It’s been almost three since I moved to Mexico and I don’t feel I have fully explained this wonderful country. I wrote several posts on it and it will probably take several chapters to even slightly envision what Mexico is and it’s worth doing so. I want you to feel it as if you were here with me exploring this remarkable land.
It sounds so basic and futile when you think about it, as if by reading the title the imminent thought would be “oh come on, no need for guidelines”. But believe me, there is a science behind the enjoyment of a new city or even country, especially one you hope to survive without stress and melancholy. You might also think that all it takes is to join a tour or simply read about it on a travel guide.
Let’s take Mexico as an example. Mexico is a huge country full of colours, culture and above all contradictions. They say that here in Mexico you will find four stories: the one the Government wants you to believe, the one academic institutions want to teach, one that foreigners want to explain. And the last one, the one you have to discover yourself. And this is mine.
Certain beliefs and conceptions of reality characterise some populations more than others, and Mexico recalls images of ancient civilisations, plundering Spanish conquistadores and moustachioed revolucionarios. The many contradictions of this vibrant country lie in its unique history and are deeply reflected in the character and personality of the people. The expansive friendliness of norteños (Mexicans from the northern states) compared to the more defensive and rebellious southern Chiapanecos (people from Chiapas state). Mexicans can be intensely fatalistic, resigned even. And when the mood takes in, they are hedonistic and carefree. A reserved poker face will suddenly give way to astonishing warmth and familiarity.
We know Mexico’s first hundred years were bloody while the last eighty-five years have been at peace; it shares a long land border with the United states and yet they couldn’t be more different.
When the Spanish brought Catholicism, the missionaries took a very pragmatic approach to it and incorporated many beliefs from earlier religions. That’s why there are so many religious festivals here like Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the Muxis (gay/transgender divinity festival), the Guelaguetza and many others that blend Catholic celebrations with indigenous rituals.
Mexico is dual.
It emerged from its bloody history and claimed its place in the modern world. And now globalisation and free trade is altering Mexican society once again.
It’s time to learn something new today 🙂
Experience teaches us a lot, especially when we’re on the road. Nothing makes a story more beautiful and interesting than colourful eye-catching photos taken on the go.
Most of us travellers rely on good cameras with settings. However, as we travel and share instant snaps on our blog or social media, we often recur to smartphones. You need to be able to use your smartphone well, especially if you go to places where cameras are either not welcome or you don’t have time to set up your regular camera. Smartphones are more conspicuous and with technology that allow us to do wonderful things.
So here are few tips I learnt myself 🙂
Before using a picture, look at it on your smartphone and ensure your main subject is clear and any writing, such as a sign, is legible. Keep in mind that most people will check your photos and articles from their phones so make your shots mobile friendly and neat.
Keep it Simple
I learnt that my most popular photos are the simplest ones. They don’t have many people in them, multiple props, and complicated staging. The most effective images so far have been those with simple subjects, such as a close-up of a situation, object, person or even buildings.
Play with Light and Shadow
Both Samsung (S7 series) and iPhones allow you to adjust the lighting by simply tapping on the screen so pay attention to your scene’s lighting. Bright light and deep shadows create a stark contrast that can make your photo more interesting and dramatic.
Sometimes you’re lucky enough not to need any of these 🙂 just because the light is so naturally beautiful and unique (Iran has plenty of these places where light is so mystical you can play with it for hours). So before you start thinking about tapping on the screen of your phone, analyse your surrounding and catch the elements already at your disposal.
Follow the Rule of Thirds
If your subject is a person or more people, have them closer to either side, or along the top or bottom, rather than in the center. This is the rule of thirds, where you basically break an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have 9 parts.
Studies have shown that if you place the subject along the intersection lines rather than the center of the frame – the photo becomes more balanced and will enable a viewer of the image to interact with it more naturally.
An exception: Faces. Faces can be anywhere in the frame.
Subject / Try different Perspectives
Mix big and small things and create an interesting contrast with different perspectives. For example, put a subject close to the camera and others in the background to create a more spaced composition.
You can either take a typical frontal photo of the Jame Mosque like this one…
Or you can be creative by simply changing angle like my friend Marina did with this photo of me under the crystal-turquoise arch and make it sensational.
Don’t Zoom and Don’t Flash
I learnt using my own flash is a terrible idea, just as bad as zooming.
If you really must use artificial light because you’re either in a dark setting or because you want to give your photo a magazine look, get help from a friend. Ask your friend to point their smartphone flashlight (or a proper flashlight, if available) at the subject from a different angle of yours.
Don’t photograph directly with Instagram
Instagram comes with a preset square mode that will not allow you to crop or give your subject proper focus. It is better that you take your photo with your regular camera vertically (regular full-sized portrait mode). This way you will be able to visualise more and not be limited to format constrictions. You can always edit the photo later, just get the first one properly sized.
Use interesting elements
Be creative and use the elements around you to make a photo interesting. Most of the time it will spontaneous but consider spending some time analysing the surrounding to create an appealing photograph in such way that it almost tells a story on its own.
Add a focal point and varied textures
When setting up your photo, ensure you have a subject in the foreground that provides a focal point. Use varied textures that create an interesting contrast.
Blend in and Ask for Permission
Before snapping a photo of a local merchant or nomads, always ask. No need to invasively snap a quick shot and run (you probably wouldn’t like it done to you either). If you ask you’d be surprised at how receptive people are to smiling 🙂
And last but not least…
Say NO to selfie sticks!
The idea of a selfie is having an impromptu photo of yourself with a background that you like. And as such, it should look like a rustic spontaneous shot. A stick defies this logic because it forces a selfie to look like anything BUT a natural moment.
Not only selfie sticks are very annoying (blocking views, turning a memory trip to a self-aware photo trip) and have a lot of tourist destinations now banned them, but also the angle that the stick creates is unoriginal and fake given the effort of hiding who’s taking the photo.
It’s time to answer some of the biggest questions that many travellers wonder about: how to obtain visa and access to North Korea! So here is my experience or better yet, my holiday adventure!
Entering North Korea (DPRK) is a very unusual and restricted process that requires months to be completed before actually receiving the green light.
Entering North Korea is very easy, but few things can get you in trouble or on the black list: your nationality and your profession.
If you are South Korean and/or Japanese, be sure that the authorities will never let you in. Historically, even the Americans wouldn’t be allowed in as they are still considered as the Empire which invaded and made a mess. But as America is symbol of money, now they are allowed because they are big part of the DPRK tourist consumption.
You can fly to Pyongyang from three places: Beijing, Vladivostok and a city in Malaysia that I cannot recall right now (perhaps its capital). However, the overwhelming majority of foreigners travel to Pyongyang from China, either by train or flight. Me and my friends traveled via Air Koryo, although I heard from my other tour fellows that the train experience is quite something.
The only way you can enter the country is by joining an authorised tour from an authorised company. When I signed up for the Young Pioneer Tours, all I had to do was filling an application form.
Of course the DPRK authorities reserve the right to reject your application for X,Y, Z reason, and luckily, that wasn’t my case.
I did managed to enter so you’re probably wondering “Ok, but how easy it is to get to DPRK from China?”, and my answer is… It is an absolute pain mixed up with lots of bureaucratic issues and in some cases even many visits to the Chinese Consulate.
Anyway, it all happened two weeks before my departure… I was told “Do not go to the angry Chinese girl, but instead the grey-haired Italian man!”. Sadly, by the time I went the Italian man was gone, the Angry lady (if angry) was still there, but luckily there seemed to be a different Italian there as well. So I sad “I won’t go against the odds, so I might want to try someone more familiar”. I wish I thought this through a bit more, because the Italian guy who attended me made the whole process a lot more complicated and frustrating than I thought.
Basically there was no issue at all until the North Korea tour came up in the conversation with the Man. He had checked all my papers, requested a booking for every single night I was going to spend in China, flights details and bla bla bla, so to sum up I was entitled to a touristic visa. But as there was gap he wanted to know where I was going to go. The minute he heard me saying “North Korea! :)” he freaked out. He took back my tourist visa and nervously said “We cannot guarantee you be safe in there, so we cannot grant you a touristic visa. People cannot go to North Korea…” to which I impatiently replied “Yes, people can, I’m going since I’m in a tour plan, departing from Beijing. See? It is possible”. My inner patience thermometer was reaching a dangerous level, at some point he even said to me “It is not possible to go to North Korea, you need to go talk to the North Korean consulate, I cannot give you a tourist visa if you plan to go there, I mean… it’s a dangerous place, we cannot take responsibility for you”. Not wishing to be rude, I demanded to talk to Angry Lady as she dealt with my friends’ application and simply said “Can you please help us here? He evidently has no clue on what to do and you helped my friend getting everything done, so your help in here is much needed”. In the end, I signed 6 declarations, 6! All aiming to exonerate the consulate from any responsibility during my trip. Angry and all, the lady took one minute, and I got my two-entry visa. Yayy!
So, as the hardest part is over, let’s go back to the North Korean entry process. After getting the visa and having indeed flown over to China, you must be aware of the following pieces of advice:
Always show respect to the Koreans leaders and avoid offending the local guides and people. At certain places especially statues of the leaders we will often bow to show our respect according to the local customs.
You are not allowed to use the local currency in North Korea. In fact, you won’t even see a local bill or coin. Most of transactions are made in RMB (Chinese currency).
Professional video cameras are not allowed to be taken into the DPRK, but handheld digicams have recently been allowed as long as you don’t film anything you’re told not to! Regular digital still cameras are fine, for professional cameras, lenses less than250 mm are allowed- anything over that could be retained at customs until you depart.
E-books are fine, and normal books are OK as long as it’s not a Bible,Qu’ran or any other religious text. A couple of people were in trouble because they were bringing Bibles with them, so e-hem, no religious text book.
It is strongly recommend you bring gifts for your North Korean guides when you first arrive at the hotel, and have a ‘sit down’.
Having said this, you are ready to go and enjoy the most hermetic country on earth!
Stanito has tried everything to escape the soffocating heat of China: she had many showers, drank lots of water and iced tea which made her even thirstier, she developed a new addiction to AC, wore very little clothes, and still nothing worked out for her.