Saturday, November 9, 2013

Los Momentos Profundos

The primary purpose of my trip to Guatemala this past summer was birding, but I am also fascinated by the human condition.  We are a race of peoples full of wonderful cultural identities and language variations. And yet, people are beginning to look the same as our technologies bring us all together. For me, it's getting harder and harder to find those authentic shots out in the field. Mayan people still dress the same but the difference is that they now hold a cell phone next to their traditional wardrobe.......which sharply contrasts the old world with the new. But today's post is really about how much extra work it is to bird in foreign places....especially when you're doing it in a world of constant distraction.

I would leave to find birds in public areas.  People would stare at me strangely, but I am beyond caring anymore.  It is my goal to find birds and other wildlife in this life of mine. Customs are different and yet, the human heart is universal.   People still celebrate childbirth and marriage.  They still mourn death etc.etc.  As I am pulled into the bird world more, the human side of me withdraws a bit.  I still feel compassion.  I still care, but it's difficult to put this transformation into words.  Life is a personal journey that isn't always clear. I've also noticed these same qualities with other wildlife aficionados. We go out of our way to AVOID people while on our bird missions. Thankfully my friend Lynda was there to keep me "present" in the real world.

Yellow-winged Tanager
The distractions of daily life interfered many times with birding.  Keeping an eye on traffic and people was exhausting. Many times I eavesdropped on Spanish conversations around me to keep us safe from harm. And while danger was never an issue, there were people constantly trying to take advantage of the gringos.  It became an irritation negotiating with others.  How much time would we spend on the road going from A to Z?  I began to miss birding in the US again.  It was all so much easier. Or was it?  Then my mind wandered to cold locales like Canada or Alaska.....places that catered to birders.  Perhaps this is a sign that I am indeed getting older.  But I wanted easy access to the birds and animals. However we all know the saying, "No pain; no gain."

It was a constant battle.  "Would I like to buy something?"  No. I'm not heartless, but I've been there and done that. Instead of seeking Spanish and knowledge about the people like I did before; I now searched for something higher......our vanishing wildlife.  I wanted to know more about their conservation efforts.

Photographers and birders need to be aware of their surroundings at all times.  I have chosen this challenge as I try to find as many of these birds as I can, but I will also do my best to be safe. When there is extreme poverty, it's about basic survival. Theft is common in this country if you aren't careful(especially around Guatemala City and Lake Atitlan(certain locations). We had to constantly watch our equipment as we traveled. How can someone think about the future when their daily basic needs aren't met? And it's not just Guatemala.  It's everywhere.

All I need is food, shelter and sleep.  That line repeated itself in my head over and over.  Wasn't I the privileged spoiled one?  Is it not frivolous this "hobby" I do?  I would ask myself that as I was collecting data for Ebird.  But really, I was selfishly finding new life birds and taking snap shots of them. But it's your vacation Chris.  YOU deserve this.  I would struggle with these thoughts throughout the trip.  I wasn't a tourist or a Spanish student anymore.  I was an observer.  One who can comfortably write a blog about his bloated experiences abroad.  But one thing was true.  I had to find birds and not waste my time in Guatemala.  Not many cared nor understood my need to observe and count them.  Again I was thankful to have my friend there to keep me "present".

 Lynda reminded me to take pictures of the people. All of this was new and exciting for her.  I don't know how she put up with me for so long:)  My thoughts wander these days....a lot.  She would ask me many times to repeat what she said.  And I would repeat them to let her know that I was listening.  But sometimes I'd make an observation and just stare at the rain coming down or watch the gentle waves hitting the shoreline. Sometimes the thought was too deep to explain.  It would take forever to share my past experiences of "what was" in Guatemala to "what is now". A lot had changed. So I would sip my coffee and think about how I could poorly verbalize my thoughts.

And color was not lost on me.  The photographer was still fascinated by it all.  We would come to love our meals in Guatemala.  The food was excellent and every dinner a delight. Some nights I couldn't sleep as I had become excited about the birds I could possibly find the next day.

Our morning would begin with coffee and breakfast.  Afterwards, we'd get walking to our destinations. After all, the secret to birding well is exploring every nook and cranny in one area.  Each area, even within a block radius, has different birds. But a puff of exhaust would hit our faces as we hiked over cobblestone and rock roads.  We had to always watch carefully and make sure we wouldn't get hit.  Birds can fly and avoid all the traffic. With people, it's a different story:)

A chicken bus
Mired in human chaos, it was a true challenge to find the birds.  They were there.  I just needed to keep focus from all the distractions around me.

Azure-crowned Hummingbird

At our hostel, a Bird of Paradise attracted this Azure-crowned Hummingbird until a backpacker scared it away.  He would reappear once all the people had left.

Clay-colored Thrush
In Central Park, the Clay-colored Thrushes nested secretly above the trees.  While I observed this new lifebird species, a sketchy man came up to me for money!

The Rock Pigeons blended perfectly into the statues on the building. So did many other birds....

The Guatemalan Flag
I hid on our hostel rooftop to capture Blue-Gray Tanagers consuming peaches.    Then the woman making my breakfast asked me what I wanted to eat and the birds were gone! A necessary distraction:)

Blue-gray Tanagers
Birding abroad was challenging as it was thought provoking.  I liked the challenge.....for awhile.  Then I began to show signs of wear.

But by the end of the trip, we became tired of the mosquitoes and sweat. Finding lifebirds finally took a backseat as I lost myself within a misty pool on our last night. For several hours I swam alone listening to monastery music play in the background.  Monsoon storms lit up the night sky revealing the towering volcanoes off in the distance.  My friend treated me to a night of royalty at a 5 star hotel.  We both were finally able to sleep well:) There were no distractions at all.  No car alarms going off at 3 in the morning. No storms knocking out power to our fans in the steamy rain forest. No bugs.  No worries about anything. But it wasn't cheap.

Black-capped Swallows on a wire in the overcast sky
As I begin to sign off from my Guatemala adventures, I wanted to share several swallows found swooping around people.  Above, we have Black-capped Swallows.

Also among the bunch of birds high above were Northern Rough-winged Swallows.

There are all kinds of birders out there. I had to be on a budget to do this trip, but I also know many birders who can afford the 5 star + treatment while birding.  With my budget, I had many more obstacles and therefore, the life birds were a lot more work.  Here is the conflict for me.  If I had the money, would I choose the 5 star option?  To be honest, I would answer yes because it was much more comfortable.  But there is that other part of me that thinks about how the rest of the world lives.

For now it's not an issue as I still need to stay on budget. I sat alone in the pool that night thinking about all of these things. The bruises on my shoulders from the camera strap were allowed to heal.  My eyes were allowed to rest as the bird search had come to an end. I no longer had to deal with adding to my collection of mosquito bites all over my body. No worries about bed bugs or fleas jumping off of dirty stray dogs and cats. My calloused feet could relax.  And I was able to soak in every single glorious moment without any distractions.  Perfection. 

One last account from my Guatemala travels coming up.......


  1. Bonitas imágenes.. Feliz fin de semana.. Saludos..

  2. A beautiful picture story well told. I'm fascinated by the people and their dress.
    Thanks for sharing your amazing journey Chris.

  3. It's easy for those of us in developed countries (arguably, Australia fits this category) to bemoan what we see as lack of conservation effort in other countries, conveniently forgetting how recent our own efforts are, and without considering how much more the poorer countries could conserve if we shared our wealth to increase the basic standard of living.

    This isn't a criticism, but the thoughts generated by your (as usual) excellent and thought-provoking post!

  4. Chris, I enjoyed seeing the people of Guatemala. They are colorful! The birds are awesome too, I especially love the sweet blue-gray tanagers. It was one of my favorite birds from Costa Rica. I am glad you were safe, a person traveling always has to be on the watch it seems. Have a great evening and weekend!

  5. Chris, you got some wonderful human interest photos!

  6. That you've seen any of this and experienced all you have is amazing. Love the photo of the two ladies with the baskets of fruit on their heads.

  7. I could enjoy an occasional 5-star but really prefer to be around the 'real' people of a place. Unfortunately, for most of us, travel is short lived, whatever we search for, and that can put us in a rush. You got some excellent captures on the chase. So glad you had a night to soak, and sleep, comfortably and reflect.

  8. Great post telling your feelings as your wandered around the area. My friend takes alot of mission trips to countries like Guatemala. She says that we Americans have no clue how many in the rest of the world live in such poverty. I'm sure she is correct.

    Great post... Love seeing the people and all of the colors that they wear. Love seeing the birds also.

  9. Beautiful photos!
    Have a nice sunday! RW & SK

  10. Five star is a luxury we have at our disposal now and then just because we are who we are. Roughing it has it's good side.
    I can remember days in the caribbean with a mosquito net. Better than any luxury hotel!
    I may not get the whole birding thing but I get you. I hear you.

  11. Hello my friend Kreesh! I have not been popping up here for a while, because i am not fully interested in all "bird talks". But I miss you way of posting very honestly, just like this one. This is a beautiful post, not necessarily the photos but the text. I fully understand what you said.

    We just had the Super Typhoon hit parts of the country to total devastation, and with your experiences you can well relate to the conditions of the deprived. It is so sad, yet thanks God, it did not include in its path where I and my family live. Take care.

  12. Hi Chris, So many thoughts come to me when reading this post. I look for nature including birds wherever I go. Unfortunately it seems that the colourful ethnic differences usually seem to go with poverty. I love your people photos - when people started dying and wearing bright colours, they got their dyes from plants and ideas about colour combinations from birds!

  13. Hi Chris Afacsinating post. Loved all the colours in people and in the streets and also the great shots of Hummingbirds.

  14. Beautiful photos and sentiments, Chris. I studied in Guatemala over 40 years ago and it seems that, in many ways, nothing has changed. Back then, vast areas around Huehuetenango had been denuded of trees for fuel, and men walked many miles carrying huge loads of logs on their backs.

  15. Another excellent post Chris - so thought-provoking and some wonderful photos of the people in Guatemala :) Love the bird photos too especially the hummingbirds :) So glad you had one night of luxury :)

  16. Chris, I keep telling you that you are a wonderful writer and this post proves that once again. I love the photo of the woman seated by the side of the road in her bright red short and rainbow skirt! Thanks for showing us this part of the world and the people and birds in it!


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