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.
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. 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 black 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.
ZACATECAS–I was walking down the street in Zacatecas, Mexico and heard barking above me. This lineman was working on a tangle of wires and two dogs were on the roof next to him, letting him know he wasn’t welcome. It is a dangerous job, working high above the ground, with high-voltage lines and the complex problems of phone, and electric, and who-knows-what kind of wires all tangled together. Maybe there is even danger from angry birds… But usually, up there, a lineman doesn’t have to worry about dogs, leaving that to his brothers delivering the mail. Leica M9 Monochrome, 50mm f/2 Summicron.
GUATEMALA CITY — Is the dive watch still valid as a tool for scuba divers? The short answer is yes. It absolutely is. Before I begin to tell you why it is and why if you are a scuba diver you should probably wear one, first let me explain what a dive watch is. There are many “dive style” watches that look the part but are not. To really be considered a dive watch there is a series of standards (ISO 6425) a timepiece must meet including 100 meters of water resistance, a timing device (such as a unidirectional bezel) protected against inadvertent rotation, a certain quality of illuminated markers in dark conditions, etc. Before the advent of dive computers, a watch that could survive the water pressure, track the elapsed time of a dive and/or a decompression stop, and be read in low light, was an absolutely essential survival tool. It, combined with decompression tables, some good old-fashioned math skills, a submersible pressure gauge and an analog depth gauge (which tracks both current and maximum depth) served the same purpose as a modern dive computer. I find it somewhat ironic that most diving kits include an analog console with submersible pressure gauge and depth gauge but exclude an analog timing device. Now before anyone gets in a techno-huff, I absolutely believe in using a dive computer and I own two of them, the professional Shearwater Perdix with wireless Air Integration and the more recreationally oriented and smaller Atmos Mission One (so no scuba luddite am I). However, I also wear a dive watch while diving (and usually out of the water) and I think new students should be trained to use dive tables and analog gauges as well as computers.
In general, I think the Open Water course is too short and has grown ever lighter on some all-important theory and technical aspects (the boring stuff) (also the stuff that keeps you safe, alive, and uninjured). I think it is very difficult to really understand what a computer is actually doing and telling you without learning the process the older way. This is true for many things, such as the exposure triangle in photography and starting a fire in the wild. The U.S. military has had problems when land navigation (map and compass skills) are no longer taught because everyone has high-tech GPS abilities. GPS is incredible until batteries die, a system is hacked or goes down, electronics fail in austere environments or, well, it’s just wrong. Then it is a very good thing to know how to use a paper map and a good old-fashioned battery-free compass (and also a watch unattached to any system other than your wrist).
I freely admit that while not being a luddite, I am a traditionalist. I love watches, in particular dive watches, and I think they have a Romance about them that echoes the early days of scuba diving, the adventures of Jacques Cousteau, frogman commandoes, and Mr. Bond himself. I think this is why they are perhaps the single most popular style of watch, even though relatively very few are owned by actual divers and even fewer are ever taken underwater. You may never become a certified diver, you may never wear your dive watch under the waves, but just the presence of it on your wrist gives you hope through long days at the office where there are never any undersea knife fights or octopus attacks, and you never seem to catch a glimpse of Ursula Andress emerging from the Caribbean in a white bikini. So, I will also freely admit that one reason I wear a dive watch is that seeing it underwater, strapped over a wetsuit opposite my fully modern computer, gives me a lot of joy. It makes me happy knowing that my watch, of all its brothers and sisters out there, got lucky enough to be used as designed. But I digress…
First and foremost, the dive watch is useful as a backup. If you set the timing bezel before entering the water it provides a reliable, ever-present count, of how long you have been submerged. You look at the watch, a device that both shows you the time and reminds you of its passage, and you can tell at an instant how many minutes you have been underwater. A dive computer gives you all sorts of valuable information, most certainly including elapsed time, but a watch basically just does that one, all-important thing. And to me anyway, its very presence reminds me to be aware of time (and then depth, and then air-pressure)… to remember my status as a visitor in the underwater realm and the fragility of my existence there.
I also found it very useful during my recent Rescue Diver course where I had to run a search pattern based on time and depth. We were looking for a “lost diver” or in this case we were actually looking for a real lost object (a weight pouch someone had dropped a few weeks earlier). One of the Instructors knew roughly where it had been dropped: somewhere on a fairly steep, muddy slope rising from the depths up to the rocky shore. So, I began the search at a certain depth, and we followed that depth (using the computer reading) for three minutes. Then we would ascend about 10 feet and swim the opposite direction for three minutes. I found, in this case, that tracking time using my watch’s second hand was easier than using the computer. So, I concentrated on the depth readout number on one wrist and the time passing on the other and… we found the missing weight pouch.
So, is a dive watch the mandatory piece of kit as it used to be? Well, no, it is not. I do believe, however, that it functions as both a useful backup and a practical tool, in its own right. Used correctly, it can make you a better, safer diver and let’s face it, it looks a lot cooler than wearing a computer on your wrist, especially while telling tall tales after the diving is over. Best to leave the computer to fully dry off and charge for the next day’s diving. You can leave it to your watch to tell you when it is time to go to bed as you regale the palm-thatched bar with stories of mutant sharks, near-escapes from giant squids, and the increasingly uncommon underwater knife duels with agents of shadowy international criminal organizations.
This amazing and affordable little focus-free lens turns any digital camera into a gloriously trouble free point and shoot like those of days gone by.
GUATEMALA CITY — It’s a little-known fact that when Cindy Lauper sang her iconic 1983 hit, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” she was lamenting how her second career as a photojournalist, a career that had led her to cover the Iran Hostage Crisis and the early stages of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, left her little time to simply enjoy the pursuit of photography and her love of music.
So, yeah, I just made that up completely out of Wednesday-morning boredom but hey, you read it on the Internet so it must be true. But I was, quite honestly, thinking about having fun, about the lack of it, about how our deep and serious pursuits (and what seems like an increasing inability to simply have fun) has led the world to some pretty dark places. I think the general public’s reflexive, addictive need to document everything, every meal, every meeting, every little moment where we used to have space to disconnect, is a large part of that. And somehow we still end up with no actual pictures. Instead of having a few snapshots acting as touchstones for memory and nostalgia, we have what amounts to stop-motion movies of our entire lives, movies that are increasingly complete as people take more photos and videos, start using dashcams, bodycams, and action cams that record automatically, film every mundane moment with a cam on a selfie stick, reflecting their own images back to themselves in an endless feedback loop that leaves less and less time to actually live life. It’s a terrible thing, a strange and brutal way to live where nothing is experienced for what it is and simultaneously, we have created a record whereby nothing can be forgotten.
So that’s why I am going to convince you to buy another lens!
You see, this lens is different… This lens is fun!
This is the 7 Artisans 18mm f/6.3 UFO lens and if just saying that isn’t fun enough, you can buy it for about $62.00. It looks sort of like a flying saucer. It weighs only a few ounces, it’s the size of a lens cap, it has no moving parts or electronics, is all metal and glass, and it actually works.
It works, mind you, within its particular parameters and in my opinion, does very well at that. I have one mounted on a Fuji X-Pro 1 and I would like to get one for my first ever mirrorless camera, the Panasonic GF1. And what this lens does best, I think, is turn a loved, senior digital camera into a glorious, worry (and focus) free point and shoot like we sometimes had back in the 80s and 90s (when we remembered to bring one). You can put this on a small, mirrorless camera, slip it in a jacket or a bag, and pull it out every now and then to take sunlit pics on beaches and group photos in front of monuments or canyons and maybe a friend holding the Eiffel tower: pictures I am more thankful to have than any of the images I have published in newspapers or magazines or shown in galleries. I do think the lens could well be used for certain styles of street photography, for documenting processions and parades and other public events, and perhaps for certain styles of art photography making use of the particular lens signature. It certainly doesn’t take up much room or weight in your bag. But I don’t think this is really what this lens is best suited for. I think it’s best suited to just use on its own, to mount it to a dedicated, loved camera that has been languishing on a shelf, and to take it along just as it is, with no other lenses, no other cameras, and to, every now and then, remember (or not) and to take a picture (and print a picture) as a keepsake, as a memory of family and friends, because we have far too little fun in this world. In short, this lens is something that lets you take intentional photos while at the same time relieving you of the responsibility and angst of fiddling with your settings. Turn on camera, point, shoot, return to your life. Look at the pictures later.
The 7 Artisans 18mm f/6.3 UFO lens is focus free. The manufacturer says it has a minimum distance of 0.35 meters, but I think it’s more like two meters. You might have to remember to set your camera (I had to do this on both the X-Pro 1 and the XT-4) to “Shoot Without Lens,” in the menu. On an APS-C sensor the focal length is approximately 27mm. This is fine though to really have that classic point and shoot vibe I’d like to see a 40mm equivalent focal length. You aren’t going to be taking any macro or tightly framed portraits with this one. Subjects in the fore=ground might well be out-of-focus. Who cares? It vignettes a bit. It is, particularly in the center, quite sharp enough, but with that particular glow that only a fixed-focus lens can achieve, a look that is drenched in sun and fun and the nostalgia of events best left mainly in memory and maybe one or three snapshots shared with friends that will fade a little over time, like the memories of that day, and like all the people who were there.
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 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.
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.
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.