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March 2020

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Excerpt from my new book, Sí El Paso – a photographic journey through El Paso, Texas.    Sí El Paso is published by TCU Press and available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, markpaulda.com as well as your favourite bookseller.
Si El Paso
El Paso is like an island except it’s landlocked by Mexico, New Mexico and the rest of Texas. The culture and traditions from each area blend together on a daily basis making El Paso difficult to understand, even for us sometimes. Are we Texan? Mexican? Indian? American? 

The answer is we’re El Pasoans. There is no pretense about us. We’re likable, genuine, and hospitable. When you come to visit us, you’ll feel more welcome than any other place you’ll go. El Paso is a big city with a small town heart that will make you feel warm inside. 

El Paso is proud, and we have reason to be. Our history reaches back nearly 12,000 years at Hueco Tanks where the first human settlements can be traced. The Spanish established themselves during the mid-1550’s; Old West gunfighters took the law into their own hands on the streets of downtown; and we’ve always lived hand-in-hand with our sister city, Juarez, to our south. There is no other city like El Paso. We’re unique and El Pasoans like that we’re different. 

In 1903, Henry Trost moved to El Paso and introduced the Chicago School of Architecture style to the skyline. You could even say Henry Trost created El Paso’s skyline. At the time of Trost’s death in 1933, the El Paso Times wrote, “He was one who let himself be known by his works, rather than his words, one who made a valid and lasting contribution to the development of this region. His was a life of purpose and achievement, and he leaves the Southwest richer for his having lived and worked in it.” Henry Trost’s most revered architectural creations live on today with many restored to their former glory. Trost would be humble seeing his buildings survive into the twenty-first century. El Pasoan’s are proud to show off his architectural creativity. 

El Paso is more than our bountiful history. El Pasoans thrive on being an authentic mix of Mexican, American and Western cultures. English and Spanish are spoken concurrently and sometimes the two languages are spoken within the same sentence – that’s normal. We celebrate Dia de los Muertos (All Souls Day) not because Madison Avenue marketers tell us to, but because it’s a genuine way to celebrate the life of our ancestors. Folkloric Dancers flutter across our stages like butterflies in the desert wind; the horns and strings of Mariachis beam melodies through the Franklin Mountains; Luche Libre amuse crowds much better than the movie; and western urban cowboys buck off bulls like bouncing ping pong balls. We also think our Mexican food is the best anywhere in the world – and it is. And yes, we’re proud to celebrate America’s Independence as anyone would in the nation’s heartland. 

Our trusted friend, the Franklin Mountains, stretches through the middle of the city. Throughout various times of the day, her moods reveal a feeling as the sun transitions from east to west. The Franklin’s warm blithe spirit display during sunrise or sunset, and her stern formidable nature protects us from natural disaster. She’s reassuring in El Pasoan’s daily lives, and we miss her while we’re away.

We love the clear blue skies that seem never-ending like ocean waves into infinity. There is a sense of freedom that you can’t truly understand until you hit the road in any direction from El Paso. There is a mesmerizing effect mile after mile of desert terrain can have on you. It’s a wonder how nothingness can cleanse your soul. The expansion extends mile after mile forcing your mind to center itself and fill with thoughts you believe to have exited years ago. The world seems right contrary to the twisted reality we face on a daily basis. 

I travel around the world often and the same query always arises – “Where are you from?” When my reply is, “El Paso,” I’m met with dumbfounded expressions followed by, “Why El Paso”? The truth is I never have a good verbal answer because El Paso is difficult to explain. So, I take the old adage, “Show me, don’t tell me.” Si El Paso is a pictorial answer many El Pasoans want to offer to anyone curious about the Sun City, but we can’t quite put the feeling into words. 

 

Imagine yourself riding a bubble in the wind. The quiet peaceful serenity of floating gently in the breeze, brushing the pecan orchards or drifting silently above the Rio Grande River.  The silence is interrupted briefly, as Pilot Bill Lee burns, adding heat to the bubble that keeps us aloft. Then, back to the silence, as we climb, up above the treetops, where we overlook El Paso’s upper valley.  Even birds fly by beneath us, seemingly unaware of our presence.  This is the joy that is Hot Air Ballooning.

Hot air balloons are the oldest successful human carrying flight technology, dating back to the Montgolfier brothers’ invention in France in 1783.  The first hot air balloons were basically cloth bags, sometimes lined with paper, with a smoky fire built on a grill attached to the bottom. They had a tendency to catch fire and be destroyed upon landing. On September 19, 1783 a sheep, a duck and a rooster become the first passengers in a hot air balloon launched by Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. For manned flights King Louis XVI had originally decreed that condemned criminals would be the first pilots but a young physicist named Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis Francois d’Arlandes successfully petitioned for the honour. They took off at 2 p.m. on November 21, 1783 from Château de la Muette in Paris watched by King Louis XVI. They traveled about five and a half miles  for 20 minutes – the first free flight made by man. 

Today, however, countless hot air balloon pilots can provide you with a safe and skilled bird’s eye view you’ll remember for years to come.  As you float effortlessly above ground you “see the area from a unique perspective,” says fellow passenger Julie Hammink.  “The valley looks like a patchwork quilt from several thousand feet up, and it made me want to look in every direction at once.”  As the mighty Rio Grande meanders below, the vastness of the unique El Paso region unfolds and stretches from one direction to the other.  The beautiful green textures of the river valley contrast with stark Chihuahuan desert providing the chance to appreciate a unique and peaceful view from above. The breathtaking views of the mountains, north to New Mexico and south to our neighbors in Juarez, Mexico only add to the experience of being aloft.  

What a fantastic view there was one early Sunday morning as the sun began to peer over the Franklin Mountains giving the valley a stunning glow.  “To be up in the air floating around on such a beautiful day, I couldn’t help but feel peaceful and calm,” says Henry Delgado.  “Pilot Bill performed his job like a master craftsman.”  While Bill Lee is a professional and licensed hot air balloon pilot don’t expect a definite landing area as there is no steering wheel or brakes in a hot air balloon.  Despite this Julie muses “it wasn’t Mr. Toad’s wild flight…it was more of a sensation of walking around slowly on very long legs.”  Any concerns truly vanished once we gently lifted off the ground and began drifting along- the flight was sensational and the feeling of achievement has lasting effects.  Since the balloon moves with the wind, one feels absolutely no wind, except for brief periods during the flight when the balloon climbs or descends into air currents of different direction or speed.  Upon landing Pilot Bill decreased the amount of fuel and with a slight bump we were back to land again in an open Canutillo field.

Floating high in the sky is an adventure all its own, but the hot air ballooning experience begins early in the morning from the moment the balloon and basket come out of the trailer to the inflation of the balloon and continuing through to the traditional and humourous champagne celebration at the end.  Much preparation goes into the launch of a hot air balloon and from the direction of Pilot Bill we were part of every step.  There is a strong camaraderie among balloonists taking pride in their craft and as Delgado says, “I felt as if there was a genuine invitation into the world of ballooning.”  Indeed there was.  You can fly throughout the year, early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  The flight duration is usually one hour to an hour and a half but you must allow three hours in total for the time which covers inflating the balloon, a champagne ceremony after the flight and returning to your pick-up point.

“The best part of ballooning is the people you meet along the way,” says Pilot Bill, so do expect to walk away from this experience having met new friends who genuinely welcome you to the world of hot air ballooning.   If you are seeking adventure for yourself or an unforgettable gift for those who have it all round up the family or a few friends as there is no better ride.  As the Irish say, “The winds have welcomed you with softness.  The sun has blessed you with his warm hands.  You have flown so high and so well, that God has joined you in your laughter, and he has set you gently back again in the loving arms of Mother Earth.”  Happy Flying!

Recoleta Cemetery: Buenos Aires, Argentina

recoleta cemetery in buenos aires

On top of a hill in one of Buenos Aires’ most upmarket neighbourhoods lies the city’s most curious yet captivating attraction: the Cementerio de la Recoleta.  It is a veritable city of the dead, populated by the tombs of Argentina’s deceased elite.  The list of people buried here includes national leaders, military personnel, Nobel Prize winners and wealthy citizens. Even Eva Peron, First Lady and champion of the poor and destitute, was eventually laid to rest here in a casket five meters below the surface.

At first glance it was clear to me that Recoleta Cemetery is, and always has been, a bastion of wealth.  Four towering white pillars hold up the entry gate; a forerunner of the grandeur that lies inside.  Many of the 6400 mausoleums built here are grand and ornate, and some are even works of art.  What they lack in size is more than made up for by the craftsmanship that went into creating them.  It seemed to me that these tombs stood primarily to draw attention and show off the status of their occupants.  I got the impression of huge self-importance and competing egos.  It appears that if one lived large in life, then one remains lavish after death. Needless to say, this place is definitely over the top.

The architecture and ornamentation seen within the cemetery is of many different styles, often in complete contrast to its surroundings.  Greek temples, Baroque chapels and charming Art Deco palaces sit side by side, with the occasional humbler brick structure in between.  The urban setting has confined them to being miniature versions of the buildings that inspired them.  More than a few have fallen into disrepair, and it was these that struck me most.  The task of restoration and upkeep falls to the descendants of the buried; perhaps some of these had no one left to look after them.  They were derelict, crumbling and neglected.  I wondered which once lauded member of Buenos Aires society lay beneath them.  Had their names been forgotten?  As souls pass on to eternity is everyone equal or are we all on different levels, as this cemetery seems to suggest?  Does wealth still matter after death?  Recoleta cemetery seems to tell a different story to what the scriptures preach. 


I was far more interested in the rustic, rugged beauty of these decaying tombs than the grand opulence of the rest.  They inspired me to create a series of black and white film photographs that reflect the sombre, tranquil atmosphere that this place carries.  This particular medium also emphasizes the details, the difference between what remains and what has been lost to neglect.

You could spend hours wandering through the eerie roads of this cemetery.  Wide tree-lined avenues give way to narrow shadowed walkways. The layout is similar to planned out city blocks, complete with a central plaza.  The place has become a peaceful retreat for many local stray cats, although you are sure to pass more than a few tourists as well.  Symbolism runs rife, with religious statues watching over almost every tomb.  Masonic symbols can also be seen adorning walls and mantelpieces.  Bouquets of wilting flowers have been left behind by families and admirers seeking to pay their respects.  Wrought iron doors and window shutters, weeping angel statues and Lots of the mausoleums have glass faced windows, allowing passers-by to take a look inside to where the wooden coffins lie.

Countless stories and legends are tied to the cemetery.  Established as the city’s first public burial ground in 1822, it was at first unpopular, but eventually overtaken by the upper tiers of society.  Eva Peron is undoubtedly the name that draws the most visitors to her tomb – although its appearance is quite underwhelming – for her political actions and her commemoration in pop culture.  However, there are plenty more interesting characters that were laid to rest in Recoleta.  Some of them are even remembered with life like statues that represent their achievements and interests.  Each mausoleum bears its family name, and they carry on the tradition of listing dates of passing but not dates of birth.

If you happen to be in Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery is definitely worth dedicating an afternoon to, to stroll its walkways in quiet reflection.  Spend some time admiring the remarkable architecture and sculpture and you will probably find yourself in a contemplative mood.  The cemetery is open from 8 am to 6 pm every day, and there is no entrance fee.  If you are interested in learning more of the history, there are English speaking tours at 11 am every Tuesday and Thursday.

Directions:

Recoleta Cemetery is easy to find.  Head to Las Heras Avenue, and keep walking down it until you reach Junin. Then continue for two more blocks until you reach Vicente Lopez street.  At this point you should be able to see the huge wall that surrounds the cemetery.

Map Showing the Location of Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires ::
MAP SHOWING LOCATION OF RECOLETA CEMETERY

 

One of the great lessons while traveling is keeping one’s eyes and senses open to all of the quirky, fun and beautiful things in our world.  It’s often the “small things” that make us smile or laugh.  We might even have our Western sensibilities challenged.  What is normal and acceptable in the destination you’re visiting might be just the opposite in your own home town.

Finding the quirks in the world is one of the great parts about travel.  And when I say quirks, what I really refer to are the things we are not used to.  I talk a lot about how travel is the best education anyone can receive and it’s true.  It is the unexpected moments that we witness, smell, taste, hear and even step over that we will remember long after we’ve left a place.  This is travel and what travel should be.

Have you had these moments?

I’ll never forget going to my first full moon ceremony in Bali.  I had just arrived, turned the corner and saw a pig’s throat slit and watched its blood drain into a bucket.  Sure it was alarming at first, but the act is also a common part of the ritual during the ceremony.  The Balinese are fine with the sacrifice and I shouldn’t be the one to judge their traditions. 

Eid Al-Adha is a ritual in Islam when a sheep, cow or a camel are sacrificed in the memory of Abraham who was stopped from slitting his son’s neck on Mount Arafat by the angel Gabriel.  Abraham was willing to slay his son at Allah’s request as a supreme act of faith.  The angel, Gabriel, prevented Abraham from going through with it, saying he had already demonstrated his love for god.  Instead, a goat was slaughtered.

The traditional ritual continues today.  I’ll never forget the chorus of bah, bah, bah from sheep who were kept in everyone’s home the night before the slaughter.  The King of Morocco is the first to commit the act on live television.  Once the king sacrifices his sheep, the rest of Morocco can follow suit.  After countless slaughters, I was stepping through rivers of sheep blood as I walked through the Old Medina.  Believe you me, I’ll never forget this experience.

Not all travel memories are so dramatic.  I loved the little boy standing next to a British guard at Horseguards Palace for a photo.  Curiously, the boy peered behind the guard then turned back with a huge smile.  In Tokyo I saw a sign outside a barber shop with a menu of prices pinned to the door.  Instead of price list, the sign read “Price Rist.”  I found that charming and couldn’t resist going in to have my hair cut.

I also loved the woman walking down a Tokyo street wearing a Geisha outfit.  We don’t expect to see sights like that in our modern world.

There are a lot of moments waiting for you as you travel – moments that make you go “Hmm…”  So, keep your senses on high alert.  Don’t be offended or startled if something you experience doesn’t meet the criteria of the Western world.   Embrace everything you see, hear, touch, taste and smell as part of your experience.  Be ready to be challenged and grow from your travel.  You might even have a travel experience of a lifetime.

As you travel around the world or even in your own city, you’ll want to take some of the best travel photos you’ve ever taken.  Consider the following iPhone travel photography tips so you can take great photos.

You Can Zoom in the Dark
One of the best upgrades on the iPhone X is its better 2x lens, especially in low light. That means you can use both lenses, regardless of the lighting conditions, without sacrificing image quality.

Try Brightening the Scene With a Flash
We typically think of smartphone flashes as cold, harsh, and [unflattering]. But the iPhone X’s new technology, called Slow Sync, has made it possible for the camera to capture beautiful, warm images while using the device’s cutting-edge Quad-LED True Tone flash.  Give this a try in a dim restaurant or outside, after sunset.

Play With New Live Photo Effects
While capturing live photos — or images with a few seconds of video before, the iPhone X has a trio of effects utilizing this technology.  Now, you can blur the action like a DSLR camera with the Long Exposure setting (for smooth waterfalls), create a continuous Loop, or make a Boomerang-like Bounce that plays the action backward and forward.

Try Portrait Mode on Food
The iPhone X made major advances with the Portrait mode.  In addition to capturing beautiful portraits with blurred backgrounds,  try the setting on food photography.

The iPhone X also has five new lighting modes for Portraits, including natural light, studio light, contour light (for dramatic shadows), stage lights (to illuminate subjects against a black background), and mono (to produce stage light-like photos in black and white).

Experiment With Burst Mode
For your best chance at the perfect shot, use the phone’s Burst Mode to shoot 10 pictures per second. To use this feature, simply hold down the shutter button in your Camera app.

Travel photography is often about capturing a fleeting moment.

Don’t Forget About Video
If you see amazing clouds slowly moving across the sky, for example, you might use time-lapse mode.  But if the scene features super fast motion like birds landing in water, you should try slo-mo.