Notes from the Cloud Forest

Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica – June 10th, 2008

When I was a child, I saw a cartoon set in the cloudforest of South America, and I had wanted to go there ever since. I was reasonable about it – I knew one couldn’t truly expect to find ancient ruins, hidden caves behind waterfalls, or the secret sanctuary of the endangered quetzal birds. Still, the name promised enough with its very essence – imagine, a forest set so high in the mountains that it rises into the clouds and is filled with mists… It’s like something out of a story book.

And it really is. Something out of a fairy tale and a sci-fi horror all together. Some of the plants growing in there were like nothing I’d ever seen, like the shoots of wet green, covered in dark spots as though, reaching a certain age, it would rise from the earth as a sentient being… plants whose roots pulled nutrients out of the wet, rich air itself, the monkey tree, which ends in spiralling branches so like the tails of monkeys…  and monkeys themselves, spider monkeys and howler monkeys, crashing through the leaves overhead, making the forest alive. And the mists swallowed everything, enshrouding the forest in mystery and leaving beads of moisture on everything that passed through it.

Lianas like those of a thousand jungle movies hung from the branches above, and disappeared below into the mists as we crossed swinging bridges hung over valleys. It was something from a dream, from another planet, from a fairy tale, from an earlier age in the long lifespan of the world… beautiful.

Perhaps I had learned something from O’Toole’s photography lecture at the volcano. Some things… you just remember. I didn’t take as many photos as usual there in the forest. Of the few I took, most failed utterly to capture the experience. The water everywhere, the wet echoes of footprints and screeching wildlife, the grey mists and sudden, jolting, flash of colourful wings, the heaviness of the air, when I almost expected to see my reflection, hovering in the mists ahead.

And the sloth. I have no picture of him, but that does nothing to diminish the memory. It looked at me, see. It was high up in the trees, covered in shaggy fur, tinged slight green by the fungus that grew there, and it looked down at me from there, the absolute picture of mischievous smugness. Not in a dog, not in a dolphin, not in a monkey, have I ever seen an animal mirror a human emotion so clearly. His little humanoid face peeked out at us through thick green fur with a knowing, mocking gaze – as if he knew he was special, knew we were staring at him in awe, and was laughing at us.

/A Walk in the Clouds

The Window

Where: Suomenlinna, Finland

When: June 2008

Camera: Canon Powershot A550

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My friend Liisa and I were playing in the Suomenlinna tunnels when we encountered the brilliant light of this window-frame, and had some fun taking silly photos there.

Basque Church

Where: Zumaia, Spain

When: November 2010

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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I took this photo on a stormy November day, when a Basque friend had offered to show me some of the small villages that dot her region. Despite the weather, and although her car broke down the day before we’d planned to leave, we decided to press on by foot, bus, and coastal train. As the evening light turned the sky heavy colours, we came across this tiny church by the sea. I love the people huddled in the doorway, stretching out their goodbyes before they leave the cozy building under threatening skies.

The Castle of Olite

Where: Olite, Spain

When: November 2010

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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One morning at dawn, I climbed all the way up to the highest tower of the Castle of Olite for this view of the palace, the sleepy village below, and the wide agricultural fields that are just becoming visible on the horizon. According to the history books, the castle was once home to Navarre’s royal family, exotic pets like giraffes and lions, and hanging gardens modeled after those of Babylon. Today, the castle stands empty save for a modest number of tourists and a thick layer of rich, red ivy that spreads like a red carpet for kings long gone.

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

Buddhapada in Kamakura

Where: Kamakura, Japan

When: July 2009

Camera: Canon Powershot A550

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I found this decorated stone in Kamakura’s Hase-Kannon Temple. It is a stylized depiction of the footprints of Buddha. In early Buddhist art, it was considered taboo to directly depict a being as sacred as the Buddha, so they alluded to his presence by showing his footprints, called Buddhapada in Sanskrit. These Buddhapada are covered with a variety of symbols. Look at the most prominent one, which looks like a sun or wheel. If it looks familiar to you, you may be thinking of the Flag of India, which has a similar design in the center. The wheel shown on both these footprints and the Indian flag is a dharmacakra, or a “wheel of law”, and symbolizes the Buddha’s path to enlightenment. Japan’s many sacred places are filled with items and objects that are often laden with symbolism. Knowing even a little bit about the many cultural traditions that make up Japan can add a lot to a trip through the country.

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

Wooden Reindeer

Where: Stockholm, Sweden

When: June 2008

Camera: Canon Powershot A550

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I loved this little wooden reindeer in Skansen, an outdoor museum in the middle of Stockholm. I noticed the way the face is suggested with broad, simple cuts from the wood, as well as the cute pose and the real antlers.

/A Taste of Scandinavia

The Smallest Corner

Where: Kamakura, Japan

When: July 2009

Camera: Canon Powershot A550

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A small city, a small street, a small corner beside a shop. What do you find there? In the United States I would expect maybe beer bottles and cigarette butts, maybe a trash can, maybe, at best, a potted plant or a bit of a store window.

Instead, in this little corner of Kamakura, about four square feet of ground space, there is a lovely cabinet displaying some art, some ubiquitous and frighteningly realistic Japanese plastic food models for the restaurant behind, and the smallest bit of landscaping I think I’ve ever seen. The ground cuts away swiftly into a tiny pond, and a tiny tree rises above.

I almost don’t know which impresses me more: the scale, or the flawless blending of practical, artistic, and introduced natural beauty.

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

Flowing out to Sea

Where: Isle of Mull, Scotland

When: August 2010

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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Allan, Lucia and I took the bus across the Isle of Mull on our way to Iona. A long stretch of the ride ran along the coast, where dozens of little streams poured into the ocean, reflecting the sky.

/From the Lowlands to the Highlands