The 2017 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta was a fantastic experience. In many ways it all that is best about the United States. Impressive, friendly and well organised.
I arrived at Dawn on the first day for the Dawn Patrol which has a smaller number of balloons permitted to take off in darkness. The burners and colourful canopies roaring to life in the darkness is a spectacular sight. I described it as watching baby dragons wake up all snorting fire and noise.
Then the mass assent takes place as the sun rises with six or seven hundred balloons taking off and you can wander through them lending a hand when asked. It is so good natured and friendly without a hint of health and safety nonsense just sensible people having a good time.
Two things, apart from the balloons, spring to mind. At one point a grandmother had lost her grand-daughter in the crowd of 50,000. She was in a panic but a marshall got on the radio to the police who had her. A kindly visitor had handed her in. It was done so effortlessly it was a joy to watch.
The whole balloon festival is spectacularly well run from courtesy buggies to get you from the massive car parks to the gates. A lack of parking charges (normally $15 but I was never charged) to plenty of places to sit.
I had never been to a balloon event and this was the ultimate experience being among these giants in the New Mexico dawn.
I’m happy to report that I have left Las Vegas with more money than I arrived with. I planned to gamble $500 and left with $$640. So financially it was a success. However, I hated it. It bills itself as a place where you let your hair down and enjoy yourself and you can certainly do that. From guys selling beers out of suitcases on the street to mobile billboards for hookers, it’s all there.
However, at the heart of it all is a sad desperation. People willing themselves to have a good time to the soundtrack of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. If I had my way it would be illegal to play anything by those Gods within the city limits.
I was walking through the Casino at the Bellagio when I heard a woman doing a rendition of ‘that’ scene in When Harry met Sally. Full bore organism, I kid you not. I looked over and she was screaming “I won thirty, I won thirty”. I thought thirty grand was excellent until I discover she meant $30. Seriously, how small must your life be to get that excited over thirty dollars? I saw a man pouring chips onto a roulette table to try and impress his bored wife. He won something every spin, just less than he’d bet.
I was there to catch a flight home so watched the Bellagio fountains at sunset, did a small amount of successful gambling to pass the time between sunset and dinner but the highlight was probably the shower in my room which was first class. I think my problem is that I assumed that Bellagio would be glamorous. It is in the same way that Dubai is, namely, it isn’t.
Like Bulgari jewellery, it is all style and no substance. The croupiers are not all resting Victoria Secrets models. In all likelihood, they are cleaners for the Philippines who can count. Zero personality. Your fellow gamblers are divided between the seriously addicted to the clueless morons like me trying to fill time.
The whole thing is artificial; from the shows to the gambling, from the phoney bellhops to the waitresses, the whole thing reeks of insincerity. This was summed up by a slot machine I played. It had no rules or table of winnings. So I pumped in $20 with no clue of the odds or what I was supposed to do. I gave into the machine which spat out $160 dollars. I have no idea how but that was probably the idea. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
As I climbed into my cab for the airport I spotted the Trump hotel and casino. That summed up Las Vegas to me. Tasteless, noisy and stupid. Give me Albuquerque any day.
I have been in the US for four days now and I’m finding it very hard to eat anything. Let me explain. I arrived in Las Vegas on 2nd October and stayed at the Double Tree by the airport ready for a quick trip to the Grand Canyon the next day. I decided on room service (a hideous error I know) and had a chicken Caesar wrap so vast and revolting I was dumbfounded. The chicken tasted like a gel bra insert that had been briefly grilled.
Then I hit the road and every single stop was Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Burger King, or Subway. Nothing else. I would stop every hundred miles across Arizona and almost resorted to beef jerky but thought I’d wait for my nice hotel.
Sadly, the Bright Angel Lodge was a disaster as I couldn’t eat there as every time I tried I was told it was a 45-minute wait. Next morning I left for Monument Valley and sustained with a Snickers I avoided the endless Egg McMuffins on offer and made it to The View Hotel where I feasted on very good Quesadillas for supper. Huge, rather sickly but actual food. So far I’d eaten two meals in three days so pressed on to Albuquerque and ended up in a sushi bar for supper. Bliss. Fresh crunchy ginger, salad and green tea. At last, I’d had a good meal, in America, albeit a Japanese one.
The next day I had an astonishingly good and messy pork and bean burrito at the Balloon Fiesta but as I felt it congeal in my insides I thought about the other food on offer. Most of it fried and huge. I watched people eating deep fried turkey drumsticks, churros with powdered sugar and chocolate sauce not to mention varieties of fried cheese served on crisps (chips to Americans). The smallest drink size was a pint the largest about the capacity of a hot air balloon at 100,000 cu ft.
On Sunday I explored the Railyards Market and had a Vegan Tamale for breakfast hitch was fresh and delicious and in the evening another sushi restaurant, desperate to avoid anything fried. For lunch I went to the Church Street Cafe in Albuquerque hoping for new, Mexican cuisine what I got was old New Mexican cuisine. Cheese beans, beans, cheese plus suspect meat. Tasty but as satisfying as Benny Hill. Good for a few minutes but you’d rather not make a night of it.
On the way back to Vegas I stopped in Flagstaff and stayed in the Weatherford hotel that was built in 1896 which they thought was historic. No, just a fairly old hotel and nothing special. I ate at a southern BBQ place and asked for the smallest amount food I could get. Six brontosaurus ribs arrived surrounded by a couple of pounds of fried okra. Why fried !!!!! Still delicious but two ribs would have been enough. I asked for a beer and was presented with a Kilner jar full of beer. I know Flagstaff is trying to be achingly hipster but why? In fact, the whole town thinks it is a junior Seattle as I discovered when I tried to buy a coffee and was asked if I wanted a cold pressed, aerochinno, steel press infusion or a slow drip, mountain water, deep steep or some equally stupid offering. All I wanted was an espresso with hot milk. No chance and no Starbucks either. Still, Flagstaff is a pleasant place to break a 700-mile drive.
Eventually, I made it to Vegas and checked into the Bellagio. That will be the subject of another post but I went to Cafe Bellagio for a sandwich. I had a Bloody Mary which was excellent and a turkey club with Parmesan fries that wasn’t. The food tasted like room service food served at a table. Is it just me but does room service food tastes like the air in an aeroplane lavatory, slightly recycled and containing dubious ingredients? The sandwich was so dull even the hickory smoked bacon was drowned out by the blandness of the turkey. Everything was just limp. I didn’t care but at $23 it wasn’t worth it.
For dinner, I went to Yellowtail and had a well-grilled aubergine with miso paste and a good-ish sushi. Not up to Albuquerque standards but what is.
So, in conclusion, the food in America was a huge disappointment. The Mexican and Native American food suffered from a belief that there is no such thing as too much cheese or too many beans. That is true in the depths of winter but when the thermometer is touching 90 degrees it isn’t. The traditional American food was just revolting either poorly prepared or fried. We make jokes about deep fried Mars bars but in the South West, they would deep fry anything from auto parts to roadkill.
So I’m flying home dreaming of fresh vegetables, salad and a simple roast chicken. It’s a sad day when a Brit dreams about good fresh vegetables. So farewell USA, I won a few dollars in Vegas and lost a few pounds along the way.
All advertising trades on cliches, it needs to. Christmas is always snowing, Father Christmas is jolly and rotund; and families are always happy. This allows us to share a cultural stereotype and all feel slightly better about the annual liver destroying, gorge fest. The emergence of this years Christmas ads got me thinking about travel advertising and the tsunami of cliches involved including these classics
Holiday of a lifetime
Sit back and relax and we’ll do it for you (whatever it is)
Pamper yourself in our spa
Sun kissed beaches
This will be presented with stock photographs of smiling young couple in the waves, the totally ubiquitous photograph of a woman laying on a treatment bench with hot rocks on her bare spine. Has anyone every had this treatment and is it as unpleasant as it looks? If the holiday is a cruise, the images will be older couple (attractive with a touch of grey) man in natty white or blue blazer with Panama hat looking contentedly out to see. She will have a glint in her eye that says either I hope he doesn’t want sex or I could push him overboard for the life insurance. Or maybe that’s just how I read it.
The reality is of course further from the truth. After a six hour delay you arrive at the Hotel Bastardo and I find the pool has been closed by the health inspectors, the sun kissed beach has just suffered an oil spill and the tennis court has been over run with vile children who are screaming 11 hours a day.
I’m more sanguine. The travelling is never pleasant, the hotels not quite what you image and you make your own memories.
In about a week I’m off to the United States for 9 days to photograph the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta as well as stops along the way at the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and various diners on Route 66. It will be just me, my trusty rental car and a phone full of audiobooks.
Why Albuquerque you might ask? but you need to blame Steve Davey who wrote Around the World in 500 Festivals for the inspiration.A book that’s well worth buying if you are planning a photography-inspired trip
My plan is to focus on sunrise and sunsets and do the driving in the bits in the middle. It should be moderately challenging as I think I’ll be driving 1400 miles but I’ve identified various kitsch diners along the way where I can stop and listen to endless versions of Route 66. I plan to stop in Gallup, Kingman and Flagstaff as mentioned in the song.
I’m not sure what to expect in the current political climate as I’m visiting two red states and two blue. Should prove interesting. I will try and post updates along the way together with various images.
If you live on the coast of Hampshire or the Isle of Wight you probably look forward to the annual Round the Island yacht race. This is the largest yacht race in the world with almost 1600 boats taking part in an anti-clockwise circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight. Everything from 80 foot millionaires play things to sleek America’s Cup speed machines together with tiny folk boats and family day cruisers take part.
As a photographer I have tried in vain, for the last six years, to take a decent photograph of this huge sailing event. I have been up to the Needles park in a gale, walked to Hurst Castle multiple times and this year had a great opportunity to get on the water with a friend,Mark Redpath in his motor boat. The only down side was that the visibility was less than great. However, you play the cards you’re dealt and I managed to get a few decent shots including a rescue by the Coast Guard chopper.
The only downside was that, due to the tides, the race started at 5.30am so Mark and I were catching the tail-Enders at 7.00am. Next year let’s hope for a slightly later kick off.
In the last fortnight I’ve made three photography trips. One to a World War 2 reenactment on a steam railway, one to Portsmouth and one to Southampton. None of these,if I’m honest, were my natural choice of venue. However, I’m a firm believer that it is often the least immediately appealing venues that generate some of the most interesting images.
The first trip was to the Watercress Line, a privately owned and managed steam railway in Hampshire. It is named after the Watercress that grows around Alresford.
This weekend they were celebrating ‘WW2 on the Line’ and it was an excuse for everyone to raid their dressing up box, pull out their uniforms and 40’s clothes and have fun. Add to that the vintage car and bike collectors and a very special time was on the cards.
What I loved was the sheer joy in the faces of those taking part, from the Girl Guides being taught the Jitterbug, to the hairdresser doing 40’s hair styles,the Glenn Miller Tribute band and the ‘Yank’ doughnuts or should that be donuts.
A week later, I joined a MeetUp group called ‘Hampshire Social Snappers’ in Portsmouth. We walked in blazing heat from Southsea Pier to Portsmouth. It was the archetypal, British seaside hell complete with large tattooed women eating chips, lonely fairground rides and hundreds of hot people eating ice cream. The light was a bit harsh but there were a few images along the way. We ended the walk opposite the Spinnaker Tower and near Ben Ainslie’s BAR HQ which was looking a bit deserted after their recent America’s Cup exit.
The final trip was with Lymington Camera Club. The initial purpose was to do a Street Photography workshop with members. We had a decent turn out but while I expected the main shopping area of Southampton to be teeming with a rich and varied pageant of human life it was rather mundane. Just tired and stressed people trying to get home. However, in the distance we heard the revving of hundreds of motor bikes and our luck had changed. The Southampton Biker Night was in full swing (every Thursday in the summer 6-8)
Over 600 bikes turned up for Ladies Day in honour of Ascot and what a funny, friendly bunch they were. I grew up when bikers were synonymous with Hells Angels but times have changes. These folks might still sport the odd tattoo, goatee and earring but they were so welcoming to us. The marshals helped us get shots and the bikers themselves were delighted to be photographed with their bikes.
So what did I get from these three trips? The key lesson for me is that you should always step out of your comfort zone photographically. I’m not a environmental portrait shooter by instinct but my tip is when you see a tattooed biker with an earring stop him and take his photograph….. but remember to ask nicely first 🙂