Archive for November, 2013

SOTM World Tour – South Africa

Friday, November 15th, 2013

DSC_0584Back in July, I bid farewell to Adventurous Kate and headed down to South Africa for two weeks, to visit my friend Kimberley who once posed for SOTM herself. 

The country came with a big reputation – it’s Kate’s favourite, and she’s been to 46 nations so far. She can’t stop raving about it, so my expectations were high.

My friend Kimbers, as I like to call her, used to live in London but in recent times has moved to Port Elizabeth (PE) to be with her fellow, the excellent Andrew. An example of the Port Elizabeth coastline can be seen in the top image.

She had very kindly lined up a number of people for me to photograph for SOTM during my stay. These included some people who worked at or attended Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU).

While there I learned that, as the main campus is on a nature reserve, they frequently have monkeys come and try to snaffle people’s lunches.

Hence there are lots of warning signs up about keeping your food out of sight, and advice pinned to the fridge about what to do if you’re confronted by a monkey pilfering your sandwiches.

Apparently raising your eyebrows is seen as a sign of aggression by those primates, which is a bit of a shame as it’s just the kind of thing a human does if we come across anything unusual or exciting.

I spotted this monkey looking longingly through an office window at someone’s apple.

DSC_0851Kimbers also lined up an afternoon at the Eveready factory in PE, whose management kindly allowed me access to their staff. I wandered about and got a number of them to take part, hearing some great stories along the way. Here’s one example:

09112013And she even managed to get me in the Weekend Post, an edition of the Port Elizabeth Herald.

paperBut without a doubt, the highlight of my trip was visiting Missionvale Care Centre, which feeds, educates and cares for people from the adjoining township. It’s run by the amazing Sister Ethel, an Irish nun who 25 years ago started giving out aid to people while under a tree in the township and running a school beneath it.

Today there is a bustling complex at the entrance to the township which is home to some 100,000 people, of which about 70% are estimated to have HIV.

Brilliantly, the tree where it all began is still there, even though many other trees have been cut down in the area.

DSC_0986And Sister Ethel is still there too – she posed for SOTM, which I was delighted about. She had a great story to go along with her photo.

The landscape of the township was nothing like I’d really seen before. I’d been close to slums in India, but never entered them, and there are many similarities between them and this township, particularly in the flimsiness of the dwellings.

This time I got to walk around for quite some time, as the smashing Linda, who oversees much of the daily operations of the care centre, said it would be useful for her to have a new batch of images from the area, to highlight the work that they do with supporters etc. So I went back a second time and photographed the township and its people, giving the images to Linda afterwards.

Seeing how poorly the township’s inhabitants live, but how friendly many of them are, was a difficult experience. When it came to the photography, it was a fascinating time and I learned a lot about portraiture out in the field, with harsh sun and people with expressive faces on dark skin, most of who were happy to have their image captured.

This lady was shy and had to be softly coaxed to pose for me, but I really wanted to photograph her. She had a wonderful face and I liked the backdrop of her neat and tidy home. Finally, she was all smiles and seemed to like how she turned out.

mv2During my first visit to Missionvale we passed these four children playing in a wheelbarrow. I got the car to stop on the dirt road, jumped out and took their photo. The chap in the cap came sauntering over and got in on the act.

DSC_0022The terrain of the township is very rich to look at, but incredibly difficult to live in. New properties are being built, of much better quality than the existing flimsy homes, and you can see the concrete foundations being laid next to this tin shack, an increasingly common sight in the township.

mv3I saw these two, whom I assume are mother and daughter, a little way off and waited while they walked past me. Right at the decisive moment, they both looked my way.

missionvale1This woman was sweet and gentle. She had a very organised garden and was all smiles as she spoke, probably in Afrikaans.

I asked Linda if I could take her photo, and the lady agreed. Afterwards I thanked her, in English, and she said something that sounded like “my pleasure”.

DSC_1016This lady is the neighbour of the smiling woman above. She has HIV and lives along in a leaking shack which also floods, meaning the soil floor becomes a pool of mud. Staff from Missionvale Care Centre have patched things up a bit for her, and given her some possessions as she lost all of hers in a fire.

Commonly, some people in townships light fires within their shacks to cook on, and frequently this results in them being burned down. I understand that this lady also lost her husband in the same fire.

DSC_1030After experiencing the townships, Kimbers organised a couple of days for me at the luxurious Shamwari Game Reserve, out on the African plains, which turned out to be a quite memorable experience, not least for the contrast between the five-star luxury I was sleeping in, and the townships that I couldn’t get out of my head.

First of all – I was in a car crash on the way to Shamwari, just five minutes away from the entrance. My driver and I ended up backwards and on our side in a ditch.

Luckily, apart from a few bumps and bruises, we weren’t hurt. This is the first photo I’ve published of the crash – you can see the car sadly didn’t make it out of the ditch in quite the same shape as when it went in.

photoWe were heading in the opposite direction to how the car is facing here, meaning my passenger door, now on the top, was the only way out. I got my camera and computer out of the wreckage before I left, though. I know the value of things.

Shamwari is an incredible place and being on safari there is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I can’t recommend it enough, and I was lucky enough to have the brilliant Julius as my guide for a couple of days.

He is a fount of knowledge, once took out Margaret Thatcher and her family on safari, and has eyes as sharp as an eagle who’s just opened an opticians.

“See that flash of grey on the other side of the valley?” he’d say.

“Er, no,” I’d reply.

“Yeah, that’s a rhino,” Julius would say, shifting about excitedly in his seat.

We’d bounce around over the African plain for a bit, and lo and behold, there would be a rhino, an animal as short-sighted as I am (quite literally, I wear strong contact lenses).

Here’s Julius’ SOTM:

14112013And here are some of my favourite shots from Shamwari. First, getting up close and personal with a young male elephant.

elephant“I saw her first.” “No, I saw her first.”

hornsWhen lions yawn it means they’re ready to start running about, eating things. This made me a bit nervous.

lionThis is a Serval, and capturing him in mid-flight is the best action shot I’ve ever done.

servalCheetahs. Fast on paper. Much slower in real life (most of the time).

cheetahI’ll never forget my time at Shamwari, or in South Africa. I can’t wait to go back.

shamwariAfter my time in PE I moved on to Cape Town for three days, and loved that place too. I was a guest of Cape Town Tourism who kindly put me up in a nice hotel and organised some activities for me also.

The hotel was on the 27th floor, which afforded me some super views of this utterly charming city. Most of the photos I took up there were done while I was naked, incidentally.

I just seemed to keep catching the light pre or post-shower. I didn’t take any selfies while doing that, you’ll be relieved to hear.

DSC_0138The buildings in Cape Town definitely have character, especially when you can look down on them.

cape1At the top of Cape Town is the unmissable Bo-Kaap district, which is fantastic to walk around with a camera on a sunny day.

DSC_0414Once a township, the area is now highly desirable as a place to live.

Finally, Cape Town Tourism got me over to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in this cell.

DSC_0110Seeing it was another of the most memorable things I’ve ever done, and even the jabbering tourists, who were running around Robben Island prison like it was a theme park, thankfully fell silent as they filed past it.

That’s it for this post. From South Africa I headed up to Dubai, just in time to catch up with old friends and be reunited with Adventurous Kate for her birthday. More on that next time.

SOTM World Tour – Malta and Istanbul

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Valletta was once described by Benjamin Disraeli, one of the United Kingdom’s 19th Century prime ministers, as “a city of palaces, built by gentlemen, for gentlemen”.

Despite this lofty acclamation, I was still allowed to attend school there for several years.

I’ve always loved Valletta. It’s the most remarkable capital city on the planet and a Unesco World Heritage site to boot. It has the quiet, secretive feel of a hidden jewel, and yet by day is the bustling headquarters for an entire, if tiny, nation.

Its sandstone, beautifully shabby streets beg you to wander about them and their grid system, which New York mirrors, ensures you can’t ever get lost for long. Yet losing your bearings and finding a church with St Paul’s forearm within, or the bar where Oliver Reed died, or a war museum containing the wreckage of Nazi war machines, is all part of the experience of Valletta.

It was with great pride that I showed Adventurous Kate the city that I feel so close to. I have my own strong connections to the place as I began my school education here, and my own grandmother (who I met briefly as an infant and was apparently very keen on me) came from the city.

Happily, Kate fell under Valletta’s spell as well, and we spent some hours snapping happily in its magical, narrow streets.

Speaking of which, we also checked out Mdina, another incredible location within Malta’s shores. It too has the same combination of charm and history, yet is no longer the brains of the island as it was in medieval times.

Still, the Silent City, as it’s now known, is a photographer’s dream and we both enjoyed finding points of focus for our cameras there too.of focus for our cameras.

While in Malta I managed to get the SOTM story from Mel Hart,  who had a very powerful tale to tell about her grandmother having a rare moment of lucidity from her Alzheimer’s.

Mel was shy about having her photo taken, but I was really pleased with the result and how important her story is. Click her image to discover it for yourself, and the meaning of her grandmother’s phrase.

And it was while we were in Malta that Kate agreed to take me as her husband.

We had a wonderful day looking around Valletta, and then a brisk time getting ready (I kept insisting that Kate dress up well and make her hair look nice) for a dinner at my favourite restaurant in the world, Peppino’s in St Julian’s. It used to be a house, has been frequented by such stars as Brad Pitt, Stephen Fry, Madonna and Orlando Bloom, and has a tiny balcony with one table on it. This is where I wanted to pop the question.

Kate wrote about the whole evening beautifully, and I’ll leave her to tell the story of those life-affirming events. We like to think of ourselves as a slightly unconventional couple – we discussed marriage on our first date, among other things – and perhaps our love of the unusual, in society and our personal lives, that’s why we get on so well. Plus there’s our unquenchable thirst for travel, which we both accept as being important to the very fabric of our personalities.

What’s certain is that we’re crazy about each other and like to have fun exploring the world. Long may that continue.

As a surprise, I hired Domenic Aquilina, one of Malta’s finest sports photographers who has worked at every one of the Champions League football finals in recent years (which naturally impressed me greatly). A fine chap, Domenic and we had quite some fun taking our photos immediately after our engagement (my urging Kate to make sure she was spruced up paid off – I knew she’d be mortified if she wasn’t at her best for these photos).

My Uncle Freddie kindly footed the bill for Domenic’s services, after being told about my plans to hire a photographer via my cousin Adriana.

So, blissfully affianced, Kate and I headed for Istanbul. It was my first visit to that city. We’d originally planned to visit Cairo but the political troubles there brought about a change in our plans.

However, there were controversial politics afoot in Istanbul also, although not as widespread as events in Egypt.

Still, one night we were stood in Taksim Square, the focal point for many protests, when police ran after a group of whistling and jeering men.

I immediately slid my camera bag off my shoulders, something I’ve done many hundreds of times before.  As I did so, one of the straps got caught on my watch, the first time this had ever happened, meaning that the whole thing slipped from my grasp and thudded to the floor. I saw it fall and felt a flicker of concern. But, I reasoned, the bag was padded and it hadn’t dropped very far.

To my cold-blooded terror, I found that the impact, although not great, had jammed my camera’s shutter. With a heavy heart and worrying about the impact the stone floor might eventually have on my tight budget and schedule, we returned to our room for a closer inspection of my Nikon D5100.

Happily, all those years of watching the A Team were clearly of benefit, as I managed to use the nail file part of a set of nail clippers to gently pry the shutter back into its rightful position, and it’s been spot on since then. Phew. I’ve also rethought my camera bag de-mounting technique as a consequence of this narrow squeak.

Breathing the seagull-filled air with the lungs of a relieved man, I found myself utterly enchanted by the Bosphorus, and spent many a happy hour strolling along its mighty banks.

I loved the giant hulks bobbing freely on its silken waters. Many were ferries which slid around its surface, carrying passengers and cars and cargo, leaving white trails like snails, while the seagulls floated around effortlessly, as their ancestors have done in this very spot for centuries.

Flocking to the banks of the Bosphorus, disciples to this watery place, are many men armed with an array of coloured fishing rods. It only took a few moments of patient observance from us passers-by before a flurry of activity began.

A snap of a wrist, a bending of a rod and a flash of silver announces the deadly hook lifting a fish from its home, to be plunged head first into a plastic bottle of water.

I’m not a fisherman so I don’t know why the bottles had water in them – perhaps an attempt to keep the fish fresher until they get laid out on a grill somewhere.

Speaking of which, it was these very fish that are used in the sandwiches bought from overly-golden boats moored permanently to the quayside.

You get a fillet of fish and fresh salad in a baguette, all providing a tasty concoction for some £2. Yes, £2. Boom.

Finally, here’s two of my favourite SOTMs from Istanbul.

Sean shared a powerful tale of some of his father’s last words, which are an interesting reflection on the mundane nature of life, yet its brittle brilliance at the same time.

And Atakan revealed the story of what happened when he left his Turkish town to come to the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul, much to his father’s concern.

I liked this one as it tells you something of the nature of the relationship between Turkish men and their sons. As always, click on these images to learn these subjects’ stories.

From Istanbul I headed south – quite a long way south, as I went to South Africa. More of that next time.

SOTM World Tour – Europe Part II

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

 There was a time when I wasn’t particularly interested in visiting Germany.

That country just didn’t really appeal to me. I have a list of places I want to see, things I want to experience – Petra in Jordan, the Sahara desert, New Orleans, for example.

So I was always quite focused on getting to those places, and Germany just seemed a bit, well, easy. Familiar. It’s often said how similar the Germans are to the British, and most of them speak good English, so it seemed like a soft option when there are more challenging, yet rewarding, destinations.

Then, a few years ago, I went to Berlin. Loved it. Friendly place, interesting architecture, so much history, and everything is so clean and efficient. Gotta love that.

Since then I’ve returned a few times, exploring different parts of the country. Happily, I got to include a new slice of Germany on the SOTM World Tour – the charming town of Augsburg. The shot above is an art installation found in the town’s backstreets.

I was there because Adventurous Kate’s good friends Josh and Daniel, who had previously got married, were having a little party to celebrate the occasion now that members of both their families had managed to come over to Germany at the same time.

I was determined to make friends with them both – if you make friends with a girl’s best gays, then you’re in with the girl, I believe. Happily both chaps turned out to be quite charming and very welcoming to me.

Best of all, I got two cracking SOTMs out of them, with very interesting stories.

Here’s Josh’s – as ever, click on his image to learn more about his SOTM story.

And this is Daniel’s thought provoking story:

11072013And that wasn’t all. I also managed to get Josh’s mum, the gregarious Brenda, to share her hilarious SOTM:

11082013Incidentally, while we made our way to Augsburg on the train, I took probably my favourite photo of Kate so far. It captures her perfectly – wearing her “Love Your Blog” top, while on a train to a new destination, and with a map in hand. That’s my girl.

After that brief stop in Augsburg, we hopped on a train to Zug in deepest Switzerland, where my cousin Adriana awaited us.

She lived next door me when we were kids in Malta, and we spent many hours playing together. She used to insist we would get married one day, when were were about seven or eight I think, and I was too scared to say no.

However, she is now betrothed to the smashing Oliver and lives in Zug with him and their two gorgeous children.

They all welcomed us with open arms, and Adriana continued the fine tradition of extensive Maltese hospitality by giving us a place to stay, doing our laundry, feeding us to the gills, and even taking us out to a fancy restaurant (“it’s Friday night, I’m kid-free and I’m in heels,” she said while giving a toast).

Naturally I was delighted to get her SOTM, which came from the lips of her young son, Ben. He’s going to regret that one in about 14 years’ time…

19082013Now, part of the reason that I wanted to go around the world was to achieve a life-long dream. When I was a little boy in Malta I dreamed of exploring the world. I’d look at places in encyclopaedias – I recall looking in wonder at the Empire State building in a Guinness Book of Records back when it was the world’s tallest building – and imagine what it’d be like to actually go there.

Similarly, ever since I fell utterly in love with the Sherlock Holmes stories a few years ago, the Reichenbach Falls has been high on my list of places to visit. It’s the place where Sherlock fell to his death while locked in a battle with Professor Moriarty – initially, at least, until public pressure forced Arthur Conan Doyle to resurrect Holmes from his watery grave.

So it was a real thrill to learn that they were but a couple of trains away from Zug.

Kate and I borrowed some waterproof jackets from Adriana and Ollie and off we went. I wasn’t disappointed by what we found that magical day.

The falls are gorgeous, not the biggest but very picturesque and the gloomy forecast held off just long enough for us to look around without getting too drenched. The biggest soaking we got was from the falls themselves, as the spray near the bottom flies around in sheets and drenched both us and our cameras.

 Here’s a shot of the falls from further away.

While we were at the Falls, this happened. And I bloody loved it.

sherlockThe Falls themselves are just south of the lovely town of Meiringen, where Holmes and Watson stayed in a hotel – which is still there.

I’m pretty sure that after the story dealing with this incident, called The Final Problem, was published, all subsequent mayors of the town, owners of that hotel and the town’s shopkeepers too, have thanked Conan Doyle profusely for giving them a permanent attraction for tourists the world over.

There’s an excellent Sherlock Holmes museum there too, which was a real highlight of the trip. It contains a faithful recreation of the inside of 221b Baker Street, with authentic period furnishings!

The level of detail in the museum was breathtaking. In one story, Watson mentions he played rugby for Blackheath in London. The museum has a top which is the kit he would have used at that time in the club’s history. Very impressive.

And I even got to meet Sherlock himself. Kind of…

museumHere’s a quick fact – Conan Doyle never described Holmes as wearing a deerstalker by its actual name, but he did describe a hat that is like a deerstalker.

However, Holmes only wore it on the handful of occasions that he left London for the countryside. The majority of the time he wore headgear common to gentlemen in the Victorian era – top hats, etc.

But the illustrators of the original Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories chose to depict him most frequently in the deerstalker, and that’s the image which has endured.

After bidding the Bishop family a fond and reluctant farewell, and laden down with most of the contents of Adriana’s fridge, we took trains to Vienna.

This was my first time there, and I was very impressed. It’s apparently been frequently voted one of the best, if not the best, city in the world to live in and I’m not surprised. It has a bohemian vibe and its architecture is stunning. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of its grandeur, which casually pops up all over the city.

Like the stunning Schonbrunn Palace.

Here it is again.

Let’s not forget the Austrian parliament building.

The city’s parks are gorgeous too.

 And the city is, of course, famous for Mozart having lived and composed there, among other things.

While admiring all the architecture, I spotted this chap busting some BMX moves. I got a few shots of him, this being the last one.

And while in the city centre I spotted this Maltese church, which I didn’t know about and was delighted to stumble across.

Of course, I couldn’t leave town without nailing down a little SOTM action, so Kate and I attended a Couchsurfing meet up.

There I met the fascinating Rhys, who is a rocket scientist working in Vienna. His SOTM is one of my all-time favourites.

The next day I met Katharina at our hostel, just before we were departing for a flight to Malta. She and I had to dance in and out of the road to dodge the traffic, so as to capture this shot. Her story is worth checking out as she says these words had a big influence on her life.

I found this SOTM very moving, also. It details the breakdown in Emily’s family’s relationship with her brother, for reasons that apparently baffle them. I was, once again, flattered that someone shared a deeply personal story with me, a stranger with a camera and sketchbook.

That’s all for this time. Next, it’s off to Malta where Adventurous Kate and I had a Date With Destiny, and later we travelled to the wonderful Istanbul.