Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Flying High Again

My first hot air balloon ride was remarkable not as much because of the views of downtown Albuquerque but because it was in the midst of hundreds of other balloons dotting the skies with striking colors. Today David and I got to take another flight which was remarkable because it took place along the Nile near Luxor.

We left the boat we are taking down the Nile around 6:00 am and took a ferry across the river and were then driven to the balloon launch site. Like the launch in Albuquerque, we were the second flight of the day and we arrived to find a gondola full of other tourists just back from their hop. We switched out groups a few people at a time to keep the weight in the balloon pretty consistent (lest it float away) and after a quick lesson in assuming the landing position we were away!

We flew over the small villages and past the Ramesseum and the Collosi of Memnon chasing our shadow across the sugar cane fields. It was a bit hazy in the morning so the pictures were not great but it was a really great way to see a different perspective on the ancient ruins.

As we came in to land in a field, the gondola bounced a couple of times and came to rest right against a sugar cane field. We had to wait for the ground crew to come and literally pull us back across a very muddy field (they were up the their knees in gooey muck as they dragged us) so that we could get out and they could deflate the balloon. We hiked a bit to the van and were soon on our way back across the Nile and to the next temple.

The Ramesseum from above

Flying past the Collosi of Memnon

Gliding across the sugar cane fields

This guy was just standing there as we landed. Seriously... he was just standing there.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Hello Bakh Shish?

We arrived at a picturesque village near the Valley of the Kings near Luxor ostensibly to be taken to an alibaster factory and get some pictures of local life. Soon after we arrived, a large part of the tour went in to the factory/gift shop while the rest of the group broke into smaller clusters of 4 or 5 to go shoot the village. The light was good and the village was amazing. The buildings were either exposed mud and straw brick shacks or larger buildings painted yellow, beige or blue and the occasional accent window was a bright blue, green, red or some combination thereof. Colorful laundry was hung out between some of the houses adding yet more contrast to the surrounding desert and rocky hills.

As we started up one of the hills in the village, a couple of children came up to us saying "Hello bakh shish? Hello bakh shish?" Bakh shish is the word for tip and they were asking for a bit of money or whatever we had. I started with my standard "No thanks" and kept shooting but soon that crowd of children grew to 10 and then 15 -- swarming around our group like the flocks of little seagulls in Finding Nemo and going from person to person with increasingly urgent calls of "Hello bakh shish?" "Mine? Mine?" Eventually, someone in one of the groups would give in and give a kid something. Someone brought some balloons and started handing them out. A couple of people had colorful pencils for situations like this but these gifts only served as chum in the water as the seagulls turned into sharks at the first sight of bakh shish. They would surround anyone who had anything to give and grow more and more plentiful yelling "Hello bakh shish!!" until that person's supply was exhausted or they had been eaten. I didn't see anyone actually eaten but I'm pretty sure it happened at least once.

I tried the bakh shish giving just once. There were two kids standing next to me and I gave each of them a shiny penny. Suddenly there was a third and I gave her one too. Then a fourth out of nowhere. Running low on pennies, I needed a way out. Some of us came up with clever ruses to get away from the swarms. One particularly popular one was to point at other people in other groups and say "bakh shish! They have bakh shish!" and the swarm would run towards that person or at least be confused enough looking for them that you could make your escape. One of my favorites was to talk to them in nonsensical responses to their questions.

Bakh shisher: "Hello bakh shish?"
Me: "No, my name isn't bakh shish"
Bakh shisher: "One dollar?"
Me: "You are not a cat"
Bakh shisher: "One dollar?"
Me: "For me? OK - I'll take a dollar"
Bakh shisher: "Hello bakh shish?"
Me: "Nope, go fish. Do you have any threes?"

We kept wandering around the village shooting pictures of the buildings, people and swarms for about 45 minutes before we headed back to the bus. When we got there, the machine gun toting security folks who follow us around had shown up and the children went running back home. A few who tried to corner someone returning to the bus were sent running by the security folks yelling something at them.

Bakh Shishers attack!

Friday, January 27, 2006

Camel Shopping

Yesterday, the whole group headed back to the pyramids and the Sphinx on the Giza plateau. It was our first full day of the tour and this was the first time we would have a chance to shoot with the mentors and get the ancient Egyption lowdown from Bob. We had taken a bunch of shots there on Wednesday so we were looking for something different today and it largely came in taking pictures of OTHER people being taken for a ride. Heh heh. Certainly a cost savings for us and we knew this time how to say "No thanks". Let's just not talk about how much less they paid for their rides than we did.

Bob was fantastic, giving lots of information about the site including, among other things, the latest theories on how the pyramids were built (perhaps a ramp on the inside? Studies are upcoming though I still have my money on alien technology), where they fell in the history of Egypt (very early) and what actually happened to the Sphinx's nose (wind erosion - not Napoleon's army taking target practice). It was like having a backstage pass to the one remaining ancient wonder of the world.

Today we had a full day scheduled. While IM'ing with Leslie this morning, I told her we were headed to the Camel market and asked if she needed me to pick anything up. "Yes, two camels. A blond one and a crunchy one." Okie dokie.

We left at 6 am and arrived at the camel market outside Cairo just as the sun started rising. If you've never been to a camel market (and unless you were there with me today, I doubt anyone reading this has) I highly recommend it. Hundreds of camels hopping about. Hopping because they bind the front left leg to keep them from being able to run very fast and get away. Lots of locals trying to keep the herds in order and together. And today - about 70 photographers running hither and yon trying to get the perfect shot while avoided being trampled by camels. I'm not sure which was more interesting - the camels or the people. It was our first opportunity to see a real slice of life. Not a crowd of people dedicated to extracting every last piastre from us but people engaged in their daily work...

Auctioning camels.

Not long after we arrived, the auctions began. Camels were huddled together and the auctioneer would be yelling out bids and offers in Arabic, while others would circle the camels with big sticks, whacking them from time to time if they started to get out of order. I busied myself taking pictures of the frenzied activity while trying to avoid accidentally buying a camel or two. I'll say this: they are very cool animals but I have no extra room in my luggage and they are way too big to share my seat on the way home. In case you're wondering, they go for about $1,000 and up with the top of the line racing camels selling for upwards of half a million US dollars though I didn't see any of those today. Nor did I see any crunchy ones.

After the market, we went to the Egyption Museum and saw many of the items I had been reading about in preparation for this trip including the Narmer Palette and a replica of the Rosetta Stone but the big hits were the mummies and the relics found in King Tutankhamon's tomb. I've seen books about the treasures of King Tut but seeing them in person is much more impressive. The incredibly ornate jewelry, masks and coffins were amazing. Even more interesting were the actual photos of how everything was just stacked together in the small tomb. If they put this much stuff in this little nothing of a king's tomb I can only imagine how amazing the tombs of Ramses or Khufu must have been.

I'll post a few pictures but they are pretty much all from the camel market since we could not bring cameras into the museum. Tomorrow morning, we are headed for Aswan to begin our cruise down the Nile. No idea if we'll have internet connections there but next time I find one, I'll post more.

We arrived just as the sun was rising.

The camels were having their breakfast.


The handler is getting ready to bind this camel's leg

Dancing camel

The auctioneer

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Another day at the pyramids

It's been a really busy day back at the pyramids. I don't have time to write much since we have a really early day tomorrow and I need to get some sleep but here are a few more pictures to tide you over :)

It is camel day

This guy almost stepped on me several times

Oh... hello...

Camel love :)


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Greetings from Egypt

The Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of Cheops

While the rest of the tour group shows up this afternoon, Josh, David and I took advantage of our late night arrival to get a head start. We found a cab driver that would take us on a 3 hour tour of the Pyramids and Giza plateau for only 130 Egyptian Pounds (about 22 bucks...). His name was Ashraf and he did a great job of getting us to the sites and giving us good advice - some of which we apparently forgot at one point.

First he took us up to a spot to get a panoramic photo of the three big pyramids. His best advice of the day was when someone comes up to us trying to give us something or sell us something, just say "No Thanks" and keep going. We got a number of good shots from the panorama site and then headed down towards the pyramids where we walked around some more snapping happily.

As we came around a corner, we saw a guy on a camel. He asked us if we wanted to take a picture of it and we said "No thanks" (cuz we already had) but then he showed us another camel named Rambo. OK, actually it's name appeared to be Rabmo according to the embroidery on his...um...coat... but maybe he figured Rambo would get 3 Americans more interested. At this point, we made the mistake of not saying No Thanks and moving on. It was all a bit of a blur, but suddenly we were all sitting on top of camels wearing sheets on our head and the camel guys were taking pictures of us with our cameras. These guys are good. While they tried to get us to go for a 10 minute ride but we finally got our "No Thank You's" working and we were let down, separated, and asked to make them happy. Apparently, $20 wasn't enough since they wanted something closer to $100 each. I tried to get Josh and David together so we could do some collective bargaining. David had paid $40 so Josh and I ended up doing the same figuring that $5 was about right for the photos and $35 was an appropriate price to pay for the lesson of remembering to say no thanks.

We moved on and were much better at keeping the pushy sales folk at bay. While walking past the Great Pyramid of Cheops, someone approached me and asked where I was from. "France", I said, and spent the next couple of minutes trying to get past him speaking both French and English with a French accent. He kept offering me a cadeau but I declined. He stuck it in my hand and I kept trying to hand it back to him but he kept saying it was a cadeau. I kept walking and each time he spoke to me, I offered him back the gift "Non, Merci". No mercy was right. He kept going. Once he realized that I wasn't going to bite on any of his other offers, he asked for a little something for the cadeau. I handed it back to him and moved on. Phew!

We headed down the the Sphinx where we took a bunch more pictures and whenever we were offered more rides on camels, Josh was quick to respond "No thanks, we've already been taken for a ride today."

The actual tour group meets in an hour or so and tomorrow we will be heading right back to the same place to take more pictures but this time, I'm going to get pictures of other folks getting taken for a ride.

Wrong way David... ;)

Made it to Egypt!

The sunrise as we were flying into Amsterdam was one of the most amazing things I've seen. Like an explosion of red that I suspect I could never quite capture with my camera and if I did people would think that my color balance was all wrong. It looked like the sky was on fire and the reflection in the canals and rivers made them look like they were set ablaze. Absolutely fantastic.

We spent the day in Amsterdam visting a friend of Josh's. It was a much better way of passing a 12 hour layover than sitting in the airport. We got to sleep a bit and then walked around Amsterdam and had lunch (dinner? Who knows which meal that was supposed to be after being up for 24 hours) at a cafe near the Heineken Experience building. I kept looking for the Heineken Platform building but it was nowhere to be seen. We made it back to the airport in plenty of time for our flight to Cairo.

One of the nice things about arriving in Cairo at 1:00 in the morning is that the airport is not nearly as crowded as it could be. We met up with our expediter from the tour group who helped us get the visas and then through customs in pretty good time. He then handed us off to the van driver who ferried us to the hotel.

Some of the highways in Egypt do not have lane markers which is just as well since they are something less than guidelines even when they do exist. Riding in the mini van from the airport to the hotel felt kind of like a high speed river rafting experience. We started by straddling a line for a few miles then all of the cars, trucks, buses just flowed around the road flashing warning lights and honking horns as they got close. I spent most of the time just trying to relax so when the impact came it wouldn't hurt as much. It never did come, though, and we made it safely to our hotel.

Tired. Must... sleep...

Monday, January 23, 2006

Chasing Eagles

I finally got an Eagle! Lots of them. Well, pictures anyway and I am talking about the bird -- not the lucky shot. On Friday we went on an Eagle viewing tour on the Skagit River with Amir, David and Tomasz. It was a great practice run for Egypt and a really cool trip in its own right.

While we were driving up to Skagit county the weather was not looking good. It rained much of the way up and it was very gray. As we got closer, the skies cleared a bit and some blue would occasionally poke through the clouds but there was also occasional low fog in the valley and clouds on the mountains. We were getting pretty close to the snow line so the hills around the river were blanketed in snow. It was really quite striking at times.

We set off on a rubber raft with a reasonably insane amount of camera gear -- no one was shooting with less than a 300mm lens with a 1.4 extender on it and Amir had his 500mm lens decked out in camoflage. We were bundled up in lots of layers and then life jackets on. Each time we got out of the boat to try to get closer to some birds it felt like we were some Navy Seal group storming a beach -- taking turns advancing and firing on our targets.

The trip was about four hours long and the weather generally cooperated though it did rain from time to time. The eagle count was down from previous weeks because the river was so high that the salmon carcasses that they've been feasting on were underwater so some of them had left but we still saw probably 30 of them. The tough part isn't seeing them, though, it is getting a good shot. With all of the gray skies the contrast was pretty bad much of the time and even when you had a reasonable background, you were still a pretty good distance away shooting with a very long lens in relatively low light in a boat. On top of that, I was shooting with a Canon 1D Mark II which I am not too familiar with but I didn't want to risk my 20D in the rain just before we left for Egypt.

We all took a lot of shots though. I zipped through my 4 gigs of memory cards in about 90 minutes and had to borrow another 4 gigs from David. It was largely a fire and pray kind of day but I figured with over 800 shots, something good would be in there. It took another few hours just to make the first triage pass and in doing so, I cut the list from 820 shots to about 120 and I've only had a chance to really process a few of them but you can see the results below. I'll probably post more later once I've had a chance to process the raw files.

It was a really fun trip though and I definitely learned a few things that should come in handy over the next couple of weeks. The first being that I needed more memory cards - that has been fixed. The second is that image stabilization is really helpful so I picked up the Canon 24-105 f/4.0 IS lens yesterday for the trip. It will be my main walking around lens and it is both lighter, longer and more stable than the 24-70 f/2.8. The IS should more than make up for the loss of a stop.

Probably the only eagles I'll be seeing this year :)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Go Seahawks!

The Seahawks are going to the Super Bowl. Awesome! $1250 per ticket at face value. Amazing! I think I'll watch it at home :)

The game was great (as a Seattle fan) though I'm sure a little more disappointing to the Carolina fans. If Carolina was playing anyone other than Seattle (or the Patriots) I would have been rooting for them since my parents used to live in Charlotte and I've been to a couple of their games but yesterday was clearly Seattle's day.

Great job Seahawks!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Best Pictures of 2005

It's a little late for a 2005 retrospective given that we are more than 2 weeks into 2006 already but since our Christmas tree is still up, I figure it is ok.

I took a lot of pictures this year (3692 stayed past the filtering stage) and they capture a bunch of the most memorable events of the year including the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, the Blue Angels and trips to Japan, Whistler, Portland, California and Las Vegas.

The full list of pictures is here. As always, you can get to all of the albums at PhotoMobility.com

Serenity in a park in Tokyo

Whistler November
Christmas time in Whistler, BC. This was our Christmas card photo.

Blue Angels 2005
I took well over a thousand photos of the Blue Angels this year. Tens of which were pretty good :)

This coming year promises to be more amazing with trips to Egypt, France and Germany all on the books and others sure to pop in.

Habitually Tagificated

Lara tagged me to list 5 of my weird habits. Apparently, there are rules to such things and they are:

The first player of the game starts with the topic, “5 weird habits about yourself”. People who get tagged need to write an entry about their five weird habits, as well as state this rule clearly. In the end you need to choose the next 5 people to be tagged, and link to their web-journals. Don’t forget to leave a comment in their blog/journal that says “you have been tagged” and tell them to read yours.

So be it.

1. The first thing I am supposed to say on the first day of every month is "Rabbit Rabbit." Seriously. I've been doing this for over 20 years. I don't always get it right but it pretty much always happens on the first day of the month and quite often is the first think I say as I roll out of bed. I think it is supposed to be a good luck thing though I've never done a study to find out if months where I say it as the first thing are somehow better than months where I say it after 20 minutes of talking. The fact that I've thought about doing such a study is telling though, huh? It does make New Year's Eve interesting though. "5...4...3...2...1...(Rabbit Rabbit) HAPPY NEW YEAR!"
2. I sync my clocks. As many as possible. My watch, my laptop, my car and as many clocks as I can find are all within a few seconds of each other. I find it particularly gratifying when my watch beeps on the hour at the same time that the BBC beeeep comes across NPR and they announce the time. Clocks that automatically set themselves to some atomic clock are a godsend.
3. I can't stop the beat. If there is music going on, I need to tap on something. Sometimes it is just my toes. This is related to Idiosyncracy 4.
4. I hate changing shampoo. Or soap. I'm very brand loyal that way. Though somehow I'm ok with using whatever the hotels leave you.
5. I fold the paper that the chopsticks come in into a little stand. It's a cute stand. I think Greg taught me how to do that back in California. Now people ask me to make stands for them too.

So there it is. Out on the web for all to know. Tony, Rick, Paul, Eric and George -- you're tagged!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Preparing for Egypt

Oh... Did I mention that I'm going to Egypt? Yep, in just under 2 weeks I'm headed off to Egypt for the Popular Photography Mentor Series Photography workshop. The workshop includes three photography instructors from National Geographic and a couple of world renown Egyptologists. We'll be headed to Cairo, Luxor, Sharm El Sheik, a number of places between along the Nile and finishing up with a hike up Mount Sinai. What an fantastic chance to see one of the most amazing parts of the world and learn a ton more about photography and Egypt all at once.

I've spent the past few weeks starting to get ready for it. Figuring out which camera gear to bring has been the toughest part. I'll certainly have my Canon 20D but which lenses? Don't want to carry too much, but I don't want to get all the way to Cairo and then realize that I really wish I had the thus-n-such lens, or that I need just 2 more 4 Gig memory cards. Then there are the medical preparations - I got both Hepatitus A and Typhoid shots ("Hey -- I've got typhoid in this arm and Hep A in this one! Who wants to touch me?") and now I've got to figure out which meds to bring along just in case. I could fill half the suitcase with imodium and the other half with lenses and CF cards but then what would I wear?

I wasn't going to bring a point and shoot camera because it felt like it would just be that much more weight to deal with until I got a Kodak EasyShare V570 at CES. This camera is really slick and does a good job with wide shots and while it doesn't do so great in low light, it does shoot 640x480 video and it is really small so it looks like it will be in the bag for this trip.

Of course I'll have my laptop too so if I get a chance and a good net connection, I'll be blogging as well.