Anyeli

One of the things that I admire about children in less financially prosperous communities is their competence.  From a very young age they are able to successfully handle many things that their counterparts from more affluent households wouldn’t begin to know how to approach: growing and harvesting crops, cooking, caring for younger siblings, shepherding livestock, selling fruits and vegetables in the market.  Yet mixed with my admiration for their abilities is a hope that these hard-working children will one day get their “fair share”.  

The particular girl in these photographs, Anyelica, handled her chores as a young child with great discipline and good humor.  She was deservedly proud to show me what she did to contribute to the well-being of her family as she worked diligently around her home.  From cleaning, to washing, to preparing food, she did it all.  As she grew older her life took a dramatic turn (resulting from an incredibly intelligent and committed aunt who found her way to Europe and strove to help her extended family, among others).

At age 17, Anyelica now lives in a nicely finished house with all the amenities, multiple bedrooms, a modern kitchen, trendy furniture, and a gated yard - in an entirely different neighborhood.  She spends her time studying or lounging on her pillowed bed, keeping up with her friends via chats on her i-pad.  Somewhat out of place when she visits her old neighborhood, I wonder how much she thinks about what her life might have been.

Of Dogs and Boars

 

It’s not only in the United States that human expansion has led to habitation of areas that were for a long time inhospitable.  Amidst this arid landscape in Morocco, not only are people present, but modern amenities (as well as timeless artistic traditions like weavings and dance performances) are available to tourists and locals alike.  Springing from the prosperity of the manicured touristed area, on the periphery of town are buildings like those shown here: block-like but air-conditioned - an eyesore in the expansiveness of the surroundings but a boon to their inhabitants.  As if bridging the divide between the constructed and the natural, in the second photograph a dog sits chained, gazing towards the nearby hills.

At dawn, while walking not more than 5 minutes from the area shown, a chorus of barking dogs caught my attention.  Looking to see what had caused the disturbance, I saw a dark, grizzled boar trotting briskly along with at least a half-dozen canines yapping and lunging at its heels.  At first I was surprised to see a wild animal so close to town, but undoubtedly boar lived in the region since well before the freshly painted buildings were built.  Loath to see the animal harassed, I tried shouting at the dogs and throwing some stones, but the group was too fast for me and disappeared over a hill.  By the time I reached the summit, dogs and boar alike were well off into the distance, the entire situation beyond my control.

Past and Future

For years, I’ve been attracted to the textures and time-worn character of architecture in decay, spaces (urban, suburban and rural) devoid of people, and previously used elements of the cityscape sitting idle.  Being in these areas can sometimes feel like I’m at once seeing time move backwards and forwards:  Backwards, as I imagine the places and buildings during their heyday; forwards, because of my sense of impending apocalypse and a belief that the empty streets or shells of buildings may foreshadow what’s on the horizon for society in general.

For the most part, I’ve paid little mind to the isolation and eeriness that surrounds the areas described, although at times I’ve suddenly become aware of the potential for danger.  In a dirt lot that spanned an entire block in Guadalajara, for example, as I was photographing the wasteland of broken bottles, trash, concrete blocks and twisted metal strewn between the 12-foot walls that enclosed the area, a man in tattered clothes suddenly emerged from behind some cardboard boxes about 100 feet away.  While tempted to approach and ask to take his photograph (as a representation of humanities existence in hostile surroundings), I realized that if he was addled by drugs or armed I would be open to attack and opted for retreat.  

Yet my intention is not to show the scenes I’ve photographed as completely stark.  Against the backdrops of lifeless human constructions, many images hold a kernel of hope.  Be it a a tuft of vegetation growing out of a derelict building, a bird perched on an antenna in an unglamorous downtown, or even people (rendered diminutive by their surroundings), nature’s resilience can be found.  Let us hope that will always be the case.

Yennifer

Here’s a diptych of Dario and his Granddaughter Yennifer.  When Yennifer was just a baby, she would sometimes spend a full hour sitting on Dario’s sofa, carefully spooning serving after serving of rice and beans into her mouth.  Triumphant at his ability (really his wife Martina’s) to provide such sustenance, Dario would scoop Yennifer up from her seat, toss her into the air, and speaking in baby-talk tell her she would become the most beautiful “cuero"* in the neighborhood.  Many of the neighbors were visibly perturbed by the statement (despite its semi-jocular delivery), knowing that profession to be far from unknown in the community.

Luckily, Yennifer grew up, first to be a very warm and friendly child who delighted in games and fruits and took good care of her younger brother, and now to be a teenager, who quietly spends time studying, at home with family, and reading the Bible.  At age 16, many of her friends have begun to have children and move in with their boyfriends, but Yennifer has opted to follow her mother’s (and my) advice and not rush into full-fledged adulthood.  I’m very proud of her but do worry about some of the older men that have taken an interest in her and the rumors that she has a taste for beer.

On a side note - I love the creepiness of the dolls that periodically surface and the fact that they are collected and valued despite their decrepitude and oddness.

*The term “cuero” (literally “leather” or “skin”) colloquially translates roughly to “hooker.”

Children

Children in general, but particularly in places like Latin America, have been a source of joy for me for many years.  During my own childhood, I reveled in the improvised games and raucous, multi-aged bands of playmates I encountered during trips abroad.  The ingenuity, imagination, and sheer energy of our activities were something I did not find in my middle-class community in the United States.  Later, during stints working on community service activities as a high school or college student, I found ways to continue to engage with children, attempting to bridle their energies when, for example, I was teaching them math - yet still finding humor in their antics, and myself, too, looking forward to break time when we’d play kick-ball or some other game of their design.  

As a photographer, I’ve spent a great deal of my energy on portraits and street scenes - focusing on children and their lives: young Buddhist monks training, street children wandering cities in groups, country children tending livestock or following their parents to join in chores, or children of the shanties making the best of the only world they know.  I’ve tried to communicate the personality, openness, and emotion of the individuals I’ve photographed as well as provide a glimpse into their realities.  In this series I share images of six children I’ve met during my travels.  Each is from a different place and background, yet somehow they are unified.  

There will be more series of children to follow.

Up the River

The Amazon River, as you surely know, is legendary.  It’s name alone conjures images of remote jungle and tribal people with little connection to modernity.  While there may be areas along its banks that fulfill such legend, much of the river serves as a major roadway, shared by, among others; small boats carrying villagers short distances, indigenous people fishing in canoes, huge barges bringing industrial supplies to cities*, luxury boats housing tourists on all inclusive nature expeditions, military patrols, and multilevel ferries transporting hundreds of passengers on grueling journeys that sometimes last for weeks.  

Unsurprisingly, carved out of the landscape in proximity to this “highway”, are communities of varying sizes and character.  The three photographs I am sharing are an attempt to articulate the grit and feel of some of the mid-sized towns or cities.  Without the glamour of an opera house or baroque architecture like the cities of Manaus or Belem, or the “exotic” feel of barely noticeable indigenous settlements where the few dozen inhabitants subsist on both potato chips and freshly caught fish, the areas I am depicting are without immediate beauty or intrigue.

Nonetheless, they are the backdrop for the lives of many, and as I explored I came to love the ramshackle-nature of the communities and the unusualness of the cast of characters and their dispirit activities.  During my explorations through markets, museums, and along public transportation routes, I got a sense of the area’s diversity.  I encountered an unexpected addition to a fish market when I noticed a dead monkey for sale - brought by canoe from further upriver - whose luminous white skin was being exposed as an indigenous man carefully used his machete to scrape off the fur.  There were people dressed as they imagined ancient Israelies dressed, with robes and rope belts, following a popular religion.  A white man sitting in an internet café appeared to be painted from head to foot with a black substance (extracted from a nut), in a manner consistent with traditional indigenous “tattooing’ - having apparently returned from a destination quite remote.  There were whispers of drugs and soldiers were stationed to guard the compound of a busted kingpin.  Indigenous people, far from their childhood communities, were sprawled in drug or alcohol induced catatonia at the ports.  Other indigenous people were living happily with their families and neighbors in houses built on stilts - enjoying electricity, access to medical care, food, and kinship.  Tourists and the town’s elite mixed in air conditioned cafés as they sipped cappuccinos and ate freshly baked pastries.

Depending on one’s perspective areas like the ones shown might be apocalyptic or flush with opportunity and riches… but for a traveling photographer, they were nothing short of unique.

Alone in the Land of Milk and Honey

Nepal, Tibet and people of Buddhist societies are often admired, even venerated by Americans of certain demographics.  I, myself, find the idea of a life guided by mindfulness, compassion, and simplicity attractive (at least conceptually).  After a trip to Nepal, however, I am less inclined to glorify any particular country or group of people.

Throughout Kathmandu, I encountered many children living as street urchins, usually moving in packs but sometimes on their own.  Ragged, dirty and thin, they reminded me of Dickensian waifs - not menacing (as their counterparts in Latin America sometimes are), but prone to stealing a loaf of bread from a counter or extracting an unsecured item from one’s person.  

One of the most moving scenes I have ever encountered (because of the precariousness of the two beings’ existence, their love for each other and symbiotic bond) was just outside the part of the city where tourists sleep, eat, explore ancient architecture, and prepare for treks into the Himalayas.  Sleeping in an inconspicuous doorway was a boy, left to his own devices at 11 or 12 years of age, under a worn blanket, with a dog nestled in his arms.  Only their heads protruding from underneath the covering, one beside the other, it was still clear that they were completely relaxed in one another’s presence.  Loath to disturb their slumber by hovering over them to take a photograph, I opted to leave my camera in its bag, and prayed that both dog and boy would succeed in protecting and providing for one another.

According to more than one source, the explanation behind the plethora of street children in Kathmandu is heartbreaking.  Apparently, sometimes when women remarry (after leaving or losing the father of their children), they are pressured to dispose of their existing offspring.  In other instances, parents from the countryside simply do not have the capacity to eke out enough sustenance from the earth to provide for all of their children.  Since the capital of Nepal is thought of as the “land of milk and honey” by those living in the unforgiving mountains, it’s perceived as an ideal place to abandon children.  Hence, many boys, in particular, but also girls, are left to wait in markets during family excursions to the city by parents who will not return, or are “accidentally” separated in busy intersections, not to see their loved ones again.

The first of these photographs shows the very edge of a small town with an expanse of landscape extending behind the Buddhist prayer wheels.  The second photograph depicts a young child haunting a busy area of Kathmandu.  Due to the language barrier, I do not know the particulars of the girl shown nor her provenance.  Maybe she did have a family she returned to at the end of each day and perhaps she spent her entire life in Kathmandu. Yet it is certain that there are many, many children like her who HAVE found themselves alone in the city after an early childhood in the country is abruptly cut short, who will never be reunited with their families.

Factory Town

This photograph communicates quite a number of the thoughts and realities I’ve referenced in previous posts.  One of these is the recognition of the camaraderie and shared experience of the group of young boys standing in a circle as they share a casual moment together in the late afternoon.  As a child, I yearned to have a peer group like the one shown, and in fact to this day feel a twinge of jealousy for the social bond of these boys, having grown up without a close circle of companions myself.  

Another thing I notice is the lithe, physical strength of the ball players - and the fact that one of them is barefoot.  In the 30+ years I’ve observed people playing sports in the United States, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single person playing basketball barefoot.  It must be terrible for the feet and joints, but clearly the pain is not immediate enough to stop the individual shown from engaging in something he loves.  

Finally, of course, the environment itself gives context to the activities of the people.  The grasses are unkempt, and the smokestack bears testament to the type of work available and the potential for unhealthy levels of pollution.  Taken together, we have a portrait of hardship and vitality, scarcity and joy, limitations transcended, at least for the moment, with grace and perhaps more than a touch of defiance.

Dario Benjamin Ventura Ventura

Patriarch of the Calle 8, Yagüita del Pastor, Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, Dario Benjamin Ventura Ventura, took me under his wing 20 years ago when I began documenting the neighborhood where he lives.  

Initially, I was unsure if his references to himself as a “León, Toro” and, incongruously, a “Camarón de agua sucia” (lion, bull, and shrimp of dirty waters*) were simply bluster, but after his son came to blows with another man from the neighborhood - who then, together with an assemblage of friends, followed up by pounding on Dario’s door to settle the score - I saw Dario in action.  Armed with a dagger, he stood slightly back from the door and dared anyone to cross his threshold.  Despite the high emotion of the group of men and the discrepancy in numbers and age (the five or so men were probably in their 30’s, while Dario must have been in his 60’s), not a single soul chose to take him up on his challenge. 

On another occasion, I saw a different side of Dario. A young man, devastated by the rejection of a woman whom he madly loved, dove off the top of a steep ravine, half falling, half sliding to the bottom - where Dario lived.  Hearing the commotion behind his ranchito, Dario came charging out his backdoor, his single eye assessing the situation.  Once he understood what had occurred, his face lit up with jeering laughter and he proceeded to clap and cheer as the “Ridiculo” wiped blood from his face and wobbled in an effort to stand up.  (The man turned out to have suffered no serious injuries).

Respected in his home and adapted to barrio life, Dario nonetheless never seemed quite so much in his element as when we traveled to his campo together.  He walked through his plots of land, inspecting crops that had persevered even without attention from his “sinverguenza” (shameless) city-dwelling sons, and casually pulled tremendous roots of yuca out of the ground or climbed trees to gather avocados.  Naked, smiling, in a natural pool formed at the base of a small waterfall in the river, he swam, and told me of the woman he met decades earlier in this same place… whom he ultimately married.

While others, young and old, have died with alarming frequency in La Yagüita, Dario has lived on, first watching both his children grow to become adults then his grandchildren reach maturity.  He has always welcomed me into his community, and even now that "El León" is an octogenarian, were I ever to find myself in trouble in La Yagüita, I would seek him out.

*  This turned out to be a reference to his ability to live anywhere.

Strength

I have great admiration for strength; whether it’s for a farmer in México who perseveres in tending to crops for long hours in the sun, a construction worker in India carrying load after load of debris by hand (and head), or a body-builder striving to reach his or her potential with only limited access to calories and nutrition in Cuba.  The commitment and output I have observed in materially limited societies (usually with only bare bones equipment and no medical safety-net) is stunning.  It’s no wonder to me that immigrants play a vital role in the United States.

Dilapidation and Truth

On a humid evening, in a down-and-out mining town of a few thousand situated on the banks of a once pristine river in Venezuela, when I declined to gift money to a youngish woman who lived across from my guesthouse, she flicked out her tongue, mimicked the unzipping of pants, and motioned towards my groin.  Having already been asked by this same woman for money a half-dozen times and been invited to go on a personalized jungle excursion (which the teenage attendant at my dilapidated guest house wildly gesticulated for me to decline) by a man who was identified as both her boyfriend and a thug, I decided I had had enough and firmly told her to leave me alone… which she did.

A couple hours later, as night settled, I sat in the town’s concrete square amongst a few dozen men who were drinking beer or waiting for buses.  Earlier that day, in the same square, when I was drinking coffee not beer, I had observed: someone’s pet parrot as it attacked various women who walked by, a very old German man who was known to have been in the military before arriving to inhabit the town in the early 1950’s, and an immensely tall and lanky European who I mistook for being the only other traveler around… until I learned that he was simply on release for the day from the prison on the other side of the 1000 foot-wide river.

Anyways, as I sat on the edge of the square that night, a nun emerged from a side street, flanked by about a half dozen people - including the woman who had propositioned me earlier.  Demeanor transformed, my would-be seductress was now affable, smiling, and engaging in conversation with the nun.  The Sister, in turn, was equally warm towards those that surrounded her and before parting gave each member of her flock a bag of food.  My first conclusion was that the nun had been conned and in her naïveté not realized who these people really were.  Years later, however, I wonder if it was I who had not perceived the true nature of my mendicant neighbor, seeing only her desperate drive to satisfy the addiction she was known to have… or if both versions of her had truth.

A Girl Grows Up in the Barrio

One of the most heart-wrenching manifestations of inequality I’ve observed is when the lives of people I know from the barrios turn out just as one might predict.  While there are multiple exceptions, many young men have ended up jailed or dead and young women have had to rely on their own ingenuity to provide a meager sustenance for their children.  One such person is my friend Cao.

During my first visits to La Yagüita, I immediately took to Cao.  She had a quiet, reflective aspect of her personality that leant itself to being photographed.  Over almost twenty years, I have compiled photographs of her at various stages of her life which depict that sensibility.

When I look at these two pictures, I feel as if the young Cao on the right is imagining her life as the older version of herself, and the older Cao on the left is remembering her childhood as she braids the hair of her daughter.  (In fact Cao has told me that when I take pictures of her she thinks about all of the years we have collaborated.)  In both cases, her expression seems to be more of resignation than hope or nostalgia.

Cao lives in the same house where she grew up.  Instead of the throng of children (siblings and cousins) who were once her playmates and rivals in the home, she is now the mother of three new children who are growing up much the way that she did.  She continues to live with her disabled brother and sometimes other siblings who sporadically show up (according to rumor, when they are on the run).  Her grandfather and grandmother died in the house some years ago, and her mother died there just two weeks ago.  

As much as I’d like to point to the unity of her family as exemplary, it often appears to be more of a survival mechanism driven by necessity than a situation born of warmth.  With scarcely a plate of rice to be eaten, Cao’s story is one that decimates any possibility of romanticizing the lives of the impoverished.  

You're Not Poor Until...

As a four year old child, during a summer stay in a town in Mexico, I remember being drawn to the warmth and unity of the families I met on my cobblestone street.  While they lived in crowded homes with dirt floors, rustic roofs, and spartan furniture, I did not think of the smiling adults or boisterous children as disadvantaged.  Instead, I noticed their camaraderie, closeness, and conviviality - all of which were lacking in my own life as an only child in a quiet California neighborhood far from my loose-knit family.

A man from Louisiana whom I met during my travels (who was on the run from the law) described how, as children, he and his friends felt perfectly contented with their lives until social service agencies found their way into his community and informed his family and neighbors that they needed help.  “You’re not poor until someone comes and tells you you’re poor,” he said, remembering the change in attitude he observed once his life was categorized as lacking.  

Of course, I understand the deprivations, hardships, and struggles people like my childhood neighbors in Mexico face.   And I recognize a need to strive for a more equitable world.  But I can’t help but feel that being constantly told that one is “poor” (through images of “normal” life on television, for example) devalues the positives of the life experience of the majority of the world.  I do believe that’s an antenna, in this picture from Colombia, connected to the back of the house…

A Difference in Response

One of the more difficult things for me during my trips, as well as life in general, has been when people I like do things that hurt other beings.  In keeping with the tradition of some of my favorite artists (the Ashcan School painters, Liliana Yampolsky, and Helen Levitt), I think of myself as a human first and an artist second.  What this means is that if I have a chance to intervene to stop something I don’t like I take it.  

I once encountered two young teens locked in combat.  It was late afternoon and the glowing sun illuminated their straining bodies with only the shadowed hillsides and sky in the background.  It would have made a fantastic image but I chose instead to separate the fighters and send them safely home.  On another occasion, in México, I forwent an interesting documentation of activity when I opted to coax a group of boys with slingshots out of shooting birds for sport (at least until I left).  While some might write off my interventions as an outsider, himself flawed, imposing personal ideals on those of different cultures, my decisions have been applauded by locals.  In fact, a grown man from the barrio recently recollected how, as a child at least a decade ago, he had appreciated the calming pat on the back I gave him as I blocked him from a fight.

But for the situation occurring in this picture I was too late.  A large non-venomous snake had been spotted in a tree and, despite its unthreatening state, a man had shimmied up the trunk to club it.  Moments after I clicked the shutter (and realized what the people had been watching), the snake fell to the ground, writhing in distress, until it was fully dispensed with.  I find the faces in the photograph reminiscent of some of the expressions that can be seen in Weegee’s crime scenes: a mixture of intrigue, repulsion, conviviality, and morbidity.  Curious, how limited our repertoire of human reactions is, even across distance and time.

Graveyards

The juxtaposition between cemeteries and their surroundings has interested me for years.  Every weekday on the Q100 bus in Queens, NY, I pass a plot of land (about the size of a small house) filled with old graves.  Surely unimagined by those who long ago laid their loved ones to rest, the cemetery is now engulfed by a working class neighborhood.  Gritty buildings enclose two sides of the burial ground and a barbed wire-topped chainlink fence delineates the other two.  By contrast, not long ago, I visited an old cemetery in Savannah, Georgia.  It blended perfectly with its surroundings, with mature trees and lush foliage both inside the grounds and beyond.  The pervasive quiet gave the sense that the cemetery remained just as it had been envisioned by its original designer over a hundred and fifty years ago.

Another interest I have in cemeteries is their physical composition.  In Northern California, I frequently visit a cemetery on a picturesque hillside scented with the sharp fragrance from groves of Eucalyptus trees.  There are well-tended paths, carefully organized plots, and ample room for lawns around the granite gravestones where offerings of flowers or plastic buddhas are made.  A hemisphere away, in a Venezuelan fishing town, I came upon an overgrown field scattered with above-ground, concrete rectangular tombs, where children jumped from one grave to the next and young teenagers lay in wait for birds to capture as pets.  Within cities in México, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia, I’ve encountered many cemeteries that are like miniature apartment developments: concrete grids of tombs stacked one upon the other, and narrow grid-like “streets” providing just enough room for pedestrians to navigate their way. 

What I wanted to communicate in this scene from Morocco was the similitude between the dwellings of the living and the dead in relation to density, building materials, and setting.  I don’t think I’d like to look out every evening from the roof, as the man in the photograph is doing, and know that not much would change even upon one’s “departure”.

An Unusual Ride Through the Mountains of Bolivia

During my weeks in Perú and Bolivia, I met an eccentric European (German, I believe) who had been living for a decade or so in South America.  For years he traveled exclusively via the comprehensive public transportation routes common to many Latin American countries.  Aging, however, he grew to find the schedules and delays onerous, so he purchased a van.  Having a revolutionary streak that required a justification for the acquisition, he gave lifts to anyone along his route in need.  Luckily, the definition of “in need” was broad enough to include an American traveler whom he met at a budget hotel one morning.  

During the three hours we spent on the road together, winding through remote mountains, houses sparsely strewn on hillsides and valleys,  I observed again and again the country people he picked up prepare to pay him, only to discover (to their delight) that the ride was free.  It was heart-warming to watch an act of generosity so appreciated, and the joy he took in sharing the good fortune of owning a vehicle. 

The European postulated that the existence of conveniences such as cars would not continue much longer.  With references to global warming and humanity's possible trajectory towards societal breakdown, he envisioned that soon the only people able to survive would be those who were close to self-sufficient.  It would be people who lived far from cities, knew how to tend to crops and livestock, and subsist on very little… the very people to whom he was now giving rides!

The Malecón

I came across this scene on Cuba’s famous Malecón in the 1990’s.  A storm had just passed, leaving pools of salt water where the ocean had breached the sea wall.  Deeply absorbed by their homemade styrofoam boats, this group of children barely took notice of me as I trailed them along numerous mostly empty streets.  Fresh out of Photography 101 class, I was elated to find scenes reminiscent of the action and backdrops of my favorite photographers, Helen Levitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson.  

Since taking this picture I have been back to the Malecón on more than one occasion.   During my latest trip, the street itself was filled with actual vehicles, many of which were topless 1950’s-style cars carrying selfie-snapping tourists— a Disneyland effect that was an impossibility during my first trip due to the dearth of both gasoline and tourists.  Also, now many buildings had either already received a facelift or were in the process of renovations, and some had been converted into guest houses.  Nonetheless, an air of authenticity remained.  Children still jumped rope and locals still socialized in front of their spartan dwellings.   A fisherman in his underwear cast his hook into the water for his family’s sustenance, even as his activity was recorded by a half dozen tourists from the wall above.

This morning, I saw a photograph of the same area of the Malecón following Hurricane Irma.  It was completely submerged in water, grown men standing waist deep.  Surely this has occurred many times since the wall was first built, each time the breach a bit different in severity and duration, each time the society and lives of those affected distinct.  And while this particular hurricane does seem to have been especially devastating, I can only hope that when the waters recede there will again be children waiting to make a game of the world around them.

Always...

I find the argument that we only have a responsibility to take care of our own citizens tenuous at best.  Generally, it is based on the concept that nationals of a country have built a society that is somehow separate and distinct from the rest of the world.  My feeling is that the world economy and trade, including both production and consumption, has permeated borders to the extent that we are all completely intertwined.  This connectedness is most visible when inspecting the country of origin of one’s clothes or observing what is advertised and ingested in locations most distant.

Beauty and Boredom

While it’s easy to yearn for days gone by - life before rampant commercialization, packaged tours, and touts hawking experiences or souvenirs - dealing with the reality of untouristed places has its own challenges.  I discovered this while visiting a colonial mountain town in Colombia.  

Beautiful, dilapidated architecture was arranged traditionally, with cathedral and municipal building set on a central plaza, and streets lined with worn, white-washed adobe walls hiding old homes in various states of repair.  There were views of the mountainside where cows grazed and crops grew.  A stream gurgled through the center of town, adding further coolness to already crisp air, and men and women, bundled against the cold, made their way to their daily activities.  Few cars or motorcycles disturbed the silence.  When I arrived in the late afternoon (after traveling for hours), however, I discovered that what there was not was much food.  The two restaurants in town were closed as it was a Sunday, and the few corner stores sold nothing but junk food, booze, and produce.  Irritability setting in, I gave up my search for a square meal and settled on bread and coffee from a bakery and an avocado seized from a passing vendor.  Hunger marginally dissipated, it was now night, so I returned to my room in a drafty lodge, took a cold shower, then hurried to take full advantage of the warmth of the wool blanket on my bed.

I passed the next week or so quietly enjoying the time unlocked by the leisurely pace of the town: the ebb and flow of farmers heading out to their crops or pastures then returning; walks with children up mountains and to a hidden waterfall.  Quiet days were punctuated by a Wednesday livestock market and a Saturday celebration of the town’s patron saint (shown in this photograph).  I had ample time for reading and reflection… perhaps too ample.  Without access to the internet and missing foods that were not designed for subsistence, I grew restless.  Would I not be as likely to find images worth capturing in a lively coastal village with raucous bars and fishermen hauling their nets in at dawn?  Would such a coastal village not have better food, more adventure, perhaps other wandering travelers to commune with over beer and stories?  I left.  

Years later, I don’t second guess my decision to continue on my way, but I am pleased that I stuck with the village as long as I did.  Not only did it turn out to be photographically significant for me but it also left an indelible memory that I continue to treasure.  So perhaps the verdict is that I do prefer the forgotten mountain towns of yesterday to the bustle of developed tourist destinations, but I also do like the excitement and energy of somewhat busier coastal communities like the one I moved on to.

The Last Shamanic Couple

Down a mile long dirt road, which originates from a longer dirt road (stretching many miles to connect Guyana’s Letham and Georgetown cities), there is a an indigenous town of not more than a couple thousand spread around a series of large clearings in the jungle.  The town is remote, but many of the inhabitants have had extensive contact with modernity, after traveling or working in the capitals of Guyana or Suriname.  While the indigenous language is still spoken, English is also commonly heard, and the traditional customs have become less ubiquitously practiced.

The two elders shown in this photograph are the town’s last Shaman and his wife.  Unable to communicate with either me or my guide (who spoke a different indigenous dialect), the couple was still happy to show me how they conducted a traditional healing.  Inside their hut, they fanned smoke from a fire, moved their hands just above my body, and chanted: one voice overlapping the other in a rhythmic unison brought about by years of collaboration.  There was a timeless quality to the moments I spent with them, a feeling of communion across distance and time, the convergence of two cultures and ways of life.

It pained me to think that the knowledge and wisdom of the couple would be lost as the younger members of the community transitioned into a lifestyle closer to my own.  But who was I to regret this change?  The day before I had foolhardily walked into a field of grass and been covered by small red mites which kept me scratching in anguish the entire night and yearning for a comfortable return to my own paved universe.  Yet I couldn’t help but admire the old couple and how contented and grounded they seemed in a way few elders in my own urban world appear to be.