Tag Archives: photography

Days 14, 15, 16, 17: Nepal: Lumbini and Chitwan

Crossing borders on foot often makes you thankful of how easy we all have it with airport borders. Crossing from India to Nepal was no exception but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back in Varanasi, we had a train to catch. We were hoping to meet up with a French couple we had met earlier at the train station. We were dropped off an hour before our train was supposed to leave because the driver could not wait around any longer. Good riddance to him.

It was 11:30 pm and the train was going to leave at 12:30 am. We found a spot for ourselves and ran into our French friends who had been unable to book an air-conditioned coach and were travelling in sleeper class (like 3rd class but with no AC). We got wifi by borrowing someone’s Indian phone to get the activation SMS message and settled down to wait for the train.

The train was initially delayed by 35 mins, then 50, then an hour and 5 minutes. We suspected the cows walking down the rail track were partly to blame.

The train finally arrived at 2 am and we settled in for the night, this time in 2nd class AC which had only 2 levels of bunks and curtains! Quite the luxurious ride. The train was only 8 hours so we arrived at Gorakpur at 10 am and were only 3 hours from the border by bus.

As we hadn’t slept much and we were 4 people we decided to just take a taxi for a thousand rupees to the border. It was a bit shady as we had to pay for his petrol as well and we were still on the defensive due to our Indian experiences. In the end all was well and we were dropped off at the Indian immigration office.

The heat that day was pretty bad, (about 38 degrees centigrade) and with a lot of humidity so it was a long, sweaty wait for our passports to be checked and signed. Once we had checked out of India, we started the long trek across the heavily guarded border.

It was all one long line of trucks, stuck at the border for what looked like days. The line was over 3 km long and didn’t seem to be moving any time soon. We crawled through the traffic and found the Nepali office just past the border on the right hand side. If we’d walked on the left hand side, we’d be illegal immigrants right now.

The office was hot and the paperwork was way too thin for our amounts of sweat. Esther had also developed a splitting headache so everyone was in a great mood! We handed over our somewhat ripped forms, two photos and 50 pristine dollars (2 bills were rejected because they had minuscule tears on the edge, luckily I had brought spares) and we now had Nepali visas!

As Esther was not feeling great we headed straight to Lumbini in a local bus. It was hot, packed and as much fun as I remember. Esther, I think, wasn’t quite so enthusiastic but she stuck in there like a trooper and we arrived safe and sound.

At the hostel, we decided to splurge on an air-conditioned room. I felt that the bus and border crossing were enough discomfort for a day and Esther needed to rest. We had a relaxing evening and rested up.

In the morning we wanted some space so we rented an electric scooter and headed off to see temples. Lumbini is the birth place of Buddha and the international Buddhist communities have built big temples around the birth place. It was rather hot so we only saw the Nepali, Chinese and Austrian temples but there seemed to be no expense spared. The stupa which was built by the Japanese government is also nothing to sneeze at.

Lumbini only has sights for a day so the next morning we boarded another local bus to Chitwan. This bus was no fun. It had blaring music over the speakers but only had 50 minutes of music so after 4 hours we had more than enough. I put my headphones on and blasted Hamilton while Esther used earplugs to try to block it out. We thought we had it beaten and then the bus broke down.

We headed to the “garage” which was a dirt-covered lot with some bricks to lift up the bus a bit. After a while we realised we would be here for a long time so we headed to a nearby hut to drink some beer and eat momos. No point in stressing out about it.

After a change of parts, delivered by speedy motorbike, we continued on to our final destination. After one more bus and a tuk-tuk we got to a nice lodge and we booked our jungle walk and elephant safari.

Chitwan is a chilled, laid back community. We walked around the streets, ate some local fish and went to sleep early as we had a sunrise to catch.

Floating down the river in Chitwan at dawn, on an unstable log canoe is one of the scariest things I’ve done in a while. Every time I moved, the canoe would tilt and the water would lap up to the edge. We had crocodiles all around us and once they popped underwater, they disappeared. Jaws was a fucking rom-com compared to this!

Safely back on dry land, we headed off into the jungle and ran into a rhino. It stared at us from 5 meters away and I remember the advice of our guide. “If it charges, run up a tree”. I looked around and made the decision that I had more chance of launching the guide at the rhino to distract it than I had of ever getting up any of those trees.

Luckily the rhino decided it had better things to do and so did we. We walked in the jungle for around 2 to 3 hours and saw a few monkeys, a lot of insects and some scary tiger tracks. Overall really cool. We had also booked an elephant ride in the afternoon so it was time to go to the hotel and rest up for the afternoon.

Many things can be said about elephant rides, but I don’t think anyone has ever said they were comfortable. We spent an hour and a half on a lumbering beast with a kid that got very sick and another one that started playing video games on his phone. My legs felt like they were going to fall off and even though we saw some rhinos really close, I don’t think I’ll do that again.

We eventually made it to our hotel and went to do some shopping. On the way back we encountered another rhino near the road to the hotel. We pretended it didn’t bother us and bravely scurried along to our hotel. Having had enough for the day we went to sleep in preparation for our travels onto the calm shores of Pokhara!

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Days 10, 11, 12 and 13: End of India, Khajuraho and Varanasi!

I’ve fallen a bit behind on my posts so the next couple will be extra long, in an effort to catch-up to my travels!

We had left our brave adventurers (us) in Agra, on our way to Varanasi. We gathered our belongings, waved farewell to the shitty purple orchid Hotel and headed to our train. When we got to the station we had to say goodbye to Kuldeep. He’d been a great driver and I didn’t realise at the time how lucky we were to have met him. We said our farewells (after the mandatory tip) and boarded on our first class train to Khajuraho.

This was the best train experience we had, a first class cabin just for us 2. We could nap through the 8 hour train ride and someone even ran to the station to get us our lunch! Travelling in style.

When we arrived at Khajuraho it was dark and we headed straight to the hotel. This was the best hotel we stayed in during our stay in India, Harmony Hotel, if you’re looking to stay in Khajuraho, this is a great mid range hotel to stay in.

We booked a tuk-tuk for the next day to take us to the temples and we had dinner under the mosquito lamps. We went to bed early and got ready for another day of exploring.

Khajuraho is a great place for a chilled day of sight-seeing. All the temples are easily accessible by tuk-tuk and you can just walk around and see sculptures of voluptuos women and flexible men doing fun things to each other. We had lunch and good espresso at the Raja Cafe, saw the waterfall (not worth it) and then went to see the light and sound show. You can skip the show, unless you want to laugh at some very bad over-the-top voice acting.

We had a train to catch that night so we spent some time lounging in the hotel and then went to the station again. This time we travelled in third class with air conditioning and the experience was very different! We were in a coach with no curtains, stacked three bunks high. I couldn’t clamber in to my middle bunk so I switched places with an Indian girl and climbed in to the top bunk. I wasn’t too sure the chains would hold my sleeping mass so I felt good being the eventual squasher and not the squashed.

We arrived at Varanasi after little sleep and went to the ticket counter to get our tickets to Gorakpur and the Indian border. We ended up spending 2 hours there as there was a change of shift and the new worker had a rather loud disagreement with the lady that was working the morning shift about how she did paperwork… At least that’s what I gathered from 40 minutes of shouting in Hindi and pointing at ledgers and receipts.

We eventually got through that and went looking for our driver, who had left. We were intercepted by a very stoned looking guy that told us to wait there, he’d call the driver to take us to the hotel. This set the tone for our experience with the bunch of dodgy people that operate from the Varanasi Villa Hotel.

We had seen that this hotel was really far away from town and we had tried to change the booking but our travel agent assured us we would have a driver all day long for both days. I turns out there are 2 drivers that work with the hotel but they are shared with all the guests. Everything with this place was not quite what they told you it would be.

For starters the location on Google maps is false. It’s a lot further away from the town, in the middle of a field, you have to walk down a dirt path alley to get to it and there’s no way to leave unless someone comes to pick you up. Once we’d dropped off our bags, we were shepperded to a restaurant which was un by the same group of people. The food was OK but they did try to push the beers a bit too much, which I guess is where they make their real profit.

After dinner, our driver wanted to drop us off at the hotel but we told him we wanted to go in to town so he left and sent the other driver to take us. I had wanted to just wander around the ghats and see some Indian life but that was not to be. We were once again accompanied to see “the ceremony” which is 4 monks doing the evening prayer/blessing to the ganges. It was nice but very crowded and there seemed to be more tourists than locals.

I had hoped to have some free time after the show but alas all my hopes seemed to be shattering that day as we were taken back to the car through the swells of people and traffic and deposited at the hotel for an early night as we had a sunrise boat tour the next day.

Our alarm went off at 5 am and we crawled out of bed to go see the magical Ganges! We were grouped up with 2 other German tourists that were staying at the hotel and taken to the river. The driver offered us tea but we politely declined as we had spent the last 15 minutes talking about the German’s friend who had really bad food poisoning and was being violently sick. We decided to play it safe.

The river tour was a bit of a letdown. We were 12 tourists (many of whom we recognised from last night’s restaurant) taken up and down the river with little ceremony or explanation. It was ok at times but nothing too great. Kind of a perfect metaphor for our time in Varanasi.

We had breakfast at the hotel and after a nap met a Mexican guy who had been also roped into staying at that hotel. He had strangely enough been booked by the same travel agent we had in Delhi. We went to lunch with him to a nice but not too expensive restaurant. We had to insist to our driver not to take us again to that other place. Then we made him take us to Sarnat.

Sarnat is where Buddha first preached his teachings and there are some nice temples and relics. The museum is especially worth it. We had a train to catch that night so we headed back to the hotel and picked up some food along the way.

Our next adventure takes us across the border into Nepal and on to Lumbini, birthplace of Buddha!

Days 6 & 7: Pushkar, Lassi(ez)-faire society.

The drive from Jaipur to Pushkar is not long but it is uneventful. It goes on for a while and then after sitting around doing nothing for some time, it is over.

This was a good prelude for what life in Pushkar is like. There’s a lot of sitting around in coffeehouses, drinking their Lassi. It’s quite special as you do get a lot of bhang for your buck. We spent a couple of days of relaxing and lazying around which gave me a lot of time to relax and think.

So I think now is a good time to do a little summary of my thoughts after my first week in India. A lot has happened and I think it will also help me process it all. Let’s start with what I’ve enjoyed so far and what’s gone right.

The things I am enjoying the most so far have been the monuments, the local markets and the normal people. Basically it seems I enjoy any moment when I can forget I’m a big white guy walking around India. It’s great to exchange a smile with a random stranger, take a look at a stall and not get dragged in for a tea and a sales pitch.

I also think that getting a car for this first section has been a good idea so far. We’ve seen a lot more than we would have otherwise and kuldeep is a great driver and guide, though a little stubborn at times. Overall I’m very happy we got him.

The last thing that’s gone very well is my camera/technology setup. Everything is working great and I’ve had no issues so far. The Radpower Filehub works great and I don’t think I’ll ever travel without it again.

Things that I could do without: the constant screams of “Hello, where are you from?” to try and sell you things. Random tuk tuks following you for minutes and strangers “just offering to help” when they clearly have an ulterior motive. It gets old very fast. Also Kuldeep has landed us in a couple of these situations and that was not too appreciated. Though we did end up buying something both times so maybe we did appreciate it?

I also could do without the constant shoes on/off parade. I don’t mind a little barefoot walking but these temples are surrounded by grime and dust and I don’t feel like getting my ugly feet dirty 3 times a day. Also having to leave your bags outside seems ridiculous. I feel very paranoid about leaving my camera anywhere.

Lastly here are a few things that have really surprised me:

  • Cows are not so peaceful. We’ve seen our fair share of cows getting annoyed at people and one even went for Esther!
  • People here litter a lot!
  • Road and speed signs are like short pieces of fiction. They describe an ideal world but nobody can live up to their standards.
  • A road will stretch to fit as many vehicles as want to pass by at the same time.
  • If a vendor, guide, tuk tuk driver, etc. tells you a place is closed, it is probably open.

These are a few thoughts and impressions from Pushkar. Next stop Agra and the Taj Mahal!!!

Days 4 and 5: Jaipur!

We knew that it was going to be a long drive to Jaipur from Delhi. Nobody enjoys the prospect of 5 hours in the car but we steeled up for the task and left early in the morning so as to get there by lunch time. The road to Jaipur has 2 clearly defined sections: before you reach Rajastan and after. The roads in Rajastan are a lot better than in the state of Delhi. However, apart from the heat, it was a rather uneventful drive.

To start our Jaipur visit we went to the Amber Fort. This is a beautiful fort, perched high up in the Hills above Jaipur. It has great views of the wall that runs along the top of Jaipur’s hills but is a bit of a climb to get to. You can take an elephant up to the top but we preferred to walk. As it as a festival day, there were hordes of people there to visit the local temple but the fort itself was not extremely crowded.

After visiting the fort we took a drive along the lake to see the water temple and then we went to our hotel. We unpacked and decided we wanted to eat kebabs so we struck out into town in search of a place called “The Kabab Shop”.

Our hotel was a bit outside town so we had to brave the roads and highways at night to get to the food place. Esther is either getting better at walking among traffic or she’s becoming a better actress as I only heard her screaming once, maybe twice, in the whole journey.

The kebabs were delicious and well worth the walk there and back again. Back at our hotel I fought wiith the wifi for a while and then gave up and went to bed.

The next day we also got an early start and went to see Albert’s house. This building was constructed to honour the visit of Prince Albert to India in the late 19th century and is now a museum. As it was World tourism day, all entries were free to museums and attractions so we just walked in.

This building is now a museum where they display anything they can get their hands on. It had weapons, pottery, textiles, paintings, reproductions of Greek statues and even a mummy in the basement! Not sure if it’s worth a visit or not.

After that we went to see the city palace and the jantar mantar.The city Palace is rather impressive and boasts the world’s biggest silver object. 2 jars weighing 345kg each! Apart from that it has some beautiful courtyards with stunning doors and curious guards that are happy for you to take their photo and then whisper “Tip” while standing under the “No Tipping” sign. No tips were given though advice was freely dispensed.

After a brief walk through the blazing heat of the jantar mantar, we joined kuldeep for some traditional Indian thali. Though all vegetarian, it was really nice and having a beer with it also helped a lot.

As the heat was rising we retreated to a coffeeshop for espresso and air conditioning. In there we had another of our inevitable photo sessions with the locals and then ventured into the beauty of the Hawa Mahal.

This place is definitely worth a visit as the architecture is stunning and it is also full of small corners were you can retreat for a bit of peace and quiet. This is a quality not to be underestimated in a city as crazy as Jaipur. After the Hawa Majal we ventured into the local markets in search of trousers for Esther.

This took a long time and a lot of meandering through fun streets filled with the usual assortment of vehicles, people and this time also pigs! We asked Kuldeep later if people ate those pigs and he answered “No, those are street pigs”. Apparently the local fauna includes stray pigs.

Once the shopping was done, we got nicely lost in the side streets heading to the city palace and were accosted by hordes of children screaming “Photo!!!” and “Chewing Gum!!”. We took their photo, gave them a print and some gum and they were gone in a second. Leaving behind a crying 1 year old toddler that we were not very sure what to do with. Luckily an adult was on hand to take the baby and we scampered away down a side street that seemed to lead to where we wanted to go.

Back in the safety of our car, we headed to the Tiger fort to see the sunset. This fort is really high up in the hills and you would need some sort of vehicle to get here. It is most definitely worth it. Not only is the fort beautiful but also the views are spectacular. I’d also recommend paying the 200 rupee fee to get into the opa restaurant to see the sunset. You get a free drink with the entrance and the views are hard to beat.

As the day came to a close we headed back to Jaipur and asked Kuldeep to drop us close to the kebab place for dinner. “Close” was 2 kms away and we had quite a walk to the kebab shop and then to the hotel. In the end we got there safely after a bit more screaming from Esther. She now uses the screaming therapeutically to give her strength. It is mutating into half scream, half roar.

We fought with the Internet a bit, and then slept peacefully until the next day.

First day: flights and Delhi!

So, here we go again. Flying off into the unknown with apparently not a care in the world. It’s all a carefully orchestrated illusion of course as you cannot avoid some level of trepidation when embarking upon a month-long trip into India and Nepal.

The flight over was relatively uneventful with the exception of encountering my first burger king that served no beef burgers. I have a feeling I’ll be sprouting feathers by the end of this trip! Eating nothing but chicken every day!

The monotony of the fight to Delhi was broken by a group of screaming old Italian ladies that spent a big part fo the trip complaining loudly in Italian to fellow passengers that did not speak a word of Italian. They also routenly ignored the fasten seat belt sign and one even got up to chat with her friend just before the plane started accelerating for take-off. Esther and I found it very funny, a feeling clearly not shared by the flight crew. Once we landed and spent the mandatory hour in the queue to get our visas, we stepped outside where our patient cab driver was still waiting for us, in spite of the fact that we were almost 3 hours late.

The drive over was either a lot of fun or nerve-wracking, depending on which one of us you asked. I have a feeling that by the end of this trip, Esther will either never want to get in a car again or will be one more of the crazy drivers that you find in these latitudes.

After getting some food and refreshment at the hotel, we sat down with the hotel’s travel agent to book the trains over to Varanasi. We knew that finding spaces on those trains could be challenging so we had to book the in advance. Somehow after a few minutes talking to the agent we found ourselves breaking my cardinal rule of my trips, No planning!

We now have a driver for the first week or so, as well as hotels, trains and everything booked until we are due to leave India on the sixth. I’m not sure how I feel about this yet.

On the one-hand it’s nice to have a driver to take us around, avoid the hassles of looking for transport and ending up stuck in a local bus. On the other hand, I kind of like those hassles and buses. In any case, I saw Esther’s look of relief when everything was booked and at the end of the day, that’s what matters. We are travelling together and if she’s happy, That’s all I need.

Now all that was over, we could begin our exploration of Delhi! Our driver, Kundeep, turns out to be a great guy. He’s been doing this for 24 years, has a solid FB following and books full of raving comments from past clients. He took us around to the best known sites of New Delhi and it was a mixed bag.

Some sites are amazing and we feel like we should have stayed a little longer. Places like the Lodi gardens and the Qutab Minar deserve time to see properly.

Other places were not so great. The Laxmi temple, Indira Ghandi memorial and the government building are ok if you have time to spare but I could have done without them.

Overall it was a good day, by the time we got back to the hotel we were wrecked and ended passing out on the beds and waking up at 6 am the next day. We’ll see what tomorrow brings!

Iran – Top 5 places I saw – Hardest list I’ve had to make

I’ve tried to cut the number down to 5 to keep the article size manageable but there is so much more to see in Iran. I might have to make a part 2 ūüôā

In no particular order, here are the top 5 places I went to during my stay in Iran:

Yazd

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Yazd is a 5000 year old city of just over 1 million people that is located in the middle of Iran. It is a fascinating and beautiful city, famous for its confectionery, gardens and very strenuous strength training techniques. I loved to wander around the city’s bazaar and all the little winding streets.

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I spent a while just sitting in a park watching kids play football. At first they were a bit shy but after a while their natural curiosity took over. ¬†These 2 walked away with a print of their picture. ūüôā

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I also loved the Dowlat Abad gardens. The engineering required to channel water from the far mountains into the city is amazing. Small qanats (channels) were dug by hand ¬†by men who wore white shrouds in case they were buried alive. I’m struck by a mixture of awe and terror at the work they did.

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Isfahan

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Isfahan is a city in which I wish I’d spent more time. It is a city of around 2 million people and is home to the¬†Naghsh-e Jahan Square¬†which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The square with the mosques, bazaar and palace that surround it are enough¬†to spend at least a day or two visiting.

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Once you have seen that, you have barely scratched the surface of the city. One highly recommended place to see is the¬†Khaju Bridge. Local people gather under this bridge at sunset to sing and relax after the day’s work. I would highly recommend it.

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If you want to see something a little less typical, you can head to one of the city’s many pigeon towers. Pigeon guano used to be a very important source of fertiliser for the fields around Isfahan. The importance of the pigeons has decreased but some of the towers are still open and have been restored to their full glory. Worth a trip.

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Shiraz

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Ah, Shiraz, I will admit this is my favourite place in Iran and I don’t really know why. It has a certain vibe that makes me feel right at home as well as some pretty stunning architecture.

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This is the city where you can spend an evening in a coffee shop talking to the singer of an Iranian heavy metal band. It’s a place where the police ask if you need help finding your hotel and end up having a bite of your meal because you insist it’s really good.

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I feel like they are the Spaniards of Iran and that is one of the highest compliments I can give them.

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Persepolis

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Persepolis, home of Cyrus the great and Xerxes, this was probably the highlight of my trip. I have always loved the tales and stories of ancient greece. To think I was standing in the same spot where Xerxes probably planned the attack on greece.

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I walked around the site flabbergasted, having a hard tome taking it all in. It was also empty of other tourists which still amazes me to this day.

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And then when the sun was setting I was in the right place and I think I had a little nerdgasm.

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The Desert

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The city of Yazd is somewhat remote and you can go out and spend a night at one of the old caravanserais. These were the small forts where the caravans would stop to spend the night, water the camels and try to sell some of their wares.

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The setting is beautiful but what is stunning is the night sky out in the desert. Even with clouds it takes my breath away!

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Iran – It’s where it’s at! – 5 reasons to go to Iran now!

Iran is without a doubt the best travel destination for 2016. I say that with 0 doubts. If you want to visit a country that has 2 thousand years of history; incredible architecture; a warm, hospitable, friendly people and small amounts of tourists, then Iran is the place for you.

I have been struggling to write this blog post as I came back overwhelmed with how great a travel experience I had. I previously wrote about how overwhelming the one-sided discourse of the media regarding Iran can be. I thought I had kept a healthy scepticism. I did not believe that things there were as bad as the media would lead me to believe, yet I still felt I was going to come face to face with a generally repressive, closed society. I could not have been more mistaken.

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The people of Iran are open and welcoming to a fault. Everywhere I went I was greeted with a smile and genuine curiosity as to my opinion. I discussed subjects I did not think would be easy to bring up and though I did not always agree with everyone, I found that I learned with every interaction I had. I never had any problems wandering around or taking pictures and was often a little embarrassed at the lengths that complete strangers would go to to make me feel at home.

It was a strange feeling sometimes to have to stop and remind yourself that you were in Iran. I think the most profound moments during the trip were those in which you looked around and realised that the surrounding could be confused with part of Madrid or Paris or London. It was shocking to stop and think how impossible you thought a scene like this would be inside Iran.

As I think you need to get there ASAP, I’m going to try to give you 5 reasons you need to go to Iran and end with a recommendation of a great way to get there.

1. The architecture

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Iran has been a great local power for the last 2500 years and this can be seen in the magnificence of its architecture. Another of the shocking things about Iranian monuments is the fact that they are so well preserved and still in use. Many of the great mosques we visited were still used mainly as places of worship with a few tourists meandering about between prayers. It made you feel more in awe as the buildings came to life with their true purpose. They were not museum pieces, they were living parts of the community.

Iranian architecture has also embraced the modern and Tehran is full of modern bridges and monuments that rival anything I have seen elsewhere.

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2. The people

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My good friend David Harden said: “The beauty of the Iranian people is the absolute lack of suspicion in their eyes.” I think this is the best way you can describe my experience of them. They are amongst the most open, welcoming and kind people I have met.

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They will also make you love tea. And sugar. Mostly sugar.

3. The desert

20151029-DSCF4272The desert is intricately tied to the history of Iran. The silk road ran through this country and it is possible to spend night in reformed caravanserais, pit stops for the old caravans taking spices and silk to the west.

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A night out in the desert under the light of the stars and the full moon is something that you will not easily forget.

4. The history

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Iran is the heir of the tradition of the great Persian Empire, stretching all the way back to 550 BC. It has been a centre of culture and knowledge for almost all that time. They proud remains of Persepolis are a reminder of the magnificence of a culture that was great when my ancestors were still living in huts.

5. The lack of tourists20151101-DSCF5057

Iran is one the verge of becoming a huge touristic destination. Hotel prices are starting to increase and most big sites have the occasional bus of tourists. This is nowhere near what you will see at any major tourist destination but is a huge increase compared to a couple of years ago.

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It is still a privilege to be able to spot the tourists and not have them be anywhere close to the majority. I do have a feeling though that with the the lifting of the sanctions, it’s on the brink of exploding. So get there before everybody else does.

How to get  there?

I went with an Yomadic Un-tour. I would highly recommend booking a seat as they sell out fast, are really small and there’s not a lot of them. You’ll be treated well and get to see stuff you don’t normally see on any other tour.

If you’re not from the US¬†or¬†UK, you can just get a visa at the airport. Not sure of the situation for Israeli citizens. It’s honestly really easy to get around. I say just go!

Edit: Corrected information regarding AU visas.

Smoke Photography – Cheap and fun

The weather here in Ireland can make it tough to practice your photography so having side projects you can complete at home is always a good idea.

Yesterday I decided to give Smoke Photography a shot but didn’t want to have to go out to get any extra equipment. Here’s what I used:

  • Speedlight
  • Xpro-1 Camera
  • 35mm lens. (Any lens will do)
  • Speedlight stand (could have used a chair instead)
  • Remote cable for the speedlight
  • Tripod
  • Black Jacket for backdrop
  • Black reflector to control light (could use another jacket)
  • 2 chairs to prop up the backdrop
  • One chair to place your source of smoke
  • Cardboard and elastic band (or hairband) to control flash direction.
  • Various books and boxes to control height of things and cover wind.

Here’s the whole set-up in all its glory:

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It is really important to end up with a black background so you need to make sure no light falls on the jacket. That’s why I used a piece of cardboard. With the cardboard and a fast¬†shutter speed the background was completely underexposed and appeared to be a seamless black background. I used a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second and an aperture¬†of f/8. The flash was set on manual at 1/4 power.

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Once you have everything set up, you need to set the camera at a distance that allows you to cover the greatest amount of black background while keeping the flash out of frame. This isn’t critical as you can always crop it out but smoke is unpredictable and can move around a lot so giving yourself extra¬†space will make sure you get the smoke in frame.

Last but not least you will need to manually focus in the area where the smoke is. I set up another piece of cardboard to focus on but you can also use your hand or anything else.

As a source of smoke I used cigarettes. While this is a disgusting habit, for once it came in useful. I would just roll one, give a few puffs and set it in the ashtray. I would have loved to have incense sticks as they are perfect for this but cigarettes are a good second option.

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Don’t be afraid to take plenty of pictures. Smoke can be unpredictable but after a while you start to understand how it reacts and can start playing with creating air currents to add chaos to the smoke plumes.

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After you’re done, it’s time to process the pictures. I used Lightroom to process all these images. One fun thing you can do is invert the color curve to make the image a negative and then play with the colour balance to get some interesting effects. Increasing clarity and decreasing contrast a tad can also help.

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Hope this has been useful. Remember to subscribe and let me know in the comments if you decide to give this a shot. If there is any type of photography you’d like me to try next, please let me know.

Why the Fuji X100S is the only travel camera I need

On my trip to Japan this February I made a radical choice. I would travel only with my Fuji X100S. There were several reasons behind this choice. I wanted to have a small camera that would be easy to take everywhere. This was also my first trip with my girlfriend and didn’t want her to have to wait too much while I took my pictures. Not having the option to switch lenses meant my process skipped straight to taking the picture and significantly cut down the time I spent taking and retaking a picture.

My biggest concern was my lack of options for specific situations. From my previous trips I knew the not having a telephoto would not be a big concern but not having a wide angle lens might be a problem. Also, Japan has always been at the very top of the list of countries to visit for me and I do not know if I will get to return so missing out on shots that I might never get a second chance to take was something really worrying for me.

So, given all that, what is it about this camera that made me want to take the risk?

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The Good

One of the things I love the most about the Fuji is its size. It is just the right size to fit in a large jacket pocket (as most of mine tend to be). It also transforms your camera bag into a multipurpose bag with plenty of space to store other items.

It is also big enough to allow you to grip it well and operate all the manual controls without it feeling like it is going to fall out of your hand when you are doing so.

This little camera also does not compromise when it comes to quality of images. Its 23mm F 2.0 lens is sharp at all apertures. It only suffers a bit when doing macro shots at f2 but stopping it down to f2.8 removes the issue.

Compared to the X-Pro 1 it has faster autofocus and a much better EVF. It is also much faster to write to disk and overall is a better camera than its older sibling.

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The Bad

The autofocus. As you have probably heard, autofocus is not one of Fuji’s strong points. They have greatly improved this with the XT-1 (or so I’ve heard) but these are not cameras for action or sports photography. Given all that, I find that the autofocus is enough for my needs 95% of the times. There are moment in which I miss a shot because of a missed focus but these are not the majority of shots. Once you understand the quirks of the focusing system, it sort of becomes second nature.

Fixed lens. The Fuji X100s has a fixed focal lens. It is not interchangeable which means your are stuck with one field of view. This is limiting though not always bad. When I first started in photography I was obsessed with having a lens to cover every possible focal length. This of course meant buying several zooms and  a couple of primes.  When I switched to Fuji, I gave up my zooms and switched to only prime lenses. I have not used a zoom lens in over 2 years and I can honestly say I do not miss them.

Reducing my options even further to just a 35mm equivalent was a scary step. Though I love the 35mm focal length, there are time when you wish you had something a little wider. I always managed to work around these limitations but at times I would have liked to have the option.

 

Wider angle would have been nice.
Wider angle would have been nice.

The Ugly

There is nothing ugly about this camera.

The Verdict

I am very happy with my choice for this trip. It allowed me to forget I had a camera with me for most of the time but was already ready to go when I needed it. In fact, I am seriously considering doing the same thing when I head off to Iran this autumn (SPOILER).

It allowed me to be much more present while travelling as I had a lot of choices already made for me due to the limits imposed by this camera.

The 35mm field of view is a perfect balance for both people and landscapes. Though at times a wider angle might have been nice, being limited forced me to work more on my composition and find creative solutions. It was an inconvenience, not a deal-breaker.

The camera is a workhorse that will work just as well in the middle of the day as in the brightest conditions (did I mention it has a built in ND filter?).

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My five favourite pictures of 2013

For my previous post I had to go through all my pictures for the last couple of years and I thought it might be interesting to publish my favourite pictures from last year.

These are not my best pictures. I find it hard to decide which are objectively the best images I took. These are the images that most stand out to me from 2013. I think they are all good images and also they bring back special memories which I will try to describe below each picture.

So, in no particular order, here are my top 5 favourite images of 2013.

Sunrise over the Himalayas

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This image was taken above the village of Nagarkot in the east of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. I had stayed there overnight with Sara, a fellow traveller, to see my first sunrise over the Himalayas. We had decided not to rent a taxi to get up to the viewing point as they were asking what we considered was too much money (I think they wanted 5 euro or so for the return trip). Instead we decided to get one of the communal buses that were supposed to leave at 5 am from the centre of town.

The only problem was that we never found the bus. In desperation we started waving at any vehicle that we saw passing by and were lucky enough to be picked up by a group of Chinese tourists that had rented a minivan to go up to the top of the mountain to view the sights.  They had initially refused to let us on but they stopped 50 metres down the road and signalled for us to run to get in.

Once we got to the top, I realised I had forgotten my telephoto lens so I was unable to take any close up pictures of the mountains but it was a magical experience all the same. Seeing the sun clear the cloud over mountains that are over 8 kilometres tall is sure to take you breath away. I also got my first and only view of Everest.

When we were leaving, I spotted this line of Tibetan prayer flags that were perfectly framing the golden morning light and managed to capture this image.

Clouds over the river Liffey

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This is one of the first images I captured with my Fujifilm X-Pro 1. It has a special place in my heart because it was the first time I saw what I could do with the new camera and finally made me get over my buyer’s remorse due to¬†switching from Nikon to Fuji.

The story behind it is nothing special, I was walking over to my acting class and saw what looked like an interesting cloud formation. Here in Ireland we get spectacular skies as the clouds mover very quickly and sometimes the sun peaks through in strange places.

This image also showed me the importance of having my camera on me at all times. I would not have been able to capture this if I had not been carrying around my camera bag. Since that day I always try to keep a camera on me as you never know when a beautiful scene will appear in front of you.

Torc Waterfall

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The reason I love this image is because it is also one of the last I took with my old Nikon camera. I took this during my trip to Kerry last august and it also reminds me of a great trip with my brother.

We were staying for a few days in Killarney in County Kerry and decided to go see Muckross estate. I had read that there was a beautiful waterfall that wasn’t too far from the house so we decided to walk over to try to take some pictures.

Even though I had already bought my X-Pro 1 at that time, I was still not sure I could do a whole trip with only 3 fixed focal lenses so I decided to take my full Nikon gear with me. After walking for 5 kilometres in search of the waterfall with my heavy DSLR and lenses on my back, I decided that this would be the last trip I was going to make with this much gear.

This picture was taken once we finally got there. I know 5 kilometres is not much but when you are lugging a bag with 8 kilos of equipment over your shoulder, they can feel very long indeed.

Looking out over Bhaktapur

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I love this image mainly for 2 reasons: it captures the spirit of this old city perfectly and it captures my attitude during this trip.

I had been travelling through Nepal for a week or so when I arrived at Bhaktapur. This amazing Medieval city is a must see for anyone staying in Nepal. It is only a few hours away from the craziness of Kathmandu but has a peace to it that is unrivalled anywhere else in the Valley.

I had taken a local bus to get there and was rather tired so I headed straight for the hostel I had found online, hoping to check in and have a shower. On my way there I ran into a french couple I had met in Kathmandu and we agreed to meet in front of my hostel in a few hours to go grab a bite to eat.

As things turned out, my hostel room wasn’t ready so I had to wait around and didn’t have time for a proper shower before I was due to meet my friends so instead I decided to go for a quick walk around town to get a feel for the city.

The sun was blazing in the sky and I quickly decided that a walk was probably not the best idea so I went in search of a good place to rest. I saw that at the top of the temples there were these nice ledges that were in the shade and gave a great view over the square. I climbed up all the way to the top and sat down besides this man who was also hiding away from the midday sun.

The first time I tried to take this picture, the man saw me and kept on staring at the camera. I persisted and he eventually forgot I was there. I feel like I managed to catch the spirit of peace and relaxation I felt at that moment as well as the peaceful activity of the town below.

Waiting to start the show

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Dublin is a city that is full of music. You have live music in most pubs and buskers on every corner of the city centre. I love taking pictures of musicians and this is one of my favourite pictures of bands I took last year.

Normally band are playing and surrounded by crowds so it’s hard to get a good feel of the personalities of the people in the band. I love this picture because each member¬†of the band is doing his own thing before the show.

I captured this scene in one of my many walks through Temple Bar. It is the most expensive part of Dublin by far but it’s unrivalled in its capacity to provide a street photographer with scenes of everyday life happening before your eyes.

That’s the end of my compilation, I hope you enjoyed it. You can see many more of my pictures in the “Portfolio” section of my website or in my Flickr¬†account here. Also please remember to subscribe to get an email when I post a new entry to my blog. You can do so by entering your email in¬†the subscribe box on the left hand side (if on PC/MAC) or below (if on a mobile device).