Archive for February, 2011

Tormenta de Uyuni

Posted by Arlo on Feb 26, 2011 under Photography, Postcard Valet, Travel

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What a difference three weeks can make!

After getting sick on our first visit to the world’s largest salt flat, Oksana and I retreated to La Paz and rested up.  We knew we were coming back to the Salar de Uyuni on our way down to Chile, but we worried that the trip wouldn’t be the same without our friends, Dusty and Wendy, along (not to mention that we couldn’t afford a “private” tour without them…)

So, when we arrived at Red Planet Expeditions again, we had plenty of questions for the guides.  The most important of which: How can we see the Salar at night?

The short answer: “You can’t.”  At least not without staying at a $100/night salt hotel.  When pressed, one of the guides admitted there were other options. We could pay $150 for a private, one-day tour which would let us stay out on the flats until about 10pm.  That seemed steep to us, considering the 3-day tour to Chile would still cost us $130.  Another option, he said, would be to try to convince a group to change the normal itinerary on their 3-day/2-night tour to stay out on the flats until just after sunset.  In that case, everyone would have to spend the night in Uyuni again, because there would be no time to drive south after dark.

Most of the tourists with reservations wouldn’t arrive until the next morning, so we resolved to return to the office early to meet them and pitch our idea before committing our own money.

The next morning, nothing went as planned!  The buses from Sucre and La Paz were late (due to the unpredictable road conditions during the rainy season.)  At first, this seemed like a great thing:  The later we got underway, the more likely it seemed we’d be able to convince our guide to stay on the salt flats until dark.  But as time went on and no word from the buses materialized, plans changed.  Oscar, a Red Planet guide, decided to simply merge the people who were waiting, even though not all of us had paid for the same tour.  “Don’t worry,” he told me. “I’ll just tell the others that we’re staying until sunset and they won’t even know that’s not normal!”

Indeed, after hearing that the normal tour only allocated a couple mid-day hours on the flats, the two couples from Argentina and France recognized the opportunity for what it was.  Sunset and star photos on the world’s largest salt flats?  And we don’t miss anything else on the tour?  How did we get so lucky?

Ever since I’d first heard about this tour in Quito, I’d been looking forward to getting some nighttime, starlight photos on the salt flats.  Supposedly, when the stars are reflected in the water below, it looks like you’re floating in space!  The weather on our second tour was cooperating, too.  On our first trip, it rained off and on the whole day, but this time, the sky was blue overhead and the only clouds were on the horizon.  Another difference: the water level on the flats was much higher on our second go-around.  We were excited that the mirrored surface was even better, even though that meant there were very few places where we could attempt the funny perspective shots…

As the sun began to set, a storm developed on the western horizon.  Big black sheets of rain began to fall, far in the distance, and the few people remaining on the flats began to cluster together and start taking photos.  As the storm approached, the lightning grew more intense.  Some of us were actually able to take handheld lightning photos if we were quick enough.

But as the night began to fall, the real show began!  With the darkness, I was able to lengthen my exposures.  I set my camera to shoot in bursts, bracketing all three shots to be slightly darker than normal.  The storm was raging by the end (though we never did get rained on!) and practically every photo captured at least one, big lightning bolt.

Everyone in our group has amazing photos from that evening, but this one is my favorite.

By 7:30pm, the air was whipping around us and I suspect the wind chill was below zero.  I was still in shorts and up to my ankles in icy salt water, shivering uncontrollably.  The storm had literally horseshoed around us and lightning was coming down on all three sides, but I continued to take photos right up until Oscar arrived with our Land Cruiser.  “I’m so sorry, man,” he shouted over the wind, “but I don’t think you’re going to get your starlight photos tonight.”

“Are you kidding me?  After a show like that?  I couldn’t care less!”

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 7:20pm, 23 February 2011
Focal Length: 24mm
Shutter: 8 seconds, -1.7 step bias
Aperture: F/11
ISO: 500
Photoshop: Slight crop to level horizon, auto color, minor saturation increase, cloned out a couple dozen “hot” pixels (chip temperature errors), plus cleaned up the ghosting of one person’s silhouette (because they moved during 8 sec exposure.)

Thoughts on Peru

Posted by Arlo on Feb 22, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

Before I started off on my first real trip out of the country – a college trip to Mexico in 1997 – our Spanish instructor gave us a little mental exercise in preparation for one of the essays we’d eventually be required to write.  He asked us to take a few minutes to examine our preconceptions about the country we were about to visit so that we could see how well they matched up with reality.

Of course, we can’t help but do that when we travel, but turning it into a conscious effort allows us to see things that we wouldn’t otherwise.

Our recent trip through Peru last month was my fourth time in the country.  With the exception of trekking in Colca Canyon, all the places Oksana and I visited were the same old places I’d been before.  Trying to remember my original preconceptions of the country was futile; for the most part, I knew exactly what to expect.

Still, traveling with Oksana (on her first trip to Peru) allowed me to see the country through her eyes.  I jotted down some notes, as I often do, about how Peru can be different from what you may expect.
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PV013: Tagua de Wilson

Posted by Arlo on Feb 15, 2011 under Postcard Valet, PV-Podcast, Travel, Videos

Way back in December, Oksana and I spent some time in Baños de Agua Santa, in Ecuador.  We had just finished up a tour of the Galapagos Islands where we’d gone way over-budget, so we were looking to slow down and save some money for awhile.  Baños was the perfect place for that.

Our friend, Jeff, who’d toured the Galapagos with us, stuck around long enough to take a jungle tour with us, but he was influential in our Baños stay in another way.  While in Quito, he had been trying to assemble a custom chess set made out of carved tagua nuts.  When we arrived in Baños, he stumbled upon a little shop called “Tagua de Wilson.”

While trying to fill in the gaps for his chess set, we got to talking with the eponymous owner.  Jeff asked if he did custom work, then asked how much a full chess set would cost.  $60 USD, but there was a catch.  It was Christmas season and Wilson was busy carving ornaments, nativity scenes, and the like. It would take him up to two weeks to carve a full set.  Oksana and I offered to stay in Baños so that we could FedEx it back to Jeff, in Alaska, when it was completed.

Originally, I thought this video would be the story of how Wilson carved the chess set for Jeff, but while Wilson was happy to talk about his work, he wanted to keep the carving of the figurines a secret.  The theme changed a little in editing, but I’m happy with the way it turned out.

A note on the subtitles: Every conversation with Wilson was necessarily in Spanish.  Not only did that make it difficult for me during the interview sessions we had, but it made editing pretty tough, too.  If you’re bilingual, you’ll notice the translations are not exact. I tried to stay as close as I could to the words he used, but most of the time I translated in service to the story, rather than to the language.  (I probably should have run the final subtitles by a native Spanish-speaking friend, but oh well.  I’m a long way from fluent, but I’m still proud that I was able to do as well as I did!)

And finally, I want to mention how much Oksana helped on this video.  You’ll see me talking with Wilson in most every shot and that’s because Oksana was there to help with the cameras.  A lot of her work has appeared in previous podcast episodes, but this is the first one where she did the bulk of the shooting.  Way to go, Oksana!
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Burn out

Posted by Arlo on Feb 9, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Travel

Oksana and I just passed the 90-day mark on our time out of the country.  I think it’s fair to say we’ve both experienced a bit of homesickness during that time.  On nights where we’re too tired to go out and find something to eat, Oksana misses our kitchen.  When I got sick (I mean, really sick), I missed our bed, and more, our bathroom!

We’re in La Paz, Bolivia right now, taking advantage of some down time.  It feels like we’ve been rushing since we spent the New Year in Lima, partly because we’d promised to meet some friends in Uyuni in early February.  Well, we made that date, but we had to bail out of our planned 3-day tour with them when both Oksana and I came down with some really nasty intestinal thing.

Being on the run hasn’t been conducive to sitting down and editing podcast videos.  At the end of the day, by the time I’ve managed to upload some photos, update our GPS track, and post a few updates on Facebook and Twitter, I’m usually too mentally wiped out to sit down and tackle hours of video.  Before we leave La Paz again, though, I’m going to post at least one new video (about Ecuador’s tagua nuts.  I know… what?!)

We have a ton of videos in the pipeline, however.  More on that in a sec…

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Salar de Uyuni

Posted by Arlo on Feb 4, 2011 under Photography, Postcard Valet, Travel

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The Salar de Uyuni has to be one of the most surreal places I have ever been.  Situated high in the Andes, it’s the world’s largest salt flat.  In over 12,000 square kilometers, the elevation varies by less than one meter and the tricks that plays on perspective almost have to be seen to be believed.

We’d raced through Peru to get to the Salar de Uyuni by early February because we’d heard that the best time to visit it was in the rainy season, during a new moon.  This time of year, during the day, water covers the salt flat and reflects the sky, and on a moonless night, the reflection of the stars – supposedly – creates a universe both above and below your feet.

We had also been planning to meet our friends, Dusty and Wendy from, at Uyuni since we’d hung out with them in Lima.

Everything was going well the night before.  After much debate, we’d booked a 3-day/ 2-night private tour with the Red Planet tour agency.  We were happy to pay a little extra for the two unused seats in our Land Rover (and pay a little bit less for a Spanish-only guide.)  Come the morning of our visit to the Salar, however, things started going downhill.

Both Oksana and I woke up sick.  If it had been only us, we’d probably have cancelled our tour, but we wanted to hang out with Dusty and Wendy, so we decided to soldier on.

And boy are we glad we did!  We drove onto the Salar in the Land Rover at about 5 miles an hour, pushing 10 inches of water out away from us in every direction. Our guide, Roy, stopped at the first dry island so we could take pictures, but one of the many passing showers caught up to us before we really got started.  We piled back into the SUV and he drove us to the Salt Hotel, farther out on the flats.

From the hotel, you could barely see the horizon in any direction.  Miles and miles of salt was covered by just a few inches of water which created floating mirages out of the mountains in the distance.  Aim your camera towards wet ground and your subjects appeared to be walking on the sky.  Point it at one of the few dry spots and the lack of perspective lent itself to hundreds of humorous opportunities to play with scale (for instance, a person standing 25 meters behind another might appear to be perched on their shoulder.)

Unfortunately, it felt like Oksana and I spent half our time on the flats doubled over with stomach cramps and while I took a few good photos, I wasn’t feeling especially creative with the camera.  We decided over lunch that we would cut our tour short and just go back to the hotel and sleep.  Our biggest regret: Bailing on our friends.

(Three days later, we’re feeling much better.  We’re about to catch a train back north into Bolivia, but I expect we’ll return in a couple weeks, because the agency we used has an easy option for border transfers into Chile and that seems like a fine place to go next!  Maybe next time we’ll find a way to get those night shots!)

Canon 5D Mark II
Date: 1:51pm, 02 February 2011
Focal Length: 105mm
Shutter: 1/1600 second, -.7 step bias
Aperture: F/8
ISO: 100
Photoshop: Slight crop to level horizon, auto color, minor saturation increase, desaturated SUV after auto color tinted it green.

Because I was well aware of how our sudden sickness was affecting the mood of our Salar de Uyuni tour, I asked Wendy and Dusty to help us stage a photo so we could all remember how our day together felt: