Days 3 / 4 on the rails; The Rockies


Selfie of the train going around a corner; approaching Los Angeles.



The first portion of the trip from Chicago was an overnight piece, featuring my first formal Amtrak ‘smoke break.’ We stopped on an empty platform outside of Kansas City, MO for 45 minutes, with no other objective than for individuals to get out and smoke. While on this break, the train was refueled and ready to set out for the southwest.



Smoke break outside of Kansas City, MO.


Tonight I slept in my formally assigned seat for the first and only time on this trip. I was squeezed in next to my seven foot-tall seat partner. Ironically, this was the best and most refreshing night sleep I had on all of my adventure.


Somewhere outside of Chicago, we had picked up a few hundred boy scouts and their parents on their way to a camp in New Mexico. Another train car was added because of the sheer number of passengers on the train. Despite the addition, their presence made the first 24 hours of this haul a bit less relaxing.



A lot of teenagers for one train car.


I woke up somewhere between the border of Kansas and Colorado, as the golden wheat fields transitioned into the tall grown grass of the western plains. By this point, we were running about 3 hours behind schedule, due to track maintenance and whatnot. Typical Amtrak.


In search of something entertaining and trying to find a cure for my boredom, I ventured to the back of the train and once again was greeted by the smells and sounds of hundreds of boy scouts.


By midafternoon, we made it to the foothills of the Rockies. We began climbing up Raton Pass on the border of New Mexico and Colorado. The 7,834ft mountain pass was the steepest climb of the journey, though the views were a little underwhelming.



Looking back down the ‘aggressive grade’


Midway through the ascent, the train came to a screeching halt and began rolling backwards. It came to a sudden stop again, with the emergency lights illuminating the train. A voice boomed over the PA informing us the train had stalled on its adventure up the hill and some ‘troubleshooting was necessary.’ Let it be known, there was no power, air conditioning or lights during this delay. Thanks, Amtrak.


‘The little engine that (finally) could’ made it over the pass, to much excitement. By mid-afternoon, we dropped of the boy scouts and made it to Albuquerque a mere six hours late. Basically on time, on “Amtrak-time.” As we approached Albuquerque, the thought of enjoying Amtrak’s special cuisine for like my 8th meal in a row was a little less than appealing. After much research using my mobile data — which had just come back after our trip over the mountains — I found a pizzeria around the corner from the train station. I asked 2 conductors for an estimated length of the stop. One said 10 minutes and the other said an hour and 10 minutes. Averaging their times together, I assumed I had enough clearance to make a run for it. It was a hot calzone after all, so worth the risk, right?




The train stopped and I leapt off the train, leaving all of my possessions and camera equipment on the train, thinking of nothing but cheesy warm calzone. Thinking of the possibly embarrassing blog post I’d have to make explaining why my train left without me, I made it to and from ‘Pizza 9’ in 6 minutes and 37 seconds. As I sat down and opened up the box containing my piping hot calzone, it was clear all of my fellow passengers were regretting their food choices. With jealousy conveyed through their eyes, I began to enjoy the best meal my trip.



Dessert views of the desert.


My after dinner scenes were filled with sunsets and desert. I had justified taking off 3 days of work because I intended to do some editing work on the trip. However, at this point I had spent most of my down time gazing out the window at the scenes surrounding me, neglecting to even open my laptop. I had a large backlog of work ready for me as I sat down after sunset, ending late into the night.


Around 1am, I ventured off into a deep sleep, able to venture into an empty car and spread out across 2 seats. Out off all my nights, this was actually the worst nights’ sleep! We awoke to a stunning sunrise in the Mojave Desert. I tiredly stumbled to the cafe car and was greeted by a lack of apple juice. French toast was one of the only entrees left, but was actually what I was craving, so I’ll give Amtrak a pass on this one.



Perks of being the last one off!


By now, we had made up some time and were ONLY running 3 hours and 15 minutes late, just 15 minutes later than my connecting train. Thanks Amtrak for causing an awkward phone call to a client explaining my late arrival. Finally, we arrived into Los Angeles at 10:30am, with my next train set to leave at 11:24am.


I can’t say I’ve ever collecter luggage from a baggage claim in a train station, but it can be done. It’s a pretty sketchy experience, but my two pieces of checked luggage arrived intact in Los Angeles, and ready to make our last pull to Oceanside, CA. The regional train in California didn’t have checked baggage service, so I was back to carrying 7 bags through the train station. Shut your eyes and imagine that sight — and this was probably more comical. Oh, and add in the fact I was running on 72 hours without a shower, and you’ve probably got the image.



By the time I boarded the California Surfliner, I was in a train-fog. There was a part of me that was enjoying every second and was ready to turn around and take the train back to Philadelphia, and another part of me that was about ready to throw up from 68 hours of near-constant bumps and sways, mixed with the lovey smell of 2-day old Boy Scouts.


The last leg was only 1.5 hours long, but might as well have been the longest part. About 30 minutes outside of Oceanside, the train pulled along the coast and it all hit me. I had just taken the train coast to coast, a goal of mine for as long as I can remember.



Doesn’t seem like much, but this was the first glimpse of the Pacific Coast, and it gave me chills.


I spent the last 20 minutes or so standing by the door, just staring at the coastline as it whipped bye. I had made it. I got off the train, looked up at the towering pal trees and just smiled. In the midst of all the excitement, I left the infamous grocery bag (from Union Station in DC) on the train. There was a part of me that was sad, and another that just laughed that it found its destiny — being left on the train, riding the rails for the rest of its life. There’s a metaphor in there, but I’m too tired to pull that out, and in 36 hours we’re getting in a car and driving back East, so I’m gonna leave this here and sleep.



Day 2 on the rails…. (The Midwest)

Sunrise over South Bend, IN this morning.

Turns out Maria did forget about me.

Last night when I returned to my seat (after being away for 9 hours), I found my seat mate — Maria — sprawled out across my seat sound asleep. Not able to muster the emotional strength to wake a fellow traveler, I went back to the lounge car and immediately passed out on one of the benches.
A few hours later, I woke up at 5am to the boisterous voice of the conductor announcing that TOLEDO, OHIO was the next stop. While this information had 0 relevance to me and my trip, it was the first thing I heard today. yay. Trying to get back to sleep after that was futile.
I passed the next hour in my seat (Maria had moved back by this point  — bless her heart) watching the sunrise over the Ohio / Indiana boarder. Few complaints about seeing something that beautiful.
At 6:01 I sat down in the dining car and ordered my French toast, bacon and apple juice….I’ve been planning this meal since I found the menu online last week.
I had never had the pleasure of having Amtrak’s diner-car service, but I must admit, it was pretty regal. The tables were set with cloth napkins and real silverware, and the waiter was super helpful and kind (for 6am). The only curveball was that size of the dining car. Due to limited space, I was added to a both of 3. It was awkward at first, but after our pleasantries, I continued to take pictures of the sunrise and they continued their chatter.
I made sure to be the first person in the dining car this morning, to assure I had full access to classy place settings…and, of course, BACON!
After breakfast, I returned to the lounge car and watched some TV as we approached Chicago. Our arrival was delayed over an hour because of ‘heavy marine traffic’ — and the draw bridge’s busy schedule. Classic, Amtrak.
We arrived into Chicago shortly after 10AM local time. Stepping off the train was actually an amazing feeling. The blast of fresh air was amazing enough that I could forgive the fact that it was 50% diesel exhaust….
Let me go back and explain something…..this morning when I went to the bathroom I was met by the most horrendous smell onboard the train.
It turns out that on these double-decker trains, all of the bathrooms are downstairs. There’s a little collective of 5-6 bathrooms that make up the bottom level of the train. I guess it was a good idea on paper — but by 8am this morning, every toilet was clogged and filled with an indescribable stench that could only be created by 250 people using the same bathroom; half of whom were suffering from motion sickness. I can’t think of a worse smell I’ve ever experienced….hence, the blast of hot, diesel-infected air this morning was just amazing!
Once I was reconnected with sturdy ground, I walked into the terminal and met up with my friend Courtney — an old friend from college who lives in Chicago. I had connected with her and enlisted her help with passing the time of my 6 hour layover. On second glance, I realized she was holding a Starbucks iced-coffee, which my girlfriend had paid her to bring to me.
Turns out I have some pretty cool people in my life 🙂
Courtney and I had grand plans to get pizza and visit the Chicago sites, but before we did that, we had to get rid of some of my 7 bags (the number grew…don’t ask). We spent close to 30 minutes walking circles around Union Station trying to find a place to check them, but after countless employees gave very conflicting instructions, we gave up and left.
As we hauled most of my lively possessions through the streets of Chicago, Courtney researched high-end hotels with baggage service. Turns out the Putnam Hotel has a free bag check in the lobby…They graciously kept our bags safe for free all day. Major shout out!
My “tour guide” for the day — Courtney … thank God for Google Maps, am I right, Court??
Courtney and I were successful in touring Chicago and eating pizza – and I made it back to the station by 1:30 (at least I did…Courtney ran into her own problems…as it turns out I’m more street-savvey than the Chicago native…but that’s another tale).
The boarding process was the same as DC; I was the first in the line, but seats were assigned at the boarding door, so it was to 0 gain. Alas….
While the stopover was really nice and exciting, there was actually something super comforting and nice about getting back on the train. I know that sounds insane, but just sitting down and knowing that all I have to do for the next 44 hours is sit, was amazing.
The new beast….Amtrak Train 3: “Southwest Chief” — home  for the next 44 hours
This train — the “Southwest Cheif” — was identical in structure to the one I took from DC, so there was nothing new to explore. But the scenery started to change very quickly. About 30 minutes from Chicago, we were surrounded by wheat and corn; a site I don’t expect to change until tomorrow afternoon.
Dinner tonight was braised chicken with corn and rice. It was a lovey meal —despite me being placed in the middle of another family dinner — and provided some pretty cool views from the dinner table.
Dinner is by reservation only; which must be made by 5pm that day.
We crossed the Mississippi around 7pm, and then took a formal smoke break. A strange idea to me; but about 50% of the train’s population got off and just stood on the platform, smoking, talking and hanging out. Our next major stop is Kansas City — in an hour — where we’ll stop for a full 45 minutes. I’m planning on going in and using the terminal’s wifi to post this…guess you already know by what time this was posted, if that mission was successful….
IMG_3279.JPGNothing like a classic water-tower to signal you’ve arrived in Small Town, USA
Planes dont have WiFi near the coastline, an Amtrak doesn’t have WiFi away from the coastline…You just can’t win…. 
UPDATE — terminal didn’t have WiFi, so tethered internet from my phone while I had reception (a rarity out here)…..sorry, fam, for taking the month’s data 🙂

US Train Trek: Philadelphia, PA to Oceanside, CA

A little background….

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved traveling; moving; watching blurry trees go by; seeing the sunset descend behind hills. I’d always like to imagine who lived in the houses that flew by, or who paved the roads that lay like little pen streaks on a green canvass. Whether from the passenger seat of a car, window seat of a jet plane or bench of a train — travel has enchanted me for as long as I can remember.

A few years ago — I can’t remember why — I researched the furtherest distance you could take Amtrak. “Cross-country” was my answer…from that moment, the idea of riding on a train for 2…maybe 3 days…just captivated me. I fell in love with the idea.

Finally, after countless trips cross-country, I was able to set aside some time for the trek of a lifetime (…which, come Thursday — may  seem like a lifetime, but alas…). So, Monday morning at 11:11am, I boarded an Amtrak train bound for Washington, D.C. — with my final destination of Oceanside, California.

IMG_2888My 6 bags may have everything I need, but also weigh me down a bit….

The trip is 75 hours and 37 minutes; that’s 3 days and 37 minutes for those wondering (3 hour timezone change). Spanning well over 3,000 miles, the first leg of the journey took me to Washington, DC. I had a 3 hour layover in the nation’s capital, and then headed west on the “Capitol Limited Line” — a 18 hour train from Washington, DC to Chicago, IL….which I’m currently aboard. The train is scheduled to make 15 stops in ‘major’ cities such as Harpor’s Ferry, WV / Pittsburgh, PA / Cleveland, OH / South Bend, IN.

We’re set to arrive into Chicago this morning around 8:45AM. I’ll then have a 6-hour layover, and board the 42-hour behemoth known as the “Southwest Chief” — an Amtrak route that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, by way of Kansas City and Albuquerque.

I’m set to arrive into Los Angeles at 8AM Thursday morning, at which point I’ll take a regional rail 2 hours south to Oceanside, California — my final destination. A piece of cake, really.


I’m currently hurtling through Western PA atop the 2nd-level of an Amtrak diner car. I’m munching on some chicken wings and drinking a strong IPA — turns out, life on the rails isn’t all that bad.

But as I sit here, I’m beginning to reflect on the past 12 hours — the kickoff of this “train-treck,” which has already had a few bumps and hiccups.

PART 1: Philadelphia, PA to Washington, DC

My (loving, kind, awesome, generous) mother dropped me off at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, PA this morning at 10:53. My train was set to depart at 11:11 (which I took to be a pretty good omen), but upon walking into the terminal, I found out it was delayed by 30 minutes.

Keep in mind that at this time I had 6 bags with me…so moving around the train station was not my utmost priority (or ability). I stood on line, poised to be the first on the train and get a good seat. As it turns out, the Northeast Corridor is a popular rail route at noon on a Monday. Through some miracle I got all of my bags on the train, and found a seat jammed between the window and the knees of some fellow riders.

I’m not sure if Amtrak forgot if people actually had to sit in their seats, but they kinda goofed here on the whole legroom situation….good thing this leg of the trip was only 2 hours.
Longstory short, I forgot my phone charger, so I had to hit-up my newfound ‘friends’ (read: seat-partners) for a charge. After a restorative journey south, I got off the train and walked into (the stunningly beautiful) Washington Union Station — to realize I left a shopping bag with my food + drink on the train. I rain back and searched everywhere and couldn’t find it. After 10 minutes of searching on the hot, 90-degree train — turns out Amtrak doesn’t like to leave those things idling with the A/C on — I gave up and headed back to the terminal. On my way back, a very kind custodian stopped me and offered to help. She started asking around, and after about 5 minutes, she just reached inside the train and handed me the bag. I didn’t ask questions.

I quickly checked my bags in Union Station — which wasn’t a process I was really used to doing, but turns out is kinda fun, cheap and easy — and then got ready for Part 2 of the adventure.

PART 2: Washington, DC -> Chicago, IL

Naturally, I was the first to line up to board for the next train. I had learned my lesson on the first leg of the journey, and wasn’t willing to risk a bad seat on a trip 9x’s longer. But, as I excitedly walked across the train platform to board this double-deck beast, I was met by a conductor who gave me a seat-assignment. Turns out being first doesn’t get you very far in the world of Amtrak. Alas….I settled in, on the upper level, and pulled out my Chipotle which I had picked up in DC.

Now traditionally being assigned to an aisle seat would have made me very disgruntled. Those who know me, will know I take my seating preference (i.e. window seat) very seriously. But this train became the exception. The space between the seats is borderline ridiculous, and about 80% of the wall is windows. So really, the aisle is actually kind of a sweet deal because you have more space while still very easily being able to look out.

IMG_2933The view from the train as we explored western Maryland —

BUT, it got better. As we were leaving the city, they opened access to the lounge car, which is an entire car with massive windows, comfy seats and a bar…for, well, lounging. As soon as they opened it, I grabbed my bag and went over, staked out on a couch, and sat there as the landscape of western Maryland and West Virginia disappeared under a magnificent sunset. My poor seat mate, Maria, is probably wondering why I ran off 3 minutes into our journey to never return.

PART 3: Into the night

We just entered back into Pennsylvania….which is both funny, and frustrating. Pennsylvania is, as you may remember, is the state where I began today 12 hours ago (See below map). The scenes out the window have turned into a pitch black cloud, and the train has begun to fall asleep. The cafe is shut and the lounge has emptied. Assumedly, everyone has gone back to their beds and room suites — which means it’s time for me to head to the back of the train to my little reclining coach chair, and catch some Z’s….I hear they start serving french toast at 6AM, so I can’t be late!!



The trip in its full glory…..

Home: Thank you, Canada

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 7.29.08 PM

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”

On Instagram: #OnTheStreetsOfCuba

Cuba: Layers of mystery


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.

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


“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:

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


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.


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


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….

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!