Diver Down Again

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 and La Iguana Perdida 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 a victory to be back underwater and to have 2000 psi left in your tank… GoPro Hero 8 Black.

How to Keep a Journal (and be a Better Photographer)

05 May 2021         Wednesday           0911

By Andrew J. Tonn

GUATEMALA CITY (HOME)—Keeping a journal seems to be one of those ideas that the world repeatedly rediscovers.  Lately, I see it mentioned in articles on wellbeing, mindfulness, and productivity, and as a way to deal with the stresses and uncertainties of the pandemic.  These are all well and good and potentially effective but keeping a journal, is still something surrounded by confusion and fear which is unfortunate as it is once of the few activities accesible to almost anyone.

I have been keeping a journal off and on since I was  a freshman in High School and (without stating my exact age) I can say that means I have some years of experience in the process!  I have also lived most of my life professionally involved with the written word, studying English Literature as an undergraduate, Writing for my MA, and working as a newspaper reporter, an independent journalist, and media director for international relief organizations.  My current job requires a high level of organization and more technical, official reports and, obviously, I continue to write on my own as well as for various online publications.  And like everyone else I am trying to navigate the waters of the pandemic and the ongoing process of figuring out my own life.  Along the way I have learned a few things about keeping a journal.

I am not one for including too many disclaimers.  Obviously this is my own opinion, my own process, and you are free to use or discard any part of what you read here.  But I do mention it here for a reason.  A journal is a very personal thing and writing for many people is an activity fraught with uncertainty and misconceptions.  Lots of articles recommend you keep a journal but very few offer any good advice on how to do that.  Here is what I have learned in a life spent with letters.

First, and most practically, you need a journal.  Keep in mind that if money or access to buy a dedicated journal is an issue, all you really need is a pencil and some paper.  I have my preferences, which I will elaborate on, but any cheap spiral-bound notebook and #2 pencil is essentially as functional as anything else.

I have a strong preference for the regular, black, 8 by 5 inch Moleskine (or it’s many imitators) (WalMart sells one by Mead that is probably better made and definitely a bit cheaper).  If you’re not familiar with the Moelskine I will tell you why it is the best.  First of all it is a great, practical size.  I like the smaller Field Notes booklets for lists and notes (and longer writing in a pinch) as they fit in a pocket.  The Moleskine, however, is a good trade off between having enough space to get your pen or pencil moving across the page and fitting neatly in a bag or purse.  I find it slips perfectly into the back pocket of my Domke camera bags and can be held in one hand to take notes.  The Moleskine has a couple other features that makes it, for me, the journal of choice.  It is a standard, first and foremost, that has been made for decades.  Once it is full, it can go nearly on a shelf next to its predecessors.  My earlier journals were randomly bought and a disorganized mishmash of sizes and colors and cover materials.  Second, the physical book has several simple but well-thought-out features: an elastic band to keep it shut, a place-marker ribbon, and, to me the most important feature: a pocket inside the back cover that can be used to store receipts, ticket stubs, and other ephemera acquired during the same period the journal was in use.

Now that you have your journal, the big question is what to write?  The answer, quite simply, is write anything you want to.  The journal is the first draft of your own history.  You can show it to anyone you want to, but it is not intended for anyone else’s eyes.  Back in writing school there was one classmate who loved penning un-ironic imitations of 1950s pulp science fiction.  He was a nice guy and very earnest and he loved those tales of ray guns and tentacled moon monsters that had thrilled a generation growing up on the cusp of the space age.  I have no problem with this nor should anyone else.  Having a peculiar genre of escapist literature that makes you happy is a good thing.  This guy, however, was taking a senior-level creative writing course designed for students wishing to become published writers in a different day and age.  The student objected during his critique that he could write anything he wanted to, letting us and the professor know that this was a free country and these were the things he wanted to author.  The instructor was very clear and gentle with him and used the moment to teach us all a lesson.  He said, “Of course this is a free country and you are welcome to write whatever you want in your journal, in private, for your own enjoyment.  But we are here to learn how to write for publication.  In that world you are writing for a public and for an editor and for publishers so in essence you are free to write whatever you want and I am free to grade and critique it as I want.”  Another mentor of mine, Dennis, the City Editor to my cub reporter once told me, “Listen to your editor, Tonn.  You can disagree with an editor—if you can explain why—but an editor will always make your writing better.”

But we are not talking about writing for publication.  We are talking about the journal you are interested in keeping.  So what do you write in a journal?  As I said: ANYTHING.  Really, anything.  I think this more than anything else is what keeps people from beginning.  There is a blank page of paper in front of you and it belongs to you and no one else.  So use it, fill it, it is your space.  This means it can be the first draft of your great novel.  It can also be a grocery list.  It can be bad poetry (or good, but most is bad).  It can be lists of the places you want to travel to, the things you want to buy, your favorites types of dogs in descending order of preference.  It can be free-form rambling about your hopes and dreams and plans.  It can be eloquent story-telling, one true sentence after another.  It can and probably should be all of these things (you can skip the dog thing if you want).  In other words this is a space for you to write whatever you want without fear that you are doing it right or wrong.  There is no right or wrong in how you keep your own journal.

That pretty much covers the psychological.  Here, however, on the practical side, I am going to give some more concrete advice.  In my experience, creativity is aided by organization and preparedness.  As with photography, I can go out and create freely because my camera bags are in order.  I know I have the lenses and batteries and memory cards and film (and the journal and pens) I need and where they all are and thus can concentrate on making images.  With keeping a journal I do several similar things.  First, as we already discussed, I decided on one type of journal and don’t deviate from that choice other than by some necessity.  Second, I have developed a way of beginning each entry regardless of what that entry might be and this centers my mind as well as provides continuity and reference information.  It is quite simple and I am including a photo of how it looks.  I write the date (in military/European format, ie: 24 April 1872) on the left.  In the middle I write the day of the week, and on the right the time of day (23:46).  Then, before the entry begins, I write what is in essence a newspaper Dateline.  The Dateline is the place from which a story is filed, written in all capitals (GUATEMALA CITY—).  Keep in mind that this information alone is a valid journal entry.  If you don’t have time or inclination for more you can still go back and see that, yes, on April 24 of 1872, at just before midnight, I was in Guatemala City.  I often go a little farther with the “Dateline” as well and add a more precise location if I think it important.  Remember that this is your information so your “Dateline” can read, “AT WORK,” or, “HOME,” or anything else that tells you where you were.

The most important thing (as it is for pretty much everything else in life) is to begin.  If you want to keep a journal then go get a blank book and start writing in it.  The above is only a guideline but it’s good to have guidelines, particularly for unfamiliar activities.  And really that’s all you need: blank paper (most conveniently in book form), a writing utensil, and the will to put the two  together in conjunction with your thoughts.

A Single Photo: A Bucket of Baby Sea Turtles

MONTERRICO–A local Guatemalan NGO prepares to release hundreds of baby sea turtles into the Pacific Ocean. Note, this is a color photo. The baby turtles are all black and grey. Fuji XT-4 with 35mm f/2 Fujinon.

THE LAND OF THE THUNDER DRAGON

By Chris Urban

The Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Chris Urban ©

Travel in the 21stcentury doesn’t often feel much like exploring anymore.   Just when you think you’ve had a real Indiana Jones type of experience hiking a wadi in central Oman, you run headfirst right into a Starbucks.  A few years ago, my wife and I were living in and had explored much of India.  We had just been to Everest Base Camp, had seen a lot of other parts of Asia, and were looking for new adventures.  It was around that time that we heard of Bhutan, “the Land of the Thunder Dragon.”  Everything about it called to us as travelers and explorers.  

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TRAVELS WITH LEICAS (AND THEIR FRIENDS THE NIKONS)


Mental Institution, Transcarpathia, Ukraine. Leica M6ttl, 50mm f/2 Summicron, Kodak 400CN.

By Andrew J. Tonn

MONTERREY–I was 11 or 12 years old and looking for my first camera.  My father told me, “Son, whatever type of camera you chose to be with is just fine with your mother and me just as long as it’s a Nikon.”

I had been perusing the centerfolds of camera magazines, ogling the Nikon bodies and yes, even the fine looking Olympus, Canon, Pentax, and Minoltas.  When my father was once looking to buy a camera, his photographic mentor Gino Rossi told him to buy the one he really wanted, to not compromise. My dad told me the same thing and what I really did want was a Nikon.  The others were pretty but they didn’t feel right for me. There was one caveat. I had read an article about Leicas and when I asked my dad about them he didn’t turn up his nose as he did at other brands. He said something about them being very good but too expensive — and for an 11-year-old about to spend his life savings of just over $100 that was the end of that.  I ended up buying a well-used Nikon FM black body. My dad gave me a 50mm Nikon f/1.8 E Series lens, since my life savings wouldn’t cover any optics, and that camera carried me years into the future — to work at newspapers and on my first international documentary assignments in Central America. Along the way it was joined by a Nikon F3 and a few other lenses, most notably the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8.  Finally, the old FM and the newer F3 were joined by a brand new Leica M6ttl. That my introduction to the M system and this is the story of that journey.

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LOCKED AWAY: THE ROSEVILLE PRISON

(Photo, Jef Price)

 

Recently I was given unprecedented access to the Roseville Prison. The prison is now privately owned and is closed off to the public, photographers, documenters, urban explorers, journalists or anyone else who wants to see this historical and supposedly haunted location up close.

Stories of people being chased away, arrested or shot at are the norm with a location such as this, but in the case of Roseville prison… The stories are true. Continue reading “LOCKED AWAY: THE ROSEVILLE PRISON”

THE PATH TO THE SUMMIT, AN EVEREST ADVENTURE

By Chris Urban

For years, going to Mount Everest was at the top of my bucket list.  I grew up reading my brother’s National Geographic magazines and watching the Discovery Channel, dreaming about exploring the Himalayas, going face to face against mother nature.  Since I didn’t have a spare $100,000 and a death wish, I knew I was going to have to settle for Everest Base Camp rather than the summit. While it’s not the top of The Mountain, going to Everest Base Camp is still no small feat, and required months of preparation.    Continue reading “THE PATH TO THE SUMMIT, AN EVEREST ADVENTURE”

THE WILDS or A JEEP AMONG LAND ROVERS

It may look like deepest Africa with fields stretching over rolling hills and wide open plains that resemble the Serengeti, but it is, in fact, The Wilds of Ohio. The Wilds is a nature preserve filled with African wildlife. Every so often, this wildlife refuge was home to an off-road event exclusive to those who owned a Land Rover. We brought a Jeep.

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JEEP JAMBOREE AT BADLANDS OFFROAD PARK 2018 UPDATE: DAY 2 ((Published 2018/06/02)

Day 2 at the Indy Jeep Jamboree! I love driving my Jeep, and I had a fantastic time day 1 at the Jamboree. But this being my first Jamboree it was difficult jumping in and out of my own rig all day while trying to capture photos of the event and really get a feel for the Jamboree. So here on day 2, I rode along with one of my fellow Jeepers (Thanks Eric!) so I could focus on capturing the event. Today we visited The Badlands rock quarry and ventured further into the woods through creek beds and rock gardens…  Continue reading “JEEP JAMBOREE AT BADLANDS OFFROAD PARK 2018 UPDATE: DAY 2 ((Published 2018/06/02)”

JEEP JAMBOREE AT BADLANDS OFFROAD PARK 2018 UPDATE: DAY 1 (Published 2018/06/01)

It’s been a great first day and I’m about to collapse into a coma for the next 6 hours, so forgive me for being brief! Continue reading “JEEP JAMBOREE AT BADLANDS OFFROAD PARK 2018 UPDATE: DAY 1 (Published 2018/06/01)”