Archive for the ‘Travel Adventures’ Category


2017 – New Years Message

Categories: Travel Adventures
March 19, 2017


Wild Horizons began in 1985 as a photographic safari company, and I have always encouraged others to spend some of their hard-earned $$ on independent international travel. By “independent” I mean traveling alone or with one or two companions to places off the beaten path. Yes, travel takes you out of your comfort zone at times, but the rewards are enormous. Humanitarian and travel journalist Rick Steves sums it up well in this 2014 TEDx Talk: .  I believe that you will enjoy this humorous and enlightening 20-minute video. “Fear,” he says, “is for people who don’t get out very much.”  And fear is what our new President has been nurturing.


Luckily, I snagged a frequent flyer ticket to Fiji last year, allowing me to experience four totally different worlds:  First, the awesome new Tom Bradley International Terminal in LAX—I spent a full day there waiting for my 11-hour flight to Fiji and was fully entertained the whole time with awesome giant-screen videos in the concourses and shopping areas. Second, Musket Cove Resort, a 4.5-star hideaway where our meeting of the Iguana Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature was held (visit Third, a home stay with a park ranger’s extended family in a metropolitan suburb of Suva, Fiji’s capital city.  And fourth, another home stay in Ranger Mata’s small village on the remote island of Yadua—getting there required a full day that went like this:  a 20-min taxi ride, a 2-hour bus trip, a 3.5 hr ferry boat crossing, a 40-min taxi ride, and a 1-hour wet, bouncy ride to Yadua in a small open fishing boat propelled by a 40hp outboard motor.


Before this trip, all I knew about Fiji is that many planes stop there en route to  Australia (see map). Tourism is Fiji’s most important industry. Much to my surprise, I learned that there are over 300 islands in the Fijian archipelago, 108 of which support human populations, totaling 900,000. About 60% is ethnically Fijian, people who are primarily Melanesian but have close genetic ties with the Polynesians. As one would expect, the Fijian language contains elements from both Polynesia and Melanesia. English & Fijian are official languages, but Hindustani (a language adopted from India) is also widely spoken. Fiji’s political history has had its share of unrest, well summarized in this article:  And here’s an excellent introduction to cultural protocols for most visitors to Fiji:

Fijian hospitality is second-to-none, and in this friendly multi-cultural, multi-racial society, tolerance and peace prevail, most of the time. No less than 23 religious groups are represented in Fiji, the majority being Protestant Christians (more than 50%), Hindus (about 30%), Catholic (9%) and Muslims (6%). Although not evident to outsiders like myself, discrimination does occur (see Religious tension caused by “Christians” vandalizing non-Christian temples and mosques has been an on-going problem. The earlier, traditional Fijian religion was based on ancestor worship, and local gods were celebrated in legend and song. Fijians love to sing—and our group was greeted at resort islands with welcome songs and sent on our way with heart-warming farewell songs.

Evangelism is big in Fiji, and rural villages are tightly bound to Christianity. In Ranger Mata’s village on Yadua Island, a local Methodist minister visits every school classroom for 15 minutes twice each week, at 7:00pm villagers devote 8 minutes to daily prayer at home, fasting is expected every Wednesday from 6 a.m. to either 6 p.m. or midnight, and of course there’s church attendance on Sunday. Historically, Christianity reached Fiji early in the 19th Century. Religious historians attribute its rapid spread to the desire of indigenous people to gain the missionaries’ “mana”/power; and to do so one must worship his God. Fijians were attracted to the material wealth, weapons, and literary skills that Europeans brought to the islands. And some saw the spread of European diseases—smallpox, influenza, and measles—as punishment for disobeying the “white man’s God.”


Here’s a bit of front-page news in the Fiji Times that caught my eye during a ferryboat crossing. Formerly a British colony, Fiji gained its independence in 1970; and 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the end of indentured servitude in Fiji, known as the Girmit Era, which began in 1879. Because the Fijian people had little interest in working for the British, thousands of laborers/slaves were imported from India, mostly men, to work under “five year contracts” on sugar plantations, a program of deceit and oppression. A 1921 population census showed 84,475 Fijians, 60,634 Indians, and a balance of 12,117 Europeans, Chinese, Rotumans (a small, isolated indigenous ethnic group), and others. (


I discovered that modern Fiji is a peace-building society; and the people there are polite and soft-spoken. While exploring downtown Suva, I wondered about the significance of the large yellow ribbons tacked on trees. Turns out, the Yellow Ribbon Project Initiative, a concept borrowed from the Singapore Prison Service, was introduced into the Fiji Corrections Service in 2007. The goal is to put prisoners on a positive path for reintroduction into society. The program includes personality enhancement, academic and vocational training, and community service. Before being released from prison, inmates must also pass through a pre-release center for psychological rehabilitation to help with the transition back into society. This program is so effective, it has reduced the rate of repeat offenders from 50% to 3.6%!  Fijians take Nelson Mandela’s words seriously, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” The yellow ribbons serve as a reminder to the community to support ex-offenders (many of whom were imprisoned for theft or domestic violence) while adjusting to post-prison life.  And no, Fiji is not a gun-toting society, but firearms are allowed for sport (
Severe fines and life imprisonment deter the trafficking and unpermitted use of guns.

In contrast, the U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world; and as of 26 November 2016, 46% of our inmates have been locked up for “drug offenses.” Even though bills drafted to overhaul our criminal justice system received strong bipartisan support in Congress last year, they were caught up in the Presidential election and failed.  Here a summary of why, as explained in the NY Times: 
Furthermore, in a careful examination of facts related to New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” practice by metro police officers between 2004 and 2012, U.S. District Judge Scheindlin found that 83% of the 4.3 million people frisked by police were either black or Hispanic, and 90% of the stops were unjustified. Furthermore, whites who were frisked were far more likely to be carrying concealed weapons or contraband than non-whites. And, in comparing each group, a much smaller percentage of whites in violation of the law were incarcerated by police. By court order, this clear indication of racial profiling ended the NY Police Department’s failed “stop-and-frisk experiment.”  If you are interested, here’s the full text of the judge’s ruling:  I include this information because it’s new to me, it’s important, and our President-elect appears set on targeting minorities.
It’s also noteworthy that our 2016 Presidential election was foreshadowed by a steady growth of hate groups in America between 1999 and 2015 (now totaling 892), plus a dramatic rise of anti-government “patriot” groups immediately after our first black President took office (check out this map:

Life in Fijian villages is tightly governed by cultural protocols that visitors should respect. For example, no outsider should explore an island without a ceremonial invitation from the Village Chief (the “sevusevu,” see ). And before fishing or diving near an island or setting foot on any uninhabited island, visitors are expected to first formally ask permission from the Chief of the nearest village. When our conservation group arrived for a pre-conference field trip on Monuriki Island (aka Castaway Island, the uninhabited island where the movie CASTAWAY starring Tom Hanks was filmed), Chief Semisi Nacewa from neighboring Yanuya Island Village welcomed us with an informal seaside speech.

On far-away Yadua Island, Denimanu is the only village; and not long after my arrival, Ranger Mata advised me that the Chief was ready to receive me. Abiding by local etiquette, I wrapped a sarong-like “sulu” around my waist to cover my shorts and legs and followed Mata to the Chief’s house. Before entering, we removed hats, sunglasses, and shoes. Chief Jone Cakau was seated on the floor, cross-legged, and we quietly joined him. We presented two gifts, a half-kilo bundle of Kava root that I purchased in Suva and a DVD of my film DESERT DREAMS (this is one of the few Fijian villages with televisions—more on that later). Mata began speaking in a rapid monologue, and the Chief responded similarly. This exchange went back and forth for about 10-15 minutes, interrupted only by occasional claps with cupped hands (“cobos”) by both parties. When the time seemed right, I introduced myself as an educational media specialist with a desire to document village life on Yadua and photograph wildlife on their small nearby island Yadua Taba, home to 90-95% of the critically endangered Fiji Crested Iguana (Brachylophus vitiensis) population. Yadua Taba is an iguana sanctuary maintained by the National Trust of Fiji and Denimanu Village. Much to my surprise, most of these village people have never seen a live Crested Iguana.

Participants in Fijian sevusevu ceremonies normally drink “kava” (aka grog or yaqona) after introductions have been made.  Kava, Piper methysticum (meaning ‘intoxicating pepper’ in Latin) is a relative of black pepper, Piper nigrum. Dried roots of this crop are pulverized, put in cloth bags, and soaked/squeezed in a bowl of water to make a drink with mild sedative and anesthetic properties. On Yadua, the Methodist Church forbids kava or tobacco use during the first week of each month. My visit fell in the first week of November, so, much to my relief, no kava drinking was expected. In Suva, I had several opportunities to partake, but being nauseated by black pepper, I chose not to risk it.


Community-based management of marine resources, known as qoliqoli, has been effective in Fiji for hundreds of years. This includes seasonal bans on fishing and the use of temporary no-take areas. In contemporary Fiji there is increasing pressure on the coral reefs and inshore fisheries, with dwindling catches reported all over. A growing cash economy, destructive fishing practices, weak enforcement, and the effects of climate change have all contributed to the decline  ( and 

By carefully designing a qoliqoli program for sustainable fishing in 1997, community leaders began a Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA) network in Fiji. This program includes educational community workshops, enforcement of no fishing regulations in Marine Protected Areas, and a ban on destructive practices such as dynamite- or cyanide-fishing and dumping waste in the ocean. The program has been so successful, by 2005 it had been adopted by 52 communities and copied by other South Pacific nations. At that time, the Fiji Government committed to finance the management of at least 30% of its inshore waters by 2020.  But keep in mind that enforcement requires funding for boats and fuel, always in short supply. On some maps, you’ll see a huge Marine Protected Area around Yadua’s fringing reef—I was saddened to hear that this MPA has been “de-listed” because publicizing it has done more harm than good by attracting poachers to the area (see

Fijian leaders take climate change and education very seriously. Fiji was the first country in the world to complete its domestic processes to ratify the Paris Agreement, and the Prime Minister said his country would do everything possible to secure its rapid ratification ( Increasing hurricane ferocity has wrecked coral reefs and coastal villages. Yadua, which had one of the most stunning coral reefs in Fiji was hit hard by Hurricane Evan in 2013, and many homes were wrecked. With government aid, new houses were built (mostly of wood and corrugated tin) and some traditional homes (bures) were restored. Because traditional wood frame and thatch construction can bend and sway without collapsing, bures are relatively well adapted to cope with cyclones and earthquakes.

Early in 2016, Tropical Cyclone Winston, the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the South Pacific Basin, wreaked havoc on Fiji. This Category 5 storm significantly affected 40% of Fiji’s widespread population. It damaged 40,000 homes and will have lasting effects on agriculture, the marine environment, and tourism. The weather was unfavorable for diving during my visit, so I had only one opportunity to snorkel over a coral reef, and it was extremely disappointing.  I know what a healthy coral reef should look like, and in the Caribbean, I’ve seen seen two of its most beautiful reefs turned to rubble by hurricanes. Recovery will take decades, IF it’s even possible nowadays.
Small changes in ocean temperature and chemistry have huge consequences for marine ecosystems. Ocean acidification+warming disturbs the delicate balance between corals and micro-algae. Warmer, more acidic water favors the growth of micro-algae. Proliferation of micro-algae limits the growth and recovery of corals by attacking them with chemical defenses and trapping sediment that smothers coral larvae ( ). This leads to coral “bleaching,” decline in fisheries, and lost tourism $$.

Sea cucumbers help to keep algal blooms under control, but they are vanishing from the Pacific sea floor, driven by the Chinese demand for these slug-like animals for use in food and medicine. To see a cool cucumber video clip and to understand their importance in nutrient cycling, check out this blog:  Easy to catch and easily turned into cash, sea cucumbers are taken, dried, and sold whenever found by local fishermen. One large animal can fetch as much as F$100 (about US$50).  On Yadua, wealth from selling sea cucumbers to middlemen in the Chinese market has allowed villagers to purchase televisions, appliances, and solar panels, things rarely seen in other rural Fijian villages ( Cash “crops” like this are great for the local economy, but studies indicate that once gone, sea cucumber populations may never recover.


Fijians love to be photographed, and most, especially children, pose with a warm smile and a two-finger gesture, either a “V” peace/solidarity sign or a thumb+pinkie “hang loose” gesture in surfer culture, also known as the “shaka” sign, a common Hawaiian greeting. In the UK, Australia, and South Africa, making a “V” sign with back of the hand facing out is an “up-yours” gesture; those with the palm facing outward signal “peace” or “victory.” Cultures differ, and in Fiji I discovered that no special meaning is given to the hand position, so don’t be offended if someone there flashes a friendly “V” with the back of the hand facing you. And, BTW, in Fiji, I saw no children throwing temper tantrums and no crying babies—except one that broke into tears when she saw me.

As a New Year’s message, I urge everyone to consider what is really best for our nation and our planet. Brace yourself for a stormy new year. This is no time for complacency—stay focused and get involved!
John Lennon’s song “Give Peace a Chance” became the anthem of the antiwar movement in 1969. Everyone knows the song’s refrain, but having never read the lyrics, I decided to close with this timely plea for peace.
Ni Sa Bula Vinaka!  (which means much more than “hello”+”thank you” – it’s the Fijian way to express wishes for one’s happiness and good health).

“Give Peace a Chance,”
an Aerosmith version of John Lennon’s song
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance
Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
This-ism, that-ism, ism ism, I don’t know
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance
Yeah c’mon
Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout
Minister, Sinister, Banisters and Canisters,
Bishops, Fishops, Rabbis, and Pop Eyes, Bye bye, Bye byes
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance
Let me tell you now
Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout
Revolution, Evolution, Masturbation, Flagellation, Regulation,
Integrations, mediations, United Nations, congratulations
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance
Fight for peace, it’s peace that we need
Too many died, too much mouth to feed
(?) for the good of the peace
Why punch them for what they never did
Forget the past and learn to forgive
Everything on Earth has a right to live
Whether you are black and whether you are white
Stop this and let us unite
All we are saying is give peace a chance . . .

[repeated 10 times]

Bula vinaka!
Thomas Wiewandt
Valentine’s Day, 14 February 2017



Categories: Travel Adventures
November 15, 2010

November 7-14, 2010 :: Each year I look forward to at least one major photographic journey, usually tied to my participation in a conservation conference sponsored by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (the group that compiles the Red List of Threatened Species). Its mission is to conserve the world’s biodiversity. This organization coordinates 120 specialist groups of the Species Survival Commission, groups that focus on everything from dragonflies and Arabian plants to wild pigs and flamingos. Most members have full-time jobs and the work carried out on behalf of the Specialist Groups is volunteer service. I’m a member of the Iguana Specialist Group/ISG. Although not an active field researcher today, I have deep roots in the iguana world. For my doctoral research way back when, I completed a three-year ecological study of iguanas on Mona Island, Puerto Rico, and this became the focus of my first documentary film – An Island Shall A Monster Make – completed under sponsorship from the BBC and narrated by David Attenborough.

Our 14th ISG Meeting was hosted by Cuba, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. If you’re curious about Cuba, read on. Most of the ISG team flew from Miami to Havana on a special charter sanctioned by the U.S. Dept. of Treasury. Unlike Europeans, Canadians, South Americans, and most other people of the world who can travel freely to/from Cuba, U.S. Citizens cannot simply jump on a plane and fly to Havana. Under the most enduring trade embargo in modern history, a commercial, economic, and financial embargo against Cuba that started in 1960 has persisted to this day. Travel to and from Cuba is thereby restricted, unless authorized under a conditional Travel Affidavit or License granted by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control.

In reality, however, travel to Cuba is easy if one first flies to a foreign port of entry to catch a flight to Havana. Cuba reported 2.5 million tourists in 2009, with Canada topping the list with close to 915,000 visitors, followed by Great Britain at 172,000 and Spain at 129,000. Excluding Cuban-Americans, Cuba reported over 52,000 tourists arriving from the United States in 2009. Cubans welcome American visitors warmly. Immigration officials will stamp your visa instead of your passport when entering and leaving their country. But don’t try bringing anything other than arts and crafts back to the USA. Branded Cuban cigars, for example, will land you in deep trouble if found by a U.S. Customs Agent. I decided to enter Cuba via Grand Cayman, allowing me to extend my trip an extra 12 days to visit colleagues engaged in iguana conservation projects in the Cayman Islands (I’ll save this experience for an upcoming blog in 2011).

I ended up spending 19 days in Cuba (November 5-24), barely enough time to scratch the surface. Our group of about 47 non-Cuban attendees was bussed from Havana to Guanahacabibes National Park, which flanks Cuba’s southwestern coast. There we were joined by about 14 Cuban biologists and park officials for a weeklong conference, which included field trips. The camaraderie was exceptional. We had comfortable rooms at a government-owned dive resort, with buffet-style meals.

Elsewhere, I stayed in “casa particulares,” government-regulated private accommodations comparable to bed-and-breakfast lodging in the States. Of the seven places I stayed, the rooms were well-kept, had a private bath, hot water, and AC; and some came equipped with a refrigerator, telephone, and TV. Rooms with a kitchenette went for US$42/night, without a kitchen for $30/night (price is the same for two guests). Hosts (all super-friendly) occasionally serve dinner for an extra $10/person, and most serve a full breakfast for $6 (typically eggs, sausage, bread, a plate of fresh fruit, juice, and coffee/tea).

Yes, the Cuban diet is far less varied than outsiders are accustomed to, but I found the food healthy, appetizing, and often elegantly served. Towns are orderly and clean, and the people appear to be in better physical shape than most Americans (Cubans don’t live on junk food and have no McDonald’s, Taco Bells or other fast-food restaurants in their country). For a realistic overview of food rationing in Cuba, go to I drank bottled water throughout my stay but ate all freshly prepared fruits and vegetables without any digestive upsets. Given my record of food-related ills suffered in Mexico, I was pleasantly surprised by this experience.

After the conference, I rented a car and hired guides to help me to explore areas west and south of Havana. Most roads are unmarked so having a guide made the experience more enjoyable and productive. My primary goal was to photograph species unique to Cuba, a tall order given that 35% of the 34 species of mammals are endemic (mostly bats); 7% of the 368 species of birds are endemic; 83% of the 166 species of reptiles are endemic; and 95% of the island’s 62 species of amphibians are endemic. I succeeded in photographing 5 species of birds, one mammal, 12 reptiles, 4 frogs/toads, 2 orchids, and 9 species of land snails, all of which are unique to Cuba! And of course I couldn’t resist photographing Cuban culture, ranging from cigar box art and ox carts to vintage American cars and toys made from discarded aluminum cans.

Needless to say, I had generous help along the way from several Cuban biologists. Some species were photographed in captivity, others in the wild. I spent about two hours in Cuba’s Natural History Museum documenting endemic land snails, which I compiled in Photoshop to make my 2010 holiday e-card. Although these colorful land snails are protected by Cuban law, they remain treasured by collectors and are becoming scarce. Stopping those who supply them to domestic and international markets has been an on-going conservation concern.

On one closing note, I’d like to add that Cuba stands among the world’s leaders in their active support for conservation. Fidel Castro’s regime has contributed much to the island’s ecological well-being, partly by default but much by design. More than 22% of Cuba’s land is under some form of protection, proportionally among the highest worldwide ( — this is a website you won’t want to miss if you are planning a trip to Cuba).  ~ TW

Holiday greeting card featuring land snails unique to Cuba, most in the genus Polymita, commonly called "Painted Snails."

Vendor in a Havana Art Market selling loose Polymita land snails and jewelry made from them as souvenirs for tourists.


Wild Costa Rica

Categories: Travel Adventures
November 18, 2008

A storm was brewing when my plane touched down in San Jose, Costa Rica, late at night. After making my way to a motel in Santa Ana, I crashed around 1:00a.m.  Just as I was about to doze off, the room began to rock. I wasn’t sure at first if this was a low blood sugar attack, a poorly constructed hotel shaking under heavy gusts of wind (I was on the second floor), or an earthquake.  After three rounds of rocking and rolling, I decided it must be a quake – on the plane I had read that there are active volcanoes near San Jose.  The next morning, I learned we were rocked by a 6.4 quake centered in the Pacific Ocean off the Panamanian coast . . . a bad omen perhaps.

Wind and rain changed my plans over the next few days.  This was the first of two big storms from the north that hit the Caribbean side of the country while I was there, flooding the lowlands and displacing about 40,000 people from their homes. So I focused on five other regions:  the Central Valley west of San Jose; Quepos and Manuel Antonio on the Pacific Coast; the Monteverde cloud forest; Arenal Volcano (and hot springs); and La Paz Waterfall Gardens north of San Jose.  To get around, I rented a little Suzuki Jimny 4×4.  But driving is more of a challenge than fun in Costa Rica, a bit like being IN a video game, especially frustrating because street names and building numbers are virtually non-existent.  Had it not been for a GPS unit I rented with the vehicle, finding places would have become one misadventure after another.

One of my favorite shooting locales in Costa Rica turned out to be the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a private reserve near the epicenter of a 6.2 earthquake that struck a month after my return to the States.  The quake and its 2000 aftershocks triggered more than 246 landslides in this steep, mountainous, rain-drenched terrain near Poas Volcano.  About 40 people died, 2,238 people were displaced from their homes, and 128,135 people in 61 communities were impacted in the nation’s Central Valley (Costa Rica is a little smaller than West Virginia). Repairs to roads damaged by the landslides are expected to cost $15 million (in a country with a Gross Domestic Product of only $26 billion).  So for Costa Rica, this was a significant disaster; even though it came through international news as little more than a blip on their radar.

La Paz’s centerpiece attraction is a precipitous gorge cut by a cascading river, accessible via a walkway (at least 1/4 mile long) with stairways engineered into the cliff, bringing visitors close to the roar and spray of the waterfalls — truly an awesome attraction. I carried an umbrella to protect my camera gear from the spray. Reports suggest that landslides destroyed this cliffside trail with its gazillion steps and lush tropical overgrowth, not to mention the wonderful plant and animal exhibits on higher ground.

Follow-up: Fortunately, both La Paz and the adjacent Peace Lodge, under the same ownership, are being rebuilt and reopened six months after the quake.  While there, I stayed nearby with a Russian family owning casitas for rent on the edge of the canyon.  I fear they may have lost everything in the quake – no news yet on that front.  ~ TW

View of stairway in the La Paz River gorge before January 2009 earthquake, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica

View of stairway in the La Paz River gorge before January 2009 earthquake, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica

View of lush tropical vegetation overhanging the La Paz River at the bottom of the river gorge before the January 2009 earthquake, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica

View of lush tropical vegetation overhanging the La Paz River at the bottom of the river gorge before the January 2009 earthquake, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica

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