Nature, everywhere I go

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Good evening to everyone, now from Portugal! It’s been a beautiful day in Porto, a city with a soft heart in the west of Portugal. Although as a baby I was brought up in Portugal, I have no memories of the country. So although I’m taking photos for a music festival over here, I was excited to grab a day to explore the city.

First day in the city, and we’re keen to explore as much of the city as we can before music festival mayhem sets in. We visit museums, churches and palaces galore, and I have a great time (and somehow it’s all remarkably cheap!). And then I’m looking through my photos at one point, and… what? All these exhibitions I’ve gone to, and all that’s on my memory card is… animals. And trees. Flowers. A view of the city, sure, but that’s because I can see mountains in the distance.

In fact, there’s no museums at all.

I start to think and puzzle over it. Maybe my perception is so veered to seeing the little living moments in everything?

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

There’s this one moment I have from today, in a museum (a prison that’s been converted into a wonderful free photography museum, actually! I’d really recommend it to anyone going to Porto); I see a park through a window, and get really excited about going to there next. ‘Eh… but that’s just a few rows of hedges? What’s exciting about that?’ I’m not really listening because I’m already feeling energised by being among those smiling plants, all waving around me, tiny hands reaching up and growing…

 

Porto, Portugal

And then, as I’m walking along, I’m attracted to every natural spot, even if it’s tiny and surrounded by roads! Like this; a green roof on a shopping precinct. I love that they’ve allowed trees to grow on it. I love that it’s there. I’ve been thinking about whether or not it is really ‘nature’ or ‘natural’.  In one way, it’s no, even though I want it to be. I wanted the park to be the result of grass and trees deciding to gang up and create a little zone for themselves, despite all odds. I’d love a natural area of the city like this one, a green roof on a shopping precinct, to be a fought and reclaimed territory in the constant battle for land, by something greater and more unknowable than us.

I walked and walked and the thoughts kept going. In in a way, nature is all of those things, isn’t it? Leave the soil unattended and look away for a moment too long, and something will come and live there, and take root and make it its home. And as much as the cities and houses and shopping precincts are needed, still people made the decision, not to leave a grey roof, but to use that empty space to create a place of greenery and life. We continue to build yet relinquish. And so, nature continues to live on. Nature always wins, even if it grows in our imaginations first!

Porto, Portugal

All too soon, it was the end of my day exploring the city, or maybe I think I was exploring the spaces between the city. Walking up grassy verges to a cathedral and taking my shoes off for a moment to feel it tickle my toes. The river is such a shimmering mirage from high up, and I stopped to take a basking view over the river. These two little flowers sprouting between a roof’s tiles just captured my last thoughts from today. Nature wins not just because it creeps into our imagination and makes us design these beautiful hyperdensity spaces, or because we allow it a little bit of room in our parks and our gardens. It survives because it’s invincible. Wherever there’s oxygen and water and a bit of sunshine, something will grow or travel to be there. Just like we all would, just like we do. I felt so overjoyed to think of nature in this way. Always somewhere about to sprout and take wing even if I don’t know it yet. Always wherever it’s least expected.

“Progress means: humanity emerges from its spellbound state (…) by becoming aware of its own indigenousness to nature and by halting the mastery over nature through which nature continues its mastery” – Adorno

 

Porto, Portugal

Never perfect

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Every time I turned this leaf in a different direction in the light, it revealed even more beautiful detail. Sometimes it reflected so much light that it seemed washed out and weak; sometimes it was full of webs of detail. So many perceptions are possible!

There is nothing more reviving like a spring’s day – and increasingly feeling more and more like summer, although it seems to be slowly on its way in starts and stops like a struggling motor car. On a walk through a place where the living world is thriving – a small park, a river, a wild space – the smaller, slower lives are growing and breathing and living. All I can think of today are the complexities down there, where each leaf is different, each blade of grass. Some look perfect on the outside but most are just in some stage of being, a little stunted or frayed.

Sometimes, we get so afraid. And for what reason? What reason, skulking in the shadows of our minds and in the depths of insecurity, fills us with so much fear? We are inconsistent. Sometimes under pressure, we bend and bend and never falter, and sometimes, at the slightest nod of tension, we splinter in two. Our weaknesses are our strengths and our strengths are our weaknesses, because we are mighty and dynamic, full of pain and love we don’t want to admit and reveal. But even while our legs and our veins are clenched to the ground, our heads and minds are far in the clouds and dreaming of some new future, some better day. We are multidimensional, fractured, full of myriad detail and intricacy, and never, ever perfect. What a joy and a freedom that is – and a lifelong journey to learn to embrace it!

My own sea

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The past few weeks, a lot of my energy has been going into a new business I’ve been working on, and I’ve been taking on new responsibilities. Good ones, but difficult ones. It’s just a new journey, and new journeys are always hard to start. I’ve been feeling really tired. At first it was just bodily tiredness and general unavoidable exhaustion. Gradually, it became tiredness of the soul. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it was just an underlying feeling that, although I was enjoying my new journey and my new interests, there was something missing. The further I went through time, the more I felt it, a strangeness, like I was slowly walking away from something.

During the time, I also had a difficult loss. Loss punctuates everything. Suddenly, there’s a full stop where there was once a tranquil path. A question mark appears where once there was an endless stream. Language shifts.  Words came out of my mouth that weren’t quite mine, thoughts grew where there weren’t thoughts before. The normal routes I took, I puzzled over, because I’d find myself reaching dead ends. I still do. Loss doesn’t really disappear. It has affected me, just as hard as I thought it would, if not much harder. The pain doesn’t stop, it just changes, creeping in with ways I didn’t previously expect. So it’s less of a journey and more of a fumble. Sometimes there’s good days, sometimes there’s bad days.

Hard work and loss, all at once. The best way to deal with it all, and in some ways the most punishing. I was getting up early, 4 AM, 5 AM, and sleeping late (and catching up on sleep and old routines, then starting it all again). But at the beginning and end of every day I walked a familiar path. I am so lucky that my career path right now is putting me in one of the most beautiful areas of the country, because every day I saw this same beautiful sight. A long sea, a circling coastline. In the mornings we’d look for seals in the water or coming up to the beach, and in the cloudless evenings everything would be bathed in an orange hue of just pure, melting bliss, rolling across the water to the far bays. Even on the cloudiest of days, the sea is undulating azure, impossibly blue. Pure joy, a moment of peace at the start and the end of the day.

A quick picture of the sea and where I've been every day

 

Slowly, slowly, I’ve realised the tiredness is because I’ve missed the old creative outlets of music and writing, the tides and the waves of what has always been most familiar to me. It’s obvious, really! I just haven’t been able to make time for them. No, that’s wrong. I have had time. I just thought I didn’t have time. I chose an extra half an hour sleep that I didn’t need over generating a new idea for my novel. I’d slide into the sofa and blank out watching a television show I’d never remember instead of working on chords or melodies for a new song. I was still productive, always productive in some way, but the more I leave behind the things that are the best for me, the more I get afraid to look at them again. As if looking away from a problem will make it disappear. And also, I thought I didn’t have the energy to choose healthy eating and exercise. Of course, those things only generate energy – the best kind of energy.

A friend said the other day she’s been thinking about creative energy in a similar way as money. I’ve been considering that wise thought of hers, and slowly extrapolating it. How I obtain and increase creative energy. How I spend it. The difference with money is that I can’t really save creative energy for another time. The universe gives me an allowance every day. I can increase the capacity for it (through being inspired, mindfulness, reconnection and healthy thinking) but I need to spend it wisely. Being connected to the world around me, to the dawn and evening chorus, revives me and brings me so much joy, and never lets me down.

It’s a quick picture for today, a quick piece of writing, because I just needed to express my feeling at refinding my own river again, my own sea, of imagination and development and creation. I walked for so long, that I thought I had lost my way, that I thought there was no point retracing my steps. Then just by luck, I came over the hill, and there it was, just where I had left it, always patiently waiting. Thanks for always being there. ❤🌍

Fidel Castro: The mourning days in Havana

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One of the blog posts I’ve been longing to write up is a reflection on some of the reactions to Fidel Castro passing away when I was in Cuba. Four months later, it seems a long time afterwards to write everything that has happened. But the weeks of editing it took me to go through my photos – hundreds taken just on one day of rallies, and trying to capture all the emotions and find the best moments! There is never an end to photo editing, I know now. It’s been a journey, not just to go to the country but to understand my thoughts and feelings since then. And also to understand where I want to go with writing and photography.

On the 13 November last year, I saw a cheap flight to Havana for the 24th November and – as is normal travel practice to me, and probably wildly infuriating to everyone around me! – booked it on the spur of the moment. I’m going to Cuba!

I arrived late on the 24th November and spent the night dancing salsa until the following morning in UK standards. 25th November I spent exploring the city and the beautiful Malecon, making and meeting friends, listening to music on the side streets and in restaurants – so many people invite me to dance with them that I joke I’ll be a salsa expert by the end of my time there.

Cuba in the first daysOff the plane into the gradually lowering sunset at Varadero. I had just switched my phone on to a work problem back at home, and thought ‘Why have I come here? It’s all falling apart back at home!’ But as soon as I felt the hot sun on my skin, I let go of any of my ‘adult worries’ of work. Traveling alone, I just started talking to people, introducing myself, finding out why they were here. Making mistakes, getting on the wrong bus… all of that!

Cuba in the first days My first morning in Havana coming across a ‘WIFI’ spot. I was graced with probably the best WiFi I had on that entire time in Cuba, and managed to sort out all work problems, and then put down my laptop, and think… right… where now?!

 

Cuba in the first daysLater on that same first full day, outside the Revolution Museum.

 

Then on my second morning in Cuba – 26th November – I wake up to find out Fidel Castro passed away during the night.

What follows is a collection of pictures from those first four days, 26th November  until the presidential rally on the 29th November. I find it hard to put into words those days, because for us travelers, for my friends and family asking at home and for readers, it was certainly an experience of sorts, but in a way a bit different from what people have been asking. In the same way that if a photographer came to the UK to capture the emotions of the ‘British people’ if something with a measurably monumental impact happened here – for example, if the Queen passed away –  I would feel a bit like an observed creature for my emotional reaction, I don’t want to liken what happened in Cuba to such a thing. As I’ve written about before, what struck me in a country I’ve heard to be described as ‘the only ongoing Communism regime in the world’, the home of classic cars, a totally different lifestyle, somewhere to visit ‘before it all changes and it’s all Westernised’ – is that it was nothing like I inflated in my head from everything I had heard before. Visiting the country made me humanise a country I perceived before as just an ideology. There was a lot I had to learn.

 

The morning of 26th November

There is a subtle change in the streets when I go out, and many people are talking quietly. It takes a couple of days before I start noticing the main effects of the mourning period – that there is no music or dancing, anywhere. It is still busy, at least in the morning – the tourist destinations like museums are closed, and the banks and the shops have to close in the afternoon, so there’s some frantic people going around  trying to sort their affairs before midday. The roads are really quiet. My friends and I visit a cigar factory and they’re told to make any purchases quickly, before they’re forced to close for 9 days. With tourist places closed, we’re told by a hotel doorman to pay a dollar to ‘come to the rooftop of the hotel, it’s the only place in Havana that’s open today’ – the entrepreneurial spirit remains strong, even in the face of adversity!

Moments in Cuba - morning

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Photo taken by Emmanuel Abreu: http://eabreuvisuals.com/
Emmanuel managed to take a much better photo than me of visiting the ‘cigar factory!’ For more fantastic pictures he took on this trip, check out his website: http://eabreuvisuals.com/

27th November

It’s the same atmosphere on the 27th November, which is a Sunday – the city is still coming to terms with everything, organising rallies and plans that won’t take place until the beginning of the week, so we go to a quiet Malecon for most of the day.

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Near the Malecon

Near the Malecon

I don’t see the ‘normal’ Malecon’ until a week and a half later – there are none of the romantic lovers or groups of musicians I’ve been told to expect. Hardly any people here, it’s just us and the sea.

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28th November

We join the rallies today, and where the city has been quiet for a long weekend, suddenly everyone is here. The queues to ‘see’ Fidel Castro, a room with pictures of him alongside his cremated remains, take me ten or fifteen minutes to briskly walk to the end of it just to see the length of it. Large yellow buses are pulling up full of employees from closed factories and work places, who are being brought to the Revolution Square. In the distance, I can see school groups in their neat uniforms walking to the square. There’s many groups of young people there . There is such a mixed atmosphere – tired crowds resting under the trees to escape a very hot sun – people my age taking photos on cell phones or otherwise part of the rallying groups supporting Fidel. One newspaper stands is waiting for the papers for the day, with people patiently waiting for hours until long gone midday for the first papers to come into print.

 

Moments in Cuba - roadsThe streets are full of yellow buses from all across the city and the whole of Cuba. Some, I find out, are coming all the way from Santiago de Cuba. After the presidential rally at 11 PM the next day, we walk past the same buses, filling up to take them back there.

Moments in Cuba - queues

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Faces of Cuba

Young people at the Revolution Square in Havana

Faces of Cuba

Faces of Cuba

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The day suddenly becomes livelier, alive with colours, chanting and flag waving!

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Faces of Cuba

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The end of the queue at the Revolution Square. Above is a long standing billboard: “The revolution is invincible”.

 

29th November

Today is the presidential rally, with thousands of Cubans coming to watch presidents from around the world paying their acknowledgements to Fidel Castro.

It’s a long day for me. I arrive early afternoon to be near the front of everything taking place. Although I’ve brought litres of water, it’s not enough, and I’m exhausted by the early evening, before it’s even started. I feel like a wilting flower compared to the strength of the Cuban people around me, who are able to stay standing the entire time, without food or water, applauding throughout.

  Moments in Cuba - waiting for rally

Early arrivals hide from the strength of the sun in the only place they can – in the shade of a pole.

Moments in Cuba - moments

Moments in Cuba - rally

Moments in Cuba - presidential rallyThe crowds are just so great here, that I struggle to stand at this point, starting to feel unwell! But it’s difficult to sit or stand and there are just great amounts of people coming and going, trying to get to the front and trying to get  back because there’s too many people at the front.

Moments in Cuba - hand holding

Moments in Cuba - rally

Moments in Cuba - night

The speeches are a real mix. I don’t understand them all, but from what I can gather from basic Spanish, and from the ones that are spoken by English leaders, Cuba and Fidel Castro are of course held in high regard. It sounds like a mix of reverence and propangada, with the Americans described as tyrants of imperialism. People are getting tired by several speeches in but when Raul Castro comes on the stage, all of the people are shouting and applauding, and all the traces of tiredness disappears.

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Faces of Cuba

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This post is dedicated to the people of Cuba, whose lives I only caught a glimpse of during my travels in the country! This trip took place at the historic time of the passing of Fidel Castro, where I started to develop an amateur interest in portrait photography and capturing the emotions of the people I met there.

Faces of Cuba

This photo was taken on Revolution Square, two days after Fidel Castro passed away, and it was the first day of the rallies. There was a huge gathering of young people here, banners reading ‘Somos Fidel’ (We are Fidel), and chanting and shouting Cuban songs and anthems. Personally for me, getting to grips with photography, it was the first time I was challenged in a very long time on taking photos in a moving, vivid setting. There were journalists and photographers everywhere from all the big publications, because they had just managed to get into the country by this point, and this was I guess the first really public emotion of the day. As mentioned before, Emmanuel, a fantastic photographer who you should all check out and who was teaching me photography on this trip, was lending me his camera and I was just about getting to grips with it and learning how to change the settings, making myself get up close and personal to people to capture their emotions. This young man quickly captured my attention because he was so emotive and full of passion; I wasn’t sure if he was the leader of the group there but he was really a huge source of power and energy. Here’s just one photo of him from the numerous ones I have!

0Y4A3167A gentleman takes time out of his day of work to talk to us, before offering us a tour around his home complete with an espresso shot. We watch from his TV the procession of Fidel Castro’s ashes across the country, which is livestreamed for the entire length of its journey around Cuba for over a week.

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Another photo at Vinales, several hours away from Havana. As soon as I found out about Vinales when I was researching Cuba, I wanted to go. The sounds of the city are instantly forgotten, replaced with the warm hum of a little town. These gentleman take a long time to get this machine up and working but eventually a final yank on the rope and it’s roaring.

0Y4A2034I couldn’t take a candid photo of these children for long, before they straight away struck this pose!

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After an arduous wait for the first newspapers of the day to be printed (the papers were printed in black during the time of the mourning of Castro, instead of the normal red or blue).

0Y4A1808 Revolution Square, Havana. I love capturing subjects from the side profile and, even if they’re posing for another photo (as this girl was), you still capture a different expression to them.

0Y4A0572This is the first pose these children want to take…

0Y4A0568…then they decide they’d rather show us a dance instead that they’ve learned from the scatty limited WiFi access, available only in town squares and city hotels.

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0Y4A3045In the fields of Vinales, we met this lone farmer working, who took the time in his day to talk to us with animated expression about his crops. Although I couldn’t follow the fast slowing Spanish, he said there hadn’t been rain there for months and was concerned about climate change. He had a high opinion on Castro, who he boasted had predicted climate change before it had become as globally known and accepted as it is now!

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0Y4A1394Two girls stand quietly before the rallies take place on Revolution Square.0Y4A0739These guys just wanted to be in on the photo!

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0Y4A0599   Policemen are standing duty the day that Castro died, but are still happy to be part of a photo.

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There are wildernesses left to find

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Last week, I was planning to explore the Lake District and the Pennines during a work trip I was taking to the north of England. But alas, unusually strong storms settled across the country. Instead I spent most of my time battling through winds and rain on the road between each location.

So we needed an alternative to our dreamy long walks we had been planning. On the day, we decided it would be best to just take a drive. I thought it would be a bit boring, just driving through the countryside when there were so many places to explore by foot – then I remembered how much I loved the long days of driving through Iceland, and thought, actually, this might be nicer than I expected.

We set off from the north of the Lake District for our little detour into the ‘interior’ of the national park. I had been to the Lake District a few times before; I’ve walked up Coniston and explored around Lake Windermere several times, so I thought I knew quite a lot about it and that it was a mostly ‘human’ affected location, not really any wildness about it at all. I was so wrong!

The drive started unsteadily over flooded roads through pretty countryside lanes, not unlike the depths of Devon, and I started seriously questioning my judgement and feeling very glad I had my good steady family car, which I always borrowed for drives (we nickname her ‘Vivian’), rather than a rental car that would take a few days to understand fully. She’s a little car, but I struggled pulling her fully into the sides of roads, so small they were on stretches.

And then suddenly we opened up onto a mountain pass. I shifted to a low gear and slowly headed down the road, creeping around the left side of the cliff. The mountains just broke apart  and collapsed into a long, low valley. And all around us – I didn’t know if it was caused by the rain, or a normal feature – were waterfalls, everywhere, on each turn we made. It was the same sheer green and waterfalls that astonished me in the south of Iceland, actually. Except in Iceland I had a nice, mostly flat road to admire the cliffs from afar, and here I was driving down them!

I exclaimed as we were driving up to this one waterfall near Buttermere – I found later it had the name, ‘Moss Force’. I just had to stop and see it properly. I opened the door and it almost flew off in my hands – I had underestimated the scale of the gales around me, as I was mostly sheltered in my little car by the banks I had been driving against, and the low speed I had been taking! Pretty much everything inside my car tried to blow itself out of the door, so after sorting everything out, I went to take a couple of quick pictures – not many, as I was freezing within seconds, otherwise I would have taken some time over them. The wind had changed by the time I returned to the car, and the same door I had so easily fallen out of was now a bit of a trial to get open, and in fact I was pushed out of the way by the wind and just fell over.

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I’m so happy I took this little venture out into the Lake District, even if it took all my patience to drive through it carefully and without flooding Vivian. It’s very easy to write off England as not having very much worth to see, compared to other places in the world. Fair enough – it’ll never be the same spectacular sights as other countries, and our mountains aren’t the highest, and our wildlife isn’t as diverse. But there is certainly something ‘wild’ left in the Lake District, even if it’s only on a rough and stormy day, even if it’s on a day where there’s no one else around.

Wilderness. Wildness. What is that? Always there is this debate on wilderness and whether there’s any wild spaces left in the world, let alone in Britain. These are formed by the ideas about different degrees of wilderness – what’s a real wilderness and what’s a wilderness experience? James Fenton writes a lot about this. He’s spoken about how it can be evaluated it by factors, such as the amount of people present, the climate, the size of the place, how many human artefacts are present. And if these all measure out in a certain way – if there’s rough weather and large expanse, or if there’s no one around and no presence of human activity – then a place can be described as ‘wild’. The more we try to be objective, the more we fall back into subjectivity. For example, the Lake District is notoriously not wild, because it’s gone through centuries of agriculture. So what about if we left it for fifty, a hundred years – would it be wild then? What if I came to the Lake District not knowing anything about the landscape and its history, and just assumed everything around me was purely ‘natural’ and unaltered (whatever that means)? What about the fact that every place in the world has probably felt the hand of humans in some way, directly or indirectly, and that so many species of plants, fruits, vegetables, flowers have been tempered by the hand of a human? Is a place ‘natural’, ‘wild’, ‘authentic’, just based on our knowledge or lack of knowledge of it?

So if a wilderness is subjective, then for me, a wilderness is somewhere where I feel ‘free’. It is somewhere I feel more alive, and not just in the way in which I find a new place, but in a lost and finding way, where I find something of myself I didn’t realise would be here, that I didn’t realise was missing until I found it. Maybe it’s under a mossy rock, or down the view of a valley, or in the temper of the winds across my skin. It’s a recollection of a sensation I think I lost before I ever knew what it was, or maybe a recollection of something passed down through generations, that I know by instinct rather than by memory. In that way, maybe a wilderness doesn’t always have to be a place that has been unchanged by humans, but more a place where humans themselves can be changed. And if so, then I’m sure there are many wildernesses left in our own countries and in our entire world, waiting not just to be discovered, but to be discovered in an entirely new way. Perhaps there is room for explorers, not to conquer new territories and discover new shores, but to create revolutions on how we view and care for the land that we’ve already found.

Cuba behind the scenes, and questioning my views

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When I first got to Cuba, my plan had been to retreat into the beauty of the country and to get some writing done, to take a bit of a breather from writing at home in my usual environment.

On my second morning in Cuba, I woke up to find out Fidel Castro had died.

So instead, I stayed in the city of Havana. I was sent lots of questions when I was there, by journalists, friends and family, readers and fellow travellers  – what was it like there? What was the atmosphere? How did I find it? Ever since leaving the country, I’ve still been considering those questions. Because my reaction to these questions, at first, and in as little words as possible, is ‘There wasn’t much change’. But the undercurrent of that, I think is naturally more complex. I think I have disappointed so far with my answers to these questions. But really, what I ended up saying, is that it wasn’t like I would have expected. I woke up on that second morning very unsure on politically what I had walked into, how this was going to change everything. In the end, I found that I had initially underestimated the spirit of the people living there and the energy of the country.

And also, I thought, I had overestimated my own entrenched views. Outside of Cuba, and inside the country too, I’ve been so used to seeing these figureheads as the icons of revolutions and political movements, that it took me a while to cast off my own image of these leaders, and instead grow to understand how he was viewed by the millions of people in the country living under their rule. Coming to realise that maybe the cult of personality of these Cuban leaders actually affects us more to this day than it affects the people in the country – where there, everyone who wanted to speak to us said, ‘What is going to change with his death? Things are going to stay the same.’ But also, at the same time, everyone was very respectful, a sort of honour code – the mourning period said no alcohol being drunk or sold publicly, no dancing, no music, and the only people who didn’t respect this were a couple of tourists here and there. I didn’t see any people from the country who wanted to break the mourning period. So the reaction was muted in many ways.

There is something about the representation of this which frustrated me a little, how we view Cuba and want to view Cuba – and other countries, in general. Earlier I wrote in a different post about the experience of taking photos of the people in the square, of seeing all the different stories between them all. So in the Revolution Square, at the public viewing of Castro’s ashes that brought thousands and thousands of people to the square, my friend was also there working on photos in the square. He saw this one older lady crying. One person we have seen crying, in all the two days we spent there. And suddenly… all the cameras from the top end journalists and news channels appeared and came around to take pictures of this lady. It made me so frustrated because I didn’t feel it was a true representation of everything that was happening there. I know also, that it’s so much of a ‘slower’ story – trying to unpick exactly what people are thinking during these times. I didn’t see the headlines for that particular photo, but I know what they were mostly – how Cuba is reacting to the death of Castro – and I felt this was an extremity, more of an anomalous reaction. But actually, I know this is more of me talking, more of me wanting a deeper look and fairer representation, than how the media actually needs to work in a coherent way – that there is a lot of interest in the strong reactions, the interesting things happening, than the deeper undercurrent.  And of course, where interpretation happens, that’s where disagreement arises.

A Cuban flag on the side of a battered sea wall at the Malecon, Havana
A Cuban flag on the side of a battered sea wall at the Malecon, Havana
Locals waited for hours to buy newspapers at the Revolution Square
Locals waited for hours to buy newspapers at the Revolution Square. They were printed in black, rather than the normal ‘Communist’ colours, as part of the mourning period
Young people at the Revolution Square in Havana
Young people at the Revolution Square in Havana
Cubans wait out at the hottest part of the afternoon to be first at the barrier for the presidential rally, which began at 7pm and went on until gone 11
Cubans wait out at the hottest part of the afternoon to be first at the barrier for the presidential rally, which began at 7pm and went on until gone 11

There was something I thought to myself when I was going out to the country, the same thought that I had when I travelled to Palestine and Israel years ago – ‘Cuba is probably a country that, no matter how much time I’ll spend there, I’ll never quite understand it. I’ll go back to England more confused than ever before’. Well, that’s exactly what happened! I’ve gained a lot more knowledge but that doesn’t mean  I’m any closer to forming a solid opinion on what is happening, where there isn’t a black and white to the situation there. But one thing I have really learned is not to assume I can know what it’s like to live there, and definitely not what the citizens of Cuba think or feel about the situation. Not to pick an opinion on what they should do or what anyone should do, just for the sake of it. Just like any country or political side, there is no easy answer. If we can’t even understand our own countries and our own turmoils, how can we understand other people’s countries?


A special thanks to Emmanuel Abreu who taught me photography over in Havana and helped me capture some of the images on this trip. His film photos that he took in the country are so beautiful and really reflect some of the scenes we saw in Cuba during this time.  http://eabreuvisuals.com/photos-cuba-film/

Respecting a place

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I hope everyone is having a great Tuesday! It’s been such a cold month here in England, and although I work quite well in the cold and it keeps me energetically, it’s made me miss the sunshine, as well as nights where I can go outside in less than four layers. So naturally I’ve been looking through my old diaries and photos from old trips and adventures, trying to warm myself up and look forward to the summer. And this weekend, I’ve been looking through my photos of my hike through Iceland on the Laugavegur trail.

Although, ironically, that trip wasn’t ‘warm’ in the slightest – it was hiking through snow on the first part, wide open spaces full of wind on the second part, and rolling hills on the final part, where I would have to put my coat on before ascending over the ridge of a hill because I knew I’d be buffetted by the wind on the next slope! But that freedom – I can’t wait for it again.

Iceland hiking

Freedom. I loved this hike so much in particular because of my love for this country. Yes, I’ve fallen in love with Iceland over the years. All of a sudden, just like that, there was the honeymoon stage – the absolute amazement at the whole country during its endless summer nights, going to bed in the early hours when the sun was rising at 2 or 3 AM, meeting elves in the twilight hours, the endless edges of the land that I found myself pondering over and discovering, weeks and months later.

Then on my next travels there, learning to appreciate its harder levels and its intricacies during the winter months, its coldness, yet its beautiful fury when it is so enraged by the elements, every shadow of it full of endless layers of light in an almost eternal sunset, then endless layers of dark at night, with the different streaks of the Northern Lights lighting up its skies.

And then, on this hike, rediscovering my love for it in a more intimate way. I found myself truly beginning to understand the land, instead of roaring through it in my car or stopping for a static view over the horizon. Slowly trekking up its hills and down its crevices, like any country in this world, it presents its true sides, the path well trodden, the trails less known. I felt pain, exhaustion, fear, self deprecation, but also peace, serenity and triumph. The emotions were unexpected, in a way. It’s like we spend all our time channeling ourselves into productive tasks and ideas, being reasonable, and then we venture out of our comfort zone, and all we want is to laugh and cry and feel new things.

Iceland hiking

I wish I could have been born here in Iceland so I could fully take in everything about the country, so I could live it every day. But as I get to know it, more and more, its politics and its geography, its people and its communities, its summers and winters, and even as I love it, more and more, I also am starting to understand its fears and its weaknesses. I both love it entirely and fully, yet know there are parts of it I will never fully understand. Then again, do we truly know our own countries? I think a lot about this when I remember my time here, and when I think about being here again in the future.

And its beauties, like jewels laid gently over potholes, are scattered lightly over paths that are dangerous. So many people, experienced and inexperienced, have had a difficult time in Iceland. Just as this country allows us access to its ‘Interior’ during the summer meltings, and we can transverse it – gently and with knowledge – in our 4×4 trucks and cars and our hiking boots, so too does it reclaim these lands from September to June again, and so we learn to respect it. There is no disrespecting this place.

Every time I come back here, I love it more and more. There is so much to find here, I think. Both so much to find in this landscape, and so much to discover in ourselves.

Iceland hiking

 

Conserving time

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Today I am seeking snowdrops before they are officially announced to be in season this year, so hopefully I will find some, other than the tiny clumps I’ve seen gathered quietly along the roadsides. As I descend into the hills, down through the natural streams that gather at the bottom of the valley, a thought slowly broods inside me, that I don’t fully probe at that moment, because it’s not really very interesting to me. That thought is, the value of what I’m doing, compared to some work I could be doing. Routines and schedules and plans are nice and part of my every day life. Chasing snowdrops, I think to myself, is not part of a plan.

 

Snowbells

Measuring time means giving value to time, and that means saying every minute of my life, every hour, has computable value. If I catch myself saying I have no time to go to the hills and to the sea, that’s saying, where’s the value in it? Where’s the value in that time, where is the value in those places?

There’s a light snow that’s been following me all day, and slowly it’s growing and gathering, until I can mistake it no longer – it’s hail! Unexpected spring hail at the beck of sunset. I hide my camera and my notebook away and duck down further into the valley, the light following us down. The world is going to sleep, so gently, but faster the further I fall into the crook of the hills.

When I live and sleep and walk under the sun and in the fresh air, with purpose, within my means, and with care, how can that be a waste of time? If I sit for long enough in a warm spot under a spotless unmoving blue sky, enough time to see the leaves go from green to yellow to red in the light that gently falls into its daily slumber, I can feel the trees breathing, not with the restless shake of their superfluous leaves, but in the slow joining of tree to tree, root to root, the earth around us rising and falling, a long breath that outlives all of ours.

When I wake and write straight away until my fingers and hands and mind are tired and devoid of words, or I sit with a guitar or on a piano and write songs until syllables lose their meaning, how can that be a waste of time? The only time I have wasted my time was when I forgot this is what I wanted to do and when I spent all the real earthly resources anyone can have – time, energy, dedication, passion – doing everything that I thought everyone else wanted me to do. Of course, really no one wanted me to do anything – no one really minds that much what you do, as long as it allows them to live their own lives as they want to.

Snowbells

The snowdrops I’ve found are dreaming, little heads nodding off into a slumber, little newborns awakening at the end of winter. I wish I could stay here all night and dream with the flowers too, under a brilliant blanket of stars as pearly white as their petals. But nature has its own way of scolding us predators and wanderers away, smacking us with its cold winds and flurries of storms, shaking its head and telling us to come back when the springtime has woken up a little more, and there’ll be a beautiful show then, for sure.

I want to live so that everything I do has purpose, and is within my means, and is done with care and interest. The only time I forget who I am is when I spend my time doing something that is outside of these.

So instead of wasting my time, I vow, amongst the forests and the seas and the mountains and the rivers, not to waste my time, whatever wasting really means, but to conserve my time. Because time is not mine to allot and to measure out accordingly. Time is not mine. It’s not something to possess. I am within time, just as I am within and part of the environment and the natural world that makes me what I am. And I can only allot and measure and value everything around me for only so long, until the question is revolved around, and turned back on me – what is my value?

Snowbells

Snowbells

 

Cuba: Photo editing

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I’ve been starting to edit up my Cuba photos as part of a blog series I want to write on my travels there. It’s been taking so long because there’s just so many! Especially of the events around the passing of Fidel Castro. And when I start pondering slowly through them, whenever I look at a photo too long, or when I’ve been looking at a set of ten or so photos I’ve done on continuous shoot, the more I look at the changes in the faces the more I see stories I want to write up. So many stories between all these people. There are all these connections happening in every photo, so it makes it hard to let go of the photos I know that I won’t use. Especially when I feel connected to a photo subject, because I remember being there, and the energy coming from that person, or that creature, or that environment. They all feel charged and alive with electricity of a moment suspended.

Cuba
And also, I find myself rediscovering new stories through my photographs. Like some of the photos I took at the demonstrations, I would take 20 pictures at a time, trying to capture the exact emotion in their face as they were shouting the words of a song. And as I’m scrolling through these pictures, having found the right one and seeing what else there was left, I’ll see someone looking at them with a funny expression, or I can see the tightening of their knuckles on something they’re holding, or sometimes even the subject of the photo will look at me. I find that a lot, where right in the middle of a shoot, someone is looking straight at me and there’s a sudden smile, something I didn’t see before. It takes me off guard sometimes, and makes me smile back, and I wish I could go back and speak to that person again. But there it is! I like it as well when I’ve focused on a subject, but then I go back a few photos and I see them doing something entirely different, something that completely goes against what I thought I was taking a photo of them for. Like they’ll be fierce and angry in one photo, but in the early photo, they’ll be cracking up about a joke I didn’t hear.
Anyway, Cuba was different for me. I took a lot of photos of people, which I haven’t done before. Not at these close quarters anyway. I had a small lens most of my time there, especially on the days  I didn’t have a chance to ask my photographer friend who was with me whether I could switch to anything else, and I think I didn’t really need to, because it made me move around a lot, and it made me frame in a different way, getting closer than sometimes I felt comfortable with. So it pushed me really, which I think helped me to think about things a little more dynamically.

Cuba
Of course I would have wanted to take more nature photos but there was so much happening in Havana, which stopped anything else from happening. However I did go to the two nature hotspots near Havana which I was very desperate to go to – the very famous Vinales, and the less famous eco-tourism village called Las Terrazas. I took lots of photos of the first one, when I was still travelling with Emmanuel but the second one, embarrassingly… I lost all my photos. I put them on an SD card or a memory stick, and managed to leave them somewhere in Cuba. I am so glad that it was those I lost, rather than my photos of Havana and Vinales, as those were the ones I really focused on and spent a lot of time with, but it’s still a shame. But, good news – when I traveled to Las Terrazas, I went with a couple from Switzerland who were also taking a lot of photos on their camera as well as on their GoPro. So I should be able to put some of those pictures up too.

 

I normally find I get no life from the city, that I’m lost in grey buildings and busy lives, aching to go out to the country. So Havana for me was an unexpected love story, and exactly why I spent so long there. Nonetheless once I got out of the city, and the car engine stopped and all I could hear was chattering insects and the disruptions of countryside noise rather than constant city noise, and at night there was just the pealing mass of the stars, I felt at peace again.

Cuba

 

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