Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Trip Review: Embera Village Panama

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A really amazing and unique experience in Panama is visiting an Embera Village.  There are many options for getting to them and most hotels can arrange it for you.  Note that you need a guide, you can not go on your own.  Getting to the villages is an amazing journey in and of itself.  From Panama City we took a two hour bus ride and then boarded a canoe on the Chagres River, which is the river that leads into the Panama Canal.  Your guide will arrange for dug out canoes to pick you up at a spot along the river where you will be taken on another two hour trip, but this time in the canoe along the river with beautiful sites to see.
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On the river ride look out for beautiful birds and turtles in the water and the occasional donkey or mule on the river banks.
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The villages are protected in a national park and can only be reached by the canoe. Try to do your research and make sure you don't go to one that is being visited by a huge tour group. I went with the tour group that I was on, which consisted of 9 people and I would have much rather been there alone or with a small group for a more meaningful experience. I don't speak much Spanish, and the Embera's actually speak a dialect of Spanish so we were not able to have long conversations without the translator, but I found that with simple gestures and a smile I was able to communicate just fine, especially with the children. The Embera Indians are a very old culture, dressing the same as they did 500 years ago. They are struggling with some of the same issues that the Kuna Yala Indians are- trying to connect ancient traditions with modern living. The village we visited had under 100 people living there in about 20 thatched dwellings and one large thatched covering for meetings and shelter when it rains (which it does a lot).  They sleep mostly in hammocks strung up inside the huts.  The village had just gotten their first generator and the village chief's hut had just gotten the village's very first light bulb.  While every hut may not have electricity, every hut has a giant stick in the middle of it to scare bats away at night.  It must be a strange culture shock for them to leave for school.  The older kids go to boarding school in Panama City and some are even heading off to colleges in the states.
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They are very gifted craft, musical instrument and jewelery makers, traditions that have been passed on through the generations. The men wear only a red loin cloth and then women wear a sarong on their bottom halves and elaborate jewelry and nothing else. They cover their bodies in tattoos made from the Jagua nut. They are similar to henna tattoos in the application. The Embera's use the Jagua nut for many things, it can be prepared in many ways and has amazing abilities. The tattoo that they apply to their bodies repels mosquitoes (it actually does they are naked and un-bitten while I was covered head to toe and left looking like I had the chicken pox). It also can be used as shampoo/conditioner and keeps their hair silky and a beautiful dark brown. We were given a demonstration of how they prepare the nut for tattooing, but how to prepare the nut for its most astonishing ability is kept a secret.
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The Jagua nut's other use is its application to newborn babies to all of their bodies except their scalps and eyebrows, which stops the growth of hair follicles. This means they have absolutely no body or facial hair- both men and women. I told them it needs to be marketed in America! Imagine never shaving or waxing again, unfortunately it only works on infants. I made friends with two little girls at the village who showed me around and introduced me to their family. I introduced them to my dad who was with me and they were amazed by his beard and kept trying to pull it out, not believing it was growing from his face.
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The girls were adorable and showed me around the village, introducing me to their pet kinkajou that had been injured in the rain forest and nursed back to health and then adopted by the village. They also showed me the villages dogs, chickens, ducks and parrots. They didn't have to show me the rooster I discovered him all on my own at 4am when the sun came up and he started crowing. I suggest ear plugs for a good nights sleep if you stay overnight in the village!
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It is an amazing experience when done right that I highly recommend. Remember that you are a guest in the village and act appropriately and culturally sensitive. Remember that these are people just like you and do not treat them like an exhibit in a natural history museum as many tours in remote villages tend to do. Find common bonds and have an amazing cultural exchange you will never forget.
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The chief's daughter sitting in my lap compares her bare feet to my father's feet in expensive walking shoes and mosquito repelling socks and pants.  The best kind of travel opens your mind to new experiences and allows you to connect in even the smallest way with different cultures.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Travel Review: Ancon Hill, Panama

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Panama is on the fast train to becoming one of the best new spots for eco-tourism, but you better go fast before it becomes overbuilt, overcrowded and extremely packed with tourists like Costa Rica.  It's already on its way there with major hotels and developers like Trump claiming their spots in downtown Panama City.  Downtown in Panama City you already start to get the feeling of being in a major city with lots of noise, grime and infrastructure, but just a 10 minute cab ride from the heart of the city is Ancon Hill.  Ancon Hill is known as an island of jungle in the middle of the city because it is literally a 654-foot hill in Panama City that is almost completely undeveloped and feels like being in the middle of the rain forest.  The US military had bases on the hill and it was one of the last plots of land given back to Panama, which meant it was never fully developed.  There are some homes on the lower part (including one of the president's vacation homes) but for the most part it is jungle.  There is one hotel nestled into the hill, a small B&B named La Estancia.  The hotel is nothing fancy, but it is clean and simple and you couldn't ask for a better location.  As some of my readers already know I am deathly afraid of spiders and I was worried a little B&B in the forest could be overrun with them, but I am pleased to report not one spider sighting inside the hotel!

What really makes this area amazing is the abundance of flora and fauna that can be seen just looking outside your window.  Every morning tamarin monkeys come to eat bananas left out by the hotel staff so you can watch them eat their breakfast as you eat yours.  They are very friendly and even took a banana right from my dads hand! (Remember to be careful though, these are wild animals).   It is a short 20 minute hike from the hotel up to the top of the hill and along the way we saw monkeys, toucans, frogs, butterflies, sloths and a ton of creepy crawly insects.  Staying on Ancon Hill and getting to see beautiful animals like the Toucan, Poison Dart Frog and Blue Morpho Butterfly that are seriously threatened by human actions was an eye opening experience and marked the start of my series of photographing endangered and threatened species in their natural habitats.  It was on this trip that I got the idea to go to the Arctic (and then spent the next 6 months convincing my dad that we should go).

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I know some of you might worry about being outside the city center, but I promise it is not far at all.  We went into town every night for dinner in taxis the hotel called for us and it would be 10 minutes door to door.  Some of those taxi rides are actually my favorite stories from Panama.  We had no problem ever getting into the city, but getting back to the hotel was always an adventure.  Taxis would agree to take us there without a problem, but something strange happened every time.  The first night our taxi stopped for gas at 2 different stations on the way there, a practice we later learned was normal in Panama.  The second night our driver got a flat half way up the mountain and of course didn't have a spare.  This was actually kind of scary and the one draw back to staying somewhere a little more remote.  We spoke no Spanish and could not communicate with the driver.  After a 10 minute wait with no cars passing we were about to give up and trek down the pitch black mountain back to the city another cab came by and picked us up.  The third night our cabdriver stopped and picked up a hooker.  Yes you read that right...We were sitting in the back and a woman was on the side of the road dressed...well not dressed in much...and she yelled to him, he yelled back and she hopped right in the cab and they started giggling and whispering to each other.  Our final cab reeked of gasoline so badly and the windows wouldn't open I almost passed out by the end of it.  As crazy as those stories are everyone who goes to Panama seems to have them and you can tell them proudly with a badge of honor!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Travel Review: San Blas Islands, Panama

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In the summer of 2008 I went to Panama for 2 weeks of exploring and photo taking.  This trip was my first real taste for photographing wildlife and while I've always had the travel bug this trip really solidified my decision to go into travel and wildlife photography.  We went all over Panama, starting in the city and then over to an Embera Village then to the San Blas Islands and then the Coche Mountains in the Cloud Forest.  The San Blas Islands are starting to rise in popularity as a tourist destination.  They are made up of a series of over 350 islands many completely deserted filled with sandy beaches and palm trees.  It sounds like paradise, but there are some definite cons to the islands.  Tourism is really in development stages there so don't come looking here for luxury.  We stayed at one of the nicer hotels, The Sapibenega, which was a small resort that was on its own little island only reachable by canoe (which is the main transport system for the islands).  The hotel was made up of small individual cabins with balconies that were suspended over the ocean which allowed for amazing private views.  As I mentioned tourism is still developing in the area and certain basics were very lacking.  When we went to a deserted island to snorkel they brought a broken snorkel for me missing one eye piece and the piece that attaches the snorkel to the eye piece so i had to keep one eye closed and hold my snorkel up and they brought my dad a child size that barely fit over his head.  One of the best parts of the hotel is the food.  The hotel staff literally jumps right into the water and grabs langoustines, crabs, fish whatever you want and cook it up fresh in front of you.  I get a little freaked out by lobster still in its shell (although I have gotten better since this trip) so I was a bit freaked out, but everyone else loved the food!

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The islands are inhabited by the Kuna Yala Indians who have large communities on two islands and then live spread out on the other small islands.   Visiting the main village was actually not a great experience it is a prime example of how irresponsible tourism can affect a beautiful culture.  There is a law amongst the Kuna's that if a tourist takes their photo they must pay $1.  We were told this law comes from an incident when the chief saw a picture of his wife being sold on a postcard for $1 and felt that he should be earning the money and put in the dollar law.  Unfortunately his law trying to stop exploitation seems to have furthered it.  When we walked through the village we were crowded by children trying to push themselves on us screaming for us to take their picture and pay them money.  The Kuna's have one of the highest rates of inbreeding in the world and have many albinos in their community.  They call them "Moon Children" and they tried to push them on us and demand we take their picture and pay.  I don't have any photos of that because I refused to participate, the whole thing just left me filling sick.  The culture is at a difficult crossroads between ancient traditions and the modern world.  The older women still dress traditionally in their molas and jewelry, but the younger women and kids wear modern knockoff clothing that say things like nikee and addidas.  When they see you coming with the camera though they run and change and put on their more traditional clothes hoping to allure photographers.  It all felt very exploitative and wrong.  It would be great if someone could set up a better form of tourism where there is more cultural exchange like the models that are being put in place right now in parts of Africa and South East Asia.  The tourism companies could help support the village instead of just the individual tourists handing out money creating a village of beggars.  Nobody is benefiting from the current system.

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The older Kuna woman are very proud of the culture and still wear their traditional clothes everyday.  We had a private photo session with them where we spent time talking with them (they spoke very little english, but we made it work with hand motions) and taking pictures.  The canoe driver was the son of one of the women who brought his daughter so there were three generations of the one family there.  It was very hot and after we finished taking pictures I jumped in the water to cool down.  The little girl came in with me and we played together.  The older women were watching us and I was thinking it must be hard for them in their traditional clothes because they can't swim in them, but then all three women made a dash for the water and jumped in fully dressed.  It was a wonderful moment that I won't soon forget swimming with the multiple generations of Kuna women on a beautiful stretch of deserted beach.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

PDN Photo Annual 2010 Website + New Camera!

The gallery of all PDN Photo Annual 2010 winners is now online.  Three of my images are included in the stock section!  Check it out if here!

I received some emails from a few of you readers that the every day posting pace was a little hard to keep up and you would prefer a slower pace. I hear you guys and really appreciate the feedback!  I will try posting at a 2-3 day pace from now on.

Exciting news I finally got in my D3S!  I gave up on B&H when I called them and was told there was no end in site to the wait list and it was a total lie that they told me they were getting in shipments every 2-3 weeks.  Cameta Camera Store had one in stock that they were selling for only $500 above retail price.  I was convinced that something had to be wrong with it and I was given a strange run around on the phone with different stories told to me and my father, but it seemed that if they did in fact have it, it was the only left in the entire United States so I figured what's the worst that could happen and I bought it.  I promptly got it 2 days later and it is in fact real and amazing!  All the hype is true, it is the most amazing piece of equipment I've ever had.  Combining it with my 70-200mm lens just makes my heart sing!  I tested it out on a hike in Franklin Canyon, which I will post about in a few days along with a full camera review, but here is a preview of the images this baby takes!

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dear Deer

As I mentioned before we saw deer everywhere! Below are some of my favorites. Remember these are wild animals and should not be approached too closely and should not be fed.
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Sunday, June 20, 2010

 
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