Category Archives: Photography

New Orleans Mardis Gras 2014: Bon Temps*

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Shane Merz tosses highly-coveted hot pink beads to the Mardis Gras crowd along St. Charles Street.

Riding a float in one of the big New Orleans Mardis Gras parades isn’t like you probably think.  Everybody seems to ask me the same question:  I’m sure I threw at least 2,000 strings of beads, cups, toys, or footballs (roughly one every five seconds for over three hours), and never saw a bared female breast.  That happens over on Bourbon Street – but not much on the parade route.

I did see lots of kids having great fun, usually with their friends, parents, grandmas or grandpas close behind.  People on ladders so they could see above the crowd.  Lots of college kids acting silly.  Groups on balconies in sportcoats and party dresses.  Lots of pretty young girls, and lots of not-especially-young-or-pretty girls.  Grown men and women jumping up and down, genuinely delighted to get even a fifty-cent trinket thrown at them from a masked man on a tacky float.  I’m sure a large percent had had a bit too much to drink, but happily it was hard to tell from my perch up on the top deck of Float #20.

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One of my float neighbors, Houstonian Tommy Miles, ready for the Bacchus parade with beads organized atop our float

You don’t just sling beads at the blur of the crowd.  The vast majority of those 2,000 strings of beads I threw were aimed at a specific person with whom I’d made eye contact before making a targeted toss.  They break eye contact to catch the beads, then usually look back up with appreciation so we could jointly celebrate our successful connection with a mutual fist pump.  You’d have also been impressed with my bead-flinging accuracy – even underhanded, leaning over the rail atop a moving float, throwing gangly strings of varying weights, a majority went to the intended receiver.

Here’s a side note to you 20ish-year-old males out there:  If you stand near a little kid, a grandma or a pretty girl and jump to intercept beads being thrown to them, you’re an idiot (and something that starts like “dude” but rhymes with “swoosh-tag”) – and the gods of Mardis Gras karma will ensure that none of those pretty girls out there will ever even speak to you. 

 Another of the riders on my float – a guy from somewhere in central Louisiana who (initially) stood right next to me — had a different experience.  I didn’t learn much about him – he passed out about a quarter of the way into the parade.  This is not especially uncommon, so we just left him on the floor.  I didn’t drink anything but Diet Coke and a bottle of water (and fueled myself with a couple of mid-route Powerbars), and I’m very sure I had a lot more fun than he did.  Maybe I should have explained to him the hilariously ignored New Orleans Ordinance prohibiting drinking on the floats?

Most of the pictures here are from my day riding a float in the Bacchus parade.  You spend an hour or two organizing your “throws” (mostly bags of beads), then get your costume mid-day.  The masks are mandatory; you can literally be fined for not wearing one.  You also have to wear a harness underneath to clip yourself onto the float (for reasons perhaps made obvious by the prior paragraph).  Our float was assigned alligator costumes.  It takes a pretty strong sense of tradition to get a big group of straight Southern men into matching costumes with sequin sleeves and a crazy pink collar.

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Bacchus parade riders, in costume, inside the Rock Bottom Lounge on Tchoupitoulas St.

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The floats roll mid-afternoon to the staging area — a neighborhood right next to the Mississippi River with several tiny local bars that probably don’t see a lot of middle-class white guys any other week of the year.  Imagine 1500 or so grown rednecks dressed in those satiny, sequin pajama-like costumes converging on an urban neighborhood.  It takes another three hours or so to navigate the parade route through the Garden District , downtown along the edge of the French Quarter, and through the middle of the already-booming party in the Convention Center.  We arrived at the party after 11pm.  It’s a formal “gala”-type event where ladies must wear floor length gowns, but only half the men are in tuxedos and the other half are in those goofy costumes.  Styx played at midnight, and everybody headed to the casino around 3:30 a.m.  I saw more than one New Orleans sunrise on this trip, and I surely never got up early.

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In 2012, I told the stories of how the Mardis Gras “krewes” put on the parades here, of how – even amidst the chaos – New Orleans can be as civilized as you choose it to be, and how you calculate the day and time of these Mardis Gras parades. This year I had higher hopes for my Mardis Gras photography, but much of that proved incompatible with the preference to spend most of my time hanging out with the couple of dozen friends that were in town for the festivities.  These won’t win any prizes, but hopefully they’ll at least give a good feel for what it’s like to see and to ride in a big Mardis Gras parade.  Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler*

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*Of course “Mardis Gras” is a French term (“Fat Tuesday”) and its events are centered in the French Quarter; “Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler” is a popular Mardis Gras slogan, French for “Let the Good Times Roll.”  “Bon Temps”: good times.

Guatemala: Sleeping in the Jungle?

Technically, I did sleep in the jungle.  Admittedly, I was in a couple of pretty nice ‘bungalow’ hotels.

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Tikal Inn, Tikal National Park

The Tikal Inn (above) was a fun, convenient place to stay  and to start other excursions – it’s literally inside Tikal National Park.  It looks good in just the right light.  But the electricity, hot water, and internet typically only worked intermittently – maybe 8 hours a day in total. 

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Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel – Flores, Guatemala

The place with the cabins sticking out onto the star-lit lake was (unexpectedly) super-swanky.  My nephew was with me – he was thrilled that he had a full-size Jacuzzi on his screened porch overhanging (and overlooking) the lake.  I was thrilled that it was so dark and remote you could see roughly a zillion stars.  When I woke UP in the jungle, it was usually pretty foggy.

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At both places, you could hear howler monkeys all night long.  I got pictures of a couple in the daylight (including this ‘baby’).

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Oh!  Camera friends:  The starry-night pictures of the cabin on the lake were at f4, 30 seconds, and ISO 3200 (or at least they should have been).  The D800E on a tripod (with both ISO noise reduction and Long-exposure noise reduction working – somehow), 16-35mm lens.  I just got lucky that the dim lights around the cabins were a decent balance for the stars (I didn’t light them at all, as I had to with the Tikal temples a few nights later).  The poolside shot was just ISO 400, about 2 seconds, f5, 16mm — there was enough light there to use the meter, so it was easy.

Tikal, Guatemala: After Dark in the Great Plaza

Over a thousand years ago, the temples and altars of Tikal’s Great Plaza were the site of gruesome rituals of human sacrifice.  At night, there are no lights, and the low, scream-like roar of howler monkeys fills the air.  It’s an eerie place to be when the grounds are deserted and the sky is dark.

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Tikal Temple II

It’s an amazing experience – at any hour – to be amid Mayan temples that have stood more than a millennia.  Friday night I had the chance to be essentially alone there after dark and after the park had officially closed, with the chance to make the whole place my private photo studio.  Though I lit up the temples for these pictures, in reality there were no lights except a half moon and our handheld flashlights.

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Tikal Temple I

Tikal National Park is Guatemala’s most popular; it enshrines some of the most famous and prominent remnants of the ancient Mayan World.  At Tikal’s center are the temples of the Grand Plaza.  Each day, hundreds (sometimes thousands) of visitors tour the park.  Each evening, a few dozen stay ‘til dusk to watch the sun set behind the Temples.  I stayed even later – until it was truly dark and everyone else had gone home.  Two park rangers waited patiently (sort of) and escorted me (and my local guide, “Henry”) out of the park long after they’d done their nightly sweep of the grounds to make sure no one else was left on the grounds.

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Temple I

 

Those night-time images aren’t Photoshop tricks.  Henry and I were giddily watching them show up on the back of the camera as we moved my big tripod around the Grand Plaza in the dark.  The light on the temples is from his flashlight, which I borrowed and used to “paint” light on the stones and trees during the long 30-second (or so) exposures).  The streaks in the sky are clouds; in that amount of time, they moved quite a bit (happily, the stars did not).  I haven’t picked a favorite image yet – I still can’t quite believe I was there.

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Sunset from Tikal’s Northern Acropolis

All this capped off a long day:  I’d been in the park at 4:30 a.m., too, in the pre-dawn darkness.   Each morning a few dozen folks climb to the top of Temple IV to watch the sun rise over the Grand Plaza.   I got there extra-early, and just in time to get a couple of shots before clouds and fog took over the entire view.  By the time the rest of the sunrise “crowd” arrived, there wasn’t much left to see (bottom).

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Tikal’s Temple IV, just before dawn.

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Foggy sunrise, Tikal Temple IV

 

 

Laundry Day: Peten, Guatemala

Between the archaeological sites celebrating ancient Mayan grandeur is the real world of modern-day rural Guatemala.

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Peden, Guatemala

I took a short diversion off the highway between Tikal, Guatemala and the Belize border, heading down a randomly chosen side road just to see what I would see.  I quickly came upon a plain little lake, with a tiny community on its southwest shore.

In the edge of the lake, in waist-deep water, were fifteen or so little thatch-top huts, most of which had a table-like flat board right at water level.   About half of the little huts were in use:  with women (and children) doing their laundry by scrubbing their clothes on those boards in the lake water.  The village had no electricity and no running water.

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Peden, Guatemala

What would strike you most about this is the water.  You can see in some of the pictures that it’s murky, with lots of green slime near the shore, and with trash floating or piled up on the shore.  This is what they’re using to CLEAN their clothes.  It must work better than you’d think, because their clothes seem clean enough.  Meanwhile, the kids were happily swimming alongside the laundry zone.  There were almost no men around, so I’d guess they were mostly off at work somewhere.

As I first made my way through the trees to the lake, I wasn’t sure I’d be welcome.  I just waved, smiled, tried out my pitiful Spanish (“Ola!  Su lago es muy bonito!  Puedo hacer algunes fotos?”), and tried to act like it was the most normal thing in the world for a gringo to wander through the trees with a state-of-the-art camera.  I decided to pet one of their dogs so I’d seem friendly, which resulted in my being bitten from behind by a dog not being petted.  (Happily it did not break the skin!).  The humans were much more receptive:  bashful at first, but only a couple said (or motioned) that they didn’t want their pictures taken.  As usual, most seemed eager or flattered.

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It’s sobering to see how these folks live.  And it’s pictures like this that will remind me, in the future, to make that turn off the main road, and to be brave enough to hop out of the car and walk toward whatever looks interesting.

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SCUBA School! San Pedro, Belize

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When I started planning this trip to Belize and mentioned that I’d try to get my SCUBA certification while I was here, pretty much every person I said this to responded, “What?  You don’t already have that?”  So I guess this was something I was supposed to do (or to have done already).

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If you’ve ever been tempted to learn to SCUBA, let me endorse a plan.  I did the “written” part online (at home), then did the pool sessions in two afternoons in Houston.  Then I did my open water qualification dives in some of this hemisphere’s best SCUBA country — the reef just off Ambergris Cay, near San Pedro, Belize.  We covered the required skills, but 80% of the time, we were just swimming around enjoying the sights.  I got paired up with a group of fun Canadians who made their living building fancy vacation homes in zero degree weather.  They were happy to be in sunny Belize.

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Yes, those are sharks.  We saw several — I’d been in the water about ten seconds when I saw my first one.  They’re harmless (to us) nurse sharks.  I liked the yellow turtle the most:  that thing was nearly three feet in diameter!  All in all some pretty amazing sights to be seen just 60 feet or so below the waves.  A big shout-out to my instructor, Gilbert, at Chuck & Robbie’s Dive Center in San Pedro.  (That’s me in the last picture in the grid — photo credit for that one goes to one or the other of my underwater Canadian buddies.)

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Camera folks:  I used my “pocket” Canon S100, and bought Canon’s dedicated WP-DC43 underwater housing — which is not expensive at all relative to a DSLR housing.  It’s got at least a dozen buttons and knobs, so literally every menu and adjustment is available, down to 130 ft.  It worked great for my purposes.  As you can see, when you get deep, it gets very blue, so you MUST shoot in RAW and crank the white balance a ton (add lots of yellow and a ton of magenta!).  Get super-close.

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