“≠Xáí o” is “hello” in the language of the Ju/’hoansi San people. (Think “The Gods Must Be Crazy”.) The San people are of the Kalahari in eastern Namibia, Botswana and I think a touch of South Africa. We visited a living museum of this particular San tribe just outside of Grootfontein, and let me tell you these people are pretty awesome. To start, the people in the images do not actually live like this anymore. This is a living history museum, meaning the old traditions are pretty much just carried down for tourists these days. However, the preservation of the culture is important in my opinion, regardless of whether or not they still walk the walk. They do, however, still talk the talk, and their language is one of the more distinctive areas of their culture as they incorporate click sounds.
Visiting the museum was a pretty easy affair, except for the fact that you really just kind of show up (no appointments necessary) and they take care of you, and we weren’t really used to that. When we arrived the villagers quickly started to scuttle around (which we later realized was to change into their traditional dress of loincloths and beads). We followed the signs to the “reception area,” which was really just a tree with a laminated piece of paper on it and a menu of the different things we could experience. Activities included everything from a few hours of instruction in bead and weapon making and how to start a fire by hand to overnight camping including nature walks and dance lessons. We went for the fire and weapon making as we really only had a few hours to hang out.
We quickly met our translator and then were redirected to the parking area. Our translator met back up with us, now wearing the traditional garb, namely a loincloth. “Loincloth” is a loose term, as it doesn’t always completely cover the “loins” per se. (When we first met him he was in shorts and a t-shirt; so of course suddenly that makes the scant clothing a little awkward.) As the villagers started explaining some of their traditions, I was astounded at how engaging and genuinely excited they were to be sharing their way of life, out dated and no longer in use as it may be. They were so charming, sweet and peaceful that it made me wonder how there were ever attempts at their eradication or how anybody could have considered them “wild game” (which was apparently the case as late as 1920).
They showed us their approach to making fire by essentially “rubbing two sticks together.” They used the method where you have a plank of wood with a notch carved into it and then a stick that you rub together with your hands. Typically when you see this performed on survivor shows and the like one person holds the plank and the other spins. These awesome-sauce dudes, however, used a little more of a team effort. One guy held the plank in place and they took turns spinning the stick so that it kept moving at an even pace despite any tiring. Very streamlined. After the lesson in fire making we went on a very short nature walk where we cut down branches for the men to make bows and arrows out of, and I was then shuffled to jewelry making with the ladies. There wasn’t much to it, it was mostly grinding holes in tiny circles of ostrich shells, but it was cathartic nonetheless and I still actually wear the little bracelet I helped to make on occasion.
This is JP looking for his lost arrows with some of the San dudes.
Visiting these gentle people kind of gave me a bit of appreciation for the sort of hunter-gatherer (“paleo,” if you will) roots engrained in all of us. This is how humanity existed until the invention of agriculture. After our lessons it was time for games and singing and dancing.
This is a game where the women toss the coconut to each other
while singing and dancing. The game is over when a man
comes by and can swipe it away.
We clearly didn’t understand what they were singing about, but we definitely got the general spirit of it all.
I think this is as good a place as any to bring up a little mention of race relations in Namibia. While the San people do their thing and are now more protected then fought against (not unlike the Native Americans back home), race relations amongst the rest of the tribal descendants versus European descendants is not as rosy. Namibia didn’t gain independence until 1990, before which it was called South West Africa and was under South African rule. This means, for a history lesson, that just as America was on the verge of eradicating racial segregation, South Africa (and what is now Namibia) was segregating in full-force. The apartheid was put into place in 1948 and continued through the early 90’s. While racial segregation was already in place, this was the period when it was actually official public policy. As you can imagine, when it comes to race relations Namibia is about half a century behind us. Everyone lives, shops, and works together peacefully, but that’s about where it ends. At one point I thought I saw a bi-racial couple and thought to myself, “oh maybe the race thing here isn’t what I’m thinking it is,” but it actually turned out to be a black woman and her black-albino partner.
I definitely got the impression that business owners were primarily white and the workers/subordinates were primarily black (I say “subordinates” because in some cases the separation was markedly “upstairs-downstairs”). I was also a little shocked at how freely people would toss around a racial slur or joke or even consider the general non-white population a real threat. While race relations in the US are still not perfect, as an American traveling around I started to get on a little bit of a high horse because we are better than that and where we still struggle we make great efforts to make things better for everyone. Then at one point we were getting gas and the young man pumping our gas asked where we were from and then started asking about the black versus white population, finally admitting that moving to America was his ultimate dream. Now, I am not one of these super-patriot, American-flag-wearing-and-flaunting types. Usually when traveling I do my best to be polite and dispel any of the typical American stereotypes of being pushy, insensitive, or otherwise unapologetically “American.” However, being from the country that’s the international leader in attempting to end racism? That one I’ll take and for the very first time probably ever I genuinely found myself proud to be an American. As much as we sit around at the bar and bitch about politics, the economy, or whatever it is we hate about our lives here, a little appreciation at having been born here, for me anyway, was long overdue.
Last May I went to Namibia with my husband, his brother, and our friend Scott. My husband and his brother had booked a hunting trip, so naturally me and Scott headed off on our own for a spell at first. While our destination in heading south was to Kolmanskop (more on that later), that was about a 9 hour drive from Windhoek where we started so we needed a cool place to stop over for a night, especially considering we were advised to not drive at night. (Apparently the animals just can’t resist jumping in front of oncoming headlights. They are like giant, horned moths.) At just over half way, outside of a town called Keetmanshoop, is the Quiver Tree Forest, one of the largest stands of quiver trees in the nation.
The Quiver Tree Forest is a pretty surreal landscape, especially when you have just flown some 40 odd hours and are still jetlagged, have driven on the wrong side of the road for 5 hours and then come upon this place full of aloe trees with glittering bark and rat-like animals that are more closely related to an elephant than a rodent. Surreal indeed, and quite stunning at sunset (which was the perfect time to visit). The quiver trees themselves are literally aloe plants that grow on trees. They call them quiver trees because back in the day, the bushmen would hollow out the branches to make quivers for their arrows. Their bark crackles and splits, not unlike a crepe myrtle, except that it has this gold, glittering quality about that I just couldn’t get enough of once I noticed it.
The whole landscape kind of made me think of Dr. Suess, especially when we came upon a curious creature called the hyrax. (I like to think he speaks for the quiver trees! You know, Lorax… okay you get it.) This strange little animal likes to sun itself on the rocks at sunset. I first noticed it, however, by its clucking tweet/scream. I was originally looking for a bird making the noise and then noticed it was the hyrax. It screams so loudly and so hard that I actually saw one of them choke on itself while doing it.
Luckily we were able to stay within the park because A) we weren’t traveling during high season and B) for an extra $50 for the whole two weeks we fashioned a tent/mattress situation on top of our 4×4. A little note about camping in Namibia; it is ubiquitous, as are the car-top tents, extremely easy and extremely popular. There are campsites littering the countryside and outside of all of the cities, including Windhoek, and they are all pretty nice and most of them even have electricity for those traveling with a camper type thing. Since we weren’t planning on camping for the whole trip, we decided not to get a kitchen kit because it included things that we thought were nonsense like utensils, a table and chairs, dishes, and a little camp stove of sorts. Cut to us at our campsite, sitting on a sarong I had brought with me (because we didn’t want to get our towels or anything else dirty), and eating peanut butter sandwiches we made with napkins and this hunting knife thing. Oh yeah, and then there was the vodka and sprite in paper cups. You know, it’s pretty wildly amazing that neither of us fell off that damn roof tent trying to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night after getting so ridiculously schnockered because we didn’t really bring anything with us for entertainment except a bottle of vodka.
So as we were chewing the fat, I found out that my travel mate had never seen the milky way. It was at this point that I got all excited and went to get my tripod, which I usually don’t travel with, only to realize the stinking screw plate did not make it to Namibia with us. Grrrr. So, after some kicking and screaming and profanities, and being the resourceful photog that I am, above is a photo of the milky way and the 4×4 with tent. Despite the fact that my camera is basically laying on and propped up with various pieces of luggage, I think the photo came out A-OK.
To see all my photos from Namibia, head on over to my Flickr page.
Yes, I like to travel to lands that are usually far away, uncomfortable in a multitude of ways, and reasonably safe so I can take pretty photos and share them. This much is known. However, I have recently decided to make an effort at seeing some things in my own city so I’m not one of those people that insists that a subject must be exotic to be beautiful. This is a trait I very much dislike; when a person regards themselves a travel photographer but refuses to turn their camera homeward bound. So, in an effort to be a better, less hypocritical person, I paid a little visit to the Dallas World Aquarium! (Rough day at the office, I know.)
The Dallas World Aquarium is actually more like small zoo of sorts that also has aquariums in it and is right in the middle of downtown. I knew from a quick scan of their website that they had some birds and stuff, but I did not expect to be wondering where the aquariums were an hour after wandering around. (Hint: they are at the end. They are there. Patience, grasshoppa’.) There are some pretty amazing animals to see and the foliage and exhibit is actually so nice you almost don’t feel bad for the animals being all cooped up in pretend nature. (At least until you get to the panther cage; when I went I saw it practically trying to work out an escape route, but apparently it’s a temporary thing and they change the cats out or something so don’t feel too bad for the panther.) All in all, it was fun, even if you have kids. Or even if you don’t have kids. You know, wherever your priority lays. If you don’t have kids and are annoyed by other people’s or if you do have kids and are annoyed by your own, don’t worry, they sell booze. I would definitely go back at some point, especially if I find myself entertaining any kiddos or just to take an afternoon during their slow time to soak in some peace (it’s very peaceful when it’s not crowded). Here are a few photos I took of our afternoon at the aquarium.
I will note in closing that it’s a little pricey (I think it was about $26 to get in) and that the facility is actually completely independently owned so there is no reciprocation if you have a membership to something else. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then in other words, there’s never any discounts so don’t ask because the lady behind the window will kind of make fun of you.) It’s also worth nothing that the restaurant right next door, Zenna, is a Thai/sushi place that has really really cheap happy hour specials.
If you’d like to see a slideshow of the images above, please click any of the images below:
Last May my husband ran the Iron Man St. George, and as a good wife I went along for support and to drink beer on the sidelines. The St. George Iron Man is one of (if not THE) hardest in the country apparently, although due to low participation 2012 was the last year for the full Iron Man in St. George; they are bumping it down to a half.
This particular race was a doozy. 25 minutes into the swim the wind picked up creating 3 foot chop. They pulled about 400 people out of the water, some of them against their will. Those that did finish the swim had a strong head wind to look forward to on the first part of the bike course, a good chunk of which was uphill. Those poor bastards.
Cut to me on the sidelines, waiting patiently for my husband to finish. I waited over three hours due to the grueling conditions causing him to finish much later than anticipated. As I was watching all the finishers cross the line, I really started to notice the looks on all their faces. It’s pretty difficult to keep your emotions at bay while in the throws of that level of fatigue. Hats off to all these finishers. We can see it all in your face. In case you’ve never been to an Iron Man before, this is what people look like after a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and a full marathon.
There’s something alluring about the desert. Maybe it’s the crustiness of its hardened inhabitants, the solitude that’s inevitable in any harsh landscape or the beauty of a landscape beaten, weathered and stretched out as far as the eye can see.
Last month, we took a trip out west to St. George, Utah so my husband could run the Iron Man out there. (More on that later.) St. George is a pretty little town set against bright red cliffs and is the launch pad to Zion National Park. If you’re not the outdoorsy type, though, there isn’t much to do in those there parts and finding a drink is harder than you’re probably used to.
Since we were in the area we went to visit Zion. While we couldn’t do any real hiking due to the aforementioned Iron Man and the fatigue that naturally follows, we did walk around some of the easier paths. Just driving through the park even is impressive. There were some interesting rock formations, where the “grain” of the rock (so to speak, not up on my geology terms) would be horizontal, then almost vertical and so on from ancient sand dunes that were blown every which way before becoming solidified. While Zion is beautiful, it’s kind of gone the way of Yellowstone: so overcrowded it’s almost like Disneyland. I’m sure there is some peace to be found, however, on some of the more arduous hikes.
Next up, we went to Bryce Canyon which is a little over an hour drive from St. George. Bryce Canyon is definitely the better national park. It has some unique geological formations, the most notable being the field of spires called hoodoos. The landscape is reminiscent of the Cappadocia region in Turkey, except that nobody has ever made homes out of these hoodoos. While walking the rim of Bryce Canyon offers stunning views, the more interesting hike is under the rim, in the “fairylands” and amongst the spires. Hikers must be careful to stay on the trails, though, as a bar tender informed us that people are always getting lost out there and having to be rescued. What a great place to get good and lost.
While I usually post about other photographers, cool gadgets or muse about my travels, here’s a little snippet highlighting my real work. Probably due to my background in news photography, I’ve developed a minimalist attitude towards equipment and lighting (at least for the moment). I’ve assisted many o’ photographers, carried my fair share of light boxes, etc etc, and I just don’t like excessive equipment. It’s always bulky, heavy, expensive and a pain in the ass to set up and maintain. Then there’s all the room for error when putting on a giant production. Call me lazy, but I really tend work much better leaving a little something up to the element of surprise. When natural light changes, critical thinking and problem solving ensues. For me, that usually results in a better picture. While complete control over your lighting is comfortable and safe, I think of myself as more of an artiste, and art for me never comes from a comfortable or safe place.
Last December, I collaborated with designer Greg’ry Revenj in a photo shoot for the launch of his new website and blue jean campaign. Here, the sun wasn’t really an option for a light source so I improvised, sans light kit. Here’s how I did it:
Lighting: Flash (key light), umbrella, gels, small fluorescent lights (fill lights)
Greg’ry was looking for a really gritty scene and was inspired by the look of the Saw movies, so I got a green gel for my flash and hung up small fluorescents to use as fill light. Yes, I could have turned the images green in post production, but I prefer not to rest on Photoshop for everything. When most of the work is done in-camera it saves time on the editing end and tends to look more natural. I even ended up not using my umbrella to bring in harsher shadows and highlights for this gritty scene.
We were both happy with the results.
Since the iPhone came along as the first phone with a halfway decent camera, people have become addicted to the taking and sharing of camera phone pics, some more than others. With a million photo apps to enhance your otherwise crappy smart phone photos and more apps (like instagram) to share said otherwise crappy phone photos, “phoneography” has kind of reared its head into a category of its own.
With these new found phoneographer enthusiasts (and boy, is there enthusiasm) comes the regular gamut of cases, filters, lenses, and other attachments to make your camera phone pics look better (or at least look more hipster).
Now, most of these gizmos are small enough to stow in a backpack, purse, or maybe even a pocket. Makes sense, if that’s your schtick and all. Especially if you have a keen eye, an iPhone, and a budget lacking the wiggle room to buy a digital SLR and good lenses and all that junk.
I will say, though, that things are starting to get a little out of hand. Last summer, the blogosphere was all in a tizzy of clever witticisms when this little contraption was released:
For $250, you can attach your GIANT lens to your tiny phone in order to take manually focused photos without the luxury of adjusting your f/stop (unless your lens is so old school it has an f/stop ring on it), that come out upside down so you have to download an app to turn them around. It’s like learning French there are so many exceptions.
What’s the newest addition in iphoneography ridiculousness?
It’s the world’s most elaborate phone case ever. It looks like an old rangefinder, has a little working shutter like an old rangefinder, but it takes your photos and your phone calls. And what happens anyway when the damn thing rings? I take it you just answer the camera. Cute? Sure, but it almost seems like iphoneographers out there are just pining for the real deal.
Hello friends! This is my last post about our adventures in Mongolia. If you’d like to see more photos of our excursion visit my Flickr page. It’s back to all things photographic from here. As always, thanks for reading!
Then on one of the days we were driving we picked up a hitchhiker (as you do – in Mongolia hitchhiking is actually a very safe, acceptable, and popular mode of transport). He was a nomad wearing the gray coverall-type garb that’s usually worn when working with livestock. He smelled of mutton and earth, had a smile missing a few teeth and seemed genuinely good-natured, although we did not exchange words due to the language barrier. Then suddenly he reached in his pocket and gave me and the husband each a small handful of these tiny brown roasted things. My husband immediately pops one into has mouth, at which point the driver and the hitcher started yelling for him to stop and show him they must be cracked open. The outer shell was thicker and harder than a sunflower seed, and before eating it I went to examine the small snack and what did I find? A pine nut!!!
From that point on I noticed that crunching on pine nuts was somewhat of a Mongolian past time. While standing in line, waiting at the airport or just walking down the street everyone seemed to have some pine nuts in their pocket or a trail of shells following them. Soon after, we stopped at a market to buy some. I managed to convey to the woman selling them, “how much?” at which point she held up one finger. I started to pull out a one-hundred tugrik bill, when my husband stopped and said, “No no, surely she means 1,000.” The lady takes the bill and pours a double dose of pine nuts into our bag. As we were walking away we realized that yes, she meant 100. Keep in mind the exchange rate is about 1300 tugrik to 1 USD. In other words, at $.73 we over paid for nearly a pound of pine nuts by 1000%. Imagine the surprise when I told one of our guides, Oogie, how much pine nuts cost in America.
Since this my last post, here’s a little gem sent along from my father-in-law showing how a ger is put together.
As an avid foodie, eating for me is almost half the fun of traveling. To start, the Mongolians don’t eat “Mongolian barbecue,” apparently that’s a made up American concoction. Like many things in Mongolia, the cuisine is kind of separated into two camps: city and countryside.
In the cities, the food is very much a blend of the two countries it’s sandwiched between: Russia and China. The bulk of the cuisine consists of noodles, rice and dumplings with mutton as the main protein, though other meats are available. The dumplings definitely took center stage. Buuz, as they call it, is minced mutton (usually) wrapped in a thin dough and either steamed or fried. Bansh is another type of dumpling boiled and served in soup. The interesting thing is that you can kind of see the progression of the dumpling from Asia up to Russia (or is it from Russia down to Asia?). Bansh and buzz have the thinner wrapping like an Asian dumpling, while a fried meat dumpling (called khuushuur) has a thicker and more pastry-like wrap, kind of like a polish perogi. With a lack of western fast food, the Mongolian version of “fast food” are little cafeteria-style places called guanz that serve up dumplings and other noodle/rice dishes, fast and hot.
As far as vegetables go, it’s kind of slim pickin’s, however, there is always some kind of salad floating around that’s usually of the vinegar, cabbage and carrot variety and is clearly of Russian influence.
In the countryside, eating can be a completely different experience. The nomads live off the land and eat mostly meat and milk products, in addition to a few basic veggies in the summertime and preserved cucumber or cabbage in winter. During the summer months milk and yogurt is plentiful, as is butter. The yogurt is extra tangy. They also make a slightly alcoholic drink out of fermented mares milk called airag. It’s a bit similar to Turkish ayran or Indian Lassi, but tangier. The Mongols sometimes even take it one step further and distill the airag (or other milk) into a clear vodka they call “yogurt vodka” in English (I have no idea what they call this in Mongolian). It’s about the strength of Korean soju (around 20%) and it’s NOT, I repeat NOT for the sensitive palate. Imagine the most sour yogurt you’ve ever tasted that’s turned quite a bit and add a little alcohol to it. My husband didn’t mind it. I, however, almost tossed my cookies after about the third or fourth large shot and had to politely decline their offer of more.
During the winter months, the nomads mostly live off meat and fat. Probably the most delicious nomadic culinary experience is khorkhog, where meat (usually lamb but sometimes a goat kid or marmot) is cooked with hot stones. They also preserve the milk by making aaruul, aka dried milk curds. This is often offered with tea when visiting a ger in winter or summer. It’s rock hard and tastes about like a parmesan rind that has been left out on the counter for a few weeks. Not horrible, but it’s no fine cheese.
During our home stay, our hosts prepared a dessert-like treat that I can’t seem to find a name for. It’s basically like a shortbread cookie dough and is made over the stove with flour, sugar and butter. The interesting part is that they basically clarify the butter, then take out the clarified part using only the milk solids. They then add the clarified butter back in at the end. It has the taste and consistency of raw cookie dough even though it’s kind of been cooked. We were served this tasty treat before dinner. They make a lot at once, so with the leftover dough they form little patties and leave them out on the ger’s roof to dry in the sun so they are left with a cookie.
While Mongolia today has many settled cities and towns, their nomadic roots play a huge role in Mongolian customs and culture, and roughly 30% of the population is still nomadic (or somewhat so).
The countryside in Mongolia is remote and sparsely populated, although a ger with a family of nomads is never too far off. Combined with the renowned Mongolian hospitality, it’s a little comforting knowing that you’re not likely to succumb to the elements in some freak scrape, accident, or from just plain getting lost. It seems apt that in such a harsh landscape, survival means being able to pop in on any ger for a meal and a warm place to sleep, and this is still the case today. Even western wayfarers can knock on the door of any ger in the countryside and enjoy snacks, hot tea, and awkward silences, unless, of course, you speak Mongolian or have a translator. And yes, if you’re really in a fix, they will even put together another ger (if a spare is not already in tact) and give you a bed.
So what is life like for a Mongolian nomad? It mostly centers around the care and maintenance of the livestock and, in the winter months, keeping warm. Wake up, chop wood, graze the livestock, milk the cows etc etc. A self sustaining herd is usually around 300 heads, so most Mongolian nomad families have at least a few hundred head of livestock in any variety of goats, sheep, horses, camels, yak or cows. Wealthier families will have upward of 1000 heads of livestock.
Inside the ger, both the husband and wife (at least at our home stay) spend time preparing the milk into tea, yogurt, dried milk curds, cheese and airag, a fermented milk drink that’s lightly alcoholic. The children go to school during the winter months at the nearest town, where they stay, and visit home over the summer months and holidays.
During down time, they read, listen to radios, play Shagai (a game where they throw the ankle bones of a sheep or goat) and now even watch TV thanks to an entrepreneur that went ger to ger selling a combination satellite dish and solar panel package for an affordable price. This led to us sharing a chuckle with our Mongolian home stay family after watching the dance scene in Little Miss Sunshine (dubbed in Mongolian). I was wondering how they would feel about A) toting around a dead family member in a van and B) a little girl doing a provocative dance; it didn’t seem to offend and they thought it was hysterical. It’s funny how you would think you couldn’t be more different than a Mongolian nomad only to realize when it comes down to it, we’re all quite the same.