My neighbor, while showing me how to fly the drone I was borrowing from him, asked me casually, “Would you like the old plasma TV I’m Freecycling?”
Curious, I followed him out to the curb of his house, where a 42 inch Panasonic plasma sat waiting for someone to pick it up. He told me the HDMI wasn’t working but that the component inputs were all functional, so I figured I’d toy with it first and then Freecycle it if I couldn’t get it working. We hauled it back up the driveway and continued the drone lesson. Later, we heaved it into his van so that he could drive it over to the house. It’s just shy of 100 pounds, so it’s almost impossible to carry by oneself. I was leaving for Paraguay the following day, and Jen wanted it out of our hallway, so she and I hauled it upstairs and onto our dresser, where it sat like the Monolith in 2001.
When I got back from the trip, I hooked an HDMI cable up to it and confirmed that it wasn’t sensing input. Then I tried my XBox with component cables, and…there was no input. I haven’t gotten any farther than that, though I need to try a camera with a component cable, or maybe our ancient DVD player which predates HDMI to confirm. But I’m pretty sure it’s a 42″, 100 lb. brick that I need help hauling back down the stairs.
We have found a house in Delaware that will be our vacation hideout for 2017. It’s up the street from 2014’s rental, and this one is actually across the street from the beach, but there’s access within a short walk and the view from the porch looks beautiful. We’re taking two weeks this year to get our full rest on, and we’re sharing the house with friends to offset the cost and make sure Finn has playmates to hit the water with.
When I hit the hotel bed early Monday morning after traveling over 18 hours, it felt glorious. I left under cover of darkness on Sunday to catch my flight at Dulles, where I boarded a Copa Airlines Airbus to Panama. I was alone on the first leg of my journey, as my colleagues were all coming in from other places. In Panama I met up with Colin, one of my contacts from the International Development Bank, and Liza, a colleague from WRI I’d only talked to on the phone. We made introductions and boarded for Paraguay.
We landed a little before midnight local time. After a bumpy taxi ride to our hotel, we checked in and got settled in our rooms. I set up my gear for charging, organized my clothes and shooting rigs, and got to bed a little after 1.
Our first day started early. We went to the IDB offices in Paraguay to meet the rest of our team and film interviews with a couple of local bank representatives. I had to set up and shoot quickly, and worked with the available light I had inside the building–which, thankfully, was very photogenic and filled with lots of indirect light. Then we took them outside and filmed some interviews in the shade, which looked lovely but did little to combat the dry heat. It’s summer in Paraguay so the local temperatures were around 90˚, which made me glad I wasn’t wearing a tie.
After a quick lunch, we taxi’d over to the offices of the Sudameris Bank in the old colonial district of Ascención to film a senior bank official. Here the local architecture was against me. Many of the taller buildings have heat-dispersing shutters built on their sun-facing sides, which work well for keeping the building cool but suck for filming against, and block 50% of the outside light. All of the available offices on that floor were dark and full of shadows, so I started setting up for the worst case scenario until one of our colleagues asked if we could get onto the roof. We followed a guard up a flight of stairs and out onto a terrace, where a large portion was shaded by a raised helicopter platform overhead. The only drawback I saw was that the building’s machinery was all sitting in the open, which made sound recording impossible. Guillermo quietly asked if they would shut the A/C and air handlers off, and in 5 minutes we had silence. I framed the shot, set up the sound, and we got two interviews filmed with the skyline of Ascención in the background. I also took the opportunity to shoot some footage of the streets and Ox while we were up there.
From there we split up taxis and headed back to the hotel, where a change of clothes and splash of clean water made a huge difference. In the courtyard we had some freshly squeezed lemonade, prepared strategy for Tuesday, and ate dinner–which was excellent for a small boutique hotel.
Tuesday morning I was able to sleep in for a few extra hours, as our first interview was scheduled for 11AM. We traveled to another bank and were escorted to a spacious, airy office where my colleagues made their pitch and I got set up for the shoot. This office was on a north-facing side, so we had clear views from floor-to-ceiling windows to shoot against. Then we walked to the roof and shot a bunch of B-roll footage of the city.
After that, I tagged along with two of my colleagues as they went to meet with a representative of the WWF to introduce the project we’re working on. We met her at her house in a quiet neighborhood, where she hosted us in her garden. Surrounded by walls covered in greenery, and centered around a large, lush tree, the patio was beautiful, quiet, and the perfect setting to talk about saving the forest.
That evening we taxi’d to a restaurant recommended by another colleague. This began with a little drama. When our driver walked back to converse with the second (arguing about where the location actually was) our car began to slowly roll forward. Trapped behind the driver’s seat, I was unable to do much, but Luis, on the other side of the back seat (we were sitting three abreast) jumped forward to pull the emergency brake–which didn’t work. Then he leapt forward into the driver’s seat to push the brake down, but couldn’t reach it…while we picked up speed down a hill towards a shiny new sedan. The cab driver finally noticed and rushed back to hit the brake just before a collusion.
Our destination was called the Hotel Brooklyn, where the entrance was decorated as a speakeasy and the maitre’d gave us an introduction to the concept while we stood in a faux secret elevator. Then he pulled aside a curtain to a room decorated like a secret nightclub. Here I attempted to decipher a sushi menu written in Spanish. Deciding that raw fish might not be the best idea (and noting that most of the available rolls included cream cheese) I opted for a steak with risotto. The conversation and my companions were fantastic, and we stayed until midnight while valentine couples filled each available table, including (I was told) the current Miss Paraguay.
Wednesday morning was another early one, and I was to be picked up by the father of one of my colleagues for a tour of Ascención for some B-roll footage. Reinaldo could not have been a more pleasant companion, and he took me north out of the city proper to find some vantage points of the river, which is the main commercial artery of Paraguay. We ducked down some side roads, then some side side roads, until finally we were on dirt tracks heading through dusty residential areas toward the river.
Paraguay reminds me a lot of sections of Mexico City, in that there are brand-new buildings next to older structures that are half-maintained and fronted by crumbling sidewalks. I get the feeling that the climate takes a toll on man-made structures, so everything needs constant upkeep, and sometimes that’s done and sometimes it isn’t. The area we drove through was no different; there were sections of concrete block and tin-roofed shacks next to walled, garden-filled houses with electricity and newer cars in the drive. Reinaldo got us to the edge of the river and we hiked out to a pier, where an older man stood smoking and watching the boats pass by. I shot some footage of what I could see but got stymied by a fogged lens from the temperature differential between A/C and outside. We said our good-byes and headed further south to the bridge over the river which separates the north from the south. Stopping to shoot again, we hiked up to the apex and shot Ascención in the distance through slow-moving motor traffic.
Reinaldo offered to see if we could get into a slaughterhouse up the road, so we drove north and parked in the shade. He tried talking his way in, based on the fact that his farm is part of the larger co-operative that owns the operation, and because he’s kind of a big deal in the Paraguayan banking system. The guards were unmoved, and a skeptical representative came out to politely decline our request, so we jumped back in and headed into the city.
Along the whole route, I peppered Reinaldo with questions about himself and Paraguay, and he seemed delighted to answer my questions. His story is pretty common for the country; as the descendant of Ukranian immigrants directly after the Second World War, he grew up in the Chaco on land his parents carved out of wilderness. He was educated in Paraguay and went to the Netherlands to go to college (during the height of the dictatorship that gripped the country for 35 years), where he met his wife, and they returned home to raise their family when the country returned to democracy.
Our time up, he returned me to the IDB offices where I thanked him profusely for his time, and I got set up for our next interview, with the head of the IDB in Paraguay. We shot a couple more interviews while we were there, and then headed back to the hotel for a break before dinner.
This evening, dinner was at another hip restaurant, this one focused on a hippie surfing vibe. We gathered around a huge table, ordered drinks, and laughed over the events of our trip. Much of our group was leaving the next day, so it was great to catch up one last time before splitting up.
Thursday morning we met our driver, Callixto, from the WWF, who showed us a map over breakfast and then bundled us into a shiny snorkeled 4Runner for our trip northward. We picked up Nick, a former Peace Corps volunteer and current WWF employee, and headed out of the city. Over the bridge and up into the Chaco, we drove for 160 kilometers until we hit a small intersection marked by a roadside stand. Turning off to the west, our journey took us another 60km over dirt roads out into the wilderness. Here the previous day’s rainfall had made the road muddy in places, and apparently Chaco mud becomes impassable quickly. We’d waited a few hours before leaving to allow the roads to dry out, but Callixto had to do some careful driving through axle-deep stretches every few kilometers.
The Chaco itself is beautiful country; completely flat, hectares of palm trees rise from lush grass that covers the land. The forest is not forest as we know it in the Northeast; it’s a mixture of tall grass, brush, palm, and deciduous trees on both dry and wet ground.
We stopped abruptly at the entrance to a ranch and navigated the road to the main buildings through increasingly deeper pits of mud. I found myself wishing I’d shipped the Scout down for the opportunity to drive through some of this stuff; as it was, our air-conditioned 4Runner made its way through with few problems. Reaching the ranch, we were greeted by the owner, his friend, and the foreman, who hydrated us while I broke out the drone and assembled it for flight.
All the literature I’d read claimed there would be no problem switching hemispheres, and I was able to get clear signal with the handheld GPS I’d borrowed with the drone. But no amount of time or fussing with the drone itself would get it to acquire satellites. I’ll explain: The drone is equipped with an on-board GPS system that it uses to identify its location. If it senses any problems–it’s out of range, the batteries are dying–it will take over control and return itself to the spot where it landed as a fail-safe. So flying without satellites is for the expert pilot in the best of cases. A wind sock posted at the edge of the field I was in showed there was a southwesterly breeze at 20′, so I figured it would be stronger the higher I got.
I took it up for a brief test flight with no satellite connection, and it immediately turned north. No amount of input could get it to turn around, and it continued heading into the wind away from me. I got it turned in the general direction of the cattle pen but worried it would spook the livestock–which it did–turned it away from a pond, and crash-landed it in some high grass. Had it been mine, or the company’s, I would have taken it back up to try and get decent footage, but I didn’t want to lose or break it on Eric. I called him on Colin’s phone and talked through it with him, but we had no answers. So it got packed back up and we went to Plan B.
Edit: Doing some sleuthing, I pulled the GPS coordinates from the handheld I brought and plugged them into Google Maps. Doing some more sleuthing, I think I found the approximate location of our ranch, which was here–about 30 miles’ difference. So I think something is very fishy with GPS in the southern hemisphere.
Our hosts then took us up a road to see a field being cleaned of brush, and we left there to see another example up the path. About two kilometers in, we got stuck up to the axles in mud that was half earth, half manure. Our hosts reversed back to our location to try and pull us out but got themselves stuck as well. So we waited for the bulldozer we’d just filmed to come and pull us out. It was at this point the reality of just how far we were from ANYTHING became clear. I recalled a story we’d been told about what the Mennonites in that area do when someone has been bitten by a rattlesnake; because medical care is so distant to everything, and the roads so primitive, the solution to buy time is to USE A TASER ON THE VICTIM. From what we were told, the shock to the system does something to slow down the reaction to the venom, long enough for medical aid to be reached. (Later on we were told that a a car battery works well in a pinch).
Eduardo the tractor driver pulled us out without much fuss, and we backtracked to reach some different fields. Somewhere around here my strategy of wearing shorts was revealed as the mistake it was; the mosquitoes in the Chaco are legion, and they are hungry. Colin shared his bug repellent with us, but every half-hour required a re-application due to sweat and movement. Regardless, I was there to work, and so continued to shoot with clouds of mosquitoes covering my body. This included a boggy walk through marshland to see a stand of mostly forest, something that was neither photogenic nor worth the wet shoes and thousand bites I suffered walking to and from the spot. Each time we got in the truck we had to spend five minutes killing the swarms of mosquitoes that followed us in; I was glad I wore a dark shirt because I continually smashed engorged bugs, leaving splotches of blood on my skin. (one of our colleagues, native to Paraguay, looked at Colin’s sneakers the night before we left, shook his head, and said quietly, “These shoes are not for the Chaco.”)
At lunchtime we returned to the main house and shot a bunch of footage of the cattle in their pen awaiting vaccination; Even though I’ve seen this in person before it always takes my breath away at the size and power of healthy cattle. These cattle are truly free-range: the size of the fields in Paraguay stagger belief, and the grass they feed on grows so well on its own, there is no need for fertilizer or chemicals of any kind.
We also met the vaqueros’ horses, waiting patiently under a tree, and a small herd of semi-feral cattle dogs.
Lunch was served in the main house, which could have doubled for the lounge of a boutique hotel. Under vaulted ceilings held up with hand-hewn beams, they had prepared a meal of Picañha, which I was told was the best cut of meat, with a tomato, egg, and onion salad and sopa paraguaya, a cheesy cornbread. They sliced the meat with the sharpest Bowie knife I’ve ever held). Sated, we packed up and headed for two final fields, one of flat, seeded grazing grass, and the second with tall wide-leaved grass also used for feed. This last field was the one we’d tried to get to when we got stuck, so we had to find another way in. This required a bumpy ride in a wagon towed by a tractor (Piloted by the estimable Eduardo) over four kilometers of half-cleared dirt path. I have a suspicion that anything not used regularly in the Chaco gets overgrown immediately, because we spent most of the ride ducking low branches and hanging on as the wagon bobbled over uneven track and waded through marshy bog.
Our forward progress kept the mosquitoes at bay but as soon as we stopped they came at us in swarms. I quickly climbed atop the tractor roof and started shooting, which was helpful because they didn’t follow me that high. Once we had what we needed, Eduardo turned us around (there was a heart-stopping moment where the tractor lost purchase and he spun the wheels in the muck; Colin turned to me, laughing under his breath, and said, “Can you imagine us getting stuck, trying to shoot the last footage of the day, with all those mosquitos between here and the trucks?”) Thankfully Eduardo was on top of it, got us turned around, and we headed back to the road. The mosquitoes had followed our trail, though, and they were ten times the number we’d dealt with coming in.
After a long and painful ride back, we cheered Eduardo as we got to the trucks, said our thanks to our hosts, took some selfies, and headed for home under a low sun.
I was humbled by the gracious nature of everyone I met in country, visible in simple things like driving habits; there is no road rage in what I experienced in multiple cars on multiple days. This also became clear as we drove our way back over the hardpack and through an area of recent rainfall, where we came upon a grizzled old man working over a tiny compact, stuck in a section of mud. Callixto backed up so they could hitch to his bumper, put the 4Runner in low gear, and we pulled them through the muck for a couple of kilometers until they could get their engine started again. Saying our goodbyes as the shadows got longer, we left them to make it home.
Before the sun went down completely, we came upon a surprise in the roadway: a South American rattlesnake stretched out in the sun. It sat and pretended it didn’t see us, but had to be moved in order for us to get past. We got as close as we dared to shoot some pictures, and then scared it into the brush with some carefully thrown clods of dirt. It wound up on itself, gave us a rattle, and retreated backwards into the grass, keeping us visible. Colin then pointed out that we’d been tramping through brush, bog, field, and forest all afternoon, and never knew if we’d been close to something that dangerous the whole time. I for one was glad we didn’t have to test out the car battery theory, as I don’t think Callixto had a taser in his WWF field pack.
The sun went down pretty quickly, and Callixto got us off the dirt road as the last light was leaving; we stopped at a gas station for water and snacks, and then hightailed it down the highway for our hotel. Colin and I got back at about 10, and we got cleaned up before heading around the corner for some mediocre pizza and cold beer.
Friday my wake-up call came at 4:30 local time (2:30 EST) and a man in the creakiest, noisiest taxi in Paraguay got me to the Departure gate in 20 minutes. I sailed through customs and security, and boarded a packed flight to leave. My layover in Panama was about 7 hours, so I camped out next to a working power outlet and fought the airport’s wifi to tell Jen I was OK. About this time my mosquito bites started acting up (they hadn’t itched at all when the fuckers were biting me) and my sunburn compounded the issue, so it was with great relief that I was able to doze on the plane once we got in the air. Landing in Dulles after midnight, recovering my luggage, and getting to my shuttle was easy, but after having lugged my shit from DC to Paraguay to the Chaco and back again, I wound up leaving my phone on the floor of the shuttle. All things considered, though, if that’s all that went wrong, I’ll take it.
Since I got back from Mexico last year, people have been asking me if I’ve got travel lined up for work, and up until last week I was telling them no. Then I was suddenly offered the chance to fly to Paraguay to shoot a bunch of interviews with finance and bank officials who are investing in forest restoration and protection. A little less than half of the country is forested, and they’ve lost 12.7% of their total forest cover since 1990. My job is to film these financiers explaining how a web tool we’ve produced helps them make sustainable business decisions for their companies. What could I say? I started packing and reorganizing schedules to make the trip.
I know nothing about Paraguay itself other than what I’ve been able to read online. The last couple of weeks have been chaotic for multiple reasons, so I haven’t been able to prepare the way I want to, but I’ll have some handlers in country who are going to take me 2 hours into the Chaco to shoot B-roll of deforestation. Then I had an idea and contacted my neighbor to see if I could rent his drone for the price of a couple of new batteries, and he was happy to oblige. On Saturday we got a couple of test flights in to familiarize with the controls and assembly process; from all I took in the drone itself is almost idiot-proof; it finds its position via GPS and is happiest when it connects to at least 7 satellites. If it gets low on batteries, loses contact with the controller, or has any other positioning problems, it will take control of itself and fly its way back to the place where it took off. So all I have to do is make sure I recalibrate the compass and then not crash it into a tree.
The flight was more than a full day of travel; I was out the front door at 5:50 and did not hit my hotel bed until 12:30 (1:30AM local time). Sitting way back in Coach, I got used to the close quarters quickly. On my second leg I was seated directly in front of the rest rooms, and was joined by a pair of young Paraguayan men who were returning from a two-year hitch as volunteers on an ocean-going ship run by a Christian mission. They told me of their adventures, answered my many questions about the trip, their family history in Paraguay (descendants of German immigrants) and told me about the country. I did not think to have them pose for a shot with Ox, but should have. Leaving Customs with my WRI group, I spotted a family of familiar faces (tall, blonde, Germanic) waiting outside the gate, and played a hunch. When I asked them if they were waiting for Gabriel, they brightened up and said, “Yes!” I told them he was on his way out, and to say thanks again from Bill on the plane.
There’s a slim chance I’ll get some time in Ascención itself before I leave, but from what I understand it’s not wise to walk around alone after dark. The only free time I’ll get is in the evenings but there won’t be the kind of time to do full reconnaissance via foot like I did in London and Mexico City.
I’m taking a somewhat stripped-down kit with me compared to the load I brought to England; a lot of the redundant gear I didn’t use got left behind at the office. The interviews themselves should be easy to set up and break down, environment permitting–I have no idea what locations they’ll have me working at, or what the lighting situation will be, but we made the first one work with as much natural indoor light as possible, and then shot some beautiful interview footage outside.
Look below or click here for an update on my first day in Mexico. It gives a lot more background on the paintball picture, why I went, and how I wound up on a roof drinking 40’s of Mexican beer.
The weather was overcast Sunday morning, so I made a plan for the day based on the chance of rain. I read that the Museo Nacional de Antropología had free wi-fi (turns out it didn’t), plotted out all of the Starbucks in a kilometer radius and took a picture of the map on my cellphone, packed my umbrella, and called for an Uber. (Three overseas trips and I haven’t figured out a better way to deal with communication than depending on wi-fi and taking pictures of Google Maps. Someday…)
The museum is nestled in a wooded park in the northwest part of the city, fronted by a wide two-lane avenue which was filled with bikers. I walked into the museum and was quietly ushered to a “foreigners” ticket desk, and thus blew past the line. The museum is huge and expertly laid out, built in a square around a large central courtyard and fountain. I went left when I should have gone right and thus did things kind of backwards, but still saw the whole museum. The main exhibits are all marked clearly in Spanish and English, so I knew what the broad strokes were, but the individual captions were Spanish only. Still, I remembered enough from high school to understand about 70% of the information.
Early in the afternoon I was looking at an Olmec colossal head and parsing the Spanish label, when a young woman tapped me on the shoulder. She asked me in good English where I was from, and I told her. She asked me if she could ask a couple of questions, and I agreed. Her first question was if I liked the museum, and I told her I liked it very much. She wondered if I was traveling with anyone, and I told her I was here on business, but that I wished my family was here to see Mexico too. Then she asked me why I was at the museum, and I told her I was very interested in the history of Mexico and of all of the civilizations founded here, and this seemed to make her happy. She smiled and said, “Welcome to Mexico!” and her boyfriend shook my hand. I replied in mixed-up Spanish, probably something like “Beautiful thank you,” and we parted ways.
I don’t know what possessed her to ask me these questions, or if my answers were what she was expecting, but I hope our interaction made as big an impact on her as it did on me.
The history of Mesoamerica is fascinating. I could have spent days in the museum looking through the exhibits, but as the day wore on the crowds got thicker and my need for solitude overtook my curiosity.
I bailed out at about 1PM and walked east toward the Reforma, a long, wide avenue flanked by modern towers and leafy trees. This was definitely a different part of the city than the Historic District; modern and clean, and as I arrived the scene of a city-organized bike rally. Down the Reforma stands the Angel of Independence, a gigantic and inspiring monument to fallen insurgents of Mexico’s past. At the circle, I waited for the car and bike traffic to halt and then ran out to climb the stairs to the monument.
After taking pictures of the Angel and shooting some video of the bike rally, I walked back down the Reforma towards a small Starbucks, which didn’t have wi-fi, and then found a taqueria that did. Here I started out with a beer but the delicious smell of the al pastor meat cooking convinced me to order a meal. I was not disappointed. The chicken pastor was delicious, served inside a flour tortilla with cheese, and my server did not have to twist my arm to order guacamole as well. He then talked me into pork, which was even better. Over my shoulder the TV was showing NFL highlights, so I saw the end of all of the 1PM games as I ate.
Then I jumped on the wi-fi and called a cab to head back to the hotel, where I translated a powerpoint deck on infographics into Spanish with Google translate and cranked out a couple of website flats for work.
Dateline: Mexico City, Saturday, September 10.
I’m reclining on my hotel bed after a long, exhausting day exploring the Historic District of Mexico City. I’m staying in a hotel far south of the touristy areas, a beautiful Holiday Inn nestled next to a Wal-Mart and a mall with every type of American chain restaurant I could ask for. This morning I got all of my gear sorted out, packed a bag with water and snacks, and wrote down a few key phrases, all starting with I’m sorry, […] because I don’t have enough Spanish. This has been working relatively well so far. Getting to my destination was handled through Uber, and within about 20 minutes I was standing in the Plaza de la Constitucion, looking at workers erecting seating for the 15th of September celebration next week.
I skirted the plaza and walked into the Cathedral Metropolitana, which was as old and as beautiful inside as I hoped. It’s a traditional layout but the central nave is surrounded by chapels of different kinds, some open and some closed. I was there in time for a morning mass, and so a lovely baritone filled the building. Walking around the central altar, I spied a litter of kittens playing in the darkened Chapel of San Pedro and stopped to shoot their picture.
At the back, the Altar of the Kings is an immense baroque structure dating back to the early 1700’s, and it was so large it didn’t fit in my camera frame (I only brought a 35mm lens, dammit).
Exiting the Cathedral, I attempted to follow Lonely Planet’s walking tour of the Historic District but found that I was thwarted by a lousy tour and a lack of signage. Seriously, there is no signage in that district at all. I found the main avenues pretty easily but once the tour had me off the main streets I was on my own. I followed the pedestrian Avenue Madero west towards the Latinamericana Tower, which had been the tallest building in Mexico City until 1985. The Avenue was relatively busy (this was nothing, as I would later discover) with people shopping and groups of vendors hawking stores at every intersection. I stopped into a Starbucks to grab coffee, use the bathroom, and hop on wi-fi when I found out that lots of Starbucks in Mexico City don’t have public wi-fi. This made me a little nervous, as this was my only way of using Uber for a ride home. I spent the next couple of hours looking for a good wi-fi signal anywhere (outside of hotels, cafés, and other Starbucks) but never found one.
Reaching the Latinamericana Tower, I found my way inside, paid 90 pesos and crammed into an elevator with 10 other people and rode it to the observation deck. Mexico City is a huge, sprawling place, filling the basin it sits in all the way to the mountains. The air is pretty clear, but I could just barely see the edges in the distance. Beneath me the Palace of Fine Arts spread out to the west and beyond that the Alameda.
Back out on the street, the crowds had grown, and it took about 10 minutes to cross the street to the museum. Inside there was a long snaking line at the ticket counter so I bailed on the exhibits and continued west into the park. There are lovely fountains and benches throughout the grounds, and I found a shady spot to get my bearings. Supposedly there is free public wi-fi in certain areas, but I wasn’t able to connect after multiple tries. I stopped and asked a friendly fellow at an information booth, and he seemed embarrassed to tell me it was broken.
At the far end of the park was a marketplace full of handcrafts, and I debated on an embroidered Mexican peasant blouse for my ladies but I couldn’t find a blue one in teh right size for Finn. I also paused at the stand with luchador masks but I knew Finn would never wear it.
At this point the Lonely Planet guide had me walking down side streets to find a cantina for a cerveza (I could have used a cerveza), a food market, and another craft market, but I could not find the street, the cantina, or the markets. Instead I found myself in a barrio specializing in appliance repair, plumbing supplies, and later, car stereo installation. I backtracked in an effort to get my bearings and found myself in the Barrio Chino, a small outpost of Asian shops and restaurants, but never found what I was looking for. So I looked east for the Latinamericana Tower and followed that back to the Avenue Madero. At this point it was jammed with people out for the day, probably five times the number I’d seen in the morning, and it was slower going. I threaded the crowds back to the Plaza and walked south to Avenue 20 de Novembre and followed that south for a few blocks. Along the way I detoured and found the Museum of Mexico City, which was beautiful, and stayed until my stomach started rumbling. Out on the Avenue again, I found a cab and rode back to the hotel for a little quiet time before dinner.
Tomorrow I’m going to head northeast and check out the Paseo de la Reforma, east of the Alameda, and maybe the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, which is billed as a world-class institution with Spanish and English displays. Depends on how far I can walk.
I’ve been fighting with the change in altitude by popping Advil in the morning to stave off pounding headaches. It’s enough that I’m seriously winded walking three flights of stairs, which is alarming. This would be a great place to train for a marathon for a couple of months. I’m expecting to land in Baltimore and be positively drunk on oxygen for the first 24 hours.
The weather here has been chilly in the mornings, but by about 11AM the sun heats things up pretty well. Still, if you’re in the shade it’s just cold. So it takes getting used to, and layering is key.
…and all I got was shot in the face with a paintball.
Seriously, there’s much more, but this was the most bizarre retreat I’ve been on. Fun, and with awesome people, but bizarre.
Postscript: Wednesday, September 14
I suppose I should explain what this is all about. My trip to Mexico was meant to help the local program office there transition to a full-fledged WRI office, something that’s been in the works for months now. Along with this transition we’ve been working on updating the brand for that program. We’ve been going in circles over this for a year, as the original brand was not well received by the country offices and visually it was imbalanced.
My job is to intermediary between the D.C. office and the Mexico office, who are spearheading this rebranding exercise on behalf of the other country offices. We were negotiating my travel dates for months, dependent on the external agency’s schedule and our own approval schedule, so what was originally meant for August dragged out into September, and into my teaching schedule. Here is where having class once on Wednesday really screwed me. I booked flights leaving early on Thursday and returning on Tuesday, attempting to get there and back with as much time in country as possible.
What I was not aware of, and was not made clear to me, was what we were actually to be doing on the days I was here. I hoped for two solid days of work and workshops, where the staff could pick my brain as much as possible to help the transition. I hoped to meet the branding agency, so that the voices on the phone were more than voices. And I hoped to shoot video of programs in country so that we’d have new footage to work with.
When I got to the hotel on Thursday, I found out they were all leaving the office to play paintball and do a team-building day. I debated on whether or not to join them, as I didn’t pack any paintball-ready clothes to wear and knew my boss was expecting, um, work to be happening.
Because the trip was coming in the middle of a lot of projects, I got comfortable in the hotel and worked from 3 until about 10, stopping to talk to the girls and go find some dinner. Ultimately, after talking it through with Jen, I decided to go with them and play, bringing a camera and a healthy sense of adventure.
I got to the office at 9 on the nose and met the whole team with a dopey-sounding, “Hola! I’m Bill from D.C.!” I dropped off my camera bag (better for something to happen to it in the office than in my hotel room) and followed everyone outside to the bus, where we boarded for the trip north.
The venue was up in the hills outside the main city between a petting zoo and a cement block factory. We got off the bus and sat in plastic chairs while a nice man explained what we were going to do in Spanish. Then we split up into teams and did some warmup tasks: practicing with a paintball gun, solving a jigsaw puzzle as a team, stacking cans as a dexterity test, and trust falls. Yes, my first trust fall was in a field in Mexico.
Then we suited up for our adventure. The first team to suit simply wore a vest protector and helmets, but our team, who followed them, all collectively saw the wisdom in wearing coveralls, the vest, and a helmet. I got worried when all the teams put their vests on the same way, but smarter heads suggested one team flip them so that black was on the outside. Thus, we were the Manos Negros, or Black Hands. I was a little alarmed to find that our scratched facemasks were only semi-opaque and did not cover the neck. Having played paintball before, where the groom got shot in the Adam’s apple two days before his wedding, I knew this could be dangerous.
The referees went over the rules, the details of which went over my head, but I was already familiar with the basics. They then led us to the field, where multiple obstacles in varying formations separated the two sides, including a hollow wooden helicopter, a downed plane, and a pseudo-storefront. My new friend Miguel, who had been conferring with me on gear selection, explained our team’s strategy to me (shoot the other team) and we scoped out our side of the field to see where the best areas of fire were. We found that every depression held ankle-deep mud, and hoped it wasn’t runoff from the petting zoo.
The game itself was fun. I’ve enjoyed paintball in the past, and even though my gun looked and shot like it had been run over with our tour bus, I took out two of the other team’s players. Most of my time was spent ducking behind obstacles as everyone yelled in Spanish around me; it’s disorienting to be playing a team sport and not be able to communicate with anyone. In hindsight I should have asked Miguel what left, right, forward and back were in Spanish, but I would have forgotten that in two minutes anyway.
Somebody worked up our right side and finally got me on the shoulder and back, so I raised my gun and walked off. Our team lost by two players in the end, but we played a full 10 minutes and I only had about 15 balls left.
Several of our team limped off the field with paintball injuries; two men had been shot in the neck enough to draw blood, one woman was hit on the top of her head, and several others had circular bruises. We recharged our guns, refilled the ammunition, got some water, and then regrouped against another team. The second game was much like the first; this time I took out three of the other team’s players before getting shot square in the center of my mask.
After we returned all of our rental gear we walked up to the roof of the building, which was set up as a patio, and watched as different teams did presentations about WRI’s projects. The idea was for each team to research and develop a 10-minute explanation of the project so that they could familiarize the rest of the office as to what WRI does. They all did an excellent job, and even though my Spanish is weak I knew and could follow almost all of what they were presenting.
After this, we scarfed down some food, then hopped on the bus and headed back. There is a reason the transport program was founded in Mexico 11 years ago; it took us about 45 minutes to crawl back to the office through the traffic.
Once we were there the group invited me to stay for drinks and karaoke, so I popped a the Mexican equivalent of a 40 of Leon and got on their wireless network to call home. We gathered on the roof of the building which overlooks Coyoacan plaza, a beautiful outdoor park, and talked about the day and our experience. In the park, people laughed and played, music from the market and the smell of fried dough wafted up to us, and we enjoyed a cool breeze as the sun set.
I drifted in and out of conversations in English with different groups of people and enjoyed myself listening to them talk in rapid-fire Spanish, picking out words and phrases here and there. It was surprising to me that by the end of the day it was a lot more familiar and I could pick out sentences and phrases that made sense. When I felt myself flagging at about 9:30, I called for an Uber and headed back to the hotel, tired and peckish, and found that the smell of the petting zoo was coming with me.
The final date has been a long time coming, but I’m going to be packing this weekend for a trip to Mexico City. This one is on a lot shorter notice than the others, and I’m going to be doing a lot of winging it while I’m there, but due to my teaching schedule I’ll have two days in Mexico City on the company’s dime (wish that could have been London, honestly). This month’s schedule looks absolutely bonkers, actually–I teach next Wednesday, fly out Thursday morning, fly back out Tuesday evening, work from home Wednesday, and teach Wednesday evening. There are a lot of logistical issues to work out (gotta book my flight, for example) but this is going to be interesting.
After comparing rates and details with three different lenders, we’ve got a lender lined up to refi the house. Now I’ve got to get the ball rolling before I leave the country…
I worked from home on Friday and finished my day up early so we could hit the road at 4:30. We were invited up to the Thompsons’ river house and made it there by about 7 with traffic. Mr. Scout cooked us up a delicious dinner and then lit a fire for s’mores, and we settled back under a sky full of stars, with Mars on full display. Finn met a new friend to play with, and Finnegan has gotten big since we’ve seen him last.
After a lot of great conversation, several s’mores, and several beers, we finally wandered off to bed at 11, tired and full and happy.
All of Saturday was spent in the river, which was as warm as bathwater. We floated and jumped and swam and laughed until lunchtime, when we broke long enough to get something to eat, and got right back in the water. We took a couple of rides on the JetSki, which Finn loved and hated and loved (fast is good, fast and bumpy is not). As with the previous weekend, I spent hours of uninterrupted time in the water, which is rare and wonderful and so relaxing. At dinnertime, we dragged ourselves away and made the trip back home (we all had appointments to keep Sunday morning) and went to bed tired and early.
The front yard is filled in and green again, which is a relief.
I saw a Fuji 35mm f/1.4 lens on Craigslist before I went to London for $20 minus the list price. By the time I got back it was $100 cheaper. (I actually tried a new one out at the rental shop while I was there). I took a chance, and I’ve been using it instead of the Nikon since then. Despite the limitations of the X-E1 body, the lens is beautiful and clear. As far as I can tell, any issues with the photos are a result of the body, but I’ll have to rent another pro-level Fuji to tell for sure.
I’m back in one piece from London, which was an excellent trip. The flight over was long but uneventful, and I got in at 9:30PM. After waiting for an hour in the passport line, I got my bag, found a cab, and made my way to the hotel, a swanky, tidy little place in St. James, one street off of Picadilly.
The two biggest worries I had about the trip, getting to the rental shop and getting the gear back to the hotel, were accomplished with little time to spare. This involved my first ride on the tube, a transfer, and a disorienting stroll through Euston Station to find the rental shop. Somewhere along the way I got the idea that Ox should be doing a travelogue and I started snapping pictures of him for Finn. Once I made it to the shop, the rep was super helpful and got me squared away with everything I needed as well as a car back to the hotel.
There I humped all the gear up the stairs and into the conference room we’d booked. After some scheduling changes, we had one interviewee ready to shoot, so with the help of two of my colleagues we pushed all the tables to the side, set up a black backdrop, two lights, and three cameras, and shot the interview.
Then it was time to break everything back down and go get a bite to eat. I love the people who invited me to come on this trip, so our adventure into the Theatre District was eye-opening and filled with laughter. We settled on a Chinese restaurant where my friend Austin picked three dishes to try and we settled in to some Tiger beer.
Back at the hotel, we did a final pre-summit run of show meeting, I got all the cameras synced, and then hit the rack.
The next morning Austin and I grabbed as much breakfast as we could manage, then loaded all the gear from our rooms to the lobby, where we were met by the man with the car. So, to add to my list of surreal life experiences, I was driven to the gate of the English Foreign & Commonwealth Offices, in a suit, in a Land Rover. However, due to a last-minute mixup, our car wasn’t cleared to drive through security to the main doors, so we had to carry all of the camera gear down King Charles Street, through the courtyard, and up the stairs to the venue. Luckily the team came down to help and we made it all in one trip.
The whole building is immense and just as elaborate and detailed as you might imagine, every inch filled with carved hardwood, marble flooring, and artwork of all sizes and shapes. We were escorted by line-of-sight guards, who made sure we didn’t wander about in the building, so there was no exploration to be had.
We were using the The Locarno Suite, which was designed to host large dinners held by the Foreign Secretary in 1858, and it is breathtaking in its size and scope. It’s set up in an L-shape, with the Reception Room and Conference Room joined by a smaller, square Dining Room that’s twice the size of the footprint of my house. We set up our camera rig in the far back corner of the Reception Room next to a grand piano, and because we’d practiced the night before we had the whole thing built out in about a half an hour. I’d just gotten the last camera dialed in when we had our first interview, and we were off from there. We got a total of nine people to sit for us, including former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and all of them were excellent. Between video shoots I took the long lens and shot stills of the meeting itself, as well as the group shot of the entire conference, which was exhilarating and excellent practice. The room was noisy and it was hard to control the lighting, but I think we’ve got something decent to start with.
By about 4:30 we’d gotten our last subject to sit for us, so we broke down the kit and they called a car for me. We hauled all of the gear back out of the building and down the steps in the opposite direction, and got there just as the car was pulling up. My driver turned out to be a fascinating Briton by way of Jamaica, who I wound up having a long and insightful conversation with about Brexit, immigration, and world events. He helped me get the gear out of the car, bring it back to the rental desk, and waited for me outside while the paperwork was completed. This was all unplanned but extremely appreciated, because I hadn’t calculated the number of hours one sits in London traffic, and if I’d done it on Thursday morning, I would have lost 3/4 of my free day to it.
Returning to the hotel, I changed into some jeans and set out to find something to eat nearby, as I’d only had breakfast and some disappointingly unappetizing sandwiches at the venue. I finally settled on Byron for a “proper hamburger” and started in on Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch.
Thursday I had all to myself, so after I reorganized my lodging situation (canceling the hotel I’d booked across the river and booking one more night in the 4-star I was already in at a lower group rate in order to avoid having to relocate) I filled up on breakfast and set out to the west for St. James’ Park and Buckingham Palace. As it turned out, I got there about an hour before the Changing of the Guard, but people had already queued up for the event and clogged the gates and sidewalk. Oh, the selfie sticks.
I stuck around to see the Horse Guards come through and then walked back towards the park until I heard the strains of the theme from Dallas being played by a band. Curious, I followed the sound until I came upon the Wellington Barracks, where the regimental band finished and then started playing Sir Duke. Next to them, the new detachment was forming up and making ready. I walked back over Birdcage Walk and found an empty section of railing on Spur Road. I only had to wait about five minutes before they formed up and marched out the gate and past me, only feet away.
Satisfied, I walked back through the park towards the Foreign & Commonwealth building, walked up the steps past Churchill’s War Room (the line was way too long) and onto Parliament Street, where I was faced with Big Ben and throngs of tourists pointing their iPhones and iPads skyward. By a stroke of luck I was walking past at exactly noon so I got to experience the sound of the Westminster Chimes at ground zero, which was awesome.
Walking across the bridge, I ducked photo opportunities until I reached the other side, then set up Ox for his shots. Here I paused to make a plan. Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace were mobbed with people, so I knew St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower would be too. I decided to walk further south to visit the Imperial War Museum, which I gambled would be quieter, and also have public restrooms, because I’d had a lot of coffee that morning.
The IWM did not disappoint. As it happened, I was there the day before the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, so there was a docent who gave a talk about the history. Then I walked the floors to see what there was. The museum has an impressive and compact collection of exhibits, including one of the original trucks from the Long Range Desert Group, a survivor Spitfire from the Battle of Britain, and a life ring from the Lusitania. I spent about two hours touring the museum and then decided to head east along the Thames, figuring I might be able to make it to the Tate Modern.
It was a longer walk than I thought, but the Tate was worth the distance. It’s a magnificent museum in terms of size and collection; after figuring out how to get into the galleries, I spent another two and a half hours there, basically until they kicked me out. I didn’t get to see the Tanks or view London from the roof, but I’m happy with what I did see.
At that point I had to turn around and start for home, so I retraced my steps along the river and crossed the Jubilee Bridge to Charing Cross and followed it up to Trafalgar Square for another picture op with Ox.
Returning to the hotel, I met up with some folks from the summit and followed them deep into the heart of Soho for dinner at a tiny little tapas place on a side street. There we ate and drank until 9:30, when the management kicked us out because they had reservations for the table. We wandered the streets looking for a pub and found the Star and Garter, where the Portugal/Poland game was playing, and enjoyed more drinks and conversation. I knew I had an early start the next morning, and the tiny voice in my head was telling me to call it a night, but I wound up drinking in the hotel with the crew until 3AM.
Friday morning I woke with a slight hangover and a sour stomach–on top of which I shoveled coffee and an English breakfast–got my gear sorted, and was checked out by 11AM. I had lunch plans with a couple of guys from the studio who produced our last institutional video, so I hopped a cab and made my way back across the bridge. They have a lovely space with lots of light in a quiet neighborhood, and walked me up to a nearby pub which serves a delicious French-English lunch. We chatted about Brexit and work and video, drank a pint, tried a Scotch Egg (fookin’ delicious), and had a great time catching up until I had to bail out for the airport. They were kind enough to call me an Uber, and even paid for it, which was super nice (I owe the studio a fine bottle of whisky) and then I spent an hour and a half in London traffic crawling towards Heathrow. We sat in stop-and-go traffic on the M4 until magically everyone decided they’d had enough sitting and just started driving. Once I was at the airport I hustled through security, bought Finn a stuffed bear, took a piss, and boarded my plane in record time.
All of the stuff I was worried about and losing sleep over–the logistics, travel arrangements, getting gear from one place to the next, scheduling, communication–it all worked out almost flawlessly.
London treated me very well, and I hope I can bring the girls back with me next time.