Friday, August 9, 2013

Iceland, Incomparable - Days Two and Three

Faster than a trip to LA!
A short four-hour flight from New York City and you are transported to a different world. According to IcelandAir’s trivia video, a majority of the Icelandic population believes in elves. And as you travel the otherworldly terrain, almost entirely absent of trees, you can understand why. I half expected Frodo to pop out from behind a rock and ask me for directions to Mordor. While that didn’t happen, we were treated to a tour guide telling Icelandic folk tales and singing songs over the tour bus microphone.

If you’re only in Iceland for a few days, or in potentially harsh weather conditions as we were, then taking tours are the way to go. Both Gray Line and Reykjavik Excursions have everything down to a science, from hotel pickup and dropoff to efficient and entertaining transport. But under any other circumstances I would recommend renting a car and driving, as about every 10 seconds you are going to see something amazing out the window and want to pull over for another look. 

As for the weather, all things considered, we really lucked out. Although cold, our first and last days did not bring rain. But on that second day – the day of our South Shore Adventure – Iceland showed her brute strength. It was totally unreal. The photos I took of that day are not so great, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I can’t tell you the rush of exhilaration Janine and I felt as we darted towards the Myrdalsjokull Glacier in a freezing downpour. The whipping rain felt like icicles were impaling my face and yet all I could do was marvel at the sight and try to snap photos as quickly as possible before I froze to death. Oh, how I wished I had a pair of photographer's gloves, but of course I didn't think of that until I was standing on a glacier taking photos barehanded. My fingers were so frozen that I had to keep switching hands in order to find a finger with enough feeling to press the button. It was nature in its rawest form, and this city slicker was no match. Although I packed everything from Under Armour to hand warmers for the trip, I brought none of it with me for the tour! The weather had been pretty mild in Reykjavik, and I had no idea what I was in for in the open space of southeast Iceland. Whether at the beach, the glacier or the waterfalls, the wind was so strong it would literally blow me out of position. My camera was soaked in rain, the lens covered in fog. Snot was running down my nose and my fingers were frozen into place on the camera. I have never had more of a challenge or more fun taking pictures. When taking photographs in Iceland, you are not just a spectator, you are an active participant. You are interacting with the scenery in a very real way.

A gorgeous sky after the rainstorm.
With each stop on the tour, we bolted from the bus and repeated the process of fighting back the elements to capture photos. There were times I thought I couldn't go back out there, but I always did. Iceland was calling and I had to answer. Soaking wet and freezing, we were the last ones back on the bus every time. With so many incredible photo opportunities in every direction, Iceland truly is a photographer’s dream. You simply can’t take a bad picture in Iceland – it does all the work for you.

Day Three took us on the magical Golden Circle. This is the creme de la creme (or de la Skyr, if you will) of Iceland scenery. If you're only going to do one tour, make it the Golden Circle. I had heard so much about this route that I didn't possibly think it could live up to its hype. But it did. In fact, it exceeded it. Harsh, wind-carved terrain, powerful waterfalls, bubbling geysers, volcanic rocks and steaming earth gave me the feeling not that I was in another country, but on another planet.

Pingvellir Sunrise
We departed in the dark and were treated to a glorious sunrise as we drove across the Icelandic landscape. To this day, in all my travels, I have never seen anything as beautiful as that morning in Iceland. The first thing that struck me as we drove out into the countryside was how absolutely pure it was. No billboards. No garbage. No construction cones. No buildings. No people. It was as though we were viewing the earth as God intended it. I imagined it must look the same as it did when man first arrived on this island, some 1,000 years ago. Pristine. Unspoiled. Divine. As the sun rose over Lake Pingvallavatn in Pingvellir National Park, I felt blessed to be standing there. And I mourned the fact that the rest of the earth was no longer this immaculate.

Although the Myrdalsjokull Glacier was the most brutal weather we experienced on the trip, a close second was standing atop Gulfoss, which was basically a freezing cold, high-velocity wind tunnel. If I thought taking pictures on the Glacier was bad, my face and hands nearly froze off from the wind force at Gulfoss.

With all this talk of freezing my butt off, you may wonder if I still think it was a good idea to travel to Iceland in November. I say unequivocally, absolutely! Each season in Iceland brings with it its own unique experience, it's own pros and cons. The summer has the best weather and you can make the most of your days with nearly 24 hours of sunlight, but it's also the most expensive time and you'll be overwhelmed with tourists. The spring offers a more gentle climate and bird migration – including the arrival of puffins. In the fall, like us, you’ll have the chance to see snow kissed mountains and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets to bookend your days. And if you go in the winter it’s really all about lower prices, lower prices, and lower prices. (Oh, and the northern lights too.)

I wouldn't trade my November trip to Iceland for anything in the world. What's funny to me about travel, is that the moments that are the absolute worst - the freezing, the frustrating, the tired, cold and wet - become the most fond recollections. So vivid in my mind, those are my trip's sacred memories. Because that's when I knew I was out of my comfort zone. That's when I knew I was in a new world. I was in Iceland, on her terms. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Ice-land Baby - Day One, Reykjavik

In November of 2010, my girlfriend Janine and I decided to take a trip to Europe. Icelandair offered the irresistible deal of having a free stopover in Iceland on the way. To me it was a no-brainer, spend a few days in Iceland on the way to a bigger European trip. What a mistake. Iceland is not a layover. It’s a destination.

View from atop Hallgrimskirja.
From the moment we landed at 6:45 a.m. on Saturday until our Tuesday morning departure, Janine and I went nonstop, yet barely scratched the surface of all Iceland has to offer. Most people choose to hit the Blue Lagoon with the FlyBus on their way to/from the airport. But since it didn't open until 10 a.m., we headed straight into Rekyjavik to explore the world's northernmost capital city. We checked in at the tiny Metropolitan Hotel, which I would highly recommend for location, comfort and price. After napping for a few hours, we went out to see as much as we could of the city before heading to the Blue Lagoon. We began at the Kolaportid Flea Market, Iceland's only flea market in fact. It was packed with the bizarre and fascinating, from packaged horse meat to giant masks, paintings of the Icelandic landscape and second hand clothes. We then stopped to take in the view of Lake Tjornin before heading to the Hjartagarðurinn (Heart Garden) to look at the giant graffiti murals. We walked to the shore to catch a glimpse of the Solfar (Sun Voyager) Sculpture, doubled back to hit the shops on Laugavegur, and made our way up to the observation tower of Hallgrimskirja Church for a 360 view of the city.

The Blue Lagoon at dusk.
With dusk approaching, we made our way to the Blue Lagoon, an absolute picture-perfect time to be there. Despite being man-made, expensive and touristy, it was still a sight to behold. Of course it was freezing at that time of year, so I can only imagine how much more crowded it must be in the summer months. The Blue Lagoon struck me as much smaller than it appears in pictures, and to be honest, it wasn't hot enough for me. I noticed that the baths around Iceland were more on the "warm" side than scalding hot the way we have them in America. This made it really hard to get into. One of the funniest memories I have of the trip was when Janine and I tried to enter the water despite the freezing cold temperatures on our body. Even though they have a tunnel that allows you to enter the Lagoon from the indoors, it was still brutally cold, the kind of cold you can't really get used to. And something to keep in mind as you visit the Blue Lagoon is how much money you're going to drop. Not only is there the $55 entry fee, but the temptation of the swim-up bar is strong, and those drinks aren't cheap. And then there are the towels, which you have to pay to rent. Two people renting towels could easily spend $20, so I would advise packing your own.

Even the parking lots are stunning in Iceland.
As the sun set on our first day in Iceland, it was time to check out the nightlife. A sleepy town by day, Rekyjavik really comes alive at night. Well, more like at 2 a.m. On the weekends. We had heard about their infamous pub crawl, the rúntur, and even though we had been going all day on almost no sleep, we made a go of it. We hit the bars at 10 p.m. - and they were completely dead! They really didn't pick up until 2 a.m. This made even New York City's nightlife seem tame. Alcohol, like everything else in Iceland, is ridiculously expensive, so you'll want to pre-game in your hotel room. We bought some booze in the duty free shop, but I'll go you one further - just buy it at a local liquor store and pack it in your checked luggage. You, and your wallet, will thank me later.

One thing I loved about the bars in Reykyavik was the music, which seemed totally random. One minute you're listening to an Icelandic pop song you don't recognize and the next, people are dancing and screaming to "Twist and Shout" and "I Will Survive." The soundtrack reminded me of something straight out of one of my junior high dances.
And the traffic lights are happy to be there too!

That first day in Reykjavik ranks as one of my all-time favorite travel days. Sure, we could have taken it a bit slower and not done as much, but sometimes cramming so much experience into one day leaves your heart full and your mind blown in ways you can't describe. The next two days we would be on tours through the Icelandic countryside, so on this day, we took in as much of Reykjavik as we possibly could. The smell of sulfer soothed us to sleep, and we'd get up and go at it again in just a few short hours.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Da Kine Grindz - Eat Local Style in Hawaii

According to Eye of Hawaii - Pidgin, the unofficial language of Hawaii:
Da Kine - (dah kine) or literally "The Kind" is the ultimate pidgin phrase. It can mean virtually anything. 1) Eh, you get any da kine? 2) Ho, brah, dat's da kine. 3) She wen da kine foa get da kine foa da kine.
Grindz - (grinds) Food.

When most people think of Hawaii, they immediately think of the sunsets, sand and surf, but Hawaii has one of the most diverse and memorable cultural cuisines I have ever experienced. It mixes Hawaiian, Filipino, Portugese, Korean, Japanese, Polynesian, Chinese and American influences, to name a few. In Hawaii, you can literally taste the world on your plate. This list attempts to cover all the important grindz you should eat when traveling to the Aloha State. (Restaurant recommendations are focused on Oahu.)

Your typical Chicken Katsu Plate Lunch
Hawaiian Plate Lunches
In Hawaii, it really starts and ends with the plate lunch.There are so many varieties and places to
eat them, you have to choose wisely, and pace yourself. A traditional Hawaiian plate lunch consists of a (huge) meat entree with 2 scoops of white rice and a scoop of mac salad. That's right, unlike Southern Meat-and-Threes, the plate lunch doesn't waste space on pesky greens or beans. As for the entree, take your pick of everything from Hawaiian BBQ chicken, teriyaki beef, chicken or salmon, mahi mahi, kalua pork, ahi or chicken katsu, portugese sausage... the list is as long and diverse as the cultures that have found a home in Hawaii. You can find plate lunches everywhere, from food trucks to drive-ins to sit down restaurants. But the best by far is Rainbow Drive-In (see detail below).

Spam, fried rice AND eggs!
So you don't want to eat Spam. You don't like the name, you don't like the taste, you don't even like the idea of a canned mystery meat with an indefinite shelf life. Well, get over it. If you're going to go to Hawaii, you have to eat Spam. The good news is, if you ever tried Spam on the mainland, it tasted ALL WRONG. We just haven't discovered its true potential. Hawaii has. Hawaiians know that Spam is the Swiss Army Knife of foods. Served for breakfast, lunch or dinner, at McDonald's, 7-Eleven or even nice restaurants, Hawaiians consume more than 7 million cans of Spam a year, culminating in SpamJam - the ultimate celebration of the "Hawaiian Steak." Here are just a few of the popular Spam dishes you can try while in Hawaii:

Spam and Eggs 
Hey, it just sounds like a great combo. If you're a bit queasy about trying Spam, having it as a breakfast meat is the perfect way to experiment (but caution: it's a gateway drug). As with everything in Hawaii, it comes with a side of rice. You can get this at any breakfast or plate lunch joint - or even at McDonald's!

Spam Fried Rice
Spam's salty goodness is the perfect companion to the traditional Chinese dish. Another safe bet for Spam newbies. Unlike on the mainland, you don't have to go to a Chinese restaurant to get some fried rice. They have it at most plate lunch places and grills.

Caged spam musubis, yearning to be free.
Spam Musubis 
The ultimate Spam delicacy. If Hawaii has a love affair with Spam, then this is its lovechild. A musubi looks like a giant piece of nigiri sushi, complete with nori wrapped around it. Unlike most Spam dishes, musubis have a sweet flavor because they are usually marinated in a sweet soy or teriyaki sauce. Cheap, portable and delicious, spam musubis are the perfect Hawaiian eat and you'll earn some local street cred for trying one. You can find them everywhere, including most convenience stores and supermarkets.

Yes I had a loco moco for breakfast, complete with mac salad.
Loco Moco
The coolest name of all the Hawaiian Grindz, the Loco Moco is white rice topped with a hamburger, fried egg, and smothered in brown gravy. And the egg means you can have it for breakfast! Grind on a Loco Moco from the Like Like Drive-InnL&L Hawaiian BarbecueZippy's and of course, the Rainbow Drive-In.

Meat Jun
My favorite food on this list. I repeat, my favorite food on this list. Meat jun can be called a Korean dish, but it's uniquely Hawaiian. Meaning, it does not exist in Korea. It does not exist in Korean restaurants on the mainland or anywhere else in the world for that matter. The only place you can get meat jun is in Hawaii. So what is meat jun? Loosely, it's the most tender beef imaginable marinated in shoyu sauce, then dipped in flour and egg, then fried. Onolicious! Honestly, if you try only one thing in Hawaii, make it meat jun. I've never met a meat jun I didn't love, but according to Wow Grinds the best is Young's Kalbee.

This mussel poke from Foodland brok' da mout!
Poke (Poh-KAY)
A raw fish salad with seasonings. In Hawaiian, "poke" means to slice or cut. The raw fish is cut into bite sized squares and mixed with chopped onions, tomatoes and other veggies, then doused in sauces from spicy to sweet. As with any salad, the combinations are limitless. The most common fish used in poke is ahi, but it's worth it to experiment with other types. You can take your pick from the variety dished out at any grocery store deli, especially Foodland.

Similar to poke but more specific in its ingredients, lomi lomi is a diced raw salmon dish mixed with tomatoes, Maui onions and seasonings. It's a common luau side dish. From the Hawaiian "lomi" which means "to massage". And any food with massage in the name is bound to be good!

A "healthy" plate lunch featuring kalua pork, brown rice,
salad and glass noodles.
Kalua Pork
Also known as Kalua Pig. This is the pig that is famously cooked in an imu (underground oven) for luaus. Now, obviously a pig that is wrapped in banana and ti leaves and smoked in a pit all day is going to be at its most tender and flavorful, but you don't have to go to a luau to eat it. You can sample it as one of your items in a plate lunch.

A traditional Hawaiian dish of pork (or beef or chicken) with salted butterfish, wrapped in taro leaves, and then bundled in ti leaves and cooked in an imu or more simply, steamed on a stove. When finished, open up the ti leaves and eat! If you don't go to a luau, pick it as a plate lunch side.

A Hawaiian staple food made from taro root. The thick, purpley liquid is pudding-like in texture (but definitely not in taste). I have to be honest - I was discouraged from eating poi from a number of locals so I have no idea what it tastes like, although I have heard it described as bland and pastey. You can sample it at a traditional Hawaiian luau or grab some in a supermarket.

Manapua from heaven.
See, the great thing about eating in Hawaii is that even with items we have on the mainland, Hawaiians give them way cooler names and make them much bigger in size. Case in point, the manapua. This is what we mainlanders know as a steamed pork bun (char siu bao) commonly served at dim sum restaurants and Chinese bakeries. Of course this being Hawaii, you don't just get the traditional BBQ pork versions - you can have your manapua stuffed with everything from portugese sausage and kalua pork to lau lau and Okinawan sweet potato. Go to Libby Manapua Shop to taste the best.

Another Chinese-influenced dish, pork hash would be similar to what mainlanders know as a steamed pork dumpling. Pick some up with your manapuas and go salty-sweet-salty-sweet.

Portugese Sausage
Along with the malasada, Portugal's great gift to Hawaiian cuisine is the Linguica, or as it's commonly referred to, the Portugese Sausage. Eaten as a breakfast sausage with eggs and rice, you can also get it - where else - at McDonald's.

Now, make room for dessert.

You didn't think you would get off that easy did you? Of course no Hawaiian meal would be complete without its share of sweets! First and foremost, you have to try the various coconut desserts

Ted's Chocolate Haupia Cream Pie
Haupia is a delicious gelatin/pudding made with coconut milk. It's a staple at luaus or try it at Happy Hearts Mochi.

Where there's haupia, there's haupia cake. Why wouldn't there be? Try a slice from Zippy's Napoleon's Bakery.

Where there's haupia and haupia cake, there's haupia pie. Ted's Bakery on the North Shore has a divine chocolate haupia pie. If you don't make it out there, local supermarkets like Foodland or Don Quijote carry Ted's pies. And if you're desperate, McDonald's has a haupia pie too!

The Japanese confection mochi is extremely popular in Hawaii. Chi Chi Dango is a pink and white coconut-flavored mochi with a bad ass name. It's also the traditional treat for Boy's and Girl's Day celebrations. For taste, you can't beat the Chi Chi Dango at Nisshodo Candy Store

Saving the best for last:

Shave Ice
There are 3 main components to shave ice and if any are missing or inferior, it's some snow cone bullshit, it's not a shave ice.
  1. The ice itself. Since it's shaved, not crushed, it resembles eating soft, fluffy snow, not a crunchy snow cone.
  2. The syrup. So many flavors = so many brain freezes. Try lots, including local ones like coconut, lychee and li hing mui.
  3. The toppings. Condensed milk? Do it! Mochi balls? Definitely! Tapioca balls? God yes! Azuki Beans? Why not! Ice Cream? Don't stop now!
I hate snow cones, but I love me some shave ice. So if you want to taste the real thing and not some crunchy freezer burn, the best I can say is get off of Waikiki and go to a place like Wailoa Shave Ice.


Known as a Portugese donut, the outside is similar to fried dough, complete with coated sugar, and the inside is filled with custard in a variety of heavenly flavors. Plain, custard or haupia - they're all aznuts - but make sure you get them from Leonard's.

Footnote: Some Restaurant Recommendations

Above, I tried to give a solid recommendation on where to try each food item. But a few restaurants need some expanding upon. I give you the following must-visit places to grind:

An institution and a favorite of President Obama, the Rainbow Drive-In has the best plate lunches on the island - in taste and atmosphere. There's nothing like being able to walk up in your flip-flops, order under a neon rainbow, and sit outside in the warm air eating a mountain of mixed meat and rice to know you aren't on the mainland anymore. I ordered the Mix Plate, which was the biggest piece of teri beef I've ever seen + grilled mahi + chicken + 2 scoops of rice + mac salad. I couldn't even finish half of it. If you're there on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday, consider the hugely popular Shoyu Chicken Plate. And be sure to wash it down with a Strawberry Slush Float.

Zippy's Loco Moco
A HALF  chili-chicken plate from Zippy's. 
Zippy's is a casual dining and fast food restaurant open 24 hours, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some call it the "Denny's of Hawaii." So why should you spend your quality island time at what is essentially a Denny's? Well, because locals are crazy about it. To give you an idea, when I asked a Hawaiian friend what foods I should eat while I'm there, Zippy's was at the top of her (extremely long) list. When I travel someplace, I'm going to take the locals' advice and eat where they eat. Zippy's is known for their chili, so you can't go wrong with the chili chicken plate, or get the Zip Pac which is a full house of Hawaiian delicacies: teri beef, Spam, deep fried mahi mahi, fried chicken on rice with furikake. If your waistline hasn't expanded to its full capacity (or even if it has) top it off with some dessert from Napoleon's Bakery, located inside all Zippy's. Their signature treat is the Napple, a light and flaky puffed pastry that comes in apple, coconut, cherry and blueberry cream cheese. How can you tell the difference? An Apple Napple has one cut in the crust, coconut has two and cherry, three. But as long as you're stuffing yourself beyond capacity, might as well go for broke and add in an Ultimate Donut. Oh yeah. Twice the size of a normal donut, stuffed with filling and topped with all sorts of goodies and frosting.

Okata Bento
It's a hole in the wall with no website, so obviously it's legit. Serving up bentos and plate lunches, everything is amazing but the Teri Burger, Char Siu Chicken and Chicken Katsu are the most popular. The Mac salad is considered amongst the best on the island.

Shirokiya picnic in the park.
Located in Ala Moana Shopping Center, Shirokiya is a gigantic Japanese department store that includes a humungous food court. They sell all the best in traditional Hawaiian and Asian delicacies, from bento boxes and spam musubis to meat jun and mochi. If you can only hit one place on Oahu, make it Shirokiya, because there you can sample it all! Be sure to stop at Teruya's Andagi for some sweet potato tempura and, of course, an andagi (Okinawan donut). I like to stop at Shirokiya to pick up a picnic's worth of snacks and eat them while watching the paddle boarders at Ala Moana Beach Park.

Aloha Acai Bowl!
Lanikai Juice
Ok if you're feeling gluttonous after only reading this post, imagine how you'll feel after eating it all. So I thought I would include one guilt-free grind that will leave you feeling good about yourself. Healthy juices, smoothies and my favorite, the acai bowl, are all ono at Lanikai Juice.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Don't Go - The Blue Grotto

In this series I tell you places to avoid based on my own experiences. They're over-rated, they're tourist traps and they're a waste of time. Do yourself a favor and learn from my mistakes, don't go!

La Grotta Azzurra, a name so alluring. Who wouldn't want to enter this mysterious cavern and see its crystal blue waters? You, I hope, after reading this. The Blue Grotto is by far the biggest tourist trap, and biggest racket, I have ever experienced in travel.

Is this how you want to spend your island vacation?
Here's the process: first you wait in line for a boat. This goes by rather quickly and you think, "oh, that wasn't bad, we'll be at the Blue Grotto in no time." Then you arrive and see about 25 other boats packed with people waiting in front of you. And in front of them, is a line of people coming from land going down the stairs. All of those people are getting in the Blue Grotto before you. Our wait was about two hours in total. One hour was in the hot sun with the boat shut off, rocking up and down on the waves. People were getting sick. Our driver was nice enough to move us into the shade, but then other boats came and did the same thing. So then we were all crammed against the rock, inhaling boat engine fumes for an hour. It was nauseating. 

Or this? My Mom and our hot Caprese tour guide.
When it's finally your turn to go into the Blue Grotto, you have to get on a smaller rowboat to make it through the tiny entryway. But the first boat ticket you bought doesn't cover that, so you have to pay for a second boat ticket. Plus admission to the Blue Grotto. Plus tax. Plus tip. After all that, they bring you inside for seriously about 1 minute. Just enough time to take a couple of pictures and turn around. It's crowded and loud in there too. And the kicker is, it's so dark inside you can barely see anything! The blue water will show up in photographs if you use an extended flash, but you won't see it with your own eyes. If you want to experience clear blue water for a fraction of the price, install 2000 flushes and take a picture of your toilet bowl. Your time is much better spent taking a private boat tour around the Faraglioni (above). As you can see, the scenery is gorgeous, and the Faraglioni aren't bad either. 

Leaning Tower of Prosciutto
There are many wonderful reasons that people flock to Capri, but the crowds can make you feel like you're in Disneyland, not a blissful Italian island. One way to escape the bustle and capture the island's true essence is to spend time in Anacapri ("above Capri"). You'll enjoy sweeping views from the Marina Grande all the way out to Vesuvius, and have plenty of peace, quiet and space all to yourself. You might even happen upon a local wedding reception featuring a mind-blowing culinary and architectural wonder.

High up in Anacapri, on Viale Tommaso De Tommasi, you are faced with a decision. You can either take the bus down to the Blue Grotto for hours of hell, or step into the unassuming Trattoria Al Nido D'oro, and taste heaven.

Crazy for Caprese, Anacapri

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Don't Go - Mannekin Pis

In this series I tell you places to avoid based on my own experiences. They're over-rated, they're tourist traps and they're a waste of time. Do yourself a favor and learn from my mistakes, don't go!

Mannkin Pis - Brussels, Belgium

Look, I wasn't expecting to be blown away by a statue of a little boy taking a leak. Ok, maybe I was. It's certainly hyped enough to make you feel like it's a must-see. But when you finally do see it, you seriously can't believe how small it is! I saw larger versions of it in souvenir shops all over town. If you don't want to be pis-sed off, save yourself the trouble and just buy a postcard, or take a picture of it in chocolate.

If you want a quirky Belgian experience that tickles instead of trickles, immerse yourself in their comic strip culture. At the Belgian Comic Strip Center, you'll find that Tintin and the Smurfs are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, that museum is just the tip of the iceberg, they have several more! And if museums aren't your thing no matter how fun the content, try taking a walking tour of the city's comic strip murals. Instead of wee-wee, you'll say "oui, oui!"

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Photographs and Memories

Fisher-Price photo on flight to Miami
I was born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., home of Eastman Kodak. While I always loved taking pictures, I'll be honest, I was never interested in the science or mechanics of photography. I just loved the idea that you could use an image to preserve a memory for all time. When I was a kid I remember not having a camera and just taking pictures in my mind. I thought, if I take a mental picture of this, I will always remember it. And honestly, I still do remember some of my mental pictures.

In junior high school I got my first real camera, a basic Kodak point and shoot. I began to document my classmates and school events with the idea they would be a historic record.

On a Florida vacation I suffered my first camera setback when I got sand in it and it stopped working. I didn't get another until much later in high school, when I again began to record people and significant events. I dropped off several rolls of film at the Yearbook office and was surprised to see so many of them filling the pages of our senior yearbook. That was an early success, but there would be many more failures.

One of the only surviving photos from Fandango.
On "Fandango," the 1999 cross country road trip I took with my friend Kate, our bags were stolen, including 30 or so undeveloped rolls of film. I was very upset, and the incident made me question if documenting so much of my life was a worthy or even noble pursuit. We've all heard the belief that taking a photograph can steal a person's soul. I'm not sure that's the case in a general sense, but if you are photographing someone without their permission, at minimum you are invading their privacy and personal boundaries. You could say you are stealing something. I admit I've been guilty of this on many occasions, particularly when traveling. I began to question if the theft of my film was some sort of karma for "stealing" souls, or if it was just some way to get me to stop documenting and start living.

One year later on a trip around Europe, my camera died and I again fell short in my attempt to document a major life event. When I returned, I didn't bother purchasing a new camera. At the time I was living in San Francisco, where the mindset of myself and many around me was to "live in the now." I was often told not to take photos or record anything, just live in the moment and experience life as it happens. If you are taking a photo, you're missing it. I fully bought into this. For one thing, it made perfect sense when I was high, and it also seemed to mesh with how I had let my photographs define my previous trips, and how I let their loss or destruction affect how I felt about my trip. I didn't take photos for nearly 4 years.

But in 2004 I had the opportunity to travel to China and Japan. I thought about it long and hard, and decided I just had to take photos. You can't change who you are, and to me, documenting is living. You can say taking photos has you standing on the sidelines, but when I take them, I feel an active participant in whatever is going on.

The advent of digital cameras had me hopeful that I wouldn't suffer the same issues I had with my film cameras of the past. I bought a Fuji FinePix s3000, but I was clueless to the technology. So when uploading the photos to my laptop, I accidentally erased them all!! A techy co-worker did manage to recover some of my deleted photos, but this mishap again made me question my photographic pursuits. Why did every trip end with photos lost? Was this all a coincidence? Or something more? Was I subconsciously sabatoging myself? Or was someone or something trying to stop me from taking all these photos? I will never know the reason for sure, but it definitely got my attention. Maybe that's the reason. Maybe it was just another roadblock I had to push through.

I decided that going forward I would keep taking photos despite the setbacks, but I would embrace technology rather than fear it. Many of the problems I had were preventable if I had only taken the time to learn how things work. I also decided to try to be more conscious of who and what I photograph, and why. I now try to be respectful and selective when taking photos.

In November 2010 I took a trip to Iceland and Europe. I purchased a Canon EOS Rebel T1i, and this time, I studied up before going. Believe it or not, I encountered no problems with this camera or the pictures I took. But this was also the first major trip I took with a smartphone. I downloaded the Hipstamatic and CameraBag apps for my iPhone, and had a field day taking all kinds of quirky photos with these apps. Honestly, they were the photos I most enjoyed taking. So what happened? In Berlin I dropped my iPhone in the toilet! My phone was completely dead, and I wasn't even upset by the possibility that I lost a $200 phone. It was that I lost all the photos I had taken for 3 weeks. There was nothing I could do except put the iPhone into a bag of rice and wait until it dried out. I told a friend what happened and she actually said, "Maybe it's because you take too many photos." Wow, really? There was that thought again.

It's a funny word, taking photos. It kind of implies you are stealing something. I have heard my friend Tom Barker use the term making photos. I like this much better. I wasn't stealing, I was creating. I think that's a good thing.

When I returned home to NY, I plugged in my phone.... and it worked! My photos, and my faith, were restored.

Today I press on, recording moments, scenes and memories. Knowing that each time I take them, they too are not permanent. Nothing is.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Payback is a Beach!

I received my Foreign Currency Fee Litigation Settlement check today. Yeah, it's a mouthful. And yes, they are real! Apparently us travelers were ripped off a few years back on currency conversion fees by credit card companies. I know, shocking right?
I have no idea how much I was actually overcharged, the trip is long gone and paid for. But I did receive my $18.04 in the mail today. I'm pretty sure it was from my 2005 Italy trip. I doubt it covers all that I was overcharged, but it is like someone just put a little cappuccino and cannoli in my mailbox. A good reminder to always be aware of the fees and charges associated with using credit cards and ATMs while overseas. When it comes to ATMs, I always try to make as few withdrawals as possible to avoid the fees. Yes, this means traveling with more cash on me, but that's also why I keep it in a money belt in my underwear.  As for the check, I'll be putting it in the kitty for a 2012 vacation. Payback's a beach!