Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Finest Plastic Russia has to Offer

In Portland, OR I stayed with my wonderful hosts Malena and Graham and, in a stroke of beautiful symmetry, last night I stayed in Claremont, CA with Malena's parents, John and Jeanyne.

It was two weeks ago now, but while in Portland, in between visits to Powell's Books and Stumptown Coffee, I shot a bunch of pictures with my Holga camera. This camera uses something you may have heard of, called "film." Apparently it's a photo-chemical process of some kind. What will they think of next?

Looking at the pictures below, you may be inclined to think that I traveled back in time, but no. For better or worse, this road trip is confined to the more usual three dimensions. The illusion is due to the vintage magic of the Holga and, in the case of the first picture, the vintage magic of Malena, and her mid-century home.

P.S. Apparently, my post on the Kindle failed to consider one possible benefit to the traveler (at least while in the US).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Can't Sleep, Clown Will Eat Me

I am not an anxious person. I do not, generally, worry about things. I am seldom afraid. There are, of course, exceptions.

There was the time I was camping by myself in a remote, mountainous area of New Mexico, a place where I would not have expected to encounter any other people at all, and in the middle of the night heard angry, hostile voices arguing not far from my tent.

There was the approach to the Katmandu airport, through the mountains and heavy turbulence, when it seemed like the pilots didn't really know what they were doing, and the Buddhist monk sitting next to me began to finger his prayer beads feverishly, chanting to himself.

There was the time on the Mekong river in Laos, when my boat hit a rock in some rapids and started leaking fast, and I couldn't attend to the hole or steer for the riverbank because it was all I could do to navigate the rapids, and I thought I might sink before I got through.

And then there are the times like tonight. Yes that's right, this very night. When a howling blizzard stranded me in a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere in Nevada, and I checked in to the Clown Motel.

You thought I was joking, didn't you? You want to see what's hanging above my bed?

Wait, didn't I see this in a horror movie once? Stranded by blizzard? Small, isolated town? CLOWN MOTEL??? Oh yeah. What could possibly go wrong.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Is the Kindle a Perfect Traveler's Tool?

As you probably know, the Kindle is Amazon's ebook reader. As you probably also know, earlier this week they announced version 2 of the Kindle.

If I were just sitting around at home, I'm pretty sure I'd never buy a Kindle. As far as I'm concerned, an ebook reader does not replace actual books, for two main reasons. First, I like books as physical objects. I like holding them and paging through them and seeing them on shelves. I like the way they smell. But second, and more importantly, as long as ebooks are laden with DRM, they have to be treated as if they have an expiration date, which means that I'm never going to build a library of ebooks.

But that doesn't mean that an ebook reader can't still be a valuable tool, perhaps well suited for some particular purpose. The purpose I have in mind is "making my backpack lighter." When I'm traveling long term outside of the US, my pack typically weighs 20-22 pounds, with three to four books making up a significant chunk of that weight. I am usually carrying a phrase book for the country I'm in, a guidebook for the country I'm in, a non-guidebook book about the country I'm in (a history, for example), and some random book unrelated to travel. If the four books weigh only eight ounces each (unlikely), that's still two pounds, or roughly 10 percent of the weight that I'm carrying, which makes the 10.2 ounce Kindle awfully tempting.

From a traveler's perspective, the Kindle certainly does a lot of things right. It's small and light. The battery lasts for weeks. It can be recharged over USB while checking your email in an internet cafe, eliminating the need to carry the additional weight of a power brick. And it would make available a vast selection of English language books in places where it is typically difficult to find such things. (Once in rural Laos I was so desperate for something to read that I started rereading "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" because it was the only thing I could find in English.) Could this little wafer of plastic solve all my problems?

Well... no. First, while Amazon offers 230,000 books available for download to the Kindle, they do not carry my guidebooks or phrase books of choice. Second, when a guidebook is paper, you can wake up in Marrakech in the morning, tear the few Marrakech pages out of your Morocco guidebook, stick them in your pocket, and leave your hotel for the day without carrying any bag at all. And phrase books also typically fit in a pocket quite easily. A Kindle on the other hand would require a bag. And third, fer cryin' out loud, I already stand out enough as it is. I try to keep a low profile and look like I fit in. It's impossible in many places, but whipping out an exotic electronic device when I need to check a map or figure out how to say "How much for the monkey?" certainly wouldn't help. All of which means that, at best, the Kindle could only replace half of the books that I carry.

So, is it worth it? I'm leaning towards no. But if I end up in the Atlas Mountains with nothing to read but "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," I swear to you I'll recant my sins and promise eternal fealty to Amazon.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

But what about the "travel?"

You've probably noticed that the descriptive subtitle at the top of this page says something about "travel." So far this blog has just been a bunch of whining about various nerdy photography topics. I mean, um, it's been a series of posts providing insightful and constructive analysis on a variety of captivating photography topics. Are you still lurking around here, hoping that it will turn into a travel blog? Today is your lucky day.

On the waterfront in Eureka, California, three days ago.

On February 1st I started traveling. When I say "travel," what I mean is, "quit my job*, put all my stuff in storage, give up my apartment, and head off for an indefinite period of time with no particular itinerary." I intend to spend the next few months driving around the US, visiting friends, and places in between, and then sell my car and leave the country, probably for Morocco. As I go, I will post periodic travel updates here, as well as the occasional travel "how-to." There are a ton of great books out there about how to undertake long term travel yourself (one of my favorites is "Vagabonding" by Rolf Potts, linked on the right). But to one degree or another they all seem to omit some of the nitty gritty, so I'll try to fill some gaps for anyone who's interested. From time to time I may post a little piece about past travels as well. You know, if I'm scraping for material.

To segue nicely from the "camera nerd" posts to the "travel" posts, this post will be about the camera I have with me. I mean, um, cameras. I just counted, and I have five. Oh, six, if you count my video camera. Um... seven, if you count the camera built into the bezel above the screen on my laptop. Which I don't.

Sigma DP1
Panasonic FX-37
Contaxt U4R
Holga 120-SF
Polaroid Captiva

Seriously, I only have all these cameras because I have the luxury of a car trunk. When I leave the country and am carrying everything on my back, I will have one camera, and it will be the Panasonic FX-37, or whatever comes out between now and then that's better. For a travel camera, I have one criterion on which I cannot compromise, and that's size. It must be truly pocket sized. (Which mostly means thin. Few point and shoots these days are too big in the X/Y dimensions, but the Z dimension is the killer. An inch is really thick when it's a camera you're trying to cram unobtrusively into your pocket.) Anyway, the Panasonic is far from perfect, but for my needs it's the best compromise currently available (which I might write about more later if the mood strikes me).

So, stay tuned for actual travel news, undercut with occasional camera nerdery. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this shot, taken at Flint Ridge in Redwoods National Park, California, yesterday morning (you can click the pictures to view them at a larger size):

*OK, well, I would have quit my job if they hadn't fired me first. Whatever.