Places

Leaves in the wind

Is there something more representative of autumn than fallen leaves, being blown about by bracing, sprightly breezes? How about branches under the sway of powerful winds, beckoning chilly autumn rainstorms? I captured these scenes on video in the autumn of 2007, in Grosvenor Park, MD, but only now got around to editing and publishing it.

I’m only sorry that I didn’t have a better video camera at the time, but such is life sometimes. Now I do, and next autumn, I’ll be ready.

You might have noticed some wonderfully dramatic storm clouds in the video. Here are a few photos I took around the same time, with a couple taken that same evening, showing those same clouds.

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Thoughts

Thankful

This is a bit after Thanksgiving, but it’s pertinent.

It was just last summer (in 2006) that I got frustrated with my photography, and decreed that I must improve. Even though I’d been taking photos since 1994, and I had a feel for what looked good, I had no idea what I was doing with the camera. I had no idea of the concepts of photography. I had no idea how to compose a photograph, and how to think about light. In a little more than a year, I’ve gotten pretty far. Now, I look at photos that I took just last summer and I cringe…

I’ve learned so much, and I still have a lot to learn.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn about photography. It’s a wonderful occupation, and it relaxes me. I can see the world differently now. I’m a bit guilty of always thinking of photo ops, but I appreciate what I see a lot more nowadays.

I’m also thankful that I was able to afford a wonderful DSLR. I’m very happy with my Canon 5D. Its capabilities allow me to be very flexible and to exploit lighting situations that are simply unattainable with other, less expensive cameras. As I learned more and more about photography last year, I realized that some of the things I wanted to do just couldn’t be done without a DSLR. At that time, I thought the 5D was incredibly expensive. After all, when you’ve been paying $100-400 for your cameras, $2,800 is a big jump in price! Am I sorry I bought it now? No. It’s a great camera.

Here are a couple of photos I took during Thanksgiving dinner with close friends of ours. The wind howled outside and chilled me to the bones as soon as I stepped onto the balcony, but how could I resist such a beautiful dusk?

Thanksgiving sky

Thanksgiving dusk

By the way, I launched a new site last night. It features my photography and only my photography. It’s called, appropriately enough, Raoul Pop Photography.

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Places

Passing through Cheile Bicazului

This is Part 1 of a two-part post on Cheile Bicazului. You can read Part Two here.

During our recent trip to Romania, we passed through Cheile Bicazului, a stunning, narrow pass carved through the Carpathian mountains. We started out on the Transylvania side, where the weather was beautiful and sunny, though we could see the clouds hovering over the mountains far into the distance.

Zigzag into the horizon

As we got closer, the weather got chillier, and we could see the mountain peaks enshrouded in fog. This mountain meadow was still bright and sunny, though the cold wind made us shiver.

Steep slope

Just a few kilometers away from the meadow pictured above, we stopped at Lacul Rosu, a lake whose origin is uncertain. It seems falling rocks blocked the path of a river, and a lake accumulated in that valley hundreds or thousands of years ago. The trunks of the flooded evergreens can still be seen in the water. Here the weather got even colder and wetter. There was no question about it — we were high up in the mountains.

At the edge of Lacul Rosu

That same punishing weather proved truly beneficial to my photography. Without it, the mountain peaks wouldn’t have looked quite as good. Here are a couple of peaks seen at the start of the pass.

Enshrouded in fog

Here’s a truly majestic peak seen from inside the pass. That fog was just perfect!

High above Cheile Bicazului

The sharply winding road broke through the peaks onto a meadow set in a small valley. I stopped the car and peered over the edge of the cliff to get this photo of the mountain brook passing below us. I love that little wooden bridge, twisted into a precarious position by spring torrents and autumn storms.

The little bridge down in the valley

There was a group of cabins in the meadow, and off to the side, I found this deserted hut, built out of stone right into the side of the hill. Grass grew on its roof, and overgrown shrubs surrounded it. I wonder what purpose it once served.

Deserted and overgrown

That same mountain brook seen just above can be seen in the photo below. The same bridge can now be spotted in the top left corner. I really like mountain streams. They flow fast, and the water’s clean, cold and invigorating.

A happy mountain brook

We weren’t dressed for the weather, and we ended up with slightly sore throats by the time we made it to the other side, but it sure was worth it! It was my first time through Cheile Bicazului. Ligia used to come there with her parents quite often as a child. We want to go back again and hike through those mountains should we get the chance.

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Places

A weekend in Manhattan

Light up the nights

Ligia and I spent this past weekend in Manhattan, and got home around 1 am last night, completely exhausted. Was it fun? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes. Are we still tired? Yes.

The trip out on Friday morning wasn’t bad at all. The traffic was decent all the way through, including the Lincoln Tunnel. Even the Manhattan traffic was bearable, except for Times Square. We stayed at the Algonquin Hotel, which is about a half block up from 44th St and 5th Ave, and we loved it. It’s a small, cozy, quiet hotel with a rich history. It has also undergone recent and extensive remodeling, and it looks great, inside and out. I got a chance to compare it with the Waldorf-Astoria, where my parents stayed, and I’ll take the Algonquin any day. The Waldorf is huge — too big for me — and it’s crowded. Sure, it’s very nice, and it’s on ritzy Park Avenue as well, but still, I prefer smaller, quieter hotels like the Algonquin, where I can get to know the faces of the people who work there.

If you’re in town, do try to eat at the Algonquin. We had breakfast in the Round Table Room. The food was delicious, and the service wonderful. We didn’t get a chance to attend one of the shows at the Oak Room Cabaret, but that’s on our list for the next visit to NYC.

We spent our weekend traipsing about Manhattan, visiting various spots like the Flatiron Building, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Statue of Liberty, Museum of Natural History and tons more. We crammed as much as we could into those short few days, and as a result, I have over 1,500 photos while we’ve both got very tired and aching feet (and legs, and hips, and shoulders, etc.). I can’t wait to go through and start winnowing and post-processing my gigabytes of photographic memories.

A few months ago, I read an article that said New Yorkers are the friendliest people in the States. The article had relied on informal methodology to gauge the friendliness of people in various big cities: strangers were stopped in the streets and asked for directions. I got a chance to test those findings during our trip, and I agree, for the most part. New Yorkers are friendly and helpful. NYC cops are also called “New York’s Finest”, and I agree with that as well. All of the cops we talked to were nice to us. They even smiled frequently, prompting Ligia to wonder what makes them so happy in a city so frenetic, where the pace of life and traffic can be so stressful. We don’t know, but they sure were friendly. Even random people on the street, although a little more stressed, helped us out when we needed directions. Not everyone was nice, though. MTA employees were definitely not friendly. I even had a woman employee at the 72nd St subway station yell at me when I complained that my just-purchased tickets would not open the gates for me. While I’m on that subject, the subway ticket machines need better maintenance. They locked up frequently when purchasing by credit card or ATM card. Many did not accept paper notes, only coins. We were left scrounging for loose cash with a line forming behind us…

Manhattan is a very interesting place. This was my first chance to stay there for more than one night, and as I walked around the town, I got the chance to think and compare. Needless to say, space there is at a premium. Everything is packed tightly, and the only way you can get more space is to build up or down. It’s mind-boggling to think how many tunnels of all sorts traverse the underground. Trains, subways and cars travel underground on multiple levels, while pipes and wires of all sorts and ages, all of them needing maintenance, fill out every nook and cranny of available underground space. It must be a logistical nightmare to keep up the infrastructure of a city so massive, on every scale.

There so little vegetation in the city! Most of the time, we were surrounded by concrete, glass or old, grungy brick and mortar. Parks of all shapes and sizes are a welcome sight. Even the planted bushes on penthouse terraces are a sight for sore eyes, though removed from those on the ground by tens of stories and layers of social and financial hierarchy. It didn’t matter though — I had my trusty 100mm lens, and the thing about tele lenses is that they have no social graces. They will cut through distance of any sort and bring the object down to the photographer. I took many photos of beautiful penthouse terraces — little oases of vegetation in grungy, musty concrete fields.

Here, I complain about urban sprawl and the lack of decent pedestrian accommodations. In Manhattan, I got to see the other side of the coin. There can be no urban sprawl. There are too many pedestrians, and you can’t drive your car. If I lived there, I wonder if I could even keep a car. At the prices they charge for parking, I’m not so sure. To get places, you have to either walk, or go underground and take the subway. When you walk into a building, you have to take the elevator. There are no one-story buildings, unless you count churches. Although it was exciting to walk around and look at the architecture, I felt fenced in. There were no wide open spaces, not even in Central Park. The only place I felt freer was on the boat to and from the Statue of Liberty. There, on the open air deck, with the wind blowing through my hair, looking out at the vast expanse of water, I could breathe easier once more. But to get there, I had to take the metro and walk for some time, not to mention stand in line with a ton of people.

And that’s another thing. People are something. We’re social beings, we need company, but we each have our own level of comfort when it comes to the number of other people we can bear. I, for example, can only take so much of being around a ton of people. After that, I need to be alone, or I start getting headaches and feeling nauseous. Times Square, for all its lively and colorful action, is chock-full of people, all the time. When you step into the place, you’re surrounded by buildings on each side. Strident, flashing colors assail you from all points of view. People rub against you. You step out into the street but cars almost run over you, honking endlessly. Camera flashes go off almost every second. Every breath of air feels charged with a suffocating mix of electricity, yet every cubic inch of air is stale. You draw in more, but to no avail. You’re still fenced in, unable to breathe, and the unstoppable urge to get out of that place grabs you by the head and turns you toward the nearest side street. And so you go, heady and reeling from the indescribable something you’ve just experienced, grateful for every breath of cold, fresh air you can pull down from the tall Manhattan sky.

We left on Sunday evening around 5 pm, and got home around 1 am. It was supposed to be a four-hour trip. But we spent more than 1 hour and a half trying to get out through the Lincoln Tunnel. There was an incredible traffic jam, possibly caused by the 5-borough bike race that had taken place that same day and closed various streets and bridges around the island. All we knew is that we were stuck in traffic in some rundown neighborhood, and it wasn’t fun. To make things worse, the NJ Turnpike was also under construction, and the Delaware Bridge was also under construction. We were finally able to reach constant highway speeds when we entered Maryland, and boy, were we grateful for that!

Last but not least, tolls will possibly cost you more than gas on a trip like this (depending on your car). As soon as we reached Delaware and NJ, we got hit with tolls up the wazoo. I think we paid more than $25 in tolls on our way in, and a little less on our way out. It seemed like there were toll booths every few miles. I couldn’t help comparing the Delaware and New Jersey roads to the Maryland roads. In the states where we paid the most money (NJ, DE), the roads were terrible — potholes, construction, lane closures, pavement not level — yet in MD, where we paid only a couple of dollars to cross through the Chesapeake Bay tunnel, the roads were smooth and very drivable. I’m glad I live in MD.

I’d like to visit NYC again. There were a ton of places I didn’t get the chance to see. And I’d also like to stop in Hoboken. It’s got some nice, tall hills with great vistas of the big city. And let me not forget about this energy plant whose name I forgot, alongside the highway in NJ. Lit up at night, with white smoke coming out of its tall, metallic towers set against the darkening sky, it looked like a strange alien spaceship. I’d love to photograph it.

There are so many beautiful places in the States, and throughout the world. If only I could see and photograph them all! 🙂

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Places

Camping in the Shenandoah National Park

This past weekend, close friends of ours and Ligia and I went camping in the Shenandoah National Park. It was a surreal experience. We left a little later than we’d planned, and caught the rush hour traffic heading west on Route 66. We rued our day as we slowly crawled through miles of clogged up highway, but when we got out of the Manassas area, the traffic improved.

At any rate, we’d been slowed down enough that we arrived on Skyline Drive after dark. Then, it started raining as we approached the park. As if that wasn’t enough, fog set in and we could barely see ahead of us. But after all, we were traveling on mountain tops, and it was the start of fall, so the weather can be pretty unpredictable and wet. After trudging around in the dark, we got to the camp, and found one of the few remaining spots for the night. We were shocked to find out that they were booked solid and there was a waiting list. Our friends, who wanted to stay for two nights, couldn’t.

We bought some firewood and headed to our camp site, dreading the experience that would follow: pitching our tents in the dark, in rain, and in strong wind. Fun isn’t the word to describe it. We turned on our headlights and kept them on as we unpacked the tents and raised them. I’ll spare you the muddy details, but you’d be amazed what four pairs of helping hands, working in unison, can accomplish when under pressure.

We got the tents up, then tried to eat. What to eat? We wanted to heat up the food, but we needed a fire. Have you ever tried to start a fire while it’s raining and windy? No copious amounts of lighter fluid and paper will help. It kept dying down, even though the wood was dry. Finally, I gave up and called in the reserves: our friends. They both tried it, persevered, and finally succeeded. We gave up warming the food and ate some cold sandwiches instead, as we sat and warmed ourselves by the fire.

Fireside chats? Not that night! After we got done eating, we went directly to bed, where another surprise awaited us. Our tents were summer tents, and while they held up very nicely in the wind and rain, they were, shall we say, constructed more for the purpose of aeration than insulation. Luckily, we’d brought plenty of covers, but our friends didn’t. Even though they didn’t admit it, methinks they froze their butts off during the night. And what a night! A gale wind blew the whole time, and waves of rain beat down on our tents. It was noisy and lousy, and cold. It took me a while to fall asleep, but thankfully, I stayed asleep till morning after that. We woke up early, with the wind still blowing outside. The rain had stopped, and I managed to get a fire going without help.

We ate our breakfast and had tea, then had two wonderful surprises. One was the Monarch butterflies, in various stages of development, attached to the exterior walls of the bathrooms. Why they picked the bathrooms I don’t know, but that’s where I found them.

Monarch butterfly larva

Monarch butterfly cocoon

Monarch butterfly cocoon

I found the gold lining on their cocoons truly amazing. That’s actually what drew me to them in the first place. If I hadn’t seen the gold spots and crown lining, I’d have passed by them like many of the other people using the bathrooms. It’s no wonder they’re called Monarch butterflies. They sure look regal with those spots of gold, don’t they?

Then Ligia had the second surprise. She found a wild apple tree, and picked a few apples. (They were delicious, by the way.) What do you think she found on one of them? An Eyed Hawk Moth larva, of all things! What was it doing in the Appalachian mountains? It normally lives in Europe. I don’t know, but it was a beautiful thing to behold.

Eyed hawk moth larva

After our breakfast — and this time we could chat around the fire — we took off and went hiking on the Rose River Trail. Our goal: Rose River Falls. The trail was easy and beautiful. Here are a few photos from the hike:

A nonconformist tree

Tree on a rock

Rose River turned out to be a brook in the forest — quite the optimistic name for a brook, isn’t it? 🙂

Rose River

Forest art on display

Rose River Waterfall

After the hike, we had a wonderful late lunch at the Skyland Lounge, then headed out on Skyland Drive, and stopped along the way at overlooks to take photos of the gorgeous vistas. Here are a few of them:

Wide vista

Set against the sunset sky

Mountain tops

Hazy outlines

Fall colors

Was it a wonderful trip? You bet your britches it was, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, even with all the nightmarish traffic and surreal weather.

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Thoughts

Offset electricity costs through wind turbines

I live in a high-rise condo building, and during one of our building’s board meetings, the discussion arrived at the topic of reducing electricity costs. Immediately I thought about the possibility of placing wind-driven turbines on the top of our building. There is always a good breeze up there, and the electricity produced by the turbines could help offset the energy costs for the building. One of the board members promised to look into the matter, but so far, nothing’s come of it.

Perhaps the costs for the turbines are still prohibitive for many buildings, ours included. But I can see a market for this kind of a product, if the costs are brought down enough so that a cost-benefit analysis of such a solution can show its viability in the long-term.

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