Last August, I spent a week at Sunset Lake in Benson, Vermont with my wife, daughter and friends. I spend 90% of my time in the city so this was a very welcomed change of pace. I hadn’t been to Vermont in many many years and forgot just how rural is it. I encounter more strangers in the first five minutes of my day in Philly than I did the entire week we were there.
With such a beautifully diverse landscape, wandering through this small South America country was an incredibly unique and demanding experience. Ecuador may only be the size of Colorado but what it lacks in size it certainly makes up for in character.
Traveling 14 miles from Quito, the worlds second highest capital in terms of elevation to a nearby hot springs “resort” nestled deep in the woods took hours. And once there, traversing the hilly terrain at an altitude of 12,000+ feet was no easy task. But soaking in volcanic runoff, eating trout caught moments before being prepared and sleeping next to a humming waterfall eased all hardships faced. Heading down the mountain to the coast provided a challenge that could break any seasoned adventurer. Just imagine spending 10 hours overnight on a crowded bus where only women were allowed to use the bathroom and that’s only after they convinced the driver that no solid waste would be expelled. On top of that, every so often disco lights and blaring music would fill the cabin as well as the noise of a restless passenger who would yell “Pelicula. Pelicula” whenever he woke from a nap. This is how some prison camps are portrayed in your favorite Hollywood blockbusters.
When the bus finally reached sea-level, we hopped off into the pre-dawn darkness that is 5 a.m. It was pouring, and after some sleepy negotiation we jumped into electric tricycles that could barely handle the muddy streets of Puerto Lopez. We eventually made it to the apartment we were staying in with the gracious help of our Italian ex-pat host Giuseppe. It took him only moments after arriving to offer to sell the place to us for $150,000. Oh did I mention, that in addition to the four adults (including myself) traveling, we we’re also carting along a 2 year old and nine month old?
This is just a glimpse into the two weeks I spent in Ecuador this past winter with my wife, daughter, our two friends, and their son. Please check back soon for a full trip report.
Late last September, after a shoot in Harrisburg, I decided to take the long way home through Pennsylvania’s Amish country. Despite having lived in PA on and off since 2001, I hadn’t visited this storied step back in time since I was a kid. With no real frame of reference, I typed the one restaurant I remembered from when I was ten into my GPS and set out for the Good and Plenty. The 45-mile journey would take me through the heart of Lancaster County and into the warm and welcoming past.
I never did make it to the Good and Plenty. The landscape was so inviting and accessible, I decided to pull off the highway and ramble through the farmland. Like John Muir supposedly once said, “Throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” While I may not always live by this philosophy, when the opportunity presents itself, I go for it.
I came across all you would expect to see in Amish country: children innocently riding scooters (they’re not allowed to ride bikes), horses pulling families slowly and deliberately down a country road and livestock lazily grazing in the late summer sun. I wandered through fields of corn that were indeed as high as an elephants eye, came to a clearing that was swarming with more bugs than there are stars in the sky and watched a hot air balloon softly sink below the distant tree line. The one oddity that caught my eye was the horse and buggy only section at the gas station. Although It was fully equipped with a garbage can and shovel.
It was nearing dusk and I had no idea how far I was from home so I hopped into my car and set the GPS for Philly. Turns out I was only 68 miles away. After about five miles on this single lane “highway” I was met with a road closed sign and was forced to reroute. I circled around to investigate and discovered the reason for the closure of this bustling thoroughfare was a parade. Guess John Muir was calling again. It took a few more loops but I finally found a parking space next to a few horses tied to a fence.
I walked the few blocks down the road towards main street and tried to blend in. This was no easy task with a giant camera dangling from my neck. I was clearly an outsider there acting as a voyeur. I’m usually not shy or apprehensive when it comes to shooting strangers in a strange place but I didn’t want to come off as if I was on Amish safari. I was genuinely excited for this parade and just wanted to document the experience. That however can easily be construed as exploitation.
The crowd was about twenty percent Amish, five percent minority and seventy-five percent civilian white (as in not Amish.) I posted up near a family who clearly claimed their spots much earlier in the day. I’m pretty sure they had eaten breakfast and lunch there and were just moving on to dinner. A friendly gentleman wearing an Eagles hat to my right who was not with the group pointed out that I was facing the wrong way and to get my camera ready because the parade was set to kick off any minute. He asked where I was from and when I told him Philadelphia he gasped. He’d lived in this town his entire life and had never been. Need I remind you I was less than seventy miles away? He asked if it was difficult to park downtown and what Reading Terminal Market was like. I told him he should come see for himself. This he took as an invitation to meet up. We exchanged emails then a parting handshake. I’m still waiting to hear from him.
The parade finally began. The Grand Marshall’s Dick and Jean Risk kicked off the festivities followed by generations of tractor drivers and the Lancaster County Alternate Dairy Princess. The last glints of sunshine were fading fast so I turned my camera on the crowd for a few final shots before heading home. As the golden hour turned to dusk I drove off but not before stopping to get a few more shots to properly close out my day. I guess the beauty of living in Pennsylvania can be summed up by the fact that you can spend the day shooting portraits in the middle of a “city” then stumble upon an Amish farmer plowing a field by horse at sunset.
Volunteer and grant writer brings many skills to East Kensington’s Emerald Street Urban Farm
When Bryan Thompsonowak, 37, was young, his father, a bricklayer and “all-around handyman-type of a guy,” taught him to not be afraid of trying new things. He applied that lesson when he tackled the construction of a three-bin compost system and a rainwater catchment system at Emerald Street Urban Farm in East Kensington.
The farm’s managers Nic and Elisa Esposito needed to expand their volunteer base because they were expecting their first child. That’s when Thompsonowak stepped up, volunteering on Mondays from May to October.
“It’s nice to have a project close to home, and it’s not just the work; it’s the people that you’re there volunteering with,” says Thompsonowak, whose last name is a result of combining his and his wife Sharon Nowak’s last name.
Founded in 2009 by Elisa Esposito and the former farm director of Marathon Farms, Patrick Dunn, ESUF reclaimed and transformed five vacant lots in East Kensington. The farm, which sits a few doors down from his home, offers produce through a weekly donation-based farmstand and several pick-your-own community garden plots. The core group of about a dozen volunteers also runs an outreach and education program.
The East Kensington Neighbors Association has worked closely with ESUF and various other organizations, such as the Kensington Community Food Co-Op and Hackett Elementary School, to improve the East Kensington neighborhood. President Clare Dych helps lead the various sectors of EKNA in addressing the concerns and actions of the community by hosting monthly meetings to discuss zoning and planning within the neighborhood, and by promoting the Clean Up and Green Space Committees that work to protect and maintain the local parks.
This past spring, the farm received a $1,000 grant from the association to support the farm and their youth programming. “ESUF has given so much to the East Kensington neighborhood, all on a shoestring budget, and we felt it was time to give back,” Dych says in an email.
Thompsonowak also wrote an application on behalf of ESUF for a grant provided by the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust given to nonprofits that further the field of ornamental horticulture through education and research. Esposito was blown away: “This went beyond the commitment of coming out every Monday. If we get the grant, it will be a huge game-changer for us.”
This winter, Thompsonowak, who’s also a graduate student of the Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture, will continue the program through the University of Delaware with hopes of advancing his career within public gardens. But he won’t be too far from the farm.
“Volunteering at the farm has made me more invested in the neighborhood,” Thompsonowak says. “Being a part of something that is 100 percent good for the neighborhood is great.”