The West and Rivers

I decided to go on a little road trip before leaving for a stint in the northeast. I ended up driving 1044 miles. I headed west on I-70 along the Colorado River and stopped in Glenwood Springs for a night to visit a friend. I then continued west into Utah until I reached route 191 and headed south until entering the Navajo Nation. I set up camp in Monument Valley. The moon like landscape, vast open sky, and the red earth in this corner of the world I find visually intoxicating. As I set up camp the sun was setting and rain started to lightly fall. Distant storms could be seen in the landscape and the falling rain created what looked like paint strokes in the sky. It was a sight I could sit and watch over and over again.

The next day I stopped along the San Juan River a tributary of the Colorado River that serves as a major source of irrigation for farming communities in the Navajo Nation. Two years ago the river was tainted when the Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colorado burst and flooded the Animas river (a tributary to the San Juan River) with 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater. The river ran yellow for days. I produced a piece for the Guardian when the incident occurred. According to the EPA there are over 160,000 abandoned mines in the west. Contamination from these sites have created ongoing public health and environmental issues. I am working on a project about abandoned mine sites in Colorado and captured additional footage of the river using a 360 VR camera that I am borrowing from an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

After two days in Utah I headed back east, into Colorado and stopped in Durango to walk along the Animas River and capture footage. From there I drove to the San Juan Mountains, the headwaters of the Rio Grande, and camped along the river. I navigated the trip with stopping points by rivers because I am fascinated by waterways and how they are a part of an even larger water cycle that is fundamental to all life on our planet.

That evening I watched the sunset produce rays of light that looked like glitter dancing on the water. When the last of the day light faded from the sky I laid awake listening to the current of the river as it wound through the forest next to me and thought about the enormous journey of the river, flowing from the snowcapped Rocky Mountains, through the great plains of the southwest until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. It is an awe-inspiring journey from source to sea.

As my attention moved from the rhythm of the river to the starry sky I thought about time and how it seems to expand while traveling. This is especially true compared to daily life in a familiar place. This past year has flown by so fast. It is strange to be overwhelmed by the passage of time but considering how fleeting and impermanent our experiences are I find myself wanting to appreciate life and the journey I am on so much recently. Overall, I hope my trajectory continues to be filled with the capacity to move through the world openly, fearlessly, and with just as much appreciation.

Below are a few photographs and drawings from the trip..

Syrians In Jordan

Below is a photo series I worked on this summer entitled Syrians in Jordan. Depending on whose estimates you look at there are somewhere between 630,000 and 1.27 million Syrian refugees living in Jordan. The photographs were taken in three different locations: In the Zaatari Refugee Camp located 8 miles from the border of Syria, the camp is currently one of the largest refugee camps in the world. In the city of Mafraq in northern Jordan, the population of Mafraq has doubled since the start of the Syrian conflict. The final location is in Amman, the capital of Jordan.

Nibi Walk on the St. Louis River

The set of images below were captured in northern Minnesota. I was invited to attend the Nibi “Water” Walk along the St. Louis River by Sharon Day. Sharon is an Ojibwe elder and a Midewin which means her spiritual practice is to care for the water. Sharon also works for the Indigenous Peoples Task Force which is an awesome organization that sponsored my trip to Minnesota to document the walk.

The water walks are meant to not only spread awareness about issues relating to water but to honor and pray for the spirit of the water. The St. Louis River starts 13 miles east of Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota and flows into Lake Superior which is considered the largest freshwater lake in the world. In 1987 the St. Louis river was listed as an “Area of Concern” by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Public records state that advisories have been issued due to the presence of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls that exceed the standards established in the agreement. Northern Minnesota has a long history of mining. If you take a moment to look at an aerial photo on google maps of Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota (and zoom out) you can see the vast open-pit iron ore mines. According to USGS approximately two thirds of the steel made in America originates as taconite from mines in Minnesota.

There is currently a proposal from PolyMet Mining Corporation to build a sulfide mine called the NorthMet Project. The mine would be located between Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. The site is located on public land in the Superior National Forest and is near the Embarrass and Partridge Rivers, which subsequently flows into the St. Louis River…. and into Lake Superior which supplies millions of people with drinking water.

The proposal is to develop an open-pit mine to extract copper, nickel and other metals. Sulfide mining is different from the traditional mining that has taken place in northern Minnesota because sulfuric acid is produced when rain falls on sulfide ore waste. The sulfide waste will need to be managed and treated for hundreds of years. It is very hazardous to the environment and to public health. Acid mine drainage is currently a huge problem in places like Pennsylvania and my current home state of West Virginia due to the vast amount of mining that has taken place. Currently, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service, and Army Corps of Engineers are viewing public comments about the proposal.

The proposed mine is a very large environmental and public health topic throughout the state, and it was also a fundamental narrative of the St. Louis water walk. During the walk we passed numerous large mining sites. Several trains filled with taconite rolled by us and disappeared into the horizon. In the small mining town of Towers a large welcoming banner hung over head stating, “We Support Mining.” The same slogan could be seen around town on posters that hung outside stores and restaurants. I met a young native girl the first night I arrived in northern Minnesota who said she barely sees her father because he gets home late and leaves very early to go to work in the mines. The story is complicated and there are a lot of different lenses to see it through. I am currently working on trying to go back to spend more time in northern Minnesota to capture more interviews and produce a larger film about the topic.

At the beginning of the journey we walked through Superior National Forest. It was an incredibly beautiful and peaceful experience. The tamarack trees were a bright yellow and the sky seemed so incredibly blue. The walk started on rural dirt roads that slowly grew into large paved streets and highways as we continued to get closer to Duluth. The road gradually became smaller again as we entered Jay Cooke state park and continued through the park to a boat dock. From there we took a boat onto Spirit Island. The sacred island was a stopping place in the migration of the Anishinaabe people from the northeastern part of the continent. It was here that the ceremony ended and the water was released back into the river.

A short film about the journey will be available online in the next few weeks.

Frack Waste Injection Well Site – Concerned Residents in the Fayette Plateau

Below are images from a short film about an injection well site that is owned and operated by Danny Webb Construction, located in Lochgelly, WV. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) gave Danny Webb a class II injection well permit in 2002. The permit allows for the dumping of waste from oil and natural gas industries. The creek located next to the site is the headwaters of Wolf Creek which leads directly into the New River, upstream from the current water intake for the surrounding areas.

The film exposes years of violations at the site. In 2007, resident Brad Keenan presented evidence to the West Virginia DEP that toxic and radioactive waste was polluting Wolf Creek. The footage in the film was captured seven years later and features residents Brad Keenan, Mary Rahall, former employee Peter Halverson, and restaurant owner Wendy Bays.

Mountaintop Removal and Slurry Impoundments – From the ground and in the air

I have been working on stories about resource extraction in West Virginia since November. One of my first interviews in the Coal River Valley was with Junior Walk. During the interview he called West Virginia, “A resource colony that powers the rest of the country.” As I spent more time in the region and saw the impacts of the coal industry on communities and the environment, I found that Junior’s words resonated more clearly.

Below are a set of images captured on the ground and in the air of Mountaintop Removal in Southern West Virginia and of the Brushy Fork Impoundment.

Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is a form of surface mining that involves the mining of the summit ridge of a mountain. During the beginning stages of mountaintop removal, all topsoil and vegetation is removed. Trees are often not used commercially, but are burned and dumped into valley fills. 

The series below includes an image of the Brushy Fork Slurry Impoundment which is only a few miles from the towns of Whitesville and Sylvester. Coal slurry is the substance left over after the process of “cleaning coal.” Before coal is burned in a power plant it is taken to a coal preparation plant where it is washed with chemicals prior to shipping the coal to market. In January, MCHM, a chemical that is used in the process of cleaning coal, spilled into the Elk River in Charleston, polluting the drinking water of over 300,000 people.

Brushy Fork Slurry impoundment owned by Massey Energy is 900 feet high and will hold 8.168 billion gallons of slurry once it is completed. The impoundment currently holds 7.8 billon gallons of toxic sludge and is the largest earthen dam in the United States. By taking a quick look at google map one can see that there are dozens of slurry impoundments throughout the state of West Virginia.

The series below also includes an image of the Jarrell Family Cemetery which is now a small island of land surrounded by mountaintop removal mining. Hidden under the trees on this patch of land is where generations of families from Appalachia are buried. The mining site surrounding the cemetery is called the Twilight Surface Mine. It was once owned by Massey Energy and is now owned by Alpha Natural Resources

A special thanks to South Wings for helping me get access to photograph the images.

Ohio River - Nibi Water Walk

The beginning of May I joined the Nibi “Water” Walk along the Ohio River. The walk is led by Sharon Day “Singing Wolf.”  Sharon is an Ojibwe native from Northern Minnesota. The walk began in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and continued 981 miles to Cairo, Illinois where the Ohio River empties into the Mississippi. The entire journey is a ceremony to heal and honor the water. I met the group just a few miles north of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. While walking one person carries a vessel of water from the headwaters of the Ohio and an eagle feather.

Sharon Day has led several long distance water walks throughout the USA. After walking the Mississippi in 2013 she learned a lot about the Ohio River and decided to organize a walk along the river for the following year. The Ohio river is the largest tributary of the Mississippi and the most polluted river in the United States, making it a large contributor to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

“As Ojibwe women we are responsible to care for the water, and to pray for it. All the water we have on this earth is all we will ever have and only a small amount of it is useable for human consumption. Our values need to shift so we can begin to understand that water is sacred.”

Here is a short film that I produced about the walk.  https://vimeo.com/97288672

To learn more about the Nibi Walks visit  www.nibiwalk.com

Carnival Jacmel Haiti

This year I made a pretty last minute decision to go to carnival in Jacmel. I fell in love with the coastal city when visiting in 2010. Jacmel is known as the art capital of Haiti. This is one reason I was drawn to the city and continue to be completely inspired by the place.

People in Jacmel have always told me how incredible carnival is. I was told about the music, costumes and the paper mache masks that flood the streets but the extent of what is produced and exhibited at carnival is really quite unimaginable.

I think my friend Aaron Funk, an American now resident of Jacmel, describes the Jacmel carnival experience best, “Insane-yes. Unforgettable-yes. Beautiful-yes. A little dangerous-yes again. Life changing – guaranteed.” I would definitely recommend visiting this beautiful caribbean city and taking an extended trip in February for carnival to explore what can only be experienced in Jacmel. For a short preview of the event check out the images posted below…

Kenscoff to Peredo – Haiti

I started the year off in Haiti doing a hike from Kenscoff to Peredo with my friend Charlie. I have always wanted to do the hike and heard a lot about it while living in Haiti in the past. The scenery was incredibly beautiful. Here are a few images I captured while making the trek.

Photo Shoot with – The Scarecrows

Below are a selection of images from a photo shoot with a band called The Scarecrows.  My good friend Ernie Garcia is one of the singer song writers from the band. We did the shoot near the Potomac river.

Singer-Songer Jules Kehr

Last week I did a photo shoot with Jules Kehr. Jules is a young singer-song writer from Ohio. I met Jules at a performance in Shippensburg, PA and was immediately captivated by her authentic performance and sound. That same evening I was introduced to her and was equally impressed by her person. Jules is one of those unique souls that wonders the world. Her presence and perspective make you take a second look at what it means to love and its importance in the world. She is an incredibly wise and talented young lady with a lot of important things to say (and sing) about.

Check out her music below and images of our shoot together.

Musician Ray Cressler

I recently had the opportunity to drag a piano into the woods and into an alley to capture some images of a very talented musician from South Central Pennsylvania. You can check out Ray’s music here. The main reason for setting up these two scenes was actually to capture ray performing one of his songs for a music video that I am producing for him. The song is entitled Weary Weary. With the scene, the piano, and Ray’s performance, I am confident we have captured some awesome footage to work with.  Stay tuned for when it is complete sometime in the next month!

Shea Communities in Northern Ghana

I have been meaning to post on here sooner about my trip to Ghana in June with the Global Shea Alliance (GSA). The Alliance is a non-profit organization that helps support rural women’s empowerment through the sale of shea.

Personally, I love shea and really had no idea what it was until about a year ago when I met Funlayo Alabi, the co-founder of Shea Radiance. I now use shea almost everyday. It’s used on skin, in hair care products, and in the manufacturing of chocolate. Shea grows only in the African Savanna and is collected by rural women who then process it into butter. It has incredible healing properties and has been used in rural communities in Africa for centuries. This June I was contracted by the GSA to create a series of educational videos about Shea. 

While in Ghana I also worked on a personal project of portrait images of the women who collect the shea fruit. During the project I was based in Tamale and would wake up at 5am and travel to Kanfiehiyili or Naypala, small shea producing villages located right outside of Tamale. The women start collecting the fruit very early in the morning. Inside the fruit is the nut that produces the butter. Millions of women in shea producing nations in Africa try to make a living collecting and processing the nuts into butter.

Superstorm Sandy Six Month Retrospective

The images below offer us an opportunity to look back and reflect on the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy and to honor the communities, families, homes, business owners, and volunteers who have been involved in the tremendous clean up effort.

The images on the left were taken shortly after Superstorm Sandy made landfall on the east coast on October 29, 2012. The images on the right were taken at the same location, six months after the storm.

The series can also be viewed at www.hands.org a US based non-profit I have been working with since the storm made landfall.

Shea Community in Nigeria

I arrived back in the USA March 9th after an intense week of travel to the Global Shea Alliance (GSA) in Abuja, Nigeria. I learned a lot about the Shea industry while at the conference and met several contacts from the West African Trade Hub, and the GSA. Mostly, I met a lot of beautiful African women who work with cooperatives throughout Nigeria or in the shea industry in some fashion. After the conference I traveled north of Abuja to visit a small village where a shea producing cooperative is based. While there I found out that the women had traveled 6 hours, round trip, daily from the village to Abuja to attend training sessions at the conference.

I was really impressed by the classes that were conducted by Shea Radiance and other attendees at the conference. Shea Radiance is the company that hosted my attendance. I have been working with them for almost a year now. It was clear that they worked tirelessly to provide the women with a meaningful learning experience.

My last night in Nigeria I was tired, still jet legged, and unable to sleep. I laid awake and thought about Africa, and how rich the continent should be. It is a place filled with resources that are extracted in abundance. These resources are voraciously consumed in places outside of Africa. Resources such as coltan, diamonds, and oil. Coltan alone is used to manufacture billions of dollars worth of equipment that we in the Western world use daily, a.k.a, this laptop I am currently typing on, the iPhone sitting next to me, and in the satellites floating in space. What is utterly apparent, is that the trade of resources in Africa have not been mutually benefiting there place of origin and has been met throughout history with exploitation and conflict.

However, when thinking about the future, and the production of shea particularly, their remains a lot of hope for change. What makes shea unique from other resources is that the production of shea is traditionally considered women’s work. For centuries women have collected the nuts that grow on trees that can only be found in the Savanna. They cultivate the nut into butter, to use on their skin, and in food. Women use the profits from shea to feed their children and pay for their education. Shea has become a crucial ingredient in cosmetics and other products around the world. Now more then ever their is focus on how to change industry standards and the ways of the past. Consumers are more aware of the importance of their choices and want to support companies that are socially and environmentally responsible.

There are no perfect solutions to any problem. But in a globalizing world issues regarding trade need to be addressed so the community does not become (or remain) disenfranchised, and marginalized. Many rural communities are deprived of knowledge and unaware of the value of their local resources. At the GSA in Abuja, hundreds of women traveled from remote villages across Nigeria, commuting hours daily to attend classes at the conference. These women are filled with a desire to learn, and acquire knowledge that will improve their lives. Their actions reflect an unrelenting hope for a better future. I just hope that we can be part of changing that future for the better.

Portrait series and photos from cooperative below.

Abuja Nigeria to the Global Shea Alliance

Tomorrow I am leaving to travel to Abuja, Nigeria to attend the Global Shea Alliance. I am attending the conference with Shea Radiance. A company that produces natural hair and body care products made with shea butter. I started working with Shea Radiance as a contract photographer and videographer about 10 months ago, photographing products, events, and creating multimedia pieces.

Shea Radiance works closely with women’s shea producing cooperatives in Northern Nigeria. By sourcing shea from the cooperatives the company is helping to empower the local economy and lives of the women that work at the cooperatives.

When arriving in Abuja we will first attend the Global Shea Alliance conference for three days. The focus on the conference is to enhance a sustainable and competitive Shea industry that is environmentally and socially responsible. Shea Radiance is conducting a workshop at the conference to teach business owners from 17 west African countries how to produce body care products from locally sourced ingredients like shea. After the training, we will be heading to the cooperatives to a much more rural part of the country North of Abuja.

Bosnia: The Next Generation

The images posted in this entry were shot while traveling throughout Bosnia. It has been 20 years since the start of the Bosnian war. While visiting the country I was inspired to shoot a series of photographs of the cityscape of Sarajevo and buildings in the city that remain as relics of the war. There is a stark contrast in seeing new buildings sit beside these old relics. Some have transformed, masking over wounds of the past, while others remain much the same as they were after the war. The contrast of the old and new is fascinating because it reflects the transformation of the country, yet serves as a tragic reminder of the war. 

The country has moved forward and rebuilt its infrastructure since the war ended; However, the scars and memories are still evident in the cityscape and in the hearts of those who lived through the conflict. I was surprised how many people were open to talk with me about the war. Oliver Dujmović, a resident of Sarajevo who lived through the siege, told me that when speaking about the past and the present time is often divided by “what happened before the war and what happened after the war.” He recalled once how a missile landed on the side of his roof but did not explode. Oliver actually found a way to open the missile in order to extract the fuel which he used to cook with. The city was deprived of resources during the four year siege so people had to be resourceful. Food aid was transported through an underground tunnel that connected to the airport. During our conversation Oliver stated “It’s crazy the things you do to survive – things you never would imagine you were capable of doing. We lived in a state of fear for years. Even when leaving your home you risked being shot by a sniper.”

Understanding Bosnia’s religious and ethnic groups is an important part of understanding the conflict. Bosnia’s population is 44% Bosniaks (Muslims), 31% Bosnian Serb (Eastern Orthodox Christians), and 17% Bosnian Croats (Roman Catholics).

The war started during the fall of former Yugoslavia after President Tito’s death. Serbian nationalists wanted to centralize Yugoslavia. However, in 1992, the Bosniak and Croat population formed a majority which voted to secede from Yugoslavia. The Bosnian-Serb minority boycotted this decision and rebelled. With the support of the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the aid of Yugoslav Army troops, and Bosnian-Serb militias, two-thirds of Bosnia was seized.

As the war continued, Bosnian-Serb militias attempted to ethnically cleanse Bosnia’s Muslim and the Croat population from what was considered “Serb-held territories”.  It is estimated that 20,000 Muslim women and girls were thrown into rape camps. Research places the number of people killed during the war around 100,000–110,000.

When reflecting on the history of a war, the realization that people are capable of committing collective atrocities like this remains incomprehensible and tragic. It makes one question our humanity and what the future holds for our species and the world. Ultimately it reflects how primitive we still are.

Today Bosnia is divided, half known as the Republika Srpska, also referred to as the Serb Republic, and the other half is Bosnia and Herzegovina. The US government intervened in 1995 with The Dayton Agreement which was signed by President Bill Clinton. The Agreement was intended to stop the conflict. The agreement ended the war but created an intense division. 

While Aaron and I were taking the train from Sarajevo to Zagreb, I met a young Muslim man about my age. He had grown up only a short time in Bosnia. His family was granted political asylum in Belgium during the war.  He now lives in Bosnia working with a large international corporation. He said that to this day, when his parents drive through the part of Bosnia known as the Republika Srpska they do not stop anywhere even if they are hungry. They would rather wait, however long it took, to get back to Bosnia and Herzegovina to buy food because they do not want to support the economy of Republika Srpska. Ironically, as we were speaking, we had just entered the Republika Srpska and I asked him where he was headed. He said he had a friend who lived in Banja Luka. On occasion he and his friends would meet some nice girls there but as soon as they heard his last name, a Muslim name, the conversation would stop. 

Before leaving Sarajevo, Aaron and I went to a coffee shop downtown. There we met a young waitress who had grown up in Sarajevo as the city rebuilt itself in the wake of all the destruction from the war.  I asked her how she felt about the country being divided and if she held any resentment towards Serbs. She responded by saying “The older generation carries a lot of hate with them. The only way we can move forward is to start seeing each other as people, not by our ethnic or religious groups. The younger generation is starting to open up to that idea, which is the only way there will ever be peace in Bosnia.” I felt those were very wise and hopeful words not only for the future of Bosnia but the world as a whole.

Haiti – A Nations Persistence

Recently I received a grant from Shippensburg University to be a visiting speaker this month and exhibit my photography from Haiti. I spoke to several classes both graduate and undergraduate about my experiences there. While speaking to classes about some of the events and pressing issues the country faces I also spoke in depth about the NGO world in Haiti and government funded organizations like USAID that work there. 

There are more NGOs per capita in Haiti then any other country in the world. NGOs and federally funded organizations like USAID have been present in Haiti for the last 30 years. A good question to ask is why Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world when they appear to be receiving so much assistance?

Many large NGOs I encountered have a very limited level of community involvement and waste a large amount of resources. Another unfortunate truth is that there are many powerful organizations supporting their own economic and ideological agendas and not always the interest of the Haitian people.

While living in Haiti I met many people who I am blessed to know. People who inspire me with their actions, people who have fully invested their lives to creating change and improving their country regardless of the seemly insurmountable obstacles they face.

People like my friend Fritz Desulme who has planted over 875,000 trees in his country to combat the problem of deforestation. And Natacha Marseille – Her parents were unable to take care of her when she was young so she grew up in an orphanage. She now runs her own orphanage and manages a school that consist of 200 kindergarten and primary children in a poor area of Port au Prince.

What I have learned in Haiti is that the solutions to the problems in Haiti can only come from within. What I have learned is that real change can only happen on the community level, when there is full community investment and involvement.

My recommendation to anyone interested in donating to help Haiti is to find a non-profit that deeply knows its community and works alongside the Haitian people.
Here is a list of organizations I would recommend donating to.

Partners in Health www.pih.org

VivTimoun www.vivtimoun.org

Trees for Life  www.treesforlife.org/haiti

The grant was supported by the Communication/Journalism Department, in collaboration with the Lehman Library, the Modern Language Department and the Women’s and Gender Studies Minor.
Here are a few of the photographs that are on display at the Lehman Gallery on the Shippensburg University campus. They will be hanging from April 2 – 27.

Chilburam Hermitage

Chuseok weekend came quickly and I had some ideas about what I wanted to do but nothing planned. Aaron and I woke up around 10 and decided to head to Gyeongju the ancient capital city of South Korea. I had been there before during Buddha’s birthday and knew it was beautiful and worthy of visiting again.

We took the KTX and caught a bus from the station to down town Gyeongju. Since we arrived late, we only had a few hours to explore the city.  We stayed the night at Hanjin Hostel with the expectations of finding a place in the mountains to camp the next day. I figured the man who ran the hostel could inform us of a place to camp. He had lived in Gyeongju all of his life and spoke perfect English. He had a certain air about him, like he knew and appreciated what was going on in life.

I quickly inquired about camping and he informed me that there was no place to camp in the area.  Camping is quite regulated in Korea like most things and since Gyengyu has so much historical importance, it makes sense they don’t allow camping within its limits. So I asked him if there was anyway we could stay in the mountains. Being in the city for so long, you start to feel a sense of nature deprivation. I was craving something that was not man made or concrete.

He then told us we could stay at a hermitage temple on Namsan Mountain and that the hike to the hermitage would take three hours. He gave us a map with various trails on the mountain labeled in Korean. I was instantly excited, but once I looked at the map, I was a little uncertain about how we were going to find the hermitage. He said there is a Buddhist nun living there who speaks English and we could ask her if we can spend the night once we found the hermitage.

The next day we woke up early and took a bus to the closest stop in the direction of the mountain’s base. We then hiked on the side of the road for about two miles until the road became a dirt road and then eventually there was no road. 

From the base of the mountain we saw a few people heading down the trail. We inquired about the distance to the hermitage and if it did in fact exist. Before receiving some confirmation from a young Korean woman and seeing the first trail marker I started to feel a little apprehensive. By the time we would reach the top of the mountain it would be getting dark. We didn’t exactly know if we would have a place to stay, and didn’t have any food or water.

The last 100 meters was the hardest. We had to climb a very steep set of stairs but once at the top we were surrounded by a beautiful view of the forest, thousand year old Buddhist statues and the hermitage temple nestled in the mountaintop. I was gasping for air and looking around when a Buddhist nun stepped out of the hermitage’s doors and asked it we wanted tea. She had a huge smile on her face and a very warm presence about her. I eagerly accepted her offer.

Aaron and I took off our shoes and sat on the floor with her and two other Buddhist monks. I asked what her name was and how long she had been living at the hermitage. Ye Kin Sunim had lived at the hermitage for 3 and half years. She lives completely alone except, for occasional visitors who stay at the temple.

As we sat together, legs crossed, savoring the tea in our tiny porcelain cups a sense of calmness came over me. The place had an otherworldly sense about it. I felt as if we had left Korea, or what I knew to be Korea. A fast paced, overly competitive, hyper-capitalistic country with neon lights everywhere. People coming and going, preoccupied with the nuances of their life and the gravity of their occupations. These images dissipated. This place was something different.

As we drank tea I asked, if we could stay the night. Luckily she said we were welcome to stay at the hermitage, but it’s best for people to call to inform her in advance.

We had time to hike to the very top of the mountain before dinner and meditation practice. There is a thousand year old Buddha carved into the side of a cliff at the very top. It is only a few meters from the hermitage, but getting to the Buddha was a little challenging. The hike is steep and once at the top you have to grasp a pull rope on the edge of the cliff to maneuver yourself to the other side. It looks scary, but it’s actually quite easy.

Dinner commenced by the sound of a gong. We sat down with three other Korean women who were staying at the hermitage and ate an assortment of bean spouts, kimchi and rice. During dinner Ye Kin Sunim told us the schedule for the following morning and evening. We would begin mediation practice after dinner and again at 4 am.

We sat down to begin meditation around 7 pm. Before beginning Ye Kin Sunim showed us how to bow and how Korean Buddhists do sitting meditation. The practice started with a sequence of bowing.  Next there was a series of chanting that was impossible to recite without a lot of practice, but we gave our best effort.

The actual meditation started when Ye Kin Sunim hit a wooden stick on the floor three times. The lights went off. Now we were completely in tune with the sounds of the forest and incessant chattering of our own minds. I have practiced meditation for about a year now. It has been an important tool that has helped me manage my own mind. I deeply admire people, like Ye Kin Sunim, who have dedicated their lives to this practice and understanding the nature of existence. Learning to simply observe ones mind and remember to come back to the breath, to be present in this moment instead of lost in thought, is not a simple task. Through my own experiences I have come to believe that meditation can fundamentally help the human race grow towards peace and assuage what I perceive as insanity.

After meditation we prepared a space on the floor to sleep with some blankets and mats. When the gong rang the following morning at 4 am, I actually didn’t feel tired or drowsy. Mostly, it was refreshing to wake up and be in the mountains. We repeated the same meditation practice from the night before.  I found it easier to focus on my breath this time. My mind didn’t drift off as much and indulge in whatever thoughts that arose.

It was still dark when meditation ended but the sky was beginning to lighten in tone. I noticed there was a man praying in front of the Buddha statues who didn’t stay the night.  I later found out he started hiking up the mountain at 2 am to pray with the Buddha as the sun rose. Aaron and I carefully walked around Chilburam trying not to disturb the people chanting in front of the Buddha.  We followed the path back to the top of the mountain to watch the sunrise. The mountains were covered with mist that flowed through the valley.  We sat and watched the sun gradually rise and the fog circle around the mountain’s peaks, disappearing as it flowed down the valley. The movement reminded me of the meditation practice, how you can’t hold on to anything. Just watch as things rise and fall and learn to let go.