A Weekend Sojourn to the Most Romantic City on Earth

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I first visited Venice at the age of 22.  It was February and the streets were seething with crowds attracted to the city by Carnivale.  I remember wandering around the streets trying to find my hotel and being minorly spooked by strangers running past me in capes and masks.  It felt like I was trapped in a labyrinthine theatre set.

Fast forward 21 years and I visited Venice with new eyes.  This time I had decided to surprise my partner, Mark, with a trip to the city for Valentine’s Day.  He too had visited Venice, but only on a school excursion when he was 13.  Neither of us had a romantic attachment to this place.  Venice had remained imprinted on our collective memories as a place of quiet beauty.  Mark had no idea where we were heading to for Valentine’s Day.  We both lead such busy and productive lives that we hadn’t given it much thought.  All he knew was that he had to keep the Valentine’s Day weekend free and to be prepared to get on a plane.  With Europe on our back doorstep, surely he wouldn’t guess?

In the background, I was researching good restaurants.  I booked a fantastic small hotel called Le Isole which had outstanding service, beautiful rooms overlooking a tiny street and was central to everything.  San Marco was less than 10 minutes away by foot, the Grand Canal and its constant water buses were only 2 minutes away.

I also bought masks.  As we arrived at the airport with only our weekend bag in tow and a mysterious piece of hand baggage, I asked Mark if he knew where we were going, he guessed straight away.  It was one of the many places we’ve spoken about visiting – Paris, Rome, Prague, Dresden.  I had originally wanted to head off to St Petersburg with him as neither of have been and we are both fans of Russia.  Sadly this was going to be very difficult to arrange on the sly as we would have had to arrange Russian visas and the current protocol dictates that we need invitation letters, fixed reservations, to pay fees and send our passports away – all of which would have made a surprise trip to Russia nigh on impossible.

We arrived in Venice the night before Valentine’s Day, late.  After taking the airport bus to the Grand Canal, we jumped on a water taxi to the centre of the city and all of a sudden the memories came flooding back for both of us.  I saw the closed market that I loved so much on my first visit, Mark reminisced that this is what he remembered, the busy car traffic ebbing away as we arrived in a world of floating peace, where all of life unfolds by boat each day.

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While this wasn’t our first journey together, one of the wondrous things of many in our relationship has been visiting places of extreme beauty as photographers working alongside each other.  Neither of us have experienced this.  There is no artistic competition, no feeling of resentment and no issue with holding each other up as we both work out a way to portray something photographically.  Instead we have embarked on a journey – one where we both inspire each other to see things differently, watch light, shadows, movement and just enjoy pure grace, the wonders that we discover together as we turn corners.

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On our first morning in Venice, I asked Mark if he wanted to visit the seafood and vegetable market.  The same market that beguiled me with a heady combination of smells and flavours all those years ago.  To my delight it hadn’t changed much.  It was still alive with the bustle of Venetians wheeling their trolleys around for food.

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Food that is sold exactly how it should be – tomatoes on their vines, pears with tiny wax ends on their stalks, courgettes with the flowers still attached, seafood that is still live, fresh from the boat that morning.

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We sampled some of this excellent produce at a nearby restaurant called Osteria ai 4 Feri which actually had the best seafood we ate during our time in Venice.  It wasn’t sophisticated fare but just robust and simple, fresh food.  We at Mantis Shrimps, Razor Shells and Prawns all straight from the ocean, washing it down with a very good Chianti and ending with the creamiest panna cotta we had ever eaten!

One of the best things to do in Venice is to simply get lost.  You never know what you may discover as you find your way back to familiarity.  We did exactly this and down a back street we found the oldest ‘shipyard’ for maintaining Gondolas in Venice.  It was quite a surprise to find this place hidden down another tiny canal and smelling of wood, resin and lacquer.  It was wonderful to see how Venice’s most iconic boats were maintained.

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From there we managed to find our way back to San Marco, Venice’s central square and a hive of activity due to the start of Carnival.  Beauty is everywhere in Venice.  The building facades, beneath your feet, in tiny squares, elaborate churches.  Seriously, you couldn’t image this type of mishmash of artistry existing anywhere on earth.

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Even buildings crumble with style in Venice

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And vines know exactly how to grow with an artistic twist.

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It was wondrous.

Then came Valentine’s Day and a stranger had decided to spread the love by scattering shiny red hearts across the pavement in San Marco.

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I was given roses…

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We donned our masks

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and we headed out to one of the finest restaurants in the city for dinner.  Needless to say it was an amazing, romantic way to spend the most romantic day of the year.

Carnival was just starting in Venice, the crowds were building and although we both cut a striking couple due to our sheer height combination (Mark is 6’5″ and I’m 6’2″) no one batted an eyelid about us being masked publicly.  In fact we fit in well!  Masks were everywhere!

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Finally when the noise and frustration of trying to get fewer people in our pictures overwhelmed us, we chose to disappear into one of Venice’s hundreds of beautiful churches.

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including the Basilica de Santa Maria de la Salute (below) where I sat on the steps as a mesmerised 22 year old eating lunch all those years ago.

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Sitting and watching the world pass by all those years ago, I learned that Italians enjoy a joie de vivre which is really infectious.  When you are surrounded with so much beauty, why not just sit and enjoy it.  Take it all in.  Simply be present in what surrounds you.  Your food doesn’t need to be sophisticated, it just needs to be fresh and good.  You don’t need trashy chain stores selling the same old things to the masses in nearly every country.  Retail therapy comes in the form of tiny shops selling hand made books, artesan jewellery, tapestries, lace, glass, paper and leather goods.

While we were there, we visited the touristy glass blowing island of Murano and sadly there was a lot of repetition in what was produced in Murano.  We were, however, surprised to find wonderful glass installation art in the streets.

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and we joined other couples in buying a few small pieces of Murano glass in tiny shops.

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I was truly spoiled that weekend by gifts of handmade glass jewellery and a handcrafted leather book, a gift from Mark to get me back into writing accounts of my travels by hand instead of blog (more on that soon).

On our final day in Venice, I suggested to Mark that we should try and catch the exhibition “Genesis” by a photographer hero of mine that Mark had never heard of, Sebastiao Salgado.  We went in there only intending to stay for an hour but got so caught up in everything we saw, we nearly missed our flight home!

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Traditionally Salgado photographed workers but now he focuses on subjects that are more in line with the sort of work that Mark and I do – indigenous culture, landscapes and wildlife.  It was a magnificent way to round our trip out to this momentous city.  We have both vowed to return at some point, that is if we don’t get sidetracked by other great European cities in our planning!

 

The Treasure on the Hill Behind Copan – Hacienda San Lucas

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When we arrived at the Hacienda San Lucas the sun was getting low and we were tired after a long day.  We had started before sunrise that morning and hiked a hill behind the beautiful and heavily forested lodge at Panacam on the side of Lake Yojoa.  Descending from that hike we were expertly chauffered to the airport at San Pedro Sula by Robert and his lovely girlfriend, Olivia, who we reluctantly said goodbye to as we collected our hire car for our second half of our journey in Honduras.

We found our way out of the airport, successfully bypassed the main city of San Pedro Sula and drove west towards the town that neighbours the great Mayan ruins of Copan.

The city gave way to a scenic stretch of rolling countryside as ventured slowly west, trying to avoid the ubiquitous and dangerous potholes that pepper Honduran roads.

Prior to our arrival at Hacienda San Lucas we were given a mud map so we could find its location.  The map was perfect.  We left Copan’s tiny town, crossed a bridge that bypassed the route into nearby Guatemala and carefully traversed a rough dirt road that meandered up the nearby hillside.  When we arrived, we parked and our luggage was mysteriously whisked away as we were greeted by the wonderful lodge owner, Flavia Cueva.  Dusty, tired and thirsty, I was desperate for a shower but I managed to ask Flavia if there was a time we should meet for dinner?  She assured us with “No time at all but please relax, freshen up and come down for a drink.  We eat just after sunset”.  I fell in love.

We were shown along a hand smoothed stone pathway to our room, complete with spring fed hot water showers and a bed adorned by a handwoven Honduran blanket.  Attention to detail was everywhere.  Flavia’s indomitable spirit showed in everything we enjoyed.  From the antique lanterns lighting our path to the beautifully arranged heliconias from the garden and the line up of old horseback saddles outside the reception entry, charisma oozed out of this place.

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Gracious staff greeted us in the bar and kitchen area near the restaurant.  We were handed wonderful margheritas and we sat sipping them as the sun went down over the ruins of Copan, clearly visible from the gardens of the Hacienda.

Up until that moment, I had lamented something about Honduras.  There is so much western intervention via NGO and church work in the country that the Hondurans appear lost.  They seem somewhat ashamed of their culture and their Spanish heritage.  We searched everywhere for evidence of both and simply couldn’t find anything.  Granted, we might have needed more time but their culture did not seem evident at every turn like other countries.  It was hidden, secretive and appeared to be dwindling.

Hacienda San Lucas was a total exception.  The hacienda was just how I’d imagined it to be with its tiled roof, cedar furniture, stone floors, wood fired stoves, woven Honduran rugs and earthy beauty.

The bar was filled with personal touches from Flavia’s family, whose connection to San Lucas spans more than 100 years.  As an expatriate Honduran who lived in the United States for many years, she returned to the hacienda when she retired in what she called a “Fit of Menopausal Madness”.  In turn she created a magical haven on a hillside that is both secluded and charismatic.

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Over a candle lit dinner under a canopy of vines we both recalled some of the experiences we’d experienced in Honduras so far and updated our bird lists.

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I also gathered some thoughts and carefully extracted my ‘treasures’ collected on our trip so far.  A skeletal leaf found in the Honduran jungle, my much treasured tail feather from a Mot Mot, the giant dandelion flower I collected on the hillside.  Mark takes great pleasure in my bowerbird tendencies.  He is the first partner I’ve had who cherishes and looks after my treasures that I find in the field.  Just when I think my curiosity in everything drives him crazy, he offers to store something I’ve found in the leafs of his field notebook so it doesn’t get damaged on our trek.  Realising, and perhaps cherishing, this weird tendency in me, he recently bought me a stunning leather bound journal to store these items in and a feather quilled fountain pen to write my notes alongside it.  We found them in our subsequent trip to Venice the weekend after we returned from Honduras.

But I digress…..

Life in the kitchen where we were served early breakfasts, centred around a wood fire and old wooden table.  Fresh vegetables were stored in roughly hewn timber bowls.  Our tortillas were cooked fresh on an open flame.

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Starting your day with a pot of freshly brewed Honduran coffee and fruit picked out of the garden was hard to beat.  Even the smells of fruit, food and good coffee anchor you to this room.  I found myself wishing we could linger but we decided to head out at sunrise for a spot of birding, prior to our visit to Copan.

When the idea of visiting Copan cropped up, Mark jumped at it as he thought that I would enjoy it.  At the time he found it difficult to believe that Copan would even remotely compare to the treeless and gargantuan sized ruins of Chichen Itza that he’d visited years ago.  I didn’t have the luxury of comparison.  Although I have toured the ruins of the Inca and Pre-Inca in Peru and Bolivia, Copan was the first Mayan ruin that I visited and I wasn’t disappointed.  We arrived at the time the complex opened so we could explore it in relative peace and in the cool of the day.

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Wandering around the ruins, both of us were astonished at the well preserved relief carvings and stone estelas that we encountered.

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From the ruins we could see the Hacienda up on the hill and our spot where, on our previous night we’d enjoyed our welcome drink on the lawn.

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Exploring Copan was both fascinating and mesmerising.  The ruins are home to many wonderful creatures including very tame Variegated Squirrels.

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and wonderful Scarlet Macaws

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When more tourists began to flood the ruins of Copan, it was becoming almost impossible to photograph them without someone wondering through our shots.  The animals were also retreating higher up the trees so we decided to drive back up the hill to San Lucas for a late brunch that included sensational refried black beans. fresh omelette, hot coffee, freshly squeezed juice and tortillas.

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and I circled the hacienda last time absorbing some of the beautiful touches that make it such a special place.

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Core to Flavia’s beliefs and vision for San Lucas is an ideal that incorporates conservation, sustainable tourism and a passion for Mayan architecture and culture.

The food served to us during our stay was all Mayan influenced and was heavily focussed around the use of fresh local ingredients.

Flavia has developed this heavenly slice of Honduras against many odds.  She has done so with very little external help and what she has created is a sanctum of space and tranquility that is unrivalled.  It is a credit to her belief in restoring the Hacienda to its former glory and her enduring love of Honduran culture.  We found it infectious.

 

In Search of Emeralds

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I always become frightened when I learn more about birds such as the Honduran Emerald.  One of the main reasons we ventured to Honduras was to find this tiny hummingbird, classified as the rarest bird in Central America and probably one of the rarest hummingbirds in the world.

Like so many other rare creatures that I’ve worked with the Honduran Emerald is a creature who has evolved without the need to diversify.  It has always occupied a specific habitat in Honduras, the dry cactus forests of the Aguan Valley, that sit in a rain shadow, directly behind the jungle clad Pico Bonito.

Access to see the Honduran Emeralds is difficult to arrange and fraught with both bureaucracy and a lengthy permission process.  I guess this fact alone, made our morning searching for them all the more special.

We departed for their sanctuary from the nearby town of Olanchito, before the sun was up.

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and drove out to the reserve where we set out on foot in the most unusual section of cactus and thorn forest I’d ever seen.

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Recklessly wandering through a forest of cactus and thorn trees is not a good idea.  All sorts of trees like thorny acacias and cacti slow you down. by grabbing any trousers brushing past them.

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We were however, initially looking for these.

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the tiny birdlike flowers of a cactus that the Honduran Emerald is known to feed on, alongside very few other species of cactus flower.

We caught a glimpse of the occasional bird and even had great views of one in a scope until we found a spot that one particular bird seemed to enjoy frequenting.  He buzzed past our ears as we approached, only to alight on a nearby branch which seemed to be one of his favourite perches.

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We spent quite a bit of time tearing our hair out trying to get good shots of this bird but found it hard due to the harsh broad daylight, the thick density of the forest and the fact that this tiny hummingbird’s green plumage made him blend well with his surrounding vegetation.

There are really so few of them around in the wild.  Officially classified as Critically Endangered, there is some thought that their classification may be downgraded to just endangered due to the discovery of other patches of habitat that they occupy.  Regardless, this doesn’t bode well for their future.  With no visible corridors connecting their different habitats and the birds being largely sedentary, they are genetically doomed without some type of external intervention or careful management.

I guess we should be just happy that we saw the three wild individuals we did that hot morning in the cactus and that they allowed us, for a very brief time at least, to share their world with them.

The Lodge At Pico Bonito – The Perfect Combination of Luxury and Eco-Sensitivity

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During our recent travels in Honduras we were blessed to be guests at The Lodge at Pico Bonito.  Buried inside a stretch of jungle that is never likely to be cleared, the Lodge was not only a haven of tranquility, well marked trails and crisp white linen, it was one of the very few places of its calibre that honoured a fantastic conservation and eco tourism ethos.

This is largely due to the passion and commitment of the resident manager, James Adams, who not only has fostered a fantastic service concept (you only needed to half glance at one of the staff and your wishes were attended to instantly), he has retained a true love of the reserve where the  Lodge is located, its river systems and the creatures that call it home.

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Built largely of timber and stone, the first glimpse of the Lodge appealed to me instantly.  As the child of a building designer who worked so much with these materials, it was like stepping back into my childhood world.  Filled with Heliconias and ginger flowers, I was reminded so much of my teenage years growing up in north Queensland where many of these plants were either shared with Central America or vice versa.  My teenage years were a colour-filled tropical world where weekends were spent tyre rafting rivers like Mossman Gorge.

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In contrast to the many things that I recognised while I wandered around the Lodge, I was stunned to see little Agoutis wandering around the grounds.  In other areas we had seen them on this trip, they were so incredibly shy but at the Lodge they walk around fearlessly, largely due to the fact they will never be persecuted here.

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Careful consideration has been taken to offer the varying natural interests of the guests.  It is quite easy to go owl spotting in the grounds or on the fringes of the nearby fruit plantation.

There is also a specifically designed insect attracting screen which sees some otherworldly insect delights emerge out of the forest, attracted by its light.

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We investigated it on our walk back from their specifically established frog pool.  In Australia we get a species of frog called a Red-eyed Tree Frog but it doesn’t have the same fire engine red eyes of its cousins in Central America.  I had long wanted to see these in the wild so I was enthralled to hear that the Lodge saw them regularly.  We were shown to a pool that night and serenaded.  The calls of four resident frog species echoed in our ears.  It was amazing to hear so many individuals calling to each other.  Using our spotlight we found them hiding between heliconia leaves, clinging to branches or sleeping on fern fronds.  It was wonderful to find so many when really I’d only expected to see one or two.

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From my own personal experiences of exploring new and old world jungles, the forests of Honduras were a lot more alive with creatures than I expected them to be.  Particularly at the Lodge where very few things threaten their existence.  It teems with a magnificent variety of birds including Toucans.

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and fantastic reptiles like Basilisk Lizards.

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I watched creatures from these two worlds collide while I was there.  One of the Lodge’s resident hummingbirds wasn’t very pleased with a lizard who had taken up residence on his turf!

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Most of these wonderful encounters took place at the edge of the Lodge’s restaurant or just a few metres from our cabin.

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Possibly the most memorable highlight of our stay (apart from the wonderful hospitality) was the release of a Striped Owl back into the wild.  One morning as we ate breakfast, James approached us to advise that he’d been walking in town the previous night when he came across a group of teenage boys who had caught an owl.  Approaching them, James asked to see the bird and as soon as they showed it to him, he confiscated it from their captivity.  Somehow they had managed to catch this little charismatic owl and if James hadn’t rescued it, one could only guess what its future may have been.  I pondered whether they might have caught it as a chick and hand reared it but James assured us that this bird was definitely wild.

He took it back to the Lodge and kept it overnight.  Thankfully it drank some of the water he offered which is always a good sign.  He also left it with two mice which had been eaten by daylight.  This owl was definitely not long out of the wild.

In keeping with a prohibition of catching any wild creature in Honduras, James took this little Striped Owl back to the Lodge and informed a select few guests who were into birds that he planned to release it.  He then invited us to come along to see it being released.

A small group of us met James in the lobby where he walked out with a sealed, yet well ventilated cardboard box.  We could hear this little creature scuttling around inside which was also another good sign.

After a small walk through the Lodge grounds, we ended up at the edge of the plantation.  Mark suggested this might be a good place as it replicates the sort of habitat that a Striped Owl would occupy in the wild.  James carefully put the box on the ground.

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where he gently removed one of the most beautiful little owls I’ve ever seen.

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who curiously peered at the small group assembled around it.

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After we had all taken a few pics, James gently released it where it flew into a nearby tree.

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A very relieved little creature.  Then something completely lovely happened.  As it sat in the tree looking back at us it began to get ready to take off when it actually, inadvertently winked at us.

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Perhaps this was our thank you as we said goodbye?  I hope this little guy flourishes in the jungle around the Lodge and avoids any recapture.

Watching this entire act transpire was mesmerising.  Above everything it was so wonderful to see a person like James, who not only knew what he was looking at when he confiscated this owl, but he had the courage to act and do so when so many people would have just ignored the plight of this animal.

It is acts like these that would make us return to the Lodge at Pico Bonito time and time again.  We both plan to send our future guests to the Lodge and someday, just hopefully, we will return too.

Communing with Creatures of the Heavens

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Santa Barbara emerges from the early morning cloud shrouding its summit.

In the mist forests of Honduras resides one of the world’s most shy and spectacular creatures, the Resplendent Quetzal.

Early one steamy morning we ventured down to the shores of Lake Yojoa to do some birding and as the blush of a new day morphed into a steam of humidity, the clouds began to clear over the peak of Santa Barbara, one of the Honduran homes of the Resplendent Quetzal, a bird so beautiful it is difficult to comprehend how nature could concoct such a creature.

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Birding on the shores of Lake Yojoa in Honduras, we were rewarded with stunning views of many birds including Snail Kites – raptors that prefer to dine on freshwater snails.

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For centuries the ancient rulers of both the Maya and Aztecs regarded Resplendent Quetzals as truly sacred creatures and demanded crowns adorned with their luxurious tail feathers.  Since the penalty for killing a Quetzal was death, however, the birds used to be captured and their tail feathers removed before they were released.

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The Resplendent Quetzal is truly one of Honduras’ most iconic birds.

We left the shores of the lake to drive up to a tiny village called El Cedral, located at the trail head of our impeding trek.  There we met Lionel, our guide for the morning who had faithfully taken the step to move away from farming and guiding tourists in tiny groups to a spot he knew where the Quetzals had many food trees.  On arrival he equipped us with walking sticks, bottled water and sweets before he headed off into the local coffee fields.

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The trail headed straight uphill and meandered through coffee plantations.  It was the first time on the trip that we actually encountered leaf-cutter ants – a species of ant that is capable of carrying loads many times their own body weight and who I fondly remembered from my journey through the Amazon 16 years ago.

Mark is a biologist and I was born with an inherent curiosity of the natural world.  The combination makes for very interesting hikes where his scientific knowledge intersects my extensive experience in the conversations we shared as we hiked.  We discovered poisonous Milkweed flowers that are almost entirely dependent on pollination by Monarch butterflies.

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Honduras is the home of a vast variety of saprophytic and epiphytic plants.  On this particular walk we saw the most incredible orchids sprouting flowers from their leaves.

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We saw another tree that even bore fruit from its leaves in Honduras.  Bromeliads are everywhere.

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In some places they lined every square foot of the jungle trees.

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On our trek up the hillside of Santa Barbara, as the carefully cultivated fields of the hillside faded away, we ventured into the most magnificent amphitheatre of forest filled with an abundance of fruit trees.  It was there that we found them.

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Three male and two female Resplendent Quetzals were gathered in a single spot where they feasted on miniature avocados in between rest stops in their forest trees.  Sadly we couldn’t get to eye level of these canopy dwelling creatures to get the best shots but it was still an incredible way to spend a morning, just lying there watching them perched high up, their magnificent streamer tails flowing in the occasional breeze.

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Our new favourite thing to do.  Lie on our backs in the forest and wait for the right moment to take pics!

It was with a great deal of reluctance and heavy hearts that we eventually tore ourselves away from our morning in the forest.  Lionel definitely softened the blow by feeding us with wild forest raspberries on our return down the hill.

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We also feasted on feral cherry tomatoes and wild blackberries on our descent.  When we finally arrived back to El Cedral we were treated to a lunch at a tiny unnamed cafe in a local family’s home.  We were fed with produce literally harvested while we had been walking including fresh beetroots, carrots, wild berry juice, chips made from plantains, rice and chicken.  Here are some shots from around their home and kitchen where everything was prepared fresh for us.

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We even discovered Anis Avocadoes, which literally smell like Anis seed.  Amazing!

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Lionel wanted to show us some of the orchid specimens he had collected from the local hillside in his travel.  Largely gathered from the broken branches of forest trees he had rescued a few of them and propagated them in the garden.  He also showed us his marvellous collection of feathers that he had collected on his guiding trips.

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It is people like Lionel who will hopefully guide the course of conservation in the future of Honduras.  We hope that his love of the natural world will prompt a wider campaign to keep Honduras filled with pristine forests.  Sadly a lot of Honduras’ true forests on the northern side of the country has been decimated to plant African Palm seed, a scourge that has invaded many other countries in the world simply because palm oil has so many uses.  Thankfully, the cloud forests haven’t been knocked down for these purposes – yet.

We had such an incredible experience communing with Resplendent Quetzals, that I became hopeful they would become the poster birds for conservation efforts within Honduras.

As I’ve learned over the years, however, we simply cannot use the Quetzals alone as the reason behind the cessation of forest clearing.  We must tie the Quetzals in to a vital human need that people see every day.  Tie their conservation status in with something like drinking water and send the message that if the Quetzals go, so will your ability to swim in and drink from mountain streams.  Since a lot of Honduran people may live their lives never seeing a Quetzal, they may never fully understand what they have to lose until it is far too late.

Honduras – A Very Beautiful Country with a BIG Image Problem

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Pablo – one of the dangerous and unfriendly Hondurans we met in our travels

Mainland Honduras has an image problem.  Prior to our recent visit to the country we did what we always do before going away.  We researched any travel warnings about the country to make sure we were going to be adequately prepared.  During the course of this research we encountered this warning from the US government.  Reading it we were both shocked.  We decided to only carry as much camera gear that we could carry on hikes, that we wouldn’t be able to go owling after dark in the national parks and that we would try, wherever possible, to keep a low profile, well as much as you can for two people who are 6ft tall plus and who are obviously not from the country.

Expecting to find a country filled with vicious dogs and machete wielding maniacs, we prepared ourselves for the worst.  We had planned to hire a car and drive ourselves around the country but after so many warnings we had started to develop doubts about whether or not this would be a good idea.

Before I go any further, I should say that we are both quite widely travelled and I’d like to think we both have a good level of common sense.  Neither of us tend to do stupid things abroad, and by stupid I am talking about acts of wandering around the streets of cities drunk and alone at night, leaving our valuables in full view in the car.  Neither of us buy the well practiced sell lines offered to us by touts wishing to sell us anything from taxi rides, to drugs, or sex.  Generally we are quite sensible.  I always hesitate to write posts like these because no two travellers are the same and some people just do get plain unlucky when they are in foreign countries.  I’ve been mugged in Greece but would I paint the entire country dangerous because of what happened to me there?  No.  Would I return to Greece?  Yes.  I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time all those years ago.  I still think the region I was travelling in (Metsovo in northern Greece) when I got mugged is so very beautiful and well worth the visit, to the point where I have since suggested it to others as a ‘must see’ place in Greece.

Fast forward almost 22 years from that incident, I found myself arriving in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras on 25 January 2014.  I stepped into a well functioning, air conditioned airport at the same time a Honduran celebrity starlet arrived on a flight.  Instead of the grotty, fly ridden tin shed I was expecting, the airport was clean, cool, filled with food, flowers and the Honduran equivalent of a Mariachi band playing music.  I collected my bag and met Mark who was waiting for me in the crowded arrivals area.  At this point we were with a local ex-patriot guide who stayed with us for our first week in the country.  Robert has lived in Honduras from 20 years.  A native of California he originally went to Honduras to work with one of the many foreign NGOs in the country, fell in love with a local girl and just stayed.  He drove us through Tegus and while we saw a horrible accident first hand between two people on a moped and a taxi driver on our journey, not once did we feel that this was going to be a dangerous capital city.  It is, however, poor.  We stopped on a nearby hill en-route to La Tigra, a well established national park on the outskirts of the city.  The viewpoint afforded us a look over the rooftops of an outlying suburb of Tegucigalpa.  We saw a mishmash of colourful buildings, with corrugated iron roofs and dirt roads intersecting clusters of buildings.

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 The rooftops of an outlying suburb at Tegucigalpa

Robert stayed with us for a week while we visited Tegucigalpa, Lake Yojoa further north and finally left us to our own devices at the airport in San Pedro Sula, northern Honduras, where we collected our hire car.  The only inkling we had of trouble during our first week there were two armed guards who accompanied our passage to and from Panacam Lodge near Lake Yojoa.  There had apparently been some holdups involving tourists on that particular road so for safety we were escorted any time we travelled along it.

Collecting the hire car in San Pedro, Mark and I drove west out to the spectacular Mayan ruins at Copan.  While the drive through the Honduran countryside was beautiful, the road was typical of so many in the third world – filled with potholes, people overtaking on blind corners, dilapidated vehicles that had no number plates, children running across the street chasing chickens etc.  It was like any road in Africa, India, Peru or Indonesia.  You need to have fast reflexes and a healthy confidence before you drive in Honduras.  Apparently people can buy a driver’s licence, there is no formal training and police rarely control speed, registration of vehicles or drivers under the influence so you do need to keep your wits about you before you get behind the wheel of a vehicle there.  It is wise to take it easy and exercise a bit of caution.

Waiting at the end of our first drive was the wonderful hostess of Hacienda San Lucas, Flavia Cueva (more on her incredible slice of paradise later) who met us with a welcome drink and sent us out in to her garden to watch the sun set over Copan from the edge of her stunning property.  All of a sudden, the challenges of the drive disappeared.

At first light the next morning we were met by a very dangerous Honduran (tongue in cheek) who escorted us to the top of a nearby hillside looking for Elegant Euphonias, one of Honduras’ more lovely birds.  Reaching the top of the hill we all stood and looked out over the mist to some mountains on the other side of the valley that separate Honduras from Guatemala.  “I normally bring people up here for breakfast” he said.  Honduras is a scary place!

Further into our journey our experiences in Honduras were the same.  We meet friendly dogs…

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and we nearly always had shy smiles or friendly children waving at us from their pushbikes as they plied through villages and fields or walked home from school.

We were blessed to encounter four ethnicities of Honduran people.  Prior to my arrival Mark had seen the Lenca people while he was travelling with Robert.  While travelling together we met many lovely, regular Honduran people plus descendants of the Mayan Indian people near Copan.  One afternoon we both enjoyed meeting some of the local Garifuna fishermen and their families at Sambo Beach, not far from the fabulous Lodge at Pico Bonito where we stayed.

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 A pretty Garifuna girl loved showing off her new hair to me.

At one place we stopped for lunch I was surprised to overhear an American tourist telling his friends that he really wasn’t enjoying Honduras “Because you walk down the street and no one speaks English”.  Ah, hello?  This is Honduras!  Here they speak Spanish, Garifuna and most likely a raft of other dialects not understood by many foreigners.

Mark and I don’t speak Spanish.  I used to know it quite well years ago when I spent nearly five months hitch hiking overland in South America but I have since lost most of my ability to speak as I have learned German.  For some reason I can only retain two languages in my head and I’ve long admired the skills of the few polyglots I’ve met in my travels.  Our combined inability to speak Spanish fluently didn’t mar our enjoyment of Honduras, however.  We knew enough to fill our car up with fuel, understand road signs, the police at checkpoints and ask for directions.  Even when neither of us understood the cascade of Spanish offered in answer to our questions, we managed to nut it out and we got there in the end.

Sharing a conversation with a Honduran during our stay, I asked why there were armed men escorting tourists and his response was “Well tourists carry a lot of expensive stuff so they expect it”.  I probed further and asked when he last heard about a tourist getting in to trouble “Oh that was about six years ago” he replied.  I queried what that tourist had been up to?  “Oh he was drunk and was trying to buy drugs in town late at night”.  His responses were very telling.  Unless you are unlucky we felt that you would mainly find trouble in Honduras if you looked for it.  Thankfully Lonely Planet puts a far more realistic slant on their advice saying that most tourists travel through Honduras without incident.

Mark and I do share a very high level of equanimity when it comes to people though.  Travelling together has been wonderful as we both tend to enjoy meeting local people and trying local food.  Neither of us really feel like tourists in a foreign land when we travel.  In this way we are truly blessed as a couple.  We both believe that what you give out, you get back.  Perhaps we got through our Honduran travels with relatively few issues simply because of the way we are.

So my personal advice?  Visit Honduras!  Providing you don’t do anything silly, you will be rewarded with a country with mostly friendly people.  Go and sample some of Honduras’ great seafood, explore the magnificent ruins of Copan or take a hike in one of its many incredible mist forest reserves.  It actually has more protected jungle than its touristy neighbour of Costa Rica and we’d certainly recommend it!

 

Responsible Photography in the Land of No Surnames

 

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As a professional photographer I carry a STACK of gear.  The general rule of thumb I’ve discovered as I enter my tenth year in this industry is that the amount of gear you carry increases at a directly proportional rate to the decrease in airline luggage limits.  I’ve become very practiced at keeping a steely smile on my face as I lump my heavy camera gear into the overhead luggage lockers.

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When I’ve travelled in countries and worked with countless indigenous people, I’ve always been mindful of the greater impact of my actions upon their lives.  Taking photos of people requires skill and a genuine level of affection.  Superficial friendliness won’t cut it in a world where people live very real lives.  Photographing indigenous people involves a level of understanding, an extreme sensitivity to cultures and customs and the ability to leave everyone smiling from the experience.

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I’ve been blessed to work with some of the most endangered cultures of people in the world.  Having never classified myself as a portrait photographer, somehow it is a genre that I absolutely love when I am traveling around native people.  When I work with them, I always ensure that I ask before I take their photos.  If they say no, then I’m happy with not getting the shot and walking away but I will always, without fail, research the people I am working with beforehand to ensure that my photography doesn’t impinge on any cultural sensitivities.  If I am given the go ahead to take shots, not only do I feel immensely privileged, I will always try to take down addresses of the people I’ve worked with to send them printed images when I return home.

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So what happens when you travel in a country where the births and deaths of its citizens don’t hit any registrars?  When you ask that person about their birth date and they sheepishly answer with their version of “I don’t know”.  Where the great majority of people have neither a fixed address or even a surname?  This is what Tibet is like.  Even if all of those factors existed, the mail service is so regimented, there is no guarantee that person would ever hear from you again.  How on earth do you ever repay someone for their incredibly generous and kind hospitality after they have let you photograph them?

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On the Western Tibet Expedition, I took the liberty of taking one of the best things with me that I’ve ever travelled with.  I took a modern day polaroid camera!  The camera itself cost me less than USD$100 and a pack of 10 film exposures cost me $10 .  I took five lots of film on the expedition with me.

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This tiny polaroid camera turned out to be one of the best items of kit I have ever travelled with.  We met tribes of nomadic yak and goat herders in the middle of nowhere on the Tibetan Plateau.  People who loved meeting us as much as we loved meeting them.  If we were enjoying our encounters with them before I pulled out the Polaroid camera, after I brought it out I was literally mobbed with requests for photographs.  For people who carry neither a mirror with them or have perhaps never even seen a camera, it was an incredible thing to be able to give them the photo I took of them straight away.  My only regret in hindsight was the fact I didn’t take more film with me.  That camera was an absolute ice breaker and a source of tremendous amusement for everyone that we met.

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Of course, for some of the people I met I have been able to send photographs to friends in Kathmandu who are currently delivering them in person to my Tibetan friends in Lhasa as I write.    For those who don’t I hope that images I left them with from that Polaroid camera remain with them as cherished memories of the crazy, tall, blonde girl who sat on the ground and giggled with them as we shared tea.

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Through their Eyes – Six Views of Tibet

Tibet is a hard place.  It is high, cold, dry, dusty and icy.  Life in Tibet is hard for the people living there, the animals that call it home and for visitors unaccustomed, unacclimatised to the conditions on the roof of the world.

It is also a very hard place to organise an expedition to.  There is an established tourist route linking Lhasa to Kathmandu where most western tourists are shunted along in buses.  Getting away from that well beaten path requires patience, stamina and a healthy knowledge of Chinese bureaucratic systems.

Organising the Western Tibet Expedition took me three years.  During that time, Tibet vacillated between being closed to Westerners, to restricted access for groups of a singular nationality to the entire country being shut down.  For a trip that was going to take a month and venture into some of the most wild and remote corners of the country, it was a source of great worry watching permissions come, then go and on top of it all, meet the expectations of the guests who had committed to go with me on this momentous journey.

I really only got official permission to visit the west in February 2013, seven months before my expedition was due to start in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Joining me on my trip were five hardy and intrepid friends, three Germans and two Aussies.  Amongst many preparations, I had warned them that Tibet is a challenging place.

Tibet is a country that makes you think.  If switching your brain down and enjoying a cocktail by the pool is your idea of a holiday, then Tibet is probably not going to be your idyllic destination for your annual break.  During travels in Tibet, you are often slapped in the face by winds so cold they take your breath away.  At any moment you could be blinded by a swirl of powder fine Tibetan plateau dust and it is hard to sleep.  The altitude is so high it robs you of life giving oxygen and imposes the wildest dreams upon your slumber.

While you are there, it is best to let the country take you and not push you.  There are times when you won’t think straight or deal very well with the lack of sanitation.  Tempers fray, your sense of humour is harder to maintain and you are often just tired from pushing yourself around in altitudes higher than the Matterhorn.

It is only when you come out of that altitude that a sense of euphoria washes over you and you start the long mental journey of processing everything you encountered in Tibet.  When the plateau plunges out of altitude into the raging waters of the Bhote Khose, which carves one of the deepest gorges on earth into the Himalayas, you start to feel human again, there are trees and birds.  There is air.  Tibet doesn’t hit you there however.

Tibet hits you the most when you return home.  The momentous Himalayan landscapes that stole your emotions, the “meerkat toilets” that assaulted your sense of smell, the overarching resilience of Tibetans to withstand omnipresent change and still cling to their diminishing culture.  The people who can completely disarm you with their selfless natures, warm smiles, shared cups of tea and a gentle curiosity rivalled by few other cultures in the world.

Here is a small video that shows how each of my friends viewed Tibet through their eyes during my expedition.

Gyantse, central Tibet. A tale of three years.

As a working photographer and journalist I have sometimes been guilty of running around frantically trying to keep my head in a story, always trying to working out what sorts of images might assist me in telling a tale that engages an audience.  If I remove myself from that mind dimension to take photos randomly and just for fun, I am sometimes filled with guilt if I have a deadline while I am ‘out there’.  Taking photos for fun has sometimes felt like pure luxury.

Three years ago, when I visited Tibet for the first time, I wasn’t actually working in the country.  I was simply taking a break from a busy year to explore a place that I’d long dreamed of seeing.    Tibet is a land of incredibly beautiful, yet stark mountain landscapes.  Snow capped Himalayan peaks adorn the southern horizon of a high plateau that is pock marked with turquoise lakes, sand dunes and tiny villages.

During my travels across the Tibetan plateau, I found that the grottiest looking towns paradoxically produced some of my most favourite images.  The two that spring to mind instantly are Lao Tingri and Gyantse.

Initially Gyantse looks like an Asian spaghetti western town.  The angular lines of new Chinese buildings characterise the new quarter, as do the steps leading down from shops into the street, the owner-less dogs wandering aimlessly down the main road and the patina of plateau dust that covers everything.  My first impression of this side of town was less than inspiring.  I soon realised that the true character of Gyantse lay in the older Tibetan quarter on the other side of the fort.  The new town, however, just seemed windy, cold, desolate and totally devoid of any charisma.

Unperturbed by my initial reaction, I decided to take a walk down the street  that sunny autumn afternoon in 2010.  Breaking the monotone streetscape, I  met this tiny girl playing outside a shop in her brightly coloured traditional smock.  She was so beautiful I was literally stopped in my tracks.

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Photographing traditionally nomadic people like Tibetans always presents me with a dilemma.  In any other country I would have taken the address of her parents, returned home to print images and send them to that person as a huge thank you.  In Tibet this isn’t possible.  People are almost always on the move.  Many of them only have first names and virtually no one has an address.  Combine that with the inherent difficulty of sending mail and whether or not it will be received and Tibet is a uniquely difficult place to be working as an ethical photographer.

Fast forward three years and after a tremendous amount of planning, I returned to Tibet to lead my expedition in the far west.  While I retraced many of my steps in the central part of the country, the trip out to Ngari prefecture was a massive detour into a part of the world seen by very few westerners.  Before we went out there, we spent a night in Gyantse.

Once again my first impressions of Gyantse were the same.  If you only saw the new part of town, you would think Gyantse was very dire.  We checked into a local hotel and I asked my group if they would like to come on a walk with me.  Given the uninspiring facade of Gyantse, to my surprise two of them said yes.

As we wandered around the town, we visited the rubbish-strewn, fenced garden at the base of the old fort and a local food market.  Perturbed by the lack of any kind of real Tibetan photographic opportunities and having whirlwinds of dust blow into both our eyes and our cameras, we started to beat a hasty retreat back to the hotel after an hour.  The sun was also getting low and the temperatures were starting to plummet.

On the main street, I caught a glimpse of a tiny girl out of the corner of my eye.  Instantly I thought “No it couldn’t be the same girl.  It is too improbable” and I remembered that I had the photo that I took three years ago in my phone.  I had saved it there to show my partner Mark my last pictures from Tibet.  I said to my fellow expeditioners Ulrich and Bruni “Just hang on a second, I want to try something” as I dug the photo up from the albums on my phone.  I showed the image to a woman sitting nearby.  The little girl I had espied had buried her face in her mother’s lap.  I showed the lady the photo to see if she recognised this little girl and all of a sudden her face lit up!  Not only did she recognise her, the little girl on her lap was the little girl in the photo!  We were all astonished to re-enact my Gyantse encounter from three years ago.  Here is the same little girl, three years later, full of smiles and attitude, now dressed in slightly more modern clothes.

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It was a surreal experience.  For a brief moment it was magic.  We were all completely and utterly floored by seeing this tiny girl again.  Her face still bears that rather concerned expression, those eyes are still so beautiful, even now she is three years older!

I am currently arranging for prints to be made of these images and for them to be hand delivered by friends who will be in Tibet twice before the end of this year.  Sadly it is the only way to ensure that she and her family will receive them.

Over the course of my life, I hope to maintain a relationship with Tibet and its people.  Perhaps this was just the first tiny stepping stone in building that relationship.  It would certainly be incredible to find her again one day on the dusty streets of new Gyantse.