March 22, 2013
In late February, I attempted to photograph a group of schoolchildren hiking home along the road, through green and beautiful mountain scenery in the Ecuadorian Andes. I did so furtively from behind, hoping to get a candid shot of the five, who were holding hands as they walked. To my alarm and embarrassment, one of them glanced back and called out an abrupt alarm. All five of the kids screeched, hunched their shoulders, ducked their heads and hurried their step. I aborted my effort and offered a friendly wave as I passed them on my bicycle. I had discovered that the rumors of some cultures being leery of cameras are true—especially so, perhaps, for the Quechua people of the Andes.
I also began to think more concertedly about the greater subject of photography ethics. Is it fair, for instance, to photograph a person—any person—without asking permission? Is it legal? But can’t asking for permission also ruin the spontaneity of the photo? Meanwhile, is it appropriate to take a photo of another’s home, or their dog, or their property—or to take photos that exhibit one’s poverty or misery? To gain a clearer understanding of what’s right and wrong, accepted or shunned in travel photography, I spoke recently with Matt Kadey, a Canadian photographer, journalist and frequent cycle tourist.
Must you ask permission to take a stranger’s photo?
Landscape and human photography are two really different things. When you’re taking photos of people, you should get permission. I always try to ask, and if they don’t speak English, you can maybe just show them the camera and see if they say yes. But, at a street market, for example, you can’t always ask, “Hey, you mind if I get a quick shot of you handing over the money to that guy for that fruit?” You just have to take the picture. If you know you might want to publish it, and you think you’ll need permission, you have to do it right away. Once you get home, you have no idea where that person lives or how to contact them.
Can requesting permission compromise the nature of a photo?
Definitely. That’s the problem. You might want to take a shot of a guy wearing some huge hat, and if you ask him if you can take his photo, he might take off the hat and pose because he thinks you shouldn’t be wearing a hat in a photo, and then you’ve lost the shot you wanted. What I’d rather do is spend some time with them, like eating lunch with them, and get to know them a little, and then they probably won’t mind if you start taking some photos. Or, you can ask them afterward. People usually like it when you show them the photo you took. But I’m definitely guilty of not asking at times. Sometimes you have 150 kilometers to go, and you see a great shot, take the picture and just keep moving. But my girlfriend has pointed out to me how it must feel. Imagine if you’re on your porch and some guy from China walks up with a camera, sticks it in your face and takes a picture and walks off.
Must a tip be offered to a subject?
I don’t always feel right paying money for photos, but if I’ve spent some time with someone, like a farmer at the side of the road, and I’ve taken a bunch of photos, I might offer him a couple of dollars. It sort of depends, but I definitely am wary if someone wants money right away. It feels like dirty money, and I’ll usually just put the camera away.
I’ve read recently about so-called starvation photography, and it makes me wonder: Do you have any personal limits on what photos of human suffering you will and will not take?
We came across traffic accidents in Burma recently [while cycling], and I saw no reason why I’d want a photo of a person on the ground.
Do you feel self-conscious taking photos of people?
I definitely have. You worry about offending someone, but it’s something you need to get over if you’re a serious photographer. Most people are too shy to take good human photos, but I’m not going to take a long trip somewhere and not take those photos. But I’ve definitely felt awkward at times. I have this camera with a giant lens and I’m up in their face with it. The key is how you deal with it afterward. You might stay around for a while and show them the picture. I’ve been in Southeast Asia by the road with a group of women, showing them a photo of themselves and everyone’s laughing about it.
Does photography tend to distance you from the locals? Or can it effectively serve to bridge a gap?
I think as long as I interact with the locals before and after taking the photos that it can be a great way to interact with them. For example, when they don’t speak English and I don’t speak the native tongue, I can show them the photos on the camera screen and sometimes that is enough to put everyone at ease. The key is not to take a million photos of someone and seem like a greedy photographer. It’s important that I demonstrate that I am actually interested in them and not just grabbing a great photo of them.
Is it easy to be a photographer and ride a bicycle?
Being on a bicycle definitely lets you get better shots. You can get out to areas where people have never interacted with tourists before, and those people aren’t going to ask you for money if you start taking photos. And with cycle touring, you can easily be the only photographer in a certain place, whereas at a location where the tour buses come, there might be 40 people taking a shot of the same temple at the same time. In places, you might look around and say, “Oh my God, there are a million photos being taken here.” If you’re on a bike, you don’t encounter that kind of situation very often. You might even go to the tourist attractions but, since you’re on a bike, just get there before the buses get there.
Has digital technology made photography easier?
I think you actually have more work to do now after you get home, and you definitely have more photos to look through when they’re digital. With film, each shot counted more, and there were less of them. Another problem for a photographer now is that there are so many images out there, often for free, and people are less willing to pay for photos.
Say you get home and you have a photo that’s almost perfect. Is it ever OK to digitally finish an image?
I have no problem with doing that as long as it isn’t majorly changing the photograph. If the photo has a dark spot on the sky because of some spec on the lens, it’s fine to remove it. You’re just touching it up, and it’s still the exact same photo. What I wouldn’t ever do is cut and paste something into the image that wasn’t there before.
When was the last time you used film?
We were in Ireland in 2003 or 2004, and that was the first time I only had a digital camera with me.
Can photography ever distract you from experiencing people or places?
Yes, and my girlfriend reminds me of that all the time. It’s true. You just need to put down the camera sometimes. Say you’re walking through a market. Every tourist is taking photos, and a whole experience can get diluted if you’re looking through a camera lens the whole time. There are definitely days when you just have to say, “OK, today I’m not taking any pictures.” You might occasionally have to break that resolution if you see an incredible shot, but if you miss it and you have four more weeks of traveling, you can be pretty sure you’re going to make up for it.
Editor’s Note: Vote for your favorite travel photograph from the finalists of our 10th Annual Photo Contest!
February 20, 2013
In the Valley of Longevity, in southern Ecuador, visitors find the quiet and legendary town that has inspired travelers for decades—Vilcabamba. Once just another of a thousand beautiful Andean villages, this community of about 4,000 people is today one of the hottest destinations for outsiders seeking their own little piece of Shangri-La. The town, of affordable goods and productive soils, promises new life—not to mention long life—for both vacationers and expats, and in the past two decades Vilcabamba has become an uncanny magnet and New Age watering hole for soul-searchers dabbling in everything from agriculture to shamanism to hallucinogens.
But as one nears the village center along a cobblestone road that diverges from the highway, the legendary Vilcabamba seems too quiet for its reputation. Dozens of people sit idly in the square—well-to-do tourists, hippies with dreadlocks and bead necklaces, a few locals, men with week-old scruff and worn sandals—all of them waiting, it seems, for things to happen. As I cycled into the plaza, a friend of mine from Cuenca, Mick Hennessey, from Utah, was seated on a plaza bench, alertly watching the slow activity. He saw me and waved. “There’s nothing much going on here,” he said, seemingly reluctant to make such a decree so early. He had arrived only three hours before me by bus. “Sure is pretty up there, though,” I said, pointing at the mountain ridges surrounding this Valley of Longevity, so named for its supposedly high concentration of centenarians.
Another tourist, Nathan Resnick—an American currently living in Cuenca—spent several days in Cuenca hiking in the hills between nights at the Rendezvous guesthouse. He was glad with what he found.
“I was expecting a lot more and was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t exist,” Resnick said.
The town is surrounded by fantastic green ridges on the skyline and lush woods that make a paradise for backpackers, botanists and bird watchers. It is also the last chance for food and gear before entering Podocarpus National Park just to the east—home to bears and wild cats and countless bird species.
But according to some locals, Vilcabamba is unable to meet the needs or hopes of many who visit each year.
“People come here to solve their problems, but they never actually leave anything behind and so they bring all their baggage with them,” one man—a Canadian who has lived in Vilcabamba part time for a decade—told me about a block from the plaza, after we met and shook hands in the empty street. And so, he went on, health problems and mental maladies accumulate here with the immigrants. In particular, he said, conspiracy theories and UFO reports saturate local gossip. This interview by Uncornered Market of a resident Vilcabamban reads almost like a transcript of our conversation.
I quickly detected a very dark shadow hanging over the town. Only three days earlier, a woman had been raped on a trail in the woods just northeast of the town—the third such incident in just weeks. The alleged assailant was reportedly still at large. This January 25 blog post on Passionfruitcowgirl describes a dramatic attempted rape in what the author calls “Evilcabamba.” Another blog, Patryantravels, published a post last August titled “Paradise Lost,” which dwells on the steady rising tide of crime, both petty theft and physical assaults, that have damaged the pretty face of Vilcabamba. Among these recent events is the dramatic kidnapping for ransom that occurred in September on a nearby mountain trail, where a honeymooning couple was assaulted by three armed men wearing masks. The man was ordered to return to the town, retrieve several thousand dollars and deliver it back to the bandits, who said they would otherwise kill his wife. The couple survived the encounter—though the town’s reputation has taken a blow, and attentive eavesdroppers here can pick up on conversations in every direction about robbery, rape and the absence of the police.
Even as long ago as the 1970s, things seemed too good to be true in Vilcabamba. National Geographic, among other publications, had reported an unusually high number of centenarians in the village, but Dr. Alexander Leaf, of Harvard Medical School, was growing skeptical of villagers’ claims to be well over 100—and in one case as old as 134. He called upon two American professors to come help determine the truth. They did, and in 1978, after pressing villagers for information and facts, Richard Mazess of the University of Wisconsin and Sylvia Forman of U.C. Berkeley released their findings. The entire legend of long life was no better than myth—and as bad as outright lies. There was not, they reported, a single person over 100 in the Valley of Longevity. The average age of supposed centenarians was actually 86 years old, and one man who claimed to be 127 years old in 1974 was actually 91 at the time.
The blur between fact and fiction in Vilcabamba may—or may not—have something to do with a local hallucinogen called aguacolla, made from mescaline extracted from several dozen species of cacti in the genus Trichocereus, collectively referred to as the San Pedro cactus. T. pachanoi is the most commonly used for medicine and (let’s be honest) sport. Shamans and village doctors have used the cactus for ages, and the drug today, though illegal in many countries, is provided by licensed shamans and in the Andes is a popular draw for tourists seeking the journey—trip, that is—of a lifetime.
“What was it like?” I asked an American man on the plaza who had partaken in a group experience the night before at $70 a head. He was waiting for a cab, planning to head back to the camp for anther go. “I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said, seemingly thrilled as he hoisted his suitcase to the curb and waved to a taxi. “All I know is there was a whole lot of vomiting.”
“That sounds amazing,” I said.
As the website for Sacred Medicine Journey, a local shaman service, advises its prospective participants, “You may feel some discomfort, but the benefits are worthwhile. Remember that this is not recreational.”
The floodgates to weirdness seem to have opened wide in the 1960s with the arrival of the late Johnny Lovewisdom and his followers. Lovewisdom was an off-kilter spiritual guru and leader who was drawn to Vilcabamba by the “longevity” legend. Born as John Wierlo, Lovewisdom practiced a variety of unusual lifestyle diets throughout his life. Among his lasting legacies was his advocacy of a raw, fruit-only diet, though he eventually allowed yogurt and other fermented items into his body. Lovewisdom, who reportedly struggled with a number of uncommon health problems, also advocated water-fasting, sun diets and breathanarianism, which holds that humans can subsist on spiritual energy alone.
“A woman told me in town to be careful here because there is so much negative ‘energy’ in the air,” laughed a young German man as we ate breakfast at the campground kitchen of Rumi Wilco Eco Lodge, the cheapest place in town at $3.50 for a tent site. He was leaving that day for Peru via the Zumba border crossing just 80 miles south. The man was a skeptic of the Vilcabamba lore, and unlike thousands before him, he was not seduced by the village’s call.
Though the continuing crime wave and growing insider disenchantment with Vilcabamba have darkened the village, the innocent weirdness introduced by Lovewisdom remains. One morning in the driving rain at Rumi Wilco, a tall and lanky Dutchman—a raw foods fruitarian, it happened—undressed to his underwear on the lawn between the kitchen and the guest cabins and began a bizarre and comical calisthenics routine, punctuated by clumsy overhead jabs of the arms and poorly postured yoga stretches. He finished his workout with several minutes of running ten-foot-wide circles through the mud—one more eccentric seeking grace and happiness in the Valley of Longevity.
The sky remained gray for several days, and if there were people here who really could subsist on sunshine, as the eccentric Lovewisdom believed possible, they were probably thinking about a sandwich. And if they believed everything that the local mythology promised, they would almost certainly die younger than they hoped to, in the beautiful little village of Vilcabamba.
November 8, 2012
Ever since Sean Connery first strode onto the screen in 1962 as a dapper secret agent with the code name 007, the world has been riveted by the character called James Bond. He has grace, confidence, delivery and deadly power—and he also travels. Dr. No, the inaugural film in the series, featured the gleaming waters and blazing beaches of Jamaica. The next year, From Russia with Love took audiences farther afield to Turkey, the Balkans and Venice. Through the ’60s, Bond’s creators drilled audiences with film after film, almost every year, as James Bond appeared in such places as Egypt, the Bahamas, Amsterdam, Japan, the Alps and Portugal. All the while he wooed sizzling exotic women and outsmarted absurdly wicked villains. Though Bond’s was a dangerous world of spies, gold, weapons, ninjas and nuclear war, he swaggered fearlessly through it, from one fantastic landscape to another.
In 1960, fewer than 2 percent of Americans had traveled abroad by air—and many who watched Bond do business in one thrilling place after another were enthralled.
Perhaps, millions pondered, America was not enough.
Through the 1970s air travel become mainstream, replacing trans-Atlantic ocean liners. Europe was suddenly just hours away, and Americans began turning up in numbers throughout the world. By the 1980s, the airline age was in full swing, and with the rise in global travel, James Bond tourism attractions would begin to appear. Consider Khao Phing Kan: After it was featured in 1974′s The Man with the Golden Gun, this beautiful Thai island became a hot tourist attraction and even gained the popular nickname “James Bond Island.” And in the 1980s the very abode in Jamaica where author Ian Fleming dreamed up the Bond world opened as the luxurious GoldenEye Hotel.
Bond’s association with travel and place would solidify through the years. Most recently, with the British release last month of the 23rd Bond film Skyfall, travel agencies and publications have pushed a flurry of James Bond tourism campaigns. Forbes Magazine recently listed the best luxury hotels at which James Bond ever spent a night; on November 2, DesMoinesRegister.com named the best places for following in Bond’s footsteps; a Caribbean “adventure tours” company called Island Routes features a “007 Thunderball Luxury Tour“; a Japanese tour agency is promoting a 13-night Bond-based itinerary inspired by 1967′s You Only Live Twice”; and VisitBritain, the tourism agency of James Bond’s home country, is hinging a fresh tourism push on the hype surrounding Skyfall.
With the American release of the new film this weekend, starring Daniel Craig in his third venture as 007, the James Bond film franchise turns 50 years old. The immortal spy has now traveled in 50 countries and logged 180,000 miles of air travel, by the Huffington Post‘s estimate. Surely, Bond has out-traveled virtually all of us in a world often depicted as absurd and cartoonishly implausible. Yet Bond’s world is the real world, and where he has gone, his fans are sure to follow.
These are just five of the most beautiful sites where the world’s favorite spy has done business.
James Bond Island, Thailand. Classic James Bond met classic Thailand in the 1974 film The Man with the Golden Gun. Actor Roger Moore, who had by then replaced Connery as the dashing spy, pursued Bond’s nemesis Francisco Scaramanga to Khao Phing Kan, a pair of craggy islands draped in greenery that jut like monoliths from a placid turquoise sea. It is the Thailand of a million tourists’ dreams—of a coastline so stunning it looks at times more like a computer-generated dreamscape than a real product of time, water, jungle and geology. Bond was there in its virgin days, before the crowds, and before it became known as James Bond Island.
Contra Dam, Ticino, Switzerland. The opening scene of GoldenEye featured Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, taking a dizzying leap from an enormous dam in what would later be voted the greatest film stunt of all time. The Contra Dam, also called the Verzasca Dam or Locarno Dam, is located in the Swiss Alps on the Verzasca River. Tourists may visit the dam—and those with a heart for first-class spy-style adventure may even bungee jump off the face. The top of the dam is 720 feet above the stream below, making it one of the world’s highest bungee jumps.
Gibraltar. In 1987, the famed rock set the stage for the opening scene of The Living Daylights, in which Timothy Dalton as Bond leaps off a cliff and onto the roof of a runaway Land Rover in one of the finer Bond action sequences. The scene, actually filmed through repeated runs on the same short stretch of road, ends with a turn off a cliff, a parachute leap, a fiery explosion and a suave Bond-style landing on a yacht.
Meteora Agia Triada monasteries, northern Greece. In the 11th century, Byzantine hermits perched upon the spectacular pinnacles; in the 1300s and 1400s, the monasteries were built; and, in 1981, popular fame finally arrived for the monasteries of Meteora with the Bond film For Your Eyes Only. James Bond was still in his Moore days when he scaled the limestone cliffs to reach the lair of villain Kristalos. Today, rock climbing is one of the attractions of Meteora.
Green Grotto Caves, Jamaica. The 1973 Bond installment Live and Let Die leads our spy into the voodoo world of New Orleans and the thug lairs of New York. Finally, Bond enters the Green Grotto Caves of Discovery Bay, Jamaica, where he deals appropriately with the villainous drug lord Kananga. The caves, which lead for a mile underground and are inhabited by several of Jamaica’s 21 bat species, have been used as a hideout for escaping slaves, as a stash for weapons smugglers and as a storage depot for rum handlers. Stalagmites, stalactites, sun holes in the ceiling, a subterranean tidal pond and green algae coating the walls create the incredible beauty of the caves. Also featured in Live and Let Die was Jamaica’s Falmouth Crocodile Farm, where Bond ran across the backs of a line of lounging crocodiles to reach safety. The farm, also known as the Falmouth Swamp Safari, is now a tourist attraction that, like so many others on earth, flaunts the fact that, once long ago, James Bond was here.
May 1, 2012
Since the era of Elvis and the Beach Boys, cars and motorcycles have been a prominent element in the world of rock and roll—as vehicles for drag racing, carrying the band to nightclubs and generally showing off.
But some bands ride bicycles. The Ginger Ninjas—a folk-funk band from Northern California—is now touring in southern Mexico, and they got there, along with their instruments, by pedaling. A fully off-grid band, the Ginger Ninjas even use a pedal-powered sound system while performing. They are one of several musical groups that have rejected the resource-intensive lifestyle of most touring bands and, instead, opted for a cleaner, simpler alternative.
“I don’t want to be in Chicago tonight, Boston tomorrow and Tokyo the next,” said guitarist and singer Kipchoge Spencer, the Ginger Ninjas’ frontman. “It’s too consumptive of resources. Plus, there’s a sort of egotism that I don’t care for—like, ‘The world needs to see me so much that I’ll use up the Earth’s resources just to make it happen.’”
Spencer, 39, says that as his band gains popularity, demand is growing for his music—which he labels “mind shaking love groove folk funk roots explosive international pedal-powered mountain music for a pleasant revolution.” The call to play live shows increasingly far and wide, even abroad, is also growing louder. It’s the dream of virtually any group of musicians, but it’s a force that Spencer and the Ginger Ninjas consistently choose to resist. Even playing in Portland, Oregon one night and Seattle the next—a piece of cake for the average airplane-supported rock band—is beyond reality for the Ginger Ninjas.
“That doesn’t work for us, so we say no to a lot of gigs,” Spencer said.
The band, formed in 2001, has traveled on fully pedal-powered bicycle tours six times now. Spencer, an avid cyclist almost all his life, first gave serious thought to a bike-powered tour in 2006, when he and several of his musicians rode bicycles from show to show during a tour of the Olympic Peninsula. A van and several cars carried their gear and roadies, but a year later the Ginger Ninjas went full throttle: They rigged trailers to their bikes and, each pulling between 100 and 200 pounds, rode from Lake Tahoe to Chiapas, Mexico. It was an 80-show tour, mostly played in Mexico, in which even the sound they made was pedal-powered; that is, they placed their bicycles onstage as stationary generators while fans took turns pedaling the bikes to power the custom-rigged sound system. Each year since, the four-piece band has toured, riding bicycles as far south as Guatemala in 2009 and traveling throughout Europe in 2010. To get there, they took a train to New York and a boat to Southampton, and then they moved for several months by bicycle and rail, playing 50 shows in England, Holland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, France and Spain. The group caught a boat home.
Of all the nations the group has visited, Mexico has treated the Ninjas most kindly.
“There’s certainly a warmth here,” Spencer said, speaking to me by phone from a town called Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City.
The culture is particularly welcoming to live music, too, he said: “Mexico has a great civic tradition and culture. You can just show up in a plaza, without planning or permits or permission, and start rocking to the people.”
While traveling, the Ginger Ninjas and their crew of supporters—including roadies, technicians, a masseuse and a cook—ride anywhere from 30 to 50 miles per day, spending months pedaling distances that most bands might cover by plane in three hours. The band brings camping gear and sleeps out roughly 50 percent of the time—almost never in campgrounds, almost always for free. Occasionally the band has encountered hostility. One evening as the sun grew low in the vineyard country near Santa Barbara, the band—growing anxious about where they would camp that night—hopped a barbed wire fence. Hauling their gear, they all managed to slip into the brush unseen—except for two stragglers, and as the pair lifted their bikes over the fence, a pickup truck arrived. The driver—the landowner—brandished a shotgun and ordered the group onward.
And in Guatemala the Ninjas were robbed at gunpoint.
“We lost five bikes,” Spencer told me.
“That must have been devastating,” I replied. “What did you do? I mean, five bikes?”
“Five bucks,” Spencer repeated.
In addition to making music, Spencer wants people to understand that relying entirely on bicycles and public transportation (airplanes not included) is a viable means of living—even as a traveling band.
“I believe the bicycle is one of the best, if not the coolest, machines ever invented,” Spencer said. “Part of what we do is show people how capable bikes are, and part of my vision is that (riding a bicycle from California to Mexico) is something almost anyone can do. That’s part of what we want people to see.”
He meanwhile has little faith in cars and the culture we’ve built to sustain them. Car culture “is part of the broader picture of our twisted priorities and twisted development patterns,” he said. “It’s a cultural design that will fall in on itself in not too long. It’s doomed, and it’s dooming us.”
The band’s current tour is a short one—just 20 concerts or so—and by June, Spencer needs to be back in San Francisco to assist with running the upcoming Bicycle Music Festival, a day-long event on June 23 featuring a handful of pedal-powered groups, hundreds of fans and a bike for every person. The Ginger Ninjas spent several months riding to Mexico, and to come home the group is taking a bus—which runs on veggie oil.
The Ginger Ninjas aren’t alone in employing pedal power to move and make noise. SHAKE YOUR PEACE!, a San Francisco-based folk-rock band, is currently on a relatively short Bay Area tour, rolling on muscle-powered bicycle wheels. Another San Francisco musician, Paul Freedman, goes by the stage name of Fossil Fool: The Bike Rapper and, like his comrades in the community of pedal-powered musicians, he shirks cars and embraces bicycles and public transportation. Jan Repka is another of the community, though the native of the Czech Republic usually pedals and plays around Europe. And near Istanbul in 2009, I met two Polish men carrying guitars and a drum and playing Polish folk music as they cycled around the world. They said they would be rocking—and rolling—for years.
And even if rock and roll can’t change the world, some musicians believe just maybe the bicycle can.