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.
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 (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.
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.
There is no question that the Fuji X-Pro 1 was an incredible camera, innovative in ways that both the market and consumers didn’t see coming. But it was also riddled with annoying quirks. The hybrid optical EVF was revolutionary and alone made it the most innovative system to hit the market in a long time, but the early firmware included with the camera was buggy and the camera had issues with the autofocus system. These issues and the choice by Fuji to use the APS-C sensor led to many professionals and enthusiasts simply not taking the new Fuji system seriously. But in time Fuji would prove they were very serious, releasing firmware updates addressing user reported issues and designing a full lineup of fast best in class prime lenses as well as improved telephotos demanded by a quickly growing market.
When I set off to any event, I bring a camera I can trust, one that I’ve extensively used in the field and know is reliable. I’ve never used the Fuji X100F in the field as a primary, actually I’ve never done anything more than shoot a few photos and toss it back in my bag. It’s the only digital camera I took with me to cover the Muddy Buddy Jeep Jam 2018.
The Sailor Strap. With a variety of colors from royal blue to olive and standard black, sturdy stainless steel rings to attached the strap and Italian leather they look great, but how do they perform with daily use? Continue reading “THE SAILOR STRAP”