Home: Thank you, Canada

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I arrived home yesterday, and quite honestly, was a bit relieved. Thanks to Canada, I was able to use Toronto International as my bridge from Cuba to the USA.

In short, my legal status while in Cuba was questionable, and now that I’m safely home in the US, I’m comfortable saying that. I arrived into Cuba through a small airport in the south of the country, and spent the better part of an hour convincing officials that I was there as a tourist. Meanwhile, the US was fully aware, and supportive, of my travels provided I was working as a journalist….I guess it’s a good thing the two country’s don’t have good relations and communicate about such things…But at the end of the day, no rules were broken and I fulfilled my commitment to each government, respectively.

On a serious note, I’ll now fully disclose why I went to Cuba in the first place:

I traveled to Cuba to produce a short documentary on economic discrepancies in Cuba’s rapidly changing economy. Prior to traveling to Cuba, I had contacted interviewees and researched Cuban laws and history. I knew I would face some reluctance with any filming that might imply criticism of the government, but was unsure of how this would manifest itself.

I found a young man who was the perfect subject on my second day in Havana. Once he learned I was a journalist, he explained that he would not talk to me anymore… “You get to leave Cuba on Friday; I don’t!” he explained. He went on to tell me that he would be at risk if I were to include him in an article that might be construed as critical of the Cuban government. He told me stories of seeing Cuban nationals and foreign journalists being beaten and arrested for such acts.

After that conversation, I reconsidered how to move forward. From an ethical standpoint, I could not continue shooting and put my subjects at risk, so I abandoned my original film project. Instead I’ve produced “We Call That Hope.” I explored four major themes of life in Cuba through photos, videos and anonymous narratives to create an honest vision of Cuba.
While it’s easy to get caught up in politics and economics, I believe it is important to celebrate the Cuban people and acknowledge the wave of hope that has swept across the country in the past year. As I’ve shown in this blog over the past few posts, Cuba is quite different than the US, despite it’s close location, so I found these themes important and crucial to share. I’m not sure where I’m going to move forward with this, but that’s the exciting part. Here comes the editing….

(Edited Oct. 14, 2015)

I’m pleased to post the completed project; “We Call That Hope”

http://cuba.lukeraffertyvisuals.com/

On Instagram: #OnTheStreetsOfCuba

Cuba: Layers of mystery

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As you walk down the streets of Havana, it’s hard to imagine Florida being a mere 100 miles to the north. Old cars fill the streets, the smell of gas, smoke and litter clouds the air and the sound of honking and music resounds off the buildings. It seems that the excessive temperatures is the biggest commonality between Havana and Miami.

In the past week, I’ve been fortunate enough to traverse across the country and meet a diverse group of people, and gain a wealth of knowledge. It’s amazing the pride that everybody I’ve met has for their country. Almost everyone is ecstatic when I tell them I am from “United States,” but after talking and getting to know each other, they remain patriotic to Cuba. I must admit; there is something majestic and appealing about the culture and spirit of this island.


On Monday afternoon, I spent about 75% of my cash money on a taxi ride. The debate is still on whether it was a product of bad translation, or effort to take advantage of a tourist. Because of the US’s embargo, US debit and credit cards don’t work in Cuba — therefore, I was left with $35 for the past 5 days. Out of that, I spent $20 on souvenirs. I bring this up because the exchange of money here has been fascinating to me since the day I arrived. There are two currencies in Cuba; the Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUC has a 1:1 exchange rate with the USD, while the CUP has a 25:1 exchange rate with the USD. To make it more confusing, stores are legally obligated to accept both leaving even the most experienced Cubans scratching their heads as they rifle through their wallets. Furthermore, there is a stark discrepancies in prices. Taxi fares, and most tourist items, are charged in CUC. A taxi across the city costs 15 CUC, or $15. Sounds about right for North America. However, food in “cafeterias” is much cheaper in comparison. A 10” personal pizza, or large hamburger, will cost around $10 CUP, or $.25USD. Since being here, I’ve spent about a total $5 on street food.

This explains buying pizza with $1 CUC.  The pizza shop, or “cafeteria,” is pictured in the upper left. The 1 CUP piece I bought it with is in the upper left. My change is seen in the bottom: one massive pizza, and 14 CUC back. So I gave a small coin of once currency, and received a large pizza and much more of another currency back. Very strange.

This explains buying pizza with $1 CUC.
The pizza shop, or “cafeteria,” is pictured in the upper left. The 1 CUP piece I bought it with is in the upper left. My change is seen in the bottom: one massive pizza, and 14 CUC back. So I gave a small coin of once currency, and received a large pizza and much more of another currency back. Very strange.

This is an interesting economy to me, which I will get into more once arriving back into the US… But in short, the average upper middle class Cuban makes about $40USD (40 CUC) a month; making a $.25 pizza about “normal.” Most tourist, or upper class entities, like taxis and restaurants operate mainly with the CUC and on an internationally-competetive price. Things such as street side vendors and pizza shops operate with mainly with CUP, for the “common man.” There is a bit of crossover, and much more history than I know now, but these are my initial observations.


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As I prepare to leave tomorrow, I have mixed emotions. The promise of air-conditioning and unlimited water on the plane home sounds pretty amazing, as well as a homemade meal and my own bed. But, I have some reluctancy to leave Cuba. I feel that there is so much more to explore, and empty history books to fill (at least for myself), that I could stay here forever. While I feel that I have seen “everything” and accomplished what I wanted to see here, I know that there is still so much hidden in this fascinating land. While I cherish the past week here and everything I’ve seen, I cannot wait to return.

Cuba: the forbidden island

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“You may pass. Welcome.” That phrase was like music to my ears as the glass doors slid open, and I stepped foot outside of the Antonio Maceo International Airport in Santiago de Cuba. That guard was the 6th person to check my passport and visa from the time I arrived at the airport in Haiti Thursday morning, to when I was officially in “Cuba.” It was quite the process.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I don’t like being told “no.” I can remember the first time I was told, “you can’t travel to Cuba.” I think it was that moment I became obsessed with traveling to the country. In a way, nothing is more motivating than being told no. So, after my time in Haiti I took the next logical step, and flew to Cuba. In just the first 2 days of my visit, I have seen so much and am excited to spend the next week here.

On Wednesday night, I learned that John Kerry would be raising the flag at the U.S. Embassy Friday morning, as it opened its doors in Havana for the first time since 1961. I had to be there. My flight from Haiti arrived into Santiago de Cuba at 1pm Thursday. Santiago de Cuba is in the southern tip of the island; a mere 16-hour bus ride from Havana. I got off the plane and got a taxi straight to the bus. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to tour around the city as much as I’d like, but I kept my eyes glued to the window of the bus, seeing much of the Cuban countryside as we cruised up the island.
The bus was an interesting place.
It was full to the brim with passengers, and had tv’s blasting Cuban pop music videos. As everyone settled in for the long haul, I saw a man pull out a bottle of rum and fill a glass. I didn’t think much of it. Then more and more people started doing the same thing. In a minute, I realized I was apparently one of the few people who didn’t “plan” for said bus ride. Soon enough some of my fellow passengers realized this, and in no time, we were all enjoying some Cuba Libres in the back of the bus.

Fellow passengers on the bus pass bottles of rhum and homemade beer around the bus as we begin the 16-hour haul across the country

Fellow passengers on the bus pass bottles of rhum and homemade beer around the bus as we begin the 16-hour haul across the country

We stopped for dinner (or breakfast in my case…) around 8pm, and then set off into the night. I had originally planned to take an overnight bus that would arrive in the mid-morning Friday, but I wanted to get to Havana early so I could go to the event at the embassy so I got on an earlier bus. Consequently, we arrived in Havana a little after 3am and I had no place to go. Some fellow passengers who were concerned for my well being, escorted me to the “casa particular’ where I would be staying the next night. They sat with me until 5am, and then left as it began to get light out. The hostess woke up at 7, and let me in. I had a brief breakfast of mangoes and passion fruit, and then ran to the embassy.


Being in Havana Friday and witnessing that historic event is hard to describe. The streets surrounding the embassy were crowded and filled with energy. Americans and Cubans stood together as they watched the beginning of a new era. Unable to resist, I produced a video of the event, which is a story in and of itself.

An exciting day for Cuban-American relations. As Cubans and Americans stood outside together, the streets filled with excitement and emotion as a new era began with the raising of the flag

An exciting day for Cuban-American relations. As Cubans and Americans stood outside together, the streets filled with excitement and emotion as a new era began with the raising of the flag

Internet in Cuba is hard to come by. You probably don’t think so by the quality of my writing, but it’s a miracle that you’re even reading this. Meaning; accessing the internet and uploading photos is not an easy task. I shot the video Friday morning and ran home to edit and upload it. I finished editing it by 12pm, and then traveled across the city to the best hotel in Havan, and bought 2 hours of wifi for the low price of $14. The wifi had an upload limit, so that didn’t work. I went to another hotel, but no luck. As it turns out, there’s a park next to where I’m staying that has better internet than any hotel – the only problem is that all of Havana knows this. The park is standing room only, as everyone with an electronic device is trying to connect. Subsequently, the connection is extremely slow. Around 9pm, I gave up trying to upload the video. I woke up at 6am Saturday morning and ran to the park, hoping I’d have the wifi to myself. To my surprise, the park was still busy with people trying to connect, but it was still dramatically faster than Friday night. I uploaded the video and am currently still working with various publications to get it published. In the meantime, it can be viewed on Vimeo:

https://vimeo.com/136381232


Otherwise, life in Havana is incredible. The sights, colors and history are unparalleled. I can’t help but take a picture of all the old taxis, and every “old American” that drives by. I’m excited to spend the next 5 days traversing this city and documenting its immense character.

A trip of hope; a time for thought

I spent almost 24 hours of my 4 days in Haiti in the car. While the roads were bumpy and rough (to say the least), I was always poised with my camera to capture the stunning beauty that makes up the island

I spent almost 24 hours of my 4 days in Haiti in the car. While the roads were bumpy and rough (to say the least), I was always poised with my camera to capture the stunning beauty that makes up the island

While after 4 weeks of being in the tropics I’m beginning to fall in love with palm trees and this ideal weather, the heat is beginning to be a bit excessive. Especially in Haiti. Being away from the coast, combined with the country’s lack of A/C and electricity, has made for a tiring week.

After an awesome, and restful, week in Miami and The Everglades, I made it to Haiti.
For me, Haiti is a special place. This is my third time traveling to Haiti, and each time I am amazed by the people of this island nation. From the second you step off the plane, you’re greeted with smiles and generosity; the latter of which can be overwhelming. I’ve been floored by the generosity and love of the Haitian people. It does not matter how much or how little they have, how big their house is – or if they even have one – they are welcoming and giving regardless: a humbling thing to witness to say the least.

A man watches as people cast their votes in the Haitian election on Sunday

A man watches as people cast their votes in the Haitian election on Sunday

I traveled to Haiti with a nonprofit organization, Let’s Share the Sun, to create a documentary film about their work in Haiti. They have been working in Haiti for the past 5 years, and work to install solar panels on school, hospitals and orphanages that otherwise would not have electricity. This trip,they were a group of 16. As journalist I try to keep a special bond between subjects and myself. I believe it’s a balance between staying objective and not entering into your own story, and treating “subjects” like humans, or and forming a relationship. This past week was special for me as I was able to find that perfect balance. By the end of the trip, I was considered a team member and part of the group, yet I was able to remain objective in my storytelling. Maybe it was the 30 hours in the van we spent together, but I’ve never felt so close to a group of people I’ve worked with before, and I’ll cherish that for a while.

I first traveled to Haiti in 2012, and was struck by what I saw. It had been over two years since the devastating earthquake in 2010, yet many people still lived in tents on the side of the road. It was hard for me. I was discouraged. It took me a while to process it all after I returned home. However, this trip was different. A team member of this trip, John Nagy, said it well: “My last trip in Haiti was full of sadness, but this trip is full of hope.” While the amount of poverty and suffering is still staggering, the improvements that have been made throughout the country are awe-inspiring. This time the people we met were not just thankful, but they were hopeful. They were hopeful that this way of life may change, and their beautiful country may reach its full potential.


On Saturday, we left the airport and traveled straight to St. Gabrielle’s school in Fountain, Haiti. After five, long hours in the car, we arrived shortly after sunset. We found the school because it was the only lit building in the town. As we drove down the road, houses sat in the dark and people used flashlights on their phones to walk, but there was a glimmering light when we arrived at a school. A light that Let’s Share the Sun Foundation (LSTSF) installed three years ago. Three years ago, they installed 6 solar panels on the roof of the school, which gave the school light and electricity for students to charge phones and flashlights. This year, LSTSF brought 26 new panels which will enable the school to create a computer lab, medical clinic and kitchen. St. Gabrielle’s school will now be one of the few, if not only, schools in Haiti with 24-hour electricity.

After being at the school for 5 minutes, it became clear that the electricity did more than power lights or cell phones. It powered the community. At 9pm on a Saturday, the school yard was full of people of all ages. Kids played soccer in the corner of the parking lot, some sat and read and others just stood and talked. The school had become the center of the community. Some students walk 2 hours a day to the school, but are driven by the promise of electricity and an education unmatched in the area.

Hernz Guerrier, 20, uses a solar powered lantern to study for school. Guerrier is a student at St. Gabrielle's school in Fountain. In the past, Guerrier was unable to study at night, but because of the electricity at the school (from LSTS), he is able to charge is lantern and study into the night. He says that because of this, he was able to pass the national exam; something he would have been unable to do otherwise.

Hernz Guerrier, 20, uses a solar powered lantern to study for school. Guerrier is a student at St. Gabrielle’s school in Fountain. In the past, Guerrier was unable to study at night, but because of the electricity at the school (from LSTS), he is able to charge is lantern and study into the night. He says that because of this, he was able to pass the national exam; something he would have been unable to do otherwise.

Let’s Share the Sun Foundation works in a sustainable way by employing a fully functional team of Haitian electritians. 4 years ago they taught how to install and maintain the solar panels; now they manage. In this way, solar energy will continue to grow even when the foundation is not present in the country. Furthermore, the pride of the local workers was inspiring. They showed up at 6am and worked until 9pm, never taking a break other than to eat for a few minutes. Their work ethic and sense of purpose was a beautiful thing to capture.


As I prepare to leave this beautiful land, many things are running through my mind. While this trip was full of hope, there is still so much to be improved. As someone else on the trip put it, “Haiti is greatly improved, but there is still far too much suffering for 2015.” In the day and age, no one should have to wonder when they will eat next, or what 2-hour window their electricity will be turned on for that day. But working with such groups inspires me, as well as the Haitian people. Let’s Share the Sun Foundation’s selflessness and generosity is unparalleled.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll get on a plane and 20 minutes later I’ll be in another country. But it will be a world away. Less than 50 miles apart, yet so different. It may be easy to leave Haiti, but it will be impossible to forget what I’ve seen. But in a way, that’s the beauty of this job. How do I tell these stories full of overwhelming emotion and faith? How do I process it all? How do I capture its essence, and make the viewers feel said emotions?

Tropical living

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The Island of Oahu is extremely green and mountainous, in addition to being well known for its beaches.

As I planned my travels this summer I made sure to balance work and pleasure. I planned to travel to Hawaii in order to visit my older sister and her family who live in Honolulu. My niece and nephew (7 and 9 respectively) are growing up fast, and seeing them less than once a year is hard. My sister needed help watching the kids, while she prepared her classroom for the coming school year, so I offered my services. And so, my role as “soccer dad” began!

My sister lives in a high-rise condo in downtown Honolulu, just a few blocks from the ocean. My days consisted of going to beaches, swimming in the pool and (grocery) shopping. My nephew had soccer camp everyday, so after dropping him off at camp everyday, my niece and I would drive around and find something to do. We climbed mountains, had beachside picnics and ran errands for my sister.

The Honolulu skyline from the summit of Diamond Head. My niece guided me up the mountain, and then we found a place to escape the swarm of tourists and this rewarding view

The Honolulu skyline from the summit of Diamond Head. My niece guided me up the mountain, and then we found a place to escape the swarm of tourists and this rewarding view

While the week wasn’t as extravagant and wild as exploring the “Big Island,” it was more rewarding – both as an uncle, and as a “traveler.” As an uncle, I loved the time with my family and value the relationships I strengthened. As a traveler, I love immersing myself in a new area. I believe you experience a place on a whole new level when you “live” there, and not just visit. Meaning; you have a routine, you go off the beaten pat and you drive, shop and live like a local resident. I feel that it’s when you do this that you see what life is truly like, and not just what the tourism department wants you to see.

I also wanted to produce a film while out in The Pacific. While the time on The Big Island was great, I couldn’t let an opportunity of travel pass me by without producing a solid film. So, I decided to produce a piece for part of my passion project, The Timeless Artisans – a project started back in 2013. I found a man who makes custom, handmade surfboards on the North Shore of Oahu. I always look for people whose work represents their location and region, and saw no better match than that. One day, before the babysitting job started, I drove up to the North Shore and spent the afternoon with “JC.” JC had a little hut/shop near the edge of a small town. It was walking distance from the ocean, and surrounded by palm trees. JC walked me through the entire process and together we created a solid film piece — soon to be posted here.

JC finishing one of the surfboards on the Wednesday afternoon I spent with him. As most of the Artisans have been throughout the project, JC was extremely warm and welcoming, and patient while explaining his art

JC finishing one of the surfboards on the Wednesday afternoon I spent with him. As most of the Artisans have been throughout the project, JC was extremely warm and welcoming, and patient while explaining his art

The balance between work and pleasure in Hawaii was great, and was a nice transition from a seemingly slow summer into the coming weeks of shooting and editing…So, aloha Hawaii! Next stop is The Caribbean.

Island Hopping in the Pacific

“You’ll feel like you’re dying….And there’s nothing you can do about,” explained the park ranger. I nodded in a sort of confused, hesitant agreement and continued to listen. “If it gets that bad, just come back down. It’s simple, really.” After that brief, down-to-earth explanation of altitude sickness, I continued on my way to the summit of Mauna Kea (13,796 ft) – the highest point in Hawaii, and the Pacific Ocean.


Right now, I am in the wonderful state of Hawaii. While it is my third time visiting the island state, I was determined to explore something this time. After spending Monday in Honolulu with my sister (who lives here), I woke up Tuesday morning and flew to the “Big Island” of Hawaii. I arrived at 7:40am Tuesday and had a flight departing at 6:10am Wednesday. The airline referred to it as a “layover” because it was so short, but I was confident that I could do a good amount of damage in 23 hours. The Island of Hawaii is the largest of the eight islands that make up the Hawaiian Islands. Being the “youngest” of the volcanic islands, Hawaii is still active with volcanic activity and is home to Volcanoes National Park. Needless to say, there was much exploring to be done.


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My rental car for the adventure. It withstood my beating better than the Toyota Yaris in Iceland

I arrived in the small town of Hilo and picked up a rental car. Now, you would think that after the rental car fiasco in Iceland last summer my name would be blacklisted from renting cars, but alas….I was given the keys to a red Jeep Wrangler and was off!

I began driving around the southern part of the island, and investigated a new lava flow that recently invaded the town of Pahoa (March 2015). I drove around the town, which is located at the southeastern tip of the island, and found an area where a lava flow had crossed a road and taken out a fence just a few months before.

A sign that was knocked over and burned by the recent lava flow in Pahoa. The flow began approaching the town in Nov. 2014, and came to rest in the late spring of 2015.

A sign that was knocked over and burned by the recent lava flow in Pahoa. The flow began approaching the town in Nov. 2014, and came to rest in the late spring of 2015.

Children skate in the public skate park in Pahoa, as removal of volcanic rock takes place in the background. After the lava came to rest in Pahoa in the spring, the town was faced with the process of removing the rock.

Children skate in the public skate park in Pahoa, as removal of volcanic rock takes place in the background. After the lava came to rest in Pahoa in the spring, the town was faced with the process of removing the rock.

After that, I began my trek up Mauna Kea, for sunset. Until now, my day had been plagued with rain and clouds. The summit of Mauna Kea is at 13,796 feet and the hope was that it would rise above the clouds, offering a grand view of the sunset. I stopped in the town of Hilo before heading to the mountain. I filled the car with gas and grabbed an emergency supply of water and Chips Ahoy!; because what other three things would you want when potentially stuck on top of a mountain? As I slowly drove up the mountain, the clouds got denser and denser. At 9,000 feet, I met the park ranger from the beginning of this post. He stopped me to make sure I had 4-wheel drive, and that I knew what I was getting into by going to the summit. As he explained the potential of altitude sickness, it all became very real. I had run into the phenomena in Ecuador a few years ago, but I had never been this high and for this long. By the time I arrived at the summit, the clouds were gone and it was a perfectly sunny day. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I could feel the altitude. I was dizzy as I walked around, and got short of breath just walking across the parking lot. I began shooting some time lapses and video of the clouds moving (as shown at the beginning of the blog). As the sun began to go down, the mountain got crowded with tourists, so I hiked to a quieter area and set up. Around this time, I started to feel the altitude on a whole new level. My head started hurting and I felt short of breath just sitting, so I drank a lot of water and ate my cookies. The sensible thing to do in such a situation. After an amazing, colorful sunset the sky filled with thousands of stars. Mauna Kea is one the best places to see the stars on earth, because it is so high above the clouds, and away from populated areas. The summit is home to many NASA research stations and 10 large telescopes.

One of the telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea aims a laser into the night sky, as the stars begin to illuminate the night sky

One of the telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea aims a laser into the night sky, as the stars begin to illuminate the night sky

Around 9:30pm, I started heading down the mountain. By then, the park ranger’s warning was becoming a reality – I felt “like I was dying.” My head felt like it was being crushed, and no amount of water, or Chips Ahoy, was helping. I stopped multiple times on the way down, to reacclimatize and ease my body into the idea of going back to sea level. The trek down took a few hours, and I arrived in Hilo shortly before midnight. Plagued with one of the worst headaches in the history of the world, I drank some more water, ate a quick dinner, parked my car at the airport and fell asleep. Sleeping in the car is my favorite, when traveling on a small budget (both time and money); it’s cheap and super convenient. I parked my car at the “rental car return” lot at the airport, so I woke up at 5:30, walked across the parking lot, went through security and was on my plane by 5:45. Much better than a hotel in every way. Now, it’s back to the island of O’hau and Honolulu for the next week!

Desert rain

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Touring Warner Bros studios Saturday afternoon

As my plane landed in Los Angeles, I looked out the window just in time to see the sun majestically set behind the surrounding mountains. That was the last time I would see the sun until I left the city Monday morning. Although the weekend in the metropolis was plagued by clouds and (much needed) rain, the weekend was a success.

My old friend from high school, Evan, picked me up from the airport Friday night, and we got to it. We went to In ’N Out Burger for dinner, and then cruised around the city for a few hours seeing the sites at night. I had briefly visited LA for about a day back in 2008, but for the most part this was an exploratory experience for me. Throughout the weekend we toured the city, saw the sights and visited Warner Bros studios.

Without even knowing it myself, I had come to LA in search of a place to settle down after graduation. With that magical date in the not-so-distant future, the thought has been creeping from the back of my head to the front. What am I going to be doing? Where will I live? The list goes on. However, something felt right for me in LA. Maybe it was the shoddy, upstate-NY weather or the film industry’s infectious energy, but I can certainly see myself beginning my career out west, and I am excited to see how that develops. Anyway, enough about future Luke’s home….

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Sunday morning we woke up nice and early and cruised up the Pacific Coastal Highway. The PCH/Rt. 1 is probably the most beautiful road in the world, and holds a special place for me. In 2008, a group of 4 friends and I biked the PCH from San Francisco to Los Angeles. That 453-mile stretch of road will forever hold a piece of my heart, and it was beyond refreshing to drive along the coast again. Driving along the Malibu coastline also put a lot of things into perspective; the amount of money and wealth in LA is staggering. We lost count of Lamborghini’s at around 40…

The pitstop in California was a nice, slow respite before the next adventure: me, my camera, a rental car and active volcanoes all trapped on the small, tropical island of Hawaii.
I’m currently hurdling over the Pacific Ocean at 36,000 feet, and am scheduled to arrive in Honolulu in about 2 hours. Then I’ll be back to the airport in18 hours, as I head out to the “Big Island” of Hawaii, to explore some volcanoes!