So, About That Travel Photography Contest

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bus driver (Dubai, UAE)
Well, I didn’t win. These people did. I'm not impressed with all of the winning shots, but some of them are indeed spectacular.

No big deal. What is important is that I really enjoyed interacting with readers and friends, and getting some new perspective on my own photos.

Also on the plus side, I've whittled down my photo collection to a few great shots, which I can continue to submit to other contests. I've already entered another contest on a friend's website.

Thanks again to everyone who shared their views and helped me pick!

A Glimpse of the New Rwanda

Monday, November 29, 2010 | Kigali, Rwanda

The Centre Bethanie hotel sits on a peninsula which juts into Lake Kivu, on the Rwanda-Congo border.
Back in 2004, I spent several days in Rwanda on my way to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. At that time—ten years after the genocide that left 800,000 dead and millions displaced—Rwanda was still very much a country on the mend, muddling forward with reconstruction.

Last month, the country I found when I arrived there for a three-week work trip, while recognizable, was clearly much evolved. This was The New Rwanda.

* * *

"Now as we begin our descent into Kigali I'd like to take the time to remind all passengers who will be disembarking here to remove any plastic bags from their luggage, to comply with Rwandan law."

Some tourists chuckled at the flight attendant's warning, disbelieving. But a friend had alerted me before my trip, and I knew it was no joke. In the environmentally conscious New Rwanda, plastic shopping bags are illegal.

Photography Poll Results: The People Have Spoken

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Anthill Lookout
The polls have closed, and the votes, comments, and emails of nearly 50 readers have been tallied. Thank you so much to everyone who took the time to consider the photographs and share your opinions! This process has helped me see these images in new and very different ways.

Now, the envelope please... [cue drumroll]

Photo number 1, "The Anthill Lookout" from northern Uganda is the clear favorite, with "Boy at the medersa pool" not far behind, followed closely by "Hammocks in a blue wood".

Nat'l Geographic Photo Contest: Help Me Pick A Winner!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

If you're reading this, I need your help!
National Geographic Traveler magazine's fourth annual "World In Focus" photography contest ends later this month, and I've decided (perhaps foolishly) that I must take part!

After years of traveling, and over 20,000 photos snapped around Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and North America, surely one of them must be of National Geographic caliber, right? Think of NG's majestic cranes, the docks fading into the mist, brightly painted Saharan warriors, polar bears duelling on the sea ice, the piercing stare of the Afghan girl... or better yet, check out the contest winners from the last few years.

Obviously, I'm up against some stiff competition. Not to mention that I've never taken a photography class, don't even have great equipment, and have always considered myself more of a writer than a photographer. Nonetheless, after much agonizing I've selected 10 photos that I

Hating Hijabs or Badgering Blondes: What's the Difference?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 | Washington, DC, USA

The scene of the crime: Dupont Circle by night, central Washington, DC
Last night around 9:00 PM, I was walking home in the dark from a function near my office. After a long day at work, I felt like a rubber band that had been stretched too many times.

I had just reached Dupont Circle, a small park in central Washington, DC, when a wild yell snapped me from my daze. Ahead of me, on one of the wide paths leading to the circle's central fountain, a small pack of teenagers were cackling and swerving menacingly around a man and woman. At a glance, I noticed two things: the couple looked to be around 60 years old, and the woman wore a long dress and hijab (the traditional Muslim head scarf).

In an instant, the largest teen uncapped a water bottle and sliced it through the air, sending a streak of water at the woman's face. Her husband tried to step in front of the next plume of water, and swung desperately at the kids. Another teen swung back with a messenger bag, hitting the

Reflections on South Africa 2010: World Watches Cup, US Watches World

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 | Washington, DC, USA

Well said. (Spectator in the crowd before the US-England match broadcast, Washington, DC)
The 2010 World Cup in South Africa has come and gone. I did not reach Africa's first World Cup, although I did my best to watch every game (and for the first few weeks, before returning to a desk job here in Washington, I came close to doing so).

Watching this Cup here in the US was nothing like back in 2006, when each muggy evening I crowded with fellow spectators around the TV in a ramshackle Tanzanian bar. The contrast is unmistakable; while the rest of the planet takes a month-long break every four years for the World Cup, few Americans even bat an eyelash. If anything, most marvel at the silliness of their fellow Earthlings' football fever.

Here in the US, ahead of every World Cup, whatever TV network holds broadcast rights to the Cup happily perpetrates the myth that (despite all precedent to the contrary) this World Cup will be The

Wonder and Winces: Mixed Emotions in Dubai

Tuesday, June 22, 2010 | Dubai, United Arab Emirates

At 828 meters (2,171 feet), the Burj Khalif is the world's tallest building, and far too large to fit in a single frame.
Many people who know me assume that I would accept any free ticket, that I would jump on a train or plane to any destination, all without thinking twice. Not so.

On my unofficial List of Places I Never Want to Go, Dubai held second place for years. (Nothing could be worse than Vegas.) Everything I had heard made me want to avoid ultra-artificial Dubai: the excesses of the city's buildings, the commercialism of the malls, the environmental degradation from golf courses and ski slopes built in the desert, and the exploitation of immigrant laborers by the locals—a disdainful upper caste of billionaire oil barons.

Yet like it or not, Dubai was the transit point for my recent trip to Iraq.

After a mildly excruciating thirteen-hour direct flight from Washington, DC, we reached Dubai in the evening. Before landing, the plane arced above the city-state's towering downtown skyscrapers.

The Bottom Line on Iraq

Tuesday, June 15, 2010 | Iraq

In Baghdad's Green Zone, an Iraqi flag and military-themed murals adorn a blast wall.
A week after I returned home from Iraq, I read about a recent survey examining quality of life in cities around the world. I tracked down the report, resigned to what I would find. Sure enough, Baghdad was dead last—planet Earth's least livable city.

That Iraq has a long way to go before it attains a livable measure of stability is undeniable. After years of hearing (read: tuning out) stories of the atrocities which Baghdad's residents suffer every day, I found that conditions in the city were even worse than I had expected.

Nonetheless, the Iraqis I interviewed, or those with whom I worked, were coping. After seven years of tragedies, what else was there to do but head out to work, to school, or to the market each morning and hope for the best?

Since returning to Washington, I have been asked by dozens of friends and family members what I

Kurdistan: The Other Face of Iraq

Sunday, June 13, 2010 | Arbil, Iraq

Viewed from the citadel, locals take an evening stroll in one of Erbil's central squares.
The highlight of my trip to Iraq was the five days I spent in the northern region of Kurdistan—not least because it finally offered a chance to escape the prison-like compound in Baghdad.

Along with one colleague and one security guard, I flew on Iraqi Airways from Baghdad to Erbil, the administrative and commercial capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

"Kurdistan" itself is something of an imagined land, since the ethnic Kurds straddle the mountainous borderlands of northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, northern Syria, and northwest Iran. History never granted the Kurds their own country, but today they are working hard to carve something like a nation out of Iraq—and to distance themselves from their Arab countrymen.

Iraq's Kurds bore the brunt of Saddam Hussein's brutality for decades, and developed their independent streak in response. During the 1990s, the Kurds suffered not only under the

The Real World: Baghdad (Life Behind the Blast Walls)

Sunday, May 23, 2010 | Baghdad, Iraq

Attending a meeting in Baghdad requires a unique wardrobe.
The company compound where I stayed during my time in Baghdad was really nothing more than a few city blocks beside the Tigris River enclosed by high blast walls. The neighborhood was once prime real estate, however—just up the river is the former epicenter of Saddam Hussein's regime. Today that area is the International Zone (formerly known as the Green Zone).

Given its prime position, the neighborhood was previously home to some of Saddam's closest cronies. His wife and other family members owned many of the houses in the area, as well as the mosquito-infested swampland leading to the river. Our security guards swore to me that Chemical Ali used to live in the villa facing the one where I slept.

Saddam's crew fled in 2003 with the arrival of US troops, and a private security outfit moved in and slapped together the compound walls, using a mix of concrete slabs, sand bags, and shipping

Iraq: It's Not For Everyone

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 | Baghdad, Iraq

The Swords of Qadisiyah are just one of several garish monuments erected by Saddam Hussein in what is now the "Green Zone."
My trip to Iraq began with a 13-hour flight to Dubai. On that leg, my neighbor was one of many Americans on the flight who wore civilian clothes with military-issue desert boots. He was also heading to Iraq, he said, but I decided not to ask him what he was doing there. (Probing the Iraq- and Afghanistan-bound for further information these days usually ends in awkward silences, with smug grins that seem to say, "C'mon, if you knew a damn thing you'd know I ain't answering that.")

But my neighbor volunteered some information on his own. After connecting through Dubai and Baghdad, he said, it would take him four full days of further travel—on progressively smaller planes and ground transport—to reach his unnamed outpost somewhere deep in the deserts of southern Iraq.

"Wanna see a sandstorm?" Pulling a digital camera from his shirt pocket, he showed me a video he

Bed, Bath & Baghdad

Sunday, April 11, 2010 | Washington, DC, USA

Bed, Bath & Beyond is where I spend my days.
Since returning in late February from our latest travels, Jacqueline and I have gotten busy reintegrating ourselves into normal American life. Craigslisting, job hunting, traipsing through the rain to visit apartments, purchasing cell phone plans, and shopping for home goods felt like familiar processes, albeit a bit surreal.

We decided to resettle in Washington, DC—the city we had left 18 months earlier to move to Morocco. Throughout our time in North Africa, we had reminisced with other former Washingtonians about the city. Parroting the unmistakable voice of the city's Metro system was a favorite pastime. ("Ding-dong. Doors closing. Ding-dong. Please step back to allow the doors to close.")

Today DC remains mostly familiar, despite the major events that took place in our absence: the

"One Frenzied Weekend in Fes" on Matador Abroad

Tuesday, March 9, 2010 | Fès, Morocco

A cat perches on a cold, wet roof in the old city of Fes.
My post "Water, Water Everywhere, No Time to Stop and Think" has been re-published on the Matador Abroad travel site. The piece, which I consider one of my best from my time in Morocco, details the peculiar events of one very culturally enlightening weekend I spent in Fes, soon after my arrival in Fall 2008.

I sent in the piece several weeks ago in response to a call for submissions, and was happy to hear that it was published today, accompanied by several of my photos. While the editor added a new title ("One Frenzied Weekend in Fes") and shaved off my sly Casablanca reference in the last line, I'm very happy to see my writing reach a larger audience!

On the Highways of Abyssinia

Saturday, March 6, 2010 | Ethiopia

Cattle herders walk the roadside near the town of Bahir Dar.
Amid the office towers of downtown Addis Ababa is a massive expanse of macadam—Meskel Square. The square, formed by the intersection of 12 boulevards, resembles a colossal mall parking lot, and is the heart of Ethiopia's highway network. From this hub, the country's roads extends outward in all directions, deteriorating gradually as they grow further from the capital. Paved roads peter out and dissolve—first to gravel, then to rutted dirt tracks.

Outside of Addis, many of these roads were too bumpy to allow for reading, much less writing. Snapping pictures or chatting occupied a few minutes, but mostly Jacqueline and I stared out the window, watching scenery for eight hours a day.

Comments from Yoseph, our tight-lipped driver, were sparse. (Once, as we drove past a dusty track forking to the left: "That is the road to Sudan." Another time, of the truck drivers careening past on

Spicy Fingers: Notes from an Ethiopian Eating Adventure

Wednesday, March 3, 2010 | Ethiopia

The Ethiopian dish yedoro firfir is made with injera, chicken, hard-boiled egg, and lots of spices.
I first ate Ethiopian food when I was 14, during a class trip to a restaurant back home in Baltimore. In my memory, the food was peculiar but delicious. Injera, the purplish-grey spongebread with which the food was served, had a sour taste but I gobbled it up... and soon felt it expanding in my stomach, swelling with juices and making me feel ready to burst. (Admittedly, restraint is not my forté at the dinner table.)

Last month, having finally reached Ethiopia myself, I dove enthusiastically into an exploration of the local cuisine. Jacqueline followed timidly at first, but by the end of our trip had developed a healthy appreciation for her own favorite dishes (particularly bozena shiro, goat meat in a rich spicy sauce). What follows are some of my observations on the country's very unique food and drink.

* * *

Almost without exception, we ate every meal in Ethiopia with injera. The ubiquitous spongy crêpes

Amharic: A Language Apart from a Land Apart

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 | Ethiopia

A Ge'ez inscription at the Debre Libanos monastery
Though geographically landlocked, culturally speaking Ethiopia is an island, distinguished from its neighbors by its unique history, ethnicities, cuisine, calendar, and most of all by its language.

Amharic, the mother tongue of the Amhara (Ethiopia's dominant ethnic group) and official language of the country, is central Ethiopia's uniqueness. Though technically a Semitic language (and thus distantly related to Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew), Amharic seemed to me to share few roots or words in common with those languages.

After years of studying Arabic, and forcing my mouth to make some very unfamiliar noises, I still had great difficulty emulating the sounds of Amharic. (Is it even possible to combine a consonant and glottal stop? Apparently so, but my tongue can't manage it.) At times, the snippets of conversation floating along the streets reminded me fleetingly of Arabic—no wait, Hebrew—no wait,

The Moment You've Been Waiting For: Ethiopia Photos

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 | Ethiopia

A men-only morning prayer service in Lalibela (easily my best photo from Ethiopia, in my opinion)
Pictures are finally here! (and a few videos too!)

Now that Jacqueline and I are back home in the Land of Internet, I've been able to sort through and upload photos for all my previous entries on our Ethiopia trip.

Especially for those readers without a mental image of what Ethiopia looks like, the pictures can add some valuable context to each story—check them out from the beginning and proceed in sequence, or view entries individually:

Mulling It Over or: I Lost My Passport in Kombolcha

Sunday, February 21, 2010 | Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

There is little more than an occasional camel caravan on the road from Kombolcha. I was glad not to have to travel it twice.
Soon after our return to Addis Ababa and our subsequent decision to return to the US, I dug around for my passport so we could head to the airline offices. Not in that pocket, nor in that pouch, nor in that bag. Hmmm...

The passport, it turned out, was in a hotel room back in Kombolcha, a long day's drive northeast of Addis. Reached on the phone, the hotel manager there promised to hand it off to a driver who was heading this way, and told me to sit tight.

So I sat. I sat for a whole day in the lobby of our hostel on Mundy Street.

The wait—in a country with such abysmal internet connections—finally provided me with the pure, unhindered, mind-numbing state of boredom necessary to motivate me to read Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun, the reputedly excellent travelogue which I've carried around

A Great East African Odyssey, Abbreviated

Saturday, February 20, 2010 | Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

The trip from Lalibela to Ethiopia's capital took two days of driving rough roads through scenic countryside.
From Lalibela we drove a day to the town of Kombolcha, from where it took the better part of another full day to reach Addis Ababa. Our northern road trip was over, and it was time for Jacqueline and I to decide on our next move.

The plan, of course, was to continue south overland, to Kenya and beyond. But since our arrival in Ethiopia, Jacqueline's desire to travel had been rapidly waning, due to a perfect storm of factors.

First, Ethiopia had racked up quite a few strikes in her book: the fleas, the higher-than-expected costs, the unfamiliar and unvarying food, the shoddy hotels, and the long rides on rough roads.

In addition, its occasional resemblance to Morocco didn't sit well with her. The odd pestering tout was enough to remind us that we were foreign, that we couldn't just blend into the scenery. Perhaps my broader experience traveling in the developing world allowed me to focus on comparisons to

Lalibela: Sacred Spaces from Another World

Monday, February 15, 2010 | Lalibela, Ethiopia

Early morning worshipers overflow the dawn service at the Church of St. George, one of Lalibela's spectacular rock-hewn churches.
The Seven Olives Hotel rests on a hillside overlooking the town of Lalibela, in north-central Ethiopia. Jacqueline parked herself there for two days, relaxing and reading on the terrace beside our room, taking three meals a day at the restaurant, and generally trying to forget about her long ordeal with the fleas. Having sworn off all further visits to Ethiopian monasteries, churches, chapels, and cathedrals, she stayed behind each morning when I set out to explore Lalibela's main attraction: the famous rock-hewn churches.

In the late twelfth century, present-day Lalibela was known as Roha, and was ruled by a king named Lalibela, who commissioned the construction of 11 very unusual churches. Speculation surrounds his motivations. Some say he was inspired by a command from on high, or a desire to give Ethiopian pilgrims an alternative destination while the Crusades menaced Jerusalem, or to create worship

Decisions, Decisions

Sunday, February 14, 2010 | Gondar, Ethiopia

Coca-Cola, Ethiopian style, at a roadside truck stop
Making snap decisions in a foreign environment is challenging, especially early on, when one is unaccustomed to the rules and particularities of a new destination. For our first two weeks in Ethiopia, Jacqueline and I kept looking back at decisions we had just made, and wondering "How could we be so stupid?" At every turn—whether with hotels, transport, meals, or anything else—we seemed to choose wrong. Our misadventures in the Simien Mountains were the icing on the cake, and in the aftermath, our spirits were low.

Recognizing that Jacqueline was near the end of her rope, I finally made a good decision: I proposed we take a day in Gondar to recuperate (and to coat everything Jacqueline owns in flea powder, which we finally found at a local pesticide store). After the flea treatment, a shower, a night's rest, and several nice meals, I was able to coax Jacqueline into continuing to the final destination on our northern Ethiopian road trip—Lalibela.

It proved, against all odds, to be another great decision. The full story on Lalibela is coming up next!

An Ill-Fated Walk in the Simien Mountains, Part III

Thursday, February 11, 2010 | Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

Hard as I tried, I failed to take a photo that really captured the stunning scope of the Simien Mountains' valleys and jagged cliffs.
The next day we woke early and broke camp to begin the 20 km (12.4 mile) long hike to the village of Geech. On this day, the muleteer obligingly strapped my backpack to the top of the mule, significantly lightening my load.

As we progressed deeper into the park, the views grew even more stunning, and the wildlife more plentiful. We saw a pair of klipspringer in a wooded thicket, passed springs and waterfalls, and by the time we stopped for lunch on the bank of a small river, had seen so many Gelada baboons that we no longer bothered to turn our heads to watch them.

But all was not well in paradise.

The scout, who insisted on leading, thereby leaving us to walk in a trail of his choking odor, set an ambitious pace. He also insisted at several points on blazing his own path through stands of thorn

An Ill-Fated Walk in the Simien Mountains, Part II

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 | Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

An alpha male Gelada baboon patrols the perimeter of his troop's grazing area.
The ridiculous packing process was soon bested by a yet more absurd scene: the two clients carrying bags (Jacqueline had our daypack with lunch and water, and I my trekking backpack) and traipsing off down the road, accompanied by a small army of locals who, despite ostensibly being paid to help us, walked empty-handed.

We soon turned off the road, following a path along a massive vertical escarpment.

For the next several hours, the sheer dropoff loomed to our left. Behind it, a dramatic view of the mountains floated in the midday haze.

For Jacqueline and I, the uphill sections—even small ones—proved brutal; the altitude was definitely a factor on this trek. Short of breath, our mouths dry, we guzzled water like parched dogs, and eagerly seized every opportunity for a break.

An Ill-Fated Walk in the Simien Mountains, Part I

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 | Debark, Ethiopia

Nobody ever called Scout anything but "Scout."  But even in the absence of a name, he proved himself quite a character.
Gondar, the northern town that was Ethiopia's capital in medieval times, still boasts a series of imperial castles that look like they were lifted straight out of old Europe. But Jacqueline and I weren't here for sightseeing—Gondar was our jumping off point for a multi-day hike in the Simien Mountains, several hours' drive north along a rough gravel road.

Along that route, we passed the village of Wolleka—the former home of Ethiopia's once sizeable Jewish community (known as the Falasha)—and then mile after mile of the same Ethiopian farmland that we've been driving through for several days now.

In Debark, the dusty one-horse town at the base of the mountain range, we split up to prepare for the hike. Our driver Yoseph made repairs to the vehicle to ensure it could carry us up the formidable road to our starting point the next morning. Jacqueline dumped out her backpack in our

Awuramba: An Experiment in Village Life

Thursday, February 4, 2010 | Awuramba, Ethiopia

One of Awuramba's residents weaves a blanket on a traditional loom.
One of the more interesting points of our road trip so far was a trip Jacqueline and I made on a whim to the peculiar little village of Awuramba.

Back in Bahir Dar, a friendly Australian lady urged us to make an extra stop on our drive northward, at a small village that produced excellent woven products, but whose name she couldn't recall. We communicatd her directions and description to our driver, Yoseph, who knew the place immediately: "Ahh, you mean Awuramba." We arrived a few hours later, and found much more than a mere weaving village.

Yoseph parked our Land Cruiser in the center of the village, under a large tree surrounded by simple huts, with goats and chickens picking over the grounds. A tour guide quickly materialized and, in very rough English, set about explaining the village's history and organizing principles.

Bahir Dar: the Riviera of Ethiopia

Wednesday, February 3, 2010 | Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Murals in the Ura Kidane Meret monastery depict scenes from both the Western and Ethiopian Orthodox Bibles.
Our northward drive continued Monday to the city of Bahir Dar, which we reached in time for lunch. Bahir Dar sits on the edge of Lake Tana, and is generously characterized as "Ethiopia's Riviera", though it seemed a bit more rough around the edges than some other rivieras I've seen.

We pitched our tent on the grounds of the Ghion Hotel, beside the lakeshore, and spent the afternoon relaxing and watching the birds (an eclectic mix of parakeets, vultures, pelicans, hornbills, seagulls, fish eagles, pigeons, and plume-tailed songbirds) clatter through the treetops.

A rumbling four-wheel-drive, all-terrain tour bus pulled up as we were arranging our tent, and dumped out a few dozen British, Australian, and American tourists (including a fellow Baltimore native—against all odds, it somehow happens everywhere). They were traveling from Cairo to Capetown with Dragoman Tours, and having been cooped up with each other for many days, were

The Long Road Northward Begins

Tuesday, February 2, 2010 | West Gonjam, Ethiopia

Just north of Addis, cyclists and Ethiopia's famous long distance runners trained along the road's edge.
The Abeba Tours manager and driver picked Jacqueline and I up at our guest house in Addis early Sunday morning for the start of our two-week northern road trip.

As the churches emptied out from their all-night services, white-veiled figures filled the otherwise deserted streets. We left the city's northern limits, cruising along a well-paved road that brought us abruptly from the metropolis to rolling farmland. Runners and pods of bikers chugged along the roadside; our driver, Yoseph, told us that Ethiopia's most famous athletes, including the internationally renowned marathoners, train along this stretch of road.

In mid-morning we reached Debre Libanos, site of one of Ethiopia's most holy monasteries. For a considerable fee, a monk showed us around the church's interior, explaining symbols, painted scenes, and Ethiopian Orthodox traditions. We hiked up to the cave that overlooks the monastery,

Page Loading... Page Loading...

Monday, February 1, 2010 | Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

At least this internet cafe in Bahir Dar had some nice flowers outside, which I could look at while waiting for my email to load.
Remember the dial-up noise computers used to make? Here in Ethiopia, they still do:
"... Connections in Ethiopia are among the worst on the continent. It can easily take an hour to download one simple, two line e-mail. And that's in Addis! To avoid frustration it's better to assume that while in Ethiopia you will not be able to get online." -Lonely Planet: Ethiopia, page 250
Truer words were never spoken. Just wish I'd read them before I arrived!

First Days in Addis: Dealing with Diplomats

Saturday, January 30, 2010 | Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

Debebe shows me the Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown Addis Ababa.
Next time we'll make sure not to visit Addis Ababa during an African Union summit.

Our first three days in Ethiopia's capital have been dominated by the presence of several hundred dipomats and heads of state from around the continent. Roads are blocked, hotels are full, and ATMs are tapped. The upside is increased security: a policeman or soldier with an AK-47 is stationed every 50 feet along each side of every street in the city, ushering along the VIP motorcades and civilian traffic.

Despite the unexpected disruptions posed by the conference (which apparently occurs here three times per year), Jacqueline and I got off to a great start in Addis. Our first cab ride was fortuitous; we found a very friendly, English-speaking driver named Debebe, who was happy to be paid to tote us around the city for an afternoon.

Lessons from Backpacking, and More Yet to Learn

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 | New York, NY, USA

On my first backpacking odyssey, I was all smiles and sunburn. (Ilha do Ibo, Mozambique)
Lots of people look down on "backpackers." The label brings to mind lazy, dreadlocked, pot-smoking, genie-pants-wearing, hostel-slumming, ocean-bathing, direction-less European twenty-somethings. Perhaps there are some stiff northern Europeans among them too—more put together, perhaps more evidently destined for success than their Latin cousins, but nonetheless still bumbling around the globe with only a sack on their back.

Like all stereotypes, these are in part derived from some truth. But skeptics, don't knock backpacking until you've tried it—and I mean in a part of the world where travel is difficult and requires an enormous amount of discomfort, sacrifice, and adaptability. I'll explain:

The first time I really hit the road on my own, I tossed a few pieces of clothing, books, and my much-abused digital camera into my backpack and set out for three weeks in East Africa. Mind you,

With Haiti in Mind, Thoughts on Giving Back

Monday, January 25, 2010 | Baltimore, MD, USA

Roadside scene (Kigali, Rwanda)
Last Tuesday, Jacqueline and I were in the thick of our planning for our upcoming trip to East Africa, when the earth beneath Haiti trembled, swallowing up much of what little hope existed there.

In the days since the earthquake, I have been closely reading the accounts emerging from Port-au-Prince and the surrounding countryside, plus the development blog chatter about the quake's aftermath and its implications for Haiti's future.

Soon after the earthquake, Jacqueline and I began to wonder if we were doing the right thing. Shouldn't we scrap our East Africa trip plans to go volunteer in the rebuilding effort? As I read more, however, I realized that assisting on the ground wasn't even a realistic possibility, and might not be for some time, due to the almost complete collapse of Haiti's already minimal infrastructure.

Best of Morocco Blog Awards: Vote for Ibn Ibn Battuta!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Best of Morocco Blog Awards Excitement! Ibn Ibn Battuta has been nominated for the "Best of Morocco Blogs" in the "Overall" category! Go to to cast your vote (it's super quick—no registration required).

While you're there, help out Jacqueline, whose blog Vie au Maroc was nominated in the "Personal Blog" category. Thanks for the support!

Best Photos from Morocco: Urban Scenes

Friday, January 22, 2010 | Morocco

A biker speeds through Marrakech's covered souq.
Now, the moment you've all been waiting for. No more landscapes, snake charmers, or chickens. These are the iconic images that define Morocco: its walled cities, ornate medersas, soaring mosques, and open-air houses.

While almost half of Morocco's population still lives in rural areas, the cities have long been the country's vibrant heart. They are the site of its most impressive monuments and markets, and of its most vivid colors. Being a fan of great architecture, I absolutely loved examining the intricacy of many of Morocco's ornate sacred spaces, which feature prominently in this collection:

Best Photos from Morocco: Animals

Thursday, January 21, 2010 | Morocco

Catnap in a cactus (Essaouira, Morocco)
Animals are some of my favorite subjects. Though they don't sit quite as still as buildings, they're nonetheless far easier to shoot than humans. As living, breathing beings, animals often give viewers the same sense of warmth that a photo of a person can give.

In addition, animals are wonderful subjects for travel photography, because they can lend a photograph such a vivid sense of place. To most viewers, no image evokes the Middle East as immediately as that of a camel. Show us a kangaroo and we think Australia, a lion East Africa, or a bison the plains of North America.

Wildlife in Morocco is limited, but I managed to snap a few good shots of animals—both wild and domestic—throughout the year:

Best Photos from Morocco: People

Wednesday, January 20, 2010 | Morocco

A student checks his sideburns in his room at the Medersa es-Sahrij, a religious school in Fes.
The best and most iconic travel photographs almost always capture humanity in a striking way. That's because people—and the interactions we have with each other—are the most interesting aspect of travel.

Capturing people, their emotions, and their stories through photography is no small feat. And unfortunately, it's not my strong suit. Perhaps after too many awkward incidents in the Middle East (a region where shutter-happy Western tourists are frequently viewed with suspicion, if not downright animosity) I now hesitate to shamelessly approach people and ask to snap their picture. It's something I'm working on, and in the meantime, I'm perfecting the art of shooting indiscreetly from the hip.

Here's some of our best people shots from Morocco:

Best Photos from Morocco: Rural Scenes

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 | Morocco

Near Essaouira, a farmer and beast of burden head home for the evening.
Exploring Morocco's countryside, its coasts and mountains, ranked among my most enjoyable experiences during our time in the country.

In contrast to its reputation, the northwest corner of Africa isn't all desert. (And in fact, much to my regret, in 15 months I never even managed to visit the Sahara, or many of the sites in Morocco's arid south). But the country's rugged mountain ranges and miles of undeveloped coastline alone make it worth the visit.

Please enjoy:

Best Photos from Morocco: Introduction

Monday, January 18, 2010 | Morocco

Dessert at Fes et Gestes salon de thé: sliced oranges with a hint of cinnamon.
After promising to share the best photographs Jacqueline and I took during our 15 months in Morocco, I sat down to actually select my favorites, and discovered that I had about 6,000 photos to sift through. (These were the ones we had deemed worth keeping, of the 8,000+ that we originally snapped... not including our side trips to Europe.)

I sought out the technically stronger photos, the aesthetically pleasing ones, and those that seemed to convey a sense of the place—after all, such is what distinguishes "travel photography" from plain old "photography". After hours of brooding over my selection, I managed to narrow down the list to 75 photos that I consider to be the best from our time in Morocco.

Update: All four collections are now posted. I'll leave it to you to decide whether I followed my own advice on travel photography. See Urban Scenes, Rural Scenes, Animals, and People.

How To Take Better Travel Photographs

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

At the Medersa es-Sahrij in Fes, Morocco, my friend Ryan leans in for a water shot.
Back in DC, on a balmy Saturday afternoon in the spring of 2005, I was strolling around Dupont Circle (probably trying to avoid studying for finals). Then a sophomore at Georgetown, I would soon be heading off for Syria and Jordan. So, I stopped into Claude Taylor's travel photography shop to browse for inspiration among his vivid photos.

Inside, in the chair beside the usual cashier, sat the man himself. I perused the stacks, picked out a photo or two, and struck up a conversation with Taylor as I made my purchase. I explained my travel plans, and asked him, did he have any photography tips? (With no fancy camera or training of any sort, I figured I could use all the help I could get.) His answer was brief and immediate: "The two most important things you can do to take better pictures," he said, "are to get closer to whatever you're photographing, and to take more pictures."

Ibn Ibn Battuta is Now on Twitter!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Tweet, tweet. (Seagull in Essaouira, southern Morocco)
In addition to RSS, Facebook, and e-mail, you can now follow Ibn Ibn Battuta on Twitter!

Follow @IbnIbnBattuta to make sure you don't miss any of the adventures—and please, pass the word along!


A New Look, for a New Year of Travels

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Church tower and moon (Melilla, Spain)
It's 2010, and Ibn Ibn Battuta is still going strong.

However, it's high time for some much-needed design upgrades. I've made a few tweaks to the blog's look already, as you can see on the homepage. To streamline things further, I'll be introducing a few more changes over the coming weeks... then it's off to Ethiopia!