Travel Update: Back to San Diego for a Short Visit

Stephen F. Dennstedt

I’ve been back in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico for 3½ months. This is where it all started 5 years ago. I left the United States in early 2012 to begin my world travels and self-examination adventure and to pursue my photography and writing. Merida was my first destination of choice and I ended up staying 2½ years before moving on. Wow.

So returning to Merida for a brief visit seemed like the perfect ending to the Latin American portion of my travels—and its been that and more. Renewing old acquaintances and visiting familiar sites has been the perfect way to bring phase one of my adventure full circle. Ending where I started. What seemed like a long visit at the time is now over in the blink of an eye. Again wow.

Leaving Merida will be bittersweet. I’ve come to think of this city as my second home and the concept of home has become more important to me now that I am technically homeless—location-independent. I came to Merida a broken but determined man. Broken in that I had lost everything (materialistically) in the United States but determined to rebuild my life on my terms. I have been successful beyond my wildest expectations.

Now it’s time to return (briefly) to the home of my youth, my dissatisfaction and my perceived failure. I don’t know what to expect but I am keeping an open mind. Part of me is filled with excitement but another part of me is filled with trepidation—but if I’ve learned one thing it is to face fear (and the unknown) head-on. As I’ve said many times here in this blog: fear is a mental construct and when faced squarely usually disappears in an ephemeral puff of smoke. I am better equipped now to face that fear.

My country is in turmoil: politically, culturally and financially. It is fraught with uncertainty, fear and anger. I don’t need that drama in my life ever again. Those were among the reasons I left in the first place. But I think I’ve moved beyond those concerns for the most part (if not entirely). My worldview is much broader and global these days. Emotionally, spiritually and physically I am in a much better place now. I am healthy in body, mind, spirit and heart. I credit this healing to my travels and the many new friends I’ve made along the way. I am grateful beyond measure.

What am I excited about? I am excited about seeing my son again—its been way too long. I am excited about the prospect of listening to him as he plans the second phase of his life (he recently retired from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department after many years of selfless service to his community). I am excited about a new relationship with him as equals, as friends. I am exited about seeing my granddaughters again—kids when I left and now young women entering into adulthood.

And I am excited about seeing old friends again. Friends who have (for the most part) suspended judgment and supported me in my efforts to find myself—my true self. I’ve come to realize that I have many more friends than I ever thought possible. Thomas Wolfe is famous for saying: You Can’t Go Home Again. I’m not convinced he is right—things will be different for sure but I also know that I have a new and different perspective on life. I will spend 3, 4 or maybe 5 months back in San Diego (no set plan) and then it’s off to see the rest of the world. WOW.

 

Photography 101: A Travel Photographer Needs to Master Many Genres

Stephen F. Dennstedt

To be an effective travel photographer requires mastery of many different photographic genres: you must be able to shoot portraits, landscapes, street photography and even wildlife. Personally, I think that’s what makes travel photography so much fun—you’re not limited to one genre only (others might find that aspect somewhat challenging).

Most aspiring photographers dream, or have dreamed, of being on photographic assignment with National Geographic in some exotic location. NatGeo used to have staff photographers back in the day, but not so much now—most NatGeo stuff is done by contracted freelancers. In fact the bulk of travel photography is done by freelancers which is good news for you.

But maybe you’re not interested in making money with your travel photography. I like to do both, I enjoy both the creative aspect of photography as well as the business side of things. If I can create beautiful original images and make a little money on the side to further that effort then so much the better. To each his own I say; I learned a long time ago that a person has to do what a person has to do to be happy and content in life.

Senor Cigar – Trinidad, Cuba

I now have the opportunity to do what I love everyday but that wasn’t always the case. Today I am a full-time photographer, writer and traveller. What I like about this lifestyle is its freedom—everyday I am free to pick & choose my activities and to hone my skills. This blog is filled with posts about what I do and how I do it so feel free to wander through the archives. As a photographer, writer and traveller I have the best of all worlds (at least for me). I travel to some really cool places and see and meet some really neat people.

Uru Indian Girl – Lake Titicaca, Peru

I met Señor Cigar during a month-long visit to Cuba in 2014 and photographed him in the beautiful little town of Trinidad. The Uru Indian Girl was photographed on a floating reed island in the middle of Lake Titicaca in Peru. As a travel photographer you want to be proficient in capturing people because you meet so many wonderful cultures during your travels. Whether the shot is semi-posed like Señor Cigar or completely candid like the Uru Indian Girl you want to bring those memories back with you.

Perito Moreno Glacier – Southern Patagonia, Argentina

You are going to see some amazing landscapes during your travels too. Non-photographers will often tell you to just enjoy the moment and forget about photographing it (photos never do the scene justice). I say: why not do both? If your photos don’t do the scene justice then maybe your skill set isn’t quite up to par. Instead of choosing not to photograph the scene, or settling on a cellphone snapshot, why not improve your craft to create some real memories for yourself and others. Ask yourself: do you want to be a picture taker (snapshots) or a photographer (art)? They’re not the same.

Valle de la Muerte – Atacama Desert of Northern Chile

There is nothing wrong with capturing your memories with a cellphone if that’s truly what you want to do. But if your interest is photography then a simple cellphone snapshot isn’t going to cut it. You know that, you don’t need me preaching at you. I carry large Pro-level DSLRs with me (and assorted lenses) but some of my fellow travellers and bloggers are getting great results with lighter (and less expensive) mirrorless cameras. Photography is a priority with me so I opt for bigger, sturdier and heavier stuff (but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea).

Male Cinereous Harrier – Southern Patagonia, Argentina

I think you are beginning to see the importance of being able to capture different photographic genres in your travel photography. If all you shoot is people, or landscapes, or wildlife, then you are limiting yourself. Because when you travel the world you’re going to see it all and MORE. You don’t want to miss a memory because you’re afraid to photograph it. The more you shoot the better you will get and the more memories you will bring back with you. Your camera will allow you to see the world around you with more of an artistic eye.

Orange-winged Amazon Parrot – Northern Amazon River Basin, Cuyabeno, Ecuador

If you have a knack for writing (even a simple blog) your photography will enhance that effort. I love sharing with people where I go and what I do. I think my words and pictures can help others see places they may never visit on their own. Not everyone has the ability to lead the life I do (I get that), so if they can travel vicariously through my words and pictures so much the better. My one piece of unsolicited advice is: if you want to be a travel photographer (for fun or profit) shoot all genres and don’t limit yourself. And above all have fun.

The Good Part About Getting Sick in Mexico

Stephen F. Dennstedt

There’s a good part about getting sick in Mexico? Yes there is if you keep an open mind. When I developed this blog back in 2011 I made the creative decision to keep it as positive as possible. Many travel writers feel a need to share every horror story they encounter, or embellish a simple negative until it becomes a horror story: look at me and how brave I am to have survived this travel nightmare.

Unfortunately, I think this kind of writing can help to dissuade otherwise enthusiastic travellers from experiencing other parts of the world. I want to encourage travel and not discourage travel. Look, if you’re going to travel full-time like I do you’re going to get sick (it’s a simple fact of life). Even if you stay home you’re going to get sick. Humans get sick. Travelling you sometimes don’t know where to go for help.

So once again the thing that scares people is the fear of the unknown. Face that fear head-on and it typically goes away (because fear is a mental construct). When you get sick at home you know who to call and where to go for help. Most families have had the same doctors and medical advisors for years—travel abroad and you don’t have that same knowledge readily available. It doesn’t mean that help isn’t there and available you just have to find it.

Yucatan, Mexico is an extraordinarily beautiful travel destination: wonderful sights, great people and wonderful food. It’s also the tropics which means that it’s typically hot, humid and prone to mosquitos. These climatic conditions make a great host for disease: bacterial, viral, parasitical and mosquito-born. These same conditions are prevalent throughout much of Asia too (and Africa for that matter). Does that mean you shouldn’t travel to these paradise destinations? Of course not. Just use common sense, take precautions and roll with the punches.

Three weeks ago I got sick here Merida. It could have been from a contaminated food source or a simple handshake. Doesn’t matter, it happens: diarrhoea, vomiting lack of appetite. I lived with it for a week before buying the local over-the-counter solution DAXON (it’s usually quick and effective). Although it temporarily relieved some of the symptoms it didn’t restore me back to complete health like it usually does. On top of the gastrointestinal problem I contracted a tenacious upper respiratory infection. My sick days have been few since moving south five years ago.

I finally decided enough was enough and took a taxi to one of the private hospitals here in Merida: CMA Centro Medico de las Americas. Medical treatment here is not like in the United States: I was directed to an English-speaking medical doctor within minutes of my arrival (no waiting). I did not have to fill out reams of paperwork, instead he actually spoke to me. Then he examined me and then he treated me. Within thirty minutes we were done and I left the hospital with four medications. Cost of the visit 250 Mexican pesos ($13 usd). I paid in cash.

I thanked the doctor for speaking in English because my Spanish is terrible. He said: You’re most welcome, I just want you to feel better and to enjoy my country. Please call me if I can be of any further assistance. He then walked me to the end of the hall where the pharmacy was located to pick up prescriptions. Four different prescriptions (a week’s worth of each) for a total of $75 usd. Its been twenty-four hours and I feel much better: no more diarrhoea, no more vomiting and my persistent cough is rapidly dissipating.

CMA is private and at the top of the food chain (it’s the most expensive). If I had gone to a government clinic I might have waited a little longer but the cost would have been minimal (probably free) and the medications might have been free (or very low-cost) too. The doctors are extremely well-trained here in Mexico and many (if not most) speak fluent English. Many have been trained in the United States or Europe. The doctors, nurses and attendants all wear professional uniforms and not the wrinkled scrubs that are so ubiquitous in the United States.

I find the medical treatment in Latin America to be on par in every way with the United States, however I find the service (and many of the facilities) to be superior. The pharmacies and cost of medications are also superior. Fast, reliable, caring and low-cost describes my medical treatment in Latin America. So rather than being fearful about seeking medical treatment abroad you should be confident. Many countries around the world (Mexico, India, Thailand and others) currently outrank the USA in medical treatment—and medical tourism is becoming more popular.

This recent medical experience in Merida, Yucatan is not unique. I also had a life threatening medical emergency in Guatemala two years ago where they literally saved my life. Three days in a government critical care unit for indigenous peoples (I was the only gringo). No cost, my treatment was absolutely free (in the United States the same treatment would have cost me over $50,000 usd). If you get sick while travelling just ask your hostel or hotel for assistance, they will make sure you get the help you need. Don’t let health fears keep you from travelling.

 

Lifestyle 101: Does Success Scare You?

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Recently a group of Millennials was asked the question: What do you want to achieve in life to be successful? The two top answers were: I want to be rich and/or famous. Money and/or fame, that was their definition of a successful life. In other words celebrity outranked substance. I suppose we could blame social media for this modern mindset but I think social media is more a reflection of society than a moulder of the human psyche. And yet a part of me suspects the opposite is true.

I’ve always been a very competitive person: as a kid, in the military, in the corporate mayhem we call business and even in my creative endeavours. This competitive nature has caused me no end of angst, stress and unhappiness. Because you can never achieve too much, be rich enough or famous enough. You are always left wanting. The Buddhists call these sufferers Hungry Ghosts. Buddhist iconography depict these unfortunate souls with large empty stomaches, pencil-thin necks and small mouths. They can never consume enough to satisfy their hunger.

Hungry Ghost – Buddhist Iconography

American consumerism equates personal success with financial wealth (and by extension the accumulation of stuff). But the stuff never satisfies—you’re always left wanting more: a bigger house, a nicer car, fancier clothes and more and better stuff. The more stuff we have, and the nicer that stuff is, somehow makes us important (and accomplished) in our mind’s eye. The accumulation of stuff shouts success to everyone around us—but in actual point of fact just promotes envy, jealously and hatred. In the past I’ve been viewed as successful by others but I no longer crave success (although like a recovering alcoholic the temptation is always there). Success (in a material sense) does not bring happiness or even contentment. The thought of success now scares me.

The most valuable commodity in my life is time. The most pleasurable thing in my life is how I choose to spend my time. Often as not that involves doing nothing when viewed from the outside (although the act of doing nothing is actually doing something—a discussion for another time). Six years ago (2011) I lost what I thought of as success: the thirty-year corporate banking job, the big house, the nice cars, the boat and even my wife. Almost overnight I went from being a minor somebody to a major nobody. As it turned out it was the best thing that ever happened to me—it forced me to reevaluate my life and allowed me the freedom to become the person I was meant to be. In losing everything (materially) I gained the world and control over my time.

My life is simple now: I live simple, I live cheap and I live free. I take my pictures, I write my articles and I travel the world. I am free to spend my time the way I want to spend it. I never want to go back to my old life but I know the possibility is always there. That’s why success scares me—because I suspect that if I had real money again I would (like a recovering alcoholic) fall back on old habits. That’s the ugly side of my personality—that competitiveness—that still calls my name like the Sirens of Ulysses to dash me against the rocks of misfortune. I was forced to live this new life (or maybe I subconsciously chose it for myself) and recreate myself—but now that I am living it I love it and am reluctant to give it up. I think, in ways that truly matter, I am more successful now than I ever was in corporate America.

Photography 101: So You Wanna Shoot the Birds

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

My favorite photographic genre is wildlife. Within that genre two subjects in particular pose significant challenges: wild monkeys in their natural habitat and birds in flight. With today’s camera and lens technology it’s easier than ever to capture stunning images but that doesn’t mean it’s easy (easier doesn’t automatically equal easy). I could spend all day talking about this subject but will demure in favor of an excellent video on the subject.

I photographed the images below primarily in Yucatan, Mexico and Southern Patagonia in Argentina. Click on images to enlarge them for better viewing. My equipment has become dated and I am looking forward to refreshing it when I return to the States in March for a short visit. My Canon EOS 5D Mark II can only manage 3 fps continuous shooting where the newer Mark IV can bang out 7 fps and the Canon EOS 7D Mark II can produce an impressive 10 fps.

In this video veteran wildlife photographer Roman Kurywczak provides a detailed behind the scenes look into some of his stunning images: from lighting and camera settings to shooting technique (B&H Photo produced this excellent video). He shares many of my shooting philosophies like: not being afraid of higher ISO and opting to handhold his long glass instead of using a tripod. He also gives good practical advice about achieving optimum exposure in changing light. Whether you’re an experienced wildlife shooter or a noob who wants to give it a try I think you will find this video to be both informative and entertaining. It’s long so allow yourself about 45-minutes. Enjoy.

Travel 101: The Beasties Inside Us

THIS IS A REBLOG FROM A POST IN PERU because I am once again back in Merida, Yucatan, MX for a visit. And once again I’ve fallen sick. But I now know what to do and I do it quickly. I love Merida, Yucatan and Mexico generally but the germs and bugs can get you (it’s a warm, humid tropical climate after all). I am in my third day of treatment and should be back to 100% tomorrow. I thought this might be a timely travel tip and reminder for any of you folks planning a vacation in a foreign land . . . it isn’t just Mexico. 

Expat Journal: Postcards from the Edge

Giardia lamblia - anaerobic flagellated protozoan parasites. Giardia lamblia – anaerobic flagellated protozoan parasites.

Travel 101:  Peru is a beautiful country, and we’re about two months into a six month visit. However, it has not been completely kind to us in terms of overall health.  Travelling you expect some setbacks from time to time, and if you’re smart you just learn to roll with the punches.  I try to keep this blog positive, but I also feel a responsibility to keep it informative.

Most people have heard of the term traveler’s diarrhoea, but what is it exactly?  Typically traveler’s diarrhoea is caused by the protozoa Giardia lambia or Cryptosporidium parvum. They are most often introduced into our digestive tract through contaminated water.  Once the beasties are inside of us they cause all sorts of mischief.

Ever since we arrived in Peru we’ve been plagued by traveler’s diarrhoea.  It will lay us low for a day or two…

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Don’t Confuse What I Do With Who I Am

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Don’t confuse what I do with who I am. I will be the first to admit I visit some interesting and exciting places and engage in adventuresome activities on occasion—but that doesn’t, by extrapolation, necessarily make me an interesting, exciting or particularly adventuresome person. In fact my ex-wife would probably describe me as boring (her euphemism for it when describing me to others was: Oh Steve, he’s a deep thinker (not in a good way)—accompanied by a sneer.

I recently took one of those silly Facebook personality quizzes that all too often hit really close to home. In this case it had me pegged 100%. The quiz boldly states that you can only be one of four basic personality types: Intelligent (Rational) Introvert, Emotional Introvert, Intelligent (Rational) Extrovert or Emotional Extrovert. If you’re interested in taking the quiz for yourself here is the link. I scored as an Intelligent Introvert. Which is absolutely TRUE based on the personality traits they list:

Calm, curious, smart and introverted. You are a Thinker!
You are a very thoughtful, reasonable, reliable and quiet person. You seek balance in life and you are very content being alone.
You love reading books, learning new things, challenge yourself and have a good one-on-one conversation with an inspiring and knowledgeable person.

In other words, as my ex-wife would say, I am boring. I get it and I’m okay with it. Just because I’m different doesn’t make me wrong, and just because I don’t act with emotion doesn’t mean that I don’t have feelings. Although I’ve come to find out that it’s a lot less complicated just to declare upfront that I don’t have feelings (even if it’s not entirely true). I don’t need a lady in my life to fix me (I’m not broken) and I certainly don’t need someone around who is frustrated with me constantly yammering and criticizing. I go back to the italicized traits above and think to myself: that’s not a bad way to be. So I will continue to think, read my books, take my photographs, write my articles, travel the world, drink my Scotch and smoke my cigars—and lead my boring life.

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Celestun, Yucatan, MX: Just another boring scene (taken a couple of mornings ago) from my boring life. I think I can live with boring.