Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Getting Fredy to Namibia

The task of the getting Mr. Fredy Mora, the subject of WhereNext Creative's latest short film, Colombia's Lost River of Seven Colors, to the Adventure Travel World Summit in Namibia from the jungle of southern Colombia was perhaps more challenging than making the documentary itself.

When the Adventure Travel Trade Association first proposed that I present a series of short films at the World Summit, I was hesitant to recommend that we bring the subject of the documentary to the Summit as well.  But after meeting Fredy and working with him during our 1.5 days of filming on The River of Seven Colors only two weeks before I was scheduled to fly to Namibia, I just knew he had to be there in-person for the presentation.

Unfortunately, Colombians have one of the worst passports of any country in Latin America.  The idea of getting transit and travel VISAs for a trip to Africa is daunting, even for upper class Colombians--not to mention a young man from the middle of a former war zone who's never left southern Colombia before.  In fact, Fredy was to be the first person ever from his town, La Macarena, to visit the continent of Africa.

When Namibia offered to pick up the tab for his flight from Europe and sponsor his country VISA, I mis-figured that the tough part was over.  All we needed to do now was get him to Frankfurt and find someone to help fund the euro-leg of the trip--right?  The Colombian Ministry of Tourism initially offered to pay for his ticket, but then pulled the plug as they did not have any money left in their 2013 budget to help Fredy out.  To make things worse, we learned that even if we did get him to Frankfurt, the German consulate in Bogota was on holiday and nobody was around to issue his transit VISA (Colombians need a transit visa for certain connections).  We tried routing the itinerary through South Africa but again, no dice on a transit VISA.  At the very last minute, a contact in Bogota offered to walk his paperwork (which now included a stack of letters of recommendation from VIPs from three continents) to the Spanish Consulate in Bogota.  With the promise of the Spaniards issuing a transit VISA we could focus on funding.

In a flurry of Colombian creativity, we were able to trade some money sent by the ATTA to help pay for the fuel costs required for the private planes to make the documentary to a separate espense bucket. Effectively, some very generous Colombian pilots ended up paying for the fuel.  I was then able to help Fredy out with about 40% of the cost of his ticket, the remainder of which he funded on his own to attend the Summit, even though he'd never heard of the Summit before.

Fredy's first leg of the trip was aboard a 4-person aircraft from his home in La Macarena to a town called Villavicencio.  He flew through a heavy storm and said that at some stage "it felt like they were going to crash."  After landing, he transferred to a bus to make the long journey over the Andes to Bogota.  The bus broke down mid-way and Fredy waited for several hours on the side of the road until a replacement bus arrived.  Once he finally got to Bogota, he still didn't have his transit VISA--but the Spaniards did end up releasing it with just hours to spare.

With his transit VISA in-hand, my friend and fixer for this entire project, Hernan Acevedo, put him on the flight to Germany.  With luck, one of Hernan's friends from Germany was also on the flight.  He had a contact at the Frankfurt airport and arranged to help get Fredy from one terminal to the next as he's never left Colombia before and does not speak english.

After 40 hours of travel, Fredy touched down in Namibia and was then transferred to the wrong hotel.  The ATTA delegation from Mexico, who happened to be staying at that hotel, made some calls and arranged for a taxi to take Fredy to the correct hotel.  At that point, the airline called to inform Fredy that his luggage was still in Germany.

Four days later, when Fredy was still without his luggage, wearing borrowed clothing, and standing in front of a massive dune and looking at the ocean for the first time--none of the challenges of his journey seemed to matter.  He was about as stoked as a man can be to living in the moment in Namibia.  In fact, he never complained once about his baggage, or the tribulations of his trip to the Adventure Travel World Summit.

I'd like to say thank you to pilots Hernan Acevedo, Juan Carlos Lenz, and Alvaro Sanchez for organizing the flights to get us to La Macarena.  Angelika Kohler and Natasha Martin for figuring out Fredy's travel logistics.  And Jason Reckers for throwing down his personal credit card for Fredy's flight--even though the was no guarantee that it would happen as he didn't have a transit VISA yet.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Androni at the Giro d'Italia for Paved Magazine

Client: Paved Magazine
Writing and Photography: Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela, consistently the poorest team at the Giro d'Italia.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Pirates of the Rainforest - Sierra Magazine & UTNE Reader

Client: The Sierra Club - Magazine and Online
Reprinted: May 2013 UTNE Reader - Magazine and Online

Researched, photographed and written over a period of four months in the backyard of my youth, Pirates of the Rainforest investigates the explosion of specialized forest product poaching on Washington State's Olympic Penninsula. "Pirates" is the first major non-cycling feature I've produced with both words and photos.  I love cycling, but for me it has always been about travel and adventure--not racing, or gear--so in 2013, I've decided not to chase big races around the globe, but to re-focus my storytelling around my core passions: environmental issues and creative adventure travel, exploration, and people.  With that said, I was honored when UTNE Reader selected Pirates for re-print in their issue compiling essential environmental issues writing.  My fingers are crossed that this is the first of many environmental issues projects to come.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Finding Authentic Travelers (and underwear models) in Colombia for ExOfficio's Made to Adventure Campaign

Client: ExOfficio - 2012 and 2013 marketing materials: catalogs, print ads, visual merchandising, trade show, web, email, and social media.

*Click here to see sample images and videos from the campaign

When ExOfficio asked me to produce their Made to Adventure 2012 spring/summer marketing campaign in the most authentic destination possible, I just knew I had to make it happen in Colombia. I lived in Colombia in 2009 and have been on assignment there at least once per year since 2008—it's probably my favorite country to photograph.

To extend ExOfficio's branding theme of "authenticity" beyond the destination itself, we decided not to hire models, but rather to use social media and networking along the traveler's trail to find real people on real adventures in Colombia. With two talented assistants, Kathryn Friedman and Willa Kammerer, and my friend and fixer extraordinaire, Hernan Acevedo, we set out a 10-day, 2,000+ mile road trip through the country to track down travelers that fit with ExOfficio's brand ethos in real-time. By the end of the production, we’d photographed 38 different people for the campaign—all of them were on amazing journeys and had incredible stories to tell.

The adventure took us to 14 different shoot locations--4x4-ing over 14,000 foot passes in Los Nevados National Park, walking across barren patches of sand in the Tatacoa desert, drinking Colombian rum in a string of cobbled spanish colonial towns, trekking through a valley with the tallest palm trees in the world, and chilling out on dreamy Caribbean beaches in Tayrona National Park.

The product focus was ExO's spring / summer line (including underwear).  We carried three large duffel bags full of hundreds of clothing samples in the trunk of Hernan's Subaru wagon.  The challenge was not only to look for travelers who matched the look ExO was after, but the talent also had to be the correct size and gender for the samples we were shooting in each geographic zone--eg. sun line in the desert, surf and water on the coast, Bugs Away in the jungle, urban travel in colonial towns, and cool weather and trekking garments in the Andes. It was also always a careful conversation to ask people we'd just met to consider modeling underwear.  But alas, using a mix of careful planning and serendipity as the guide, everything came together perfectly.

Here's a few images of the travelers we found for the campaign:

Mari - Found traveling on a bus through the Andes.  Profession: teacher on the Galapagos Islands. Home: Bay Area
Willa checking out a hand made guitar in Bogota. Home: New York City
Brian: Found in a hostel. His two year motorcycle road trip led to Colombia. Home: California
Audrey: Found on the street in a bohemian beach village.  She's traveled to 46 countries in the past 5 years.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sultry, Sexy, Chaos - the 200th Anniversary of Colombia's Carnival

It was hot, it was sexy, it was chaotic, and it was fully booked months in advanced. The 200th anniversary of Colombia's carnival was the event of the decade for the Caribbean port of Baranquilla--and after spending the better part of a day unsuccessfully internet-ing in search of a place to crash, I hopped the Boeing-train from San Francisco --> Houston --> Bogota --> Baranquilla without a clue as to where I was going to base camp during the 4.5 day party. But things always tend to work themselves out down here. "Colombian creativity" they call it.

After I touched down, my friend and master fixer in "Locombia," Hernan, put some calls in from his Bogota HQ while I was spooning through a rather putrid bowl of cow intestine soup at Mac Mondongo restaurant in downtown Baranquilla.  He had a friend who had a friend who had a friend who had a single bed available in her hotel.  The catch: it was a pay-by-the-hour nooky-house on the wrong side of town.  "No problemo," I thought.  During coastal stages of my cycling trip from Alaska to Argentina, I put my time in at many an hourly rate love shack as there simply weren't any other options. In fact, let me take this opportunity to share a favorite Tom Robbin's quote regarding said establishments.

“These were the kind of splotches that might enliven the bedsheets of a Third World beach motel.”

From Mac Mondongo's, I hopped in a cab and mumbled the hotel address to the driver.  "Where?"--he touched on the brakes.  "I'll take you there, but if you leave your room for 5-minutes, you'll be returning without any clothes on your back."  Baranquilla doesn't have the best reputation for "tranquilidad."  Just at that moment, my cell blip-blipped.  It was a text from another one of Hernan's friends. "My family has an extra apartment we use for entertaining out of town guests.  You can have it tonight." 

And that's where I put down my bags--8 hours after landing--on the eve of my first night in Quilla.  The next day, I was taken-in by an incredibly fun family with an apartment just a click from the Carnival parade's starting point. They hosted me for the next 4 nights.

My super-dooper fun host family in Banquilla during Carnival

From Baranquilla, I took a bus down the Caribbean coast to Santa Marta where I bumped into a few of the cute dancers I'd photographed during carnival.  They invited me to join them at a another "friend of a friend's" hotel on the eastern edge of Tayrona National Park.  Fortunately, the chicken bus dropped us off at the wrong address.  We walked down a random dirt road through the jungle anyway and somehow ended up at one of the most fantastic beach pads I've ever laid eyes on.  We slept in hammocks for three days--taking photos, drinking Ron Viejo de Caldas mixed with fresh juice, stargazing, and picking sand out of our ears.  I like to call it serendipity--but must give props to my "Locombia" friend Hernan's description of my post carnival R&R, "that's life in the f-ing tropics man."

The beach pad of beach pads.  I hit this stretch of sand for some post carnival R&R.

Please enjoy these photos from the 200th edition of Colombia's Carnaval de Barranquilla

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Traveler's Eyes

Cucoy National Park, Colombia - 14,000 feet. 
Marta and Raul made a bet that travel on two wheels would yield the intangible reward of life unfiltered, of travel beyond the typical tourist's bubble.  They were two years into a three year cycling trip through the Americas when I spotted them in a mountain hut last week (without their bicycles).  I see eyes that reveal themselves only after authentic experience--the eyes of a traveler.
Can you see them too?

Marta and Raul's Website:

Monday, February 4, 2013

2013 - My Storytelling Roots

New Logo - Gregg Bleakney Visual Storytelling

Lip biting, gear sorting, list making, camera prodding.  My standard pre-assignment ritual.  Tomorrow I'm hopping a bird to Colombia for seven weeks.  If there's a place on the planet that feels like a second home, it's Colombia.  I've been shooting there every year since 2008--but this trip is different.

2012 was surreal for me. A flurry of around-the-world flights to 13 countries.  Big goals, big projects, intense assignments, and killer new clients.  It all blew by so fast.  When I close my eyes, my memory spins, I get dizzy on experience.  Now it's time to press pause.  

This year I want to re-connect with my roots as an adventure travel visual storyteller, when my spirit was unfiltered, peripatetic, sniffing butts (see below) and wandering on a Ribbon of Road.  So I'm kicking off 2013 with a completely re-designed website and blog that better express my personal brand.  Most importantly, I carved out a block of time to journey back to my second home for no other reason than to follow my visual curiosity.  No assignments, no deadlines, slow down, anticipate.

Below, I've re-published an interview I did with National Geographic Adventure Magazine as I was pedaling from Alaska to Argentina.  This shortlist of lessons learned while I established my storytelling roots (but before I knew that I would become a visual storyteller) are just as viable today as when I wrote them down in 2006.  A perfect guide for my 2013 endeavors.  Let the serendipity begin. 

Seattle reader Gregg Bleakney and his friend Brooks Allen are pedaling the Americas from tip to tail to raise money for diabetes research, in a project they dubbed Ribbon of Road. Bleakney gave us a few pointers during a pit stop at Machu Picchu in Peru.

Be Nice. "In 100 Mile House, a former South Cariboo gold rush town in British Columbia, I camped with a 78-year-old Russian military captain. Over a few beers, he shared his most important safety rule for traveling in foreign lands: 'Always remember that nobody wants to fight, cheat, or rob a nice guy.' Sometimes it's tough to be nice when you've ridden 80 miles in 100 degree heat through the Peruvian coastal desert and you're attempting to order dinner for the tenth time from a women who claims that your money is fake. But I've fully embraced this rule and it hasn't let me down so far."

Sniff Butts.  "
Be like a dog--sniff butts.  Smell things, stare at things, touch things, taste odd-looking food, and talk to strangers. At some point during my middle-class American upbringing, I lost touch with my animal instincts. When traveling on bicycle you are much more exposed to the elements than when traveling in a car or bus. Engage all of your five senses to better protect yourself and interpret the world around you."

Surround Yourself With People Who Support You and Your Dream.  "
While cycling on a jungle road in Chiapas, Mexico, I was assaulted and robbed by machete-toting banditos. As a result, I lost a substantial amount of gear, my cycling partner, and my self-confidence. My sponsors immediately sent replacement gear and my friends and family gave me the emotional support I needed to continue with my journey. Without their support, I would likely be nine to five-ing it right now, daydreaming about what could have been. Brooks rejoined the trip a few months later."

Simplify.  "The less stuff you have, the less you have to worry about. My bike and gear tipped the scales at 135 pounds when I started this trip in Alaska. Through a large 'mail-home' package, misplacements, and mysterious disappearances, my kit now weighs in at under 100 pounds. I don´t miss anything, especially when climbing 16,000-foot passes in the Andes.

Surrender Yourself to Your Dream. 
After about nine months of being on the road, I finally realized that this experience was not just a temporary departure from my real life, but that my dream had actually become my life. At that point, I became more flexible with my planning. I let my dream pull me forward, rather than me attempting to push it forward. Since this 'surrendering,' I've been much more relaxed, happy, and able to cope when things go awry.