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.
Talk about happenstance. This past week I had a chance to photograph inside a building that I’ve been eyeing with my camera for a long time, but one that is not generally open to the public like other places in Alexandria, Virginia. I’m referring to the Seaport Center, a floating structure that is the area’s only boat-building facility along this part of the Potomac River. Endless times I’ve walked along this building, at times seeing people inside hunching over small tools while chiseling away at curved pieces of wood. But the doors have always been closed, obviously to prevent the inevitable procession of visitors from interrupting the detailed work going on inside. But to my surprise, his past week those same doors were open, and a gracious member of the staff who saw me with my camera even asked me if I would like to come inside and take a tour of the place.
Finally, after so many misses, a chance to step inside this photogenic gem, and with all the time in the world to spare. One problem, though. Not imagining this would ever happen, I had only taken a 50mm lens with me for what was to be a short walkabout, leaving my best-suited-for-the-job wide-angled lenses safely inside a bag at home. This being a relatively small facility, those wide-angle lenses would have been perfect for the occasion, but at the time all that I could think of was the old saying that “now is all I’ve got,” so in I went into the boat house with a grin on my face.
This particular day just happened to be an “open house” day for the Seaport Foundation project. I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of this particular initiative prior to my visit, but after hearing what these folks were doing to help the young people in the area, I had my faith in humanity restored quite a bit. Under a “Building boats, building lives” slogan, the Boatbuilding Apprentice Program run by the Seaport Foundation is not only a one-of-a-kind craftsmanship program, but one that directly impacts the lives of young people by introducing a much-needed environment of belonging and purpose into their lives. These folks are doing tremendous work, one life at a time. As a photographer, I walked through those doors thinking that my day was about to be made amazing by the opportunity to photograph something I’ve been wanting to capture for a long time. Unbeknownst to me, what was about to make my day truly amazing was meeting such a wonderful group of people engaged in one of the noblest causes you could ever imagine. They possess something that I could never capture with a camera, but which served as a reminder that in small places like these all over our country, people are working diligently (and more-often-than-not, anonymously) to make a better world for others. It is humbling and inspiring at the same time, and they deserve all the credit in the world for what they do.
This is a post that I was not planning on writing, but someone asked me to post a few photographs from my trip to that great relic of the communist era in Hungary, the infamous Memento Park, so here it goes. For starters, getting to Memento Park is quite an adventure. You’ll hear that it is in Budapest, but it will take you a few bus transfers before you actually get to its remote location next to a dusty concrete factory of sorts. Your first reaction after being unceremoniously dumped at the small bus stop is confusion as to where exactly you have landed in Hungary. That’s because the bus stop is a few hundred yards from the park, and the somewhat industrial feeling of the place (even though there are houses around) is kind of disorienting. Only after spotting what seems like the top of a brick wall over some concrete-dusted trees behind you and across the street, do you realize that you’ve found the place.
The Hungarian people could not have done a better job in hiding all these relics, and the world could not have done a better job at ignoring them. While a mere 45 minutes away Budapest is a beehive of activity and excitement, the dusty Memento Park sits alone, desolate, and forgotten. Sure, a few curious souls do manage to trek there out of curiosity, but this communist resting place doesn’t appear to rank very high on most visitors’ to-do lists (on the day four of us visited, there was only one couple there taking pictures). When you think about it, though, Memento Park with its sun-drenched, sterile landscape and grotesque statues, is perhaps the right memorial for a failed ideology that enslaved millions of people a short generation ago. It is a graveyard of sorts–the last resting place of the symbols of coercion and subjugation by a political system long relegated to the ashes of history. That the people of Hungary endured and survived such historical catastrophe with such a positive attitude towards the future, is nothing short of remarkable. What surprises me is that Memento Park exists at all. Maybe the Hungarian people need a point of reference by which to measure how far they have come since those dreaded communist days. Whatever the case, this park is part of a Hungary that no longer exists. Today’s Hungary is enjoying itself by the Danube with its eyes firmly gazing at an Europe that not too long ago seemed like a far-away mirage. It is remarkable how times change.