Our Truly Amazing TV Debut: Behind the Scenes

A few months ago, we got word through the Dhaka expat network that someone was looking for “foreigners” to play roles in a Bangladeshi television show. No acting experience or Bengali language experience required. It turns out that this “someone” was none other than television personality, writer, producer, comedian, voice actor, and singer Hanif Sanket. With some 10 million followers on Facebook, he’s considered Bangladesh’s most popular television personality. He was looking for foreigners to participate in Ityadi, which means “et cetera.” Debuting in 1989, it’s the longest running TV show in Bangladesh and the longest running magazine show in the world. Over 50 million viewers watch the annual Eid al-fitr special, which included a popular segment in which foreigners acted out roles in a 10-minute skit on a Bangladeshi social issue, all culminating in a big dance production.

So naturally, I declined….

Director and TV host Hanif Sanket with the dancers

No, for real. I was feeling overwhelmed and didn’t want to commit to something new – it would require attending rehearsals and dance practices 2-3 times per week for the next 7 weeks. But my partner Anne was game, and so I’d drop her for her practices at the Dutch Club in Dhaka and work on my computer in the restaurant area until they were done.

Five or six weeks went by, and I started taking an interest. My partner had the dance routine down and had one line in Bengali. I asked if it might still be possible to sign up and was told they needed extras. Fine. I was actually more interested in seeing the making of the show – what happens behind the scenes to produce a TV show that will be viewed by 50 million people. Show up for one rehearsal and show up for one day of filming. Too easy!

Then, sitting in a circle as everyone went through their lines, Sanket realized that “reporter #4” wouldn’t be able to participate, and suddenly I was in! And one single line in Bengali. The hardest part was having to pronounce “heavy item” the way a local would pronounce it. Not “heavy eyedum” but, well – you’ll see.

So we rolled up in the wee hours of the morning one Saturday and were loaded into vans that sped us off to Sanket’s multistory office/work space. The dancers were given costumes and had makeup applied. The men, just a light dab here and there.

The boys get made up

The women received a much more liberal application of makeup. By 10 am, we were headed toward the filming location, where the first task would be to film the dance routine. In two locations, but ultimately, they must have filmed the routine 8-10 times in total. A couple of times with just cameras in front, a couple of times with a drone, and in the end, camera operators were physically walking between the lines of dancers to get closeups. A few kids, who performed amazingly, were shot separately, and within the overall group. Each time, the choreographers would be up front demonstrating the routine in case anyone forgot. All material to be spliced together as one continuous routine with multiple cameras. In between takes, makeup artists would rush in and fix sarees, hair, dab sweaty foreheads.

Anne’s lingering pink and purple highlights from Holi (see my previous post!) work better with her outfit in the main skit.
Final setup while the drone hovers overhead.
The choreographer’s always there as a guide

One thing that surprised me was that the cameras, for a show running 34 years, were surprisingly consumer-level. A Mavic drone, a few GoPro Heros up on sticks, some higher-end DSLRs and one main camera with a lens worth more than any of my cameras as the main.

By noon we were shooting scenes at different locations around the property and in the nearby village. It was impressive to watch Hanif work – he’s clearly a perfectionist with a fully-developed idea in his mind of the outcome he is trying to achieve. My co-participants, from all different countries, spoke impressive Bengali but all with accents that were noticeable to a non-Bengali speaker like me and probably add a lot for the Bengali viewer – Spanish Bengali, southern American Bengali, British English Bengali, Dutch Bengali…ityadi…. But Hanif would make them repeat every phrase, every gesture – until he had exactly what he needed. As a filmmaker, I was completely stumped by a couple of aspects of the production. First, no one was wearing headphones to monitor what the microphone was picking up – was the dialogue intelligible, was there background noise, wind, side conversations, etc – no one seemed concerned. There was either the camera-mounted mic or a handheld boom mic; no lavaliers, no second mic, and I didn’t see a sound processor.

Anne prepares for her scene, surrounded by crew. See what I meant about the pink and blue highlights?

Second, as the day wore on and the threat of running out of daylight began to loom, Hanif grew increasingly impatient. But no one was off the hook – every word, every phrase, had to be correct. And so at times he was prompting actors line by line – even word by word – and repeating phrases so often, it seemed inconceivable to me that he’d be able to edit the shots in such a way that it wouldn’t be full of jump cuts, or with his voice overlapping the actor’s… When I asked about these things, I was assured that this was a well-oiled team of people who had been working together for so long that it would magically all work out.

My scene, which pulls the whole story together (just kidding). Drawing on my journalism school experience, I play a reporter covering a story about villagers disputing ownership of a goat. The real star of this scene? The goat (not kidding).
“It’s a wrap!”
The entire cast, probably representing a dozen + countries – pose with Hanif Sanket after the final shoot

But somehow – as I’m sure happens every year – filming wrapped up just as the mosquitoes started coming out. Hanif had been checking with us all over the course of the day to make sure we’d had a chance to eat lunch from the wonderful catered spread he had organized – but only after filming was complete did he finally sit down and eat some food. It was a wrap. Now it was just waiting for the vans to bring us back home in the dark…and wait six weeks until the second day of Eid to see the final result.

If you’d like to wait six weeks as well to replicate our experience, check back with us later. If not, here’s the final result, at 5.7 million views on YouTube as of this writing. Can’t wait until next year – maybe I’ll learn how to dance this time!

Posted in Bangladesh, Video Shooting, Editing and Production | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Holi in Bangladesh Part 2: the Ruined Roll

A bit of clicking around this site will reveal I’m a film photographer. And when I went to photograph the Holi celebration for my previous post, I took with me three rolls of film. Only two turned out as intended.

I had two small developer tanks that hold two spools each – two in one, one in the other. And no sooner had I added the developer and started agitating them (I turned them upside down, as I normally do) when the lid popped off one and the film spilled out. As Murphy would have it, the one with two rolls in it. Of course, I quickly shoved the spools back in the tank and got the cover back on, but I instantly knew it was all ruined. Because a shutter exposes film for the tiniest fraction of a second, and this film had spilled into the kitchen sink for a good 3/4 to full second. Ever hopeful, however, I continued the process to its conclusion.

When I went to hang the film to dry, I was surprised to see images on the “ruined” rolls. They gradually became dimmer as I reached the end of the strip – the part that had been closest to the outside of the spool – but the “inner” parts seemed to be okay. I suspected the photos wouldn’t be perfect, but at worst, I was hoping for some “happy accidents.”

In film development, a “happy accident” is when something goes wrong – film is doubly exposed, or there’s a light leak, you leave your film in a hot car, or it’s just old film – and you end up with something kind of cool and different. Like what a lot of those lomo folks are aiming for with pre-treated or tinted films.

So, long story short, most of the photos were completely ruined. But a handful actually turned out interesting. Still disappointed they weren’t as intended, but fun nevertheless. I’ll share a few of the best below. Happy shooting! And make sure that lid’s on tight next time you’re processing film!

The ruined rolls were one each “lomo purple” – one of those aforementioned “tinted” films that is intended to give you somewhat funky results. This one was mostly just overexposed along the edge, so I applied a mask in Lightroom to darken the edge – not perfect, but at this point I’m just going with it:

The second roll was something I hadn’t tried previously – a roll of Amber D400. It’s apparently re-formatted movie stock that has been prepared or use in still cameras and gives distinct colors and looks when used in different lighting conditions. I suppose dumping the developing film into your kitchen sink would qualify as a “different lighting condition.

I like how these turned out the best. Somehow the dyes in the film all reacted differently to my mistake. A happy accident.

Posted in Bangladesh, film processing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Holi in Bangladesh

For those of you familiar with the holiday Holi, it may come as a surprise to see a post about Holi, a Hindu holiday, in Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country. The number of Hindus in Bangladesh has declined significantly since the country’s independence, but given a total country population, of 170 million, there still remain between 15 and 20 million Hindus. And that’s still plenty of people to throw a party.

Holi is

is a popular Hindu festival often referred to as the Festival of Colors, Love and Spring. Its origins are linked to Hindu gods, celebrating the eternal love of Radha and Krishna, as well as signifying the triumph of good over evil, commemorating the victory of Vishnu over Hiranyakashipu.  Falling in mid-March on the Gregorian calendar, it is a two-day celebration starting with bonfires, singing and dancing the evening before, followed by the spraying of brightly colored water and the smearing of brightly colored powders the next day.

Given the low percentage of Hindus in a crowded city like Dhaka, the celebration is limited to small pockets or neighborhoods in the city with high Hindu concentrations. After some research, we made our way to Shankali Bazar, a street in Old Dhaka, where we found the party raging.

Me, toward the end of our photo shoot, at the end of the street. Would they let me leave? I wasn’t completely sure…but it turned out alright.

Initially we weren’t sure we’d be able to get in – both ends of the street were barricaded with bamboo poles and there were grim-looking police guarding the entrance. But we had no issues and made our way in, cameras carefully protected with plastic covers, as we knew we would not be spared just because we were outsiders.

Instead, we were greeted with welcoming smiles and immediately “anointed” with colors as the locals pointed out that we were “looking too fresh”! Kids were armed with spray bottles of colored water and adults carried packets of brightly colored powders that were being sold along the street. To add to the chaos, folks leaning out of their windows or standing on rooftops regularly dumped water on the partygoers below. It didn’t take long until we looked just like everyone else.

Toward the middle of the street, there was a party raging. Huge banks of speakers, covered in protective plastic, surrounded groups of people dancing as bursts of water occasionally plummeted from above. Here’s a video from the heart of the action:

Fortunately, we wore suitable clothes for the occasion, and we were quite the spectacle as we drove home afterward. But one thing we hadn’t anticipated: Some of the colors were a bit more permanent than we had anticipated. It took a few days before I was able to get all of the purple (I suspect it was ink) off my face and ears. But my partner in crime has lighter hair with blond highlights. She, unfortunately, had to spend the next week or two with a hairstyle that included green, pink, and blue “highlights.” There were a few jokes at work the next day…but honestly? I think some folks were jealous they had missed out on the fun!

Posted in Bangladesh | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Hashing Out Old Dhaka

In my previous post, I shared impressions of Old Dhaka gained from an unscripted walk and a 30-minute ride on one of the small ferries. Recently, however, I had the opportunity to enjoy a completely different kind of tour of Old Dhaka – somehow simultaneously more organized and more disorganized – with the Dhaka Hash House Harriers. It was a run that would turn out to be much more than I had planned for.

For those unfamiliar with “hashing,” this is an activity in which a group of runners follow a route unknown to all except one or more “hares” who laid out a trail earlier. The whole thing culminates in a ritual in which participants reminisce about the day’s route, while highlighting achievements and – more often – infractions committed by their fellow runners…typically all involving the consumption of beer. Originating with British military officers posted in colonial Malaysia in the early 20th century, the tradition now includes thousands of clubs and chapters worldwide, typically bringing together expatriates and locals in a spirit of camaraderie…and a little bit of what many would describe as “cultishness.” It’s a great way to discover previously unseen parts of the city in which one lives – and that includes folks who’ve lived in the host city their entire lives. In Dhaka, this is a 40-year-old tradition.

I had taken part in a handful of hashes since our arrival in Dhaka, but in truth was having a hard time adjusting. I arrived in relatively poor physical shape for running, but each of the events I had participated in had been a struggle of surviving the heat and humidity of Dhaka, not so much a sightseeing run. One of the hashers who had encouraged me to join previous events was sending me messages that this hash, in particular, was one not to miss. I didn’t want to go – I expected a late night at work that likely wouldn’t see me in bed before 3 am, and the lack of sleep was a useful excuse to avoid braving the heat. But he wouldn’t let up. In the end, I agreed to go, but on the day of the event, it took all my willpower to avoid turning off the alarm and rolling back to sleep.

The adventure started at Curzon Hall, part of Dhaka University’s school of science. Built in 1904, the hall was named after Lord Curzon, who was Viceroy of India at the time. Curzon is remembered for having proposed the brief partition – along religious lines – of Eastern Bengal and Assam from the rest of British India between 1905 and 1912. Language plays a major role in Bangadesh’s struggle for independence, which would be achieved in 1971; and it was at Curzon Hall where Dhaka University students in 1948 first voiced their refusal to accept Urdu as the state language in all of Pakistan, sparking the Language Movement.

At Curzon Hall, we took the first of many group portraits along the day’s route.

We would continue on to the “Swadhinata Sangram,” a sculpture garden on the grounds of Dhaka University. Inaugurated in 1999, the sculpture garden was designed by the sculptor Shamim Sikder and represents the struggle and pride of the Bengali nation, featuring a main sculpture topped by Bangladesh’s national flag which is surrounded by 103 smaller statures, mostly representing the faces of pioneering leaders, poets, and renowned persons of Bengali culture and history. Of course, we stopped for the obligatory group shot.

Swadhinata Sangram features 103 smaller statues around a large statue topped with the national flag.

We continued on to another large sculpture, the Shaheed Minar. This statue commemorates students killed on February 21 and 22, 1952, in demonstrations demanding official status for their native tongue, Bengali. It was built and rebuilt a number of times after being repeatedly demolished by the Pakistani government until Bangladesh gained its independence in 1971. Every February 21, Bangladesh recognizes the martyrs of its native language movement. In 2002, the UN General Assembly designated February 21 as International Mother Language Day as part of a broader initiative “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.”

Next, we were off to visit the college dorm. In the early 1900s as Dhaka University was taking shape, the planning commission recommended a hall for the Muslim students to allow them to maintain their own culture and religion. The Muslim Hall was originally on the first floor of the Secretariat House, but as the university and the number of enrolled students grew, The Salimullah Muslim Hall as it currently exists was constructed and eventually inaugurated in August 1931. It currently houses more than 800 students.

After departing the Dhaka University area, we made our way through the narrow streets and markets of Old Dhaka. We passed by (but didn’t enter) Lalbagh Fort and posed in front of the slightly ajar front door of Dhaka’s Central Jail . Shopkeepers found the string of runners passing by, all dressed in identical pink t-shirts, quite curious, I’m sure.

We continued past the Tara Masjid, or “Star Mosque,” which was under renovation, and spent some time at the Armenian Apostolic Church of the Holy Resurrection, situated in the Armanitola area of Old Dhaka, once the nerve center of a bustling Armenian community in Dhaka. The church was built in 1781 on what had been an Armenian graveyard.

We’d finish our running tour of Old Dhaka at the Ahsan Manzil, a palace built by the Nawab Abdul Ghani from 1859 to 1872. It was later painted pink and turned into a museum, displaying a total of 4077 artifacts in 23 rooms open for exhibition. When we visited, the museum was still closed, but the organizers of the hash had arranged for us to enter the grounds for (you guessed it) more group photos.

And that should have been the end of the hash. Typically, these events run a few hours in the afternoon and you’re home in time for a shower and dinner. Today, however, we had started in the morning and I assumed we would wrap things up in the nearby parking lot. Instead, we filed onto one of the large riverboats parked along the Buriganga River that cuts through the capital and forms the southern edge of Old Dhaka. Once aboard, the boat pushed out into the center of the river and I realized we weren’t quite done.

For the next three hours, we headed south down the river, toward the Bay of Bengal. Food and drink were served, and the event turned into a floating dance party!

I’m starting to learn that Dhaka is full of surprises. Today was no exception!

Posted in Bangladesh | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Blog is Back: First Impressions of Dhaka, Bangladesh

Generally south-facing panoramic shot across the Buriganga River

Taking a break and going back to school for the last two years has been such a wonderful opportunity! But then again, writing, reading, doing photography, simply because I want to, and not because I’ve got an assignment due…well, I’ve kind of missed that. So here’s our first installment from the latest phase. Adventure is calling!

Fate has landed us a half a world away–literally–from Berkeley, California. Jet-lagged, and cranky, two each well-traveled cats and dogs in tow, we landed in Dhaka, Bangladesh in late June. The adventure began soon after we hit the ground: luggage and pets were loaded aboard two SUVs at the airport and we started the 45-minute trek through heavy traffic to our new home. Within minutes of exiting the airport parking lot, the vehicle we were in throws a fan belt and pulls over to the side. Fifteen minutes later, there’s a bang and a cloud of steam as a radiator hose blows. We grab the cat carrier holding one of our cats and take a seat on a cement block on the side of the road to wait for a replacement vehicle…as the rest of our merry crew continues on its way.

But this ain’t our first rodeo. Everything turned out just fine, and while the traffic, noise and chaos of a city of 21 million can be overwhelming at times, our reception here has been nothing but positive. The food is great, the people are inquisitive about who we are and eager to engage in conversation, and the smiles are universal. We’ve generally been able to find the products we are used to, and the occasional substitutions we’ve had to make (kitty litter, for example) have worked out surprisingly well.

Once caught up a little on sleep, we were eager to head out into the streets to explore. We already had a virtual handshake on buying someone’s car, and though it’s not available for transfer until August, she was out of town the first two weeks of July and encouraged us to use it until her return. We hired a driver (trust me, wise decision) and pointed him toward our first destination: Old Dhaka.

It’s early morning and we’ve packed our cameras and some bottled water. We reach the south part of the city in about 40 minutes. Old Dhaka is full of museums, forts and palaces; our driver drops us in front of one of the most iconic: the Ahsan Manzil Museum, the former palace of the Dhaka Nawabs–dating from 1800 and painted entirely pink! We learn the museum won’t open for another 2.5 hours, and entry fees are paid beforehand online. So instead, we head for a walk along the Buriganga River, to get a feel of the place.

Unloading bananas for sale

It’s only 8 am, but the river and the road lining it are already bustling with activity. It’s warm and humid. Huge riverboats waiting to ferry passengers to the southern reaches of Bangladesh are parked along the piers; and hundreds of tiny wooden boats dot the river, ferrying as many as six or seven passengers at a time across the river, or loaded with goods – mostly fruits and vegetables – that will be loaded aboard trucks or carried to the shops and stalls lining the river. As we walk, we are constantly asked, “country name?” by smiling shopkeepers. Initially, I worry about their response, but the responses to “America” seem to be universally positive. One merchant insists we try one of the small fruits he is selling – in bunches, like grapes, but slightly larger and yellow, with a smooth rind. He peels back the rind and encourages us to take one of the four sections inside. It tastes a bit like apple, and we learn it’s a “lotkon,” also known as the Burmese grape. We smile and continue on our way.

The far (south) side of the Buriganga. pc: Anne Daugherty

We eventually reach a part of the river where the huge passenger ferries have given way to a small inlet where flat-bottomed, wide wooden ferries are bunched up waiting for passengers. Several boat operators encourage us to take a ride on their boats, but we’re unsure about price, duration–or whether we’ll end up across the river. Eventually someone speaks to us in English and tells us for 300 takas – about $3 – he will take us out on the water for about 45 minutes and then bring us back. Cautiously, we agree and he leads us to his boat.

Arrivals and departures on Buriganga River ferries. pc: Anne Daugherty

We set off and it feels a bit chaotic as we head out onto the open river, surrounded by other small boats criss-crossing, but also much larger ones moving much more quickly and in all directions, through the mass of bobbing ferries. They blow loud horns to warn other boat operators, but nobody else seems very concerned, so we try to settle in and enjoy the ride.

Boat passengers peer out at the odd Western couple on the boat. pc: Anne Daugherty

A constant metallic tapping fills the air, and we are told we that across the river is a shipyard. Men suspended on platforms along the hull of an old river trawler are using hammers to chip away the paint bubbles that have formed over growing pockets of rust.

Shipyard workers expose rust so it can be removed. pc: Anne Daugherty

As we head back to shore, our boat operator offers us a deal to double our time on the water. But it’s starting to heat up, and we’re starting to sweat as we have been sitting in the open sun on the river He laughs as we decline and I point to the sweat soaking through my shirt.

As we climb back onto solid ground, activity along the narrow road has stepped up quite a bit. We decide to make our way back to the car, but we’re competing for space with an endless stream of bicycle rickshaws, small trucks, shoppers, and men carrying goods on their heads. But we push on.

It’s only 10:30 am but I’m ready to head back home – enough adventure for our first outing! As our driver picks his way through traffic, we quietly look out the window at all the activity in one of the world’s fastest growing megacities.

Posted in Bangladesh | Tagged , | 1 Comment

A Few Words About My Father

At times like this, weird things come into your head. Like how I’ve never heard my Dad sleep for so many hours without snoring. Or how all life is sacred, and with the exception of mosquitoes, any animal in my house has to be trapped in a cup and released outside. Mom is telling me stories of how she and Dad met, and when they were first dating in the Netherlands. I feel lucky to have lived there myself, and thus recognize many of the places she is talking about. She tells me she once showed my daughter where they first met. We both wonder if we should go to sleep.

My father is dying. He’s in the final stages of Parkinson’s Disease. Others struggle with this cruel illness for decades, but for everyone its progress is different. My father was given six years.

Mom says she wishes he would snore. Each time his breathing gets quiet, we hold our breaths.

Ours is a family that couldn’t stay put. Most men in my Dad’s generation, and his father’s generation, were coal miners. He decided early on that wasn’t for him, and he and my Mom took a chance and came to America. They ended up in Berkeley, California.

In Berkeley, he struggled for awhile to find a job he thought he might be happy doing his whole life. When things escalated in Vietnam and his draft number came up, he joined the Army, where he would serve for 21 years. We spent most of our time in Europe, in case the Soviets attacked. My Dad helped win the Cold War.

Dad was always an inspiration and a role model to us kids.

Mom says he stuttered terribly when he arrived in the United States. She tells me how, because the Army works in mysterious ways, he once found himself assigned as an instructor at Fort Gordon, where I had been born a decade earlier. Apparently he worried his English wasn’t up to par, so before class, he’d use a pencil to write the lesson on the chalkboard. When his students arrived, he’d simply trace the pencil lines with chalk; only he was close enough to the chalkboard to see the pencil marks. He was pretty clever that way.

He has always had this unique sense of humor I admired and tried to emulate. I’ll say something outlandish with a straight face, and people are unsure if I’m joking. With him, it is different – you always knew when he was joking because he couldn’t avoid laughing. But he had a way of telling someone off that left his victim unsure whether he’d been complimented or insulted. In the 70s, he’d bet his German neighbors on soccer matches. He’d bet one neighbor a case of beer that team A would win, and the other neighbor a case of beer that team B would win. After the game he would just take the case of beer from one neighbor to the other. Neither neighbor ever caught on to the joke, as far as I know.

My dad could draw some amazing stuff with a set of good art pencils. I think he took a course, and it came to him naturally. But he didn’t enjoy drawing. I’m guessing there are less than half a dozen that have been saved; a couple were drawn as gifts and framed. I never understood why he didn’t flaunt his talent more.

My parents had me take accordion lessons. Piano was out of our price range (we weren’t wealthy) and to economize further, he’d follow along faithfully with my instruction books. He really wanted to play, but he decided he wasn’t very good at it. At parties, he’d play the same song again and again, and it was always a hit. Me, I think I had some talent, but I never ended up really liking the instrument until I was in my mid-40s.

Back in the 90s, there was only really one kind of beer in America. Miller, Coors, Budweiser, whatever – it was all the same beer: yellow and boring. So I figured out how to make my own. He thought that seemed like a good idea too, and turned it into an art form. He’d serve it on tap from a bar his father, a carpenter, had made years before. He made it a separate room in the house.

I have been a runner since I was about 11 or so. In my early 30s, I got this idea I suddenly wanted to run a marathon. The longest I had run previously had been 10 miles. So I trained and trained, and when the time came, my parents came to visit. He’d always hated running in the Army but he was always able to hold his own. We went for a two-mile jog to loosen up and I guess he was a bit shocked at his own decline. A few days later, my wife and I drove up to Rotterdam and I ran my first 26-miler. It was broadcast on TV, so they watched.

When I got home, we were talking and he asked me, “So do you think anyone could run a marathon? I told him Oprah had done it and didn’t see why not. A month or two later he proudly announced over the phone that he was up to nine miles. When he competed in his first half marathon, my then-young daughter asked him why he didn’t run the whole thing.

Dad would end up running 16 marathons and dozens of other races. He qualified for and ran Boston (I never did). Although he started at 53 – my current age – I would never beat his fastest time. His final race was at age 70 – a half marathon in under two hours.

Dad has always been pretty quiet. Except when sleeping, of course. When I remember him as a younger man, I imagine him sitting quietly on the couch, looking at nothing in particular, tugging at individual hairs in his mustache with a good German beer in front of him. Maybe the Tour de France on TV, back when we didn’t know Lance was fake because Lance was probably still running around in diapers. Or his laugh, after delivering one of his offbeat jokes or backhanded compliments.

Dad is a prostate cancer survivor. But Parkinson’s has been different. It’s unrelenting and emotionless. Mom has had a hard time keeping up – for the last six years, she has constantly been researching what new gadget would allow him to remain as independent as possible. Sometimes it seemed as soon as he got comfortable using one wheelchair, or walker, or other device, she’d have to start researching the next one because his condition was changing so rapidly. She knew what lay ahead, but she never stopped pushing him.

I think the toughest change to cope with was when he lost his ability to speak. His doctors, nurses and caregivers figured out tricks and techniques to prolong his ability as long as possible, but in the last months it has been heartbreaking to see his increasing frustration at not being able to communicate.

As I mentioned at the top, ours is a traveling family. We’re spread out all over the United States but now is one of those rare times we’re all on the same continent. With COVID restrictions, we decided it best to stay put, and instead visit using Zoom. Just yesterday, in spite of all his struggles, Dad still had a smile for everyone. But today, he has slept all day. We’re pretty sure he knows we’re always by his side, and he’s calm and appears to be in no pain.

The other night, I dreamed he got up and was walking around cracking jokes. And in walks my grandfather, who passed away years ago. When Dad leaves us, I hope there is a place where he can once again do all the things he loved to do, like go for a long run, enjoy a cold beer, or just listen to his favorite music. My grandfather would be happy to see him again; I can already imagine the stories they’ll share.

Update: my father passed away just before 7 am on December 26. He was 76 years old.

I‘ve registered to complete the California Ironman in October 2021 in my father’s honor, to help raise awareness and funds to reduce the chances that others will suffer from this disease in the future. Thanks for your support, whether you donate to the following Charity GoFundMe, or just help spread the word.

Parkinson’s disease (PD), or simply Parkinson’s is a long-term degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. While it mainly affects the motor system, depression, anxiety, and dementia are also common. Approximately one million Americans and seven million people worldwide suffer from the disease. Average life expectancy following diagnosis is between 7 and 15 years. There is no cure for PD; treatment is focused on alleviating the symptoms.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Sky is NOT Always Blue in California

People in California’s Bay Area awoke this morning thinking, “I must have a few hours left to sleep” because the sky was so dark. A dingy sky carrying smoke and ash from the fires plaguing the state obscured the sun and cast an eerie pall over our neighborhood. There was no odor of smoke in the air, but a thin layer of ash covered the cars parked on the street.

Ash Overnight

We decided to head up into the Berkeley hills, and as we climbed Marin Drive, we found ourselves suddenly enveloped by a mixture of fog, smoke and ash. It was 10 am, but it felt like just after sunset on a December evening.

View from Berkeley Hills
View from high in the Berkeley hills

We decided to head down to Point Isabel, a popular dog park in Richmond, to see how things looked across the bay. As the time crept toward midday it was unnerving to see all the cars driving with lights on under illuminated streetlights.

Dog Park
Dark Skies
View to the northwest from Point Isabel

For some reason, I kept thinking about dinosaurs.

See the rest of the photos from this morning on Flickr.

Captured on someone’s lawn…
Smoky Selfie
What’s next?
Posted in Random Thoughts, Observations and Weird Stuff | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

“Artisans” documentary series – final (?) episode

Some of you may have seen my “Artisan” series of mini-documentaries. The plan was to highlight different occupations in Madagascar’s informal sector that involve a specialized skill. Jobs that don’t really exist in the West, with detail that may even surprise some people in Madagascar. I didn’t expect the project to take over two years!

In this final (is it?) episode, I chat with the carpenter and multi-talented musician, Raymond Randriamiarisoa, who provided the soundtrack that has been used throughout this series, played on a valiha, or a kind of zither, that is considered Madagascar’s national instrument. He also makes other instruments out of bamboo and other materials, and he plays them all expertly.

The film has some sections that are a bit hazy or noisy, but since I left Madagascar more than a year ago, I can’t exactly go and re-shoot. But I am pleased to finish this series before I head off to journalism school to learn how to do this professionally, instead of as a hobby. OK, obsession.

As a preview, here is a short clip of Randrina (as he calls himself) playing another of Madagascar’s traditional instruments, a type of banjo which can be purchased for very little from Madagascar’s many roadside stands. And then I hope you’ll check out the actual mini-docu, either on YouTube or Vimeo. Be sure and maximize the resolution your internet provider can handle – best results on Vimeo.

Thanks throughout this series to Raymond Randriamiarisoa for the soundtrack(s); to Safidy Andrianarisoa for helping me find the stories, translating on the spot, and shooting some of the video; to Anne Daugherty for her advice, shooting some of the video, and overall support; and to my language instructor Tiana Razanalivaoarijaona, for translation and corrections.

On to new adventures!

Posted in Madagascar | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Every Day is a Surprise. Also, People are A$$h0Le5. (part 2)

And so, my motorcycle was repaired, and I planned for the next day to be completely uneventful – one of those days where you catch up on tasks that have been piling up. But I was wrong.

The morning was pretty routine, and then I went to my place of work, where I saw that a small black cat was sitting within the (fenced) compound. She was meowing for attention, and as I got closer, I noticed (with horror) that one of her rear legs was a mess. Apparently some fine example of a human being had attached a plastic zip tie to her leg and pulled it tight, cutting off the circulation, resulting in gangrene and eventual necrosis.

The cat was craving attention, despite the condition of her leg. She was also quite malnourished, with hip bones clearly visible. I continued homeward (I had a dog in the car) but I realized I had to do something about this poor cat. I called our local vet and sent him pictures I am not sharing here, and his response was “OMG that is bad.” I asked if I could bring the cat to him and he agreed.

Kitty meowed, but often made no sound. Her tongue appeared to be about 2mm too long and stuck out every time she meowed. And she craved human contact. As a Person Who Knows About Cats, I can officially qualify this cat as “very cute.” She insisted we scratch her ears. But her leg was a mess and smelled bad.

So what to do?  Well, here’s what we did.

I stayed to watch the entire procedure, and help out from time to time. And I realized, at no point that morning had it occurred to me that by dinnertime, I’d be watching a veterinarian amputate a cat’s leg.

She’s a voracious eater and has already put on some weight to hide those hip bones and ribs. But now we need someone in Burundi to give her a “forever home.” Spread the word!

Posted in Good Causes, Random Thoughts, Observations and Weird Stuff | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Every Day is a Surprise. Also, People are A$$h0Le5.

Life is funny. Some days you wake up and things are – meh – run of the mill, nothing to write home about. Other days you wake up and experience a day you never imagined.

I’ve had three traffic accidents in the last month. In the first, I was found at fault – a “tuktuk” swerved left to avoid a pothole on a road I knew to be badly potholed (Avenue des Etats-Unis, or USA, in Burundi – so I guess it’s partly our fault from the get-go) and I ended up slamming into the rear of his vehicle with my motorcycle. When he fled the scene and I finally managed to start the bike, I chased him down to my place of work, where I was able to get the armed guards to force him to stop.

In the second, some buffoon passed me on the right and decided that the halfway point of the passing maneuver was the appropriate time to cut into my lane. Moral of the story: crappy off brand import can’t compete with a Land Cruiser. But he still insists it was my fault.

Then last week, a car pulled out from a dirt road onto a priority road I happened to be on. I flashed, then honked, which caused the driver to collapse into mental disarray, neither accelerating nor stopping, and after skidding 30 meters I crashed my motorcycle into his car. (Oh, but you should have seen the OTHER guy’s car). Short flight over the handlebars onto her hood, roll left, end up on my back in the middle of the road. A crowd of Burundians at this point think the best course of action is to force me to sit up and remove my helmet. Good thing I had no major injuries, spinal or otherwise.

At this point, my motorcycle is permanently making a left turn because the frame has a 15 degree kink and who knows what else wrong with it. She wants to work out an “arrangement” because my bike has only minor damage. Yeah, if you’re into driving in circles.

At this point, I assume the bike is a total loss. But I was not prepared for the ingenuity of the Burundian mechanic. In a “workshop” somewhere on an unpaved road in Bujumbura, these guys completely disassembled my bike, straightened the frame in the 3 places where it was bent, the handlebars, shocks, and other assorted bent metal parts. Three days and about $200 later, the bike was back in my driveway, better than before.

So that was a pretty bad day, followed shortly by a pretty good day. But what I really intended to write about was the day AFTER that. I guess we’ll make that a separate post 😉

Posted in Burundi, Random Thoughts, Observations and Weird Stuff | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

When Langtang Vanished

April 25, 2015.

I was enjoying an idyllic vacation in Mauritius, swimming with the largest animals in the world. When we returned to the dock, my phone rang: how quickly could I get to Nepal? There had been an awful earthquake, thousands had perished, and many were still missing and/or trapped in the hills and passes of the high Himalayas.

I was in Kathmandu a few days later and stayed for nearly a month. When I returned, I blogged about the scenes in Kathmandu, but not about what I had seen in the Langtang valley. It’s still hard to grasp, really.

Langtang Village before the quake.
Photo by Yosarian, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

My daughter had hiked the valley a year prior with a school group, and I imagined a trail with a few scattered huts and hostels along the way. As it turns out, Langtang, a village situated in a wider part of the valley and a popular resting place for hikers, had at one time consisted of dozens of guest houses, hotels, and tea houses.

On April 25, a 7.8 quake shook loose a glacier high above Langtang village, causing an avalanche that instantly dumped 40 million tons of earth on the village. In an instant, a layer of rock, mud, and ice up to 30 meters deep covered an area a mile and a half long and half a mile wide. The shock wave generated by the avalanche flattened trees on the opposing slope and stripped their bark for miles in either direction. Ice and debris rained on the next village up the valley, carried by the wind generated by the impact.

I arrived three days after the quake. My job was to work with a small team of search and rescue specialists to find survivors and to bring them to safety. Others had already scoured, unsuccessfully, the tent camps throughout the city of Kathmandu looking for any foreign tourists that might have sheltered there. We had a few leads – there were pockets of hikers trapped in various locations along popular hiking trails; often one of them would have a satellite phone or a GPS messaging device, and we’d plot their locations and plan on how to get them out. But this proved to be difficult, because the Nepalese government – probably quite appropriately – had nationalized all of its helicopters in order to centralize control of a limited, but vital resource. But we continued to plead with them, to try and get a few hours of air time to fly over the valley, where tourists of various nationalities had not been heard from since before the quake.

Like many of the hotels in the city, the one I was staying in was deemed partially unsafe, and we were served our meals outside on the lawn, due to thea large crack running across the ceiling of the dining room. Other guests in my hotel were a mix of rescue NGOs, shellshocked tourists waiting for a flight out, and just-arrived search-and-rescue teams, from Virginia, Los Angeles, Spain, Israel, and other countries whose citizens had been reported missing in the region.


After a few days of calls, we were told we’d finally have a helicopter for a few hours. We knew three Americans were missing, but at this point, everyone in the search effort had started working together as a team, regardless of nationality. Pictures of any found remains were shared among a quickly-evolving network. In the office, I was asked why I was spending so much time on social media; I explained that the photos that had been sent by families missing their loved ones were school photos or other posed shots in their “Sunday best.” But Facebook and Twitter held clues to how they might have looked after weeks of hiking in the Himalayas, including clothes they might have been wearing, or people they ran into along the way who might have additional information. From what we could piece together, it appeared that all three had been having lunch in Langtang Village, one of the principal stops along the scenic Langtang trail, when the earthquake struck.

We boarded the chopper and set off from Kathmandu’s airport. The pilot carefully navigated between thick banks of fog, having to reverse course several times when he lost all visibility. We weren’t sure we’d make it out of the city, which is enclosed by mountains and often covered by clouds. But eventually, he broke through, and we were greeted by vistas of snow-covered mountains, babbling brooks and dense forests…interspersed by small villages precariously perched on small ledges and surrounded by terraced rice fields.

Nepal Mountain Village

Eventually the pilot pointed to a wider part of the valley up ahead. It was featureless, just mud flats. To the right I saw that the trees had been flattened, as if by a nuclear blast. As we flew over the place where Langtang Village had once been, I could see to my left a single building, backed up in a shallow cave under the cliff face, that was still standing; nothing else but mud and rock. This was all that was left of Langtang village.


We continued on, passing over an area where buildings had once stood, but now was nothing but rubble. A few kilometers further, we passed over Kyanjin Gompa, whose residents later reported that the shock wave from the avalanche had pelted their village with stones and ice. Seeing no signs of life, we made a wide “U” turn and headed back toward what had been Langtang.

As we passed over for a second time what had once been a bustling village just days earlier, we saw people in the distance waving. The pilot swerved and we landed. A half dozen Nepali survivors asked for help; we gave them the MREs we had on board, and one of my colleagues applied first aid to a head wound and gave an older gentleman a handful of Tylenol. They pointed to the lower part of the valley, behind us, and said there was a body of a foreigner, so we went to investigate. We found a young woman, face down, and after retrieving identification from her pocket, took a GPS reading and carefully wrapped her body in a mylar blanket to make her easier to find. And remounted the chopper to continue our search for survivors.

Langtang Survivors

It was time to return to Kathmandu – helicopters struggle at those altitudes – and on the way back we saw no other signs of life along the trail. I reported the coordinates of the young woman we had found to the German embassy, and the following days were spent coordinating flights to ferry pockets of stranded survivors to the capital, and occasionally checking the morgue for updates. The evenings were spent speaking to the families of those who were still unaccounted for. We interviewed other survivors and scoured social media for clues, and although it was becoming near-certain that the three missing Americans had been in Langtang village at the time of the avalanche, I wasn’t ready to tell their families to give up hope. Because I didn’t want to give up hope. But the sheer scale of destruction at Langtang was hard to argue with. And the aftershocks continued constantly – day and night – on an average of every 15 or 20 minutes. After awhile, most of us stopped noticing them; the Earth moving beneath our feet somehow became normal.


As the death toll continued to climb – 7,000…8,000…eventually 9,000 – stories of tragedy and heroism continued to pour in. Hundreds of climbers remained stranded at Everest Base Camp, but flights were operating and they were in no immediate danger. The media talked about how this earthquake had been a long time coming, and all previous scenarios hadpredicted the destruction of Kathmandu. Yet in the end, Kathmandu was relatively unscathed; the vast majority of deaths occurred in remote, mountainous parts of Nepal. We had seen the evidence on our flight – signs of landslides and avalanches in random places on otherwise pristine green mountain slopes.

Five years after, I still remember the pride I felt when I saw four American V-22 Ospreys land at Kathmandu’s airport. The international community was mounting a massive rescue effort – India sent scores of people and helicopters, in addition to Spain and several other European countries – and I was glad to see us join in the effort.

On May 12, a 7.3 magnitude aftershock hit Kathmandu. Far less powerful than the initial 7.8, but still scary. Fortunately, it caused relatively few deaths – compared to the initial shock. But I remember drunkenly (it felt) stumbling out of the building I was in and taking a knee on the grass outside. And then it was over. And then we all got back to looking for the folks who had gone missing, though hope was fading quickly. Meanwhile, high on the mountain trail, family members of those who had gone missing had come to Nepal to look for signs of their loved one, and the massive aftershock and resulting landslides led to the military calling off its own search for survivors, in addition to ordering others off the mountain trail.

Postscript: Langtang Village has not been rebuilt. Western media tend to focus on the foreign tourists who went missing that day, but Langtang Village consisted of hundreds of Nepali people who suffered the same fate as the unlucky tourists. Stray boulders and collapsing buildings claimed the lives of locals up and down the trail, and the flow of tourists and the income they brought, whicht had allowed the people of the Langtang Valley to earn a living suddenly stopped. Five years later, hikers and tour companies are increasingly operating along the Langtang trail. While the avalanche site itself remains barren and clearly visible on satellite photos, nearby stands a memorial to those who died on April 25, and several new hotels have sprung from the rubble that lay just to the east of Langtang. One hopes that the tourism industry will recover, but like many parts of the world, the region is currently “locked down” to prevent spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the danger of another catastropic quake continues to lurk below the volatile Himalayas.

In memory of Nina Stechmann, who we found, and Dawn Habash, Sydney Schumacher, and Bailey Meola, whom we did not. My heart goes out to Will and Paul Schumacher, and Yasmine Habash, who came to Nepal with Reid Harris to look for their loved ones against all advice, as well as all the other family members like Khaled Habash, Rachelle Brown, and many others who, along with me, clung to the hope that Dawn, Sydney and Bailey would somehow turn up alive and safe. It is likely that Dawn, Sydney and Bailey remain to this day where they were seated on April 25, 2015 having lunch, or just stretching their legs; but if not, as Rachelle Brown noted, “Whatever the mountain doesn’t keep, we want to bring home.” I wish them the best in their efforts.

Yoga instructor and adventurer Dawn Habash, from Augusta, Maine
Bailey Meola and Sydney Schumacher

Nina Stechmann (right) and Leonie Elsner. To my knowledge, Leonie Elsner remains unaccounted for.
Posted in Nepal | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Reunion Island: a Little (Volcanic) Piece of France in the Middle of the Indian Ocean

Living in Madagascar, people would sometimes ask, “Don’t you get island fever?” Of course, this never happened – given that it stretches the distance from New York City to the tip of Florida, it’s more like a small continent than an island. Still, from time to time, it’s nice to visit some of the smaller nearby islands, like the Comoros, Mauritius, Mayotte or – in this case – Reunion Island.

By Eric Gaba (Stingfr:Sting) – Own work Topography: NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM3 v.2) (public domain) ; Bathymetry: SRTM30 Plus ; Shorelines: NASA SWBD (public domain)., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

“Ile de la Reunion” or “Island of the Reunion” is a French overseas department and region, with the same status as metropolitan France. Except it’s a rock out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s formed from two volcanoes – the long-extinct “Piton des Neiges” (Peak of the Snows) to the northwest, which last erupted in 20,000 B.C.; and “Piton de la Fournaise” (Peak of the Furnace) to the southeast, which remains one of the most active volcanoes in the world. When we passed along the eastern edge of the island, we could see recent flows that had crossed the road and were still smoking in places; and since then, the volcano has begun erupting again.

Landing in Reunion from Madagascar is a bit jarring – given that the French have been here since the 1600s, it really is just like stepping into France, in many ways. We rented a small, fuel-efficient French car from a surly attendant at the airport, and as I saw there was a McDonald’s just ten minutes away, I had a sudden craving. There, I got into my first car accident. Turning left, I was startled by a loud bang and a motorcyclist came tumbling over the vehicle. He left a large dent in the rear left and tried to bully me into accepting fault and paying him off, but when I insisted on calling the police, he fled the scene. By this time, a crowd had gathered, some of them a bit hostile, and a young French woman took pity on us and led us to the police station. There we waited, made a statement, and eventually reached our AirBnB place in the hills along the south of the island well after midnight.

The next morning we went out to explore. We had an amazing view of the landscape below, with its winding road leading to the sea, and the volcano rising up behind us. It was cool, just a few miles from the sea, due to the elevation change. We decided to get up and explore, and about a quarter mile down the road, I moved left to avoid a vehicle parked on the outside of a curve, when another car whipped around the corner and smashed into us. The driver apologized and I told her “no worries” – at this point it was almost funny – and she said “but the damage to your car!” Turns out she had hit me exactly in the same spot as the motorcycle the night before, and she was relieved when I explained that it really was no big deal. But now I was definitely spooked – coming from chaotic Madagascar traffic to supposedly “orderly” France was not supposed to go like this. Needless to say, the rest of our trip, I was accused multiple times of driving with an overabundance of caution.

It’s a charming little island though – lots of green, interspersed with small villages connected by narrow roads winding through the hills. In the tourism world, it’s known for its challenging volcano climb, and shark attacks. That night, we decided to go for the former, waking up around 1 am to drive about 45 minutes to the trailhead. The idea was that we would reach the edge of the crater around sunrise, but alas – it was not to be. First, finding the actual trail in the dark was not easy. Then, the trail itself started off with a loooong descent down narrow stairs and pathways. And finally, once we got moving, it was constantly raining. But still, we forged on.

Not far from the parking lot is the metal gate leading to a long descent, followed by a long climb around the laft and rear of the volcano in the distance.
By Sebastian Appelt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

With head-mounted flashlights, it’s not too difficult to follow the trail once you’re on it – the black rock is marked every few meters by a dash of white point. We passed a few hikers coming the other way (this should have been a warning) but saw relatively few people as we made our way gradually upward. But we were definitely not going to make it by sunrise. In fact:

We hiked for hours and hours, and as the morning wore on, the intermittent rain turned into a steady drizzle. We were soaked, but by this point, determined to make it to the rim of the caldera. Which we did – and here’s the amazing view we had before heading back and passing all the hikers who had chosen a more reasonable time to start their trek.

But we made it!!
and here…a look over the precipice…into the depths of the volcano!

Returning to the cabin exhausted, we decided the rest of our trip would be much more relaxing. We took some scenic drives and ventured out onto the rocky beach – it’s illegal to swim in the ocean around Reunion because it’s pretty much the world’s shark attack capital. The one exception to the rule is the small lagoon on the west edge of the island. More about that later. But here some of the scenes along the coast:

One day we took a drive inland, to a waterfall that was supposedly spectacular – the Grand Galet. We followed the winding road along the river to Saint-Joseph, where we could park near a platform overlooking the falls. But what we were after was a trail to take us to the pool below the falls. We headed down the road a few hundred meters, and eventually picked our way through the trees, clambering over (and under) rocks until we reached the spectacular pool where the river, having sunk below its rocky bed, sprays out of dozens of crevasses and caves in the sheer cliff wall.

The water was chilly, but bearable. For a bit. Refreshing!!

To round out our trip to Reunion, we checked out of our cabin and headed up the road a few hours to St. Gilles-les-Bains and Hermitage Beach, which is protected by a coral reef. As it was a Saturday morning, it turns out that half the island had the same idea, and we searched to find the last bit of parking before picking our way down to the crowded beach. And then the oddest coincidence of all, as we bumped into the same young woman who had helped us find the police station our first night there! We spent a few hours at the beach, where we were not bitten by sharks…but instead by triggerfish, protecting their nests! It seemed that nobody else was having any issues, but after a couple drew blood on my finger and on a toe, I decided a jog on the beach would be more fun than a swim. By the time it was time to pack up our wet clothes and head to the airport, there were so many people on the beach we practically had to step over them to get back to the car!

If we ever make it here again, I hope we can try the volcano again. Preferably when it’s not raining!

Posted in Other Places | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Onward to Mahajanga, Madagascar

In my previous post I talked about our meticulously planned trip to see all four islands of the Comoros archipelago, which was so rudely interrupted by political violence…and so we shifted to Mahajanga, on the west coast of Madagascar.

I’ve blogged about Mahajanga before, and I’ve even made videos similar to what I plan to share today. But I can’t overemphasize what a nice getaway Antsanitia Resort is, if you’re ever in the neighborhood. Pro tip: it’s worth the extra expense of springing for the private pool. At first it seemed like too much of a splurge – but compared to what you’d pay elsewhere, it’s a bargain. And it’s oh so pleasant to hang out there in the hot part of the day, or when the mosquitos come out to feast….

You can go out and do excursions from Antsanitia, but this resort an hour or two north of Mahajanga, on the sea where the river empties out, is made for relaxing, as far as I’m concerned. Take a walk on the beach, but beyond that, just chill. If you really need to do something, borrow a kayak and explore the other side of the river.

While we were there, I sent the drone out for a couple of short flights, which ended up providing fodder for a couple of fun videos. In the first, meet the dog who really doesn’t like drones; and in the second, experience a flock of seagulls up close.

It was sad to leave, but we left at the appointed time and arrived at the airport only to be told that our flight was going to be delayed at least five hours. And the airport in Mahajanga is not a fun place to hang out for five hours. And don’t tell the manager I told you this, but a great place to kill five hours is to go back into town and hang out at the Karibu Lodge. If you’re staying in town, it’s a fantastic place to stay (but not on the beach) with two-story townhouses that all have a beautiful sunset view. But the best thing about Karibu is the food. If you ask the manager nicely, he may let you lounge around in the (small) pool for a few hours, topped off by an amazing meal. And then it’s 15 minutes, tops, to the airport.

If you can’t talk them into staying at the Karibu, there are also a bunch of restaurants along what must be Madagascar’s only boardwalk, just a half mile farther south.

Posted in Aerial photography/videography, Madagascar | Tagged | Leave a comment

Mayotte: From Above and Below

During my time in Madagascar, I had the opportunity to visit nearby Mayotte a few times. Never heard of it? It’s and island in the Indian Ocean – part of the Comoros Archipelago, claimed by the Comoros as its fourth island but administered by France as its 101st Department. If you want to know more about its status and history (which are quite interesting), it’s worth having a read of its Wikipedia entry.


What’s remarkable about this small volcanic island is that it’s completely surrounded by a lagoon, which is created by long coral reefs on all sides of the island. Which makes for calm, warm water, amazing undersea life, and virtually no (dangerous) sharks. Like the other Comorian islands, it’s also the product of volcanic activity, thich has resulted in some interesting landscapes. And since 2018,, it’s had dozens of small earthquakes each day, because there is a new, undersea volcano erupting about 40 miles to the east.

Mayotte consists of two major islands. In French they’re known as Grande Terre and Petite Terre, but in the local language they’re known as Maore (the local name for Mayotte in general) and Pamanzi. When flying in, you land on the smaller of the two, at Pamanzi airport, and you can either stay on that island, getting around with local (shared and cheap) cabs, or take a ferry across to the bigger island and the capital Mamoudzou, where you can have a car rental agency meet you with a rental car for a very reasonable price. The ferry is free in this direction, but you’ll need to pay a small fee (in euro cents) to return.

Things to do on Pamanzi

If you spend a few days on Pamanzi, it’s worth having a hike up to the volcanic lake, Dzani Dzaha. It can be a bit tricky to catch a cab because it’s a bit off the beaten path and the drivers would rather just shuttle full loads between the ferry (“la barge”) and the airport. Have them drop you at the parking and make your way up the steep path to the rim of the crater, where you can go in either direction and wind up at the start about 90 minutes later, having gotten in a good hike and taken in some spectacular views. It’s a challenging trail run – be sure and take water whether you hike or run, because it heats up pretty quickly.

On our most recent trip, we opted to walk eastward along the southern edge of the crater, and after about 15 minutes, branched off to the east, and hiked for about half an hour to see the cliffs above Moya Beach. If you have the time, you can make your way down to the beach on one of a series of volcanic craters open to the sea. You’re likely to have the entire beach to yourself – but bring your own snacks and water, because there aren’t any tourist shops down there!

On two separate trips, I made the following short video clips which highlight the lake (slightly out of focus), Moya Beach, as well as Mount Choungui and N’Gouja Beach on Grande Terre. Yes, they overlap, but I made them from two separate trips, not knowing I’d go twice! And they’re short.

Things to do on Maore / Grande Terre

On Grande Terre, you can have a drink and a meal and watch the ferry come and go from one of several cafes near the ferry landing. In Mamoudzou are a few nice hotels and an ATM, and pleasant little shops, but it’s not safe to walk through town after dark. If you’ve rented a car, you can drive around the entire island in about half a day. Going northward from Mamoudzou, the first half hour is pretty industrial, but then things calm down and you’ll have the road mostly to yourself as you pass through coastal villages and jungles. There aren’t a lot of touristy cafes or stops along the way, but it’s a pleasant drive.

As you reach the southern end of the island, you can hike up Mount Choungui, a volcanic peak you’ll have been seeing from miles away. But the real treat that Mayotte has to offer is the sea turtles at Kani Keli. At N’Gouja Beach you’ll find a pleasant resort known for its giant baobab trees on the beach. To be honest, the resort is not that remarkable – the staff are a bit unfriendly, food and drink prices are high, but the cabins are decent and in the shade away from the beach. Which initially seems like a bad thing, but the beach itself is open to the public, meaning on the weekend it becomes a popular destination for busloads of schoolkids.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, you say? What makes Kani Keli special, however, is that its waters are teeming with marine life – in particular, sea turtles. It’s a few hundred meters out, and then you follow the reef parallel to the coast toward the west. Initially, you don’t see much, but as you approach the underground boulders and coral reef, you’ll find yourself surrounded by large majestic green turtles that seem to have very little fear of humans! It’s truly an awe-inspiring experience to swim with these animals and watch them feed on the sea grass and “fly” through the water! I’ve snorkeled and swum at my fair share of beaches, and I’ve never seen so many turtles, in every direction! Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For the more adventurous with time and money, you can also take a variety of boat tours out to the lagoon, either snorkeling or diving – the entire lagoon is a national marine park.

Mayotte is not a place I’d recommend spending weeks – unless you’re an avid diver, the tourist infrastructure is not exactly robust. On our final trip there, we had meticulously planned to island-hop all four islands of the archipelago – each island is unique and has its own activities and sights – as long as you don’t require four-star hotels – and most notably Moheli (Mwali) is said to be worth a visit due to its low population and abundant nature and sea life. Unfortunately, our plans were interrupted by political violence surrounding the Comoros elections (don’t worry – they only happen every five years!) and we had to ditch our plans to visit the other three islands, heading back to Mahajanga, Madagascar instead. But I’ll save that adventure for a different post.

Posted in Wildlife and Nature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Voigtlander Vitoret: Test/Review

The Voigtlander Vitoret is a relatively inexpensive camera manufactured in the 1960s in Braunschweig, then-West Germany. It’s pretty simple compared to its fancier cousin, the Vito, and it came in different versions – with an exposure meter, rangefinder, and other features – but this is the simplest of them – set your aperture (f/2.8-f/22), shutter speed (1/30, 1/60, 1/125 and bulb), estimate distance/focus, and click. The long stroke film advance cocks the shutter and it has a large viewfinder. Underneath, it keeps track of how many shots you have taken. It’s got a Prontor leaf shutter and a Lanthar 50mm/2.8 lens, or like mine) if built for export, a Vaskar 50mm/2.8 lens.

I’ve seen other folks get some pretty nice pictures with their Vitorets, but mine didn’t turn out great and honestly the camera did the job but it wasn’t that fun to shoot, in terms of feel, shutter sound, etc. I actually forgot I had film in it for quite awhile – some of the shots were taken in Mauritius, and then later in Madagascar, and then I forgot about the film (Fuji 400H) for a year or so, and that may have contributed to the loss in photo quality. some of the issues I blame on waiting so long to develop the film, but a good 50% of the shots were also blurry – maybe my fault for failing to estimate distance accurately, but not a lot of room for error Here are a few sample shots:

Rocks and Water
Rocks and running water, Mauritius. The camera did a good job here.
Salt Production
Evaporating sea water to get salt in Mauritius
On the Path
Walking around the neighborhood in Madagascar
Ducks and Geese
More scenes from Madagascar. I find it odd that some of the ducks appear to be transparent?
Laundry Point

Overall, meh camera but still working nicely nearly 60 years after manufacture. I may put a roll of black and white through it in the future, but for now it’s going on the shelf. See more photos shot with the Voigtlander Vitoret here.

Posted in Vintage cameras | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Yet Another Sh*tty Camera Challenge

If you spend any time on “film photography twitter” you’ll have heard about the CULT (allegedly) that is the Sh*tty Camera Challenge. The rules are simple: find a camera that costs less than a roll of film and see what you can do with it.

This time around we were given a bit more time (3 months) than in previous editions, which is a good thing since I moved from Madagascar to Burundi and had to wait for all my film stuff since you can’t exactly drop off your film in downtown Bujumbura.

Back in August I acquired my camera: a handsome bright red plastic specimen that looked like a toy plastic from the 1990s or so. I had stopped by a camera shop in Pretoria, South Africa called Ludwig’s Photographic and when I walked in I saw he had a huge collection of vintage cameras stacked on shelves all over his shop. I looked at a couple of Kodak Retinas and picked up a tiny Minox for a very reasonable price, and when I expressed interest in the Braun, he threw it in for free.

It’s a cute little camera with an automatic flash and what appears to be autofocus. It was a bit cranky in terms of operation – I had to fiddle with it quite a bit before the shutter button would work, and if you forgot to shut it off the battery died pretty quick (and it won’t let you take photos without a working flash). But I took it along with me on a business trip to Geneva and gave it my best.

It turns out that according to the limited information available on the internet, the Braun camera company was started in 1915 but they stopped producing cameras in the 1960s because they had trouble competing with the Japanese. Given this new information, I was much more impressed with the fact that this 60+ year old camera still functioned at all! Incidentally, the company still exists, but they now sell photo- and optics-related accessories.

So how were the results? Surprisingly, there weren’t as many blank spots on the film as I had feared. I had chosen a gloomy time to visit Geneva, and thus the photos are a bit underexposed, and the Fuji 400H film in many cases has a lot of noise. A number of photos are also out of focus. But in retrospect it performed remarkably well, and it’s all in the spirit of the #sh*ttychallenge.

If you’re interested in results from previous challenges, you can check them out here and here. Thanks for checking out my results!

Posted in Contests, Other | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Found Film from the 1940s: Prudential!

Some of you who have looked at my blog once or twice are aware that I used to develop “found film” that was found undeveloped inside cameras, either that I had bought or that someone else had found inside a camera and didn’t know what to do with. Occasionally it would be a trove of “lost” negatives I would come across. Anyway, I stopped doing that, mostly because it became trendy and the prices of found rolls of film started to go up beyond what I was willing to pay (for a gamble).

I have a collection of about 100 film cameras I carry around as I move around the world and I spent the better part of the weekend building shelves to put them on display. Along with the cameras is a fair amount of photography paraphernalia that has showed up with the occasional purchase, including these metal Kodak canisters that were produced until the early 1970s.

I’m not sure why I never opened them all, but I decided to look inside a few and to my surprise I found film inside them – tightly rolled up and smelling of vinegar (not a good sign, I’m told). But I could tell the images were quite sharp and I couldn’t wait to scan them and see what had been stored inside those little metal cans all those years.

Found Film Prudential

I found pictures of a young family. A young man and a young woman, with two young daughters. Although the film was mainly Super XX and Plus X “safety film,” which was manufactured until the 1980s or later, the hairstyles and clothing suggested older.

Found Film Prudential
Found Film Prudential
Found Film Prudential

What I found interesting about the photos, however – apart from the many posed family photos – was that about half the shots were of a building under construction:

Found Film Prudential
Found Film Prudential

I was able to determine from some of the photos that this was, in fact, the construction of the **stern home office of Prudential Insurance (with the first three letters unreadable).

Found Film Prudential

I’m guessing the photographer’s father, or father-in-law, was a key figure in the construction of this building because there are several portraits of him. I began searching for Prudential insurance buildings from the 1940s. Why that time frame? Because of this single photo:

Found Film Prudential

I initially thought the building was Prudential’s Jacksonville headquarters, seen here in 1955. But the building wasn’t quite right, and it didn’t explain the sign in front of the construction site, which clearly said “**stern” and not “southern.” Prudential is headquartered in Newark, NJ, so odds were this was the company’s Western headquarters.

Found Film Prudential
Found Film Prudential

So I decided to look further west. And I found the company’s Los Angeles “western” headquarters, which, when it was built in 1948 by Wurdeman and Becket was, at the time of its construction, the tallest and largest privately owned structure in the city, spanning two city blocks and holding 517,000 square feet of office space on Los Angeles’s “Miracle Mile.” According to this post, the building “altered the character of the Miracle Mile from a shopping destination to a white-collar office district. Its International Style design also marked a stylistic change for its architects.” 

But I wasn’t fully convinced. One side of the building wasn’t quite right.

Found Film Prudential
Found Film Prudential

I consulted Google Maps and decided that either I had the wrong building, or else they must have added another wing onto the flat side shown two photos up. It was the signs on the photo below, “Steel Work Bethlehem Pacific,” but more importantly, the sign announcing the future home of “Ohrbach’s” that convinced me this was the old Prudential Western Headquarters at 5757 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, under construction in 1947/48.

Found Film Prudential

Per the aforementioned article, Ohrbach’s, a New-York-based store, occupied this building until 1965. And Pacific is, well, Pacific.In 1982, Prudential moved to a larger building, leaving behind a piece of the rock of Gibraltar, its iconic trademark image, in the lobby. The building was renamed Museum Square. In 1993, the Screen Actors’ Guild moved its national headquarters into the building and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists followed in 1997. And as a part of the lease agreement, which expires in 2026, the building was renamed the SAG-AFTRA Plaza in 2014.

So the older child in these photos was likely born in 1945 or so. And her younger sister, shown below, I’m guessing, in 1947 or 1948. I wonder if they are still around and if they wonder where their photos ended up?

Found Film Prudential

My favorite photo of the entire 96-photo collection, however, is the one below. This lady appears in two of the photos in the entire collection, and I’m guessing she was an auntie of the little girl. But all we can say for sure is that she had an ice cream cone in the hospital in the late 1940s, and was filmed on 8mm enjoying it.

Found Film Prudential

I’ve uploaded my favorite 36 photos of the collection here, in case you want to see more, or prove that my sleuthing was incorrect.

Posted in Found Film | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Episode 3 of “Artisans” Published!

Eons ago (ok, October last year) I posted the first episode in a series of mini-documentaries about jobs in the informal sector in Madagascar, about the traveling blacksmiths that wander through the city repairing umbrellas, plastic tubs, roofs…

A couple of weeks later, the second episode, about brickmakers. And then, for a long time, nothing. I had recorded the footage for two more episodes, and with the help of my Malagasy language teacher, eventually translated the footage, but I didn’t think the stories were quite complete. My friend Safidy, who created Zanaky ny Lalana, was busy building a new house, but we finally found the time to head back out to La Reunion Kely to gather what turned out to be excellent footage. I had repaired my drone and re-shot the aerial scenes I had missed the first time (I forgot to record!).

I didn’t realize Safidy had arranged for Benja, my subject, to create a piece of jewelry from start to finish – more than two hours of recording – and I didn’t have enough battery juice to finish. Luckily, Safidy stepped in and shot some great macro footage with his Olympus camera, supplemented with what I could gather on my iPhone and we made it work.

Then came my departure from Madagascar, a long period of leave in Oregon during which I thought I’d edit video but never managed to, and a move to Burundi. Finally, a year later, I finished this episode – I think the best yet in the series, about Benja, who left his job as a truck driver and retreated to La Reunion Kely, an informal settlement in Antananarivo, to create jewelry from discarded metal or old coins.

Benja made a vangovango, a traditional Malagasy bracelet, from discarded aluminum cable, and it was amazing to watch him work. In the end, I insisted on buying the finished product, for which he wanted 12,000 Malagasy francs (about $2.40) but needless to say I paid him a bit extra for his time. It was fascinating to see him work, using tools he had adapted or created from discarded materials to shape his artistic creation.

And so now I am pleased to announce the completed video, which will form an integral part of my grad school application(s). I’m pretty proud of how it turned out – please give it a look so it will have lots of views by the time the selection committee has a look!

There will be one final (fourth) episode in this series. The background music you hear throughout all three episodes, played on a traditional Malagasy valiha – I’ve interviewed the gentleman who plays that music, and made the instrument on which it is played. But that will be done once I submit my college apps. Until then, I hope you enjoy seeing how Benja upcycles discarded metal to create jewelry!

Posted in Madagascar | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Old Camera Gets a New Life

Admittedly, I own too many cameras. So when it was time to leave Madagascar, I invited a couple of friends – who happen to be the only other film photographers in Madagascar, as far as I know – to see if anything caught their attention.

Safidy and Toni browsed my collection just days before they were destined to be packed in boxes and shipped to mainland Africa, and Toni liked the heft and feel of one that happens to also be a favorite – but I never really used much (another sign I own too many cameras). It’s a 1958 rangefinder I blogged about here, that I had acquired from an estate sale of the late Lieutenant Colonel (ret) Robert Williams, who had passed away in late 2008. How do I know? He engraved his social security number in the bottom.

Aires 35V, manufactured in 1958 or 1959

I always thought I had only ever run a single roll of black and white film through it, but when I went hunting for a photo of Toni, I stumbled across a folder of color photos I had taken with the Aires at Safidy’s wedding, where we can see Toni doing what he loves best.

Toni is third from the right, snapping a photo. Safidy and his soon-to-be bride are at the table of honor, in the center.

I asked Toni if, once he had a chance to experiment with the Aires, to send me some samples and he recently obliged. It’s great to see an old camera like this get a new life with yet another owner, and I’m certain it will keep clicking for years to come. If not, hopefully Toni will pass it on to another person who appreciates it as much as the late LTC Williams, I, and he did!

Toni’s pictures featured below. You can learn more about Toni’s work and see some of the phenomenal pictures he has taken over the years with cameras both digital and analog, at his website.

Posted in Vintage cameras | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Memories of Favorite Places: Ile aux Nattes, Madagascar

Off the eastern coast of the island of Madagascar stretches a 57-kilometer long by 5 kilometers wide island, covered mostly in green and dotted with thatched-roof villages. Ile Sainte-Marie (Saint Marie’s Island), or Nosy Boraha, as it is known in the local Malagasy, is a popular destination among the whale watching community (see this post for our whale-watching experience) late every summer.

And just off the southern tip of Ile Ste Marie is another small island, Ile aux Nattes. It’s about 10 kilometers all the way around (I’ve “run” it – involves splashing through shallow water in places or clambering over rocks) and separated from Ile Ste Marie by only about 300 meters and a short pirogue ride.

Inside a pirogue. Aerochrome infrared film turns the trees red.

Ile aux Nattes is ringed with small resorts, most of which have been there for years, and are owned by foreigners who love the simplicity and tranquility of the island. There are no cars on the island, and people get around either via the packed red clay trails that criss-cross the island, or via the small boats that work the perimeter of the island.

Aerochrome infrared photo from the south end of Ile aux Nattes

From the southern end of the smaller island, you see nothing but blue sea as a lagoon stretches at least three miles into the distance before reaching the distant breakers. Les Lemuriens (“the lemurs”), a small resort, is a frequent lunch destination for visitors to the island – the food is excellent – but you can also stay in their bungalows and spend the day reading or napping in a hammock strung from the trees overhanging the water.

It’s a magical place; there’s not a lot of touristic hoopla but you can simply relax, or you can venture over to the main island and rent a moped and explore, stop somewhere for freshly-caught seafood, or dine in some truly amazing restaurants. There’s also a Pirate Cemetery, as the island was once known as a getaway for pirates who marauded the Indian Ocean, and many of whom ended up settling here.

Enjoy my video tour of both islands.

Posted in Aerial photography/videography, Madagascar | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Introducing Kids in Madagascar to Photography: Results (3)

This is the third in series of posts in which I write about introducing kids to photography, using point-and-shoot film cameras from the 1980s and 90s, at the youth center, Le Cameleon, in Antananarivo, Madagascar. You can find previous posts in this series herehere and here.

When it came time for the kids to choose their third roll, I had extra color and black-and-white film and I offered them their choice. I was hoping they’d opt for black and white, and they generally did – but I think it was mainly because they knew this would be their last roll before we had to wrap up the project, and my color film was 24-exposure and the black and white offered 36!


For some reason, this roll of Feno’s turned out a bit out of focus, but it can have a lot to do with the camera we gave him. I still appreciated his choice of subjects, and honestly every photo doesn’t have to be razor-sharp to be good. His photos make me a little nostalgic for the many times we went to Anjezika, both to build the center and to work with the kids, because I think they accurately capture the mood of the neighborhood.

Much of Anjezika is partially under water for part of the year. This presents a real health risk for its residents and contributes to one of the leading causes of death for children in Anjezika: drowning.
There is no sewage in Anjezika; toilets are built by digging a hole, adding bricks to increase the depth of the holding tank, and then adding a superstructure wih a toilet of sorts. They eventually overflow, and when it floods, the sewage mixes with the floodwaters.
Many people in Anjezika earn money by selling food at improvised shops.


Hasina rejoined the group for the final session. We learned that he doesn’t actually live in the community, but has to walk several kilometers to enjoy the center’s services; maybe he has relatives here – we weren’t really sure. But I thought this was a phenomenal photo, even with the framing issue – if it were mine, I’d fix it with a slight crop. And yes, I know that’s cheating!


Nevada also re-joined us for the final session, and we had a hard time selecting just a few photos from a roll which pretty much all turned out well. She clearly likes portraits, and the only real problem was occasionally cropping the tops.

Self-portrait by Nevada
Another excellent self-portrait, in my opinion.
Family photo


Nantenaina was our most regular participant – he was always the first to arrive, and his results were consistently good, once he stopped opening everyone’s cameras 😉

I like his attention to backgrounds.

It’s a bit blurry but I like what he was trying to do here.
I love this photo – how he framed it, the expression he captured – everything. Nantenaina has an excellent eye!
Interesting angle!


Sarobidy also proved she has an excellent eye and attended every session, studying her proof sheets carefully to see how she could do better. For this last session I had told each of the students to try and capture things that were important to them or held meaning, and I think Sarobidy did this well. Like some of the other kids, she often wanted to be the subject of the photo, but she would set up the scene and then let the other person know when to press the shutter button.

So what’s next? Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to implement the entire program we had envisioned – I had wanted to print their best photos in large format and host an exhibition at the center, but we simply ran out of time. I was able to print postcard-size photos of all of their best shots and I left them their negatives. Rendi, a friend of the center living in the United States, donated a digital camera which Nantenaina uses to shoot updates for the Facebook page; and they are working on getting a DSLR. Safidy, our partner and the visionary behind the center, is mentoring three of the kids to see if their early exposure to photography can translate into something that can lead to a better future for them.

And as for me, I’ve moved on from Madagascar, but I’ve learned from the experience and am looking forward to implementing this program again in other countries and communities!

Posted in Good Causes, Madagascar, Photography, general | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Introducing Kids in Madagascar to Photography: Results (2)

This is one of a short series of posts in which I write about introducing kids to photography, using point-and-shoot film cameras from the 1980s and 90s, at the youth center, Le Cameleon, in Antananarivo, Madagascar. You can find previous posts in this series here and here.

Previously I wrote about how we had sent the kids away, each with a different camera, and a roll of color film. When they came back, the intention was to actually demonstrate how the film gets developed, but this ended up being logistically too challenging, given the lack of running water, and so instead I brought the equipment and explained the process. We were even able to use a dark bag I had brought along to demonstrate how the tanks get loaded to “unstick” a roll of film inside one of the cameras.

For the black and white roll, we repeated the process, and it was clearer to explain about the difference between positive and negative images using the monochrome images. Given that I had given them some less expensive “student” film to practice with, there were some issues with the results, but I was able to correct most of it using Photoshop, since the errors weren’t a reflection of mistakes made by the kids.

And here the results of week two:


Feno had an issue with his camera, with a lot of blank images in the middle of the roll. We never figured out why, and he was disappointed at only getting one decent shot on the roll of 36.


Hasina and Nevada didn’t show up this week. We agreed that Nantenaina’s photos showed talent and improvement. They come up a bit dark here on the blog, but we discussed how he’s paying attention to proper framing, his backgrounds, and consciously placing his subjects where he wants them. I like that he is experimenting with different kinds of subjects as well. Great job Nantenaina!

He loves his cats – they feature regularly in his photography.


Sarobidy clearly has a preference for portraits, and they are well exposed and generally well framed, though we talked about extraneous things in the edges of the photos. But she is good at capturing expressions at the exact right moment.

Love this shot! If only that guy weren’t on the right!
Self-portrait, this time correctly aimed.

You can see the final installment in this series here.

Posted in Good Causes, Madagascar, Photography, general | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Introducing Kids in Madagascar to Photography: Results (1)

I wrote last time about the youth center, Le Cameleon, we crowdfunded and built in Antananarivo, Madagascar, and the project we organized to introduce a half dozen interested kids to photography, using point-and-shoot film cameras from the 1980s and 90s.

I was excited and hopeful the kids would wind up with good results, because I didn’t want them to be discouraged by their first try. We had spent a fair amount of time explaining how light enters the camera and affects the chemistry on the film, on framing, and use of light. All of the cameras we had given them were slightly different, with different features and capabilities, but we avoided showing them things like the timer function and complicated flash settings (other than off/on). We put the (color) film in the cameras for them and suggested themes, like “animals” or “buildings”, or “portraits” and sent them off until the following week.

But kids are curious and clever when it comes to figuring out how things work. One of the kids complained that someone else had opened her camera and exposed the film. As it turns out, he had also opened his own camera, and he wasn’t alone in this. But this ended up being instructive, as we were able to show them what happens when there is a light leak. We also learned that you can’t get too close to your subject, or your camera can’t focus properly. A couple of the girls figured out how to use the timer function to take selfies, but they didn’t figure out how to aim the camera correctly and ended up taking pictures of their chest and lower jaw. So this first roll was a great learning opportunity, and all of the kids were able to find a few photos they were pleased with.

And so here are some of those photos they were pleased with from that first roll:



One of Hasina’s very first images, which I personally thought was very nice.
Hasina figured out on his own that his camera had a “normal” and a “panoramic” option.


Nevada was the one who complained her camera had been opened partway through. I assumed the photos would be ruined and gave her a second roll. But was surprised when she had a lot of properly exposed photos!
Nevada’s task was to take portraits.


Ironically, Nantenaina was our curious student who opened several cameras, including his own! Here he sets up the shot and has someone else press the shutter.
Photo of Anjezika neighborhood
Effective use of the flash!


Sarobidy is one of our “success stories” at the center, having successfully prepared for and passed the test to enter school for the first time at the grade 5 level. She continues to attend school and is among the top in her class.
Sarobidy’s assignment was to photograph animals, but they are a challenging subject. In later rolls, we would let the kids choose their own subjects.

At the end of the session, we gave them all a roll of black and white film. We wanted to wait until they saw their results before they tried again. You can see those results here.

Posted in Good Causes, Madagascar, Photography, general | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Sharing our Passion: Kids in Madagascar Get a First Taste of Photography

A few years ago, I joined a couple of other folks with a passion for photography and an interest in doing something for the local community in Antananarivo, Madagascar. We collaborated to successfully crowdfund a small youth center that would cater to local vulnerable kids who, for whatever reason, were not attending school. Thanks to the support of generous donors, including a member of that community who did the actual construction, a few months later, Anjezika Community Center and School – later re-dubbed “Centre Le Cameleon” – was born.

The idea behind the center was that it would provide a safe space where kids could engage in enrichment activities to expose them to new interests and skills that would pique their curiosity. We never intended to function as a school or to focus on schooling itself, but thanks to the initiative and imagination of our paid administrator, who has become the energy and lifeblood of the center, Le Cameleon has managed to integrate virtually each and every child at the center – over 200 – into a local school, even to the extent of training them for the 5th grade completion exam.

The one thing we three founders had in common – besides a passion for helping disadvantaged youth – was photography. And from the start, we had always had the intention of introducing some of the older kids to photography, in the hopes of “awakening” some hidden talent. And so over the next two years or so, I gradually built up the supplies I would need. I bid on batches of “condition ‘as is'” point and shoot cameras on eBay, built up a supply of film and other implements we could use to demonstrate the magic of photography, but for a variety of reasons we kept postponing the actual classes until I was poised to leave Madagascar for good, and we could postpone no more.

After the smoke cleared, I found ten point-and-shoot cameras that actually worked (and for which I could order batteries)

Finally in April, just a few months before my departure, we managed to assemble a handful of 13-, 14- and 15-year-old kids with an interest in photography, and present our class. We explained to them how cameras worked, and briefly turned the second floor of our center into a camera obscura – basically putting the kids inside a giant “camera” in which the outdoor scene was projected onto the opposing wall.

The scene from outdoors is projected – albeit upside down – on a stretched piece of butcher paper

A half dozen kids expressed an interest in learning about photography. After the camera obscura demo, we showed them a series of vintage cameras, gave them each a point-and-shoot camera and a short class on how to operate it, courtesy of Safidy, who runs the humanitarian photography website Zanaky ny Lalana (Children of the Street), and photographer Toni Haddad. We sent the kids away with a roll of b/w film and an assignment.

Toni explains to the kids about framing, shortly after they’ve been “issued” their cameras
Looking at vintage box cameras to better understand the principles that allow cameras to work
Safidy provides examples of “better” photos and “not as good” photos for comparison

A couple of weeks later we showed them how film is developed, but were unable to actually demonstrate it due to the lack of running water at the Center. And we sent them away with a roll of color film. And in subsequent weeks, with additional rolls of film of their choice, until I finally ran out of time in Madagascar and we had to “go final” and collect the cameras. But along the way, we printed their pictures and asked them to evaluate their own work, choosing which pictures they thought were best, and explaining why.

In the end I think we achieved our goal of exposing these kids to something completely new, and maybe even kindling a spark of an interest they may return to at some point in the future. Their patience and dedication were impressive. And I got a smile when I explained that they were likely the only kids in their whole country who know how film gets developed!

So if you’ve read this far, you’re probably curious how the photos turned out. For that, you’ll have to wait until my next post, because there are so many to share! You can start here.

Posted in Good Causes, Madagascar, Photography | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Visit to Isalo National Park, Madagascar

Shortly before leaving Madagascar after having lived there for more than three years, I finally made it to Isalo National Park, which is one of the premier tourist destinations in country, and one I would have regretted missing out on.

Isalo National Park in southern Madagascar

My wife and daughter had visited this huge national park, established in 1962, which incorporates a huge (about 100 miles in perimeter) expanse of limestone that has been weathered and carved over millions of years into cliffs, gorges, odd pillars and towers, and valleys containing rich and often completely unique plant and animal life. It’s a beautiful park where you can hike for days and days, reminiscent of some of the national parks in the American West. But with baobabs.

Twin baobabs. Madagascar is endemic to six of the world’s nine species of baobab tree.

We took a flight to Toliara, picked up a local driver, and stayed in one of the handful of excellent hotels in the local area – Isalo Rock Lodge. Another common way to experience the park is to spend a week or so driving the RN7 (national route 7) all the way from Antananarivo, stop at Ranomafana and the other parks along the way, and then fly back from Toliara (you’ll still need to work out something with a driver). It takes too much time to try and drive both ways from Antananarivo, and I wouldn’t recommend that option, especially if you plan on driving yourself. Guides are required in all national parks in Madagascar, and we tried to stop by the park entrance to arrange a guide for bright and early the next day, but were told this is not possible. But I do recommend you arrive no later than 0630 to pay your entry fee and hire a guide, so you can cover some distance while the weather is still cool.

There are some hidden water spots in the park, but much of the hiking is in the sun and through dry, hilly terrain.

I took along a Rolleiflex 2.8c, which allowed me to capture spectacular, square, square, medium format exposures of the varied landscapes and hidden gorges of the park. In addition to 120 format Fuji Pro 400H, I also took along some other film, including an expired (in 2005) roll of Agfa APX25 and a Kodak Tri-X 400. Oddly, the expired Agfa film turned out pretty nice – a bit of lightening along the edges – but the Tri-X ended up looking like expired, fogged film.

The expired Agfa shots came out sharp and balanced.
The Tri-X looks like I made a processing error – but I developed both b/w rolls at the same time and in the same way. Interesting, if unintended, effect.

As much as I was tempted to snap photos of every single jaw-dropping vista we came across, I forced restraint because I realized that at a certain point, all of the rock formations and cliffs end up looking the same in the end. And it’s forbidden (probably justifiably so, given the nuisance value) to launch drones inside the park, but I did send my DJI Mavic up for a look along the park’s periphery (but technically outside, and also quite high) to get an impression. I launched from “la fenetre” (the window), a rock formation that is approached from the south edge of the park, and can be accessed without paying an entry fee. There are some spectacular photos of la fenetre out there, but on the evening that we were there, it was far too crowded to try and capture one of those iconic shots you can see elsewhere on the web.

So rather than sharing with you all of the various photos I took, I decided to splice the photos and the drone video together to produce the two-minute video below. Unfortunately the photos are square but the video aspect ratio is not, so the tops and bottoms of the stills are all cropped. But I think it still turns out ok.

If you do decide to visit Isalo, I encourage you to also check out the much smaller Zombitse-Vohibasia national park, just 50 miles to the west. This small, community-run park takes just a few hours to visit on your way and is home to eight species of lemurs and many other species of plants and animals.

Posted in Aerial photography/videography, Madagascar, Wildlife and Nature | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment