photography

Death, life, and wandering in Kathmandu

On the drive to our first destination, Bipin shared snippets of history about Nepal. We all sat in the van, separated into our groups, and listened intently to the story of the royal massacre.

In June 2001, the heir to the Nepalese throne, Prince Dipendra, shot his family members in a drunken rage: his victims included his father, King Birendra. Ten people, including Prince Dipendra, ended up dying, though the official story, and Prince Dipendra’s involvement, is considered controversial.

Over the next few years the nation was fraught with political strife. It descended into chaos, with protests, bombings, necessary peace talks, and the eventual abolition of the monarchy. As recently as September of last year, three months before we sat in the van listening to Bipin, there were protests over the new constitution.

Additionally, beginning in September, a major fuel blockade has severely crippled Nepal. According to some sources, the blockade is India’s way of forcing Nepal to make changes to its new constitution. Others say it’s because of members of lower castes in Nepal.

No matter the cause, Nepal relies on fuel from India. Previously, around 300 fuel trucks would travel from India to Nepal each day. When we were there, 5-10 fuel trucks were making the trip. And as our group traveled from one location to another, we saw long lines of cars, trucks, and commercial vehicles waiting for gas.

Vehicles lined up to get gas. Lines choked traffic, and the vehicles were often abandoned because wait times were so long.

Vehicles lined up to get gas. Lines choked traffic, and the vehicles were often abandoned because wait times were so long.

As the road widened from claustrophobic alleys near the Kathmandu Guest House to wider, manageable streets, we alternated between looking at Bipin as he taught us and catching glimpses of Kathmandu life out the windows.

We passed a tall fence with yellow signs affixed to it. “World Heritage Site” said one. “Pashupati Area Development Trust” was on the other. I was surprised when we turned in.

(Again, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d read the Trip Notes from Intrepid once more before arriving.)

Megh parked the van, we got out, and I immediately felt like a tourist. As a group of foreigners, we were watched by locals as we slowly walked into the open area of the heritage site. Our large cameras were another giveaway, but I shook off the feeling and started taking pictures of everything I wanted to remember: the nearly dry riverbed, the piles of trash, and the small bonfires burning across the bank from us. Ahead was a complex with a temple. Bipin called us into a circle.

Pashupatinath

We were at Pashupatinath Temple, a Hindu site dedicated to the god Shiva, and the Bagmati River in front of it would eventually join the Ganges. Elderly men and women from across Nepal and India go to Pashupatinath to die, then be cremated along the river.

The small bonfires I’d noticed were cremations. At this realization, I quickly let my camera fall against my chest. Bipin had asked us earlier to respect the dead and their families and refrain from taking pictures of bodies being cremated.

Pashupatinath Temple

They were wrapped, and the only indication they were the dead was the crying family surrounding the pyre. But the sight jarred me. And the wails from grieving family members got to me.

We continued along the bank, learning more about the site. At one point, across from the main part of the temple, Bipin gave us some time to wander around and take in the area. My first thought was that I needed to just sit.

Bagmati River, Pashupati

I needed to respect what was unfolding across the river. And I needed to let my mind settle after being shocked by the cremations. The shock came from a sudden awareness of my own mortality, and from the sadness emanating from the families.

Photo thanks to Sylvie

Photo thanks to Sylvie

A while later we all congregated to learn more about the Hindu god Shiva and the significance of the small buildings around us.

Photo thanks to Chloe

Photo thanks to Tasha

Bipin gave us ample time to look around, take pictures, and ask questions.

Pashupati man birds

We headed farther up the hill, where there were benches and a good vantage point for the proceedings on the river’s banks and at the temple. We saw some tourists taking video of the cremations.

(“Hey guys! Want to see my awesome vacation video of a buncha people wailing and mourning and cremating their loved ones?” Come on, tourists. Have some respect.)

Looking down the hill toward Pashupatinath Temple

Looking down the hill toward Pashupatinath Temple complex (to the right, gold roof)

We continued up the hill. We foreigners spread out and slowly made our way up the stairs, and Bipin bounded up and down the stairs to answer questions from those farther ahead and those down below.

The Nepalese could probably give Kenyans some stiff competition in marathons.

Pashupatinath treeOver the top of the hill, after passing more religious pagodas and small temples, we met some monkeys, got a great view of more of Kathmandu, and then started down the hill toward the waiting van. Megh had driven to the other side of the site to pick us up.

MONKEY

Kathmandu

Our next destination was Boudhanath Stupa, a Buddhist site. The stupa is large and surrounded by connected, multi-storied buildings.

The facade of a building facing the stupa

The facade of a building facing the stupa

It’s being rebuilt, as the earthquakes caused quite a bit of damage, especially to the top.

Boudhanath Stupa

Near the entrance Bipin corralled us for a while to tell us about Boudhanath and its significance, then told us to meet him after we’d had a chance to walk around the stupa.

monks at boudhanath

We all circled the base, then joined Bipin at the Buddhist Thanka Centre: School of Thanka Painting. There we learned about mandalas: their history, the art of painting them, and how they relate to Buddhism.

Mandalas are stacked geometric designs that represent the universe. Boudhanath itself, from above, is a mandala. Most, if not all stupas, are built as mandalas. Traditionally, mandalas are meant to be created, either with paint or sand, with dedication and many hours (thousands, and years if you include all the training) spent in their creation.

However, the purpose of a mandala is to represent that nothing is permanent, and once it has been completed, it’s supposed to be destroyed.

It’s a metaphor for life. And the metaphor, just like the mandalas, is beautiful.

mandala

(Color photo here.)

Lunch was on the roof of the restaurant next door to the centre, and several of us enjoyed our first taste of mo mo, the Nepalese version of dumplings. This was our first chance to sit as a group and get to know each other a little better, and Sylvie and I had everyone convinced we’d been friends before the trip because our humor was so similar. During lunch we were entertained by a Buddhist prayer, punctuated by sighs and the speaker clearing his throat, recited over loudspeakers at the stupa.

I asked Bipin if I could return to the centre after lunch so I could buy a mandala. Wendy, Joel, and I went together and talked for a long time with the staff there, and Wendy and I both bought beautiful mandalas, with the proceeds going directly to the school.

men painting mandalas

The others were waiting downstairs when we finished, and we got back into the van. Our afternoon was free, and once we returned to the Kathmandu Guest House, each group went off on their own adventure.

Because of the fuel crisis, many public vehicles allow riders on the roof so more people can ride in fewer vehicles.

Because of the fuel crisis, public transportation allows riders on the roof so more people can ride.

Sylvie and I quickly agreed that we wanted to walk around the area, and we ended up threading through alleys, roads, and dead-ends as we explored.

wandering around Kathmandu

Until dusk we were lost, enjoying getting to know the area and people watching.

rickshaws

“Do we know where we are?” I asked Sylvie.

“Does it matter?” She shrugged and continued walking.

There was graffiti around the city, including this mural

There was graffiti around the city, including this mural

That was the beauty of the afternoon, and of the trip. We were safe and free to get to know Nepal on our own terms. The majority of us were comfortable travelers — respectful of the culture, willing to go outside our comfort zones, and flexible.

Approaching a building heavily damaged by the earthquake

Approaching a building heavily damaged by the earthquake

Over dinner at a restaurant next to the guest house, Sylvie and I got to know each other. I had chicken tikka masala, we shared garlic naan, and we enjoyed a hearty meal for a relatively cheap price. There were a number of other foreigners there, both male and female, some traveling solo.

We made our way back to our room just after dark. Sylvie lay down to read, and I decided to take a “quick nap” before writing in my journal. Curled under the covers and warm, I never made it back out of bed. I barely woke up again before my alarm went off around 5am.

I was joining Wendy, Nick, and Sian the next morning on a flight to see Everest, and we were leaving before the sun would come up.

Nepal: The Cast of Characters

After my shower the next morning, I felt like a new woman. Sylvie and I headed downstairs and went to the small breakfast buffet, where they served Western foods like scrambled eggs, pancakes, and small boxes of cereal. We sat alone, chatting and people watching. The room held 50 people or so, and it was about half full with foreigners dressed in various cold weather gear.

A peephole window on the landing between the fourth and fifth floors of the Kathmandu Guest House

A peephole window between the fourth and fifth floors of the Kathmandu Guest House

Before we left she walked me to different tables and introduced me to some of the others in our group: David and Andrew, two Australians who were probably in their forties, were quietly sitting at one table. Four more Australians sat near them – Wendy, Joel, Julez, and Erin were a group of friends just a bit younger than I am. Sylvie and I were anxious to get in a bit of exploring before I met with Pippin, so we bid farewell to the others and set off.

street near KGH

I walked with a bounce in my step. The sun was shining and the blue sky was a welcome sight, and the temperature was cool, but comfortable. I could feel it – a familiar, slight smile that stayed on my face throughout the morning. My face reacted to the energy I felt – adventures and a new country to explore were laid in front of me, and I felt alive. Awake. All the anxiety from the previous evening had completely dissipated.

We walked to a small, open-air bookstore and spent some time checking out maps of the Kathmandu Valley. I couldn’t buy one until I bested an ATM, but we found a good map that Sylvie bought and I planned to get later.

bookstore

Continuing on, we retried the ATM from the night before. It refused both Sylvie’s and my cards. We decided to find an actual bank and continued our slow, exploratory walk down the road.

The area of Kathmandu we were in felt completely different in the light. The roads we walked on were rough and lined with multi-storied, low-key buildings that seemed to lean into the narrow streets.

Kathmandu street

On our way back to the Kathmandu Guest House, we found a bank of four ATM machines in a narrow room up a few stairs from the road. Other foreigners were happily pulling cash, and we all chatted as we accessed our accounts and filled our wallets. I withdrew 35,000 Nepalese rupees, which came out to $335 US.

We made it to the hotel lobby with time to spare. I was looking around, trying to spot our tall blond guide, when Sylvie called out to me.

“Mandy, this is Bipin.”

I turned to see a black-haired man who was roughly my age. For a moment I was confused, and then I realized I was an idiot: our guide wasn’t some eternally backpacking Westerner with a curiously cute name from a Broadway musical. He was a local.

(I learned later that Intrepid Travel hires trained travel guides from host countries. Smart.)

He motioned to a couch by the window, and we introduced ourselves. In clear English, like the majority of the Nepalese I’d encountered by that point, he explained what I could expect on the trip. I trusted him immediately and felt a sense of kinship with someone I’d known for five minutes.

Once we’d gone over the details, he smiled and excused himself so he could get ready for the day’s excursion. Others in our group were starting to congregate in the lobby, and Sylvie helped me meet each of them. There were 13 of us in total, including Bipin.

Andrew and David, the two Australians I’d met at breakfast, largely stayed to themselves during the trip. They often wandered off and did their own thing, sometimes skipping meals with the group and eating separately. Bipin was careful to make sure they were included as often as they wanted to be, but for the most part, the remaining 10 of us spent the most time together.

Nepal travel family

Clockwise-ish starting with the standing man in the gray jacket: the manager of the Famous Farm, Sylvie (in orange), Tasha, Chloe, Sian, Nick, Joel (throwing his best Blue Steel pose), Wendy (white scarf), three Famous Farm staff members, Erin (brown pants), Julez, me, and Bipin

Sylvie, my roommate, was a Canadian who lived and worked in Morocco as a teacher. She’s a voracious reader – I think she read six books during our ten-day trip – and casually dignified, with an adventurous spirit and quick wit. I had a lot of fun rooming with her.

The four other Australians I’d met at breakfast consisted of Julez and Joel, siblings of Filipino descent; Erin, Julez’s girlfriend; and Wendy, Julez’s friend. Julez was the most Australian Australian I’ve ever met, and was chill and very comfortable in her own skin. Joel was her younger brother, a naturally bright college (“uni”) student who, despite making duckfaces in his pictures, was always ready to laugh. Erin was a happy blonde who joined the group on her first-ever visit outside of Australia, which she handled with grace. Wendy was a spunky woman with a contagious laugh whose husband, regrettably, stayed home.

The siblings (Joel and Julez) with their selfie sticks. Say what you want about selfie sticks - they came in really handy on this trip.

The siblings (Joel and Julez) with their selfie sticks. Say what you want about selfie sticks – they came in really handy on this trip.

As the group assembled, I also met two New Zealanders, a married couple named Nick and Sian.

“How do you pronounce it? Shawn?”

“No, like ‘Shan’.”

“Wait… how do you spell that?”

Nick and Sian are Intrepid Travel regulars, a very thoughtful, fun couple. He had a camera around his neck like me, and his pictures from the trip are captivating.

I don't remember what they were looking at, but I love how confused they all look.

I don’t remember what they were looking at, but I love how they’re all obviously concentrating on something very important. (Julez, Joel, Erin, Nick)

Soon two Brits, Chloe and Natasha, came into the lobby. They’re friends who act like sisters, and even in their twenties they give off a air of grace and poise. Their proper manners made it all the funnier when Tasha talked smack during games.

Once we’d all arrived, Bipin corralled us into a waiting 13-passenger van. He sat shotgun, with a wide console between him and our quiet, reliable driver, Megh.

driving

During our drives Bipin often turned around and told us stories and jokes. He’d also share the history of Nepal and our destination, sprinkling in personal anecdotes that made the country feel more like a place where people lived, and not just a place where people climbed mountains. On longer drives, when most of the foreigners were sleeping, he’d turn and check on everyone, smiling at those of us who were still awake. A surefooted guide, Bipin quickly became a good friend. He was our teacher and leader, whip-smart like Joel, a skilled photographer like Nick, and witty like Sylvie.

All eleven of us loved to laugh. With Bipin as our guide, over the course of nine days we became a family. And our family was currently loaded into a plain white van and on its way to our first destination: Pashupati.

Nepal van

The joys of traveling with luggage: Washington, DC

My red-eye flight from San Diego landed at Dulles, which is miles west of Washington, DC, two hours before sunrise. I’d hoped to take a nap on the plane, but I’d managed to book a flight on the most uncomfortable plane known to man.

When I’d checked in for my flight, I learned I couldn’t check my suitcase through to Dubai. I also found out there wasn’t a place to store my bag in DC, so I was going to be stubborn and roll it around all day. Then, before I boarded, Caitlin told me it was raining.

I started my trip with no sleep, a rolling suitcase, and rain at my destination.

For $5 I took a bus from Dulles 6.3 miles to the start of the metro. There I bought a day pass for about $16, rolled my ugly green suitcase down to the platform, and waited with a growing crowd of people going to work. I was meeting Caitlin at the Metro Center station in the heart of DC, and then we’d ride up to where she was staying to drop off my suitcase and backpack. Unencumbered by luggage, we’d be ready to tackle the day.

My suitcase made me resort to Plan B in both of my layovers. And that broken, spray-painted, decade-old ripped canvas box on wheels, which has gone around the world with me more than once and never gotten lost, helped ensure my time in DC and Dubai went better than planned.

Travel is all about Plan B.

At Caitlin’s I donned my waterproof jacket, water-resistant travel purse, very non-waterproof jeans, and sponge-like running shoes, and then we were off for a full day of DC tourism.

We ate a surprisingly filling breakfast at Busboys and Poets, where I had a Thin Mint Latte (organic mint syrup, chocolate, steamed milk, espresso). I hoped the caffeine would keep me from falling asleep on the metro. And while I’m not a coffee drinker, I drank it happily: syrupy, chocolatey, milky coffee is delicious.

After breakfast we took the metro down to DC proper. Outside of downtown, DC’s full of bright, large graffiti, especially along the metro tracks. Outside of sterile, stuffy downtown, DC has a pretty cool personality.

We emerged from the metro station and re-entered the cold and wet. A ten-minute walk later and we were at the Newseum. This is a museum all about the news, and it has exhibits on some of the biggest news stories in recent memory. It also highlights the dangers facing journalists and photojournalists around the world.

Caitlin had been before, and we didn’t have much time, so she laid out our quick morning visit. We started in the Pulitzer Prize exhibit, which showcased photographs dating all the way back to 1942. I was familiar with many of them, and as we rounded the curved walls of the exhibit and looked at the photos, we alternately pointed at ones we recognized and others that caught our attention.

Newseum quote

There was one photo, for me, that was particularly chilling. It was taken during the Thammasat University Massacre, and I found it horrifying.

We left the exhibit in the midst of a crowd of schoolchildren. They were being remarkably respectful given the nature of some of the photos, but Cait and I were ready to escape the images.

Next we visited a section of the Berlin Wall—the largest outside of Germany—accompanied by a watch tower. On the free side was colorful graffiti; on the other, with the watch tower, a plain, intimidating concrete barrier.

Berlin Wall Newseum

Up two flights of stairs and we were standing in the shadow of a mangled radio tower from one of the felled World Trade Center towers from New York City. One wall was lined with front pages from newspapers around the world after the attacks.

9/11 exhibit Newseum

After several minutes I needed another break, and Cait was emotionally tapped, too. We took our time circling the museum on our way to the last exhibit we wanted to see. A large, stylized world map covered a wall and showed how much freedom the press had in other countries. Accompanying it were glass cases with artifacts from journalists and photojournalists who disappeared or died while on assignment.

From there we walked into an empty, bright room, tall and lit with natural light. Straight ahead was a wall lined with long slats holding row after row of photos. Each photo was of a man or woman who died while reporting the news. At the top were several empty rows waiting to be filled with more photos.

deaths Newseum

To the left of the photos was a wall of large plaques engraved with the names of people in the photos, plus others. This wall, too, had space for additional names. Both were regularly updated. Tim Hetherington, a brilliant photojournalist I met in 2009 at a screening of Restrepo, was memorialized in this room. There were others I recognized, too.

I was done. Caitlin seemed to be, too. We decided to head downstairs and make our way down the street to a great Indian fast food place that was cheap and warm.

After lunch it was time to brave the rain and walk along the Mall. When we found ourselves in the center of the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, I surveyed the area.

“Huh.”

“Is it how you pictured it?” Caitlin asked.

“No. It’s… small? I thought it would be more impressive.”

Washington Monument

We approached the Washington Monument, which felt like it was plopped in the middle of an intersection.

Washington Monument tree

It was when we were close—at the base of the monument—that I began to feel more inspired by the Mall.

Washington Monument flag

We could see the Reflecting Pool, a memorial I didn’t know, and the Lincoln Memorial at the far end. The park rangers stationed at the Monument convinced us to get free tickets to go to the top at 4pm. We had two hours to explore before going up.

Washington Monument big

The memorial we saw that I didn’t recognize was the National WWII Memorial, and we walked toward it from the Monument.

National WWII Memorial selfie

It’s beautiful, even when it’s gloomy and raining.

National WWII Memorial

The Reflecting Pool behind it was long and green, littered with coins. I stuck my GoPro into the water to try to get an interesting shot of either the coins or the passing ducks. Not only were the pictures mediocre, DC security must’ve thought I was a massive idiot.

Reflecting Pool coins

When you walk up to the Lincoln Memorial, you start to realize its size. As you get closer, you expect it to get larger, but it’s only once you’re at the end of the Pool and at the base of the steps that you really see it. It looks like it’s right against the Pool, but it’s not. You still have a number of steps and wide landings to summit.

Lincoln Memorial outside

It’s big. And in the rain, the ground mirrors the Memorial and its surroundings, though it’s not slick. Then, once you step between the columns and under the roof, President Lincoln is also large, but dwarfed by the cavernous room where he sits.

Lincoln Memorial inside

By this point Cait and I were wet from the waist down, our shoes soaked. We stood under the overhang, looking out toward the Monument. There were so many sights we hadn’t seen, and I definitely wanted to see the White House before I left. But I needed time to dry my jeans and change shoes before checking in for my flight to Dubai.

Lincoln Memorial MLK

Setting back out in the rain, we decided to skip going to the top of the Washington Monument. We visited the Vietnam Memorial, a solemn, quiet place—save for the loud Chinese tour guide behind us.

Vietnam Memorial

Then we trudged another mile to the White House. It was when we stood in front of the White House that the rain began to let up. In fact, as we walked around to the other side of the House, the rain stopped.

Just in time for us to finish touring the city and get back on the metro.

White House

This picture is an anal-retentive person’s nightmare. The fountain silhouettes beautifully in the embellished part of the gate on the right. No one was standing in my way. It would’ve made a much better picture. But I didn’t care. And I rather like this off-kilter version.

DC was a great time, even with rain, no sleep, and sore feet. It had been a long, tiring day, and after drying up and taking a ten-minute power nap at Caitlin’s, I was en route to the airport.

Gratefully, on my flight to Dubai, I sat next to a cool girl from Toronto. She and I both slept almost the entirety of the flight, and apparently I didn’t wake her up the two times I kicked her in my sleep. I woke myself up with my leg spasms. It’s a miracle she didn’t feel anything.

The next time I was on land, 13 hours later, it was on the other side of the planet in the United Arab Emirates. It was 8pm, 12 hours later than San Diego, and I was going to stay up all night seeing the city with my friend Nitin.

Salvation Mountain, California. AKA The Will-I-Ever-Get-There Roadtrip

Salvation Mountain is an art project started by Leonard Knight that’s roughly 35 years old. The version that exists today is the second iteration, after the first crumbled, and is now maintained by volunteers since Knight passed away in early 2014.

You don’t need to know anything about Knight, or even about the mountain, before you go. Because no matter how much you’ve prepared for it, once you show up all you can really do is say, “Huh.”

asf

An iPhone pano of much of the site, featuring my shadow

I drove several hours to and from Slab City, a makeshift, tiny community that exists because people say it does. It’s just north of Niland, California, off Beal Road. There are RVs and other mobile homesteads that make up the area, which was originally the location for the WWII Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap. At least, that’s what Wikipedia says.

Slab City

Slab City, as seen from the top of the mountain

This area is roughly 180 feet below sea level. It’s just east of the Salton Sea, which is even lower. Driving out there, especially solo, makes you wonder if you’ve lost your mind. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, and you kind of are. You drive up 111, desperately scanning the area for this three-story-high supposed mountain, and feeling like you’re never going to get there.

When you finally start seeing other vehicles that are obviously not local, you start to feel better. You follow them as you turn onto Main Street/Beal Street, go through a humble “neighborhood”, and pass the slightly creepy, dilapidated, graffitied, Romanesque, abandoned building on one corner.

That building needs all those adjectives. I didn’t get a picture, but I should’ve. It was something.

Soon you go over a tiny bridge and pass a concrete stand on the right side of the road that looks like a great place to cook meth. But painted boldly on the side facing you is “Slab City. The last free place. Almost there!”

the shack

I considered parking there because I assumed “the last free place” meant for parking. I lived in Dallas too long.

the road

Continue past the welcome shack and around the bend

Around the bend, you see it. And you cock your head to the side and go, “Huh.”

sign

They make it obvious where to turn in

Salvation Mountain isn’t imposing. When I first got there, I didn’t think much of it. Then I started to explore, and soon I felt good about coming. And not because I’m a Christian in a place that has “GOD IS LOVE” painted as high as I am tall – because, honestly, much of Knight’s Christian message is fire and brimstone. Which isn’t really my thing.

the mountain

The mountain and one of the painted vehicles

But for some reason, this pious place brings people together no matter what they believe. I parked, pulled out my camera, and locked my car, with the rest of my gear and my purse fully visible inside. I was safe, surrounded by people who were there because they wanted to be there. I felt a sense of community.

It’s weird.

I wandered around taking pictures, venturing into the two biggest side projects: awkwardly roofed rooms off to the right of the mountain.

side thing

The larger of the two side projects. Once you walk in it’s expansive, with little rooms and the trippiest ceiling ever. “Ceiling”.

Pictures boggle your mind a bit, even if you were the one who took them.

dfbg

There are also painted vehicles, a simply painted boat, and the creepiest swing on the planet in the parking lot.

swing

As for the mountain itself, there are a number of signs asking people not to climb; there is, however, a “yellow-brick road”, as signs call it, that leads visitors to the top.

road sign

You get to the top, by the cross, and you turn to look around. And the thought that comes to mind is, “Huh.”

It’s not an arduous climb. You don’t have some kind of incredible view at the summit. You see the sliver of the large Salton Sea. You see the humble mountains. The sky is pretty, but you’re staring directly into the sunset. It’s not really anything special.

The view from the top of the mountain. That's apparently the Sea of Galilee, and you can see five vehicles. And a boat.

The view from the top. That’s apparently the Sea of Galilee, and you can see five vehicles. And a boat.

But still, you kind of want to just hang out there for a minute and take it in.

So I sat. I didn’t have any deep thoughts. I didn’t feel closer to God. But I was content.

A few minutes later, I stood and went behind the cross. I saw Slab City at my 11 o’clock, and the two squat abandoned water tanks, embellished with their own art, at my 2 o’clock.

water

Abandoned water tanks, now artists’ playgrounds

I considered walking to the tanks for a closer look, and if I go back, I will. They were only a quarter-of-a-mile away, give or take, but I was thinking of the 3ish-hour drive back to San Diego. I didn’t want to get on the road too late.

If you enjoy kooky art projects and road trips to the middle of nowhere, go. If you’re a hippie, go. If you’re a photographer, go – there were lots of us there. It’s a unique experience, to say the least.

the mountain

One part says JESUS in giant, baby pink letters and then, underneath, in bright red, FIRE. JESUS FIRE.

Scotland. Yes, it was awesome.

Going to Scotland at the end of winter meant the landscapes looked less like the postcards and screensavers everyone’s seen. The colors of the land, and the sky at times, were muted, but the clear sky and water were brilliant. Rainclouds were dollops of whipped cream over water and quieting gray blankets over land.

Scotland has a rawness to it that’s incredibly appealing. Our whirlwind trip didn’t allow us enough time to sit back and get to know the country as well as we wanted to, but the bit we saw was [adjective]. Just… everything.

Caitlin and I visited Edinburgh, Inverness, Portree, the Isle of Skye, and Glasgow, and between us we took nearly 2,000 pictures over the course of five days. Here are 75.

The waves and peaks of San Diego

San Diego is a dry, brown city shoved in the bottom left corner of the United States. It might as well be TijuanDiego.

But hey – at least it’s California!

This just in: I used to be an idiot when it came to anything San Diego. In my defense, it was a former boss’s fault; he told me that the city used to be a desert until all the foliage was brought in, which led me to believe the city was the ugly stepsister to San Francisco. Flat. Dusty. Front lawns full of rocks and sand. Pancake beaches reminiscent of Florida’s coastline.

Even though I fell in love with California when I visited San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Ventura, I just never felt the urge to visit San Diego.

Then my friend Jennifer told me to come visit her. In desperate need of a weekend outside Texas’s border, I booked a cheap flight and found myself on southern California soil late on a Thursday night. I was excited to be there and catch up, but was pretty apathetic about seeing the area.

Jenn picked me up around 11pm. My 48-pound checked bag with 30 bottles of Texas craft beer inside survived the jostling of the trip, and we excitedly chatted as we drove north to her apartment. I saw the beautiful skyline lit against the dark night, and then noticed the city’s lights dotting the scene outside my window.

“Hills! Wait! There are hills?”

Not only is San Diego very much not flat, it’s also lush and beautiful. It’s not brown. Even on the beach (well, one beach), where the sand is brown, there’s mica that makes the beach shimmer as though it’s covered in gold glitter. San Diego isn’t shoved anywhere, and it doesn’t seem like the conjoined twin to Tijuana, Mexico. Just like the pilot said as we were landing, San Diego County is paradise.

(If you want to read the captions or see the photos in their enlarged glory, click.)

Taiwan photos: Find the light

Sometimes I just take pictures; I don’t stretch myself creatively. After a few years of shooting, it’s instinct to keep the horizon level, watch the rule of thirds, or to focus on balance. It’s generally easy to focus correctly or take a picture most people will find visually appealing. My pictures aren’t the best, but they’re above average.

When Sabrina and I left for Taiwan, I decided that my goal with my photos on the trip was to find the light. I’ve been fascinated recently by paintings and photography that really captures the light in a beautiful way. A piece that glows, like Ivan Aivazovsky’s The Ninth Wave, just captures me.

So I tried to capture the light. I didn’t necessarily succeed with all these shots, but I’m a fan of how they turned out, and these are some of my favorite pictures from the trip. All are straight out of the camera.

One:

light

Two:

light

Three:

light

Four:

light

Five:

light

Six:

light

Seven:

light

Eight:

light

Nine:

light

Ten:

light

light

Eleven:

light

Twelve:

light

Thirteen:

light

Fourteen:

light

Fifteen:

light

Sixteen:

light

Seventeen:

light

Eighteen:

light

Nineteen:

light

Taiwan photos: 71-80

One:

metro

Lamest photo ever, right? I took it to show one thing: how incredibly wide the subway cars in Taipei are. Granted, it gets really full during rush hour on some lines, but there’s so much space. And you’re not allowed to eat or drink on them, so they stay fairly clean.

Two:

psychic

For giggles, Sabrina and I tracked down a psychic in the subway station by Longshan Temple. There are several stalls in a row, and this man spoke English. He read her palm, asked her birthdate, asked for her boyfriend’s birthdate…

Three:

digital

…AND THEN PUT THE INFO INTO HIS COMPUTER. Psychics have computer programs now. Technology, man.

Four:

lights

Sabrina had to go to the restroom in Taipei Main Station, which is Taipei’s version of Grand Central Station. Outside the restroom on the wall was this display. Thanks to the lights, I knew exactly which stall Sabrina was in. How creepy is that?

Five:

snake

While we were near Longshan Temple, we tracked down HuaXi Street – also known as Snake Alley. We saw two snake restaurants, and they didn’t allow pictures. Otherwise it was kind of boring.

Six:

steps

Sabrina sitting on the entry steps of Longshan Temple. We arrived in time to hear the afternoon prayers and chanting.

Seven:

wall

Back in Nanliao, this wall. Do you see the Ninja Turtle?

Eight:

pop

One night we visited my former housemate’s bar – Barfly. Their shot for Lunar New Year was the Unicorn, which was a tiny shot of pink Pop Rocks followed by pink alcohol (I forgot what kind). It was quite the experience.

Nine:

ew

And then Sabrina forced me to try grilled chicken foot. As she put it: “It’s a lot of work for not a lot of meat.” And a talon – I totally ate the claw by accident.

Ten:

 

Minke

Expats in Taiwan know Minke (“Min-kuh”), a clothing store operated by Mari, a South African. Mari played personal shopper, and Sabrina ended up spending plenty of quality time and money there. This is the inside of Minke, and that’s Mari on the left helping Sabrina find a gift for her sister. If you’re in Taiwan, Hsinchu especially, you need to know Mari.

Taiwan photos: 61-70

One:

mug

In Neiwan, Sabrina found a small shop where she could buy ceramic mugs and personalize the wooden handle. At the top, she wrote her nickname for her boyfriend in Chinese.

Two:

yum

Yummy pyramid-rice-meat-steamed-wrapped-in-leaves thingy! No, seriously, these are delicious.

Three:

train

Riding the train from Neiwan to Hsinchu. This is the conductor, who was in the same car as us, but never checked my ticket. That’s a good thing, because I’d bought the wrong one at half the price (67 cents as opposed to $1.40.).

Four:

biking

We rented three quad bikes to ride around Nanliao. Here are Ryan, Linda, Jack, and Sunny behind us.

Five:

nanliao

The Nanliao coastline. Look far enough and you’ll see China.

Six:

path

We biked on the 17km of Scenic Coastline, as the guidebooks like to call it. Sabrina and I didn’t want to do it, but Sunny wouldn’t accept No. And then we had a blast.

Seven:

dumplings

Din Tai Fung, a world-famous dumplings restaurant. You can watch the chefs make the dumplings fresh, by hand, in the kitchen. They are the most delicious dumplings you’ll ever eat.

Eight:

balloon

Check out the blue balloon. At the 7 o’clock position – do you see it? DO YOU SEE THE DART? Yeah, I almost won a pony, but that stupid green dart was a millimeter off.

Nine:

bird

We played real-life Angry Birds. This is why I love night markets in Taiwan – the ridiculous and super fun games.

Ten:

 

pots

These are the essential oils pots I posted about previously. My mom wants me to get her some, which I should’ve realized while we were in Neiwan. So hey – if you want an essential oils pot, I’ll try to get you one, too.

Taiwan photos: 51-60

One:

giant

Sunny messaged me at 8am one morning and asked if Sabrina and I wanted to see something cool. Two hours later, we were at the base of this incredibly happy Buddha. It was part of an enormous complex we weren’t able to enter.

Two:

tea mix

After giant happy Buddha, we went to a traditional Hakka tea house. For the snack, we had to grind up sesame seeds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and green tea until it was a thick paste.

Three:

Hakka snack

The paste was then served in bowls with hot water and rice puffs. It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted, which is saying something. Sabrina and I both really liked it.

Four:

rose tea

Accompanying the snack was rose tea.

Five:

red tea boxes

The small shop offered a number of different teas and snacks made in the area.

Six:

snake character

On a handmade sign, a snake.

Seven:

textures

We left the tea house and walked to a temple. Once again, there were building-less doors scattered around. I don’t know what it is about Taiwan, but there are a lot of interesting looking doors discarded everywhere.

Eight:

balanced

A shop near the temple.

Nine:

ET

Later, in Neiwan, Sabrina met ET.

Ten:

pots

Small potpourri pots – pour scented oil into the narrow mouth, then roll the ball trapped inside to release the scent. It’s a pretty cool idea.