4 learning’s from 10 years in America

June 30th 2004 – I was driving from San Francisco to Sacramento after spending nine hours in an aluminium tube at 35,000 feet. Spell check is trying to make me say “aluminum”.

The plan was to spend six months in California and then go home. Didn’t quite pan out like that.

The AC was blasting in part due to the heat, in part to counter jetlag.

Over the radio came the familiar sounds of home ‘The Scientist’ by Cold Play rang out as I came up the hill heading out towards Fairfield on I-80. I became somewhat tearful.

You see for me in many ways I was going back to the start. I had been here before, California. Having lived in the US for a time as a child. The country has had a powerful draw for me ever since.


#1 An ongoing observation of cultural differences

There is something about living, long term in a different country that triggers pause. Even when you think it’s not explicit. It’s there. Pretty much daily.

These observations start with the obvious, like driving on the other side of the road and getting a sore hand from punching the door when trying to change gears. Or the vast open isles of super markets. The apparently unavoidable positivity of anyone who is serving you, be it a coffee or a gourmet meal.

By in large the culture here is founded on the puritanical beliefs held by a migration from some of the most religious Anglo-Saxons out of Great Britain, because they were trying to find a place to worship and not be persecuted for it. This migration was so domineering it managed to put hundreds of years of Spanish and French colonization of the New World in the back seat. Of course not all immigrants were from England, they came from all over Europe at first and eventually the world. However the core cultural drivers in the legal and ruling power base were, and still are, rooted out of old-Blighty. If this kind of history lesson turns you on then Alistair Cooke’s America is a must read, he really is the quintessential Ex-Pat.

In addition to this foundation there was also the pioneering spirit, the adventurous aspects of those early settlers and those who pushed out west across the continent. Maybe it is that which results in what I have observed as things being more of a recommendation than a hard and fast rule. For example when you are driving down the road be warned that "signaling" (indicating) is more of a vague suggestion. If it happens at all you might notice it about the time that two tons of metal, glass, plastic and rubber are hurtling from one lane to another, right in front of you.


#2 Politics and the pursuit of happiness

Most Americans are very passionate and involved in their politics. I have asked myself if my observation here was due to the fact I’m ten years older than when I last lived in Blighty. After careful consideration I feel confident saying it is more common in the US. Even if for many it’s primarily emotional rather than a deep and meaningful understanding of their own political system. As with Britain most parties here are the same. There is also an overzealous "left" / "right" debate raging on in which each side has both liberal and conservative hallmarks, yet most will never admit to that.

When the new country was being birthed the US cherry picked from the fairly well developed British political system. However unlike Britain and the rest of Europe there was no monarchy. No higher earthly power. Nothing above the unalienable right of the individual, as bestowed upon them either by a creator or the universe itself depending on which way you lean on faith. In many ways this belief fueled the growth of capitalism. It’s amazing how apparently brilliant the foresight of the "forefathers" was. Time and time again the system, and how it was constructed has served its purpose. Often this leads to gridlock. One way this manifests is that it is hard to change the rule of law here. There are defined rights which are either in the Constitution (and the freedom it outlines), or as ‘amendments’ to it, the first set known as the Bill of Rights. In other countries where a law may easily be passed to do "FOO", in the US if it is found (even if initially passed into law) to violate one of the aforementioned elements it is then deemed "unconstitutional" and scrapped. This apparent rigidity is reinforced by a checks and balances system of the Executive Branch, of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and Supreme Court. One consequence is that no new leader can simply waltz in and change things to his or her pleasing. In general this means becoming a dictator in the USA is really, really hard.

The concept of the rights of individuals and of property and the pursuit of happiness generally translates into what manifests as a "can do attitude". And the expectation is that the government is intended to get out of the way as much as possible. This latter point is one of the big ongoing debates between "Blue" (Democrat) and "Red" (Republican) elements of the country. Each accuses the other of grievous violations. For example the Democratic uproar at the "Homeland Security" act implemented by the Bush administration juxtaposed to the criticism the Obama administration received for the NSA snooping malarkey. "Get government out of our lives" also spawned the birth of the Tea Party movement which focuses on the reduction of the size and influence of government. Its name a reference to initial efforts to kick England out of the Colonies. Another hot button topic it is also used as an argument against those seeking to implement abortion control because that is the government meddling in the lives of individual citizens. The list goes on.

Consequently the cultural zeitgeist at any given time in this country is diverse and shifting yet its foundation is firm… which from what I gather is just what those clever founding father wanted.


#3 The United States of America is really flipping big

This country is vast and unimaginably large.

It is also removed from much of the world. True you have Canada and Mexico on your door step but getting to South America is a trek, as are Europe and Asia. Plus it’s not cheap to make any of those journeys. Let alone taking your whole family.

If you only know America through Hollywood, movies, television and music you might be forgiven for thinking that the country comprises of LA, Houston (Texas), Orlando (Florida) and NYC. It is, as you can imagine much more than that. For starters all of those places are at least a three hour flight from each other. LA to NYC is five hours at the quickest.

It truly is massive. In a shocking, almost unforgiving kind of way. Stories of pioneers are so much a part of the cultural lexicon here that it’s easy to forget how challenging their journeys across the young country were. At least 10% of them died trying to find better lives. It has a surface area that makes England look like a region around a US city. Size isn’t everything and yes, amazing things have come out of England (including America as I often jest, I’m sure the Spanish would take exception to that). This isn’t an attack on my beloved home country. It’s an observation on how simply HUGE America is. This has for the longest times informed much of the US mindset; "Bigger is better". Even ten years into my American adventure there is much of this place I’ve not yet seen. I can understand why some American’s travel less internationally, simply wanting to make the most of where they are. Less and less I find myself criticizing Americans who don’t have passports.

Whilst there are few actual frontiers left in the USA there are vast swathes of this country where you can feel really isolated and alone (visit Alaska, read Into the Wild). As easily as you can fly over it and as much as it is crisscrossed with interstate highways. The last un-allocated federal land was divvyed out mid last century. That still doesn’t diminish the sense of ‘blank slate’ and of opportunity that the soaring mountain ranges, big skies and vast rolling plains offer.


#4 One thing to do that will help you understand the USA better

Travel around it. Fly over some of the central parts. It just goes on, and on, and on. There are people who live in cabins, or ranches, literally hours from any significant population centers. Doing this will bring some hint of understanding to the American mindset.

I’d imagine many prior transplants have felt the way I have. That this large, opportunity filled country is just too good to pass up. It’s almost too big to ever make the most of. In many ways that’s its appeal. It keeps you feeling like there is more to do, explore, achieve, that its opportunity goes on forever. Personally, at the same time I also contemplate returning back to my motherland, to its rich and diverse history, beautiful landscape (The Lakes, Cornwall, Wales, rolling Downs of the ‘shires), easy access to the literally dozen of cultures and histories of Europe and of course English pubs. I’m lucky to be torn in such a way.

I’m proud of and love where I come from and I’m proud of and love where I live. As I work to instill British culture into my children, both of whom were born here, to have them feel connected to Blighty I’ve come to realize something; why at cocktail parties so many Americans are quick to mention that they are German, Italian or Chinese. You know, because their grandparents were.

Have you relocated from one country to another? What was your experience? What did you learn?

Gorilla Trekking

A friend of a friend recently asked for my advice on the topic of Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda. We made that journey in 2008. I took the opportunity to write it out in some detail and share it here in the hope it can be useful to a broader audience.

This post doesn’t cover the fascinating and emotional experience we had in Kigali including everything from motorcycle taxi’s to the genocide museum. Perhaps for another post.

Where Gorillas roam, Mount Karisimbi © Matthew Woodget 2008

Planning for your trek

We went to East Africa in 2008. Our Rwanda trip was a sub segment of a larger journey that included safari in Tanzania and several days on Zanzibar. We did Rwanda at the beginning. After arriving in Tanzania we flew to Kigali. We spent a day in Kigali and headed to the mountains that afternoon. Days two and three were trekking. Day three also included return to Kigali for a hotel stay and an early AM departure on day four to Kilimanjaro to continue our Safari.

Some companies will say one day of trekking requires five days of trip, this isn’t the only way to do it. You can get two trips up the mountain in just four days of visiting Rwanda. Having done the trip I would suggest spending longer in Rwanda by at least one or two more days. Visit some more villages and the people as well as the gorillas.

In 2008 Rwanda was considerably safer than Uganda, I’m not sure how much this has changed. It’s worth bearing in mind. All trekking must be done through the official Rwanda "Parc National des Volcans " organization. They manage the exposure of gorillas to humans and provide you layers of safety onto your trip that you will not want to be without. A worthwhile law in my opinion.

Day one

We got used to the fact you go to the "Parc National des Volcans " HQ where you are put into groups. They carefully manage the exposure that a handful of groups get to humans. The briefing is quite detailed to ensure your and the gorilla’s safety. Then we head off to the national park itself. On the edge were little villages where there is the opportunity to pick up a porter. It’s good to do so if you are carrying much, even a back pack. They are working for what they earn and benefiting from the tourism in an honest way so it was encouraged when we did it. The locals were in abject poverty but the children were all very happy to see us. "Muzungo! Muzungo!" They would shout which roughly translates as "Whitey!" or "Foreigner!"

We were somewhat apprehensive based on the fact some of my parents friends had been killed whilst doing this exact same thing in 1999, albeit in Uganda. But the world and Rwanda had changed a lot since then. There were two armed guards with AK-47s, one up front, one in the back of our hiking line, "for buffalos". Whilst this was technically true they were also there to provide protection from a potentially more dangerous animal in the undergrowth.

Hike Puzzle © Matthew Woodget 2008

We trekked up through some pretty steep terrain on the mountain in some very dense vegetation and the bamboo got insanely thick at points. And it was hard work. We both were glad we had trained for the hike. At some points we were trudging through mud as we pushed through stinging nettles eight feet high with the sun beating down on our heads. In 100% humidity of course. In addition to our guides there were a few trekkers who went out ahead to find the gorillas.

Dreamer © Matthew Woodget 2008

It is entirely possible that you do not see the gorillas at all on a trek. We did. And oh boy… it was one of the most emotional and moving experiences of our lives. We came across the edge of the family, some juveniles hanging out in the trees. The chap above was the first ever Gorilla that we saw in the flesh. We really were in the clouds at this point and our experience deepened as we found ourselves moving further into the family group who were spread out over perhaps a half square mile of rain forest. The guides were very prescriptive on how to behave and continually reminded us of what we should be doing. It’s hard to convey what it feels like to have young boisterous male gorilla’s play fighting and chasing each other right past you, so close that the brush against your waterproofs. Or seeing a mother cradling her child, then putting it on her back as she moves off into the mist.

The Bond © Matthew Woodget 2008

And of course the fabled silverback is something else entirely. A firm, confident, powerful master of his domain that is monitoring your every move, dare you threaten his family in any way. This particular family was probably 20 strong and they were a constant froth in the thick lush green that surrounded us. The bamboo had seemed somehow thicker on the return and the trek back proved it. We knew something was wrong when the time started to drip away and the light faded. A storm was coming and we were still not out of the forest. I remember with visceral clarity stepping on some bamboo that was hidden in the undergrowth. I had been trying to push my way through some very thick trunks when my foot slid violently to the side. Grabbing for the upright bamboo I caught myself before any damage was done to my ankle. All that was bruised was my pride. The heavy camera backpack on my back was really starting to feel its weight by this point. Two camera bodies, half a dozen lenses, a video camera, a point and shoot and other assorted gear. It was certainly worth it for the photos I was able to make. Suffice to say on day two I was to choose the use of a porter.

Day two

We were experts! Well, we know the drill at least, and before long were hiking up a mountain again. A very different experience to day one. Drier and simpler. We met a much smaller group with a younger father, Mr. Charles.

Mr. Charles © Matthew Woodget 2008

We were treated to both some very young gorillas playing with each other and with the "Pok Pok Pok!" sound of a silver back beating his chest as he rampaged through the undergrowth and ripped a small tree over. A display to remind us who was in control of the situation. This was a smaller more intimate affair and we thoroughly enjoyed spending some quality time just lounging around with this family. Aside from Mr. Charles’ display It was a very peaceful commune with some of our closest ancestors. It wasn’t until later when reviewing the GPS logs for my photo GPS tagging effort that we realized we had strayed over the boarder into the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was clear why we had our ‘buffalo protection’.

To this day our Africa trip remains indelibly marked on our memories. Nothing more so than the two days we spent up the side of a volcano with several dozen of our some of our cousins, a few millennia removed.

Full Gallery: Rwanda | Tanzania

Entering the Final mile of the charitable photography mission

A brief but exciting update after the last post on this adventure (last post linked here)– J’s parents have kindly provided permission for the photo of ‘J’ to be used. I received the model release today. Next step… submission into the photo book. Then it’s up to the judges. J is the nickname I use for my subjects name to protect her identity.

It’s been quite the adventure tracking down the model release for this photo. From a photo made two years ago in Mexico.

I think I have yet to mention that the first time I mailed the package it was returned. A problem with the address it seemed. It sat in my office for a while as I decided if I was going to have one final run at it. Turns out I’d made some errors in addressing it to the school which ehow and a few other sites helped with remedying. So I made the fixes and sent the package out again.

I’ll post information on the book when it’s available, hopefully with the photo of ‘J’ in it. And you two will be able to buy a copy, and help us raise even more for charity. Here’s the 2011 book: http://www.photographersatmicrosoft.com/ 

Updated 10/23/12 with 2012 EXPLORE book cover with ‘J’s photo in the ‘X’ of Explore.;

Charitable photography mission–one step closer…

I am very excited to be able to post an update on this story, where I’ve been trying to track down a model release signature for a photo I took in Mexico almost two years ago so that I can enter it into a photo book to help raise money for charity.

Like I said, I’m excited, really excited.

So the package was returned. Seems you have to be very accurate with your addressing of items to Mexico. I did some further research, altered the address and resent the package. That was about three weeks ago.

Today I received an email. More after the photo….

A friend of the family of the girl (Let’s call her J) in the photo reached out! They wanted to clarify, get a little bit more information on what my plan for J’s photo was was. They, acting on behalf of the family, shared a photo of J and her family. Confirming the connection.

I recapped and provided a little more detail on the project;

I would like to submit the photo to be considered for entry into a competition to be placed in a Photo Book created by the Photographers at Microsoft which is sold to raise money for charity. I work for Microsoft in Seattle and am also an amateur photographer. Each year the photographers at Microsoft work together to create a beautiful book of photos. We have a competition where photographers submit 3 photos. There is a judging committee who select what they consider the best photos. Then these photos go into the book. We then sell the book to raise money for the Microsoft Giving Campaign charity effort. In 2011 we raised over $100,000 for the Giving Campaign and contributed to the biggest year in employee giving so far. Microsoft matches the funds raised by employees.

I explained how whilst submission didn’t guarantee entry I was confident it was up for a good chance. I also explained how the photo of J would only be submitted with the explicit permission of he parents. With the return of a signed model release.

Well that’s the update – with a bit of luck J and her family will be up for participating in the project. And then after that hopefully the photo will get selected for the book.

Say tuned…

Guest photo –Taj Mahal sunrise

I saw this other photographers submission of the Microsoft Photo book and I loved it. I had some feedback that IMHO would take it to the next level. The problem is Parimal Deshpande (a truly gifted photographer) doesn’t have Lightroom which would have made these darkroom tweaks possible and much easier. So I helped him out. Below is a link to his as a guest photo of the day. And here is a link to the original I saw on flickr that was edited in Picasa.


This is one of my favorite shots. I can’t claim full credit, my wife thought the kids taking turns peering out at tourists through the view window at this Mexican schools gate would make a good photo. I did the rest.