In celebration of World Tourism Day yesterday, I wanted to explain my Wanderlust and obsession to Travel and document the worlds, because I truly believe that Tourism and Travel are not frivolous luxuries or just for the privileged, but a necessary thing that we should all be required to do from a young age in order to promote tolerance, education, and awareness of issues that plague our planet. I am lucky that my parents dragged my 3 sisters and I around the world at a young age, exposing us to many different cultures and languages. It is the reason why I view the world in a positive way and love life and all of the colors and cultures of the world. It is the reason why I capture moments in vibrant color through my lens.
To be honest, the best part of my education that I received in the 4 years of going to Syracuse University, was the year that I studied abroad in London and Italy. Life experiences are what shape us and the way we view the world and it will be what we impart on to our children. I don’t just travel to take colorful photos or for work or just for fun. The main reason I find myself having this intense Wanderlust is that traveling “resets me." What I mean by that is that we all get caught up in our daily lives and routines. We all are obsessed with our cell phones and technology, work deadlines, social calendars, families, paying rent and bills. Sometimes so much so that we don’t even know what is going on in current events in the World, or even within our own city. I am guilty of it, big time, but when I travel I can shut it all off. I can sit on a plane and write as I am doing now. I can take a few breaths to relax and rest. When I land I have been transported to a new land, sometimes with a new language, and sometimes so far outside of my comfort zone. My boyfriend once told me that being outside of my comfort zone WAS my comfort zone, and I loved that statement. Because here, in that space where we don’t have our friends, local Starbucks, or neighborhood yoga spot is where we can really learn about ourselves and the world around us. This is the space where awareness can set in and truly “living” and experiencing life can begin.
So, to honor this day and this planet, I wanted to write a few short stories that illustrate my “Laura’s must-do life experiences” which will only get longer and longer as I do more. I didn’t necessarily want to write down my Bucket List of locales like everyone else is today, because life isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey. I wanted to share the most outrageous, crazy, beautiful, influential moments of my life captured through my photographs and tell you a short story of these incredible places that you should all witness with your own eyes at some point in your lifetime. Not every epic moment of my life has been captured on camera. Some of my favorite life moments were small daily moments during my travels, while some happened right in my own backyard. Other incredible experiences were just for my eyes only and not captured through my lens and sometimes those are the best of all.
1. The Amazon River - “My favorite photo I have ever taken”
Even though I shot this photo years ago, it still hangs proudly on my wall in my living room and represents one of the most beautiful memories of my life. Something I am sure I will relive on my deathbed someday, because it brought such a surge of joy and beauty to my life.
It was my first trip to Peru and my first trip to the Amazon ever. I was traveling by myself, which I think made my senses even more heightened and aware. We were staying on a houseboat for a few days, but in order to really get into the narrower tributaries and see wildlife, we had to get off and board a tiny skiff boat. We had been hunting for wildlife for a while on this boat and we were turning back because the sun was setting and it was about to get dark.
All of a sudden we turned down this narrow inlet and we were surrounded by tens of thousands of giant white storks on either side of the river. As we motored through, we scared up all of the birds and they all started flying away in front of us and all around us. What was so magical about this moment, was that they seemed to fly at the exact same speed as us for about 15 minutes! So for what seemed like an eternity I was surrounded by thousands of giant birds, the wind was blowing in my face with the gorgeous sunset backlighting them, and they were so loud that I couldn’t hear anything else. It was like sensory overload and like a meditation of sorts. That image will always be forever in my memory.
2. The Republic of Georgia on the border of Russia - “No Women Allowed”
While shooting a destination wedding in The Republic of Georgia only days away from it being invaded by Russia, political protests were so intense that my taxi refused to drop me off at my hotel. After a 17 hour flight, I had to drag my bags 2 miles through protests just to check into her hotel. My quest to find the couple and the wedding party began…
With no instructions, a driver that spoke no English, and a 3-hour drive high up into the Caucasus Mountains, my assistant and I feared that we were being kidnapped. Suddenly, an avalanche takes out the road and we see a group of people pushing a van through the snow…only to realize that the van was the wedding party! We had to abort cars and jump into jeeps. Finally, the road ended and the only way to get to the monastery perched high in the clouds was by climbing on our hands and knees up the mountain through snow. Finally, we reached the summit only to be told by the Black Monks that
“no women or photography is allowed!"
I was like “Oh, HELL no,” so the groomsmen had to throw a monk’s cloak over me and sneak me and my camera in!
3. The Wave Petrified Sand Dune, Arizona Wilderness - “Worth The Shot”
I was inspired after seeing a photo of a petrified sand dune in Utah called “The Wave” and was determined to find this place and do a photo shoot there. I found out that you have to apply for a permit to hike there 9 months in advance, and after doing so was mailed a wilderness map with instructions on how to find it.
I drove 12 hours out into the wilderness with a team of artists and a model. Armed only with 40 yards of hot pink tulle, some granola bars, water and a wilderness map, we set on foot with no cell service to find this place. A blizzard hit the night before making the map almost impossible to decipher and we got seriously lost and the sun was starting to set. In 28 degree weather we hiked out for 3 hours, following footsteps in the snow, and praying that we would find our way out before nightfall and freezing to death…
4. Uros Floating Grass Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru - “That Time when I lived on a Floating Grass Island”
My travels don’t always bring me to luxurious places. On assignment for National Geographic I had to travel high up in the Andes Mountains of Peru to find the Quechua Indians who live on the floating grass islands of Uros in Lake Titicaca. Feeling the high altitude, I had to live amongst them for a few days to photograph them.
With no one to translate the Quechua language, I had to figure out a way to communicate and take their photos. I spent my days with the women learning how to weave grass and joined the men in their daily chores of cutting and stacking grass reeds to prevent their island from sinking. I even had to wear their traditional wool skirts and clothing and go fishing for our food. The best part is that they gave me a knitted hat to wear since I was single (only married women get to wear straw hats here on the island). I had no contact with the outside world and had to trust that the boat would come back for me three days later…
5. Stingray City, The Cayman Islands - “Trashing the Dress”
Most of my clients hire me because I am fearless and will do whatever it takes to get the shot. So it was no surprise when I was asked by a couple to shoot their Wedding in the Cayman Islands and then shoot the “Trash the Dress” in the waters of stingray city.
At times, I found myself covered by stingrays sucking on my legs and stomach while I was trying to get the shot! I had to be careful not to spook them while trying to focus on getting the shot or else I could have had a fatal Steve Erwin-style accident…
6. The Annual Buffalo Roundup, Custer State Park, South Dakota - “The All-American Safari”
I was asked by the South Dakota Board of Tourism to photograph the 50th Anniversary of the Buffalo Roundup in Custer’s State Park. This event is huge and in order to be one of the lucky cowboys that get to ride out and rope in these huge beasts, you have to audition and it is a huge honor. Only 20 journalists from around the world were chosen to ride out with them and I was honored to be one of them.
I found myself off-roading over the plains in the back of a pickup truck with the cowboys searching for the herds of Buffalo. At times I was holding on for dear life as these huge beasts charged at us. After the roundup, I felt my leg swollen and felt ill. Turns out a Black Widow Spider had been hiding out in my cowboy boot and I had only a few hours to make it to a hospital…
7. The Peruvian Amazon - “Finding Victor the Medicine Man”
Shannon and I were on assignment in the Peruvian Amazon covering a story about the rainforest cruises and the Treetop Lodge deep in the Amazon jungle. There are no roads to get there and the nearest village is a 2 hour boat ride. Every evening we made friends with the locals and joined in their evening jungle soccer games. One night Shannon twisted her knee badly and the nearest doctor is 3 hours away, so the locals told us that we needed to find Victor, the local medicine man and he could cure her. Thus our quest to find Victor began.
Shannon and I set out in a small dug out canoe with a motor on it to reach Victor’s village about 15 minutes down the Amazon river. We kept on seeing these whirlpools in the water around our boat and the locals explained that the anacondas swim in a spiral under the water to create those ripples. As if the thought of being in anaconda-infested waters wasn’t horrifying enough, then the worst-case scenario happened. Our boat broke down and we would have to swim to shore!
Making matters worse, I already have a fear of swimming in murky water. The muddy waters of the Amazon host lethal creatures like Piranhas, electric eels, giant carnivorous beavers, anacondas, and crocodiles just to name a few! Shannon and I felt things brushing against our legs as we swam as fast as we could to shore.
We were beyond relieved when we finally touched land, but our quest to find Victor was FAR from over! We had to walk another two hours in the heat across dried out river beds and sinking into quicksand to finally make it to Victor’s village.
We finally found Victor! Using my Spanish, I was able to explain Shannon’s ailment to him. Victor then prepared special herbs from local plants and tree bark and performed a shaman ceremony to help heal Shannon’s knee…He even whipped out a jug of Ayahuasca for her to drink. Healthcare Amazon style!
8. Chilling at the Top of Table Mountain, Capetown, South Africa - “Witness the Cloud Tablecloth”
Picture flying into a city where an amphitheater of mountains are thrust between buildings and all is surrounded by pristine beaches. It is one of the cleanest cities I have been to, and the only way I can describe Cape Town is to imagine combining San Francisco, Los Angeles, Big Sur and Napa into one peninsula. It is one of the few places I have been to where I felt like I could live there; that I wanted to live there.
There are moments in life when even a photo can’t seem to replace the words to describe what you are actually witnessing. In my career as a photojournalist, my work has taken me to six of the world’s seven continents, and I am awestruck on a regular basis. I felt this sense of complete wonder as I sat on top of Table Mountain eating Biltong as I watched the clouds pour over the top of the mountain like a slow motion waterfall. This phenomenon is what gives Table Mountain its name and signature effect of the clouds as a white tablecloth cascading over the cliffs. It is just part of the dramatic landscape that frames Cape Town, South Africa.
9. US Roadtrip through Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming - “When in Doubt, Pack a Parasol”
I had NO idea just how vast the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park were. The park itself is the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined and there are only 5 entrances into the park from different states and you have to be prepared to drive for hours. Thinking it would take 6 hours, we underestimated our obsession with the geysers and how often we would stop to take photos. That loop took us 12 hours and was only 1/4th of the park!
What we saw was so stunning, though. Herds of buffalo crossed in front of our car, huge elk were within 15 feet of us, the geysers bubbled and boiled and the bacteria that surrounds them shone every color of the rainbow. We had a perfect blue sky and puffy white clouds, and could not have had better photo conditions.
Yellowstone National Park is the very first national park in the world and has such an interesting history. People used to take trains and covered wagons across the US to discover it's wonders The US army used to be in charge of the park, protecting it from poachers for 50 years, until the 1970's where it was handed back to the National Park service. A massive fire in 1988 took out 150,000 acres of the park and you can see the wake of the dead, fallen trees, all bleached white over time. This drastic contrast of burnt trees and white bark prompted us to stop and do a photo shoot in this abandoned forest.
I mean, what’s a road trip without some epic selfies along the way? The best perk of doing a road trip is having your “turtle shell” on your back and being able to bring lots of extra gear. In our case, that meant our camera gear and tons of ridiculous outfits and colorful props to adorn ourselves in our tripod selfies.. Sarah and I were obsessed with these bleached-out dead tree forests that covered huge parts of the park. We decided to stop, get dressed up in Sarah's crazy colorful vintage dresses, and bring our parasols to run around and do a shoot amongst the trees. I set up my tripod and we had a blast being silly. I think we were photographed by tourists more than the Yellowstone wildlife!
10. Flores Island, Indonesia - “Millions and Millions of Bats”
Off the coast of Bali, Indonesia is a small underdeveloped island called Flores, affectionately known as “The Bali from 20 years ago” because it still has pristine beaches and no traffic or pollution. We were told that the best way to experience Flores was by sleeping aboard an old Indonesian fishing boat, called a Phinisi. In order to really experience life in Flores or on any of the thousands of islands in the area, that you must do it on a boat. The water culture there is how everyone lives. You have the freedom to dip in and out of the islands yet always have a calm place to return back to. The best way to gain respect for the land really comes from the perspective of seeing it from the water.
There is something magical about life on the water. The second we stepped foot on the boat it was if time slowed way down. We luxuriated on the deck of the boat lounging on overstuffed cushions as we watched the islands drift by. We would stop every once in a while to check out a private cove and snorkel or visit a quaint fishing village while the crew prepared meals or coffee for us. Our needs and wants became very simple and primal. Instead of being obsessed with our electronic devices and constantly devouring the world around us….life just slowed down. Two days on the boat felt like a week. We napped when we felt tired, ate when we were hungry, stopped to explore when we wanted to, and I found myself to be reconnected to the world around me, even though I was on a boat sailing through and archipelago of remote uninhabited islands, where if I really wanted, no one could ever find me.
For the next few days, our itinerary sounded like something from “The Land of Make-Believe.” We would be setting sail in search of real-life dragons, Komodo Dragons, that live nowhere else on Earth. We would lounge on the deck our boat to watch a Million Bats migrate each night at sunset and watch the sky turn from pink to blue to a deep purple behind the many silhouetted islands and one by one the thousands of stars started to shine through. At first, you thought the water was reflecting the sky, but then we realized that it was bioluminescent plankton in the water glittering like diamonds in the wake.
11. Sleeping in a Thermal Heated Igloo Hotel at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, Ivalo Finland - “Hunting down the Aurora Borealis”
Northern Finland is considered “Aurora-hunting country.” It is the best place in Scandinavia to see the Northern Lights due to its northern location and there is little light pollution as it is sparsely populated compared to much of the country. All I had seen before were time lapse videos of the lights moving on You Tube, so I had no idea if that was what it was going to look like with my naked eye.
Within minutes of jumping on our snowmobiles through howling winds, we parked at the top of a hill and the sky started glowing green in one spot as if on cue. Then it grew and started spreading like veins across the sky in neon green; disappearing and reappearing in different places. They danced and moved in front of our very eyes and looked like someone was blowing bright green sand around on the heavens. Then they started dripping this hot pink color, like fireworks after they burst and start falling and disappearing into the ground. It is impossible to even describe in photos or words the powerful emotions I was feeling. It was spiritual, even though I knew the science behind it and what was causing this heavenly spectacle I was seeing. I was in a state of awe and disbelief that something so beautiful and bewildering could be created in nature.
One night, my boyfriend Winston and I woke up at 3am, because it felt like someone was shining a flashlight in our faces. What we woke up to see was the ENTIRE sky was dancing and swirling in the most intense green I have ever seen. We held hands and just couldn’t believe what we were seeing was real. I grabbed my camera and held my breath with it resting on my chest and got this photo through our igloo ceiling. It was my life’s dream coming true and I was spending it with my boyfriend and the people that I loved in a beautiful setting and it was an emotional moment for me. I feel so lucky that the heavens and conditions aligned for us to witness the most beautiful phenomenon that exists on Earth.
12. Discover the Holi Festival in India - “Play Holi and get Dirty”
Whatever the origin of throwing colored pigment actually is in India, the best meaning of all has been the lasting one carried down through generations, and that is celebrating love, life, and color which happen to be my three favorite things.
For 10 days out of the year in March, old and young, rich and poor, and no matter what your caste or social status is, everyone is able to play this game together. In fact, when people would see us covered in colored dye they would always ask us " Where did you play Holi?" At first, I thought they were asking where did you "pray Holi" since it is a religious festival, but soon I realized they were really saying "play" which to me was so much better. Imagine a week where pranks and playing with color took over your entire town or country? It was amazing to behold and amazing to be welcomed into as a foreigner.
Speaking of being a foreigner and a woman, we basically were putting a bullseye on our backs walking through the streets during Holi in India. We ignorantly thought we would walk out and just photograph people throwing pigment at each other like the color run or something. What we didn't know was the insanity of what we were walking into. Every 5 seconds the girls and I were bombarded by people wanting to take selfies with us while simultaneously wanting to clobber us with pigment. You were especially targeted if you were clean or in our case white women. We were sort of like blank canvases for the masses and people wanted to cover us on color and children would hide in back alleys and chase us with water guns filled with food coloring and dump buckets if water on us from balconies. What we didn't realize was the local custom is to wish someone "Happy Holi" and then smear pigment across both cheeks. At first it was unexpected and obtrusive, but then you find yourself in a free for all of hundreds of people doing the same thing, so you have to join in or you will be defeated.
During the 10 days of Holi, each morning is intense pigment throwing in and outside of the temples. After noon that stops and people rest or throw colored water at you during the hot part of the day and then have dances, bonfires and other celebrations at night. Our driver every day washed his car, which ultimately was a losing battle. The next morning the insanity happens again.
Somehow our cameras survived, my hair color did not. Everyone said that the pigment washes out of your skin and hair. They are lying. I made the mistake of covering my hair with a cloth turban to protect it from the dyes, but it had the adverse effect and acted more like a wet sponge on my head. Any bras or under garments had the same outcome on my skin, leaving a semi-permanent fuschia bra and underwear mark for days, but Holi isn't about being cute, it's about playing and celebrating.
Jodee summed up how I was feeling very well on day two of Holi. She said that she felt every emotion out there at some point while braving the intense crowds and trying to take photos in the middle of a color mosh pit. You felt elation, frustration, fear, surprise, exhaustion, but mostly awe trying to take in all of the smells and colors around you. What made it even more amazing was having three of my closest girlfriends there to experience it with me and who were equally as obsessed with photographing it as I was. It is overwhelming and almost impossible to describe. I can still smell the pigment now months later and probably have it ingrained in my memory forever since it was repeatedly thrown into my face.
13. Cruise with Princess Cruises through Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska - “Witness the Glaciers before they have disappeared”
My adventure to Alaska really began over a year ago when I was home visiting my family for the holidays. I was trying to have a real conversation with my retired father amidst the craziness of having all of my sister’s family and kids together at once. I asked him what was on his “bucket list” to do now that he was retired, seriously regretting saying that term out loud to my 77 year old dad. Once you get to be his age, you start thinking a lot more about “kicking the bucket” and now that I think about it, there has to be a better way to phrase this question. His response upset me more. He said,“I don’t believe in bucket lists. Your memories just die with you. I’m too old for adventures anyway." That answer was so depressing to me and I took it as a personal challenge to change my dad’s perspective on life, old age, and that it is never too late to be an explorer. So I was racking my brain to think of a place I could take my dad where we could both enjoy being adventurers that didn’t necessarily mean spelunking into caves and sleeping in hostels. I am not a teenager myself anymore, but I still don’t mind roughing it once in a while, but I knew that wouldn’t fly with my dad. So I said to him, “There must be somewhere you have always wanted to go see in your lifetime. Somewhere exotic almost mysterious.” He thought about it for a moment, and true to his almost morbid line of thinking these days he said, “Well, I’d like to see the glaciers before they all melt away and disappear.” I said,
“Well, then that settles it! We are headed to Alaska!”
Glacier Bay National Park is a 25 million-acre UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest marine sanctuary in the world. One of the coolest parts of sailing through Glacier Bay National Park is that they only allow 2 ships a day to go through and only one at a time, so literally you are the only people or vessel you will see within that landscape with exception of the small boat the brings the Park rangers to the ship. By law you have to be accompanied by 3 rangers aboard the ship and a certain level of education and protection has to happen while the cruise ship goes through. The rangers literally have to climb a rope ladder to get on board and they get on the loud speaker and tell you about what you are looking at and spot wildlife and explain the geology of the glaciers.
The highlight for both my Dad and I at Sea was when the Captain pulled our ship right up to Margerie Glacier for a couple of hours and just stopped within ¼ mile from the towering ice shelves. I cannot even begin to describe the experience of sitting on the decks and watching what I think could be described as the best spectator sport ever. Literally, along with all of the other passengers lining the decks we could actually hear the glaciers cracking and groaning and moving and breaking off into the ocean before our very eyes! It is hard to get a size comparison even when our ship was right up next to the walls, but imagine a piece of ice the size of an apartment building cracking and breaking off into the ocean. The sound it makes is like lightning following by a huge explosion thundering and echoing across the glacier walls and mountains. It vibrates your entire being and it is yet another example of Mother Nature demonstrating her majesty. We are the lucky ones, the modern-day explorers and “bucket-listers” who didn’t have to brave the storms, cold, and rugged terrain in order to witness this beauty first hand.