SAN SALVADOR – Sometimes it is hard to get a sense of terrain and space while driving. You know you are on a road, in the desert, or mountains, or a forest. You know you are going somewhere, but the overall picture is indistinct, at least until later when you look at the map, your photos, your memories, and piece the whole thing together.
This is not the case for the road between San Salvador and Guatemala City. I had never driven the route in my own car but had taken it several times in a bus, from one city to the other and back again. Leaving Guatemala City you travel up and over the mountains through a misty zone of pines and hardwood, crossing the rim of mountains separating the two Central American countries. When you crest the mountains, you drop down to a hot plain that calls to mind parts of Texas and Mexico, distinct from the cool Mayan highlands. The highway is not straight but somehow feels that way. Up and over the mountains, across the plains and valleys, a stop at the border, across a river, and into El Salvador. The road continues on, close to the coast but never so close as to see the ocean, until you join the sprawl of San Salvador or turn off somewhere along the way.
GUATEMALA CITY — There may be no place in the world more familiar to me than where I am now, here, back in Central America. At this point I have lived abroad longer than in my hometown (at least in recent years) and anyway, my hometown isn’t my hometown.
A long time ago I wrote a story, which I will reprint here soon, called, “The Long Central American Goodbye.” The title recalled a specific memory but in a broader sense how I was unable to say goodbye, how each trip to the region led to the next trip, each of them both expanding my explorations and revisiting places I had been before, getting to know them in a deeper, more complete way. My experiences in Central America, centered around my work as a reporter and documentary photographer, led me directly to Sweden and Ukraine and in ways I consider those side journeys along the greater arc of my time in Central America. As I write this I will clarify that by Central America I mean the three countries, so much in the news lately, referred to as “The Northern Triangle,”Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. I hope to visit the other countries that make up the region: Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama but for the moment I am living in Guatemala and, with both Covid and work, more extensive travel is somewhere out in the future.
This amazing and affordable little focus-free lens turns any digital camera into a gloriously trouble free point and shoot like those of days gone by.
GUATEMALA CITY — It’s a little-known fact that when Cindy Lauper sang her iconic 1983 hit, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” she was lamenting how her second career as a photojournalist, a career that had led her to cover the Iran Hostage Crisis and the early stages of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, left her little time to simply enjoy the pursuit of photography and her love of music.
So, yeah, I just made that up completely out of Wednesday-morning boredom but hey, you read it on the Internet so it must be true. But I was, quite honestly, thinking about having fun, about the lack of it, about how our deep and serious pursuits (and what seems like an increasing inability to simply have fun) has led the world to some pretty dark places. I think the general public’s reflexive, addictive need to document everything, every meal, every meeting, every little moment where we used to have space to disconnect, is a large part of that. And somehow we still end up with no actual pictures. Instead of having a few snapshots acting as touchstones for memory and nostalgia, we have what amounts to stop-motion movies of our entire lives, movies that are increasingly complete as people take more photos and videos, start using dashcams, bodycams, and action cams that record automatically, film every mundane moment with a cam on a selfie stick, reflecting their own images back to themselves in an endless feedback loop that leaves less and less time to actually live life. It’s a terrible thing, a strange and brutal way to live where nothing is experienced for what it is and simultaneously, we have created a record whereby nothing can be forgotten.
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.
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.
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.