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Changes in Latitude, Attitude, and all the Rest

GUATEMALA CITY — In the days before a long adventure everything becomes a little more brightly colored, sharper edged, clearer.  There is heightened sense to everything, attention to the details of preparing yourself and your gear and completing the things that need to be done in your absence.

I pulled every piece of gear out of its bag and then replaced it, sorted the separate lists of gear one more time: 1.Dive Gear 2.Camera Gear 3.Toiletries 4.First Aid/Emergency 5. Clothing.  All the batteries for cameras, tablets, dive lights, and power banks charged.  Money in three currencies, software updated, list made of things to purchase upon arrival, drivers arranged to and from airports, hard copies made of tickets, dive insurance, medical forms.  I like this part.  It is what makes the rest of it possible.

Now it is time to stop.  My bags are packed, I’m ready to go, I have visualized all the steps between my front door and the dive school on the island.  All the ones that I can.  The rest is in the hands of God, luck, fate.  Now I can concentrate on my wife and family and getting in just a little better shape.  It is rainy season and the last week lived up to it.  Then Sunday broke bright and sunny.  My kickboxing coach came early and we drilled footwork and defense, parries, blocks, slips.  I had claimed the one large deck chair by the pool and after boxing I lay in the sun a while then swam a half mile.  I played Jimmy Buffet on my phone and dreamed of sailing again, cheeseburgers, margaritas, paradise, and piracy.

Getting Ready

18 Days and a Wake-up

GUATEMALA CITY — It has been a busy year.  It has been a busy decade.  I look out the office window and I can see volcanoes not so far away.  I look back through my journal, very little of which is interesting to an outside reader.  There are few personal revelations, little in the way of dark secrets.  One could, however, determine that Andrew Tonn is a man who likes to make lists.  That and a guy who has completed quite a few tasks lately, at least judging by the number of lines that have been crossed out.

I look out the window at the volcanoes, look back at my journal.  18 days and a wake up and I will be flying south and east, away from the volcanoes and towards the islands.  In 18 days I will be leaving on a trip I have been planning since 2005.  18 years and a wake up.  I have been actively planning the trip for the last three years, never a day I haven’t imagined arriving on Utila in some manner and the weeks that will follow above and below the water. Now I have tickets, reservations, a down-payment put on my classes, my bag very nearly packed.  I’m just about ready to go.  All the other items on my calendar have been passed.  I finished the big logistical job I was hired to do, I finished the books I was working on, shot a photo essay of the Peace Corps at work in Guatemala, got admitted to The Explorer’s Club, went diving in Lake Peten Itzá with my friend Diego, completed my Maritime Archeology Course up in Virginia with Daedalus Dive Group, made a documentary film with my friend Mark about an archeological dig in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, taught a photography class, and that’s just most of the big things.  I have been swimming laps and boxing with my coach and pretty much everything is crossed off the lists.  It is almost time to go.  18 days and a wake up.  

Diver Down


LAKE ATITLAN–Practicing my buoyancy after more than a decade above water.  This photo was taken by my Dive Instructor Juan De Garay with my GoPro Hero 8 Black.

Guatemala City — I remember my first time.  That first time sinking under the water and thinking, I can’t do this, I can’t breathe underwater, and on faith in the equipment taking that first breath. The dry air flowed through the regulator and filled my lungs.  I heard the hiss of the inhalation and the loud bubbling exhalation and then the next breath and for the first time was able to look around without the immediate thought of getting back to the surface.  The thought that followed was, how long can I stay in this place?  How long can I make this wonder last?  It wasn’t very long, a few minutes, but longer than anyone can hold their breath.  There were no fish, no coral reefs and no danger from sharks or kraken or marauding enemy divers.  We were safe in the pool at my military school where an Army diver was giving a demonstration and a pitch for his specialty.  It might not seem very exciting but if you have never drawn breath underwater then you have no basis of comparison.

I had wanted to learn to dive since I was a kid growing up on the documentaries of Jacques Cousteau but it was one of those things that seemed far off, a thing one did someday when one was grown and older.  But then I found myself grown and older at the tail-end of a documentary project in Central America.  I was staying at my favorite hotel in all the world, La Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz la Laguna on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.  I had been coming to The Lost Iguana for several years at that point and they had the only dive shop on the lake (ATi DiVERS).  As I would sit in a sun-shaded chair with a cold beverage or watch the clouds change over the volcanoes from the safety of my hammock, others would appear, heading for the dive boat clad in wetsuits and tanks and I would feel rather lazy, left out and feckless by comparison.  I was still in my 30s, but I had realized there were no real retakes and that there really was no someday.  I had already traveled a fair bit, lived overseas and had had a few real adventures along the way.  Those made realize how quickly time passes and how much effort it takes to make any little trip, let alone the grand adventures people put on lists and dream of from their desks and chairs and die without doing.  There I was, with the money, the time, and the opportunity so I got out of my hammock when the divers returned and signed up to begin the next day.

LAKE ATITLAN–This long exposure was taken at dawn with a Fuji XT-4 and a 14mm f/2.8 Fujinon.

Lake Atitlan is a volcanic caldera lake in the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala.  A mega-volcano exploded some 84,000 years ago leaving an immense hole that filled with water over time, forming a lake over 1,000 feet deep, (essentially bottomless in term of scuba gear and its recreational diving limit of 130 feet).  Atitlan is surrounded by villages with populations of the indigenous Mayans (today predominately the Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel groups) who have lived there and considered the lake sacred for thousands of years.  Rising from the shores of the lake are three volcanoes in the 10,000-12,000 foot range: Atitlan, Toliman, and San Pedro which would have been tiny hills compared to the original volcano that formed the lake below them.  Over the years, the lake level has risen and fallen drastically and ancient Mayan cities have been found, one at a depth of around 100 feet on what would have been an island some 2,000 years ago.

I did my Open Water training around 2005 under the tutelage of the woman who founded La Iguana Perdida, and I could not have asked for a better instructor.  It is a far more difficult place to learn than the Caribbean.  That is a good thing; it makes you a better diver.  The water is fairly cold and you wear a heavy two-piece wetsuit.  It is more difficult to maintain buoyancy in fresh water and there are additional considerations related to your decompression tables because of the altitude of around 5,000 feet.  The water isn’t always murky but, in my experience, visibility varies between two and six meters.  I am always asked, by divers and non-divers alike, what there is to see, often in dubious voices, and all I can think is that the world is full of oceans full of pretty fish but there are very few volcanoes to dive in.  At some places the cliffs go from air into water and drop very nearly straight to black.  Other areas are more shallow at first, with beds of mud and reeds inhabited by small lake fish and freshwater crabs.  Then these too drop off to black.  When I first dove in Atitlan there were tiny, nearly invisible freshwater jellyfish with tiny red dots at their centers, but on my recent dives I saw none and the Dive Instructor said that he had heard of them but had never seen them either.  There are schools of sunfish and the elusive, non-native black bass introduced in the 1950s which have ruined the native ecosystem, and there is, of course, a lake monster in the form of an enormous serpent.  In places, identified by a fine white algae, you can put your hands into the thick silty mud and it is hot, so the volcano in which you dive is not quite dead after all.  There are submerged docks from when the lake was many feet lower and rock formations and if that isn’t enough then perhaps you should head back to a reef somewhere.


LAKE ATITLAN–Dive Instructor Juan de Garay on the Ati Diver’s boat as we return to dock after a training dive. GoPro Hero 8 Black.

I did those dives back then and loved it almost more than anything I had ever done.  I went directly to Utila in the Caribbean a week later and did a series of dives there.  I nearly went back the next year to do my Dive Master course but I chose to travel and work on medical relief projects with a doctor I was dating instead.  I returned to Atitlan over the next few years and dove the lake more and then life intervened.  They were mostly good interventions but they didn’t afford many opportunities for scuba and my skills were becoming as rusty as an untended dive knife.  Anyway, I had been busy moving to Sweden, moving back from Sweden, getting married, having a son, moving to Virginia, moving to India, having another son, exploring the Himalayas, moving back to Virginia, moving to Mexico, photographing bullfighters, exploring Oaxaca and ten-thousand other things in between.  Any time I thought about diving, which was often, I took solace in the fact that my life was very far from unadventurous.  I might not have been breathing underwater but I wasn’t seeing life from an easy chair.

When we found out our next job would be back in Guatemala I immediately thought of Lake Atitlan and La Iguana Perdida and working toward my Dive Master if not beyond.  I made lists of all the places from my previous life I wanted to show my wife and sons, lists of all the things I had wanted to do in Central America but not accomplished in the past, wrote letters to friends about how this transition would be the easiest on record as I already spoke Spanish and knew the area.  Then Covid arrived and the transition from Mexico to Guatemala wasn’t so easy and the pandemic was (and still is) raging.  Nothing I wanted to do was as easy as I wanted it to be, but then again it never is.  There was one small setback after another but mostly they came down to the fact that I wasn’t traveling the byways of Central America with nothing but a backpack and a camera bag and days or weeks in between anywhere I needed to be.  In place of a backpack and a camera bag I had a house and a car, a wife and two kids, a dog and a full-time job.  Add in Covid restrictions, the months passed, and I still hadn’t gotten any farther underwater than the lap pool in our housing complex.  In the meantime I read about scuba diving, read the theory and gear and physics and history.  I found a YouTube channel I liked (Diver’s Ready) and watched the videos there.  I subscribed to PADI’s magazine and I swam laps.  I swam and swam and regained the fitness I had lost after Covid lockdowns began.  I bought some fins and a dive computer and a vintage press photo of Jacques Cousteau to put on my desk so I didn’t forget.  Finally the time was right and I was as ready as I was going to be.  I put in for nearly a week of leave.  As it once had been, I packed my camera bag and my backpack and closed the door behind me before the sun had risen.  I took a small bus from Guatemala City to Antigua, then on to Panajachel, a boat took me to Santa Cruz, and I walked onto the patio of La Iguana Perdida.  People looked at me from their hammocks.

LAKE ATITLAN–A diver swims above me as I practice both buoyancy and taking photos at the same time as part of an underwater speciality class. GoPro Hero 8 Black.


Too much time induces doubt.  I had thought about it for so long, here I finally was, and what if I couldn’t manage anymore?  I was swimming a mile or more every day in the pool but I was older.  What if my eardrums exploded?  What if I had some rare condition in which two atmospheres of water-pressure caused my head to implode?  Too make matters worse my youngest son, an absolute fish in the water, told his mother he was worried daddy was going to get lost underwater.  I went to my room and climbed into my own hammock.  I got out to have dinner and went back to my hammock to study the course manual and think dark thoughts and went to bed early.  I got up at dawn.  The surface of the lake was smooth and gunmetal grey and I watched the sun rise.  Juan, the Dive Instructor, met me at breakfast and we went over some of the knowledge before going to suit up.  There wasn’t any more time to wonder or worry.  The dive shop behind the hotel hadn’t changed in 15 years and I was pulling on the heavy wetsuit pants and then the top and the booties.  I connected the BCD to the tank and the hoses to the BCD and the first stage to the tank and I was opening the valve and checking the air flow, checking the tank pressure, resetting the depth gauge to zero, and putting it all on.  We walked to the front and then I was standing in purposeful gear while the people in their hammocks looked on.  We went to the dock and into the boat and I got my fins on, squirted anti-fogging solution into my mask, rinsed it with water scooped from the lake.  I splashed cold water onto my face and put the mask on, sat up on the edge of the boat and put air into the BCD.  I put the regulator in my mouth, held it and the mask with one hand, put the other behind my head.

“You’re ready,” said Juan, and I rolled backwards.

LAKE ATITLAN–It is good to be back underwater and to have 2000 psi left in your tank… GoPro Hero 8 Black.


Six Views from a Return to Atitlan


Packing List for Mount Kailash

GUATEMALA CITY — This is my list for the trip to Mount Kailash, a trip I don’t know when or if I will make.  They say the mountain calls you when you are ready to hear and lets you make the pilgrimage to circumambulate its base when the time is right.  I do find it strange, at the very least, that in a life spent reading accounts of exploration and journeys to sacred and far away places, I only heard of Kailash a few years ago.  It is, of course, even more possible that I did read the name Kailash but wasn’t ready to take notice.  This is a mountain and a region famous for holding secrets and revealing new dimensions and layers of meaning depending on the state and intentions of the traveler.  Buddhists, Hindus, and adherents of the ancient Bon religion of Tibet all believe Kailash is a place of great power and sanctity, where the veil between worlds is thinner and the initiated can view geographies hidden to the common traveler.

Regardless, Kailash is a difficulty place to reach, even in this modern age.  The geography of the Subcontinent and surrounding regions is a physical geography of rivers and mountains, deserts, forests, and cities but it is arguably unique in its overlying sacred geography, a network, both visible in the form of trails and temples and the invisible web of faith and scripture that connects them.  The faithful spend years, sometimes their entire lives, following these pilgrim trails and visiting these sites and I would argue that in this whole web, Mount Kailash is the farthest point, the end (and perhaps a new beginning) of all those trails.


Fjällräven Anorak #8, Filson Watch Cap, Oakley Clifden sunglasses, Casio Pathfinder Tough Solar Triple Sensor Titanium watch, Black Diamond Alpine FLZ trekking poles.


What is the point of this, you ask?  What does this have to do with a secular list of gear after all?  Everyone’s packing list is different, to be sure.  I have never, obviously, been to Kailash (as I write this) but this list is based on my earlier experience trekking in the Himalayas to the headwaters of the Ganges and years spent traveling and backpacking.  It is based on my friend Chris Urban’s trek to Everest Base Camp and on the written experiences of travelers from the earliest Himalayan explorers to contemporary travel bloggers.  It is about being prepared and being ready.  People fall too often into the trap of never being ready because it isn’t time right now.  This doesn’t mean you should have a pack stuffed with clothes getting wrinkled and mildewed on the off chance that someone orders you out the door and off to the Himalayas in the next five minutes.  If that’s what your life is like your bag is already packed…  But it does mean, if you really want to go somewhere, to be prepared to fill that pack, to know about where you are going, to have a valid passport and know what other visas and permissions you will need, how to get them and how long they will take.

The other perk of being prepared for a trip is that it likely makes you prepared for other trips.  I spent a year or more getting ready to go to Kailash.  Covid came and postponed that journey indefinitely but much of the gear I put together will serve me very well trekking and climbing volcanoes in Guatemala.  The books I read on Kailash and Tibet and Buddhism taught me things I never expected to learn and took me on pathways I didn’t expect to take.  So maybe Kailash is closed for reasons of pandemics and politics but also, perhaps, it is telling me simultaneously that I am ready to listen but not yet ready to go.


Fjällräven Absiko Hike 35 liter pack, L.L .Bean hooded 850 down jacket, Columbia gloves, Victorinox pocket knife.


So here, finally, is the list.  On one level the gear is important as it keeps the wind and rain and cold out, keeps the sun from burning your head and eyes.  On the other hand it is just stuff, just a small part of everything you need to do to get to that mountain or whatever mountain is calling to you.  Your list should include a lot more than jackets and boots and completing the list is a journey and meditation of its own, the very beginning of the long trail.

Philosophy aside, the right gear is critically important to getting you safely through any journey and home again.  Himalayan (or Trans-Himalayan) trekking is all about layers.  Storms and cold fronts can appear seemingly out of nowhere and conversely it can be quite hot, particularly when one is putting in a lot of physical effort.  When we left the ashram at Bhojawasa before dawn to hike the last few miles to the Gangotri glacier, I had on every layer including a pair of heavy gauntlets my friend Chris leant me after he wore them on the EBC trek.  I was grateful for them all.  Literally minutes after the sun broke over the valley’s rim we had to stop and remove most of those layers or it would have been intolerably hot.

As well, most of the Kailash trip and most of our trip into the Garwhal Himalayas wasn’t on the trail or in tents or primitive ashram cells but in a car and hotel rooms that ranged from basic to rather nice.  Along the trails themselves it is likely you will hire a porter to carry some of your heavier, bulkier gear, and don’t forget the days on the plane and in transit spent in Kathmandu and elsewhere.  Some clothes and things can be left behind with a hotel or the travel agency in Nepal for instance.  Cotton may kill on cold, wet trails but I sure think it’s comfortable next to your skin on a long flight on a climate controlled jet.  With this list I will work my way from out to in—base layers to outer layers and up from socks to hat. If you have any specific questions please email me and I will do my best to answer them.



5 pairs Darn Tough Boot Cushion Socks

1 pair Smartwool heavyweight mountain socks

Altra Lone Peak trail shoes

Columbia Newton Ridge waterproof boots

5 pair merino wool boxer briefs

Cabela’s base layer (long sleeve top and bottoms)

1 pair Kuhl Renegade shorts

1 pair lightweight nylon swim trunks

2 pair Mountain Hardwear AP pants

1 pair fleece-lined Eddie Bauer trekking pants

1 Crosstac D-Belt 2 with hidden money pocket

3 Smartwool merino t-shirts

2 black cotton t-shirts for general wear

1 Smartwool long-sleeve merino hoodie

1 wool tweed Orvis vest

1 Fjallraven Buck fleece

1 850 fill L.L. Bean hooded down jacket

1 Fjallraven Anorak #8

Ball cap

REI Boonie hat

Filson wool watch cap

Lightweight Columbia gloves

Black Diamond Mercury Mitts

Black Diamond Snow gaiters

Rain pants

Oakley Clifden sunglasses

Oakley Frogskins sunglasses

Military style nylon poncho

Casio Pathfinder Triple-sensor Tough Solar titanium watch

Toiletries in an Osprey hanging toiletry case

Emergency first aid kit with tourniquet, field dressings, gauze, gauze with clotting agent, moleskin for blisters, Neosporin spray, duct tape, and bandaids for owies

Swiss Army knife

Medicines including ibuprofen, aspirin, probiotics, Diamox, activated charcoal, Allegra, Benadryl, a course of Zithromax, a course of Cipro, and Airborne effervescent tablets, two per day, Gatorade energy chews.

2 Nalgene Canteens and Aquamira water purification tablets

Hydration sleeve

Black Diamond Alpine FLZ aluminum trekking poles

Headlight (Fenix E12AA  flashlight) on a NiteEyes head strap + extra Phenix  E12 light and 2 LED thumb lights

Nemo Sonic 0-Degree mummy bag

Nemo air mattress

Bivvy sack

Extra AA batteries in a Storacell case

Anker Power Core

Paperback books to read, trade, and leave behind

Moleskine Journal and several Field Notes booklets

Pens, pencils


Fjallraven Abisko hike 35

Filson Medium Field Duffel with waterproof liner

L.L. Bean Large rolling duffel

Domke F3x with camera gear

Mountainsmith waist pack


A NOTE ON LUGGAGE:  Along the trail it is likely you will hire a porter.  If you will be carrying all your own gear, sleeping in a tent, and cooking your own food, your list will be quite different than this one.  This list is designed for the bulk of your gear to be carried by someone else from camp to camp, tea house to tea house, ashram to ashram or a combination thereof.

Porters and pack animals do not like duffles with frames and wheels but I do.  The L.L. Bean Large Rolling Duffel (a mainstay of our on-the-move family) is tough, capacious yet easy to pull through airports with its wheels and extendable handle.  It is also a near perfect size in that, while it is possible to overload and exceed weight limits if you are transporting your collection of lead blocks, loaded with normal items, it is generally right on weight.  The rolling duffel will get me and my gear to Kathmandu then stay with the trekking agency along with some other items during the duration of the trek.

The soft-sided Filson duffel is what the porter will carry, with my extra clothing, sleeping bag, and anything I don’t need on the trail with me during the day.  During the day you typically carry a day pack of some sort while the porters carry the rest of your gear in soft-sided duffels, either strapped to a frame or onto a yak.  The day pack I chose is an internally framed 35 liter pack from Swedish company Fjallraven.  This pack will hold your water, snacks, first aid kit, bivvy sack, and serve to hold the layers you take on or off during the day.  I will carry my camera gear on the plane, around town, and in the car in my trusty Domke F3x but while hiking my camera will be either on a Peak Design clip attached to my pack strap, around my neck, or in case of inclement weather, in the waist pack which will also hold any extra lenses.

Packing List Mantra


GUATEMALA CITY —Packing a bag is an act of meditation.  The packing list, written down and repeated becomes a mantra that embodies the will to move from one place to another, the incantation that calls the trip into existence.

This is a list, and a story about a list, that I have been working on for a long time.  Sometimes, when I need to clear my mind, I go over it, trying to think of nothing else but the things I will carry and where I will carry them to and if they will carry me.  Through force of effort I transport my mind to that place as best I can, drawing on past experience and training, on imagination and study.  I try to exclude the present and think of each thing that will go into my bags, imagine where it will fit and how it will feel to carry that bag, carry those things I have chosen on taxis and busses and airplanes and trails, all the way to the journey’s farthest point and back home again.  Can I carry these things far enough?  Will their weight be worth it?  Where will I carry my passport and money?  What will I read?  Will I be able to walk in dark places?

I meditate on the weather, meditate on uncertainty, meditate on local customs, weigh the balance between being prepared and carrying too heavy a load.  Can I get though the trip, complete the assignment, come safely home?

I list the items in my head and add up their weight and bulk, feel the cold and the sun and the wind of where I am going.  I go inside the bags, inside the pockets and pouches, imagine myself as each item pressed against every other item.  Will I break, will I leak, will I wrinkle?  I decide, weeks or months before I leave, what I will wear to the airport.  The night before I leave, I lay out those clothes, complete with whatever will be in the pockets.  I know when I wake up that my passport is already buttoned into the pocket of my jacket with my ticket, my belt is already in my pants, my money is secure.  I know where all the metal items are.  I go to sleep ready to close my door behind me and go from home to ticket counter to security to waiting lounge to the jetway and my seat.  I know what it will feel like to lift my carryon overhead and slide my camera bag under the seat, that I will slip my journal and a pen and a book into the seat pocket in front of me.

The packing list is a mantra and the motions of travel, the airport, customs, taxis, are type of katas, moving meditations.  Each trip is different, a different mantra, a different kata for which I prepare a different prayer, a different set of movements that must work together and I test myself as if under the Master’s watchful eye.

When I approach the checkpoint can I go through with the minimum of fuss?  Can I remove my shoes, my electronics, my watch and belt and hat smoothly and without error, maintaining a calm and happy demeanor that, at best, makes the other travelers and the harried employees calm and happy as well?  If I somehow set off the metal detector I have failed.  It does one thing and I know what that is.

Can I pass through these obstacles by making each move and word perfectly?  It is always a test, always slightly different, but if I make it through with time to spare I enter a sort of temporary state of bliss.  Once you have committed to a trip and paid the ticket, turned off the lights and locked the door behind you, faced the gauntlet of the airport and made it through security and found your gate, you have one of those rare places of peace.  At this point you are committed.  There is no going back.  You have chanted your mantra, said your prayer, spun it into reality, and now there is only the plane to board and more challenges to come.  But right then, right now, you can only be where you are, suspended, unable to go forward or back, alive and in the moment.  You have plenty of time to think during the coming hours hurtling through space and time in the hissing nowhere half light but just for the moment you can smile, drink a coffee, and be nowhere but where you are.

Trips That Didn’t Happen

The trail goes into the clouds past Badrinath and Mana, closer to Tibet, closer to Kailash.

GUATEMALA CITY—I wanted to call this essay, “Trips that Never Come to Pass,” or “Trips that Never Happened,” but that would presume to know the unknown. “Trips that were Postponed,” assumes they actually will happen and, “Trips that Were Postponed but Might or Might Not Happen, Who Knows Anything Anyway?” is just awkward.  My life is full of journeys I have planned and journeys I have dreamed about, those I have taken, some I no longer want to go on, and many I hope to make.

Since I was a boy I have read the accounts of explorers and travelers.  When I was about 10, I requested Henry Morton Stanley’s, “In Darkest Africa,” through inter-library loan.  The two-volume tome of 19th century writing, mixing ugly colonial attitudes, breath taking adventure, and sharply-drawn details came all the way from the New Mexico Military Institute.  I had a few weeks to push through 1,087 pages and I read every word waiting for Stanley to burst into a clearing and utter the immortal words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”  Which I never read as that adventure was chronicled in, “How I Found Livingstone,” which seems obvious, but these were the days before Internet and finding the details of long out-of-print books were adventures into unknown (literary) jungles).

One thing I loved about that book and other traveler’s accounts, were the pages detailing the expedition’s outfitting, the funding, the logistics of shipping specially acquired gear, the challenges acquiring provisions in local markets, hiring guides and porters, and the solutions (and frequent failures) encountered keeping those supplies moving and in working order.  Inevitably, as the expeditions progressed, supplies were lost to spoilage, fell into rivers and off cliffs, were stolen, smashed, and consumed faster than expected.  As well, the trails and rivers, heat and cold, proved so arduous that inevitably the travelers were forced to leave things behind, admit certain gadgets were unnecessary or unmanageable, and choose between lightening their loads or failing altogether.

Of course I spent my entire youth in Scouts and later served as a Scout leader.  I attended a military college in the Deep South, in part because that’s one of the things you did to prepare for a life exploring the wilds of South America, or the Congo, or the Empty Quarter of Arabia, never quite realizing the gap between the 1880s and the 1980s.  I learned French because in those books it was the lingua franca, a common language spoken in Africa and Europe, by diplomats of all countries, and by any educated gentleman or lady regardless of nationality.  As it turns out, I have never been to Africa, the second language of the world is now (arguably anyway) my own native tongue, and most of my exploring has been in Spanish speaking countries.  We live and learn.  As a side note, my wife and I did use our (fading) French to speak with a Carmelite nun from Burkino Faso working at a French restaurant in Lima, Peru and she cried at hearing her own language spoken for the first time in years.

My friend Beth, author of The Reluctant Girl Scout, told me once that one should always have a trip on the horizon, something to look forward to, and I think her words are more true than ever during these difficult times.  It is too easy to slip into despair and lassitude as the pandemic and lockdowns drag on.  Even as cases drop, for the moment anyway, in the United States, Covid is tearing through India and elsewhere at terrifying rates.  Travel is still fraught with dangers and difficulties (though this is always true no matter how safe and normal it seems) and all in all it might be best to spend more time planning an expedition right now than going on one.


The Baba of the Cave bestows a blessing on a traveler and pilgrim in Mana, the last village in India.


And it is this that brings me to my thesis: trips that never happen still change your life.  We get so wrapped up mourning what didn’t happen that we don’t see what we gained.  I am not really talking about a casual trip over a long weekend that was  Covid-cancelled.  Almost everyone I know, myself included, had trips like this and we think of them and have the sadness and wish this all was over so we can go back to the beach or the bar and have a little fun and finally stop thinking again.  It is very, very sad.  Recess was cancelled.  But maybe this gives us a chance to think of things in a different way.  An essential part of any good journey is the research, the planning, the right gear.  Indeed, I would argue that a well-planned, well-researched trip to Ohio that never happens can teach us far more than a journey to Tibet about which we never read a book or looked at a map, never learned about the politics, history, language, and religions.

Travel has fallen prey to the same dumbing down as everything else in our social media smartphone driven society.  Now we go somewhere and we spend a few minutes checking reviews on various platforms and arrive in a strange and wonderful new place with everything already settled, booked, reserved,” special, dear, curated experiences masquerading as authentic that leave no room for accident or improvisation, being fed the same unique experience as everyone else including precise GPS locations for your Instagram photos.  This is not the same as research unless your goal is to learn nothing.

But think about that trip to Tibet or Kenya or Yucatan or Cleveland (or wherever it is for you).  What if you read all the books you could find about those places, really went down the rabbit hole reading blogs and news articles, acquired a more-than-passing familiarity with what is happening politically?  How then might that affect your trip when you arrived, your ability to communicate with the locals on more than a surface level, your deeper understanding of what you see and hear?  How might that change your life?

And if the trip never comes to pass is all that research wasted?  I would hope not.  A greater understanding of another place and people, other thought and faith systems, another piece of the world’s history and politics is something that will change you for the better, no travel required.  In the process of learning about something we are taken in other directions.  I hope someday to travel to Mount Kailash on the Tibetan plateau, to circumambulate the holy mountain among pilgrims of other religions, but it was my research into the Ganges river and its histories and myths and sacred geographies that led me to know about that far away Tibetan peak.  When we were first assigned to India I knew I wanted to go to the Ganges.  I knew about the city of Varanasi and a few other places but knowing one thing led to something else and Varanasi led me to Haridwar and Rishikesh and farther and farther into the mountains to Gangotri and Badrinath and Mana and within 40 kilometers of the Tibetan frontier.  The things I read and the maps I studied led me directly to the physical and the very far away.  I would not have found them on Yelp.  All of these things led to changes in other parts of my life as well, changes too numerous and at times personal to write about here.

The saying is that learning is its own reward but that is a little simplistic, a bit reductive.  Learning may be its own reward but it also rewards the student in other distinct and tangible ways.  In preparing to go to Kailash, I learned esoteric facts about Tibetan Buddhism but I also spent the time and money to upgrade my trekking gear.  That gear will serve me quite well here in Guatemala and, hopefully, the experience using it will better prepare me should the time be right for Tibet or a return to India and Nepal.  I was also preparing for a documentary project in Kenya at the same time we were starting the long process of leaving Mexico, shortly before the pandemic.  I thought long and hard about what camera and sound equipment I would need for Kenya while simultaneously looking to streamline everything we owned.  I was able to let enough old cameras and lenses go to very nearly pay for the new ones which work just as well in Central America as I suspect they will in Africa.

It might seem depressing to learn all these things, to spend all that time and money on a trip that might never happen but I would argue the opposite.  Here, more than a year into the pandemic with life and travel still limited, those things I learned give my mind new space to roam free.  I know about mountains and lakes and people and temples I never knew about before.  I can imagine the sounds of pilgrims chanting mantras for strength as they struggle towards the Drolma La Pass at over 19,000 feet.  I imagine the wind and the glare of the sun on snow, the reflections of mountains on the surface of Lake Mansarovar, the taste of salted butter tea and dried yak meat, smells I have never smelled, languages I have never heard spoken, and I am glad I am not sitting in this house without those things to think about.  And I think about my pack hanging on the wall upstairs and the new poles strapped to its side and the boots already broken in and the anorak waiting to be pulled on and I know I am ready to go.


The mountains past the last village

The Fountain

LA ANTIGUA — The fountain is in the middle of Antigua’s Central Park.  The park is at the center of Antigua.  It is a peaceful place; there is the sound of water and the purple blossoms of the trees fall like  slow floral rain.  Facing four directions are nearly, but not, identical women, carved of stone, watching over the park, watching over the city, waiting for you to return.

The Long Central American Goodbye Part II: Bienvenido a Guatemala

SANTA CRUZ LA LAGUNA — Afternoon clouds swirl over Volcan San Pedro. Leica M6ttl, 50mm f/2 Summicron, Ilford HP5.

GUATEMALA CITY — There may be no place in the world more familiar to me than where I am now, here, back in Central America.  At this point I have lived abroad longer than in my hometown (at least in recent years) and anyway, my hometown isn’t my hometown.

I first came to Central America, to Honduras, in the year 2000 working as a reporter.  That one-week trip led me back over and over.  A long time ago I wrote a story, which I will reprint here soon, called, “The Long Central American Goodbye.”  The title recalled a specific memory but in a broader sense how I was unable to say goodbye, how each trip to the region led to the next trip, each of them both expanding my explorations and revisiting places I had been before, getting to know them in a deeper, more complete way.  My experiences in Central America, centered around my work as a reporter and documentary photographer, led me directly to Sweden and Ukraine and in ways I consider those side journeys along the greater arc of my time in Central America.  As I write this I will clarify that by Central America I mean the three countries, so much in the news lately, referred to as “The Northern Triangle,”Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.


COPAN — Green Hills of Copan, 2001. Leica M6ttl, 50mm Summicron, Focal 400 color print film.


I hope to visit the other countries that make up the region: Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama but for the moment I am living in Guatemala and, with both Covid and work, more extensive travel is somewhere out in the future.

So it feels both strange and completely normal that I am here in Guatemala and writing about Central America.  It feels inevitable, to tell the truth, and only strange because this time I am here with my family, kids, dog, car, stuff, and a job that pays slightly better than itinerant documentary photographer.  So it is more than just me and a backpack, camera bag, and whatever organization I was working for but that feels pretty natural as well.  That was my life then and this is my life now, a life that has taken me to India and Nepal and Mexico and other places, unconnected to those previous adventures.  Those were not side trips from Central America as were Sweden and Ukraine because I had the rare grace in life to satisfactorily finish a thing.  I long had the idea that I wanted to do a photo exhibit of large format prints, a retrospective showing the best images from all my trips to Central America, not focusing on one country or one relief organization.  After I got married and was living in Columbus, Ohio I met Gina, an art agent who became a great friend and made that show happen.  I exhibited more than 40 images, blown up to 20 by 30 inches (or more) interspersed with textiles and carvings and other artifacts I acquired along the way.  I even made a last trip down, not long before the opening, to make a few images that had never been seen before.  It neatly tied the whole thing up, ended more than ten years of work and wandering.  As I said back then, that didn’t mean I will never come back here, but it meant that cycle of trips, that time in my life, was over and I could go forward to new things.  Which I did.  Not too many months later we were in India.  Two and a half years after that we were in Mexico, complete with a full Spanish language course.  Two and a half years after that and I am sitting here in Guatemala City writing these words.  Hello again and goodbye to all that.


COPAN– Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras, 2002. Nikon F3, 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor, Focal 400 color print film