Thursday, October 30, 2008

It's a Tie

As I was updated the places I've been section I decided to see if I'm been more places this year or last year. At the moment it's a dead heat. 24 different locations last year and this year. Of course there are 2 months left to go this year so this can potentially change. At the moment all the trips I have planned are to places I've already been this year. Maybe I'll sneak in a quick trip to somewhere new just to break the tie. Let's see what has for cheap fares this weekend - Prague or Madrid are the only 2 I haven't been to this year but the flights leave tonight. Since I've been gone for 2 weeks maybe I should just stay put this weekend.

UPDATE: Thanks to a keen observer it was pointed out that I had accidentally left my trip to The Berkshires off my list. The tie is broken 25 locations this year! And since the original posting 2 potential work trips have arisen - Madrid and Scotland . I just may hit 30 places this year.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Winning Streak

Winning Ways#1

Last week at our sales conference I received this award for achieving my targets during our last fiscal year. The company commissioned an artist to create these sculptures for the people that made the 'Achievers Club.' Of this group a percentage were chosen for the 'Circle of Excellence' which is an all expense paid trip to Whistler in January and I received that as well. This means that I will not be in the US for Christmas but will be there for New Years before I head to Whistler.

Winning Ways #2
I entered a photo competition sponsored by Pikeo & Lonely Planet in August. Lonely Planet is looking for a new cover photo for some of their travel guides. As I was in Barcelona over the summer I figured I would enter a few. As I was digging through my stacks of emails that accumulated over the 2 weeks I was away I received a notification that one of my photos was short-listed for the jury selection. This means I am one step closer to winning. What do I win you ask - in addition to my photo being on the cover I can choose one of four holidays from Intrepid Travel Russia, India, Morocco or Serengeti. It also means that my photograph will be displayed in a gallery in March . Even if I don't win I think getting a photo shown in a gallery and being selected is very cool. The photo that was selected is here (I think you may need to register with Pikeo to actually see it).

Winning Ways #3
Speaking of winning, I mailed my ballot for the presidential election today. Since normal mail takes 5 working days I had to send it special delivery to ensure that it arrives in the states by next Tuesday. Here's hoping I picked the winner there.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Back to the Grindstone

I have returned to a plugged in society again and will now endeavour to update you on my photographic training holiday earlier this month.

Sunday October 12 8:50 PM EST (My body thinks it's Monday morning).

This is a first for me I'm writing the blog post by hand to be transcribed when I return. For the 1st time in ages I am away and completely unplugged - no laptop, no blackberry, no nothing. OK to be completely honest I do have my blackberry but I get no data connection. The reason I have opted to write by hand is I am afraid I won't be able to remember everything when I am back in front of a computer.

The day started with a taxi pick up at 6 AM for a 9:45 flight. If this was me travelling alone it would have been 7 or 7:15 however since this was a group package we were told to be there three hours before the flight left. This left a lot of time to kill at the airport. As I'm not big into terminal duty-free shopping I decided to just walk from 1 end of the terminal to the other. I figured 9.5 hours on a plane I should do something to get the blood flowing.

The flight was just the way I like them - uneventful. I cleared immigration without a problem. I was asked a couple of questions in Spanish which I was able to understand & answer (those Spanish lessons I took earlier in the year seem to have paid off). Speaking to my travel companions they weren't asked questions. It must have been the silly American passport. Once immigration is cleared there is a security check just like you go through when boarding - all bags are scanned and you walk through a metal detector.

The next hurdle is collecting checked luggage. There were 2 baggage belts next to each other & it just so happened that bags from our flight were appearing on both! Luckily my bag appeared on the belt I was standing near.

On the drive to the hotel we passed a wide range of vehicles on the road. Motorcycles with side cars, 1950s autos, coaches and modern SUVs. What I find more intriguing are the license plates. I've seen 4 different colors so far. Not sure if this is significant or not - I'll find out. Here's a sampling of the different types of transportation I saw:

It has been quite entertaining to hear the Brits I am travelling with warn people not to expect to much from the food. Yes that's the right the British that are known for their gastronomical fare are critiquing others. The dinner at the resort tonight was roughly what I expected, lots of rice, chicken & pork, not a lot of fresh vegetables the hurricane has impacted a lot of the local produce.

One interesting thing about the resort is that you have to pay 2 pesos a day for use of the in-room safe. In all my travels I've never encountered this. The safe has a card reader which is programmed and accessed with the room key.

Signing off Sun 9:15 PM (These take much longer to write by hand than by keyboard.

Monday October 13 8:10 PM EST

I only have a few minutes before I have to meet the group for dinner so this will be short - more tomorrow. Of course since this is all being written off-line you have no concept of tomorrow this will flow seamlessly to the next entry.

Obligatory bathroom post:

The toilet in the hotel lobby has 3 stalls but only 1 toilet paper dispenser. The dispenser is located outside the stalls so it is very possible that if you're not paying attention you'll end up in a stall and not have any TP. Many public restrooms actually have somebody sitting outside handing you TP - of course you're expected to tip them. Many of the stalls don't even have locks.

Today we spent the afternoon wandering around Old Havana - the town is pretty much what I expected lots of old buildings, lots of people trying to get money from tourists either offering tours or posing for pictures. There are a couple of famous people that hang out in the same place every day to pose for photos - cost 1 peso. I imagine they make 100s a day.

Police are very visible on the streets nearly every couple of blocks. Our Cuban guide kept getting stopped and had to show papers. The police are very concerned with locals fraternizing with tourists.

After wandering around for 2 hours a drink was in order. We stopped at The Floridita famous for Daiquiris and being a bar Hemingway used to frequent.

It's now 8:25 need to run - dinner at a Paladar tonight.

Tuesday October 14 8:25 AM
A good night's reset and I'm ready to go again. Right now I am sitting outside listening to the waves crash and eating breakfast - rough life I know.

Last night wasn't at all what I expected. To start out we were told the paladar was a 10 minute walk from the hotel - 25 minutes later we actually arrived. Luckily I was in the front of the group those in the back got lost, we weren't give the name or address of the place we were just blindly following the leader, luckily everybody showed up.

We were told that paladars are located in family homes and are not restaurants that are run by the government. Most of us were expecting to be in a house however the paladar looked an felt just like a restaurant - 2 fully stocked bars, lots of tables and a professional kitchen.

The food however was very tasty, I had rabbit but for the price I paid I was a little disappointed in the whole experience, it really seemed like just another giant tourist trap.

Of course milking tourists is the way everybody makes money here. Everyone no matter what profession makes the same amount of money each month. In order to survive side endeavours are taken - some legal some not - and it is all strictly cash, even the restaurant in the hotel wouldn't take credit cards

The photography workshops start today hopefully I'll learn some stuff.

Wednesday October 15 5:40 PM

Dinner at last night's paladar was much more along the lines of what I was expecting - a small room with only 4 tables and tasty food. This was a nice day to what was a mediocre day.

We were broken into 2 groups - beginners and advanced. The advanced group had 10 people while the beginner group had 5. With a group of 10 people all trying to photograph the same thing you don't get much instruction or time. We had a model and were shooting on location - as this we my first time photographing a model I was a little unsure about what to do. Overall I don't think my shots came out that bad although it's not really my cup of tree. I am much happier with the subjects I am more comfortable with like trees.
After the photo shoot we were off to the marina - yachts, boutiques, views of the city it sounded great. Unfortunately this isn't where we ended up. It was pretty apparent that we were dropped off in the wrong spot but we had no idea since no organizers were around so we just stayed there and figured we would leave when the taxi returned in 3 hours. About an hour later the organizers appeared and we were told we were in the wrong place - there was another marina they were thinking of however it has recently started charging $25 for entry so we were sent here instead. I felt this was a complete waste of an afternoon I would have much rather have gone back into town.

After this a group of us decided to go off on our own into town in the morning. Since we were getting up early, I decided to pass on the nightclub after dinner.

This morning we drove around some non-tourist areas, unfortunately we didn't stop and take photos. It felt we would be a bit intrusive and some people in the group didn't quite feel comfortable. I did ask to stop near the capital - it was fascinating, all sorts of local shops loads of people walking around. I easily could have spent all day here, however we only spent about 10 minutes before we headed back into the town centre. As there was so much to photograph I rolled down my window and started shooting from the car. I was rather surprised that some of the shots came out ok.

We wandered down to the markets and Ike was itching to get out. He has a thing for markets as he was raised in Spitalfields market. So here it is Invisible Kangaroo in Havana:

The owner of the stall then tried to convince me that Ike should stay in Havana he'd be happier there. I thoroughly disagreed and Ike remains with me. I was actually a little surprised that he didn't charge me for taking the photo. So far I haven't paid for a single photo I've taken (not counting the coast of the trip).

This woman didn't take too kindly to being jilted after her photograph was taken. She grabbed her badge (I can only assume it was a license or some other official document stating she was licensed to operated in the square) and ran after the tourist. I didn't catch if the fee was paid or not.

I've been writing for 30 minutes non-stop and my hands about to fall off so I'll sign off for now. Tomorrow we have a 2 hour bus ride to Varadaro should be able to write more then.

Thursday October 16 - sometime past my bedtime (actually 11:15 PM)

Let's see where did I leave off or more precisely where should I begin ...

Last night was the last night in Havana. We went into town to a Flamenco restaurant just a little past the cathedral square where I have spent most of my time. IT seemed quite different than the rest of the city cobblestone streets, lots of restaurants and shops a very quaint little section of town - at least at night it was. Looking back I wish I had spent the whole day in Havana yesterday instead of going back to do the glamour photography sessions that were part of the course. The main reason I returned was I felt I had paid for the training and should be taking advantage of it. From my perspective I didn't learn a whole lot & mostly just felt uncomfortable. It seems like the photographic world users the word glamour to describe topless somewhat erotic photography.

This was a bit much for me to jump into and not something I am all that interested in oh well this is a learning experience all around. I've learned that for the rest of the holiday I will be skipping a number of the training sessions and just relax. As I'll be kicking back in hindsight I wished I harder to do things I wanted in town instead of following a set program. This doesn't mean I won't do another photo training holiday I've spoken to people in the group that have done other programs and speak very highly of them.

I know I said I would wrte on the bus to Varadero but I lied I spent the time chatting to others and looking at the sceneriy - go figure. The transfer was great we got to make a pit stop in a small town called Matanzas. This city is nothing like Havana - not many tourists, nobody harassing you for money and a much slower pace to the town. While walking around I did manage to ask the guide about the colours of the license plates, here's what I found out:

Blue - Government vehicle
Orange - Personal
White - Ministry
Burgundy - Tourist

There is a 5th colour that I haven't seen and don't remember what he said but that is for foreign diplomats

After the brief stop in Matanzas we headed to our luxury 5star all inclusive resort. The original plan for Varadero was that this is where all the tourists would stay. As I stated previously the government really doesn't like the locals mixing with tourists so they didn't want tourists staying in Havana. To keep locals out of Varadero there is a charge to enter the town.

At the resort you are given a bracelet to wear throughout your stay to identify you as a guest. Not sure why it matters as the place seems fairly empty, many of the bars and restaurants are closed or under construction.

I am quite looking forward to the workshop tomorrow - travel photography. I am hoping to learn some new tips and tricks. Signing off 1150 PM (Phew it's not tomorrow yet).

Sunday October 19 9:00 AM

Bored out of my mind at the airport. My flight leaves at 11:20 but for some unknown reason the holiday rep booked my taxi for 5:50. Varadero is 2 hours from the airport so I was anticipating a 6:30 or 7:00 AM pick up which would put me at the airport by 9 still plenty of time to check-in and pay my departure tax. That's right you need to pay to leave the country - the final way to milk the tourist.

As I am at the airport that means my holiday is sadly coming to a close. I spent most of the last 2 days just resting. I did manage to fire off a couple of shots on the beach for our travel brochure assignment. Do these photos make you want to come here?

There was supposed to be a group critique and slide show tonight however times got reshuffled and it was unfortunately dropped. I did manage to get a critique from both of the instructors. What was interesting was there perspective - one looked at things from a purely commercial perspective. I found that over the course that was the main focus of most people - how to make money from your photography. I seemed to be in the minority in that I wasn't looking on how to turn photography into a profession.

But I digress back to the critique. One of the things that kept being stressed during the workshops was about changing the angle of the shot or perspective, not to shoot straight on, tilt the camera, etc. In some of my shots where I did this one of the instructors commented that it needed to be straightened along the horizon (kind of defeats the purpose of shooting from a different angle). The other instructor liked the angle. It just goes to show that it pays to get multiple opinions as everybody is looking for different things.
The best compliment I received from the critique was that I have a very creative eye. My photographs pick up things that many people may miss. I was told it's easy to teach the technique but you can't teach creativity. My macro work also received very high praises.

Overall I am happy with the trip although the courses weren't for me . If I do another one I will likely look for one that focuses less on the commercial aspect of studio/staged shots and more on technique or travel.

It's not 9:40 only 1 more hour to kill before the flight starts boarding and I can sit down in my comfy airplane seat( I upgraded!)

Sunday continued 11:50
Am now en-route to Jamaica and I saw the strangest thing on the plane. Two passengers were allowed to take pictures of the cockpit. They just strolled right in without a care in the world and the pilots let them take a photo.

This concludes my holiday wrap-up. I'll get the 100 or so photos that turned out well onto my photography site tonight or tomorrow we'll see if the jet lag gets the better of me

Friday, October 10, 2008

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

I know I haven't posted in a while, well at least on this blog - yes that's right I now have 2 blogs. Earlier this year I started a blog for work and have recently been focused on blogging there. I also haven't been up to anything that exciting locally. The excitement starts on Sunday when my vacation starts. I plan on completely disconnecting from everything for a week, not bringing my laptop and my blackberry will be turned off. Just a week in the sun learning about photography. After my vacation I head straight to our annual sales conference, that's always a crazy week so chances are I won't have time to blog. If I can manage a moment or 2 of downtime I will try and post if not I'll be back on the 28th and you can look forward to a nice long blog posting then.