“What you see is what you get.” Not necessarily. Henry David Thoreau said, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” As a philosopher, I think he was describing what we see internally.

It boils down to this: We only find the world we’re looking for. As photographers, we often search for that perfect landscape, the ones we’ve seen in the photography and travel magazines, only to miss what’s right before us. Instead, we should give up our preconceived ideas of what an image should be and open our minds to the unexpected.

I’ll give you a few examples from photos published in my new coffee table book called In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: The Long Way Back.  

Visitors and residents flock to Darwin’s public beaches to view the glorious sunsets. While visiting there, of course, I planned to go there at sunset as well. Imagine my surprise and dismay when I arrived to find hundreds of people with the same idea as mine! Many of them had walked right into the surf to take their photos. Being short, I could never walk though that surf to get in front of them; nor I could I shoot over their heads! I decided to take a photo of everyone else taking a photo, and to describe what the people of Darwin came there to do.

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I used another example of this approach when I photographed a crew, Kate, on our catamaran, Pacific Bliss, looking back at the sunset behind her. We readers can then share in her moment of bliss.

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When entering the bleachers to see the dancers perform in the Festival of Pacific Arts in Palau, I caught sight of this dancer beneath the stands, putting on his make-up. That photo became one of my favorite pictures of that event.

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There was no way I was going to make it up all the way to the top of the pilgrimage to Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) without beginning that climb at 3:30 a.m. so I could photograph the view from the top. I could, however, photograph those who were coming back down. This 82-year-old Sri Lankan guide has been leading pilgrimages there for the past twenty years.

IMG_8265 Indian Guide in her _80s_ Adams Peak_ Sri Lanka

Sometimes, I see someone walking into the scene and I wait patiently until he or she is just in the right spot:

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Other times, I want to portray how small people seem in relation to the immensity of the structure.

IMG_9465 Palace complex built into rock

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Truly “seeing” requires that we slow down, wait, and get into a different space in our heads. Try that the next time you take a photograph.

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Part VI of the “Our Big Bucket Cruise” blog series

March 25: The Veendam arrives in a moderate gale.

Ushuaia from the Sea

Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Strait of Magellan, and the easternmost part of the Pacific Ocean. Although the city of Ushuaia is in Argentina, most of the main island actually belongs to Chile. At 55° latitude, it holds the distinction of being “the southernmost city in the world.”

Ushuaia, the Southernmost Town in the World

The indigenous people were the Yahgan and Alacalufes (canoe Indians). Surprisingly, despite the inclement weather, they wore little or no clothing. Constant fires kept them warm, hence the region’s name: Tierra del Fuego, land of fire.

I’d always wanted to go to Ushuaia. Stories about the ceaseless wind, the snow-capped Andes, and the magical light had fascinated me.

Even though Günter and I are still not feeling well, and have cancelled our tour here, a catamaran cruise through the Beagle Channel and a ride through the National Park, we bundle up to walk into the town. The wind blasts us so hard it almost knocks us over as we head down the gangplank and onto the pier. We make it to the town’s main drag and then Günter, who now has bronchitis, turns back.

Gunter on the pier near the ship, bundled for the walk

Lois, Bundled for the walk into town.

All the streets climb up the hill from the port, as in San Francisco.  The cross-streets filled with restaurants, bars, tourist and winter apparel shops protect me from the wind.

As I walk along the streets, I begin to fall in love with this southernmost town in the world. Yes, Ushuaia is remote, desolate, and moody as the sun appears and disappears behind the numerous clouds.  Yet the town turns out to be quite charming and picturesque. The colorful buildings are a mixture of architectural designs, from colonial European to ski resort styles with steep roofs. (Ski season here will begin in six weeks.) On the corner is the yellow, multi-storied Horn Hotel. On the facing block is a cozy, blue-shuttered bed-and-breakfast with white fretwork and a garden of struggling blue lupines. Towering over the town is the massive A-framed Albatross Hotel. And behind it all lie the snow-capped Andes. Ushuaia is frontier town with lots of character and a cosmopolitan center of 70,000, all rolled into one.

After exploring the town, I meander over to the sailboat anchorage to take some photos. I cannot imagine the courageous and hardy spirit it takes to sail here! Only 100 years ago, the only people crazy enough to come here were convicts in chains. Prison inmates built the town’s railway, hospital, and port. That prison is now a museum that I pass on the way back to the ship.

Delayed by the port authorities, The Veendam leaves too late to view Glacier Alley, but we do experience a few hours of daylight while winding through Darwin’s famous Beagle Channel.

The Beagle Channel at Sunset Viewed from our Veranda.

The Straits

Part V of the “Our Big Bucket Cruise” blog series

Writing about Patagonia is one of those rites of passage for adventure travel writers.

Yet, Patagonia is not a specific region on the map. It has never been a separate country. Vast and vague, it is an undefined region that encompasses 900,000 square kilometers of southern Argentina and Chile. Some writers say that it can be effectively defined by its soil—made up of basalt pebbles left behind by glaciers—and its flora, a low bush called jarilla. Other writers, such as Bruce Chatwin, describe Patagonia by its climate, a wind that blows incessantly with terrific force from October to March “stripping men to the raw” and making small planes fly backward rather than forward. Paul Theroux simply refers to Patagonia as “travel book country,” the kind adventurers dream of because it combines wilderness, wide open spaces, and the grassy plains of the pampas with the majestic backdrop of the Andes. To summarize, Patagonia is all about light, space, and wind.

While the Veendam plows through the rough seas surrounding Tierra del Mundo, the end of the world, I read up on the inland areas that we will not see during this cruise. I have plenty of time, since both Günter and I are holed up in our cabin with terrific colds and coughs. I begin with Chatwin’s In Patagonia, and proceed to Simon Worrall’s River of Desire. To wrap it up, I read a novel on my Kindle called See Before You Die: Patagonia, by J.E.Leigh, whose heroine is a travel writer/photographer who takes a trip to—where else?—Patagonia.

Travelers from Darwin on have noted how the very bleakness of Patagonia seizes the imagination. In other words, nothingness supposedly forces the mind on itself. Well, here I can sit out on the balcony of our cabin here and view the nothingness of the sea. And while sailing Pacific Bliss, I remember the nothingness of days at sea, staring at blue on blue underneath the dome of the sky.  I can remember night after night underneath a canopy of stars.  Is nothingness on land any different?

In Patagonia, the writers say, the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are: the drinker drinks more; the believers pray more and become closer to God; and the lonely become even lonelier, and sometimes commit suicide.  And everywhere, these eccentric personalities with fantastic stories turn up. Anything can happen. It seems to me, they could just as well be describing life at sea!

Perhaps Patagonia is just an ocean passage for landlubbers, substituting a horse for a boat!

Chatwin describes a poet he met who went to Patagonia for a visit and stayed for forty years. He cried, “Patagonia, she is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets you go.”

I could say the same about the sea!

Okay, so now I’ve dutifully written about Patagonia. I doubt that I’ll do it again.