstances.

Like my experience in Montana twelve years ago, you really learn to appreciate a tripod when you don’t have one.

At this moment, I am looking at several tripods leaning against a corner of my office – each with a specialized purpose. For example, there’s a compact, lightweight model for multi-day backpacking trips only. My everyday workhorse, however, is a Gitzo 1325 carbon fiber model that’s at least 8 years old and has since been discontinued by the manufacturer. It’s scarred, dinged, dented, taped up, rusted, and getting a little squeaky in the joints – not unlike its owner these days.

But I have no plans for a replacement, at least not until it completely succumbs to gravity and fails to stand on its own three legs. If leading a workshop or doing some private guiding, having gear that looks seasoned helps perpetuate that “steely-eyed mountain man” persona that citified clients like to project upon me, whether it’s accurate or not. Guides or workshop leaders who only carry spiffy, brand new gear should be viewed with a healthy dose of suspicion. Either they’re new to this game or you’re being overcharged.

During a workshop this past summer, a bright, personable young man in my group took one look at my heap of a tripod and casually stated, “Whoa, that’s one righteous set of sticks, dude.”

I asked if I could steal that phrase for future use, if I gave him proper credit of course. Thanks Darren.

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My Top 5 Favorite Images of 2010

These are my 5 favorite images from 2010. I might not consider them my “best” from the past year and they’re probably not the crowd favorites either. They simply represent some memorable moments in the wild with my camera and they resonate with me. That’s all. I hope you enjoy these small visual vignettes into these special moments and that they bring at least a fraction of the joy I felt and experienced as an actual witness.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee in Autumn

Tremont Autumn, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennesse

Scarlet Macaws, Belize

Scarlet Macaws flying over rainforest canopy, Stann Creek District, Belize

Angel Oak, Johns Island, South Carolina

The Angel Oak, Johns Island, South Carolina

Snow Geese, Pocosin Lakes NWR, North Carolina

Snow Geese, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina

Sunset at Bowling Ball Beach, Point Arena, California

Sunset at Bowling Ball Beach, Point Arena, California

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