Not just a pretty dragonfly photo: I took this one summer when I was quite unhappy with my job–a well-paying but terrible desk job in Queens, NY. I had come up to visit my folks for the weekend, and walked out to my pond with my camera. I’d never seen this type of dragonfly before–3-4″ long, vibrant, and not afraid to come near me. Armed with my close-up lenses, I knelt down, and–wonder of wonders–a female landed on a long blade of grass right near me. My jaw couldn’t drop too far as I was already kneeling on the ground, but my heart was pounding. There’s no better feeling than being up close and personal with nature, and here I was in my own backyard, experiencing incredible beauty close-up. As she chewed up the stem and deposited her eggs slowly up the length of the stalk, I was able to grab several photos of her incredible blue-and-green markings. In that moment, I knew my job was a rather poor fit, and that the outdoors–and more travel–was calling.
The term “jaw-droppingly beautiful” is probably one of the most overused term in travel–and here I am, about to use it. But since my jaw actually dropped when I saw these places/people/animals, then I believe I’m allowed to say it. Do you remember the first time your mouth actually fell open, you couldn’t breathe, and your heart started pounding because you were staring at a place undeniably amazing? Don’t say it was NYC, puh-lease. I don’t think brown buildings and water towers are anyone’s idea of gorgeous, and yet every time I fly back into New York City, someone on the plane inevitably shouts out how gorgeous New York is. To each his own, I suppose.
But getting back to (mostly) outdoor beauty. For me, it’s not just that a lovely scene is before me; rather, it’s the context–the reason I’m standing at that point, the effort I’ve put in to get there, the newness, the colors, the adrenaline… In short, there are quite a few factors that make a place jaw-droppingly gorgeous to me, and for each of these places I’ve photographed, I distinctly remember my eyes wanting to drink up the place, my heart pounding, and the air rushing out of me. There’s a story behind each moment of beauty, and I’ll tell you a few of my favorite tidbits.
This is the first time I remember my jaw, quite literally, falling open. I had decided to leave everything in NYC behind and came to volunteer–alone, not with any group–in this remote Thai village. While out for a walk my first week there, I walked past some trees and came upon this view. I’d simply never seen any kind of vista like it before, with the greenish-blue cabbage hills, vines, trees, layers of mountains, and fog. There was a sing (in Thai, of course) saying that the next village was 7km to the right. I thought to myself, “Why would anyone ever need to go farther?”
You’ve probably heard this story before, but it remains a favorite. I had trekked with nomads into the Himalayas–nearly to the Tibetan border–as part of a project on Tibetan refugees in Nepal. It was completely foggy the evening we arrived, and though I thought I saw a snow-capped peak looming over me (behind where I was standing when I took this photo), it was hard to be sure in such fast-moving clouds. I had no idea what everything looked like when I went to bed, and I was the only English-speaking person in the hut. After having a cow trample my feet during the night, I awoke with Lhakpa, the nomad in whose hut I was staying, at 5 a.m. Though the sun was not yet up, I thought I saw a hint of snowy peaks through the slats in the wooden hut, and my breath caught. I stepped outside–only Lhakpa and her cows were awake–and saw this absolutely spellbinding scene before me. Standing there n the cold mountain air, it felt as though the peaks were hovering over me. I felt a tinge of regret that I had no one to share the moment with, but I was so excited I had this moment in time to hold on to forever. I can’t even tell you what it really felt like, but suffice to say my jaw was hanging open for a long, long time.
Does my jaw often drop open upon seeing people? No. I don’t get star-struck too easily. But show me a Muslim boy with the most beautiful light eyes I’ve ever seen, and there I go embarrassing myself in public. I’m still kicking myself for not having my portrait lens on, but this little boy, Azim, was beautiful, freckle-faced, and so sweet. I sort of wanted to adopt him.
Perhaps it’s because I never saw turquoise waters until I was 25 years old and in Honduras, or perhaps it’s because I love scuba diving. Heck, maybe it’s just because I love feasting with my eyes on impossibly beautiful water colors that I rarely see in nature. Whatever it is, this scene on Gozo still stands out. I was living on the small island writing a scuba diving guide, and my boss and I were driving around for photos the morning after a violent storm. Roads were a mess, streets were completely flooded, and businesses were shut down. We went to a high point overlooking the salt pans, however, and saw that the sea and sands had mixed to form incredible green, aqua, and blue swirled hues. I had never seen water that color before, and still haven’t, really. I could have stared for hours.
Below are (more than) a few more photos that caused mild shock–in a good way. If you want the story behind the photo, just ask! I’m hoping to add to this list soon. Quite soon. But then again, the most amazing beauty often catches us off guard. So just have your camera ready in case such a moment should come, and when and if it does, just enjoy it with your eyes before snapping away.