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.

Out of the Mountains and Down to the Sea

MONTERRICO, GUATEMALA–Looking out to the Pacific. The coast of Guatemala feels like an entirely different world than the highlands. Fuji X-Pro1, 7 Artisans 18mm f/6.3
UFO lens

By Andrew J. Tonn

MONTERRICO — The road straightens out after the turns and twists of the highlands and it feels like you are sliding towards the coast down a palm-lined slide.  The change comes on suddenly.  You have fought the traffic to get free of Guatemala City and corkscrewed down the mountain.  You are in one environment and then you are in another.  Mountain trees give way to the vegetation of Central America’s low, hot plains.  When you roll down the windows the cool, thin air is now thick with heat and water and the smells of the coast.  Slow-water mangrove swamps, fish, sweat, palms, corn, coconut, salt, oil, smoke, and the sea.  Your hands relax on the wheel and your foot comes off the gas and the sun is a different kind of bright.

There is an enervating quality to the Guatemalan highlands.  They exist in a state of semi-dreaming, a relatively vast region of transition.  There are places where the vale between worlds seems thinner, where you feel the hand of the Creator and that you might step through to somewhere else if not careful.  I have felt this in Varanasi, in parts of the Navajo Nation, in Oaxaca, and once in a strange thicket of woods in central Ohio.  But the whole of the Guatemalan Highlands has this feel of being not entirely of the physical realm, a place of smoking volcanoes, water, and clouds between two vast continent, hot and fertile, cold and rocky, crushed into a narrow isthmian land by the fist of God Almighty.

You often don’t realize you have been living in this waking dream until you leave.  The sun in Antigua is hot and bright and will burn you like Icarus, so you stay to cool shadows.  Purple flowers fall from trees like rain.  The mountain nights grow cold and sometimes you see red lava glowing on black volcanoes.  The longer you spend at Lake Atitlan, the harder it is to escape.  You are deep in the crater of an ancient volcano, with the water filling it deeper still.  Every moment the clouds change, the surface of the lake changes, the wind brings a different feeling and after long, the act of packing up and finding transport and lifting oneself out of the caldera seems just a little too hard.  It is one of my favorite places but I determined long ago I would never be fully seduced by it.  It is not my native home nor do I desire to make it so.  It is my favorite place but I always feel an almost breathless relief upon leaving it, feel the spell of suddenly broken and it is later hard to remember exactly how it felt and what kept you in thrall.

So it is leaving the mountains for the coast.  When you see the palm trees and smell the sweet bitter salt of the ocean, you are free of the mountain’s glamour.  Under the mountain’s spell you seem relaxed but you are under an unrealized tension, existing in a liminal space where maybe we are not made to spend to long, at least not without surrender.  Maybe if you eat the lotus the tension will leave and you can stay on and on, forgetting year by year what came before until you too disappear into the mist.

PCS Again: Permanent Change of Station II

NUEVO LAREDO–Waiting in line to cross the border, a man walks up and down the lines of cars trying to sell a crucifix to travelers. Fuji X100f.

Guatemala City–It is the hour before dawn on the last day we will spend in Monterrey, the madrugada of our despedida.  I can smell the desert night that was and the desert day that will be, a day months in coming, postponed, canceled, rescheduled.  It is the end of September and summer still fills the darkness with a memory of stunning light and heat.  It is the end of September and we have yet to leave Mexico.  It is the end of September and we were supposed to be in Guatemala at the beginning of August but the pandemic has put the whole world in a waiting pattern and we can hardly complain.

There is a long drive ahead of us and the first order of the new day is to walk the dog and stretch my own legs.  Burton pulls at his leash and we cross the modernist bridge that arches over Avenida Vasconcelos leading to the Calzado.  I have walked those oak lined trails hundreds of times over the last two and a half years.  Now they are closed.   Burton does what he is supposed to do and then turns around, eager to go home.  The purebred Springer Spaniel joined our family here when he was eight weeks old.  Now he is full grown, 60 pounds.  He is almost embarrassingly handsome with the step and manner of his lineage, but even as a tiny puppy small flaws were evident that ended any career as a show dog.  We like to think that gave him a better deal than his perfect litter mates.  He is our Mexican Springer Spaniel named for an English explorer and he knows things are changing.  For the last week he has been sitting on our feet or placing his body between us and the door, clearly nervous, clearly saying, Do not forget the dogRemember to pack the dog. I am part of your pack.  We have no intention of forgetting the dog and do our best to put him at ease.

I stop at the top of the bridge, looking down the wide avenue that has been an unremarkable, everyday part of my life.  It is the street that leads to my favorite supermarket, my martial arts classes, to church, to a friend’s house.  I can remember the first time I crossed this bridge when I didn’t know where it led.  I look down into the tree shaded park where every Saturday I explored a small flea market and talked with the merchants.  Monterrey has been good to us.  I think of leaving Mumbai three years earlier in a driving rain, so sick and exhausted that I barely cared if the plane crashed so long as it would end our time in India.

The sky begins to lighten and the day will break hot and cloudless and bright.  I will miss Monterrey but it is time to leave.  Our house is empty, the walls stained by two young boys, cookouts with friends, a dog growing from a puppy.  There are holes in them where things used to hang and the space echoes with nothing to muffle sound.  Our black Honda CRV is full, bags and belongings fitted into an intricate puzzle leaving just enough space for humans, canine, and some visibility.  It is still far less than we could have taken with us on a plane.

Back home, my wife is drinking coffee and the boys are in the shower.   There are all of those last minute things and I long ago realized that any road trip departure time is aspirational.  But then we are ready.  I lock the doors for the last time, never to return to this light-filled house.  Our neighbors come into the street to see us off and I hand them the keys then drive the familiar route to work to drop off our ID cards.

It is 1000, two hours later than I wanted to leave, but still well within the safe travel hours.  Our high speed dash will follow a well-paved toll road through the desert almost due north to the border.  This is some of the most dangerous and contested land in North America.  The border city of Nuevo Laredo is a war zone and the non-toll road a few miles to the west, is the regular site of pitched battles between armored columns of cartel gunmen and Mexican military and police.  Statistically there is fairly low risk driving the toll road during daylight but nothing ever is guaranteed.  Every time you step out the door you don’t know when or if you’re going to return.

I always have a set of trips I want to do formulating in my head and journals.  There is this ideal, false in my opinion, that the best trips are unplanned, spontaneous bop prosody behind the wheel, free of care or destination.  I have had incredible trips that sprang, full-formed like an unplanned beatnik Athena from the head of Zeus, but lack of planning usually means a trip will never happen.  Go back and read On the Road.  Kerouac was a planner.

In my journals I have endless notes for trips, complete with itineraries, research, reading lists, expenses, gear, contacts.  I don’t know if these trips will ever happen but that doesn’t stop the planning for them.  The thing is, trips that never happen have a life of their own anyway, complete with memories, gear, and expenses.  Trips that never happen leave us different than we were before.  If you plan to go somewhere and read about its history, religion, geography, research and allocate funds to buy appropriate equipment, begin making time for that in place of something else, then you are different.  That place has changed you even if you never get on a plane.

The pandemic stymied a trip to Tibet as well as a job in Kenya but it somehow made this drive from Mexico to Ohio possible.  When we arrived in Monterrey we were not allowed to drive this stretch of highway.  When the rules changed, we talked about making a trip to Laredo but it never seemed worth the time and risk.  We talked often about how fun it would be to drive home, but it seemed that time and security and other practical concerns would make those plans untenable.  Then the pandemic made travel by air both impractical and unsafe and for those and other reasons we would be leaving by car.  Of course our fantasy of an extended ramble home, stopping here and there and enjoying the great American road trip, would be changed to taking the most direct route, eating drive through food, wiping down fuel pumps, and dreading each gas station bathroom even more than usual.

Plan the details and leave room for chance and improvisation.  I knew what song I wanted the trip to begin with and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Suzie Q, vibrated through the car as the highway headed out of Monterrey.  Just as the road began to open up I pulled over and rearranged things for a better view and then we were off again, merging and dodging semi-trucks carrying all manner of goods, licit and otherwise, north to the U.S. Ports of Entry.  Finally the extraneous traffic peeled away, the highway opened up and so did I, changing the stereo to Dwight Yoakum and accelerating to 90.  There was no reason to linger on that road even if most of the drama takes place just off it.

There is one gas station about halfway through three hour drive but the tank was full.  I wanted to be at the border as soon as possible, and no one needs to see a lone family traveling through the desert, no matter the early hour.   The desert passed in that weird state on an unfamiliar road where time seems to lengthen.  One hour seems like three, two like five.  My wife changed the stereo to Loretta Lynn and suddenly the signs for Nuevo Laredo appeared and then we are there, in line, stopped, a thousand feet from what’s left of the Rio Grande, from our perspective the Rio Bravo del Norte.  Laredo and the United State are just over there, just out of reach.  We wait, inching forward.  People thread their way through the idling cars selling drinks, sunshades, tempting our restless kids with cheap toys.  A man walks by carrying a crucifix half his size.  He is bent under its weight, sweating in the hot sun, looking for someone buy the cross.  Finally, we are almost at the bridge but we have to return a special import tag for our car.  In normal times there is an office, clearly labeled, right on the bridge but it is closed; these are not normal times.  We have to return that tag and get vague directions back into Nuevo Laredo to some office under some bridge but it isn’t as if we can just make a u-turn.  We begin having waking nightmares that we’ll have to cross into the U.S. then recross into one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.  Halfway across the International Bridge we explain the situation to U.S. Border Patrol Agents and they move some cones and get us turned around, heading back the way we really don’t want to go.  I ask the man if he knows where the office is.

“Hell no, sir,” he replies, “I never go over there.”

But it turns out that the directions weren’t so vague or, anyway luck is with us, and we not find the bridge and the office under it.  A Mexican Customs Agent takes the tag, puts it into the proper bureaucratic context, and wishes us safe travels.  The whole process takes five minutes, only when we get back in line, we are more than a mile farther back than we were at the beginning.  The man is still carrying his cross up and down the exhaust choked Calvary, looking for a buyer.  We are at the border more than five hours before getting to the last checkpoint.  The Border Patrol Agent looks over our passports and asks a few perfunctory questions.  She casts a bored eye across its passengers and we are released back into the wilds of our own country or, anyway, the part called Texas.

Perhaps it is my own BS, my internal stand up philosopher coming up with theories to give some meaning to it all, but I feel this peripatetic yet structured life causes us to perceive time differently.  My simplified version is that Western philosophy and science tend to view time and history as a linear progression.  There is a beginning and an end and along the way some things happen.  The Eastern view is that time is cyclical, that the end is a beginning is an end and that we all take many turns through the cycle of life.  Or something like that.  My guru was out to lunch when I got to the top of the last mountain.  But I tend to see time in the Foreign Service as more of a circular affair and life back “home” as more linear.  The process of our lives makes me aware of each change, each season.  The logistics of assignments and training, deployment and leave all repeat themselves over and over with minor variations, nailed as we are to the great wheel of governmental dharma.

This is an oversimplification, as are most things, but our lives go something like this: there is a list of possible assignments.  You research them, talk about them with your family, fantasize about them, and game the good and the bad of each one in relation to the others.  You officially list them in order of preference and you wait and wonder and worry if you made the best choices.  Then, at a certain point, the esoteric signals of the invisible Mandarins indicate that you have been assigned to one of those places but not to which one.  Something like, Your requests have been looked upon with favor, mortal.  You need not revise your list again.  This, perhaps, is my favorite moment though it lasts no more than a few days.  Think about this.  You have ranked ten places, all with some promise, and after all the anxiety, you know you will be going to one of them.  But not which one.  Imagine you know you will be moving next year but you don’t know if you will be moving to Ecuador, Armenia, Guatemala, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Japan, Nepal, Zambia, Sweden, or Brazil.  You are in this delicious and frightening state of suspended animation, stuck like a sprinter in the blocks, waiting for the gun.  Then they tell you and your soul moves on a little bit, but unlike that sprinter, this is a very slow, very long race.  (In our case we found out we were going to Guatemala, a country I was already familiar with).

But say this is you and your family, not ours.  You are required to take Home Leave in the U.S. after every foreign assignment but, having been in Mexico, you aren’t going to need language training.  So, in essence, you’ll leave one country, go on vacation, and a few weeks later be living in a new country but that’s still at least a year away.  There are all the preparations and paperwork, requests for training and orders to be cut (this is the government after all and you officially have to belong somewhere).  Eventually the day comes and your Permanent Change of Station begins.  You are cut loose, released out from one Post and in transit until your next Post takes possession.  Everything goes into reverse.  The men come and pack your things and nail them into crates. They disappear just like they arrived a few years before.  You wonder about what trucks and ships they will go on and if you will ever see your Household Effects (HHE) again, but it’s really a small worry.  There is nothing you can do about it, and after packing out over and over you come to half hope everything falls into the sea so you can truly embrace your nomadic existence.  Then the day comes and you return to the airport from whence you came, musing on the memories of your first drive into town, wondering if you will ever pass this way again and, perhaps, not much caring.  This part of the circle comes to a close.  There is too much else to do.  There is a new life in a new country to figure out.  In between a visit home where everything has been progressing in a fine, linear way with little to mark time’s passage other than the usual events of the calendar, holidays and birthdays punctuated by births and funerals, and the march of the seasons from cold to hot and back again.  Days turn to nights and nights back to days and it seems, back home, like there is enough time.

You visit friends and they are older and grayer and of course so are you.  It is always fun but there is always an underlying recognition that you left them and in that leaving you are a reminder of the places they have not been.  The passage of time intrudes on the matrix.  You are the specter of age and decay and of missed opportunities in new lines around the eyes, the grey hair that wasn’t there before.  It is always good to be home.  You walk familiar streets and don’t worry about violent demonstrations or malaria or anything else.  It is always good to be home.  You eat and drink with little fear of it making you sick and for a moment you are are returned star telling tales of foreign lands and you think, maybe this wandering life is overrated.  But Home Leave is just long enough for the bloom to come off.  Your friends have other lives now.  You left them after all, and in turn you remember why you left.  And soon enough it is time to go.  You want to smell that clean dirty smell of jet fuel.  More than anything you want to get through the other end with all your people, animals, and baggage intact and open a new door with new keys.

So we crossed into Texas.  This time our circle didn’t take us back to the airport like it had in Mumbai but off on a wild tangent through our home country suffering from a worldwide plague and up against a presidential election.  I know how big Texas is; I have driven through it many times in different directions, yet it still manages to surprise me.  The chaparral desert of low thorny trees and rolling hills goes north from Monterrey and onward into Texas for hundred mile after hundred mile.  The ground I walk the spaniel on is riven with deep cracks and around Dallas the temperature pushes past 110 degrees.  This is no leisurely American road trip with all the perks of that journey.  We don’t go into quaint diners.  The pools at our motels are closed.  There are no roadside attractions.  We eat fast food or grim, gas-station feasts of Doritos and Gatorade.  The land doesn’t really change until we cross into Arkansas but then, suddenly, it does and the deserts are traded for trees and farms and the smell of grass.  We stop in Little Rock and eat submarine sandwiches on motel beds.  It rains during the night.  We are a long way from Ohio, even farther from Guatemala, but Mexico is behind us.
 
 
TEXAS–There is little joy in this pandemic journey other than to finally be moving. Fuji X100f.

The Voigtlander 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar

By Andrew J. Tonn

MONTERREY–The procession before the fight: Plaza Monumental de Toros, Monterrey,
Nuevo Leon, Mexico. 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar on Leica M9 Monochrome.

MONTERREY–I am a big fan of older wide-angle Voigtlander lenses on the Leica M9 Monochrome.  There is something in the combination of that sensor and those optics that, to my eye, create a particular visual magic.  It is well known that these older wide lenses have color-shifts on digital Leicas with color sensors (and I am not overly fond of the results from these lenses on my M-P 240 even when converted to black and white).  Images converted from the CCD sensor of a standard M9 might well be better but I don’t much care for them from the CMOS sensor of the M-P 240.  When, however, I discovered how incredible images looked from the combination of the M9 Monochrome and the 15mm f/4.5 Super-Wide Heliar, I began looking for a wide, but not so wide as 15mm, lens.  It was then that I discovered the 25mm Snapshot Skopar.  I was initially looking for a 21mm, open to a 28mm, and the more I read about the unique nature of this no-longer-produced 25mm optic, the more I decided it was the one I was looking for.  I found a good deal on a like-new silver one complete with hood and viewfinder, had it shipped to India, and before I ever took a photo my monochrome went down with the notorious sensor issue common to that camera.  Fast forward a year or two returning to the USA, a long repair on the Monochrome, another move, and I am finally getting to spend some time with this tiny little gem of a lens.

GUANAJUATO–Street scene, Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar on Leica M9 Monochrome.

As far as I know, this lens is unique.  It is no longer produced but I would love to see a new edition of it put into production.  The Snapshot Skopar is a 25mm, f/4 lens made by Cosina Voigtlander.  It is tiny and weighs next to nothing.  The lens is not rangefinder coupled and framing is done through a hot shoe mounted accessory viewfinder.  What makes it unique and gives it its unique name is the focusing mechanism.  Unlike a regular uncoupled, scale-focus lens, the Snapshot Skopar has a small lever on the focus ring and specific-distance click stops.  The 25mm wide-angle focal length combined with a small aperture makes this lens specifically designed to be used in hyper focal mode.  The lens is marked in feet and meters but the click stops are at .7 meters, 1 meter, 1.5 meters, 3 meters, and infinity.  The lens can be set in between the click stops as well.  There is no hyper focal scale but, because of the mechanical operation of the lens, it isn’t needed.  You estimate the distance and click it to whatever is closest.  Given the f/4 aperture, this isn’t a low light lens.  It is designed, with intention, to be used for street photography.  With a lens like this mounted on a rangefinder, you can have the fastest and most responsive of all cameras for working the streets.  With focus already set and the camera in Aperture Priority, literally all one does is point and shoot, frame and shoot: a snap and a shot.  Snapshot.

GUANAJUATO–A small park with a statue of Mexican painter Diego Rivera, just around the corner from the house where he was born, Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar on Leica M9 Monochrome.

The lens is built of metal in Japan but does feel slightly delicate (although I have had no problems with it and have taken it on a few trips).  It is, perhaps, a special lens that needs a little special handling.  I like it so much I want to buy another one in black.  I personally love the way these wide lenses render on the Leica monochrome.  I think it would also be a perfect lens to take out on a screwmount rangefinder such as a Leica IIIf.  I think the images are very clean, very lifelike, and with a unique, subtle, and distinct character.  They are very sharp and I would love to try a Voigtlander 21mm, a 28mm, and someday the original 12mm.  I am not, all in all, terribly fond of the rendering of modern Voigtlander 50mm lenses and I was never quite happy with the 35mm f/2.5 Color Skopar I had (although, in truth, I love many of the images I took with it, loved its tiny size, its lovely color signature, miss using it, and think perhaps really my only problem with it is that it wasn’t the lens I really wanted to begin with.)

GUANAJUATO–Looking over a mariachi band playing to an audience in the square, shot through the wrought iron fence of the central gazebo. Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar on Leica M9 Monochrome.

The 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar takes some practice and I need to work with it more to put into memory the distances for quicker use on the street.  That being said, I only failed at a few shots due to missing focus.  It is a very forgiving lens and one I look forward to using much more.  Due to its size and weight there is little reason not to have it in my camera bag as part of the Monochrome’s permanent infrastructure.

GUATEMALA CITY–The 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar and auxiliary, hot-shoe mounted viewfinder on the Leica M9 Monochrome. The Voigtlander wide angle lenses seem to particularly shine on the CCD sensor of the original Monochrome. Note the focusing lever on the side of the lens.

Guanajuato, Guanajuato

By Andrew J. Tonn

GUANAJUATO — The shutters are thrown open to the sounds of the rain and the city.  Thunder rolls over the hills and valleys of Guanajuato.  Outside, the steep streets and narrow callejons have become rivers and waterfalls.  Every day for the last three the rains have begun in the afternoon and lasted through until morning.  It feels good and all too rare to leave the doors open during the night.  My bed, with its brightly colored Mexican blanket, is next to one of the small balconies and I lie awake and then sleep to the sound of falling rain and the cool, wet, unfiltered air.  Across the valley, the multicolored houses are obscured by a veil of rain and in the tiny park below my balcony, under the cover of trees, a statue of Diego Rivera holds a palette with an amused look on his bronze face, seeing, I imagine, a beautiful woman in a state of dishabille.  The house where the famous painter was born is just around the corner, a few doors away.

MEXICO– Afternoon in the square. Fuji X-100f

Two of my friends, Jake and Chris, both great travelers, had told me at different times of Guanajuato and how highly it ranked among the many cities’ they had visited in their peregrinations.  Jake had told me of the tunnels under the city by which you arrive.  I had this thought in my head during the 30-mile taxi ride from the Del Bajío Airport in Leon to Guanajuato.  As we approached the city we went through a short tunnel and I thought, well, that was nice, Jake, but not so very impressive really…  And a few minutes later we entered a labyrinth of underground streets, hewn from rock, complete with intersections and signs and I mentally apologized to my friend for briefly doubting his story.  We emerged from Guanajuato’s inframundo into the city center and were soon at our hotel.

Guanajuato is built on tunnels both literally and figuratively.  The tunnel system that now provides transport underneath the city’s steep, narrow streets, were originally flood tunnels that channeled away the river and kept the rains diverted from washing away the town.  But Guanajuato is built on mining.  It is an old city and important in the history of Mexico and Spain.  The area is incredibly rich in minerals and even before the Spaniards arrived, the Aztecs were taking gold from the ground.  The Spanish colonialists began mining the region in the 1540s and the city was formally established in 1548.   At one time it is estimated that 2/3 of the world’s silver supply came from the nearby La Valenciana mine alone.

MEXICO–Panorama of the colored houses on Guanajuato’s hills. Fuji X-100f

As we entered the old city proper my wife said that it reminded her very much of Tallinn, Estonia.  My thought was Budapest, Hungary and those first impressions lingered over the course of the coming week.  It was certainly seen in the old European feel of many of the buildings and in the beautiful, tree-shaded public squares surrounded by cafés and restaurants.  The old city was, after all, built by Spaniards and during the Porfiriato, the 34-year period between 1876 and 1911 during the Presidency of Porfirio Diaz, European (specifically Parisian) architecture was the order of the day.  France has had a long history with Mexico and during the Diaz administration French culture and architecture became inextricably entwined with Mexico.  There are neighborhoods in Mexico City that feel almost identical to areas of Paris and that fashion extended across the country.  But I believe it was not just the fin de siècle buildings that reminded us of cities like Tallinn and Budapest.  There is no question that Guanajuato is a Mexican city, an old, proud place with history and traditions vital to the narrative of the Mexican Republic.

MEXICO–Heavy rains flood the streets and gutters. iPhone 8s

The city of Guanajuato is also the capital of the Free and Sovereign State of Guanajuato (Estado Libre y Soberano de Guanajuato).  In this region are numerous other sites of great importance to the history of Mexico.   The region has attracted large numbers of both tourists and retirees, drawn by the good climate and gracious pace of life.  Perhaps most famous of the cities that have attracted these snow-fleeing gringos in their golden years is San Miguel de Allende.  San Miguel de Allende is about 60 miles from Guanajuato and we hired a car to take us there for the afternoon.  I know San Miguel has many fans and it is, without a doubt, a lovely small city with its central park and cathedral perched atop a hill.  But, from the first moment there, I felt that the psychological balance of the city had shifted to the arrivistes.  The cafés were full of loud, ill-mannered Europeans, aging Americans, and their little dogs too.  The locals serving them did so in the perfunctory and not-quite-friendly manner of people whose lives had been taken over by outsiders.  San Miguel is a lovely town but has become that type of place where neo-colonial outsiders dictate the pace and the locals find themselves under occupation by leathery retirees and wealthy young hippies lacking the courage to seek dissipation in more hazardous locations.  It is the type of place where the sun is bright and hot during the day, the nights are cool, and no one judges your drinking habits too harshly.  I will not be disappointed if I never return.

MEXICO–Cars travel through the tunnels beneath the city of Guanajuato. The old mining and drainage system is now part of the city road system. Leica M9 Monochrome, 50mm F/2 Summicron.

Guanajuato has many visitors but is still firmly in the possession of the people who grew up there.  The city still has its secrets and the citizens are friendly and gracious because you are on their ground and they need not feel like visitors in their own town.  I think it was this, more than anything, that reminded us of those two European cities, Tallinn and Budapest.  I remember once, in Budapest, I walked into a café-lined square.  It was a beautiful, late-summer day, and in the square was an art nouveau bar made of hand-hammered copper.  People were standing around the bar drinking cocktails and laughing and I do not think one of them was a tourist.  They were doing so because it was a lovely day and the Hungarians deeply love their city, their language and food and culture.  The center of Tallinn is one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities.  It is so well kept that it appears almost like a set, but it is not.  In both Budapest and Tallinn, like Guanajuato, there are plenty of tourists but the locals love their grand old cities and enjoy their parks and squares and traditions and feel still that their cities belong to them.  Guanajuato still has and keeps its secrets.

There are many specific places to see in Guanajuato, among them the famous Mummy Museum, the Bocamina and other mines, the Diego Rivera Museum and Home, the Alley of the Kiss, and Mercado Hidalgo, but the main attraction is really to explore the old streets, to sit in the cafés and listen to music performed in the parks, to see Mexico at its most lovely and gracious.  There are many places in the world to visit, too many I wish to see.  But there are places I want very much to return to.  I feel sad at the thought of never again seeing Paris, or Tallinn, or Budapest and now, Guanajuato.

MEXICO–Colors of late afternoon. Fuji X-100f