A Beautiful Vision: Portraits from Visions Services for the Blind & Visually Impaired

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For nearly 90 years, the nonprofit Visions Services has aided New York’s blind and visually impaired community.

Through initiatives such as rehabilitation and social services, the organization assists blind or visually impaired individuals to lead independent and active lives.

They also work to educate the public to the capabilities and needs of people who are blind or visually impaired.

I recently volunteered my photographic skills and shot portraits of a handful of their clients.

Below are some of the photos – amazing smiles, glowing personalities – that radiate from each of the beautiful ladies.

Check out the photos below and to learn more or support the organization click here.

 

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Quirky Colombia: Mompox Part 3

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For all its beautiful colonial charm, Mompox still has a quirky personality.

And like most small towns, Mompox is too small to hide the eccentricities that reveal themselves while wandering its dusty streets.

For me, there’s a lot of aimless walking while traveling. It is a necessary part of discovering a new place and fuels travel’s inspirational flames.

Distilled to its essence, travel is about saturating the present with amazing, cathartic experiences, a jumble of sensory overload and serendipitous occurrences.

You know that amazing photo you saw or took that captured a beautiful moment? The one that whenever you see it sends you back into the experience? That is every moment of travel.

If you are open to it.

The mundane becomes interesting. The ugly, beautiful. You are forced – if only for a second – to become an optimist and see the good lurking beneath the bad

The photos below capture textures and moments in Mompox. Like the vendor selling his wares on the street or a precariously leaning house or the portrait of a woman parading and shouting through town who still wanted her photo taken.

Each of these photos takes me back and hopefully brings you along to experience Mompox’s quirky charm.

(If you’re reading this in your Inbox, be sure to click on the above headline to view the photos.)

And for more photos and stories about Mompox, click here.

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The Colombian Town Time Forgot

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500-years ago, the Magdalena River’s rushing current transformed the Colombian island town of Mompox from a dusty village into a bustling commercial center. For years it thrived until times changed and the businesses moved to more accessible cities upriver.

For Mompox, the Magdalena River became a bittersweet jailor that constricted its growth while preserving the town’s colonial charm.

Guidebooks often compare Mompox to Cartagena without the tourists (and the dollars that flow in their wake). Unlike Cartagena where hustlers hassle visitors every five feet, Mompox’s quiet streets offer a glimpse of Colombia’s past and present coexististing: old doors (some restored, many weeping with age), stately lamps perched outside stucco buildings, streets lined with grand courtyarded mansions or a deeply tan, leather-skinned man leading his donkey through town on his way to market add to this timelessness despite the buzzing cars, three-wheel motorized rickshaws (just like the ones in Thailand and India) and blaring salsa music.

Talk of bridge construction has happened here for years, but until that day comes the slow life will remain, trapped by the river’s rushing current.

(If you’re reading this in your E-mailbox, be sure to click on the above headline to view the photos.)

And for more about Mompox, the cockfight I attended, and Mompox by night, click here.

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Life and Death at a Colombian Cockfight

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Death’s doorway opened in 3 minutes and 13 seconds.

Harsh blue light from two fist-sized coils of compact fluorescent bulbs illuminated the fighting pit, its dirt floor framed with a green cement ring and rickety wooden bleachers 4 benches high.

The odor of violence hovered over the pit as men with sweat-stained foreheads stood, sat and screamed at the roosters fighting below.

This was my first time at a Colombian cockfight and an experience I wasn’t sure I could stomach. Earlier in the day, while wandering around Mompox, Colombia, a colonial town in north-central Colombia, my brothers and I noticed wicker cages (shaped like giant thimbles) inside a dilapidated building.

I asked a mustachioed man with dark skin and a polo shirt standing outside the building what time the fight began (8pm) and if there was an entrance fee (it was free). My brothers and I decided to come by later that night to watch the spectacle.

We spent the afternoon exploring the city with its grunge-coated pastel walls and thick clouds of dust. Due to its strategic location on an island in the Magdalena River, Mompox served as the center of Spanish trade in the Americas for hundreds of years. Fantastic caches of plundered and mined gold filtered through the city before beginning its eventual journey to the Spanish treasury in mainland Europe.

Over time a community of artisans developed in the city that continue to create “filigree” (or filigrano, in Spanish) jewelry, a style that transforms gold or silver into wispy, lace-like pendants, bracelets, earrings and more.

Purchasing jewelry was one of the reasons for our visit to this out of the way town; the other was to wander its once proud streets.

Guidebooks describe the city as Cartagena before all the tourists arrived. Mompox’s (pronounced Mompos’) historic homes, churches and workshops date back to the early 1500s and even the building that housed the city’s Inquisitors remains.

Inquisitors? During Spanish rule, Colombia’s thriving religious police tortured and terrorized society in pursuit of eradicating witches and sinners. Their offices were officially shuttered in 1821, shortly after Colombia achieved independence.

In Mompox, as I was taking a photo of a buildings ornate – cross and Star of David – adorned window bars, a passerby told me the building was once the Inquisition office. I can only imagine the horrors that took place behind its doors.

Night had arrived and it was time to venture to the cockfight. The Spanish word for rooster is gallo (pronounced guy-o) and when we walked into the fighting venue, its walls were tiled with ottoman-sized cages of crowing roosters. Overhead more roosters were perched on the buildings rafters, often tied by an ankle to metal poles spanning the corrugated steel and thatch a-frame roof.

I’d never noticed it before during my travels, but all of the roosters’ lower bodies were plucked bare – smooth as a baby’s bum – while a riot of red and brown and orange plumage covered their upper frames.

It was too early for the fights to begin so we sat at a table at the end of the room drinking Aguilla light beer and surveyed the scene: mostly men drinking beer and aguardiente – a clear, Colombian anise liquor that tastes like Sambuca – while waiting for the fights to start.

Maybe 45 minutes or an hour later, people began walking toward the ring – and the weigh-ins’ began. Just like in professional boxing, the roosters were placed on a scale and paraded for inspection. Money’s on the line at these fights and the only intelligence to be had is knowledge gleaned from first hand experience and observation.

After 15 or 20 minutes and the weigh-in complete, spectators climbed onto the wobbly bleachers surrounding the ring while the cockmasters – aka trainers of fighting roosters – prepared their gallos to fight. Wax was melted onto the back of the rooster’s legs followed by attaching a 3-inch raptor claw looking razor blade. The trainers then wrapped gauze around the rooster’s leg to protect and secure the blade for the fight.

The judge judging a match between two animals destined to murder each other made sure everything was kosher and the crowd finished migrating to the stands.

Standing in the center of the ring, the judge reinspected the roosters. He wasn’t satisfied with how the razor was attached to a rooster’s leg and during the inspection was pricked by the blade. Enraged, he hurled insults into the rooster’s trainer’s face as the trainer quickly rewound the gauze to the judge’s approval.

The judge then set a digital clock on the ground and another clock on the edge of the ring. One of the clocks seemed to measuring points.

At last the roosters were ready to battle. The owners took their roosters to the center of the ring and the animals’ butted heads. You could see the tension mounting – their body’s taught as they struggled to break free of their trainer’s hands and fight.

And it began. The roosters careened ahead. Pecking at each others faces, necks, bodies. Jumping up in the air and bicycle kicking each other with their bladed legs. In a moment one was pinned to the ground. In another it was back up hurling its deadly razor legs at its opponent.

The crowd was shouting. Men had money in their hands, yelling to get the attention of the bet collector, goading their cock to win.

Round 2.

The owners swooped into the ring to separate their roosters and inspect them for wounds. No visible blood yet. The animals were getting tired but their rage remained rabid.

Round 3.

The animals were back at it. Kicks, pecks, dive bombs, head crushing jabs and stabs – all the moves humans would make to fight for survival.

The fight, however vulgar, was human nature at its finest. And worst. Pure, unadulterated passion, anger, emotion surged through the crowd as they watched the battling animals.

A life unfiltered.

And the violence continued until a rooster lie defeated, trickles of blood on its body and on ground underneath its ailing frame. The winning rooster, still pecking and slicing at its defeated opponent, was pulled away.

It took 3 minutes and 13 seconds for death’s doorway to open and only seconds for the defeated rooster to be whisked into darkness.

 

– As always click on the below photo to view the slideshow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cartagena’s Moody Romance

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Cartagena breathes a moody romance – especially as the sun sets and silky shadows drape the city’s historic walls.

It was only a few hours after my arrival and I was exploring the old city’s fortifications, waiting for my Courchsurfing host to return home after work.

The day was late and sun tired. I’d been awake since 3:30 AM and decided to wander around Cartagena’s old city in a sleep-deprived stupor of exhaustion and inspiration.

The tiredness can be overcome – my body’s ability to transcend its limitations (after 3.5 hours of sleep the night before) – paired with a mind-bending perception of life under travel-induced duress creates a recipe for redemption.

Travel for me is a blessing that imposes many challenges. What can I endure? How does a place resonate? Who was I before arriving? Who am I now?

It elicits these questions of self and even if no answer exists, the introspective journey parallels travel’s existential adventure.

Travelers change as much as their surroundings. Certainly it’s possible to avoid and ignore the traveler’s inner disquiet but like every good challenge, the results of enduring and working through everything presented are like buying a winning lottery ticket with the payout being greater self-awareness.

In a way, the sun is the perfect anecdote for travel’s wonder. Each morning it rises, casting its radiating light on the world. Its glance changes as the day passes, reshaping and recasting the world underneath its gaze until fading into the night sky.

The traveler bends and adapts to their new world, embracing its synchronicity and eager – after a day of exploration – for the sun to rise again and return its uninhibited – yet soothing – morning glow.

 

 

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Running Cartagena’s Ramparts

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It was like running through butter as thick, humid air melted the beads sweat pouring from my pores. The morning sun rose higher in the brilliant-blue sky, casting broiling rays on the mustard-painted buildings, their colonial facades stained with ages of grime and sea salt.

Famed for its 16th century fortified old city, Cartagena, Colombia spent ages as the gem of the Spanish empire and drew a hungry eye from the pirates of the Caribbean who successfully and unsuccessfully plundered its riches.

During its heyday, the city served as a transit hub for slaves and gold looted from the tombs of the now extinct native Sinu people. The Spanish crown spent countless millions fortifying the city in the process constructing 6.8 miles of fortified walls.

While no longer protecting the city from nefarious marauders, the walls offer visitors amazing ocean-view panoramas and a birds eye view of the Cartigenos life.

My run started at the Mar del Norte, an 18-story beachfront building about half a mile north of the old city, where I’m staying. From this perch on high, the ocean, old city and Cartagena’s many slums spread in a 180-degree vista.

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http://connect.garmin.com/activity/649520142

I crossed the bustling 4-lane road – still quiet and missing the honking busses that ply up and down it’s idyllic route – and jogged toward the old city. Even at 6:30 am, families were already frolicking in the lapping waves.

Along the narrow, poorly maintained sidewalk patches of cement disappeared and I hopped over 2-foot wide gaps, careful not to relive a China experience (where I tripped on a golf-ball sized rock) and end up in a Colombian emergency room.

At the edge of the old city I turned left, away from the ocean and ran along the old city walls toward one of the gateways that permit cars and pedestrians passage into the historic warren of roads. Once through, I turned right and followed the walls to a long ramp that led to wall’s top.

A man in his 40s or 50s was sitting on a cannon using the end its 8-foot barrel as a holster for his feet as he did sit ups. Nearby, a homeless person with watermelon- sized frizz of hair and whose gender I could not discern was sleeping under a wooden canopy, avoiding the brightening sun.

I continued running, avoiding the dips and cracks and potholes in the wall’s top. At this point my shirt was off and the humidity and heat started to take their toll. But I ran, continuing past Colombian tourists exploring the ramparts. At one point the wall narrowed to 3-feet wide – on my right a 15-foot drop onto a grassy field, flooded from the past few days of monsoon deluges, on my left, an 8-foot drop onto another section of the wall.

I continued running, careful not to lose my balance and forced myself to stop wondering which way I’d fall if I tripped. Eventually the path narrowed to 2 feet and I hopped down a few steps, to a less perilous section with a 6-foot wide path.

And then the wall’s path ended. Why it did not continue or was blocked I am unsure, so I cut through the old city, past historic Catholic churches with crumbling facades, past blocks of buildings painted in pastel greens and oranges and reds that bled together and whose color contrast creates the breathtakingly beautiful color palate the city is so known for. I cut through a huge square surrounded by arched buildings and a 30-foot tall holiday star wrapped in LEDs waiting for its evening time to shine. Past the mustard colored clock tower – at one time part of the wall – now disconnected from its protective past.

I continued through the old city where spindly, vine-like trees crawl up the riotous walls as magenta and orange bougainvillea flowers blossom, until reaching another ramp that led up to the wall’s top.

The sun beat down and I was drenched. But I continued, enjoying witnessing the city’s history. Exploring a place where families have lived for generations and the walls that made life here possible.

Today, the pirates are gone, replaced by hordes of tourists who descend on the city from planes, busses and city-sized cruise ships, eager to savor its history and plunder its colonial charm.

Maybe it’s a good thing the walls went up – they kept the city safe, commerce buzzing and bad guys out. And while their original purpose might be passé, the walls today continue to serve an important role: protecting and preserving the city’s inspiring colonial character, not to mention the perfect path for a sweaty run.

Stay tuned for photos and more runs from Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

 

 

 

 

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A Movember Stash to the Rescue

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Friends, these are challenging times and I need your help.

No, I wasn’t robbed in London and need a wire transfer for a plane ticket home nor have I fallen and can’t get up.

In my calendar, November is scratched out and replaced with the moniker Movember. Each Movember, myself and millions of people around the world donate their faces and facial hair (not to mention time and money) to raise funds and awareness for men’s health.

From prostate cancer research to mental health treatment, Movember works to get people gabbing, challenging everyone’s upper lip to pucker up and do their part.

Get talking, get moving, lets get this show on the road as we work to stomp out cancer and raise the flag of victory for men’s health.

Please click on the stash below to learn more about my Movember Campaign and even better show your support by making a donation to improving men’s health.

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http://us.movember.com/mospace/1096236

A post-run stash shot.

See how good you can look when you grow a Mo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Boozin’ at the Van Brunt Stillhouse

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Good things come in small batches at Van Brunt Stillhouse, a Red Hook boutique distillery founded in 2012 by the husband and wife team Daric Schlesselman and Sarah Ludington. “I was an avid home brewer and distiller and my wife and I decided we wanted to own our own business,” Daric said.

The Stillhouse has since expanded their production to whiskey, rum, grappa and moonshine and offers weekend tours and tastings of their Bay Street space. “I love the magic of it all,” Derek said. “I love making good things that people appreciate.”

The below photos are part of a photo essay originally published in the Red Hook Star-Revue celebrating Labor Day and the neighborhood’s workers. Check out the entire photo essay here and more outtakes from the other neighborhood businesses here.

 

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Such Great Red Hook Heights

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At 120-feet off the ground with only a few metal bars and a pane of glass separating me from the concrete dock far below, most people might have felt nervous. Had I not been so focused on capturing photos of Chris Guerra, a union crane operator who spends his days loading and unloading ships from his 120-foot high cab, I might have been, too.

While Chris’s office has million-dollar Manhattan views, even the port’s ground-level affords unobstructed views of downtown Manhattan, the New Jersey “skyline,” Governors Island and the Statue of Liberty with her guiding torch.

Many of the below photos are part of a series I did celebrating Labor (Day) and the men and women hard at work and initially appeared in the Red Hook Star-Revue.

Over the years, the shipping traffic at the Red Hook Container Terminal has slowly decreased. Much of it moved across Manhattan Bay to the Port of Newark, whose investment in massive cranes years ago keeps their dock humming and busy with shipping traffic.

Red Hook’s maritime history has slowly waned over the year as global shipping traffic and repair has migrated elsewhere. I recently wrote an article about Red Hook’s last real maritime business that closed down in April after being founded nearly 60-years ago in the Brooklyn. Read the article here and more photos are here.

As we give thanks for the labor that built (and continues to build) our country, it makes me appreciate how fortunate we are to be living in a country that if you work hard and have a bit of luck, you can achieve a career that not only pays the bills but provides nourishing fulfillment.

Click here to catch sparks flying at a Red Hook Iron Shop.

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Sparks Fly in Red Hook

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Sparks are flying at Apollo Tech Iron Works, a Red Hook, Brooklyn iron shop.

The company works on projects throughout the neighborhood and region and everyday, welders and machinists create fences, posts, and structures from raw metals and iron.

The shop’s walls are lined with tools and iron bars and grease and grit seem to cover every visible surface.

I recently shot portraits of a handful of the ironworkers and welders while working on a photo essay celebrating Labor Day for the Red Hook Star-Revue.

A link to the photo essay is available here.

The family owned business has been in the neighborhood for more than a decade and is run by a father and son team.

Check out the photos below and stay tuned for more outtakes from the shoots celebrating Labor Day.

 

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