About Me

My photo
Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

GOIN' WALKABOUT -- Annapolis, Maryland

As most people who know me are aware, I grew up as a Navy Brat. This had any number of ramifications on my childhood. not the least of which is fueling, from an early age, my need to move about the world and appreciate the vastly different tones and textures to be found here. I make friends fairly easily, something I attribute to the Raman nature of a Navy family's existence. Another aspect of the community are the spots we -- Navy families -- all had in common. At one time Long Beach, my hometown, was a featured name but no more. Other Navy towns included Pearl Harbor; Newport, Rhode Island; Washington, DC; and Annapolis, MD, home of the Naval Academy.

Annapolis would seem to be blessed with a multitude of natural and manmade wonders. Just an hour from both Washington and Baltimore, it is ideal as a day trip for residents of those two cities. It's within easy reach of Baltimore/Washington Airport (BWI), and the nearest Metro station from Washington is New Carrolton -- also a hub for the rail lines to Philadelphia and New York.

It's a town my wife and I get to with infrequent regularity (?) given that my parents and older sister;s family live there. And it's no surprise. Annapolis is the right combination of small and big, with a deep history as well as a modern present. It sits in one of the most picturesque spots on the Chesapeake Bay, yet is conveniently located between major metropolitan areas and the more rural Eastern Shore of Maryland -- giving residents an amazing range of activities and access rarely enjoyed in many areas of the country.

The Shops Along Main Street
This last Christmas we ventured to the Eastern Seaboard and spent a portion of the trip in town, spending an afternoon wandering around the downtown historic district. I was happy to note that a decades long trend towards more corporate style boutiques and a loss of uniquely Annapolitan sensibilities -- particularly along Main Street, the fundamental shopping avenue in Old Town -- has reversed itself, with a return to more locally-oriented mom and pop shops. This is a tremendously welcome trend, particularly in the more historic parts of the country. If all shopping streets have the same stores, what could possibly distinguish one main street from another? It's a function of the so-called Wal-Martization (marca registrada) of America, so it's particularly rewarding to see the re-emergence of the little boutiques along Main.

We get off the main highway -- Route 50 -- on Rowe Boulevard and head south, passing, among other things, the Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where the Academy's Midshipmen play in the NCAA. We've seen a number of games there over the years, though nobody was playing during this particular trip. Though I'm an alum of USC, I have to admit even the vaunted 'SC Marching Band cannot match some of the halftime events I've seen at Navy. Few other schools can feature F-14s and skydivers as side-shows to their school band, but Navy can (and has). But, as usual, I digress…

So, heading into Annapolis from Route 50 we take Rowe. Rowe heads straight for about a mile, terminating at College, at which point we turn right and find our way to the rotary around the original St Anne's Parish church. With the exception of West Street. he roads leading away from the circle are one-way, either into or out of the circle. We travel 3/4s of the way around and turn right on Duke of Gloucester Street. There is a large but well-hidden parking structure conveniently located a half block from Main. Turning left on Conduit and then a sharp right down Gorman (which looks like an alley), the structure looms like a fugitive from some other urban landscape -- kudos to Annapolis for keeping it well hidden but convenient. The rates are quite reasonable, and it's infinitely easier to find a space here than it is cruising up and down the streets of the city looking for a space.

Once parked we hit Main Street at the corner of Main and Conduit. This is roughly halfway between the wharf at the lower end of the street and St Anne's at the high end. Shops, restaurants and other stores line the street on both sides, so we head down towards the wharf for the first half of the trip. It's still early enough and late enough in the year for a cool breeze to blow up from the waterfront. The southern side of the street is in shadow, adding to the chill. It's refreshing in a way, but we immediately find ourselves ducking into The Leader, a cute little boutique right at the corner. It's full of Annapolis trinkets, but also some much nicer items such as throw rugs, umbrellas, clothing and other interesting items. The shop owner immediately engages us in conversation, belying the stereotype of the reserved easterner -- until we find out he's a transplant from the San Diego area. We shop and talk and eventually walk back out with a few trinkets in our bags and having spent a good time hearing about local events and suggestions. Talking to locals to get their take on "must sees" is a terrific idea on any trip, and most of the shopkeepers in Annapolis are eager to talk and share their knowledge.

Inside the Marketplace. Plenty of Selections
We head down to the wharf and go into the Marketplace, a long, low building directly opposite the bay. It's essentially a local-product food court with some absolutely wonderful treats. Most people grab something to eat and head over to the little dockside park across the street to sit and people watch (or boat watch if something interesting is going on). If you stand in the park facing the water and make a slow turn to your left, you'll see a long row of shops and restaurants on the far side of dock street. This row continues across the street and creates a framing of the area with the marketplace and park in the middle. You'll find some wonderful and historic places to eat, some of which go back to the 1800s as part of the original town. Some, such as the bright red Middleton Tavern were established in Colonial days, as far back as the late 1700s. The fish dishes, of course, are fresh and well-prepared in almost all the eateries in this part of town -- but be aware that you're paying tourist rates. Most certainly worth it, but don't assume that local and fresh translate to "low-cost". 
Picnic along the wharf

(From previous experience, our favorite places to eat right on the square are Middleton's; The Dock Street Bar and Grill; and The Federal House. They're all modern and fun, but at the same time try to maintain certain traditions and menu items which date back to their origins -- it might be difficult to picture Thomas Jefferson sidling up to the bar and ordering a Corona, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.)

The selection at Kilwin's
After a breeze through the marketplace (having just eaten lunch before coming downtown we're not  ready for eating just yet, so we head back up the slightly warmer sunny side of Main Street.  The smell of fudge catches our senses. There are three delightfully decadent sweet shops along Main, and each has their own specialities to help you put back that weight you've lost as you walk around town. Uncle Bob's is a fudge specialty store, and Kilwin's is the resident chocolatier. Both have wonderful and brutally tempting treats -- maybe a good reason for not eating at the Marketplace? -- but we control our instincts and limit ourselves to hot chocolate at Kilwin's. We pause at a little table as we sip our drinks (including the almost mandatory hot chocolate tongue burning on the first sip). It's a perfect place to sit and people watch. Patrons, locals and pets all rush back and forth, and it's a fun location from which to watch the going's on. The fact that the chocolate is terrific and strong makes it an appropriate way to enjoy the slightly chilly street. We enjoy the view, sitting and talking, and my wife petting the frequent dog as it and the owner go by. My wife is a magnet for all things canine, so she is in heaven petting and greeting them as they pass. It's a good spot to stop, and highly recommended for both the treat and the rest. If you're more in the mood for something a bit more bakery, there is the wonderful Nostalgia Cupcake store just up the street. 
Dock Street

Properly sated we continue on up the hill, noting, sadly, that the old Welsh Shop has closed its doors at some point in the last two years. The shop had been a regular stop for us, and back home we have the "Love Spoon" collection to show for it. Sadly time marches on and evidently the recession was too much for such a niche store to survive. Main Street has lost many such shops over the years, which is why I noted above that it's good to see a few returning to the fold and restoring much of what made the district so special. There is still the occasional corporate store -- a wireless company, a chain boutique, etc -- but they're the exception not the rule.

At the high end of Main is another historic site, the Maryland Inn. Dating from the late 1700s this is a beautiful old hotel, directly across the circle from St Anne's Parish. It's a beautiful hotel, though the rooms -- reflecting the period in which it was built -- are smallish by modern standards, the still are reported to be comfortable and nice. The hotel boasts an excellent restaurant, the Treaty of Paris (so-named for the historic treaty, signed in Paris, granting American independence from England. The treaty was first ratified by the Maryland Assembly, just a short block from the hotel). The hotel periodically tries to host a jazz club, but check ahead to see if the club is operating.

Annapolis Pottery
It's getting late, but we continue our walk around the circle and down a block to the Maryland State House, the capital building for the state. It's a beautiful, imposing structure which conveys a sense of another time and era in America. There are a coupled of benches and sitting areas to, again, just sit and watch the world go by. We're too busy for that ourselves, since our intended destination here is across the circle from the capital building. The Annapolis Pottery Shop is right there, and it's a frequent destination. The shop works with a variety of artisans, featuring beautiful works for anyone who collects pottery. The owners are friendly, knowledgeable and -- like the rest of the shopkeepers we've encountered -- always willing to talk and be friendly with non-locals. We spend some time picking out souvenirs for the trip. We end up purchasing a lot more than expected and have to ship it back to California. But it's worth it, and the cashier makes quick work of the information gathering and charges and we're off. It's growing late and we have to make it back to the family for dinner.

We've barely scratched the surface, but downtown Annapolis is a relaxing and beautiful place to visit. It constantly changes but -- oddly -- retains the same feel and sense of history. That's an unusual combination, and little of the experience feels artificial -- as if a town council has decided that the place doesn't look historic enough, so everybody needs to paint their awnings green. Annapolis accomplishes the history with a sense of ease, and yet a modernist feel permeates the town. It's a wonderful combination, and certainly merits a visit if you're in the area.

A few links I found interesting:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Spontaneously In Flow...

"Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you can control it." - John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

 I am one of those people you might reasonably assume plans out each trip in agonizing detail. And out's true that I put together a basic itinerary of dates, plans and any hotel or travel information that is required. But, as the legendary Mr. Steinbeck suggests, the best laid plans are usually the first to be sent to that vast travel bureau in the sky.

The potentials are manifold for hiccups. We've encountered everything from the urgent -- both my wife and I have ended up in the emergency room, and at least one trip was impacted by a call from home saying a family member or pet had gone seriously ill -- to the ridiculous (getting caught for five days in a Philadelphia blizzard).

So part of any significant trip is the need to think on your feet and go with the proverbial flow. As Steinbeck notes, each trip is embedded with its own personality, its own drive. Once you leave the door all bets are off, and you've got to have flexibility (and intestinal fortitude) to weather the changes and just go with it.

The Pause that Refreshes
Sometimes the changes are minor annoyances. Cabs not showing up on time is a frequent one. Let's face it: cab time is not traveler time, no matter how much you'd like to be able to depend upon it. Other minor annoyances include flight delays (which can develop to be a major issue), canceled events, weather patterns. It's all up to the gods of transit and weather to determine if you're getting where you need to get and in what condition.

Other times it's a completely unexpected blunder. I left the printouts of bus tickets from New York to Washington DC sitting on the desk at work. No problem, we thought, we'd simply go to the counter and check in. That's when we discovered that, inexplicably, Greyhound bus terminals do not have the ability to check and print out electronic tickets. This is an astounding failure on their part, and no matter how tremendous the effort of a New York employee -- who really did work hard to find our tickets on her computer -- we were left standing in the terminal for a good half hour as we tried to find "customer service" (who were, also astoundingly, closed for the day). 

Watching the World Go By
Luckily we had options, and raced across town to National Rentacar -- where they generously upgraded the hasty reservation, at no extra cost, from a small sedan to a mammoth SUV -- and we tooled the four hours down the road on our instead of in a crowded bus. Also fortunately, when we did, finally, get hold of Greyhound Customer Service they agreed we'd been in  the terminal ready to go, so they are refunding our tickets. But in this case, being on an inflexible schedule could have had consequences had we not had other options considered and planned for.


Snow Joke -- aka "Five Days in Philly"
Getting caught with your proverbial pants down is a realistic scenario on any trip, at any time. A car breaks down. A flight is delayed. You cannot find your tickets. This sort of thing begs an important travel caveat: Stay financially flexible. Don't let the unexpected rattle you. You're on vacation, and if you're doing it right you need to make sure you build in a cash or credit card buffer in the event something changes. Traveling on an empty wallet is a disaster in the making. Assume the unexpected, and budget for it. If you cannot give yourself a little bit of a buffer, you might want to rethink some of your plans.

(The first time I drove across country I was alone. My car broke down in a small town in Alabama, and they wouldn't take a credit card.  Had I not had cash handy it could have been a major issue. As it was I spent nine hours in the hot sun, and to this day have to recognize I was undoubtedly ripped off. But I made it back on the road and safely to my destination. When you're in an unwinnable situation…in a small town and at the mercy of the local auto mechanic…it's best to go with the flow and get back to familiar territory as soon as possible.)


Terminal Waiting
The Airport Adventure
Then there's the trip itself, the portion which Steinbeck was most deliberately discussing. The adventure. The things that you do which determine the personality of your experience. Those little items, completely unplanned and unplannable, which give you a taste for where you are.

An overly planned trip, for example, will detail every meal, every event. I prefer to plan some things and let others come and go as they occur. If you're going to go to dinner at a particularly nice restaurant it may require specifics. Time and date reservations. This is unavoidable. But to set too much of your trip in stone both eliminates an exploration of the chance encounter, the unexpected adventure, the spontaneous -- while at the same time inviting disaster in the form of delays.

Check out the local shopping
I'm a firm believer in getting places ahead of time if you're traveling. I'd rather spend an additional hour in the terminal of an airport than panicking in traffic delays, wondering if I would make it through security in time for my flight. And believe me, Security is one of the biggest unknowns in any itinerary. I've spent more than two hours in Security lines (Miami International in particular), but have also raced almost unimpeded through other airports (Dulles, Vancouver). 

Time for a cup of coffee?
For example, taking into account lines, or queues (such as Security), on any given adventure. Does the destination include the possibility of a long queue to get in. We Once stood in line for more than half an hour, only to be caught a good thirty people from the cutoff when closing time came. We hadn't gotten to the tour -- in this case a museum -- early enough and therefore wasted our time and walked away frustrated.

On another tour we discovered five minutes beforehand that we were in precisely the wrong spot, and had to race across some seven blocks in the summer heat and humidity, even though we'd arrived in the general vicinity a good hour ahead of time. The vast majority of the time I always double check things and make sure we're in the right place == and in this one instance it would have avoided a number of nasty consequences (but that's a story for another time…)


Take the time to enjoy. I know several people -- including myself for many years -- that would discover "free time" and literally go nuts trying to stay occupied. Killing time isn't always easy, particularly when you're looking forward to whatever the plans are, but whether you take a nap, saunter over to the beach and lay in the shade for a while, or find a little shop and tarry a while, it's a far better way to get a feel for a place than simply retreating to your hotel room and watching tv. (Worse if you are in a foreign country and don't really speak the language. Have you ever watched Law and Order in French? I have. Completely incomprehensible, though the "doink-doink" translates well.)

In short, let the trip express its personality freely and completely. Be ready for the unexpected when it occurs, and don't fight the opportunity to spend time spending time. Thinking you can plan so thoroughly that every moment is accounted for inevitably creates a problem at some point -- though there's a fine line between overplaying and underplaying. The key is to find that magical middle ground where you know what the next step is, but you've got plenty of time to have fun if things go right. And if they go wrong, you've got the time and resources to make it right.

Parlez vous Francais?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

An Amazing Adventure - a Mini Entry

No, not mine (unfortunately!).

My niece and nephew Kathleen and Pablo Weaver are biology professors at LaVerne University and travel a few times a year as part of their student programs or research projects they themselves are conducting. As a result they have, at the tender ages of "mid-thirties" been to some astounding places.

They have just returned from a student study voyage to Quito, Peru; the Upper Amazon basin; and the Galapagos Islands, with twelve of their research students in tow.

As part of the program, the three professors -- Kat, Pablo and a Spanish Language instructor -- and all twelve students contributed blog entries referencing their own experiences on the trip of a lifetime. Pablo mentioned it to me recently, and after reading a number of entires, I thought I would pass it along with my recommendation.


The Upper Amazon has been high on my No Opportunity Wasted list for some time, so this might force our hand some time in the next couple of years.

(Such a large world, such a small bank account.)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Just Shoot Me!"

I have a vaguely schizophrenic approach when I go to shoot places. In most cases I grab my gear and simply wander the streets until I find something that catches my attention. On my personal website – admittedly needing of an update – I have a page entitled “Behind the Camera”. At the bottom of the page is a section which discusses my process in this way:

Fog over Queensway Bay
I am drawn to take a picture as a result of a fraction-of-a-second emotional reaction. If I see something that attracts my eye it must, in that fraction, catch me and then tell me a story.

For me to later select that picture -- among the potentially hundreds of others I have taken -- as one which I wish to share, it has to have a little something extra, a little something that brings me up short, makes me stop and look.

And look again”

Monument in Winter
It’s essentially the same process the viewer, such as yourself, uses when looking at a gallery of photos, or paintings or any other visual presentation. If something that is designed to attract the eye and tell a story fails in that most essential of requirements then it fails, IMHO, as a piece of art. Not only as a piece of art, but as a method of communication. Fundamentally that’s what any work aspires to be: a communication between the artist and the audience. It may be something as mild as “isn’t this a pretty flower” to something as inspirational as a profile picture of a favorite musician – or as profound as conveying the horror of war.

Are these Aliens in the Nevada Desert?
In the case of travel photography, one of the twin subjects of this blog, the shot must convey the feeling of a place, not just a pretty picture of it. The Eiffel Tower is a grand and awe-inspiring structure. So is the Golden Gate Bridge. So the issue becomes, how can I shoot Paris and San Francisco, including pictures of these icons, which doesn’t tread on thousands of previous iterations? Some are unavoidable – there are only so many viewpoints for the Golden Gate, for instance, so you have to allow for composition and environment to help you make it unique. There’s the oft-expressed sentiment about the Grand Canyon
regarding a photographer’s ability to spend an entire career not moving from one spot, and yet still archiving a tremendous and diverse library over the course of a lifetime. 

Then, not only is it the photography of icons, but more essentially it’s telling the story of a place by showing you things you may not have seen, but that even more fundamentally give the viewer a taste of a place in a way that words or paint or music cannot. (Though, it should be noted, in the same way each of those forms convey in their own way the special attributes of  “place”.)

It Happened...on Bourbon Street
A Dog on Huntington Beach
When I see something, a setting or composition or event, that in some way demonstrates an attraction, it must demand that I get it, frame it, and commit it to my camera’s storage. Then, later, when I’m reviewing the photos I may have accumulated, it has to grab me and ask for a longer look. (When, for example, I return from a trip with some two thousand images, think about the time expenditure if I opened each and every one of them in Photoshop and spent even two minutes trying to enhance it sufficiently. That’s four thousand minutes, or just a bit less than two work weeks of eight hour days. On the first pass.)

Life in the Everglades
I may be completely off base, but I like to think it requires a practiced eye to see the potential in a situation, frame it, shoot it and think that it achieves at least a few things. When I refer to Photoshopping – apologies for using the verb form of a copyrighted noun – my work, it usually, though not always, is along the lines of color correction; the exposure; some sort of cropping; or making sure that the horizon is indeed horizontal, not the nearly ubiquitous semi-diagonal line that invades most everyone’s shots. (Unless you’re using a tripod, or have sufficient time to align and capture the image, there’s always the risk that the background may be just a little askew. Sometimes it’s deliberate, so as to include a vital element of the composition. But most times it’s just a fraction off, enough for the eye to note but usually only a degree or two when it comes to making the correction. But if the eye picks it up and it’s not deliberate, a simple thing like that can ruin an otherwise terrific image.) (Thus endeth the lesson.)

Sunset from Mallory Square
But, for me, it’s all about what attracted my eye in the first place. When I’m flashing through the raw shots – not RAW, as in digital file, but raw as in unaltered and fresh from the camera – that the image has three, maybe four seconds to grab me. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good picture, and it doesn’t mean it’s not telling an interesting story. This is why I periodically go back and review old portfolios in the hope I find something I hadn’t seen before. 

A watchtower in the El Junque Rain Forest
Each of the pictures for this post are images I had captured and essentially relegated to archive status without taking the time to see what could be done. If they failed, in whatever way, to grab me the fist time around, maybe they will for the second, or third or in some cases tenth time I take a look. I have changed. Circumstances have changed. Images I loved a decade ago might strike me as bland or one-dimensional today. When it comes to travel-related images the lesson is even stronger. Castoff photographs of, for example, different airport terminals might individually fail to inspire me…but add the additional framing of a “theme” and suddenly there’s a pattern – a story if you will – which requires a second glance.

France, A'la Disney
It’s not an easy task – and you have to find a way to disconnect your personal memories and evaluate the image based upon what it conveys, not what it might mean. In the past there were photos which remained in my portfolio because it felt important to have a representation of that image, even if the picture itself wasn’t all that good. But as my mind’s eye has (hopefully) progressed, my heart remains attached to some images more than others. But that’s the story of the thing, really. It’s not the flat image which is the definition of success, it’s what that image evokes, conveys and energizes in the eyes (and hearts) of the viewers.

Again, from my web page:

The Desert Beckons
“Much of the challenge (and pleasure) of photography is to give a sense of place. While the photographer may have concrete memories of a moment he/she has captured in time, the viewer does not.

What has to occur for the viewer to appreciate a photograph is the triggering of a memory, thought or emotion.

For a picture to be truly successful it must be visceral, capturing the essence of what the photographer saw, and melding it to a feeling the viewer once felt.”

That...is my goal and -- ideally -- my achievement.