Today, I got in touch with my inner child. You know the one, that one which lives inside us all and which at times surprises us at the most unexpected moments. It lies dormant, and more-often-than-not suppressed, in some locked chamber inside our hearts. We are conscious of its presence while it lingers unattended under the watchful eye of those merciless wardens of our so-called happiness, adulthood and correctness. But try as they may on days like these, those vicious suppressors of spontaneity and childhood innocence lie helpless before the sight of hundreds of kites slicing their way through the April sky above the blooming blossoms of a glorious spring day. No chance, none at all.
That is because today was a special day, the day in which the great Smithsonian Institution celebrates the annual Blossom Kite Festival. Colorful flying machines flying in all directions with a cloudy canvas as a backdrop. Children whose eyes rarely left the sky while their parents desperately tried their best at a two-minute crash course on flying the unruly kites. Entanglements as common as the acrobatic displays by the most experienced flyers. Big kites, small kites, kites without a tail, kites with flags, and the wonderment of thousands of people who could not conceive of missing an event like this. And yes, there on that grassy field of wonders, someone I knew from my childhood showed up, unannounced and marveling at the celestial spectacle as he has once marveled on a land so very far away. He didn’t stay long, but long enough to remind me that flying a kite has never been about expertise, but rather about letting your dreams soar way up into the skies and then fighting like hell to keep them there for as long as you can. Something the me now sometimes forgets, but something the me then always remembered. And that’s what great days are made of.
There is perhaps no better place to be in America during Memorial Day that in Washington, DC where a grateful nation pays tribute to so many fallen heroes in such a honorable way. The annual pilgrimage is really something to see. What are otherwise empty streets on weekends are now overwhelmed with the rumbling sounds of motorcycles and visitors making their way to the countless ceremonies taking place at memorials all over town. They come from just about every part of the country with a sense of pride and patriotism that you only wish you could bottle it and sell it to those who could use a little dosage of both. But what I like above all is that these are ordinary Americans, the ones who have built a great nation through personal sacrifice and ingenuity. Even better, their yearly arrival at the capital they own happens to coincide with the hasty exodus by professional politicians from the city, as well as local elites going into lockdown at their pricey downtown condos (God forbid that they had to mingle with “them” people). Am I digging this? Maybe a little. But it sure is nice to know that a great nation full of incredible folks stills exists beyond the walls of Minas Tirith.
Some things never change, and that’s OK with me. Don’t get me wrong, I pretty much love every convenience this modern world has to offer, specially if it makes everyday life a little easier to bear. But even when modernity rules the day in the cities, I can’t help but find it refreshing to know that some things out there in the “real world” don’t ever change much. In America we may not have the incredible ancient ruins you will find all over Europe, but one thing we have over all those Europeans is a good, old-fashioned county fair. Not sure whether it is just nostalgia or something a bit deeper than that, but for this humble photographer, a country-flavored county fair just does the trick every time. Cattle, chickens, pigs, sheep, you name it and I want to see it all. Thick, fluffy corndogs, cotton candy, and pulled-pork sandwiches? Can I get an Aaamen?
However, no matter how much some of us love these county fairs, the sad reality is that for most city folks, their existence doesn’t even register on their life radars. I mentioned the ongoing Loudon County Fair to some folks recently and their reaction was tantamount to me offering them to join me for Typhus injections. They’ve all been to them, but that was back then, way back then. After all, are they not primarily for children? Well, yes and no, even if for most grownups it does bring out the inner child in them. And who would like to ride on an old, clunky ferris wheel when you can go ride air conditioned gondolas on a mega-structure like the London Eye? Well, call me sentimental, but yours truly does.
Above all, I really like the people I meet at a county fair. Hard-working, approachable folks who are an incredible source of information about anything having to do with raising farm animals and bringing them to market. And they put their children to work, big time. No cell phones or video games for these kids when work needs to be done, and there’s never a shortage of work at a farm. After several hours of conversation, education, and stuffing my face with things my doctor would cringe at, I found the whole thing to be quite a welcomed break from the city-sleeker habitat I call home these days. Better? Not necessarily, but it really felt good to get some “mud on my boots” for a change.
One of the great things about living in the Washington, DC area is that you get to experience world cultures without having to leave the city. Of course, this is mainly because of the great Smithsonian Institution, which sits royally in the heart of the city and acts as beacon of culture that is second to none in the world. On this particular weekend it is Peru that has their attention, with a celebration of Peruvian culture and traditions at the Folklife Festival smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. In fact, after visiting several of these festivals in the past, it is my impression that this one is one of the best festivals I have ever seen at the Mall, and I’m not just saying that because of the copious amounts of Peruvian food I came in contact with. Really, they even have Alpacas there, which you can go check out after trying your dance skills at the sound of some rhythmic Andean tunes.
But what was most impressive for me was the sight of weavers and boat-makers who could turn simple threads and straw into incredible works of art. In a city where the first thing that comes to mind when talking about “ancient skills” is having to type on a manual typewriter, actually seeing people who can build something with their hands is a quite a big deal. And after several hours observing them at work, I never saw a single one of them using a cell phone. Amazing that people can survive without them. Gracias amigos.
Like so many other visitors to Hong Kong, I was fascinated by this complex metropolis. With one of the highest population densities in the world, Hong Kong is a sea of constant activity and a dynamic vibe that would make lots of major cities in America look like they are on life support. And while I do intend to post a little more about this former British territory soon, I couldn’t help but start my Hong Kong posts with the most famous event taking place there during my recent visit. Of course, this was not all that was happening in Hong Kong during this past week, but rather that if you read anything about the place recently, most likely it had something to do with the pro-Democracy demonstrations taking place at various places in the city.
It didn’t take long for the press to dub these youth-driven demonstrations “The Umbrella Revolution.” The simple umbrella, which initially served to shield the protestors from the barrage of pepper spray that descended on them on 28 September, rapidly became the symbol of resistance against mainland China’s decision to require any candidate for the top post in the city during the upcoming 2016 elections to receive pre-approval from Beijing before qualifying to run for office. To say that the young people in Hong Kong disagreed with this mandate would be a gross understatement. To the streets they went, specially to the part of Central Hong Kong known as Admiralty, where the main government offices are located right along Victoria Harbor. Having booked a hotel nearby, I couldn’t resist the temptation to check the demonstration out, praying all along that my visit would not coincide with the next pepper spray festival downtown. What did I find when I got there? For starters, some of the best behaved and friendly demonstrators I’ve seen anywhere. There were teams organized to pick up garbage around the clock, for water and food distribution, and for communication. People constantly approached me to see if I understood why they were out there and to make sure I fully grasped the seriousness of their concerns. A generation that was mostly born after the British ended their authority over the islands wanted the world to listen to their defense of freedom and democracy–two words that are growingly taken for granted by so many, but which still fuel the dreams and aspirations of countless others around the world today. And did they mind being photographed while protesting? Not at all. Their only concern appeared to be that the world would ignore their plight, but judging by what I have seen in the press over the last week or so, their story has received quite a lot of attention all over the world. Whether their demands will ever amount to anything is perhaps a more challenging question. I guess we will have to wait and see.
What can you say about the yearly H Street Festival downtown Washington, DC. Have I mentioned before that this is by far my favorite street festival in the area? Well, it is, and every year I go back to take some pictures and to enjoy the music, the incredible restaurants, and above all, the laid-back party atmosphere at the place. Apparently I’m not alone in thinking that way, as judging by the wall-to-wall crowds, this must be one of the best attended festival in DC. Not served by a metro station and somewhat out-of-the-way from the tourist areas in the city, H Street is one of those places that you reach by either intentionally walking there for a reason (and there are many reasons to visit) or simply by getting lost. But no one has problems finding the place in September, when masses of revelers and artists descend on the neighborhood for a cultural festival like no other in this town of buttoned-up politicians. Boasting some of the best ethnic restaurants in town, H Street more than makes up for its otherwise glamorous-challenged existence by becoming party central for a day. That the festival happens to coincide with the start of the famous Oktoberfest in Munich is even better, because just like in that great German festival, the folks at H Street never run out of beer either.
Remember the fun days of summers from your youth? Well, they’re still there, even if these days we are mainly occupied with work, achievement, and all sorts of other important things. However, after watching this summer youth program along the Potomac River yesterday, I started to think about a conversation I once had with my college professor brother. Having asked him why he had chosen to remain a college professor for life in the place he did instead of entering the corporate world to make the big bucks, his reply kind of took me by surprise. He pointed out that while he recognized the earning potential of those who toil at their work all year round, he had made the conscious decision to choose a career where he “had not worked a single summer since his high school graduation.” Summers were his to engage in all sorts of personal projects and activities, and that long-term freedom must certainly have a value that cannot be measured by dollars alone. Fun? Summers off? Freedom? You can only imagine what was going through the head of yours truly, a never-summer-off dedicated public servant who spent most of his professional life in the United States Marine Corps. So here I was with my camera at the Washington Sailing Marina recording how much fun summers can be, thinking about how few of them we will have in our lifetimes, and realizing that my brother was a genius for the choices he made. It took a bunch of laughing, giggling, sun-drenched youth fumbling over sails and choppy waters to remind me of that.
It has to be one of the busiest sidewalks in the world. Sandwiched between the US Supreme Court building and 1st Street NE, this small piece of DC real estate is a constant beehive of activity whenever the Supreme Court is in session. Journalists with tons of expensive gear wait impatiently for litigants to come down the Court’s stairs either to complain or celebrate after the Court issues a decision. If the issue being litigated is controversial enough, you will also see (and hear) advocates from each side of the issue trying to out-demonstrate each other with bullhorns, placards, and mannequins. Real estate is at a premium, though, and it is usually a sight to behold to watch journalists, demonstrators, and tourists with cameras jockeying for position along the relatively short space in front of the Court. Some journalists (as you can see in the photo) opt to set mobile offices on the Capitol’s grounds, busily relaying news items to major networks from their shaded suites. I guess if you have to be at the office on any given day, this is about as good as it can get in DC. Chaos and calm, or what otherwise passes as a normal day in Washington’s charged political climate.
Ever feel that you got to a place a few decades too late? Well, I do, and that place is indeed the SoHo neighborhood in New York City. Not that I could hang out with the local fashionistas that strut the local streets looking “mahvelous,” but rather that upon setting foot on the place I had that all-too-common feeling of having arrived late to a party. I’ve been hearing about SoHo for far too long now, but for some reason or another (OK, like most tourists) I have primarily limited myself to mid-Manhattan and other “have been” attractions like Little Italy and Chinatown during previous visits. This was a serious mistake that I do not intend to repeat, though. In fact, several years ago I made the decision to leave most tourist places to time-starved tourist and just head out to the neighborhoods where no tourist buses are to be found. But this I applied mostly to cities abroad like Paris, Rome, and Berlin. One day in SoHo has made me realize that I need to do the same at home.
But I just didn’t just wake up one day and decided to go to SoHo. I was there to spend the day with the great folks of The Leica Meet group, who were being graciously hosted by the Leica store at 460 West Broadway. The people at the Leica store simply hit it out of the park with their great support for this event. Not only did they allowed the group to use their store facilities for the day, but they also coordinated a wonderful group lunch at the Hundred Acres Restaurant & Bar, followed by a visit with various great Leica photographers like Ralph Gibson and Adam Marelli. This sense of community is something that other camera manufacturers can only dream of, and SoHo was just the perfect setting for the event. It’s definitely great to discover a few more good reasons to visit the city that never sleeps more often – like taking a creativity vitamin, which I dare say, we all could use from time to time. I know I do.
You wouldn’t know from the young, vibrant faces of a new generation of Chinese Americans that this past weekend they were actually celebrating 4711 years of Chinese cultural history. As the Year of the Horse dawned on us all, a small but proud Chinese American community in the Penn Quarters district of Washington, DC took to the streets to celebrate the cultural traditions that the elders surely experienced back in the old country many years ago. In spite of the fact that DC’s Chinatown is a mere shadow of what it once was (the 2010 DC census shows 24.84% of the local Asian population as ethnic Chinese), year-after-year the dwindling community goes through great efforts to keep this colorful event alive. With the relentless encroachment of the business community in the area, it is hard to say what the future holds for these types of events, specially as the ranks of the older generation continue to dwindle and a new generation looks to the suburbs to plant their roots. Even local newspapers have a tendency to point you in the direction of the Virginia suburbs and Maryland if authentic Chinese food is what you are after. That’s a pity, but perhaps somewhat typical of the realities being faced by similar communities around the country. Nevertheless, I am convinced that notwithstanding this reality, as long as we keep supporting events like these in the various ethnic communities around the country, something very precious will be preserved for future generations. And that, my friend, would be a good thing.
Some photographs just speak for themselves. This is one of those. After seeing a group of people perusing photo books for sale at at the 2013 PDN Expo in NYC, I decided to take a photo with my Ricoh GR just to make up for what otherwise was a slow photography day. What I was not expecting was for the woman in the photo to suddenly turn the book page and be shocked by whatever it was she had just seen. I could’t quite make out what exactly she was looking at, but it had obviously caused quite an impression on her. Sometimes, that’s just how it happens. Just when you are about to press that shutter, someone within the frame of view will do something that will produce a much more interesting photograph. That’s what happened on this day, and it obviously transformed what was just an ordinary scene into one not so ordinary. That worked for me.
There is a phenomena that regularly takes place in Washington, DC that is perhaps rare in other parts of the country. To put it as simply as I can, it goes like this: as the bureaucrats leave the District for the weekend, the protesters move in to occupy its streets. The movement in and out of the capital resembles the movement of the waves, where the ocean must first recede before waves come back to the shore in force. Such was the case this weekend when thousands of military veterans stormed the DC Mall’s memorials to make the point that citizens should never be denied access to our nation’s monuments. From what my camera could see from the middle of the crowd, it all took place in an orderly (albeit sometimes tense) fashion. Only one brief scuffle took place at the Lincoln Memorial when some of the veterans insisted in taking a section of a barrier from the hands of a Park Police Officer, but after some shoving took place and a nightstick made its appearance, everyone seemed to calm down. But as better heads prevailed, the barriers were removed (to be dumped later in front of the White House) and the crowd made its way up the Lincoln Memorial. It wasn’t exactly the liberation of France, but it was readily obvious the nation’s veterans know a thing or two about breaking down barriers and occupying the high ground, no matter the cost. The days when they wore the uniform may be long gone, but you wouldn’t known from the way so many of them dragged their once able bodies to keep pace with their younger brethren on their way to bring down those metal barriers. I’m sure that President Lincoln, sitting there looking at all that was taking place at his feet today, was probably repeating some of his most famous words to the nation’s veterans: “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” And that’s what they did, Mr. President.
This weekend was just no ordinary weekend, and while I am no believer on the effect of cosmic forces on human beings (well, not totally), something was definitely happening out there. For starters, two major calendar events took place this weekend: the official end of summer and the official start of the fall season, as evidenced by the autumnal equinox. This celestial, one-day 12/12 hour split between night and day must have put local residents into a partying mood because Washington, DC was definitely rocking this weekend. On Saturday, it was time for what is arguably the best street party in DC to turn on the party volume along H Street NE. This H Street Festival has become an institution in DC and it keeps getting better every year. With a mix of ethnic and trendy new bars and eateries lining its sidewalks, H Street NE continues to be one of the best kept secrets in the city. You won’t see any tourists there, but if cool establishments with style and a modern vive is what you are after, then you better high-tail-it to H Street NE. This street could just be the antidote you’re looking for to spice up your life a bit.
On Sunday, as the autumnal equinox was in full force, it was time for the Latino Festival DC to bring latin music and celebrations to the streets of DC. Thousands of people jammed Constitution Avenue to watch costumed dancers proudly showcase traditional dances from Central and South America while at Pennsylvania Avenue an incredible assortment of latin food and salsa music extended the party all the way to 14th Street. Fresh coconuts, fresh corn, carnitas, tostones, papusas, yucca, rice and beans, you name it, it was all there. And while my expanding waistline could probably not handle too many weekends like this, I’m already looking forward to next year’s autumnal equinox. I tell you, those cosmic forces do seem to be working after all.
Talking about a change of scenery. No sooner did I return from discovering parts of Eastern Europe that I found myself at the shores of the Potomac River in Maryland watching Dragon Boat races. Sure, it’s not the Danube, but what can you say; it’s water, and if you can put a boat on it, then you can certainly have a race. Ever heard of Dragon Boat Racing? I must admit that until a few days ago, this form of competition was a foreign to me as what’s located on the other side of the moon. And from the looks of it, I was definitely missing on something. This Dragon Boat racing is serious stuff, with teams all over the country competing for a chance to go to what I was told, would be the world championships in Italy sometime next year. Italy? It’s already sounding interesting to this humble traveler.
After reading on the web that this regional competition was to take place at Maryland’s elegant National Harbor development, I simply had to go check it out. Since the event description had the word race, I sort of expected a little competition to take place. To be perfectly honest, and considering that we live in a city where underwear races and national pillow fights take place right under President Lincoln’s stony gaze, I was sort of expecting another “fun” event to help mark the dwindling days of summer. What I saw could not have been more different. Early morning group calisthenics, groups of people rhythmically air-rowing with the kind of facial expressions that reminded me of Mike Tyson, corporate teams, and a team consisting of visually-impaired folks that was being assisted to their boat, but who looked like they were there to kick some you know what. And while these folks were seriously pumped-up for competition, they were also some of the nicest people I’ve met in a while (could it be because I wasn’t competing against them?). So here I am, fresh from the cafes of Vienna and Krakow and now becoming a Dragon Boat racing closet expert. Well, not quite, but I surely had a great time meeting these folks and watching the regatta; and who knows, maybe I’ll check out some of their future races. Did I hear someone mention Italy?
Every year I tell myself that I have seen enough 4th of July celebrations to last a lifetime, but every year I keep returning as if in a pilgrimage to enjoy just one more. I can’t help it. Sure, it would be a lot more comfortable to stay home and watch these celebrations on TV, but no matter how much I sometimes get tempted to do just that, I just can’t seem to fathom being idle on a day like this. Too much happening out there. Marching bands, dancing groups of all kinds, ceremonial guards, and even pimped automobiles. It’s all out there amongst the thousands of people who show up in Washington, DC to celebrate our Nation’s independence. Frankly, our Nation’s capital is one of the best places to be at during this long weekend, if anything to actually witness locals acknowledging other human beings. That’s right, even the most hardened local bureaucrats seem to show a softer, human side during this time of the year. But more than that, if you drop by you’ll be amongst some of the proudest Americans you’ll encounter anywhere. The kind of American President Ronald Reagan had in mind when he uttered some of his most famous lines: “Our country is a special place, because we Americans have always been sustained, through good times and bad, by a noble vision — a vision not only of what the world around us is today, but what we as a free people can make it be tomorrow.” Well said, Mr. President.