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.
05 May 2021 Wednesday 0911
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.
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.
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 dog. Remember 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.
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.Continue reading “The Voigtlander 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar”
ANTIGUA–The traditional clothing of the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala is timeless but the masks tell the year. Antigua, Sacatepequez, Guatemala. Fuji X-Pro 1, 35mm f/2 Fujinon.
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.Continue reading “Guanajuato, Guanajuato”