The Human Safari

As children, we often assume different roles while re-enacting grand fantasies. All hail to Cesar, riding atop a palanquin, or to the Astronaut floating above the world looking down at it.  The doctor saving lives, or the war photographer documenting the rawness of the human condition and the horrors of society as it fails. Then, we grow up.  We settle into our role within our socio-cultural strata and send subtle ripples across the fabric of the society that surrounds us.

As tourists, we recapture some of that wonder.  We gain the opportunity to stand in the midst of the Coliseum, to stride casually down the halls of grand empires and to snap photos of exotic peoples, destinations, and in some instances candid moments.  These rich experiences add to the substance of who we are and let us get back in touch with the beautiful sense of exploration which defined our youth. They are, for many, what make travel wondrous, expansive and oh-so addictive.

But, what happens when that sense of exploration leads us to moments and experiences which carry with them a taint of exploitation or dehumanization?  What happens when we suddenly become a modern incarnation of the aloof Roman dictator, well fed, wealthy, and separated by an invisible but nearly impenetrable wall from the people we’re visiting?  It’s something that happens easily, innocently and far more often than we’d like to admit.

The Stirrings of Realization

For me, two instances stand out. The first tickled my awareness with a mild sense of intangible discomfort. The second brought clarity slamming into place combined, strangely, with a sense of helplessness.

Faces of Zambia

The first was during my time in Zambia.  We’d elected to do a Safari with a fantastic company in the South Luangwa region. They invest heavily in protecting the animals, a light footprint on the land, and in the local community.  Yet, as we sat in the back of a large safari Landcruiser rolling along the pockmarked blacktop I looked out at the hundreds of locals that could readily be seen along the side of the road working their yards, walking the road, or going about their business.

Faces of Zambia

Often they’d look up at the four of us, often smiling, and in the case of the children, waving…then bursting into laughter when we’d smile and wave back.  We stuck out like sore thumbs, and not just because of the color of our skin. It was nearly everything about us – from our clothing, to our glasses, camera, and the way we were traveling. Just as often as I waved back, I’d sit, camera raised to my eye, set in sports mode snapping away while watching the landscape race by through my extended zoom lens.  Each shot allowed me to capture a candid photo of daily life. And, if I’m to be honest, each shot was much more comfortable than had I been on the ground, walking from house to house, snapping photos.  Just as fast as I snapped the photo or they looked up, the Landscruiser had spirited me away, erasing any possibility of a confrontation or interaction.

Faces of Zambia

It was only as I sat in that same vehicle the following days, snapping photos in the same fashion of wildlife that I started to register the stark and uncomfortable similarities between the two situations. Somehow, without intending it, I had gone from great explorer on a grand exploration to Dictator atop my palanquin utterly separated and detached from the local people who I was there to meet. True, I was there, but in this instance it would be far more accurate to say I was in actuality just seeing them, not truly meeting them.

The Spirit of the Moment

I’m thrilled to share that VirtualWayfarer just passed 1,000,000 views on YouTube (I’m so incredibly humbled and flattered – you are all amazing!). To celebrate, I decided to dive into my video archives, sort through the footage I’ve accrued over the past six years, pull out some favorite shots and to create a travel tribute video exploring and embracing snippets from some of the incredible adventures I’ve had over the past few years.  The result is just under 15 minutes of some of my favorite HD footage and spans 19 countries.

To go with the footage I pulled up a chair, sat down, and attempted to explore the lessons I’ve learned from travel.  The result is a heartfelt exploration of life, travel, and the magic of the road.  In it, I attempt to share some of the more significant lessons I’ve learned from travel, offer some advice, and aspire to convey the sense of ever-increasing wonder I have at the richness of the world at large.

It’s a smudge long, but the feedback has been that the combination of the footage and some of the ideas expressed in the monologue make it well worth the watch.  I hope you’ll take the time to give it a watch and then to share some of your own revelations or grand adventures. At the end of the day, travel and the opportunity to embrace the spirit of the moment is a wondrous thing.

Thank you all so, so, much for continuing to read (and watch!) VirtualWayfarer, offer your feedback, share your special moments, questions, and passion with me. I’m profoundly humbled and flattered by the messages you share with me and that you find my stories, photography, and video interesting.

Some have asked about the quality differences given clips were filmed over 6+ years – footage was shot on a mixture of devices. The earliest footage was filmed on an old Flip HD 720p handheld cam. Other footage was taken on a Vixia HF200. More recent footage was taken on a Canon 600D and a Canon 6D.  Video didn’t load properly?  View it here.

Zambian Children – Weekly Travel Photo

During my time in Zambia, my  understanding of children and what they are capable of fundamentally changed. Not only did the children of rural Zambia awe me with their love of life, constant smiles, and zeal for enjoying every moment – they also showed me how many of the narratives about western children and their abilities are grossly misplaced. The children I met and observed were responsible. They were capable. They worked well together and looked after each other.  It made it clear to me that the way we coddle children in the US, Europe, and other parts of the industrialized world has come with a cost.  On the one hand it means those children get to enjoy their childhood in a carefree fashion which is wonderful and something I wish more of the Zambian kids got to enjoy.

The Elephant Crossing – Weekly Travel Photo & Product Review

The choice to cross obviously rested in the tusks of a powerful matriarch.  As she deliberated, surveying the water carefully for threats, her familial herd clustered around her with eyes open and surveying in every direction.  From time to time they would move ever so slightly closer to the water’s edge.  When they did, we readied ourselves, perched as we were in a raised observation platform atop a deck on the opposite side of the river. With equal care our eyes were focused as we surveyed the river as it stretched out before us…likely looking for the same threats the great matriarch worried about.  We spotted several crocodiles and a handful of seemingly docile hippos nearby. Were either threats? It was hard to know.

A Lion Cub At Sunset – Weekly Travel Photo

Lion Cubs Playing at Sunset

With a glimmer of light reflected in its eye this young lion club relaxed with its brothers and sisters in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.  The cubs’ mothers were out hunting and enjoying some free time away from the kids, leaving them to lounge in the late afternoon sun, chew on each other’s tails, and generally do all of the things you’d expect over-sized kittens to do.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

The Lion Cub’s Gaze – Weekly Travel Photo

Lion Cubs Playing at Sunset

This magical moment happened in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park while I was on safari.  We had stumbled onto a group of five lion cubs between the ages of 4-6 months just before sunset. Their mothers were off hunting and the cubs were taking a much-needed break after a day full of exploring and childish antics.  This cub in particular was feeling quite relaxed, though he still kept a close eye on us.  He repeatedly lounged around, rolled onto his back, and then stared at us almost as if inviting us to head over and to give him a tummy scratch.  His gaze was incredible and cut right to my core. Hands down some of my favorite moments from the Safari.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

When Sky, Fire and Water Meet

Faces of Zambia

The sweat from my palms soaked the steering wheel as the tense muscles in my hip throbbed.  My body was on edge and had been for the entirety of the drive south.  Upon arriving in Zambia, I’d been informed by my family that I would be the one responsible for driving our rental car.  Ordinarily not a big deal, but it was my first time driving on the opposite side of the road and in a non-North American country.  The roads in the Luapula Province of northern Zambia did little to allay my fears.  Many are paved, but in such a poor state of repair that there are no such things as lanes.  In truth, you spend at least one third of most drives with one (or both) tires off the road, the car at a 25 degree angle while zig-zaging between potholes large enough to swallow a small tank. The scrape of the car’s undercarriage is a constant reminder that you zig-ed when you should have zag-ed.  By itself that might not be so bad, but then add in large freight haulers and buses that race along the roads at high speed. And if that is not enough, add in head-height grass which lines many of the roads and conceals everything and everyone.  My eyes constantly scanned the road for potholes with quick glance at my rear view mirror in search of large trucks bearing down on me. Then back to the sides of the road where I diligently watched for erratic movement from the veritable army of goats, small children, old grandmothers, and bicyclists who use the roads as walking paths and have a tendency to dart into traffic.  Despite constant and nearly un-blinking vigilance I  found myself forced to slam on the brakes  to avoid people and things at the last moment.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As I turned the key off and the car stilled I let out an audible sigh of relief. Somehow I’d gotten us to a small guest house along the shores of Lake Bangweulu just outside of Samfya.  As I sat in the driver’s seat collecting myself, I wiped my hands on my jeans leaving dark streaks of sweat.  Finally, I allowed myself to take in my surroundings. The parallel-parking spot I had pulled into faced out onto what looked like a small sea. In reality, it was a sprawling lake.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As we settled into great little rooms that opened out onto a small sand beach and a wonderful view of the lake, we all struggled with the day’s contrasts.  We had started out in my brother’s small mud brick and thatch hut. A building that is a lovely and cozy place but which lacks electricity or running water and has a small outhouse located behind it. Now, a few hours drive away, we were back on the grid with semi-reliable power, running water, and perhaps most importantly western flush toilets.  It made for a powerful contrast which set the stage for the rest of the evening.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

My brother David is a Peace Corps volunteer and he had brought us to Lake Bangweulu to see the sunset.  I’ll confess that as a big fan of sunsets, I wasn’t entirely sure why the multi-hour drive south had been worth the pleasure of a simple sunset.  Still, he was our guide, the local expert, and it was hard not to be won over by the prospect of a real bed and a cold beer.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As the sun began to set and the early twilight of late afternoon settled over the lake, it quickly became apparent why the sunset was worth the drive.  Lake Bangweulu is known as the place where the water meets the sky.  It is an aptly chosen nickname for this unusual body of water.  More than 70km by 40km in size, the lake’s depth averages about four meters and fluctuates more than a meter between Zambia’s dry and rainy seasons.   During our visit in the midst of the dry season the lake still stretched beyond the horizon.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Just beyond a small fence at the end of the beach, we watched as a group of children washed dishes, did laundry, and then set to fishing.  The children, some barely old enough to walk, participated in chores.  The older children kept close eyes on their younger brothers and sisters though I doubt the oldest was more than 10.  There’s a certain responsibility among the young Zambian children that I found incredible to watch … a certain level of maturity that most western children twice their age lack.  Perhaps the most powerful of which were the (slightly) older sisters who diligently took care of, disciplined, and watched over their 2 and 4 year-old siblings with great care and competency.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Shortly after the children finished their bath and their chores, they wandered back up the bank. A young woman and her son waded down and out into the reeds with bamboo fishing poles.  With the poise, elegance, and stillness of a heron they carefully raised and lowered their poles, gently jigging and probing the reeds for fish.  Their patience and control reminded me in many ways of the street performers who pose as human statues, perfectly still and seemingly lifeless before moving smoothly to the shock and surprise of those passing by.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

In one last rush before the sunset stole the remaining light, a near constant flow of chitenge-clad women atop reed and dugout wooden canoes made their way past us.  Some used push poles to take advantage of the lake’s shallow depths while others had rough-hewn wooden paddles attached to long poles which they used from a standing position.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

The weather was perfect. The wind was still which left the lake with a glass-like surface and the air was thick with the haze of pale gray smoke from local controlled burns.   By day the late afternoon sky was devoid of clouds but boasted the moon and later the bright glow of a nearby planet.  The horizon itself quickly faded away, lost and indistinguishable from the lake’s smooth waters.   I’ve never seen a sunset that was able to so perfectly blend water and sky. The combination of gentle smokey haze, mirror-perfect water, and clear skies accomplished the unbelievable.  What was left were strange little boats that seemed to have taken flight to float among the clouds.  The sort of strange and mystical spectacle that one might see in movies of far-off places and imaginary lands – but never in the real world. Then the color changed. The soft blue-gray transitioned into a multi-spectrum rainbow centered along the horizon.  The sky’s dark blues re-emerged while the waves reflected the violets and purples of the next stage of the sunset.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Then as the sun approached the horizon the violets deepened and transitioned into oranges and golden hues as the smoke served as a filter that split off the sun’s otherwise harsh rays and left it visible to the naked eye as a glowing red orb.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

I’m not sure how long the sunset lasted, I suspect close to 30 minutes.  It’s hard to tell though, as every 5 minutes it seamed to drastically change. The colors would shift, the haze would lift, the sun would slip into a smoke bank, or one of the local fishing boats would slowly cut their way across the horizon and in so doing add a new perspective and human element.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As we sat on the beach enjoying a local Zambian beer I couldn’t help but feel an emotional connection to the area. One brought about and highlighted so beautifully by the sunset.  It was a thing of contrasts, just as Zambia and Sub-Saharan Africa is a place of similarly extreme contrasts. It can be a profoundly harsh place, but it is also a warm and welcoming place with its own element of profound hospitality.  A trip to the heart of Africa, one that takes you into authentic Africa, beyond the walled compounds and neatly pitched tents of safaris and large cities is a must.  It will change you by infusing you with a new perspective and understanding.  It will give you a renewed respect for all nature has to provide, a deep  sense of awe, and an opportunity to connect at a deep level with people who live vastly different lives.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

When we set out for Samfya to watch the sunset, I expected a few minutes of transient natural beauty.  A wonderful thing, but something that hardly seemed likely to offset the hours of anxious and uncomfortable driving required to get there.  As often happens in these types of situations, I was not only wrong but met with an incredibly rich experience that was one of the gems of my visit to Africa.  I’d place the sunset in my top 5 and will forever have its beauty and the wonderful musings that accompanied it burned into who I am and how I see the world.

Elephants Feeding – Weekly Travel Photo

Elephant Herd - South Luangwa - Zambia

Wild elephants are incredible creatures.  They are intelligent, curious, and have a certain personality to them that conveys a compassionate spirit.  Their relationships with other members of their herd, and their young in particular, offers insights into the emotional bond they share with each other.  It also doesn’t take long to see just how different their personalities can be.  While they may look like large, gray, animals relatively difficult to tell apart – they are each unique.   From the fearful child to the rambunctious teenage male and powerful-aged matriarch they remind me in many ways of humans.

This photo was captured in South Luangwa National Park in the heart of Zambia.  You’ll note the calf which is feeding.  Elephants share several surprising traits with us.  One is that their front legs are actually arms that bend at the elbow. The other is that they have two mammalian breasts located on their chests vs. the more common teats or udder you find on the vast majority of other mammals.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a  Canon T3i (600D) Camera.