Saffron Is the New Black

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We were fortunate to be in Sri Lanka and especially in Anuradhapura during a full moon festival (Siuru Pujawa) when many of the temples are decorated with saffron bolts of cloth, wound around the stupa or dagoba, as it’s called here. It makes for a stunning sight against the white bell-shaped structure. It seems that the biggest celebration is held at the enormous Runwanvallysayaa Temple where locals and visitors walk two-by-two in lines stretching more than 100 yards, each dressed in white and carrying a section of the unfurled bolt of cloth above their heads. When the procession reached the dagoba, monks and workers took the material and did the wrapping. The procession and the process made for some good pictures. David captured the essence on video.

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Rising to New Heights

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After climbing the 3,750-odd steps to see the mountain-top Jain temple complex in Palitana, India, I was hoping that would be the last of the ‘stairway to heaven’ adventures for us. That hope extended to Sigiriya, a place in Sri Lanka’s central “Cultural Triangle” that we had read about in Lonely Planet. It’s a 660 foot granite monolith that rises up from the jungle. A king of Ceylon had made the area his capital in the 5th century and built his palace on the top of the monolith. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

There were all sorts of red flags we saw, as in “Don’t go if you’re afraid of heights! Or if you’re afraid of wasps or crowds or sunstroke.” There was another red flag when we learned we were there during the full moon festival and a 3-day holiday weekend. That meant the place was crawling with hordes of people and most of them would be making the Masada-like ascent in the morning’s shade. In an effort to avoid the mob scene, we reversed the order of our day and planned to visit the site around 4 pm, when we could survey how much of the pillar was still in the sun, and how much of the holiday crowd was still trying to make the climb.

I had just about convinced myself that, at least for me, Sigiriya was too hard, too hot and too dangerous. And I hate wasps. I was worried that if I tried the climb I would end up on someone’s endangered list. “It says in the book that there’s a lovely garden at the base of the rock. How about we just go there for a few hours instead of doing the climb?” I ventured. David agreed so fast that I could tell that without any prompting from me, he had arrived at the same conclusion.

As we entered the site, the monolith towered over us, baking in the scorching afternoon sunlight. The garden, looking cool and green in the dappled shade, was up a short flight of stairs. Ahead were a series of steep, long flights of steps rising to the base of a rickety circular staircase fastened to the side of the sheer rock wall. There was a large sign advising people to keep their voices low so as not to disturb the wasps but no one else paid any attention to the sign. The sign also warned that we should stand still and not run if attacked by a swarm of wasps.

We stood for a few moments in the shade, catching our breath, watching people begin the ascent. People carrying infants walked past us, small children literally skipped past us, and several old women in sarees seemed to float past us. Embarrassed to watch these people do something we were about to back out of, we ventured up several more flights and found ourselves at the base of the rickety spiral staircase. “What’s up there,” we asked the guard who stamped our passes. “Painted caves. Very beautiful.” The crowd around us surged forward and next thing we knew we were trudging up the stairs. “Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Don’t look down,” was my mantra. I did actually look down once. The view was stupendous and terrifying.

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The caves were decidedly worth the effort.

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We arrived at a wide open area and faced the final stage of the climb, up through the “Lion’s Paw Gate”. “How much farther could it be?” I asked David, adding with great hope, “In fact, I think I see the top.” “I think you see what you wish was the top,” he answered. At least there was a fairly solid hand rail on the next set of stairs. Up we went.

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Finally we reached the top. I’m not exactly sure how we went from “We’re not doing this” to “Here we are!” But we did and here we are:

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Connecting

The Internet – devil and angel. Devil when you’re thousands of miles from home, dying for news or an email from family or messages from Facebook friends. But you can’t connect and life becomes a game of watching the dreaded spinning ball or spiraling circle or glacially creeping blue line that goes no where. Angel when you throw a question into cyberspace and someone on the other side of the world responds and virtual friendships become real friendships.

This happened twice this trip. The first time was when I did a Google search for people doing alternative photography in India.* Only thing that came up was something called GoaCap – Goa Center For Alternative Photography. I applied for a short residency and was accepted for two weeks in February.

I pretty much didn’t know what to expect, so I packed up a lot of materials and supplies just in case (the biggest different between digital and alternative photography is the vast quantity and variety of things you need to actually make a photograph from film to chemicals to paper to cameras that don’t know from media cards). Much of what I took (film and photo paper) is negatively affected by trips through security scanners. Every plane ride necessitated first requesting and then arguing with gate agents and screeners about why my x-ray sensitive materials needed to be hand checked. Fifty percent of the time I won, the other 50 percent my film and photo paper lost.

I had two very productive weeks at Goa Cap thanks in very large part to Edson Diaz (shown here in a photo I took of him and his Leica):
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who was incredibly gracious with his time and expertise, teaching me processes such as albumen and salt printing – things I had never attempted before. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albumen_print. I had brought a pinhole camera with me and we also made one out of a metal pot. which actually took some pretty interesting photos after a lot of fine tuning by Edson:
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"20140216-2307<br Here are some examples of the prints I made at Goa Cap:
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These are a couple of prints I made using albumen and salt processing methods.

The 2nd connection I made thanks to the Internet was to a fellow I met on a photography forum called (oddly enough) The Ugly Hedgehog. All I knew about Indrajeet Singh was that he lived in Goa and took amazing photographs of birds. I sent him a message asking for advice about where to buy film in India and one thing led to another which led to a gracious invitation to dine at a marvelous Indian restaurant during our stay here. Mickey (Indrajeet’s nickname) and his lovely wife Zwe were charming, gracious hosts and who regaled us with stories of their adventures taking groups of photographers on wildlife safaris in parks and preserves all across India. We left that evening with two new friends as well as a long list of places to visit on our next trip here.
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*Alternative photography” in its simplest sense (and depending how strict your definition) is pretty much anything that’s not digital, although a digital picture that is processed (printed) in a way that doesn’t involve a ink jet printer (a cyanotype, for example) is considered Kosher – by some. It’s confusing. I know. I’ve been interested in alternative processing every since I took a course with Lana Caplan at MassArt. Lana Z Caplan. I’ve now taken this course 3 times and plan to take it again next fall. Last year I spent several weeks studying with Syko Song in Taipei (see the blogs for December 2013).

Groovy Goa and David’s Wham-O Moment

Apparently there was just a piece in The New York Times travel section about Goa as a beach vacation paradise. It is definitely that. The fine, white sand beaches are gorgeous. The water was of a “this ain’t the North Atlantic” temperature. The choices of restaurants serving great food is endless. The feeling is laid back and mellow compared with other parts of India. Would I come back here? In a heartbeat. But not just because of those selling points. Sam warned that after a few days we’d find the crowds of boisterous Israelis on R and R from the army exhausting. The large-framed, white bellied (sun burned) Australian and Russian tourists would be less than picturesque, The Indian tourists (mostly young men turned loose and out of control) would become quickly annoying. The 24/7 “let’s party!” culture would turn us off. None of those things happened. In fact, those were the very things that, at least for me, I liked the best about Goa. They presented a non-stop buffet of picture taking opportunities. People immersed in their few days of fun in the sun become both disinhibited and totally oblivious to anyone taking their picture. I had a ball.

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From David: there’s one picture that Lora was not able to get. It was a shot of a gorgeous, young French blond standing at the water’s edge using a hoola-hoop — topless. Wham-O!!, for those of you who remember the brand name. And her thong was too small to cover the label “Made in France”.