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Photo Essays

Photo Essay: Rural Vietnam — Cue the Water Buffalo, Stage Right

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Vietnam rice fields

Putting on a show for the tourists in Nha Trang

At first glance, it’s an idyllic scene — farmers in rural Vietnam tending to their rice fields with primitive tools while a small herd of water buffalo peacefully grazes in the foreground.  If it weren’t for the electricity poles visible in the background, it’s a scene that one would have imagined in the Vietnamese countryside centuries ago.

But pictures don’t always depict reality.

In this case, what I photographed was a scene staged just for us — two busloads of tourists who had paid about $100 each to tour rural Vietnam while our cruise ship was docked near the port city of Nha Trang.

As we filed out of the buses in the middle of the afternoon, we were told by our guide that we would be seeing a “demonstration” of what life was like for local farmers.  However, afternoons in Vietnam can be stiflingly hot and humid and the locals typically do their outdoor work early in the mornings, at about the same time we were stuffing our faces at the breakfast buffet on the ship.

So, our guide explained, the farmers would be reenacting their daily routine just for the benefit of us and our cameras.  As far as I as could tell, they weren’t really accomplishing anything other than looking good for the photo-op.  With some farmers wearing traditional Vietnamese bamboo hats known as non la, their hoes banged aimlessly against the ground while our group clicked away.

I remember reading in the tour brochure that we would also see water buffalo, an iconic symbol of rural Vietnam.

“Where are the buffalo?” I asked the guide, thinking it would be nice to have something eye-catching and quaint to add to the foreground of my photos.  Plus, it was in the brochure and I was determined to get every penny of my $100 investment in the tour.  The guide was silent but gave me a look as if to say: “Relax, you uptight American.  You’ll get your silly picture.”

Nha Trang market

A more “authentic” scene at a Nha Trang market

Right on cue, I heard the jingle of bells and a small herd of water buffalo was paraded across the field and began grazing right in front of us.  Our cameras clicked away at an even faster rate than before.

I had my coveted photo.  But it’s lack of authenticity left a sour taste in my mouth and swayed me not to include it in a batch of pictures I submitted to a newspaper, which published an article I wrote about the cruise.

As a travel writer and photographer, I often come across scenes that are less than authentic.  This is increasingly becoming a problem for seasoned travelers as places that used to be off-the-beaten-path are now becoming overridden with visitors.  It can sometimes be difficult to determine what’s real and what’s staged to make the tourists happy.

In this case, the scene was clearly staged.  That’s not to say, though, that the entire day had been a southeast Asian fairytale.  We also had visited a local market in Nha Trang, a city of about 400,000 people on the country’s south-central coast.

If you want authenticity, visit a local market and watch the locals shop for locally grown fruits, vegetables and the indeterminable body parts of all sorts of animals you’re not likely to see on the shelves at your local Safeway.

As our time at the rice fields concluded, our guide asked us to board the bus so we could head to our next stop on the tour.  We had to be back on the ship in time for dinner.  Lobster-tail was on the menu.

As our buses drove away, I could see the farmers drop their hoes as the water buffalo were led back to their corral.

Exit, stage right.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2016

Photo Essay: Bribing my way to a bargain in India

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Under-the-table cash reduces foreign surcharge at Elephanta Island

As someone who’s been to a lot of places, I’m used to paying a foreign “surcharge” at various sites and attractions.  But I’ve never encountered such a huge disparity in price as this admission sign indicates at the entrance to a place called Elephanta Island in India.

The charge for locals to enter these archaeological caves about a one-hour boat ride from Mumbai is 30 Indian rupees – about 44 U.S. cents.

But if you’re from a foreign country, the ticket costs more than 16 times that price – a whopping 500 rupees.

India is a poor country and it’s perfectly fair for the locals to get a cheaper rate.  I have no problem with that.  But I balked at paying the 500 rupees – partly because of the principle involved, partly because I wasn’t sure if I had enough cash to get back to my Mumbai hotel that evening, and partly because I’m cheaper than a polyester suit on a Wal-Mart clearance rack.

Elephanta Island caves

Inside the caves on India’s Elephanta Island near Mumbai

Sensing my reluctance to fork over the rupees as I lingered at the entrance gate while looking into my wallet, a security guard inquired if I had some sort of problem.

I told him that I wasn’t sure if I could afford the 500 rupees to buy the ticket.

“How much do you want to spend?” he asked, as if I were negotiating to buy a fake Rolex at a flea market.

“How about 100 rupees?” I replied, as I removed a 100-rupee bill from my wallet.

The guard quickly snatched the bill out of my hands, stashed it in his pocket, and nodded for me to go through the gate.  Before I had realized what happened, I had bribed my way inside the archaeological site of Elephanta Island for one-fifth of the normal price paid by foreigners.  I’m guessing I wasn’t the first visitor – or the last – whose money ended up in the guard’s pocket that day.

Indeed, bribery is a major problem in India.  A study conducted by Transparency International found that more than 62 percent of Indians have paid bribes – known in the Hindi language as “rishwat” — to public officials.

Yes, I felt a little guilty about shortchanging the Indian Ministry of Culture 500 rupees for the privilege of entering the caves on Elephanta Island.  But not that guilty.  At the end of the day, I had an extra 400 rupees in my pocket, enough for a decent dinner.  And I had experienced a local custom many Indians must endure on a regular basis.

Now if only I could figure out how to deploy my newfound bribery skills here in the States at a movie theater, concert or Diamondbacks’ game …

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2016

Photo Essay: The eerie beaches of Famagusta, Cyprus

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Odd remnant of 1974 war off-limits to tourists

I could have been arrested for taking this picture.

We had been warned by our Greek-Cypriot guide to stay away from the Turkish-controlled “Forbidden Zone,” a stretch of beach in the east-coast city of Famagusta in the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Photos were strictly verboten. A sign on a barricade blocking the beach to visitors echoed the guide’s warning.

Cyprus forbidden zone

Fence blocking visitors from entering the “Forbidden Zone” at Famagusta

I looked around and saw what appeared to be an abandoned guard tower. There were no Turkish police or soldiers in sight. So I quickly and surreptitiously snapped a picture through a crack in the barricade.

I wanted a memento of one of the eeriest and strangest beaches in the world.

Back in the 1960s and early ‘70s, Famagusta was one of the swankiest resort areas in the Mediterranean, hosting thousands of tourists from mostly northern European countries. At the time, it was a leading hub of the Cypriot tourist industry, with more than half of the island’s hotels. But in 1974, Turkish forces invaded Cyprus and bombed Famagusta, destroying many of the hotels and upscale villas.

It took Turkey just two days to occupy the city, with most of the local Greek-Cypriot population fleeing to other parts of the island. To this day, they have not been allowed to return to their homes and Cyprus remains a divided island. Greeks inhabit about 60 percent of the island, with Turks controlling the rest, including Famagusta.

Turkey flag in Cyprus

The flags of Turkey (left) and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus fly side-by-side at Famagusta

To cross from the Greek side of Cyprus to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, you need to pass through immigration; about 1,000 U.N. peacekeepers are on hand to maintain the peace. The only country in the world that recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is – you guessed it – Turkey.

Because the issue of the island’s sovereignty remains a stalemate, the hotels and restaurants overlooking the deserted beaches of Famagusta haven’t been rebuilt and remain lifeless, empty shells of their grandiose past.

That’s not to say, though, that there are no visitors coming to Famagusta. The city has an interesting old town surrounded by one of the best preserved forts in the Mediterranean. And for sunbathers, another stretch of white-sand beach is now open for swimming.

But the forbidden area remains a ghost town – a Mediterranean version of what had once been a thriving old-West gold-mining town that dried up and blew away like a tumbleweed when the gold ran dry.

Every now and then there are discussions about resolving the conflict. But none of the locals I spoke with – on both the Greek and Turkish sides of the island — seemed optimistic that anything will happen anytime soon.

In the meantime, the beaches of Famagusta remain a curious remnant from a war more than 40 years ago that much of the rest of the world has long forgotten.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2016

gibraltar barbary macaque

Photo Essay: The Barbary Apes of Gibraltar

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Upper Rock Nature Reserve; Gibraltar

This animal probably doesn’t realize it, but he and his friends comprise one of the most famous tourist attractions in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, more commonly known as “The Rock.”

He’s a Barbary macaque, and part of the only colony of the tailless monkeys living on the European continent.  About 300 macaques – in five troops — inhabit a place called the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.  The macaques’ home offers a spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea and nearby Spain.  It’s believed the primates migrated to Europe from northern Africa, which is only 35 miles south across the Strait of Gibraltar.

The macaques are wild animals but are not shy about approaching tourists.  In fact, I saw one of them rip a bag of potato chips right out of the hands of a fellow tourist (it’s illegal to intentionally feed the animals).  We were warned that if the monkeys see something that catches their eye — a purse, camera or jewelry, for instance — it’s not uncommon for them to grab it and hop to safety in a flash into the nearby woods.

I wondered if there was a macaque pawn shop on the island:  “Okay, buddy, I’ll give you three bananas for the camera.”

And this guy, perched on a ledge high above the Mediterranean, gave me a look that seemed to say, “Okay, I’ll pose for yet another picture.  But make it snappy.  There are more potato chips to be pilfered.”

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013

Nicaragua volcano

Photo Essay: Ready for a Quick Escape in Nicaragua

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Masaya Volcano; Nicaragua

This is a wondrous destination for tourists to visit.  But it’s the kind of place in which you definitely don’t want to overstay your welcome.

Santiago crater Nicaragua

 Smoke streaming from the Santiago Crater

As the sign on the parking curb notes, visitors to the Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua better be prepared to leave in a hurry.

The volcano constantly spews out a steady stream of sulfur-laden gas. Fiercer eruptions are not uncommon.  In 2001 the crater on the other side of the ledge exploded, sending huge rocks up to the surface.  Vehicles in the parking lot were damaged and one person was injured.  The volcano erupted more recently in 2008.

Masaya is Nicaragua’s largest national park and is just a 30-minute drive south of the capital city of Managua.  The park includes two volcanoes and five craters.  It’s actually the only volcano in the Western Hemisphere where you can drive right up to the rim.

Fortunately, on the day that I visited, the only material that rose from the core of the active Santiago crater was foul-smelling smoke.  But it was comforting to have our tour van parked just a few feet away – with its front facing the exit — just in case.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013

san marino guards

Photo Essay: Defending one of the World’s Smallest Countries

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National Parliament, San Marino

These soldiers are guarding the Parliament Building in one of the world’s smallest countries – the Republic of San Marino.

Perched on the slopes of Mount Titano in central Italy, San Marino has an area of only 23 square miles.  I’ve been to shopping malls nearly as big.

Small, yes, but San Marino’s ancient castles, spectacular views of the countryside below, and status as an independent nation make it hugely popular with tourists.  Some people visit just to have their passport stamped.  Indeed, this tiny country attracts more than two million visitors each year.  That’s a lot of tourists when you consider that only 30,000 people actually live here and San Marino has no airport or train service.

The weather on this particular day was miserable.  Not long after I took this picture, it began to pour.  Moments later, the guards abandoned their posts and scurried inside for cover.

Foreign powers take note.  If you’re going to invade San Marino, your chances are much better on a rainy day.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013

Akha tribe in Thailand

Photo Essay: Exquisite Akha Headdress in Thailand

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Akha village; Chiang Mai, Thailand

This striking woman and her shy son are members of the Akha hill tribe in northern Thailand.  The Akha people live in small villages at high altitudes in the mountains of Thailand, Burma, Laos and China.  I took this photo in a village not far from the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai.

There are now more than 80,000 Akha people living in northern Thailand.  Most of them make a living from agriculture, although increasing numbers of the Akha – like this woman – now earn a livelihood by selling hand-woven baskets and other handicrafts to tourists.

Akha women are known for their beautiful headdresses, which define their age and marital status.

Beautiful, indeed.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013

Guard at Seoul Royal Palace

Photo Essay: Guarding Seoul’s Royal Palace

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Gyeongbokgung Palace; Seoul, South Korea

This menacing-looking fellow is dressed in traditional Korean garb from the Joseon Dynasty, which dates back to the 14th century.  He’s guarding the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace in downtown Seoul, the city’s most popular tourist attraction.

Seoul Royal Palace

 Gyeongbokgung Palace in downtown Seoul

This particular day in Seoul happened to be sunny but bitterly cold, with a wind chill below zero.  As warmly as the guard was dressed, I don’t know how he stood there without shivering.  I don’t think I even saw him blink.  Perhaps his eyelids were frozen.

Six days a week the guards at Gyeongbokgung at least get to walk around and get their blood circulating every hour for an elaborate changing-of-the-guard ceremony.  But this particular day happened to be a Tuesday, the one day of the week when the show does not go on.

So this gallant guard – with his colorful costume, ancient weapon and glued-on facial hair — had to stand still in the freezing cold all day while tourists like me snapped his picture.

After about 10 minutes of photographing him and his fellow guards, I had enough.  My fingers started to get numb from the cold and I scurried inside a nearby building to warm up.

As for the guard, he remained at his post protecting the palace — and probably fantasizing about a cup of hot tea.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013

greenland girls

Photo Essay: Adorable Greenland Girls

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Children on nature walk; Qeqertarsuaq, Greenland

Question:  What do you get when you cross a Scandinavian with an Inuit (commonly known as an Eskimo)?

Answer:  A Greenlander.  And in the case of these three little girls, adorable Greenlanders.

The world’s largest island, most of which is north of the Arctic Circle, is home to one of the most fascinating cultures – and physically intriguing people – I’ve ever seen.

The Inuit people have lived in Greenland — known in the local language as Kalaallit Nunaat — on and off for the past 4,000 years, surviving on hunting and fishing.  Scandinavians started arriving at the end of the 10th century.  Greenland became a Danish colony in 1814 and still belongs to the Kingdom of Denmark, although it now enjoys almost complete autonomy.  Most people are ethnically mixed and bilingual, speaking both Danish and Greenlandic.

I encountered these young ladies near the town of Qeqertarsuaq (say that 10 times really fast!).  I was on a guided hike through a valley watching humpback whales feeding in the harbor when I noticed a group of children.  I learned they were from a nearby elementary school on a nature walk.

They didn’t speak English, but with my keen sense of observation, I was able to discern that the two girls on the end were identical twins.  The girl in the middle was apparently their BFF.

The weather that June day in the Arctic was unseasonably warm.  But it wasn’t as warm as the smiles on the faces of these captivating children.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013

lativa storks

Photo Essay: Latvians Love Storks

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Nesting storks; Latvia

We’ve all heard the legend about storks — that they bring babies.  In fact, I think that’s what I was told when my younger brother was born.  I was 3 at the time and the explanation seemed plausible.

In Latvia, though, storks mean much more than babies and fertility.  In this northern European country, storks are considered sacred and a good-luck symbol.  You’ll even find them on Latvian coins.  Souvenir shops carry “I Love Latvia” tee-shirts and other items engraved with stork emblems.

Many Latvians go out of their way to attract the big white birds.  When I would take trips into the countryside, it seemed as if there was a pair of storks nesting in a pole next to practically every other house.  The storks are often enticed by locals who hoist a wheel on top of a pole to supply the foundation for a nest.  Some Latvians believe the birds protect their homes from fire and also bring prosperity and happiness.

Storks seem to like Latvia as much as Latvia likes storks.  I’ve seen one report that estimates 10,000 pairs of white storks nest in Latvia each year, making it one of Europe’s most popular destinations for the birds that typically spend their winters in Africa.

I took this photo on the road between Riga and Daugavpils, Latvia’s two largest cities.  Whether the people who live in the adjacent farmhouse are any better off because of the storks’ presence, I have no idea.  But I do know that they are majestic birds that offered a nice diversion — and maybe even a little luck — during long drives through the Latvian countryside.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013