Paris - City of Lights

What I Know

Paris always represented a very romantic ideal for me.  When I received an invitation to teach yoga there, I jumped at the opportunity.

What I learned (in a rather non sequitur format)

French culture is very unique and distinctly different from American culture.  It takes years to assimilate into a real friendship with a native French person.  We view this as "cold" and "unwelcoming" but the fact is, the culture is simply different.

The City of Lights was planned out as well as any city in the world.  Each Parisian neighborhood, called arrondissements, conveniently stretch out from the center of the city in a spiral from 1 to 20, much like a flower uncoils from the bud.  The 20 arrondissements are very neatly circumnavigated by le Boulevard Peripherique which, when you cross it, you know that you've left the main city.

The English language apparently contains more similarities to French than it does to German, despite its Germanic roots.  This likely as to do with the historic Colonialist rivalry that the English and French have had since the beginning of Western Civilization.  At any given time, one or the other has colonized nearly half of the world and their boundaries and territories have traded hands many times over.  Thus, words from French often found their way into English colloquialisms throughout the years.  Just think of how many words we use directly from French!

I arrived in Paris with nothing more than 3 outfits and my camera gear.  I quickly discovered the best way to explore was to get a monthly Navigo mois, or metro pass.  Paris has one of the best subway systems that I have ever explored.  Every place that one would ever want to visit is accessible via le metro.  "Ou se trouve le metro?"

I photographed Paris for over 3 months.  

The essentials.

1.     Photo gear: camera, lenses, tripod, filters, etc.

2.     Navigo mois or Navigo semaine - metro card, weekly or monthly depending upon the length of your stay (formerly carte orange)

3.     A handful of basic French phrases will go a long way.  The French are especially appreciative of efforts to speak their language.  Often, but not always, if your failing miserably, they will change into English.  Parisians are much more likely to eventually address you in English if you initiate the interaction en francais.  If you want to meet the friendliest of Parisians, approach people of color.  Arabs and Blacks, while still French, embody more of their traditional African and Middle Eastern customs when it comes to strangers and hospitality.  Black Parisians, in particular, tend to speak at least 3 languages and some speak many more.  The nations that the French colonized in Africa have developed into remarkably linguistic cultures whose inhabitants grew up learning, French, Arabic, English, Spanish and multiple local dialects.  I befriended one gentleman in particular from Senegal who spoke 9 languages.  His English was as good any one I ran into in France.

 

What not to miss when you go to Paris, apart from the obvious but first:

...and foremost, if you want to beat the crowds, do a little research.  Find out when a site opens to the public and be the first one there.  You can nibble a baguette while you wait at the gate for it to open.  

1.     Les Catacombes - Deep beneath the city lay the remnants of the many bodies that perished during the time of the plague.  It later became the secret headquarters of the resistance during the French Revolution.  A very ominous yet essential visit to make while in Paris.  Bring your tripods to stabilize your camera  as there is very little light down there.  I also brought a flashlight and literally painted in light while making long exposures (see images below).

2.     Sainte Chapelle - Located on the Ile de la Cite in the center of Paris, The Glass Chapel is a monumental Gothic reliquary.  It was constructed for Louis IX in the 13th Century and once housed his personal collection of relics including the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross.  The Ile de la Cite is an island in the middle of the Seine; it is also where the famous Notre Dame cathedral is located so you can visit both consecutively.

3.     Montmartre - Reserve an entire day to explore Montmartre in the 18th.  Montmartre is to Paris what San Blas is to Cusco; what the Village is to Manhattan; Kensington Market to Toronto; Haight Ashbury to San Francisco...you get the point (though, I should note that I am also quite fond of Place Saint-Michel and the surrounding area as well).  It was here that I lived, in the 18th arrondissement, in a shared apartment with the only other vegetarian in the entire country.  My flat was a ten-minute walk away from this magical little village that was once the creative locale of some of the greatest artist of 20th Century.  After taking a tour of Le Sacre Coeur, wander South-West through the Place du Tertre towards the Esapace Dali to see one of the largest collections of the Surrealist's sculptures and engravings.  Take a walk down the spiral staircase that descends far below the mount, all the way down to the Metro (even if you have to take the Funiculaire back up afterwards (the Funiculaire is a motorized tram-car that transports people up and down the steep hill).  It is one of the coolest collaborative graffiti walls in the city and it has evolved into many different things over the years.  

Final note:  Stop at a patisserie and have my favorite French pastry called opera, and yes, you will want to sing after it.  Have one for me...please?

           The story continues. Each image below reveals a moment in time, a story unto itself.  Mobile viewers can access the captions by clicking the (.) in the lower right corner.

What I Saw

Peru: Photographing The Mystical Highlands of the Inca and Managing at Altitude

What I Know

Without having any conscious influences from or about it during my childhood, I had always longed desperately to go to Peru.  There was always something about this magical place calling me; summoning me in an ancient, mystical way. I liken it to the pilgrimage that salmon make back to their place of birth, compelled by a force unseen and unknown.  Peru was to become one of the homes on this earth for my soul and one of my favorite places to photograph.

What I learned

Munay = Love

Munay (Quechua) is the essence of Peru as Aloha is the essence of Hawai'i.  

Here are a couple of MUST-SEE spots on your trip to Peru.  Make sure your itinerary includes them:

  1. Moray Temple of Fertility - the mere scale of these breath-taking temples are worth the visit.  Massive terraced concentric circles delve into the earth hundreds of feet down.  It is a workout to hike into, then back out of, the largest primary temple (pictured below) so be prepared.  I truly love this site.  Make time to sit in one of the quiet satellite temples and meditate there.  The lines and shadows at this site make it an excellent place to photograph.
  2. Machu Picchu - If you go to Peru and don't go to Machu Picchu, you don't deserve to travel ever again!  Take a full day, or even a second day so that you can really explore the intricacies of this magnificent site.  Go up to the top of Wayna Picchu for sure and pack lightly.  A wonderful view of the Sacred Valley and beyond can be viewed from the top.  If you do have a second day, arrive early and get an entry ticket to go to the Templo de Luna (Temple of the Moon).  You'll descend down a wonderful stone carved staircase all the way into a new ecosystem.  Suddenly, near the bottom you find yourself in the jungle and may even spot monkeys.  Walk quietly, and consciously, in order to see what others will miss out on.  Find the Temple of the Moon and enjoy the sacred serenity of this ancient ceremonial site.  The town near Machu Picchu is called Aguas Calientes.  It is a massive tourist hell, however, there is a beautiful restaurant refuge that may in fact be the best food experience you have in Peru.  It is called Indio Feliz and it is run by a classically trained French chef who combines his culinary expertise with local ingredients.  Go early or you will not get a table....and bring your business card.  You'll see why.
  3. Ollantaytambo - Also known as Ollantay (o-yan-tai) by locals, this jewel of a city has some of the best little dusty shops to find strange old shamanic relics and stones.  The Temple of the Four Winds is a beautiful site and is right there in the town.  I stayed both visits at the Hotel Munay Tica, a lovely, rustic affordable little hotel run by a powerful female shaman.  It is located away from the Plaza de Armas and is very quiet.  Ollantaytambo is a great transition stay either before or after Machu Picchu due to its location.  The VistaDome train runs from there directly to Aquas Calientes.  If possible, take the hike (or horseback ride) up to Puma Marca.  If you can arrange it, this is an ideal place to experience a shamanic ceremony with the indigenous plant medicines (either San Pedro or Ayahuasca).
  4. Cusco - Schedule at least one entire day (though I recommend two) to explore the "Navel of the World".  Of all the cities in the world I have ever visited, Cusco is my favorite.  Your shopping list could include artwork, crystals, and well-made alpaca clothing.  Definitely visit the Coca Shop up the hill in San Blas.  Other must-see stops: Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun) and the Shaman Market near Plaza San Francisco.  The most fun you will have is wandering around, exploring little alleyways and shops.  There is nowhere on earth quite like it and a prime city for street photography.
  5. Lake Titicaca -The Uros Islands (man-made reed islands) are fascinating, and the average traveler will be intrigued by the lifestyle of the Uros people.  Crossing into Bolivia and into Copacabana where you can charter a boat to the Island of the Sun is a must but is only for the hard core traveler.  By this point in your trip, you will know how well prepared you were for the altitude.  IF poorly prepared (or not in perfect health), you will be in some serious discomfort (See my prep guide below).  Stay at the Ecolodge La Estancia.  It isn't cheap but you will experience eco-luxury, solar power and hot water, amazing coffee and a one-of-a-kind view of Lake Titicaca with the backdrop of the magnificent Andes Mountains of Bolivia.  At the lodge you can request a ceremonial blessing by the local shaman.  Make sure you stop in the town of Copacabana as it is the least expensive place to buy alpaca blankets.  That is the single greatest gift to bring someone home from your journey.

During my two separate month-long visits to Peru, I gradually discovered more and more intelligent ways to deal with the well known challenges associated with the altitude.  Here are the secrets to my success.  

  1. Preparations (Pre-arrival): I use a supplement that can be bought online or at most health food stores called Chloroxygen.  It is a concentrated chlorophyll liquid administered by a dropper that is added to water.  It doesn't need to be refrigerated and travels very well.  I recommend starting a regimen with this product (according to the instructions on the bottle) up to one month before you arrive in Peru and continue during your trip.  Chlorophyll has similar properties to human hemoglobin and will assist in increasing red blood cell count, which will in turn help you acclimate to the altitude.  Also, the simple and ancient yogic technique of patting your thighs with your palms works to stimulate red blood cell production naturally.  The femur is the largest bone in the body and the most prolific source in the manufacturing of red blood cells.  Do this technique for three minutes, twice per day for one month prior and throughout your travels.
  2. The typical local methods (Post-arrival): coca tea and coca leaves.  Coca tea is served at every restaurant and hotel throughout the altiplano, the highlands of Peru, the Sacred Valley, and is somewhat effective in varying degrees.  While made from the infamous Coca plant, the unprocessed form of this mysterious and controversial herb produces a calming, grounding effect.  Taken whole, the dried leaves are chewed and stored in the cheek for as long as desired.  Spiritually, it is an ancient way to connect to the land and to begin to open your intuition for ceremony and vision quests.
  3. Homeopathic Coca Drops (gotas homeopáticas de coca) - I didn't discover this method until my second visit and the impact overall was very positive.  Procurement of this item is the only downside.  While there are more and more Homeopathic Pharmacies (farmacía homeopática) in Peru each year, and most of them will be able to provide this product, they are still limited in number.  To my knowledge, Cusco does not have one.  There are quite a few in Lima, however, and if your journey is going to begin there, I would make one your first stop.  
  4. Get in shape.  That's right.  Exercise, practice yoga and get fit.  When ascending Wayna Picchu or returning from the descent from The Temple of the Moon (Templo de Luna) you will be thankful.  The best photographers are not only lucky.  They are well prepared and will go to extreme measures for a great photograph.

In truth, the longing I felt as a child is still nested in my heart.  Despite having immersed myself into the land and culture of Peru, I am called back constantly. The desire to breathe in the Andean air and touch the masterfully carved stones, to feel their stories in my palms, burns strongly inside me in this very moment. 

           The story continues. Each image below reveals a tale.  Mouse over the image when enlarged for the story.

What I Saw

 

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