When I started this blog, my intention was for it to be a portfolio of my writing and while it is, I found that over the course of the year I enjoyed the photography aspect just as much, if not more. Particularly when it comes to travel writing, pictures are what really tell the story and I tried to write all my posts so that if you wanted to scroll through and just look at the pictures, you’d still get the sense of a place. I read a lot of pieces like this; the photos are why I think many of us read articles about travel. So if you’ve spent the last year just scrolling through to see pictures, no worries.
However, photography is not a perfect medium. Some things, especially wide landscape shots, can never be rendered properly in a picture. The scale tends to be distorted one way or another. Photos can be a little deceptive too. I’d say the biggest thing that my pictures don’t show is how crowded many places are. I would sometimes wait for 15 or 20 minutes to get a shot of a building or a temple or whatever without another person in it.
So to recap my trip, I’ve selected some of my favorite photos and used them as a springboard to give my final thoughts on a particular place. In a lot of cases I’ve also explained the backstory of a particular photo. This blog has, of course, not told the whole story of this trip. I’ve talked previously about my rule against telling stories about people and those are the experiences that tend to stick with you more than the sightseeing. The main reason I didn’t do this is because while I think these make good stories to tell in conversation, they often fall totally flat on paper. There’s a story behind almost every photo here so I’ve tried to pull back the curtain a bit and talk about the process in some of these shots, which is often much less graceful than the final picture it produced. On that note, I’ll begin at the beginning in Japan, back in August of last year.
Tokyo is a city of so many different faces it’s impossible to pick one photo that sums it up. Shibuya Crossing comes closest because for all its varied cultural nuances, Tokyo’s most distinctive feature is its size. The Tokyo metro area has almost 37 million people, making it the largest metropolitan area in the world. For a city of its size, the level of organization and cleanliness they’re able to maintain over such a large area is really staggering. In scale and density, there is no city that can match Tokyo. Full Tokyo posts I and II.
Looking back through these photos now, it’s actually hard to find one that really captures the essence of Kyoto. Kyoto feels a bit like a time capsule, with geisha still darting through back alleys at night, where paper lanterns glow outside restaurants on otherwise unlit streets. There’s no way to convey the atmosphere here, but there’s nothing more associated with Kyoto than the geisha. The quality of this photo is horrible, but geisha are famously reclusive and photographing them can feel borderline invasive. I was messing around on my phone when this maiko happened to hurry past me (a maiko is a geisha in training).
I love this photo because it’s a great example of a photo that tells the opposite of reality. Fushimi Inari-Tashi is a very famous shrine in Kyoto and everyone has a shot that looks just like this, with the hundreds of orange pillars so closely lined up together creating this great visual effect. What this photo can’t show is just how hard it is to get this shot. The shrine is so crowded that finding even a few seconds in which a passageway is vacated completely requires patience. What I didn’t realize until later is that I didn’t quite get a completely empty shot. If you look closely, you can see someone’s selfie stick peaking around the corner. Full Kyoto post and my write-up on Nara and Hiroshima.
As compared to Tokyo, Seoul is not a place that has hung onto its traditional culture, with all the high-tech gadgetry and urban amenities of the future you would expect. Still, the golden era of Korean culture, the Joseon dynasty that reigned from the late 14th century to 1897, is very visible. Here, three girls in traditional hanbok dress approach Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main imperial residence of Joseon rulers.
Shanghai definitely wins best come-from-behind victory, as my first impression was that it was dreadful and I left thinking very highly of it. Now at the end of my trip, I can look back and confirm that no place takes more adjusting to than China. In so many ways, it is a world unto itself, and a giant one at that. A lot of countries particularly in Asia prove to be extraordinarily different than what someone from the West is used to, but there’s nowhere else like China. The rules and expectations present a complete paradigm shift. Having said that, Shanghai is a bit of an exception, being simultaneously very French, very Chinese, and, by Chinese standards, very capitalistic. I wish I knew what hat the woman in this photo was wearing because every time I look at it, I think it’s a tri-corner hat a la Paul Revere. And perhaps it is.
The more I think about this one, the more I’m convinced: this is not real.
As you can see from this photo, Guilin is not some hidden, uncrowded gem off the beaten path. China is not a country often known for its natural sights, but Guilin is a rare case of something that has actually improved and gotten cleaned up over the years. It’s still crowded and I wouldn’t want to swim in the Li River, but the otherworldly landscape provides plenty of distraction.
Hong Kong is a city that’s easy to fall in love with. It’s beautiful, tropical, chic, and so much cleaner than the mainland. When you dig a little deeper, the cracks start to show. Though there is a strong Cantonese culture here, the hangover effect from the British is strong. Walking around the streets in Hong Kong, the atmosphere sometimes feels a bit too imperialist still, like this is some playground for British bankers who’ve been relocated here. The word “imperialist” has a stronger connotation than I mean to imply here, but much as I loved Hong Kong, I was always slightly unsettled by how the island is dominated by British and other Westerners who really don’t seem to have much interest in Cantonese culture. All that aside though, Hong Kong is probably the most naturally beautiful city I’ve ever seen. The main urban area centered around Victoria Harbour and Victoria Peak is unbelievably scenic and the small islands, beaches, and vast greenscapes spread out all over the South China Sea make it one of the most fascinating natural areas I’ve ever seen, combined with a great city at its center.
A completely different side of Hong Kong. I can’t tell you how pungent and eye-watering the briny, seafood smell was here on a hot, humid day.
For me, photographically, India is where things started to get interesting. It’s incredibly trite and borderline gauche to say this, but there is just something about India that is more colorful, more alive, and more interesting than almost anywhere else. Put 1.3 billion people together under one flag and you end up with a place that has an almost bottomless list of challenges, but also so much hope. I really believe that India is the future. The pace of their progress is glacial in comparison to China, but when they eventually, finally get to a point where they can turn a corner as a country, it will be the India that the people built, not one fashioned by the government.
What I like about these pictures is they all accurately represent India. Some places look better in photos than they do in reality and vice versa, but the colors and the vibrancy of the country and its people really come through here. Of course, there is so much about India that’s not in any way pleasant and the poverty you see there is something you cannot really imagine. I certainly don’t want to gloss over the enormous problems in India, but it is a country much more about hope than about dejection and despair, despite the brutal conditions that so much of the country’s population live in. This first photo is one of my favorite from India. I have no idea what they’re looking at, but it feels like something exciting is going on just beyond the walls of the palace. My full posts on India, part I and II.
Outdoor food markets are prolific in India and I never get tired of walking through them. I really like the perspective in this photo. This woman really is about half the size of that basket of onions.
You hear a lot about Varanasi traveling around India and Westerners tend to tell you how depressing and unsettling it is. The town is a holy spot Hindus, many of whom come on pilgrimages to visit the sacred Ganges River and/or cremate the dead. To me, nothing about it seems morbid or terribly sad. Indians are very emotionally open and expressive people so the grieving process feels cathartic and natural. The scene here is not one of intense sadness, but rather a stoic observance of the end of life.
Not surprisingly, the question I most often get, and the one I have the most trouble answering, is what place was my favorite country. I rarely actually answer Bhutan, but it’s a solid top-five contender. It is one of the rare places anywhere in the world, but particularly in Asia, that has refused to bow to the financial pressure of a booming tourism industry. The Bhutanese are some of the friendliest, funniest, and most open-minded people I’ve met anywhere, but they are adamant that this is their country and you can’t come here if you’re not willing to pay up and help them preserve it. There are few places with the natural beauty and cultural purity of Bhutan, and there’s no way to quantify how valuable that is. For a country that’s pretty closed off from the rest of the world and very homogenous, they’re not behind the times. This photo says everything about Bhutan to me. Buddhism is huge here, but they’re not Luddites by any stretch.
It’s not often you can stand and look out over an area and know that 5,000 years ago, things didn’t look all that different. At the time, I’m sure I described Bhutan as Edenic; “shangri-la” is the marketing term their tourism literature uses. If anything though, it feels like it’s something from a parallel universe, a planet inhabited by some species that looks like humanity but is fundamentally different. Unlike, say, Patagonia, Bhutan is not in the middle of nowhere. They’re sandwiched by India and Tibet/China, neither of which is known for a long-term view about natural preservation. The fact that Bhutan continues to exist where it does and how it does feels like something of a small miracle.
This is definitely the most famous landmark in Bhutan and it’s hard to get a sense in this picture just how precarious this thing seems clinging to the side of a mountain. Particularly on a foggy morning like this one, you can’t see the bottom of the valley so it really does appear to be almost floating.
From the best of times to the worst of times. It’s unfair to say that this image is somehow representative of Thai culture, but more so than anywhere else in Southeast Asia, Thailand has been so buried in tourism dollars for so long that it becomes almost impossible to find anything that doesn’t exist for the benefit of tourists. This catch-22 is something that’s at the heart of traveling in the developing world and there’s no easy solution.
Southeast Asia is not a wealthy part of the world, so when tourism became a major revenue generator there relatively recently, it brought a lot of money in and allowed a lot of people to move out of poverty, earn a living wage, and promote international travel and globalization, all of which are great. The downside is it fundamentally changes a place, as it has in Europe for centuries. Once you introduce an outside observer with money to spend into a situation, reality shifts.
Most people do not want this kind of altered, quasi-performative experience when they travel, but the flipside is this very Western idea of “authenticity” which really translates into a sense of cultural imperialism. This happens entirely subconsciously, but we think that for us authenticity is having an iPhone and air conditioning, but for someone in India or Thailand, authenticity involves living “traditionally” in a hut and making handicrafts, which is a very hard lifestyle. There’s no right way to modernize a country and everyone in the world doesn’t have to live like an American (nor should they, my god) to be considered “modern.” But I think Western travelers and travel agencies sometimes value this idea of cultural preservation in other countries that ends up keeping people in tough living conditions when they might not want to subsistence farm for a living, no matter how interesting that might be to us. If given the choice, many people in the developing world would not opt for the lifestyle we all lead, but I’m sure a lot would too.
I don’t say this to call anyone out or make anyone feel guilty about traveling in the developing world and wanting to get away from the crowds and see the “real” thing, whatever that means. I think almost everyone involved in travel has the best of intentions. A desire to learn about the world and how other people live is something to be celebrated. I constantly felt myself conflicted about this and I think ultimately the important thing is to just be aware of it.
All of that said, it’s sad to see what has happened to Thailand. Yes, there are plenty of places around the country that are still steeped in traditional Thai culture but from the towns in the northern mountains to the beaches in the south, it is, for the most part, a giant frat party. There’s a way to raise a country up through tourism without losing the heritage of a place. I’m not sure Thailand has managed that. See my posts on Bangkok and northern Thailand.
This is a great example of the principle I was just talking about. I saw this guy early one morning out on the lake fishing and asked my guide if we could get closer so I could take a picture. Obviously we did and as we pulled away, my guide handed the fisherman some money. I think this is probably a win-win situation; this guy really was out fishing and doing his daily rounds, and we got the benefit of seeing the fishing techniques they use here ,with that big mesh cone thing he has. But it was a moment very indicative of the kind of relationship that exists between people in area who work in tourism and the people still working agricultural and other more subsistence-level industries.
Much as I really like this picture, it is definitely a photo that doesn’t tell the whole story. This looks like two monks casually observing a sunset over the temple-laden plains of Bagan. What you can’t see is the hundreds of other American tourists just out of shot also there to watch the sunset and take inspirational “candid” photos for their profile picture.
This is one of those experiences I knew was cool at the time but looking back, it’s definitely one of the highlights of the trip. What makes Bagan so interesting is not that any one of the temples there is so unique but that there are so many of them on a completely flat stretch of land, so the tableau you get from above, with hundreds of temples shimmering just after sunrise, is really spectacular. Myanmar is a country that’s changing a lot right now, for good and bad, and it’s hard to know what it will look like in 5-10 years. For now, Bagan is, for me, the highlight of my entire time in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam is a fascinating country but one that can be difficult to pin down. The legacy of the war has shaped the landscape in interesting and conflicting ways, and there is simultaneously incredible resentment and complete forgiveness, both of which are valid emotions. The effects of a divided nation have carried over. The south and Saigon feel much more Western and modern, while the north and Hanoi definitely show the markings of the former French colonial period more strongly. In the middle of the country is where you can get the best sense of what Vietnam looks like without a strong foreign influence. Like in India, Vietnam is a country where you rarely find a quiet moment anywhere, which is why I like this photo so much.
If you want to see the most untouched version of Southeast Asia, Laos is the place to go. There’s nowhere else in the world where you’ll find a very Buddhist, very communist country, but at least in Luang Prabang—the most popular tourist city—the Buddhist culture is what comes through the most.
I’m pretty sure the monk in this photo actually found this shot on Instagram and liked it.
The obvious thing to see in Siem Reap is Angkor Wat, but I actually think all the other temples surrounding Angkor Wat are more interesting. They’re all of roughly the same era and built by Khmer kings, who controlled most of what is Southeast Asia today for hundreds of years. While Angkor Wat is the largest, the complexity and level of detail at Bayon is what so impressed me. There are dozens of faces like this along the temple’s many towers.
Another of the interesting temples in the Angkor Wat area, this one known most distinctly for the proliferation of spung, the tree-like plants that have grown into and around the buildings. I love the lighting in this photo, which almost makes it look like it was taken underwater.
This might be the only place in which I’m going to backtrack a bit on what I’d originally written. At the time I was pretty critical of Singapore; I said it lacked character and had taken on a sanitized air thanks to rapid growth. I still think there is truth in this. Singapore is so sleek and so modern that it can feel a bit shallow at times, but what I didn’t give them credit for was how they have radically modernized in a way that is pretty environmentally responsible, something almost no country in history has achieved so far. Forging a nation is not an easy task and while they had a lot of things going for them, what they’ve been able to do in 50 years since they gained their independence is impressive.
Of all the places I went, I think Hawaii wins the award for most surprising. I’d never understood why people spent so much time and money getting out to Hawaii until I got there and wondered how anyone ever comes back. It is, to be very hokey, a magical place. I was initially skeptical of Hawaii in almost every way, but it is truly unique and us mainlanders should feel lucky to call it part of our country. I think I preferred Maui slightly to Kauai, but the latter has a kind of untamed beauty that is utterly spectacular. About 10 minutes after I took this photo, I saw a pod of dolphins just off shore below the lighthouse.
Taking photos in direct sunlight can be really difficult particularly with this kind of late afternoon hazy mist in the air, but this came out perfectly. I remember looking at this at the time and thinking it was one of the only photos I’d taken that actually managed to represent the lighting exactly as it looked in person. What this photo does unfortunately diminish is the scale of the beach and the size of the waves. This was taken on a cliff overlooking the beach, a perspective you can’t really see here, and those waves are at least 15-foot swells.
I came to Maui largely motivated by a desire to drive the Hana Highway. What I realized when I got there was that the Piilani Highway is even better. For lack of a better description, this is basically the back way out after you driven to Hana from Paia. Because the road is a bit of a mess, most rental car companies make you sign something saying you won’t drive on it. About 20 minutes before I took this photo, I’d accidentally driven my rent-a-wreck over a giant boulder hidden in some grass on the side of the road when I was trying to pull over. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to break down on a road I wasn’t supposed to be on in the first place, so I didn’t want to turn the car off lest it wouldn’t turn on again. This car was such a hunk of junk and the rattling of the engine was so bad that even with the parking brake engaged it wouldn’t hold from rolling down the hill. So to take this photo, I had to lean my entire weight against the hood of the car and then run back inside before it took off down the hill. So the moral of that story is, you definitely cannot miss the Piilani Highway.
This is another picture that doesn’t lie. The incredibly saturated color of the water really is that blue.
Patagonia is a region so often associated with the dramatic and this photo is definitely proof of that. The scale here doesn’t come through and it’s a place that’s made all the more impressive because it’s such a hike—literally four hours—to get there. Again, the milky blue of the water almost doesn’t look real, but is 100 percent unedited. See my posts on Buenos Aires and the whole of my trip in Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia.
I really have nothing to add to this photo. Santiago and the surrounding area didn’t make a strong impression on me, but I like this picture.
Not that Australia doesn’t enjoy a good reputation, but Melbourne is a seriously great city: beautiful old Victorian homes, nice scenery, interesting new urban development. Federation Square is the city’s heart and for being the hub of a city of 4 million, it is unbelievably, pleasantly laidback, a good description for Melbourne as a whole.
Nothing epitomizes Southern Australia to me like the Twelve Apostles. This entire stretch of coastline road in Victoria is utterly spectacular and this particular stop-off point along the famous Great Ocean Road is the most well known for a reason. What’s lost in this photo is just how yellow those cliffs are. In the direct sunlight on a day like this, it can be almost too intense to look at straight on.
This is not technically in the Outback, which I was very disappointed to not have time for, but the kangaroo sign and the dead-straight road stretching into the horizon is exactly the kind of thing you’ll find in the Australian interior. As is also custom in Australia, there was a tiger snake sunning itself on the side of the road just below the edge of this picture, i.e. about five feet away from my flip-flop-clad foot. Other Australia posts: Tasmania
Queenstown has that party mountain town, never-grow-up vibe, where every day is truly an adventure. There aren’t many places that can claim a more scenic setting than this, perched on the edge of Lake Wakatipu and at the base of the Southern Alps. You should either check bungee jumping or parasailing off your to do list when you’re here; I opted for the latter. See full New Zealand post.
Some things are iconic for a reason.
She’s not impressed.
The question about which place was my favorite? This is my answer. Not the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Town necessarily, but this segment of my trip in Africa generally. You can’t compare Southern Africa to Rome to Japan, but there’s an allure to being in this part of the world that I didn’t find anywhere else.
I have a lot of pictures from Africa and I’ll get into more detail with each, but what I think ultimately appeals to me about going on safari is that it really makes you feel human in a humbling and uplifting way. I never cease to be amazed by the people who work in this industry as guides, drivers, and trackers, and how they’re able to access innate human abilities the rest of us don’t—essentially, very sharp senses that are attuned to sound, movement, and the subtlest shifts in the natural environment, things most of us can’t see even if someone points them out. These are some of the most basic evolutionary survival skills, but they’re also very cerebral and almost spiritual. It’s a kind of high-level intelligence that most people in the world, especially in the urban and/or developed world, don’t have.
Any time you’re in a natural environment around wildlife you can get a very tangible sense of the food chain and how order plays out beyond the bounds of human civilization. You don’t have to go all the way to Africa to see beautiful scenery and cool animals in the wild. You go to India and the Middle East to see the birthplace of human civilization and in Africa, you get the sense that you’re standing on the spot that is beginning of all life on this planet (I realize this does not hold up scientifically). When you’re on safari, you realize that everywhere else in the world is ever so slightly floating above the surface. Only in the heart of Africa can you really, firmly plant two feet on the earth. See my full Africa posts part I and II. I could easily feature 100 photos from Africa alone and I think most of my best shots from the entire trip came in these few weeks so I would really, shamelessly encourage you to check out those two posts.
When most people think of going on safari, an arid desert scene is not the first thing that comes to mind, and it’s not going to have that Lion King-style scene of a savannah teeming with life. The stark environment is in fact just as interesting and engaging as a watering hole with dozens of animals around it. You have to be more patient to see the subtle changes and shifts in the wildlife in the desert, but I really can’t emphasize how interesting it is. What at first looks like a vast stretch of empty sand is often full of tons of different animals if you take the time to spot them. Few animals are as adapted to living in the desert as the oryx and it’s worth coming to Namibia just to see these guys. The fact that anything can look so dignified and healthy in this climate is mind blowing.
Climbing up this is as awful as you would imagine. And it really is officially named “Big Daddy.”
This gives you an appreciation for how dry it is here. The trees in Deadvlei, which used to be watered by a river that ran through the area, died 700 years ago and still have not decomposed because it is so dry.
Photographing animals is my favorite kind of photography and it’s both so easy and so difficult. The difficulty comes in everything before the shot: finding the animal, getting in position, moving when it moves, trying to get closer again, shifting to the right angle again, waiting for the light to change, etc. But once you’ve done all that, it’s the easiest thing in the world. Animals are so much more photogenic than humans or anything else. They never look awkward or off-balance, and they never accidentally close their eyes.
This picture is a bit unusual because photographing meerkats in the wild under normal circumstances is basically impossible because they’re so small and very shy. The only reason I was able to get this shot is because at this particular camp in the Makgadigadi, they have habituated the meerkats, which is a fancy way of saying they’re quasi-domesticated. Essentially a guy hangs out with them all day so they’re accustomed to human proximity, which is not natural, but they’re still wild animals in terms of how they feed themselves, breed, etc.
This is sometimes better known as the Zazu bird from The Lion King, though Zazu is probably technically a red-billed hornbill and not yellow. I think hornbills are the coolest birds and they tend to be very inquisitive, so they’ll often get quite close. I snapped this one one day when I was writing after he got within about 10 feet of where I was sitting; I actually took this on my iPhone. Hornbills are a predator’s worst nightmare, as they like to sit high in trees and send out a shrill alarm call to any prey in the area when they spot a lion or some other danger. Males and females can really only be differentiated by the size of the beak so I don’t know which this is.
Zebras are some of the most common animals on safari so generally speaking, you don’t have to look hard to find them, but they are surprisingly difficult to photograph. Despite the fact that many of these animals have seen hundreds of safari trucks in their lives, they’re still pretty skittish and usually run away. I had to use the full zoom on my camera to get this and he darted away half a second after it clicked.
This was on my last morning in the Delta and the lighting was very unusual. Even though this part of Botswana is pretty wet and gets a lot of rain, you almost never see this kind of early morning mist. Though it was hard to see almost any animals, it was perfect conditions for spotting giraffe and their unique silhouettes.
I love Cape buffalo because they are the underdogs in the bush. They don’t often look very intimidating or dignified, as this photo can attest, but they’re one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.
Almost more than any other kind of travel, going on safari is a gamble. There are a lot of things you can do to increase your chances of seeing animals but not surprisingly, nature is often much smarter than even the best trackers, so luck plays a big factor in what you see. I got really lucky when I was in South Africa, but this shot was pure chance. We weren’t even really looking for rhino when this mother and her very young baby, probably no more than 2-3 weeks, crossed the road right in front of the truck. I can’t remember exactly but I think these are black rhino.
It’s all about those teeth.
The cats often seem like the rulers of the bush, but the elephant is king. They win based on size if nothing else and truly they’re only predators are poachers; it’s not uncommon for a herd of elephants to chase off a pride of sleeping lions seemingly for just for fun. I’ve heard more than one guide say that elephants are the most intimidating animal to get too close to in the wild. They’re not predators, so they address threats in unusual and often unpredictable ways, as compared to any of the cats. If a lion wants you dead, you won’t have time to think about it. All of these animals are incredibly intelligent but elephants are uniquely smart. They’re uncannily human in some ways too. They can be incredibly destructive to their own environment, often to their own detriment.
I don’t think it will come as much of a surprise that this is probably my favorite photo of the entire year. There are a handful of leopards in Thornybush so seeing one is not tremendously difficult but to get such an unobstructed shot up in a tree is lucky.
This photo is also a bit anomalous for just how picture-perfect her face is. This leopard is still technically a cub and barely a year old so she isn’t hunting yet. These are wild animals so when you see a lion or a leopard that’s older, particularly a male, their age shows. Their faces and shoulders will often have lots of scars, either from fighting each other or injuries picked up while hunting prey with massive antlers. While they’re still incredible animals to behold, they can look pretty beaten up too. Only a young cat will have a face and body that’s still this immaculate. Their agility is also amazing. I think the Earth will fall off its axis before a leopard loses its balance and slips out of a tree.
You won’t find almost any animals in the bush if they don’t want you to find them, but leopards can be especially cagey. This one was so nonchalant about our presence because she’d grown up around the trucks and had learned from her mother that they’re harmless. A wild leopard who’s shy around humans will never, ever be found. My guide told me a story about tracking panthers in the Amazon. They had a GPS transmitting collar on one cat and knew they were standing within feet of where she was hiding and they still couldn’t see her.
I sung Jordan’s praises at the time and I will only double down on that now. This is a fantastic country and one of the only places in the region that has its shit together, something that’s hard to do in an area that is completely unstable when your entire economy depends on tourism and no one is coming to your country because they’re afraid. Which is not really a valid fear, as it’s completely safe despite its location. So keep up the good (not literal) fight, Jordanians.
Even with numbers way down in Jordan, Petra is still crowded. It is unfortunately not a testament to stellar preservation of a monument either. For the best view of the main building, known as the Treasury though it wasn’t really a treasury, you have to get someone to show you the back way in so you can hike up to get this vantage point. The man in the photo runs a small tea shop at the top of the cliff.
Fittingly, they filmed a lot of The Martian here.
It’s really too bad to see how things have deteriorated in Turkey in the last few months, as it’s a country I think that’s often mischaracterized in the West. Turkey absolutely has its fair share of issues, the government is far from perfect, and while they’re pretty tolerant in some ways, they’re very intolerant in others. I think Istanbul especially is a much more progressive place than a lot of people realize. If they can get their act together, I think Turkey’s ability to blend elements from Western and Eastern cultures is a compelling model for the future.
I’ve rarely been as cold as I was on the boat when I took this photo. But the red flag looks great against the Bosphorus.
What you realize traveling all over the Mediterranean region is the Romans left a lot of stuff behind. Of all the ruins I saw all over the entire area, Ephesus is the most impressive. The quality of the preservation and the number of buildings is unmatched by anything I’ve seen.
Morocco was solidly middle of the pack in terms of countries that I enjoyed from a cultural perspective, but photographically, it was one of my favorite. The intricacy and delicacy of the architecture shows up fantastically in this photo. I find subtle details in buildings often get lost in photos but Morocco has tons of great example of Islamic architecture, with its mastery of geometric patterns.
This area in Rabat is particularly great for taking photos with the intricate wooden doors and the bright white and blue walls. The contrast with the orange here is what makes this particular shot stand out to me.
Oh, France. This is not a country I have a long list of nice things to say about, but in the interest of ending on a positive note, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the French do well and I’ve come up with something that I think is genuinely valuable that no one else does. If you walk into a restaurant or a coffee shop anywhere in France, you rarely see anyone on their iPhones, even if they’re alone and never if they’re sitting with another person. We’re all guilty of being too reliant on our phones, and this business of people living with their heads perpetually bent before a screen is particularly obnoxious in Japan and Korea, but in all seriousness, I have a lot of respect for the French and their appreciation for and ability to be very present in whatever they’re doing, whether that’s just people watching or engaging in a conversation with someone.
Writing about and photographing Italy can be a challenge because it feels like there is nothing left to say. People have been writing about Italy for thousands of years. There’s almost no speck of the country that hasn’t been combed by a tourist at some point since the time of the Romans, but ultimately I think that’s okay. Italy manages to fulfill every stereotype and satiate that comfortable sameness you sometimes crave while traveling. Unpredictability and adventure can be a very welcome thing, but there are times when it’s nice to know exactly what to expect and to have your vision of a place totally mesh with reality. Italy has a few tricks up its sleeve but for the most part, it is so rewarding to travel there because it’s exactly what you think it will be. See full Italy posts part I and II.
You may remember from my original post that I was not a fan of Cinque Terre, mainly because it’s just stupidly crowded, even in the relatively slow month of April. This exact same thing could be set about the Amalfi Coast further south. It’s really hard to get a moment alone in either place but when you do, it is the kind of cinematic, La Dolce Vita moment everyone wants to experience in Italy. So this is an example of a photo that tells a bit of a lie. This kind of scene is not the norm in Cinque Terre.
I don’t have a lot to add about this, but I had completely forgotten about it until just now and I think it’s a great photo of the Colosseum. You also can’t really see how many people are there, which is another cagey way the camera lies. That said, if there’s a place where it would be fitting to see a lot of people, it would be the Colosseum. It was designed, after all, to host a large crowd.
I didn’t think much of this photo at the time, but so many people have mentioned it to me I thought I’d give it a victory lap here. It is a good snapshot of Rome: excellent cheese and excessively preened men.
I really enjoyed taking pictures in Venice and I was happy to see that the atmosphere of the city comes through. There’s something about the color of the water and the buildings, and the way the light filters in intermittently along the narrow canals. It looks great in person and it looks great in a photo, two things that do not often go together.
This is one of my favorite pictures of a person from the whole trip. It is just so Italian. I think he saw me taking the picture so the jaunty pose is perhaps not entirely candid.
The award for most underrated place in Europe goes to Slovenia, without a doubt. I can’t say enough good things about it. It is everything that’s good about the Continent in one small country and practically no one has ever heard of it. Everyone should just stop reading this immediately and go now.
Sometimes a picture does a place a disservice. In the case of Slovenia, no photo can really capture that landscape in all its magnificence. Sometimes a picture can do a place a favor and make it look better than it is. That is the case with Croatia.
Vienna amuses me tremendously because half the city is like the opera house above: very formal, very stately, very 19th century Hapsburg Empire. Then the other half of Vienna gets an assist from Austrian alpine culture and you’ll come across this:
I like that Vienna has these two different sides and architecturally it’s a great city. As compared to the other places you’ll go in Austria, Viennese culture is very much its own thing and it manages to stop just short of being overly pretentious. By contrast, the rest of the country is exceptionally laidback.
Part of what I like about the Swiss Alps is how menacing they look and how much that contrasts with the sunny alpine villages you find in the same region. You sort of see that here; the idyllic Swiss mountain towns and rolling meadows in the foreground, and the jagged peak of the Jungfrau in the back. See my full post in Switzerland.
The picture that never was. I’m still not over this, by the way. When they closed the bridge opposite Neuschwanstein Castle, the only place where you can get a good vantage point over the whole thing, I went on a kamikaze mission to try to replicate it anyway. I was thwarted by two surly construction workers and thus I never got my Neuschwanstein picture. See my full Germany post.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber has all the makings of a great Bavarian town; preserved medieval buildings, dimly lit taverns, narrow cobblestone streets, German bakeries, and, unfortunately, a piece of Nazi history.
The Dutch enjoy a certain reputation for being cool on the international stage and it’s 100 percent deserved. Like anywhere else, they have their fair share of crackpots, but they are one of the only countries I’ve been to that just gets it, whether it’s managing their bike lane system or building sustainably given that half the Netherlands should really be under water. Every country exists in its own reality to a certain extent but in my experience, the Dutch are some of the only people, certainly in Europe, who aren’t delusional about themselves. They don’t have a complex about being a small country or a hang-up about the fact that no one speaks Dutch. These are a people who will turn out to an international soccer game dressed in head-to-toe orange. We should all be so joyfully shameless.
No one would accuse windmills of being particularly exciting, but except for perhaps a wedge of gouda, there is nothing more typically Dutch.
Belgium has its moments. Some of the old medieval towns like Ghent here have some interest left in them yet, but there’s a reason the masses aren’t flocking here.
I was surprised by how much I liked Normandy so perhaps there’s hope for France. Mont Saint-Michel is one of those iconic places you always see the same, really dramatic photo of, with the island perfectly reflected in the water at high tide. I don’t know how people get this shot. I was here for two days and don’t think I ever saw high tide. What makes it so interesting to look at in person—the very rapid movement of the clouds coming in off the English Channel—makes it incredibly difficult to photograph well. As an aside, I’ve always wondered if the French hate that it’s not called the French Channel.
As compared to most of Europe that’s cloudy and rainy 90 percent of the time, it’s pretty much always sunny and summery in Spain, and they like to take advantage of that in Barcelona. This is definitely a party city and while I tend to avoid that bacchanal atmosphere when traveling, in Barcelona it feels authentic. Take all the Americans and the Brits out of Bangkok and it would cease to be a sleaze fest. Take all the foreigners out of Barcelona and the atmosphere wouldn’t change at all.
I was pretty harsh in my initial write-up of Lisbon and in retrospect I think that was a bit unfair. I was struck at the time with how aimless Lisbon seemed as a city and it seemed to reflect a larger trend in Portugal. I don’t know that they have a strong vision as a nation where they’re going to be in five years or 50 years. That said, Lisbon is incredibly unique and Portuguese culture does not feel like anything else. I had incorrectly assumed it would have strong Spanish overtones, but it is very much its own thing. Looking back on my year as a whole now, I think I can appreciate better the importance of a country that has a strong cultural identity, even if it’s a bit of a mess in other ways.
St. James’s Park is one of my favorite spots in London but that tree in the middle just keeps getting taller and obstructing the view even more. This kind of scene is one of my favorite things about London and something that’s pretty unique to this city. There are so many parks and greenspaces all over so even it at its grimiest, London never feels like a concrete jungle.
This is the ultimate cliché photo from the Cotswolds, with the sandy colored stone buildings with the flowers and the ivy and some Union Jack bunting. Unfortunately, I almost entirely cropped out the Alfa Romeo on the left, which was a mistake because a sports car is also a necessary item in any Cotswolds landscape photo.
Wales: good for cheddar cheese, bad for weather, a little weird for everything else.
The not-beautiful summer weather continued up in Scotland, but in Edinburgh, this weather seems most apt. The Scottish capital feels more Old World than almost any other place I’ve been in Europe, so the blustery, rainy conditions are appropriate for dark cobblestone alleyways and brooding hills. For a country whose climate and landscape can be very severe and gloomy, the Scots are anything but morose.
Despite the fact that everyone in the Northern Hemisphere vacations here in August, the Isle of Skye is the one area in Scotland you really can’t miss. This definitely makes my short list of most beautiful places in the world.
This an example of a photo that has a much more interesting story behind it than the photo itself. I was driving through Glen Etive on a particularly foggy and rainy day, which meant the valley was even more empty than usual. I pulled over to take a picture of the landscape and spotted this guy grazing about 30 feet away. After we watched each other for a few minutes, I turned around to walk back to my car on the other side of the road. On a berm just behind my car was an enormous six-point red stag. I think I startled him because he dashed away before I could get a picture. And suddenly I was a lot less proud of the photo above.
Depending on how you feel about it, this photo is represents everything that’s great about England or everything that’s horrible about it. This is also the only photo I could get of the 20 percent of the building that wasn’t behind scaffolding.
It’s probably only a matter of time before Northern Ireland becomes as popular and frequently visited as the rest of the country, but for now it’s still slightly under the radar, usually only thought of as an addendum to a trip to the southern part of the island. Some of the best scenery in the country is up here and understanding what’s gone on in Northern Ireland provides a lot more context for understanding historic conflicts in Ireland.
The day before this, the weather was so unbelievably bad that it made you wonder if you’d ever see the sun again. There’s something about the sunlight and the way everything glistens after a day like that, and the colors pop in this photo in a way that really captures that unique gleam. Full post on Ireland, part II.
What I came to realize toward the end of my time in Ireland is that the things I really wanted to photograph, and the things that make Ireland special, won’t show up in a photo. There’s no way to take a picture of a crowded pub full of patrons who know the words to every song. You can’t photograph the feeling of the sun finally coming out after a cold rain.
I kept trying to get a quaint shot of a small Irish town, with the pleasantly rustic buildings or a thatched roof cottage overlooking the sea. Not surprisingly, it never really happened, because it’s really more an aura that I was trying to photograph, not a place itself. Kinsale is one of the only towns that really looks good in a picture; in reality though, it’s a town that feels more British than Irish.
I didn’t write about Canada because I was there visiting friends and thus didn’t have a lot of material about the country itself to talk about. As Americans, I think we sometimes don’t know what to do with Canadians. There’s an arrogant tendency to say “Well, they’re just like us,” and move on, but simultaneously, in an effort to combat ugly American-ness, we try to draw massive distinctions where they don’t necessarily exist. In Ontario, and I suspect in British Columbia, the experience is a bit uncanny because it is so similar to America, but with a few unmistakable differences. If nothing else, it can be odd to see something that seems like it could have been lifted from anywhere in the US—a car dealership, a tree-line street of Victorian homes—except with Canadian flags everywhere. Obviously that’s going to be the case but it’s like looking at a photoshopped version of an image of America that’s so familiar, or like looking at those side-by-side images where you have to spot the five small differences.
Anyway, our northern neighbors are a fascinating, diverse nation that few of us really understand and appreciate the nuances of, and the only stereotype they seem to live up to is that they are incredibly friendly. But frankly, so is almost everyone else around the world.
So with that, I’ve got one more post after this with a few parting thoughts and words of un-wisdom, which will be my final posting on this blog. Stay tuned.